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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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Nicholas Cresswell Tries to Keep Quiet

Yesterday I quoted how Nicholas Cresswell, prospective emigré from Derbyshire to Virginia, responded to hearing the Continental Congress’s Resolves of 1774. He kept his anger private, recording it in his diary. (The original manuscript is in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg.)

Cresswell’s journal continued on 2 November, the next day:

Writing to my Friends at home. Obliged to put the best side outwards and appear a little Whigifyed as I expect my letters will be oppened before they get to England.

3rd Saw the Independent Company [militia] exercise. The Effigy of Lord North [shown above in person, courtesy of the U.K. Prime Minister’s office] was Shot at, then carried in great parade into the town and burned.

4th And 5th Wrote to Mr. Champion. It is very hard as I cannot write my real sentiments.

6th Sunday Went to a Presbyterian meeting these are a set of Rebellious soundrels nothing but Political discourses instead of Religious Lectures.
Despite his vow to be cautious, Cresswell got in trouble with local Patriots. In March 1775 some letters home in which he “freely declared my sentiments upon the present Rebellion” were opened by the Alexandria Committee of Safety. At around the same time he left for the Ohio Valley, scouting for land.

When Cresswell returned to Alexandria in October, there was a full-blown civil war going on up around Boston. Another part of the Continental Army was invading Canada. Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, had taken to the water. And that local Committee of Safety summoned Cresswell for questioning.

On 31 October he wrote: “Understand I am suspected of being what they call a Tory (that is a Friend of my Country) and am threatened with Tar, Feathers, Imprisonment and the Devil knows what. Curse the Scoundrels.” Three days later he declared, “Determined to talk about the times as little as possible and slip away as soon as I can get an opportunity.”

That resolve lasted for...over a week. On 9 November, Cresswell reported:
At diner had a long Dispute with Doctor Jackson about the Origins of the present proceedings. I believe he was employed to draw me into a political dispute. I proceeded with great caution and timerrity. Most of the company agreed that I had the better of the argument. But never so much embarrased in my life.
For the next two years Cresswell repeated the same pattern: promising himself that he wouldn’t argue politics, then letting his real feelings out—often after drinking. He kept trying to find a way to leave for home, but of course the colonies were at war with Britain, and he didn’t have a lot of cash to spend. At the same time, American officials grudgingly recognized that Cresswell wasn’t working for the Crown; he was just a visitor from England with poor timing.

The new edition of Cresswell’s diary has the dates “1774-1781” in the title. However, he [***SPOILER***] managed to get out of America in 1777, and stopped keeping the journal at that point. He went back to the notebook a few years later to record his marriage, and then settled into the life of an English country gentleman.

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