fig. 1. “View of Saco Falls,” by William S. Gookin (1829). Courtesy of the Saco Museum, Saco, Maine; gift of Mrs. Thomas Decatur. Gookin (1799-1872), an itinerant painter from Dover, New Hampshire, captures the might of “the Falls” as Thatcher would have seen it around the time of his death. The scene looks upriver (north), with Biddeford to the left, and Saco’s vibrant milling industries sprouting up along Indian (also known as Cutts’s, and now Factory) Island to the right.

    George Thatcher:

    A Federalist Journey in Letters

    Traveling south along the coastal highway through southern Maine one October afternoon in the middle of the last decade of the eighteenth century, the duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt stopped in the town of Biddeford to dine at the home of George Thatcher, a local lawyer.

    Mr. Thatcher is, likewise, a member of the Congress. He lives at the distance of two miles from the town, in a small and mean house, which would be disdained by the pettiest avocat in all France. Opposite to his house, on the other side of the highway, is another hut, not more than twelve feet square, very slightly constructed of boards, carelessly fixed at the foundation, and hanging over a declivity of the road, which is his consultation-room, his chamber for business, and his library. He has about two thousand volumes, books of law, history, morality, and general literature. He adds to it all new American publications, and procures from England every other new work, which he understands to be valuable, and cannot find in America. He reads a great deal, and is a man of extensive knowledge. There is a pleasing cast of originality in his conversation and in his whole behaviour: But his notions are excentric, and often false. He is singular in his exterior appearance, stiff and fantastic in his principles, but liberal-minded, hospitable, courteous, and kind. He cultivates a small piece of land, and lives with his numerous family in a hut in which they have scare, all, room to breathe. His doors are never shut; even his study is always open; yet nothing is ever stolen from him. These simple, unsuspicious manners, have procured him the esteem of his neighbours, as being an honest lawyer. He is, in political principles, a federalist, but unconnected with the intrigues of that party; and, in the Congress, he endeavours always to give his vote to rectitude, not to party. He is not rich: yet has more than would be sufficient to make him live more elegantly than he does at present, if his humour would permit. His land is fertile. It has been two years in cultivation. He gives it no manure; yet it yields, an acre, fifty bushels of maize, or forty bushels of barley, and two hundred bushels of potatoes. The meadows, which are not in a very good state of preservation and culture, yield, from each, six thousand pounds of hay. His ploughs and harrows are of the same indifferent make as those throughout the rest of the country. Mr. Thatcher complains, that little progress is made in the institution of good schools in this country. When these shall be sufficiently numerous, he expects that every improvement will advance with astonishing rapidity.1

    High principles in a lowly cottage. To contemporary readers, the sketch conformed to a familiar genre: the homage to a rustic sage. Thatcher was Liancourt’s version of Crèvecoeur’s Pennsylvania botanist in Number XI of Letters from an American Farmer.

    Before he resigned in 1801, Thatcher had been elected from a far corner of the Union to a seat in the United States House of Representatives for twelve years in a row—more than any other legislator in the history of Congress up to that time. Over a forty-year career as country lawyer, national legislator, and state judge, George Thatcher produced a bounty of letters and miscellaneous writings that speak intelligently and authentically to the beliefs, aspirations, and fears of the first generation of American citizens. To follow along on Thatcher’s journey as a New England Federalist, abolitionist, religious dissenter, and pedagogical innovator is to add depth and complexity to our understanding of the early American Republic.

    * * *

    George Thatcher was born on 12 April 1754, the sixth son and tenth child of Peter and Anner Lewis Thacher.2 He and an extensive cousinage belonged to a family of great, almost legendary antiquity in his hometown of Yarmouth, Massachusetts—one of the oldest towns on Cape Cod. A Boston branch of the family descended from the nephew and ward of Thatcher’s great great grandfather, Antony Thacher, founder of the Cape Cod branch, whose New World odyssey from Salisbury, England comprises one of the more dramatic episodes in Cotton Mather’s famous Magnalia Christi Americana.3

    Antony Thacher was one of Yarmouth’s original grantees (1639), served on its first board of selectmen, and represented the town for eleven terms in the Massachusetts General Court, or legislature. The succeeding four generations of judges, militia officers, selectmen, and provincial legislators all farmed the same land, “among the most respectable of the yeomanry of our country.” In short, wrote John Adams, “There is not a family in North America, who have transmited to their numerous Posterity even down to the present time, more of the Piety and Virtues, the literature and science of our forefathers than Those who bear the name of Thatcher.”4

    Thatcher’s mother, Anner Lewis, also descended from old Yarmouth stock. Her mother’s maiden name, Crocker, is still familiar to residents today; her father George, born just 34 years after the town was founded, lived to within a few years of Lexington and Concord. Over two decades, Anner bore eleven children, three of whom died before George was born. The names of his two oldest living sisters—Temperance and Thankful—reflected qualities useful for surviving the desolate isolation of early Cape Cod. A few years after Anner Lewis Thacher’s death, Daniel Davis visited the family homestead and described for Thatcher his feelings “When I entered that ancient and venerable parlour, where you used to study law, Your mother keep school, & your sister Sally spin, all together.” Thatcher never committed to paper a warm sentiment about his father, but of his mother he wrote that “our Language does not afford words sufficiently expressive of the lively sense I ever shall retain of her affection for poor George.”5

    Given his relatively privileged pedigree, it is surprising that Thatcher was the first male in his direct line to attend college. Even then, by his own admission, it was an unlikely outcome.

    I was son to an honest farmer, & being too lazy to follow his occupation I tried one or two others & soon got sick of them also—My parents had always a desire, almost bordering upon anxiety, to see one of their sons a preacher—& this I believe more than any marks of Genius or their pecuniary ability to run themselves to the expence of my education, induced them to send me to school learn Lattin & Greek for the by charity & prudence all my bills did not exceed one hundred pounds, and among most of my early playmates I was considered rather below par in all those little sprightlinesses that generally are looked upon as prognostics of future talents & brilliancy—From this time to entering College I shall pass over—with one observation that vanity, or ambition prompted me to do what Genius was unequal to6

    He had enjoyed certain educational advantages: his mother kept school in the family parlor and a local pastor tutored him for Harvard. But his teachers faced a rough task. Later, when there was concern that their own son “Sammy” might be a slow learner, Thatcher consoled his wife that it was “next to impossible that he should be either more averse to his book, or hard to learn to read than his pappa.” (Thatcher may have also had himself in mind when he observed a little later, again about Sammy’s educational progress, that “Backwardness, or rather slowness, in reading, is a promising symptom, while a very great facility in reading is sometimes followed by an early ripeness of the mental powers, which never after exceed a small degree of mediocrity.”) Thatcher was eighteen when he entered Harvard in 1772—older than four-fifths of the outgoing graduating class had been when they entered four years earlier.7

    Significant modifications to Harvard’s curriculum in 1767 had added to the centuries-old humanistic course of studies in logic, rhetoric, ethics, and classical languages and literature. Thatcher was now required to learn also science, geography, and mathematics—subjects that never held much interest for him. (More than twenty years later, his friend Dr. Joseph Priestley ached to share news of his latest scientific experiments, “but this does not interest you.”) Thatcher’s academic achievement after four years is difficult to gauge; placement on the class list, traditionally ranked according to family status, was changed to alphabetical order after Thatcher’s freshman year, and did not reflect personal academic standing.8

    The exigencies of war forced the school’s faculty and a remnant of fewer than one hundred students to remove to Concord, Massachusetts for the last year of Thatcher’s matriculation. But they reassembled in Cambridge in June 1776, in time for commencement on 14 August. Forty-three men graduated with Thatcher’s Class of ’76; among the other notables were the future governor, Christopher Gore; jurists Royall Tyler and Samuel Sewall; physicians Aaron Dexter and James Mann; the astronomer-clergyman John Prince; and Ezra Ripley, longtime pastor of Concord and step-grandfather to the town’s most famous son, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The impressions made by our first meeting, in the College Yard, the day before we were examined, are yet lively,” Ripley wrote Thatcher, more than fifteen years later.9

    No correspondence survives from Thatcher’s college years, and his later extant writings are largely silent about his alma mater. Harvard’s moral climate elicited his most substantial commentary—most of it negative. He no doubt welcomed the Unitarian coup effected by Henry Ware’s election as Hollis Professor of Divinity in 1805 and President Samuel Webber’s election the next year, and must have rejoiced with Dudley Atkins Tyng that “The whole Instruction is now filled with men of Sense & Liberality”—that is, Unitarians.10 But the student body’s “Great Rebellion” of 1823 gave him cause to wonder about the connection between liberality and laxness: “We have just got a report,” Thatcher wrote Sarah,

    of a great outra[ge] upon order & decency commited by the Schollars in [the] Colledge; & that half or more of the Senior Class has been rusticated—These stupid, silly youths, must be placed under a more rigorous Government—Whether this outrage is the effect of the orthodox prayer [in?] Boston & the Colledges, or the result of total depravity will become a nice subject of discussion among Theologians & the moralists—I dont know yet which side I shall take in the dispute—But sure I am that every body will condemn the ridiculous conduct of the students; and this they will do themselves; when they come to reflect.11

    Although the reforms of 1767 had introduced into Harvard’s curriculum liberal political theorists like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui12—thinkers destined to influence the ideology of the American Revolution— “the prevailing mood of the Cambridge Yard was mainly apolitical during the pre-Revolutionary era.” Young scholars might start a food fight to protest the consumption of East India tea in the dining commons a month before Lexington and Concord, but relatively few of them were radicalized enough to join the militias encamped all around Harvard after hostilities broke out in the spring of 1775. Before the end of the war, “not many more than one in seven of the generation’s members ever took the field of battle for either side, however briefly.” Thatcher himself appears to have remained only a tepid “rebel” after graduating. His return to the isolation of Cape Cod kept him from committing more actively, but which was cause and which was effect remains unclear. He did overcome his fear of seafaring long enough to sign on for a single cruise aboard a privateer; Thatcher alluded to this experience in occasional self-mocking references to his “having been an old Seaman.” Years later, a political opponent would cite that “Single Act of yours,” undertaken “with a view of accumulating property to yourself,” as evidence of deficient patriotism during the Revolutionary War. Nathaniel Barrell (a reconciled Tory) offered a probably more judicious and certainly more charitable assessment when he credited Thatcher with maintaining candor and fairness “when whigg & torry ran so high.”13

    * * *

    In one of his rare written references to his father, Thatcher recalled that “a little before he died, & in a conversation we held upon my future destination in life, he was led to beleive I should turn preacher—I know it was his wish. & if I recollect, I did not possitively assure him to the contrary.” Since Peter Thacher did not die until his son’s senior year at Harvard, it would appear that most of George’s college education had been aimed at creating a clergyman. He had a fine role model for such a career path: an early intellectual influence, the man who tutored him for Harvard, was Rev. Timothy Hilliard of neighboring Barnstable. John Quincy Adams was among those who thought Hilliard merely passable as a preacher, but the Congregational minister’s views accorded well with Thatcher’s own developing notions of church discipline: in a sermon of 24 October 1787, Hilliard professed “It does not fall within the province of the ministers of religion to prescribe articles of faith, and to bind the consciences of man.” Thatcher’s latitudinarian outlook almost certainly owed something to the atmosphere he breathed in his youth. In 1794 Boston’s first Unitarian minister, Dr. James Freeman, paid tribute to Cape Cod’s legacy of religious tolerance when he described its first settlers as “a religious and industrious people, of more candid minds and less disposed to persecution than the settlers of Massachusetts.” Not surprisingly, among inhabitants so “enlightened and virtuous,” Freeman found that “In Barnstable county in particular, there is a very large body of Unitarians.”14

    Thatcher did not rule out the possibility of turning preacher even after embarking on his successful career in law and politics. In 1790 he wrote that, should an elderly family member soon die and greet his parents in heaven, “she must inform Mother that George behaves very well—He has not turned preacher yet; tho he is not certain but he will before he dies—And tho he has lost a good deel of what was called religion when she was on earth; he yet retains the better part.” This “better part”—a saving remnant of rational Christianity—was no anemic Deism with its negative tendencies towards Enlightened skepticism or even outright agnosticism. Thatcher’s letters bear witness to a scripture-based spirituality that was robust and fruitful, driven by the fundamental belief that whatever good (happiness) religion offered, relied on a personal theology and morality freed from the compulsion of dogma and a state-sponsored religious establishment. His thoughts on public morality and the proper relationship between church and state would change, as might be expected given the times, when “Bold inquiry into religion engaged a wide spectrum of people and made serious intellectual debate about the relation between religion and political power popular, exciting, and accessible.” But Thatcher’s personal brand of Unitarianism remained a constant throughout his life, and is expounded at length throughout the letters included in this edition, from the first (1786) to the last (1824). Even if Thatcher, at the brink of choosing a career, had been genuinely inclined to preach his brand of theology from a pulpit, he must have doubted his chances of finding a compatible parish: a New England church did not embrace America’s first avowed Unitarian minister and liturgy until 1787—more than a decade after Thatcher left Harvard.15

    Instead, Thatcher chose the law. But before embarking on his formal studies, he became a schoolmaster—a not uncommon detour on the path to lawyering. Besides providing an interim salary, teaching furnished ample time for further preparation prior to reading law in a reputable law office. Thatcher would eventually study under Shearjashub Bourne of Barnstable, while living at home in Yarmouth. But when it came time to hang out his shingle, he turned his back on Cape Cod.16

    Thatcher’s adult correspondence with his only younger brother may offer some clue why. Thomas was the sole sibling with whom Thatcher is known to have corresponded—and then, only infrequently. A fertile optimism, watered by the mists of nostalgia, made for pleasant memories of their youth together.17 But when Thatcher wrote his brother that nostalgia had the benefit of allowing individuals to see how far they had come in life, there is an implied criticism (and impatience) with those who opted not to venture far at all. Thomas himself believed his older brother had chosen the better course by leaving Yarmouth: “You know that this Town Nevr did abound with people of much Sentiment. . . . You need not think [it] strang that Some of my time hangs heavy, for want of Some company to fetch new Ideas from.” Daniel Davis provided Thatcher a droll description of what his friend had left behind: “As to Barnstable, all I can say is that from the West to the East End of our parish you shall not pass thru Doors, but one of them will be the Habitation Either of Drunkeness, Idleness, or of Matrimonial Jaws and flagilations—some few indeed are about hanging themselves, but that has become so common a remidy for the Evils of that Climate, that a man pops off in that way without much Ceremony.”18

    Like many Cape Codders, Thatcher turned his sights to Maine. Perhaps, as fellow attorney James Sullivan is said to have reasoned, “since he must break into the world, he thought it prudent to make the attempt at a weak place.” Southern Maine, like Cape Cod, boasted some of the oldest permanent English settlements along the New England coastline. But when Thatcher settled there around 1781, vast stretches resembled a hinterland still. The oldest extant letter in Thatcher’s correspondence is addressed to him in York in late August 1781. He may have been living there as much as a year earlier, and continued to practice law there until perhaps as late as the fall of 1784, when he relocated to Biddeford, a half dozen miles upstream from where the Saco River pays tribute to the Gulf of Maine. Why he bothered to leave York for Biddeford is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps he gauged greater business prospects twenty-six miles closer to Falmouth (part of which would become Portland in 1786), although at the time there were only five other full-fledged lawyers in the entire District of Maine—hardly enough to pose serious competition, wherever one alighted. There were still only sixteen lawyers there when the district’s population reached 96,000 at the time of the first federal census six years later. Biddeford’s own population in 1790 was 1018, and Thatcher was its only lawyer. James Sullivan, his immediate predecessor, had left for Boston in 1778; his rise from small-town lawyer to attorney general and eventually to the seventh governor of Massachusetts may have served as an example of the ascendency to which Thatcher too might aspire.19

    * * *

    The marriage state also may have suggested new beginnings in a new home. Thatcher wed twenty-four year old Sarah Savage on 21 July 1784, at her father’s farm in Weston, Massachusetts. Samuel Phillips Savage had been prominent in Boston’s revolutionary movement. Since 1774 his eldest son—Sarah’s older brother Samuel—resided as a doctor in Barnstable, where he boarded for a couple years with one of Thatcher’s Crocker cousins before marrying Hope Doane in 1777. Around the same time, Thatcher started studying law under Savage’s new brother in law, Shearjashub Bourne. Samuel Savage was described as “very sociable, has a great deal to say &c.” and one easily imagines Thatcher being drawn into his circle, whatever the initial connection. The young lawyer doubtlessly came to know and court Sarah Savage at her brother’s house.20

    Sarah somehow stood out. She seems to have lacked the stiff formality that Thatcher complained of in other “Barnstable Girls.”21 The noted diarist Rev. William Bentley found her “amiable” when he passed through Biddeford in June 1787, while Ezra Ripley’s daughter visited shortly after Thatcher’s departure for the First Congress and “cannot conceive, scarcely, of a more accomplished Lady, or one more capable of making every body pleased and happy.” A year later, Sarah Sayward Barrell was gratified to hear that Sarah “continued her Charming Vivacity.” Given these testimonials, it might be accounted mere teasing when Thatcher wrote “It would hurt me ten times more than the loss of an election, to hear any of your visitors should complain of not having spent their time agreeably while at our house—Now if I were at home I think I could contribute much to their amusement & agreeable pass-time—Indeed I sometimes think I am better at this than yourself.” A little later he remarked again, “I always took delight in the company of young Girls—& I think I have a better knack, as the old saying is in making their time pass off agreeably—tho you are pretty good.”22

    Friends like Sarah Sayward Barrell intervened to insure Sarah did not fall prey to a sense of loneliness and abandonment during her husband’s absence on public business. Mary Scollay counseled resignation, patience, and perspective: “there are many my dear Girl, who are depriv’d of their Partners forever, and poverty and large families of Children adds to their wretchedness.” Thatcher made the same point by telling Sarah of his landlady’s recent bereavement over the death of her sailor-husband: “you ought to recollect how many women are seperated from their dear husbands for much longer periods of time—and upon very dangerous voyages and employments.” The lesson needed constant repeating, especially during the cold, dark northern New England winters. “How can you indulge the cruel idea of our never meeting again,” scolded Thatcher, “and why should you harbor such a notion? We are both in good health, & nothing forbodes evil—Banish, my dear, all gloomy suggestions, sing, dance & make yourself merry.” He begrudged her no dances or outings, and loved to hear that friends had visited. Young Betsy King was a particular favorite; “I always love to hear she is with you—she is good company—& I know, with her you & Tempy [Hedge] pass your time happily.” In short, Matthew Cobb assured Thatcher, “every attention is paid to your good Lady that you could wish—in order to keep up her Spirits & make her happy in your absence.”23

    The ache of separation is testimony to the happiness of their marriage. George and Sarah’s was among the first generation of marriages that illustrated the “companionate ideal.” The acknowledgement of a marital partner as a friend, beginning around the time of the Revolution, was revolutionary in itself. Men and women exercised more autonomy in their marital choices, and more reciprocity and mutuality in the management of their households. Thatcher frankly acknowledged and even celebrated Sarah’s individual identity apart from that of wife or mother, a striking example being his insistence that he include her maiden name when addressing letters to her. Echoes of patriarchal oppression are conspicuously absent in Thatcher’s letters—even such telltale signs as might have crept into his interactions with other men, by way of reinforcing “mutually shared understandings of normative sexuality [that] could help forge important masculine social bonds.” Thatcher forged close male but not necessarily masculine bonds. Researchers attempting to mine his letters for a history of sexuality are bound to be disappointed; there is little that is either prurient or puritan in his correspondence. Egalitarian intimacy with Sarah would not seem to allow for ribald, locker room gossip with Thatcher’s closest mates Jeremiah Hill, Nathaniel Barrell, or even the puckish Thomas B. Wait.24

    * * *

    In the fall of 1784, the newlyweds settled into the small house Thatcher had built for them in Biddeford, about one mile west of Saco Falls. Modified over the years, it would be home for all but four of their forty years together, and there they would raise their ten children—the first of whom arrived exactly nine months after their marriage. They brought with them Thatcher’s fourteen-year old niece “Tempy,” the daughter and namesake of his recently widowed older sister, Temperance Hedge. “Tell her mother she may be under no apprehensions about her,” Thatcher assured their brother Thomas; “I will take a Fatherly Care of her And her Aunt Sally, whom she never saw, will be a mother to her.” Providing a home for an orphaned niece while securing a helper for a new housewife was a common and logical redistribution of family burdens and benefits at the time; the Thatchers would do the same with Sarah’s niece “Nancy” (Anna Haven Bigelow) ten years later. But in Tempy’s case, the relationship with Thatcher went beyond mere custom and convenience: “She will ever be to me as our oldest child.”25

    Thatcher and his new wife were immediately drawn into the vitality of eighteenth century Maine’s village life. His Journal entry describes the couple’s first Christmas Eve together, just six months after moving to Biddeford:

    This morning Sally & myself recieved a Billet from Mr. & Mrs. [Matthew] Cobb, to keep Cristmas-eve with them—which we accordingly did—We went about middle of the afternoon & drank Tea at Mr. Cobbs—Coll. & Mrs. Scamman26—Coll. & Mrs. Morrill27—Rishworth Jordan & his wife28—Mr. & Mrs. Myers Docr. & Mrs. [Aaron] Porter—Doctor Rice—D. Hooper & his wife29—and Uncle King.30 convened a little after Sun-set—the evening till about nine was spent in Dancing—Meriment and good humour prevailed individually through the whole Company—Then there was provided a very elegant cold Supper for the Company—consisting of a roast Turkey—Roast Goose &c &c—After supper some time was spent in sociable & entertaining Conversation—Then the Company joined in the Dance till about half after eleven The rest of the time till twelve was pretty much taken up in Reals & single Dances—When the whole Company wishing each other a good night went to their respective homes.31

    Dancing seems to have been a particular favorite of Thatcher’s. “You know I am never more agreeably entertained than with four or five merry Girls, some singing & others dancing.” As if to assure him that their little corner of Maine could compete credibly with the Republican Court at the seat of government, Jeremiah Hill wrote: “You want to know what we are doing here I tell you, last Tuesday we had a very fine Assembly, I put on my dancing Shoes & cut capers like a popet [puppet], you perhaps may want to know the particular Company, but that is to much for me, but I assure you there were near forty in number, I think Eighteen Couple stood up to dance at one time.” Yet even this robust social scene had its limitations. Portland’s pastor told Thatcher that their local music teacher John Rudberg was “a good fiddler,” and “If we were more hungry for musick, he would fare better than he does with us.” But “Guts are of more use for sausages here than for harmony,” and Rudberg was forced to seek Thatcher’s patronage in the more lucrative NYC market.32

    * * *

    Thatcher was “for many years a popular and successful advocate in all the counties in that district,” according to his Obituary. “He had a great acuteness of mind, much law learning, and was able to bring to his aid in argument more general knowledge on scientific subjects than any of his competitors.” His litigating was distinguished by his characteristic earthiness—but also by his maddening talent for provocation.33

    Thatcher’s law office was a room in the back of the family home until he moved his “consultation-room” and burgeoning library across the road to the “hut” seen by Rochefoucauld-Liancourt in the fall of 1796. When not riding the circuit or attending Congress, he took in law students—a practice he continued into his years on the bench. (Probably one of his last students was his brother in law William Savage’s son James Rodon Savage, around 1812.) At least one, Benjamin Brown, asked for instruction long-distance. Even those he did not teach directly sought his counsel in other ways: from far-away New Haven, Josiah Stebbins in 1797 enquired if Thatcher thought the prospects for a young practitioner in Maine would increase in the event of statehood. Early in Thatcher’s congressional career, Sarah admonished him about the appearance of a new lawyer across the river in Saco. Far from apprehensive, Thatcher welcomed the company along with the competition, and even insisted Sarah loan the newcomer whatever law books he might ask to borrow.34

    Thatcher’s most promising young protégé, and future law partner, was Silas Lee. It is tempting to imagine Thatcher among the twelve students billeted with Lee’s family during Harvard’s “Concord Captivity” (1775-76). Whether Thatcher met the then-teenager in Concord, or Silas found his way to the older lawyer’s office through some other connection, the ties became such that, shortly before leaving Biddeford for his first term in the Confederation Congress, Thatcher signed over control of his thriving practice for half the profits (with the other half designated for the family’s support). In anticipation of opening his own practice elsewhere, Lee asked for Thatcher’s advice in compiling “a tolerable little Library,” including especially mercantile law, in which he felt deficient. Despite doubts that he would find enough business there, in April 1789 Lee settled permanently in Wiscasset, where Tempy joined him as his wife in the fall. (So strong were the Thatchers’ parental claims over their niece Tempy that it was their consent Lee asked for when they married.)35

    * * *

    During his first few years at Biddeford, Thatcher stayed out of politics and limited himself to building up his law practice while charting a spiritual path that was increasingly at odds with the Commonwealth’s Standing Order. His first series of newspaper opinion pieces, written under the pseudonym A Rational Christian, defended the proposition that a religious establishment was not necessary for an effective civil constitution. Questioning the religious status quo served a wider social purpose when Thatcher applied the same logic to one of the consuming political questions of the time: Maine’s separation from Massachusetts. Without fervently advocating statehood, Scribble-Scrabble defended the public’s right to debate it at the extra-legal conventions that gathered periodically in Portland beginning in the fall of 1785.36

    To the eastern-dominated political elite, these conventions bore a terrifying resemblance to the county conventions then sprouting up in central and western Massachusetts, seeking constitutional reform and economic relief. During that summer and fall of 1786, extremist elements succeeded in closing courts and preventing judicial proceedings. Thatcher was optimistic the fever to the southward would break, even if, as his friend David Sewall predicted, it would not happen “until some Veins have been opened.” “Shays’s Rebellion” was indeed forcibly suppressed, by early 1787. But on the evidence of Thatcher’s known authorship of the “Scribble-Scrabble” essays, which championed a reserved right of free assembly, political forces still sympathetic to the insurgency counted Thatcher among their own—and rewarded him accordingly. Without ever being elected so much as town fence viewer, Thatcher vaulted over every subordinate station and was appointed a delegate to the Confederation Congress by the Massachusetts legislature on 27 June 1787.37

    Thatcher’s “dark horse” candidacy may have surprised him as much as it did the Commonwealth’s political establishment. “You ask me how I like my new Colleagues,” wrote veteran delegate Nathan Dane; “Thatcher I am quite unacquainted with.”38 Christopher Gore attempted to explain the selection to outgoing delegate Rufus King:

    The papers will likewise announce the election as members of Congress [Theodore] Sedgwick, [Nathan] Dane, Thacher (Hebrew),39 & [Samuel] Allyne Otis. The friends of Govt. put up Phillips,40 the former president of Senate—the insurgents nominated Grout of Worcester County.41 A compromise was made by introducing G. Thacher, who was known only as author of certain publications in the Cumberland Gazette, in favour of County Conventions, under signature of Scribble Scrabble. One Wycherly [William Widgery], a noted pettifogger from the Eastern part of the State, brought him forward, to reward his merits as a writer. If due attention is paid to his first adoption of political principles in Congress, he may be a serviceable—but sure I am, his oddities, his speculative modes of thinking & conversing, & his want of acquaintance with mankind & practical politics, render him at best an uncertain man. I greatly doubt whether it be an object of joy or sorrow to a real patriot—Notwithstanding this, I love him as a good man and I respect him as a man of understanding.42

    The Confederation Congress was not, admittedly, a highly coveted posting. Especially in its last years, delegates of all calibers simply declined to attend, making it difficult to assemble a quorum for several weeks at a time. In the last two years of the old Congress’s existence, a quorum was present only half as often as in the preceding two years. For the first two months of Thatcher’s attendance as a delegate, Congress was in actual session only two days, while the absence of entire state delegations and an incomplete quota of members from other delegations prevented the requisite seven states from convening at all during the final 1788-89 session. Thatcher himself left halfway into the 1787-88 congressional year, proposing to return no later than July 1788, “but we have heard scarcely a word from him since he left us,” complained Nathan Dane, “and are uncertain whether he will return as he proposed or not.” And yet, of the five Massachusetts delegates appointed to serve along with him during one or both of his two terms (1787-1789), only Dane and Samuel A. Otis attended as much or more than Thatcher. But by that time, the Confederation Congress’s irrelevance had become irrefutable. “Your Observations on the Cause, why so few States are represented in Congress, are just,” Samuel Phillips Savage admitted to his son in law. “I rather wonder, all things considered, why there are so many do it, considering the Expence and the Inefficacy of the Doings.”43

    * * *

    For a better understanding of Thatcher’s life partner, we are indebted to his congressional service and the correspondence required to bridge the distance it placed between them. Suddenly, Sarah is drawn into the documentary record. But for the historian, it is a paradoxical gain—giving her a personality without a voice, a reflection without a face. Thatcher’s first letter from the road, addressed to “My dearest & best Friend” from Boston en route to New York, launched a thirty-seven year long correspondence that forms the overwhelming bulk of his known letters. But for the many hundreds of extant letters he wrote to her, only two of hers to him are known to exist. Thatcher saved all her letters, “And I have begun to put them together in the form of a Book—And as they are wrote on equal sized paper they will make a very neat volume.” Ironically, the thoroughness of this system of keeping Sarah’s letters may explain their wholesale loss—either by accident or the willful act of some descendant.44

    For historians of the Early Republic, even this lop-sided correspondence offers a valuable case study of the congressional housewife at home. Thatcher’s letters show Sarah filling three critical roles in his life: as a long-distance companion, a partner in domestic economy, and a helpmate in his political career.45

    As a long-distance companion, Sarah helped Thatcher to maintain his mental health by sustaining a lively connection with hearth and home. Homesickness was the scourge of his public service; hints of its symptoms fill nearly every letter he sent from the seat of government. Leave-taking was difficult: departing for the Third Congress, “I had twenty times resolved to take a more affectionate departure, but on the whole I adopted that which is generally the least painfull.” Exile is a pervasive theme: twelve years separated the “temporary Banishment” he was already complaining of just months into his first term in the Confederation Congress, from the “species of Banishment” he experienced during his last year in Congress. “I really want to be at home in the winter—It would seem a new kind of Life—for this is the eighth winter I have passed from home.” Sarah’s mention of a mid-winter visit from friends reminded him: “These winter visits of two or three days are among some of the most precious enjoyments that I loose by my absence.”46

    A letter from one of Sarah’s friends furnishes an affecting tableau of Thatcher’s domestic idyll (ca. 1788):

    my imagination leads me to the back roome where my dear Sally is seated at the window next the bedroome with the work basket in the chair before her, Sister Tempy is at the other window mending stockings—Brother Silas [Lee] is in A great chair in the middle of the roome with his feet on the table and no shoes on[.] he has a book in his hand but is so taken up with the dear object at his right, that he dont know one word he has read this hour—Sam is taking his morning nap, Sall—now—and—then runs to put her little <illegible> fingers in his face—he snivels up his nose—nits his brow—turns about again, and forgits that he has been disturb’d—Charles is at the wood pile—Good old Rachel is oblig’d (oftener than she wishes, that is if it’s as cold with you as it is here) to goo to the door and cheer him up a little47

    The children were ever the centerpiece. “As often as I think of home, and those lively sources of happiness, I am, more & more, at a loss to account for people’s wishing to live without children.” Thatcher craved news about them: “I wish to hear more about our dear children—does little George continue to run about & scold, as usual, at every thing he sees—does Sally talk as much and fast as ever? Is Phillips grave & sedate?” But Sarah’s tantalizing morsels only whet his appetite for more, and made him “eager to get home to express my affection to them by eating them up—as you say.”48

    Thatcher was insistent on maintaining an active role as father, even from a distance—perhaps especially from a distance, since “I know you will bring up him [Samuel Phillips Savage] & his Sister [Sally] better than I could—I guess it is best for me to talk about educating Children but never attempt to put my Theories in practice—in this you are more skilled than I am—So we will divide the Subject—I will give the rules in Theory, & you shall put them in practice.” Sarah complained that the “rules” too often changed. Thatcher’s defense relied in part upon the same argument he would use with Thomas B. Wait to explain his approach to moral, political, and theological Truths: there were very few of them discoverable in the course of an average lifetime and, paraphrasing the ancient Athenian lawmaker Solon’s lament about constitution-making, he concluded that “Laws and Constitutions are to a people, what rules of education are to children. It is in vaine to think of educating a child according to the best plan of education—He cannot be educated but in the world we live in.”49

    Thatcher’s thoughts on education drew heavily from the popular works of the Scottish philosopher and jurist, Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782). Although he did not think Kames the equal of Rousseau, Thatcher troubled himself to transcribe for Sarah long sections of the Scotsman’s Loose Hints upon Education in February 1789, before simply mailing her the entire volume three months later. Sarah in turn shared it with her friend Mary Searle—and so the Thatchers, by practice and proselytization, became expositors of one of the most important influences on early American educational theory.50

    Thatcher looked forward to hearing how three year old Sally “grows like a little pig,” but he offered relatively little advice about her early education. “As you have been very good in permiting me to govern the Son—I will give up the government of the Daughter to you.” Yet it would have been odd for Thatcher to have no interest, no matter how abstract, and so we find, among other related publications, Thoughts upon Female Education by Dr. Benjamin Rush and The Character and Conduct of the Female Sex by John Fordyce (1720-96) among Thacher’s Tracts (vols. 14 and 24, respectively). Thatcher became enthralled by Mary Wollstencraft while Sally was still a young teen, but the proto-feminist’s writings do not seem to have been a source for any particular, new strictures about his daughters’ upbringing.51

    Although remembered as a “kind and indulgent” father, Thatcher was a martinet in the regimen he devised for his eldest son, the first victim of Thatcher’s pedagogical zeal. In a thousand obscure ways, the child “Sammy” was to be practiced in habits of self-discovery—and its complement, self-reliance. While still less than three years old, he was not to wear any hat all winter, nor stockings, nor mittens. “Let him go out doors as much as he pleases—but if he tarries so long as to be cold, take no notice of it; never tell him to go to the fire.” Even into young adulthood, Sammy—now Phillips—was not spared the most minute correction, as when Thatcher (a not overly-meticulous speller himself) commends him for a letter “handsome and correct in every particular—except a single word that is not spelt right; & this I attribute wholly to a remaining spirit of inattention of which you once possessed a great deal.”52

    Visitors to the Thatcher homestead constantly commented on the children, offering “fresh proof that my plan, or rather, Rousseaus system of education is the best.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, ou de l’Education, published as Emilius in English translation (1763), was an object of Thatcher’s intense study and appreciation from at least 1784. By it, he understood that indulging the most minor and innocent actions in children was fraught with implications for their adulthood. Even Phillips’s little acts of cruelty to small animals had to be guarded against: “The connection between killing innocent birds and reptiles with acts of injustice & cruelty to our fellow creatures is more influential upon the moral Character than is generally apprehended.” Although he would become an admirer of David Hartley’s Theory of Associations, Thatcher never mentions it in his letters to Sarah directing their children’s education. But as epistemology, both Rousseau’s and Hartley’s philosophies linking mental and moral development would have pointed Thatcher to the same conclusion: whether as impressionable children’s controlled experiences (Rousseau’s idea of proper education), or the mind’s involuntary sensory experiences (Hartley’s doctrine of association), certainties were a matter of convincement, and convincement was essentially experiential—dogma be damned.53

    * * *

    It was Sarah’s domestic economy that allowed Thatcher to be away from home on public service for as much as nine months at a time. One constituent contrasted Thatcher’s prompt attendance at Congress with the neglect shown by other delegates who, “accustomed to domestic concerns, could not conveniently adjust their private affairs in a day or a Week.” This predictably male perspective overlooked the fact that there never was a “convenient” way to compensate for a spouse’s long-term absence from home. Thatcher’s absences put Sarah on the same footing as the wife whose assumption of traditionally male roles in the wartime economy of the Revolution freed her husband to play the soldier but left her, as Abigail Adams aptly described the condition, “doubled in wedlock.”54

    Besides their niece Tempy, Sarah was assisted early on by Rachel (called “Holy Ratchel”) and two other helpers, Jenny and Olly. They would have been part of the “shuffling and reshuffling of workers [that] was part of the larger system of neighborly exchange that sustained male as well as female economies in this period.” The household’s servant “Susy” was discharged in late 1794 with Thatcher’s observation that “Nothing is more destructive to family happiness than uneasy domestics.” Hired hands did the heavier farm work, although it was hard to compete for such labor on the edge of Maine’s beckoning hinterland; even a generous raise failed to prevent a Samuel from leaving in late 1791. In May 1789 Thatcher chided Sarah, “You have not, in any of yours, told me the name, colour, or place of abode of the man you have hired to live with us the ensuing year.” Their hired hands Robert and Charles may have been among the six men listed in Biddeford’s 1790 census as free persons “not part of households”—perhaps free blacks.55

    Thatcher relied on Robert, Jotham, Nathaniel, and the others because “gardning, as well as every species of agriculture, is a part of Science I never had much relish for, & I find these things are less and less alluring every day I live.” Here was no John Adams, singing paeans to the splendors of manure. He encouraged son Samuel Phillips Savage to “Send me a journal of every thing you & friend Jotham have done since the Frost was out of the Ground—Where you have made new fences, where mended the old & a thousand other things relating to farming,” but the request was aimed more at improving the writing habits of a woefully negligent son rather than satisfying any curiosity of his own. Sometimes it would amuse him to think, “Could I be at home to see about the farming business I should be happy; but I trust in Jothams attention to that business; & I dont know but he will do better without me, than with me.”56

    If Liancourt’s report is correct, Jotham managed reasonably well. But it was Thatcher’s income in specie, as a lawyer, that guaranteed a comfortable degree of independence within the local economy and integration within a larger commercial realm. He routinely shipped household items back to Biddeford from the larger markets of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Thatcher let Sarah pay for other acquisitions with whatever cash he could furnish or whatever local merchants would supply on his account. From his constant promises to send cash as soon as he could, it would seem Thatcher did not deliberately hold Sarah to an allowance, although he told her that he expected one dollar a day would answer all her needs. Above all, “pay up to every body you deal with as far as your money will go—It is my great ambition to see my accounts balanced as I go through the world.” To help Sarah accomplish his ambition, Thatcher recommended she consult Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, which “gives a woman good directions about keeping account of her expenditures.”57

    * * *

    Beyond enabling her husband to be away on congressional business, Sarah’s ability to maintain “hearth and home” paid political dividends in other ways. Thatcher may have professed truly that he never discovered in Sarah “a disposition to meddle with politics, & if I had, I should not have cultivated it with any desire of making you a politician.”58 But like it or not, she became his de facto political liaison: constituents beat a path to Sarah’s door and turned her home into a political club where Thatcher’s friends and operatives would caucus and exchange information. Jeremiah Hill described one of these meetings:

    I had the Honor & Pleasure of dining yesterday on Roast Beef (Septr. 25) with Mrs. Thatcher &c. in Company with Bro. [Matthew] Cobb & Dr. [Aaron] Porter & chatted over our old roast meat Stories. In turn brought in our friend George & other Acquaintances, talked over congressional Matters, rectified some Mistakes of the general Court, appointed Electors, made choice of a President, Senators & established a mode for choosing Representatives. And I believe in my Soul that if the roast beef had not been brought on in ten Minutes we should have completely organized the new Congress but the roast Beef, a Glass of Grog & small Beer commanded our Attention another way.59

    This is not to say that Sarah always enjoyed such company:

    Magr [Major] Hill has bin heer and is gon[.] he is very good has not missed above one or two Sunday Evenings Since you left us—he and Silas [Lee] have ben talking as fast as there tongues Could go—aboute the Constitution <blotted out> politicks I heer nothing else I am almost Sick of it[.] I Should take more pleasure in heering Magr Hill if he could talk upon aney thing else.60

    Thatcher came to expect that their home would serve as an entrepôt for letters and information exchanged with his wider network. Thomas B. Wait described for him how, on one occasion while Thatcher was away at the Confederation Congress,

    I took all the Letters received from you, carried them to Biddeford with me, and there made an exchange, for one week, with our Brother Silas [Lee]. Sister Sally [SST] put two or three of her’s into my hand; & I read them with inexpressible pleasure. Not less than twenty of your Letters were on the table at one time—they afforded us a perfect feast61

    Just as the new government was about to be organized, Daniel Cony visited the Thatcher homestead where “we passed away a winter’s evening in reading your letters, talking about politics, lunatics, sheep tics, and bed tics, with a number of other clever things.” Over the ensuing decade, Thatcher would preface parts of his letters to Sarah by saying “You may inform your political visitants that . . . ,” or “Should any of our acquaintance enquire after news. . . .” We have a snapshot of their intended audience in Matthew Cobb’s description of an evening when he, Jeremiah Hill, Silas Lee, and some others lit a fire in the back room that served as their absent host’s law office, and “entered into a free conversation, was in good spirits & very happy—what made us completely so was a packet handed Mrs. Thatcher from you, her eyes sparkled with pleasure, she soon broke the seal & ran over the contents, a part of which we had the pleasure of hearing.”62

    * * *

    Next to Sarah, Thatcher’s closest confidants among his correspondents were Silas Lee of Wiscassett, Nathaniel Barrell of York, Jeremiah Hill of Biddeford, and Thomas B. Wait of Portland and, later, Boston. Having cemented his collegial relationship with a familial one through his marriage to Tempy Hedge, Lee proved a particularly reliable barometer of public opinion during the earliest period of Thatcher’s congressional service.

    Nathaniel Barrell belonged to a prominent family well connected in politics and the market place. In the 1760s, Barrell enthusiastically embraced Sandemanianism, a controversial religious sect that made him non grata with many, including his wealthy father in law. He was accustomed to being in a religious minority, and at a price that put the strength of his convictions beyond question. That was doubtless the initial attraction when Thatcher met him in 1780, shortly after arriving in Maine. Later, Thatcher appreciated that Barrell “certainly paints well” as a correspondent. He painted in especially caustic colors when describing the human sinfulness unleashed by the tragic scenes of the French Revolution.63

    Among Thatcher’s closest correspondents, Jeremiah Hill was the only one actually born in Maine, a life-long resident of Biddeford. In 1787, when he began the first of several terms as a state legislator, his name was restored to the roster of Harvard’s Class of 1770, from which he had been expelled for unruly behavior in 1768. Hill’s adolescent unruliness found a more constructive outlet in Maine’s unsettled religious establishment where, with Thatcher, he played a major role in the rise of a Unitarianism and other dissenting sects. In 1792 he had co-founded (with Thatcher and others) Portland’s first Unitarian “religious society.” The next year, Biddeford’s Congregational diaconate succeeded in calling a church meeting to investigate Hill, “in order to try me for heresy, denying the Faith or some such antitrinitarian Principle.” “Please to write me largely on this Business,” Hill asked. Thatcher had evidently already addressed this concern in a (now unlocated) letter of 30 December 1792; Hill thanked him “for your advice on the mode of carrying on such a Controversy, & [I] mean to profit by it.” The local Church Fathers found against Hill, who always intended it to be a show trial and who claimed the last word by publishing a pamphlet about the proceedings.64

    Rev. Stephen Peabody spent an evening with Jeremiah Hill in late 1786 and was pleased to find that his old college friend “laugh’d as loud as ever.” It was such a trait as would have endeared him to Thatcher. Hill’s only biography notes his many letters to Thatcher, but adds superficially, “most of them are whimsical.” The biographer failed to recognize that there is some reality behind every whimsy, such as when Hill boldly offered political advice about the new federal revenue system by disguising it in the words of the anti-Calvinist theologian Arminius, spoken to Hill one night in a dream. “I am not a legislature, but a Subject—therefore I ought to speak with due submission—A man can help speaking, but he cant help dreaming.”65

    Every politician relishes a close friend in the Fourth Estate. For Thatcher, that newspaperman was Thomas B. Wait, founding editor of Maine’s first newspaper, the weekly Falmouth Gazette.66 This, and the renamed Cumberland Gazette, gave Thatcher his first public forum, where he wrote on religion as A Rational Christian and on Maine’s separation from Massachusetts over the signature Scribble-Scrabble. From these beginnings, Wait proved a faithful supporter keen on prolonging his friend’s political career, even while claiming the audacity “to censure both public men and public measures. This I have hitherto done, and this, by the grace of god, I will continue invariably to do.” It was the kind of independence and candor that Thatcher could respect—and repay. “You are more than a Brother,” wrote Wait. “To you I write with the same freedom that I think—do the same, by all means, in writing to me—accuse, rebuke, advise.” Besides the personal gratification it afforded, Wait and Thatcher’s correspondence met a very real public need for each man. Thatcher’s reports from Congress served as circular letters from which Wait diligently and gratefully excerpted text to fill the columns of his Cumberland Gazette, under the byline “Letter from New York” or “from Philadelphia.”67

    What began as a professional relationship, probably in 1785, had evolved within five years to a point where, teasing as Wait lay ill with measles, Thatcher would “claim the right of being husband to your widow, son to your mother, & father to your lovely children.” Another thirty years later, Thatcher could still say of his friend, “He is honesty & integrity, religion and morality personified—if they were ever united in one man.” As had Hill, Wait employed humor as a bond of friendship. That shared sense of humor, which had helped open the door of friendship wider, kept it propped open into their old age and through illnesses such as when, suffering from the old “rheumatic pains” in his lonely room in Boston, Judge Thatcher had an opportune visit: “Mr. Waite comes in & talks & laughs to amuse me—& so I have passed my time in pain & in the midst of merth.”68

    Wait’s correspondence is especially valuable for documenting the decades following Thatcher’s retirement from Congress. Wait himself had retired from the newspaper business in 1796 and moved to Boston around 1807. From that point until Thatcher’s death, he wrote more extant letters to Thatcher than did any other correspondent. Wait’s far outnumber Thatcher’s own share of the letters that passed between them, however enough of each exists to make their sympathies appear genuine and their (few) disagreements endearing.

    Ideologically Wait had started out as a fervent Antifederalist like Barrell, but by 1808 he was defending the Essex Junto against Boston’s milquetoast Federalists.69 As in politics, he provided a foil for Thatcher’s views on religion. Wait was active in the early Unitarian movement, but preferred to avoid the thickets of theological dispute. He would ask to borrow Priestley’s writings on religious education (“since you are convinced of its utility”) but “By heavens, I will teach my children nothing at all about it.” His faith was as simple as it was practical: “I now read and believe the Bible as I do any other Books; embracing so much and only so much, as appears to me to be true.” “I want to communicate with you on these subjects,” he wrote Thatcher, “For I see no one with whom I can converse—no one who will believe I love God, unless I subscribe to the articles of his faith.” And yet, he could show intolerance towards Thatcher’s own articles of faith: he wishes one letter from his friend “had contained more Christianity and less Atheism.” Elsewhere he upbraids his friend for expressing an alarming interest in “religious Jacobinism.” “I have received a long and queer letter from you. I am willing to hear you laugh, and laugh with you on all subjects except one.” At the bottom of it seems to have been a fundamental impatience with Thatcher’s brand of speculative notions: “Now do my friend spare me in future relative to Hyde, and Leland, and Bollingbroke, and the Persians, and Chaldeans, and Babylonians. Talk to me, when you see me, as much as you please. I am willing to hear of them; but they shall never again, by my consent, rob me of one half or two thirds of a long letter from a beloved old friend.” Wait refused to compete for his friend’s attention.70

    Their correspondence is a treasure especially for historians studying male friendship in the early Republic. Of all Thatcher’s correspondents, it was Thomas B. Wait who plumbed the deepest recesses of his friend’s complex character—and loved what he found. He professed his love again and again across the decades, in letters that close “Yours for ever—and ever—and ever,” and “be assured, my dear friend, that this heart of mine, however feeble, and how soon soever it may cease to move, its last last pulsations shall beat vibrate for you.”71

    * * *

    Constituents employed a variety of metaphors to solicit Thatcher’s reports from Congress on the ship of state—or, in the more rustic Maine idiom, “the Continental Waggon.” “I have no news,” complained Joseph Tucker, “we live here like the man who wore the Iron mask all his days.” “Having nothing last week from the fountain of Inteligence, our little domestic prattle seems to be stoped,” wrote Hill, “and where the fountains dry up (as we Mill-men say) the Grinders cease to grind—therefore shall only endeaver to fill up the page by asking a number of questions. . . .” William Lithgow, Jr. pleaded “If you can possibly spare time do let us know how the Cat Jumps now and then, for we are here absolutely in the dark respecting every political occurrence.” “The grand federal wheel is now about to move,” noted Stephen Hall. “Be kind enough to let me know how you feel at the Glorious prospect.” Daniel Cony beseeched, “give us a line . . . as often as you have time to spare. We want to know how you venerable Congress lads go on.” He noted in particular that initiating a correspondence with Dr. Obediah Williams of Winslow would not only reward the doctor for “uniting the votes or rather the voters in several towns above Hallowell up Kennebec River” but “at the same time open a new channel of information and communication from the federal legislature to the margin and interior part of the Kennebec.” Some, like Dudley Atkins Tyng, sought a correspondence less for the information conveyed than the honor bestowed: “ ’twill make a great Man of me to receive a Letter from a Member of Congress.”72

    Except when roused to indignation over some particularly scandalous behavior among his colleagues, Thatcher’s political reportage tended to avoid gritty gossip and to focus on policies rather than horse-trading. Daniel Davis once apologized to Thatcher for filling a letter with “the humble Scenes of Portland,” but “Philosophy is to me a Stumbling block, & politicks, you & I allways esteem’d to be foolishness.” From his premature retirement in Dedham, Massachusetts, the great Fisher Ames—himself a dauntless letter writer—complained that his friends at the seat of government were neglecting him, although “Sometimes I make Thacher do his duty, which is no easy task.” When, in his own retirement, Thatcher begged the same favor from a former roommate and colleague still in Congress, his own words were thrown back at him: “have you forgotten your own old Maxim? ‘Never to write politicks’ well then permit me to be as wise as yourself.”73

    In fact, the political content of Thatcher’s correspondence, after peaking in the first few years of his congressional career, falls off steadily thereafter. His eyewitness accounts are episodic and glancing, his analysis increasingly impressionistic. He continued to fulfill important constituent services, but reporting consistently on congressional affairs was not one of them. After ten years in Congress, in the middle of congressional maneuverings over the Quasi-War with France, Thatcher admitted “[I] grow negligent, or rather lazy about writing—It is some time since I left off writing politics to any of my friends.” But it was less laziness than fatigue that he suffered, and weariness at the prospect of making sense of it all. “It is too late in the History of the great scenes that are passing before us to pretend to commit to writing the incidents of a day or a week. A man must write a Book, or he can say nothing to any purpose—And Book making I leave to those who had rather write than read.”74

    * * *

    With a few notable exceptions, such as the debates over Kentucky statehood and the implementation of the Constitution, the sixteen months Thatcher served in the Confederation Congress were marked by a numbing dormancy. By contrast, Maine’s political atmosphere—already energized by the issue of separation from Massachusetts—was electrified by the debates over ratification of the Constitution, beginning in the autumn of 1787. “You ask, ‘does every body here take a side upon the federal Constitution?’,” wrote Silas Lee. “I believe they do in general.” After all, Jeremiah Hill later joked, it was a part of the country “every one is in his own Ideas a Politician. There are two Letters in our Alphabet very easily learnt . . . and young Politicians commonly learn them very soon, they are great I and little u.”75

    Hill supported the proposed Constitution from the start, even to the point of urging its enforcement among non-ratifying states at the point of a bayonet. But among Thatcher’s closest correspondents, Hill was the exception; all the others were Antifederalists—or at least, active skeptics. Thatcher’s own town of Biddeford had “backsliden & fallen from a state of Grace,” in Hill’s view, by initially declining to send any delegates at all to the state ratification convention. A subsequent town meeting relented and agreed to appoint a delegate, but only when assured that he would not attend. York sent two delegates—including Nathaniel Barrell, whose inflamed rhetoric elicited calls to order at the town meeting for selecting delegates. Upon being elected, Barrell swore to his fellow townsmen that “he would sooner loose his Arm than put his Assent to the new proposed Constitution.”76

    Thomas B. Wait was suspicious that without amendments, “State sovereignty will be but a name—the whole will be ‘melted down’ into one nation; and then God have mercy on us—our liberties are lost.” “Your arguments against the necessity of a Bill of Rights are ingenious,” he admitted to Thatcher, “but, pardon me my friend, they are not convincing.” Wait reminded him of Scribble-Scrabble’s stand on retained powers: if the people retained all powers not expressly delegated to Congress, then why enumerate (in Art. 1, Sect. 9) specific powers that Congress was not delegated? “It grieves me that we do not think alike,” Wait concluded, and then—playing on Thatcher’s other recent newspaper persona—added “that cursed Small pox has made a crazy Jonathan of you in good earnest.” Silas Lee feared a Bill of Rights would actually enlarge the powers of Congress unless it “particularly secured every right not expressly granted away.” That, plus the federal ratio’s aggrandizing of the southern vote (through the three-fifths clause), term limits, and the almost certain abuse of the “general welfare” clause, all concerned Lee. “I hope you will be enabled to stand friends wait & Lee’s antifederal Charges,” wrote Hill. Wait was eventually won over, convinced in part by Thatcher’s “ingeneous letters on our present improved state of morals &c.”77

    Thatcher had the ear of some Antifederalist leaders such as William Widgery and Samuel Nasson, who were responsible for launching his political career in the first place. When Antifederalists appealed to separatists in Maine by arguing that the new Constitution would make it harder to achieve statehood, David Sewall, although no friend to separation, regretted that the cause had been blasphemed in this way. Christopher Gore pleaded with Thatcher to write to “Your Eastern people . . . & obviate this objection.” Perhaps Thatcher tried to persuade them with Thomas B. Wait’s logic: the astute newspaperman thought the adoption of the Constitution would actually “alter the opinion of our Boston Brethren” towards supporting separation, since the addition of two senators to the Northern Interest “will be considered as an object of magnitude.”78

    Nathaniel Barrell was the most highly-placed Antifederalist among Thatcher’s inner circle. He was grateful to Thatcher for “the open freedom with which you touch political matters”—with evident good effect. David Sewall congratulated Thatcher that “Your Letter and other matters made a Proselite of Mr. B.” Barrell would be one of the three Antifederalist delegates whose conversion contributed to the 19-vote majority (out of 355 votes cast) that ultimately carried ratification on 6 February 1788. Barrell’s new profession of faith, delivered in a lengthy speech just one day before the final vote, had been tested out almost verbatim in a letter to Thatcher written three weeks earlier. Hill informed Thatcher that Silas Lee also “has got well of his Epidemic and will I believe make a very good federalist, your prescription turn’d the disorder.” In part, Thatcher won Lee over by agreeing with him about the need for amendments; “you say,” Lee noted, “that ‘it will ever be as easy to alter & amend, as it can be to form another, if not more so’.”79

    Once ratification became a fact, even the most strident opponents among Thatcher’s correspondents dutifully acquiesced. “I am Dertermed that (Let who will be King) to Remain a Good Sargent,” Samuel Nasson assured Thatcher. William Widgery had likewise voted against ratification, but seemed swept up with the general jubilation that immediately followed its passage: “I most Tel you I was never Treated with So much politeness in my Life.” There was one notable exception: the recalcitrant Samuel Thompson, of Topsham. Wait urged Thatcher to use his influence with the outspoken leader of residual antifederalism: “I think you have written to, and received Letters from Genl. Thompson—Do for God’s sake write him once more—he conducts as if the Devil had possessed him. . . . Can not you contrive a Letter that will do him good? . . . (richly interlarding the whole with Republicanism).”80

    Thatcher’s bonding with Antifederalists, which had served to win them over while ratification was still uncertain, would be seen by some as mere political opportunism. But Thatcher defended his motives in reaching across the aisle. The New Order must show a decent respect even for Antifederalist sentiment; as Jeremiah Hill expressed it, “we must like the industrious bee such [suck] honey from every obnoxious weed.” Christopher Gore had predicted that Thatcher’s lack of reliability in a caucus would always “render him at best an uncertain man.” Thatcher would have it no other way. He always insisted he was no panderer: “I believe that all who know me will acquit me of being what is commonly called a people-pleaser.” “I shall never submit to seek for votes by flattery or hypocrisy nor refrain from speaking the truth thro a fear of loosing them.” But, as Thomas B. Wait pointed out, one could take it too far: “Should you but once convince me of your insensibility to the censure or applause of your fellow creatures constituents, I should from necessity at the same time acknowledge a conviction that you was a very dangerous person to be employed in their service.”81

    * * *

    Thatcher faced a dozen other candidates in the first federal election in the York-Cumberland-Lincoln District, Maine’s only congressional district. The campaign was largely void of serious political dialogue. His primary opposition came from those who made an issue of his religious views. Ezra Ripley was among the many friends and associates who defended Thatcher against charges that he was an infidel. “Not long since, I heard you called a deist, and represented, as paying no regard to religion. . . . I undertook to clear you of the charge of infidelity, and to maintain, that you were not only a believer in religion, but in revealed religion.” Wait reminded Thatcher that political enemies considered his free-thinking a form of shallowness, and would use it against him. “You are said to be unprincipled, light, frothy and even boyish in your conduct and conversation, in private and publick life—at home, among your friends and acquaintance, and while at New York.” These criticisms of Thatcher’s personality and personal morality set the tone and pattern for his future electoral contests.82

    The first federal election in Massachusetts on 18 December 1788 was “very thinly attended,” owing in part to a snowstorm the day before. Of the state’s eight congressional districts, Thatcher’s was one of only four that yielded a victor in the first round of balloting. It also had the lowest proportional voter turnout of any congressional district in the state: Thatcher was elected with 60 percent of the mere 947 votes cast—in a district with a population of 96,000. This tenuous mandate highlighted one South Carolina member’s prediction during ratification, that the new federal representatives “must be totally unknown to nine tenths of their constituents.” This would have been especially true of the Maine District, whose population in 1790 made it the largest congressional district outside of North Carolina and more than six times larger than the least popular district, located in Georgia.83

    * * *

    Thatcher learned of his election on 8 January 1789, while taking tea with George Cabot in Beverly, Massachusetts en route back to New York.84 He and a handful of other delegates would wait in vain for the last session of the now lame-duck Confederation Congress to convene, but Thatcher’s attendance there at least ensured that he was one of the thirteen Representatives waiting on the scheduled opening day of the First Federal Congress, on 4 March 1789. The first House of Representatives, which finally achieved a quorum almost four weeks later (on April Fools Day, at least one bemused member noted), boasted some of the most capable legislators in the history of the United States Congress, including Fisher Ames (Mass.), James Madison (Va.), and William Loughton Smith (S.C.). All in all, thought Nathaniel Barrell, “we could not have have got better on the continent.” Massachusetts’s lieutenant governor confidently assured George Washington that, as of the first round of voting, the Commonwealth’s delegation was squarely in the Federalist camp.85

    From the beginning, and especially on the broad constitutional issues addressed by the First Congress, Thatcher would prove to be only a moderate Federalist. He supported the strong federal judiciary established by the first Judiciary Act of 1789, but his support for a strong executive was more mixed. He voted against removing a clause from the Foreign Affairs Act that acknowledged the president’s power of removal, but he subsequently voted against deleting language that expressed the power as a legislative grant (capable of being rescinded by statute) rather than implicit and inherent in the executive office (as Madison insisted). Thatcher’s independence from the New England Federalist phalanx is also evident in his votes on proposed Amendments to the Constitution. “You think that we are in no Dangour from Congress,” wrote a skeptical Samuel Nasson, and in the ensuing weeks Thatcher sided with the Federalist majority against most of the amendments proposed by the states. But he joined the Antifederalist minority on two important roll-call votes: an amendment to limit congressional interference in federal elections, and—recalling no doubt the impetus behind his “Scribble-Scrabble” essays—an amendment to limit the federal government’s powers to those “expressly” contained in the Constitution.86

    * * *

    Thatcher was a maverick in his efforts to shape the political culture of the new republic. “His Rotundity,” Vice President John Adams, is remembered as the misguided and slightly comic defender of a European tone of governance, sanctified by its organic layering of historical precedents. Thatcher was no less sensitive to the weight of the past—but as something to be avoided. Nation-rearing, like childrearing, presented a “blank slate” on which impressions were to be implanted, not inherited. The lack of precedent, Thatcher insisted, freed Congress from many obsolete and absurd practices that had only tradition to recommend them.

    The First Congress’s debate over honorific government titles and forms of official address illustrates this point: Thatcher thought the subject trifling. “I am happy to find that your sentiments upon titles are the same as my own,” agreed Rev. James Freeman. “The zeal which some manifest for them is truly ridiculous.” Nevertheless, among constituents like Silas Lee, “The manner, in which you will introduce the president to the chair, is a matter of speculation—as well as the Titles, that he & your other honours are to bare in their new Kingdom. . . . Friend [Jeremiah] Hill was here last evening—brimfull of the matter.” “You may banish all your fears upon the score of titles,” Thatcher assured them; “they have too few advocates in Congress to find an establishment. The printers only make them of consequence by eternally hashing the subject over and over. When they are droped from the papers they will be mentioned no more.”87

    But the issue of titles became relevant again, following the abolition of monarchy in France in September 1792. “The Ton[e] now is, Citizen instead of other Tittles,” wrote David Sewall. Other correspondents started addressing their friend as “Citizen Thatcher” and “My dear Citizen”—some probably in jest, others in genuine solidarity with France’s new regime. Among the latter was John Avery, Jr., secretary of the Commonwealth: “I hope that our good Citizens in Congress will soon see the propriety of addressing our worthy President in that same familiar style; in imitation of our great & good Allies who I hope will diffuse that same good Spirit among all Nations.” Thatcher recoiled at the thought. Jeremiah Hill (who was himself dubbed “Brother Equality” by their friends) pretended to believe Thatcher feared the trend’s leveling effects: “how to reconcile your Jacobism with your unwillingness to be accounted worthy of its Honors are mistical.” But it was not their egalitarian tendencies that made titles contemptible; forms of address were merely the outer garment of salutation, and Thatcher paid as little regard to them as he did to his own clothing.88

    Nothing in Thatcher’s public career more dramatically characterized his crusade for simplicity, transparency, and the efficiency that came from a rational application of first principles, than his stance on rules and procedures—those governing the House no less than the individual. His colleagues heard the opening salvo just two weeks into the very first session, when Thatcher questioned the duties of a proposed sergeant at arms and the related need for a mace (which he insisted on calling a “small pointed stick”).89

    Less than two weeks later, when the House debated whether to send two members to deliver its messages to the Senate while only the Secretary of the Senate was expected to perform the same service in return, Thatcher’s spontaneous frustration found expression once again: “Let a man with two legs, or leg and crutch—is not the thing completely answered? Can every one do this? Then the thing answered.” When some members invoked parliamentary precedents, Thatcher countered: “I am sorry to hear it—say parliament. Which of us knows parliament? Might as well read divinity as parliament.” There was “no analogy” between the American and British systems: “Their origin is different. Their mode of proceeding ought to be different. Hope made simple.” Thatcher built his argument upon bedrock beliefs about moral development, the legacy of the Revolution, and even the outdated obscurantism of conventional theology.90

    No newspaper editor published these outbursts; they are preserved only in Thomas Lloyd’s shorthand notes, and omitted from the highly abridged and more polished versions that eventually appeared in his Congressional Register.91 But Thatcher’s comments would not have sounded strange to those of his constituents who had read his Scribble-Scrabble essays of 1786-87:

    Tis in politicks and things relating to government, as it is in matters of religion. We are taught to obey the laws, and silently venerate the religion of the land, before we know the reason of obedience, or the source of veneration. The mind thus young and tender—soft to every moral impression, is a fit receptacle for every thing that may be offered: Without consideration it embraces the whole system of government; and, at an awful distance, confusedly admits the sensation of adoration for the things custom has sanctified as sacred. Thus the human mind becomes a slave to political and religious prejudices, long before it is capable of reasoning for itself, or distinguishing truth from error.

    Every thing relating to legislation and the administration of justice being respected, it creates an inviolable attachment thereto; and the first exertion of the young mind will be to justify the system established over it, and pronounce judgment upon the daring wretch who shall presume to make innovation in their solemn institutions, become venerable by the sufferages of the people and the oracles of God. Therefore when individuals arrive to the years of discretion and begin to reason, they find themselves opposed on every side—Here they see civil governments that have received the additional strength of ages, quite contrary to what reason would dictate for the common good; there they are struck with the venerable pile of religion, grown grey with years, holding out Anathemas to the mortal who says he has a right to call in question her awful mandates.92

    Scribble-Scrabble had called for up-ending some basic assumptions—a task for which Thatcher’s logic and temperament both were well suited. Now again, from the floor of the House, he was issuing a public manifesto against youth’s, or a young nation’s, uncritical acceptance of older norms.

    * * *

    Thatcher’s vision for a new political culture free of “every degree of art—simulation and dissimulation” was seriously blindsided by the tortuous question of where to locate the new federal seat of government. He never expressed his preference, either in writing or debate, when the question was formally introduced during the first session of the First Congress. Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay’s diary records an impromptu conversation on the subject with five New England congressmen, which seems to corroborate Thatcher’s inconclusive thinking on the subject: “Mr. Thatcher talked most, but a good deal wildly.”93

    Passage of the Residence Act on 16 July 1790, during the second session of the First Congress, was a quid pro quo of the famous Compromise of 1790. The Act created a permanent seat of government that would straddle Maryland and Virginia along the banks of the Potomac River after a ten-year temporary residence in Philadelphia, in exchange for some Maryland and Virginia congressmen throwing their last minute support behind the federal assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War debts. The assumption, which effectively federalized the large and influential bloc of state government creditors, was a bellwether issue for the Hamiltonian fiscal system.

    Even before the government was organized, Thatcher recognized that fiscal conditions made assumption imperative for Massachusetts: “you say, ‘you dont see what fund the states can look to to enable them to discharge their private securities after the impost & most productive excises are drawn into the federal chest’,” wrote Barrell. “Nor do I.” Thatcher would not attribute “motives of injustice in those who oppose the measure” (“errors are more frequent than vices”), but neither would he judge them by their hackneyed claims to public virtue, since “it did not in this case appear to be a common rule by which all the members could regulate their conduct by. It really resembled much more [a] thin woolen stocking that accommodated itself to every mans Leg.” Never missing an opportunity to expose political or religious hypocrisy, Thatcher concluded that virtue and justice “are in politics what Conscience and faith are in religion—And every man is willing to measure the conduct and opinions of others by his own Rule—but not e converso [vice versa].”94

    * * *

    Just four weeks into the First Congress, Thatcher rose to defend Massachusetts’s all-important rum and fishing industries. He prefaced his first important speech in Congress by frankly confessing that “commerce is a subject with which I cannot pretend to be well acquainted.” “I have not heard of your mouth’s opening for six or eight weeks,” Wait observed shortly afterwards. “But think not that I mean to censure you on this account—On the contrary—I commend you. Politicks is a science to which you must of necessity have been a stranger—or at least to that part of it which respects navigation and commerce—and which has which has hitherto chiefly taken up the attention of Congress.” Thatcher was not only silent from the floor; he demurred from writing a constituent too precise a description of the first revenue collection act, “as it is part of a great mercantile Regulation, in which science I am a novice. . . . Of all the Subjects that can come before Congress there are none that in which I feel myself more out of my proper element than those that relate to Commerce.”95

    This admission was not bound to make him indispensable to Maine’s mercantile class, based in the principal port of Portland. Although solidly Federalist, it was a particularly peevish lot whose endorsement would largely elude Thatcher through much of his political career. Politicians and merchants, Hill had pointed out, “only associate as Cats & Dogs of a family, they will play on the floor together in perfect harmony till hunger calls the Cat to attend her mouse-hole, & the watchful Mastiff to guard his Masters Dome.” Within a month of the opening of the First Congress, a correspondence committee of eleven merchants formed in Portland, to whom Thatcher was requested to direct his letters, “or at least those of a publick nature, and which relates to the trade of this town.”96

    Thatcher would neglect the merchants at his own risk—as demonstrated when they petitioned against revenue officers’ high salaries under the Coasting Act in December 1789. It did not matter, noted Wait sarcastically, that “not one of the Committee could tell within an hundred pounds what the Collector or surveyor received, and they were equally ignorant with regard to their expences.” Wait listed procedural irregularities in the way the fifteen or twenty committee members claimed to speak for all Portland, “not only by the Inhabitants who are voters, but by those also who are not—by the women, children, infants, & embryos—by the soil, the <blotted out> sticks and the stones.” As a final insult, they asked Boston’s Representative Fisher Ames to present the petition because some members asserted that Thatcher “paid no attention to the traders of Portland—that you had heretofore neglected to answer their letters &c.” Shortly afterwards, the committee relented and asked Thatcher to take over (with Ames’s “patronage and assistance”). They had made their point. But Portland’s merchants were not completely mollified, and would make Thatcher feel the full brunt of their dissatisfaction most unmercifully in the second federal election.97

    After elections, petitions were the primary mechanism for popular participation in the political process, and presenting petitions was one of the most important constituent services that a representative could perform. These petitions embraced a remarkably wide variety of grievances and appeals for government action. Most were private claims (for military compensation, etc.), many of which were preemptively blocked by statutes of limitation or by Congress’s equally damning objection to potentially expensive precedents. Thatcher tried to explain to one frustrated petitioner that, “as far as I could collect the sentiments of the house,” members feared that granting his petition for an increased military pension beyond the deadline set by the statutes of limitation “would, unavoidably, open a door, thro which an infinity of like claims would enter.”98

    One of the most demanding constituent services was making recommendations for government jobs and army commissions. Friends commonly solicited office on behalf of other friends or relations, as Silas Lee did in successfully recommending his older brother John for revenue officer at Penobscot. It was no doubt at the father’s request that Thatcher recommended Nathaniel Barrell’s son George for midshipman in the navy raised by the Quasi-War. For suitable officeholders in their respective districts or states, the executive branch routinely relied on nominations submitted by members of Congress, either individually or collectively. Thus Thatcher recommended the first slate of federal judiciary officers in Maine in 1789, and joined nine of his colleagues in the state delegation to recommend some of the infamous “midnight judges” created by the short-lived Judicial Act of 1801. In all cases, it seems Thatcher followed due diligence in avoiding favoritism, notwithstanding Stephen Hall’s criticism of his “very great zeal in serving his particu[lar] friends; . . . If Mr. Thacher has endeavoured to serve them merely because they were his friends, and not because of their deserts, & of their capacity to serve the publick, I think, he has done wrong.”99

    Other official constituent services included supporting patent and copyright applications, and securing bounty land warrants for military service. One of his last constituent services was as liaison to the committee investigating charges against Winthrop Sargent for maladministration as Governor of the Mississippi Territory. The list of un-official constituent services is much longer—and more interesting. During his time in Congress, Thatcher was asked to find the son of his father in law’s neighbor, feared to have died or (to his parents, much the same thing) moved to the West; acquire books for a local library; check lottery tickets to see if they had drawn a prize or a blank; inquire after “a noted occulist” (optometrist) for a constituent’s eye problems; procure a thermometer; purchase shares in the Bank of the United States; purchase medical books; and procure specimens of a German spruce tree from Pennsylvania, for introducing the species to Maine.100

    * * *

    Writing forty years after the second federal election, Portland’s first historian declared “There never has been, since that time, more personal abuse during any canvass, than that election excited.” After a second runoff election, Thatcher himself admitted to Sarah that “the chance of my being elected diminishes very much—I have not the most distant idea of it.” A third runoff election was necessary before any candidate’s share of the vote finally rose above fifty percent. On 4 April 1791, “AFTER a long and indeed bloody struggle (for there have been some broken heads and bleeding noses about it),” Thatcher was reelected to a second term with fifty two percent of the vote, over his perennial opponents Nathaniel Wells and William Lithgow, Jr.101

    Unlike the first federal election, the second included some debate over public policy: Yankee thrift, for example, took exception to (false) reports that Thatcher had supported extravagant compensation for the foreign volunteer, Washington’s hand-picked adjutant general of the Continental Army, the Prussian Baron Frederick von Steuben. But mostly Thatcher was attacked for being three things: impious, a lawyer, and an incumbent. Arguments over the classical republican principle of rotation in office were heard throughout Massachusetts, but most volubly in the Suffolk (Ames’s) and Maine districts. Thatcher’s friend Jeremiah Barker related how a constituent in Gorham “allowed that he [GT] was a good man, but supposed that there were many in the District as good.” The same voter insisted that “Politicks was a very simple thing—any person of Genious might be a good politition, without this experience which he was sensible was talk’d of by some. . . . so that he supposed it would be no dishonour to Mr. Thacher, to be put down, (or rather rolled out).”102

    Thatcher’s ignorance of commercial matters constituted a more serious political liability. Merchants drove the anti-lawyer bandwagon. It was an easy position for them to embrace: “Although adept at winning office, lawyers as a group were never popular. . . . Even worse, lawyers made sport of the merchant’s distress.” Merchants would have been happy with fewer lawyers generally, and fewer in legislatures particularly. Despite the widespread prejudice, the highest-polling merchant contending for Thatcher’s seat in 1790-91 never received more than five percent of the vote. On the other hand, the lawyer who came closest to defeating Thatcher was touted as “a man who feared God and understood navigation.” (Jeremiah Hill mocked such pretensions: “It is out of custom to fear God, and all the navigation is shipping shingles.”)103

    Most damaging of all were the accusations of deism, even atheism, and unorthodox religious notions generally that continued to hound Thatcher; his prevailing over such objections in the first federal election had no more silenced his enemies than it had silenced him. “I wish our friend Thatcher woud talk with more discretion on some topics,” wrote Christopher Gore, “they are important in the minds of many worthy men—and I shoud suppose such conduct might lessen his influence in the Government—at least I do not see any good consequence that can flow from running against the prejudices of any religious sect.”104 Samuel Nasson’s advice in this regard merits being quoted at length—as much for its orthographic amusement as for the cynical earnestness that makes him sound like the Machiavelli of Maine. Thatcher, people said,

    never gos to Metting more then twice in one year nay he opposed having a Chapliner [chaplain] this you know is horred for then Comes down their Dagon[.]105 we shall lose our influance among the lower Class if the Congress dont fall down and Worship and pay due regards. . . .

    if you don’t reform, and the hon[orable]. De[a]con Can learn to Screw up his teeth as he Can his mouth, I shall fear for [you] at another election—but this only by the by—

    do you attend prayers or do you not[?] do you Ever go to Worship or do you Saty [stay] at home and Study law or polleticks or what is Worse Spend your time in drinking wine[?] I think you have time anough for such Busness for I find you dont work Very hard only four hours in twenty four therefore I think you may afford to worship on Sundays

    if you donte reform it will be against you for they Say that you Slight or pertend to Slight all revealed religion[.] it is only Pertence [pretense?] I hope[.] for a Gentelman of learning to Say that he beleves nothing of what the Vulgare Call relegion is forever to lay himself in the way of Being lashed by the Rev[eren]d—and you know that in these parts they Can down with a man if he is twenty four feet high therefore attend Prayers and allso Call at the Church on Sundays at least once in four weeks if you mean to live and not dye Pardon my Boldness106

    Thatcher’s reelection gave Boston’s Rev. James Freeman grounds to boast, before a trans-Atlantic audience, that an avowed Unitarian candidate was electable:

    The active zeal of Mr. Thatcher, in promoting the worship of One God in opposition to unscriptural formularies and creeds, excited the malignant efforts of some of his bigoted neighbours to oppose his re-election to a seat in Congress. But the high character, the approved patriotism, and the distinguished talents of that honourable gentleman secured him an easy triumph over the mean attacks of ignorance and envy, and he was again returned by a great majority.107

    Thatcher too must have regarded his electoral victory as a vindication of Crazy Jonathan’s argument that practicing freedom of conscience—wherever it led—was no bar to public service.108

    * * *

    Thatcher had used his time in Congress to explore other religious traditions. In Philadelphia on Christmas Eve 1794, for example, after dining with the Washingtons, “I propose this night to attend at the Catholic Chappell to see the ceremony of the Blessed Virgin & the little child Jesus.” Like John Adams, who took advantage of the same opportunity twenty years earlier while attending the First Continental Congress, Thatcher’s Protestant sensibilities probably could not prevent him from poking fun at the ceremony’s ritualistic elements.109 Public worship and homiletics of any persuasion would always be fair targets for Thatcher. As Crazy Jonathan, he had mocked churches’ pretensions to making people better, rather than simply giving them more polish:

    The assembling together, once a week, of all kinds—black, white, and copper-coloured; of all ranks—officers and privates; of all degrees—rich, poor, and beggars; of all occupations, from the first minister of state to the scavenger in the streets: I say, such an assembly, where each one is endeavouring to please, circumvent or deceive somebody else—where every one wears a face and garment they have not had on since the last Sunday, though a very curious subject for philosophy, is very beneficial to society.110

    Where Connecticut’s and other states’ “blue laws” made it incumbent upon Thatcher to attend public worship on the sabbath, he found his prejudices confirmed: “I have been to meeting this morning [en route through Hartford to NYC] & heard Parson [Nathan] Strong preach what most people call a very good sermon—and tho’ I was not much entertained, or instructed, I must say he did pretty well and said some good things—Indeed I think he is about one haft right!” When Thatcher complimented twelve year old son Henry for writing an account of a local preacher’s sermon, he observed “It is a good omen for boys to attend meeting & remember the text of the preacher, and then as much of the sermon as they can,” and encouraged Henry to “begin now & make it a constant rule to repeat the text & fix it in your mind”—but he meant the practice as memory training rather than for any intrinsic benefit in the sermons themselves.111

    * * *

    Criticism of Thatcher’s religion in the early 1790s escalated just as his unorthodoxy was beginning to discover more orthodox channels: he was helping to organize churches. The poor state of established religion in Maine supported the growth of such “religious societies.” Boston’s Rev. James Freeman, who thought “there is less appearance of religion in the province of Maine than in any other part of New England,” regarded the gathering of Portland’s first Unitarian “society” in March 1792 “as an event peculiarly favourable to the progress of Unitarianism in this country.”112 Thatcher was closely involved in that development (see No. 78, below), as well as in a parallel development closer to home.

    About the same time another society for Unitarian worship was formed at Saco, a populous village about twenty miles distant from Portland, under the auspices of Mr. Thatcher, a gentleman of large property and of excellent character, who was repeatedly returned as representative in Congress for the northern district of the State of Massachusetts. Mr. Thatcher was originally an unbeliever; but possessing a candid and inquisitive mind, he became a very sincere and rational Christian in consequence of reading Dr. Priestley’s Works; and, as Mr. Lindsey’s correspondent [Rev. James Freeman] expresses it, “the influence of our divine religion became very evident in his life and manners.” This gentleman, by his conversation, his occasional publications, by lending Unitarian books, and by the great influence of his moral and religious character, contributed much to diffuse rational and pure Christianity in the vicinity of his residence, and formed at Saco a congregation of Unitarian Christians which was for some time connected with that at Portland, but afterwards became sufficiently numerous and respectable to maintain a separate minister.113

    No nest of budding Unitarians could have found a more nurturing protector than Rev. Nathaniel Webster, who had pastored Biddeford’s only Congregational church since 1779. “Socially gifted and much beloved,” he tried to steer a via media that pleased neither his parish’s orthodox leadership nor its growing minority of free thinkers like Thatcher and Jeremiah Hill. But Thatcher did not yet see the need for outright separation, hoping perhaps for an outcome more akin to the peaceful adoption of a Unitarian liturgy in Rev. Freeman’s own Stone Chapel (King’s Chapel) in Boston. Thatcher astutely realized that Webster was more valuable as an ally in his pulpit than as simply another victim of the Congregational purge. When there was a move to build a new meetinghouse, Thatcher feared it “will be conducted in such a manner as to oust Mr. Webster—An event I am anxious to prevent—I think it will be a misfortune to the Town and our neighbourhood.” In 1797-98, the Unitarian faction finally split off to form what the mother church derisively called a “Temple of Reason.” What was now Biddeford’s Second Religious Society (still eschewing the title “Church”) formally installed its first pastor, Rev. John Turner, in 1805.114

    * * *

    The reapportionment required by the federal census of 1790 added thirty six seats to the House, increasing the Massachusetts delegation from eight to fourteen Representatives in the Third Congress. The state legislature used the opportunity to enact a complicated election law combining at-large and single district representation. Voters throughout the Maine District cast three ballots: one for a candidate from York County (Thatcher’s seat), one from Cumberland County (which included Portland), and one from any of the remaining counties “Down East.” Thatcher still attracted less than twenty four percent of Portland’s vote for York County’s seat in the third federal election (2 November 1792), but with the merchants’ ire diffused among a wider field, he began to win more handily—garnering fifty eight percent of the district-wide vote on the first ballot. Half of the state’s new seats went to anti-administration candidates, contributing to the closest partisan division in the House than in any other Congress during the Federalist Era. State legislators quickly abandoned their convoluted experiment, and the remainder of Thatcher’s election campaigns pitted him against strictly local opponents in smaller district-wide contests that excluded Portland. He won his last three elections on the first ballot and, beginning with the fourth federal election (1794), his majority never dipped below sixty two percent. He actually ran unopposed in the fateful election of 1796.115

    * * *

    The Jay Treaty, which became effective in February 1796, clarified neutrality rights vis-a-vis Great Britain but only muddied the United States’s obligations to France under the Treaty of 1778. Against all laws of physics, this friction between the pro-British and pro-French positions actually added momentum to the drifting divergence between the parties. “That the next elections for the federal Government should be federal is of more importance than at any preceding period,” pronounced the Federalist editor John Fenno, anticipating the polarizing agenda of the Fifth Congress. French minister Pierre Auguste Adet also recognized the high stakes, but saw more opportunity than risk in attacking the Federalists’ nominal standard-bearer. “Blind fanaticism will not close their eyes to the faults of John Adams,” he assured Paris. “The name of this man, as that of Washington, is for no one a synonym of virtue, of heroism, of glory. . . . As a consequence, we will be able to attack him to advantage if his conduct merits reproaches.” But in attempting to sway the presidential election of 1796, Adet made the same miscalculation as his predecessor, “Citizen Genêt”: they underestimated their enemies (Federalists) and overestimated their friends (“the people”). Federalists in the Massachusetts General Court preferred to avoid a reliance upon “the people” altogether, by having the legislature appoint the electors who would choose Washington’s successor. Their attempt failed, and Massachusetts’s presidential electors continued to be chosen on a congressional district-wide basis. But Thatcher still felt confident in predicting, correctly, that New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island “shall vote right—that is all for J. Adams.”116

    The Fifth Congress, known as “the War Congress” (1797-99), returned a solid majority of Federalists to the House after four years in the minority. President Adams’s first annual address to Congress, on 22 November 1797, called attention to the French Directory’s refusal to accept Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as the new American minister plenipotentiary, and recommended responding with a program of military (primarily naval) preparedness. The subsequent rejection of new peace commissioners, and their dispatches’ revelations of the sordid details in the XYZ Affair in April 1798, shamed the pro-French Jeffersonians and fortified the Federalists. “Thacher would say,” wrote Fisher Ames, “the effect of the despatches is only like a sermon in hell to awaken conscience in those whose day of probation is over, to sharpen pangs which cannot be soothed by hope.”117

    In just seven weeks during the summer of 1798, Congress enacted its most ambitious agenda since the First Federal Congress: an act authorizing naval vessels to seize French warships cruising outside American ports (28 May); a Naturalization Act for lengthening the qualifying period for citizenship, requiring an alien to register with a government authority, and subjecting him to surveillance (18 June); an Alien Friends Act for deporting suspected agents for vaguely defined offenses, as determined by the president (25 June); act authorizing the arming of merchant vessels to defend themselves against French capture (25 June); an act authorizing the president to purchase up to twelve private ships for the navy (30 June); an Alien Enemies Act, a Republican-sponsored supplement to the Alien Friends Act, which more clearly defined the terms of enforcement (6 July); an act authorizing privateers against French shipping (9 July); an act formally establishing a Marine Corps (11 July); a Sedition Act for prosecuting conspiracies against government authorities and the utterance or publication of sentiments intended to defame the government, members of Congress, or the president (14 July); and an act to augment the regular military establishment with a Provisional Army for the duration of the war crisis (16 July). To pay for the defense mobilization programs, Congress passed an act for collecting a direct property tax (14 July). And lest the 1778 treaties with France annul any of those warlike preparations, Congress preemptively annulled the treaties instead (7 July).

    Thatcher had already become critical of France’s foreign policy of exporting revolution (see No. 159, below), but the revelations of French perfidy in the XYZ Affair finally succeeded in doing what even The Terror had not: thoroughly alienating his sympathy for the French Revolution and aligning him against its friends in the United States. Thatcher’s support for the bundle of provisions known as the Alien and Sedition Acts shows how decisively XYZ represented a turning point for him. In May 1798, a petition from a militia company in Portsmouth, Virginia impugned “men in high authority” who, misrepresenting the damning nature of the XYZ papers, “give the stamp of authenticity to that which is in itself extremely doubtful and problematical; and who shall, by such means, strive to involve us all in the calamities of a war with the most powerful Republic on earth.” Thatcher opposed the petition’s referral to committee: “He acknowledged the right which the people had to petition; but went into some lengthy observations to prove that their Representatives had not given up all their rights by accepting a seat in Congress, and that it was not right for them to sit to be insulted, without showing a disapprobation of the insult.” The only two recorded votes leading up to passage of the Sedition Act place Thatcher squarely on the side of its most zealous advocates.118

    The climax of Thatcher’s paranoia was his response to the newspaper “scoop of the year.” On 16 June 1798, at the height of the war hysteria, Benjamin Franklin Bache’s [Philadelphia] Aurora published a leaked (and highly edited) version of French Foreign Minister Talleyrand’s letter to the American envoys in Paris, dated the previous 18 March, which proved to the Francophiles’ satisfaction that the French government still held out the olive branch. The Federalist press’s enraged response was immediate: the Gazette of the United States proposed that Bache was “an official agent of the French Directory,” while Porcupine’s Gazette called the “prostitute printer” a “hireling” who had received the letter from some French agent “for the express purpose of drawing off the people from the Government, of exciting discontents, and to procure a fatal delay of preparation for war.” June 16 was a Saturday; the following Monday morning, President Adams sent Congress the envoys’ dispatch No. 8, enclosing Talleyrand’s letter and the envoys’ lengthy reply to it. The House immediately took up a motion to print 1200 copies of the dispatch “for the use of the members,” but “Mr. Thatcher hoped at least two thousand would be printed.” He believed Talleyrand’s letter had been printed “by order of the Executive Directory” through “its agents,” and that making extra copies available would show a wider audience that the envoys’ reply was “not only satisfactory, but incontrovertible.” He also “hoped soon to lay before the House satisfactory evidence” that Bache was just such an agent of the French government. Claiming Thatcher’s assertion “too evident to be for a moment doubted,” Robert Goodloe Harper (S.C.) proposed that at least 5000 copies of the envoys’ dispatch should be printed, and repeated Thatcher’s claim that treason was afoot and would soon be brought to light.119

    Three days after Thatcher’s accusation, the Jeffersonian-Republican Rep. Joseph McDowell (N.C.) reminded the House that Thatcher and Harper “had spoken of secret plots and conspiracies carrying on in this country, which they promised to trace and probe to the bottom.” Emboldened, Bache wrote that if Thatcher did not bring such evidence before the House, “he must be considered as guilty of misprision of treason, as concealing treason.” All the way from Berlin, the President’s son Thomas Boylston Adams commended Thatcher’s remarks “respecting a conspiracy against the government,” and hoped they would “result in some discovery of consequence—a false alarm would be very hurtful in business of this nature.” But ultimately, Bache gloated, Thatcher “had not a word to offer in answer.”120

    It can be no coincidence that about this time Thatcher began to re-think the adequacy not merely of the administration, or even of the entire government, but of the Constitution itself to meet the present crisis. According to Joseph B. Varnum’s private notes of a conversation he had with Thatcher and Harrison Gray Otis, “Mr. Otis said that Mr. Hamilton’s plan of a Constitution[al] report had been published[.] did him Immortal Honor.—Feb. 13. 1798.—Mr. Thatcher at the same time observe[d], that System was deficient, that he should wish even that amended, he wishes he had the full power of making a Constitution for the U.S. and he Said he would make a much better one than the present in two hours.” Varnum provided a more polished version of this startling claim fifteen years later, when he reminded Thatcher “that one day before the House was called to order, that you observed to me that you wished that you had the power of making a constitution for the United States for four Days. I replied, Sir, you have not the Vanity, to believe, that you could make a Constitution more congenial to the true interest of the people of the United States, in four days, than was made by the collective wisdom of the United States, with General Washington at their head, and presented to the Several States after many weeks deliberations. You must well recollect, that your answer was, Yes, by ----. I could make a better one in four Hours.”121

    Among the improvements Thatcher might have intended by his ideal constitution was one suggested to him by an increasingly partisan Nathaniel Barrell just a month after the outburst recorded by Varnum: “What an additional expence has it ben to the union, & what unnecessary discords have arisen from those two foreigners [Albert] Galatin & [Matthew] Lyon[,] contests calculated to embarras & stop the whole of Government? surely this is a defect in the federal constitution which calls for amendment—we have too many of these Incendiarys among us.” Barrell returned to the same anti-immigrant theme a month later: “what a scoundrel in grain is that rascal Gallatin? he is a man of talents, as such the more dangerous—but the fellow has not a spark of honor in him—a cursed alien sent here to embarras and perplex our councils.” In short, “this is the effect of introducing foreigners into Congress—aliens to our Union.” Barrell’s diatribe would not have sounded strange to Thatcher: ethnic homogeneity and its ugly handmaiden, nativism, were pillars of Massachusetts Federalism. In July 1797, Thatcher himself had supported imposing a heavy stamp tax on certificates of citizenship, not merely to raise revenue but to restrict immigration: “He thought the doors of naturalization too wide. Too many foreigners emigrated hither; they were out of all proportion to the natives; for he wished the American interest always to prevail over all foreign interest.”122

    * * *

    American emigrants across the Appalachians were just as suspect as European immigrants from across the sea: both groups were saboteurs of Order because neither were schooled in the habits of public morality necessary to uphold, much less improve, the national character. Education was key: without it, no white man ought to claim the privileges of citizenship; with it, even black men might—as Thatcher would later argue, in defense of free blacks’ petitions in 1797 and 1800 (see Appendix I: Thatcher on Slavery). When a historian of the late 1790s called one of Thatcher’s harsher speeches “The best example of the intolerance of the Federalists,” he mistook the motive behind Thatcher’s abuse. The speech took place on 14 December 1798, as the House considered a proposal to print and distribute 20,000 copies of the Alien and Sedition Acts gratis, primarily for the benefit of the western states and territories. When Jeffersonian-Republican members sought to impugn implicitly the laws’ constitutionality by moving to print and distribute at the same time an equal number of free copies of the Constitution, Thatcher rose in reply and, over the Speaker’s repeated calls to order, harangued the House: “It was not political information which these people were in want of, but moral information, correct habits, and regular fixed characters.”123

    Outsiders like the many French émigrés of the time were keen to notice a similar phenomenon. Liancourt’s diary is a litany of lament for unrewarding social encounters with uncouth hosts, even among America’s “urban elite”—which makes his paean to Thatcher’s rustic civility (quoted at the beginning of this Introduction) all the more notable. “Education as an antidote to social disruption was a familiar Enlightenment theme,” hence the prominence given to education during their conversation in Biddeford. To Thatcher, the lack of moral education, or proper socialization, was both cause and effect of a more pervasive anti-social malady, with more widespread symptoms. For French travelers to the American frontier—Liancourt, François-René Chateaubriand, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord in the 1790s, no less than for Alexis de Tocqueville forty years later—the vastness and solitude of the American wilderness helped to explain the anomie, inquiétude, avidité, and cupidité they found there. These related characteristics of solitude, ennui, restiveness, and greed spelled a breakdown in the social order.124

    Thatcher’s fear of the corrosive manners imposed by an endless frontier underlay his support for counter-measures such as mandatory worship (as a member of Maine’s Constitutional Convention of 1819), the strict prosecution of “White Indians” (as Supreme Judicial Court judge), and Secretary of War Henry Knox’s cautious “civilizing plan” for Native Americans caught in the path of white settlers—an assimilation intended to make the two groups’ inevitable interface more civil. (In the long run, Thatcher doesn’t seem to have nurtured much hope for a multi-racial frontier, and his gradual realization that the West must be all one thing or all the other mirrors other politicians who would devote much more thinking to the subject without landing on any better solution.)

    Thatcher’s letters betray little knowledge of, and even less interest in, trans-Appalachia, beyond the conventional New England Federalist view that it was the catalyst behind the East’s fast-eroding hegemony. He knew what he needed to know: the West was upsetting the “wagon of Empire,” and would soon produce Henry Clays to rival the Harrison Gray Otises of the East. Also, it was costly to defend. In addition to fighting Native American resistance, the new federal government had to deflect the covetous glances of England and Spain; “But what events will flow from that point, I am neither prophet, or politician enough to foretell.” It was enough to remind him (in 1791) of a conversation a decade earlier while visiting Nathaniel Barrell’s father in law Jonathan Sayward: “I had scarcely taken a seat before he called me to the other end of the room to shew me something upon his map concerning the settlement of the French on a river called the Scioto, which empties into the Ohio from the Western Territory. I was surprised to see what clear ideas he had of that Country and the things springing into existance there; but I have been more surprised since by noting how exactly his fears appear to have arisen from their proper objects.” As much as a decade after the Louisiana Purchase, Thatcher may have agreed with Thomas B. Wait (as they agreed on so much else) that it was not worth trying to keep. Wait suspected that Kentucky’s War Hawk Henry Clay had been added to the delegation for negotiating the end of the War of 1812, “in order that he might be ready on the spot, to Sacrifice the North & East to the interest of the South & West. . . . For myself, I earnestly pray that Louisiana may be lopped from the U. States—and if this cannot be done, except by the reduction of New Orleans, let N. Orleans be reduced.”125

    What few direct contacts Thatcher had with settlers in the West only ratified his conviction that it was an asylum for uncivilized lawlessness. Elijah Backus was one friend who contrasted “the agreeable scenes which I enjoyed with you, when we skimmed the cream (and sometimes the froth) from society” and the “contemplative rambles which we sometimes took in an evening,” with his new, desperate situation on Belle Isle in the middle of the Ohio River off present-day Parkersburg, West Virginia. Backus wrote Thatcher that he could not help thinking of himself as being given up for lost, physically as well as morally. It put him in mind of “an old system of divinity, an account of the punishments of the damned; one of which was said to consist in a perpetual vibration, from one extreme to another, as from heat to cold—from the pleasures of society, to the horrors of solitude.” He wrote this from his log cabin, nearing midnight, “surrounded by a sett of tenants ruder than the savages themselves.”126

    * * *

    Thatcher’s reelection bid in 1798 came to depend upon a more overt ideological affiliation, as his partisans took pains to identify him more explicitly with the anti-French cause. “Numa” concluded a long list of Thatcher’s qualifications by reminding voters that he “defended our country against the encroachments of foreign intrigue. In fine, he is a firm Federalist, and his competitor an implacable Jacobin.” “Such is the Federalism of Maine,” exulted Fenno’s Gazette of the United States two weeks after the election, “that notwithstanding the secret attempts, the base deceptions, and the low cunning of the vile Jacobins, we are warranted in asserting that the Hon. Go. Thatcher is re-elected.” His clear-cut victory (with sixty-six percent of the vote), combined with Peleg Wadsworth’s reelection and nephew Silas Lee’s election to succeed Isaac Parker (with equally safe majorities of seventy-three and sixty-four percent, respectively), “proved that the Jacobins can get no hold of the well-informed citizens” of Maine, “notwithstanding the secret and industrious exertions of the Jacobin junto, with all their terrible bugbear stories about oppressive taxes, &c. . . . Thus have we escaped the disgrace of a Jacobin representation.”127

    * * *

    “I am now in my seat in Congress Hall,” wrote Thatcher on 3 December 1798, the appointed opening day for the third and final session of the Fifth Congress. “I reached the city yesterday about three oClock—And found Mr. Wallace and family returned & all well—they had been in the city since the eleventh of November. They suppose there is no danger.” But for those who had stayed behind to face the Yellow Fever directly during the congressional recess, the summer of ’98 had been lethal enough. At its height, the epidemic left Philadelphia “deserted & desolate.” Wrote Federalist printer John Fenno, “there are but 3 or 4 parts of Families left in Chestnut Street; and that seems to be a sample of the rest. . . . few lay longer than four or five days—many die sooner. . . . this mortality is considered almost as great as in 1793.” The decreasing population density provided a certain cordon sanitaire for survivors, but it did not help Fenno; his nemesis Benjamin Franklin Bache died on 10 September and, as if to even the score, Fenno himself was carried off four days later.128

    “I expect a turbulent session,” Thatcher wrote Sarah. But the Yellow Fever was not the only fever to have abated during Congress’s recess; the summer’s war cry was now only a whisper. Adams had held the warmongers at bay by not openly disavowing his friend Elbridge Gerry’s efforts to salvage something of the peace mission following the XYZ fiasco: “thus the extreme Federalists had to postpone consideration of a declaration of war until Gerry’s return in October [1798], when some of the domestic passions over the XYZ affair had subsided.” Perez Morton later told Jefferson “that Thatcher, on his return from the War-Congress, declared to him he had been for a decl[aratio]n of war against France, & many others also; but that on counting noses they found they could not carry it, & therefore did not attempt it.” (Thatcher was referring either to the informal Federalist caucus that met on 1 or 2 July, or to the resolution for a House committee “to consider upon the expediency of declaring, by Legislative act, a state of war,” proposed on 5 July and negatived the next day.) This stance in itself did not put him at odds with the President; Adams himself may have desired a declaration of war—as Abigail certainly did—and he continued to canvas his Cabinet over the proposition as late as the summer of 1800.129

    It was never a question of militancy, but which type of military preparedness posed the least risk to peace, popular sentiment, and republican institutions. For Hamilton, the goal was a permanent army establishment that the government could turn against enemies both foreign and domestic, unleashing all manner of military adventurism on land while relying on closer ties with England for protection at sea. By contrast, “Declared or undeclared, war for John Adams had always been ideally conceived in a naval vocabulary. It was this that marked him off from the main body of Federalists.” The nation’s infant navy—its “wooden walls”—“are the objects which the President has most nearly at Heart,” Abigail wrote with pride. “He may really be calld the Father of them.” Adams’s navy was no less permanent than a standing army, but could be kept out of sight, closer to where foreign enemies lurked, and could guarantee the United States’s place within the community of sovereign states by enabling her to protect her own merchant marine. Naval power was, in short, “the keystone of Adams’ realpolitik.” Acting without the knowledge of Hamilton’s myrmidons within the administration, Adams consulted his own private network of correspondents in Europe, whose reports encouraged him to renew negotiations with France. Peace, valuable in itself, would also buy the time necessary to make the new navy a viable deterrent.130

    The decisive break with the Hamiltonian “High Federalists” came when Adams nominated a new peace commission in February 1799, whose success would result in the Convention of 1800 (also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine), ending the Quasi-War with France. The rift widened during the long interval between the Fifth and Sixth Congresses (3 March to 2 December 1799). At home among his constituents and confidants, Thatcher wrote fewer letters expressing his thoughts. But even after returning for the Sixth Congress, he remained silent about the internecine strife. George Cabot, less silent, was among those who dismissed efforts to reconcile the two branches for the sake of party unity going into the election of 1800: “though well meant, the attempt is absurd. We believe the President’s course leads to the division, disgrace, and ruin of the Federal cause. He denounces us for entertaining these sentiments. No personal good-humor can alter the fact.”131

    Besides disagreeing about the curative powers of good humor, Thatcher could never have sided with Cabot and the other High Federalists against Adams’s broader vision of the party, with a platform roomy enough for mavericks like himself. For this reason, in temperament as well as politics, Thatcher must be considered a rank-and-file “Adams Federalist.” Indeed, Thatcher would have considered the very expression “Adams Federalist” a redundancy since Massachusetts, at least, was an Adams stronghold, “and without the strength of Massachusetts Federalism would have remained a point of view rather than a party.” Thatcher had not always been an Adams man: in 1788 he openly preferred John Hancock for vice president. But after ten years’ close proximity in Congress, sharing stage rides and dining with the Adamses en famille, he would come to agree with Nathaniel Barrell that Adams was “firm stable inflexable as a rock his life is bound up in the Soul of his country and he will resign life before he will betray his Country—God grant we may always have such a man at helm.”132

    Adams’s more direct, personal style of governance set him apart from Washington’s “statesmanlike” aloofness, as Joseph Priestley characterized it at the height of the XYZ Affair. It was not intended as a favorable comparison. But by the opening of the next session Priestley had to admit to Thatcher, “I like him better than your late President”—precisely because “He is more undisguised. We easily know what he thinks and what he would do.” Like Adams, Thatcher charted an independent course through partisan thickets. And for both men, relationships always transcended politics. Nothing illustrates this better than Thatcher’s fascinating friendship with Dr. Joseph Priestley.133

    Thatcher initiated his correspondence with the celebrity scientist, theologian, historian, and political theorist in the spring of 1792. Priestley took almost a year to reply, but within just one year more, their friendship and mutual respect had blossomed to the point where Thatcher was considering naming his third son “Priestley.” (Happily, he assured Sarah that “I shall not be difficult on this head. Sute yourself.”) Thatcher was among those to whom Priestley entrusted letters of introduction for his son when Joseph Jr. came to the United States to scope out habitats for the family. Although the Priestleys ultimately settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Thatcher had several opportunities to fraternize during the famous exile’s extended visits to preach and lecture at the seat of government, 110 miles away. Initially, the mutual attraction centered strictly upon theology. But over time, Priestley “expressed himself in an unguarded fashion in an astonishingly frank political correspondence” which—like Thatcher’s correspondence with Sarah, but in the opposite direction—remains tragically one-sided: while preparing his father’s memoirs, Joseph Jr. destroyed Thatcher’s and everyone else’s letters to his father while in America.134

    Besides begging favors (checking with printers and booksellers, and franking letters to other correspondents), Priestley discussed his latest writing projects (mostly editing previous writings), his latest readings (mostly books from Europe), and his latest chemical experiments (of which he knew Thatcher cared little).135 Throughout, their friendship remained fundamentally untrammeled by politics—but not because they always agreed. “I hope your resolves in Congress will be temperate,” wrote the francophile Priestley in response to the first rumblings of the War Crisis in 1798. “I wish I could make you all Quakers till the end of the Session.” Shortly after passage of the Alien Friends Act (July 1798), concerned friends persuaded the suspected foreigner to curb his candor with Thatcher. But the year was barely over before Priestley reneged on his own resolution. “I may be doing wrong in writing so freely,” he told Thatcher. “But I am not used to secrecy or caution, and I cannot adopt a new system of conduct now. There is no person in this country to whom I write on the subject of Politics besides yourself. . . . but I do not care who sees what I write or knows what I think on any subject. You may, if you please, show all my letters to Mr. Adams himself.” Thatcher must have admired his friend’s defiance, which, in safer times, sounded so much like his own. “You say ‘dont touch Politicks, and you need not fear a prosecution.’ This would be the case in Turkey or Algiers,” Priestley admitted, but it “is surely, no recommendation of this country.”136

    * * *

    “All things are adumbrated, & nothing is seen clearly,” Thatcher wrote Sarah as Congress gathered in late 1799 and awaited word of the negotiations in France. “When we survey the phalanx of the Federal Faith” in that Sixth Congress, lamented young John Ward Fenno (John Fenno’s son and business heir), “it is a melancholy truth that we find them miserably deficient. I am not fond to mention names,” he hastened to add—and then fired off a roster of those within the Massachusetts delegation “miserably ignorant of what a Legislator ought to know—that the Government of a vast Empire is not to be administered upon miserable, narrow General-Court Politics.” (Thatcher’s friend and housemate Peleg Wadsworth, the Jeffersonian Joseph B. Varnum, and even the Federalist high-priest Harrison Gray Otis were among those named in Fenno’s indictment; Thatcher was not.)137

    After the second session convened at the new seat of government in Washington, D.C., Rep. John Cotton Smith (Conn.) noted that he and his fellow Federalists “were compelled to be punctual and constant in their attendance during the hours of business, especially as the ayes and noes were taken upon every question of any considerable importance.” It was in this highly-charged atmosphere that the seventh federal election took place. From a majority of sixty-three against forty-two Democratic-Republicans in the House, the Federalists could count on no more than thirty-eight against sixty-six in the Seventh Congress. The election rendered Federalists, for the first time, a lame-duck majority in both houses, while the inconclusive presidential election sent the choice between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr to the House of Representatives, voting by state delegations.138

    Northern Federalists, who especially dreaded Jefferson’s hostility to commerce and any shipping “of a higher grade than a fishing-smack,” felt no such qualms about Burr, who seemed to avow few political principles at all. But whether Jefferson or Burr, the next president would be no Federalist. “Here ends federalism!” wrote Thatcher, deploying one of his letters’ very rare exclamation points. He shed his shrill editorializing as the repetitive balloting proceeded over seven days. Finally, on 17 February, he reported simply and with no residue of passion: “This day at one oClock the thirty sixth ballot was taken for President, which gave ten States for Mr. Jefferson, four for Mr. Burr, and from two States blank ballots were given. These two were Deleware & South Carolina—The four for Mr. Burr were the four New-England States—The remainder ten for Mr. Jefferson—I have received yours of the 3d. instant. . . .”139

    * * *

    Thatcher did not share personally in the Federalists’ electoral reversal in 1800. Eight Federalist incumbents from Massachusetts stood for reelection to the House; Thatcher was one of the five who prevailed. For him it was an unprecedented seventh election. At the dawn of the Jeffersonian Era, no member of Congress had more years of continuous service. Only one—Virginia’s Rep. Josiah Parker—had served as long, and none had been reelected more often. But Thatcher would not serve a seventh term. He resigned his seat sometime between 5 March, the date of his appointment to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, and 6 May, when the special election for his House seat was announced. His successor was none other than Democratic-Republican Richard Cutts, whom he had beat by twenty-four percentage points in the seventh federal election on 3 November 1800. Cutts’s fifty-five percent of the first ballot voting in the special election on 22 June 1801 led some to call his comeback victory a “jacobin fraud.” In fact, if quite paradoxically, it was just one more indication that the old “New England way” of representative government by deferential consent still held firm: Thatcher’s reelection in 1800 by a constituency that leaned so heavily Democratic-Republican less than eight months later shows that the voters had still “consented to men rather than measures.”140

    * * *

    No single extant letter explains fully Thatcher’s decision to leave Congress. Certainly homesickness had been a factor even before he arrived for his first day in the Confederation Congress, but it only grew worse. Two distinct but related leitmotifs that creep into his letters with a morbid regularity suggest his homesickness was reinforced by a powerful but sublimated sense of guilt for abdicating his duties to his young family. Those themes are dreams of dread, and an unusual (if all-too-rational) fear of fire.

    Thatcher himself acknowledged the link between anxiety about the family and an unmanly susceptibility to nightmares. One night, after four successive mail deliveries “without a line from any body,” he had “a very ominous dream—which always has some weight on the minds of weak men & old women.” In another dream, he found his estate in total shambles, but when he turned to his farmhand Nathaniel for some explanation, “he muttered out something in a low tone of voice I could not distinguish & set off towards the falls.” He would have written Sarah about it the next morning instead of waiting a week, “had I not feared you would have laughed at me, as you have once or twice before, for dreaming unpleasant things when from home.” He seems to have forgotten that just a year earlier, when Sarah recounted an anxious dream of her own, it “made me laugh. . . . I am no believer of dreams—any more than in modern prophesying, & fortune-telling.” He tried to reassure her of their transitory effect: “I often suffer from them till it grows light—when the actual impression of objects restores the mind to its usual firmness, & the passions becom tranquil.”141

    Thatcher’s manic fear of fire, on the other hand, was a disordered passion he felt no shame in admitting: “Being of an over anxious make on the account of fire, I cannot help reminding you. . . .” His fear seemed justified when the unattended sixteen month old George Jr. was burned in the winter of 1791-92; “There is very great danger in leaving children in the winter time.” There were other precautions, enumerated ad nauseam in his letters to Sarah: keep the chimneys clean, don’t dry clothes on the back of chairs too close to the fire, don’t let George Jr. (again) take a candle up into the garret to look for nuts. And then, as if the natural process of sparks and fuel didn’t hold enough terror, there were arsonists about (“evil persons disposed to add to the accidents of that kind”). The vulnerability of eighteenth century America’s wooden cities did not help. “I must say a word or two by way of caution, against fire—for we are alarmed in this City [Philadelphia] every night almost—And were it not for the Engines the City must have been consumed long ago—but every fire destroys one building at least notwithstanding all possible activity.” “The news papers of this city have almost every day announced some recent & dreadfully calamitous fire”—in Baltimore, New York City, Norfolk, Savannah. For all his anxiety, the only occasion fire proved harmful to Thatcher personally was when he ran outside on a winter night to gawk at some burning building, “and tarried so long that I fear I took cold & aggravated the Rhumatism in my arm.”142

    * * *

    The novelty of travel was no compensation for Thatcher’s sacrifice of home life. His letters betray a marked lack of interest in the scenes around him (the consistent exception being local fires). “I am charmed with your last letter to Silas [Lee], on the manners and morals of the people of the southern states,” wrote Wait of one of Thatcher’s very rare (and now, sadly lost) attempts at regional ethnography, composed shortly after his first foray beyond New England. Thatcher comments on the natural environment hardly at all, except as aids or impediments to travel. In his short-lived Journal, such phrases as “The Sun spread his benign rays over all the world” and “the smoke ascended vertically into the Heavens” show him aping the pastoral style of England’s Augustan Age. The experiences might have been genuine, but the prose is insipid. Such embellishing did not resonate with the timbre of Thatcher’s natural “voice,” and he prudently abandoned it.143

    Cityscapes fare hardly better from Thatcher’s pen. The main culprit, again, was a basic lack of curiosity about his environment, but physiological symptoms also conspired to limit his exploring. “I am in good health—but more averse from walking than ever,” he wrote Sarah. “The bottoms of my feet feel always as if they were weary.” One of the advantages of his lodgings in Philadelphia during the Second Congress was that their proximity to Congress Hall “prevents the necessity of long walks.”144

    Overall, one concludes Thatcher found little to be impressed by during his travels. It got worse the farther he roamed—and nothing in his lifetime would bring him further from home than the District of Columbia in 1800-01. “I am only acquainted with that part of the Union by maps & reports,” he had earlier written an old acquaintance residing in Baltimore, “And should I live, perhaps, before many years I shall visit those places.” When he finally did get to the Chesapeake region, he was not impressed.145 Although Thatcher supported the development of the new federal district’s public buildings as a matter of law,146 his letters furnish no evidence that he saw this new Rome on the banks of “Tyber Creek” as anything more than an over-worked metaphor—an abstraction as well as a distraction from home. Adding an additional 140 miles and at least one major ferry crossing to the commute almost certainly contributed to his determination to leave Congress after the move from Philadelphia.147

    Neither was Thatcher mollified by the excitement of the “Republican Court.” From the very beginning, he was a begrudging participant in the social life at the seat of government. “Tis an old saying—that nothing is more tedious than dancing attendance on Courts, and Court Ministers,” wrote the freshman congressman. Nathaniel Barrell sympathized: “The Ignis fatuus happiness is pursued by every class of men in various channels—many think its source is Congress, and therefore, as you say, dance attendance round the seat of Government, till woeful experience disappointment shew their folly.”148 What Thatcher experienced as a barren round of salons and levées was well-established tradition when he arrived at the Confederation Congress, but reached a frenzied if unvarying pace early in the First Congress. Abigail Adams, one of its principal instigators, described “the whole History” in a single paragraph:

    On Monday Evenings Mrs Adams Receives company, that is her Rooms are lighted, & put in order Servants &c Gentlemen and Ladies, as many as inclination curiosity or Fashion tempts come out to make their Bow & curtzy take coffe & Tea chat an half hour, or longer, and then return to Town again on twesday the same Ceremony is performd at Lady Temples on wednesday at mrs Knoxs on Thursdays at mrs Jays and on Fryday at mrs [Martha] Washingtons, So that if any person has so little to employ themselves in as to want an amusement, five Evenings a week, they may find it at one or other of these places.149

    Even after another ten years, Thatcher still “should much rather sit in my chamber with her [Sarah] by my side & my book in my hand, than to spend my evenings in the most elegant circles in this city—As some evidence of this I have not spent three evenings out of my own chamber this Session. . . . The manners of the world you must not expect from me.” One of best things Thatcher could say about Philadelphia was that it was so big, no one would notice his absence. He would not be able to say the same thing about Washington, D.C.’s much smaller, embryonic “polite society.”150

    * * *

    Homesickness and a sense of isolation made staying in Congress hard, but it was the lure of a higher income that probably clinched his resignation. Family finances were always a factor in Thatcher’s ethic of public service. While the possibility of losing the fourth federal election had held out the consoling prospect of a return to normal domestic life, it also prompted a rare admission of how the remunerative benefits of public service outweighed the personal sacrifices it imposed. But despite his best efforts, financial security continued to elude him. Compared to the burden of a distant elected office or the vagaries of his mercantile ventures with George Peirson, appointment as a backwater bureaucrat seemed an enviable option. Thatcher considered Jonas Clarke’s appointment as collector at Kennebunk in 1800 “a very pretty retreat for his life. I wish I could secure as good a one.” He came close: in June 1797 Thatcher’s name appeared on President Adams’s “List of Candidates for Offices” as Judge of the Northwest Territory, to replace the recently-resigned George Turner. Elijah Backus, who had already made the plunge across the Appalachians, welcomed the company: “I cannot conclude without expressing my satisfaction at what I have just heard that you have views of coming among us in a judicial capacity—God grant.” But Ohio was evidently too backwater for Thatcher; he either withdrew or his nomination was reconsidered, and the job went instead to Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr. of Marietta.151

    Financial embarrassments of an undisclosed nature were just reaching a climax in the winter of 1800-1801 when Thatcher was offered a lucrative escape: appointment to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. His compensation as a member of Congress had never risen above 6 dollars per diem; by contrast, Thatcher was earning $3000 per annum as a Justice by 1809. (Not until 1855 would a congressman’s pay match even the nominal equivalent of that salary.) When Justice Nathan Cushing resigned from the state bench for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thatcher was ready to take his place; by the end of March 1801 he was sitting on the Dedham Circuit for the sick Justice Robert Treat Paine. The transformation was so sudden and unheralded that even Joseph Priestley did not know about it. Seeing Thatcher’s name in the recorded debates for the Seventh Congress, he assumed it referred to his old friend rather than to Samuel Thatcher (no relation), who had been elected to fill the vacancy caused by Silas Lee’s own resignation on 20 August 1801.152

    * * *

    Things began to improve for Thatcher immediately. “This Judge business,” he wrote Sarah, after mere months on the bench, “is more agreeable than I ever apprehended.” It became even more agreeable after 1804. Prior to that time, the entire Supreme Judicial Court sat on jury trials held in each county throughout the Commonwealth. Under new legislation, a single justice could preside over jury trials in nisi prius (original jurisdiction) terms held in each county once a year; only jury actions involving contested questions of law were reserved for “law terms” convened before the full court. These reforms cleared the dockets much more quickly while requiring each individual justice to travel less, and often closer to home. Sarah was now able to join him on circuit.153

    Theophilus Parsons was the face of reform in the contest with senior Justice Theodore Sedgwick to succeed retiring Chief Justice Francis Dana in 1806. From Thatcher and Sedgwick’s time together both in Congress and on the Court, Thatcher was in a better position than many to appreciate what one friend described to him as Sedgwick’s “Boyish” arrogance; “In truth it is no easy task for minds cast in the ordinary mould to anticipate and prevent all the causes of irritation in a mind of such high properties.” Thatcher was never in the running for the chief justiceship, and would have seemed to welcome Parson’s appointment: the new chief justice “was particularly rigid in repressing any discursive displays of rhetoric”—which must have suited Judge Thatcher fine.154

    “His mind was well stored with legal principles, and his strong memory enabled him to apply them to the question which occurred, with great facility,” Thatcher’s eulogist claimed. “His associates upon the bench have been often heard to say that, in their consultations upon cases argued, his discriminating powers, sound technical knowledge and recollection of old cases not reported, have been invaluable to them.” They also appreciated his fellowship: during the judges’ circuit riding, “when they could not get a good dinner, they would contrive to have a good laugh,” to which “the late Judge George Thacher contributed no little of the Attic seasoning.” “He had infinite humor, and his wit often created merriment at the bar.” Maybe too much wit. “Judge Thacher had a peculiar way of charging the jury. He would dissect and analyze the case, and so mix up the facts that the jury were perplexed to know the views of the court upon them. Mr. [Benjamin] Orr once characterized this peculiarity by this graphic description—he said, ‘Thacher would take his fish, and make it into a chowder, and then turn the chowder back again into a fish’.”155

    “He either could not see faults or he would not acknowledge them,” continued Thatcher’s eulogist. “Even the poor criminal at the bar had sometimes more of his compassion than suited the stern demands of justice.” One chronicler cited an anecdote from Judge Thatcher’s dimly-lit youth to illustrate how readily his compassion flowed when he “took a very practical”—literally, experienced rather than speculative—“view of what was transpiring before him.”156

    One on occasion, Hon. Daniel Davis, as Solicitor General, was prosecuting a horse-thief, before Judge Thacher, in the County of Kennebec. The case suggested a precedent to the keen-witted Judge. When he was a boy, he and the Solicitor General lived in the adjoining towns of Yarmouth and Barnstable, and the day after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the militia of the two towns started off for Boston. The boys accompanied the soldiers, Davis acting as fifer, until an order came, for the troops to return home. In their retreat, tired of marching, the boys found an old horse by the way-side, mounted him and rode for some miles, after which, they abandoned their steed on the highway, to return to his home, if he so willed. In the course of the trial, the judge leaned over the bench, and said, in an undertone, to Davis, “Davy, this reminds me of the horse you and I stole in Barnstable.”157

    This avuncular image of Thatcher was not untainted by controversy.

    In 1808 the General Court sought to resolve the plight of the “Great Proprietors” of Maine’s vast hinterland by passing the “Betterment Act,” which provided legal means for settling discrepancies between fair price assessments for lands claimed by squatters. A controversial last-minute amendment required juries to base the assessment on squatters’ enhanced improvements (“betterment”) rather than the natural state in which they had first settled the land. Amendatory legislation two years later eased the squatters’ terms of payment while penalizing more severely the activities of “White Indians,” squatters disguised to obstruct the court-ordered land surveys. In late September 1810, Thatcher—who had already aroused the White Indians’ special ire by imprisoning one of their leaders, Nathan Barlow—ordered out five hundred men of the 11th militia brigade to assist in protecting surveyors in Lincoln County, Maine. In a letter to Gov. Elbridge Gerry two days later, he defended his action under the recent act for “the more speedy and effectual suppression of tumults & insurrections” arising from the enforcement of the Betterment Act: “There was no doubt in my mind, but that the case came fully within the Law, & that it was my duty, as one of the Justices of the S.J. Court to give the aid required, to execute the Orders of the Court,” and he had agreed with the surveyors and militia officers “in the general idea that as force must be resorted to, on the part of Government, that it would be expedient to call out so much as might destroy every expectation of successful Opposition.”158

    From Boston, Thomas B. Wait kept his friend informed of the resulting political firestorm. There were calls for Thatcher’s removal, “grounded on a petition of several <torn> Democrats and Squatters, who say, that your decisions on the Betterment Act have been erroneous.” He recommended that Thatcher be on hand in Boston to exonerate himself, although the charges could not possibly injure “your reputation, integrity, [or] honour—so far from being injured, they can not even be reached by the longest arm of greasy fisted Democracy.” Wait was assured by friends in Boston that Thatcher’s removal would backfire and “injure the interest and popularity of the Republican party—for it was known throughout the D. of Maine that the people had not a better friend.” Justice Isaac Parker himself had testified to “the unsullied purity of your mind; <lined out> and of the perfect correctness of the decisions in the cases where it is attempted to implicate you.” The movement to punish Thatcher died in the state Senate.159

    * * *

    The Federalists’ seeming obsolescence after 1801 seldom earned mention in Thatcher’s later correspondence. His nearness to home would have allowed him to discuss politics with his friends more directly, without resorting to letters. He may have also avoided an active interest in the party’s re-fashioning by the “Young Federalists” like Cyrus King, Harrison Gray Otis, and Josiah Quincy.160 But for a time, at least, he remained politically engaged by reading ephemera. Taking newspapers in particular was a practice he celebrated at the outset of his public career, writing under the guise of “Crazy Jonathan”: “men must be either very stupid, or excessive vain and conceited of their attainments, to persuade themselves they can gain no useful entertainment by giving these vehicles of information a candid reading once a week. Some there are professedly of this class; but, if the whole truth could be come at, it would appear, that a criminal selfishness, a dread at parting with nine or ten shillings a year, is the real cause of their complaint.” In short, “it may be doubted whether tyranny can rear his iron sceptre over a people, where a free press is enjoyed, and a frequent circulation of news-papers takes place among all orders and ranks of society.”161

    Like many other Federalist congressmen, Thatcher had been a patron of John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States. Jeremiah Hill endorsed the choice: “Fenno is really a Man of Information, which of course must incline him to Federalism, for Information without federalism, is like spiritual Knowledge without moral Obligations.” Thatcher also read William Cobbett’s prickly Porcupine’s Gazette, despite its editor’s unappeasable animus against Dr. Priestley; Joseph B. Varnum would later recall “it was viewed with some astonishment by many of your republican friends, when they saw you pressing through the croud to make an Early subscription for the Paper he [Cobbett] was about to Publish.” Thatcher knew the importance too of reading the enemies’ newspapers. Many years after the fact, Varnum reminded him of “a very short interview, in regard to reading News-papers, which took place between us at Philadelphia. I saw you reading in the Boston Chronicle [Independent Chronicle]; I took the Liberty to say to you ‘Mr. Thatcher, how happens it, that you take that paper when you consider it so vile a one’? You said you took it in order to see what was going on in Hell.” Fisher Ames must have been present at the exchange, since he recalled “Our friend George Thacher used to excuse his reading the Chronicle on the ground that any one would be curious to know what was going on in hell.” He continued to received newspapers from the seat of federal government after leaving Congress, but his curiosity would seem to have been exhausted by sixteen years of Jeffersonian Republican rule: “It is but two or three years since,” wrote Wait in 1819, “that you not only discontinued all your Newspapers, but, if you[r] own Statements were to be credited, had built a fort at the crotch of the road near your house, and manned it, to prevent your neighbours from bringing their own Newspapers into your house.”162

    Thatcher’s correspondence with several sitting members of Congress constituted even more direct sources of information from the seat of government. His former housemate, Gen. Peleg Wadsworth, kept him informed of efforts to end British and French marauding of U.S. merchantmen after hostilities in Europe resumed in 1803. Thatcher was apparently skeptical of Jefferson’s gunboat strategy, since Wadsworth tried to convince him of their utility—“as a part of our Harbour Defence. It is like a good thick Vest to our winter apparrel.” But they were in agreement that “we must shift our foreign Ministers—make one strenuous effort at negotiation.” Beyond that, “Secret Matters I presume you do not ask for.” Ezekiel Whitman wrote during the first of his four non-consecutive terms as Federalist Representative for Portland (1809-11, 1817-21), providing sarcastic sketches of the new Madison administration: “There are many more wrinkles in little Jemmy’s face this winter than there were last summer & Queen Dolly’s paint on her visage much thicker to appearance than heretofore”; Secretary of State James Monroe’s wife declared “it is infamous that we should have a french school-master for our Secy. of the Treasury,” while Mrs. Albert Gallatin “in her turn says that it is a vile shame that we should have a pettifogging Lawyer for Secy. of State.”163

    Barely a year after giving up his House seat, Thatcher asked his successor Richard Cutts “to present my Respects to Brother Varnham [Joseph B. Varnum] & others of the Sect of Democracy from this State.”164 Thatcher’s friendly overtures to Varnum at this time (ca. 1802) add poignancy to the latter’s excoriating treatment of Thatcher in a letter written more than a decade later, during the War of 1812, while Varnum was serving in the U.S. Senate.165 It was a reply to at least three letters (all unlocated), in which Thatcher seems to have laid out the basis for their disagreements over the preceding decades. “I must have been compelled to consider a great part of their contents nothing more nor less, than the violent disgorgings of a very foul-Stomach, with the eye of the disgorger intensely fixed upon a Mirror. . . . I presume you cannot expect me to comment upon all the minutias of your several Letters,” Varnum begged off—although one can infer from his response that the minutiæ of Thatcher’s letters covered the gamut, from state politics (Varnum: “You say, that the Gerrymander system has done much for the people in the state”) and federal appointments (“You complain of Jefferson and Madison for not appointing more Federalists to Office”), to conditions in France (“You say that Bonapartes Conscription murdered the last remnants of Liberty in France”), Thatcher’s political principles (“the whole tenour of your observations are pointed to one object, and that is, to abandon Republican principles, and submit to your Monarchical principles”), and the prospects for the future (“You speak of the rapid approach of a crisis in our common Country”). More damning than all this is Varnum’s gloss on Thatcher’s expressed support for the War of 1812:

    You say you liked the Declaration of War, and after painting all the horrors of War, perhaps in its just colours, and making solemn <lined out> declaration, by implication at least, that the War was unnecessary, Yet you say you was pleased with the Declaration of War. And why was you pleased with that Declaration? You very plainly explain yourself that it was for the purpose of wresting from office the present incumbents. Declaring You had rather see the Nation involved in all the calamities of a destructive & desolating War, than to submit to a Government, which has been selected by a Majority of the people, unless indeed, that selection should be made from Men of your own political party.

    One wonders about a correspondence capable of drawing such venom from Varnum—“a humble, self-effacing man who wished to be remembered only for his contributions to farming and military service.”166

    * * *

    “You are sick of the State of our political affairs,” one friend wrote Thatcher on the eve of the War of 1812. “So is every honest and discerning man. But the spirit of party subdues every good impression, and will carry us to the Devil.” Son Henry Thacher had hoped that the election of DeWitt Clinton would deliver a mandate against the war, “but now it is invariably understood that, that rascally M---n [James Madison] is reelected, and so long as this country is guided by the reins of Mr M—n, so long shall we be continually exposed to the foolish measures for which many of our representatives are wont to vote.” Thomas B. Wait shared Henry’s frustration with the new Federalist leadership during the War of 1812. “Truth is,” Wait wrote Thatcher, “that the Federalists in Congress have been duped attempted to finesse with their opponents, and have been duped themselves. They have joined in the mad outcry against England, and in favour of war measures, in hopes, probably, to find favour with the people, and to get a little money for a Navy.” But after all, “The Federalists, said Mr. Ames, are Stubborn Hopers.”167

    Thatcher witnessed the war’s depredations closeup: in the summer of 1813, he and wife Sarah went down to Biddeford Pool “with a party of old and young—where they saw (or were seen) 7 coasters taken by a British privateer.” Yet despite such direct experiences, Thatcher’s extant letters yield little clue that there was even a war going on. We know he wrote about the Hartford Convention. Shortly after it adjourned, Wait wrote Thatcher that “their proceedings have my unqualified appropation [approbation]. . . . [The Convention] must be firm, but prudent and moderate. They are now the Umpires of New England, and they may be, ultimately, the Umpires of the United States. They seem to be our last human hope.” The letter crossed in the mail one by Thatcher (unlocated), written about the same time on the same subject, by which Wait was gratified to find “that our opinions are the same, and expressed almost in the same terms.”168

    * * *

    It would be inaccurate to say that Thatcher found more time to read in the relative leisure that accompanied old age, since reading was a lifelong habit for which he always managed to find the time. He preferred it to any other type of recreation. From Boston one day late in his judgeship, Thatcher wrote Sarah that “All the rage now seems to be to go to the Theatre to hear a famous Actor by the name of Keen an English player—However, I had rather pay my dollar for a book.” From William Godwin’s Enquirer Essay XV (“Of Choice in Reading”), he copied the line, “The impression we derive from a book, depends much less upon its real contents, than upon the temper of mind & preparation with which we read it.” From this it would appear that Thatcher’s settling in to read was as much an exercise in physical and emotional comfort as intellectual stimulation and enrichment. “He read slowly, and with so perfect an abstraction of the attention, that he suffered no interruption in the midst of his family.” No wonder he made books “my companions in the morning, and evening.” Purchasing them was his sole extravagance; he called it his “Book cupidity.” To Thomas B. Wait, it seemed more like a narcotics addiction. “Your description of creeping or Sneaking down to Bumstead’s reminds me of a story,” he wrote, about a drunk who “experienced the same difficulty in passing without entering a dram-shop as you do a book-shop”; after swearing off drink, “He went boldly on, and left the shop, as you did, fifty or a hundred rods in his rear; and then, like you, he stopped, saying (what you no doubt thought) ‘Since I find I can go by I think I will go in’—and sneaked back again.” (The classic “I can quit anytime. . . .”) Yet two weeks later, Wait would send a list of books he had procured for Thatcher’s library. He knew that the symptoms accompanying withdrawal could often be worse than the addiction: “Any man who has lived among Books, and like you, upon Books forty years, and stops reading, must commence drinking, or shoot himself.”169

    The result of Thatcher’s “Book cupidity” was “a rare collection of legal, philosophical and theological works.” The latter focused on Christology, ecclesiology, and Unitarian apologetics. “I cannot express to you the avidity with which these Unitarian publications are sought after,” wrote Portland’s future Unitarian minister in 1788, and Thatcher’s personal library became a lending library responsible for the conversion of many. “My friends shall always have access to my Library,” he assured Sally Barrell. But Thatcher sometimes did more than merely lend. Probably soon after becoming Overseer of Bowdoin College (1806-1818), he donated a large collection of books to its library. Thatcher also made more modest, single-volume donations to Fryeburg Academy, and a final bequest of an additional hundred books to Bowdoin College upon his death.170

    When Thatcher’s eulogist called him “a man of great and various reading,” it was not the usual empty encomia of well-meaning obituaries. The breadth of his personal library, and his reading beyond what he owned, is well attested. No period of history—especially ecclesiastical history—escaped Thatcher’s interest. In addition to the predictable selections of Eusebius and books on the Protestant Reformation, his library included books on Jewish, Catholic, and even Evangelical religious history.171 He also collected histories universal as well as national, European and non-European, ancient and modern;172 political theory;173 theology;174 science;175 and even a seventeenth century arabic grammar.176

    Among the belles-lettres, Thatcher appears to have read if not owned Don Quixote, One Thousand and One Nights, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In May 1792 he parted with the dear sum of five pounds ten shillings for The Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece, an early historical novel by the Jesuit classical scholar Jean Jacques Barthelemy (1716-95), which influenced the spread of Greek antiquarianism in the late Enlightenment. Thomas B. Wait sent Thatcher the epic poem Field of Waterloo (1815) by (the not yet Sir) Walter Scott, expecting it “will gratify you extremely—it is written in verse. This, even if it did not happen to please you, is absolutely necessary, because, you know, they always fight in rhyme.” Whether the poem was received as badly by Thatcher as it was by British critics is unknown. Based on a somewhat stronger recommendation, Thatcher bought at auction a “small novel in two Volumes called the Hollander, said to be wrote by his Majesty King Lewis Bonaparte—It has some reputation among novel readers.”177

    Thatcher was not a passive reader. A characteristic example of his active engagement with the page is preserved in the marginalia of a published address in his extensive pamphlet collection. Coauthored by none other than Joseph B. Varnum, the address blamed Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 on Great Britain’s Order in Council of November 1807 and France’s Milan Decree a month later, by arguing that U.S. commerce “fell at once within the scope of their ruinous interdiction.” In the margin, Thatcher shot back: “France had not a ship on the ocean, & but very few privateers, which were hunted like the hind of the wilderness—while every navy port of France was actually blockaded—consequently our wonted trade to England might be ensured for less than five per cent. But Jefferson hates commerce, & you were obliged to obey him.”178

    * * *

    With his political commentaries narrowed to the compass of a book margin, Thatcher was free to write about Unitarianism more fully. As his eulogist noted, he was “particularly versed in theological and polemic controversy,” and became an accomplished Unitarian apologist. The manifestos for the separation of church and state that were among the first of his newspaper writings laid the groundwork for freer expressions of his faith. In addition to an unidentified (and probably unpublished) piece written in 1797 (see No. 152, below), and newspaper polemics (described in the Selected Miscellaneous Writings section below, under “Anonymous Newspaper Pieces”), Thatcher wrote a major tract, published posthumously: A Letter to a Friend, on what is commonly denominated the “Fall of Adam,” in which all of his posterity is supposed to have caught the disorder, called “Original Sin.” Like that densely typeset pamphlet, Thatcher’s letters to Nathaniel Cross, Jeremiah Barker, and Samuel Greele, all written during the last decade of his life, are addressed to well-wishing but misguided friends seeking to draw him back into the mainstream communion.179

    Thatcher was no more responsive to his friends’ admonishments in 1820 than he had been while running for Congress thirty years earlier: his religious unorthodoxy remained intact. He could not say the same of his fellow Unitarians. Thatcher lived long enough to see the early movement’s purity and zeal diluted—even in his own home. When the family’s domestic servant Betsey Witham and other local girls fell under the spell of the increasingly evangelical, Calvinist doctrine of grace preached by Rev. John Turner, whom Thatcher himself had helped recruit as pastor of Biddeford’s Second Religious Society, Thatcher cried foul: “it was what they thought to be away from.”180 During this period of realignment, one Boston Unitarian wrote his English counterpart:

    With regard to the progress of Unitarianism, I have but little to say. Its tenets have spread very extensively in New England, but I believe there is only one church professedly Unitarian. The churches at Portland and Saco, of which you speak, hardly ever saw the light, and exist no longer. . . . Mr. Thacher who was formerly a member of Congress . . . is one of the Judges of our Supreme Court, an excellent man and most zealous Unitarian. He is now on the circuit in this town, and tells me he is obliged on Sunday to stay at home, or to hear a Calvinist minister.181

    The “Boston religion,” even in Boston, was no longer Unitarian enough for Thatcher.

    * * *

    Thatcher’s research and writing in later life extended increasingly also to genealogy—and led to an orthographic slight-of-hand that has taunted archivists and librarians ever since. Thatcher “used to delight in tracing back his lineage to one of those grave, sturdy, and resolute men who fled from persecution on account of their religious opinions.” “I feel the greatest respect for the blood of Antony [Thacher],” he wrote, in a genealogical manuscript that traced the family tree down to 1816. He could not have been ignorant of the Savage family genealogical chart that his father in law Samuel Phillips Savage compiled in the year Thatcher married into the family (1784). His own search led him, upon Mercy Otis Warren’s recommendation, to inquire of Isaac Winslow for “some ancient family records in your possession.” He confessed “a curiosity of knowing the genealogy of my ancesters up to the time of their migrating to America, & as much higher as I can get.”182 His research convinced him around this time (1810) that the original spelling of the family name had been Thacher—and so he begins to sign his letters.183 Perhaps, as he saw his world decay around him, invoking his forefathers in this way was an attempt to wrest a more solid assurance from their legacy.

    John R. Totten, the most comprehensive of Thatcher genealogists, lavished six tightly-spaced pages on the English origins and New England evolution of the family name. He concluded that it was always spelled Thacher by both the Boston and Cape Cod branches of the family. (Extant correspondence indicates that Thatcher’s older brother Thomas always retained the ancient spelling.) Totten identified a family line originating in Watertown, Massachusetts that consistently spelled the name “Thatcher” with the extra “t,” but he was unable to establish any familial or even friendly connection between it and the Cape Cod branch. George may have come to know of these Watertown Thatchers during his student days in neighboring Cambridge, but his motive for seizing upon the alternate spelling must remain conjectural.184

    * * *

    Despite Thatcher’s express protests to the contrary, his equivocating on the subject of statehood during the first movement for separation in the late 1780s and early 1790s paints him as a lukewarm champion at best. One suspects his fundamentally conservative craving for repose led him to believe, like his friend David Sewall, that “One Revolution in an Age is quite Sufficient.” When Boston’s anti-war, Federalist leadership abandoned Maine to British marauders and occupiers during the War of 1812, it contributed not only to Jeffersonian majorities Down East but to a resurgence of local support for independence from the metropolis. Under the circumstances, even Thatcher might have begun to question the tangible benefits of continued union with Massachusetts. In mid-June 1819 the General Court authorized a referendum on the question and on 26 July a super-majority of Maine voters opted for separation. Only two days after the referendum, Wait wrote Thatcher “you seem disposed to scold about the Separation.” Exercising his usual moderating influence, Wait warned his friend that he was out of synch with the times: “make yourself quiet. . . . It is time for you and I merely to look on—stand perfectly still—and see others scramble.”185

    Thatcher’s prominence in the community would not permit him to withdraw from the scene, and he was elected one of Biddeford’s two delegates to the state constitutional convention that convened in Portland on 11 October 1819, with Thatcher’s old friend Daniel Cony presiding pro tempore. It was a family affair: son George Jr. was seated as a delegate for Saco, and son in law Joseph Adams for Gorham. (Adams had entered the household as a tutor to the youngest Thatcher children, in exchange for studying law under the Judge.186) Later that afternoon, William King was elected president of the Convention. A sibling of Thatcher’s old friends Rufus, Cyrus, and Betsy King, the wealthy shipbuilder and merchant from Bath otherwise shared little with Thatcher; he was a Democratic-Republican whom both Thatcher and Wait regarded as a political opportunist. “If Nature sees fit to place a heated Potatoe in a man’s mouth, or a Smoke-Jack in his Skull,” Wait wrote of King, “he is not to be blamed; but ought he not to drive the D---l from his heart?”187

    Thatcher’s no-nonsense approach to the proceedings of deliberative assemblies was on full display just days into the Convention, when it was moved to alter the title of the new state from “Commonwealth” to “State.” Son in law Joseph Adams not only supported the former, but threatened to vote against the name Maine “unless it is to be coupled with Commonwealth.” “I do not think this is a subject of great importance,” countered Thatcher. “And inasmuch as it will be easier to write State, than Commonwealth, I should rather prefer it.” The title “State” prevailed, by a narrow margin. Similarly, when Daniel Cony—with “a view of consecrating the opening era”—moved to rename the new state “Columbus,” Thatcher objected. “As names of things were but sounds or words they hardly afforded grounds or data for much argument a priori, in favor of one over another. . . . but he did not perceive any good reason for the alteration.” The mercantile world already knew the place as “Maine,” and a change “would tend to introduce some uncertainty . . . [among] foreigners respecting its geographic situation.” The word “Columbus” would more naturally suggest some part of the hemisphere actually explored by Columbus (in Latin America), or even the Pacific Northwest (where the Columbia River had been christened twenty seven years before). “The mind, he observed, had its regular laws of association, as the material world has its laws of gravity, attraction, &c.” Hartley’s theory of the association of ideas—so vital to Thatcher’s notions of childhood development and epistemology decades earlier—still retained its grip.188

    It is not surprising that Thatcher’s greatest efforts at the Convention focused on the relationship between church and state. For him, there was no questioning the equality of sects in the eyes of the state. When “a committee of the ‘Catholics of Maine’” petitioned to be relieved of the political disabilities they had suffered under Massachusetts, and for “an equality of religious and civil rights and immunities,” Thatcher approved: “He trusted no distinction or pre-eminence would ever be given to any religious sect, as such; whether Catholics, Jews or Mahometans.” Thatcher’s longest recorded speech at the Convention also touched upon this issue of respect for the subjectivity and inscrutability of one’s conscience in matters of religion. Precisely because it was impossible to probe the sincerity of one’s profession of faith, he opposed conscientious objection as grounds for militia duty exemption. It was liable to abuse—whether out of deliberate fraud, or ignorance of how “conscience” differed from a mere “directing principle in human actions”—and he was willing to grant it to Quakers only by recategorizing their pacifism as a matter of established creed, irrespective of personal testimony.189

    What or how an individual worshiped was irrelevant to the state as long as it did not interfere with the functions of the state. But that an individual did indeed worship was as much a duty of citizenship as taking an oath to God in order to serve on a jury. For Thatcher, religion had become a social commodity necessary to counter an increasingly entropic social order. He moved to amend the proposed constitution’s Declaration of Rights by adding, “As it is the absolute duty of all men to worship God their creator, so it is their natural right to worship him in such way and manner as their conscience dictates, to be agreeable to his revealed will.” Thatcher “hoped none of the Convention wished to secure to themselves, or any body of people, the right not to worship at all.” John Holmes, who had drafted the language as chairman of the committee on style, admitted it was “the most difficult subject we had to encounter,” but remained clear: “To make it a duty to exercise a right is preposterous.” Thatcher’s motion to amend was lost “by a great majority.” Upon the Declaration of Rights being engrossed and read again, Thatcher claimed “He had found much anxiety on the subject” and renewed his motion to add “duty,” but it was ruled out of order. And when, the day before adjourning, the Convention considered electing a clergyman to preach the traditional election day sermon for the first state elections, Thatcher defended the proposal (“Other States had always practised it, and it is a good and wholesome custom”) while Gen. Joshua Wingate of Bath raised a protest worthy of Thatcher himself thirty years earlier, by asking “if we were to have all the parade and pageantry of the government of Massachusetts? He hoped we should be more republican.”190

    * * *

    The admission of Maine into the Union in March 1820 meant that Thatcher, now the resident of a separate jurisdiction, could no longer serve on the Massachusetts bench. Statehood forced him, at the age of sixty six, to consider retiring from public life. Joseph B. Varnum had posed the same challenge some years earlier: “You intimate the impropriety of any Man’s holding Public offices too long, least he should in some way or other become injurious to the rights of the people.” Varnum himself was determined to leave public life at the expiration of his Senate term in 1817, “with a view of avoiding that awful crisis in nature, which will Justify the people in a Declaration, that their public agent has become a child; I can only say, that I hope you will do likewise?” He urged his old foe, “Let us then Unite in one thing at Least, that is—that we will exonerate ourselves from the just charge, which decrying Nature and second childhood must inevitably bring upon us if we continue to hold public offices much longer.”191

    Thatcher evidently believed he was in no position to quit his job. An inventory he composed in 1817, as a potential guarantor of his son Henry’s entry into Boston’s mercantile business, provides a snapshot of his modest means just a few years before statehood. Such financial considerations strengthened Thomas B. Wait’s long crusade to get Thatcher to move out of Maine, and so retain his judgeship. Wait began by trying to convince Sarah: selling the family farm would earn them enough to buy another farm within a dozen miles of Boston, George would receive better medical attention, and their children would be better educated. Lastly, “Your whole family would experience a total, and what was to me an astonishing alteration in the state sentiments and state of society. It is here (think of it as you will) no disgrace to man or woman, to be wise and good!”192

    Wait, who had survived a major rift with local Federalists in the third federal election only to give up the newspaper business three years later, moved to Boston around 1807 and never looked back. He could not understand his friend’s unshakable devotion to Maine. “Why do you not leave that region of ignorance, and vice, and Norwegian cold? I speak not so much of the climate as of icy hearts which surround you.” A move to Boston, on the other hand, offered communion with “an Order of Nobility instituted by, and emenating from the Court of Heaven. . . . I have seen their credentials. And so have you; and . . . still you prefer plebians to patricians—Devils to Gods.” There is evidence that Thatcher’s devotion had begun to weaken even before statehood: “I regret very much that Portland has become so indifferent to you,” wrote Wait in 1815, “and that you find there so few whom you love.” When Thatcher finally did decide to remain in the employ of the Commonwealth, he chose to settle in Newburyport—virtually the closest he could be to Maine while still residing in Massachusetts. The hometown of Thatcher’s good friend Dudley Atkins Tyng welcomed its prominent new resident by immediately voting him onto the School Committee, where he championed the new Lancastrian system of education.193

    * * *

    Under Thatcher’s leadership, Biddeford’s Unitarians “withheld supplies” from Rev. Turner, effectively forcing him to leave in 1817. From the Congregational historian’s perspective, “Now came the ‘tug of war’,” from which emerged, “by some apt management,” Rev. Thomas Tracy—a fresh product of Rev. Henry Ware’s Unitarian course of studies at what is now the Harvard Divinity School. As the date for Tracy’s ordination approached (15 January 1824), George Thacher, Jr., of the committee of arrangements, asked Dr. Ware himself to attend, “in as much as it will have a tendency to satisfy, in some measure, our ignorant & bigoted brethren, that there are some men of distinction who are Unitarians.” Of course he expected his father and mother to make the journey from Newburyport as well. As an indication of Thatcher’s influence, the Massachusetts Evangelical Society (Eastern Branch) asked for his advice when the arrangements committee solicited the Society’s monetary support. With Thatcher’s encouragement, the Society pledged one hundred dollars a year, on condition Tracy was hired.194

    As a Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Thatcher played an even more important role in enabling Tracy’s ordination. The Second Religious Society’s very existence had rekindled locally the schism between orthodox (Calvinist) and liberal (Unitarian) Christians over the control of “parish” property. Thatcher and the rest of the Court ruled unanimously, in the famous “Dedham Case” (Baker v. Fales) in 1820, that a church’s legal character (including the power to possess property) inhered in its historic, organic relationship to the parish (town) rather than the more select body of church communicants. The decision marked a clear victory for parishes opting to hire Unitarian ministers like Tracy, against the wishes of an Old Guard church leadership. It also marked another occasion where—as in the War Crisis of 1798—Thatcher clearly identified with the Commonwealth’s “High Federalists,” for whom the liberal Christianity professed by Unitarians formed a natural barrier against the disorderly, fanatical, and intolerant evangelical brand of Congregationalism increasingly associated with “republican license.”195

    In the long-standing Congregational tradition of extending “the right hand of fellowship,” a number of clergy had been invited to participate but some could not see their way through the “Difficulty of Ordaining without a Church.” The church in neighboring Saco paid no attention at all to the invitation, as one member of the Society explained to Thatcher, “because we only called ourselves the 2nd. Religious Socy. & did not say Baptist—Unitarian[,] Methodist, or Universalist.” In other words, “because we did not give ourselves a Sectarian name of any kind.” He reiterated George Thacher Jr.’s insistence “that we should have some Gentlemen here of weight[,] of Character, & Knowledge [wi]th the Law, & practice at Dedham,” pleading “you must be present, your Counsel & advice is absolutely necessary, we have every thing to fear, from the Arts & Jesuitism, of the Supporters of Priestcraft & Mystery—You cannot possibly think of Deserting us at this Critical time. . . . You have often observed you would do all in your power to establish a Unitarian Society in Biddeford—this is the favorable moment—& if we fail now another opportunity during our Lives cannot be expected.” Tracy’s successful ordination on the appointed date was, to no less a judge than Jared Sparks himself, “proof, that liberal notions of congregational discipline are gaining ground among us.”196

    Thatcher likely attended the ordination. Indeed, he may have seized upon the urgency of returning to Biddeford as another reason to carry through with a long-time intention to leave the bench, which he did early the same month. Yet despite being caught up in the eye of a sectarian storm during the last months of his life, there is evidence that Thatcher preserved his own lifelong latitudinarianism until the very end. In noting his death in April 1824, one local diarist recalled “he was a profesed Unitarian—and he acknowledged that he was a universalist too for he says there is not much difference.” His eulogist agreed: “He laughed at the disputes which prevail in the Christian Church, and perhaps had some peculiar notions, but he was a Christian. It is enough to say that he was a member of a Christian Church, for no particle of hypocrisy entered into his composition. He was a practical christian. . . .”197

    * * *

    In the spring of 1814, while British ships scoured the Maine coast near Biddeford, another scourge visited much closer to Thatcher’s heart: “a most malignant fever” took his younger protégé, nephew, confidant, and fellow lawyer and congressman “after the most painful struggle of little more than 4 days.”198 Ominous signs of Silas Lee’s feeble constitution as early as the summer of 1789 had reminded Thatcher of his own mortality. He was never silent for long about the weakness of his flesh—less as a theological than a biological predicament. His health undoubtedly suffered by the strain of travel on public service. Even before leaving for his first congressional tour of duty in late 1787, Thatcher was warned by friend Wait that “if the Devil should put it in the head of C——ss to remove to Philadelphia (as I rather suppose will be the case) . . . the climate of Philadelphia might soon waste your little remaining ‘sand’.”199

    Thatcher was willing to concede that homesickness aggravated his various ailments, but the physiological symptoms were nevertheless genuine—and chronic. “Writing begins to hurt my Stomach,” he complained to Sarah, just weeks into the First Congress. “Wrighting is become very hurtfull to me; I cannot set down & write as heretofore; I am obliged to stand up when I write.” A week later, to Jeremiah Hill: “I have lately got a desk by which I stand up & write, this frees me from that constant struggle for breath I am so subject to when I write by a common Table.” But it was a temporary solution. A year later—again in the Spring—he complained to Barrell that letter writing “has brought on a weakness at the Stomach, which renders writing extreamly painfull.” Brother Thomas Thacher also suffered from chronic stomach pain. Besides a possible genetic source, some seasonal link can not be ruled out: Spring seemed to unleash the worst—at least until the mid-1790s. “I am in pretty good health for me,” he wrote Sarah in April 1794, “considering the season is that wherein I am usually the most feeble.” Within another year, he felt forced to admit “that health has been delt out to us with a liberal hand—few of our neighbors have been more bountifully blessed—Health & poverty upon the whole sets us above the level of mankind.” “For my part I have lived so much longer than appearances gave reason to expect that.”200

    New, different symptoms began to manifest themselves in the last few years of Thatcher’s time in Congress. Rheumatism, or what Thatcher understood to be rheumatism (the diversion of the body’s “thin humors”) was the usual culprit. In addition to suffering in his joints, in early 1800 he complained of “an oppression & irritation on the Lungs,” for which “I shall apply to Doctor [Benjamin] Rush for advise; for I never tamper with myself.” Other unspecified illnesses later dogged him on his circuit as a judge. Thatcher and Wait began to compete for bragging rights to the more dire afflictions, which may have been genuine health concerns, mere hypochondria, a device to amuse each other, or some combination of all three. Thatcher’s over-indulgent appetite, matched by poor digestion, came in for special admonishment: adverting to a letter Thatcher wrote in the fall of 1814, Wait recalled “You there said, that after dinner you ‘felt like a snake with an undigested toad in his stomach’. . . . great Rice Puddings will send you, I fear, too soon to take the place [of] your Stars.” Chief Justice Isaac Parker and Solicitor General Daniel Davis “both told me that you would eat yourself to death.” But Wait turned serious on the subject of Thatcher’s rheumatism: “You never before talked as you now do of your feeble knees and tottering frame.” “So severe has been the rhumatic pains in the small of the back,” Thatcher wrote Sarah, “All the pains from the shoulders, sides hips, thighs & legs have deserted their old places & formed one great army & encamped in the small of the back.” In distress he turned to nostrums like “Dr. Dean’s Patent Vegetable Rheumatic Pills, and Vegetable Bilious or Regulating Pills.”201

    * * *

    While passing through Connecticut en route to take his seat in the First Congress, Thatcher lingered in New Haven to visit a friend, the merchant Samuel Broome (1735-1810). The hospitality was “less agreeable” owing to the recent, sudden demise of Broome’s favorite daughter, which rendered the mother “inconsolable” and the father “dull.” “The union of these circumstances illy correspond with my feelings—And tho Solomon sais tis better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of meriment—I am of opinion there are exceptions. . . . every thing I see puts me sufficiently in mind of t’other world—and I dont wish to have it dressed up in the dismal colour of a coffin & the shroud.” More than thirty years later, as his own infant granddaughter lay dying, he boycotted the unprofitable ordeal of mourning by avoiding her home altogether.202 But, because Thatcher could not stop for Death, Death kindly stopped for him.

    He must have had premonitions of the visit. In January 1824, the Newburyport Herald—the Thatchers’ new hometown newspaper—announced: “We understand that the venerable Judge Thacher, agreeable to an intention sometime since formed, has resigned his seat on the Supreme Bench of this Commonwealth. Judge Thacher is about seventy years of age.” “Poor Thatcher!” wrote Rufus King, just three months later. “I deplore the misfortune (a paralytic stroke) which has befallen him. We are bound to submit, but I earnestly hope that the transition may be neither sudden nor lingering.” King could not know, as a Senator in faraway Washington, D.C., that his old friend had already succumbed to a “paralytic affection” days earlier. George Thatcher died at 4 o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, 6 April 1824, “in the humble cottage endeared to him by forty years familiarity, where every thing was the work of his own hands, with the wife of his youth to soothe his last moments, and his numerous children to receive his parting blessing.” He was buried two days later just over half a mile away in Biddeford’s Woodlawn Cemetery, within sight of his “Temple of Reason.” In his last will and testament, Thatcher trusted his executors to “attend to my funeral with all due simplicity. Parades never gave me much pleasure and least of all at funerals.”203

    * * *

    “I have heard you say, more than once,” wrote Thatcher’s Boswell, Thomas B. Wait, “that if you might have chosen the period in which you should ‘live, and have being,’ it should have been precisely the time which has been allotted to you.” The period’s political and religious upheavals and realignment certainly gave ample scope to the enlarged thinking that characterized Thatcher’s public and private life. It may have been easy for Thatcher to live his life as he did, but it was not always easy for his contemporaries to live with him. As a political creature, he never shed his edginess: there was his friend Christopher Gore’s predication, at the very outset of Thatcher’s public career, that “his oddities, his speculative modes of thinking & conversing, & his want of acquaintance with mankind & practical politics, render him at best an uncertain man.” Thatcher was aware of the question mark he posed for the political establishment. He controlled no votes beyond his own, but that was wholly his; he owed no obeisance to the Commonwealth’s “seacoast mandarins and river gods.” “A kind of independent bluntness, has been attributed to me by my friends, as one of my greatest faults thro Life—while my enemies lay it to the account of a wicked heart—But here they are wrong—I wish nobody any ill—A rogue & dishonest man I detest and while I dip my pen in gall & vinegar against vice & wickedness I shall not fail gently to reprimand folly—I am as bold & independent in politics as religion—& perhaps too much so in boath for my worldly interest.” To no less than the arch-Antifederalist Samuel Nasson himself, Thatcher once boasted that he was called “the Insurgent Delegate” and that, in politics, he did not mind being isolated and misunderstood: “it is good to have Some Mistereys in Everything.” To dismiss these claims as mere swagger is to miss the deeper logic behind Thatcher’s individuality.204

    One cold night in Boston in late January 1813, Thomas B. Wait wrote to his friend in Biddeford. We can imagine the warm, cozy setting in which Thatcher wrote the (unlocated) letter to which Wait was replying: “You say, if you wrote poetry you would celebrate your Russian Stove in song. My friend, I have known you almost thirty years, all which time you have not only written but spoken poetry. By poetry I mean, not Rhyme, (at which I believe you are not very fortunate) but Fiction. Believe me, my friend, you are a poet, a prince of Poets. Your conversation to friends, your letters to correspondents, your pleadings at the Bar, and your speeches in Congress, have all been tinctured with fiction.” “Eccentricities he had, it is true,” agreed Thatcher’s eulogist, “but they were innocent, sportive and amusing. No one who had occasion to consult his heart ever found that erring or trifling.” George Cabot, “who knew him well in Congress, once said as he approached to greet him—‘Here comes my old friend, who sometimes talks wrong, but always acts right.’ ”205

    fig. 2. Thatcher Homestead (1955). Courtesy of the McArthur Public Library, Biddeford, Maine. “The house . . . is situated about one mile west of the Falls; it is a plain, unostentatious dwelling, consisting of one story, with nothing about it of an ornamental nature except a few fir trees of singular beauty” (Folsom, Saco and Biddeford, p. 300).

    But let us allow Thomas B. Wait the final say. “I sometimes wonder,” he once wrote Thatcher,

    that the world does not take you at your word, and consider you and treat you as a sort of scoffing infidel. But it is [sic] does not; and I can tell you the reason—It does not believe you. It saves your heart at the expense of your veracity. While others attempt to make the world think them better than they are, your object appears to be to make it think you worse; and let me tell you, my friend, that with some you have succeeded to the extent of your wishes. I have, however, told you all this before; but you seem to think it is not true, or do not care if it is. So I will say no more on the subject.206