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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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Dr. John Jeffries: physician, Loyalist, aeronaut, part 2

Yesterday's post left Dr. John Jeffries on his way to London in early 1779, seeking a more lucrative post within the British military medical establishment. At that time, British government appointments still came largely through the patronage system. To rise within the administration, a man had to find a powerful sponsor and offer money, either to the appointer or to the previous holder of the office. The rewards were a nearly guaranteed income from the best posts, and the chance to make more money from lower-level appointees and from eventually selling the office.

Jeffries decided on a strategy of lobbying Benjamin Thompson, "an American, the present Favourite of Lord Germain," as he wrote in his diary. Lord George Germain was the British Secretary of State for the colonies. Thompson (pictured here) was his personal aide, a Loyalist from Massachusetts but not one whom Jeffries had met before. Sanborn Brown, Thompson's biographer, says that the doctor offered two things to win the aide's favor:

  • A collection of letters between the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, one of Boston's most prominent Patriot clergymen, and such London figures as Benjamin Franklin and former governor Thomas Pownall. Jeffries had apparently pilfered these letters during a trip home to see his father. Thompson took the letters, had them handsomely bound, and presented them to King George III. They remain British government property today.
  • Mrs. Jeffries. At least, diaries record that Sarah Jeffries spent many evenings visiting Thompson without her husband during the summer of 1779.

John and Sarah Jeffries would not have been the first couple to curry favor this way. They were well acquainted with Elizabeth (Lloyd) Loring, niece and ward of the doctor's medical mentor, who had become Gen. Sir William Howe's mistress back in America. "Mrs. Loring" became notorious in letters and bawdy songs. Meanwhile, her husband, Joshua Loring, Jr., obtained several lucrative posts from Howe, apparently as a reward for his acquiescence. Even Benjamin Thompson himself was said to have obtained his high position in the British government from sexual services, to Lord Germain, or Lady Germain, or their daughters, or the whole family.

But the Jeffrieses' efforts came to nothing. Thompson rarely felt bound by unspoken agreements, or even spoken ones. Dr. John gave up, frustrated and angry, and sailed off to the navy in Savannah. Sarah died in 1780 while he was away. The doctor then returned to England and sold his post as Surgeon-General to none other than Joshua Loring, Jr.—who had no medical training, but had also reached a career dead end once Howe was no longer the main commander in North America. Philip Young's Revolutionary Ladies also notes a secret correspondence between Dr. Jeffries and Mrs. Loring in 1781.

And Benjamin Thompson went on his way, securing a cavalry command in North America just as Lord Germain's royal support was waning and thus keeping his own brillliant career alive. Eventually Thompson became Count Rumford, the celebrated scientist and inventor, Bavarian government official, and husband to Marie-Anne Lavoisier. No one played the patronage system better than he.

So in the early 1780s, Dr. John Jeffries was in England, cut off from his family in Boston, widowed with two children (in boarding schools, probably). Reportedly, a family of American Loyalists insisted he accept the gift of a carriage “as they could not be regularly attended by a physician who walked”—so his practice was solid. But Jeffries was still hungry for a way to distinguish himself. Then in June 1783 came startling news from France: the Montgolfier brothers had launched a balloon.

[Yes, Dr. Jeffries still hasn't made his aerial voyage, but there was plenty of gossip in this posting, wasn't there? And Jeffries does leave the ground in Part 3.]

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