Cape Cod – The County – Pt. 3

No picture of the Cape could be complete without some accent upon its men of the learned professions.

Teacher, doctor, parson, and lawyer might or might not have shared the universal experience of the sea: it depended, usually, upon whether they were importations or native products. But certainly the memory of them adds another note to the richness of the general hue. We have met good Deacon Hawes, the Yarmouth schoolmaster, and the more elegant Sidney Brooks, of Harwich: they exemplify, perhaps, the two types of early teachers. Young collegians, working their way through the university, were for a later generation; and very well, for the most part, did they train the boys and girls of the district schools. They were absurdly young, some of them lads not yet in their twenties; but they imparted knowledge with the same clear-minded determination with which they were pursuing their own education. Schools of the best quality that offered, the people of any time were bound to have: Truro, as early as 1716, placed school-master before politician. They engaged Mr. Samuel Spear “for the entire year” for the consideration that he should receive forty pounds salary and “board himself”; then, “determined to save in some way what, they were compelled to spend for schools,” they voted to send no representative to the General Court, “because we are not obliged by law to send one, and because the Court has rated us so high that we are not able to pay one for going.” Later Mr, Spear served Provincetown as minister.

Of the early physicians Doctor Abner Hersey, of Barnstable, was, perhaps, the most famous. He came there from Hingham in 1769 to study medicine with a brother, who, however, died within the year of his arrival. Very likely the general knowledge he had picked up in that short association, supplemented by his native judgment and common sense, his keen observation and power of correct deduction, served his patients as well as would a more exact training in the science of the day. He became the leading physician of the Cape, and on his regular circuit through the towns, the sick were brought for his healing to every crossroads and centre. He was brusque and uncertain in temper, and was, withal, eccentric. Freeman judges him “subject to hypochondriac affections.” “He rejected alike animal food and alcoholic stimulants; his meals were fruit, milk, and vegetables. Contemning the follies of fashion, his garments were peculiar to himself — his overcoat to protect him in travel was made of seven calfskins, lined with flannel.” As a further precaution against the searching winter winds his chaise was entirely enclosed with leather curtains, pierced by two loopholes for his eyes and the reins. There is evidence that his bed was heaped high with “milled” blankets which he manipulated, up or down, in accord with the temperature. He was just, benevolent, shrewd, and his name lived after him. By his will he left five hundred pounds to Harvard University to endow a chair of anatomy and surgery; and after his wife’s death the residue of his estate was to be held for the thirteen Congregational parishes of the county, the income distributed in due proportion to the size of his practice therein. And there opened the door of temptation to the devout; for this sum, amounting to some four thousand pounds, was to be managed by the deacons and the income expended for such sound doctrinal books as Dodridge on the ” Rise and Progress of the Christian Religion,” and Evans on “The Christian Temper.” But the deacons made such good cheer at their annual meetings, which held over sometimes for two or three days at the comfortable tavern of Mrs. Lydia Sturgis in Barnstable, that little of the income was left for the purchase of godly literature. The matter became something of a scandal, and after the lapse of thirty years the court settled the estate and distributed the principal among the several parishes.

Doctor James Thacher, who studied with Hersey and served as a surgeon in the Revolution, died, in 1844, at the age of ninety. Doctor Leonard, of Sandwich, born in 1763 and practising for sixty years, had the enviable reputation of being patient with chronic invalids, prompt in epidemics or “occasional” diseases — in short, a good Christian and a good doctor. He was succeeded by his son, who links up the profession, in the memory of the living with Doctor Gould, of Brewster. Vast, kindly, skilful, sympathetic with his patients to his own hurt, rather silent, who can forget him on his errands of mercy as he drove from house to house or town to town in the “sulky” that was so exact a fit for his bulk the wonder was he must not always carry it upon his back as the snail his shell. It was an ordeal then for a child to be stood on a chair and have that Jovine ear applied to back and chest in lieu of a stethoscope. “Have you a phial?” inquired Jove of the parent after one such test. Later a terrified infant was abstracted from the depths of a broom-cupboard. “0 mother, mother, what is a phial?” cried the victim of his fears.

The early parsons were often, as we have seen, of a fine type — English university men usually, who had travelled far in their quest of freedom. They were perforce, in the new country, farmers as well as clergy-men, and one of them, the Reverend John Avery, of Truro, practised, in addition, the arts of doctor, lawyer, and smith. It is written of him that he “manifested great tenderness for the sick, and his people very seriously felt their loss in his death.” He came to them in 1711, and lived active, beneficent years among them until his death in 1754. These Cape pastorates frequently covered a great span of years. In its first century the West Parish of Barnstable had but two ministers. In 1828 died the Reverend Timothy Alden, of Yarmouth, after a tenure of fifty-nine years. Alden was more truly of the soil than many of his brethren, as he was in direct line from John of the Mayflower. He was a man of wit in the choice of his texts: “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out,” brought forth on the Monday his stipulated firewood that had been lacking; and to a critic he gave answer on the following Sabbath: “The word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.” Mr. Freeman remembers that Alden was the last to wear the Revolutionary costume. As late as 1824 he saw him at an ordination: “his antique wig conspicuous, in small clothes, with knee and shoe buckles, and three-cornered hat lying nearby — objects of interest to the young.” “He sat there as sometimes stands a solitary, aged oak, surrounded by the younger growth of a later period. It was to us the last exhibition of the great wigs and cocked hats; it left also impressions of a bygone age long to be remembered.”

The pastorates of Mr. Avery, Mr. Upham, and Mr. Damon, of Truro, covered one hundred and eighteen years. It was Mr. Upham who rebated fifty pounds of his salary during the hard times of the Revolution, and gave further evidence of public spirit by travel-ling to Boston to aid in adjusting “the prices of the necessities of life.” His people were ready to raise one hundred dollars for his expenses. Mr. Upham “left behind him a poem in manuscript, the subject of which was taken from the Book of Job. He was ever attentive to the real good of his people, and exerted himself with zeal and fidelity in their service,” The Reverend Jude Damon was ordained in 1786, and some notion of the festivity may be gathered from the fact that Captain Joshua Atkins was voted forty dollars (Spanish Milled) to defray the expense of entertaining the council. Mr. Damon was voted two hundred pounds “settlement,” and, annually, seventy-five pounds specie, the use of the parsonage, fifteen cords of oak wood, three of pine, and five tons of hay delivered at his door. And Mr. Damon’s comments upon certain of his parishioners, deceased, are pre-served for our pleasure in his private memoranda. One Mary Treat, dead at ninety-five, “came from England at the age of fourteen, and was a person of fine mind and robust constitution. She gave me a tolerable account of London and Westminster bridges, and likewise observed that the distance from Dover to Calais was so small that in a very clear day linen might be seen from one place to another.” Samuel Small was “a pious and good man whose great desire was to be prepared for another and better world and to have an easy passage out of this.” Of the Widow Atkins her “usefulness and activity in sickness and midwifery will be remembered, and her memory will be embalmed with a grateful perfume in the minds of all who were within the circle of her acquaintance.” Another “had a taste for reading both sacred and profane history.” Another, of enterprising spirit, was “greatly prospered in his secular affairs, tender-hearted to the poor.” Vivid little portraits flash out from his page: the husband, “tender and affectionate, as a father distinguished for his talent of governing his children, tempering indulgence with prudence; as a neighbor pleasant and obliging, as a magistrate he was a peace-maker, as a deacon of the church he magnified his office. Ile came to his grave in full age, like a shock of corn cometh he in season.” Mr. Damon himself was beloved for his tolerance and sweet spirit: of a welcome guest one could say no more than

“I would as soon see Mr. Damon.” But his memoranda reveal that Mr. Damon had a keen eye. Of one female parishioner who in her last illness “frequently expressed her desire to be with her Redeemer,” he remarks, “It is to be hoped she was as really pious as she seemed.” And of one deceased “professor” he wrote that he “was possessed of good abilities and powers of mind. These were, however, much eclipsed by his selfish spirit and avaricious disposition.” To Mr. Damon’s cure belonged a local astronomer, unlettered and untaught, a dreamer, who loved the stars. He knew them all and called them by name, and, meeting with scant sympathy in his star-gazing, scorned not the humblest disciple. “I swear,” he had been known to exclaim, “half the stars might go out of the sky, and nobody here would know it, if it was n’t for me and Aunt Achsah.”

The pastorates of Mr. Dunster, Mr. Stone, and Mr. Simpkins in the North Parish of Harwich included its transfer to Brewster, and covered a span of one hundred and thirty-one years. Mr. Dunster married Reliance, daughter of Governor Hinckley, who is said to have been baptized on the day of the memorable “swamp fight” that ended King Philip’s War, and received her name in “token of firm reliance in Divine Power” held by her mother for the safety of the father who was fighting that day. Mr. Stone, in 1730, inveighs against “a sad failing in family government — a wicked practice of young people in their courtships which I have borne my public testimony against” — an allusion, no doubt, to the ancient betrothal custom of “sitting-up.” There are interesting cases of parish discipline recorded. In Mr. Punster’s time, “the church met to hear a charge examined against a sister, brought by another sister in the church, the pushing her out of a pew, and hunching another in time of divine service in the meeting-house.” And as late as 1820 a committee was appointed “to keep the meeting-house clear of dogs, and to kill them if their owners will not keep them out”; boys, likewise, the committee were to “take care of and keep them still in time of meeting.” No light task, we may guess, where the boys were segregated in a balcony apart as if for the special incitement of mischief; nor were boys the only ones who were irked by those long services. It was the sexton’s duty to turn the glass at the beginning of the sermon, which must be ended with the sand, and Freeman remembers the “early preparation for a determined stampede from the meeting-house the moment that the benediction was pronounced. Coats were buttoned, canes and hats were taken in hand, pew-doors were unbuttoned, and diligent and full preparation was made for a general rush to ensue as soon as the closing Amen should begin to be articulated by the minister. And such a babel of tongues and noisy scattering of devout worshippers as followed was memorable.” Nor is it remarkable that men should have welcomed the Amen as a blessed release when pews must have been stools of penance for a full-bodied sailor, or for a child whose short legs must dangle unsupported, so narrow was the seat, so hard and straight did the back rise therefrom. Mr. Freeman recalls other points of the service, that of the choir “tuning their voices — often with the aid of the bass viol and sometimes violin, during the reading of the psalm,” and the slamming of the hinged seats of the pews when the congregation rose for the prayer. It would have been papistical then to kneel in the house of God, and a man addressed his Maker stoutly upon his feet; the monotony of the service was further varied, when the last hymn was given out, by standing with backs to the parson as if, his contribution duly delivered, full criticism might be turned upon the choir.

Mr. Simpkins steered Brewster through the troubled times of the Embargo War, and aided with his intercession the deliberations of the town as to paying war tribute to the British. Grandmothers of not many years ago could tell stories of Parson Simpkins, a stately gentleman for whom the best New England rum was kept on the sideboard to cheer his parochial calls. But the parson, on such visits, was not infrequently the herald of disaster: for when a ship arrived with captain or seaman missing, drowned or dead in some foreign port, the minister was first notified, and even if his call were only for pleasure, the wife or mother who saw him coming would have a pang of dread, and the neighbors say: “There goes Mr. Simpkins — bad news for some one.”

One of the last of these long cures, running through thirty-five years, was that of the Reverend Thomas Dawes, worthy successor of his prototypes, a fine, scholarly gentleman of the old school. The rounded periods of his sermons were sometimes applied to the case of his parishioners with a directness that offended sensitive ears, but is valued rightly in the stock-intrade of many an urban preacher of today. “We of Brewster,” he would roll out with melodious emphasis. His reading of hymn and Scriptures was a remembrance to be treasured, his presence in the pulpit a benediction, and who that had seen him there could forget the shining glory of his face as he “talked with God.” For the children of his parish, through a long season, he made Saul of Tarsus a living personality, and the coasts of the Mediterranean as familiar to them as Cape Cod Bay. He illustrated his instruction by crayon sketches in color, and the scholars saw how Gamaliel’s pupils were grouped about their master’s feet; they knew how a man should adjust his phylactery; and though there were derision of the High Priest’s countenance, there was no confusing the style of his breast-plate with that of a centurion. As he aged, the good pastor became something of a recluse. He loved his books, and through the years amassed in his little study a collection that was typical of the best in his day and generation, with a queer alien blot now and then: for it was said that he could never resist the blandishments of the canvasser and the appeal of the book in his hand. Dying, he left his treasure intact to the village library; nor did he see the necessity for any such stipulation as old John Lothrop’s that his books were only for those who knew how to use them.

The temporal affairs of these good men not infrequently needed mending, nor, as time went on, were the clergy usually recruited from among the natives: Cape Cod men, pursuing their vocations by land and sea, were likely to depute to aliens the less lucrative cure of souls. Versatile Mr. Avery, of Truro, seems to have come out well in the struggle and to have bequeathed a tidy fortune to his heirs. But Jonathan Russell and Timothy Alden, as we have seen, needed to have a care to their firewood; and Oakes Shaw, the successor of Russell and father of the great chief justice, even had recourse to the constable to adjust the arrears of his stipend. Mrs. Shaw, debating with her son his choice of a profession, was betrayed into some ironical appreciation of the clergy which she was quick to regret. “I hope you will not mistake your talent,” wrote she. “I could name several that took upon them the sacred profession of divinity, this profession so far from regulating their conduct, that their conduct would have disgraced a Hottentot. Others we have seen in various professions who have been an ornament to the Christian religion. I was not aware till I had just finished the last sentence that you might construe it into a discouragement of entering upon the study of divinity. This is not my intention, for I do most sincerely hope that you will make it your study through life whether you ever preach it or not.”

Her son chose the law, and gave us one of the two great men, both of them lawyers, whom the Cape has produced. Palfrey quotes one who went so far as to affirm that “no spot has made such a gift to the country as Great Marshes in Barnstable.” There lived James Otis, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas in the troubled times of the Revolution, and there James Otis the patriot was born. James Otis, the younger, when he grew to maturity, removed to Boston, but he may be counted a son of the Old Colony and an inheritor of its genius. He was far more than a fiery orator whose eloquence was the inspiration of other men’s work; but on a flood of enthusiasm induced by that eloquence he was carried into the House of Representatives. “Out of this election will arise a damned faction,” commented a royalist judge, “which will shake this province to its foundation.” His prediction fell ludicrously short of the event. Otis conducted the patriots’ cause with such “prudence and fortitude, at every sacrifice of personal interest and amidst unceasing persecution,” that the “History of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts” can declare that: “Constitutional government in America, so far as it is expressed in writing, developed largely from the ideas expressed by James Otis and the Massachusetts men who framed the Constitution of 1780.”

And the man who more than any other in Massachusetts was to perfect their work, who stands beside the great Marshall in the history of American jurisprudence, and by the wise decisions of a temper-ate mind established the flow of justice through the channel of the common law, was also a native of Great Marshes. There, in 1781, when the work of the earlier patriots was accomplished, Lemuel Shaw was born. Slowly, irresistibly, by sheer force of worth and capacity, he advanced to fame. He was graduated from Harvard, he entered the law, and for twenty-six years practised his profession in Boston. At one time and another he served in the General Court, he was fire-warden, selectman, a member of the school committee, and of the constitutional convention of 1820; and in 1830, when he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, his sane inheritance, his tempered judgment, his wide experience of law and of men, had forged a mind perfectly adapted to his opportunity. In his thirty years upon the bench he enriched incalculably the sparse records of the common law. In the opinion of a fellow jurist, “The distinguishing characteristic of his judicial work was the application of the general principles of law, by a virile and learned mind, with a statesman’s breadth of vision and amplitude of wisdom to the novel conditions presented by a rapidly changing civilization.” The Pilgrims had brought here and practised the Anglo-Saxon conception of such freedom as is commensurate with justice to all. “They brought along with them their national genius,” wrote Saint John de Crevecceur in his “Letters from an American Farmer,” in 1782, “to which they principally owe what liberty they enjoy, and what substance they possess.” It was the great American jurists who developed and adapted that conception of justice for the due guidance of the new nation.

Shaw lived in Boston, but, unlike James Otis, he never gave up his hold upon his native town. He loved the village roads and Great Marshes and the sea. And, curiously, as if again the magic of the sea’s charm persisted in the fortunes of its children, Shaw’s daughter married Herman Melville, the author of “Typee” and “Omoo.” Shaw was fond of children, and used to drive his little granddaughter about Boston in his old chaise; there is a story of his being caught by a visitor at a game of bear with the children. But he could be stern enough on the bench; and a sharp practitioner, complaining of his severity, was tartly reminded by a fellow lawyer that “while we have jackals and hyenas at the bar, we want the old lion on the bench with one blow of his huge paw to bring their scalps about their eyes.”

Shaw spoke again and again at local celebrations on the Cape. At one such banquet he might have proposed, or answered, the toast to “Cape Cod Our Home : The first to honor the Pilgrim ship, the first to receive the Pilgrim feet; the first and always the dearest in the memory of her children everywhere.” But it was at Yarmouth that he expressed best, perhaps, the loyalties of his great heart: “There is not one visitor here male or female whose heart is not penetrated with the deep and endearing sentiment, at once joyous and sad, which makes up the indescribable charm of home.”