Free and Accepted Masons
Getting to Know Benjamin Brown French By Bro. David Stang
On Wednesday, August 13, 1828 when Benjamin Brown French was 28 years old he set out from his home in Chester, New Hampshire for Boston with his wife Elizabeth, who was then 23 years old. A brief summary of that trip was the first entry in his journal. On Monday, August 8, 1870, three days before he died at his home in Washington, DC he made his last entry in his journal, stating in part, “My disease is congestion of the lungs, and at times I am almost suffocated, my breathing is so labored. My nights are dreadful, as I can sleep but little. This has been the best day I have had since I was first taken. My breathing has been easy and natural, and I have had some refreshing sleep.”
During the 43 years between this first and last contribution B. B. French penned over 3,700 pages of journal entries. Dividing that number of pages by 43 years, his literary production in his journal alone amounted to about 90 pages a year. That was pretty consistent performance considering the fact that he often missed several days to several weeks at a time making new entries in his journal and once for 27 months in one continuous dry stretch which extended between 1829 and 1831.
Donald B. Cole, Prof. of History Emeritus at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and John J. McDonough, Manuscript Historian in the Library of Congress jointly edited French’s 3,700 pages of journal entries by deleting 3,075 pages of French’s original text to produce a 625 page book entitled, BENJAMIN BROWN FRENCH, Witness to the Young Republic – A Yankee’s Journal, 1828 – 1870, published in 1989 by the University Press of New England. It is from this source alone that I have selected information about B.B. French. This book is a reader’s delight because the two editors comprehensively footnoted every individual mentioned in the book by identifying the person’s name, occupation and blood, business, or relationship, if any, to French. These two scholarly editors have also produced a 40 page index, a rich bibliography, chronology of French’s life, maps, genealogical charts, and an extensive initial introduction as well as a two-page introduction to each of the ten major sections of the book.
The title of this paper, as you might recall, is “Getting to Know Benjamin Brown French.” There are two ways I have chosen to introduce you to the man after whom our Lodge was named, notwithstanding his modest request that the then new Lodge not be named after him. The first way, Part I, includes a biographical sketch and a few general comments about his character, habits, hobbies and values. This will give you a general framework in which to view the life of BBF. But if you really want to get to know him like you know some of your best friends the most appropriate way to achieve that objective is to either listen to what he wrote or to read the entire book yourself. In Part II I have presented a selection of his quotations in which he has described an important event, characterized an individual he had closely observed through a multitude of conversations with that person, stated his strong opinion – pro or con – regarding a given topic or living personality, or just plainly stated his point of view about an issue that he considered significant.
One short additional note: his portrait on the left side of the front cover with his mutton chop sideburns is from an original painting by Constantino Brumidi, an Italian painter BBF commissioned or oversaw in his capacity of Commissioner of Public Buildings to paint portraits of historically famous American statesmen to be hung in the US Capitol. He was 65 years of age when that portrait was painted. The photograph on the right side of the front cover was taken a year earlier when French was all decked out in his Masonic regalia.
It is my hope that after you learn about the life of the B.B. French and hear or read his actual words you will grow as fond of him as I have become over the past few months while reading and reflecting on each line of the 625 page condensation of his 3,700 page journal. I really feel I have gotten to know this amazing man and it actually caused me considerable sorrow when reading page 613 I came to realize that in 12 more pages my new and cherished friend was soon going to be dead. It was indeed a privilege to be able to listen to him tell me so many things he regarded noteworthy during the last 43 years of his 70 year life. I’m almost sorry that I didn’t take the time to visit the Library of Congress to read the whole 3,700 page manuscript of his journals or visit our Grand Lodge and the House of the Temple library to search for additional source material, or even dig into the book’s bibliography. If I were that gung ho I could easily spend the rest of my life researching and writing about this incredible human being after whom our Lodge has been fittingly named.
To set the historical context for his era, George Washington took his first oath of Presidential Office only 11 years prior to the birth of Benjamin Brown French on September 4, 1800. While Ben was merely a year old Thomas Jefferson became our third President. John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams – our second President – became our sixth American President and after leaving the White House he ran in 1830 for Congress representing Massachusetts and remained a US Congressman for 17 years. In fact, John Quincy Adams served as a mentor to BBF beginning when he first moved to Washington at age 33 and was then employed as a clerk in the US House of Representatives. Accordingly, as the editors of BBF’s journal declared, he was indeed “a witness to the Young Republic” as can easily be detected by reading his journal.
Before we explore his 37 year career in Washington let’s consider our founder’s familial origins. His family structure and values, as well as those of his two wives, resulted in inculcating within Benjamin a very strong feeling of family connectedness, deep friendships and intense loyalty. How this all came to pass and how it all fit together can best be understood by delving into family structure specifics. We explore that issue in the next three paragraphs.
BBF’s father, Daniel French, (1769 – 1840), a well to do lawyer who owned the biggest house in Chester, New Hampshire, had three consecutive wives: Mercy Brown, (Ben’s mother), who died when Ben was two years old; Betsy Flagg who died when Ben was 12, and Sarah Flagg Bell, Betsy’s younger sister, who died eight years after BBF’s death. During that era the death of a wife at childbirth, or from infectious diseases or accidents was quite commonplace. Therefore, remarriage was usually a practical necessity. Infant deaths were also quite frequent. Daniel French sired 11 children over a period of 24 years spanning his marriage to his three wives. As a direct result of his father’s noteworthy virility Ben was blessed with the company of three half-brothers and seven half-sisters.
Momentarily jumping ahead a few years to when his legal education was occurring in his father’s law office in Chester, New Hampshire Benjamin’s chief distraction at that time was a very beautiful and intelligent young 19-year-old girl named Elizabeth Richardson (later to marry Ben) whose father, William will M. Richardson (1774 – 1838), was Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court. Benjamin’s younger half-brother, Henry, married Elizabeth’s younger sister, Anne.
Peter Brady, a contemporary of Messrs. Daniel French and William Richardson, had two wives. With his first wife Anne he fathered two daughters: Margaret, who married BBF’s younger half-brother Edmund and her younger sister, Mary Ellen, who became BBF’s second wife after his first wife, Elizabeth, died. She was 31 years younger than B.B. French. Peter Brady’s second wife, Sarah, gave birth to Sarita, Mary Ellen’s half-sister who eventually came to live with Benjamin and Mary Ellen French in their Washington, DC residence at 37 East Capitol Street. Some years later BBF was able to procure a government job for his half-brother Edmund who moved with his wife Margaret to Washington.
The purpose of explaining these somewhat complicated family connections is to demonstrate that BBF was devoted to family – not only to his own two wives and two sons – but to the whole network of his siblings, their spouses, parents and children and also to close friends. From the time of his arrival in Washington in 1833 until just before he died BBF would travel to New Hampshire and Massachusetts each summer to visit his extended family and friends in addition to hosting their individual visits to Washington where they would stay in his East Capitol Street residence which Ben and Elizabeth had moved into in 1842. When BBF first moved to Washington, his wife Elizabeth remained with her husband’s family living in Chester, New Hampshire. The next year she joined her husband in Washington where they lived in local downtown boarding houses in which several members of Congress and local businessman also resided. Benjamin’s and his wife Elizabeth’s two sons were named Francis, who was born in 1837 and Benjamin, Jr., born in 1845. Francis was BBF’s favorite son, who was initiated into the Knights Templar by his father and ended up a very successful lawyer in New York, while young Ben, Jr. was a miserable failure and the cause of much grief to his father since he was a small child.
We return now to New Hampshire when, between the ages of 17 and 19, BBF was studying law with his father in Chester. Back then there were no law schools. Hence, one learned about lawyering through taking tutelage from a lawyer by working in his law office. Being taught by his dad was emotionally taxing for Benjamin. Not feeling very comfortable under his demanding father’s thumb Ben, as a 19-year-old, ran away to Boston to join the US Army. Two months later his father learned that Ben was serving in the Army on an island in Boston Harbor and traveled there to insist upon his son’s return to Chester in order to continue his legal education. At that time Ben must have felt much more comfortable spending time with his sweetheart Elizabeth Richardson than with his pain causing father. So in 1825 Ben eloped with Elizabeth and when their parents found out they were appalled. It took each set of parents some time before they were able to welcome the young married couple back into the family.
Desiring to put distance between themselves and parental harangues, later in 1825 Ben and Elizabeth moved to Sutton, New Hampshire for two years where Ben, having been admitted to law practice, opened his own law office and also joined the New Hampshire militia, where he eventually attained the rank of major. After being admitted to the New Hampshire Bar in 1827 he and Elizabeth moved to Newport, New Hampshire where he became Clerk of the Courts for Sullivan County. The next year BBF became assistant clerk to the New Hampshire Senate. Concomitantly he served for four years as editor and proprietor of the New Hampshire Speculator, during which time he wrote numerous articles and news stories. It was during this time that Benjamin acquired a lifelong passion for writing.
In 1831, while still editor, he was selected to represent the town of Newport in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. By then he had abandoned his family’s Federalist-Whig party and become a Jacksonian Democrat, technically called the Democratic Republican party, but Democrat for short. While serving in the Legislature BBF befriended Franklin Pierce, who was four years younger than he and who had also been admitted to the bar in 1927 and additionally elected to serve in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Franklin rose through the political ranks further and faster than did his friend B.B. French. Pierce too moved to Washington in 1833 to serve as a member of the US House of Representatives and 20 years later was sworn in as President of the United States. When he was elected President Pierce became a thorn in his friend Benjamin’s side. This matter is discussed in Part II.
While still living in New Hampshire, BBF in 1833 served on the committee which met with President Andrew Jackson during the latter’s visit to Boston. Excited by the glitter of personally conversing with President Jackson and by his political philosophy which favored returning to earlier American Revolutionary values and avoiding succession, Ben decided later that year to move to Washington to seek his fortune at the national seat of government.