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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Thursday, April 14, 2011

“He is ready to wish he had never known her”

Charles Bahne just alerted me to a discussion of Margaret and Thomas Gage’s marriage in John Singleton Copley in America, published after (and thus influenced by) Paul Revere’s Ride and its argument that on 18 Apr 1775 Margaret probably gave away Thomas’s secret plans to Dr. Joseph Warren.

That extraordinarily handsome and thorough art book says of Mrs. Gage:

Copley's dark and romantic portrait, in contrast, offers some indication of the despair and loneliness that seems to have defined her married life. Thomas Hutchinson, who stayed at Firle in 1774, proposed that her divided loyalties and yearning to live full-time in New York had become a source of tension between the Gages; he maintained as well that he had seen a letter that the commander had written to her “in which he says he is ready to wish he had never known her.”
But context is everything. Here’s what former governor Hutchinson actually wrote in his diary for 10 Aug 1774 (which of course was well before any possible betrayal to Dr. Warren):
Lady Gage gave me to read a letter to her from General Gage, dated the 26th June, from Salem, in which he says he is ready to wish he had never known her; laments his hard fate in being torn away from his friends, after the difficulty of crossing the Atlantick in the short time of 9 months, and put upon a service in so disagreeable a place, which, though he had been used to difficult service, he seemed to consider as peculiarly disagreeable; wishes Mrs Gage had staid in England, as he advised her; for though it was natural she should desire to see her friends at New York, &c., yet, she could have no sort of satisfaction in New England, amidst riots, disorders, &c.: and the whole letter discovers greater anxiety and distress of mind than what appears from all the accounts we have recd concerning him.
So that wasn’t a “I don’t love you” message. It was a “I love you so much I hate being away from you, and wish I wasn’t thinking of you all the time in this miserable situation, which I hope you won’t suffer with me.” After receiving this latter, Margaret left the family seat at Firle and joined her husband in Boston.

I think we’ve reached a point of circularity, where assumptions about the Gages’ troubled marriage affect authors’ interpretation of the evidence, producing more “evidence” for the assumptions.

ADDENDUM: See the comments for a persuasive reinterpretation of Hutchinson’s diary entry. The main point that this passage doesn’t support the idea of a rift in Thomas and Margaret Gage’s marriage still stands.


Amanda said...

Reading that letter from Gage, I came to the same conclusion. It sounds like he loves her so much that he can't bear to be without her rather than he hates her.

Charles Bahne said...

Well put about the point of circularity, John. In many ways, history is like a giant game of "Telephone".

RFuller said...

But Americans- Fischer included- want us to think that Mrs. Gage prized country over family. Even C. Kay Larson, women's military historian, avers that Mrs. Gage betrayed her husband and fought for "her" country by supplying the rebels with the necessary information. Ms. Larsen says there is "Strong evidence" for this in the following video interview just after 20:00: http://wn.com/Margaret_Kemble_Gage but doesn't say what it is.

I guess it's OK to betray your husband (and family), as long as the husband is British? ;)

J. L. Bell said...

I’m sure the legend of Margaret Gage’s betrayal is much more popular in America. It helps to explain away the Loyalists: this one, at least, didn’t really prefer Britain.

Still, there’s also a whiff of old-fashioned sexual politics about the tale: for leaking her husband’s secrets, Margaret suffers a bad marriage and spends her life in exile from the continent she supposedly prefers. She enjoys no personal triumph.

Anonymous said...

The "Lady Gage" referred to by Hutchinson is not Mrs. Gage, the wife of General Thomas Gage, but Elizabeth, Viscountess Gage, the wife of Viscount Gage, the General's older brother. In his diary Hutchinson refers to these two, correctly, as "Lord Gage" and "Lady Gage". The expression "He is ready to wish he had never known her" refers, I think, to Salem. The text you quote shows that Mrs. Gage is already with the General in Massachusetts. I agree, however, that the letter is evidence that Gage's feelings toward his wife are caring. I suspect that Mrs. Gage decided to travel back to America not only because she was homesick (she had to leave her children behind in England) but because she thought she might be of use to her husband (as well as a comfort). Her connections in New York to leading families on both sides of the political debate would have made her a considerable diplomatic asset. She would have helped Gage to understand what people were thinking. I doubt, however, that when she was in Boston she would have been able to benefit from using her social connections. New York and Boston were very different places.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that correction! I’d thought that Hutchinson was referring to Margaret Gage as “Lady” as the wife of a knight, but the letter does indeed also refer to “Mrs. Gage,” who I read as insisting that she would come to North America, not that she was already there. Reading “her” to refer to Salem does indeed smooth things out.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Gage could not have been at Firle in August 1774 when Hutchinson visited General Gage's brother. She was on her way to America on the date when the letter to which Hutchinson refers was written (late June '74). Stephen Kemble's diary records that he travelled back from England with his sister Mrs. Gage leaving England on 9 May 1774 and arriving in New York on 7 July 1774. There are also press reports from the New York press confirming her arrival. Ironically, the name of the vessel on which they travelled was.... "The Lady Gage".

So far as I am aware, General Gage was not a knight. Were it not for his military rank which usually meant he was referred to as "General Gage" he would have been entitled to call himself "the Honorable Thomas Gage" because he was the son of a Viscount. For this reason you can sometimes find Mrs. Gage referred to as "The Hon. Mrs. Gage, but she was never Lady Gage. The General died before his childless elder brother and so, eventually, Mrs Gage's son became Viscount Gage. Margaret, however, continued to call herself Mrs. Gage until she died.


J. L. Bell said...

Some apparently reliable sources say Gen. Gage had the title “Sir,” but that indeed appears to be an error, perhaps based on confusion with other relatives or his knighted successors.

Interestingly, Americans took to calling Martha Washington “Lady Washington” rather early in the war, though their general wasn’t a knight, either.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

This is always an intriguing topic, one people love to comment on. As I wrote on another blog regarding this subject:

Warren needed no spy to deduce the obvious: remember the anecdote of the Bostonians coming up to Lord Percy and telling him the British would miss there aim? (What aim? The stocks at Concord of course... then Percy runs off to inform Gage...) Even the peasants knew what was amiss. Warren was a smart guy, he needed no secret informant. Remember too that Paul Revere had just days earlier rode out to Concord on a false alarm. So Dr. Warren and others in Boston were on alert.
-Derek Beck, Author of "1775"