In "Team of Rivals," Doris Kearns Goodwin won points with me by quoting "Spoon River Anthology." When did Americans stop reading Edgar Lee Masters? During what post-modernist spring cleaning did the keepers of the academic shrine toss out his idol, and what multi-cultural thing did they set up in its place? Surely our national decline must have begun not long after that.
Perhaps because I don't think her thesis in this book is a terribly important one, other details in the text keep punching through to distract me from the narrative. Like Masters. Or Death.
Read early 19th century biographies and life stories and you can't help notice the swath death cut through young families. Seeing five different biographical stories overlaid, as in "Team of Rivals," makes that effect all the more dramatic.
Edwin Stanton lost his daughter to scarlet fever, then three years later his wife, Mary, at age 29. He buried her in a bridal gown and was distraught for months; his sister had to come live with him as he stalked the house at night, from room to room, with a lantern, sobbing and screaming, "Where is Mary?" At the time he was the leading lawyer in Jefferson County, Ohio, with a hand in almost every case, and the entire spring court session had to be canceled while his wits were lost. His younger brother, a medical student, suffered a fever that damaged his brain and he took his own life by puncturing his throat with a medical tool.
Salmon Chase lost his first wife after 18 months of marriage from complications in childbirth. She was 23. The daughter she bore died of scarlet fever at age 5. Chase fell in love with and married a friend of his wife, but their daughter also died, and tuberculosis felled the mother at age 25. Chase married a third time, to a society belle in Cincinnati, but of their two daughters only one lived past a year and the mother soon died as well. By 44, he had buried three wives and three daughters. He never remarried, and the sole surviving child, Kitty, was his brilliant "first lady" throughout his political career.
The Sewards lost a baby daughter to smallpox in 1837. William tried to bring his wife, Frances, with him in his political posts, but she prefered to stay home. She wrote to a woman friend, "you can very well understand that I am more happy to be here -- There is a sort of satisfaction, menancholy it is, in being once more in the room where my darling babe lived and died -- in looking over her little wardrobe -- in talking with those who missed and loved her."
Lincoln himself, as a young man, lost the three women he most loved: his mother, his sister, and Ann Rutledge. The death of the latter threw him into a suicidal despair. Mary Lincoln never recovered mentally from the loss of her 3-year-old son, Eddie, in 1850, after she nursed him in vain as tuberculosis tore through his body in seven weeks.
Researchers into early nineteenth century families quickly come to accept the high death rates among children as a fact of life in those days. Families were large, medicine was crude, disease ran rampant, and it seems no family was untouched by the tragedy of a child lost.
We tend to think of death as a country for the old. It was not so then. People of all ages were vulnerable, the cold calculus of contagion meant that if a bacterium got into a household parents could lose some or all of their children in a matter of days.
Parental bereavement came not only by the sudden stroke of a gunshot or accident; with tragic frequency they had to watch, deperate and powerless as death took its agonizing time with their children, who writhed as parasites dissolved their bowels or languished delirious in parching fevers. Nowadays, parents who lose a child have to go in search of support. No one, it seems, really knows how to talk to them. Parental bereavement is alien to most of us. But 150 years ago, death of a child was a common denominator among American families.
All this first struck me ten years ago when I wrote a cinder-block-sized history of a small city in Pennsylvania. In this comparatively wealthy and healthy place, as many as a third of the children born in the early 1800s died before age 10. I was reading through fat caches of letters, mainly to sort out the political evolutions of that turbulent time and trace the rise of the Republican party from wind-blown threads of abolitionists, Know-Nothings, and other fringes.
But I kept meeting family tragedies. Such as Townsend Haines, a leading political lawyer who left a voluminous correspondence and who had lost a young daughter, Sarah, in 1824.
Haines wrote to Congressman Charles Miner on Christmas Day, 1828, in a jolly, joking tone full of puns and absurd allusions. In the middle of a page he abruptly broke off the style. “I once thought I never would write such a letter again; I'll tell you why,” he wrote. “When at Harrisburg [as a state legislator] I was in the frequent habit of indulging myself in this foolish way. Among the rest whom I wrote to in this manner was Williamson, and in a day after my letter had started I got news from W. Chester that W. Williamson had the misfortune to lose his child—you remember it. I would have given a great deal to have had my letter back, but it was on the road, and all I could do was send another, sincerely apologizing for my heedless folly.”
Miner would have understood. He had lost an infant daughter in 1813, and his three children born between 1818 and 1823 had all died before they turned 2. After Miner had retired, a friend wrote requesting to name his son after the Congressman. Miner replied that he would be honored. “But, with my prayers for, and my Blessings on, the boy, let me beg of you, while you call him Charles, that, for the middle name you substitute another than mine. The early loss of a lovely child named fully after me, by my excellent friends John and Sybilla Townsend, leads me tremblingly to fear, where I should dearly love, and causes the judgment to disapprove the earnest wish.”
One of the leading men in the town in the second quarter of the 19th century fathered eleven children, eight of whom died before age 23. In the space of about five weeks, croup killed three young children of a local shoemaker and his wife.
Four daughters, age 8 to 14, fell sick in a single night in a family living in a tenant house. Within days, two were dead. The mother and son, 17, also fell ill, and three days after the death of the daughters the son followed them to the grave. A local woman from a wealthy family was among those who visited the afflicted, and soon one of her children also fell sick with the mystery disease. At the same time another family lost two children within a few days, including a son who fell sick at midnight and was dead by five a.m.
The town was in a panic. Some 140 years later, reading the simple description of the symptoms in the rag-paper newsprint, a modern reader with just a casual knowledge of medicine can recognize at once an outbreak of spinal meningitis. But the people you are reading about had no clue. And you have no way to warn them.
Scarlet fever broke out in the house of a local doctor in January 1854. It killed a son, age 3 years and 3 months, and three days later another, age 9 months, died of an inflammation of the lungs probably related to the fever. Three days after that the oldest son, less than a month past his eighth birthday, also died of scarlet fever. Their mother, Harriett, expressed her grief in a death notice in the local newspaper, grasping for solace in sentiment: “In one short week, what hath not death wrought? What desolation! What crushing of fond hopes! What agonizing grief! Thrice the blow has fallen on bleeding hearts, and thrice the Reaper has bidden a fire-side flower to the garden of God, and the harvest-home of Heaven. First, the prattling boy, then the nestling babe, then the eldest born. ‘Lovely and pleasant their lives, in death they were not divided.’ ”
In an 1837 letter, Haines gave a detailed description of a child’s funeral, under the direction of the Rev. Groff of the Presbyterian Church:
At the funeral of Mr. Williamson’s little boy, before the corpse was removed from the house, [Groff] held a meeting and went through the Service of the church. He gave out a few verses of the Psalm, and his, and a female voice, were the only two that sung. The melody was sweet, plaintive, and soothing, and all could feel that the heart went up in the Voice of thanks-giving with deep and reverent devotion. The hymn ended: he preached the resurrection of the dead. After some general remarks on this new evidence of the necessity of preparation, and repentance; he spoke of the resurrection of the body, and, addressing himself to the mourners, he told them their son had left them only for a little time: that they would again meet him in the same body, bearing the same appearance as when he played before them, and that they would know him as their son, and he would know them as his father & mother. I had never heard the doctrine of the resurrection of the body carried out to this extent before, and could not conceive of any belief so consoling to relatives and friends. I almost hoped they would believe it, although such consolation would be denied to me. It is a doctrine which is predicated on human attachments, without even the gloss of reason to support it.
All of this had to warp the lives of men and women, their marriages, their surviving children. For one, huge family sizes and ever-present threat of death may have kept parents from forming closer attachments to their children. Haines wrote yet again of a child’s death in 1838. He mentioned to his correspondent a mutual acquaintance who had suffered such a loss, and he said the man “had suffered his affections to entwine themselves so closely round his son that it was almost death to separate them. This ought to be avoided if possible, and while I could live only for my children I deny myself that exquisite pleasure, lest they be required to leave me.” Haines and his wife, Ann, had four sons and two daughters after little Sarah’s death in 1824, but the last son, Caleb, named for Townsend’s father, died on March 28, 1844, just after he turned 5.
It's remarkable that a tragedy so pervading, and so intense, has not been more considered by historians in examining the temper of the times. This grim fact of life seems to me to explain so much about the shape of 19th century American minds, especially where they seem different from ours: The determination to make something of oneself, the importance of family.
As Haines' letters suggest, not just the intensity of American religion but the form of it, so full of resurrection and the need to keep in God's good graces at every moment, seems to have been guided by the realities of death in that era. The hope of meeting in another world and knowing one another in the flesh again was the only solace. Lincoln, lacking it, was thrown into despair by the loss of Ann Rutledge.
[Lincoln's religion, or lack of it, has been from time to time a topic of hot argument. But, tellingly, the argument has gone on mostly among those less acquainted with the full details of the case. Historians of the times seem generally to accept that, whatever changes time wroght, Lincoln as a young man lacked Christian belief.]
Others, faithful, were able to bear the loss by convincing themselves of this theology. Mary Todd, after her child's death, threw herself into the bosom of the Presbyterian church, while Chase, who always was devout, was tormented because his first wife had died without fully affirming her Protestant faith.
Given that, I wonder if it is mere coincidence that the decline in religious intensity among the mass of Americans seems to have begun within a generation of the decline of the child death rate, reversed when medical men and women finally began to understand, and beat back, tuberculosis, typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and whooping cough.
Is it possible, too, that the thwarted loves from so many death-stalked families found outlet in furious activity? Goodwin seems to notice this when she points out that, of all the Lincoln rivals she writes about, only Edward Bates had a happy family life -- and Bates was the least politically active of the group. He retired early to his home and only reluctantly came back to the partisan fray. Would Lincoln or Chase have been so passionate for political success if their family lives had been happier? Would there have been a President Lincoln if little Eddie had lived? If Ann Rutledge had lived?
OUT of me unworthy and unknown
The vibrations of deathless music;
"With malice toward none, with charity for all."
Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions,
And the beneficent face of a nation
Shining with justice and truth.
I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union,
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!
But nobody reads Edgar Lee Masters anymore.