Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Domestic Servants in Philadelphia, 1800

No one in the 17th or 18th century came freely to the American colonies with the ambition to be a domestic servant or a farm hand. But as these immigrants prospered they wanted others to do this type of work for them. Almost from the beginning ships bringing Africans (to be slaves for life) and European indentured servants (to be slaves for a term of years) arrived to fill the colonists' needs.

Few during this period gave much thought to the morality of the practice. After all, their standard for right and wrong, the Bible, accepted slavery. Slaves and indentured servants were soon found throughout the colonies. An indication of their ubiquity: in 1691 the Rev. Samuel Parris's slave Tituba was among the first accused of witchcraft in Salem Village, Massachusetts.

In the 1760's three-quarters of all domestic servants in Philadelphia were slaves, the rest indentured servants with a sprinkling of free whites. Michael Gratz, Rebecca's father, had slaves as domestics and a slave chef running his kitchen in the 1770's, and her grandfather, Joseph Simon of Lancaster, PA, owned several slaves as well. But things were already changing as the Quakers waged their campaign (begun in the 1760's) against slavery. In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law gradually abolishing it in the state.

"Slaves for a time" were still legal and by 1800 most domestics in Philadelphia were redemptioners, immigrants who were sold into servitude on their arrival to pay for their passage. "Redemptioner" is a reference to a loophole which could save them from this fate: if someone came forward to pay the passage, the new arrival could go free. Since only a few would have a relative or friend waiting for them, most became servants, usually for a term of four years.


Redemptioners were very much aware that domestic work in the United States was equated with slavery/indentured servitude. Morceau de St. Mery, a French colonial emigrant, who lived in Philadelphia in the 1790's, reported on their desire to get away from this type of work when their term was up: "Even though one of them may have long been a servant, all the other servants in the same house urge her to leave so that she won't be considered an indenture."

The redemptioners provided a relatively small pool of potential servants, all of whom would leave at the end of their term. Free African-Americans, cut off from all but the most menial jobs, were more likely to stay. Free whites were real short-termers, looking to get out as soon as possible, and free women of either race frequently left to get married.

For Miriam Gratz, Rebecca's mother, this meant teaching and reteaching -- and since the family adhered to traditional Jewish dietary laws, an enormous amount of time must have been spent in introducing non-Jewish servants to the procedures they must follow. Given the scarcity of servants suitable for a wealthy household and the time expended on them, it is no wonder that she -- and non-Jewish matrons as well -- made do with relatively few domestics. In an early letter Rebecca sends her regards to "Nellie, Nancy and Peter," the household servants. The three must have had their hands full, caring for a large establishment and the ten Gratz family members who were living at home in 1800.

There is very little in the Gratz correspondence about these servants. While Peter was a redemptioner, the two references to "Nancy" nearly ten years apart suggest that if this was the same person she was almost certainly an African-American for whom a position in a wealthy household was the best employment a woman of her race could expect. About "Nellie" we know nothing. Later servants, with one exception -- a long-term employee, barely get a mention.

Despite the small number of servants who worked for the Gratz family, and then for Rebecca, over the years, from time to time problems arose, and they will be the focus of posts A Pregnant Servant and An Insolent Servant.


(The number of slave domestics in Philadelphia is from David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Information about Michael Gratz's slaves is from The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson, by Edwin Wolf 2nd and Maxwell Whiteman. Joseph Simon information is from David A. Brener's The Jews of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Moreau de St. Mery's American Journey includes his observations about indentured servants. Rebecca's letter is undated but internal evidence suggests it is from 1799. It is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)


















Friday, January 7, 2011

Rebecca Gratz & the Nullification Crisis of 1832

The Tariff of 1828 fell most heavily on the southern states. When the newly elected president, Andrew Jackson, did not move to reform or repeal the law, as expected, southern resentment grew. As an avenue to tax relief, South Carolinians developed a constitutional theory: sovereignty resided in the individual states rather than in the federal government, they argued, and therefore each state could nullify any federal law it found to be unconstitutional. The most radical of these nullifiers argued that there was no such thing as an American citizen, only state citizens.

The practical result of this interpretation would be the dismantling the United States, something the majority of Americans, looked upon with horror. Rebecca voiced these fears when she wrote, "I hope these southern Nullifiers will not break down the beautiful edifice their fathers erected to freedom...." Andrew Jackson saw nullification as treason.

In an effort to placate the nullifiers Congress passed the Tariff of 1832 which eased some of the burden and which had the support of about half of the southern states and all of the north. It was not good enough for South Carolina which in November 1832 used its new Ordinance of Nullification to nullify both the tariffs of 1828 and 1832, effective February 1, 1833. The state then began military preparations to repel federal intervention.

Rebecca's friend Washington Irving was travelling in South Carolina at this time and visited William C. Preston, an old friend and a vocal nullifier. Together they dined with the governor of the state, whom Irving had also known in his youth. In a letter to his brother Peter, Irving wrote, "It is really lamentable to see such a fine set of gallant fellows as these leading nullifiers are, so madly in the wrong."

At this point the state government was about to nullify the two tariffs, which Gov. Hamilton insisted was a "peaceable redress." As Irving was leaving, Hamilton invited him to come back soon. "Oh, yes," Irving, who had either a better grasp of reality or less reason to be hypocritical about it, replied, "I'll come with the first troops."

On Dec. 10, Andrew Jackson responded to the nullification of the tariffs by ordering naval ships to South Carolina and threatening to send in troops. A week later, Rebecca Gratz wrote to her sister-in-law in Kentucky: "Oh how I tremble lest American blood should be spilt by American hands."

In February Congress passed the bill authorizing the President to send soldiers into South Carolina and also a reform tariff, crafted to be more to the Carolinians' liking. (Jackson had rattled his saber but had also been the first to suggest the reform tariff.) At this point the nullifiers realized that they did not really want to call Jackson's bluff about military intervention, nullified their state nullification ordinance and accepted the reform tariff. The crisis was over, and for the moment everybody felt they had won.

But many Americans, like Rebecca, saw in the nullification ordeal the spectre of future civil war. Washington Irving felt that the Southerners' braggadocio-laden rhetoric during the crisis had offended those in other parts of the country who would otherwise have been sympathetic to redressing their grievances. Regionalism, already strong, was further exacerbated, and Americans in the north and west must have fearfully wondered: if the planters of South Carolina, among the wealthiest men in the country, were willing to destabilize the nation for their own gain, what would they do if they felt that slavery, the institution on which their way of life was built, might be taken from them?

(Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson. Material about Washington Irving is from The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, edited by Pierre M. Irving. I synthesized information about the Crisis from many sources; as with Indian Removal, I have again squeezed a complex subject into the dimensions of a blog post. Fortunately, there is plenty of information about nullification in print and on the internet for those interested in learning more.)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Rebecca Gratz Blog in 2010

Although I have been writing this blog for a year and a half, I began to use Google Analytics to record statistical data about it only a year ago. This, then, is my first annual report.

A blog about an obscure 19th-century, Jewish-American woman, who lived her life doing good works and eschewing scandal, is not exactly a magnet for most internet devotees. However in 2010 it did receive nearly 1750 visits from about 1320 individuals who rang up 3280 pageviews.

About three quarters of the visits were from the United States, 75% of those from Pennsylvania and 75% of those from Philadelphia, which is what you might expect for a locally famous, minor historical figure. Surprisingly, at least to me, the blog received hits from more than 500 other towns and cities around the world, 46 other states and 59 other countries.

Here are the posts which were most visited in 2010:

Boys' Dresses and Breeching.* (Jan. '10) Who knew that this old custom was of such worldwide interest ?

Sully's First Portrait of Rebecca. (Nov. '09) This post, which contains an image of the painting, attracted those interested in Rebecca, but also those researching the artist, this specific painting and 19th-century American art.

Male Entitlement in Philadelphia, c. 1800.* (Apr.'10) I had not realized that "male entitlement" was such a hot topic.

Tall Tales about Rebecca.* (July '10) In which I described some of the biographical inaccuracies about Rebecca and considered why there were so many.

Washington Irving, Rebecca Gratz and an Unwanted Suitor. (Nov. '09) Rebecca's friendship with Irving greatly affected her life. This anecdote describes their first youthful meeting and how Irving helped her avoid a proposal. What's not to like?

The Gratz Sisters & Solomon Moses. (Apr. '10) Part of a five-post narrative about Rebecca's sister Rachel, the man she decided to marry and her sisters' reaction to her decision, it gives insight into the real Rebecca (without a pedestal) and the always complex relationships among siblings.

The Rebecca Gratz Club. (Aug. '10) I wrote this post in response to the many inquiries about the Club so I am not surprised by its rapid rise into the top ten posts of the year.

Rebecca Gratz & Baseball. (Oct. '10) This post was written after baseball historian John Thorn sent me some relevant material. Following its publication, Mr. Thorn alerted his baseball history buddies and they came en masse to read it. I am fond of this post, but without this generous help I doubt it would have climbed almost immediately into the most-visited list.

A Portrait of Washington Irving. (Nov. '09) A sort of coda to "Washington Irving, Rebecca Gratz and an Unwanted Suitor," the post includes an image of John Wesley Jarvis's luscious painting, making it of interest to students of art history as well as aficionados of Irving and Gratz.

The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals and Rebecca Gratz. (Oct. '10) The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the opposition to it did not warrant much ink in the history textbooks I read in school. Now it seems to be a lively research topic with interest split between the Act itself and the petition drive which was the first organized action by American women to influence politicians.


*Asterisks. Another way to look at the popularity of posts is not just by sheer numbers of visits but by the average amount of time readers spent at individual posts. The three asterisked posts in the list above had an average visit length of three minutes or more. Other posts which did not make the top ten but which were viewed at least 25 times and averaged three plus minutes were:

Sarah Gratz's Mysterious Malady. (Mar. '10) Bipolar disorder is with us today, and there must be some comfort to read about the difficulties of those who suffered from it in the past.

Rachel Gratz, Rachel's Romance, Rebecca Writes to Sally and What Was Wrong with Solomon Moses Anyway? (Apr. & May '10): These are the other four posts in the cycle about Rachel Gratz. (See The Gratz Sisters and Solomon Moses above.)

A Civil War Tragedy. (Sept. '09) The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Rebecca's brother Benjamin Gratz and his family during the conflict.

Rebecca and Matilda Hoffman. (Aug. '10) This is another "tall tale" I try to correct.

An Unaccountable Wedding Fad. (July '10) Who doesn't love a wedding? But I just wish that someone with more information about the fad in question would give me their insights.

The First Waltz. (Jan.'10) Turns out that Rebecca's report of seeing the waltz danced may be the earliest eye-witness account from Philadelphia. Dance historians were interested.

Women's Charities, Philadelphia 1800. (Dec.'09) The title says it all.

Rebecca's Favorite Poem. (Sept. '10) It's a long poem which I think helps account for the fact that people spend so much time on the post.

A special thank you to the many repeat visitors from Philadelphia and Bala Cynwyd, PA; Santa Cruz, CA; Sheboygan, WI; Corvallis, OR and elsewhere. I have met several of you through email and in person and hope to correspond with others. Another big thank you to those who subscribe to or follow this blog: you are not included in the statistical reports, but I am always aware of you and delighted that you think the blog worthy of your time.

Finally, thanks to the following websites which in the past year have mentioned or provided a link to this blog: Scandalous Women; Brian Jay Jones (author of the most recent biography of Washington Irving); Jewesses with Attitude, the blogsite of the Jewish Women's Archive; the Gilbert Stuart blog; the Library of America blog "Reader's Almanac;" Books, Inq -- The Epilogue; A Momentary Taste Of Being; the (London) Sunday Times' Book News Mattters; Civil War Blog, Gratz Historical Society, Gratz, PA; Jewish Press International's Faceshuk; the American Philosophical Society on Facebook; Yesterday...and Today. I am honored.









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