After the Rev. William Gordon’s The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America was printed in England in 1788 and then reprinted in the U.S. of A., Bostonians who had heard the minister read from his manuscript were puzzled. Parts of it seemed to be missing.
One man, writing to a Boston newspaper in 1821-22, recalled hearing Gordon read “three or four pages” about how the 47th Regiment of Foot had tarred and feathered a Billerica farmer named Thomas Ditson, Jr., in March 1775. In the printed version, that episode occupied only “a few lines.” Another correspondent noted a sensitive topic that had dropped out: “I refer here particularly to the subject of negro slavery.” He added that Gordon “was also persuaded to soften his harsh picture of the illustrious Exempt.” I have no idea what that means, but it could refer to the portrayal of such popular figures as John Hancock.
The first writer told the newspaper, in a reminiscence reprinted in Hezekiah Niles’s Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America, of what he’d heard about the book’s publication:
In 1790 I embarked for England, where I was introduced to a relation of Doctor Gordon, of whom I enquired how the Doctor had succeeded in his history? He smiled and said, “It was not Doctor Gordon’s history!”In any event, the history didn’t become a success. People saw its style as stodgy. Gordon was unable to retire on the proceeds, and ended up a poor minister for a poor congregation.
On my requesting an explanation, he hold me, that on the Doctor’s arrival in England, he placed his manuscript in the hands of an intelligent friend, on whom he could depend, who, (after perusing it with care), declared that it was not suited to the meridian of England, consequently would never sell. The style was not agreeable—it was too favourable to the Americans—above all, it was too full of libels against some of the most respectable characters in the British army and navy—and that if he possessed a fortune equal to the duke of Bedford’s, he would not be able to pay the damages that might be recovered against him, as the truth would not be allowed to be produced in evidence.
The doctor had returned to his native country, and expected to enjoy “otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity].” Overwhelmed with mortification, and almost with despair, he asked the advice of his friend; who recommended him to place the manuscript in the hands of a professional gentleman, that it might be new modelled, and made agreeable to English readers; this was assented to by the doctor, and the history which bears his name was compiled and written from his manuscript, by another hand!
Furthermore, the final text—whoever was responsible for it—destroyed Gordon’s reputation as a historian a century later. In the Annual Report of the American Historical Association for 1899, Orin Grant Libby showed that large portions of Gordon’s History were copied or closely paraphrased from The Annual Register, a Whiggish review of the events of each previous year co-founded by Edmund Burke. Other passages came from The History of the Revolution in South Carolina (1785), by Dr. David Ramsay (shown above, courtesy of the Smithsonian).
Kids, don’t try this at school! Our standards on plagiarism have become much stricter, especially in the last few years. Authors quoted much more freely in the 18th century. In fact, Ramsay also borrowed from The Annual Register, and when he revised his own book, historian Arthur H. Shaffer noted, he adopted some of Gordon’s rewrites of his prose.
Without Gordon’s original manuscript, it’s impossible to know whether he had copied that material himself or his British editor did. But he certainly signed off on the final text and hoped to make money off it. And the result of its twisted journey to print is that most modern historians consult Gordon’s book for sporadic passages about Revolutionary politics and war in Massachusetts, where he had first-hand knowledge, and ignore the rest as derivative.
(Back in April, the 18th-Century Reading Room ran a passage from Gordon’s book about Gen. Charles Lee.)