“I will not give you any of my bad feelings if I can help it”: The Life of Maria Revere
By: Nina Rodwin
Visitors to the Paul Revere House are often overwhelmed by the sheer fact of the Reveres’ large family size, namely that there were sixteen children in all. However, there is much more to learn about the children’s accomplishments and personal lives beyond their existence as just a number, especially Paul Revere’s daughters. A primary focus on the sons’ roles in the Revere family businesses has sometimes obscured the fact that Revere’s daughters were quite accomplished in their own ways. Revere’s youngest daughter, Maria, was amongst the best educated of the Revere children. Her life was rather unique for the era, as she eventually traveled with her own family to live in Singapore.
When Maria was born on July 14, 1785, Paul Revere was building his entrepreneurial skills through his hardware store and the development of an iron foundry. This newfound wealth let Maria experience more educational opportunities than her older sisters. Although all of Revere’s daughters learned basic reading and writing skills, his eldest daughters were likely taught mostly in the homes of neighboring families. Maria’s experience at the Young Ladies Academy (located in Woburn) illustrated a burgeoning new perspective towards women’s education. The Revolution sparked immense debate over how to instill new civic ideals in the general population. Under these circumstances, women’s lack of education was viewed as a potential problem; without basic education and an understanding of democratic virtues, how could women be expected to instill these new values into their children? This new concept of “Republican Motherhood” allowed young women like Maria the chance at a better education.
While it is unknown how (or if) Maria had a part in the decision to attend the Young Ladies Academy, letters written to her parents provide fascinating details about her daily school life, as well as a sense of her relationship with her parents and siblings. Although there is no official record of when Maria started her education at the Young Ladies Academy, a letter to her mother Rachel in May 1801 indicates that she may have just started a new semester, as she had only “been at Woburn a week.” It seems that Maria felt guilty about her lack of correspondence, as she wrote that she had been “neglectful of the many favours [sic] [letters] from my dear Parents.” Maria was well aware how much comfort a letter from the family could bring, as she lamented to her mother that her older sister Harriet had not found “time to write to her absent sister.” However, as the two sisters were close, Maria promised that she would “not think any more about it” as long as Harriet wrote to her “before next week.”
Maria described how she rose “about half an hour after five,” listened to “Miss Haskel” read prayers, ate breakfast at seven, and started her studies by eight. “We recite our lessons in grammar & geography read history, write cypher [math], work &c.” While students continue to study the same subjects today, the vast majority of schools now do not use recitation as the sole teaching method as in Maria’s era. There was little need for discussions in class, as women’s education was still more focused on obtaining knowledge in order to educate and instill proper values into children. It is hard to know if Maria found enjoyment in her lessons. While she mentions that she had read “Brydon’s Tour” and “the History of England,” she offers no personal opinions about these texts. Instead, Maria assured her parents that she was in “a very pleasant situation” and that “Miss Haskel is very kind to us all.” While it is unclear if Miss Haskel was Maria’s teacher, principal, or house-mother, it is possible that she played a combination of all three roles. During this era, it was often common for teachers to educate their students, oversee administrative issues, and also take care of their students in the absence of parents on site. For example, Harvard undergraduates during this era lived in their dorms alongside “tutors.” These were usually new graduates, who were expected to act as a Teacher’s Assistant and also monitor the behavior of the students outside of the classroom.
When Maria finished her schooling, she continued to live with her parents at their new home on Charter Street until her marriage to French-born Joseph Balestier. Although it is unknown when Maria first met her husband, the two married on May 8, 1814, just two months short of Maria’s 29th birthday. Even though modern audiences may believe that Maria married late, Maria’s age at her marriage was not atypical for the era. Out of the six daughters that Revere had, none married before they were at least 22 years old. Maria and Joseph likely moved to a new home after their marriage, although there is little information about the couple during this time. Maria gave birth to her only child, Joseph Warren, in 1817. The family probably lived a relatively ordinary upper-middle class life in Boston until Joseph Balestier was appointed as the first consul in Singapore, changing the family’s life forever.
When Joseph Balestier was sent to Singapore by President Andrew Jackson in 1832, the United States was in a delicate diplomatic position. Although England recognized the legitimacy of the American Consul, Singapore was actually governed by the merchants of the East India Company. While Americans looked towards Singapore as a new avenue for business and trading, the East India Company had a strong incentive to monopolize their trade. As consul, part of Balestier’s responsibilities were to find a legal solution to ensure America could trade in Singapore. However, this was only one of his duties as the American Consul, as he was also expected to aid American traders and sailors in multiple ways; tending to the sick, boarding sailors who were shipwrecked, and even warning nearby consuls when American ships were captured by pirates. Despite all these duties, Balestier also supported his family by growing cotton and sugarcane on a large plantation.
Thankfully, Maria’s experience in Singapore was carefully documented through her letters to her siblings. Like many people who traveled by sea in the early 1800s, Maria described in detail her arduous journey. As she explained to her sister Harriet, Maria traveled about “sixteen thousand two hundred” miles on a “beautiful ship” for over “one hundred and thirty six days.” During this long journey, Maria suffered from a variety of medical issues. Like many inexperienced seafarers, Maria caught the “awful malady [of] sea sickness,” which reduced her “to the weakness of a child.” She also described “fevers” and a “nervous headache,” all which left her with a “meager appearance.”
Maria’s letters also illuminate the relationship she had with her husband. Perhaps Harriet had previously held mixed feelings about Joseph, as Maria claims Harriet would have “retracted her opinion” [about Joseph] if she had “been a witness of his patience and unwearied care of me.” Maria’s letters also describe how her 16-year-old son, Joseph Warren, experienced their journey. Although she was glad her son did not suffer too badly from seasickness, she teasingly reported he had “an aversion to every kind of occupation except reading.” The family had clear plans for their son’s future; Joseph would help his son find a position “in a merchant counting house,” which would help him enter the business world, and at the same time he would learn “the language of the Malay.”
When Maria finally saw land, she was understandably “grateful,” yet also felt homesick, remembering “the immense distance that separated me from all my family and friends.” Her sense of distance and loss continued to reverberate through her letters to family. “I am getting very anxious to hear from you all, and to know how your dear children got through the winter,” Maria told her brother, Joseph Warren. However, Maria soon realized that “there seems to be little chances for letters” from her family as there were “so few American boats at this place.” Nevertheless, Maria expected letters from her siblings, but seemed to have a sense of which ones would need some prodding: “Mary I know will write, tell John he must.” Although sometimes Maria teased her siblings, it is clear that their letters made a huge impact on her feelings and mood. “Pray write as often as you can,” Maria told her brother Joseph Warren, as he couldn’t imagine “how delightful the sight of your letter will be to us.”
Maria mostly spent her time in Singapore managing her household, entertaining guests passing through the area, copying letters for her husband’s work and may have volunteered in church activities. It is likely that Maria felt some connection to St. Andrews Church in Singapore, since she gave them a Revere-made bell. According to the National Museum of Singapore, the bell “would be used to sound the curfew every night at eight for five minutes.” Thanks to Maria’s efforts, Singapore is still the only country outside the U.S to own a Revere Bell. Maria’s family enjoyed living in Singapore for a decade, until her son died tragically in March 1844, at only 24. Although we cannot truly know how Maria felt during this time, a letter to her sister Harriet makes it clear that she was deeply grieving. “Six months yesterday since he breathed his last in my arms and it seems but yesterday.” It was only four years later, that Maria Revere would pass away, on August 22, 1847 at, sixty-two. After losing his son and wife, Joseph Balestier faced yet another tragedy when his crops and planation were destroyed after a heavy rain season. Less than a year later, Balestier returned to the United States and died in 1858 in Pennsylvania.
Balestier’s legacy is still visible in Singapore. The American Embassy in Singapore gives the “Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art” to artists who “push the boundaries of creativity and challenge constraints to freedom of expression.” The location of Joseph’s plantation is today known as the Balestier region of Singapore, an area filled with a mix of apartments, food markets, and a mall. While Joseph Balestier’s accomplishments are recognized and celebrated, Maria Revere’s life has been mostly overlooked. Yet without Maria, it’s possible that Joseph would not have been so successful.
Nina Rodwin is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House
Ahmat, Sharom. “Joseph B. Balestier: The First American Consul in Singapore 1833-1852.”Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Maria Revere Balestier Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
National Museum of Singapore’s Facebook Page
Pedagogues and Protestors. The Harvard Student Diary of Stephen Peabody, 1767-1768. Ed. Conrad Edick Wright
Rum Insights. Singapore: Balestier
The U.S Embassy in Singapore’s Official Government Page