Sunday, August 10, 2008

James Perkins: Part I - The End

James Perkins built Pinebank I, the first of three houses built on the site overlooking Jamaica Pond by the Perkins family. The original house, a summer cottage, was built in 1802, and James Perkins used it until his death twenty years later. He was one of the great merchants in a city of merchants, when Boston was truly a hub of international trade. I'll discuss his life more in the second entry on this subject, but I decided to start with a eulogy to the man upon his death, and then work backwards. I think it's only fair to see the man as his contemporaries saw him, before we deconstruct him under the microscope of history.

A note on Perkins street: I've seen two claims for the origin of the name Perkins street. The first, and most obvious, is that Perkins street was named for James Perkins. The second, in the manner of a correction, is that it was actually named for a resident of old Roxbury who lived long before James Perkins. The street itself is, in fact, much older than the residence of James Perkins, but it was originally named Connecticut (or Quinecticut) lane. In 1825 (three years after the death of J.P., it was renamed Perkins street. Thus, it would seem highly likely that the street that this leading citizen had long lived on was named after him, and not after some Puritan from the 1600s.

The Salem Gazette August 9, 1822

Character of the late

James Perkins, Esq.
From the Boston Daily Advertiser.

The character of Mr Perkins, whose loss we have just been called to deplore, is too well known to his friends and the community, to need an elaborate eulogium. It was, however, so strongly marked with the most valuable qualities, as to demand this tribute of respect from those who survive him. Mr Perkins was certainly the last man who would himself have wished for posthumous commendation, and there is none whose delicacy would sooner have been alarmed at the proposal of it. We owe it, however, to ourselves, to show that we were not insensitive to his worth, and we are not indifferent to his loss. And while his real and most eloquent eulogy is to be sought in the course of an industrious, honorable, and most useful life, it is due to the virtues he practiced, to the example he set, to the noble standard of character on which he acted, not to be entirely silent, no that nothing remains of them but their honored memory.

Mr Perkins very early engaged in commercial pursuits. He had received in boyhood, under the care of an excellent mother, the preparatory instruction which might have fitted him for an academic education; but the approach of revolutionary war, and the discouraging aspect of the times, dictated the commercial career as the more prudent. It is in the remembrance of his early friends, that Mr. P. while a boy, distinguished himself as a commander of a military company, composed of his play-fellows, whose manoeuvres attracted the notice of the officers of the British garrison here, for their soldier-like precision; and it is worthy to remark, that many of the members of this youthful corps, became officers of note and merit in the revolutionary war. The inclination of their youthful commander pointed him to the army; but being controlled in this by his only surviving parent, he was placed in the counting house of the Messers Shattucks. He gave an early and striking indication of his aptitude for commercial pursuits, by the zeal with which he engaged, of his own motion, in the study of the method of double-entry, (then but little known in this country,) which had accidentally attracted his notice, and which, though but an apprentice, he introduced, at his own request, into the books of the house in which he was placed. Scarcely was he of age, when he established himself in business in St Domingo, towards the close of the revolutionary war, where he remained till the troubles in that Colony began. Having been forced to escape in the night, from the country-house of the Marquis de Rouvray, in whose family he was an intimate, he took refuge at Fort Dauphin, and shortly returned to his native town. It deserves, perhaps, to be particularized, as a mark of the promptness of commercial enterprise which distinguished him, that he was on board and entrusted with the Charlotte, which formed the leading case in the captures made at the time by the British government, and which was tried and condemned at Antigua, for pursuing in time of war a Colonial trade not lawful in peace.-- Returned to Boston, and united in a commercial house with his brother, Mr T.H. Perkins, now the senior surviving partner. Mr Perkins engaged extensively in the trade to the North-West Coast, and to Canton Of the former trade, well known to have been almost exclusively in the hands of the merchants of the North and Middle States of America, as great a portion was probably conducted by the Messers Perkins, as by any other house; and it may perhaps be safely stated, that down to the present day, no private commercial house in the world, has been more extensively engaged in the trade to Canton. In the duties devolved upon the house by these extensive transactions, Mr Perkins ever bore a full share, and was distinguished at once for the large scale on which his operations were planned, and for the remarkable and ever anxious precision which which he superintended their smallest details. -- To go more minutely into particulars, though it would furnish many anecdotes of interest to his friends, and innumerable proofs of his various excellent qualities, would exceed the limits of a notice like the present.

It is unnecessary to say, that the point of view in which Mr Perkins's character out to be surveyed, is that of an upright merchant. This, in our country, is certainly the character of greatest importance in the community. Divested by our political institutions of an hereditary nobility, in which fortunes are transmitted by descent, it unavoidably follows that the chief influence in society is thrown into the hands of those whose pursuits alone admit of the accumulation of ample fortunes. The merchant's profession, as exhibited in the life of Mr Perkins, was well worthy of the weight which the constitution of society gives it among us, and rose very far above a mere grasping zeal for the accumulation of money. In the long course of transactions, as numerous and as various as an individual can easily be connected with -- in enterprises extending over the habitable globe, and employing thousand of agents, and constantly involving fortunes in their result -- requiring, on many occasions necessarily incident to business of this extent, no secondary degree of firmness and courage, -- and, above all, in the temptation, which much so often present itself, to take short roads to wealth -- not a shadow of suspicion of any thing derogatory to the highest and purest sense of honor and conscience, ever attached to his conduct; and he may be quoted as one of the few, who pass through life without spot or blemish. The character of such a man ought to be held up to imitation. The future condition of our country will depend not a little on the quality of character which predominate in the wealthiest portion of society. Every instance of a life like Mr P's is a pledge of its prosperity and honor; and a pledge that ought to be cherished with tenderness and zeal in times like these, when suspicions are allowed to attach to the merchant's character, which, whether true or false, convey equal reproach.

The ample fortune which MR P. acquired in this honorable manner, was appropriated to ends as honorable; to promoting the best interests of society. His zeal in serving his friends, was in many instances carried even to extreme; and while his efforts of this kind were such as few would make, he was outdone by none in his readiness for every call to judicious charity. His liberal donations to the General Hospital, and to the Theological School of Cambridge University, are well known, and his late munificent gift to the Atheneum, (a gift which cannot be estimated at less than $18000) is fresh in the public recollection. In addition to these acts of liberality, it is understood that Mr P. has made testementary provision for a donation of twenty thousand dollars to the University of Cambridge. To enumerate every instance of distinguished liberality, on his part, would be to repeat the list of calls on the affluent and generous in our community, which is certainly among those least remarkable for the rarity of these calls.

The natural disposition of Mr P. was retired and unambitious. He studiously avoided every call of political life; and while the general esteem in which he was held by the public, and his well known integrity and consistency as a politician, would have made his access easy to the highest political offices in the gift of his fellow citizens, a natural reserve of feeling led him to keep entirely aloof. He was, however, ready on all occasions, by every species of honorable and active exertion, to contribute to the influence of what he esteemed sound political views; and was surpassed by few, if any, in weight of political character, in the respectable circle in which he moved.

Though brought up as a merchant, and at all times actively engaged in the duties of his calling, Mr Perkins had a strong taste for reading, and possessed a highly mature and well informed mind. He formed, early in life, a very familiar acquaintance with polite literature, particularly the English poets, and continued to devote his leisure to the perusal of the standard writers of the English and French languages. It was in this manner that his taste led him to employ the time too often wasted by merchants in the gossip of the exchange and the Insurance offices. The consequences of his extensive reading were an unusually mature and judicious style of writing; and there are few even of those who are led more directly by profession to cultivate the art of writing, who were able to express themselves with greater strength, clearness, and ease.

Mr Perkins was in fine a man of uncommon force and elevation of mind. -- The least estimable portion of his character was known to those who knew him only as a merchant, high and honorable as he was in this capacity. His temper and taste were retired and domestic; his virtues were those of the fireside; and his whole character was of that gentleness and simplicity, which fit a man rather for social, friendly and family enjoyment, than the bustle of the world. A slender constitution, requiring unremitting care, conspiring in this respect with his feelings, and led him to seek his pleasures more exclusively at home, than his liberal and enlarged spirit might otherwise have dictated. It is they only who knew him in this sphere, and in the tender relations of domestic life, that are able fully to bear witness, how good and excellent a man is taken from us.

Though never unprepared for that event, which his infirm health rendered in some degree always impending, Mr Perkins's decease was at last sudden, and found every one but himself unprepared for the event. During the two or three days, that he survived the attack which proved fatal -- in the certainty of impending dissolution -- and under the application of painful remedies -- he retained undisturbed the perfect possession of his reason, and an unclouded composure of spirits. Having exhibited in his life the best fruits of religious principles, the close of his life was peaceful and tranquil. No one had more to make them love and cling to life: -- Wealth, and respect abroad, and happiness at home; but he resigned it all without a sigh or murmur; and has left few behind, who could, in the hour of extreme trial, appeal more securely to "the testimony of an approving conscience."

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