Dexter's Contexture ~ The Array of Threads that Weave
the Fabric of this Vision ~ Homespun by the Darning Needle
Home ~ Splenetically Speaking
On July 3, 1798 --- five years after his magnanimous Deer Island Independence Day Speech in which Dexter rhapsodized about America's shores welcoming poor and oppressed brothers and sisters of the world --- Timothy Dexter posted a less tolerant notice in the columns of the local paper. It read:
”Take Notice --- I inform Men, Women, and Children not to trouble me with their pretended friendship in coming to beg my earnings in no shape whatever --- nor to get my Fruit, for I have none to give away, and if they steal it they must suffer by the Law. Furthermore I mean to sift all Rogues and Vagabonds in and about Newburyport, for it is not a time to let lazy people live in their idleness: --- if they are poor, let them go to work, or they must be sent to some proper place --- France or Guinea.
“A well-wisher T. Dexter
“N. B. Please to understand me right --- a few good friends that will come to see me or the old lady out of friendship --- not for what they can get --- my heart is with them --- they are welcome --- come with true love with good hearts.
“I don’t swear, I affirm, I will not pay any more towards the Ship, as long as you Newburyport folks keep those black thieves on the back of the town, stealing my fence and my neighbors’ both winter and summer. I mean to try to sell my House and Horses and Carriages and household Furniture at a moderate price. Payment made easy.
Now scarcely did this printed admonition begin to circulate around the Waterside, when the following couplet surfaced. For the local Chorus, its melody and lyrics became a part of the dulcet harmony and counterpoint that composed (and superimposed) his Lordship’s legacy in this seaport town and beyond.
Attend, ye miscreants far and near ---
But please to understand
So secretly delighted with this note of notoriety was Dexter said to be that this ballad might have been one of the very arrangements of “sum gud songs” he planned to collect in his tomb --- that "Wonder of Wonders" atop which sat “The Tempel of Reason” --- twelve feet square, eleven feet high, with one hundred and fifty-eight squares of glass. For at this point in time the splenetic, gouty Lord Tim was planning to meet his “end of state” in such splendor that planning for this (re)splendent peradventure was itself an uplifting preoccupation.
Although this anecdote is a digression from the account of Dexter's many charitable works, the transgression provides an excellent segue for discussion. Observe that there are few amongst us dwellers in our own glass Temples of Reason who can ourselves throw stones --- Who have never felt angered by some injustice, or scorned when betrayed by friends or acquaintances, or irate when personal property is damaged. And is it not more civil a retaliation to cast “words” than “sticks and stones” … save one impolitic word in “partickler.”
So, while there is a slight hesitation on the part of the Knowing Ones to impart this tale, neither censor nor censure seems appropriate --- and further illumination provides better focus and perspective. That the miscreants are noted as “blacks” (Afro-American or West Indian) is immaterial to the content and intent of his complaint. Dexter had equally reviled the perpetrators of such mischief when living at the Tracy House in a letter to the press equally vituperative. Should the Knowing Ones have redacted reference to “race” although its use was an identifying adjective rather than an invective --- in the same way Dexter claimed to know the offenders during the Tracy House capers, which were also acts of property damage and thievery?
In their day, one can imagine Dexter and Jonathan Plummer logically discussing these very sociological conditions --- perspectives which the latter so eloquently relates in his broadside entitled, "Dying Confession of POMP, A NEGRO MAN, who was executed at IPSWICH, on the 6th August, 1795, For Murdering Capt. CHARLES FURBUSH, of Andover, taken from the mouth of the Prisoner, penned BY JONATHAN PLUMMER, JUN."
A related discussion ensued during the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’ End of the Millennium program that convened from September through November 2001 at the Library’s Tracy House (the very quarters that Lord Tim held many a junto with the Knowing Ones). The second book in the series was “The End of Racism: The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s ‘Racial’ Crisis” © 1997 --- written by Orlando Patterson, a Jamaican-born scholar who offered a provocative analysis of the situation of people of African descent in the United States today. While this anecdote emerged during the familiar commerce of ideas, there was not one person of color in the discussion group to gauge reaction. However, the Knowing Ones had earlier engaged a vocal community activist of Jamaican heritage on the subject, so the substance of that conversation and observation was related to the group.
During the junto, it was posed that today, segregation of minorities is primarily defined by economics and by default, education. Granted, in some circles there remains element of racial bias, but essentially, the criteria for segregation and “prejudice” is now an issue of “class”. One can draw a parallel to societal prejudices of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century in Newburyport.
[For example, another “titled” personage in local history was one “Emperor” Francis, described as a “tall, well-built Negro” on page 454 of Currier’s “History of Newburyport, Volume II.” William Francis owned a barber shop on State Street at the "Imperial Pole," one door above the celebrated General Wolfe tavern --- It is obvious from advertisements describing his talents for hair dressing, hair cutting, and wig making that Emperor Francis had a true Dexterian flare. It is said that his shop was widely patronized by the "refined clientele" until the great fire in 1811.]
It should be emphasized that the benevolent Lord Tim would never deny the hungry food from his table or the fruit from his orchards. Actually, his generosity was widely known, making him an easy target. But when in a certain state of mind or body, Dexter often felt used and abused. And when a good day’s wages offered to the same indigent he suspected was dismantling his fence by night was uniformly declined, Dexter fumed. Indeed, it was the combined inactions by day and actions by night that prompted the diatribe transcribed above. And right or wrong, his perceptions were shared by the community at large.
[To further illustrate a point, Lucy Lancaster served as the “major domo” at the Dexter House and was a charter member of his Lordship’s coterie. A “princess” who claimed to be the daughter of African Royalty, it was documented that Lucy herself would allow no other person of color to work inside the Dexter House or to pass her own portal. It is not recorded how many servants or workers of any ethnicity were under the employ at Dexter’s home or businesses when he issued his complaint to the press. But it is an accepted folklore that decades earlier, it was his servant of color who had “convarted” Dexter to Faith --- and that his first ship, the yare merchant ship “Mehitabel” was named for her.]
And it should be also mentioned that, during Dexter’s daily constitutionals, the very “lay abouts” serenaded in Market Square by Dexter’s own poet laureate, Jonathan Plummer, equally vexed his Lordship’s peaceful frame of mind --- especially when his frame was prone to be “gouty and spleany.” Notwithstanding, Dexter’s last will and testament set a precedent charitable bequest that established a fund for the “support of the poor outside of the almshouse.” And the epigraph on his gravestone affirms his generous spirit.
So, in the end, the Knowing Ones referred to the Dragonfly on the Wall’s exposition and reflected upon the position of the “gratest felosofer” --- “To truly shed ‘houll Lite’ on a subject as we pass along Life's 'thortway,' we must not be so 'enlightened’ or we may ourselves completely in the dark.” In this light, we progress toward the enlightened discourse (and course) ahead.