By Peter Gorman
The noted Swedish author and reformer Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865) published a vivid account of her tour across North America and Cuba from 1849 to 1851, during which she spent time with many of this country’s leading intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frederick Douglass, and Lucretia Mott. She was in the Senate chamber in Washington, D.C. listening to fierce debates on slavery when the news of President Zachary Taylor’s imminent death was announced. She had visited with Taylor just a few days before his death, and was present at the inauguration of his successor, Millard Fillmore. She provides intimate accounts of Washington’s political climate and of its leading participants at a crucial time in American history.
In the fall of 1850, she traveled across New York, Lake Erie, and Michigan to Chicago, which did not impress her:
“Chicago is one of the most miserable and ugly cities which I have yet seen in America, and is very little deserving of its name, ‘Queen of the Lake;’ for, sitting there on the shore of the lake in wretched dishabille, she resembles rather a huckstress than a queen.”
She then made her way north along the lakeshore to Milwaukee, which seemed to suit her better:
“I saw some handsome, well-built streets, with handsome shops and houses, quite different to those of Chicago. Nearly all the houses in Milwaukee are built of brick, a peculiar kind of brick, which is made here from the clay of the neighborhood, and which makes a brick of a pale yellow color, which gives the city a very cheerful appearance, as if the sun were always shining there.”
Continuing west, Bremer stopped for a week here in Madison, from October 1-7, 1850, staying in the home of Wisconsin State Treasurer Jairus C. Fairchild, who later became Madison’s first mayor.
“I proceed with my letter in the capital of Wisconsin, a pretty little town (mostly consisting of villas and gardens) most beautifully situated between four lakes, the shores of which are fringed with live-oaks. I am here in a good and handsome house on the shore of one of the lakes, surrounded by all the comforts of life, and among kind, cultivated people and friends.”
During her stay, Bremer visited the University of Wisconsin, when it consisted only of North Hall. She speaks glowingly of Chancellor John Lathrop and the new state’s Land Grant University, quoting liberally from Lathrop’s inaugural speech.
“…Lathrop finally comes, in his speech, to the duties which the government of the young state of Wisconsin has to fulfill, in order that it may accomplish its great vocation as a home for various nations … all directing its being by new elements of life.
‘Free schools and public education have every where, in the United States, shown themselves to be the great principle of the popular elevation and development. The American mind has caught the idea, and will not lose sight of it, that the whole of the states’ property, public or private, is holden subject to the sacred trust of providing the means of education for every child in the state.’”