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

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Myth in the Making in Framingham?

Sunday’s Boston Globe West Weekly section (i.e., stories that aren’t even important enough for our whole readership, just one region) ran a story headlined:

Revolutionary secrets unfold
Researchers' finding: Framingham had independent spirit of its own
Revolutionary secrets? Of course I’m interested! Unfortunately, it turned out to be a case of trying to make 1 + 1 = 6. Or perhaps even 0 + 1 = 6.

The research started here:
[Framingham] Homeowners Rollin and Betsy Johnson were looking through a folder of historical notes on the house that had been assembled by a previous owner.

The notes included an intriguing suggestion—that [John] Trowbridge, who owned the house during colonial times, may have hosted secret meetings of the Committee of Safety—a group founded by rebellious colonists in 1772 to galvanize towns outside of Boston against the British.
So there are no primary documents yet, just unsourced notes from an interested party. Furthermore, if that’s an accurate description of the notes, they should immediately have raised doubts. In late 1772 Samuel Adams urged Boston to form a “Committee of Correspondence,” which wrote to other Massachusetts towns inviting them to do the same. “Committees of Safety” weren’t formed by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and some individual towns until late 1774 when there was a threat of imminent war.

Framingham’s town meeting responded to the Boston Committee of Correspondence’s letter by forming an ad hoc committee to draft a reply on 1 Mar 1773. (Boston’s committee answered in turn on 13 April, the same day it responded to many other towns.) Framingham created its sitting Committee of Correspondence on 18 May 1774, when Massachusetts was hearing about the Boston Port Bill and Massachusetts Government Act. Those were official, public acts of the town, which was the point of such committees—they were supposed to have the force of law behind them, and to represent the whole town.

John Trowbridge (1730-1807) wasn’t selected for either of those committees. In 1776 he was commissioned as an officer in the Continental Army, and on 23 June 1777 Framingham voted “that Maj. John Trowbridge inspect any that shall be thought inimical to the U.S. of America.” So by that year the town clearly considered him important and reliable. But the question being investigated was whether Trowbridge had been involved in something like a “Committee of Safety” in 1772.

The Globe describe’s one researcher’s results this way:
[Kevin] Swope found a tantalizing mention of town moderator Captain Josiah Stone contributing muskets to Boston safety committee members. But nothing more.
As town clerk, Stone carried out business for Framingham. (For example, the Boston Committee of Correspondence’s letter in April 1773 was addressed to him.) This mention might refer to town business or private business, therefore. But this description offers no source, no date, and no connection to Trowbridge.

The Globe gave more importance to another researcher’s discovery:
[Fred] Wallace finally hit paydirt in the Framingham town clerk’s office, where he spent hours poring over original Town Meeting minutes from 1772 to 1776, recorded in amber-colored quill-and-ink script.

It was in a brief entry marked Oct. 9, 1775, recording that [Joseph] Buckminster had asked to be relieved of his Committee on Correspondence duties and that Trowbridge was named to take his place.
This is “paydirt”? A change in committee assignment in October 1775 says nothing about Trowbridge’s activities in 1772. Or about the prewar activity of anyone else in Framingham.

It’s reasonable to consider whether Trowbridge might have hosted town Committee of Correspondence meetings after late 1775. How centrally located was his house? Did he have a liquor license (as Buckminster had)? Significant meetings at Trowbridge’s house were even more likely in 1777 once he was appointed to “inspect” national enemies. But that wasn’t leading the way toward Massachusetts’s independence before the war; that was enforcing loyalty to the new nation during it.

The Globe article positions this historical question as whether Framingham deserves to have the same place in history books as towns where the first fatal battle of the Revolution was fought. It’s no reflection on Framingham (good or bad, colonial or modern) that the war began elsewhere. Gen. Thomas Gage sent troops to Concord because he had good intelligence about Provincial Congress weapons there. Simple as that.


Janice said...

The Globe really should hire YOU to either write their history articles OR at least to proof them for accuracy.


slskenyon said...

I'm not surprised to read yet another example of a lack of historical accuracy. Most of the time, this can really be chalked up to the fact that either the people who are the subject of the story have very little historical background or that the person writing it fell into this category. In this case, it seems like both parties were at a loss. Not surprising given people know so little about history generally and when confronted with situations like this one, rarely add "research" to the docket of "things to do" before jumping to conclusions.

J. L. Bell said...

This particular article seems to reflect great wishfulness. Any document connecting John Trowbridge with any committee was treated as evidence that he, and his town as a whole, were leaders in pre-Revolutionary activism.

A recent New York Times Book Review article (on another topic) suggested that there's a tendency to imagine two alternatives at the start of an inquiry. In this case, they might have been, "John Trowbridge was involved in Revolutionary committees," and, "John Trowbridge was not involved in Revolutionary committees." Finding the Oct 1775 notation disproved the second, but that doesn't mean it proved the first when it comes to any earlier moment.

While lack of historical grounding might have been a problem in interpreting the original notes on the house, the investigation—at least as described in this newspaper story—appears to suffer more from lack of logical thinking.

Greg Afinogenov said...

and, of course, the ink wasn't really amber, it was originally black: eighteenth-century Americans used an ink that faded and changed colors with time.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, one of the laughable details in The Patriot was Mel Gibson writing with brown ink, instead of black ink that would become brown decades later.

Since the Framingham records' ink is amber now, though, I didn't think that was a corrigible error.