Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rebecca Pulls Some More Strings

(See the previous post for Rebecca's first recorded effort to help someone get a job through her political connections in Washington.)

In 1839 Rebecca's nephew-in-law Solomon Cohen in Savannah asked for some help with getting his nephew Julian Myers into the Navy. She was well-placed to do so because by this time the Secretary of the Navy was her old friend James Kirke Paulding. Her inquiry brought a charming reply alluding to their "ancient friendship" and the "thousand recollections" her letter revived. However, much as he would like to please her, Paulding wrote, the complement of midshipmen from Georgia was already full. The family should ask some Georgia congressmen for letters of recommendation for their son. With those in hand Paulding would be able to give Julian his warrant whenever there was an opening among the Georgia midshipmen.

Julian was named a midshipman less than a month later. (I have no information on the circumstances surrounding this swift response.) He would make the Navy his career. At the beginning of the Civil War Capt. Myers resigned his commission and returned home to enter the Navy of the Confederate States of America. After the war, he refused to sign the oath of allegiance to the United States and remained "unreconstructed."

A later recommendation of Rebecca's had what she, a strong Unionist, would have determined to be a better outcome. All we know of it is from an 1861 letter from Lizzie Blair Lee to her husband: "I had a long letter from Aunt Becky today...Frank Etting has an army paymaster's place Father [Francis Preston Blair, Lincoln's advisor] got because Aunt asked for it -- & she evidently is highly gratified."

In this case, Rebecca had put forward a candidate who proved worthy. Frank Marx Etting, her great-nephew, would rise to be Paymaster General of the United States Army. In later life, he was much involved with civic concerns in Philadelphia, perhaps most famously for his tireless work to restore Independence Hall . He also wrote a history of the building.

(Rebecca's letter from 1839 is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is reproduced in The Jews of the United States 1790-1840, A Documentary History, edited by Joseph L. Blau and Salo W. Baron. Some of the information about Myers' subsequent career is from their notes: the rest from his obituary in the New York Times. Elizabeth Blair Lee's letter is in Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas, and available on Google Books.)

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.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

An Early Description of Rebecca

"What a sensible amiable girl is my Becky. She possess[es] a large share of my heart. Her sentiments would do honor to any female breast. My husband frequently speaks of her countenance as beaming mildness and sweetness."

In 1789 Shinah Simon Schuyler and her husband Nicholas visited her parents in Lancaster, PA, and her sister Miriam Gratz and her family in Philadelphia. On her return to her home in New York, Shinah wrote a letter of thanks and included these words about Miriam's daughter Rebecca, then almost eight years old. It seems to be the earliest description extant and the only one of Rebecca as a child.

(The letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Making a Good Death

Drew Gilpin Faust, in her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, gives the history of the concept of "making a good death," tracing it to the late Middle Ages. I had not been aware of its roots, but having read the Gratz family letters I was already well-acquainted with the idea.

"Making a good death" necessarily meant resigning yourself to your imminent demise. This acceptance was key because your family could infer from it -- even if you could not speak -- that your conscience was clear and you were ready to meet your God. If you could speak it would be to calm and comfort your loved ones. By 1800 in America this idea permeated Protestantism and Judaism as well.

Here is Maria Fenno's description of the deathbed of John Ward Fenno, her older brother and the head of the family: "[He] called all of us, embraced us and pressed our hands and as well as he could begged that we would not be distressed. Towards evening he sank into a kind of slumber from which he never awoke but breathed his last sigh at about one o'clock in the morning, so calmly it seemed impossible."

John Ward Fenno was twenty-three years old but did what he could to convince his brothers and sisters that he loved them and was leaving them with confidence in his hopes of heaven.

A more formal description of a good death, that of Miriam Gratz, Rebecca's mother, is from her obituary by Joseph Dennie, the editor of the Port Folio: "...Always obedient to the will of heaven she saw the approach of death with serenity and meekness, and met his cold embrace without a struggle. In contemplating the steadfast virtue which supported her at that awful moment we may all find reason to exclaim, 'Let me die the death of the righteous and let my latter end be like hers'" (Port Folio, January 1809).

The Gratz sisters, particularly Rebecca, had been part of the social set around Dennie and his publication. Dennie knew Rebecca personally and had probably met her mother. As was the custom of the day, he recounted a "good death" in his obituary, but judging by everything else known about Miriam Gratz and the special emphasis Dennie placed on her last hours it is likely that she did die tranquilly.

But what happened when a person did not?

The family probably covered it over, making up last words and final farewells, and no doubt coming to believe the tale themselves over time. Because of that there are few descriptions of NOT making a good death. One survives in the Gratz correspondence because a Mrs. Morton had no family and the friend who cared for her told the story. In 1808 Sarah Gratz wrote to Rebecca:

"I never heard of a more agonizing death bed than poor Mrs. Morton exhibited. She was unconscious of approaching dissolution till almost the last moment and so entirely unprepared and unwilling to leave this world that when her sight failed and the conviction that the hand of death was on her, she uttered the most dreadful shriek and begged one more struggle should be made to save her. Even her last sigh breathed a prayer for life and the fear of death inflicted anguish on her far beyond description."

This is pretty hair-raising and not a memory anyone would want to leave. Sarah concluded, "Tis the duty of every rational being to reflect on death and so to regulate our actions as to divest it of half its terrors." The concept of a "good death" provided a script for playing one's last scene with dignity, but Sarah acknowledges that to be ready to act the part you had to prepare for it.

Note: Mrs. Morton was not a great sinner fearful of hellfire. She was a victim of tuberculosis, the "delusive" illness. As the disease reached its terminal stage, the patient, who knew very well the week before that she was seriously ill and in danger of death, lost touch with the reality of her situation. She might start talking about her plans for the next summer or trying to do tasks which were well beyond her strength. Many victims of the disease died without realizing their plight or, like Mrs. Morton, realizing it only at the very end. Tuberculosis had a special horror for families because it did not permit many of its sufferers to "make a good death."

(Maria Fenno's and Sarah Gratz's letters are both from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Family Planning: Philadelphia, circa 1800

Christians and Jews were all under the Biblical injunction to go forth and multiply, and American families were large at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Given the mortality rates for children, it is not surprising that husbands and wives wanted to produce enough offspring to assure that some would survive to support them in their old age.

Of course, the result of constant pregnancies was that women died young, worn out by child-bearing. (The maternal death rate circa 1800 in America was about one per every one hundred births; in 2006 it was about 13 in 100,000, the worst rate among the industrialized nations.) Many American women used a traditional method to help preserve their health and strength and still produce babies at regular intervals, one they probably learned from their mothers. The birth records for the children of Rebecca Gratz's grandmother, Rosa Simon, are incomplete, but a pattern may be discerned. She spaced her babies: one every two years, on average. The way a woman could do that was by breastfeeding her infants for the their first year to prevent ovulation.

The pregnancies of Rebecca's mother followed the same pattern as did those of her sisters Richea Hays and Rachel Moses, who breastfed. Only Fanny (Frances) Etting, Rebecca's eldest sister, did not breastfeed and she averaged only sixteen months between her first four children. The fifth through eighth children were spaced about two years apart; there is no information to explain this change.

Nor is there any information which explains how a declining birth rate was achieved in the United States as the nineteenth century went on, but even Rebecca came to think large families, much as she loved her own, were unwise. In 1839, she wrote after a Savannah relation by marriage had given birth to her tenth child: "I do not know whether so many responsibilities are indeed a blessing, considering how little opportunity is afforded of giving each the instruction they need, and the start in the world which even the rougher sex require."

In the depression following the Panic of 1837, Americans in the middle and upper classes saw childrearing as a lengthy educational process which also required all the worldly help that parents could muster to launch a child successfully into an adult career or marriage. Rebecca knew this all too well: two of the nieces and nephews she had raised after her sister Rachel's death had found themselves at the mercy of the hard times. Rebecca Moses was enduring a years-long engagement while her fiance Jonathan Nathan, a young lawyer in New York, tried to find a job which would give him enough income to support a wife. Horace Moses was suffering recurrent periods of unemployment: he had been involved in building railroads, but the money which was supporting the construction had all but dried up.

Both these setbacks were temporary, but the ups and downs of the business cycle in nineteenth-century America, must have created uncertainty and a desire to limit one's "hostages to fortune."

(The 2006 maternal death rate in the United States is from Amnesty International. Rebecca's letter is from the Miriam Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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