The Way it Was – May 5, 1851

United States Capitol 19th century before being enlarged after 1850.

In anticipation of the arrival of four sisters, distant cousins brought together by the Internet and convening soon at my house, I began to scramble around looking for family memorabilia to share with them.  In the process, I came across a cherished letter from long ago.  I sat down to reread it and saw the date, May 5, 1851.  After reading it and noticing the coincidence of the dates, I knew I wanted to share it.

These days we are so filled with despair and disappointment. Every day brings another blow to democracy.  Integrity, happiness and a sense of well-being are at an all-time low.  It wasn’t always this way!  Read on!

The writer of the letter was George Bryant from Paris and Oxford, Maine.  He was born in 1830.

George Bryant with his quill pen.

His great-grandparents had settled in Maine, still part of Massachusetts, soon after the Revolution with several families making the trek to the District of Maine from Plymouth County, Massachusetts.  They cleared the fields and built their houses; the hardest days were over and twenty-year-old George was in Virginia, having traveled to Washington by train from Boston.  He had wonderful penmanship; you could call him a calligrapher, and it was said that he wished to write calling cards for the senators.  I have no knowledge that he did.  He called himself a teacher of chirography or penmanship.

This is one of two pages of his handwriting that survive. On one he practiced.

The year was 1851 and he wrote a letter to his grandfather, Arodus Bryant, back home on a hillside in Paris, Maine.  What follows in the letter is his account of the trip.  The excitement and the patriotism he felt as he saw the nation’s Capitol for the first time are almost palpable.  The letter was saved and a copy miraculously came to me from another descendant in New Jersey, also an Internet acquaintance.

 

Dear Grandfather,

   Thinking that a letter from “Old Virginia” might interest you while sunning yourself by those front windows, I have resolved to write you one and give you a short account of my travels thus far and to describe to some extent the manner and customs of these people here.  Yet I hope to give you a more detailed and interesting account when I return home as this must necessarily be very limited and superficial.

    I intend to make you a long visit of one week when I get back in order to make up for what I have lost.  I as much intended to make you a visit while at home, as one could, but the day appointed was stormy and the only day I could before starting if I went at the time agreed upon.

    I will give you a line about my journey. 

    We started from Boston at 1 o’clock in the morning with an excursion party bound or Washington.  The tickets were for the whole trip to Washington and back so I had to buy a ticket for the trip at risk of not being able to sell the back half, which it was my good luck to do before I got to New York.

    We arrived at New York about 1 o’clock in the afternoon and could have gone to Philadelphia that night if our tickets had been on this route so we were obliged to stop until the next day at noon. We then started for Philadelphia and arrived there at 5:00 P.M. and after waiting three or four hours, we took the cars for Baltimore and after riding all night we arrived there about 5 in the morning.  We then took the cars for Washington and in less than 2 hours we were in the City of Washington.

    And according to the nature of all Americans, the first thing to look for was the magnificent building known the world over as the CAPITOL OF THE UNITED STATES.  As we got out of the depot behold, there it stood, a most magnificent edifice upon a rise of ground not more than 40 rods from the depot.

    Without further ceremony and with hurried step we all rushed up the avenue which led to its entrance and, after ascending many stone steps, more noble than I ever before imagined, we came to the long anticipated spot.  And here we beheld architecture approximating as near to perfection, seemingly, as art or science ever can produce.  But with this we were not satisfied.  We longed to see the great men and renowned patriots of the ages, but this session hour being at the late hour of 12, we spent our time exploring the building and examining the (illegible word) connected with it.

   These alone are enough to interest one for days.  At length the session hour drew nigh and we all repaired to the House and Senate galleries.  You can scarcely imagine our feeling of sublimity as we mused upon the scene. 

We were in the far-famed apartment that for many years has thundered with a nation’s eloquence and poured forth a nation’s sentiments: here too the courts transpire which fill the public print throughout the land stimulating every mind from the school-boy to the gray-haired veteran, and here is, where men have gained a distinction that shall render their names immortal and mingle them with a nation’s glory in all coming time: here too, is concentrated the political strife of more than 20 million of the human race.  Here Clay and Webster are wont to raise their voices resounding from Maine to Mexico.

    As we were thus wrapped in sublime meditation, Thomas Benton came in with a lion’s authority stamped upon his countenance.  He took his seat and began looking over some books and papers.  He had come in a little before the rest and we soon learned that he was about to make a speech.  In a short time they all came in and took their seats, many of which we recognized by their likeness in books and frames.

    If you have a picture of Henry Clay you know just how he looks.  I think he has the best shrewd, self-possessing and eloquent expression every beheld.  Cass wears an expression very intelligent and noble in appearance but I suppose you would have one speak about a Whig rather than old Lewis Cass, if he is a much smaller man.  I would gladly go on giving a description of things connected with the Capitol but it is getting near bedtime and the sheet is nearly full.

    I will just say that we heard Benton make a speech followed by one from Clay.  As I had but little time to spend in Washington I made it in my way to visit most of the public buildings but was the most interested in the Patent Office where I saw the old original Constitution, the military coat and equipment worn by the immortal Washington, Franklin’s old printing press, and a thousand other things of interest which have not room here to insert.

    I am now in Virginia enjoying myself pretty well.  It is cold here for the time of year and very changeable.  There is not so much difference between seed time here and in Maine as I supposed.  Many are not half through planting yet.  It was as warm here the last of February as it is now.

Darkies are plenty here, but I shall have to leave that subject until another time.  I will write you another letter by and by, giving you a description of the Virginians and slavery.

    I should be happy to have a letter. I have written this in great haste and you must not take it to be a fair specimen of my writing but excuse it.

Yours ever,

George Bryant

 

Sadly, this young man, born May 9, 1830, educated and with such promise and enthusiasm for life died a year after he wrote the letter, June 17, 1852.  He was barely twenty-two years old but had experienced more that most his age, brought up on rural farms in the District of Maine.  He was buried in the neighborhood cemetery just over the stonewall from the house he called home.

George Bryant celebrated America and rejoiced in being an American.  He was in awe of the leaders in the Senate and thrilled to see them, hear them and witness them in action. Back then there was no hint of division, disorder or protest on the streets of Washington.  Respect for their leaders was the order of the day.

On this May 5, 2017, one hundred and sixty-six years after George expressed himself with such joy, passion, and patriotism Washington has become a different place.

RIP  George Bryant

The old homestead where George Bryant lived and died.

Prudence Fish
May 5, 2017

 

Prudence Fish, of Lanesville, is a published author and expert on antique New England houses. Read Prudence Fish’s blog, Antique Houses of Gloucester and Beyond.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Way it Was – May 5, 1851

  1. Interesting article about the “tensions” within the time that George wrote his letter–https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/navigating-past-nihilism/?_r=0. Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK, reflecting his “wider” concerns, was also written in 1851. I wish George’s promised follow-up, re: “Darkies…a description of the Virginians and slavery.” was available. And that their “audience” had taken Melville “seriously” at the time they both wrote.

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