Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Six Degrees of Rebecca Gratz

The United States was so much less densely populated in Rebecca Gratz's day that the linking game of the 19th century would probably have been called "four degrees of separation." For an upper-class woman like Rebecca, two or three degrees were probably all that were necessary to link her to the prominent men and women of her time.

Here are just a few of her many  friends who connected her to the larger world:

William Henry Furness, the minister at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, was a lifelong friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, providing a link to the New England intellectual and literary establishment.  Furness personally introduced Rebecca to theologian William Ellery Channing and the English economist Harriet Martineau, two intellectual lights of the era, when they came to Philadelphia.

Francis Preston Blair, from 1830 a Washington insider, as newspaper editor, founder of the Republican Party and advisor to presidents, was a resource for contacting practically anyone in the federal government.    Rebecca called upon him for help in getting friends and family federal appointments. And when she wanted to get a message to Abraham Lincoln, it was Blair who read it to the president.

Washington Irving and the actress Fanny Kemble connected her to literary and artistic circles in both America and England; Irving, most famously, to Walter Scott.

There are more surprising connections as well.  A few weeks ago, I read a review of a new book, Freedom's Gardener:  James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America, by Myra B. Young Armstead.  Based in part on Brown's diary, the book traces his rise from slavery to freedom as a politically enfranchised citizen, a master gardener for a wealthy family in the Hudson Valley.

Sure enough, there was a Gratz connection.  His employer was the Verplanck family whose estate Mt. Gulian was at Fishkill Landing, about 70 miles north of New York City.  The man who hired him was Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, whose son Gulian married Rebecca's good friend, Eliza Fenno.  The young couple took up residence at Mt. Gulian, and although Eliza died in 1817, well before Brown arrived as gardener,  Rebecca, who always took an interest in the children of her friends, maintained her friendship with Eliza's husband and their family, visiting Mt. Gulian repeatedly.

By 1837, Sara Moses, Rebecca's niece, was already familiar with the estate.  She wrote that she and her aunt were going to visit the Verplanck's at "that most beautiful spot...on the river only a few miles from West Point" and were planning to spend a week there.  Certainly during that time, Rebecca saw and enjoyed Brown's gardens.  And it was just around this stage of her life, that she started to mention her roses in her letters, suggesting that she was either taking a greater interest or had found a new hobby in growing flowers.  It is pleasant to think she might have consulted with James F. Brown on her trips to Mt. Gulian.

(Sara's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

1 comment:

  1. hi Susan,
    I just noticed (an earlier entry) that Joseph was in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry--in 1810 Samuel Meeker was Lieutenant Commander of the Third Troop of Philadelphia Light Horse and in 1811 Captain of that Troop. For sure Sam knew Joe. Did you have a nice summer? with warm greetings, Beth


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