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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Friday, February 27, 2015

“God Save the People!” Exhibit Opens in Boston

Today the Massachusetts Historical Society opens its “God Save the People!” exhibit about the political conflict in Boston that grew from 1765 to 1775 and exploded into war. Last night I attended a preview, and can happily recommend a visit for anyone interested in American history. The exhibit will be up through the “So Sudden an Alteration” conference and into September. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., and free.

In designing an exhibit worthy of the sestercentennial, the M.H.S. staff tackled a few challenges. One is the size of the exhibit space: three rooms (though one can also peek into the Treasures Room with its semi-permanent display of portraits of James Bowdoin, George Washington, young John and Abigail Adams, and old Lafayette). Any exhibit is a fraction of the available material, but, given the size of the M.H.S. holdings, this exhibit had to show a very small selection indeed.

Another challenge was that the society chose long ago to focus on documentary material. Most of its holdings are letters, diaries, and other writings. Multiple pages plucked from the John Rowe’s extensive (if suspiciously incomplete) diary and Harbottle Dorr’s newspaper collection provide continuity over the decade. But such writings are best read while sitting down at length instead of gazed at.

To enhance the exhibit’s visual dimension, the society has drawn on its fine collection of portraits—though those of course show only the very top of society. The engravings of Paul Revere and other cartoonists, usually shown both in original form and enlarged for easier examination, illustrate stages of the conflict. And we get to see some of the grab-bag of artifacts that the society has accumulated over the years, such as:
The family of those officers also loaned other items to illustrate the courtship of Capt. John Linzee of the Royal Navy and local miss Sukey Inman.

The tent poles of the exhibit are the most famous Boston events: the Stamp Act protests, the conflict over non-importation leading up to the Massacre and succeeding trials, the Tea Party, and Bunker Hill. Ironically, conflicts that were played out largely in documents, such as the argument over judicial salaries, are less visible.

There was, of course, a parallel struggle for liberty in those years, by blacks both free and enslaved. The exhibit represents that history through the figure of Phillis Wheatley; it shows her portrait, one of the few surviving documents in her own handwriting, and her writing desk. Beside them is the Bucks of America medal, though I think that’s really a relic of the African-American community’s strive for acceptance in the early republic of the 1780s rather than of the Revolutionary War.

Among the exhibit’s strengths is being able to see some of the same figures at different times. Thus, one of the first items is shopkeeper Cyrus Baldwin’s 15 Aug 1765 letter to his brother Loammi describing “an effigy of the honorable stamp master of this province” hanging from a big tree in the South End. (That was weeks before that tree was designated Liberty Tree.) Among the later items is Cyrus Baldwin’s complaint about losing a chest of tea to Charlestown Patriots, as Chris Hurley narrated earlier this year. We see Samuel Quincy telling his legal colleague Robert Treat Paine that prosecuting Customs official Edward Manwaring for the Massacre will be “another Windmill adventure,” and later Quincy exchanging letters with his dying Patriot brother Josiah.

Perforce, the exhibit focuses on the top of society, the class involved in formal politics, the class most likely to save their papers. That stratum offers a variety of stories—even, in the portrait of Customs commissioner Charles Paxton, a silent bit of queer history.

The dimension of pre-Revolutionary Boston I think this exhibit can’t capture so easily is the everyday life of most Bostonians and how that intersected with the political developments. But there are glimpses—in, for example, Isaac Vibird’s newspaper protest that his wife had visited a proscribed importer’s shop just to pick up some locally made shoes. So when you go, take some extra minutes to read the newspaper pages and see what else was going on.

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