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.

Follow by Email

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Samuel Smith: Topsfield selectman

Samuel Smith (1714-1785) was a selectman, legislative representative, and Committee of Correspondence member for the town of Topsfield, Massachusetts. But that's not why he attracts attention today. Many other men served their neighbors the same way, and Topsfield was not a major town then: third-smallest in Essex County. People still write about Samuel Smith because one of his great-grandsons, Joseph Smith, founded the Mormon church.

According to some writers with Latter-Day Saints ties, Smith was involved in destroying the tea in Boston harbor on 16 Dec 1773. Indeed, this page at josephsmithsr.com says, "Capt. Samuel T. Smith was the ring-leader of the Boston Tea Party." [My emphasis—and I don't know where that middle initial sprang from.] In 2002, the magazine LDS Living published a travel article about Boston that passed on a similar claim, with some skepticism:

In short order we found ourselves in the Old South Meeting House. This is the church in which the patriots met when they engineered the Boston Tea Party. Great grandfather Samuel Smith, was chairman of the Tea Committee from Topsfield. Our darling cousin, Gracia Jones, assures us grandfather Smith, ancestor to the Prophet Joseph, was in on the party. Perhaps.
The article shows a—let's say—casual approach to historical research, and makes some other missteps. For the record, British army officers were not locked out of Boston's huge tea meetings in 1773 since there were no officers in town then. The Rev. Thomas Prince of Old South did not go to England when war broke out; he had died in 1758. And there's no evidence Samuel Smith was in Boston on the night of the Tea Party.

Smith, a fifty-nine-year-old gentleman farmer who probably did most of his trading in Salem, was highly unlikely to travel thirty miles to Boston and spend the night hoisting and chopping open heavy chests of tea. The Boston Whigs didn't need his help; they had plenty of local volunteers. No first- or second-hand reminiscences of the event mention Smith.

Looking at Topsfield town records shows how this myth sprouted. In 1773 Smith and his fellow selectmen called a town meeting
To see if the Town will agree in sentiments with the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, and many Other Towns, Respecting Teas being Exported into this, and the Other north American Colonys, by the East India Company on their own account, with a duty Imposed on it, for the purpose of raiseing a revenue in Amarca
Smith moderated that meeting, and his neighbors chose him first for a committee
to Consider & make Report to ye Town, what they think is proper for the Town to do Respecting ye East India Company sending Tea here on their own account.
Thus, Smith was chairman of Topsfield's committee on the tea crisis.

However, the selectmen didn't call that town meeting until 27 December, over a week after they'd heard about the tea destroyed in Boston. The warrant for the meeting asked
if the Town will agree in sentiments with the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston Respecting their Late Conduct and proseedings in Regard to ye Tea, and the manner of its being Exported &C, as set forth in a pamphylet, and Other papers
Topsfield's Whigs were responding to news from Boston, not making news there.

On 20 January, Topsfield’s town meeting accepted its committee’s report calling for a boycott on British tea, and affirmed that Topsfield voters
highly approve of every Legal Method the Town of Boston and Others have taken to prevent said Companys Tea being Landed, and to have it Sent Back from whence it Came.
The town (under Smith’s leadership) thus positioned itself as fully in support of the law—while tacitly supporting extra-legal resistance to unjust new laws.

This committee was only one small part of Smith's political work for Topsfield. Because the Boston Tea Party became such an iconic moment of the pre-Revolutionary period, however, historians looking into Smith's life paid extra attention to it. After that, some eager writers read too much into those references. They spun Samuel Smith, chairman of his small town's committee to respond to the tea protest, into Samuel Smith, leader of the protest itself. But not every New Englander's great-grandfather was at the Tea Party.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Boston Regiment in late 1774

After last week's posting about war games on Boston Common, Alfred F. Young wrote to ask, “Do you have any idea of how many militia companies there were in Boston?” So I looked it up in Mills and Hicks’s British and American Register for the Year 1775.

These were the officers of the “BOSTON REGIMENT” when that little reference book was printed in late 1774:

Col. John Erving (shown here in a postcard from Smith College)
Lt. Col. John Leverett
Maj. Thomas Dawes
Captains
Richard Boynton (with the rank of major)
Jeremiah Stimpson
Josiah Waters
Martin Gay
Samuel Ridgway
Samuel Barrett
John Haskins
Ephraim May
David Spear
Andrew Symmes
Edward Procter
Job Wheelwright
Adjutant William Dawes, Jr. (with the rank of lieutenant)
There were twelve captains in all, one for each company. After each captain’s name the Register listed his lieutenant and ensign (the equivalent of a second lieutenant).

There’s a similar rundown of the Boston regiment’s officers as of 1 Apr 1772 in young printer John Boyle’s “Journal of Occurrences in Boston,” printed in volumes 84 and 85 of the New England Historical & Genealogical Register. A close look shows why Boyle was so pleased to record this information: he'd just been commissioned as an ensign in one company. (By late 1774, he was a lieutenant.)

Comparing the two lists show that the captains and all superior officers remained the same, but three lieutenants had been succeeded by men who had been ensigns and one by an entirely new name. Of the twelve ensigns in 1774, only five had held that rank in 1772.

Boston also had some specialized militia units, which Mills & Hicks listed in this order:
  • The grenadier company, founded in 1772. Maj. Dawes of the main regiment was also captain of this company (which might have been why blacksmith Capt. Boynton got the brevet rank of major).
  • The train, or artillery company, under Maj. Adino Paddock. According to an inside source, however, this company had basically dissolved in Sept 1774 when its cannons disappeared.
  • The South Battery company, under Maj. Jeremiah Green, which staffed the fort overlooking the southern end of the wharfs; by late 1774, British army units were using that battery.
  • The North Battery company, under Maj. Nathaniel Barber, still overseeing the smaller battery in the North End.
In addition, Boston was home to the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, then functioning as a private training organization for militia officers; the governor’s troop of horse-guards, fourteen strong and probably no more than ceremonial; and the Independent Company of Cadets, in flux after most members had resigned when Gen. Thomas Gage dismissed John Hancock from his role as company captain.

All told, that’s seventeen functioning companies, though the two battery companies might have needed fewer men than the rest. The 1765 census found 2,941 white men over the age of sixteen in Boston. The law exempted some of those men (sexagenarians, clergymen, etc.) from militia service, but the mystery for me is what informal customs militia officers followed in running the regiment.

Did Samuel Adams, whose hands shook with palsy, carry a musket alongside his neighbors? (Would you want to drill in front of him?) We know African-American men served in militia units outside of Boston. Did they also drill in the big town’s musters? How easy was it to skip militia training by paying a small fine or simply not showing up? How did the system deal with illnesses or absences for, say, going out on a fishing boat? In sum, the law said nearly every white male inhabitant between sixteen and sixty was supposed to turn out for militia training, but how many actually did?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Welcome to Boston, Genealogists!

It's not Macworld, to be sure, but tomorrow the Federation of Genealogical Societies and New England Historic Genealogical Society start their joint conference in Boston. The gathering at the Hynes Convention Center runs 30 Aug-2 Sept. Civilians, be ready for crowds of people with reading glasses and overstuffed notebooks moving with determination between the Hynes and the NEHGS on Newbury Street.

I'm little interested in my own ancestry (great-aunts and other relations have taken care of that), but I find genealogical methods very useful for understanding colonial events. I used NEHGS resources, from the research library through publication in New England Ancestors magazines, for my articles on Ebenezer Richardson and three doctors at the outbreak of war.

But I won't go to this conference. I'm still getting over a local genealogical society meeting last year. Not because my entering the room had a numerically significant effect on the average age. Rather, during the formal session, the chair invited me to introduce myself. I said cheerfully that I was researching Boston just before the Revolution. Insistent whispers rose all around me. What? What now? What had I said? And then I made out those eager genealogists' words:

"What lines? What lines?"

Genealogists think vertically, in terms of family lines, not horizontally. (Yes, that's a simplification, but it's true.) I'd love to know exactly who was working in Isaiah Thomas's print shop in 1775. Genealogists explore Isaiah Thomas's parents, and his wife, and her parents. What's fun is that each type of question can help illuminate the other. (Using genealogical sources, I've found that Thomas signed up an English-born apprentice named Anthony Haswell from the Overseers of the Poor in 1771—just as the Overseers had apprenticed Thomas on his mother's behalf back in 1756. Also in 1775, Thomas's wife had an affair with Benjamin Thompson, leading to the couple's divorce.)

So, for the record, the lines I'm trying to trace are: Whiston, Gore, Grant, Bradlee, Moies, Middleton, Seider, Hartwick, Enslin, Richardson, Machin, Gardner, Cunningham, Gridley, Balch, Holbrook, Bourgatte, Garrick, Burdick, Vassall, Paddock,...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Pistol Problematics at Harvard

Harvard alumni magazine offers a brief article on two eighteenth-century pistols in the Houghton Library's collection. It's subtitled "Problematics in the Z Closet," Z being the library's acquisition code for "How can we possibly shelve this?"

These pistols came to the Houghton in 1944; the donor had bought them in 1896 in an auction of sketches and souvenirs from George Washington's short-term aide-de-camp and painter John Trumbull. There was a sketch of these guns labeled "Washington's Headquarters Pistols."

Maybe not. Probably not. Almost certainly not. The sketches are no longer thought to be genuine Trumbulls, leaving no reason to believe these pistols were Trumbull's, either. The initials "GW" and "1776" are carved on the guns, but did they have any connection with Washington at all?

Harvard's Artemas Ward fellow Philip Mead, whom I met this summer at the Dublin Seminar, offers magazine readers the faintest glimmer of hope, saying that pistols of this sort were around during the Revolution, and some swords associated with Washington's Life Guard have the general's initials on them. But if you were forging Trumbull drawings in the 1890s, would you have any compunction about carving initials and numbers onto a pair of old pistols?

Still, it's more useful for the Houghton Library to display these pistols and discuss what they tell us about collectors' admiration for Washington than to keep them hidden in the Z Closet. (Tip of the hat to Dorothy Bell for alerting me to this article.)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Thomas Crafts's "astonishment, Mortification and Disopointment"

As I described in yesterday's post, on 11 December 1775, following the suggestion of the Continental Congress, Gen. George Washington offered Thomas Crafts, Jr., a commission in the artillery regiment. Crafts had been a political organizer in Boston for over ten years, and third-in-command of Boston's highly respected militia artillery company. He had the support of the influential Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress.

But, as Washington reported back to Congress three days later, Crafts's "ambition was not fully gratified by the offer made him." Why did he turn down the rank of major? Because it wasn't high enough, particularly in relation to other artillery officers whom he had known in Boston before the war. Crafts was a decorative painter ("japanner") who had just risen into the ranks of gentlemen, and I think that left him particularly sensitive to matters of honor and rank.

Crafts explained his feelings to John Adams on 16 December. His letter is a model of how not to respond to a disappointing job offer. Furthermore, eighteenth-century gentlemen were always supposed to be in control of their emotions, and Crafts was clearly having trouble with that. (The original is almost entirely one long burst of words, but I've broken it up into paragraphs.)

I ever thought thare was such a Thing as sincere friendship, and that some perticular Persons, with whom I had long been Intemate with And had made such great professions of it to me where possess’d with It. But I had given up the very Idea of such a thing, for the last three Months, and was become a perfect Infidel, Till yesterday Col. [James] Warren shew me a Letter from you to him in which you mention my being recommended to General Washington for a Commission, For which I return you my sincere Thanks; and am now become a Bleaver again. Even Mr. [Thomas] Cushing mentioned me in a Letter to Mr. [William or Samuel] Cooper. But how I am greaved not being thought off by him whom I Valued as the apple of My Eye. Out of sight out of Mind.
The editors of the Papers of John Adams suggest that Crafts was referring there to John Hancock.
I cannot Express the astonishment, Mortification and Disopointment I was thrown into on hearing the Appointmet of Mr. [Henry] Knox to the Command of the Train. On the 13th Instant was sent for by General Washington and offered the Majority in the Train—Under the following Officers, Col. Knox, Lt. Col. [William] Burbeck, Lt. Col. [David] Mason, First Major John Crane, which shocked me very much.
Lt. Col. Mason was formerly Captain of the Train in Boston but was so low and mean a person, thare was not an Officer or private that would train under him In consequence of which he was oblige’d to retire. Major Crane is a good Officer and a worthy Man But Last June he was only a Sarjant in the Company whereof I was Captain Lieutenant. You certainly will not blame me for not excepting under such humiliating Circumstances. I had the offer of the same place when you was down.
Badmouthing the people you'd work with if you get the job—not smart in any century. (Crane proved to be one of the Continental Army's best artillery officers, rising to colonel. Mason, wounded by a bursting mortar in March 1775, ended up overseeing the Laboratory at Springfield, precursor to the Springfield Armory.)

Crafts boldly suggested that he should get an even higher rank than major, with just a little reorganization of the regiment:
I see of but one way to provide for me In that Department. As the Redjt. of the Train is to be Devided into two Battalions, appointing me to Command One, It will make only the Addition of One Colonel, thare being One Colonel, Two Lt. Colonels and Two Majors Already Appointed.
Or perhaps he could displace another recent appointee:
I find Col. [Jonathan] Brewer is appointed Barrack-Master General. I was in hopes if I failed in the other Department Should have been provided for in this. Will not the services that I Endeavourd to do my Country—The Werasome Days and Sleepless Nights—Loss of time and the expenses I have been at from 1765 to 1775 Make an Interest for me Superior to Col. Brewer. If not Sir I submit to my Hard Cruel Hard fate. I like that place and should be fond of it as it would be less likely to give offence to Two Officers in said Train. You may remember I mentioned that Office to you when at Watertown.

I am now reduced from Comfortable Circumstances to a state of Poverty. An Ameeable Wife (As you know Sir) and four small Children to provide for. I realy wish myself in Boston. I could support with firmness all the Insults I might receive from a [Gen. William] Howe and his Bandity of Mercenaries, But to be negatted by those I thought my Friends, and my Country I cannot Support It.
After reporting on events in the siege and sending regards to other delegates, Crafts ended with his third postscript: "My mind is much agitated excuse bad speling and writing.”

A few months later, Crafts did become a colonel—not of the Continental Army, but of Massachusetts's militia artillery. Most of his officers were, like him, middling-class Sons of Liberty moving toward genteel status: Lt. Col. Thomas Melvill (ancestor of the novelist), Maj. Paul Revere, Capt. David Bradlee, Capt. John Gill, and so on. Their main job was fortifying Boston against attack from the sea. Furthermore, on 18 July 1776, Col. Crafts had the honor of standing in the balcony of the Old State House and reading the Declaration of Independence to the crowd below.

In the following years Crafts became a Boston selectman and then justice of the peace. On 18 Oct 1790, John Adams wrote to his cousin Samuel: “You and I have seen four noble families rise up in Boston,—the Craftses, Gores, Daweses, and Austins. These are as really a nobility in our town as the Howards, Somersets, Berties, &c., in England.” (Crafts's wife Frances was a Gore.) Agitated as he had felt in Dec 1775, Crafts was in the end one of the big winners of the Revolution, achieving both his political and his personal goals, probably far beyond what he'd imagined when he helped organize the first protests against Stamps in 1765.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Majority for Mr. Crafts

Today I return to this week's impromptu theme of Thomas Crafts, Jr.—decorative painter, militia officer, and protest co-organizer. Despite his grumbling in Dec 1772, Crafts remained active in Whig politics, serving on important committees during the confrontation over tea and the subsequent closing of Boston harbor. And then the war broke out.

In April 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress asked Col. Richard Gridley, a celebrated veteran of the siege of Fort Louisburg in 1745, to head the artillery force around Boston. The colonel, who was giving up a British army pension to sign on with the provincial forces, insisted that his youngest son Scarborough be one of his top officers, a major. The artillery regiment's lieutenant colonel was William Burbeck, who had looked after the cannons in Castle William, and the other major was David Mason, a Salem painter who had secretly gathered canons and mortars for the Provincial Congress starting in Nov 1774.

This system worked fine until there was a battle—the Battle of Bunker Hill, to be exact. Then the gunpowder supply system broke down, Scar Gridley stayed off the field, two other young company commanders left early, the colonel was wounded, and the regiment lost five of the six field-guns they had rolled into Charlestown. The only good news was that the British army had suffered even worse, and didn't try to break through the siege lines again. Gridley's artillery regiment seems to have spent the next few months building fortifications around Boston and feuding among themselves.

In the fall of 1775, Congress and Gen. George Washington decided they had to reorganize the regiment, now part of the Continental Army. Col. Gridley was kicked upstairs to the post of Chief Engineer, Scar Gridley and others removed from the army entirely. Twenty-five-year-old Henry Knox, a volunteer who had read a lot of books on military science, was put in command. (Why? Knox had no experience as an artillery officer before he became a colonel. This turned out to be a great decision, but there's no way Knox appeared most qualified on paper in late 1775. I'll speculate one day.)

During that shuffle, on 30 Nov 1775, the Continental Congress had resolved:

That the president inform the General [Washington] that two Gentlemen, viz: Thomas Crafts, jun. and George Trott, Esqrs. have been recommended to Congress as proper persons for field officers in said regiment, and that the General enquire into their characters and abilities; and if, upon enquiry, he shall judge them proper, and that the appointment of them will occasion no disturbance and disgust in the regiment, that he appoint them.
Who recommended those two men, Crafts and Trott? Delegate John Adams, who knew them as “old Friends” with experience as militia officers and years of service to the Whig cause. He had heard that they wanted Continental Army commissions. On 3 Dec 1775, Adams wrote to James Warren of Plymouth from Philadelphia:
I lately had an opportunity, suddenly, of mentioning two very deserving officers, Thomas Crafts Junior who now lives at Leominster and George Trot who lives at Braintree to be, the first a Lt Coll the second a Major of the Regiment of Artillery under Coll Knox. These are young Men under forty, excellent officers, very modest, civil, Sensible, and of prodigious Merit as well as Suffering in the American Cause. If they are neglected I shall be very mad, and kick and bounce like fury. Congress have ordered their Names to be sent to the General, and if he thinks they can be promoted without giving Disgust and making Uneasiness in the Regiment, to give them Commissions. Gen. Washington knows neither of them. They have too much Merit & Modesty to thrust themselves forward and solicit, as has been the Manner of too many. But they are excellent officers, and have done great Things both in the political and military Way. In short vast Injustice will be done if they are not provided for. Several Captains in the Artillery Regiment were privates under these officers in Paddocks Company [Boston's prewar militia artillery]. Captain [Edward] Crafts who is I believe the first Captain, is a younger Brother to Thomas. I believe that Burbeck, Mason, Foster &c [i.e., the artillery regiment’s existing officers] would have no objection.

The Merit of these Men from the Year 1764 to this day, has been very great tho not known to every Body. My Conscience tells me they ought to be promoted. They have more Merit between you and me than half the Generals in the Army.

Accordingly, on 11 Dec, Washington’s aide Robert Harrison sent Crafts this message:
I have it in Command from his Excellency to inform you that the Majority of the Regiment of Artillery is now vacant, and that he would wish you to fill it in Preference to any other Person. You will please to signify to him, whether you incline to accept it, as soon as you conveniently can.
By “Majority” Harrison meant the rank of major—serving below Col. Knox, Lt. Col. Burbeck, and Lt. Col. Mason (who had been promoted), helping to oversee the regiment's twelve company captains.

TOMORROW: Thomas Crafts, Jr., turns down the offer.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Publicans and Politicians

Earlier this month I wrote about Samuel Adams as a "publican," or person who contracts with a government to collect taxes, keeping a share of the revenue as his reward. That manner of governing was so out of date by the 1930s that John C. Miller didn't seem to recognize the term when he wrote his biography of Adams, and assumed it must have meant "tavernkeeper."

But publicans are coming back! According to the New York Times on 20 August,

Within two weeks, the I.R.S. will turn over data on 12,500 taxpayers—each of whom owes $25,000 or less in back taxes—to three collection agencies. . . . The move, an initiative of the Bush administration, represents the first step in a broader plan to outsource the collection of smaller tax debts to private companies over time. Although I.R.S. officials acknowledge that this will be much more expensive than doing it internally, they say that Congress has forced their hand by refusing to let them hire more revenue officers, who could pull in a lot of easy-to-collect money.
The publican firms are expected to keep about 23% of the revenue they collect. I.R.S. personnel tend to cost only about 3% of the revenue they bring in. Congress and the Bush-Cheney administration appear to be so eager to limit the government payroll and help well-connected private businesses that such obvious inefficiency doesn't matter to them. Nor the apparent need to warn the public about scam artists claiming to be under contract to the I.R.S., as the agency just did.

Though the administration isn't using the term "publicans," that's the simple dictionary term for private tax collectors. Boston also used that system to limit public salaries. Similarly, the town also relied on private firefighting companies (see 2001 article by new Tufts professor Benjamin Carp), who were licensed and rewarded for being first on the scene of a blaze, but not trained, equipped, or employed full-time by the town. (In 1760, a fire that started in William Jackson's store wiped out Boston's midsection. Coincidence?)

The term "publican" may regain contemporary currency in another way, too. Describing George W. Bush's press conference on Monday, the Times reported:
In calling the opposition the “Democrat Party” Mr. Bush was repeating a truncated, incorrect version of the party’s name that some Democrats have called a slight, an assertion the White House dismissed as ridiculous.
Of course, "democrat" has been a term of pride in America since Jacksonian times (while "republican" seems reduced to "not Democratic, not monarchist, but don't ask for any specifics"). But to judge the veracity of the White House's denial about Bush's intentions, we can consider that in the same press conference he claimed, "Nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack” on America on 11 Sept 2001, neglecting how Dick Cheney, Stephen J. Hadley, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and others in the administration did just that.

If Bush and his partisans want to use the label "Democrat Party," I figure members of the Democratic Party can refer to their opponents as the "Publican Party." With the White House and Congress turning over tax collection to modern publicans, at significant cost to the nation, the label seems all too appropriate.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Political Education of Thomas Crafts, Jr.

On 15 Jan 1766, decorative painter Thomas Crafts, Jr., aged twenty-five, and jeweler George Trott, aged twenty-four, invited thirty-four-year-old lawyer John Adams to spend the evening with their political club. In his diary, Adams called the group “the Sons of Liberty”; its membership overlaps almost exactly with the “Loyall Nine” who had organized Boston’s anti-Stamp Act protests in the previous months.

Adams reported that the young men met

at their own Apartment in Hanover Square, near the Tree of Liberty. It is a Compting Room in Chase & Speakmans Distillery. A very small Room it is. . . . We had Punch, Wine, Pipes and Tobacco, Bisquit and Cheese—&c. I heard nothing but such Conversation as passes at all Clubbs among Gentlemen about the Times. No Plotts, no Machinations. They Chose a Committee to make Preparations for grand Rejoicings upon the Arrival of the News of a Repeal of the Stamp Act, and I heard afterwards they are to have such Illuminations, Bonfires, Piramids, Obelisks, such grand Exhibitions, and such Fireworks, as were never before seen in America.—I wish they mayn't be disappointed.
The men weren’t disappointed in their hopes. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in early 1766, and there was general rejoicing. (Celebratory obelisk pictured above from an engraving by Paul Revere.)

In 1770, Crafts served as coroner during the Boston Massacre trial, and soon was a lieutenant in the town’s artillery company. By taking on such official responsibilities, the young painter was rising from the artisan class into the ranks of the gentlemen who bought his luxury services. Meanwhile, it appears, he was educating himself in political theory. (Thanks to Al Young for alerting me to the following.)

On 23 Dec 1772, Adams bumped into Crafts and Trott again:
Took a Walk this Morning to the South End, and had some Conversation with my old Friends Crafts and Trot. I find they are both cooled—both flattened away. They complain especially Crafts that they are called Tories—&c. &c. Crafts has got Swifts Contests and Dissentions of the Nobles and Commons of Athens and Rome, and is making Extracts from it—about Clodius and Curio, popular Leaders &c. &c.
Crafts was reading Jonathan Swift's 1701 pamphlet "Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions Between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome." Swift had argued that giving the House of Commons too much power could destabilize the whole government. (Not surprisingly, Swift had been commissioned to write this by a member of the House of Lords.) Clodius was a Roman politician from the first century B.C.E., Curio his defender at one point; Swift adopted Cicero's conservative, aristocratic position that Clodius's populism was dangerous.

Such an argument about the danger of more popular government may seem like ironic reading for a Boston Whig, who basically wanted more power for the locally elected legislature and less for royally appointed officials. But Crafts had long been involved in channeling and containing the townspeople's resentments. Since 1765 he and his Loyall Nine colleagues had tried to organize safe, non-violent demonstrations—like the Stamp Act repeal celebration Adams had heard them planning. At one point Crafts had even helped pull someone else's effigy off Liberty Tree. Violent disorder reflected badly on Boston and its ability to govern itself, genteel politicians insisted.

Apparently, by late 1772, some Bostonians had come to dislike Crafts's arguments against confrontation, and sneered that he had become a "Tory." With seven years of political activism behind him, Crafts took that hard. Adopting the politics of a gentleman exacted a cost.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Paul Giamatti is John Adams!

Hollywood websites are reporting that the HBO miniseries adaptation of David McCullough's John Adams biography will star Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti.

That's good casting. Giamatti could easily be made to look like Adams, and he's got the eager little popping explosivity that comes through the lawyer's diaries. Back in college, I had the pleasure of seeing Giamatti in several undergraduate plays; I particularly remember a production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros. He was great.

War Games on Boston Common

Militia training days were big events in eighteenth-century New England towns, and since Boston was the biggest town in the region, training day there was even bigger. The law required nearly all males between sixteen and sixty to drill with their town militia units in case they were needed to defend the province (or attack other territories). Drilling meant practicing how to march in formation, and to load and fire a musket. So a training day in Boston meant hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men marching and shooting on the Common. Naturally, it was quite a spectacle for the rest of the population.

The Boston News-Letter of 17 September 1772 described the training on the preceding Monday. First Col. John Erving led the entire regiment through the manual exercise, company by company. The latest addition to the provincial forces was the Boston grenadier company, which had bookseller Henry Knox among its young junior officers. Militiamen "performed as many Evolutions and Platoon Firings as the Time would allow, to great Acceptation." But then came the big show.

Boston, unique among Massachusetts towns at that time, had a company of field artillery in its militia. Most men in the unit were mechanics, often in the luxury crafts: carriage-maker, decorative painter, upholsterer. Many had ambitions to rise into the ranks of genteel society, and serving well as a militia officer could help. The artillery company, also called the "train," had four small brass cannon on maneuverable carriages and a few other artillery pieces, and on this September day they showed off their skills with a war game. The mock enemy was, of course, the French:

The Company of Artillery under Major [Adino] Paddock, having first been exercised as usual, performed another Mock Battle, as follows, A Detachment of the Company under Capt. [Jabez] Hatch and Lieut. [George] Trott drew off with two Cannon and a Mortar, and marched to Fox-Hill, so called, the Bottom of the Common, and encamp’d with French Colours flying: Upon which Major Paddock, with Lieutenants [Thomas] Crafts and [Edward] Tuckerman, and the Remainder of the Company march’d and took Post on a Hill opposite; from thence began to cannonade and bombard with artificial Bombs, which was answered from those in the Encampment: At this Station it was supposed no advantage could be had, the Major therefore marched off by the Right between the Powder-House and a Ridge of Hills, and form’d on the Right of the Ridge, which brought him on the Left of Fox-Hill, where he again began the Engagement, after firing a few Shot, he ordered Lt. Craft with one Cannon and a Party with Firelocks to pass a Defile in Front, at the same Time Capt. Hatch sent Lt. Trott to a Redoubt below his Post to oppose him, which Lt. Craft forced and obliged Lt. Trott to give way and run up to the Encampment. As soon as the Assailants mounted the Breastwork, a Parley was beat by Capt. Hatch and a Flag sent out offering to surrender on Conditions of being allowed all the Honors of War, which being refused, a brisk Firing began again from the Encampment. Whereupon the Remainder of the Company were ordered to join Lt. Craft who ascended the Hill briskly and forced the Encampment with charged Bayonets, flaming Hand-Grenades flying all the Time amidst the contending Parties: On which Capt. Hatch with his Party retired precipitantly down the opposite side of the Hill, the French Colours were struck and the Encampment represented to be set on Fire. Both Parties joined and marched with their Cannon in regular Order to their Parade, and after going through several Firings, retired.

The whole was executed in a Manner that did Honour to the Officers and Privates.

His Excellency the Governor [Thomas Hutchinson], was on the Common to see the Performance of the Regiment and Artillery Company; as were also a great Number of Gentlemen and Ladies, and People of all Ranks, who were highly pleased with the present Spirit for Military Art.
Lieutenants Trott and Crafts were both members of the Loyall Nine, the small group that had organized Boston's early Stamp Act protests in 1765. In contrast, their regimental commander, Major (later Colonel) Paddock, was a Loyalist. They would end up on opposite sides of the real war.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Henry Bass Spills the Beans on a Political Protest

In December 1765, merchant Henry Bass sent his father-in-law a remarkably candid letter describing how he and his political comrades had just organized an anti-Stamp Act protest:

Boston 19 Decr 1765.

Hon’d Sir,—

On seeing Messrs. Edes & Gills last mondays Paper [i.e., the Boston Gazette of 16 Dec, which hinted that Andrew Oliver had not gone through with his promise to resign as London's Stamp distributor in Boston, which he had made under threats in August], the Loyall Nine repair’d the same Evg. to Liberty Hall [Chase and Speakman's rum distillery in the South End of Boston, shown above], in order to Consult what further should be done respecting Mr. Oliver’s Resignation, as what had been done heretofore, we tho’t not Conclusive and upon some little time debating we apprehended it would be most Satisfactory to the Publick to send a Letter to desire him to appear under Liberty tree at 12 oClock on Tuesday, to make a publick Resignation under Oath:—the Copy of which the Advertisement, his Message, Resignation and Oath you have Inclos’d.

The whole affair transacted by the Loyall Nine, in writing the Letter, getting the advertisements Printed, which were all done after 12 oClock Monday Night, the Advertisements Pasted up to the amount of a hundred was all done from 9 to 3. oClock.

You also have a Copy, of what he said to the Publick as near as we can Recolect: he thank’t the Gentlemen for the Polite Letter and treatment he Received The Copy of what you have Inclos’d, was last Evg sent to Messrs. Drapers to be put in to days Paper [i.e., the Boston News-Letter, published on Thursdays] wh. Directions not to print any of the transactions, without they did the whole; if the[y] could not wt. propriety as being the Government’s Printers [i.e., being paid by the royal government of Massachusetts to publish official notices] to send it to the Patriots of Messs. Edes & Gill, for whom we have the greatest respect. The whole was Conducted to the General Satisfaction of the Publick.

And upon the Occasion we that Evg. had a very Genteel Supper provided to which your very good friends Mr. S— A— [Samuel Adams] and E— & G— [Edes & Gill, who had a "Long Room" over their print shop often used for private Patriot gatherings] and three or four others and spent the Evening in a very agreable manner Drinkg Healths etc.

Dr. Sir,—I must desire you’d keep this a profound Secret and not to Let any Person see these Papers, and should be glad when you come to town youd bring them with you, as we have no other Coppys, and choose to keep them as Archives. We do every thing in order to keep this and the first Affair Private: and are not a little pleas’d to hear that [shoemaker Ebenezer] McIntosh has the Credit of the whole Affair. We Endeavour to keep up the Spirit which I think is as great as ever.

I give you joy in the Custom house being Opened, & hope soon to advise you of the Courts of justice doing the same, I am wh. my best wishes for you and Familys health and Happiness Your affe. friend

[Henry Bass]

P.S. I have Recd. a Letter from Billey he Begs you’d send him down his Jackets and Breeches, as he Stands in great need of ‘em. I should be glad you’d write me more perticular what Sort of Plank you want faiths tells me two Inch: Let me know in your next and about the Boards etc.
The Loyall Nine had "the greatest respect" for printers Edes & Gill because Benjamin Edes was a member of the Loyall Nine. Also in the small group was vegetarian japanner Thomas Crafts, Jr. Ebenezer Mackintosh, though highly visible at protests as captain of the South End gang, was not a member of this socially and politically ambitious group, and Bass was glad of that.

This letter appears in the forty-fourth volume of the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Vegging Out in Colonial Boston

Among all the questions you folks might have about the people of pre-Revolutionary Boston, foremost on your minds is, I'm sure:

Were any of them vegetarians?
And the answer is yes. (Otherwise, I wouldn't have anything to write today.)

Benjamin Franklin described how he came to try vegetarianism (and how it came to try the landlady who cooked for him) in his Autobiography:
When about 16 years of age [i.e., about 1722] I happened to meet with a book, written by one Tryon, recommending a vegetable diet. I determined to go into it. My brother, being yet unmarried, did not keep house, but boarded himself and his apprentices in another family. My refusing to eat flesh occasioned an inconveniency, and I was frequently chid for my singularity. I made myself acquainted with Tryon's manner of preparing some of his dishes, such as boiling potatoes or rice, making hasty pudding, and a few others, and then proposed to my brother, that if he would give me, weekly, half the money he paid for my board, I would board myself. He instantly agreed to it, and I presently found that I could save half what he paid me. This was an additional fund for buying books. But I had another advantage in it. My brother and the rest going from the printing-house to their meals, I remained there alone, and, despatching presently my light repast, which often was no more than a bisket or a slice of bread, a handful of raisins or a tart from the pastry-cook's, and a glass of water, had the rest of the time till their return for study, in which I made the greater progress, from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking.
The author Franklin emulated was Thomas Tryon (1643-1703), a British businessman whose radical religious views led him to write a great many books about economic policy, health care, education, early Abolitionism, and other possible reforms. It's unclear which Tryon book Franklin read. Some didn't advocate vegetarianism per se, but only warned against "the immoderate eating of flesh without a due observation of time, or nature of the creature." One even explained how "to preserve eggs five or six months from being musty or rotten." I suspect one title that appealed to young Benjamin was:
Pocket-companion, containing things necessary to be known by all that values their health and happiness being a plain way of nature's own prescribing, to cure most diseases in men, women and children, by kitchen-physick only: to which is added, an account how a man may live well and plentifully for two-pence a day
Later Franklin left his brother's print-shop (running away) and left vegetarianism, with this reasoning:
...in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm'd off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider'd, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

More prominent as a vegetarian, since he was more than a lowly teenaged apprentice and stuck to it for longer, was Thomas Crafts. He was:
  • a decorative painter ("japanner") by training.
  • a member of the "Loyall Nine" who organized the first Stamp Act protest in August 1765—and who ended one later protest by removing an effigy hung on Liberty Tree without his group's approval.
  • coroner who testified during the Boston Massacre trial.
  • third-in-command of Boston's prewar artillery militia company.
  • head of the town's committee on accepting and distributing donations for the poor after the London government closed the port to transatlantic trade.
  • colonel in charge of the Massachusetts militia artillery for the first years of the war (he stepped down before the disastrous Penobscot expedition).
  • selectman and justice of the peace in Boston for many years during and after the war.
According to an 1897 history of the Crafts family:
The Colonel is described by his contemporaries as a man of immense stature; very powerful, and it is said that he lived entirely on vegetable products and milk.

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.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Conferences in Fall 2006

On 10-12 November, Historic Deerfield is hosting a symposium on powder horns of the French & Indian War, in connection to its exhibit of the William H. Guthman collection of horns. Registration brochure available from the website. I checked out these horns last summer, and they're quite interesting as military folk art.

Before that, on 6-8 October, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture has a conference on Warfare and Society in Colonial North America and the Caribbean in Knoxville, Tennessee. Among the sessions on Friday is "The Obligations and Opportunities of Military Service", with these enticing speakers and topics:

Chair: Sylvia R. Frey, Tulane University, emeritus
Opportunity and Risk in Eighteenth-Century Warfare: Privateering and Fugitive Slaves in British North America, Charles R. Foy, Rutgers University
Gone for a Soldier: Who Were the New England Provincial Soldiers?, Steven C. Eames, Mount Ida College
Joining the Continental Army: Young Men Coming of Age as Revolutionary Soldiers, John Ruddiman, Yale University
Friends and Brothers: Boy Soldiers of the Continental Army, Caroline Cox, University of the Pacific
Comment: Elizabeth Mancke, University of Akron
Also, the following day: The Massachusetts Art of War, 1765–1775, Harold E. Selesky, University of Alabama. Nearly all of those topics dovetail with my research, and there are other notables speaking as well.

The OIEAHC conference is free, and I'm already an Institute associate. I have an uncle in Knoxville who might be willing to put me up. But can I wrangle the airfare and the time away? (Plus, at next June's OIEAHC/Society of Early Americanists conference in Williamsburg there will be a panel on apprentices. Oh, what to do?)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Things Are Tough All Over

This month brought a spate of news reports about Boston's historic landmarks undergoing or needing repair. As the Boston Globe reported on 13 August, the Old State House is swathed in scaffolding. Tropical Storm Wilma damaged the 1713 building's northeast corner;

rainwater seeped through the building's porous bricks and aging mortar, warping wooden wainscoting inside, stripping away paint, and causing plaster to bubble and buckle. . . . An inspection of the building revealed slates were missing from the roof, the building's white tower—once the highest point in the city, second only to Old North Church—was rotting, and wooden windowsills needed replacing.
The photo above shows a leaking chimney.

The Old State House is probably the most historic structure in Boston, with all due respect to Faneuil Hall and the Old South Meeting-House. For much of the 1700s, the brick building—then called the "Town House"—was Boston's headquarters for all levels of government: the General Court (legislature) and Superior Court (highest level of the judiciary) of the province, and town meetings.

Even after the town government moved to Faneuil Hall and a new courthouse went up on Queen Street (now Court Street), the Town House was the epicenter of Massachusetts politics. That was where James Otis, Jr., argued against writs of assistance in 1761, first articulating the case that Parliament did not have the power to enact laws on an American province. It was where Samuel Adams became Clerk of the House and led the legislature in opposing new powers for royal officials. In 1770, the Town House overlooked the Boston Massacre; from its balcony Gov. Thomas Hutchinson asked the angry crowd to disperse, and in its rooms the next day Adams made the case for Hutchinson to remove the soldiers from the center of town.

The National Park Service is responsible for maintaining the Old State House building, though it belongs to Boston and is inhabited by the Bostonian Society. That non-profit organization has taken the lead in raising $3 million to repair the building, knowing how the NPS budget has been stretched first by security concerns and then by Congress seeking ways to pay for the 2005 hurricane damage while still cutting taxes.

Over at another NPS site, Longfellow House in Cambridge, I saw that the east porch is roped off, no longer usable during summer concerts and poetry readings. The wood is clearly in need of repair and painting. That porch wasn't part of the 1759 Georgian mansion when George Washington lived there in 1775-76, but former Continental Army Apothecary General Andrew Craigie added it when he expanded his property in the 1790s. Again, Congress writes the NPS budget and steers its major priorities.

In other news, the Globe and Boston Metro both ran an AP story on efforts to preserve the Boston Light, the lighthouse for Boston harbor in use since 1783. The first Boston Light was built in 1716, but the British military blew it up when they evacuated the region in 1776. The Americans chose not to rebuild the lighthouse until the war had ended so it couldn't be a landmark for English sea captains.

The Globe also reported that this month at the Old West Church, in some ways successor to the West Meeting-House of Revolutionary Boston, someone
desecrated the pulpit Bible, yanked Easter lilies from their pots, threw Methodist hymnals on the floor, cut up the century-old paintings of the church's original pastors, and damaged a 6-by-5-foot modern acrylic painting of Jesus.
Congregants expect they'll be able to repair the damage.

Finally, up north in New Hampshire, the Globe noted that the house at the Daniel Webster birthplace is closed with a collapsing hearth and rotting wood. Webster was born there in 1782; he moved to Massachusetts and became a renowned senator and litigator and a less universally well-regarded Secretary of State. As an orator Webster was in such high regard that he was invited to speak at the laying of the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument in 1825, and then invited back for its official opening in 1843.

Speaking of which, the Bunker Hill NPS site is closed, too, for serious refurbishing.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Revolutionary Reviews in the new WMQ

The July 2006 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly arrived this week, containing several items pertinent to Revolutionary Boston. But unfortunately you can't read them online unless you or your sponsoring library subscribes to the William and Mary Quarterly. Which kind of negates the point.

(I would never, of course, reveal that a 2004 manuscript of Michael P. Winship's lead article on "Godly Republicanism and the Massachusetts Polity" can be downloaded in PDF form here until the seminar series sponsor cleans up the old files on its site.)

However, the journal's book reviews are available online as PDF files, and here are those that touch on Revolutionary New England:

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Closer Look at Psalm-Singing

After my posts last week on Samuel Adams's psalm-singing and his latter-day reputation for tavern-going, authors M. T. Anderson and Alfred F. Young both sent messages about the frontispiece for William Billings's seminal New England Psalm-Singer (1770). That's it to the left, courtesy of the Library of Congress; click on the image there for a larger view of the engraving, created by Paul Revere.

As Tobin Anderson and Al Young both pointed out, Revere didn't depict these psalm-singers as a church choir. Nor are they working-class "Mechanicks" of the sort Judge Peter Oliver complained that Adams lured into psalm-singing societies in order to talk politics. They're gentlemen in wigs, gathered in a genteel setting: expensive tablecloth, carved chairs, lots of windows. There are no drinks visible to indicate a tavern, but neither does the room look like a meeting-house. It is, apparently, a private club or society, where gentlemen have met to sing psalms. Perhaps they were in one member's house, perhaps in a public space like a room in an upscale tavern or coffee-house, or the Long Room above Edes & Gill's print shop. (Edes & Gill sold the New England Psalm-Singer.)

How accurate is this depiction? One factor is whether Revere copied the scene from a model, as he usually did with his more elaborate engravings. In Paul Revere's Engravings, Clarence S. Brigham suggests that he came up with this image on his own—in other words, no one's found a model he copied. The rendering of faces and perspective is as amateurish as Revere usually was without such help. He may have put extra hours into engraving this plate because it wasn't a time-sensitive response to current events; indeed, Billings wrote in his preface that he'd delayed publication more than a year in order to print on American-made paper. So Revere may well have drawn a scene he knew from Boston. Of course, gentlemen weren't the only Bostonians singing psalms—but showing them with copies of Billings's tunes would have made these new psalms look even more respectable and fashionable.

Anderson wrote of how the frontispiece "suggests the penetration of sacred music into locales other than the church where we imagine it," and, conversely, how "Billings's texts are often overtly political—when not simply naming names, they make delightfully bombastic analogies between the Biblical and the revolutionary." This trend became even stronger after the war began, but even in 1770 Billings was in the Patriot camp (and his tannery was on the same street where Christopher Seider's parents lived). As Peter Oliver's complaint about Adams showed, the Patriots intertwined their religious and political activities. Anderson added:

I would have loved to see what Adams made of Billings—this blustering figure, so amiable, so peculiar, one leg shorter than the other, one arm shorter than the other, one-eyed, thumbs yellow with snuff, stinking of the tannery; not just composer, drover, and tanner, but hog-reeve, garbage collector, and the first editor of The Boston Magazine. Imagine how moving the singing-schools must have been around the time of the Revolution—people gathered, singing these brave tunes of sedition...and Adams perhaps among them.
Look for more of M. T. Anderson's depiction of Revolutionary Boston in his novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, due next month from Candlewick.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mistaken Identity at Fort Griswold

Yesterday I visited Fort Griswold in Groton, Connecticut, which is about to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the British army storming the site on 6 Sept 1781. It’s an unusually well preserved eighteenth-century fortification, largely because the U.S. military site continued to use it until the twentieth century, preventing private development. But the people of Groton and New London, across the Thames River, were also quick off the mark to memorialize the battle on their waterfront. They formed a committee to build a monument in 1820 and completed it by 1830 (three and twelve years before Bostonians did the same for the Battle of Bunker Hill).

One reason I stopped at Fort Griswold involves the Bucks of America, which William C. Nell in The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855) said was an all-African-American unit attached to the Continental Army. One of the abiding mysteries of the Revolutionary era is that there's no record of this unit besides its flag, now owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Some sources, such as this National Park Service webpage and this article on Wikipedia, say the Bucks of America fought at Fort Griswold. That presents problems for the standard stories of both the Bucks and the fort. The unit was supposed to be a Continental Army unit, and in 1781 the fort was staffed at very short notice by local militia, not the army.

There’s a simple explanation for how this confusion arose. The commander of the Bucks of America, Nell wrote, was a Boston man named George Middleton. In 1855 George Middleton, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, wrote an account of the storming of Fort Griswold, which he had seen from afar as a boy. These were obviously two separate men since the first died on 6 Apr 1815, forty years before the second wrote.

Benjamin Quarles cited the recollections of the younger George Middleton when he described the Fort Griswold battle in The Negro in the American Revolution. (Two local African-American men were among the defenders who died in the battle.) Quarles had no reason to identify Middleton beyond his name and the citation of the battle history where his account was published.

People naturally looked in Quarles’s book for information about the Bucks of America. They didn’t find any, but they did find the reference to George Middleton as an eyewitness to the battle at Fort Griswold. Ergo, they concluded, the Bucks unit must have been there. Unfortunately, it’s a case of mistaken identity.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Federal recognition for Freedom's Way?

Last month the Boston Globe reported on how the National Park Service has suggested it be allowed to designate National Heritage Areas without waiting for congressional approval of each, the way National Monuments and National Historical Parks must be designated by law.

One of the areas under consideration, which provided the hook for the Globe article, is the "Freedom's Way" , promoted by the Freedom's Way Heritage Association. Alan Wirzbicki's Globe dispatch describes the situation this way:

The proposed "Freedom's Way" region in New England covers an area of 45 towns in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire that were hotbeds of support for Patriot forces against the British during the American Revolution, as well as for the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage during the 19th century.

Plans for Freedom's Way include sites in the Boston suburbs of Concord, Lexington, and Arlington, and extends as far west to the towns of Winchendon and north to Amherst, N.H. . . .

The Massachusetts communities that would be included in the Heritage Area are: Winchendon, Ashburnham, Ashby, Townsend,Pepperell, Dunstable, Gardner, Westminster, Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Shirley, Ayer, Groton, Leominster, Lancaster, Harvard, Littleton, Westford, Princeton, Sterling, Boxborough, Acton, Carlisle, Clinton, Bolton, Stow, Maynard, Concord, Bedford, Hudson, Sudbury, Lincoln, Lexington, Woburn, Arlington, Medford, and Malden.
The advocacy group has a map to show the area's scope.

Why, some of us from communities south of this area might ask, is this the "Freedom's Way Heritage Area" and other Middlesex villages and towns not? As far as the Revolutionary connection goes, the answer may lie in the actions of Paul Revere and William Dawes, Jr., the two men who came out of Boston on 18 April 1775 with news that the army regulars were marching west. Dawes followed his instructions from Dr. Joseph Warren and rode straight toward Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that they might be in danger; with good intelligence from sympathizers in London, the Boston radicals probably knew that the London government had advised Gage to make arrests. (Gage didn't do so because he had other things uppermost on his mind, but that's another story.)

Revere, in contrast to Dawes, stopped at towns along his route to share his news with local militia leaders. As David Hackett Fischer documents in Paul Revere's Ride, Revere was well-networked; he knew lots of men in the movement. The officers Revere talked to in turn sent alarm riders further away from Boston with the news. The towns that Dawes rode through didn't hear about the regulars until that chain of communication had circled west and back down to them, or until news of the shootings at Lexington arrived.

The result is that the "Middlesex Alarm" spread north and northwest more quickly than it spread south and southwest. The town militia units that responded in time to participate in the Battle of Lexington & Concord (or, more accurately, the counterattack on the returning British column) came disproportionately from the northern half of the province. Most towns in the southern half also mobilized, but not in time to have as big an effect. The town of Waltham never seems to have heard the alarm at all.

Now are those historical circumstances really what define the "Freedom's Way National Heritage Area"? Or do the guiding concerns have to do more with the current environment, controlled economic development, and the legacy of nineteenth-century reform movements? I suspect the Revolutionary history is influential, not definitive. But Revolutionary heritage and "freedom" always play better in Washington.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

History as Snooping and Gossiping

The 1 August History Carnival clued me in to Timothy Burke's essay on HNN, "Historian as Snoop." It's about colonial history—though not the sort that took place in Boston before 1775. Rather, it's about African colonial administration of a hundred years ago. But that's just the case study, the example Burke draws from as he discusses his real topic.

Burke is really writing about what it's like for a historian to work through an archive, finding and assembling the interesting stories that those papers tell but weren't necessarily meant to tell. It's about the thrill of discovery or, to use Burke's term, snooping on people of the past.

I would add that another secret appeal of the historical craft is gossiping—passing on what you've learned about those people. Burke writes, "I’m never really going to do much with this slice of human experience except blog about it." Naturally, keeping the information to himself was out of the question.

Good history doesn't end with snooping and gossiping, I hasten to add. There's analysis, comparing one person's story to others, or aggregating many stories to see trends, or pulling back even further to spot long-term trends that few people of the time could notice. But I think snooping and gossiping are a couple of the basic human instincts that the avocation satisfies.

If historians aren't gossips, after all, then why do they spend so much time talking about other historians?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Samuel Adams: "the psalm-singer"

Yesterday's post discussed the nickname "Sam the Publican" for Samuel Adams, and why it almost certainly referred to his inadequate work as a town tax collector in the early 1760s. Biographer John C. Miller and other authors have taken that nickname as evidence that Adams hung around taverns, recruiting people for his political causes. After all, that was the West's image of "revolutionaries" in 1936, when Miller wrote. But Adams's political rivals in the 1700s had a very different complaint about him.

Probably the most delightfully cranky and gossipy account of the political disputes in Boston is Peter Oliver's "Origin and Progress of the American Revolution": A Tory View. Oliver was the last royal Chief Justice of Massachusetts, brother of the second-to-last royal Lieutenant Governor, and related by marriage to second-to-last royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson. Among Oliver's complaints about Adams was that he

had a good Voice, & was a Master in vocal Musick. This Genius he improved, by instituting singing Societys of Mechanicks [i.e., craftsmen], where he presided; & embraced such Opportunities to ye inculcating Sedition.
Later in his account, Oliver refers to “Mr. Saml. Adams’s Psalm-singing Myrmidons.” (Myrmidons were fierce warriors in the Trojan War; out of that context, the word was an educated way of saying "thugs.")

John Mein, the printer who first published the "Samuel the Publican" insult, followed up by saying Adams was "noted for Psalm singing, & leader of the Band at Checkleys Meeting”—i.e., the Rev. Samuel Checkley's congregation at the New South Meeting-House. (Adams's first wife was Checkley's daughter.) John Fleeming, Mein's business partner, referred to Adams as "the psalm-singer" in the letter to Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., that led to that doctor's exposure as a British agent in 1775.

In sum, the friends of the royal government agreed that Adams liked to sing psalms in church, and recruited working-men to the Whigs during choir rehearsals. That fits with Adams's conservative religious beliefs, which I've mentioned before. But it sure doesn't fit with our image of revolutionaries in taverns.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Samuel Adams: What did "Sam the Publican" mean?

In 1769, Scottish-born printer John Mein issued a pamphlet that assailed the leaders of the Boston Whigs by referring to them with nicknames that were, let's say, unflattering: "Johny Dupe, Esq.," "Deacon Clodpate," "William the Knave," "Muddlehead," and so on. Obviously, this was political invective, and therefore we have to treat it cautiously as a historical source. But one of Mein's political insults has been adopted and repeated by many twentieth-century writers: Mein referred to Samuel Adams as "Samuel the Publican."

In his 1936 biography Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda, John C. Miller picked up on that phrase and wrote:

Sam Adams discovered these taverns with their "tippling, nasty, vicious crew" excellent recruiting grounds for the mobs he later raised against the Tories and Crown officers. Adams himself was a familiar figure in Boston taverns; one of his choice nicknames among the Tories was "Sam the Publican."
(I'm not sure where the "tippling, nasty, vicious crew" quote comes from, but obviously not from Samuel Adams; calling folks that is no way to win friends and influence people, especially if they've been tippling.) Miller's portrait of Adams—part psychoanalytic, part political, mostly negative—helped to determine the popular image of the man for the rest of the twentieth century.

But there's a big problem with Miller's claim that Adams "was a familiar figure in Boston taverns": his only evidence for that remark is the "Publican" nickname, which in all likelihood meant something different from what Miller thought. The word "publican" has two meanings, as Merriam-Webster's and other dictionaries show:
  • tavernkeeper (deriving from another name for such an establishment, a "public house")
  • tax collector, particularly a citizen who contracts with the government to collect taxes in exchange for a fraction of the revenue (this meaning of the word is the older one, from the Latin publicanus)
Samuel Adams never kept a tavern, but he was a Boston tax collector in the early 1760s. He failed at collecting all the taxes due, leaving himself in debt to the government. According to a document published in vol. 14 of the New England Historical & Genealogical Register, Adams's debt was over £1,000 by the late 1760s. Some historians suggest that by going easy on taxpayers during the post-French & Indian War recession, he had made himself popular with voters. Certainly being the tax collector was one way for a nascent politician to get to know everyone in town.

John Mein obviously wanted to say the worst about his political enemies, and Adams's most vulnerable spot was his big outstanding debt to the government. Other political writers brought up that issue as well. In April 1775, for example, a friend of the royal government annotated a list of Patriots appointed to enforce the Continental Congress's boycott on British goods. Beside Adams's name that person wrote:
Formerly a collector of taxes and largely in debt to the Town of Boston. The principal spring and manager of plots and conspiracies against the State;—famous for smoking bacon and always shudders at the sight of hemp.
Nothing about taverns, but a clear reference to the tax debt. (As well as an unclear reference to bacon. The hemp remark probably meant Adams should worry about being hanged.)

Thus, in the context of 1769 "Samuel the Publican" didn't mean, "Samuel who hangs around in taverns"; it meant "Samuel the tax-collector who still owes Boston money." Which leaves little evidence for Miller's portrait of Adams as "a familiar figure in Boston taverns."

TOMORROW: So where did Samuel Adams find young recruits for the Whig party?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

English Language Besieged by Immigrants

Last month Language Log, one of the giants of blogdom, offered host Mark Liberman's item about anti-immigrant worries in Pennsylvania on the eve of the Revolution. That eighteenth-century tempest has, as Liberman notes, a lot of resonance now as Congress prepares for show hearings on immigration in various legislative districts, not necessarily those most affected by the phenomenon.

Back in Benjamin Franklin's time, the immigrant group that supposedly wasn't blending in and learning the language was the Germans. Sociologists have long found that within two or three generations new immigrant families assimilate into the larger American culture. However, some of those eighteenth-century German immigrants are exceptions to that trend. Their descendants maintain their original language, send their children to separate schools, and otherwise resist the cultural influence of those they call the "English." Their birth rate is high, producing a squeeze on land in the regions where they settle in large numbers. They refuse to participate in the national armed services. But for some reason anti-immigrant groups never complain about the Old Order Amish. Why would that be?

When it came to immigration in the 1700s, Massachusetts was far more homogeneous than Pennsylvania—because it was less welcoming to anyone not English (including Scots and Irish). Pennsylvania offered religious freedom; Massachusetts law still favored Congregationalism. Still, there was enough of a German population in Boston that the first person killed in the Revolutionary political conflict was a child of immigrants from Langensteinbach: Christopher Seider. Of the next five men killed, in the Boston Massacre, Patrick Carr was from Ireland and Crispus Attucks was probably from the Natick Indian community—both ethnic minorities, and perhaps both linguistic ones as well.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Welcome Back, Watertown!

Watertown, Massachusetts, has a public library again. Okay, its public library never closed; the collection and staff just moved to the cramped space of a former elementary school while the old building was expanded and refurbished. But now the main library is open again, with the collection back on the shelves, and it's a terrific building.

Much of the structure is new and shiny, with glass walls and computer terminals everywhere. But the building incorporates the classical wood and plasterwork of the oldest part of the original (parts shown here), making an appropriate home for Watertown's excellent local history collection.

The town's own colonial and Revolutionary records are unusually thorough and have been published in several volumes. The library owns histories on many other Massachusetts localities. And this collection contains what I've come to think of as the big three historical journals for research in pre-Revolutionary Boston:

The last is the hardest to find in a public collection. In addition, if you look around the local history room enough, you can find the Bostonian Society Proceedings, William Lincoln's Records of Each Provincial Congress, Massachusetts Soldiers & Sailors of the Revolution, and many other useful sources not usually found outside a research library. Not all the volumes are in the right order yet, and many spines are shaken, but you can't beat the access at a community library.

One addition to the Watertown library building is a small cafe. I first saw that feature of modern library architecture at the Princeton, New Jersey, library, which has a store as well. (I head to Princeton later this week, and will probably post some items from the terminals there.) A coffee shop seems to have become de rigueur for larger public libraries in the last ten years. The award-winning Newton, Massachusetts, library opened without one before that time, and lately has struggled to adapt a small conference room for that use. It appears that Barnes & Noble and Starbucks have each in their way made it impossible to read without drinking coffee, or drink coffee without reading.