By Kate Hesseldenz, Curator
One of my favorite items in the collection is a commonplace book owned by Margaretta Mason Brown (1772-1838). The book contains 52 poems. Margaretta wrote many of the poems in the book, but she also copied some of them from magazines and newspapers. They are arranged chronologically, and she titled the book “Fugitive Pieces, or, Juvenile Essays.” Margaretta began writing and copying poems into the book in 1785, when she was just 13 years old and lived in New York City. The last poem in the book is dated 1807.
Two of the poems in the book celebrate American independence and the Fourth of July. She copied both from New York periodicals. To make the distinction, Margaretta wrote the initials of the newspaper or magazine by the poem when she was copying them into her book. “On the 4th of July” is dated 1786 and is from The Daily advertiser, political, historical, and commercial, an early New York magazine that included poetry.[i] This poem was written only three years after America gained its independence from England in the Revolutionary War. The first four lines proudly recount America’s defeat over the British.
Hail glorious day! Forever to be known,
When first Columbia’s rising glories shone;
When first she humbled haughty Britain’s pride,
And quelled of Tyranny through flowing tide.
The word Columbia is a poetic term for the national personification of America. It refers to Christopher Columbus and was first used in the 18th century. [ii]
The second poem from 1794 is titled “Independence or The fourth of July.” This poem appeared in New-York Magazine; or, Literary Repository, a magazine published in New York City from 1790-1797.[iii]
The first lines from this poem demonstrate a new nation’s jubilant triumph.
Yes, let the ecstatic voice of joy
With glad vibrations rend the air,
Let Music all her powers employ
To banish each intrusive care,
For lo, from yon enamored sky
Springs the young Dawn of Liberty.
Margaretta admired these poems enough to copy them into her book. In 1776 when the British began their seven-year occupation of New York City, Margaretta was 4 years old. The constant presence of British soldiers during her childhood probably made an impression on her and her family.
The classical style of poetry written in the 18th century seems formal compared to today’s poems. But these early patriotic poems, written so soon after the Revolutionary War ended and admired by a young Margaretta Mason, express the triumph, joy, and anticipation for a newly created United States.
Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!
To view the whole poetry book, click here.
[i] Wells, Colin, Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic (2018): University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
[ii] Steele, Thomas J., “The Figure of Columbia: Phillis Wheatley plus George Washington,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2 (1981), page 264-266.
[iii] New-York Magazine, or Literary Repository, vol. 5 (1794): Thomas and James Swords: New York. University of Chicago Libraries.