Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Character Sketch of Rebecca Gratz

In 1800 a young man wrote the following description of nineteen-year-old Rebecca Gratz:

"Miss Rebecca Gratz is one whose conversation and society will be courted by those who seek for gratification of the purest and most exalted kind -- With a mind discriminating and correct, expanded by observation and by books -- with a disposition formed to cheer and to charm the domestic circle and to dignify the most exalted equally with the humblest station, she will float along the current of life, respected as a companion and beloved as a friend -- As a wife she will render happy any one whose habits and disposition are not at war with happiness -- The ills of life may press hard and heavy on him whom she honours with her choice, but despondency will vanish before her exertions -- Her affections are warm and her sensibility great, but her judgement [sic] will ever correct their errors and alleviate their pangs -- Dignified in her deportment, her only pride is conscious rectitude -- Affable and unassuming, no man will yet dare to hazard the loss of her esteem."

Flattering, but is it accurate? From the letters of her friends, it is clear that others admire Rebecca's conversational skills. There are instances of her democratic bent in her letters, and it is evident throughout her correspondence that for Rebecca reason is humanity's preeminent faculty and the means by which to achieve a happy and useful life.

But there are also things in this description which letters do not give us because correspondence was considered a serious endeavor at that time. Rebecca's letters show her to be thoughtful and kind, but it's not clear from them alone if she smiles often. The character sketch by someone who has actually seen her assures us that she was charming and cheerful as well.

The description was probably written by Samuel Ewing, whom Rebecca would love and refuse for religious reasons. She certainly associated Ewing with this type of writing since she would suggest in 1802 that his "pen should delineate [a friend's] character." It is a shame that the character sketch of the other young woman does not survive. I'm sure all such efforts were gallant and flattering, but it would be interesting to compare Rebecca's with another's to see if Mr. Ewing's attachment to Miss Gratz was obvious.

(The character sketch is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rebecca's letter to Maria Fenno, dated June 22, 1802, in which she suggests that Mr. Ewing write another sketch is in the Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection at the Library of Congress.)

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