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, December 22, 2016

M. Voltaire and “that civil war between mother and daughter”?

On 12 Dec 1775, Pvt. Aaron Wright, a rifleman from Pennsylvania serving in Cambridge during the siege of Boston, picked up a copy of the New-England Chronicle dated five days before.

You can read a copy of that same newspaper here, from the Harbottle Dorr collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Wright was particularly interested in one of the front-page items, which had been reprinted from the 18 November Constitutional Gazette of New York. It was headlined as a letter from Voltaire to a Dutch friend “after the defeat of the Spaniards before Algiers,” which had happened in July.

Wright copied much of that item into his journal:
Ever since the religious wars ceased, Christian knights have been totally useless. . . .

Algiers, which has 2 men-of-war of 50 guns each, 4 of 40, and 5 frigates of 30 each, is sole master of the Mediterranean, and prescribes laws to the Dutch, English, French, and Spaniards, each of whose navies consists of at least 200 ships of war; that is ridiculous, you will say. But no matter; they say it is politic. I congratulated myself when I found Spain, most Catholic, cutting throats, and fitting out a fleet to destroy Algiers. But, to my surprise, I soon beheld ten or twelve thousand of them lie dead before the batteries of Algiers, and the fleet sailing home as fast as possible.

But will not France, Great Britain, and Holland immediately join Spain and put a period to these little but troublesome States? No! by no means! Their High Mightinesses, the Dutch, must remain neuter, to sell their powder and ball, as also their cheese, to both belligerent States.

Great Britain is just now engaged in a war of more consequence with her own colonies. Doubtless to know the cause of that civil war between mother and daughter, which has already cost the lives of hundreds, and is likely to throw the whole nation into convulsions, it is in one word this: the daughter colonies say, “We will supply you with every thing in our power, cheerfully, freely, and voluntarily.” But the mother country replies; “Because you will give every thing cheerfully, freely, and voluntarily, you are rebels, and your throats must be cut.”
On that Wright commented, “Which is pretty d—— near the case, I think.”

The presentation of Britain as a cruel mother obviously spoke to Aaron Wright, and he probably liked the picture of the big European states as militarily weak. He must have been pleased to see those observations coming from the famous European philosopher Voltaire.

In fact, that letter appears to have been created in America for an American readership, according to A. Owen Aldridge’s paper, “The American Revolution and a Spurious Letter from Voltaire,” published in 1974. Still, it’s an interesting moment, the rifleman reading the philosophe.

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