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, July 19, 2012

Henry Knox and Paul Revere: Pretending to Quarrel?

I seem to be on a roll with Henry Knox, so I might as well continue. A while back, I laid out my argument that Knox’s 1774 marriage into the family of Thomas Flucker, royal Secretary of the province of Massachusetts, prompted some people to assume he’d favor the Crown like his father-in-law.

Knox’s name doesn’t appear on the lists of Whig activists from before the war. His most prominent public activities—testifying about the Boston Massacre and helping to found a militia grenadier company—give no good clues about his leanings in the context of the town. We have few papers from Knox before his marriage, and their few political comments are middle-of-the-road for a Boston businessman.

So authors filled the vacuum. Margherita Arlina Hamm’s Builders of the Republic, published in 1902, states:

Governor [Thomas] Gage had started a system of espionage and surveillance upon all suspected rebels, in which category was the young bookseller. . . . with a group of patriots [he] established a counter espionage upon the officials and their spies. With him in this work was his friend Paul Revere the engraver.

At the time Revere was not suspected, and on account of his business relations with Knox could come and go from the latter’s store without arousing suspicion. He took the precaution however, always to bring a plate when he visited the bookseller, and if there were any spies or British officers about, to have a make-believe quarrel in regard to imaginary work. Time and again when they had the wrong kind of an audience, he would denounce Knox at the top of his lungs, and Knox would give as good as he received, until they were alone. They carried out this comedy so successfully that on several occasions Revere was asked by British spies for information respecting the rebel bookseller.
Unfortunately, Hamm’s book didn’t include any citations at all. There’s no equivalent for this story in Noah Brooks’s biography of Knox, published two years earlier, or Elbridge H. Goss’s biography of Revere, published in 1891. Nor is there any contemporaneous document to support Hamm’s statement that the royal authorities were watching Knox or sought information about him from Revere.

In fact, Revere advertised his print of the Massacre in 1770, one of many harsh Whig political cartoons he engraved and sold. In 1771, newspapers reported, he hosted a commemoration of the Massacre at his house. John Adams’s diary shows that Revere attended political organizing meetings at the Boston Gazette office. The records of the North End Caucus show he was active in that political organization.

In November 1773 Revere was second man in line to volunteer to patrol the docks and ensure nobody unloaded the tea ships. In September 1774 he carried the Suffolk Resolves to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. All told, it’s very hard to imagine that “Revere was not suspected” of being a radical Whig. In fact, he should have been high on the royal authorities’ list.

Furthermore, in 1798 Revere wrote a detailed account of his intelligence and counterintelligence activity before the war, and it didn’t mention Knox. (I contend Revere hid Knox’s help in November 1774—help that was possible only if Knox still had his father-in-law’s confidence.)

Hamm’s anecdote fits the common picture of Knox as a stalwart Whig well before the war. It has the “fool the silly British officers” structure that American have long loved. It continues to appear in Knox biographies, including those by North Callahan and Mark Puls (neither of whom cites Hamm specifically). But there’s no reason to believe it.


Todd Gardner said...

If anything I would have expected Hamm's anecdotal story to have the roles of Revere and Knox reversed. Revere was involved in spying, etc. as much as anyone and to the British military he most likely would have been 3rd in line to be arrested after Hancock and Sam Adams. The play-like performance aspect of bookseller and the silversmith doesn't surprise me too much as it feels in line with 18th century personality, but it sounds more Hawes than Revere.

G. Lovely said...

As you say, no reason to believe, but any reason to doubt some version of it? Absence of evidence...

While Knox may be see in a negative light, early on at least, as a mere opportunist, at some point there was either a dramatic change of heart, or, as I prefer to suspect, a young man suppressing his true nature to stay in the good graces of his future father in law, while supporting the cause he believed in, and all to the advantage of his compatriots goals.

I must wonder: who was the financial support for his opening a bookshop a year or so after the Boston Massacre, and why the emphasis on things military in its stock? It would seem a perfect set-up for a well organized underground seeking intelligence,

A fascinating character to be sure, well worth further study, but alas, like much in life, the true heart may be too well hidden.

J. L. Bell said...

The first place I read this anecdote was Callahan’s biography, which didn’t say which man was thought to be the radical. Then Puls’s book said that the authorities didn't suspect Revere, and I first thought the author must have followed Callahan but made the wrong assumptions about which man could have played which part. Then I found the Hamm source (which may not be the oldest, but is the oldest I've been able to trace), and realized Puls had reproduced it accurately. Still, I don't think there's any solid evidence for it.

J. L. Bell said...

Any author describing a historical event takes on the burden of proof and should point to the evidence that it happened. An author can't simply say that no one can prove the event didn't happen. In the case of this anecdote, Hamm didn't point to any evidence at all, so we have an unsupported story set down over 125 years afterwards. Not to mention the evidence about Revere's activities that strongly implies it could not have happened this way.

I don't think Henry Knox's lack of prominent Whig activity before the war sheds a "negative light" on him. Rather, I think the unsupported statements that he was a voluble Whig obscure two things that make him interesting: his ability to learn from royal officials and officers, and the sacrifice he made in joining the provincials outside Boston in 1775.

When Knox opened his bookstore in early 1771, the royal troops had been removed from central Boston and the nonimportation boycott ended. Affairs were looking more peaceful than they had since the repeal of the Stamp Act. So I doubt anyone was thinking of the need for "a well organized underground."

In 1928 the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings published a study of Knox's bookselling based on his advertisements and correspondence, compared to other Boston booksellers. It suggests that he had the good fortune of opening up when the older booksellers who had trained him were retiring, and that he ordered most of his stock on credit, thus reducing his need for immediate capital. His orders from Longman in London include some military and political books, but also a lot of other things.

Anonymous said...

Another great report, Mr. Bell. It was ludicrous to say Revere wasn't suspected, if for no other reason than the famous editorial cartoon of the Boston Massacre. The Redcoats in it are portrayed as vicious murderers and those killed are listed as martyrs. -- Joe Bauman

J. L. Bell said...

Though we should acknowledge that Revere copied that anti-British Massacre image from Henry Pelham, who after the tea crisis was a grumpy young Loyalist. So it was possible to shift sides.