In 1840 a 15-year-old boy, Benjamin by name, of northern Loudoun County, Virginia, toiled at his lessons. His penmanship was superb, far better than any modern hand, and his figuring was done in supremely confident pen and ink.
Young Benjamin could not possibly know, on May the 7th, 1840, that his notebook, which would survive against enormous odds through flood and fire and mildew and war, to be found some 165 years later, could cause a 44-year-old man to go weak in the knees.
Of course he means "common" fractions, but it's funny how words gain and lose meanings. We would never think to describe something as "vulgar" -- that adjective is reserved strictly for naughty language, now. Certainly that's how I first read it: the schoolboy's resentment toward a difficult subject -- "Oh, no, it's time for those filthy, vulgar fractions again!"
Quite a few days of Benjamin's April and May studies were spent learning to convert foreign currencies. There are pages and pages of calculations turning pounds, shillings and pence into guilders, francs, reales, thalers. Many transactions in the 19th century in the newly constituted United States were still done in foreign currency, and old coins found in archaeological sites are just as likely to be British as American. Even this late.
Remember those posters in the Seventies: "Plan Ahead"? Looks like Ben could have used the advice:
Several times throughout his notebook, young Benjamin carefully writes the name "Philadelphia," in different styles -- all capitals, cursive, block letters. Don't know why. Maybe he was practicing. But what's particularly wonderful about the above is the at-first confounding phrase, "Locofoco or Demicrat."
Turns out this was a Burning Issue in Benjamin's Current Events class. Ripped straight from the headlines. From the Wikipedia:
The Locofocos were a radical faction of the Democratic Party that existed from 1835 until the mid-1840s.Wow. Thirty years later, they'd be Communists.
The faction was created in New York City as a protest against that city's regular Democratic organization (Tammany Hall), and contained a mixture of anti-Tammany Democrats and labor union veterans of the Working Men's Party. In the 1840 election, the term "Locofoco" was applied to the entire Democratic Party by its Whig opponents, both because Democratic presidential candidate Martin Van Buren had incorporated many Locofoco ideas into his economic policy, and because Whigs considered the term to be derogatory.
In general, Locofocos supported Andrew Jackson and Van Buren, and were for free trade and greater circulation of specie and against paper money, financial speculation, and union-busting.
The name "Locofoco" comes from a brand of friction matches. Here's a corking good political cartoon from the time illustrating the issue. Boy, they don't make satire like that any more. Thank God. I speculate Ben's "Locofoco or Demicrat" is a punch line, a pun he heard -- "Demicrat" being only half a Democrat, you see.
OK, here's the History High moment for me. This one really blows my tiny little mind:
Just a doodle, a little squib in the margin, doesn't mean anything, no connection to the surrounding schoolwork.
But here's the thing: Young Benjamin thought to himself in an idle moment, "I think I'll draw a picture of a man." Maybe a caricature of his teacher, who knows. But the man he draws is wearing a stovepipe hat and a clawhammer coat.
That's the part that destroys me. To Ben, that wasn't a-picture-of-a-man-in-a-stylized-hat-and-coat -- that's just a picture of a man. In other words, that's what men looked like to Ben. That's not a theatrical costume. You're looking right at 1840, through the eyes of this boy.
I have a hard time not misting up at the immediacy of it, the feeling of awe that wells up. A hundred and sixty-five years ago.
I believe I've found Benjamin in the 1850 Loudoun County Census. Boy, I hope the Civil War was kind to him.