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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

“A happy Year may all enjoy”

As in previous New Year’s seasons, Boston 1775 offers a “carriers’ verse,” one of the poems or lyrics that newspaper delivery boys printed at the end of the year as part of their request for tips from customers.

This one with best wishes for 1772 is unique in that it comes from the boys of the Censor. Friends of the royal government paid Ezekiel Russell to launch that magazine in November 1771 as a home for their arguments. This carriers’ verse was thus directed to readers on that side of the political debate, and reflected their views of who was responsible for the turmoil and what was at stake.

The Carrier of the
CENSOR,
Wishes all Happiness to his generous
Customers.


What means this Clamour? why this strife?
To poison all the Joys of Life;
Ah why will Friend ’gainst Friend engage?
And brethren meet with hostile rage?

Say Candidus, rude Mucious say,
“It is such Slavery to obey?”
“Are Rulers Tyrants?—to be free,
“Must we destroy Society?”

Ye Friends to order! ’tis my pride,
To combat on the honest side:
Let Faction rave, or Villains brawle,
The CENSOR nobly scorns them all

May Government her Laws defend,
And foul Misrule to Hell descend;
A happy Year may all enjoy,
And may your FAVOURS bless your Boy.
“Candidus” was one of Samuel Adams’s pseudonyms for newspaper essays. “Mucius Scaevola” was the pen name Joseph Greenleaf had used for his attack on Gov. Thomas Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Spy a few months before; the Censor’s first issue responded to that essay.

Because the Censor stopped publishing a few months into 1772, this is the only New Year’s verse its carriers ever got to distribute. Fellow printers recalled that a woman in Russell’s print shop—possibly his future wife Sarah—composed occasional verses for his newspapers, so this might be one of her compositions.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lessons from “Blogging History”

Our “Blogging History” panel at this March’s O.A.H. convention attracted a patient audience of about fifty—or, as one participant suggested, more than any panel at the convention that didn’t have the word “sex” in its title.

Here are some lessons I picked up from my fellow panelists.

1) Larry Cebula at Northwest History: Historians’ blogs have tended to have a predictable life cycle. They start out discussing history and history-writing, shift (especially in 2008) into arguing politics, and end up focusing on the blogger’s personal life.

Why had Boston 1775 lasted nearly three years without drifting into that cycle? Perhaps because of my escape valve.

Larry shared one post from his blog about nineteenth-century facial hair. The contrast with today might have been starker if the audience hadn’t been looking at three panelists with goatees and one with sideburns.

2) Mary Schaff at the Washington State Library: If people at an institution, particularly a government institution, want to create a blog to communicate to the public, it’s more efficient to ask for forgiveness after launching than to ask for permission beforehand. Going the formal route can lead into the hell of mission-statement committees.

Unfortunately, the Washington State Library blog ended in May because it was taking too much staff time. But other organizations have seen the value of the blogging model—i.e., a website anyone can update without having to go through a sixteen-year-old webmaster.

3) William Turkel at Digital History Hacks: Blogging about ways that historians can create more useful searches for data and documentation? That’s productive and rewarding. Creating search techniques simply in order to have something to put on the blog? Time to call it a day. But his blog posts are still up.

4) Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway at The Edge of the American West: One key to a successful group blog is a shared ethos of not stepping on—i.e., posting shortly after—someone else’s post. Plus, American men can still find really sharp three-piece suits.

For more of what I learned from visiting Seattle, please see the escape valve. This panel was the idea of Larry Cebula, and I’m grateful to him and moderator Bill Youngs for getting me out to Seattle and showing me a good time while I was there.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Exploring a New Medium—as Soon as We Find the Right Plugs

One highlight of my 2009 was participating in a panel discussion at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Seattle on “Blogging History: Explorations in a New Medium.”

I took notes for a posting soon after that event in March, but waited to see if the video that panel moderator J. William T. Youngs had prepared would appear online. And then important matters like Kezia Hincher’s child seized my attention.

But the end of the year offers a fine time to look back and consider the lessons I had a chance to pick up along the way. And right away I can confirm two rules of life:

  • The more time someone has spent creating a multimedia presentation, the less likely it is that the multimedia system in the assigned venue is working.
  • The more that an event depends on technology for its very existence, the less likely that technology is to work.
In our case, Bill Youngs had prepared a video introduction to each panelist’s history blog, with images and music, on his Macintosh. But the LCD projectors at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center had trouble reading any signals from that computer. Problems with Macs that close to Microsoft headquarters—who would have thought?

That left us not only without a snazzy introduction, but also without a computer for a session in which we were to show off and discuss our blogs. Which is hard to do with whiteboards.

Our projected image was still a blank blue rectangle about five minutes after the session’s scheduled start. I leaned into a microphone and asked if anyone in the audience could loan us a Windows PC. One woman graciously offered hers, and soon we were off and rolling.

TOMORROW: Lessons from my fellow panelists.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Choc-Talk at the Boston Athenaeum, 7 Jan.

On Thursday, 7 January, the Boston Athenaeum will host a lecture by Anthony M. Sammarco on “The Baker Chocolate Company: A Sweet History,” which is also the title of his new book. The talk will start at 12:00 noon. It’s free, but one must reserve a spot by calling 617-720-7600.

The event description says:

The Baker Chocolate Company was founded along the Neponset River in 1765 by Dr. James Baker and James Hannon, a skilled chocolate maker. Over the next two centuries, the company became one of the leading manufacturers of chocolate and cocoa in North America.
I’ve seen notices of similar talks by Mr. Sammarco at other venues, too.

The Baker chocolate factory in Dorchester is often said to be the first in North America. However, the descendants of Joseph Palmer of Braintree wrote that a chocolate factory was among the workshops he and Richard Cranch erected in the Germantown section of that town before the Revolution. And other Bostonians were advertising chocolate in the newspapers as early as the 1720s.

I’m not sure how the Baker Chocolate Company documentation stacks up against the rest. The company has not been shy about promoting its history. Then again, neither were the Palmer descendants.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Revere Communion Vessels on Sale in January

The Boston Globe reports that on 21 January Christie’s will auction off a collection of silver vessels that the First Parish of Beverly decided to sell in order to pay for necessary building repairs.

The items include a ewer, a quart can, and two communion plates made by the workshop of Paul Revere around 1800.

According to the Globe:

Congregants originally used the collection for communion, but the church stopped holding regular communion services after it converted to Unitarianism in 1830. By the early 1900s, church leaders had moved the silver to a vault in a bank across the street for safekeeping. In recent years, according to Charles E. Wainwright, chairman of the church historical committee, only a few of the items were used regularly…
The congregation voted to keep a “baptismal bowl, a tankard, and a goblet”—and, of course, the church roof.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saratoga Not the Turning Point?

The Smithsonian website offers Prof. John Ferling’s article “Myths of the American Revolution”. Ferling explores how some common generalizations about the war aren’t completely correct, and may in fact be mostly incorrect. As an example:

Saratoga was not the turning point of the war. Protracted conflicts—the Revolutionary War was America’s longest military engagement until Vietnam nearly 200 years later—are seldom defined by a single decisive event. In addition to Saratoga, four other key moments can be identified.
The first of those four moments is the combination of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, which, one might argue, was a starting point rather than a turning point. But those events did mark a turn from a political conflict with threatening military moves by both sides to a shooting war.

I’ll let you discover the three other “turning points” Ferling mentions. To make it harder, not all of them are battlefield developments. To make it easier, they all involve the tide turning in favor of the Americans.

But surely there had to be moments when the war turned in favor of the British, right? Otherwise, the war wouldn’t have lasted so long. Gen. William Howe’s sweeping reconquest of New York in 1776 wiped out a lot of the American momentum after successful campaigns at Boston and Charleston. Similarly, Howe’s victory at Brandywine sent the Congress scrambling out of its capital and erased the memory of Gen. George Washington’s smaller battlefield triumphs months before.

Finally, as Ferling notes elsewhere in the article, the British military’s southern strategy looked very good after the battle of Camden, with Georgia back in the Empire, Charleston firmly in British hands, and many Americans sick of the war. At that point, the Americans really needed a new turning point.

Friday, December 25, 2009

“So much for Christmas”

Here are entries from the diary of Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823) in 1765. At the time, this Yale graduate was teaching school in Dedham, starting to court Mary Balch, and trying to figure out his career.

Cutler was a Congregationalist, but on this trip to Boston he investigated the holiday rituals of the Anglicans.

Dec. 24, Tuesday. Set out for Boston in the carriage with Miss Polly Balch; very cold. Spent the evening at Captain Hart’s. Lodged at Mr. Williams’. It being Christmas eve the bells in Christ Church were rung, chimed, played tunes, etc. Christ Church is a large brick building, situated at the north end, and is the first church [i.e., Anglican place of worship, not a meeting-house] founded in the town.

Dec. 25, Wed. Christmas. Went to church at King’s Chapel, where was a very gay and brilliant assembly. Several intervals, in reading service, made for singing anthems, which were performed extremely well. Service was read by Parson [Henry] Caner, and a sermon preached, or rather a harangue pronounced by Parson Trouback [John Troutbeck]. After the sermon a collection was made for the poor. Then the sacrament was administered (which I did not tarry to see).

Dined at Mr. Williams’. A very handsome dinner.

In the afternoon service was read, and anthems sung, but no sermon. This church is built of stone, is very beautifully adorned with carved pillars, several images, etc. Here is a very good set of organs, but no bells, as the steeple is not erected. This is the most grand church in town, where His Excellency [i.e., the governor] is obliged to attend.

This evening we came to Roxbury and spent it very agreeably at Mr. Increase Sumner’s, and lodged at Mr. Samuel Sumner’s.

Dec. 26, Thurs. This morning began to snow. At 10 o’clock we set out for the city of Tiot (Indian name of Dedham), and came to an anchor at Dr. [Nathaniel] Ames’, where we dined, drank tea, and spent a very agreeable evening. We came home at 10 o’clock. As it had cleared up, and was a bright moonlight night, and not cold, we had a very pleasant ride. So much for Christmas.
Cutler tried the whaling business, studied law, and finally became a minister in 1771. During the Revolutionary War he was a chaplain, but also studied medicine. In the 1780s Cutler promoted settlement in Ohio, investigating the pre-Columbian mounds in that territory, but he returned to Massachusetts and ended up serving a couple of terms in Congress. So, though he remained the Congregationalist minister in Hamilton, I’m not sure he really settled on a career.

The picture above is King’s Chapel today, courtesy of Light Boston.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

How You Will Spend Your Christmas Vacation

I’m quite pleased to have stumbled into Georgian London, Lucy Inglis’s blog about life in the capital of the British Empire in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and especially life in the capital’s underside.

This week’s posts are dedicated to Hannah Glasse, author of The Art of Cookery, with extracts from her writings. Inglis writes:

Hannah was born in 1708 in London, but raised in the North. She married John Glasse, a man in service and moved with him first to Essex, then to London. As a wife and mother, Hannah spent her time producing the enormous Art of Cookery, but the year it was published, by subscription, her husband died. She struggled to support her family, despite the huge success of her book and it seems likely she was taken advantage of. Hannah would go on to write more books, but nothing equalled the success of her mammoth cooking and household manual, and she died in 1770 with only a short note in the London Gazette to her name.
Of course, that was more notice than most women who had been in service received.

Other topics aren’t so appetizing, such as Inglis’s discussion of the hard lives of child chimney sweeps:
Should any of these boys survive to adolescence, they were prone to the serious malady ‘soot-warts’. For decades it was believed to be a venereal disease resulting from sooty love-making, probably because it arrived at the same time as puberty. It was Percivall Pott, in 1775, who recognised it as the first occupational cancer in his treatise Chirurgical observations Relative to the Cataract, the Polypus of the Nose, the Cancer of the Scrotum. Pott’s treatise is not for the faint-hearted or for anyone in possession of a scrotum…
But there are some happy stories, such as the prosperity of the dwarf couple Robert and Judith Skinner:
With such a large family to support they decided, in 1742, to exhibit themselves in Westminster at intervals over two years in order to raise some money. They were quite the characters about town, being described as ‘very good-looking, perfectly straight and well made, witty, intelligent and jocose’.

Their exhibition proved very successful and they had a small carriage made so that they might tour St James’s Park, ‘No larger than a child's chaise, drawn by two dogs, and driven by a lad of twelve years old, attired in a purple and yellow livery’. After the two years they retired and lived in comfort until Judith died in 1763. Robert isolated himself and died the following year in Ripon, ‘of a broken heart’, leaving a fortune of over twenty thousand pounds.
There are also lots of big pictures. I don’t think one can navigate the blog by date, so one is left to the tags, which are intriguing enough to keep you there for days.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sorting Out the Gossip about Horatio Gates

I’ve been exploring the rumors that Gen. Horatio Gates was secretly the son of a British aristocrat, most likely his mother’s employer, the Duke of Leeds. In The Generals of Saratoga, Max M. Mintz writes:

Enemies and detractors of Gates, skeptical that the son of servants should receive a commission in the British army, have alleged that he was Leeds’s illegitimate son. . . . The unanswered questions haunted Horatio all his life. When he aspired to advancement, he was accused of illegitimate pretensions. If he earned a promotion, it was ascribed to his birth.
Really? This is one of the passages in Mintz’s book that goes beyond the sources cited.

The eighteenth-century British genteel class loved to gossip. Indeed, it often appears that the society was held together by gossip. The third Duke of Bolton’s affair with the actress Lavinia Fenton was talked about almost immediately, and retold often. It appears in a delightfully dishy 1779 publication called The R—l Register, which also says of “the D— of B——“:
no man was ever more indebted to rank and title than this nobleman; for no man stood more in need of the consequence which is derived from them. Weak and whimsical, but persuaded, like many other good mistaken people of the same kind, that he possessed the opposite qualities, he naturally became no infrequent subject of mirth, raillery and cajolement.
Other chapters of that volume discuss the “E— of H——,” “Ld. D—,” “B— of Carlisle,” various monarchs, and so on. (The authors have good things to say about “E— P—,“ or Earl Percy.)

In 1751 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote that the Duke of Bolton’s first wife “failed to give passion”—i.e., wouldn’t have sex with her husband—“and upon this plan threw away her estate, was despised by her husband, and laughed at by the public.” Montagu wrote that with some sympathy, referring to “My poor friend the Duchess of Bolton,” and she wrote it in a letter to her own daughter.

That daughter was the wife of the third Earl of Bute, George III’s favorite minister in the early 1760s. John Horne and others suggested Bute was having an affair with the king’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales. Georgian gossip reached very high.

In October 1777, as Londoners were wondering how Gen. John Burgoyne’s attack on the rebel colonies from Canada was going, Horace Walpole wrote of that officer:
He is a natural son of Lord Bingley, who put him into the entail of the estate, but when young Lane [George Fox-Lane, Bingley’s son-in-law] came of age the entail was cut off. He ran away with the old Lord Derby’s daughter, and has been a fortunate gamester.
Walpole and his contemporaries would have been equally interested in sharing the juiciest gossip about Burgoyne’s conqueror, Gen. Horatio Gates.

But the worst they could come up with was that he had no claim to aristocratic status at all.
  • Israel Mauduit, though supporting the American cause, reminded London readers that Gates had been “in the service of Charles Duke of Bolton, was never thought to possess an understanding superior to other men; and…[was] scarce equal to the command.”
  • Horace Walpole recorded in his diary that Gates “was the son of a housekeeper of the second Duke of Leeds, who, marrying a young husband when very old, had this son by him.”
No biographer of Gates has quoted any eighteenth-century British source suggesting that the general was the secret love-child of a peer.

The first recorded hint that Gates had noble blood in his veins surfaced in America after his death, in guesses by the Stevens family of New York. They had weak evidence, and guessed totally wrong. Only decades later, after Walpole’s diary was published, did writers suggest that Gates had a biological connection to the Duke of Leeds.

As I wrote before, the Stevenses were admirers of Gates, and heirs of his second wife. I also suspect they heard hints about Gates’s father being more than an army captain, “respectable victualler,” or clergyman, as authors wrote in the mid-nineteenth century.

Who was the source of those hints? I think the search has to start with the question of who in America would benefit from people believing that Gates wasn’t simply an ambitious child of hard-working servants who convinced their employer to help him become a British army officer. Who in American would like people to think that the retired general, remarried to a wealthy British heiress, was actually the son of a British lord? I can’t help but think that that list starts with Gen. and Mrs. Gates themselves.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That Time Again

Boston 1775 congratulates Old South Meeting House on the restoration of the clock in its steeple. The clock, installed by Gawen Brown in 1770, had to be shut two years ago because the hands were damaged. An anonymous donor paid for the full restoration.

This article from the Boston Globe describes one discovery during the process:

The two 9-foot clock faces debuted a new look, black paint coated with ground glass. Restorers discovered evidence of the smalt coating when they analyzed the faces under a microscope; it was the original finish on the nearly quarter-ton clocks when they were created in the mid-19th century to replace older dials.

“They probably had that finish for 20 to 30 years, but haven’t been back to a true smalt until now,” said Wendall Kalsow, a principal architect with McGinley Kalsow & Associates Inc., the Somerville-based restoration firm heading the project. “When the sun hits it, it just sparkles—a shimmer like a little jewel in the air.”
I understand there are also plans to add a bell to the clock for the first time since the aftermath of the great fire of 1872.

How Horatio Gates Became an Officer and a Gentleman

Yesterday I mentioned Max M. Mintz’s The Generals of Saratoga, published in 1990. It traces the careers of both Gen. John Burgoyne and Gen. Horatio Gates, and in doing so offers the latest and most comprehensive work about Gates’s muddled ancestry.

Mintz’s notes mention unpublished parish registers, Treasury and War Office records, and a letter Gates received after the Revolution from a second cousin on his mother’s side, discussing their family. (He apparently never replied.) I haven’t seen any of that stuff, but I have looked at some of the published material Mintz cites.

Sometimes his conclusions strike me as going a little beyond what those sources say. For instance, the book says that Gates’s mother was born Dorothy Hubbock, daughter of John Hubbock. Perhaps those names appear in the letter or another unpublished source. But the cited source that I could check—Six North Country Diaries (Second Series)—contains information about two men named John Hubbock, their work as successive postmasters at Durham, and their children. But it doesn’t list either one having a child named Dorothy or Dorothea. So what’s solid and what’s an informed guess?

Mintz suggests that Dorothy Reeves (her first married name) met Robert Gates when he delivered groceries to an estate in Wimbledon owned by the Duke of Leeds, where she was housekeeper. And that she was still employed there when she gave birth to Horatio, explaining why he was born in the nearby town of Old Malden (which people later misspelled as “Maldon”).

However, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Wimbledon, Surrey, by William Abraham Bartlett, says that while a future Duke of Leeds bought an estate in that town in the late 1600s, his heirs sold it in 1717, a decade before Horatio was born.

Despite holes like that, I still find Mintz’s recreation of events convincing, with the exception of one point I’ll discuss tomorrow. We can’t be sure that the following account of the Gates family is accurate, but it seems like the most likely scenario of any published so far. The parts in boldface appear well documented, the rest—so far as I’ve seen—informed surmise.

Dorothy Hubbock came from a solid yeoman family. There were clergymen among her ancestors and cousins, and she learned to read and write. Dorothy married a man named Reeves and had a child they named Peregrine after her employer, the second Duke of Leeds. By the late 1720s Dorothy Reeves was that duke’s housekeeper, and a widow.

Robert Gates was a waterman who sold food to the estates along the Thames; that was why he was later identified as a “respectable victualler in Kensington.” At times, Gates did other, less legal work, which is how in 1724 he got arrested and fined by the Customs service.

Around 1727, Dorothy and Robert got married and had a child: Horatio. His mother used her friendship with a fellow servant to have Catherine, Lady Walpole’s young son be the baby’s godfather. In 1729, the Duke of Leeds died, prompting a change in the household management. At the same time, the third Duke of Bolton was setting up house with his new love, the actress Lavinia Fenton, and needed a good housekeeper. So he hired Dorothy Gates.

To ensure her services, the duke provided for her family as well. He pulled some strings at the Treasury, and the Customs office dropped Robert Gates’s smuggling case in 1729, and even hired him and his stepson. In turn, Gates and Peregrine Reeves did services for Bolton. When the duke fell out of favor at court for political reasons in 1733, he valued loyalty from his household staff all the more.

Young Horatio Gates grew up in Greenwich, at least at first in the duke’s house—hence Israel Mauduit’s statement that he “lived with his father in the service of Charles Duke of Bolton.” Greenwich had three comprehensive schools, and Horatio attended the “Green Coat” school for sons of watermen, fishermen, and mariners.

Between that education, his exposure to the Bolton household, and his natural intelligence and ambition, Gates gained the skills of a gentleman. He could write, speak French, make allusions to the classics, and so on. Most important for his career, Horatio also learned the art of putting superior gentlemen at ease.

In 1740, the Duke of Bolton squeezed back into favor, and started getting some lucrative sinecures again. The next year, the Treasury made Robert Gates the Customs Surveyor at Greenwich, explicitly on the duke’s recommendation. This post had an annual salary of £60, plus a portion of seized goods. The Gates family accumulated enough money to buy their own house in Greenwich.

During the Highland uprising of 1745, Bolton offered to raise an infantry regiment. Since this was a new regiment, it fell outside the usual system in the British army of officers selling their commissions to men who wanted those ranks. Here was an opportunity for a young man with no fortune but good connections.

Mintz reports the end of this tale:

Horatio was commissioned an ensign in Colonel Thomas Bligh’s Twentieth Regiment of Foot. This was to give him the entry rank from which he was then promoted to Bolton’s own regiment. On October 14, 1745, the clerk in the War Office wrote down, “Horatio Gates, Gentleman to be Lieutenant,” the fifteenth entry on the roster of Bolton’s officers. Astoundingly, the sixteenth name was “John Burgoyne”…
Thus, in his late teens Horatio Gates, son of a “common victualler” and a housekeeper, became an officer and a gentleman.

TOMORROW: Where did those whispers about Gates’s parentage begin?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Robert Gates and the Customs Service

I’m getting back to Gen. Horatio Gates’s foggy family history, starting with his father’s relationship to the British Customs service.

In The Generals of Saratoga, Max M. Mintz reports that in 1724 Robert Gates was caught rowing “nine hogsheads of French wine” to shore. He blamed the importer, but the court came down hard on him anyway, with a fine of £104.5s.

That was a huge amount for a Thames waterman, and Gates still hadn’t paid the fine five years later. On 20 Feb 1729 the Commissioners of the Customs reported on a petition he had submitted, and on 29 April the Treasury communicated

To the Attorney General for the entry of a non-prosecution to an information against Robert Gates, husbandman, for being concerned in running goods.
In other words, the authorities forgave him.

Not only that, but on 10 July the Customs office appointed Gates as a tidesman, a low-level official responsible for searching and guarding ships.

I found those last two items on British History Online, one of the resources I list on the left here. But, I have to admit that I didn’t think to search that database until I’d stumbled into a reference through Google.

At one point Mintz’s Generals of Saratoga refers to Robert Gates’s wife with the surname of her first husband: “Dorothy Reeves.” I’d already read that she had an older son named Peregrine, so I did a Google search for “Peregrine Reeves.”

And what I found through British History Online was that on 9 Dec 1729 the Customs service appointed Peregrine Reeves a waterman in the London port—an even lower but still steady government position, coming within months of his stepfather’s hiring.

Earlier I wrote, based on a statement in Paul David Nelson’s biography of Gates, that Peregrine Reeves received an army commission in the 1740s. I haven’t found any record of that, and such commissions were widely reported in Britain. So I now wonder if Nelson read a reference to Reeves’s Customs commission in a family letter and misinterpreted it.

Jobs with the Customs service brought steady salaries, insulated from the ups and downs of the market, for as long as one was physically able to do the work. There was a lot of unemployment in Georgian London, so those positions were desirable. That one family secured two jobs within a year suggest that someone with influence had started pulling strings for them.

The Treasury records offer a few more glimpses of Robert Gates through the years. In November 1740 he asked to be “removed from being a boatmen in London port to be a waterman in the searcher's boat at Windsor.” In June 1738, the department granted him a leave of absence as “one of the watermen in London port.”

Finally, on 21 Aug 1741, as I reported before, the Treasury decided:
Robert Gates, a waterman to the coastwaiters, London port, at the recommendation of the Duke of Bolton, is to succeed Mr. Horrex (preferred to be an inspector of the river) as surveyor of Greenwich. William Brooker to succeed Gates.
The Surveyor’s job paid £60 per year, plus a percentage of the value of seized contraband. Robert Gates was thus in a position to help his son Horatio become an officer and a gentleman.

Before moving on to how the Duke of Bolton appears to factor in all this, I’ll note a curious entry in the Treasury records for 2 Feb 1734:
Thos. Gates, waterman, London, to be surveyor of Greenwich, loco [i.e., in place of] Thos. Dorrell, deceased.
Was “Thos. Gates” an error for “Robert Gates,” being pushed for a higher position seven years before he actually got it? Other sources show that William Smith was the Surveyor at Greenwich from 1725 through his death in 1736, so who was the late “Thos. Dorrell”? I can’t find those names anywhere else in the records, so basically I can’t explain that entry at all.

TOMORROW: Dukes and Gateses.

(Photo of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich above by RachelH_, via Flickr. Greenwich is probably my favorite neighborhood—or favourite neighbourhood—of London.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Unstudied Letters from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson

Kenneth Burchell called my attention to an unpublished letter from Thomas Paine that Sotheby’s sold for £10,000 this past week. Paine wrote it in 12 July 1789 when he was back in England, trying to find investors to back an iron bridge he had designed. He asked the letter recipient if they might be related.

The auction house’s description says:

This curious letter reveals the great radical agitator and American Patriot investigating his family history. Presumably out of caution when writing to a stranger, he emphasises the respectability of his background. He amiably discusses the Hustler family arms and avoids any hint of revolutionary politics; one would hardly guess from his understated comment about having spent time in America that he had been the revolution’s great propagandist.

The date of the letter imparts an even greater historical irony to Paine’s wish “in about a month’s time to go to France”: these words were written just two days before the fall of the Bastille, which set in train events that would not only bring Paine to Paris, but take him away once and for all away from England, engineering and family history, and firmly back into the ferment of revolutionary politics.
In other epistolary news, earlier this month the University of Delaware reported that two graduate students had identified a previously forgotten letter from President Thomas Jefferson, dated 4 Feb 1808 (and pictured above). Jefferson was responding to the death of John Dickinson, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence:
A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us. Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government: and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.
The letter was saved in the archives of the Rockwood Museum, which is a Victorian-era mansion. Presumably the members of the Bringhurst family who came to live in that house had recognized the value of Jefferson’s name and kept the manuscript.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The First Picture of the Boston Tea Party

As a farewell to the Boston Tea Party on this anniversary week, I’m running what I suspect is the earliest visual depiction of the event, created by Philip Dawe in 1774.

Does that proximity in time mean this is our most accurate portrayal? Not at all. Dawe didn’t see the tea destroyed since he was in London. And he wasn’t trying to be historically accurate. The daytime sky and the ease with which the Bostonians are tipping those heavy chests over the rail show that the artist was merely representing what had happened. He ignored what became a major element in later American images: the men’s “Mohawk” disguises.

Dawe was using the Tea Party to make a point in this larger political cartoon, titled “Bostonians Paying the Excise Man or Tarring and Feathering.” It lumped together the destruction of the tea with the mob attacks on Customs officers, the protests at Liberty Tree against the Stamp Act, and the threat of hanging.

Friday, December 18, 2009

How Much Was the Tea in the Tea Party Worth?

Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail wraps up his timely look at the Boston Tea Party with an analysis of the financial cost.

The account reproduced yesterday itemizes the East India Company’s cargo by ship and by kind of tea. In all, as you can see, the losses came to a grand total of £9,659/6/4—that is, 9,659 pounds sterling, 6 shillings, and 4 pence. (For you uninitiated out there, there were 12 pence in a shilling, and 20 shillings in a pound before British currency was “decimalised” in 1971.)

According to another document reproduced in the same booklet, Catalyst for Revolution, this “Invoice Amount” includes the American duty of 3 pence per pound of tea, and a commission of 8%, which was presumably to be paid to the local consignees.

But how much does that figure mean in terms that we 21st-century Americans can understand?

Three years earlier, in 1770, Paul Revere purchased his house at 19 North Square for £213/6/8. Do the math, and you’ll find that the destroyed tea was worth more than 45 times the price that Revere paid for his 7-room house. This wasn’t a mansion; it was an older house and the rooms were small. But the Revere home was probably typical of the housing stock for an average working-class family in Boston.

Out in the country, Abigail Adams paid £600 for the finest house in Braintree (now Quincy) while her husband John was away on diplomatic work in 1787. The tea was worth more than 16 times the price of this mansion.

(If you visit those houses, note that Revere’s house today is smaller than it was in his time, while Adams’s house is considerably larger than it was when the family bought it.)

After the American Revolution, in Massachusetts at least, British pounds were converted to U.S. dollars at a rate of £3 to $10, or £1 = $3.333333.... Applying that exchange rate, the East India Company’s losses amounted to $32,197.72—in 1773 dollars.

And if we want to factor in inflation over the last 236 years, two different websites offer data that we can use. Measuringworth gives us an inflation factor of 27.5 for a present-day value of $885,000; while Oregon State University Prof. Robert Sahr offers a factor of 26.3 for a modern value of $847,000.

Lastly, we can go to our local supermarket to see the present-day price of tea. I found a 100-bag box of Salada tea (official co-sponsor of Old South’s events this year) at $3.99. Based on the earlier calculations about the number of tea bags the cargo would fill, that’s about $739,000. Which might show that tea has become less of a luxury good than it was back then.

Of course, fancier blends cost more, just as Hyson cost more than Bohea in 1773. The best supermarket deal I found on Earl Grey, for example, came to $26.26 per pound. At that rate the Tea Party cargo would be worth more than $2.4 million today. Then again, that’s retail, not wholesale.

Thanks, Charlie! Knowing how much that tea was worth sure helps to explain the anger of the Parliament in London.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How Much Tea Was Destroyed in the Boston Tea Party?

Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail, continues his stint as Boston 1775’s guest blogger today, discussing how this document from 1774 sheds light on the Boston Tea Party.
The history books tell us that 342 chests of tea were destroyed in Boston on the evening of December 16, 1773. But how big was a chest? What was the total weight of tea leaves consigned to the fishes?

We can find answers in the document shown here. As I described yesterday, it was annexed to a petition from the East India Company to Parliament, dated February 16, 1774. This reproduction is from Catalyst for Revolution: The Boston Tea Party, 1773, written by Benjamin W. Labaree and published by the Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission in 1973.

The third column of the account lists the weights of tea, by kind and by ship. No totals are provided in the original document, but we can add up the numbers ourselves. They come to a grand total of 92,616 pounds avoirdupois of that pernicious herb! That’s more than 46 tons in the U.S. system of weights (“short tons” in the U.K.’s old measure); or, for you metric aficionados, it’s 42,009.9 kilograms.

In terms that the tea drinker can understand, there are typically 100 tea bags in a half-pound box sold in the supermarket today. So that comes to 18,523,200 cups of tea!

There were about 16,000 inhabitants living in Boston then: we’re talking three cups of tea a day, for every man, woman, child, and infant in the town, every day for more than a year.

That’s a lot of tea.

So how big were those chests? Were they bigger than a breadbox, as the saying goes?

They certainly were. The bulk of the tea, 84,880 pounds or 91.6% of the cargo by weight, was Bohea, the lowest-priced grade of tea, invoiced at 2 shillings per pound including duty and commission. The Bohea was shipped in 240 so-called “full chests” which contained an average of 353 pounds per chest. The chest itself, made of wood and lined with lead, added another 80 or 90 pounds, thus the total weight of each chest was well over 400 pounds.

Not something that you would casually pick up—it required several men to lift a full chest, and blocks and tackle to hoist them up from the vessels’ holds.

The higher-priced grades of tea were shipped in “quarter chests” which were, as you might guess, about a fourth the size of a full chest.

There were 40 chests of “Singlo (1st sort),” invoiced at 2/8 (2 shillings, 8 pence) per pound, totalling 3,233 pounds and averaging more than 80 pounds per chest.

“Singlo (Hyson Skins)” amounted to 20 chests, all on board the Eleanor, 1,389 pounds at 3/- (that is, 3 shillings) per pound, for 69 pounds per chest.

The highest-priced grade was Hyson, at 5/- per pound, just 15 chests comprising 1,134 pounds, for an average of 75 pounds a chest.

Congou accounted for another 15 chests, 1,296 pounds at 2/3 per pound, or 86 pounds per chest.

And there were 10 chests of Souchon, 684 pounds at 3/- per pound, or 68 pounds of tea per chest.

As you can see, even the smaller chests of more expensive tea would have required substantial manpower to heft overboard.

Contrary to what some people have claimed, the tea was not shipped in bricks. The leaves were loose in the chests, but they were very densely packed, allegedly pressed under workers’ feet as they were loaded in the wooden boxes. It probably took some effort for the “ruffians” to break up the compressed clumps of tea leaves with their bare hands.

There is, by the way, an interesting discrepancy revealed by this document from the House of Lords archives. Most history books say that 342 chests of tea were destroyed in the Boston Tea Party. That figure appears as early as the December 20, 1773, issue of the Boston Gazette that first reported the event. But the East India Company’s numbers add up to only 340 chests—114 chests each on the Eleanor and Dartmouth, but only 112 chests on board the Beaver. Where did the other two chests come from? Or were they just a miscalculation by the Gazette?

TOMORROW: Charlie addresses the £9,600 question: how much was that tea worth in real money?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Charles Bahne on “the Consequences of Such an Insurrection”

Many histories of the Revolution report that on the night of 16 Dec 1773, Bostonians destroyed 342 chests of tea by throwing it in Boston harbor. On this anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, I’ve invited Charles Bahne, who literally wrote the book on Boston’s Freedom Trail, to add more detail about that tea and why it meant so much.

After the Boston Tea Party, the East India Company went to the Parliament in London with a petition that itemized the damages that the Company had suffered from the “violent and illegal Proceedings” in Boston, and sought indemnification for its losses.

After explaining how the company had shipped its tea under the new Tea Act to Boston, as well as other American ports, the petition concludes:

[The] lawless Rabble went on board on the Arrival thereof, and stoved & threw into the Harbour the whole of the said Cargoes of Tea, after forcing the Officers of the Customs on board of the said Ships to quit the same & go on Shore, whilst they perpetrated their violent and illegal Proceedings.

That the East India Company’s Loss on this account, together with the Freight which they are obliged to pay, will amount, according to the said annexed account, to the Sum of Nine Thousand Six Hundred Fifty Nine Pounds Six Shillings and four Pence, and as it was not in your Memorialists’ power, who were carrying on a fair & legal Trade, to prevent the Consequences of such an Insurrection,

Your Memorialists, on behalf of their Constituents, beg leave to request of Your Lordship to lay their Case before His Majesty, & that His Majesty will be graciously pleased to pursue such Measures, or give such Directions, for the Indemnity of the East India Company, respecting their said Loss, as to His Majesty, in His great Equity and Wisdom, shall seem meet.

East India House
London 16th Febry 1774.
I found this document reproduced in a booklet which I purchased many years ago at the Boston Tea Party Ship when it was berthed in Fort Point Channel. The booklet, Catalyst for Revolution: The Boston Tea Party, 1773, was written by Benjamin W. Labaree, who was also the author of the classic scholarly volume The Boston Tea Party (1964). The smaller booklet was originally issued in 1973 by the Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission, although my copy appears to be a later reprint.

Along with its petition, the East India Company included an “annexed account” which contains in one place answers to several questions not generally found in most popular—or scholarly—studies about the Tea Party:
  • How big was a chest of tea?
  • What was the total weight of tea leaves consigned to the fishes?
  • And how much was it worth altogether?
TOMORROW: Charlie starts to lay out those vital statistics.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hearing “A Knock at the Door”

A recording of the “A Knock at the Door: Three Centuries of Governmental Search and Seizure” panel discussion at the Old State House in Boston in November is now available for viewing through the WGBH Forum Network.

I’m posting a screen grab from that website last night, showing its most recent 18th-century history lectures. After all, it may be a long time before I again see myself featured side by side with Gordon S. Wood.

I don’t actually deserve top billing on this video, but there was a delay in setting up, so Frederick Lane’s introduction didn’t get recorded. He comes on after me, and you’ll see that he moderated the event as author of American Privacy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Public Discussions of the Battle Road Scenic Byway

Tonight there will be a community forum in Concord, Massachusetts, to discuss the Battle Road Scenic Byway and what it might mean for the town. The meeting will take place from 7:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M. at 141 Keyes Road, First Floor Conference Room, in Concord.

On Wednesday, 16 December, the equivalent meeting will take place in Lincoln, starting at 7:00 P.M. in Bemis Hall, 15 Bedford Road.

Similar forums will be held in Arlington and Lexington sometime in January.

This website about the Battle Road Scenic Byway explains:

The communities of Arlington, Lexington, Lincoln, and Concord, the Minute Man National Historical Park, MAPC [Metropolitan Area Planning Council], and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation [now Massachusetts Department of Transportation] are collaborating to help conserve this historic route and to highlight its archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts officially designated The Battle Road Scenic Byway on November 6, 2006.

With funding from the Federal Highway Administration’s Scenic Byways program and a match from the Massachusetts Highway Department, MAPC is developing a Corridor Management Plan for the byway in conjunction with the project partners, to be completed in the spring of 2011.
The Scenic Byway website has links to the maps, spreadsheets, and planning documents that will be discussed at these meetings.

“In the Service of Charles Duke of Bolton”

In 1911, the Massachusetts Historical Society republished a letter that had appeared in the London Chronicle on 3 Aug 1779, adding evidence that it was written by Israel Mauduit (1708-1787). Mauduit was an English merchant who in the 1760s became the London agent, or lobbyist, for the province of Massachusetts. He wrote pamphlets supporting the American cause and New England’s dissenting church.

After the Revolutionary War began, Mauduit published essays in support of American independence—an unusual stance for an Englishman. He also wrote criticism of the London government and its generals, and the 1779 letter was part of that campaign.

Mauduit disparaged Gen. John Burgoyne by writing about the mediocrity of his opponent at Saratoga, Gen. Horatio Gates, as follows:

And yet Mr. Gates, when he lived with his father in the service of Charles Duke of Bolton, was never thought to possess an understanding superior to other men; and the letters of some of the most sensible and best informed men among the rebels show, that they thought him scarce equal to the command.
A man who had been “in service” and considered “scarce equal to the command” had nonetheless taken a British army prisoner.

The third Duke of Bolton was Charles Powlett or Paulet (1685-1754), shown above. An official record links him to an important appointment of Gates’s father Robert within the Customs service: the minutes of a Treasury Department meeting on 21 Aug 1741 say:
Robert Gates, a waterman to the coastwaiters, London port, at the recommendation of the Duke of Bolton, is to succeed Mr. Horrex (preferred to be an inspector of the river) as surveyor of Greenwich. William Brooker to succeed Gates.
The duke was also head of the regiment that young Horatio Gates joined as a lieutenant in 1745. So far as I know, there’s no positive evidence that Bolton was behind the commission that Gates’s older half-brother received around the same time, but he’s the family’s most likely patron.

Was he also Horatio Gates’s father? There’s nothing to link the Duke of Bolton to the Duke of Leeds’s housekeeper in 1727, when Gates was likely born. In fact, around that time Bolton was leaving his wife and embarking on a long affair with the young actress Lavinia Fenton.

In December 1741, those same Treasury records show, the duke asked the Treasury to allow two of his sons by Fenton—“Charles and Piercy Pawlett”—“For a re-grant on surrender of the office of bailiff of Burley in New Forest, co. Southampton.” Unable to legitimize them, Bolton may have instead sought offices to provide them with income.

Two wrinkles here:
  • The published Treasury Office records refer to the sons’ mother as “Lavinia Beswick.” Scandalmongers claimed that Lavinia Fenton was actually the daughter of a naval lieutenant named Beswick. Which name really appeared in the duke’s petition?
  • The couple had a third son named Horatio Armand Powlett—yet another Horatio in this story!
In 1751, the duke’s wife died, and he and Fenton married at last in Aachen, Germany. By then the Gates family was fairly comfortably established.

COMING UP: So what does the Duke of Bolton’s family situation tell us about Gen. Horatio Gates?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Nose Says No?

Before addressing the changing fortunes of Horatio Gates’s legal father, I thought I’d share visual evidence that might be pertinent to the general’s biological paternity.

You may have noticed that Gates had a long, curved nose. Indeed, it’s hard to miss that prominent facial feature in these portraits of him by Rembrandt Peale (left) and Gilbert Stuart (right).

Here are close-ups of portraits of the three paternity candidates I discussed yesterday: from left to right, Baron Horatio Walpole; his brother, prime minister Sir Robert Walpole; and Peregrine Osborne, the second Duke of Leeds.


The Walpole brothers look a lot alike, and the duke’s nose is the longest of the bunch. But I don’t think any of these gentlemen look strikingly like Gates. And to my knowledge, no one at the time claimed to see any physical resemblance, either.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Possible Fathers for Horatio Gates

As I reported yesterday, in the early 1800s the Stevens brothers of New York saw Horace (formally Horatio) Walpole’s signature in books one of them had inherited from Gen. Horatio Gates’s widow, and decided Gates was secretly Walpole’s son.

That strikes me as a logical leap.

The simplest explanation would be that Walpole had given some books to Gates back in England. The later publication of Walpole’s letters showed that he was Gates’s godfather, so it’s conceivable that he could have passed on some books to the younger boy. (It doesn’t look like the two men had much contact after childhood.)

We don’t know what books those were, but Paul David Nelson stated in his 1976 biography of Gates that when the officer moved to America in 1772 he packed only “13 volumes of different sorts, chiefly religious.”

The only logical reason that I can see for the Stevenses to take the signature in those books as evidence of paternity is if they’d already heard whispers that Gates was the son of a prominent British man.

Historians have kept those rumors alive because it was so unusual for someone with Gates’s humble social status as son of a housekeeper (albeit housekeeper to a duke) to become a British army officer. Furthermore, in the 1740s, the same decade when Gates received his first commission, his legal father Robert Gates got a lifetime appointment as Surveyor of the Customs at Greenwich, and his older half-brother Peregrine also got an army commission. So was some very influential gentleman looking after the family?

One possibility is that the Stevens family had seen the signature not of Horace Walpole the writer but of his uncle, Horatio Walpole, the first Baron Walpole (1678-1757), pictured above. He was a diplomat with influence in the Treasury; the government appointed him a Teller of the Exchequer in May 1741, a few months before Robert Gates got his lucrative Customs post.

However, that Horatio Walpole appears to have been living happily with his wife, Mary Magdalen Walpole; they had nine children together between 1720 and 1736. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have had a mistress as well, but I’ve found no evidence for a connection to the Duke of Leeds’s housekeeper.

Some authors suggested that Horatio Gates and Horace Walpole shared a father: Sir Robert Walpole, prime minister of England for many years in the early 1700s, and younger brother of Horatio. This Walpole is known to have had many mistresses.

However, by 1727-29, the period of Gates’s birth, Sir Robert had left his wife Catherine for one particular woman, Maria Skerritt. He could still have been having other affairs, of course, but this appears to have been a real love match. After Catherine died in 1737, Sir Robert married Maria. Alas, she died in childbirth the next year.

Another fact that lessens the likelihood of Sir Robert Walpole being involved with Gates’s mother is how Horace Walpole wrote, “My mother’s woman [i.e., maid] was intimate with that housekeeper.” Robert and Catherine Walpole’s households probably moved in separate circles.

(There was yet another Horatio Walpole, one generation further back. He lived 1650-1700, and married a daughter of the first Duke of Leeds, thus linking the two families. He was an uncle of the baron and the prime minister, and a great-uncle of the writer, and he died childless.)

Finally, many authors have suggested that Horatio Gates’s father was Peregrine Osborne, the second Duke of Leeds himself. He was the mother’s employer, and therefore had influence over her. Her previous son shared his name.

The weak spots in that theory are that in 1727 the duke was sixty-seven years old and only two years from dying, at which point he could no longer pull strings for the Gates family. In addition, his wife Bridget was still alive, and I see no evidence for a rift in their marriage.

Finally, Treasury Department documents tell us which British peer was looking after Robert Gates. And it wasn’t any Walpole or the Duke of Leeds.

COMING UP: How the Gates family got ahead.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gates’s “Filial Relationship of a Less Sanctified Character”

As I quoted two days ago, in 1855 Washington Irving wrote about Gen. Horatio Gates this way:

Horace Walpole, whose Christian name he bore, speaks of him in one of his letters as his godson, though some have insinuated that he stood in filial relationship of a less sanctified character.
Irving had probably heard that insinuation whispered around New York.

On 27 Sept 1833, Christopher C. Baldwin, librarian at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, put this statement in his diary:
Mr. Stevens, a classmate of Rev. George Allen of Shrewsbury, and son of Gen. Ebenezer Stevens, told me that Gen. Horatio Gates was an illegitimate son of Horace Walpole. A brother of Mr. Stevens had the library of Gen. Gates, and in many of the books was the autograph signature of Mr. Walpole.
How reliable could such gossip be? Well, the Rev. George Allen graduated from Yale in 1813. Among his classmates was John Austin Stevens, a son of militia general Ebenezer Stevens.

In 1810, Gates’s second wife and sole heir left John Austin Stevens’s older brother Samuel “all the remainder of my books and library,” save one volume. Mary Gates also left the general’s watch and $2,500 to another brother, not coincidentally named Horatio Gates Stevens.

The two families were obviously close. Back in 1806, after Gen. Gates died, the Mercantile Advertiser of New York reported that Ebenezer Stevens had wanted to eulogize him at a public funeral. Gates’s will demanded a small, private ceremony, and Stevens may have satisfied his desire by writing the long, laudatory notice in that newspaper.

In sum, John Austin Stevens’s gossip to the Worcester archivist was probably based on actually seeing Walpole’s signature in the general’s books, and there’s no sign of any personal or political hostility toward Gates motivating the rumor.

But, as discussed yesterday, the author Horace Walpole was only nine to eleven years old when Gates was born. Walpole was also probably gay, but that’s beside the point—he couldn’t have been the baby’s father. In fact, his youth might have been a reason why he was invited to be the godfather: he might have unquestioningly accepted the mother’s new husband as the baby’s father while adults whispered otherwise.

TOMORROW: The Walpole connection, part 3.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

“My Godson, Mr. Horatio Gates”

No one has found a record of Gen. Horatio Gates’s birth. According to Max M. Mintz in The Generals of Saratoga, over his career Gates gave his birth year in various documents as 1727, 1728, and 1729. So the confusion in American newspapers when he died is understandable.

Fortunately, we have an eyewitness recollection of Gates’s christening—from his godfather, no less. That account dates from decades later, so the details might be hazy. It offers no definite date or place, but it provides other, juicier details.

The British writer, politician, aesthete, and world-class gossip Horace Walpole first wrote about his link to Gates in a letter to George Montagu dated 22 Mar 1762. Gates was then an army captain, and had just brought the news of the British capture of Martinique to London. Walpole wrote:

Perhaps you may think me proud; but you don’t know that I had some share in the reduction of Martinico; the express was brought by my godson, Mr. Horatio Gates…
Since I plan to take partial credit for everything good my godson accomplishes, I can certainly understand Walpole’s pride at that moment.

Later Gates became more notorious in London as the victor in the Battle of Saratoga. On 16 Feb 1778, Walpole put more detail into his journal:
Gates was the son of a housekeeper of the second Duke of Leeds, who, marrying a young husband when very old, had this son by him.

That Duke of Leeds had been saved, when guilty of a Jacobite plot, by my father, [prime minister] Sir Robert Walpole, and the Duke was very grateful, and took great notice of me when I was quite a boy.

My mother’s woman was intimate with that housekeeper, and thence I was godfather to her son, though I believe not then ten years old myself.

This godson, Horatio Gates, was protected by General [Edward] Cornwallis when Governor of Halifax [uncle of the Gen. Cornwallis at Yorktown]; but, being afterwards disappointed of preferment in the army, he joined the Americans.
Walpole was born in 1717, so if he was accurate about standing as baby Horatio’s godfather at short of “ten years old myself,” Gen. Gates was most likely born in 1727.

Walpole’s diary entry also explains why Gates said little about his family background: his mother was a housekeeper, and her husband presumably of the same working class. British army officers expected all their peers to have been gentlemen from birth.

This anecdote, first published in London in 1859, raises a question: If Walpole was only nine years old when Gates was born, why had people whispered that he was secretly the general’s real father?

TOMORROW: The Walpole connection, part 2.

(Portrait of Walpole above courtesy of the Gothic Imagination blog.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Who Was Gen. Horatio Gates’s Father?

Horatio Gates was one of the retired British army officers who joined the Continental Army at the outbreak of war. He was the army’s first adjutant, or chief administrative officer, and thus helped to keep the American forces organized during the siege of Boston.

Finding out the facts about Gates’s background and childhood has been a challenge for historians, and apparently he wanted it that way. He left few direct statements, and some of the things he did say are contradictory.

In 1847, Thomas Wyatt published a book called Memoirs of the Generals, Commodores, and Other Commanders who Distinguished Themselves in the American Army and Navy during the Wars of the Revolution and 1812. He wrote:

Horatio Gates was the son of a clergyman at Malden, in England, and was born in the year 1729. Having lost his father at an early age, he was left pretty much to the dictates of his own passion. He appears to have determined on a military life as early as twelve years of age, when the frequent remonstrances of his uncle and guardian could not prevail on him to relinquish the thoughts of a profession so much against the wishes of his family.
However, Washington Irving’s biography of George Washington, which started to appear in 1855, states of Gates:
He was an Englishman by birth, the son of a captain in the British army. Horace Walpole, whose Christian name he bore, speaks of him in one of his letters as his godson, though some have insinuated that he stood in filial relationship of a less sanctified character.
In other words, Irving had heard folks whisper that Horace Walpole was actually Gates’s biological father, though not his legal one.

The very next year, Winthrop Sargent (not the artillerist of that name, but a grandson) wrote in The History of an Expedition against Fort Duquesne, in 1755:
Horatio Gates, afterwards so distinguished in American history, is said to have been the son of a respectable victualler in Kensington. . . . Gates was born in 1728.
Finally, in his three-volume edition of the Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, published in London in 1858, Charles Ross described Gates this way:
Major-General Horatio Gates, son of a clergyman at Maldon in Essex, and godson of Horace Walpole; b. 1728, d. April 10, 1806.
Maldon in Essex County is on the eastern edge of England. Malden, as Wyatt spelled it in the first quotation above, was a town slightly southwest of London.

After Gates died on 10 Apr 1806, the American Citizen and the Mercantile Advertiser told his fellow New Yorkers that he’d been seventy-eight years old. The New-York Weekly Museum said he was seventy-seven, and many other American newspapers repeated that figure.

So we have three or four contradictory remarks about the profession of Gates’s father, two years in which he was born, and three places in which he was born or his family lived. And just enough hint of juicy gossip to keep us digging.

TOMORROW: The Walpole connection, part 1.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The “Noble Dream” of History as a Science

Having quoted briefly from Gordon S. Wood’s Washington Post essay on writing history, I want to add his further analysis of why so many professional/academic historians write books that don’t appeal to the public as many narrative histories do. I liked how Wood’s article didn’t follow the common pattern of simply lamenting that many historians write opaquely on obscure topics, but analyzed why they come up with their books:

Instead of writing this kind of narrative history, most academic historians, especially at the beginning of their careers, write what might be described as analytic history, specialized and often narrowly focused monographs usually based on their PhD dissertations. . . .

Such particular studies seek to solve problems in the past that the works of previous historians have exposed; or to resolve discrepancies between different historical accounts; or to fill in gaps that the existing historical literature has missed or ignored.

In other words, beginning academic historians usually select their topics by surveying what previous academic historians have said. They then find errors, openings or niches in the historiography that they can correct, fill in or build upon. Their studies, however narrow they may seem, are not insignificant. It is through their specialized studies that they contribute to the collective effort of the profession to expand our knowledge of the past.

The writing of these sorts of historical monographs grew out of the 19th-century noble dream that history might become an objective science, a science that would resemble if not the natural sciences of physics or chemistry, then at least the social sciences—economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology—that were emerging at the same time as professionally written history.
Wood thus recognizes the limitations of both approaches to history, but sees potential for a synthesis of the insights gained from narrowly focused studies applied to narratives that reach outside academia.

Wood also rightly puts the emphasis on subject rather than language; it doesn’t help much to write clearly if your topic doesn’t grab readers outside of the field. The sciences, social sciences, and literary studies have developed specialized vocabularies, either because they need greater-than-everyday precision or because there’s value in seeming obscure to the non-initiated. In contrast, the study of history doesn’t really have jargon, except for a few terms like “agency” and “contingency.” So it all comes down to the topic and the approach.

Monday, December 07, 2009

History and the Narrative Fallacy

Yesterday I discussed the appeal of narrative history that offers the same ingredients as a good fictional story: protagonists, goals, obstacles, resolution through internal forces. The protagonist can be a historical figure (or several) trying to achieve something, or a historian trying to answer a question. Either way, such a narrative structure turns a sequence of events into more than “one damned thing after another,” as Arnold J. Toynbee once characterized some other historians’ work.

The problem with a historical narrative is that it might not reflect real life. We all know that we do a lot of things every day because of circumstances, habits, or whims, not because we approach life with clear and unconflicted goals. We’ve all seen plans work out, or not work out, because of unforeseen outside forces or simple chance. We all experienced social, technological, or environmental forces that can overwhelm one individual’s ability to affect the world—what historians call “agency.”

Yet we still like narratives. We humans are pattern-spotting animals, and sometimes we even impose patterns on life to make it more understandable. A narrative is one such pattern, and a pleasing one. But that understanding of life may get in the way of real comprehension.

For example, the history of Paul Revere’s ride on 18-19 Apr 1775 is an exciting narrative. It offers:

Henry W. Longfellow made Revere’s ride a popular legend by squeezing out lots of the complexity. David Hackett Fischer wrote a much more detailed, accurate account in his own Paul Revere’s Ride, noting as he did so how the event had what Aristotle called “dramatic unity”—it took place within a relatively compact space and time. I myself recounted a Revere-centered version of the story for Boston National Historical Park last April.

And yet, as I’ve argued, Revere’s ride may not have really affected how the rest of 19 Apr 1775 turned out. Other warnings got through. The militia in Lexington and Concord had started to assemble even before Revere and his colleagues arrived, and spent hours milling around. The British troops weren’t really hunting Hancock and Adams.

Once those troops reached Concord, furthermore, the militiamen massed outside town weren’t sure how to respond; they spent more hours watching and debating, and pulled back after the first engagement at the North Bridge. Even after the shooting really began along the battle road, it’s not clear what the provincials hoped to accomplish. If they had cut off the regulars from Boston, would they have known what to do with them?

And then there’s the larger picture of whether what Revere did on 18-19 April, or even the whole Battle of Lexington and Concord, changed the split between Britain and its North American colonies. Was war bound to start somewhere fairly soon? (Had it already started in Portsmouth?) Was the political and economic conflict within the British Empire too far along to be patched up? Exploring those questions gets us into the realm of large social movements and economic trends, beyond the level of crowd-pleasing narratives.

And as for the alternative narrative form of historian as investigator, diligently gathering evidence to answer a stated question, anyone who’s done research knows that’s even more of a fiction. You determine the questions as you go along, evidence turns up in the most unhelpful order, and the end of the investigation is defined less often by your goals than by your deadlines.

Myself, I like narrative history. I like reading it, and when I plan a talk or article I almost always find myself thinking in narrative terms. I happen to believe in human agency, and in the meaning that accumulates from the sum of individual lives. But at the same time, I worry that narrative history can be a snare, a pleasant illusion of how events fit together that hides a more complex, messy picture.

(The image above is Grant Wood’s rendering of Paul Revere’s midnight ride from the Grant Wood Gallery.)