The collection includes incoming letters sent to James Alexander Houston, a medical doctor, the son and brother of Irish clergymen,
and an emigrant from Ireland to the United States before 1845. Familiar with the Pitman method of stenography, Houston reported
for both New York and Washington, D.C., newspapers. He had good friends in the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society,
including Gamaliel Bailey and Louis Tappan.
Much of what we know of this interesting man must be deduced from the letters he received from 1845 to 1849, and from resorting
to the Encyclopedia Britannica. From the former source, we know, for example, that he was a medical doctor, the son and brother
of Irish clergymen, and an emigré from Ireland to the United States during some period before 1845. We also know that he was
married, with sub-teen children, a Presbyterian, and adept at shorthand. A curious combination, a medical man who knew shorthand.
But not so curious if a bit of the history of shorthand is noted.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, various schemes for shorthand date from Greco-Roman times to modern times, including
Shelton's system, which was used by Samuel Pepys in his Diaries of 1660. However, stenography reached its developmental zenith
in England in the nineteenth century with the publication of Isaac Pitman's method in 1837, which swept the British Isles
and America, as well. One of its early uses was the verbatim transcription of clerical sermons for publication. Another was
verbatim reporting for newspapers of the day.
It was little wonder then that Houston found more work as a shorthand reporter than as Assistant Surgeon of the New York State
The concession of vast amounts of land to the United States after the Mexican War (1848) rekindled the slavery question. Newly
elected President Polk, whose views were expressed by the Union newspaper in Washington, D.C., publicly urged Congress to
create Oregon, New Mexico, and California as territories, whereupon anti-slavery Congressmen persuaded Democratic Congressman
David Wilmot, from Pennsylvania to add an amendment to a $2 million appropriation bill for boundary settlement. The "Wilmot
Proviso" stipulated that slavery should not exist in any part of the territory acquired by the United States as a result of
the Mexican War. Several times the House passed the amendment but it failed in the Senate. Yet it stimulated active debate
between slavery proponents and anti-slavery forces. Throughout the electric days of 1846-47, Houston, the official Stenographer
to the U. S. Senate, was kept busy reporting and publishing them in Houston's Journal. Testimonials to his ability and accuracy
rained on Houston from Congressmen and the leading eastern newspapers of the day.
Dr. Houston also found work on the New York Herald, founded in 1845. In Washington D. C., he reported for the Union, for George
Gideon's Republic , and the Era, where he became close friends with its publisher, Gamaliel Bailey. The Era was the organ
of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which began publication in 1844. Houston was also a friend of Louis Tappan,
a major figure in anti-slavery ranks and a publisher (co-founder with is brother Arthur of the Journal of Commerce in 1827,
and the Emancipator in 1833).
Houston divided his time between between Washington and New York depending on the sessions of the Senate, moving in the circles
of well known individuals of his time and place-political figures, judges, publishers. However, something seems to have occurred
at the end of 1849, when he moves out of the Era offices one step ahead of the sheriff who arrives to attach his belongings
for what appears to be a debt. He goes back to New York (see letter of December 12, 1849, from James W. Simonton). Perhaps
his debt was settled , for the last letters of 1849, have him successfully applying to George Gideon for work to be sent to
Washington D. C.