When Mr. Boswell, upon the occasion of the Treaty of Paris, first proposed writing my biography, I declined the Honor, as I deemed it a Vanity and one not likely to please his Majesty King George. I have no need for Acclamation, and have never felt the need to crow upon the Bones of the conquered. Of course I knew at the time that my refusal would lead other men of baser Character, and lower Birth, to lay claim to those Deeds that in truth were wrought by my own Hands. But that so many fools might try to bask in the splendor of my Achievements was more a cause for amusement, than indignation. No man of Substance could possibly believe that such-or-such a Thing was done by that half-breed mongrel Alexander Hamilton or that miserly coward Colonel Washington.
Alas, the treachery of my enemies has forced me to reconsider my initial position on the Matter. These persons, Mr. Jonathan Cruikshank, Esq. chief among them, have resolved through a thousand forms of slander, of malice, and of libelous venom, to give to the world a wholly deceptive portrait of the haruspex of Cambridge, as I have often been known to men of fashion. And not content with printing such malicious lies, twice now have they sought a writ from the Legislature to have me arraigned on charges of spying, of treason, of war profiteering, and sedition. Pah! Such is their innocence. A man such as myself may yet succumb to any number of Honorable defeats or misfortunes, but he cannot be brought down by so common a contrivance as the Law.
Thus I am resolved to correct the Record, so that posterity may know the Truth. And seeing as Mr. Boswell is long since dead, and has no living Equal in the world of biographical Letters, I am obliged to render these Memoirs by my Own hand. On that score, I will say that the writing of memoir & History I consider a very low calling, similar to Copper-smithing or Brickmaking. The rearrangement of words and the correction of syntax may be very necessary, but they are not work for a gentleman. As such I will make very little effort in these pages. Indeed, I consider Enthusiasm of any sort very servile.
Thus it is fortunate for the Reader that the narrative of my Life has no need for puffery or enthusiasm; my Deeds will speak for themselves. And such deeds! What triumphs! I negotiated the sale of Louisiana to Mr. Jefferson, in a deal that should have seen the President impeached for so reckless a use of the Public purse, and ordered the drafting of what became the Buttonwood Agreement. It was my refusal to pay tribute to the heretic Mogul that forced our Nation’s entry into the Barbary Wars, and the First Bank of the United States was created to repay Notes I held from the Revolution, an Institution that I then dissolved when the interest rates turned against me.
Nor have my exploits been confined to the new World. I have won great Fortunes in every corner of the globe, and bedded over a thousand of the loveliest women of our age, here in America, and also in France, Holland and many of the German principates. As to my progeny, His Excellency the Archbishop of Y., his Grace the Duke of P---, and his Majesty the King of R---, each of these Lords and gentlemen are my bastards. I led the Dirge at Captain Nelson’s funeral, which the editors of Punch and the Spectator swore moved his Majesty to tears. I was asked as the only witness to the morganatic marriage of Charles Phillip, and served as the Honorary chairman of the Worshipful company of Goldsmiths during the panic of 1802. And my accomplishments in field sports were no less grand; I rode out regularly with the Crawley, Kimblewick and Northumberland hunts, and bowled an Ox-tail against His Grace Duke Louis at Windmill Down. I boxed with Prince Frederick in the famous match in the yard at Christ Church, where-after His Highness presented me with a full wheel of Gloucester cheese, and a half a cask of claret from the Royal cellars. And during the minority of his Grace the Duke of Somerset, I was made interim Heraldic Falconer, an honor that entitled me to a stipend of £1000 from the Royal Purse, and a fully-dressed Deer twice annually from Richmond Park.
My clerks, who are the most meticulous and Competent scribes in all the Commonwealth, assure me that my accounts are measured in the hundreds of thousands of Dollars, and the Editor of the New York Evening Post has twice declared that I am a millionary. When I drive through Boston, I do so in a six-horse Stanhope that was presented to me by the French Ambassador, and cost Thirty-Two thousand francs. My Wardrobe has been has been appraised as being equal or greater to the Prince of Wales’, including six pairs of hand-stitched Cavalier & Hussar boots, and a collection of Silk hats made by Mr. John Hetherington. I have a stable of prize Racehorses in Virginia, two of whom are champions of the steeplechase at Dorn. I have Eighty-thousand acres of land throughout the Americas where my chattels harvest flax, hemp, wheat, rice, lumber, cotton, and tobacco and corn. I have a musket factory in Baltimore, a cannon factory in Richmond, a bank in London, two Textile factories in Manchester, and a fleet of ships & rail-way lines that carry my goods to every port in the world. I have a townhouse in Boston that I let to the British Ambassador at forty-two pounds a week, and a sprawling estate at Newbury adorned with costly sculptures and marble fountainettes. I have friends and apartments in every Court in Europe and a thousand dependents stretched across three continents. And thus I may say without exaggeration that I am the most splendid man of my generation.
Now I sit here beside a low fire, and these episodes of my life dance before me in the pillows of smoke cast out from hearth. I have small time left on this Earth. Soon the Almighty shall call me away to my Reward, and it will be a great Mercy. I have gout, spots on the lungs, and a tumor growing in my throat. I have gravel in the liver, and poor circulation. Time and hard-living have usurped my youth, and left me a frail, tired, though eminently Regal creature.
But do not think I am living in any sort of discomfort. Quite the contrary. At the appointed hour, my Footmen will bring me a scrumptious dinner of roasted duck or fresh fish, along with fried squash (butternut or acorn, as I fancy), pate, liver mousse, and then chocolates, cherries, figs, walnuts, brandy and coffee, all served in costly porcelain, silver and pewter. My Groom will bring me slippers lined in mink, medical ointment for my foot, hot towels & lilac water, amorous letters from royal Princesses, and anything else I should require. He will be dressed in costly Livery, and bow before me on this floor made of imported Italian marble. And it is all right and well that they should do so.
I remain a loyal Englishman, and a Torryie. Like all young men, I shall not deny that I too flirted with various Whiggish and Republickan sentiments and was endeared by the juvenile musings of Messers Franklin and Paine. But I have now seen these Blasphemies for what they are; Jacobinism, itself a mere proxy for the most trifling of boyhood Resentments, seeks to topple every Church-spire, and mutilate every Beauty, so that all the World becomes as vile as the contemptible sans-cullottes. These Jacobins would exterminate Horses because they never learned to Ride, and rid the world of Sugar-plums because they haven’t any teeth. But in all Truth the great mass of men have as much use for Liberty as I have for a begging bowl.
On that score, I will say that our Revolution was a disgraceful enterprise, and had it not been for the cowardly machinations of that prig John Adams, I should have succeeded in foiling the ambitions of those so-called Patriots. Theirs was an ignoble pursuit, and though I had been Vocal and Notorious in my support of good King George, my power and influence were such that the victory of those Traitors could no more endanger me than the coming of winter may endanger the ancient Oak.
As for my family, I too could manufacture a genealogy worthy of Gulliam or D’hozier, and trace by contrivance my descent through a noble Lord, back still to a medieval thane of the Garter, and all the way to William the first, and if you like, back further still until you have reached Cane, Abel and Adam. And what of it? What would that say of me that is not better shown by a tour through my gardens, and a hunt, paid for from my own purse, replete with the most extravagant and noble accouterment?
Thus unlike so many pretenders to gentility, I freely own that I was born into a family of no consequence. In fact there was a time when I was refused intercourse by the better families of the Commonwealth, the Winthrops, Crowninshields and the Thorndikes. They called me a bounder and a smuggler and insisted that I was an unlettered Buccaneer; indeed, Mrs. Samuel Crowinshield once remarked that I had the manners of a Fish-monger, and the Graces of a Farrier. Worse, at Miss Daisy Crowninshield’s debut, I was intentionally mistaken for a Coacher, and asked to await my Master at the side-door; an insult which I assure you I have made those Crowninshield derelicts pay for not once or twice, but a thousand times, and an insult which their progeny shall continue to pay so long as I am alive. Ask anyone. Ask any newsboy in the North End if any man called Crowninshield is now able to secure a sloop at the dock, or a loan from a bank, or stand for the Legislative. He will tell you such a thing is impossible.
But the rest of these so-called Brahmins have seen fit to revisit their opinion of Sperryhawke and now they eagerly Compete for the honor of winning the hand of a Sperryhawke in marriage, and call upon my Sons for capital, political support, and patronage of all varieties. They have no quibble about eating from my table now! Many of these nere’do-wells have spent years gorged upon my chef’s hefty cuts of venison and drunk upon a thousand butts of burgundy supplied from my cellars. And when I pass them in Boston Common, do they not clamber to inform their companion that they are acquainted with the great Sperryhawke? Do they not gape at my equipage, and inquire “Mr. Sperryhawke, where did you Acquire that bottle green coat?” They do all of things and more; indeed, my knowledge of their existence is the closest thing to prominence they shall achieve in this life. So it is no idle boast to state that I have made Sperryhawke the greatest name in all of Massachusetts -- indeed, perhaps in all America. This I submit is a fine achievement for a boy who was born into poverty such as would make an Irishman weep.
And the poverty was appalling. The family farm into which I was reared was little more than an outhouse attached to three measly acres of turnips set back from the northern edge of the Kennebec River. The floor of our house was made of earthen-rock sewn tight with bullock’s blood.1 We had pig there just in the kitchen, and three hens besides. And it t’was just there in the dirt, atop a few sprigs of hay, that I rested my head each night, along with me brothers and sisters.
My father, a Mr. Jeremiah Sperryhawke, had come over from England as a domestic in the service of Mr. Ameswell Haughtenrock. I know the shame of it. Although my father was bound to seven years of labor in exchange for his release from debtor’s prison and his passage to the New World, Mr. Haughtenrock saw fit to end his tenure after only nineteen months. And in this estimation I believe Mr. Haughtenrock was entirely correct. My father was a worthless old sot, whose want of labor forced my family into an appalling state of subsistence. Oh how I can even today recall the shame the Sperryhawkes!
Though Jeremiah was a free-thinker, my mother was a devout soul and insisted we make the journey each Sunday to service. I recall how I used to sit in envy of the merchants’ sons, and the lawyers’ sons, how they dressed in fine velvet and well-fitting britches, and adorned their hair with handsome bows; how they all complimented & Embraced one another, but would scoff and snicker whence the Sperryhawkes ushered into the pews. Their pride was as un-Bearable as it was unmerited.2
But raised as I was amidst such appalling deprivation, I always had very high tastes, which I can only surmise were sown into my constitution by the Almighty himself. I recall sitting at table in the kitchen and instructing my mother as to the proper manner in which to prepare my meals. “Mother, be a dear and cut my carrots Julienne. And perhaps a sprig of parsley round the potato to give the plate some color.” In hindsight I will agree that these were unreasonable demands upon a kind woman who had enough trouble as it was putting food on the table and keeping our father out of the stockades. Father, who was generally drunk by the dinner hour, used to scoff, “What fine gentleman’s airs you have, Georgie!”
Of course we had no money, but I yet always tried to do my best with the few scraps of clothes given me; I would cut away the excess material from the rags we boys were dressed in, so that the fabric clung smartly to my form, as I had seen the better quality of boys in town wear their clothing. And often times, when appropriate, that I would use the excess fabric to tie my hair into a fine bow.
Alas, not even my perseverance or high tastes, could save us from the genuine consequence of poverty. In fact, things became so bad in the winter of ’53 that three of my brothers died of dropsy. Nigel, Herbert, and that other one, whose name now escapes me. They were my blood, and my most prized possessions. But owing to the lack of food, to the lack of warmth, to the lack of clean water, or the basic necessities, these boys died deaths cruel and senseless. And to make matters all the worse, I was obliged to bury them both with mine own hands for our father could not even afford the cost of a Christian burial.
When I had reached a man’s bearing and was able to discern the source of my family’s misfortune, I could not abide anymore of our Honor sacrificed upon the altar of that man’s idleness. He had failed in the harvest once again, and though he assigned the fault to the draught, it was in fact owing to his ignorance of agronomy & proper irrigation. And thus it came to pass that I resolved to have it out with Mr. Jeremiah Sperryhawke.
I recall that evening vividly. He had been out, as he normally was, at the ale-House, where he claimed to seek work. I waited for him, there, just on the lone stool in the kitchen. He came stumbling through the door, his face distorted from gin and tobacco smoke. I at once knocked him down, and set upon him. He still had a full foot of height on my, and yet owing to his drunkenness, he was unable to defend himself. I kicked him twice hard in the stomach and broke the lonely stool over the back of his skull. He began to raise himself in defense, whence I struck him hard across the face with the back of my fist. Thence grabbing him by the thick of his neck, I smashed his face something awful, and compressed it thoroughly into the peat moss of the wall all the while berating him with clever insults.
My mother watched this confrontation and pleaded with me to cease my violence; though in truth I believe she was secretly impressed by my daring. Of course this assault was a capital offense, near to parricide in the Law and it was thus necessary for me to remove myself from the family stead. And so I tied away my few things and prepared to put out into the world. Looking back over these three score and ten years, I can still see the figure of my mother standing at the crest of the door of that wretched farmhouse, dotting her eyes with a soiled piece of linen. She threw herself at my feet and begged me not to desert her. The poor woman’s suffering touched me deeply, but I refused.
And so it was that in the winter of Fifty-Seven that I quit the house of my youth -- an outcast, alone, and penniless, but resolved to make myself a gentleman. I shall not now tell in any great detail of the many fantastic adventures of those early years. Of the days spent wandering the Post Road towards Boston. How I labored through snow drifts and fought with wild animals for a dry place to sleep. Nor of the scoundrel Peter Plimpton, that jolly fat man with rosy cheek, who saved me from a certain death only to turn traitor and sell me into servitude. Nor of the dreadful candle manufactory at Marblehead, where I was shackled to a great iron cauldron of boiling pig fat, and forced to stir that disgusting bile with a large wooden spoon. And what of the wretched sorts with whom I was forced to keep company! Of the street urchins, the pickpockets, and the awful orphan boys who mocked me for my gentility. Even today the memory sticks in my throat.
Whilst I was employed in the dreaded candle factory belonging to Mr. Worthington, the foreman required that we lads attend service at Salem. And it was at the Church that I resolved to extricate myself from the doldrums of common labor. I first charmed the Minister, and obtained from him instruction in reading and elocution. He lent me books, and I practiced my letters by the light of the bubbling pig fat and still more ingeniously practiced enunciation to rid my words of their rustic accent. I brushed my clothes, and polished my shoes, and made myself handsome and agreeable. The wretched are want to complain of their misfortune, which they assign to forces beyond their control. “I had no family.” “I had no education.” “I had no costly furs.” But consider only that there was no more wretched than I during those years, and yet I have overcome each obstacle that has been placed before me. I had no father to teach me how to seduce an old widow. I had no instruction on how to deceive my enemies. It was by sheer cunning and daring that I won the favor of the dowager of Salem.
Yes, indeed, the great dowager of Salem, Mrs. Esther Higginbottom. The Minister had recommended me to her as a boy in want of spiritual advancement. She was a woman of immense property and soon succumbed to my advances. “A boy such as you can make hay from crabgrass!” the Dowager was fond of saying. Thus she took me from the candle manufactory and repaired me to the schoolroom, where I excelled in Latin, Mathematicks, Fencing and Dancing. She bought me fine coats, and expensive furs, and I strode the cobblestone path as handsome and gay as any of those boys whose station I had so coveted in my childhood.
All of these things would make fine reading, and greatly edify posterity. But I have no leisure to talk of such pursuits. In fact I have never before allowed those memories to be spoken. Instead, I chuse to begin the story of my life in the year and season when I was sent up to Cambridge. It is a fitting start to a most extraordinary tale.