Charles Henry Bell.

Discourse delivered before the New-England historic, genealogical society, Boston, March 18, 1871, on the occasion of the dedication of the society's house online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryCharles Henry BellDiscourse delivered before the New-England historic, genealogical society, Boston, March 18, 1871, on the occasion of the dedication of the society's house → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook



^^ew-England Historic, Genealogical Society,

BOSTON, MARCH 18, 1871,







N. E.Hlst. Genl. Soc.

tliuth is the historian's chown, asd art
Squares it. to stricter comeliness.

D. Ci-App & Son, 564 Washington St., Boston.





Society's Rooms, 17 Bromfield Street,
Boston, 9th November, 1870.

The Hon. Charles H. Bell,

Exeter, IST. H.

Dear Sir, —

The undersigned having been appointed by the New-Eng-
land Historic, Genealogical Society, a committee of arrange-
ments for the dedication of the Society's House, to take place
probably in March next, beg to tender to you our cordial and unani-
mous request that you will deliver a discourse before the Society on
that occasion.

We have the honor, dear Sir, to be

Most respectfully,

Your obedient servants,

Marshall P. Wilder,
• William B, Towne,

DoRus Clarke,
Edmund F. Slafteb,
George B. Upton.

Exeter, N. H., 12th November, 1870.

Gentlemen : —

I thank you for the honor you have done me, in selecting me
to deliver a discourse before the New-England Historic, Genea-
logical Society, on the interesting occasion of the dedication of


their House, as well as for tlie kind and courteous terms of yx)ur


It will afford me much pleasure to comply with your request.

With the highest respect,

Your obedient servant,

Charles H. Bell.

To the Hon. Marshall P. "Wilder, Boston, Mass.
William B. Towne, Esq., Milfoixl, N. H.
The Rev. DoRus Clarke, D.D., Boston, Mass.
The Rev. Edmund F. Slafter, Bostou, Mass.
The Hon. George B. Upton, Boston, Mass.

The Discourse was delivered in the Hall of the Society's House,
18 Somerset Street, Boston, on the afternoon of the 18th of March,
1871, the 26th anniversary of the Society's incorporation, to a
crowded assembly, members of the Society and invited guests.

The Hon. Marshall P. Wilder, the president, in calling the
meeting to order, spoke as follows : —

Ladies and Gentlemen : —

I congratulate you upon the auspicious circumstances under
which we are assembled. One year ago this day we commemorated
with appropriate ceremonies the completion of the first quarter of a
centuiy in the history of our association. To-day we signalize
another important epoch in our progress by the consecration of this,
our house, to the love of country, kindred and a revered ancestry.
One year ago the Society possessed no home in fee-simple. To-day
it is the sole proprietor, the owner w^ithout incumbrance, of this
beautiful edifice, purchased, remodelled and furnished by the generous
contributions of our members.

But while we rejoice in the present flourishing condition of our
Society, while we recognize with the warmest gratitude the self-
sacrificing services of those who have carried on its operations to the
present time, and especially of the noble benefactors, who have placed
in our hands, during the past year, more than forty thousand dollars
for the purchase, reconstruction and equipment of this house, let us


not forget the gracious Providence which has crowned our efforts
with success. And in acknowledgment of this goodness, I will
call upon our associate, the Rev. Dr. Park, to give thanks in our
behalf, and to invoke the Divine benediction upon us and upon our
good work.

Prayer was then offered by Professor Edwards A. Park, D.D.,
of the Theological Seminary at Andover.

Appropriate lines were then sung by the whole assembly, led by
Samuel B. No yes, Esq.

After the delivery of the discourse, a doxology was sung by the
assembly, and a benediction was pronounced by the Rev. Jainies H.
Meaxs, A.m., of Dorchester.

At the monthly meeting of the Society held April 5, 1871, Dr.
WixsLOW Lewis offered the following resolution, which was
adopted : —

Resolved, — That the thanks of the Society be presented to the
Hon. Charles H. Bell, for his able and interesting address de-
livered on the 18th of JMarch last on the occasion of the dedication
of the Society's Plouse, and that a copy be requested for publication.

Description of the Society's House ; — In the Appendix to
the Quarter-Century Discourse, published last year, will be found a
history of the Society's estate, dating back to the first settlement of
the town of Boston, prepared by the present writer and to which the
reader is referred. At that time the house, which by the services
above described has been dedicated to the interests of New-England
history, had not been re-arranged and adapted to its present use. A
few words of description may therefore be needed, especially for a
large number of our members, who reside at a considerable distance.

The House is situated on an eligible site in Somerset street, north-
east of the Capitol, on the declivity of Beacon hill. Its location is
near tlie valuable Library of the Boston Athenaeum, the State Library


at the State House, the Record Office for deeds and wills of Suffolk
county, and the City Hall. It was erected in 1805 for a dwelling-
house, and was so used until it was purchased by the Society on
the 12th of March, 1870. It is constructed of brick, strongly built,
four stories in height by the original arrangement of flats, having a
front of twenty-nine feet and five or six inches, and a depth of forty-
two feet and a fraction over, with an extension in the rear of about
twenty-one or two by a little over thirteen feet. The front is faced
with a composition known as "concrete stone" ; it is made in blocks,
and resembles a grayish sandstone, wdiile the heavy caps of the win-
dows and doors, and other trimmings, are of sandstone from Nova
Scotia. Over the entrance is inscribed : —

Neav-England Historic, Genealogical Society.

There are three rooms on the first floor ; the one in front is oc-
cupied at present as a rece^Dtion-room, where members of the Society
may meet for consultation and general conversation ; in the rear of
this is the Directors' Room, where they hold their monthly meetings
and where the officers prepare their correspondence. It is furnished
Avith desks, cases, and drawers for their convenience. These two
rooms have white marble fire-places, with grates for open fires. The
extension, nineteen and a half by eleven feet in the clear, is con-
structed into a Fire-proof Room. It has double walls of brick ; the
floor and ceiling are also of brick and cement arched upon iron
girders of great strength, capable of resisting falling walls or timbers
in case of fire. It is furnished with shelves and a hundred and
twenty-one drawers for receiving the rare books and manuscripts
belonging to the Society.

On the second floor there are also three rooms ; one over the en-
trance hall, and another over the Fire-proof Room, both used for the
reception and arrangement of books and pamplilets ; the third has
an area of forty by twenty feet, and contains that part of the library
which is in most constant use. The entire walls are lined with glazed
cases of black walnut, in which the books are protected from dust.
It is furnished with tables and desks for the convenience of those who
may resort to the library for historical investigation. This room is
known as the Library.


The third and fourth stories of the original structure are thrown
into one, and the whole area is occupied as a hall for the public
meetings of the Society. It is agreeably lighted from the roof and
by windows in the front and in the rear. A gallery, approached by
an iron stairway, extends around the entire hall. The walls above
the gallery are lined throughout with shelves, which are filled with
books less frequently called for. A dais rises at the east end of the
hall, which is occupied on public occasions by the president and
other oflScers of the Society, and the readers of historical papers.
The cellar is dry and commodious for storage, and contains a large
furnace from which heat is conveyed to every part of the building.
All the rooms throughoutt the house are furnished with gas-fixtures
and chandeliers, by which abundant light is furnished whenever it is
needed for reading or writing. The cost of the property, including
the reconstruction of the house and its adaptation to the purposes
of the Society, has been over forty-three thousand dollars,
as will more exactly appear by the report of the treasurer hereafter
to be made.


The philosopliical inquirer who observes in every quarter of our
broad land a considerable class of persons, of all grades of education
and position, giving no small part of their lives to the rescue and pre-
servation of the memorials of the past, cannot fail to ask what common
bond of interest unites in similar pursuits those who are in all else so
dissimilar. How comes it that the study of other times affords grati-
fication alike to unlettered antiquary and accomplished historical
scholar ; to the pitifid relic-hunter who gloats in private over his
hoards, and the princely collector who holds his wondrous accumula-
tions only in trust, for the world's enjoyment? What spell has power
to touch a responsive chord in natures so world-wide asunder ? The
answer is not doubtful. It is no mere fondness for things which are
ancient ; for the most veritable piece of antiquity, without a story or
association, Avould be powerless to awaken their interest. But it is
the desire, common to each of them, to secure from decay visible tokens
of the men and times that have passed aAvay, to keep alive their me-
mory, and so to provide materials which Avill contribute to the com-
pleteness of our country's ai'chives.

The Future of American History, the incentive and the ultimate
goal of the combined antiquarian effort so widely discernible among
our people, will be the subject of my remarks on this occasion.

It has been so confidently asserted, and so often repeated, by for-
eign critics, that a taste for the pursuit of historical and antiquarian
learning woidd never take kindly root in the soil of our republic,
that unreflecting persons have been inclined to accept the statement
as true. It is argued, Avitli plausibility, that as no important designs
for the illustration and perpetuation of the memory of gi'eat men and


momentous events can be successfully undertaken among foreign na-
tions without the direction and patronage of a class sprung from a
distinguished ancestry, accustomed to opulence, and of the refined
tastes which grow out of a life of leisure and liberal culture, therefore
no people without a like aristocratic class can expect to produce such
works. And as a patrician order lias no place in the constitution of
American society, the conclusion is inevitable that from the ranks of
our own bustling and eminently practical population, with their atten-
tion sharply fixed on the affairs of the present and future, in contra-
distinction from those of the past time, no cordial interest or efficient
support is to be expected in behalf of historical enterprises of a quality
that sliould entitle them to rank with masterpieces.

But a survey of the rapid progress which the studies of history and
archaeology have made in the estimation of our people, within the
memory of men in middle life, and of their prevalence at the present
^ay, will satisfy the candid inquirer that no parallel can be drawn, in
that respect, between our own and foreign countries.

Only a single generation ago, when the seeds were beginning to
germinate which have since sprung up and borne much fruit in the
establishment and maintenance of this Society, the number of persons
in the community who were willing to be thought specially addicted
to the study of American history, Avas exceedingly small, and con-
sisted almost exclusively of gentlemen advanced in life, and who
had already acquired a certain position in letters or professional em-
ployment. He who had not yet made his mark in some reputable
calling, could hardly venture to hold himself out as a delver in the
rubbish of antiquity, without incurring the risk of failure in more
practical pursuits. For though it was not thought absolutely infra
dig. for one who had achieved his fortune to cultivate antiquarian
tastes, yet a young man, with a complement of limbs, who should
have had the temerity, in those days, to choose historical authorship
as his sole dependence for bread and fame, would have been looked
upon, genei'ally, Avith compassion if not with contempt.

But since that time how complete a revolution in the popular sen-
timent has been effected. Many of the most diligent, prominent and
accomplished historical scholars in the land are among our active men
of business. They have ceased to feel reluctant to have the direction
of their studies publicly known ; for to be a student, even of antiqui-


ties, no longer has power to affect a man's standing' on Change. The
populace may stiH wonder at the delight with which the antiquary-
welcomes the addition of a dingy tract to his cherished stores, or at
the enthusiasm, not to say Avarmth, which is sometimes imparted to
the discussion of a topic gray with the moss of ceutm-ies : but there
is no sneer in the wonder. The whole subject has grown into respect.
To-day the historian and archaeologist have their assured places in the
republic of letters ; and to engage in authorship in those departments,
as a profession, is no more precarious than is a position in a counting-
room or a bank.

There is scarcely a more crucial test of the popularity of a propo-
sition, in the United States, than the attempt to appropriate the pub-
lic money in support of it. The sturdy tax-payers will not patiently
submit to the expenditure of their contributions to the treasmy for
purposes that do ■ not meet their approval. And tliis feeling is too
"well understood by the representative bodies of the people to permit
them to jeopard their popularity by trying such experiments. If it
is whispered that the rule has sometimes an exception, when motives
are brought to bear upon honorable members, sufficient to outweigh
their dread of their constituents' displeasure, still there is one class
of measures which it would be absurd to believe are carried by undue
influences ; for who ever heard of a lobby in the interest of history ?

The historical publications issued under the authority of the Con-
gress of the United States, some of Avhich are costly, elaborate and
of the highest value, constitute incontestable proof that the great
body of the people have a growing respect and desire for that species
of knowledge. Of the numerous works of this character, it is only
necessary to mention one, which, though incomplete in its printed
form, is yet a perfect mine of information respecting the period of the
American Revolution which it covers. I refer to Force's American
Archives ; and it is matter of real regret that, as the nation is now
in possession of the remaining volumes of the series, in manuscript.
Congress has not yet seen fit to order them printed. I think it is
safe to say that the people woidd not be dissatisfied with the outlay
necessary to complete the great national work, and woidd even prefer
those volumes to the class of hermetically closed quartoes, the publica-
tion of which, by some law of unnatural selection, seems fastened,
barnacle-like, for all time upon the public treasury.


In like manner the increased interest of the people of our country
in historical learning, is evidenced by the compilation and publication
by several of the States, of their official records and documents. In
most instances the design has been carried out under the direction of
competent and learned editors, and in a very thorough and liberal
style, involving of course no inconsiderable pecuniary expense. The
people, in some instances, might have been pardoned if they had re-
garded the bui'den as too onerous ; and the fact that tliey bore it
unmurmuringly indicates how general is the appreciation of the im-
portance of saving from decay the authentic memorials of the past.

13ut perhaps the most striking act of legislation in aid of historical
enterprises, is that which has recently been adopted in some of the
States of New-England, by which cities and towns are empowered
to raise and apply money to the preparation and publication of their
corporate histories. These municipalities, in the theory of our
government, have the authority to lay taxes for the defrayment of
their necessary expenses, only. They have no power to compel their
citizens to contribute to any objects of taste or sentiment. The new
law therefore places town-histories on the footing of necessaries —
things indispensable to the public welfare. No more unmistakable
acknowledgment and recognition of the popular appreciation and
demand for historical information can be imagined.'

For many years past, associations organized for the promotion of
the knowledge of our country's history and antiquities, have been
in existence. In their earlier form they maintained a high degree of
respectability, both in the character of their meml^ers and of their
productions. Yet it cannot be denied that they signally lacked zeal,
energy and the faculty of awakening interest. The consequence was
that they remained nearly stationary in point of numbers, their re-
sources were cramped, and their influence upon the outer world was
extremely limited. Of late years the associations for such purposes
have usually been conducted upon different principles. The object
has been not to make eminence and a life time of labor conditions of
membership, but to awaken an interest in the objects of the associa-
tions in those who move the Avheels of society ; not to establish a
veteran-reserve corj)s, but to organize a battalion for the field.

' I am informed that the credit of framing and introducing this important and useful
hiw, is due to our vcneraljle associate, John II. Sueitaru, Esq., while a resident of the
State of Maine.


The feasibility, and the need, of arousing the interest and sympathy
of a great number of men, in the active pursuits of hfe, in behalf of
the objects of historical and antiquarian societies, is becoming gene-
rally conceded. It has been learned that the chronic belief that no
considerable portion of the community could be induced to care for
the affairs of the past age, is untenable. jNIen of not the highest
literary acquirements are found not unfrequently to have a fondness
and an aptitude for the cultivation of liistory ; and those whose
fathers were simple yeomen are no less anxious to trace out the
branches of the family tree, than if they bore in their veins " the
blood of all the Howards."

Naturally the range of such societies has been extended and the
membership greatly increased and popularized. Zeal is the offspring
of companionship ; with added numbers a deeper interest has been
awakened and greater efforts have been made. The energy and
sagacity with which the men of business conducted their own affairs,
they have put at the service of the societies Avith Avhich they are con-
nected. Xever were the organizations for historic purposes so thriv-
ing, useful and influential as now. In point of number they have
increased fourfold in a generation ; Avhile their members and friends
have been multiplied in a far more generous proportion.

The libraries of our country are becoming powerful auxiliaries in
the cultivation and development of the taste for historical knoAvledge.
A few of the more noted of them date their origin in the last centu-
ry, though the greater portion ai'e of recent formation ; the principal
growth of all of them has taken place within the last three decades
of years. At the present time in nearly every State one library, at
least, exists, devoted chiefly to history, and connected with a kindred
society. In ^Massachusetts there are four such collections, each of
considerable extent. ]Most of the States of the Union have also
state-libraries, proper, the composition of wliicli is largely of the
same character, and some of which are of extraordinary dimensions
and value. Of other great collections which are peculiarly rich in
the same department of literature, the library of Congress, the library
company of Philadelphia, the Astor of New- York, and the Athe-
naeum of Boston, are most noteworthy, by reason of their magnificent
proportions and tlicir national consequence.


Few among the private libraries of the country are ancestral.
Some of the largest and fullest in that class of works which bear
the distinctive appellation of Americana, have been formed in the
life-time of their owners. A few of the most important, like those
of Mr. Lenox, of New-York, and Mr. Brown, of Providence, are
known by description to all inquirers. But the existence of by far the
greater number, even of large and choice private collections, is never
made known to the public, except by accident. In every city and
considerable town, and I had almost said in every village and ham-
let, there are persons devoting much time, energy and money to the
acquisition of books relating to general and local American history.
No man can number them. The booksellers, whose interest lies in
knowing every buyer, are forced to admit that they cannot keep pace
with the book-hunters ; but are constantly learning of new and un-
suspected aggregations formed by persons unknown as well to fame
as to their fraternity.

How wide-spread and ardent is the search for the uncommon vo-
lumes illustrating our country's progress, may be ascertained by a
reference to the rates at which they are sold. The extravagance of
bibliomaniacs in all countries is proverbial, but no prodigality in
Christendom has ever exceeded that of some of our fastidious book-
fanciers, in the purchase of Americana of peculiar rarity.

Only second to the taste for the collection of books, is that for the
acquisition of relics, illustrative of our earlier history. It is not
surprising that many persons are disposed to regard the mania for
" collecting," as it is termed, as puerile and ridiculous, when it is
directed to articles of no intrinsic interest or importance. But against
too sweeping a condemnation of the practice, I desire to enter an
earnest protest. The gathering and arrangement of certain classes
of memorials of by-gone generations constitute a most valuable and
indispensable aid to the study and right understanding of history.
The office of the antiquary has been said to be, to provide materials
for the historian : the collector gives them light and color. We
never can so fully realize past transactions, as when we behold some
tangible, material object which made a part of them. It is true, for
example, we read with horror of the pitiless scenes enacted under
the sanction of the law, during the Avitchcraft delusion in NcAV-Eng-
land ; but what minuteness of written description can so touch our


senses with the veiy presence and reality of those judicial murders,
as the sight of the yellow and tattered warrant that tells in hideous
nakedness of phrase, the death doom and fete of one of those un-
fortunates ?

Of the same kind of interest and value, and only inferior in de-
gree, are the autographs of noted persons, the various paper currency,
and other like memorials of the realm of the past, wliich are sought
for by the judicious collector. They serve to illustrate to the eye
the character of the age to which they belonged ; to photograph upon
the sensorium the times and scenes of which they were components ;
to enable us to walk the streets, to sit at the boards, and to live the
lives of departed generations.

The day has perhaps been, when there was truth in the saying
that if one could write the ballads of a nation, he need not care who
made their laws. But he who could gain the control of the American
people to-day, must have the making of their books. It would be by
their reading that they would be ruled ; and it is by their reading that
their tastes and progress are to be measured. In the earlier stages of the
country, our grandfathers were content with such information respect-
ing even occurrences of note, as could be conveyed in the pages of a
meagre tract. At a later period substantial volumes took their place,


Online LibraryCharles Henry BellDiscourse delivered before the New-England historic, genealogical society, Boston, March 18, 1871, on the occasion of the dedication of the society's house → online text (page 1 of 2)