Object of the Month

"I shall be satisfied if I can but carry the hod and mortar for men of learning." Thomas Wallcut records the first meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 24 January 1791

Minutes of Massachusetts Historical Society meetings, volume 1,  1791-1795, pages 7-11

Minutes of Massachusetts Historical Society meetings, volume 1, 1791-1795, pages 7-11


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  • In the manuscript minutes of the first meeting of the "Historical Society" in Boston on the last Monday of January 1791, the newly-elected recording secretary, Thomas Wallcut, reported how the founding members laid out a scheme for their new organization (it did not become the "Massachusetts Historical Society" until it was incorporated by the Commonwealth three years later), the "regulations" for the Society—its original constitution—and the transactions at the first meeting, including the first donation to the Society—the volume in which Wallcut recorded the minutes displayed here.

    The Founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society

    In August 1790, Boston minister Jeremy Belknap had proposed a "Plan for an Antiquarian Society" that would collect materials to document the history of the new nation, a plan that has been described as "the charter of the historical society movement in the United States." Six months later, on 24 January 1791, Belknap's "Antiquarian Society" became the "Historical Society," when seven like-minded individuals met with him to create what would become the oldest organization in the United States devoted to collecting materials for the study of American history. Later the same year, Belknap drafted a Circular Letter, of the Historical Society, in which he announced the Society's formation and purpose: "to collect, preserve, and communicate, materials for a complete history of this country."

    Thomas Wallcut, the First Recording Secretary

    Thomas Wallcut, the reporter of the first MHS meeting, was born in Boston in 1758. His early life was as exotic as any boy's in pre-Revolutionary New England: he attended Moor's Indian Charity School in Hanover, New Hampshire, to prepare for study at Dartmouth College and a career as a missionary to the Indians, beginning (before college) by living among the St. Francis Indians (at modern-day Odanak on the St. Francis River) in Quebec, Canada. The outbreak of the Revolution ended "Tommy" Wallcut's plans to become a missionary and his opportunity to attend college. He returned to Boston where, during the Revolution, he served on a privateer and then as a hospital steward in Albany and Boston. After the peace, he became a minor state official (for almost 40 years an engrossing clerk for the legislature—hence his careful, clear handwriting). He nearly missed the founding of the MHS for he had invested his pay as a veteran in western lands and in 1789-1790 he made a trip to Marietta in the the Ohio Territory, but rather than settling there, soon returned to Boston.

    Wallcut was a prolific compiler of historical information and statistics, an energetic supporter of several abortive literary enterprises, and, above all, an avid antiquarian book collector. He never married and lived with his mother on High Street in Boston, cramming her house with the books and as many as 10,000 pamphlets he collected. He helped to found the MHS library with, considering his limited means, important gifts of pamphlets, newspapers, and maps. He served as recording secretary of the MHS for only a little more than a year, resigning his office in July 1792, but remained a member of the Society for the rest of his life.

    Only 32 in 1791, Wallcut was the last survivor of the ten "founders" of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Ironically, although he was a generous donor to the MHS during its early years, he appears to have become alienated from the Historical Society—or the Historical Society from him—perhaps because he gained a reputation as an increasingly eccentric old bachelor. He donated a portion of his book collection, primarily on religion and classical languages, to Dartmouth College—those books, with Wallcut's permission, migrated to Bowdoin College when Dartmouth was divided by a faculty dispute. In 1812, Wallcut became a founding member of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., and he later allowed the Antiquarian Society to select books and manuscripts—and especially pamphlets—from his collection, a donation that was measured at more than two tons. Ironically, his gift to the Antiquarian Society included his personal notes on the founding of the Historical Society.

    A religious seeker, Wallcut moved away from his evangelical origins and adopted the pacifist sensibilities of Nantucket Quakers whom he grew to admire. One of his last public offices was as secretary of the Massachusetts Peace Society, founded in 1815. Wallcut lived in Boston at a time when his vehement opposition to slavery was seen as an eccentricity, but poverty and illness exacerbated his odd behavior in old age. He spent the end of his life in the McLean Asylum for the Insane and Rev. Robert F. Wallcut, a nephew, handled his uncle's affairs. Thomas died in 1840, at the age of 82, only missing the 50th anniversary of the MHS by a few months. In 1879, Robert Wallcut donated additional books and manuscripts from his uncle's estate to the Historical Society. The MHS also holds a silhouette of Thomas Wallcut made in August 1835.

    The Other MHS Founders

    In 1795, the third MHS recording secretary, Rev. James Freeman, started a second volume of meeting minutes with the statement that Rev. Jeremy Belknap, Rev. John Eliot, Rev. Peter Thacher, and William Tudor of Boston, and James Winthrop of Cambridge, Mass., had originally planned the Historical Society and then invited five additional men to join them: Dr. William Baylies of Dighton, and Rev. James Freeman, George R. Minot, James Sullivan, and Thomas Wallcut of Boston. George Minot and James Sullivan drafted the "regulations" (constitution) for the Society, although Minot "being sick" did not attend the first meeting that took place in William Tudor's elegant Court Street, Boston home. Most of the MHS founders were Harvard-educated ministers and lawyers, along with a physician (Baylies) and a librarian (Winthrop), leaving Wallcut, in some respects, the odd man out. The other founding member without a college education was James Sullivan, the first MHS president, who then was the attorney general (and later the governor) of Massachusetts. Rev. William Jenks, another early MHS member, later recollected that Wallcut had told him, "I shall be satisfied if I can but carry the hod and mortar for men of learning."

    The members present at the first MHS meeting decided that they would be listed in alphabetical order in their minutes—although Wallcut seemed to have some trouble in remembering to add his own name to the records. In spite of this democratic impulse, first among equals in the founding of the MHS was Rev. Jeremy Belknap, who was elected the first corresponding secretary. Through a series of published circular letters and notices and his own personal correspondence, Belknap attempted to convey news of the founding of the new organization and its purpose "to every gentleman of Science in the Continent and Islands of America." In a 21 August 1795 letter to fellow antiquarian Ebenezer Hazard, Belknap eloquently described his ambitions for the Society and the purpose of the MHS: "There is nothing like having a good repository and keeping a good look out, not waiting at home for things to fall into the lap, but prowling about like a wolf for the prey".

    In 2016 the Massachusetts Historical Society Will Celebrate Its 225th Anniversary

    Beginning on 29 January 2016 and continuing through the rest of the year, the Massachusetts Historical Society will celebrate its "quasquibicentenial" through a series of exhibitions, public lectures, seminars, and other public programs. Kicking off the celebration will be an exhibition of the Society's extraordinary collection of the personal papers of Thomas Jefferson. The Private Jefferson, a display of letters, manuscript records, architectural drawings, and portraits from Jefferson's personal collections will be on display at the Historical Society's 1154 Boylston Street headquarters building in Boston from 29 January through 20 May 2016. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM.

    Further Reading

    Calloway, Colin. The Indian History of an American Institution: Native Americans and Dartmouth. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2010.

    Colin Calloway describes Thomas Walcutt's ill-starred educational career in northern New England and Canada. 

    Massachusetts Historical Society. Circular Letter, of the Historical Society. Boston: Belknap and Young, 1791.

    The Historical Society featured Jeremy Belknap's Circular Letter as the one hundredth Object of the Month in January 2010.

    ---. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. I, 1791-1835. Boston: Published by the Society, 1879.

    The introduction to the first volume of the MHS Proceedings contains a detailed description of the founding of the Historical Society and facsimiles of early documents including the first page of the minutes.

    Taylor, Earl R. "Thomas Wallcut, 1758-1840: Portrait of a Bibliophile." The Book Collector (London), 1983, p. 155-170.

    Taylor focuses on Wallcut's donation of books to Bowdoin College that have been reassembled as a library special collection. Taylor cites Wallcut's reference to himself as carrying "the hod and mortar for men of learning" in an 1852 address to the New England Historic Genealogical Society by Rev. William Jenks.

    Tucker, Louis Leonard. Clio's Consort: Jeremy Belknap and the Founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1990.

    ---. The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1996.

    Wallcut, Robert F. "Memoir of Thomas Wallcut." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. II, 1835-1855. Boston: Published by the Society, 1880, p. 193-208.

    Wallcut, Thomas. Thomas Wallcut Papers, 1671-1866. Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Thomas Wallcut's personal papers include family correspondence, his diary of his 1790 trip to Ohio, notes for and drafts of his writings, and Wallcut genealogical materials. On microfilm. 

    ---."Journal of Thomas Wallcut," with notes by George Dexter in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. XVII, 1879-1880. Boston: Published by the Society, 1879, p. 174-206.

    Incldues Wallcut's diary of his trip to Ohio. A reprint of the journal is available online. 

    Some of Thomas Wallcut's books and pamphlets are housed together at the MHS as a special collection, the Wallcut Library, numbering about 150 volumes including several volumes of bound pamphlets.

    ---. Thomas Wallcut Papers, 1640-1833. American Antiquarian Society.

    The American Antiquarian Society also has a collection of Thomas Wallcut's papers, including his personal notes on the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society.