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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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Colonial Boston Vocabulary: "Sejani"

Dr. Thomas Young is one of the least-known of Boston's top Patriot leaders. He moved into town from the Albany area only after the Stamp Act confrontation of 1765, and left in September 1774, before the war started, because his family feared he might be attacked by soldiers. He was also an outspoken deist, principal author of Reason the Only Oracle of Man, which became notorious in the late 1700s as "Ethan Allen's Bible." All those factors meant that he didn't get as much attention in early histories and memoirs of the political revolution in Massachusetts as primary sources indicate he should have.

Dr. Young was involved in almost every political development from 1766 to 1774, always pushing for radical change. He was a most enthusiastic man. His letters, now scattered in many different collections, overflow with optimism; he treats all bad news as signs that the people will soon react and overwhelm their enemies.

Young was enthusiastic about democracy, suggesting that legislatures should meet in buildings like theaters so popular audiences could give them immediate feedback on their decisions. He was enthusiastic about his medical theories, so much so that even Dr. Joseph Warren declared that "Self-conceit, vain-boasting, and invincible impudence are frequently expressed by the word Youngism." He was enthusiastic about the breakaway republic west of New Hampshire, and offered it the name Vermont.

A few years ago I was reading Dr. Young's 15 Sept 1770 letter to Hugh Hughes of New York, among the Miscellaneous Bound Manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society. What had the doctor all excited that day was a plan to increase local employment and manufactures, thus improving the economy and lessening reliance on imports from Britain. He wrote:

Our Manufacturing Scheme was yesterday reported, and met with so universal an approbation that every word and sentiment was received without so much as a syllable’s objection. It is so well calculated that it must succeed for every man who can spare a shilling a year may be interested in it.

[Capt. James] Scott has brought seven weavers, and a wire drawer, and I hear one or more paper makers. Mr. [John] Hancock generously gave the Manuf’ors their passages free. These moves must affect our . . .
And then I couldn't figure out the next word. It started with a capital S, but looked like no English word. The sentences that followed, about the governor turning over a fort to the army and naval ships being in the harbor, clearly showed that the mystery word was a reference to Crown officials.

After several minutes I realized what Dr. Young was probably saying:
These moves must affect our Sejani tho divine vengeance should harden their hearts to seven times the pitch that Pharaoh’s ever arrived at.
The doctor had taken the name of the ambitious and corrupt Roman official Sejanus, and made it plural. Then he mixed his metaphor with a Biblical allusion as well.

Young was self-educated while several of his Boston colleagues had graduated from Harvard. As a teenager he had taught himself Latin with books borrowed from a local landholder, and had picked up just enough Greek to handle medical terminology. I suspect that he put classical references like "Sejani" into his letters to show that he was a learned gentleman, too.

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