Ten Questions:

Robert A. Gross gives us his thoughts on Concord, Emerson, Thoreau, and Transcendentalism.

Robert A. Gross, Author of
The Transcendentalists and Their World

By Margaret Carroll-Bergman
Correspondent

In the following 10 Questions, Robert A. Gross, author of “The Transcendentalists and Their World” and the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History at the University of Connecticut Emeritus, gives us his thoughts on Concord, Emerson, Thoreau, and Transcendentalism. Dr. Gross is also the author of “The Minutemen and Their World” for which he won the Bancroft prize in 1977.

  1. Now that you have recently retired to Concord after spending 50 years writing about it, is it easy to stop viewing Concord and its people through the lens of history, or do you see everything that is modern or new with a sharp eye?

I’m of two minds about your question. On the one hand, many of us may live in houses that are one or two centuries old, but we are very different people from those past occupants. Our values are not our ancestors’. But in some ways, we are the heirs to the builders of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is an intense local identification that many inhabitants feel, coupled with a civic culture emphasizing service to the common good. Yet, we struggle to hold onto such local citizenship.

  1. How does Concord’s past inform the issues that it is dealing with now?

Concord’s past informs the present, in that it fosters an ideal of local autonomy that is, in important ways, false to the way things happened, but nonetheless is worth preserving as a motivation for engagement with local government.

  1. Did Emerson or Thoreau write or talk about the American Revolution?

Not very much. Emerson said in “The American Scholar” that we live “in an age of Revolution,” and, of course, he gave the address at Concord’s Bicentennial in 1835, celebrating the spirit of liberty in the local past. Thoreau commented wryly in “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” that the course of townspeople in the Revolution was as sluggish as the river that ran through the town. And he implied that his neighbors were betraying the legacy of the Revolution by their failure to take radical action against slavery. In his telling, John Brown was a Puritan and a Minuteman. But these were exceptions. Neither Emerson nor Thoreau dwelled on 1775, 1776, or 1787. … The Transcendentalists’ aim was to liberate their countrymen from blind adherence to tradition and custom and to liberate their contemporaries to make their own authentic history. Thoreau may have been reluctant to get too deeply into the American Revolution, since his maternal forbears – the Jones family – were prominent Loyalists in the town of Weston. Thoreau never engaged this aspect of his heritage in his works.

  1. Was Concord a patriotic community in the 1800s? How ingrained was the town’s identity as a major player in the American Revolution?

Early on after 1775 the townspeople claimed credit for launching the Revolution on April 19, 1775, and they never stopped insisting on their centrality, notwithstanding the later protests of Lexington and Acton. “The Transcendentalists and Their World” shows how Concord’s leading role at the start of the Revolution became central to the townspeople’s civic identity.

  1. How would you define Transcendentalism?

I see Transcendentalism as a way of thinking, based on the insight that every person partakes of a divine spirit running through all of creation – a spirit best apprehended through personal experience of nature. From this conviction arose the Transcendentalist belief that every person born is something new under the sun, with an infinite nature capable of perfection, which no authority, no institution, no mode of education can fix into a pre- existing mold. Transcendentalism is thus a religion that does not require a higher power to whom one prays. Rather, it is a spirit that in the American context united the perfectibility of the individual with a commitment to human quality, and thereby becomes a philosophy of the democratic individual.

  1. There was the famous 19th century literary circle, but was there a robust community in Concord?

Yes, I hope “The Transcendentalists and Their World” conveys what a lively, robust community thrived in Concord from 1815, say, to the early 1840s. Culturally, the town hosted one of the most active lyceums in the state; its social library boasted an up-to-date collection. The leading political parties held conventions at the Middlesex Hotel. The taverns and inns were bursting with business, even as temperance reformers tried to shut them down. By the early 1840s, Concord was religiously pluralistic. Its small black community was participating more fully in local life than ever before. But even as the inhabitants of Concord regularly got to hear Emerson at the Lyceum, they did not sign on to Transcendentalism. The new mode of thought was idealistic and inspiring, but to many, it was too selfish. Yet, I think many residents appreciated that through Emerson, Thoreau, and the Lyceum, they got access to the big ideas of their time.

  1. Which of Thoreau’s and Emerson’s writings best exemplify the issues that the Transcendentalist movement stirred?

“Walden” and “Resistance to Civil Government” are crucial in my view. Emerson’s lectures are informed in good measure by experience in and observations of Concord, but the historian has to dig out the connections.

  1. When you first came to town, how did people view Thoreau and Emerson? Any differently today?

Emerson took priority over Thoreau when we first settled in Concord; now their statuses have reversed. Environmentalism and the threat of climate change has made Thoreau far more urgent than Emerson.

  1. Most writers say they’ve written the book they’ve wanted to read. Would you say the same of “The Transcendentalists and Their World?”

Exactly so. I wanted to write a book that would explain how Concord informed and shaped the works of Emerson and Thoreau and did so without the nostalgia and romanticism that have characterized so many previous accounts. I wanted to appreciate the Transcendentalists’ works without seeing Concord through their gaze or exaggerating their popularity with the townspeople. And I wanted to portray the townspeople in their diversity, their self-interestedness and principle, their ambitions and ideals, that is, in their full humanity, as people with whom we could identify, even as we are different. So, yes, I wrote the book I wanted to read.

  1. What are your favorite works by Concord Transcendentalists?

“Walden,” Emerson’s lectures, Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” and “Walking.”

The Transcendentalists and Their World
by Robert A. Gross

A Day of Good Feelings

John Thoreau brought his family back to Concord at a propitious time. The fiftieth anniversary of the American Revolution was approaching, and from their new home in the center of town, the pencil maker’s family was well situated to join in the festivities. The planning began early in 1824, when President Monroe invited the aging Marquis de Lafayette, the comrade-in-arms and “adopted son” of George Washington, to return to the United States as “the nation’s guest” and receive the thanks of a grateful people. The next year, as the French aristocrat made a triumphal progress throughout the republic, John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s successor in the White House, ushered in the celebrations. “The year of jubilee since the first formation of our Union [the First Continental Congress] has just elapsed,” Adams announced at his inauguration; “that of the declaration of our independence is at hand.”

Concord was quick to partake in the commemorative fervor. On the Nineteenth of April 1824, for the first time since 1776, the townspeople observed the “illustrious” day with a military parade and drill, a public dinner, and a visit to the battlefield; the following September they held an elaborate reception in honor of the visiting Lafayette. The climax of these ceremonies was the jubilee of the Concord Fight. “We cherish with gratitude the recollection of those patriotic actions by which our independence was declared and achieved,” the townspeople resolved, “and deem it our duty specially to commemorate by a public celebration … the fiftieth anniversary of Concord Battle, in which the enemies of freedom were first met and forcibly repulsed by brave Americans.” Held on a “warm and pleasant” day, attended by hundreds from Middlesex County and Boston, the commemoration was a gala of national patriotism and local pride.

Civic rituals can serve more than one purpose, and so it was with the affair in Concord. Designed to pay homage to the selfless souls who had answered the call of duty a half-century before, the remembrances were also exercises in self-promotion, asserting the town’s precedence in the annals of the American republic and showcasing the local elite. Here brave Patriots first fired upon the king’s troops; here the American Revolution had its start. The claims proved controversial, particularly in nearby Lexington, where the first American blood was shed on that fateful morning in April 1775. But the townspeople were unwilling to share credit. On the long-held conviction that Concord was the birthplace of the Revolution, they constructed a civic identity, through which the citizens could overcome differences of age, politics, religion, and class and cherish a common bond. Or so they hoped. At age seven, Henry Thoreau witnessed both Lafayette’s reception and the fiftieth-anniversary celebration. A dozen years later, on the eve of his graduation from Harvard College, he boasted of his local origin in an autobiographical essay for the yearbook. “To whatever quarter of the world I may wander, I shall deem it my good fortune that I hail from Concord North Bridge.”

It was no easy feat to assemble Concord’s citizens under one patriotic roof. For a quarter-century, the townsmen had been divided politically between rival parties. As elsewhere in the early American republic, they took sides as Federalists or Republicans in an ongoing contest for power. The dispute originated early in the administration of George Washington, as leaders of the new nation clashed over the economic program of Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, which resembled the policies of the mother country from which the United States had only recently broken free. In the late 1790s, the divisions intensified and spread to the people at large, as a result of the French Revolution and the worldwide upheaval it unleashed. Split over sympathies with the warring powers, Britain and France, Americans debated foreign policy with an ideological fervor that led neighbors with opposing opinions to see one another as enemies in unholy alliance with foreign despots. The conflict peaked in intensity during the years of embargo and war (1807–15)—the tumultuous era that doomed John Thoreau’s initial entry into trade—with Republicans and Federalists trading charges of betraying liberty and jeopardizing national independence. No wonder, then, that the competing parties in Concord and beyond could seldom sit down together and celebrate the Fourth of July. Partisans opted for separate commemorations when they marked the day at all.

The fierce rivalry between the parties brought Concord’s voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Although voting was restricted to property holders, most adult males qualified (except for laborers and paupers), and—spurred by county conventions, local rallies and speeches, and appeals in the press—they exercised the right of suffrage with growing enthusiasm. At the height of the partisan conflict, 72 percent of eligible men turned out, more than in the state as a whole.4 Such commitment turned virtually every election for federal, state, and county office from 1800 to 1816 into a close contest. Republicans won more often than not, typically by narrow margins, but in the wake of Jefferson’s embargo and Mr. Madison’s war, which generated Federalist tides in the Bay State, Concord floated between the parties. In 1802 the poll for governor was a dead tie until the Federalists dragged a man from his sickbed and captured the election. A dozen years later the town abandoned the effort to elect a representative to the state legislature, after no candidate, on two successive ballots, could command an absolute majority. This narrow division over two decades was unusual in Massachusetts, where most towns went reliably for one side or the other, and it set Concord apart from its neighbors in Middlesex County, a Republican bastion. In the intensity of its party division, Concord was as conflicted a community as could be found anywhere in the Bay State.

But the partisanship was ambivalent. Even as the townsmen mobilized for victory at the polls, they had reservations about their conduct. To the men who won independence and created the republic, political parties were unwelcome. Ideally, government should be conducted under the helm of enlightened gentlemen cooperating for the common good. That was impossible whenever “factions” entered the scene to pursue their own selfish interests. Nobody envisioned such associations as useful means of informing and motivating voters, conducting elections, and carrying out the popular will. Both Federalists and Republicans yearned for harmony and consensus, and they blamed opponents for stirring up discontent and disorder for personal gain. Time and again they reminded the citizens of the biblical injunction: a “house divided against itself shall not stand” (Matthew 12:25). Were everyone to heed that counsel and disavow “party spirit,” Massachusetts would enjoy liberty and prosperity under what Concord’s minister, Ezra Ripley, upheld as a “free, elective government; a government of laws, and not of men; a government guided by definite constitutions, deliberately formed, and watched by ten thousand penetrating eyes.”

Parson Ripley longed to speak for such a unified community. But in an age of bitter political conflict, he often fell short. Born in 1751, the descendant of English Puritans who had crossed the Atlantic in the Great Migration of the 1630s, Ripley grew up on hardscrabble farms in northeastern Connecticut and on the central Massachusetts frontier, one of nineteen children in a household noted more for faith than for wealth. (An astonishing seventeen survived to adulthood.) With a precocious piety and “a strong desire for learning,” the youth escaped the farm for Harvard College and the “gospel ministry,” thanks to a charity scholarship. His senior year was spent in Concord, where the college had found a haven in 1775–1776 while American troops used the Cambridge campus as a base for military operations against the British in Boston. Two years later, after Concord’s fiery patriot minister William Emerson died in service as an army chaplain, Ripley returned to the town and assumed his predecessor’s pulpit, married his widow, and moved into his manse overlooking the North Bridge. (He would thereby become Ralph Waldo Emerson’s step-grandfather.) There he stayed put for the next sixty-three years, preaching a clerical version of republicanism meant to unify the community and inspire Christian faith.

That mission worked for Ripley’s first two decades as head of the religious establishment. The Revolution, as he saw it, was no radical break with the past. The United States had simply taken over from New England as God’s chosen people, in sacred covenant to accept “the divine word and ordinances” and “profess godliness” before the world. Freed from the British yoke, Concordians would continue their ancestors’ ways. This complacent scenario was shattered by the reverberations of the Old World uprisings in the New. Ripley feared the spread of French radicalism into his parish. “The great object of the enemy,” he told the congregation, “is to destroy religion and morals among the people. This done, they have confidence, and with reason, that civil government must fall.” With reverence for Providence gone, what would bind the community together and enforce order? “Disrespect to the authorities over us and disunion among ourselves,” he warned, “are at the bottom of our political troubles and danger.”

In the late 1790s, as the United States engaged in a naval “quasi-war” with France, and then again in 1813, with the onset of hostilities with Great Britain, the Concord minister took to the ramparts in defense of the New England way. Suspending his “regular preaching” of Christ, he laid out his entire social philosophy in twenty-one sermons on “the social virtues and moral duties.” His central theme, indeed his only theme, was duty in every sphere of life. There were the duties that made for community: candor, charity, friendship, peaceableness, “civility and condescension,” public spirit. And there were the duties that ensured order: reverence for authority, obedience to law, subordination to superiors. Some duties, like charity, cut across the social ranks; others varied with one’s station. Ripley invoked “the duty of parents to children” in one sermon, “the duty of children to parents” in the next. He moved from “the duty of parents to restrain their children from vice” to “the duty of children to honor their parents.” “The duty of servants” was matched by “the duty of masters,” that of “subjects” by that of “magistrates and rulers.” Always there was “the duty of gratitude to God.” Through the several pairs of sermons, all integrated to advance a single, unified theme, Ripley gave rhetorical expression to his worldview. Like the linked units in his series, society constituted a great chain of interdependent parts, organized by mutual duties and privileges and sustained by common interests and affections.

The “ambassador for Christ” did not shy away from outright political engagement. His antipartisanship was unmistakably partisan. He preached the Federalist message of “liberty with order,” and he readily associated himself with that party, even as his congregation was split down the middle. In the summer of 1812, several months after Congress declared war against Great Britain for violating American rights on the high seas, the Concord minister welcomed to his meetinghouse a Middlesex County convention of “the Friends of Independence, Peace, and Union” and petitioned “the Throne of Grace” to bless the antiwar gathering, which urged the defeat of the Republican administration in the upcoming November election. Ripley was on the winning side in Concord, but his partisan stance would long be remembered and held against him.

Two years later, as the war dragged on, with British forces occupying eastern Maine (then a part of the Bay State) and threatening the Massachusetts coast, the parson turned his annual Thanksgiving sermon into a political screed. Taking in his words were his Emerson grandsons, including eleven-year-old Ralph, who spent the fall and winter of 1814–1815 at the manse, safe from the threat of enemy warships to Boston. It was customary on this occasion for the pastor to assay the condition of his flock and thank the Lord for their good fortune. But so distracted and disordered were the American people in 1814, so faithless to divine commandments, that Ripley was at a loss for blessings to count. Taking his text from the Book of Ezra, he likened Americans to the Israelites of the Old Testament, who had strayed from their covenant with God, engaged in “abominations” with strangers, and been punished less than they deserved. Had not the citizens of the United States done the same? Had they not “indulged partialities for other nations of a political and moral nature, which are both sinful and injurious”? Such biases had wreaked havoc on national life. Their “tendency” was “to darken counsel, alienate the affection of fellow citizens, excite a party spirit, promote factions, weaken authority, convulse the states and endanger the freedom of government and the just liberties of the people.”

Ostensibly evenhanded, the parson’s strictures were actually directed at the followers of Jefferson and Madison. Why was xenophilia distorting U.S. foreign policy? Ripley pinned the blame on immigrants from Europe and Great Britain, especially from Ireland. The newcomers, streaming into the new republic in search of economic opportunity and political liberty, were critical to Republican victories at the polls. Many of these “foreigners” were radicals in exile for revolutionary activities abroad, and they were now propagating their dangerous ideas in the American press. As political writers and newspaper editors, these “fomenters of sedition [and] leaders of insurrections” exercised an undue influence over public opinion. Owing to them—and to the many American merchants who had been tainted by stays overseas—“our politics have been confused, our morals corrupted, our national faith ruined, and our religious principles weakened.” Ripley took pains to disavow hostility to immigration altogether; it was “the glory” of America to be “an asylum for the oppressed of all nations.” But “for want of judgment or principle,” he complained, the country was admitting the wrong sort of people—“rogues, renegadoes … and those who have merited the halter or the dungeon.” By failing to distinguish between “the precious and the vile,” America was being taken over by godless men aiming “only to enrich and aggrandize themselves.” Under this onslaught, “the free, religious, young and inexperienced” republic was at risk of losing its identity as a special people singled out by God for a unique mission.

Ripley was not simply a nativist, though his fear of foreigners would resound across the centuries. His early version of American exceptionalism was meant to preserve Concord and New England from alien influences. Excessive importation of foreign goods, ideas, and people threatened a way of life reaching back to the Puritans. “The piety, morality, and simple manners of our fathers have been contaminated, if not lost. We are become like the nations about us, to whom we were unlike, and which likeness from such affinity is our sin, and is now a heavy curse upon us.” Let the people repent, change their ways, and come together in unison to obey God’s laws. Only then would Concord be back on track. The ideal town was homogeneous, its members true to the past, bound together in mutual dependence, and of one mind.

The Federalist parson spoke for roughly half the town, including nearly all of the local elite, but his desire for consensus cut across party lines. Republicans too worried about unpatriotic factions that were at odds with the common good. When war was declared, they rallied in support, raising volunteers for the army and awarding enlistment bonuses from the town treasury.13 To their mind, the opposition in Massachusetts was doing everything possible to obstruct the military effort. The suspicions were not without merit. For even as Ripley preached against “partialities” to foreign powers, a convention of New England states was set to meet in Hartford, Connecticut, with the aims of opposing the Madison administration’s conduct of the war and demanding redress of the region’s grievances. Secession loomed as a threat to the American union. In late October 1814, Middlesex County Republicans assembled in Concord to denounce Massachusetts’s participation in the upcoming convention. Watch out for “the insidious intrigues and conspiracies of domestic traitors, who boldly triumph in the prospect of their country’s ruin,” they warned. The schemers were bent on replacing the federal compact, “the great pillar of our Independence,” with a government “more congenial to the views and feelings of a powerful and restless aristocracy.” As it turned out, the Hartford Convention eschewed extreme measures. But the conclave did share Ezra Ripley’s distrust of immigrants and advocate the exclusion of naturalized citizens from public office. To Republicans, the proponents of such measures were “a relentless and powerful faction” ambitious to rule unchecked over a virtuous people. The cause of republicanism—America’s mission to the world—required their defeat.

The party divisions continued well after the shooting had stopped. On April 13, 1815, both sides in Concord gathered in the meetinghouse to join in the “national thanksgiving” proclaimed by President Madison to mark the end of hostilities. Amid the general relief, Parson Ripley could not refrain from disparaging the late conflict as “a distressing, corrupting, and unprofitable war.” The next Fourth of July, only 150 “ladies and gentlemen” turned out to celebrate American independence at the Concord battle site; though not “a word of party politics” was permitted, the event, featuring yet another speech by Ripley, evidently had little appeal for those still upset by Federalist reluctance to defend American independence.

Old enmities died hard. The Federalists waned as a national political force after James Monroe won overwhelming election to the presidency in 1816, but in the Bay State the parties continued to vie for power. In the summer of 1817 the new president visited Boston—but not Concord—during a goodwill tour of the nation, and he was so warmly greeted by “eminent men of all political parties” that a Federalist editor dubbed the reception “an era of good feelings.” Even so, in state and national elections the rivalry went on, though with diminishing intensity. In Concord, turnout for congressional elections plummeted. Where 218 voters cast ballots in 1814, only 116 did so in 1818, and four years later a mere 50 citizens bothered to come out and endorse Republican Timothy Fuller for a fourth term over token opposition. The annual elections for statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and state senate) remained far more competitive and engaging. Concord went for the Federalists in close contests between 1817 and 1820 and then turned into a Republican stronghold. When Federalists nominated Harrison Gray Otis, the spearhead of the Hartford Convention, for governor in 1823, the deep-seated passions revived and enjoyed a last hurrah. By the mid-1820s the party faithful were waging battles over symbolic issues with little relevance to the present.

When state and national issues were not involved, Concord’s leaders found it easy to cooperate, doing everything possible to insulate local government from the party wars. The principal officials of the town—a board of three selectmen, one of whom doubled as town clerk—were elected year after year without opposition. The typical selectman in the 1820s served five or six terms, usually consecutively, before stepping down; the town clerk, Dr. Abiel Heywood, was a fixture in office from 1796 on and, having caught up with the times by switching from small clothes to trousers, had no plans to retire. The same families that had governed the colonial community still ruled, with greater dominance than ever; over 90 percent of selectmen descended from Puritan founders of the town: Barretts, Heywoods, Hubbards, and Woods, names identified with the local landscape. Every year the town met on the same schedule, doing its business chiefly in spring (March to May) and late fall (November) in four or five sessions; in between, the selectmen gathered once a week in local taverns to monitor affairs over dinner and drinks. The basic obligations of town government—seeing to roads and bridges, supporting schools and the poor, paying the minister’s salary, collecting taxes—were handled without partisan rancor. For thirty years, from 1796 to 1825, town meeting voted by acclamation, rarely tallying the results. In a wider world of political conflict, the town meeting was a haven of consensus.

When Concordians were offered the chance to change, they largely stuck with familiar ways. In mid-November 1820, Massachusetts convened a constitutional convention in Boston to reconsider the frame of government devised for the Commonwealth in 1780 by John Adams together with his cousin Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin. The first state in the new nation to choose a representative body to draft a constitution and submit it for popular ratification, Massachusetts was also the first to convene a convention to revise its plan of government. The Constitution of 1780 rested on the will of the people (actually, only the adult males), but it curtailed democracy by setting property qualifications for voting and officeholding, and it restricted freedom of worship by requiring the inhabitants of each town to support an official church and minister with local taxes, an arrangement known as the Congregationalist Standing Order. The citizenry was also enjoined to attend public worship on the Sabbath. These provisions, set forth in article three of the constitution, were designed to harness the religious legacy of the Puritan past to the needs of the new republic. What better way to instill a respect for law and love of morality than through religious establishments?

Many people resented the demand to fund churches whose doctrines or mode of worship went against their beliefs. In principle, dissenters, such as Baptists and Quakers, could apply their tax money to whatever religious institutions they preferred, but local authorities often denied that option. Nonbelievers had no choice but to pay for preaching they disdained or ignored. These requirements gave rise to mounting dissatisfactions, which conservatives succeeded in blocking until the separation of Maine from the Bay State made it necessary to adjust the fundamental law of the state. Here lay an opportunity to enhance liberty and equality and extend popular power.

Concord sent two delegates to play important parts in the conclave. The lawyers Samuel Hoar and John Keyes, one Federalist, the other Republican, belonged to a new generation of leaders assuming power in the postwar political climate. In 1820 they were still early in an ascent that would carry them to prominence well beyond the town; the rivalry between them would charge local affairs for the next two decades. Neither was native to Concord. The older of the two, Hoar, born in 1778, came from Lincoln, the adjacent town to the southeast, which had broken off from Concord in 1754. Keyes, born in 1787, had his origins in nearby Westford, seven miles northwest. Both grew up in farming families of old Puritan stock that had taken seriously the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. Hoar, the eldest son and namesake of his father, had nine siblings; Keyes had eight, of whom he was the firstborn in his father’s second marriage. Both were sons of the Revolution whose fathers had turned out for the skirmish at the North Bridge and gone on to serve in several campaigns of the war.

The similarities of background ended there. Whereas Hoar built on a notable heritage of education and leadership, Keyes enjoyed few inherited advantages and was obliged to sacrifice for his schooling. Harvard College had a long association with the Hoar family, one of whom had served as its president in the 1670s. Hoar’s father, Samuel, “a farmer of great respectability” and political eminence, intended his firstborn son for higher learning; while working on the family farm, the youth prepared for college with unusual thoroughness, then entered Harvard (Class of 1802) at the relatively late age of twenty. So greatly did he excel at his studies that four years after graduating, Hoar was offered the professorship of mathematics at his alma mater, an opportunity he declined in favor of a career in law.

The bookish Keyes, by contrast, escaped a life of farming only because of “a severe accident incurred by upsetting a cart in his fifteenth year”—a convenient mishap that rendered him unsuitable for manual labor. Though the father was “hardly able to afford it,” Keyes attended the local academy, a daily three-mile walk each way. At seventeen, he rode on horseback through the woods to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, selling his mount on arrival to help pay expenses. By dint of severe economy and schoolteaching during winter vacations, Keyes got by, and whatever the hardships, they did not deter him from graduating as salutatorian in the Class of 1809 and going on to forge a career in law. Rising in the world with few advantages, he knew firsthand the value of self-discipline and hard work.

College education in the eighteenth century was designed to produce gentlemen as well as scholars. Hoar and Keyes absorbed those lessons in distinctive Yankee style. Tall and slender at six feet three inches, austere and formal in appearance, Hoar (nicknamed “Cato” by his classmates for his Roman severity) had the dignified way of a minister, marked by “great courtesy” and grace, especially to women and children. Keyes, somewhat above average height, was “rather spare and erect,” dressing neatly but “without display” and carrying himself in a “courteous and gentlemanly” manner. Having polished their social skills—Hoar through two years as a tutor in the sophisticated household of the prominent Virginia planter John Tayloe—the two moved easily in polite circles and made advantageous marriages. Hoar waited till age thirty-four to wed Sarah Sherman, the twenty-nine-year-old daughter of Connecticut’s most distinguished Revolutionary leader, Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Keyes at twenty-nine found a wife in Ann Stow Shepard, stepdaughter of the late sheriff of Middlesex County; descended from a royal official in Boston who decamped with British troops for Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1776, she was nonetheless the child of a Patriot home, which had grown rich from wartime privateering. Through marriage, Keyes secured advantages that Hoar had possessed from birth.

The two attorneys practiced their profession in contrasting ways. Hoar arrived in Concord first, around 1807, renting a room for his law office in the yellow store, where John Thoreau was just setting up his short-lived business. Hoar’s trenchant mind and winning way with juries soon attracted a growing clientele. In the courtroom he would start with a simple principle and proceed earnestly and systematically to expound its logic “with almost mathematical precision” to a conclusion he would cap with a rural saying or lively story. His impact became legendary; one admirer swore that “if he should kill a man, he would have no fear of being hung, if he could get Esq. Hoar to plead his case.” In one criminal trial where he presented the defense, the story goes, the jury reached a deadlock.

The presiding judge asked whether their difficulty was with the law or the evidence. The foreman replied that it was not in either, but in the plea; that the law and the evidence seemed to show that the man was guilty, but that Squire Hoar had said in his plea that he believed his client was innocent, and as Squire Hoar always told the truth, most of the jury did not see how they were to get over it.

Through such triumphs, Hoar soon dominated the county bar. During the 1820s, by one count, he served as counsel in a third of the Middlesex cases before the state supreme court. He was sometime associate and occasional opponent of the legal giants of Massachusetts, Daniel Webster and Rufus Choate. And like them, he became the advocate of vested interests and great corporations, particularly the powerful cotton manufacturers, whose cause he advanced by developing into “the highest authority in Massachusetts upon the law pertaining to mills and water power.”

Copyright © 2021 by Robert A. Gross

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