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Introduction to Preserving All Others

by James David Moran, Director of Outreach

When AAS president, Ellen Dunlap, asked me to create a play commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Isaiah Thomas, I was immediately presented with two challenges. The first was to find out as much as I could about the man and the times in which he lived. This is, of course, a challenge faced by most historians as they seek to understand the past. But my second challenge, unique to a playwright, was to find a vital conflict by which I could propel the action of my imagined world.

My research taught me the facts of Isaiah Thomas's life, which I would need to relay to my audience. But if that were all I did, my accomplishment would be merely an interesting lecture by a man wearing a wig and "small clothes." If I were going to create a play, I would have to find some battle to engage Mr. Thomas and this struggle would need to engage not only Thomas but my audience as well. My audience would need to feel suspense in the outcome of the fight; they would need to wonder what would happen next. I hoped that this conflict would also elucidate some profound characteristic of Thomas's personality and/or his time.

I eventually found what I needed in Thomas's wills and journals. Thomas has become somewhat notorious for drafting wills - he created nine in total. Many have considered the execution of these wills to be driven by his egotism, and, although Thomas was egotistical, I came to believe that there was more involved in this action than mere promotion of self-esteem. Thomas's fortunes changed greatly over his lifetime, as did those of his beneficiaries, all of which necessitated revisions in his bequests. Additionally, there is something in the language and nature of the wills that speaks to a desire to control both his legacy and his reputation throughout history. For example, he provided most generously for the welfare of AAS, yet he also details in the ninth will specifically what should be done with his bequest if the Society should fail.(1)

As I thought about the drafting of the wills and the taking of the portraits, I saw a deep-seated insecurity. As astonishing as Thomas's successes were, he was a man who literally created himself and his place in society by virtue of his own talents, abilities, and hard work. But he grew up in an age where great faith was placed in the order of society and where social prestige was unquestioned. Although he was part of a generation that did much to change that in American society, was there also some element in his psyche that questioned his own legitimacy? He was, after, all an impoverished printer whose early circumstances effectively orphaned him and placed him at the mercy of the overseers of the poor. In some senses he was not so different from the broadside ballads that he first learned to set in type and print. No matter how exalted he became, he was of humble origins and, no matter how popular he was or how widely his praises were sung, like those ballads, he could soon be forgotten and discarded. Here was a man who witnessed history happen in his youth and who in later years became preoccupied with his own place in it. In this he seemed to share a universal concern. Do we not all ask at some point, will I be remembered when I am gone? And if I am remembered, how will they know me?

His wills are also a testament to his generosity. On page after page there are lists of bequests, often to people who created many problems for him in his lifetime. His daughter and third wife are examples of this. But what struck me most was his bequest to his first wife, Mary Dill. In his second will created in 1797, twenty years after their painful and humiliating divorce and long after she ceased to be a member of his household and family, he was still providing for her. Clearly, she was still the mother of his children, and there is some evidence that at least Isaiah Junior may have interceded on her behalf at various times, which may have compelled Isaiah to continue her support.(2) Yet Thomas's support of his first wife strikes me as an incredible act of benevolence. In all cases Thomas is the preserver, the strong one who through his money and power is assisting those who are weaker.

But it was in his journals that I found an intriguing comment that became the central focus of my play. On November 10, 1820, Thomas wrote, "Began to make a new Will - assisted by E.E. Bangs, Esq. Several Changes in my affairs rendering it necessary." For the next two days he worked with Bangs on this endeavor and then on the thirteenth, he made a curious one-line entry, "Executed another Will."(3) This differed from other passages, in not mentioning Bangs or why he is composing yet another will. As a historian I knew enough to question the significance of this passage. And yet, Thomas continued to associate with Bangs, naming him executor of this new will. In the second codicil to this will, dated February 26, 1830, he excused Bangs from being executor because he has just been elected Secretary of the Commonwealth. So they maintained a relationship for the next ten years. As a playwright, I saw in this short passage an opportunity for conflict and my imagination took over. What transpired between the young lawyer and the old printer that made the latter want to start fresh? Did they quarrel? Or did something in the interaction between the young and the old cause the older man to question himself? In the process of reviewing his accomplishments and evaluating his material worth, could he also question his metaphysical value? I decided to use this moment as the launch into my fictional world that eventually became the play Preserving All Others.


1. Thomas, Isaiah papers. Box 14.

2. See particularly correspondence from Isaiah Junior to his father dated May 6, 1814, Box 6, Folder 7 of the Isaiah Thomas Papers, in which he makes reference to what is apparently a cash payment to Mary Dill "I have been duly favored with your two last, with an enclosure in one, for my mother, which was delivered."

3. Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society, (Worcester, Massachusetts, American Antiquarian Society, 10, 1909.) 69-70.

Additional 
Information

Isaiah Thomas, Patriot Printer

Information on Isaiah Thomas - Patriot Printer, a dramatic presentation and facsimile/cirriculum packet developed by AAS

 

 


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