Waving that bloody rag

December 11, 2003


One of the things that fascinates me is memory, as we take things that happened in our past and reconstitute them into narratives. Another thing that fascinates me, and the likely subject of my next project, is personal presentation and physical charisma. I was thinking about a moment when these two things came together, and I find that I can not work on my real stuff until I explain. The following anecdote will likely be the frontspiece to a future article on personal appearance and physical charisma among nineteenth-century clergymen.

John Mitchell Mason of the Associate Reformed Church was a big man. He was above average height, thickly built, and running to fat. He had a florid complexion and a face like a bulldog. He was one of the more distinctive and distinguished men in New York City. Mason was also a remarkably hard worker: at various points in his career he would be: the complete faculty of a theological seminary, chancellor of Columbia University, pastor of a large congregation, editor of a magazine (writing over half the words himself), and a major controversialist. For one brief moment in the 1810s he was doing all these things at the same time before overwork and exhaustion caught up with him. At the time of our story, Mason was simply a major pastor, the leading minister in the ARC (an American version of Scottish Calvinism), and on the board of Columbia.

Mason was also very political, on the Federalist side. The politics of the 1790s were far more divisive than anything we have seen lately, with Jeffersonians accusing the Federalists of misleading the nation, using war to divert people from domestic problems, and running roughshod over the Constitution, individual rights, and state rights by controlling all parts of the Federal government. Federalists, meanwhile, were convinced that the Jeffersonians were the American expression of the Jacobins who had created the Terror and performed all the worst excesses of the French Revolution. They claimed, and UltraFederalists probably believed, that Jefferson was an atheist, an infidel, and that a victory by the Jeffersonians would lead to blood and fire.

At one point between 1798 and 1812 - I have not yet tried to pin it down farther, but from internal evidence I suspect 1800 - the United States was contemplating an alliance with Bonaparte's France. Mason, a staunch Federalist, was opposed to the alliance. Many of the young men of New York City were violent Jeffersonians and thought that the alliance would be a good idea. Mason let it be known that he would be giving a sermon about the alliance on the forthcoming state fast day. One of these young gentlemen let it be known, in turn, that he would be in attendance with a walking stick, and if Mason turned from his text to talk partisan politics, this young man would pull him off the pulpit and give him a thrashing right there at the front of his church. As I said, passions ran high.

As Philip Hamburger argues most recently, the claim that ministers should not involve themselves in politics is usually a very political claim itself. People who disagree with those ministers argue that they should keep politics out of the pulpit. Ministers who want to speak claim that it is their duty to discuss on all aspects of morality, that national policy is one place where people act on moral questions, and that they have a duty to point out those aspects of policy which bear on public morality. The Jeffersonians tried to shut up Federalist clergy when they preached political sermons, the clergy argued that it was their duty to point out the Providential dangers and moral sin of voting for an avowed infidel.

On the day of the sermon, the young man did attend and sat in the front row with his cane upon his lap. Mason gave a perfectly reasonable Fast-day sermon, but partway through he interrupted himself for an apostrophe, a statement not directly connected to the main stream of his argument. The gist of the apostrophe was that the treaty was a bad thing and should not be pursued. Paraphrased from memory, Mason said "Lord, grant us pestilence in our cities and disease among our crops, ruin our trade and sink our ships, let us experience the loss of our sons at sea, let us feel the wailing of teeth on our frontiers, but save us, Oh Lord, from that worst of all possible evils, an alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte."

Mason was excited as he said this - so excited that his blood pressure rose and he burst a vessel in his nose so that blood streamed down his face. Without losing the pace of his comments and without losing the thread of his apostrophe, he reached into his pocket, picked up a pocket-handkerchief, mopped the blood from his face, and continued to speak. At the end, he made an oratorical gesture not remembering that he still held the handkerchief in his hand, and as his hand rose above his head it appeared the he was waving a blood-stained flag.

Mason finished his sermon without being interrupted. Afterwards someone asked the young man why he had not fulfilled his vow to cane Mason at the head of his church. "Well," he said, "I had intended to. But when I saw Mason waving that bloody rag above his head while delivering that terrible apostrophe ... I was quite unmanned and just sat there."

That at least, with failings because I typed it from memory rather than digging out the source, is the story that someone who had been in the congregation told to Philip Schaff in 1840 when Schaff was collecting anecdotes about Mason. The remarkable thing to me is that, some 40 years after the speech, the observer not only claimed to remember the words spoken (I suspect some paraphrasing) but also remembered very clearly the role that the bloody handkerchief played in this little drama. A single dramatic gesture was remembered for 40 years.

The interesting part about this story, for me, is the Jeffersonian who was "unmanned" by Mason's gesture and language. Something in Mason's appearance awed and intimidated his audience. What I want to do in my next project is explore the role that appearance played in encounters like this.

For now, I wanted to tell a story. And so I did.

Posted by Red Ted at December 11, 2003 08:39 AM | TrackBack