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, March 31, 2011

What Washington Really Did about the Gunpowder

Having expressed great skepticism about James T. Flexner’s statement that George Washington directed a disinformation campaign to conceal the Continentals’ lack of gunpowder from the British, I feel I should address what the general actually did.

After all, Washington didn’t just sit there, not saying anything. Actually, he did, but only for half an hour, according to Gen. John Sullivan.

After that, the commander-in-chief wrote urgent letters to the executive authorities of the neighboring colonies and the Continental Congress, asking for any gunpowder they had. Those letters appear to have sped up shipments a bit, and some powder was already on its way to the army. The crisis Washington and his generals perceived lasted only a few days, though lack of ammunition continued to limit their action for a while.

Washington also proposed or endorsed two audacious ways to seize powder from British outposts. The American generals learned about the shortage at a 3 Aug 1775 council of war, and the minutes show their response:

It was proposed to make an attempt on the Magazine at Halifax where there is reason to suppose there is a great quantity of Powder. And upon the Question being seriously put, it was agreed to, by a great majority, and that the detachment for this enterprise consist of 300 Men.
This raid on one of the British military’s main garrisons in North America never took place. Which was probably good from the American point of view, since the plan seems to have been a bit too optimistic.

In a monograph titled “George Washington’s Armed Schooner,” Allen B. Hovey has suggested that preparation for that assault on Halifax prompted Washington to look into arming a ship for the first time. Later, after he had sent the Hannah to sea, the general told John Langdon of New Hampshire that schooner was part of “a scheme I had in view with the People of Hallifax.” So that 3 August plan might have produced results, just not the results the council of war had in mind.

The next day, Washington suggested a different naval expedition to Gov. Nicholas Cooke of Rhode Island:
one Harris is lately come from Bermuda, where there is a very considerable Magazine of Powder in a remote Part of the Island and the Inhabitants well disposed not only to our Cause in General, but to assist in this Enterprize in particular; we understand there are two Armed Vessels in your Province commanded by Men of known Activity and Spirit; one of which it is proposed to dispatch on this Errand, with such other assistance as may be required; Harris is to go along as the Conductor of the Enter prize and to avail ourselves of his knowledge of the Island, but without any Command. I am very sensible that at first view the project may appear hazardous and its Success must depend on the Concurrence of many Circumstances; but we are in a Situation which requires us to run all Risques.
Capt. Abraham Whipple did indeed head to Bermuda, but not until mid-September, as he later described. That expedition didn’t produce any powder, either, because a lot of it had already been stolen away. But we can’t say Gen. Washington didn’t think big.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Michiko’s Choice

As I wrote yesterday, in his recent Inventing George Washington, Edward G. Lengel contrasted the two major biographies of Washington published in the mid-1900s, finding Freeman’s to be careful but dry and Flexner’s lively but tacitly fictionalized.

New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani recently criticized Lengel for such judgments:

Mr. Lengel has a reductive either-or mind-set when it comes to biographical treatments of Washington’s life, suggesting that on the one hand, there are dry, factual accounts, which lack “the glue of imagination and inspiration,” and, on the other, colorful, popular portraits by the likes of Parson [Mason] Weems, who created narratives filled with dubious anecdotes — like the famous cherry tree story and the Indian prophecy that Washington would never be killed by a bullet — which probably originated in popular oral legends, hearsay or “in Weems’s own imagination.”

However false Weems-like anecdotes might be, Mr. Lengel argues, they “lent to Washington a degree of vibrancy and three-dimensionality that he might otherwise have lost,” whereas more serious scholars, in his view, took “the fun out of Washington and transformed him into a plate of cold fish.” This is absurd: just as it’s irresponsible for a historian to rationalize fantasy-based portraits of a historical figure because they make the individual accessible to the masses, so is it myopic to insinuate that accuracy and compelling writing are somehow mutually exclusive — as absorbing works like Mr. [Joseph] Ellis’s books on the founding fathers have made very clear.
In addition to Ellis’s His Excellency (2004) on the first President, Kakutani also recommended Ron Chernow’s “prodigiously researched” Washington: A Life (2010). Her review suggests that both refute Lengel’s supposed claim that we have to choose between dry factual rigor and vivid portraiture.

But how does Kakutani judge what biographies are accurate? She studied literature, not Revolutionary history, and worked as a reporter before becoming a regular reviewer for the Times. As I noted back here, Chernow is one of the authors who, following Flexner, wrote that Washington deliberately spread disinformation about his army having 1,800 barrels of gunpowder—which turns out to be one of those “dubious anecdotes.”

The Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker about Washington: A Life:
Chernow’s aim is to make of Washington something other than a “lifeless waxwork,” an “impossibly stiff and wooden figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human.” That has been the aim of every Washington biographer, and none of them have achieved it. . . .

Chernow…thinks a whole lot differently about feeling and understanding than Washington did—and that, right there, is the problem. “Washington: A Life” is a prodigious biography, expertly narrated and full of remarkable detail. But it is a psychological profile of a man who lived and died long before our psychological age, a romantic portrait of a man who was not a Romantic…
In contrast, that same magazine’s reporter Hendrick Hertzberg recommended Washington: A Life as “as history, as epic, and, not least, as entertainment.” There seems to be a divide between biographies that academic historians trust, often full of doubt and elision, and those that journalists admire.

Joseph Ellis is, like Lepore, a full-time academic historian of stature. Nonetheless, his methodology is much like Flexner’s and Chernow’s: assembling vivid psychological portraits and compelling narratives by starting from primary sources and adding a lot of sympathetic imagination. In Past Imperfect fellow historian Peter Charles Hoffer suggested that Ellis habitually goes too far in describing what the founders thought and felt, going “places where only a conjurer might safely peer.”

Still, the results of that method are delightful. It’s no surprise that many of the most popular Revolutionary histories and biographies of recent years come from people who trained as journalists: Chernow, Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, and so on. Like academic historians, those authors dig into the available sources, primary and secondary and often documentary. However, their training is to come back with the story, not just the facts and questions. They strive to make the people of the past come to life—as we recognize it today. In contrast, many historians want to remind us of the difficulties, perhaps the impossibilities, of doing just that.

I think Lengel is more accurate than Kakutani can recognize. There is a trade-off between a completely accurate portrait and a completely compelling one. We prefer to relate to the people we read about, even if those people should be really hard for us twenty-first-century readers to relate to. We prefer well-structured narratives with strong protagonists despite how—and probably precisely because—real lives don’t work like that.

TOMORROW: What Washington really did about the gunpowder shortage.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Freeman, Flexner, and Fiction

In the last few days I quoted from the two major George Washington biographies of the mid-1900s: the multi-volume sets by Douglas Southall Freeman (and assistants) and by James T. Flexner.

Edward G. Lengel discusses both of them in a late chapter of his recent Inventing George Washington. About the first, Lengel says:

In bringing out the real man, Freeman refused to step beyond his scholarly standards or employ literary shortcuts in favor of evocative characterization. Critics therefore praised his work as a piece of scholarship but complained about the “plodding…portentous” narrative overladen with “often inconsequential detail [so that] even the student nods.” . . .

Freeman’s George Washington remains probably the most scholarly book ever written on its subject, but it was the kind of book that people bought and never read.
In contrast, Lengel writes:
Flexner began with basic facts. . . . Where Freeman and other “scientific” historians had been content to rely on these to construct an authentic if somewhat humdrum series of events, Flexner applied his imagination to elucidate on these facts and create vivid scenes and flesh-and-blood characters. Thus, starting from a document describing the bare-bones facts of a certain event, Flexner added the facial expressions, bodily gestures, figures of speech, and private thoughts of Washington and all the other dramatis personae, setting it against the backdrop of a vividly described albeit largely imaginary physical scene. In essence, he wrote a historical novel based on fact, but without admitting it as such.
One of the crucial ingredients of a novel is an active protagonist. As Freeman told the story of the gunpowder crisis of early August 1775, he didn’t make Gen. Washington into such a hero. Instead, he wrote more vaguely about “efforts to keep secret the shortage of powder,” and how “Royal officers were being misled” on other matters. Even as he argued that the British never learning of the shortage was some sort of triumph for the Americans, Freeman avoided attributing particular actions to Washington or any other individual unless documents showed their role.

Flexner, on the other hand, presented Washington as the protagonist of the episode, taking action and directing others:
As a first step, he leaked word to the enemy (which their intelligence eagerly gobbled up) that he had eighteen hundred barrels of powder. He started a rumor in his own camp that he was almost embarrassed at having so much…
Flexner had no documentation for those statements, only a stretched interpretation of what Freeman had written and a strong desire to make Washington an active hero. That picture of Washington and Flexner’s ability to describe scenes and characters made his book quite successful, considering its bulk.

Flexner presented his biography as well-researched non-fiction, and most readers accepted that. Other authors therefore have repeated the tale about 1,800 barrels of powder based on his authority. In George Washington, Spymaster, for example, Thomas B. Allen wrote that the general “sent agents into British-occupied Boston with the story” because that’s what a spymaster, or the hero of a satisfying novel, would do.

TOMORROW: Kakutani’s judgment.

Monday, March 28, 2011

“Those who would listen to such things heard tall tales”

In stating that Gen. George Washington “leaked word to the enemy…that he had eighteen hundred barrels of powder” in August 1775, as quoted back here, James T. Flexner cited a page from the previous multi-volume biography of the man.

Back in 1951, Flexner’s predecessor Douglas Southall Freeman (shown at right) wrote in George Washington: Planter and Patriot:

If Washington could not procure from these sources of intelligence [deserters and refugees] much information of real value concerning British plans, he could not fail to be pleased at the success of efforts to keep secret the shortage of powder. The public, in fact, overconfidently exaggerated the size of the supply instead of presenting the scarcity as worse than it was. False reports circulated of large importation and of great stores. Ezekiel Price had heard in July that 1800 barrels of powder had reached Philadelphia; the next month, from its printing house across the salt marshes, the [10 Aug 1775] Boston Gazette had boasted that “the needful” was “not wanting”; Ezra Stiles was told he might rely on it that the Colonies had fifty tons.

This, in a sense, was a triumph of the American intelligence service. So was the deception of the British. Royal officers were being misled and, in some instances, were deceiving their own people at home. Those who would listen to such things heard tall tales of the magnitude of desertion from American ranks, and of the unexplained “arrest” of Charles Lee by his own commander’s order. London newspaper readers were soon to be regaled with reports that on August 7, the British, 5000 strong, had attacked “the rebels” and after slaughtering a host had captured [Israel] Putnam and Lee, 2500 other prisoners, a vast number of carefully specified cannon, 6000 stand of small arms, and £100,000 in specie. If these absurdities later were found in newspapers that were smuggled across the Atlantic, they would amuse the Americans who meantime did all they could not only to confuse the enemy but also to create discontent in British ranks.
Freeman thus provided Flexner with no direct evidence of Washington managing a disinformation campaign about the powder supply—no secret orders, letters, or reminiscences of double agents. And the circumstantial evidence strikes me as very thin.

Down in Newport, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles did indeed write on 15 August: “I am told so that I rely on it, that our Army now have Fifty Tons of Powder.” Nineteenth-century manuals for ship’s officers say that a barrel of gunpowder held one hundred pounds, so those “Fifty Tons” would have filled a thousand barrels. (According to Gen. John Sullivan, the Americans’ actual count was 38.) But Stiles was:
  • a sucker for any news that he wanted to hear, and
  • not a British army officer in Boston.
We’re still missing evidence of a disinformation campaign as opposed to the typical fog of war.

Flexner specified “eighteen hundred barrels of powder.” That convincingly specific figure came from Ezekiel Price’s diary on 2 July:
Mr. E[dmund]. Quincy reports that eighteen hundred barrels of powder is arrived at Philadelphia or New York, and that General Washington is to be at the camps Tuesday next.
Price wrote about powder to the south, not the siege lines around Boston. Furthermore, Price recorded that rumor before he knew Washington arrived at Cambridge, and over a month before that commander realized there was a powder shortage. Those imaginary 1,800 barrels have no link to Washington at all.

Freeman did credit “the American intelligence service” with keeping the gunpowder shortage secret—“in a sense.” He hinted that “Royal officers were being misled”—but he never stated who did the misleading or how. All of Freeman’s examples of false rumors among the British involved matters other than gunpowder. And he acknowledged there were similar false rumors all over the American lines, though he didn’t call that confusion a triumph of the British intelligence service.

TOMORROW: Printing the legend.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

“No other end is answer’d, but to waste Ammunition”

Yesterday I quoted from James T. Flexner’s biography of George Washington about the commander-in-chief’s response to the gunpowder crisis of early August 1775: “…he leaked word to the enemy (which their intelligence eagerly gobbled up) that he had eighteen hundred barrels of powder. He started a rumor in his own camp that he was almost embarrassed at having so much…”

Flexner’s citations for that paragraph pointed to two sources. One is a set of letters and orders that came from headquarters in the following days, which say nothing about spreading rumors to the British. The letters are all pleas to nearby governments and the Continental Congress to send more gunpowder as quickly as possible.

It’s true that the general engaged in a little subterfuge in ordering the army to conserve the powder it still had. On 4 August he issued these general orders:

It is with Indignation and Shame, the General observes, that notwithstanding the repeated Orders which have been given to prevent the firing of Guns, in and about Camps, that it is daily and hourly practised; that contrary to all Orders, stragling Soldiers do still pass the Guards, and fire at a Distance, where there is not the least probability of hurting the enemy, and where no other end is answer’d, but to waste Ammunition, expose themselves to the ridicule of the enemy, and keep their own Camps harrassed by frequent and continual alarms, to the hurt of every good Soldier, who is thereby disturbed of his natural rest, and will at length never be able to distinguish between a real, and a false alarm.

For these reasons, it is in the most peremptory manner forbid, any person or persons whatsoever, under any pretence, to pass the out Guards, unless authorized by the Commanding Officer of that part of the lines; signified in writing which must be shewn to the Officer of the guard as they pass. Any person offending in this particular, will be considered in no other light, than as a common Enemy, and the Guards will have orders to fire upon them as such. The Commanding Officer of every regiment is to direct, that every man in his regiment, is made acquainted with Orders to the end, that no one may plead Ignorance, and that all may be apprized of the consequence of disobedience. The Colonels of regiments and commanding Officers of Corps, to order the Rolls of every Company to be called twice a day, and every Man’s Ammunition examined at evening Roll calling, and such as are found to be deficient to be confined.

The Guards are to apprehend all persons firing Guns near their Posts, whether Townsmen or soldiers.
In other words, Gen. Washington gave the Continental soldiers every reason not to fire off their guns for no reason except the real reason: the army had to conserve powder until the Congress could supply more.

That might count as disinformation, except that those general orders were:
  • designed more to keep a secret than to spread false information, and
  • not really aimed at the enemy.
So we still don’t have a source for a deliberate disinformation campaign.

TOMORROW: Flexner’s secondary source.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Unanswered Question #2

Here’s another question that an audience member asked after my Evacuation Day talk on Gen. George Washington’s intelligence efforts in 1775.

Did Gen. Washington engage in any disinformation campaigns during the siege of Boston? Specifically, after discovering on 3 Aug 1775 that his army had much less gunpowder than everyone had thought, did he tell the British commanders that he had so much that he would trade it for uniforms?

I haven’t come across that story, much less solid evidence for it. However, I did find a story of disinformation after the gunpowder crisis that’s become widespread in recent years.

The general definitely didn’t want the British command to learn how little powder the American army had. On 4 August, the general wrote to the Continental Congress:

Upon discovering this mistake, I immediately went up to confer with the Speaker of the House of Representatives [James Warren] upon some measures to obtain a supply from the Neighbouring Townships, in such a manner as might prevent our Poverty from being known. As it is a secret of too much consequence to be devulg’d, even to the General Court. some Individual of which might perhaps indiscrietly suffer it to escape him so as to get to the Enemy. The Consequences of which are terrible even in Idea.

I shall also write to the Governors of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Committee of Safety at New Hampshire on this Subject, urging in the most forcible Terms the Necessity of an immediate supply if in their Power. I need not enlarge on our melancholy Situation it is sufficient to say that the existence of the Army and Salvation of the Country depends upon some thing being done for our relief both speedy and effectual and that our Situation be kept a profound Secret.
According to James Thomas Flexner’s George Washington in the American Revolution (the 1968 installment in his multi-volume biography), the commander-in-chief went further and actually took steps to feed false information to the British:
As a first step, he leaked word to the enemy (which their intelligence eagerly gobbled up) that he had eighteen hundred barrels of powder. He started a rumor in his own camp that he was almost embarrassed at having so much…
The 1,800 barrels of powder is a wonderfully specific detail that makes the rumor more credible. That story of disinformation appeared more recent books as well, including Thomas B. Allen’s George Washington, Spymaster and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. It seems to be especially pleasing to novelists; both Jeff Shaara in Rise to Rebellion and Laurie Calkhoven in Daniel at the Siege of Boston dramatize the moment Washington sets the plan in motion.

TOMORROW: But what’s the evidence for that deliberate and misleading leak?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Darius Cobb’s Evacuation of Boston Harbor

Last week on Evacuation Day, Stanwood Cobb Myers contacted me with an image of the British departure painted by his great-grandfather Darius Cobb (1834-1919) of Boston. The image above comes from Legendary Auctions, which sold the painting in 2005.

Some years after the Evacuation Cobb produced a matching Battle of Bunker Hill that centered on the doomed Dr. Joseph Warren, visible at Wikipedia. Find-a-Grave offers photos of Cobb and his gravestone.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Virtual Visit to the A.A.S.’s Paul Revere Collection

Jumping jerboas! Last week the American Antiquarian Society announced a webpage for its Paul Revere Collection.

These aren’t the metalsmith’s primary products: silverware, church bells, copper sheeting, &c. Rather, the A.A.S. has a thorough collection of Revere’s engravings, including business documents, political cartoons, newspaper and magazine illustrations, bookplates, and currency.

Back in 1954, the A.A.S. librarian and director Clarence S. Brigham published the major study on Revere’s engravings, collecting examples, as well as sources and copies. On another webpage the A.A.S. says:

During the years leading up to the publication of this monograph, Brigham scouted out impressions of Revere's engravings until the Society had at least one of each, except for the portrait of Jonathan Mayhew. Since then, three engravings by Revere have surfaced; AAS has impressions of two (a meeting notice for the Relief Fire Society and the bookplate of John Butler) but not of the other (a billhead for Mr. John Piemont, owned by the town of Danvers, Massachusetts).
Boston 1775 readers might remember Piemont as the barber in central Boston whose apprentices were part of the spiral of violence on King Street that led to the Boston Massacre. He retired from hairdressing shortly before the war to run taverns in Danvers. Scroll down this page to see a reproduction of his billhead at the Turk’s Head inn.

Not every image in the collection is by Revere. Here’s Henry Pelham’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, which Revere copied, and someone else might have made this woodcut copy of the Massacre print.

Brigham identified a lot of these engravings as copied from English sources. (Revere was a much better artist in silver than in engraving.) It would be interesting to see the sources side by side with Revere’s copies, but I don’t think that’s possible within this collection. There is, however, a list of links to Revere items elsewhere.

The A.A.S. staff has put a lot of effort into presenting the material in different ways. There’s a thumbnail gallery, explanatory essays, and topic sortings. Teachers might appreciate the questions for further study and essays.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Paul Revere Author Visits Lexington, 25 March

Before Henry W. Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860, Paul Revere was remembered mostly as an early Massachusetts industrialist. He made a successful transition from heading a small workshop to supervising a factory.

Revere’s earliest products were handmade silver and gold utensils, much like those his father had made before him. At the end of his career, however, the Revere company was turning out big cast church bells, cannons, and lots and lots of copper sheeting.

The Revere cookware still marketed today (and the Revere stereographic cameras of the 1950s) wasn’t named for Revere after 1860 because he was a household name with patriotic connotations, like Sam Adams and Ethan Allen. Those products came out of the metalworking company he founded.

Robert Martello has written a new book about Revere’s business career, called Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Growth of American Enterprise. This Friday, 25 March, he’ll speak about it as part of the Lexington Historical Society’s Cornelius Cronin Lecture Series. Prof. Martello’s talk starts at 8:00 P.M. in the Lexington Depot Building, and is free and open to the public.

Also in Lexington, the annual Patriots Day reenactment of shooting on the common is scheduled to be rehearsed on 3 April starting at 2:00 P.M; raindate is 10 April. I’ve heard this can be an opportunity to see the action without fighting against crowds or a rational sleep cycle. You can download the town’s official schedule of events on 16-18 April here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Unanswered Question #1

My thanks to all who came to my talk at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters last Thursday! There were a couple of audience questions I felt I didn’t answer adequately, so I’m addressing them now. First up:

What’s a tippet?

At the talk I read an advertisement from Newport baker Godfrey Wenwood demanding the return of several articles of woman’s clothing, including a “muff and tippet.” A gentleman asked what a tippet was. Unfortunately, my memory for clothing details is weak as water, and my resident costume expert was at a Colonial Williamsburg accessories symposium at the time.

In fact, it turns out, that very afternoon she’d been at a talk that touched on tippets. Here’s the description from Rebecca at A Fashionable Frolick:

The final lecture, given by Cynthia Cooper (head of research and collections and curator of costume and textiles at the McCord Museum), took a tour through the changes in fashion of three prominent accessories: shawls, sashes, and scarves. Accompanying the talk (which spanned the early eighteenth century all the way to the end of the nineteenth) was a collection of stunning slides of items held in the McCord Museum and scores of illustrative prints and paintings.

I found her focus on the “otherness” of these items of dress to be particularly illuminating. Shawls, for instance, arrived in Europe and England from India in the late 1790s. While images of them display a certain willingness to incorporate such an exotic item into fashionable continental dress, contemporary images simultaneously reveal an ambiguous relationship to it; while the shawl was a masculine article of clothing in India, Europe’s aesthetic reaction to it, removed from its original function, re-imagined the shawl into a feminine accessory worn in a completely different way.
Meanwhile, the internet told me that a tippet is another type of wrap, like a capelet or stole. Fashionable eighteenth-century British women wore tippets around their shoulders and upper arms for warmth. And when they went out, they often put their hands in matching muffs.

Here’s an article on the garments from the Jane Austen Centre, and a whole page on muffs from 18th Century Notebook. Click on the thumbnail above to see a satirical London print from about 1773 showing a woman in muff and tippet, from Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Twitter Feed, 11-12 Mar 2011, and a Sketch

  • RT @SecondVirginia: The Baltimore Sun on Mount Vernon: George Washington's Estate & Gardens whiskey distillery fb.me/RgQg5NVN #
  • RT @SecondVirginia: Copper thieves target historic Virginia buildings in Fredericksburg fb.me/PIOTgfIn #
  • RT @LondonReview: RT @murzee 'The 400 richest Americans are now richer than the bottom 50 percent combined' bit.ly/eQjT0C #
  • RT @56Signers irony, considering Robert Treat Paine irked by actress daughter-in-law: one descendant is #actor Treat Williams. #
  • Story behind America's 1st honorary medical degree, granted by #Yale in 1723: bit.ly/hUpYDE #
  • How many #RevWar redcoats had trade skills? Don Hagist surveys data on 22d Regt, counts a bit over half bit.ly/eyA1Iy #
  • Would like to share great story from #Yale alumni magazine about identifying 18th-c Newport furniture, but it's not on the web (yet?). #
  • AP report and photo of recently auctioned 1765 lottery ticket signed by John Hancock: yhoo.it/gtMTsa #
  • As I recall, John Hancock himself won a lottery about 1772, when he was already one of the richest men in Boston. #
  • Downloadable interview with Gordon Wood on John Adams, "best and most colorful stylist among the Founders": bit.ly/fi4oPM #
  • RT @RagLinen: The First 25 American Newspapers: ow.ly/4ctx0 #history #journalism #ushist #newspaper // 6 of first 10 in Boston #
  • Americans' fear and bigotry against Catholics in 1700s as parallel to fear and bigotry against Muslims today: bit.ly/hlxTWK #
  • Argument against US Constitution's equality toward all religions, 1788: bit.ly/gH7Y6m #
Loudtwitter once again took a break about a week ago, so I don’t have more recent links to share. But as a special treat, the artist Seamus Heffernan has posted a drawing of me speaking at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters last Thursday.

That psychedelic pattern at the left is a grayscale reproduction of Henry Pelham’s map of the siege of Boston. I had the John Bonner 1722 map of Boston on my tie, so I matched. The message on the screen reflects my claim to have named some intelligence sources for the first time. My hair? I can’t explain that.

While you’re at Seamus’s site, check out his sketches and pages for a graphic novel set during the Revolutionary War.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

“Onboard the Prison Ship at New York”

A little more than nine months after Richard Carpenterimmigrant, barber, and former prisoner of warresigned from the Continental Army, his wife Elizabeth had another child. That boy died young and was “Buryd in the Burying ground at the back of the Alms house” in what we now call the Granary Burying Ground.

In March 1778 the Carpenters’ older three children were “Inoculated by Doctor [Thomas] Bulfinch for the Small Pox.” In February 1780 Elizabeth Carpenter had her second daughter, Kathrine. However, she held off on the baby’s baptism at Trinity Church for over two years, until July 1782.

I suspect that was because Richard had once more left town, and she was hoping to have the ceremony when he was back. According to the memoir of Ebenezer Fox, apprenticed to another barber in Boston around 1780, there wasn’t enough hairdressing work in town. Inflation was high, and Richard Carpenter had that growing family to feed. In addition, his swimming adventures in 1775 suggest he might have been a man of bold ideas. Like Fox, Carpenter apparently signed onto a privateer or naval warship.

Carpenter’s ship was then captured by the Royal Navy (as was Fox’s). The barber’s name appears as “Richards Carpenter” on the British government’s roll of prisoners put on board the Jersey in New York harbor. That was an overcrowded, disease-ridden hulk.

The last entry on the family records page (visible here) says:

Richard Carpenter Senior, Died onboard the Prison Ship at New York 6th Jany 1781 in the 35th Year of His Age
Carpenter had been caught and locked up by the British twice before, in Boston and then after escaping in Halifax. The third time he didn’t survive.

Later, someone made additions to earlier entries in the family records to say that Richard and Elizabeth’s three youngest children all got through the measles in February 1790.

An Elizabeth Carpenter married Thomas Lewis, Jr., in King’s Chapel in 1794. Another Elizabeth Carpenter married Josiah Nottage in 1796. Those brides could have been the barber’s widow or daughter, or unrelated women with the same name.

The records of King’s Chapel say that Samuel Carpenter and his wife Abigail had a son named George Washington Brackett Carpenter on 15 Feb 1801. I’m convinced that was Richard’s second son, born while he was locked up in Boston jail; the little baby’s long name honors his father’s commander-in-chief and his mother’s family.

Samuel and Abigail named their other children William Dodd Carpenter and Caleb Strong Carpenter. They actually had three other boys, but the first William Dodd and Caleb Strong died within weeks of each other in 1803, so the couple named their next baby William Dodd as well. I haven’t found any more information about the family.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

“Do something for one of my old Jail Mates”

After Boston barber Richard Carpenter and Pennsylvania rifleman Walter Cruise got out of British custody around the turn of the year 1777, they went to Baltimore.

Why Baltimore? Because, with the British army cutting rapidly through New Jersey in the fall of 1776, the Continental Congress had moved south from Philadelphia. The political leaders didn’t realize, as so many American schoolchildren have learned since, that Gen. George Washington would win a battle at Trenton and decide the war. (At least that’s how it appears in capsule histories that skip rapidly through the battles from early 1777 through late 1781.)

On 13 Jan 1777 the Congress passed a special resolution about those two men:

That 100 dollars be paid to Walter Cruise, and 100 dollars to Richard Carpenter, who have been long detained prisoners by the enemy, and cruelly treated by them; and that they be recommended to General Washington to be employed in the service of the United States, in such way as he shall think proper.
John Hancock as president of the Congress sent that resolution to Washington in a brief note on 15 January. Nine days later, Washington wrote a couple of lines to Col. John Patton asking him to appoint Cruse to a position in the Sixth Pennsylvania Regiment. Cruse retired in June 1778 at the rank of captain.

As for Carpenter, he asked to serve in a Massachusetts regiment, so Washington wrote a letter about him to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. He apparently carried it home to Boston in February 1777, and then became a second lieutenant in the 15th Massachusetts with his appointment back-dated to 1 January.

Unfortunately, Carpenter seems to have been unsuited for the position. On 5 Oct 1777 James Lovell, by then a Congress delegate, wrote to Gen. Horatio Gates about the man:
I wish for the Sake of a most deserving Woman & lovely young Children, you could contrive to do something for one of my old Jail Mates, now a Lieutenant in yr. Army—Richard Carpenter.

He is bold as a Lion in our Cause; but I have only my Wife's Assertion that he is intirely altered from what he appeared in the days of his Confinement, when non procul atrita pendebat Cantharus ansa [“not far away his flagon hung by its worn handle,” a quote from Virgil about being a heavy drinker—Lovell was a former Latin teacher, after all].

His Orthography is by no means his greatest Recommendation, as you will See by the inclosed. I have given you the only two unfavourable Hints I knew respecting him. If he proves my Wife's account true he is worthy of yr Notice, and I will own myself his Friend.
Evidently Carpenter had visited Mary Lovell to ask a favor from her husband for old time’s sake. But the barber ended up resigning from the Continental Army on 26 October.

TOMORROW: I wish I could say this ends happily.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Richard Carpenter “Returned from his Captivity”

Yesterday we left the barber Richard Carpenter “still confined in one room at Halifax” with many other American prisoners in September 1776.

A year earlier, his wife Elizabeth had been confined another way, giving birth to their third child, Samuel. I assume she was also confined in army-occupied Boston because the baby was baptized by the Rev. Andrew Eliot, the only Patriot-leaning Congregationalist minister who stayed in town through the siege.

The Carpenters’ previous two children, Richard, Jr., and Elizabeth, had been baptized in Boston’s Presbyterian meeting by the Rev. John Morehead (shown above, courtesy of the Presbyterian Heritage Center), but that society went into abeyance after Morehead died and the war began.

The 15 January 1777 New England Chronicle brought that family good news:

Mr. Richard Carpenter, of this Town, who was under Sentence of Death in this Metropolis last Winter, by Order of General Gage, and ever since detained a Prisoner, and treated in the most barbarous Manner, is it said, made his Escape from the Enemy, at New-York, about a Fortnight since.
Shortly afterward that same column of the newspaper said that Consider Howland had arrived in Boston from New York, having been freed on parole. Since Howland was one of the prisoners being held with Carpenter the previous September, I suspect he brought the news of the barber’s freedom.

Carpenter may not have escaped, however. He may have been released in a prisoner exchange. The 27 February New England Chronicle ran this story from Baltimore, where the Continental Congess was meeting:
On the first instant, Mr. Walter Cruise, belonging to Captain Dowdle’s Virginia Rifle Company, who was taken at Charlestown neck (near Boston) the 29th of June, 1775, arrived in this city, being exchanged, after a tedious and cruel imprisonment of 17 months; Mr. Richard Carpenter, came with him.

The integrity of these BRAVE and unfortunate MEN, who, though Europeans, treated with disdain, during their confinement, the promises of persons sent to intice them into the British service, will, it is hoped, recommned them to the attention of those in power.
Maybe other documents will surface to confirm how Richard Carpenter became free. For him and his family, the manner of his release probably didn’t matter. On the Carpenter family records page (now owned by the New England Historic Genealogical Society) is this notice:
Richard Carpenter Senior Returned from his Captivity in Feby 1777—after being Nineteen Months absent from his family During which time he was under sentance of Death for Fritning the Generals Gage How Burgoin & Clinton and twenty two British Regiments in the town of Boston but through the goodness of Almighty God I am now Clear of them all
But there was still a war on.

TOMORROW: “The attention of those in power.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Richard Carpenter “apprehended and confined in irons”

Two hundred thirty-five years ago today, the British fleet pulled away from Boston’s wharves, carrying several thousand soldiers, about a thousand Loyalist refugees, and a few prisoners that Gen. William Howe deemed too valuable to leave behind.

The most prominent of those was James Lovell, former assistant teacher at the South Latin School. Letters from him were apparently found in Dr. Joseph Warren’s pockets after the battle of Bunker Hill. Lovell had been locked up since the summer of 1775, and had unsuccessfully pleaded with Gen. Washington to exchange him.

Another prisoner on the fleet was Richard Carpenter, the barber who swam from Boston to Dorchester and back in late July 1775.

Boston newspapers tried to keep track of men known to be prisoners (see the examples at Rag Linen), and they spread more news of Carpenter in late July 1776. Here’s the version that appeared in the Boston Gazette on the 29th:

Last Tuesday Evening came to town from Halifax, Lieut. Scott of Peterborough, in New Hampshire Government, who was wounded and taken Prisoner at the memorable Battle of Bunker Hill the 17th of June, 1775, and has been a Prisoner ever since.

He informed, That he with 13 others broke Goal about 5 Weeks ago, and betook themselves to the Woods where they separated; that Captain [Sion] Martindale and his first and second Lieutenants, John Brown, Rifleman, Leonard Briggs of Ware, and himself arrived at Truro at the head of the Cobbecut river, after a travel of 3 days, where they procured a boat and got to the Eastward;

that Richard Carpenter formerly Barber in this town, Philip Johnson Peak, David Kemp of Groton, and Corporal [Walter] Cruse of Virginia, and two others took the road to Windsor where they were apprehended and confined in irons;

that Benjamin Willson of Billerica, one of the Bunker Hill Prisoners died lately in goal; and that he left Master James Lovell still confin’d, in high health and spirits
On 18 September the Connecticut Journal had a long report on prisoners of war “still confined in one room at Halifax, among felons, thieves, robbers, negroes, soldiers, &c.” At the top of that long list were “James Lovil & Richard Carpenter of Boston.” Further down was “Col. Ethan Allen, of Bennington.”

The report concluded, “All in the goal but [Bunker Hill prisoner Daniel] Sessions, are well and in good spirits; but wishing greatly for an exchange.”

TOMORROW: Richard Carpenter free at last.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

“Carpenter was sentenced to be hanged this day”

On 18 July 1775, the Dublin-born barber Richard Carpenter swam from Boston, held by the British military, to Dorchester, under the control of provincial troops.

On the night of 19 July, he swam back.

Boston selectman Timothy Newell reported in his journal that “Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole.” Teenager Peter Edes encountered him in the Boston jail as they were both taken to a building called Concert-Hall for a military inquiry and trial:

My four room companions and myself were escorted as before, with one Carpenter a barber, who swam from Boston to Cambridge [sic], and back again. The said Carpenter and Mr. [John] Hunt were examined.
An unnamed British officer wrote to someone in London on 25 July that Carpenter had been “caught last week swimming over to the rebels, with one of their General’s passes in his pocket.” Evidence in Gen. George Washington’s papers suggests that Carpenter had no interaction with him, but during his day on the American side of the siege lines he could have met Gen. John Thomas or even Gen. Artemas Ward. Or the British officer could have been passing on bad information.

The royal authorities quickly found Carpenter guilty and sentenced him to death. According to Newell, the barber heard
sentence passed on him to be executed the next day,—his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [i.e., noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution.

Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.
Newell didn’t write his journal entries on the dates attached to them, but a few days afterward, so events got mashed up. The young merchant William Cheever puts the mock execution on 21 July:
one Carpenter was sentenced to be hanged this day for carrying Intelligence over to the Provincials by swiming; however it was thought fit to reprieve him.
Other sources add more haze to the picture, however. According to that British officer on 25 July, Carpenter was still due to “be hanged in a day or two.” On Friday, 28 July, Ezekiel Price, outside of Boston, recorded this rumor:
the barber who swam from Boston to Dorchester about ten days ago, returned again into Boston, was taken up by General [Thomas] Gage, and hanged on Copps Hill last Saturday.
As for Peter Edes in the Boston jail, his journal never mentions Carpenter again.

So what was going on? The British authorities probably wanted to scare Carpenter into confessing all that he knew about the rebels’ intelligence operations. Which may not have been much, since he appears to have been acting on his own.

It’s also possible that the royal government wanted to scare other prisoners or Bostonians into cooperating, while also showing that it could be merciful. But in that case, I would expect to read more about Carpenter in Edes’s diary.

For a while I considered the possibility that Carpenter had been a British plant, with the aborted execution a way of providing him with cover, but other sources show that the army kept him locked up through the siege and beyond.

In the end, the British military found Carpenter suspicious and dangerous, but just wasn’t ready to hang him. I think that reflects how this early in the war neither side had the stomach for such fatal measures. The executions of Thomas Hickey and Nathan Hale were still several months away.

TOMORROW: Richard Carpenter in and out of prison.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Richard Carpenter: barber and swimmer

In honor of my talk on “Washington’s First Spy Ring” in Cambridge this Thursday, this will be Intelligence Week at Boston 1775.

“Intelligence?” longtime readers might say. “What a change of pace!”

In fact, the man I’ll profile seems to have stumbled into military intelligence and counterintelligence efforts during the summer of 1775 without actually showing much animal intelligence.

I’ve mentioned him a couple of times before, when quoting the diaries of Timothy Newell and William Cheever: a barber named Carpenter who swam across Boston harbor during the siege—twice. And that was once too many.

Thanks to a webpage at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and some database searching, I’ve now identified that man as Richard Carpenter. My earliest record of him is an advertisement in the Boston Chronicle of 20 Feb 1769:

Richard Carpenter,
Hair Dresser and Peruke-Maker
from LONDON,

INFORMS all Ladies and Gentlemen, that he has just opened SHOP in King-Street, north-side of the Town-House, next Door to Mrs. Jean Eustis’s, where all those that will be kind enough to favour him with their Custom, will be well served and the best attendance given.
That location puts Carpenter near the scene of the Boston Massacre, but his name doesn’t appear in the record of that event. (For more on Jane Eustis, see Patricia Cleary’s biography Elizabeth Murray.)

According to a page from a family record now owned by the N.E.H.G.S., Carpenter was originally from Dublin. On 6 Dec 1770 he married Elizabeth Brackett of Boston in King’s Chapel (shown above). The couple had a son in 1772, a daughter in 1773, and were expecting again when the war broke out in April 1775.

On 18 July, Carpenter decided to get out of the besieged town. The next day, Ezekiel Price, an official stuck outside Boston, recorded this tidbit in his diary:
One Carpenter, who last evening swam from Boston to Dorchester, says that it was very sickly in Boston; and that provisions were very scarce in Boston, and the people in great distress.
That doesn’t sound like a very nice place to be, but nonetheless Carpenter decided to go back. It looks like he had left his family behind, so maybe he’d left to get food for them. Or maybe he just had poor impulse control. In any event, as Price later wrote in his diary, the very next night Carpenter “returned again into Boston” the same way he came.

And was immediately caught by the British military.

TOMORROW: Trial, sentence, and execution.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Washington’s Secrets Revealed (well, some of them)

As I’ve previously announced, at 6:00 P.M. on Thursday, 17 March, I’ll deliver an Evacuation Day lecture at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site on the topic “Washington’s First Spy Ring: Intelligence and Counterintelligence in the Siege of Boston.”

This talk grows out of research I’ve contracted to do for that site as it expands its interpretation of Revolutionary history. So far I’ve discovered some new facts about Gen. George Washington’s use of the mansion John Vassall built, established the basis for some traditions, and realized how much more there is to put on paper.

Because I’ve become a government contractor, late last year I received a letter warning me not to look at any documents on WikiLeaks. Those materials remain legally classified, and letting such files get onto my computer would put me in violation of my contract.

It seems highly unlikely that WikiLeaks contains any secret information about the American Revolution. But for the record I’ll say that when I identified the Rev. John Carnes as Gen. Washington’s secret informer inside Boston starting in July 1775, that was not based on WikiLeaks documents.

I’ve read news stories about the WikiLeaks disclosures, and even commented on how they could actually benefit the U.S. of A. by showing our diplomats to be perceptive and sincere in wishing for more democracy. Fortunately, the letter said reading such news articles wasn’t a problem.

In my Thursday talk I’ll name the redcoat who deserted in late July 1775, bringing with him detailed plans of the British fortifications. I’ll trace that man’s career in the American army, and debunk the elaborate cover story he or his family created to explain his background—the story that appears in American National Biography and other history books. But I promise that information didn’t come from WikiLeaks.

I’m also going to put forward the likely name of Dr. Benjamin Church’s mistress, the woman whom he asked to carry a ciphered letter to royal officials in Rhode Island. After she cooperated with his inquiry, Gen. Washington kept her identity secret in his report to the Continental Congress. I can’t say for sure, of course, but I think that fact isn’t even in WikiLeaks.

This lecture is free and open to the public, but reservations are necessary because of the limited space in the Longfellow carriage house. Call the site at 617-876-4491 or use this webpage to reserve seats. Due to digging in the driveway, to reach the carriage house you’ll have to go in the front gate and follow the paths around the east side of the mansion and through the colonial-revival garden.

Preceding my talk, National Park Service rangers will offer free guided tours of the mansion focusing on Washington and the siege of Boston at at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, and 4:00 P.M. Those last about an hour.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

“Where Did It Begin?” Panel, Old South, 17 March

This Thursday, 17 March, I’ll moderate a panel at the Old South Meeting House on the topic “Where Did It Begin?” This is part of a series of lunchtime events on the start of the Revolution organized by the Education Department of the Massachusetts Historical Society. (It’s mere coincidence that the panel occurs on Evacuation Day.)

The description for our event reads:

Early in the morning on April 19, 1775, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington Green, causing the deaths of eight colonists. But the famous “shot heard ’round the world” refers to the battle hours later in Concord [Massachusetts!] where the first British blood was spilled. A panel of local historians, moderated by historical blogger J. L. Bell, will consider the question that has provoked spirited discussion and debate between the towns for 235 years.
That may sound like an invitation to rehash the feud between Lexington and Concord in the 1800s as each town claimed to be where the Revolutionary War began. But instead we’ll talk about what sort of towns those were, why war began on 19 Apr 1775, whether by other definitions it began before or after that date, and what role small unforeseen circumstances played in the grand historic events.

Joining me on the dais will be: The event begins at 12:15, and part of my job is to ensure we end at 1:00. Admission is $6, but free for members of Old South and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Twitter Feed, 27 Feb–10 Mar 2011

  • RT @executedtoday: If judge overruling jury's death sentence betrays #amrev Revolution ow.ly/440AL does it work the other way around? #
  • @JBD1 Boylston Street Borders to remain open till April. How many books will be left then? #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1807: Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is born in Portland, Maine. ow.ly/3Nltm #
  • Via @bencarp, Kermit the Frog reports on Boston Tea Party: bit.ly/es3IC1 (Accents almost as much fun as in JOHN ADAMS miniseries.) #
  • From RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, essay by Colonial Williamsburg junior interpreter on portraying slave: bit.ly/gwr1QY (h/t @KevinLevin) #
  • @HannahMCrocker Interesting use of "Dutch" to mean German in re Christopher Seider. #
  • Old North Church in Boston to offer grade 5-12 teacher workshop in April on "Tories, Timid or True Blue?" website: bit.ly/dG0VZA #
  • Society of Early Americanists' meeting in Philadelphia this week: is.gd/VbfC1z (h/t @JBD1) #
  • From NY TIMES, James & Benjamin Franklin on opposite sides of smallpox inoculaton issue, and later death of Ben's son: nyti.ms/fKdALh #
  • RT @history_book: The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America - Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor. amzn.to/fB81Ei #
  • RT @franceshunter: Meet Edward Coles -- the anti-Jefferson: ow.ly/45CKu // A path not taken often enough in early republic. #
  • RT @HistoricNE: We're looking for a senior membership mgr., based at Otis House in Boston. bit.ly/ihdn7c #
  • RT @history_book: With Fire & Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill & Beginning of American Revolution - James L. Nelson. amzn.to/eyoQqj #
  • Hmmm. I know of another high-profile book about Bunker Hill battle on the way. #
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: New post in my series "Founding Finance" for @NewDeal20. tinyurl.com/6eyb44c #
  • RT @myHNN: Resolution could honor little-known Revolutionary War history bit.ly/gGNzEP #
  • RT @myHNN: Public weighs in on Battle of Camden park bit.ly/eJ5FbV // Like every nation, we tend to do better remembering victories. #
  • RT @lucyinglis: Reading about how the spread of pawn shops encouraged the growth of burglary in Georgian London. 'Svery interesting. #
  • RT @illustr8r: Real Estate Developer Donates #Washington History Collection to GWU bit.ly/e7bos2 #revwar #
  • Tonight at 7:00, lecture on "That Detestable Herb" and the 1773 tea boycott, Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain: www.jphs.org/ #
  • From the Beehive, a poem on the dreadful winter of 1779-80: bit.ly/guMkmm #RevWar #
  • Nominations for George Washington Book Prize from Washington College in Chestertown, MD: bit.ly/ynbVi #
  • The booming caricature business in Georgian London: bit.ly/etShE6 Have political cartoons advanced since then? #
  • RT @AmericanHistFF: Need an antique or a reproduction of United States map? We have a nice selection! ht.ly/45LL9 #
  • RT @CapitolHistory: Today in 1805 VP Aaron Burr bid the Senate farewell while under indictment for killing Alexander Hamilton during a duel. #
  • For 200 years, Aaron Burr was the only US VP to shoot someone while in office. #
  • RT @vahistorical: Ed Lengel's lecture "George Washington in Myth & Memory" is now online: tiny.cc/yalin. #rva #va #
  • RT @NewportHistory: Join us tomorrow night at 5:30pm for presentation about Jamestown, RI's history bit.ly/gKz3sh #
  • RT @NYHistory: Today in 1769, DeWitt Clinton, NY governor, scholar, proponent of Erie Canal, is born. His portrait: on.fb.me/fZfMDl #
  • New issue of Colonial Williamsburg Journal, w/articles on letter-writing, Trumbull's art, living history, Civil War: bit.ly/9LugN7 #
  • AGE OF FRACTURE, Daniel T. Rodgers's intellectual history of late 20th century: bit.ly/hFWa7j (Out of period, but in the family) #
  • RT @melissacwalker: ♥a book about Revolutionary-time girls being badass. Thanks to Laurie Halse Anderson, natch. su.pr/AfWaEO #
  • RT @LiteraryRob: This tree (and its legend) will never die. bit.ly/g25cQJ // Historical background: bit.ly/heKWw1 #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1807: Congress outlaws importation of slaves. See artifacts from the slave trade: ow.ly/457N7 #
  • From one of @2nerdyhistgirls, report on talk by Edward Lengel, author of INVENTING GEORGE WASHINGTON: bit.ly/eBRl4D #
  • Illustrations by Mead Schaeffer from 1931 biography of George Washington: bit.ly/i44CLA #
  • RT @derekwbeck: The Statuettes of George S. Stuart — Part 1: Political Leaders of 1775 bit.ly/eFr3L0 #
  • RT @history_book: Remaking Custom: Law and Identity in the Early American Republic - Ellen Holmes Pearson. amzn.to/hT7AuI #
  • Did #RevWar start in Vermont? Revolutionary Westminster: From Massacre to Statehood - Jessie Haas - History Press. amzn.to/i1voTx #
  • RT @NYPLMaps: E.D. Morel's "Sketch of the Northern part of Africa 1790" (note trans-Saharan trade route) bit.ly/h6QPxn #
  • RT @JBD1: AGR: Interpretation of Monticello as a plantation instead of just a house with cool gadgets in it will change view of TJ #sea11 #
  • RT @historytavern: The History Tavern: where the past is always on tap: Propaganda in the American Revolution bit.ly/hsW6R3 #
  • RT @JBD1: Announcement - 2013 SEA conference will be in Savannah! #sea11 #sea13 (just to lay the groundwork) #
  • RT @JBD1: Final paper: Jordan Stein - "Can we have sex in the archives?" #sea11 (thanks the half-dozen folks who actually shared stories) #
  • From the Millions, Janet Potter on reading bios of the first 15 US Presidents: bit.ly/ic2Y2z #
  • Speaking of which, Ron Chernow's WASHINGTON wins history prize from New-York Hist Socy: nyti.ms/dLGQsz #
  • From @caleb_crain in 2005, the unnecessary, pretentious, impractical luxury of deckled edges: bit.ly/gYZkE3 Hear, hear! #
  • RT @lynneguist: Pahk Yuh Cah: Non-Rhotic New England | Dialect Blog bit.ly/fBnwTw #
  • From the New-York Hist Socy, artifacts of 18th-century haberdashery merchant Mary Alexander: bit.ly/hEh0YY #
  • Upcoming programs at American Antiquarian Socy include @bencarp on Tea Party, Kendall on Webster, Ellis on Adamses. bit.ly/gmWwfI #
  • RT @theurbanologist: Talking Tea Party: J. Adams remembers. Interesting and revealing words. t.co/QiizQ0B #
  • NY TIMES review of Imogen Robertson's INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS, forensic mystery set in 1780 England: nyti.ms/i2v6Gj #
  • From WtBerkshires: "Washington favored bold, complex battle plans requiring close coordination of many detachments." bit.ly/fZAIXS #
  • From C-SPAN2, three hours with Pauline Maier on US Constitution ratification: cs.pn/ffAq6Q #
  • From WALL ST JOURNAL, Maya Jasanoff on five best books about Loyalists: on.wsj.com/hzjyzI (Not including her new one) #RevWar #
  • Some covers of STARTLING #COMICS featuring the Fighting Yank superhero: bit.ly/f4XT40 For background: bit.ly/g16v3b #
  • RT @lucyinglis: Reading a medical tract on 'simple operations' for the scrotum, 1771. // Before effective anesthesia, too! #
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: My series on American #finance wars in the founding era. Will startle. tinyurl.com/4o699kc #RevWar #
  • George Washington's teeth and more at Minnesota Hist Socy thru May: bit.ly/feEP5d (h/t @illustr8r) #
  • RT @56Signers: Hopkins not immune 2 ths paradox. Jefferson, Carroll, Rutledge, Franklin & other signers all said slavery wrong but had own. #
  • RT @marianpl: "Finding Your Ancestors in New England Poverty Records", come to the talk 3/8/11 in Andover, MA #genealogy ow.ly/49mAx #
  • Exploring artifacts of printer Isaiah Thomas's life at American Antiquarian Socy, which he founded after becoming rich: bit.ly/efgx6Z #
  • Annette Gordon-Reed presents paper on Hemings family in 1800s at Schlesinger Library, Harvard, 10 Mar, 5:30: bit.ly/hSdMl7 #
  • RT @JBD1: Paul Erickson's review of the play "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is in the new interim Common-place is.gd/aPTQIW #
  • RT @vahistorical: VHS creating searchable online slave database. Dominion grant will fund this AA history project. #
  • RT @RagLinen: Silence Dogood Rides Again: Blogging the frontiers of early American history - ow.ly/49zJ1 #
  • Start of the #RevWar as seen by Salem couple, portrayed at Old South Meetinghouse, Boston, Thurs, 11 Mar, 12:15: bit.ly/eYIUDq #
  • Webinar with Marian Pierre-Louis on finding people in New England records of the poor, 2 Apr, 1:00: bit.ly/fljajp #genealogy #
  • I'll moderate panel on #RevWar start at Old South, Boston, next Thurs, 17 Mar: bit.ly/fnb7K0 "Moderate" may mean "stir up trouble." #
  • Latest COMMON-PLACE now has #comics, but with awkward and unnecessary digital page turns, so I'm not reading it. bit.ly/fDF1P3 #
  • At COMMON-PLACE, "How Photo-Flo and elbow grease are saving New England's historic cemeteries": bit.ly/hwXdpt #
  • RT @marianpl: Symbolic Past: #gravestone of Samuel Abbot, Andover, MA - 1769 killed by a cart at age 6. #genealogy ow.ly/4b2RP #
  • From Early American Crime, Rhode Island man becomes paranoid, kills family. How did neighbors of 1715 understand that? bit.ly/fIBKJD #
  • RT @Taylor_Stoermer: Check out CW's podcast of Susan Kern discussing her new book, "The Jeffersons at Shadwell": bit.ly/g7IwK6 #
  • RT @dereklan: Is Readex good or bad for historical research? // Yes. #
  • RT @AdeTinniswood: My NPR interview about America's Barbary Wars is posted here n.pr/fqnXIP #
  • RT @librarycongress: Stories of American Loyalists Subject of Book and Discussion: 1.usa.gov/gxwSrI #RevWar #
  • RT @Harvard_Press: An intellectual history of our own time is hard to pull off, but Dan Rodgers has "done it well" bit.ly/e2BvNV #
  • RT @illustr8r: National Museum of American History Embarks on Conservation of #Jefferson's edited Bible tinyurl.com/4nkmw7w #
  • RT @harveyjkaye: On Thomas Paine and politics today (VIDEO) bit.ly/dHf1SX #
  • RT @NYHistory: Looking back at America's historic relationship with North Africa bit.ly/gx89hh // foreign tribute 1/6 of US budget #
  • Autopsy of the Chevalier d'Eon, the talk of late 1700s London, in 1810: bit.ly/gz4D32 (h/t @lucyinglis) #
  • Discussion of sources on French Revolution at Massachusetts Hist Socy, particularly in John Adams family papers: bit.ly/heht2b #
  • Young Dutch woman in 18th-century Moroccan harem—or was she giving readers the titillation they wanted? bit.ly/fpY85F #
  • Dutch sailor left on desert island in 1725 for child rape, and goes mad: bit.ly/e0QV75 #
  • I'll speak about Gen. Washington's intelligence at Longfellow House-Washington's HQ on #EvacuationDay, Mar 17: tinyurl.com/yhnvdb4 #

Friday, March 11, 2011

John Adams Sums Up

As I described yesterday, John Adams didn’t like how William Wirt’s 1817 biography of Patrick Henry gave the Virginian credit for sparking the American Revolution. Adams wanted Massachusetts to get the credit for being first.

The only problem was that Henry really did deliver incendiary remarks against the Stamp Act in the Virginia House of Burgesses on 29 May 1765. Wirt’s version of that speech ended, “If this be treason, make the most of it!” That may not be accurate, but there was no doubt that Henry attacked the Stamp Act months before Boston’s big public protests in August.

So the only way for Adams to win back Massachusetts’s primary role was to argue that the Revolutionary conflict had begun even earlier than that—with the writs of assistance case in 1761. On 29 Mar 1818 Adams sent his former law clerk William Tudor a long, detailed, and dramatic—at times melodramatic—description of the case, ending:

But [James] Otis was a flame of Fire! With a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic glare of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence he hurried away all before him.

American independence was then and there born. The seeds of patriots and heroes to defend the Non Sine Diis Animosus Infans; to defend the vigorous youth were then and there sown. Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born. In fifteen years, i.e. in 1776, he grew up to manhood and declared himself free.
Adams allowed that letter to be published in newspapers and a new collection of his “Novanglus” essays, thus making it available to historians just as the fiftieth anniversary of independence approached.

In March 1818 the North American Review printed young Jared Sparks’s critique of Wirt’s Patrick Henry, saying it relied too much on “tradition” instead of “truth.” The article listed several ways that Massachusetts instigated the Revolution. (That magazine was, after all, based in Boston.) Sparks went on to edit the first collection of George Washington’s writings.

Over the next couple of years Adams convinced the editor of that magazine, William Tudor, Jr., to write the biography of Otis that he had imagined. The Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts appeared in 1823, quoting heavily from Adams’s letters to the author’s father.

Thus, before he died on 4 July 1826, John Adams had managed to establish a historiography of the American Revolution that starts in Boston in 1761, with James Otis, Jr., delivering the opening speech. Or was that, as Adams had complained about Wirt’s book, largely “a romance”?