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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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The First and Second Wave of Deborah Champion

The dubious Deborah Champion letter I’ve been discussing for more than a week appears to be a product of the Colonial Revival and the first wave of American feminism. It was first noted in 1902 and read at meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the New Haven Colony Historical Society. Two similar versions of the text were printed in The Pioneer Mothers of America (1912) and the Jefferson County Journal (1926).

Mary Ritter Beard, the progressive historian, quoted an undated version from the Adams, New York, chapter of the D.A.R. in America Through Women’s Eyes (1933, reprinted 1969). Trying correct past misinformation, Beard stated that Deborah Champion undertook her ride in 1775 at the age of twenty-two.

American historiography went into a “debunking” period after the Colonial Revival, more skeptical about tales founded on family or local tradition. (Beard’s work on women actually fit into that revisionist trend because it pushed back against the field’s almost-exclusive focus on heroic men.) Then academic scholars came to dominate the study of history. Both trends worked against the idea of passing on heroic stories with little evidence. At the same time, in mid-century there was no longer such a strong push in American culture for active female role models. We haven’t found mentions of Deborah Champion’s ride in those decades.

The Deborah Champion story regained traction with the second wave of American feminism. As the movement for sexual equality grew in the 1970s and the Bicentennial approached, authors became more eager to find examples of women participating in the American Revolution—particularly participating in ways that we admire today. And unlike stories based only on family or local traditions, this story came with a dramatic account in what appeared to be Deborah Champion’s own voice.

We can see those forces coming together in the 1970s. The revival might have been kicked off by Sally Smith Booth in The Women of ’76, published in 1973. Booth devoted three pages to Deborah Champion, calling her “the eighteenth century woman’s answer to Paul Revere,” and the book’s back cover listed her as one of eight exemplars discussed inside. Booth’s retelling of the ride quoted selections from the 1912/1926 text (thereby removing much of the suspicious language). It stated Deborah’s age as twenty-two but suggested she rode in early 1776 and didn’t acknowledge her marriage at all. Booth’s book included a long bibliography but didn’t indicate a specific source for those quotations.

The American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut and Pequot Press published Catherine Fennelly’s Connecticut Women in the Revolutionary Era in 1975. That short book also described Deborah Champion’s ride without citing sources. Rachel Smith notes that Fennelly referred elsewhere to Beard’s work, suggesting she’d found the story there.

Three years later, in A History of Women in America, journalists Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman wrote:
Early on in the war a young woman from Connecticut, twenty-two-year-old Deborah Champion, was able to carry vitally needed intelligence dispatches to General Washington in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because it never occurred to the British that a sweet-faced woman might be a spy. Champion, cool and easy, rode for two days through enemy territory and past enemy sentries to safely complete her mission. Champion, who has been called the female Paul Revere, was unlike the famous silversmith in that she was not captured by the British—her “night ride” was a success.
Again, Hymowitz and Weissman didn’t cite a source. (Their endnotes cover only direct quotations.)

TOMORROW: And eventually what looked like an even better source surfaced.

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