The Diary of Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, 1799-1806
Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker (1781-1864) began keeping a diary when she was eighteen years old. All told, in over 400 pages of handwritten entries, Bleecker kept track of her life in New York City for seven formative years, beginning in 1799 when she was eighteen years old and ending in 1806. As part of its ongoing efforts to digitize and make freely available large portions of its early American manuscript collections, The New York Public Library has made Bleecker’s diary available online. The diary’s 452 images account for less than one-percent of the pictures that will ultimately make their way online as part of the Early American Manuscripts Project. However, we feel the diary is worthy of some closer analysis. Periodically, for the next year, we will write blog posts featuring a single entry, or a series of entries, from the Bleecker diary.
Why, you might ask, are we focusing so closely on this one item? Simply put, the goal of our project is to digitize a selection of items that allow users to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives, while simultaneously exploring currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life. Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker’s diary captures all of this. On top of that, the diary is a source from and about New York City in its formative era.
And historians love diaries. They are, of course, incredible sources for understanding the diarist—their hopes, fears, and expectations, as well as the routine rhythms of their daily life. But diaries are also invaluable for understanding much broader social, cultural, and political changes were felt at the personal level. Historians just as frequently use diaries to bring a human element to epochal moments in history as they do to understand how people made sense of what they encountered on a day-to-day basis. Historical diaries are often edited and annotated and then used by historians and students. The Bleecker diary has not received this treatment. While we are not editing it in the traditional sense, our goal in these posts is to draw attention to the wide range of historical questions and concerns on which the Bleecker diary can offer a new perspective.
About the Diary
From the monumental to the mundane, Bleecker’s diary has it all. It is neither the diary of an upper-echelon member of the political elite, nor of an ordinary New Yorker. Bleecker was a well-to-do woman, a woman of leisure; she did not have to work. Her position afforded her a broad view of New York and the nation at the turn of the nineteenth century. As a woman of means, Bleecker was tapped into elite political and economic networks. For example, the day after Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel, his widow visited with Bleecker. When the increasingly volatile economies of New York and the United States ruined men, and sometimes even drove them to suicide, Bleecker had the inside scoop and knew the grisly details.
Bleecker was also a woman about town. She went to church, plays, and sideshows, and took shopping trips and drank tea with friends. On her jaunts, she witnessed some signal moments in the history of early New York, like the laying of the cornerstone of City Hall in 1803. While she was out and about during the seven years she kept her diary, Bleecker watched as the very nature of the City changed. Between 1790 and 1800, the population of the city nearly doubled to a little over 60,000 from around 33,000. It went up another 30,000 between 1800 and 1810. New York faced serious challenges in this period as it attempted to accommodate massive population growth and regulate city life. Bleecker bore witness. She heard and wrote about public disturbances, crimes, and court cases, and she watched as New York officials tried to contain fires and prison breaks.
Bleecker experienced and recorded life in New York City at a moment of great change and turmoil. But her position shielded her from some of the more threatening aspects of life in the most populous early American city. Epidemics of Yellow Fever periodically ravaged the City. While poor New Yorkers faced the very real possibility they would catch the Fever and never recover, Bleecker fled the crowded and dangerous city for the more salubrious suburban environs of Bedford, in Westchester County. Then as ever, class shaped urban life. Bleecker’s New York was a Tale of Two Cities.
Or perhaps it was a tale of three cities. “Negro men” and “black girls” appear throughout the diary as laborers. Though invariably identified by their skin color, it is not always clear whether they were enslaved. In 1799, the first year of Bleecker’s diary, New York State passed a bill to abolish the institution of slavery. But the bill did so gradually; the last slave was not freed until July 4, 1827. Like most everything else, slavery, freedom, servitude, and race were all in flux in early-nineteenth-century New York, as Bleecker’s diary unwittingly reveals.
As much as Bleecker’s diary can be read as an ethnography of early national New York City, it is above all an account of one woman’s life. We have to imagine that Bleecker’s list of the most significant events recorded in the diary would include her engagement and marriage to Alexander McDonald, the births of her first two children, and the marriages and deaths of countless friends and family members. Bleecker is a fascinating woman in her own right, and throughout this series we plan to bring that side of the diary out as well.
About the Early American Manuscripts Project
With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.