Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rebecca & Mixed Marriages

Rebecca Gratz gave up the man she loved for religious reasons: he was Presbyterian and she was Jewish. In a poem written in 1807, two years after Samuel Ewing proposed marriage, Rebecca recalled her happiness during their brief engagement and how it was ended when "interfering religion...called [her] home."

Ten years later in 1817, and two years before her brother Benjamin married Maria Cecil Gist, Rebecca spoke of her feelings on mixed marriages:

"I believe it is impossible to reconcile a matrimonial engagement between persons of so different a creed without requiring one or the other to yield. In all instances we have heard of in real life this has been the case and where a family of children are to be brought up it appears necessary that parents should agree on so important a subject. I have known many Jews marry Christian women whose wives have become strict conformists to the rites of our religion -- and Jewesses married to Christians who have entered the church as in the instance of my Aunt Schuyler [her mother's younger sister Shinah Simon who married Nicholas Schuyler]...."

Rebecca believed in one family, one religion, but you will note that in each of her examples it was the woman who converted. Given these facts, it would seem that the desire for a religiously unified family and her reluctance to convert were probably at the heart of her renunciation of Samuel Ewing.

When in 1819 Rebecca received a letter from her youngest brother Benjamin announcing that he would be marrying Maria Cecil Gist, a non-Jewish Kentucky woman whom he had met in Philadelphia the previous summer, it created conflicts for her. She had also met Maria, and had been drawn to her by their mutual interests and similar values. But Ben must have written that he and Maria would continue to follow their individual religious traditions, which she thought to be an unworkable plan. She wrote about her feelings to her friend Maria Fenno Hoffman:

"I hope mine is not a narrow creed. My most cherished friends and the companions of my choice have generally been worshipers of a different faith from mine and I have not loved them less on that account. But in a family connection I have always thought conformity of religious opinions essential and there fore could not approve my brother's election. In other respects Miss Gist is a woman any family might be proud to receive, and as they have resolved to blend their fate I most sincerely hope they may find the means to worship God faithfully and without offense to each other."

Rebecca also wrote to Ben, a letter which has gone missing, due, I would guess, to a little family editing. She must have voiced the same concerns to her brother. It would have been very interesting to see how she expressed herself on this occasion and what exactly she suggested, especially because Ben showed Rebecca's letter to Maria.

There cannot have been anything personally offensive to Maria in it, but Ben's fiancee may have felt betrayed by a woman she had taken to be her friend. She did not realize that important as religion was to Rebecca, family ties came first. Once Maria had married Ben, Rebecca would accept her wholeheartedly. However, the correspondence between the two new sisters-in-law began a bit awkwardly; once Maria and Ben visited Philadelphia in 1821 with their new baby the easy friendship the two women felt for each other when they first met reasserted itself. They would be the best of friends until Maria's untimely death in 1841. (Most of the letters in Letters of Rebecca Gratz are addressed to Maria.)

In 1825, Rebecca was able to write to Ben, "I love your dear Maria, and admire the forbearance which leaves unmolested the religious opinions she knows are sacred in your estimation. May you both continue to worship according to the dictates of your conscience and your orisons be equally acceptable to the throne of Grace...."

We know from the correspondence that the Gratz family of Lexington, Kentucky, observed Jewish holidays as well as Christian ones. The children were reared in Maria's Episcopalian faith, but Benjamin retained his Jewish identity throughout his life. In 1884, when he died in his 92nd year, a rabbi presided over his funeral service.

(Rebecca's letters from 1817 and 1819 are from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. The 1825 letter is published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz.)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Civil War Begins

As Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter, Rebecca was concerned with matters nearer at hand. Many years before, she had promised her dying friend Maria Fenno Hoffman to look after her children. Following the death of Maria's widower Josiah Ogden Hoffman in 1837, it was found that the family fortune was gone. The two sons were unmarried and working but did not have enough money to provide a home for their sister Julia. From that point on Julia spent her life as a guest in others' homes. Eventually she was able to summer with her brother George and his wife on their farm in central Pennsylvania, take extended visits with her cousins in Boston and Fishkill NY and have her winter home with Rebecca, where the Gratz's treated her as one of the family. In April of 1861, Julia, who had suffered from a digestive disorder for years, was seriously ill, and Rebecca had moved into the bedchamber closest to hers to better care for her.

By this time Rebecca's large household had shrunk to only one nephew, Horace Moses, and she had come to rely greatly on Julia's companionship. As she would later remark, at eighty she had taken for granted that Julia, nearly 30 years younger, would survive her. Anxiously caring for her friend, it was not until April 17, 1861, that Rebecca sat down to write her niece Miriam Cohen in Savannah "in anticipation" of future difficulties in communicating.

Miriam had married a Southerner and had lived in South Carolina and Georgia for nearly a quarter of a century, and it was obvious, from early in her marriage, that she had become an enthusiast, like her husband, for slavery and states' rights. From about 1840 on, Rebecca no longer brought up in her letters to Miriam anything on which they might disagree. And so Rebecca starts this April 1861 letter with family matters, but on the second page, she cannot stop herself from voicing her anguish:

"The horrors of civil war, separation from dear friends and multitudes of unknown troubles seem to hover over us in frightful array. It strikes me that there is no glory in such warfare -- whichever side succeeds, his brother fails. I have not yet learned to narrow my patriotism to a single section of my country. May God assist us to bring a right understanding about, without bloodshed in this unholy struggle."

Rebecca was a Unionist, but here she writes only of her anti-war feelings. So rational herself, she was at a loss to understand that anyone could prefer violence to some compromise which would keep the peace and the Union intact.

Particularly interesting is her statement about limiting her patriotism. Some historians have suggested that Americans were much more attached to their states than to the nation, and this may be true in some regions. (Early on in their correspondence, Rebecca commented that Miriam had become quite a Georgian.) Yet in about seventy years worth of letters Rebecca never refers to herself as a Pennsylvanian nor does she glory in her region's superiority or in the inferiority of other parts of the country. She always sees herself as an American.

Perhaps this was a legacy of being among the first generation to grow up as citizens of the United States. Rebecca and her contemporaries were very aware of the fact that they were part of a political and social experiment which Europeans were watching with interest and in some cases with the hope that the new nation would fail. When the government removed Native Americans from the East, although she opposed it, Rebecca felt a responsibility because she was an American. That identification was much more central to her than any political or regional connection. Sadly, by the time of the Civil War, Rebecca had few contemporaries left to watch with her as the nation stood on the brink of self-destruction and to speak out for their old ideals.

All unknowing of her own prescience, Rebecca also writes in her letter that whichever side wins, "his brother" loses. In less than four months this terrible fate would fall upon her own family at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. But before that tragedy, she had to face another grief: Julia Hoffman died on April 28, 1861.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Papers, No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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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