Monday, April 7, 2014

Rebecca Gratz's Romance

I think it is always right to be skeptical when a romance is attributed to a historical figure.  But as I read  the Gratz letters and became more familiar with the period, it became clear that Rebecca was barely "historical" when the story came out.  During her lifetime no one would have published an item about the private life of a respectable, not to say, revered, woman, without her permission.  But the moment Rebecca died she became fair game.  Thanks to the internet, the earliest reference I have found to her romance as well as to the Ivanhoe connection is a brief piece in the February 1870 issue of the Australia (yes, Australia) Journal, six months after her death. The story of her love for a Christian was probably picked up from an American publication which had recently arrived by ship.  We might theorize, as some have, that the Gratz family concocted the romance or exaggerated some incident from Rebecca's youth in order to explain her lifelong single state. But that would mean they did so immediately after her funeral and then made the press contacts necessary to get the story to the other side of the world in a matter of months. It just seems more likely that the romantic tale had been in the gossip sphere, probably for decades, and burst into print as soon as it was permissible.

This doesn't mean the story is true, but because it was in circulation much earlier than expected, there is a greater likelihood that it has some factual basis than if it had first appeared long after Rebecca's death.

Once the romance was public, candidates were suggested for the Christian man whom Rebecca loved.  Washington Irving was a favorite although the Gratz family denied they were sweethearts.  (Biographical research has borne this out.)  Henry Clay was another famous man who got a mention but once again research nixed that possibility.  There was also a story that she loved a friend's younger brother and nursed him in his final illness (No signs of that  have ever been found.)

And then around the turn of the 20th century, a scion of an old Philadelphia family came forward.  Lucy Lee Ewing said that her grandfather, Samuel Ewing, had told her grandmother that Rebecca Gratz had been his first love but that they did not marry because of religious differences.  Beyond that fact she supplied some anecdotes, which seemed partial at best. For me, these sketchy secondary tales somewhat undermined  the central fact of a Ewing-Gratz love affair.  However, like most family stories, I thought, there could be a grain of truth at the center.

And so we will take a  look at Samuel Ewing and see how he shapes up as the "Christian gentleman" of Rebecca's romance.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Rebecca's Legends & Why They Are Important

Despite her pioneering efforts in religious education and charities for women and children, Rebecca Gratz's enduring popularity in the American Jewish community rests on two romantic legends.  One is her purported romance with a non-Jew, and the other concerns her possible role as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe.

Each tale is interesting enough in itself, but the two are intertwined: the real Rebecca and the one in the novel were beautiful, intelligent, compassionate Jewish women who fell in love with a Christian, did not marry him and went on to live a life of good works.  This parallel enhances the credibility of both tales.

Credibility aside, these legends are just too good to be ignored by the popular press.  From the 1870's to the present day, popular histories, newspapers and magazines have printed and reprinted the stories, despite  a dearth of documentary evidence.

However, as early as the 1950's some were questioning their veracity.  In 1954 a writer in the magazine Commentary called them "pious fables," and from then on scholars have often simply dismissed them.

Given the Gratz materials available during most of the 20th century, it was right to be cautious.  But in the last twenty years or so, more letters have become available and their content sheds some new light on the subject.

If you have read other of my blog posts, you know that in passing I have referred to Rebecca's romance as fact.  In upcoming posts,  I will be presenting the evidence for this conclusion.  I will then deal with what we know about the Ivanhoe story.

But why give these sideshows time and effort when the real story of Rebecca's life is found in her philanthropic and educational activities?  Earlier researchers tended to believe the legends were late accretions created by the Gratz family after Rebecca's death.  However, my research has uncovered evidence that by 1830 her contemporaries believed she was Rebecca in Ivanhoe.  Endowed with the charisma of everyone's favorite literary character as well as with her own, Rebecca was in an almost unassailable position to put forth the idea of a Hebrew Sunday School and make it succeed.  Other Jewish women attempted to emulate her with minor or no success.  Rebecca's special status, conferred by the romantic legends about her,  helped put the project across.  To put it crudely, "No legends, no Sunday School."  Her good works and the stories which swirled around her are both of importance.  Neither can be ignored if you wish to understand her life.

P.S.  Please take a moment to celebrate that life  on  Rebecca's 233rd birthday today.



Monday, March 4, 2013

Today Is Rebecca Gratz's 232nd Birthday

"Well-behaved women seldom make history."

One of the things I like best about Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's epigram is that qualifier "seldom."  If there is a subtext to this blog, it is that at least one well-behaved woman succeeded in changing and improving things in her corner of the world.  

Of course, Rebecca could be well-behaved because she had an unusual gift which assisted her in effecting her good works:  she was a private person (as all respectable women of the time were supposed to be) who was also a celebrity.  I hope to take up this part of Rebecca's story in the months ahead.

In the meantime, in honor of her birthday, let's raise a glass to Rebecca. 

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.)


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Art in America: Nude Statues, 1803

"Art in America would not detain an intelligent Traveller one hour....," John Davis, an English ex-sailor, wrote in a book about his journeys, published in 1803.  His pronouncement was not an unusual one among foreigners who had visited the new nation.

The socially elite young men and women of Rebecca's generation,  the first to grow up as American citizens, smarted under foreigners' criticism. In reaction they developed cultural responsibilities -- to familiarize themselves with the European artistic tradition, foster an appreciation of it in their countrymen and provide American artists with educational resources.

The New York Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1802 to promote classical art.  It began by importing casts of classical sculptures as teaching tools and to be exhibited to the public.

This exhibition was greatly anticipated by Eliza (Mary Elizabeth) Fenno, the younger sister of Rebecca's best friend, Maria Fenno Hoffman.  Eliza, who was 16 in 1803, had moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1800 with her family.  In a letter from early 1803 she demonstrates her interest in art and a delight in her adopted city:  "The growing greatness of our city would astonish you, the streets swarm with people, our commerce improves daily, and the fine arts will shortly flourish here...."

But she was to be disappointed.  In July 1803 she wrote to Rachel Gratz, Rebecca's younger sister:  "There had been lately a society formed in New York [the Academy of Fine Arts] for the encouragement of the fine arts, and they have imported from France casts of the most celebrated statues which are to be exhibited in a few days at the museum, and of course our sex are to be excluded, as it would shock their delicacy amazingly."

Eliza goes on to suggest sarcastically that only when clothes have been provided for the statues will women be allowed to see them.  But then she breaks cover and blurts, "I must tell you a secret, I have seen them all....Caty [the Fenno's servant] is very well acquainted with Mrs. Savage whose husband keeps the museum and he gave us the key of the door, but this must not be known.  My delight and astonishment you may readily imagine on viewing the copies of those statues of which I had read so many animated descriptions but they surpassed all the brilliant ideas I had formed.  The gratification experienced will last me all my life."

America had its first teenage culture vulture.

While Eliza was comfortable telling her story to Rachel, who was the Gratz sister most capable of such a caper, she did not confide in Rebecca although she also corresponded with her. She seems to have  looked upon Rebecca, who was six years older, as a paragon.  Her only mention of the statuary exhibit to her is a simple statement in a letter the following March that she had gone to see it.

Obviously the men in charge of the exhibit must have changed their minds about its suitability for women, although there were probably restrictions.  Mrs. Trollope, visiting the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1830's, was shocked that men and women viewed the statuary separately.  Perhaps that was the same solution which was offered to women by the New York Academy.

(The letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.  The title of the book by John Davis is Travels of Four and A Half Years in the United States of America.  Frances Trollope's story is in her Domestic Manners of Americans.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Joseph Gratz, the First Troop and the War of 1812

Members of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry visited the Rosenbach Museum & Library on March 4, 2012, to honor their former member Joseph Gratz.

Joseph Gratz (1785-1858), one of Rebecca's younger brothers, was what was once called a "clubbable" man; that is, he was socially adept (not boring) and thus suitable for club membership. In the course of his life Jo would join the Masons, the Athenaeum and the exclusive Philadelphia Club. He was also an officer of his synagogue, a corporate director and on the board of at least one charity -- offices which in those days must have seemed much like being in a men's club.

What might be seen as one of his first clubs was the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, which he joined in 1809, during the unsettled times leading up to the War of 1812. The First Troop, today arguably the oldest military unit in continuous service to the nation, was founded in 1774 by a group of men who already knew each other from various social clubs. It would retain its clubby atmosphere. Where most young men of Jo's social class were interested in obtaining an officer's commission, he preferred to be a private among his friends and peers.

For the first few years in which Jo was a member, the Troop carried out its usual ceremonial assignments (escorting VIPs, for example) and took on a few military duties -- for instance, guarding the arsenal in 1812 when a plot to blow it up threatened. But the War was very far away until the late summer of 1814.

On August 26th, news reached the city that Washington, DC, had been burned, and the fear that the British planned to burn Philadelphia took hold. Committee of Defense was formed to build fortifications, the militia was activated and the First Troop offered its services to Brigadier-General Joseph Bloomfield, commander of the Fourth Military District, Philadelphia.

The Gratz family responded with its characteristic good citizenship. Simon, the eldest brother and the head of the family, participated in the civilian defense effort, as did another brother Jacob. The youngest brother, Benjamin, a second lieutenant in the Washington Guards, marched with his unit to an encampment outside the city at Kennett Square. Jo would go farther afield with the First Troop.

Brigadier-General Bloomfield had immediately assigned vedette duty to the First Troop. (Vedettes, in this case, were mounted troops in outlying areas doing reconnaissance.) Capt. Charles Ross and thirty vedettes, including Jo Gratz, established their headquarters at Mount Bull, near Elkton, MD, where they had a clear view of the northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. Lookout posts were set up, patrols organized, relay stations located on the road to the city. Ross's vedettes communicated each day with the encampment at Kennett Square and with Philadelphia. In one of her letters to Jo during this period, Rebecca told him how the children in her neighborhood "watched out for the vedettes."

On September 14th, Charles Biddle, the Chairman of the city's Committee of Defense, wrote to Capt. Ross at Mount Bull that the stagecoach from Baltimore had not arrived the previous evening nor the mail packet that day. He ordered that vedettes take up positions south along the Chesapeake towards Baltimore to learn what they could of the situation there. In fact, on September 13th, the British had begun their bombardment of Fort McHenry. When news of the attack reached Philadelphia, it seemed to confirm the fears that other cities would soon fall victim to the British.

Rebecca Gratz spent this time in a state of anxiety, caring for her sister Sarah who was in the midst of a manic episode and worrying about her brothers on active duty. Nevertheless, she hoped that the family could be reunited for the High Holidays. A letter dated September 28th indicates that Jo and Ben had both been home recently, probably having been given leave for Yom Kippur on the 24th.

The military crisis ended in December when it became clear that after its failure to take Baltimore, the British fleet had sailed away (some ships to Halifax, others to Jamaica) and Philadelphia was out of danger. The First Troop returned to the city on December 12, 1814, ending its service in the War of 1812.

Jo resigned from the Troop when he reached the age of thirty in 1815, but the First Troop would remember him. In 1853, he and the other surviving participants in the Mount Bull Campaign were made honorary members for their service during the War of 1812.

Jo Gratz would be a businessman, active in civic, charitable and Jewish affairs in the city throughout his life and, as mentioned above, a very active clubman. Among his effects, after his death, was a superior wine cellar and numerous boxes of fine cigars, testament to his lifelong attachment to good living and good company.

Today the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry is part of the Pennsylvania National Guard. It has most recently deployed to Bosnia and Iraq and will again deploy in the next twelve months to an active theater of military operations.

(Information about the Troop in the War of 1812 is derived from History of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, issued by the Pennsylvania National Guard, Troop of Philadelphia Cavalry, 1875. Rebecca's letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)







































Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Happy 231st to Rebecca Gratz

Rebecca Gratz was born on March 4, 1781, six months before the Battle of Yorktown, and died during the Grant administration. She is commemorated for her good works, but today it seems fitting to honor her for her letter-writing.

Rebecca's letters begin in 1798 and end in 1866, spanning the antebellum period and the Civil War. They provide a window into the era from the perspective of an active, intelligent woman close to the center of the nation's social and political life.

This year, I lift a birthday toast to Rebecca, acknowledging her charitable and educational contributions but especially her writings. I also offer a second toast to all those who preserved her letters over two centuries and have thereby given us a wonderful cultural and historical resource for studying America during her lifetime.
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