An American author most known for the novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts.
In addition to being an author, the facial-haired fiction-writer was also a civil servant. He was a weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House in the 1830s. Later, in 1846, during the Democratic Polk administration, Hawthorne was appointed Surveyor of Customs at the Salem Custom House. It wasn’t uncommon in the 19th century for literary figures to be appointed to civil service positions since writing was not a lucrative profession.
Since this was well before the 1883 Pendleton Act, which ended the practice of political-based appointments in the civil service, Hawthorne lost his job after the election of Zachary Taylor in 1848, who was a Whig.
Because of his fame, news of his removal spread, prompting a larger discussion of the country’s obligation to support its artists. One editor wrote that Hawthorne should be cherished and nurtured by the government, and those who would remove him were the kind that would “broil a hummingbird, and break a harp to pieces to make the fire.”
His friend, and former roommate, attorney George S. Hillard, even wrote a letter to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, protesting Hawthorne’s removal, which is in the holdings of the National Archives.
Perhaps his dismissal was a good thing because shortly thereafter, Hawthorne resumed writing and published The Scarlet Letter in 1850. The book’s preface references the Salem Custom House where the narrator finds the story of Hester Prynne in the papers of a former surveyor. The novel was one of the first mass-produced books in the United States and is now on the reading list for schools all over the country.
Happy birthday, Nathaniel, and Happy 4th of July to all!
For the first time ever the National Archives will host a virtual Independence Day celebration on July 4, 2020, in partnership with the nonprofit National Archives Foundation. The event will take place at 4 p.m. on @USNatArchives Facebook page and YouTube channel. Several hours of additional educational programming will be offered throughout the day.