Over the winter, AAS reader Jeanne McDougall spent some time with our Isaiah Thomas manuscript collection. While searching through the correspondence, she stumbled upon a letter from Hannah Weld to her daughter Mary Weld, who married Isaiah Thomas Jr. Below, Jeanne describes her encounter with Hannah and Mary. Jeanne’s experience certainly demonstrates the serendipitous nature of manuscript research!
Jeanne McDougall’s post will be featured in three parts. Stayed tuned the next two Mondays to read the continuing saga!
I love Hannah Weld. Here’s why.
Not surprisingly, for those of us working on the late colonial/early Republic periods, the vast majority of paper we push was first pushed by men. We know so much more today about the lives of women in the early Republic, thanks to recent generations of scholarship that have famously given us good wives and nasty wenches, tale-telling midwives and Republican mothers. And when you find one amid the columns of calculations and mountains of man-talk, you pause.
That’s what happened when I reached Box 1, folder 9 of the Thomas family collection. The letter on the desk wasn’t handsome or imposing, but small and unassuming, nor the handwriting florid and expansive, but tiny, even cramped, as if to conserve the precious paper, yet revealing a boundless warmth from its salutation, “My Belovd Child,” to its signature, “Your affectnate parent Hannah Weld.”
I wasn’t even supposed to meet Hannah, as my search period ends at 1794. But Hannah could not have written to her married daughter in Worcester, Massachusetts on “February the 21st 1788,” as the letter indicates, because Isaiah Thomas Jr. didn’t marry Mary Weld until May 4, 1797, at the Hollis Street Church in Boston. A physical impossibility. Perhaps in haste, or a moment of absent-mindedness, Hannah misdated her letter, and for reasons that would eventually become clear, it may be that she wrote “88” when she intended “99.” But however it happened, in an irony of the sort that often occurs in archival work, without that numerical error more than two centuries ago, we might never have met.
It would be easy to dismiss Hannah Church Weld’s late-winter missive of motherly advice on the basis of what we would call its lack of literacy – the erratic spelling, the frequent disregard of elementary grammar, the relentless absence of punctuation. That would be a mistake. At age 55 or 66, depending on the correct date of the letter, Boston-born Hannah would presumably have been able to read well enough to understand her Bible, and written sufficiently well to run a household including her successful Boston merchant husband and seven children. But coming from a prominent Boston family with a lineage dating back, through her father’s mother, Martha Burton Church, to the Mayflower, and patrilineally to the first generation at Plymouth Colony, she may have been able to do quite a bit more. Younger brother Benjamin received the best education available to a young man of his time, graduating from Boston Latin School and Harvard College, and continuing his medical training in London before being the first man named the equivalent of surgeon general in the U.S. Army, a career that ended with his dramatic 1775 conviction, at the dawn of the American Revolution, of having passed information to General Gage.
Hannah’s connections to the world of printing and publication also predate her daughter’s marriage to the scion of the Thomas family. Her sister Alice married John Fleeming, one of the publishers of the loyalist newspaper the Boston Chronicle, in 1770, the same year the paper ceased operations after its offices had been attacked by an angry readership the previous October. Hannah’s second cousin, the Rev. Ezra Waldo Weld, joined Isaiah Thomas Sr.’s publishing network in 1788, founding with him the Hampshire Gazette, and her daughter Hermione, Mary’s younger sister, married Thomas’ Boston business partner, Ebenezer Andrews, in 1791, several years before the families were further united through the marriage of two more of their children, Mary and Isaiah Jr.
Nor was Hannah the first author in her family. Brother Benjamin kept a commonplace book while at Harvard, honing the satiric and rhetorical skills that would make him “one of the most feared political propagandists on the Revolutionary scene,” one for whom Paul Revere and fellow Whigs harbored suspicions but nevertheless “courted;” during those same college years, he also produced “a landmark poem in colonial American literature” entitled “The Choice,” inspired by the 1700 John Pomfret poem of the same name yet transcending the original in a way that helped “define those poetic qualities which may be labeled ‘American’ … eager to satisfy the poetic demands of the mother country, but … equally eager to assert its own individuality.” And even long before her own generation, Hannah’s great-grandfather, the Benjamin Church who captured Metacomet, the native leader known to the Puritans as “King Philip” in the war that bore the same name, chronicled that event in his 1716 publication, Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War.
So writing was in Hannah’s genes, as she composed entertaining passages of her own during the first generation of republican grandmotherhood, passages made possible for one of her sex by her birth into a world of privilege, and which must stand in for so many other women who were denied, by so many reasons so distressingly familiar to anyone who considers the excluded, the means to tell us stories of their own.
Whatever education had been available to her, and whatever discipline she could have developed from it, Hannah had a method of her own. “Misspelled” words are done so consistently. The regular lack of apostrophes for contractions, or the more commonly dropped “e’s” from “-ed,” could suggest a deliberate decision. And if Hannah chose to use the archaic “j” interchangeably with “I,” then perhaps it was a question of tone or style, rather than literacy. Whatever the explanations, this letter is the work of a literate person, in all but the most literal sense of the word.
Next week, Jeanne will provide some excerpts from the letter, and explore Hannah and Mary’s relationship.
Jeanne Eller McDougall is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Southern California, writing a dissertation entitled, “‘Fit to be sung in Streets:’ the mobilizing power of political song in pre-revolutionary British Colonial North America, 1750-1776.” She is a USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Fellow and a Michael J. Connell Foundation Fellow at the Huntington Library for 2011-2012.