Marriage of Ralph Waldo and Lidian Emerson in Plymouth

The Winslow House was the home of Lydia Jackson. She married Ralph Waldo Emerson in the front parlor. It has since been greatly enlarged and ornamented and is presently owned by the Mayflower Society of Descendants.

The Winslow House was the home of Lydia Jackson. She married Ralph Waldo Emerson in the front parlor. It has since been greatly enlarged and ornamented and is presently owned by the Mayflower Society of Descendants.

In March of 1834, Lydia Jackson stepped out of the old Winslow House on North Street in Plymouth on her way to hear a lecture. The stately old mansion, built in 1754 by Edward Winslow, had been her home nearly all her life. Her grandfather had purchased it after Winslow (a Tory) was forced to flee Plymouth prior to the Revolution. Her parents, Charles and Lucy Cotton Jackson, raised their family there.

Tragically, both Lydia’s parents died in 1818, leaving her an orphan at age 16. Although not the oldest of her siblings, Lydia took on the role of parent and managed the household. Her father had been a successful merchant and had left a healthy inheritance. Lydia’s older sister, Lucy, married a merchant and bore him two children before he abandoned her and left town, having spent a good portion of the Jackson family’s fortune. Lydia took Lucy and her two children in and they managed as best they could. She also helped raise her younger brother, Charles Thomas Jackson, who would become a famous physician.

Lydia was known for her intelligence and remarkable grace of movement.[1] She questioned the orthodoxy of the Unitarian church and was eager to discuss differing religious and philosophical views. On this particular day, she was eager to hear a lecture from a like-minded man, a speaker who was quickly becoming something of a celebrity in Massachusetts for his eloquence and profound ideas.

She had heard him speak before, once, in Boston. At the time, years before, he was still a young minister, had not yet resigned due to his discomfort with orthodoxy, had not yet decided to dedicate his life to lecturing and speaking his mind. While she was inspired by his artful speaking abilities, she best remembered him for his long neck.[2] And she never expected to see him again.

Now, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 30 years old, was engaged in a lecture tour around Massachusetts. He had kicked off this new career as a public speaker and writer just a few months earlier in November 1833 with a lecture on natural history (some ideas from this talk would form the basis of his revolutionary first book, Nature, published in 1836). For the past month or so, he had been staying in New Bedford, lecturing and hearing others lecture. A close friend, another kindred soul, George Partridge Bradford (of Pilgrim stock and likely living in Plymouth at the time) persuaded him to make a trip to Plymouth during the winter of 1834.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), c. 1846

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), c. 1846

Emerson had traveled to the Pilgrim town as something of a sightseer in the first week of February 1834. “I have been to Plymouth and stood on the Rock,” he wrote in his journal back in New Bedford on February 7, “and felt that it was grown more important by the growth of this nation in the minutes that I stood there. But Barnabas Hedge ought not — no man ought—to own the rock of Plymouth.”[3] At that time the base of Plymouth Rock was embedded in Hedge’s Wharf and indeed owned by Hedge.

It was just weeks later that George Bradford was imploring Emerson to come back to Plymouth, this time to give a lecture or two. Emerson wrote in his journal on February 21, “George P. Bradford says that he is so well understood at Plymouth that he can act naturally without being reckoned absurd. That is a valid reason for going there.”[4]

George P. Bradford not only wanted to introduce this great mind to Plymouth. He also, apparently, had a secondary motive. Bradford knew Emerson well. He also knew Miss Lydia Jackson, having been her instructor in German. It was Bradford who got her reading Goethe, an inspirational source for so many Transcendentalists and free thinkers at that time. Bradford apparently saw in Lydia a mind and spirit so very like Emerson’s. Emerson was a widower, his first wife having passed three years before in February 1831. Miss Jackson, as unfair as the antiquated label may have been, was on the brink of being considered an old maid. Bradford would introduce them.

Emerson’s first lecture in Plymouth took place on or about March 10, 1834. According to one Plymouth historian, the venue was Pilgrim Hall, a relatively new and impressive building constructed by the Pilgrim Society in 1824. The Hall was used by the Society for meetings and lectures and has since evolved into Pilgrim Hall Museum, housing the nation’s largest collection of Pilgrim artifacts. William T. Davis wrote, in his Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian:

“I have a distinct recollection of the first time I ever saw Mr. Emerson, and I have no doubt that it was the first time he ever visited Plymouth. It was, I feel sure, in 1833 [Davis was one year off on the date], soon after he left the pulpit of the Second Unitarian church in Boston and after he had begun his career as a lecturer…At the time referred to he lectured in Pilgrim Hall on Socrates…I believe that I am justified in assuming that on that visit he first saw his future wife. I remember well his appearance and manners on the lecture platform, and as a boy of eleven years I thought him oracular and dull.”[5]

The boyhood recollection is a bit hazy. Other historians have placed the lecture at Plymouth’s First Parish Church and on a different topic. But Davis is correct that on this occasion Emerson first saw Lydia Jackson. Almost a year later, Emerson would reminisce about the moment in his journal,

“It happened once that a youth and a maid beheld each other in a public assembly for the first time. The youth gazed with great delight upon the beautiful face until he caught the maiden’s eye. She presently became aware of his attention, and something like correspondence immediately takes place. The maid depressed her eyes that the man might gaze upon her face. Then the man looked away, that the maiden might gratify her curiosity. Presently their eyes met in a full, searching, front, not to be mistaken glance. It is wonderful how much it made them acquainted.”[6]

The two had a chance to get better acquainted, this time with words, at a social event following the lecture. Though the two were quite taken with one another, not much seems to have happened in terms of courtship during 1834. But that changed in January 1835 when the two began exchanging warm and affectionate letters. On January 13, 1835, Emerson wrote in his journal, “It is a great happiness when two good minds meet, both cultivated and with such difference of learning as to excite each the other’s curiosity, and such similarity as to understand each other’s allusions in the Touch-and-go of conversation. They make each other strong and confident…”[7]

Lidian Jackson Emerson and son Edward Waldo Emerson, c. 1850.

Lidian Jackson Emerson and son Edward Waldo Emerson, c. 1850.

About the same time, Lydia experienced a dramatic vision in the Winslow House. She had become interested (as many were at that time) in the phenomena of séances and clairvoyance. One January day in 1835, she was walking up the stairs of the Winslow House and had a vision of herself being escorted down in a bridal dress by Emerson. The moment played out vividly before her and she could even see the smile on Emerson’s face. When the vision faded, she almost laughed and said aloud to herself, “I don’t deserve this.”[8]

On January 24, 1835, Emerson wrote a letter proposing marriage. He apologized for not doing so in person, but he trusted his writing better than anything he might say aloud. “I am rejoiced,” he wrote, “in my Reason as well as in my Understanding by finding an earnest and noble mind whose presence quickens in mine all that is good and shames and repels me from my own weaknesses. Can I resist the impulse to beseech you to love me?…I am persuaded that I address one so in love with what I love…that an affection founded on such a basis cannot alter…Say to me therefore anything but no.”[9]

Delighted and nervous, Lydia composed a response. Then decided not to send it and asked him to come to Plymouth so that she could read it to him in person. Emerson spent January 30, 1835 with her and sat in the parlor of the Winslow House while she expressed her concerns. Although she did not turn him down, she felt she might not make a good wife and feared that becoming Mrs. Emerson would too dramatically alter her life (and it would…Emerson would even persuade her to change her name to the more Romantic “Lidian”). Emerson assured her of his feelings, reminded her of what he had written in his letter, and the two agreed to become engaged.[10]

They were married on September 14, 1835, in the parlor of the Winslow House. When Lydia descended the stairs, Emerson met her part way, and they proceeded together, just as she had envisioned months earlier.

[1] Samuel A. Schreiner, The Concord Quartet: Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and the Friendship That Freed the American Mind, [2010], p. 29
[2]Schreiner, p. 30
[3] Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson: with annotations, Volume 3, [1910], p. 255
[4] Journals, p. 262
[5] William T. Davis, Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian, [1906], p. 25
[6] Journals, p. 436
[7] Journals, p. 440
[8] Schreiner, p. 32
[9] Emerson quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, [1995], p. 192
[10] Schreiner, p. 31

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

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