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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Saturday, March 25, 2017

“A republic…if you can keep it.”

This is the launch of a deep dive into one of the most popular and portentous anecdotes from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. I wrote about that story before, but a prodding tweet from Zara Anishanslin sent me further into the depths.

The earliest appearance of the anecdote is on the last page of Dr. James McHenry’s journal of his experience as a convention delegate. Here’s the text, as transcribed at Yale Law School’s Avalon Project:
A lady asked Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.
To which McHenry added this footnote:
The lady here aluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.
As I wrote back here, that meant Elizabeth Powel, host of a political salon and wife of the city’s once and future mayor.

We can even see the story in McHenry’s own writing courtesy of the Library of Congress (from which I cribbed the image above).

This is the last entry in McHenry’s journal. The Convention had broken up on 17 Sept 1787, and delegates were heading home. If the story had appeared in the journal between two dated entries, we could be sure of when McHenry wrote it down. But as it is, all we know is that he wrote it down after 17 September—perhaps the next day, perhaps when he got home to Maryland and put his papers away, perhaps years later.

And then at some further moment in time, McHenry went back into this document and added the footnote naming Powel. His writing was a little larger then. The reference to her as “Mrs. Powel of Philade.” suggests he had left that city.

I suspect that McHenry wrote down the anecdote in 1787, soon after the Convention ended. There’s no clue as to whether he witnessed the exchange himself or simply heard about it from Franklin or Powel or another direct witness. It seems unlikely that McHenry wrote down a story that lots of people were circulating because there don’t seem to be any other tellings.

As for the footnote, that might well date from years later when the anecdote and its source were being questioned.

McHenry’s diary was published in the American Historical Review in 1906. Five years later, Max Farrand quoted his stories in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. That made the anecdote close to canonical in our national history of the Convention, and many authors have quoted it since—though often with some unexplained doubt that it really took place.

There are some interesting points to consider about how authors retold and used the story in the 1900s, but first I want to discuss the preceding century. Google Book turned up no versions of the story from book published in the 1800s, leading me to think it was buried in McHenry’s papers until 1906.

But I found it was actually deployed—almost certainly by McHenry himself—in political debate during the Jefferson and Madison administrations.

TOMORROW: The anecdote resurfaces.

Friday, March 24, 2017

“Here lies ye Body of Dr Enoch Dole”

Earlier in the month I quoted a diary that mentioned the death of Dr. Enoch Dole during the final days of the siege of Boston.

Dr. Dole’s widow erected a striking gravestone for him in Littleton (shown in a photo by Carol A. Purinton, here courtesy of Wikipedia). At the top is a relief of a hand wielding a sword, an angel’s head, and the motto “Memento Mori.” Below that is this text, some words squeezed in by the carver:
Here lies ye Body of Dr Enoch Dole of Lancaster AE. 33 Years 5 months & 3 days, he unfortunately fell with 3 others ye 9th of March 1776, by a Cannon Ball from our cruel & unnatural Foes ye British Troops, while on his Duty on Dorchester Point.

No warning giv’n! Unceremonious fate!
A sudden rush from Lifes meredian joys.
A wrench from all we are! from all we love!
What a change
From yesterday!* Thy darling hope so near,
Long labourd prize!) O how ambition flushd
Thy glowing cheek! ambition truly great,
Of virtuous praise.
And Oh! ye last, last, what (can word express
Thought reach?) ye last, last silence of a friend.
Those lines of poetry are cobbled together, not always accurately, from Edward Young’s The Complaint, or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, a very popular poem in the late 1700s.

This is a rare gravestone that contains a footnote, attached to the asterisked phrase “What a change from yesterday!” The stone’s last line explains: “Meaning his Entrance into Boston which so soon took Place & on which his Heart was much sett.”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Fame of the Virginia Riflemen


As I discussed at an event last week, the Continental Congress voted to raise rifle companies for the Continental Army in June 1775 even before it chose a commander-in-chief.

The first plan called for two companies from Virginia, two from Maryland, and six from Pennsylvania. The response from western Pennsylvania was so strong that by the end of the month, the Congress added two more companies from that colony.

Thus, about two-thirds of the riflemen who came to Cambridge in the summer of 1775 were Pennsylvanians. That surprised me because I’d read so much about Virginia riflemen.

So I went to Google Book’s Ngram viewer to see if my impression was off. I searched for the frequency of the phrases “Virginia riflemen,” “Pennsylvania riflemen,” and “Maryland riflemen” in literature between 1775 and 1860, stopping the search then so it wouldn’t be confused by results from the U.S. Civil War.

As you can see from the results, “Pennsylvania riflemen” showed up more often soon after those companies were formed. But then “Virginia riflemen” took over. The next century brought a printing boom, and in the 1820s and from 1840 on those Virginian troops were marching far ahead of the men from the other two colonies.

I’m not sure what to make of that. Certainly the most successful and famous rifleman of the initial regiments was Gen. Daniel Morgan of Virginia. But Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was known for producing the actual rifles. Of course, John Adams would explain it by saying, “Virginian geese are always swan.”

In other riflemen research, at the Journal of the American Revolution Ian Saberton shared some sources about the marksmanship of those soldiers compared to British infantrymen. And here’s Hugh Harrington’s article on the work by David Rittenhouse and Charles Willson Peale to mount a telescopic sight on a rifle.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bullock on Polite Politics in Boston, 29 Mar.

On Wednesday, 29 March, Steven C. Bullock will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston on “Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America.” This presentation is based on his new book of the same name.
Even as eighteenth-century thinkers from John Locke to Thomas Jefferson struggled to find effective means to restrain power, contemporary discussions of society gave increasing attention to ideals of refinement, moderation, and polished self-presentation.

These two sets of ideas have long seemed separate, one dignified as political theory, the other primarily concerned with manners and material culture. Tea Sets and Tyranny challenges that division. In its original context, Steven C. Bullock suggests, politeness also raised important issues of power, leadership, and human relationships. This politics of politeness helped make opposition to overbearing power central to early American thought and practice.

Tea Sets and Tyranny follows the experiences of six extraordinary individuals, each seeking to establish public authority and personal standing: a cast of characters that includes a Virginia governor consumed by fits of towering rage; a Carolina woman who befriended a British princess; and a former Harvard student who became America’s first confidence man.
Steven Bullock is a professor of history at Worcester Polytechnic University. His previous work includes Revolutionary Brotherhood, a study of Freemasonry in the Revolution and early republic.

This event will take place from 6:00 to 7:00 P.M., with a reception beforehand starting at 5:30 P.M. There is $10 registration fee per person, with no charge for M.H.S. Members or Fellows. But of course all are expected to be on their best behavior.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Anishanslin on “A Woman in Silk” in Boston, 23 Mar.

On Thursday, 23 March, Zara Anishanslin will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society on the topic of her new book Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World. This event is part of the society’s series of lectures on “The Politics of Taste.”

As its title suggests, the starting point of this book is a portrait of a woman in a silk dress. Anishanslin explores that object through four people involved in creating it. In reverse order, they are:
  • painter Robert Feke of Newport.
  • sitter and patron Anne Shippen Willing of Philadelphia.
  • master silk weaver Simon Julins of Spitalfields, London.
  • pioneering fabric designer Anna Maria Garthwaite, also of London.
The painting thus connects four people on either side of the Atlantic. By exploring the worlds they moved in, the book lays out the commercial warp and aesthetic woof that helped to define genteel taste in the British Empire.

Zara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. She specializes in the study of material culture or, as her website says, she has “a thing for things.” Liz Covart discussed that approach to historical research with Anishanslin on this episode of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast’s “Doing History” series.

Admission to this lecture is $10, or free to M.H.S. Members and Fellows. The event starts at 5:30 P.M. with a reception. Prof. Anishanslin will speak at 6:00 and sign copies of her book afterward.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Colonial Comics at the Royall House, 22 Mar.

On Wednesday, 22 March, I’ll be part of a panel discussion with comics creators E. J. Barnes and Jesse Lonergan at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford.

We’ve all contributed to the two volumes of Colonial Comics: New England, whose main editor is Jason Rodriguez. Volume I told stories from the years 1620-1750, and the new Volume II brings the history up to 1775.

Both books feature an array of writing and illustration styles from many talented creators. They focus on lesser-known events that expose the fault lines of colonial society—“stories about Puritans and free thinkers, Pequots and Jewish settlers, female business owners and playwrights, gravedigging medical students, instigators of civil disobedience, college students, rum traders, freemen, and slaves.” Here’s a recent review of the first volume from Comics in the Classroom.

In volume 1, E. J. Barnes wrote and watercolored the story of Thomas Morton, an English settler in what’s now Quincy who was at odds with the Massachusetts Bay Puritans. She created portraits of historic figures for volume 2. She’s also the author of “Caroline’s Catalog,” about astronomer Caroline Herschel, and “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” based on a poem by Jonathan Swift.

Jesse Lonergan is the author of the graphic novels All Star, Flower and Fade, and Joe and Azat, as well as many short stories in comics form. For the second volume of Colonial Comics he and I created a story about watchman Benjamin Burdick working to solve a mystery about one of the victims of the Boston Massacre.

We’ll talk about how we created these stories, the choices we made historiographically and artistically, and the potential of the comics form, especially in schools.

This event is scheduled to start at 7:30 P.M. It is free for Royall House members, $5 for others. There will be copies of Colonial Comics and other publications available for purchase and signing afterward.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Rifleman in New York

When we left Sgt. Henry Bedinger in mid-March 1776 yesterday, he and his company of Virginia riflemen had been ordered to march from Boston to New York.

He continued his diary, preserving information about how many miles the riflemen could cover in an early spring day and about the stops along the way. (When Bedinger noted a person’s name instead of a town, that was the tavern where the company stayed overnight.)
16th. Marched off to Deacon Ben. Woods the Hartford Road. 20 Miles, the roads were so Excessive Bad the Teams Could Not follow us. Staid awhile in Westborough. Saw Some warlike Stores, viz 17 pieces of fine Canon, two Mortars & 1 Cohorn—
Gen. George Washington had also ordered some of his artillery force to New York.

The relatively short distance that the riflemen marched on 17 March might have been because that was a Sunday. Or they might simply have taken time to resupply themselves.
17th. Drawed 6 Days allowance of Beef & Pork. Thence Marched to Mr. Sherman’s—7 Miles. Rec’d Intelligence that the Enemy had evacuated the town of Boston on Saturday after we Left Cambridge. Left a number of Canon Spiked up and Many other Stores. Left the town in Great Haste.

18th. Marched to Shumway’s—15 1/2 Miles.

19th. Marched to Woodstock—12 Miles.

20th. Marched to Wilson’s—25 Miles.

21st. Marched from Wilson’s to Hartford—17 Miles. This being the Metropolis of Conecticut, a seaport Town, Situate on Conecticut River. Very pretty place. Saw Some Regular officers [i.e., British prisoners of war] Taken at St. John’s, &c.

22nd. Took in fresh provisions, &c—112 Miles to Boston.

23rd. Marched from Hartford to Wethersfield, 4 Miles, thence to Wallingsford 22 Miles—26 Miles.

24th. Marched to New Haven, a large Seaport Town Beautifully Situated on the Sound, a Number of Vessels in the Harbour, a Brigg of 14 Guns on the Sound, and a Schooner fitting out of 12 Ditto.—13 Miles. Thence Marched to Millford, a small seaport Town Just fifty Miles from Hartford.

25th. Thence Marched to Stratford River—4 Miles, thence to Fairfield, a County Town, a place of Trade and Seaport.

26th. Marched to Norwalk, a small Seaport Town—12 Miles, thence to Stamford, fresh provisions. &c—14 Miles.

27th. Marched through Horseneck to Rye—10 Miles, thence to East Chester in New York Government—10 Miles—20 Miles.

28th. Marched Over Kingsbridge to New York—20 Miles.

29th. Viewed the City, the Numerous Canon Ready fixed. Every Street Towards the Water in all parts of the Town fortified with Breastworks, &c. East, West, North, and South of the Town are Forts.

Saw the King’s Effigy on a Horse in his proper Size on a large Marble Pillar Beautifully Gilded, Stands in Broad Street Near the old fortification in a Yard that is all picketed in with Iron palisadoes. Likewise Lord Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, in Broadway Enclosed in Like Manner. Saw all the Large Buildings, the City Hall, Royal Exchange, all the Beautiful Churches.
I love the thought of Bedinger, soldier from western Virginia, sightseeing on Manhattan.

That “Beautifully Gilded” statue of George III would last less than five more months. After the Declaration of Independence was read in New York on 9 July, the crowd pulled it down and converted most of it into musket balls. A few parts of the statue survive at the New-York Historical Society, as does the remnant of that statue of William Pitt, first Earl of Chatham.

At the end of June 1776, the Virginia rifle companies’ first enlistment period ended. Sgt. Bedinger volunteered to stay on, promoted to lieutenant. But he was captured at the Battle of Fort Washington in November and kept prisoner for four years. In March 1779, Bedinger reassured his mother, “I am much hardened and Can undergo almost Anything.” He was right; he lived over sixty more years.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

“Rec’d orders to be Ready to March tomorrow at 10 O’Clock”

Here’s more of Sgt. Henry Bedinger’s diary of the last days of the siege of Boston.

As I described yesterday, Bedinger served in one of the Virginia rifle companies. Those troops were rotated on and off the Dorchester peninsula in early March 1776 to defend against possible British landing parties.

The Royal Navy approached on 5 March, but a ship ran aground and a big storm stopped that foray.
6th. Nothing appeared as If we were going to be attacked, Capt. [Hugh] Stephenson Ordered us to March off the point About Two O’Clock in the afternoon in View of the Enemy. About 5 O’Clock came two Companies of Riflemen from Cambridge and Relieved those Who had been on the point with us, the Enemies fired a few Shott Towards the New forts but to no purpose only Hurt 3 Guns and then Quit Firing Entirely—

7th. This Day is appointed a Day of Prayer by the Legislature of this Colony. All the Riflemen are ordered on the point by 9 Oclock in the forenoon, &c. Came off at 3 O Clock.

8th. This Day a Flagg of Truce Came from the Enemy with a petition from the Select men of Boston to Gen’l [George] Washington, & By the Consent of General [William] Howe, the purport of which was that if our forces kept firing on the Town or Bumbardin it he would move off and Burn the City—but If he Did not Fire he (General Howe) will not Burn the Town. It Seems he is Determined to Move off at Any Rate.
I discussed that message from the selectmen and Gen. Washington’s response to it here, here, and here. Bedinger’s diary entry shows that even though the general refused to acknowledge the message as a point of protocol, everyone understood the unspoken understanding it communicated.

A couple of days after that exchange, however, Washington decided the British weren’t moving fast enough. He ordered his men to fortify and arm the corner of the Dorchester peninsula nearest to Boston to create a bigger threat. That prompted more maneuvers and firing.
9th. Orders Came that the riflemen Should hold themselves in readiness to March at an Hour’s warning—

10th. about 2 Hours after Dark the Enemy Began to fire on a party of our men who were throwing up a Breastwork on the Nearest point to Boston on Dorchester. They fired from a Small Vessel from Boston Neck, from the wharf, from Fort Hill, &c. Supposed they Fired 1000 Shott as it Lasted the whole Night. Our people Fired into Boston from Roxberry. The Firings Continued all Night. We had 1 Surgeon [Dr. Enoch Dole] & Three men Kill’d.

13th. Rec’d orders to be Ready to March tomorrow at 10 O’Clock.

14th. Set off with our whole Company for Cambridge.

15th. Friday. Were ordered to March to New York. The whole Battalion of riflemen were Ordered to March Ditto. Marched 9 Miles to one Flagg’s.
Once it became clear that the British army would not try to break through the Continental siege lines, Gen. Washington had to think about what territory to protect next. Sending the rifle companies to New York meant they would be ready to defend that city’s shores from a similar assault. That meant Sgt. Bedinger never got to see the actual evacuation of Boston.

TOMORROW: The riflemen on the road.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Rifleman’s View of the End of the Siege

I’ve been writing about the Continental riflemen, and this is the anniversary of the British evacuation of Boston in 1776. So here is a rifleman’s view of the end of the siege.

Henry Bedinger (1753-1843) of Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia), was a sergeant in one of the Virginia rifle companies. Those and the Maryland riflemen were stationed on the southern wing of the Continental Army in Roxbury. And fortunately for us, Bedinger kept a diary.

March 2d In the Night of the 27th of Feb’y John Curry, one of our Riflemen Deserted to the Enemy, Took with him his Messmates Gunns, Shot Pouch &c, &c. This Day was two more Canon Fired at the Enemy Nearer Roxberry Street—

3d Last Night were thrown Bumbshells Into Boston the first Time, first from Lechmore’s point, thence from Roxberry Fort, Two Mortars were Brought into the fort, the one By Great Misfortune was Broke to pieces in throwing the first Shell, and unfortunately wounded Two Men, tho’ not Very Bad—Orders Came out to prepare for an Engagement—

4th Orders Came out to go on Dorchester Point and Intrench, two Rifle-Companies from Cambridge were ordered here. In the Evening as soon as Sun Down our Teams Began to Load with Intrenching Tools, Spears, Canon, about 100 Teams to Carry Facines and pressed Hay, accordingly 2000 men and upwards went and Began the work and about 1 O’Clock our five Companies of Riflemen Marched on, when the Others had already made Two Compleat Facine forts on the Top of the Two Hills, made Two Redoubts and a Cover along the Neck with hay.

We marched a Little Beyond the Forts and posted ourselves behind a hill Near the water Edge where we Remained as Silent as possible. Mean Time our Forts Fired Shot and Threw Bombs into Boston from Brookline, from Lichmore’s point & Cobble Hill. They were no Less busy In throwing as many Bomb Shells and Shott as we, which made no Small Noise, one Canon Ball Struck a Lieutenant [John Mayo] in the Back part of the thigh Next to his knee as he Stept out of the Door of a house in Roxberry from which wound he Died in about 4 hours—

5th. About 3 O’Clock the first 2000 men were Relieved by 3000 & upwards, who all Began to work at Intrenching and made Great progress: before 8 In the morning the Canon were fixed In Both the Forts and Redoubts, a Vast number of Barrels of Dust and Sand were Set around Each fort on the Top of the Hills in order to Roll Down to Break the Ranks of the Enemy If they offered to attack us, the Riflemen Lay Still at the hill.

(The) General Requested they should (remain) another Night and Untill the Tide went out on the Next Day which Capt Stephenson Consented to who Commanded the five Companies provided the Gen’l would send us another Day’s provision which he did Next Morning.

Towards the Evening a Schooner went out of the harbour toward the Castle But Run a Ground & the Tide Left her there pretty Near the Shore. Some of the Artillery Men with a small Brass Field piece went Down from the Hill to fire upon her, Accordingly they fired three Shott when through Great Misfortune the piece went off too soon, and Took off One Man’s hand and put out one Eye—At the Same Instant there Came Down to her Relief Two Brigs of war, so that put an End to our firing on the Schooner.

This Night we Expected an Attack but there arose Such a storm Towards Day that it was Impossible for them to Land, the men worked on Bravely and we Lay Still.
Shifting fresh troops onto the Dorchester peninsula to relieve those who had built and defended the fort was one reason that operation went more smoothly than the move onto the Charlestown peninsula the previous June. But the Continentals also had the good luck of that storm stymieing the counterattack. As of 6 March, the British command had decided on leaving.

TOMORROW: The riflemen move.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

“The rifle company divided and executed their plan”

Here’s a description of one of the Pennsylvania riflemen’s first actions in the Revolutionary War, as described in a letter written from Cambridge on 31 July 1775.

Indeed, there’s reason to believe this letter was written from the commander-in-chief’s headquarters, where I’ll speak about the riflemen tonight, by either Joseph Reed or Thomas Mifflin.

This letter was extracted along with others in the 9 August Pennsylvania Journal:
In the evening orders were given to the York county rifle company, to march down to our advanced post on Charlestown Neck, to endeavour to surround the enemy’s advanced guard, and to bring off some prisoners; from whom we expected to learn the enemies design in throwing up the abbates on the Neck.

The rifle company divided and executed their plan in the following manner: Capt. [Michael] Dowdle with 39 men filed off to the right of Bunker’s Hill, and creeping on their hands and knees, got into the rear of the enemies centries, without being discovered.—

The other division of 40 men, under Lieut. [Henry] Miller, were equally successful in getting behind the centries on the left, and were within a few yards of joining the division on the right, when a party of regulars came down the hill to relieve their guard, and crossed our rifle men under Capt. Dowdle, as they were lying on the ground in an Indian file.

The regulars were within 20 yards of our rifle men before they saw them, and immediately fired. The rifle men returned the salute; killed several, and brought off two prisoners and their musquets, with the loss of Corporal Crouse, who is supposed to be killed as he has not been heard of since the affair.
Cpl. Walter Cruise had actually been taken alive. He was locked up in the Boston jail, then taken to Halifax when the British evacuated, and kept prisoner until early 1777. For his trouble Cruise got a promotion in the Continentals, eventually becoming a captain.

The photo above, from Waymarking, shows a plaque in York, Pennsylvania, commemorating the muster of Capt. Doudel’s rifle company before they set out for Boston.