852 RARE: David Sewall: Lawyer, Federal Judge, Weather Aficionado

852 RARE: David Sewall: Lawyer, Federal Judge, Weather Aficionado

It’s spring break at Harvard, although March can bring decidedly un-springlike weather to New England. After an unusually mild winter (except for one weekend of record-breaking cold), the first weekend of spring break started off as mild and sunny as a fine day in late April, and is now, well, very March-like. Weather is a perennial topic of conversation in New England (and everywhere else?). It affects us all and is a topic of conversation anyone can participate in and on which everyone seems to have an opinion.

Of all seasons, winter is perhaps especially ripe for discussions, whether one is marveling at, cursing, or boasting about record snowstorms, record cold, unseasonable warmth, and everything in between. Not surprisingly there’s nothing new about the weather as a rich source of conversation. As we approach the vernal equinox on March 20th this year, here’s a glimpse into the meteorological musings of David Sewall (1735-1825). Sewall was a 1755 Harvard graduate (and classmate of John Adams), a lawyer, and a judge, appointed by George Washington to the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine in 1789, a position he held until his resignation in 1818.

Historical & Special Collections has a letter from Sewall, written from his home in York, Maine (then part of Massachusetts) to an unidentified correspondent, on January 17, 1795.

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Sewall begins with the acknowledgement of a small book, then talks of politics. But soon the topic of the weather slips in, when in the third or fourth line, he comments: “The month of December as to mildness and agreeableness of weather has surpassed any that the most ancient among us, can recollect. We have now scarcely enough for slaying [sleighing] ….” Shortly thereafter Sewall turns back to politics and government, pondering Alexander Hamilton’s intention to resign as Secretary of State at the end of the month. He mentions meeting and conversing with the Rev. David Osgood (1747-1822) in a public house in Woburn (Mass.) and discusses court and legislative issues. But the next day, a Sunday, when he picks up his pen to continue the correspondence, his opening line sets the tone for most of the rest of the letter.

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“Last Evening we had a pretty fall of light snow … The cold increases and N.N.W. wind blows about the Snow considerably this Evening.” He asks “how comes it that we ever have snow?” and launches into a long, detailed, and thoughtful musing on trade winds, precipitation, temperatures, and weather patterns along the eastern coast of the United States. He marvels at having “known the thermometer to be at 6° below 0 and in less than 9 hours to be above the freezing point” and notes that “I have known the snow to dissolve faster toward the close of Winter with a Southerly Wind of 24 hours (or a little longer) continuance than with a moderate Rain, of the same duration.” Had he lived in our era, the good judge from Maine may have settled down at the end of a long day to watch the Weather Channel.

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