Monday, July 2, 2012
July 2, 2012: Newton’s Histories, Part 1
[If you live in the Boston area, you could do a lot worse, this 4th of July week or for any summer daytrip, than visiting Newton’s Jackson Homestead and Museum. For this week’s blog series I’ll be highlighting some of the many interesting stories and exhibits included in that small but compelling space.]
On the interesting and inspiring man whose life and legacy the Museum most fully commemorates.
William Jackson didn’t build the home in which the Museum is now situated—that would be Edward, who was one of the first 17th century English settlers in the area and who bought the (then) Cambridge land and build the Homestead not long after his immigration—but it’s his and his wife Mary’s youthful portraits that greet visitors in the Museum’s lobby and first exhibit room, and for good reason; even a brief description of William’s life reflects just how much of an early 19th century Renaissance Man he was: selectman and school board member and state representative and U.S. Congressman; founder of the Newton Temperance Society and secretary of the Newton Female Academy; first President of the Newton Savings Bank; chandler and manufacturer and railroad advocate; abolitionist and Underground Railroad participant and founder of the Liberty Party.
Each of those aspects of his biography is worth extended attention (and the Museum does a good job including all of them), but I was especially struck by why I would call a defining characteristic underlying many of them: Jackson’s willingness to take unpopular, or at least radical and controversial, stands in support of what he believed. That’s of course deeply relevant to his abolitionist efforts—we tend to think of Massachusetts as full of abolionists, but the story of how William Lloyd Garrison was dragged through the streets of mid-1830s Boston, which the Museum likewise highlighted, tells a different and more accurate story about how radical that position was. But it’s just as true of his early and impassioned advocacy for railroads; in the 1820s, a period when that new innovation was far from universally acclaimed, perhaps especially not among established families like the Jacksons, William consistently argued for its possibilities, its benefits to all his fellow New Englanders and Americans. And from what I can tell, his voice and efforts were instrumental in helping bring the railroad to Newton and extend it throughout the state and region.
That’s one way to highlight William’s influence and legacy, looking at the issues with which he was involved. But I was also struck, thanks to the Museums multi-generational storytelling, by how much the subsequent generations, and particularly William’s daughters Ellen, Caroline, and Cornelia, carried his legacy forward. Cornelia helped found Newton’s Santa Claus Agency, a unique and impressive philanthropic organization, and published The Poems of the Jackson Homestead (1902); Caroline served as the city’s first assistant librarian, when the library became public in 1878; and Ellen especially extended both William’s and the Homestead’s legacies, compiling the Annals from the Old Homestead and serving for decades as president of the post-bellum Freedmen’s Aid Society. These impressive women don’t need William’s life to validate their own achievements and efforts—but they do, I believe, reflect just how much the family continued to embody William’s ideals, and some of the best of what Newton, Massachusetts, and 19th century America could be.
Next Museum story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?