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, January 09, 2014

Rachel Smith on the Deborah Champion Letter

As I’ve described, a couple of months back Dr. Samuel Forman asked a bunch of Revolutionary-history contacts to assess a letter attributed to Deborah Champion of Connecticut describing a trip to Gen. George Washington’s headquarters early in the war. 

One member of that team is Rachel Smith, Assistant to the State Historian at the University of Connecticut, Hartford. I’m sharing her assessment of the Library of Congress text as a “guest blogger” posting.

Tone: If all the references to the Revolutionary War were removed and I were asked to date this letter, I would have placed it in the second quarter of the nineteenth century by its language and tone alone. The overwrought, flowery prose of the letter reeks of the popular writing sensibilities of the early-to-mid-1800s. Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of colonial documents I’ve read were written by men, but I’d still suspect this kind of over-the-top, hyper-descriptive, “sentimental” prose wasn’t commonly used by women until after the advent of female academies (last decade of the eighteenth century/early nineteenth century).

Also, the disconnect between the author’s writing style and the style of her father’s almost comically archaic speech strikes me as very odd—certainly unlike anything I’ve seen in correspondence of other young adults in that period (Quakers excepted). (I have seen slave/African dialects written out in the eighteenth century, but that was always to underscore their otherness; something one wouldn’t do with one’s respected father.)

Internal logic: There seems to be a lot of totally unnecessary description—e.g., “You know our Continental bills are so small you can pack a hundred dollars very compactly”; a contemporary wouldn’t need to be told any of that, but it sure is a wonderful (and convenient) visual for a Victorian audience totally unfamiliar with colonial paper money.

Timing: I’m not familiar with the context of this letter, but I wonder why Deborah would write such a long and explicitly detailed letter to her friend describing her “dangerous mission” when the wartime atmosphere was still an extremely volatile one in October of 1775. The liberal use of the phrase “The British” is anachronistic for late 1775 for the same reasons it would have be anachronistic for Paul Revere to yell “The British are coming” a few months earlier.

Specific language: Perhaps the most quantifiable evidence for this letter being suspect. The writer’s use of “family room” instead of “parlor” is an immediate red flag; according to the Oxford English Dictionary that term didn’t come into popular use in the United States until well into the mid-nineteenth century. Other anachronisms include “keeping-room” (O.E.D.: 1790s) and “stay-at-home” (O.E.D.: 1806). Many other phrases, like “a nice hot breakfast,” also strike me as extremely anachronistic, but those aren’t as easy to pin down chronologically.

Our thanks to Rachel Smith for her contribution to this inquiry. Things aren’t looking good for the letter’s credibility, are they?

TOMORROW: Novelistic detail.

[The photo above shows the Prudence Crandall Museum, a Canterbury, Connecticut, house that in the 1830s became one of those female academies.]

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