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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Who Really Paid the Biggest Price?

I’ve been writing about the error-ridden “Price They Paid” essay on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. As detailed in many refutations, the essay greatly exaggerates the personal sacrifices that those Continental Congress delegates during the war. None were killed in battle, it turns out. Few, if any, suffered torture as prisoners, or died as paupers.

Even when the essay is rewritten to avoid those factual errors, however, I still think it distorts history by focusing on the very top tier of American society and ignoring the greater suffering of people at lower levels. The signers were well insulated from most difficulties by their wealth and by the values of their time.

Indeed, Congress delegates were sometimes literally insulated. When George Washington oversaw the siege of Boston in 1775-76, he lived in the large house shown above, now Longfellow National Historic Site. In contrast, Daniel Granger, who served a short time that winter as a thirteen-year-old private, recalled his housing this way:

The Barracks were then building, but were not finished. The Weather was extremely cold. . . .

the Mess, my brother belonged to had excavated a place into the side of a Hill covered it with Timber & boards built up a fireplace & Chimney and a Door, had Straw for the flooring & bedding, where they were warm & comfortable, and were called a Mess of Cubs, who lived in a Den.

As soon as the Barracks were finished, we were obliged to quit the Den & go into the Barraks. but were not so warm & comfortable: the Barraks were hastily built only boarded & battened & without Windows excepting a square opening with a sliding shutter.
So who was paying the biggest price that winter—the general, who had represented Virginia at the Congress, or his men?

No one saw anything wrong with the vast difference between Gen. Washington’s mansion and Pvt. Granger’s den and barracks. American society in the 1770s was far more deferential to the upper classes than we behave (or acknowledge behaving) today. Washington and his officers were gentlemen, and therefore expected to enjoy comfortable quarters, while almost all enlisted men were yeomen (small farmers), mechanics, or laborers with no property at all.

Even when taken prisoner, gentlemen got better treatment than ordinary men. The essay notes that a handful of signers were captured by the British military, particularly South Carolinians caught in the fall of Charleston. However, most American gentlemen were held captive in mansions, or the better parts of jails; and paroled on their word of honor or exchanged for other gentlemen. It’s hard to find an American prisoner who suffered particularly for having signed the Declaration.

In contrast, enlisted men and sailors who became prisoners or war were usually held longer than officers and captains, and in worse conditions. Danske Dandridge’s American Prisoners of the Revolution states:
From printed journals, published in New York at the close of the war, it appeared that 11,500 American prisoners had died on board the prison ships.
That estimate is probably high; I’ve seen a more recent number of 8,500 dead in all British prisons. Still, it’s clear that the prison hulks anchored off Brooklyn, holding tens of thousands of ordinary soldiers and sailors, were disease-ridden hellholes. Those men were held in those conditions not only despite the fact that they weren’t leading the rebellion but because they weren’t.

All told, about 25,000 American fighting men died of wounds and disease during the Revolutionary War—about 7% of the total enlisted. Of the fifty-six signers, eight died during the war, six of them from diseases at home. (Being established leaders of their communities, Congress delegates were probably older than the average gentleman.) Only two signers, or less than 4%, died unnaturally before the end of the war. Button Gwinnett was killed in a duel with a fellow American. Thomas Lynch, Jr., went on a voyage for his health and was lost at sea—along with all the sailors and other people on that ship, of course.

So in terms of physical suffering, the Declaration’s signers appear to have paid a significantly smaller price than ordinary, non-wealthy American soldiers.

TOMORROW: The matter of property.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Where Did “The Price They Paid” Come From?

Yesterday I listed several websites providing comprehensive debunkings of the essay usually titled “The Price They Paid,” which circulates by email every Independence Day. It offers numerous misstatements about how members of the Second Continental Congress had suffered physically and financially for signing the Declaration of Independence.

In 1999 Jim Elbrecht got interested in the source of that essay and started tracking down different versions. His findings through 2003 are posted on his “Signer’s Index” website. The essay’s style makes it clear that it was created in the 20th century for a popular audience. But there are different versions, sharing the same mistaken facts but not the same phrasing. While keyword searching has made it much easier to find specific phrases these days, it’s still a chore to track misstatements phrased in different ways to their original sources.

The earliest printed form of the essay that Elbrecht found was in radio commentator Paul Harvey’s 1956 collection The Rest of the Story. At other times Harvey published it under the titles “We Mutually Pledge” and “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor.” (And he published other Rest of the Story collections, to confuse matters further.)

Another version with different language was published by Texas author T. R. Fehrenbach in American Legion magazine in 1965, and later inserted into the Congressional Record by Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Those two versions have different language, but share enough false information to indicate that either Fehrenbach used Harvey’s essay as a source, or the two authors relied on the same erroneous sources.

“The Price They Paid” appears to combine statements from those two articles and perhaps a few others. The name “Gary Hildreth of Erie, Pennsylvania,” is often attached to the essay as it circulates on the internet, but no one seems to know who that is. I suspect he might have passed on the article at some point after the author’s credit had drop off, and his name became attached to it.

In 1997 radio commentator Rush Limbaugh published a version which followed the Fehrenbach essay very closely in both facts and wording. The title of this version was “The Americans Who Risked Everything,” and Limbaugh featured it on his website as recently as this summer. He claimed that his father had written it many years before:

My father, Rush H. Limbaugh, Jr., delivered this oft-requested address locally a number of times, but it had never before appeared in print until it appeared in The Limbaugh Letter. My dad was renowned for his oratory skills and for his original mind; this speech is, I think, a superb demonstration of both.
Limbaugh offered no evidence of his father’s authorship, or explanation of how the previously unpublished essay matched Fehrenbach’s so closely. Elbrecht has written:
As of April 2001 [nine months after his public request], I still haven’t heard from anyone who heard the speech given, nor has Mr. Limbaugh answered several emails from this researcher, or phone calls from at least 2 journalists.
As I’ve said before, when a person has grown up with a certain understanding of one’s family, whether recent or distant, it’s very hard to acknowledge that that understanding might be wrong. That sort of family lore is the basis of a lot of Revolutionary myths, and it seems to be the basis of Limbaugh’s belief that “The Price They Paid” showed his father’s “original mind.”

Other journalists borrowed from the internet essay in 1999-2000: Jonah Goldberg in the National Review online, Oliver North on M.S.N.B.C., advice columnist Ann Landers, and Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby in a piece headlined “56 Great Risk-takers.”

The latter two were especially notable since their pieces both appeared in the Boston Globe at the same time in July 2000. The paper was already reeling from having to fire its most prominent columnist for copying material from emails. When called to explain himself, Jacoby said that he’d wanted to correct the internet version’s errors, and had even acknowledged that source when he’d emailed a draft of “56 Great Risk-takers” to select friends before filing it with the Globe. This statement didn’t help his cause because it revealed that he had the habit of sharing his work with folks at the Globe’s cross-town rival before showing it to his own editors. Jacoby returned to the newspaper after four months. At the time, Timothy Noah at Slate noted how “Jacoby’s suspension has the right engaging in what, under different circumstances, it might characterize as victimology.”

The publicity surrounding Jacoby’s misstep caught journalists’ attention, and Noah reported no new sightings of “The Price They Paid” on newsprint in 2001. However, it continues to appear on websites big and small, and to circulate by email. In 2002, the Pentagon issued a statement credited to Gen. Richard B. Myers, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeating some of the errors. Google counts appearances on about fifty blogs this summer. Watch for it in your in-box next year.

Jacoby’s “56 Great Risk-takers” managed to avoid most of the errors in “The Price They Paid,” and he made a couple of further corrections in the following weeks. Those changes made the signers’ fates seem less dire, of course, but Jacoby maintained the tone of awestruck reverence for their sacrifices. So is there anything wrong with circulating that essay instead (aside from the fact that it’s under copyright, and in the Globe’s paid archive), or another version with the same corrections? I think there is, because focusing on the Declaration’s signers misses vitally important aspects of American society in 1776 and of the Revolutionary struggle.

TOMORROW: Who sacrificed the most.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Mythical “Price They Paid”

Every year around Independence Day, an essay usually titled “The Price They Paid” circulates on the internet and in other media. It purports to list the sacrifices that the signers of the Declaration of Independence made: homes lost, prison terms, even death at the hands of the British military. The essay commonly starts:

Have you ever wondered what happened to those men who signed the Declaration of Independence?

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or the hardships of the Revolutionary War.
This is inaccurate on many counts. For example, only one Declaration signer died from wounds during the war: Button Gwinnett of Georgia. And he was killed by a fellow American officer in a duel.

I haven’t mentioned “The Price They Paid” before since it’s easy to find articles debunking it. But this year my stepmother received the essay from one of her colleagues.

So now it’s personal.

The Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution has archived the “Price They Paid” essay and a refutation that Prof. E. Brooke Harlowe of Susquehanna University wrote in 1998.

Snopes.com has a long refutation of the essay, started in 1999.

David Daley of the Hartford Courant wrote about the case in 2000, an article posted on H-Net and archived at the Kitsap Sun.

The most comprehensive debunking came from Jim Elbrecht, who isn’t a professional journalist or historian but got intrigued by the topic in 1998. Starting in 2000, he set up a website on his findings. Elbrecht tried to catalogue accurate facts about both the Declaration’s signers and the various versions of the essay.

Elbrecht’s research was helpful to Timothy Noah of Slate as he wrote a series of articles on the topic in 2000 and 2001.

In 2002, college student Kelley Duddleson wrote an article about the falsehoods and what their popularity says on History News Network. In typical fashion, the first comment in response to that article was “your a traitor.”

TOMORROW: The conflict over credit for this pile of bunk.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dr. Samuel Gelston on Trial

Since March I’ve been meaning to finish the story of Dr. Samuel Gelston, the Nantucket physician whom the Patriots jailed in January 1776, and then had to recapture the next month when he escaped.

In the summer of 1776, Gelston was still in custody, guarded by Berachiah Basset on Naushon Island, the biggest of the Elizabeth Islands off Cape Cod. Perhaps the authorities had sent him to such a remote place to prevent a second escape. At the time, Patriot leader and future governor James Bowdoin was Naushon’s absentee owner. (The thumbnail image here shows Naushon in winter; for a print of this or other aerial views, visit Joseph R. Melanson’s Skypic.com.)

On 5 July 1776, the Massachusetts House resolved:

That the said Berachiah Basset, Esq., be, and he hereby is, directed to send the said Dr. Samuel Gelston, under a proper Guard, to the five Justices in the County of Suffolk, appointed a Court to inquire into the conduct of persons suspected to be enemies to the liberties of this Colony...
In a petition published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1874, Gelston basically threw himself on the mercy of this special court:
your petitioner by the special Order of the Honorable Court has been brought before your Honors, to answer to several Complaints brought against him, one of which was that of supplying Capt. [James] Ayscough [of the Royal Navy] with provisions, the particulars of which has been given in with Truth and Candour, & he apprehends has been Laid before your Honors.

The other is for several speaches made in conversations & Threatening to spread the small Pox all of which he absolutely Denys, & presumes no positive evidence can be produced to support such a charge neither has he at any time held any Correspondence with, nor supply’d the army or navy of Britain except in the present Instance nor has he been regardless of his duty to his Creator, his Country & posterity—

Your petitioner would further beg Leave to set forth to your Honors That he has a Wife & Family consisting of Eight children, who must be Greatly distressed by his absence & confinement as well as his property Distroyed.

Therefore most Humbly Request your Honors to consider his situation with kindness and attention & if possible to suffer him to Return to his family.—He is willing with Humble Contrition to Confess his Faults & in future to behave himself with calmness and moderation in every action that may tend to promote the Good of his Country & its cause which shall be advised on every Occasion.

Once more your petitioner would beg leave to add That he is Heartily sorry that he has been so unwise as to attempt to make his Escape before he was Acquitted by your Honors, one thing was, he did not consider himself under parole & was foolishly Lead by the advice of Others.
The justices were apparently in a forgiving mood, perhaps because the war looked quite different in July 1776 from how it had five months earlier. Massachusetts was no longer the center of the fighting, and the British navy no longer so close. (People had no idea that the British military had returned to Staten Island early that month, and that the worst of the war lay ahead.)

Dr. Gelston seemed contrite about the actions he admitted to: helping Capt. Ayscough and trying to escape. Apparently no one came to testify about what he denied doing, such as spreading smallpox. (Even before the war, he’d had to deal with public fears about how he treated that disease.) So the justices sent Gelston back to Nantucket.

In 1779, as I wrote back here, Gelston was again caught up in a dispute over local Loyalists aiding a British warship that visited Nantucket—except this time he was a witness against other men. So he seems to have discarded his Loyalist sentiments and accepted the independence of Massachusetts. Dr. Gelston died in July 1782, aged fifty-seven.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Soon We Will All Be Internet Slave Labor

Since I spend an above-average amount of time looking at Google Books screens, the Making of America sites, and scans of colonial newspapers in the Archive of Americana, I was struck by Matthew Battles’s article in the Boston Globe earlier this month, headlined “Click to translate”:

Digital cameras at libraries worldwide are scanning millions of pages of old books, automatically “reading” the texts and turning them into computer files. But as books age, their typography smudges and flakes away. While human readers have little trouble comprehending even the most mangled words, sophisticated computer software still hangs up on them. Somewhere on the page, the dot of an i has disappeared, the smile of an e has gone gappy, the belly of a capital D has detached itself from its backbone. The computer thinks it’s seeing an ‘l,’ a ‘c,’ and a capital I followed by a parenthesis.

In a paper published last Friday in the journal Science, computer-science professor Luis von Ahn describes a new system to solve this problem. Taking advantage of humans’ natural ability to decipher messy text, von Ahn’s system places tiny bits of those unreadable lines as mystery words on websites around the world. As people solve the usual logon puzzle, they also decode a real word; the results are then collected and used to correct the text and produce clean copies of scanned books. . . .

Books are scanned twice and the two text streams are compared; any mismatched words become captchas. The mystery words are paired with known words on normal website security checks, and the user is asked to solve both words. If the user is right about the known word, his or her answer for the mystery word is kept and compared to solutions offered by others. Von Ahn finds that the system correctly decodes mystery words more than 99 percent of the time—results nearly identical to that of the scanning projects’ human reviewers.

According to the Science article, this system, dubbed “reCAPTCHA,” is now used on some 40,000 websites, where it has solved some 44 million words in one year of operation—the equivalent of about 17,600 books in von Ahn’s estimation.

It may be a telling fact about the Internet that von Ahn was not the first one to this idea: online pornographers trying to unlock captchas (and gather up millions of e-mail addresses) realized that they could solve them by the thousands through a neat trick. Whenever their bots run into a puzzle, they take a snapshot of the captcha and shoot it back to the porn site, where viewers have to solve it to move on to the next picture.
On the one hand, I like the idea of faster conversion of scanned pages into searchable text, and I’m impressed with the elegance of this solution. On the other hand, this system uses unwitting volunteer labor to replace “human reviewers” who appear to be slightly better at the task—but actually wish to be paid. An ethical dilemma. Feel free to comment (though, of course, that requires responding to a captcha).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Coffee, Tea, or...?

On Saturday, 27 September, Historic Deerfield will host a one-day conference on the three hot beverages of the eighteenth century.

We still consume tea and coffee in much the same way as they did then, but at that time British-Americans enjoyed a third hot drink derived from a tropical plant: chocolate. Chocolate wasn’t yet the solid, sweet dessert that we expect today. It was more often a breakfast beverage, with a kick. (Then as now people recognized chocolate’s many restorative qualities.)

Historic Deerfield’s announcement says in part:

The introduction of tea, coffee, and chocolate into 17th-century Europe had an immediate and lasting effect on the tastes and habits of the western world.

Historic Deerfield will hold a one-day forum on the history and material culture of tea, coffee, and chocolate on Saturday, September 27, 2008. Participants will enjoy a day of lectures, tours, hands-on workshops, open-hearth demonstrations, and lively conversations about these three important, hot beverages.
  • Curator Gerald W. R. Ward of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will educate you on the delights of coffee and coffee-related objects,
  • Parson’s School of Design adjunct professor Jennifer Goldsborough will discuss the role of tea in social life, etiquette, and decorative arts.
  • Historic Deerfield’s Amanda Lange will speak on chocolate in early America and its equipage.
There will also be tastings, naturally. Here’s the brochure and registration form.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rumors of British “Boasting the 25th August”

Between the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775 and the British evacuation of Boston around 17 Mar 1776, the siege lines around Boston didn’t move much. Most history books skip quickly over those months. But for the officers and men of the time, they were full of rumors, feints, and anxieties. We know nothing big was about to happen; they didn’t.

On 26 Aug 1775, Col. Jedediah Huntington (shown here, courtesy of the Huntington Family Association) wrote in a letter:

We have been told that our enemies have for some time past been boasting the 25th August, intending then to make a visit to us, and that General [Thomas] Gage has given Earl Percy the command of the lines on the Neck, who is to exhibit such proofs of his military abilities as will retrieve the honor he lost at the Lexington affray; but matters remain this morning in statu quo.
That night, the American army acted to forestall the British. Gen. John Sullivan led three to five thousand soldiers forward to take possession of Ploughed Hill, commanding the road out of Charlestown. (Here’s his report on the advance. Ploughed Hill is now known as Mount Benedict, with a peak elevation of 62 feet.)

In response, on Sunday the 27th, the Royal Artillery started firing from Bunker Hill and two floating batteries, joined by a Royal Navy ship. I quoted Lt. John Barker’s characteristically cranky account of those days last year. The British had in fact planned an attack in late August, according to Barker, but on Dorchester instead of Cambridge. And in the end Gen. Sir William Howe called it off.

On 31 August, Gen. George Washington reported to Congress:
Last Saturday night we took possession of a Hill considerably advanced beyond our former Lines, which brought on a very heavy cannonade from the Enemy on Bunkers Hill, and afterwards a Bombardment, which has since been kept up but with little Spirit on their side or Damage on ours. The Work having been continued ever since, is now so advanced and the Men so well covered as leave us under no Apprehensions of much farther Loss. In this Affair we had killed, one Adjutant, one Volunteer and two Privates.
The Royal Artillery continued to lob balls and bombs at the Continental siege lines, mostly unanswered because of low supplies of gunpowder, until 10 September. So even though almost nothing changed, everybody kept very busy.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Monticello’s “Most Likely” Boys?

Before temporarily leaving the subject of Edmund Bacon’s comments about life at Monticello and what they say about Sally Hemings’s children, I’ll note how one writer on that topic used the same comments I’ve been analyzing.

After Annette Gordon-Reed’s book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and the chromosome study led by Dr. Eugene Foster, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which runs Monticello, created a committee of its paid staff and volunteers to review the evidence on the Hemings children. In January 2000, that committee released a report which concluded that:

The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records.
(The six children don’t include a child conceived in France; some sources reported such a child, but there’s no contemporaneous documentation for one.)

One member of the Monticello committee, Dr. White McKenzie (Ken) Wallenborn, dissented and insisted that his “minority report” be appended to the main report. Wallenborn described himself as “Former Clinical Professor, University of Virginia School of Medicine” and “Former Historical Interpreter, Monticello.” (Over the following months there were, in turn, a response to his minority report from historian Lucia Stanton, whom I quoted on Bacon earlier, and his reply to her response. Rather like blog comments.)

Wallenborn made a number of arguments against the the committee members’ conclusion. Among other things, he wrote:
[Edmund Bacon] also commented on William C. Rives, a youngster, who would stay and play at Monticello with the other boys (most likely the Randolphs, Carrs, and Maria’s son, Francis)...Willie would stay with Mr. Bacon rather than at the house (Monticello) because the other boys were too intimate with the negro women to suit him.
I just analyzed the passage containing Rives’s complaint about his schoolmates getting too “intimate” with enslaved women. It offered no names, but I deduced that Thomas Jefferson Randolph had to be involved, and noted that Vaul W. Southall had been another of the gang on earlier visits. On what evidence did Wallenborn write otherwise that the Randolphs, Carrs, and Francis Eppes were “most likely” among the boys Bacon recalled?

In fact, how likely were those other males to be playing with Willie Rives and visiting the women enslaved at the mansion around 1806?
  • Peter and Samuel Carr were born in 1770 and 1771, respectively. (Another brother, the younger Dabney Carr, was born in 1773.) By the time Bacon saw Rives visiting Monticello, the Carrs were in their thirties, married, fathers, and running estates of their own. They were no longer “boys.” Bacon’s reminiscences in Jefferson at Monticello name the three Carr brothers only once, saying they often praised a certain traveling Baptist preacher.
  • Maria Jefferson Eppes’s son Francis was born in 1801. It’s quite unlikely he was being “intimate with the negro women” in the next few years unless they were his wet-nurses.
  • The Randolph boys were the sons of Thomas Jefferson’s other daughter, Martha. Besides Jeff Randolph, there were four—all born between 1808 and 1818. In other words, those four weren’t even alive at the time Bacon indicated.
With the one exception of Jeff Randolph, Wallenborn’s list doesn’t appear to name the “most likely” boys to have visited Monticello’s captive women as Bacon described. In fact, most of them seem to be among the least likely candidates in the extended family. The list appears to be a collection of any and all young males known to have lived at or near Monticello at any time in the early 1800s.

In his next paragraph, Wallenborn wrote:
Mr. Bacon recalled that he went to live with Mr. Jefferson on Dec. 27, 1800 and was with him precisely twenty years but Mr. Jefferson recorded his employment as overseer for sixteen years. Possibly Mr. Bacon had started working as early as age sixteen [which would have been in 1801] but was not hired as overseer until age twenty [which would have been in 1805—but we know from Jefferson’s papers that he gave Bacon that job in September 1806] and if so would have been working at Monticello when Harriet Hemings was conceived and born.
I, too, suspect that Bacon started working for Jefferson in his teens, coming to Monticello in 1802. But even if we accept the earliest suggested date of December 1800, that means Bacon could not have been “working at Monticello when Harriet Hemings was conceived.” Harriet Hemings was born in May 1801, a fact stated in the Monticello report. One doesn’t need a medical degree to count back nine months and identify September 1800 as the conception period for that child.

These passages from the “minority report” seem to use Bacon’s remarks a springboard to point at any other males in the Monticello area as possible sexual partners for Sally Hemings, and to fill in holes or ambiguities in the historical evidence by suggesting any alternative scenarios, including those contradicted by documents and biology. They don’t seem to have arisen from examining all the evidence we have, assessing it by uniform standards, and deciding on the most likely explanation for it.

Later in 2000, Dr. Wallenborn helped to found the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society as a reaction to the Monticello report and to the new scholarly and public consensus it echoed. He is now that society’s president.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Edmund Bacon and the Keys to Monticello

Yesterday I quoted Edmund Bacon, longtime overseer for Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, reporting how young William C. Rives complained about how Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the President’s grandson (shown at right), and other schoolmates often became “intimate with the negro women” during weekend visits to Monticello.

That’s evidence of likely sexual behavior between females held captive at Monticello and one of the President’s direct male descendants—not just his nephews, or “Irish workmen,” or “dissipated young men in the neighborhood,” as Randolph’s younger sister Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote in 1858. Then again, Rives’s idea of intimacy might have stopped short of sex. But whatever happened during those visits to Monticello, they did not lead to any of Sally Hemings’s pregnancies.

Jefferson at Monticello quotes Bacon as saying:

When he [Jefferson] was coming home from Washington I generally knew it, and got ready for him, and waited at the house to give him the keys.
Those keys show up in other passages of the book as well. They were the tools and symbols of Bacon’s authority, and of Jefferson’s trust in him. But Bacon had them only when the President was away from home.

In discussing Jeff Randolph’s visits to the mansion and garden with his Charlottesville school friends, Bacon was explicit in stating that they occurred “when I gave them the keys to stay up there alone”—i.e., when Thomas Jefferson was not at home. And we know from documentary evidence that Hemings conceived children only when Jefferson was at home.

(Eston Hemings, born 21 May 1808, might have been conceived when Jefferson was not at home, as well as when he was; the President’s visit covers only part of the conception window nine months before that birth. However, by late 1807 Jeff Randolph had gone off to school in Philadelphia, and Willie Rives to Hampden-Sydney. In addition, the Eston Hemings Y chromosome matches the Thomas Jefferson Y chromosome, which should—we really hope—differ from the Y chromosomes of his daughter’s son and that boy’s friends.)

It’s conceivable that Jeff Randolph brought his school chums up to Monticello and became “intimate with the negro women” at times when his grandfather was at home, as well as times when he wasn’t. But Bacon didn’t describe Willie Rives coming out to sleep at his house on those occasions. And it doesn’t take much knowledge of teenagers to think that they might behave differently in a big empty house than in the same house with the President and homeowner in it.

Having even brought up the possibility of a sexual liaison between Willie Rives’s schoolmates and Sally Hemings, I should note that at the time Bacon was describing, Hemings was in her early thirties. She was the mother of two to five children (depending on how one wants to count). She was apparently secure in her position as a household servant; Bacon recalled recalled her in a group he described this way:
These women remained at Monticello while he [Jefferson] was President. I was instructed to take no control of them. They had very little to do.
If Jeff Randolph and other boys in their early teens were seeking sexual partners at Monticello, Hemings seems less likely to be vulnerable to enticement or intimidation than scores of other females enslaved there.

TOMORROW: One writer puts Edmund Bacon’s anecdote to use.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Boys Getting Intimate at Monticello

Last weekend I analyzed an anecdote that Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon told about Thomas Jefferson’s eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Randolph, and his school friends. I estimate that battle in the garden took place in about 1804. In any event it had to be before mid-1807, when Jeff Randolph went off to a school in Philadelphia at age fifteen.

Bacon told another story about that same set of boys, by my estimate a couple of years after the big fight, when some were coming up to Monticello to do more than “play and eat fruit.” Speaking of his favorite among the gang, the future officeholder William Cabell Rives (shown here, courtesy of Wikipedia), Bacon said:

He [Willie] was at Monticello a great deal. Very often he did not like the doings of the other boys when I gave them the keys to stay up there alone, and he would come down and stay all night at my house. He has stayed there many a night. The other boys were too intimate with the negro women to suit him. He was always a very modest boy. I once heard one of the other boys make a vulgar remark. He said, “Such talk as that ought not to be thought, much less spoken out.”
Bacon didn’t name the “other boys” who were reportedly getting “too intimate with the negro women,” but we can easily identify one who was involved: Jeff Randolph. It was his grandfather’s house, his grandfather’s women. Maybe on the first night his guests’ behavior could have taken him by surprise, but on “many a night”? Jeff Randolph had to have acquiesced with what was going on, and probably participated.

I don’t think we can be sure what was going on, though. Young Willie Rives seems to have been a bit of a prig (“Such talk as that ought not to be thought”), so he might have had a low tolerance for intimacy. Were the schoolboys talking with the enslaved women about their lovers? Trying to see them naked? Making out? Having sex? Any of those behaviors might have made Rives nervous.

Slightly earlier in Jefferson at Monticello, Bacon named another of Jeff Randolph’s school friends: Valentine Wood “Vaul” Southall. There’s no way to know if he figured in these “intimate” visits, too, but he’s come up before on Boston 1775. It was back in Ellen Coolidge’s 1858 letter to her husband, passing on her brother’s statements about the “yellow children” at Monticello. She wrote:
Now I will tell you in confidence what Jefferson [Randolph] told me under the like condition. Mr. Southall and himself young men together, heard Mr. Peter Carr say with a laugh, that “the old gentleman had to bear the blame of his and Sam’s (Col. Carr) misdeeds.”
As I wrote before, Jeff Randolph’s stories about Peter and Samuel Carr were contradictory, contradicted by D.N.A. evidence, and unsupported by statements from anybody else. Randolph’s stories about his cousins seem less reliable for what they say and more reliable as evidence that he wanted to deflect attention away from something embarrassing.

So let’s appreciate the irony here. Jeff Randolph accused the Carrs of fathering all the Hemings children, to his family’s public shame, but as a teenager he himself was often reportedly “intimate” with enslaved women in his grandfather’s house. He implied to his sister that Vaul Southall would be able to corroborate his story about Peter Carr, but Southall is our most likely candidate for being up in the house with Randolph and those women. Might the wildly conflicting emotions that Randolph ascribed to the Carr brothers—tearful regret, laughing bravado—reflect his own private thoughts about looking back on his youth?

And how did Randolph respond to Bacon’s recollection about boy getting “intimate with the negro women” being published? He may not have seen it in Jefferson at Monticello, but James Parton quoted that passage about Willie Rives in The Atlantic Monthly in 1873, along with Bacon’s critical remarks on Randolph’s father. The article, an otherwise complimentary picture of “Thomas Jefferson’s Last Years,” caused Randolph to publish a broadside titled “The Last Days of Jefferson” which called Bacon’s recollections the “fiction of an old man” and argued with many points. I haven’t seen that broadside, so I don’t know if Randolph responded to the specific matter of intimacy at Monticello.

TOMORROW: Why Bacon’s anecdote still doesn’t tell us anything about Sally Hemings’s children.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Edmund Bacon Frees an Enslaved Young Woman

So I promised to explain why the question of when Edmund Bacon came to live at Monticello (shown at right), where he eventually was manager for sixteen years, has a bearing on the—let’s face it—far juicier historical question of whether Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children. Jefferson at Monticello, Hamilton W. Pierson’s book based on conversations with Bacon, quotes the former overseer as saying:

He [Jefferson] freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was . . . . . . ’s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning, when I went up to Monticello very early.

When she was nearly grown, by Mr. Jefferson’s direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia, and gave her fifty dollars. I have never seen her since, and don’t know what became of her. From the time she was large enough, she always worked in the cotton factory. She never did any hard work.
The passage is also quoted here. Though this passage follows one that mentions Sally Hemings by name, the mother and daughter in the anecdote have no names.

Ellen Randolph Coolidge also described Jefferson, her grandfather, freeing one light-skinned female slave in his life. She wrote in an 1858 letter:
It was his principle (I know that of my own knowledge) to allow such of his slaves as were sufficiently white to pass for white men, to withdraw quietly from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed, I remember four instances of this, three young men and one girl, who walked away and staid away. Their whereabouts was perfectly known but they were left to themselves—for they were white enough to pass for white.
Finally, former Monticello captive Madison Hemings told a newspaper editor in 1873 that Jefferson freed his sister Harriet around age twenty-one:
made a solemn pledge [to Sally Hemings] that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. . . . She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston—three sons and one daughter. We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born. . . .

Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City, whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reasons. She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives. I have not heard from her for ten years, and do not know whether she is dead or alive. She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, to assume the role of a white woman, and by her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that her identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered. . . .

Harriet learned to spin and to weave in a little factory on the home plantation.
When historians put all these three accounts together, most agree that they offer three different perspectives on the same incident. According to this consensus, at about the time that Harriet Hemings, born in May 1801, turned twenty-one, Jefferson had his manager Bacon help her to leave Monticello for a city to the north. There her pale skin allowed her to live as a white woman and, though she remained in touch with her family and possibly others at Monticello, she disappeared into white American society. I’ll proceed on the assumption that’s correct, while acknowledging that it might not be.

Until 1997, historians took Bacon’s account as direct, authoritative knowledge of who Harriet Hemings’s father was. Then Annette Gordon-Reed pointed out in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy that Bacon couldn’t have known who was spending the night with Sally Hemings when Harriet was conceived because he hadn’t arrived at Monticello yet. Gordon-Reed was working with the date 1806, the earliest that Bacon’s name appears in the records of the slave-labor plantation. It’s my guess that young Bacon arrived in December 1802. But even if we accept the shaky statement in Jefferson at Monticello, Bacon didn’t come on the scene until late December 1800, three or four months after the conception.

Most researchers now accept that Bacon was stretching general knowledge from having lived at Monticello for many years to cover a specific incident that occurred before he arrived. People disagree on how authoritative and reliable his general knowledge and his statement are. Eventually I’ll get back to Bacon’s remarks above, but next I want to discuss something else he mentioned about Monticello.

TOMORROW: Schoolboys getting “intimate with the negro women,” or Willie C. Rives sleeps alone.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Choose Your Own Bunker Hill

While preparing for my teachers’ workshop at Old South Meeting House this summer, I came across a small school reading book that impressed me, and I wanted to pass it along. It’s The Battle of Bunker Hill, by Michael Burgan, issued by the school-library publisher Capstone. Burgan’s written a lot of other history titles for the same press, including treatments of the Boston Massacre in both traditional prose and comics forms; he’s one of the firm’s go-to guys for the Revolution.

You remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from 1979 and beyond? They’re coming back (in what looks like a desktop-publishing production). And some other presses have taken the same idea and created their own multiple-path books in various formats. In this “Interactive History Adventure” series, Capstone has adopted the form and applied it to history.

In this Battle of Bunker Hill, the reader starts out by choosing one of three roles: British soldier, Massachusetts militiaman, or Boston civilian. Each character faces a series of choices. Some lead to death, some to capture, some to a non-fatal wound, some to victory, some to defeat, some to not going into the battle at all.

Obviously, this genre doesn’t lend itself to creating memorable characters: the books are too short, and the protagonist (“you”) is an empty box for the reader to fill in. But the “Interactive Historical Adventures” form excels at making readers see events in the moment and consider the choices that people of that time had to make. The form implicitly casts doubt on two common assumptions about history—that things could have worked out only one way, and that there’s only one way to understand the past.

Burgan sticks to the generally accepted outline of what happened on 17 June 1775, though there are some factual details I might quibble about. A more important weakness in this book is ideological balance. The text talks a lot about the American fighter’s desire to secure “freedom,” but it doesn’t present the British soldier’s motivation in such stirring terms. True, a lot of those redcoats joined the army just to survive, but there was a strong ideology of loyalty to the empire, king, and union to compete with the Patriots’.

Another weakness is inherent in the “Interactive” approach: every turning point is defined by a reader’s choice. But sometimes life is random. A soldier might end up dying not because he chose to march this way or that, but because of something he had no control over. The form of this book inherently implies that the right series of choices can spell the difference between dying in a hail of musket balls or surviving a hail of musket balls.

I wonder if it’s possible to design an element of randomness into such a book; asking readers to flip a coin, or telling them, “If your first name has an odd number of letters, turn to page 48. [Dead.] If your first name has an even number of letters, turn to page 49. [Missed you by that much.]”

The book is illustrated with the school-library publisher’s usual collection of nineteenth-century artworks showing the Battle of Bunker Hill. Because they look old-fashioned, it’s tempting to think of them as authentic, but they were all made decades after the last soldier in that battle had died and are therefore just as fictional as the book itself. As long as young readers understand that this book represents an attempt to understand the past, not an exact recreation of it, they should enjoy the immersion on the choices people faced in 1775.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Edmund Bacon’s Twenty Years

In my continuing discussion of Edmund Bacon (1785-1866), long-time manager of Thomas Jefferson’s slave-labor plantation Monticello, I quoted how Hamilton W. Pierson, author of Jefferson at Monticello, understood Bacon said he had started work:

I went to live with him [Jefferson] the 27th of the December before he was inaugurated as President; and if I had remained with him from the 8th of October to the 27th of December, the year that I left him, I should have been with him precisely twenty years.
Monticello records show that Bacon managed the slave-labor plantation until October 1822. Jefferson was inaugurated as President in March of 1801, meaning the previous December was in 1800. That adds up to slightly less than twenty-two years, not slightly less than “precisely twenty.”

How do we account for that discrepancy? Bacon obviously had a lot of pride in having worked for Jefferson for “twenty years.” That figure shows up over and over in Pierson’s book. Yet in the passage above, Bacon was scrupulous about acknowledging that he was short of two full decades.

If Bacon had actually worked for Jefferson for nearly twenty-two years, then he would have had no reason to mention that 8 October–27 December gap. On the other hand, if Bacon had actually come to Monticello in 1806 (the earliest his name appears in its account books) and was exaggerating about having worked there “twenty years,” why did he pull back and say it was actually nineteen years and nine months? As long as he was lying about it, why not claim the whole twenty?

Another possible piece in this puzzle is in the University of Virginia library: Bacon’s memoranda book, which has been dated as “1802-22.” Not having seen that document, I’m not certain it contains notes about Monticello that can be firmly dated to 1802. But if it does, it’s obviously a strong clue about Bacon’s arrival.

I suspect Bacon’s count of the years was exact, but he had a faulty understanding or memory of what was going on when he arrived at Monticello, or didn’t communicate it clearly to Pierson. I would guess that Bacon started work for Jefferson on 27 Dec 1802, when he was seventeen years old. The President was then preparing to return to Washington, D.C., for the new congressional term. Young Bacon might have mistaken that activity for Jefferson’s preparations to be “inaugurated as President,” or Pierson might have gotten that impression from the older Bacon’s remarks. (Jefferson at Monticello never states when Bacon left the site, so Pierson apparently didn’t realize when the twenty years had ended.)

From 1803 to mid-1806, I would guess, Bacon worked as an apprentice of sorts around Monticello, gradually taking on larger responsibilities. According to his recollection of the schoolboys’ brawl in the garden (which I estimate as taking place around 1804, though it could have been later), Bacon was then working at the mill and had custody of the keys to the main house and garden. Within months after he came of age, Bacon was in charge of the whole place.

COMING UP: What all this has to do with Sally Hemings’s children.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tenth Regiment’s Farewell to Vincent J.-R. Kehoe

Vincent J.-R. Kehoe, one of the leaders in Revolutionary War reenacting in New England, passed away yesterday, a month shy of his 87th birthday. Kehoe founded the recreated Tenth Regiment of Foot and led it through the first four years of the Bicentennial commemoration. As part of his drive toward historical accuracy in reenacting, he compiled all known British and American eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in volumes titled We Were There!—April 19 1775. A full obituary (with music) appears on the Tenth Regiment’s website.

Edmund Bacon Takes the Job

I’ve been examining the burning question (really, you wouldn’t believe how much this means to some folks) of when Edmund Bacon (1785-1866) started working for Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. According to documents from that slave-labor plantation, Bacon was definitely its “manager,” or overseer, from September 1806 to October 1822. But Bacon’s recollections, published in Jefferson at Monticello in 1862, say he arrived some years before.

Here’s how Bacon said that happened, from chapter 2 of that book:

I was born March 28, 1785, within two or three miles of Monticello, so that I recollect Mr. Jefferson as far back as I can remember anybody. My father and he were raised together, and went to school together.

My oldest brother, William Bacon, had charge of his estate during the four years he was Minister to France [1784-89]. After he was elected President, he told my father he wanted an overseer, and he wished to employ my brother William again. But he was then quite an old man, and very well off, and did not wish to go.
William Bacon’s name does not appear in Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book or the original document on the list of top “stewards,” managers, and overseers of the Jefferson properties in the 1780s . I wonder if he had some lower job. His little brother Edmund wasn’t even born until 1785, so he might well have misremembered William’s role.

William Bacon was born in 1763. If he worked at Monticello in the mid-1780s, then he would just have reached his majority at age twenty-one when Jefferson went to France. It looks to me like helping to run a big plantation was a way for a young man to earn money to invest in his own farm, and to gain experience managing slaves and crops before doing so.

That expectation would explain why Edmund Bacon recalled his brother as being “quite an old man” when Jefferson was seeking a new overseer in the early 1800s. William Bacon was then only in his late thirties—but he might have felt himself to be too old to go back to working for someone else. By that time, over ten years after he had reportedly worked at Monticello, William Bacon had a wife, a son, and a farm of his own.

So, according to Edmund Bacon’s account, Jefferson went with his second choice:
He then inquired of my father if he could not spare me. He replied that he thought I was too young. I was his youngest son, and not of age yet. Mr. Jefferson requested him to send me to see him about it. . . .

When my father told me Mr. Jefferson wanted to employ me, I was keen to go; and I determined that if he employed me, I would please him, if there was any such thing. When I went to see him, he told me what he wanted me to do, gave me good advice, and said he would try me, and see how I would get along. I went to live with him the 27th of the December before he was inaugurated as President; and if I had remained with him from the 8th of October to the 27th of December, the year that I left him, I should have been with him precisely twenty years.
Jefferson at Monticello therefore dated the start of Bacon’s work to 27 Dec 1800. But it didn’t say that he was hired as a “manager.” He was “employed” as Jefferson thought appropriate for a teenager, “not of age yet.”

As a minor, Bacon couldn’t sign contracts. Any wages he earned legally belonged to his father, and adolescents usually worked only for room, board, and clothing anyway. Those circumstances might explain why Edmund Bacon’s name doesn’t appear in Monticello’s accounts regularly until 1806, the year in which he turned twenty-one.

It seems significant that less than half a year after Edmund Bacon came of age, Jefferson definitely made him manager of all of Monticello—in the middle of his second presidential term, when he knew he himself would be busy in Washington. Jefferson put a lot of faith in young Bacon, faith which might have come from having employed him at lesser responsibilities for a while.

So do I accept the date of 27 Dec 1800 as when Edmund Bacon came to Monticello, not as manager but as a lower-level employee? Nope.

TOMORROW: Did you notice that Bacon’s own dates don’t add up?

(The thumbnail image above is a portrait of Steven Edenbo as a young Thomas Jefferson, painted by Pamela Patrick White. Bigger image here. I saw some notecards and prints of this image on the Boston Common on Saturday, and thought people might like to know where to order their own.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Battle in the Monticello Garden

Yesterday I described the conflicting signals of when Edmund Bacon began work at Monticello. Late in life, he told author Hamilton Pierson that he’d gone to live at that slave-labor plantation at the end of 1800. Yet a letter from Thomas Jefferson dated Bacon’s tenure as manager from 1806, and Bacon’s name doesn’t appear on the Monticello records before that year.

I suspect Bacon actually was living and working at Monticello before 1806, and my first piece of evidence is this reminiscence from him, printed in Pierson’s book, Jefferson at Monticello:

Almost every Friday evening Jeff. Randolph would bring a lot of his mates [from Oglesby’s school in Charlottesville] to Monticello to play and eat fruit. If they did not come on Friday they were pretty certain to come on Saturday. I gave them the keys of the house and garden, and very often they all stayed there over night.

One Saturday a lot of the schoolboys that were not invited concluded that they would come also, and help themselves to fruit. They went around the back side of the garden, broke off the palings, and got in. They then climbed the trees and broke off a good many limbs, and did a great deal of damage.

The other party attacked them, and they had a tremendous fight. The party that had broken in was much the largest, and they could not drive them off. They threw stones at the old gardener and hurt him very badly. They sent to the mill for me, and when I got there the other party were gone, and some of Jeff.’s party were a good deal hurt. Vaul Southall was very bloody. He had fought like a little tiger.

Wm. C. Rives was one of Jeff.’s party. He was an uncommonly fine boy, and was always the peacemaker among the boys. Whenever they got into a difficulty among themselves, they would all say, “Let Willie Rives settle it.” Both parties were always willing to select him as umpire.

So I said to him, “Willie, why didn’t you settle this matter without all this fighting?”

He was very much excited, as well as all the rest of them. “Why, sir,” said he, “you know that I am a little fellow and couldn’t do much fighting, but I called them all the hard names I could think of, and then I started to turn Rompo loose on them, and they all ran off.” Rompo was a very fierce dog. . . .
To me this anecdote has the ring of truth. It doesn’t flatter Bacon, or Jefferson (whom he obviously idolized), or anyone involved—nor does it show anyone in a terrible light. It doesn’t have an obvious moral instruction, or a neat plot. In sum, there’s no reason for Bacon to have described this incident except that it was a memorable slice of life at Monticello.

A little digging, and I identified the boys Bacon named in that anecdote:
  • Thomas Jefferson Randolph (1792-1875), the President’s eldest grandson—shown above, courtesy of Monticello.
  • William C. Rives (1793-1868), who later studied law with Jefferson shortly after his presidency, and then became a politician and diplomat.
  • Vaul W. Southall, fully named Valentine Wood Southall (1793-1861), another future attorney.
They were all nearly the same age, so it made sense for them to go to school and pal around together.

And when did this event take place? Bacon didn’t give a date, but the schoolboys’ actions (getting into a bloody fight over fruit, but really over who’s in what gang; yelling insults) and Bacon’s diction (“to play,” “little tiger,” “little fellow”) suggest to me that those boys were about twelve years old. Which would mean this incident took place around 1804 or 1805.

Furthermore, we know that Jeff Randolph was sent for more schooling in Philadelphia in 1807 at age fifteen, as arranged by his grandfather. Willie Rives entered Hampden-Sydney College that same year. That means Bacon’s encounters with these schoolboys must have occurred before the middle of that year. Bacon must also have been at Monticello long enough to have come to expect Jeff’s weekend visits with his pals (“Almost every Friday evening”).

It’s possible that this great battle took place sometime between mid-1806, when Bacon is definitely documented as having been at Monticello, and the boys’ departure for college in 1807. Males in the culture didn’t have to be as young as twelve to get into stupid fights; Bacon also recalled several violent incidents involving grown men in the President’s family (his daughters and granddaughters did not all marry happily). But Bacon didn’t say that any of those men had “fought like a little tiger.”

Of course, that’s just my subjective impression. I still have to explain why, if Edmund Bacon was working at Monticello by around 1804 or 1805, his name didn’t appear on the records until 1806.

TOMORROW: The circumstances of Edmund Bacon’s hiring.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

When Did Edmund Bacon Start Work at Monticello?

Edmund Bacon (1785-1866) was Thomas Jefferson’s “manager,” or overseer, at Monticello for many years in the early 1800s. (The thumbnail image to the right connects to a photograph of Bacon in old age at the Monticello website.) Exactly how many years Bacon lived on that slave-labor plantation has become an issue in the debate over the paternity of Sally Hemings’s children.

In 1862, the Rev. Dr. Hamilton W. Pierson published a book titled Jefferson at Monticello, based on interviews with Bacon. It quotes him describing his tenure at Monticello this way:

I went to live with him the 27th of December before he was inaugurated as President [i.e., 27 Dec 1800]; and if I had remained with him from the 8th of October to the 27th of December, the year that I left him, I should have been with him precisely twenty years.
However, Pierson also reprinted Jefferson’s letter of recommendation for Bacon, dated 18 Aug 1818. It says:
The bearer, Mr. Edmund Bacon, has lived with me twelve years as manager of my farm at Monticello.
That means that Bacon started the manager job in 1806, and implies that he hadn’t lived at Monticello any longer than that.

Dumas Malone, Jefferson’s major twentieth-century biographer, dated Bacon’s tenure as manager from 29 Sept 1806. Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book quotes instructions to Bacon dated 21 Apr 1806, and says Bacon started to oversee the newly-built toll mill in August. A Senior Historian at Monticello, Lucia C. Stanton, has concluded:
Jefferson’s records...indicate that Bacon began working at Monticello sometime in 1806, becoming overseer on Sep. 29. Nothing in the records indicates his presence at Monticello before this. Since Bacon’s family lived not far from Monticello, it is certainly possible he was on the mountain on an occasional basis. But...he is not mentioned in the Memorandum Books until Sep. 1806. After this date, he appears in the Memorandum Books with great frequency.
So when did Edmund Bacon start to help manage Monticello—1800 or 1806? The answer bears generally on how accurate Bacon’s statements to Pierson were. It also bears specifically on when Bacon might have been able to see a man other than Thomas Jefferson regularly coming out of the room of the mother of one enslaved young woman, “nearly as white as anybody,” who many people said was Jefferson’s daughter. (I’m going to discuss that statement eventually.)

After looking at the text of Jefferson at Monticello and researching its details, I’ve reached my own conclusion about when Bacon started work at Monticello. My reasoning focuses on one of my little areas of interest, the lives of young people in early America. And my conclusion is that both dates—1800 and 1806—are probably wrong.

TOMORROW: Boys behaving badly.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Thomas Jefferson Online

A while back, Lucia Stanton, Senior Historian at Monticello, sent a note to the H-OIEAHC email list with links to three unusual parts of her organization’s website—beyond the usual information about the building and the main family living there. Some of these websites are still works in progress—which is in keeping with how Thomas Jefferson lived in his mansion:

The Monticello Plantation Database contains information on over six hundred people who lived in slavery on Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantations between 1774 and 1826. It provides details of life span, family structure, occupation, and the transactions of bondage (sale, purchase, gift, and hiring). There are also short biographies of individuals and accounts of various aspects of slavery at Monticello.

The Getting Word website contains information on a project begun in 1993 to interview the descendants of Monticello’s African-American families. The seventy-odd pages of the website include biographical information on dozens of enslaved men and women (and their descendants) as well as plentiful photographs and the results of research in historical records and interviews with over 170 people.

The Monticello Classroom is a teacher-student website for elementary and secondary classroom use, a compilation of resources about Thomas Jefferson and life at Monticello.
I’ve also been interested in the Th: Jefferson Encyclopedia, a wiki-style resource of information. The online library catalogue simply makes me jealous. As for Jefferson’s own library, there’s a nifty starting-point on LibraryThing.

Some of Jefferson’s own documents are actually here in New England—they ended up at the Massachusetts Historical Society alongside the papers of Jefferson’s friend, rival, and long-distance friend John Adams.

The M.H.S. offers a virtual look at many of those documents in its Thomas Jefferson Papers website. Among its topics are how the President collected books, drafted the Declaration of Independence for the Second Continental Congress, and managed his slave-labor plantations.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Using Ships’ Logs to Study Climate Change

Guy Curtis at the British Redcoat alerted me to a British news story about scientists using Royal Navy ships’ logs from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to produce evidence about global climate. The first and fullest account appeared in the Sunday Times on 3 August: “Captains’ logs yield climate clues: Records kept by Nelson and Cook are shedding light on climate change.”

[Admiral Nelson, Captain Cook, and “Britain’s great seafaring tradition” all in the first lines! Too bad the research doesn’t go back to Sir Francis Drake, or the paper could have invoked every iconic cliché of British sail.]

Scientists examined those logs to see if the weather notes of British mariners were systematic enough to be useful as data. I would have been skeptical. The best British meteorological instruments of the 1700s—those made by the Hauksbee family in London—have been found to vary by as much as 10%. And most of the weather notes I see in diaries are subjective descriptions, not numerical measurements. Indeed, the Times states:

Most of these earlier documents contain verbal descriptions of weather rather than numerical data, because ships lacked the instruments to take numerical readings. However, [Sunderland University geography professor Dennis] Wheeler and his colleagues found early Royal Navy officers recorded weather in consistent language.

“It means we can deduce numerical values for wind strength and direction, temperature and rainfall,” he said.
Wheeler told the B.B.C., “You find lots of ships sailing in convoy, and they all record the same thing.” I wish the articles offered examples of that common terminology, but I trust that it’s there.

Crude as this method might be, it seems solid enough to work for what Wheeler has studied in the logs so far: reports of big storms. He found wide variability in storm patterns, including, for example, “a surge in the frequency of summer storms over Britain in the 1680s and 1690s.” That casts doubt on the notion that storm patterns which seem unusual today must be the result of new conditions. Nothing’s really unprecedented, Wheeler’s findings suggest.

That touches on one of the debates within climatology today: whether global, human-produced climate change (which most scientists agree is occurring) is producing more big storms or other changes in severe weather (where scientists are split, with many doubtful). I suspect that laypeople are even more prone than climatologists to see “global warming” behind such storms as Hurricane Katrina; humans want to believe that big effects have understandable causes.

The Times article goes on to state:
Wheeler makes clear he has no doubts about modern human-induced climate change. He said: “Global warming is a reality, but what our data shows is that climate science is complex and that it is wrong to take particular events and link them to CO2 emissions. These records will give us a much clearer picture of what is really happening.”
The Telegraph, which leans solidly Conservative, summarized this article the following day, using the headline: “Lord Nelson and Captain Cook’s shiplogs question climate change theories: The ships’ logs of great maritime figures such as Lord Nelson and Captain Cook have cast new light on climate change by suggesting that global warming may not be an entirely man-made phenomenon.” That’s obviously trying to justify skepticism about how much human activity is changing the climate, and its article produced a flurry of predictable activity on warming-denial websites. Nevertheless, even the Telegraph included Wheeler’s quote above at the very end of its article.

Unlike in the U.S. of A., where well-funded pundits and a politicized minority protests most remarks about the facts and consequences of global warming, British society almost wholly agrees that we’re in a period of human-caused climate change. This summer I visited Bodiam Castle, and the signage outside its café says straight out that the land you’re standing on will be flooded in a few decades. So enjoy your cream tea while you can!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Clinton and Cornwallis Trade Blame

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but nobody wants to recognize a defeat as his own.” Count Galeazzo Ciano wrote that in his diary in 1942, according to The Yale Book of Quotations. When John F. Kennedy repeated the observation after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he rendered the last part as “failure is an orphan.”

There’s no better illustration of that saying than the finger-pointing of British generals after the end of the Revolutionary War. When Gen. Cornwallis (shown at left) surrendered to the forces of Gen. George Washington at Yorktown, he wrote to Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, his military superior, in New York. That letter dated 20 Oct 1781 tried to explain how he’d found himself in such a fix:

I never saw this post in a very favourable light,...But being assured by your Excellency’s letters that every possible means would be tried by the navy and army to relieve us, I could not think myself at liberty to venture upon either of those desperate attempts [to withdraw]; . . .

receiving on the second evening your letter of the 24th of September informing that the relief would sail about the 5th of October, I withdrew within the works on the night of the 29th of September, hoping by the labour and firmness of the soldiers to protract the defence until you could arrive. . . .

Only one eight-inch [cannon] and little more than an hundred cohorn shells remained. A diversion by the French ships of war that lay at the mouth of York River was to be expected. Our numbers had been diminished by the enemy’s fire, but particularly by sickness, and the strength and spirits of those in the works were much exhausted by the fatigue of constant watching and unremitting duty.

Under all these circumstances, I thought it would have been wanton and inhuman to the last degree to sacrifice the lives of this small body of gallant soldiers, who had ever behaved with so much fidelity and courage, by exposing them to an assault, which from the numbers and precautions of the enemy could not fail to succeed. I therefore proposed to capitulate.
Since British reinforcements hadn’t arrived from Clinton’s post, Cornwallis felt he had no choice but to surrender. The implication of his last dispatch was clear: his commander was at fault for not sending help more quickly. This letter was later read in Parliament as part of the inquiry on why Britain had lost the war in North America.

Last month the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room traced what happened next. In early 1783 Clinton published his Narrative...Relative to his Conduct during Part of his Command of the King’s Troops in North America, complaining particularly of “the publication of Lord C.’s letter of the 20th of October, without being accompanied by my answer to it.” On 2 Dec 1781 he had written back to Yorktown:
As your Lordship is pleased, in your letter of this day [i.e., just received], to revert to the circumstance of your quitting Williamsburg Neck and repassing the James River, so contrary to the intentions I wished to express in my letters of the 11th and 15th of June, and those referred to by them, and which I thought they would have clearly explained. Your Lordship will, I hope, forgive me, if I once more repeat that I am of opinion, if those letters had been properly understood by your Lordship, you would at least have hesitated before you adopted that measure.
In other words, you didn’t follow my advice, so you got yourself into this mess. Of course, by the time Clinton was writing this, he knew that Cornwallis and his men were prisoners of war, so his letter was hardly helpful—except perhaps in offering himself a rear guard.

When Clinton’s book came out in London, Cornwallis published an Answer in pamphlet form. It contained more of the correspondence between the two men, and the earl wrote:
The perusal of this Correspondence will, I think, render not only the military, but every other reader a competent judge of the propriety of my conduct, either when I acted under positive orders, pressing contingencies, or discretionary powers.
In other words, I did the best I could; if you want to look for a reason for failure, look at the commander who didn’t do enough.

Clinton thereupon issued another pamphlet titled Observations on Some Parts of the Answer..., with some more transcriptions of letters and analysis of them. That publication concluded:
I shall now beg leave to conclude with an opinion, which I presume is deducible from the foregoing (I trust candid) review of circumstances. Which is, that Lord Cornwallis’s conduct and opinions, if they were not the immediate causes, may be adjudged to have at least contributed to bring on the fatal catastrophe which terminated the unfortunate campaign of 1781.
Clinton dated the last pamphlet 3 Apr 1783, which meant the whole exchange had taken place in a little over three months. Also notable is that all three publications came from the high-class publisher J. Debrett: he was making money from both generals as they tried to shift more blame to the other.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

“For transporting us beyond seas, to be tried for pretended offenses”

Of late, one of the more discomfiting phrases in the U.S. Declaration of Independence has been this item from the list of what George III had done so tyrannically as to make it necessary for the thirteen colonies participating in the Continental Congress to break off from Britain:

For transporting us beyond seas, to be tried for pretended offenses;...
Today the U.S. of A. has made itself notorious for transporting people across the ocean, to the Spanish-American war trophy of Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, and for creating a system of what look like criminal trials as long as you don’t look too closely for fairness.

Official defenders of that system are now pointing to the end of the trial of Salim Hamdan, with a military jury deciding on a sentence of five and a half years, as proof that it can produce justice. Of course, most of those defenders thought only a much longer sentence would be justice. But if it’s just for Hamdan to be imprisoned for five and a half years for his crimes, then by logic it’s unjust that the U.S. of A. has held him in prisons for over six years so far, and makes no commitment about ever releasing him.

The recent prominence of the “transporting us beyond seas” phrase in the Declaration made me wonder what exactly it referred to. All the complaints in that part of the document were supposed to reflect colonists’ grievances with the government in London, embodied in the king.

Historians usually trace this particular complaint to the Administration of Justice Act, which Parliament passed in May 1774. Here’s the complete text from Yale Law School. Like a lot of other laws, it doesn’t make for comfortable reading, but this is the most important part:
That if any inquisition or indictment shall be found, or if any appeal shall be sued or preferred against any person, for murder, or other capital offence, in the province of the Massachuset’s Bay, and it shall appear, by information given upon oath to the governor, or, in his absence, to the lieutenant-governor of the said province, that the fact was committed by the person...either in the execution of his duty as a magistrate, for the suppression of riots, or in the support of the laws of revenue, or in acting in his duty as an officer of revenue, or in acting under the direction and order of any magistrate, for the suppression of riots, or for the carrying into effect the laws of revenue, or in aiding and assisting in any of the cases aforesaid:

and if it shall also appear, to the satisfaction of the said governor, or lieutenant-governor respectively, that an indifferent trial cannot be had within the said province,

in that case, it shall and may be lawful for the governor, or lieutenant-governor, to direct, with the advice and consent of the council, that the inquisition, indictment, or appeal, shall be tried in some other of his Majesty's colonies, or in Great Britain...
Americans of the time and many historians since have emphasized the phrase “or any other capital offense,” and in the eighteenth century British Empire there were a lot of capital offenses. That interpretation implies that the London government had decreed that it could bring almost anybody to Britain for trial, far away from their families, lawyers, and communities.

But that interpretation doesn’t seem to recognize the law’s most important qualifying phrases. It applied only to people acting as royal officials suppressing riots or collecting Customs duties, or folks helping those officials. It also applied only to Massachusetts. In other words, the Administration of Justice Act was aimed at rescuing officials who had used force to enforce Parliament’s laws from being prosecuted in local courts before hostile local juries.

When Parliament enacted this law, its leaders were probably thinking of Capt. Thomas Preston and the soldiers tried for the Boston Massacre, and Customs employee Ebenezer Richardson tried for killing young Christopher Seider during a small mob attack on his house. Crown officials had worried that those men would hang for what, in their eyes, was clearly self-defense. (In the end, Preston and the soldiers were acquitted or given “benefit of clergy,” branded, and released. Richardson was convicted of murder but pardoned by London and released.)

I’m not sure the Administration of Justice Act as written would have applied to those men. There doesn’t seem to have been a magistrate to assist at the Massacre, and Richardson wasn’t on the job when he got into his fight with the boys. Bostonians had threatened to use the law against other army officers and officials—for example, a grand jury tried to indict an army captain named John Willson for encouraging slaves to revolt. But those efforts fizzled out after people had made their point. I suspect that the threat of officials being put on trial for enforcing Parliament’s laws was still hypothetical, but this new Act still gave those men more security.

So was the Continental Congress justified in complaining about the royal government “transporting us beyond seas...”? Maybe the delegates had another situation in mind, and historians have erred in interpreting the Administration of Justice Act, just as many erred in interpreting the Quartering Act. Clearly political leaders in Massachusetts were worried in early 1775 about being arrested and sent to London for trial as traitors; that’s why Samuel Adams, John Hancock, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, and others were outside Boston on 18 Apr 1775. But I’m not sure the Crown had ever done that by June 1776, however, and thus I’m not sure whether this Declarative phrase refers to an actual event or even an actual law.

Nonetheless, not transporting people out of their country to be tried in a pretend justice system seems like a good principle for the U.S. of A. to abide by.