Philip Hone’s New York


He feared both the extreme abolitionists and the defiant southerners. He wanted Henry Clay or Daniel Webster or, as he once said, even himself for President —in other words a moderate. He worked for Clay and Webster ceaselessly but had helped elect William Henry Harrison, at whose inauguration he had conspicuously been a guest. Harrison was about to appoint Hone postmaster of New York when he died after one month in the White House. Later on Hone assisted in the election of President Zachary Taylor, with Fillmore as Vice President. Taylor made Hone naval officer of the Port of New York, a post he occupied with skill and affection.

In 1847 he traveled with one of his daughters to what he called the “Far West.” It ruined his health. He had to go by all means of transit, old and new: canalboat, stagecoach, sailing vessel, steamboat, carriage, cart, and train; for railroads were still only punctuation marks. Every conceivable annoyance in all these modes of travel tormented him. In Kentucky he visited Henry Clay, who had just lost a son in the Battle of Buena Vista but roused himself to pay great attention to his guest. The real occasion for the trip was another convention of Whigs at Chicago, which Hone attended; and he ranged as far afield as St. Louis and Milwaukee. All three settlements were still in the process of rearing up from the wilderness, and Indian tribes which had reluctantly withdrawn were not far away. The streets of Chicago had been planned on paper less than fifteen years before, when only a fort and a small handful of houses occupied the spot. Yet by now a city was discernible. Hone was away seven weeks and returned a wreck.

In 1849 a mass meeting was held in City Hall Park, New York, to hail the Hungarian revolution led by Kossuth. Senator Lewis Cass had just offered a resolution in Congress calling for breaking off relations with Austria, Hungary’s ruler then. Hone opposed it.

The persecuted, downtrodden Hungarians [he wrote] are entitled to our sympathy, and we have given sufficient evidence of our desire to receive them as honored guests in our land of freedom, but what arrogance and impertinence to intrude our rebuke upon the rulers of a foreign country for their treatment in their own land, of their own subjects!

What would we say if…diplomatic intercourse…[were] suspended by Austria because we, the peculiar friends of freedom, keep millions of our fellow-men in bondage? Our fiery spirits, in such a case, would be satisfied with nothing short of war.

He lived to see the gold rush and California a state. In his boyhood all the United States had lain close to the Atlantic. He feared the problems that threatened to grow with the nation. He loved liberty and loathed all forms of forced servitude, but he happened to be a devotee of the status quo . He tried to believe that North and South could live and let live.

But the present would not tarry. His personal felicity suddenly came to an end. He lost the loveliest, and because the most frail the most cherished, of his daughters. His wife fell ill, and in May, 1850, he had to write: My worst apprehensions are realized. The crowning blessing of my long life, the enjoyment of which the Lord has permitted to me for a period of nearly half a century of uninterrupted love, affection and confidence, He has seen fit to resume. The most excellent partner…the best of wives, the mother of my children, my comforter in affliction, the participant of my joys, the promoter of my happiness, my friend and example, died this morning at fifteen minutes past four o’clock.

He was so prostrated that he could not attend the funeral, where college presidents, high military officers, and other eminent citizens were pallbearers. Six days later he wrote: The Old Hull Afloat . This was the first day of my leaving the house.

At his naval office he signed papers but complained of aches and pains. His sons were his fond companions, his daughters his devoted nurses. Two grandchildren pampered him. He was old but still observant of the passing scene. In time he went to hear Jenny Lind sing, went to church by horsecar, came home to fulminate against those who were already threatening secession from the United States.

Whether he knew it or not, he was the symbol as well as the chronicler of the end of an era. He nearly filled the twenty-eighth volume of his diary. On April 30, 1851, he made the following entry: This volume of my journal, which has only four vacant leaves to be completed, has been suspended during nearly the whole month by continued unmitigated illness and incapacity to perform any act of mental or physical ability. Feeble beyond description, utterly destitute of appetite, with no strength in my limbs and no flesh upon my bones, shall this journal be resumed? During this illness I have gone occasionally to my office for a short time, and performed a little pro forma business; but it could have been performed by deputy. Tomorrow will be the first of May. Volume 29 lies ready on my desk. Shall it go on?

The “four vacant leaves” were the four days left in life. Death came on the fifth day—the fifth of May, 1851, at nearly 71.