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, December 31, 2007

Ode on the New Year 1766

Eighteenth-century America had a tradition at the turn of each year for printers’ apprentices and other young employees to print up and distribute verses for all the newspapers’ customers. I shared an example from 1771 a year ago.

The even worse verse below appeared from the boys of the Boston Evening-Post as 1765 turned into 1766. According to the Stamp Act enacted earlier that year, all newspapers, as well as legal filings and many other documents, had to appear on stamped paper, with a small tax going to the imperial government. But there had been such an outcry in British North America, from Halifax down to Savannah, that hardly any stamped paper was actually being used. The example above, from an exhibit at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, is one of the rare surviving examples.

As the boys of the Evening-Post made clear, their New Year’s broadside certainly wasn’t on stamped paper.

Vox Populi
Liberty, Property
and No Stamps

The News-Boy

Who carries the Boston Evening-Post, with the greatest Submission begs Leave to present the following Lines to the Gentlemen and Ladies to whom he carries the NEWS.

ODE on the New Year.

What Time bears on his rapid Wing,
And of the doubtful Year I sing.
Say Monarch! why thy furrow’d brow
Frowns from thy Chariot on us now?
Thy Wheels, which sometimes seem’d to glide,
In smoother Current than the Tide,
Now lumber heavy as my Verse:
Why com’st thou to us in a Hearse?
As thy approach, when GEORGE first reign’d,
Fair Freedom wanton’d in thy Train:
I saw her move in graceful Dance,
One Foot on Spain and one on France.
But now she droops, deform’d with Fear;
From her dim Eye-ball starts the Tear.
Whence, too, that grisly Form that bears
Bonds made for Innocents to wear?
Will British Steel in GEORGE’s Reign,
Bend for to form a Subject’s Chain?
Avert it—————————
Methinks a mighty Hand I see,
That grasps thy Rein and governs thee.
Him, as in silent Pomp he rides,
No Pencil paints, no Pen describes:
An awful Veil his Body shrouds;
His Head lies hid in Golden Clouds.
When Captives long have groan’d in vain,
His single touch dissolves their Chain.
He over King and Senate rules;
Oppressors, sometimes, are his Tools.
Hail, KING supreme! thy mighty Hand,
Has, more than once, reliev’d this Land;
Descend, and bless the coming Year;
And humble Hope shall banish Fear.

Therefore—————
Ye Months foredoom’d to form th’ ensuing Year,
With ev’ry happy Omen fraught appear:
Each Week, Day, Hour, in all the annual road.
With ev’ry prosperous Event be crown’d;
Nor let one swiftly flying Minute move,
That shan’t New-England’s happiness improve:
Oppressive SCHEMES let Disappointment brand,
Nor let one Tyrant in the Senate stand:
Let Study and Experience make us wise;
And as our Years extend, our Virtues rise:
Let Reason’s Light gild Life’s extremest gloom,
And Virtue’s Lamp attend us to the Tomb;
And the Memorial that we leave behind,
To us be glorious—useful to Mankind.

Thus does the Carrier of your NEWS appear,
To wish you in the New, a happy Year!
Time swiftly flying, hurl’d the Year away,
And once a Week produc’d his running Day,
And whether wet or cold, his Task he still maintains,
(In spite of Stamps) In hopes you’ll now reward him for his Pains.
That last line is a subtle request for a tip.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Another Cut at the Massacre

To show off and sell its useful but expensive Archive of Americana digital databases, the Readex company offers a few online samples, including this broadside about the Boston Massacre titled “Poem in memory of the (never to be forgotten) Fifth of March, 1770.” Click on the picture here to go to the appropriate page, and click on the picture there to download a PDF version.

I first saw this document reproduced on the wall of the Old State House Museum. The Readex version is a scan from a microfilm photograph of an imperfectly preserved printing, so it’s not pretty. In fact, I’m not sure it’s legible. Here’s my best guess at the second stanza:

Look into king-street: there with weeping eyes
Regard O Boston’s sons—there hear the cries!
There see the men lie in their wallow’d gore!
There see their bodies, which fierce bullets tore!
So as poetry it’s not readable, either.

Still, it’s possible to spot some interesting details.
  • At the top is a line of five coffins for the five people killed on King Street, whose names are also listed after the title. Like the dark borders, this was an obvious sign of morning.
  • Within the text another coffin appears, representing the death of Christopher Seider eleven days before the Massacre.
  • Seider’s coffin, like the one above marked “S.M.” for Samuel Maverick, has a scythe on it as well as a skull and crossbones. I believe that was supposed to symbolize that these boys had been cut down too soon: Seider at nearly age eleven, Maverick at seventeen.
  • The poem mentions another badly wounded boy, Christopher Monk, in the tenth stanza. He survived for several years, but people blamed his disability and early death on his wounds.
  • Stanza 8 calls for punishment of Ebenezer Richardson, who shot Seider. However, the poem doesn’t complain that he’s been convicted and not punished, which probably dates it to mid-1770.
Finally, this specimen of propaganda and the printing art was “Sold next to the Writing-School, in Queen-Street,” so Boston’s schoolboys probably got a good chance to cogitate upon it.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Is That a Veto in Your Pocket?

Yesterday the Bush-Cheney administration produced a mini-constitutional crisis when the White House released a memo stating that the President had rejected a large military spending bill because of one provision, and claiming that he had done so as a “pocket veto.” The obvious question of why the administration had never before objected to that provision, all the while complaining that the bill had to pass quickly, is beyond historical understanding. But the origins and parameters of the pocket veto lie in the eighteenth century.

It was understood that colonial governors, acting as the king’s and Parliament’s representatives, could approve or deny new legislation. Indeed, the first two grievances in the Declaration of Independence refer to what the Continental Congress said was abuse of that executive-branch prerogative:

He [George III] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 created a new national executive, but it also limited that President’s power to negate new laws. Article 1, Section 7 says:
All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.

If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law. But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively.

If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.
The last sentence has given rise to the so-called pocket veto: a President takes no action on a bill when Congress has adjourned, and it dies. A pocket veto is thought to have two advantages over an ordinary veto:
  • The Constitution doesn’t state any way that Congress can override one.
  • Taking no action on a bill may seem more mild than using an ordinary veto to, say, block funds for soldiers in a time of war after insisting that Congress pass just such a bill.
The first President to use a pocket veto was James Madison, a principal architect of the Constitution. That seems ironic since the obvious thrust of the final clause above is that Congress’s bills become law even in the absence of a President’s signature. The “pocket veto” was simply a provision for an odd contingency (an “unless” within an “if”), and I doubt anyone at the Constitutional Convention foresaw it as granting the President a stronger form of veto.

Indeed, it’s clear that the Constitution’s framers didn’t want to grant Presidents as much power over legislation as those of the past several decades have exercised. The term “veto” never even appears in the Constitution, nor its eighteenth-century synonym “negative” (as in Boston merchant John Rowe’s diary entry for 1 June 1769: “The Governour Negatived eleven counsellors...”). George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, wrote that a Presidential veto “can only be Justified upon the clean and obvious ground of propriety,” not simply because he didn’t like the bill.

As for whether Congress can override a pocket veto, the Constitution doesn’t state that it can’t. In fact, I think the Convention probably felt that Congress could approve the same bill again by majority vote as soon as it resumed business. Section 7 requires a two-thirds vote to override a veto only when the President has formally returned the bill to Congress for reconsideration, not when he’s pocketed it.

But the parameters of the pocket veto have never been fully tested before the Supreme Court. Some Presidents have interpreted Section 7’s language to refer only to the adjournment at the end of a full two-year congressional session, not just a holiday break. With the action on such vague constitutional grounds to begin with, Presidents have been reluctant to push on such disputes with Congress.

In this particular disagreement, there are two additional wrinkles. Kagro X notes that the military spending bill went to the White House on 19 December, and the reply memo is dated 28 December—so obviously “ten Days (Sundays excepted)” had not yet passed and the pocket-veto clause did not yet apply. Furthermore, while the House had adjourned temporarily, the Senate has remained in session to ensure that the administration doesn’t make any more harmful “recess appointments” (under Article 2, Section 2: “The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session”). If one house of Congress is in session, how can Congress have adjourned at all?

If the Bush-Cheney administration really cared about clear constitutional actions, it should simply have vetoed this bill and endured the resulting public criticism.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Hit and Myth in Common-place

Continuing to clean out my “nifty links” file at the end of the year, I realized I never got around to discussing the latest issue of Common-place, the online magazine of early American history.

Leading off this installment is Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s analysis of how the Betsy Ross legend became so popular, prompting such art as the picture on the right, offered by the Library of Congress’s wonderful American Memory super-website. Ulrich reminds us government decisions aren’t that simple:

The stars and stripes that we know today had multiple parents and dozens of siblings. True, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a cryptic resolution specifying that “the flag of the thirteen united States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation,” but nobody specified the shape of the flag, the arrangement of the stars, or the ratio of the canton to the field.

In October 1778, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams actually told the Neapolitan ambassador that “the flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white and blue.” Flag sheets from the 1780s and 1790s do in fact show flags with three-colored stripes. As for Betsy's nifty five-pointed star, a Smithsonian study showed that four-, six-, and eight-pointed stars were far more common.
Ulrich concludes that, “Ironically, Betsy’s story may have survived because there was no actual flag to confirm or undermine it.” (Though there is a suspicious five-pointed paper star, fortuitously “discovered” in Philadelphia years after Betsy Ross had already become a brand name.) I believe Ulrich’s essay may also be found in her latest book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.

Also in this Common-place issue is Edward Larkin’s discussion of Loyalists. Unfortunately, Larkin makes the common mistake of misreading John Adams’s 1815 letter to James Lloyd, in which he said one-third of Americans were “averse to the revolution” and another one-third neutral. Careless authors have often taken that comment as referring popular opinion of the American Revolution. However, phrases like “The depredations of France upon our commerce, and her insolence to our ambassadors” make it clear that Adams was writing about American attitudes toward the French Revolution, and the U.S. of A.’s friction with Revolutionary France during his Presidency. That error calls into question some of Larkin’s enterprise, trying to resituate the Loyalists in American culture. Looking back, I see that I raised similar questions last year, too.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Considering the Consent of the Colonists

Here’s another interesting article from the Boston Review: Barbara Clark Smith’s 2004 essay “Revolutionary Consent: What the public life of American colonists can teach us about politics.” Smith writes:

Who could question that...people had gained important freedoms during the Revolutionary era and the transformative years that followed?

And yet there existed in colonial America elements of liberty, forms of participation in public affairs, that later generations would not experience. I want to raise the possibility that some (not all) colonial Americans were not so much less free than succeeding generations as differently free.
Smith warns against evaluating the late colonists’ political expectations by a yardstick created in Jacksonian America or later. In particular, she sees an important difference between how we elect representatives and other officials today and and how the town and county meetings of early America did so:
We want and expect to consent “before-hand,” choosing known candidates who espouse known policies and who do their best to enact those policies when they reach office. . . . We are less accustomed than colonial Americans were to thinking of our policymakers as better or wiser than us, or born to rule over us.
That deference to the genteel was indeed a hugely important factor in eighteenth-century life. That said, Massachusetts towns had a tradition of composing “instructions” to their representatives to the General Court right after each election. Though the town’s representatives had the authority to vote as they chose over the next year, the voters’ sentiments (as expressed, almost always, by other gentlemen) were made clear and often published.

I think Smith does a good job of reminding us that the American Whigs weren’t fighting so much for the personal rights that fire up people today as for the rights of communities to govern themselves, including the power of the local majority to make rules for everyone. She says of that tradition of self-government:
These were not individual rights, and indeed, nothing so misleads us about the 18th century as the tendency to understand “the people” as a mere assembling of individuals. What authorized the people’s presence was not individuality, but rather the subjects’ capacity to hold their liberties in common. . . .

What might this understanding of 18th-century popular participation teach us? First, it helps bring home the sense of dire grievance that drove many 18th-century colonists to resistance and revolution. We see easily enough why colonists would object when, beginning in the mid-1760s, Parliament laid taxes and passed laws to bind the king’s North American subjects, bypassing provincial legislatures altogether. We understand their impassioned defense of elected assemblies, their cry of “No Taxation without Representation.” Surely it was safer to be ruled by not very representative neighbors than by not at all representative strangers.
The major voices for individual rights in pre-Revolutionary Boston weren’t the town’s political leaders, clamoring for “liberty.” Rather, it was the men in disagreement with the great majority of the community who had to speak up for their right to disagree, or stand apart. Usually these were supporters of the royal government, such as businessman Theophilus Lillie and (supposedly) the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If the Leading Founders Were Alive Today

A Boston 1775 reader alerted me to an essay in the Washington Post last week by Mount Holyoke professor Joseph Ellis titled “What Would George Do?”. It discusses the often-posed question of how Washington or other founders would respond to the nation’s challenges today. Ellis answers:

Washington would not be able to find Iraq on a map. Nor would he know about weapons of mass destruction, Islamic fundamentalism, Humvees, cellphones, CNN or Saddam Hussein. The historically correct answer, then, is that Washington would not have a clue.

It's tempting to believe that the political wisdom of our Founding Fathers can travel across the centuries in a time capsule, land among us intact, then release its insights into our atmosphere -- and as we breathed in that enriched air, our perspective on Iraq, global warming, immigration and the other hot-button issues of the day would be informed by what we might call "founders' genius." (Come to think of it, at least two Supreme Court justices who embrace the literal version of "original intent" believe that this is possible.)
I have a friend who wrote for David Letterman (and may soon do so again, once the strike is settled). Whenever the Top Ten List is something like, “Ten Things George Washington Would Say If He Were Here Today,” he offers, “AAAAH! There’s a big metal bird in the sky!”

For myself, I think if I were to have Thomas Jefferson over for a weekend, the first night’s dinner would produce a most stimulating discussion, of which I could hear only about half since he was so soft-spoken. And the next morning I’d find that Mr. Jefferson had electrocuted himself trying to figure out how his alarm clock worked. (Throughout his life Jefferson wrestled with the challenge of building an accurate timepiece.)

Guessing what John Adams might say on an issue seems even harder. I suspect that the easiest way to get him to take a particular position would be to suggest to him that the opposite position is popular and clearly seems best.

Recognizing such challenges, Ellis proceeds:
Suppose, then, that we rephrase the question. It is not "What would George Washington do about Iraq?" Rather, it is "How are your own views of Iraq affected by your study of Washington's experience leading a rebellion against a British military occupation?" The answer on this score is pretty clear. Washington eventually realized -- and it took him three years to have this epiphany -- that the only way he could lose the Revolutionary War was to try to win it. The British army and navy could win all the major battles, and with a few exceptions they did; but they faced the intractable problem of trying to establish control over a vast continent whose population resented and resisted military occupation. As the old counterinsurgency mantra goes, Washington won by not losing, and the British lost by not winning. Our dilemma in Iraq is analogous to the British dilemma in North America -- and is likely to yield the same outcome.

To take another example, your opinion on the current debate about how much power the executive branch should have will be significantly influenced if you read the debates about the subject in the Constitutional Convention and the states' ratifying conventions. For it will soon become clear that the most palpable fear that haunted all these debates was the specter of monarchy. Vice President Cheney's argument that limitations on the executive branch enacted in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate need to be rolled back is historically myopic. Virtually all of the Founding Fathers would regard the expansion of executive power since 1945 as a violation of the republican principles they cherished. And the way Congress has effectively surrendered war-making powers to the president since World War II represents a fundamental distortion of checks and balances as the founders intended them.
It’s hard to argue with those historical analogies. We might say that the solutions of the late 1700s wouldn’t be up to today’s far-flung, fast-moving challenges. But we can hardly deny that Washington led an successful insurgency without winning many battlefield victories, or that the founders put a lot of checks on executive power because they feared that the Presidency would become monarchical.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

How Jeduthan Baldwin Spent Christmas 1775

One of my favorite Revolutionary War diarists is Col. Jeduthan Baldwin of North Brookfield, Massachusetts. He was an artillery engineer, which required technical knowledge, but he had a farmer’s blunt style. He tended to punctuate casually and spell phonetically. For instance, he wrote the town name Dorchester as “Dotchester”—which is, after all, still the way it’s pronounced. And he wrote down everyday details that humanize him and his fellow high officers. On 23 Dec 1775, as on example, Baldwin recorded that he “Wore Genl. [Israel] Putnams great coat.”

How did Col. Baldwin spend the next two days? As a New Englander, he had no tradition of treating Christmas as a holiday. Indeed, Congregationalists seem to have taken pride in treating the 25th of December like any other working day. But the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief observed Anglican norms. On Christmas in 1775, therefore, Baldwin both paid a visit to Gen. George Washington and did some dirty work that he saw needed doing.

24 Lords Day & a very Snowy cold Day. Cut down the orchard at Leachmor point, & laid the trees round the fort[.] had 4 oxen Drowned coming of ye point.

25 a Very cold Day. Dind with Genl. Putnam. went upon leachmor Point at Sunset, & then went to Genl Washing. in the Evning. found & Skind ye 4 drownded oxen.
(Click on the image above for a larger map of the siege, published in the late 1800s and posted on a Phipps family genealogy page. The 1906 edition of Col. Baldwin’s diary is available through Google Books.)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Royall Tyler Recalls the Christmas Anticks

Last year I posted a recollection and a complaint about Christmas mumming, an old British tradition that surfaced in Boston shortly after the Revolution, once Pope Night was no longer celebrated on the 5th of November. A longtime Boston 1775 reader reminded me of yet another description of mummers, from playwright, novelist, and Vermont judge Royall Tyler, so I saved it for this Christmas Eve.

This passage comes from Tyler’s unfinished novel The Bay-Boy, written in 1824-25 but first published in The Prose of Royall Tyler in 1972. That story is set in and supposedly recalls Boston before the Revolution, so it’s possible that Tyler remembered such mumming from his childhood. Since no one else appears to have done so, however, he probably just moved the picturesque tradition a few years back in time so he could include it in his novel.

On Christmas eve, when a small party of friends were assembled in Dr. G’s parlor, the kitchen door was suddenly thrown open and in rushed a party of lads grotesquely dressed, their faces masked, several of them armed with wooden swords and daggers, who notwithstanding the opposition of the cook maid, immediately began to enact a little farce or comedy. This brought all of the family and visitors into the kitchen and the doctor suffered them to proceed.

I have not a very correct recollection of these antics, as they were called, but I well remember that two of the party soon quarrel’d and engaged in deadly combat but the why and the wherefore would be as difficult to comprehend as it often is in a recounter between real duellists. One of the masked combatants soon fell, and to appearance expired, and suddenly there was as great a demand for a doctor as ever Cooke made for his gelding in the character of the tyrant Richard.

“Five pounds for a doctor,” “Ten pounds for a doctor,” was vociferated on all sides.

Soon the son of Galen appeared: “I am a doctor.”

“You, a doctor? What can you cure?”
“The itch, the stitch, the cholic and gout,
The pains within and pains without;
I can take an old woman of ninety-nine,
Wrap’d up in pitch, tar, and turpentine
And then with what lays on the point of this knife
Quickly I’ll bring the old lady to life;
And for the price of a half pistareen
Can make her dance like a girl of sixteen.”
This wonder-working medicine which seemed to have all the virtues of Dr. Solomon’s Balm of Gilead was soon applied to the deceased, who jumped up and declared himself as sound as a roach and presented his cup for the contribution of the company. The largess was given, the masque retired and we could hear them rush into neighboring mansions.

This is all I can recollect of the performance of the antics. I thought the custom merited a memorandum as evidencing singular anomali in the habits of our ancestors, that bitterly opposed as they were to everything that savored of popery they should have suffered this forlorn fragment of monkish mysteries to pass unnoticed among them.
The picture above, from the B.B.C., shows the doctor, knight, and man of straw from a Northern Ireland mummers’ play in recent years.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thomas Jefferson Looks at the Ladies

Today’s Boston Globe offers a review of Mr. Jefferson’s Women, by Jon Kukla. The reviewer is Prof. Michael Kammen of Cornell, whose A Season of Youth is an interesting exploration of how the memory and symbolism of the American Revolution played out in American art and literature.

Kammen writes:

Jon Kukla never uses the familiar colloquial phrase, but [Thomas] Jefferson comes across as a male chauvinist pig - a misogynist even more committed to patriarchalism than many of his contemporaries. He had no interest in education for women, except to prepare them for deferential roles as republican mothers. Equally serious, he strongly opposed any place for women in civic life.
Of course, the same could be said for most of Jefferson’s contemporaries, male and female. His misogyny appears not in his policy ideas but in his private writings.
This lifelong outlook had its genesis in 1763, when a socially inept Jefferson at 20 proposed marriage to the lovely and well-connected Rebecca Burwell, age 17, who rejected him in favor of a gentleman less rustic and with a superior lineage. For almost a decade thereafter, even as his male friends married, Jefferson displayed a dismissive mistrust of the fair sex and in 1770 recorded the following in his memorandum book: “Entrust a ship to the winds, do not trust your heart to girls, / For the surge of the sea is safer than a woman’s loyalty.” There was nothing wrong with his libido, however, because during the summer of 1768 he made repeated attempts to seduce the wife of one of his closest friends, who was away for months on frontier militia duty and had asked Jefferson, who lived nearby, to serve as the guardian of his wife and young child.

On Jan. 1, 1772, at the age of 29, Jefferson married a 23-year-old widow, Martha Wayles Skelton. . . . The Jeffersons appear to have enjoyed a happy marriage that produced six children, only two of whom survived to maturity. When Martha died of exhaustion in 1782 following her final pregnancy, Jefferson's grief was not only genuine but overwhelming. As Martha lay on her deathbed, she displayed four fingers and said to her husband that “she could not die happy if she thought her four children were ever to have a stepmother brought in over them. Holding her other hand in his, Mr. Jefferson promised her solemnly that he would never marry again.” He did not, yet two intense but very different relationships ensued.
One of those relationships was Jefferson’s unrequited interest in Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman he met in Paris. The image above is an engraving of her that Jefferson had at Monticello; click on it for more detail about her.

The other relationship was with Sally Hemings, Martha’s half-sister. Jefferson’s own words acknowledge his attempts to woo the four white women, but the evidence of his affair with Hemings appears in his closely documented activities and her pregnancies, in other people’s words, and in the Jefferson Y-chromosome haplotype. Kukla’s book and Kammen’s review testify to how many scholars now accept without quibble that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship, an idea still controversial a decade ago when Annette Gordon-Reed analyzed the previous historiography in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Kukla ultimately credits Jefferson with “thoughtful actions that implied respect, gratitude, and some measure of affection” during that relationship, noting how the law hemmed him in from treating Hemings better.

When it came to women, Jefferson was also hemmed in by his own personality. Though he was eloquent on paper, and thus eloquent to us, he was a diffident speaker and apparently shy. But as a rich, intelligent Virginia gentleman, he didn’t like to admit such shortcomings. Kukla’s book tracks how we know Jefferson showed interest in four women not enslaved to him. Three turned him down, two while they were married to other men. Yet, in a bitter irony, he wrote complaints about the uncertainty of “a woman’s loyalty,” putting the blame on the other sex. Jefferson certainly felt the bitterness, but I think he was too close to the situation to note the irony.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Seven on One Side, and Six on the Other

Last month Boston 1775 reader Leslie Hauschildt contacted me with a question about fashionable women’s hair during the Revolution, and specifically if there was a style called “à l’indépendence,” with thirteen curls to represent the thirteen states.

I found several references to that hairstyle, but they all seem to go back to one item that appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet on 1 Sept 1778. It was actually a translation of a story from the 11 June Martinico Gazette, the newspaper of the French island of Martinique, with some additional commentary:

Mr. [William] Bingham, Agent of the Congress, yesterday gave a concert, supper and ball to celebrate the conclusion of the treaty of friendship between France and the United States of America. The General and his lady honored the Assembly with their presence. The entertainment was at once splendid and well conducted. More than two hundred, of all ranks, were present.

What particularly attracted the attention of the company, was upwards of forty ladies, dressed with the utmost magnificence, and a part of whose dress corresponded with the occasion. Their head dress a la independance, was composed of thirteen curls, seven on one side, and six on the other.

The Americans are indebted to them, in the meantime, for the small sacrifice they have made in departing from perfect order and proportion; but it is expected that next year, by the revolt in Canada, the States, and consequently the curls, will be brought to an even number.

The varied pleasures of the dance made time slip away insensibly, so that when Aurora, with her rosy fingers, looked in upon them, she found the ball going on with as much spirit and animation as at first. Americans and French seem to be but one people, and to have but one heart.
I suspect that Americans and French might not have fully seen eye to eye about Canada. While this newspaper dispatch indicates that the U.S. of A. still hoped to bring Britain’s northern colonies into the Confederation, France might have still hoped to regain its former territories. Of course, those areas remained British for many decades.

Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, then published out of Worcester, picked up the Pennsylvania dispatch, and other newspapers may have as well. But did those reports start a new hairdressing fashion in America? I’ll keep my eyes open for other references to this style, but I suspect it was too fancy for the wartime republic, despite the popularity of the number thirteen.

The image above shows the Battle of Martinique, between British and French warships, in 1779, painted by Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy and made available through Wikipedia and a Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Pinpointing The First American Revolution

Five years ago, as I was researching New England Patriots’ effort to secure artillery months before the British army’s march to Concord, I started to think that we’re dating the start of the American Revolution a few months too late. Massachusetts radicals were thinking in military terms more than half a year before the first fatal shots in Lexington. And in the fall of 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress set itself up as a de facto legislature.

Then I found Ray Raphael’s The First American Revolution making the same argument, except that it pushes the start of the revolution in Massachusetts back even further, to the summer of 1774. That’s when crowds of men in the western counties began to close courts and insist that royal appointees resign or refuse to observe Parliament’s Massachusetts Government Act.

Gen. Thomas Gage first tried to use troops to enforce his decrees near the end of August, seeking to close down a town meeting in Salem. Early September brought the Powder Alarm, which revealed that the rural population was, if anything, more militant than the people in the seaports, and that Gage’s authority was confined to the Boston peninsula.

For Ray Raphael, that change comprised a revolution before the Revolution—the replacement of one government with another. I’m not completely convinced. Most eighteenth-century Whigs thought that a fully instituted government needed courts to resolve disputes, and the courts didn’t reopen in some parts of Massachusetts until after Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87. But certainly royal government had ended in most of the province before any shots were fired.

The First American Revolution tells the little-known story of that great change in central and western Massachusetts, describing how crowds forced magistrates to defer to the popular will. Patriots gathered in committees and then county conventions to voice defiance of parliamentary decrees. Among the most dramatic confrontations was one in Worcester, where the town clerk apparently had to smear out part of the record of a town meeting that the majority had not approved. As a schoolteacher, Ray is experienced at communicating outside the academic world, so he relates this history with clarity and drama.

The first printings of The First American Revolution include a couple of pages about a British spy named John Howe, who was actually an 1822 fiction inspired by the authentic report of Ens. Henry DeBerniere. But several other authors have been fooled by “Howe” as well.

Here’s William Pencak’s review of The First American Revolution for Common-place. And in full disclosure, I should say that Ray Raphael and I have become friends and colleagues—but only after I read this book and contacted him through his website.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tracking The Incendiary

Jessica Warner’s short, thorough, and lively history book The Incendiary was originally published as John the Painter, which was the alias of arsonist James Aitken. That title probably made Aitken sound too much like, well, a painter. What makes him interesting is that during the Revolutionary War he was a terrorist—before that word gained its current meaning or was even coined. And he was a terrorist for the U.S. of A.

Aitken was a poor boy from Edinburgh who received a solid elementary education and training as a house painter but had trouble finding work. He traveled to London, briefly tried his luck as a highwayman, and then sailed for Philadelphia as an indentured servant around 1773. Aitken spent only a short time in America before returning to Europe in mid-1775, reportedly accused of being a Loyalist, but he nevertheless became enamored of the Patriot cause.

In the fall of 1776, Aitken went to Paris and managed to meet with the American diplomat Silas Deane. He presented his grand plan to cripple the Royal Navy by setting fire to the naval shipyards at Portsmouth and Bristol. Deane gave him a little money and a little encouragement, which means that, even though Aitken was entirely self-directed, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t an American agent. Aitken never forgot that support, though Deane was later embarrassed by it.

Aitken then returned to Britain with his incendiary devices. In December 1776, he left one in a building at the Portsmouth shipyard. Soon the terrible threat of “John the Painter” was all over the British newspapers. The blind London magistrate Sir John Fielding deployed his Bow Street runners and Hue and Cry magazine to hunt Aitken down. Half-panicked, Aitken set more small fires in Bristol.

Warner skillfully narrates Aitken’s life and plan, the authorities’ countermoves, and the documentary history of the case. The result is a consuming narrative that also reveals a lot about life in Britain in the 1770s. You’ll notice I’m not telling you how the story ends; that’s because Warner does such a good job of telling it.

A year ago, History Carnival XLIII at the Axis of Evel Knievel [I’ve been wanting to write that for a long time] quoted Historymike’s take on this book:

I disagree with Warner’s dismissal of Aitkin as some sort of working-class radical. John the Painter, despite his flaws and his over-inflated sense of destiny, rationally flouted English property laws (which at the time were capital crimes) because his attempts at “honest” work led to impoverishment.
I think this analysis may give too much credit to Aitken’s thinking. Clearly he was too intelligent and/or ambitious to be happy as a poor house painter: even while he was on the run, he carried books and pamphlets to read, and he hoped the Americans would make him a “captain” while British society offered no such possibilities.

However, Aitken’s politics seem to be based more on attaching himself to a team than on a coherent philosophy, and as a saboteur he was ineffectual, tripping himself up because he couldn’t work with others. He managed not to find “honest work” even in Pennsylvania, which had a great demand for labor. In fact, at several points in The Incendiary I sensed Aitken having difficulty with social cues: assuming that other people knew what he was up to, becoming overly attached to men like Deane. I began to wonder whether he might have had a pervasive developmental disorder which made life even more frustrating than it was for other men in his social circumstances, and sharpened his anger at Great Britain.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Machine to Blow Up Shipping?

Yesterday I quoted Continental artillery colonel Jeduthan Baldwin’s record that on 14 Dec 1775 he “went in the afternoon to Dotchester point to See the mashine to blow up Shiping, but as it was not finished, it was not put into the water.”

It sure sounds like Baldwin really saw an unfinished machine which was eventually supposed to go into the water. Which puts me in mind of the pioneering submarine of David Bushnell, who had just graduated from Yale at the advanced age of thirty-five. Bushnell was working on his machine by August 1775, when a friend described it in a letter to Benjamin Franklin. On 23 Oct 1775, Samuel Osgood, aide de camp to Gen. Artemas Ward, wrote to John Adams from the camp at Roxbury:

The famous Water Machine from Connecticutt is every Day expected in Camp; it must unavoidably be a clumsy Business, as its Weight is about a Tun. I wish it might succeed [and] the Ships be blown up beyond the Attraction of the Earth, for it is the only Way or Chance they have of reaching St Peter’s Gate.
By the next month, a British spy named James Brattle, working as a servant of Continental Congress delegate James Duane, had sent the same news to Gov. William Tryon of New York.

However, as of 7 December Bushnell was still testing his craft on the Connecticut River, wrestling with a peculiar problem of submarine warfare: it’s dark inside a waterproof chamber, and lighting a candle uses up the oxygen supply. Bushnell, with Franklin’s advice, planned to use some bioluminescent plant materials, but they weren’t available in late fall.

Bushnell formally presented his submarine plan to the Connecticut Council in February 1776. At that time he planned to move it to Boston to engage the Royal Navy there, but the British evacuated the next month, making that trip unnecessary. The vessel, dubbed the Turtle, finally saw action on 6 Sept 1776 in New York harbor, the first submarine attack in naval history. (The picture above comes from Digital History at the University of Houston.) I haven’t come across any indication that a version of Bushnell’s machine was in Dorchester the previous December.

The machine that Baldwin saw might therefore have been another invention. There was at least one other grand scheme to attack the British fleet that fall. On 20 Oct 1775, John Hancock signed a letter drafted by a Congressional committee to Gen. George Washington:
Captain John Macpherson having informed the Congress that he had invented a method by which, with their leave, he would take or destroy every Ministerial armed vessel in North-America, [a committee of delegates] reported that the scheme, in theory, appeared practicable; and that, though its success could not be relied on without experiment, they thought it well worth attempting on the fleet in and about Boston Harbour, their destruction being an object of the utmost importance.

The Congress have therefore desired Captain Macpherson to repair immediately to Cambridge. They recommend this matter to your particular attention...
Macpherson was a Scotsman with experience in the Royal Navy who had settled in Philadelphia. His son, also named John, was an aide to Gen. Richard Montgomery in the American invasion of Canada; both men would die outside Québec at the end of the year.

On 8 Nov 1775, Washington replied that he wasn’t as optimistic about the captain’s plan as the captain was:
I laid myself under a solemn tye of secrecy to Captn. McPherson, and proceeded to examine his Plan for the destruction of the Fleet in the Harbour of Boston, with all that care and attention which the Importance of it deserved, and my Judgement could lead to: but not being happy enough to coincide in Opinion with that Gentleman, and finding that his Scheme would Involve greater expence, than (under my Doubts of its success), I thought myself justified in giving into, I prevaild upon him to communicate his plan to three Gentlemen of the Artillery (in this Army) well acquainted in the knowledge, and practice of gunnery; by them he has been convinced, that in as much as he set out upon wrong principles, the Scheme would prove abortive.

unwilling however to relinquish his favourite project of reducing the Naval force of Great Britain, he is very desirous of building a number of Row-Gallies for this purpose; but as the Congress alone are competent to the adoption of this measure, I have advised him (altho’ he offered to go on with the building of them at his own expence ’till the Congress should decide) to repair immediately to Philadelphia with his proposals; where, if they should be agreed to, or Vessels of Superior force, agreeable to the Wishes of most others, should be resolved on, he might set instantly about them, with all the materials upon the Spot; here they are to collect; to him therefore I refer for further information on this Head.
Capt. Macpherson carried this letter and others back to Philadelphia for the commander-in-chief. He could have returned to Boston by December, but I have no evidence that he did.

So what was the machine that Baldwin expected to see in use in December 1775? It might have been a prototype of Bushnell’s, or another of Capt. Macpherson’s ideas, or yet another machine created by someone else entirely. In any event, it didn’t work.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The View from Lechmere Point

Yesterday I quoted an account from inside Boston of an artillery battle between a new Continental Army battery along the Charles River, British artillery emplacements, and a Royal Navy man-of-war.

Here’s a description of those same days from Col. Jeduthan Baldwin, the engineer who laid out the American battery and the fortifications for the men inside. While Boston selectman Timothy Newell referred to the battery’s location as Phipps’s farm, Baldwin called the same place by the name of another local landowner, Richard Lechmere.

The numbers in Baldwin’s journal refer to the dates in December 1775 as he gradually built out to the point:

12 Begun the causey [causeway] at Leachmor Neck

13 Began the Covered Way onto Leachmor hill. Col. [John] Glover Regt. & Capt. [Thomas Waite] Foster Compy of the [artillery] Train Marched for Marblehead, upon hearing of 3 men of War lying at that place. bought a Watch for 8£. [This may be the same watch that Baldwin kept under his pillow while sleeping in July 1776.]

14 workt on leachmor point went in the afternoon to Dotchester point to See the mashine to blow up Shiping, but as it was not finished, it was not put into the water.

15 Came from Dotchester & went to Leachmor point to work. . . .

16 Stakt. out the Fort on Leachmor point.

17 went to work on Leachmor point, it was Very Foggy in the fornoon, & when the Fog cleared away we had a Very havey fire from the Ships, & from Boston but thro’ Divine goodness we Recd by little damage. Abel Woods was wounded in the Crotch or thigh. workt all night, got our men covered.

18 went down in the afternoon to Leachmor. . . .

19 Went upon Leachmor point to work. a No of Shot & Shells were thrown from Bunker Hill & from Boston at us & at Coble Hill, many of the Shot lodgd in our Brest work, & some of the Bumbs Brok high in the are & 2 near our works, but no Mischief done this Day.

20 went upon Leachmor Point we recd a No of 24 Ib Shot from Boston into our breastwork & others Just went over all in a direct line hit the wall. Several Bumbs burst in the air, one was thrown from Bunker Hill into Cambg by [Col. Edmund] Phineys Regt. 13 inch which did not bust . . .

21 went to Leachmor point in the morning, went to Watertown in the afternoon. it was Very cold this Day. the enemy did not fire at us this Day.
It’s also interesting to see how much Baldwin had to travel in his job, from east Cambridge all the way around the siege lines to Dorchester, and out to the legislature’s headquarters in Watertown.

(The image above is a detail from this map, published in the late 1800s and made available through a Phipps family genealogy page.)

TOMORROW: What “mashine to blow up Shiping”?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cannonade and Bombardment from Phipps’s Farm

Back to selectman Timothy Newell’s diary! I skipped his entry for the 13th since it was just an update on the ongoing war at sea over supply ships:

News of several more Store Ships being taken by the Continental Privateers and whale boats.
The real excitement came on 17 Dec 1775, as the Americans opened up a new artillery battery on Phipps’s point, a part of east Cambridge that then stuck out into the Charles River. This was where the British light infantry and grenadiers had landed on 18 April after crossing the river on their mission to Concord.

Newell wrote, noting in passing that the Continental soldiers were working on a Sunday:
Sabbath morning was discovered new works going on at [David] Phips’s farm very near—upon which a cannonade and bombardment ensued and continued the 18, 19, and 20 [of December], from the Battery’s of Charlestown and Boston Point. The man of war of 32 guns which lay opposite kept a constant fire. The first day a shot from Millers hill took her quarter and went thro’ and thro’ her—

a shot the next day passed my house and struck young Dr. Paddocks hat upon his head, as he was on Dr. [James] Lloyd’s hill, the ball fell into his yard. The man of war slipt away in the night.
I’m not sure who “young Dr. Paddock” was. A Dr. Adino Paddock from Boston settled in New Brunswick after the war, but he was only fifteen years old at this time, and that would be very young indeed. Perhaps “Dr.” is a mistake by the transcriber. Perhaps he was already training in medicine under Dr. Lloyd.

It would have been sadly ironic if a shot from the American lines had hit young Paddock’s head rather than his hat. His father, also named Adino Paddock, had commanded the Boston artillery company before the war, and thus helped to train many of the Continental artillerists besieging the town.

TOMORROW: An American artillery engineer’s view.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Right to Keep and Bear Commas

Three of my many favorite things—Revolutionary history, politics, and punctuation—come together in a well-written editorial in today’s New York Times. Legalese expert Adam Freedman describes the significance that competing judges and legal experts have been finding in the commas of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Refreshing though it is to see punctuation at the center of a national debate, there could scarcely be a worse place to search for the framers’ original intent than their use of commas. In the 18th century, punctuation marks were as common as medicinal leeches and just about as scientific. Commas and other marks evolved from a variety of symbols meant to denote pauses in speaking. For centuries, punctuation was as chaotic as individual speech patterns.

The situation was even worse in the law, where a long English tradition held that punctuation marks were not actually part of statutes (and, therefore, courts could not consider punctuation when interpreting them). Not surprisingly, lawmakers took a devil-may-care approach to punctuation. Often, the whole business of punctuation was left to the discretion of scriveners, who liked to show their chops by inserting as many varied marks as possible.

Another problem with trying to find meaning in the Second Amendment’s commas is that nobody is certain how many commas it is supposed to have. The version that ended up in the National Archives has three, but that may be a fluke. Legal historians note that some states ratified a two-comma version. At least one recent law journal article refers to a four-comma version.
The comma question seems to be a stalking-horse for the larger argument over whether the first half of the amendment, referring to “a well-equipped militia,” is conditional, expository, or merely prefatory.

I think that argument is especially difficult because the few years in which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were composed—1787 to 1791—was unusual even in how eighteenth-century Americans viewed their militia and their regular or “standing” army. Having won the war for independence against Britain’s regulars and Hessian troops, the U.S. of A. reduced its army to under a thousand men, expecting regional militias to defend territories as needed. Some of the states proposed constitutional amendments that would have put severe restrictions on a regular military.

The Second Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights were debated at the state level starting in early 1791. On 15 December, ten of Congress’s original twelve proposed amendments were ratified and became part of the Constitution.

Less than six weeks before, the U.S. Army suffered its worse loss ever in proportional terms at the Battle of the Wabash. About 1,400 Miamis and Shawnees overwhelmed a force of about 600 full-time soldiers and 900 militiamen. The U.S. forces suffered 90% casualties (counting both dead and wounded), and the regular army’s numbers dipped to about 300 men. Americans quickly realized that if they wanted to expand west into land also claimed by Native American nations, they needed a much larger regular army than they had been envisioning. The system of relying mostly on “a well-equipped militia” was already proving problematic.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fact-Checking the Huckabee Campaign

A week ago I wrote about Mitt Romney’s attempt to invoke the First Continental Congress in his speech on religion in politics. Now it’s Mike Huckabee’s turn—which makes sense, since Huckabee’s growing poll numbers prompted Romney to speak on a topic he’d tried to avoid.

At a Republican presidential debate in October, Huckabee said:

When our founding fathers put their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, those 56 brave people, most of whom, by the way, were clergymen, they said that we have certain inalienable rights given to us by our creator, and among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, life being one of them.
On C.N.N. yesterday, Huckabee’s campaign manager Ed Rollins answered a question about the propriety of religion in politics by starting out:
You go back to the signing of the constitution I think 26 of the people that signed it were ministers.
Huckabee and Rollins appear to have been pulling their numbers and facts out of the air. (Thanks to Talking Points Memo for the tip.)

There were indeed fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, but only one, John Witherspoon of New Jersey (pictured above, courtesy of Adherents.com), was a minister. He was the president of Princeton College at a time when all college presidents were ministers.

Two or three other Congress delegates had once preached, according to different sources. It was common for a young man with a college degree and no clear career plan to try either teaching or preaching to see how he enjoyed that work. Often the experience was enough to galvanize him into putting all his energy into law or medicine or business. In any event, three or four men out of fifty-six is far less than “most.”

As for the U.S. Constitution, thirty-six men signed that document out of fifty-five who attended the Constitutional Convention. Only two ever had professional affiliations with a church:
  • Abraham Baldwin of Georgia was a Continental Army chaplain. After the war, he declined the position of Professor of Divinity at Yale and instead went into the law. He was “a fervent missionary of public education,” according to a U.S. Army website. Curiously, it’s unclear to Adherents.com what Baldwin’s religious affiliation was; different sources say different things.
  • Hugh Williamson of North Carolina taught college Latin for three years, studied theology for two and “was licensed to preach the Gospel” by the Presbyterian church in Philadelphia. Instead, he became a mathematics professor for two years, then studied medicine for eight years and also went into the mercantile business.
Rollins’s own understanding of the place of religion in politics might have been revealed after the New Jersey governor’s race in 1993 when he boasted, “We went into black churches and we basically said to ministers who had endorsed [his candidate’s opponent] Florio, ‘Do you have a special project?’ And they said, ‘We’ve already endorsed Florio.’ And we said, ‘That’s fine, don’t get up on the Sunday pulpit and preach. . . . Don’t get up there and say it’s your moral obligation that you go out on Tuesday and vote for Jim Florio.’” Rollins said his campaign contributed to cooperating ministers’ “favorite charities.”

After this became a scandal, he denied that he had actually done anything of the sort, saying that he’d told a false story to unnerve an opposing consultant. The same attitude toward honesty seems to be at play in Rollins’s remark about twenty-six signers of the Constitution being ministers.

To my knowledge, no U.S. President was ever a religious minister. Either Huckabee, ordained in the Southern Baptist church, or Romney, who has served as bishop and stake president in the Latter-Day Saints church, would therefore be the first.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Benjamin Rice and the Boston Tea Party

Yesterday I noted how the appendix in the back of Traits of the Tea-Party (1835) listed “Benjamin Rice” among the men who had helped to destroy the East India Company tea on 16 Dec 1773. What do we know about that man?

In Tea Leaves (1884), Francis S. Drake reprinted that list, but he couldn’t find anything more about Benjamin Rice. His book offered capsule biographies of every possible participant he could identify, but not Rice.

After that, authors identified two men as being or possibly being the Benjamin Rice of the Boston Tea Party, and in neither case is the evidence strong.

The first candidate was Benjamin Rice (1723-1796) of North Brookfield. He was a militia captain and occasional town representative. On 7 Dec 1773 he was one of a five-man committee, which also included Jeduthan Baldwin, that wrote this about the tea tax:

We think it our indispensable duty, in the most public manner to let the world know our utter abhorrence of the last and most detestable scheme, in the introduction of Tea from Great Britain, to be peddled out amongst us, but which means we were made to swallow a poison more fatal in its effects to the national and political Rights and Privileges of the People of this country, than ratsbane would be to the natural body—

Therefore, Resolved, that we will not by any way or means, knowingly encourage or promote the sale or consumption of any Tea whatever, subject to a duty payable in America, but all persons whoever they may be, who shall be concerned in a transaction so dangerous, shall be held by us in the utmost contempt, and be deemed enemies to the well being of this country.
This quotation appears in J. H. Temple’s History of North Brookfield, published in 1887. That book didn’t connect Rice to the actual destruction of the tea, however.

Twenty years later, Ellery Bicknell Crane supervised the publication of Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of Worcester County, Massachusetts, one of many local histories produced by the Lewis Publishing Company for sale to libraries and prominent families in the area. And that book says:
Captain Benjamin Rice, great-grandson of Edward Rice, was of the party of “Mohawks” who threw the tea into the Boston Harbor, was a town correspondent of the committee of safety, and served in the legislature in 1776-77 and in 1783-84. He married Sarah Upham, a descendant of Lieutenant Phineas Upham, who is written of elsewhere in this work.
The four-volume set offers no evidence for that statement, however.

I suspect that Crane’s team saw Benjamin Rice’s name on the North Brookfield’s committee report and in Tea Leaves, and concluded it was the same man. But from North Brookfield to the old part of Boston is more than sixty miles. It’s hard to imagine a fifty-year-old farmer making such a journey in December 1773 on the chance that Boston’s tea dispute would still be unresolved when he reached the capital. Furthermore, the Boston radicals who planned the secret, risky raid on the tea ships surely recruited men they knew and trusted, not men who happened to show up from out of town. So I don’t find this identification convincing.

Another Benjamin Rice appears to have been in Boston in 1773. He had been born in Westborough in 1749, graduated from Harvard in July, and started to study medicine. He would marry Martha Bent in January 1774, and die eight years later. However, this Benjamin Rice had grown up in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, from the age of eleven. Like the farmer from North Brookfield, he was probably not a familiar and trusted face to Boston’s radicals. The earliest suggestion I’ve found that this Benjamin Rice was involved in the Tea Party dates from 1974, and again seems to be based on no more evidence than his name.

In sum, the list in Traits of the Tea-Party appears to be our only document or tradition dating from before 1900 to indicate that a man named Benjamin Rice participated in the Boston Tea Party.

Which brings me back to John Rice, the subject of yesterday’s posting. According to William Cooper’s notes on public meetings, Harvard student John Rice (or his forty-six-year-old father) volunteered to help keep the tea from landing in November. He held important positions in town during and after the Revolution, and married into a family of Tea Party participants. As I wrote yesterday, some current descendants of John Rice report a family tradition connecting him to the destruction of the tea.

So which story seems more likely: that John Rice joined in the Tea Party in 1773, but six decades someone misstated his first name as Benjamin, or that one of the men named Benjamin Rice participated in the Tea Party but never left any other evidence of radical political activity in Boston?

Of course, both of those scenarios are possible, and I can imagine still more ways to explain why the name “Benjamin Rice” appears in Traits of the Tea-Party. It’s quite easy to think that the Rice family tradition stems from how their ancestor patrolled the docks in November 1773, not from the tea destruction the next month. Still, I think John Rice deserves more scrutiny.

And what about the tradition “that one of his shoes, filled with tea, was in the Boston Atheneum”? A John Rice, possibly the son of the Boston official born in 1783, was one of that library’s founding members.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

John Rice and the Boston Tea Party

In July I received emails from David and Alice H. Rice of North Carolina relaying a “family story” that David’s ancestor John Rice (1754-1803) was part of the Boston Tea Party. “It was said that one of his shoes, filled with tea, was in the Boston Atheneum,” Alice wrote.

And my first thought was the vaunted “double positive”: Yeah. Right.

Individuals and families have made incredible claims that they or one of their ancestors was involved in the Boston Tea Party almost as long as it’s been a celebrated event—since the 1830s. Among the claims I’ve looked at:

  • David Kennison of Chicago, who claimed to be the “last survivor” of the Tea Party and 115 years old when he died in 1852. He was actually only 85, which made him six years old in 1773, and he didn’t even live in Boston.
  • Admirers of Samuel Smith of Topsfield, discussed here.
  • The anecdote told by Samuel Bradlee Doggett in 1884, of an ancestor hiding her husband and brothers from British officers after the event. Nice story, but there were no British officers hunting anyone that night.
So I was polite to the Rices, and started to look into the possibility of John Rice being at the Tea Party, but doubted that I’d find anything convincing.

The earliest list of Tea Party participants appears at the back of Traits of the Tea-Party, an 1835 book based largely on the memories of George R. T. Hewes. I’ve written about my best guess on the source of that list. While not free of error or omission, it was published within the lifetime of people alive in 1773, and is thus our most reliable source. And that list doesn’t include John Rice; instead, it names Benjamin Rice.

John Rice’s name also isn’t named among the tea destroyers in Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves, the book with the longest list of Tea Party activists. Drake cast a very wide net, and included some men on very little evidence. Nevertheless, John Rice was not among them.

Finally, because John Rice graduated from Harvard in 1774, there’s a short biography of him in a 1999 volume of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, compiled and published by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The researchers there have tremendous resources, and the book doesn’t link Rice to the Tea Party. I asked the series editor—Conrad E. Wright, also author of the recent Revolutionary Generation: Harvard Men and the Consequences of Independence—whether he’d come across any rumors or hazy leads about Rice, and he hadn’t.

And yet, I don’t feel ready to dismiss this family tradition.

My first reason is that on 30 Nov 1773 John Rice (or his namesake father, who was forty-six years old instead of nineteen) volunteered to patrol Griffin’s Wharf with other men to ensure that the tea wasn’t taken off the ships—which would have triggered the tea tax back in London. So he was definitely active in the conflict between the town and the royal authorities. Several of the other men who volunteered in the same way on that or the previous night went on to help destroy the tea a couple of weeks later.

Second, during the war John Rice served in a number of important positions in the Massachusetts militia. By 1780 he oversaw the Boston garrison as “Town Major” and “Acting Adjutant General for the State"—top administrative roles. After the war, the U.S. government gave Maj. Rice more jobs: as deputy naval officer for the port of Boston under James Lovell, then deputy collector of impost and excise under former general Benjamin Lincoln. When the United States Bank was established in 1793, Rice was the first teller in the Boston branch. None of this proves that Rice was at the Tea Party, of course. But the Patriot establishment seems to have given such jobs to men who had offered reliable service before and during the war.

Third, John Rice’s wife was Elizabeth Hunnewell, and her father and two of her brothers are on the 1835 list of men participating in the Tea Party. That doesn’t mean he went along with them, but it does offer yet more evidence that he hung out with that crowd.

TOMORROW: But what about Benjamin Rice?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tea Party Meeting Reenactment

This Sunday, 16 December, the Old South Meeting-house will host its annual reenactment of the public meetings that led up to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The event starts at 5:30 P.M. Admission is free for Old South members and folks dressed in colonial attire, $5 for everyone else.

The historic site’s invitation:

Immerse yourself in colonial nostalgia and become part of a courageous demonstration of political activism. Join a historic rally, cleverly crafted by Samuel Adams and the bold Sons of Liberty, and experience the destruction of the tea through theatrical storytelling from first-hand accounts.

The Boston Tea Party 234th Anniversary Reenactment is brought to life by the Old South’s Tea Party Players. The Players will dutifully don their historic garb and descend upon the Old South Meeting House to decide the fate of the cargo of tea held aboard ships docked in Boston Harbor. And after a recreation of the fiery debate wherein Samuel Adams declared that “this meeting can do no more to save this country,” we will hear from George Robert Twelves Hewes, a shoemaker and participant in the famous tea party. The audience is encouraged to join in and cheer on this portrayal of the most famous protest in American history!
In past years, when the Tea Party Ship Museum was open, these reenactments ended with the crowd streaming down to the waterfront to watch (from an increasing distance) the men on that ship toss boxes into the water. There’s no ship to march to right now, so Old South has arranged for fife and drum tunes from the Musick of Prescott’s Batallion outside, and—here’s the part I can’t picture yet—the chance to “photograph your own tea party in our staged scene on the Borders Plaza.” (Borders Plaza is apparently the commercial name for what I think of as the site of the godawful Irish Famine Memorial.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rebels Rising: The Five-City Tour

The National Book Critics Circle just released a survey that found 68.5% of its respondents feel that “anyone mentioned in the acknowledgments of a book” should be barred from reviewing it. Since my name appears in the Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, this is not a review. It’s just a discussion of the book.

Then again, Dave Hoffman at Concurring Opinions invited Benjamin L. Carp to write a “review” of Rebels Rising, and Ben’s name is on the cover, as the author. So we bloggers are still working out our own standards.

In Rebels Rising, Ben Carp explores the approach of the American Revolution in the five largest settlements in British North America. For each seaport, the book looks at a different aspect of life and thus analyzes different historical sources, political pressures, and slices of the population.

The chapter on Boston focuses on its waterfront: economy, culture, politics. As Ben points out, the ocean was part of everyone’s life on the Shawmut peninsula, even they didn’t directly work in the maritime trades. “From the tip of the North End to the Boston Neck was about two miles, and no point in Boston was more than half a mile from the water.”

The chapter on New York looks at that city’s changes through what happened in taverns. Again Ben makes a mighty strong case for that approach:

The province [of New York] consumed about 1,119,000 gallons of rum in 1770. This was 6.7 gallons of rum per New Yorker annually—a slightly skewed figure since some of the rum went to New Jersey. Still, New Yorkers probably drank rum at a higher rate than other Americans, who each drank 4.2 gallons of rum on average that year or more than seven one-ounce shots every day. . . .

With 365 liquor licenses issued in the twelve months following March 1771, a ratio of one tavern or retailer for approximately every sixty city residents (or one for every thirteen adult white men), New York had around double the number of drinking establishments per capita than other large colonial American cities.
The book studies Newport, Rhode Island, through its religious frictions, drawing especially on the rich diaries and letters of the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles. The papers of Henry Laurens open a window into the drawings rooms of Charleston, South Carolina, and an analysis of household management there. The last major chapter considers how Philadelphians tussled over their public spaces—their legislative chamber and the open yard outside—and thus over sources of political authority.

The result is a detailed, grounded look at one aspect of life in each seaport before the Revolutionary War—but only one aspect. As an example of how this works, Rebels Rising discusses Paul Revere as a small businessman who lived near the waterfront. It doesn’t discuss his career as a luxury craftsman, serving gentlemen but not (at first) considered one of them. It leaves aside his experiences as a war veteran and militia officer, a member of the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons, and an occasional engraver and thus political journalist. The book introduces Samuel Adams early in his career protesting naval impressment, a grievance of Boston’s waterfront community, but it doesn’t discuss other activities that helped politicize him, such as the Land Bank controversy and his work as a tax collector.

It would have been possible to apply any of the four other themes to Boston:
  • Taverns: The coffee-house fight between James Otis and John Robinson, meetings in the Green Dragon, &c. (Of course, David Conroy’s In Public Houses already traces about how Massachusetts taverns became political centers in the 1700s.)
  • Religion: Boston’s Congregationalist clergy was complaining loudly about a possible Anglican bishop while Crown supporters complained that those ministers comprised a “black regiment” preaching resistance.
  • Households: The nonimportation struggle made consumption into a political issue, then a conflict which eventually led to loss of life.
  • Space: Alongside the official Town House and Faneuil Hall government buildings, Boston politicians used Old South Meeting-House for extra-large meetings, plus the open space of the streets and under Liberty Tree.
We could probably apply each of the five approaches to each of the five cities. Of course, Rebels Rising never claims that there’s only one way to approach each location. It just shows that how each approach works in its designated city to yield insights into the overall movement. This one book thus encapsulates five different ways of looking at the approach of the Revolution, and offers a quick introduction to five distinct American places.

And I sense that Rebels Rising was designed to display that range. Though it certainly doesn’t read like a monograph, this book grew out of Ben Carp’s doctoral dissertation, which was supposed to show what he could do after however many years of training. And it showed he could do multiple forms of historical analysis in multiple geographic areas—mighty impressive.

In a way this book reminds me of John Singleton Copley’s famous portrait of his half-brother, Henry Pelham, and a squirrel, which is now at the Museum of Fine Arts. Copley painted that not for a patron but to exhibit in London and thereby establish his talents. It was his “masterpiece,” proving his range of skills. And the painting reflects that purpose. Copley is telling viewers, Look! I can paint a fine portrait! I can also paint a flying squirrel—bet you haven’t seen that! I can paint a fine metal chain! I can paint a glass of water! I can paint satin cloth! I can paint the reflections of all that stuff in a polished wood table! You want a portrait? I can paint it!