Jul 10, 2016

The Cushing House Museum

This week, we have Chinese students visiting from Shanghai Jiao-Tong University. Yesterday, we had planned to take them to Newburyport for shopping and whale watching, but the water was too rough to go out on the ocean. Since I don’t particularly enjoy shopping, I decided to tour the Cushing House Museum with two classmates.

The Cushing House is a Federal-style house built in 1808. I can’t tell the difference between “Federal” and “Georgian” architecture, but they have different names. Anyway, our tour guide was a wonderful storyteller – it was like listening to someone talk about their own family history. Captain John Newmarch Cushing, a sea captain, bought the house in 1818 from the widow of another sea captain. There is a portrait of Captain Cushing in the front parlor, where his cheeks are very sunburned, and his forehead is white where his captain’s hat would have protected his skin from the sun. At some point, Captain Cushing remarried, and his second wife banned Captain Cushing from going out to sea, being that it was pretty dangerous to be a sea captain back then. Our tour guide forgot exactly what happened to the first wife. (Isn’t that just like your cousin who does “ancestry.com”?) No matter, after wife #2 banned Captain Cushing from the water, he ran his shipping business from their house.

Cushing’s third son, Caleb Cushing, would become the most famous Cushing. Caleb wanted to study English, but Captain Cushing recommended he enter a more serious profession. (Captain Cushing’s opinion, not mine!) So Caleb went to Harvard and studied law. He then became the legal counsel for the family shipping company for several years, before entering politics.

Caleb Cushing was moderate as a politician, but, privately, he supported slavery. At that time, most New England shipping families supported slavery, and the slave trade was a significant part of their business. Although it is believed that the Cushing family shipped over the northern routes to Europe, avoiding the slave trade triangle, many New England-based ships did travel to the Caribbean to transports slaves to and from the sugar plantations. Caleb Cushing prudently hid his support for slavery until, in 1847, he joined the Mexican-American War, revealing his pro-slavery hand. (He continued to support slavery until he, abruptly, it seems to me, chose to support the Union in the Civil War. I can’t find much information on why, although Cushing doesn’t seem particularly disciplined in his views. For example, he supported the Dred Scott decision, but then secretly procured a passport for the African-American abolitionist John Stewart Rock.) Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829, granting an exception for Texas only through 1830. The Texas Revolution re-legalized slavery in 1836, but Mexico refused to recognize Texas' independence. Tensions simmered for ten years, until the Mexican-American War broke out in 1847.

This version of history is rarely taught in American schools. Our tour guide, a former textbook publisher, said that the state Texas has disproportionately large influence on what version of history gets published in public school textbooks. To "remember the Alamo" as the massacre of brave, freedom-minded Americans by the dictatorial Mexico government puts Texas in a positive light. In the much darker version, a group of slave-holders staged a militia standoff at the Alamo using similar moral reasoning as the group behind the recent occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

I was touring the museum with two classmates, one of whom was from Texas, and she did not appreciate this characterization of Texas. “It seems like the tour guide really hates Texas!”

Caleb Cushing returned from the Mexican-American War, without having seen combat, and was appointed the US Ambassador to China. Concerned about increased opium addiction, the Chinese government attempted to stop the import of opium. British ships continued to sell opium to Chinese traders, and fought the First and Second Opium Wars to secure the right to do so. Around this time, Caleb Cushing negotiated the Treaty of Wangxia, granting the United States "most-favored nation" status and five new ports in China. We didn’t have enough time on the tour to discuss the implications, but this treaty was one of several similar treaties with Western imperial powers that contributed to China’s century of humiliation.

The museum had a large collection of period china. There was also a room filled with handicrafts, such as quilts and needlepoint. There were ancient business ledgers from Newburyport shipping companies. We also saw historical wedding gowns, and I looked into a mirror that George Washington once used when he visited another wealthy Newburyport family, the Tracy family, in 1789. One room had paintings by Laura Coombs Hills, and there was a portrait of Margaret Cushing painted by Cecilia Beaux, a society painter known for her sympathetic portraits of American elites. Our tour guide mused that Beaux had kindly removed the Cushing jowls from Margaret’s face.

In my research later, I learned that Meg (Cushing) Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, is the great-great granddaughter of Captain Cushing, and her great-grandfather was John Cushing, Jr., Caleb’s half-brother. Meg Whitman does not share the elder Margaret Cushing's jowls.