Sunday, July 12, 2009

Joe Howe's American Cousins

Joe Howe's American Cousins


Charles Francis


Not long ago a silver serving platter appeared on the Canadian version of the Antiques Road Show. The platter had been presented to Joseph Howe by the residents of Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia. The current owner was a great-great grand daughter of the venerable tribune of Nova Scotia. The platter, because of its provenance, was declared a national treasure.

Joe Howe is one of the greatest figures of Canadian history. Though he did not take part in the Charlottetown Conference that led to confederation, he is today regarded as a Father of Confederation. This, even though he led a fight for Nova Scotia to withdraw from the foundling nation.

Joe Howe was a brilliant man. Largely self-cultured, he was the first person to point out the great failing of the British North America Act, the act which created Canada. The failing was a lack of formula for amending. Though Howe opposed John A. Macdonald's plans for a union of northern provinces, Macdonald respected Howe. Howe, Macdonald said, possessed “the only seminal mind” he ever encountered.

Joe Howe was a lover of democracy. For him the continent of North America was united by one thing: “the democratic system, which prevails all over this continent....” Barely a year before he died Howe spoke to this subject at a Howe family reunion in Framingham, Massachusetts. What follows is an account of that reunion.

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On every side was heard the repeated query “To which Howe family do you belong? Was your ancestor John or James, Edward or Abraham?” Given that there were an estimated 3000 in attendance that now long past, beautiful summer family reunion day the question was not that all unusual.

Edward Howe of Portland, Maine was the oldest male attendee of the Howe family gathering held at Harmony Grove in Framingham, Massachusetts on August 31, 1871. Edward was eighty-nine. The Reverend Elias Nason, author of the work chronicling the gathering, noted that “He still writes a steady clear, round hand, as his autograph in the Register of the day attests.”

Edward Howe was not the only member of the Howe family from Portland- or points even further down east- to attend the family gathering. Caroline Dana Howe was there too.

Caroline Dana Howe was something of a poet. She contributed a song for the occasion of the Howe gathering. So did her much better known cousin by marriage Julia Ward Howe. The latter is, of course, famous for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The work Cousin Caroline contributed to the Howe family gathering was “The Name We Bear”. It was set to the tune of “Bonnie Doon”.

Edward Howe was one of the organizers of the Howe family gathering. With two of his cousins, Samuel Gridley Howe and Elias Howe, he helped send out some 5000 invitations to the great gathering.

Samuel Gridley Howe is probably best known as the husband of Julia Ward Howe. He was a major nineteenth century figure in his own right though. An active abolitionist, he is a major figure in developing methodologies for working with the blind. He headed the Perkins Institute where Annie Sullivan trained. Sullivan was Helen Keller's teacher. The play The Miracle Worker tells the story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. Samuel Gridley Howe is featured briefly at the beginning of the play. After a successful Broadway run, the play was made into a movie starring Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller.

Elias Howe is one of America's great inventors. He developed the sewing machine and the truss bridge. He was a Boston printer. In 1872 he published the record of the great Howe conclave written by Elias Nason, The Howe Family Gathering.

Edward, Samuel and Elias Howe were all descended from Abraham Howe or How of Hatfield, Broadoak, Essex, England. Abraham was one of the first proprietors of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Abraham was born in England in 1598 and died in Boston in 1676. Another branch of the Howe family, that descended from John Howe of England's Warickshire, settled in Sudbury. One of them, David Howe, established a tavern there. It was known as the Red Horse Tavern and made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his Tales of the Wayside Inn.

Because of Longfellow's connection to the Howe family, the poet was tendered a special invitation to attend the Howe family gathering. Elias Howe extended the invitation. The poet, however, declined saying “I am sorry... it will not be in my power to accept. My engagements here render it impossible. I can only send you my thanks and regrets, and my best wishes for a pleasant day in the groves of Framingham.” It would be Samuel Gridley Howe who secured what was perhaps the coupe of the gathering. The coupe was in getting Joseph Howe as the gathering's principal speaker.

Joseph Howe was another of the direct descendants of Abraham Howe. In 1871 he was Secretary of State of the Dominion of Canada.

If someone were so inclined they might draw something in the nature of a poetic parallel to the fact that both Joseph Howe and Julia Ward Howe were in Framingham for the Howe family gathering. Joseph Howe is sometimes referred to as Canada's “Father of Responsible Government”. In a somewhat similar manner Julia Ward Howe has been called “America's Mother”.

At one time Julia Ward Howe's name was synonymous with Mother's Day. Just one year before the great Howe family gathering Julia Ward Howe issued a call for a “Mother's Peace March”. This has been called the beginnings of Mother's Day. For whatever reason or reasons, Julia Ward Howe's connection to this all important day has been largely forgotten. The same is not they case for Joseph Howe accomplishments in Canada, most notably in his home province of Nova Scotia, where he is regarded as the most loved Nova Scotian of all time.

Joseph Howe's father John Howe was an Anglophile. He loved Britain. He loved it so much that when he witnessed the attack on Bunker Hill he left his birthplace, Boston, for Nova Scotia. John Howe was a Loyalist. That is how this particular branch of the Howe family came to claim the future nation of Canada their homeland. And because of this move Nova Scotia came to be the first of Britain's northern provinces to become a true parliamentary democracy with an elected house of representatives directly responsible to the people as its chief governing body.

In his oration at the Howe family gathering Joseph Howe spoke to the subject of democracy and democratic ideals and their importance in both Canada and the United States. He also told of a trip he made to England in search of Howe family history. Howe's speech was a fascinating and thoroughly personable narrative.

The beginning of The Howe Family Gathering describes a Howe coat of arms. It serves as the signature of today's Wayside Inn. Many Howes back in the nineteenth century- as well as some today- considered that coat of arms a valid one for those bearing their name. One his trip to England Joseph Howe tried to substantiate the belief. He was unable to do so. He also tried to find a family connection to a John Howe who served as personal chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. He failed in this attempt also. In his oration Howe alluded to both failings. Much later Howe's son Sydenham would prove to his satisfaction that the Howe coat of arms in no way related to any of the descendants of his ancestor Abraham Howe or to those who established the inn made famous by Longfellow.

There was never another Howe family gathering to equal the one held in Framingham in 1871. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that family members like Elias, Samuel Gridley, Julia Ward and, of course, Joe were one of a kind.

This writer wishes to note that he is a direct descendant of Abraham Howe. His great grandfather George Howe was a first cousin, once removed, to Joseph Howe, the tribune of Nova Scotia. George Howe was grandson to Joseph Howe. This Joseph was the brother to John, the father of the venerable Joe Howe. Intriguingly, John Howe's brother was also something of a Loyalist. He refused to take part in Patriot inspired musters on Boston Common. He was fined for his predilection.

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