Here to return to
I KNOW there are those who will kindly regard these reminiscences of things, trifling, it may be, in themselves, but affording a glimpse of manners perhaps already forgotten by most or all of those who were formerly more or less conversant with them, and which may prove of some interest in the future. We had spent our Thanksgiving at home, in the year 18—, but went all together to the farm of our uncle Richard, who was of the Episcopal Church, for the celebration of Christmas; for many of his persuasion, at that time, regarded “Thanksgiving” pretty much as the Highlander, in Scott’s novel, did “ta little government Sunday, tat tey call ta Fast.” He was a well-to-do farmer, at a place within easy reach of the town in which we lived, and where very few were at all rich, even according to the former moderate standard of wealth, and most people were poor, or at least depended on their daily labor for their daily bread. Those were very hard times following upon the war; and that had followed fast upon the Great Fire, which reduced to ruin almost the entire central business part of the town. Our family had suffered private losses, too, by a swindling failure on an extensive scale, — a rare incident in those days; 1 and again by the embargo and the war, most of my mother’s limited means having been invested in one vessel after another, employed in the coasting trade, and this source of income at length stopped altogether. Still, people bore up bravely against these misfortunes, and showed quite as much spirit and hardihood as in these latter times, and got along decently, after a fashion. To be sure, the proclamation of Peace, a few years before, had revived all hearts; though I heard of a washerwoman engaged in her avocation, while the bells were ringing, who, on learning the cause of jubilation, peevishly exclaimed, — “Peace! peace! what’s peace, when there’s no water?” 2 Our Thanksgiving had been a cheerful one, though colored, as such anniversaries are likely to be, with recollections of the absent, or the dead; for the memory of my father was always present to my mother, then and during a long widowhood of almost half a century, and my older brothers were at sea. My mother was an excellent housekeeper, and we had plenty of the usual belongings of the festival, so eagerly looked forward to by the young, and something to bestow upon others not so well supplied. It was the practice of some of this class to knock at the doors of those thought to be better off, on the evening before, begging “something for Thanksgiving;” and, by way of a joke, the children of comfortable neighbors and friends would often array themselves in cast-off bizarre habiliments, and come in bands of three or four to the houses of those whom they knew, preferring the same request. Ordinarily, the disguise was readily detected. Sometimes the little mimics would come in, and keep up the show and the fun for a while; but for the most part their courage failed them at the threshold, and they skurried away, shouting for glee, almost before they got any answer to their mock petitions. It was a queer fancy, thus to simulate poverty; but kings have sometimes done so. Did not James of Scotland find amusement in roaming through a portion of his domain, as a “gaberlunzieman?” Yes — and even composed a famous ballad to celebrate his exploits in this humble way. In the evening, we had a lively company, regaled with nuts, apples, and cider; and my grandmother, who indulged in the old-fashioned practice, that is for females, of smoking a pipe, sat in the chimney-corner, where a genial wood-fire was brightly blazing, for coal was then a thing unknown in family consumption, duly furnished with the implement, and sometimes called out to us, — “A-done, children, a-done,” when in anywise annoyed by us, and occasionally would sing us an old song, of which I remember only “Robert Kid” and “A galliant ship, launched off the stocks, from Old England she came,” etc.; and, often when a storm was raging without, repeating to us the rhymes, —
“How little do” (pronounced doe) “we think, or know,
What the poor sailors undergo.”
But we had a livelier time at Uncle Richard’s; for there were more of us and merrier. Of course, those of the household who could be spared from domestic duties had attended service in the morning, and some of us from the town had also appeared at church; for though our branch of the family were now Presbyterians, we remembered that our common ancestor and the company who came over with him, a couple of centuries and more before that time, were of the Church of England, only protesting against the abuses which had crept into it; and Uncle Richard carefully preserved, with the genealogy of the family on this side the water, the Orders in Council, prescribing for the passengers, by the “Mary and John,” of which my ancestor was one, then lying in the Thames, in the year 1633, amongst other regulations, the daily service to be observed on board, according to the ordinances of the Prayer Book.
No doubt the dinner was all which the domestic celebration of the festival imports, for the farm was well stocked with every description of creature, and with most other things needful for the purpose; but I may be excused if I remember none of the particulars, now that so many years have intervened. I know that Uncle Richard always prided himself upon his excellent cider, and there is little question that there was a due allowance of spirits, which most persons of fair means kept, in those days, in decanters openly ranged upon the parlor sideboard. Indeed, about the same period, while I was a student at a famous Academy not many miles distant from our own home, the English teacher, an orthodox clergyman of high repute, who cultivated a few acres of land at the place where he lived on the outskirts of the town, invited a few of the pupils, myself in the number, to assist him in making hay, one play-afternoon. The boys had a good frolic, and, after work was ended, our master treated us to milk-punch, a highly agreeable, but rather exhilarating beverage. Our uncle’s house was of the old-fashioned New England description, pleasantly facing the south, with a high-peaked roof, which descended, in the opposite quarter, to not much more than a man’s stature from the ground. In front was a spacious green yard, leading on one side to the garden for vegetables and trees of the choicer kinds of fruit, and sprinkled here and there with bunches of gay flowers; and at the entrance gate by the road two magnificent elms, of an age and height which denoted that they must have given shade to several past generations from the, summer heat, flung out drooping branches which extended a very great distance from the parent trunks. After dinner, our host entertained us with a narrative of his recent visit to the capital town of Boston, to testify, in company with a former neighbor, now resident there, in behalf of his hired man, Jasper Towne, of English birth, who having, duly and at a long term beforehand, declared his intention, in proper form, was at length, after a continuous residence of fourteen years in the United States, admitted by the Federal Court to all the rights and privileges which free citizenship could confer upon him. The scene in court my uncle thought peculiarly solemn and impressive. The candidate for the franchise was strictly questioned by the presiding justice, in open court, with regard to his origin and his past life. The witnesses were subjected to a similar scrutiny as to his character and habits, and their judgment of his fitness for the responsible position and the new duties he was about to assume. When this part of the transaction was completed, the oaths of renunciation of allegiance to every foreign power, prince, or potentate whatsoever, and the oath to support the Constitution of the United States were administered to him by the clerk in a manner to fix it in his mind that it was a very serious business, indeed, in which he had just been engaged. Thereupon, the judge addressed him in language of congratulation and counsel, and our newly-made fellow-countryman respectfully departed from the tribunal, conscious that he had attained no mean privilege and had secured a safeguard, like that, by the declaration of which the Apostle of the Gentiles stayed the uplifted hands of his persecutors, and caused them to tremble at the thought of misuse or degradation inflicted upon a Roman citizen. Now, I believe, whatever is left of the ceremony upon such occasions is slurred over in a clerk’s office, or the part performed in court scarcely attracts the attention of the magistrate upon the bench. The moral of this change of practice may be left to the reflection of the judicious reader. But it was something then to be, or to be made an American citizen.
Not long before this, there had been an earthquake, which, though of brief duration, had caused no little alarm, — a terrific sound always, however slight the shock, — and in this instance making houses tremble and shaking down various articles from their places of deposit. In the early days of the colony, these phenomena were not uncommon, and are said to have been of no little power in this part of New England. Uncle Richard described the recent one as rumbling under the frozen ground leading to his barns, as if a line of heavily-loaded wagons had rolled over it. Being something of a philosopher, and better educated than usual at the time, he explained the cause of such physical occurrences to us young ones.
“The fact is,” he said, “the water in certain parts of the earth becomes intensely heated and lets off a quantity of steam of amazing expansive power. It is like a tea-kettle, which if you shut the nozzle tight, may either throw off the lid with great force, or the kettle itself bursts with the strain upon it. So the steam, under the earth, heated by central fires, and gaining immense volume and power, seeks the hollows in its neighborhood, and rushes into them with a force which produces the concussion and the rumbling sound; and the shaking of the surface which we perceive is really like the commotion in the tea-kettle and the trembling of the vessel when the steam has no vent. It is an awful thought that we thus live over the action of these subterranean fires; but they are in the control of the Almighty, and all we have to do is to submit to God’s will and merciful providence.”
St. Paul’s Church, of which Uncle Richard was a vestryman, owed its origin to the separation of certain persons from the Congregational mode of worship, and the formation of a society for the resumption of the Protestant Episcopal pattern, as long ago as the year 1712. Their place of worship they named Queen Anne’s Chapel, 3 in honor of the sovereign “at home,” the last of the direct Stuart line, whose royal person, it is said, having grown too unwieldy to permit horseback exercise, she was in the habit of following the hunt, of which she was passionately fond, driving herself, helter-skelter, in a one-horse chaise. She has the credit of having bestowed some endowment upon the Chapel, and the Bishop of London presented it with a bell; which, if all accounts be true, still hangs in the steeple of a congregational meeting-house within the precinct of the “Plains,” where the Chapel once stood. For that edifice, probably not having been very substantially built, and being situated on a barren tract of land, afterwards known as “Grasshopper Plains,” and, for the convenience of the scattered parishioners, placed at a distance from every one of them, and hence subject to various causes of dilapidation, especially when St. Paul’s, within the town, was in process of construction, at length fell to ruin; and the bell was carried privately away — so runs the tale — and was long buried in the ground, but has now for many years summoned the people to a style of worship which would have appealed in vain to the good Bishop of London for any such donation. It may be supposed that it could not be identified, after its interment, and perhaps the obliteration, naturally or otherwise, of its peculiar marks; or the successors of Queen Anne’s at St. Paul’s, built about thirty years after the former, would have reclaimed their property.
The motives of those who thus revived the relation of their ancestors with the Established Church were not altogether pious; but the fact incontestibly proves, that after nearly a century of separation from that establishment, the objections to it, in the minds of many of the children of the colonists, were by no means insurmountable. Indeed, it was about a question of parish taxation that they differed with their co-religionists. The place selected for the meeting-house was so far distant from the homes of many of the parish, that they could not attend without great inconvenience, and yet they were required to pay the parish rates for the support of the minister. They remonstrated and appealed in vain to the civil authorities in the colony and to those in England, for relief; for the law was clearly against them, unless they chose to conform to the doctrines and discipline of the Established Church. Finding nothing in the Thirty-nine Articles inconsistent with the faith they professed, they easily reconciled themselves to the ceremonies, and thus succeeded in their object of removing from their shoulders an involuntary burden.
1 When a trader failed, as was rarely the case at that primitive period, his sign was taken down at night, to the wonder of the public in the morning, and he remained fast locked from the sheriff, or too inquisitive callers, in his house, until the disposition of his creditors became known, — dependent upon their confidence in his good intentions, or their sympathy with his unexpected misfortunes.
2 An anecdote quite parallel to this is to be found in the now late lamented Dean Ramsay’s “Reminiscences.” He relates, as a specimen of the cool Scottish matter-of-fact view of things, the following communication of a correspondent:
“The back windows of the house where he was brought up looked upon the Greyfriars’ Church that was burned down. On the Sunday morning in which that event took place, as they were all preparing to go to church, the flames began to burst forth; the young people screamed from the back part of the house, ‘A fire! a fire!’ and all was in a state of confusion and alarm. The housemaid was not at home, it being her turn for the Sunday ‘out.’ Kitty, the cook, was taking her place, and performing her duties. The old woman was always very particular on the subject of her responsibility on such occasions, and came panting and hobbling up stairs from the lower regions, and exclaimed, ‘Oh what is’t, what is’t?’ ‘O, Kitty, look here, the Greyfriars’ Church is on fire!’ Is that a’, Miss? What a fright ye geed me! I thought ye said the parlor fire was out.’”
3 It was, I believe, the oldest Episcopal Church in Massachusetts, with the exception of King’s Chapel, in Boston, a small wooden structure, which stood upon the place where the stone edifice of that name is now situated.