J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, December 31, 2010

What Stays

Earlier this season, Historic New England reported:

We were surprised to find that one of the most popular museum objects [in our online collections] was not something of great monetary value, such as a work of art or a piece of furniture, but a humble eighteenth-century homespun corset.

Why? It turns out that a website, larsdatter.com, which lists material culture available on the web, posted a link to the corset [on its page about women’s stays and corsets]. This caused a flurry of hits as word spread—presumably among the electronic community of people who make authentic costumes for theater and re-enactors, and who prize rare survivals like this for the historical evidence they contain.
The collections database currently includes 34,000 images and more than 130,000 records.

Here’s another set of stays from colonial New England, this one made for a child and preserved at the Pocumtuck Valley Historical Association in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Twitter Feed Returns, 13-26 Dec 2010

Loudtwitter is back! Thanks to all the programmers who’ve volunteered their knowledge and time to create that service. It allows me once more to post the Boston 1775 Twitter feed because it’s so much easier than writing an essay awesome.

(If any of the links below is a dead end, that’s because some extra characters snuck in during the transmission process. Try hitting the little hashtag at the end of that line and then clicking through the original link from the tweet page.)

  • 16:19 RT @56Signers: We filmed historical reenactment of #Yorktown Tea Party w/ Thos Nelson descendant. Nelson Vid: bit.ly/cyRQ4s #
  • 16:53 @marianpl Jack Rakove's AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARIES is thorough on issues and politics, but not stirring. #
  • 16:54 @marianpl Don Higginbotham's WAR OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE is still good on the military side. #
  • 16:55 @marianpl There are MANY aspects of the Revolution I'm still new to myself because I focus so tightly on one region and period. #
  • 17:03 @marianpl Just checked out Stokesbury's SHORT HISTORY OF THE AM REV. 300+ pages! But it was a LONG war, w/lots of politics on either side. #
  • 11:35 In this week in 1823, "Visit from St. Nick" published. In 1860, "Paul Revere's Ride." Now read the 1941 mashup: bit.ly/fchHKe #
  • 12:27 RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1783: George Washington resigns as commander in chief. ow.ly/3tLRr His battle sword: ow.ly/3tLRs #
  • 12:44 RT @AmerCreation: The "No Mr. Beck" Series nblo.gs/cb73o #
  • 22:48 Pauline Maier on the historic roots of the 2nd Amendment and what happened to our well-regulated militia: nyti.ms/gp2dsL #
  • 22:48 Kakutani in NY TIMES on Joseph Ellis on John and Abigail Adams: nyti.ms/hCQ2ZH #
  • 22:50 Early review of John Fea's WAS AMERICA FOUNDED AS A CHRISTIAN NATION?: bit.ly/fxKs9k #
  • 22:51 @JBD1 Wishing you smooth sailing on the digital seas! Will virtual libraries be as exciting as real ones? #
  • 23:01 A true Iraqi martyr, a Sunni policeman who grabbed a suicide bomber as he attacked a Shiite procession: nyti.ms/h33pap #
  • 12:20 RT @alexismadrigal: Edison Papers archive faces budget shortfall:is.gd/ja7TU // You'd think those would be electronic. #
  • 11:44 RT @56Signers: He paid for the #RevWar and ended up in jail. The tragedy of Robert Morris, signer:n.pr/hkuDaW #ushist #
  • 11:47 RT @gordonbelt: The great experiment in constitution-making: Jack Rakove reviews Pauline Maier's "Ratification" bit.ly/ihX7AV #
  • 11:50 RT @gordonbelt: Partners in revolution: Pauline Maier reviews "Madison and Jefferson" wapo.st/ek0MNK #
  • 11:52 RT @JBD1: On the MHS blog today, some of the "odder" curiosities in the collections - bit.ly/dRKGlz // James Otis relics! #
  • 11:58 RT @executedtoday: 12-year-old Hannah Ocuish was hanged in #Connecticut #onthisday 20 Dec 1786 ow.ly/3iAdo #
  • 12:26 Thomas B. Allen (TORIES) writes of #RevWar as a civil war in AMERICAN HERITAGE: bit.ly/eSlZXO #
  • 12:54 From US Intellectual History blog, praise for Pauline Maier's RATIFICATION: bit.ly/fU0Fvv #
  • 12:56 RT @history_book: Gov. Alexander Martin: North Carolina Revolutionary War Stateman - Charles D. Rodenbough. amzn.to/bjYQxS #
  • 00:17 American Antiquarian Socy acquires letters from Joseph Dennie (1768-1812) while he was rusticated from Harvard: bit.ly/dFDHTB #
  • 00:19 Godson's Brother (turning 10) will represent his school in the Townsend-Warner quiz on British history. Sample queries: bit.ly/hPK361 #
  • 23:22 From @CitizenWald, the Tea Party as myth, as historical parallel, as controversy: bit.ly/eke1qS #
  • 11:03 John Fea's review of Alan Houston's BENJAMIN FRANKLIN & THE POLITICS OF IMPROVEMENT: bit.ly/eSySg6 #
  • 11:09 RT @executedtoday: 18 December 1789: The Canadian Burglars bit.ly/hMOOL4 #history #tdih #
  • 11:10 RT @KevinLevin: Book Review - The Women Jefferson Loved - By Virginia Scharff - NYTimes.com ow.ly/3rfQ0 #
  • 11:13 RT @KevinLevin: Salvador Dali's Civil War Memory shar.es/XelPl // THIS would have been on Richmond's Monument Avenue?!! #
  • 11:14 RT @LeBlancLucieMC: Grand-Pré, Acadia Parish Registers 1707-1733 networkedblogs.com/bUpPA #
  • 11:15 RT @marianpl: Symbolic Past: John Woodman, W. Newbury, MA - 1787. Age 83 #genealogy ow.ly/3r9ql #
  • 11:15 RT @OldSaratogaHist: On this date in 1777, first National Thanksgiving was celebrated in honor of the American Victory at Saratoga #revwar #
  • 11:23 RT @Taylor_Stoermer: This date in 1764, Virginia House of Burgesses opposes threat of stamp tax thru messages to king & Parliament. #
  • 11:24 RT @history_geek: Stacy Schiff Shares Advice for Aspiring Biographers - ow.ly/3rhZE #
  • 11:25 RT @historytavern: "@Presidentfacts: John Quincy Adams(6th) is the first president to have had a photograph taken. twitpic.com/6lvup" #
  • 11:39 Stacy Schiff: "Nearly all documents of the French foreign ministry about American Revolution were composed to mislead." bit.ly/fUrHD3 #
  • 11:54 RT @carinr: Long-s issues: problematic for lexical data, but potential for typographic research? j.mp/dW3YAb bit.ly/hhJja4 #
  • 12:07 @HTClinic: "Department of Labor releases report listing good produced by child labor or forced labor." // Think you're missing an S. #
  • 12:47 When Longfellow first saw "Paul Revere's Ride" in print 150 years ago today, he was dismayed to spot a BIG typo: bit.ly/ikdRBR #
  • 21:12 Finding anti-slavery meaning in "Paul Revere' s Ride" - Jill Lepore in NY TIMES: nyti.ms/dRPQwB - at Boston1775: bit.ly/hMehQY #
  • 12:12 RT @mooresclassroom: Benjamin Franklin's 200+ synonyms for "Drunk" bit.ly/ffXzRE My favorite: "His Flag is Out" (via @mental_floss) #
  • 12:51 RT @NYPLMaps: Happy birthday Jane Austen! The author was born in Hampshire County, UK in 1775 map:... fb.me/CHBaFC5J #
  • 12:53 RT @WilliamHogeland: "Declaration 1776" *bargain-priced* hardcover all ready for Xmas: tinyurl.com/2bqgjgy #history #books #RevWar #
  • 13:26 RT @jondresner: Does having cup of tea on 237th #anniversary of original #TeaParty constitute a political statement? // Oops, already did. #
  • 00:38 Massachusetts Historical Socy's online treasures linked to the 1773 Boston Tea Party: www.masshist.org/blog/443 #
  • 00:42 Reply from @CapitalismNow, biographer of Samuel Adams, to @caleb_crain's take on Tea Party in NEW YORKER: bit.ly/ee9PRp #
  • 15:08 Online chat about Revolutionary America with Caleb Crain going on NOW at NEW YORKER: nyr.kr/eifn8d #
  • 15:10 NY TIMES's Edward Rothstein thinks "President's House" in Philadelphia raises too many unaddressed questions: nyti.ms/hP3gEF #
  • 15:01 RT @tompin: George Washington died 211 years ago today. Missed the 19th century by a few weeks. bit.ly/eSO8iw #ushistory #
  • 15:04 RT @history_book: Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution - by Michal Jan Rozbicki. amzn.to/dWFy4Z #
  • 15:27 @PaulRevereHouse Revere's 1791 letter to Washington asking for excise job suggests they had met but were not well acquainted. #
  • 15:33 RT @Readex: Undergraduate's Reflections on How Access to Newspapers Helped in researching Boston Tea Party reactions bit.ly/efLxhm #
  • 15:37 RT @visitvf: Huzzah! Huzzah! The Continental Army marches into Valley Forge NHP THIS Sun. 6-8pm. bit.ly/fo1Tj3 #
  • 15:57 RT @RagLinen: An unexpected consequence of the Boston Tea Party, 1773: ow.ly/3p9kJ #
  • 15:57 RT @PHLVisitorCntr: The President's House is ready to be seen! fb.me/PTwFzrGr #
  • 16:04 RT @NEHgov: NEH-supported scholar studies forgotten Founding Father John Dickinson, "Penman of the Revolution" bit.ly/e2qFhQ #
  • 16:04 Tracing the term "dystopia" to the mid-1700s, long before J. S. Mill used it: bit.ly/dVFdTk #
  • 16:26 @HistoricShed And of course it's always easier to get press for a NEW DISCOVERY. Even better if it UPENDS EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW! #
  • 23:15 Review of GEORGE WASHINGTON'S SOCKS, #RevWar time-travel adventure for middle-grade readers from 1991: bit.ly/eMLGWp #
  • 23:23 RT @larrycebula: Wanted: Founding Fathers northwesthistory.blogspot.com/2010/12/wanted-founding-fathers.html #
  • 23:26 RT @marianpl: Symbolic Past: Joseph Bates, Bellingham, MA - 1793. #genealogy ow.ly/3piNZ #
  • 23:28 When old soldier Samuel James deserted from the 52d Regiment of Foo—oh, wait, he's come back: bit.ly/gzObsI #
  • 23:38 From @jlpowers, call for pieces for anthology on children and war: bit.ly/i7rWMP #

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dr. Benjamin Church Has a Blog

I’ve spent most of the last several days polishing a draft of a chapter about Gen. George Washington’s intelligence activities during the siege of Boston. (Sixty-four pages isn’t too long for a chapter, right? 205 footnotes simply means I’m being thorough, right? Anyway…)

That chore makes me delighted to know about this blog entirely devoted to Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. Edward J. Witek has been researching Church for years, and is now sharing some of his findings.

For example, he’s handled a topic I’ve had on my to-do list: What’s the source of the one and only and completely unconvincing portrait of Church (shown here)? A bigger mystery, of course, is why people keep reprinting it. It’s not even good-looking.

Witek also lays out the evidence about Church’s reported mansion in Raynham—or was it Bridgewater? Here’s a bit of Church’s political poetry, composed for Paul Revere. And here’s the start of a series about Scottish printer John Mein, one of the Boston Whigs’ most effective opponents. There are growing pages about medical practice and Freemasonry in eighteenth-century Boston.

I suspect that Witek and I might not agree on all Churchly topics because there’s so much murkiness in what the doctor was up to: espionage, sex, propaganda, money, &c. That leaves extra room for interpretation. But now there’s a central clearing-house for the mysteries.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

George Washington’s Teeth, Yet Again

There are only two more years to visit Mount Vernon and see the teeth that Boston native John Greenwood carved for George Washington out of hippopotamus bone!

The webpage says:

On loan from The New York Academy of Medicine, the denture was the first of several dentures that John Greenwood made for Washington and is dated 1789, the year that Washington took his oath of office in New York City. The denture is engraved with: Under jaw. This is Great Washington’s teeth by J. Greenwood. First one made by J. Greenwood, Year 1789.

Carved from hippopotamus ivory, the denture contains real human teeth fixed in the ivory by means of brass screws. The denture, which was anchored on the one remaining tooth in Washington’s mouth, has a hole which fit snugly around the tooth and probably contributed to the loosening and eventual loss of that tooth.
The Mount Vernon website notes that there is no extra cost to see these teeth.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hannah Mather Crocker Book Still on the Way

Two years ago, I got word that Hannah Mather Crocker’s history of colonial New England was being readied for publication this year. Then I lost track of the project.

I just picked up the trail again through the blog for the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium’s blog, at which Prof. Eileen Hunt Botting reports:

The first edition of Hannah Mather Crocker’s Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston is slated to be published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society Press in April 2011. I worked on this edition while a NERFC fellow in 2009-10.

Crocker (1752-1829) was the daughter of Samuel Mather, the grand-daughter of Cotton Mather, and the great-granddaughter of Increase Mather, all famed Boston ministers. Crocker wrote the Reminiscences between 1822 and 1829, when she left the book unpublished at her death. The manuscript was acquired by the NEHGS in 1879.

Crocker’s history of Boston spans from the city’s founding by the Puritans in 1630 through the War of 1812. There are also scattered, eye-witness references to life in the city for the duration of Crocker’s life from the 1750s through the 1820s. The narrative is not chronological but rather thematically recounts the development of Boston via its topography, the genealogy of its inhabitants, and its politics.

The narrative orients itself around several key political events to which it periodically returns: the Puritan founding, the crafting of the colonial and provincial charters of Massachusetts, the American Revolution, the post-revolutionary rebirth of the city, and the War of 1812. Her non-chronological treatment of the city’s history allows Crocker to draw connections between events and people across time and space.

The narrative climax of Crocker’s history is the American Revolution, in which Crocker weaves her eye-witness testimony into a reflective work of synthetic history that draws from primary, secondary, and oral sources.
Still looking forward to this volume! If we can follow Mark Twain’s “autobiography,” surely we can follow how Crocker weaves strands of New England history.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

“O Silent night shows war ace danger!”

This is a semi-famous sonnet by David Shulman titled “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Can you see what’s notable about it?

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!
The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.
Ah, he stands—sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens—winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.
George can’t lose war with ’s hands in;
He’s astern—so go alight, crew, and win!
Every line—that’s every line—is an anagram of the phrase “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Yet Shulman still managed to produce couplets and a semblance of sense, though I must admit that metre fell overboard.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

“He Would Much Rather Sit on Christmas-Day...”

On Monday, 19 Dec 1774, the British Parliament debated “raising the Supply granted to his Majesty”—i.e., enacting taxes, in this case a land tax. The country’s landowners were, understandably, against raising this charge, so the House of Commons agreed to Lord North’s proposal to keep it at “three Shillings in the Pound.”

Then a member named David Hartley (1732-1813) rose to speak. Representing Kingston upon Hull, he was one of the radical Whigs opposed to the government’s American policy, meaning the Boston Port Bill, Massachusetts Government Act, and duties enacted since 1767. He insisted that Parliament had to deal with the crisis in the Massachusetts Bay colony, where nearly all the army troops on the continent were holed up in Boston.

This description of Hartley’s speech comes from a record of Parliamentary activity published in 1775 (which leaned toward the Whigs):

Mr. Hartley rose, and in a mild, sensible speech, enlarged upon the very extraordinary conduct of Administration concerning American affairs.

He said the accounts from that country were truly alarming; that the Resolutions of the Continental Congress evidently proved that the people were determined not to submit to the late Acts passed in relation to America, nor to any other of a like complexion; that the Troops now stationed at Boston, and the inhabitants of that Town, had no means of procuring subsistence but by Sea, or from the country; that either method was now equally difficult, as the Harbour would be frozen up, and the land carriage, even if subsistence was to be had, rendered impracticable, as the country would be covered with snow; and that, under such circumstances, the situation of the Troops would be no less deplorable than that of the miserable inhabitants.

He continued to say, that he was not well versed in sieges; but if he understood right, he took it that the Town of Boston was surrounded by General [Thomas] Gage with lines of circumvallation, and that such being the very critical state of things, respecting both the situation, the temper, and disposition of the military and the natives, he submitted it to the gentlemen on the other side how they could reconcile it to the duty they owed to the Nation in their publick, or to their constituents in their private capacity, to agree to a long adjournment, while things remained in so dangerous and alarming a state, without taking any one step to avert the numerous and fatal mischiefs which they portended.

For his part, he affirmed solemnly, he would much rather sit on Christmas-day, and continue to do so, de die in diem [from day to day], than go to the country [i.e., adjourn] in so critical a season, without at least agreeing to some measures, though they should extend no further than prevention.
According to Nathaniel Wraxall, who entered Parliament in 1780, Hartley was by no means a stirring orator:
The Rockingham Party had not among them a more zealous adherent; but in Parliament, the intolerable length, when increased by the dullness of his Speeches, rendered him an absolute nuisance, even to his own friends. His rising always operated like a dinner bell.

One day, that he had thus wearied out the patience of his audience; having nearly cleared a very full House, which was reduced from three hundred, to about eighty persons, half asleep; just at a time when he was expected to close, he unexpectedly moved that the Riot Act should be read, as a document necessary to elucidate, or to prove, some of his foregoing assertions.

[Edmund] Burke, who sat close by him, and who wishing to speak to the Question under discussion, had been bursting with impatience for more than an hour and a half; finding himself so cruelly disappointed, bounced up, exclaiming, “The Riot Act! my dear friend, the Riot Act! to what purpose! don’t you see that the mob is already completely dispersed?”

The sarcastic wit of this remark, in the state of the House, which presented only empty Benches; encreased by the manner and tone of despair, in which Burke uttered it; convulsed every person present except Hartley, who never changed countenance, and insisted on the Riot Act being read by one of the Clerks.
Be that as it may, I found that Hartley’s argument had a certain resonance this month, when American legislators also argued about whether to stay in session, not on Christmas but in the days after Christmas. And ended up finishing before the holiday after all.

Back in 1774, the House of Commons “adjourned for Christmas recess” on Friday, 23 December, after the king approved the renewed act “granting to his majesty certain duties upon malt, mum, cyder and perry” as before. The land tax was completed in February. Lord North and his ministers maintained their American policy, and war began in April.

During the war, North’s government had to raise the land tax, which cost it support. After years of fighting and the defeat at Yorktown, a new ministry in London changed policy and started to negotiate a withdrawal from those thirteen colonies. That government appointed David Hartley to represent Britain at the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Digging Deeper into Joshua Wyeth’s Story

Yesterday I laid out my reasons for doubting the account of the Boston Tea Party which Francis S. Drake credited to Joshua Wyeth in Tea Leaves, and which is widely quoted elsewhere.

On the other side of the question, while researching Defiance of the Patriots Ben Carp decided that Wyeth was basically credible. As early as 1820, years before he started to get newspaper coverage, Wyeth swore that he “was on board the East India Company’s ships in the Harbour of Boston [and] assisted in throwing the tea overboard.” That was part of his application for a Revolutionary War pension. Ben argued that Wyeth had:

  • no reason to lie—being at the Tea Party had no bearing on whether he was legally eligible for a pension.
  • good reasons to tell the truth—he was under oath, and his credibility about his wartime service was on the line.
Wyeth got his pension, and his basic story didn’t change over the years.

In addition, in the account Wyeth gave to the Rev. Timothy Flint in Cincinnati in 1827, he recalled the last names of four other participants: “Frothingham, Mead, Martin and Grant.” The first list of participants, compiled in Boston (where people were initially skeptical about Wyeth’s claims) and published in 1835, included Nathaniel Frothingham, Moses Grant, and man named Martin (later identified as John).

Despite those things, I was still skeptical, and figured Wyeth’s credibility would remain something Ben and I would never resolve to both our satisfaction. But this month I dug below Drake’s quotation of Wyeth’s words in Tea Leaves to the original source, and I discovered that Drake hadn’t really quoted Wyeth.

Here’s the sentence that had made me dubious:
It was proposed that young men, not much known in town, and not liable to be easily recognized, should lead in the business. Most of the persons selected for the occasion were apprentices and journeymen, not a few of them, as was the case with myself, living with tory masters.
That was actually an amalgamation of sentences in Flint’s article, which starts in the editor’s own voice:
It was proposed, that young men, not much known in town, and not liable to be easily recognized, should lead in the business. Our narrator believes, that most of the persons selected for the occasion were apprentices and journeymen; not a few of them, as was the case with himself, living with tory masters. He had but a few hours warning, of what was intended to be done. The part which he took in the business, is related as follows, and nearly in his own words.

I labored, as a journeyman blacksmith, with Western & Gridley, blacksmiths by trade, and Baptists by profession. Western, at the time, was neutral, but afterwards became a tory.
So Wyeth didn’t say that he’d lived with a Tory master in 1773. Wyeth accurately recalled that his master Obadiah Whiston made a political conversion after the Tea Party (though the word “neutral” understates how active Whiston had been before then).

The narrative in Wyeth’s own words that follows never describes a decision about who should destroy the tea; that earlier line appears to have been a conclusion that Flint drew. Wyeth presented himself as one of several dozen young men in Boston muttering about what to do with the tea, but he doesn’t seem to have been privy to the real decision-making or planning. During the tea destruction he comes across as a useful grunt, hauling up those heavy chests; he doesn’t puff up his own role.

Three details are still inaccurate:
  • In his mid-teens, Joshua Wyeth was very unlikely to be a “journeyman” as he called himself, though he may not have been legally indentured.
  • The ships were at Griffin’s Wharf, not Hancock’s Wharf. That looks like a simple memory lapse by someone who’d been away from Boston for decades. And according to Ebenezer Stevens, one of the tea ships did spend time at Hancock’s wharf before being moved.
  • No “brigade of British soldiers was encamped on the common, less than a mile from the wharf.” There were soldiers at Castle William and warships in the harbor, but the British military never moved against the activists. Wyeth appears to have added that detail, possibly remembered from other times when there were soldiers on Boston Common, to produce a more exciting narrative.
Do those contradictions sink Wyeth’s entire credibility? Not for me, not anymore. Right now, contrary to my earlier position, I’m inclined to accept his basic accuracy. Which goes to show the importance of finding the earliest sources.

And thus ends Boston 1775’s retrospect on the Tea Party for the year 2010.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tea Party Boys “Living with Tory Masters”?

When Ben Carp was writing Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, we disagreed about Joshua Wyeth, the first man associated with the phrase “Boston Tea Party.” Ben thought that there was enough evidence to make him basically credible. I was suspicious about his story of helping destroy the East India Company’s tea in 1773.

Here’s how Francis S. Drake quoted Wyeth’s account in the magazine Old and New in 1874 and his book Tea Leaves in 1884:

It was proposed that young men, not much known in town, and not liable to be easily recognized, should lead in the business. Most of the persons selected for the occasion were apprentices and journeymen, not a few of them, as was the case with myself, living with tory masters.
Why, I asked, would the Boston radicals select apprentices and journeymen for this sensitive job which required minimal violence when the mindset of the time was that boys and young, unanchored men easily went out of control?

Even more important, why would they entrust such a big secret to boys who depended on known Loyalists for their food, clothing, shelter, and future livelihood?

And most important, I said, Joshua Wyeth was not living with a “tory master” in 1773. He recalled working for a blacksmith named “Watson” or “Western.” That man was actually Obadiah Whiston, and actually a mighty big radical. Here’s Whiston’s rap sheet:
  • 24 Oct 1769: As a British army company marched back from the gate on Boston Neck, a crowd followed them, shouting and throwing stuff, because their officer refused to answer a warrant about stealing firewood. One soldier’s musket went off, the bullet striking the doorway of Whiston’s forge on Orange Street. He shoved his way into the ranks and slugged that soldier in the face.
  • 5 Mar 1770: Alarm bells rang in the center of town, and Whiston ran in that direction. Someone told him there was no fire, only a fight between civilians and soldiers. So Whiston went on ahead, ready to get some punches in. Later he testified to town magistrates about the ensuing Boston Massacre.
  • October 1774: Whiston hid two purloined militia cannons in his forge so that the British army couldn’t confiscate them, and helped the Patriots smuggle them out to a tavern in Dorchester.
Those don’t seem like the actions of a Loyalist.

Whiston became a “tory” in early 1775—a switch that’s still mysterious. On 5 February, Dr. Joseph Warren wrote to Samuel Adams that the blacksmith “has hitherto been thought firm in our cause, but is now making carriages for the army.” That change must have thrown his apprentices for a loop.

And Wyeth must have been an apprentice, despite Drake calling him “a journeyman blacksmith in the employ of Watson and Gridley.” He was only sixteen years old, not close to being a legal adult.

My theory was that at the Tea Party Joshua Wyeth was just a wannabe or hanger-on. Maybe he was one of the teenagers who pushed their way into the event and were put to cleaning up. But the account attributed to him just didn’t make logical sense or fit the historic facts.

After moving out to Cincinnati, I theorized, Wyeth found he was the only Boston man around—the only source of stories about the famous pre-Revolutionary troubles. Wyeth could turn himself from an apprentice to a journeyman. He could describe being summoned to help destroy the tea. He could explain to the world that having a “tory master” was actually an asset, not a reason for suspicion. He could come up with the cute name “Boston Tea Party.” And there was no one around to contradict anything he said.

That wasn’t just my theory. Back in 1827, after the Western Monthly Review published a profile of Wyeth as a Tea Party participant, the Boston Gazette fired back. As I’ve already noted, the editor of that paper, Benjamin Russell, kept track of Bostonians who had been at the Tea Party. His Gazette noted errors in Wyeth’s account, including the detail about young men being chosen to “lead in the business,” and insisted that at most Wyeth had been a spectator.

Hard-nosed skeptics like Russell and me might be responsible for the footnote in Defiance of the Patriots acknowledging that Wyeth’s account might contain some fudged details.

TOMORROW: Digging deeper into Wyeth’s story.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Man Who Named the Boston Tea Party

Early in 1826, this little item ran in several American publications:

One of the party of “about forty unknown people dressed like Indians,” who boarded the ship Eleanor, in Boston, in 1773, and threw overboard 114 chests of tea, now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is, says the Crisis, a temperate, hardy old veteran, supports his family by the sweat of his brow, and often boasts of the “Boston tea party.”
Ben Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots cites this item from the 28 January issue of the Baltimore Patriot. Before looking that up, the earliest example I’d found was the Providence Patriot & Columbian Phenix of 4 Feb 1826. Within the next few days the same paragraph was reprinted in the Boston Commercial Gazette, the Norwich (Connecticut) Courier, the Telescope of New York City, and several other publications along the east coast. Some capitalized and/or hyphenated “Tea Party,” and others didn’t.

All those papers credited a periodical called the Crisis. That must be the Cincinnati Emporium, which according to the American Antiquarian Society’s catalog (and who would know better?) was retitled the Crisis and Emporium before going belly up. [Frankly, I’m not surprised at that failure. Crisis and Emporium is a real mixed message, isn’t it?]

This newspaper item appears to be the earliest use of the phrase “Boston Tea Party” for the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor on 16 Dec 1773. It refers only to one ship and its cargo, so the unnamed man was apparently being scrupulous about what himself had done. Few other participants had spoken to printers like this, but they were starting to tell stories at patriotic events. No doubt the passing of the Revolutionary generation and the fiftieth anniversary of American independence were prompting more interest in stories about that night.

The Cincinnati connection allows us to identify the man on the Eleanor as Joshua Wyeth. In July 1827, the Rev. Timothy Flint’s Western Monthly Review included a “Revolutionary Reminiscence of Throwing the Tea Overboard in Boston Harbour” that named, described, and quoted Wyeth. In September, Hezekiah Niles reprinted that item in his National Register, thus ensuring a wider and lasting audience for the story.

Interestingly, Flint’s article doesn’t quote Wyeth as using the term “Boston Tea Party,” as this newspaper item did. But the phrase had already entered the culture. On 20 July 1826, the Essex Register of Salem reported that a 93-year-old man living in Warren, Rhode Island, named Nicholas Cambell (usually spelled Campbell) had “made one of the celebrated Tea Party in Boston harbor,” and printed his account of the night. Several papers ran shorter items about Campbell that summer, some choosing to refer to him by the older term, “one of the destroyers of the tea.”

As Carp points out in his book, at this early point the word “party” referred to the men involved in destroying the tea, not the event itself. Participants were “of the Tea Party,” not “at the Tea Party.” Which makes the recent political use of “Tea Party” for a group into a return to the earlier form.

TOMORROW: But was Joshua Wyeth’s story reliable?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Lyme Tea Party

Yesterday I suggested that when young people in Lyme, Connecticut, celebrated Independence Day in 1805 by toasting “The Tea Party,” they didn’t mean the Boston Tea Party.

Here’s a description of what they did mean, from the Connecticut Journal of 23 Mar 1774, as quoted in John Warner Barber’s Connecticut Historical Collections in 1836:

Lyme, March 17, 1774.

Yesterday, one William Lamson, of Martha’s Vineyard, came to this town with a bag of tea (about 100 wt.), on horseback, which he was peddling about the country. It appeared that he was about business which he supposed would render him obnoxious to the people, which gave reason to suspect that he had some of the detestable tea lately landed at Cape Cod; and, upon examination, it appeared to the satisfaction of all present to be a part of that very tea (though he declared that he purchased it of two gentlemen in Newport [Rhode Island]; one of them, ’tis said, is a custom-house officer, and the other captain of the fort). Whereupon, a number of the Sons of Liberty assembled in the evening, kindled a fire, and committed its contents to the flames, where it was all consumed and the ashes buried on the spot, in testimony of their utter abhorrence of all tea subject to a duty for the purpose of raising a revenue in America—a laudable example for our brethren in Connecticut.
That “detestable tea lately landed at Cape Cod”? Four ships carrying East India Company tea left England for Boston together. By 10 Dec 1773, the Eleanor and Dartmouth were moored in Boston harbor. The Beaver was still five days out. On that day the fourth ship, the William, ran aground near Provincetown.

The William’s captain salvaged the 58 tea chests, and Jonathan Clarke, one of the original consignees, moved most of them into Castle William, from which about half got onto the open market. Patriots tried to hunt down and destroy all this tea. The crowd at Lyme in March 1774 thought they were doing their part for that effort.

The 1805 toast in Lyme must have commemorated that event, which deprived one peddler of about 100 pounds of tea. It’s possible that there was also a “general search” for tea in town, with people tossing their household stores into the fire to signal their commitment to their political values. There had been such a tea-burning in Lexington, Massachusetts, back on 13 Dec 1773, as the National Heritage Museum describes here.

But the “Tea Party” toast from 1805 didn’t allude to the much bigger event in Boston on 16 Dec 1773. The Lyme collation may indeed have been the first time Americans are recorded as calling the politicized destruction of tea in 1773-74 a “tea party,” but it wasn’t the Tea Party we remember.

TOMORROW: So who was the first to call the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor “the Boston Tea Party”?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Earliest “Tea Party”?

This posting continues Boston 1775’s look at the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, which is a clever way to excuse how I got caught up in constitutional questions as the anniversary of that event approached.

Last month Charles Bahne and I were both intrigued to read in Jan Freeman’s “The Word” column in the Boston Globe that the first time anyone used the term “Tea Party” to describe the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor was in 1805. That was nearly three decades before two books about George R. T. Hewes (A Retrospect of the Tea-Party and Traits of the Tea Party) popularized the term.

Charlie looked up Freeman’s reference, which is the 3 Aug 1805 issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine. That in turn quotes an issue of the Connecticut Gazette, which I haven’t located. But I found slightly different references to the same event in the 27 July New Hampshire Sentinel and the 31 Aug Merrimack Magazine. (In addition, some of the material was reprinted in Howe’s Genuine Almanac; for the Year 1814, calculated for the town of Greenwich, Massachusetts.)

Here’s the whole quote from the Boston Weekly Magazine:

A NUMBER of young gentlemen and ladies assembled in Harmony Grove, in the town of Lyme, (Con.) for the purpose of celebrating the anniversary of American Independence: a collation was prepared by the ladies for the occasion, of which the party partook—sprightly conversation, and chaste conviviality, such as gladden the heart, and chase dull care, were the order of day:—among others, the following toasts were drank:

Sowers of Discord. — May they walk barefoot upon the thistles of anxiety, and reap the thorns of contempt with the sickle of despair.

The Tea Party.* — Thirty-one years since, our fathers’ patriotism deprived our mothers of the use of tea—may our mothers’ tea never deprive us of our fathers’ patriotism. . . .
The asterisk leads to this footnote:
* Alluding to the circumstances of a general search being made, when all the tea, found, was taken and burnt.
“Burnt”? That description doesn’t match the Boston Tea Party at all. And the Bostonians of 16 Dec 1773 didn’t make “a general search” for tea; they knew exactly where it was, on those three ships in the harbor. Plus, if those folks in 1805 Connecticut were toasting an event “Thirty-one years” before, that would mean something that had happened in 1774.

TOMORROW: The “Tea Party” in Lyme.

[The image above is a postcard that the Florence Griswold Museum identifies as “Colonial home with picket fence in Old Lyme, Connecticut.” I think it’s the Samuel Mather House (1790—thus post-colonial, but up at the time of this Independence Day gathering), as shown at Historic Buildings of Connecticut.]

Sunday, December 19, 2010

David Kinnison: “not credible”

I’ve been exploring the stories of David Kinnison or Kennison, hailed after 1848 as the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. Yesterday I quoted his description of that event, and the day before his first detailed account of Revolutionary War service.

You can read more of both those documents on Pamela Bannos’s excellent “Hidden Truths” website from Northwestern University. That was my source for the Chicago newspaper quotations about Kinnison’s fund-raising and death on Friday.

Bannos’s site also details the refutations of Kinnison’s stories. Because he was a nearly complete fraud.

Kinnison’s name pops on and off U.S. pension rolls through the mid-1800s, usually spelled Kenniston or Keniston, when he was living in New Hampshire and Maine. He is reported as being 59 in 1835 (i.e., born about 1776) and 82 in 1840 (born about 1758). Only when he arrived in Chicago in 1848 did Kinnison start to state he’d been born in 1736.

Likewise, Kinnison’s war stories don’t add up. In 1848 he told a Chicago newspaper that he’d seen Cornwallis surrender in October 1781. Yet a couple of years later he told magazine journalist Benson J. Lossing that “in a skirmish at Saratoga Springs,...his company (scouts) were surrounded and captured by about three hundred Mohawk Indians. He remained a prisoner with them one year and seven months, about the end of which time peace was declared,” which leaves him no time to have been at Yorktown.

Kinnison claimed to have fought under a general named “Montgomery.” That must be Richard Montgomery, who died leading the American invasion of Canada in 1775. Yet Kinnison didn’t claim to have been involved in any of that memorable campaign.

Kinnison wrote that during the Battle of Bunker Hill “I also helped roll the barrels, filled with sand and stone, down the hill as the British came up.” Those barrels come from Dr. James Thacher’s account of the fortification of Dorchester heights, months later, and they never had to be rolled.

Kinnison’s name apparently does appear on a list of soldiers at Fort Dearborn in the early 1800s, but there’s no evidence he was there when the fort fell in 1812. Fort Dearborn later became the city of Chicago, so that might explain why Kinnison made his way back out there in 1848, hoping to find support in his old age.

In 1914, Dr. Charles Josiah Lewis dismantled many of Kinnison’s claims, as reported in the local paper. But seven years later a local chapter of the D.A.R. named itself after the man. In 1973, Albert G. Overton did a thorough analysis of Kinnison’s stories; he titled his essay “David Kennison and the Chicago Sting,” and to my knowledge it hasn’t been published, though it’s available in some research libraries.

There’s still a big stone monument to Kinnison in the Windy City, dating from 1903, but the online Encyclopedia of Chicago says he was a fraud. The Chicago History Museum keeps some artifacts associated with Kinnison, but identifies him as a hoaxer. The Chicago Tribune detailed the lies in 2003.

Which brings me back to MassMoments, where I started this series of postings. Whoever wrote its 17 November essay about Kinnison obviously hadn’t gotten the memo. (That essay also repeats an error in saying Kinnison was born in Maine; he said he was born in Kingston, New Hampshire, near Maine.)

Remarkably, the MassMoments webpage cites Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party as its sole source. Yet Prof. Young helped write the catalog for the Chicago History Museum’s “We the People” exhibit, which announced that Kinnison was a fraud. And Young’s book actually says:

In 1848, Chicagoans were so desperate for a link to the Revolution and so credulous that they embraced Kennison, who migrated to the burgeoning city advertising himself as 112 years old, a participant at the Tea Party, and a veteran of every battle from Lexington to Yorktown. In reality, Kennison was only nine or so in 1773 (which put him in his eighties in the late 1840s)...
Elsewhere The Shoemaker and the Tea Party states simply that Kinnison’s claim was “not credible.” (Ben Carp’s new Defiance of the Patriots calls him a “Chicago huckster.”)

I think it’s time for MassMoments to edit its 17 November entry to acknowledge that David Kinnison claimed to be at the Boston Tea Party, but was no more authentic than this John Howe.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

David Kinnison’s Tea Party

Yesterday I described David Kinnison, hailed at his death in 1852 as the last surviving participant in the Boston Tea Party. Here is Kinnison’s own account of that event, as published by Benson J. Lossing in 1850:

He was one of seventeen inhabitants of Lebanon [Maine] who…formed a club which held secret meetings to deliberate upon the grievances offered by the mother country. These meetings were held at the tavern of one “Colonel Gooding,” in a private room hired for the occasion. The landlord, though a true American, was not enlightened as to the object of their meeting. Similar clubs were formed in Philadelphia, Boston, and the towns around. With these the Lebanon Club kept up a correspondence.

They (the Lebanon Club) determined, whether assisted or not, to destroy the tea at all hazards. They repaired to Boston, where they were joined by others; and twenty-four, disguised as Indians, hastened on board, twelve armed with muskets and bayonets, the rest with tomahawks and clubs, having first agreed, whatever might be the result, to stand by each other to the last, and that the first man who faltered should be knocked on the head and thrown over with the tea.

They expected to have a fight, and did not doubt that an effort would be made for their arrest. “But” (in the language of the old man) “we cared no more for our lives than three straws, and determined to throw the tea overboard. We were all captains, and every one commanded himself.” They pledged themselves in no event, while it should be dangerous to do so, to reveal the names of the party—a pledge which was faithfully observed until the war of the Revolution was brought to a successful issue.
A longer account appeared in Henry C. Watson’s The Yankee Tea-Party (1851), though it’s unclear whether Kinnison had anything to do with that book. Published in Philadelphia, it supposedly described an event in Boston while Kinnison remained in Chicago, so Watson might simply have exploited the old man’s fame.

On the basis of those stories, Francis S. Drake included Kinnison in his listing of Tea Party participants in Tea Leaves (1884). That expansive list is often reprinted, as at the “Boston Tea Party Historical Society” (a society which seems to exist only on the web).

Kinnison’s account raises lots of questions. Did these seventeen young men from Maine travel hours to Boston simply on the chance that the tea crisis wouldn’t be resolved by the time they arrived? Did the Tea Party really involve only twenty-four men, seventeen of whom were from Maine?

If so, where did this 1835 list of participants come from, and why did it include many more than seven Bostonians and no one from Maine? Why did no one mention Kinnison as a participant until he spoke up in Chicago in 1848? Why is there no record of his “Lebanon Club” corresponding with societies in Philadelphia and Boston?

Why is Kinnison the only person, in 1773 or later, to claim that half the men who destroyed the tea were armed with “muskets and bayonets”? That’s the sort of detail the royal authorities would have been very interested in recording.

In the nineteenth century, authors excused the discrepancies between David Kinnison’s recollection and other accounts of the Tea Party because he was over 110 years old. And, of course, an honored veteran.

TOMORROW: Or was he? What about those other stories?

Friday, December 17, 2010

David Kinnison: The Last Survivor?

For several years now, MassMoments has featured as its historical event for 17 November the birth of David Kinnison, who became nationally famous in the mid-1800s as the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party.

The MassMoments site states:

On this day...in 1736, David Kinnison was born in Old Kingston, Maine. An early convert to the cause of American independence, he participated in the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor, an escalation of resistance to British rule that would come to be known as the Boston Tea Party. After serving in the Revolution and being taken captive by Mohawk Indians, he returned to farming. Still vigorous at the age of 75, he rejoined the military to fight in the War of 1812. The last survivor of the Tea Party, David Kinnison had 22 children and outlived four wives. When he died at 114 in 1851, the nation he had helped give birth to was only a few years away from being divided by Civil War.
What’s the basis for that biography? All the facts come from Kinnison himself. (He usually spelled his name “Kennison,” but it shows up in Tea Party accounts without the E, so I’m using that spelling.)

Kinnison apparently arrived in the young city of Chicago in early 1848 and introduced himself as an aged veteran of the Revolutionary War. That went over so well that in the 6 November Chicago Daily Democrat he announced:
I have taken [i.e., rented] the Museum in this city, which I was obliged to do in order to get a comfortable living, as my Pension is so small it scarcely affords the comforts of life. If I live until the 17th of November, 1848, I shall be 112 years old, and I intend making a Donation Party on that day at the Museum. I have fought in several battles for my country, and have suffered more than any man will have to suffer, I hope I would not go through the wars, and suffer what I have, for ten worlds like this. Now all I can ask of this generous public is to call at the Museum on the 17th day of November, which is my birthday, and donate to me all they may think I deserve.
Earlier in the same paper he had published an account of his life, which declared:
at the age of about thirty-three, I assisted in throwing the tea overboard in Boston harbor. I was at the battle of Bunker Hill and stood near General [Joseph] Warren when he fell. I also helped roll the barrels, filled with sand and stone, down the hill as the British came up.

I was at the battles of White Plains, West Point, and Long Island. I helped stretch the chain across the Hudson River to stop the British from coming up. I was also in battles at Fort Montgomery, Staten Island, Delaware, Hudson, and Philadelphia. I witnessed the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and was near West Point when [Benedict] Arnold betrayed his country and [John] Andre was hung. I have been under [George] Washington (for whom I frequently carried the mails and dispatches), [William?] Prescott, [Israel?] Putnam, [Richard?] Montgomery and Lafayette.
That attracted the attention of Benson J. Lossing, who interviewed Kinnison and included a biography and picture in his 1850 Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution, specifying the birth date of 17 Nov 1736. The following year, Henry C. Watson used Kinnison as a central figure in his account of Revolutionary veterans gathering to tell stories, The Yankee Tea-Party; or, Boston in 1773. He sat for photographs, including the one shown above, courtesy of Find a Grave.

In 1852 the Chicago Daily Journal reported:
Died – In this city, February 24, at 9:00 a.m. David Kinnison, aged 115 years.
The city held a grand public funeral, with the mayor, city council, and a military band conducting the last Tea Party survivor to his grave.

TOMORROW: David Kinnison’s tale of the Tea Party.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Parliament Kept the Tea Tax

Yesterday I linked to Caleb Crain’s historiographical exploration of the hypothesis that the American Revolution was driven by self-serving merchants, not just at the beginning but as late as the Boston Tea Party on this date in 1773.

I think there’s one more historian whose work deserves examination when we consider personal self-interest in the politics of pre-Revolutionary Boston, and that’s Oliver Morton Dickerson (1875-1966). I’d start with his articles “British Control of American Newspapers on the Eve of the Revolution” (New England Quarterly, 1951) and “Use Made of the Revenue from the Tax on Tea” (New England Quarterly, 1958).

Dickerson specialized in how British officials ran their North American empire, with his major books being the dry American Colonial Government, 1696-1765: A Study of the British Board of Trade in Its Relation to the American Colonies, Political, Industrial, Administrative (1912) and The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (1951). He got more interesting in accusatory articles like “John Hancock: Notorious Smuggler or Near Victim of British Revenue Racketeers?” (Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 1945) and “The Commissioners of Customs and the ‘Boston Massacre’” (New England Quarterly, 1954).

Dickerson’s a problematic author because within a single article he can come across as

  • the indisputable expert on the eighteenth-century British revenue service in North America, and
  • a conspiracy theorist who’s temporarily forgotten his tin-foil hat.
That article on the Massacre is almost all tin-foil, for example. The other articles I’ve listed are based on study of British Treasury Department archives, and seem very reliable until the last page or so. Dickerson ends most of these articles calling the British Customs service a corrupt racket, deserving of every criticism those American smugglers Patriots dealt out. Yet up to that point his evidence and conclusions seem solid.

Scholars have long quoted Dickerson’s transcriptions of newspaper reports in Boston under Military Rule, 1768-1769, as Revealed in a Journal of the Times (1936), though many argue that those reports themselves were exaggerated propaganda. His “Writs of Assistance as a Cause of the Revolution” chapter in The Era of the American Revolution (1939) is solid.

And we still have lessons to learn from Dickerson. For example, many books leave the impression that when Parliament repealed most of the Townshend duties in 1770, it kept the tax on tea shipped to America to reaffirm that it still had the power to do so. Having looked at the Treasury Department’s records, Dickerson wrote that the tea duty was bringing in practically all the money. So keeping that tax wasn’t symbolic. Repealing the other duties was symbolic.

Dickerson then says those laws directed the revenue toward salaries for certain royal appointees (governors, judges, &c.) and the costs of the Customs service itself. As a result, the Customs department expanded with the new money, and somehow never had any left to pass on to the military branches or to pay down the national debt. So much for paying off the costs of the Seven Years’ War.

The “British Control of American Newspapers” article quotes a letter from the printers of the Boston Post-Boy asking for the local Customs department contract for stationery and forms. Once they got those contracts back from the printers of the defunct Boston Chronicle, the Post-Boy’s editorial line veered toward Loyalism.

This not to say that the American Revolutionaries weren’t self-serving. It’s just that they weren’t the only men in Boston who could mix up their principles and their interests.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“The Revolution May Have Been Astroturfed”?

In observance of Boston Tea Party time, the New Yorker has published an article titled “Tea and Antipathy,” by Caleb Crain of Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.

It discusses the tea crisis, the rest of Boston’s Revolutionary turmoil, and how those events appear in Ben Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots, T. H. Breen’s American Insurgents, American Patriots, and Richard Archer’s As If an Enemy’s Country. Also vital to the discussion, as it should be, is John W. Tyler’s Smugglers and Patriots, from 1986.

Today at 3:00 P.M., Eastern time, Crain will participate in the magazine’s online “Ask the Author” session, so read fast to prepare.

Crain does something remarkable when his articles run in popular magazines: he uses his blog to discuss sources and further reading at length, turning out terrific historiographical essays. Indeed, for folks wondering what Revolutionary writings to read next and how historians swim in schools, his notes for the article may even be better than the original. (I say that not just because Boston 1775 gets a nice mention.*)

The article starts with a classic fictional picture of colonial unrest, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux.” Hawthorne distrusted fervent public reform, whether it was Puritanism or Abolitionism, and even the Revolution disturbed him—though he had to express that discomfort obliquely. Hawthorne thus set his story in the 1740s or so, but it clearly comments on the Revolution, and unfavorably.

Similarly, “Tea and Antipathy” shines a raking light on the pre-Revolutionary American Whigs:

in much the way that journalists have begun to ask whether shadowy corporate interests may be sponsoring today’s Tea Party, historians have long speculated that merchants may have instigated early unrest to protect smuggling profits from British regulators—that the start of the Revolution may have been Astroturfed.
Crain’s blog essay adds:
I found myself worrying that the corruptions of profit-seeking may have deformed America’s political process at the nation’s inception. . . . It was the Progressive historians of the early twentieth century who first gave a scholarly formulation to the idea that merchants, eager to protect their smuggling profits and to dodge tax burdens, manipulated popular discontent in the colonies and then lost control of the fire they had set.
In his essay, Crain traces the response to this idea. I think there’s a lot to it, but in the end I side with those who find the thesis too “reductive”—which is the same word I’d apply to those historical approaches that focus exclusively on ideological arguments.

One big problem with the self-interested picture of the Revolution is that historians always seem to focus their critiques and exposés on only one side. Crain rightly questions whether we should always take the self-proclaimed Patriots’ proclamations at face value, but cites stories from Loyalists like Peter Oliver and Samuel Peters less critically.

The essay has a long paragraph on sources by and about Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, fascinating and indeed in some ways tragic. Not mentioned is that Hutchinson had strong personal incentives to see the East India Company’s tea landed and sold. His sons were designated agents for the company, he had apparently invested thousands of pounds with them, and his gubernatorial salary came from the tax on that tea. Hutchinson was sincerely interested in Massachusetts’s welfare within the British Empire, but his economic motives were just as strong as his political foes’.

And as for those foes, in the “merchants did it” argument they always seem to be faceless puppeteers, and the people mindless puppets:
Boston’s big businessmen felt threatened. Not only might smuggling cease to be profitable but, if the experiment of direct importation were to succeed, it might cut them out of the supply chains for other commodities as well. Clearly, it was time for Sam Adams and William Molineux to rile up the public again.
Molineux came from the merchant class, and had been a smuggler, but by the 1770s he appears to have been living dangerously off the proceeds of property he managed for Charles Ward Apthorp, a New York Loyalist. Molineux was deeply involved in a public-works project rather than maintaining his own mercantile business.

As for Adams, in 1773 he’d been trying to “rile up the public” for months over the issue of judicial salaries without much success. He finally got traction with Benjamin Franklin’s leak of letters by Hutchinson and other royal officials criticizing New England self-government, which appeared to confirm what Adams had been warning about all along. That keyed people up to focus their anger on Parliament’s monopolistic grant to the East India Company.

But why did tea become such a galvanizing issue outside Boston as well, spawning a continent-wide mass movement? “Tea and Antipathy” acknowledges the answer: that “The tea tax had become a symbol, and it infuriated the populace. . . . Indeed, for consumers, anger over the tea tax had never made much economic sense.” In other words, for Americans there was a political issue at stake, even if some rich men had money at stake as well.

Boston’s merchants certainly drove the opposition to Parliament’s new laws back in the early 1760s, when James Otis, Jr., as their lawyer first came up with the “no taxation without representation” argument. But that wasn’t a mass movement. In fact, I’ve read that no newspaper in any other colonial port covered the case. It took what Crain calls “the universally unpopular Stamp Act” to start sensitizing the populace to imperial taxation policy. With more new taxes in 1767 and then soldiers in the streets, the political movement grew beyond the merchants’ direction and issues.

Of course, the debate on what was most important when has been going on a long time, has produced lots of important work, and will continue. Crain’s review of the argument is solid and helpful, and his remarks on sources sound. I reviewed Archer’s book on the Boston Massacre for the New England Quarterly; I suspect Crain might have found more fuel for his suspicions in Hiller B. Zobel’s The Boston Massacre. The Breen book goes over some of the same ground that Ray Raphael’s The First American Revolution did a few years back.

TOMORROW: One more author to read, or, Why Parliament kept the tea tax.

[The image at top shows John Fitch’s steamboat, tested at Philadelphia in 1787.]

[* Me: Hey, Mom, today I got mentioned in this historiographical blog entry connected to a New Yorker article.
Mom: Historiography? Just what I like! What’s the link?
Me: Um, the blog’s called “Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.” And about me it says—
Mom: Ha! What a wonderful blog name! Who writes it?
Me: A man named Caleb Crain. With an I. He says—
Mom: “Crain,” with an I. “Steamboats.” Hang on, I need to get my laptop…]

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It’s Tea Party Season!

The anniversary of the Boston Tea Party on 16 December is coming up rapidly—Old South Meeting House already hosted its reenactment last weekend! I’ll dedicate the next few days to remarks about that event and its memory.

But first, some video links. Book TV has archived Tufts professor Benjamin L. Carp’s talk at the David Library in Pennsylvania about his new book, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America. In addition, the Forum Network features two talks that Ben delivered about the Tea Party at Old South last December.

The Forum Network is based here in Boston, so it naturally preserves a number of other Tea Party-related talks as well:

Also published this fall was Harvard professor Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes, about the political memory of the Tea Party. BookTV is showing a panel featuring Lepore and modern politicians and journalists. All told, I estimate, this posting has a full working day of video to watch. See you tomorrow!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ratification Response

Thanks to everyone who submitted answers to Friday’s quiz on Constitutional trivia. All commenters got at least one answer correct, many got more than one, and correct answers seemed to be proportionate to amount of time available for Googling.

Here are the answers I was looking for.

1) Of the South Carolina delegates to the Constitutional Convention, Pierce Butler had lived in Boston in 1769-70. Younger son of an Irish baronet, Butler entered the British army and in the late 1760s was a major in the 29th Regiment of Foot. That regiment was sent to Boston in late 1768, and Butler arrived a few months later.

On 5 Mar 1770, Pvt. Hugh White of Butler’s company was on sentry duty at the Customs house, where he started the spiral of violence that led to the Boston Massacre. Butler played little role in that crisis. He had apparently already set his sights on marrying the heiress to some South Carolina slave-labor plantation, and in 1771 he achived that goal and retired from the army. At the Constitutional Convention and later in the U.S. Senate, Butler was a strong voice for his elite landed class.

2) When Rufus King hypothesized on 20 Jan 1788 that another politician would “improve in his Health as soon as a majority shews itself on either side of the convention,” he was writing about Massachusetts governor John Hancock, and his state’s ratifying convention.

Hancock was very good at amassing popularity in Massachusetts, and very reluctant to spend any of that political capital. He reserved judgment on the new U.S. Constitution for a long time, pleading illness as a reason for keeping away from the public debate. Federalists convinced Hancock to become the spokesman for the idea of ratifying the document while proposing amendments, which might have been decisive in building a majority. (Some historians suggest they dangled the possibility that Hancock himself might become President.)

I chose that quote from King in part because I found it interesting, and in part because it’s not easy to Google. The document apparently wasn’t known when King’s writings were published in 1894. But the letter does appear in the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, thanks to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Hancock also pled illness as an excuse for not coming out to meet George Washington when the President visited New England in late 1789. As at the ratifying convention, the governor finally had himself carried in, swathed in flannel bandages, which deflected criticism that he was being petulant, at least at that moment. Which brings me to the third question, about Washington’s tour…

3. In asking, “Of our six New England states, which did he not visit and why?” I wanted to signal that the question applied to all the New England states that exist now. Some folks missed that parameter at first glance, but, hey, I was being tricky.

As folks noted, two of today’s New England states didn’t exist as such in 1789. Vermont was an independent country, so Washington never went there. (In 1912 one regional historian tried to claim otherwise.) Maine was still part of Massachusetts, but Washington’s record of his 1789 trip includes a brief touchdown “at a place called Kittery in the Provence of Main,” so I count that as a visit.

The second New England state Washington didn’t visit was Rhode Island. In late 1789 it had yet to ratify the Constitution or send delegates to the new bicameral Congress. The President’s choice to skip entering that state was taken as a sign of displeasure. The next year, Rhode Island finally ratified with suggestions and started participating in the new national government.

Congratulations to all the commenters who posted correct answers. The randomly chosen winner of a copy of Pauline Maier’s Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, supplied by the publisher, is Liberty Atheist. (L.A., please send me an email or comment with a surface-mail address, and I’ll mail the copy this week.) For the rest of us, we can enjoy Maier’s talk about her new book at the Massachusetts Historical Society, via the Forum Network.