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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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Who Tipped Off Samuel Adams?

The Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America, first published in London in 1788, described Samuel Adams receiving word of the upcoming British march in April 1775:

A daughter of liberty, unequally yoked in point of politics, sent word, by a trusty hand, to Mr. Samuel Adams, residing in company with Mr. [John] Hancock at Lexington, about thirteen miles from Charlestown, that the troops were coming out in a few days.

Mr. Adams inferred from the number to be employed, that these [stores in Concord] were the objects, and not himself and Mr. Hancock, who might more easily be seized in a private way by a few armed individuals, than by a large body of troops that must march, for miles together, under the eyes of the public.
Gordon, a minister in Roxbury in 1775, probably got his information from Adams himself, like other anecdotes. It’s interesting that the messenger went directly to Adams and not to Hancock, who was then the head of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Adams’s confidence that he and Hancock weren’t the targets of the army march might have been increased by hindsight; on 19 April, as troops were approaching, he advocated getting far out of their way.

The “unequally yoked” phrase comes from Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, which both Gordon and Adams knew well: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” That allusion implies that while Adams’s informant supported the Patriot cause (“A daughter of liberty”), her husband didn’t—so perhaps he was high up in the royal government, privy to Gen. Thomas Gage’s planning.

This woman sent her warning “a few days” before the march to Concord, around the same time that other Patriots were departing Boston, fearing arrest, perhaps because Gage had received new orders from London. She seems also to have had a good idea of the number of soldiers the general planned to send. Col. Percy reportedly recalled Gage saying that he’d told only one other person of his plans for the Concord march before revealing them to his top officers on the evening of 18 Apr 1775.

Several authors have suggested that Gen. Gage’s New York-born wife, Margaret (shown above in a John S. Copley portrait), was Adams’s informant. Some have gone on to suggest, with no additional evidence, that she also spoke to Dr. Joseph Warren on 18 April 1775. According to Paul Revere, after the doctor had been told about several signs of a British troop movement, he checked with one more important, confidential source before setting off the Massachusetts alarm system. But Revere never hinted (and maybe never knew) if that source was female.

The general sent Margaret Gage home by herself soon after the war started. Some historians view that as a sign that he had come to suspect her. Of course, he was getting her out of a besieged town, so that action might have been a sign of affection rather than alienation. According to David Hackett Fischer, the Gages’ relationship was bad after 1775. According to John R. Alden, “no indication of an estrangement between the Gages because of the events of 1775 has been brought forward.”

A few other women fit Gordon’s vague description of a “daughter of liberty, unequally yoked in point of politics.” I can think of Esther Sewall, wife of Attorney General Jonathan Sewall and sister of Dorothy Quincy, and Hannah Quincy, wife of Advocate General Samuel Quincy. (Before you wonder, Samuel was a cousin of Esther and Dorothy.) But those ladies and their husbands were unlikely to have been privy to Gage’s secret military planning.

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