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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Monday, February 28, 2011

Twitter Feed, 22-26 Feb 2011

After two weeks off the air, Loudtwitter returned as silently as it had disappeared.

  • From NY TIMES, tryouts for the Washington Nationals' "Racing Presidents" mascots (incl. Washington, Jefferson): nyti.ms/eJYwaw #
  • BOSTON GLOBE editorial about statue of Dr Joseph Warren, now at school where he studied (and briefly taught): bit.ly/fVyly1 #
  • In Dr Warren's day, Roxbury Latin was public school in Roxbury. Now a private school in West Roxbury suburb. Class issues arise. #
  • Boston Tree Party wants volunteers to plant apple trees in city this spring: bit.ly/fGtJi2 (Dr. Warren's father would approve.) #
  • From NY TIMES oped page, Scott Casper on "Rebranding Mount Vernon" in late 1800s: nyti.ms/dVrLf9 #
  • Website for PBS documentary on Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington: tinyurl.com/4gqzcny (h/t @illustr8r) #
  • From Ta-Nehisi Coates, remembering Oney Judge, escapee from the Presidential mansion: bit.ly/hiczM2 #
  • Monticello scholars using Google track some of Thos Jefferson's books to Washington U in St. Louis: bit.ly/gkKTEI (h/t @elektratig) #
  • RT @NewDeal20: Palin & Bachmann Would Call 18th-c. Philadelphia Freedom Fighters 'Un-American'" bit.ly/hXR8Vh by @WilliamHogeland #
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: I'm writing new series "Founding Finance" for @newdeal20 www.newdeal20.org/ Economic radicalism of the 18thC. #
  • RT @bencarp: Why the President Got Sexified shar.es/3YbMY // Did it really start with JFK? What about Pierce, Harding? #
  • RT @bencarp: Now listed as a prize-winner: Defiance of the Patriots, Yale University Press shar.es/3Yopk #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1792: Postal Service Act regulates US Post Office Department. ow.ly/1br0sp #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1885: The Washington Monument is dedicated. Image of it during construction: ow.ly/3Nkab #
  • RT @2nerdyhistgirls: In honor of birthday: the ever-evolving Washington Cake: bit.ly/gVVK0Y #historicfood #President'sDay #
  • RT @A FBurialGrndNPS: #Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp hosted self-emancipated #Africans in 18th century: ow.ly/3ZZS2 #
  • RT @BostonHistory: Historic Newspapers - Original or reprint? How to tell the difference. ow.ly/40EYc #
  • RT @TheOnion: Report: Presidents Washington Through Bush May Have Lied About Key Matters onion.com/aCKr0k #presidentsday #
  • RT @smithsonian How do curators @amhistorymuseum authenticate objects? Washington's masonic apron, pt 1 ow.ly/41haD #
  • RT @Taylor_Stoermer: joys of the long s. RT @footnotesrising: just searched on "apoftolic" in early american imprints and got 1244 results? #
  • RT @rarenewspapers: REVOLUTIONARY WAR Ending ? British Say 1776 Newspaper * - eBay (item 390291612822): bit.ly/dYC5sc #
  • RT @rarenewspapers: HORATIO GATES Charleston SC Revolutionary War Newspaper - eBay (item 390291615652): bit.ly/g2ezjy #
  • RT @CitizenWald: ~1780 house in Dudley, MA under demolition order. Owner will sell for $1. Must be moved. bit.ly/gLuZk9 #
  • Should Boston's Greenway have a bronze statue of Johnny Tremain? bit.ly/gGLUZH #
  • RT @Readex: From AAS's Past Is Present, Fraud Week, Part 2: Will the Real George Washington Please Sign Here? - bit.ly/h4Ru32 #
  • RT @RagLinen: 40,000 to 80,000 Men in Arms On Their Way To Boston, Sept 1774 bt.io/GjHq #
  • RT @ResObscura: Did Newton really destroy the @royalsociety portrait of Robert Hooke? Probably not, says historian: bit.ly/hMpVoK #
  • RT @shperdue: Archivist Ferriero on putting the Founding Fathers Papers free online by Rotunda/UVA Press bit.ly/eLKb3M #
  • From Nat'l Heritage Museum, prints commemorating death of George Washington: bit.ly/fo15f9 #
  • Two British jailbirds appear to turn their lives around by joining the British army in #RevWar: bit.ly/f38z3v #
  • Archeological analysis of bottles, other material from Gen. Washington's headquarters in Cambridge, MA: bit.ly/hAB2gp #
  • RT @jmadelman: And just for fun, Franklin's 1728 epitaph for himself, via @librarycompany yfrog.com/h045ungj #
  • RT @BostonHistory: Paul Revere House distributes public notice for review of Lathrop Place expansion. ow.ly/43AjM #
  • BBC reports rare Button Gwinnett signature found in parish marriage ledger—could be worth $$$, but can't be sold because it's govt record. #
  • RT @2palaver: Some interesting speakers: Hingham Library to host series on life in New England 3/5, 3/26, 4/16 bit.ly/i9f30a #
  • RT @AFBurialGrndNPS:@howardu students built a memorial to the #african burial ground at George Washington's plantation ow.ly/43HIV #

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Boston Gazette Spin on Writs of Assistance

Last week Boston 1775 observed the 250th anniversary of James Otis, Jr.’s argument against open-ended writs of assistance before the Massachusetts Superior Court in Boston. As I noted, Otis’s side eventually lost that case.

But not before Otis and his colleague, Oxenbridge Thacher, had to rehash their arguments in a second hearing during the court’s fall term, called because Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson had sought a legal advisory from London. On 23 Nov 1761, the Boston Gazette reported on that session, which had taken place the previous Wednesday:

As this was a Matter in which the Liberty of the People was most nearly interested the whole Day and Evening was spent in the Argument. The Gentlemen in Favour of the [Customs officers’] Petition alleged, that such Writs by Law issued from the Court of Exchequer at home; and that by an Act of this Province, the Superior Court is vested with the whole Power and Jurisdiction of the Exchequer. . . .

The Arguments on the other Side were enforced with such Strength of Reason, as did great Honour to the Gentlemen concerned; and nothing could have induced one to believe they were not conclusive, but the Judgment of Court immediately given in Favour of the Petition. . . .

It is worth observing, that the Power of the Exchequer had never been exercised by the Superior Court, for near Sixty Years after the Act of this Province investing them with such Power had been in Force.—The Writ, which was the first Instance of their exercising that Power now granted, was never asked for, or if asked, was constantly deny’d for this long Course of Years, until Charles Paxton, Esq; whose Regard for the Liberty and Property of the Subject, as well as the Revenue of the King, is well known, apply’d for it in 1754—It was granted by the Court in 1756, sub silentio, and continued till the demise of the late King—
Edes and Gill’s Gazette had long leaned against expanded royal prerogative, and supported the interests of the Boston town meeting and the merchants who dominated it. The newspaper’s spin on the court’s decision managed to acknowledge the fact that the Customs office had used writs of assistance under Massachusetts law for years, but nevertheless suggest that there was no good precedent for them.

Boston 1775 readers might wonder why this article didn’t come up when I searched the Early American Newspapers database for references to the writs of assistance case last week. I wonder that myself, especially since the article’s first sentence (not quoted) contains the key phrase “Writ of Assistance.” I found this item only by following the trail of a footnote and looking at all the items in that issue.

That leaves the possibility that there are one or two other mentions of the case in 1761 newspapers, submerged by flaws in the database. However, it’s still clear that this dispute over writs of assistance attracted little attention outside of Massachusetts. After all, it was all about Massachusetts law, and enforcement in Massachusetts ports.

But this article, the 7 December essay by “A Fair Trader,” and a lengthy 4 Jan 1762 recap of the case that the Gazette ran on its front page show how the Boston Whigs tried to make as much of the adverse court decision as they could. In essence, they began appealing to a higher court—the court of public opinion.

COMING UP: Making writs of assistance a legislative matter.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

James Otis Tries a New Type of Politics

In 1760, Boston’s four representatives to the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court were John Phillips, Royall Tyler (father of the author who took the same name), Thomas Flucker, and Samuel Welles.

In early 1761, Flucker moved to Charlestown. Phillips, who had served off and on for decades, apparently decided not to run again; he had by far the highest vote total in 1760, and I know no reason he wouldn’t have been reelected.

That opened up two slots for other gentlemen. At a town meeting in May 1761, the qualified voters chose:

Boston’s merchants, and the mariners and businessmen who depended on them, no doubt trusted Cushing and Otis to represent their interests.

Before that moment, Otis had filled appointive offices in the royal patronage system rather than elected offices that depended on maintaining popularity with the voters. These were two parallel tracks for rising within government in the eighteenth-century British Empire. As a brilliant, learned man who was sometimes snobbish and moody, Otis made a better fit for the patronage track. Royall Tyler reportedly had to give him tips on winning over voters.

But Otis had apparently soured on the patronage system when the new governor, Francis Bernard, had dismissed the previous governor’s promise to appoint James Otis, Sr., as chief justice. He resigned his royal appointment in the Vice Admiralty court system and offered his services to the Boston merchants. That party in return supported his election to the Massachusetts House, where the senior Otis was already a representative for Barnstable and the Speaker.

The legislative records aren’t as clear as we might want, but they say that the younger Otis began to serve on lots of committees, a sign of influence. Within a short time he was recognized as a leader of the “country party” or Whigs who usually opposed the royal governor’s policies. Cushing also rose in the House, becoming Speaker in 1766. (Oxenbridge Thacher, Otis’s co-counsel in the writs case, would join them in the House in 1763, but died in 1765 before the Revolutionary arguments really heated up.)

TOMORROW: The next round of the writs of assistance argument.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Press Response to the Writs of Assistance Argument

Given how much American chroniclers have made of James Otis, Jr.’s arguments against writs of assistance, we might expect writers of his time to have a lot to say about the case. But in fact it received virtually no attention in the press in 1761.

In his 1939 article on “Writs of Assistance as a Cause of the Revolution,” Oliver M. Dickerson wrote:

Careful search of these [newspapers] discloses no general information about applications for writs of assistance nor much discussion of the question of issuing them, except that contained in the Journal of the Times [a series of essays published in 1768-69]. So far, no contemporary pamphlet that has come to light has been devoted mainly to a discussion of writs of assistance. On the other hand, there are many such pamphlets dealing with practically every other issue connected with the British treatment of the American colonies.
With digital databases now available, I decided to check Dickerson’s findings. I searched for “James Otis” and “Oxenbridge Thacher” in newspapers and pamphlets published in 1761. I searched for “writ of assistance,” “writs of assistance,” and, given the quirks of O.C.R. scanning, “writ of afsiftance.” And indeed there’s practically nothing in that year. The pertinent hits are:
  • In the 9 Mar 1761 Boston Post-Boy, Otis swore under oath that he had not written a recent newspaper satire on “Charles Froth, Esq.”—Customs official Charles Paxton. This suggests the lawyer had gotten a reputation for attacking the Customs office.
  • In the 7 Dec 1761 Boston Gazette, an essay signed “A Fair Trader” complained that the Customs office in Boston was much stricter than those in other ports. Among the problems:
    WRITS OF ASSISTANCE are now established and granted to the Officers of the Customs, who were tho’t by many Persons, to have had full Power enough over us before.—If it be said that all this is no more than the Law prescribes, I again ask, Whether the Law is carried to these Extremities in any other Province?
    This essay is quoted in M. H. Smith’s The Writs of Assistance Case, published in 1978.
  • Newspapers and legislative records note the election of Otis to the Massachusetts General Court as a representative of Boston in the middle of that year.
  • [ADDENDUM: A different type of search turned up a report on the second and decisive court session about this case in November, again from the Boston Gazette.]
Some historians say Boston newspapers might not say much about local events since the printers expected readers to have already heard the news. There were fewer than 8,000 adults in town, after all, and the newspapers were weeklies. But there’s nothing at all in the newspapers for other colonies, either.

Otis’s argument simply wasn’t big news in 1761. Only in the following years, as he and his Whig colleagues expanded their argument against Parliament making laws for the colonies, did it take on wider significance.

TOMORROW: James Otis’s political career and writings.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

“The Writs Were Ordered to Be Issued”

Yesterday I quoted from James Otis, Jr.’s argument in the writs of assistance case, as set down afterward by John Adams. Otis and his colleague, Oxenbridge Thacher, represented Boston’s merchants in arguing that the Massachusetts court should not issue an open-ended writ allowing the local Customs office to search anywhere for smuggled goods.

They lost.

For Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson (shown here as a younger man), the case hinged on whether his court was a “Court of Exchequer” and whether similar courts in England issued writs of assistance. Hutchinson, in addition to being a probate judge and Lieutenant Governor, was the colony’s leading historian. Referring to himself in the third person, he provided this account of the case:

The court was convinced that a writ, or warrant, to be issued only in cases where special information was given upon oath, would rarely, if ever, be applied for, as no informer would expose himself to the rage of the people.

The statute of the 14th [year of the reign] of Charles II. authorized issuing writs of assistance from the court of exchequer in England. The statutes of the 7th and 8th of William III. required all that aid to be given to the officers of the customs in the plantations, which was required by law to be given in England. Some of the judges, notwithstanding, from a doubt whether such writs were still in use in England [because of an article reprinted from a London magazine], seemed to favour the exception, and, if judgment had been then given, it is uncertain on which side it would have been.

The chief justice was, therefore, desired, by the first opportunity in his power, to obtain information of the practice in England, and judgment was suspended. At the next town [where the court met], it appeared that such writs issued from the exchequer, of course [i.e., as a matter of course], when applied for; and this was judged sufficient to warrant the like practice in the province. A form was settled, as agreeable to the form in England as the circumstances of the colony would admit, and the writs were ordered to be issued to customhouse officers…
The Massachusetts court issued writs of assistance to Customs officials in that province. The court in New Hampshire, which usually followed Massachusetts’s lead, did the same.

However, as Oliver M. Dickerson described in “Writs of Assistance as a Cause of the Revolution,” his chapter in Richard B. Morris’s The Era of the American Revolution, the judges in other American colonies resisted the Customs service’s requests for open-ended writs. Judges delayed rulings, they sent for advice from London and then ignored the results, they asked other colonies’ courts what they had done, they lost the paperwork, they reworded the writs to be less general.

Furthermore, in Boston the Customs officials had a hard time enforcing their writ, particularly in an attempted search of merchant Daniel Malcom’s warehouse in 1766. Malcom refused to unlock a room for the searchers, no justice of the peace would cooperate, and a grumpy crowd gathered.

Charles Townshend’s Revenue Act of 1767, which established new taxes, also explicitly authorized writs of assistance. The Customs Commissioners based in Boston had forms printed up and distributed to other colonies. But they still didn’t get the broad powers they sought. Though the Massachusetts court had decided otherwise, American society came to regard open-ended writs as unconstitutional.

Eventually Otis and Thacher’s argument became institutionalized in the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The new republic thus rejected Hutchinson’s fear that “a writ, or warrant, to be issued only in cases where special information was given upon oath, would rarely, if ever, be applied for.”

TOMORROW: The political effect of the writs case.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In a Boston Courtroom, 250 Years Ago Today

On 23 Feb 1761, two and a half centuries ago, James Otis, Jr. (shown here), and Oxenbridge Thacher stood before the top court of Massachusetts and argued that the colonial government did not have the constitutional power to grant the Customs service a “writ of assistance.” Representing the government in what is now the Old State House was Attorney General Jeremiah Gridley, who had trained both his opponents.

Otis and Thacher’s clients were the import merchants of Boston. At best, those men comprised a narrow special interest. At worst, they were a bunch of privileged whiners trying to stymie the lawful authorities’ power to curb their habitual smuggling.

Otis himself had worked for the royal government not long before, as Advocate General in the Vice Admiralty Court. He switched sides, everyone acknowledged, at least in part because the new governor, Francis Bernard, had not given his father the judicial appointment that the previous governor had promised.

A writ of assistance was general and open-ended. Having received one, Customs officials did not need to provide evidence of what smuggled goods they were looking for and where. And a writ of assistance lasted until the king died—which is why the writs issued under George II (1683-1760) were no longer valid.

Young lawyer John Adams took notes on the case, which survive in sketchy form, and afterward wrote out a more detailed and dramatic abstract of the event. That quoted Otis making this case against the writ:

In the first place, the writ is universal, being directed “to all and singular Justices, Sheriffs, Constables, and all other officers and subjects;” so, that, in short, it is directed to every subject in the King’s dominions. Every one with this writ may be a tyrant; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner also may control, imprison, or murder any one within the realm.

In the next place, it is perpetual; there is no return. A man is accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him.

In the third place, a person with this writ, in the daytime, may enter all houses, shops, &c. at will, and command all to assist him.

Fourthly, by this writ not only deputies, &c., but even their menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. Now one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege.
Having invoked class privilege against “menial servants,” Otis went on to warn, “This wanton exercise of this power is not a chimerical suggestion of a heated brain.” Loyalists complained that Otis did have an overheated brain, and by the end of the decade he actually had a mental breakdown. But the writs of assistance case had started an argument that eventually led to American independence.

TOMORROW: The outcome and results of the Massachusetts writs of assistance case.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Observing Washington’s Birthday

When George Washington was born, the calendar read 11 Feb 1731. At least, it did so within the British Empire (and the Russian, but that didn’t matter so much).

Most of Europe had adopted the Gregorian calendar in place of the Julian. That new system did a better job of managing leap years to match the calendar to the astronomical year and keep the solstices and equinoxes from shifting. Another difference of the Gregorian calendar was when people reckoned the start of a new year—at the beginning of January, rather than in March.

The British disliked the new system’s popish origin, but even they had to acknowledge it was more accurate. Already many referred to their dates at “Old Style” or “O.S.,” and gravestones sometimes showed both ways of counting the year for dates in the early months: e.g., “1720/1.”

Great Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The next year, Washington turned twenty-one, so his exact birthday was legally significant. The Gregorian date for his birth was 22 Feb 1732, so his date of majority was reckoned as 22 Feb 1753. That therefore became Washington’s legal birthday.

There might have been a private celebration for the general at Valley Forge in 1778. At least, some regimental musicians got extra pay for some event that 22 February. But the public ceremonies didn’t take off until 1782, after the siege of Yorktown confirmed that Washington was worth celebrating. Rochambeau, the French commander, hosted a big dinner for the general that year.

Some Americans thought that celebrating Washington’s birthday was too reminiscent of the king’s birthday holiday under the monarchy. But the date grew in popularity, even as people weren’t sure when to celebrate. On 14 Feb 1790, Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear told Clement Biddle:

In reply to your wish to know the Presidents birthday it will be sufficient to observe that it is on the 11th of February Old Style; but the almanack makers have generally set it down opposite to the 11th day of February of the present Style; how far that may go towards establishing it on that day I dont know; but I could never consider it any otherways than as stealing so many days from his valuable life as is the difference between the old and the new Style.
Apparently Lear’s hints about the proper date got through, and in 1796 Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser reported that the 22nd was:
ushered in here by the firing of cannon, ringing of bells, and other demonstrations of joy. In the course of the day, the members of both houses of Congress, the Senate and representatives of this state, the heads of departments, foreign ministers, the clergy of every denomination, the Cincinnati, civil and military officers of the United States, several other public bodies, and many respectable citizens and foreigners, waited upon the President according to annual custom to congratulate him on the occasion. Detachments of artillery and infantry paraded in honor of the day, and in the evening there was perhaps one of the most splendid balls at Rickett’s amphitheatre ever given in America.
Isaac Weld wrote in his Travels through the States of North America:
every person of consequence in it [Philadelphia], Quakers alone excepted, made it a point to visit the General on this day. As early as eleven o’clock in the morning he was prepared to receive them, and the audience lasted till three in the afternoon. The society of the Cincinnati, the clergy, the officers of the militia, and several others, who formed a distinct body of citizens, came by themselves separately. The foreign ministers attended in their richest dresses and most splendid equipages. Two large parlours were open for the reception of gentlemen, the windows of one of which towards the street were crowded with spectators on the outside. The sideboard was furnished with cake and wines, whereof the visitors partook. I never observed so much cheerfulness before in the countenance of General Washington; but it was impossible for him to remain insensible to the attention and compliments paid to him on this occasion.

The ladies of the city, equally attentive paid their respects to Mrs. Washington, who received them in the drawing-room up stairs. After having visited the General, most of the gentlemen also waited upon her.
However, in 1798 the Washingtons’ neighbors in Alexandria invited them to a birthday celebration on 11 February, the original date. Perhaps they thought the former President might be occupied with public events on the 22nd.

(Washington’s Birthday postcard above courtesy of Dave, via Flickr.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Anniversary Events in Greater Boston This Week

At Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge, the National Park Service is offering special out-of-season tours on Tuesday, 22 February—Gen. George Washington’s actual birthday. These tours focus on Washington’s months in the house during the siege of Boston, and how the family of poet Henry W. Longfellow later celebrated that history. Tours are scheduled to start every half-hour, and are free.

(To be completely accurate, the calendar read 11 Feb 1731 when Washington was born. But by the end of his lifetime he was acknowledging 22 Feb 1732 as his birth date. More on that change tomorrow.)

On Wednesday, 23 February, at 6:30 P.M., the Bostonian Society’s Old State House hosts a program called “‘A Man’s House Is His Castle’: The Legacy of James Otis.” This event commemorates the 150th anniversary of James Otis, Jr.’s legal argument against writs of assistance in that building, which in 1761 served as a courthouse. The Fourth Amendment is one eventual result of that argument, as are today’s debates about search warrants and pat-downs of travelers.

The panelists are:

  • Robert Allison, Professor of History, Suffolk University
  • Christopher Pyle, Professor of Politics, Mount Holyoke College
  • Dennis Treece, Colonel U.S. Army (Ret.); Director of Security, Massport
  • moderator Meghna Chakrabarti, Host, Radio Boston, WBUR
The discussion is presented by the Bostonian Society and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. It is free and open to the public.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Symposium on the Princeton Battlefield, 26 Feb.

The Princeton Battlefield Society is sponsoring a free symposium on Saturday, 26 February, to unveil its new mapping study from the American Battlefield Protection Program. The organization’s announcement says:

It is the most detailed advanced study of its nature on the Battle of Princeton. It marries an analysis of firsthand accounts with recent archeological findings, modern military analysis mechanisms and GPS technology by John Milner Associates with historian Dr. Bob Selig.

This groundbreaking study features some 34 new digital maps of the battlefield which identify the location of the long lost Saw Mill Road, the movement and locations of [Thomas] Mifflin’s Brigade, the German Regiment and other units comprising [Gen. George] Washington’s army, as well as the movement and location of the British 4th Brigade.
There will be a panel discussion with Dr. Larry Babits, Dr. Charles Neimeyer, Thomas Fleming, and Will Tatum of the David Library, moderated by author Glenn Williams.

As I understand the situation, battlefield preservationists are fighting a proposal from the Institute for Advanced Study to expand its buildings. The result is a provocative question of priorities, balancing the preservation of unique space against the potential of scientific and scholarly research. I suspect this mapping study was commissioned to pin down how certain areas of town were involved in the 1777 battle.

The symposium will take place in the Friend Center on the Princeton University campus, near the corner of Williams and Olden Street. Registration starts at 8:30 A.M., there’s an hour break for lunch at noon, and the schedule concludes at about 4:00 P.M.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Building and Rebuilding Washington

Edward G. Lengel’s Inventing George Washington is a quick, readable study of how Americans have remembered the “Father of Our Country” over the decades. Many legends arose despite the lack of documents, or even despite the existence of contradictory documents, reflecting the interests of different periods and people.

In some cases, such as the cherry tree and phrase “Washington slept here,” the fact that those legends are legends is also part of our culture. Other legends, such as the general praying in the snow at Valley Forge, serve as articles of faith for some Americans.

Because there are so many Washington myths, and debunking takes far more space than retelling, this book could have filled a thousand pages. So Lengel’s first step was to narrow down the field to those stories that have had the most readers and the widest influence. This book doesn’t quibble over every little doorstep where Washington may have walked.

Lengel’s second step was to organize his material along two tracks. One is chronological. The first two chapters discuss some stories about Washington in his lifetime and for the fifty years thereafter, when authors like Mason Weems and George Lippard (who never claimed to write nonfiction) confirmed that the first President’s name could sell books.

The second track is thematic. In the late nineteenth century a combination of nostalgia, nationalism, and post-Romantic interest in “the real man” produced a flowering of Washington myths. Lengel offers separate chapters on “Washington’s Loves”; “Washington’s Visions,” or religious experiences; and “Washington Slept Here,” on the growth of historical tourism. Along the way come the claims from the families of Lydia Darragh, Betsy Ross, and John Honeyman. Most of these stories have few sources, but folks who wanted Washington to be a certain sort of person filled in the holes.

Not every story turned out to be a myth, though. The “Sally Fairfax letter” which published in the late 1800s showed young Washington as a flirt—a flirt with another man’s wife when he was about to marry Martha. That fit into the period’s notions of Washington as a romantic hero, though it also ran up against proper Victorian mores. The letter vanished into an individual’s collection, leading many people to denounce it as a forgery or myth. But then it resurfaced in 1958, looking quite convincing.

Inventing George Washington isn’t just about debunking myths. It’s also about the way Americans have preserved the President’s memory, including preserving Mount Vernon, publishing his papers, and erecting monuments that look nothing like him.

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the historiography of the 20th century, including the “debunking” of the 1920s writers William E. Woodward and Rupert Hughes; the government’s Depression-era project to publish all the general’s writing (as opposed to the current project, publishing letters he both sent and received); and the post-WW2 biographies from Douglas Southall Freeman (exhaustive, dry) and James Thomas Flexner (lively and, well, imaginative about what people were thinking and feeling).

The final chapter is a bit of a gumbo, with ghost stories, television movies, and the latest favorites about Washington—politicians’ misquotes, the hemp lobby’s claims. But Lengel pulls it together with his personal experience of acting as historical advisor on a movie about Washington for Mount Vernon. He says the reenactors involved called the result “FUBAR,” which it might have been, but I bet they also said it was “farby.”

In all, Inventing George Washington is a brief, thought-provoking read. It’s a reminder that debunking and revamping historical stories has been a constant phenomenon, not something that began in our lifetimes. It shows how each period has, consciously or unconsciously, created a George Washington that serves its cultural needs and reflects its contemporary concerns.

The book is enough to make one wonder what our time is unconsciously doing to the man and his memory.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Neverending Supply of Washington Myths

I think Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory, by Edward G. Lengel, will appeal to Boston 1775 readers. In fact, this blog may have even had a small part in the genesis of this book.

Lengel is the current editor in chief of the big George Washington Papers project at the University of Virginia. That puts him at the vortex of all the preserved documentary minutiae in Washington’s life, and in one of the clearinghouses for questions and legends about the man.

In 2005 Lengel published a review of Washington’s military career, titled General George Washington: A Military Life. I liked the book, but questioned a detail of the general’s taking command in Cambridge. Did he really, as the book repeated, read a psalm to the assembled troops?

As I discussed in this 2007 posting, Lengel’s source for that story was actually highly skeptical of it. To be exact, he called it an “alleged recollection,” and expressed doubt that the troops were ever assembled that way. I then traced the story back to 1846, earlier than I ever expected but still a long stretch from 1775.

Lengel came to Boston to speak about his next book, This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters. We met at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and he frankly admitted that he hadn’t been as skeptical about that story as he would have liked. We also talked about the prospect for a whole book on such Washington myths.

I agreed there was plenty of material. Indeed, so many individuals and families told stories about personal encounters with Washington, with no documentary support, that I sometimes felt our nation hungered for a royal laying on of hands.

I had even considered assembling a series of essays debunking different Washington myths, the way I do here on the blog. The problem, I thought, was that, even with my delightful style and wit, the result would soon be tedious. Almost every essay would have the same structure: tell the story, ask questions about its internal logic, look at the supporting documents if any, look at real contemporaneous documents, trace how the story kept getting better, take a swipe at the storyteller’s credibility, marvel at how some people nonetheless believed the tale—and on to the next! After three or four of those, readers would catch on to the pattern. Boston 1775 readers would be way ahead of the curve to begin with.

TOMORROW: So how did Lengel tackle that challenge?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

“Avowed Themselves to Be Man & Wife”

Yesterday I described how the 1769 marriage of Mary Dill of Bermuda and printer Isaiah Thomas of Boston fell on difficult times in the early 1770s. According to Isaiah, the relationship came to a head on 23 Feb 1775.

On that date, Mary and “Major Thompson set out on a Journey together to Newbury Port.” Isaiah said he tried to

dissuade his Wife from journeying at so unreasonable a time of the Year & without any apparent Necessity; but she persisted in her Intentions & swore she would go “if it was to her eternal Ruin” as she expressed herself.
Isaiah later described for the authorities what had happened on that trip:
3d. In the Course of said Journey at the House of Mr Woart in Charlestown, the said Thompson was seen in the said Mary’s bed Chamber, conversing with her while she was in bed.

4th. At the House of Mr. Newell in Lynn the said Thompson & the said Mary were discovered in bed together. And in their Conversation were constantly uttering such Expressions of Endearment & affection to each other as plainly indicated the wickedness of their Hearts.

5th. At the House of Mr. [Samuel] Greenleaf in Newbury Port they remained in a separate Room together while they continued there, & from thence they proceeded to Portsmouth in a Curricle.

6th. At the House of Mr. [John] Stivers in Portsmouth the said Thompson & the said Mary both insisted on lodging in the same Room but being known they were forbid they however remained shut up in a Room together.

7th. On their Return from Portsmouth they stop’d at the House of Mr. Williams an Innholder in Greenland; where they avowed themselves to be Man & Wife, had a Room to themselves and lodged together all Night
After Mary Thomas returned to Boston, Isaiah “closely questioned” her, and she admitted that she had sexual relations with Maj. Thompson.

The printer then “forbore to cohabit” with his wife, and in May 1777 filed for divorce. The description above comes from that filing. The Massachusetts Council determined that Isaiah Thomas had proved his case, and granted the divorce that month. Isaiah established himself as a printer in Worcester. I don’t know what happened to Mary.

Who was “Major Thompson,” who had whisked Mary Thomas off to scenic Portsmouth? None other than our old friend Benjamin Thompson of Woburn, later titled Count Rumford (portrait shown above). He held the rank of major in the New Hampshire militia.

As a teenager, Benjamin Thompson had worked for a short time in the same building on Union Street where Thomas had his print shop (now the Union Oyster House). But that was before the Thomases settled in Boston, and it’s unclear how Mary Thomas met the young man. Maj. Thompson had a wealthy older wife up in New Hampshire, whom he would abandon before the end of the year—but that’s another marriage.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Marriage of Isaiah Thomas and Mary Dill

Isaiah Thomas (shown at right as a prosperous old man, courtesy of Amherst College) was apprenticed to the printer Zechariah Fowle on 4 June 1756, at the age of seven. Although his mother was still alive, Boston’s Overseers of the Poor arranged this indenture for Isaiah as “a poor boy belonging to said Boston.”

Isaiah was supposed to work for Fowle until he turned twenty-one on 8 Jan 1769. However, he released himself on his own recognizance in September 1765, sailing off to the excitement of Nova Scotia. In Halifax, Isaiah worked for a Dutch-born printer named Anthony Henry. After a couple of years, the young man tried working on his own in Britain’s Caribbean colonies.

While there, Thomas married a woman named Mary Dill on 25 Dec 1769. She had a stillborn child sometime in the following year, so it’s possible they had to get married. Later Thomas wrote that “soon after his Marriage to his Astonishment he found that his Wife had had a bastard some Years before & that she had been prostituted to the purposes of more than One.”

The couple sailed to Boston, perhaps for a new start. In late 1770 Isaiah renewed his acquaintance with Zechariah Fowle and convinced him to become a partner in printing a new newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy. After a tough start—the men found they couldn’t make money selling three issues a week, as originally planned—the Spy established itself as Boston’s second radical Whig paper.

In 1772, however, Mary Thomas expressed “a great desire of Living in her native country (Bermuda).” Isaiah wrote to some officials or wealthy merchants on that island asking if they would support a new newspaper there. He even made an implicit offer to tone down his politics, explaining in an 18 March letter that “one of my profession here must be either of one party or the other, (he cannot please both).” Fowle heard through Dr. Thomas Young that Thomas might be planning to leave, and insisted on dissolving their partnership immediately.

No openings in Bermuda seem to have presented themselves, and Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy was pulled further into the resistance movement. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson even tried to prosecute the printer and some of his political essayists, but the Suffolk County grand jury refused to hand down an indictment.

By early 1775, Mary and Isaiah Thomas had had three children together, but the couple was drifting apart. Mary was, according to Isaiah, showing a “petulance of Temper & unhappiness of Disposition which she daily exercised to the disturbance of domestic Peace.” And of course they were still in Boston.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Elizabeth, Simeon, and the Cats

I was already planning to use the post-Valentine’s mood to offer another installment of Boston 1775’s very intermittent “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” series. Then I read Caitlin G. D. Hopkins’s articles on Elizabeth Palmer of Little Compton, Rhode Island, and knew my tale would have to take second place.

Caitlin’s inquiry began in 2009 with Palmer’s gravestone, which reads:

In Memory of
ELIZABETH who
Should have been the
Wife of Mr.
SIMEON PALMER
who died Augst. 14th
1776 in the 64th Year
of her Age.
Caitlin added, “To make matters worse, Elizabeth’s gravestone stands next to a stone dedicated to Lidia Palmer (d.1754), who was the wife of Simeon Palmer.” Was Simeon secretly pining for Elizabeth? If Elizabeth never became Simeon Palmer’s wife, why did the stone neglect to mention her surname? Who erected that stone anyway?

Commenter Randy Nonenmacher offered a 1901 reference with more answers. The explanation begins:
The first church of Little Compton, R. I. was organized in 1704 under Rev. Richard Billings, a man of prominence and ability, much beloved, and exerted a strong influence over his charge. He had one idiosyncrasy, however; he firmly believed in cats as an article of diet, and fatted them for the purpose.

Amongst his parishioners was a man, Simeon Palmer, of the fine old family resident in Little Compton. He was wealthy married first Lydia Dennis, Aug. 25, 1745, and had Susannah, Gideon, Humphrey, Sarah, Walter and Patience. At some time between 1745 and 1752 he had sunstroke which left him mildly insane and he adopted the views of his minister on cats and insisted on his family using them for food.
Can this marriage be saved?

As Caitlin notes, Victorian antiquarians of the sort who preserved this tale loved stories about eccentrics, and may have embellished them, or even made them up to explain oddities like the Elizabeth Palmer gravestone. I wonder what Sibley’s Harvard Graduates says about the Rev. Mr. Billings, class of 1698. A 1906 history of the Little Compton church dismisses the story (carefully not mentioning the minister’s alleged role) as the concoction of “the good old aunties of our town.” That book also notes that the epitaph inspired a 1905 novel (set in the nineteenth century) titled Saint Abigail of the Pines.

To me this story feels authentic because it ends with an accommodation among people driven by economic needs rather than with a tidy moral lesson for the present day. In any event, it’s good to know that Elizabeth Palmer lived long enough to see her daughter married, apparently more happily.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A “Romantic” Mansion in Roxbury

In 1874, Emily Pierpont Delesdernier (1840-1915) published Fannie St. John: A Romantic Incident of the American Revolution. Though inspired by family lore, that book was fiction.

Delesdernier described an old Roxbury mansion, built in 1723 by Francis Brinley and bought just before the Revolution by her great-grandfather Robert Pierpont, like this:

It was situated in the midst of a large domain of park and wooded hills, and presented a picture of grandeur and stateliness not common in the New World. There were colonnades, and a vestibule whose massive mahogany doors, studded with silver, opened into a wide hall, where tessellated floors sparkled under the light of a lofty dome of richly painted glass. Underneath the dome two cherubs carved in wood extended their wings, and so formed the centre, from which an immense chandelier of cut glass depended. Upon the floor beneath the dome there stood a marble column, and around it ran a divan formed of cushions covered with satin of Damascus of gorgeous coloring. Large mirrors with ebony frames filled the spaces between the grand staircases, at either side of the hall of entrance. All the paneling and woodwork consisted of elaborate carving done abroad, and made to fit every part of the mansion where such ornamentation was required. Exquisite combinations of painted birds and fruits and flowers abounded everywhere, in rich contrast with the delicate blue tint that prevailed upon the lofty walls.

The state rooms were covered with Persian carpets, and hung with tapestries of gold and silver, arranged after some graceful artistic foreign fashion.

The traditions of the princely grandeur of the ancient home have often been recalled at family reunions, but the old place has suffered many changes at the hands of its various owners, who, in attempting modernizing, have destroyed almost every vestige of former magnificence.
When Gen. George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Gen. Artemas Ward took command of the American army’s southern wing, and used this house as his headquarters. Later, in 1809, Gen. Henry Dearborn, who had started his military career as a young officer from New Hampshire in the siege of Boston, moved into the mansion.

By the mid-1800s, the building had been modified almost beyond recognition. Soon after the publication of Fannie St. John, a fire damaged the eastern portion. By then a Catholic order, the Redemptorist Fathers, owned the property and was building a cathedral nearby.

Delesdernier’s novel provided the only detailed description of the building as it had appeared in the Revolution—even though she hadn’t been alive then, and her description was highly romanticized and fairly Victorian. Several local historians quoted the passage from Fannie St. John, and reprinted the nineteenth-century engraving of the house shown above. Francis S. Drake’s history of Roxbury cited Delesdernier’s “somewhat fanciful description” and added with Yankee hospitality:
This once charming locality has completely lost its identity, and the region from the Parker Hill quarries to “Grab Village” is now largely occupied by natives of the Emerald Isle and their numerous progeny.
In The Glories of Mary in Boston: A Memorial History of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (1921), the Rev. John F. Byrne quoted the passage and added:
Some of our readers, we presume, will consider the foregoing description overdone, but the lady who wrote it, stoutly maintains its truth and adds that “traditions of the princely grandeur of the ancient home have often been recalled at family reunions.” Moreover, several old residents of Roxbury who were in a position to know, have assured the writer that even in their childhood days the house was famous for its magnificent mirrors.
Of course, those mirrors could have arrived well after the Revolution.

Most recently, the description surfaces in Thomas B. Allen’s Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War, a lively history of Loyalists’ experiences. However, through a mix-up of generals’ headquarters, that book presents it as a description of the John Vassall mansion in Cambridge, where Gen. Washington lived starting in late July 1775.

Washington did visit the old Brinley mansion when it was Ward’s headquarters. He presided over councils of war there in November 1775 and again in March 1776, as the Americans were on the verge of victory. So it was the site of historic events, whether or not it was romantic.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Oh, It’s On Now!—Tea Party Talks in February

Last month the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury hosted a lecture by Jonathan Fairbanks titled “Rum Parties – Not Tea — Launched Liberty in 1768 for Boston and America.”

Later this month the same house museum will host Prof. Benjamin Carp speaking on his book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. Guess we won’t hear so much about rum then! Parliament never set a rum tax, after all! (It did put tariffs on the crucial ingredient of molasses, and colonies levied excise taxes on alcohol.) And Bostonians certainly never dumped rum into the harbor! (Like Capt. Jack Sparrow, they would never have been so wasteful.)

But can’t we all get along? According to Peter Edes’s recollection, quoted in full here, “on the afternoon preceding the evening of the destruction of the tea, a number of gentlemen met in the parlor of my father's house. . . . my station was in another room to make punch for them in the bowl which is now in your possession, and which I filled several times.” So the Boston Tea Party was probably carried out under the influence of rum punch.

Ben’s talk at the Shirley-Eustis House is scheduled for Sunday, 27 February, starting at 1:30 P.M. Admission is free, but donations and new membership fees are no doubt welcome.

In addition, Ben will speak about the challenge of researching individual Boston Tea Party participants at the New England Historic Genealogical Society on Wednesday, 23 February, starting at 6:00 P.M. The N.E.H.G.S. headquarters is at 99-101 Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay.

And earlier that day Ben’s speaking at the Museum of Fine Arts as part of its high-ticket afternoon semester course, “The American Journey 1620-Present: History, Art, and Culture.” So he might be appreciating tea’s caffeine content.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Mystery in Dr. Warren’s Recovered Letter

This week the Massachusetts Archives reported recovering a letter that Dr. Joseph Warren wrote on 25 May 1775, happily passing on the news that Col. Benedict Arnold had captured some outposts north of Fort Ticonderoga.

Warren was then in Watertown, presiding over the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He sent this two-page letter along the highway to Cambridge, where the Committee of Safety and Gen. Artemas Ward were sharing headquarters beside Harvard College.

The letter disappeared from the state facility decades ago, and resurfaced in an auction of Americana. Here are the Boston Globe and WBUR stories on the document’s return.

Both stories include this detail (quoted from WBUR):

He sent the good news from Watertown in a letter to the revolutionary Committee of Safety, asking that it be forwarded to the good Gen. Henry Knox.
That caught my eye for two reasons:
  • I’m eager for any evidence of when Henry and Lucy Knox left Boston. The earliest statement of a date appears in Francis Drake’s 1873 biography, which says they departed “Just one year from the day of his marriage,” which was on 16 June 1774. That meant the couple was out just in time for the Battle of Bunker Hill. Thus, if the Committee of Safety was in a position to pass news to Knox on 25 May, then he must have been out earlier.
  • However, Knox did not become a general until 1776. In May 1775, he held no rank in the New England army, and had been only a lieutenant in his prewar militia company.
The WBUR story included a link to its Flickr photostream, which included images of the front and back of Dr. Warren’s note. And the next-to-last line in the postscript doesn’t necessarily say “Knox.” As to what Warren did write, his handwriting is not easy to decipher. (He was a doctor, after all.) In his American Archives, Peter Force transcribed the words as “General Room,” but there was no such man. Richard Frothingham’s biography of Warren renders the phrase as “the general’s room,” presumably meaning Gen. Ward’s office; that makes more sense, but there’s no “the.”

I think another possibility, given the hurried scrawl, is that the postscript said:
You will be Kind enough to send communicate the Contents of this Letter to General Thomas as I love to give Pleasure to good men.
Dr. John Thomas was commanding the troops at Roxbury. He had a headquarters and council of war that operated somewhat independent of Ward and the committee in Cambridge, and Warren might have wanted to be sure that both wings of the army would learn the news.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Visiting the Revere Family in February

The Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End is offering special programs for children aged 6 to 10 during Massachusetts’s February school vacation.

“The Revere Family at Work” will be offered on Wednesday, 23 February, and Friday, 25 February, from 10:30 A.M. to 12:00 noon. The site says:

Both Paul Revere and his wife Rachel worked hard to keep their large family fed, clothed, and healthy. During this program discover what kinds of chores the Reveres (adults and children) completed in each room in their house. Then try your hand at engraving metal as Revere did in his silversmith shop and make an herbal remedy Rachel may have used to treat her children’s headaches.

Participants will take home both an engraved piece of copper and a small cloth bag of dried herbs.
The fee is $4.50 per person, which also includes admission to the Paul Revere House. Each presentation is limited to 20 people, so for reservations call 617-523-2338.

(Photograph of the Paul Revere House last month with just a bit of snow by duluoz cats, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Twitter Feed, 30 Jan-4 Feb 2011

  • RT @peterfrancisco: Remembering James Tate: Augusta #RevWar soldier. Battle of Cowpens and Battle of Guilford Courthouse ht.ly/3MHQI #
  • RT @AmerCreation: Another Recycled Post on John Adams' Unitarianism nblo.gs/dEARh #
  • RT @CricketinMaine: How can one ancestor cause so much TROUBLE? #genealogy #familyhistory #
  • RT @Aaron_Eyler: New A.P. Biology Is Ready, but U.S. History Isn't - NYTimes.com www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/education/30advanced.html #
  • If Laurence Sterne had wanted TRISTRAM SHANDY to look like this, one presumes he would have had the printers effect it. bit.ly/dEPmKI #
  • Today's good news: Found copy of document I've been looking for for years. Today's bad news: Really neat theory blown out of the water. #
  • RT @56Signers: Robert Morris trivia: 1st 2 use $ sign in official govt correspondence! Face on $10 and $1000 bills in 19th century. #ushist #
  • RT @RagLinen: Want to see the first map of the United States (1784)? ow.ly/3NJhV #
  • Assange: "Our founding values are those of the U.S. revolution." aol.it/g2MGO3 Franklin certainly leaked sensitive documents in 1773. #
  • RT @illustr8r: Rare Martha Washington Letter Found at Cloud County Museum www.ksallink.com/?cmd=displaystory&story_id=16140 #
  • RT @56Signers: 5 Declaration of Independence signers captured & jailed by Brits. NONE tortured or killed as often said in email chain. #
  • RT @56Signers: Captured signers often treated with respect befitting ranking officers. (Not true of men from lower "classes.") #
  • RT @illustr8r: Archaeologists Uncover "Lost" Chess Pawns Used by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson bit.ly/hwsymc #revwar #teaparty #
  • RT @history_book: History of the Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque - by Gomer Williams [from 1897] amzn.to/gbA6mO #
  • RT @lucyinglis: 'We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.' Jonathan Swift, 1711 #
  • RT @quackwriter: RT @TheLitDetective: I'm in @newscientist w/piece on 18th-c doctors investigating vampire reports: bit.ly/fqQ10z #
  • RT @SarahBrannen: Woohoo!!! twitpic.com/3w5xv4 // Boy on a man of war. [USS Constitution] #
  • RT @derekwbeck: British Gen. Henry Clinton's Secret Letter « bit.ly/eZewG5 #RevWar #
  • RT @2nerdyhistgirls: Intimate, but creepy, too: RT @kittenville Intimate Swift letters reproduced "baby talk" reut.rs/ggckKO // TMI! #
  • .@historying: "gold rush" on Google NGrams gives puzzling pattern" // What's puzzling? Also, try with capitals: bit.ly/f8UH2I #
  • RT @NYHistory: miniature portrait of NY Sons of Liberty leader Alexander McDougall from our collection: on.fb.me/gG07w1 #history #
  • From c1773, the large family of Elizabeth DePeyster and Charles Willson Peale: bit.ly/h1NWcF #
  • RT @FANGORIA: 1700s Exorcism movie with Jeff Bridges?! bit.ly/hjTCei #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1783: Britain issues Proclamation of Cessation of Hostilities in #RevWar. Grenadier's cap: ow.ly/3FZKL #
  • RT @FortTiconderoga: A spectacular pair of buff leather breeches, ca. 1780. fb.me/Du1wHWOV #
  • RT @AmericanHistFF: Today in History - Feb 4, 1789 - Electors unanimously chose George Washington 1st president of the United States. #
  • At NEW YORKER, Jill Lepore says winter of 1713 had more snow: nyr.kr/fqL0vi As if that makes it better. #
  • From @lucyinglis, great interview with Julie Flavell, author of WHEN LONDON WAS CAPITAL OF AMERICA: bit.ly/eBfdrF #
Loudtwitter seems to have gone down again, so this might be the last Twitter Feed post for a while.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Pvt. John Chatham’s “Humane Attempt”

Yesterday Don Hagist at British Soldiers, American Revolution quoted two newspaper accounts of regulars who drowned while saving children in America.

(In the first case from 1772 the soldier had been “standing on the Gunwale of the Sloop…dangling a Child in his Arms,” which doesn’t sound entirely blameless, but we let that pass in respect for the dead.)

The second example comes from Boston at the end of 1774. In addition to the newspaper account Don quotes, Lt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment also recorded the event in his diary on 28 December:

This eveng. a Soldier of the 10th was drown’d: he had jump’d off a Wharf (where he was Centry) to save a Boy who had fallen over; he succeeded in his humane attempt for which he paid with his life.
That soldier’s name does not appear in either newspaper or diary, but examining British muster rolls led Don to identify him as Pvt. John Chatham, officially listed as dying on 31 December.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Snapshot of Jefferson-Hemings in the Mid-1990s

The World Wide Web is old enough that some pages now preserve the historical consensus of the past, the way libraries have long done. For example, from 1990 to 1997, acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns worked on a public-television documentary about Thomas Jefferson. He interviewed several leading historians and other voices about the man.

The website created to accompany that broadcast has become a time capsule of that moment in intellectual history, and not just because it still uses frames. That film was made before the 1998 Nature study which matched the surviving Y-chromosome from Sally Hemings’s children and the surviving Y-chromosomes from Thomas Jefferson’s patrilineal line.

Among Burns’s interviewees was Merrill D. Peterson, author of Jefferson in the American Mind. In that book and his interview for the documentary, Peterson said that having children with Sally Hemings would be out of character for Jefferson:

Was Sally Hemings his mistress?

Well, I can’t just say no. Because I can’t... No, I do not believe Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s mistress.

Because...

Well, the reasons for that go partly to the fact that I think it would have been a moral and psychological impossibility for him to have engaged in that kind of relationship with one of the Monticello slaves, especially a person of that age, of that vulnerability, in the way that it’s generally described. It is said that the relationship began when Jefferson was in Paris and Sally had come to Paris bringing Jefferson’s younger daughter. And she would have been 15 or 16 at the time the seduction took place. And it is said that she came home pregnant by Jefferson and that the first child, one who was said to be named Tom, was born. There is no record of the Tom. But that is another question. There is no historical documentary evidence to support any of this. There is oral evidence. But the oral evidence probably came after the written evidence—after the story was written down by [James] Callender and then by others—so that it could have entered into oral memory after it was written down.

But you don’t think he did.

No, I do not think that she was his mistress, no. That would have required—just to pursue this a little further—that he continue this relationship for a period of 25 years and that two of the children would have been born after the Callender story came out and while he was president of the United States. And that would have been a tremendous presumption on the American public, I think, and public sensitivities in this area as well as his own sensitivities. And so I think it's quite impossible.
By the same arguments, William Jefferson Clinton would never have a sexual affair with an intern in the Oval Office after adultery had been a problem for him in the 1992 election, and Strom Thurmond would never have impregnated a sixteen-year-old maid working for his family. In 1996, those arguments seemed more solid than they do now.

In the same series of interviews, historians dismissing the idea of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings included Andrew Burstein, Joseph Ellis, Lewis Simpson, and Garry Wills, as well as Dan Jordan of Monticello, children’s author Natalie Bober, and translator Stephen Mitchell.

Scholars who were undecided, some saying that the unanswerable question of sex distracted from the undeniable history that Jefferson owned some of his relatives, included James Cox, Paul Finkelman, John Hope Franklin, James O. Horton, and Jan Lewis. Lucia Stanton of Monticello spoke of Hemings and her children’s reminiscences without actually stating what they’d said about their father, at least as transcribed.

Notably, the voices saying they believe the Hemings family account came from outside the ranks of historians: activist Julian Bond, Hemings descendant Robert H. Cooley III, impersonator Clay Jenkinson, and novelist Gore Vidal. (In the rest of the interview transcripts, the name “Hemings” never comes up.)

After the D.N.A. findings, there was a sea change in the historical consensus. Annette Gordon-Reed’s analysis Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy had already shown the relative robustness of Madison Hemings’s memoir and the weakness of the Jefferson family’s explanation. Many historians changed their minds about the likelihood of a relationship. Some might even have done a little scholarly penance, with Wills publishing “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power in 2003, and Burstein Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello in 2005.

Peterson, who died in 2009 at the age of eighty-eight, never wrote or spoke publicly about the Jefferson-Hemings question after the Nature study. His Washington Post obituary reported that he still thought as he had before:
“He did not believe in any sexual connection between Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” Paul M. Gaston, a longtime U-Va. colleague, said yesterday in an interview.

When the evidence for such a relationship became more persuasive in recent years, Gaston said, Dr. Peterson “didn’t argue with it. He just distanced himself from that discussion.”
Diehard deniers continue to list Peterson as a scholar in their camp, but he never engaged openly with the new evidence.

The shift in consensus about the Jefferson-Hemings relationship might be a rare example of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift in history rather than science. The P.B.S. website and Burns’s film (now available on D.V.D.) capture the state of the field just before that happened.

Monday, February 07, 2011

How Hannah Adams Spent the Revolutionary War

Hannah Adams was born in Medfield in 1755, daughter of a bookish farmer with little money. She had a big intellect, a nervous disposition, and even less money, but she made herself into a respected author in the new republic.

In her memoir, this is what Adams had to say about her war years.

During the American revolutionary war, I learned to weave bobbin lace, which was then saleable, and much more profitable to me than spinning, sewing or knitting, which had previously been my employment. At this period I found but little time for literary pursuits. But at the termination of the American war, this resource failed, and I was again left in a destitute situation.
With European goods once again coming into North America in quantity, the price for lace must have dropped, and Adams could no longer support herself by making it.

The photo above of a bobbin lace border in progress comes from the Chesapeake Region Lace Guild. Here are more action photos from Jill Hall at Plimoth Plantation.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Bachmann, Burr, and Balderdash

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.) really likes the Founders. So much that late in college she changed political parties because she didn’t like the portrayal of those men in Gore Vidal’s novel Burr.

“He was kind of mocking the Founding Fathers and I just thought, ‘What a snot,’” she said. “I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, ‘You know what? I don’t think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican.’”
That quotation comes from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s 2007 profile of Bachmann. In December she repeated the anecdote to a group of Republicans in Michigan (she’s exploring a presidential run), and that got more attention.

Of course, Burr is fiction. Furthermore, much of it is in the voice of Aaron Burr, designated black sheep of the founding generation, alienated from the American political establishment for not stepping aside during the 1800 Electoral College debacle, shooting dead great Hamilton, and allegedly trying to found an empire in the west. (The novel’s other narrator is one of the book’s few totally fictional characters.) What should we expect Burr to say? In fact, most of the critical remarks Vidal put in his fictional version’s mouth came from political attacks of the early republic—i.e., what the Founders really said about each other.

It’s not clear why Bachmann equated disliking criticism of Burr’s contemporaries with not being a Democrat. Burr himself had helped to found what became the Democratic Party, but (as shown in the novel) Jefferson pushed him aside. And Vidal by the mid-1970s had also broken with the Democrats for the People’s Party, and was writing such things as “There is only one party in the United States, the Property party…and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” Around the time Bachmann read Vidal’s book, Americans of both main parties were celebrating the Bicentennial together.

Whatever her thinking, Burr made Bachmann a Republican. Within a few years she was studying law at Oral Roberts University, and now she’s one of the most conservative members of Congress.

Bachmann’s feeling for the Founders also surfaced in a speech she gave to Iowans for Tax Relief on 21 January. That speech was broadcast on C-SPAN, and Talking Points Memo reported it this way:
“How unique in all of the world, that one nation that was the resting point from people groups all across the world,” she said. “It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status.”

“Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable?” she asked.

Speaking at an Iowans For Tax Relief event, Bachmann (R-MN) also noted how slavery was a “scourge” on American history, but added that “we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”

"And," she continued, "I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forbearers [sic] who worked tirelessly—men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."
Bachmann reeled off a remarkable jumble of historical misunderstandings. The U.S. of A. is not the only country formed from “people groups all across the world”; apparently she’s never gone north from Minnesota to Canada, nor visited Brazil, Australia, or even modern London.

Any student of American history should know that at its founding and for much of its first two centuries the country didn’t treat people equally no “matter the color of their skin.” People weren’t “all the same” once they arrived in the U.S.; for decades, laws kept some as slaves or second-class citizens, barred others from citizenship, and kept women out of formal politics. Bachmann acknowledges such facts, but apparently believes that even though the Founders actually set up some of those laws, they didn’t really mean them.

Instead, Bachmann offers the wishful fantasy that “the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” Some of the men involved in writing the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and Bill of Rights (usually considered our founding documents) were anti-slavery. A few, such as Benjamin Franklin, were even politically active abolitionists. But most owned slaves and maintained the institution of slavery, even in those documents themselves.

As many critics noted, the one anti-slavery statesman Bachmann named—John Quincy Adams—was neither involved in writing any founding document, nor survived “until slavery was extinguished in the country” in 1865. (I count young Adams among the Founders because he worked as a young diplomatic aide in 1780-83. But my definition of that group is very broad.)

Bachmann’s factual inaccuracy was no surprise. Last month Minnesota Public Radio reported that PolitiFact has found this sort of commentary to be normal for her:
"We have checked her 13 times, and seven of her claims to be false and six have been found to be ridiculously false," PolitiFact editor Bill Adair said.

Adair said no politician has been checked as often as Bachmann without saying at least something that's true.

"I don't know anyone else that we have checked, more than a couple times, that has never earned anything above a false," he said. "She is unusual in that regard that she has never gotten a rating higher than false."
Since then, however, Bachmann’s “Tea Party” response to the two main parties’ State of the Union addresses added two “Barely True” and two “Half True” rankings to her Politifact record.

Bachmann’s speech shows how her understanding of American history begins with certain tenets, to which the facts must bow. America has not just been a model and inspiration for other nations, she believes, but is still unique and exceptional among them. The “Founding Fathers” must be beyond criticism, in either a satirical novel or a stump speech.

Nevertheless, I find it interesting that Bachmann felt she had to acknowledge slavery in U.S. history—she couldn’t just let that part of history pass unremarked, as other politicians have tried. She also felt the need to speak well of equality and diversity, which some other modern political figures have criticized. And because we most of us believe that freedom for all, equality, and diversity are good things, Bachmann had to describe the “Founding Fathers” as tireless crusaders for those values as well.