Philadelphia at Last

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"Philadelphia at Last"
the seventh chapter of
Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York: Oxford University press, 1955).

We do not know when Latrobe first met Bollman; it may even have been in London, in 1792, when Bollman was staying there with Talleyrand, or possibly it was in Virginia in 1796 or 1797. The first definite news we have of him in the existing Latrobe papers is in the summer of 1799, and it reveals them as already good friends. There was yellow fever in Philadelphia again that summer--not so devastating a scourge as the year before but violent enough to send many out of town. Among those who left were Bollman and Latrobe, who joined in taking a house (or part of a house) together in near-by Germantown. When they left it at the beginning of October, there was a dispute about the rent with the landlord, Creider; they refused to pay the total, and Creider kept Latrobe's horse as security. Bollman, who evidently felt in some way responsible, contrived somehow to get hold of the horse (he was always a believer in direct action) and returned it to Latrobe. Creider sued Latrobe for its value, and the suit dragged on for almost a decade. Nearly nine years later Latrobe wrote to Thomas Ross, his lawyer in Philadelphia (January 9, 1808): "I never dreamed that Creider's old affair was yet alive. It is now near 9 years ago, & all the witnesses are dead and absent; or worse than either. My servant is dead. Bollman is God knows where. Bollman is going to the Devil [this was after Bollman's involvement in the Burr conspiracy]. The constable who replevined [the horse] was dead drunk, and almost killed the horse in riding him home. . . . I can only beg you to accommodate the matter as much as possible for my interest." Bollman seemed to have a genius for involving his friends and associates in difficulties, yet so great was his charm that he succeeded in winning back the friendship of almost all those he had innocently or carelessly wronged.

In 1799 Bollman was still at the summit of his American career. With his brother Ludwig (or Lewis) he had opened a wide-spreading export-import house with notable correspondents abroad; in England, for example, it was the famous house of Baring which backed them, and in Germany they had friends of equal importance. Their business flourished, and they broadened it recklessly. This was during the English-French war, when American shipowners and businessmen were piling up fortunes as neutral traders. The Bollmans bought in Germany and sold in England or the United States; they bought in England and sold on the Continent or in America. This three-sided trade collected fat profits at each apex of the triangle, and to the adventurous Bollmans every profit gained was the signal for more extensive speculative plunges. While this neutral trade lasted the firm was opulent, but when the Peace of Amiens was signed in 1802 the bottom fell out and the firm crashed in a spectacular bankruptcy that involved even Latrobe, as we shall see.

One other acquaintance Latrobe made in these early years--with Charles Willson Peale--was significant, for the Peales painted the two best portraits of Latrobe that we possess. 10 Moreover, just as in the case of Roosevelt though on a less emotional level--in Peale Latrobe found a man with many characteristics like his own. Both were artist-scientists; both were deeply curious about natural phenomena and at the same time devoted to the aesthetically creative. Both, like Jefferson, were excited by the new possibilities that invention offered for increasing efficiency, for making processes easier. From machines for taking silhouettes to devices for excavating and handling a mammoth's skeleton, and to arrangements for projecting changing lights on moving scenes, Peale's restless mind wandered, taking suggestions, improving upon them, and developing them into instruments of practical usefulness. Among the devices he developed, probably the most important was the polygraph. This was a highly organized kind of pantograph arranged so that copies--replicas--of letters and documents could be made at the same time that the original was being written. It had first been devised by an English inventor, Harrington, a visitor to Philadelphia, but it was refined, popularized, and sold by Peale. Over a period of years Peale was at work improving the first crude models and welcoming suggestions from its users. Latrobe was one of the first owners of the polygraph, obtaining it apparently in September, 1803; it was through Latrobe that Jefferson obtained his own, and it is partly because o the polygraph that we now possess such full records of the correspondence of both men.

Thus the early Philadelphia years of Latrobe were immensely rewarding to him. By the end of this period he had close friends in the worlds of finance, of invention, and of art. He was a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society. His charm, his knowledge, the wide scope of his mind--these were all becoming ever more widely appreciated. And in Nicholas Roosevelt he had found his first really intimate American friend--a man who for years was to be closely associated with him and was to bring him much happiness and much pain in the time to come.

But a still more important relationship dates from this period--a relationship that made his hardships tolerable and his triumphs doubly worth while for he found the perfect wife.

Among the important families he had met were the Hazlehursts. Isaac Hazlehurst and his brother Robert had a general mercantile business export, import, and credit. The brothers had come from Manchester, England, where Isaac was born in 1742 and Robert in 1754. How Latrobe met them is unknown; it was very likely through Samuel Fox. Isaac had prospered in the import and export business he had set up in Philadelphia and had accumulated a sizable capital. When Latrobe became acquainted with him, he was less rich than he had been; for in the Revolution he had been a patriot, to his cost. As a close friend and associate of Robert Morris, he had thrown into the struggle the greater part of his funds and had been one of the signers of Colonial notes. Robert Morris had crashed in a disastrous bankruptcy, and his fall had brought hardship, failure, and poverty to his associates, Isaac Hazlehurst among them. But the Hazlehursts rose supreme over the troubles; their strong commercial connections with the other states--especially South Carolina, where Robert and his son had settled as well as with European exporters saved them from bankruptcy. Isaac and his family could still live a life of gentlemanly comfort, and he maintained not only a large house in Philadelphia but also a more than comfortable estate, Clover Hill, across the Delaware at Mount Holly, New Jersey. With all the Hazlehursts Latrobe was soon on terms of close intimacy.

Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst (1771-1841) was the daughter of Isaac Hazlehurst, and between her and the young architect a growing affection sprang up and ripened. During 1799, one gathers, much of his leisure was spent with the family, and Mary and he gradually grew more and more attached, while her father and Latrobe developed a mutual respect and affection that made their relationship much closer than the usual one between a son and father-in-law. Finally the couple were married on May 2, 1800, at the father's Philadelphia house, by the Right Reverend Dr. White, the Episcopal bishop. The marriage was obviously as warmly welcomed by all the Hazlehursts as by the bride and groom themselves.

It is impossible to stress too strongly the importance of this event and its consequences. The pair seem to have been ideally fitted for each other. Mary was the architect's constant helper, his constant inspiration; she understood him as few others did--knew his moods of elation and of depression, understood the strains behind his occasional outbreaks of tactless directness, and gave herself heartily and wholly to being his "helpmeet" in the fine old sense, his companion, and his love.



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