Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rebecca Gratz's Romance .3. The Gratz Papers

This narrative thread begins here. 

"I have heard [Samuel Ewing] pronounce the name of 
Becky Gratz with more energy & enthusiasm
than I ever saw him express on any other occasion."

----Eliza Fenno, Sept. 19, 1804

Rebecca's letters begin in 1797 when she was sixteen.  Peggy (Margaret) Ewing and she were already friends but there is no mention of Peggy's older brother Samuel Ewing until 1800.

From April 1798 through June 1799, Rebecca was in Baltimore, helping her oldest sister Fanny Etting with a rapidly growing family.  When she returned to Philadelphia, she was eighteen, ready to make her social debut which would mark the beginning of her life as a marriageable young woman.  (There was nothing written in stone as to when a girl could come out, but the Assembly dances, the most important events of the social season, were open only to those eighteen and older.)  She would then encounter Samuel Ewing on an equal footing:  they were both single adults enjoying the the teas, dances, formal and informal visits which were designed to foster courtship.  By June 1800 she could casually refer to him in a letter, and that August he almost certainly wrote an anonymous and very flattering character sketch of her.  To read it and learn one reason why I think Ewing was the author, click here. 

 I attribute this profile to Ewing for another reason as well: the very first of  Rebecca's qualities he mentions is her conversational skill.  This would be  important to a man who was known for his own abilities in that realm.  On August 24, 1800,  Rebecca, musing as she sometimes did, about marriage, wrote to her best friend Maria Fenno, "The happiest hours of married life are those passed in social conversation of unreserved confidence."   Two expert talkers had found someone else on the same level, and it's easy to believe that it played an important role in the development of their relationship.

Its blossoming benefited from the excitement surrounding the new publication, The Port-Folio.  Philadelphia had always been a publishing center, but the lively new magazine, which began in January 180l, helped to create a vibrant literary scene, the envy of Rebecca's New York friend Eliza Fenno who could only hope that "at some point a genius will break forth" in her city.

Ewing had his first poem published in the magazine a few months after it began and soon became one of its steadiest contributors.  His success would have only added to his luster with Rebecca.

As a friend of Samuel Ewing, she was drawn into the literary set led by Joseph Hopkinson, a lawyer and poet, and his witty, cultured wife Emily Mifflin Hopkinson.  When Mrs. Hopkinson suggested that Rebecca and she start a formal correspondence, Gratz, usually so composed, was flustered, afraid that she could not hold her own.  (They did go ahead with it, but none of the letters survives.)  It must have been heady, for a young woman who loved literature, to be so close to the center of the country's literary life.

 From 1800 till 1805 Ewing appears more often in Rebecca's letters than any other man.  Again and again she refers to him -- or rather his presence.  A few examples:  "Sam often comes to see us"  (Aug. 21, 1800)...."S. Ewing called this morning" (June 22, 1802).... "people who dined on Wednesday included S. Moses [who would marry Rachel Gratz in 1806] and S. Ewing"(April 21, 1804) ...."Mr. Ewing returned yesterday from Washington" (Feb. 22, 1805).  And so it went.

There is only one instance which I have found where Rebecca really lets go on the subject of Samuel Ewing.  In June 1802, Rebecca wrote to Maria Fenno, "S. Ewing called this morning...the girls [Maria's soon-to-be stepdaughters] will find him an agreeable, sensible companion...he is not known as an eccentric character, rather romantic [as in romanticism]--but at times very entertaining particularly when he meets with women of good understanding....& his writings prove him a man of genius."

 What is strange about this is that Maria had known Ewing at least two years and was perfectly capable of judging whether he should be around young girls.  No, it is more likely that Rebecca devoted many thoughts to Samuel Ewing and, despite her discretion, sometimes they just burst out.

Ewing did not guard his feelings as well as Rebecca, and her friends sometimes commented on them, as Maria's younger sister Eliza did in the quote at the beginning of this post  On one such occasion Maria Fenno explains in a letter to Rebecca that Mr. Ewing on a visit to New York has insisted that she write to her so that he can hand-deliver the letter.  Having nothing in the way of news to impart, Maria comments on the man:  "Poor Mr. Ewing has another fit of his old complaint [sickness: in this case, lovesickness], and I think the worst attack I ever knew him have.   Not only his thoughts, but his conversation constantly turn to the same object, and nothing gives him so much delight as to hear the praises of her he doats [sic] on....."  A year later he was bothering his sister Peggy with the same request.  She gave in because she had promised to write to Rebecca anyway, but adds, "Your word is a law to him."  And later when Ewing has followed Rebecca to Baltimore, where she was visiting her sister, Peggy remarks that the city must be "uncommonly agreeable" to detain him so long.

And so the relationship went on and on, but not surprisingly.  The Ewing family was in the city's social and intellectual elite but lacked money.  Mr. Ewing would have to save if he wanted to provide for a wife, and since the era disapproved of long engagements, he would have to have the cash on hand if and when he made his proposal.

Meanwhile, Rebecca must have experienced cognitive dissonance:  she was devoted to her faith at the same time that she was interested in a non-Jewish man.  In this era, when there was a difference in religion (most usually in Protestant denominations), the wife  attended her husband's church.
A Jewish-Christian marriage, however, would have required that the wife convert.  Rebecca's aunt, Shinah Simon, had done so when she married Nicholas Schuyler.  Her parents had opposed her choice, but after a short estrangement, they forgave her and welcomed her back into the family circle.

But conversion would not be simply a social move for Rebecca.  She sailed through five years of what everyone must have recognized as courtship by not thinking about it.  Until she had to think about it.

We will look at that crisis next.

(The letters of Rebecca Gratz dated August 24, 1800, and June 22, 1802, are from the Rebecca Gratz Collection at the Library of Congress.  Those dated August 21, 1800 and April 21, 1804, are from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Philosophical Society.  The one dated February 22, 1805 can be found in:  Blau, Joseph L. & Salo W. Baron, ed.  The Jews of the United States 1790-1840, A Documentary History.  3 vol.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1963.  The letters by Maria Fenno Hoffman, Eliza (Mary Elizabeth) Fenno, and Peggy (Margaret) Ewing are also in the collection at the APS.)

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