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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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Firm on this Basis Liberty Shall Stand

“About this image you want to include in your history textbook—we see potential problems with it.”

“Really? The rights are clear. It comes from the masthead of John Holt’s New York Journal in late 1774. And the Continental Congress adopted it about the same time.”

“Okay, but we have questions about how high-school students will…interpret it.”

“There’s a lot of symbolism in there—I think that’s a plus. There’s the rejoined ‘Join, or Die’ serpent as an icon of unity, and the Magna Carta, and the Liberty Pole—”

“Yes, the Liberty Pole.”

“With the Liberty Cap on top.”

“That’s the part we think might present problems for teachers.”

“Oh, and the hands—those represent the twelve colonies at the First Continental Congress. They’re making the pole stand up straight.”

“You’re not helping your case here.”

“In 1775 the engraver John Norman updated this symbol for America’s first architecture book. He dedicated it to Hancock and ‘all the MEMBERS’ of Congress.”

“Really, you should just stop talking.”

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Black Settlers of Nova Scotia

I admit that this book cover was what caught my eye first. There have been several studies of black Loyalists in recent years, led by Cassandra Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom.

Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities, by Ruth Holmes Whitehead, seems to be more deeply rooted in the province where many of those refugees made homes after 1783. It attempts to recreate those settlers’ entire lives, not just the period after the Revolution as they sought places for themselves in the British Empire.

At Canada’s History, Mark Reid wrote:
Whitehead, a research associate with the Nova Scotia Museum, writes with an academic’s rigorous attention to detail, but also with a storyteller’s flair. Her prose is bluntly honest. For instance, when writing about the practice of collecting bounties on runaway slaves, including higher prices for dead slaves, she labels it for what it truly was: “murder” for money.

Black Loyalists is divided into three sections, and of them I found the opening section on the early history of the slave trade to be the most fascinating. Drawing on primary sources and slaves’ own narratives, the author paints a picture of an American society sick with moral rot. One can’t escape the hypocrisy of slave owners drawing on Biblical passages to justify slavery, nor can one forget that America — founded on principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — was quick to deny these basic human rights to anyone with the “wrong” skin pigment.

While “white masters” are the historic face of the slave trade, Whitehead reminds readers that the business of slavery also relied on middlemen in Africa who eagerly captured their fellow Africans and sold them to the white slavers based along the African coast. . . .

Black Loyalists is a good primer for readers who want to learn more about Canada’s place in the centuries-long effort to eliminate slavery. It’s also a great background text for fans of [Lawrence] Hill’s Book of Negroes novel. Black Loyalists reminds us that the story of Canada is far more complex and diverse than the typical English-French and Aboriginal-colonizer narratives taught in grade school, and that “American” and “Canadian” histories are more tightly entwined than we generally realize.
At the History Girls, Katherine Langrish wrote about her friend’s work:
Ruth Holmes Whitehead took eighteen years to write and research this book which is both a work of scholarship and a labour of love, gracefully and clearly written with some poignant personal touches. Ruth herself was born in South Carolina and has found slave owners among her own ancestors; her co-researcher Carmelita Robertson has “multiple Black Loyalist ancestors who escaped … during the American Revolution.”
And here’s the Publishers Weekly review.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Online Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts

I started researching Revolutionary New England in earnest a little over fifteen years ago. I was lucky to begin as the World Wide Web spread and as institutions like the Google corporation, the Hathi Trust, and universities decided to digitize books and make them available to anyone.

Gradually I’ve seen one series of sources I learned to consult in libraries after another come online: the Boston Town Records, the journals of the Continental Congress, the papers of the major founders, the early Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and so on. I’ve obtained some other resources still protected by copyright, such as Shipton’s Harvard Graduates and the consolidated records of Boston’s churches, on CD-ROMs.

But until recently I still couldn’t find digital versions of the Massachusetts House’s official proceedings. Those are in the public domain, having been printed each year in the eighteenth century. The Massachusetts Historical Society undertook to reprint facsimile volumes in the late twentieth century, but only in small quantities. Those books weren’t showing up fully on Google, possibly because of corporate worries about those relatively recent reprint dates.

Then several weeks back I stumbled across those volumes in the Hathi Trust’s “Records of the American Colonies” collection. They’re part of an assemblage of “Published documents--legislation, court proceedings, records, correspondence, etc.--from the 13 original colonies and their predecessors.” The Massachusetts volumes for the Revolutionary period fall on this page.

The person who assembled the links to those digital files is Nicholas Okrent of the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania, and of course I’m grateful to him. In fact, for my purposes he may have done too good a job. That collection contains nearly 900 volumes, and I really don’t care about the stuff from the seventeenth century or most of the other colonies. (At least not yet.)

I’m still figuring out how the Hathi Trust website works. One can search just within that collection, and then within individual volumes. The optical character recognition (O.C.R.) and transcription system doesn’t handle the long s and other vagaries of eighteenth-century printing smoothly, making the digital texts less reliable for searching and copying. But those books are indexed, and the biggest challenge is still cutting through the legislative procedures to figure out what was really going on. Later series in the same collection were printed in a more modern style for easier consulting.

As a result, another set of references that I once had to leave the house to find are now available any time of day without me even having to get up. I suppose I’ll die sooner because I’m no longer getting so much exercise. But in that shorter lifespan I’ll have seen more books, so I’ll still win.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Just Desserts in a New Children’s Book?

A picture book to be published next month takes readers through three centuries of history following a simple recipe for blackberry fool, but it has depths that some people have found troubling.

The book is A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It shows four parent-child pairs preparing the receipt in successive years: 1710, 1810, 1910, and 2010. At each stage, the technology for whipping the cream and otherwise becomes more sophisticated.

And at each stage, the family and its situation change, starting with a mother and child in rural England and ending with a father and child in a modern American city. That dimension of social history evidently troubled the reviewer at Publishers Weekly:
Unfortunately, an attempt at historical authenticity backfires as the 19th-century plantation family’s blackberry fool is made for them by their slaves. The African-American cook and her daughter are not permitted to eat the dessert they’ve made; instead, they serve it to the white family, and the two are left to lick the bowl in a dark closet. The historical facts are not in dispute, but the disturbing injustices represented in this section of an otherwise upbeat account either require adult readers to present necessary background and context or—worse—to pass by them unquestioned.
Parents or teachers supplying “necessary background and context”? Based on “historical facts”? How unfortunate indeed!

Evidently, this reviewer felt that American children aged four to eight wouldn’t have been introduced to slavery before, even at this basic level. And that families’ enjoyment of a simple luxury like blackberry fool or a full-color picture book should not be disturbed, even for a few pages, by the thought of injustice. That was enough for this reviewer to call the plantation episode, unaccountably, “an attempt at historical authenticity.”

Other early reviewers, such as Kiera Parrott at School Library Journal, saw more value in that history. And it’s clear that picture of change in everyday life was crucial to the conception of this book for both author and artist. You can follow artist Blackall’s visual research through her series of blog posts.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Only Read This Book for the Relatable Past

You might think that Thomas A. Foster’s Sex and the Founding Fathers is about the sexual behavior of the men who led the American Revolution and the creation of the federal government. But take a look at the subtitle: The American Quest for a Relatable Past.

That signals how this study isn’t about those men’s sexual thoughts or behaviors, about which we have very little information, anyway. Rather, it’s about how American authors have described the sexual side of those men’s lives, in many cases selecting and massaging the known facts to fit what they wanted the readers of their times to believe, or what readers wanted to read.

For instance, what has it meant to Americans that George Washington, the “Father of His Country,” evidently couldn’t father children? Was it a somewhat embarrassing reflection on his masculinity, or a natural frustration that humanizes him, or even a handy refutation of the occasional suggestions that he had children out of wedlock? (Of course, he could have had extramarital affairs without leaving the evidence of a fertile man.)

Foster notes Washington biographers stating strenuously that his infertility problem could not have been due to a sexual transmitted disease—that was simply beyond reason. But they were mum about the possibility of erectile dysfunction, a much more common problem for men but one with symbolic implications of impotence in other areas. (Foster doesn’t discuss a theory I recall seeing bandied about in recent decades, that Washington might have had Klinefelter syndrome, due to XXY chromosomes. Talk about raising gender issues!)

Foster also discusses how historians have treated John Adams, who was known for his long, close, and faithful marriage, and Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Gouverneur Morris, who weren’t. Originally the book also discussed Aaron Burr, but Foster converted that material into this article at Common-Place; in contrast to the others, American authors could gleefully discuss Burr as a libertine because he became a villain in the national saga.

Sex and the Founding Fathers also shows how the Founders serve as a barometer of the culture’s attitude toward sexual behavior. For instance, late in the Victorian period the Massachusetts Senator George F. Hoar decided that Franklin, of all people, didn’t belong in a National Hall of Fame:
Dr. Franklin’s conduct of life was that of a man on a low plane…one side of his character gross and immoral. . . . [His letter] on the question of keeping a mistress, which, making allowance for the manners of the time, and all allowance for the fact that he might have been partly in jest, is an abominable and wicked letter; and all his relation to women, and to the family life were of that character.
Come on, Senator, tell us how you really feel!

For me the star of this book was Gouverneur Morris, the least known of its subjects. He was frankly interested in sex throughout his long bachelorhood. Foster argues that Morris doesn’t deserve to be called a rake, however, because he (at least sometimes) passed up sex if he and his lover weren’t really in love, because he cared about whether those women had a good time, and because some of his affairs lasted for years. He just had a lot of them, and his (married) male friends liked to gossip about him.

Foster notes that only four full-length biographies of Morris were published in the 1800s and 1900s. Since 2003, however, there have been “three academic works and two popular biographies.” Those discuss the sexual side of Morris’s life more frankly—far more frankly—than books of previous eras did. Perhaps Gouverneur Morris is the Founder for our time.

In case you wonder, Sex and the Founding Fathers does come with illustrations. Illustrations like “A Philosophic Cock,” a political cartoon attacking Jefferson for his relationship with Sally Hemings.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Editing the “Compulsively Circumspect” Thomas Hutchinson

This year the Colonial Society of Massachusetts published the first volume of its Correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson series, a project decades in the making. That makes a valuable and widely discussed source available at last.

This month the series’s chief editor, John W. Tyler, contributed two essays about that work to the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s Vita Brevis blog, and one can sense his pleasure and pride that it’s finally seeing print.

In the second posting, Tyler discusses the challenges and pleasures Thomas Hutchinson left us:
Many eighteenth-century authors wrote a first draft in their letter books, allowing a scribe (or in Hutchinson’s case, his children) to make a fair copy that would be dispatched to the recipient. One of the very first phases of any letters project is to gather all the existing copies of a letter for comparison, and for someone as compulsively circumspect as Hutchinson, the differences between the various copies are often enlightening. In almost all cases, the recipient’s copy provides the printed text, since those were the words that were read and acted upon. We usually note differences among the copies in the notes, although in some cases we have actually printed two versions of the same letter, since his unguarded first thoughts make much juicier reading.

Annotation…is the part I most enjoy. It is exactly like working on a jigsaw puzzle. The first reference to a person or event may not be exactly clear, and many times, if the editor is patient, the mystery will resolve itself a few letters down the line. Thus, “old Warren” – who may be any resident named Warren living in Hampshire County, Massachusetts – will eventually be revealed as Seth Warren, one of the so-called Berkshire Rioters, who attempted the rescue of a friend imprisoned for debt during the period when all the courts were closed because of the Stamp Act.

A good memory also helps to identify unnamed correspondents (of whom there are many in the Hutchinson Correspondence) when something said in one letter matches with something said in another. In certain instances, Hutchinson may deliberately leave a name blank or refer to an individual only by his initials, as a safeguard against charges of libel or protection against prying eyes at a time when letters were frequently opened by curious individuals while still on their way to the addressee. Here it helps to know the cast of characters or the way he habitually refers to them, as in “my chief adversary” or “the principal demagogue in the province” by which he almost always means James Otis, Jr.
Hutchinson was himself a historian who collected and studied the documents of previous generations. I’m sure he’d be pleased that, if we in Massachusetts must continue to paw through his private letters, it’s being done with this level of accuracy and care.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Latest

Back in September, my ears perked up at this History News Network article, “Why Historians Can’t Afford to Ignore Gossip.” As a supporter of unabashed gossip, I found the history of that term interesting:
The very definition of gossip has changed over time. In English, the word originated as a noun, “godsibb,” meaning a relative in God, and connoted a godparent or a person in attendance at a christening. By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, however, a new, gender-specific definition of gossip became common: a woman attending a mother at childbirth. At the same time, gossip also became a verb and devalued, as with Dr. Johnson’s 1755 dictionary definition of gossip: “One who runs about tattling like women at a lying-in.” Popular understandings of gossip continue its negative association with women’s talk, but historical evidence shows both women and men engaging in the practice of gossip.

Although contemporary definitions of gossip vary, they all share a concern with the personal and often the private, and, thus, gossip can be identified as “private talk.” Gossip makes private matters public, and, for many, gossip’s most transgressive quality is precisely how it blurs the imaginary yet influential boundary between public and private. For historians, gossip’s boundary-crossing provides us with direct evidence of its existence in the past and the sources necessary to make it a subject of historical inquiry.
The article’s authors, Kathleen A. Feeley of the University of Redlands and Jennifer Frost of the University of Auckland, just co-edited a collection of essays titled When Private Talk Goes Public: Gossip in American History.

Alas, the book doesn’t contain material on the Revolutionary period, though there are articles on the Salem witch hunts, the early eighteenth-century letters of Virginian Philip Ludwell, and the Jacksonian scandalmongering of Anne Royall. Alas also, the book is $95 or more.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Complete Medical Histories from the Founders

Jeanne E. Abrams’s Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health came out from New York University Press in 2013. Here are an H-Net review, a Journal of Interdisciplinary History review, a C-SPAN video, and a podcast discussion of the book on Liz Covart’s “Ben Franklin’s World” podcast.

I didn’t find the book to be as interesting as some other reviewers have. Most of it consists of chapters on George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, with a few pages each on James and Dolley Madison and on Dr. Benjamin Rush. Each chapter takes the form of a capsule biography pinned with seemingly all details about its subjects’ health preserved in their papers. Thus, we read every mention of illness in letters or diaries, every known instance of ill health, every bit of health legislation, every possible diagnosis from a latter-day article.

However, those profiles don’t dig very deep below the surface. For example, some scholars have suggested that Abigail Adams, after suffering a health scare giving birth and losing a child, found a way to keep from becoming pregnant so often—possibly longer breast-feeding. But Adams didn’t write about that openly, so it doesn’t make the book. In fact, Revolutionary Medicine seems to have no discussion of birth control at all and only one mention of breast-feeding, which shows the limits of its approach.

Similarly, while these profiles offer an exhaustive discussion of the medical experiences of their elite subjects, they don’t delve far into how the bulk of families with less money experienced health crises and medical care. We learn—as if we didn’t already know—that eighteenth-century medicine was usually painful, disruptive, and useless, but the book doesn’t have much to say about why these people nonetheless thought they were getting the best care possible.

Abrams is Professor at Penrose Library and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, and her previous books are about Jewish immigrants to the American west in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This book didn’t give me a sense that she was yet at home in the world of the eighteenth century, despite the extensive mining of the Founders’ personal papers.

Certainly Abrams seems to have a limited view of the consensus of the field. Page 180 says, “Despite decades of controversy, many historians now believe that it is unlikely that Jefferson conducted a liaison with Sally Hemings and that there is no verifiable proof that he fathered any of her children.” That’s backwards: most historians of early America today believe it likely that Thomas Jefferson had a long sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Abrams doesn’t explain what she means by “verifiable proof” about the paternity of a child born two hundred years ago, but we have more biological evidence about Hemings’s children than about practically any others from the period.

Abrams ventures into modern politics in her book’s last paragraph, declaring that the Founders “surely would have balked at requiring all citizens to purchase health care insurance.” She doesn’t reconcile that statement with a fact reported on page 155, that President John Adams pushed for legislation requiring all American sailors to give up some of their wages to support the Marine Hospital Service—i.e., Adams’s administration required a class of its poorer citizens to purchase health care insurance.

Given how much Revolutionary Medicine says about the Founders’ very limited knowledge of medical science, I’m not sure how their opinions can carry much weight on modern medical policy anyway. We might as well ask if they’d require surgeons to scrub their hands before operating.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Early New England’s Blotter

Anthony Vaver’s Early American Crime blog offers one of the liveliest landscapes of life in colonial and federal America. It tells stories of burglary, murder, counterfeiting, and other crimes.

Earlier this year Vaver collected the best of those stories in Early American Criminals: An American Newgate Calendar, Chronicling the Lives of the Most Notorious Criminal Offenders from Colonial America and the New Republic. That book also includes two chapters published on other websites and another exclusive to print.

Most of those tales come from New England, largely because this region had so many printers to record the juicy details in the first place. Unlike Old Bailey Online, Early American Criminals isn’t just a compilation of period reports on the crimes.

Rather, for each story Vaver has assembled evidence from period newspapers, published confessions, execution sermons and verses, and later studies. The emphasis is on the narratives of those crimes rather than analysis of the social or legal conditions behind them.

Thus, it’s the details of those stories that stand out. For instance, when Bryan Sheehen was hanged in Salem for a violent rape in January 1772, he left his body to a Dr. Kast for dissection. (That was most likely the apothecary and physician Philip Godfrid Kast, Jr.) But in March, the Massachusetts Spy reported, a large crowd of locals dug up Sheehen’s grave and determined that his body was still intact. Which I guess shows that they still cared.

Early American Criminals is over 350 pages long with an index and occasional illustrations. It was published through Vaver’s Pickpocket Press and is probably most easily bought through Amazon.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Between Reluctance and Revolution

In From Resistance to Revolution Pauline Maier portrayed American Whigs as gradually becoming disenchanted with higher and higher levels of British government until in late 1775 or early 1776 they gave up on King George III himself and opted for independence.

Even while complaining about royal appointees in the 1760s, American colonists proclaimed their loyalty to fundaments of the British constitution—acting “more British than the British,” as Nick Bunker writes in An Empire on the Edge. While trying to force change in the London government through boycotts in the 1770s, they still raised the British flag on Liberty Poles.

And even as Americans fought against the British army in 1775, they referred to the enemy as “the ministerial troops” and sent appeals to George III to solve the crisis by reining in those government ministers. Complaints about the tyranny of the king himself (as heard at the recent Boston Tea Party reenactment) were exceedingly rare before the war.

That pattern is a big reason why authors like Jack Rakove portray most American activists as “revolutionaries despite themselves.” Such political activists as Samuel Adams ended up producing much more change in their society than they had imagined. In the early 1770s anti-French, anti-Catholic rhetoric was Boston’s common discourse. By the end of that decade the town had hosted thousands of French sailors and soldiers, and by the early 1780s it had a Catholic church. Was that the point of the Suffolk Resolves, with its bitter attack on the Quebec Act?

Bunker argues against that picture of most colonists as “reluctant to rebel.” Indeed, he describes them as ready to discard the whole British system, including the king, early in the 1770s. “Above all, the Americans had come to doubt Great Britain’s commitment to liberty”—not just individual officials’ commitment, or Parliament’s, but Britain’s. “The Tea Party meant rejection of British rule in its entirety.” That characterization seems to fit with Bunker’s picture of the Empire as thin and crumbling, but I think most American colonists before 1775 would have loudly rejected it.

Bunker suggests that “for a rising generation of radicals in New England the events of 1774 were something for which they had been preparing ever since their childhood.” But that paragraph’s primary example of a Boston leader “only too willing to fight” is William Molineux, who spent his childhood far away in Staffordshire and never expressed a clear political program to go with his confrontational temperament.

Dr. Thomas Young left a much larger pile of political essays showing clear radicalism. In a 1766 letter he even praised the new gallery in the Massachusetts legislative chamber as a way for the people to make their views known directly to their representatives—a truly democratic idea. But, like Molineux, Young had moved into Boston as an adult and didn’t represent its dominant views, especially on religious matters.

We really have to ask what John Hancock was saying because he was unsurpassed in sensing Massachusetts’s political mood and positioning himself there. Bunker writes that in his 1774 oration about the Boston Massacre Hancock “came close to accusing George III of waging war against his people.” But Hancock took care to condemn “that villain who dared to advise his master to such execrable measures,” naming “Hillsborough, and a knot of treacherous knaves in Boston.” He closed with a wish to “secure honour and wealth to Great Britain, even against the inclinations of her ministers.”

Both portrayals of American activists—as conservatives sliding into radical measures with radical results, and as radicals ready to fight British institutions and restructure their government—depend on explaining away some contrary evidence. Hancock ended his oration declaring he was confident the struggle would end “gloriously for America” but earlier declined to speak of Britain’s future—was that a dog-whistle hint about the possibility of separation? Samuel Adams, who was also then insisting publicly that he and his followers were still loyal to the Crown, later declared that around 1773 he’d concluded that independence was the only way to preserve his countrymen’s liberties.

On the other side, Bunker writes, “During the second half of 1773, Franklin began to lose his last vestige of loyalty to Great Britain.” Yet he also describes how from December 1774 through February 1775 Franklin engaged in back-channel negotiations with British Whigs seeking a compromise that could keep the American colonies within the British Empire. Was that the work of a man with no loyalty left?

In the end I remain convinced by the portrait of Masschusetts’s Whigs as radical in their methods but essentially conservative in their aims and values up through the beginning of the war. They saw themselves as fighting for the British constitution. Of course, so did their political opponents, from Thomas Hutchinson and his circle on up to George III. Who was correct about what that constitution demanded? Well, that was what the fighting was all about.

COMING UP: Defining the terms of the discussion. But first, some other books.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

What Did Bostonians Start a Revolution for?

In An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, Nick Bunker posits a provocative parallel for Massachusetts in 1773, during the lead-up to the Tea Party: “Perhaps the closest equivalent in modern times was the end of the Communist regime in East Germany.” Having visited Leipzig and other G.D.R. cities as the Cold War dissolved into mist, Bunker suggests we view Boston through that lens.

Of course, he acknowledges, the British Crown had no equivalent of the Stasi or other elements of the totalitarian Soviet satellite. But in Bunker’s view both societies were aching to break through the flimsy oppression of an old regime: “The town of Boston needed to reinvent itself as the great industrial city it would eventually become after the War of 1812.”

Massachusetts, and New England as whole, indeed had a lot of advantages for an expanding republican economy. The region had the highest literacy rate of anywhere in the British Empire. As Bunker notes, the town was the size of a small British seaport that might support one newspaper, yet it had five or more papers each week in the years before the Revolutionary War, representing a spectrum of political ideas.

What’s more, New England’s relatively equal distribution of land, scarce labor, and town-meeting system let more men gain independent livings and participate in their government than anywhere else in the Empire. The leaders of the government in London didn’t believe in that system—they couldn’t imagine the region really ran that way, and they didn’t think it was a good idea anyway. In 1774 those ministers tried to roll back New England self-government, leading to the decisive countryside confrontations from summer 1774 through spring 1775.

On the other hand, the stultifying culture that might plausibly make Boston resemble Leipzig wasn’t anything that London government had created or supported. It was the system of New England’s own establishment, descendants of Puritans who disliked any form of faith but their own. Their laws didn’t just ban theater and stifle Christmas. They barred work from Saturday night to Monday morning, and blocked travel in Sundays between one town and another except in emergencies. For all of New England’s vaunted literacy, only the top households owned any non-religious reading material.

Since the start of the century Philadelphia had vaulted ahead of Boston in population and trade. Some of the reason was geographic: Philadelphia’s harbor was open for more of the year, and it wasn’t perched on a small peninsula. But most of the southern city’s advantages were cultural. It was more welcoming to immigrants and non-conformists. The most inventive Bostonian of the century, Benjamin Franklin, left for Philadelphia in his teens not because he lacked a place within New England society but because he didn’t like that place.

Bunker writes of the need for Boston to reinvent itself as an industrial center, “Even before the revolution, it contained men and women who understood this was so.” He doesn’t identify such individuals, however, and I’m hard pressed to think of any among the Revolutionaries. There’s no doubt that some benefited from the coming of industrialization: Paul Revere remade himself from a skilled craftsman into a manufacturer, and Loammi Baldwin of Woburn went from a farmer to a civil engineer overseeing the Middlesex Canal.

But almost to a man, Boston Patriots went into political activism and then the Revolutionary War not seeking to break free from their narrow society but to protect it from change. London’s new taxes were preventing a return to the town’s previous prosperity, they complained. When the political confrontation heated up, they demanded to go back to Massachusetts’s old charter, not to make reforms.

Samuel Adams certainly didn’t aim to lead a revolution that would open Boston to a Catholic church and competing theaters. Elias Hasket Derby (shown above) made a fortune in the post-war China Trade, but in April 1775 when he was pushing for his Salem militia company to march faster against the redcoats he would surely have been happy just to have the British Customs service roll back its enforcement to the 1750s level.

With Patriots like those, I think Bunker’s assessment that “Boston needed to reinvent itself as the great industrial city” is like saying that Tyrannosaurs needed to reinvent themselves as the light, maneuverable flyers they eventually evolved into. There’s no doubt now that birds descended from two-legged dinosaurs while Tyrannosaurs died out, but those dinosaurs weren’t spending their days trying to fly. Similarly, conservative New Englanders taking action against the Crown in the 1760s and 1770s were trying to preserve their way of life for themselves and their children, not to open up their society to the possibilities of industrial (or other) change. And yet that’s what they did.

TOMORROW: Reluctant revolutionaries?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Nick Bunker’s Sharp Edges of Empire

After so much reading about the approach of the Revolution in New England, I’m always pleased to find books that give me a new perspective on the major events of those years. Sometimes that perspective comes from a tight focus on an individual or a lesser-known aspect of the conflict.

Nick Bunker’s An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America manages that even while examining the well-known Gaspée incident, Boston Tea Party, and response to the Coercive Acts.

Bunker, an Englishman, describes those events as seen from London, where the American mainland colonies were a source of mystery and bother if the government’s overworked ministers had any time for them at all. His book has chapters on major events in New England from 1772 to 1774, but Bunker emphasizes sources that tell the British side of each story.

A great deal of archival work went into An Empire on the Edge, and its notes brim with unfamiliar sources that can set a researcher’s mouth to salivating: the War Office’s accounting of British army dead from 1774 to 1780; private verses that the Earl of Suffolk, junior secretary of state, wrote about the nascent rebellion; a painting of Boston in 1764 by Byron’s great-uncle; Lt.-Col. Alexander Leslie’s bitter letter from Castle William ten days before the Tea Party; a 1774 intelligence report about gunpowder shipments from Holland.

Bunker was a financial journalist before he turned to writing history, and that seems to surface in his analyses of economic pressures: abundant credit led to overproduction of tea in China, harvests failed in India and later in Europe at just the wrong times, a London banker tried to short East India Company stock a little too early and set off a cascade of banking failures. The book profiles John Hancock as a businessman more prominently than Samuel Adams as a politician, and devotes relatively little space to political philosophy, religion, and other forces.

Bunker’s background is especially valuable as he lays out how the East India Company finally ran aground in 1773 and the British government—despite George III and Lord North being no fans of the company—deemed it too big to fail. Competing business and political interests ultimately produced two redundant rescue schemes: one that allowed the Crown to take over the company’s territory in India, the other that rewrote the rules for sending surplus tea to North American ports. The first gave Britain the basis of its nineteenth-century empire while the second ultimately cost it much of the empire it had built in the previous two hundred years.

One player in shaping the latter policy, An Empire on the Edge argues, was Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, through his letters to British tea magnate William Palmer. Hutchinson’s interests were all mixed up: his sons were in the tea business, and his salary as governor (and those of his in-laws, the Oliver brothers) came from the tea tax. Thus, while Hutchinson sincerely sought the best for the British Empire and for Massachusetts, he looked corrupt—and just when the leak of some private letters made him look devious.

While many American authors emphasize the strength of the British Empire after the Seven Years’ War, especially its military, Bunker paints it as fragile and overextended. Stretched tight between North America and India, much of it was “only a make-believe empire.” The book starts symbolically with a description of that dominion’s western edge at Fort Charters in modern Illinois, a structure won from the French in 1763 and then allowed to slip gradually into the Mississippi. The figure of Edward Gibbon, Member of Parliament, floats through the book, not because of any astute observations on the political situation from him but perhaps because he wrote about another empire’s decline and fall.

An Empire on the Edge is thus a “sympathetic study of failure,” Bunker writes. He offers portraits of the top government ministers in London—especially Lord North and the Earl of Dartmouth—that bring out their good qualities instead of making them distant antagonists. (I recall how Bernard Donoughue’s British Politics and the American Revolution from 1964 struck me with a story of Lord North being robbed by a highwayman even as he won a government majority; this book does the same with the picture of the prime minister laying out a playing field for his sons.)

But none of those men’s personal strengths, Bunker says, were right for avoiding the “tragedy” of “a war the British should never have allowed themselves to fight.” Neither North nor Dartmouth had the broader vision that the situation demanded. At no point in the book, however, do I see a turning-point that would have allowed the British government to satisfy all the needs of its 1770s empire. I have a sense of what would have satisfied the Massachusetts Whigs, but I doubt that approach would have satisfied Bunker.

TOMORROW: An Empire on the Edge on Massachusetts.

Friday, December 19, 2014

“Nothing but the Horrors”

One measure of the poor reception for the American Heroes Channel’s American Revolution series among historians this week was how it drove Alex Cain to start a blog. His first post said:
…the Battle of Lexington, as depicted in “The American Revolution”, is woefully inaccurate and replete with factual inaccuracies. For the producers to say the Lexington militia were all armed with squirrel rifles, that the “minutemen” actually blockaded the Road to Concord, and that the battle took place in a random field outside of Lexington is unacceptable and grossly misleading.
Cain is the author of We Stood Our Ground: Lexington in the First Year of the Revolution, studying each soldier from Lexington, so he knows that particular patch of ground.

It looks like Cain’s second blog posting is an extract or excision from his new book, I See Nothing but the Horrors of a Civil War: The Rise, Fall and Ultimate Triumph of McAlpin’s Corps of American Volunteers, about a set of Loyalists from New York and “the Hampshire Grants,” now known as Vermont.

Here’s a bit from the blog about the wife of corps leader Daniel McAlpin, a retired British army captain who had settled near Stillwater, New York, until the war broke out:
Mary McAlpin described her family’s treatment at the hands of the rebels in vivid language. “From the day her husband left to the day she was forced from her home the Captain’s house was never without parties of the Rebels present. They lived at their discretion and sometimes in very large numbers. They destroyed what they could not consume. Shortly after the capture of the fleeing loyalists a group of armed Rebels with blackened faces broke into the McAlpins’ dwelling house. They threatened Mary and her children with violence and menace of instant death. They confined them to the kitchen while they stripped every valuable from the home. A few days after this, by an order of the Albany Committee, a detachment of Rebel Forces came and seized upon the remainder of McAlpin’s estate both real and personal.” Mary McAlpin and her children were taken to an unheated hut located in Stillwater and locked inside “without fire, table, chairs or any other convenience.”

Hoping that the hardship would eventually break Mrs. McAlpin and induce her to beg her husband to honorably surrender, the rebels kept Mary and her children in captivity for several weeks. Mary McAlpin refused to comply and instead responded her husband “had already established his honour by a faithful service to his King and country.” Enraged, rebels seized Mary and her oldest daughter and “carted” both of them through Albany. According to the Reverend [John] Munro, “Mrs. McAlpin was brought down to Albany in a very scandalous manner so much that the Americans themselves cried out about it.” A second account stated “when Mrs. McAlpin was brought from the hut to Albany as a prisoner with her daughter…they neither of them had a rag of cloaths to shift themselves.”
I See Nothing… is available in digital and print-on-demand formats.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Revolution References

The Journal of the American Revolution is running another weeklong series of questions for its contributors, including me. Monday’s question was “Which American Revolution book do you refer to most often (not to be confused with ‘favorite book’)? Why?”

Different people interpreted the question in different ways. Some folks wrote about the historic sources they study most often, such as the Cornwallis Papers, Peter Force’s American Archives, the Papers of George Washington, or more specific collections. In my case that might include the Boston Town Records published a century ago.

Others spotlighted one-volume histories of the war: John Ferling’s Almost A Miracle, Merrill Jensen’s The Founding of a Nation, Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause, and The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by the Participants, edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris.

Yet others named their favorite reference volumes: Mark M. Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Richard Ryerson and Gregory Fremont-Barnes’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War, and The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. For researching officers on the two sides, there are British Army Officers: Who Served in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 by Steven M. Baule and Stephen Gilbert and the venerable Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the American Revolution by Francis B. Heitman.

I interpreted the question that last way, but I realized that these days I usually don’t refer to any reference volume at all—I use Wikipedia to get the basics and then do my first followup through Google. Need to know the difference between Charles Lee the general and Charles Lee the Attorney-General? It’s just a few clicks and a little disambiguation away. I was pleased to see that a few of the folks commenting on the posting admitted to that same approach.

But I keep reading books as well, and over the next few days I’ll talk about some from the past year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Walking Tour and Colonial Comics in Cambridge, 20 Dec.

On Saturday, 20 December, I’ll sign copies of Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 at the Million Year Picnic comics shop in Harvard Square, along with the book’s main editor, Jason Rodriguez, and some of the other writers and artists contributing to this anthology of historical comics. The signing is from 3:00 to 5:00 P.M.

At 4:00, in conjunction with that event, I’ll lead a free walking tour of central Cambridge focusing on colonial sites for anyone who wants to come along. We’ll gather in the lower alcove of the Million Year Picnic’s building at 99 Mount Auburn Street.

The tour will include the location of the first printing press in America (subject of a story in Colonial Comics), the burying-ground that Cambridge established in 1635, and the house where Gen. George Washington first slept in town. Weather permitting, we’ll go as far afield as the Georgian mansion that Harvard keeps tucked inside one of its dorms and the mythical Washington Elm before ending up back at the Million Year Picnic.

Although Colonial Comics focuses on the first century of British settlement in America, most of the sites we’ll visit will date from the eighteenth century, and most of my stories will be about the Revolutionary period. That’s because of what survives, and what I know best. My goal is to point out some of the oldest things we see around Harvard Square every day.

And, of course, to sell books.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Caricature of a Tea Partier

Adam Colson (his family name was also spelled Collson, Coleson, and Coulson) was born in 1738. At that time his grandfather David was a Boston selectman. Adam followed his grandfather into leather-dressing, and he also became politically active.

Colson joined the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons in 1763. In 1766 the town meeting elected him as a “Clerk of the Market,” a beginner-level office. By 1773, he was also a member of the North End Caucus (and, reportedly, the “Long Room Club”).

Colson was in the second set of volunteers patrolling the wharves to make sure no East India Company tea was landed. Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s 1835 book Traits of the Tea-Party listed him among the men who destroyed that tea on 16 Dec 1773—the earliest such list to see print. Thatcher also wrote of that night’s meeting at Old South:
Some person or persons, in the galleries, (Mr. [William] Pierce thinks Adam Colson,) at this time cried out, with a loud voice, “Boston Harbor a tea-pot this night!”—“Hurra for Griffin’s Wharf!”—and so on.
For Colson to have gotten down from the gallery during a crowded meeting and onto a tea ship would have been a feat.

In 1774 Bostonians voted Colson to be the town’s Informer of Deer, a post he held for years, and the next year he was chosen to be a Warden. In 1779, with the town hurt by shortages and price jumps, he was made an Inspector of the Market. He appears to have served only briefly in the military, patrolling the town under Col. Jabez Hatch.

During these years Colson maintained his business selling leather goods in the South End under the “Sign of the Buck and Glove” near Liberty Tree. But he also bought real estate, opening an inn and what by 1788 he called the “Federal Stable.” In 1782 he hosted the future Marquis De Chastellux, who was making a trip through the new U.S. of A.

In Boston’s 1792 state election returns, Colson garnered 7 votes for lieutenant governor, coming in third. Samuel Adams with 686 was the clear winner, and merchant Thomas Russell with 17 was second. Yet Colson was still just a tradesman and landlord, not a gentleman (he didn’t get “Esq.” after his name in the official tally). That made his relative prominence notable. So what were his post-Revolutionary politics?

In 1795 the Rev. John Silvester John Gardiner (1765-1830), future rector of Trinity Church, published a book called Remarks on the Jacobiniad through the new Federal Orrery newspaper and then the printers Weld and Greenough. It was a biting, satirical, and not entirely coherent attack on the nascent Jeffersonian party in Boston. In particular, Gardiner lampooned Thomas Edwards, Benjamin Austin, Samuel Hewes, “Justice [John] Vinal,” and Colson. Judging by a legal report in the Columbian Centinel in 1791, Gardiner must have been carrying on that feud for years.

Remarks on the Jacobiniad portrayed Colson as an illiterate veteran of the Revolutionary struggle. At what must have been some expense, the book even included caricatures of those five leading “Jacobins,” allowing us to see a version of Adam Colson, above.

Colson died in 1798, not surviving to see his party take the Presidency and hold it for six terms. He left an estate worth nearly $17,000, including $10,000 of real estate on Washington Street in the South End.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Natural Protection against Counterfeiting

Sure, I’m intrigued by a mysterious box found under a government building filled with rare coins left by Freemasons, Revolutionaries, and Know-Nothings.

But the news story from last week about eighteenth-century money that really caught my interest was this discovery from Pennsylvania.

During the Seven Years’ War, Delaware issued a bunch of paper notes to circulate as currency. Benjamin Franklin and his business partner, David Hall, won the contract to produce those notes. To do so, they had to create a design that was distinctive and hard to counterfeit.

The Franklin and Hall shop gathered sage leaves, captured their vein patterns in plaster, and then used that plaster to create metal blocks that could print the leaf patterns in the center of each note. The twenty-shilling piece appears above. The result was a naturally intricate design that was hard to duplicate with available technology. Just to drive home the point, the printers added the words “To Counterfeit, is DEATH.”

Laws usually required the people who printed money to deliver the engraved plates to the government to ensure that neither they nor anyone else printed more without authorization. That’s how we have the copper plate that Paul Revere used to engrave his Boston Massacre image (actually Henry Pelham’s Boston Massacre image, cribbed): Revere used the other side of the plate to engrave currency for Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War and then handed in the piece of metal. It’s still property of the Massachusetts Archives.

As for Franklin and Hall, they would have had to turn over the metal plates of each unique leaf pattern (and perhaps the plaster molds as well). But eventually people lost track of them. They didn’t look like engravings of currency; they looked like pieces of metal with raised leaf patterns.

Recently the University of Connecticut historian Jessica Linker, who was actually at the Delaware County Institute of Science to study early female botanists, recognized that one such metal block with a leaf pattern wasn’t just a floral specimen. It matched Delaware’s 30-shilling piece. No similar printing block had been recognized before.

That artifact is now on loan to the Library Company of Philadelphia, which Franklin founded in 1731, as it prepares an exhibit about printing currency.

The same New York Times column that told that story also reports that in 2016 the Historical Society of Old Newbury will open an exhibit at Jacob Perkins’s engraving plant in Newburyport. Perkins developed a way to engraving on steel that was considered even harder to counterfeit. To tie everything together today, one of his earliest jobs was making the die for Massachusetts’s 1787 copper cent, one of the coins inside the State House time capsule.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What’s Inside the State House Time Capsule?

On 7 Aug 1855, workers were building an addition onto the Massachusetts State House and strengthening its foundation on Beacon Hill. They were surprised to find that the cornerstone in the building’s southeast corner  was damaged—and that something had been crudely cemented to it.

The workmen found “a few copper coins and two pieces of sheet lead loosely put together,” according to a Freemasons’ magazine. The silver plate laid down by Gov. Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in 1795 sat between those lead sheets, along with more coins. Those metal artifacts were “corroded with rust” but soon “restored to their original condition”—possibly with acid.

The managers of the construction projects quickly had the other side of the plate engraved with this text:
The Corner Stone of the Capitol having been removed in consequence of alterations and additions to the Building, The original deposit together with this inscription is replaced by the Most Worshipful Winslow Lewis, M.D., Grand Master and other Officers and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, in the presence of His Excellency, Henry J. Gardner, Governor of the Commonwealth, on the 11th day of August, 1855, A. L. 5855.
Instead of simply laying that plate on the ground again, the state government commissioned a “securely prepared metal box hermetically sealed.” The term “time capsule” hadn’t been coined yet, but that’s what they were making. Inside they placed the silver plate, the copper coins, and…some other things.

Only four days passed between when workers discovered the 1795 plate and coins and when they placed those things back inside the State House walls. There was no big public ceremony because the site was then a construction zone—only government officials attended. The original cornerstone was replaced with a granite block on a new foundation, and the metal box was placed inside a “newly hammered granite ashlar” on top of that block. This was the time capsule recently rediscovered during another repair process.

So what, besides the artifacts from 1795, might be in that box? The Freemason’s Monthly Magazine reported in detail on the 1855 developments, and it listed the contents.

First, there were the coins from 1795, showing the transition from state to federal currency with the adoption of the new Constitution:
  • “a Massachusetts cent, (commonly known as bearing an Indian on one side and an eagle on the other,) of the year 1787” [above]
  • “another of the year 1788 two half cents of the same currency and bearing the same dates”
  • “cents of the United States, coined in 1793, and 1794”
  • “New Jersey cent (Nova Caesarea,) of the year 1787”
  • “an old half penny of the time of George the Second
  • “a half dollar of the United States currency, 1795”
  • “half dime of the same currency and year”
  • “a pine tree shilling, of the currency established in Massachusetts in 1652”
  • “a copy of the small medal struck in England in 1794 in honor of Washington, bearing the following on the obverse, head and bust of Washington in regimentals, with the legend.—‘George Washington, born in Virginia, Feb. 11, 1732,’ the parallel lines, ‘General of the American Armies 1776. Resigned 1783. President of the United States 1789.’” [below]
To which the statesmen of 1855 added:
  • “The silver coins of the U. States currency of the present year”
  • “copper cents and half cents of the last four years”
  • “an impression of the State seal”
  • “the title page to the first volume of the newly printed Massachusetts Colony Records”
  • “morning papers of the day”
Sam Doran of Lexington found a newspaper article from 1855 snapping that Gov. Gardner, from the American or Know Nothing Party, had included “the Bee, the American Crusader, and two other Know Nothing sheets.” After all, this was the Massachusetts State House—there had to be a political complaint.

The time capsule was carefully removed by a Museum of Fine Arts preservation specialist, so soon we’ll know how accurate that list of objects is, and how well they’ve survived the last century and a half.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Under the Cornerstone of the State House

The big Boston historical news this week was the discovery of a time capsule sealed in the cornerstone of the State House, laid in 1795. Or rather, the rediscovery of the eighteenth-century artifacts inside that capsule because they were previously found in 1855.

But let’s start at the beginning. The first news reports, such as this C.N.N. dispatch referred to “a time capsule believed buried by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.” My first guess was that a whole bunch of prominent Bostonians had attended the cornerstone-laying in 1795 and journalists scanning the list of attendees simply pulled out the two men who had become brand names.

But no, Adams and Revere really were the two most prominent dignitaries at the event on Independence Day in 1795. Adams was seventy-two years old and the governor of Massachusetts, having succeeded John Hancock two years earlier. Revere, for his part, had recently become Grand Master of Massachusetts’s Freemasons. Even though few of those Masons were really masons, they participated in a lot of stone-laying then.

Other notables at the event included the Rev. Peter Thacher, chaplain of the state senate; architect Charles Bulfinch; and builder/politician Thomas Dawes. Fifteen white horses, representing the fifteen states then in the U.S. of A., drew the cornerstone through the streets and up to Beacon Hill.

The 8 July 1795 Columbian Centinel reported that Adams and Revere placed a silver plate under the stone which said:
This Corner Stone of a Building, intended for the use of the Legislature, and Executive Branches of Government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esq., Governor of said Commonwealth.

Assisted by the Most Worshipful Paul Revere, Gr. Master, And Right Worshipful William Scollay, Dp. G. Master, The Grand Wardens and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.

On the 4th day of July, AN. DOM., 1795. A. L. 5795.

Being the XXth Anniversary of American Independence.
Note that the twentieth anniversary of independence would actually come a year later.

The main speaker that day was a young lawyer named George Blake (1769-1841), whose speech was printed and sold by Benjamin Edes. A Jeffersonian, Blake spoke about how Royal Navy ships were once again preying on American crews. He went on to serve in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature and as U.S. Attorney for the district from 1802 to 1829.

Gov. Adams’s brief remarks on the new building included:
May the superstructure be raised even to the top stone without any untoward accident and remain permanent as the everlasting mountains. May the principles of our excellent Constitution founded in nature and in the rights of man, be ably defended here. And may the same principles be deeply engraven on the hearts of all citizens and there be fixed unimpaired and in full vigor till time shall be no more.
I think the constitution Adams referred to was the state’s, not the federal; the state’s was more explicit about natural rights. As to “permanent as the everlasting mountains,” less than two decades later developers began to cut down the crest of Beacon Hill, as shown above. And then in August 1855 a construction crew dug up that corner of the State House to repair the foundation.

They discovered the silver plate set between two sheets of lead—along with some other objects that the 1795 newspaper hadn’t mentioned.

TOMORROW: An expanded time capsule.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Questions about James Otis, Jr., in Hull

Here are more anecdotes about James Otis, Jr., in Hull, from the 1866 Historical Magazine article by the son of a man who grew up there:
He was very courteous to the ladies, and quick in his resentments. Madam [Judith] Souther [1735-1801], his landlady, unintentionally offended him, and he put her social knitting needles for ever out of sight. When a young lady, whom we knew, was vaccinated, he officiated very kindly as the physician’s assistant. On long winter evenings Otis kept an evening school for the children of Hull. . . .

Otis was a ready wit. One day a hen flew against the window in a violent passion, owing to the disturbance of her young brood. A young lady being present, who was one of the Collier family, a rather high-spirited race, Mr. Otis, amused with the scene, remarked that the hen evidently possessed the blood of the Colliers, which excited a hearty laugh. . . .

One time, when in Boston, Mr. Otis disguised himself in the attire of a farmer from the country, and proceeded to the T. wharf, in the rear of Long wharf, where was a British man-of-war ship; a quantity of its freight on the wharf was guarded by a regular. Mr. Otis, in his assumed character, approached him, appearing to be very ignorant, designing to show a little spirit, inquired of the soldier whether “it would be safe to go near that ar’ shooting-iron of your’n?” The regular, unsuspicious of any design from such an apparently unintelligent clown, persuaded him to take the musket in his hand. Mr. Otis directly placed it on his foot, and kicked it with great energy into the dock. Then, drawing himself up with an expression of almost superhuman dignity, James Otis remarked to the soldier, “Go back to George the Third, and tell him that an American farmer taught a British soldier discipline. Next time keep your gun!”
That last anecdote has a number of aspects that would have made it appealing for an American audience in Revolutionary times: the supposed fool or rustic getting the better of a condescending person in the city, the crafty Yankee fooling a British soldier.

In fact, it feels too good to be true. What did the soldier and the other British military personnel do immediately afterwards? Would “an expression of almost superhuman dignity” really have been enough to ward off their response? And how did the story get back to Hull?

The story uses “dock” in an old-fashioned way to mean the watery area where the ship was moored rather than a small wharf, as we’d most likely think of it now.

Now does anyone have an idea how “social knitting needles” might differ from any other kind? The magazine definitely says that, but I can’t find the phrase anywhere else.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

James Otis in Hull

Back in October I left James Otis, Jr., “non compos mentis” in 1772, with Boston’s voters finally concluding that he lacked the mental stability to remain in office.

Otis’s family sent him out to the South Shore town of Hull. In 1866 someone writing in the Historical Magazine under the pseudonym “Shawmut” described what he had heard about Otis from his father, who grew up in that town:
He occupied a front chamber of the mansion of Captain Daniel Souther [1727-1797], formerly of the Royal Navy. . . . Being a restless person, and disturbed with sleepless nights, he would, for exercise, gather, at twilight, large flat blue stones from the beach, and pave the yard around the house. Vestiges of this labor, partly overgrown with grass, and an embankment of stones, which, with his own hands, he erected at the foot of the elevation behind the mansion, are yet remaining, and are preserved unaltered, with peculiar veneration, by the occupants.

James Otis often wandered to adjoining towns. One time, Captain Souther found him on the five-mile beach that leads to Hingham. On dismounting from his horse, Otis jumped upon it, and returned to the village with lightning speed, leaving the naval veteran to find his way home on foot. Being lame and infirm, on his arrival home he remonstrated with Otis at such conduct, who replied, with a smile, that the horse raced as if he had a thousand legs. At another period, Otis fired a gun up the old-fashioned chimney, making a tremendous racket, which he regarded as a very amusing act.

The father of the writer of this article has often related that when he was about ten years of age, his birth-place being on the estate adjoining Captain Souther’s mansion, our patriot, who was fond of children, instructed him in the polite art of dancing in the captain’s yard; and, often imagining himself a military officer, Otis would gather the boys of Hull in a body to march around the village, and many were the youthful games in which he would initiate them, which made him a great favorite with young people.
Among those young people of Hull was Susanna Haswell, ten-year-old daughter of another Royal Navy retiree. When she died in 1824, having become the best-selling novelist Susanna Rowson (shown above), the Port-folio reported about her childhood:
While she resided in Massachusetts, she had frequent opportunities of seeing that great orator, and lawyer, James Otis, then one of the most influential men in America. Much pains had been bestowed on her education, and this learned and enthusiastic scholar was delighted with her early display of talents, and called her his little pupil. This intimacy she recollected with pleasure and pride, in every period of her life.
In later retellings of this story, “little pupil” changed into “little scholar,” but the sentiment remained.

TOMORROW: More Otis anecdotes from Hull.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Revisiting the Long Room Club

As long as I’m discussing how Boston’s pre-Revolutionary Whigs organized, I should go back to the Long Room Club. Back in 2013 I said that:
  • the earliest printed reference to this group was in Samuel Adams Drake’s Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (1873), which cited no source for that information.
  • Drake’s list of members included two men too young to have been in the top political leadership of the 1770s or before, two from outside Boston, and a printer known for being politically centrist, not Whig.
A commenter kindly alerted me that Hannah Mather Crocker wrote about the Long Room Club before her death in 1829 in the manuscripts published in 2011 as Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston. Drake cited “Mrs. Crocker’s memoir” for other information in his book, so she was almost certainly his source on the Long Room Club as well.

Crocker left multiple overlapping manuscripts, which editors Eileen Hunt Botting and Sarah L. Houser assembled in one volume. All its mentions of the Long Room Club offer the same basic information. As Crocker understood it, the group was formed in 1762 by Samuel Adams. Members included:
[Benjamin] Edes and [John] Gill…, [John] Green and [Joseph] Russell…, [John] Hancock, James Otis, Samuel Dexter of Dedham…, Colonel James Warren of Plymouth, Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. [Charles] Jarvis, Dr. [Benjamin] Church, the honorable Ben Austin…, Dr. Sam Cooper, William Cooper town clerk, Josiah Quincy…, Thomas Daws…, Mr. Sam Phillips Savage, Capt [Samuel] Partridge, Thomas Fleet, Royal Tyler, Samuel Whitewell, William Mollineaux, John Winthrop, Paul Revere, Adam Coulston, and Thomas Melvell—we think the only survivor of the Long Room Club.
Crocker credited the Long Room Club with opposing the policy to station soldiers in town in 1768 and determining to destroy the tea in 1773. She wrote that the club dissolved before the war, but the leaders “formed the first provincial congress.”

Drake listed fewer members than Crocker had, leaving out Green, Russell, Jarvis, Partridge, Austin, Whitwell, Molineux, and Colson, and listing only one Warren. Drake rendered Samuel Phillips Savage as Samuel Phillips and John Winthrop as John Winslow.

Crocker wrote, “The long room over the printing office was devoted to the use of a political society.” In both versions of that statement, the printers she had just written about were Green and Russell, who published the Boston Post-Boy until 1773. Drake interpreted Crocker to mean instead that the club met in a room over Edes and Gill’s print shop, which is how the story came down to us. But what if Crocker meant Green and Russell? They weren’t as politically active or radical, which would cast a different light on the organization.

Crocker may have gotten her information from Thomas Melvill. She called him “a standing monument of the Long Room Club and the only left to tell.” Yet Melvill was born in 1751, meaning he was only eleven when the group was reportedly founded and just twenty-four when it disbanded. Thus, although Melvill was an active young man in the Revolution and the war, he probably was never in the top echelon of the Whigs.

That still leaves questions about the accuracy of our information about the Long Room Club. Crocker’s manuscripts let us push back the earliest reference to it by about half a century, to a time when veterans of the Revolutionary War were still alive. But there are still a lot of odd details, and we’re still dependent on one fallible source. (The footnotes in Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston cite Esther Forbes’s Paul Revere and the World He Lived In as another source, but that book’s description of the Long Room Club matches Drake, who evidently relied on Crocker.)

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Whom Do We Mean by “Sons of Liberty”?

One for the perennial questions about America’s Revolution is how we should understand the “Sons of Liberty,” as American activists called themselves. With a television show of that name on the way, I suspect the question will come up even more.

In recent weeks Rebecca Brooks’s History of Massachusetts blog and Bob Ruppert’s article for the Journal of the American Revolution have tackled that question, rounding up the sources on the Sons of Liberty in Boston.

One one side of the spectrum of possible answers is the one implied by the “Sons of Liberty medal” I discussed yesterday: it was such a formalized group that it gave each member a medal engraved with his initials to wear on public occasions and (at least according to Johnny Tremain) flash as a sign of membership. That idea holds appeal for spy fiction writers, but the evidence for it is very thin.

On the other side is the idea that “Sons of Liberty” was a generic label for any men in the colonies who opposed the Crown’s new revenue measures and enforcement between the Stamp Act and the outbreak of war. That suggests it was no more of a formal group than, say, “all true Americans.”

Ben Carp’s article on the term for Colonial Williamsburg, which I missed when it was published on the web three years ago, offers some valuable information on how the phrase resonated in the Georgian British Empire:
The term “sons of liberty” or “sons of freedom” was a generic term of national pride in the eighteenth century, usable on both sides of the Atlantic for anyone who felt that English, and later British, liberty was his birthright. An English writer in 1753 knew that his readers, as “sons of liberty,” would recoil at tales of despotism in India and elsewhere. An Irish Protestant might rally his compatriots with the phrase. Essentially, a British son of liberty was the same thing as a patriot, or a “friend of his country.” In the 1760s, when Americans took pride in their identity as British subjects, they thought of empire and liberty as one and the same.

But in 1765, the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies changed, and so did the meaning behind the phrase “Sons of Liberty.” The phrase caught fire in America when Colonel Isaac Barré spoke against the Stamp Bill introduced in Parliament in February 1765.
A group of Whigs in Albany led by Dr. Thomas Young adopted the name “Sons of Liberty” when they wrote themselves a “constitution,” now known only through a photostat copy.

Most other groups didn’t that far, and local newspapers used the term in a more general way, as in “a great Number of Gentlemen, Sons of Liberty” (New York Mercury, 13 Jan 1766), or “some young gentlemen, Sons of Liberty” (Newport Mercury, 14 Apr 1766). There were also references to “Daughters of Liberty” and “Friends of Liberty,” all united in the same cause.

And in Boston? On 15 Jan 1766, John Adams wrote in his diary that he “Spent the Evening with the Sons of Liberty, at their own Apartment in Hanover Square, near the Tree of Liberty.” He named nine men who were there, without suggesting they were the only members of the group, and compared them to the sort of gentlemen’s club he was used to. A month later, one of those men, Thomas Crafts, Jr., told Adams that “the Sons of Liberty Desired your Company at Boston Next Wensday.”

So in early 1766 the term “Sons of Liberty” seems to have meant a particular group in Boston. Yet as of the end of the previous year that same group was calling itself “the Loyall Nine” while issuing the invitation shown above to “all True-born Sons of Liberty”—which implies they saw themselves as just part of a larger movement. And within a couple of years men not part of the Loyall Nine, such as Dr. Young from Albany, were taking the lead in organizing political actions in Boston.

By the anniversary of the first Stamp Act protests in 1769, over three hundred “Sons of Liberty” dined at Lemuel Robinson’s Liberty Tree tavern in Dorchester. Those men included some who became Loyalists as war arrived. That’s obviously too large and diverse a group to be secretly organizing radical political actions as the Loyall Nine had done back in 1765.

On the other hand, those political actions could bring out thousands of people, as at the funerals of early 1770 or the tea meetings of 1773. So there were probably many more than three hundred men in Boston who considered themselves “Sons of Liberty.” (Indeed, by making their celebration a sit-down dinner out in Dorchester, whoever organized that banquet made sure it was just for gentlemen.)

I think it’s best to think of the label “Sons of Liberty” as similar to “Tea Party,” “Women’s Lib,” or other mass movements from recent decades. There are small formal groups that use “Tea Party” in their names, but many people support the movement or attend events without joining such groups. No single organization decided everything said and done in the cause of “Women’s Liberation.” And those movements developed recognizable iconography, but they didn’t have membership badges.