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Nahum Capen
 Nahum Capen, 1804-1886

From American Series of Popular Biographies. Massachusetts Edition. This Volume Contains Biographical Sketches of Representative Citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Boston: Graves & Steinbarger, 1891.


NAHUM CAPEN, LL.D., publisher and writer, tireless student of natural science and of politics, counsellor of statesmen and authors, best remembered, perhaps, in Boston today as Postmaster of the city, 1857-61, and the originator of important improvements in the postal service, was a native of Canton, Norfolk County, this State. Born April 1, 1804, son of Andrew and Hannah (Richards) Capen, he was of the seventh generation in descent from Bernard Capen, an early settler of Dorchester, the line being: Bernard, Captain John, Samuel, Samuel, Robert, Andrew, Nahum. (Thayer Memorial, Part I.)

Bernard Capen, a septuagenarian when he came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was made a freeman in 1636, and died in 1638, aged seventy-six. Captain John Capen, son of Bernard and his wife, Jane, was twice married, and by his second wife, Mary, daughter of Deacon Samuel Bass, of Braintree, was the father of Samuel Capen, who married in April, 1673, Susanna Payson. Samuel, Jr., born in 1686, son of Samuel and Susanna, died in Dorchester in 1751. Robert, son of Samuel, Jr., and his wife Bethiah, married in 1744 Jane Lyon.

Their ninth child, Andrew, was born November 22, 1757, at Stoughton, formerly a part of Dorchester, and died June 1, 1846. He married Hannah, daughter of Benjamin and Mary (Belcher) Richards, of Sharon. Her father was son of William and Elizabeth (Baker) Richards, grandson of Captain Jeremiah and Hannah (Fisher) Richards, and great-grandson of Nathaniel and Mary (Aldis) Richards, of Dedham. Nathaniel Richards was the younger son of Edward Richards, who settled at Dedham 1636-7, and married in 1638 Susan, daughter of Elder John Hunting. Mary, wife of Nathaniel, was daughter of Deacon John and Sarah (Elliott) Aldis and a grandniece of John Eliot, the apostle to the Indians. Andrew and Hannah (Richards) Capen had five sons--Robert, Andrew, Jr., Nahum, Benjamin, and John.

Nahum Capen had an active mind, was fond of books, and early began to form opinions and judgments and to cultivate the art of expression. At the age of nineteen he devoted himself to rewriting Plutarch’s Lives, adding notes and comments. His choice for a profession was medicine; and he began the study with his brother, Dr. Robert Capen, but discontinued it by reason of ill health, retaining, however, through life his interest in medical science, and enjoying the friendship of eminent physicians and surgeons. An admirer of and follower of Franklin, he gave much attention from his youth onward to different branches of physics, experimenting in electricity, light, magnetism, and as a pioneer in the field of meteorology, keeping a weather journal as early as 1824. In 1825 he started in business as a bookseller and publisher, being one of the enterprising firm of Marsh, Capen & Lyon, of Boston, later Marsh, Capen, Lyon & Webb. In regard to manuscripts the firm adopted a high standard, Mr. Capen being, as was to be expected, “an independent critic,” hesitating not “candidly to advise authors according to his best judgment in respect to their merits and demerits.” Mr. Capen was selected by Nathaniel Hawthorne to read his first work, and it was published anonymously. To his credit it is recorded that he saw the genius of Hawthorne, “and encouraged it.” Distinguished writers, both American and British, among them Judge Story, Dr. Jacob Bigelow, Edward Everett, Charles W. Upham, Mrs. Stowe, Miss Sedgwick, George Combe, Captain Marryat, and others, were represented in the publications of the firm; and, among the lions of literature of that memorable epoch whose works passed the hands of Mr. Capen, were Washington Irving, Bulwer Lytton, and Hawthorne. The regular visitors at “Mount Ida,” the home of Mr. Capen, included Longfellow, Bryant, G.B.R. James, Horace Mann, Peter Cooper, and the younger Audubon. In 1837 Mr. Capen wrote letters favoring an international copyright law (his own firm being the first, it is said, to pay a premium to foreign authors); and in 1844 he sent Congress an eloquent memorial advocating the passage of such a law.

In 1874 it became known that Mr. Capen was the author of a book published nearly fifty years before that date, entitled “The Mental Guide, being a Compend of the First Principles of Metaphysics and a System of Attaining an Easy and Correct Mode of Thought and Style in Composition, based on the Analysis of the Human Mind,” a book highly spoken of by eminent scholars of its day.

While preparing a “History of Man,” Mr. Capen had his attention directed to phrenology; and, taking an interest in the subject, he became the confidential friend of Spurzheim, then popular as a lecturer in Boston. And after the death of that philosopher, in 1832, he wrote a biography of him, and edited some of his works. He also wrote a Life of Dr. Gall, and edited his works and some of Dr. Combe’s. Of the Boston Phrenological Society, organized in 1833, the Rev. John Pierpont was the first president, Dr. Samuel G. Howe corresponding secretary, and Mr. Capen recording secretary.

Retiring from the publishing business in 1845, Mr. Capen continued to work with his pen, compiling records, contributing to newspapers and magazines, and issuing pamphlets on political and other topics. A Democrat, firm in the faith, he wrote on Free Trade and Usury and “The Indissoluble Nature of the Union,” edited in 1851 the writings of Judge Levi Woodbury, in 1850 beginning his greatest undertaking, the “History of Democracy.”

Appointed Postmaster at Boston in 1857 by President Buchanan, in recognition of his eminent services to his party, Mr. Capen entered upon the duties of that office on October 1. His zealous efficiency as a public servant at once made itself felt. Many improvements in the postal service date their origin from his official term, and were adopted at his suggestion. One of the oldest and most efficient officers of the department at Washington, writing the Boston Post on the occasion of Mr. Capen’s death, gave him credit for more improvements than had been adopted during the century up to that time, among them being the street letter boxes, stations of delivery in large cities, and free delivery.

In 1874 appeared the first volume (seven hundred pages) of the “History of Democracy; or, Political Progress historically illustrated from the Earliest to the Latest Period.” This crowning work was undertaken at the urgent request of President Polk, Governor Marcy, James Buchanan, General Cass, Vice-President Dallas, Professor Henry, and other Democratic leaders of that day. Undeterred by the magnitude of his task, the completion of a work of four volumes, Mr. Capen at eighty was “thinking vigorously and writing pointedly as ever.” At his death, January 8, 1886, the second and third volumes existed in manuscript, the fourth remaining unfinished. As far as completed, it represented the unremitting labors of thirty-five years. Mr. Capen’s “Reminiscences of Dr. Spurzheim and George Combe” were published in 1881.

Liberal in religious faith, Mr. Capen attended in his later years the Unitarian church. He married in 1830 Miss Elizabeth A. Moore, of Boston, Mass., and had four children: Nahum, Jr., who died young; Elizabeth Sprague, who married Shelton Barry; Edward N.; and Mary A., who married Alfred C. Thacher.

Capen, Nahum, 1804-1886, bibliography:

An address delivered before the Constellation lodge and the association lodges. Boston: Marsh and Capen, 1829.

Correspondence respecting postal improvements, and the removal of the Boston Post Office. [Boston, 1858] 36 p.

The history of democracy in the United States. [n.p.] (1852)

The history of democracy; or, Political progress. Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1874. 677 p

The Indissoluble nature of the American union, considered in connection with the assumed right of secession. Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1862

Letter addressed to the Hon. John Davis, concerning the census of 1849 i.e. 1850. Washington: T. Ritchie, printer, 1849. 23 p.

Letter to Rev. Nathaniel Hall, of Dorchester, Mass. Boston and Cambridge: J. Munroe & Company [1855] 4 p.

Letter to Rev. Nathaniel Hall, of Dorchester, Mass., by Nahum Capen, on politics from the pulpit. [New York, 1864] 8 p.

A memorial to Congress on the subject of an international copy-right law. [Boston? 1844] 12 p.

Phrenology, in Connexion with the Study of Physiognomy by J.G. Spurzheim, M.D. … to which is prefixed a biography of the author by Nahum Capen. Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1836 c1833. 3rd American editions. 367 p.

Plain facts and considerations: addressed to the people of the United States. Boston: Brown, Bazin and Company, 1856. 32 p.

Reminiscenses of Dr. Spurzheim and George Combe : and a review of the science of phrenology, from the period of its discovery by Dr. Gall, to the time of the visit of George Combe to the United States, 1838, 1840 by Nahum Capen. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881. 262 p.

The republic of the United States of America: its duties to itself, and its responsible relations to other countries. Embracing also a review of the late war between the United States and Mexico. New York: D. Appleton and Co.; Philadelphia: G.S. Appleton, 1848. 322 p.

Prospectus for publishing a work, to be called the United States statistical journal. To be devoted to the collection, classification, and comparison of facts which illustrate the condition of mankind, and tend to develope [sic] the principles by which the progress of society is determined. [Boston : Published by Nahum Capen, 1847] 2 leaves

"Communications may be addressed to Nahum Capen, Boston, Mass. Boston, April, 1847." "The journal will receive the efficient aid and cooperation of 'The American Statistical Association.'" "Boston, April 1847. Sir, I beg leave to ask your attention to the accompanying prospectus. The subject is one of great importance, and will, I trust, commend itself to your favorable consideration. ... Among those who have already subscribed ... the president and vice president of the United States; Hon. James Buchanan ... The following are extracts from letters which the editor has received, in respect to the proposed. [Apparently an insufficient number of subscriptions were received to encourage publication of the journal.]

Editor of:

Annals of Phrenology, 1833-1834

The Massachusetts State Record, New England Register and Year Book of General Information. Boston: James French, 1847-1891 [check this – was it only till 1851?]


Capen is said to have been the first postmaster in the country to introduce street letter-boxes and to work out a free delivery system.


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Created: December 30, 2010   Modified: December 30, 2010