The man called “America’s first political satirist” and Abraham Lincoln’s favorite humorist was born in a log cabin in Buckfield, Maine, in 1792. Seba Smith had a hardscrabble childhood. After the family relocated to Bridgton he worked in a brickyard and an iron foundry and also taught school. Thanks to support from a “generous and philanthropic relative” in Portland, he entered Bowdoin at the age of twenty and graduated at the top of his class in 1818.
He showed an early flair for writing, once describing a classmate as “… the only sprig of real aristocracy in the class. He was a showy young man, of fine address, and very fine broad-cloth. Nature had not been very liberal in his endowments, but his tailor made up the deficiency.”
Smith began a career in the newspaper business as the assistant editor of the Eastern Argus in Portland. In 1822, at the age of thirty, he married sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Prince Oakes. Together they had six sons, four of whom survived to adulthood. In her unpublished memoir, Elizabeth portrayed herself as a child bride, not prepared for marriage and maintaining a household; she describes her husband as a good man, but someone who might have been better suited to live a bachelor’s life. She had the surnames of her sons legally changed to “Oaksmith” in the 1830s. Elizabeth assisted her husband as an editor and writer for the paper, sometimes under the name of “Earnest Helfenstein.” Elizabeth would later be known as an author, poet, and publisher, a prominent advocate for women’s rights, and the first woman to be a speaker on the lyceum lecture circuit in the 1850s. But I am getting ahead of the story…
After four years, Smith sold his interest in the Argus and established the Daily Courier, the first daily paper north of Boston. On January 18, 1830, a letter appeared in the paper from “Jack Downing, of Downingville, Maine,” an “unlettered philosopher” whose colorful vernacular and keen observations on the political scene in Maine appealed to the public. Seba Smith was Captain Jack Downing, and he also assumed the identities of Jack’s relatives—Cousin Nabby, Uncle Joshua, Ant (Aunt) Keziah, and Cousin Ephraim—whose letters about the goings-on in the fictitious town of Downingville became regular features in the Courier.
In Smith’s narrative, Jack headed down to Portland (the de facto capital of Maine until 1832) to see what he could get in trade for a load of ax handles, a wheel of cheese, and “a bundle of Cousin Nabby’s footings” (e.g., stockings). When Jack asked the editor of the Courier (Smith) for money for postage to mail a letter home, the editor suggested that he could print the letter instead and it wouldn’t cost anything to send, hence the premise for the Downing letters.
Jack landed in Portland at a time of political turmoil, and he gently lampooned the people and actions of “the Legislater.” For all the talk about the Constitution, Jack expressed surprise that it was not the size of “great-grandfather’s Bible,” but instead was no bigger than one of his school primers. Through Jack’s common sense and gentle humor, Smith highlighted the foibles of politicians and parties alike. Six months after his name first appeared in the Courier, the good folks of Downingville nominated Jack to be governor, arguing that it was the only way to save the state “from total, unutterable, and irretrievable ruin.” They also resolved that if Andrew Jackson were to be elected president, “…we highly and cordially approve…and believe him to be second to none but Washington.” If Jackson lost, then “…we resolve him to be the ignorant tool of a corrupt faction, plotting to destroy the liberties of the country.”
While many of the subtleties of 1830s American politics and culture are lost on a twenty-first-century audience, words and phrases animate the Downing letters. For example, Ant (Aunt) Keziah has a “conniption fit” when she finds out that President Jackson won’t be coming to Downingville; at times Jack is “wamblecropt” (incapacitated by indigestion); he travels “full chisel” (at full speed) and is sometimes “wrathy” (angry); and he finds it necessary on occasion to “pull foot” (make a hurried exit).
The Downing letters were reprinted in newspapers around the country, and within a month there were imitators, some of whom even wrote under the name of Jack Downing. For the most part, the fake letters lack Smith’s ear for dialect and his wry sense of humor. They are often distinguished by atrocious spelling and a mean-spirited tone. When Smith published the Downing letters 1833, he even included an appendix of fraudulent letters, commenting that “…he that will print letters and put my name to ’em, I think would steal a sheep.”
When all but one member of Andrew Jackson’s cabinet resigned in 1831 over a scandal involving Secretary of War John Eaton’s marriage to an opinionated and all-too-recent widow (the Petticoat Affair), Jack decided to seek an appointment to Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” He went to Washington and befriended Jackson, who gave him a captain’s commission in the Maine militia to guard Madawaska during a boundary conflict with Canada (a real dispute that lasted from 1815 until 1842). The line between fact and fiction became blurred when several newspapers suggested that eastern Maine was protected by a Downing-led militia. Jack’s loyal service was rewarded with a promotion to major during the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, after the state rejected the federal government’s authority to impose tariffs. History records that Henry Clay forged a compromise with John C. Calhoun to avert a confrontation, so Major Downing’s military skills were never put to the test.
In 1833 Jack accompanied Jackson to Harvard, where the president received an honorary degree: “And says I, Gineral, what is it they want to do to you out in Cambridge? Says he they want to make a Doctor of Laws of me. Well, says I, but what good would that do? Why, says he, you know Major Downing, there’s a pesky many of them are laws passed by Congress, that are rickety things. Some of ’em have very poor constitutions, and some of ’em have n’t no constitutions at all. So that it is necessary to have somebody there to Doctor ’em up a little, and not let ’em go out into the world where they would stan a chance to catch cold and be sick, without they had good constitutions to bear it…. You know, says he, I have had to doctor the Laws considerable ever since I’ve been at Washington, although I wasn’t a regular bred Doctor.”
Charles Augustus Davis, a wealthy New York merchant and an anti-Jackson Whig, was a chief counterfeiter of Downing letters for the New York Daily Advertiser. Under the name of “Major Jack Downing, of the Downingville Militia,” Davis published a collection of letters and an unflattering biography of Andrew Jackson in 1834. In Davis’s letters, the pendulum swings between “in-the-weeds” criticisms of federal banking policies and a forced dialect that emphasizes the workings of an uneducated mind (in contrast to the native intelligence displayed by Smith’s Downing).
Clearly, Jack Downing was a sufficiently popular public figure that he could be—and was—appropriated by others to serve diverse purposes. Davis’s Downing stories were retold by an actor on the Tremont Theatre stage in Boston in 1833. An Eastport schooner and a steamboat launched in Washington, DC, carried Jack Downing’s name. In his own homespun, legend-building autobiography, frontiersman and Congressman Davy Crockett claimed to have roomed with Major Downing in Washington. In a case of “fake news” about “fake news,” 1833 newspapers reported that Jack had been promoted to colonel in the Army and that he had been married (to widow Hannah Norridgewock in Philadelphia, according to the Albany Argus; to Juliana Francisco Timbertoes in Washington, DC, with Davy Crockett officiating, according to the Portland Advertiser). Smith tried “killing off” Jack in 1836, but Davis, Crockett, and others had found a popular vehicle for achieving their own political ends, and they kept his name alive.
Smith engaged in timber land speculation in Maine, which ended in financial ruin during the Panic of 1837. He then invested his remaining money in a machine to clean sea cotton fibers. After moving the family to North Carolina, he confronted failure again, when the intricate workings of the device made it too expensive and impractical to use. The family returned north, settling in New York City. At this point, Elizabeth Oakes Smith took up her pen to help the family out of its financial difficulties, writing stories, poems, and essays for a number of newspapers and literary magazines. A series of essays on women’s rights that Elizabeth wrote for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in 1850 and 1851 were later reprinted in a pamphlet entitled “A Woman & Her Needs.”
Seba’s literary light, diminished by his financial tribulations, shone less brightly than Elizabeth’s in his later years. He continued to write for the literary magazines of the day—Godey’s Ladies’ Book, Graham’s Magazine, The New York Knickerbocker, and The Southern Literary Magazine—and he edited Emerson’s United States Magazine. Seba wrote a few Jack Downing letters in the 1840s and 1850s, although they were of a different and darker character, reflecting his strong opposition to the Mexican War, manifest destiny, and what he saw as attempts to annex foreign lands by presidents from Polk to Pierce. Far from dispensing folksy and gentle humor, the resurrected Major Jack dealt in cynical and biting satire, and he advocated policies that Smith personally found abhorrent. Letters from the two Major Jacks are bound together in My Thirty Years out of the Senate, an uneasy collation published by the family business, Oaksmith & Co., in 1859.
Smith devoted a great deal of time in the last twenty years of his life to mathematics. Elizabeth wrote, “He was haunted by Geometric insight and wished to solve some unsolved problems, which would strike at the root of all disputed axioms of Euclid.” He wrote to Professor Parker Cleaveland in 1848, indicating his willingness to give an hour-long lecture at Commencement on “the history and philosophy of the quadrature of the circle.” There is no indication that the College took him up on the offer. When Oaksmith & Co. published New Elements of Geometry in 1850, Smith sent a copy to Cleaveland. In 1852, Smith was invited to speak at Commencement as Major Jack Downing, a prospect that he found intriguing: “If the Major could have a confab with you and an hour or two, I dare say he might get some hints that would enable him to ‘spin out a bit of a yarn,’ but he is a poor hand at making anything out of whole cloth.” I could find no record that Major Jack spoke at the College in 1852.
Seba Smith died at his home in Patchogue, New York, in 1868. The Civil War and its aftermath had so altered the political and social landscape that Major Jack’s Jacksonian world seemed a quaint and distant memory. While popular awareness of Smith’s political satire was on the wane in the post-war years, his legacy lived on in the stand-up comedy of Artemus Ward (Waterford-born Charles Farrar Browne [1834-1867]) and in the writings of Mark Twain (1835-1910). Elizabeth Oakes Smith outlived Seba by 25 years, dying in 1893 in North Carolina. Her poetry and fictional works reflected the sensibilities of a particular moment in history and are largely forgotten today. However, her essays on women’s rights continue to resonate more than 150 years after they were written. For all the complexities of their relationship as a couple and as co-breadwinners for their family, Seba and Elizabeth supported each other in their respective literary endeavors and forms of political engagement in ways that made America a better place.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations