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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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Travel Guide that will lead kids astray, part 2

Today I return to fussing about A Travel Guide to Colonial Boston, the schoolbook with so many misleading statements about Boston in the eighteenth century. (See part 1 for fuss over one page.) The idea behind this book is a clever one that the publisher, Lucent Books, has used before: a modern-style travel guide to a significant site in history. In this case, the book establishes its temporal base in 1793, allowing the text to discuss the “recent” events of the Revolution and daily life in the early U.S. of A.

Speaking to modern readers requires some understandable compromises. For instance, there’s a page about Paul Revere’s house. In 1793 that was an undistinguished building owned by a man of middling importance. Visitors would have been more eager to see Gov. John Hancock’s handsome stone mansion on Beacon Hill. But the Hancock house was pulled down in 1863, and the only replica is in Ticonderoga, New York—a nice town, but not the same. Revere’s house, on the other hand, survives in Boston's North End and welcomes school groups.

But even within the conceit of a travel guide, the book presents misleading information and missed opportunities. Page 42 offers a sidebar on “Elegant Dining.” But upper-class restaurants weren’t part of American culture for another few decades. If you were rich enough to afford a fancy dinner, you ordered your servants to cook one. The publisher’s art staff chose to decorate this page with a modern picture of a lobster. One reason they couldn’t find any period pictures of lobsters is that no one considered them an elegant food until the 1840s. They are, after all, giant bugs that feed on sludge. That sidebar is an example of projecting our modern lifestyle—what today's travel guides discuss—onto the past.

More importantly, the book misses what travelers of 1793 would really need to know about New England: traveling from one town to another on a Sunday was illegal unless you had a very good reason, such as a medical emergency. You didn’t have to spend the Christian Sabbath day in worship, but you couldn’t work or travel instead. That rule tripped up Thomas Jefferson and James Madison when they visited in 1791, and Lafayette when he visited in 1824. Even some locals chafed at this restriction. The fourth Josiah Quincy told a story about deacons gathering in Andover to block the roads of a Sunday. A man rode past them, saying, “I assure you that my mother is lying dead in Boston.” After getting beyond reach, he added, “for the last twenty years!

This Travel Guide discusses the Puritans who founded Boston, but misses those Sabbath rules and other ways in which Puritan traditions still governed the town in 1793. An example of how wrong this can be appears on pages 80 and 82:

For highbrow guests, the city’s theaters offer Shakespeare and the classical music of Europe’s great composers. . . . One of the more brutal blood sports favored by a large segment of Boston’s population is cockfighting.
What else do we learn in school about Puritans, people? That they wanted to suppress theater and blood sports in Jacobean England. Puritans settled Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire to create a society without theaters or cockfighting (or bearbaiting, also mentioned on page 80). In the mid-1700s Boston’s selectmen were still keeping Punch & Judy puppeteers out of town.

The year 1793 was very important for theater in Boston, as Jacqueline Carr discusses in After the Siege. For two years Boston town meeting had debated whether to license theaters, with younger gents generally arguing for it and older patriots, such as Samuel Adams, arguing against. In late 1792 an unlicensed theater had opened in Board Alley. The selectmen apparently tried to ignore it in hopes that it would go away. In early 1793 the Massachusetts legislature repealed its old law forbidding theaters, but the vote was close and the anti-theater sentiment still fervent. Gov. John Hancock, who tried not to expend any of his considerable political capital on unpopular issues, declined to either sign or veto the bill. The selectmen didn't know what they were supposed to do.

What, therefore, should a 1793 Boston travel guide have told a "highbrow guest" who wants to attend a theater? That there's one in town, but it's down an alley. You shouldn't speak about playgoing too loudly because half the populace thinks it's sinful. There's still a chance that the authorities will shut down the show. But besides that, have a fun evening!

Now I think kids would find that situation and the limits on Sunday travel interesting because they're so different from our own culture. Of course, religion and its strictures are a touchy subject for public schools and textbooks. But writing about eighteenth-century Boston without mentioning religion is like writing about twenty-first-century Basra without mentioning religion. The Puritan tradition helped set New England off from the rest of America. One of the Revolution's major effects in the region was to erode the Congregationalist orthodoxy's control over government. That was the big story of 1793, not "Shakespeare and the classical music of Europe’s great composers."

ADDENDUM: Who bears the biggest responsibility for this book's errors? See part 3.

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