Review: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas

Our Director, Dr. Márcia Balisciano, was asked by The Grateful American Foundation website, to review Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas.

Louisa, The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, pp. 455

Review by Márcia Balisciano

Download as PDF

Louisa Thomas takes the story of an earlier Louisa (February 12, 1775-May 15, 1852), Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy, from historical footnote to compelling drama. Thanks to Thomas’ fine prose and compassion for her subject, it is a story beautifully told and worth remembering.

Thomas sets the scene for a first meeting in 1795 with a 28 year old John Quincy Adams, a smart and attractive, if unfashionably attired, young diplomat who came to call on Louisa’s American father. Joshua Johnson’s graceful home, precariously financed through his merchant trading business, was a drawing point for visiting Americans and independent thinkers.

One of seven daughters of an English mother Catherine, Thomas recounts what John Quincy found when looking at Louisa, based on a portrait painted about the time they met: a young woman with skin the hue of the “milk-pink roses that she holds in her fingertips” and a face wreathed by curls. Her direct gaze is “not at all the expression of a vain and vapid girl,” it is “intelligent, her smile small and assured. She is beautiful.”

Throughout her life Louisa was an other. She was born in Nantes, where her father was working as a buyer for a Maryland company, and at age six moved to England when he set up his business. Following a fainting spell apparently in religious fervour – she was much influenced by the Catholic school she had attended in France – she was sent to live with family friends, Elizabeth Hewlett, another American transplanted to Britain, and her Anglican biblical scholar husband, John. As Thomas notes, they “listened to her, talked with her, recommended books for her to read, and treated the child with unusual respect.” In short, the couple fostered the strong intellect which defined her life. With money from her father, she did not buy new dresses but books, among them Milton’s Paradise Lost.

But thus a tension which suffused her life. Born in our own time, given her interests, she might have become an author like Thomas, a scholar, a judge, a therapist. But these were not avenues for a woman in the late 18th century nor the 19th for that matter, born as she was in the former, and reaching her maturity in the latter. Thomas quotes a contemporary arbiter of female morality: “Girls should be taught to give up their opinions betimes, and not pertinaciously to carry on a dispute, even if they would know themselves to be in the right.” Throughout her life, she discounted herself after expressing an opinion, when likely she knew herself to be right.

She thought John Quincy might be more interested in one of her lovely sisters. This most serious of young men upbraided himself for being distracted from his diplomatic endeavours, but love for Louisa prevailed. During his London visits they took walks and conspired about a future out of earshot of chaperones. But he returned to his post in Holland and then moved on to Portugal and would not be drawn on when a betrothal might become marriage. He gave Louisa leave to find another if she could not wait in response to her letters of understated anticipation, but she waited.

It was a pattern that marked her life: she had little say in her own destiny. Her husband and frequently his famous parents, John and Abigail Adams – who became President and First Lady in 1797, the year John Quincy and Louisa did marry in All Hallows-by-the-Tower Church in London – made the decisions, not least about the precious children she went on to bear.

The newlyweds travelled to Berlin, where John Quincy joined the American legation. Despite lacking funding for the finery required of courtly life, Louisa was a resourceful success. Like his father before him – John Adams had criticised Benjamin Franklin’s enthusiastic participation in the joie de vivre of French royal circles when serving as the first American statesman – he did not yet understand that as much could be achieved at elegant balls, as through crafting treatises. John Quincy was not pleased when Louisa became “the only foreign lady” to be given a role in a royal quadrille which required weeks of rehearsals, ornate costumes, “and liberal use of crown jewels.” Nor did he delight in Louisa’s hosting lively dinners for the sons of erstwhile adversary King George III at their Berlin home. Thomas states John Quincy’s dilemma: “He needed her to be admired but not adored. She had to fit in but could never belong.”

In 1801, Louisa and John Quincy left their contented life in Berlin with a babe in arms, the patriotically named George Washington Adams. They landed in Philadelphia and travelled first to Washington to see Louisa’s family now living in greatly reduced circumstance after the collapse of Joshua’s business – which took with it, to Louisa’s lasting shame, the £5000 dowry he had promised to John Quincy. (Dispirited by misfortune, what limited work Joshua had was made possible through the largesse of John Quincy’s father; he died not long after seeing Louisa again.)

She was an American but one who had never lived in America. Used to a cosmopolitan life in London and Berlin, she had to learn a new cultural tradition, not least in arriving to meet John Quincy’s family in Massachusetts (including John Adams, second US President between 1797-1801) at their estate Peacefield, which was adorned more by trees than decoration as befitted the Adams’ puritan roots. Louisa recounted, “Had I stepped into Noah’s Ark, I don’t think I could have been more utterly astonished.” It was grey skies, fallen leaves and winter in New England. She recalled being “so much depressed, and so ill.” Throughout her life she suffered from ‘illness,’ much of which was physical but frequently, in the wake of loss and partings, emotional. She wrote: John Adams took “a fancy to me” though “he was the only one.” She felt a withering eye for her more fashionable traits from Abigail, who had corresponded with John Quincy from his first mention of Louisa about wifely attributes. She had met Louisa’s parents during their heyday in London and feared her daughter-inlaw would not be a woman of substance. After her first encounters with Louisa, observing her thin physique and persistent cough, Abigail predicted she would be of “short duration.” But in time Louisa won her over. The excellence of her correspondence Abigail wrote her, “makes me a sharer with you in your various occupations, brings me acquainted with characters, and places me at your fireside.” For “one single letter conveys more information…than I could obtain in a whole session of Congress.” Greetings of “Mrs. Adams” in their letters, Thomas says, gave way to expressions of “my dear daughter” and “my dear mother” as the years proved Louisa’s fortitude despite separation, change and tragedy.

Separation included being apart from John Quincy at points throughout their life together, among them, after his first appointment to the US Senate (1803). By now she had a second son, John Adams II, and John Quincy determined she should remain with their children in New England to allow him to inexpensively concentrate on his congressional duties. She called his diktat, “coldness and unkindness.” They tried other arrangements, including leaving both her boys in 1805 with her parents-in-law at their request when George was four and John was two. She was told it was better than raising them in a Washington boarding house. But Louisa lamented that when eventually reunited with her children, they found their mother a stranger. Not long after she journeyed to the “gilded darkness” of St. Petersburg when John Quincy was appointed first United States Minister to Russia in 1809, taking along a third son, two year old Charles Francis Adams, but leaving behind George and John against her wishes. She would not see them again for six years. “Oh this agony of agonies,” she wrote later. “Can ambition repay such sacrifices? Never!”

At the Russian court, she was again challenged with projecting an image of elegance without a budget. She cleverly recut her dresses and accented them with trim, trains, fur, and fans. She met the Tsar Alexander and Tsarina Elizabeth Alexeievna and the Empress mother, Maria Feodorovna and charmed and surprised them with her knowledge of London, Paris and Washington for as she reported the “Savage had been expected!”

There was joy two years into their stay with the birth in 1811 of a namesake, Louisa Catherine Adams. She wrote to son George, “I wish you could see what a good natured mad cap she is.” But happiness was short-lived as the child developed dysentery and died shortly after her first birthday. She was bereft: “My heart is buried in my Louisa’s grave and my greatest longing is to be laid beside her.” Following, there would be miscarriages but no other children.

Sorrow became anger as John Quincy left her behind in St. Petersburg when he set off for European capitals to help negotiate the peace following the war of 1812 between America and Britain. Young Charles wrote to his father, “Mama is a great amateur of cards. She is always laying [them out] to see if you will come back soon.” They would not see him for 11 months. But in his absence, her confidence grew as she assumed responsibility for her household. “I am turned,” she exclaimed, a “woman of business.”

Eventually John Quincy requested that she close out their life in Russia and join him in Paris where he was forging postwar diplomatic ties. This would be her finest hour. She did what few men or woman could imagine today – she packed, sold and shipped belongings and bought a carriage, with runners for the snow, departing in freezing mid-winter for a two thousand mile journey to Paris (to wait until spring would mean melting ice and impassable tracts). She sewed pockets into her skirts for money and valuables, created a space where Charles could sleep on the floor of the carriage, hired servants with marksmanship skills to ward off villains on a road that had not fully recovered from the devastation of retreating French, and chasing, rampaging Cossacks after Napoleon’s failed invasion of Moscow (1812). Thomas describes her bravery passing through “desolate scenes and evidence of brutal destruction, rape and plunder. She would have to deal with suspicious guards and drunken soldiers” overcoming her fears and so she did. She passed through Berlin once again, and as she progressed, she skirted a marching Napoleon, newly escaped from Elba, also heading to Paris. On arrival at her husband’s hotel in the city she found no warm, congratulatory greetings from a waiting John Quincy. He had gone to the theatre.

There would be more travels, as Thomas details. From Paris, a return to London when John Quincy became Minister to the Court of St. James’s (1815-1817) where she was reunited with her two older sons; finally some prized time as a family. But as ever, it was fleeting. Louisa was unable to lay down roots as they were soon off to Washington when John Quincy was rewarded with Secretary of State under President James Monroe (1817-1825), a role he wanted in a career where he accepted rather than sought. It was Louisa to whom others turned to encourage John Quincy to pursue the presidency, for despite illnesses – including reoccurrences of erysipelas, a painful bacterial skin infection she had contracted in Russia, she became the most popular political hostess of her day – a place where elections, John Quincy came to realise, could be won. If her husband “was hesitant, then she could not be. If he would not act,” powerful figures told her “then she should.”

Rather than a crux of Thomas’ narrative, her telling of John Quincy’s assumption of the presidency (1825-1829) is anticlimactic. This is likely because Louisa’s account of this period is restrained – unwell, likely exhausted, she does not seem to have even attended his inauguration. Presidency or no, it was a familiar pattern, when no longer instrumental – as she had been in getting her husband elected – when she was once again meant to be only ornamental, she wilted.

At the heart of Thomas’ account of Louisa’s life is the story of a marriage. Her partner could be exasperatingly distant – literally and figuratively, but he also wrote her poetry and depended on her support (in one poem he stated, “But thine [beauties] are grappled to my soul…They tune my nerves and inspire my soul.”) They knew togetherness and strain, joy and grief (Louisa would outlive all but one of her children – to her first born, George, she had recommended the moral instruction inherent in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, but it did not counterbalance the crushing weight of familial history and expectation; with sad irony, while en route to his parents in Washington on the ship, Benjamin Franklin, for support in recovering from a period of instability, George fell overboard and drowned in 1829).

Thomas states, it was hard for Louisa and John Quincy “to be together and hard for them to be apart.” Writing one winter he joked, “I will not say I can neither live with you or without you,” but “in this cold weather I should be very glad to live with you.” Yet love and respect underpinned their many experiences.

Louisa died in Washington aged 77 in 1852 surviving her husband by four years. She had indeed lived an extraordinary life: daughter-in-law of a president, wife of a president, and mother of a lawyer, diplomat and presidential aide. She had seen much of the world and in an era where she was expected to disown her intelligence and desires, yet she made an impact. “Oh halcyon days of bliss long past,” she penned, “Too good too happy long to last.”

Review: The Witches by Stacy Schiff

Benjamin Franklin House Director Márcia Balisciano reviews The Witches by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Stacy Schiff.

The Witches; Salem, 1692: A History, pp. 417

Review by Márcia Balisciano

Download as PDF

Growing up in Salem, Massachusetts, my first job aged 14 (not including a stint as a diminutive paper girl) was to serve as a tour guide at the Witch House, home to Jonathan Corwin, one of the witchcraft judges.

Later in high school, I transitioned to the pinnacle of Salem tourguiding, the House of Seven Gables. This 17th century house on Salem Harbour, owned by the cousin of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), was a place of refuge after the death of Hawthorne’s father when he was four years old. His memorable visits inspired Hawthorne to use it as the setting for his 1851 romanticist tale of the same name in which the main characters fall in love – one a descendant of a witchcraft judge and the other a descendant of a witchcraft defendant sentenced to death by the other. It was an imagined rectification of Hawthorne’s personal history. His ancestor was John Hathorne (1641-1717), whose punitive interrogation of witchcraft suspects contributed to the death of twenty-four. Lore has it that Hawthorne added the ‘w’ to his name to disassociate from the sins of his forbearer, which included Hathorne’s refusal to give a public apology.

Armed with this background – augmented by my experience of having a Salem classmate whose mother was Laurie Cabot, still today “The Official Salem Witch” (who was not always useful to the Boston Red Sox who called on her services, still working then to fend off a curse for having traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in the early 20th century); familiarity with the sites around town known for their witchcraft association, including Gallows Hill, believed to be where hangings took place; being a member of The Witches as the local high school’s clubs and sports teams were called; and the sheer cool factor of trick or treating in Salem during my childhood Halloweens – I thought there was little I could learn in reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches. I was wrong.

Schiff masterfully wades through the diaries, court transcripts, letters and other extant literature to reveal the backstories of victims, illuminating a confining, superstitious and unforgiving climate in Puritan New England which led to tragedy – not only the deaths of innocents but devastation for those left behind.

It was not, in those years, particularly auspicious to be born in Salem. Though Salem Town and Salem Village, with a combined, burgeoning population of nearly 2000 in 1692, were important for commerce (Town) and farming (Village) – Boston had more than triple the number with 7000 inhabitants (by comparison, there were over 100,000 in London across the sea) – there was little time for leisure, though Schiff notes the existence of a fair number of taverns. For adults and children alike, non-Sabbath days were long and Sabbath days longer in cold winter, and stifling summer churches. Life was not especially easy in the Bay Area for other reasons: Massachusetts had lost its independent charter a few years before and inhabitants lived in a milieu marked by fractious politics and frequent disputes over land, livestock and even ministers.

Schiff writes that servant girls were particularly unfortunate. “For reasons that made sense at the time but have not been adequately explained since, a third of New England children left home to lodge elsewhere, usually as servants or apprentices, often as early as age six.” “Servant girls,” she says, “fended off groping hands and unwanted embraces” and far worse from heads of households and other men with whom they came in contact. “Masters and mistresses beat servant girls for being disrespectful, disorderly, abusive, sullen…for crimes no greater than laziness, which – given the amount to be done – was surely a relative term.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly half of the bewitched girls were domestics (and Schiff indicates that a majority of the bewitched girls had lost fathers). Despite humble personal means, Schiff indicates that they sought protection from the courts and “More often than not rulings came down in their favor.” There was thus legal precedent for yielding to the testimony of youths with limited economic and political purchase, even when, in the case of Salem 1692, it was deluded at best or criminal at worst.

Witchcraft was a thing in 17th century New England. After idolatry, so abhorrent in the stripped- down version of Christianity proffered by Puritans, the second crime in the legal code was witchcraft. In the absence of the scientific method, pursued nearly a century later by Massachusetts’ son Benjamin Franklin, among others during the Enlightenment, colonists enshrined in 1641 law that “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.”

But such was the power of the Salem witchcraft legend, I was unaware of earlier instances of apparent devilish dealings in 17th century New England which Schiff highlights. Connecticut, no less, had put a number of its citizens to death some 30 years earlier and might well have claimed Salem’s modern tourism dollars. But justices elsewhere proceeded generally with greater caution than they would in Salem. Accusers were subject to whipping for false testimony and the accused fined for lying. Schiff cites 103 witchcraft cases prior to 1692, 25% of which were successfully prosecuted.

Along with meagre belongings, pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock brought tales of witchcraft from the mother country, Scandinavia, and the Continent. Witches and their practices were as much a part of local conversation as rampaging natives, brutal weather and other things that darkened Puritan skies. Illness, and worse death, and other things that could not always be easily explained might be attributed to spectral wanderings and demonic acts. In the climate painted by Schiff, 1692 Salem seems less an outlier than an inevitable result of a culture squeezed by harsh beliefs and circumstance.

It was in the household of pernickety Salem village minister, Samuel Parris, that it all began in the depth of a January winter. His 11-year-old niece Abigail Williams and nine-year-old daughter Betty began to exhibit worryingly similar symptoms: they “barked and yelped” and fell dumb while their “bodies shuddered and spun.” They complained of bites and pinches by ‘invisible agents.’ They made utterances without meaning where before they had been model children. It seemed familiar to the young minister, Cotton Mather, who comes across in Schiff’s telling as a pompous, fastidious, fame-seeking meddler (who out-manoeuvred his Minister father, Increase Mather, then urging circumspection over cries of witchcraft). He had observed a similar manifestation in the previously stalwart children of a pious Boston stone layer. Those children appeared most afflicted when Mather attempted Biblical intervention. Reverend John Hale who examined the beleaguered girls recorded that the ‘evil hand’ was the finding espoused by the neighbourhood. And if that was so, whose was it? Schiff’s text is filled with wry observations, including that a good haunting could make unending task-filled days less dull. Before long other girls became afflicted. The next two were twelve-year-old friend, Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard, niece of Abigail and Betty’s attending physician.

Soon a witch was found: “semi-itinerant beggar” Sarah Good, a figure of menace for the community who “would seem to have wandered into the village directly from the Brothers Grimm, were it not for the fact that they had not been born yet.” Raised in prosperity, dissipated by fate, she was brought to a makeshift court where Corwin and Hathorne presided. ‘Sarah Good,’ the latter asked, ‘what evil spirit have you familiarity with?’ ‘None,’ she replied curtly. Not satisfied, he pressed further, was she in league with Satan and why had she hurt those children? All four of the affected girls were present and testified that Good was responsible for their pain and disquiet; they writhed and choked as they passed in front of her (attending trial absolved one from household chores and other tedium). Hathorne demanded, ‘Sarah Good, do you not see now what you have done? Why do you not tell us the truth?’ Why do you thus torment these poor children?’ Tartly Good replied something had afflicted them all right, but it was not her. Aware that Hathorne had approved two other arrests – Sarah Osborne, a chronically ill villager who’d also fallen on hard times, and the Parris household’s West Indian slave Tituba – and worn down by Hathorne’s badgering, Good named Osborne. Despite baiting by Hathorne when called before the crusading judge, Osborne refused to name Good in return (he also chided her for not attending church, which she attributed to her maladies). With forbearance Osborne declared, ‘I do not know the devil.’

Tituba, however, wasted no time in concocting a tale she thought the judges might like, enjoying her brief celebrity. Perhaps recalling folk stories from Barbados, the island from which she likely hailed, Tituba told of wondrous things, making clear, according to Schiff, “that she must have been the life of the corn-pounding, pea-shelling Parris kitchen.” So engrossing was her story, the girls stopped their contortions to listen carefully: a wily Sarah Good had appeared before her with a menagerie that included a yellow bird and two red cats enjoining her to torment the girls. She remembered encounters with dark lords and flights by pole, accompanied by Good and Osborne, across the Salem firmament. All four women were interned in a Boston jail.

But in a strange twist on the typical workings of justice, Schiff records that those who confessed were imprisoned but not killed. Osborne died chained in her cell before she could be sentenced while Good hung by the close of July – Tituba, the girls and soon many others, wittingly or not, played a deadly game. Her colourful yarn all but forgotten, Tituba languished in prison (a soul-crushing dank, rodent-infested, disease-ridden place where three other accused died before they could be tried, sentenced or pardoned) – until someone in 1693 paid bail to free her, after which she is lost to history.

Lost, but not to history, were nineteen others – in addition to Good – whose lives ended on the gallows. Thirteen of them were women; it was risky to be female during a witchcraft epidemic. Among the males hung was Minister George Boroughs, who among other suspicious characteristics was preternaturally strong. Strength did not help him, nor did it benefit Giles Corey, who by refusing to enter a guilty or innocent plea, was pressed to death. Such was the penalty at that time and place (Corey had accused his wife of witchcraft, too much unexplained night time activity; she was among the women killed). Schiff uncovers the existence of sceptics like Thomas Brattle, an “accomplished scientist and logician,” but they were too few.

Inhumanity – confinement, little rest, limited nutrition and constant harassment and abuse – can do strange things to the human brain (witness the Reykjavik Confessions where a group of Icelandic young people accused of two, still unsolved murder cases in the 1970s each confessed, though innocent, telling a different fabricated story; those alive today are unsure what the truth is). In Salem, there was much corroboration among witchcraft accounts of both the accused and accusers. Schiff notes that 50 confessed; a number of them cited a kind of witchcraft jamboree in Samuel Parris’ pasture, presided over by Reverend Burroughs during which “the devil offered his great book, which all signed, some in blood.” Accused and accusers and judges were frequently related. In the different permutations of accusation, daughters accused mothers, husband’s wives, only sons did not accuse fathers.

Things came to a head when the unpopular, Crown-appointed Governor, Sir William Phips, who helped at least one set of accused friends escape from Massachusetts, halted further arrests in October 1692, not least because his wife had been named. By November, he disbanded the damning witchcraft court of Oyer and Terminer, comprised of overzealous judges like Hathorne; Waitstill Winthrop (who should have taken his first name to heart); and Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton. To their dismay, it was before they had resolved questions about the role of spectral evidence, swimming trials, witch marks, and touch tests to discern the guilty.

Upwards of 150 were accused. (Not much is said about the two dogs put to death for complicity.) The youngest was five-year-old Dorcas Good, orphaned when her mother Sarah was put to death. She remained shackled in prison for some 8 months; forever after, according to the Salem Witch Trials Reader (2000), she lived in fear and never independently. She was not the family’s only casualty: Sarah Good was pregnant when incarcerated; her daughter Mercy was born and died in captivity some time before her mother’s execution.

Lives were ruined in other ways. Justice Corwin’s twenty-five-year-old nephew, County Sherriff George Corwin, “wore himself out dismantling the households of the accused.” Schiff notes the Sherriff even removed the gold wedding ring from the mother of one of the convicted. Victim’s families frequently found themselves with little, making it even more difficult to regroup and rebuild.

Schiff’s work is densely packed like a deliciously rich fruitcake. But chapter subsections would have made for easier reading. That said, the close texture of the paragraphs builds to an “oppressive, forensic, psychological thriller: J.K. Rowling meets…Stephen King,” according to London’s The Times.

In the end, was it hysteria, mouldy food, jealousy, boredom or something else that had led to disaster? As Schiff cogently says, “Antipathies and temptations are written in invisible ink; we will never know. …Witchcraft localized anxiety at a dislocated time.”

Prolific accuser, Ann Putnam Jr., thought she knew: she had made it up. (While she enjoyed the attention of the community, sixty-two people had afflicted her and of the nineteen hanged, she testified against all but two.) Schiff sets the scene for her 1706 confession: not yet 30, she stood silently before her Salem Village congregation as a minister read out her words. She asked for forgiveness. She had not acted alone. But in her defense, she posited she had been unable ‘to understand, nor able to withstand, the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness and Prince of the air.’ Salem and shadowy things had not quite had their curtain call as I discovered in my minority.

Review: Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America by David O. Stewart

Our Director, Dr. Márcia Balisciano, reviewed Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America by David O. Stewart for the The Grateful American Foundation website.

Madison’s Gift, pp. 419

Review by Márcia Balisciano

Download as PDF

James Madison’s gift, referred to in the title of David O. Stewart’s impressively researched biography, was his ability to partner with others to ensure a fledgling nation found stability in uncertain times. In exploring his relationship with five pivotal figures – Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Dolley Madison – he also reveals Madison’s many gifts. In particular, his “profound yet affable brilliance,” expressed through studied and reasoned analysis, and quiet, yet heartfelt, oratory, which helped realise a Constitution and national government capable of the peaceful transition of power and adequate defence in war.

Stewart masterfully weaves the chronology of Madison’s life into his story of how Madison engaged with his partners, each of whom imparted something he lacked.

Hamilton – commanding presence

Alexander Hamilton, Stewart points out, showed that raw talent could get you far in the new America. Born in the Caribbean to a father who disappeared when he was ten and a mother who died shortly thereafter, he did not have a promising start.   But as a young trading house clerk he excelled so local leaders sent him to mainland America for formal education, where he eventually attended what became Columbia University. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he joined the Continental Army where he came to the attention of George Washington, who elevated him to aide-de-camp.

From this vantage point Hamilton saw that the government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to function well, not least in its ability to collect taxes and pay wages to soldiers. He found a kindred spirit in James Madison, whom he joined as a member of the Continental Congress.

According to a visiting Frenchman, Madison could “be more profound than Mr. Hamilton, but less brilliant,” though at this point in their lives, they were equally committed to putting the national government on firmer footing.

In 1786, both attended a meeting in Annapolis on interstate trade. They seized the opportunity to call for a convention to rewrite the Articles. Working in lockstep, they maneuvered to get a majority of states to nominate delegates; the Constitutional Convention opened in May 1787. Madison and Hamilton complemented one another. One delegate called Hamilton’s speeches “flowing and rapturous.” And while Madison was no raconteur, he was “the best informed man of any point in a debate.” Together they reached their mark: by September the delegates agreed a five-person Committee of Style to produce a final draft of a new Constitution, which included Madison and Hamilton.

The resulting document gave no delegate, or his state, exactly what they wanted. Hamilton, especially, had wanted a strong federal core for the new America. The Constitution reflected compromise, including on critical matters such as the size and responsibilities of the government, and it contained no resolution on the question of slavery. Regardless of its imperfections, Madison wrote to Jefferson, “if the present moment be lost, it is hard to say what may be our fate.” They were “framing a system…to last for ages.” Hamilton gave a characteristically sharper assessment in a letter to Washington: they could not “let slip the golden opportunity of rescuing the American empire from disunion, anarchy and misery.”

In a race to get nine states to ratify the Constitution, the tipping point for its adoption, Hamilton came up with the idea of producing a series of essays to align public opinion. Hamilton and Madison shared the writing (with minor support from New York’s John Jay), producing 190,000 words known as The Federalist Papers. According to Jefferson it was “the best commentary on the principles of government.” By June 1788, they reached their quota when Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire had all ratified the Constitution; it would take until 1790 for all states in the union to do likewise. Amendments, which reflected trading between individual states, became the Bill of Rights in 1791.

Washington – gravitas of a hero

Stewart shows how Madison courted America’s first citizen. In 1783, General Washington moved his headquarters to Princeton to be closer to the temporary seat of the Continental Congress. He was respected for a “faculty of appearing to accommodate and yet carrying his point,” said Abigail Adams. “If he was not really one of the best intentioned men in the world he might be a very dangerous one.” That Washington and the young Congressman should become collaborators was not obvious but, Stewart says, as “a talent spotter, Washington had few peers.” Madison’s intelligence and diligence brought him a good reputation and despite differences in political and physical stature, they shared a love for their Virginia homesteads and both dreamed of Western territory.

Madison was taken with “a mind like [Washington’s], capable of grand views” and their correspondence was warm and free-ranging. He kept Washington informed of developments at the Annapolis Convention and liberally used Washington’s name to garner support for the Constitutional Convention. Few in states north or south, big or small, wanted to go against the wishes of the hero of the Revolution.

Washington was firm when he needed to be, including with his young protégé. When Madison complained of the personal cost of lobbying for the Constitution, Washington reminded him that “the consciousness of having discharged that duty which we owe to our country is superior to all other considerations.”

With the Constitution adopted, Washington agreed to become America’s first president. He entrusted Madison with drafting his inauguration speech; as a member of the first House of Representatives, Madison was charged with writing the chamber’s response to his own speech.

Stewart illuminates how Madison’s respect for Washington never wavered though ultimately, over the Hamilton problem, his political support did. Hamilton had shocked fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention by claiming the people had an inability to “judge or determine right.”

Power was best placed in the hands of “the rich and well born.” Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton’s aim was to move “the present republican form of government to that of a monarchy.”

Importantly, Hamilton’s belief that the states should have “very limited powers” suffused his work, including as first Secretary of the Treasury. Madison and Jefferson opposed their colleague’s key proposals, including for a central bank and assumption of government debt, which they believed would lead to speculation and corruption. Washington had to take sides – Hamilton’s capitalist economy vs. Madison and Jefferson’s agrarian democracy. Though Washington shared their traditions, it was Hamilton’s vision he chose. No longer able to don Hamilton’s Federalist mantle, Madison and Jefferson came to see themselves as Republicans.

Madison bore no grudges. On Washington’s death in 1799 he remarked, “Death has robbed our country of its most distinguished ornament, and the world of one its greatest benefactors.”

Jefferson – natural leader

Stewart sketches Thomas Jefferson as smart and tall, with “an air of relaxed command,” while his friend Madison was “short, skinny, pale and reserved.” You could immediately warm to Jefferson, while Madison’s appeal took longer to appreciate. Eight inches taller but also eight years older, Jefferson personified the legend of American Independence (and was author of its Declaration with sage help from Benjamin Franklin). When envoy to France, he held his own among royalty and rebels. He returned home to serve as America’s first Secretary of State under Washington, and in the election of 1796, served as Adams’ Vice President after narrowly losing the presidency in an election that sparked controversy, but not insurrection.

Jefferson and Madison were close. “I long to see you,” Jefferson wrote Madison when a long period had elapsed since they had met. But they were not afraid of being direct. When Madison objected to one of Jefferson’s departures from public service, the latter responded tartly that the decision would “rest on my own feelings alone.” During the Adams administration, they were united in their denunciation of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other things, made criticising the government a punishable offense.

Stewart might have given a more prominent role to Adams whose steely intelligence did much to shore up the new nation. But he does allow Adams the book’s best quote. Complaining about Jefferson and Madison’s style of campaigning for high office by feigning disinterest, he offered: “Mr. Madison is to retire. It seems the mode of becoming great is to retire. Madison I suppose after a retirement of a few years is to be president or V.P…. It is marvellous how political plants grow in the shade.”

Monroe – military and diplomatic expert

James Monroe was a teenager when he enlisted in the Continental Army, crossing paths with those who would lead the United States, including Washington and Hamilton. Stewart cites his respectable war record and a genial “earnestness that inspired trust.” In 1783, when Madison returned to Virginia after serving three years in the Continental Congress, Monroe took his place as the state’s new delegate. A year later, Jefferson recommended Monroe to Madison saying “a better man cannot be,” thus initiating another lasting friendship among fellow Virginians.

Madison and Monroe shared enthusiasm and resources for acquiring Western land, and they held similar convictions on political matters, including that the Articles of Confederation should be superseded. But it was not all smooth sailing. Monroe worried about the negative effects of a dominant federal government. According to Stewart, he did not support ratification of the Constitution while in the Virginia legislature, but not so vehemently that he could not be forgiven.

Madison’s nemesis in Virginia politics, the Anti-Federalist Patrick Henry, had designs on Monroe, convincing him to run against Madison for a seat in the new House of Representatives. Madison won handily in 1789 and was gracious in victory. He wrote to Jefferson of the vanquished man, “I have no reason to doubt that distinction was duly kept in mind between political and personal views, and that it has saved our friendship from the smallest diminution.” The following year, Monroe was appointed to the Senate and went on to serve in France as Jefferson had done before him.

Inevitably there would be other clashes. During Jefferson’s second term as President, Monroe was envoy to Britain and France at a time when both states were fighting the Napoleonic Wars (1803- 1815). Jefferson declared neutrality hoping the conflict in Europe would not prevent the flow of American imports and exports. But the British – who stepped up impressment, often to reclaim sailors that had deserted to better paid American merchant ships in order to literally ensure enough hands on deck in their maritime battles – and eventually the French, would have none of it. In 1807, Monroe and William Pinkney, a Maryland lawyer also sent to negotiate with the British, opted to sign a treaty that did not include halting impressment which both deemed a point they could not win. The treaty had other things to recommend it, including a loosening of restrictions on American trade but Madison and Jefferson rejected it. Angry, Monroe left his post and returned to Virginia.

During Madison’s second term as President, a turn toward war prompted rapprochement and Monroe became his Secretary of State and eventually his Secretary of War. Monroe, Stewart quotes, was “happy to have restored” their “ancient relations,” while on “public affairs we confer without reserve…animated by a sincere desire to promote the public welfare.” While they could not avert the British burning of Washington once America declared war in 1812, they persevered, and the Americans won key battles, including the defence of New Orleans. A peace treaty followed in 1815. Not much had been gained but as Adams suggested during the conflict, “It is necessary against England: necessary to convince France that we are something: and above all necessary to convince ourselves that we are not nothing.”

Dolley Madison – charm offensive

In the spring of 1794, Senator Aaron Burr introduced Madison, a bachelor in his late 30s, to the bright, vivacious 24 year old widow, Dolley Payne Todd, who had a two year old son. He was smitten. Disappointed in romance previously, Madison did not delay. He embarked on a brief but assiduous courtship and he and Dolley were married by the autumn. His modest appearance – she called him “the great little Madison” – did not concern her. In social gatherings, he might be branded timid, but she shone. “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison,” declared Kentucky legislator, Henry Clay.

Self-aware Dolley responded, “That’s because Mrs. Madison loves everybody.”

She was a dedicated companion throughout their married life, providing her husband with soothing counsel. She also was a potent political asset. To positive effect, she might place a word here during a soiree, or send a charming note there. Stewart references a letter she sent in 1810, potentially to the self-exiled James Monroe, in which she declares that Madison had “necessity for your aid,” bidding her recipient to “Come then, as soon as possible to my husband who will not call, though he wishes for you every day.”

Madison’s Federalist challenger to the presidency in 1808, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, ruefully complained that he was “beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”

Throughout his narrative, Stewart highlights the pall slavery cast on Madison’s legacy. Madison was prescient in recognising that more than Republican versus Federalist, the real divide was between the slave-holding south; he wrote, “the great danger to our general government is the great southern and northern interests of the continent being opposed to each other.” It was an irony not lost on America’s early observers that a nation which had won its independence over man’s right to liberty, denied it to others. Madison recognised the wrongs of slavery, yet his livelihood depended on maintaining slaves to run his plantation. Despite requests from family and former comrades to release his slaves, he did not (and made no provision in his will for Dolley to do so upon his death).

At the end of his life in 1826, Jefferson wrote Madison, “you have been a pillar of support throughout life.” It was a gift he gave all his partners. Not for Madison the solitary figure on horseback. As Stewart points out, “Madison’s heroic moments tended, like him, to be quiet ones.”

Review: Angelic Music by Corey Mead

Our Director, Dr. Márcia Balisciano, was asked by The Grateful American Foundation website, to review Angelic Music: The Story of Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Armonica by Corey Mead.

Corey Mead, Angelic Music, pp. 209

Review by Márcia Balisciano

Download as Word document

In reading Corey Mead’s charming tale of Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica, it is clear he is as passionate about music, as he is a careful historian and Franklin admirer.

He begins his story by introducing perhaps the least known of Franklin’s many guises, that of musician.

Franklin and music

Franklin’s abiding interest in music has received less attention than his roles as an essential founder of the United States, and exceptional diplomat, scientist, civic contributor, and more.

Mead notes he played the harpsichord, the viola da gamba, the musical bells and was never without “a small dulcimer instrument called a sticcado.”  He composed songs meant to be “sung communally, by roaring hearths in local taverns, or in the comfortable sitting rooms of [close] friends.” Among his compositions was My Plain Country Joan, in honour of his long-suffering wife Deborah:

Were the fairest young Princess, with Million in Purse
To be had in Exchange for my Joan,
She could not be a better Wife, mought be a Worse,
…I’d cling to my lovely ould Joan.

Musical glasses

Franklin first arrived in London as an 18 year old to learn about the printing trade – and the world –  remaining for about 18 months [1724-1726]. When he returned, taking up residence at 36 Craven Street, he did so as the most celebrated colonial of his day, not least for his best-seller, Poor Richard’s Almanack, and his pioneering accounts of electricity.

The purpose of his second London sojourn [1757-1762] was to convince the sons of William Penn, proprietary owners of Pennsylvania, to pay more to defend the colony during the French and Indian war.  A side benefit was exposure to London’s cultural richness in the second half of the 18th century, marked by a colourful array of aristocrats and dissenters, artists and music makers.

He was introduced to glass music by Edward Delaval in 1761.  So common of those he called his friends, Delaval was, like Franklin, polymathic.  Mead notes he “was a man of science, a chemist and electrician, as well as a classical scholar and linguist, and a known figure in experimental psychology.”  Franklin helped him become a fellow of the Royal Society, the preeminent body for science (as he did pioneering anatomist, William Hewson, son-in-law of his Craven Street landlady Margaret Stevenson).  They would later serve on a Royal Society committee to consider protection of St. Paul’s Cathedral from lightning strikes. They would, of course, recommend the Franklin lightning rod.

Enchanted by the tonal “sweetness” Delaval evoked by rubbing the rims of water-filled glasses, Franklin set out to capture its sound.

A long tradition

Mead recounts a long tradition of glass music, written about as early as the 13th century.  He reproduces an Italian woodcut from 1492, the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, showing contemporary instruments, including a table with liquid filled glasses.

Closer to Franklin’s time, an enterprising but hapless Irish gentleman, Richard Pokrich, created and played an “angelick organ,” a collection of vessels holding different levels of water.  But he found it difficult to pay his bills, caused not least, Mead says, by the destruction of his glass organ by a rampaging pig at one recital.

A better way

In observing Delaval’s glasses, Franklin, always the improver, got to thinking about how they might be improved.  Writing to Giambattista Beccaria, an experimental physicist teaching in Turin, he noted it would be superior “to see the glasses disposed in more convenient form, and brought together in a narrower compass, so as to admit a greater number of tones, and all within reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument.”  Typically Franklin, he provided “exhaustive detail” about how it should be constructed: glass bowls marked by “seven prismatic colours, viz C, red; D, orange; E, yellow; F, green; G, blue; A, indigo; B, purple; and C, red again.”  The musician would press all 10 wet fingers to the bowls, emitting sound as they spun, allowing greater musical complexity; for with the musical glasses, only two could be played at the same time.

Franklin wanted to bring his theoretical instrument to fruition. He decided to call it the Armonica, the Italian word for harmony in a bow, he told Beccaria, to Italy’s “musical language.”  He paid 40 guineas (roughly about $5000 today) to Hughes and Company at the Cockpit Glasshouse. The Bristol Journal noted in January 1762, “Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia…has greatly improved the musical glasses, and formed them into a compleat instrument to accompany the voice; capable of a thorough bass, and never out of tune.”

Mead cites a letter from Franklin to Polly, child of Margaret Stevenson, who became a kind of adopted daughter to him, complaining about the craftsmanship behind his armonica.  Nevertheless, he began playing his instrument and gained such a reputation for it, that Thomas Penn, whom he was lobbying on behalf of Pennsylvanians, complained in a 1761 letter to the colony’s Governor, that Franklin was spending too much time on frivolous endeavours including his “musical glasses.”

Thinking he had done all he could to sway the Penns, Franklin left London in 1762 taking his armonica with him (he would return to Craven Street in 1764, sent back on behalf of Pennsylvania and other colonies, to meditate growing tensions with the Crown, and would not leave again until 1775, when despite his best efforts, war loomed).   Lore has it that one night, soon after arriving home to Philadelphia, his wife Deborah awoke to the “angelick strains” of the armonica, which she had not yet heard, convinced “she had died and gone to heaven and was listening to the music of the angels.”

Those who made it their own

Mozart and his nemesis Salieri, J. C. Bach, Beethoven, Donizetti, and Hayden are all celebrated artists who composed for the armonica.

Others less well known today also made it their own.  Marianne Davies [1743-1818], a precocious musical talent on flute and harpsichord, who had made her debut aged 7, met Franklin and became the first armonica virtuoso.  J. C. Bach wrote that her playing had “such a beautiful effect and brilliance that I am sure…everyone…will enjoy it.”  One German writer stated it was only Davies who could “play it with proper perfection; Mr. Franklin himself is only musical enough to play it for his own enjoyment.”  She and her sister Cecilia, who sang to Marianne’s accompaniment, were hailed by Samuel Johnson and toured Europe, where they became friendly with Mozart and his family.

Needing to secure her and her sister’s financial future after the loss of their parents, Marianne wrote to Franklin when he was serving as first official representative of the fledging American government in Paris, exclaiming her “gratitude, respect, and esteem, by which I must always be most sincerely attach’d to my ever dear and worthy friend and benefactor Doctor Franklin.”  She sought an annual pension from Marie Antoinette, her one time pupil, and hoped Franklin would make the request, not least because he was “universally ador’d by the French nation.”  There is no evidence, Mead notes that Franklin received or responded to her plea.  Highlighting the difficulty of being a female musician in the late 18th century, she and her sister served as music teachers to make ends meet but, as Mead writes, “after decades of hardscrabble living,” Marianne died in 1818 at the age of 74.

Another Marianne also became an armonica virtuouso. Marianne Kirchgessner [1769-1808], born in Bruchsal, Germany and blinded as a child, met Mozart too, performed with Hayden in London, and gave concerts for royalty (including literary royalty: Goethe is said to have heard her play) in Russia and across Europe.  Mead reproduces a rapturous review from 1808 following a performance by Kirchgessner in Stuttgart:

Ha, a strange sunshine radiates from me!

Never have I felt such godly
Bliss flow over me. I hear
Eden’s clarity, a joyous choir,
Sounds of Hallelujah ring….
Thanks be to your magic playing,
Muse of the armonica!

But after suffering adversity during the Napoleonic wars, Kirchgessner died young of pneumonia aged 39.


In 1778, Franz Anton Mesmer [1734-1815], a German doctor and armonica enthusiast married to a Viennese heiress, moved from Vienna to Paris.  He enjoyed playing Purcell and Gluck on his armonica, and had hosted and played for the young Mozart.  But it was his fame as an unorthodox medical theorist – charlatan to some – which proceeded him. He had developed the idea that all disease was the result of an “obstruction of the flow of animal magnetism inside the human body.” To heal, practitioners needed to apply animal magnetism to ensure proper flow of the “universal fluid.”  Mead postures that Mesmer’s supposedly successful experiments in Vienna actually showed that he had mastered the “power of suggestion, not cosmological healing.”  His craft came to be known as mesmerism.

In Paris, he held sessions with multiple patients and “rubbed their ailing bodies,” Mead says, with iron poles he claimed to have charged with his own animal magnetism; patients were asked to hold hands to increase the flow.  Mesmer would then play the armonica to not only create the right mood but so that animal magnetism could be “communicated, propagated, and reinforced by sound.”   His aim was to bring patients to an emotional crescendo, a critical step in Mesmer’s healing process.  “Patients would often shake and faint,” Mead writes, “in the manner of a tent revival meeting.  They would be moved to a padded room until they recovered.”

Craving legitimacy, he invited Franklin to observe a treatment séance in 1779 but Franklin, who himself had experimented with, but ultimately discounted, electricity as a medical cure, was unconvinced.  French King Louis XVI appointed Franklin to a 1784 commission to make a final pronouncement on mesmerism.  Mead recounts that Franklin hosted Mesmer at his residence in Passy, in today’s 16th arrondissement of Paris, and witnessed the master at work, but his earlier judgement was unaltered: “I cannot but fear that the expectation of great advantage from this new method of treating disease will prove a delusion….”  If renown, however infamous, was what Mesmer sought, he would no doubt have welcomed knowing that his name lives on in the English language in the word mesmerise.  He would be less pleased to know that the word mesmerism in French is hypnotiser.


It may have been the connection with mesmerism, and other oddities linked to armonica players and listeners, that hastened its decline.  According to Mead, by the start of the 19th century, the armonica was purportedly linked to “illness, insanity, convulsions, fainting, marital disputes, and even death.”  And, perhaps positively, waking the dead.  He cites an Etienne Sainte-Marie, a member of the Medical Society of Montpelier, who claimed that the “melancholy timbre of the armonica plunges us into a profound detachment, relaxing all the nerves of the body, to the point that a very robust man is not able to listen to it for an hour without becoming ill.”

Austrian music journalist, Frederich Rochlitz [1769-1842], was one who attempted to redress claims against the instrument as the bringer of bad things.  The idea that vibration caused nerves to be overstimulated leading to breakdown “would be terrible,” Rochlitz concluded, “if it were true.” It only induced melancholy, he said, if the songs played on it were sombre and laborious.

The armonica faced cultural challenges.  The need for a female player to move her leg up and down to turn the foot pedal was viewed as overtly sensual (though this issue was often solved by strategic placement of a cloth).  Other challenges were more prosaic, including the cost and difficulty of producing the instrument, its relative fragility, and the increasing popularity of larger concert halls in the early 19th century in which the armonica’s delicate tones were easily lost.


In the 1920s, German musician Bruno Hoffmann became interested in the musical glasses and devised an instrument called the glass harp based on them.  He uncovered and recorded pieces by Mozart and others that had been written for the armonica.

Some forty years later, a German glassblower, Gerhard Finkenbeiner, discovered an armonica in a Paris museum and was intrigued.   While working for IBM he saved the ends of glass furnace tubes for seminconductors, imagining them as potential armonica cups.  He later crafted special glass bowls classified according to the note each most closely resonated.  He then created a mechanism for attaching and rotating his bowls with an electric motor – Franklin would surely have been pleased.  It is a painstaking, precise process reflected in a price tag of just under $10,000 for the least expensive models, rising to over $1 million for the larger and more elaborate.

Meanwhile, a music student at Indiana University, Dennis James, who read about the armonica and asked one of his professors what it sounded like, received the response that no one knew, as the instrument had not been played in 200 years.  James vowed to find out.  He met Finkenbeiner and convinced him to make an armonica he could afford, which took over a year.  In 1988, James accompanied members of the New York Philharmonic on his armonica at an event at Versailles.  The publicity material claimed the “armonica is back” and so it was.  In just three years, James played nearly 200 concerts around the world.  One day he got a call from Linda Ronstadt, with whom he went on to collaborate on seven projects involving the armonica, including, her album, Winter Light.

Mead also points to the work of French musician Thomas Bloch, who has taken the armonica into the world of rock.  While equally adept at classical pieces, Bloch has played with leading-edge artists such as Radiohead, Daft Punk, Damon Albarn, Imogen Heap, and Tom Waits.

Along with James, Mead also credits writer and armonica player, William Zeitler, for his own attempts on Franklin’s instrument, sharing a picture of his Finkenbeiner Inc. armonica.  As he says it’s hard not “to be struck by the power of something utterly unique.”  Just as it did over 250 years ago, Franklin’s armonica continues to fascinate.