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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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hair and Hergé in Road to Revolution!

Since I’ve bearded other comics for showing eighteenth-century British-Americans with facial hair, I have to note that several men in Road to Revolution! could use a shave as well.

There are a few hirsute farmers and laborers (like the frontiersman at right), and mustachioed army officers (Hessians wore moustaches, but not British gentlemen). In addition, as you can see, some men appear in clothing more suitable to the next century.

I wrote earlier about how creators Stan Mack and Susan Champlin came to Boston while researching the book to scout out locations like Old North Church and Longfellow National Historic Site. Alas, it’s not so easy to find eighteenth-century people walking around.

We can study paintings, prints, and other period artwork, bearing in mind that expensive portraits show the elite as they wished to be seen, and cartoons exaggerated traits. Would following those models result in every gentleman looking like a clean-shaven white man wearing a white wig, suit, waistcoat, and breeches? Probably so, since in formal portraits every gentleman was a clean-shaven white man wearing a white wig, suit, waistcoat, and breeches. Craftsmen and yeoman farmers tended to dress in a cheaper, sturdier version of the same styles.

Such visual similarity makes it harder to tell a comics story. First in Space is another historically-based graphic novel, about the chimpanzees used in the early U.S. space program. Their keepers are all burly young Air Force men, with crew cuts and T-shirts, and I had real trouble telling those characters apart. So I can understand Mack’s desire for visual variety.

Another compromise Road to Revolution! makes for the sake of storytelling is modern idioms. Penny not only behaves like a modern girl—even objecting to being called “proper”—but she speaks like one: “You’re not the boss of me!” Her sarcastic “Hilarious” above comes in response to Nick’s boasting at left, which itself is probably more bold than a 1775 teenager would be.

But of course young readers will have an easier time understanding this familiar way of speaking, and thus have an easier time being entertained while absorbing a bit of history.

Mack’s drawing style, which School Library Journal characterized as both “whimsical illustrations” and “cartoonish scrawls,” is therefore quite appropriate for this book. The story doesn’t pretend to be history; that’s what its endnotes, maps, and encouragement to read more are for. It’s historical fiction, with a lot of adventure and humor. The drawings, informal but full of character, remind us that this is a story.

When I spoke to Mack at the Paul Revere House last weekend, he mentioned Tintin as one of his models for this book, and that sure made sense. The mix of danger and slapstick, the clear good guys and bad guys, the plucky young hero (and heroine), the silent comedic activity going on in the background—all fine lessons from Hergé.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gender, Class, and the Road to Revolution!

I’m doubling back to Road to Revolution!, the new graphic novel about the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in Massachusetts by Stan Mack and Susan Champlin. Like any other historical fiction for a popular audience, this book reflects today’s values as much as, or even more than, the values of the time it depicts. That may be necessary for connecting with young readers (and their teachers and parents), but it makes the past seem less of a foreign country.

One of the biggest challenges in children’s historical fiction today is depicting how circumscribed the lives of women and girls were. These days we expect novels to treat gender-based limits on behavior or opportunities as problems to be solved. I happen to agree that they’re problems to be solved, but an accurate depiction of past society would portray those limits as firmly in place and widely accepted, by women as well as men.

As a result, there are far more spunky and rebellious girls in historical fiction than there were in history. Penny in Road to Revolution! fits that model. The book has a running joke that whenever she bumps into Nick, she finds her skirt getting muddy. She’s annoyed about that, but that doesn’t mean she’s happy with the clothing everyone expects her to wear. When Penny rips up her petticoat so Paul Revere can muffle his oars on 18 Apr 1775, she says, “I hate wearing it anyway.” Penny even ends up dressing as a boy in order to sneak out of Boston. I’m not totally convinced she has to, but the episode provides both comedy and drama, and gets her out of her limited role. (The driver in those panels, by the way, is William Dawes.)

Another knotty issue is class. Road to Revolution! depicts the political conflict in Boston as between snooty rich Tories and salt-of-the-earth Patriots. A key to “Main Characters” at the start of the book shows “Tories” as a well-dressed couple, and within the story they appear even worse.

Now there was a snootiness to Loyalist political thinking. Supporters of the royal government distrusted the more democratic politics of their opponents, in large part because they kept losing. But not all Loyalists were both rich and rude.

What’s more, many prominent Patriots were just as rich and upper-class. In this book we meet Samuel Adams, described as a “rumpled old goat,” with no hint that he was a gentleman with a master’s from Harvard. Dr. Joseph Warren is introduced as a “dandy,” but we spend more time with craftsmen like Dawes, Revere, and Penny’s tavernkeeper father.

In contrast, we never see rich Patriot merchants like John Hancock, James Bowdoin, and Thomas Cushing. We meet Gen. George Washington, but don’t learn that through a happy marriage he managed one of the biggest slave-labor plantations in Virginia—talk about upper-class!

As the book begins, Nick is at the very bottom of Boston society: he’s an orphaned pickpocket, a “nameless street urchin.” I haven’t found much hint of such boys in Boston at the time. The town wasn’t London, with its million inhabitants; there were only 16,000 Bostonians, hemmed in on almost every side by water. It would be hard for an urchin to hide from the authorities.

And the town authorities, specifically the Overseers of the Poor, had the job of finding masters for orphaned boys like Nick. Furthermore, unlike England, America had a labor shortage. Farmers, ship’s captains, shipyard owners, and other businessmen would have been happy to sign on a healthy young laborer like Nick. And realistically, he would have seen such a place as much less risky than picking pockets, which is really a profession of last resort.

But for plot purposes, it helps to make Nick a free agent, living on his own and by his wits. And I suspect that also makes him a more sympathetic, romantic character for today’s readers.

Late in the book, Nick becomes an assistant to Dr. John Warren, and near the end a caption tells us he’ll serve as “a doctor in the Battle of Long Island.” This reflects a modern notion of class mobility that would have surprised Americans in 1775. It might have been less surprising to Americans of 1785, I admit, but that society still had a much wider divide between the genteel and working classes than we’re comfortable with.

In the late 1700s, doctors put more weight on knowing Latin than on washing your hands before surgery. Medicine was becoming even more professionalized; doctors formed associations, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, to establish high standards for new entrants. Nick, having grown up on Boston’s streets, might have been able to become a barber who did some surgery for poor people on the side. But a doctor? That reflects our modern values—which, again, I happen to believe in.

Monday, September 28, 2009

“Abolitionism in Black and White” Symposium, 24 Oct

I’m leaving the Revolutionary era to talk about a historical event I’m helping to organize called “Abolitionism in Black and White: The Anti-Slavery Community of Boston and Cambridge.” This symposium of scholars will take place on Saturday, 24 Oct 2009, at the C. Walsh Theatre of Suffolk University in Boston.

Historians James Oliver Horton (George Washington University) and Lois E. Horton (George Mason University) will open the symposium with an overview of the ante-bellum abolitionist movement in greater Boston. David Blight (Yale University) will be the closing speaker. Sessions will cover:

  • Sen. Charles Sumner (shown here, courtesy of the U.S. Congress) and the Black and White Abolitionist Community.
  • Anti-Slavery Music.
  • Abolitionism in Popular Culture.
  • Women in the Anti-Slavery Movement.
  • the contemporary relevance of this historical movement.
This symposium has been organized for public historians, teachers, students, and the general public. Pre-registration is required; the registration fee (which includes a boxed lunch) is $25 per person. Click here for more information and a link to the registration site.

I won’t be speaking at this symposium, unless I have the misfortune to have to ask the audience for patience as we load someone’s audiovisuals. I’ll be taking in the remarks of the speakers, who include some of the country’s top scholars on race relations in the mid-1800s.

Also, in connection to this symposium, on Friday evening, 23 October, the Underground Railway Theater will present a staged reading of a portion of Lydia Diamond’s new play Harriet Jacobs, about the fugitive slave and abolitionist author, followed by a discussion of the history behind the play. That event is free.

Other historical organizations in greater Boston have scheduled concurrent events related to the region’s history of slavery, abolition, and civil rights.

New Exhibit Coming to Bostonian Society

The Bostonian Society is about to launch an online exhibition called “From Baby Caps to Mourning Rings: The Material Culture of Boston’s 18th-Century Girls and Women.”

On Tuesday, 6 October, at 6:30 P.M., the society invites people to visit its Old State House Museum and hear Collections Department graduate intern Hope Cole discuss “the exhibition, the research processes that contributed to its creation, and several of the artifacts featured on the website.”

Some of the actual objects pictured in the virtual display will be available for viewing.

(This program is made possible by the New England Women’s Club Fund at The Boston Foundation.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fort Ti Receives Gift of Weapons Collection

Fort Ticonderoga has announced that it has received the donation of a substantial collection of historical weapons. Grafton H. “Grif” Cook and Barbara W. Cook of Niles, Michigan, built this collection over many decades, starting when Grif received an 1866 French bayonet for Christmas at the age of six. (Which I imagine might have led to the giver receiving some words from Grif’s parents, even in 1936.)

Fort Ti writes that the collection contains 132 weapons from the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries. More than half are swords, of many designs. A quarter are British military pistols, including “the all-metal pistols carried by officers in Scottish regiments including the famed 42nd Royal Highland Regiment or ‘Black Watch’ during the 18th century.” The rest are muskets, hunting guns, blunderbusses, and a Ferguson breech-loading rifle (another example shown above, courtesy of the Hampshire Museum). Fort Ti explains its significance:

In 1776 Captain Patrick Ferguson of the 70th Regiment of Foot perfected and patented the breech loading mechanism of this rifle and developed the gun for service in the British army. A limited quantity of these rifles was produced for military service and small number was produced for private use. The Ferguson rifle in this collection was produced for private use.

The loading mechanism is unique in that the user pivots the trigger guard which unscrews a threaded breech screw, allowing the user to load the gun quickly without having to use a ramrod to push the ball down the barrel. A trained user of the Ferguson rifle was able to fire up to five shots per minute versus three shots per minute with a typical musket.
The Cooks’ gift also includes an extensive library of printed material about the weapons. In the coming months Fort Ticonderoga’s curators will be cataloguing the collection and figuring out how to make it available to researchers and the public.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Paul Revere’s Word Balloons

In recognition of the visit of graphic novelists Stan Mack and Susan Champlin to the Paul Revere House this afternoon, here’s an example of Revere himself using a common hallmark of the comics style: the word balloon. This is a detail from “A View of the Year 1765,” celebrating how North American colonies had united against the Stamp Act. Revere copied most of this image from a London print called “View of the Present Crisis,” according to Jayne Triber’s A True Republican. But I think the silversmith himself threw in this picture of an effigy hanging from Liberty Tree.

The observers tell us, as we can read in those balloons:

  • “there’s that Villian H—k”
  • “I see he’s got a high place”
Those word balloons show that Revere was alluding to a protest on 1 Nov 1765, the day the Stamp Act was supposed to take effect. Bostonians paraded with two effigies, one representing John Huske, member of Parliament for Maldon. New Englanders had heard he’d suggested the new tax in expectation of “a high place” in government. Since Huske had been born in New Hampshire and worked as a merchant in Boston for a while, this seemed like rank betrayal. In fact, Huske opposed the Stamp Act in parliamentary debate.

Revere also had word balloons in “America in Distress,” a cartoon published in Joseph Greenleaf and Isaiah Thomas’s Royal American Magazine in March 1775. But in that case he closely copied “Britannia in Distress,” published in London five years earlier—word balloons and all.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Stan Mack and Susan Champlin Visit Boston

Yesterday I shared some general thoughts about Road to Revolution!, a new graphic novel for young readers about the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. As they created that book, Stan Mack and Susan Champlin visited the area to look at the actual buildings that play a role in their story.

Thus, when teenagers Nick and Penny attend Dr. Joseph Warren’s March 1775 oration commemorating the Boston Massacre, we see Old South Meeting-house and its galleries. When they visit Gen. George Washington’s headquarters, we see the mansion that is now Longfellow National Historic Site (albeit with its 1790s porches on either side).

And here’s the sequence in which Nick climbs the stairs inside the steeple of Old North Church to send the lantern signal on 19 Apr 1775. That page shows off another strength of this comic: the practiced pacing. Mack and Champlin could have cut from the second panel to the next page, which shows Nick at the top of the steeple. But by showing him mounting flight after flight, with sexton Robert Newman deflecting soldiers below, they raise the tension and give readers a better sense of Nick’s effort. Those church towers have a lot of steps!

Stan Mack and Susan Champlin are returning to Boston this weekend to sign copies of Road to Revolution! at the Paul Revere House in the North End. They’ll be there from 1:00 to 3:00 P.M.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reviewing Road to Revolution!

Stan Mack and Susan Champlin’s Road to Revolution! is a new graphic novel for readers aged ten to fourteen set in and around Boston in 1775-76. By some reckonings, the American Revolution was well underway by that time, but this historical fiction in comics form definitely shows the outbreak of the war.

The book has two teenaged protagonists, an orphaned pickpocket named Nick and a tavern-keeper’s daughter named Penny. They meet cute, fuss and feud a bit, and become friends, if not quite a couple. As characters for young readers to follow, they’re lively and sympathetic (particularly by today’s standards—more on that to come).

Fiction writers face a major challenge in giving their readers a look at every major development early in the war because those events took place both inside and outside Boston, often with distance and barriers in between. How can the same characters witness them all?

In Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes gave Rab family roots in Lexington so he could be on that town’s common when the redcoats arrived on 19 Apr 1775. In Octavian Nothing, M. T. Anderson’s title character spends the first volume outside Boston, then crosses into the besieged town for the start of volume 2.

In Road to Revolution!, both protagonists get involved in spying for the Patriots, so they have reasons to cross the siege lines and show up where the action is thickest. We readers have to suspend our disbelief a lot, but that approach does provide fairly constant action.

Thus, in chapter 4 Nick and Penny bring Dr. Joseph Warren word that the king’s troops are about to march to Concord, and Nick hangs the lanterns in the Christ Church steeple to send the same news to Charlestown. In chapter 5, Nick helps row Paul Revere across the Charles River, and Penny supplies the petticoat to muffle the oars.

But that’s not all! Nick rides “along the back roads to Lexington,” arriving five hours after Revere, just in time to see the shots on the common. After a “Six hours later” caption, Nick gets to see the regulars retreat back through Lexington, assists provincial militiamen, and even treats Dr. Warren’s head wound. (In reality, the doctor had part of his hair shot off, but wasn’t hurt.)

And the excitement doesn’t stop! Penny discovers Dr. Benjamin Church’s treachery months before the Patriots actually tumbled to it. Nick fights in the Battle of Bunker Hill, seeing Dr. Warren fall and assisting his brother in surgeries. Then, as usual in modern histories, the rest of the siege of Boston is dispatched in one chapter. By dramatic standards, the action peaked early, and those nine months were anticlimactic.

One big strength of Road to Revolution! is its humor, in both verbal and visual form. Mack and Champlin exploit the comics form well, and use animals for extra comic relief. As an example, here from the last chapter is a scene that’s de rigueur in this sort of Revolutionary fiction or myth—a personal encounter with Gen. George Washington. I have a hard time imagining the generalissimo being a “Huh?” type of guy, but I still get a chuckle out of the young characters’ interaction. (Remember, Nick starts as a pickpocket.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Virtual Exhibits on Dr. Johnson, Virginia, and Hair

Houghton Library at Harvard is exhibiting some of the items from its Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson through November. There’s also an online exhibit and a printed catalogue with its own blog.

This collection includes such treasures as the copy of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson with catty marginal comments by Hester Piozzi, who was a rival biographer and friend and, scholars now theorize, the doctor’s dominatrix lover.

Last weekend Joshua Kendall wrote in the Boston Globe about America’s love-hate relationship with Johnson—love on our side, hate on his:

As a look at Johnson’s writings reveals, he showed little interest in reciprocating our affection, instead showering Americans with a more or less ceaseless rain of scathing epithets. In 1769, he called Americans “a race of convicts [who] ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.”

Johnson never set foot on our shores and met few Americans, but had a clear idea how he felt about the colonists. In response to the First Continental Congress, an apoplectic Johnson was compelled to dash off - he tended to write in manic bursts - “Taxation no Tyranny,” a 40-page pamphlet, vilifying the rebellious colonists as “these lords of themselves,” “these kings of Me,” and “these demigods of independence.”

As a hardline Tory and firm believer in governmental authority, Johnson feared that “the madness of independence” would destabilize the cosmic order. He was infuriated not just by our adolescent protests against parliamentary rule, but by our hypocrisy over the issue of slavery. “How is it,” Johnson wondered, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
I do wonder, though, who was paying Dr. Johnson to write those words. After all, he told Boswell, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

In other exhibit news, Anderson House, the headquarters and museum of the Society of the Cincinnati in Virginia, has just opened a new exhibit on “Virginia in the American Revolution,” which will run through next March. But anyone can download a PDF file of the catalog from the exhibit home page.

Finally, on the least serious level BibliOdyssey highlights the high hair in eighteenth-century satirical images.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Glimpses of Boston’s Town Criers

There are only sparse records about Boston’s town criers, even though they were licensed by the selectmen, as I described yesterday. I think that’s because they were essentially private businessmen, making announcements for whoever would pay them, rather than public officials.

John Tucker was Boston’s crier from before 1688 to his death in 1695. Historian Annie Haven Thwing reported that he applied for the job with two qualifications:

  • “having been educated unto letters,” so he could keep records as the law demanded. (Though Charles Prosser, the New York crier in 1766, was unable to sign his name.)
  • “being weake in Body,” so he needed a job with no heavy lifting, or else he might become a charity case for the town.
I suspect that being a town crier was usually a way to supplement income from another job, such as keeping an inn with one’s family.

On 13 Nov 1753, the Boston selectmen made the following appointment:
Voted, that Mr. John Jenkins be and here by is appointed public Cryer within the Town of all money Goods & Things lost, & he is ordered to keep an exact account of all such Money Goods & Things he shall Cry the time when and the person that shall employ him to cry the same and return such account to the Town Clerk once in three months.
Alas, there were at least two men named John Jenkins active in Boston at this time. One was baptized at Christ Church on 11 June 1727, the son of Robert and Elizabeth Jenkins, which would make him twenty-six when the selectmen made their appointment.

On 25 July 1748, one John Jenkins married a widow named Prudence (Marion) Taylor at Christ Church. They had a growing family: Elizabeth (1750), John (1753), Jeremiah (1755), Lewis (1757), and Prudence (1759).

Another John Jenkins and his wife Sarah had children Benjemin (1759) and Mary (1762) baptized at Christ Church. And there were also couples named John and Mary Jenkins in Boston slightly before and after this period, attending other churches.

In addition, in 1746 the selectmen refused John Jenkins of Paddy’s Alley from having a license to sell liquor. In May 1763 a John Jenkins was one of the “Town House Watch.” And in 1765 and 1766 a John Jenkins was elected one of Boston’s official “Cullers of Staves.”

So I’m not sure which John Jenkins was the town crier. But he filled the job for over a decade, until 7 May 1767. Then, as the Boston Gazette reported:
Thursday Morning Mr. Jenkins the Town-Cryer fell down just as he was going out to cry Fish, and died instantly.
The young printer John Boyle recorded that Jenkins was still “in his yard” at the time.

The selectmen had already appointed another crier, back on 20 Feb 1765:
Thomas Webber apply’d to the Selectmen for their approbation of him as a public Cryer in this Town, and he was accordingly approbated.
The next town crier appointment that Thwing noted came in 1782, so Webber may thus have held the job through the turbulent Revolutionary years. However, I haven’t found his name in connection with the many political events of the period. As a “common cryer,” he may well have acted as a “common carrier” today, staying neutral about the content of his announcements.

(The photo above shows Bill Turberfield, town crier of Ledbury in England, and was taken this past April by Pigsaw.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Laws Concerning Town Criers

A few years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, its General Court authorized towns to appoint public criers to announce the loss of property or the sale of goods. Making official government announcements and spreading the news were not listed among the public criers’ duties.

In 1642, the legislature further clarified the duty of a town crier when it came to lost things:

Ordered that hee who is to cry things lost shal keepe a booke, wherein hee shall write downe faithfully all such things, wth. the markes, the p’ties names & the dayes of crying it, for w’ch he shall have 2d. Hee is to crye at 3 severall times: & this order is to be observed in every towne.
When Boston’s selectmen appointed John Crosse the town crier in 1666, they also set his prices: “2d. for what he cryeth att the meeting house. And what he Crye upp & downe from street to street is to be allowed 6d.”

By designating one man to handle this job in each town, the Puritan society’s leaders accomplished two things. First, they made it easier for everyone to know how to handle lost things. Second, authorizing one man to yell about goods for sale at a set price made it possible to stop other people from doing so, and thus kept the peace.

Boston’s first town crier was William Corser, chosen by the town meeting in 1640 alongside other elected officials for a one-year term. Newport, Rhode Island, appears to have continued to use that system through the Revolutionary period.

But in Boston, the size of the town and its commercial activity apparently forced the system to evolve. In the 1690s the town meetings were designating two criers. Then those men seem to have faced unofficial competition. In June 1724 a Boston town meeting adopted this resolution to regulate the system further:
For Preventing the many Irregularities & Inconveniences that may happen through the Mutiplicity of Comon Cryers, every one that pleases takes upon him to Cry Lost and Stolen Goods &c.

It is therfore ordered

That no person whatsoever presume to be a Common Cryer, or Cry any Sort of Goods wares or Merchandize Lost or Found or Stolen goods, Strays, Publick Sales &c, within any of the Streets Lands, Alleys, or Market place or places of this Town, on Penalty of ten Shillings for every offence, Except only Such Person or Persons as Shall be Licenced by the Selectmen,

And every Person so Licenced Shall keep a true and perfect List of all matters and things by him so Cryed, and give into the Town Clerk once every month a true and perfect copy therof with the things by him Cryed, and the names of the Person that ordered him to Cry the Same,

And if the Cryer or Cryers Shall Cry any vain foolish prophain or Obscene matter, He Shal forfeit and pay Ten Shillings fine, and be Discharged from his Place or Office, And the Person that ordered the Crying thereof, Shall pay a fine of Twenty Shillings:
TOMORROW: Glimpses of Boston’s town criers through the years.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

More than Puffy Shirts and Bells

This is a photograph from Hillsborough, New Hampshire’s first New England Town Crier competition, held this past July and promoted by the American Guild of Town Criers. The event was covered by WBUR-FM’s curious sports show, Only a Game, with an online slide show and audio podcast.

I had occasion to look into town criers earlier this year as we were planning the reenactment of the Boston Massacre. Boston had an officially designated crier during the Revolutionary period. But he wasn’t a town employee, like the watchmen, and most of his announcements weren’t official news.

Rather, I concluded that the town crier was a man who’d won the selectmen’s approval to make loud announcements for private clients, and in particular urgent situations. Over the next couple of days I’ll share what I found.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Legend of Watson’s Corner

Check out Caitlin G. D. Hopkins’s examination at Vast Public Indifference of this historic plaque near her home in the Watson’s Corner neighborhood of Cambridge:

The language of the explanatory plaque is extraordinary. The central paragraph portrays the skirmish as a an encounter between innocent civilians and bloodthirsty soldiers. . . .

If I had to guess when this was written, I would guess 1875. I would be wrong — this sign was erected in 2002. Perhaps they just lifted the language from a 19th-century town history.
The language didn’t come from such an old book, but the details (except for the soldiers’ use of bayonets) did. Specifically, this account appears to be based on details collected in Lucius Paige’s History of Cambridge, published in 1877—so Caitlin was off by two years.

Paige names one of his sources as longtime Cambridge resident Royall Morse, saying in a footnote:
My informant was the late Mr. Royal Morse, born in 1779, whose memory of events which occurred during his life was remarkably comprehensive and accurate, and whose traditional lore was almost equivalent to authentic history.
That’s rather circular, isn’t it? I rely on Mr. Morse’s stories because those stories were reliable.

Our daily infusion of unabashed gossip: Morse was born out of wedlock to Katherine Morse, a woman who had the job of cleaning the Harvard dormitories. His father was said to be Royall Tyler.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Caesar Robbins and “Our Wood-Lot”

Following yesterday’s posting about fundraising to preserve the c. 1780 Caesar Robbins house in Concord, here’s an anecdote about Robbins that Franklin B. Sanborn quotes in his biography of Henry David Thoreau.

It comes from another writer, whom I haven’t been able to identify, describing the fine qualities of the man who owned the large property beside Robbins’s lot, Humphrey Barrett (1752-1827):

The following acts of his life make apparent some traits of his character. A negro, by the name of Caesar Robbins, had been in the habit of getting all the wood for his family use for many years from Mr. Barrett’s wood-lot near by him; this being done with the knowledge and with the implied if not the express consent of the owner.

Mr. Barrett usually got the wood for his own use from another part of his farm; but on one occasion he thought he would get it from the lot by Caesar’s. He accordingly sent two men with two teams, with directions to cut only hard wood.

The men had been gone but a few hours when Caesar came to Mr. Barrett’s house, his face covered with sweat, and in great agitation, and says, “Master Barrett, I have come to let you know that a parcel of men and teams have broke into our wood-lot, and are making terrible destruction of the very best trees, and unless we do something immediately I shall be ruined.”

Mr. Barrett had no heart to resist this appeal of Caesar’s; he told him not to be alarmed, for he would see that he was not hurt, and would put the matter right. He then wrote an order to his men to cut no more wood, but to come directly home with their teams, and sent the order by Caesar.
Several details in this story match what’s in other anecdotes about African-Americans in rural New England published in the nineteenth century. We have the simple, emotional black man, referred to by his first name. In contrast, we see the magnanimous white man in calm control—and he gets the honorific “Mr.” at every reference. All no doubt reassuring for white readers.

Of course, in the decades around 1800 when this incident most likely took place, no one was more aware of power differences than Robbins—he’d navigated in white-dominated society all his life. It’s only logical that he would act deferential towards Barrett when he needed something, while nonetheless pushing his claim to that wood.

And in this story, Robbins got what he needed.

(Picture above of a Walden Woods Red Maple from American Forests Historic Tree Store.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Saving Caesar Robbins’s House

Earlier this week, following stories in the local press, the Boston Globe reported on an effort in Concord to preserve the house of Caesar Robbins. The paper said:

the brown shingled house on Bedford Street, built in the 1780s by the town’s first freed slave, is the last of its kind, a crucial but long-forgotten link to the town’s early black community and abolitionist movement. With the house in danger of being demolished, its history has emerged from obscurity, and advocates have mounted a spirited campaign to stave off its demise.

The owners, who were bequeathed the property, had applied for a permit to level the one-story house in hope of selling the land, while the town wants to save the house for posterity. A six-month stay issued by the town expired Saturday, and while there are no immediate plans to level the house, advocates are scrambling to raise $30,000 for moving costs to keep it from harm.
I’m not sure what the “first freed slave” phrase refers to. John Jack of Concord bought his freedom before dying in 1773; that part of his life is told on a famous gravestone (actually a replica of the original) in the Concord cemetery, erected by Loyalist lawyer Daniel Bliss as a way to stick it to liberty-loving Patriots. Here’s an old paper about Jack and Bliss.

Robbins became free in 1780 after serving in the Revolutionary War, and built the house about that time. Three years later, the Massachusetts Superior Court ruled that the state’s new constitution outlawed slavery. Robbins and his wife Rose raised their family in the house, dying within two days of each other in 1822. His age was then recorded as seventy-six, hers as eighty-one.

Caesar Robbins passed the house to his descendants, and then to other African-American families. In the mid-1800s it was home to Peter Hutchinson, a butcher Henry David Thoreau wrote about; Hutchinson’s name is on the structure’s current historic sign. The house was moved to its present spot in 1870, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

A house lot in Concord is worth a lot more than an old house today, and the people who inherited the property most recently are hoping to build something new on that land. So folks have undertaken to raise funds to move the Robbins house again and make it a museum. The Globe says:
The town hopes to relocate the house to property it owns near the Old Manse, a 1770 house on the Concord River near the Old North Bridge. The town leases the land to the Minute Man park, which has expressed strong interest in adding the house as a destination.
Donations for this effort are being collected at:
Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council
P.O. Box 744
Concord, MA 01742
If you choose to donate, put “The Drinking Gourd Project” on the check’s memo line.

The photograph above is by Ann Ringwood for the Concord Journal.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

He “made the best of his way to our guard”

On Saturday, 16 Sept 1775, Lt. Paul Lunt of Newbury was serving in the siege of Boston. He recorded this event in his diary:

Cloudy this morning, but warm. A Regular of the Fifth Regiment, deserted, and came to the Whitehouse guard last night. The plot that he laid was this: he was standing sentry with another Regular, he took the flint out of his own gun, hove out the priming and spit in the pan, then offered to swap with his partner and give him a drink in the morning, which he accepted. As soon as that was done made his escape; his partner snapped [i.e., fired] his gun at him, but to no purpose; he turned round and discharged his piece at his partner, then threw off his watch-coat, and cartridge-box, and made the best of his way to our guard.
Writing in the American Journal of Science and Arts in 1824, John Finch identified the “White House Redoubt” as between the larger fortifications on Winter and Prospect Hill (shown above, courtesy of the Library of Congress). Behind the redoubt was a farmhouse that Gen. Charles Lee used as his headquarters—apparently one owned by John Tufts.

Desertion in this area wasn’t all one way. Just six days earlier, on 10 September, Gen. Nathanael Greene recorded that the Whitehouse Guard had reported a man making his way from the Continental ranks to the British fortification on Bunker Hill, evading shots. Greene ordered the passwords changed.

As long as I’m talking about deserters, I’ll take this opportunity to repeat that tomorrow night, Thursday the 17th, I’ll speak at Minute Man National Historical Park’s first 18th Century Research Forum on some British army deserters who constructed new lives in America.

Back to Lt. Lunt. Here’s his diary entry for 17 September, which was a Sunday:
Rain last night, cloudy this morning. Heard the Rev. Mr. [John] Cleaveland preach, forenoon, from Acts iii. 19: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.”

Some cannon fired from Roxbury upon both sides; all still at Bunker Hill. One Regular lieutenant killed at Roxbury with a cannon-shot, several more wounded; one hung himself because he thought he was in a wrong cause.
I don’t recall any source from inside Boston confirming that last death, and I suspect Lunt simply heard the sort of rumor men told each other to assure themselves they were in the right cause.

Lunt’s diary was published ninety-eight years later by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Taxation and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts

As I wrote yesterday in my discussion of Tricking the Tallyman, New Englanders were familiar with population counts before the first federal census of 1790. They had also been paying poll taxes and property taxes for decades, with town officials collecting that money, some for local expenses and some for the province.

The U.S. Constitution was new in how it allocated seats in the House of Representatives according to population. The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 had moved toward that system in a couple of ways, but was still based on older models of fairness. Here’s what constituted “representation” in the eighteenth-century Massachusetts legislature.

Under the pre-Revolutionary charter, every ordinary town in the province could choose two representatives to the lower house of the General Court. Very small towns with fewer than 120 voters could send one man. Boston could choose four. The choosing was done at special town meetings, and voters had to satisfy a somewhat higher property require than in the annual votes for town officials in March.

Boston got the extra representatives because it was three times larger than the next biggest town in Massachusetts (Marblehead). However, since Boston got only twice as many representatives as a town of 200 people, that left the 15,000+ Bostonians proportionally underrepresented.

On the other hand, small towns far away from Boston often chose to send only one man to the General Court, or none at all, because of the expense. As I noted back here, the supposedly unofficial first Provincial Congress of 1774 attracted representatives from more towns than the official General Court earlier that year.

The 1780 constitution tried to even out representation among the towns by making seats in the lower house approximately proportional to town size. That document, drafted by John Adams, said:

And in order to provide for a representation of the citizens of this commonwealth, founded upon the principle of equality, every corporate town containing one hundred and fifty ratable polls [i.e., voters], may elect one representative; every corporate town containing three hundred and seventy-five ratable polls, may elect two representatives; every corporate town containing six hundred ratable polls, may elect three representatives; and proceeding in that manner, making two hundred and twenty-five ratable polls the mean increasing number for every additional representative.
That constitution also created a state senate, reflecting Adams’s insistence on politics as an ongoing competition between the one, the few, and the many. (He liked dividing things into thirds, remember.) Men with an “annual income of three pounds” could vote for representatives, but they needed an estate worth sixty pounds to vote for senator.

Further complicating matters, men didn’t vote for senators but for “senators and councillors.” At the start of each annual session, the legislature chose a Council of nine men to advise the governor. Those men were supposed to come from the pool of elected senators and councilors, though the legislature could on a second ballot choose from the public at large. As a result, the Massachusetts senate as originally conceived could contain anywhere from thirty-one to forty men.

And how were those forty senators and councilors chosen? Not by towns but by districts, which the legislature was expected to draw after starting with Massachusetts’s counties:
the general court, in assigning the numbers to be elected by the respective districts, shall govern themselves by the proportion of the public taxes paid by the said districts
So senators’ numbers reflected the wealth of their districts rather than the population. Further provisions indicated that one district could be wealthy enough to choose six senators while the other twelve had two or three apiece.

Of course, all that’s been revised long ago. Today, for instance, we elect members of the governor’s council directly, though no one’s really sure why. And nowadays we’re so used to legislative districts being drawn on the basis of population, and approximately equal by that measure, that these rules seem odd and unfair. But it wasn’t until the Kennedy administration that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that members of state legislative bodies each had to represent about the same number of people.

(The picture above of the Old State House in 1817 comes courtesy of Salem State University.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Republican (with a small r) Picture Book

Tricking the Tallyman: The Great Census Shenanigans of 1790 is another recent picture book on how Americans set up the early republic. It was written by Jacqueline Davies of Needham, and illustrated by S. D. Schindler of some far-off city called Philadelphia.

Jackie’s a friend, and I saw the manuscript for this book in a writing group some years ago, so I can’t claim this is an unbiased review. But I liked how Tricking the Tallyman gets to the core of what it means to live in a democracy: the balance of rights and responsibilities.

The story begins as census-taker Phineas Bump rides into the town of Tunbridge. Back in that writing group, I suggested that the story would be more dramatic if we saw the action unfold only through the townspeople’s eyes, with the government agent as an antagonistic stranger we only gradually come to understand. “Remember, he’s The Man!” I said, and Jackie correctly deduced that I’d recently watched Jack Black in School of Rock.

Jackie stuck with her initial approach of introducing us to Phineas Bump first, and eliciting sympathy for him: “he was heartsick, saddle-sore, and down on his luck.” Only after a couple of pages do we meet the Pepper family, who help to simplify the story by speaking for all their neighbors.

The Tunbridge townsfolk suspect Bump has come to take down names for the tax and conscription rolls. Everybody hides except for Mrs. Pepper, who assures the census-taker that she’s a childless widow and the town’s only inhabitant. Bump notes this information skeptically and rides off.

Then the Peppers hear a different rumor: the tallyman has come to count people for their representation in the new Congress. So the more people live in town, the more political clout the region will command. Mrs. Pepper cajoles Bump to return for a new count. And this time all the locals come out to be counted, bringing their dogs, sheep, and pigs dressed up as citizens. (Jackie told me that Cecile Goyette, her editor at Knopf, was eager to make the book as wacky as possible.) Again, Bump does a skeptical count and rides off.

And then the townsfolk realize that their tax bills and their political clout are linked. They can’t have one without the other. Will they be able to bring the tallyman back for a fair count? This being a children’s book, it’s up to one of the town’s younger citizens to find the solution.

S. D. Schindler’s pictures come in an attractive style between realistic and cartoon-style. Tunbridge probably looks more primitive than even a small, remote farming town in 1790 would have looked—no one there seems to have any house paint. I count three bearded men, which is three more than would likely be found in such a town in 1790. The women wear their hair loose under caps while portraits from the decade show that most pinned their hair back, with perhaps a lock or two draped across the shoulder. Nonetheless, I give Schindler points for definitely trying to depict the early republic and not some vague image of “historical.”

Were there really “Great Census Shenanigans” in 1790? American householders were used to being counted by local officials for their taxes and their militia service; I’ve cited the 1765 census of Massachusetts a few times. But the idea of enumerating all citizens to figure out fair representation was indeed fairly new.

TOMORROW: How Massachusetts’s eighteenth-century constitutions determined representation.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Three People Detained at the Castle

On 1 Mar 1775, a group of middling-class Boston activists sent a letter to the Sons of Liberty in New York, asking to set up a regular correspondence so as to share news and “contradict the many infamous lies which are propagated by the Enemies of our Country.”

Three of those Bostonians are well known to the authorities at Boston 1775: silversmith Paul Revere, printer Benjamin Edes, and decorative painter Thomas Crafts, Jr.

The other three were also active in the Patriot movement:

Of those six men, three (Edes, Crafts, and Chase) had been part of the “Loyall Nine,” the political club that helped organize Boston’s Stamp Act protests in 1765. Three (Revere, Ward, and Crafts) would gain the title “colonel” in the coming war.

The Bostonians asked to set up a correspondence with their counterparts in New York so as to share news and “contradict the many infamous lies which are propagated by the Enemies of our Country.” They added a postscript about Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie’s recent unsuccessful raid on Salem:
Enclosed you have an account of the late Expedition which terminated to the honour of Americans. In addition to the secrecy with which the maneuvre to Salem was conducted, we inform you that three persons were occasionally at the castle on Saturday afternoon and were detained there till 10 o’clock on Monday lest we should send an Express to our brethren at Marblehead and Salem.
When that letter, now in the John Lamb Papers at the New-York Historical Society, was printed in Elbridge Goss’s 1891 biography of Revere, there was one small error. Instead of saying “three persons,” Goss’s transcription said “these persons.”

While writing her biography of Revere, Forbes interpreted “these persons” to refer to the men who had signed the letter, including the silversmith. At the time Revere was leading an effort to gather information about the army, so she concluded that he and his colleagues had gone to Castle William to spy on the troops. Later she fictionalized the same scene by adding her young hero Johnny Tremain, but then removed those pages from her final manuscript.

The letter to the New Yorkers is correctly transcribed in David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, where I first read about this mixup years ago. What’s more, the word “occasionally” in eighteenth-century usage implies that the three people detained at the fort just happened to be there on business rather than to be spying on the army. Since the letter offers no first-hand details about being held at the Castle, we can feel certain that none of those three men were Revere or his colleagues (or Johnny Tremain).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Johnny Tremain’s Deleted Scene

As I discussed yesterday, Esther Forbes (shown here, courtesy of W.P.I.) removed five pages from her manuscript for Johnny Tremain just before selling the rights to Houghton Mifflin.

That scene is set in February 1775. As briefly described by Prof. Neil L. York in his study of the novel and its film adaptation, Paul Revere hears that Gen. Thomas Gage is about to send a regiment out of Boston to look for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s weaponry. Revere and Johnny—and probably some other men—go out to Castle William, the fort in Boston harbor, to spy on the British troops there.

The military grabs the Patriot observers and and detains them until Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie’s 64th Regiment has departed for Marblehead harbor, thus preventing the Boston Patriots from warning their friends on the North Shore. Revere, Johnny, and their comrades have to stay at the Castle for an extra day.

In real life, Leslie’s regiment did indeed sail to Marblehead and march to Salem on 26 Feb 1775. Forbes wrote about that event in her nonfiction Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, which offered a vivid description of how the silversmith was held at the Castle. Presumably she used some of the same details in her fictional version of the episode.

Forbes deleted that scene, probably to improve Johnny Tremain’s pacing as it moves toward the outbreak of war. And in doing so, Forbes lucked out. Because her understanding of that February episode was based on a misreading of a document from 1775.

TOMORROW: That document from 1775.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Johnny Tremain’s Path to Publication

Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Neil L. York, professor of history at Brigham Young University. He kindly sent me a copy of his 2008 Early American Studies paper, “Son of Liberty: Johnny Tremain and the Art of Making American Patriots.” Which gave me material for my second installment of back-to-school season commentary about books for young readers.

I think Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain is a very good American “novel for old & young,” as its title page describes it. It deserves its place in the culture (though the Disney version, which York’s article also discusses, is an all-too-typical “Disney version”). Forbes’s historical picture of Boston in the early 1770s isn’t flawless, but it’s very good. She drew on the research for her 1942 biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve long said that Johnny Tremain reflects the values of America during World War 2, and York confirms that was in fact Forbes’s vision. She called the book “my great war effort,” and hoped to see it published quickly, by the end of 1942. Since she finished her manuscript only that summer, that would have been a fast turnaround, but the book business was smaller and thus more agile in those days.

Publication didn’t proceed according to Forbes’s plan, however. She sent the manuscript to Harcourt Brace, publisher of her past novels. And the editor there, Elisabeth Hamilton, suggested changes to “simplify the prose for a juvenile audience,” in York’s words. Hamilton recommended deleting one scene, adding another, and making “not-so-subtle shifts in character and plot development.”

Forbes felt she and Hamilton didn’t share a common vision, so she took Johnny Tremain to her nonfiction editor at Houghton Mifflin, Ferris Greenslet. He advised expanding the book, but didn’t push. Forbes chose not to revise further, and Houghton had copies on the market in the spring of 1943.

It was a good deal all around. Johnny Tremain won the Newbery Medal in early 1944, and was soon a staple of school libraries and classrooms. Houghton continues to enjoy good sales each year. Forbes received steady royalties, which now benefit the American Antiquarian Society, where she and her mother did much of the research.

In between the two publishing houses, however, Forbes actually took some of Hamilton’s advice and edited her manuscript. Only five pages of that early version has survived, so we don’t know how much changed between that and the final text. But York reports that Forbes took out one complete scene, still preserved among her papers.

TOMORROW: Johnny Tremain’s deleted scene.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reforming the Ancient and Honorables

When we last left the private military training organization called the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, it had gone dormant because of the Revolutionary War. The group’s records indicate a brief stirring of activity in 1782, but it wasn’t really active again until 1786.

That summer, some members visited the last elected captain, William Bell, and convinced him to start meetings again. They elected a new clerk, William Dawes, who went around Boston signing on a bumper crop of new members, including John Brooks, Benjamin Lincoln, Samuel Gore, John Winslow, Alexander Hodgdon, Jonathan Balch, John Johnson, Andrew Cunningham, and many other veterans of the Revolutionary movement and the war.

On 6 Sept 1786, the Federalist Massachusetts Centinel newspaper reported:

On Monday last for the first time, since the commencement of the late Revolution, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, commanded by Major Bell, paraded at the State house in this town, and, preceded by a band of musick, marched into the common, where they performed a number of military exercises—after which they marched to Faneuil Hall, discharged a volley of small arms and finished the day much to their honour, and the credit of the town.

It was gratifying to the real friends of this country, to see our aged citizens, some of whom were near seventy years of age, equipped in the accoutrements of soldiers and setting an example to the younger part of the community, that should their country require their aid in the field, they might be found ready disciplined and fit for immediate service.
What prompted that burst of military activity? I don’t think it was coincidence that the company’s rebirth followed a rumbling of unrest in western Massachusetts—the “Regulators” whose movement was eventually dubbed Shays’ Rebellion. Several other private military companies formed in and around Boston at the same time. Within four months, Gen. Lincoln would lead militia companies, paid for by wealthy citizens, west from Boston to put down that unrest.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Presentist Picture Book

Looking ahead, Unite or Die (review starting here) praises the constitutional convention of 1787 for providing a way for the U.S. of A. to amend its Constitution. However, Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj’s picture book doesn’t discuss a more difficult concept: that our national idea of the Constitution and what it means has changed without formal amendments. Instead, it projects back to 1787 some of our current ideas about how the Constitution does and should work.

Most notably, the book reflects our modern American state by emphasizing the executive branch over the legislative. The nation’s founders saw the legislative branch as the most important and controlling part of a government. Their Constitution addresses the national legislature first and devotes the most space to it (ten sections, more than executive and judiciary combined).

In contrast, Unite or Die consistently lists and shows the executive branch first. It states that one big problem of the Articles of Confederation was the lack of “a strong government with a leader.” At the time, the Presidency was one of the document’s most hotly debated changes. Would creating such an office lead to monarchism? (Certainly the Presidency has become more powerful today than the 1787 convention imagined.) Unite or Die also suggests that good governments have separate executive and legislative branches; parliamentary democracies would disagree with that.

Similarly, page 33 shows a character saying that state laws wouldn’t be allowed to conflict with the national Constitution, but it took decades for that notion to prevail. The document spelled out its limitations on states’ powers. In 1833, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, not the states. Not until the 1890s and later did federal courts adopt the doctrine of “incorporation” under the Fourteenth Amendment, making states respect individual rights on the basis of the Constitution.

Unite or Die thus offers a presentist view of the Constitution. It gives young readers a clear picture of how most Americans today understand that founding document. For a book being used in schools, that’s both a strength and a weakness. Its picture of the Constitution matches what most Americans have been taught, and it presents that information in a lively way, especially considering the audience and the bounds of the picture-book format.

At the same time, we’re missing some important history that might force us to think.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Sidestepping the Difficult Issues

As I wrote yesterday, Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj’s picture book Unite or Die accepts the Federalist position and depicts the creation of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 as a Good Thing. Not that it wasn’t, but the book doesn’t leave space for considering otherwise. It also sidesteps some details of the document that would make today’s students have second thoughts.

I mentioned before how the kids portraying the constitutional convention reflects today’s classrooms: there are girls and boys, and little people from different ethnic groups. Only a few sentences in the afterword acknowledge how for many decades most non-whites and women were excluded from the system the Constitution set up.

Unite or Die hinges on the compromise between small and large states over representation, but never addresses another of the convention’s compromises: to treat slaves as both 100% property and 60% people, providing voters in states with large enslaved populations disproportionate power in the House and Electoral College. Nor does the book mention the convention’s decision to preserve the transatlantic slave trade from legislation for twenty years.

The book has even less to say about items that can cause partisan controversy today. It makes only a brief mention of the Electoral College and none of the religious establishment clause. I suspect it would be harder to highlight those knotty issues and maintain a picture of the Constitution as a clearly Good Thing.

In essence, Unite or Die introduces young readers to some of the intellectually challenging compromises of the convention, but it sidesteps some emotionally challenging decisions that might make those kids question the wisdom of the document.

TOMORROW: A presentist view.

Monday, September 07, 2009

A Federalist Picture Book

Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj’s picture book Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation acknowledges Anti-Federalist sentiment in the U.S. of A. in the late 1780s. It describes, for example, how Rhode Island refused to participate in the constitutional convention and stayed out of the new Congress until 1790. (The tiny boy playing Rhode Island in the book’s school pageant gets to have other roles as well.)

Nevertheless, the book is clearly on the side of the Federalists. It presents the country’s needs in their terms, and downplays worries about a too-strong national government or encroachments on traditional rights. Even the title Unite or Die reflects the Federalist view, implying that creating a new constitution was a matter of national life or death.

Benjamin Franklin came up with the “Join, or Die” slogan in 1754, thinking about conflict between British and French colonies. American Whigs revived it, substituting the word “unite,” while organizing against new parliamentary taxes. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union completed that unification process for the thirteen states. Legally, those states had already become a nation, and Anti-Federalists didn’t think the nation needed a stronger central government.

During the debate on ratifying the proposed new constitution of 1787, a couple of Federalists brought out the “Unite, or Die” slogan again. James Wilson quoted it during Pennsylvania’s ratifying convention, and Fisher Ames (shown above) appears to have done the same in Massachusetts. But really the issue of the day wasn’t whether to unite, but what the shape of “a more perfect Union” might be.

The title Unite or Die and the text inside say that the U.S. of A. was not in fact united until after 1787, and was in mortal peril. Though its characters act out arguments among the Federalists, the book doesn’t leave room for argument about the necessity of a new constitution at all. Which isn’t that surprising since the Federalists won.

TOMORROW: Sidestepping awkward subjects.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Reviewing Unite or Die

As the new school year begins, I’m going to discuss a few books about the Revolutionary era for kids. First off is the picture book Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation, by Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj.

Unite or Die tackles a challenging subject: the constitutional convention of 1787, and the document it produced. That’s a complex historical development involving many people, abstract concepts, and unresolved questions. Imagine trying to summarize that history for elementary-school kids in only 48 pages, most filled with pictures.

Jules’s solution is to depict the developments symbolically by showing an elementary-school class acting out the constitutional process as a school play. Each kid plays one of the original states, and other roles as needed. (The cast list on the back cover shows how their initials match the postal abbreviations of the states.)

The students come from both sexes (seven girls, six boys) and many ethnic groups (five of the thirteen appear to be children of color). An African-American boy plays not only Connecticut and its delegate Roger Sherman, but also George Washington. The art style is cartoony, and I can’t tell you why one girl wears a flowerpot on her head.

By taking on various roles, the kids can thus voice many different positions in the disputes at the constitutional convention. The book’s crucial turning point is when the delegates find a compromise that provided for popular election of Representatives in the House while allotting each state two Senators. Addressing that issue takes up eight central pages.

Another six pages at the end are devoted to the afterword and notes, an unusually large number for a picture book. That backmatter adds more detailed explanations on issues that arise in the text, our historical sources on the convention (James Madison’s notes), and other matters.

Ultimately, however, Unite or Die gives a one-sided picture of America’s national debate in the late 1780s.

TOMORROW: A Federalist picture book.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Dueling Events on 1 October

On the evening of Thursday, 1 October, there are two scholarly events in Boston that intrigue me, but of course I can attend only one. Oh, what to do, what to do?

At 5:15 P.M., the Boston Area Early American History Seminar will launch a new season at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Boylston Street. Prof. Pauline Maier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will share a paper titled “What Did It Take To Get the Constitution Ratified? A New Look at the Massachusetts Convention, January 9–February 6, 1788.” Prof. Richard D. Brown from the University of Connecticut will comment on it, and then there will be a general discussion of the questions it raises. These seminars are free, but you get the most out of them if you read the paper (available at the M.H.S.) in advance.

The same evening, starting at 6:00 P.M., Andro Linklater will speak at the Boston Athenaeum on the topic of his new book, An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s military career began during the Revolutionary War, when he rose to be a general in the Continental Army at age twenty. He was eventually the peacetime U.S. Army’s highest-ranking officer. Historical research shows that he was also taking pay from the Spanish spy service. How did he get away with it? This event costs $10, and the Athenaeum will accept reservations after 17 September at 617-720-7600.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Dueling Events on 26 September

Families have a plethora of historically flavored events to choose from on Saturday, 26 September.

Battle Road Open House
Minute Man National Historical Park

10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
The park celebrates National Public Lands Day with a rare opportunity to see inside the restored colonial homes along the Battle Road Trail: the Meriam House, Sam Brooks House, Noah Brooks Tavern, Job Brooks House, Capt. William Smith House, and Jacob Whittemore House. People will demonstrate different colonial trades. There will be no fee for the ranger-guided tours of The Wayside: Home of Authors; those tours are limited to ten visitors at a time, so you can reserve in advance by calling 978-318-7863.

Sudbury Muster and Colonial Faire
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, Sudbury

10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
The Sudbury Companies of Militia and Minute and the Sudbury Ancient Fyfe and Drum Companie host their annual gathering of fife and drum corps from across New England, with special guests from elsewhere in North America and occasionally from Europe as well. There are also children’s games, cooking and crafts demonstrations, and vendors of everything from hot dogs to books and hand-sewn clothing.

Book Signing: Road to Revolution
Paul Revere House, Boston’s North End

1:00 P.M.
Stan Mack and Susan Champlin are creators of the lively new graphic novel Road to Revolution, about a couple of teenagers caught up in army-occupied Boston. They visited the Paul Revere House in researching the book, and this Saturday they return to talk about the process of developing a historical graphic novel, read from their book, and sign copies. (Looks like the most up-to-date listing of events at the Paul Revere House is its Facebook page.)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ray Raphael Back in Town in September

Ray Raphael, author of Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation, is coming back to Boston this month for back-to-back presentations at two big venues.

At 6:30 P.M. on Tuesday, 15 September, Ray will speak at Old South Meeting House on “Raucous Rebel: Dr. Thomas Young and Boston’s Venues of Revolution.” Dr. Young was probably the most radical and forward-looking of the Boston Whigs, and little-known today. As the event description says:

He marched in the streets, pressured recalcitrant merchants, and propagandized in the press. He helped form the Committees of Correspondence and pen its influential “Boston Pamphlet.” He gave a rousing closing speech at the massive tea tax meeting at Old South Meeting House.

Dr. Thomas Young was one of Boston’s most colorful colonial characters. Acclaimed author Ray Raphael looks at how Boston provided a political atmosphere that allowed such a raucous rebel to flourish.
This event will be free and open to the public, with plenty of sitting seats, and a booksigning will follow.

The very next day, Ray will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which says:
Join Ray Raphael, the bestselling author of A People's History of the American Revolution, for a “behind the scenes” look at how seven diverse characters were chosen to carry the story of his newest book. During this lively program, a participatory discussion led by our speaker will focus on an “experiment” of selecting seven people whose contributions to the founding of this country could both broaden and deepen our national narrative.

Audience members are encouraged to weigh in with their own picks: Who would you choose as your representatives in this great drama and why? What criteria would you use to suggest candidates and determine who makes the cut?
In preparation, you can review the Boston 1775 discussion of that topic way back here.

The M.H.S. will serve refreshments starting at 5:30 P.M., and Ray will speak at 6:00. Again, there will be a booksigning. Reservations requested; contact education@masshist.org.