Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rebecca Gratz's Romance .3. The Gratz Papers


This narrative thread begins here. 


"I have heard [Samuel Ewing] pronounce the name of 
Becky Gratz with more energy & enthusiasm
than I ever saw him express on any other occasion."

----Eliza Fenno, Sept. 19, 1804


Rebecca's letters begin in 1797 when she was sixteen.  Peggy (Margaret) Ewing and she were already friends but there is no mention of Peggy's older brother Samuel Ewing until 1800.

From April 1798 through June 1799, Rebecca was in Baltimore, helping her oldest sister Fanny Etting with a rapidly growing family.  When she returned to Philadelphia, she was eighteen, ready to make her social debut which would mark the beginning of her life as a marriageable young woman.  (There was nothing written in stone as to when a girl could come out, but the Assembly dances, the most important events of the social season, were open only to those eighteen and older.)  She would then encounter Samuel Ewing on an equal footing:  they were both single adults enjoying the the teas, dances, formal and informal visits which were designed to foster courtship.  By June 1800 she could casually refer to him in a letter, and that August he almost certainly wrote an anonymous and very flattering character sketch of her.  To read it and learn one reason why I think Ewing was the author, click here. 

 I attribute this profile to Ewing for another reason as well: the very first of  Rebecca's qualities he mentions is her conversational skill.  This would be  important to a man who was known for his own abilities in that realm.  On August 24, 1800,  Rebecca, musing as she sometimes did, about marriage, wrote to her best friend Maria Fenno, "The happiest hours of married life are those passed in social conversation of unreserved confidence."   Two expert talkers had found someone else on the same level, and it's easy to believe that it played an important role in the development of their relationship.

Its blossoming benefited from the excitement surrounding the new publication, The Port-Folio.  Philadelphia had always been a publishing center, but the lively new magazine, which began in January 180l, helped to create a vibrant literary scene, the envy of Rebecca's New York friend Eliza Fenno who could only hope that "at some point a genius will break forth" in her city.

Ewing had his first poem published in the magazine a few months after it began and soon became one of its steadiest contributors.  His success would have only added to his luster with Rebecca.

As a friend of Samuel Ewing, she was drawn into the literary set led by Joseph Hopkinson, a lawyer and poet, and his witty, cultured wife Emily Mifflin Hopkinson.  When Mrs. Hopkinson suggested that Rebecca and she start a formal correspondence, Gratz, usually so composed, was flustered, afraid that she could not hold her own.  (They did go ahead with it, but none of the letters survives.)  It must have been heady, for a young woman who loved literature, to be so close to the center of the country's literary life.

 From 1800 till 1805 Ewing appears more often in Rebecca's letters than any other man.  Again and again she refers to him -- or rather his presence.  A few examples:  "Sam often comes to see us"  (Aug. 21, 1800)...."S. Ewing called this morning" (June 22, 1802).... "people who dined on Wednesday included S. Moses [who would marry Rachel Gratz in 1806] and S. Ewing"(April 21, 1804) ...."Mr. Ewing returned yesterday from Washington" (Feb. 22, 1805).  And so it went.

There is only one instance which I have found where Rebecca really lets go on the subject of Samuel Ewing.  In June 1802, Rebecca wrote to Maria Fenno, "S. Ewing called this morning...the girls [Maria's soon-to-be stepdaughters] will find him an agreeable, sensible companion...he is not known as an eccentric character, rather romantic [as in romanticism]--but at times very entertaining particularly when he meets with women of good understanding....& his writings prove him a man of genius."

 What is strange about this is that Maria had known Ewing at least two years and was perfectly capable of judging whether he should be around young girls.  No, it is more likely that Rebecca devoted many thoughts to Samuel Ewing and, despite her discretion, sometimes they just burst out.

Ewing did not guard his feelings as well as Rebecca, and her friends sometimes commented on them, as Maria's younger sister Eliza did in the quote at the beginning of this post  On one such occasion Maria Fenno explains in a letter to Rebecca that Mr. Ewing on a visit to New York has insisted that she write to her so that he can hand-deliver the letter.  Having nothing in the way of news to impart, Maria comments on the man:  "Poor Mr. Ewing has another fit of his old complaint [sickness: in this case, lovesickness], and I think the worst attack I ever knew him have.   Not only his thoughts, but his conversation constantly turn to the same object, and nothing gives him so much delight as to hear the praises of her he doats [sic] on....."  A year later he was bothering his sister Peggy with the same request.  She gave in because she had promised to write to Rebecca anyway, but adds, "Your word is a law to him."  And later when Ewing has followed Rebecca to Baltimore, where she was visiting her sister, Peggy remarks that the city must be "uncommonly agreeable" to detain him so long.

And so the relationship went on and on, but not surprisingly.  The Ewing family was in the city's social and intellectual elite but lacked money.  Mr. Ewing would have to save if he wanted to provide for a wife, and since the era disapproved of long engagements, he would have to have the cash on hand if and when he made his proposal.

Meanwhile, Rebecca must have experienced cognitive dissonance:  she was devoted to her faith at the same time that she was interested in a non-Jewish man.  In this era, when there was a difference in religion (most usually in Protestant denominations), the wife  attended her husband's church.
A Jewish-Christian marriage, however, would have required that the wife convert.  Rebecca's aunt, Shinah Simon, had done so when she married Nicholas Schuyler.  Her parents had opposed her choice, but after a short estrangement, they forgave her and welcomed her back into the family circle.

But conversion would not be simply a social move for Rebecca.  She sailed through five years of what everyone must have recognized as courtship by not thinking about it.  Until she had to think about it.

We will look at that crisis next.


(The letters of Rebecca Gratz dated August 24, 1800, and June 22, 1802, are from the Rebecca Gratz Collection at the Library of Congress.  Those dated August 21, 1800 and April 21, 1804, are from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Philosophical Society.  The one dated February 22, 1805 can be found in:  Blau, Joseph L. & Salo W. Baron, ed.  The Jews of the United States 1790-1840, A Documentary History.  3 vol.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1963.  The letters by Maria Fenno Hoffman, Eliza (Mary Elizabeth) Fenno, and Peggy (Margaret) Ewing are also in the collection at the APS.)














Monday, February 15, 2016

Rebecca Gratz's Romance 2. Samuel Ewing

This narrative thread begins here.

Samuel Ewing has been the chief candidate for the Christian man whom Rebecca loved and renounced since his granddaughter Lucy Lee Ewing identified him as such in the early twentieth century.  But at this point I am more interested in getting at the facts of Ewing's life than in recounting family stories.   I have used as my main source for this post The Philadelphia Souvenir; A Collection of Fugitive Pieces from the Philadelphia Press with Biographical and Explanatory Notes by J. E. Hall.  John Elihu Hall, Ewing's nephew, was an admirer of his uncle's literary work and included two of Ewing's poems in his anthology, along with a  biographical sketch.  Since Hall was only nine years younger than Ewing and the book was published in 1826, about a year after Ewing's death, his is the most accurate account available.  I have summarized it here.

Samuel Ewing was born on August 16, 1776, a son of Dr.  John Ewing, the minister at Philadelphia's First Presbyterian Church, and  for nearly 20 years the provost of the University of Pennsylvania.  Ewing began his education with his father and continued it at the University, graduating when he was about 16. He then entered the countinghouse of  an eminent merchant whose subsequent bankruptcy cost Ewing his job.  He took one voyage as a supercargo (the agent for the owner of the cargo who sold the goods at ports of call and purchased merchandise for his employer).  Hall does not mention where he went or for how long, but when Ewing returned, he took up the law in the office of William Lewis, and was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar in December of 1800.

During this rather bumpy period between college and attaining a profession, Ewing pursued his first love -- literature -- and saw his work published in local journals.  In 1800, a successful writer and editor from New England arrived in Philadelphia to take a government job and to create a magazine which would appeal to the literati throughout the new nation.  On January 1, 1801, John Dennie published the first issue of  The Port-Folio, a weekly devoted to literature, politics (in this case,  Federalist), culture, travel writing and humor.  Ewing was an early and frequent contributor to the magazine.  Under the name "Jacques" he wrote serious poetry, humorous pieces and political satire.  In 1809  Ewing created his own publication, Select Reviews and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines, selling it in 1812 for "a considerable sum," and applying himself thenceforth completely to the law. He had a successful practice. (Hall does not mention that Ewing had married Elizabeth Redman, a daughter of a Philadelphia doctor, in 1810, and their growing family may have led to his decision to leave off his literary endeavors.)

Although he no longer wrote, Ewing did support literature and learning as a founding member of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, serving on its board and in various official capacities until his death.

Ewing died  at the age of 48, in 1825.  His nephew wrote that he "suffered much during the last five months of his life from the delusive illness" (tuberculosis --see the note at the end of the post "Making a Good Death").  Samuel Ewing was buried in the First Presbyterian Church's graveyard, but when the land was needed for other uses, his remains were moved to the churchyard at Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church where you may visit his grave.

Hall's biography bolsters the claim for Ewing as Rebecca's sweetheart.  He was in Philadelphia at the right time:  Rebecca was eighteen in 1799 and probably made her debut that year.  He wa the right age, five years older than Rebecca.  (Men in Rebecca's set generally married in their late 20's to early 30's; their wives were five to ten years younger.)  He was of the same social class and shared Rebecca's interest in literature.  And like Rebecca, he was known as an excellent conversationalist.  His nephew remarked on this, noting that his talk combined "social feeling with sallies of playful wit."  In a city as small as Philadelphia they must have met.  The Gratz papers will provide more evidence.










Monday, April 7, 2014

Rebecca Gratz's Romance 1. Introduction

I was skeptical of this story when I started researching Rebecca.  I thought that it was a case of every- one wanting her to have had a great love, preferably a tragic one, and someone obliging, through speculation or exaggeration, with a "Christian gentleman" whom she had loved and renounced because of religion.

Certainly no one seemed to have found any hint of a romance in the Gratz papers then available.  This was important because during Rebecca's lifetime the appearance in print of an item about the private life of a respectable, not to say, revered, woman, without her permission, would have been a journalistic scandal.  Any evidence of an affair from that time could come only from private letters.  After her death, however, Rebecca's life would be fair game.

Yet, at the time I started my research, the earliest article in print that referred to a mystery man was thought to be in an issue of The Century magazine in 1882, thirteen years after her death  -- a long pause, it would seem, before anyone brought the subject up, certainly enough time for the story to be concocted.  There was a popular theory that the Gratz family, in an effort to explain Rebecca's not marrying, was responsible.

Unlike previous researchers, I had in the internet a highly effective search tool that only got better as my work went on.  One day, something popped up, a short article published in the February 1870 issue of the Australia (yes, Australia) Journal  (about six months after Rebecca died)  and there it was:  [Rebecca Gratz] "was addressed by a gentleman of wealth, position, and character whose passion she returned.  But the difference in their religious faith...proved an insuperable barrier to their union."  If the Gratz family had created the story, they did so immediately after her funeral and then made the press contacts which would send it to the other side of the world in a matter of months.  It just seems more likely that the tale had been in the gossip-sphere for decades and burst into print as soon as it was permissible.

This doesn't mean the story is true, but because it was in circulation much earlier than expected, there is a greater likelihood that it has some factual basis than if it had first appeared years after Rebecca's death.

Once the romance was public, candidates were suggested for the Christian man whom Rebecca loved.  Washington Irving was a favorite although the Gratz family denied they were sweethearts.  (Biographical research has borne this out.)  Henry Clay was another famous man who got a mention but once again research nixed that possibility.  There was also a story that she loved a friend's younger brother and nursed him in his final illness (No signs of that  have ever been found.)

And then in the early 20th century, a scion of an old Philadelphia family came forward.  Lucy Lee Ewing said that her grandfather, Samuel Ewing, had told her grandmother that Rebecca Gratz had been his first love but that they did not marry because of religious differences.  Beyond that fact she supplied some anecdotes, which seemed partial at best. For me, these sketchy secondary tales served to undermine rather than bolster the central fact of a Ewing-Gratz love affair.  However, like most family stories, I thought, there could be a grain of truth at the center.

And so we will take a  look at Samuel Ewing and see how he shapes up as the "Christian gentleman" of Rebecca's romance.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Rebecca's Legends & Why They Are Important

Despite her pioneering efforts in religious education and charities for women and children, Rebecca Gratz's enduring popularity in the American Jewish community rests on two romantic legends.  One is her purported romance with a non-Jew, and the other concerns her possible role as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe.

Each tale is interesting enough in itself, but the two are intertwined: the real Rebecca, like the one in the novel, was a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate Jewish woman who fell in love with a Christian, did not marry him and went on to live a life of good works.  This parallel enhances the credibility of both tales.

Credibility aside, these legends are just too good to be ignored by the popular press.  From the 1870's to the present day, popular histories, newspapers and magazines have printed and reprinted the stories, despite  a dearth of documentary evidence.

However, as early as the 1950's some were questioning their veracity.  In 1954 a writer in the magazine Commentary called them "pious fables," and from then on scholars have often simply dismissed them.

Given the Gratz materials available during most of the 20th century, it was right to be cautious.  But in the last twenty years or so, more letters have become available and their content sheds some new light on the subject.

If you have read other of my blog posts, you know that in passing I have referred to Rebecca's romance as fact.  In upcoming posts,  I will be presenting the evidence for this conclusion.  I will then deal with what we know about the Ivanhoe story.

But why give these sideshows time and effort when the real story of Rebecca's life is found in her philanthropic and educational activities?  Earlier researchers tended to believe the legends were late accretions created by the Gratz family after Rebecca's death.  However, my research has uncovered evidence that by 1830 her contemporaries believed she was Rebecca in Ivanhoe.  Endowed with the charisma of everyone's favorite literary character as well as with her own, Rebecca was in an almost unassailable position to put forth the idea of a Hebrew Sunday School and make it succeed.  Other Jewish women attempted to emulate her with minor or no success.  Rebecca's special status, conferred by the romantic legends about her,  helped put the project across.  To put it crudely, "No legends, no Sunday School."  Her good works and the stories which swirled around her are both of importance.  Neither can be ignored if you wish to understand her life.

P.S.  Please take a moment to celebrate that life  on  Rebecca's 233rd birthday today.



Monday, March 4, 2013

Today Is Rebecca Gratz's 232nd Birthday

"Well-behaved women seldom make history."

One of the things I like best about Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's epigram is that qualifier "seldom."  If there is a subtext to this blog, it is that at least one well-behaved woman succeeded in changing and improving things in her corner of the world.  

Of course, Rebecca could be well-behaved because she had an unusual gift which assisted her in effecting her good works:  she was a private person (as all respectable women of the time were supposed to be) who was also a celebrity.  I hope to take up this part of Rebecca's story in the months ahead.

In the meantime, in honor of her birthday, let's raise a glass to Rebecca. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Six Degrees of Rebecca Gratz

The United States was so much less densely populated in Rebecca Gratz's day that the linking game of the 19th century would probably have been called "four degrees of separation." For an upper-class woman like Rebecca, two or three degrees were probably all that were necessary to link her to the prominent men and women of her time.

Here are just a few of her many  friends who connected her to the larger world:

William Henry Furness, the minister at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, was a lifelong friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, providing a link to the New England intellectual and literary establishment.  Furness personally introduced Rebecca to theologian William Ellery Channing and the English economist Harriet Martineau, two intellectual lights of the era, when they came to Philadelphia.

Francis Preston Blair, from 1830 a Washington insider, as newspaper editor, founder of the Republican Party and advisor to presidents, was a resource for contacting practically anyone in the federal government.    Rebecca called upon him for help in getting friends and family federal appointments. And when she wanted to get a message to Abraham Lincoln, it was Blair who read it to the president.

Washington Irving and the actress Fanny Kemble connected her to literary and artistic circles in both America and England; Irving, most famously, to Walter Scott.

There are more surprising connections as well.  A few weeks ago, I read a review of a new book, Freedom's Gardener:  James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America, by Myra B. Young Armstead.  Based in part on Brown's diary, the book traces his rise from slavery to freedom as a politically enfranchised citizen, a master gardener for a wealthy family in the Hudson Valley.

Sure enough, there was a Gratz connection.  His employer was the Verplanck family whose estate Mt. Gulian was at Fishkill Landing, about 70 miles north of New York City.  The man who hired him was Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, whose son Gulian married Rebecca's good friend, Eliza Fenno.  The young couple took up residence at Mt. Gulian, and although Eliza died in 1817, well before Brown arrived as gardener,  Rebecca, who always took an interest in the children of her friends, maintained her friendship with Eliza's husband and their family, visiting Mt. Gulian repeatedly.

By 1837, Sara Moses, Rebecca's niece, was already familiar with the estate.  She wrote that she and her aunt were going to visit the Verplanck's at "that most beautiful spot...on the river only a few miles from West Point" and were planning to spend a week there.  Certainly during that time, Rebecca saw and enjoyed Brown's gardens.  And it was just around this stage of her life, that she started to mention her roses in her letters, suggesting that she was either taking a greater interest or had found a new hobby in growing flowers.  It is pleasant to think she might have consulted with James F. Brown on her trips to Mt. Gulian.

(Sara's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Art in America: Nude Statues, 1803

"Art in America would not detain an intelligent Traveller one hour....," John Davis, an English ex-sailor, wrote in a book about his journeys, published in 1803.  His pronouncement was not an unusual one among foreigners who had visited the new nation.

The socially elite young men and women of Rebecca's generation,  the first to grow up as American citizens, smarted under foreigners' criticism. In reaction they developed cultural responsibilities -- to familiarize themselves with the European artistic tradition, foster an appreciation of it in their countrymen and provide American artists with educational resources.

The New York Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1802 to promote classical art.  It began by importing casts of classical sculptures as teaching tools and to be exhibited to the public.

This exhibition was greatly anticipated by Eliza (Mary Elizabeth) Fenno, the younger sister of Rebecca's best friend, Maria Fenno Hoffman.  Eliza, who was 16 in 1803, had moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1800 with her family.  In a letter from early 1803 she demonstrates her interest in art and a delight in her adopted city:  "The growing greatness of our city would astonish you, the streets swarm with people, our commerce improves daily, and the fine arts will shortly flourish here...."

But she was to be disappointed.  In July 1803 she wrote to Rachel Gratz, Rebecca's younger sister:  "There had been lately a society formed in New York [the Academy of Fine Arts] for the encouragement of the fine arts, and they have imported from France casts of the most celebrated statues which are to be exhibited in a few days at the museum, and of course our sex are to be excluded, as it would shock their delicacy amazingly."

Eliza goes on to suggest sarcastically that only when clothes have been provided for the statues will women be allowed to see them.  But then she breaks cover and blurts, "I must tell you a secret, I have seen them all....Caty [the Fenno's servant] is very well acquainted with Mrs. Savage whose husband keeps the museum and he gave us the key of the door, but this must not be known.  My delight and astonishment you may readily imagine on viewing the copies of those statues of which I had read so many animated descriptions but they surpassed all the brilliant ideas I had formed.  The gratification experienced will last me all my life."

America had its first teenage culture vulture.

While Eliza was comfortable telling her story to Rachel, who was the Gratz sister most capable of such a caper, she did not confide in Rebecca although she also corresponded with her. She seems to have  looked upon Rebecca, who was six years older, as a paragon.  Her only mention of the statuary exhibit to her is a simple statement in a letter the following March that she had gone to see it.

Obviously the men in charge of the exhibit must have changed their minds about its suitability for women, although there were probably restrictions.  Mrs. Trollope, visiting the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1830's, was shocked that men and women viewed the statuary separately.  Perhaps that was the same solution which was offered to women by the New York Academy.

(The letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.  The title of the book by John Davis is Travels of Four and A Half Years in the United States of America.  Frances Trollope's story is in her Domestic Manners of Americans.)
Powered by WebRing.