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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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Celebration of 1774 in Worcester, 7 Sept.

Worcester will celebrate the county’s uprising against the royal courts in September 1774 this Sunday, the 7th. Here’s the complete schedule as of early last month.

Games and Crafts for Children — The Oaks
Big Bear Trading Company — Institute Park
Food and Beverage — Institute Park
Militia Musters, Firings, Colonial Life — Institute Park
Quilting, Rug Braiding, Spinning, Weaving — The Oaks
Genealogy Society of Worcester Information Booth — Institute Park
Lineage Society Booths and Demonstrations — Institute Park
1774 Historical Documents on Display — American Antiquarian Society
Colonial Cart and Staging — North Main Street
Presentations on Colonial History — Institute Park
Self-guided Audio Tours of Historic Worcester — Main Street and Surrounds
Worcester Women’s History Project - Quilling — Institute Park

10:00 A.M.
Grave marking for Revolutionary Soldiers — Rural Cemetery

11:00 A.M.
Interpreter: Isaiah Thomas — American Antiquarian Society
Revolutionary Worcester Bus Tour (90 Minutes) — Humboldt & Salisbury Street
Sir Jeremy Bell - Comedy and Music — Tuckerman Hall

12:00 P.M.
Worcester in 1774 Presentation — Salisbury Mansion
Historical Society Presentation — American Antiquarian Society
Sir Jeremy Bell - Comedy and Music — Tuckerman Hall
Self-guided Audio Tour of Historical Worcester — Main Street & Surrounds

1:00 P.M.
Interpreters: Mr. & Mrs. Bigelow — Salisbury Mansion
Presentations by Historical Society — American Antiquarian Society
Salisbury Singers — Tuckerman Hall
Revolutionary Worcester Bus Tour (90 Minutes) — Humboldt & Salisbury Street
“Chains of Liberty” (play premiere) — First Congregational Church

2:00 P.M.
Discussion with Robert Bachelder — First Congregational Church
Jolly Rogues Quartet — Institute Park
Presentations by Historical Societies — Salisbury Mansion
Self-guided Audio Tour of Historical Worcester — Main Street & Surrounds
Salisbury Singers — Tuckerman Hall

3:00 P.M.
Self-guided Audio Tour of Historical Worcester — Main Street & Surrounds
Jolly Rogues Quartet — Institute Park
“Chains of Liberty” (play premiere) — First Congregational Church

4:00 P.M.
Reenactment - Walking the Gauntlet — North Main Street

Now you see that line I put in boldface, the talk at the Salisbury Mansion at noon? Originally Ray Raphael was going to deliver that. As author of The First American Revolution, he wrote the book on what went down in Worcester in September 1774.

But Ray had to bow out of this trip on doctor’s orders, so as of last week I’m going to speak in his place. My approach will be to put the Worcester event in the context of all that was going on in Massachusetts that month. I’m thinking of calling that talk “The Near-Total Breakdown of Royal Rule in Massachusetts, September 1774.”

Monday, September 01, 2014

Channell on “Revolutionary Sailors” in Quincy, 3 Sept.

On Wednesday, 3 September, the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy will host a talk by Fred Channell on the topic “Discover Historic New England: Revolutionary Sailors.” The event announcement says Channell “will present his research about his family members who fought in Boston Harbor during the Revolutionary War.”

It looks like Channell is a descendant of the subject of this item in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register from 1859:
Death of an Aged Man.—Abram Fitz-John Channell died at Georgeville, C.E., on the 9th instant, aged about one hundred and ten years. He was born in Shefford, Bedfordshire, Eng., and was apprenticed to Harris Varden, tailor, Whitehorse Yard, Drury lane, London. At eighteen years of age he was impressed, and made one or more cruises on board an English man-of-war. He then engaged in the merchant service, and in the course of a few years found himself in Chebaco Parish, Ipswich, Me., where for many years he successfully carried on the business of tailoring and hotel keeping. He resided for many years in that part of Ipswich now called Essex. From Essex he removed to his late residence in Canada. He was a man of great activity, energy and enterprise, and his uniform habits of temperance doubtless contributed many a year to his long life. He had descendants of the fifth generation whom his own eyes have looked upon, and whom his arms have held.—Journal, January 21, 1858.
According to cemetery records, Channell died at the age of 107, meaning he was probably born in 1750. Later American sources said he fought on the Continental side in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in June 1776 and the Rhode Island campaign the next year. But that information didn’t make this Canadian obituary.

Fred Channell published a book about his ancestor last year called The Immortal Patriot. In addition to the lives of Revolutionary-era sailors, it’s said to discuss “grave robbing, lake monsters, strange religions, and smuggling.” His event is scheduled to last from 7:00 to 8:30 P.M.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams’s Revolution

According to Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, the wire-worker and former town crier, he:

  • was six years old when the Stamp Act protests occurred, eleven in the year of the Boston Massacre, fourteen during the Tea Party, and sixteen in the first year of the war.
  • helped the Sons of Liberty, reportedly by guarding the door when they had their meetings along with other boys.
  • somehow served the Continental side during the Revolutionary War.
  • conducted a prisoner from Worcester to Boston Jail during the Shays Rebellion.
  • Ended up with a large striped banner that had been flown from a pole beside Liberty Tree when Boston’s Sons of Liberty had their meetings, which has since become known as the “Sons of Liberty flag.”
It’s good to know more now about this Samuel Adams’s life in the early 1800s, when he was a prominent character in Boston, but there’s still a frustrating dearth of information and evidence about his Revolutionary activity. I’d love to have a first-hand account of what it was like to be a teenager during the years leading up to the break with Britain. But the scraps Adams left simply offer more questions.

Liberty Tree was felled late in the summer of 1775, during the siege of Boston. That means this Samuel Adams’s connection to the tree has to date from his teens, well before he came of age. By what means did he become the keeper of the Sons of Liberty’s flag?

All signs point to Adams having grown up in the North End. Liberty Tree was far down in the South End. Rivalry between North End and South End gangs turned violent on most Pope Nights. So how easy would it have been for Adams to guard a door down on Essex Street?

Almost all the reports of a flag on the pole at Liberty Tree, mostly from the late 1760s, describe it as an ordinary British or “Union flag.” A Customs report said it was a “red flag,” which could have meant a red banner with the Union canton. No one described a flag with five red and four white stripes, which would have begged for interpretation.

When the Sons of Liberty raised their flag on their tall flagpole, sticking out above a tall elm tree, they were calling for a public meeting. They wanted masses of people. Often those gatherings were outdoors at the tree. The flag was not associated with closed-door strategy sessions that might need guarding.

Recent examination of the “Sons of Liberty flag” has found that it’s made from machine-woven cloth, which was rare in the 1760s and not made in America. Since a big part of the Boston Sons of Liberty tactics was to promote a boycott of goods imported from Britain, would they have chosen a rare British cloth for their banner?

Some descendants of this Samuel Adams said that he was the private of that name that Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors lists as serving in Capt. Josiah Harris’s company, Col. William Bond’s regiment, in late 1775. All we know about that Samuel Adams is that he joined up in Charlestown, like many of the regiment’s other men. But Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors has more than three pages of listings of men named Samuel Adams.

“Rat-trap” Adams lived long enough to apply for a federal pension based on Revolutionary service. We know he sought money from the state. But no Samuel Adams of Suffolk County appears on the lists of federal pensioners, and no one seems to have found an application from him describing his military experiences. So did he not serve long enough to qualify under any of the pension laws?

All told, Samuel Adams’s Revolution, how he came to possess the “Sons of Liberty flag,” and the origin of that flag remain shrouded in mystery. He and the banner definitely appeared at Boston historical commemorations and political rallies in the mid-1800s. They thus symbolize the radical reformers’ claim on the city’s Revolutionary heritage, along with every other political grouping. But “Rat-trap” Adams hasn’t convinced me we can say more than that.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Samuel Adams’s Petition to the Legislature

Yesterday I mentioned a New England Historical and Genealogical Register obituary for Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams after his death in 1855. After giving some details about his parents it said:
At the time of the Revolution he was old enough to perform services in that cause, which he did, on the patriot side. About five years ago he applied to the General Court for remuneration for some losses which he sustained in the service. There were those in that body disposed to slight his application, but the Hon. J. T. Buckingham [a state senator from Suffolk County in 1850-51] effectually brought a majority to sustain it, and a small appropriation (probably more than was asked for) was granted for the relief of the truly deserving old citizen. In sustaining the application, Mr. Buckingham paid a well merited tribute to the honest old gentleman, whose peculiarities in matters of religion and politics, though admitted, were not allowed to debar him from his just rights.
Now that looks like a lead! A statement from Adams about his work “in the service” of the “patriot side” during the Revolution. A written statement in the most formal of circumstances, with potential legal ramifications if it were found to be exaggerated. A document that might still be on file in the state archives.

Alas, that anecdote turned out to be untrue in several respects. Adams did petition the Massachusetts legislature for support in 1850. But his claim was “for compensation for bringing a prisoner from Worcester to Boston jail, during Shays’ rebellion, 68 years ago,” according to the 25 February Daily Atlas. That would have been 1782, though the uprising in western Massachusetts actually happened in 1786-87.

Furthermore, while Buckingham may have been behind the favorable vote in the Massachusetts senate, which approved giving Adams $100, the bill aroused opposition in the Massachusetts house. An acidic letter from Boston published in the Barre Patriot on 15 February said:
If they give him money, why not vote as much more to the lady in Lexington who is now 102 years old, and needs it more than a hale man of only 90, or thereabouts. She succored the wounded in the Revolution.
So I had to look for that lady. She was Mary (Munroe) Sanderson, who died in 1852, less than a month after a private party raised $300 for her.

Back to Samuel Adams’s bill. The lower house discussed it twice before letting it die. Adams renewed his petition the next year. The committee on claims recommended paying him $100—but once again the bill died.

Newspapers in 1852 and 1853 refer to more rejected petitions from Samuel Adams. By that time Buckingham was no longer in the senate. The published journal of the Massachusetts House shows that in January 1854 yet another Adams petition “for compensation for services rendered during ‘Shay’s Rebellion’” was introduced, given leave to be withdrawn (i.e., rejected) the next month, reconsidered, and rejected again.

The Massachusetts State Library has just launched what it calls DSpace, offering digital copies of many public documents, including the Acts and Resolves for each year showing what bills did pass. And a search through those files shows that Samuel Adams never got special compensation for his work in 1782. Or 1787. Or whenever.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Looking for Samuel Adams’s Family

I’ve been writing about Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, a well-known character in Boston who died in 1855. He was honored as a survivor of the Revolution, and he owned a red and white striped flag that he said had been flown from a pole on Essex Street beside Liberty Tree.

Adams’s 1855 death notices say he was ninety-six years old, implying he was born around 1759. But I haven‘t found a period record of his birth or baptism. Boston vital records were unfortunately spotty.

The New England Historical and Genealogical Register has published two items about “Rat-trap” Adams’s ancestry, both hearsay rather than original records, but at least they’re starting-points.

In the mid-1800s a man named John Haven Dexter wrote in a copy of the 1789 Boston directory beside the name of Samuel Adams, a “truckman” on “Elliot-street”: “the well-known Wire Worker, brother of Abraham—was the father of Mrs. Wm. Fenno, confectioner and keeper of a Hotel.—Died [blank]. He kept a wharf bottom Cross Street 1794.—Town Crier 1800.” The same directory listed Abraham Adams as a leather-dresser.

And shortly after Adams’s death the Register published a death notice that said: “Mr. Adams was a wire-worker by trade, and born at the North End, as we have heard from himself. His father (Benjamin) was of the Newbury family of Adams, and his mother was Abigail, dau. of Capt. Caleb Kendrick, of West Newton.”

Both Boston and Newton vital records show Benjamin Adams and Abigail Kenrick married in 1747. A 1753 mortgage to James Bowdoin identifies Benjamin Adams as a cordwainer, or shoemaker. The 11 Nov 1788 Massachusetts Gazette ran a death notice for Benjamin Adams, aged sixty-four (other papers said sixty-five), and said that the funeral would be from the home of his son Abraham Adams on Newbury Street. Abraham Adams was a leading leather-dresser in Boston at the end of that century, dying in 1806 at age fifty-six. So those two Register statements fit together with period sources.

Complicating matters, the Newton records also show a Benjamin Adams marrying Sarah Burridge (or Burrige or Burrage) in 1755. A Genealogical History of Robert Adams, of Newbury, published by a descendant in 1900, assumes that’s the same Benjamin Adams. That author concludes that Abigail died before 1755 and that Samuel’s mother was Sarah, his father’s second wife. Notably, that book also says “Rat-trap” Adams died in 1796, which we know is untrue, and that his children were born in Newbury rather than Boston. Weighing the evidence, it looks like two different men named Benjamin Adams came to Newton and married two different women eight years apart. As for that book’s statement that Samuel was born 7 June 1759, it would be nice to know the source since its other statements are so unreliable.

There’s a stone in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground (shown above, courtesy of Find-a-Grave) memorializing Abigail and Eunice, wife and infant daughter of Benjamin Adams, who died 17 Jan 1764. That matches a town report of “Mrs. Adams” contracting smallpox. So was that Samuel’s mother, dying when he was four years old? The Register did say Adams claimed to have been born in the North End, where that burying-ground is.

The 1796 Boston directory lists Samuel Adams as a “truckman and lighterman”—someone in the business of moving goods, either in trucks or in small barges. That matches with his reported ownership of a wharf. By 1800 Samuel was listed as “town-crier” and living at “No. 71 Newbury Street.” Abraham was at number 72. There’s also a record of them doing a real-estate transaction together in 1798.

We do have records of:
  • Samuel Adams’s marriage to Catherine Fenno on 8 Mar 1781.
  • Catherine’s baptism at Old South on 6 Feb 1763, making her eighteen at her wedding.
In addition, the genealogy mentioned above lists their children as Benjamin Franklin (1782), Catherine (1783), Catherine Noyes (1785), Nancy (1787), John Fenno (1789), Samuel (1791), Elizabeth (1793), and Harriet (1796). Boston records show Catherine Noyes Adams married her cousin William Fenno in 1806.

Unfortunately, what I’m really looking for is a record of Samuel’s birth. Boston’s published town records and the Churches of Boston CD-ROM don’t contain any baptism or birth records for Benjamin Adams’s family.

As it is, we have only Samuel Adams’s own statements in the mid-1800s about how old he was. That number did creep up for some other survivors of the Revolution. George R. T. Hewes believed he was over one hundred when he revisited Boston, and he was still in his early nineties. Newspapers said Samuel Whittemore was ninety-nine when he died, and he was really ninety-six. A few years’ difference doesn’t mean much when you’re ninety, but it means a lot when you’re in your teens. Samuel Adams’s stories about being part of political meetings in pre-Revolutionary Boston would be hard to believe if he was only, say, eleven years old in 1773 instead of fourteen.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams’s petition to the state.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Samuel Adams on Samuel Adams

Yesterday I mentioned James Spear Loring’s Hundred Boston Orators, an oft-reprinted collection of profiles of prominent Bostonians from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As his biographical subjects Loring chose the men who delivered public orations in Boston on the anniversary of the Massacre, Fourth of July, and other notable dates.

Gov. Samuel Adams never actually delivered such an oration. He wasn’t a powerful public speaker, preferring to make his arguments in print and to organize political strategy. But that Adams was so important that Loring had to discuss him along with the orators.

In that discussion, Loring interviewed the younger Samuel Adams, the wire-worker known for speaking at town meetings in the early 1800s and for being old enough to have lived through the Revolution. The resulting passage said:
Samuel Adams was emphatically the man of the people; and the editor, who has had conversation with his namesake, the ancient towncrier, now ninety-two years of age and with clear memory, was informed that Adams once remarked to him,—“We, the people, are like hens laying eggs; when they hatch, you must take care of the chickens. You are a young man, Samuel, and as you grow old, you must abide by our proceedings.”

At another time, our political patriarch observed to him,—“It is often stated that I am at the head of the Revolution, whereas a few of us merely lead the way as the people follow, and we can go no further than we are backed up by them; for, if we attempt to advance any further, we make no progress, and may lose our labor in defeat.”

Samuel Adams was ever at the head of Boston deputations before the Revolution, and conducted the correspondence with patriots in remote places; or, to adopt the language of the venerable town-crier, “Samuel Adams did the writing, and John Hancock paid the postage.”
Those quotations, especially the second, seem to reflect the younger Adams’s democratic politics. But they also seem characteristic of the older Adams. John C. Miller quoted the second quotation in his 1936 biography while the wire-worker’s remark about Adams and Hancock became “a popular saying” in S. A. Drake’s Our Colonial Homes (1894).

TOMORROW: So what did Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams do in the Revolution?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

“Rat-trap Adams’s argumentation”

(I keep finding mid-nineteenth-century stuff about Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, putting off my promised discussion of his youth in the Revolutionary period. But I’ll get to that topic eventually.)

In changing their form of government from a town to a city in 1822, Bostonians deprived political orators without office like Samuel Adams of a forum. (In fact, that might have been one goal of the change.) But he could still speak at other gatherings, or outdoors.

For decades Bostonians remembered Adams and some other town-meeting regulars. In fact, in 1842 he became internationally known with this stanza from the parodic “Rime of the Ancient Pedler” published in The Great Western Magazine in London:
And then burste out a thundering shout;
I thought the earth was quaking.
Such a clatter sounds in Funnell-Halle
When rat-trap Adams tries to bawle,
And the cits for funne immensely squalle,
Their sides with laughter shaking.
Ten years later, James Spear Loring published The Hundred Boston Orators, which profiled most of the town’s statesmen from the Revolutionary and Federalist periods. The Boston Transcript published a response by “A Friend of Neglected Genius,” claiming to make the case for two more well-known orators. That essay was reprinted in the 23 Oct 1852 Cambridge Chronicle, which has been digitized.

The “Friend” wrote:
A perfect book is an impossibility. It is not surprising, therefore, that the able and industrious Editor of “The Hundred Boston Orators” has overlooked two of our public speakers who have high claims on the admiration of posterity. He has exhumed from the grave of the past many orators whose efforts were forgotten in a month after delivery; but he has neglected to mention two gentlemen who during the last half century have often delighted the “solid men of Boston” with their exquisite fancy, and instructed them with their profound wisdom. As I write the names of William Emmons and Samuel Adams, (not the “Sam Adams” of revolutionary fame,) what a throng of recollections rise to my memory! I seem once more to hear the walls of Faneuil Hall echo with the stirring eloquence of the one, and to catch upon the breeze that floats across our beautiful Common the silver tones of the other. . . .

When the roguish boys in the streets impolitely shouted “There goes old Rat-trap Adams,” they unconsciously did reverence to that extraordinary force of logic which in his public efforts attracted and surrounded as with a net-work of iron, whosoever came within the sound of his voice. Like a rat within a trap, the auditor could find no escape. It was easy to enter within the magic circle of his oratorical power, but impossible to escape from its thraldom. . . .

the calm steady flow of Rat-trap Adams’s argumentation [suggested that he had]…fasted for a day and a night that his mind might be clear and calm. . . . the ponderous logic of Adams, like the two-handed sword of the Lion hearted Richard, crushed whatever came in its path. . . .

My memory runs back to the days of my boyhood when I sometimes had the privilege of enjoying the private discourse of Mr. Adams. In the moments which were not devoted to public affairs he indulged the mechanical turn of his mind so far as to amuse himself by manufacturing divers articles of wire-work. He had a peculiar fancy for making rat-traps of that material. One of these dangled as a sign in front of the shop in which, for the accommodation of his fellow-citizens, he caused the products of his skill to be vended. This shop was kept in the first story of his mansion, in Federal street, near Milk street; a building which has long since been razed to the ground. For the benefit of the youth who were partial to piscatory pursuits, Mr. Adams constantly kept an assortment of canepoles in his yard; and I well remember often visiting his establishment after school hours and negotiating for the purchase of a fishing-rod.

Upon such occasions the venerable man (for Mr. Adams has seen the snows of ninety winters) was wont to address us urchins on the political topics of the day. My comrades, as well as myself, were more fond of achieving some practical joke at the good man’s expense than at profiting by his lessons of wisdom; and I have never forgiven myself for the levity which prompted me one warm summer afternoon to place a piece of cobbler’s wax upon the chair, just as he was taking his favorite seat. The consequences, when he endeavored to rise with his subject, were exceedingly embarrassing to Mr. Adams; and his feelings were still further wounded by the personally facetious comments of my thoughtless companions.
Cobbler’s wax was notoriously sticky in that circumstance.

It’s striking that the “Friend” shared those reminiscences when Adams was still alive. He didn’t die until three years later. On 30 Mar 1855 William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator ran a small piece headed “Death of a Veteran.” It said of Adams:
He was a participant in the Boston scenes of the Revolution. He has always been a radical in his political ideas, and an atheist in his religion. Latterly he has been associated with Mrs. Abby Folsom, and his venerable form has been conspicuous in spiritual and other conventions. He was a skilful and industrious mechanic, says the Post.
Most Abolitionists didn’t see associating with Abby Folsom (c. 1792-1867, shown above in a political cartoon) as a plus. She had become notorious in the 1840s for interrupting gatherings, including church services, anti-slavery meetings, and public debates about the new Mormon church, with long, semi-coherent speeches followed by complaints that her freedom of speech was being abridged. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Josiah Quincy, and others thought she was damaging to the cause, as well as personally annoying. Even after trying to see past the entitlement of Victorian gentlemen, I can’t help but suspect that Folsom was a bit mad. According to Kathryn Griffith, Adams wanted Folsom to have his “Liberty Tree Flag.”

As for the “spiritual” conventions where Adams had lately been “conspicuous,” Spiritualism had spread from upstate New York alongside reform movements and other religious ideas. Adams’s interest suggests that he wasn’t really “atheist” but just not interested in any existing church.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams on Samuel Adams.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wire-Worker Adams at Boston’s Last Town Meetings

The wire-worker Samuel Adams was a prominent character in nineteenth-century Boston, as Kathryn Griffith described in her recent profile for the Bostonian Society.

He started the century as town crier before going into the business of manufacturing screens and other wire objects. Later he became an indefatigable voice on the political left.

In 1884 James Mascarene Hubbard delivered a paper to the Bostonian Society about Boston’s transition from town to city in the early 1820s. His description of a town meeting in Faneuil Hall over the turn of the year 1822 offers glimpses of this Samuel Adams, as filtered through the Daily Advertiser:
[On whether to relabel Boston as a city.] Finally a hearing was obtained for Mr. Samuel Adams, wire-worker, that is, a maker of rat-traps, and late town-crier, who made a characteristic speech amid malicious “cries of Louder” although the orator appeared to labor excessively at his lungs. His opening words were, “Fellow citizens, you must consider me as on the brink of an eternal world,“ [Adams was then in his early sixties, but he would live three more decades] and the burden of his speech was, “Names is nothing. Only let us have Boston, and I care not what you call it.” Later on in the debate, which from this time took a more serious turn, he “rose and moved that the word ‘Boston’ be added to the word ‘city,’” to the great merriment of the assembly. . . .

[On what to call the new city’s top official.] Mr. Adams made a fresh appearance in the character of a New England Dogberry. “He was opposed to the term Mayor. A mare is a horse, and he had as lief be called a horse or an ass as a mare. He preferred the name President. There was dignity in the sound. He should count it an honor to be called President, but had he the wisdom of Solomon and the riches of the East, he would not accept the office to be called a Mare.” . . .

[On whether to hold elections in the neighborhoods or at Faneuil Hall.] As the irrepressible Adams puts it: “Many persons can’t attend here. For instance a journeyman who is in your employ. They feel so delicate in your employ, they are afraid of offending you. They are the sinners [sinews] of the State.” . . .

On the clause authorizing the City Council to sell or lease the property of the city,…Mr. Adams [was heard] to say, among other things, that “a new set of men might get together under the capacity of selling city property.” . . .

Our final quotation shall be from a speech by Mr. Adams, whose office as Town-crier seems to have given him a power and persistence of lungs which no cries of “Question” could overcome. “I would examine the act,” he exclaimed; “Like David of old, I would not give sleep to my eyes nor slumber to my eyelids until I had pondered it well. I have done it, have lain awake all night ruminating on these here things.”
Hubbard suggested that Adams belonged in a group he called ”mushroom town-meeting orators, and weak heads.” He showed more respect for upper-class figures, including such men as Benjamin Russell, William Tudor, James T. Austin, future mayor Josiah Quincy, and S. A. Wells, descendant and biographer of the other Samuel Adams.

Boston’s business elite had been pushing to incorporate the town as a city like New York since the early 1700s. The populace had long pushed back, preferring the town-meeting form of government, which didn’t turn over power to just a few elected men.

Wire-worker Adams appears to have been suspicious about concentrating power, to judge by his support for neighborhood elections and poorly expressed worry about a conspiracy to sell public property. But he also seems to have been fairly resigned to the change. Boston had grown to more than 40,000 people, nearly three times its size when he was a boy, and a city charter may have seemed necessary.

Ironically, by 1835 the term “wire-worker“ became a synonym for “wire-puller”—someone who manipulated politics or government from behind the scenes. Samuel Adams was a real wire-worker, and he never seems to have held significant power, despite all his efforts.

TOMORROW: What did this Samuel Adams do in the Revolution?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Samuel Adams the Wire-worker

In two postings on the Bostonian Society’s blog, Kathryn Griffith just profiled Samuel Adams the wire-worker, source of the striped cloth in the society’s collection that’s become known as the “Liberty Tree Flag.”

Harris wrote about this man:
Samuel Adams was born in 1759, reportedly in the North End, to a book-binder named Benjamin Adams and his wife Abigail. Samuel had an older brother, Abraham, who became a leather-dresser and a well-respected citizen. Samuel married Catharine Fenno in Boston in 1781. They had 8 children together, including a son named for Benjamin Franklin, and a daughter, also Catharine, who married William Fenno, and through whose descendents the flag passed to John Fernald.

Adams moved around quite a bit according to the Boston city directories and the advertisements he placed in newspapers. He had several occupations during his lifetime; in fact it seems he came late to wire-working. In the 1790s Adams owned a wharf at the end of Cross Street from which he sold various goods. In the early 1800s he became the town crier, and printed a number of interesting advertisements announcing things he had found throughout the town. As a wire worker, his business was known as the Sign of the Flying Man and Fender Manufactory, and his advertisements included beautiful designs of his work. His work in wire also earned him the nickname, “Rat-Trap Adams,” by which he was known affectionately (or not, depending on the source).
Because Adams was a minor public figure, his nineteenth-century life is fairly well documented. Indeed, his death in 1855 was reported across the country. One California newspaper ran this notice:
Death of a Veteran Citizen.—Mr. Samuel Adams, one of the oldest inhabitants of Boston, died at his residence on the 21st March, at the advanced age of about 96 years. The Traveller says: “He was a witness, and no doubt sometimes a participant, in the many exciting street scenes which occurred in Boston previous to the actual commencement of hostilities. He had in his possession as a relic of those glorious days, a flag which was hoisted on the liberty pole near Essex street, and which has of late been frequently displayed in this city. Mr. Adams was a mechanic—a wire worker by trade, and followed his business until within a few years. In religious matters he was an atheist, and in olden times a close attendant upon all town meetings and public gatherings, where his rather ultra democratic sentiments caused his opponents to taunt him with being a ‘French Jacobin.’”
Unfortunately, this Samuel Adams’s eighteenth-century activities, and his connection to Liberty Tree, are much less certain.

TOMORROW: Young Samuel Adams.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What Will Happen with the Sawin House?

Back in 2012, I noted that there was a discussion about tearing down the Sawin House in Natick.

The oldest parts of that building are said to date back to 1696 and the first English settlers in that town, which was originally set aside for Native American converts to Christianity. The building also has a connection to the Lexington Alarm, though that’s more tenuous.

The house is now inside a MassAudubon wildlife sanctuary, and that organization says that preserving the structure is not within its mission.

This past week Brian Benson reported for the local newspaper that the Natick selectmen had deadlocked over competing proposals and would probably turn the question over to the full town meeting.
The Historical Society has proposed taking materials from the Sawin House, which is on South Street in MassAudubon’s Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, and reconstructing in Shaw Park on Rte. 16 a section of the home resembling its appearance when Europeans settled the area.

But, the proposal has sparked controversy with some people arguing the society’s plan would take the home out of its historical landscape and take away open space. Others have said it would help showcase the town’s history and protect part of a building that could otherwise continue to deteriorate.
The plan to move the house would alter the use of Shaw Park and alter the historic structure from how it exists today, and those changes would require approval from various levels of government. That’s unlikely to happen unless the community reaches a consensus on what it wants. But it doesn’t appear to be an easy question.