J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Original “Wicked Statesman”

A week ago I shared this picture, engraved by Paul Revere for Isaiah Thomas’s 1774 almanac. It shows a “Wicked Statesman” being tormented by Death and a Devil. Under his left arm is a £1,500 salary—what Gov. Thomas Hutchinson was accepting from the tea tax. That engraving is part of the American Antiquarian Society’s online catalogue of all its engravings connected with Revere.

In a comment E. J. Witek wrote that Revere based this picture on a British original titled “The Minister in Surprize.” Indeed, Revere was an excellent silversmith but not a talented draftsman, and he based almost all his engravings on someone else’s work. In some cases, he collaborated with a local artist like Christian Remick. In others, he copied without permission, as in his scene of the Boston Massacre cribbed from Henry Pelham. Often Revere based his engravings on British originals.

In this case, I think the original isn’t “The Minister in Surprize” but the likely source of both: “The wicked Statesman, or The Traitor to his Country, at the hour of Death.” That’s the same title as Revere’s picture, and it has the figures of Death and the Devil while the “Minister in Surprize” has only the Devil.

The original “Wicked Statesman” appeared in the Oxford Magazine in August 1772. It’s an attack on the “Earl of ———” for “Selling England to the French.” At his feet the earl has books labeled Art of Bribery and Machiavel.

This might have been aimed at the Earl of Bute, though by that year he’d been out of politics for nearly a decade; his enemies did accuse him of bribery, affairs with the king’s mother, and scheming to debase Britain under some Catholic power. However, they also disliked the fact that he was a Scotsman and usually showed him in a kilt or other ethnic clothing, which is not seen here.

“The Minister in Surprize” simplified that picture, removing Death and, alas, the crocodile-demon at lower right. It also turned the cartoon into a comment on American policy. The sign held up by that image’s Devil reads “The American Resolves are a Devil of a Dose.” The minister’s papers say ”New Members” and “Civil List in Arrears” while the books below are American Constitution and List of Pensioners. Overall, I think that’s meant to suggest the surprised minister has been trampling American rights to bring in more money to pay off pensioners, civil servants, and Members of Parliament.

Both the “Minister in Surprize” and Revere’s “Wicked Statesman” are reversed left to right from the original “Wicked Statesman.” That’s because prints are mirror images of their engravings, and if you had a print it was easiest to copy it directly onto a sheet of copper and then produce prints that flipped the original around. (It’s also possible that “The Minister in Surprize” came first, a second British artist added figures and details while reversing the scene to create the first “Wicked Statesman,” and Revere copied that derivative to create his own “Wicked Statesman,” reversing it again.)

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