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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Saturday, December 31, 2011

“Hail now the joyful day!”

It’s a Boston 1775 tradition each New Year’s season to quote one of the verses that printers’ apprentices carried around and distributed at that time of year, soliciting tips.

This year’s verse comes from the shop of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, which Benjamin Towne (c. 1740-1793) launched in January 1775—a most newsworthy year, as it turned out. Philadelphia was the largest and most dynamic city in British North America, so Towne had a lot of competition. His strategy was to publish three times a week instead of just once or twice, and to support the radical Whigs.

The year of 1776 brought for American Whigs the best of times (British forces leaving Boston and Charleston, the Congress declaring independence, new state governments being established) and the worst of times (British forces coming back to New York, driving the Continental troops through New Jersey, and threatening Philadelphia). But the American victory at Trenton took some of the pressure off, so the newspaper boys could feel optimistic.

This is what they came up with for New Year’s 1777.

New-Year’s Verses
Addressed to the CUSTOMERS of
The PENNSYLVANIA EVENING POST,
By the PRINTER’s LADS who carry it.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1, 1777.

Hail! O America!
Hail now the joyful day!
Exalt your voice,
Shout, George is King no more,
Over this western shore;
Let him his loss deplore,
While we rejoice.
You know, I think this is written to the tune of “God Save the King.” Kind of ironic.

The Latin tag in the next verse was translated as “He who transplanted us hither will support us” by a helpful footnote on the broadside.
Now in thy banner set,
Transtulet sustinet;
God is our King,
Who does in mercy deign,
Over us for to reign,
And our just rights maintain,
His praises sing.

O may he deign to bless,
The great and each Congress,
Of this our land,
With wisdom from on high,
And unanimity,
To save our liberty,
Nobly to stand.

And on the virt’ous head,
Abundant blessings shed,
Of Washington;
Give him to know thy will,
Fill him with martial skill,
His station to fill,
’Till glory’s won.

And may our Gen’rals all,
Officers great and small,
Be Heaven’s care:
Within the hostile field,
Guard them with thine own shield,
While they the sword do wield,
In this great war.

O may our men be spar’d,
If not for death prepar’d;
Lord hear our cry,
Let us behold thy face,
And taste of thy rich grace,
While we this earth do trace,
Before we die.

And to thee th’ Lord of host,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
We’ll give all praise,
And ever magnify,
Honor and glorify,
To all eternity,
And never cease.
Of course, in September 1777 the British army whupped the Americans at Brandywine and occupied Philadelphia for that winter.

TOMORROW: What did that mean for Benjamin Towne?

Friday, December 30, 2011

“Heroic pieces found in his pocket”

One of my doorways into eighteenth-century history was Christopher Seider, the young boy fatally shot in a riot in Boston on 22 Feb 1770.

After Christopher’s death, the Boston Evening-Post reported the event in unusual detail and concluded:

…all the friends of Liberty may have an opportunity of paying their last respects to the remains of this little hero and first martyr to the noble cause, whose manly spirit (after the accident happened) appeared in his discreet answers to his Doctor, his thanks to the clergyman who prayed with him, and the firmness of mind he showed when he first saw his parents, and while he underwent the great distress of bodily pain, and with which he met the king of terrors. These things, together with several heroic pieces found in his pocket, particularly Wolfe’s Summit of human glory, give reason to think he had a martial genius and would have made a clever man.
For years I hunted for “Wolfe’s Summit of human glory.” Given the context, it was almost certainly a publication about Gen. James Wolfe (shown above), killed during the British conquest of Québec City in 1759. But none of the many poems and articles written about the man included the phrase “summit of human glory.”

I checked Readex’s Archive of Americana database in many ways; it’s based on microtext collections of what was supposed to be basically every newspaper published in colonial America, and every “imprint”—i.e., book, broadside, pamphlet, handbill, lottery ticket, &c. The latter part is often called the “digital Evans” after the American Bibliography catalogue of all that material by Charles Evans and his successors. But even within that vase amount of scanned stuff, there was no “summit of human glory.”

Evans and his team didn’t find every broadside, however. Some entered archives, or came to light, after the last volume of that series in 1959. But many items printed in colonial America simply didn’t survive.

This fall I tried my keyphrase on a catalogue I know well—that of the Massachusetts Historical Society. And up popped a broadside with this title:
Major-General James Wolfe, who reach’d the summit of human glory, September 13th, 1759: with a particular account of that gloriously dangerous work, the taking the city of Quebec, the capital of the French settlements in North-America.
So of course I asked to look at that.

This broadside is a 17" by 24" sheet with four columns of tiny type around a 9" x 12" engraving of Wolfe surrounded by clouds, a booming cannon, and a frame decorated with leaves, swords, and banners. There’s no indication of who published it or for how much, but a broadside of this size was expensive. The copy at the M.H.S. is stamped and perhaps painted in blue and red—an embellishment that cost extra.

The text is a detailed, sometimes technical, description of the taking of Quebec, written by Vice Admiral Charles Saunders and Gen. George Townshend, who took over after Wolfe’s death. Not the sort of thing one would expect a ten-year-old to be carrying around, even with the big colored picture.

But that’s what was reportedly in Christopher Seider’s pocket on the day he died, along with other “heroic pieces.” That’s one of my favorite discoveries of the past year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Once Again with the Presidential Oath

In an attempt to argue that George Washington added the phrase “So help me God” to his presidential oath in 1789, David Barton wrote at Wallbuilders about the fact that some states included that phrase as part of their oaths for office-holders at the time. In particular:

At that time, New York law required that “the usual mode of administering oaths” be followed (i.e., “So help me God”) and that the person taking the oath place his hand upon the Gospels and then kiss the Gospels at the conclusion of the oath.33 (Like the other states, these provisions remained the legal standard long after the inauguration.34)
The quoted phrase “the usual mode of administering oaths” comes from the first work cited in Barton’s first footnote, the Laws of the State of New-York. (The second work is a 1788 manual for New York justices of the peace. The following footnote points to an 1836 equivalent, based on 1821 law; it has nothing to do with the swearing-in of a federal official thirty years before that law, and seems to have been included just to make the presentation appear more weighty.)

As Ray Soller noted at American Creation, the 1778 law that Barton cites on “the usual mode” is actually about dispensing with that mode for people with conscientious objections to it. So the “usual mode” was not a legal requirement after April.

For the full context, on 5 Mar 1778, the New York state legislature passed laws to govern the swearing-in of state officials; that’s chapter 7, though chapter 3 had already included an oath. Those oaths mention God twice, the second time in closing those oaths with “So help me God.”

However, by 27 March, the legislature had to acknowledge that Quakers don’t swear (chapter 16 and later). And on 1 April it agreed to “dispense with the usual mode” of having all men kiss the Bible because, chapter 25 stated, “many of the inhabitants” had objected.

Those revisions to the 5 March law don’t specify that New York office-holders could decline to say “So help me God.” Barton might argue that that means that provision of the law remained in effect. But the clear pattern is that the legislature moved away from requiring the “usual mode.” There were just too many religious beliefs to demand the same ritual from every office-holder.

Furthermore, whatever New York laws said, they did not govern the swearing-in of a federal official like President Washington. The presidential oath is specified in the Constitution, just as these New York laws stated the oaths for New York officials, word for word. The New York laws included “So help me God”; the Constitution does not. Barton doesn’t see that difference as significant; Soller does, as do I. Washington was, of course, involved in the creation of the Constitution and valued it highly.

Detailed contemporaneous descriptions of Washington’s first inaugural describe him kissing a Bible supplied at the last minute by the local Freemasons and reciting the Constitutional oath as written—without “So help me God.” One might think the use of that Bible would be enough to satisfy Barton’s argument that early American society was infused with religious belief. Claiming that Washington added words that no one heard only weakens that position, turning it into a statement of faith rather than fact.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Voices from the Arnold Expedition Brought to Light

Yesterday’s quotations from diaries of the American attack on Québec in late 1775 came from Voices from a Wilderness Expedition: The Journals and Men of Benedict Arnold’s Expedition to Quebec in 1775, a new book on Col. Benedict Arnold’s advance from Massachusetts through the Maine wilderness to Canada by Stephen Darley.

This book is not a narrative history of Arnold’s expedition, like Thomas A. Desjardin’s Through a Howling Wilderness or Arthur S. Lefkowitz’s Benedict Arnold’s Army. Rather, it’s a study of the diaries that survive from that expedition, and as such a necessary supplement to the third edition of Kenneth Roberts’s March to Quebec.

Darley self-published through AuthorHouse to make his research available. Voices from a Wilderness Expedition contains the first published transcriptions of several first-person accounts of the campaign, as well as research on the full careers of several notable officers, including Col. Roger Enos, Capt. William Goodrich, and Capt. Scott, first name usually left blank.

Darley found three of those first-person accounts in the University of Glasgow Library, catalogued as “Durben Journal.” He argues that the main document is a copy of Capt. Henry Dearborn’s original diary before it was expanded and edited into the version we know (now housed at the Boston Public Library), and hypothesizes about how that collection got to Glasgow.

The volume contains a transcription of the version of Dr. Isaac Senter’s journal at the Rhode Island Historical Society, which differs significantly from the published version, and first full appearances of journals by Pvt. Samuel Barney and Pvt. Moses Kimball.

As Darley notes, the Arnold expedition must have been one of the most minutely documented of the period, with thirty journals and detailed memoirs surviving and more known to have existed but lost. That might reflect how many of its participants came from New England, with its emphasis on literacy. But it also suggests that men understood they were trying something important that deserved to be recorded for their families and friends. Pvt. Barney, for example, bought his blank book (“for nine Coppers”) just a few days after agreeing to go on the expedition.

The prose in Voices from a Wilderness Expedition is somewhat old-fashioned, but that’s not inappropriate for discussions of document provenance and authenticity. This is not supposed to be an entertaining adventure tale. But it should be a necessary resource for anyone researching Arnold’s campaign.

I bought the book in ePub form through Barnes & Noble, partly for the convenience and partly to test that format. I’ve looked at the file now on three devices, including a Simple Touch Nook, an iPad, and my desktop computer. There are some oddities of typography and formatting, and I can’t tell whether those appear in the print edition or surfaced during the transition to ePub format; for self-publishing authors, multiple electronic formats are just one more thing to worry about.

Unfortunately, in all three formats I can’t read Appendix II, which consists of tables listing all the men on Arnold’s expedition. Evidently they were formatted for the printed page as images of a spreadsheet rather than as text, and the images don’t get any bigger on my screens. I don’t know if other electronic formats will work the same way, but if you’re interested in the complete record I recommend a print version.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

“We was asked who would scale the walls.”

Here are two views of the action outside the city of Québec 236 years ago. The first comes from the journal of an officer identified on the manuscript as Captain Durben (Dearborn?):
26th [Dec 1775]. A return was made of the men in Coloniel [Benedict] Arnold’s Detachment who were willing to storm the town; there were only three in my company consisting of sixty three, who dissented from it.

27th. Afternoon all the troops assembled at the place of rendezvous in very high spirits, and were ready to march to the attack, when an order came from the General [Richard Montgomery] to send them back to their quarters—because he thought the night too clear and calm for the attack—though the day had been windy with snow.
Here’s Pvt. Samuel Barney’s record of the same two days in Canada:
Tuesday, December the 26th. This morning arose some better. We was asked who would scale the walls. There was (17)? Turned out.

Wednesday, December the 27th. This morning arose well and it snowed, and we had orders to go into Quebec, and all paraded, but it cleared up and we did not go.
Both those quotations appear in print for the first time in a new book called Voices from a Wilderness Expedition, by Stephen Darley. More about that book tomorrow.

(Image above of Québec on a mild day in 1768 courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pvt. Daniel Granger of the Continental Army

Daniel Granger was born in Andover, Massachusetts, on 2 March 1762. That made him thirteen and a half when he joined the Continental Army as a temporary substitute for his older brother, who had fallen ill and wanted to go home. It was the winter of 1775-76, and Daniel served nearly three months until his brother returned.

Here was one of Daniel’s experiences as a young soldier:

I was not detailed to go on Sentury until about ten or eleven Oclock at Night, and it so happened that I was placed the lowest down on the [Lechmere] Point, by a larg Oak stump the most awfully cold, bleak place, no watch-box to stand in; and by orders, our Guns were loaded. Here I had to stand two hours, and tramp round the old stump to Keep me from freesing, and no other Sentinal in sight of me.

And about eleven or twelve oclock the Sentinal that was placed above me, heard the Ice trickle down from the Rocks as the Tide fell off, which frightened him, I heard him hale, at the Top of his voice, “who comes there” twice I beleave, and then fired off his Gun and ran off, I could hear the Drum beating at the guardhouse to turn out the Guard, I cocked my Gun, looked and lissaned, but could see nor hear anything but the trickling of the Ice on the Shore, I was determined not to run, nor to fire, until I should see or hear some thing to fire at.

and soon I saw two Men coming, and as they approached, I haled, who comes there, one answered “grand rounds” I then said grand rounds, advance & give me the countersign, they advanced, and when at a proper distance, I charged baonnet ordered them to stand, & give the Countersign. one answered, “Baltimore” which was the Word given to all the Senturies for that night I answered the word is right, and shouldered my Gun.

They talked with me some time, asked me, if I heard the Sentury fire? I told them that I heard him hale, and fire, & his tramp on the Snow when he ran, but that I saw nothing, & was determined not to fire nor run until I did, they said, “I was a brave fellow” and asked my age, & on being told it, expressed astonishment, that I should be there so young.

And early the next Morning an Officer came into the guard house & enquired for the Sentury that stood down the lowest on the Point in the Night at the time of the alarm, & soon found me, and took me into the Officers Room and I recollect the Captain’s name was Clough, he took me by the hand and sat me down on his Knees, praised me a good deal for my courage and said many pleasing things to me which made me rather Proud.
The countersign “Baltimore” lets us pinpoint this event as happening on 26 December 1775. My favorite detail is how Capt. Jeremiah Clough of New Hampshire sat the boy on his knee to praise him. That’s how young Pvt. Granger was.

Daniel Granger evidently started to write down his recollections at the age of eighty and finished in 1848. A copy of the manuscript was transcribed and published in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review in 1930.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Freedom’s First Finale

In the imaginary Revolutionary Massachusetts that Seamus Heffernan depicts in the Freedom comic, the boys trade stories about a masked hero called the Liberty Eagle. The first issue even comes with copies of an underground broadside showing the Liberty Eagle conquering King George. The story offers glimpses of a mysterious feathered figure. All of which brings up the all-important final question of my interview:

B75: Who would win in a fight, Batman or the Liberty Eagle?

SH: Man, I’ve been agonizing over this question… but as much as I hate to say it, I think Batman would probably win. While the Liberty Eagle has mysterious and superhuman strength and speed, Batman has technological gadgets that would boggle the LE’s colonial mind. He would certainly give Batman a run for his money, though, most likely leaving him cut and bruised to near death by the end of the fight. It is a truly a battle I would love to witness.

B75: Indeed. Plus, even in the eighteenth century, Batman has allies.
(This panel comes from Detective Comics Annual, #7 [1994], script by Chuck Dixon and art principally by Enrique Alcatena.)

Thanks for the conversation, Seamus! And a happy holiday season to all!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Publishing Freedom: “The printed page is paramount.”

Here’s the fourth installment of my interview with Seamus Heffernan, whose new comic Freedom promises an epic look at a Revolutionary America that never was.

B75: I didn’t expect Freedom to be so BIG. For $7.00, one gets 64 oversized (8" x 12") pages of story, plus extra illustrations. Was that the format you initially imagined? Did you ever plan to publish it all on the web?

SH: Actually, I had originally planned to publish it as a broadsheet sized “newspaper”. It was going to be 11"x17" and folded up, with some kind of card-stock folio-cover to keep it in. It turned out to be difficult to find a printer who could do that cost-effectively, and it turned out to not be the best format for stores either.

On abandoning that format, I tried to settle on something close to it, but also closer to the traditional comic-book format. I went to the rare book room in the Boston Public Library to see if there were any smaller pamphlets or broadsheets printed at during the colonial period and tried to line my project up with those dimensions. The 8"x12" did the best job of letting the dense line work breathe while not being too cumbersome. I’m sure there will be many vendors out there who will disagree with me on that.

I never planned to publish it on the web, and perhaps I am a fool for doing so, but I’m doing my best to make this project reminiscent of the revolutionary era, so the printed page is paramount.

B75: Freedom is one of the (I believe) second-to-last set of Xeric Foundation grantees. For folks outside the comics world, what does that mean?

SH: The Xeric Grant is a charitable grant set up by one of the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Peter Laird. It is a grant to help aspiring comics artists start their career as self-publishers by funding the printing and promotion of a creator’s work. Your work has to be finished (in other words, they won’t give you a stipend to live off of while you work on your book full-time), and it has to be approved by six jury members. I was very fortunate in that they liked Freedom No. 1 so much they gave me twice the money I had asked for!

Sadly, the Xeric is closing its doors to funding self-publishers as the comics market has changed dramatically. With the advent of web comics and Kickstarter (now considered one of the largest independent comics publishers because of how many projects gets funded through them), I think they felt that their grant was no longer suited to today’s trends in publishing. The final Xeric Grant deadline is May 2012, so if you have a project you want funding for…better wrap it up!
B75: When I showed Freedom to the Boston Comics Roundtable, one detail that caught a lot of people’s eyes was your style for emphasized lettering—not just bigger, bold letters but serif as well. What other ways are you working to give Freedom an eighteenth-century feel?

SH: Like I said above, I tried to print the book in a format that would evoke an eighteenth-century publication. I’ve always felt that lettering does as much as art style to develop the flavor of a story. Its importance is often overlooked in modern comics (especially with the rise of digital lettering, which I kind of regard as a carnal sin), so I made certain to use typefaces that would have been prevalent during my story’s period. I studied a lot on how typesetting was done in those days, and tried to design text pages to match how pamphlets, flyers, broadsheets and books would have been laid out.

The cover is also meant to reflect the period, as will all the covers to come on future issues. Each cover will be a faux historical oil painting, mostly in the Enlightenment or Romantic traditions. I also do my best to write in the over-wrought, floral style of the day, even when just doing acknowledgements or section breaks.

TOMORROW: The question that must be asked.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Telling the Story of Freedom

My interview with Seamus Heffernan, creator of the new Revolutionary-era comic Freedom, turns to his storytelling.

B75: Freedom starts with a farmboy named Adam Farr heading into Boston to become apprentice to a merchant, It seems to a coming-of-age story. Why did that feel like the right way to approach this topic?

SH: When it comes down to it, Freedom is essentially the coming-of-age story of a nation (though perhaps not the one that readers assume it will be). I wanted the main protagonist’s situation to mirror the situation of the colonies as a whole. Like the recently defeated revolutionaries, his independence is snatched from him the moment he reaches it. And I’m pretty sure every one of us remembers what it was like as a teenager, yearning for the moment when you can throw off your parents’ yoke and strike off on your own.

I feel like if the reader can identify with the character’s situation, and the character’s situation is a metaphor or representation of the larger scene, the reader has a wider experience with which he can engage the story. Also, the contract between the Farrs and the merchant regarding Adam’s apprenticeship becomes a fairly important plot point later on, but I won’t divulge those details.

B75: You mentioned that you began Freedom “when we were hot and heavy into the war on terror” in 2005. Clearly that environment shaped some of the scenes in the first issue—for example, as the Farr brothers go through a military checkpoint at the gate of Boston. Do you want readers to draw direct parallels, or to look at all the situations in new ways?

Both, actually. During my research I was struck by all of the parallels of our founders’ struggle to rid themselves of the British military and that of people in the Middle East struggling against their own enemy, which happened to be us. Regardless of the reasons why, nobody likes it when an army lands on your shores and starts pushing you and your countrymen around. And when that force is overwhelmingly more powerful, you often rely on tactics your enemies decry as craven, dishonorable, even immoral.

I think it’s important for us to remember that we came from a stock of folk whose “betters” reviled them as traitors and terrorists. It’s also important to remember that in many cases, our founders acted as such, out of necessity. So I’d like for my readers to draw parallels so that they can look at all the situations in new ways.
B75: The end of issue No. 1 promises the next story will be about an enslaved girl from Georgia named Minerva. Obviously, since this is a parallel-world version of the Revolution, the war doesn’t have to stop after four more years in 1783. How many plot threads do you have planned out, and how long do you want Freedom to be?

That question is still a little loose in my mind, but I can say that it’s going to be very long. I have a huge, complex epic with many, many plot threads laid out in general, but I honestly have no idea how long it will take to complete. I’m shooting for 3 “books” containing 5-6 chapters, each chapter being a full issue like Freedom No. 1. My greatest wish is to be able to put out one a year, but the style I’ve chosen and the demands of my commercial art career seem likely to hinder that dream.

But regardless, I’m more excited about this project than any other I’ve ever undertaken, and have resigned myself to the notion of it being my life’s work. So this day or the next, it will be done, and it should be a really fun ride along the way.

TOMORROW: The technical side of publishing a Revolutionary comic.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Seamus Heffernan on “Drawing a convincing Revolutionary-Era Boston”

This continues my interview with Seamus Heffernan, the artist and writer behind the new comic Freedom, set in a Boston that’s still under British rule in 1779.

B75: What were your biggest challenges in researching that setting? Your biggest thrills?

SH: Visually, if you’re doing a WWII comic you have more photo-reference than you could ever need. Drawing a convincing Revolutionary-Era Boston requires relying on drawings, etchings, paintings, written descriptions from the period and Rev War reenactment photos. I am constantly cross-referencing material to make sure I’m getting my depiction as correct as possible, but the process is time-consuming and challenging.

I’m a little OCD when it comes to getting the setting to be historically accurate in the face of what is essentially a fantastical, fictional story. At one point I redrew all of the grenadiers in the checkpoint scene when I realized I had left out an important element of their uniform.

I’m sure I’m still missing a million things, but eventually you have to let some things go. And I’m more of an artist than a writer, so developing compelling dialogue in the vernacular of the day, particularly in the realm of slang, was more challenging than any line I put down on paper.

The most thrilling part is when story moments seem to leap out perfectly from history and land exactly where they need to for my fictional version to work. For example, I needed a redcoat captain who was sympathetic to the Americans in the checkpoint scene. I realized the best candidate would be someone who was an American himself. Perhaps a famous one who had left the colonial ranks to go spy on the British and (in my alternate history) enlists with the British and rises to the rank of Captain. Hence, Nathaniel Hale escaped his historical fate and shows up in the nick of time to save Adam Farr from his execution. I have many more examples like that but can’t say too much without giving away some spoilers.

B75: You started this project from the Pacific Northwest, but recently moved to Boston. Do we measure up to what you imagined?

SH: I’m actually a born and raised east-coaster! I went to high school in Newburyport, which is probably where the real seed for this whole project was planted. I was of course terribly bored with all the colonial charm of this area when I was a teenager, but you grow up and realize how much power there is in history, and how cool it is to be around it.

I’m back in Newburyport now, living here after stealing my wife from the west coast. We’re about to have our first kid together, so I guess you can say I’ve come full circle. And so far, being back here has measured up beyond what I had hoped. I’ve gone to Rev War reenactments, walked the “Freedom Trail” for days, gone to talks of yours and other historians, and can just walk downtown if I need to get a first-hand look at what colonial cities might have looked like. Beyond that, I feel just being around these old cobblestones and warped brick walls has lent gravity, legitimacy and interest to my work.

TOMORROW: Telling the story of Adam Farr.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Seamus Heffernan’s Freedom: The Inspiration

Freedom is a new Revolutionary-era comic from writer-artist Seamus Heffernan.

I’m looking at page 6 of the first issue, and I recognize the center of Boston right away. The spires of the Town House (now the Old State House) and the First Meetinghouse of the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy look much as they do in Henry Pelham and Paul Revere’s famous engravings of the Boston Massacre.

But this full-page picture is captioned “The Colony of Massachusetts / June 2nd, 1779.” And the royal emblems are still up on the State House, though they’re looking poorly.

As its webpage explains, Freedom is set in “Massachusetts two years after the Americans lost the Revolutionary War.”

So this fictional Boston is still under British army rule, and Patriots hang in effigy instead of Tories. But there’s an underground insurgency. And a teenager named Adam Farr is caught in the middle.

For the next few days I’m running my interview with comics creator Seamus Heffernan about Freedom.

B75: How did you decide to tell a comics story set in Revolutionary Boston? Any particular inspirations?

SH: The idea to do a comic set during the Revolutionary War first popped up during a critique in an art class at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The class was focused on the ideas of myth, heroes and monsters.

During the “heroes” segment of the class I started thinking about our own country’s heroes, the often mythical way their stories are relayed, and our then current situation on the world stage (this was back in 2005 when we were hot and heavy into the war on terror). I made a huge, romantic (and in hindsight, quite awful) painting called “The Boston Tea Party (The Martyrdom of Samuel Adams)” in which Sam Adams was depicted carrying out a suicide bombing on the East India Company ship while a gathering of founding fathers looked on from the docks; full of sadness, honor and pride.

It was meant to be an over-the-top fictional retelling of an actual event, but when I presented the work to the class, at least two-thirds of the students were unimpressed and confused as to why I had just made a boring historical painting. I believe some even thought I had just copied some Romantic-era painter. They all thought my depiction was ACTUALLY what happened.
[Click on the image for a larger look at this mythological history painting.]

I realized then just how close history and mythology were, and became fascinated with the idea of using the history of the American Revolution to try and explore that boundary. So while wrapping up art school I did a couple short stories playing with the idea of a fictional American Revolution while I let the big ideas soak in and form the foundation of what would eventually become Freedom.

TOMORROW: Researching a history that never quite happened.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Washington at the Commander Hotel in Cambridge

The Commander Hotel in Cambridge opened in 1927 during the Colonial Revival. Located near the site of the “Washington Elm,” the hotel was named in honor of George Washington, the commander-in-chief. Some of its architectural details are modeled on Mount Vernon.

A couple of decades later, Frank A. K. Boland was the hotel’s owner. He had once been an attorney representing the American Hotel Association. (He had been disbarred in 1909 for bribing a court clerk and reinstated in 1912; that seems have to have been a normal way of doing business in New York then.)

I haven’t found out exactly when, but at some point a visitor told Boland that a bronze reproduction of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s statue of Washington was available in Somerville. The T. F. McGann & Sons Company was offering it for sale, advertising in School Executive and School Management and Institution. Obviously, the firm thought that it would be appropriate for a school.

Boland went to see the statue. It had turned black from standing out in a storage yard since 1932. The McGann company had made it for Manchester, Connecticut, but “financial disagreement resulted in final cancellation of the order.” Perhaps the Depression had also been part of the problem.

Boland bought the statue and mounted it on the Commander Hotel’s lawn on “a stately base of rough finish granite.” With its base, it stands 6'10" tall and weighs 1,034 pounds. Every so often it gets to wear a Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox, or Patriots jersey during a championship run.

In 1949 Boland started a campaign to commemorate the Washington Elm, which had fallen twenty-six years before. Artist Leonard Craske was already at work on a bas-relief showing Washington reviewing troops under a tree, much like Washington Elm images going back over a century. But by that point historians had turned against the elm legend. The final text on Craske’s monument says nothing about the tree:
General George Washington, having taken command of the Army of the United Colonies at Cambridge, inspects the troops near this spot on the fourth day of July 1775.
Undaunted, Boland planned an unveiling on 3 July 1950, the traditional day of the Washington Elm ceremony. At noon on 2 May he led a committee of Cambridge notables to meet with President Harry Truman and invite him to the unveiling. The Truman Library shows the President’s schedule for that day. Corbis offers a photograph of the committee giving the President a relic of the fallen elm. Boland is the man looking happily at the camera.

The young man at left who looks like an office intern was Rep. John F. Kennedy, who had arranged the meeting. Truman didn’t come, but Kennedy was one of the main speakers at the ceremony that July.

(Photograph above by Wally Gobetz, available via Flickr through a Creative Commons license. Thanks to Ed Guleserian, current owner of what’s now the Sheraton Commander Hotel, for a copy of Boland’s press release about the statue.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Wreck of the Industry, 1764

The Museum of Underwater Archeology website offers an interesting virtual exhibit on the wrecked British sloop Industry. The introduction explains:
In 1763, the Treaty of Paris brought the Seven Years War to an end. As part of the peace negotiations, Spain’s territory of La Florida was ceded to Britain. After almost two centuries of Spanish rule, all of Spain’s troops, military supplies, and citizens living in Florida were transported to Havana, Cuba, and the colony was re-populated by British troops from the Royal Army headquarters in New York. Four sloops were sent from New York to St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the present-day U.S., loaded with much-needed supplies for Florida’s new inhabitants.

One of these ships, the Industry, captained by Daniel Lawrence, never reached her destination. Falling victim to the notorious shifting sands off St. Augustine’s harbor, she struck a sandbar and was lost on May 6, 1764. She had been loaded with artillery, ammunition, and tools that had been intended for the newly established British garrisons in Florida. . . .

The shipwreck was discovered in 1997 by archaeologists from Southern Oceans Archaeological Research, Inc. (SOAR), after conducting extensive archival research and a magnetometer survey. Excavations were conducted between 1998 and 2000 first by SOAR and subsequently by the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), the research arm of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum. A variety of artifacts reflecting the Industry’s cargo of munitions and tools were uncovered and recorded, including eight cast-iron cannon, an iron swivel gun, crates of iron shot, three iron mooring anchors, several millstones, and boxes of tools such as axes, shovel blades, knives, trowels, files, and handsaws. Many of these finds, including one of the cannons, were recovered, conserved, and are currently on display at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum.
There’s a broken link to the museum website, but I think this is where it should go. The photo above comes from the Texas A. & M. University Conservation Research Laboratory; it shows a swivel gun from that wreck before treatment.

As reported in a Jacksonville Times article that the M.U.A. site links to, two other cannon were taken from that site without authorization in the spring of 1999.

The M.U.A. highlights a lot of other underwater finds as well.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Jesse Harding Pomeroy’s Tea Party Poem

This poem “A Boston Brew of Tea Sir!” was written by Jesse Harding Pomeroy (1859-1932) and published in The Mentor on 25 Mar 1916. Pomeroy, born in Charlestown, was quite familiar with the patriotic mythology of his home state, and was echoing it back in an old-fashioned style.
Of ’seventy-three the tale we sing,
That famous brew whose taste did sting:
The deed on winter’s night was done, Sir.
A noble pot to make our brew
From Boston port the waves to strew.
And Johnny Bull
Did drink his full,
For relish to his taste, Sir!

The monarch proud of England’s shore,
Thought tax on tea was pence in store:
But soon his tone was changed, Sir.
For Yankees bold will pay no tax,
Where principles are found too lax:
King George did taste
And made a face,
That never yet was straight, Sir!

Not all the strength of English might,
Nor coming years in fame so bright,
Could wash his mouth of tea, Sir.
It shook his nerve as never yet,
Into his pate new ideas let:
J. B. may strive
On pence to thrive:—
We served his, piping hot, Sir!

From small beginnings much may come:—
Across the years we view their sum.
Our stamps were not for George, Sir.
Our gallant sires undaunted were,
In fight for Freedom sweet and pure.
For Johnny Bull,
Could pull no wool,
Across the Yankee’s eyes, Sir!

Their noble fame to us e’er brings
A trust and hope wroth more than kings;
A quenchless flame to guard, Sir.
In courage tried our Temples rear,
With mem’ries true to shield from fear,
Fail we do not,
(Nor rights forgot)
To twist the Lion’s tail, sir!

That brand of tea should now be named,
For spicey flavor justly famed:—
The Hub’s exclusive brew, Sir.
Pekoe, Hyson, Bohea, Oolong,
May find some praise in other song.
But for its vim,
And snap so grim,
Gundpower be its name, Sir!
As poetry, it’s nothing special. What makes this verse unusual is that Pomeroy was serving a life sentence for a murder he’d committed at age fourteen.

In an autobiographical account published around the time of his trial, Pomeroy wrote of reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. As his alibi for killing another child, James told a long, detailed story that included walking past the Granary Burying Ground and seeing what he thought was Franklin’s grave. The court convicted him anyway, and authors who researched his case think he was responsible for two other murders as well.

The governor of Massachusetts refused to sign a death warrant for such a young murderer, and eventually Pomeroy’s sentence was changed to life in prison—in solitary confinement. In 1916, when he wrote this poem, he had been serving that sentence for forty years. His signature in The Mentor, the prison magazine, was “Grandpa,” reflecting his relative age.

The following year, the state allowed Pomeroy to mingle with other prisoners. In 1929, he was transferred to a mental hospital, where he died.

The poem was transcribed by Jarett Kobek (scroll down this page to 2002).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Was Nathanael Greene at the Boston Tea Party?

Yesterday the Text Message blog from the U.S. National Archives stated:
There were over one hundred participants in the destruction of the tea, and one of them was Nathanael Greene, George Washington’s most trusted general. Their military partnership is documented in the Letters from Major General Nathanael Greene, 1776-1785 and in Letters of Nathanael Greene, with Various Papers Relating to the Quartermaster’s Department, 1778-1780. It was not easy to connect Greene directly to the campaign because his name is commonly misspelled as “Nathaniel.” It is rude not to give proper credit where credit is due, and that is why he is being recognized in this post as a contributor to one of the most famous American protests.
It’s true that the name “Nathaniel Green” appeared on the list of men involved in destroying the tea in Traits of the Tea Party, the earliest published list of participants.

But the later book Tea Leaves identifies that man as someone who dined with Boston’s Sons of Liberty in August 1769. That Nathaniel Greene (as he usually spelled his name) shows up in Boston’s town records identified as a merchant; he gave his bond for tax collector Abraham Savage for a few years. In the town’s newspapers Greene advertised such goods as wine, sugar, and “A Quantity of Norwich Stone Ware,…viz. Juggs, Pickle Potts, Muggs, &c.” He signed some of the Boston merchant community’s protests against various Crown acts.

In 1786, Nathaniel Greene ran against the incumbent register of deeds for Suffolk County on a platform of having been “ruined” in trade and left with “a numerous family of young children to maintain.” (Seriously, that was the argument for electing him.) It was a hard-fought race, but in October, the same month that Boston newspapers were reprinting eulogies about Gen. Greene, they also ran this notice:
Nathaniel Greene,
PRESENTS his compliments to the respectable inhabitants of the County of Suffolk, and informs them, that he has opened his Office for the REGISTRY of DEEDS, at the House formerly occupied by Messrs. Brimmers, near the sign of the Lamb;—where constant attendance will be given.
On 31 Jan 1791 the Boston Gazette reported that Greene had died, still in office. He was only fifty-two. At the time of the Tea Party he had been thirty-five, with several children at home.

There was another Nathaniel Greene active in Boston around the same time, a sea-captain who died in early 1773. Meanwhile, there were multiple Nathaniel Greenes in Rhode Island, not just the future general. So we have to be careful not to ascribe too much activity to any one man.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Mysteries of Thompson Maxwell

It’s clearly documented that Thompson Maxwell (1742-1831) spent time in the colonial army at the end of the French and Indian War, in the Continental Army, and in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. Born in Massachusetts and living in New Hampshire when the Revolution began, he moved out to Michigan before his death.

In the early nineteenth century, Maxwell began telling people that he was also a participant in the Boston Tea Party. I’ve puzzled over his descriptions of the event for years; in some ways they don’t make sense, but in other ways he appears to have had inside knowledge.

According to James Miller, a general in the War of 1812, Lt. John Allanson took down Maxwell’s description of his career in 1818. About the Tea Party his story was:

In ’73 I went with my team to Boston with a load of stores for the poor of the town, which at that time was shut up. I had loaded at John Hancock’s warehouse & was about to leave town, when Mr. Hancock requested me to drive my team up into his yard, and ordered his servants to take care of it, & requested me to be on Long Wharf at two o’clock, P.M., & informed me what was to be done. I went accordingly, joined the band under one Captain Hewes; we mounted the Ships, & made Tea in a trice. This done I took my team & went home, as an honest man should.
Maxwell thus appears to have named George Robert Twelves Hewes as a prominent participant over a decade before the book A Retrospect of the Tea Party made him a celebrity. Yet he also referred to “Long Wharf at two o’clock, P.M.,” which was neither the place nor the time of the Tea Party.

In 1821 or so, Maxwell told a relative named Benjamin Gleason this:
In 1773, December 16, was in Boston, when the tea was thrown overboard. Seventy-three spirited citizen volunteers, in the costume of Indians, in defiance of Royal authority, accomplished this daring exploit. John Hancock was then a merchant. My team was loaded at his store near Faneuil Hall, for Amherst, N.H., and put up to meet in consultation at his house at 2 o’clock P.M. The business was soon planned and executed. The patriots triumphed.
That account is more circumspect about what Maxwell actually did in the Tea Party. He used the passive voice and the plural instead of claiming directly that he was involved. But it’s much the same story, and liars’ stories don’t usually get worse over the years.

Finally, sometime in 1830 or 1831 the Rev. E. H. Pilcher (1810-1887) met Maxwell out in Michigan. He didn’t take down Maxwell’s story in the man’s own words, and he consulted George Bancroft’s history before writing about Maxwell in 1873, so it’s possible that the standard narrative colored what he recalled. Pilcher wrote:
He was looked upon in the neighborhood with a good deal of veneration, from the fact that he was a revolutionary, and from the further fact that he was one of the forty or fifty men selected by John Hancock to dress in Indian costume and to throw the tea overboard in Boston harbor, in 1773. . . .

The people, encouraged by Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and other prominent men, were resolute in their purpose that the tea should not be landed. One ship owner by the name of Retch, had promised that he would take his tea back to England, but he dallied along for some days, and finally said he could not get a clearance for his ship. On the last day of grace, the people were assembled to the number of about seven thousand, not knowing exactly what to do; and the excited assembly continued together till after dark. This was on Thursday, the 16th day of December, 1773, just one hundred years ago.

John Hancock had organized a body of men, who in the disguise of Indians were to board the ships and destroy the tea. The matter was understood between him and Samuel Adams, probably. There is no public record of the fact that this thing was arranged by Mr. Hancock, for it was a profound secret; but Major Maxwell stated that it was so, and that he was one of the men selected by Mr. Hancock for that purpose.
As Pilcher noted, no other source says that Hancock was so involved in organizing the Tea Party, or any other street actions for that matter. As a prominent merchant, Hancock had lots of reasons to keep a low profile on illegal activities and a high profile at the Old South Meeting-house, away from the docks. Why on earth would he ask a teamster who happened to show up that day from New Hampshire to participate in a top-secret operation?

Yet again, this account includes details that ring true: the behavior of shipowner Francis Rotch, apparently remembered as “Retch,” and the massive meeting. But how would Maxwell know about that meeting “till after dark” if he was at Long Wharf at two o’clock? It seems most likely to me that Thompson Maxwell was in Boston on 16 Dec 1773 but was a spectator who picked up some inside gossip, not a participant in destroying the tea.

The accounts quoted above were published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, the New England Historic and Genealogical Register, and the Pioneer Collections of Michigan. Pilcher wrote a similar profile of Maxwell in his 1878 book Protestantism in Michigan.

(Thumbnail photo above of a New Hampshire historic marker from Marc Nozell via Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution license.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Boston Tea Party’s Mysterious “E.N.”

In 1814, Josiah Bartlett wrote in An Historical Sketch of Charlestown:

E. N. a respectable citizen of this town, lately deceased at the age of 78, has repeatedly mentioned to the writer, that he was among the Indians, who destroyed the tea at Boston in 1774.
That’s one of the earliest examples of a Boston-area man identified in print as having helped to destroy the tea on 16 Dec 1773—more than forty years before.

And even so, Bartlett waited until the man was dead and identified him only by his initials.

Except that a couple of footnotes later, Bartlett named the late Eliphalet Newell as one of the town’s Revolutionary War officers. The two men helped to found Charlestown’s first lodge of Freemasons in 1783, and worked together as directors of the Charlestown Lottery. The Independent Chronicle newspaper for 15 July 1813 confirms that Eliphalet Newell had recently died at Charlestown.

So it’s mighty clear which “E. N.” Bartlett was writing about. Most likely a lot of people in Charlestown knew as well, but they were still keeping the secret among themselves.

Bartlett said that Newell died at the age of seventy-eight, meaning he was born about 1735. The baptismal records of Charlestown’s first meetinghouse confirm that. Curiously, the newspapers of 1813 state that Newell died at age seventy-one. Usually aged veterans of the Revolution added a few years.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

“‘Owning’ the Tea Party has been a political act”

In the Boston Review, Alfred F. Young, author of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, examines the long history of interpreting the the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor through political lenses.
At Boston’s centennial observance of the event in 1873, Robert Winthrop, former congressman and longtime president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, condemned the Tea Party “as a mere act of violence.” He went so far as to suggest that the founders had no part in it: “We know not exactly…whether any of the patriot leaders of the day had a hand in the act.” And in 1876, amidst a new wave of labor agitation at the centennial of American Independence, he called for a renewal of “the spirit of subordination and obedience to law.” The same year at a celebration marking the last-minute rescue of Old South Meeting House from the wrecking ball, Winthrop shed no tears over the near loss of the building famed as the place where the Tea Party action began.

But [Wendell] Phillips, by 1876 a labor radical, proposed that it be preserved as a “Mechanics Exchange,” referring to the name artisans had taken for themselves in the Revolutionary era. “It was the mechanics of Boston that threw the tea into the dock,” he proclaimed, and “held up the hands of Sam Adams,” sending him to Philadelphia and the Continental Congress. “The men that carried us through the Revolution were the mechanics of Boston,” he said. Phillips’s interpretation of the relationship of Samuel Adams to the mechanics ran counter to the view held by conservatives at the time of the Revolution and since then by historians of varied persuasions. Phillips defied the notion that the Revolution belonged exclusively to the founders, while working people did as they were told.
Young counters that notion of top-down steering by running the numbers on public participation in the tea protests:
With so many threats aroused, resistance to the Tea Act in Boston was broader and more furious than to any previous British measure. The relatively small number of men boarding the three tea ships—[Benjamin] Carp estimates a hundred to 150—can be misleading. Their action was preceded by three massive meetings of the “body of the people” on November 29 and 30 and December 14–16, 1773, at which the leaders dropped the property and age requirements for voting in official town meetings.

The results were unprecedented. Boston had a total population of about 16,000 (of whom roughly 600 were African Americans, all but a handful enslaved). In 1773 there were between 2,500 and 3,000 men 21 or older, the legal age. The property requirement, while relatively small, kept large numbers from voting. In the years before the Revolution, the highest turnout at town meetings was for the spring election of delegates to the Massachusetts Assembly, which, on average, attracted about 500 voters. Faneuil Hall, the site of official meetings and then less than half the size of the present building, was “capable of holding 1200 or 1300 men,” Samuel Adams wrote.

But meetings called for the body of the people could be held only in the largest building in town, Old South Meeting House, men jamming the pews, aisles, vestibules, and balconies. Adams wrote privately of an attendance of “5000, some say 6000 men” and of “at least 5000,” while one conservative guessed 2,500. The final meetings were swelled by country people from five surrounding towns, crowds overflowing into the streets. The meetings at Old South were thus five to ten times larger than the biggest official town meetings.
And the protests and destruction in Boston were only one part of a continent-wide movement, with major political action in Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York. The sheer scale of the American opposition to the tea tax undercuts any thought that the Boston event was orchestrated by a small group of Boston merchants or politicians for their own interests.

Young’s essay also has interesting things to say about Benjamin L. Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots and Barbara L. Smith’s The Freedoms We Lost. More about those books here and here, respectively.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Henry Sargent’s Tea Party and the Boston Tea Party

I invited Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail, to write a guest-blogger essay for Boston 1775 on the origin of the term “Boston Tea Party.” An expert in many eras of Boston history, Charlie had noted how that term appeared in print shortly after a notable cultural moment.

The destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor on December 17, 1773, is one of American history’s most famous events. As Boston 1775 has documented already, the earliest known use of the phrase “Boston Tea Party” to describe that event occurred more than 50 years later, in 1826. Just two years before this, however, the term “Tea Party” appeared in conjunction with Boston, albeit in an entirely different context. Is it possible that this earlier usage influenced the 1826 coinage?

For obvious political reasons, tea as a beverage lost favor in America after 1773. But as time elapsed, tea again become fashionable, particularly for the upper class. By the early 1820s, consumption of tea had become the focus of elegant social gatherings.

Shown here is a portrayal of one such gathering: Henry Sargent’s painting The Tea Party, completed and first exhibited in Boston in the spring of 1824.

Sargent’s earlier canvas, The Dinner Party (1821), had been a commercial success when it was first exhibited, so Boston gallery owner David L. Brown commissioned a companion picture from Sargent. The Columbian Centinel of May 1, 1824, included a notice that The Tea Party was displayed in “Mr. Brown’s Rooms” at 2 Cornhill Square, from 9 o’clock in the morning until dark; admittance was 25 cents. (Cornhill Square was an alley opposite the present 226 Washington Street, on part of the site now occupied by the skyscraper at 1 Boston Place.)

In The Magazine Antiques for May 1982, Jane C. Nylander offers evidence that both The Dinner Party and The Tea Party depict rooms in Henry Sargent’s own rowhouse mansion, located at 10 Franklin Place in Boston. This was part of Charles Bulfinch’s famous Tontine Crescent, on modern-day Franklin Street near Arch Street.

The large Tea Party canvas, more than five feet high by four feet wide, gives us a window into the lives of Boston’s social elite. In the two parlors, women and men are seated, standing and lounging. The furnishings are of the highest taste and fashion, as described in contemporary writings by Thomas Sheraton, George Hepplewhite, and others, featuring items imported from France and Italy. Barely visible in a side room, an African-American waiter stands ready to dispense tea, coffee, and cakes from his tray. As Nylander points out, the painting’s great appeal was precisely due to the vicarious thrill of “an intimate glimpse of a private world of luxury” to those who couldn’t afford such opulence.

While I can offer no proof, it seems likely that this work by a prominent Boston artist helped establish a verbal connection between the phrases “Boston” and “tea party” in the mid 1820s. How ironic, then, that today’s highly-politicized term “Boston Tea Party” may have been originally popularized by a portrayal of the social life of Boston’s 1%!

Interestingly, both Henry Sargent’s house and David Brown’s art gallery were scarcely more than a block away from the Old South Meeting House, where Bostonians had gathered just before the tea was thrown into the harbor.

The Tea Party and The Dinner Party were exhibited in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities over the course of two decades. Nearly a century after they were painted, the artist’s family gave them to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where they are now on display in Gallery 121 of the new Art of the Americas wing. There you too can get a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the early 19th century.

Thanks, Charlie! Click back here for Charles Bahne’s study of exactly what tea was thrown into Boston harbor and how much it cost.

Monday, December 12, 2011

“If they will Quarel about such a trifling thing”

Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos passed on word of a new blog about the writing of women in the Revolutionary period and early republic, designed around the book In the Words of Women, by Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge, and Landa M. Freeman.

Last week the blog featured an entry from the journal of Jemima Condict, twenty-year-old daughter of a New Jersey farmer, on 1 Oct 1774:
It seams we have troublesome times a Coming for there is a great Disturbance a Broad in the earth & they say it is tea that caused it. So then if they will Quarel about such a trifling thing as that What must we expect But war & I think or at least fear it will be so.
From the Women’s Project of New Jersey, here are images of pages from this diary. An edition was published in 1930.

Miss Condict’s journal provides a fine segué into yet another Boston Tea Party Week here at Boston 1775!

TOMORROW: The artistic inspiration for the name “Boston Tea Party”?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

“Ideological distortions in the exhibit”

Last month I noted the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn”. History News Network has just published Alan Singer’s harsh critique of that exhibit and particularly how it presents the dominant American attitudes toward human rights in the early republic.

According to Singer’s quotes from the exhibit signage, “Revolution!” presents a generally Whiggish, sometimes triumphalist, and occasionally unreal overview of the changes produced by the American, French, and Haitian revolutions in the late 1700s:
A major theme of the exhibit is that “The Age of Revolution made us all citizens of the world as well as our own nation, loyal to global ideals as well as local and group bonds.” I only wish this were true. If it were, slavery in the United States might not have continued into the 1860s; European imperialists might not have sub-divided and colonized Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century; the United States and other countries might not have virtually exterminated their indigenous populations; . . .

A second theme was that “Remaking law rather than remaking society has been the nation’s strongest instrument of change for more than two centuries.” I think this represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between law and society. Laws are generally a reflection of a society rather than instruments for change. The American legal system has frequently codified social injustice. Fugitive slave laws, black codes, Jim Crow segregation laws, and numerous Supreme Court decisions, the most infamous being Dred Scott and Plessy, supported the enforcement of slavery and racism. The “strongest instrument of change” has been social movements to extend liberty and democracy that forced changes in the law. . . .

The exhibit maintains that “gradually during and after the Revolution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights, rights were defined as ‘universal.’” Actually, the Bill of Rights, which placed limits on the ability of Congress to interfere with religious practice, speech, assembly, and the press, placed no similar or restrictions on state governments. Hence the legality of slavery, which is unmentioned in the Constitution, remained up to the individual states. . . .

The exhibit concludes with the statement about what the modern world owes to the Age of Revolution. It claims the Age of Revolution “created several ‘new normals.’” They included the contentions that “slavery was fundamentally inhuman and had to be abolished”; “Nations should have the right to govern themselves”; and “Even the poor and weak should be treated with dignity.” But of course, these were not “normals” for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are still not “normals” in much of the world today.
Singer goes on to highlight how the exhibit minimizes Thomas Jefferson’s racism, maintenance of slavery in practice even as he deplored it in theory, and fear of the Haitian revolution. But he misses how George Washington changed his policy on black soldiers in the first year of the Revolutionary War. (I left a comment on that one issue.)

Singer’s critique reflects a distrust among some historians of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and its namesake founders.
The ideological distortions in the exhibit are consistent with political direction being imposed by Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman,…who control the board of directors of the New York Historical Society. They are major right-wing players in the war over what should be taught as history. Richard Gilder is a founding member, and former chair, of the board of trustees of the Manhattan Institute. Lewis Lehrman is a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Heritage Foundation.
There’s no question that Gilder and Lehrman have made a lot of money in corporate finance and are conservative political activists. Lehrman even ran for governor of New York in 1982. There’s also no question that they’ve put a lot of their money into historical initiatives, including museum exhibits, teacher workshops, book prizes, and document collections. At times one or the other man has been explicit about wishing to promote conservative interpretations of American history.

Gilder and Lehrman didn’t necessarily have their thumbs on the scale of this exhibit. The idea of the American Revolution inspiring ideas of universal rights isn’t just a conservative one; it’s fairly mainstream in American thought because it’s so flattering to us as a nation. A willingness to overlook exceptions to our fine ideals is also fairly common among us humans. That said, folks really shouldn’t mount an exhibit titled “Revolution!” if they’re frightened of “remaking society.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Visiting American Nations

Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America reads like a cross between Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America (1981), and David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989) and related books.

Like Garreau, Woodard divides all of the U.S. of A., Canada, and northern Mexico along cultural and economic lines rather than the borders of states and traditional regions. Like Fischer, Woodard sees the roots of these differences in the first European settlements of each area, and the values those settlers carried to new regions.

Thus in this model the Tidewater, settled by English aristocrats in the early 1600s, is significantly different from the larger Deep South, first settled by Englishmen from the Caribbean several decades later. Woodard laid out his basic ideas and how he developed them in a podcast conversation with Marshall Poe.

After The Nine Nations of North America, I’ve joked that I came out of two nations: Midwestern and Academic. Even though I’ve never been formally part of either tribe, they’ve largely defined my values.

Under Woodard’s model, however, there’s no single Midwest. He splits that part of the country into extensions of Yankeedom (settled by New Englanders), the Midlands (spread west from Philadelphia), and Greater Appalachia (folks from the Revolutionary-era backcountry). And the part of California where I was born is in El Norte, its culture shaped by Spanish settlers seeking autonomy from Mexico City.

One of the smallest nations geographically on Woodard’s map is New Netherland—basically the part of North America that the Dutch colonized before the English took over. However, since that area includes New York City, its population and influence are much bigger than its physical footprint.

American Nations presents the Revolution first as “A Common Struggle” that first pulled disparate, competing regions together and then as “Six Wars of Liberation” in six different regions. Yankeedom was basically independent after March 1776 while New Netherland was pulled back into the British Empire until 1783.

Woodard overstates his case at times. In his introduction he writes:
New Netherland also nurtured two Dutch innovations considered subversive by most other European states at the time: a profound tolerance for diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry. Forced on other nations at the Constitutional Convention, these ideals have been passed down to us as the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights wasn’t a product of the Constitutional Convention; it was a pushback against the new federal government which that meeting proposed.

So let’s read Woodard’s statement to refer not to the convention itself but to the overall ratifying process. In a later chapter, Woodard writes of the Constitution:
New Netherlanders refused to vote on it at all until Congress agreed to add thirteen amendments modeled on the civil liberties enumerated in the Articles of Capitulation on the Reduction of New Netherland. . . . The vote in New York State was a cliffhanger, prompting New Netherlanders to threaten to secede and join the new union on their own if delegates from the Yankee interior counties did not ratify the new constitution.
Together these statements appear to present New Netherland as both standing firm against ratification and demanding it. This analysis also glosses over the many other sources for the Constitution’s first ten amendments, including the British Bill of Rights passed by Parliament in 1689. The Pennsylvania minority that had opposed ratification in 1788 proposed amendments guaranteeing individual rights. The Massachusetts convention reached compromise by proposing similar amendments, and other states followed that course.

In fact, by the time New York ratified the Constitution, nine other states had already done so, meaning that it had legal force. Of course, the nation needed to include New York as a large, central state. But I don’t see how New Netherland “forced” individual rights onto the rest of the U.S.

What’s more, two of the three Federalist Papers authors who argued to approve the Constitution as originally written were from New York. Woodard makes a point of calling Alexander Hamilton “Barbados-born,” suggesting he brought foreign values to New Netherland rather than fitting right in. And the book doesn’t even mention John Jay, whose mother was from an old Dutch family.

Though I think that at times like those American Nations’s thesis is stretched too far, it definitely provokes new thinking about North America and its past.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Constitution, the Post Office, and the Future

Article One, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution says that “Congress shall have power…To establish Post Offices and post Roads.” In fact, the Continental Congress had taken on that power and responsibility even before declaring independence from Britain, appointing Benjamin Franklin to be postmaster general back in July 1775. (He’d held a similar position under royal rule in the 1750s, administering the system at times from London.)

There’s no question, therefore, that the U.S. of A.’s Founders viewed the transmission of letters and packages as an essential part of the national government even though there were also private carriers. Joseph M. Adelman starts at that point in his Publick Occurrences essays about the long history the U.S. Postal Service.

Until forty years ago, the postmaster general was still part of the President’s Cabinet. In that year, Congress enacted a new law that spun off the service as a quasi-independent organization, meant to work like a profit-seeking business and insulated from politics.

Except, of course, that it’s not. If the Postal Service were truly a business, then it wouldn’t have to deliver first-class mail to almost anyplace in the country for the same small price—the requirement of universal service. Furthermore, the agency’s finances are still under Congress’s control. At the Redtape Chronicles, Bob Sullivan ran the math on the results:
Right now, the Postal Service is being forced to pre-pay health benefits for the next 75 years during a 10-year stretch. In the past four years, those prepayments have totaled $21 billion. The agency's deficit during that time is about $20 billion. Remove these crazy pre-payments — a requirement that no other government agency endures and no private industry would even consider — and the Postal Service would be in the black. . . . the Postal Service starts its year in a hole designed to hide a portion of the federal deficit.
Those costs are also linked to two more of the U.S. of A.’s biggest economic challenges: the Bush-Cheney recession and the rise in health costs.

Of course, everyone recognizes that the volume of first-class mail is dropping tremendously because of the internet. Even if the economy hadn’t taken the worst hit since the Great Depression in 2008, the deficit were smaller, and our health-care system weren’t weighed down by unnecessary costs, the Postal Service’s business model would still be outdated.

But the constitutional principle behind that agency still stands. In fact, our modern economy and way of life depend on speedy, reliable, and widespread communication more than ever. So what is the federal government’s responsibility?

Our judicial and political systems have already concluded that our freedom of the press isn’t limited by the fact we no longer use eighteenth-century printing technology. The First Amendment applies to mimeograph machines and offset printers, radio and television, the internet, and so on. Similarly, people who read the Second Amendment broadly argue that the “arms” it refers to include modern firearms. The U.S. Navy has expanded beyond copper-plated wooden ships.

By the same logic, the clause of the Constitution quoted above empowers Congress to establish the service and infrastructure for Americans to exchange messages in the modern fashion—electronically and digitally. By analogy to the Postal Service, that service should reach nearly everyone and come at a minimal cost. In fact, the U.S. government was in on the ground floor of that service, developing the early internet within the Defense Department.

In recent years those systems and services have been established and expanded mostly by private businesses, often but not always regulated by state and local governments as utilities. But there were also private delivery services in 1775 and 1787, and the Founders didn’t think those were enough.

[Image above courtesy of Northampton, New Hampshire.]