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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Friday, May 25, 2007

Rev. William Gordon Sails with His Manuscript

The Rev. William Gordon, a minister in Roxbury, started to chronicle America’s Revolution in mid-1775. He published a long letter describing the Battle of Lexington and Concord in the 7 June Philadelphia Gazette. At the end of the year, as I mentioned earlier in the week, his expanded account of that day graced some American almanacs.

After the war ended in 1783, Gordon completed The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America. But rather than publish in the U.S. of A., he decided to return to England with his manuscript. Perhaps he hoped the printing and the market for such a long history would be better there; he was hoping to retire on the proceeds.

Gordon also told Sir John Temple, another Englishman who had lived in Boston and supported the Whigs, that he feared in America “those individuals who now occupy eminencies will be most horribly affected by an impartial history.”

In The Politics of History: Writing the History of the American Revolution, 1783-1815, Arthur H. Shaffer said, “It is difficult to ascertain what portions of Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Independence of the United States of America would have given offense. In its published form it is an unblinking justification of the American cause.”

That’s true, but so was Mercy Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, and that book upset John Adams so much that it ruined their friendship of many years. Adams thought Warren paid too little attention to the young country’s Dutch alliance. (Not coincidentally, he was the Congress’s minister to Holland.) She also used her history, and especially its footnotes, to praise Republican politicians like Elbridge Gerry and attack Federalists like Timothy Pickering.

Viewed from a distance, the histories by Gordon and Warren are both rah-rah American. But leaders who had lived through the war read those accounts closely to find their own names, and some were quick to accuse and complain.

I think Gordon was particularly mindful of John Hancock’s reaction. In 1786 Hancock had just finished his first stretch of terms as governor of Massachusetts and had been reelected President of the Continental Congress. He was very popular in New England, immensely so in Massachusetts. He also had a touchy ego, and there was already bad blood between the two men. At a meeting of the Harvard College overseers in 1777, Gordon had pressed Hancock hard to finish his job as treasurer and balance the accounts. Privately, the minister called the politician “John Puff.” And, as yesterday’s anecdote about Hancock and Samuel Adams shows, Gordon didn’t keep that disdain out of his History. So it might well have been wiser to publish outside of Massachusetts.

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