- Historic Sites
Philip Hone’s New York
The magic of life in the, unfolding metropolis still breathes in the diary of a charming and witty mayor
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
When Davy Crockett, profusely billed as “the wild frontiersman,” visited New York in 183], he made such a hullabaloo trying to live up to his reputation in his hotel room at the American Hotel, in the choice row fronting City Hall Park, that he infuriated the neighbors, chief among them Philip Hone, sometime mayor ol New York and its most respected resident. Nevertheless, the former mayor couldn’t ignore the “coonskin congressman,” a member of his own political party.
Davy described Hone as “the politest man I ever did see, for when he asked me to take a drink at his own sideboard, he turned his back upon me, that I mightn’t be ashamed to fill as much as I wanted. This was what I call doing the fair thing.”
Hone was mayor for one year only, in 182!), but through most of his adtdt life he was a part ol every public: occasion. All noted visitors to the city from 1821 to 1851 called at Hone’s house and figure in the diary he kept for the greater part of that time. Things had a habit of happening before his eyes; and he recorded them all, ostensibly for his own posterity alone.
Success in life had pursued him, though he began with nothing. Born in 1780, the younger son of a poor carpenter, he went into the auctioneering business at age sixteen as his brother’s employee. Three years later he was a partner, and thenceforward the firm’s rise and his own were phenomenal. At 35 he was a wealthy man. At 41 he retired with half a million dollars. He married young and raised a large family, meanwhile carefully improving himself, cultivating not only books and pictures but their creators also. He was handsome in a classic, curly-haired style, and in later life compared himself (within the bounds of a passionate Americanism) to John Bull. In 1821, the year of his prime-of-life retirement, he took his wife to Europe and went to the coronation of George IV, but London did not know him then or fete him as it was to do later. The Hones made the grand tour of the Continent, then returned to their children and to the wellstocked library and the nicely chosen art collection to which Hone had judiciously added while abroad. In a residence at the corner of Broadway and Park Place, which he purchased for $25,000, he settled down to enjoy himself.
In November, 1825, two months before he became mayor, Hone spoke for New York City at the ceremonies attending the completion of the Erie Canal; which is to say, at the instant of the transformation of New York from just another seaport to an international commercial center. For the first time the riches of the forest could be borne out in bulk all the way from the Lakes to the Atlantic—specifically, to New York Harbor, which burst into a glory of tradeseekers from abroad, all jostling each other’s ships to get in first and snap the treasure up. It was something unheard-of in the commercial story of any of the former colonial cities, and New York went out of its way to inform the world. Guns boomed along the manmade ribbon of water as the New York City delegation proceeded to Albany, near where the artificial and natural streams met, where Hone greeted DeWitt Clinton, the canal’s prime mover, as he glided in from Buffalo on the official celebration barge. Guns boomed along the Hudson as they escorted Clinton down to New York Harbor to empty a keg of Erie water there in a symbolic “wedding”; and Hone led the re-echoing cheers that made the harbor ring. New York would never be the same again. The Empire State was born of that marriage, and the spring-tide of Philip Hone’s brief mayoralty saw the first full flood of cargoes carried down.
In the unfolding metropolis, Hone’s mansion was a magnet. Actors, authors, statesmen, editors, Presidents and former Presidents came to be his guests. In 1832 the young and brilliant Fanny Kemble, having taken her native London by storm, arrived to conquer America. She had hardly caught her breath before she and her father were having dinner at Hone’s, in company with a distinguished Knickerbocker group. Her host seated her at his right: …and I certainly had no reason to complain [records Hone], for I missed my dinner in listening to her. She has an air of indifference and nonchalance not at all calculated to make her a favorite with the beaux. Indeed, Henry Hone and I think that she prefers married men.…She sang and played for us in the evening. Her voice is not sweet, but has great force and pathos. She has astonishing requisites for the stage. Her features separately are not good, but combined they make a face of great and powerful expression. She is said to resemble her aunt Mrs. Siddons.
Then he saw her in her American debut at the Park Theatre in Fazio .