though past, is present, and essential
to understanding the American future ...
  • If slavery was a neutral thing for most colonials and early Americans, the Founding Fathers are on record with a position. On the one end Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were against it; in the middle Thomas Jefferson, while believing that enslaved blacks should be free, also believed they were inferior — and never found a way to divorce himself and his way of life from his Monticello plantation and his little mountain of slavery.


    There is a more nuanced middle inhabited by James Madison — slave-owner, political philosopher and practical repositioner, three-fifths-er, and Father of the Constitution — who truly believed that Africans were equal to whites yet never found a way to let go of the peculiar institution enjoyed by the South. See Noah Feldman on James Madison’s Lessons in Racism (29-Oct-2017) for a look at Madison and his evolving political positions vs. his unchanging personal one.

  • A team performing restoration of the wine-cellar at Liberty Hall Museum recently uncovered wine dating back to 1796. During a six-month renovation, three crates and 42 large casks — demijohns — were discovered, including bottles labeled Robert Lenox of Philadelphia 1796. See ABC News (11-Jul-2017).

» more »

On a trip to Lexington and Concord last Fall, a bit disoriented about how to get to the next historical site — back and forth on the one road several times in the car — I finally found the wonderfully converted mansion of the North Bridge Visitor Center far from the parking lot. On a clear warm day I walked the dirt path from the back of the mansion, down the still green hill, looping round and with yellow/gold leaves falling, to the famous, albeit rebuilt, bridge crossing the Concord River.

North Bridge

Following the first skirmish at Lexington on 19 April 1775, this was where approximately 100 British Regulars met Captain James Barrett and his Concord militia, reinforced by neighboring militias that totaled 400 men, to engage in a battle that left five dead and at least a 17 wounded. As Ralph Waldo Emerson memorably put it, it was the shot heard ’round the world.

Very nice to see it. Very nice to get a sense of the geography. Seeing it reset my imagination. And yet ...

About a quarter mile away, and not really on my list of American Revolution sites, was the Old Manse, built in 1770. And so why not? I walked over.

So named because Nathaniel Hawthorne inhabited it and there wrote most of the stories in his second collection of tales, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), the house is living history. Wood, paint, landscaping have no doubt changed many times. But the foundation, supporting (wood) beams, placement of the windows, room size and function, fireplace, and more, are all intact. History; but now. A thing not recreated but actually existing during the Battle of Lexington / Concord.

The Old Manse

Built in 1770, the Georgian clapboard two-story house was built for William Emerson (1743 - 76), a Unitarian minister, and his family. Reverend Emerson served as chaplain to the Provincial Congress when it met at Concord in 1774 and was chaplain to the Continental Army. On Wednesday morning, 19 April 1775, at least some of the family — maybe all — were at the house and would have witnessed the militia falling back from Concord town to the other side of the North Bridge (a quarter mile away). About 9:30 there was the sound of musket fire; three Regulars and two militia men lay dead; more than a dozen British and four Americans were wounded.

William Emerson, Jr. (1769 - 1811), the only son of the Reverend and Phebe Emerson, was almost six at the time — so he certainly would have remembered the event and grown up celebrating it. He too became a Unitarian minister, a prominent one, and he certainly shared the experience with his own son, Ralph Waldo (1803 - 82), the future essayist, poet, and lecturer. After all, the shot heard ’round the world is from Emerson’s poem, Concord Hymn, sung by the assembled townspeople on 4 July 1837 at the dedication of the monument standing east of the Concord River, townward, on the shore of the no-longer-existing North Bridge.

Monument with North Bridge, c. 1910

After the untimely death of William, Sr. (at age 33 from camp fever while returning from Fort Ticonderoga), Phebe remarried and the Emerson house became the property of her husband, Reverend Ezra Ripley (1751 - 1841). He was the step-grandfather that Ralph Waldo Emerson knew, and he stayed with him while writing his founding transcendentalist work, Nature, published in 1836.

Windowpane inscribed by the Hawthornes

On 9 July 1842 Nathaniel Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody in Boston and moved into the Emerson/Ripley house the same day. Emerson, not yet quite sure of Hawthorne’s talent, nevertheless had arranged to have it rented to him for $100 a year. As a wedding gift, Henry David Thoreau (prior to his two years at Walden Pond) planted an extensive vegetable garden for the couple. A delighted Sophia cataloged the bounty in August: peas, beans, beets, turnips, parsnips, carrots, cabbages, corn, and tomatoes.

Despite the dark themes in much of Hawthorne’s work, the newlyweds were extraordinarily happy during their three years at the Manse. One can still see the desk that Hawthorne used in the second-floor study, day-lit by the original windowpanes. One day in 1843 the couple used Sophia’s diamond wedding ring to take turns etching into one of them. In small but very clear script Sophia scratched —

Man’s accidents are God's purposes.
Sophia A Hawthorne 1843

To which her husband responded, as if permanently marking his turf —

Nathl Hawthorne
This is his study

Sophia next wrote this —

The smallest twig
Leans clear against the sky.

Hawthorne clarified —

Composed by my wife,
and written with her dia-

But not to be outdone (after all the ring was hers) Sophia closed their alternating playfulness with —

Inscribed by my
husband at sunset
April 3d 1843
In the gold light — S.A.H.

In tactile ways such as this, years overlap and history becomes layered with human patterns we try to discern. Events of global consequence mix with personal — trifling — things which can mean so much.


George Washington ordered his overseers to begin the 1767 wheat harvest on June 24, a hot, cloudy Saturday at the end of a dry week. Thus began twenty days of unrelenting exertion for Mount Vernon’s slaves and no little anxiety for their master, who for the first time had given over his holding almost entirely to the cultivation of grain. Much depended on the success of this experiment, which was a crucial element in Washington’s scheme to free himself of the debts he had accumulated over the years of failing to produce tobacco that would sell on London’s finicky market. Rich as he was in land, he feared that, like so many of his fellow planters, he too would become permanently dependent on his English merchant creditors. It was a fate he dreaded above all, for to suffer it meant that he would lose the essence of a gentleman’s character, independence, and with it the capacity to behave in a truly virtuous way.

Fred Anderson
Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 - 1766 (2000)