Philip Hone’s New York


Sometimes he ran into history overseas as he did at home. Hurrying to catch the Dover coach one day in London in 1836, he was caught by a crowd huzzaing round the carriage of the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo himself, who had come to call on Mr. Hone to bid him a polite au revoir. From this postscript to glory, Hone was projected into something like the reverse. At Dover he was introduced to the commandant of the garrison, a “short, handy little man” about his own age. It turned out to be the son of Benedict Arnold; Hone managed not to “visit the sins of the father on the child.”

On the voyage home he luxuriated under spread canvas, but the days of sailing packets were numbered.

“Go aheadl” [he wrote soon] is the impulse which now governs the world.…Our countrymen, “studious of change and pleased with novelty,” will rush forward to visit the shores of Europe instead of resorting to Virginia or Saratoga Springs; and steamers will continue to be the fashion until some more dashing adventurer of the go-ahead tribe shall demonstrate the practicability of balloon navigation, and gratify their impatience on a voyage over and not upon the blue waters in two days instead of as many weeks.…As for me, I am still skeptical on the subject.

On the subject of transatlantic “steamers,” he meant. The rest, of course, was just extravaganza; but there were potent arguments to convince him, and in the fullness of time he is to be found among a distinguished party going down the bay to see the Great Western , pride of the British, off on her first eastbound crossing in May, 1838. Governor W. L. Marcy went down the bay aboard her, coming ashore in Hone’s boat after taking leave near the Narrows.

He lived to see the whole development of the new champion: the rise of England’s Samuel Cunard, the successful competition of the first American steamships, the emergence of New York as a preferred port of call. He took part in many a launching ceremony. He became an Atlantic steamship passenger himself in time, but he never lost his love of sail.

In the 1830’s he had another cause for wonder when his friend Samuel F. B. Morse, whom he knew as a painter, invented the telegraph. Within a decade this new method of communication was available in the United States. At a Whig convention at Utica in 1846, over which Hone presided, the “swift-winged lightning,” as he called it, enabled him to reach Millard Fillmore at Buffalo in minutes, and in minutes more get the message back that Fillmore yielded to John Young as candidate for governor of New York. Only a man who once had carried letters for friends on a nine-day voyage from New York City to Albany could appreciate that. Couriers on horseback had been known to be almost as much delayed.

Hone had a sense of humor. When he met sick old John Jacob Astor at dinner in a mansion at Hell Gate, he wrote in his diary: He would pay all my debts if I could insure him one year of my health and strength, but nothing else would extort so much from him. The diarist, however, presently notes a “noble donation” by Astor of $5,000 for the relief of aged indigent females and concludes that, aged if not indigent himself, the millionaire must have accepted the fact that he couldn’t take it with him.

One of his most characteristic entries concerns Aaron Burr. Outcast, a forgotten man since dueling with Alexander Hamilton and being mixed up in a charge of high treason, Burr was still, as he had always been, a philanderer. In 1833 he belatedly married the widow Jumel, moving Hone to observe: It is benevolent in her to keep the old man in his latter days, [but] one good turn deserves another.

The span of Philip Hone’s life is well illustrated in J. a reminiscence on receiving news of the death at Rensselaer, New York, of Edmond Charles Genêt. Citizen Genêt had come originally as minister from Paris during the French Revolution: I remember, when a boy, seeing Genêt dancing the carmagnole with a red cap on his head in…Maiden Lane, surrounded by the sans-culotte crews of the French frigates which lay in our harbor.

He lived to see the revolutions of 1848 and to see the United States making war and peace with Mexico. Hone hated that war. He wrote before it started: Here is the great question of severance between the North and the South, which is one day to shake this overgrown republic to its center. The Southern States desire the annexation of Texas to the Union to strengthen their position geographically and politically by the prospective addition of four or five slave-holding States. We of the North and East say we have already more territory than we know what to do with, and more slavery within our borders than we choose to be answerable for before God and man. So this Texas question is brought up by the man whom accident has placed at the head of affairs [Tyler, who took office on the death of President Harrison], and used by designing demagogues to promote their personal objects at the risk of a separation of the Union and the downfall of liberty in the Western World.