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, November 13, 2008

Reading Rowe

One of the major primary sources in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s new Coming of the American Revolution web project is the diary of Boston merchant John Rowe. Through that site, we can read his reactions to almost all the major events between 1764 and 1776. Rowe’s diary was fairly detailed, and he knew practically all the leaders on both sides of the political conflict.

Rowe knew them because he tried to remain friendly with both sides. He was a notorious “trimmer,” often changing his positions and alliances. As a result, neither side trusted him. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson suspected Rowe of being behind the attack on his North End mansion on 26 Aug 1765. Yet in 1773 the Boston crowd called Rowe a “great Tory.” He stayed in town through the siege of 1775-76, then chose not to leave with the British authorities.

As a result, Rowe witnessed a lot of events, but I don’t think we can assume that he was a trustworthy witness. His diary is a slippery document. For example, on the evening of the Tea Party he wrote, “I am sincerely sorry for the Event.” Yet a contemporaneous account of the public tea meetings, not published until 1965, confirmed people’s recollection that during the crisis Rowe had been the first to publicly suggest: “Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?”

Rowe’s diary stretches from September 1764 to July 1779, but there are three missing sections:

  • 17 Aug 1765 to 10 Apr 1766, the period of the worst Stamp Act riots.
  • 1 June to 24 Dec 1775, when he was in the besieged town.
  • 19 Nov 1776 to 12 Aug 1778, early in the new republic.
It’s not unusual for one or two volumes to go missing from a long diary like this, but one thing makes me a little suspicious about those holes: Rowe’s diary entry for 16 Mar 1775. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had declared that should be a fast-day to protest the troops in Boston. Supporters of the royal government objected. On that day, Rowe wrote in his diary:
This day is kept by many People as a Publick Fast, which gives great umbrage to a great many People which does not pay any Regard to it, and I think they are Right because the Order does not originate under the Direction of Good Government.
But, as can easily be seen on the original page, the merchant at some moment returned and added a few words (emphasized here):
This day is kept by many People as a Publick Fast, which gives great umbrage to a great many People which does not pay any Regard to it, and I think they are not Right because they say the Order does not originate under the Direction of Good Government—yet it can do no harm.
That change isn’t noted in either of the published versions of Rowe’s diary, both prepared in cooperation with his descendants. (I’d love to see it added to the “Rowe’s Revolution” section of the M.H.S. website. Hint, hint.)

We know, therefore, that John Rowe changed his diary in hindsight, either because he had made a 180° turn in his politics or because he didn’t want anyone else to see his original statement. Might the missing volumes have been so full of embarrassing entries that he decided to do away with them altogether? We’ll never know.

After the British evacuation, Rowe endured some embarrassing moments, such as his attempt to attend the funeral of Dr. Joseph Warren, when he “to my great mortification was very much Insulted.” But eventually he rode out suspicions about his loyalty, finally achieving his goal of representing Boston in the Massachusetts General Court in 1780-84. The only legislative initiative Rowe is remembered for was donating the large carved wooden cod which still hangs in the State House. But his name lives on at Rowes Wharf.

1 comment:

Jonathan Rowe said...

I am not, as far as I know, related to him. And he is not my namesake. But "Rowe's Revolution"...that's what I should have named my blog.