Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Alfred Mordecai's Civil Wars

[As promised in a previous post, "Rebecca Gratz and the Civil War," here is the first of the profiles of Gratz relatives' war experiences.]

Alfred Mordecai, (1804-1887) was a North Carolinian. His father ran a girls' boarding school in Warrenton, NC, which was considered one of the best in the South. Alfred, the only boy who attended the Mordecai School, received special tutoring and was admitted to West Point (no doubt quite a change) when he was fifteen. He graduated first in his class of 1823, and after two years as an assistant professor at the Academy and a stint building forts in Virginia, he became the assistant to Gen. Alexander Macomb in the War Office's Engineering Department in Washington.

In 1835 he was appointed to head the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. Mordecai had met Sara Hays, Rebecca Gratz's niece, a few times during his Washington days and renewed the acquaintance. His father, a scholar of religion as well as a schoolmaster, had recently visited Philadelphia where he had met Rebecca; the Gratz's were ready to welcome his son. In June 1836 Alfred and Sara were married.

The marriage was not without its tensions. Mordecai, though not a slaveholder, upheld the institution and states' rights; his wife held northern (although not Abolitionist) views on slavery and the importance of the Union. While she was an observant Jew and tried to interest her husband in religion, he remained a firm agnostic despite his upbringing in an observant family. Still, in 1855 when his brother was about to marry, Alfred said he hoped the couple would be as happy as he and Sara were.

After his marriage Mordecai continued to rise in the army as an expert in ordnance, receiving assignments in recognition of his knowledge -- an inspection tour of European munitions factories and a trip to the Crimea to observe the war there. He and his family lived in Washington during most of this period, moving to Watervliet NY when Mordecai was posted to the Arsenal there in 1857.

As the Civil War approached, Major Mordecai faced an almost unbearable choice. He was a southerner by birth and would have lived there if his career had permitted it. He was also the pride of his large extended family -- a symbol of Jewish patriotism and success. Now they expected him to become one of their military heroes in the struggle against the North. But Mordecai had competing loyalties which his Southern relatives discounted. First, there was the United States Army to which he had devoted his life. Then there was his son, Alfred, Jr., at West Point as the War began, who, without any divided allegiances, would be fighting for the Union. Finally, there were Sara and his daughters, Northerners who would be forced to live in the Confederacy if he went with the South.

Both the Governor of North Carolina and Jefferson Davis, an old friend, offered Mordecai commissions as the War began. He turned them down and requested to be transferred to somewhere far away from the War -- in the West, perhaps. His request was denied, and he resigned from the United States Army; the family arrived in Philadelphia at the end of May 1861.

Mordecai's principled stand had immediate financial repercussions: he had no other income than his salary; in September 1861 his daughters opened a school on Delancey Place in Philadelphia by which they hoped to support their family. Rebecca Gratz reported at the time that Major Mordecai was "very broken-spirited" despite "the girls' noble efforts to cheer their parents."

A year later, another friend Elizabeth Blair Lee, visiting from Washington, looked in on the family and found the Major "a premature old, old man....he hangs about doing nothing not even reading and [his daughters] are working in their school for bread...." Rebecca, an ardent Unionist, was also critical: the major's "associates," she found, were those "among the disaffected [Southern sympathizers]...so I fear whatever sentiments he might have entertained in the beginning -- they are now so far implicated on the wrong side that he will find it difficult to recede -- poor Sara is victimized being the only loyal member of the household -- the subject nearest all our hearts is never discussed in their household."

The atmosphere in the Mordecai home may have been an emotional war zone, but somehow the family pulled through. Mordecai found a job teaching mathematics, then worked for a company owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. At the end of the war, he was employed by the Imperial Mexican Railroad, which allowed him to get away from the scene of his humiliation. Mordecai liked Mexico and the many ex-Confederates who worked with him. Together they dreamed of setting up a slave state, and Alfred considered bringing his family to live there. These plans collapsed with the defeat of Maximillian, and Mordecai returned to Philadelphia and to the job he had left.

In post-war Philadelphia, Unionists and those who had been pro-South (a minority which included members of eminent local families) somehow patched up their differences. Alfred Mordecai, criticized by both sides for his decision to stay out of combat, was accepted. In 1877, when the Gratz family was concerned that the press had erroneously characterized Rebecca's relationship with Washington Irving as a romance, it was Mordecai who was delegated to write the first article about Rebecca by a family member.

In 1886, Alfred and Sara Mordecai celebrated their golden anniversary, a milestone rarely achieved in the nineteenth century. The family sent out hundreds of invitations, but only one member of Alfred Mordecai's southern family attended. His relatives had always believed that it was Sara who had prevented him from taking his place among the military leaders of the Confederacy.

(I have gleaned the information about Mordecai's life from Emily Bingham's Mordecai: An Early American Family. The quotes from Rebecca are in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson, accessible on Google Books. Elizabeth Blair Lee's quote is from Wartime Washington: the Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas, also accessible on Google Books. Alfred Mordecai's article appeared in Philadelphia's Jewish Record.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My History with American History

Last week, the publicity attending the Rosenbach Museum & Library's acquisition of a gorgeous Thomas Sully portrait of Rebecca Gratz brought a number of people to this blog for the first time. One of them commented: "I found [your site] incredibly interesting, and I can't figure out why, because normally that period of American History is of limited interest to me."

His words took me back to a moment in my childhood when sitting at my desk in the 5th-grade, I gazed in dismay at the next section in our history book, "The Coming of the Iron Horse." I had liked American history to that point: the age of exploration, the colonies and the Revolutionary War, even the Constitution and the first years of the republic. There were stories, descriptions of the colonists' struggles and heroic Founding Fathers. But technology was not my cup of tea, and the account of America's antebellum period was full of it. The political events were even worse, as each came freighted with a name which included at least one long latinate word not in my vocabulary: the Missouri Compromise, the Tariff of Abominations, the Nullification Crisis. And all these things were described in a bright bland "Pageant of America" style.

I took American History again in the 8th and 11th grades, but to no better effect. I liked history
and continued to read it for pleasure -- English, French, Russian, medieval, classical -- but never American.

Passing quickly over college, graduate school, career and family -- by the 1990's I had found my interests in history to be focussed on women and everyday life and was ready to try a work of American history with these themes. A Midwife's Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, swept me (and practically everyone else who read it) into the world of rural Maine at the beginning of the 19th century. Ulrich had teased out (through painstaking research) a picture of the lives of the women in the area through the brief entries in the local midwife's records.

My old scholarly leanings reawakened, I decided for fun to research Rebecca Gratz, a figure I had first encountered at the Rosenbach. As a docent I knew her story and the legends which surrounded her. I wished to determine the truth of these assertions, and this goal was feasible because Rebecca, her family and friends had left more than 2000 documents which might hold the answers. I've learned a great deal about Rebecca, but reading her letters also opened up her world to me: antebellum America with its moral ambiguities, religious ferment, new technologies and political stalemates seemed not so different from the United States of the 21st century, and with Rebecca at the center, it was possible to grasp how these issues affected individual lives. Researching Rebecca's life and times has been rewarding for me, and I hope I am sharing some of that experience with those who read the blog.

I will return to Rebecca after Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I wish you a happy holiday.

(Steven Riddle's complete comments about the blog, quoted in part in the first paragraph above,
can be read on his site, "A Momentary Taste of Being.")

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Rosenbach Acquires Sully Portrait of Rebecca Gratz

A little more than a year ago, I was wishing that I could see a color reproduction of Sully's first portrait of Rebecca. The painting was in private hands and had not been exhibited since the 1920's. Starting on November 9, 2010, you can view the original portrait at the Rosenbach Museum & Library which just acquired it (along with a portrait of Rebecca's brother Joseph, by George Peter Alexander Healy) from a Gratz family descendant.

Rereading what I wrote last year about the painting (based on a black-and-white reproduction), I feel that I got it right as far as I went. Now, having seen the portrait, which has an impact much beyond that of the small color reproduction above, I am prepared to go further.

In 1820, Rebecca Gratz at thirty-nine was an "old maid." We know exactly what people thought of unmarried middle-aged women from a poem Rebecca's lost love, Samuel Ewing, wrote in his youth (long before Rebecca would end up as one). In it, he describes a withered, embittered woman, filled with envy, who still practices in front of a mirror accepting the proposal which will never come. Single women were failed women who could not get a man, their empty lives filled with longing.

It was almost impossible for an unmarried woman to escape the stereotype of this slightly ridiculous and pitiful figure, but something close to miraculous happened to Rebecca at this juncture in her life: at the end of 1819 Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe was published and within a few years the story was circulating that Rebecca Gratz was the inspiration for the character of the beautiful Jewish girl Rebecca who was a universal favorite among readers.

In 1830, when Rebecca's family wanted to have her portrait painted, it almost surely was because they wished to preserve an image of the woman thought to be the original for Rebecca in Ivanhoe. Rebecca Gratz agreed to have the painting done, but it is clear she is not sitting as the inspiration for her fictional namesake. If she were, there would have been a reference to the novel -- a volume of Ivanhoe in her hand, perhaps a misty castle or a Gothic window in the background to recall the medieval setting of the novel or some "oriental" style of clothing to connote the eastern origins of her people. (At this time, anywhere east of Italy was considered "oriental.")

No, Rebecca appears as a beautiful woman, filled with vitality and dressed in the height of fashion (an anti-old-maid). Although she never chased after her identification with Rebecca in Ivanhoe, she was probably grateful for it because it caused people to remember and circulate her story. True, she was unmarried, but not because she was a failure who could not get a man: as a young woman, she had turned down the proposal of the man she loved because he was Christian. Her renunciation was seen by both her Jewish and Christian contemporaries as an act of integrity and an admirable example of filial piety. Rebecca Gratz was not simply the raw clay from whom Scott shaped his idealized heroine, she was a heroine herself, and what we see in the portrait is a woman who has overcome suffering, found fulfillment and is very much the hero of her own life.

A few years after the portrait was painted, Rebecca wrote about her niece Sarah Moses, whom she was raising (and who would eventually inherit the painting). Touched by the girl's optimism about the life awaiting her, Rebecca believed that "I...with the memory of many sorrows and disappointments may still encourage her thus far, that if she misses the favorite path to happiness [marriage] she may find another leading to content." Rebecca's life had proved to be anything but bleak and lonely and could be a positive model for other single women.

I have a lively awareness that Rebecca associates marriage with happiness and the alternative of good works with contentment, not quite the same thing. It indicates something of what it cost her to give up Samuel Ewing and suggests a reason why she did not identify with Rebecca in Ivanhoe: the fictional character suffers with surprising serenity through Ivanhoe's marriage to Rowena; Rebecca knew what it felt like to have that kind of experience -- serenity came only after a long struggle.

The newly acquired portraits of Rebecca and Joseph join a number of Gratz family portraits at the Rosenbach, including those of her father Michael Gratz, her brother Benjamin and another portrait of Rebecca, all by Thomas Sully; portraits of her sister and brother-in -law Rachel Gratz and Solomon Moses, by Gilbert Stuart; her sister-in-law Maria Cecil Gist, by Matthew Jouett; a copy of the Sully portrait of her father, by Jane Sully Darley; and a copy of a Stuart portrait of her mother, also by Jane Sully Darley. Most, but not all, are on view. If you have questions about the paintings or about museum hours and admission, use the link above to contact the Rosenbach.

(A letter from a friend asking Rebecca if she is in fact the original of the character in Ivanhoe is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. Ewing's poem "An Old Maid" is from The Philadelphia Souvenir, edited by John Elihu Hall (1826) and is accessible on Google Books. The letter in which Rebecca writes about her niece Sarah is from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson, and also on Google Books.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Girls At Franklin College

In "Rebecca Gratz: NOT the First Female College Student," I reported that although Richea Gratz, Rebecca's older sister, attended Franklin College in 1788, she went to a section of the college which was a high school, not an institution of higher learning. Although we cannot confer the honor of the first American Jewish female college student on either Richea or Rebecca, the story has revealed a moment in early American history when girls were allowed to follow, along side boys, an academic curriculum.

After the Revolution, Americans (that is, white men) found themselves no longer subjects of a king but citizens of a republic which required more political participation of them. Education for good citizenship became a cause for many of the founding fathers. In Pennsylvania, Benjamin Rush was particularly interested; he founded Dickinson College, in Carlisle, PA, for the youth of the western part of the state and Franklin College, in Lancaster, to help inculcate republican values in the large German-speaking population in the area and to encourage their participation in the great American experiment.

Rush also gave thought to the best kind of education for American women, and in 1787 told an audience at the first female academic high school in Philadelphia:

"The equal share that every citizen has in liberty, and the possible share he may have in the government of our country, make it necessary that our ladies should be qualified to a certain degree by a peculiar and suitable education, to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government....In particular it is incumbent upon us to make ornamental accomplishments yield to principles and knowledge in the education of our women....let the ladies of a country be educated properly and they will...form its manner and character."

Rush's ideas of "republican mothers" and female "makers of manners" gave women a role to play in building the new nation and seem to have fostered the notion of a more serious education for women, at least among some of the upper-class families in and around Philadelphia. Less than a year after Rush spoke, girls' names pop up on the roll of the new Franklin College, and we can speculate that his words played a part in this development, both because he had influence with the College and because, as a Founding Father, he had influence with the well-to-do families of the area who at other times were socially very conservative when it came to their daughters.

The new college was no doubt eager to fill as many places as it could in its first years, but many similar institutions had faced the same situation and didn't solve it by admitting girls. I think Franklin's doors were open to young women at this moment because of the double influence of Rush and Americans' consciousness that their republican experiment might require new attitudes about and expectations for women.

Richea Gratz, Margaret Coleman, Elizabeth Grubb and others lost to history attended school along with young men. It would be interesting to know which courses were open to them. Even Benjamin Rush, who championed their education in history, arithmetic, geography and composition, did not suggest they should take courses in Classics and higher mathematics which their male classmates were studying.

The Franklin College records for this period are incomplete, but the school soon returned to single-sex education. We have to assume that male applications were given preference over female ones, and girls were soon squeezed out. But in generation after generation, there were always some American women attempting to broaden and deepen the education of their sex. In the 1830's Sara Moses, Rebecca's niece, who was studying at the socially prestigious but by no means progressive French Academy in Philadelphia, learned conversational French and music, just as 18th-century girls did. But Sara also studied "French composition and criticism and Chemistry." Accomplishments were slowly giving way to knowledge.

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