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.

Follow by Email

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Talk on German Prisoners in Washington, D.C., 4 June

On Wednesday, 4 June, the Society of the Cincinnati’s Anderson House museum and library in Washington, D.C., will host a talk by Daniel Krebs on “German Prisoners During the American Revolution.” Out of about 37,000 Crown soldiers hired from German states, about 5,400 became prisoners of war in America.

The event description says:
Drawing primarily on research in German military records, Dr. Krebs brings to life the soldiers’ experiences in captivity by discussing prison conditions in detail and addressing both the American approach to war prisoners and the prisoners’ responses. The talk will last approximately 45 minutes, with time for questions at the end.
Krebs is an associate professor of history at the University of Louisville. After his talk he’ll sign copies of his book, A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War During the American Revolution.

This HistoryNet review of his book says:
Krebs’ principal conclusion is that the German prisoners of war came to play a significant role in the American hinterland. For one thing they continued to receive pay from their units, and their dependence on purchasing sustenance from outside sources, access to which their captors made readily available, fueled the local economies. Over the course of the conflict German prisoners were hired to work on farms in Pennsylvania, at saltworks in Maryland and ironworks in New Jersey.

They were also used as political instruments against communities reluctant to support the revolution, as happened in Lebanon, Pa., in 1777 and 1778, when an influx of hundreds of German prisoners prompted local Moravians to change their stance from pacifism or loyalty to the crown to dependence upon the militia and Continental Army guards for protection. Great numbers of those same captives married local women and ended up settling permanently in the States after the war.
This talk will start at 6:00 P.M., and is free and open to the public.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Second Amendment’s Historic Moment

In considering the Second Amendment, I think it’s valuable to recognize the unusual historical moment in which it was enacted.

Whig political philosophy had long warned against a large “standing army”—i.e., the sort of military we now have—as likely to oppress people’s natural rights during peacetime. The Whig view of the world saw a broad-based militia–something we don’t have now—as the obviously superior alternative.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, it looked possible for the U.S. of A. to achieve that Whiggish vision. Spain and France were allies, and Britain had agreed to peace terms. Spurred by a lousy economy, the Congress disbanded its Continental Navy and sold off all its ships.

On 2 June 1784, the Congress also ordered the Continental Army to disband, stating (in language proposed by Elbridge Gerry) that:
standing armies in time of peace are inconsistent with the principles of republican government, dangerous to the liberties of a free people, and generally converted into destructive engines for establishing despotism.
The next day, it established a single federal regiment consisting of “eight companies of infantry, and two of artillery,” under a lieutenant colonel. That was the entire military strength of the government of the U.S. of A. in the late 1780s.

The Constitutional Convention wrote a document to strengthen the central government, and state ratifying conventions responded with Whiggish warnings. Look at the clauses against standing armies in Virginia’s ratification, for example. And that’s when a national army barely existed. When Congress drafted the Second Amendment in 1789, the country truly was depending on “a well-regulated militia” for its defense and was confident that was almost all it needed.

But the country also wanted land. Americans moving west quickly came into conflict with the Native nations allied as the Western Confederacy. The U.S. regiment and hundreds of local militia moved against those communities, but in a series of fights in October 1790 that American army was soundly defeated.

The Congress was still committed to the idea of a small standing army, authorizing a second federal regiment but only at low pay and only for six months. Once again American regulars moved west, along with a larger militia force. And on 4 Nov 1791 they were wiped out. Out of about 1,000 fighting men, nearly 900 were killed, wounded, or captured. One-quarter of the small U.S. Army was gone overnight.

President George Washington was already skeptical about militia systems. During the Revolutionary War he had argued long and hard for a stronger federal army and longer enlistment periods—i.e., a standing army. In 1792 the Congress started to expand the U.S. Army and also passed laws exercising more control over the state militias. America’s full Whiggish experiment was over. But the Second Amendment (and the rest of the original Constitution and Bill of Rights) are products of that brief period.

[The image above appears in George Ironstrack’s recent essay on the 4 Nov 1791 battle from the Myaamia (Miami) perspective.]

Thursday, May 29, 2014

William Hogeland on the Second Amendment

With the American public once again focused for a time on how our policies enable crazy men to easily obtain guns, William Hogeland, author of The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty, wrote a thought-provoking editorial for Alternet arguing that debates over the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment are bound to end in a muddle:
The realpolitik in which the Second Amendment was framed, during the first U.S. Congress of 1789, involves some unedifying but illuminating features. The amendment was a response to the federal government's power over state and local militias, as set out in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. That provision had been among the most hard-fought at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Delegates committed to state sovereignty feared—rightly enough—that if the federal government were empowered to control the state militias, states would lose sovereignty.

In that elemental debate lay the beginning of a perennial American disingenuousness regarding arms and rights. Delegates led by James Madison wanted to create a national government, directly acting on and protecting all citizens, throughout all states. To achieve it, they had to play down how entirely they wanted it, how nearly utter the states’ loss of power would be. Madison’s convention notes show Madison himself, along with other nationalists, minimizing the impact of the federal militia power in order to soothe certain delegates’ fears of losing state sovereignty.

As we know, the nationalists got what they wanted. Despite concessions to their opponents’ ideas about state sovereignty, we became a nation. And critical to that achievement was the constitutional provision giving the federal government control of states’ military institutions.

So when amending the Constitution, Madison continued to prevaricate. Former antifederalists in Congress and the state legislatures still resented the federal power to control militias; they were hoping to use the amendment process to regain some military control and thus retain some sovereignty. In the Second Amendment, Madison tried to defeat those hopes by placating them without really addressing them. The amendment gestures vaguely at state sovereignty in a way intended to make little practical sense. . . .

We argue fiercely today about the intended relationship between the famous opening phrase (“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,”) and the famous main clause (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”). But it’s fruitless to try to nail down that relationship, to hope to prove for good and all that the opening phrase is or is not a preamble, or that a preamble does or does not determine the meaning of a main text, or that a “being” phrase means something different from or identical to a “whereas” clause.

The sentence is weak. The weakness is deliberate.
Madison was, after all, one of the republic’s smartest politicians. He steered the amendment-writing process as much as he could so the results didn’t impede too greatly on his vision for the federal government at that time. It’s striking how little resemblance there is between the amendments proposed by state ratifying conventions in 1787-88 and those that came out of the first federal Congress. (Here, for instance, are the assurances New York wanted.)

TOMORROW: The Second Amendment’s historic moment.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Mysteries of Dido Belle’s Portrait

Yesterday’s Guardian contained an article by Stuart Jeffries about the painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray that inspired the new movie Belle.

This painting was once attributed to Johann Zoffany but is now considered to be by an unknown artist, making its interpretation harder. In particular, the article quotes differing theories on why Dido is posed the way she is:
Why does Dido look as if she’s rushing past her cousin on an errand? For [novelist Caitlin] Davies, one possibility is that this started as a single portrait. “It looks like the portrait of Elizabeth came first and then someone wanted the two young women together, so Dido was added. The touch between them can seem awkward – is Elizabeth pushing her away? But perhaps the painter just kept Elizabeth as she was, with one arm held out.” . . .

Mario Valdes, a US historian of the African diaspora, suggests that her turban may be part of an attempt to Indianise Dido. Between 1770 and 1771, he points out, her father served as His Britannic Majesty’s Minister Plenipotentiary in India. What does that have to do with Dido’s gesture? “One interpretation is that she is pointing to the difference in complexion between herself and her cousin,” says Valdes. “But I would argue that a far more sophisticated approach is at play.”

There is a sculpture that shows Krishna in a similar pose, Valdes explains, and a story that he was once slapped by a female deity for taking on the appearance of her sister and her husband. When this sister tried to console him, he smiled, pointed to his bruised cheek, and exclaimed: “She has shown that all three of us are one and the same.” Valdes says: “What Dido’s pose apparently proclaims, therefore, is that she and her cousin share the same humanity and innate worthiness.”
As the article notes, there’s no evidence to suggest the artist or other people connected to the painting knew about that Hindu myth. Dido Elizabeth Belle was not apparently close to her father, with his Indian connection. Furthermore, it was already common for British artists to depict black servants in turbans.

The article mentions how some souvenirs of the painting crop it to show Dido alone. Once her upper body is tilted upright, she appears rather like many other women in period portraits, posed as if seated behind a symbolic platter of fruit. Other paintings show women touching their faces in the same manner.

The dual portrait thus seems to be two rather standard formal portraits of young women, combined in a way to show the social (and ethnic) divide between them yet also depicting their friendship. The artist undoubtedly knew the trope of placing a black servant in the background of a portrait as a generic symbol of wealth, but (was) pushed into unexplored territory of depicting a black individual treated fondly as a member of the family. Hence Lady Elizabeth reaching back to touch Dido’s arm. The result is awkward, but the unknown artist was doing something without precedent.

(The Guardian article misstates the name of Thomas Hutchinson, the former Massachusetts governor quoted here about Dido Belle.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Challenge of Carter’s Grove

I first visited Colonial Williamsburg a little over twenty years ago. [It appears that folks in Virginia think they had something to do with the Revolution as well. Who knew?]

One of the things I most enjoyed about that trip was visiting Carter’s Grove, a plantation mansion some distance from the restored village. And a big part of that site’s appeal was figuring out the story behind it.

It seemed clear that Colonial Williamsburg acquired that property in 1969 only because one of the Rockefellers on its board insisted. Other folks in the institution felt saddled with this white elephant of an estate, its main building so altered from its original in the early 1900s that it was impossible to interpret it accurately as a colonial structure.

But then it turned out that the grounds included one of the most significant archeological sites of the British settlement of North America: Martin’s Hundred, or Wolstenholme Town. Colonial Williamsburg archeologists ended up doing many years of work there, and its curators created a museum for the artifacts and preserved the site.

As for the house itself, it was still an interpretive headache. The main outbuildings had been connected to the mansion and the whole house expanded, so it no longer had the size or profile of a genuine Georgian home. When I went, Colonial Williamsburg had come up with three solutions. An outdoor tour highlighted those architectural changes. The grounds had been equipped with barns, enclosures, and livestock to show the lives and work of enslaved farmworkers.

Finally there was the interior of the house, interpreted to display the Colonial Revival and how Americans thought about and celebrated the Revolutionary period in the early 1900s. But that proved a challenge for visitors. Most tourists came wanting to see how Revolutionary America looked. Being shown how our recent ancestors thought Revolutionary America looked, or should have looked, or would have looked if those people had had the benefit of iceboxes and sewing machines, was just confusing. In 2003 Colonial Williamsburg shut the site to figure out what it was doing.

Four years and one hurricane later, the organization sold the mansion to a dot-com millionaire for over $15 million, most in a loan to the new owner. However, as the Washington Post reported, he never moved in. Within a few more years he announced that he couldn’t keep making payments on the loan. There was a lot of concern about whether the house was falling apart.

Government agencies intervened, and a trustee was appointed to handle the property. This spring the Carter’s Grove mansion went back on the market. And when the auction ended last week, the winning bid was from…Colonial Williamsburg.

According to the modern Virginia Gazette, “Colonial Williamsburg bid $7.4 million, which is equivalent to the balance it is owed on the property.” Thus, the institution received about $7 million and ended up with the same property as before, but probably has to spend a lot to restore it. And it’s still unclear how to interpret the property for the public.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Mum Bett Presentations at Royall House, 31 May

On Saturday, 31 May, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford will host two performances of “One Minute’s Freedom: The Story of Mum Bett” by storyteller Tammy Denease.

This presentation introduces children aged seven and up to Elizabeth Freeman, a woman who helped end slavery in Massachusetts by suing for her freedom in 1781. Her lawyer was Theodore Sedgewick (1746-1813), and she worked for him after becoming free. In 1853 Bentley’s Miscellany published an essay by his daughter Catherine Sedgewick which described Freeman this way:
Mum-Bett’s character was composed of few but strong elements. Action was the law of her nature, and conscious of superiority to all around her, she felt servitude intolerable. It was not the work—work was play to her. Her power of execution was marvellous. Nor was it awe of her kind master, or fear of her despotic mistress, but it was the galling of the harness, the irresistible longing for liberty. I have heard her say, with an emphatic shake of the head peculiar to her: “Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s airth a free woman—I would.”

It was soon after the close of the revolutionary war, that she chanced at the village “meeting house,” in Sheffield, to hear the Declaration of Independence read. She went the next day to the office of Mr. Theodore Sedgewick, then in the beginning of his honourable political and legal career. “Sir,” said she, “I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, ‘all men are born equal,[’] and that every man has a right to freedom. I am not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?” I can imagine her upright form, as she stood dilating with her fresh hope based on the declaration of an intrinsic, inalienable right. Such a resolve as hers is like God’s messengers—wind, snow, and hail— irresistible.
This program about Freeman is supported by Historic New England and the Medford Arts Council. The performances will start at 11:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. and last about 45 minutes. The mansion and slave quarters will be open to visitors in between. Admission is free, but registration is required; email Programs@RoyallHouse.org for tickets.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Discovery in the Archives—What Does That Mean?

I’m hoping to visit Britain’s National Archives this week, so it seems like a good time to note this interesting blog post from Jo Pugh, on staff there, about what it means to “discover” documents in an archive:

In January of this year, the Guardian reported that a researcher had ‘chanced’ upon unpublished letters by Mary Shelley. The researcher called it ‘a lucky find’ but their luck was a matter of preparation meeting opportunity: the letters were in Essex Record Office and had been spotted online (the Guardian called it ‘an unpromising website’ which is just mean). The implication was that this was discovery via Google. Again the comments were lively: ‘funny sort of “discovery” when the letters were in a public record office, have been catalogued by an archivist, and put in an online search engine’, wrote Technopeasant. ‘This was catalogued and described and ready for the researcher without any particular effort. Any credit for “discovery” goes to the archivist’, insisted Kate 2468.

But I don’t agree. What lost cities and found documents have in common is that someone other than their creators (or residents) comes to understand that they exist. Joshua Ranger has suggested a thing ‘cannot be lost if no one is missing it’ and went as far as to argue that tales of ‘discovery’ harm the archival profession because they imply we’re not doing our jobs. This seems rather alarmist. Does interest and excitement cause harm? The implication in his argument is that if archivists weren’t goofing off drinking tea and building state of the art digital preservation environments we’d see to it that everything could be found, is permanently available and then nothing would be discovered.

I have to say that this thought depresses me. The day all collections are completely digitised (to do this in Europe would cost billions so I’m not panicked) will be simultaneously cool and a bit dull. But it won’t stop discovery because discovery is an intellectual process. People will still find new knowledge in collections even if they aren’t physically discovering new documents. Because it isn’t objects, documents or films which change, it is our state of knowledge about them. This is true of a lot of discovery – gravity was working perfectly well before Isaac Newton noticed it.
Back in 2011, I was happy to refer to my finding a broadside that matched the description of what was in Christopher Seider’s pocket when he died as a “discovery.” Of course it was a discovery for me since I’d been looking for such a document for years. As N.B.C. used to advertise their Friends reruns in the 1990s, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!”

But of course the existence of that document wasn’t a discovery to whatever fine archivist had examined and accurately catalogued it. I made that point last year in regard to an unpublished poem by Jupiter Hammon that a professor “discovered” by having his students ask university librarians for available information on Jupiter Hammon manuscripts.

So what can constitute a widely significant “discovery” of a properly catalogued document? I think it lies in such a document’s historical significance. Of course, that significance might be debatable. And the distinction between discovering a document and spotlighting its importance can easily be lost in university press releases or news reports.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Tristam Shandy in Its Time and In Our Time

B.B.C. Radio’s In Our Time podcast (one of my favorites) tackled Laurence Sterne’s landmark novel Tristram Shandy this spring. The book was a popular sensation after it started to appear in 1759 and still feels far ahead of its time.

Among the novel’s fans in America was Nathanael Greene. He made allusions to the book in his letters, and he imitated characters. According to Greene’s grandson and biographer:
his brothers, to the day of their death, could never mention Tristram Shandy without dilating upon the exquisite comicality of his impersonation of Dr. Slop.
In July 1775, Greene became a brigadier general in the Continental Army assigned to serve under Gen. Charles Lee. Lee was not only the most respected military professional in the Continental Army, but he was also a good friend of Sterne. The two men had even published verse together. Imagine Greene’s feelings about getting a new boss like that.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Mrs. General Washington

This image comes courtesy of the Library of Congress. The New York Public Library states that it appeared in the 1 Apr 1783 issue of The Rambler’s Magazine; or, The annals of gallantry, glee, pleasure, and the bon ton; calculated for the entertainment of the polite world; and to furnish the man of pleasure with a most delicious banquet of amorous, Bacchanalian, whimsical, humorous, theatrical and polite entertainment. What we today call a “men’s magazine.” So of course it showed George Washington in a dress.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Popping Up on the Freedom Trail: A Kickstarter Campaign

Denise D. Price is an artist and paper engineer in Cambridge who’s started a Kickstarter campaign for The Freedom Trail Pop-Up Book.

The book promises “16 architecturally accurate pop ups, profiles of each of the five historic weathervanes along the trail and written history about landmarks like the U.S.S. Constitution and the Old South Meeting House.” Other highlights:
  • A fully three dimensional, two-page pop-up of the Massachusetts State House
  • Old Corner Bookstore illustration with moveable sign 1717 to 1826
  • A pop-up interpretation of Paul Revere’s [actually Henry Pelham’s] etching of the Boston Massacre
The Freedom Trail Foundation has permitted Price to use its brand for this project.

Pop-up books have to be assembled by hand, making them particularly expensive. Usually this work is done in Latin America; fifteen years ago, Cali, Colombia, was a worldwide center of the field, and it might still be.

Price has budgeted the first printing of her book, consisting of 5,000 copies, to cost $52,500, and that’s her Kickstarter goal. The campaign runs through the end of June.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Priscilla Hobart’s “happiest portion of her life”

Yesterday’s posting left Priscilla (Thomas Watson) Lothrop and the Rev. Noah Hobart reunited more than two decades after they had broken off their engagement because he was an indebted schoolteacher and she was being courted by a rich man. In the intervening years both had married, she twice. Both had become parents and then been widowed. Her Plymouth husbands had left her wealthy. He was established as the Congregationalist minister in Fairfield, Connecticut.

But when Noah came to ask Priscilla to marry him at last, she told him she’d promised her second husband she wouldn’t marry as long as his mother was alive—and presumably needing care. Priscilla’s great-grandson Benjamin Marston Watson continues the story:
Noah, disappointed, set out for home with a heavy heart & having reach’d Hingham, call’d on ye Revd. M’r [Daniel] Shute, who invited him to stop & preach ye Thursday lecture for him; to wch. he assented. After ye lecture was over, as they were going home, they met a traveller on horseback, of whom Mr. Shute enquired “where he was from?” — He answered “from Plymouth;” when they further enquired “if there was any news?”

He answered, “nothing particular, except that old Madam Lothrop died last night.”

Noah’s face brightened up on this announcement, & he turned his face again towards Plymouth; and without being able to state any intervening particulars, we know that in three weeks from that time, Priscilla married her third husband in ye person of her first lover, & was settled at Fairfield as “ye minister’s help-meet,” & ye wife of ye Revd. Noah Hobart.
The couple married in 1758, when he was in his early fifties and she in her late forties. What Watson wrote about their marriage is notable in that he was a descendant of Priscilla’s first husband:
The life of Priscilla at Fairfield was tranquil and happy; & it is said that she sometimes confessed to her children, in her old age, they being also ye children of her other husbands, that ye period she lived with Noah was ye happiest portion of her life. She had no children by M’r Hobart . . . Priscilla, however, was destined to be a widow for ye third time, as ye Revd. Noah Hobart died at Fairfield in ye year 1773, & left her in possession of his homestead there. . . .

After ye death of M’r Hobart, Priscilla remained at Fairfield, occupying his house & receiving ye manifestations of ye affection and respect of his late Parish for a period of six years, until July, 1779, when ye whole village of Fairfield was burned by ye English troops under ye command of Govr. [William] Tryon. Being now houseless she returned to Plymouth, & occupied ye house in wch. she had lived with her second husband, Mr [Isaac] Lothrop. . . .

In ye year 1786, when I was a child of about 6 years old, being on a visit to Plymouth with my Father, I well recollect visiting her, & being by her most cordially received & welcom’d, as ye first of her great-grand-children whom she had seen, & as a token of her satisfaction, & for a memorial of herself, she gave me a pair of gold sleevebuttons, as a keepsake. She was at this time 80 years old, her mental & corporeal faculties in perfection. Her carriage was exceedingly upright. Her person was small and well formed, she not exceeding in height 5 feet, 1 or 2 inches. Her countenance was animated & expressive & gave decidedly ye impression of having been handsome. . . . She lived until 1796, nearly 10 years after this interview, & died in June of that year, aged 90 years.
Other records indicate that Priscilla Thomas had been born in 1709, and was thus only in her late eighties when she died. Still, she’d enjoyed an impressively long and active life. And she’d married her first love at last. (A detail of her gravestone is above, courtesy of Sandra Lennox and Find-a-Grave.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Priscilla Watson “being left a rich widow”

Yesterday I started quoting from Benjamin Marston Watson’s story in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register for 1873, describing how in the late 1720s Priscilla Thomas of Duxbury was courted by two men: Noah Hobart, the local schoolteacher whom she loved but who was still struggling to pay off college loans; and John Watson, a wealthy widower from Plymouth.

Not wishing to stand in the way of Priscilla’s good fortune, Hobart told her not to feel bound to him since he wasn’t sure when he would be in a position to marry. This is what happened next:
She then concluded to accept Mr Watson’s offer; and in a few weeks he married her [in 1729], & carried her to his home in Plymouth. In due time she bore him two sons, ye eldest, my great uncle William Watson; & ye youngest my grandfather Elkanah Watson; & soon after, in Septr. 1731, her husband died of a fever, and left his wife a handsome young widow, of about 25 years of age.
The gravestone of John Watson (1678-1731) appears above, courtesy of Sandra Lennox and Find-a-Grave. His death seems to leave the way clear for young Hobart, doesn’t it?
About ye same time that M’r Watson’s death occurred, the wife of Thomas [actually Isaac] Lothrop Esqr., one of their neighbours, died, leaving a young infant, w’h was frequently sent to Mr’s Watson to be nursed, she having also a nursing infant.

In ye meantime, Noah Hobart probably not having yet paid his college debts, did not now manifest any particular sentiments, or intentions in relation to her, perhaps also being influenced by ye contrast in their condition, she being left a rich widow.

The intercourse created between M’r Lothrop & Mr’s Watson by their mutual interest in his nursing infant, brought about a reciprocal interest in each other, & in due time he offer’d, & was accepted by her as her second husband. She lived with him happily for some years, & bore him three children, two sons & a daughter; viz. D’r Nathaniel Lothrop & Isaac Lothrop Esqr., of Plymouth, and Priscilla, married to Gershom Burr Esqr., of Connecticut; when M’r Lothrop died, & Priscilla became a widow for ye second time.
And here’s the gravestone of Isaac Lothrop (1707-1750). Priscilla actually bore him six children. And what had happened to her first suitor?
Noah Hobart, while ye incidents related in ye former chapter were occurring to Priscilla, having been settled in ye (Congregational) ministry at Fairfield, Connecticut, had married & his wife had died previously to the death of Mr. Lothrop. At a suitable interval, subsequent to these events, he concluded to make a visit to his first sweetheart & went to Plymouth, & again proposed himself for her husband.

She was very glad to see him, & received him very graciously; and much regretted that she could not accept his proposals, without breaking a promise that she had made to M’r Lothrop on his deathbed, not to marry while his mother lived.
Oh, come on!

TOMORROW: No, really—can this marriage be saved?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Priscilla Thomas Finds a Husband

The following story was written by Benjamin Marston Watson (1780-1851) and submitted by his younger brother John L. Watson to the New England Historic and Genealogical Register in 1872. It concerned two of their ancestors.
Noah Hobart [1706-1773]…was the school teacher in Duxbury, Masstts., having graduated at Harvard College in 1724, and become acquainted with Priscilla Thomas [1709-1796], a very interesting young girl, daughter of Caleb Thomas, a respectable citizen of that town. Their acquaintance ripened into an engagement, & mutual promise of marriage, whenever his circumstances w’d permit him to discharge ye debts he had contracted for his education.

While this understanding subsisted between them, & they were enjoying ye happy relation of affianced lovers, & calmly waiting for such improvement in their affairs as w’d justify their marriage, John Watson Esq., of Plymouth, my Great Grand Father, being a Widower, having seen Priscilla, was much pleas’d with her, although ye serious difference of nearly thirty years existed in their ages, he being about 50, & she 22 years old.

Being, however, thus charm’d with Priscilla, he proceeded to Duxbury & call’d on her parents, & made known to them his views & wishes in relation to Priscilla, & requested their consent to visit their daughter, with ye object of offering himself to her in marriage. They inform’d M’r Watson that Priscilla was engaged to Mr. Hobart, but they w’d call her & let her speak for herself, they seeming pleas’d with ye offer, as M’r Watson’s circumstances were known to be very eligible. . . .

Priscilla was call’d, & appear’d gratified with an offer from so rich a suitor, & observed that she w’d see Noah, & talk with him about it. She convers’d with Noah, and he thought that, upon ye whole, it was not advisable for her to lose so good an opportunity; & as he was still so much in debt for his education, that it was quite uncertain when he w’d be able to relieve himself from his embarrassments, & be in a condition to marry her.
Well, that’s not how love stories work out, is it?

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Exploring the Tunnel at Ninety Six

This spring archeologists, local firefighters, and National Park Service staff started to explore a tunnel dug during a siege in South Carolina in 1781. This is apparently the only tunnel created during a Revolutionary War siege to survive, and in fact it survived in good shape.

The History Blog reported this story, based on local television coverage:
The 125-foot tunnel was designed by Polish humanist, engineer and Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko during the 1781 siege of the earthen Star Fort in the town of Ninety Six, South Carolina. The plan was for the tunnel to extend underneath the Star Fort so that it could be mined from below and blown up. British reinforcements arrived before the tunnel was finished, which is why it, unlike its more successful brethren, managed to survive the war.

The earthworks of Star Fort are still in existence and the entire site is now a National Park. The Park service and experts from the University of South Florida sent Greenwood firefighter Russel Cline down into the tunnel with breathing equipment since they had no idea what kind of air quality he would encounter. He found that it was remarkably good, considering the three-and-a-half foot high tunnel is more than 230 years old. The video records that the vaulted tunnel is lined with brick and mortar which at first glance, at least, still impressively sound, a testament to Kosciuszko’s skill and attention to detail.
That detail would have been obliterated if Kosciuszko had been able to complete his plan and set off explosives under the fort. But the Loyalists at Ninety Six held out long enough for reinforcements to approach, driving the Continentals away.

[Image above courtesy of FOX Carolina.]

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Josiah Quincy Takes the Case (a third time)

Back in October 2006 and again in March 2010 I noted how members of one political party were attacking an opponent for providing a defendant with legal counsel. Even though good legal counsel is a constitutional right and a benchmark for a fair trial. Even though in some cases those lawyers turned out to be right. Well, it’s four years later, and Republicans are doing that again.

Usually American authors cite John Adams after the Boston Massacre as our exemplar of a lawyer taking on an unpopular case because he felt all people facing serious penalties deserved representation. I’ve raised questions about Adams’s memory of how he came to defend the soldiers and how much grief he really took because of that. But there’s solid evidence of criticism for the same decision from Adams’s younger colleague on the defense team, Josiah Quincy, Jr.

As discussed in the Colonial Society of Massachusetts volume Portrait of a Patriot, Quincy was an energetic advocate for the Whig party in pre-Revolutionary politics. His father, Col. Josiah Quincy of north Braintree, wrote to Josiah, Jr., on 22 Mar 1770:

My dear Son,

I am under great affliction, at hearing the bitterest reproaches uttered against you, for having become an advocate for those criminals who are charged with the murder of the fellow citizens. Good God! Is it possible? I will not believe it.

Just before I returned home from Boston, I knew, indeed, that on the day those criminals were committed to prison, a sergeant had inquired for you at your brother’s house,—but I had no apprehension that it was possible an application would be made to you to undertake their defence. Since then I have been told that you have actually engaged for Captain [Thomas] Preston;—and I have heard the severest reflections made upon the occasion, by men who had just before manifested the highest esteem for you, as one destined to be a saviour of your country.

I must own to you, it has filled the bosom of your aged and infirm parent with anxiety and distress, lest it should not only prove true, but destructive of your reputation and interest; and I repeat, I will not believe it, unless it be confirmed by your own mouth, and under your own hand.

Your anxious and distressed parent,...
Four days later the young lawyer replied to his father from Boston:
Honoured Sir,

I have little leisure, and less inclination either to know, or to take notice, of those ignorant slanderers, who have dared to utter their “bitter reproaches” in your hearing against me, for having become an advocate for criminals charged with murder. But the sting of reproach when envenomed only by envy and falsehood, will never prove mortal.

Before pouring their reproaches into the ear of the aged and infirm, if they had been friends, they would have surely spared a little reflection on the nature of an attorney’s oath, and duty;—some trifling scrutiny into the business and discharge of his office, and some portion of patience in viewing my past and future conduct.

Let such be told, Sir, that these criminals, charged with murder, are not yet legally guilty, and therefore, however criminal, are entitled, by the laws of God and man, to all legal counsel and aid; that my duty as a man obliged me to undertake; that my duty as a lawyer strengthened the obligation; that from abundant caution, I at first declined being engaged; that after the best advice, and most mature deliberation had determined my judgment, I waited on Captain Preston, and told him I would afford him my assistance; but, prior to this, in presence of two of his friends, I made the most explicit declaration to him, of my real opinion, on the contests (as I expressed it to him) of the times, and that my heart and hand were indissolubly attached to the cause of my country; and finally, that I refused all engagement, until advised and urged to undertake it, by an Adams, a Hancock, a Molineux, a Cushing, a Henshaw, a Pemberton, a Warren, a Cooper, and a Phillips.
Samuel Adams, John Hancock, William Molineux, Thomas Cushing, Joshua (probably) Henshaw, Samuel Pemberton, Dr. Joseph Warren, William (or the Rev. Dr. Samuel) Cooper, and William Phillips made up the bulk of genteel Whig office-holders and activists in Boston. They all agreed that Quincy should take the case and ensure the soldiers received a fair trail.

The young lawyer continued:
This and much more might be told with great truth, and I dare affirm, that you, and this whole people will one day REJOICE, that I became an advocate for the aforesaid “criminals,” charged with the murder of our fellow-citizens.

I never harboured the expectation, nor any great desire, that all men should speak well of me. To inquire my duty, and to do it, is my aim. Being mortal, I am subject to error; and conscious of this, I wish to be diffident. Being a rational creature, I judge for myself, according to the light afforded me. When a plan of conduct is formed with an honest deliberation, neither murmuring, slander, nor reproaches move. For my single self, I consider, judge, and with reason hope to be immutable.

There are honest men in all sects—I wish their approbation;—there are wicked bigots in all parties,—I abhor them.

I am, truly and affectionately,

your son,

Josiah Quincy Jun.
A few weeks later, Quincy also agreed to represent Ebenezer Richardson, an even less popular defendant charged with killing young Christopher Seider. Because an unjust trial doesn’t produce justice for anybody.

Friday, May 16, 2014

John Graves Simcoe in Boston

John Graves Simcoe, the British army officer whose evil twin is a character in the Turn television series, arrived in Boston as a lieutenant soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Characteristically, he came with a bright idea.

Simcoe described that idea in his postwar memoir (writing modestly of himself in the third person):
His intimate connection with that most upright and zealous officer the late Admiral [Samuel] Graves, who commanded at Boston in the year 1775, and some services which he was pleased to entrust him with, brought him acquainted with many of the American loyalists: from them he soon learned the practicability of raising troops in the country whenever it should be opened to the King’s forces; and the propriety of such a measure appeared to be self-evident.

He therefore importuned Admiral Graves to ask of General [Thomas] Gage that he might enlist such negroes as were in Boston, and with them put himself under the direction of Sir James Wallace, who was then actively engaged at Rhode island, and to whom that colony had opposed negroes; adding to the Admiral, who seemed surprised at his request, “that he entertained no doubt he should soon exchange them for whites:” Gen. Gage, on the Admiral’s application, informed him that the negroes were not sufficiently numerous to be serviceable, and that he had other employment for those who were in Boston.
Simcoe came from a naval family and, as his middle name evidenced, he was godson to Adm. Graves. The young lieutenant expected that gentleman to be his mentor and sponsor in the British military hierarchy in North America. Simcoe probably didn’t realize that Gage and Graves were already feuding, and any ideas that the admiral sent to the general were probably dead on arrival.

Since Simcoe recalled a response from Gage, that conversation must have taken place before the general sailed for England on 11 Oct 1775. That was weeks before Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, issued his proclamation promising freedom to slaves who joined his royal forces in that colony.

However, Lt. Simcoe wasn’t the first to raise that idea. American Whigs had been warning (without much evidence) that the royal authorities might instigate a slave uprising for years. As it turned out, both sides in the war freed and armed the slaves of adherents of the other side while maintaining slavery for masters on their own side.

The only thing Simcoe seems to have accomplished in Boston was buying a captaincy and thus advancing one rank in the army before the New York campaign.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jedediah Buxton, Autistic Savant

Mike Rendell of the Georgian Gent blog recently profiled an English farmworker named Jedediah Buxton (c. 1702-1772), who was what we’d now consider a mathematical savant on the autistic spectrum:
From the age of twelve Jedediah was pre-occupied with numbers – adding, subtracting, and multiplying. At its most basic level there was a purpose – he could walk a field, calculate its square footage and then divide the total to establish how many broccoli plants would be needed to fill the field if planted seven feet apart, in rows four feet from each other. Except that having worked out the number of plants, he then complicated matters by recalculating the square footage by reference to the number of barley corns (at three barley corns per inch) and then how many human hairs (at 48 hairsbreadth to the inch). If that wasn’t bad enough, he would then decide to multiply the resulting figure by itself – to give a massive figure which would take hours to calculate. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, Jed could down tools and have a drink, and then carry on with these calculations in his head at a significantly later date – sometimes days and even weeks later.

In working out these figures, Jedediah invented several new numbers, to enable him to cope with the concept of “millions of millions of millions”. He referred to “tribes” (a figure of ten to the power of eighteen) and “cramps” (ten to the power of thirty nine ). He was known to be set a challenge, go back to digging ditches in the fields, cogitating and calculating, then sit down in the local pub at the end of the working day and, armed with his free drinks, would finish the number crunching. . . .

Jedediah had married Alice Eastwood at Ault Hucknall Church and they had three children − John, Susannah and Sara. But in 1753 Alice died. The following year some sort of wanderlust got into Jedediah and he walked down to London (200-odd miles) to see the sights, take in a show, whatever. He also thought that he would call in and see the King, but George II was not at home. So he went to see a play – the performance was Richard III at the Drury Lane Theatre and it was a chance to listen to David Garrick declaim – but Jedediah preferred to spend the entire performance counting the individual words spoken by the great thespian, and, in the case of the dancers, calculating how many steps they took.
By coincidence, PEN New England has just awarded one of its Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Awards for the year to Pamela Sonn for a picture book manuscript abut Buxton. Sonn and two other winners will read from their work this Sunday at 6:30 P.M. at Simmons College.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Thomas Hutchinson Meets Dido Belle

The movie Belle is now in theaters, I’m sharing former Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson’s impression of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the young woman of (some) African descent who inspired that drama.

This is from Hutchinson’s diary entry for 19 Aug 1779, when he dined with Lord Chief Justice Mansfield and his family in England. Dido Belle had grown up in that family, receiving a genteel though limited education. It’s notable that she didn’t dine with the family on this occasion and had responsibility for some of the farming operation.

As usual, Hutchinson grasped many of the implications of the situations yet carefully deferred to his aristocratic host’s sensibilities in what issues he raised.
A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies, and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap, and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel—pert enough. I knew her history before, but my Lord mentioned it again. Sir Jno. Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England, where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M., and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for shewing a fondness for her—I dare say not criminal.

A few years ago [in 1771-1772] there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black [James Somerset] for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgment his Ldship would give? “No doubt,” he answered, “he will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.” She is a sort of Superintendent over the dairy, poultry yard, &c., which we visited, and she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.

I took occasion to mention that all the Americans who had brought Blacks had, as far as I knew, relinquished their property in them, and rather agreed to give them wages, or suffered them to go free. His Ldship remarked that there had been no determination that they were free, the judgment (meaning the case of Somerset) went no further than to determine the Master had no right to compel the slave to go into a foreign country, &c. I wished to have entered into a free colloquium, and to have discovered, if I am capable of it, the nice distinctions he mast have had in his mind, and which would not make it equally reasonable to restrain the Master from exercising any power whatever, as the power of sending the servant abroad; but I imagined such an altercation would rather be disliked, and forbore.
As Hutchinson tells Dido Belle’s story, Capt. Lindsay wasn’t necessarily her father—but most people had no trouble saying he was.

The Somerset legal case that Hutchinson referred to has a Massachusetts connection: Somerset’s owner, the Customs official Charles Steuart, had been posted in Boston in 1769 just before returning to Britain with a slave he’d purchased years before in Virginia. Hutchinson had probably met Steuart and might even have seen Somerset at work. But because he was just another enslaved servant, he probably didn’t prompt the attention that Hutchinson gave to Dido Belle.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Kimberly Alexander on Shoes in Lynn, 15 May

Alonzo Lewis’s 1829 History of Lynn says proudly:
The principal business of Lynn is the manufacture of Ladies’ shoes. For the first hundred years from the settlement of the town, this business was very limited. Few persons followed it constantly, and the farmers only pursued it in the intervals of their common employment. The shoes were generally made of neats’ leather or woollen cloth.

In 1750, Mr. John Adam Deaggeor [or Dagyr] came from England, and gave this business its first impulse. After his arrival, shoes were manufactured of finer stuffs—of calamanco, silk and satin. They were made with long straps, for the ladies, like the gentlemen, wore buckles, and the rands were commonly white. The reputation of Lynn shoes soon found way to the cities of the south, and the manufacturers began to extend their business by taking apprentices and employing journeymen.
By 1770, Lynn shoes had such a good reputation in Boston that merchants advertised them as such. During the height of the town’s non-importation picketing in February 1770, Isaac Vibird defended his wife Mary from the charge of buying tea from importer William Jackson by publicly offering to swear that she’d gone into Jackson’s shop only to pick up “a Number of Shoes from Lynn.” Surely Whigs would praise her for supporting local industry!

On Thursday, 15 May, the Lynn Museum will host its annual meeting, at which Kimberly Alexander will speak on “The Art & Mystery of Making Shoes”: New England Shoe Stories from the Long Eighteenth Century. Using the letters and biographies of “clever apprentices, skilled cordwainers, and elegant brides,” Dr. Alexander will explore “how shoes were made, sold, and worn in early New England.”

Alexander teaches courses in museum studies and material culture at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. She was founding Curator of Architecture and Design at the M.I.T. Museum and later worked as Curator of Architecture and Design at the Peabody Essex Museum and Chief Curator of Strawbery Banke Museum. Check out her blog for more on historical shoes and other garments.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Lepore on Jane Mecom at Old North, 14 May

On Wednesday, 14 May, the Old North Church will host an illustrated lecture by Jill Lepore, professor at Harvard, on “Jane Franklin’s Spectacles.” This talk is based on Lepore’s Book of Ages, a finalist for the National Book Award.

Jane Franklin was Benjamin’s little sister. The lecture description notes she “never went to school, but she thirsted for knowledge. . . . Although married at the age of fifteen and the mother of twelve children, Jane became an astute political observer and even a philosopher of history.“ She lived her last years in a house just behind the Old North.

In early 1727 Benjamin, having run away to and reestablished himself in Philadelphia, wrote home to Jane:
I am highly pleased with the account captain Freeman gives me of you. I always judged by your behaviour when a child that you would make a good, agreeable woman, and you know you were ever my peculiar favourite. I have been thinking what would be a suitable present for me to make, and for you to receive, as I hear you are grown a celebrated beauty. I had almost determined on a tea table, but when I considered that the character of a good housewife was far preferable to that of being only a pretty gentlewoman, I concluded to send you a spinning wheel, which I hope you will accept as a small token of my sincere love and affection.
That year, Jane turned fifteen and married a neighbor named Edward Mecom. Benjamin’s spinning wheel is sometimes said to be a wedding present, but Jane didn’t get married until July. This same letter goes on to lecture her about how “modesty…makes the most homely virgin amiable and charming,” so Benjamin was probably just thinking of Jane as becoming marriageable.

This lecture is free, but the Old North Church Foundation asks for attendees to register for a seat.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Friends of Minute Man Seeks Researcher on “Patriots of Color”

The Friends of Minute Man National Park has announced that it will sponsor a scholar to research the lives of “Patriots of Color,” Massachusetts slaves and former slaves who fought during the American Revolution. One of the goals of this project is to support the creation of a lesson plan on that topic.

The “Patriots of Color” research will be guided by these questions:
  • How many men of color from Massachusetts who fought in the American Revolution were free?
  • How many men of color from Massachusetts who fought in the American Revolution were enslaved?
  • Were those who were enslaved during their enlistment emancipated because of their military service?
  • If men were emancipated because of their military service, was the emancipation immediate or at the end of their enlistment?
  • What would enslaved men hope to gain by fighting on the side of the revolutionaries for a liberty that was not conceived to include them?
  • Did any men of color from Massachusetts fight with the British?
  • What would enslaved men hope to gain by fighting for the British, a distant imperial power conceived by the revolutionaries to be enslaving all colonists?
  • Examine how changing Massachusetts laws concerning the enlistment in the military of men of color affected their opportunities to serve during the Revolution as well as their chances of being emancipated, if enslaved.
  • Did slave owners use their slaves as substitutes for their own military service?
  • Were the recruitment bounties different for men of color than for whites?
  • Did slave owners enlist their slaves in order to obtain the bounties?
  • How many men of color served on April 19 and from which towns? Were they slaves or free men?
  • What effects did revolutionary service on either side, revolutionary or British, have on the subsequent lives of men of color who were enslaved at the outset of the conflict, and the subsequent lives of their families?
The application deadline is 30 May, and the project must be completed by 30 Aug 2014. The scholar will receive $2,000. To read the necessary professional qualifications, parameters for the final report, and application instructions, see this P.D.F. download.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Historical Diaries Panel at Plymouth, 13 May

On Tuesday, 13 May, I’ll be at the Plymouth Public Library as part of a panel discussion on using diaries in historical research. This event will run from 7:00 to 8:30 P.M. in the Otto Fehlow Meeting Room, and is free and open to the public.

The other panelists will be Michelle Marchetti Coughlin, author of One Colonial Woman’s World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit, and Ondine Le Blanc, Director of Publications at the Massachusetts Historical Society and thus one of the people behind the publication of Ellen Coolidge’s travel diary.

I’ll describe my work on boys’ diaries in the Revolutionary period, including those of John Quincy Adams, Peter Thacher, and Quincy Thaxter. I also plan to share secrets from the diary of John Rowe.

Donna Curtin, Executive Director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, will moderate the discussion and question session to follow.

As long as I’m talking a bit about me, here are links to a couple of articles that appeared on the web last week:

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Fate of Don Galvez’s Portrait

Yesterday’s posting described how in May 1783 Oliver Pollock gave the Continental Congress a portrait of Don Bernardo de Gálvez, who as Spanish governor of Louisiana had been a strong ally for the new U.S. of A. After being displayed for a day in the Congress’s chamber, the painting was moved to the house that chairman Elias Boudinot was renting in Philadelphia.

The next month, soldiers of the Pennsylvania Line marched on the capital to demand their unpaid wages. They surrounded the Pennsylvania State House. Some authors say they were upset with the Congress, some with the Pennsylvania Council—but since both bodies met in the same building, that didn’t much matter.

James Madison’s notes on the situation state:
The mutinous soldiers presented themselves, drawn up in the Street before the State House where Congress had first assembled. The Executive Council of the State sitting under the same roof, was called on for the proper interposition. President [i.e., Governor John] Dickinson came in, and explained the difficulty under actual circumstances, of bringing out the militia of the place for the suppression of the mutiny. He thought that without some outrages on persons or property the temper of the militia could not be relied on. Genl. [Arthur] St. Clair then in Philada. was sent for; and desired to use his interposition, in order to prevail on the troops to return to the Barracks. His report gave no encouragement.
Neither the state governor nor the highest-ranking army general thought he had enough reliable troops to force the mutineers away.

Boudinot wrote to his brother on 23 June:
I have only a moment to inform you, that there has been a most dangerous insurrection and mutiny among a few Soldiers in the Barracks here. About 3 or 400 surrounded Congress and the Supreme Executive Council, and kept us Prisoners in a manner near 3 hours, tho’ they offered no insult personally. To my great mortification, not a Citizen came to our assistance. The President and Council have not firmness enough to call out the Militia, and allege as the reason that they would not obey them.
Eventually St. Clair got an assurance from the soldiers that they’d let the politicians go to their homes. In a draft announcement on the event, Boudinot added:
Congress left the House & passed thro’ the ranks of Mutineers without opposition. When the President [i.e., Boudinot himself] had got half way home—6 or 7 of the Men followed him with their Arms & requested his return, but on his way one of the Sergeants met him & desired him not to regard the Men who had gone without order.
Various men, including delegate and colonel Alexander Hamilton, bustled about to resolve the crisis. But the Congress decided that it couldn’t rely on the local authorities for security and had to leave Philadelphia immediately. They adjourned to Boudinot’s alma mater at Princeton, New Jersey.

At first Boudinot moved in with his sister, Annis Stockton. Later he rented a house, moving his “Family and Furniture from Philadelphia” to Princeton. Varnum Lansing Collins’s The Continental Congress at Princeton reports that the move cost Boudinot £50, though that probably included six cartloads of Congress’s papers. The move also took a few months. On 11 August, the Continental Congress’s records addressed “an application from the President respecting the present deranged state of his household.” Some officials did venture back to Philadelphia to collect papers and finish up business there, but it would not be the nation’s capital again for several more years.

Boudinot might have left the Gálvez portrait behind in Philadelphia, or it could have been lost in the turmoil. Perhaps it became federal property in 1789 and was sent to Washington City, but then destroyed in the British invasion of 1814. I can’t find any further mention of it in the Congress’s published records. About a century ago, the National Portrait Gallery reported that nobody knew its location.

In 1976 Spain gave the U.S. an equestrian statue of Galvez, which as shown above now stands outside the State Department.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Congress’s Portrait of Bernardo de Gálvez

A couple of folks have pointed us to a Los Angeles Times article that begins:
Teresa Valcarce wants to see Congress keep a promise it made in 1783.

Back then, the year the Revolutionary War ended, Congress agreed to display a portrait of Bernardo de Galvez in the Capitol to honor the Spanish statesman’s efforts to aid the colonies in their struggle against Britain.
But in 1783, there was no “Capitol” for the Continental Congress to make any commitments about. That national legislature met in buildings it borrowed from other governments, including Pennsylvania’s state house (now called Independence Hall) for most of the war.

No one had even conceived of Washington, D.C., yet; the federal Congress agreed to create that national city only in 1790. The Capitol Building was started in 1793, opened for business in 1800, and wasn’t complete (in its first form) until 1826.

So what’s the basis of this newspaper story? On 8 May 1783, the Journals of the Continental Congress state: “A Portrait of Don Galvez was presented to Congress by Oliver Pollock.” North Carolina delegate Hugh Williamson wrote:
A letter was received from Mr. Oliver Pollock in which he informs Congress that having obtained a portrait of Don B. de Galvez, an early and zealous friend of the U. S., he begs leave to present the same to Congress.
Starting in 1777, Bernardo de Gálvez (1746-1786, shown above) was the Spanish governor of Louisiana. He supported the U.S. of A. in order to weaken Britain in North America, at first by supplying arms and loans and allowing weapons and men to cross Spanish territory. In 1779 the war widened, and Gálvez led Spanish forces in a successful defense against British attacks.

Pollock, who had settled in New Orleans as a merchant before the war, was the U.S. of A.’s agent in Louisiana. He worked closely with Gálvez, borrowing money for Continental troops and even reportedly serving as a military aide. When Pollock gave the Spanish governor’s portrait to the Congress, he was in Philadelphia angling to be appointed U.S. agent in Havana.

In response to Pollock’s gift, the Congress created a three-man committee headed by Thomas Mifflin, who drafted this resolution:
Resolved, That the Secretary inform Mr. Pollock that Congress accept his present of a portrait of Don Bernardo de Galvez late Governor of Louisiana.

Resolved, That the Secretary do cause the same to be placed in the room in which Congress meet.
The L. A. Times article says it’s unclear whether the portrait of Gálvez ever was hung. But in fact on 9 May the Congress’s chairman, Elias Boudinot, wrote back to Pollock:
I have the honor to infom you in answer to your favour of the 7th inst. [i.e., of this month] that Congress have chearfully accepted the portrait of Don Bernardo De Galvez late Govenor of Louisiania in consideration of the early & Zealous friendship of that Gentlemen frequently manifested in behalf of these States, and have directed me to cause it to be hung up in the Hall of the Presidents House.
By “the Presidents House” Boudinot meant the house where he himself was living. Thus, Gálvez’s portrait was kept for a day in the legislative chamber and then moved to the hall of a nearby rented mansion. The Congress never promised to display the portrait permanently, as the newspaper reports Teresa Valcarce interpreting the record.

TOMORROW: And what happened to that portrait?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Myth of “Students today depend on paper too much”

Last week I retweeted an image from an educational publication presenting this historic complaint:
Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?
That passage was said to have appeared in a “principal’s publication” in 1815.

I liked how that passage hinted at the change in American pedagogy over the years. Many of us have an image of past education based on literature and art from the mid-1800s, with slates, blackboards, globes, and boys and girls on opposite sides of the same classroom. In fact, in Boston’s Revolutionary-era public schools, there were only boys in the classroom (except during private lessons); there were no geography lessons; and most boys learned their lessons in handwriting and basic arithmetic using ink and paper, not slates.

But when I looked more carefully at that quotation, I got suspicious. The sentences seemed too short and informal for 1815, and the educational field hadn’t yet specialized enough to create a “principal’s publication.”

It turns out that passage is one in a long series of similar complaints, the first dated to 1703 when a “teacher’s conference” supposedly lamented that students didn‘t have enough “bark” to write on. But the wording of the passages was similar from one era to the next, with no stylistic evolution. In other words, they were all fake, and the more of them got lined up, the more obvious the falsehood was.

The “quotations” appear to have been printed first in the winter 1978 issue of The MATYC [Mathematics Associations of Two-Year Colleges] Journal, in a “Viewpoints” column under the headline “Probable Quotes from History.” That publication’s editor, Gene Zirkel, told the Quote Investigator in 2012 that he’d made them up for a satirical essay.

The “quotations” were then reprinted in the May 1988 issue of The College Mathematics Journal and David M. Thornburg’s Edutrends 2010, published in 1992. Both those publications credited Fr. Stanley Bezuska of Boston College. Bezuska, who died in 2008, was a Jesuit mathematics professor active in applying technology to education—he issued lessons on audiocassettes in the early 1970s, for example. Apparently he had taken the quotations as authentic, or hadn’t passed along the joke.

As early as 1999, Chris Grant reported on a bulletin board for math teachers that the credited sources were untraceable:
The publications referred to (PTA Gazette, The Rural American Teacher, and Federal Teacher) do not appear in the online catalog of the Library of Congress. The 1943 Manual of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers doesn’t mention the PTA Gazette, and the 1941 Proceedings of the National Congress of Parents and
Teachers omits the PTA Gazette from its list of congress publications.
But the “quotations” continued to be reprinted and adopted in presentations about educational technology.

Today, online databases make it easier to search for such publications and for the quotations before 1978 and find they don’t exist. The internet made it possible for Prof. Zirkel to spot the Quote Investigator discussing his old article and for him to confirm that it was fiction. Yet the internet also makes it possible to spread the false quotations faster than they can be refuted. They now appear in over a dozen publications, not to mention websites.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Clandestine Lecture in Marblehead, 8 May

On Thursday, 8 May, the Marblehead Museum will host a lecture by Kenneth Daigler on clandestine activities during the Revolutionary War, based on his book Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the American Revolution.

Daigler is a retired career C.I.A. operations officer who also served in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has degrees in history from Centre College of Kentucky and the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. He’s written articles about intelligence for the C.I.A. Historical Division’s journal Studies in Intelligence and other publications.

The lecture description says:
Daigler will provide insight into clandestine activities during the Revolutionary War from an intelligence professional’s perspective. The talk will highlight the tradecraft of intelligence collection, counterintelligence, and covert actions, relating how many of the principles of the era’s intelligence practice are still relevant today. Daigler includes famous personalities such as Samuel Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nathan Hale, John Jay, and Benedict Arnold, as well as a few Marblehead figures in his analysis.
This book’s table of contents suggests it explores intelligence-gathering in the decade before the Revolutionary War, as well as while the fighting was going on.

This talk will take place at the Old Town House in Marblehead, starting at 7:30 P.M. Admission to the lecture is $10, and a book signing and reception will follow.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Man with Two Monuments

Yesterday Bob O’Hara described the transformation of Thomas Cowdin from his central Massachusetts town’s most notorious opponent of military action against the Crown to the same town’s American militia leader and legislative representative. Here’s the end of that story.

Thomas Cowdin, Esq., died in Fitchburg on 22 Apr 1792. He turned out to be as notable in death as he was in life because by an accident of history he is the only person in the town with two gravestones.

If you stand today at Fitchburg’s minuteman monument and look off to the southwest, you can just make out Thomas Cowdin’s great granite obelisk on the crest of the Laurel Hill Cemetery. But if you turn and look to the south, behind a row of trees and some rundown buildings, you may be able to spot Fitchburg’s original village burying ground, the tiny and almost forgotten South Street Cemetery. There you will find Thomas Cowdin’s actual grave, in company with the graves of several of the Fitchburg minutemen who were quicker to respond to the Lexington alarm than he was.

In 1884 one of Thomas Cowdin’s grandsons, John Cowdin of Boston, decided that the tiny colonial burying ground was not a suitably prominent place of rest for his prominent ancestor. He made arrangements for a granite obelisk to be erected at the top of Laurel Hill, overlooking the whole of downtown Fitchburg, and to have Thomas’s remains, along with the remains of his wife second Hannah, reinterred at the new location. The granite obelisk was put in place, but John Cowdin died before his grandparents’ graves could be moved.

The Laurel Hill obelisk thus stands as an accidental cenotaph. No casual visitor passing it today would ever know that Thomas Cowdin, Esq., the reluctant revolutionary, isn’t even there.

For more on Thomas Cowdin’s life and times, try these references, all of which are available online:
  • Fosdick, Charles. 1895. Captain Thomas Cowdin’s journal. Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 1: 135-146. (Transcribing Cowdin's diary from 25 May to 2 June 1784 during one of his periods of service on “the Grate & General Coart.“)
  • Garfield, James F.D. 1908. Fitchburg soldiers of the Revolution. Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 4: 172-232. (The standard reference on Fitchburg during the Revolution.)
  • Howard, Ada L. 1902. Captain Thomas Cowdin. Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 3: 19-38. (A somewhat romanticized family portrait, by a descendant.)
  • Stearns, Ezra S. 1914. Capt. Thomas Cowdin in the Revolution. Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 5: 270-277. (Transcribing the records of Cowdin’s arrest and trial in August 1775.)

Thanks for the story, Bob! Those references are a good reminder of how many smaller historical societies used to have publishing programs sharing local resources and lore. The volumes those societies created, often little known outside the area, have lots of Revolutionary stories to rediscover and expand on.