1837: “Cousin John” to Mary Cogswell Daveis

The author of this fascinating letter did not sign his name but referred to himself as “cousin John” and seems to have been from, or near, Portland, Maine, where he either grew up with or regularly visited his cousins. I thought at first it was John Taylor Gilman Emery — the son of Judge Nicholas Emery (1776-1861) and his wife, Ann Taylor Gilman (1773-1860) but there are troubling inconsistencies in the facts that cast doubt on his identity. More research is needed.

The letter was written to 16 year-old Mary (“Molly”) Cogswell Daveis (1820-1909), the daughter of Charles Stewart Daveis (1787-1865) and Elizabeth Taylor Gilman (1788-1860). In 1842, Molly married Rev. David Greene Haskins (1818-1896), a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s who would one day author a biography on the famous American poet. Molly’s grandfather was John Taylor Gilman (1753-1828), a governor of New Hampshire for 14 years.

Molly’s father, the Hon. Charles S. Daveis played a key role in securing peace in the Maine boundary dispute between the United States and Canada. Gov. Kent of Maine said of him: “I think I can confidently say that no agent or envoy ever labored more diligently or more intelligently or efficiently than he did during that warm summer of 1838…. By his earnest persuasions, he induced both Mr. Webster (on the 4th of July) and Mr. Buchanan, and others, to espouse our cause distinctly and earnestly, in strong speeches. He alone brought the whole question out of its narrow locality in the State into a national matter, regarded as one of interest to the whole country, involving questions of peace and war, which were fast becoming imminent and perilous…. I have always believed that Maine owed more to him than to any other man in thus bringing the whole subject before the nation and compelling action.” In a letter addressed to Mr. Daveis, under date of July 15, 1838, Gov. Kent says: ” You have breathed into them the breath of life, and have done more to advance our cause, and place this matter on its true basis, and bring the administration to a right position, than any other man has ever done. I am more than satisfied; I am delighted, not more with the success than with the skill and indefatigable and persevering and able manner in which you have presented and enforced our right.”

The letter contains an excellent description of a visit to Washington D. C. in 1837 to hear a landmark case before the U. S. Supreme Court and in particular to hear the arguments of Daniel Wedster who represented the defense. There are references to N. P. Willis and Santa Anna in the letter as well.

1837 Letter

1837 Letter

Addressed to Charles S. Daveis, Esq., Counsellor at Law, Portland, Maine
For Mary C. Daveis

January 25, 1837

My dear Cousin Molly,

You are a dear girl for the pleasure you have again given me by a letter which came to me as unexpectedly as if it had fallen from the skies. Just as I was settling off for Washington, already mounted on my little pony, one of my little boys came running with it, showing by his manner as usual that he had a pleasure for me, for they soon learned what value I set upon them, & see to take pleasure in suspending it for a while to enjoy my lighted expression at the sight. As the envelope was removed, I was not a little puzzled to tell how it came, but have since my return from Washington discovered. My ride was one of the pleasantest I have taken, the [weather] reminding me of home weather, and occasionally causing a stirring incident on the way.

The last storm has been a most tempestuous one, and in the woods the snow lay much drifted, so that now & then I had serious apprehensions lest horse & rider would have to wait for a thaw to get through, But what amused me most was the great glee of all I met, boys women and men, at the sight of good sleighing, so rare a spectacle to these parts. I was in too good humor even to be put out by a saucy little fellow who made me his mark for a snow ball, and hit it too on the head. Indeed it brought pleasantly to mind the time when we made many an unlucky traveler, or passer by, carry away with him the round white signet of our true marksmanship in old academy days for dear sport though we sometimes had to pay in blue what we had given in white.

The fashion of the sleighs here would amuse you. They make them of every sort of material your fancy would suggest as capable of bearing runners — from a kind of twig network, or straw, to a little wooden tub. Sometimes a common sled is tacked up on a small wooden box, anything that will run and carry. I met quantities of sleighing parties, all in high glee, generally with four horses and double sleighs. For my own part, I enjoyed the jingle of the bells, & the sight of their merriment far more than I should to have been one of the party.

Daniel Webster (ca. 1834)

Daniel Webster (ca. 1834)

As you will observe, I have taken quite a vacation in Washington which I am able to do without seriously impinging upon my school hours, so conveniently have they been arranged. On Monday I hoped to have heard Mr. [Simon] Greenleaf in the Warren Bridge Case,¹ but arrived too late to hear more than the closing sentence. He made a very leaned plea, but not one of his best efforts, I am told. Mr. [John] Davis of Boston — Senator — followed him with a long and fusible argument on the same side for the defendant (i.e., Warren Bridge versus Charles River) and on Tuesday Mr. [Daniel] Webster rose and if a shower of fire had fallen, my convictions melted away before his convincing logic. He reasons with irresistible power, and difficulties seem to vanish before him like illusions of the fancy. He is the Senior Counsel for the plaintiff, and as like Greenleaf informs me, is laying himself out for a very great effort. I listened to him with intense interest and could not refrain in giving you some specimens of his argument, were it not that it will probably appear in print. He spoke four hours also today and yet has not finished but I felt so bound to come home and report myself as my two days absence might make the people anxious lest I had absconded volens aut nalens. But I am too much interested not to return tomorrow again, & shall try to carry some of the family up with me to hear some of this rare eloquence. There were passages in his speech which were truly splendid — fixing the attentive gaze of a corded audience & forced to the very seat of conviction by his thundering voice, and flashing eye. He must get his case it seems to me — versus Free Bridge.

Santa Anna

Santa Anna

I wish you could be here to admire the magnificent rooms of the Capitol and all its paraphernalia. The ladies are provided with the best accommodations for attending both houses of Congress as well as the Supreme Court. The Court room was crowded today with gaudy dresses and bonnets and many beautiful faces. I suppose you want to hear about Santa Anna. He and Nathaniel Parker Willis & Lady ² are the Lions of the City at present. The former [Santa Anna] ³ living at a common boarding house where he receives some visitors, but avoids it, I am told, when he can. A party of ladies went up to Alexandria to call upon him but found it very hard to get admitted. He desires them very sagaciously to call on Sunday, as his only day for seeing company between 11 and 1, the hours for church, as I am informed. He seldom makes his appearance in public, afraid I imagine of the threatened bullets. I understand from good authority, I believe, that a man went to a lecture room recently at which it was rumored he was to be present prepared with pistols to shoot him. I hope for the honor of the country it was only rumor, so disgraceful it must be, to shoot even the vilest man that comes to us as a guest. The punishment of the ruffian would not free us from the stain upon our honor and national hospitality.

Michigan was admitted [into the Union] today by the lower House, by a majority of 240 to 50 — this by way of news from Congress.

Thank Cousin Anna Emery for her long and exceedingly welcome letter just received. I shall answer it soon.

The Miss Longfellow you speak of I am but slightly acquainted with. I am glad you have so good an opinion of her, and doubt not she deserves it largely. How do you like Peter O. G. who I hear is one of your popular beaus nowadays? He is a fine fellow, I believe, from my little knowledge of him. Now Molly, I must in conscience give rest to my eyelids as it is near twelve o’clock & they have not closed for sleep till morning these three nights. But I must tell you first of the very beautiful and singular phenomena we observed in the Heavens this eve — a crimson bow extending from the Northwest to East, varying incessantly in brightness and the direction of its meteoric streams resembling the northern lights, but far more brilliant and a very deep red. We account for it variously as I think reflection from the sun, others fire, but it disappeared in half an hour, beginning long after dark.†

Thursday morning. Not a very propitious day but I must ride over to Washington to hear Webster close his argument. Ten miles seems no more to me now than three did at first to Alexandria but as I have not been able to dine the last three days and the wind blows pretty chill, few orators would draw me out but Webster.

I am glad to hear of your little party which must have been a very pleasant one. Hope you will tell me more about it. You might to keep me informed of all these little events by a sort of letter diary which you might easily keep, adding a little very day till a sheet is filled. How pleasant it must be to you to have Neddy at home. What do you amuse yourselves with now a days? I sometimes wish for a game of backgammon or chess with one of you, but battle dove is the only game admitted within our domain excepting cup and ball. Miss Cleveland and I play when the weather keeps us in from outdoor amusements & find it very good exercise. As for skating, tell Neddy I have entirely given it up. No game but snow birds will come to me, and it is altogether too troublesome to go after them — these little creatures come close to the door step in large numbers, round fat little fellows, but I cannot abuse the confidence they alone seem to place in us.

In the Spring we have whippoorwill in abundance. I am longing to hear their midnight carols as well as the mocking bird (European Nightingale) whose song is so famed. This is not precisely the same with the Nightingale of Europe, but very nearly resembling it, and Wilson says is a superior songster — beginning after the other birds have gone to rest and keeping up its notes till morning. The only music we have now is cock crowing and I am impatient for a change in the choir. Do read the life of [Alexander] Wilson in [Jared] Sparks American Biography. You will be much interested in it.

As for the German Reader, dear Molly, you may be sure I should not object to the disposition you made of it and hope you will always take any of my books you want for any purpose. Shall you not read German with Miss Crowninshield? It will be an excellent opportunity for you. You will find her a very agreeable neighbor and a capital teacher she must be, I doubt not.

My love to Eliza Potter. When is Dr. G. to be married? What a fortunate escape Dr. Cummins had! Thank you for the interesting extract from Mr. ____’s letter. You must answer Miss Anna’s letter. As for Gilly, I don’t believe he will go to Chicago. He will find some more civilized attractions before the time comes, I have no doubt. ____ we would all have him choose the place best calculated to give him success in his profession. No object could compare with this in importance and the West is oping an attractive field to young men of enterprise. Perhaps he will settle near Buffalo. No news from Sarah or Henry. An attempt was made the other eve to rob the express mail but without success. No news about the Whites. They are not yet liberated.

Best love to your dear Mother — and Father — and Neddy — and Anna. I think of you all a great deal & long to meet you again in your little parlor.

No news in Oakwood. Weather not cold but chilly. Spring will soon be here and will be greeted by me more gladly than your affectionate cousin John who longs to see his dearly loved Molly and to be with his own friends again. Do write soon and ask Neddy to also.

I hope you will excuse this hurried letter, dear Molly. I would not send such a scribble but time & circumstances have obliged me to be in a great hurry and you must take the will for the deed.

Love to Cousin Theresa. Am glad she is settled in her new house at last. Tell Ma I have sent her a letter which she will receive about the time this reaches you, it it does not miscarry.

¹ The substance of the case was this: In 1785, the Charles River Bridge Company had been granted a charter to construct a bridge over the Charles River connecting Boston and Cambridge. When the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sanctioned another company to build the Warren Bridge, chartered 1828, that would be very close in proximity to the first bridge and would connect the same two cities, the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge claimed that the Massachusetts legislature had broken its contract with the Charles River Bridge Company, and thus the contract had been violated. The owners of the first bridge claimed that the charter had implied exclusive rights to the Charles River Bridge Company. The Court ultimately sided with Warren Bridge. This decision was received with mixed opinions, and had some impact on the remainder of Taney’s tenure as Chief Justice. [Wikipedia]

Warren Dutton and Daniel Webster represented the Charles River Bridge Company; Simon Greenleaf, a Harvard Law School professor, and John Davis, a Whig senator, represented Warren Bridge Company. Though the author of this letter praises Webster’s arguments for the plaintiff, other observers reported that Webster rambled and repeated himself to no point, never quite putting his heart into the effort because he knew the sentiments of the court had shifted away from protecting “private interests” to protecting “common interests” of the people. As Webster himself predicted, the case was decided in favor of the Warren Bridge Company.

An article submitted by a correspondent to the Commercial Advertiser in New York City attended the Supreme Court proceedings on the same day that John T. G. Emery did: His report reads as follows:

Washington, January 24. Today the supreme court was the great scene of attraction at the capitol. Mr. Webster was expected to speak; and at an early hour all the seats within and without the bar, except those occupied by the counsel engaged in the cause, were filled with ladies, whose beauty and splendid attire and waving plumes, gave to the court room an animated and brilliant appearance, such as seldom wears. By the bye, this chamber presents just now, in itself, a better look than it ever did before. A great deal of furniture is new; the carpets are rush and beautiful; the desks and chairs of the judges of a pattern unsurpassed for beauty and convenience, and the whole appointments of the room, in short in excellent taste. The whole court was present. The cause was the Charles River Bridge, plaintiff in error, versus Warren Bridge. Mr. Davis made a very powerful argument  in behalf of the defendants in error. Mr. Webster followed him in a speech, which is generally spoken of as a most masterly effort of argument and ingenuity. I only heard a portion of it. He was describing the localities of the bridges. I never heard or read any description more clear or accurate. Paining could not have conveyed a better idea of the places to the mind of the spectator than this picturesque description did to his auditors. I envied the dashing young belles of the metropolis their privilege of hearing Mr. Webster throughout; though I doubt not their looks distracted the attention of many a man who went to listen to him.

² Nathaniel Parker Wills returned to the United States from Europe in 1837 with his new wife, the former Mary Stace, daughter of General William Stace of Woolwich. They settled soon afterward on a small estate Willis called “Glenmary” near the mouth of Owego Creek in Tioga County, New York.

³ Antonio López de Santa Anna, Mexico’s president, had been captured at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. After Santa Anna spent several months as a prisoner of war, the Republic of Texas government sent him to Washington to meet with U.S. President Andrew Jackson. The party–Juan Almonte, a Mexican Army colonel, served as Santa Anna’s translator, while Bee, Hockley, and Patton served as Republic of Texas diplomats–journeyed overland through the United States, reaching Washington on January 18, 1837. Santa Anna and Almonte spent several days in the city before returning to Vera Cruz, Mexico, on February 21, 1837.

† The phenomena John T. G. Emery described is referred to as the “Aurora of January 25, 1837.”

In a work entitled “Modern Phenomena of the Heavens” are two accounts of the wonderful fiery aurora of Jan. 25, 1837. The first reads: “Another instance of this phenomenon was extensively witnessed in this country [America] early in the evening of Jan. 25, 1837, when, as described by many, the very heavens, for a short time, seemed to be on fire, and when the snow upon the ground much resembled blood and fire, which was so alarming in appearance as to cause the solemn inquiry with some who were out at the time, if the day of judgment had come, and also to cause the animals to tremble with fear. In one place, near a mountain, the people informed me that on the snow there was the appearance of ‘waves of fire rolling down the mountain.’“

The second statement from the above work is respecting the aurora of Jan. 25, 1837, as it appeared in the state of Massachusetts: “A clergyman of Massachusetts gave me the following account of the same phenomenon, as he and others witnessed it in one of the towns of Cape Cod, in that state.

He was sitting with another minister in the pulpit, who had just commenced a discourse on the subject of the final judgment to a crowded audience of a protracted meeting, when suddenly, through the windows, the whole house was filled with a most vivid and fiery light, so alarming in its appearance that several of the audience shrieked aloud. All was disorder and commotion. Many rushed for the doors, and all prospect for further worship, for the time, seemed to be lost, till one from without, perceiving the consternation within, forced his way through the astonished crowd, up to the desk, with an account of the aurora phenomenon, just witnessed by those out-of-doors. Then this clergyman, as he said, called attention, and informed the audience that they had ‘more cause for admiration than alarm, and that the appearance they had just witnessed was but a beautiful and unusually splendid exhibition of the aurora borealis, which the Lord had been giving them.’“

A friend has kindly furnished a picture of the house and the snowy hillside at Victor, Ontario Co., N. Y., where both the friend and the writer witnessed the fiery display just described.

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