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, July 21, 2014

Benjamin Hichborn’s Delivery Service

In late July 1775, twenty-nine-year-old lawyer Benjamin Hichborn set off from Philadelphia for his home province of Massachusetts, proudly carrying three letters from Continental Congress delegates. Those letters would, he’d insisted, show that he had the confidence of Patriot leaders.

I suspect that Hichborn met up with Anthony Walton White (1750-1803, shown here), son of a New Jersey merchant who was seeking an appointment in the Continental Army. On 27 July, White obtained a recommendation letter from George Clinton of New York addressed to the new commander-in-chief, George Washington, so the timing fits. Hichborn later referred to his traveling companion only as “Mr. White.”

In the summer of 1775 it was very easy for a gentleman of means to travel in the American colonies. The royal army was almost entirely concentrated in Boston. The land war hadn’t spread beyond that region to make the roads treacherous. The Royal Navy had unchallenged control of the sea, but Hichborn could simply have stuck to a land route.

Which he didn’t.

Instead, as he wrote later that year:
When we came to New York, contrary to our expectations, we found a packet-boat waiting for Passengers, and in the opinion of every one there was not the least danger in crossing the [Long Island] Sound, we accordingly took passage for New-Port…
Hichborn could probably still have made his way to Rhode Island by sea unmolested if he kept a low profile, not telling anyone about the documents he was carrying. As a gentleman, he wasn’t likely to be subjected to close scrutiny.

But he didn’t.

Instead, Hichborn let on to a man named “Stone, (a person who formerly was Clerk to Henry Lloyd, and came passenger with us from New York),” that he had letters to Gen. Washington and James Warren, leader of Massachusetts legislature. Stone’s employer, Lloyd, was widely known as a Boston Loyalist. (Interestingly, two months earlier Lloyd had been worried about the security of his own mail.)

Sure enough, the packet boat carrying Hichborn, White, and Stone was stopped by the British warship Swan under the command of Capt. James Ayscough. However, the captain assured the young gentlemen that he was simply impressing sailors. Hichborn could still have kept the letters away from the British authorities by tossing them overboard in the night, and indeed he wrote of how he later “loaded them with money of the least value I had about me intending to drop them over board in the Evening.”

But he never did.

After all, if Hichborn were to come back to Massachusetts with no letters, he’d have no evidence that the Congress delegates trusted him.

TOMORROW: Benjamin Hichborn’s clever schemes.

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