Monday, July 13, 2015

The Fool and The Buckeye

Arthur St. Clair doodle
On this day in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance was enacted forming the Northwest Territory

People tend to think of history as some sort of concrete timeline where the occasional revisionist meddles with the facts. While that may be true at times, the fact is, some history just gets lost. Original sources like books, documents, paintings, etc turn up missing or get destroyed. Sometimes the original source is found to be wrong or subsequent authors didn't have access to good sources. Then folks use that as a source. You get the idea.

Back in the 18th century, seals were all the rage. Not the adorable trick-performing fish-eating mammals but rather the circular emblem type with a Latin motto. It made things all official-ly looking. The Old Northwest Territory, which would give birth to six US States had its own official seal designed by my favorite terrible frontier General and Governor Arthur St. Clair himself. I hadn't really thought about the Seal of the Northwest Territory too much until I ran across a funny reference to it in a 1939 book called "Cincinnati: Story of the Queen City" by Clara Longworth de Chambrun.

Arthur St. Clair
The man who runs the Dust Jacket, a collectible bookstore in Mt Lookout in Cincinnati told me a little about the author. Clara was a Longworth, one of Cincinnati's first and richest families, related to Teddy Roosevelt and Marquis de Lafayette. That's pretty good breeding. She had lived just up the road and said the book had some "real gossipy stuff". I was intrigued. After reading it I understood more of what he meant. It wasn't scandalous like TMZ or something, it was full of unsourced and anecdotal historical stories. Don't get me wrong though, she meant well and it's still a very interesting and worthy book with lots of good local material and illustrations. Just don't take everything she says as the last word.

Clara Longworth de Chambrun
Clara Longworth de Chambrun states that the seal design by "Saint Clair" (her odd spelling) represents the planting of a buckeye among the stumps of the fallen forest. She says that the design was criticized by people insisting "the Fool had cut down a good apple tree and replaced it with a worthless buckeye" (her quotes). She goes on to say that many felt no seal was needed since statehood was in sight. This was accompanied by an image of the seal. Notice she also spells "St. Clair" as "Saint Clair". I guess she really was a blue-blood Francophile. I think she just took a shine to the original French spelling of this surname. While there were variations, Arthur definitely spelled it "St. Clair" in his signature and I've never seen spelled any other way. Most historians pronounce it "Sinclair" too.

At any rate, as funny as I thought that "worthless buckeye" comment was, something didn't quite sit right with her apocryphal statement. She makes it sound like the seal was only in use very briefly. While St Clair certainly made his mistakes, he was a scholarly and educated man. The Old Northwest Territory existed from 1787–1803. The seal's first recorded use was in a proclamation made on July 26, 1788, by Arthur St. Clair himself. Statehood certainly was not in sight in 1788. That wouldn't happen until 1803. So it was in use for at least 15 years. In the image, there also seems to be no way to tell what kind of tree that is in the design.

William Hayden English
In the late 19th century a man named William Hayden English (a one time 1880 VP Democratic candidate who lost to the Garfield team) did some research while serving as the President of the Indiana Historical Society. He found that no official record existed on the full description or on the symbolism of the seal. In fact, it was difficult finding a copy of it that had all parts of it distinctly shown. Remember, these were nearly 100-year-old papers and they weren't exactly stored in a sealed climate controlled room. English basically recreated it from six photographs of documents and a lead rubbing of an impression of the seal.

His research was published in the 1896 book, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 and concluded:

The coiled snake in the foreground and the boats in the middle distance; the rising sun, the forest tree felled by the ax and cut into logs, succeeded, apparently, by an apple tree laden with fruit; the Latin inscription, "Meliorem lapsa locavit," "he has planted a better than the fallen," all combine forcibly to express the idea that a wild and savage condition is to be superseded by a higher and better civilization.

I believe what English came up with reconciles with what someone like Arthur St Clair had in mind. White men civilizing nature and "savage" Indian country. Also, English's book was published over 60 years prior to de Chambrun's. Whatever image Clara was looking at was the one re-created by English's research. As amusing that remark is about the fool and the buckeye is, and as much as I wanted it to be true, I think I have to go with English's more mundane interpretation. But where did Clara Longworth de Chambrun's notion come from? I guess that's the story lost to time.