Mr. Brisbane's Journal
THERE lies before the writer a quaint old manuscript volume, found by him years ago in one of the country villages of New England. The ancient folio tells in several hundred closely lined and gracefully penned pages the story of the travels of Mr. William Brisbane, a South Carolina aristocrat, a kinsman of the Pinckneys, and an ardent Federalist, who in 1801 sold his plantation and began a long tour for pleasure and for health.
During four years, broken only by one return to his home, he journeyed with his wife by private coach over our Northern States and through Europe, expanding in his journal at a later time his notes of what he saw and did. Curious features of the antique work are its rusty leather and board covers, its copperplate fashion of manuscript, its odd spelling and erratic capitals, and the family coat of arms imprinted on the initial page. Altogether, during the four years, Mr. Brisbane, as his itinerary shows, traveled 3561 miles in our own land and 16,733 miles in Europe; a remarkable distance for the time, when the slow, old-fashioned ways of journeying are taken into account. The parts of his journal which refer to his trip through our Northern States give us some vivid glimpses of that old life from which we have drifted so fast and far away, and appear here in print for the first time.
It took Mr. Brisbane, in the early June of 1801, ten days of “very unpleasant passage ” to make the voyage of about six hundred miles in the ship Sophia from Charleston to New York. At the latter city he bought “ a coach and pair of excellent horses,” with which he made the journey up the Hudson and on to Ballston, repeating the same trip during the following summer. In the narrative of the later journey the following entry occurs: —
“ In our passage up the North River, last summer, a wide-spreading tree, said to be the largest in the country, was pointed out to us as the one under which André was examined by the patrol who took him, and has ever since been called by his name. It is somewhat remarkable that this immense tree was a short time afterward shivered to pieces by lightning and almost totally destroyed, only the stump remaining; and it is said upon the very day, but, undoubtedly, within a short time, of the death of General Arnold, who died that summer in England, twenty-one years after the death of poor André. Curiosity led us to walk to the spot where this celebrated tree had so long flourished. Nothing now remains of it but a part of the trunk. A few days after, we met with a Major Paulding on the road, who was one of Andre’s captors.”
It was near Poughkeepsie, described in the journal as “ a large and respectable town,” that Mr. Brisbane visited Deveaux Park, the country seat of Colonel Deveaux, a wealthy friend. Differing in kind, perhaps, from the modern homes of rural wealth, but not less tasteful outwardly and more solidly luxurious within, must have been that North River mansion: the grounds sloping in a smooth lawn half a mile to the Hudson, and the primeval woods “ shaped into angular copses so as to form handsome avenues,” with the river dimpling beyond. To the luxurious appointments of the mansion let the following words of Mr. Brisbane testify : —
“ Some of the furniture is perhaps the most costly in the United States, — particularly a very superb collarette and an elegant set of dining - tables. The first cost 700 dollars. The tables are of the finest mahogany, uncommonly wide, and, when full spread, are intended to contain twenty-four covers, under each of which is a silver basket of openwork neatly let into the table ; and underneath the baskets are copper boxes with plated fronts to contain heaters, which serve in winter to keep the company as well as the plates warm. In the centre and at each end of the table are circular fancy pieces, handsomely designed in stained satin-wood and neatly inlaid. The outer edge of the table is bound with a plain silver band.”
Continuing his journey northward, Mr. Brisbane passed through Hudson city, then a place “of respectable size, and of most rapid growth in a few years from a cultivated farm.” His reference to Albany in 1801 is curt and uncomplimentary : —
“ The houses have a mean appearance, except those newly built, and the place in general is dirty and disagreeable, — dreadfully hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. The inhabitants are mostly descendants of the Dutch, and still, in a great degree, possess their manners and habits, and continue to use the Dutch language as well as the English.”
A single day’s travel from Albany brought Mr. Brisbane to “ Ballstown,” then in its fashionable heyday, and not yet eclipsed by near Saratoga, which is mentioned in the journal merely as a side attraction. There follows a somewhat detailed story of midsummer gayeties at the “ Bath of America,” as Ballston is styled by the traveler; of Aldridge’s, the “best house,” with its “ genteel company, many from the West Indies,” its reading-room, its library, its billiard-hall, and its “ balls three times a week, at which a number of the most celebrated belles from neighboring States exhibited beauty and fashion.” But the country around the place was “ dreary and miserable, affording no pleasant rides or walks.” The waters Mr. Brisbane found “ at first a little nauseous, but after several weeks’ using left with regret, and the greatest stimulus to the appetite I ever experienced.” During a day’s trip to Saratoga, Mr. Brisbane tasted also the to him “ very nauseous ” but in later days famed Congress Spring water. In connection with another excursion to Saratoga he made the following note:—
“ On the sign of the inn kept at Saratoga by one Putnam is a very ludicrous representation, taken from the story of General Putnam and the wolf. Two countrymen are seen pulling him out of the cave by the legs, while he brings out the wolf by the ears. The poor general is certainly not much obliged to his namesake for thus publicly exhibiting him as the hero of so ludicrous a scene.”
After a northward trip to view the scenic beauties of Lake George, Mr. Brisbane turns southward to pass into New England, on his roundabout journey to Boston. He describes at length the habits of the “ shaking Quakers ” near Lebanon, and thence moves on into Connecticut, where happened one of the most amusing episodes of his trip: —
“ After passing through Norfolk, and just before we reached New Hartford, a dirty-looking fellow came running toward the carriage, waving his hand. I ordered the coachman to stop the carriage, thinking him, from his ragged appearance, about to solicit alms; but as soon as he came near he told me we had broken the Sabbath, and must immediately stop. I informed him that we would stop at the first inn, one being then in sight. He said we should not go any farther, and attempted to take hold of the reins; but John, perceiving his intent, applied the whip to the horses, who soon disengaged themselves. He continued the chase for about one hundred and fifty yards, but, being outwinded, be slackened his pace, and we continued to the inn, where we ordered dinner. Soon in came the man, and informed us that we were his prisoners, and desired to know of the landlord whether he would bail us ; if not, he must take us into custody, and keep us at his own house until next day. I told him I would neither give bail nor go with him, and that after dinner I would leave the house at the first opportunity I had. He then retired, and, lurking about the house, watched our motions to prevent our escape. Finding it impossible to get away, I went out and endeavored to persuade him by fair words, offering to pay his fees and give him any satisfaction for his trouble ; but he was inflexible to anything I could say. Neither threats nor persuasion had any effect upon him, and he remained firm at his post. The landlord told me that after sunset travelers were permitted to pursue their journey, the Sabbath being then considered over. I therefore, as soon as the sun had set, ordered the horses to be put in the carriage, and was getting in, but was prevented by this conscientious officer, who told me I must appear before a magistrate and be tried for the offense. I was obliged to yield to his authority, and, in the mean time, went myself to the magistrate, who lived about half a mile up the road, and informed him that the constable had detained us at the inn upwards of six hours, but hoped he would have no objections to our going early in the morning, and mentioned my inducement for traveling on Sunday was that Mrs. B. was in bad health, and I was then traveling for its improvement, and did not wish to be detained at such miserable inns as were on the road. He said he thought that very reasonable. About nine o’clock that evening the constable came, and inquired at what time I would be ready to attend him. I told him early in the morning; and about sunrise, our carriage being ready, and Mr. Constable absent from his post, I took the liberty of proceeding; not, however, without apprehension of being pursued by the indefatigable constable, who really, I believe, from conscientious motives persevered in his duty with inflexible zeal.”
It may have been partly the vexation growing out of this incident that prompts Mr. Brisbane to remark of the people of Connecticut, a little further on in his journal: —
“ The people of Connecticut are well known to be the most federal in the Union ; but there is, indisputably, more republican equality in the higher and democratic insolence among the lower orders in this State than perhaps in any other part of the civilized world. They seem to take pleasure in insulting travelers whose equipage they may deem aristocratic, or above the mediocrity of their own state, by making it as inconvenient as possible to pass them on the road, which has been experienced by many. We encountered a couple of these chaps, who were in a large cart drawn by oxen. They took possession of the centre of the road, and prevented our passing. My coachman called to them to give him room to pass, which, after hesitating some time, they did ; but as soon as they got abreast of us they evidently veered about intentionally, and ran their cart against us. From the noise, I concluded one wheel, at least, was shattered, and called to them to know why they behaved in that man ner. They looked at me with insolence, and without making any answer moved off, upon which I immediately jumped out of the carriage, seized the whip out of the hands of the fellow who was driving, and gave him a disciplining with his own instrument, to teach him a little more politeness in future. The fellow, astonished by the attack, made no resistance, but laid all the blame on the oxen, and they both suffered me to retreat to the carriage before they recovered sufficient spirit to retaliate. I thought myself well off (upon cool reflection) in having avenged the affront without getting a beating in the attempt.”
By a zigzag route Mr. Brisbane traversed Connecticut and Rhode Island, mentioning cursorily, in the latter State, the Freemasons’ lodge room at Providence as “ the handsomest thing of the kind in the United States.” A few days later he reached Boston, and found “quarters at Mrs. Carter’s, in West Boston, who keeps an excellent boarding-house.” Then comes his pen picture of the city in 1801 as seen by his Southern eyes: —
“ Boston is a place of great importance. The people are very enterprising and industrious, and during the present European war have been very successful in business. Riches have greatly accumulated, and consequently money sunk in value more visibly than in any other part of the United States. A good criterion to go by are the charges at the boarding-houses, which must be regulated by the prices of provisions, house rent, etc. While here in the year 1789, I paid for board and lodging, at one of the first houses, one guinea per week, and now I pay three guineas. The price at the livery stable for horse-keeping is one dollar per day for each horse.
“ In this ancient town, once so Puritanical in its morals as to punish even the smallest deviation, are now two of the largest theatres in the United States, and the citizens have so far relaxed their former strictness of living that, could their old selectmen rise from their graves, they could hardly be persuaded that the present race were their descendants. The town has rapidly increased within these few years. Among their public buildings the new State House stands foremost. It is a very superb structure, and is said to have cost $140,O00. From the dome you have a beautiful view of the surrounding country, with numerous villages and country seats, and vessels entering and leaving port. This beautiful building is erected on an eminence, in front of which is a large common, where there is a handsome mall, consisting of two straight walks of considerable length, well shaded by rows of large trees. From these walks you have a fine prospect of the river, and the State House appears at great advantage. In the room where the Representatives sit is suspended from the ceiling the neatly carved and gilded figure of a codfish, that the members may have in view the staple commodity of the country and never neglect the fisheries, — an intent similar to the woolsack on which the Speaker sits in the British House of Peers. The hospitality of the people of Boston is well known to all travelers who visit it properly introduced. The people of fashion live in a very handsome style, and are polite with but little ceremony. Among those from whom we received civilities were John C. Howard and Mr. Moreton, two gentlemen residing at their country seats near the village of Dorchester, and who gave us very handsome parties. In short, we passed upwards of a fortnight in Boston very agreeably, from which we made several excursions, one to visit the college in the village of Cambridge. Harvard College is one of the most ancient and respectable seminaries of education in the United States. They have an excellent library and a handsome collection of curiosities. We also visited the card factory, a few miles from Boston, where the whole process is performed by machinery,— the cutting the wire and forming the teeth, and even the placing them in the leather. There is a glasshouse in the town of Boston, where they make very good window glass, but I understand it has not been profitable to its proprietors. There are many handsome rides near Boston, in one of which we passed over a very capital bridge, and, proceeding through Cambridge, returned by the way of Charlestown over another elegant bridge. While at Charlestown we visited the ground on Bunker Hill, where a very severe action was fought between the American and British troops at the commencement of the Revolution, and where the brave but unfortunate General Warren fell in defending the American works. At or near the spot where he fell a monument is erected to his memory by the society of Freemasons. Colonel Trumbull, an excellent American artist, has very handsomely delineated the action and death of Warren. . . . Among the curiosities we saw at Boston was a beautiful African lion, eleven years old and very tame ; the only one, I believe, that ever was seen in this part of the world.”
Thirteen days, with brief sojourns on the route, were required, in that autumn of 1801, for Mr. Brisbane’s journey in his own coach between Boston and New York. His longest stay was made at New Haven, where he copied these epitaphs, of some local fame, from the stone erected in 1657 to the memory of Theophilus Eaton, the first governor of New Haven colony : —
The Phœnix of our world here hides his dust.
This name forget New England never must.”
Are come your honored son and daughter Jones,
On each hand to repose their weary bones.”
What is now known as the Old Burying Ground at New Haven, but in 1801 recently laid out, seems to have impressed deeply Mr. Brisbane’s fancy, as the following entry attests : —
” They have now a very handsome burial ground at a small distance from the town, laid out on a novel plan, with regular walks at right angles, the whole divided into small squares with low rails, and on the front of each square is painted the name of the proprietor. The walks are planted with Lombardy poplars and weeping willows, which give it the appearance of a grove. Through the trees are seen a number of elegant marble monuments. This place is well calculated to impress the mind of the gay and thoughtless with serious reflection.”
At Greenwich, Conn., the tourist visited the scene of Putnam’s too celebrated ride, — “ certainly a very hazardous attempt, but greatly exaggerated by report.” He arrived at New York on the 1st of November, 1801, taking " a very handsome suite of apartments in Cortlandt Street, near Broadway.” Then follows a long chronicle of winter gayeties,舒of routs, balls, concerts, plays, and dinner parties with the old Knickerbockers ; pen sketches of scenes on lower Broadway, and of the fashionable groups that thronged the walks of the old Battery, while the band played, the stately ships went by, and the sun of a mild winter, “ less severe than I have experienced in South Carolina,” suffused the gay spectacle. Those days of social enjoyment sped swiftly by, and the next April found the traveler on a southward tour. We tarry with him at Philadelphia only long enough to quote his comparative view of New York and Quaker City ladies, as formed at a concert in Pennsylvania’s chief city : —
“ The ladies, many of them handsome, were dressed in Parisian style, and the scantiness and transparency of their drapery was scarcely sufficient to conceal their corporeal charms. In general the ladies of Philadelphia displayed more taste, and in my opinion werehandsomer, than those of New York ; but, at the same time, I believe rouge is much more used by the former than the latter, some of them evidently painting white as well as red.”
We turn to another page of the faded journal to transcribe from the old Federalist’s pen this sketch of the American Congress of the day : —
“ I used daily to attend the debates, which were sometimes very violent. But the Democratic party generally succeeded in carrying their measures, notwithstanding the great preponderance of Federal abilities. They were much more numerous, and steadily adhered to their party. Bayard in the House of Representatives and Gouverneur Morris in the Senate, both Federalists, were the most powerful orators of Congress ; but the ministerial party were deaf to every argument, and for some time in the House of Representatives they sat silent, not deigning to offer their sentiments, but, calling for the question, successfully opposed good sense and sound argument by dint of numbers.”
It was in the autumn of the same year (1802), when homeward bound to South Carolina, that Mr. Brisbane again tarried at Washington, to visit “ the President’s palace.” Is the satire on Jeffersonian simplicity conscious or unconscious in the passage that follows ?
“ We were shown the different apartments of this spacious and elegant building by his [President Jefferson’s] Swiss servant, who sarcastically pointed out the old-fashioned and shattered furniture which, he said, was brought there by Mr. Adams, the late President, which certainly was not worth the expense of removal from Philadelphia, and differed widely from those articles introduced by the present occupant. Among other things we were shown the great mammoth cheese, weighing 1225 pounds, and which was presented to the President by a Democratic clergyman and his congregation in Massachusetts. When we saw it, a slice of upwards of 100 pounds had been cut out, and we readily accepted a small portion presented by the Swiss.”
Mr. Brisbane’s record of a visit to Mount Vernon in 1802, just before Mrs. Washington’s death, may fitly close the selections from the journal: —
“ We visited Mount Vernon, the seat of our late worthy President, General Washington, having a letter of introduction to his amiable relict. We were received with great politeness and attention. The family then at Mount Vernon consisted (besides the old lady) of Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, — the first was General Washington’s nephew, and his lady was a Miss Custis, a granddaughter of Mrs. Washington, — also Mrs. Lund Washington and George Washington Custis, the only grandson of the general’s lady. We passed the day very agreeably, and were charmed with the polite attention of Mrs. Lewis, who, with her husband, seemed to take pleasure in showing us whatever was worth attention. In the evening we took leave, although very much pressed by the old lady to pass the night, but little thought, at parting, that the amiable mistress of this pleasant mansion was so soon to exchange this for a heavenly one. Three days after she was seized with a fatal illness, which quickly terminated her precious life at the good old age of threescore and ten years. She told us that she had not for several years been off the estate, and seemed to have no wish to live, but rather a desire to follow her late illustrious husband into the realms of bliss.”
It is unfortunate for latter-day interest in Mr. Brisbane’s portly manuscript that its narrative is overmuch personal, crowded with the small details of travel, and touching too lightly on the men and things characteristic of the times when it was written. Its beautifully penned pages and evidently veracious story supply us only here and there with glimpses of the sayings and doings of the ancestral life about which our generation finds it so interesting to read ; and our fancy interlines the hundreds of pages in the beautiful folio with regrets for opportunities lost by the cultivated traveler, who, like many of our journalizing ancestors, wrote for himself, and not for posterity.