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, May 29, 2017

A Celebration in North Stratford, Connecticut

On 5 June 1783 the Vermont Gazette of Bennington published an “Extract of a letter from Stratford, in Connecticut, dated May 27, 1783.” It read:
Yesterday the inhabitants of North Stratford convened for a rejoicing for the memorable declaration of peace and American independence.

At one o’clock they assembled at the meeting house, where the Rev. Mr. [James] Beebee made an excellent prayer, before and after which singing was performed with great accuracy. Mr. LEWIS BEEBEE, a student in Yale College, delivered a very elegant Oration on the first discovery and settlement of this country, the occasion of the unnatural war and the various strategems made use of by the enemy to subjugate these states, after which a suitable anthem was performed.

The ladies were then invited to partake of a refreshment provided for them, and about 200 gentlemen and ladies took their seats. The militia performed many manoeuvres, and went through the prepared firing by platoons and street firings with great exactness, after which a stage was set in the midst of the concourse of people, and the following toasts were drank, viz.

1st. The United States in Congress assembled.

2d. General Washington, the Officers and soldiers under his command.

3d. Our faithful and illustrious allies.

4th. The friendly powers of Europe.

5th. The Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut.

6th. May the peace prove glorious to America and last forever.

7th. May tyranny and despotism sink, and rise no more.

8th, May war prove an admonition to Great Britain, and the present peace teach its inhabitants their true interests.

9th. The Navy of the United States of America.

10th, May our trade and navigation extend to both the Indies, and the balance in our favour.

11th, May the union of these American States be perpetual and uninterrupted.

12th, May the American Flag be a scourge to tyrants.

13th. May the virtuous daughters of America bestow their favors only on those who have courage to defend them.

14th. May Vermont be received into the federal union, & the Green Mountain Boys flourish.

After each toast a cannon was discharged. The greatest decency and decorum, was observed throughout the whole.
The item was signed “AARON HAWLEY, Toast-master.” (At least I think that’s the final word. The page from this newspaper that made it onto microfilm isn’t complete.)

Another description of the day, differing in wording, small details, and the order of two toasts, appears between quotation marks in Samuel Orcutt’s A History of the Old Town of Stratford and the City of Bridgeport (1886). Orcutt stated no source, but he might have quoted a Connecticut newspaper I haven’t located.

The toasts provide a snapshot of what that New England village—North Stratford became the town of Trumbull in 1797—hoped for as the Revolutionary War officially ended. The fourteenth toast for Vermont, and the letter sent there describing the event, reflect Connecticut’s close ties to that territory. Later historians have connected this late-May celebration with Memorial Day, but the emphasis is different.

(The photograph above shows the Joseph Plumb house in Trumbull, built around 1780.)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

“Curnul putnum Com & ordered us down”

Here’s the rest of Pvt. James Stevens’s account of his Andover company’s fight along the Chelsea shore on this date in 1775.

When we left Stevens on the night of 27 May 1775, the Royal Navy schooner Diana had run aground near the ferry landing on the north side of Boston harbor.
Sunday ye 28 this morning a bout day thay [i.e., British sailors] come with thare barjes to bord the sconer

Curnul [Israel] putnum Com & ordered us down to the whoife & we fired so that thay retreted back to the sloup

our men run down & fired [i.e., set fire to] the sconer & it burnt very fast

the slup begun to to of [“to tow off”]

in about three qurters of a our after it was sot on fire the magersene Blod up [give it a minute…it’ll come…“magazine blowed up”!] & blod out some plunder

thay fired from Nodles oiland on us sun about an our hy

we are retreted back to our packs & gout our Brekfust

the slups drad of to Boston

there was of our men wounded fore & non cild [“none killed”!]

after the fier was gon down the men went & got out the plunder out of the rack [“wreck”]

in the afternune there come down about fore hundred men to relieve us & there was of us about a hundred & twenty men of us

tords night thay got tems & cared a lode of to Cambridge

we staid all night

Munday ye 29 this morning we went down to the sconer & got out som more of the plunder we staed about while the afternune & then set of for Cambridg we got up to Cambridg about dusk being very much feteged
News of this small but clear victory arrived in Philadelphia just as the Continental Congress was considering the New England colonies’ invitation to take control of their army. The reports of Putnam’s aggressive leadership during the fight prompted the Congress to make him a major general, moving him above more senior colleagues such as John Thomas and Joseph Spencer. That caused kerfuffles for Gen. George Washington to sort out when he arrived in Cambridge in July.

As it turned out, the fight off Chelsea was the last Continental victory Putnam got to see. He remained with the army until he suffered a stroke in 1779, but he was never again present for a win.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Pvt. James Stevens Goes into the Chelsea Fight

On 27 May 1775, the New England army went into their first sustained fight against the British military since the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

That skirmish has been overshadowed by larger and more consequential battles in the previous and next months. It was initially called the fight at Chelsea or the fight over Noddle’s Island, and decades later a local historian tried to elevate it to the Battle of Chelsea Creek.

Here’s the start of a battle report from Pvt. James Stevens of Andover, whose company fought from the mainland:
Saterday ye [27] this morning I was Cald on feteg

we went & workd in the forenune we Come hom to diner & there was a perty agoing of sumer [“a party going off somewhere”] but where I cant tel

we got redy to go & there Com a expres that the regerlers was a landing some said at miskit [“Mystic” or Medford] but we marcht to miskit & then we herd that thay was at Chelsy

we marcht very fast we got dow[n] within a quarter of a mile of the fery & then halted & our ofisers went to louk out to place the canon

thay went round by the water while thay come in sight of the sconer when as son as the regerlers [actually Royal Navy marines] saw our men thay fired on them

then the firing Begun on boath sides & fired very worm

there come a man & ordered us over a nol rit into the mouths of the [British] canon

we got on to the top of the nol & the grap shot & canon bauls com so thik that we retreted back to the rode & then marcht down to the fery

the regerlers shouted very much

our men got the canon & plast them & gave them tow or three guns sids and the firing set in so[me] masure & there was a terrabel cry a monst the regerlers

thay fired wonc & a wile all night

about ten aclok the sconer run on to the wais & stuk fast

there come a slup for hur relief

thay left the sconur
Of course, Royal Navy commanders was not happy about leaving H.M.S. Diana aground near the Winnimisset ferry landing. Stevens’s commanders rightly expected that the British would be back the next morning for their ship.

TOMORROW: The fighting continues.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Looking through Jefferson’s Eyes

Another provocative recent article about the eighteenth century is Maurizio Valsania’s “French Hovels, Slave Cabins, and the Limits of Jefferson’s Eyes” on the Oxford University Press blog.

Valsania, a professor of American history at the University of Torino, writes of Thomas Jefferson:
Jefferson’s powerful eyes constantly dissected and analyzed: especially for scientific reasons, Jefferson spied on people’s lives. He always wanted to see, and to see firsthand. During his famous tour of southern France and northern Italy in the spring of 1787, he saw examples of misery and wretchedness—especially where lower classes were concerned. He had entered the shacks of French peasants incognito. To peep into people’s dwellings was for Jefferson the best method to assess their identity and evaluate their circumstances. “You must ferret the people out of their hovels as I have done,” Jefferson wrote to his friend Lafayette, “look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds under pretence of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft.”

Most likely, this Jeffersonian method of spying did more than just provide reliable sociological data: it enhanced his empathy. Reading this letter to Lafayette, the reader gets the impression that Jefferson drew himself closer to these hapless human beings, pitying them and caring for their conditions, seeing them for who they actually were. But in other ways, Jefferson’s eyes were blind: did he ever actually see his slaves’ cabins? Did he ever ferret slaves out of their shackles to observe and meditate about their condition?

Most of Jefferson’s slaves were confined in cramped living quarters, leading lives undoubtedly worse than those led by French peasants. But there is no clear trace of empathy on the part of Jefferson for his slaves. His correspondence, his memorandum books, and especially his farm book show us how Jefferson consistently saw his slaves—at least the huge majority of them. Black bodies are usually crouched to perform vile doings; they are dirty, their faces often bear a hideous grin, and their countenance is disfigured by hard labor. By and large, Jefferson covered black bodies in “negro cloth,” rough osnaburgs, coarse duffels, or bristly mixtures of hemp and cotton.

In respect to African-American slaves, Jefferson’s eyes were myopic at best. Perhaps this was a personal fault, or perhaps this eighteenth-century man was simply hindered by the peculiar institution in which he was reared. But some slaves at Monticello led deliberate lives and exerted a lot of effort to appear different. In the slave cabins on Mulberry Row, especially those occupied by the large Hemings family, we catch a glimpse of what kind of differentiated selves Jefferson’s luckier “servants” were trying to preserve.
Valsano then quotes Jefferson’s youngest great-grandchild describing one Hemings family she had visited as a little child, recalling their “white counterpane and ruffled pillow cases,” their “little table with it’s [sic] clean white cloth, and a shelf over it, on which stood an old fashioned band box with wall paper covering, representing dogs running.”

I checked those reminiscences, set down in 1889, to see if that descendant might be seeking to mitigate how Jefferson and his immediate family treated their slaves. But they show no sign of that; that great-granddaughter was simply preserving a vibrant memory she had seen with her young, unclouded eyes.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Downfall of James Otis

Earlier this month the Smithsonian magazine website shared Erick Trickey’s article on James Otis, Jr.—“Why the Colonies’ Most Galvanizing Patriot Never Became a Founding Father.”

In the 1760s, only Patrick Henry and John Dickinson rivaled Otis as a leading voice for resistance to Crown policies—as advocate for the Boston merchants in the writs of assistance case; as a pamphleteer; and as a politician at the head of Boston’s town meeting, the Massachusetts General Court, and the Stamp Act Congress of 1765.

Trickey writes:
All that defiance damaged Otis’ marriage. Ruth, a loyalist, disagreed with her husband’s politics. “He mentioned his wife—said she was a good wife, too good for him—but she was a Tory,” John Adams wrote in his diary. “She gave him certain lectures.” Meanwhile, as tensions rose in Boston, Otis worried that the colonies would soon reach a boiling point. “The times are dark and trying,” he told legislators in 1769. “We may soon be called on in turn to act or to suffer.”

His words proved all too true. That summer, he learned that the four British customs commissioners [actually only four of the five] in Boston had complained about him in letters to London. Enraged, he accused them of slander in a local newspaper. They were “superlative blockheads,” he wrote, threatening to “break [the] head” of commissioner John Robinson. The next night, Otis found Robinson at the British Coffee House near Boston’s Long Wharf and demanded “a gentleman’s satisfaction.” Robinson grabbed Otis by the nose, and the two men fought with canes and fists. The many loyalists in the coffee house pushed and pulled Otis and shouted for his death. British officers stood by and watched.

Otis was left bleeding. Months later, he still had a deep scar; “You could lay a finger in it,” John Adams recalled. The trauma unhinged his already fragile psyche. He started drinking heavily, expressing regret for opposing the British, and wandering Boston’s streets.
The fight between Otis and Robinson always makes me think of dueling, though New England men of their generation weren’t actually good at that practice. The nose grab, the beating with a cane—those were ways one gentleman showed contempt for another, implying he wasn’t on the same social level. In this case, each man tried to mete out the same treatment at the same time. Otis got the worst of the moment, but Robinson had to leave America.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Jean Fritz’s Revolution

The author Jean Fritz died earlier this month at the age of 101. Obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post described how she was born and raised in China, a daughter of American missionaries, and started to research her country’s history from afar.

Fritz most widely read books are biographies of famous Americans, many of them from the Revolutionary period, for young readers. Those books took various forms, but most were short and well illustrated by some of the industry’s rising stars. The first batch was published into the Bicentennial but proved popular and solidly researched enough to remain in print for decades, even as standards for juvenile nonfiction became more demanding:
  • And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (1973)
  • Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? (1974)
  • Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (1975)
  • Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? (1975)
  • Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? (1976)
  • Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution (1976)
  • Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold (1981)
  • What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? (1988)
  • The Great Little Madison (1989)
  • George Washington’s Mother (1992)
  • Why Not Lafayette? (1999)
  • Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider (2011)
Early in her career Fritz also wrote three historical novels for children touching on the eighteenth century:
  • The Cabin Faced West (1958) about frontier Pennsylvania in 1784, with a cameo appearance by Washington.
  • Early Thunder (1967), set in Salem just before the Revolutionary War begins.
  • George Washington’s Breakfast (1969), dramatizing the process of historical research.
In this interview by schoolchildren, Fritz told how one of those novels led to one of her biographies:
I had written Early Thunder, which was a fictional story that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, right before the Revolution. It was around the time of the bicentennial. And a TV station called me and they wanted to make it into a movie. But they changed their minds because there was no chase in the story! So I thought of the story of Benedict Arnold, and there was a chase in that story, so I decided to tell it.
Finally, Fritz’s only book for adults was Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies, 1728–1814 (1972), about Mercy Warren and her circle.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Architecture Seminar at Redwood Library, 10 June

The Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island, is hosting its annual seminar on Saturday, 10 June. This year’s gathering is on the theme of “Colonial Classics: The Redwood Library & American Architecture in the 18th Century.”

The scheduled speakers include:
  • Caroline Culp, Stanford University, “Peter Harrison and the Redwood Library”
  • Fabio Barry, Stanford University, “Jefferson’s Trans-Plantation at Monticello: Antiquity and Anxiety”
  • Mario Bevilacqua, University of Florence, “Piranesi in Eighteenth-Century America: Ancient Models for the New Nation”
  • Carl R. Lounsbury, College of William and Mary, “Metropolitan Prototypes and Provincial Filters: Public Building in Eighteenth-Century British America”
Peter Harrison designed the library itself to be impressive from the harbor. He also designed other notable buildings in Rhode Island and, if we accept the breathless credits of the Colonial Revival period, all around New England. But most likely Harrison was just one of many builders bringing Georgian design standards to America.

As the A4 Architecture Inc. blog explains, the diagram at top comes from Palladio’s Fourth Book of Architecture. The photo shows the part of the Redwood Library that Harrison designed. There are…similarities.

The seminar will begin at 1:30 P.M. Tickets are $60 per person. For reservations, or call 401-847-0292, ext. 117.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“It was easy to discover that he was a curious Character“

Yesterday I quoted Abigail Adams’s description of visiting Carisbrooke Castle in England in 1788.

That passage from her travel account continues:
We returnd to Newport to dine. After dinner a Gentleman introduced himself to us by the Name of Sharp. Professed himself a warm and zealous Friend to America. After some little conversation in which it was easy to discover that he was a curious Character he requested that we would do him the Honour to go to his House and drink Tea. We endeavourd [to] excuse ourselves, but he would insist upon it, and we accordingly accepted.

He carried us home and introduced to us an aged Father of 90 Years, a very surprizing old Gentleman who tho deaf appeard to retain his understanding perfectly. Mrs. Sharp his Lady appeard to be an amiable woman tho not greatly accustomed to company. The two young Ladies soon made their appearence, the Youngest about 17 very Beautifull. The eldest might have been thought Handsome, if she had not quite spoild herself by affectation. By aiming at politeness she overshot her mark, and faild in that Symplicity of manners which is the principal ornament of a Female Character.

This Family were very civil, polite and Friendly to us during our stay at Cowes. We drank Tea with them on the Sunday following and by their most pressing invitation we dined with them the tuesday following. Mr. Sharp is a poet, a man of reading and appears to possess a good mind and Heart and enthusiastick in favor of America. He collected a number of his Friends to dine with us all of whom were equally well disposed to our Country and had always Reprobated the war against us.
The Adams Papers doesn’t identify this man, but I suspect he was William Sharp, Jr., author of the poem “Sincerity” (1763) and A Rumble from Newport to Cowes, in the Isle of Wight (1784). The latter book has this to say about the recent American war:
O passing fate of things below!
No Immortality they know:
Change will on all her marks inscribe,
Except the ministerial Tribe,
And their vile Masters; they ne’er range;
To Pelf still true, they never change.
Be curs’d their arts and selfish ends
Who sink to foes and separate friends:
Where are the flags that once display’d
The blessings of a mutual trade: Where
Where are the crowded wharfs which own’d
America’s chaste produce round:
Discharg’d to give the state their pay,
Before they shap’d a distant way.
Yeah, it’s all like that. I think Abigail was lucky to get away without hearing more.

A footnote on this passage explains: “The CAROLINA trade was a great article at Cowes, many thousand barrels of Rice being unloaded here every season, and repack’d for market; after paying duty, afforded much employment and profit.” So Sharp felt the “ministerial Tribe” had damaged the local economy by disrupting trade with America for their own “selfish ends.” And he and his fellow Isle of White Whigs had opposed Lord North’s policy toward the American colonies.

The picture above comes from the frontispiece of Sharp’s 1784 poetry book. It shows the landscape of the Isle of Wight between the port of Cowes and the central town of Newport, a scene that Adams herself probably saw four years later.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Visiting Carisbrooke Castle with Abigail Adams

Earlier this year author Jaime Mormann sent me an email noting a passage from Abigail Adams’s account of her travels in Great Britain while she was wife of the U.S. Minister.

In the spring of 1788 Adams went to the Isle of Wight off England’s southern coast:
On tuesday we went to Newport in order to visit Carisbrook Castle. This is a very ancient Ruins. The first account of it in English History is in the year 1513. This is the castle where Charles the first was kept a prisoner and they shew you the window from whence he attempted to escape.

In this castle is a well of such a depth that the water is drawn from it by an ass walking in a wheel like a turn spit dog. The woman who shew it to us told us it was 300 feet deep. It is Beautifully stoned and in as good order as if finishd but yesterday. She lighted paper and threw [it] down to shew us its depth and dropping in a pin, it resounded as tho a large stone had been thrown in. We went to the Top of the citidal which commands a most extensive prospect.
Mormann added:
Out of curiosity, I checked to see if the castle still holds tours as it did in 1788. Sure enough (’cause England is awesome like that), they still do. Their website even features many of the things Abigail mentions in her journal entry.
Including the asses! (Now carefully called donkeys.)

TOMORROW: More of Abigail Adams’s experience of Newport, England.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

“Clothing & Character” Symposium in Lexington, 3-4 June

Hallie Larkin and Stephanie Smith at the Sign of the Golden Scissors, along with Larissa Sasgen and Sandy Spector, are organizing their first symposium, titled “18th Century: Clothing & Character in Context.”

This event will explore clothing, material culture, and character development for interpreters of the 1700s. It is scheduled to take place in Lexington, Massachusetts, on the weekend of 3-4 June 2017.

Expert speakers are coming from Virginia, New Jersey, and New York, as well as many parts of New England. Presentations scheduled for Saturday include:
  • Matthew Brenckle, “Dock Workers, Sailors & Fishermen: Making a Living in 18th-Century Boston.”
  • Will Tatum, “Men’s Clothing in New England 1760-1770: The Hallmarks of Fashion Prior to the War of Independence.”
  • Hallie Larkin & Stephanie Smith, “18th-Century Textiles for Colonial Clothing: Making Choices in the Modern Marketplace.”
  • John Nichols, “Hide Fashion: Leather Breeches, Common Wear out of Common Materials.”
  • Lynne Zacek Bassett, “‘Idle Hands are the Devil’s Workshop’: 18th-Century Needlework in New England.”
  • Niel Vincent De Marino, “Setting the Table: Interpreting and Presenting Food in the 18th-Century Manner.”
  • Gregory Theberge, “Beyond the Musket: Utilizing Documented Material Culture to Enhance Your Impression.”
Hands-on workshops scheduled for Sunday are:
  • Roy Najecki, “Make a Cartridge Box.”
  • Sharon Burnston & Kirsten Hammerstrom, “Inhabiting the Clothes.”
  • Larissa Sasgen & Meléna Streitman, “Where Are the Primary Sources?”
  • Niel Vincent De Marino, “Cutting a Proper 18th-Century Figure.”
  • Larissa Sasgen, “The Right Hair for the Right Cap” and “Styling Men’s Wigs in the Neatest Manner.”
  • Stephanie Smith & Victoria Brenckle, “Do This—Not That!: Quick and Easy Fixes” (two workshops, for women and for men).
  • Hallie Larkin, “Introduction to 18th-Century Whitework” and “18th-Century Quilted Petticoats Inside and Out.”
Registration for Saturday, 3 June, costs $85 and includes a boxed lunch and snacks. For the Sunday workshops, a morning or afternoon session costs $50, or $90 for both, with an additional materials fee for some workshops. See the brochure (P.D.F. download) for all details.