Modern history


The Profits of Asceticism

Well, Hiram, I suppose thee is ready for work now,” Caleb Wellworthy, a New Bedford Quaker and whaling merchant, says to his son in the 1890 novel A Quaker Home, by George Fox Tucker.

“Yes, I am ready if thee desires it,” Hiram replies, “but I feel that I would like to remain in school a little longer.”

“When a man chooses business as his occupation,” his father tells him, “it is better for him not to remain too long in school.”

It’s June 1867, and fifteen-year-old Hiram has come home to New Bedford from the Friends’ Boarding School in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s supposed to begin work the next day in his father’s countinghouse and offices on New Bedford’s waterfront. Caleb outlines for the boy the shape of his apprenticeship:

To be a good businessman, Hiram, one must learn all the details. I want thee to keep at the books for several years, spending an hour or two on the wharf every afternoon when ships are fitting; and after that I want thee to devote thy attention exclusively to the mechanical parts of the business, and to the various details of purchases and sales. In eight or ten years thee ought to be able to fit a ship economically and well.

Young Hiram is appalled.

Eight or ten years! . . . Incessant labor and unbroken monotony, an uneventful home existence, no diversions to give variety to life . . . no society save that of Charity Jessop and her sober companions!

Tucker’s novel is closely and avowedly autobiographical. Novelist George Fox Tucker (named by his rigorously faithful parents for the sect’s founder) was born in 1852, the same year as Hiram, and also attended the Friends’ Boarding School in Providence. His father, Charles R. Tucker, a contemporary of George Howland, Jr., and Matthew Howland, was an eminent and successful whaling merchant who “won, to an extent reached by few, the approbation and regard of his associates and of the community,” notes a history of New Bedford. A Quaker Home details Hiram Wellworthy’s resistance to following the career his father has planned for him; he wants instead to write novels and recoils at the aridity of business and the countinghouse, but eventually he compromises with his father and takes up the law. Author Tucker also served a brief apprenticeship in his father’s business before turning to the law, and subsequently wrote novels. Strict Quakers, like the Tuckers, the Howlands, and the elite Quaker society that monopolized New Bedford’s—and for a time the world’s—oil business, did not read novels, let alone stand back and observe themselves or write memoirs of their lives. One may read in Moby-Dick and many seamen’s memoirs of the procedure of chasing and harpooning whales and the whaler’s life at sea, but Tucker’s book provides one of the rare depictions of the hermetic world of Quaker home life, society, and the shorebound business of a Quaker whaling merchant. His characters speak and behave with artless inevitability (perhaps the believable flavor of the author’s straitened early life), but the detailed specificity of Hiram’s route to his father’s office—“following Union Street to Front Street, I turned south and soon found myself at the office door . . . in the old brick building which stands at the head of Commercial Wharf ”—reads true.

There was one large room, a portion of which to the right as one entered was partitioned off so as to form a private office or consulting room; and the large room itself was divided by a rail. The space on the side of this rail which was farthest from the door was called the inner office, and was occupied by father, the head bookkeeper, and Uncle Silas. I was now to join them. There were in the inclosure a safe; three high, long, old-fashioned desks, from which hung several pieces of cloth used as pen-wipers; a number of high stools, and one chair. The latter was for father’s exclusive use. There were a few chairs outside the rail for those who came on business.

This is a description of the offices of Charles R. Tucker & Co., where the novelist sat and worked during his apprenticeship. It occupied the southeast corner of the large brick building on Commercial Wharf—the sort of building and harbor aspect that, in the grip of twentieth-century urban renewal, have revitalized old ports around the world. Many such can still be seen today farther west along I-195 in Fall River and Providence, and around Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. But the building Tucker writes of was demolished, along with much of New Bedford’s historic waterfront, in the early 1970s, more irreparably than the British fires of two hundred years earlier, to make way for the history-obliterating four-lane connector, Route 18, that now runs south from the interstate, along the Acushnet River, and effectively severs the waterfront from the town’s historic district, which now gazes at a shoreline swathed in concrete. Of this busy world and time, there are photographs to show us what it looked like, but of the people and their tics and speech and prejudices, only George Fox Tucker’s A Quaker Home remains as documentary evidence.

Caleb Wellworthy initially expects his son to do as he did: apprentice himself into the whaling business. This is what Charles R. Tucker expected of his son George, and what he himself had done in 1830, by entering the countinghouse of Quaker businessman Isaac Howland, Jr., then the most successful whaling merchant in New Bedford. Quakers didn’t lavish money on their offices, and it may be presumed that the Howland offices of the early nineteenth century, situated in another brick building at the head of Howland’s Wharf, four blocks north, resembled those of the fictional Caleb Wellworthy.

Isaac Howland, Jr. (the third of that name), was born in 1755. He was a tiny man, said to weigh between ninety and a hundred pounds—not the physique to make a career at sea, but “the fire of a strong determination burned in him,” wrote historian and Howland genealogist William M. Emery. In later years, Isaac Jr. would say that he experienced great hardship and toil in accumulating his first thousand dollars. One of his reported early efforts was to buy the silk stockings worn by sailors arriving in New Bedford on trading vessels from the West Indies in the first years after the Revolution. Howland is said to have washed and ironed these stockings and sold them again for a good profit. This anecdote is probably more revealing of his inventiveness than of the route to that first thousand dollars, but it illustrates the wide embrace of Howland’s enterprises before he concentrated on whaling.

New Bedford’s whaling industry was slow to revive after the Revolution. The defeated British—London had been America’s primary market for its oil—enacted laws against the importation of American oil. Joseph Rotch’s son William attempted unsuccessfully to sell American oil to Europe from the port of Dunkirk. The Napoleonic Wars, between Britain and America’s ally, France, resulted in the seizure of many American ships on the high seas—whalers and ships carrying whale oil were as visible and crucial to the economies of warring states as oil tankers and merchant ships were to Britain in World War II, and, like the transatlantic convoys in the 1940s, were sought-after targets. The resumption of open hostilities between America and Britain during the War of 1812 had a further dampening effect on every American port, but in particular on New Bedford, whose economy was almost entirely dependent on its shipping interests.

Before the Revolution, Isaac Howland, Jr., was involved in his father’s merchant shipping enterprises. Even after this was ruined, he managed to keep his hand in shipping, and formed his own company, Isaac Howland, Jr., & Co. He was soon trading in anything that would turn a profit, while sending his ships to ports in neutral countries: to Göteborg, St. Petersburg, and Riga in the Baltic for Swedish and Russian iron, which was prized for harpoons and whaling lances, as well as to Europe and the West Indies. His store at the head of Howland’s Wharf sold “fresh” Alexandria flour, corn, rye, beef, pork, cheese, tea, coffee, sugar, lumber, and Russian and “Swedes” iron.

Isaac’s second cousin, Gideon Howland, Jr. (1770-1847), married Isaac’s daughter Mehitable in 1798 and became a partner with his father-in-law in Isaac Howland, Jr., & Co. Gideon Jr.’s professional life up to the point of his marriage was a complementary contrast to that of Isaac Howland, Jr.: tall, with a commanding physique, he had spent years at sea, working his way up to the captaincy of a whaling vessel. After his marriage he retired from the sea and brought this practical side of seafaring to the business. It was after Gideon Jr. had joined the firm that Isaac Howland, Jr., & Co. became the dominant shipping concern in New Bedford.

The company was rigorous in sending to sea only well-equipped, seaworthy vessels, commanded by highly competent captains and crews—Gideon Jr.’s experience undoubtedly paid off here. The goods sold at the Howland company store were always first class, at prices that were fair. The dependability of every aspect of the Howland business became well known and trusted. This bred loyalty in customers and business associates. Yet these good practices, followed by other merchants in larger ports that never suffered the tribulations experienced in New Bedford, do not explain the ascent of Isaac Howland, Jr., and his company; nor do they explain the eventual world dominance of the whale fishery by New Bedford. “New Bedford is not nearer to the whales than New London or Portland,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, a frequent visitor to the town and, for six months in 1833, a preacher at the town’s First Congregational Church.

At the root of the Howlands’ and New Bedford’s endeavors and singular successes lay the austere sensibility of Quaker doctrine.

From the inception of Quakerism, when its followers were persecuted by the established church and state, in both England and America, Quakers were, by avid choice and practice, outsiders to normal society, barred from government service, from civil and legal professions, and from universities; and their pacifism prohibited military service. Like the Jews of Eastern Europe, persecuted through millennia, what was left to them was trade, financial services, and medicine, and at these callings Quakers excelled. Through native ability, honesty, and energy, they became disproportionately more prosperous and influential than those who had been accorded every advantage offered by the society around them.

Quakers’ honesty led them to pioneer uniform pricing, without discrimination or advantage, which won the confidence of the public market. In England and America they became leaders in textile, shipping, and pharmaceutical industries, in pottery- and clock-making and the manufacture of scientific instruments. Their reputation for honesty and prudent business practices and investment led to the establishment of Quaker-owned banking institutions such as Lloyds and Barclays. The Quaker Fry, Cadbury, and Rowntree families dominated the British chocolate industry for two centuries.

Thomas Chalkley (1675-1741), a Quaker sea captain, merchant, and minister, defined the Quaker rationale for financial gain through an industrious calling:

We have liberty from God, and his dear Son, lawfully, and for Accomodation’s Sake, to work or seek for Food. . . . Our Saviour saith, Labour not for the Meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth forever. . . . By which we do not understand, that Christians must neglect their necessary Occasions and their outward Trades and Callings . . . else why did our Lord say to his Disciples: Children, have you any Meat? They answered, No; and he bid them cast their Nets into the Sea, and they drew to Land a Net full of great Fishes; and Fishing being their Trade, no doubt but they sold them, for it was not likely they could eat ’em all themselves. . . . The Farmer, the Tradesman, and the Merchant, do not understand by our Lord’s Doctrine, that they must neglect their Calling, or grow idle in the Business, but must certainly work, and be industrious in their Callings.

In this spirit, Quakers believed that (a) by diligent pursuit of their calling, the Lord would bestow his blessing upon them in the form of material prosperity, and that this success was a sure sign of the Lord’s approval; and (b) that there was no limit on the degree of prosperity desirable. More was better. Wealth indicated godliness.

The Quaker William Penn, onetime owner of an iron foundry in Kent, England, and the founder of Pennsylvania, had this economic advice for his children and followers:

There is no living upon the Principal, you must be diligent to preserve what you have, whether it be Acquisition or Inheritance; else it will consume. Frugality is a Virtue too, and not of little Use in Life, a better Way to be Rich, for it has less Toil and Temptation. . . . For this way of getting is more in your own Power and less subject to Hazard. . . . True Godliness doesn’t turn Men out of the World, but enables them to live better in it.

Paralleling this frugality, Quakers practiced an almost Hindu asceticism, reflected in their personal behavior, speech, deportment, appearance, and concept of the world. They were most widely and easily distinguished by what they called “the plain language”: their “thees” and “thous,” which represented an expression of their belief in the equality of all people, from a time when “you” was the required address to superiors; and, of course, by the chronic refusal to doff the hat. Though no rigid laws were passed about dress, Quaker clothing was chosen for its plainness, warmth, decency, and suitability to the sex of the wearer. Any form of show or ostentation in apparel was discouraged to the point of de facto decree. Colors were generally of soft grays, dull drabs, sage greens, somber browns, and black. Costumes grew so uniform that by the late eighteenth century the regulation appearance for both sexes had effectively frozen into the style of the Quakers of Pennsylvania of one hundred years earlier: gowns, layers of petticoats, bonnets, and linens of uniform “drab”—a light, dull, neutral color—for women; frock coats, breeches, and vests for men. Those unremovable hats were wide-brimmed, gray, drab, or black. The attention paid to them and the insistence on wearing them may seem quaint or absurd today—as they often did two centuries ago to “the people of the world,” as Quakers called everyone else—but to them, the hat betokened religious compliance as surely as the burka and chador have done in many Muslim cultures. For some, the width of a man’s hat brim was an indication of the state of his soul. “After deep proving,” wrote a Quaker in his diary, “I can but believe I have made some growth in grace the past year, and may without presumption add half an inch to the width of my hat brim.” A woman in Nantucket who lived for years with her father-in-law only once saw him without his hat upon his head.

Jewelry was out of the question: Hiram Wellworthy’s killjoy grandmother even admonished her daughter-in-law for wearing the spectacles that her husband had given her for her fiftieth birthday: “Deborah . . . the Discipline is decisive upon the matter . . . thee ought to know that gold-bowed spectacles are jewelry.”

The interior and perceived worlds of the Quakers were equally severe. George Fox had disapproved of the names given to the days of the week, for these derived from the gods of pagan times—Tuesday from Zeus, Wednesday from Woden, Thursday from the thunder god Thor, Friday from the name of Woden’s wife, Saturday from Saturn. Fox preferred enumerating the days of the week as they were described in the Book of Genesis: First Day (Sunday), Second Day, and so on. The same for the months, which Quakers called First, Second, etc.

Music was associated with worldliness and was therefore banned, both in worship and in the home. Similarly, dancing and dramatics. “The ears must be stopped to the sounds which ravished,” young Hiram was told, “and the eyes must be turned away from the scenes which fascinated and inspired. . . . So opposed was grandmother to music that she believed it was wrong to even listen to the caroling of a bird.” Literature for pleasure was pernicious; reading was restricted to the Bible and edifying tracts or useful technical information. Alcohol was forbidden.

Hiram’s father, like many other Quaker parents, believed the young were to be educated only to the degree necessary to begin adult life; schooling beyond the early teens, which carried with it the dangers of inflammatory revelations, was discouraged. Beyond the essentials, and the acquired talents brought by various apprenticeships, it was felt that God could supply all the knowledge a person required, and even too much theological teaching was frowned upon, as the Lord’s spirit could be tapped without the intermediary of a clergyman or his instruction.

This self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and rejection of worldly influences resulted in an asceticism rarely found elsewhere in the Western world. In The Religion of India (Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssociologie, volume 2, 1920), German sociologist Max Weber observed that there were many points of resemblance between the American Quakers of the nineteenth century and the Jains of India (500 B.C. onward). Weber noted that the life ethic of Hinduism had at one time effectively discouraged the development of bourgeois capitalism in India, despite a society with highly developed cultures of law, science, and government. Around 500 B.C., the Jains, a heretical Vedic sect, rejected the dominant Hindu views about religion and economics, and developed as a conspicuous exception. Jainism evolved as a reaction against the traditional view that Moksa, or Nirvana, the endgame liberation from the Hindu cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth could be achieved only by Brahmans, who had reached this highest echelon in the Hindu caste system through countless cycles of rebirth. Jainism, and later Buddhism, arose as a kind of “Nirvana Now” shortcut: a means of achieving salvation through one’s efforts and behavior in the present life. Weber’s comparison of the Jains and Quakers was further explored by Professor Balwant Nevaskar in Capitalists Without Capitalism: The Jains of India and the Quakers of the West (1971). Like the Quakers, Jains practiced a strictly ascetic lifestyle, abstinence from intoxicants, frugality, and detachment, inwardly and practically, from the world around them. Like the Quakers, who migrated to urban areas for the greater economic advantages afforded them there, the Jains congregated in cities (because their beliefs in the sanctity of all forms of life—including bugs—prohibited them from agricultural occupations). Both groups were pacifist. Because of their religious beliefs, the Jains, too, were barred from government and many professional occupations, and eventually took up trading and financial services. Any kind of deception was forbidden to Jains, and consequently they became trusted with money and in trade. As Jainism and the business acumen of the Jains developed, only the striving after, and undue attachment to, wealth for its own sake was forbidden—but not the acquisition of it. Jains became Rothschildian moneylenders, bankers, jewelers, cloth merchants, and industrialists who eventually controlled a large proportion of India’s mercantile wealth. Quakers submitted themselves to the scrutiny of the elders at their Meeting Houses; the Jain equivalent was the upasraya, where the monks and nuns lived in segregated dwellings and counseled their lay congregants. In both places, conduct in daily life was reviewed and strictly determined by religious ethics.

Although subscribing to quite different theological beliefs, the Jains and the Quakers were almost identical in their clannish, thrifty, and hardworking lifestyle, and their dedication to a strict business ethic and absolute honesty in their business dealings with nonbelievers brought them to positions of superiority in the nonbelievers’ capitalist world.

Among the whaling Quakers of New Bedford, the fruitful Howland family most perfectly represents the supremacy of this Quaker merchant strain. Since Quaker Henry Howland, brother of the Mayflower John, had purchased, with others, the Dartmouth tract in 1652, six further generations of Howlands had branched and multiplied up and down both banks of the Acushnet. They farmed and fished, accruing solid gains on the land, in household goods, and in modest numbers of pounds, shillings, and pence. A few, like Isaac Howland, Jr.,’s father, took to the sea, but the coming of Nantucketer Joseph Rotch and his dreams of a whaling port on the Acushnet struck the watershed chord among numbers of Howlands, as well as others.

Isaac Howland, Jr.’s, greatest rival in the whale fishery was his distant cousin, George Howland (1781-1852), who established what was to become, through his sons, George Jr. and Matthew, the longest-running whaling business in New Bedford, and the last owned by Howlands—conducted too long, too late.

George Howland—Dartmouth founder Henry’s great-great-great-great-grandson—was born on his father Matthew’s farm in Acushnet, immediately north of New Bedford. As a boy, living and working amid pasture, rock, and livestock, he knew little or nothing of seafaring; his early education was restricted to the basics of reading and writing. Yet he was clearly ambitious for a larger life. At sixteen, he walked a few miles south and entered the waterfront countinghouse of William Rotch, Jr. ( Joseph Rotch’s grandson), and there he learned a whole world of improvement. William Rotch, Jr., had been born in Nantucket but moved, with his father, William Sr., to New Bedford after the Revolution—after Joseph Rotch had returned dispirited to Nantucket. George Howland did well in his employ, and within a few years he left Rotch & Co. to start his own business as an agent for whaling and merchant vessels. His offices were at the foot of North Street, close to the river. He soon built his own wharf—still marked “Geo Howland’s Wharf ” on an 1871 map of New Bedford. He had three children by his first wife, Elizabeth; two died, leaving only George Jr., born in October 1806, and Elizabeth herself died less than two months later. George married again in 1810, this time to his sixteen-year-old cousin, Susan Howland. He brought her home to a plain but substantial house he had just built (which still stands) at Seventh and Walnut streets on a hill above New Bedford’s harbor. When they reached the house after the simple ceremony at the Friends Meeting House on Spring Street, a signal was made, and a brand-new whaleship, the George and Susan, slid from the ways at the builder’s yard at the foot of Walnut Street and was launched in full (then unobstructed) view of the wedding party up the hill. The new Mrs. Howland observed the name of the ship, which had been kept secret from her, through a telescope. Though she was famously small, Susan Howland was evidently strong: she gave birth to fourteen children in that house, of whom six survived into adulthood.

Howland wasn’t complacent about allowing his fortune to follow the whales. He foresaw that a substitute for whale oil would be found elsewhere and that New Bedford would not recover from the loss of its primary business. There was little sign of this until well after his death (in 1852), for the whale fishery was then still booming, ascending toward the financial peak it would reach in 1857, and New Bedford was fast becoming what many called a “city.” But in the 1840s George Howland began energetically looking for an opportunity to diversify and invest outside New Bedford the enormous wealth he was accumulating. He was by then worth over half a million dollars, with a fleet of nine whaling ships, a wharf, a candle factory, and other businesses, all in New Bedford.

He believed land was the preferred and ultimate investment, so he traveled, looking for a suitable spot. He liked Haverford village, ten miles west of the center of Philadelphia: in 1848, he made a substantial gift to Quaker-run Haverford College. But the land didn’t appear especially fertile, and Howland did not foresee the rise of suburban life. He liked New York City but found the real estate too expensive. Finally, Union Springs, in western New York state, seemed to George Howland destined to be a city of the future. It was on Cayuga Lake, halfway between Buffalo and the Hudson River, a link along the recently opened Erie Canal, which was carrying grain, cattle, stone, all the resources of the developing Midwest, across the expanse of New York. Howland saw the town as a new Chicago. He encouraged his children to settle there, built large houses for them, whole streets of stores and facilities. But he did not anticipate the coming of the railroads, which bypassed Union Springs and greatly undermined the commercial usefulness of the Erie Canal. Fifty years after his death, his assets in Union Springs were worth less than a tenth of his initial investment.

On his death, the bulk of what remained of George Howland’s estate was inherited by his two sons, George Jr. and Matthew. Both were grown men at the time of their father’s disastrous attempt at diversification; both had begun their working lives in their father’s counting house and ran the business he had started. They absorbed this signal lesson of what follows when man fiddles with the Lord’s most evident design—the Nantucket paradigm, pioneered by Quakers, which had been successfully transferred to New Bedford and faithfully transacted by their father and everyone they knew for more than a century, and which had made them all rich. George Jr. and Matthew would continue in the whale fishery far past its peak, in the face of every indication of natural exhaustion, and ride the industry’s decline into ruin.

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