Saturday, February 16, 2019

Biography - Politics was her Passion - Deborah Norris Logan (1761-1839)

Detail of 1903 photograph of an 1830 painting of Quaker historian Deborah Norris Logan.

Deborah Norris Logan (1761-1839), collector of historical records, was peculiarly fitted by inheritance & experience to be a chronicler of provincial & early national history.  Related by blood or marriage to most of the leading figures in early Pennsylvania, she lived through the formative years of the new American nation in close association with many of its founders.  She was the second child & only daughter among the Norris & his second wife, Mary Parker.  Her father’s Philadelphia house, where she was born, was 2 doors away fro the State House; on July 9, 1776, when she was 14, she stood on the garden fence to hear the Declaration of Independence first publicly claimed.

She commenced her education under Anthony Benezet at the Friends Girls’ School in Philadelphia & continued it by an extensive self-imposed course of reading, especially in history.  On Sept. 6, 1781, she was married to George Logan, a young Quaker physician just returned from his medical education at Edinburgh & London.  

Two years later, her husband giving up his practice for the life of a gentleman farmer, they moved to Stenton, the Logan family mansion north of Philadelphia.  There the vivacious & beautiful Debby exchanged the life of a Philadelphia belle for the quite domesticity of a Quaker matron, managing the farm household & rearing her 3 sons, Albanus Charles, Gustavus George, & Algernon Sidney, while her husband gradually moved from a rustic life of agricultural experimentation into an active career as a Republican politician & ideologue, self-appointed peacemaker during the quasi-war with France in 1798, & finally United States Senator.  Dr. Logan’s political enthusiasms (which she never fully shared) exposed her to public opprobrium; his mission to Paris not only made her fear for his safety & reputation but brought her ostracism from the Federalist families among whom she had grown up.  Nevertheless, she upheld him faithfully, at the same time seeking for herself a serenity of mind into which she could  retire “as into a safe retreat from the conflicting passions of the world.”

Though she regarded current politics as a dangerous “distraction,” past politics became her passion.  In the attic at Stenton she discovered heaps of old letters, tattered & worm-eaten, which she recognized as the correspondence of Pennsylvania’s 2 great early leaders, William Penn & James Logan, the latter her husband’s grandfather.  Conceiving it her duty & privilege to reveal “some of the remote rills & fountains” from which “majestic river” of her state’s wealth & greatness flowed, she regularly arose before daybreak, starting in 1814, to copy the voluminous correspondence.  Her transcripts, a source collection of the utmost importance for early Pennsylvania history, she presented to the American Philosophical Society; they were ultimately published in the Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (vols. IX-X, 1870-72).  

After her husband’s death in 1821 she wrote a memoir of him, published many years later by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as Memoirs of Dr. George Logan of Stanton  (1899).  A charming literary monument of wifely devotion, it is also a valuable historical source, for it contains letters & intimate glimpses of Washington , Jefferson, Citizen Genet, John Randolph of Roanoke, & other political figures whom she & her husband had entertained at Stenton.
From 1815 to her death she kept a full diary in which, along with comments on her reading & her daily life, she set down the reminiscences of Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress; unfortunately, perhaps, she later inked out some of his less edifying anecdotes of the Fathers.  Some of Thomson’s stories, together with her own memories & the manuscripts she had rescued from decay, she shared with the antiquarian John F. Watson, who made use of the in his Annals of Philadelphia (1830).  She also composed poetry, some of which was published by her friend Robert Walsh, editor of the National Gazette; she had a fondness for the sonnet form, though it seemed to her like “putting the muse into corsets.”  A portrait in later life shows her as a grave, clear-eyed Quaker matron in plain bonnet & cap.  She died at Stenton & was buried there in the family burying ground.  The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, of which she was the first woman member (elected to honorary membership, 1827), spread on its minutes a tribute to her as “an enlightened & able illustrator” of Pennsylvania history.  With such writers & collectors as Mercy Otis Warren, Jeremy Belknap, & Ebenezer Hazard, Deborah Logan stood in the 1st generation of Americans who looked backward with self-conscious national pride into the colonial &  Revolutionary past & gathered the materials for the nation’s history. 

See: Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Eds. Edward James, Janet James, Paul Boyer. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.