About This Artifact
The handsome, dark-haired young man in his early thirties looks at you from his portrait with a mixture of warmth, confidence, and pleasant determination. He has, by the time of this portrait's completion, succeeded in business while living in his native Philadelphia, PA; married the love of his life, Sarah Rodman, in New Bedford, MA; and established a prosperous fleet of whaleships in his new hometown. He is Charles Waln Morgan, namesake of the last wooden whaleship in the world, a man who approached each facet of his life with passionate energy.
Mr. Morgan gained an early appreciation for wealth and its associated advantages, but he was wise enough to understand the potential pitfalls of becoming too enamored with wealth. In his diary, which he began in 1818 at the age of 22 and continued until just months before his death at the age of 64 in 1861, he wrote fervently of his belief that he must never allow wealth to "allure me to forsake the path of duty," and that he must pursue it only to "obtain subsistence and comfort for those I have around me and shall leave behind me."
The diary of Mr. Morgan also bears witness to his intense love and affection for Sarah Rodman. Beginning on the second day and continuing through to the final pages of the first volume of his diary, he consistently writes of his desire to be in New Bedford with "my darling girl," "my dear girl," "my sweet girl." The couple eventually wed in 1819, and maintained a marriage that lasted for nearly forty-two years and produced five children.
Charles W. Morgan's passion for business is evident through the several enterprises with which he was involved by ownership or investment. A quick glance at the overview of his collected papers within Mystic Seaport's G.W.Blunt White Library provides the reader with mention of Mr.Morgan's interests in land (including western lands), iron works, and a paper mill, in addition to his whaling fleet and the whale oil that it produced. Another indication of Mr. Morgan's commitment to business was his regular use of a signet ring, used to stamp an impression bearing the figure of the mythological griffin, in conjunction with his signature on many official documents.
The issue of slavery in the United States aroused the passions of Charles W. Morgan and other members of his family as well. In his 1841 diary, he mentions reading William Ellery Channing's "Emancipation," describing it as "bold & noble," and writes that, "Sooner or later the minds of all good men must come to his conclusions & act upon them, be the consequences wha[t] they may." Sarah Rodman Morgan's Account Book, in which she kept track of household expenses from 1820 to 1840, contains the names of forty-five women who were employed by her during that period. Some of them possibly lived in the Morgan home during their employment, and each woman's term of employment lasted only a matter of months. Were the Morgans such hard taskmasters that their hired help refused long-term service, or were Charles and Sarah engaged in providing a foothold for people who were just beginning a life of freedom in the abolitionist haven of New Bedford? One person who worked in the Morgan household was Polly Johnson. She and her husband, Nathan Johnson, eventually purchased a home in New Bedford, and years later made room in their home for a newly arrived fugitive slave and his wife, Mr. & Mrs. Frederick Douglass. Within the extended Morgan family, Charles' nephew, Samuel Griffitts Morgan, supplied the funds that enabled Booker T. Washington, generally regarded as the leader of black Americans in the late nineteenth century, to attend school at the Hampton Institute.
Morgan was a successful whaling agent and businessman. He was also a typical man of his times whose life was influenced by such major issues as the slavery question, as well as the opportunities brought by westward expansion.
Questions for Further Thought
- How has traveling between Philadelphia and New Bedford changed since the time when Charles W. Morgan made such trips?
- Why do people create diaries? Do you have a diary? If so, why, and what sort of information do you write in it?
- Why was New Bedford such a focal point for abolitionists and fugitive slaves?