In 1774, at the age of 23, Judith Sargent Stevens (Murray) of Gloucester, Massachusetts, decided to keep letter books – blank volumes into which she would make copies of the letters she was writing to her family and friends. This was not a haphazard decision; keeping letter books would have become part of her routine for the rest of her life.
Judith's world in 1774 was changing fast. Gloucester was a thriving seaport in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and there was talk of separation from Great Britain. Protests, port closings, the presence of troops in Boston – all of these events affected Gloucester and it was unclear how the conflict would be resolved. As a student of history, Judith knew how important it was to document what was going on – to provide a thoughtful, eyewitness account in real time to leave behind for future generations.
To begin her project, Judith purchased a small book of blank pages bound in soft brown leather and embossed with a decorative black border. On the first page of the volume she wrote a message to her readers, explaining that she had “committed to the flames” all of the letters she had written before 1765 as they were merely “a kind of history of [her] juvenile life” and could not be of interest to anyone. While Judith's intended audience was her direct descendant, we know from her plan to keep her correspondents “purposely involved in ambiguity” that she anticipated a wider readership. Ultimately, she wrote, she wished to “commend [her] volumes of letters to affectionate posterity.”
Following her opening statement, Judith initiated her recording system. She left the first few pages of the book blank and then copied what letters she had already written and saved, numbered each letter and every page. As tradition dictated, she included her return address in each of her letters, the date, a salutation, and an appropriate closing. When the book was full, Judith added an index to the empty opening pages, listing the recipient of each letter and the page on which that person's letter appeared.
After Judith's first volume of letters was complete she began work on Letter Book 2, not knowing how many she would complete in her lifetime. There would be twenty letter books in all, containing approximately 2,500 letters and spanning the years 1765 to 1818, from when Judith was 23 years old in Gloucester to age 67 in Boston.
She wrote all of this material by quill pen and by candlelight – a daunting, self-appointed task to be sure, especially for a wife, mother, professional essayist, poet, and playwright. But we know from Judith herself, through her letters, that she understood the historical value of what she was doing and even contemplated publishing the letter books herself.
Judith took the letter books with her when she moved from Boston to Natchez, Mississippi, in 1818 with her daughter, Julia Maria, who had married a Harvard student from Natchez. Judith died there soon after. For many generations, the letter books sat in the private library of an antebellum mansion called, “Arlington,” lovingly cared for by the owner but out of the public eye.
Those of us who tried to learn more about Judith Sargent Murray in the 1980s and earlier encountered the of-repeated “fact” first published in 1881 that her personal papers had been destroyed in Natchez. But in 1984, a Unitarian Universalist minister named Gordon Gibson, who was serving a congregation in the area, went searching for material anyway. At Arlington, he found the letter books – the treasure trove of information that Judith Sargent Murray had so painstakingly created for future generation.
The letter books have since been preserved and published on microfilm under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. They are housed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History at Jackson – which is a lucky thing because Arlington's library was recently destroyed by fire.
Today, the letter books are being transcribed, indexed, and published to make the information more accessible. Two letter books are available in their own heritage, and two themed collections of the letters have been published.
What's in this new eyewitness account of American history? Briefly, they contain Judith's observations of:
• People (George Washington, John Adams, John Murray, Judith's husband and the “father” of organized Universalism in America)
• Places (towns, cities, and the countryside during her travels through New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania)
• Events (July 4, 1790 in Philadelphia, the laying of the cornerstone for the new state house in Boston in 1795)
• Attractions (museums, concerts, gardens, markets, public buildings)
• Daily life (meals, goods, clothing, medicine, weather, travel)
The letters also include Judith's thoughts on:
• female education
• women's political rights and female politicians
• the new American government
The letters document Judith's life as a daughter, wife, mother, friend, and loving aunt or adopted aunt to dozens of young people. They also document her career as an essayist, publisher, poet, and playwright – one of the earliest definers of a new American literature.
Finally, the letter books add color, depth, and insight to American history from the perspective of a woman and a professional writer.
In her opening statement in Letter Book 1, Judith tells her readers (us) that sheoped for affectionate posterity. She describes nothing less, and publishing her letter books is an important step in that direction.