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.

Follow by Email

Monday, November 30, 2009

Statuary Lunch at Massachusetts Historical Society, 4 Dec.

The Massachusetts Historical Society’s Beehive blog says that as part of the Brown-Bag Seminar series, Library Assistant Heather Merrill and Boston By Foot volunteer Tod Forman will speak about “Legacies in Stone: Some Statues of Boston” on Friday, 4 December, starting at 12:00 noon.

Based on the title, I assume this is a version of the same presentation as described on a flyer Tod gave me last month:

Often taken for granted, each and every sculpture comes with a life story, a history, a reason for being, criticism, controversy and placement issues and, of course, a sculptor.

Legacies in Stone is an entertaining one-hour illustrated lecture that should appeal to anyone interested in the history, the art, the politics and the characters that inhabited the Boston of days gone by.
In addition, on Thursday evening at 5:15 the M.H.S.’s Boston Area Early American History Seminar discusses Elaine Forman Crane’s “Cold Comfort: Rape and Race in Eighteenth-Century Rhode Island.” with comments by Gerald F. Leonard of Boston University Law School.

The End of Mary Lobb’s Marriage

When Capt. James Smithwick was lost at sea in early 1778, as I recounted last week, he left in Boston a widow named Mary and at least three children under the age of ten. Mary remarried the following spring to a man named George Lobb.

That match didn’t work out. By 1781 Mary Lobb was petitioning to end the marriage.

Divorce was unusual in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, but not unheard of. Among the divorced people I’ve read about are:

In addition, Thomas Paine’s separation papers were recently rediscovered. Thanks to PhiloBiblos for the tip.

In Massachusetts between 1692 (when the Crown established a new royal charter) and 1786, the governor and Council heard divorce cases. Nancy F. Cott’s article “Divorce and the Changing Status of Women in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts” in the William and Mary Quarterly says:
Puritan divorce theory allowed divorce for incorrigible enmity between spouses or for dangerous abuse, but canon law prescribed only separate bed and board. . . .

Of the twenty-three Massachusetts petitions entered on grounds of cruelty,…Not a single one granted divorce.
“Separate bed and board” meant the spouses were legally separated, with husbands paying a sort of alimony, but no freedom to remarry. Wives usually asked for that status, perhaps because they knew it was the best they could realistically hope for.

Mary Lobb petitioned for a separation from her husband George on grounds of cruelty in 1780 or ’81. I haven’t seen the documents of her filing, so I don’t know what she said George had done. Gov. John Hancock and the Council dismissed Mary’s first petition, and she sued again the next year, offering more evidence. That time the body ruled that she deserved “separate bed and board.”

Mary Lobb also took steps to support herself and her children. The town licensed her to sell tea in 1781, then approved her “as a Retailer of Spirituous Liquors at her Shop in Fish Street” in January 1782. That August, town records say:
The Selectmen agree to allow Mrs. Lob, for a Building improved as a Watch house, Seven pounds ten p Annum to commence from the expiration of the last Quarter
The 1798 tax valuation listed Mary Lobb as the owner of three buildings: her home on Reas Court North and more valuable houses rented to “Mary Jenkins” on Fish Street and “Mrs. Doble” on Middle Street.

TOMORROW: What made Mary Lobb really stand out in eighteenth-century Boston.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Old South Remembers the Tea Crisis in December

Old South Meeting House, site of the large public meetings that led up to the Boston Tea Party, will host three events next month looking back at that history.

First come two lunchtime lectures by Prof. Benjamin Carp of Tufts University, drawing on his research for the upcoming book Teapot in a Tempest.

  • Thursday, 3 December, 12:15 P.M.: “what led to American outrage in 1773, who became politically active in protesting the Tea Act, and why it ended with the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor. Learn about the global forces of trade and empire that influenced the colonies and why Boston became the site for this grassroots protest."
  • Thursday, 10 December, 12:15 P.M.: “The Boston Tea Party lives on in history and memory, inspiring speakers for and against slavery, women’s suffragists, anti-immigration advocates, Gandhi, Sun Yat-sen, Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless modern tax protests. But most of the images of the Tea Party are wrong, the Mohawk disguises are misunderstood and Americans’ penchant for coffee has little to do with politics.”
Admission to each lecture is $5.00, $4.00 for students and seniors, free for Old South members. Lunching is encouraged.

Finally, on Sunday, 13 December, from 5:30 to 7:00 P.M., Old South presents the annual reenactment of the Tea Party. The site’s press release says:
Old South’s Tea Party Players will portray historic icons such as Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and John Hancock and recreate the events of Dec. 16, 1773, when more than 5,000 colonists gathered at Old South Meeting House to debate a British-imposed tea tax.

The reenactment is open to the public, and audience members are invited to choose sides—Patriot or Loyalist—and lend their support for or against the tariff. They will witness first hand how the fiery debate that evening in 1773 decided the fate of over 46 tons of tea and set into motion the events that ultimately led to the Revolutionary War.
That debate will be followed by “a theatrical storytelling piece that will transport you back to Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773.”

Tickets are $8 per person, available through the Old South website, direct from the ticket service, or by calling 800-838-3006.

(Image above from Salada Tea, the reenactment’s “official tea sponsor.” Folks can also sign up for Salada’s “Too Good To Toss” Sweepstakes.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Challenges of Pinning John Adams Down on Religion

As I mentioned yesterday, despite the Federalist Party’s portrayal of John Adams as a better Christian than Thomas Jefferson, the two men’s faiths were rather similar. Neither believed in the divinity of Jesus, but both admired Jesus’s teachings. Both men heartily distrusted religious hierarchies.

Pinning down Adams’s beliefs further can be difficult because he was a difficult man. On 28 Aug 1811 he wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush:

I agree with you in Sentiment that Religion and Virtue are the only Foundations, not only of Republicanism and of all free Government, but of social felicity under all Governments and in all the Combinations of human Society.
Yet the following year, in the same letter I quoted on Thursday, Adams told Rush:
I agree with you, there is a Germ of Religion in human Nature so strong, that whenever an order of Men can persuade the People by flattery or Terror, that they have Salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud, Violence or Usurpation.
Adams’s statements on religion also tended to be personal. Not in the sense that, as Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Rather, personal in the sense that Adams often thought he was being personally and unfairly attacked—he even took that as a sign of his virtue. He therefore spent a lot of ink refuting what he thought others might say about him.

Here, for example, is more context for the quotation above about how he saw “Religion and Virtue” as fundamental:
I agree with you in Sentiment that Religion and Virtue are the only Foundations, not only of Republicanism and of all free Government, but of social felicity under all Governments and in all the Combinations of human Society. But if I should inculcate this doctrine in my Will, I should be charged with Hypocrisy and a desire to conciliate the good will of the Clergy towards my Family as I was charged by Dr. [Joseph] Priestley and his Friend [Thomas] Cooper and by Quakers, Baptists and I know not how many other sects, for instituting a National Fast, for even common Civility to the Clergy, and for being a Church going animal. . . .

If I should inculcate those “National, Social, domestic and religious virtues” you recommend, I should be suspected and charged with an hypocritical, Machiavilian, Jesuitical, Pharisaical attempt to promote a national establishment of Presbyterianism in America, whereas I would as soon establish the Episcopal Church, and almost as soon the Catholic Church. . . .

If I should recommend the Sanctification of the Sabbath like a divine, or even only a regular attendance on publick Worship as a means of moral Instruction and Social Improvement like a Phylosopher or Statesman, I should be charged with vain ostentation again, and a selfish desire to revive the Remembrance of my own Punctuality in this Respect, for it is notorious enough that I have been a Church going animal for seventy six years i.e. from the Cradle; and this has been alledged as one Proof of my Hypocrisy.
As you can see, this letter was almost all about how the many enemies of John Adams would distort whatever he said, so he was best off saying nothing. We have to dig beneath his self-pitying declarations to find out how he viewed religion, as opposed to how he suspected or hoped people viewed him.

One detail I find notable is Adams’s distinction between two ways of recommending going to church: “the Sanctification of the Sabbath,” as ministers would have it, and “regular attendance on publick Worship as a means of moral Instruction and Social Improvement like a Phylosopher or Statesman.” Which was the basis for his own behavior? Which did he recommend for other people?

Friday, November 27, 2009

John Adams’s Days of “Solemn Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer”

To spot what might have been controversial about John Adams’s proclamations of Thanksgiving holidays on 9 May 1798 and 25 Apr 1799, it’s useful to compare them to others issued before he took office:

Beliefnet has Congress’s resolution of 1777. Pilgrim Hall has the texts of five presidential proclamations from 1789 to 1814. (The last came from James Madison.)

One difference pops up right away from the dates. Adams declared holidays in back-to-back years. Though that tradition didn’t continue in 1800, the Adams administration made such proclamations at a higher rate than any previous national government.

Some analysts say people saw Adams’s messages as ominous because they got into political matters, suggesting Americans pray that “our public councils and magistrates may be especially enlightened and directed at this critical period“ in 1798, and that “the United States are still held in jeopardy by the hostile designs and insidious acts of a foreign nation” in 1799.

But Washington’s proclamations also mentioned politics, both generally (“render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed“ in 1789) and specifically (“the suppression of the late insurrection” in 1795).

I think the crucial difference is what Adams asked people to do. He proclaimed a day of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” with “fervent thanksgiving” as an afterthought. In contrast, the Congress and Washington asked Americans to pray and give thanks, but they didn’t mention humiliation or fasting.

Fasting was the basis of the New England Puritans’ Thanksgiving tradition. The big dinner came only at the end of a day spent in church while eating little and feeling sinful. Adams’s holiday proclamations weren’t meant to produce “an Establishment of a National Church,” as he claimed his enemies said, but they did try to spread one form of worship nationwide. (I should acknowledge one difference: New England’s Thanksgivings were usually late in the year, after harvest, but Adams pegged dates in the spring.)

The New England Thanksgiving had also developed a political dimension during the build-up to the Revolutionary War. As I discussed last year, observing the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Thanksgiving in December 1774 became a dividing line between Patriots and Loyalists, and thus between the majority Congregationalists and smaller sects that supported the Crown for religious reasons.

That division came on top of ongoing distrust of New England’s Congregationalist establishment for a variety of reasons: old oppression (Quakers, Catholics), being taxed to support someone else’s church (Baptists), too much fervency (Anglicans and Enlightenment skeptics). The Puritan fast day was thus a symbol for a bigger issue about the freedom and equality of faiths.

Finally, religious orthodoxy was also a dividing line between Adams and his rival Thomas Jefferson, at least as the Federalist press portrayed the two men. (In reality, they weren’t far apart in their beliefs.) The 1799 proclamation’s warning about “principles, subversive of the foundations of all religious, moral, and social obligations,” clearly tried to claim all religion and morality for one side—the anti-French Revolution side—of the U.S. of A.’s politics.

In the end, John Adams’s holiday declarations probably did not decide the election of 1800, despite his later grumbling about “the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings.” They were simply another irritant in a series of political disputes.

And what controversy they kicked up didn’t come from their call for “thanksgiving,” but from the “fasting” and “humiliation.” Which, not coincidentally, are the aspects of the New England Thanksgiving that we’ve most thoroughly discarded.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

“The Unpopularity of National Fasts and Thanksgivings”

In a letter dated 12 June 1812, John Adams wrote to his old Continental Congress colleague Dr. Benjamin Rush about why he’d lost the presidency twelve years earlier. Adams put the blame on...Thanksgiving!

The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in.

That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, &c, &c, &c, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church.

I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, [Aaron] Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.”

This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.
This letter was first published by Alexander Biddle in a volume called Old Family Letters (1892).

Authors have accepted a lot of Adams’s late-life recollections and analyses uncritically, but not this one. The notion that a Thanksgiving proclamation was the most unpopular of Adams’s acts in office seems incredible.

In fact, the American government had already proclaimed occasional Thanksgiving holidays, and they seemed to be popular. The Congress declared one on 18 Dec 1777 (though with Philadelphia under British control, members had less to be thankful for). When Adams’s predecessor, George Washington, issued such a proclamation in 1789, he noted that “both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested” it.

Jefferson didn’t follow his predecessors in this regard, but he also felt the need of “saying why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings,” as he told Attorney General Levi Lincoln. Jefferson found that opening in his famous 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, which said:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
And after that, Jefferson was reelected while Adams wasn’t. So was there something about Adams’s proclamations that made them more controversial than others?

TOMORROW: What was different about Adams’s Thanksgiving proclamations.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Hemingses at Harvard, 2 December

On Wednesday, 2 Dec 2009, The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard hosts visiting law school professor Annette Gordon-Reed, who will discuss her book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

Winner of a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, this is a deeply researched study of a family who served Thomas Jefferson throughout America’s founding. It portrays life in rural Virginia, revolutionary Paris, and republican Philadelphia. And of course it gathers all available information on housekeeper Sally Hemings, her children, and their likely father, the third President of the U.S. of A.

This event begins at 6:00 P.M. in the West Classroom of Austin Hall at Harvard Law School, 1515 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. For more information, visit the Houston Institute webpage.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Last Days of Dr. Benjamin Church

Sometime in early 1778, Capt. James Smithwick directed the sloop Welcome out of Boston harbor, carrying accused spy Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., to Martinique. On 24 April the Royal Pennsylvania Gazette reprinted some news from New York dated three weeks earlier:

Doctor Benjamin Church, was, about six weeks ago [i.e., mid-February], sent off from Boston in a vessel bound for Martinico, with orders never to return on pain of death.

The goal [i.e., jail] of Boston is crowded with persons who have refused to abjure the British Government, and swear allegiance to the Rebels, who are tendering these execrable oaths to every man they suspect to be a loyalist.
The same item appeared in the next day’s Pennsylvania Ledger. With the British army controlling New York and Philadelphia that season, the cities’ newspapers were decidedly pro-Crown.

Neither the Welcome, its captain, nor Dr. Church was seen again. I’ve found no comments on this mystery in 1778 newspapers or correspondence. The earliest surviving report of what happened may be an extract copied from a letter that a man named Thomas Brown sent from Halifax on 16 May 1782, filed in Britain’s National Archives.

Allen French’s General Gage’s Informers says Brown wrote that Church had been “exiled to some island in the West Indies, and threatened with death in case he shôd ever return.” E. Alfred Jones summarized Brown’s information this way in The Loyalists of Massachusetts:
it would seem that Dr. Benjamin Church was put on board a small schooner which Captain Smethwick bought of Jo. Clark and sailed from Boston in February, 1778, bound for the West Indies, and was lost at sea. A number of other vessels sailing at the same time foundered at sea. One man only was saved and brought back an account of the melancholy disaster.
That appears to mean only one man from all the vessels which hit the same weather. Gen. Thomas Gage’s highest placed spy had been swallowed by the Atlantic.

Dr. Church’s father, who had lobbied for his release from jail, resisted the conclusion that his son had died. In his will he still mentioned the doctor as a potential heir. The doctor’s widow, Sarah Church, moved to England, as described here.

In contrast, Thomas Brown wrote in 1782 that “Captn. Smithwicks widow has married another husband.” And indeed, Mary Smithwick remarried in March 1779 at Christ Church. Her new husband, stepfather to her three young children, was a man named George Lobb.

COMING UP: More about Mary Lobb. (That new marriage was a mistake.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

James Smithwick: mariner

James Smithwick was a mariner from Britain or Ireland, according to the understanding of descendants related in Charles Hudson’s History of the Town of Lexington. That fits with how when he came to Boston he attended the town’s Anglican churches rather than its many Congregationalist meetings.

On 20 Aug 1763, Capt. Smithwick married Mary Connell at Christ Church, now often called Old North. The couple’s first child, also named Mary, died a year and ten days later. They also lost children a daughter named Margaret at fifteen months in 1769 and a son named Peter at two years in 1773.

Happily, other children survived: James, born 11 Mar 1770 (six days after the Boston Massacre), Francis in 1773, and another Mary in 1774.

During the war Christ Church was closed for a while, and the family might then appear on the Trinity Church records. A “Capt. John Smithwick” and his wife Mary had a son named Cunnell or Connell in July 1777, and he died in October 1778. That unusual given name was Mary Smithwick’s family name.

By the mid-1770s Capt. Smithwick was prosperous enough to own real estate and slaves. On 23 Sept 1777 two of his enslaved servants, Rose and Waterford, announced their intention to marry.

(Waterford Smithwick remarried in 1787 to a woman listed as “Tamer Phillips.” In 1792, Tamar Smithwick married a man named James Scott; both were labeled as “molattoes.”)

In 1776, Capt. Smithwick’s name came up in a draft for the Continental Army from Boston’s ward 3, in the lower North End. (This listing of Smithwick in connection to ward 3 might be why Hudson wrote that the captain “was warden of the town in 1776.” He never held that office.)

The captain paid a fine to be excused from army service, as most men of means did. That left him free to continue sailing out of Boston harbor.

TOMORROW: Which turned out not to be the best idea.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dr. Benjamin Church Sails Away at Last

Yesterday I quoted from the Massachusetts House records on that body’s vote on 8 Jan 1778 to put accused but unproven spy Dr. Benjamin Church on board the brig Friendship, which Joshua Winslow was supposed to sail to “Martinico.”

However, the resolution that actually came out of the state legislature the next day said something different:

That Doctr Benjamin Church be & he hereby is permitted to take Passage on board the Sloop Welcome Capt. James Smithwick Master bound for the Island of Martinico;

And the Majr. Part of the Council are desired to give Order to the Sherriff of the County of Suffolk to remove the said Doctr Church on board the said Sloop, when she is ready for Sailing, directing him to search his Person & Baggage to prevent his carrying any Letters or other papers that may be to the detriment of the American States;

And the sd Church is not to return to this State during the Continuance of the present War without Leave therefor first had & obtain’d from the General Court, under such pains & penalties as they shall see fit to order.
The House records make no mention of the change in ship between its first vote and final approval. Perhaps Capt. Winslow objected to carrying Church. Perhaps Capt. Smithwick was leaving earlier, or Capt. Winslow had already sailed.

(As printed decades later, the Massachusetts Acts and Resolves gives the captain’s name as “Smitharick,” but other sources say “Smithwick,” and A Staunch Whig has confirmed that that’s what the original document in the Massachusetts Archives says.)

“Martinico” was the Caribbean island now known as Martinique. In 1778 it was part of the French Empire, the U.S. of A.’s new ally. Wikipedia says that one of the island’s inhabitants that year was the future Empress Josephine. Apparently that was far enough away for Dr. Church and the Massachusetts authorities to agree that it would be safe for him to be there.

I’ve found no mention of the Welcome and its sailing date in early American newspapers. Not all departures were reported, and during the war printers might have been especially careful with that information. So all we can say is that Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., left Boston a short time after 9 Jan 1778.

And promptly disappeared.

TOMORROW: Who was Capt. James Smithwick?

(Photo of Martinique coast above by guillaumeo, via Flickr.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dr. Church and the Rule of Law

Even after the Continental Congress strongly disapproved of the idea of trading accused spy Dr. Benjamin Church for an American physician captured by the British, Church kept petitioning for his release from the Boston jail. So did his father, a respected merchant.

Another likely source of pressure on the Massachusetts authorities who were keeping Church locked up was their values. Though the state was still struggling to approve a constitution replacing its royal charter, its political leaders felt a strong commitment to the concepts of natural rights and the rule of law.

Dr. Church was a big test of that system. He’d been high in the Massachusetts Patriot network before the war, a member of the Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety and Supplies, which organized the resistance to the royal army. He’d been the top-ranking medical officer in the Continental Army. If Benedict Arnold hadn’t switched sides in 1780, we Americans might well use the name “Benjamin Church” as a synonym for “betrayer.”

And yet American authorities didn’t have enough evidence to convict Dr. Church of more than corresponding with the enemy—specifically, with a Loyalist in-law, as he admitted. And even the military and legislative bodies that convicted Church on that charge in late 1775 didn’t have legal authority to do more than expel him from the army and the legislature. The New England governments then locked him up not as a formal punishment but in order to figure out what to do with him.

The idea of torturing Dr. Church to make him say more about his dealings with Gen. Thomas Gage was anathema to the founding generation. Corporal punishments such as whipping were part of that society’s judicial system, slave-labor system, and child-rearing practices. Nevertheless, the founders viewed torture to obtain information from prisoners as both cruel and unreliable.

The Massachusetts authorities also appear to have been troubled by locking up a man (well, a white man of property) who had never been legally convicted and sentenced. There was a war going on, of course, with the British army seizing New York, Newport, Philadelphia, and other American territory. Even so, the authorities had trouble justifying their decision to keep Church in jails for two years, much less five or seven.

In 1776, Connecticut balked and sent Church back to Massachusetts. In 1777, as I discussed in previous posts, Massachusetts jumped on an invitation from the British to treat Dr. Church as a prisoner of war and trade him, but a Boston crowd and the Continental Congress blocked that deal from going through.

The Massachusetts General Court finally decided to get rid of Church by accepting his promise to go into exile. Letting him leave America this way didn’t technically break the state’s promise to the Congress not to free him as part of a prisoner exchange—the state would free him without getting anything back. Except for a return to the rule of law.

On 8 Jan 1778, the House approved

a Resolve permitting Doct. Benjamin Church to take Passage on board the Brigantine Friendship, Joshua Winslow Master, bound for the Island of Martinico.
The chamber then sent this legislation to the Council for its concurrence.

TOMORROW: Yet another change of plan for Dr. Church.

(The photo of the Old State House, where the Massachusetts legislature met in 1777-78, comes from Chris Brown via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Still Debating What to Do with Doctor Church

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

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

New York 3d: June 1777

Doctr: Benj: Church,

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

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

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

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

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

Gentlemen,

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

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

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

TOMORROW: A breakthrough in the new year.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tracing Sarah Church and Her Children

By July 1777, Sarah Church, wife of accused traitor Dr. Benjamin Church, realized that she was no longer welcome in America. A mob carrying off your possessions tends to have that effect. Sarah gathered the silver plate that remained and bought passage for herself and her children to France, and from there to Britain.

The dates of their voyages aren’t clear. Back in Massachusetts, the state included Church’s name on its list of people banished for disloyalty in October 1778, and confiscated his Boston house for sale to support the war effort.

In England, Sarah Church petitioned the Crown for support. She referred to “certain services” that her husband had done for the Crown, and said Gen. Thomas Gage could provide more details. A Mr. Sparhawk testified on her behalf, saying that Dr. Church had been a British spy. In addition, a Loyalist named William Warden stated in his own petition for support that “he was sent by General Gage to Salem and Marblehead to receive intelligence from Dr. Benjamin Church, but failed to execute his business.”

These documents seem to confirm what the American authorities of that time were never quite able to prove: that Dr. Church had been a paid spy for the Crown.

The royal government granted Sarah Church an annual pension of £150, which she collected until her death in August 1788.

The couple’s two sons, Benjamin (born 1758) and James Miller (born 1759), had apparently both started to train as doctors under their father when he was arrested.

According to Boston author James Spear Loring, who said he got information from Church descendants, Benjamin “married a lady of London, and became a surgeon in the British army.” Some books don’t mention Benjamin, apparently because there’s no record of his baptism in Boston (the family may not have moved from Rhode Island yet), and he wasn’t mentioned in his grandmother’s 1794 will (so perhaps he died before that year).

James Miller “was granted an appointment as surgeon’s mate and ensign to the West Middlesex Militia in England”; he retired as that militia’s surgeon in 1817 and died fourteen years later, receiving a small pension as a Loyalist of £12.10s. per year.

The family also included two girls, Sarah (born 1761) and Hannah (born 1764). I find it notable that there’s no sign the Churches had any children after that—four is a small number for an eighteenth-century couple who could have children at all. Benjamin and Sarah Church might therefore have been estranged for a decade before the Revolution.

The younger Sarah Church married a Loyalist refugee named Benjamin Weld. Some sources say he was also her cousin, and she indeed had a cousin of that name. But it’s more than possible that there were multiple Benjamin Welds.

Hannah married a London merchant named William Kirkly and had sixteen children, said Loring in the 1852 edition of his Hundred Boston Orators. However, in the next edition of that book, published two years later, Loring said her husband was named Kirkby. (Other sources use the spellings Kilby and Kirby, just to confuse matters further.) Loring said “a descendant of this branch” was his source on the Church family, meaning they kept up some sort of connection with people in Massachusetts.

In fact, a “Mrs. Hannah Kirkby” married William Longhurst in Boston in 1807. That year’s town directory listed Longhurst as a shopkeeper on Newbury Street. I’ve seen a report that government records from the War of 1812 list William and Hannah Longhurst as British subjects living in Boston; Hannah was said to be forty-five years old, meaning she was born in 1767. John Haven Dexter’s genealogical notes in an earlier town directory (part of the collection of the New England Historic Genealogical Society) state that Mrs. Hannah Longhurst died on 7 Apr 1836 at age 68—giving a birth year of about 1768.

So was Hannah Kirkby Longhurst the younger daughter of Dr. Benjamin Church, discreetly returning to the town of her birth? Or is this simply coincidence?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dr. McHenry Exchanged at Last

I’ll wrap up Dr. James McHenry’s story first. When we left him back here in 1777, he had been captured at Fort Washington in New York and then paroled—released in a trade for a prisoner to be named later.

The British Commissary of Prisoners suggested that Massachusetts release Dr. Benjamin Church. The state government agreed, but the people did not. Which left Dr. McHenry still on the sidelines.

On 5 Mar 1778, Alexander Hamilton wrote to the young doctor:

It gave me pleasure to inform you that Mr. [Elias] Boudinotte has been able to effect your exchange for a Doctor Mentzes. Allow me to congratulate you on the event.
I haven’t been able to identify this doctor, either under that name or “Menzies.” He could have been a military surgeon or a prominent Loyalist. Dr. Archibald Menzies served as a Royal Navy surgeon later in the war before embarking on a significant career in botany, but I can’t find any indication he was a prisoner this early.

In any event, the completed exchange meant McHenry was free to rejoin the Continental Army, which he did at Valley Forge in early 1778. Gen. George Washington quickly made him an aide-de-camp. Later the commander-in-chief wrote:
McHenry’s easy and cheerful temper was able to bear the strain which we suppose must sometimes occur between two persons thrown so closely and so constantly together in a position of social equality and military inequality.
[CORRECTION: Whoops! This quotation is attributed to Washington on the Valley Forge National Historical Park website. However, on probing further after a query from Boston 1775 reader Dan Shippey, I found that it actually came from Fred. J. Brown, as quoted in The Magazine of American History in 1881. Brown apparently wrote these words for a profile of McHenry published by the Maryland Historical Society in 1877, contrasting how McHenry remained on good terms with Washington while Hamilton had a couple of blow-ups.]

After two years McHenry left Washington’s military family to serve Gen. Lafayette in the same capacity until Yorktown. [So McHenry might have avoided blow-ups by taking another job. Nonetheless, on 15 Aug 1782 Washington closed a letter to McHenry by writing, “It is unnecessary for me to repeat to you, that I am Your sincere friend & affecte. Sevt.” And that quote I found in the Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.]

McHenry then entered Maryland politics, serving in the state senate, Continental Congress, and Constitutional Convention. A strong Federalist, he was Secretary of War under Presidents Washington and John Adams, feuding with the latter. With the ascension of the Jeffersonians, he retired to his estate in Maryland and died in 1816.

Fort McHenry is named for him. Indeed, the fort is now more famous than the man because Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” after seeing it withstand a British siege during the War of 1812. Ironically, McHenry as a Federalist strongly opposed that war.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Premiere of “Count Rumford”

Last night I attended the Woburn Historical Society’s premiere of its new video, “Count Rumford: Scholar, Soldier, Spy, Statesman and Scientist.” I was startled to arrive at Woburn High School and find every parking space filled. Must be because of the soccer game, I thought. But after I found an arguably legal space and made it to the auditorium, there were about 200 people waiting for the movie. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, would have been pleased at the turnout.

The style of the film would look familiar to anyone who’s seen historical documentaries on TV in the past twenty years: pans and zooms of period portraits and edifying illustrations from the late 1800s, views of historic sites and statues, footage from reenactments (some showing men with anachronistic beards).

But the narration by writer-director Kathy Lucero reveals that this film is a home-town labor of love. We just don’t hear good Boston accents on the History Channel! (Especially when actors pretend to be Kennedys.)

The movie is a good example of how digital filmmaking lets dedicated people produce professional-looking work on specialized projects—as long as they’re willing to put in hours of work. It runs a little less than half an hour, plus an epilogue about the recent fix-up of the Rumford birthplace in north Woburn.

When the Rumford Historical Society was founded in the late 1800s to preserve that house, admiring Benjamin Thompson was relatively easy. True, he became a Loyalist who led a troop of British dragoons late in the Revolutionary War. But standard histories said he did so only after Americans had driven him away out of jealousy and misplaced suspicion.

Then in the early 1900s evidence came out that Thompson was sending secret reports to Gen. Thomas Gage during the same period he was assuring Patriots of his good intentions. He was, it appears, an important confederate of Dr. Benjamin Church (meaning this posting fits in “Dr. Church Week” after all). And the fading of Victorian prudery let more authors write openly of Rumford’s many affairs in Europe. The man was suddenly less admirable—though more interesting.

This video acknowledges Thompson’s less noble, opportunistic side—there’s even a quick roundup of those affairs. But it still gives him the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. For instance, it presents Thompson’s statement that in 1774 he helped some deserters get back to the British army simply out of kindness after they decided they were working too hard in the New Hampshire countryside.

The movie doesn’t say that on 2 Nov 1774 Gov. John Wentworth stated in a letter of introduction to Gen. Gage that Thompson:

has been active in persuading Soldiers deserted from His Majesty’s Regiments at Boston, to return to their duty, and thinks he had a prospect of further success.
Or that Thompson himself wrote the next month that he was employing a soldier named William Bowdidge to find more deserters and persuade them to return to the ranks.

Because this “Count Rumford” video is an effort at public history, particularly for young students (there was a whole elementary class at the showing), it also keeps away from potentially confusing speculation about Thompson’s shadiest activities.

Thus, the four undocumented years between Thompson’s arrival in London and his appointment as an Under Secretary of State zip by in a few words. Biographers suspect that during that time he was busy ingratiating himself with Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State, through amorous favors for his wife, his daughter, and/or himself. Needless to say, that won’t be on the quiz.

Instead, “Count Rumford” celebrates Thompson’s scientific discoveries and energetic management of Bavaria in the decades after the Revolution. He was unquestionably the most important American-born scientist of his generation, and one of the most successful Yankees abroad ever. How he got some of those opportunities—well, we don’t have to know everything.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dr. Church’s Second Riot

We wouldn’t know it from the letter and legislative resolution I quoted yesterday, but the Massachusetts authorities actually tried to put Dr. Benjamin Church aboard a ship to British-occupied Newport, Rhode Island—perhaps even on the same day that those documents were written. And citizens responded with a small riot.

As far as I can tell, our sole source for that action seems to be the petition of Church’s wife Sarah to the Crown, quoted and summarized in E. Alfred Jones’s Loyalists of Massachusetts:

General [William] Howe, commander-in-chief of the British Army in America, having been informed of the wretched condition of Dr. Church, sent one [James Mc]Henry, a surgeon and a prisoner, to be exchanged, and this arrangement was approved by the [Massachusetts] Provincial Council, but the mob, with General [William] Heath at their head, prevented the exchange, and caused Church to be removed from the cartel vessel and re-committed to gaol.
Some historians have difficulty imagining Heath at the head of a mob. Of course, he might have been at the head of a detachment of Continental troops and/or Massachusetts militia blocking the way. Or Sarah Church might have meant that the crowd knew Heath opposed the prisoner exchange, and therefore acted on his behalf. Or perhaps he really did participate in forcing Church back to the jail.

The crowd apparently then proceeded to make their displeasure clear by mobbing Dr. Church’s old house, where his family was still living. Jones’s statement of Sarah Church’s petition says:
Not content with casting him into prison, the mob broke open his house and pillaged or destroyed all the contents, without leaving even a change of clothes for his wife and children, or even a bed to lie on. The only property she was able to recover was a small quantity of silver plate, barely sufficient for her to pay for her passage to England. Permission was refused her for the direct passage to England and she was obliged to travel first to France.
That attack seems especially unfair for Sarah since Benjamin had taken up with a mistress years before; that woman’s mistakes had led to the capture of his coded letter into Boston.

At the end of the day, Dr. Church was back in the Boston jail where he’d started.

COMING UP: So many loose ends! What happened to Sarah Church and the children? What happened to Dr. James McHenry? And, of course, what happened to Dr. Church?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gen. Heath Thinks a Prisoner Exchange “Rather Impolitic”

As I detailed over the last two days, British Commissary of Prisoners Joshua Loring proposed a prisoner exchange of Dr. James McHenry for Dr. Benjamin Church, and on 2 July 1777 the Massachusetts General Court voted to accept that deal.

This idea didn’t go over well with Gen. William Heath, the Continental Army officer in charge of Boston’s defenses. In a letter dated 5 July, he wrote to the Massachusetts Council:

Gentlemen, — I was much surprised yesterday on hearing that Doctor Benja. Church, who has for some time been confined for practises inimical to his country, is soon to be sent to the enemy in exchange for a gentleman late belonging to our army who is now a prisoner in their hands.

As I think no one can doubt that Doctor Church is fully acquainted with the state of our publick affairs and can communicate to the enemy intelligence which may be greatly detrimental to the United States at this juncture of our publick affairs, I beg leave to submit to your wisdom whether his exchange at this time will not be rather impolitic, and whether for several reasons which it is needless to mention it is not highly proper to procrastinate the exchange.
Heath then went on to request more troops, as most American generals did whenever they had an opportunity.

That same day, the General Court approved a new resolution:
Upon The Petition of a number of Inhabitants of the Town of Boston & other Towns within this State praying that Dr. Benj: Church may not be permitted to go in the Cartel now about sailing for Rhode Island.

Resolved that the Sheriff for the County of Suffolk be & he hereby is impowered & directed to retain the sd. Dr. Church in safe Custody untill the further Order of this Court any previous Resolve or Order to the contrary notwithstanding —

& that the honble Council be requested to transmit to the honble Continental Congress the Letter from Josh: Loring Commissary of Prisoners at New York proposing an Exchange of the sd. Dr. Church for a Dr. McHenry now a Prisoner with the Enemies of these States & to request the Direction of Congress upon it.
That all sounds like how we’d hope a republic works, right? A citizen expresses concern about the government’s action, the people’s representatives consider the issue anew, and they seek more information and direction from other authorities.

TOMORROW: Except that things played out more violently than that.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

“Doctor McHenry now a prisoner”

As I said yesterday, in mid-1777 the British military proposed exchanging suspected spy Dr. Benjamin Church for a “Doctor McHenry now a prisoner with the British Troops.” That offer came from the British Commissary of Prisoners, Jamaica Plain’s own Joshua Loring, Jr.

I haven’t seen any identification of McHenry in the articles about Church that I’ve read, but it seems reasonable to conclude that this was young Dr. James McHenry, a rather significant figure in American history. The only other Continental doctor named McHenry I’ve found served on a Pennsylvania privateer from April 1776 to Mar 1777, and there’s no mention of his being captured.

Dr. James McHenry (shown here in middle age) was born to a genteel family in Ireland in 1753. He came to America in 1771, apparently for his health, and liked it so much that he persuaded his family to emigrate and set up a mercantile business in Maryland. James himself lived mostly in Philadelphia, studying medicine under Dr. Benjamin Rush.

When the Revolutionary War began, McHenry volunteered in the lines outside Boston. He worked as an assistant surgeon under Dr. Church in the military hospitals, and collaborated in keeping them going after Church’s resignation and arrest. McHenry offered to set up a hospital in the “northern department,” the upstate New York war against Canada, but before he could go there was made surgeon for a Pennsylvania regiment.

McHenry was at Fort Washington on Manhattan Island in 1776, and was among the many men taken prisoner by the British army on 16 November. Five days later he wrote to Rush, then a Continental Congress delegate:

I have not as yet reflected so deeply on the fate of a prisoner as to make me unhappy. And perhaps I shall not. For I am no admirer of that philosophy which is constantly in tears or beating itself to pieces against the impassable bars of its prison. Methinks I feel something within me like that kindly resignation which when duly attended to never fails to befriend the unfortunate. But

Altho’ I am resigned with regard to my own fate, yet it were to be wished that an exchange of prisoners could be brought about as soon as possible. The officers thro’ the goodness of his Excellency General [William] Howe—have the liberty of the City—but the privates are crouded into Churches and the like. Prodire tenus, si non datur ultra. [Horace: “To reach a certain point, if not to go beyond.”]

Col. Magaw is ill of a fever, tho’ in my opinion not dangerous. I am at private lodgings with him, Col. Miles, Atley, Swoope &c. Their evening and morning devotions begin and end with Horace’s O rus, quando ego te aspiciam. [“Countryside, when shall I behold you.”]
However, McHenry never got to send that letter. He kept it, marked, “The commissary of prisoners Mr. Loring rejected this letter It would not pass”. Which meant Loring knew McHenry, whatever he said about “kindly resignation,” hoped to be exchanged.

Loring had McHenry set up a hospital for the captured Americans, though the two men debated over lines of authority. In a June 1777 report to Gen. George Washington, McHenry mentioned that the wounded prisoners were under the care of “Dr. Oliver, a refugee from Boston.” This was probably Dr. Peter Oliver of Middleborough, son of the Loyalist Chief Justice of the same name.

The British command paroled McHenry on 27 Jan 1777. This treatment, usually available only to gentlemen, meant that he was free to go home after promising not to engage in war again unless he was formally exchanged for someone the Americans freed. (If a man still on parole was recaptured in arms, he was liable to be hanged.) Thus, when Loring proposed the trade for Church, McHenry would not have been actually “now a prisoner with the British Troops,” just legally so.

It looks like the British thought that would be a fair exchange since both men were doctors. There’s no indication that McHenry was a spy, though British commanders might have seen him as more treasonous than the average American since he was born on the east side of the Atlantic. Then again, those authorities might simply have been trying for a bargain—a twenty-four-year-old who was already free for a locked-up spy who’d been in the top ranks of the Boston resistance.

TOMORROW: How that exchange went down.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Proposal to Exchange Dr. Church

Almost immediately after Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., was arrested in late September 1775 for secret correspondence with people in Boston, there were rumors that he would be exchanged for one of the British military’s prisoners.

On 21 October, even before the Massachusetts General Court or Continental military formally expelled Church, Abigail Adams passed on this news to her husband John:

a Man one Haskings who came out [of Boston] the day before yesterday...also says that the Tories are much distressd about the fate of Dr. Church, and very anxious to obtain him, and would exchange Lovel for him.
Abigail and others probably saw that rumor as evidence that Church really was a valuable spy for the British, a supposition the Continental authorities still had trouble proving.

“Lovel” was Boston schoolteacher James Lovell, whom the British military had locked up during the summer, reportedly because they’d found letters from him on Dr. Joseph Warren’s body after the Battle of Bunker Hill. But there was no exchange. The British authorities kept Lovell imprisoned through the winter, carried him to Canada in March 1776, and finally traded him in November for Philip Skene, governor of Crown Point and Ticonderoga.

As for Church, he was locked up for a while in Connecticut, then sent back to Massachusetts in mid-1776, as I described yesterday. Confined in the jail at Boston, he remained an embarrassment and a burden to the state.

On 2 July 1777, the General Court leapt at an opportunity to get rid of Church and get something in return, resolving:
Whereas it has been represented to this Court that Doctor McHenry now a prisoner with the British Troops will be immediately exchanged for Doctr. Benjamin Church on his being sent to New-York — Therefore

Resolved that the Honble. Council of this State be And they are hereby desired to cause said Doctr. Church to be sent as soon as may be to Rhode-Island to be forwarded to New York in such way and manner as to the Council may seem fitt, in Order to be exchanged for said Doctor McHenry, and that said Church continue in confinement till put on board the Cartel vessel in which he may depart and that he be thoroughly searched to prevent his carrying any papers with him which may be detrimental to the American Cause.
A “Cartel vessel” was an unarmed ship used in wartime to deliver prisoners and messages, the equivalent of an officer carrying a flag of truce.

TOMORROW: Who was this Dr. McHenry?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dr. Church Jumps Out a Window

And speaking of Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., as I did yesterday, I have to correct a posting from back in 2007. I wrote that Dr. Church sailed away from Boston in May 1776, which was a year and a half too early. I got lazy, and instead of looking up his departure date in my books I relied on a webpage from the U.S. military, which has since been taken down. A Boston 1775 reader using the fine pseudonym A Staunch Whig caught the error.

I’ve now corrected that posting, and may also get around to fixing the Wikipedia page on Church that relied on the same .mil source. Dr. Church didn’t leave Massachusetts “soon after” Connecticut sent him back to that province in May 1776. In fact, he had a fairly eventful eighteen months, considering he was locked up most of the time. I’ll explore that period over the next few days.

To start with, Sheriff Prosper Wetmore [yes, that was really his name] of New London County delivered legal custody of Church to the Massachusetts Council on 3 June 1776. The Council, meeting at the Edmund Fowle House in Watertown, was exercising executive power in Massachusetts in the absence of a governor (though whose fault was that?).

Sheriff Wetmore left Dr. Church under guard in a house in Waltham. And the locals didn’t like it. On 5 June, James Warren (shown above) wrote to John Adams from Watertown:

Doctr. Church is Arrived here. Is not your resolve relative to him somewhat Extraordinary. [In other words, what in the world do you guys in the Continental Congress mean by letting a suspected traitor out of jail and sending him back here?]

I fear the People will kill him if at large. The Night before last he went to Lodge at Waltham, was saved by the Interposition of the selectmen but by Jumping out A Chamber Window and flying.

His Life is of no great Consequence but such A Step has a tendency to lessen the Confidence of the People in the doings of Congress.
The Massachusetts authorities then put the doctor into the Boston jail, perhaps for his safety as much as the new state’s. In August, Church’s father complained to John Hancock as head of the Congress that such close confinement was ruining his son’s health. But there he stayed until the following summer.

TOMORROW: An attempted prisoner exchange.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rachel Revere and Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

The 2 May 1775 letter from Rachel Revere that I quoted yesterday was not the first that she’d written to her husband Paul from inside besieged Boston. An earlier note appears here at the Clements Library website, and it begins:

My Dear by Doctor Church I send a hundred & twenty five pounds and beg you will take the best care of yourself and not attempt coming in to this town again and if I have an opportunity of coming or sending out anything or any of the Children I shall do it
It’s undated, but we have good clues about when Rachel wrote it. A hasty note from Dr. John Homans to Dr. Joseph Gardner confirms that Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., went into the besieged town on 21 Apr 1775, and in 1798 Paul Revere recalled that Church came back out two days later, on Sunday. Rachel most likely gave Church the message and money for her husband that during that visit.

Neither Paul Revere nor Dr. Gardner ever saw the letters addressed to them. Church handed them over to Gen. Thomas Gage, and they were found in the general’s files over a century later. (I wrote about the Homans-Gardner-Church document in an article for the spring 2006 issue of New England Ancestors.)

Yet another document that might bear on the relationship between Rachel Revere and Dr. Benjamin Church was quoted by Allen French in General Gage’s Informers. It’s undated and unsigned, but the handwriting matches what’s on other papers from Church, the general’s best-placed spy. French concluded that the doctor probably wrote this note in early May 1775. It says in part:
Send Rachel out with more practicable instructions, I can’t see how ’tis possible to write again there is a close watch set up, Contrivances shall not be wanting if necessary, send me the news.
The note then looks ahead to the 25th of the month, which “finishes a quarter”—i.e., when bills would be due.

So what do we know? On 2 May, Rachel Revere was still in Boston, trying to get a pass out of town for herself and the many children. By 22 May, according to Jayne Triber’s biography A True Republican, the whole family was in Watertown (except for oldest son Paul, Jr., who stayed behind to look after the shop).

Did Gage receive Church’s undated note early in May and give Rachel Revere a pass so that she could leave Boston, unwittingly carrying secret instructions to the doctor? Or was there another Rachel, or was “Rachel” a code name for someone else?

(This musing was prompted by a query from author John A. Nagy. The image above comes via Oceansbridge, which promises to deliver handmade reproductions of this Gilbert Stuart portrait of Rachel Revere in less than a month.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Scraps of Women’s Lives Online

The Bostonian Society’s online exhibit of “From Baby Caps to Mourning Rings: The Material Culture of Boston’s Eighteenth Century Girls and Women” is now open for virtual visitors. It has a snazzy opening interface. My favorite item is this embroidered map of Boston harbor, sewn by Lydia Withington at the school of actress-novelist Susanna Rowson.

Another new online resource on eighteenth-century women is this biographical website about Martha Washington, created by the Center for History and New Media and sponsored by Mount Vernon. This is designed for educators to use, with lots of teaching materials.

Lastly, the Massachusetts Historical Society has posted a letter from Rachel Revere to her husband, Paul, dated 2 May 1775. It says in part:

I cannot say I was please’d at hearing you aplyed to Capt Irvin for a pass as I shou’d rather confer 50 obligations on them then recive one from them

I am almost sure of one as soon as they are given out

I was at mr Scolays yesterday and his son has been here to day and told me he went to the room and gave mine and Deacon Jeffers name to this [sic] father when no other person was admited
Okay, what’s going on here? Paul was outside besieged Boston, and Rachel wanted to get herself and the kids out, too. I think “Capt Irvin” refers to George Erving, son of John Erving, a former militia colonel who leaned toward the royal government. Rachel then went to John Scollay, a selectman who was closer to the Whigs. “Deacon Jeffers” is probably David Jeffries, the town treasurer and deacon at Old South.

TOMORROW: Was someone else secretly working to get Rachel Revere a pass out of town?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Favorite Link of the Week

Thomas Jefferson, U.S. minister to France. Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh, seven-year-old heir to the empire of Vietnam. They met in Paris in 1787. Anna at A Summary View, the blog of the Jefferson library, tells the story.

Jefferson wanted rice from what was then known as Cochin China. He was still hopeful about receiving it the next year, but apparently no samples ever arrived at Monticello.

Prince Cảnh was in Paris to sign a treaty with the French king on behalf of his grandfather. He played with the Dauphin, and developed a preference for Catholicism, though for political reasons he was never publicly baptized. Cảnh died of smallpox in Vietnam during Jefferson’s first term.

(Portrait courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Upcoming Revolutionary Events of Note

On Monday, 9 November, the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston will host the launch of Prof. Woody Holton’s new biography, Abigail Adams. Woody has in particular studied Adams’s fiscal management of her family, a lesser-known aspect of her life. Jeremy Dibbell of PhiloBiblos has been posting raves about this book. Refreshments will be served at 5:30 P.M., and Woody will start his talk at 6:00. Copies of the book will be available for sale and autographing.

On Thursday, 12 November, Minute Man National Historical Park will host a talk by Don Hagist, author of the British Soldiers, American Revolution blog. He’ll offer a detailed look at the demographics of the garrison in Boston, focusing on His Majesty’s 22nd Regiment of Foot. How old was the average British soldier during the Revolution? Where in society did those men come from, geographically and economically?

We don’t have many personal accounts from redcoat soldiers, and many descriptions of them are, well, less than sympathetic. Exploring a solid sample of those men through primary sources seems like the best way to get solid information and bust some myths. Don’s talk starts at 7:30 P.M. in the Visitor Center along Route 2A at the Lincoln-Lexington line, and is free and open to the public.

Finally, on next Wednesday, 18 November, the Royall House Association will present its free fall program, “The Minuet: A Brief History and Demonstration”:

The minuet was established in the 17th-century French court, took on a ceremonial and “class status” life of its own that prevailed through the 18th century and lingered to the 19th century.

Isaac Royall, Jr., of Medford, was a young and energetic host who considered himself a consummate gentleman. Although we do not have direct evidence, it is not unreasonable to assume that he and his peers danced the minuet at the Royall House.

For this program, Veronica McClure has gathered dance and music friends for a lively lecture and demonstration of this most essential of 18th-century social dances. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to try the steps yourself!
The Royall House is at 15 George Street (off Main) in Medford. It will open its doors at 6:30 P.M. so people can visit the Archaeological Exhibit and expanded Gift Shop. The program will start promptly at 7:30. For more information, call 781-396-9032 or email. This program is free, but seating is limited and donations are always welcome.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Leaks and Counterleaks in Colonial Boston

As Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation described on Wednesday, the U.S. government’s “Stellar Wind” electronic surveillance program was exposed by government officials and private individuals troubled by what they saw as overreaching. But leaks revealing official misbehavior are nothing new; they also played a part in the politics leading up to the American Revolution.

The legal challenge to writs of assistance came in the midst of a feud between two Customs officials in Boston, Collector Benjamin Barons and Surveyor Charles Paxton. Both men slipped documents embarrassing to the other side into sympathetic newspapers.

The Customs service undertook a secret investigation into the situation. Within a couple of years the record of those hearings—including the names of accused smugglers and informants—made its way back from London. The busiest informant, Ebenezer Richardson, thus became even more of an outcast in Massachusetts than before.

Leaks continued to plague the royal governors for the next fifteen years. Someone in London supplied the province with copies of letters that Gov. Francis Bernard (shown above) wrote in the mid-1760s criticizing how the province operated. Their publication in Boston made him so unpopular that he left in 1769.

A couple of years later, a leaker—most likely Sir John Temple, a former Commissioner of Customs—gave copies of similar letters from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, Gen. Thomas Gage, and other royal appointees to Benjamin Franklin, then acting as the Massachusetts General Court’s lobbyist in London.

Franklin sent those letters to Thomas Cushing with a warning not to let them become public. But a copy leaked, and Samuel Adams and John Hancock maneuvered them into print. They appeared to confirm Whig complaints that Hutchinson was seeking to cut back the province’s self-government. The fallout from that incident destroyed Franklin’s career in England.

Whigs weren’t the only people to leak material that embarrassed their rivals. Paxton and his colleagues at the Customs office ran that play as well. In the early 1760s, they had news of smuggled French molasses found in merchants’ ships printed alongside those same merchants’ solemn agreement a few years before not to trade with the French.

During the non-importation campaign of 1769-70, many Boston merchants signed an agreement not to buy goods from Britain as long as the Townshend duties were in place. Someone in the Customs office gave John Mein, printer of the Boston Chronicle, long lists of what cargo had been registered as arriving in Boston. These manifests revealed how many rich merchants—including some leaders of the boycott—were still receiving such goods.