History of Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1881

Cox, Henry Hamilton Biography

HENRY HAMILTON COX. - In an article written by Bayard Taylor, and published in the Atlantic Monthly some fifteen or sixteen years ago, under the title of "A Strange Friend," a story is told of an Irish gentleman of noble family, who, accompanied by his wife and children, came to East Marlboro', Chester Co., and remained there in seclusion in the disguise of a member of the Society of Friends, leaving his Irish estate in the hands of a steward till the rents and profits should discharge the debts by which they were encumbered. The gentleman is there represented to have assumed the dress, manners, and forms of speech peculiar to the Friends, playing the part of one thoroughly convinced of their principles, and conforming by choice to their usages from motives merely of policy or convenience, and, as soon as his estates were disencumbered, to have suddenly thrown off his disguise and resumed at once his original character as a man of the world. The story rests on a basis of well-known facts, but the facts are somewhat colored and embellished by the fertile fancy of Mr. Taylor. The original of the picture drawn by the artist was Henry Hamilton Cox, better known as Henry Cox. I have taken considerable pains to become acquainted with his history, as far as it is known in this region, and I will proceed to state the result of my inquiries.

Henry Hamilton was a member of an Irish family connected with the nobility, but was not himself a noble, though generally reputed so to be while in America. In his youth he held a commission in the British army, and served in India with a rank not exceeding that of captain. A considerable landed estate, owned by his grandfather, Sir Michael Cox, was devised to him by that gentleman. The title, of course, did not accompany the devise, but went by descent to the next heir-at-law. The devise was subject to a condition that the devisee should take the surname of Cox, which he immediately did, whether by virtue of an act of Parliament or by voluntary assumption I am not informed. His great-grandfather, who bore the same name as his grandfather, was also a baronet, and for many years chancellor of Ireland. For a time after the devise took effect he wrote his name H. Hamilton Cox, but subsequently dropped the Hamilton and was called Henry Cox. In 1799 he emigrated with his family to this country. The first trace we have of him here relates to a transaction with the Philadelphia Library Company. He brought with him a number of volumes of original manuscripts containing correspondence between the military and civil departments of the British government during the reign of William and Mary. Of these he made a free gift to the Philadelphia Library Company. During Hepworth Dixon's visit to this country, in the early part of this century, the volumes were shown to him. He immediately recognized their value, and on his return home he discovered that they would fill a hiatus in a series of similar volumes belonging to the British government, and deposited in a public library at Dublin. Application was thereupon made for their restoration to their proper place in that series, and to that application the Philadelphia Library Company promptly acceded. From the time of William and Mary till 1799 these volumes had been in the hands of the family of Henry Cox, whose lineal ancestor was connected with the government during the period to which the manuscripts relate, and had the custody of the rolls. And whatever may have been the facts which attended the possession of the papers in the first instance, no blame could be attached to the last possessor by reason of any conduct on his part respecting them.

Soon after his arrival in Pennsylvania he took a lease of a farm in York County, within the limits of York Monthly Meeting of Friends. He was at that time, it is believed, about forty years of age. He professed to be a Friend, dressed very plainly, and conformed to all the usages of the sect. He was particularly strict in requiring that the dress of his children should be entirely plain, and would tolerate no approach on their part to the fashions of the world. So far as the records of the York Monthly Meeting show, he does not appear to have produced a certificate of membership from any other Monthly Meeting, but seems to have been allowed the privileges of a member without evidence of any right. His wife did not profess to belong to the society, nor did her mother, who was a member of the family. It appears by the minutes of the proceedings of the York Monthly Meeting, dated 9th month 9, 1801, that he on that day made request that his eight children - Joshua, Richard, David, Martha, Mary, Sackville, Eleanor, and Henry - should be received into membership. His request was complied with. Under date of 9th month 10, 1806, at his request, his children Henry Washington, Catharine Anne, Alexander James, and Arabella Dorothea were received into membership. Under date 11th month 6, 1811, there is on the same minutes this entry: "Henry Cox requests the right of membership for his two youngest children, namely, William John and Jane Eliza, which being considered, was united with, and they received into membership." The same book of minutes shows an entry to this effect: "1806, 4, 19. - Henry Cox expressed a desire to attend the ensuing yearly meeting in Philadelphia. We inform he is a member in good esteem amongst us. The clerk is directed to furnish him with a copy of this minute signed on behalf of the meeting." By two other minutes it appears that in 1808 and 1809 he was appointed to represent the Monthly Meeting of York at the Quarterly Meeting of which it is a constituent part. From this it must be inferred that he was a recognized member of the society in good standing.

He continued to reside in York County until the spring of 1813, when he removed with his family to Chester County, and became a lessee of a large farm of about four hundred acres belonging to Isaac Pennock, in East Marlborough township, within the limits of Londongrove Monthly Meeting.(9*) Prior to his removal, under date of 3d month 10, 1813, he obtained a certificate from York Monthly Meeting to that of Londongrove for himself and his minor children. His four elder children, - Joshua Hamilton, Richard, David Hutchinson, and Martha, - who had attained majority, applied for and obtained at the same time certificates for themselves.

During his residence in York County he was punctual in his attendance at meetings both for worship and discipline. In the former he sometimes spoke by way of exhortation, but not very acceptably, and was never acknowledged as a minister. In meetings for discipline he frequently took an active part. On some occasions it is said that, forgetful of his surroundings, he addressed the meeting as "My Lords," as though speaking to the peers of the Upper House of Parliament, though he certainly never was a member of that body. Some of the elderly people in the neighborhood of York remember his conveying his large family of young children to meeting on Sundays in a cart, he acting as driver, and on arriving near the meeting-house door, of his withdrawing the tail-board and "dumping out his load as he might have done a cart-load of potatoes." This instance of eccentricity, and others of a similar character, affected him unfavorably in the consideration of his neighbors, and caused among the Friends more or less distrust as to his real character, notwithstanding his superior intelligence and unexceptionable moral deportment.

In the summer of 1817, Henry Cox received information that his Irish estates were at length disencumbered, and he immediately commenced preparations for leaving America during the following spring. It appears by a minute on the Londongrove Monthly Meeting, dated 9th month 17, 1817, that he applied for and obtained a certificate at that date certifying his membership to Friends in Dublin. Before those preparations were completed his son Richard, a young man, well educated and of great promise, was killed by a fall from his horse. This sad accident was a terrible shock to the father, mother, and family, and awakened the sympathy of the neighborhood. This sympathy was manifested in so considerate and kindly a manner as to inspire in the bereaved family the most grateful recollections of the kind-hearted people among whom he had previously dwelt without quite comprehending them. The accident which was fatal to Richard occurred Dec. 29, 1817, and Henry Cox, having completed his arrangements, sailed for Liverpool early in the following spring. When he reached the town upon which his lands bordered, he was met by his tenantry in a body with demonstrations of joy. His horses were taken from his carriage, and he was drawn by the crowd to his old mansion, where he was welcomed by the acclamations of his people. Immediately previous to his departure he published a poem written during his residence in East Marlborough. It was issued in a little volume from the press of Kimber & Sharpless, No. 93 Market Street, Philadelphia, and was entitled "The Pennsylvania Georgies." It was a pastoral poem in imitation of the Georgies of Virgil, and descriptive of a farmer's life in Pennsylvania. The author directed that after Kimber & Sharpless should be fully repaid the expense of printing and publishing from the proceeds of sale, the residue of the profits, whatever they might be, should be handed over to the Widow's Asylum, of which Mrs. Sarah Ralston was the head. After disposing of as many copies as would fully indemnify them, the publishers sent the remainder of the edition to the Widow's Asylum. About the time his little volume came from the press an error was discovered, which was a subject of some mortification to the author. Two lines in the early part of the poem were repeated in the latter part. He called at the store of Kimber & Sharpless and requested that the latter couplet should be stricken out. Mr. Isaac Pugh, who was then in attendance in the store, pointed in answer to the motto on the title-page, - "No line, which dying I would wish to blot," and observed that, after adopting such a motto, the blotting of the two lines would not look well, and that, at all events, not one reader in twenty would observe the repetition. Mr. Cox insisted, however, upon the obliteration, and a dozen or two of copies were treated as he desired. I happened to be in the store at the time of this interview, and well recollect Mr. Pugh informing me of what had occurred immediately after Mr. Cox had withdrawn. He, if I recollect aright, was then on his way to New York to embark for Liverpool. He was dressed as one of the plainest of the Friends. I soon after learned, however, that on his way from New York to Liverpool he doffed his plain coat, threw his broad-brimmed hat into the sea, and appeared in the ordinary dress of a man of the world. The news of this transformation caused a good deal of talk among those who had known him in America, and strengthened the suspicions that were previously entertained, that his connection with the Friends was a matter of caprice or policy, rather than of principle.

Henry Cox, after his return to Ireland, in the course of a few years became involved in the troubles which have obtained for centuries between landlords and their tenants in that unhappy and ill-governed country. These caused him much annoyance and anxiety of mind, and are supposed to have hastened his death. He died in the year 1822 of inflammation of the brain.

During his residence in America he pursued the avocation of a farmer, upon rather a large scale, with energy and industry. He did not immediately adapt himself to the modes of tillage in vogue in Pennsylvania, but adhered for some time with characteristic pertinacity to the course of farming with which he was acquainted in Ireland, under different conditions of soil and climate. This want of readiness on his part to adopt new modes, made necessary by circumstances, interfered with his success. Some failures, however, taught him the lessons which he was slow to learn, and he came at length to follow our ordinary agricultural processes. He did not depend upon the products of his farm wholly for his support, but received occasionally moderate remittances through William Warder, of Philadelphia, from his steward in Ireland.

He was a man of large frame, of good features strongly marked, and of somewhat decided and resolute aspect. His manners were those of a well-bred gentleman, accustomed to society, yet he had somewhat of a soldierly air and a bearing that was deemed aristocratic. This made him unpopular with the people generally of the neighborhood, with whom he did not seem ready to associate on terms of equality. In his intercourse with persons of education and culture he was habitually cordial and agreeable, and there was no assumption of superiority. In a word, his adoption of the principles of Friends did not alter his notions of social distinction, and he could not readily accommodate himself to the republican leyel to which his neighbors expected him to conform. He was strictly honorable in his dealings. But he did not patiently brook opposition, and he had an imperative way with him that seemed to indicate a consciousness of the right to command. I recollect, when a boy under fourteen, meeting with him unexpectedly. I had been sent on an errand to his landlord, Isaac Pennock, and stopped at his house to inquire the way. He came out into the piazza in front of his dwelling on my summons, and gave me courteously and explicitly the directions that I needed. I was so much struck with the appearance and gentlemanly demeanor of the man that I mentioned the circumstance to my father on my return home, and told him that I had noticed a scar on the back of one of his hands as he placed it on the rail of the piazza while speaking. My father then informed me who he was, and what were his objects in removing to this country, and also that he had been an officer in the British army and had served in India, and that the scar which I had observed was caused by a cannon-ball, which had grazed his hand in action and taken off the skin without inflicting permanent injury.

When Henry Cox left this country he had the appearance of being a man about sixty years of age. His family accompanied him to Ireland, and one of his sons took with him a wife, whom he married in this country. Richard, at the time of his death, was under an engagement of marriage with Miss Alison, a sister of the late Oliver Alison, Esq. The daughters of Henry Cox corresponded with Friends in America for some years after their return to Ireland. Two of them, Katharine A. Cox and Arabella Lucas, are still living in Queenstown, Ireland, and he has a grandson, Richard S. Cox, Esq., who now resides in Toronto, Upper Canada.

In "The Strange Friend" there are some embellishments to which we are indebted solely to the imagination of the author. One of them is the love of the landlord's son for a daughter of his tenant, which resulted in a disappointment so grievous that the young man never married.

Whether Isaac W. Pennock ever had any fancy for either of the Misses Cox I am not informed; but certain it is that if he had it was attended with nothing very serious, for he married, not long after the family left America, a very lovely lady of the city of Philadelphia, who is, I believe, still living.

In the tale of "The Strange Friend" the principal actor is represented as playing a hypocritical part from the beginning in passing himself off as a member of the Society of Friends conscientiously attached to its principles; and there seems to be a general impression in the community accustomed to worship at the old Londongrove meeting-house that the representation is true as applied to Henry Cox. But this view of the subject is hardly credible. It is difficult to believe that a man of his associations and high social position should have so far forgotten what was due to his own character as to wear the mask attributed to him during nineteen years of the best part of his life, when it is obvious that such a deception could afford to no honorable mind either amusement or satisfaction, but must have been most humiliating to his self-respect. It is still more difficult to believe that he should have educated his children in principles essentially diverse from his own, and enforced upon them habits and usages not conformable to his own tastes and opinions. He was doubtless eccentric and probably unstable, and his views and feelings may have been largely influenced at different periods of his life by differences in the condition of his fortune and his prospects. He may not have had the moral courage to meet his old associates in the character and garb of a Friend, and subject himself to the ridicule with which he would be liable to be assailed by them, wholly unacquainted as they probably were with the peculiarities of the people with whom he had connected himself. There was doubtless much inconsistency in his conduct, but he does not appear to have been, in any of the elements of his character, of the stuff of which hypocrites are made.

As to the merits of his poem I am unable to speak. I can recollect that it was written in heroic English measure, and that the versification was easy and flowing, and the rhythm faultless. On the fidelity of its descriptions I formed no judgments. I have endeavored to find a copy, but have failed after extensive inquiry. Writing verses seems to have been a family proclivity. I have some now in my possession written by his son Richard, and others by his son Sackville. Though pretty clever for young men of their age, they are not remarkable. They give no indication of genius.

Although Henry Cox before leaving this country was furnished at his own request with a certificate from the Monthly Meeting of Friends at Londongrove showing his right to membership in the society, he does not appear to have made any use of the document on his return to Ireland. He certainly never associated with the Friends in that country, nor did he profess the principles or conform to the peculiar usages of the sect during any part of his subsequent career.

Source: History of Chester County, J. Smith Futhey and Gilbert Cope; Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts & Co.; 1881.

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