Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rebecca Pulls Some Political Strings

During Rebecca Gratz's lifetime, obtaining a federal job often began with knowing someone who knew someone who knew someone in power. A contact did not necessarily get you the job, but it opened the first door to employment.

A young man named Robert Pettit (1804-1878), a descendant of Pennsylvania governor Thomas McKean, whose family moved in the same social circles as Rebecca Gratz, approached her in 1835 for her help in furthering his prospects.

Rebecca herself was apolitical although her sympathies lay with (in consecutive order) the Federalists, the Whigs and the Republicans. Yet she did have a friend in the Washington of Andrew Jackson. Her brother Benjamin's brother-in-law Francis Preston Blair was a member of Jackson's "kitchen cabinet" and the editor of the Washington Globe. Rebecca and Blair had been warm friends since they had first met in 1820, but the bond between them had been strengthened by Rebecca's care for Blair's daughter Lizzie who had come to Philadelphia to boarding school in 1833.

In 1834, Blair had written to one of Rebecca's nephews on a business matter and ended his letter on a personal note:

"I pray you, make my best respects to your family -- to Rebecca and the rest of my Jewish relatives. I am under great obligations to them all for their favors to me and mine, especially to my daughter who is the only one of my young folks for whom I could ask the world's kindness. My boys can rough it with the roughest."

And so when Robert Pettit asked for her aid, Rebecca wrote a letter of introduction for him, asking Francis Preston Blair to see what he could do. After Pettit returned from Washington, Rebecca reported that he had been "delighted with the attentive kindness of Mr. & Mrs. Blair -- he thanked me for the most useful document he carried -- he wants an office, and Mr. B's influence will do it for him."

In fact Blair wrote a letter of introduction for Pettit to take to the Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson. It survives today and demonstrates how to handle a recommendation for someone you hardly know -- you praise the recommender:

"Mr. P. was recommended to my good offices by one of the finest women in the Republic --Miss Rebecca Gratz. She, I know, would not recommend anybody but the worthy..."

Robert Pettit entered the United States Navy on April 6, 1837; his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1878 described him as a "retired pay director in the Navy." If Rebecca's and Blair's letters of introduction had any influence, it took about two years for them to have an effect. Perhaps these things took time; perhaps the letters were just the opening shots in a long campaign necessary to get employment.

For more information on this topic, see "Rebecca Pulls Some More Strings."

(Blair's 1834 letter is reproduced in B. & M. Gratz, Merchants in Philadelphia 1759-1798, edited by William Vincent Byers, 1916. His letter to Dickerson is in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Rebecca's letter quoted above is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson and accessible on Google Books.)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Powered by WebRing.