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, June 30, 2009

Going to Prison in Connecticut

Anthony Vaver’s Early American Crime offers a traveler’s guide to the Old New-Gate Prison and Coppermine in East Granby, Connecticut.

The site of the prison originally supported one of the first commercial mining operations in the British colonies, before the Connecticut General Assembly decided to convert the mine into Connecticut’s first colonial prison in 1773. Today, a long set of stairs takes you down into the mine shafts, where you are free to wander around without a guide and to discover the eerie cavern once reserved for solitary confinement tucked away in the back of the tunnels.

Outside the mine is a spectacular vista of the Farmington Valley, which must have given some convicts incentive to break out. Despite claims when it first opened that the prison was one of the most secure in the American colonies, its first prisoner escaped only 18 days after his initial incarceration up a 67-foot air shaft, which can still be seen today.
Two years after the prison opened, Connecticut started using it to confine political prisoners. The “Simsbury Mines,” as many people still called the site, became quite notorious among Loyalists. But officials were convinced of its effectiveness. In his 1818 history of Connecticut, the Rev. Benjamin Trumbull (1735-1820) stated that the “prison called Newgate...has been of much greater advantage to the state than all the copper dug out of it.”

I’ve visited the Old New-Gate Prison twice, once while it was open—which was much more interesting. The view and geography are as compelling as the history. The hours on the site’s site are “Fri, Sat & Sun between 10am and 4pm” for walk-in visitors, closed 3 July but open on Independence Day and through October. Vaver recommends visiting on the last Sunday of the month, when a guide offers tours of the Viets Tavern across the road as part of the $5 admission fee.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mr. Jefferson Is Not at Home Today

As per Publick Occurrences 2.0, check out New York Times artist Maira Kalman’s visual record of a visit to Monticello.
Of course, what I’d really like to learn is the name of the handsome, part-Jefferson-designed house where Kalman stayed.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

William Simpson: fifer, deserter

Don Hagist, whose work on British soldiers I’ve long admired, has recently started a blog called “British Soldiers, American Revolution” to share some of the results of those researches. Assembling profiles of individual British soldiers is one of the hardest tasks in this little field. Few of them left much in the way of personal papers, and the Crown didn’t care enough to keep good records. But by assembling information from a variety of sources, Don can give us a peek at some men in the redcoat ranks.

Or boys, as in the case of the fifer described is this advertisement from the New York Gazette, or Weekly Post Boy, 10 Sept 1770:

Perth Amboy, New-Jersey, Sept. 6, 1770.

Deserted from the 29th Regiment of Foot, William Simpson, Fifer, aged 19 Years, 5 Feet, 8 Inches high, born in the Regiment, straight and well made, fair Complexion, thin Face, long Visage, large Nose, large Limbs, short brown Hair, blue Eyes, speaks short, and pretty much of the Irish Accent, a large Hole or Hollow on the top Part of his Scull, occasioned by a Fracture received at Castle Island; no Hair growing on it; plays well on the Flute and Fife, and plays a little on the Violin and French Horn.

Had on when he went away, a short yellow Coat, fac’d Red, red Fall-down Collar, red Wings and Lining, the Coat lac’d with Drummers Lace, white Linnen Waistcoat and Breeches, a black Cap, bound with white Tape, the Number of the Regiment in the Front, and a Scarlet Worsted Feather round the upper Part of the Front. Whoever apprehends and secures the above Deserter so that he may be delivered over to the abovesaid Regiment at Perth-Amboy, or to the Commanding Officer of the 26th Regiment at New-York, shall receive Ten Dollars Reward, on Application to either Commanding Officers.

N. B. It is supposed the above Deserter is gone towards Boston or Halifax, having a Brother in the 64th Regiment at Halifax.
Simpson was at Boston during the period of the Boston Massacre. Don’s analysis of this ad touches on his past and his uniform. As for what happened to fifer Simpson, his name reappeared on the 29th’s muster roll at the end of the year and then disappeared, all without explanation.

When you’re done pondering that, check out this dispute between veteran Thomas Mallady and his wife Hannah.

(Standing is for fifer Simpson above is the fifer major of the reenacted Tenth Regiment of Foot, Mary Stone. The unit will appear at the American Independence Festival in Exeter, New Hampshire, on 12 July.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Cuff Dole and Abel Dodge: comrades in arms?

Yesterday I quoted a 4 July 1776 warrant issued for the detention of Cuffee Dole, a black man from Rowley, Massachusetts. Today I’ll discuss the claims and implications surrounding that manuscript, which the Cohasco company has offered for sale. The press release promoting its sale says:

The document places him [Dole] inside George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Called “the Barrack on Prospect Hill,” the house was later owned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and immortalized in a poem.
Washington did make his headquarters in Cambridge, in a house later owned and written about by Longfellow, but that was miles away from where Dole and Dodge were housed. The “Barrack on Prospect Hill” was a barrack on Prospect Hill.

One of the auction sites describing this document says of the justice of the peace who issued it, “Aaron Wood would become a U.S. Senator.” He was a Massachusetts state senator in 1781, before the U.S. Senate was created.

Finally, the press release hypes the significance of this item by saying, “Dole is believed the first African-American to be mentioned in a document of the newly-independent United States.” In fact, Wood had no idea that the Continental Congress, hundreds of miles away, had declared independence; he issued the warrant invoking the authority of “the Province of Massachusetts-Bay.” The date is simple coincidence.

What’s more, the Congress’s actual vote for independence came on 2 July; the 4th was when it approved its public declaration, and the big date on top of that declaration became the anniversary we celebrate. I’d be surprised if people couldn’t find other African-Americans—particularly enslaved ones—mentioned on documents created 2-4 July 1776. It would give me more confidence if the material about this document was less hyperbolic and more accurate.

The warrant has already proven significant in what it tells us about Cuff Dole. As Christine Comiskey found when working on her recent short biography of Dole, we have solid documentation for his later life in that part of Rowley, Massachusetts, now called Georgetown. Above is a photograph of his gravestone; click on the thumbnail for a larger image from Jenn Marcelais’s Very Grave Matter website about New England cemeteries.

(Cuffee Dole is also recalled in Georgetown in the name of a restaurant, which is not inappropriate; like many other African-American men in the early republic, he made his living for a while in the catering business.)

The authoritative Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution lists several references from the Massachusetts state archive showing how Dole served in the Continental Army 15 Aug-30 Nov 1777, and June-December 1780. But this document puts him in Cambridge barracks in March 1776, implying that he served in an earlier campaign as well.

Alas, the warrant offers just a hint at the relationship between Abel Dodge and Cuff Dole. Dodge apparently woke up in the barracks on 30 March, missing eight dollars. How did he decide Dole was responsible? Did Dole take the money because he believed he deserved it, and Dodge accuse him of stealing because he thought the law gave him an advantage over a black man? Did the two men fight? Dodge was 5'9" and thirty-three years old in 1776; Dole was four years younger, an inch taller, and according to tradition in the town of Bradford “of remarkable strength.”

I note that Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors also indicates that both Dole and Dodge served in “Benjamin Adams’s Co., Col. Johnson’s regt.; from 15 Aug to 30 Nov 1777.” So whatever difference arose between them in the spring of 1776, they probably worked it out by the summer of 1777.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cuff Dole: wanted man

Boston 1775 reader Rob Velella (who maintains the Poe-a-Day Calendar) alerted me to an interesting press release from the historical documents dealer Cohasco of Yonkers, New York. It describes a manuscript related to Cuff or Cuffee Dole, a black soldier in the Continental Army during the siege of Boston. The item happens to be dated 4 July 1776, and the press release claims that it’s the earliest document about an African-American in the independent United States.

I’ll examine more details tomorrow. But first, more about the document itself. This auction website offers a tiny thumbnail image, and this auction website offers a transcription:

To the sheriff or marshal of the County of Essex or wither of his deputies or either of the Constables of the Town of Rowley in said County or to any or either of them—Greeting.

Whereas complaint has this Day been made unto me the subscriber by Abel Dodge of Rowley in said County Cooper against one Cuff Dole a Negro man of the said town of Rowley that the said Cuff did in the night beset after the Thirty First Day of March last by force of arms steel and take out of Pocket cash belonging to the said Abel as he was sleeping in his Barrack on Prospect Hill in Cambridge one Eight Dollar Bill of the Continental Emission which was the property of the said Abels.

Wherefore you and each of you are hereby required by virtue of the Authority reposed in me the subscriber by the Major [...] of the council of the Province of Massachusetts Bay immediately to apprehend the Body of the said Cuff Dole if he may be found in and present and bring him before me or some other of the justices of the said County of Essex so that he may be [...] and further dealt with according us to law and justice it doth [...] given under my hand and deed this fourth Day of July AD 1776 Aaron Wood Justice of the Peace.
Which makes it highly ironic that the press release is headlined: “1776 Black Document Discovered: A Story of Freedom for July 4th”. This warrant illustrates not the story of a black man’s freedom, but the threat of a black man’s imprisonment. The release’s statement that Dole was “concerned with an eight-dollar bill” is an obvious attempt to dodge that awkward fact.

A little more digging reveals that the document was discovered and published by Christine Comiskey, author of a booklet about Dole issued last year. On 24 Apr 2008, the Georgetown Record described reported:
The second surprise for Comiskey was finding a warrant for Cuffee’s arrest dated July 4, 1776. While fighting in the American Revolution, Dole was accused of stealing $8 from fellow soldier Abel Dodge as he slept in his barracks on Prospect Hill in Cambridge. Comiskey found no further record of the case, and believes the charges were probably dropped.
Comiskey’s book was published by the Georgetown Historical Society (the part of Rowley where Dole lived became Georgetown in 1838) and is available through its gift shop.

TOMORROW: What this document tells us—and what it doesn’t.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Revolutionary Encampments to Visit in June and July

This weekend, 27-28 June, Minute Man National Historical Park hosts a special encampment of Revolutionary War reenactors (particularly the 10th Massachusetts Regiment, the Ladies of Refined Taste, and the Authentic New England Campaigners) portraying life in the Continental Army camps during the siege of Boston.

The event is titled “Now We Are One,” referring to how the New England provincial militias regiments became the Continental Army with the arrival of the Continental Congress’s endorsement, the new commander-in-chief (shown here), and some companies from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.

On Saturday, the scenarios will focus on midsummer when the new general arrived with a different notion of how officers should behave and how an army should be run. Meanwhile, the New England officers were trying to figure out what had gone wrong at Bunker Hill, and the New England militiamen were still adjusting to life as full-time soldiers.

The Sunday scenarios will show the same army a few months later. Riflemen are arriving from the south, troops are leaving for the north, and there are whispers about a high-ranking traitor. And the Crown forces are still in Boston! Visitors will be welcome each day from 9:30 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.

The park’s Hartwell Tavern will be the center of activities, standing in for Gen. Washington’s actual headquarters from late July 1775 through early April 1776. The real building is now Longfellow National Historic Site, an N.P.S. property in Cambridge, and is open for tours all summer.

In addition, I hear that the Braintree Historical Society will host an encampment by the French Regiments Saintonge and Bourbon on the weekend of 18-19 July 2009. This will be on the grounds of the 1785 Sylvanus Thayer House, 786 Washington Street, in Braintree. The schedule includes a farmers’ market, military and civilian demonstrations, games, a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Adams, and candlelit music and dancing with the Wayside Inn Steppers in the evening.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Checking Out Some Specialized Blogs

Here are some interesting blogs I’ve come across, or learned about from alert Boston 1775 readers. Barbara Sarudy, author of Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake, 1700-1805, has a website on American Garden History, featuring lovely photographs and sources from the eighteenth century.

Sarudy has also created a blog on American Women of the Eighteenth Century. (And one on women of the nineteenth century, but that doesn’t concern us.) But be aware: something on that site—perhaps the changing portraits of women—that has caused trouble for my browser in the past. Clearly the problem isn’t Blogger’s Scribe template.

This spring the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Beehive announced an online gallery of items in the society’s collections of art, artifacts, and documents. Up above, for example, is the copper Indian figure that served as a weather vane atop the Province House, the royal governor’s residence.

Finally, one of my favorite unclassifiable blogs is Strange Maps. The entries don’t usually pertain to early America, but this one starts there; it’s a map of the geographical center of the U.S. population in the year of each census. Washington, D.C., turns out to have been extremely close to the new nation’s center of population (though not voters) in the country’s first three decades. After that, we can watch the American population move steadily westward, with a big jump in the 1850s because of the California gold rush.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Worse Than Bunker Hill

The British army’s worst day during the American War was the first pitched battle and its first victory, Bunker Hill, which we commemorated last week. Out of about three thousand Crown officers and enlisted men sent into the fight, more than one thousand were casualties: 226 killed and 828 wounded.

But was that the worst British loss of the global conflict? I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t. We never hear of the more costly battle in American history because it didn’t take place in America.

After France and Spain declared war on Britain in 1778 and 1779, respectively, the three empires started to spar all over the world. For example, for almost four years Spain and its French ally tried to wrest Gibraltar back from Britain. The garrison survived that siege, a hugely important campaign for the British government. Yet hardly any Americans were involved, so we don’t study it.

India was a relatively new battlefield for the rival European empires, and the region’s kingdoms were still strong enough to tip the scales by allying with or resisting those outside powers. That produced another theater of war for the British military during the Americans’ fight for independence. The British East India Company, backed by the imperial government, attacked the French outpost at Mahé.

The French had a powerful ally in Hyder Ali, ruler of Mysore, who declared war on the British. In the Battle of Pollilur, on 10 Sept 1780, an army commanded by Hyder’s son, Tippu Sultan, met the British forces and inflicted a devastating defeat. As the Tiger and the Thistle website explains, the British fielded 3,853 men. The officers were mostly European, the enlisted men mostly locals, or sepoys. And the casualties at the end of that day?

Of the 86 European officers, 36 were killed or died of wounds, 34 were taken wounded, and only 16 taken unhurt. The whole of the sepoy forces [over 3,300 soldiers] were either killed, captured or dispersed, and only about 200 Europeans, most of them wounded, were taken alive by the enemy.
Even if most of the British sepoys survived by deserting, that army was simply erased. And the casualty rate among the group the Crown paid the most attention to—European officers—was over 80%.
In 1784, the Treaty of Mangalore ended the Second Mysore War, a clear victory for Tippu Sultan. (He had come to power after his father died from a carbuncle or cancer on his back.)

But the British Empire came back in 1790 and forced Tippu to give up half his territory two years later. The successful commander in that Third Mysore War was Gen. Cornwallis, making up for his surrender to French and American forces at Yorktown.

Monday, June 22, 2009

History Investigations for Students

This weekend brought the happy news that my godson won the history prize for his year in grade school. This says nothing about the godfatherly influence of Boston 1775 since said school is in London and no doubt teaches an almost completely different history from that explored here.

Nonetheless, it seems like an appropriate day to point to Lesson Modules from the City University of New York’s Investigating U.S. History project:

The Stamp Act unit is particularly Boston-focused, but there were other protests against that act from Savannah to Halifax. (It looks like most images have vanished from those webpages since I first saw them, probably due to either permissions or technical issues.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Founder’s Recommended Reading List

Prof. Alison L. LaCroix’s article at Common-Place on “The Founders’ Fiction” describes a University of Chicago Law School experiment in understanding the U.S. of A.’s constitutional basis better by reading what founders read for pleasure. She writes:

To guide us in the process, and to ensure that the books we chose were ones that the founders had read, we turned to a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his prospective brother-in-law, Robert Skipwith, in August 1771. Skipwith had asked Jefferson to provide a list of books that would be the basis of his library. . . . [Jefferson] exceeded Skipwith’s proposed budget of “about five and twenty pounds sterling, or if you think proper…thirty pounds” by some seventy pounds. . . .
Yep, that was usually how Jefferson managed his finances.

Of course, Jefferson wasn’t involved in writing the Constitution, nor typical of his generation in many ways. But never mind that—the light is better in his library.
Most striking to modern eyes is the prominence of fiction on the list. More than a third of the books listed under “Fine Arts” are works of fiction. All are by European authors. They include classics that are still read today, such as Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales, as well as less familiar works more likely to be found on the syllabus of a course on eighteenth-century English literature than on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, such as Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle and Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph. . . .

Jefferson’s list made the case that a gentleman’s library ought to include literary fiction. “[T]he entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant,” Jefferson wrote to Skipwith. “[E]verything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue.”

Suppressing the temptation to assign one of the list’s more obscure novels (would the students really be able to track down copies of John Langhorne’s Solyman & Almena: An Oriental Tale?), Jake and I chose four works from among Jefferson’s recommendations: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield; and the sensational duo of 1740s literary London, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and its parody Shamela, by Henry Fielding.
I’ve read those four, and occasionally take a bite of Peregrine Pickle. And now I’ve found webpages devoted to Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph and Solyman and Almena to keep myself busy.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

“I am going upon the hill to-morrow”

Boston 1775’s last version (this week) of Dr. Joseph Warren going to his death in the Battle of Bunker Hill comes from deep in the realm of mythmaking. It was reportedly “taken down from the lips of [Elizabeth Palmer] by a friend, a few years before her death, which occurred in 1838.” Palmer’s descendants being of a literary and publishing bent (they married with Tylers, Peabodys, and Putnams), her account was printed first in a profile of her father-in-law in The New Englander in 1845, and then fully in Grandmother Tyler’s Book in 1925.

When it begins, Palmer and her family have moved into a house in Newton.

I used to go to Watertown every day, and on the 15th of June following, I met Gen. Warren for the last time. He had been our family physician, and I am sure that I liked him better than any body except my husband. He was a handsome man and wore a tie wig. He had a fine color and bright blue eyes.

He dined with us, and while at dinner said to me, “Come my little girl, drink a glass of wine with me for the last time, for I am going upon the hill to-morrow, and I shall never come off.

The next day I rose very early, and could hear the cannon from Bunker’s Hill and see the smoke of burning Charlestown. I hastened to Watertown to hear the news. Gen. Warren’s servant [i.e., slave] met me in front of our house and seizing my horse’s head, exclaimed, “Oh missee, missee! the devils hab killed my master.” The tears ran down his cheeks. I saw Dr. John Warren, the brother of the general. He was much affected, and gave me all the papers he could collect, which belonged to his brother.
So much drama! The handsome hero predicting his own death (and flirting with our memoirist while he was at it). That loyal slave, so useful for showing a person overcome with emotions while maintaining white stoicism. The mournful brother turning over papers to a passing housewife. But so much wrong.

Warren couldn’t know at dinnertime on 15 June that there would be a battle on a hill two days later. Had Palmer indeed left from Newton early in the morning on 17 June, she would have reached Watertown by midday; the battle didn’t start until the middle of the afternoon. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress records show that the Patriots didn’t know for sure that Warren was dead for at least two days. And Warren’s eyes, according to John Singleton Copley’s portrait, weren’t blue.

(The image above comes from Teach US History. It was published in the Columbian Magazine in 1846, soon after Elizabeth Palmer’s story appeared in The New Englander. It is, however, titled “General Warren taking leave of his wife and child on the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill,” so this woman is not supposed to be Palmer. That said, Warren’s wife had been dead for about two years, and the legend that accompanied the engraving is even “bunker” than Palmer’s.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Dr. Warren’s “Nervous Headache”

Here’s yet another account of Dr. Joseph Warren’s last day, 17 June 1775, this time from Richard Frothingham’s Life and Times of Joseph Warren:

It was a very hot summer’s day, with a burning sun. Warren was suffering from a nervous headache, and threw himself on a bed; but, after the alarm was given, he rose, and, saying that his headache was gone, started for the scene of action. It is said that one of his students, Dr. [David] Townsend, accompanied him a part of the way on foot, but that, a short distance from the College [Harvard], Warren was on horseback. He overtook two friends [James Swan and James Winthrop] who were walking to the battle-field, and, exchanging with them the usual salutations, he passed along towards Charlestown. . . .

Warren went to the rail-fence: here he was on foot. He met General [Israel] Putnam, who, it is said, offered to receive orders from Warren, who replied, “I am here only as a volunteer. I know nothing of your dispositions; nor will I interfere with them. Tell me where I can be most useful.”

Putnam directed him to the redoubt, with the remark, “There you will be covered;” when Warren said, “Don't think I came to seek a place of safety, but tell me where the onset will be most furious?” General Putnam again named the redoubt.

Warren then went forward to Breed’s Hill, and into the redoubt. There was a feeling at this time, in the ranks at this post, so manifest was the peril, that, through the oversight, presumption, or treachery of the officers, the men would be all slain. They needed encouragement. Warren was enthusiastically received; “all the men huzzaed.” He said that he came to encourage a good cause, and that a re-enforcement of two thousand men was on its way to their support.

Colonel [William] Prescott asked the general if he had any orders to give. Warren replied that he had none, and exercised no command, saying, “The command is yours.” This is the relation by General [William] Heath. Judge Prescott, who heard the fact from his father, the colonel, is more circumstantial in relating the incident. “General Warren,” Judge Prescott says, “came to the redoubt, a short tune before the action commenced, with a musket in his hand. Colonel Prescott went to him, and proposed that he should take the command; observing that he (Prescott) understood he (Warren) had been appointed a major-general, a day or two before, by the Provincial Congress. General Warren replied, “I shall take no command here. I have not yet received my commission. I came as a volunteer, with my musket, to serve under you, and shall be happy to learn from a soldier of your experience.”

Warren undoubtedly served as a volunteer in the battle that began soon after he arrived. . . . On such a field, Warren fought a good fight. He was applied to for orders, and gave them. . . . As the regulars, showing “a forest of bayonets,” came over one side of the redoubt, the militia fell back to the other side, and there was a brief but fierce hand-to-hand struggle, when the butts of the muskets were used; and Warren was now seen for the last time by Colonel Prescott, who was not among those who ran out of the redoubt, “but stepped long, with his sword up,” as he parried the thrusts that were made at his person. So great was the dust arising now from the dry, loose soil, that the outlet was hardly visible. Warren was among the last to go out.

Just outside of it, there was much mingling of the British and Provincials, and great confusion, when the firing for a few moments was checked. At this time, Warren endeavored to rally the militia, a contemporary account says, “sword in hand.” He was recognized by a British officer, who wrested a musket out of a soldier’s hand, and shot him. He fell about sixty yards from the redoubt, being struck by a bullet in the back part of his head, on the right side. Having mechanically clapped his hand to the wound, he dropped down dead. The retreating and the pursuing throng passed on by his body.
This has become the standard account of Warren’s death, particularly the headache. Frothingham relied on a variety of sources available to him in 1865: contemporaneous documents like a letter from Col. Prescott and an orderly book, early histories such as the Rev. William Gordon’s from 1788 (which said, “general Warren was shot in the back part of his head, on the right side: having mechanically clapt his hand to the wound, he dropt down dead”) and Gen. Heath’s memoir, and recollections from Gen. Putnam’s and Col. Prescott’s sons.

However, for the crucial detail that a “British officer” shot a sword-wielding Warren with a soldier’s musket, Frothingham’s source was an unpublished manuscript by Samuel Adams Wells, which seems unreliable. It’s also unclear where Frothingham found his information about Warren’s walk to the battlefield. He apparently didn’t have access to the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap’s notes on Warren’s last day, quoted here; they weren’t published until ten years after this biography.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Warren Elected in Place of Warren

On the morning of 19 June 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress passed the following vote:

Resolved, That three o’clock, P. M., be assigned for the choice of a president of this Congress, in the room of the Hon. Joseph Warren, Esq., supposed to be killed in the late battle of Bunker Hill.
That language shows that over a day after the battle in Charlestown, the Provincial Congress still didn’t know for sure, or perhaps didn’t want to acknowledge, that its leader was dead.

The records for that afternoon’s session begin:
Ordered, That Col. Prescott, Doct. Hall, and Col. Otis, be a committee to receive, sort, and count, the votes for a President.

The committee having attended that service, reported, that the Hon. James Warren, was chosen.
And thus was born a confusion that continues to linger. Dr. Joseph Warren of Roxbury and Boston wasn’t related to James Warren of Plymouth (1726-1808, shown above). The latter had other connections: he was married to Mercy Warren, and thus brother-in-law to James Otis, Jr., and Samuel Alleyne Otis. He was also a good friend of John and Abigail Adams. He later served as Paymaster General of the Continental Army and a member of the Continental Navy Board.

The two Warrens aren’t the only understandable source of confusion for authors from those years. In 1774, the late Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver was replaced by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Oliver; they weren’t related, either, but Andrew’s brother Peter was Chief Justice.

And Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf of Suffolk County was eventually succeeded by Sheriff William Greenleaf, his brother—not to be confused with their nephew William Greenleaf, later sheriff of Worcester County.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dr. Joseph Warren: “very desirous to go on ye Ground”

Dr. Joseph Warren was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775, one of the highest-ranking Patriots (combining political and military rank) to die in the war. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had elected Warren as its president on 31 May, and on 14 June the body also appointed him the province’s “second major general.”

Naturally, Warren was quickly made a martyr figure, especially for Bostonians and for Freemasons; at the time of his death he was “Grand Master of Masons for the Continent of America”—at least according to a Scottish charter. The doctor’s prominence caused people to record and romanticize what he’d done leading up to the battle, and I’ll explore three versions of those events this week.

One of the earlier and more detailed accounts appears in the notebooks of the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society:

August 24, 1787. I was informed by Mr. Sheriff [Joseph] Henderson that he was one of ye Clerks of ye Board of War in the year 1775 of wh[ich] Dr Jos Warren then newly made Majr Genl was a Member. That on ye day of ye action at Bunker hill, he was very desirous to go on ye Ground and take part in ye affair, that ye other Gentn did all they could to dissuade him, alledging that his Life was of too much consequence to be exposed on that occasion. Col. (afterward Genl) [Benjamin] Lincoln offered to go & execute any orders wh[ich] he would give, as did one or 2 other Gentn.

At length to deceive them he pretended that he was going to Roxbury—but went directly to Charlestown & entered the Lines. Col [William] Prescott who had the command, begged him to retire, & upon his refusal offered to resign ye Command to him. He said he would not interfere with him, & yt [i.e., that] he came only as a Volunteer.

As he was binding up a wound w[hi]ch a Man had rec[eive]d in his arm the Enemy entered by storm. He Retreated a few rods with ye rest before they killed him.
Belknap wrote this down twelve years after the battle, so there had been enough time for memories to fade and little and legends to take their place. But eyewitnesses to these events were still alive, and Belknap was a good historian, gathering information for himself and for posterity rather trying to make an inspiring story.

Warren’s name doesn’t appear in the records of the Provincial Congress or its Committee of Safety for 17 June 1775, so we know he probably wasn’t in those meetings. So far as I know, there are no corresponding records for the “board of war,” or council of high-ranking officers under Gen. Artemas Ward in Cambridge. But Henderson’s account seems reliable.

Dr. Warren had also gone out on the lines during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Gen. William Heath recalled:
on the plain below the [Menotomy] meeting-house...Dr. Joseph Warren,—afterwards Major-General Warren,—who kept constantly near me, and then but a few feet distant, a musket-ball from the enemy came so near his head as to strike the pin out of the hair of his ear-lock.
Warren’s bravery is admirable, but his desire for personal military glory led him to risk his life when he had important political responsibilities. As a result, on 18 June the province was missing one of its most capable leaders at a crucial time.

TOMORROW: Replacing Dr. Warren.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

“Happy Holidays” Follow-up

In today’s Boston Globe, columnist Alex Beam quotes me and Prof. David Hackett Fischer on what other Revolutionary holidays Massachusetts could add to (or substitute for) our current selection of Evacuation Day (17 March), Patriots’ Day (19 April), Bunker Hill Day (17 June), and the Fourth of July (um, 4 July).

How about Massacre Day (5 March)? Pope Night (5 November)? Or my most serious suggestion, Powder Alarm Day (2 September), which could be the equivalent of Evacuation Day for Massachusetts outside of Boston?

One clarification: During what became known as the “Powder Alarm” the 4,000 militiamen who crowded into Cambridge intimidated members of the governor’s Council, not the city council—which didn’t exist yet.

Wells Tour of Granary Burying Ground, 18 June

Charles Chauncey Wells and Suzanne Austin Wells, authors of Preachers, Patriots & Plain Folks: Boston’s Burying Ground Guide to King’s Chapel, Granary and Central Cemeteries, will lead a free public tour of the Granary Burying Ground this Thursday, 18 June.

The tour starts at the Congregational Library, 14 Beacon Street in Boston, at 12:00 P.M. Participants should bring their lunches. There will be a book-signing after the program, which, judging by the knowledge the authors bring and the number of historic names dropped in the press release, promises to be lengthy.

Aaron White’s Tale of Bunker Hill

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Earlier this year, while digging into the question of who killed Maj. John Pitcairn during that fight, I ran across an anecdote that promised to shed light on that topic, but is actually evidence of why it’s so hard to pin down details of this famous battle.

The following passage comes from George Livermore’s “An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens, and as Soldiers,” presented to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1862. This paper was part of the Abolitionist effort to convince the U.S. government to enlist African-Americans as soldiers, as the Continental Army had done in 1776.

Relying on previous writers, Livermore said that Peter Salem had killed Pitcairn, and then quoted from “a letter written to me recently by Aaron White, Esq., of Thompson, in Connecticut, in answer to an inquiry on this subject”:

With regard to the black Hero of Bunker Hill, I never knew him personally, nor did I ever hear from his lips the story of his achievements; but I have better authority.

About the year 1809, I heard a soldier of the Revolution, who was present at the Bunker Hill Battle, relate to my father the story of the death of Major Pitcairn. He said the Major had passed the storm of fire without, and had mounted the redoubt, when, waving his sword, he commanded, in a loud voice, the rebels to surrender. His sudden appearance, and his commanding air, at first startled the men immediately before him. They neither answered nor fired; probably not being exactly certain what was next to be done.

At this critical moment, a negro soldier stepped forward, and, aiming his musket directly at the Major’s bosom, blew him through. My informant declared that he was so near, that he distinctly saw the act. The story made quite an impression on my mind. I have frequently heard my father relate the story, and have no doubt of its truth.

My father on the day of the battle was a mere child, and witnessed the battle and burning of Charlestown from Roxbury Hill, sitting on the shoulders of the Rev. Mr. Jackson, who said to him as he placed him on the ground, “Now, boy, do you remember this!” Consequently, after such an injunction, he would necessarily pay particular attention to anecdotes concerning the first and only battle he ever witnessed.
According to this webpage, White was born in Boylston, Massachusetts, in 1798, so he was about eleven years old when he heard the veteran’s anecdote. White’s father, also named Aaron White, was a prosperous storekeeper in Boylston; here’s a bit of his wife’s diary from Old Sturbridge Village. Thomas White’s Genealogical Sketches of the White Family apparently stated that the older Aaron White was born in Roxbury on 9 June 1771, meaning that on the day of the battle he’d recently turned four.

Livermore and White evidently thought their sources comprised a “better authority” on Maj. Pitcairn’s death than hearing from Peter Salem himself—presumably because a man might be boastful about his own feats. White’s letter cited not just the “soldier of the Revolution, who was present at the Bunker Hill Battle,” but also his father himself, who had witnessed the fight and went on to “pay particular attention to anecdotes” about it.

However, White didn’t record the name of the veteran whom he recalled hearing at the age of eleven. He didn’t mention the circumstances of the conversation, which could help us assess the man’s reliability. More than thirty-five years elapsed between the battle and the telling. White’s memory of that anecdote undoubtedly got mixed with hearing his father “frequently” retell it. The older Aaron White enjoyed both paternal authority and the stature of an eyewitness to the battle, but in 1775 he was so young and so far away that all his details had to be secondhand.

Thus, like a lot of other anecdotes about Bunker Hill, Aaron White’s account comes to us with a wrapping of unimpeachability. He obviously believed it, and believed it was important. But the story itself has obviously been shaped for maximum drama. And its details don’t match accounts of Pitcairn’s death written right after the battle.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Censor’s Recipe for a Patriot

As I’ve recounted, friends of the royal government paid Ezekiel Russell to publish The Censor as a forum for responses to the Whig essays published in the Boston Gazette and Massachusetts Spy. The fact that the magazine lasted less than six months shows how few friends the royal government had.

According to James Stark’s Loyalists of Massachusetts, a highly sympathetic chronicle, “In succeeding numbers the controversy was prolonged with increasing bitterness, and at last became intensely personal.” How bitter? How intensely personal? Here’s a passage from the 8 Feb 1772 issue:

Take of impudence, virulence and groundless abuse quantum sufficit,

atheism, deism and libitinism ad libitum;

false reports, well adapted and plausable lies, with groundless alarms, one hundred wt. avoirdupois;

a malignant abuse of magistracy, a pusilanimous and diabolical contempt of divine revelation and all its abbettors, an equal quantity;

honor and integrity not quite an atom;

fraud, imposition, and hypocrisy, any proportion that may seem expedient;

Infuse therein the credulity of the people one thousand gallons,

as a menstrum stir in the phrenzy of the times,

and at the end of a year or two this judicious composition will probably bring forth a A*** and Y*** an O*** and a M*****.
That would be, a everyone in Boston could recognize, a Samuel Adams, a Dr. Thomas Young, a James Otis, and a William Molineux.

It’s never wise to talk about “the credulity of the people” if you’re trying to win them over. But by this time The Censor’s contributors were just complaining among themselves.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Censor’s Search for a Motto

The first issues of The Censor, the political magazine printed by Ezekiel Russell of Boston in late 1771, carried the motto “Vexat censura columbas.” That’s the last part of a line from the Roman satirist Juvenal, which literally means, “The censor forgives the crows and harasses the doves.” So The Censor was telling readers, “The censor harasses the nice birds,” which hardly puts The Censor in a good light.

I suspect that the gentlemen behind the magazine meant that motto as a dig at their political opponents, implying that the Boston Whigs’ sanctimonious activism was misdirected at the best of public servants. But as a political slogan it had two big problems:

  • Its sarcastic meaning was too smart for the room.
  • It was in Latin, so most people in Boston couldn’t understand it, anyway.
With the 21 March 1772 issue, The Censor’s epigraph shifted to a couplet from Alexander Pope (shown above):
Know while I live, no rich or noble Knave,
Shall walk the World in credit to his Grave.
That had the chance of communicating to all the readers in Boston since it was in English. And it promised to speak truth to power. But it was an odd choice for a magazine funded by the upper-class elite with a message that it was best to defer to royal authority.

Finally, for what turned out to be its last issues, The Censor landed on a motto from Cicero:
Ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veil non audeat.
“Let him not presume to utter any falsehood, but be bold in promulgating every truth.” Finally the magazine led with a straightforward statement of its principles. Once again in Latin.

As I described yesterday, The Censor wasn’t cut out to appeal to the common people.

TOMORROW: The Censor goes on the attack.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What the Censor Did Wrong from the Start

In the first issue of The Censor, dated 23 Nov 1771, printer Ezekiel Russell announced that it would be a weekly publication “if suitable Encouragement is offered,” and that the price was “Two Pence per Number to Subscribers, and Four Pence single.” The masthead stopped mentioning the single-issue price after that. But even the subscription rate would have come to eight shillings, eight pence for an entire year.

Around the same time, Isaiah Thomas announced in his almanac for 1772 that the price for a year of his weekly Massachusetts Spy was six shillings, eight pence. So The Censor was over 20% more expensive than the publication it was created to counteract.

Furthermore, the Spy was a newspaper, with news reports from other cities, public notices, business advertisements, and other practical information. You got a lot for your money. The Censor was completely devoted to local political arguments, starting with a refutation of an attack on Gov. Thomas Hutchinson that had appeared in the Spy.

The Censor was easier on the eyes, to be sure. It was in magazine format, with white space between paragraphs instead of crowded columns. But again, that meant readers got less material for their eight shillings.

Russell apparently tried to broaden the publication’s appeal and/or revenue on 29 Feb 1772 by adding a two-page “postscript” which looked very much like a newspaper. It had two columns of closely spaced news from London and from other newspapers with advertisements at the back, including the first solicitation for a book of poems by Phillis Wheatley (eventually published in Britain).

The number of advertisements grew in the following issues. Almost all from merchants who would be Loyalists. For example, William Jackson offered tea for sale, defying the Whig boycott (which had become weak and tepid anyway). The 11 April “postscript” was four pages, almost half advertising, and two weeks later the two extra pages were more than half covered with ads.

But the “postscripts” didn’t change the fact that The Censor was a luxury product, aimed at gentlemen rather than busy shopkeepers or workers, even those interested in politics. The magazine was designed to be a forum for pro-Crown views, but it wasn’t designed well to change people’s minds.

I see The Censor reflecting how Massachusetts’s royalist elite viewed politics—those gentlemen never understood the resistance to Parliament’s new taxes and other laws as a popular movement. They saw crowds as being manipulated by shameless or devious gentlemen, rather than as lots of people acting from their own grievances or principles. Most of the court party felt that if they won over enough other members of the elite, the people would follow. And so they kept being surprised by how persistent and strong the opposition was.

Meanwhile, Thomas was aiming his Massachusetts Spy newspaper at the working class, in price and in content. Guess which publication had more readers. Guess which one went out of business after less than six months.

TOMORROW: The Censor’s changing motto.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What Kind of Name for a Magazine was The Censor?

A while back I discussed whether Penelope Russell took over The Censor from her husband Ezekiel, or was simply his indispensable partner in the business. But I didn’t address the obvious question: What kind of name for a magazine was The Censor?

We associate the word “censor” with not allowing stuff to be published. So issuing a magazine with that name looks like calling a street “Roadblock Road,” or an airline “Grounded Air.”

But in the eighteenth century the word “censor” still had a more general meaning of an official in charge of upholding public morals. The Roman republic had censors, and if it was good enough for the Roman republic, then it was good enough for eighteenth-century British gentlemen.

When supporters of the royal government in Massachusetts sponsored The Censor, they chose the name because they saw themselves as responding to public immorality: riots, intimidation, law-breaking, and lack of respect for royal officials. Since many of the men funding and writing for the magazine were royal officials, they felt this keenly. Among the contributors were Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver (shown here, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery), his brother Judge Peter Oliver, and (anonymously, at least according to later rumors) Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

The magazine’s first issue was devoted to answering an attack on Gov. Thomas Hutchinson written by Joseph Greenleaf and printed in the Massachusetts Spy. Eventually the royal party chose a different strategy and tried to have Greenleaf, Spy printer Isaiah Thomas, and others indicted for libel, but the local grand jury refused to return an indictment against any of those Whigs.

One big challenge for the men writing The Censor was that the Whigs also presented themselves as fighting public immorality. They spoke of “liberty,” but they didn’t condone any excesses of personal liberty of the sort that censors guarded against. Samuel Adams was the last of the New England Puritans, and no one could outflank him in scolding the world about public immorality. The Whigs meant political and economic liberty. Their newspaper essays assured the people of Massachusetts that they already had fine morals, but had to guard their way of life from corrupt officials enforcing unconstitutional laws.

TOMORROW: Why The Censor was doomed from the start.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

First Shot to Premiere in Lexington, 13 June

On Saturday, 13 June, at 7:30 P.M. the Lexington Flick will host the first public showing of First Shot: The Day the Revolution Began, a short film depicting the town’s role in Revolutionary history. The following day, the film will settle down at the Hancock-Clarke House as part of the Lexington Historical Society’s orientation for visitors.

I understand from filmmaker Rick Beyer that First Shot was shot on locations in Lexington. The cast includes nearly 100 reenactors, including members of the Lexington Minutemen; the 10th, 5th, and 4th Regiments of Foot; historical society guides; and dozens of other volunteers.

Also pitching in were the Lexington Conservation Commission, the Police and Fire Departments, Boy Scouts of America Troops 119 and 160, The National Lancers, the local Peet’s Coffee & Tea, The East Village Condo Association, The Bostonian Society, and The History Channel.

The film was funded by the Lexington Historical Society through grants from Mass Humanities, The Greater Merrimack Valley Convention Bureau and Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, and The Lexington Council for the Arts, a local agency which in turn is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Tickets to the premiere are $5, and seats are limited. Call the historical society at 781-862-1703 to purchase them in advance. (Photo of the cinema above by Rachel J on Flickr.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

“Apprehension that She Might Break Off in the Middle”

Late in life, Boston native Royall Tyler (1757-1826) tried rewriting his bestselling novel, The Algerine Captive, with new material, hoping for another success. He and his wife Mary lost the race to finish that task before he died of a terrible facial cancer. The patched-together manuscript, titled “The Bay-Boy,” was first published in The Prose of Royall Tyler in 1972.

Tyler’s manuscript is most valuable as a look back on upper-class Massachusetts just before the Revolution, the years when Tyler grew up as the son of a merchant and popular Boston official (whose name he took). Between the lapses of memory and the exaggerations of satire, I don’t think “The Bay-Boy” is an exact description of life in that society, but it certainly gives a flavor.

Here’s the narrator’s description of his mother, wife of the owner of a country estate:

The crown and cap sheaf of all her accomplishments was her performance on the spinet. I wish, reader, you could have seen her as she has been represented to me in all the pride and costume of her maiden glory, seated on her tent stitch joint stool as erect and attractive as a polished shaft from the quiver of Cupid, her hair craped on her lovely head—an operation which required the labor of the barber for only five hours—but no time was lost in the process, as the hair thus fashionably craped would continue five months without the application of the comb.

Upon the tip of this toupee a diminutive triangular cap, called a fly cap, cocked like a man’s hat, richly edged with point lace, was conspicuous; but what the cap lacked in its main structure was made up in its train, as from behind was depended two log pinners which reached halfway down her neck.

Her hair was turned up behind and secured to the back of her head by a tortoise shell comb resplendent with French paste, excepting one lock, called by the ladies a “favorite” and by the beaux a “love lock,” which was suffered to stray over the left shoulder, and wanton down her lovely neck—this with a black patch as big as a pea stuck under her right eye and another at the corner of her mouth gave an air of smartness to the fair one altogether irresistible to the eye of taste.

Her neck was clasped by a brilliant necklace with its dependent solitaire and of the same pattern were her earrings magnified by many a pendant and drop. Her negligee of rich brocade, with deep ruffle cuffs which, as she sat, almost touched the ground, these enclosing ruffles of the finest Brussels lace.

Her bust clasped by a stiff pair of stays which terminated in sharp angles at the bottom before and behind and so tightly laced as to excite apprehension that she might break off in the middle, but this was happily prevented by the busk; a silver stayhook set with jewels adorned her lap and served to confine the strings of her short apron; a pocket hoop and plumpers by their broad expanse served to relieve the slender circuitry of the waist.

Shoes of white satin ornamented on the instep by a broad fillet of silver lace and heels two inches and a half high were clasped with paste buckles. A pin cushion and scissors suspended by a silver hook and chain completed this attractive costume.
Consider this the equivalent of the satirical prints of the day, a caricature of something familiar.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

“The Ruffles So Shockingly Hemmed”

In 1786, Isaiah Thomas’s printing shop in Worcester produced a little book called The Brother’s Gift: Or, the Naughty Girl Reform’d. The text was pirated from a book published by Francis Newbery in London several years before. It tells the gripping story of how Miss Kitty Bland returned from boarding school with a whole bunch of bad habits, and how her brother lectured her until she improved. Here’s one of the culminating episodes:

It happened that her Brother has desired her to make him a dozen shirts; and as soon as the first of them was done, Mrs, Cary the house-keeper presented it to him: But the wristbands were so carelessly stitched and the ruffles so shockingly hemmed, that he found great fault with it.

Mrs. Cary indeed told him that she was sure Miss could do better if she would; wherefore he took her on one side, and spoke to her to the following effect.

“My dear Kitty, said he, I am astonished you should be so careless in your needle-work; since there is no female accomplishment more useful than this. How greatly does it contribute to render our persons more decent, more agreeable, and more beautiful! I do not mean that you should apply so much to your needle as to hurt your eyes or constitution; all I mean is, that you should not despise this qualification as mean, and beneath the character of a gentlewoman, for I will venture to say, there never was an accomplished lady without a competent skill in this art.”

This conversation had the desired effect; for no milliner in London could have finished a shirt better than the remainder were done; for which reason, as a mark of approbation, her Brother made her a present of a fine new pair of stays. And here they are.
We just don’t see this type of story in children’s publishing anymore. Not even a modern equivalent—brother berates sister for serving him poorly, sister does better, and brother gives sister a brassiere. And then the publisher would show young readers a picture of the brassiere.

At least the illustration is easily explained. Thomas’s shop had little difficulty resetting the type of the English book, but the original woodcuts were back in London. The American market was starting to expect children’s books to contain pictures, so Thomas had to come up with something. This ornament was probably on hand in case a staymaker wanted to advertise in the Massachusetts Spy, as in the 18th Century Stays blog’s example of an ad from a Pennsylvania newspaper. So the printers just popped it into The Brother’s Gift.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Staycation

Today being the 200th anniversary of the death of Thomas Paine, it feels appropriate to pass on the news that historical seamstress Hallie Larkin has started a blog on eighteenth-century stays—the foundation undergarment that women felt they were next to naked without.

This blog has collected newspaper advertisements, satirical prints, and other sources on this ubiquitous part of life in Revolutionary America, as well as pointers to some modern studies of stays and corsets. The illustration here, for example, is a 1778 French print from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

What’s the Paine connection? His father was a staymaker in Britain, and before he went into political writing full-time Paine also worked in that profession.

TOMORROW: Stays in an early American children’s book.

Happy Holidays to You

Boston 1775 reader Alex Beam asked me if I had any thoughts on the recent debate in the Massachusetts legislature over the value of the Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day holidays. Not their historical value—no one was really questioning whether the Battle of Bunker Hill or the departure of the British military were important events in local history, or still fit with modern values as well as, say, Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia.

Rather, the argument was over whether those two days should remain paid holidays for the employees of Suffolk County, the only jurisdiction that observes them so devoutly. The nation as a whole remembers the Revolution by taking Independence Day off and making lots of noise and pretty lights in the sky. Massachusetts and Maine celebrate Patriots Day, on a Monday around the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. But only Suffolk County observes Evacuation Day, and only Suffolk County and the neighboring city of Somerville observe Bunker Hill Day.

Suffolk County includes Boston and three smaller cities. (At the time of the Revolution, Suffolk County included modern-day Norfolk County, and extended to the Rhode Island border. It did not, however, include the town of Charlestown, where the Bunker Hill battle was actually fought; that was taken out of Middlesex County when it became part of Boston. Somerville gets in on Bunker Hill Day since that was the site of the provincial fallback camp.) One might therefore think these holidays would be a purely local issue, but the coverage has gone national.

For a historical perspective, it’s worth noting that Boston’s tradition of observing Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day as legal holidays goes all the way back to...the 1930s. Of course there had been public and private commemorations of both events before, but the state government didn’t promise them as paid days off work until public-employee unions became strong enough to demand that.

Evacuation Day is the more popular of the pair since, by coincidence, it falls on St. Patrick’s Day. Indeed, many of the legislators arguing to retain the holiday referred to it by that name, and cited the importance of Irish-American celebrations rather than, say, ceremonies on Dorchester heights.

Proponents of scrapping the two days off say that they cost government $5 million per year, and the state can’t afford that expense. However, that cost includes two floating holidays assigned to state employees outside Suffolk County. In other words, the proposal isn’t truly about the dates of 17 March and 17 June. It’s about eliminating benefits that employees have won through collective bargaining and political pressure. Is it any surprise that the bill came from the Republican House leader? 

And is the issue really waste? I think it has much more to do with envy. Envy dating back to childhood that most of us in Massachusetts didn’t get those days off from school. Envy that the holidays apply in only one county—“As if it’s that special of a county that we should all bow in reverence to it,” to quote state senator Michael R. Knapik (R-Not Suffolk County). Envy that most private-sector employees don’t get those days off now (though we do get free parking!). Measured against current budget shortfalls, $5 million is simply symbolic.

If Massachusetts must save money by eliminating paid holidays, why doesn’t anyone suggest eliminating Patriots Day as well? That affects many more communities, so it should produce even bigger savings. But of course that holiday has even more political support—even in Republican suburbs. And it has a strong tradition behind it: every year tens of thousands of people from all over the world unite to join in commemorating the historic battle at...Marathon

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Trial of Bathsheba Spooner

At the Early American Crime blog, Anthony Vaver discussed one of the exciting scandals of Revolutionary Massachusetts: the trial of Bathsheba Spooner of Brookfield for arranging the murder of her husband. 


This 1778 crime gained an unavoidable political dimension because Spooner was the daughter of a leading Loyalist exile, Timothy Ruggles, and her alleged accomplices included two British prisoners of war—as well as a young Continental Army veteran. 

What’s more, as part of the 150th anniversary of the Massachusetts Superior Court, the trial of Bathsheba Spooner was reenacted at the Worcester Trial Court last week. Vaver provides lots of photographs, including some of men portraying prosecutor Robert Treat Paine and local newspaper publisher Isaiah Thomas

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Invoking the Sacred Name of Washington

At the expanding American Creation group blog, Jonathan Rowe recently wrote about an attempt by Philadelphia’s orthodox Christian ministers in 1797 to get George Washington to give them special attention—perhaps to acknowledge the primacy of Christianity or the divinity of Jesus. They addressed a public letter to the departing President “in our special characters as ministers of the gospel of Christ.”

His wise reply praised the “harmony and brotherly love which characterizes the Clergy of different denominations.”

Rowe closed his piece with those two documents from 1797, apparently the only contemporaneous sources on this incident. The other sources are retrospective interpretations of that exchange from Dr. Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, the Rev. Ashbel Green, and other men. There was a heated debate over what exactly the clergymen had planned. Did they really try to manipulate the President? As usual, no one wanted to be seen as sinning against the sainted Washington.

Which brings me to what Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) spouted on the House floor last month. In that long American tradition, she also tried to invoke Washington to support her own religious views. At the Huffington Post, Chris Rodda corrected her falsehoods. After quoting the words that Bachmann said Washington had included in an inaugural address, Rodda writes:

Where did this prayer come from? Well, it’s a rewriting of the last paragraph of the circular letter sent by Washington to the governors of the states in 1783, when he resigned from the Army at the end of the Revolutionary War. This paragraph was altered by a church, inserting a few “Thys,” “Thous,” and “Thees,” and adding the “Almighty God” opening at the beginning, and the “through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” closing to the end, thus creating Washington’s “prayer for the nation.” . . .

Bachman then continued to display her incredible ignorance of American history by saying that the founders signed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on the same day...
Meanwhile, Minnesotans continue to be deprived of their full representation in the Senate.

(Today’s image is one version of “The Apotheosis of Washington,” courtesy of the Morristown National Historical Park. This is watercolor on glass, one of the nineteenth century’s equivalents of glow-in-the-dark paint on black velvet.)

Friday, June 05, 2009

Reconsidering the Massachusetts Regulators

The kind folks at M.I.T. Press Journals alerted me to material on their website related to Robert A. Gross’s article “A Yankee Rebellion?: The Regulators, New England, and the New Nation,” from the March 2009 issue of the New England Quarterly.

From this page one can download:

  • a PDF file of the article itself.
  • a podcast conversation between Bob Gross and William M. Fowler, chair of the N.E.Q.’s board. (I couldn’t download the MP3 file with Firefox, but could with Safari.)
The abstract for the article says:
Was Shays’s Rebellion a sign of a general crisis of self-government in the new nation, or was it a peculiarly Yankee affair? This essay suggests that wrenching changes, growing out of the Revolution in Massachusetts, turned a conflict over taxes common to all the states into a unique and short-lived political upheaval.
As the article’s subtitle shows, historians seem to be paying more attention to how the western Massachusetts farmers called themselves “Regulators,” tying their movement into the pre-Revolutionary uprising in western North Carolina. They also saw themselves as continuing the Revolutionary struggle itself; they had first closed their county courts in 1774 to protest the Massachusetts Government Act. Their opponents, including the Boston financial elite and the Federalists who responded with a new Constitution, had reasons to portray the “Shaysites” as isolated debtors, outside the American mainstream.

Bob Gross is the author of The Minutemen and Their World, a now-classic study of Concord society in the decades leading up to the shooting there on 19 Apr 1775. Bill Fowler is the author of several books on the Revolutionary period, including a short biography of Samuel Adams that I blame for getting me interested in this field.

[Thanks to the Boston 1775 readers who alerted me to the technical problems in today’s entry while I was out.]

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Washington’s Map of the Area around Mount Vernon

The Christie’s auction that will include the Ethan Allen letter I mentioned yesterday also offers this map of the area around Mount Vernon, apparently drawn up by George Washington himself. Certainly that’s his writing at top, the notes of a trained surveyor.

The names of landowners written on the map date it to before 1769. Eventually Washington would buy a lot of the land around the estate he inherited, nearly doubling its holdings.

Another Washington item up for sale, the draft of a petition to Gov. Dunmore, also involves expanding his land holdings. During the French & Indian War, the previous royal governor of Virginia had promised that the colony’s soldiers could share in 200,000 acres in the Ohio River Valley.

By 1771, that land had still not been assigned. Washington complained that the mandated surveying was too slow and cumbersome, and suggested an alternative way of assigning land. He also complained that the delays so far were burdening veterans (such as himself) with unfair costs when they really deserved the best treatment.

Dunmore and his Council rejected this petition, which apparently only confirmed Washington’s suspicion that royal authorities didn’t treat Virginian gentlemen (such as himself) with proper respect. Even after he got his wish in 1772, this sort of grievance lingered in his memory.

Yet another item in the same auction is a copy of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Gill of Boston in July 1776. A different copy of this now-rare printing sold for well over half a million dollars a couple of years ago, PhiloBiblos reports.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Ethan Allen and Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos provided links about a previously uncollected letter from Ethan Allen to Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (shown above), now being auctioned at Christie’s, and a Vermont Times-Argus article about it.

Crèvecoeur (1735-1813) was the first of a long line of French intellectuals who spent some time in the United States and then returned to Europe to write a book about it. In fact, he settled in Orange County, New York, years before the Revolution and raised a family there. Crèvecoeur left for Europe during the war. In 1782, while in London, he published the first edition of his Letters from an American Farmer, which was such a hit that he expanded it through the 1780s. After the Treaty of Paris, Louis XVI made Crèvecoeur the French consul to the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, so he was back to the U.S. with some standing.

Meanwhile, Allen was a big man in the independent republic of Vermont. He too was an author, known for his Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity. But Allen was losing influence with his fellow Vermonters, many of whom wanted to join the U.S. of A. He thought the republic’s interests lay with Canada, its major trading partner, and even talked about giving up independence to rejoin the British Empire. He left the capital of Bennington and settled in Burlington, closer to Vermont’s northern neighbor.

During their correspondence, Allen was able to make Crèvecoeur’s American sons into citizens of Vermont, and to have the town of St. Johnsbury named in his honor. (Crèvecoeur used St. John as his surname when he was farming in America.) Allen also sent the consul the book he’d developed from a manuscript of the late Dr. Thomas YoungReason, the Only Oracle of Man—hoping it would find favor in France.

The newly discovered letter, dated 29 Aug 1787, reveals Allen’s jaundiced view of the prospects for the U.S. of A.:

I fancy that the confusions in the United States have increased beyond your expectation for so short a time, ever since the peace I have been apprehensive that the Federal Government of the United States would be but of short duration. This I suggested to you in our late personal conference. Liberty is not, nor will be, by the bulk of the People distinguished from licentiousness, and any Government that allows such freakish liberties to its subjects cannot endure long. Thirteen independent heads to one connective Government is a political monster and monsters are always short lived...
By “freakish liberties,” Allen was probably talking about the 1786-87 uprising in western Massachusetts that came to be called Shays’ Rebellion. He refused to support that movement, seeing it as a danger. Many of Allen’s fellow Vermonters, however, supported the men behind the uprising; Daniel Shays and others found shelter in the republic.

Even as Allen wrote, the U.S. Constitutional Convention was taking place in Philadelphia, and the New York delegates quietly agreed to let Vermont join the “more perfect Union,” dropping their state’s claim to that land. Vermont was admitted in 1791 at the same time as Kentucky, preserving a north-south balance. Allen had died two years before.