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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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Giving Dickinson His Due

Back in 2012 I compared the number of books lately published about Thomas Paine, supposedly a neglected Founder, with the much smaller number published about John Dickinson.

That will probably change after the John Dickinson Writings Project starts to publish the projected eight volumes of The Complete Writings and Selected Correspondence of John Dickinson in late 2019. The leaders of the project state:
John Dickinson (1732–1808), America’s first political celebrity, wrote more for the Founding than any other figure, including many issuances from the national congresses and conventions from 1764 to 1786. He also wrote prolifically for ordinary Americans with the intent to educate them about their rights and how to resist tyranny peacefully.

In addition to being one of the foremost legal scholars of the era, he was also the only leading founder who was an abolitionist, an advocate of women’s rights, and a champion of other subordinated peoples, including Indians, the poor, and prisoners. As a fellow traveler with the Quakers, though not a member of their society, he brought his religious beliefs to bear on his legal and political work with the goal of “defending the innocent & redressing the injurd.” . . .

For a number of reasons, including illegibility, complexity, and lack of archival identification and processing, Dickinson’s papers have never before been fully accessible. These factors, combined with misperceptions about Dickinson’s role in the Founding, mean there is very little extant scholarship on this central figure. Yet the Dickinson material is a rich resource on almost every aspect of 18th-century American society, including:
  • London/Middle Temple in the 1750s
  • The William Smith libel trial of 1758
  • The flag-of-truce trade of the 1750s–60s
  • Pennsylvania royal government controversy
  • Resistance to Britain from 1764 to 1776
  • Military 1775 to 1783
  • Resistance to 1776 Pennsylvania constitution
  • Peace negotiations in 1779
  • Presidency of Delaware, 1781–82
  • Presidency of Pennsylvania, 1782–85
  • Mutiny of 1783
  • Celebrations for the birth of the Dauphin
  • Wyoming controversy
  • Res Publica v. Longchamps
  • Res Publica v. Doan
  • Creation/Ratification of the Federal Constitution, 1786–1788
  • Delaware constitutional convention of 1792
  • Jay Treaty Protest of 1795
  • Abolitionism/slavery
  • Agrarianism
  • Books and book ownership
  • Democracy
  • Democratic Republican party politics
  • Celebrity
  • Education
  • Federal power v. states’ rights
  • Foreign relations
  • Indian rights/diplomacy
  • Jurisprudence
  • Peace activism
  • Philanthropy
  • Political moderation
  • Religion—Quakerism and “nature religion”
  • Religious liberty
  • Taxation and economic policy
  • Westward expansion/land and property rights
  • Virtue and corruption in government
In April 2020, in connection with the first volumes of Dickinson’s collected writings, the American Philosophical Society, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and Library Company of Philadelphia will host a day-long symposium about the man in Philadelphia. The organizers hope to feature eight to ten papers, the best of which will be published in an essay collection, the first ever devoted to Dickinson.

There’s a two-stage process for scholars to propose papers for that symposium. First, “Preliminary proposals of ca. 250 words accompanied by a CV” are due on 15 Nov 2018. The organizers will consider those “initial ideas and interests…based on their substance and viability considering the sources.”

The scholars whose projects show potential will then receive access to the server that contains the transcriptions, document images, and secondary sources being used to create the print edition. After consulting those materials, the researchers can then submit “Final proposals of ca. 500 words” by 15 Jan 2019. The organizers will choose the projects for the symposium. Final papers will be due on 1 Mar 2020. Symposium speakers will be reimbursed for travel and lodging.

The director of the John Dickinson Writings Project is Jane E. Calvert, Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky. Questions, requests for extensions on the preliminary proposal deadline, and proposals should go to her at jane.calvert@uky.edu.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Execution of Richard Eames

As described yesterday, on 22 Oct 1768 a general court martial in Boston convicted Pvt. Richard Eames of the 14th Regiment of desertion. A week later, the court sentenced the soldier to death.

“Some of the first ladies among us presented a petition for his pardon” on 30 October, the Boston Whigs’ “Journal of Occurrences” later reported. The town politicians managed to bring Eames’s case back to their main cause: “it was his first desertion, and in a time of peace, and which could not have happened had he been quartered agreeable to act of Parliament on Castle-Island.”

But the army command, headed by Gen. Thomas Gage, wanted to discourage other soldiers from deserting. The issue of the Boston Chronicle printed on 31 October reported that Eames
is ordered to be shot on the Common this afternoon, between the hours of 8 and 12 o’clock.—All the troops in town were ordered into the Common this morning by 6 o’clock, to attend the execution.
The regiments marched onto the Common “drumming the dead beat.” Eventually Eames was brought out “dressed in white,” accompanied by the chaplain of his regiment, reported in different sources as named Palmer or Palms.

A firing squad lined up. Eames “appeared very penitent,” the Boston News-Letter stated. The muskets fired, and Eames’s body collapsed. The Whigs wrote:
The regiment then marched round the corpes as it lay on the ground, when it was put into the coffin, which was carried by his side into the Common, and buried in a grave near where he was shot, and the church service read over him.
Some later accounts say Ames’s body was buried where it lay, but this wording suggests it was moved to the Common burying-ground.

(Local newspapers called the soldier “Ames,” but David Niescior reports that army records call him “Eames.”)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Tracking Down Pvt. Richard Eames

As soon as the British regiments arrived in Boston, soldiers began to desert. Don Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution has found that desertions went up just before and after a move—perhaps because of higher discontent, perhaps because the disruption made it easier to slip away.

In his thesis, “‘We might now behold American Grievances red-dressed:’ Soldiers and the Inhabitants of Boston, 1768-1770,” and other essays, David Niescior reports that on 12 Oct 1768 a party of soldiers from the 14th Regiment went out into the Massachusetts countryside searching for deserters. This group included Sgt. John Phillips and Pvts. Thomas Wilson and Thomas West of the grenadier company. They were all dressed in civilian garb.

On the 14th the search party was about twenty-five miles out of Boston. The men stopped at a tavern, where Sgt. Philips asked “a Negro Woman” about deserters. She told them “one of the Men had got a place with a Farmer the last Week” and pointed out that farmer’s house.

The sergeant sent Wilson and West to the farm to ask for more information. The farmer led those men to Richard Eames, a soldier of the 14th Regiment, who had hired on as a hand.

The search party hauled Eames back to Boston. On 22 October he was court-martialed. Eames tried to excuse his departure by saying he was owed back pay and “had often been struck” during drill. Other men testified that he had been paid no less and struck no more than any other soldier.

Character witnesses said Eames was “an Honest man tho’ sometimes unfortunate in Liquor.” However, going twenty-five miles away, staying away for several days, and taking a job on a farm didn’t seem like the actions of a drunken binge.

The court martial found Richard Eames guilty and sentenced him to death.

TOMORROW: An execution on Boston Common.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Philbrick on the Battle of the Chesapeake, 13 Nov.

On Tuesday, 13 November, the American Antiquarian Society will host Nathaniel Philbrick speaking on the topic of “The Naval Battle that Won the American Revolution.”

This talk is based on Philbrick’s latest book, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown. In retelling the history of that decisive campaign, this book focuses on its naval dimension and the Battle of the Chesapeake between the French and British navies.

In a prepared interview his publisher shared with History News Network, Philbrick spoke about that emphasis:
Since In the Heart of the Sea (2000) I have been making the point that before there was the wilderness of the American West, there was the wilderness of the sea. But I have to say even I was surprised by the impact that water had on the course of the Revolutionary War. As Washington realized from the very beginning of the alliance, the only way to defeat the British was with the help of the French navy. Only then could he break the British navy’s stranglehold on the Eastern Seaboard and win the victory that made possible American independence. Ultimately the course of the war came down to America’s proximity to the sea, the watery realm that I’ve been writing about since I moved to Nantucket 32 years ago.
Because of the ongoing construction to expand the A.A.S. building, this talk will take place across Park Avenue at the First Baptist Church, 111 Park Avenue in Worcester. Doors will open at 6:30 P.M., and the talk is due to start at 7:00. There is parking along Regent Street, Massachusetts Avenue, and Drury Lane, as well as in the lot at 90 Park Avenue.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Redcoats Return to Newport, 17 Nov.

On Saturday, 17 November, the Newport Historical Society, the Redwood Library & Athenæum, and two dozen of the region’s top-notch Revolutionary War reenactors will present a program titled “Redcoats at the Redwood: A 1778 Living History Event.”

The British military occupied Newport, Rhode Island, for years during the Revolutionary War, fending off threats from land and sea. This event focuses on the year 1778. Here’s the event description:
The Redwood Library’s Harrison Room will be transformed into an officer’s club as men from the British army and Royal Navy discuss the latest news and intelligence about the war efforts, in-between relaxing, playing cards and enjoying a few drinks.

Chat with reenactors portraying key figures such as General [Richard] Prescott, Mary Almy, Joseph Wanton Jr. and the newly wed Henrietta Overing Bruce. Other personas will include a printer, a minister, a merchant, officer’s wives, and a local woman who’s courted by a British officer.

Hourly activities range from toasts to games and will include a skit inspired by the Redwood’s history from this time. Visitors can learn about 18th-century newspapers, letters, artwork and military passes, including the pass that was required to leave the island, along with life during the Revolutionary era in Newport.
Spectators can also try a Spy Challenge, collecting intelligence as they chat with the reenactors to learn about the British military plans.

This event is scheduled for 2:00 to 7:00 P.M. at the Redwood Library, 50 Bellevue Avenue in Newport. There is a parking lot beside the building. Admission is free, though donations are welcome.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Wheelwright to Apthorp to Molineux

Yesterday I quoted a letter from William Molineux stating that in October 1768 he had agreed to rent buildings near the center of Boston to the royal army, despite being one of the Whig activists most opposed to having troops in town. Was that rank hypocrisy?

When the historian John Richard Alden published that letter for the first time in the New England Quarterly in 1944, he wrote:
It is possible that Molineux acted merely as an agent in these transactions, but it is most likely that he rented his own properties to the British army, in full knowledge that they would be used as quarters for the redcoats.
But a 28 Oct 1768 letter from provincial secretary Andrew Oliver, while also portraying Molineux as a money-grubbing hypocrite, shows that the man was indeed acting as an agent for the real property-owner.

As I quoted yesterday, Oliver wrote that Molineux
made an Offer of the Stores on Wheelwrights Whff. at the modest rate of £400 Sterl. p. Ann:? The General has however agreed with Mr. Apthorp himself for them at the rate of £300 and you may guess who will finally pay the reckoning.   
The final price, per Molineux’s letter, was indeed £25 per month or £300 per year—the price “Mr. Apthorp” had arranged.

“Mr. Apthorp” was Charles Ward Apthorp, oldest son of Boston’s richest merchant and military contractor of the previous generation, Charles Apthorp. The younger man had migrated to New York City with the army command. There he built a successful mercantile career and served on the governor’s council.

After Charles Ward Apthorp dissolved his Boston partnership with his brother-in-law Nathaniel Wheelwright, that led to a frightening wave of bankruptcies in early 1765. Apthorp ended up owning most of Wheelwright’s property. And to manage that property, Apthorp made William Molineux his Boston agent.

Thus, when Molineux wrote that he leased “all the Stores on Wheelwrights Warffe, (so Called)” to the army, he was leasing Apthorp’s property. The 1769 map of Boston even relabeled that wharf as “Apthorp’s” (shown above in the lower left, next to John Rowe’s Wharf).

Oliver’s statement that “The General has however agreed with Mr. Apthorp himself for them” indicates that Gen. Thomas Gage had made a deal with Apthorp before he even left New York. The owner of those buildings wanted the army to have them. Molineux wasn’t acting on his own.

But that doesn’t mean Molineux was above blame. He always had a hard time distinguishing the public good from what was good for himself. In this case, he first offered the Wheelwright’s Wharf buildings for £400 per year. Did he think that would be a prohibitive price that would keep the army out, or did he just want the extra £100? Did Apthorp require him to rent the sugar-distilling house as well, or did Molineux decide to do that on his own?

It’s pertinent that Molineux wasn’t just forwarding the proceeds of these deals to Apthorp with a little commission retained. He was apparently living off the Apthorp properties, tallying up revenue and expenses for some future settlement. In late 1774 that would catch up with him—but that’s a story for another time.

What mattered on 10 Nov 1768, 250 years ago today, was that as the first transport ships carrying soldiers of the 64th and 65th Regiments arrived from Cork, Ireland, the army had secured quarters inside Boston for them.

Friday, November 09, 2018

“What do you think of the Patriotism of W.M”?

When Boston businessmen started to lease property to the royal army in late October 1768, word of those deals got around quickly.

Andrew Oliver, secretary of the province and merchant, sent this news to a business associate in London on 28 October:
[The army] is taking up Stores & other Buildings for their accomodation. They first took up Mr. [James] Smiths Sugar House of Mr. [James] Murray; this was well enough; he acted in character and upon Principle, but what do you think of the Patriotism of W.M who used his utmost interest in supporting the People in the Manufactory House in their Opposition to the Troops coming in there; and then made an Offer of the Stores on Wheelwrights Whff. at the modest rate of £400 Sterl. p. Ann:?

The General has however agreed with Mr. Apthorp himself for them at the rate of £300 and you may guess who will finally pay the reckoning.

Or what do you think of the patriotism of J R. to sollicit the Supply of the Troops and in fact letting his Stores for the Use of the Troops?

Or what do you think of J O’s sending a Card to the General & his Family to dine with him? Or of their refusing it? Where is Patriotism or where is Principle?
“J O” was probably James Otis, being polite to Gen. Thomas Gage and “his Family”—in this case meaning his aides. Otis had indeed opposed the Crown’s decision to station troops in Boston, but he was also an upper-class gentleman (even a bit of a snob) and a canny politician. He understood that being personally polite to the king’s general would look better than snubbing him. There was no financial interest in what he did.

In contrast, “J R.” or John Rowe did indeed profit from leasing buildings to the army. We know that he made that deal from his own diary. We also know he was both joining the other selectmen in protesting those troops and socializing with army officers, sometimes on the same day. Rowe’s politics swung with the prevailing winds.

The real surprise was “W.M”—William Molineux. He was one of the Whigs’ most confrontational leaders. Just the month before, Oliver had probably heard Gov. Francis Bernard and Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson discuss a warning that Molineux was prepared to lead 500 men in an attack on the troops. So did the same Molineux really rent buildings to the army?

We know that he did because of a letter from Molineux himself. On 13 Feb 1769 he sent a complaint to Lt. Col. John Pomeroy, at that time the highest-ranking officer in Boston:
By Indentures of Agreement between [Royal Engineers Capt.] John Montresor Esq [shown above] & my Self, the 28th. Octr. Last I Lett him all the Stores on Wheelwrights Warffe, (so Called) at £25 Sterling per month to be paid monthly, which he promisd to Pay Punctually—& also on the 5th. Novemr: Let him a Sugar House for the Artillery Company, which they now Occupy, at £5 per month to be paid in Like manner.
In 1769 Molineux was no longer complaining that the army had barracks near the center of Boston. He was complaining that the army hadn’t given him enough money for those buildings.

TOMORROW: But who really owned that property?

Thursday, November 08, 2018

“The stench occasioned by the troops in the Representatives Chamber”

Even after His Majesty’s 14th Regiment of Foot moved out of Faneuil Hall, owned by the town of Boston, some troops remained in the Town House, which had become provincial property.

That building is now known as the Old State House. Its interior is different from how it looked in the 1760s. Back then it included a large, elegant room where the governor met with the Council and an even larger room with a small spectators’ gallery where the lower house of the General Court met.

No representatives had met in the Representatives’ Chamber since June 1768 when Gov. Francis Bernard had dissolved the legislature. But that space was also used as Boston’s courtroom. (A standalone courthouse was under construction a block away on Queen Street, to open in 1769.)

On 8 Nov 1768, 250 years ago today, Massachusetts’s top court met in that room. That offered the Boston Whigs another opening for a complaint about Crown policy, written the next day:
Yesterday the Superior Court met by adjournment at the Court House. In the afternoon a motion was made by J[ame]s O[ti]s, Esq; one of the bar, that the court would adjourn to Faneuil-Hall, not only as the stench occasioned by the troops in the Representatives Chamber, may prove infectious, but as it was derogatory to the honour of the court to administer justice at the mouths of cannon and the points of bayonets.
At the time, many doctors thought bad odors and miasmas could carry disease.

The Superior Court judges, led by Thomas Hutchinson, turned aside Otis’s suggestion to move, but he had made his point. The Whigs’ report continued:
This day the troops were removed from that Chamber, much to the satisfaction of the people who have looked upon their being placed there at first by the G[overno]r as an insult upon the whole province.
The army set up its main guard in a building facing the Town House, with a guard and a couple of small cannon at the door. So the Whigs complained that set-up threatened the civil government.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

“No appointment of this sort could have been more unpopular”

As described last week, on 26 Oct 1768 Gov. Francis Bernard told his Council that the royal army had started renting buildings around the center of Boston to convert into barracks.

That news couldn’t have come as a surprise to the Boston Whigs. Three weeks before, they had reported just such a rumor in their “Journal of Occurrences”:
Report, that James Murray, Esq; from Scotland, since 1745, had let his dwelling house and sugar houses, for the quartering of troops, at £15 sterling per month
But soon the Whigs found something new to complain about besides Murray being Scottish. They suggested that he and the governor had agreed on a corrupt quid pro quo.

As you recall, Gov. Bernard had started to press Boston’s justices of the peace to provide legal authorization for taking over the Manufactory or other buildings in Boston. A magistrate could empower government employees to carry out some legal actions, conceivably with the help of the troops themselves. Boston’s established magistrates threw up the same obstacles as the Council. Then on 27 October the Boston Whigs reported:
The people were this morning filled with astonishment on hearing that the G——r had nominated and appointed the J——s M——y already noticed in this Journal, as one of his Majesty’s justices of the peace for the county of Suffolk; no appointment of this sort could have been more unpopular, or have raised a more general indignation.

The inhabitants being fully persuaded that by means of the steady conduct of our bench of justices in refusing to quarter and billet troops in this town contrary as they apprehend to an act of Parliament, this gentleman was added to their number, and that the G——r will not now want a Justice Gillam, or a more fit instrument to carry his purposes into the utmost execution.

It is given out that when this nomination was made [in the Massachusetts Council], there was silence for a space of time, and such signs of disgust as raised the passions and voice of this G——r, who afterwards condescended to use arguments and intreaties with his C——l in favour of his said friend, which finally prevailed to obtain the consent of a majority of two only.
Murray had been a member of the appointed governor’s council in North Carolina before joining his little sister, Elizabeth (Murray Campbell) Smith, in Boston. He wasn’t as wealthy as his sister and elderly brother-in-law, despite his efforts, but he was the sort of mature, genteel merchant who often got picked for political posts in the British Empire. As a native of Britain with family and business ties back there, Murray was a natural Loyalist. That was no problem for Bernard, of course.

In “Justice Gillam,” the Whigs alluded to Samuel Gillam, a magistrate in Surrey, England. On 10 May he had read the Riot Act twice to a crowd showing support for John Wilkes, then held in the King’s Bench Prison near St. George’s Field. After that warning had no effect, Gillam authorized soldiers guarding the prison to fire on the increasingly violent crowd. About six people were killed, more than a dozen wounded. A grand jury indicted Gillam for his part in the “St. George’s Field Massacre,” but in July the court acquitted him on the grounds that he had acted within the law. The Boston Whigs feared a similar outcome locally, and used that prospect to link themselves to the London Whigs.

The day after reporting Murray’s appointment, the “Journal of Occurrences” went back to the question of barracks:
In the morning it was known that the troops which lately occupied Fanueil-Hall, had been placed, or had quartered themselves in the buildings, which had been hired of James Murray, Esq; but owned by James Smith, Esq; of Brush-Hill, [in Milton.]

such a procedure in the face of an act of Parliament, may well surprise the inhabitants, and lead them to think that some gentlemen of the civil or military order have concluded that they have a right for certain purposes, of dispensing with those acts at their pleasure:

However this may be, it is hoped that the people will soon have the satisfaction of knowing whether such steps can be taken by any with impunity; or whether every order and person among us is not equally held to the due observance of law.
Murray was acting as agent for his ailing brother-in-law and sister. The buildings he rented, formerly used to distill molasses into sugar or rum, became known as “Smith’s barracks” or “Murray’s barracks.”

The Boston Whigs were still arguing that the Quartering Act required regiments to go into the barracks on Castle Island, far from central Boston. They had objected to the army taking over publicly owned buildings. But at this point those activists were also objecting to the army renting private properties from their legal owners.

COMING UP: A less likely landlord.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The Mystery of “William Benson a Negro Man”

On 6 Nov 1775, the Boston Gazette, then being published in Watertown, ran this announcement from the keeper of the jail at Cambridge:
Cambridge, October 20, 1775.

BROKE out of the Goal in Cambridge, the following Prisoners, Thomas Smith, and William Benson a Negro Man. Said Smith is a very noted Thief, hath been in almost all the Goals on the Continent; had on when he broke Goal, a blue Jacket, a Pair of striped Trowsers, sandy coloured Hair about 5 Feet 4 Inches high.

Said Benson the Negro had on when he went away, a dark coloured old Coat, a Pair of old black knit Breeches, about 5 Feet 6 Inches high. Whoever will take up said Prisoners, and return them to said Goal, shall be handsomely rewarded, by

ISAAC BRADISH, Under Keeper.
The name of William Benson caught my eye. I wondered if this might be the black man of that name who appears in the records of the town of Framingham.

That William Benson was born in 1732. His parents, Nero Benson and Dido Dingo, had been kidnapped from Africa to New England. They married in 1721. Nero Benson served in Massachusetts army units around 1725 and died in 1757.

William Benson was sold to a man named John Collins about 1762 but somehow gained his freedom shortly afterward—though he had to fight for it. Collins and two helpers tried to forcibly take Benson back into captivity and resell him. A Middlesex County grand jury indicted Collins in 1764. He formally acknowledged Benson’s freedom and refunded the buyer’s money (or, under another interpretation, bought Benson back and freed him). Under those circumstances, the court accepted Collins’s plea of no contest and let him off with a small fine.

By early 1762 William Benson was husband to Sarah Perry of Sudbury, born in 1747. Or as Shrewsbury warning-out records from 1762 said, “Perry, Sarah, alias Benson, white, called by William Benson, (colored) his wife.”

According to William Barry’s history of Framingham and the town’s published vital records, their children included:
  • Katy or Cate, born 8 Apr 1763, later the wife of Peter Salem.
  • Abel, born in 1766.
  • Polly, born in 1773.
  • Sally, born in 1782.
  • William, who died young.
Traditions in Framingham and Needham say that a black trumpeter helped to summon the militia in one part of the region on 19 Apr 1775. Various authors have named that military musician as Nero or Abel, both recorded in other documents as playing the trumpet. But Nero was dead by 1775, and Abel was no more than nine years old and didn’t mention such service in his military pension application. I’ve posited that William—Nero’s son and Abel’s father—is a candidate for being that trumpeter.

Was the same William Benson locked up in the Cambridge jail a few months later? Unfortunately, I’ve found no more detail on this escaped prisoner. On 9 October the besieging army’s general orders had said:
If any Negroe is found straggling after Taptoo beating about the Camp, or about any of the roads or Villages, near the encampments at Roxbury, or Cambridge, they are to be seized and confined until Sun-rise, in the Guard, nearest to the place where such Negroe is taken up.
That was confinement in a military stockade, not the town or county jail, but it reflects the general hostility toward blacks that Gen. George Washington’s army adopted in that season.

Of course, African-American soldiers were already serving in that army, and at the end of December Washington reversed course and decided they could continue to serve. William Benson’s son Abel became one of those Continental soldiers, signing up in 1780 at the age of fourteen (saying he was sixteen). He received a plot of Framingham land as payment. After Abel’s mother died, his father William came to live there.