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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Monday, April 22, 2019

“At wch time they took from him his gun”

Over at Historical Nerdery, Alexander Cain found a new source about the fight of Lexington: the claims that militiamen from that town made to the Massachusetts legislature seeking compensation for items lost in the skirmish.

Specifically, they complained about having lost guns. Cain writes:
As we reviewed the legislature’s response to these petitions, we discovered several claims from Lexington militia men or their family asserting that in the aftermath of the battle, British troops looted the dead and wounded of their arms and equipment.

For example, John Tidd asserted “on the 19th of April he received a wound in the head (by a Cutlass) from the enemy, which brought him (senceless) to the ground at wch time they took from him his gun, cartridge box, powder horn &c.” Thomas Winship, who was wounded in the engagement, sought compensation for a “sum of one pound for shillings in full for a gun lost in the Battle of Lexington.”
And there are other examples as well.

As Cain notes, these petitions suggest that the Lexington militiamen weren’t lightly armed, as some authors assumed. Some had bayonets. They also depict the British soldiers grabbing weapons from the ground after the shooting, making it safer for them and their comrades to pass by.

Sometimes when I see the Massachusetts government respond to such petitions for property lost in battle, I suspect that the payments aren’t really driven by the value of the property. Instead, the legislature might have seized on that channel as a simple way to recompense petitioners for other sorts of sacrifices. There were no pensions established for veterans or survivors yet.

About one example, Cain writes:
Lieutenant William Tidd, who also escaped the engagement unharmed, submitted a petition asserting his “losses by the Kings troops on the 19th of April 1775 … [included] ... a musket cut as under &c.” In a deposition years later, Tidd recalled being chased from the green by an officer on horseback. He claimed “I found I could not escape him, unless I left the road. Therefore I sprang over a pair of bars, made a stand and discharged my gun at him; upon which he immediately turned to the main body, which shortly after took up their march for Concord.”

It is possible Tidd lost his possessions as he hurdled over the fence. As for the “musket cut as under”, this appears to be a reference to a damaged gun. Whether this occurred at the battle or later in the day is unknown.
It’s indeed mysterious how Lt. Tidd could have effectively shot his musket at the mounted officer if it had been cut asunder. It’s also possible, I can’t help but note, that by 1824 Tidd’s story of driving that officer away had improved over time.

TOMORROW: The mounted officer’s story?

Sunday, April 21, 2019

More Glimpses from the Lexington Parsonage

Yesterday I quoted the recollections of Dorothy Quincy about her experiences at the Lexington parsonage on 19 Apr 1775, where she was staying as fiancée of John Hancock.

As recorded in 1822 by William H. Sumner, the widow Dorothy Scott described the aftermath of the battle this way:
Mrs. Scott was at the chamber window [i.e., upstairs] looking at the fight. She says two of the wounded men were brought into the house. One of them, whose head was grazed by a ball, insisted on it that he was dead; the other, who was shot in the arm, behaved better. The first was more scared than hurt.
In 1912 the Lexington Historical Society published another woman’s memory of that morning in the parsonage. This came from Elizabeth Clarke (1763-1844), the Rev. Jonas Clarke’s oldest daughter, writing to a niece in 1841:
this day which is sixty six years since the war began on the Common which I now can see from this window as here I sit writing, and can see, in my mind, just as plain, all the British Troops marching off the Common to Concord, and the whole scene, how Aunt [Lydia] Hancock and Miss Dolly Quinsy, with their cloaks and bonnets on, Aunt Crying and ringing her hands and helping Mother Dress the children, Dolly going round with Father, to hide Money, watches and anything down in the potatoes and up Garrett, and then Grandfather Clarke sent down men with carts, took your Mother and all the children but Jonas [1760-1828] and me and Sally [1774-1843] a Babe six months old. Father sent Jonas down to Grandfather Cook’s to see who was killed and what their condition was…
The hiding of valuables and wringing of hands probably preceded the arrival of the redcoats, though the appearance of those soldiers and the shooting must have increased the anxiety.

Back to Dorothy Scott:
After the British passed on towards Concord, they received a letter from Mr. H. informing them where he and Mr. [Samuel] Adams were, wishing them to get into the carriage and come over, and bring the fine salmon that they had had sent to them for dinner. This they carried over in the carriage…
Back in Lexington, the minister and his family eventually turned to look after the community:
…in the afternoon, Father, Mother with me and the Baby went to the Meeting House, there was the eight men that was killed, seven of them my Father's parishoners, one [Asahel Porter] from Woburn, all in Boxes made of four large Boards Nailed up and, after Pa had prayed, they were put into two horse carts and took into the grave yard where your Grandfather and some of the Neighbors had made a large trench, as near the Woods as possible and there we followed the bodies of those first slain, Father, Mother, I and the Baby,

there I stood and there I saw them let down into the ground, it was a little rainey but we waited to see them Covered up with the Clods and then for fear the British should find them, my Father thought some of the men had best Cut some pine or oak bows and spread them on their place of burial so that it looked like a heap of Brush.
Clarke’s recollection didn’t include anything about the British returning to Lexington from both east and west—Col. Percy and his relief column arriving from Boston at the same time the remnants of Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s expedition made it back from Concord. That occurred about 2:30 P.M.

In his biography The Patriot Parson of Lexington, Richard P. Kollen posits that the Clarkes kept hidden until the combined British forces had withdrawn to the east and then went to the meetinghouse to view the bodies around 4:00.

Other sources say that the weather on 19 April wasn’t even “a little rainey” but cool and dry. It’s possible that the wet interment Betty Clarke remembered occurred on the next day, or that her memory combined a couple of events. Three more Lexington men were killed in the afternoon fighting, and the town also had a British soldier to bury.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

A Musket Ball “whizzed by old Mrs. Hancock’s head”?

In 1822, William H. Sumner visited Dorothy Scott, the widow of John Hancock.

Before going to bed, Sumner wrote down notes on their conversation. That memorandum was published in the New England Historic and Genealogical Register in 1854.

About the first shots on Lexington common on the morning of 19 Apr 1775 Sumner wrote:
Mrs. Scott says the British fired first, she is sure. This was a point much contested at the time, and many depositions were taken to prove the fact that the British were the actual aggressors.

One of the first British bullets whizzed by old Mrs. Hancock’s head, as she was looking out of the door, and struck the barn; she cried out, What is that? they told her it was a bullet, and she must take care of herself.
Was Lydia Hancock (shown above) really almost hit by a musket ball from Lexington common?

From the end of the common, where the British troops were standing, one could look down a road to the parsonage. (The barn no longer stands, and I have no idea where it was.)

However, the distance between those spots is more than a quarter-mile. As Michael Barbieri documents in this Journal of the American Revolution article, eighteenth-century experts agreed that a “musket shot” was 300 yards—which is significantly longer than most modern authorities say.

Now that 300 yards was based on firing from a leveled musket, so it’s conceivable that an elevated shot would travel farther. But then it would have come down at an angle as well—unlikely to be whizzing by the head of a lady at the door of a house and then hitting a separate barn.

Of course, it’s possible that Lydia Hancock heard something strike the barn and then felt certain it had whizzed by her head. Or that Dorothy Scott’s recollection of the first shots at Lexington became more dramatic than it actually was.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Ebenezer Lock at Lexington

Ebenezer Lock (1732-1816) was at Lexington on the morning of 19 Apr 1775. He’s often listed among the militiamen on the town common that day, but with an asterisk, because he wasn’t really.

Lock lived in Woburn and was enrolled in that town’s militia company. He had many ties to Lexington, including worshipping at its meetinghouse, so he must have lived nearby and was interested in what happened there.

In 1824 Amos Lock, Ebenezer’s first cousin and Woburn neighbor, testified about how the two of them experienced the outbreak of war. Amos said that he heard an alarm bell between 2:00 and 3:00 A.M., and knew John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying in Lexington.
Therefore Ebenezer Lock and myself, both being armed, repaired, with all possible speed, to the [Lexington] meetingthouse. On our arrival, we found the militia were collecting; but, shortly after, some person came up the road with a report, that there were not any regulars between Boston and Lexington.

Consequently we concluded to return to our families. We had not proceeded far, before we heard a firing; upon which we immediately returned, coming up towards the easterly side of the common, where, under the cover of a Wall, about twenty rods distant from the common, where the British then were, we found Asahel Porter, of Woburn, shot through the body; upon which Ebenezer Lock took aim, and discharged his gun at the Britons, who were then but about twenty rods from us.

We then fell back a short distance, and the enemy, soon after, commenced their march for Concord.
Ebenezer Lock moved to Wendell, New Hampshire, by 1790. His body was interred in East Deering, and Lexington historian Bill Poole reports that locals honored his grave even more than other veterans because of his role at Lexington. Supposedly he was the first provincial to fire a shot in the war!

Lock fired the first shot that he and his cousin saw, but that clearly came after the initial “firing.” There were probably a few militia muskets mixed in with the regulars’ guns in those seconds, not even to mention the question of where the very first shot came from.

In April 1859, the Historical Magazine ran a more dramatic account of Ebenezer Lock’s activity on 19 Apr 1775, unsourced but probably based on family or New Hampshire local tradition:
The first American who discharged his gun on the day of the battle of Lexington was Ebenezer Lock, who died at Deering, N.H., about fifty years ago. He resided at Lexington in 1775. The British regulars, at the order of Major [John] Pitcairn, having fired at a few “rebels” on the green in front of the meeting-house, killing some and wounding others, it was a signal for war. “The citizens,” writes one, might be seen coming from all directions, in the roads, over fields, and through the woods—each with his rifle in his hand, his powderhorn hung to his side, and his pockets provided with bullets.

Among the number was Ebenezer Lock. The British had posted a reserve of infantry a mile in the direction of Boston. This was in the neighborhood of Mr. Lock, who, instead of hastening to join the party at the green, placed himself in an open cellar, at a convenient distance for doing execution.

A portion of the reserve was standing on a bridge, and Mr. Lock commenced firing at them. There was no other American in sight. He worked valiantly for some minutes, bringing down one of the enemy at nearly every shot. Up to this time not a shot had been fired elsewhere by the rebels.

The British, greatly disturbed at losing so many men by the random firing of an unseen enemy, were not long in discovering the man in the cellar, and discharged a volley of balls, which lodged on the walls opposite. Mr. Lock within, remaining unhurt, continued to load and fire with the precision of a finished marksman. He was driven to such close quarters, however, by the British on the right and left, that he was compelled to retreat.

He had just one bullet left, and there was now but one way to escape, and that was through an orchard, and not one moment was to be lost; he levelled his gun at the man near by, and shot him through the heart. The bullets whistled about him. Lock reached the brink of a hill, dropped his gun, and throwing himself upon the ground, tumbled downwards, rolling as if mortally wounded. In this way he escaped unhurt.
Needless to say, that’s not what Ebenezer Lock’s cousin had testified to thirty-five years before. Bill Poole suggests there may be some basis for this story in Lock’s activity later in the day, after the Woburn companies had mustered and helped to counterattack the British column as it returned east. Even so, the tale has clearly undergone some improvements for later audiences.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Capt. Thomas Barnard and the Signal from Old North

Last spring I wrote a bunch of postings about the debate over who hung the signal lanterns from Old North Church on 18 Apr 1775, John Pulling or Robert Newman.

My conclusion: They were both involved, and in fact the earliest stories told by their descendants each mention another man, who was probably the other claimant. There’s no need for a debate.

However, a third name comes up in those accounts: sea captain Thomas Barnard. This posting is an attempt to sort out his place in the historiography of the event.

A 30 Dec 1873 Boston Traveler article (quoted here) credited sexton Robert Newman with hanging the lanterns and mentioned his “friend, a sea captain, who was watching the movement of the regulars.” That same article said (following the Longfellow poem) that Paul Revere was on the opposite shore of the Charles, which elevated Newman’s role but was wrong.

When the Rev. John Lee Watson first complained that Newman was being honored for the work he’d grown up hearing credited to his relative John Pulling, he wrote to the rector at the church. The Rev. Henry Burroughs wrote back noting how multiple people supported the Newman family account, including (as Watson put it in his letter in the 20 July 1876 Boston Daily Advertiser):
William Green, who lives at the North End, is the grandson of Captain Thomas Barnard. His sister, eighty-four years old, remembers Robert Newman.
The Barnard name thus came up first as someone whose grandchild remembered Newman. There was no claim to the man’s own role in signaling the Patriots of Charlestown.

Two years later, in his History of Paul Revere’s Signal Lanterns, April 18, 1775, William Willder Wheildon expanded on that story:
Miss Maria Green, living in Weston, born in 1793, is a daughter of William Green, who lived in Boston, near the North Church, where also her grand parents resided. She heard many times from her mother the story of the lanterns, and says, “I distinctly remember that she said her father, Capt. Thomas Barnard, was engaged on that night in watching the movements of the troops in order to obtain for Robert Newman the necessary information concerning their departure. Our family were familiar with the story of hanging out the lanterns owing to the connection of Capt. Barnard with it, and we never heard the act ascribed to any other person than Robert Newman, or to any other place than Christ Church.”

Mr. Green, a brother of the lady above mentioned, who died recently in Boston, is known to have made a similar statement.
Thomas Barnard’s grandchildren thus claimed that he was part of the story of 18-19 April, but only in watching the British troops (as many Bostonians had). They also suggested that Newman himself gathered information on the troops’ movements rather than taking direction from Dr. Joseph Warren through Revere.

Thomas Barnard was a ship’s captain who lived at one point on Middle Street. He was active in Boston maritime life and business until his death at age sixty-two in 1803. He may have been the Capt. Thomas Barnard who commanded the New York packet, often mentioned in the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap’s letters because he was always sending things to friends there. (This Barnard is distinct from the Rev. Thomas Barnard of Salem who played a big role in “Leslie’s Retreat”; to confuse matters further, that minister’s meetinghouse has also been called “the old North Church.”)

In the twentieth century Thomas Barnard’s role in the lantern-hanging shifted—without, as far as I can see, any new evidence coming to light. In Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942), Esther Forbes wrote of the lantern-hanging:
One of the vestrymen at Christ’s, John Pulling, went with Newman, as probably did Revere’s neighbor, Thomas Barnard.
In a note Forbes added, “What Revere’s next-door neighbor, Barnard, was doing is even vaguer [than details about Pulling and Newman], but tradition says he did something.”

Fifty years later, in Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), David Hackett Fischer described this scene in detail:
On the afternoon of April 18, Revere alerted Newman and Pulling, and also another friend and neighbor, Thomas Bernard [sic], and asked them to help with the lanterns.

It was about 10 o’clock in the evening when Paul Revere left Dr. Warren’s surgery. He went quickly to the Newman house at the corner of Salem and Sheafe streets. As he approached the building, he peered through the windows and was startled to see a party of British officers who boarded with Mrs. Newman playing cards at a parlor table and laughing boisterously among themselves. Revere hesitated for a moment, then went round to the back of the house, and slipped through an iron gate into a dark garden, wondering what to do next.

Suddenly, Newman stepped out of the shadows. The young man explained that when the officers sat down to their cards, he pretended to go to bed early. The agile young sexton retired upstairs to his chamber, opened a window, climbed outside, and dropped as silently as a cat to the garden below. There he met Pulling and Bernard, and waited for Revere to arrive.

Revere told his friends to go into the church and hang two lanterns in the steeple window on the north side facing Charlestown. He did not stay with them, but hurried away toward his own home. The men left him and walked across the street to the Old North Church. Robert Newman tugged his great sexton’s key out of his pocket and unlocked the heavy door. He and Captain Pulling slipped inside, while Thomas Bernard stood guard.
This seems to be an attempt to reconcile the claims of both Pulling’s and Newman’s descendants that their ancestor actually hung the lanterns while keeping someone at watch down below. In turn, Fischer’s authoritative telling shaped the story in several books published in this century.

But, as I said, I’ve found no claim that Barnard actually was at Old North that night.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

“Paul Revere never made the midnight ride”?

A lot of legend grew up around the American Revolution in the late 1800s, and Henry W. Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” made the events of 18-19 Apr 1775 especially famed and susceptible to mythologizing.

In the early 1900s the pendulum swung the other way, toward debunking and skepticism. This is when the story of Boston’s stolen militia cannon dropped out the standard telling—that story seemed too dramatic to be true. Sometimes debunking went too far.

Here’s another example from the 29 Nov 1908 New York Times—a story headlined “Paul Revere’s Ride Is Fiction, He Says”:
Walter Benjamin, publisher of The Collector, has in his possession a letter which he believes proves conclusively that Paul Revere never made the midnight ride attributed to him by Longfellow and tradition.

The document is a letter from John Hancock to Elbridge Gerry, dated Lexington, April 18, 1775, at 9 o’clock. . . . The message reads:
Dear Sir: I am much obliged for your notice. It is said the officers are gone along the Concord Road, and I will send word thither. I am full with you that we ought to be serious, and I hope your decision will be effectual. I intend doing myself the pleasure of being with you tomorrow. My respects to the committee. I am your real friend, JOHN HANCOCK.
Mr. Benjamin says that it Hancock of the Committee of Safety, knew at 9 o’clock that the troops had gone along the Concord road and hoped they would be “serious,” that Lexington and Concord were fully aroused to the danger of the coming of British troops, and that there would be no need for Paul Revere. . . .
The article noted that a version of this letter had been published in the 1828 biography of Gerry, but without the time included. Benjamin argued that the omission of “at 9 o’clock“ meant people hadn’t realized its significance.

On the other hand, the Times continued, “the learned professors…did manage to find a plain prose version of Paul Revere among the old manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society papers.” The article summarized Revere’s own account, which the M.H.S. had published in 1798 and certainly wasn’t hiding from view.

The Times story concludes:
However, the historians are not altogether satisfied with the Revere letter, for he wrote it in 1798, twenty-four years after the ride, and, conceding his honesty, his memory might easily have been bad. Considering the many doubts which the learned have come to have of Paul Revere’s ride, Mr. Benjamin believes that the evidence contained in the Hancock-Gerry letter shows that it never happened at all, outside Longfellow’s poems.
Benjamin made a couple of errors in interpreting the document he’d bought. First, Gerry and Hancock exchanged notes about a squad of “officers,” not the full “coming of British troops.” Those officers were mounted scouts with a mission of stopping messengers from getting out of Boston and into Concord. The hundreds of grenadiers and light infantrymen who followed the scouts presented a much bigger threat. About three hours after Hancock wrote his note, Revere reached Lexington with news of that column.

Benjamin’s second error was concluding that the letter showed “Lexington and Concord were fully aroused to the danger of the coming of British troops” before Revere arrived. They were only partially aroused. James Barrett’s household was busy moving the most valuable weaponry off his Concord farm. The sight of the mounted officers caused Sgt. William Munroe to summon a guard at the Lexington parsonage. But again, news of the much larger column of soldiers increased the alert level in both towns, producing the full militia alarms.

It looked like this debunking was itself quickly debunked and didn’t affect early-20th-century recountings of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The letter itself appears to have stayed in private collections because authors continued to quote the published version only.

Then in 2014, Hancock’s letter to Gerry was displayed in an excellent exhibit at the Concord Museum. I saw it there and grabbed a brief quotation for The Road to Concord. (My transcription varies a bit from both the Gerry bio and this Times article, but not meaningfully.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

“Mr. Adjutant Daws & the Sergeants”

In Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer made an impressive case that Paul Revere had a social network among the Boston Whigs second only to Dr. Joseph Warren.

As I’ve delved into the sources myself, I came to see the data that went into that analysis as seriously flawed. Nonetheless, I think the conclusion about about the importance of those two men’s social networks is sound.

One of the main themes of my talk last weekend about William Dawes, Jr., was that he, too, enjoyed a broad and buzzing social network.

Dawes got off too a good start as first cousin to the builder Thomas Dawes (1731-1809), who hosted a political caucus in the early 1760s, later rose to be colonel of the Boston militia regiment, and eventually was a deacon at Old South.

In the early 1770s, William Dawes began to climb in Boston society by those same routes. He was elected to office in town meetings, starting as an “Informer of Deer”—basically a game warden. Provincial law required all towns to elect such deer-reeves. Boston was unlikely to have had many deer being hunted out of season, and I can’t tell if Dawes got this job as a sinecure or because as a leather-dresser he was actually in touch with deer poachers.

Dawes also rose within the militia, being designated as the regiment’s adjutant with the rank of lieutenant in 1772. (In The Road to Concord I said he was “junior adjutant” because I was misled by old typography and didn’t think through old prose with new knowledge. The “Junr.” was part of Dawes’s name, not his rank.) As adjutant, he helped organize the militia drills and therefore must have gotten to know all the officers and most of the men.

On 4 Nov 1772, for example, the selectmen of Boston (including John Hancock) met at Faneuil Hall to consider a request for the use of that building. According to the official town records:
Mr. Adjutant Dows, has desired on behalf of a milatary chore [i.e. corps] to have the use of Faneuil Hall three Monday Nights in a Month which was granted accordingly.
Dawes’s crowd used the hall through that winter. On 10 Mar 1773, another militia officer came to the selectmen with a competing request:
The Selectmen having heard Capt. Waters and Mr. Adjutant Dows relative to the Hall, it was determined that they should each have the Hall two Nights, in a Month. the Adjutant to have the first Monday Night.
I believe “Capt. Waters” was Josiah Waters, Sr. (1721-1784), listed with that rank in the militia in 1774. He was also William Dawes’s uncle by marriage.

A few weeks later, on 28 April, Waters was back at the selectmen’s office:
Capt. Waters attended, and desired the use of the Hall for his Company every Monday Evening, as Capt. Waters informs that Mr. Adjutant Daws & the Sergeants have done with it.
It would be nice to know how “Mr. Adjutant Daws & the Sergeants” used Faneuil Hall. Were they training themselves in the standard drill so they could train the men, training some of those men, or just socializing?

That winter the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company met in Faneuil Hall every first Wednesday evening before shifting to Fridays. Dawes was also a member of that organization from 1768, and he served as a sergeant in 1770. In 1772, however, he was fined a shilling for not appearing at a meeting. After the war, Dawes helped to revive the company by signing up a large class of new members, several related to him—more networking.

Since Dawes knew so many men in Boston, it makes sense that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety went to him in early 1775 when they needed to connect with the militiamen hiding two brass cannon. Likewise, he made a good messenger for Dr. Warren. Col. John Hancock of the Company of Cadets must have recognized Adjutant Dawes in Lexington in the early morning of April 19, 1775, just as he recognized Paul Revere.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Spero on “Frontier Rebels” in Worcester, 16 Apr.

On Tuesday, 16 April, the American Antiquarian Society will host a lecture by Patrick Spero on “Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776,” based on his recent book.

The event description:
Spero will recast the familiar narrative of the American Revolution, moving the action from the Eastern Seaboard to the treacherous western frontier and recounting the untold story of the 1765 rebellion of the “Black Boys.” In doing so, he will reveal an often-overlooked truth: the West played a crucial role in igniting the flame of American independence.

In 1763, the Seven Years’ War ended in a spectacular victory for the British, but many Native Americans, fearing that the British Empire would expand onto their lands and conquer them, refused to lay down their weapons. Under the leadership of a shrewd Ottawa warrior named Pontiac, they kept fighting for their freedom, eventually spurring the British to organize one of the largest peace offerings ever assembled.

As the cargo moved into the interior of North America in search of Pontiac, a ragtag group of frontiersmen known as the “Black Boys”—dressed as Native Americans and smearing their faces with charcoal—set about stopping this peace deal in its tracks. Furious at the Empire for capitulating to Native groups, whom they considered their sworn enemies, and suspicious of British intentions, these colonists turned Native American tactics of warfare on the British Empire. The outcome of these interwoven struggles would determine whose independence would prevail on the American frontier.
Patrick Spero is the director of the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. His other books include Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania and the anthology The American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century (based on this conference). Before joining the A.P.S., Spero taught at Williams College in Massachusetts.

This event is cosponsored by the Franklin M. Loew Lecture Series at Becker College. It will start at 7:00 P.M. in the newly expanded A.A.S. building, 185 Salisbury Street in Worcester. It is free to the public.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Special Events for Patriots’ Day 2019

Many events happen annually on Patriots’ Day (weather permitting), but here are a couple of events scheduled for tomorrow that will occur this year only.

From 10:00 A.M. until noon, the Roxbury Historical Society will celebrate the reopening of the Dillaway–Thomas House. This building was started in 1750 as the parsonage for Roxbury’s first meetinghouse. During the siege of Boston, Gen. John Thomas used it as his headquarters.

When plans for a new school called for the house to be torn down, local preservationists rallied, so now the Timilty Middle School wraps around two sides of the building. The site is now an anchor of Roxbury Heritage State Park. The historical society has been working with the state to refurbish the site with “public amenities, new exhibits, and a public archeology laboratory.”

The Dillaway–Thomas House is at Eliot Square on Roxbury Street. The Patriots’ Day tours are free, as are the 9:00 ceremony leading to the National Lancers’ reenactment of William Dawes’s 18 Apr 1775 ride through Roxbury and the 11:30 trolley tour of the neighborhood’s historic sites by historian and politician Byron Rushing.

In the evening, the Concord Museum hosts William H. Fowler, Jr., speaking on “The Revolution’s Odd Couple: Sam Adams and John Hancock.” The partnership of Hancock and Adams was crucial to Massachusetts’s move to independence and, though they split personally and politically in the late 1770s, the two men were partners again as successive governors in the 1790s.

A charming storyteller and speaker, Fowler has written short biographies of each man. In fact, his book about Adams was what enticed me to plunge into researching local Revolutionary history twenty-odd years ago.

This talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. in the museum’s new events hall. Seats cost $10, or $5 for members. Register here. Fowler will be happy to sign copies of his books afterward.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

What Was Really Wrong about the “Hutchinson Letters”

I enjoyed tracking the Massachusetts Whigs’ logical dance as they justified sharing and then publishing the “Hutchinson letters” that arrived from Benjamin Franklin in 1773 along with restrictions on, well, sharing and publishing them. Boston politicians recognized the political power of those documents.

Focusing on that shady side of the story, however, obscures the far more darker claim in that dispute: that everyone should have kept those letters secret. By modern democratic standards, those documents should never have been secret to begin with.

British governments of the period demanded control over information about their workings, with only halting steps toward openness. Before 1770, for example, it was unclear whether it was legal to report in detail about debates in Parliament. Governors, generals, and other public appointees took their correspondence files home with them when they retired. Legislative or public oversight of government officials was weak.

In 1769, William Bollan leaked the official correspondence between Gov. Francis Bernard and the Secretary of State in London, Lord Hillsborough. Those pages described Bernard’s meetings with the Massachusetts Council and dealings with the Massachusetts house, as well as other public events. They made recommendations for Crown policy toward the province, from one unelected official to another. Today we expect such discussions to be conducted with as much openness as possible.

In 1773, Franklin followed Bollan’s example by sending over letters collected by Member of Parliament Thomas Whately, known for his political attachment to George Grenville and his interest in American policy. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson kept repeating that those documents were “private letters,” written before he became governor. But in 1768-1769 he was Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Hutchinson and Whately had never met and weren’t business partners. Their only reason to write to each other was to share information and views on Massachusetts government.

Whately’s correspondence with Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, then provincial Secretary, included discussion of how the Massachusetts constitution should be changed. Oliver’s goal was to insulate the Council from popular pressure—a major concern among eighteenth-century aristocrats (or aristocrats of any period). That goal obviously depended on keeping the people ignorant of such discussions.

We now base our governments on the consent of the governed and the choice of the people, not filtered through a hereditary monarchy and nobility and the excuses people invent to justify such a system. Public knowledge and full access to government information for the public’s representatives are key to making our system work.

It should come as no surprise that I got interested in the “Hutchinson letters” this month because of the current U.S. administration’s attempts to conceal significant public documents. These include the uncensored Mueller report, the Trump Organization tax filings, orders overriding denials of security clearances, the paper trail of Supreme Court candidates, the President’s interference in building a new F.B.I. Headquarters, visitor logs at the White House, and much more.

Some of those attempts to conceal our government’s workings go against legal and legislative precedent. Others violate stated law. In all cases, they undercut our ability as a people to govern ourselves—an ability Americans first won after men working in the imperial capital slipped the Massachusetts legislature documents that royal appointees wanted to conceal.