1877: Jonathan B. Sargent’s Memoir

This document was written by Jonathan B. Sargent (1798-1882), the son of Ichabod Barnard Sargent (1766-1836) and Ruth Patten (1769-1849). Jonathan was married to Sarah C. Nichols in 1821. From the letter we learn that Jonathan Sargent bought his home in 1828 — a twenty room residence in West Amesbury. We also learn something of Jonathan’s politics — that he was a Whig and later a Republican; and something of his profession — that he made axles and springs for carriages.

The motivation for writing this piece isn’t clear from the content. It doesn’t appear to have been addressed to anyone. There are portions of it that are lucid and other portions that appear to be the rantings of a madman. The document was datelined from the Concord Asylum which was a hospital for the mentally ill in Concord, New Hampshire, founded in 1843. Since most of the document captures his lifetime remembrances, I’m going to title this Jonathan B. Sargent’s Memoirs.

His on-line Biography reads as follows:

“Jonathan B. Sargent was a lifelong resident in Amesbury and in many respects one of the foremost men of that town for many years. His early opportunieies were limited and from the beginning of his business career until its close he made his own way in life. He left school early and was apprenticed to Willis Patten, of River Village, to learn the trade of blacksmith, but soon added the making of carriage axles to the work of his trade. This was the real beginning of his successful career as a manufacturer, and while his business was started in a small way at first it gradualy increased until it became recognized as one of the principal industries of the town. From the forge and anvil of the journeyman blacksmith Mr. Sargent turned to the manufacture of axles and in the course of time added carriage springs to the products of his factory. He was a pioneer in the work in which he was extensively engaged and originated many new ideas in regard to improved devices, one of which is the half patented axle, his own invention and which is still more extensively used than any other device of its kind. Having engaged in manufacture for many years and having acquired a comfortable fortune as the reward of his honest and earnest effort, Mr. Sargent sold out his factory and its equipment to the West Amesbury Spring and Axle Company and retired from active pursuits, and afterward devoted his attention to personal concerns, somewhat to public affairs, but more particularly to the gratification of his desire in practical horticulture. But it was no so much for purposes of profit to himself as the pleasure derived from the distribution of his products among his neighbors and friends, and the giving in goodly quantities to needy families. And this distribution only revealed his heart, for his impulses were all generous and charitable and he found it far more pleasant to give than to receive.

Mr. Sargent is remembered as a man of strong convictions and striking individuality, of excellent judgment in regard to business and public affairs, and his counsel always had weight in determining measures proposed for the public welfare. For many years he was a member of the board of selectmen of Amesbury, and in 1851-52 he represented the town in the general court. He was a careful reader, choosing that which was best for his own information, and he possessed the fortuntate faculty of giving to others the suggestions and advice which were for their own good.In religious preference he was a strong Universalist, and his house always was the home of visiting clergy of that demonination when in Amesbury. The church too benefitted by his connection with it and found in him a generous donor for its support and the maintenance of its dependencies. On May 21, 1822, Mr. Sargent married Sarah C. Nichols, born Amesbury, Aug. 27, 1804, died there June 1, 1891, having borne her husband seven children, all born in Amesbury.”


Concord Asylum, New Hampshire
February 4, 1877

I suppose 19/20 of the people of the United States rejoice that on the 5th of March next the Usurper U. S. Grant will in all human probability return to the shades of private life. The first Presidential vote I ever cast was for John Quincy Adams in 1823. He was elected. Afterward I voted for Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore. Then for William Henry Harrison and twice for Abraham Lincoln, once for U.S. Grant, & once for Horace Greeley, with whom I had personal acquaintance more than forty years. In 1824 I shook hands with General Lafayette, in 1836 with General Jackson in Lowell, Mass., in 1840 with John Quincy Adams in Newburyport, Mass. I never was guilty of voting for the Tyrant Jackson or Wendell Phillips or Charles Sumner or Henry Wilson or George S. Boutwell, and only once for the tyrant U.S. Grant.

I voted for John Albon Andrew because he was honest but would not [vote] for [Benjamin] Butler because I knew he would lie and was dishonest. I care nothing about the silver spoons ¹ but the bales of cotton and cargoes of sugar & molasses, I thought was coming it strong. Butler sent to Lowell and drew from the banks 70,000 dollars. It was sent to New Orleans and put into the hands of his drunken brother some 18 years of age. The confiscated cotton was bid in by his brother at 2½ cents per pound, then sent in government vessels on which no freight was paid. It was sent to Boston and sold in Lowell at 95 cts per pound. The incorruptible Butler reserving sufficient for his cotton flag factory. On his way home, the drunken brother died on a spree in New York. On Butler’s return, he made application to the Surrogate for letters of administration, on his defunct brother’s estate. That worthy functionary said the letters could be granted for the very modest sum of 25,000 and himself pocketed some 2½ millions. One cargo of sugar sold at 17 cts lb in New York, the other in Boston at about the same price and molasses at about 95 cts per gallon. ²

Washington fought during the 8 years of the Revolutionary War declining all compensation for personal services; Grant for money & plunder; Butler served for money & plunder and didn’t fight for anything. Benedict Arnold fought for money & power and endeavored to sell the liberties of his country for 10,000 £ British, gold $50,000. He got the gold and commission of Major General in the British Army. He died a miserable exile in a foreign land.

Henry Wilson was buried in Natick — his only son died in Mexico, his wife and daughter before him. Last winter the citizens of Natick petitioned the Legislature for liberty to raise by taxation a sum sufficient to defray the funeral expenses of the defunct Wilson. Their petition was granted and so at last the Natick cobbler — like other paupers — was buried at the public expense. His vaulting ambition and self esteem were boundless but,

“To whom related, or by who, begot,
Or what thou wast, it now avails the not,
A heap of dust, alone remains of thee,
Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be.”

Another striking instance of the award meted out to unscrupulous  politicians in this life is shown in the case of Charles Sumner. He was of aristocratic birth, reared in the lap of luxury, and at an early age graduated at Harvard College, studied law and commenced practice in Boston — the city of his birth. Here he married a lady of refinement and wealth — a Miss Eastman of New Hampshire and sister to the wife of the wealthy Coppersmith Hooper of Boston who has been, if not now, in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had lived with her but a short time ‘ere his imperious temper drove her from home and she lived in exile at Paris until his death when she came home and petitioned the Supreme Court for libery to resume her maiden name of Eastman, which was granted.

In 1850 I was in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. George N. Briggs — a Baptist deacon of Worcester, for whom I voted — was governor. We chose Ensign Kellogg of Pittsfield speaker, Marshall P. Wilder was president of the Senate. The Whigs had a good working majority over democrats & that most corrupt of all parties, the Free Soilers. Amesbury was entitled to one Representative and in 1851, the East End chose a Jackson Democrat Jonathan Nayson who got the Free Soil vote. To be elected, a person must get a majority of all the votes cast. 1836 Amesbury was entitled to those Representatives. Two others & myself all Whigs were nominated at the Whig caucus. After the two first were chosen, I declined as I could not afford to leave my business for two dollars per day while I was paying my hands $2.50 and $3.50 per day and my older son was only 12 years of age. I kept my books, sold the work, and paid the hands weekly.

But in 1849 I was under the doctor’s care 6 months from over work and he at length told me I must give up my business or my life. My son was then about 25, had always worked in the mill (axle & spring factory, when not at school). He worked at the lathes finishing axles & other job work and kept the books in my absence.

My father had a farm of 200 acres. I lived with him until 17 years of age (1815) when I went to learn to shoe horses & cattle and iron carriages. We forged the axles and sent them without trimming and all the sawing was done by hand. So when I built the axle & spring factory ten years after I was married and forged the axles with a trip hammer and sawed with a circular & gig saw. It was not like forging shovels with sledges as your father did when I was a boy. So if a blacksmith who made shovels got rich, why should not a blacksmith who made axles and carriages get rich if he sold his carriages in Springfield to a rich sword maker and to Mr. Dwight, a paper maker. When a shovel maker has 90 tons of [ ] steel and makes into axles and sell the axles after they are finished so if Mr. Bray sells Salisbury Iron and Lyman Kinsley sells Noo[    ] Iron, why should not Sargent buy the iron in Cambridge as well as in Canton. Can’t a man get rich making leather as going to Congress? But when you get a man locked up, how can he make leather, or axles, or shovels?

When the Chairman of the Trustees died and was buried and lifted up his eyes in the “Rich Man’s Hell”, being in torment, and saw Jonathan afar off sitting with his family and Father Abraham Lincoln was there, and Father Abraham Lincoln. The chairman said, Father Abraham, I pray they send Jonathan that he may dip his fingers in Taunton river and cool my tongue for I perish in this flame. And Lincoln said, Howland, remember that in the hospital there [    ] good things, and Jonathan evil things, and now Jonathan is comforted, and thou art tormented, and the chairman said, “Father Abraham, I have five brother trustees. I pray thee send someone to warn them. Let them also come to this place of torment.” And Lincoln said, “Let them go to Grant and Butler. Stay where you are lest a worse evil come upon you. Jonathan has gone home to take care of his family and orchards and you can’t get him back here.” No way you can fix it. Besides, the Great Taunton River is betwixt you and Jonathan and you have no pass. Stay where you are, chairman, lest a worse evil come upon you.

New Bedford [      ] May 6, 1874

Copied also in Boston Herald and Journal
Please ask Dr. W. W. Godding or George Howland, Jr. for copy.
Yours truly, Jonathan B. Sargent, Blacksmith

P.S. Attwood and Simon Borden are honest. Please give them my respects and remember me to my friends. Asa Mitchell, tanner, and Captain Elhanon Crowell, seaman. Captain Ship Builder and Capt. Oglethorpe, U. S. Navy

N. B.  “Though hand join in hand when Grant marches out and Tilden marches in, when the Beestile at Danvers, which has swallowed up $1,800,000 dollars of the people’s money will be converted into a shoe factory. J. B. S.

[Religious rantings, and then….]

If all doctors, priests, and lawyers and politicians in Massachusetts and New Hampshire were struck dead for lying, ¾’s of the priests & doctors and 9/10ths of lawyers and politicians would at once go to that “country from whose bourne traveler returns.” Food would be plenty, so would be money, but coffins, and grave digging dear, and those left would have a good prospect of living to great age.

1872 — I was one of the bearers at the funeral of John S. Morse, age 92 years; Patten Sargent, 79; Joshua Colls, 78; J. B. Sargent, 79; [    ] Sergent, 70.
1872 — I attended as mourner of Wilson Olive Menth, aged 96
1872 — Self and wife attended as mourners my brother-in-law S[tephen] Nichols, age 84
1872 — Richard Stoyle, spring maker, had worked for me 40 years, 87 years
1873 — our oldest grandchild, Clara Boston Sargent, age 23
1873 — A brother [Porter Sargent] in Rock Island City, Ills., age 72.
1874 — A sister in Amesbury [Mary Sarah (Sargent) Pillsbury]. My wife & children attended. Her age 70
1822 — Jonathan 23 married Sally Nichols 17 years of age.  She is now 72. Jonathan 78. Of 9 children, 3 are left. Edmund 53, Bailey, 42, Jane 40. Of 7 grandchild, 4 are left. George 24, Grace 18, Porter 16, [    ] 14. My wife & Jane, Bailey & wife & his children live in a house I bought 1828. Bailey occupies 8 rooms. Wife & jane 12 rooms in same house. For being shet up in Taunton this day, a [     ] “God is not dead.”

February 5, 1877 — J. B. S.

In the days of Jesus, it was hard for a rich man to enter he kingdom. Don’t you find it so now, brother Blacksmith? Well, neither of us brought anything into this world and shall carry nothing out. I got my property by industry & economy & honesty, and have all I desire & much more than I need. How did you get yours?

¹ Benjamin Butler was ridiculed by the press when it became public knowledge that he seized a 38-piece set of silverware from a New Orleans woman attempting to cross the Union lines. It earned him the nickname “Spoons Butler.”

² Benjamin Butler’s abuse of position to become rich during the war became legendary. Butler increasingly relied upon the Confiscation Act of 1862 as a means of grabbing cotton. Since the Act permitted confiscation of property owned by anyone “aiding the Confederacy,” Butler reversed his earlier policy of encouraging trade by refusing to confiscate cotton brought into New Orleans for sale. First he conducted a census in which 4,000 respondents failing to pledge loyalty to the Union were banished and their property seized. It was sold at ridiculously low auction prices where his brother, Andrew Jackson Butler (1815-1864), was often the prime buyer. Next the general sent expeditions into the countryside with no military purpose other than to confiscate cotton from residents assumed to be disloyal. Once brought into New Orleans the cotton would be similarly sold in rigged auctions. To maintain correct appearances, auction proceeds were dutifully held for the benefit of “just claimants,” but the Butler consortium still ended-up owning the cotton at bargain prices. Always inventive of new terminology to achieve his ends, Butler sequestered (i.e. made vulnerable to confiscation) such “properties” in all of Louisiana beyond parishes surrounding New Orleans.

One comment

  1. Received the following comment by Louis Lehmann on 15 June 2019:

    “Jonathan B. Sargent’s letter appears to be intended for someone at the Taunton Lunatic Hospital where Jonathan formerly resided. In a P.S. toward the end of the letter, he says “P.S. Attwood, and Simeon Borden, are honest. Please give them my respects and remember me to my friends Asa Mitchell tanner and Captain Elhanan Crowell” All four were at Taunton during the same period Jonathan was there. Charles Atwood and Simeon Borden were trustees, as was George Howland (prominently discussed in the letter). Asa Mitchell and Elkanah Crowell were both inmates. Jonathan’s claims of shaking hands with notable are plausible as the Marquis de la Fayette, Andrew Jackson, and John Quincy Adams all visited towns in the vicinity of Amesbury where Jonathan was living during the dates of their visits. Jonathan was indeed in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, 185-52. Most of his statements re deaths of family members and friends – are accurate. An 1874 newspaper item speculated that his insanity might have been caused by a fall some years earlier. The first petition to get a guardian appointed for him, was dismissed. A few months later another petition by family was granted and he was committed to Taunton (I am researching his life as he is my wife’s gr-gr-gr grandfather. We are living in the house once owned and occupied by Jonathan’s grandson (mentioned in the letter), George P. Strickland.”


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