Occasionally items from archives go astray; very occasionally we are able to reunite them with their parent collections. This happy circumstance occurred recently, when we came upon a rather grubby nineteenth-century letter within a file of miscellaneous material which appears to have been sent for repair in the 1950s or ’60s.
This particular letter, dated 31 August 1821 and extending to eight pages, was sent by Stratford Canning (1786–1880), British minister-plenipotentiary in Washington DC, to ‘My dear Raikes’. A quick search of our archive catalogue revealed this to be Rev. Henry Raikes (1782–1854), whose correspondence was acquired by the John Rylands Library in 1948 (English MS 1121). A faintly pencilled ‘178’ confirmed that the letter had indeed escaped from Raikes’s papers.
The back-story of this letter is tinged with tragedy. Canning had married Henry’s sister Harriet in 1816. Less than a year later she died in childbirth in Switzerland, where Canning was serving as minister plenipotentiary.
In September 1819 Canning accepted a three-year posting to Washington DC. The United States capital was then an unsophisticated place, still recovering from the British attack upon the city five years earlier; Canning describes it as ‘this half-settled seat of Government’. Understandably, relations between Canning and his American hosts were often strained. John Quincy Adams described him as ‘a proud, high-tempered Englishman … of all the foreign ministers with whom I have had occasion to treat, the man who has most tried my temper’ (ODNB, quoting Stanley Lane-Poole, The Life of the Rt Hon. Stratford Canning (London, 1888), vol. 1, p. 308).
The letter offers detailed observations on various aspects of life in Washington DC. Canning was particularly impressed with the religious diversity and devotion of the capital’s inhabitants:
“We have sects of every description, and all have their places of worship, not indeed very brilliant in point of architecture or internal decoration, but, with some few exceptions, decent, and by no means betraying any particular backwardness on the part of the inhabitants. Of an evening one frequently hears prayers or psalm singing not only in the churches but also in private houses. The people of Georgetown seem to be more devout than their neighbours, in so much so that many families will not frequent any mixed society, and I am informed that even some of the episcopal clergymen preach against dancing & evening assemblies.”
While such ‘holier than thou’ attitudes clearly amused him, Canning was appalled by the racial segregation practised by the churches:
“I have been somewhat disgusted at finding that the principles of equality, whether Christian or political, are not extended to the unfortunate negroes. These unhappy men are indeed admitted into church, but a separate place is allotted to them; and in taking the sacrament they are not allowed to approach the table till after the whites. They are therefore with good reason anxious to have a chapel to themselves; and it is not long since I chanced to hear a sermon preached by a sable reverence, and that in very creditable terms, by an audience as deeply coloured as himself.”
Canning was also alive to the development of literature in America, presciently anticipating that it would challenge Britain’s cultural hegemony:
“Within the last year an Academy of Literature and Belles lettres, particularly with a view to the purification of our mother tongue, has been established at New York by the Learned & Illustrious of this Country. A feverish anxiety prevails to rival Great Britain in Letters as in arms, and I should not be much surprized if Books were some day to be classed amongst domestic manufactory & protected by the exclusion of their British Rivals.”
The letter has now been reunited with the Raikes papers. As for Stratford Canning, after his return from Washington he was appointed British ambassador in Constantinople and played an important role in the ‘Eastern Question’, which dominated British foreign policy in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.