Bright family papers

Biographical and Historical Notes

Robert Southall Bright was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, on May 24, 1872 to Robert Anderson and Nannie (Munford) Bright. His father was a planter who had served in the Confederate army, and after the war had continued to support legislation in opposition to the rights and suffrage of former slaves. Robert S. Bright's great uncle, George Washington Southall, was the Bright family's connection to the Southalls, who were among the first families to settle on the Virginia peninsula in the early seventeenth century. Robert Southall Bright graduated with an A.B. from the College of William and Mary in 1891, then apprenticed under Philadelphia lawyer George H. Earle until he was admitted to the bar in 1894. On October 19 of the following year, Bright married Caroline De Beelen, daughter of George Sidney Lovett, and together they had a son, Douglas Bright, who was born on August 17, 1896. From 1894 to 1926, Bright maintained an independent law firm in Philadelphia, and from 1926 to 1934 he was a member of the Philadelphia banking firm Thomas A. Biddle & Co. In 1932, Caroline died, and on December 1, 1934 Bright married again, this time to Mary (McCaw) Haves, who was the daughter of William Reid McCaw. Also in 1934, Bright retired to his farm in Frederick, Maryland, where he lived until his death on December 18, 1943.

Robert Southall Bright was active in Philadelphia politics, including his service as president of the Woodrow Wilson League, and was a prominent member of the Progressive Party. He was a member of a number of different associations, as well as a trustee of the Lovett Memorial Free Library of Philadelphia, and during the First World War he served as a major in the army on the staff of the judge advocate general in Washington, D.C. Bright also published a number of historical works, many of which were originally speeches: "Pocahontas and Other Colonial Dames of Virginia" (1906); "The Hamlet of American Politics" (1908); "Liberty's Greatest paper" (1910); and "Nathaniel Bacon and His Rebellion" (n.d.).


Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Dumas Malone. vol.9. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963.

Historical and biographical information derived from the collection.

Scope and Contents

The Robert Southall Bright Collection concerns the personal and business affairs of the Bright family, most notably Philadelphia lawyer Robert Southall Bright (1872-1943) and his wife Caroline de Beelen Bright (d. 1932). The collection comprises 2.3 linear feet of material and contains correspondence, financial and legal items, receipts, insurance policies, leases, speeches, political papers, certificates, invitations and greeting cards, photographs, and ephemera. The collection is divided into five main series: I. Robert S. Bright correspondence, II. financial and legal documents, III. papers concerning other members of the Bright family, IV. miscellaneous papers, and V. photographs.

The first series spans the period 1877-1939, and includes correspondence to and from Robert S. Bright, most notably from his wife Caroline and from his friend John L. Stoddard.

The second series spans the period 1879-1942, and includes stock and bond certificates, insurance policies, estate accounts, leases, bills and receipts, bank statements, canceled checks, account and memorandum books, and other legal items.

The third series spans the period 1763-1918, and includes correspondence, legal, and financial items concerning Robert Anderson Bright, Samuel Bright, George Washington Southall, and Douglas Bright.

The fourth series spans the period 1821-1934, and includes school certificates, speeches and political papers, invitations and RSVPs, calling cards, greeting cards, legal items pertaining to the case of Armistead et al. vs. Dandridge et al. (1821-1843), and ephemera.

The fifth series spans the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and includes photographs of the Bright family, many of which were taken at Monhegan Island, Maine.

The collection focuses primarily on Robert S. and Caroline Bright, documenting their personal and financial affairs particularly in the 1920s and early 1930s. The names of several prominent Virginia and Pennsylvania families are included in the collection (the Bassetts, Lovetts, Southalls, and Dandridges), but their relationships to the Bright family are not always made clear. The items concerning these individuals can be found primarily in the correspondence, or under the heading of "Miscellaneous Papers" in series four.

The collection contains a large number of photographs, but unfortunately all but a very few are unidentified. It is assumed that portraits are of members of the Bright family or their relatives. Most of the photographs are of people and locations on Monhegan Island, which served as a summer vacation spot for Robert Southall Bright and his family. Though these are undated, Monhegan correspondence elsewhere in the collection dates from 1932 and 1933, and thus provides a rough estimate for when the photographs were taken. The island was also frequented by a number of prominent American artists, including Rockwell Kent, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, and N.C. Wyeth. Since early in the twentieth century, the Wyeths have owned a home on the island, and one of the more intriguing items in the collection is a letter written to Robert S. Bright by his friend Henriette Wyeth (b. 1907), who was the daughter of N.C. Wyeth.

The correspondence, particularly that with his fiancee Caroline de Beelen, provides a great deal of information about Robert S. Bright's personal life, as well as his demeanor -- which at times could be rather piercing. The letters also reveal the wide range of personal and business contacts which Bright maintained. He corresponded frequently with friends and relatives in Virginia and the Philadelphia area, a law firm in Buffalo, New York, the president of the College of William and Mary, and acquaintances in Europe and China. The intensity of Bright's activity is further revealed in the number and variety of invitations to social functions, as well as his membership in numerous political societies and associations. Also of interest is the correspondence that Robert S. Bright maintained with his friend John Lawson Stoddard (1850-1931), whose ruminations on the political and social conditions of pre-war Europe and America provide a fascinating, if brief, glimpse into the important issues of the day.

There is no indication of when Bright actually met Stoddard, though it is clear that he and his family stayed at Stoddard's Italian villa on Lake Como sometime before 1909. Stoddard was a prominent writer and lecturer, teaching the classics for a year at the Boston Latin School, and using the experiences and photographs he acquired through a lifetime of extensive world travel as the basis of a public lecturing career. He spent the last three decades of his life in retirement abroad, the years 1906-1914 being spent at Lake Como. The horrors of the First World War, witnessed first-hand, drove Stoddard towards Catholicism, but up to that point he had been a free-thinker. He also had a great love for northern Italy and its people, and these two facets of his personality are very much in evidence in his letters to Bright.

Though the collection comprises a wealth of financial material from the period 1929-1930 (most notably accounts of Bright's stock portfolio and the receipts of stock sales and purchases), it is uncertain what sort of effect the market crash of 1929 had on Bright's overall finances. A few letters sent by companies and brokerage firms do suggest a fiscal slump, but Bright's activity within the market seemed unabated. Overall, Bright was primarily concerned with the purchase of stocks from oil and utility companies.