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Horace Mann to Charlotte Messer Dedham on July 12, 1830

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For obvious reasons, this month Stacks sings a love song composed, arranged, and performed by a young Horace Mann. In the summer of 1830, he was a rising 34 year old Boston attorney and an ambitious member of the Massachusetts State Legislature. Charlotte Messer, the subject of the piece, was the youngest daughter of one of the most significant people in Horace’s life to that point, Asa Messer, president of Brown University, 1802-1826. Mann had thought of Messer as his “academic father” from his days as an undergraduate, which culminated in the valedictory address for the Brown Class of 1819. Messer had offered Mann his first job out of college as a Latin tutor and later appointed him school librarian.

By the time he mailed the following letter, Mann had courted Charlotte for a year and, since she had yet to leave the confines of Providence, Rhode Island, in her life, almost entirely by correspondence. He unabashedly professes his love for her in every courtship letter that survives in the Mann-Messer Collection at the Brown University Archives, while her responses are far less committal towards him. Part of that is Charlotte’s own inexperience, and part is also the role gender plays in the use of romantic language at the time: a proper young woman of the 19th century neither talks nor writes like that. Mann couples his feelings with his education, making reference for instance to the French scholar Jean-François Champollion’s translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone, first published in 1822. While he would have had much news to tell of the goings-on at the Statehouse in 1830, Mann consistently kept Charlotte in the dark about his public life during their courtship. Here he makes somewhat of a departure from that policy with a reference to the “Address to the ‘Social & Benevolent’” on which he is hard at work. Although he doesn’t make clear what the speech concerns, his great legislative cause at the time was the establishment of the first hospital in American history dedicated to the care of the insane, the Worcester Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1833. The Miss Caroline he refers to at the end is most likely Caroline Deborah Messer, Charlotte’s older sister, and the “high-priced delicacy” from Taunton he compares himself so unfavorably to is probably Sydney Williams, Mann’s classmate from Litchfield Law School and eventually Caroline’s husband.

Horace’s efforts at romance soon paid off. By this time Charlotte’s family had already begun to discuss a September wedding, and they were married in the Messer home on the 29th. Their love would last forever, but their marriage would not. Always of frail health, soon after Charlotte suffered an illness so severe that she would spend more than half of their first year convalescing with her family in Rhode Island, far from Horace’s work and the home they had made for themselves in Dedham, MA. As if the pain of their separation wasn’t bad enough, Charlotte would not live to see their second anniversary, dying from illness at the age of 23 in August, 1832.

Charlotte’s death scarred Mann for the rest of his days. Once the life of the party, he carried the weight of acute melancholy thereafter, and ceased to be the man capable of such tender avowal as reprinted below.

July 12, 1830. Horace Mann to Charlotte Messer.

Dedham July 12th 1830

My dearest C-h-a-r-l-o-tt-e. You see that I love to keep the name a long time on my lips, letting the letters fall off one by one as an Epicure sips his most delicious wines, drop by drop. Philosophize as we will, there is such in a name after all. They ought to be significant, indicating the qualities of the owner, as was the custom of the Hebrews & perhaps all savage nations. Association produces that effect partially even upon our no-meaning names. The names of some persons, I hate to speak: they seem to my palate to be hot, acrid & corrosive, scalding & excoriating the mouth as they ooze out. Others are full of jagged points & have saw-toothed edges, which tear & wound the lips, drawing much blood. Some are insipid & tasteless as so much air, absolutely lukewarm, without relish or flavor. Then again there is A name, that it sweetens my lips to speak, gentle natively, & having no occasion to affect any languishing or weak tones to soften a natural harshness into apparent delicacy; having no guttural, hoarse or angry-sounding letters in it, nor any hissing ones, which might intimate that, perhaps, its owner could compare notes with Eve on a certain subject, & withal, the last syllable thereof having more liquids than the first, showing that the last part of a virtuous life flows more sweetly than the beginning. The Egyptians, you know, whose language has lately been decyphered used to write by forming one word from the initials of many others. In this way, it seems to me, that a name might be formed, so as to being within a very small compass all of the inestimable virtues of Constancy, Honor, Amicableness, Religion, Love, Order, Truth, Temperance, Economy. Such a name, I desire to keep always by me. You know, I am a little superstitious, & this would prove a potent charm. I hope the day is not too far distant, when I shall experience its preserving & elevating virtue.

I lost two journeys to the Post-Office, one on Monday and one on Wednesday last. The report of the physicians after those days was that I had a very bad night. You say you are “convinced that I do not require constant assurances of affection.” Perhaps I ought not to “require” any, but should they spring up spontaneously, I know of none who would enjoy them more. To love & to perform the office of love, as a duty, if that were possible, is a task, to which I would not subject my worst enemy, & surely I pray it may never happen to her who is more to me than a friend. On Friday it came. I know not how the day is marked in the Episcopal calendar, but to me it was “Good Friday,” indeed.

I have been very intently engaged in writing my Address, for the “Social & Benevolent.” If I fail in enforcing the duties of general charity & good-will, perhaps some of the blame may rest on one who has monopolized the whole of what, had it been equally distributed, I hope would not have been a very small allowance for the many. And should my efforts be attended with any partial success, it may be the common case of a better theory than practice. I hope no wag will attempt to publish the Address, with notes, showing that by all mankind & similar phrases, I meant nobody but yourself—by universal philanthropy I intended only my affection for you, & that the whole circle of the social duties begun & ended in making you happy. But, perhaps worse perversions, even, than that have taken place in this perverse world, & the ingenuity of such a thing might after all be less than roguery. It is to be delivered on Wednesday the twenty eighth instant, & the Tuesday following, is the day agreed upon for our first meeting in Worcester, if not, I shall come back that way, but it must be a strong force which compel me through the diagonal, when you are at the corner of the square. My love to all & tell Miss Caroline, that now, I know the reason why she so disdainfully eschewed my compliments, insipid but well-meaning. She had been petted too long on high-priced delicacies from Taunton to relish any Dedham herring.

Horace Mann