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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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Preserving New England’s Church Records

Yesterday’s New York Times had a front-page article about an ongoing search for old New England church records. Many churches still have those records, but in less than ideal conditions.

The region’s Congregationalist heritage means two things. First, every town’s meetinghouse kept its own records, and New England towns have a tradition of not giving up such things to a central authority. Second, with the number of Congregationalists diminishing, there aren’t that many people left to keep track of these documents.

The article follows Prof. James Fenimore Cooper, Jr., of Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, Executive Director of the Congregational Library in Boston, as they seek out those documents and seek to convince churches to send them to the library for digitization and safekeeping.

Here’s one vignette:
A few hours later, Dr. Cooper and Dr. Bendroth visited an evangelical congregation in Hopkinton, Mass. Faith Community Church is the successor of the original Congregational church in town, founded in 1724, and had the original records carefully cataloged, boxed and stored in a locked basement room, alongside an early pastor’s 1740 Queen Anne side chair with a bullet hole in the back.

The documents included a list of excommunicants and notification of a fine levied against a local man who resisted joining the Army during the Revolution, as well as multiple “relations” — letters describing faith journeys. They include one from Benjamin Pond, who described how, despite being raised in a Christian home, he had fallen “into a state of stupidity and wickedness” until, after multiple deaths in his family, including of his child, he had a conversion experience. “That’s the first time that’s been heard in 200 years,” Dr. Bendroth said after reading Mr. Pond’s relation. “I just think that’s really amazing.”
The Times article doesn’t say it, but the researchers’ work leads to the Congregational Library’s New England Hidden Histories project, discussed in this Religion News article last year.

The Times illustrated its story with a photograph from those Hopkinton records, showing a church decision on a delicate matter:
February 26th. 1773. The Church met at the meeting-house (pursuant to adjournment) and unanimously Voted, That the Charge brought against Mrs. Seaver, appear’d to them to be Sufficiently prov’d; and that therefore they could not Consent to her owning the Covenant, and receiving Baptism for her Child.
So immediately I wondered what that was about.

TOMORROW: Tracking down Mrs. Seaver.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tree Rings Under the Trade Center

I first mentioned dendrochronology—the new science of matching up the thicknesses of tree rings to identify the age and source of a piece of wood—back in 2007. It’s usually applied to buildings, and especially to determining whether they’re as old as tradition says.

This week there was a remarkable example of “dendro” in action, applied to a remarkable bit of wood: a small ship’s hull found in 2010 during the excavation for the new World Trade Center in Manhattan.

As Live Science reported, a paper in Tree-Ring Research says a dendrochronology team led by Dario Martin-Benito was able to identify the ship’s wood as white oak. They further matched up the ring pattern in one timber to white oak timbers found in Independence Hall, suggesting that the wood had been hewn in eastern Pennsylvania in 1773.

In addition to the rings, the timbers showed holes bored by worms from the Caribbean, indicating the ship spent considerable time in those waters. The research team estimates that this ship was in use for two or three decades, meaning that it sailed through the Revolutionary War and into the early American republic before coming to rest on what was then the Manhattan shore.

Above is one of the photos from the Live Science report showing a cross-section of the keel with a common modern profile portrait of George Washington for scale. I suspect the holes at the top are from the worms. Here’s the abstract for the paper, “Dendrochronological Dating of the World Trade Center Ship, Lower Manhattan, New York City.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Meeting the Younger William Hunter

The Summer 2014 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg magazine includes an interview with William Hunter, as portrayed by Sam Miller. Hunter was one the the town’s Loyalists. Though he remained in town through the late 1770s, he gave up his role in the Virginia Gazette newspaper and eventually left town with the British military because he couldn’t support an independent America.

However, the Colonial Williamsburg podcast about Hunter is a lot more interesting since it goes into his backstory. He was born out of wedlock to the Williamsburg printer William Hunter and Elizabeth Reynolds. In 1761, when the boy was about seven, his father died suddenly, acknowledging in his will “my natural Son William Hunter who now lives with Benjamin Weldon.” Some scholars interpret this to mean that most people in Williamsburg hadn’t known about the boy before.

The elder Hunter had been well connected and financially successful; he shared the job of deputy postmaster in North America with Benjamin Franklin, and his Virginia Gazette newspaper was the colony’s leading news source. He left a half-interest in that business to his son and the other half, plus the responsibility of running it, to his brother-in-law Joseph Royle.

In the mid-1760s young Billy was sent to the Franklin family in Philadelphia for education and training. Since Benjamin was in London for much of that time, scholars say that his son William (also born out of wedlock) was the real mentor for the Virginia youngster. Accounts show Billy boarded with Benjamin’s older brother Peter Franklin, and in 1768 he wrote back to Benjamin’s wife Deborah with friendly regards and requests for textbooks.

After more schooling in Virginia, in 1774 the younger William Hunter became an active partner in the Virginia Gazette with one of its two recent proprietors, John Dixon. Dixon had married Joseph Royle’s widow, and was thus also Hunter’s uncle. The new partners promised subscribers “good Paper and new Type,” probably because they now had to compete with the other recent proprietor, Alexander Purdie, who was starting his own Virginia Gazette (making three in all).

Hunter married, and in June 1777 he and his wife deeded some land near the printing office to his mother, still Elizabeth Reynolds. He also supplied her with a small house, an annuity of £40, and a “servant maid fit & able to serve wait & attend” her. His father’s bequests and connections had allowed him to become an established young businessman in the Virginia capital. But he just didn’t agree with the way the colonies were heading.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Next Month’s Drums Along the Mohawk Drama

Last month I noted a bus tour that will end with a performance of the Drums Along the Mohawk outdoor show in Mohawk, New York. That tour is sold out, but tickets for the show are still available.

The Drums Along the Mohawk Outdoor Drama is a two-act play based on Walter D. Edmond’s novel about life in the region leading up to the Battle of Oriskany on 6 Aug 1777. Its cast of characters includes such historical figures as Joseph Brant, Nicholas Herkimer, Benedict Arnold, and Sir John Johnson.

There are four performances scheduled, on the first two Saturdays of August at 5:00 P.M. and the first two Sundays at 2:00 P.M. The venue is the amphitheater on the Gelston Castle Estate overlooking the Mohawk Valley.

Drums Along the Mohawk is scheduled to last about two hours with an intermission. The producers recommend that attendees arrive at least an hour before the shows to have time to walk from the parking lot to the amphitheater, set up a place on the lawn with blankets or lawn chairs, and perhaps enjoy a picnic meal. (Bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages; plan to take everything out with you at the end.) From 4:00 until showtime on Saturdays there will be eighteenth-century music, and a Benjamin Franklin interpreter will interact with the new arrivals.

Tickets are $15, or $10 for seniors, children under thirteen, and active-duty military personnel. You can buy tickets in advance through this website, or pay in cash at the gate. The parking fee is $10 per car.

The show will be performed even during a light rain, and no one can open umbrellas during the performance, so check the forecast and dress accordingly. If the weather’s worse, the performance might be delayed for half an hour. If it’s so bad a performance has to be cancelled, the producers will offer rain checks for a future performance this season, if there is one. There will be no refunds.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Abigail Adams and the Hand of Friendship

I started this series with Abigail Adams’s first impression of Gen. Charles Lee in early July 1775: she called him “a careless hardy veteran” who showed little personal elegance.

On 24 July, her husband John wrote to a friend about that side of Lee:
You observe in your Letter the Oddity of a great Man—He is a queer Creature—But you must love his Dogs if you love him, and forgive a Thousand Whims for the Sake of the Soldier and the Scholar.
That wasn’t really a complaint of the sort that Adams wrote the same day about John Dickinson and other colleagues in the Continental Congress, but it also wasn’t what one gentleman was supposed to say about another. Especially one who had just risked a fortune to offer his expertise to your army. And who had a history of dueling.

Those lines became public in August 1775. Fortunately for Adams, Lee laughed them off when he got around to addressing them on 5 October:
As you may possibly harbour some suspicions that a certain passage in your intercepted letters have made some disagreeable impressions on my mind I think it necessary to assure You that it is quite the reverse. Untill the bulk of Mankind is much alter’d I consider the reputation of being whimsical and eccentric rather as a panegyric than sarcasm and my love of Dogs passes with me as a still higher complement. I have thank heavens a heart susceptible of freindship and affection. I must have some object to embrace. Consequently when once I can be convincd that Men are as worthy objects as Dogs I shall transfer my benevolence, and become as staunch a Philanthropist as the canting Addison affected to be.

But you must not conclude from hence that I give into general misanthropy. On the contrary when I meet with a Biped endow’d with generosity valour good sense patriotism and zeal for the rights of humanity I contract a freindship and passion for him amounting to bigotry or dotage and let me assure you without complements that you yourself appear to me possess’d of these qualities. I give you my word and honour that I am serious, and should be unhappy to the greatest degree if I thought you would doubt of my sincerity. Your opinion therefore of my attainments as a Soldier and Scholar is extremely flattering. Long may you continue in this (to me) gratissimus error. But something too much of this.
Lee added in a postscript: “Spada sends his love to you and declares in very intellegible language that He has far’d much better since your allusion to him for He is carress’d now by all ranks sexes and Ages.” Spada was, of course, Lee’s favorite dog.

It came back to Abigail to cement that new bond between Gen. Lee and her husband. Toward the end of the year, John wrote from Philadelphia to urge her to pay a social call on Mary Morgan, wife of the new head of the Continental Army medical corps. Mrs. Morgan was staying with quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin and his wife in the William Brattle house in Cambridge.

On 10 December, Abigail reported back on her visit there, including another encounter with Washington, Lee, and their companions:
I was very politely entertaind and noticed by the Generals, more especially General Lee, who was very urgent with me to tarry in Town and dine with him and the Laidies present, at Hob Goblin Hall [the Isaac Royall house], but I excused my self.

The General was determined that I should not only be acquainted with him, but with his companions too, and therefore placed a chair before me into which he orderd Mr. Sparder to mount and present his paw to me for a better acquaintance. I could not do otherways than accept it.—That Madam says he is the Dog which Mr. . . . . . has renderd famous.
Almost certainly Lee had said “Mr. Adams,” reminding Abigail of her husband’s remarks. So of course she had no choice but to shake Mr. Spada’s paw and look like she was pleased to do so.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

“An object of nearly universal detestation”

After the royal authorities published the private letters they had captured on Benjamin Hichborn in August 1775, what was the fallout for the men who had written those letters?

Unfortunately for unabashed gossips, there aren’t a lot of good sources on Benjamin Harrison’s reaction. We can imagine that he quickly wrote another letter to Gen. George Washington promising that his earlier one had never really hinted that they might both enjoy a pretty washerwoman’s daughter. (If so, that follow-up letter doesn’t survive.)

It’s conceivable that Harrison volunteered to be part of the Continental Congress committee that met with Washington in Cambridge in October in order to confirm their personal relationship.

In November, Harrison was very insistent on having a ball in Philadelphia to honor Martha Washington, passing through the city on her way north. Was he so passionate because he wanted to make up for embarrassing her? That’s possible, but it’s also possible that Harrison had laughed off the publication of the falsified letter and just liked parties.

As for John Adams, the letters published over his initials had managed to denigrate most of the Congress in general, John Dickinson (shown above) in particular, and Gen. Charles Lee in passing. Printers in Philadelphia chose not to reprint the letters from the Boston News-Letter, but things were still pretty bad for a while. On 16 September Adams wrote in his diary:
Walking to the Statehouse this Morning, I met Mr. Dickinson, on Foot in Chesnut Street. We met, and passed near enough to touch Elbows. He passed without moving his Hat, or Head or Hand. I bowed and pulled off my Hat. He passed hautily by. The Cause of his Offence, is the Letter no doubt which Gage has printed in Drapers Paper.
And Dickinson wasn’t the only one snubbing Adams, according to the memoir of his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush:
It exposed him to the execrations of all the prudent and moderate people in America, insomuch that he was treated with neglect by many of his old friends. I saw this profound and enlightened patriot…walk our streets alone after the publication of his intercepted letter in our newspapers in 1775 an object of nearly universal detestation.
A British spy in Philadelphia named Gilbert Barkly reported that local Quakers had decided that Adams was dangerous to America; he also planned to push that sentiment along by circulating his own copies of the letters.

Adams might have told people he hadn’t written exactly what was published. In his autobiography decades later he said: “Irritated with the Unpoliteness of Mr. Dickinson and more mortified with his Success in Congress, I wrote something like what has been published. But not exactly. The British Printers made it worse, than it was in the Original.” And the originals are gone, so there’s no proof one way or the other.

But historians generally think that the Boston News-Letter quoted Adams accurately. Unlike the Harrison letter, there are no copies without the embarrassing lines. Adams never identified what bits he hadn’t written, but instead tried to justify one of the more controversial parts (as I quoted yesterday). Most tellingly, Adams had written quite similar things in previous letters, including two he’d sent the previous day.

Looking back, Adams claimed that the publication of his letters had actually benefited him, and he may have been right. For one thing, he liked to think of himself as unpopular because of his principled stands. At times he exaggerated the criticism and downplayed the support he received to justify that feeling. But in the summer of 1775, he could feel that way naturally.

Furthermore, the publication of the letters opened a public discussion on the possibility of independence, and raised his profile as an advocate for it. In his autobiography Adams even wrote that Joseph Reed had told him, “Providence seemed to have thrown these Letters before the Public for our good.”

Meanwhile, events were bending Adams’s way. Before copies of his letters arrived in London, the royal government had already declared all the colonies at the Congress to be in rebellion and rejected the Olive Branch petition. Thus, by the end of the year Dickinson’s moderate position had lost some credit and Adams’s advocacy of independent governments seemed smart.

In fact, on 1 Jan 1776, while Adams was back home in Massachusetts, the Boston Gazette reprinted the letters. Obviously, printer Benjamin Edes, working out of his temporary quarters in Watertown, didn’t view those documents as too awkward or scandalous to share with the world.

But there was still that comment about the “Oddity” of Gen. Lee.

TOMORROW: Abigail Adams extends the hand of friendship.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Dr. Hope and the Patriots’ “cruel oppressive sentiments”

Last month I wrote about a small collection of letters in the U.K. National Archives from army surgeon Richard Hope to relatives back home in England.

Among those letters is one dated 20 Aug 1775, which Dr. Hope sent with a page from the Boston News-Letter that printed three intercepted messages from Continental Congress delegates. That document is interesting in showing how that disclosure affected one observer inside Boston, and how he spread the word about evidence of the American Patriots’ true designs.

Hope wrote:
I inclose you a Boston news paper containing three letters there were intercepted in going from the Continental Congress at Philadelphia to the rebels headquarters at Cambridge in this province. The two last are from Mr. John Adams a violent son of liberty, an inflammatory seditious demagogue and leader of the infatuated people, and one of the Boston Delegates to the grand Congress.
I suspect the doctor had John Adams mixed up with his second cousin Samuel. In 1775 Samuel was known as an inflammatory popular leader while John’s profile was smaller. In fact, these intercepted letters probably went a long way to establishing John Adams’s reputation as a radical.

Hope continued:
The General [Thomas Gage] has above two hundred more of these letters in his hands which I suppose will be sent to the Ministry for their inspection; the two gentlemen who were bearing them we have prisoners. You will remark how cheap they hold poor old England, as she is not once mentioned; the universal opinion they entertain and propagate, is that Britain can not support the contest for six months, and look on the King’s troops here as their prisoners at will. I doubt not but they make a grand mistake in the reckoning, for should they attempt to force our lines, they will find so warm a reception and their losses so heavy as will make them heartily sick of the undertaking.

In the fifth paragraph of the last letter one may form a judgement of their cruel oppressive sentiments and resolves should success attend their arms.
That last comment referred to Adams’s questions to James Warren about a reestablished new Massachusetts government: “Will your new Legislative and Executive feel bold, or irresolute? Will your Judicial hang and whip, and fine and imprison, without Scruples?”

Decades later Adams (shown above about 1816) complained in his manuscript autobiography that this passage had been misread:
There were a few Expressions which hurt me, when I found the Ennemy either misunderstood them or willfully misrepresented them. The Expressions were Will your Judiciary Whip and hang without Scruple. This they construed to mean to excite Cruelty against the Tories, and get some of them punished with Severity. Nothing was farther from my Thoughts. I had no reference to Tories in this. But as the Exercise of Judicial Powers without Authority from the Crown, would be probably the most offensive Act of Government to Great Britain and the least willingly pardoned, my Question meant no more than “Will your Judges have fortitude enough to inflict the severe punishments when necessary as Death upon Murderers and other capital Criminals, and flaggellation upon such as deserve it.” Nothing could be more false and injurious to me, than the imputation of any sanguinary Zeal against the Tories, for I can truly declare that through the whole Revolution and from that time to this I never committed one Act of Severity against the Tories. On the contrary I was a constant Advocate for all the Mercy and Indulgence consistent with our Safety.
Of course, that line appeared in the same letter that said, “We ought…to have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.” So one can see why Dr. Hope and others in 1775 didn’t perceive Adams to be full of “Mercy and Indulgence.”

TOMORROW: The fallout in Philadelphia.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

“Genuine Copies of the Intercepted Letters” in the Press

For the royal authorities in Boston, the letters that Benjamin Hichborn had carried from Philadelphia were the equivalent of today’s intercepted radio communications.

Those papers contained some sensitive information about the enemy’s army—for example, Virginia delegate Benjamin Harrison hinted that Gen. George Washington wasn’t fully impressed by his chief engineer, Col. Richard Gridley. And they laid bare the Continental Congress’s secret factionalism.

The British authorities decided to get even more value out of the documents by publicizing them. There was one newspaper left in Boston, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter published by Margaret Draper and John Howe (shown above, over four decades later). Its 17 August issue printed all three “Intercepted Letters,” noting that the first was signed by Harrison while the second was unsigned but in the same handwriting as the third, to Abigail Adams from her husband.

The documents offered Loyalists and British observers evidence to confirm the most dire warnings about the American radicals: Adams’s clear statement that he believed his side should already have “arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages.”

There were also hints of private misdeeds. On the way to the press, someone apparently juiced up the Harrison letter by adding lines about an interrupted dalliance with “pretty little Kate the Washer-woman’s Daughter over the Way,” and a hint that Harrison was happy to share her with Washington himself. I discussed that passage back here. It was probably included to embarrass and discredit the commander-in-chief.

Finally, the published letters let everyone in America see John Adams writing about his colleagues with contempt, especially “A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius.” I don’t know if folks in Massachusetts realized that meant John Dickinson, but politicians in Philadelphia certainly did. And the British evidently didn’t have to change a word of Adams’s prose to get that point across.

TOMORROW: Dr. Hope shares the news with the folks back home.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

“Treason! Rebellion! Massacre!”

To be fair to Benjamin Hichborn, there’s no evidence that he’d read the letters he was delivering to Massachusetts for John Adams and Benjamin Harrison (and delivered right into the hands of the Royal Navy on 31 July 1775).

Hichborn no doubt hoped those documents were important, because that would make himself more important. But he probably thought their rhetoric was typical for American Patriots in mid-1775.

Hichborn was therefore shocked by Capt. James Ayscough’s reaction to what he’d been carrying. Here’s how he described it months later [with paragraph breaks thrown in]:
My first interview with Ayscough, after his discovery of the Letters, I think worth relating—(if I had been subject to fits, I am sure he wou’d have thrown me into the most violent Convulsions)— “Oh the damn’d, black, hellish, bloody Plots contained in these Letters!

Pray Capt. Ayscough what do they contain?

Oh too shocking to relate! Treason! Rebellion! Massacre! (then beating his breast, with the most unnatural distortions of his face and body) O my God! It makes my blood run cold to think on it.

For God’s sake, Capt: Ayscough, if you have any compassion for my feelings, tell me what you mean.

Oh! (beating his breast again) it chilled the very blood in my veins when I read them. There is a plan laid to seize and massacre all the Officers and Friends of Goverment and all the Churchmen [i.e., Anglicans] upon the Continent in one Night. Pray Gentlemen is it a fair question, to ask if you are Churchmen?

(Mr. [Anthony Walton?] White said he was, I told him I was not.)

Such cruel, black designs, never before entered the heart of Man!

But Capt. Ayscough, are you not mistaken?

Oh I read them over and over again.

I am not disposed to question your veracity, but if I had read it myself I woud not believe it. Pray Sir, whose signature do they bear?

They are all signed John Adams.
In fact Adams had not written about a plan “seize and massacre all the Officers and Friends of Goverment and all the Churchmen upon the Continent in one Night.” He had merely written that the Patriots should “have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.” So the captain did have a reason to feel alarmed.

Ayscough brought Hichborn around Cape Cod and into Boston harbor (shown above in 1764). On 5 August 1775, Gen. George Washington wrote to the Continental Congress:
I have this Morning been alarmed with an Information that two Gentlemen from Philada [(]Mr Hitchbourn & Capt. White) with Letters for General [Charles] Lee & mylf have been taken by Capt. Ayscough at Rhode Island, the Letters intercepted & sent forward to Boston with the Bearers as Prisoners. That the Captain exulted much in the Discoveries he had made & my Informer who was also in the Boat but released understood them to be the Letters of Consequence. . . . I shall be anxious till I am relieved from the Suspence I am in as to the Contents of those Letters.
Alas, I don’t know who Washington’s informant “also in the Boat but released” was.

In fact, the letters Ayscough turned over to his superiors weren’t that important, in the sense of containing vital orders or intelligence that Washington needed. But they did have consequences.

TOMORROW: Mrs. Draper’s press.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

“By such a mere accident as this”

Yesterday we left Benjamin Hichborn on the Royal Navy ship Swan, commanded by Capt. James Ayscough, on the way to Rhode Island. Hichborn had taken it upon himself to carry letters to Massachusetts for two Continental Congress delegates, and he didn’t want the British authorities to find them.

Of course, Hichborn had already passed by opportunities to keep quiet about those letters, to travel more safely by land, and to toss the letters overboard at the first sign of trouble. But he didn’t want to let go of those letters, which would be proof of how reliable he was.

At first, Hichborn later wrote, things seemed to be all right. Capt. Ayscough treated him and his traveling companion, Anthony Walton (?) White, with polite deference. But the next day, the captain had become suspicious and hostile. Hichborn guessed that another traveler, clerk to a Loyalist merchant, had reported that he and White were traveling to aid the rebel cause—which they were, and had probably boasted about. By the second evening, the captain put a guard over those two young men.

Hichborn could still have kept the letters secret. Nobody had yet searched him or his belongings. He came up with what he thought was a clever ruse:
my plan I thought was compleat and ensured me success; I had provided a couple of blank letters directed to General [George] Washington and Coll. [James] Warren, which in Case [the clerk] Stone shoud acknowledge himself the Informer and confront me with his declaration, I intended to deliver them up with seeming reluctance and pretend I had concealed them through fear.
But he never put that plan into action.

Instead, Capt. Ayscough rendezvoused with H.M.S. Rose under Capt. James Wallace, which was patrolling Narragansett Bay. As Ayscough prepared to transfer his two prisoners and their baggage onto Wallace’s ship, Hichborn had another brainstorm:
Just as the boat was preparing to carry our baggage on board Capt. Wallace for examination a Gentleman who came passenger with us from New York sent on board for a trunk which we thro’ mistake had taken for our own, this circumstance looked so favourable that I coud not avoid seizing [it] to get the letters on shore. I opened the trunk with my own key, put the letters in the folds of the Gentlemans Linen and with some difficulty locked it again, when the trunk came upon deck the Lieutenant mistook it for mine put it into the boat with the rest of our things and rowed off immediately on board the other Ship. By such a mere accident as this did the letters fall into their Hands.
Simply because Hichborn had claimed that trunk as his own, had control of it belowdecks, and even had a key that opened it, the naval officers wouldn’t just send it off to the man from New York as Hichborn asked them to. Really the whole situation was unforeseeable.

Soon naval officers searched that trunk and found letters from two Continental Congress delegates, one from Benjamin Harrison speaking in detail about troops, gunpowder, and fighting in Virginia and one from John Adams saying:
We ought to have had in our Hands a Month ago, the whole Legislative, Executive and Judicial of the whole Continent, and have compleatly moddelled a Constitution, to have raised a Naval Power and opened all our Ports wide, to have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.
Not surprisingly, the British authorities thought that was treasonous. They put Hichborn under arrest and confined him to a warship in Boston harbor.

TOMORROW: And royal officials decided to make use of those letters.

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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

“It would give him the Appearance of having my Confidence”

When John Adams wrote those cranky letters from Philadelphia that I quoted yesterday, he had someone looking over his shoulder: a young lawyer named Benjamin Hichborn (1746-1817).

Hichborn was a cousin of Paul Revere, but he came from a branch of the family that was already upwardly mobile. He had attended Harvard, graduating in 1768, and then gone to work as a clerk for the Boston lawyer Samuel Fitch.

Fitch was a Loyalist. This should not have been a surprise to Hichborn since Fitch was already accepting royal appointments in the Vice Admiralty courts in 1768. Then he signed the complimentary farewell address to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson in 1774 and stayed in Boston during the siege.

Fitch’s actions made Hichborn’s political allegiance suspect. Or at least he said so. It might have helped if he’d been politically active before the war, like a couple of his older relatives, but I don’t see his name anywhere prominent. So Hichborn went to Philadelphia to prove his dedication to liberty.

As Adams remembered the situation decades later:
A young Gentleman from Boston, Mr. Hitchbourne, whom I had known as a Clerk in Mr. Fitch’s office, but with whom I had no Particular connection or Acquaintance, had been for some days soliciting me, to give him Letters to my Friends in the Massachusetts. I was so much engaged in the Business of Congress in the day time and in consultations with the Members on Evenings and Mornings that I could not find time to write a Line.

He came to me at last and said he was immediately to sett off, on his Journey home, and begged I would give him some Letters. I told him I had not been able to write any. He prayed I would write if it were only a Line to my Family, for he said, as he had served his Clerkship with Mr. Fitch he was suspected and represented as a Tory, and this Reputation would be his ruin, if it could not [be] corrected, for nobody would employ him at the Bar. If I would only give him, the slightest Letters to any of my Friends, it would give him the Appearance of having my Confidence, and would assist him in acquiring what he truly deserved the Character of a Whigg.

To get rid of his importunity, I took my Penn, and wrote a very few Lines to my Wife and about an equal Number to General James Warren.
Actually, Adams also included Hichborn on a short list of young Massachusetts men he hoped Warren could find appointments for.

One might think that Adams, facing a young man whom he barely knew and whose political loyalty was so debatable, would send him off with some innocuous correspondence. Adams had just written to his wife and his friend Warren, so he didn’t really have to say more to them. But maybe that was the trouble—trying to think of stuff he hadn’t already written.

In any event, in his “very few Lines” for Hichborn to carry, Adams managed to say impolitic things about John Dickinson, Charles Lee, and most of his colleagues in the Continental Congress, and also to advocate for radical measures that he and his Massachusetts colleagues were still publicly disavowing.

Adams wasn’t the only delegate to entrust Hichborn with letters. Benjamin Harrison (shown above in a miniature owned by the Virginia Historical Society) also gave him a letter to carry to Massachusetts, in his case to his fellow Virginian Gen. George Washington.

TOMORROW: And how did Hichborn carry out that task?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

John Adams and “the Oddity of a great Man”

Abigail Adams wasn’t the only person reporting to her husband John about public reaction in Massachusetts to the arrival of Gen. George Washington and Gen. Charles Lee in early July 1775.

Legislative leader James Warren was another Adams confidant. On 7 July he wrote:
General Lee I have seen but a Minute. He appears to me a Genius in his way. He had the Marks about him of haveing been in the Trenches. I heartily rejoice at the Appointment of these two Generals, and I dare say it will give you pleasure to hear that every Body seems to be satisfied with it. I have not heard a single word Uttered against it. This is more than I Expected with regard to the second, since their Arrival everything goes well in the Army.
Lee’s appointment had been more controversial in Philadelphia than Washington’s. Though he had become well known as a pamphleteer for the American colonial cause and as a military expert, he was still widely considered an Englishman and therefore a curious choice to be third-in-command of the Continental Army. And Lee’s eccentric personal style didn’t help.

On 24 July, Adams sat down to write back to Warren. He had written just the previous day, but a young man was pressing him to write some more. So he wrote a bunch more, including this about Gen. Lee:
You observe in your Letter the Oddity of a great Man—He is a queer Creature—But you must love his Dogs if you love him, and forgive a Thousand Whims for the Sake of the Soldier and the Scholar.
Warren hadn’t actually said much about Lee’s “Oddity,” but it’s possible that by then Adams had received Abigail’s letter of the 16th and had her comments about his lack of outward “Elegance” on his mind. (According to the editors of the Adams Papers, William Tudor’s 19 July letter from Cambridge had reached Adams four days later, so it was possible for mail to move that quickly.)

In any event, Adams wrote about Lee with admiration but what some might consider an impolite frankness. But that’s no surprise since he’d started his message to Warren:
In Confidence,—I am determined to write freely to you this Time.—A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius whose Fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly Cast to our whole Doings…
That comment was about John Dickinson, a wealthy and well regarded Pennsylvania delegate resisting more radical measures.

That same day, Adams also sent a reply to Abigail, which managed to remain polite all the way until the postscript:
I wish I had given you a compleat History from the Beginning to the End of the Journey, of the Behaviour of my Compatriots.—No Mortal Tale could equal it.—I will tell you in Future, but you shall keep it secret.—The Fidgets, the Whims, the Caprice, the Vanity, the Superstition, the Irritability of some of us, is enough to—
He didn’t need to finish that sentence for her.

And then John Adams gave those two letters to Benjamin Hichborn, a young lawyer, to carry back home to Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: And how did that go?

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Request to John Adams

In the same long letter from Abigail Adams that I quoted yesterday, she included these personal messages from the children to their father:
Our little ones send Duty to pappa. You would smile to see them all gather round mamma upon the reception of a letter to hear from pappa, and Charls with open mouth, What does par say—did not he write no more. And little Tom says I wish I could see par.

Upon Mr. [Nathan] Rice’s going into the army he asked Charls if he should get him a place, he catchd at it with great eagerness and insisted upon going. We could not put him of, he cryed and beged, no obstical we could raise was sufficent to satisfy him, till I told him he must first obtain your consent. Then he insisted that I must write about it, and has been every day these 3 weeks insisting upon my asking your consent. At last I have promised to write to you, and am obliged to be as good as my word.
At this time, Charles was five. (He’s shown above, considerably older though still in his youth.)

John Adams sent “Love to the children” in some of his letters home that month, but never specifically addressed this request.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Gen. Washington in Cambridge, 19 July

This Saturday, 19 July, Gen. George Washington will return to his Cambridge headquarters, at least in the form of reenactor John Koopman. He’s scheduled to be at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site from noon to 4:00 P.M., and that federal site is free to all visitors.

Abigail Adams had met the new commander a few days before he moved into that mansion, and on 16 July wrote to her husband John, assuring him that the Continental Congress had made the right choices:
The appointment of the Generals Washington and [Charles] Lee, gives universal satisfaction. The people have the highest opinion of Lees abilities, but you know the continuation of the popular Breath, depends much upon favorable events.

I had the pleasure of seeing both the Generals and their Aid de camps soon after their arrival and of being personally made known to them. They very politely express their regard for you. Major [Thomas] Miflin said he had orders from you to visit me at Braintree. I told him I should be very happy to see him there, and accordingly sent Mr. [John] Thaxter to Cambridge with a card to him and Mr. [Joseph] Read to dine with me. Mrs. [Mercy] Warren and her Son were to be with me. They very politely received the Message and lamented that they were not able to upon account of Expresses which they were that day to get in readiness to send of.

I was struck with General Washington. You had prepaired me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the one half was not told me. Dignity with ease, and complacency, the Gentleman and Soldier look agreably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feture of his face. Those lines of Dryden instantly occurd to me
“Mark his Majestick fabrick! he’s a temple
Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine
His Souls the Deity that lodges there.
Nor is the pile unworthy of the God.”
General Lee looks like a careless hardy Veteran and from his appear­ence brought to my mind his namesake Charls the 12, king of Sweeden. The Elegance of his pen far exceeds that of his person.
Washington and his retinue never made it out to the Adamses’ home at Braintree, and it doesn’t look like Abigail ever visited the Cambridge headquarters, though John did. This letter did, however, eventually lead Abigail to a second meeting with Gen. Lee.

TOMORROW: Abigail Adams passes on a request for a commission.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ebenezer Fox on the Sea Serpent?

We have one more detailed memoir of life aboard the Protector, the Massachusetts navy vessel that, three of its officers later reported, encountered a sea serpent in May 1780. That memoir was written by Ebenezer Fox of Roxbury, shown here.

Fox recalled the ship’s first lieutenant, George Little. He said Lt. Little had “a powerful speaking voice,” and described him several times using a spyglass to peer at potential enemy ships.

Fox also recalled the ship’s third lieutenant, Luther Little. He described how this Lt. Little was wounded by “a charge of grapeshot [that] came in at one of our port-holes” during the ship’s fatal fight with the Admiral Duff. In an appendix he described visiting Luther Little again in Marshfield in August 1838.

Fox did not, however, mention Midn. Edward Preble, despite his later fame. It’s possible Preble just didn’t stand out. However, later biographers agree that he had a bad temper all his life. (“With advancing years, Edward Preble’s childhood temper tantrums matured into fits of uncontrolled rage…” —Christopher McKee, Edward Preble: A Naval Biography, 1761-1807.) I therefore suspect the young midshipman was simply unpopular.

In his memoir Fox clearly described how the Protector went into the harbor at Broad Bay, Maine, to leave some sick men in the care of a farmer there, just as in Luther Little’s recollections. Both the younger Little and Fox told the same anecdote about a certain sailor trying to steal a calf from that farmer, getting caught by the first lieutenant, and being severely punished.

Yet Fox’s memoir says nothing about a sea serpent. He described encountering a giant snake later on the island of Jamaica. But he didn’t discuss the giant snake that dozens of the Protector’s men saw in the water off Maine, even though it must have been the talk of the ship for days.

Why? I think two factors played into Fox’s decision. First, he shaped his manuscript for publication. In contrast, George Little put his account of the sea serpent into a private letter to a scholar. Luther Little left his story with a relative. Edward Preble told the tale to friends, apparently with care; James Fenimore Cooper wrote that he “probably saw that he was relating a fact that most persons would be disposed to doubt, and self-respect prevented his making frequent allusions to it.” None of those stories were put into print until after the men telling them had died.

Second, unlike those other three men, Fox hadn’t been an officer on the Protector; he was an ordinary seaman. The Littles and Preble all became naval captains, two of them celebrated. Fox became a grocer and town postmaster. As respectable as he was, Fox was never as solid a gentleman as the others. If the three captains were wary of writing publicly about a sea serpent, Fox probably felt even less secure and more vulnerable to ridicule. So he didn’t leave us one word about that creature in the water.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Midshipman Preble Chases a Sea Serpent

Yesterday I quoted the memories of George and Luther Little of the day in May 1780 when their Massachusetts frigate chased a sea serpent off the coast of Maine. But did anyone besides the Little lieutenants leave a record of that giant fish that got away?

One of the youngest officers aboard that ship, the Protector, was Midshipman Edward Preble (1761-1807), later a celebrated U.S. Navy captain. James Fenimore Cooper’s profile of Preble for Graham’s Illustrated Magazine in 1845, republished in Naval Biographies, included his version of the chase:
Preble related the affair substantially as follows: The Protector was lying in one of the bays on the eastern coast, which, has been forgotten, waiting the slow movements of the squadron. The day was clear and calm, when a large serpent was discovered outside the ship. The animal was lying on the water quite motionless. After inspecting it with the glasses for some time, Capt. [John Foster] Williams ordered Preble to man and arm a large boat, and endeavor to destroy the creature; or at least, to go as near to it as he could. The selection of Preble for such a service, proves the standing he occupied among the hardy and daring. The boat thus employed pulled twelve oars, and carried a swivel in its bows, besides having its crew armed as boarders.

Preble shoved off, and pulled directly towards the monster. As the boat neared it, the serpent raised its head about ten feet above the surface of the water, looking about it. It then began to move slowly away from the boat. Preble pushed on, his men pulling with all their force, and the animal being at no great distance, the swivel was discharged loaded with bullets. The discharge produced no other effect than to quicken the speed of the serpent, which soon ran the boat out of sight.

There is no question that in after life, Preble occasionally mentioned this circumstance, to a few of his intimates. He was not loquacious, and probably saw that he was relating a fact that most persons would be disposed to doubt, and self-respect prevented his making frequent allusions to it. . . . Preble stated it as his opinion, that the serpent he saw was from one hundred, to one hundred and fifty feet long, and larger than a barrel.
Preble’s anecdote, filtered through Cooper’s novelistic imagination, left out Lt. George Little as the officer in charge of the boat, putting Preble in his place. Preble’s serpent was three times as long as the Littles’.

In fact, there were such differences between the Little and Preble accounts that some later sea serpent scholars treated them as separate incidents. But Preble was probably just a junior officer who went out in the boat under George Little. His anecdotes of that event, passed along orally to Cooper, offer another, less reliable look of the mysterious creature.

TOMORROW: One more memoir from the Protector.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lieutenant Little Chases a Sea Serpent

George and Luther Little were two brothers from Marshfield who both served as officers aboard the Massachusetts navy vessel Protector under Capt. John Foster Williams from 1779 to 1781.

Luther, the younger by two years, was badly wounded during a sea battle. Later George was captured, held briefly on the Jersey prison ship, and sent to the Mill Prison in England. He and other officers bribed a guard and escaped to France.

In 1804, George wrote a letter to Alden Bradford about another of his adventures during the war. In 1820 that letter was published in the American Journal of Science as follows:
Marshfield, 13th March, 1804.

Sir,
In answer to yours of the 30th of January last, I observe, that in May, 1780, I was lying in Round Pond, in Broad Bay [off Waldoboro, Maine], in a public armed ship. At sunrise, I discovered a large Serpent, or monster, coming down the bay, on the surface of the water. The Cutter was manned and armed. I went myself in the boat, and proceeded after the Serpent. When within a hundred feet, the marines were ordered to fire on him, but before they could make ready, the Serpent dove. He was not less than from 45 to 50 feet in length; the largest diameter of his body, I should judge, 15 inches; his head nearly of the size of that of a man, which he carried four or five feet above the water. He wore every appearance of a common black snake. When he dove he came up near Muscongus Island—we pursued him, but never came up within a quarter of a mile of him again.

A monster of the above description was seen in the same place, by Joseph Kent, of Marshfield, 1751. Kent said he was longer and larger than the main boom of his sloop, which was 85 tons. He had a fair opportunity of viewing him, as he was within ten or twelve yards of his sloop.

I have the honor to be, sir, Your friend and humble servant,
GEO. LITTLE.
A couple of decades later, Luther Little dictated his memoirs, eventually published in the Journal of American History. Luther corroborated his older brother’s experience:
The Capt. thought it necessary to put into an eastern port for wood and water;—we sail’d for Broad Bay, and arrived at the mouth and anchored in a cove near the shore, called Muscongus. The Capt. made arrangements with a farmer at this place to land our sick, at an out building leaving the surgeons mate to take care of them, making a sort of hospital. I was then sufficiently recovered [from my wound] to be able to walk the deck. The next day, at four in the afternoon, we discovered a large black snake coming down from out the bushes abreast the ship; he took the water and swam by us; we judged him to be 40 feet long, and his middle the size of a man’s body; he carried his head six feet above water. We manned a barge, and went in chase of him; when fired at, he would dive like a sea-fowl. They chased him a mile and a half firing continually. The snake landed at Lowd’s Island, and disappeared in the woods. The barge returned to the ship.
Luther’s account suggests he saw the serpent from the deck of the Protector but didn’t join George in the boat that chased it.

Did anyone outside the Little family tell this odd story?

TOMORROW: Tales from a midshipman.

(The Protector was a 26-gun frigate launched in 1779. The picture above shows H.M.S. Cleopatra, a 32-gun frigate launched the same year; that’s the closest I could find.)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Consequential Questions

The Journal of the American Revolution (AllThingsLiberty.com) has once again asked its contributors, including me, some questions and run the answers over the course of a week. These were the questions last week—

“Greatest consequence of the American Revolution?” My answer leaned toward what Chou En-lai was reported to have said about the consequences of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell.” Alas, that quotation has turned out to be based on a misunderstanding—the Chinese premier was actually speaking about the recent Paris uprising of 1968. But I still think we can screw up the Revolution. As in Abraham Lincoln’s formulation, the American democracy is a proposition, not a proof.

“Aside from John and Abigail, what was the best husband-wife duo of the Revolution? Why?” I consciously avoided what turned out to be the clearly most popular answer, but still was not alone in my choice.

“Most important diplomatic action of the war? Why?” Another example of me trying to be contrarian.

“Favorite RevWar site (battlefield, home, museum, etc.) to visit today? Why?” As another contributor said, this was the question I found hardest to answer. For a while I was thinking of skipping it entirely. A big part of the problem is that, as much as I enjoy visiting historic sites, what really thrills me is working with documents in archives or with books, whether or not they’re located in a historic setting.

“Propaganda was important during the Revolution. What is your favorite propaganda item? Why?” So naturally I chose a set of documents and books I’ve worked with.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

“O Burr, O Burr, what hast thou done?”

This is the 210th anniversary of the death of Alexander Hamilton, one day after his duel with Aaron Burr.

In his biography of Burr, James Parton described the winner of that duel reminiscing this way:
He conversed with equal freedom of the duel with Hamilton. He never blamed himself for his conduct in that affair. Despising the out-cry made about the duel, he would indulge, sometimes, in a kind of defiant affectation respecting it. “My friend Hamilton—whom I shot,” he would say, with amazing nonchalance. Usually, however, he alluded to his antagonist with respect, styling him “General Hamilton,” and doing partial justice to his merits. “Was Hamilton a gentleman?” asked a foreigner once in Burr’s hearing. Burr resented the question, and replied with hauteur: “Sir, I met him.”

He told an anecdote relating to the duel, of which the following is the purport. On a journey, while stopping at a tavern to bait his horses, he strolled into the village, and saw a traveling exhibition of wax-works. To amuse an idle moment, he entered. Among the figures were two representing Hamilton and himself in the act of firing. The figures were vilely executed, and the exhibition was made the more ridiculous by some doggerel which the ambitious exhibitor had scrawled underneath. With some difficulty he made it out, as follows:
“O Burr, O Burr, what hast thou done?
Thou hast shooted dead great Hamilton.
You hid behind a bunch of thistle,
And shooted him dead with a great hoss pistol.”
He told this story just as any one would have told it, and laughed at the lines as heartily as any of his auditors.

He was surprised, one day, to receive the following epistle, which is here transcribed from the original: “Aaron Burr: Sir, Please to meet me with the weapon you chuse on the 15 of may where you murdered my father at 1 o’clock with your second. 8 May 1819. J. A. Hamilton.” To which he wrote a reply like this: “Boy, I never injured you: nor wished to injure your father. A. Burr.” On reflection, however, he thought it best not to notice the communication, and tore up his reply. He was afterward informed that the letter was a forgery.
Evidently part of being a gentleman for Burr was what to take notice of and how. Because he saw Hamilton as a fellow gentleman, he was willing to meet him on the dueling field. The “vilely executed” wax figures in a rinkydink tavern didn’t bother him since they were so obviously low-class. And when it came to what he thought was a note from Hamilton’s son, he eventually decided that the wise and genteel course was to act as if it never existed.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Newport’s “Revolution House” Coming in 2015

The Newport Historical Society reports it will reinterpret its Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House as “Revolution House.” Rather than continue to present that building as a standard house museum, it will use it to tell the history of Newport in the American Revolution.

“Revolution House” will open next summer. In the meantime, the society has launched a new “Revolutionary Newport” website. And on Saturday, 23 August, it will commemorate the anniversary of when in 1765 the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House was almost sacked because it was then home to Martin Howard, stamp tax collector. There will be a reenactor-led public “riot” and other programs.

The society’s press release argues that the first violent resistance of the Revolution took place in Rhode Island:
In the wake of the Sugar Act of 1764, violence broke out when colonists took over Fort George on Goat Island, off the far end of Long Wharf, and fired cannon on the British ship St. John whose crew allegedly stole merchandise from Newport businesses but which was also enforcing tax laws against local ships.

More violence erupted in 1765 when a long boat from the British ship the Maidstone was captured by an angry mob, dragged through the streets, and set fire in the square. This ship had been impressing Rhode Islanders into the British Navy, that is, capturing them and forcing them to serve on British ships, a common but highly unpopular practice of the British here and elsewhere.

In 1769 Newporters destroyed the British revenue sloop the Liberty. After harshly questioning the captains of two ships out of Connecticut, the Captain of the Liberty was surrounded by an angry mob of Newporters and forced to bring his crew in from the ship. Locals boarded the empty ship, cut it loose and it floated around the Point where it was stripped and burned. London protested to Rhode Island officials, but decided to let the matter drop.
And lastly there was the burning of the Gaspee, a Royal Navy ship, in 1772, after it had stopped the Hannah, out of Newport.

I’d argue that the 1764 and 1765 events weren’t really part of the Revolution because there was an ongoing conflict between mariners and officers of the Customs service and Royal Navy. In 1747, for example, Boston was shut down by riots over impressment. The Liberty and Gaspee riots are easier to link the new Crown taxes and duties that brought on the Revolution.

Still, Rhode Island deserves credit for destroying three government ships in less than a decade, and getting away with that. The closest Bostonians were able to match that was burning a small boat belonging to Customs official Joseph Harrison in 1768.

But Rhode Island was already known as a hard place to enforce the law. In contrast to Massachusetts, the governor was elected locally, not appointed by the king, and the harbor was much bigger and harder to patrol. I get the impression that Crown officials didn’t try so hard down there because they knew they couldn’t win.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reenactment by the Shore in Marblehead, 12-13 July

This weekend Glover’s Marblehead Regiment will have its annual summer encampment at Fort Sewall in Marblehead.

The camp opens to the public for tours and demonstrations at 10:00 A.M. on Saturday, 12 July. The last morning tour will be at 11:00 A.M. to allow the reenactors to prepare for their skirmishes at 11:30 and 2:30. The camp will reopen from 3:00 to 5:30 P.M. On Sunday, the camp will be open to the public from 10:00 A.M. to noon.

The skirmishes will take place on Fort Beach. The schedule for the day also includes fifes and drums marching around town and giving concerts, a musket-firing competition, and other events.

(The photo above was taken during the unit’s 2011 encampment.)

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Winslow House Events in July

The Winslow House Association in Marshfield has sent information about four events this month with links to Revolutionary times.

Tavern Night
Friday, 11 July, 7:00 P.M.
During the late colonial and early revolutionary periods taverns or ordinaries in Colonial America became increasingly popular. The tavern was a place to gather, have a pint of ale or cider, share a newspaper, engage in political debate, or partake in a game of chance. The Winslow House recreates an 18th-century Publick House with musical entertainment with Three of Cups and colonial card and strategy games. Admission includes our version of 1700s tavern fare (snack-sized) and non-alcoholic beverages. Immerse yourself in the atmosphere and try your hand in colonial games of chance and historical trivia. Admission is $10/person or $25/family or household.

Fort Halifax: Winslow’s Historic Outpost
Tuesday, 15 July, 11:00 A.M.
On July 25, 1754, Gen. John Winslow arrived with a force of 600 soldiers to establish the fort at the confluence of the Kennebec River with the Sebasticook River. Beginning as a French and Indian War garrison and trading post, the fort welcomed historic figures from Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr to Paul Revere and Chief Joseph Orono. This talk is by Daniel Tortora, an assistant professor of history at Colby College and member of the Fort Halifax Park Implementation Committee. Admission is $5, or $3 for Winslow House Association members.

Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Boston History with Paul Della Valle
Thursday, 17 July, 7:00 P.M.
The lives of notorious bad guys, perpetrators of mischief, visionary—if misunderstood—thinkers, and other colorful antiheroes, jerks, and evil doers from Boston history all get their due by author Paul Della Valle. The book’s profiles start with the Rev. Cotton Mather, governor Thomas Hutchinson, and Dr. Benjamin Church, and end in the late twentieth century. Admission is $7, or $5 for members.

Marshfield During the Revolutionary War
Tuesday, 22 July, 10:30 A.M.
With new information researched by Town Historian Cynthia Krusell, Dr. Isaac Winslow’s wife Elizabeth, portrayed by Regina Porter, will reminisce about the life and times in Marshfield during the American Revolution. Who was actually living in the Winslow House? Were we really a “Tory town”? Crossing political and social status, Mistress Winslow will speak on the impact this war had here in Marshfield. Admission is $5, or $3 for members.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Our Declarations

Yet another new book of Revolutionary history that’s been getting a lot of press lately is Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

And by “a lot of press” I mean that in one week Allen’s work was featured on the front page of the New York Times and reviewed in the Times Book Review.

That review wasn’t entirely laudatory. Steven B. Smith wrote, “This book makes three large claims about the Declaration of Independence, one that is profoundly true, another that is debatable, and a third, I would say, that is false.” In arguing for the falsehood of the last proposition, however, Smith claimed that if Thomas Jefferson’s colleagues had retained his attack on the slave trade (not on slavery), “they would have rendered impossible later misrepresentations of the Declaration as expressing the economic self­interest of the slave owners.” Is that really a misrepresentation?

As for the news article, that concerned one mark of punctuation in the Declaration’s first part. Is there a period after the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? If so, would that elevate the incomplete clause ending there above the other incomplete clauses that follow? Or should all those phrases describing self-evident truths be treated as parallel, growing and building upon themselves in the way of eighteenth-century rhetoric:
We hold these truths to be self-evident,
  • that all men are created equal,
  • that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
  • that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—
  • That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed—
  • That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
As Joseph Adelman wrote in a blog post responding to the Times article, putting so much weight on a flyspeck period in the Declaration misses some important points.

First, what we all picture as the Declaration—the handsomely handwritten sheet signed by all those Continental Congress delegates—was not the original approved for release on 4 July 1776. Second, punctuation was quite variable in the eighteenth century, with different printers dotting and dashing texts differently. So does that period really matter? Has anyone actually based an argument about the Declaration on the presence or absence of that particular mark?

As Adelman made clear, he took issue with the way the Times had framed Allen’s work, not with her paper on the questionable period or her book. In fact, Allen appears not to be making a historical argument so much as making a philosophical one; her background is in social science, and she’s offering “a reading” of the Declaration that might have shaped and might serve our society, not necessarily the reading(s) of the genteel white men of 1776 who eventually signed that document.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Meanwhile, to the West

Another new book on Revolutionary-era America actually looks at what else was happening on the continent while Britain’s thirteen colonies along the middle Atlantic coast fought for independence.

Claudio Saunt, author of West of the Revolution: An Uncommon Look at 1776, explained his approach in an article for the Boston Globe:
Spanish soldiers and missionaries were establishing the first permanent European colonies on North America’s Pacific Coast. (Native Americans, who observed Spanish schooners emerge on the horizon as if rising from the depths, called the newcomers “people from under the water.”)

Further north, Russians were seizing control of the Aleutian Islands and would soon push into the Alaskan mainland—territory they would not relinquish until 1867.

In the heart of the continent, Native Americans—who were as numerous as the Colonists then in revolution—sought to exploit the economic and geopolitical tumult engendered by European colonization on the coasts.
Specifically, Saunt wrote, “According to one traditional Lakota history, the Lakota (Sioux) Indians discovered the Black Hills in 1775-1776.” That memory was recorded by American Horse (1840-1908) in 1879—earlier than some Revolutionary traditions in textbooks and histories today.

In a short review for the Globe, Kate Tuttle wrote: “One persistent undercurrent to Saunt’s narrative is how much history hinges on misunderstanding and ignorance, along with greed and fear — not a pretty picture, but a necessary and timely addition to the heroic creation story we celebrate on July 4.” Here are other reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.