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.

Follow by Email

Saturday, May 31, 2008

“They Called Us Young Rebels.”

Back in November 2006, I quoted two letters from late January 1775, describing how Boston’s schoolboys had confronted Gen. Frederick Haldimand over their freedom to ride their sleds on an icy slope outside his house. Those letters weren’t published until the late 1800s, but Bostonians also passed on the anecdote orally between the Revolution and the 1840s.

As usually happens, without solid documentation the story became distorted over time. When Benson J. Lossing included a version of the tale in his volume Seventeen Hundred and Seventy-Six (1847), he evidently understood that it had happened in 1770 and involved Gen. Thomas Gage rather than his second-in-command.

This month, I found that Lossing had picked up his version of the dialogue between the boys and Gage from Samuel Griswold Goodrich’s school textbook The First Book of History, for Children and Youth. The edition available on Google Books is dated 1849, but the book was first published in Boston before 1845, and perhaps as early as the 1830s. (Goodrich had the annoying habit of giving the same title to different books and different editions.)

Here’s Goodrich’s version, with the paragraphs numbered for reading aloud in a classroom, I suspect:

15. Meanwhile, the jealousy of the people toward the soldiers continued to increase. Even the children caught the general feeling, as a story will show you. During the winter, before the Port Bill passed, the boys were in the habit of building hills of snow on the Common, and sliding down upon them to the pond. The English troops beat down these hills, merely to provoke the children. The boys complained of the injury, and set about repairing it. However, when they returned from school, they found the snow hills beat down again.

16. Several of the boys now waited upon the British captain, and informed him of the conduct of his soldiers; but he would have nothing to say to them; and the soldiers were more impudent than ever. At last, they called a meeting of the largest boys, and sent them to General Gage, commander-in-chief.

17. He asked why so many children had called upon him. “We came, sir,” said the tallest boy, “to demand satisfaction.” “What!” said the general; “have your fathers been teaching you rebellion, and sent you to show it here?” “Nobody sent us, sir,” answered the boy, while his cheek reddened and his eye flashed; “we have never injured or insulted your troops; but they have trodden down our snow hills, and broken the ice on our skating ground. We complained, and they called us young rebels, and told us to help ourselves if we could. We told the captain of this, and he laughed at us. Yesterday our works were destroyed for a third time; and, sir, we will bear it no longer.”

18. The general looked at them with admiration, and said to an officer at his side, “The very children draw in a love of liberty with the air they breathe.—You may go, my brave boys; and be assured, if my troops trouble you again, they shall be punished.
Goodrich had heard a tale with several errors. “The winter, before the Port Bill passed,” was the winter of 1773-74, when there were no British regiments patrolling Boston. The 1775 sledding site was down Beacon Hill onto School Street, not on the Common; that didn’t become the town’s main sledding area until the 1800s. The contemporaneous letters say nothing about “hills of snow” or a “skating ground.” But at heart it’s clearly the same story that Boston Patriots had enjoyed in 1775.

This image of the meeting between the schoolboys and a general comes from an 1878 schoolbook by Goodrich, one of several graphic depictions of the story from the late 1800s.

There might be an even earlier version of this story in print. In his memoir A New England Boyhood (first published 1893), Edward Everett Hale wrote:
Mrs. Child, in her Juvenile Miscellany, gave the impression that the coasting scene, in which the Latin School boys defied General Gage, began with coasting on the Common. But she was wholly wrong there. . . . The story was told me by Mr. Robins, the last survivor of the delegation, in the year 18—.
Hale, born in 1822, had enjoyed Lydia Maria Child’s magazine Juvenile Miscellany until she came out as an Abolitionist. Had she published a version of the sledding story? Or had Hale read it in Goodrich’s schoolbook but misremembered the source as Child’s magazine? (Hale was mistaken in trusting Jonathan Darby Robins on this story; that man had left the South Latin School well before 1775, and therefore was unlikely to have been “the last survivor of the delegation” to Gen. Haldimand.)

I’m still looking for a Juvenile Miscellany version of the sledding tale. Unfortunately, since that magazine was published for children (and edited by a woman, yet), there are few complete collections in libraries and no indexes. I’ve checked biographies of Child and books that she assembled from her magazine material. No luck yet.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Who Was Samuel Adams’s “Servant Boy Job”?

On 13 Apr 1772, Samuel Adams wrote to his friend James Warren, a merchant in Plymouth (shown at left):

I am much obligd for your Care in procuring for me a Boy.

I shall be ready to receive him about the middle of next month and shall take the best care of him that shall be in my Power till he is 14 years old, perfecting him in his reading and teaching him to write and cypher [i.e., do arithmetic] if capable of it under my own Tuition for I cannot spare him the time to attend School. Will strictly regard his Morals and at the End of time I will if his parents shall desire it, seek a good place for him to learn such a Trade as he and they shall chuse.
This is an interesting look at Adams’s class expectations. Though not a rich man, he had household servants looking after him and his family—including a woman named Surry, who was legally enslaved. Adams sent his own son to the Latin School and Harvard, but planned to teach this boy more rudimentary knowledge at home because “I cannot spare him the time to attend School.”

During Samuel’s absence from Boston to attend the Continental Congress starting in mid-1774, he and his wife Elizabeth exchanged some letters that mention a boy named Job. Elizabeth on 12 Sept 1774:
PS. . . . [Surry?] and Job send their dutty.
Samuel to Elizabeth, 17 June 1775:
It is a great Satisfaction to me to be assured from you that your Mother & Family are out of Boston, and also my boy Job. I commend him for his Contrivance in getting out. Tell him from me to be a good Boy. I wish to hear that my Son and honest Surry were releasd from their Confinement in that Town.
Samuel to Elizabeth, 30 July 1775:
Pay my proper Respects to your Mother & Family, Mr & Mrs. Henshaw, my Son & Daughter, Sister Polly &c. Tell Job and Surry that I do not forget them.
Finally, on 28 Sept 1778, Samuel wrote to his “dear Betsy” with this praise:
I think you have done well in putting your Servant Boy Job an Apprentice to a Sail Maker. I hope you will injoyn it on him to let you see him often, that you may give him your Advice, and tell him it is my Desire that he would attend to it. I love the Boy, and am still of opinion, that if he is properly mannagd he will make a good Citizen.
By this point Samuel was referring to the boy as Elizabeth’s servant rather than his own; she was clearly running the household while he was away for so many months in Philadelphia.

A couple of generations later, one of Adams’s descendants wrote a biography of him that stated:
Another member of the family was a servant boy, whose education Mr. Adams attended to as conscientiously as though he had been his own child. The boy lived to become an influential mechanic in Boston, and was conspicuous in 1795-96 as an active politician in electing his old master to the Chief Magistracy [i.e., governor] of the Commonwealth.
So it looks like young Job lived with Samuel Adams’s family probably from 1772, and certainly from 1774, through 1778. He would therefore have had an intimate perspective on the period of the Boston Tea Party, the return of British troops, the start of the war, the siege of Boston, the Declaration of Independence, and the difficult months that followed. If Elizabeth Adams found an apprenticeship for Job when he was about to turn fourteen, as her husband had planned, that means he’d been born in 1764 and grew up with the Adamses from about age eight. Then he went to work for a sailmaker, at least at first. And the family recalled that he was still in Boston and politically active about twenty years later.

Researchers interested in Adams, in the history of childhood, in the American working class and its politics—we need to find this person!!!!!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Whatever Happened to Charles Bourgate?

Yesterday I described the tragical-comical story of Charles Bourgate, a French servant boy who thought it would be a good idea to accuse his master of participating in the Boston Massacre. That worked great for about eight months in which Charles appears to have gotten free room and board in the upper floor of the Boston jail as the province housed him as an important witness. But then he was convicted of perjury and whipped, and he vanished from the record.

I shift forward four and a half years to October 1775, when an American army was invading Canada. One of the young officers in that expedition was Capt. Henry Dearborn (shown here, later in life). He became very sick. Which is a little ironic, since he was a doctor.

On 25 Oct 1775, Dearborn wrote in his diary that “Charles gather’d me some herbs in the woods, and made me Tea of them, I drank very Hearty of it and next morning felt much Better.” That attendant was one of the two young men Dearborn wrote about on 5-6 November:

at evening Charles Hilton [a private in Dearborn’s company, captured at Quebec], and Charles Burget, a French Lad, [who had] Inlisted, at Fort Western, who was a native of Canady, Came back for me with Two Horses, we Stay’d here all night.

I hir’d an Indian to Carry me down the River, 9 Miles, to one Sonsosees, a French-mans, one of Charles Burgets relations, where I hir’d Lodgings and took my Bed Immediately. I was this time in a High fever. I kept the Two Charles’s to take Care of me.
On 9 December, having recovered from a violent fever that left him in delirium, Dearborn wrote:
at this time I concluded to send Charles Burget, my french Lad to Quebec, to see if he could procure me something from an Apothecary to help my Cough and to assist nature, in Carrying off my fever, he went and in four days return’d, but to my great mortification Brought nothing for me but bad News, which was, that our people had not got Possession of Quebec. . . .

I now began to be very uneasy and wanted to be with the Army and the Seventh day I set out in a Carriall to Quebec, and the 9th. day I Cross’d the River St. Laurence, I join’d my Company who Seem’d very Glad to see me, they told me that they had been inform’d by one of our men that Came not many days since from Sattagan that I was Dead, and that he saw Charles Hilton, and Charles Burget making a Coffin for me.
It’s too much to ask for Dearborn’s Charles Burget to be the lost Charles Bourgate. The age is a match—Bourgate was fourteen in late 1770, so he would have been nineteen in 1775, still a “boy” but also old enough to be a soldier. The names don’t match exactly, but they’re close enough for how British-American mangled French names in the eighteenth century (“Sonsosees” = Saint-Souci?). However, Bourgate was said to have been “born in Bordeaux,” and Dearborn called Burget “a native of Canady.” And it’s always dangerous for a historian or genealogist to read too much into a similarity of names with no other evidence.

Nevertheless, if I were writing a novel about Charles Bourgate, I’d make him Charles Burget as well, enlisting in the Continental Army and sticking to Capt. Dearborn with the same fervent loyalty that he’d shown back in Boston. I don’t know what happened to Charles Burget after the invasion of Canada, either.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Charles Bourgate: questionable witness

Charles Bourgate (whose name was also rendered as Charles Bourgat, Charles Bourgatte, and even Charlotte Bourgatte) was yet another youth caught up in the Boston Massacre. In March 1770, he was indentured to Edward Manwaring, a Customs officer who normally worked in Douglastown on the Gaspé peninsula in Canada. They had spent that winter in Boston, living with a family named Hudson on Back Street. According to various sources, Charles had been born in Bordeaux, was fourteen years old, and could not sign his own name.

There are two conflicting versions of what Charles Bourgate did on the night of the Massacre. He said that he left the Hudsons’ when church bells rang to see what the alarm was. When he got to the Customs House, one of the family who lived in that building, Hammond Green, yanked him inside, and several men forced him upstairs. A tall man with a sword-cane loaded three guns and forced Charles to fire two of them out the window. The boy insisted that he had shot “up the street and in the air.” He then left the room as his master Manwaring fired the third gun. The tall man offered him money to keep quiet, but Charles nobly declared he would tell a magistrate what had happened if asked. He then ran back to the Hudsons.

And indeed, a few days after the shooting Charles did tell Justice Richard Dana this story. In response, Manwaring produced a friend, John Munroe, who swore that the two had been together at the Hudsons’ house all evening. After thinking hard in jail overnight, Charles told Dana that he remembered a man named Munroe had been at the Customs House, too. That made Munroe into a potential defendant, so he couldn’t be an exculpatory witness. Both men, Green, and another Customs employee were indicted for murder, though only Charles was put in jail. This was a form of protective custody, I suspect, as well as a way to make sure he didn’t disappear.

In a 16 Mar 1770 letter to the Boston Gazette, Manwaring described Charles as “a boy under age, without principle, sense, or education, and indeed unacquainted with our language.” But many Whigs thought the story of “the French boy” had exposed the dreadful conspiracy within the Customs office that they had long suspected. Boston’s official narrative report on the “horrid Massacre,” written mainly by James Bowdoin, placed great weight on his testimony. Henry Pelham drew a gun firing from an upper window of the Customs House in his engraving of the Massacre, which Paul Revere copied.

By the time the Customs officials’ trial started on 12 December, however, people seemed much more dubious. Capt. Thomas Preston and most of the British soldiers had been acquitted, with two convicted of manslaughter. Charles told his story again. Defense attorneys quickly put up witnesses who said they had seen no shots from the Customs House. Two women who lived in the Customs House said they had watched the confrontation from the very room that Charles described, and there had been no men with guns.

Elizabeth Hudson then offered the other story about what Charles had done back on 5 March. She testified that Manwaring and Munroe had been at her house all night. And as for Charles, she said, his master had “kept him there the whole evening, until after the bells had all ceased ringing, and until after ten o’clock.”

The court brought Charles back to the stand and asked what he had to say about Hudson’s testimony. He insisted he had told the truth. The judges summoned four men known for speaking French well and asked them to question the boy. He passed up the opportunity to claim that this was all a linguistic misunderstanding and stuck to his story.

The defense attorney then called James Penny, a debtor who had been living in the jail. He testified that Charles had admitted:

That what he testified to the Grand Jury and before the Justices…was in every particular false, and that he did swear in that manner by the persuasion of William Molineux, who told him he would take him from his master and provide for him, and that Mr. Molineux frightened him by telling him if he refused to swear against his master and Mr. Munro the mob in Boston would kill him: and farther that Mrs. Waldron, the wife of Mr. Waldron a taylor in Back-street, who sells ginger bread and drams, gave him the said Charles gingerbread and cheese, and desired him to swear against his master.
Charles denied that his testimony could be bought for gingerbread and cheese, but he had no credibility left. The jury acquitted all the Customs men without getting up from their seats to confer. The judges sent Charles back to jail to face perjury charges. Molineux soon placed angry notices in the newspapers declaring he had never told Charles to say anything but the truth. And I think he may very well have told the boy that, but in a way that made clear exactly what he wanted to hear.

In the spring, Charles was convicted of perjury and sentenced to stand for an hour at the whipping-post on King Street and suffer twenty-five lashes. On 28 March, the merchant John Rowe wrote in his journal:
This Day The French Boy & a Charcoal Follow stood in the Pillory. The French Boy was to have been whipt but the Populous hindered the Sheriff doing his duty.
Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf oversaw the end of the job two days later.

And then Charles Bourgate disappears from the historical record. Did he have to go back to Manwaring, or had that official gladly tossed him aside? Did Molineux or the other local Whigs look after him? Did he wish to return to French-speaking Canada, or to Bordeaux? Alas, he’s a lost youth.

TOMORROW: Or is he?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lost Youth Week Begins with Edward Garrick

I’ve decided to make this “Lost Youth Week” at Boston 1775, talking about some young people in Revolutionary Boston whom I’d really, really like to find in the historical records. The documentation for youths of working age is even more spotty than the records of adult men since they often left their families but still didn’t pay taxes, own real estate, join churches, or advertise their services. (Boys may be easier to track than adult women, however, since they had a wider range of given names, and they didn’t change their names over their lifetimes.)

My first lost youth is Edward Garrick, apprentice to barber John Piemont in 1770. On the night of 5 Mar 1770, he said something cheeky that Pvt. Hugh White didn’t like. White called Edward over to the sentry box near the Customs House and clonked him on the head. That started the cycle of violence on King Street that ended in the Boston Massacre.

That fall, Edward testified at the trial of Capt. Thomas Preston. Some other apprentices, such as Bartholomew Broaders, mentioned him in their own testimony. Those depositions and lawyers’ notes from the trial supposedly preserve some of Edward’s own words. But then he disappears from the records.

If Edward Garrick was in his mid- to late teens in 1770, as his behavior indicates, then he would have been in his twenties during the Revolutionary War, and thus the right age to serve in the army. But he’s not listed clearly in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution. Did his experience in 1770 commit him to the Patriot cause?

I haven’t found any mention of Edward Garrick (or Gerrish, as some people wrote down his name) in the surviving records of the churches of Boston, the Overseers of the Poor, or the newspapers. I’d especially like to find a birth or baptism date for the lad since that would shed a little more light on the dispute on King Street. Boys could go to work as early as about eight years old, and they remained “boys” in the eye of the law until they were twenty. Pvt. White could therefore have been facing a little boy or a young man taller than he was. As I said above, everyone assumes Edward was in his mid- to late teens, but we don’t know.

It’s possible Edward Garrick was born outside Boston; came in to train as a barber, as Ebenezer Fox did during the war; then went back to his home town after the war began. In which case, he could turn up in some rural church records. Anyone?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn

This November will mark the hundredth anniversary of the erection of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. The monument is currently undergoing restoration. At right is a photo from late last year, showing the column enshrouded in scaffolding and mesh.

During the Revolutionary War, the British military kept many of its prisoners from privateers and battles on ships anchored in New York harbor. The American authorities, knowing that they had a numerical advantage in available men, dragged their feet about exchanging their British and Hessian prisoners for these captives. As a result, many Americans were held for years. The poor food, terrible sanitation, and close conditions aboard those hulks meant that many prisoners died of disease and were buried along the shore of Wallabout Bay.

Over the decades, those graves eroded, and skeletons were exposed; this was quite a controversy in the early republic. While previous generations honored the memory of the dead as we do, they weren’t as invested in matching remains with individual people. Locals collected those bones and placed them together in a vault near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The picture below shows that monument as it appeared in the 1840s. It was in less picturesque disrepair twenty years later.
Fort Greene was built in Brooklyn during the War of 1812 and named after Gen. Nathanael Greene. In 1864, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux produced a design for a park around that site with a new monument to the dead prisoners of war. However, it took until 1908 for people to raise the funds for that memorial column and to complete its construction. Shortly thereafter, skyscrapers sprang up all over Manhattan, and the column’s viewing platform seemed low and quaint.

The Fort Greene Park Conservancy is now leading the effort to restore the monument and the park as a whole. They are also planning for a grand celebration of the monument’s centenary this fall, featuring author David McCullough as keynote speaker. And it looks like they could use financial help from anyone who cares to give.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Google Books and Bartholomew Broaders

On Friday morning, Microsoft announced that it was ending its Live Search Books service, in essence acknowledging that Google Books was so far ahead it couldn’t compete. I’m not surprised. At one point I found a few volumes on Live Search Books that hadn’t shown up on Google Books yet, but the downloads were slower and less flexible. And the amount of material on Google Books is just mind-blowing.

Here’s one discovery that would have been nearly impossible without Google Books. It involves Bartholomew Broaders, one of the apprentices of barber and wigmaker John Piemont who was involved in the beginning of the Boston Massacre. Pvt. Hugh White clubbed Broaders’s young co-worker, Edward Garrick, for speaking insolently of the 14th Regiment. According to his own testimony, Broaders yelled at White, demanding “what he meant by thus abusing the people.” A sergeant chased the boys away, but they returned and gathered the crowd that eventually grew threatening. Garrick and Broaders were gone by the time that soldiers fired at that crowd, but they each left testimony about their earlier experiences.

What happened to Broaders after 1770? He was drafted as a private in Lt. Col. Jabez Hatch’s Boston militia regiment in mid-1777 and served for five weeks. Town records show that Boston chose Broaders to be one of its constables in 1783 and 1784. This job usually involved delivering writs and reminding people of the law, not full-time police work. Among the weighty tasks the selectmen gave Broaders and colleagues were viewing coal baskets, trucks, and carts to make sure they weren’t so big as to cause “damage & destruction of the Pavements.”

From church records, I found that Broaders married a young widow named Priscilla Bennett in 1778, and they had six children baptized in the West Meeting-House between 1780 and 1786. Real estate records show that they bought land on Ann Street near the drawbridge that defined the border of the North End in the 1790s.

Broaders got out of the barbering business, which was wise. In pre-Revolutionary Boston, both gentlemen and fashionable tradesmen wore wigs. Learning how to shave heads and build those wigs looked like a lucrative future. But then fashions changed, men started to wear their hair more naturally, and there must have been far less demand for journeymen barbers. (Another trainee in this profession who went into other work was Ebenezer Fox.)

Broaders owned a shop selling “slops,” or sailors’ clothing, according to the 1800 Boston directory. A reference I haven’t fully tracked down says that Bartholomew and Priscilla also ran the Federal Eagle tavern on Fore Street, where the U.S.S. Constitution (shown above, courtesy of the navy) recruited its men. (Bartholomew’s old master Piemont also lived on Ann Street, and had also opened a tavern, though he called his a coffee-shop.) The Massachusetts Mercury says that Priscilla died in 1801, aged forty-five.

By 1802, it was clear that something was wrong with Bartholomew Broaders. According to the Boston selectmen’s records for 10 November of that year:

In compliance with a Warrant from the Honble. Thomas Dawes Jr. Judge of Probate within the County of Suffolk; the Selectmen made inquisition as to the circumstances of Bartholomew Broaders, and find the said Broaders incapable of taking care of himself—& are of opinion that Guardians should be appointed for him
In the 27 Apr 1803 Independent Chronicle, the young lawyer Luther Richardson announced that he had been appointed Broaders’s guardian because the man was non compos mentis. Perhaps court records have more to say about Broaders’s age and condition; I haven’t dared to look yet.

What does this have to do with Google Books? For whatever reason, that reference to Broaders in the selectmen’s minutes didn’t get into that volume’s index. I could therefore have diligently checked his name in the index of every volume of that long series and never found a pointer to this entry. But because Google Books creates texts of the printed material it scans and makes those texts searchable, it brought this reference back to the surface.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Boston History Museums Looking Up and Down

The Old State House museum’s tower is being renovated, as the Boston Globe reported last week. The photo on the right, by David L. Ryan, shows the scaffolding that now sheathes the structure.

The Bostonian Society, owner of that historic structure, has created a not-unfamiliar-looking blog showing progress on the tower from the inside.

Meanwhile, up in the North End, the Paul Revere House is mapping its site using lasers and radar. I’m not sure I understand all that the Globe was saying, but here’s the gist:

Now surveyors from the Boston firm Harry R. Feldman Inc. and an academic team from UMass Boston [led by Prof. Allen Gontz] are collaborating to create a three-dimensional digital picture of the house and associated structures, the garden where water was once drawn from a hand-dug well, and even what's below ground, down to about 10 feet.

A picture of what’s above the surface, created by the Feldman firm using a laser scanner, is being stitched together electronically with a radar-generated image of what's underground produced by the UMass Boston team, so history—even the remains of a privy—can be protected as the space is enlarged.
The Globe also offers a slide show, and a video with the article.

Both museums remain open as this work goes on.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Swiftboating Samuel Adams

Yesterday I listed a litany of factual errors in William H. Hallahan’s The Day the American Revolution Began. Such misstatements and exaggerations pile up so badly when it comes to Samuel Adams that I suspect they reveal outright bias on the author’s part.

As a start, Hallahan ascribes practically every political development in greater Boston to Adams. If he mentions other Massachusetts organizers at all, they’re either nobly opposed to Adams’s methods or under his thumb. Often they disappear from their own stories. For example, it’s well established that James Otis, Jr., broke with the Crown in 1760 after Gov. Francis Bernard appointed Thomas Hutchinson as Chief Justice of the province instead of Otis’s father. Yet Hallahan calls that moment the “Start of bitter quarrel between Hutchinson and Sam Adams” [295]. Adams was a local political figure in that year; he wasn’t elected to the Massachusetts legislature until 1765.

As another example, the Suffolk Resolves were drafted by a committee of Whigs from inside and outside Boston in September 1774, with Dr. Joseph Warren usually credited as the principal writer. They followed a series of similar resolutions adopted by county meetings to the west. At the time, Adams was in Philadelphia. But Hallahan says those resolves were “written under Sam Adams’s direction” [300], and he had “prepared for dominating the Continental Congress with this document” [135].

Hallahan rarely passes up opportunities to denigrate Adams, even when there are no facts to back up such a judgment. In a timeline entry for 1768, he writes, “Sam Adams and Sons of Liberty fail to stop troops from landing as threatened, becomes [sic] laughingstock of the colonies” [298]. Adams had never threatened to stop the troops from landing; William Molineux did, and the evidence of even him becoming a “laughingstock” in thin indeed. For 1770: “Adams’s gang enforces nonimportation agreement. Many small businessmen bankrupted.” Molineux and Dr. Thomas Young are documented as leading the nonimportation protests, not Adams. And who were these “many small businessmen” who went bankrupt?

James M. O’Toole’s article “The Historical Interpretations of Samuel Adams,” published in the New England Quarterly in 1976, describes how other authors have fallen into similar errors. Biographies of Adams in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries portrayed him as behind everything good that happened in Boston during the Revolution. After that it wasn’t such a big leap, once Americans recognized that violence, disorder, and intimidation were also part of the resistance movement, to blame those on Adams as well. But he wasn’t in charge of everything, either good or bad. He was a leading voice in a mass movement, but there were other leaders, there were lots of people involved, and in life there are many events no one can control.

Part of the received wisdom about Adams is that he was vital for bringing on the Revolution, but had nothing to contribute after independence. Hallahan is only too happy to subscribe to that idea. It requires ignoring Adams’s admired service in the Congress through 1781 and in Massachusetts government for the rest of his life. Hallahan writes, “He fought bitterly against the new constitution, which he was as an intrusion on the rights of the states.” While Adams had doubts about the U.S. Constitution, he eventually voted to ratify it. The book never acknowledges Adams’s terms as Massachusetts governor.

When The Day the American Revolution Began characterizes Adams’s thinking and importance in history, Hallahan appears to be looking for ways to criticize the man, and his rhetoric gets tied up in knots. The result are head-scratchers like this:

Samuel Adams’s reputation was unequivocal. In his inner circle, among those who worked under his direction—and they included well-educated, intelligent idealistic men such as Dr. Joseph Warren—he was revered. Most people outside his own circle hated him, some with a murderous passion. He was well-known throughout the colonies, admired and emulated by some few but hated by many who regarded him as a waterfront thug, a manipulator, a political jobber, an intimidator, a blackmailer, a mob leader, a destroyer, and a newspaper propagandist of the worst sort. A criminal out of control, a terrorist and an outlaw. [99]
Aside from there being no evidence for Adams as “a waterfront thug,” “a political jobber,” or “a mob leader,” much less “a terrorist and an outlaw,” this rant makes no internal sense. If Adams was “revered” and “admired and emulated” by some people but “hated” by others, then his reputation couldn’t have been “unequivocal,” which means beyond questioning or doubt. Adams’s reputation was obviously mixed.

I find Hallahan’s other commentary on Adams to be so contradictory that it’s hard to see the rational thought behind it. Page 231 describes Adams this way: “A true democrat, he believed all people in society should live on the same level. No privileges. No lording it over others.” Yet two pages earlier, Hallahan writes: “Samuel Adams was not seeking justice. He wanted power—the king’s power.” These statements are contradictory, and they’re both false.

On page 234, Hallahan declares, “Samuel Adams was not an innovator.” Yet just one page earlier he writes, “Samuel Adams had forged a new political weapon,” and on page 240 he goes back to stating, “Adams was the first man in history to learn how to brilliantly use newspapers as instruments of propaganda.” Does Hallahan bear such animus that he can’t grant that Adams was an innovator? And does he fear Adams’s newspaper essays enough to suggest that the British government should have attacked the free press (“Perhaps it is not too strong to say that the gravest mistake made by Crown authorities in the colonies was in not shutting down the newspapers” [77])?

The book’s most ridiculous accusation against Adams appears in the timeline entry for 1769: “Adams breaks into mansion of absent Bernard, finds his private papers, starts newspaper propaganda campaign” [298]. Some of Gov. Bernard’s letters were indeed printed in Boston that year, but they had been leaked by people inside the government in London. Hallahan’s belief that Samuel Adams was a housebreaker is laughable.

I’ve already written about how Hallahan accuses Adams of arranging for some unknown individual to fire a gun as British troops marched onto Lexington Green so as to produce “a few dead farmers” and start the Revolutionary War. That accusation appears over and over in the book with increasingly incendiary rhetoric but not increasing evidence—no evidence at all, in fact.

It’s not a period term, but the best label I can think of for how The Day the American Revolution Began treats Samuel Adams is “swiftboating.”

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Nifty Idea Wasted through Sloppy Research

A few days back, I promised a fuller explanation of what I find wrong in The Day the American Revolution Began, by William H. Hallahan. By “wrong” I don’t mean I disagree with the author’s theories and conclusions, or his general approach to studying or writing history, or his use of the serial comma. I mean “wrong” as in basic errors of fact.

Hallahan had a nifty idea for a book. In addition to relating the history of the Concord alarm of 19 Apr 1775 in Massachusetts, The Day the American Revolution Began promises to describe how other parts of America and the world reacted to the news of that fight, in many cases weeks later. The Revolution thus “began” on different days in different places. That’s a fresh, interesting take. Unfortunately, the book was badly researched and written, biased in its treatment of the subjects, and inaccurate in its statements.

Where to begin? Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver was not a brother of Chief Justice Peter Oliver [page 58]. Thomas Brattle was not William Brattle [57-8, 286]. James Warren was not a “brilliant physician” [35], but a merchant; obviously Hallahan mixed him up with Dr. Joseph Warren. And speaking of Joseph Warren, he was not the “Loyalist governor” of Rhode Island [79]; that was Joseph Wanton.

William Molineux was not “a draper” [234], but a hardware merchant. Henry Knox did not lose fingers in a hunting accident “many years before” the siege of Boston [73], but three years before, in July 1772. There’s no evidence that Paul Revere’s horse “collapsed, and died on the Concord road” [284]; we don’t know what happened to it.

John Adams didn’t retire from politics in 1770 [298]; he was elected to represent Boston in the Massachusetts General Court in the middle of that year. Oddly enough, on page 71, Hallahan falsely dates that same election to 1771. Adams was not a close friend of newspaper essayist Daniel Leonard [59-60]; rather, he had been a close friend of Jonathan Sewall, and mistakenly thought Sewall wrote Leonard’s Massachusettensis essays.

There were not “500 indictments for smuggling” pending against John Hancock in 1775 [25]; there were none. At no point were Boston Customs inspectors “pitched overboard into the harbor” [76]. John Malcolm was not “A [sic] elderly dockworker” [60], but a middle-aged Customs official. Malcolm was not attacked in January 1774 by “a gang celebrating the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party” since that event had occurred only six weeks before. He was attacked because he had clubbed shoemaker George R. T. Hewes.

The Boston Massacre did not occur in 1765, but in 1770 [85]. Gen. Thomas Gage did not bring the unpopular 29th Regiment back to Boston in 1774 [85]. British soldiers had not “already tarred and feathered others” in New England before Thomas Ditson, Jr., on 8 Mar 1775 [7].

Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould did not die “of his wound not long after” signing a deposition for the Provincial Congress when he was a prisoner of war [285]. He was exchanged for other prisoners, sailed to England, got married, testified in John Horne Tooke’s state trial, and lived for many years.

The sloppiness extends to the book’s illustrations. Page 1 shows a picture of Faneuil Hall as it appeared after Charles Bulfinch greatly expanded it in 1805. Page 245 shows a picture of the Houses of Parliament that were being constructed half a century later. In other words, neither view has any connection to the day the American Revolution began, however that’s defined.

And then there’s all that Hallahan had to say about Samuel Adams.

TOMORROW: Don’t get me started.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

“To arms!” he declaimed. “Where is my musket?”

My remarks earlier in the week about John Hancock at Lexington, arguing that he had to confront the approaching British troops, reminded me of this depiction of the man in Robert Lawson’s Mr. Revere and I.



A few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the original of this art at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington. At the time, I hadn’t looked inside Mr. Revere and I in years. But I immediately recognized this image. It was one part of the mental picture of John Hancock that I grew up with.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Shoes Found in Hancock-Clarke Wall

Last week I had a lot to say about what was (or wasn’t) happening at the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying until the very early hours of 19 Apr 1775.

This month the Lexington Minuteman reported on what’s happening at the Hancock-Clarke House right now: a renovation that’s unearthed some unusual items in the walls. Ian B. Murphy reported:

One of Lexington’s treasures, the Hancock-Clarke House, has a treasure of its own: six 18th-century shoes buried in its wall.

The shoes, known as concealment shoes, were discovered while the house was being refurbished and reconstructed. They were used to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. These shoes were hidden away in the historic house’s walls with a cartridge box, a child’s corset, a shoe buckle, and a letter dated 1768.
As Guy Curtis pointed out when he alerted me to this story, cartridge boxes from the eighteenth century are relatively rare. Reenactors will be eager to know what shape this one is in and how it’s designed.

Here is Murphy’s photo for the Minuteman of the find.
As of spring 2005, the Sharon (Connecticut) Historical Society newsletter reported, “According to Jennifer Swope at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, no one has ever photographed a concealment shoe in its discovered location.” So this might be a historic image.

The same article says, “the consensus seems to be that it [concealing an old shoe] was usually done during renovation rather than original construction.” That could fit with the architecture of this house since this wall links what’s thought to be the oldest part of the house with an extension added at an unknown time. The 1768 letter could valuable there. Also, someone is doing dendrochronology.

The University of Southampton’s Textile Conservation Centre has an entire website devoted to Deliberately Concealed Garments. Brian Hoggard has a site on Concealment Shoes as part of a larger website on British folk magical beliefs, including an analytical study by June Swann of the phenomenon in Britain. The early modern British colonists in the New World brought that habit with them, so concealed shoes are a surprisingly common find in buildings that date from before 1800. Here’s a page about some from the Wayland Historical Society, for example.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Who Really Wanted to Fight at Lexington?

Yesterday I wrote about how unlikely it seems that Samuel Adams secretly manipulated Capt. John Parker and the Lexington militia into standing their ground as the British army marched onto their Green at dawn on 19 Apr 1775.

But I still think it’s possible that another Patriot leader urged the militiamen to do exactly that. Indeed, we have evidence that one politician argued for confronting the army column—not because he expected the redcoats’ reaction to trigger a war, but because he believed it would be dishonorable not to stand up to them.

Arthur Bernon Tourtellot was so intent on building a case against Adams that he didn’t recognize how the evidence he’d amassed pointed to another man. Citing William Sumner’s notes on a dinner conversation with the widow of John Hancock in 1822, he wrote:

Hancock insisted on fighting the British himself. “It was with very great difficulty that he was dissuaded from it by Mr. [Jonas] Clarke and Mr. Adams.” He nevertheless went down to the Common to see the minutemen and came back to the Clarke house to repeat his desire to fight. Adams finally stopped the protests by pointing out the importance of Hancock…to the leadership of the cause.
Hancock’s widow, by then named Dorothy Scott, actually told Sumner:
Mr. H. was all the night cleaning his gun and sword, and putting his accoutrements in order, and was determined to go out to the plain by the meeting house, where the battle was, to fight with the men who had collected, but who, she says, were but partially provided with arms, and those they had were in most miserable order...
She was probably dramatizing her story; other parts of her recollection, such as Hancock’s aunt nearly being struck by a musket ball, are unlikely, given what other witnesses said about that night. Tourtellot read the widow’s recollections to mean that Hancock actually went down to the Green himself. I don’t think she said that—she said he wanted to.

But as for the wealthy young merchant’s wish to fight, we don’t have to rely on his widow. Tourtellot also quoted William Munroe’s 1825 deposition about this night. As a militia sergeant, Munroe was guarding the Hancock-Clarke parsonage when Paul Revere and William Dawes arrived. He recalled:
it was thought advisable, that Hancock and Adams should withdraw to some distant part of the town. To this Hancock assented with great reluctance, and said, as he went off, “If I had my musket, I would never turn my back upon these troops.”
That sure seems like a hint about what Munroe and other men with muskets should do.

Tourtellot tried to to argue that Adams and Clarke, the Lexington minister, must have gone to the Green with Hancock:
Samuel Adams...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. . . .

Expert as he was in town mobs and their behavior, Adams, who had lived all his life in the heart of Boston, was weak in his knowledge of country people. Hancock knew nothing of them.
Hence the need for Clarke’s involvement in the plot.

In fact, Hancock had grown up for several years in rural Braintree and in Lexington itself. Hancock had lived in Clarke’s house for a while as a boy; it’s called the “Hancock-Clarke House” because it was built for the merchant’s grandfather, the town’s minister for half a century. Hancock had also been staying there for weeks before 19 April while his secretary and a trunk of papers were in Buckman’s tavern. Thus, he had probably gone back and forth between the parsonage and the Green many times.

Why didn’t Tourtellot think that Hancock could have inspired the Lexington militiamen? He wrote:
Hancock’s behavior, brave or simply foolhardy as it may have been, during those last four hours, ruled him out as a serious advisor on the military situation (he apparently saw nothing unwise and useless in the President of the Provincial Congress standing with sword drawn and pistol cocked in the line of march of British soldiers supposedly intent on arresting him)...
In other words, Hancock couldn’t possibly have told Capt. Parker, Sgt. Munroe, or the others that they should stand up to the redcoats because he was too busy yelling about how someone had to stand up to the redcoats. Hmmm.

Hancock, unlike Adams, had some military authority in colonial Massachusetts. He had been captain of the Company of Cadets, an upper-class militia unit in Boston, until late 1774, when Gov. Thomas Gage removed him from the post and the company dissolved in protest. People continued to refer to Hancock with the honorary title of “colonel.” (Because the Cadets were so upper-class, their captain got this honorary rank.)

Hancock also had more official civil authority than Adams. In April 1775, he was both the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the chairman of its Committee of Safety. Adams didn’t have those titles. There was no one in Lexington better positioned to give orders to Capt. Parker than John Hancock.

I’m not arguing that Hancock actually influenced the men on Lexington Green. None of those men described being inspired by him or his words, and in the early 1800s he remained popular enough that they would have had every reason to point to his leadership. But if authors want to find evidence of a Patriot leader prompting the fight in Lexington, they needn’t try to thread tenuous arguments about Samuel Adams. They should look at all the evidence about John Hancock.

(This posting is the culmination of a week of articles that began here.)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Real Samuel Adams and Real Life

I’ve been tracing the idea that Samuel Adams somehow instigated the shooting at Lexington on 19 Apr 1775, from the first suggestion by Harold Murdock through the development by Arthur Bernon Tourtellot to a recent elaboration by William H. Hallahan. I see three major holes in this thesis, even beyond the lack of any positive evidence for it whatsoever.

First, this theory writes off the fact that the Revolution was a mass movement. It involved hundreds of thousands of people. It was organized through committees, conventions, congresses, and other means of collective decision-making. Since the Powder Alarm of early September 1774, the Boston Whigs had realized that the Massachusetts countryside was more eager to fight than their own town.

Even among the political leaders of Massachusetts, Adams was only the foremost of a large group. Some twentieth-century writers gave him credit or blame for everything that happened in Boston and then in eastern Massachusetts. But Adams didn’t come to prominence until after 1765. He had a lot of colleagues in Boston, some of them (William Molineux, Dr. Thomas Young) much closer to the crowds than he was. He was pulled along by many significant events, and far away from some others. It’s foolish to believe that Adams was guiding every political development of the day.

Second, Adams’s contemporaries considered him to be a cautious politician, especially when it came to violence. There’s no strong evidence that he led mobs. James Otis, Jr., reportedly trusted Adams—and only him—to keep him from speaking too rashly. Adams’s writings show a consistent belief that there was no need for dramatic actions. Rather, he usually stated that steady unity and resolve would cause royal officials to back down or reveal their true tyrannical aims.

Thus, on 21 May 1774, Adams wrote from Philadelphia to James Warren:

I beseech you to implore every Friend in Boston by every thing dear and sacred to Men of Sense and Virtue to avoid Blood and Tumult. They will have time enough to dye. Let them give the other Provinces opportunity to think and resolve.

Rash Spirits that would by their Impetuosity involve us in unsurmountable Difficulties will be left to perish by themselves despisd by their Enemies, and almost detested by their Friends. Nothing can ruin us but our Violence. Reason teaches this. I have indubitable Intelligence, dreadful, as to the Designs against us; consolatory, if we are but prudent.
Even as he itched for independence, Adams wrote to the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper on 30 Apr 1776:
Indeed I have the Happiness of believing that what I most earnestly wish for will in due time be effected. We cannot make Events. Our Business is wisely to improve them.
To believe that Adams had indeed “made Events” in Lexington is to believe that he was completely duplicitous about his philosophy throughout life, even with his closest colleagues.

Furthermore, all the eyewitness testimony we have about Adams’s actions in the early hours of 19 Apr 1775 says that he spoke against confronting the troops. He urged leaving the Lexington parsonage as quickly and quietly as possible. Dolly Quincy reportedly heard him tell her future husband as the royal army approached, “that is not our business. We belong to the Cabinet.” In other words, elected officials had the responsibility to stay away from possible violence and keep the government running.

The third weakness of the Murdock/Tourtellot hypothesis is that it’s a conspiracy theory: a secret agreement among Adams, local minister Jonas Clarke, and militia captain John Parker to carry out a complex plot. That scheme depended on a precise understanding of how the Lexington militiamen would behave if ordered to stand on the Green, how the British troops would respond, and how the people of Massachusetts would respond in turn. The hypothesis requires nearly every action that men took in the early hours of 19 Apr 1775 to be the result of planning, and not just habit or circumstance. It posits a plot that men considered noble yet kept completely secret for decades.

(Hallahan’s wild tangent off the Murdock/Tourtellot hypothesis is even more clearly a conspiracy theory: in addition to those actions and reactions, it also posits a secret agreement between Adams and an unidentified gunman.)

One of the wisest rules for making sense of life, either in the present or in the past, is never to come up with a conspiracy theory for what can be explained by incompetence. (For variations on this dictum, see “Hanlon’s razor” and the words of Sir Bernard Ingham.) The British reports on the Concord march and the depositions from American veterans in the 1820s and 1830s offer little evidence of a conspiracy. But they show lots of evidence of incompetence, or rather of the limits on human competence: incomplete knowledge, inaccurate assumptions, misunderstandings, hesitations, poor memory, fatigue, compromises, circumstances beyond people’s control. In other words, real life.

TOMORROW: Which Patriot leader really called for standing up to the regulars.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

“For the price of a few dead farmers”

I’ve traced how in 1916 Harold Murdock proposed that Samuel Adams had urged the Lexington militia to stand before the advancing British troops on 19 Apr 1775 because he expected their presence would provoke those soldiers into an aggressive act that would trigger the war for independence. Arthur Bernon Tourtellot adopted that theory and made it a basis for his William Diamond’s Drum in 1959.

Though I’m not convinced by their arguments on this question, both Murdock and Tourtellot wrote solid, significant books about the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. They offered new thinking and marshaled lots of sources. Most important, they were clear about where their sources left off and their hypotheses and suppositions began. But not every author is so wise or so careful.

Which brings me to William H. Hallahan’s The Day the American Revolution Began, published in 2000. This is a terrible book. It’s riddled with so many factual errors that, after I started to list them for this posting, I realized they’d fill an article on their own (maybe next week). Hallahan’s bias against Samuel Adams is blatant and unhampered by logic (I’ll post about that, too), so it was only natural for him to seize on the Murdock/Tourtellot theory.

But Hallahan egregiously makes no distinction for his readers between statements backed up by documents and those backed up by nothing more than supposition or bile. Instead of providing evidence or arguing a case, he just declares that people had particular motivations and that events happened a certain way, and then he repeats those statements over and over. Here’s Hallahan’s version of the Murdock/Tourtellot hypothesis:

in October 1774—at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia’s Carpenter’s Hall, Sam Adams pried and squeezed, wheedled and cajoled a promise from the other delegates to the Congress that if British troops attacked the people of Massachusetts the other colonies would come to their aid. But because of their deep distrust for Adams’s mobbish ways, many of the delegates warned him that the British had to be the first to shoot. If Adams’s followers provoked an incident—which they had already done a number of times—or if they fired first on the British, Massachusetts would find itself facing the might of England all alone.

So Adams returned home with a passionate mission: to goad General [Thomas] Gage into an attack. [page 15] . . .

For Samuel Adams, standing in the doorway of the parsonage [in Lexington in the early hours of 19 Apr 1775], it was a moment of near triumph. The answer was in—yes. Gage had finally taken the bait. Tonight, just one shot from a Brown Bess musket, one bloody shirt and Adams would have his revolution. [25] . . .

An exultant, expectant Sam Adams, now fully dressed, and always tending to business, walked the few hundred yards down Bedford Road with [John] Hancock and Reverend [Jonas] Clarke to Buckman’s Tavern, on the Commons, to chat with the armed militiamen. [26]
(Hallahan thus takes Tourtellot’s argument that Adams went to Lexington Green, though no witness recalled that he did, and makes it into a factual statement without a hint of doubt.)
Sam Adams was not the type of man who would leave anything to chance. With those British troops on the road—and American militiamen waiting for them, with orders not to fire first—Adams had found himself in a classic situation. All he would have to do was light the fuse. With the two antagonists facing each other, he could arrange to have someone—not himself; he would be far away—fire a single shot from behind a wall or a window that would provoke the British troops into a violent response against the militia. Afterward the British regulars would be accused of having fired first.

For the price of a few dead farmers, Adams could buy his war. [33]
Hallahan thus ends up going well beyond Murdock and Tourtellot’s hypothesis. He actually tells readers that Samuel Adams arranged for an agent provocateur to fire the first gun at Lexington. Who was that person? What connects that person to Adams? Hallahan never offers any answers—or any evidence.

TOMORROW: The big holes in the “Sam Adams provoked it” theory.

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.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Eighteenth-Century Events This Weekend

Two Boston 1775 readers have alerted me to two events rooted in the eighteenth century taking place in greater Boston this weekend.

On Saturday, 17 May, the Historical Society of Watertown will celebrate the opening of the Edmund Fowle House (shown here) on 28 Marshall Street. The ceremony will begin at 11:45 A.M., and there will be an open house from noon to 2:00 P.M.

Starting in July 1775, this house (then on Mount Auburn Street) was the headquarters of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Council, taking over the executive function from the royal governor, who was tied up in Boston.

The next day—Sunday, 18 May—the Garrison House in Chelmsford will host its annual spinning bee. Spinners in either period or modern dress are welcome to bring their wheels, chairs, fiber, any materials they wish to trade or sell, and food for a potluck lunch starting about 11:30 A.M. The event opens to the public at 1:00 P.M. and lasts until 4:00 or as long as people want to stay. For more information, see organizer Judy Cataldo’s website.

Murdock Remembered in 1959

Yesterday I quoted Harold Murdock’s provocative suggestion that the skirmish on Lexington Green on 19 Apr 1775 came about because Samuel Adams had somehow manipulated Capt. John Parker into lining up the militia there as British soldiers marched in. Murdock originally proposed this idea in a paper to the Massachusetts Historical Society, which published it in 1916. He reprinted that paper in his 1923 book The Nineteenth of April 1775, which Houghton Mifflin issued in two editions: 575 numbered copies for insiders and libraries and, in 1925, a cheaper edition for the public.

In 1959, Murdock’s “Historic Doubts on the Battle of Lexington” essay suddenly received much wider circulation. The August issue of American Heritage excerpted most of it with additional commentary by Time-Life writer Arthur Bernon Tourtellot (1913-1977). And Tourtellot was very complimentary to the older historian:

Few episodes in American history lend themselves more easily to romanticizing than the stand of the embattled patriots on Lexington Common. . . . But forty years ago a voice was raised against the chorus of national sell-exaltation. It belonged to a Boston banker named Harold Murdock, a descendant of the original settlers, a man of wit, of insight, of scholarly persistence in tracking down details, and of a judicious temperament. . . .

Murdock was the first fully to explore and then explode the traditional version of what had happened on that memorable day, but in the three decades since he wrote, new evidence has come to light which reinforces his skeptical, though tentative, conclusions. The significance of Murdock’s achievement as a triumph of American historiography has been confirmed.
Indeed, a lot of new information had surfaced in the 1920s about the British officers involved in the march to Concord. Allen French had examined and written about Gen. Thomas Gage’s papers at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor. Reports from Lt. Frederick Mackenzie and Ens. Jeremy Lister had been published. Murdock himself had edited the accounts of Lt. William Sutherland and a man named Richard Pope, probably a civilian volunteer.

Some of that new attention was probably spurred by the 150th anniversary of American independence in 1926. I suspect there was an economic factor as well: aristocratic families in Britain deciding to sell some old ancestral papers to rich Americans so they could fix the roofs of their manors.

The result was a much clearer picture of what the British commander and officers were trying to do and how they saw the situation. Murdock was right about them not being out for colonial blood. Tourtellot went on:
“Historic Doubts on Lexington” marked the end of the romantic, insipid view of the origin of hostilities in the war of the American Revolution. To most historians and to other commentators, it was a welcome relief, coming as it did during the almost irresponsible nationalism of the 1920’s. In The Saturday Review of Literature, the Murdock essay was “prayerfully recommended to over-zealous patriotic societies and the begetters of ‘pure history’ laws.” Charles A. Beard, then at the height of his own powers as a revisionist historian, writing in The New Republic, proclaimed that the essay marked, after a century and a half, the end of Anglo-American hostilities.
Tourtellot concluded this article by saying that Murdock had “written probably the most forceful single revision of a major episode in American history.”

Tourtellot was particularly hot on “Historic Doubts about the Battle of Lexington” because he’d echoed Murdock’s theory in his own book, William Diamond’s Drum, which was to be published a month after the American Heritage article.

(William Diamond, incidentally, was a teenager from Boston who drummed for Capt. Parker’s militia company in Lexington. He’s remembered in the name of a local school and a youth fife and drum corps. However, his name apparently wasn’t famous enough to keep Tourtellot’s book selling, so it was retitled Lexington and Concord and is still in print.)

TOMORROW: Tourtellot’s version of the Mr. Murdock’s meme.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Harold Murdock and the Birth of a Meme

Yesterday I introduced Harold Murdock, a Boston banker and historian who voiced some provocative new ideas about the Revolutionary War’s beginning in his 1916 essay “Historic Doubts on the Battle of Lexington.” The U.S. of A. was then having a national debate about whether to enter the World War on the side of Great Britain. It was an interesting time to argue that perhaps the British troops weren’t the villains of the skirmish at Lexington, as most previous American historians had agreed.

Here’s what Murdock asked his audience at the Massachusetts Historical Society:

And now, as we shift the scene to Lexington, let me ask if it has ever occurred to you to question the wisdom of sixty or seventy men going out and forming on the level ground of the Common, in plain sight of an advancing force of eight hundred of their enemies? . . .

How could he [Capt. John Parker] expect that sixty or seventy armed men, grouped between the meeting house and the Buckman Tavern, should fail of discovery by troops passing along the road but a few steps away, and how could he imagine that these troops would ignore them, standing as they did with shotted arms and in a posture of war? . . .

Captain Parker was a soldier of experience, and he chose a post for observation and consultation where his men would be almost brushed by the scarlet trappings of the passing enemy. . . . high land and thick woods, admirable spots for observation and consultation were close at hand, and yet Parker and his men stood quietly by the wayside inviting insult or molestation.

Has it ever occurred to you that Parker acted under orders, that the post he took was not of his choosing? Samuel Adams, the great agitator, had been a guest at Parson [Jonas] Clark’s for days, and he was the dynamo that kept the revolutionary machinery in motion. The blood shed by [Capt. Thomas] Preston’s men in King Street had been ably used by Adams to solidify the popular cause, and now did he feel that the time had come to draw once more the British fire? It is perhaps a foolish query, but it is engendered by an historic doubt. I cannot satisfy my mind that Parker was the responsible agent in the affair.
Murdock, in a nutshell, suggested a conspiracy to explain the shots at Lexington: Adams had somehow convinced or ordered Capt. Parker to put himself and his men in harm’s way so as to provoke an angry reaction from the British soldiers, and then an angrier, larger response from the provincial militia.

In 1923, Murdock included this “Lexington” essay and others in a book titled The Nineteenth of April 1775, published by Houghton Mifflin. He added a footnote to the passage quoted above:
There is no evidence to support this theory. On the other hand, there are precedents that justify suspicion.
Murdock’s precedents consisted of hints about the fights that led up to the Boston Massacre in the Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America and John Adams’s autobiography.

But those are vague hints indeed, hardly firm “precedents.” Gordon wrote of “certain persons among the leaders of the opposition,” and Adams of “designing men” spurring confrontations between citizens and soldiers. Neither writer pointed at Samuel Adams, whom they both admired and were close to. Some contemporary supporters described Adams as a voice for moderate measures—firm, unyielding, but not provocative. Other Whig leaders, such as William Molineux, were known for being close to the working-class crowds and being hot-headed, but by the twentieth century their names were largely forgotten.

Murdock wrote shortly before American historians and popular writers started to describe Adams in a new way: as an unreasonable radical, the sort of restless troublemaker who would indeed lure men to their deaths in order to bring about a war. And his theory about Lexington fit that picture, even though there was no evidence behind it.

TOMORROW: Murdock’s theory rediscovered.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

“The Tory and the Redcoat will be given a fair hearing”

In May 1916, Harold Murdock (1862-1934) presented a paper to the Massachusetts Historical Society with the title “Historic Doubts on the Battle of Lexington.” A few months later it appeared in volume 49 of the society’s Proceedings, and Google Books makes it available here.

Murdock wasn’t an academic or a professional writer. He was much better off: he was vice president of the National Shawmut Bank. Murdock collected and read Revolutionary books and manuscripts, was active in the M.H.S., and became a director of the Harvard University Press. As an author, he made important contributions to the study of the outbreak of the Revolution in Boston.

In particular, Murdock broke from a tendency of American historians, both popular and scholarly, to accept American sources less critically than British sources, and thus to blame Crown policies or actions for all the Revolution’s violent episodes. His paper on Lexington stated his principles:

Let me say at the outset that I am in possession of no evidence regarding my subject that has not been accessible to historians for years. It is not my purpose to laud villains or to depreciate heroes, but as all the actors who played their part at Lexington were Englishmen and professed loyalty to the British King, I shall discuss the episode as belonging as much to English as to American history. The Tory and the Redcoat will be given a fair hearing on the stand.
Despite his professed neutral stance, however, Murdock was clearly an Anglophile. He wrote admiringly about British officers while criticizing local politicians. In particular, he made himself the expert on Earl Percy, the British army’s second-in-command in Boston at the outbreak of the war—and the highest-ranking aristocrat in town.

Murdock’s first major Revolutionary writing was, I believe, a 1907 Atlantic Monthly piece titled “Earl Percy’s Dinner-Table,” which was later published in limited editions under that title and Earl Percy Dines Abroad: A Boswellian Episode. It imagined the conversation at the earl’s house about the political troubles in Boston, with only British officers and high-born Tories in the party. (The thumbnail image above comes from Krown & Spellman Booksellers, which offers a copy of Murdock’s Earl Percy Dines Abroad.)

At the time, Murdock’s leanings were a valuable corrective to the biases in American histories. But his own biases could sometimes affect his historical judgment. His Lexington essay stated that Gen. Thomas Gage “knew that there were thousands in the town [of Boston] who welcomed his presence, even as an enforcer of the Port Bill and the Regulating Acts.” The number “thousands” is hard to square with the town’s population of under 3,000 white males of voting age, the relatively small number of men who signed addresses welcoming their new governor, or the one thousand people of all sorts who left with the royal forces in March 1776.

Murdock was a conservative of the old-fashioned sort, which is to say a snob. In his paper on Lexington, he wrote that the Boston Massacre “deprived the town of some of its undesirable citizens.” He ended up, unconsciously or not, echoing the view of the Revolution that we see in the writings of Loyalist officials: that the common people of Massachusetts had never had it so good, so they must have been drawn into revolt only by the secret designs of cunning leaders.

In particular, Murdock proposed that sort of explanation for the shooting on Lexington Green early on 19 Apr 1775. It was, he admitted, a “theory” for which he had no evidence. Nevertheless, it eventually inspired one very good study of the Battle of Lexington and Concord as well as being uncritically inserted into some very bad books. This week I’m going to trace the life of this meme before examining the evidence for and against it.

TOMORROW: Mr. Murdock’s meme.

Monday, May 12, 2008

One-Page Review: Mark Puls, Henry Knox

Henry Knox was the commander of the U.S. army artillery from late 1775 through the end of the Revolutionary War, and then Secretary of War under the Continental Congress and President George Washington—a significant figure in American military and political history.

Knox was also one of the definite “winners” of the Revolution, coming out significantly ahead of how he went in. In 1770 he was a fatherless apprentice bookseller with charm, intelligence, ambition, and very few assets. Twenty years later, he was a popular army commander, a powerful national figure, and a major landowner in Maine. Knox succeeded through both hard work and good fortune: the Revolution opened up paths to the top of society for him, and he also inherited a lot of property from his wife Lucy’s Loyalist father.

I’m very intrigued by Henry Knox, and I was eager to see Mark Puls’s Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution, published this year by Palgrave Macmillan. It’s the first full biography of Knox in decades. After examining the book, however, I decided not to write a full review. Instead, I’m going to sum up my thoughts by discussing a single page.

A sentence near the top of page 31 says:

After Colonel William Prescott was found guilty of “threatening and abusing a number of persons,” a court-martial sentenced him to the humiliation of riding “the wooden Horse, fifteen minutes.”
Prescott was the commander in the provincial redoubt on Breed’s Hill. Was he really sentenced to this painful humiliation? This sentence comes with a citation to Washington’s general orders for 10 July 1775, but what that document actually says is:
The General Court Martial of which Col. William Prescott was president having tried William Pattin of Col. [Richard] Gridley’s [artillery] regiment, and found him guilty of “threatening and abusing a number of persons, when prisoner in the Quarter Guard.” The Court sentence the prisoner to ride the wooden Horse, fifteen minutes.
Prescott was thus the chief judge in this case, not the defendant. The man punished for threatening and insulting his guards was William Pattin. (Pattin had been in Capt. Samuel Gridley’s artillery company early in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and was compensated 18s. by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for personal property he lost there. Col. Jonathan Ward had ordered him confined on the charge of “leaving his post on guard.” Pattin’s court-martial was scheduled for early July, but no one showed up to provide evidence against him. Nevertheless, Washington decided not to free him “untill farther consideration.” So Pattin might have felt that “threatening and abusing” words were justified by the situation. But I digress.)

The next paragraph on page 31 contains a sentence that spells Gen. Nathanael Greene’s last name two different ways; that’s a proofreading lapse. But it gives me just enough of an excuse to discuss how earlier, on page 21, the book states that Knox and Greene had met in Boston before the war. I suspect that information came from a footnote in Noah Brooks’s Henry Knox, a Soldier of the Revolution, published in 1900. Unfortunately, Brooks was relying on (and quoting) the fictional diary of Dorothy Dudley, composed and published in 1876. Knox and Greene probably didn’t meet until they were both on the provincial siege lines in the summer of 1775.

The final paragraph on page 31 starts:
The next day, Knox was relieved that she [his wife Lucy] had left the camp when the British artillery opened a cannonade on the American position. Henry was not impressed with these grenadiers, who were not as skilled as the gunners aboard the battleships who leveled Charlestown.
Here the author is obviously under the impression that the British soldiers behind that cannonade were “grenadiers.” Grenadiers were specialized infantry troops, not artillerists. This wouldn’t be a big problem except that this book is about an artillery commander.

The citation for this passage quotes Henry’s letter to his younger brother William, dated 25 Sept 1775:
Last Friday Lucy dined at General Washington’s. Last Saturday, let it be remembered to the honor and skill of the British troops, that they fired 104 cannon-shot at [our] works, at not a greater distance than half point blank shot,—and did what? Why, scratched a man’s face with the splinters of a rail-fence!
That letter says nothing about Knox feeling “relieved” about his wife’s safety. For one thing, Washington’s headquarters, where Lucy had dined, was the Cambridge mansion now known as Longfellow House [open for tours this month every Thursday through Saturday]. That was miles away from the fortified “works” that Knox described the British guns reaching. Lucy had never been in danger from a cannonade.

A more systematic lapse of this book, I think, is that this is far from the only time it puts an emotion into Henry Knox’s head not justified by his own words. It often states what he was thinking or what he saw when there’s little or no evidence for those statements. Yes, we can make a logical case that Knox was “was relieved” when his wife was far out of firing range, or that he “often watched the British soldiers drill” in Boston in 1774. But without letters, journals, or other documents as evidence, a historian or biographer should be clear what are suppositions and what are facts.

It’s a shame that the early part of Henry Knox’s life is poorly documented. I’d love to know more about his growing up, when and how he got out of Boston during the war, and how he jumped from being an unranked volunteer to commanding the Continental Artillery. But we don’t have definite answers. Most of Knox’s biographers have been popular writers, not scholars, and have filled in the gaps in the record with legends and speculation. This new book is part of that tradition.