The year 1840—rendered notable by the Harrison canvass — was signalized by several less noisy reactions and uprisings against prescription and routine. One of these made itself manifest in the appearance at Boston of The Dial,— the quarterly utterance of a small fraternity of scholars and thinkers, who had so far outgrown the recognized standards of orthodox opinion in theology and philosophy as to be grouped, in the vague, awkward terminology of this stammering century, as Transcendentalists. Inexcusably bad as the term is, it so clearly indicates an aspiration, a tendency, as contradistinguished from a realization, an achievement, that it may be allowed to stand. Those to whom it was applied had alike transcended the preexisting limitations of decorous and allowable thinking; but they were alike in little else. The chosen editor of this magazine was SARAH MARGARET FULLER, while Ralph Waldo Emerson and George Ripley were announced as her associates. After a time, Mr. Emerson became the editor, with his predecessor as his chief assistant, but there was in reality little change; and, while others contributed to its pages, The Dial, throughout the four or five years of its precarious existence, was chiefly regarded and valued as an expression and exponent of the ideas and convictions of these two rarest, if not ripest, fruits of New England’s culture and reflection in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The original editor was to have been paid a salary of two hundred dollars per annum, had the sale of the work justified so liberal a stipend; but I believe it never did. What was purposed by its projectors is thus stated in one of her private letters: —
“A perfectly free organ is to be offered for the expression of individual thought and character. There are no party measures to be carried, no particular standard to be set up. A fair, calm tone, a recognition of universal principles, will, I hope, pervade the essays in every form. I trust there will be a spirit neither of dogmatism nor of compromise; and that this journal will aim, not at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to judge for himself, and to think more deeply and more nobly, by letting him see how some minds are kept alive by a wise self-trust. . . . We cannot show high culture, and I doubt about vigorous thought. But we shall manifest free action as far as it goes, and a high aim. It were much if a periodical could be kept open, not to accomplish any outward object, but merely to afford an avenue for what of liberal and calm thought might be originated among us, by the wants of individual minds.”
I presume the circulation of The Dial never reached two thousand copies, and that it hardly averaged one thousand. But its influence and results are nowise measured by the number of its patrons, nor even of its readers. To the “fit audience, though few,” who had long awaited and needed its advent, without clearly comprehending their need, it was like manna in the wilderness; and scores of them found in its pages incitement and guidance to a noble and beneficent, even though undistinguished, career.
1810 MARGARET FULLER, the eldest child of Timothy and Margaret Crane Fuller, was born at Cambridgeport, Mass., on the 23d of May, 1810. Her father was a lawyer of humble origin, who had risen, by force of resolution and industry, to a “respectable position at the Boston bar, though he was a Republican, and all the wealth and business of that city were intensely Federal; and he ultimately represented in Congress, for” several terms, the Middlesex district adjacent. This did not increase his popularity nor his professional gains in Boston; so that, when he died of cholera (Oct. 2, 1835), after a life of labor and frugality, he left but a narrow competence to his widow and large family of mainly young, dependent children.
But that widow was a woman of signal excellence of soul and life. He was well established in practice, and must have been ten or fifteen years at the bar when he met her, — a young girl of humble family and little education, but of rare beauty, physical and mental; and, falling in love with her at sight, sought her acquaintance, wooed, won, and married her. And, though she never found time for extensive study, her natural refinement was such that the deficiencies of her education were seldom or never perceptible.
Her eldest daughter was too early stimulated to protracted, excessive mental labor by her fond, exacting, ambitious father, justly proud of her great natural powers, and ignorant of the peril of overtaxing them. I have heard that, when but eight years old, she had her “stint” of so many Latin verses to compose per day, ready to recite to him on his return to their suburban home from his day’s work in the city. This may be idle gossip; I only know that, when I first made her acquaintance, she was, mentally, the best instructed woman in America; while she was, physically, one of the least enviable, — a prey to spinal affliction, nervous disorder, and protracted, fearfully torturing headaches. Those who knew her in early youth have assured me that she was then the picture of rude health, — red-cheeked, robust, vigorous, and comely, if not absolutely beautiful. Too much of this was sacrificed to excessive study. Her near friend and literary associate, Ralph Waldo Emerson, gives this account of his first impressions of her in her early prime of womanhood, ten years before I met her: —
“I still remember the first half-hour of Margaret’s conversation. She was then twenty-six years old. She had a face and frame that would indicate fulness and tenacity of life. She was rather under the middle height; her complexion was fair, with strong, fair hair. She was then, as always, carefully and becomingly dressed, and of lady-like self-possession. For the rest, her appearance had nothing prepossessing. Her extreme plainness, a trick of incessantly opening and abutting her eyelids, the nasal tones of her voice, all repelled; and I said to myself, ‘We shall never get far.’ It is to be said that Margaret made a disagreeable first impression on most persons, including those who became afterward her best friends, to such an extreme that they did not wish to be in the same room with her. This was partly the effect of her manners, which expressed an overweening sense of power, and slight esteem of others; and partly the prejudice of her fame. She had a dangerous reputation for satire, in addition to her great scholarship. The men thought she carried too many guns, and the women did not like one who despised them. I believe I fancied her too much interested in personal history; and her talk was a comedy, in which dramatic justice was done to everybody’s foibles. I remember that she made me laugh more than I liked; for I was, at that time, an eager scholar of ethics, and had tasted the sweets of solitude and stoicism, and I found something profane in the hours of amusing gossip into which she drew me; and, when I returned to my library, had much to think of the crackling of thorns under a pot.”
Her beloved and loving cousin, Rev. William H. Channing, in his account of a visit he paid her, somewhat later, when she lived at Jamaica Plain, near Boston, in 1840, says: —
“As, leaning on one arm, she poured out her stream of thought, turning now and then her full eyes upon me to see whether I caught her meaning, there was leisure to study her thoroughly. Her temperament was predominantly what the physiologist would call nervous-sanguine; and the’ gray eye, rich brown hair, and light complexion, with the muscular and well-developed frame, bespoke delicacy balanced by vigor. Here was a sensitive yet powerful being, fit at once for rapture or sustained effort, intensely active, prompt for adventure, firm for trial. She certainly had no beauty; yet the high-arched dome of her head, the changeful expressiveness of every feature, and her whole air of mingled dignity and impulse, gave her a commanding charm. Especially characteristic were two physical traits. The first was a contraction of the eyelids almost to a point, — a trick caught from near-sightedness, — and then a sudden dilation, till the iris seemed to emit flashes,—an effect, no doubt, dependent on her highly magnetized condition. The second was a singular pliancy of the vertebrae and muscles of the neck, enabling her, by a mere movement, to denote each varying emotion; in moments of tenderness, or pensive feeling, its curves were swan-like in grace; but, when she was scornful or indignant, it contracted, and made swift turns, like that of a bird of prey. Finally, in the animation, yet abandon, of Margaret’s attitude and look, were rarely blended the fiery course of northern, and the soft languor of southern races.”
Such a woman could not live idly, especially in diligent, practical New England, even had she been shielded by fortune from the most obvious necessity for habitual industry. After the completion of her school-day education, and before undertaking the editorship of The Dial, she had taught classes of girls in her home, given two years to the conduct of a seminary in Providence, R. I. (for which she was never paid), had translated (in 1839) Eckermann’s “Conversations with Goethe,” and in the autumn of this year she planned and announced her most unique enterprise, — a series of conversations (in Boston), for women only, wherein she was to take a leading part; but every one who attended was required to contribute according to her ability, by written essay or spoken word, as should be suggested or found possible. The general object of these conferences, as declared in her programme, was to supply answers to these questions: “What were we born to do ?” and “How shall we do it?” or (as I think she elsewhere said), “to vindicate the right of Woman to think,” by showing that she can think nobly and to good purpose; but Life, Literature, Mythology, Art, Culture, Religion, were liberally drawn upon for material and stimulus in the progress of this most arduous undertaking.
But Margaret had higher qualifications for such a task than any other person that America had yet produced, being “the best talker since De Staël,” as I once heard her characterized. And, as the ablest and most cultivated women in and around Boston were naturally attracted to her conversations, and incited to take part in them, I doubt not that they were more interesting and profitable than any intellectual exercises which had preceded them; and, while the attendance was necessarily limited, — averaging less than fifty persons, — there are still many living who gratefully recall them as the starting-point and incitement of a new and nobler existence. Yet an attempt by Margaret to extend their advantages to men proved a failure; “and, even when repeated under the guidance of so eminent a conversationist as Mr. A. Bronson Alcott, I judge that no decided success was achieved.
In 1839, she bad visited, with a party of friends, what was then “the Great West”; spending weeks in traversing the prairies of Illinois, as yet undeformed by fences and unvexed by the plough. Her observations and impressions, embodied in a volume entitled” Summer on the Lakes,” evinced an un-American ripeness of culture, and a sympathetic enjoyment of Nature in her untamed luxuriance. But the alternating meadow and forest of that bounteous region in its primitive state evinced little of the rugged wildness of mountain or desert; and she remarked that it seemed a reproduction, though on a gigantic scale, and without enclosures, of the great baronial domains and parks of Europe; so that the traveller was constantly looking for the castles and other evidences of human occupation and enjoyment which, it seemed, must be just at hand. Half a century hence, Illinoians will read her book, and wonder if the region it vividly depicts and describes can indeed, be identical with that which surrounds them.
But the work by which she will be longest and widest known first appeared in The Dial (1843) as “The Great Lawsuit,” and, when afterward expanded into a separate volume, was entitled, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century.” If not the clearest and most logical, it was the loftiest and most commanding assertion yet made of the right of Woman to be regarded and treated. as an independent, intelligent, rational being, entitled to an equal voice in framing and modifying the laws she is required to obey, and in controlling and disposing of the property she has inherited or aided to acquire. Yet questions of property, personal rights, guardianship of children, &c., are but incidental, not essential. She says: —
“It is the fault of MARRIAGE, and of the present relations between the sexes, that the woman belongs to the man, instead of forming a whole with him. . . . . Woman, self-centred, would never be absorbed by any relation; it would only be an experience to her, as to Man. It is a vulgar error, that love — a love — is to Woman her whole existence: she also is born for Truth and Love in their universal energy. Would she but ass her inheritance, Mary would not be the only virgin mother.”
If you say this is vague, mystical, unmeaning, I shall not contradict you; I am not arguing that Woman’s undoubted. wrongs are to be redressed by the concession of what Margaret, or any of her disciples, has claimed as Woman’s inherent rights; I only feel that hers is the ablest, bravest, broadest, assertion yet made of what are termed Woman’s Rights; and I suspect that the statement might lose in force by gaining in clearness. And, at all events, I am confident that there lives no man or woman who would not profit (if he or she has not already profited) by a thoughtful perusal of “Woman in the Nineteenth Century.”
My wife, having spent much time in and near Boston, had there made Margaret’s acquaintance, attended her conversations, accepted her leading ideas; and, desiring to enjoy her society more intimately and continuously, Mrs. G. planned and partly negotiated an arrangement whereby her monitor and friend became an inmate of our family and a writer for The Tribune.
Up to the close of the Presidential canvass in 1844, I had lived thirteen years in New York, and never half a mile from the City Hall, — usually within sixty rods of it. The newspaper business requiring close attention, and being wholly prosecuted “down town,” it seemed, when I once ventured to live so far up as Broome Street, that I had strayed to an inconvenient distance from my work; but, when the great struggle was over, and I the worst beaten man on the continent, — worn out by incessant anxiety and effort, covered with boils, and thoroughly used up, — I took a long stride landward, removing to a spacious old wooden house, built as a country or summer residence by Isaac Lawrence, formerly President of the United States Branch Bank, but which, since his death, had been neglected, and suffered to decay. It was located on eight acres of ground, including a wooded ravine, or dell, on the East River, at Turtle Bay, nearly opposite the southernmost point of Blackwell’s Island, amid shade and fruit trees, abundant shrubbery, ample garden, &c.; and, though now for years perforated by streets, and in good part covered by buildings, was then so secluded as to be only reached by a narrow, devious, private lane, exceedingly dark at night for one accustomed to the glare of gas-lamps; the nearest highway being the old “Boston Road” at Forty-ninth Street; while an hourly stage on the Third Avenue, just beyond, afforded our readiest means of transit to and from the city proper. Accustomed to the rumble and roar of carriages, the stillness here at night seemed at first so sepulchral, unearthly, that I found difficulty in sleeping. Of the place itself, Margaret — who became one of our household soon after we took possession — wrote thus to a friend: —
“This place is, to me, entirely charming; it is so completely in the country, and all around is so bold and free. It is two miles or more from the thickly settled parts of New York, but omnibuses and cars give me constant access to the city; and, while, I can readily see what and whom I will, I can command time and retirement. Stopping on the Harlem Road, you enter a lane nearly a quarter of a mile long, and, going by a small brook and pond that locks in the place, and ascending a slightly rising ground, get sight of the house, which, old-fashioned and of mellow tint, fronts on a flower-garden filled with shrubs, large vines, and trim box borders. On both sides of the house are beautiful trees, standing fair, full-grown, and clear. Passing through a wide hall, you come out upon a piazza stretching the whole length of the house, where one can walk in all weathers; and thence, by a step or two, on a lawn, with picturesque masses of rocks, shrubs, and trees, overlooking the East River. Gravel-paths lead, by several turns, down the steep bank to the water’s edge, where, round the rocky’ point, a small bay curves, in which boats are lying; and, owing to the currents and the set of the tide, the sails glide sidelong, seeming to greet the house as they sweep by. The beauty here, seen by moonlight, is truly transporting. I enjoy it greatly, and the genus loci receives me as to a home.”
We have seen that the first impressions made by Margaret, even on those who soon learned to admire her most, were not favorable; and it was decidedly so in my case. A sufferer myself, and at times scarcely able to ride to and from the office, I yet did a day’s work each day, regardless of nerves or moods; but she had no such capacity for incessant labor. If quantity only were considered, I could easily write ten columns to her one: indeed, she would only write at all when in the vein; and her headaches and other infirmities often precluded all labor for days. Meantime, perhaps, the interest of the theme had evaporated, or the book to be reviewed had the bloom brushed from its cheek by some rival journal. Attendance and care were very needful to her; she would evidently have been happier amid other and more abundant furniture than graced our dwelling; and, while nothing was said, I felt that a richer and more generous diet than ours would have been more accordant with her tastes and wishes. Then I had a notion that strong-minded women should be above the weakness of fearing to go anywhere, at any time, alone, — that the sex would have to emancipate itself from thraldom to etiquette and the need of a masculine arm in crossing a street or a room, before it could expect to fight its way to the bar, the bench, the jury-box, and the polls. Nor was I wholly exempt from the vulgar prejudice against female claimants of functions hitherto devolved only on men, as mistaking the source of their dissatisfaction. Her cousin, Channing, narrating a day’s conversation with her in 1840, delicately says: —
“But the tragedy of Margaret’s history was deeper yet. Behind the poet was the woman, — the fond and relying, the heroic and disinterested woman. The very glow of her poetic enthusiasm was but an outflush of trustful affection; the very restlessness of her intellect was the confession that her heart had found no home. A ‘book-worm,’ ‘a dilettante,’ a ‘pedant,’ I had heard her sneeringly called; but now it was evident that her seeming insensibility was virgin pride, and her absorption in study the natural vent of emotions. which had met no object worthy of life-long attachment. At once, many of her peculiarities became intelligible. Fitfulness, unlooked-for changes of mood, misconceptions of words and actions, substitution of fancy for fact, — which had annoyed me during the previous season, as inconsistent in a person of such capacious judgment and sustained self-government, — were now referred to the morbid influence of affections pent up to prey upon themselves.”
If I had attempted to say this, I should have somehow blundered out that, noble and great as she was, a good husband and two or three bouncing babies would have emancipated her from a deal of cant and nonsense.
Yet I very soon noted, even before I was prepared to ratify their judgment, that the women who visited us to make or improve her acquaintance seemed instinctively to recognize and defer to her as their superior in thought and culture. Some who were her seniors, and whose writings had achieved a far wider and more profitable popularity than hers, were eager to sit at her feet, and to listen to her casual utterances as to those of an oracle. Yet there was no assumption of precedence, no exaction of deference, on her part; for, though somewhat stately and reserved in the presence of strangers, no one “thawed out” more completely, or was more unstarched and cordial in manner, when surrounded by her friends. Her magnetic sway over these was marvellous, unaccountable: women who had known her but a day revealed to her the most jealously guarded secrets of their lives, seeking her sympathy and counsel thereon, and were themselves annoyed at having done so when the magnetism of her presence was withdrawn. I judge that she was the repository of more confidences than any contemporary; and I am sure no one had ever reason to regret the imprudent precipitancy of their trust. Nor were these revelations made by those only of her own plane at life, but chambermaids and seamstresses unburdened their souls to her, seeking and receiving her counsel; while children found her a delightful playmate and a capital friend. My son Arthur (otherwise “Pickie”), who was but eight months old when she came to us, learned to walk and to talk in her society, and to love and admire her as few but nearest relatives are ever loved and admired by a child. For, as the elephant’s trunk serves either to rend a limb from the oak or pick up a pin, so her wonderful range of capacities, of experiences, of sympathies, seemed adapted to every condition and phase of humanity. She had marvelous powers of personation and mimicry, and, had she condescended to appear before the foot-lights, would soon have been recognized as the first actress of the Nineteenth Century. For every effort to limit vice, ignorance, and misery she had a ready, eager ear, and a willing hand; so that her charities — large in proportion to her slender means — were signally enhanced by the fitness and fulness of her wise and generous counsel, the readiness and emphasis with which she, publicly and privately, commended to those richer than herself any object deserving their alms. She had once attended, with other noble women, a gathering of outcasts of their sex; and, being asked how they — appeared to her, replied, “As women like myself, save that they are victims of wrong and misfortune.” No project of moral or social reform ever failed to command her generous, cheering benediction, even when she could not share the sanguine hopes of its authors: she trusted that these might somehow benefit the objects of their self-sacrifice, and felt confident that they must, at all events, be blest in their own moral natures. I doubt that our various benevolent and reformatory associations had ever before, or have ever since, received such wise, discriminating commendation to the favor of the rich, as they did from her pen during her connection with The Tribune.
In closing her “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” not long before she came to New York, she had said:—
“I stand in the sunny noon of life. Objects no longer glitter in the dews of morning, neither are they yet softened by the shadows of evening. Every spot is seen, every chasm revealed. Climbing the dusty hill, some few effigies, that once stood for symbols of human destiny, have been broken; those I still have with me show defects in this broad light. Yet enough is left, even by experience, to point distinctly to the glories of that destiny, — faint, but not to be mistaken, streaks of the future day. I can say with the bard, —
“Though many have suffered shipwreck, still beat noble hearts.’”
Though ten years had not passed since her first visit to Emerson, at Concord, so graphically narrated by him in a reminiscence wherefrom I have already quoted, care and Buffering had meantime detracted much from the lightness of her step, the buoyancy of her spirits. If, in any of her varying moods, she was so gay-hearted and mirth-provoking as he there describes her, I never happened to be a witness; but then I was never so intimate and admired a friend as he became at an early day, and remained to the last. Satirical she could still be, on great provocation; but she rarely, and, I judge, reluctantly, gave evidence of her eminent power to rebuke assumption or meanness by caricaturing or intensifying their unconscious exhibition. She could be joyous, and even merry; but her usual manner, while with us, was one of grave thoughtfulness, absorption in noble deeds, and in paramount aspirations and efforts to leave some narrow comer of the world somewhat better than she had found it.
I may have already spoken of her quick, earnest sympathy with humanity under all diversities of temporal condition, her easy penetration of the disguise which sometimes seeks to conceal the true king in the beggar’s rags, and her profound appreciation of nobleness of soul, wherever and however manifested. Here is an instance, from her newspaper article on “Woman in Poverty”: —
“The old woman was recommended as a laundress by my friend, who had long prized her. I was immediately struck with the dignity and propriety of her manner. In the depth of Winter, she brought herself the heavy baskets through the slippery streets; and, when I asked her why she did not employ some younger person to do what was so entirely disproportioned to her strength, simply said, she ‘lived alone, and could not afford to hire an errand-boy.’ ‘It was hard for her?’ ‘No; she was fortunate in being able to get work, at her age, when others could do it better. Her friends were very good to procure it for her.’ ‘Had she a comfortable home?’ ‘Tolerably so; she should not need one long.’ ‘Was that a thought of joy to her?’ ‘Yes; for she hoped to see again the husband and children from whom she had long been separated.’
“Thus much in answer to the questions; but, at other times, the little she said was on general topics. It was not from her that I learned how the great idea of Duty had held her upright through a life of incessant toil, sorrow, bereavement; and that not only had she remained upright, but that her character had been constantly progressive. Her latest act had been to take home a poor sick girl who had no home of her own, and could not bear the idea of dying in an hospital, and maintain and nurse her through the last weeks of her life. ‘Her eyesight was failing, and she should not be able to work much longer; but, then, God would provide. Somebody ought to see to the poor motherless girl’
“It was not merely the greatness of the act, for one in such circumstances, but the quiet, matter-of-course way in which it was done, that showed the habitual tone of the mind, and made us feel that life could hardly do more for a human being than to make him or her the somebody that is daily so deeply needed, to represent the right, to do the plain right thing.
“’God will provide.’ — Yes, it is the poor who feel themselves near to the God of Love. Though He slay them, still do they trust Him.
“’I hope,’ said I, to a poor apple-woman, who had been drawn on to disclose a tale of distress that, almost in the mere hearing, made me weary of life, — ‘I hope I may yet see you in a happier condition.’
“’With God’s help!’ she replied, with a smile that a Raphael would have delighted to transfer to his canvas; a Mozart, to strains of angelic sweetness. All her life she had seemed an outcast child; still, she leaned upon a Father’s love.”
In the summer of 1846, — modifying, but not terminating, her connection with The Tribune, — Margaret left New York for Boston, and, after a parting visit to her relatives and early friends, took passage thence (August 1) for Europe. As I last saw her on the steamboat that bore her hence, I might, perhaps, here bid her adieu. But my recollections of her do not cease with her departure; and I feel that my many young readers, whose previous acquaintance with her was but a vague tradition, cannot choose that she be thus abruptly dismissed from these reminiscences, but will prefer to hear more of the most remarkable, and in some respects the greatest, woman whom America has yet known. I therefore devote some pages to her subsequent career; only regretting that time and space do not serve to render that career ampler justice.
Leaving in the company of admiring, devoted friends, who welcomed her to the intimacy of their family circle, and writing to The Tribune whenever she (too seldom) found topics of interest that did not trench upon her deference to the sanctities of social intercourse, she first traversed Great Britain; meeting and conversing with Wordsworth, Joanna Baillie, De Quincey, Carlyle, Mazzini, Dr. Chalmers, the Howitts, and many other celebrities, — most of whom have since passed away, — thence crossing to France, where she met George Sand, Béranger, La Mennais, saw Rachel act, and listened to a lecture by Arago. The next Spring (1847), she, with her party, sped to Italy; coasting to Naples, and thence returning leisurely to Rome, where Pius IX. had just been made Pope, and had signalized his accession by words of sympathy and cheer for the aspirations to freedom of down-trodden millions, which he has long since recanted, but they refuse to forget.
Passing thence by Florence, Bologna, Ravenna, to Venice, she there parted with the friends who had thus far been her companions in travel, — they crossing the Alps on their homeward way; while she—fully identified with the new-born hopes of Italy — had decided to remain. After hastily visiting Vicenza, Verona, Mantua, Brescia, Milan, the lakes Garda, Maggiore, and Como, and spending a few days in southern Switzerland, she returned, via Milan and Florence, to Rome, august “city of the soul,” which she had chosen for her future home, and whence she wrote (December 20) to her friend Emerson: —
“I find how true was the hope that always drew me toward Europe. It was no false instinct that said I might here find an atmosphere to develop me in ways that I need. Had I only come ten years earlier I Now, my life must be a failure, so much strength has been wasted on abstractions, which only came because I grew not on the right soil”
She was privately married, not long after her return to Rome, to Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, of a noble but impoverished Roman family. He had caught the infection of liberal principles from the air, or from her, — his three brothers being, as he had been, in the Papal service, and so remaining after the Pope had disappointed the hopes excited by his first words and acts under the tiara. In the troublous times then imminent, it was deemed expedient to keep their marriage a close secret, as their only hope of securing their share of the patrimony of Ossoli’s recently deceased father; and she spent the ensuing Summer at the little mountain villagae of Rieti, where her son Angelo was born. Returning before Winter to Rome, she became at once a trusted counsellor of Mazzini during the brief but glorious era of the Republic; and, when the city was invested and besieged by a French army, she was appointed director of a hospital, and therein found a sphere of sad, but earnest and beneficent activity. While thus absorbed in the noblest efforts in behalf of Italy, of Freedom, and Humanity, she snatched time (May 6) to send me a letter descriptive of the situation, opening, trumpet-toned, as follows: —
“I write you from barricaded Rome. The mother of nations is now at bay against them all.
“Rome was suffering before.
“The misfortunes of other regions of Italy, the defeat at Novarra, — preconcerted, in hope to strike the last blow at Italian independence, — the surrender and painful condition of Genoa; the money difficulties, — insuperable, unless the government could secure confidence abroad as well as at home, — prevented her people from finding that foothold for which they were ready. The vacillations of France agitated them; still, they could not seriously believe she would ever act the part she has. We must say France, because, though many honorable men have washed their hands of all share in the perfidy, the Assembly voted funds to sustain the expedition to Civita Vecchio, and the nation, the army, have remained quiescent.”
This letter closed as follows: —
“The Americans here are not in a pleasant situation. Mr. Cass, the Chargé of the United States, stays here without recognizing the government. Of course, he holds no position at the present moment that can enable him to act for us. Besides, it gives us pain that our country, whose policy it justly is to avoid physical interference with the affairs of Europe, should not use a moral influence. Rome has — as we did — thrown off a government no longer tolerable; she has made use of the suffrage to form another; she stands on the same basis as ourselves. Mr. Rush did us great honor by his ready recognition of a principle, as represented by the French Provisional Government; bad Mr. Cass been empowered to do the same, our country would have acted nobly, and all that is most truly American in America would have spoken to sustain the sickened hopes of European Democracy. But of this more when I write next. Who knows what I may have to tell another week?”
She soon afterward wrote (June 6) to another friend as follows: —
“On Sunday, from our loggia, I witnessed a terrible, a real battle. It began at four in the morning: it lasted to the last gleam of light. The musket-fire was almost unintermitted; the roll of the cannon, especially from St. Angelo, most majestic. As all passed at Porta San Pancrazio and Villa Pamfili, I saw the smoke of every discharge, the flash of the bayonets; with a glass, could see the men. The French could not use their heavy cannon, being always driven away by the legions of Garibaldi and ——, when trying to find positions for them. The loss on our side is about three hundred killed and wounded; theirs must be much greater. In one casino have been found seventy dead bodies of theirs. . . . . The cannonade on our side has Continued day and night (being full moon) till this morning; they seeking to advance or take other positions, the Romans firing on them. The French throw rockets into the town; one burst in the court-yard of the hospital just as I arrived there yesterday, agitating the poor sufferers very much; they said they did not want to die like mice in a trap.”
She writes, five days later, to her friend Emerson as follows: —
“I received your letter amid the sound of cannonade and musketry. It was a terrible battle, fought here from the first till the last light of day. I could see all its progress from my balcony. The Italians fought like lions. It is a truly heroic spirit that animates them. They make a stand here for honor and their rights, with little ground for hope that they can resist, now they are betrayed by France.
“Since the 30th April, I go almost daily to the hospitals; and though I have suffered, — for I had no idea before how terrible gunshot wounds and wound-fever are, — yet I have taken pleasure, and great pleasure, in being with the men; there is scarcely one who is not moved by a noble spirit. Many, especially among the Lombards, are the flower of the Italian youth. When they begin to get better, I carry them books and flowers: they read, and we talk.
“The palaces of the Pope, on the Quirinal, is now used for convalescents. In those beautiful gardens, I walk with them, — one with his sling, another with his crutch. The gardener plays off all his water-works for the defenders of the country, and gathers flowers for me, their friend.
“I feel profoundly for Mazzini; at moments, I am tempted to say, ‘Cursed with every granted prayer,’ — so cunning is the demon. He is becoming the inspiring soul of his people. He saw Rome, to which all his hopes through life tended, for the first time as a Roman citizen, and to become in a few days its ruler. He has animated, he sustains her to a glorious effort, which, if it fails this time, will not in the age. His country will be free. Yet to me it would be so dreadful to cause all the bloodshed, to dig the graves of such martyrs.
“Then Rome is being destroyed; her glorious oaks; her villas, haunts of sacred beauty, that seemed the possession of the world forever, — the villa of Raphael, the villa of Albani, home of Winkelmann, and the best expression of the ideal of modem Rome, and so many other sanctuaries of beauty, — all must perish, lest a foe should level his musket from their shelter. I could not, could not!
“I know not, dear friend, whether I shall ever get home across that great ocean; but here in Rome I shall no longer wish to live. O Rome, my country! could I imagine that the triumph of what I held dear was to heap such desolation on thy head!
“Speaking of the Republic you say, ‘Do not I wish Italy had a great man?’ Mazzini is a great man. In mind, a great poetic statesman; in heart, a lover; in action, decisive, and full of resources as Caesar. Dearly I love Mazzini. He came in just as I had finished the first letter to you. His soft, radiant look makes melancholy music in my soul; it consecrates my present life, that, like the Magdalen, I may, at the important hour, shed all the consecrated ointment on his head. There is one, Mazzini, who understands thee well; who knew thee no less when an object of popular fear, than now of idolatry; and who, if the pen be not held too feebly, will help posterity to know thee too.”
Her friend, Mrs. William W. Story, an eyewitness, writes of her in those heroic days as follows: —
“Night and day, Margaret was occupied, and, with the Princess [Belgiojoso], so ordered and disposed the hospitals, that their conduct was truly admirable. All the work was skilfully divided, so that there was no confusion or hurry; and, from the chaotic condition in which these places had been left by the priests, — who previously had charge of them, — they brought them to a state of perfect regularity and discipline. Of money they had very little; and they were obliged to give their time and thoughts in its place. From the Americans in Rome they raised a subscription for the aid of the wounded of either party; but beside this they had scarcely any means to use. I have walked through the wards with Margaret, and saw how comforting was her presence to the poor suffering men. ‘How long will Signora stay?” ‘When will the Signora come again?” they eagerly asked. For each one’s peculiar tastes she had a care: to one, she carried books; to another, she told the news of the day; and listened to another’s oft-repeated tale of wrongs, as the best sympathy she could give. They raised themselves up on their elbows, to get the last glimpse of her as she was going away. There were some of the sturdy fellows of Garibaldi’s Legion there; and to them she listened, as they spoke with delight of their chief, of his courage and skill; for he seemed to ha.ve won the hearts of his men in a remarkable manner.”
Of course, this most unequal struggle could have but one result. Rome, gallantly defended by the badly armed, ill-supplied, motley host of volunteers, who had gathered from all Italy to uphold the flag of the Republic, at last fell: the superiority of the French in numbers, in discipline, and in every resource, being too decided to leave room for hope. Margaret had accompanied her husband to the battery in front of the enemy, where his company was stationed on the last evening of the siege; but the cannonade was not renewed, and next morning the city surrendered. Husband and wife hastened directly to Rieti, where their child had been left at nurse through the storm; and whence she wrote her mother, saying: —
“DEAREST MOTHER: I received your letter a few hours before reaching Rome. Like all of yours, it refreshed me, and gave me as much satisfaction as anything could at that sad time. Its spirit is of eternity, and befits an epoch when wickedness and perfidy so impudently triumph, and the best blood of the generous and honorable is poured out like water, seemingly in vain.
“I cannot tell you what I suffered to abandon the wounded to the care of their mean foes; to see the young men that were faithful to their vows hunted from their homes, — hunted like wild beasts, — denied a refuge in every civilized land. Many of those I loved sunk to the bottom of the sea by Austrian cannon, or will be shot; others are in penury, grief, and exile. May God give due recompense for all that has been endured!
“My mind still agitated, and my spirits worn out, I have not felt like writing to any one. Yet the magnificent Summer does not smile quite in vain for me. Much exercise in the open air, living much on milk and fruit, have recruited my health; and I am regaining the habit of sleep, which a month of nightly cannonade in Rome had destroyed.
“Receiving, a few days since, a packet of letters from America, I opened them with more feeling of hope and good cheer than for a long time past. The first words that met my eye were these, in the hand of Mr. Greeley: ‘Ah, Margaret! the world grows dark with us! You grieve, for Rome is fallen; I mourn, for Pickie is dead.’
“I have shed rivers of tears over the inexpressibly affecting letter thus begun. One would think I might have become familiar enough with images of death and destruction; yet, somehow, the image of Pickie’s little dancing figure lying stiff and stark, between his parents, has made me weep more than all else. There was little hope he could do justice to himself, or lead a happy life, in so perplexed a world; but never was a character of richer capacity, — never a more charming child. To me, he was most dear, and would always have been so. Had he become stained with earthly faults, I could never have forgotten what he was when fresh from the soul’s home, and what he was to me when my soul pined for sympathy, pure and unalloyed. The three children I have seen who were fairest in my eyes, and gave most promise of the future, were Waldo [Emerson], Pickie, Hermann Clarke; — all nipped in the bud. Endless thought has this given me, and a resolve to seek the realization of all hopes and plans elsewhere; which resolve will weigh with me as much as it can weigh before the silver cord is finally loosed. Till then, Earth, our mother, always finds strange, unexpected ways to draw us back to her bosom, — to make us seek anew a nutriment which has never failed to cause us frequent sickness.”
Having somewhat regained her health and calmness at Rieti, she journeyed thence, with her husband and child, by Perugia to Florence, where they were welcomed and cheered by the love and admiration of the little American colony, and by the few British liberals residing there, — the Brownings prominent among them. Here they spent the ensuing Winter, and Margaret wrote her survey of the grand movement for Italian liberty and unity, which had miscarried for the moment, but which was still cherished in millions of noble hearts. With the ensuing Spring came urgent messages from her native land, awaking, or rather strengthening, her natural longing to greet once more the dear ones from whom she had now been four years parted; and on the 17th of May, 1850, they embarked in the bark Elizabeth, Captain Hasty, at Leghorn, for New York, which they hoped to reach within sixty days at farthest.
Margaret’s correspondence for the preceding month is darkened with apprehensions and sinister forebodings, which were destined to be fearfully justified. First: Captain Hasty was prostrated, when a few days on his voyage, by what proved to be confluent small-pox, whereof he died, despite his wife’s tenderest care, and his body was consigned to the deep. Then Angelo, Margaret’s child, was attacked by the terrible disease, and his life barely saved, after he had for days been utterly blind, and his recovery seemed hopeless. So, after a week’s detention by head winds at Gibralter, they fared on, under the mate’s guidance, until, at noon of July 15, in a thick fog, with a southeast breeze, they reckoned themselves off the Jersey coast, and headed northeast for the bay of New York, which they expected to enter next morning. But the evening brought a gale, which steadily increased to a tempest, before which, though under close-reefed sails, they were driven with a rapidity of which they were unconscious, until, about four o’clock the next morning, the Elizabeth struck heavily on Fire Island Beach, off the south coast of Long Island, and her prow was driven harder and farther into the sand, while her freight of marble broke through her keel, and her stern was gradually hove around by the terrible waves, until she lay broadside to their thundering sweep, her deck being careened toward the land, the sea making a clear sweep over her at every swell. The masts had been promptly cut away; but the ship was already lost, and her inmates could only hope to save their own lives. Making their way with great difficulty to the forecastle, they remained there, amid the war of elements, until 9 A. M., when, as the wreck was evidently about to break up, they resolved to attempt the perilous passage to the desolate sand-hills which were plainly visible at a distance of a few hundred feet; and, venturing upon a plank, Mrs. Hasty, aided by a seaman named Davis, reached the shore. But Margaret and her husband refused to be saved separately, or without their child; and the crew were directed to save themselves, which most of them did. Still, some remained on the wreck, and were persuading the passengers to trust themselves to planks, when, at 3 P. M., a great sea struck the forecastle, carrying away the foremast, together with the deck and all upon it. Two of the crew saved themselves by swimming i the steward, with little Angelo in his arms, both dead, was washed ashore twenty minutes later; but of Margaret and her husband nothing was evermore seen.
Just before setting out on this fateful voyage, she had written apprehensively to a friend at home: —
“I shall embark more composedly in our merchant-ship; praying fervently, indeed, that it may not be my lot to lose my boy at sea, either by unsolaced illness, or amid howling waves; or, if so, that Ossoli, Angelo, and I may go together, and that the anguish may be brief.”
So passed away the loftiest, bravest soul that has yet irradiated the form of an American woman.
—Recollections of a Busy Life
by Horace Greeley
(New York: J.B. Ford, 1868)