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, January 15, 2015

Schoolboy Views of President Washington in 1789

When President George Washington finally reached Boston on 24 Oct 1789, he found that the town had planned a huge celebration for him. Huge.

The young architect Charles Bulfinch had designed a triumphal arch, shown above. (For more about that structure, see the Massachusetts Historical Society’s recent posting about it.) Townsfolk turned out in a big parade, organized by their professions.

Among those groups were Boston’s schoolboys. The town was in the midst of reorganizing its public school system to allow girls to attend as well (for half the year), but boys were still considered the model scholars.

William H. Sumner was one of those boys, and his recollections of the day appeared in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1860:
I, then a boy of between nine and ten years of age, was a pupil at Master [Oliver Willington] Lane’s West Boston writing-school. Washington entered Boston on Saturday, the 24th of October, 1789. The children of the schools were all paraded in the main street, and stood in the gutters in front of the long rows of men whose strength was required and exerted to protect them from the crowd on the side-walks as the procession passed along the street. The General rode on a noble white charger with characteristic erectness and dignity. Colonel [Tobias] Lear and Major [William] Jackson accompanied him as his aids. Washington was in uniform, and as he rode, his head uncovered, he inclined his body first on one side and then on the other, without distinctly bowing, but so as to observe the multitude in the streets, and the ladies in the windows and on the tops of the houses, who saluted him as he passed.

Master Lane’s boys were placed in front of Mr. Jonathan Mason’s hard-ware store, near the bend in Washington Street (then Cornhill) opposite Williams Court. I well remember the laugh which our salute created, when, as the General passed us, we rolled in our hands our quills with the longest feathers we could get.

Mr. N. R. Sturgis, who was at school with me at that time, remembers this circumstance. From our position at the angle of the street, we had a fair view of the procession as it approached and after it passed us. A select choir of singers, led by [Daniel] Rhea, the chorister of Brattle Street Church, was placed on the triumphal arch under which the procession was to pass, and which extended from the Old State House to the stores of Joseph Pierce and others at the opposite side of Cornhill. The arch was decorated with flags, flowers and evergreen, so that the musicians were not seen until they rose up and sang the loud paean, commencing as Washington first came in sight at the angle where we stood, swelling in heavy chorus until he passed from our sight under the triumphal arch and took his station upon it.
And Edward G. Porter’s Rambles in Old Boston (1887) reported:
Isaac Harris…was born in 1779, one of ten children of Samuel Harris, mast-maker. . . . At the reception of President Washington, in 1789, Samuel Harris was chosen to carry the mast-makers’ flag, which is still preserved in the family. On the same occasion the young Isaac participated with the boys of the public schools in doing honor to the distinguished visitor. They were ranged in two lines on the mall through which Washington passed on horseback. Each boy held a quill pen in his left hand, and was to take off his cap with the other when the President approached. Harris agreed with the boy next him that, as soon as they had made their bow, they would stroke their pens across the President’s boot. They did it successfully, and kept the pens as mementos of a famous event.
Anne Haven Thwing reports, “Harris was one of the six boys to receive the first Franklin medal in 1792,” endowed by Benjamin Franklin and still given to top scholars today. In 1810 he helped to save the Old South Meeting-House from a fire, receiving a silver cup from the congregation as thanks.

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