And then one day, there they were. The photographs of three long letters in the former vice president’s elegant but hard-to-read handwriting had arrived in my inbox. Wow! Thank you, Barry Birnbaum!!
Wheeler’s late 19th century script was not difficult to decipher once my eyes got used to all its curls and swirls. I was relieved that there was nothing in the letters that undermined or contradicted anything I had written in the book.
They reflected Wheeler’s love of English literature. For example, in one letter he told Sarah that he was sending her the new edition of the complete works of the English poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Barry said he had seen the Tennyson book but it had been sold before he was able to acquire the letters.
Wheeler’s references to God and to “his heavenly Father” in the letters confirmed the ex-vice president’s religious nature.
In addition, the letters illustrated how hard it was for Wheeler to grow up in poverty and how much he respected his mother for keeping the family financially afloat after Wheeler’s father died, leaving them deeply in debt. In the letters, Wheeler lovingly described his mother’s actions as “heroic” and brave.
But was there anything new in the letters? Yes, there was. Not enough to cause booksellers to think about pulling the book off their shelves, but enough for future biographers of Wheeler to chew on.
The letters contained new information about Wheeler’s father. There has been relatively little written about him except for brief references to him in Wheeler family genealogical publications, county histories, college catalogs and newspapers. We know he died suddenly at the age of 37 in 1827 when Wheeler was seven years old. Where Wheeler’s father was and what he was doing the year before he died had been a mystery—until the letters from Barry appeared. In one of them, Wheeler revealed that in 1826, the year before his father died, he went on a trip to Maine. He paid for the trip by mortgaging their home, which created the debt that hung so heavily over his family after he died.
In addition to the new information about Wheeler’s father, the letters also contained new suggestions that Wheeler held nontraditional views about women. In one letter, he wrote that he was proud of the fact that two of his cousin Xenophon’s daughters attended all-women’s colleges, Smith and Vassar. In another letter, Wheeler said he wanted Sarah’s sister Fanny to be less retiring and more assertive.
More letters written by Wheeler will undoubtedly surface from time to time. Hopefully, they will receive the same reverential care that Barry Birnbaum gave the letters in his possession. Thanks again, Barry.