The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 12

The Liverpool Consulate: 1852–1854

Why Hawthorne returned to Concord in 1852 is more of a mystery than the suicide of Zenobia. Horace Mann also left Newton, to be President of Antioch College (and to die there in the cause of feminine education), in the autumn of that year; but this could hardly have been expected six months earlier. Hawthorne was not very favorably situated at Newton, being rather too near the railroad; but there was plenty of land on the top of the hill, where he might have built himself a house, and in the course of twelve years his property would have quadrupled in value. A poet will not be less of a poet, but more so, for understanding the practical affairs of life. Or he might have removed to Cambridge, where Longfellow, always foremost in kind offices, would have been like a guardian angel to him, and where he could have made friends like Felton and Agassiz, who would have been much more in harmony with his political views. Ellery Channing was the only friend he appears to have retained in Concord, and it was not altogether a favorable place to bring up his children; but the natural topography of Concord is unusually attractive, and it may be suspected that he was drawn thither more from the love of its pine solitudes and shimmering waters, than from any other motive.

The house he purchased was nearly a mile from the centre of the town, and has ever since been known by the name of the Wayside. After Hawthorne’s return from Europe in 1860, he remodelled it somewhat, so that it has a more dignified aspect than when he first took possession of it. Alcott, who occupied it for some years previously, had adorned it with that species of rustic architecture in which he was so skilful. The house was half surrounded by a group of locust trees, much in fashion seventy years ago, and had been set so close against the hill-side, that a thicket of stunted pines and other wild growth rose above the roof like a crest. Bronson Alcott was his next-door neighbor — almost too strong a contrast to him — and Emerson’s house was half a mile away; so that these three families formed a group by themselves in that portion of Concord.

Hawthorne wrote a letter to his sister Elizabeth, describing his new acquisition, and expressing satisfaction in it. It was the first house that he had ever owned; and it is no small comfort to a man to live under his own roof, even though it be a humble one. At this time, however, he did not remain at the Wayside but a single year. After that, the house stood empty until the untimely death of Horace Mann, August 2, 1859, when Mrs. Mann came to Concord with her three boys, and occupied it until Hawthorne’s return from Europe.

[Illustration: THE WAYSIDE]

It may as well be noticed here, that, during the eight years which Hawthorne spent altogether in Concord, he accomplished little literary work, and none of any real importance. It is impossible to account for this, except upon those psychological conditions which sometimes affect delicately balanced minds. Whether the trouble was in the social atmosphere of the place, or in its climatic conditions, perhaps Hawthorne himself could not have decided; but there must have been a reason for it of some description. Julian Hawthorne states that his father had a plan at this time of writing another romance, of a more cheerful tone than “The Blithedale Romance,” but the full current of his poetic activity was suddenly brought to a standstill by an event that nobody would have dreamed of.

Hawthorne had hardly established himself in his new abode, when Franklin Pierce was nominated for the presidency by the Democratic party. The whole country was astonished, for no such nomination had ever been made before, and it is probable that Pierce himself shared largely in this. The New Hampshire delegation had presented his name to the convention, in order to procure him distinction in his own State, but without expectation that he would become a serious candidate. Like the nomination of Hayes in 1876, it resulted from the jealousy of the great party leaders — always an unfortunate position for a public man to be placed in. Theodore Parker said, “Any one is now in danger of becoming President.”

Hawthorne evidently felt this, for he wrote to Bridge, “I do not consider Pierce the brightest man in the country, for there are twenty more so.” It would have been a mild statement if he had said two hundred. Pierce wanted him, of course, to write a campaign biography, and communicated with him to that effect; but Hawthorne disliked meddling in such matters, and at first declined to do it, although it was expected to be highly remunerative. Pierce, however, insisted, for Hawthorne’s reputation was now much beyond his own, and he felt that a biography by so distinguished a writer would confer upon him great dignity in the eyes of the world; and as Hawthorne felt already much indebted to Pierce, he finally consented — although a cheap spread-eagle affair would have served the purpose of his party quite as well. The book had to be written in haste, and just at the time when Hawthorne wished to take a little leisure. There were so few salient points in Pierce’s life, that it was almost like making a biography out of nothing, and as for describing him as a hero, that was quite impossible. It was fortunate that he knew so much of Pierce’s early life, and also that Pierce had kept a diary during the Mexican War, which formed a considerable portion of the biography.

The book is worth reading, although written in this prosaic manner. Hawthorne states in the preface, frankly and manfully, that he objected to writing it, and this ought to be an excuse sufficient for his doing so — if excuse be needed. He does not attempt to represent his friend as a great statesman, but rather as a patriotic country gentleman, who is interested in public affairs, and who rises from one honorable position to another through a well-deserved popularity. This would seem to have been the truth; and yet there was a decided inconsistency in Franklin Pierce’s life, which Hawthorne represents plainly enough, although he makes no comment thereon.

Franklin Pierce’s father was captain of a militia company in 1798, when war was declared against the French Directory, for seizing and confiscating American merchant ships, contrary to the law of nations. There could not have been a more just occasion for war, but Captain Pierce resigned his commission, because he considered it wrong to fight against a republic; and Hawthorne approves of him for this. Franklin Pierce, however, resigned his seat in the Senate in 1842, on account of the interests of his family, alleging that “he would never enter public life again, unless the needs of his country imperatively demanded it,” yet four years later he organized a regiment for the invasion of Mexico — not only for making war upon a republic, but an unjust and indefensible war. General Grant’s opinion ought to be conclusive on this latter point, for he belonged to the same political party as Pierce and Hawthorne. Certainly, Pierce’s services were not required for the defence of his native land.

To do Hawthorne justice, there can be no doubt that in his heart he disapproved of this; for in one of his sketches written at the Old Manse, he speaks censoriously of “those adventurous spirits who leave their homes to emigrate to Texas.” He evidently foresaw that trouble would arise in that direction, and perhaps Ellery Channing assisted him in penetrating the true inwardness of the movement.

It will be remembered that in Franklin Pierce’s youth, he was exceptionally interested in military manœuvres, and this may have been one of the inducements which led him into the Mexican War; but young men who are fond of holiday epaulets do not, for obvious reasons, make the best fighters. Pierce’s military career was not a distinguished one; for, whether he was thrown from his horse in his first engagement, or, as the Whigs alleged, fell from it as soon as he came under fire, it is certain that he did not cover himself with glory, as the phrase was at that time. But we can believe Hawthorne, when he tells us that Pierce took good charge of the troops under his command, and that he was kind and considerate to sick and wounded soldiers. That was in accordance with his natural character.

It was impossible at that time to avoid the slavery question in dealing with political subjects, and what Hawthorne said on this point, in the life of General Pierce, attracted more attention than the book itself. Like Webster he considered slavery an evil, but he believed it to be one of those evils which the human race outgrows, by progress in civilization — like the human sacrifices of the Gauls perhaps — and he greatly deprecated the anti-slavery agitation, which only served to inflame men’s minds and make them unreasonable.

There were many sensible persons in the Northern States at that time, like Hawthorne and Hillard, who sincerely believed in this doctrine, but they do not seem to have been aware that there was a pro-slavery agitation at the South which antedated Garrison’s Liberator and which was much more aggressive and vehement than the anti-slavery movement, because there were large pecuniary interests connected with it. The desperate grasping of the slave-holders for new territory, first in the Northwest and then in the Southwest, was not because they were in any need of land, but because new slave States increased their political power. Horatio Bridge says, relatively to this subject:

“No Northern man had better means for knowing the dangers impending, previous to the outbreak of the war, than had General Pierce. Intimately associated — as he was — with the strong men of the South, in his Cabinet and in Congress, he saw that the Southerners were determined, at all hazards, to defend their peculiar institution of slavery, which was imperilled by the abolitionists.”

If Franklin Pierce was desirous of preserving the Union, why did he give Jefferson Davis a place in his Cabinet, and take him for his chief adviser? Davis was already a pronounced secessionist, and had been defeated in his own State on that issue. In subserviency to Southern interests, no other Northern man ever went so far as Franklin Pierce, nor did Garrison himself accomplish so much toward the dissolution of the Union. He was an instance in real life of Goldsmith’s “good-natured man,” and the same qualities which assisted him to the position of President prevented his administration from being a success. Presidents ought to be made of firmer and sterner material.

Hawthorne had barely finished with the proofs of this volume, when he received the saddest, most harrowing news that ever came to him. After her mother’s death, in 1849, Louisa Hawthorne had gone to live with her aunt, Mrs. John Dike; and in July, 1852, Mr. Dike went with her on an excursion to Saratoga and New York City. On the morning of July 27, they left Albany on the steamboat “Henry Clay,” which, as is well known, never reached its destination. When nearing Yonkers, a fire broke out near the engines, where the wood-work was saturated with oil, and instantly the centre of the vessel was in a bright blaze. Mr. Dike happened to be on the forward deck at the moment, but Louisa Hawthorne was in the ladies’ cabin, and it was impossible to reach her. The captain of the Henry Clay immediately ran the vessel on shore, so that Mr. Dike and those who were with him escaped to land, but Louisa and more than seventy others, who threw themselves into the water, were drowned. It would seem to have been impossible to save her.

The death of Hawthorne’s mother may be said to have come in the course of Nature, and his mind was prepared for it; but Louisa had been the playmate of his childhood, and her death seemed as unnecessary as it was sharp and sudden. It happened almost on the third anniversary of his mother’s death, and these were the only two occasions in Hawthorne’s life, when the Dark Angel hovered about his door.

Rebecca Manning says: “Louisa Hawthorne was a most delightful, lovable, interesting woman — not at all ‘commonplace,’ as has been stated. Her death was a great sorrow to all her friends. Her name was Maria Louisa, and she was often called Maria by her mother and sister and aunts.”

Depressed and unnerved, in the most trying season of the year, Hawthorne went in the latter part of August to visit Franklin Pierce at Concord, New Hampshire; but there a severe torrid wave came on, so that Pierce advised him to go at once to the Isles of Shoals, promising to follow in a few days, if his numerous engagements would permit him.

The Isles of Shoals have the finest summer climate on the Atlantic Ocean; an atmosphere at once quieting and strengthening, and always at its best when it is hottest on the main-land. Hawthorne found a pair of friends ready-made there, and prepared to receive him — Levi Thaxter, afterwards widely known as the apostle of Browning in America, and his wife, Celia, a poetess in the bud, only sixteen, but very bright, original, and pleasant. They admired Hawthorne above all living men, and his sudden advent on their barren island seemed, as Thaxter afterward expressed it, like a supernatural presence. They became good companions in the next two weeks; climbing the rocks, rowing from one island to another — bald pieces of rock, like the summits of mountains rising above the surface of the sea — visiting the light-house, the monument to Captain John Smith, Betty Moody’s Cave, the graves of the Spanish sailors, the trap dikes of ancient lava, and much else. Every day Hawthorne wrote a minute account in his diary of his various proceedings there, including the observation of a live shark, which came into the cove by the hotel, a rare spectacle on that coast. General Pierce did not make his appearance, however, and on September 15, Hawthorne returned to his own home.

The election of Pierce to the presidency was as remarkable as his nomination. In 1848, General Taylor, the victor of a single battle, but a man of little education, was nominated for the presidency over the heads of the finest orators and ablest statesmen in America, and was enthusiastically elected. General Scott, Franklin Pierce’s opponent, defeated the Mexicans in four decisive battles, captured the capital of the country, and conducted one of the most skilful military expeditions of the past century. He was a man of rare administrative ability, and there is no substantial argument against his character. We have Grant’s testimony that it was pleasant to serve under him. Yet he was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls by a militia general without distinction, military or civil.

Hawthorne was naturally delighted at the result of the election; unfortunate as it afterwards proved for his country. He derived a threefold satisfaction from it, in the success of his friend, in the defeat of the Whigs, and in the happy prospects which it opened for himself. He could now return to the Salem Custom House in triumph — as the wisest man might be tempted to do — but he looked forward to something that would be more advantageous to his family. He had already written on October 18 to Horatio Bridge:

“Before undertaking it [the biography] I made an inward resolution, that I should accept no office from him; but, to say the truth, I doubt whether it would not be rather folly than heroism to adhere to this purpose, in case he should offer me anything particularly good. We shall see. A foreign mission I could not afford to take. The consulship at Liverpool, I might.” 88

We may conclude from this, that Pierce had already intimated the Liverpool consulate, which at that time was supposed to be worth twenty-five thousand dollars a year in fees. It was an excellent plan for the President of the United States to have such a gift at his disposal, to reward some individual like Hawthorne, to whom the whole nation was indebted to an extent that could never be repaid; but it is a question whether it would not have been as well, in this particular case, for Hawthorne to have remained in his own country. If he could have written five or six romances more, this would have secured him a good competency, and would have assured a sufficient income for his family after his death. As it happened, the Liverpool consulate did not prove so profitable as was anticipated.

With such “great expectations” before him, Hawthorne could do no serious work that winter, so he occupied himself leisurely enough, with writing a sequel to his “Wonder Book,” which he called “Tanglewood Tales,” apparently after the thicket which surmounted the hill above his residence. This was finished early in March, and given to Ticknor & Company to publish when they saw fit. As it is a book intended for children, the consideration of it need not detain us.

Early in April, 1853, Hawthorne was appointed and confirmed to the Liverpool consulate, and on the 14th he went to Washington, as he tells us, for the first time, to thank the President in person. Otherwise he has divulged nothing concerning this journey, except that he was introduced to a larger number of persons than he could remember the names or faces of, and received ten times as many invitations as he could accept. If Charles V. honored himself with posterity by picking up the paint-brush which Titian had dropped on the floor, President Pierce might have done himself equal credit by making Hawthorne his guest at the White House; but if he did not go so far as this, it cannot be doubted that he treated Hawthorne handsomely. There were giants at Washington in those days. Webster and Clay were gone, but Seward was the Charles Fox and Sumner the Edmund Burke of America; Chase and Marcy were not much less in intellectual stature. Hawthorne must have met them, but we hear nothing of them from him.

Hawthorne delayed his departure for England, until the most favorable season arrived, for his fragile wife and infant children to cross the “rolling forties.” At length, on July 6, two days after his forty-ninth birthday, he sailed from Boston in the “Niagara,” and with placida onda prospero il vento, in about twelve days they all arrived safely at their destination.

The great stone docks of Liverpool, extending along its whole water-front, give one a strong impression of the power and solidity of England. Otherwise the city is almost devoid of interest, and travellers customarily pass through it, to take the next train for Oxford or London, without further observation, unless it be to give a look at the conventional statue of Prince Albert on an Arab horse. Liverpool is not so foggy a place as London, but it has a damper and less pleasant climate, without those varied attractions and substantial enjoyments which make London one of the most pleasant residences and most interesting of cities.

London fog is composed of soft-coal smoke, which, ascending from innumerable chimneys, is filtered in the upper skies, and then, mixed with vapor, is cast back upon the city by every change of wind. It is not unpleasant to the taste, and seems to be rather healthful than otherwise; but all the vapors which sail down the Gulf Stream, and which are not condensed on the Irish coast in the form of rain, collect about the mouth of the Mersey, so that the adjacent country is the best watered portion of all England, Cornwall possibly excepted. There is plenty of wealth in Liverpool, and all kinds of private entertainments, but in no other city of its size are there so few public entertainments, and the only interesting occupation that a stranger might find there, would be to watch the strange and curious characters in the lower classes, faces and figures that cannot be caricatured, emerging from cellar-ways or disappearing through side-doors. Go into an alehouse in the evening and, beside the pretty barmaid, who deserves consideration as much for her good behavior as for her looks, you will see plainly enough where Dickens obtained his dramatis personae for “Barnaby Rudge” and “The Old Curiosity Shop.” Either in Liverpool or in London you can see more grotesque comedy characters in a day, than you could meet with in a year in America. These poor creatures are pressed down, and squeezed out into what they are, under the superincumbent weight of an enormous leisure class.

Such was the environment in which Hawthorne was obliged to spend the ensuing four years. He soon, however, discovered a means to escape from the monotonous and labyrinthine streets of the city, by renting an imitation castle at Rock Ferry — a very pretty place, much like Dobbs Ferry, on the Hudson, although the river is not so fine — where his wife and children enjoyed fresh air, green grass, and all the sunshine attainable, and whence he could reach the consulate every morning by the Mersey boat. We find them located there before September 1.

Of the consulate itself, Hawthorne has given a minute pictorial description in “Our Old Home,” from which the following extract is especially pertinent to our present inquiry:

“The Consulate of the United States in my day, was located in Washington Buildings (a shabby and smoke-stained edifice of four stories high, thus illustriously named in honor of our national establishment), at the lower corner of Brunswick Street, contiguous to the Goree Arcade, and in the neighborhood of some of the oldest docks. This was by no means a polite or elegant portion of England’s great commercial city, nor were the apartments of the American official so splendid as to indicate the assumption of much consular pomp on his part. A narrow and ill-lighted staircase gave access to an equally narrow and ill-lighted passage-way on the first floor, at the extremity of which, surmounting a door frame, appeared an exceedingly stiff pictorial representation of the Goose and Gridiron, according to the English idea of those ever-to-be-honored symbols. The staircase and passage-way were often thronged of a morning, with a set of beggarly and piratical-looking scoundrels (I do no wrong to our countrymen in styling them so, for not one in twenty was a genuine American), purporting to belong to our mercantile marine, and chiefly composed of Liverpool Blackballers, and the scum of every maritime nation on earth; such being the seamen by whose assistance we then disputed the navigation of the world with England. These specimens of a most unfortunate class of people were shipwrecked crews in quest of bed, board, and clothing, invalids asking permits for the hospital, bruised and bloody wretches complaining of ill-treatment by their officers, drunkards, desperadoes, vagabonds, and cheats, perplexingly intermingled with an uncertain proportion of reasonably honest men. All of them (save here and there a poor devil of a kidnapped landsman in his shore-going rags) wore red flannel shirts, in which they had sweltered or shivered throughout the voyage, and all required consular assistance in one form or another.”

The position of an American consul in a large foreign seaport, especially at Liverpool, is anything but a sinecure, and in fact requires a continual exercise of judgment much beyond the average duties of a foreign minister. The difficulty also of being continually obliged to distinguish between true and false applications for charity, especially when the false are greatly in excess of the true, and among a class of persons notably given to mendacious tricks, is one of the most unpleasant conditions in which a tender-hearted man can find himself. As curious studies in low life, the rascality of these nautical mendicants may often have been interesting, and even amusing, to Hawthorne, but as a steady pull they must have worn hard on his nerves, even though his experienced clerk served as a breakwater to a considerable portion. It has already been noticed that Hawthorne was a conscientious office-holder, and he never trusted to others any duties which he was able to attend to in person. Moreover, although he was a man of reserved manners, there was an exceptionally tender, sympathetic heart behind this impenetrable exterior, and it may be suspected that he relieved many instances of actual distress, which could not be brought within the government regulations. He may have suffered like the ghost in Dickens’s “Haunted Man,” on account of those whom he could not assist. It is certain that he aged more, in appearance at least, during these four years, than at any similar period of his life.

It is no wonder, therefore, that, after a visit to the English lakes, the following summer, Hawthorne wrote to his friend, Henry Bright, from Liverpool:

“I have come back only for a day or two to this black and miserable hole. I do not mean to apply these two adjectives to my consulate, but to the whole of Liverpool.”

Yet it should be recollected that there were nearly a million of persons in Liverpool, who were obliged to spend their lives there, for good and evil fortune; and, as Emerson says, we can never think too lightly of our own difficulties.

Neither did Hawthorne find the news from America particularly interesting. On March 30, 1854, he wrote to Bridge:

“I like my office well enough, but my official duties and obligations are irksome to me beyond expression. Nevertheless, the emoluments will be a sufficient inducement to keep me here, though they are not above a quarter part what some people suppose them.

“It sickens me to look back to America. I am sick to death of the continual fuss and tumult and excitement and bad blood which we keep up about political topics. If it were not for my children, I should probably never return, but — after quitting office — should go to Italy, and live and die there. If Mrs. Bridge and you would go too, we might form a little colony amongst ourselves, and see our children grow up together. But it will never do to deprive them of their native land, which I hope will be a more comfortable and happy residence in their day than it has been in ours.”


The last sentence in this ought to be printed in italics, for it is the essence of patriotism. The “fuss and tumult” in America were due, for the time being, to the apple of discord which Douglas had cast into the Senate, by his Kansas–Nebraska bill. Hawthorne was too far away to distinguish the full force and insidious character of that measure, but if he had been in Concord, we believe he would have recognized (as so many did who never had before) the imminent danger to the Union, from the repeated concessions to the slave power. After he had become disenthralled from his allegiance to party, we find him in his letters to Bridge, taking broad views on political subjects.

An event was soon to happen, well calculated to disenthrall him. The Congress of 1854, after passing the Kansas–Nebraska bill, resolved, in order to prove its democratic spirit, to economize in the representation of our government to foreign powers. On April 14, the good-hearted, theoretical O’Sullivan arrived in Liverpool, on his way to be minister to Portugal, and warned Hawthorne that there was a bill before Congress to reduce the consulate there to a salaried position. This was a terrible damper on Hawthorne’s great expectations, and on April 17 he wrote again to Bridge, protesting against the change: 90

“I trust, in Heaven’s mercy, that no change will be made as regards the emoluments of the Liverpool consulate — unless indeed a salary is to be given in addition to the fees, in which case I should receive it very thankfully. This, however, is not to be expected; and if Liverpool is touched at all, it will be to limit its emoluments by a fixed salary — which will render the office not worth any man’s holding. It is impossible (especially for a man with a family and keeping any kind of an establishment) not to spend a vast deal of money here. The office, unfortunately, is regarded as one of great dignity, and puts the holder on a level with the highest society, and compels him to associate on equal terms with men who spend more than my whole income on the mere entertainments and other trimmings and embroidery of their lives. Then I feel bound to exercise some hospitality towards my own countrymen. I keep out of society as much as I decently can, and really practice as stern an economy as I ever did in my life; but, nevertheless, I have spent many thousands of dollars in the few months of my residence here, and cannot reasonably hope to spend less than six thousand per annum, even after all the expenditure of setting up an establishment is defrayed.”

In addition to this, he states that his predecessor in office, John J. Crittenden, never received above fifteen thousand dollars in fees, of which he saved less than half.

We can trust this to be the plain truth in regard to the Liverpool consulate, and if twenty-five thousand a year was ever obtained from it, there must have been some kind of deviltry in the business. Congress proved inexorable — as it might not have been, had Hawthorne possessed the influence of a prominent politician like Crittenden. It was a direct affront to the President from his own party, and Pierce did not dare to veto the bill.

What O’Sullivan said to Hawthorne on other subjects may be readily inferred from Hawthorne’s next letter to Bridge, in which he begs him to remain in Washington for Pierce’s sake, and says:

“I feel a sorrowful sympathy for the poor fellow (for God’s sake don’t show him this), and hate to have him left without one true friend, or one man, who will speak a single honest word to him.”

It is not very clear how Horatio Bridge could counteract the influence of Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing, but this shows that Franklin Pierce’s weakness as an administrator was already painfully apparent to his friends, and that even Hawthorne could no longer disguise it to himself.

88 Bridge 130

89 J. Hawthorne, ii. 65.

90 Bridge, 135, 136.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38