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, February 04, 2014

The Memory of Samuel Ely

For the last two days I’ve quoted advertisements from Connecticut newspapers spelling out a dispute between militia colonel William Williams of Wilmington, Vermont and the former minister Samuel Ely. That wasn’t the last dispute that Ely got into.

In April 1782, while living in Conway, Massachusetts, Ely led a crowd that kept the Hampshire County court closed, just as similar crowds had done in 1774 and throughout the war. Though Massachusetts had a new constitution, Ely and the scores of men who supported him didn’t think the system was fair to poor farmers. Ely is described as picking up a stick and shouting, “Come on, my brave boys, we’ll go to the woodpiles and get clubs enough to knock their grey wigs off!” State authorities arrested Ely, but a crowd of over a hundred men broke him out of the Northampton jail.

Ely returned to Wilmington, Vermont, for refuge, only to find the same issues in that little nation. By the end of the year Ely was convicted for saying, “The state of Vermont is a damned state, and the act for the purpose of raising ten shillings upon every hundred acres of land is a cursed act, and they that made it are a cursed body of men.” Vermont officials happily gave Ely back to Massachusetts, which locked him up for a while.

After winning his release, Ely seems to have laid low, or perhaps he just got lost in the crowds of the Shays’ Rebellion. But he resurfaced in Maine in 1790, and was soon leading a settlers’ campaign against big landowner Henry Knox. While hiding from legal authorities he managed to publish pamphlets with titles like The Unmasked Nabob of Hancock County; or, The Scales Dropt from the Eyes of the People and The Deformity of a Hideous Monster, Discovered in the Province of Maine, by a Man in the Woods, Looking after Liberty. Ely finally died in the late 1790s.

In short, Samuel Ely was a radical organizer, constantly fighting against economic inequality according to his interpretation of Christian scripture. He wasn’t the sort of Revolutionary whom America’s wealthy liked to remember.

In Travels in New-York and New-England, Timothy Dwight (1752-1817, shown above) called Ely “the great fomenter of discontent, confusion, and sedition, in Massachusetts,” and wrote, “The remainder of his life was a tissue, woven of nothing but guilt and infamy.” Dwight had the most to say about Ely’s early work as a minister in Somers, Connecticut:
Ely was an unlicensed and disorderly preacher, and could not obtain an ordination. His character even at that time, although less known and probably less corrupted than it was afterwards, was yet so stained, as to render it impossible for him to enter the ministry. But he possessed the spirit, and so far as his slender abilities would permit the arts, of a demagogue in an unusual degree. He was voluble, vehement in address, bold, persevering, active, brazen-faced in wickedness, and under the accusation and proof of his crimes would still wear a face of serenity, and make strong professions of piety. At the same time he declared himself, everywhere, the friend of the suffering and oppressed, and the champion of violated rights. Wherever he went, he industriously awakened the jealousy of the humble and ignorant against all men of superior reputation, as haughty, insolent, and oppressive. Jealousy he knew to be, among human passions, the most easily and certainly kindled. Both his character and his circumstances were in his own view deplorable; and he felt therefore, that he had nothing to lose beside his neck; a loss too uncommon, in this state, to be seriously dreaded, except in the case of murder. Of course, he undauntedly applied himself to any wickedness, which promised him either consequence or bread.
In fact, Ely was qualified to preach as a graduate of Yale, the same college where Dwight was president for twenty-two years. Dwight was an arch-conservative of early America, so of course he hated Ely’s preaching against the upper class. Despite the omissions and obvious political leaning of Dwight’s statement, later authors repeated his judgment on Ely.

In 1858 Benjamin H. Hall’s History of Eastern Vermont described Samuel Ely’s military career this way:
A bold, but rash and impetuous man, he had served in the battle of Bennington as a volunteer, and being connected with no company or regiment had fought without the advice or direction of any person. He had been court-martialed after the action on account of his singular conduct in retaining a large amount of valuable plunder, but had been honorably discharged on proof that he had taken only such articles as he had won in his own independent method of warfare.
That account said nothing about Ely commanding of the Wilmington militiamen after their colonel had left, as three of them later wrote. Instead, it painted Ely as unable to get along with any group, and getting away with looting on that account. (Hall had only good things to say about Ely’s accuser William Williams, though he had to note that Williams had ended up moving to Canada.)

Another Yale-connected author actually concealed some favorable information about Ely. In Yale and Her Honor-roll in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1888), Henry P. Johnston quoted the 1778 advertisements from Ely’s supporters in Vermont, but incompletely. He left out the part about Ely leading the Wilmington militia and the Vermont men’s denunciations of Williams for plundering himself. Johnston did state: “After the war Mr. Ely agitated socialistic views, got into trouble, defied the authorities in Massachusetts, was denounced as a ‘mobber,’ and arrested.”

It wasn’t until the Depression that historians began to recognize Samuel Ely as a political leader, albeit an unsuccessful one. In 1932 the New England Quarterly published an article by Robert E. Moody titled “Samuel Ely: Forerunner of Shays.” In 1986 the Maine Historical Society Quarterly published Alan Taylor’s “The Disciples of Samuel Ely: Settler Resistance against Henry Knox on the Waldo Patent, 1785-1801.” And now the new Massachusetts Historical Review offers Shelby M. Balik’s “‘Persecuted in the Bowels of a Free Republic’: Samuel Ely and the Agrarian Theology of Justice, 1768-1797.”

4 comments:

Joe Bauman said...

Hi John, I've been enjoying your reports about that rabble-rouser Samuel Ely. In the latest you mentioned the "settlers' campaign" against Henry Knox. I wondered if you might discuss this further, as all I know about the subject is Joseph Plum Martin's battle (losing, I seem to remember) against Knox concerning property where Martin lived. (PS, I tried to send an email but it would not go through.) Best wishes, Joe

J. L. Bell said...

The major study of that conflict in Maine is Alan Taylor's Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, which I (gulp) still haven't read. That book could tide you over until I feel like I'm on solid enough ground to say more about Knox's disputes with small farmers like Ely and Martin.

Bob said...

Very pleased to see you writing on Samuel Ely. I came across him a few months ago and he is fascinating. In some respects he reminded me of the group of Christian communists called the Diggers during the English Civil War. Ely certainly had a sharp wit; the remark I liked best was his explanation of his complaint against Knox: "Because the first grant of landed property ever made by the Almighty proprietor to Man was a garden containing six acres only..., not a Patent, thirty miles square nor seventy four miles long."

Also, I wonder if you can offer or point us to an explanation of the professional status of ministers around the time of the Revolution. Above you quote/note:

"Ely was an unlicensed and disorderly preacher, and could not obtain an ordination"

"In fact, Ely was qualified to preach as a graduate of Yale"

It seems to me there are several variables, and I'd like to understand how they fit together. First, one could be a college graduate or not. Second, one could be ordained or not. Third, one could be "settled" or itinerant.

Were all ministers college graduates? That's the image, but was it universal? Even the disorderly and "unlicensed" (by whom?) Mr. Ely was a Yale man.

How did one obtain ordination? Who conferred it? Did one have to be a college graduate before becoming ordained?

I understood that towns generally elected their ministers -- that is, the town voted to invite a minister to become settled. Was that universal or nearly universal? For every hundred settled ministers, how many itinerant ministers were roaming the countryside?

J. L. Bell said...

New England Congregationalism put great value on not having bishops, a presbytery, or other top-down authorities. Meetings were empowered to choose their own ministers, usually from New England's colleges, which had been set up to supply such men.

Usually when a town needed a new minister it would audition a series of young men, choose one by vote, negotiate with him about the parsonage and salary, and announce a date for his ordination. That ordination ceremony involved the ministers from neighboring meetings as a sign of support, though technically they weren't necessary. The meeting itself provided the authority to ordain a man as a minister.

In Ely's case, the congregation of Somers, Connecticut, voted rather narrowly (58-42) to choose him. The minority kept objecting and eventually overturned the offer with a new vote before Ely was ordained. Though there were some suspicions about Ely's "character," it looks like the controversy was more about his ideas, whether "New Light" or the start of his economic theology. Ely's supporters formed a separate meeting and had him ordained there in 1770; no other ministers attended. He published a couple of sermons that show his economic ideas forming. Soon Ely left Somers and moved to Massachusetts.

Timothy Dwight later spun that controversy into Ely having failed some test of knowledge (Dwight didn't mention that Ely had graduated from Yale in 1765) and never being ordained at all. But Dwight was an orthodox Congregationalist minister who loved top-down authority as long as he was one of the men on top.

Anyone could be an itinerant minister; the challenge was supporting oneself while doing so. Itinerants could get short-term gigs in towns that hadn't chosen a minister yet, or where the minister was ill or interested in preaching elsewhere. Usually there was only one, Congregationalist meeting in town, so preachers from other sects, such as Baptists, had limited opportunities.

I don't know the numbers of men ready at any point to become ministers, but it was common for young college graduates to explore the possibility. Robert Treat Paine considered the profession, serving as a chaplain in wartime. The Boston school usher James Lovell was almost offered an Anglican pulpit. The job's only formal requirement, it seemed, was to be smart and genteel enough to have a college degree.