Monday, April 11, 2011

Benjamin Gratz, Rebecca's Youngest Brother

Benjamin Gratz
by Thomas Sully. Oil on wood, Philadelphia, 1831. Courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum & Library. Gift
of Henrietta Gratz Clay. 1954.1937

(To see Sully's companion portrait of his wife Maria, click here.)

Just a few days before Ben's fifteenth birthday (Sept. 4, 1807), Rebecca reported that he was continuing to grow in "manliness, beauty and graceful manners." "He will be a gentleman," she assured Jo, another brother.

Rebecca almost never wrote of physical beauty in her letters, as seems to have been the custom of the day. Usually, that type of praise was saved for children. It may be that she still saw her baby brother as a child, but the good looks Rebecca discerned in him are reflected in Sully's portrait of Ben at 38 (above) and his gentlemanly qualities attested to by his life.

Ben attended the University of Pennsylvania and received his bachelor's degree in 1811. In 1812, at the beginning of the war, he volunteered, but was called up only in 1814 when it seemed as though the British would attack Philadelphia after burning Washington. A second lieutenant in Capt. John Swift's company of the Washington Guards, he spent several months on active duty. Rebecca worried that camp life would be too hard for him but Ben seems to have thrived on it.

Sometime during the period 1812-1815 Ben studied law in the office of a family friend William Meredith, and in 1815 was admitted to the Philadelphia bar. He received a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania the same year. In the summer of 1818 when he first met Maria Cecil Gist, he was preparing to go west to pursue a law suit for the partners (which included the Gratz family) of the Illinois & Wabash Company.

Rebecca, who liked to keep her family close, was alarmed by Ben's letters proclaiming his enthusiasm for the West. Perhaps even without Maria he would have settled in Kentucky. The period was a time of the greatest internal migration in American history: people in the south were flooding into Alabama and Mississippi to plant the rich land there with cotton; New Englanders, reeling from 1816, the year without a summer, were moving down into the Ohio Valley for a longer growing season. As new towns sprang up, each needed clergy, a doctor, a schoolmaster, a lawyer and businessmen. Even young men like Ben, from the eastern social elite, were attracted to the West where they felt they could make their mark.

Ben probably found a reason to go to Lexington in the autumn of 1818, and evidence from his correspondence shows that he wintered in Vincennes and was back in Lexington in the spring of 1819. He returned to Philadelphia and, in the fall of 1819, was in Lexington again, this time to stay. There is no information on when he proposed to Maria Cecil Gist, but he would not have done so unless he had the means to support a wife in Kentucky.

Somewhere along the way he attracted the interest of Col. James Morrison, one of the founders of Lexington. The Gratz family had long held land in Kentucky, and Morrison would have known them by reputation and perhaps had met some of the Gratz men. In any case, to a city father who hoped to make his town "the Athens of the West," a young man with a master's degree and legal and business experience would be a gift from heaven. Morrison probably facilitated what would be a lucrative business. He, John Bruce, a local Scottish immigrant who had experience in the manufacturing of rope, and Benjamin Gratz entered into a partnership to make rope in Lexington and provide it at a cheaper price to the West than that produced on the east coast. I assume that Ben, who would also be in charge of the business side of the endeavor, and Morrison provided most of the money to get their factory started.

The Gratz fortune is something of a mystery. The father, Michael Gratz, who had land holdings all over the country, died intestate in 1811. The three eldest brothers seem to have made an attempt to divide the lands among the siblings, but gave up just about the time Ben returned to Philadelphia in 1819: everything went into a family trust, and how it was administered is unknown by me. Ben would have been looking for some investment money when he was in Philadelphia and seems to have gotten it, but whether it came from the estate or a loan from a brother is another question mark.

In any case, the partnership was created and Maria accepted his proposal of marriage. All Ben had to do was to write to Rebecca, who seems to have been unaware of these events, to tell her that he would be settling in Lexington, Kentucky, with a non-Jewish wife.

To continue, click here.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Washington Irving Collection, Clifton Waller Library of American Literature, University of Virginia.)

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