Skip to main content

Philip Hone’s New York

July 2024
16min read

The magic of life in the, unfolding metropolis still breathes in the diary of a charming and witty mayor

When Davy Crockett, profusely billed as “the wild frontiersman,” visited New York in 183], he made such a hullabaloo trying to live up to his reputation in his hotel room at the American Hotel, in the choice row fronting City Hall Park, that he infuriated the neighbors, chief among them Philip Hone, sometime mayor ol New York and its most respected resident. Nevertheless, the former mayor couldn’t ignore the “coonskin congressman,” a member of his own political party.

Davy described Hone as “the politest man I ever did see, for when he asked me to take a drink at his own sideboard, he turned his back upon me, that I mightn’t be ashamed to fill as much as I wanted. This was what I call doing the fair thing.”

Hone was mayor for one year only, in 182!), but through most of his adtdt life he was a part ol every public: occasion. All noted visitors to the city from 1821 to 1851 called at Hone’s house and figure in the diary he kept for the greater part of that time. Things had a habit of happening before his eyes; and he recorded them all, ostensibly for his own posterity alone.

Success in life had pursued him, though he began with nothing. Born in 1780, the younger son of a poor carpenter, he went into the auctioneering business at age sixteen as his brother’s employee. Three years later he was a partner, and thenceforward the firm’s rise and his own were phenomenal. At 35 he was a wealthy man. At 41 he retired with half a million dollars. He married young and raised a large family, meanwhile carefully improving himself, cultivating not only books and pictures but their creators also. He was handsome in a classic, curly-haired style, and in later life compared himself (within the bounds of a passionate Americanism) to John Bull. In 1821, the year of his prime-of-life retirement, he took his wife to Europe and went to the coronation of George IV, but London did not know him then or fete him as it was to do later. The Hones made the grand tour of the Continent, then returned to their children and to the wellstocked library and the nicely chosen art collection to which Hone had judiciously added while abroad. In a residence at the corner of Broadway and Park Place, which he purchased for $25,000, he settled down to enjoy himself.

In November, 1825, two months before he became mayor, Hone spoke for New York City at the ceremonies attending the completion of the Erie Canal; which is to say, at the instant of the transformation of New York from just another seaport to an international commercial center. For the first time the riches of the forest could be borne out in bulk all the way from the Lakes to the Atlantic—specifically, to New York Harbor, which burst into a glory of tradeseekers from abroad, all jostling each other’s ships to get in first and snap the treasure up. It was something unheard-of in the commercial story of any of the former colonial cities, and New York went out of its way to inform the world. Guns boomed along the manmade ribbon of water as the New York City delegation proceeded to Albany, near where the artificial and natural streams met, where Hone greeted DeWitt Clinton, the canal’s prime mover, as he glided in from Buffalo on the official celebration barge. Guns boomed along the Hudson as they escorted Clinton down to New York Harbor to empty a keg of Erie water there in a symbolic “wedding”; and Hone led the re-echoing cheers that made the harbor ring. New York would never be the same again. The Empire State was born of that marriage, and the spring-tide of Philip Hone’s brief mayoralty saw the first full flood of cargoes carried down.

In the unfolding metropolis, Hone’s mansion was a magnet. Actors, authors, statesmen, editors, Presidents and former Presidents came to be his guests. In 1832 the young and brilliant Fanny Kemble, having taken her native London by storm, arrived to conquer America. She had hardly caught her breath before she and her father were having dinner at Hone’s, in company with a distinguished Knickerbocker group. Her host seated her at his right:
…and I certainly had no reason to complain [records Hone], for I missed my dinner in listening to her. She has an air of indifference and nonchalance not at all calculated to make her a favorite with the beaux. Indeed, Henry Hone and I think that she prefers married men.…She sang and played for us in the evening. Her voice is not sweet, but has great force and pathos. She has astonishing requisites for the stage. Her features separately are not good, but combined they make a face of great and powerful expression. She is said to resemble her aunt Mrs. Siddons.

Then he saw her in her American debut at the Park Theatre in Fazio .

I predicted before we went that it would be no halfway affair. She would make the most decided hit we have ever witnessed, or would fail entirely. I have never witnessed an audience so moved, astonished and delighted.

The world was a stage to Philip Hone, the proscenium his house across the street from City Hall; for all the world came there. Frequently public figures presented their lesser-known sides to him. Former President John Quincy Adams, on a visit to the city, came to dinner; old Mr. Adams was active in the House of Representatives, but his long and remarkable career was not marked by any widespread reputation for devotion to the lively arts. Hone knew better.

Mr. Adams was, as usual, the fiddle of the party. He talked a great deal; was gay, witty, instructive and entertaining…the fire of his eye beaming from under his bald brow.

Adams talked of Hamlet and James H. Hackett, the actor, to whom Hone repeated the old boy’s remarks the next day; Hackett wrote off at once for a written version. Getting it, he had it lithographed and circulated among his friends of the profession, at the same time soliciting comment on other works of Shakespeare from the same source. “This extension of my fame,” wrote John Quincy Adams in his own celebrated diary, “is more tickling to my vanity than it was to be elected President of the United States.”

When Washington Irving came home after seventeen years abroad, he was given a public dinner at which Hone was official greeter. They became friends and constant mutual visitors. So did Hone and Henry Clay, perhaps the greatest public hero of the age; for Hone was active in politics throughout. He was also civic-minded, doing much for the physical and cultural improvement of his city and his state. Like his contemporary James Fenimore Cooper, he loved old Indian place names, recoiling at the “-villes” and “-burgs” that had begun to replace them. Some he helped to save. He was on every useful committee, donated to every worthy cause, and was able, moreover, to raise money for good purposes from friends everywhere. He was honored wherever he went, from Washington to Massachusetts. He was extremely interested in Columbia College, standing right behind his house, and in clubs, societies, and newspapers. He knew all the great editors of his time and the ins and outs of their sometimes violent rivalry.

While I was shaving this morning [he wrote in 1831] I witnessed from the front window an encounter in the street nearly opposite between William Cullen Bryant and William Leete Stone, the former one of the editors of the Evening Post and the latter editor of the Commercial Advertiser . The former commenced the attack by striking Stone over the head with a cowskin [whip]. After a few blows the men closed, and the whip was wrested from Bryant by Stone. A crowd soon gathered and separated the combatants.

It was a busy corner. At Barnum’s Museum hung the Lilliputian laundry of General Tom Thumb out on a clothesline across the front of the building as a publicity stunt. The infinitesimal “General” himself spied the popular ex-mayor inside the museum one day. Hone describes him:
His hand is about the size of a half dollar, and his foot three inches in length, and in walking alongside of him, the top of his head did not reach above my knee. When I entered the room he came up to me, offered his hand, and said, “How d’ye do, Mr. Hone?”

Everyone knew Hone.

He backed the first opera house in New York City and the first summer hotel at Rockaway, a wild place then that he adored. Both ventures failed, but not his enthusiasm for music and sea air.

Along Broadway the strollers going down to the pleasure ground and resplendent Castle Garden concert hall at the Battery made a shifting, colorful kaleidoscope. In the background a forest of masts fringed the island. Steamboats plying the Hudson were the latest fad. When Hone’s diary began, he still had only the sailing packets for European travel and for his coastal voyages. The first portion of the journal embraces the closing days of sail as the sole means of going far to sea; it also deals with the predominance of stagecoaches, which he used for his political trips. He was a very active Whig, given credit for bestowing the name on the anti-Administration party which arose during the great financial crisis of the 1830’s when President Jackson killed the Bank of the United States by withdrawing government funds, affecting banks and stocks and business everywhere. Like almost everyone, Hone lost considerably, having gone on numerous notes when starting two of his sons in trade. A devastating New York City fire ensued, totally destroying their stock and premises and further crippling him; but he had enough left, and he had a great wealth of friends.

Daniel Webster was, perhaps, his most particular god, his frequent host in Massachusetts, his guest often. On one occasion the hospitality was involuntary but none the less enthusiastic. Hone was sharing a room with a political crony one night at a hotel in a particularly crowded Baltimore at convention time and was startled awake in the early hours, having retired while his roommate was still being sociable downstairs. Hone sensed a presence beneficent and powerful; he looked and “lo! the dome over the temple of Webster, the forehead of the great Daniel, with the two lambent stars set in the dark shadow of its architrave” (as Nathaniel P. Willis, a flamboyant newspaperman of the period, put it, to Hone’s considerable delight) loomed above him. Realizing at last that the apparition was no figment, but real, Hone sat up. “Sir,” he said to Webster, “I have no hat on, but off comes my nightcap in your presence.” And it did, sweepingly. His companion had offered Daniel his bed, there being no more room in town.

Changes almost incredible to Hone followed each other rapidly in the long years his individualistic diary covers. To cite a local instance, he sold his house in 1836 for $60,000 to be converted into shops. When he was a child there had been three shops along the whole length of Broadway, and now suddenly it was to lose its residential aspect. The upper portion of his premises was to be occupied by the American Hotel, whose adjacent building had been demolished in one of the many fires. But what astounded Hone was the skyrocketing of real-estate values, which he did not think could last. To the end of his life he would be kept marveling at how wrong his forecast had been.

He now bought for $15,000 a building lot on a corner of Broadway as far north as Washington Square—far uptown; and while a new residence was going up for him there, he rented a marble mansion nearby for $1,600 a year. Soon after moving in, he went to a party honoring the bride of a young son of one of his neighbors. The great majority of houses, including Hone’s, had no illumination but candles, and he often dwells on the beauty and the softness of the glow. But here was something revolutionary:
The home is lighted with gas, and the quantity consumed being greater than common, it gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion. “Darkness overspread the land.” This accident occasioned great merriment to the company and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in a short time the fair dancers were again “tripping it on the light fantastic toe.”

Gas is a handsome light in a large room…on an occasion of this kind, but liable (I should think) at all times to give the company the slip, and illy calculated for the ordinary uses of a family.

He was an originator and a director of the Delaware & Hudson Canal, for waterways were proving popular. He was also part proprietor of certain coal mines operated near its Pennsylvania end, the place of the mines being called Honesdale in his honor. He paid a visit there in 1841, in company with Washington Irving. The New Yorkers traveled on a horse-drawn canal boat, slept on plank shelves, and ate hardtack when not favored by the eager hospitality of widely spaced waterside friends. Said Hone:
[Irving] enjoyed himself to the very top of his bent. He has been in perfect raptures all the way. I have never known him so entertaining. He jokes and laughs and tells stories.…In fact the whole voyage has been one of mirth and good humor.

To Hone the up-to-date was always something of an intrusion. They saw a railroad train carry off 900 tons of coal, and were told that it was a daily event—”fifty per cent more than the business of last year.” He appreciated that and could well enough enjoy the convenience and speed of travel under steam. In transit from Philadelphia to Washington, in a matter of hours, on a newly constructed Philadelphia & Baltimore Railroad, he notes that the same ride had always taken him two days and a night in the frigid stagecoaches and on the oar-propelled crossing of the often icy Susquehanna. A steamboat took him swiftly across the river now, carrying the passengers below and the railroad cars themselves above, with an ice cutter on the bow to boot. Hone’s only complaint as he re-entrained on the other side was a modern one, that the stoves made the cars “a little too warm.”

He was skeptical when told that steamboats might cross the Atlantic. He conceded that it would be “presumptuous to…doubt…the success of any new experiment in the mechanical arts,” but in 1837 he could not conceive of either safety or convenience in such a substitute for the sailing ships:
In light headwinds and moderate weather, a steamer would go wheezing and puffing alongside of the proudest ship in the British or American navy, and passing, laugh her to scorn; but let the ocean be lashed into such a foam as I saw it several times last year, and let the waves run high as the topmast, and how is this long stiff vessel, over-burthened with the weight of machinery, with a burning volcano in her bowels, to ride on the crested billows and sink again into the dark, deep caverns? It may answer—and if it does, heigh for the Downs, the Mersey or the Seine in ten days!

Sometimes he ran into history overseas as he did at home. Hurrying to catch the Dover coach one day in London in 1836, he was caught by a crowd huzzaing round the carriage of the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo himself, who had come to call on Mr. Hone to bid him a polite au revoir. From this postscript to glory, Hone was projected into something like the reverse. At Dover he was introduced to the commandant of the garrison, a “short, handy little man” about his own age. It turned out to be the son of Benedict Arnold; Hone managed not to “visit the sins of the father on the child.”

On the voyage home he luxuriated under spread canvas, but the days of sailing packets were numbered.

“Go aheadl” [he wrote soon] is the impulse which now governs the world.…Our countrymen, “studious of change and pleased with novelty,” will rush forward to visit the shores of Europe instead of resorting to Virginia or Saratoga Springs; and steamers will continue to be the fashion until some more dashing adventurer of the go-ahead tribe shall demonstrate the practicability of balloon navigation, and gratify their impatience on a voyage over and not upon the blue waters in two days instead of as many weeks.…As for me, I am still skeptical on the subject.

On the subject of transatlantic “steamers,” he meant. The rest, of course, was just extravaganza; but there were potent arguments to convince him, and in the fullness of time he is to be found among a distinguished party going down the bay to see the Great Western , pride of the British, off on her first eastbound crossing in May, 1838. Governor W. L. Marcy went down the bay aboard her, coming ashore in Hone’s boat after taking leave near the Narrows.

He lived to see the whole development of the new champion: the rise of England’s Samuel Cunard, the successful competition of the first American steamships, the emergence of New York as a preferred port of call. He took part in many a launching ceremony. He became an Atlantic steamship passenger himself in time, but he never lost his love of sail.

In the 1830’s he had another cause for wonder when his friend Samuel F. B. Morse, whom he knew as a painter, invented the telegraph. Within a decade this new method of communication was available in the United States. At a Whig convention at Utica in 1846, over which Hone presided, the “swift-winged lightning,” as he called it, enabled him to reach Millard Fillmore at Buffalo in minutes, and in minutes more get the message back that Fillmore yielded to John Young as candidate for governor of New York. Only a man who once had carried letters for friends on a nine-day voyage from New York City to Albany could appreciate that. Couriers on horseback had been known to be almost as much delayed.

Hone had a sense of humor. When he met sick old John Jacob Astor at dinner in a mansion at Hell Gate, he wrote in his diary:
He would pay all my debts if I could insure him one year of my health and strength, but nothing else would extort so much from him.
The diarist, however, presently notes a “noble donation” by Astor of $5,000 for the relief of aged indigent females and concludes that, aged if not indigent himself, the millionaire must have accepted the fact that he couldn’t take it with him.

One of his most characteristic entries concerns Aaron Burr. Outcast, a forgotten man since dueling with Alexander Hamilton and being mixed up in a charge of high treason, Burr was still, as he had always been, a philanderer. In 1833 he belatedly married the widow Jumel, moving Hone to observe:
It is benevolent in her to keep the old man in his latter days, [but] one good turn deserves another.

The span of Philip Hone’s life is well illustrated in J. a reminiscence on receiving news of the death at Rensselaer, New York, of Edmond Charles Genêt. Citizen Genêt had come originally as minister from Paris during the French Revolution:
I remember, when a boy, seeing Genêt dancing the carmagnole with a red cap on his head in…Maiden Lane, surrounded by the sans-culotte crews of the French frigates which lay in our harbor.

He lived to see the revolutions of 1848 and to see the United States making war and peace with Mexico. Hone hated that war. He wrote before it started:
Here is the great question of severance between the North and the South, which is one day to shake this overgrown republic to its center. The Southern States desire the annexation of Texas to the Union to strengthen their position geographically and politically by the prospective addition of four or five slave-holding States. We of the North and East say we have already more territory than we know what to do with, and more slavery within our borders than we choose to be answerable for before God and man. So this Texas question is brought up by the man whom accident has placed at the head of affairs [Tyler, who took office on the death of President Harrison], and used by designing demagogues to promote their personal objects at the risk of a separation of the Union and the downfall of liberty in the Western World.

He feared both the extreme abolitionists and the defiant southerners. He wanted Henry Clay or Daniel Webster or, as he once said, even himself for President —in other words a moderate. He worked for Clay and Webster ceaselessly but had helped elect William Henry Harrison, at whose inauguration he had conspicuously been a guest. Harrison was about to appoint Hone postmaster of New York when he died after one month in the White House. Later on Hone assisted in the election of President Zachary Taylor, with Fillmore as Vice President. Taylor made Hone naval officer of the Port of New York, a post he occupied with skill and affection.

In 1847 he traveled with one of his daughters to what he called the “Far West.” It ruined his health. He had to go by all means of transit, old and new: canalboat, stagecoach, sailing vessel, steamboat, carriage, cart, and train; for railroads were still only punctuation marks. Every conceivable annoyance in all these modes of travel tormented him. In Kentucky he visited Henry Clay, who had just lost a son in the Battle of Buena Vista but roused himself to pay great attention to his guest. The real occasion for the trip was another convention of Whigs at Chicago, which Hone attended; and he ranged as far afield as St. Louis and Milwaukee. All three settlements were still in the process of rearing up from the wilderness, and Indian tribes which had reluctantly withdrawn were not far away. The streets of Chicago had been planned on paper less than fifteen years before, when only a fort and a small handful of houses occupied the spot. Yet by now a city was discernible. Hone was away seven weeks and returned a wreck.

In 1849 a mass meeting was held in City Hall Park, New York, to hail the Hungarian revolution led by Kossuth. Senator Lewis Cass had just offered a resolution in Congress calling for breaking off relations with Austria, Hungary’s ruler then. Hone opposed it.

The persecuted, downtrodden Hungarians [he wrote] are entitled to our sympathy, and we have given sufficient evidence of our desire to receive them as honored guests in our land of freedom, but what arrogance and impertinence to intrude our rebuke upon the rulers of a foreign country for their treatment in their own land, of their own subjects!

What would we say if…diplomatic intercourse…[were] suspended by Austria because we, the peculiar friends of freedom, keep millions of our fellow-men in bondage? Our fiery spirits, in such a case, would be satisfied with nothing short of war.

He lived to see the gold rush and California a state. In his boyhood all the United States had lain close to the Atlantic. He feared the problems that threatened to grow with the nation. He loved liberty and loathed all forms of forced servitude, but he happened to be a devotee of the status quo . He tried to believe that North and South could live and let live.

But the present would not tarry. His personal felicity suddenly came to an end. He lost the loveliest, and because the most frail the most cherished, of his daughters. His wife fell ill, and in May, 1850, he had to write:
My worst apprehensions are realized. The crowning blessing of my long life, the enjoyment of which the Lord has permitted to me for a period of nearly half a century of uninterrupted love, affection and confidence, He has seen fit to resume. The most excellent partner…the best of wives, the mother of my children, my comforter in affliction, the participant of my joys, the promoter of my happiness, my friend and example, died this morning at fifteen minutes past four o’clock.

He was so prostrated that he could not attend the funeral, where college presidents, high military officers, and other eminent citizens were pallbearers. Six days later he wrote:
The Old Hull Afloat . This was the first day of my leaving the house.

At his naval office he signed papers but complained of aches and pains. His sons were his fond companions, his daughters his devoted nurses. Two grandchildren pampered him. He was old but still observant of the passing scene. In time he went to hear Jenny Lind sing, went to church by horsecar, came home to fulminate against those who were already threatening secession from the United States.

Whether he knew it or not, he was the symbol as well as the chronicler of the end of an era. He nearly filled the twenty-eighth volume of his diary. On April 30, 1851, he made the following entry:
This volume of my journal, which has only four vacant leaves to be completed, has been suspended during nearly the whole month by continued unmitigated illness and incapacity to perform any act of mental or physical ability. Feeble beyond description, utterly destitute of appetite, with no strength in my limbs and no flesh upon my bones, shall this journal be resumed? During this illness I have gone occasionally to my office for a short time, and performed a little pro forma business; but it could have been performed by deputy. Tomorrow will be the first of May. Volume 29 lies ready on my desk. Shall it go on?

The “four vacant leaves” were the four days left in life. Death came on the fifth day—the fifth of May, 1851, at nearly 71.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.