When Nancy Hammond bought a house on Gates Street in Portsmouth, N.H., she had no idea it would inspire her to trace the life story of a good and interesting man. Tradition had it that Jonathan Mitchel Sewall had lived in the house during the time of George Washington. Washington, in fact, may have walked right past it on his visit to Portsmouth in 1789.
Hammond wanted to find out more.
She learned that Sewall recorded his observations about much of the world around him, from Salem to Spain, from slave to Superior Court chief justice. He felt things deeply, and, often depressed, he wrote popular poems about the world he knew. Hammond’s curiosity about him led her to dig up those old poems as well as fragments of his life.
Then, during the COVID pandemic, she wove them together into The Life and Times of Jonathan Mitchel Sewall, 1748-1808.
“Now I am cherishing him and hoping to make him better-known as best I can,” she wrote in her introduction.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Sewall’s life was his friendship with Primus Fowle, an enslaved printer with whom he probably shared “many a cheerful dram.”
Sewall was the great-nephew of Judge Samuel Sewall, a Puritan leader, Salem witch trial judge and opponent of slavery.
Born in Salem, Mass., Jonathan was educated at Boston Public Latin School while living with his uncle Stephen Sewall, chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature. He then studied law with his cousin Jonathan Sewall, Massachusetts attorney general, before he moved to Portsmouth, N.H There he became a well-known and well-loved local character who wrote poetry and the New Hampshire Bill of Rights. He spoke at every local celebration during the rest of his life, and most likely helped the enslaved people of Portsmouth with their Black Petition of 1779.
Sewall came from a mercantile family, and he was apprenticed in the merchant business in Salem. Some time before his apprenticeship ended, he came down with a fever. It brought him so low that he decided to take a voyage to a milder climate for his health.
And so he sailed for Spain, probably Bilbao. New Hampshire historian Albert T. Batchellor wrote that the warm climate helped him. “[Y]et the violence of his fever and the strong medicines which the physicians administered to him when sick, afterwards subjected him to exquisite nervous affections and the keenest mental suffering approaching delirium,” Batchellor wrote.
Jonathan’s brother-in-law, William Pynchon, described in his diary on December 21, 1785, his visit to his house in Salem: “Bro. Mitchell comes in Portsmouth stage; a dark cloud over his visage, his eyes wild.“
Jonathan grew prone to hypochondria and nervous problems, which he medicated with “stimulating beverages.”
“But his friends loved him none the less and appear never to have lost respect for him,” wrote historian Charles Bell. “The lady who became his second wife, when remonstrated with on her engagement to a man of his habits, replied, ‘I would rather marry Mr. Sewall drunk than any other man sober’.”
Jonathan Mitchel Sewall, Lawyer
His mercantile career over, Jonathan Mitchel Sewall turned to the law. He studied — and probably lived with — Judge John Pickering. His later work as a Portsmouth lawyer brought him into contact with people in trouble. He often helped them out without charging them.
According to an obituary Hammond found, “The widow, the fatherless, and the stranger, also found in his talents a never-failing resources, for without even the hope of reward, he devoted his great abilities to their service.”
Though no portraits of him exist, a contemporary noticed his striking resemblance to the British statesman, Edmund Burke.
Hammond notes Sewall may also have helped draw up an eloquent petition demanding freedom for Portsmouth’s enslaved servants in 1780. The document, known as “the petition of Nero Brewster and others,” failed then to free them. In 2013, New Hampshire’s General Court posthumously granted them their freedom.
Nero Brewster worked for William Brewster, who ran a tavern on Pleasant and Court streets. Sewall may well have medicated himself with stimulating beverages at Brewster’s Tavern .
“With Jonathan’s own propensity for drink, he must have shared quite a few “cheerful” drams with Primus,” wrote Hammond. “Primus may well have been the first enslaved person that Jonathan met in Portsmouth as they probably lived across the street from each other.”
Primus would have printed Jonathan’s poetry. He had come to New Hampshire with his owner, the printer Daniel Fowle. Fowle sometimes printed Jonathan’s public poetry in his weekly newspaper, The New Hampshire Gazette.
“It has been said that Primus could not read,” wrote Hammond. “If he were the only person working with Fowle it seems unlikely that he would be unable to help with the typesetting.”
His main task, she wrote, “would have been setting the cases of print on to the press, setting the paper, and then inking the letters before the case went into the press. Then the lever was turned to pull the paper and the case of type into it and to press it down to make the print. When this was done, the lever was pulled back to take the case out and then, because the ink was oil based, the printed sheets had to be hung up to dry overnight. The type needed to be cleaned and returned to the letter cases.”
Hammond offers the kind of insight Jonathan Mitchel Sewall revealed in his poetry. She wondered,
“What must it have been like for Primus to print ads for the sale of “Indian, Negro, or Mulatto” people as slaves and information about returning escapees to their enslavers every week?” she wondered. Hammond includes examples, such as “A very likely NEGRO BOY, about 14 years of age, to be Sold, Enquire of the Printer.”
Primus died in 1791, and Jonathan wrote his obituary, which appeared in the newspaper.
Epitaph on the Death of Primus
Under these clods, old Primus lies
At rest and free from noise,
No longer seen by mortal eyes j
Or grieved by roguish boys;
The cheerful dram he lov’d ‘tis true
Which hastened on his end.
But some in paved-street well knew
He was a hearty friend,
And did possess a grateful mind
Though oft borne down with pain,
Yet where he found a neighbour kind
He surely went again;
Too often did the mirth of some
His innocence betray,
By giving larger draughts of rum
Than he could swill away,
But now he’s dead, we sure may say
Of him, as of all men,
That while in silent graves they lay
They’ll not be plagu’d again.
Writes Hammond, “The epitaph reads as though it was given at the graveside as it begins ‘Under these clods.’ It surely gives the impression that Jonathan knew Primus well even to the painfulness of his aging shoulders and knees.”
If Jonathan Mitchel Sewall was sensitive enough to understand that Primus suffered physical pain as well as humiliation, he may also have grasped the unfairness of his enslavement. Hammond noted that Sewall’s son Stephen, probably around 14, apprenticed to a printer, then an elite trade.
“The printing trade was a very good one to be in and a young boy could progress from his seven-year apprenticeship to become a journeyman and then a master printer himself,” Hammond wrote. “As a journeyman he would be able to get a job in almost any city. But at that time these steps would only be possible for a young white boy. Primus’ “apprenticeship” lasted for all of his long life. A printer would not only print the newspaper, but broadsides, pamphlets, books, and many types of forms especially for the state.”
In Silent Graves
Primus Fowle was buried in Portsmouth’s Negro Burying Ground, a segregated cemetery on the outskirts of the town. People eventually forgot about it until 2003, when a road crew unearthed coffins and skeletal remains. Today, a memorial park on the site memorializes those buried there.
Seventeen years later, Jonathan Mitchel Sewall went to his final resting place in Portsmouth’s North Cemetery. His gravestone reads,
Sacred to the Memory of Jonathan Mitchel Sewall, Esq.
Counsellor at Law who died March 29, 1808 Age 60
In vain shall worth or wisdom save
The dying victim from the destin’d grave,
Nor Charity, our helpless nature’s pride,
The friend to him who knows no friend beside,
Nor genius, science, eloquence have pow’r,
One moment to protract the appointed hour.
Could these united have his life repriev’d,
We should not weep for Sewall still had lived.
Portsmouth African Burying Ground Memorial Park By LibSEEE – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91322234.