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Rambles about Town: Tryon's Palace

[From: The Daily Journal, December 3, 1882]

The magnificent Palace of Governor Tryon was finished, agreeably to contract, in October, 1870 [sic], and the Assembly met in it on the 5th day of December in the same year. Every preparation for an elegant reception of the members had been previously made and Lady Tryon and the beautiful and accomplished Esther Wake bewildered and charmed them with their attention and hospitality. The noble court in Newbern had risen to refinement, luxury and splendor almost rivaling the Royal Court in England in its grandeur—on the top of the Palace was a balustrade, on the roof just inside of it a walk, and from it, the view was very fine. Imagine Miss Wake on this eminence surrounded by her courtiers. It is autumn and the deep blue sky is softened by its hazy veil. They are looking down upon the town and have a lovely view of it and the adjacent sheets of water and country for miles around. The trees on the streets and squares, principally original growth, are ablaze with gold and crimson. Through twining oaks and pines run the broad Avenue until at Core Point Ferry it is like a ribbon. Turn, and the Neuse can be seen as far as the eye can reach.

“Fair river not unknown to classic song—
Which still in varying beauty roll’st along,
Where first thy infant fount is faintly seen,
A line of silver mid a fringe of green;
Or where, near towering rocks, thy bolder tide,
To win the giant guarded pass doth glide,
Or where, in azure mantel, pure and free,
Thou giv’st thy cool hand to the washing sea.”

There is no obstruction, the woods, where is now James City, have all been cleared away to prevent it. The vessels in the harbor are displaying their flags; the rivers are whitened with their sails and rippled by the gentle breeze, reflecting the rays of the sun appear like a bed of crystals—on the wharves there are bustle and activity—vessels unloading and reloading. Up the Trent on the south side are cultivated fields and beautiful groves. On the north side, skirting the land, is the wide marsh dotted here and there, with a purple or brown tree, flowers on a green carpet stretching up to Clermont, the home of the Moores and the Spaights, beyond it the home of the Bryces and Gastons; with the division of a creek only, Pembrook, the home of the Nashes. The British standard is floating out lazily in the light wind, or hanging idly against the staff in the dreary atmosphere and reaching high about the Palace. As the banner is raised or lowered the town is shaken with the thunders of artillery and with it the drum announces the rising of the sun and closing of the day.

The world had turned and with the sinking sun, now,

“The golden light in dazzling brightness streamed,
Where the high windows of a palace gleamed,
And through the silken curtains softly fell
Upon a scene where splendor loved to dwell.”

The shades of evening presently gather around the scene and with nightfall the Palace is brilliantly illuminated. It is the night of the Governor’s levee. After the reception of the guests His Excellency and Her Excellency first, with persons of distinction, walk a quadruple, then are seated on elbow chairs, in the middle of the ball room, when the dances generally commence. Lady Tryon is dressed in the highest style of elegance and decorated in all the splendor of jewelry. The bewitching Esther Wake is richly and becomingly dressed and is the focus of all eyes—all absorbed—watching her graceful movements and splendid figure. There are other sweet and lovely ladies on the floor, some perhaps excelling even in beauty the famed and popular English belle. Our great-grandmothers, noted for their loveliness and attuned with fastidious taste. Refreshments are served from silver and costly glass and china in the supper room. Orange and lemon trees, covered with [illegible] and beautiful exotic flowers are [illegible] in the spacious halls. Our great grand fathers are there, some there youths, others in the full vigor of manhood, dressed in blue coats with [illegible] buttons, buff waistcoat and breeches. [Illegible] gold and silver knee and shoe [illegible], set with gems, are sparkling in the light of the waxen candles. Governor Tryon, comparatively young, is in his court dress dazzling with gold lace, stars and ribbons. His officers are around him in scarlet and gold. Noble and eminent visitors are present in gorgeous uniforms. It is altogether a scene of rare beauty.

The hands on the dial of the clock, at last, mark a late or rather early hour; the morning has again come. His Excellency and family retire. The Palace is hastily emptied of its gay and brilliant company and once more in its grand halls quiet and darkness reign.

We say such scenes as we have attempted here briefly to describe, if we can credit our fathers, occurred again and again in October 1770, and in the winter of 1770 and 1771. And through all the changes of time there is still left in this town, and is now in the possession of Miss Attmore a dress that was worn at a ball in the Palace, by a lady connected with her family. The Misses Custis have a piece of silver with Tryon’s name engraved thereon and the Hon. C.C. Clark owns the clock that was also in the Palace. Other articles could be mentioned still here, that were there, if we had the time and space. Hoop skirts, it may be interesting to our ladies to know, were then fashionable and considered no the least essential part of the attire of the pretty daughters of Eve, to make a captivating figure. The waist of the dresses had been reduced to a very few inches, and they were made from a scant pattern of material—cut quite low in the neck and were sleeveless. We are speaking of a ball dress, and thus our mothers delighted to expose their beautiful busts and arms. They were all, however, too thinly clad, and many of them paid the penalty of this sacrifice of comfort for appearance with their lives ere they had reached many years. The gravestones in cemeteries tell this sad story.

As we have heretofore stated, the Assembly met in Newbern on the 5th December, and the Governor received them in his Palace. We will here, as it may not prove uninteresting, give the proceedings respecting the organization of that body for business. The marked difference will be observed between the organization then and of the State Legislature in our time. The effort now is to get clear of all unnecessary form; then it was to adopt all form possible, however inconvenient and useless.

“The first step after the qualification of the members (which was always done in the presence of two of the Council, appointed on that duty by the Governor) was to depute two to wait on his Excellency and inform him that they had qualified, and awaited his commands. The next was a verbal message from the Governor by his private Secretary, requiring their immediate attendance to the Palace. They whole body then proceeded to the Palace and enjoyed a most fashionable call of a few moments, after which the Governor would direct them to return, and make choice of a Speaker. The next stop was, ‘Mr. Richard Caswell proposed and set up John Harvey, Esq., who was unanimously chosen Speaker and placed in the chair accordingly.’ Two members again visited the Palace and desired to know when they should wait on his Excellency, to present their Speaker, and always received in reply that he would send a message when he would receive them.”

In a few moments (as in the present case with Mr. Biggleston) the private Secretary arrived, requiring their immediate attendance in the Palace. The House then proceeded as directed, and formally presented their Speaker, “whom his Excellency was pleased to approve.” “Then Mr. Speaker requested his Excellency to confirm the rights and privileges of the House, to which his Excellency was pleased to answer he would support the House in all their just rights and privileges, and then made a speech to his Majesty’s Council and House.”

On the return of the members the Speaker informed them that his Excellency had made a speech to the Council and the House, a copy of which, to prevent mistakes, he had procured and begged leave to lay before them. The speech was then read, and a committee appointed to prepare an address and an answer, and then, and then only, the House proceeded to the dispatch of public business.”

We further quote:

“The dinners of his Excellency must have been princely indeed, and the society of the ladies (meaning Lady Tryon and Miss Wake) the only sovereign apology, extremely delightful, to have wrung from the parsimony of the Assembly so heavy an appropriation” (referring to the cost of the Palace).

I shall anticipate one event in the annals of the State, to illustrate the universal esteem and admiration in which these two ladies were held. The Assembly of 1770 created a new county in the centre of the State, and adorned it with the name of Wake, in compliment to the beauty of Miss Esther. At a still later period of our history, when the Royal Government had been annihilated, the Assembly carefully and justly substituted the names of distinguished Americans for those of Tryon, Dobbs and others, which had designated several counties of the State. While the motion to change the name of Tryon county was under consideration, a proposition was made by some overzealous patriot to expunge the name of Wake. The title of Tryon was expunged, but the ungallant proposition towards a beautiful woman was rejected by acclamation. The city of Raleigh, the capital of the State, as if to crown the majesty of beauty, was, at a still later period, located in the county of Wake, an appropriate name for a city built on a territory consecrated to the genius of beauty and virtue.”

Wheeler states the county was called in honor of the wife of Gov. Tryon. Hawks, who furnished Lossing with the information, concurs with Jones and says unequivocally it was for Esther Wake. Dr. Hawks obtained his information on the subject, as well as from other sources, from his grandfather, the architect of the Palace, through his father, and it is no doubt correct. Mr. James G. Stanly, and others of our oldest citizens, never disagreed respecting it.

Whatever might have been the gallantry of some of the public men of Tryon’s time, others were not so led away from the path of duty and would have cheerfully, as we shall presently show, if they had possessed the power, written on the Palace, or on the Assembly walls before the completion of the Palace, one of the rules of the King of Navarre, in “Love’s Labor Lost”:

“Item—That no woman come within a mile of my court, on pain of losing her tongue.”

This they would have done to have stopped Tryon in his extravagance, or perhaps from envy and revenge. But to quote again from Maurice Moore relative to Gov. Tryon:

“Your pride has often exposed you to ridicule as to the rude petulance of your despotism has to contempt. Your solicitude about the title of Her Excellency for Mrs. Tryon, and the arrogant reception you gave to a respectable company at an entertainment of your own making, seated with your lady by your side on elbow chairs, in the middle of the ball room, bespeak a littleness of mind which believe me, sir, when blended with the dignity and importance of your office, renders you truly ridiculous.

“High stations have often proved fatal to those who have been promoted to them; yours, sir, has proved so to you. Had you been contented to pass through life in a subordinate military character, with the private virtues you have you might have lived serviceable to your country, and reputable to yourself; but, sir, when with every disqualifying circumstance you took upon you the government of a Province, though you gratified your ambition you made a sacrifice of yourself.”

Moore received the office of Judge from Tryon, and afterwards between then there seems to have been a rupture of a malignant character, and it must be with implacable spirit when he follows his Excellency and her Excellency to their balls, though he states: “Were I personally your Excellency’s enemy, I would follow you into the shade of life, and show you equally the object of pity and contempt to the wise and serious, and of jest and ridicule to the ludicrous and sarcastic. Truly pitiable, sir, is the pale and trembling impatience of your temper.”

It is very evident Judge Moore was very angry, and personally and politically out with Tryon and all the forms of loyalty and those following them in power. Thus, he was throwing barbed and poisoned arrows, which must have made the flesh quiver if they had sufficient force to reach the mark. Tryon was then in New York, and it may have been beyond their range for harm to him. But the Judge should have been more merciful to his Excellency, and remembered—

Not he first fell from Eden’s happy place;
Not he entailed destruction on our race;
He, like all men, hath subjects and their kings,
Was wise enough till led by apron strings.

It has been said one of the most gratifying employments of the enquiring mind is to muse and meditate upon the pages of the history of knowledge. Important and interesting is the period of Tryon’s administration in the history of North Carolina. His private, as well as official conduct, has been handed down from father to son, in our community and personally, undoubtedly, he was popular and for several years he was supported by those stern, patriotic and intelligent citizens, who afterwards resolved to be free and independent of any other country or people. We have not a particle of doubt relative to the fact of Mr. James Davis’ uttering the sentiments of the most prominent of them, when in a note addressed to Gov. Tryon some years before the Revolution and dated Newbern, he stated:

“Flattery is a mean vice and to an honest mind truly detestable; to avoid an imputation of this I have only to appeal to all ranks of people, yet acquainted with your honor for exemplary piety and charity, your loyalty and attachment to his majesty, your steadiness in pursuit of the true interest of this province, the easiness of access which you allow, and the candor and consideration, affability and good nature for all men.”

We have before given the above.

[If] Mr. Davis’ communication was intended for publication, he would not have risked the misrepresentation of those of all ranks of our people, if he had so desired, when he would have been so speedily detected and exposed. Gov. Tryon, it is said, was partial to Col. Caswell and Col. Leech and we believe the regard and confidence was mutual. The friendship, in all probability, existed between them up to his departure for New York. Both Leech and Caswell were with him at the battle of Alamance and that, as before stated, was immediately subsequent to to it [sic]. That in many ways Tryon erred would not be denied; and it is equally certain that he was too fond of the glare and glitter of the world for a wise and successful ruler. Being bred a soldier it was easier for him to rule by force than by the slow process of the law, or by compromise and persuasion. As Governor of the province he would not allow, so far as he could prevent it, any contradiction of his political opinions. And not unlike the present Governors of the States, the choice of the people, he had reliable friends and uncompromising enemies—friends to praise him whether right or wrong and enemies to abuse him whether he erred or not. It is the common fate of all public men, has ever been and will so continue until there is no difference of opinion on any subject affecting either individuals or the people generally. One thing at any rate in his favor can be said, we have seen nowhere, neither have we ever heard one of of [sic] our old citizens say, that he misappropriated one dollar of the money drawn from the inhabitants of the province for the erection of the palace. That his object in building a house of such splendor, was to make the King’s governments stable here, as well as to gratify his own vanity and that of his household, is unquestionably true. That by it he weakened the hold of the King upon our people is also equally true, yet greater men than Tryon have overreached themselves and have had their work recoil upon those it was designed to benefit. Tryon did not then know the world was rapidly changing and men were rising up that would never acquiesce in principles and acts that would degrade them—make them abject slaves. He did not know the period was so close at hand for this country to boldly assert its independence and to have sufficient strength to maintain it. He did not know that Christianity and civilization would, laboring together, revolutionize the world and put an end to the belief that none should rule but the King and his Satraps—that the laws of the King whether harsh and grinding or not were immutable—must be obeyed. Neither did he realize that mysterious power that carried the humble son of a wool comber, Christopher Columbus, before a throne to plead for the means to enable the discovery of a new world; that power that induced the Adamses to plead for one of the greatest men, a Washington to conduct the Revolutionary war to a successful termination. He did not then realize this, nor did he realize that the same power was kindling a flame in the breast of the Polks and Moores and Caswells and Nashes and Ashes and Lillingtons and hundreds of others equally as brave and patriotic citizens, that would drive them to resist British oppression in any and every form and to aid in establishing the great American Republic. This irresistible power, we repeat, he did not realize, could not comprehend when he was Governor of the Province, therefore he continued active and faithful only in what he conceived would redound to the interest of his Sovereign and himself and add wealth and glory to England.

We will continue the history of the Palace and conclude it with an account of its destruction by fire. D.

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