Ironically, at the moment of its birth, Whig culture was already signaling the fatal indecisiveness that would cause its demise in just two decades. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Swallow Barn.” Kennedy would side step the issues of race and slavery in his next two novels, but would return to them in the 1851 edition of Swallow Barn, just as the Whig party and its revered principle of compromise was collapsing. — Andrew R. Black.
I had not heard of Kennedy (1795-1870), but he came up ever so briefly during my reading of John Wayland’s book on Washington homes.
Kennedy is not a top-shelf historical figure, but I felt the need to learn more about the Whig era, the antebellum period between the 1830s to the 1850s when Whigs won three Presidential elections and wrestled away some power from the Jacksonian Democrats.
During this time, one sees the growing divide between the North and the South, and more and more indications of the terrible collision that would rip the country apart during the Civil War. The Democrats (conservative) were very effective with nativism, and appealing to the working class and farmers. President Jackson’s overstepping, however, and mishandling of the National Bank issue opened the door for the Whigs in 1834.
The Whigs’ key issues were internal improvements and support of tariffs. The party was strongest in the North, but as Harold Hurst puts it, Alexandria, ever protective of its mercantile interests, was “a citadel of the Whig Party.”
The setting for the book is Maryland, DC and Virginia, so that gave it added appeal for me.
Using this terrific book, let’s take a brief look at the life John Pendleton Kennedy.
Born, raised, lived and buried in Maryland’s biggest city, Kennedy was a son of Baltimore. Before turning his attention to reading classic literature, he spent a childhood taking in the bustling seaport. By the time Kennedy was old enough to sneak away to the water’s edge, Baltimore had surpassed Alexandria in trade activity.
His father immigrated from Ireland. His mother’s family tree showed the Pendletons living in what would become Berkeley County, West Virginia. What he saw on those Virginia plantations planted the seeds for the stories he would write about the antebellum south.
Despite being located not that far from the Mason-Dixon line, Baltimore was a hotbed of pro-slavery activity. Kennedy could have easily fell fully into the conservative Southern way of thinking, but his love of reading took him to other places and widened his world view.
Kennedy was influenced by the rigid right and wrongs of Scottish moralists, and developed a distaste for the provincialism of the South. He was a progressive thinker, but never an abolitionist. He fought proudly in the War of 1812, but did not want to see blood spilled in Mexico.
Kennedy started out as a lawyer, but his mind drifted to satire. When he was 23, he penned articles for the magazine, “Red Book.” His three major novels were historical fiction — Swallow Barn, Rob of the Bowl, and Horse-Shoe Robinson.
Kenned also wrote a biography of William Wirt (1772-1834), longest serving Attorney General of the United States and the one who helped prosecute Aaron Burr for treason.
The strength of Black’s book is his analysis of Swallow Barn. He points out that the events of the day disrupted Kennedy’s style for the novel.
Swallow Barn has been called a pioneer contribution to plantation literature, but Black exposes its weaknesses. In this regard and others, he makes certain not to write hagiography.
Kennedy’s views of African Americans were shaped by the common beliefs in his time. Even some scientific literature said they were inferior human beings. He agreed sending them to Liberia was the best solution.
In 1831, almost a century before the Algonquin Round Table clinked glasses and traded quips in Manhattan, Kennedy established “The Monday Club,” in Baltimore. His pen pals included Washington Irving. He also exchanged letters with Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Dickens.
In 1833 Kennedy judged Edgar Allen Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” as a best short story. The two corresponded for over a decade and Kennedy gave Poe money from time to time.
Kennedy supported the supremacy of the U.S. Congress over the president and internal improvements. He campaigned for Henry Clay and wrote a “Whig Manifesto.”
On the personal side, we learn that Kennedy lost his first wife to childbirth and the child less than a year later. He married again to Elizabeth Gray, whose father Edward was a prosperous mill owner and textile manufacturer near Baltimore. Gray built his mill and country home overlooking the Patapsco River south of Ellicott City, whose site is near the intersection of Frederick Road and River Road. Kennedy added an Italianate style wing with a campanile turret and arched windows.
After a visit there, Irving wrote:
“The evening passed delightfully: we sat out in the moonlight on the piazza, and strolled along the banks of the Patapsco; after which I went to bed, had a sweet night’s sleep, and dreamt I was in Mahomet’s Paradise.”
Portending future disasters that would rock the communities in and near Ellicott City, a torrent of flood waters swept away most of their paradise in 1868.
… here we witness the terrible desolation of the great flood of last July. Every tree, every shrub, the conservatory, the fences, the out-building, are all swept away. A great part of the dwelling house is in ruins, the porches carried away, my library entirely taken off, leaving no vestige of books, prints, busts and other articles. The Factory shockingly injured, the manager’s house lifted up from its foundation. The devastation has so completely altered the aspect of the place that I should not know it. It has been an overwhelming affliction to many families here. The loss of life extended to forty-two persons.
Two years later, Kennedy took his last breath and was laid to rest in at Green Mount Cemetery in his beloved Baltimore. Kennedy had given its dedication address.
Elizabeth joined him there in 1898, her sculptured marker a thing of artistic beauty. Close by are their daughter Eliza, Edward, his wife and Elizabeth’s sister Martha.
By the time of Kennedy’s passing, the Whig Party’s run had ended. The election of President Lincoln had changed the course of history.
Kennedy, Black tells us, voted for the Illinois senator in the 1864 election. And yet, he did not believe that emancipation equaled racial equality.
Of course, he was not alone.