Chapter 8. The Hartford Wits at Ansonia

This group is considered the first group of writers America produced. America's first literary circle was a Federalist enclave. Among the members were Noah Webster, already at work on his dictionary, Oliver Wolcott, Timothy and Theodore Dwight, David Humphreys, John Trumbull (a lawyer, poet, and cousin to the famous painter John Trumbull), Robert Alsop, and Lemuel Hopkins, who was to become Connecticut's leading physician. These men put their talents together to produce a series of satires and long, mock- heroic poems. As they finished a new installment it appeared anonymously in the New Haven Gazette. The poems created a sensation in New England. They were very contemporary and relevant because they generally reflected the feeling popular at the time in New England that the union was not holding together, but rather descending into chaos. The poems also appealed for a strong federal government and a national constitution. The entire works became known as The Anarchiad: A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night.

General David Humphreys House
37 Elm Street (Route 8 Exit 15), Ansonia, CT (Open M-F 9-4:30, all year). The house has been refurbished and enlarged. It is owned by the Derby Historical Society.

The house is located directly across from the Old Episcopal Graveyard. It is the most historically important structure in the Ansonia Historic District. It was built in the early 1700's. Here in 1752 David Humphreys was born to the Reverend Daniel Humphreys and his wife Sara Riggs Humphreys.

This is the mansion house of General David Humphreys, town clergymen, diplomat, local manufacturer, poet, and aide to General Washington. Humphreys (1752-1818) was born in Derby, Connecticut, the youngest son of Reverend Daniel Humphreys, a Congregational minister. In 1771, at age fifteen, David entered Yale University. There he met future members of the Hartford Wits: John Trumbull, Joel Barlow, and Timothy Dwight (with whom he was most familiar). In 1774 he received a masters degree from Yale.

He became a schoolmaster in Wethersfield and at Philipse Manor in Westchester County. In 1776 he volunteered as adjutant of the second Connecticut militia regiment. For his gallantry at Yorktown, David Humphreys received the surrendered British standards. He carried them back to Philadelphia for presentation to Congress. After the war he went to Paris as secretary of the American legation under Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. He became an aide-de-camp to Washington. His life long devotion to the great man, earned Humphreys the title "beloved of Washington." He even visited Washington at Mount Vernon. General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Polish hero of the Revolution, visited General Humphreys in this house.

Joel Barlow informed Humphreys that he was working on a long poem about Columbus. Humphreys became one of Barlow's most enthusiastic promoters.

In 1784 Humphreys accepted the position as the secretary to the Commission for Negotiating Treaties of Commerce with Foreign Powers. He went to Paris and discussed his duties with Benjamin Franklin. For two years he served in France and England.

Upon his return to the United States, in 1786 the voters elected him to the Connecticut assembly. In 1788 he wrote a biography of Major General Israel Putnam, and in 1790 went abroad as a special secret agent.

The Barbary pirates had been pushing the United States around as early as 1785, even capturing and enslaving American citizens. In 1792, George Washington had secured $50 thousand from Congress to buy the peace and free the captives. The famous seaman John Paul Jones was to deliver the money, but he died before he could reach the pirates' territory. Ten years after the first U.S. ships had been taken by the pirates, news that American sailors were still slaves to the cruel Algerian ruler, known as the Dey of Algiers, embarrassed the United States. Humphreys had recently been appointed minister to Portugal, with general supervision over Barbary affairs. In 1796 he was minister plenipotentiary to Spain. In that post his job was to negotiate a peace treaty with the Barbary States of North Africa, and to obtain the release of the American prisoners. The Algerian ruler demanded $800,000 in gold for the release of the prisoners. Humphreys was to raise the gold, while Barlow stalled by giving the Dey various gifts. Coincidentally, the diplomat for the French government had given the Dey a gift. In return the Dey let the French borrow $200,000. Barlow got the Dey's banker to lend this French money to him. With the Dey's own funds, Barlow was able to free the American sailors. However, Barlow himself was held captive until the rest of the gold came in. The funds finally arrived in October 1796. While captive, Barlow negotiated treaties with Tripoli and Tunis, in addition to the one he negotiated with Algiers, and was free to go in July 1797. Also in 1797 Humphreys married Ann Francis.

In 1801 Jefferson abruptly recalled the Federalist Humphreys. The following year Humphreys returned to the United States, bringing with him merino sheep to Derby, Connecticut. For his sheep raising efforts he received a gold medal from the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture. He worked with the local mills to manufacture cloth at Humphreysville, near Derby. During the War of 1812, he became captain-general of Veteran Volunteers. Also around this time he worked on the poetry writing as a member of the "Hartford Wits."

Others houses in the district include the Dr. John Ireland Howe House and the Rev. Richard Mansfield House.

The latter house is an 18th century saltbox on Jewett Street. It was purchased in 1747. Rev. Mansfield completed the longest Episcopalian pastorate in our country's history, seventy-two years, encompassing the colonial, revolutionary, and federal periods. The Dr. John Ireland Howe House was built for Dr. Howe, the inventor of the mass production machine which made the pin "common".

Other Sites

Nearby is the Ansonia Nature and Recreation Center (10 Deerfield Lane, off Benz Street). Take Route 243 or Route 115. There are more than two miles of nature trails in this 104-acre park.

 

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