February 13, 2019

Your dutiful son, Sam

Letters from the Phillips Family Archives illustrate the trials, tribulations, and joys of Samuel Phillips Jr.
by Katie Fiermonti

“Be careful of your clothes. Don’t wear them in the wet.” This nagging reminder to stay dry could be a contemporary text from a current PA parent. But in fact, the message is more than 250 years old. It is part of a 1766 letter from Elizabeth Phillips to her 13-year-old son Samuel Phillips Jr., lovingly composed in flowing script by quill pen using sepia-colored ink.

This letter is just one of hundreds of Phillips family documents in Andover’s Archives and Special Collections in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. The letters provide a unique and intimate glimpse into family communication in the pre-Revolutionary War colonies.

Young Samuel, the future founder of Phillips Academy, was, at the time, a boarding student at Dummer Academy (now known as Governor’s Academy) in Byfield, Mass. More than two centuries have passed since “Sam,” as he was then known, and his parents exchanged missives about teachers, classes, and activities. What the correspondence reveals—missing home and parents, requests for various items—is deeply familiar to any boarding student who has ever sent a letter home from school, no matter the century.

One of hundreds of Phillips family documents in Andover’s Archives and Special Collections

Sam was sent to Dummer Academy in 1764 at the tender age of 12. He was a frail and lonely boy from one of the oldest English families in America, according to Frederick Allis, Jr., author of the Andover tome Youth from Every Quarter. Sam was also the only child of seven born to Samuel (known informally as the Squire) and Elizabeth Phillips to reach maturity. He grew up in relative isolation in present-day North Andover, Mass., and was raised within the strict principles of orthodox Calvinist teachings.

At Dummer, Sam blossomed under the eccentric tutelage of Master Samuel Moody, who taught his pupils French and dancing, and let the boys swim in the nearby river. In one undated letter from Sam to his parents, he stated that he was “happily attached to my very dear Master.”

 The school’s distance from home allowed him a respite from his family’s exacting religious practices, though letters from his mother often stressed morality do’s and don’ts: “Search the scriptures daily,” Elizabeth wrote to her son on March 25, 1765. “If you’re with God, he will be with you.”

An adult portrait of Samuel Phillips Jr.

Though his letters reveal a boy eager to learn, homesickness plagued Sam, at least in his first year or so at school. “Write as often as you can,” he entreated his parents on March 21, 1765. In a letter dated June 29 of that year, he used guilt to entice his parents to visit him: “If you set away very early in the morning you may make a very handsome visit and return the same day or the next. It is but fourteen miles, so I can take no denial. If I am disappointed the disappointment will be exceedingly great so [I] must entreat of you to come as soon in the week as you can, and shall depend upon it.”

He closed the letter, “I remain your dutiful son. P.S. Pray don’t fail of coming.”

His parents, perhaps weary of their son’s complaints, bought him transportation—a horse—so he could make trips home himself, and the homesickness apparently receded.

On April 5, 1767, he wrote to his “honored parents” that “school is in a very flourishing state.”

He begged his mother to send him items such as breeches, coat buttons, and stockings. And, like any other cash-strapped teenager, he asked for financial assistance, requesting, “I should be very glad, if you would send… some quills, some writing paper and some silk…to tie my hair with, and some money.”

Food also often occupied Sam’s thoughts. His mother promised him “a spread” in a June 13 letter, year unknown. Elizabeth writes that while there were no chickens, she’d send some lamb, cake, cheese, and cider straightaway. “I will do the best I can,” she penned.

By commencement in 1767, Sam was a confident young man. He wrote a three-page letter to his parents expressing his excitement at being bound for Harvard and his gratitude for Master Moody. “I am…despairing of ever recompensing him, except by behaving in the best manner.”

After Harvard, Sam would marry and start a family. Among his many illustrious accomplishments, he served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and founded Phillips Academy in 1778. But during adolescence, he was simply Sam, a boarding school student like any other, eager to do well and make his parents proud. Based on their letters, it appears they were.  

 


 

Editor’s Note: For readability, spelling, and punctuation, direct quotes from the Phillips Family Collection have been modernized.

PA students are currently scanning and transcribing original documents from the Phillips Family Collection. They can be viewed online.

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