Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton (1759-1846) was an early American poet whose published work of the 1790s, received praise of her contemporaries, who called her "the American Sappho" after the Greek lyric poetess. But her life was anything but lyrical. She felt humiliated as a child, when her father was accused of having Tory tendencies. Her carefully chosen, popular, politically-correct, patriotic husband had an affair with her younger sister right in their home, resulting in the birth of a little girl. Her sister wrote her a letter of apology just before taking her own life. Once again, Sarah was the focus of a huge scandal in her community. John Adams chose to defend her husband from any culpability in her sister’s suicide. And her husband was found guiltless. Yes, the husband had an affair with her younger sister which produced a child, before she committed suicide; but the older husband should be forgiven & all should be forgotten. It was the male dominated 18C; and after-all, men will be men. John Adams then recommended that the family -- her husband, her father, her brother, & herself -- restore “peace & harmony between them…again to embrace in friendship & affection.” The clever, patriot husband went on to become a political leader in the state. Sarah did as she was told & reunited with him until his death in 1837.
Sarah was born in Boston, Mass., the 3rd daughter of 10 children of James & Sarah (Wentworth) Apthorp. Her father, a 3rd generation British American of Welsh ancestry, was a well-to-do Boston merchant, as was her mother’s father, Samuel Wentworth, who came to Boston from a distinguished New Hampshire family.
Gilbert Stuart (American artist, 1755-1828) Mrs. Perez Morton (Sarah Wentworth Apthorp) c 1802,
Until age 10, Sarah lived in the Charles Apthorp mansion on King Street (later State Street) in Boston. Her parents then moved to Braintree, MA, where she lived until her marriage. At this time, Braintree was the home community of the prominent Adams, Quincy, & Hancock families. Braintree provided access to the social & cultural aspects of Boston, with the addition of rural beauty, which Sarah often celebrated later in poems.
In Braintree, the Apthorps attended the Episcopal Christ Church, which was associated with Loyalists at the beginning of the Revolution. Town records of June 1777, list her father James Apthorp among persons suspected of being "inimical" to the colonial cause. He & his family suffered great local unpopularity because of his suspected Tory sympathies.
In 1781, Sarah Apthop married Perez Morton, a popular, young, politically-correct, Boston lawyer & patriot, whose reputation would cement Sarah’s name among the patriots. After graduating from Harvard in 1771, Perez Morton studied law & was admitted to the Massachusetts bar as an attorney in 1774. During the Revolution, he was a leading member of the Committee of Safety & the Committee of Correspondence. He was also an active Mason. In April 1776, he was praised for his delivery of the funeral address for General Joseph Warren, a fellow Mason killed during the Battle of Bunker Hill. John Adam's wife Abigail wrote at the time, "A young fellow could not have wished a finer opportunity to display his talents." In 1778, Perez Morton served as major & aide-de-camp to General Hancock in the Continental Army.
In 1784, just 3 years after her marriage, Sarah Morton became mistress & manager of her ancestral home, Apthorp House, on State Street. Here she hoped to put the Loyalist whispers of her past behind her & regain her natural place in the fashionable, aristocratic social life of a younger generation of Bostonians.
James Brown Marston (American artist from Salem, MA, 1775-1817) Painting of State Street or The Old State House 1801 The Apthorp mansion was the 2nd building from the right.
The newlywed Sarah's wishes for elite acceptance seemed to be coming true. The Mortons became members of a prominent social circle. Along with the James Swans, Harrison Gray Otises, Isaac Winslows, & others, the Mortons formed a club in the winter of 1784–85 for playing cards & dancing. Although bets were limited to 25 cents, the group’s activities quickly were criticized in the newspaper.
The society Sarah so desperately wanted became the target of ridicule & sarcasm. The Massachusetts Centinel (Boston), January 15, 1785, declared that the club was deemed "an Assembly so totally repugnant to virtue, as in its very name (Sans Souci, or free & easy )," & it was encouraged to disband. Later, the club was satirized in a play, “Sans Souci, alias, Free & Easy:–Or, an Evening’s Peep in a Polite Circle. An entirely new entertainment in 3Acts, printed in late January 1785.” In the play, the newlywed Mortons, who were identified as Mr. & Madam Importance, were portrayed as pompous, snobbish, & exclusive.
Apparently, neither her elite social activities, however, nor the birth of 5 children prevented Sarah from pouring her emotions into verse, which she had begun to do as a shunned young girl in Braintree. Sarah & Perez had 4 daughters & a son. Sarah Apthorp Morton (1782–1844), Anna Louisa Morton (1783–1843), Frances Wentworth Morton (1785–1831), & Charlotte Morton (1787–1819) lived to adulthood. The only son to live beyond infancy, Charles Ward Apthorp Morton was born in 1786, & died in 1809. Another baby boy, born in April 1789, lived only 18 hours.
Gilbert Stuart (American artist, 1755-1828) Mrs. Perez Morton (Sarah Wentworth Apthorp) c 1802,
In 1786, Sarah’s younger sister Frances "Fanny" Theodora Apthorp (1766–1788) had come to live with the Mortons in Boston. Fanny & the head of the house, Perez Morton, became lovers, while Sarah was expecting their 5th child in 6 years. That child was Charlotte, born in September of 1787. It would be their last.
Shortly after Charlotte's birth, in the autumn of 1787, Fanny also gave birth to a daughter of Perez Morton. Fanny & Perez apparently carried on their affair for nearly another year. The Apthorp family was in an uproar. Sarah & Fanny's brother James wanted to challenge Perez Morton to a duel.
Fanny’s diary & letters from August 1788, include instructions to Perez Morton to take care of her child "for you know in the sight of heaven you are the Father of it."
The day before Sarah's sister Fanny decided to take poison to end her life on August 28, 1788, instead of publicly confronting Perez Morton, as the sisters' father had requested, Fanny left a note begging forgiveness from her family, especially from her sister Sarah.
Although Perez Morton was implicated by a jury in Fanny’s suicide, his friends John Adams (1735–1826) & James Bowdoin (1726–1790) defended him in the Massachusetts Centinel on October 7, 1788: "...the accusations brought against a fellow citizen, in consequence of a late unhappy event, & which have been the cause of so much domestick calamity, & publick speculation, have...been...fully inquired into by their Excellencies James Bowdoin, & John Adams, Esq’rs...the result of their inquiry is, that the said accusations are not, in any degree, supported.“ Criticism of Adams & Bowdoin’s defense & disregard of the jury’s findings appeared in the Herald of Freedom & the Federal Advertiser.
The scandal gained strength with the announcement of the publication of one of the 1st American novels, The Power of Sympathy Or, the Triumph of Nature, in January 1789. Although the novel was set in Rhode Island, its plot was clearly the story of Fanny Apthorp & Perez Morton, whose name was only weakly disguised as "Mr. Martin." The author clearly wanted to cash in on Sarah & her family’s tragedy.
The illicit affair & subsequent suicide seemed to have no ill effect on Perez Morton’s career as a professional politician. Morton, as a Democratic-Republican, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in May 1794. After he & his reunited wife Sarah moved to Dorchester, Perez was elected to the House of Representatives in 1803, & in 1806 was elected Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He was appointed attorney general in 1811, & held the office for 20 years.
Soon after the emotionally debilitating scandal, Sarah Morton’s 1st published poem, "Invocation to Hope," appeared in the July 1789 issue of the recently established Massachusetts Magazine under the pseudonym "Constantina."
Her subject matter was predominately patriotic, celebrating the new nation, its ideals, & its leaders. From 1789 to 1793, she contributed to the “Seat of the Muses” in the recently established Massachusetts Magazine, 1st under the pseudonym “Constantia” & later as “Philenia,” the pen name by which many of her generation came to know her.
The often humiliated Sarah chose to champion the plight of Native Americans & African slaves. Her 1st long poem, Ouâbi or the Virtues of Nature, An Indian Tale. In Four Cantos, published in December 1790, was even hailed in London, where it inspired a 3-act play. Though Sarah claimed to depict authentic native customs, her fictional Indians reflected the currently accepted literary view, not real life in the American forest, & the virtues her Native Americans exhibited were in the “noble savage” tradition. However, her reviewers, both English & American, were comfortable with these traditional descriptions & greeted her work favorably. In choosing a subject “wholly American” Sarah Morton hoped to tap into the patriotic urge which immediately followed the Revolution. She still longed to be identified with the patriot cause.
Sarah expressed abolitionist views about slavery in America in a few poems, including "The African Chief," which appeared in the June 9, 1792, issue of the Columbian Centinel describing a slave’s decision to die in order to escape the horrors of the Middle Passage & slavery. The last stanza reflected the poem's examination of heroic death & suicide:
Let sorrow bathe each blushing cheek,
Bend piteous o’er the tortured slave,
Whose wrongs compassion cannot speak,
Whose only refuge was the grave.
In November 1792, Sarah chose to become one of the founders of the Boston Library Society. Her literary interests also extended to the theater. Both she & her husband were involved in repealing the 1750 colonial law entitled "An Act to prevent Stage Plays, & other Theatrical Entertainments," & her husband Perez Morton was a trustee & shareholder of the resulting Federal Street Theatre.
Portrait of Perez Morton. By Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. ca.1793-1814.
In Boston, Perez Morton, an elegant figure with polished manners, became a leader of the old Jacobin Club, which held meetings at the Green Dragon Tavern, & also became a decided Democrat. A political poet of Boston thus satirizes Perez Morton:
" Perez, thou art in earnest, though some doubt thee !
In truth, the Club could never do without thee !
My reasons thus I give thee in a trice, —
You want their votes, and they want your advice !
" Thy tongue, shrewd Perez, favoring ears insures, —
The cash elicits, and the vote secures.
Thus the fat oyster, as the poet tells,
The lawyer ate, — his clients gained the shells."
The sex, betrayal, & suicide scandal had made Sarah famous. Sarah’s verses, under a variety of loosely-held pseudonyms, continued to appear regularly in the Massachusetts Magazine’s "Seat of the Muses" column through 1793, as well as in the Boston Columbian Centinel until 1794. They were also reprinted in Philadelphia, New York, & New Hampshire journals. After the turn of the century, her poems appeared occasionally in the Monthly Anthology & Boston Review until 1807. Hailed by fellow magazine poets as the “Sappho of America” & the “Mrs. Montagu of America,” she soon found entrée to other poetry corners in newspapers & magazines of the period.
In 1797, Sarah Morton moved from Boston to nearby Dorchester, where she lived in the 1st house which she designed; & after 1808, the family took residence in Morton’s Pavilion, built by her husband. During these years Sarah relished making her home a gathering place for the American literati & other distinguished visitors.
Also in 1797, she published her poem, Beacon Hill. A Local Poem, Hsitoric & Descriptive, dedicated to the “Citizen Soldiers who fought, conquered, & retired under the Banners of Freedom & Washington.” In the introduction to Beacon Hill, Sarah Morton defended her "application to literature...It is only amid the leisure & retirement, to which the sultry season is devoted," she wrote, "that I permit myself to hold converse with the Muses; nor does their enchantment ever allure me from one personal occupation, which my station renders bligatory; but those hours, which might otherwise be lost in dissipation, or sunk in languor, are alone resigned to the unoffending charms of Poetry & Science."
Sarah intended to publish Beacon Hill as the 1st segment of an ambitious larger work. "The apprehensive feelings of the author," Sarah Morton explained, "did not permit her at present to offer more than the first book." The poem, dedicated to the Revolutionary soldiers who fought under George Washington, looks at the end of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the siege of Boston, & the Declaration of Independence & pays tribute to Washington & the Revolutionary leaders in each colony.
William Bentley (1759–1819), pastor at Salem’s Second Congregational Church, wrote in his diary in November 1797, "The talk now about Mrs. Morton’s Poem, Beacon Hill, & it is said to exceed any poetic composition from a female pen. She is called the American Sappho. Mr. Paine calls her so. Besides Mr. Stearns is soon to publish The Lady’s Philosophy of Love, which they have begun to praise before they have seen it."
However, The Reverend Mr. Bentley also voiced his doubts about the quality of the poetry; & it does not appear that Sarah Morton was encouraged to complete the other installments of "Beacon Hill," at least they were never found or published. In 1799, she offered the companion piece, The Virtues of Society. A Tale, Founded on Fact.
In 1823, Sarah Morton published a compilation of prose & poems in My Mind & Its Thoughts, in Sketches, Fragments, & Essays. It was the 1st work to which she signed her own name. In addition to new poems written to celebrate national & local events, the 1823 volume contained careful revisions of poems published earlier in newspapers or journals under her various pseudonyms.
The book’s essays bounced from marriage, to physiognomy, to the sexes, to civility, & age. Sarah wrote in the introduction, "Thus occupied—with neither leisure, nor disposition, nor capacity to write a Book, there has always been opportunity to pen a thought, or to pencil a recollection." A list of subscribers at the end of the volume is topped by "John Adams, late President of the United States" & "His Excellency John Brooks, Governor of Massachusetts." In total, 34 women & 125 men on this "subscribers" list were convinced to order copies of the book in advance of its publication.
Many of the poems, such as "Stanzas To A Recently United Husband" or "Lamentations Of An Unfortunate Mother, Over The Tomb Of Her Only Son," are extremely personal & sad. Her "Apology" at the end of the text openly suggests that writing poetry brought her consolation from the many disappointments & grief she experienced in her life.
Perez Morton died in Dorchester on October 14, 1837, leaving all his real & personal estate to "my beloved wife Sarah Wentworth Morton." After his death, Sarah moved from Dorcester back to the Braintree house, where she had lived as a child, when the family had been humiliated because of her father's Loyalist leanings. Here she would come full circle to live out the rest of her life.
In 1846, Sarah died in Quincy, aged 86, & was buried in the Apthorp tomb in King’s Chapel, Boston. None of her children survived her.
Her will instructed, that she be interred in the Apthorp family vault in King’s Chapel. She also requested that the remains of her daughter Frances Wentworth & her son, Charles, be re-interred in the family vault; so that she would have her "own remains between those of my two dearly beloved & lamented children."
By the time of her death, her fame as a poet had been mostly forgotten. Not one of her obituaries in the Quincy Patriot, Boston Daily Mail, or Daily Evening Transcript made any mention of her literary career. Without an ounce of compassion, they noted simply, that she was the widow of the late "Honorable" Perez Morton. The extant ledgers of the Boston Library Society attest to the numerous books she read as the years passed; & the inventory of her estate compiled at her death contains more than 250 books, including 20 volumes of Shakespeare & 9 volumes of Pope.
During much of the 19C, she was known less for her poetry than for her supposed authorship of The Power of Sympathy (1789). This false ascription of the book based on the domestic tragedy between her husband & her younger sister in her own home, was not understood until many years after her death. It was was not actually proved false until 1894, when the authorship of the novel by William Hill Brown, their neighbor when the affair was taking place, was clearly established.
Sarah Morton’s fame must rest on her poetry alone. She was the foremost woman poet of her generation, reflecting pride in the struggles of the new American republic & melancholy about her own personal disappointments.
Information in this biography from the incredibly well-researched article on Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton at the Worcester Art Museum website.
This posting based in part on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971