In the twenty-first century, most people acknowledge the dominant role technology plays in our daily lives, especially in the ways in which we connect to others. The digital age brought forth the transition from hard copy and handwritten documents to electronic forms of communication and record keeping. In addition, social media networks enable us to broadly share personal announcements and to contact family, friends, and sometimes relative strangers with just a few clicks of the mouse. At times I find it difficult to imagine how I lived my life without the technological advancements of the past two decades. Yet, as a graduate student with a passion for nineteenth century history, I am reminded rather frequently of a life before even basic items such as ballpoint pens, mass-market spiral notebooks, and word processing systems.
Based on the ways in which we live our lives in 2014, the diary of George Templeton Strong may not seem spectacular or even unique. I imagine its significance is lost on anyone unfamiliar with it. So who exactly was George Templeton Strong? And why is his diary significant? George Templeton Strong lived in New York City between 1820 and 1875. He attended Columbia College. Soon after, he joined his father’s law practice and practiced as a real estate attorney. He stayed at the firm which was variously called Strong & Bidwell, Strong, Bidwell & Strong, and Bidwell & Strong during his lifetime. (The firm is now Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP.)
George Templeton Strong in November 1860. (Image from Mr. Lincoln and New York website – link below.)
Strong participated in numerous civic activities which led to his prominence in New York City society. He served as a vestryman at Trinity Episcopal Church located in Lower Manhattan and a trustee at Columbia College (now Columbia University). He also spent time as the Treasurer of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which forced him to travel to Washington, DC multiple times during the American Civil War. Along with Frederick Law Olmsted, Henry Whitney Bellows, and Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, he founded the Union League Club of New York in February 1863. The Union League supported the Union war effort and donated funds to the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War.
The brief background information above illustrates the busy and active life Strong lived. Despite his activities and commitments, Strong somehow found time to keep one of the most detailed diaries from his time period. Strong started his diary in 1835 while he attended Columbia College. He continued to write in the diary until June 25, 1875, one month before his death. His original diary consists of more than 2,250 pages and an estimated four million to four and a half million words. His words provide readers with the intricate details of life in nineteenth century New York City. Strong detailed his daily activities, social obligations, and political opinions. The diary supplies reflections on the events of the Civil War, including the New York City Draft Riots of July 1863, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865, and the assassination of President Lincoln days later.
First printing at Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.
Strong’s detailed forty-year account of his life in New York City during such turbulent times serves as an invaluable tool for scholars in a variety of fields. The history of the diary itself also reflects the power of the words within. The diary remained in the Strong family until 1927 when a descendant allowed the American Red Cross to borrow it. The diary remained protected by family members for privacy reasons and because the diary contains strong opinions from a tumultuous time in America’s history. The New-York Historical Society owns the original diary. Macmillan Company published the first printing of the four volume diary in 1952. Allan Nevins, a historian, and Milton Hasley Thomas, a curator, edited the first printing of the diary.
Reading Strong’s diary encouraged me to reflect on the ways he chronicled his life and how individuals document their lives today. In order to preserve his history, Strong had to sit down at a desk every night under candlelight and write using quill pens and then later gold pens. This process seems tedious compared to uploading a photo to Instagram or typing 140 characters in a tweet. Yet, without Strong’s diligence and time, scholars would lack an incredibly important artifact containing distinctive insights into the world of the nineteenth century. The ways in which we record our lives may have changed significantly since Strong wrote in his “minute hand”, but our thoughts and the moments we choose to remember remain the same. On Sunday, April 9, 1865 Strong wrote, “LEE AND HIS ARMY HAVE SURRENDED! Gloria in Excelcis Deo…” I think his exclamation would translate loud and clear in a tweet or Facebook status update today.
For additional information on subjects discussed above, please visit the links below.
Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP.
Mr. Lincoln and New York Project
Trinity Church Graveyard
Union League Club
New-York Historical Society