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, October 13, 2014

Daigler Speaks on Intelligence at Minute Man Park, 15 Oct.

On Wednesday, 15 October, Kenneth Daigler will speak on the topic of his book Spies, Patriots and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War at the Minute Man National Historical Park’s Visitor Center in Lexington. This event will start at 7:00 P.M. and end with a book signing.

Daigler is a retired career C.I.A. operations officer who has degrees in history from Centre College of Kentucky and the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. C-SPAN recorded one of his earlier talks.

One of our early first-hand sources on Revolutionary War espionage is a letter that Paul Revere wrote in 1798 to the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Among many other things, he said
In the Fall of 1774 & Winter of 1775 I was one of upwards of thirty, cheifly mechanics, who formed our selves in to a Committee for the purpose of watching the Movements of the British Soldiers, and gaining every intelegence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green-Dragon Tavern. We were so carefull that our meetings should be kept Secret; that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible, that they would not discover any of our transactions, But to Messrs. Hancock, Adams, Doctors Warren, Church, & one or two more. About November, when things began to grow Serious, a Gentleman who had Conections with the Tory party, but was a Whig at heart, aquainted me, that our meetings were discovered, & mentioned the identical words that were spoken among us the Night before. We did not then distrust Dr. Church, but supposed it must be some one among us. We removed to another place, which we thought was more secure: but here we found that all our transactions were communicated to Governor Gage. (This came to me through the then Secretary [Thomas] Flucker; He told it to the Gentleman mentioned above).
The M.H.S. has shared the images and text of that letter.

Some of the details of that letter have become distorted in the retelling. For example, Revere said that his group started meeting in the Green Dragon Tavern, but moved out after “About November” because it didn’t seem secure enough. He didn’t say where the group met in 1775, but we know it wasn’t the Green Dragon. Yet that tavern gets all the credit.

William Hallahan’s The Day the American Revolution Began says that Revere’s group was “called the Committee of Observation.” Boston 1775 readers may recall how little I think of that book, and that’s yet another statement with no basis in eighteenth-century documents. New York Patriots formed a “Committee of Observation” to enforce the boycott on British goods. New England Patriots talked about creating an “Army of Observation” in early 1775, which was a euphemism for not quite going to war, like “military advisors.” But neither Revere nor anyone else used that term for this self-appointed committee.

Daigler’s book refers to Revere’s group as “the Mechanics,” as if that were their formal name. That’s rather like calling a small group “the Working Class” or such. In fact, Revere’s phrase “cheifly mechanics” suggests that not all those men came from that social stratus, though whether the exceptions were genteel merchants, mariners, or something else isn’t clear. Again, Revere named no names, even fifteen years after the war ended. Such secrecy makes the topic of Revolutionary War espionage all the more intriguing.


Byron DeLear said...

Very interesting story! It should be remembered that the Lodge of St. Andrews owned the Green Dragon Tavern, and that very serious oaths of secrecy mentioned by Revere are conducted at every single opening and closing of Lodge in masonic ritual, so these men must have been accustomed to the practice. From wiki, "The Freemasons used the first floor for their meeting rooms. The basement tavern was used by several secret groups and became known by historians as the "Headquarters of the Revolution". The Sons of Liberty, Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Boston Caucus each met there. The Boston Tea Party was planned there and Paul Revere was sent from there to Lexington on his famous ride."

J. L. Bell said...

Freemasonry is a great source of myths, and Wikipedia a great conduit for them. Some of those quoted statements about the Green Dragon Tavern are clearly false, and others seem dubious considering how little information survives about it.

Byron DeLear said...

My point was the secrecy oath you mentioned from Revere's letter, "We were so carefull that our meetings should be kept Secret; that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible, that they would not discover any of our transactions...," is very similar to a well-known Masonic ritual conducted often. There was most likely some considerable overlap between membership of some of these groups and members of the Craft.

Regarding wiki, yes, I was wondering about the its assertions that the "Sons of Liberty, Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Boston Caucus each met there [Green Dragon Tavern]."

I remember your post a while back on the Green Dragon Tavern when you visited the museum site in California; question for you John --- does the proprietor of the museum assert what wiki does about these groups meeting there? and, Did the Lodge of St. Andrew own the Green Dragon Tavern? I don't doubt that you would know the answers to these questions more than just about anyone. Thanks!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the St. Andrew's Lodge bought the Green Dragon Tavern in the late 1760s. It remained a public house, sometimes advertised under the name "The Masons' Arms," as well as being those Freemasons' meeting-place. And there is overlap between that lodge and men heavily involved in pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary political activity, like Revere. Some lodge meetings in late 1773 were canceled because of low turnout, evidently because so many men were at the tea meetings.

The jump to myth comes in the Wiki claims about the way the tavern's rooms were used, the groups that met there, and Revere starting his ride from there. The same letter I quoted above, which shows that Revere and his comrades met at the Green Dragon until November 1774, also describes how he started his ride, and the tavern had nothing to do with it.

The replica Green Dragon Tavern in Carlsbad, California, surprised me in the restraint of its statements about the historical importance of the original. The proprietor obviously does view the building as significant in the Revolution and the development of the country, but the displays and signs are carefully sourced.