A mother tells her 11-year-old daughter to clean her room. The child grouses, but then finds her favorite doll from when she was three years old and hollers, “Mom, look!”
A 17-year-old starts clearing his room before going to college. He rediscovers the championship trophy his Little League team won eight years earlier, and discovers a wistful sense of not-quite tears nostalgia.
“Honey, we’ve got to clean the basement today,” turns into, “Oh my, remember this? Such a romantic place.” And, “Hey, here’s my old fishing trophy!”
One of the uplifting things about being a historian is that they make a living digging for moments like that. They get to go through other peoples’ stuff, and it’s rewarding, especially when a discovery’s purpose matches the timing of an historic moment occurring in our own day – for example, a presidential inauguration.
Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) Historian Alli Hartley was recently reviewing the Machen Family Papers at the Library of Congress. “I stumbled upon a letter written by one of the Machen boys about attending the inauguration of Zachary Taylor in 1849,” she said. The land that ECLP sits on once was owned by the Machen family. “The letter is part of the Library of Congress’s collection, and the Machen family gave copyright to the public when they donated the letters in the 1980s. I was immediately struck by James’ sense of humor, and also how similar the experience of attending an inauguration in 1849 is to today,” Hartley said.
In light of the coming inauguration of a new United States president, the discovery of the Machen letter is serendipitous.
Here is a transcription of that letter, written in 1849:
My dear brother,
You must beg Sister Emme to pardon me for addressing this Home-Letter to you, instead of making it as strict duty demands, the answer to her most welcome favor. Assign any reason you think most plausible in my defence—perhaps I consider her interest in the inauguration less than yours, and on the day it is course out of the question to write on any topic but this.
The ceremony is just over, and my ribs are about regaining the shape which they had this morning. I am sorry you could not have been here, since you had so strong a desire to witness the ceremony; but I feel satisfied that if you were seated at the other side of this table, and we were to talk over the doings of the day together, the same conclusion would have been reached by both—that we had got a whistle which was not worth much, whatever may have been the price paid for it. The procession was by no means imposing—not all to be compared to that at the funeral of Harrison; the military part of it which was of course nearly the whole was neither numerous nor striking. There was indeed a very large assemblage on the graveled area east of the Capitol, yet it would be a misnomer to call it an Audience. We could see the old General’s “cutting box at work” as a man observed at my elbow, but it made very little racket. It was a great gratification to see the good old jaws in motion, which I spoke to such purpose at Buena Vista, yet we had to imagine the patriotic sentiments which no doubt issued from them. The only word which I could distinguish was “proper” and from that I infer the speech to be excellent.
The ground as you may suppose was quite damp and by the tread of so many feet was rendered even muddy. In view of this I (as well as a number of other judicious individuals) chose a convenient position on the flagged crossing way which comes nearest to the lee-side of the Portico and the scaffolding. As the advantage of such a comparatively dry station, were sufficiently obvious, I assorted to it before the arrival of the procession. Indeed before the great gates were thrown open, the whole area was filled with a pretty dense multitude. It was supposed that the General’s carriage would stop under the Portico, and we thus escape disturbance; but suddenly I saw within a few yards of me a man brandishing a marshal’s baton- “Make room”, “make room” was shouted and someone sung out—clear the tracks/for old Zach.
The next thing was a terrible squeeze, and the great lioning mass swayed hither and thither like the host of Greeks and Trojans over the body of Patroclus, or if you prefer a stronger simile—the commotion of the milky elements in an atmospheric churn. A four-horse chariot dashed through the crowd, which seemed like the divided water of the Sea—to threaten to overwhelm it. There was the glimpse of a grey head—uncovered in the presence of collected sovereignty—we saluted it with a hurrah for Taylor. Immediately in the near followed a two horse carriage closely shut up; “there goes Polk” said a person near me “who cares for him?” Such difference is here between the President elect and the ex-president yesterday, the Tennessean had offices to bestow, now, none so poor to do him reverence.
Mr. Taylor of course, soon reappeared upon the scaffolding, in company with the clergymen as many of the crowd took the blackrobed Justices of the Supreme Court. The address was short, and old Zach seemed to think the operation one which like that of taking a dose of pills, was to be gone through with as speedily as possible. Thus we had a very brief feast after a long preparation.
I trust Ma reached house safely and well. Tell her that her bags has to light in the place where, no doubt, it was carefully laid away by herself—the second drawer of the bureau.
Do you not experience some difficulty in clearing the clover seed?—I suppose you have to use the finest of the round sieves. As to the steer, don’t you remember that I estimated his weight all along at 1600? It surprised me greatly to hear Baldwin put him at 18 (?), but in the circumstances, I naturally supposed that I had been in error. How do the little steers flourish?—You are feeding them some corn doubtless.
Moving as you may suppose is the order of the day now in this as well as other. Congressional boarding houses- Mr. (???) left this afternoon. Other will follow him very soon. The Senate will sit on executive business the rest of this week. Pa, I suppose will be able to get a way a little while after.
Give my love to Ma & Sister—and ask them to tell you why my hasty letter is like (?) hasty plate of soup
Historian Alli Hartley presents a program at 7 p.m. on January 19 at Ellanor C. Lawence Park about the relationships the park had to various presidents. You can reserve a spot online.
The Machen letter appears courtesy of the Library of Congress. A couple of explanatory notes:
- Patroclus is a character who dies in Homer’s Iliad.
- There is an old English phrase, not worth a whistle, which means something of very little value.
- A cutting box cuts fodder such as straw and hay into small parts called chaff that is fed to cattle. Here it refers to Taylor’s mouth.
- The “divided water of the Sea” is likely a reference to the Old Testament story of Moses parting the Red Sea.
- The funeral of Harrison was likely that of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who died on his thirty-second day in office in 1841.
- James Polk was the outgoing president when Taylor was inaugurated.
- The questioned name in the letter’s final paragraph may be Gen. Scott, and the reference to a“hasty plate of soup” may harken back to an event explained by this Library of Congress web page:
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.