Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Gratz Family: Federalists

Rebecca Gratz, born in 1781, grew up with the American political system. However, she much preferred the Constitution and its ideals to the party politics which developed in its wake.

By the time Rebecca was twelve (in 1793), the first American political parties were taking shape around two founding fathers with conflicting visions of the new nation. Alexander Hamilton, President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, saw an America which could and should take its place beside the European powers. To that end, he supported a national bank to help regulate credit, a navy to protect American shipping and a strong central government to oversee the country's development into a great nation. Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, envisioned America as a wholly new entity, a nation made up of farmers and townsmen, without the large cities, banks, military and centralized government which he saw as sources of corruption. The Gratz family, like the rest of the American mercantile class, most large landowners throughout the country and virtually all of New England, was squarely in the ranks of Hamilton's Federalists. Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans (whom I refer to as Democrats because that is what the Gratz's called them and because theirs was a forerunner of the modern Democratic Party) included the Virginia planters as well as farmers and much of the urban population outside New England.

During the presidential election of 1800, the Gratz's supported Federalist John Adams. The only family member who did not was Rebecca's brother-in-law Reuben Etting in Baltimore. His support for Jefferson was rewarded after the election when the new president made him United States marshal for Maryland, the first federal appointment for an American Jew.

The rest of the family was not happy. Sarah, Rebecca's older sister who was visiting with her sister and brother-in-law in Baltimore during the campaign season, spent evenings in "argumentation" with Reuben, a pastime they both seemed to enjoy. But once the results were in, Sarah expressed her dejection to 19-year-old Rebecca: "Really the triumph of the Democrats makes me feel sad. In this State as well as in ours, they are successful. Shame. Shame. I would not show Reuben your letters for the world" [my italics].

It seems clear from Sarah's comment that Rebecca was quite a partisan herself. Yet her youthful enthusiasm did not last. A few months later, her friend Maria Fenno, railing against Thomas Jefferson (probably because of his heterodox religious views), wrote, "I cannot get reconciled, little as I am a politician, to such a president....You will laugh at me [my italics], I suppose, but I know your feelings are something like mine." Whatever party fervor Rebecca had evinced during the campaign, Maria suspected that her friend had already grown skeptical of the partisan stance.

What might have caused Rebecca to have turned away from party fervor? Perhaps the change had something to do with the political press of the time.

To be continued.

(Sarah's letter about "argumentation" and Maria's letter are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Sarah's post-election comments are from a letter in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Rebecca Gratz Blog in 2011

This is my second annual report (click here for the first), a little public record-keeping, which shows how a blog about an obscure historical figure fares on the internet. This year "Rebecca Gratz & 19th-Century America" received over 2300 visits, up by more than 550 from last year, not surprising since there are more posts to attract hits.

The interesting thing for me this year is that six of the top ten posts include portraits. It strikes me that having as my subject a beautiful woman who had the presence of mind to have three portraits painted -- and had an equally attractive and well-painted family -- has brought me more hits than a figure without the good looks would have garnered. If you happen upon one of the Gratz portraits on the internet, it is difficult not to want to know more. More importantly, the portraits attract those interested in 19th-century American art and the specific artists, as well as the usual researchers concerned with American history, Jewish history, women's history and genealogy.

So here are the top ten posts on the blog this year.

The Rebecca Gratz Club (Aug. '10). Although I have heard from many people who have a familial or personal link to the Club, my guess is that the popularity of this post derives from the fact that the organization's former building (now condos) has "The Rebecca Gratz Club" incised in stone on its facade. Locals and tourists taking a walk through the historic Society Hill section of Philadelphia see the name and want to know more. I would be willing to bet -- I haven't been able to pull up these data from Google Analytics-- that the Rebecca Gratz Club is the subject of more "impulse" searches on smart phones than any other topic covered by this blog.

The Rosenbach Acquires Sully Portrait of Rebecca Gratz (Nov. '10). Well, this was a news story in art and museum publications as well as in the local Philadelphia newspapers, and my blog benefited from the increased curiosity about Rebecca.

Domestic Servants in Philadelphia, 1800 (Jan. '11). In this post I was following an interest of mine which was not covered in school when I was young. It seems to be given much more attention today.

Rebecca's brother and sister-in-law, besides being probably the handsomest couple in the Western Hemisphere (the posts include their portraits), have historic interest of their own, at least in Kentucky where they made their home. They are also the progenitors of the Kentucky branch of the Gratz family and therefore a target for descendants' genealogical research.

The Lost Portraits of Mrs. Benjamin Gratz: Have You Seen Maria? (June '11) Another portrait, this time linked with a mystery. Who can resist?

See above.

The Gratz Sisters and Solomon Moses (Apr. '10). This is part of a narrative thread about Rebecca's younger sister Rachel Gratz, her romance and marriage. I think this gets onto the list because of the appearance of the words "Solomon" and "Moses" in the title. People searching for Solomon Moses, Moses Solomon, Rebecca Moses, Rachel Solomon, etc., could all wind up here.

Rebecca and Mixed Marriages (Apr. '11). This post addresses a central issue of the Rebecca Gratz legend: why she refused to marry the Christian man she loved. I check in with my speculations.

Over the past two years, most of the blog's hits have come from the United States, and as of today only one state has not yet been heard from. Come on, Wyoming, there must be one Jewish person, scholar of American painting, or historian of the 19th century living there. I look forward to your appearance in my blog statistics.

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