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 16, 2008

“Adams and Clarke unquestionably made up a policy”

As I quoted yesterday, the writer Arthur Bernon Tourtellot was a big fan of banker-historian Harold Murdock. In his 1959 book William Diamond’s Drum, now published as Lexington and Concord, Tourtellot had special praise for Murdock’s The Nineteenth of April 1775: “Informed, critical, witty, the essays are of immense value for the lines of inquiry that they suggest...”

In particular, Tourtellot picked up on Murdock’s forty-three-year-old suggestion that Samuel Adams had maneuvered the Lexington militia into provoking the British troops at dawn on that fateful day. Tourtellot also pointed his finger at on the Rev. Jonas Clarke, minister of the town of Lexington. He concluded:

Adams and Clarke unquestionably made up a policy between themselves. Adams knew the broad strategy of the resistance, because he was at this point its sole architect. Clarke knew the men of Lexington and, what is more, could control them as no outsider could. The policy determined upon between the time of [Paul] Revere’s first alarm and of the minuteman’s first muster and the time of the actual arrival of the British troops, was for the minutemen, however outnumbered, to make a conspicuous stand but not to fire.
When Murdock had first proposed that theory, he had conceded there was no evidence for it. But in American Heritage magazine, Tourtellot noted how many documents about the skirmish at Lexington had come to light since Murdock had written. So what new evidence had convinced Tourtellot that Murdock was right, that Adams and Clarke had “unquestionably” decided the Lexington men should “make a conspicuous stand”?

Actually, none. The intervening decades had brought out lots about the British side of the march to Concord, but the documentation about the Massachusetts politicians and officers was nearly the same as it was when Murdock spoke in 1916. So to make his case, Tourtellot had to fall back on arguments like this:
Dorothy Quincy remembered that [John] Hancock went down to the Common. It can be taken as certain that, if he went, so did Samuel Adams, who would never have let him out of sight in the midst of such promising events; and Clarke would have guided them down the road from the parsonage, around the corner of the Common to Buckman’s.
Somehow Tourtellot seems more certain that Adams and Clarke visited Lexington Green than that Hancock did, even though Hancock was the only one of the three men that anyone described as going there. And just as no Lexington militiaman recalled being urged by Adams to stand in front of the regulars, no witness described Clarke as advocating that policy, either. This was still a conspiracy theory in search of supporting evidence.

But a lot of people read William Diamond’s Drum/Lexington and Concord. Overall, it’s a very good book: researched in detail, focused on individual stories as most of us readers like, and well written. Until it was superseded by David H. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, it was the best twentieth-century book on the first day of the Revolutionary War in Massachusetts. And just as Murdock’s “informed, critical, witty” writing and his prescience about the British officers’ motivations probably convinced Tourtellot that his theory about Samuel Adams had substance, so Tourtellot’s book has probably made lots of readers and some other authors overlook the holes in his variation on that theory.

TOMORROW: An example of Tourtellot’s legacy.

1 comment:

K.P. Dalton said...

Just goes to show that simply because a book is readable does not make it factual.