Friday, May 15, 2015

Mrs. Amidon's Memorial

Recently I had the chance to use the Library of Congress for the first time. Of course I went there to look at the little publication containing the Amidon memorial speeches. I thought I might find a soft pamphlet, but it turned out that I found a hard bound book that was very, very slim. Mounted in it for a frontispiece there was indeed a photograph of Margaret Amidon, as the newspaper article said, “affording a good remembrance of her pleasant, thoughtful face.” It’s a studio (Gardner) photo that shows the lady in a parlor setting, standing nearly in profile before a fireplace, with one foot raised onto the hearth fender. She has a notably large nose.

A studio photograph of Margaret Milburn Amidon from the 1860s.
The frontispiece photograph of Margaret Amidon.
The opening selection in the little volume is Samuel AtLee’s eulogy for Mrs. Amidon. This eulogy forms the principal part of the book—almost the whole of it. From this material came the biographical excerpt printed in the newspapers at the time the book was issued. At the Library I was happy to read the entire piece at last. What follows is my transcription of it.

Memorial Address

on the

Life and Services


Mrs. Margaret Milburn-Amidon,

by Samuel Yorke AtLee

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones;

So let it be with Caesar.

And so it was with Caesar: and so must it ever be with men whose only rule of action is their own predominance.

But it is not so with those in whose life have been manifested the love of God and the love of the neighbor.

The fragrance of their good deeds survives their sepulture and embalms their memory in the hearts of all who have admired, or been benefited by, their example.

In this latter category is the subject of this address.

Margaret Agnes, the daughter of George and Alice Milburn, was the fifth of seven children, and was born in Alexandria, Va., on the 21st day of January, 1827. Her father, George Milburn, a native of Dumfries, Scotland, came to this country when a boy, and settled in Alexandria. Her mother, Alice Milburn, was also a resident in Alexandria, and a descendant of an English family which came to Virginia soon after the Revolutionary War. Her parents were of the same name, but neither could trace any consanguinity between the families.

Margaret lost her mother soon after her sixth year, and she became fatherless five years afterwards. Meanwhile her father’s second marriage gave Margaret a new mother, so that, at his death, she did not consider herself an orphan.

Between this mother and herself there was always the most devoted affection. Named after her then aunt, at her baptism into the New Jerusalem—Swedenborgian—Church, Margaret learned to expect her caresses and to enjoy her love from her earliest remembrance until this earthly relationship was severed by her decease, on the 3d of December last, a period of nearly forty-three years.

Margaret was first placed under instruction in an infant school at four years of age. She learned rapidly, and comforted her mother in her last sickness, by her considerate filial assiduity, and by reading aloud to her from the New Testament at her bedside.

She was next a pupil of Mrs. Hunt; and, afterwards, of Mrs. Thompson, whose son, Mr. John E. Thompson, perpetuates the family usefulness, and has, for nearly twenty-five years, been a teacher in our public schools. Margaret and Mr. Thompson were thus schoolmates; and, in after life, occupied the same building as teachers for fifteen years. They were each emulous of the other, but their rivalry had no envy in it; and, not for an hour, in all that time, was their friendship interrupted.

Her last preceptor was Mr. Wilson, who became afterwards a teacher in our public schools, and was favorably known by many of our old citizens.

Soon after leaving Mr. W.’s school she opened a school herself. Young as she was at that time, about 16 years, she had the faculty of securing the respect of her pupils; and her love of order and gentle manners won their obedience and affection. Her success in her profession soon obtained general commendation, and by the advice of her friends she offered herself as a candidate for employment in our public schools.

She passed the examination before the Board of Trustees, and was elected in 1849 to the charge of a primary school in the fourth district. In this position she remained, enhancing her reputation, until her promotion, in 1854, to the grammar school of the same district, which she occupied until her decease.

In December, 1862, she was married to Mr. Hollis Amidon of this city, a gentleman who so truly appreciated her character that he never sought to dissuade her from a vocation that had become identified with her happiness.

She was not a teacher from any motive of self or desire of profit. She could at any time, by opening a private seminary, have secured a treble compensation for her labor; but she quietly put aside all such solicitations and persevered in her prescribed duty: for her labor was a labor of love. A friend of hers was once wishing aloud that she were rich enough to retire from the drudgery of teaching. She thanked him for his good will, but assured him that, no matter how rich she might be, she would continue to teach.

Engrossing as were her daily cares, she was not content to take her ease on the day of rest. She was attracted to the worship of God by the ministrations of Rev. Dr. Samson, and on the 4th of March, 1849, became a member of the Baptist Church.

She soon volunteered to take a charge in the Sunday school, and a class was accordingly assigned to her. How faithfully and conscientiously she fulfilled her duty let the tears of her little scholars attest! When her health began to fail, she was expostulated with by a friend, who urged that, weak as she was, it could no longer be her duty to exhaust her little strength with her Sunday class. She replied that she did not regard it a duty so much as a pleasure.

It was in May, 1868, that latent consumption began to manifest itself. But she struggled against the disease, and, with brief intervals of exhaustion, attended her school; but in about a year she was compelled to forego the labors she delighted in. The trustees, with considerate kindness, anticipated the usual time for holding her annual examination, and appointed the month of May for what was then to be her last performance of that duty. Her pallid face and panting utterance betrayed her waning life, and tears were seen on the cheeks of her pupils. She was exhorted to set out for a more genial climate, and a committee of the city authorities waited upon her, offering her a year’s leave of absence with continued salary. But she could not reconcile her conscience to the acceptance of the kind offer, and she calmly prepared for the inevitable result. Most solicitous friends ministered to her, and the Rev. Mr. Samson and the Rev. Mr. Fox imparted all the consolations of religion and of personal friendship.

She lingered without complaint until the third of last December, when she departed, calmly and humbly, but with a diffident trust that she might be received into one of the many mansions prepared by the Lord for those who love Him and obey His commandments.

Her pupils loved her. The most insubordinate children could be subdued by her admonitions. This power in her character was strikingly exemplified when she took charge of the primary school. The boys of that school were notorious for their fierce contempt of all discipline. Her predecessor in charge of that school, Mr. Morrison, had exhausted in vain persuasion as well as command and he relinquished his authority in despair.

She must have had some misgivings, some inner tremblings, when she first stood at her official desk and looked down over the bold, impudent faces and saucy eyes scanning her countenance. The pause of two or three minutes, awaiting silence, wrought a change, however, in those impudent faces and saucy eyes. Her attitude of command and of entreaty subdued their insolence, and her glances of loving reproach propitiated the young insurgents. She addressed them in words warm from the heart. She told them what she had heard about their conduct. She reasoned with them like a mother, and expostulated with them like a sister. She appealed to them as young American gentlemen, whose gallantry would disdain to insult a woman, and who would, she knew, feel an indignity to their teacher as they would an insult to their mother or to their sisters.

The effect of this little speech was not “magical,” but it was natural. It proved the omnipotence of love. After some occasional turbulences, incident to all states of transition, the boys became respectful and obedient to their teacher and diligent in their studies, and, in a few months, no school was rated higher for proficiency and demeanor.

Five years later she was promoted to the district school, in which her classes were restricted to girls only. She now found her true position. Her pupils were as her daughters, and they responded to her solicitude like daughters. She watched over them as a parent, and many of them have thanked her with grateful tears for her timely and gentle warnings while they were passing through the temptations of hilarious, unthinking, impulsive youth.

I have been permitted to copy a portion of a letter written by one sister to another, both of whom had been her pupils:

“I need not tell you, dear sister, how deeply I mourn the loss of my dearest friend and counsellor, Mrs. Amidon—a friend to whom I owe more than ordinary love and affection, for it is to her I am indebted for whatever acquirements or ability I possess. How my heart is carried back to those happy hours passed in the schoolroom under the guidance of that gentle being!

“What a mighty influence she exerted over those committed to her charge—an influence which will guide and govern us in all our intercourse through life. Loved and cherished, her memory will ever be engraven on my heart, and though gone from among us she will never be forgotten.”

Few families in the southern part of Washington have been without a representative in Mrs. Amidon’s school; and many wives and mothers in this city acknowledge the good influence of her teaching, and perpetuate these good influences upon their children.

But, while love was the peculiar trait in Mrs. Amidon’s character, she was not one of these insipid, flaccid females who drawl out their vapid sentimentalities like exhausted victims of an unsympathizing and “ungushing” world. She had a clear judgement and reliable common sense. When she knew she was right this common sense enabled her to take the least offensive mode to effect her purposes. She had not that aggressive virtue that resents every excellence not possessed by itself. She had charity towards all and malice towards none. Her manners were cordial, and she enjoyed and encouraged decorous fun. Indeed it was a pleasure to shake hands with her, for her responsive grasp was an earnest of her frank and kindly nature.

I remember and incident which illustrated her firmness in what she considered her duty. The only incorrigible boy I ever knew her to have was dismissed by her from school.

The child’s mother complained to a trustee, who, without due consideration, signed an order for the boy’s readmission. Miss Milburn refused to take him back unless he would apologize before the school for his conduct. The trustee thereupon wrote a letter to Miss Milburn requiring her immediate obedience to his order, but Miss M. wrote to him so firm and sensible a reply that the trustee withdrew his order and acknowledged that he had been too hasty. The boy soon afterwards apologized and resumed his seat in the school, and was never afterwards insubordinate.

But Mrs. Amidon’s popularity amongst her pupils would not alone have suggested this public commemoration of her character. She is entitled to the gratitude of the public of this city for her influence in behalf of the public schools.

The public schools of Washington, although established, I think, about 1805, were little esteemed by “respectable” people twenty years ago. They were looked on as a kind of charity schools, and sensitive parents were unwilling to expose their children to the imputation of poverty. There was, however, always enough vitality in the institution to sustain it against unjust prejudice; and a few schools were creditably filled and well conducted. From ten to fifteen years ago the annual expenditure of the board of trustees did not exceed $20,000, a trifling proportion of the current outlay.

The grammar schools of the fourth district were, for many years, the only schools of that class in the city; and so high was their reputation that at the annual examination and distribution of premiums the rooms were crowded with visitors. The public schools rose higher every year in the general esteem, and many wishes were expressed that a high school should be provided for emulous scholars. But the corporate authorities were too timid to gratify these wishes. Mr. George W. Riggs, however, set an example, in 1860, to public spirited men by offering a gratuitous scholarship in Columbian College to the most accurate and proficient scholar. Dr. Gunton, Mr. Corcoran, the late Mr. Kendall, Mr. Davis, Mr. James C. McGuire, the college faculty, and Mr. Horatio King followed Mr. Riggs’ example; and now one or more meritorious youths are enabled every year to pursue the higher studies. Bills were introduced into the Councils in 1855, and were passed through the Common Council, to appoint a superintendent of public instruction, and to levy a tax for the support of the public schools, but legislative and executive scruples prevented their enactment. The present condition of the public schools is prosperous, and encourages us to believe that, despite all the controversies of the day, the institution may be preserved non-sectarian, perpetual, and indivisible.

No one in this city was more instrumental in attracting and fixing the public approbation to the public school system than Mrs. Amidon. Her girls were always neatly dressed, refined in demeanor, and proficient in their studies. Every one in her school loved her, and the sphere of harmony prevailing there delighted every visitor. A large number—forty-one—of the female teachers in our public schools have been educated by her; and the influences of her upright and pure character have thus been continued and extended, and will be perpetuated as long as good deeds are remembered and a good example is appreciated and followed. In this point of view the Rev. Mr. Samson did not at all exaggerate when, in his address at her funeral, he said, that “no one who ever died in this city has exercised a more general and beneficial influence on the morals of this community than Margaret Amidon.”

It is for these reasons that the regret at her decease is so profound and general; and arrangements have been made—and I am sure they will be successful—to erect a monument to her memory, pure, modest, and graceful as her own spirit.

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