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, May 03, 2012

Which Teacher Said, “War’s Begun”?

Last month Prof. Chris McDonough of the University of the South queried me about how Master John Lovell (shown here) of Boston’s South Latin School announced an end to the school day on 19 Apr 1775. Did he make the announcement in Latin or English or both? I’d noticed a discrepancy, but hadn’t tried to nail it down until then.

Our main (and perhaps only) source for that day in the South Latin School is the recollection that politician Harrison Gray Otis wrote down in 1844, quoted here:

As I entered School I heard the announcement of “deponite libros” and ran home for fear of the regulars.
Deponite libros [put down your books]” was the traditional way that Latin School masters signaled the end of every school day. It just came early that April morning.

Meanwhile, an alumnus of the Writing School on Queen Street, the newspaper publisher and politician Benjamin Russell, recalled how Master James Carter had closed that school. People recorded Russell’s anecdote in a couple of different ways.
  • “Master Carter then said: ‘Boys, war has begun; the school is broken up’,” quoted here.
  • “Master Carter said,—‘Boys, the war’s begun, and you may run’,” quoted here.
It makes sense for Carter to give his instructions in English.

In 1880, Henry F. Jenks wrote a history of Boston’s South Latin School that quoted Otis’s letter but added to it the line ”War’s begun and school’s done,” evidently inspired by Russell’s story. I haven’t found those words in any previous publication.

Jenks’s book was prestigious and widespread enough that his formulation went into a lot of reference books and histories over the next few decades. In fact, in 1887 a writer in The Nation responded to a recent article in The Magazine of History with this quibble:
And when Mr. Benjamin tells of “Master Carter,” in Boston, saying to his pupils, “Boys, the war’s begun, and you may run!” is he not thinking of Master John Lovell, of the Public Latin School, whose formula of dismissal was—“War’s begun and school’s done”?
Master Carter had been totally forgotten, and his best line assigned to someone else!

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