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, August 20, 2006

Lining Up the Events in Order

Over dinner last Sunday night, my uncle Daniel Rodgers mentioned how useful it can be for historians just to line up events in chronological order. One current example occurred to me: that same day New York Times ombudsman Byron Calame revealed that the newspaper's editors had known enough about the NSA wiretapping by executive fiat to consider running its Pulitzer-winning exposé shortly before the 2004 presidential election, but chose to hold the story until Dec 2005. Until now those editors have been at least cagey about the timing issue, at worst dishonest in stating that they'd known of the program for "a year" rather than "more than a year." (I wrote to Calame about the timing question as soon as the story appeared, and I'm pleased he stuck with the story.)

How is that chronology significant in understanding events? It means that the Times editors listened to the Bush-Cheney administration's arguments about how this program was constitutional and allowed by Congress, delayed their report as that administration fought and won a close election, and months later confirmed that there is, at the very least, heated debate about the program. (One FISA court judge quickly resigned, a district judge has just ruled it illegal on broad constitutional grounds, and legislators from both parties have complained.) Given that history, it was only natural for the Times editors to be skeptical of the administration's same arguments in regard to yet another unlegislated surveillance program—especially when the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times were tracking the same story. Of course, that won't please people who are more interested in scoring score political points off the New York Times than in seeing our government operate lawfully.

An example from colonial Boston of the value of lining up historical events appears in Catherine Drinker Bowen's John Adams and the American Revolution (page 366, in fact). Merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary for 1770:

April 21. [Ebenezer] Richardson was found Guilty by the Jury. I attended the Merchants Meeting this forenoon.

April 22. This afternoon Mr. Otis [lawyer and politician James Otis, Jr., shown above] behaved very madly, firing Guns out of his Window that Caused a Large Number of People to assemble about him.
Brown seems to have been the first historian to see a relationship between those events. Richardson was convicted of murder for shooting a boy from his window. Otis, sanity already on edge, fired out his own window a day later. Bowen made the reasonable, though unprovable, suggestion that Otis was responding in some irrational way to the Richardson verdict. (She also wrote up the episode inaccurately, confusing it with Otis's "mad Freak" at the Town House on 16 March—which shows that before you line up events you have to be sure you've sorted them out.)

Another example involves the first arrival of British troops in Boston, on 1 Oct 1768. That's often depicted as London's response to the violent protest against the Customs Office seizure of the ship Liberty on 10 June. But Secretary of State Hillsborough had written to Gen. Thomas Gage about sending regiments to Boston back on 8 June—before the Liberty was seized.

The British cabinet did endorse Hillsborough's suggestion when it learned about the Liberty riot on 19 July—a six-week lag that shows another wrinkle in lining up events in order. Because communication was so slow in the eighteenth century, we have to arrange events in different places according to both when they happened and when people elsewhere learned that they happened. After the Battle of Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775, it took until 9 May for the big news to reach Charleston, South Carolina. The provincials sent their version of events to London on a fast ship, the Quero, but that voyage took twenty-nine days. Nothing the London government did before 29 May 1775 was a response to the start of the war because until then the ministers didn't know the war had started.

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