~ An Historical Perspective of "Lord" Timothy Dexter by Ben Swartz
Throughout the fabric of this vision, simply iouch upon any manifest dragonfly to link to further "contexture..".
[The following "contexture" is (sup)plied by Ben Swartz of Newburyport, Massachusetts --- a student of history and definitely one of today's generations of the Knowing Ones. Published (unaltered) with his permission, the original paper was written during the spring 2008 semester at Massachusetts State College (Westfield). All rights are reserved by the author.]
Influential names spring from influential cities. From the bright centers of the world our heroes are conceived, raised and born. Upstanding men. Great men. They are the forefathers of freedom, the moral and just patriarchs of a prosperous institution. They are the fiber of folklore, immortals steeped in myth and legend. Thoughtful rebels. Mavericks who managed to bend the traditional rules and conventions of society without destroying them. Intellectual anomalies blessed with awe-inspiring wisdom, boundless energy, and unparalleled amounts of raw, unrestrained passion. Idealistic yet practical, they are the stones into which names are etched. They are the builders of our national identity; placed high atop a pedestal that from time to time is tilted, but never toppled. Their names and their likeness are common knowledge. Their actions and their lessons, prominently inscribed testaments to greatness and ingenuity passed down through the generations, are absorbed early, and committed to memory eternally.
It is our accepted American heroes I am referring to in the opening passage. They are the statue figures we have known since early childhood, and whose shadow we will live in throughout our lives. They are the esteemed and inspirational pillars equal opportunity, the emulated and admirable standard bearers of democracy. Popular opinion has judged them to be the embodiment of our national values, and, for better or worse, they set the standard to which we as Americans are still held. Our heroes in question have been portrayed and preserved on the historical canvas as honest, determined, self-made originals of unshakeable faith and composure. They never complained when problems arose. Buoyed by a lack of fatalism, these resourceful individuals welcomed hardships and obstacles as an opportunity to put their creativity to work. No one rested until the task at hand was complete, and from that tireless effort, prosperity blossomed. Their story is held up as the archetypical American model for success that we have long
been encouraged to follow. We are lead to believe that with a cool head and a little elbow grease, anything in our wildest dreams is attainable. I have a great deal of respect for many of our venerable leaders and visionaries, and do not wish disrespect or diminish their legacy, or trample on the success and aspirations of past, present and future Americans. I do, however, take exception to the narrow, judgmental and inequitable standards we use to define our heroes, and, consequently, our character.
As one would expect from a country that sprang from an organized rebellion, America prides its self on championing the cause of self-expression and non-conformity. Americans are encouraged to think for themselves, share their opinions and celebrate their individuality. No voice will be muted; no person subject to exclusion, and no idea will be suppressed. There is, however, a certain framework an individual must work in that borders on hypocrisy. Like much of the world, America operates from a firmly entrenched establishment. This establishment is responsible for defining and maintaining the social codes, mores and norms of society. The American establishment encourages individuality, but only so long as you stay within the range of what is considered socially acceptable. Deviation from those boundaries is not generally tolerated, and will result in being branded a traitor, a radical and an outcast. The establishment typically appeals to the lowest common denominator, which ensures that only the most innocuous people and ideas will gain popular attention and acceptance. It is acceptable to be a rebel or an eccentric only if it does not cause offense to the traditional order society. This mindset has an enormous influence on contemporary thought and action, as well as on how we view history.
If we judge by our traditionally accepted history, it would appear that only the most noble and powerful individuals had any influence on society. The establishment
pretends to appreciate the contributions of the misfits and outsiders of the world, but persists in writing off those unaffected, free-spirited individuals as nothing more than inconsequential fodder for the freaks, and relegates them to the isolated ghetto of novelty and kitsch. The eccentrics and the oddballs cannot be found even on the bottom of the historical totem pole. Instead, they are left to languish beneath mainstream consciousness as obscure sunken treasure longing to be unearthed from the lonesome underworld of the unappreciated and the misunderstood.
The notion of what is normal and what is unusual is the deciding factor that elevates some to heroic status and damns others to obscurity. The notable giants of American history fall into the former. These are the Washingtons, Franklins, Jeffersons and others of that ilk. They are more than deserving of our praise and admiration, but plenty has been said and written about them already. For our purposes, the attention will be turned to the other side of the coin, to the aforementioned lonesome underworld, and we shall take into account the decidedly strange and unorthodox path of one highly unusual Eighteenth Century character: the eccentric, self-styled, “Lord” Timothy Dexter. Little known outside of Newburyport, Massachusetts, this rare find cut quite the figure in his time, and remains a cult legend in his adopted hometown to the present day. Only two biographies have been written about him, and he receives scant mention elsewhere. A wealthy entrepreneur who rose from poverty, he was despised by his more conventional and closed-minded contemporaries who considered him nothing more than a quirky, dimwitted (albeit, tremendously fortunate), upstart, refused to associate with him, and frequently tried to ruin him. In the present, he is viewed more favorably, but only as a tongue in cheek, cause-célèbre of the elite, who give him more of a condescending pat on the head than genuine respect.
Dexter’s lack of critical respect past and present stems from the unconventional manner in which he achieved his wealth, his perceived intellectual shortcomings and his downright bizarre nature. Newburyport natives such as myself have heard the tales of his eccentricities from an early age: the drunkard who banished his wife from their home for not crying hard enough at his mock funeral. The man who offered out of his own pocket to pave stately High Street, but pulled out when they refused to rename the road in his honor. The outlandish fellow who kept a caged tiger as a house pet, proclaimed himself “the greatest philosopher in the western world,” employed his own poet laureate, wrote a book containing countless spelling errors and no punctuation marks, and above all, built the gaudiest, most imposing mansion in the city and, to further offend the sensibilities of the elite, adorned its perimeter with statues of prominent contemporaries-himself included. To the citizens of Newburyport, the exploits of “Lord” Timothy Dexter are common knowledge, and we are delighted to recount them to unfamiliar newcomers. They are easy to laugh about, but his case present far more serious insights into the values of American society, and the standards by which we measure our heroes and ourselves.
On paper, Timothy Dexter appears to be the prototypical American success story. Born in Malden, Massachusetts on January 22, 1747 to “poor but honest parents,”1 he received little formal education, and worked on a local farm until the age of fifteen, when he was sent to Charlestown, and later Boston to apprentice in the leather dressing industry2. In 1769, after seven years of backbreaking labor “shouldering reeking hides and staining his hands with tannin,”3 he completed his apprenticeship and set out to start a new life and a practice of his own. For reasons lost to history, he decided to venture thirty miles north to the bustling, rising town of Newburyport, arriving with only eight
dollars in his pocket4. He was likely drawn to the rising economic status of the town, which was dominated by mills and shipyards at the time of his arrival, and would soon be bolstered further by privateering during the American Revolution5. In 1770, after only a year in town, he married a relatively wealthy widow named Elizabeth Frothingham. She had four children from her previous marriage, and two more were added in the coming years. Whatever supposed wealth his wife possessed was not enough to support such a large family alone. To further provide for them, Dexter maintained his trade as a leather dresser, working on gloves and leather breeches in the basement of their home until he was able to open a shop on the banks of the Merrimack River, the commercial hub of the town6. He built a solid business and worked steadily through the war, but remained fixed among the ranks of the numerous common laborers whose shops dotted the town. It was not until after the war that his fortunes would take a dramatic turn upwards.
Post-war economic conditions in Newburyport were terrible. The end of privateering left many former wealthy merchants in ruins. To add further insult to injury, the value of continental paper currency had fallen so drastically that it was virtually useless and could be bought in large amounts if an individual had any cash. The practice of purchasing this devalued currency was reserved mainly for scions of the upper class such as John Hancock and Thomas Russell, who could afford to throw their money at such possible failures.7 Taking a page from these prominent individuals (as well as some horrible advice from Newburyport merchants who delighted in witnessing the failure of their social inferiors), Dexter, who had saved “a thousand or two dollars”, took part in this seemingly futile practice.8 To the shock of nearly everybody involved, the value of the currency skyrocketed once Alexander Hamilton’s Funding system was instituted at the end of the 1780s.9 Dexter suddenly found himself a considerably wealthy man.
This accidental way of making money would become his trademark. He was as successful a businessman as any, but to his peers, Dexter merely stumbled into every success by sheer dumb luck. By 1792, he owned two ships, The Mehitabel and The Congress, and had become a merchant. The same merchants who had given him advice on buying continental currency (and were quite likely jealous and angry about it), gave him more cynical advice and suggested that he send warming pans and mittens to the West Indies. How anyone could succeed in selling warming pans and mitten to a tropical climate is beyond comprehension, but to the horror of the Newburyport elite, Dexter did so triumphantly. Warming pans found use in the molasses industry, and the captain of Dexter’s ship sold the mittens to another vessel headed for the Baltic. Cats and bibles were also sold in West Indies, increasing his fortune substantially.10 With no one else engaging his such ridiculous but successful trade, the market was Dexter’s alone.
Like anyone who worked their way from the bottom to the top, Dexter wanted to fit in with his new peers and did everything he could to assume the role of a wealthy New England aristocrat. He bought all the right furniture, clothes, wine and finally a suitable home, but to no avail. The Newburyport elite could not tolerate the manner in which he came into money, or his mouth, which often ran afoul.11 To them, Dexter had not made his fortune in an honest fashion. True, luck was involved, but that is no reason to discount his accomplishments. Luck is always a factor in business (though not usually to the degree it was with Dexter). Simply being in the right place at the right time is an oft-traveled route to success, and Dexter maximized this principle to the fullest extent of its capabilities.
Dexter is much akin to a modern day lottery winner. They too come into wealth on the strength of luck, but unlike Dexter, they are given the benefit of being treated as a
feel-good, human-interest story. People are generally happy for these mostly middle to lower middle class winners who no longer have to work long hours and struggle to pay their bills. Dexter falls into the same class of people. He was a leather dresser for twenty years before he struck gold with his investments and trades, but this fact was overlooked in his time and ours. His poor treatment at the hands of the established elite may have been a factor in his increasingly outlandish behavior in his later years. If they would not accept him, he would go out of his way to offend them. Money can bring out strange things in people and cause them to go over the top (especially if they started with little), and this is surely a factor in Dexter’s eccentricity, but above all, the massive chip on his shoulder is what really appears to have tipped him off.
Dexter’s failure to achieve American hero status lies squarely in his eccentricity. Yes, Ben Franklin was somewhat of an eccentric himself, but he was also one of the most brilliant minds this country has ever produced, and he was also not offensive in the way that Dexter was. In reality, Franklin and Dexter are similar in their beginnings. Both former apprentices who left home to practice their trade, and accumulated their wealth and made their names in their own unique way. Of course, Franklin made his original fortune through his trade, not by luck at a later date, rendering him more worthy of fortune. They were also both authors of highly original and interesting material. The difference here, however, is where Franklin’s writing was original in its intelligent humor and wit, Dexter’s work is considered original for being so blatantly flawed. He never learned the rules of grammar or spelling, making his book, A Pickle For The Knowing Ones Or Plain Truths In A Homespun Dress, a rambling, thorough deconstruction of the English language. All rules of etiquette are so viciously flayed that it is practically unreadable. The average person would dismiss his work as worthless garbage. The“knowing ones” Dexter refers to in the title, however, are able to see the beauty of his “pickle.” Present day counter culture, having embraced similarly disastrous, unpretentious musings like the off key, out of tune, yet wonderfully charming and innocent music of The Shaggs (just as Dexter never learned grammar, the Wiggin sisters never learned theory), would instantly fall in love with Timothy Dexter’s neglected contribution American literature, and the man in general.
1 John P. Marquand, Timothy Dexter Revisited (Boston: Little Brown, 1960), 11
7 Samuel Knapp, The Life of Lord Timothy Dexter, With sketches of The Eccentric Characters That Composed His Associates (Boston: J.E. Tilton and Company, 1858), 14
11 Marquand, 69, 70-71, 86
© 2008 Ben Swartz ~ all rights reserved