Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rebecca Gratz: NOT the First American Female College Student

Of all the "Tall Tales about Rebecca," this is one of the most annoying. Unlike the deathbed scene between Rebecca and Matilda Hoffman which was the product of faulty memory, the college girl story is based on enthusiasm run amok and a disregard for easily accessible facts.

Sadly, it starts with a primary document from the era: the roll of Franklin College, Lancaster, PA, January to April, 1788. On it is very clearly written the name of Richea Gratz, Rebecca's older sister, who was at this time fourteen years old. Someone, in the first half of the twentieth century, saw this and read it as "Rebecca Gratz." Perhaps since "Richea" had virtually died out as an American girl's name, the reader thought it was a misspelling of Rebecca or a form of "Rivka," the Hebrew version of Rebecca.  No one seems to have checked the Gratz family records to see if there was possibly another daughter with this name nor even taken cognizance of Rebecca's birth date: she was seven years old in 1788.

In any case, the Rebecca story was publicized and struck a chord with Jewish women who were heading off to coeducational colleges and universities. Ironically, in the scholarly literature, Richea had already been identified as the Gratz sister at Franklin -- but the truth was the story of the better-known Rebecca as the first female college student was too good to go away, and the competing versions co-existed.

Then someone noted that there were at least two other girls on the roll with Richea who could also claim the honor of first college student, so Richea and Rebecca shared a new title, the "first Jewish female college student."

But there is more. Although in its articles of incorporation, Franklin College was authorized to grant degrees, it was in its first years divided into two sections. One took students advanced enough to do college work, but the other, which Richea attended, functioned as a high school rather than a college.

So stop telling this story about Rebecca or Richea. Neither should get a "first" for going to a high school that happened to be called a college. I know it is very powerful story for women but we have gotten past the "coed" stage and now comprise the majority of college students in the United States. Franklin & Marshall College, which superseded Franklin College, has every right to be proud that the school was admitting girls in 1788, but it needs to be clearer on what exactly Franklin College was at the time.

In truth, the admission of females to a male secondary school in 1788 is astounding, and the import of this moment in history has been lost in the bogus Rebecca Gratz story. Now that we have dispensed with that myth, it's time to ask, "How did those girls get into Franklin College and why did their parents let them go to a boys' school?"

For answers, see "Girls at Franklin College."

(You can see a reproduction of the page of the Franklin College roll which contains the name "Richea Gratz" on page 14 of Franklin & Marshall College, by David Schuyler and Jane A. Bee. It is on Google Books. History of Franklin & Marshall College, by Joseph Henry Dubbs, gives an account of the college's early years. It is also on Google Books.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rebecca & the Proselytizers

In the previous blog,"The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals and Rebecca Gratz," I reported on some of the positive effects -- influences on the women's rights and anti-slavery movements, for instance -- of the the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century. The Evangelicals also founded institutions of higher learning, notably Oberlin College in Ohio, which was the first to admit women and African-Americans. That said, many Evangelicals deeply offended Jews with their aggressive efforts at conversion. Rebecca Gratz sometimes found herself a target of the proselytizers since she was celebrated as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Scott's tremendously popular novel Ivanhoe. In her correspondence she records two of these approaches; neither came from her Christian friends and associates of long standing who seem to have respected her faith.

In 1834, Rebecca reported to her sister-in-law Maria in Kentucky:

"I received a note from one of my neighbours a few days ago, requesting the loan of my bible, as she found according to hers the time was near at hand when the Jews would be gathered to their own land [millennialism, the belief in the coming Apocalypse, was one thread among many in the Second Great Awakening] --on returning it she expressed in another note her joy at finding my bible the same she used. [The King James Bible was the English-language version readily available in the United States.] She begged me not to let the light that was in me be darkness -- but daily to examine myself -- and have regard to my soul -- by studying the scriptures etc. -- and she is so earnest that I cannot help being obliged to her --thank God I have the law and the prophets and am willing to hear them."

Rebecca had acute insight into the intentions behind words and actions, and when they were good-hearted, she was patient with and forgiving of their consequences. She seems to have thought that this woman had had the essential Evangelical experience of spiritual rebirth and she wanted others to experience it as well. Rebecca honored her sincerity, but she also sensed another motivation mixed in: she thought the woman "should try to canonize herself by my conversion." The rebirth experience was becoming less important to the proselytizers than just getting a convert.

When she received an anonymous letter and pamphlet in 1842 from a women's group in Boston dedicated to the conversion of the Jews, Rebecca was not so charitable. The writer detailed a visit she had made to a synagogue in Nice, France, and ridiculed the Jewish form of worship. Rebecca was insulted by the ignorance and presumptuousness represented and thought it in "very bad taste" to be so addressed. Her fame had again made her a target for strangers.

But Rebecca was most irate at what befell her friends Jacob and Hannah Florance in 1845. The couple were bringing up an orphaned niece Sarah Marx with their own children, and in the summer of 1844 had taken the whole family on vacation to Schooley's Mountain, a fashionable watering place in northern New Jersey. There they had made the acquaintance of another Philadelphia family, the Hockton's. Capt. Hockton, the son of the family, proposed to Sarah, but the Florance's had asked his forbearance since she was only 17 and still at school. Sarah went back to school in the fall, but continued to see Hockton secretly, and the following June the two eloped.

Elopement seems romantic today, but at the time it was a scandal and extremely painful for the families involved. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation, parents felt terribly betrayed by their children and vulnerable to the gossip and criticism of the community. So, when Mrs. Florance got a letter from Sarah stating that she had married, the distraught woman went to the young man's mother, thinking that they could commiserate with each other. But Mrs. Hockton announced that she knew all about the secret romance, "that she had prayed in her closet that this might be the means of converting all the family to Christianity." Mrs. Florance could only reply that the Florances's faith was as fixed as Hockton's.

Rebecca was outraged. This had nothing to do with a spiritual rebirth central to Evangelicalism.
"Poor Sarah will soon be cited as a Christian convert -- probably thinks as little about religion" as her new husband's family. Rebecca knew it would be a social conversion, not a religious one, and she was infuriated at the arrogance which would carelessly break family ties. "Alas, how little the spirit of religion enters into [those] who dare trample on the rights -- the domestic peace of [their] neighbors -- steal a child -- and presume to justify the act by the profane prayer."

Here was the movement at its worst: all self-righteousness and sanctimonious justifications. In fact, Evangelicals' organized efforts to convert Jews were singularly unfruitful. Social forces rather than spiritual needs were more likely to effect the change where it took place.

Rebecca's Hebrew Sunday School Society is sometimes characterized as a defense against the Evangelical fervor, and this concern probably played a part in its creation and continued support by the Philadelphia Jewish community. Rebecca, in her correspondence, never mentions its mission as a shield against the Evangelical onslaught. For her, religious education for children was closer to being an absolute good than a tactic necessary in a particular situation.

(The story about her neighbor's attempt at conversion is from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson. The other two stories are from letters in the Miriam Moses Cohen Collection, Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals and Rebecca Gratz

My discussion of 19th-century evangelicalism began, oddly enough, with the post entitled "Rebecca Gratz and Baseball," in which I asserted that there were issues on which Rebecca and the Evangelicals, not natural allies, did see eye to eye. One such issue was the removal of Native Americans from their homes.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 called for the exile of all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma, opening up their ancestral lands to settlement by whites. Although it was passed (greed usually wins), it faced strong opposition in Congress and in the country. The leaders of this movement were Jeremiah Evarts, a missionary, and Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Senator from New Jersey. Both men were Evangelicals and their powerful speeches and writings brought many into agreement with their position. And although Evarts and Frelinghuysen would cite the plan as bad political policy, their most forceful argument was that this betrayal reached the level of a national sin.

The first dire consequences of the Act were seen when Native Americans refused to leave and troops moved in to forcibly resettle them. The Seminoles in Florida were, because of their land's defensibility, able to resist more effectively than other tribes. In 1835, the government was still trying to move them out, setting off the Second Seminole War. In February 1836, shortly after Seminoles ambushed and massacred United States troops, Rebecca wrote of the conflict:

"This is a hateful war. The poor wretches who have done such mischief as to have sealed their own doom, may rise in judgment at the Great Day against this Nation for the wrongs and outrages committed upon them in their own wilderness and wigwams, the home in which God placed them. What plea can we make to Infinite Justice for invading them in their peaceful possession. That they were savage and we civilized; that they had lands which we wanted and could cultivate, and build cities? And because they would not give all, we hunt them like beasts of prey; and they are a fearful enemy to encounter, savage demons in their revenge."

Rebecca is being ironic when she states that the Native Americans "were savage and we civilized." Like the Evangelicals Rebecca saw the removal as a national sin and the government's savage actions as the root cause of all that followed. Notice that she is not condemning "them" for this disaster; she wonders what plea we can make to God, bearing her part in the national guilt.

Also note that Rebecca has made these statements in a PRIVATE LETTER, not in a public speech or in a publication. She had a horror of being in the public eye, which was reinforced by society's dictum that women's domain was private life.

Although Rebecca was central to the nineteenth-century innovations of women's charities and Jewish religious education, she pushed the envelope where it was most yielding. Women had traditionally given aid to the poor on an individual basis and acted as their children's first teachers in academics and religion -- her work was an extension of women's traditional roles beyond the home. Rebecca did not take on roles -- as public speaker for a political cause or a social reform, for instance -- which were new to women.

The opposition to the Indian Act marked the first time women took organized action to participate in a political debate. This was possible because the Evangelicals had given women greater roles in church endeavors than had been traditional in Christianity. For the first time women were forming benevolent and missionary societies within their congregations and developing networks around the country. Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister, grasped the potential here for political action and anonymously started a petition campaign in support of Native Americans. About 1500 women signed petitions opposing the Indian Act and sent them to Congress. Beecher's methods would be used repeatedly as women became more fully involved in the anti-slavery movement and the many other reforms (including women's rights) which would spring up. Rebecca Gratz would privately support some of these causes in her letters, but did not publicly endorse any of these movements.

(A transcript of Rebecca's letter is in the Gratz Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rebecca Gratz & Baseball

I have enjoyed linking Rebecca Gratz to such disparate subjects as the Barbary Pirates, Charles Dickens and even St. Nicholas. I never dreamed, however, there was a (somewhat more tenuous) connection with the national pastime until baseball historian John Thorn brought to my attention an article from the American Sunday School Magazine issue of January 1830:

"Early on a Sabbath [Sunday] afternoon during the summer, the matron of the [Philadelphia Orphan Asylum] was pained to find a company of eighteen men (rope-makers) at a game of ball, in an enclosure near the building, and in view of the children. Knowing the power of such an example, she went to them -- requested them to desist a moment, till they should hear what she had to say." In essence, she told them that although she was a humble sinner herself, she must point out that their play was against God's law of keeping the Sabbath and a bad example for the children. She then asked them to come into the asylum where the children sang hymns and recited scripture for their visitors. Her language, the article states, was so civil to the visitors and so simple and affectionate to the children that many of the men, no longer interested in renewing their game, went home and returned to the asylum for services on the following Sunday.

This is the American Sunday School Society version of what happened. Thorn thinks it more likely that the men picked up their equipment and took the ferry to Camden where they could play in peace. As to the game the men were playing, 1829 is part of baseball's prehistoric era, so we cannot be sure, but the fact that there were nine men on each team strongly suggests an early version of the sport. In the illustration of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum around 1830 shown above, you can see a ball in the air over the playground -- many of the children would have been interested in watching the rope-makers' game.

The connection with Rebecca Gratz? In 1815 she had attended an early meeting of the Philadelphia Orphan Society, became a member and was soon the secretary and one of the 24 manageresses of the new orphan asylum, positions she would hold for the rest of her active life. Besides fulfilling her duties as secretary and as manageress -- which included the disposition of children when they were old enough to leave the asylum -- she devoted untold hours at the asylum nursing the sick during epidemics and standing in when the matron was ill or absent.

Beyond that connection is a more specific one: Rebecca Gratz repeatedly told those who asked her advice about running an orphanage that having a good matron was perhaps the most essential thing, and she was most appreciative of the matron, Mrs. Hall, who appears in the story above. And indeed Mrs. Hall seems to have handled the situation with grace where she could have easily antagonized the working-class men. But knowing Rebecca's concern for the emotions and intellectual development of children (see Happy Birthday, Hebrew School), I think that the description of Mrs. Hall's language as "simple and affectionate" is key. For Rebecca a matron who kept a clean and orderly home (as Mrs. Hall did) was not enough; she would also have had to care about and understand children to rise so high in Rebecca's regard.

The baseball story also reveals one of the preoccupations of the nineteenth century: Sabbatarianism, the movement to limit all activity on Sunday's to only godly things. For adults this meant no games, no dancing, no gambling, no buying and selling, no theatre or secular concerts, etc. Children were forbidden to play with toys or participate in games or indulge in any other boisterous play. On a national level, the Sabbatarians sought to outlaw mail deliveries, store hours and public transportation on Sundays (and ultimately succeeded).

Robert Ralston, a Philadelphia merchant, a major benefactor of the Orphan Asylum and the husband of its foundress Sarah Ralston, was a leader of the Sabbatarian movement in the United States. Under these circumstances Mrs. Hall, the matron, must have grasped the importance that her charges adhere to Sabbatarian ways. Hence, the rush to the baseball field to stop the play from distracting the children.

Sabbatarianism was one of many elements in what is called the Second Great Awakening, the Evangelical upsurge which began in the 1790's and would continue into the early 20th century.
In its relation to American Jews, Evangelicalism was at its most appalling, and it is no wonder that many of those who have written about Rebecca Gratz have sometimes depicted her as a champion of her people, defending them from the Evangelical dragon.

As always, history proves more complex than we would think. For one thing, not all Evangelicals were intent on converting Jews. Rebecca worked amicably for years with Sarah Ralston and other women (in both the Female Association and the Orphan Society) who were Evangelicals. She also was in agreement with them on some issues: most famously, on the need for religious education for children.

(You can read the full article from the January 1830 American Sunday School Magazine on Google Books. The woodcut is from John Thorn's copy of History of the Orphan Asylum, in Philadelphia, with an account of the fire in which twenty-three orphans were burned (1831), which he kindly allowed me to use. If your interest in baseball's "prehistoric era" has been piqued by this post, you will be delighted to know that Thorn's new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, will be published in March 2011 by Simon & Schuster.)

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