I’m posting this on behalf of Michael Fiorelli. Last week he completed a summer archival internship at HSP, and we thank him for all his hard work. Cary.
I am a History Graduate Student at Villanova University and for the past two months I have been processing the Jasper Yeates papers (Collection 740) at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I transferred the papers to acid free folders, rehoused them in legal sized boxes, and created a new finding aid with Archivist Toolkit. This internship was a good opportunity to get practical experience in a related field, and since my mind is usually stuck in the Civil War, processing this collection was a nice change of pace for me. It was hard to resist reading many of the documents in depth, and I wanted to share some of my observations on the values of the collection.
Yeates (1745-1817) was a prominent lawyer in Lancaster when he married Sarah Burd in 1767. After a prestigious law career, he became a state Supreme Court Justice in 1791 until his death in 1817. The collection includes his business papers and personal correspondence, but the bulk of the collection consists of his legal papers, which include the court cases he worked on as a lawyer and later as a Supreme Court Justice. While these documents will be most useful to researchers, the correspondence during the 1760’s to the 1790’s will probably interest the public the most. The collection truly demonstrates the old saying that all history is local history, as Yeates was affected by the political issues of his time just as much as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. He took time out of his law practice to perform many public functions during the Revolutionary War, most notably by serving as the Chairman of the Lancaster Committee of Correspondence that communicated with the second Continental Congress. He also became Captain of the Lancaster militia under Colonel Matthias Slough, but his militia duties were interrupted the following year when the Continental Congress appointed him to a Commission of Indian Affairs to negotiate a treaty with the Delaware Indians at Fort Pitt. Some of the more interesting items concerning the Commission are a series of letters to Pennsylvania political figures Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson. While Wilson is not as well known today, he was a delegate to the Continental Congress who would also play a vital role at the Constitutional Convention and serve as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Among the topics discussed in the letters are Yeates’ acceptance of the position and his concerns over an Indian war breaking out.
But for the rest of this blog post I would like to focus on the quirks of the collection that will not find their way to the finding aid. If there is one thing historians have a knack for, it is recognizing value in the mundane. In a letter dated November 26, 1765, Richard Peters Jr., a future delegate to the Continental Congress, recounted a conversation with other friends about the local reaction to the controversial Stamp Act. One of my personal favorite tidbits was Peters’ lamentation that his debate did not amount to much because a participant identified as Mr. Ross was too drunk to contribute to the discussion and a Mr. Galloway vehemently disagreed with the protests against the controversial act. The image of people getting drunk at such a time does not quite jive with our impressions of the Revolutionary War era! My best discovery, however, was when I found drawings of faces on court case documents. We all have some guilty memories of doodling in our notebooks when we should have been doing something important, and apparently people in the eighteenth century were not immune to this impulse either!
These seemingly insignificant details in the letters can tell us about the people who wrote them and how much we have in common with the past. Given the polarized political atmosphere and the difficult economic times we are in, a random letter by Edward Burd to his sister Sarah struck a chord with me, because he lamented the “tenpenny cuts” to the postal service by that “worthless politician” Benjamin Franklin. Ben Franklin a “worthless politician?” I wonder if Burd would retract that statement if he were alive today!
While the general sentiment toward politicians and the post office have not changed much since the eighteenth century, we are obviously different in many ways. For one thing, if the founders saw my penmanship they would think I had the mental capacity of a three year old, but people in the eighteenth century also seemed to be more openly affectionate in their letters than we are today. The correspondence contains many letters from Jasper Yeates to Sarah, but I would like to quote a letter from Richard Peters in which he wrote: “I beg your pardon for not answering your letter… don’t think, however, that because I am lazy in answering I am not fond of receiving your letters.” Just imagine a man in this day and age telling his best friend: “don’t think that just because I don’t always respond to your texts that I am not fond of receiving them.” Perhaps the age of instant communication has eliminated the need for such reminders (clicking the “like” button on facebook does not seem to compare).
I hope future researchers find as much value in the Jasper Yeates collection as I did. I’ve enjoyed my experiences at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The HSP unites people of diverse backgrounds in a common mission, and there is much that one can learn from the staff. I would like to thank them for making this a great experience.