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Memoir of Bishop Seabury

By William Jones Seabury, D.D.

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1908.
London: Rivingtons, 1908.

Chapter VI. Residence in Jamaica. Continued.

AMONG the parishioners of Mr. Seabury during this period was Mr. Jacob Moore, a brother of Bishop Benjamin Moore, residing in Newtown; who, living to be upwards of ninety, long survived his Rector. A conversation with him in 1825 my father records in his notes, relating how with great emotion and admiration Mr. Moore had described the Incumbent of Jamaica as a man much beloved and revered by his people not only in his public ministrations but in his private intercourse; and as a man of extensive and various information and ready to converse on every subject that was introduced, his conversation being very instructive.

Upon this the observation is justly made that, a glimpse like this being all that can now be obtained of the general tenor of the life which we are following, we are obliged to derive our chief information from surviving records of events which varied from the general tenor. Of this character is the episode referred to in the last chapter, resulting in the controversy with Mr. Aspinwall, a Flushing parishioner; and, of the same character, it may be remarked in passing, are several other events resulting in controversies to which reference will be made in their order.

The extant evidences of the difficulty between Mr. Seabury and Mr. Aspinwall, so far as I am aware, are two letters of the former to the Society, and two communications of his to Holt's New York Gazette and Weekly Post Boy; and three letters of Mr. Aspinwall to the same paper. The last of Mr. Aspinwall's three letters seems to indicate the publication of another letter of Mr. Seabury to which it is a reply, but this letter has not come under my observation. [Documentary Annals S. New York, III, 323, 325.]

The relations between these combatants appear to have been friendly enough in the beginning, and Mr. Seabury makes grateful mention of Mr. Aspinwall's liberality and efficiency in the Flushing congregation; but later, regarding Mr. Aspinwall as the abettor of an intrusion into his jurisdiction by Mr. Treadwell, another Missionary, Mr. Seabury experiences a decided change of heart towards Mr. Aspinwall, reflecting strongly upon him in his report to the Society, and resenting very deeply certain derogatory remarks of Mr. Aspinwall in regard to him. Under the influence of this resentment he published a demand upon Mr. Aspinwall for the specific statement of whatever he had to say against him, with any proofs that he might have to offer. Mr. Seabury's resentment against the course pursued by Mr. Aspinwall in the Treadwell matter, and against the remarks concerning himself, credibly as he thought reported to him, may have been very just and was very natural: but he would seem to have been ill advised in the mode by which he sought redress; and in his onslaught upon Mr. Aspinwall he certainly caught a Tartar. Unfortunately too, the Rector lost his temper and used language: Mr. Aspinwall keeping his temper met the demand for specifications and proofs with the request that the Rector would inform him what he had said that was objectionable; and met the language by reading the Rector an unctuous lecture on the proprieties of Christian and Clerical behaviour. Upon the evidence of the papers the Rector seems to have had the worst of the controversy: but it does not follow that he Was wrong in his main contention that he had been injured by the influence and words of Mr. Aspinwall. Mr. Aspinwall, however, assuming the innocent attitude of asking what he had done or said, was of course under no necessity of denying that he had done or said anything, and is apparently quite careful not to do so. All of this may possibly have been as Mr. Aspinwall intended it to appear; but, on the other hand, his attitude is exactly that which a clever man in control of his temper would take when charged with what it was not convenient to deny.

Mr. Seabury's first allusion to Mr. Aspinwall appears in his letter to the Society of March 26th, 1761, in which he reports the progress nearly to completion of the Church at Flushing. "The principal expense of this work," he says, "is defrayed by Mr. John Aspinwall and Mr. Thos. Grcnnall two gentlemen who have lately retired thither from New York. Mr. Aspinwall has besides made them a present of a very fine bell of about five hundred weight and I hope the influence and example of these gentlemen in their regular and constant attendance on divine service will have some good effect on the people of that town. Thro' Mr. Aspinwall's means also that Church hath been constantly supplied the last half year with a Lay Reader one Mr. Treadwell a young gentleman educated at Yale College in Connecticut of an amiable character and disposition and who intends to offer himself to the Society and with their permission to go to England next autumn."

It ought perhaps to be noted in this connection that in May, 1761, a petition for a Charter was filed in behalf of the Flushing congregation, and that a similar petition was filed on behalf of Newtown in September of the same year, which petitions were subsequent to the date of the foregoing letter. Also subsequently, and in the following year, it appears that Flushing and Newtown joined petitions to the Society for Treadwell as a Missionary; [Ondcrdonk's Antiquities Parish of Jamaica, p. 63.] but that he had been appointed as Missionary at Trenton, New Jersey. It is as well to observe further that the Rector, as intimated in his letter of October 10, 1759, was in the habit of officiating once in three weeks at each of the three places under him, which arrangement was not wholly satisfactory; and that the discontents as to this led sometime later, September 3, 1764, to a conference of parties interested at Comes' Inn at which an engagement was made with the Rector as to the distribution of his services, and that this meeting had taken place about a fortnight prior to the date of Mr. Seabury's first letter to Mr. Aspinwall. [Onderonk's Antiquities Parish of Jamaica, p. 64.] In possession of these facts the reader perhaps may have a better understanding of the situation of affairs in which the controversy took place.

Two years after the letter above cited, that is on March 26, 1763, Mr. Seabury, reporting again to the Society, calls its attention to trouble existing in his Mission of which he gives the following account:

"About eight weeks ago Mr. Treadwell the Society's Missy at Trenton New Jersey, came into this Parish and passed thro' Jamaica, (within three quarters of a mile of my house) to Flushing on a Saturday, without letting me know that he was in the Parish, nor did I know till two days after that he was even in the Colony. The next day the Church at Flushing was (as 'tis said) violently opened and occupied by Mr. Treadwell, the key being in my possession.

Mr. Treadwell I am also told continued there some time, preached the next Sunday after, went to New York, preached on a week day, came to Jamaica and baptized a child within a little more than a mile from my house, the child being well and several weeks old, and I had not been out of the Town for more than a clay for six months; all this was transacted without giving me the least notice; either by visiting me, or by message, or by letter; nor have I yet either seen him or heard from him. I am utterly unable to guess at the motive of Mr. Treadwell's conduct, unless he acted under the influence and direction of Mr. John Aspinwall of Flushing, . . . who has really done very considerably towards finishing the Church and gave it a good bell, but who is disgusted with me for declining to give Newtown and Flushing to Mr. Treadwell, tho' I readily consented and am willing to receive Mr. T. or any other person that shall be agreeable to the Society into the Parish in an amiable manner; but the expenses of a growing family will not permit me to relinquish any part of the Salary. Nor do I conceive that I have any right to give up any part of the Parish to the entire management of another person, unless it should be divided by the same public authority which first established it. Had Mr. Treadwell made me acquainted with his being in the Parish, I should readily and gladly have invited him to preach at all the three Churches, and am very sorry he did not give me the opportunity, as it would have prevented all disputes and a great deal of talk and noise and ill blood. I am told that I can have my remedy at common law and have been much urged by my warmer friends to make use of it, but I would on no account have an affair of this kind litigated but choose to submit it entirely to the Venerable Society, knowing that while I discharge my duty to them, they will protect me in the quiet and peaceable enjoyment of my Mission, which I am sorry to acquaint them is a good deal disturbed and unsettled by this behaviour of Mr. Treadwell's."

Ready as Mr. Seabury was, however, to defer to the judgment of the Society in regard to his rights in his Mission, he does not appear to have been willing to submit silently to individual endeavours to undermine his personal character, and influence in his work; and upon information received that such endeavours were being made by Mr. Aspinwall he inserted a card in the Gazette and Post Boy of September 20, 1764, stating that whereas it had been represented to him that jyjr Aspinwall had at various times traduced and aspersed his character, especially in New York, to his very great detriment and disadvantage, therefore he asks the favour of that gentleman that if he hath anything to object against him, he would be honourable enough to do it in one of the public papers, so that opportunity of vindication might be afforded; and that he would name all at one time; and, if not too much trouble, would present also the proof of his allegations.

It probably did not occur to the writer that Mr. Aspinwall could not reply in the manner desired without committing himself in print to what might be libellous; nor without abandoning his comparatively safe position of being merely reported to have made verbal statements; which it would be difficult to have proved against him, and which, again, the writer could not allege without giving the name of his informants, which would have embroiled others. Mr. Aspinwall, however, had apparently no difficulty in seeing this. At any rate he saw clearly that Mr. Seabury's demand could not touch him, unless he should be so indiscreet as to comply with it. Promptly therefore, in the next issue of the paper, September 27th, he parries, as follows:

"Mr. Holt, By an advertisement in your last weeks Paper I find myself charged by Mr. Seabury, with having traduced his character, much to his disadvantage, and he desires me to insert my objections to him in one of the publick Papers, with my proofs to support them; in answer to which I shall say no more at present, than that if anything I have declared concerning him, has proved so detrimental to him as he pretends, he doubtless must have been informed what those declarations were, and had he been desirous to wipe off the aspersion he might have done it without calling on me to repeat the charges; or he might have had his remedy at law, which lies open to him. Mr. Seabury may be assured that I shall be ready to answer him in support of my allegations, whenever he shall think proper to charge me with them in a course of law.

John Aspinwall. Flushing, September 19, 1764,"

Not a word here of denial of any injurious statements--only the fencing plea that if he had made them the injured party must be aware of them and was at liberty to prove them. This attitude naturally exasperated the Rector who replied with considerable acrimony in the issue of October nth, 1764, quoting Mr. Aspinwall's answer, and appending the following address:

"To the Public.

As I have been told there are several Gentlemen in the City (whose friendship I very much value, and whose good opinion I shall ever be solicitous to retain), who have been kind enough to express their regard for me on account of the unhappy dispute I have been obliged to enter into with Mr. Aspinwall; and who may perhaps think I have been too hasty in calling upon him in the public manner I have done,--I beg them to consider, that the character of an honest man, will suffer less from being critically examined by ten thousand persons, than from having slanderous reports of him, received without examination, by ever so few. While Mr. Aspinwall confined his misrepresentations to my own Parish, I had frequent opportunities of obviating them, and setting matters in their true light; but when it was told me he industriously aspersed me at New York, where I could seldom if ever, have the opportunity of saying a word in my own defence; I knew no way to check the liberty he gave himself, but by calling publicly upon him to avow openly, what he privately reported, and this I hope will be thought some apology, if not a sufficient one for my conduct.

The regard I have to my own character, as a Clergyman, prevents my making those severe remarks upon Mr. Aspinwall's advertisement, to which he hath fairly exposed himself.

Thus much however I must observe, that many of the most atrocious crimes are often not recognizable in a court of law; so that in a dispute of this nature, for Mr. Aspinwall to say the law is open, is I think to give up all pretensions to the character of a gentleman, which cannot be supported without integrity and honour;--it is descending for security to the level of the midnight rogue, who breaks open and robs your house, or the more detestable villain who corrupts your wife or debauches your daughter; and because circumstances in neither case will always admit of a legal prosecution, the wretch hugs himself in his security from a course of law.-- Thus Mr. Aspinwall, having by more open slander, where he dared; and by sly insinuations and partial representations, endeavoured to ruin the reputation of a defenseless Clergyman, whose only crime was that of asserting, perhaps too warmly his own rights and the privileges of his Parish;--having as much as in him lay destroyed his usefulness and influence, and even laid schemes to drive him out of his living,--when called upon publicly, to avow openly, and justify his assertions, answers, the law is open. The law is open Sir! 'Tis true, but at present it suits ill with my purse, worse with my inclination: Rest therefore in full security from a legal prosecution, and rest as much at peace as your own conscience will let you. But Sir! Remember, your evasive advertisement, can give no satisfaction, either to myself or the Public. If you will support the character of a gentleman, I hope you will think yourself obliged either to deny the charge, and say you have not represented me to my disadvantage; or that you be particular in your charge against me, and support your allegations with proper proof; and not evade the matter either by general or unsupported accusations, nor by putting it off to some future time.

Samuel Seabury. Jamaica, September 25th, 1764."

Notwithstanding the strong language in which the Rector here indulges himself, it is manifest that he defends with some dignity the position which he has taken, and that he keeps close to the point that he had been injured by words of Mr. Aspinwall, which was not denied but only evaded by his adversary. Mr. Aspinwall, on the other hand, keeps close to his point that it was incumbent on the Rector to allege specifically what he had said. Obviously therefore the controversy is really narrowed to the debatable question as to what the proper mode of procedure was under the circumstances; and on this plane Mr. Aspinwall is very careful to keep it in the two letters which he subsequently contributed to the dispute. In the issue of October 18th of the same paper appears the first of these, as follows:

"To the Public.

I do not think it necessary to make any observations on Mr. Seabury's apology for his former advertisement; in which he called on me to publish what I had to say against him: Neither do I think it at all consistent with the character of a Christian, to render railing for railing, or in other words to retaliate the indecent scurrility with which his Appeal to the Public so plentifully abounds.

On reading his advertisement first published, I concluded that he had heard of my reporting something to the disadvantage of his character, that was without foundation; and as I knew that the laws of the land are ever careful in guarding the subject's interest and reputation, I therefore said, the law was open, supposing that a more prudent way for him to obtain satisfaction, if he was injured as he pretends, than to enter into a controversy in the publick papers, where both parties meet with blame; especially when the dispute abounds with abusive language.

But he says the laws of his Country will not give him satisfaction, and endeavours to make the world believe that I would take shelter under that refuge--No; this was not my view: for I now declare, that if I have said anything against Mr. Seabury that has been so detrimental to him as he would insinuate, which I cannot maintain, I shall not only be ready and willing, upon the principles of honour, to make him every acknowledgment that can be due to him, but am equally ready to submit the matter to the most publick examination.

After this candid declaration, I expect that Mr. Seabury will descend to particulars in his accusations, with proper proofs, to support them; as I hope I shall be excused for not taking his word for anything he is pleased to charge against me, I say, I expect he will now descend to the particulars, wherein he conceives I have abused and injured him; and not unreasonably insist on my surmising what those particulars are, that he is pleased to insinuate to the publick; he says he has been told, and has heard them; if so, why need he call on me? The world must see that it lies upon him, at least, to suggest what he has heard, and not to fill up a paper, with an imaginary something, set off in language little becoming the dispassionate temper of a Minister of Christ. If instead of this, he had pointed out the particular instances of slander that he complains of, I should have had an opportunity of answering him; which if I could not have done, he undoubtedly must be justified and I stand condemned--This, however I am not at all apprehensive of, as I am confident I have never said anything against him unjustly, or that he did not deserve.

John Aspinwall. Flushing, October 16th, 1764."

What Mr. Aspinwall calls his "candid declaration" is exactly of the same character as that of his first answer. It all depends on the word if: "if I have said anything so detrimental to him as he would insinuate, I shall not only be ready, etc." That is to say--far be it from me to deny that I have said anything so detrimental: and this must suffice the man who conceives himself injured, and who will neither go to law with me, nor embroil his friends who have reported me. And so he concludes, hedging as before, "I am confident I never have said anything against him unjustly, or that he did not deserve;" quite ignoring the right of an injured party to have the issue of justice or desert determined not in the ex parte tribunal of the injurer's mind, but upon a fair discussion involving the hearing of the injured one also.

Obviously a controversy on such lines as these might be endless, and it was hardly to be wondered at that each party should claim that the advantage lay with him; Mr. Aspinwall on the ground that his opponent had failed to establish that anything had been said against him; Mr. Seabury on the ground that his opponent had never explicitly denied that he had disparaged him, and when challenged to bring out publicly what he had against him that there might be opportunity of vindication, had evaded the demand by demurring to the form in which it was made.

Mr. Aspinwall apparently has the last word in the controversy, which is dated November 4, 1764. The letter is very long, and, controversially viewed, very able and effective--on the whole the best piece of writing which the controversy had produced. But apart from the personalities, which are somewhat varied and extended, the letter goes over at greater length the same ground as before, and holds fast to the same if as had previously been so discreetly pressed. The copy which is before me is printed on a fragment of a sheet which contains no title nor date of issue, but which I presume to have been a part of the Gazette and Post Boy of the issue of November 8th, 1764. It does not seem necessary to reproduce the whole letter, as for the most part it is merely an iteration and elaboration of what had been said before, and an endeavour with controversial cleverness to fix upon the writer's antagonist that evasiveness which, from the opponent's point of view, he was himself chargeable with. There is, however, one passage which touches upon a matter which he had not before noticed; and this seems to be worth recording for the light which it throws upon his desire to transplant his Rector, or prune his branches; which desire, after all, goes far to account for his attitude in the case, and is very likely to have produced the strictures of which the Rector had been informed, but which the weakness of his memory or the strength of his discretion made it impracticable for Mr. Aspinwall to recall.

Referring to the Rector's course in the discussion the writer observes that "he vouchsafes to say, that I have traduced his character at New York, endeavoured to destroy his usefulness and influence in his own Parish, and laid schemes to get him out of his living. The first of these is indeed very general, for I am still to ask in what I have traduced his character there. As to the second it must be confessed he has by some part of his conduct, in a great measure, destroyed his usefulness among many in his own parish; I should have been glad to have rendered him more useful than he is--with respect to his living, it is true that I lately favoured the scheme, of getting him into a better, that was vacant, and that for my sake as well as his; for, as on the one hand, I am sure he would have had no objection to a better salary, so on the other hand, I would have been willing to have received in his stead, a minister with whom I could live in harmony and friendship."

Mr. Aspinwall's caution in attributing impaired usefulness to the Rector is admirable, and, after all, allows him to say but little. " Some part of his conduct," " in a great measure," " amongst many," are very guarded expressions indeed. The same might be said of numerous good and successful Rectors before and since without being exactly libellous. Equally delightful is the solicitude displayed for the promotion of the Rector's usefulness, and in a higher sphere. It is true that this was not wholly unselfish: but then, how few human actions are uninfluenced by mixed motives! The passage, however, is particularly notable as exhibiting the nearest approach to frankness which the writer permitted to himself throughout the controversy: and, as such, is a conspicuous instance of fair dealing in the midst of a mass of special pleading; and not less is it valuable as containing the admission of an adverse feeling which, to say the least, was capable of producing adverse remarks; as out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. Whether it did have this effect may be matter of conjecture. But Mr. Aspinwall never denied that it did. If no disparaging remarks had been made it had been a very simple matter to say so; and, unless one charged with such remarks had enjoyed playing with controversial letter writing, he would be apt to say so, if he could.

In taking leave of this episode I am wondering whether I am giving the reader ground to think that I have made too much of a small matter, and in so doing have made conspicuous a phase of Mr. Seabury's life which might better have been left in the obscurity of musty manuscripts and forgotten publications; or that I have dealt more hardly with Mr. Aspinwall than I should.

As to the first of these doubts, however, I assure myself that having in view not the presentation of a nattering but rather of a truthful picture of my subject, it is right that I should present him so far as possible as he was: and not seek to conceal what I may imagine some reader may condemn. And as to the unimportance of the matter I think that the questions of a Clergyman's living, and of his fitness to retain it, are much the reverse of unimportant, and justify a very considerable warmth of feeling and strength of language on the part of the Clergyman against whom they are broached.

With regard to Mr. Aspinwall, while I am not his biographer, I should on the other hand be sorry indeed to seem unjust to one who from all that I have heard was undoubtedly worthy of great respect both as a Churchman and as a Citizen; and whose name has ever since his time been honourably conspicuous both in the commercial and social history of New York. But I do not think it unjust to him, nor inconsistent with the respect due to an otherwise exemplary life, to say that in the present instance he amused and protected himself by substituting a diplomatic diversion for the straightforward frankness which would have been, I am disposed to believe, more in keeping with his character and position.

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