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, February 25, 2021

Thorson on “Stone Walls on Minute Man,” 27 Feb.

On Saturday, 27 February, the Friends of Minute Man National Park will host its free Winter Lecture, this time beamed through the walls of our own homes.

This year Prof. Robert Thorson will speak about “The Stone Walls of Minute Man National Park.” Those walls are of course an icon of New England’s agricultural past.

After the battle of Lexington and Concord, many British officers and officials commented on the provincial militiamen using stone walls for cover. Historian and Member of Parliament Edward Gibbon, for instance, wrote: “Our troops during the march and retreat were chiefly harassed by flying parties from behind the stone walls along the road and by many shots from the windows as they passed through the villages.”

James T. Austin’s 1828 biography of Elbridge Gerry may be the earliest publication of Benjamin Franklin’s supposed response to people in London mentioning that detail as evidence of American cowardice: “I beg to enquire, if these same walls had not two sides to them?”

Whether or not that’s true, the Continental Congress delegate Charles Carroll credited Franklin with a parodic song published in the 27 Nov 1775 Boston Gazette called “The King’s Own Regulars.” Written in the voice of the redcoats, it includes this couplet:
Of their firing from behind fences, [Gage] makes a great pother,
Ev’ry fence has two sides; they made use of one, and we only forgot to use the other.
Back to Prof. Thorson’s talk. Thorson is a geologist who has authored several books on stone walls. He has an intimate knowledge of the walls of Minute Man Park through his work on various projects there, notably at the Old North Bridge, Parker’s Revenge, and Bloody Angle locations.

Folks will be able to view this lecture via Zoom, through the Minuteman Media Network website, or in Concord and Carlisle live on cable channel 99. It is scheduled to run from 2:00 to 3:30 P.M. on Saturday.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

“Adventurous Wives” Conference via Chawton House

Chawton House is an Elizabethan manor once owned by Jane Austen’s brother. It houses the research library of the Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600–1830.

In that capacity, Chawton House will host an online conference on 14-15 May 2021 on the theme of “Adventurous Wives in the Long Eighteenth Century: or, Virtue Reconsidered.”

While some of this program was planned for last year and postponed, organizers Alison Daniell and Kim Simpson have reopened the call for papers. This call also gives a sense of what one might expect at the conference:
In Charlotte Lennox’s 1752 novel, The Female Quixote, an eighteenth-century Countess is horrified when she is asked by the romance-obsessed heroine to relate her ‘adventures’, professing:
‘The word adventures carries in it so free and licentious a sound in the apprehensions of people at this period of time, that it can hardly with propriety be applied to those few and natural incidents which compose the history of a woman of honour.’
The idea that during the long eighteenth century virtuous wives were increasingly relegated to the domestic/private sphere, their legal and economic identities subsumed into that of their husbands, is a long-standing one. However, recent and ongoing research is challenging the orthodoxy of this narrative and demonstrating that the roles available to married women were more complex, nuanced and dynamic than mainstream assumptions have generally allowed.

For example, Elaine Chalus has explored women’s engagement with politics and the electoral process; Joanne Begiato’s examination of the divorce process has shed light on the lived experience of married women; Amy Louise Erikson has interrogated the laws relating to women’s property ownership; and Briony McDonagh has examined inter alia how landowning wives managed the combined duties of married life and estate management.

However, research specifically relating to ‘wives’ is often buried amongst the wider topic of ‘women’, and cross-disciplinary patterns and conclusions relating purely to married women may be lost or go unrecognised.
Drs. Daniell and Sampson therefore invite papers that ”bring these revisionist narratives together and examine the role(s) of the wife as seen through the fields of literature, social and economic history, law, art history and material culture.” In particular, they note these topics:
  • The economic and financial autonomy of women following marriage
  • Feme sole traders
  • The visibility of single versus married women in the literature of the period
  • Wives’ involvement in politics and public life
  • Working wives
  • Women and the divorce process
  • Inheritance and the transmission of property through the female line
  • Trusts, property ownership and separate estate
  • Wives as educators
  • Conduct literature and wives
  • The married woman as literary heroine
  • Quasi-marriages and kept Mistresses
  • The married female body
  • Material culture, fashion and taste
  • Housewifery
  • Wives as guardians of morality and social order
  • The historiography of the wife: change or continuity?
Interested scholars should submit abstracts of up to 500 words with a short bio (including one’s time zone) to the conference organizers at adventurousc18wives@gmail.com by 1 March 2021.

Drs. Daniell and Sampson hope people will “pre-record their talks, submitting them by 15 April.” At each session, those presentations will be played, followed by live questions and answers and discussion. (That’s one way of ensuring presenters remain within their allotted time.) Conference updates will come through @AdventurousWiv1 on Twitter.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

“Perpetual Memorial” from the Paul Revere House, 5 Mar.

Last March we commemorated the Sestercentennial of the Boston Massacre.

There was a big gathering at the Old South Meeting-House with remembrances of each victim. There were book talks and signings. There were many reenactment scenarios around the center of Boston, both before and after our dramatic recreation of the shooting near the original site.

And of course there was the Covid-19 virus. The news and health guidelines were both still hazy, but I remember elbow handshakes, hand sanitizer, and feeling grateful that was a mainly outdoor event.

Now, shameful revelations and half a million American deaths later, we know we have to be more strict about public gatherings. There will be no Massacre reenactment in 2021.

However, the Paul Revere House has organized an online Sestercentennial commemoration of how the silversmith illuminated his house on 5 March 1771 to keep alive the memory of the violent deaths in Boston the previous winter.

I’ve quoted the sources on how Revere illuminated pictures in his windows in 1771, and how those pictures were moved to windows overlooking the shooting site in the following years.

In announcing “‘A solemn and perpetual memorial’: A 250th Anniversary Reimagining of Paul Revere’s Boston Massacre Illuminations,” the Paul Revere House says:
On March 5, 1771, Paul Revere used his recently purchased home to keep the memory of the Boston Massacre and opposition to the British occupation in Boston fresh with a series of three illuminations displayed in the windows facing North Square.

According to contemporary reports, thousands streamed by his house in silence to witness the spectacle which was a key link in the Revolutionary chain between the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.

Our virtual program offers footage of a local artist’s reimagining of the illuminations, descriptions from period newspaper accounts, and an in-depth panel discussion with Revere engraving expert Prof. Nancy Siegel and Boston Massacre scholar Prof. Serena Zabin to add context and color to this incredibly significant event.
Folks can sign up for the online program here. There is a suggested donation of $10. All people who register by 6:30 on 5 March will receive a link to the YouTube premiere of this event and also be able to watch the recording of it later.

Monday, February 22, 2021

“Mentor” Remembers the Massacre

Before February ends, I need to note one event from this month 250 years ago.

On 11 Feb 1771, the Fleet brothersBoston Evening-Post ran as its first front-page item a letter signed “Mentor.” It recalled the previous year’s Boston Massacre and repeated the Whig arguments against standing armies and quartering troops in a populous town.

The author then offered a new idea:
I therefore propose it to the understanding and discreet, as well as the zealous, friends of liberty and mankind, that a regular plan be formed for an annual & solemn remembrance of the 5th of March.

I would speak my own mind on this occasion with freedom, tho’ with becoming diffidence. And I own, that in my present view of the matter, it seems to be expedient to exclude, the reverend and worthy gentlemen of the Clergy from being concerned in any part of the exercises of the day. This proposed exclusion does not arise from any aversion to that useful order of men, or from any doubt of their learning, integrity or fortitude. But I conceive that this celebration ought to be considered and conducted solely with a reference to civil society and domestick policy. And it is in general, perhaps, of little advantage to true religion, or good government, that the clergy should interfere in matters purely temporal, and wholly affecting social compacts and political oeconomy.

It may therefore be proper to chuse two persons to deliver (one in the forenoon and the other in the afternoon) a dissertation on—THE POLICY OF STANDING ARMIES; AND THE NATURAL TENDENCY OF QUARTERING REGULAR TROOPS IN POPULOUS CITIES IN TIME OF PEACE.—This choice should be at such a convenient time as to give the speaker opportunity to mature his thoughts, digest his arguments and form his diction.

By this means, it is likely the performance will be devoid of crude sentiments and inelegant language; and if the audience are not instructed with a sensible, judicious and useful disquisition on so important subjects, yet their time will not be wholly misemployed in giving countenance to those efforts of genius, which may throw some new ray of light upon those sciences, the knowledge of which can never be too generally diffused, or too universally inculcated.—But might we indulge the pleasing hopes, that on these occasions some rising worthy, some genius yet unborn, will pervade the mazy system and perplexed labyrinth of fraud and usurpation;—that will rescue one right from the jaws of power, and restore one liberty to oppressed mankind;—how would the flattering thought inspire our hearts—how would grateful millions bless the institution!

Many benefits resulting from this plan, I decline pointing out; of some plausible objections I am aware, but do not think myself obliged, at present, to obviate them. I have offered my sentiments in a manner becoming a good citizen:—they claim, I trust, some small attention. What is proposed with decency is intitled to candid treatment; but ill-placed ridicule, illiberal and censorious dogmatism, never promoted the cause of GOD or man.
It’s striking that “Mentor” was Josiah Quincy, Jr., the young lawyer whose role in the Boston Massacre had been on the defense teams for Capt. Thomas Preston and the eight British soldiers. He had helped to clear most of those men.

Quincy might have made his public proposal to shore up his standing as a Whig. But how many people knew he made it? Harbottle Dorr’s copy of this issue of the Evening–Post has “J. Quincy” written at top of the “Mentor” letter, but not in Dorr’s usual style and therefore perhaps a later addition. 

It’s striking that Quincy was very clear on what Boston’s Massacre orations should not be. Not a sermon, as much as the town liked a good long religious discourse glancing at the current events. The Massacre arose from a political problem, Quincy felt, and it deserved a wholly political response.

But Quincy was also concerned about ensuring that the orations “be devoid of crude sentiments and inelegant language,” to be “mature.” Was he concerned that some planned public commemorations or some Whig colleagues would be too populist and incendiary?

And what about the article’s wish that orators be chosen “at such a convenient time as to give the speaker opportunity to mature his thoughts”? Was Quincy warning fellow Bostonians that they should hurry up and ask someone because the anniversary was less than a month away, or was he worried about someone less “mature” offering to speak anytime?

The text of the “Mentor” letter is from the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s publication of Quincy’s writings, available here.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Dealing Out the Cards at the B.P.L.

Earlier this month, the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts department announced that it had finished scanning its entire card catalogue and uploading the result to the Internet Archive.

“With this project now complete,” the department’s blog said, “information about nearly every manuscript in the BPL’s collections is available online in at least some form — a major first.”

Curator and cataloguer Jay Moschella explained further on Twitter:
The BPL manuscript card catalog is a collection of almost a quarter million index cards, each of which describes a specific manuscript or collection of manuscripts that the BPL holds. . . .

John AdamsBoston Massacre notes, Boston’s early town records, the Frederick Douglass letters, the William Lloyd Garrison papers and the anti-slavery collection — all are parts of BPL’s overall manuscript collections. Think of the card catalog as a *blueprint* to all this. . .

Each card in the catalog was typed by hand and describes a single item in the collection. Taken as a whole, the manuscript card catalog represents well over a century (100 years!) of painstaking work by BPL librarians.
The cards have been digitized as images, not sent through an optical character recognition system to be converted into 98%-accurate searchable text. That means finding what one might be interested in investigating further requires treating the card catalogue like a, well, card catalogue. You choose a topic, usually a proper noun; go to the right drawer alphabetically; and then thumb through the cards to one that catches your eye.

Those cards have varying levels of detail to alert users into what the actual manuscript holds. For example, here’s a letter from the young lawyer Christopher Gore in 1780, talking about how Boston had been frozen in and discussing prisoner of war exchanges.

Here’s Gore’s father, John Gore, Sr., billing John Hancock for painting his—or rather his aunt Lydia’s—carriage in 1765. I’ve actually looked at that document. That carriage was vermilion.

And speaking of Hancock’s carriage, here’s another bill he received, this one from carriage-maker Adino Paddock in December 1774. That’s interesting because by that time the Boston Patriots were ostracizing Paddock (and the older Gore, a good friend) for siding with the Crown. Yet until recently Hancock had still been doing business with him.

Some of the papers came into the collection through the Boston town government, such as Richard Clarke’s 5 Nov 1773 letter saying he really can’t cancel his order of East India Company tea.

Others reflect private correspondence. Nearly all the documents filed under the name of William Molineux involve the bankruptcy of Nathaniel Wheelwright as Molineux became one of the agents of Wheelwright’s brother-in-law and principal creditor, Charles Ward Apthorp.

Again, these cards don’t transcribe the manuscript but describe them in greater or less detail. For researchers looking for all clues about particular people, or planning a trip when the pandemic ends, being able to flip through those descriptions outside the library will be a great convenience.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

“Leslie’s Retreat” Commemorations, 21 Feb.

On 21 Feb 1775, Dr. Benjamin Church secretly told Gen. Thomas Gage that “Twelve pieces of Brass Cannon mounted, are at Salem, & lodged near the North River, on the back of the Town.”

Gage was hunting for the brass cannon of the Boston militia train, which had disappeared from armories under redcoat watch the previous September. He therefore ordered Lt.-Col. Alexander Leslie to lead an expedition to Salem on Sunday, 26 February.

That mission got the name “Leslie’s Retreat,” which shows how well it well for Lt.-Col. Leslie. It’s an episode in many books, including The Road to Concord. I’m pleased with two contributions to the story:
  • showing the event through the eyes of nine-year-old Samuel Gray.
  • debunking the familial claim that John Pedrick was crucial to spreading the alarm; he was actually a Loyalist at the time.
In recent years, Salem has revived the celebration of Leslie’s Retreat, not as a period reenactment like some others but as a community event. Unfortunately, the pandemic makes all such events harder.

This year, the Leslie’s Retreat coalition has various ways to commemorate set up for Sunday, 21 February, all designed for safely distanced households.

2:30-2:45 P.M.
City-wide Bell Ringing
And general noise-making.

3:00-4:00 P.M.
Bridging the Divide: Civil Conflict, Violence, and Negotiation in 1775 & Today
An online conversation among historians Robert Allison, Peter Charles Hoffer, and Chenoh Sesay, Jr., moderated by Diana Dunlap. Register to listen here.

As People Choose
Traveling the Leslie’s Retreat Trail
There are two routes mapped, 3.0 and 5.3 miles long, which individuals and families can walk or run when the weather is amenable. One could even award oneself a badge.

As for Lt.-Col. Leslie, he was promoted to general in 1776 and saw action in many campaigns of the war, ending up as the last British commander of Charleston, South Carolina.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Meeting the Scollays Together

In December the Shelburne Museum in Burlington, Vermont, purchased John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mercy (Greenleaf) Scollay (1719-1793).

Unknown to the seller, at least at first, the museum already owned Copley’s matching portrait of Scollay’s husband, John Scollay (1712-1790).

Here’s the backstory recounted by Enfilade, the newsletter of the Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art & Architecture:
Completed in 1763, Mrs. Scollay’s portrait demonstrates Copley’s talents and abilities as a painter as evidenced through the beautifully rendered fabric draped around the sitter.

Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb assembled the American paintings collection with the intention of juxtaposing well-known artists such as Copley with lesser-known itinerant or ‘folk’ painters. She purchased the portrait of John Scollay from Harry Shaw Newman at the Old Print Shop in New York City in 1959. The Museum’s extensive collection of American paintings tell a story about how the fine arts developed and came of age in the United States, and the reunion of these pendants continues to enrich the narrative.
To celebrate the Scollays’ reunion on canvas and explore that acquisition, the director of the Shelburne Museum, Tom Denenberg, delivered an online talk which is now available on the museum’s website and Facebook page.

Denenberg’s talk might overstate Scollay’s political activity in a couple of directions. He was a member of the Boston merchants who often opposed Parliament’s new revenue laws and he served many years as a selectman, including during the siege of Boston. In that way Scollay was a “Son of Liberty,” but we shouldn’t view him as a radical; he was part of the establishment. In addition, as chair of the selectmen he was merely first among equals, not equivalent to a mayor.

The most distinct aspect of Scollay’s political career, I think, is how he was a selectman from 1754 to 1764 and then from 1772 to 1790. Why the break? Because he was caught up in the financial failure of Nathaniel Wheelwright in 1765 and had to declare bankruptcy and rebuild his estate. The fact that he succeeded and was able to return to the selectmen as the board’s senior member reflects how his neighbors must have respected him.

Copley produced another pair of portraits of the Scollays as well, in pastel instead of oil. That picture of Mercy Scollay is at the Harvard Art Museums, the picture of John at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Turtles All the Way Down

This advertisement appeared in the 13 Oct 1761 New-York Gazette.

Here are some tasty extracts from Washington biographer Alexis Coe’s conversation with Prof. Mary Draper about the background behind this ad:
Mary: In the 18th century, colonists throughout British America loved eating turtle. No one compared it to chicken (that I know of), but people routinely likened it to venison or veal. Merchants would ship live turtles in the hulls of vessels — alongside the other goods they bought and sold in the Atlantic world. They kept them alive by dousing them with salt water every few days.

When these vessels cruised into port, their arrival was cause for celebration. Merchants took out ads in local newspapers. Tavern keepers announced turtle feasts. And members of the early American elite attended “turtles” — elaborate parties where guests dined on turtle meat and caroused late into the evening. . . .

Alexis: The turtle escaped the day before it was to be cooked and eaten! What drama! But why is “CW” on the turtle’s shell? I hope it was painted, but I’m guessing it was carved.

Mary: Sometimes, these turtles were destined to specific people from the moment they were loaded onto a vessel. A local merchant might solicit a ship captain, asking him to acquire a turtle. Or someone living in a more tropical location might ship a turtle to friends elsewhere in the Atlantic world. When this happened, the turtle was marked with the recipient’s initials. I’ve come across other ads and letters that mention these markings and, sadly, they seem to be carved.

In 1776, The Pennsylvania Evening Post chronicled the capture of a ship sailing from Jamaica to London during the Revolutionary War. On board, there was a turtle to be delivered to Lord North, the British Prime Minister. His name was “nicely cut into the shell.” . . .

Alexis: Tell me everything you know about the turtle’s great escape.

Mary: First, we have to talk about crawls. Once turtles were off-loaded from vessels, they were placed in a crawl. This was an enclosed fence-like structure that was partly underwater. It allowed innkeepers and merchants to keep the turtles alive until the moment they were dressed. But they weren’t the most secure containers. Storms and high tides…could flood crawls and give turtles the perfect opportunity for escape. Hopefully, this turtle made its way back to the Atlantic Ocean, but we’ll never know.
More details and pictures at Coe’s website.

For more turtle content, here’s a P.D.F. download of Megan C. Hagseth’s doctoral dissertation ”Turtleizing Mariners: The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Consumption of Large Testudines in 16th- to 18th-Century Maritime Communities,” with numerous illustrations and newspaper extracts.

And here’s the Sea Control podcast episode in which Walker Mills interviews Dr. Sharika Crawford of the United States Naval Academy about her new book, The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation and Boundary Making.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

“One idea shared by just about every author of the Constitution”

From David Frum’s essay “The Founders Were Wrong about Democracy” in The Atlantic Monthly:

If there was one idea shared by just about every author of the Constitution, it was the one articulated by James Madison at the convention on June 26, 1787.

The mass of the people would be susceptible to “fickleness and passion,” he warned. They would suffer from “want of information as to their true interest.” Those who must “labour under all the hardships of life” would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” Over time, as the population expanded and crowded into cities, the risk would only worsen that “the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority.”

To protect property from the people—and ultimately, the people from themselves—the Framers would have to erect “a necessary fence” against “impetuous councils.” A Senate to counterbalance the House of Representatives, selected from a more elite few and serving for longer terms, would be one such fence. The indirect election of the president through an Electoral College would be another. A federal judiciary confirmed by the Senate and serving for life would provide one more. And so on through the constitutional design.

The system of government in the United States has evolved in many important ways since 1787. But the mistrust of unpropertied majorities—especially urban unpropertied majorities—persists. In no other comparably developed society is voting as difficult; in no peer society are votes weighted as unequally; in no peer society is there a legislative chamber where 41 percent of the lawmakers can routinely outvote 59 percent, as happens in the U.S. Senate. . . .

American anti-majoritarians have always promised that minority privilege will deliver positive results: stability, sobriety, the security of the public debt, and tranquil and peaceful presidential elections. But again and again, those promises have proved the exact opposite of reality. In practice, the privileged minority has shown itself to be unstable and unsober. . . .

The architects of the Electoral College imagined that indirect election would ensure a careful and thoughtful decision “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of the presidency], and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice,” as Alexander Hamilton wrote in “Federalist No. 68.” The mass of the people might be distracted by a lying, vulgar, criminal demagogue, but the select few of the Electoral College would be undeceived by such wiles. They would choose the candidate of dignity and worth over the candidate who crudely appealed to rancor and resentment.

Except, of course, that’s precisely the opposite of what happened in 2016, when the plurality of ordinary citizens made the sensible choice, and the anti-majoritarian Electoral College installed a flimflam man in the Oval Office.
Frum concludes that our republic should leave behind the self-serving prejudices of eighteenth-century gentlemen and resume the gradual democratization Americans enjoyed in the twentieth century. It’s not just a matter of fairness, he argues. It’s also necessary for stability and prosperity. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

“Revolutionary Harbor” Discussion, 17 Feb.

On Wednesday, 17 February, the National Parks of Boston and Boston Harbor Now will host an online discussion on “Revolutionary Harbor: The Transatlantic World of Peter Faneuil,” about the role of slavery in shaping Boston’s eighteenth-century economy.

Peter Faneuil was one of the town’s richest merchants in the first half of that century, honored for giving money that went to building the earliest version of Faneuil Hall.

Much of Faneuil’s inheritance and business was rooted in chattel slavery, either from supplying the sugar-producing slave-labor camps of the Caribbean or from bringing more kidnapped African people to the New World. In that, he wasn’t unusual among leading New England merchants; his family was simply wealthier than most.

Last October, the National Parks of Boston, the city of Boston, the Museum of African American History, and the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project installed a marker at the end of Long Wharf recognizing Boston’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade.

One side, headed “Coming from the Sea,” describes the trade in people in and out of Boston harbor. The other side, which one sees while facing the city, spotlights Crispus Attucks, Phillis Wheatley, Prince Hall, and Paul Cuffee as notable New Englanders of African descent.

It doesn’t look like Peter Faneuil’s name is on that marker, nor the name of any other individual slave trader or slave-camp supplier. Ironically, then, those merchants appear as a faceless mass—precisely what slavery and many decades of historiography reduced the captive Africans to. But in this case, anonymity might erase those men’s individual choices to participate in that trade.

Faneuil’s name remains, of course, on Faneuil Hall, nicknamed the “Cradle of Liberty,” which some people a paradox. I discussed the  potentials of renaming that building last September.

This discussion diving deeper into Peter Faneuil’s mercantile world is due to start on Wednesday at 7:00 P.M. and to run until 8:15. Register in advance here.