The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“On the Borders of Nonsense”: John Quincy Adams, Poet

It was a rainy day in May 1839 and John Quincy Adams, stuck inside, was amusing himself writing poetry. He was trying to imitate the Roman poet Horace, and outdo the English poet Alexander Pope. Horace’s Ode 4.9  encapsulated the idea that without a poet to praise him, the hero was forgotten. Achilles had Homer, Satan had Milton, and Lollius had Horace.

As Pope wrote in his Imitations of Horace,

Sages and chiefs long since had birth
Ere Cæsar was, or Newton named;
Those raised new empires o’er the earth,
And these new heavens and systems framed.

 Vain was the chief’s, the sage’s pride!
They had no poet, and they died!
In vain they schemed, in vain they bled!
They had no poet, and are dead.

With his sarcastic sense of humor, John Quincy admired Horace, and understood that Horace was being ironic: Lollius was not worthy of a poet, yet would be remembered because of Horace. John Quincy caught the irony with these lines of his own:

The pebble on the beach outshines
The Diamond sleeping in the mines
And hidden from the day.

Who were the poets with the power to rescue the heroes from oblivion? Pope had the advantage of England’s rich literary history, and named John Milton and Edmund Spencer. But the young United States had nothing to compare. Undaunted, John Quincy reached back to the classical past:

Hark! on your ears, Tibullus steals
Lucretius Nature’s Law reveals
And Juvenal’s caustic burns.

Anyone familiar with the testy satires of the Roman poet Juvenal can appreciate the jauntiness of the final line. As John Quincy wrote in the margin of his diary, “and here I stick on the borders of nonsense.”

John Quincy spent days working on his poem, captivated by the idea that both the poet and the hero could escape death: “What a magnificent panegyric upon his friend. What consciousness of his own transcendent powers! what a sublime conception of the gifts of poetical inspiration!”

He had not always held Horace’s “consciousness” in such high esteem. Fifty-three years earlier, John Quincy, after reading Horace boast that “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze” and “a great part of me shall escape death,” wrote in his diary:

“I finished this morning the third book of Horace’s Odes. Many of them are very fine, and the last one shows he was himself, sufficiently Sensible of it. When a Poet promises immortality to himself, he is always on the safe side of the Question, for if his works die with him, or soon after him, no body ever can accuse him of vanity or arrogance: but if his predictions are verified, he is considered not only as a Poet, but as a Prophet.”

John Quincy Adams’ diary permits us to see his long engagement with Horace, from his days as a schoolboy to the closing years of his life. As he wrote to his brother, Thomas Boylston, in 1802: “When once a man takes up Horace, it is not easy to lay him down again.”



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 14 December, 2018, 1:00 AM

Barefoot Families and Demon Rum: The Work of an Urban Missionary

In June 1854, the Boston City Missionary Society appointed a Methodist Episcopal clergyman named Luman Boyden to serve as missionary to the poor in East Boston. The 48-year-old Boyden (pictured above, about ten years later) had had a distinguished 20-year career as a minister in Sudbury, Oxford, Dorchester, Chelsea, Fitchburg, Holliston, Spencer, Roxbury, Salem, and Waltham. The Society offered him a salary of $650 a year, and he would earn an additional $200 preaching at Union Chapel in East Boston.

Earlier this year, the MHS acquired four manuscript journals Boyden kept during this time, 1854-1863, primarily documenting his missionary work. He wrote in them every day and described, in compelling detail, the poverty in East Boston, as well as the ravages of alcoholism, domestic violence, other crimes, suicides, and illnesses such as tuberculosis, smallpox, and typhoid fever. Boyden visited the homes of Protestant, Irish Catholic, African-American, and immigrant families, many suffering from terrible privation. His journals are a fascinating social history of the city and a record of 19th-century urban life in general.

Rev. Boyden hit the ground running. His first day on the job was 1 July 1854, and just 17 days in, he was attending the family of a Mr. Rose, who had attempted to kill himself by cutting his own throat with a razor blade. Two days later, Boyden visited a woman “putrid with disease,” a young woman dying of consumption, and the family of a suicide victim. He was shocked and horrified by the things he saw. When three people he’d met were arrested for murder, he wrote disbelievingly, “Did not think Monday that I was talking with those who would so soon be considered murderers.”

The pages of Boyden’s journals are filled with daily tragedies. He visited multiple families a day, and while his compassion for the poor was clearly genuine, he was not a disinterested party. One of his primary goals was conversion, and he distributed Bibles and religious tracts and proselytized about sin and salvation. He used language like “den of pollution” and “hive of iniquity” to describe some homes. About others, he simply wrote, “There Satan appears to reign.” As you can imagine, he encountered resistance from Irish Catholic residents, the dominant immigrant group in the neighborhood.

The journals contain a wealth of information, including names and addresses, and some entries go on for multiple pages. In one, Boyden paints a vivid picture of a tenement building as he moves floor to floor, and you also get a sense of his attitude toward the tenants.

Went into Bee Hive No 2 on Havre Street. It is a large old building in the rear of Bee Hive No 1. In each house 16 Tenements which rent for 1 ¼ dollar each week or $65.00 a year. The amount of rent for each year 1040.00. The Hive No 2 is not worth beside land $400.00. […] The houses are owned by a shoe firm in the city & the Tenants make shoes for the firm so the rent is secure & to obtain work the Tenements are filled. […] As I descended flight after flight I found others of the same class, poor, ignorant, depraved & who must be saved or lost forever.

Boyden reserved his fiercest animosity for alcohol. In the margins alongside his text, he scribbled headings like “Rum & Poverty,” “Rum & Beggary,” “Rumsellers Abomination,” etc. Other headings include “Motherless Boy,” “Barefoot Family,” “Poor & Proud,” “Blind Girl in Waltham,” “Furious Woman,” “Singular Case,” and “Children Under Table.”

Speaking of children, many of those Boyden met on his rounds did not attend or had never attended school. Boyden strongly advocated for the education of all children. On 28 September 1854, he wrote about the Nute family.

House kept quite neat, children dressed neatly but in consequence of being colored they are suffering by a most oppressive arrangement. Their children are allowed to attend the primary school with white children but as soon as they become qualified to enter the grammar school, they are not admitted to the schools in E. Boston, but go to the colored school [the Abiel Smith School] in Belknap St about 2 miles from home. In doing this they are obliged to cross the Ferry & pay two cents toll each way. They have three who attend the school in Belknap St at an expense of ferriage of 12 cents a day. […] They feel afflicted that while the dirtiest, vilest white children are admitted that theirs are excluded. Say they have applied to the General School Com[mitte]e but have accomplished nothing. I am resolved to plead their cause.

Incidentally, less than one year later, the Massachusetts legislature passed the first law in the United States prohibiting segregation in public schools. The campaign was led by Benjamin F. Roberts, whose children had also been excluded from the white schools near their home. Roberts had previously lost his case at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Roberts v. City of Boston (1850).

In his journals, Boyden often recorded follow-up visits, so we know how some of the stories developed, who lived and who died, who went to jail or the almshouse, who converted, who repented, and who didn’t. For example, here’s an amazing passage that caught my eye. On 20 March 1857, Boyden visited an African-American family on Bennington Street, consisting of Mrs. Russell, her adult daughter, and the daughter’s two children.

[The daughter] is very black & I noticed the infant in her arms was far from being black. I asked if her husband was a pious man? She said I may as well tell the truth, I have no husband. I inquired is not the father to that child a white man? She made no reply, excepting a coarse laugh. I told her that it belonged to the father of the child to support it & I could not help her till he had been seen & if he had anything compelled to aid. […] She has another child about 6 years old the same color. I spoke to her plainly of her wickedness. She said with apparent anger, it is Gods will or it would not be so. The old Lady seemed to feel deeply the ruin of her only child.

Miss Russell told Rev. Boyden the name of her baby’s father, who was white and had a wife and other children. Boyden said he would visit the man, although I couldn’t determine if he ever did. Unfortunately, when he returned to the Russell home about a month later . . .

Her daughter in quite a rage because several weeks since I reproved her as she think[s] to[o] severely. She then said it was the Lords will. I told her it was the work of the devil. She replied that she knew that the Lord made her & he did every child. Today she said the child died several weeks ago.

While most entries relate to Boyden’s missionary and ministerial work, some give us glimpses into his personal life. He and his wife Mary had two children—at the start of the first journal, Helen Maria was 24 and Jeremiah Wesley 15. There had been another daughter, Mary Elizabeth, but she died in 1837 at the age of three. Boyden wrote about her several times.

Luman Boyden died in 1876 at the age of 70. His wife Mary lived until 1897. Both parents outlived their son Jeremiah, who served as a U.S. Navy surgeon in the Civil War before dying of yellow fever at 27. Daughter Helen worked as a teacher, married Thomas Warren Thayer, and died in 1922 at 92 years old.

P.S. Interestingly, Boyden frequently referred in his journals to another missionary for the Boston City Missionary Society, Armeda Gibbs. Gibbs was an abolitionist who helped escaped slaves and is probably best known as the first female nurse for the Union army during the Civil War. Sure enough, Boyden noted on 6 August 1862, “Heard Miss Gibbs offered to go as nurse in the army.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 1:00 AM

This Week @MHS

Join us for a program at the MHS this week!

- Tuesday, 11 December, 12:00 PM: Robert Treat Paine’s Life & Influence on Law with Maura Healey, Massachusetts Attorney General; Alan Rogers, Boston College; Christina Carrick, Assistant Editor, The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, and moderator Catherine Allgor, MHS President. Join us for a special event with the current Attorney General looking at the first Massachusetts Attorney General’s life and influence on law and order during the Revolutionary era. This event celebrates the completion of the five-volume series The Papers of Robert Treat Paine. A pre-talk reception begins at 11:30 AM; the speaking program begins at 12:00 PM. This program is free and open to the public.

- Tuesday, 11 December, 5:15 PM: A Nice History of Bird Migration: Ethology, Expertise, & Conservation in 20th Century North America with Kristoffer Whitney, Rochester Institute of Technology, and comment by Marilyn Ogilvie, University of Oklahoma.This paper focuses on the historical relationships between migratory birds, scientists, and amateur experts in 20th-century North America, especially Margaret Morse Nice. Nice, simultaneously a trained ornithologist and an enthusiastic amateur across disciplines, almost single-handedly introduced the American ornithological community to European ethology. Her bird-banding work exemplified the tensions in natural history around expertise, gender, and conservation.This is part of the Boston Seminar on Environmental History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

- Wednesday, 12 December, 12:00 PM: Ecology of Utopia: Environmental Discourse and Practice in Antebellum Communal Settlements with Molly Reed, Cornell University. During the 1840s, members of short-lived intentional communities debated strategies for “getting back to nature” and explored emerging meanings of “natural” through radical hygiene, diet, and agricultural practices. This talk examines how Transcendentalist and Fourierist communitarians articulated human-environment relationships in terms that reflected and informed their visions for social change.This is part of the brown-bag lunch program.

- Wednesday, 12 December, 6:00 PM:  No More, America with Peter Galison, Harvard University; Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University. In 1773, two graduating Harvard seniors, Theodore Parsons and Eliphalet Pearson, were summoned before a public audience to debate whether slavery was compatible with “natural law.” Peter Galison’s short film, “No More, America” co-directed with Henry Louis Gates, reimagines this original debate to include the powerful voice of Phillis Wheatley, an acclaimed poet, then-enslaved, who lived just across the Charles River from the two Harvard students. Join us for a film screening followed by a discussion between Peter Galison and Henry Louis Gates. A pre-program reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

- Saturday, 15 December, 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. Join is for a 90-minute docent-led walk through of the public rooms of the MHS. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Friday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Please note that the library will open at 2:00 PM on Tuesday, 11 December and will close at 3:30 PM on Thursday, 13 DecemberTake a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 10 December, 2018, 1:00 AM

Barbara Hillard Smith’s Diary, December 1918

Today we return to the 1918 diary of Newton teenager Barbara Hillard Smith. You may read our introduction to the diary, and Barbara’s previous entries, here:

January | February | March | April | May | June | July | 

 August | September | October | November

As regular readers of the Beehive know, we are following Barbara throughout 1918 with monthly blog posts that present Barbara’s daily life -- going to school, seeing friends, playing basketball, and caring for family members -- in the words she wrote a century ago.

This post is the final in our year-long series sharing Barbara’s diary. The series will return in January 2019 with a new narrator hailing from the year 1919. In the meantime, take a moment or two to learn about Barbara’s December--full of basketball, babies, and a trip to New York to visit her friend Babe. Read along and--as Barbara says in her final entry for the year--“Watched old year out.”

Here is Barbara’s December, day by day.

* * *

Church. Sunday S. Dr. Drew here. Over to Aunt Mabels for supper.

MON. 2
School. Babies

School. Studied. Cousin Bert took us to Westminster and saw “Fiddler’s three

WED. 4
School. Babies. Pastor’s Reception

School. Swimming. Shampoo

FRI. 6
School. Awful snow storm. Mrs. Reed

SAT. 7
Worked around Mrs. Reed’s. K-C for week end with Pete.

SUN. 8
Church Sunday School. Supper at Lasell.

MON. 9
School. In town. Got suit

TUES. 10
School. Basket Ball Starter. Fitting for suit

WED. 11
Got sick in school. Went to babies

THUR. 12
Home sick

FRI. 13
School. Dance with Spud

SAT. 14
Hung around. Christmas play at Seminary.

SUN. 15
Sunday School. Lasell Christmas Vespers

MON. 16
School. Took care of baby

TUES. 17
School. Basketball. Cousin Bert here.

WED. 18
School. Took care of baby. Mr. Reed home from operation

School. Basketball.

FRI. 20
School. Babies

SAT. 21
Took care of sonny. [Havene] for weekend. Christmas party. Freddie’s show

SUN. 22
Church. Sunday School. Concert. C. Endeavor. Spud’s for supper.

MON. 23
In town. Took care of baby. Women’s club concert

TUES. 24
Up to Reed’s all day. Trained, so didn’t have caroling. Sick

WED. 25                     CHRISTMAS DAY
Had presents. Dance at Spud’s

THUR. 26
Went to New York to visit Babe. Met Jack Palmer.

FRI. 27
Went to Mrs. Learnerd’s for lunch. Keith’s in afternoon.

SAT. 28
Babe’s singing lessons. Went to Ladies First

SUN. 29
Company for dinner. Out for walk. Reg + Gladys came over.

MON. 30
Went to movies.

TUES. 31
John Ross. Went to Mrs Andrew’s with Jack. Watched old year out

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the Barbara Hillard Smith collection may be found here.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 7 December, 2018, 1:00 AM

Remembering Former President George H. W. Bush

As the United States remembers former President George H. W. Bush, who died on Friday, 30 November 2018, at the age of 94, the MHS remembers him too.

George H. W. Bush addressing guests at the MHS Annual Dinner on 10 October 2002.

In 2002, MHS staff (and items from the collections!) had two notable encounters with George H. W. Bush. On 11 March 2002, the exhibition Fathers and Sons opened at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the grounds of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The exhibition focused on the private and public careers of the two father and son sets of presidents: John Adams and John Quincy Adams and George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. Staff from both the Bush Library and the MHS worked from September 2001 to January 2002 on establishing and finalizing which items from the Adams Family Papers and other collections would be on display in Texas. All in all, the Bush Library borrowed 26 manuscripts, 5 printed texts, 2 engravings, and 8 artifacts from the MHS for the exhibition. William M. Fowler, Jr., Director of the MHS (in 2002), joined George H. W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara, and many guests at the official opening of the show.

William M. Fowler, Jr.,  George H. W. Bush, and Patricia Burchfield examine Adams family artifacts from the MHS on display at the George Bush Presidential Library in March 2002.   

William M. Fowler, Jr. with George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush in March 2002.

About seven months later, Mr. Bush travelled to Boston, Mass. and spoke at the MHS Annual Dinner held at the Harvard Club on 10 October 2002. Not since John Quincy Adams addressed the members in 1841 had a president spoken to the MHS. Before the well-attended formal dinner, Mr. Bush visited the MHS. David McCullough, the well-known historian and author of the book, John Adams, and MHS Stephen T. Riley Librarian, Peter Drummey, shared information about selected items from MHS's collections, including the manuscript of George Washington's Newburgh Address, Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book, and Paul Revere's account of his famous ride to Lexington. 

George H. W. Bush examining documents from the collection of the MHS with David McCullough (right) and Peter Drummey (left).

From left to right: Amalie M. Kass (MHS President  in 2002), David McCullough, George H. W. Bush, Levin H. Campbell, and William M. Fowler, Jr. (MHS Director in 2002).


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 5 December, 2018, 1:00 AM

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