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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Monday, July 16, 2007

Sneaking a Peek at the Green Dragon

In 1765, the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons in Boston bought the Green Dragon Tavern on Union Street to use as a meeting-place. (Of course, they kept the liquor license. Starting in 1771, the bartender was Benjamin Burdick, Jr., otherwise busy as Constable of the Town-House Watch.) For a while the lodge tried to rename their building The Masons’ Arms, but the Green Dragon stuck because of the striking carved sign over the door.

Our visual image of the Green Dragon Tavern comes from a watercolor sketch by John Johnson or Johnston (c. 1753-1818), a Boston painter who served as an artillerist during the Revolutionary War. The original is owned by the American Antiquarian Society; I’m sharing a black and white thumbnail. Johnson’s most famous painting today is his portrait of William Dawes, Jr., now at the Evanston (Illinois) History Center, but he had steady work in the early republic. In the mid-1800s, I suspect, Johnson’s picture of the Green Dragon Tavern was the model for this engraving, showing the building from the same angle. The building itself disappeared in 1854.

The sketch is often dated to 1773, and for a fairly compelling reason: Johnson wrote that date on it, twice.

Where we met to Plan the Consignment of afew Shiploads of Tea
Dec 16 1773
John Johnson
4 Water Street
Boston, Mass. 1773
I don’t think Johnson really painted the tavern in 1773, however. I think he tried to paint the building as he recalled it looking in that year, from the nostalgic perspective of the 1790s. My arguments:
  • Johnson was only twenty in 1773, and thus not old enough to have been a member of the St. Andrew’s Lodge or involved in planning the Boston Tea Party. His caption was a collective claim.
  • The Tea Party occurred eleven and a half months into 1773, leaving very little time for him to have painted the tavern in that year.
  • Most important, destroying the tea was a secret, illegal action, and Johnson would have been foolhardy to caption his image with such a confession until after the war was settled.
  • Boston addresses didn’t include street numbers until after the war.
  • In front of the tavern Johnson drew three silhouettes in profile: a horse and chaise and two men talking. I think such silhouettes became fashionable in art as the century ended.
(Here’s a site offering a free paper model of the Green Dragon Tavern and other Revolutionary scenes—some assembly required.)

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