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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Friday, November 20, 2009

Still Debating What to Do with Doctor Church

We last left Dr. Benjamin Church back in the Boston jail in early July 1777. The Massachusetts General Court had agreed to trade him for Dr. James McHenry, but a crowd objected. The legislature then voted to certainly not trade him for Dr. McHenry without getting the Continental Congress to take the heat.

I’ve mentioned a letter from Joshua Loring, Jr., formerly of Jamaica Plain, proposing that prisoner exchange. Last night I found a copy of that document in the Papers of the Continental Congress material online at Footnote. It says:

New York 3d: June 1777

Doctr: Benj: Church,

Capt: [Colin] McKenzie of the 71st Regt: having made his Excellency Sir William Howe acquainted with your Situation; I have Authority to Assure you that on your Arrival here Doctr: McHenry of Philadelphia shall be immediately Exchanged for you.

I hope this Proposal will be accepted & that you may soon be sett at Liberty & in order the more speedily to Effect this purpose, I shall write to Mr. Boudinott on the Subject.

I am Sir Your Most Humbl: Servant
Josha. Loring Commis. of Prisrs.
It’s striking that Loring first proposed this trade by writing to Church himself, and only then promised to write to the American Commissary of Prisoners. I’ve found no evidence that Elias Boudinot, who had taken on that job less than a month before, passed Loring’s proposal on to Congress. (Boudinot’s picture later in life, above, comes courtesy of the U.S. Mint.) Rather, Church himself kept pushing the idea.

Even after the debacle in July, Church kept pushing. It wasn’t until 17 September that the president of the Massachusetts Council, Jeremiah Powell, wrote to Congress, enclosing a copy of Loring’s letter. He asked for a reply “as soon as possible” because “Doctr. Church has applied in a very pressing Manner for Liberty as soon as possible to proceed to New York.” At the same time, Powell insisted that the state did “not incline to sett him at Large to permit the Exchange without the Directions of the Congress.”

That letter went south in the week after the big British victory at Brandywine, when Congress was busy getting out of Philadelphia. Delegates reassembled in York, Pennsylvania, and on 2 October they considered Powell’s letter. John Hancock wrote back to Boston with the decision about his old colleague:
York Town: Pennsylvania, Octr. 3d. 1777.

Gentlemen,

Your Favour of the 17th ult[im]o. [i.e., last month] enclosing a Copy of a Letter from Mr. Loring Commissary of Prisoners, relative to the Exchange of Doctor Church for Doctr. McHenry, was duely received and laid before Congress:

In Consequence of which I am to inform you, they immediately, and in the strongest Terms, expressed their Disapprobation of the Proposal, and put their Negative upon it.

I have the Honour to be, with the greatest Respect, Gentlemen,
your most obed & very hble Servt.
John Hancock Presidt.
So Dr. Church remained in jail through the end of 1777.

TOMORROW: A breakthrough in the new year.

1 comment:

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