J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Who Wrote, “When He Fell, Liberty Wept”?

While vetting a manuscript this month, I came across another questionable quotation. I think it first appeared in Thomas J. Fleming’s Now We Are Enemies (also published as The Battle of Bunker Hill) and Liberty!, and can be viewed in this essay by Kenneth C. Davis:

Abigail Adams mournfully wrote to husband John: “Not all the havoc and devastation they have made has wounded me like the death of [Dr. Joseph] Warren. We want him in the Senate; we want him in his profession; we want him in the field. We mourn for the citizen, the senator, the physician, and the warrior. When he fell, liberty wept.”
But here’s the letter from Abigail Adams in which the start of that quotation appears, and it doesn’t include that last sentence about liberty weeping. Instead, the passage reads (in Adams’s original spellings):
Not all the havock and devastation they have made, has wounded me like the death of Warren. We wanted him in the Senate, we want him in his profession, we want him in the field. We mourn for the citizen, the senator, the physician and the Warriour. May we have others raised up in his room.
The regularized spellings and punctuation are our clue that the first quotation derives from a book that used the 1840 transcription of Adams’s letters, edited by her grandson to look more grammatically and punctually correct, rather than the recent Adams Papers editions.

So what happened? A little Google Booking pinpoints the problem exactly. On page 521 of his Life and Times of Joseph Warren, published in 1865, Richard Frothingham strung together a series of laments about Warren’s death. This is what that page looked like.
As you see, Frothingham didn’t separate each quotation with quote marks. Instead, he had one pair of marks around the whole bunch, and a superscript footnote number after each. There’s a number 4 at the end of Abigail Adams’s actual words. And there’s a separate number 5 for the sentence “When he fell, liberty wept” and what follows, attributing them to a manuscript by S. A. Wells.

Who was Wells? He was Samuel Adams’s grandson, born in 1787 and dying in 1840. His “Biographical Sketch of General Joseph Warren” was published posthumously in 1857, attributed to “A Bostonian.” Frothingham might have been quoting from the manuscript Wells had created about his grandfather, which William A. Wells completed and published in 1865.


Anonymous said...

This is a great catch!!! Thanks for clearing the record and pointing out how easily errors can creep into manuscripts.

Centers and Squares said...

Goodness I have lots to read here! Somehow I stumbled upon your blog and am delighted to see you've got so much about Abigail and John Adams. Do you know much about their (or Abigail's specifically) connection to Medford? I'm slowly researching it after buying a very old Medford house.


J. L. Bell said...

Abigail Adams’s paternal grandfather was a mariner and merchant who settled in Medford. He left a farm there to his son, the Rev. William Smith, and the minister in turn left it to Abigail when he died in 1783.

I thought she might also have visited Gen. Charles Lee in the house where he was living in Medford—the Isaac Royall House. But when I look at Adams’s letter about their conversation, I see it took place at another house, and she declined the invitation to dine with him then.