J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

The Evidence for Paine as a Staymaker

As I discussed yesterday, a claim appeared on Wikipedia last month that Thomas Paine started out making stays for sailing ships, not stays for women to wear, and that Paine’s political enemies misrepresented him as a maker of underwear.

This fraud apparently fooled every historian and biographer who has written about Paine. At least, the citations that Wikipedia editor “Jkfkauia” inserted after that statement did not actually name any scholar who had seen through the ruse. In fact, those citations offer no outside support for the new statement.

Normally I’d point out that “Jkfkauia” has the responsibility to provide evidence for a claim, especially if he or she is going to dress it up with footnotes. Skeptics don’t have the burden of proving a historical statement is untenable. But I can’t resist poking some holes in the theory.

First, it wasn’t just Paine’s enemies who wrote that he had trained as a staymaker. Paine’s friends did, too. The jokes about Paine making stays for women appeared during and shortly after his lifetime when he or his friends could have refuted them. After all, Paine didn’t build a career as a political writer on two continents by staying quiet about his opponents’ errors.

Second, I have yet to find any eighteenth-century use of the word “staymaker” to mean someone who made stays for ships. Those were a type of rope, and the common term for someone who made ropes was “ropemaker.” If “staymaker” was also used for someone who spun stays for ships, there would surely be period sources remarking on its double meaning.

Instead, sources like this guide to professions from 1747, defined “The Stay-Maker” as “employed in making Stays, Jumps, and Bodice for Ladies.” (That book went on to nasty remarks about women before getting to the working conditions and wages young staymakers might expect.) And here’s a court case from 1771 when “James Paterson, staymaker,” sued to be paid for “furnishings to Taylor’s wife and daughter.”

Furthermore, Paine’s early biographers identified particular staymakers he worked for: his father in Thetford, a “Mr. Morris” on Hanover Street in London, and a “Mr. Grace” in Dover. Records from the late 1700s have helped recent biographers identify the latter two as John Morris and Benjamin Grace. Morris was in fashionable Covent Garden, not a shipbuilding center.

Thetford is an inland town in the east of England. According to “Jkfkauia,” Thomas’s father John Pain was supplying a port downriver with ropes, but it wouldn’t have made economic sense for a ropemaker serving ships to be so far away from the sea. On the other hand, half the people in Thetford needed stays. Making them was a steady, skilled profession.

In fact, Thomas Paine wasn’t the only British political writer of the period who had been trained to make stays. Hugh Kelly, who wrote propaganda for Lord North and plays and poems for himself, was also apprenticed to a staymaker as a teenager. And, like Paine, people who disliked Kelly didn’t let him forget that he’d trained to sew women’s underwear. Because he had.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

This Season’s New Paine Claim

Last month, on 24 September, someone signed in to Wikipedia as “Jkfkauia” in order to revise the Thomas Paine entry. He or she explained the editing this way:
(I am correcting a widely repeated piece of insulting misinformation about Thomas Paine. He was involved in youth with making rope stays used on sailing ships, NOT the stays used in corsets. This lie about his life story was invented by his foes.)
Wikipedia records four other edits by “Jkfkauia” in 2012 and 2013, none having to do with eighteenth-century history.

The section on Paine’s early life now reads in part:
At the age of 13, he was apprenticed to his stay-maker father. Paine researchers contend his father's occupation has been widely misinterpreted to mean that he made the stays in ladies’ corsets, which likely was an insult later invented by his political foes.[citation needed] Actually, the father and apprentice son made the thick rope stays (also called stay ropes) used on sailing ships.[10][better source needed] Thetford historically had maintained a brisk trade with the downriver port city of Yarmouth.[11][not in citation given]
Those “citation needed” variants were added later on that same day by “Tedickey,” an active Wikipedia editor who’s worked on entries about the Articles of Confederation and Connecticut Compromise.

“Jkfkauia” did not cite or name the “Paine researchers [who] contend his father’s occupation has been widely misinterpreted.” As far as I can tell, no biographers from the 1790s, when Paine became prominent as a political writer in Britain, to the last decade identified him or his father as making stays for ships. And, despite the complaints of his fans, Paine has not been neglected by biographers.

It’s true that Paine’s political enemies in the 1790s made fun of his early work as a staymaker. In 2011 the Two Nerdy History Girls analyzed two political cartoons (one above) that showed “Thomas Pain / Stay Maker” squeezing Britannia into stays that were too strait for her.

But “Jkfkauia” wrote that Paine had never made stays, only ropes for ships.

TOMORROW: Does that make any sense?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A New Memorial Proposed for D.C.

In 1980, Lena Santos Ferguson applied for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

She traced her ancestry to Jonah Gay, who in 1775 was on the committee of correspondence for Meduncook, Maine, later called Friendship.

It took four years for the organization to accept that documentation and make Ferguson “the second black member of the Daughters of the American Revolution in modern times.”

The organization soon came around to supporting a project to document over 6,000 black Continental soldiers and in 2008 published the reference book Forgotten Patriots.

At the same time Ferguson’s nephew, Maurice Barboza, was inspired to imagine a monument to those soldiers in Washington, D.C. Recently the Washington Post reported a milestone in that effort:
Last month, Congress unanimously authorized a site for the memorial: the northeast corner of 14th Street and Independence Avenue, a main gateway to the city, in what is currently a surface parking lot next to the Department of Agriculture. And on Sept. 26, President Obama signed the authorization into law. The National Liberty Memorial was formally approved for placement on the Mall. . . .

But Barboza’s mission is far from done. Supporters of the National Liberty Memorial must raise at least $6 million to fund the memorial’s design and construction. And then they have to earn the approval of the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.
Here’s the website for the effort to complete this monument. Above is sculptor Michael Curtis’s proposed design.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Letters from Gen. Phillips to Gen. Heath Up for Bid

After my mention of the Convention Army yesterday, Boston 1775 reader Christopher Hurley alerted me to the auction on 1 November in Marlborough of six letters related to those prisoners of war.

The Skinner auction house describes the lot as:
Six Letters…dated April through October 1778, from Major General William Phillips to Major General William Heath written from Cambridge, Massachusetts, relating to conditions, clothing, and monetary needs for the Convention Army surrendered after the battle of Saratoga.
Unfortunately, the auction house’s online description doesn’t give the dates for those letters or offer other details on their contents.

Gen. Phillips (1731-1781) became the highest-ranking officer in the Convention Army after Gen. John Burgoyne was paroled and sailed for home. (To confuse matters a little, there was a prominent Boston merchant and politician with the name William Phillips, whom I also mentioned last week.)

Meanwhile, Gen. William Heath (shown above) had been named American military commander of the region. He thus had responsibility for finding housing and supplies for all those prisoners, treating them humanely but also making sure they didn’t disrupt local life too badly. The low point came when a young American sentry shot and killed a British officer for venturing too far from camp.

As a result, Phillips and Heath exchanged a lot of letters in 1778. Each man probably kept a copy of his own letters, at least the most important ones, so there were two parallel collections. And neither appears to have survived intact.

The Massachusetts Historical Society became the guardian of the William Heath Papers in 1859. However, when the society published a third volume of transcriptions in 1905, its editor stated:
In spite of the enormous mass of papers preserved by General Heath it is certain that many documents, some of them of considerable importance, had disappeared before the collection came into the possession of Mr. [Amos A.] Lawrence [around 1838], as stated in the preface to the second part of the Heath Papers.

A striking illustration of this occurs in connection with the controversy, in 1778, between General Heath and General Phillips of the Convention troops. In General Heath’s Memoirs and in our previous volume are numerous letters bearing on the subject, and it was supposed by the Committee that in one or the other place would be found everything of interest or importance relating to it; but in the “Report on American Manuscripts in the Royal Institution of Great Britain,” issued in London at about the same time as our volume [in 1904], are a number of letters printed or calendared from copies sent over to England, of which neither originals nor copies now exist in the Heath Papers. They contain no new facts, but they should not be overlooked in any thorough study of the episode of the Convention troops; and it is not easy to see how they could have been lost, except through carelessness after the death of General Heath.
The Boston Public Library has one letter from Heath to Phillips dated 7 April, apparently Heath’s draft. The Gilder-Lehrman Collection has two more, dated 9 June and 1 August.

Three letters from Phillips to Heath, dated 23 April, 14 May, and 16 July, are part of the Lloyd W. Smith Collection at Morristown National Historical Park, according to Robert P. Davis’s 1999 biography of Phillips.

Which means multiple institutions might like to add this batch of correspondence to their collections.

Monday, October 27, 2014

“Red Horse Tavern” Reenactment in Sudbury, 1 Nov.

On Saturday, 1 November, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury will host the annual “Battle of the Red Horse Tavern” reenactment. This event isn’t designed to recreate any specific fight in the Revolutionary War. Rather, it offers a chance to explore a typical skirmish scenario.

The host organization, the Sudbury Company of Militia and Minute, offers a program for this year’s event:
Start the day by listening to colonial music, talking with re-enactors, visiting sutlers, observing cannon firing demonstrations and more. Then watch as the Colonial and British armies battle for control of the Red Horse Tavern.

Eighteenth-century taverns were important in the Colonies as a place to hear the news and other current events, engage in commerce, conduct militia drills and provide respite for weary travelers. The Red Horse Tavern sitting along the Boston Post Road, the major east-west route to and from Boston and New York, was crucial in that anyone or anything travelling into or out of Boston to/from the west would have to pass by its door. Whichever side controlled the Tavern could control the flow of supplies, troops and information.

The Redcoats are determined to wrest control, no matter the cost, while the Colonists will do all they can to stop them and send them back to Boston.

Who will control the tavern? Come and find out.

11:45 A.M.-12:45 P.M.: Cannon demonstration, fyfe & drum music, 18th century fashion show, sutlers, mix-n-mingle with the re-enactors

1:00 P.M.: Formation & inspection of troops

1:15 P.M.: Battle of the Red Horse Tavern – near grist mill

2:30 P.M.: Battle of the Red Horse Tavern II – south field
Of course, in real life, rural Massachusetts wasn’t contested territory after 19 Apr 1775. The only British army to traverse that countryside was the Convention Army of P.O.W.’s after Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga. But there were plenty of skirmishes over taverns, crossroads, and other key points elsewhere in the young U.S. of A.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

“The 18th-Century Woman” in Arlington, 28 Oct.

The Arlington Historical Society will host a lecture on Tuesday, 28 October, on “The 18th-Century Woman” by Gail White Usher. This is part of a yearlong series with the theme of “Women’s Work.”

The event description is basic:
Gain greater understanding of what it meant to be a middling or working-class woman in New England prior to the Revolutionary War, through diaries, letters, paintings, and objects.
Usher comes to Arlington from Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut. She has also worked at the Bowen House in that town and at the Daniel Benton Homestead in Tolland, and she’s an avid reenactor.

This event starts at 7:30 P.M. in the Masonic Temple at 19 Academy Street.

As another look at eighteenth-century American women, here’s a poem that appeared in the 25 Dec 1769 issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, headlined “The Female Patriots: Addressed to the Daughters of Liberty in America.”
Since the Men, from a Party or Fear of a Frown,
Are kept by a Sugar-plumb quietly down.
Supinely asleep—and depriv’d of their Sight,
Are stripp’d of their Freedom, and robb’d of their Right;
If the Sons, so degenerate! the Blessings despise,
Let the Daughters of Liberty nobly arise;
And tho’ we’ve no Voice but a Negative here,
The Use of the Taxables†, let us forbear:—
(Then Merchants import till your Stores are all full,
May the Buyers be few, and your Traffick be dull!)
Stand firmly resolv’d, and bid Grenville to see,
That rather than Freedom we part with our Tea,
And week as we love the dear Draught when a-dry
As American Patriots our Taste we deny—
This exhortation to women to boycott goods from Britain continued for twenty more lines. A footnote identified the “Taxables” as “Tea, Paper, Glass, and Paints.” George Grenville had not actually been in office as Chancellor of the Exchequer or First Minister for years.

Those lines were credited only to “A FEMALE.” For a while Milcah Martha Moore got credit because the poem appeared in her commonplace book. But now scholars attribute the lines to Hannah Griffitts (1727-1817).

Saturday, October 25, 2014

“Fear in the Revolutionary Americas” at Tufts, 31 Oct.

On Friday, 31 October, the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University will host a one-day conference on the topic “Fear in the Revolutionary Americas, 1776-1865.” [A conference about fear on Halloween? Well played, Tufts University—well played.]

This conference reflects the current academic interest in examining the entire “Age of Revolutions” that started with American independence and ran through the upheavals in France, Haiti, Mexico, and South America, rather than stop at national boundaries. Co-sponsors include the university’s Departments of History, Latin American Studies, and Romance Languages, and the Center for the Study of Race & Democracy.

Presentations that will definitely touch on developments in North America include:
  • Edward Rugemer, Yale University, “Fear of Slave Violence in Jamaica and South Carolina during the American Revolution”
  • Nicole Eustace, New York University, “Republics of Saints?: Fear and Virtue in the Age of Revolutions”
  • Alan Taylor, University of Virginia, “Fear and Loathing in the American Revolution”
  • David Nichols, Indiana State University, “Capitalizing on Fear: Violence, Insecurity, and Negotiation in Native North America, 1750-1830”
  • Roundtable Discussion: Chris Schmidt-Nowara, Tufts University and Ben Carp, Brooklyn College
Download the full program and speaker biographies here.

The sessions will take place in the Coolidge Room of Ballou Hall. Here are directions. To reserve a slot, contact Ms. Khalilah Tyre, administrator of Tufts’ Humanities center.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Revolutionary Book Talk at Old South, 30 Oct.

On Thursday, 30 October, the Old South Meeting House will host a book talk by Alex Myers, author of the novel Revolutionary.

As the event announcement explains, that book is the fictionalized story of
Deborah Samson, a woman who disguised herself as a man, joined the Continental Army (as Robert Shurtliff), and participated in the final battles of the Revolutionary War.

This meticulously researched debut novel brings to life the true story of Deborah’s struggle against a rigid colonial society and her harrowing experience on the front line. The author, who was raised as Alice and came out as transgender while a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, is a descendant of Deborah Samson.

Join us to hear Mr. Myers’s insights into both the social world of colonial New England, and his own creative process of merging history and fiction.
(The Phillips who founded Phillips Exeter, John Phillips (1719-1795), was a brother to the merchant and politician William Phillips I mentioned yesterday. Their nephew Samuel started Phillips Andover.)

For Myers’s talk, the doors will open at 6:00 P.M. for Old South members and fifteen minutes later for non-members. Since the place can seat hundreds, everyone will get a seat, but members will have a chance to be up front. Myers will sign copies of Revolutionary after his talk.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

“In consequence of the past misconduct”

On 5 May 1772, the North End Caucus decided to support four men as Boston’s representatives to the Massachusetts General Court, or provincial legislature: Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and William Phillips. The next day, as I noted two days ago, the town met and elected those four men.

That slate omitted James Otis, Jr., who had represented Boston for most terms since the early 1760s and led the opposition to Gov. Francis Bernard most of that time. But since a coffee-house brawl in October 1769, people had come to see Otis as unreliable and mentally unstable.

William Phillips (1722-1804) had held many town offices over the years, including selectman and moderator of town meetings. The North End Caucus, and the men of Boston, no doubt saw him as a dependable guardian of their interests in the General Court.

So that settled the question of representation, right? Not that year. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson was maneuvering to separate Hancock from the influence of Samuel Adams and even dreamed of making him an ally. It looks like Hutchinson let it be known that if the legislature elected Hancock to the Council, or upper house, he wouldn’t veto that selection, as he and his predecessor had done in the past. That would open up another representative’s seat.

On 19 May, the North End Caucus gathered one day before another town meeting. The main items of that meeting’s agenda were instructions for the town’s new representatives and the school budget. But the caucus took up another motion:
Voted—unanimously—That in consequence of the past misconduct of —— —— Esq. this body will oppose his appointment to any office of trust of the town.
Both surviving transcriptions of the caucus’s records omit that person’s name, but I suspect it was James Otis. There were many gentlemen the North End Caucus didn’t think would be good representatives for the town, but Otis was the only one I can picture them discussing as a serious possibility if another seat in the General Court opened up soon. Caucus members wanted to forestall any thought of returning Otis to office. Boston had tried that once already, and it hadn’t worked out well for anyone.

The General Court assembled at the end of the month. As things turned out, Hancock was elected to the Council, Hutchinson approved his name, and then Hancock declined to take the seat. He stayed in the House, closer to the voters whose approval he enjoyed, and there was no need for a special election to replace him.

There are no records of a North End Caucus meeting between May 1772 and March 1773, so we don’t know how its members reacted to Samuel Adams’s controversial proposal for a standing committee of correspondence in November 1772. They probably supported it, given their usual positions. The town’s selectmen and representatives were lukewarm on the idea at best, and Adams needed the support of town-meeting diehards to get it through.

Otis was named chairman of that prominent committee, which seems like a contradiction of this caucus’s vote in May. However, there were twenty other members, and the meeting specifically assigned the responsibility of drafting its first three reports to Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. Otis’s role was limited to presenting those essays to the town meeting on 20 November—the last formal political responsibility granted the man who had once been the most powerful elected official in Massachusetts.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“A Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person”

Yesterday I described how James Otis, Jr., suffered a severe mental breakdown in the months after he suffered a head injury in a coffee-house brawl in October 1769. (There’s evidence that he’d had manic episodes before then, but the injury certainly didn’t help his stability.) In 1770 Otis didn’t return as one of Boston’s representatives in the General Court, but in March 1771 he ran for that office again and was elected.

Samuel Adams started the legislative session in May protesting about how Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, on orders from London, had moved the General Court from Boston to Cambridge. Instead of seconding that complaint, Otis insisted that shift was within the governor’s authority and even that Hutchinson was “a good Man.”

On 2 June, John Adams wrote in his diary that some people were grumbling about Otis’s “Conversion to Toryism” and that he was “distracted.” It was fairly common in eighteenth-century politics to complain that someone disagreeing with you must be insane, but there were real fears that Otis’s madness had returned.

By 25 November, Otis’s behavior was so erratic that Hutchinson intervened in his capacity as judge of probate for Suffolk County. He sent the selectmen of Boston a legal warrant stating:
It having been represented to me by the Relations & Friends of James Otis of Boston Esq. that the said James is a Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person & a proper Subject for a Guardian.

Pursuant therefore to the Directions of the Province Law in such case provided. You are hereby desired and impowered to consider the case of the said James & upon the Evidence you may have Report to me whether you find him to be a Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person or not, and such Report to be made under the hands of the major part of you.
A group of selectmen, who included Otis’s General Court colleague John Hancock, gathered that day and the next. They “Agreed to see the said Mr. Otis immediately” and then determined they were “fully of Opinion that he is a Distracted Person.”

Then came a mysterious episode in early December. Two young men, Lendell Pitts and John Gray, were in court after a fight. Months before, Pitts had been flirting with a young lady he’d met on the street only to discover that young lady was a teen-aged boy in a dress and that all his friends were laughing at him. Pitts held Gray responsible for that embarrassment—perhaps Gray was in the dress, perhaps he’d organized the prank. Pitts clubbed Gray over the head. Gray sued for assault, and the case worked its way up through the appeal process.

John Adams represented Pitts, and his very brief notes on the 2-3 Dec 1771 trial include witness testimony and a couple of lines from “Otis” on an episode of cross-dressing in ancient Rome. This was probably James Otis, who was recognized as a classical scholar.

What do those lines mean? One possibility is that Adams repeated some allusions Otis had dropped in a discussion of the case and noted them down with Otis’s name attached. The editors of Adams’s legal papers interpret these lines to mean Otis spoke in court, though he wasn’t representing either side or a witness to the events. G. B. Warden’s 1970 history of Boston goes further and says, “Otis climbed through a window of the Court House and gave a short, hysterical brief on sexual deviations,” but I’ve found Warden not to be reliable on details.

Whatever happened in that court case, on 3 December Otis was “carried off…in a post chaise, bound hand and foot,” according to a letter from Hutchinson to Sir Francis Bernard. The two royal governors no doubt felt some pleasure in the fall of the man who had once been their chief political tormentor.

TOMORROW: So what does this have to do with the North End Caucus?