A Book of Autographs

A Book of Autographs

A BOOK OF AUTOGRAPHS NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE We have before us a volume of autograph letters chiefly of soldiers and statesmen of the Revolution and addressed to a good and brave man General Palmer who himself drew his sword in the cause. They are profitable reading in a quiet afternoon and in a mood withdrawn from too intimate relation with the present time; so that we can glide backward some three quarters of a century and surround ourselves with the ominous sublimity of circumstances that then frowned upon the writers. To give them their full effect we should imagine that these letters have this moment been brought to town by the splashed and way- worn postrider or perhaps by an orderly dragoon who has ridden in a perilous hurry to deliver his despatches. They are magic scrolls if read in the right spirit. The roll of the drum and the fanfare of the trumpet is latent in some of them; and in others an echo of the oratory that resounded in the old halls of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia; or the words may come to us as with the living utterance of one of those illustrious men speaking face to face in friendly communion. Strange that the mere identity of paper and ink should be so powerful. The same thoughts might look cold and ineffectual in a printed book. Human nature craves a certain materialism and clings pertinaciously to what is tangible as if that were of more importance than the spirit accidentally involved in it. And in truth the original manuscript has always something which print itself must inevitably lose. An erasure even a blot a casual irregularity of hand and all such little imperfections of mechanical execution bring us close to the writer and perhaps convey some of those subtle intimations for which language has no shape. There are several letters from John Adams written in a small hasty ungraceful hand but earnest and with no unnecessary flourish. The earliest is dated at Philadelphia September 26 1774 about twenty days after the first opening of the Continental Congress. We look at this old yellow document scribbled on half a sheet of foolscap and ask of it many questions for which words have no response. We would fain know what were their mutual impressions when all those venerable faces that have since been traced on steel or chiselled out of marble and thus made familiar to posterity first met one another's gaze! Did one spirit harmonize them in spite of the dissimilitude of manners between the North and the South which were now for the first time brought into political relations? Could the Virginian descendant of the Cavaliers and the New-Englander with his hereditary Puritanism--the aristocratic Southern planter and the self-made man from Massachusetts or Connecticut--at once feel that they were countrymen and brothers? What did John Adams think of Jefferson?--and Samuel Adams of Patrick Henry? Did not North and South combine in their deference for the sage Franklin so long the defender of the colonies in England and whose scientific renown was already world-wide? And was there yet any whispered prophecy any vague conjecture circulating among the delegates as to the destiny which might be in reserve for one stately man who sat for the most part silent among them?--what station he was to assume in the world's history?--and how many statues would repeat his form and countenance and successively crumble beneath his immortality? The letter before us does not answer these inquiries. Its main feature is the strong expression of the uncertainty and awe that pervaded even the firm hearts of the Old Congress while anticipating the struggle which was to ensue. "The commencement of hostilities" it says "is exceedingly dreaded here. It is thought that an attack upon the troops even should it prove successful would certainly involve the whole continent in a war. It is generally thought that the Ministry would rejoice at a rupture in Boston because it would furnish an excuse to the people at home" [this was the last time we suspect that John Adams spoke of England thus affectionately] "and unite them in an opinion of the necessity of pushing hostilities against us." His next letter bears on the superscription "Favored by General Washington." The date is June 20 1775 three days after the battle of Bunker Hill the news of which could not yet have arrived at Philadelphia. But the war so much dreaded had begun on the quiet banks of Concord River; an army of twenty thousand men was beleaguering Boston; and here was Washington journeying northward to take the command. It seems to place us in a nearer relation with the hero to find him performing the little courtesy of leaving a letter between friend and friend and to hold in our hands the very document intrusted to such a messenger. John Adams says simply "We send you Generals Washington and Lee for your comfort"; but adds nothing in regard to the character of the Commander-in-Chief. This letter displays much of the writer's ardent temperament; if he had been anywhere but in the hall of Congress it would have been in the intrenchment before Boston. "I hope" he writes "a good account will be given of Gage Haldiman Burgoyne Clinton and Howe before winter. Such a wretch as Howe with a statue in honor of his family in Westminster Abbey erected by the Massachusetts to come over with the design to cut the throats of the Massachusetts people is too much. I most sincerely coolly and devoutly wish that a lucky ball or bayonet may make a signal example of him in warning to all such unprincipled unsentimental miscreants for the future!" He goes on in a strain that smacks somewhat of aristocratic feeling: "Our camp will be an illustrious school of military virtue and will be resorted to and frequented as such by gentlemen in great numbers from the other colonies." The term "gentleman" has seldom been used in this sense subsequently to the Revolution. Another letter introduces us to two of these gentlemen Messrs. Acquilla Hall and Josias Carvill volunteers who are recommended as "of the first families in Maryland and possessing independent fortunes." After the British had been driven out of Boston Adams cries out "Fortify fortify; and never let them get in again!" It is agreeable enough to perceive the filial affection with which John Adams and the other delegates from the North regard New England and especially the good old capital of the Puritans. Their love of country was hardly yet so diluted as to extend over the whole thirteen colonies which were rather looked upon as allies than as composing one nation. In truth the patriotism of a citizen of the United States is a sentiment by itself of a peculiar nature and requiring a lifetime or at least the custom of many years to naturalize it among the other possessions of the heart. The collection is enriched by a letter dated "Cambridge August 26 1775" from Washington himself. He wrote it in that house--now so venerable with his memory--in that very room where his bust now stands upon a poet's table; from this sheet of paper passed the hand that held the leading-staff! Nothing can be more perfectly in keeping with all other manifestations of Washington than the whole visible aspect and embodiment of this letter. The manuscript is as clear as daylight; the punctuation exact to a comma. There is a calm accuracy throughout which seems the production of a species of intelligence that cannot err and which if we may so speak would affect us with a more human warmth if we could conceive it capable of some slight human error. The chirography is characterized by a plain and easy grace which in the signature is somewhat elaborated and becomes a type of the personal manner of a gentleman of the old school but without detriment to the truth and clearness that distinguish the rest of the manuscript. The lines are as straight and equidistant as if ruled; and from beginning to end there is no physical symptom--as how should there be?--of a varying mood of jets of emotion or any of those fluctuating feelings that pass from the hearts into the fingers of common men. The paper itself (like most of those Revolutionary letters which are written on fabrics fit to endure the burden of ponderous and earnest thought) is stout and of excellent quality and bears the water-mark of Britannia surmounted by the Crown. The subject of the letter is a statement of reasons for not taking possession of Point Alderton; a position commanding the entrance of Boston Harbor. After explaining the difficulties of the case arising from his want of men and munitions for the adequate defence of the lines which he already occupies Washington proceeds: "To you sir who are a well-wisher to the cause and can reason upon the effects of such conduct I may open myself with freedom because no improper disclosures will be made of our situation. But I cannot expose my weakness to the enemy (though I believe they are pretty well informed of everything that passes) by telling this and that man who are daily pointing out this and that and t' other place of all the motives that govern my actions; notwithstanding I know what will be the consequence of not doing it--namely that I shall be accused of inattention to the public service and perhaps of want of spirit to prosecute it. But this shall have no effect upon my conduct. I will steadily (as far as my judgment will assist me) pursue such measures as I think conducive to the interest of the cause and rest satisfied under any obloquy that shall be thrown conscious of having discharged my duty to the best of my abilities." The above passage like every other passage that could be quoted from his pen is characteristic of Washington and entirely in keeping with the calm elevation of his soul. Yet how imperfect a glimpse do we obtain of him through the medium of this or any of his letters! We imagine him writing calmly with a hand that never falters; his majestic face neither darkens nor gleams with any momentary ebullition of feeling or irregularity of thought; and thus flows forth an expression precisely to the extent of his purpose no more no less. Thus much we may conceive. But still we have not grasped the man; we have caught no glimpse of his interior; we have not detected his personality. It is the same with all the recorded traits of his daily life. The collection of them by different observers seems sufficiently abundant and strictly harmonizes with itself yet never brings us into intimate relationship with the hero nor makes us feel the warmth and the human throb of his heart. What can be the reason? Is it that his great nature was adapted to stand in relation to his country as man stands towards man but could not individualize itself in brotherhood to an individual? There are two from Franklin the earliest dated "London August 8 1767" and addressed to "Mrs. Franklin at Philadelphia." He was then in England as agent for the colonies in their resistance to the oppressive policy of Mr. Grenville's administration. The letter however makes no reference to political or other business. It contains only ten or twelve lines beginning "My dear child" and conveying an impression of long and venerable matrimony which has lost all its romance but retained a familiar and quiet tenderness. He speaks of making a little excursion into the country for his health; mentions a larger letter despatched by another vessel; alludes with homely affability to "Mrs. Stevenson" "Sally" and "our dear Polly"; desires to be remembered to "all inquiring friends"; and signs himself "Your ever loving husband." In this conjugal epistle brief and unimportant as it is there are the elements that summon up the past and enable us to create anew the man his connections and circumstances. We can see the sage in his London lodgings--with his wig cast aside and replaced by a velvet cap--penning this very letter; and then can step across the Atlantic and behold its reception by the elderly but still comely Madam Franklin who breaks the seal and begins to read first remembering to put on her spectacles. The seal by the way is a pompous one of armorial bearings rather symbolical of the dignity of the Colonial Agent and Postmaster General of America than of the humble origin of the Newburyport printer. The writing is in the free quick style of a man with great practice of the pen and is particularly agreeable to the reader. Another letter from the same famous hand is addressed to General Palmer and dated "Passy October 27 1779." By an indorsement on the outside it appears to have been transmitted to the United States through the medium of Lafayette. Franklin was now the ambassador of his country at the Court of Versailles enjoying an immense celebrity caressed by the French ladies and idolized alike by the fashionable and the learned who saw something sublime and philosophic even in his blue yarn stockings. Still as before he writes with the homeliness and simplicity that cause a human face to look forth from the old yellow sheet of paper and in words that make our ears re-echo as with the sound of his long-extinct utterance. Yet this brief epistle like the former has so little of tangible matter that we are ashamed to copy it. Next we come to the fragment of a letter by Samuel Adams; an autograph more utterly devoid of ornament or flourish than any other in the collection. It would not have been characteristic had his pen traced so much as a hair-line in tribute to grace beauty or the elaborateness of manner; for this earnest-hearted man had been produced out of the past elements of his native land a real Puritan with the religion of his forefathers and likewise with their principles of government taking the aspect of Revolutionary politics. At heart Samuel Adams was never so much a citizen of the United States as he was a New-Englander and a son of the old Bay Province. The following passage has much of the man in it: "I heartily congratulate yon" he writes from Philadelphia after the British have left Boston "upon the sudden and important change in our affairs in the removal of the barbarians from the capital. We owe our grateful acknowledgments to Him who is as he is frequently styled in Sacred Writ 'The Lord of Hosts.' We have not yet been informed with certainty what course the enemy have steered. I hope we shall be on our guard against future attempts. Will not care be taken to fortify the harbor and thereby prevent the entrance of ships- of-war hereafter?" From Hancock we have only the envelope of a document "on public service" directed to "The Hon. the Assembly or Council of Safety of New Hampshire" and with the autograph affixed that stands out so prominently in the Declaration of Independence. As seen in the engraving of that instrument the signature looks precisely what we should expect and desire in the handwriting of a princely merchant whose penmanship had been practised in the ledger which he is represented as holding in Copley's brilliant picture but to whom his native ability and the circumstances and customs of his country had given a place among its rulers. But on the coarse and dingy paper before us the effect is very much inferior; the direction all except the signature is a scrawl large and heavy but not forcible; and even the name itself while almost identical in its strokes with that of the Declaration has a strangely different and more vulgar aspect. Perhaps it is all right and typical of the truth. If we may trust tradition and unpublished letters and a few witnesses in print there was quite as much difference between the actual man and his historical aspect as between the manuscript signature and the engraved one. One of his associates both in political life and permanent renown is said to have characterized him as a "man without a head or heart." We of an after generation should hardly be entitled on whatever evidence to assume such ungracious liberty with a name that has occupied a lofty position until it has grown almost sacred and which is associated with memories more sacred than itself and has thus become a valuable reality to our countrymen by the aged reverence that clusters round about it. Nevertheless it may be no impiety to regard Hancock not precisely as a real personage but as a majestic figure useful and necessary in its way but producing its effect far more by an ornamental outside than by any intrinsic force or virtue. The page of all history would be half unpeopled if all such characters were banished from it. From General Warren we have a letter dated January 14 1775 only a few months before he attested the sincerity of his patriotism in his own blood on Bunker Hill. His handwriting has many ungraceful flourishes. All the small d's spout upward in parabolic curves and descend at a considerable distance. His pen seems to have had nothing but hair-lines in it; and the whole letter though perfectly legible has a look of thin and unpleasant irregularity. The subject is a plan for securing to the colonial party the services of Colonel Gridley the engineer by an appeal to his private interests. Though writing to General Palmer an intimate friend Warren signs himself most ceremoniously "Your obedient servant." Indeed these stately formulas in winding up a letter were scarcely laid aside whatever might be the familiarity of intercourse: husband and wife were occasionally on paper at least the "obedient servants" of one another; and not improbably among well-bred people there was a corresponding ceremonial of bows and courtesies even in the deepest interior of domestic life. With all the reality that filled men's hearts and which has stamped its impress on so many of these letters it was a far more formal age than the present. It may be remarked that Warren was almost the only man eminently distinguished in the intellectual phase of the Revolution previous to the breaking out of the war who actually uplifted his arm to do battle. The legislative patriots were a distinct class from the patriots of the camp and never laid aside the gown for the sword. It was very different in the great civil war of England where the leading minds of the age when argument had done its office or left it undone put on their steel breastplates and appeared as leaders in the field. Educated young men members of the old colonial families--gentlemen as John Adams terms them--seem not to have sought employment in the Revolutionary army in such numbers as night have been expected. Respectable as the officers generally were and great as were the abilities sometimes elicited the intellect and cultivation of the country was inadequately represented in them as a body. Turning another page we find the frank of a letter from Henry Laurens President of Congress--him whose destiny it was like so many noblemen of old to pass beneath the Traitor's Gate of the Tower of London--him whose chivalrous son sacrificed as brilliant a future as any young American could have looked forward to in an obscure skirmish. Likewise we have the address of a letter to Messrs. Leroy and Bayard in the handwriting of Jefferson; too slender a material to serve as a talisman for summoning up the writer; a most unsatisfactory fragment affecting us like a glimpse of the retreating form of the sage of Monticello turning the distant corner of a street. There is a scrap from Robert Morris the financier; a letter or two from Judge Jay; and one from General Lincoln written apparently on the gallop but without any of those characteristic sparks that sometimes fly out in a hurry when all the leisure in the world would fail to elicit them. Lincoln was the type of a New England soldier; a man of fair abilities not especially of a warlike cast without much chivalry but faithful and bold and carrying a kind of decency and restraint into the wild and ruthless business of arms. From good old Baron Steuben we find not a manuscript essay on the method of arranging a battle but a commercial draft in a small neat hand as plain as print elegant without flourish except a very complicated one on the signature. On the whole the specimen is sufficiently characteristic as well of the Baron's soldierlike and German simplicity as of the polish of the Great Frederick's aide-de- camp a man of courts and of the world. How singular and picturesque an effect is produced in the array of our Revolutionary army by the intermingling of these titled personages from the Continent of Europe with feudal associations clinging about them--Steuben De Kalb Pulaski Lafayette!--the German veteran who had written from one famous battle-field to another for thirty years; and the young French noble who had come hither though yet unconscious of his high office to light the torch that should set fire to the antiquated trumpery of his native institutions. Among these autographs there is one from Lafayette written long after our Revolution but while that of his own country was in full progress. The note is merely as follows: "Enclosed you will find my dear Sir two tickets for the sittings of this day. One part of the debate will be on the Honors of the Pantheon agreeably to what has been decreed by the Constitutional Assembly." It is a pleasant and comfortable thought that we have no such classic folly as is here indicated to lay to the charge of our Revolutionary fathers. Both in their acts and in the drapery of those acts they were true to their several and simple selves and thus left nothing behind them for a fastidious taste to sneer at. But it must be considered that our Revolution did not like that of France go so deep as to disturb the common-sense of the country. General Schuyler writes a letter under date of February 22 1780 relating not to military affairs from which the prejudices of his countrymen had almost disconnected him but to the Salt Springs of Onondaga. The expression is peculiarly direct and the hand that of a man of business free and flowing. The uncertainty the vague hearsay evidence respecting these springs then gushing into dim daylight beneath the shadow of a remote wilderness is such as might now be quoted in reference to the quality of the water that supplies the fountains of the Nile. The following sentence shows us an Indian woman and her son practising their simple process in the manufacture of salt at a fire of wind-strewn boughs the flame of which gleams duskily through the arches of the forest: "From a variety of information I find the smallest quantity made by a squaw with the assistance of one boy with a kettle of about ten gallons' capacity is half a bushel per day; the greatest with the same kettle about two bushels." It is particularly interesting to find out anything as to the embryo yet stationary arts of life among the red people their manufactures their agriculture their domestic labors. It is partly the lack of this knowledge--the possession of which would establish a ground of sympathy on the part of civilized men--that makes the Indian race so shadow-like and unreal to our conception. We could not select a greater contrast to the upright and unselfish patriot whom we have just spoken of than the traitor Arnold from whom there is a brief note dated "Crown Point January 19 1775" addressed to an officer under his command. The three lines of which it consists can prove bad spelling erroneous grammar and misplaced and superfluous punctuation; but with all this complication of iniquity the ruffian General contrives to express his meaning as briefly and clearly as if the rules of correct composition had been ever so scrupulously observed. This autograph impressed with the foulest name in our history has somewhat of the interest that would attach to a document on which a fiend-devoted wretch had signed away his salvation. But there was not substance enough in the man--a mere cross between the bull-dog and the fox--to justify much feeling of any sort about him personally. The interest such as it is attaches but little to the man and far more to the circumstances amid which he acted rendering the villany almost sublime which exercised in petty affairs would only have been vulgar. We turn another leaf and find a memorial of Hamilton. It is but a letter of introduction addressed to Governor Jay in favor of Mr. Davies of Kentucky; but it gives an impression of high breeding and courtesy as little to be mistaken as if we could see the writer's manner and hear his cultivated accents while personally making one gentleman known to another. There is likewise a rare vigor of expression and pregnancy of meaning such as only a man of habitual energy of thought could have conveyed into so commonplace a thing as an introductory letter. This autograph is a graceful one with an easy and picturesque flourish beneath the signature symbolical of a courteous bow at the conclusion of the social ceremony so admirably performed. Hamilton might well be the leader and idol of the Federalists; for he was pre-eminent in all the high qualities that characterized the great men of that party and which should make even a Democrat feel proud that his country had produced such a noble old band of aristocrats; and be shared all the distrust of the people which so inevitably and so righteously brought about their ruin. With his autograph we associate that of another Federalist his friend in life; a man far narrower than Hamilton but endowed with a native vigor that caused_ many partisans to grapple to him for support; upright sternly inflexible and of a simplicity of manner that might have befitted the sturdiest republican among us. In our boyhood we used to see a thin severe figure of an ancient mail timeworn but apparently indestructible moving with a step of vigorous decay along the street and knew him as "Old Tim Pickering." Side by side too with the autograph of Hamilton we would place one from the hand that shed his blood. It is a few lines of Aaron Burr written in 1823; when all his ambitious schemes whatever they once were had been so long shattered that even the fragments had crumbled away leaving him to exert his withered energies on petty law cases to one of which the present note refers. The hand is a little tremulous with age yet small and fastidiously elegant as became a man who was in the habit of writing billet-doux on scented note-paper as well as documents of war and state. This is to us a deeply interesting autograph. Remembering what has been said of the power of Burr's personal influence his art to tempt men his might to subdue them and the fascination that enabled him though cold at heart to win the love of woman we gaze at this production of his pen as into his own inscrutable eyes seeking for the mystery of his nature. How singular that a character imperfect ruined blasted as this man's was excites a stronger interest than if it had reached the highest earthly perfection of which its original elements would admit! It is by the diabolical part of Burr's character that he produces his effect on the imagination. Had be been a better man we doubt after all whether the present age would not already have suffered him to wax dusty and fade out of sight among the mere respectable mediocrities of his own epoch. But certainly he was a strange wild offshoot to have sprung from the united stock of those two singular Christians President Burr of Princeton College and Jonathan Edwards! ...