A Breach of Privilege – Cilley Family Letters, 1820-1867
By Eve Anderson
512 pp, Seven Coin Press
Spruce Harbor, Maine
Reviewed by Burndett Andres
(This review appeared in Wolf Moon Press Journal – A Maine Magazine of Art and Opinion, Issue #11 September/October 2004 Ref. Maine, At Last- Out and About Vol. III in the series, Pg. 25)
Occasionally an important book is published. A Breach of Privilege is such a book. It consists of selected letters from the newly discovered and transcribed and never before published Cilley Family Collection of Letters 1820-1867. The introduction tells us that “The Cilley family, like so many of the families who took part in the birth of our nation, were dedicated to the ideal of building a country of free people who would embody the best concepts of citizenship. They enjoyed an added distinction in that their commitment to the principles of democracy and their dedication to the public good remained foremost in their deeds, their hearts and their minds for so many generations.” The Cilley family tradition of service began with General Joseph Cilley of New Hampshire, who participated in the American Revolution.
The letters presented here are those of his grandson, Representative Jonathan Cilley of Thomaston, Maine, his wife Deborah and their sons Greenleaf and Prince. They “were written at home, at school, on the road to battle and in the Capitol in Washington. Together they provide a sweeping, evocative account of life in America during important periods of technological, political, economic and social development. They are not the abstracted analyses of later historians, but the immediate voices of men and women caught up in unfolding events that deeply affected their lives.”
At just under fifty dollars, A Breach of Privilege is a bit of an investment, but I’m here to tell you it’s worth it. If you want to see wonderful books published, here’s a chance to put your money where your mouth is. Buy it. Read it. Donate a copy to your local library and give gift copies to anyone interested in U.S. history, New England/Maine history, Civil War history, women’s studies, social studies, and everyone who just likes a good read – drama, tension, excitement, pathos, and humor along with information and education. In the publishing industry, “a keeper” is a book of sufficient significance that it will never go out of fashion or lose its importance; decades, even centuries from now it will be read and quoted. A Breach of Privilege is a keeper.
It may not even be too bold to say it’s a miracle, for it is impossible to calculate the odds against this book ever being published. First we need a family who appreciates the value of historical artifacts and their own family’s importance in the overall scheme of things – people who would not throw five hundred virtually unreadable old letters found at the back of a closet in 1995 onto the trash heap willy-nilly like many of us might – and who would take the time to investigate and deliver them into appropriate hands.
The next component that needs to be in alignment for a project like this to succeed is someone with the time, inclination, and skills to spend five years and more of her life transcribing the letters, organizing them into coherent groups, documenting details, creating an exhaustive index, and writing just enough explanatory text to weave it all together without cluttering the book with unnecessary commentary. Such a one is Eve Anderson – with a little help from her husband, Olof, and her friends at the Thomaston Historical Society, Luthera Burton Dawson, John Van Sorosin, and Sue Pedretti. Just how these letters found their way to Eve in Thomaston, Maine, and how she was uniquely positioned to deal with them is a great story in itself and is outlined in the Preface and Acknowledgements.
Even after a fabulous manuscript is created it often goes nowhere unless a publisher can be found to back the project. This particular book would need a publisher with great skill and vision, for this is not, after all, a novel by Stephen King with a ready-made public and a team of scriptwriters waiting in the wings to make it into a blockbuster feature film. Books of importance are a bad gamble at best.
Enter Seven Coin Press, a small Maine publisher with the desire to publish “books about real people in the real world – today’s and yesterday’s heroines and heroes” and an adult list that offers “primarily nonfiction in the form of biographies, reference books, and accounts of real people that speak to positive, visionary, philosophical and inspirational thought…” It was a match made in book-heaven. Bookwrights of Maine packaged the book with their usual surpassing excellence, and the publisher, Constance Leavitt, told me she will go to her grave proud to have published this volume even though it could be a commercial black hole.
Eve Anderson, Connie Leavitt, and the Cilley family member who started the ball rolling, Jonathan “Casey” Tibbitts, the great-great-great-grandson of the book’s central figure, Jonathan Cilley, are all unsung heroes who have invested heavily in time and capital to make these letters available to students of history and general readers alike. What makes this investment of passion, time and dollars worthwhile? What makes the Cilley family letters so valuable?
David F. Emery, a former tour-term Congressman for Maine’s First Congressional District, once represented by Jonathan Cilley, says “A Breach of Privilege is a literary time machine that carries us back to a critical and transitional period in American history…Historians and scholars will undoubtedly pore over these priceless letters for additional clues to our state and national history….”
Jonathan Cilley, an ardent abolitionist, died upholding the honor of New England and the principle of freedom for all Americans regardless of race. One of my personal reactions to these letters and the “Biographical Sketch of Jonathan Cilley” written by his Bowdoin College classmate and friend Nathaniel Hawthorne and included here as an appendix, was to wonder if the Civil War might possibly have been avoided if Representative Jonathan Cilley had not been murdered by his political enemies in the duel that resulted in the outlawing of dueling in the United States. He was after all, a man of high principles with the gift of “a free and natural eloquence – a flow of pertinent ideas, in language of unstudied appropriateness, which seemed always to accomplish precisely the result on which he had calculated.” Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but brilliant oratory in a just cause can be very persuasive.
Lauren Thomas, formerly of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, says, “Here is one of those astonishing histories that one is always hoping to discover and rarely finds. Perceptively organized and edited, this is the vivid story of an eminent New England family, who relate their triumphs, tragedies, and hopes to each other across generations – and now to us. The Cilley family’s letters brim with intelligence, wit, and strong opinions and emotions. They are filled with rich details of daily life in nineteenth-century America and firsthand accounts of political and historical events. As you read, these eloquent voices will transport you into the past and compel you to share their struggles and joys.”
Alongside these matters of great historical importance and ponderous consequence, the letters juxtapose the vicissitudes of daily life – pre-antibiotic healthcare, where a routine cold could become life-threatening overnight, and where asking after someone’s health was more than a polite inquiry; infant mortality in one generation of the Cilley family was forty percent, and Deborah Prince Cilley died of tuberculosis at age thirty-five; the difficulty of travel; the uncertainty of the mail; the fact that there was no standard U.S. currency as yet in circulation. We’re with them at the 51st Fourth of July celebration, the kissing parties, one-room schoolhouses, college dorm rooms, and Civil War soldier’s tents. One letter is written on December 25th and makes no mention whatsoever of Christmas, which we then remember did not become a popular holiday until the late 1800s. How different their lives were from ours.
And yet how much the same in the most basic ways. They talked about the weather, they gossiped, they teased. The parents’ concerns for the welfare, behavior, and success of their children remain unchanged with time; a wife’s concerns about the fidelity of a husband far away, surrounded by the glittering lights of sophisticated Washington, D.C., are sentiments often felt if not freely expressed today. The letters provide invaluable insights. They help us understand where we’ve been, which in turn helps us understand where we are.
Here in the early twenty-first century, reality TV and movies based on true stories have reached new heights of popularity. Perhaps it is just the right time for A Breach of Privilege, voyeurism at its best – intimate, but not more than you really wanted to know. This book is a visual treat, an intellectual stimulant, and its purchase is an opportunity to encourage excellence in publishing. We have the material, the author, and the publisher in alignment. Now its final success is left to us, the reading public. Every bibliophile’s dream has come true. We are in the position at last where indulging our passion is not only the desirable but also the socially responsible thing to do.
Note: Unfortunately, my impassioned appeal for readers to support this book with their dollars did little to forestall the demise of Seven Coin Press. However, an Internet search reveals that new and used copies of this book are still available (Jan. 2014).