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, December 14, 2018

Benjamin Burton and the Tea Party

In the fall of 1833, Maine’s newspaper were eager to name residents of the young state who had participated in the Boston Tea Party sixty years before.

The 9 October Augusta Age newspaper listed three men: Benjamin Simpson, Ephraim Smith, and “Col. Benjamin Barton of Warren.”

That third man was actually named Benjamin Burton. He was born 9 Dec 1749 in Thomaston and died 21 May 1835 in Warren, having lived much of his life in Cushing. The top of his marble sarcophagus appears here, courtesy of Find-a-Grave.

Burton rose to the rank of major during the Revolutionary War and also had an exciting time as a prisoner of war alongside Gen. Peleg Wadsworth. He later became a colonel in the militia, magistrate, and legislator.

Obviously by 1833 Burton was stating publicly that he had helped to destroy the tea in Boston harbor. In that same period he was also applying for a federal pension for his Revolutionary War service. His application file says nothing about the Tea Party, which wasn’t pertinent to whether he qualified.

Benjamin Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots cites a letter from Burton to Maine historian William D. Williamson in 1835 as a source. The book says Burton was a sailor on the Cumberland who happened to be in Boston on the crucial night and joined in destroying the tea. I haven’t seen that letter to know if it offers more detail to assess.

Thirty years later, in his History of Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, Maine, Cyrus Eaton relayed Burton’s claim to be at the Tea Party this way:
[Burton,] happening to be at Boston on a visit, went in the crowd to the Old South meetinghouse, and, as soon as the patriot orator had closed his animated address, hearing the shout tea-party, tea-party, and being touched with the spirit of the times, joined the party, was stationed in the hold of one of the ships to fasten the slings upon the tea-chests, and labored with his might between two and three hours in the work of destruction. It being about the time of low water, the detested tea rested on the ground and, when the tide rose, floated as a scum upon the water and was lodged by the surf along the shores.
That account strikes me as unreliable. The term “tea party” wasn’t applied to the event until the 1820s.

Even farther afield, the website of the Tea Party Ships and Museum states that Burton “was also one of the men who led the meeting at the Old South Meeting House before the tea protest actually began.” None of the nineteenth-century sources makes such a claim. It’s possible that was based on a misreading the phrase about “the patriot orator” above as applying to Burton rather than Samuel Adams or another of the politicians who spoke that night.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ephraim Smith and the Tea Party

The anniversary of the first Boston Tea Party is nearly upon us. Last year I discussed Benjamin Simpson, a man from Maine who was one of the first participants to talk about the experience for the press.

Joshua Wyeth appears to have coined the term “tea party” to describe himself and others who destroyed the East India Company tea. Charles Bahne offered a theory about why that label struck a chord here. The term quickly became popular in the 1830s, with the old man most closely linked to it being George R. T. Hewes, then living in upstate New York.

Then on 20 Sept 1833 the Portland Weekly Advertiser ran this letter from an unnamed correspondent:
The Otsego Republican, speaking of Mr. Hewes, says “he is believed to be the only survivor of the memorable tea party,” in Boston.

By way of correcting a wrong impression, and also of offering all the information in my power, and of inducing others to contributing their mite, as every fact relating to that noble band must be interesting, I would mention the name of Ephraim Smith, Esq., of Gorham, as another member.

He was at the time an inhabitant of Wellfleet, Cape Cod; but happening to be in Boston, he heard a whisper going the rounds in the afternoon, that a party would attack the British tea in the evening, and throw it overboard. He says, they assembled at the town house, at the head of King-street, now, I believe, called State-street, and having disguised themselves with paint, &c. marched down, boarded the ships, three in number, lying on the South side of Long-wharf, and threw the tea overboard, without opposition. He says there were hundreds in the company; how many he would not pretend to say: he does not now recollect any names.

Mr. Smith is now 83 years of age.—There is another member of the same party, who now receives a pension from the office in this town, whose name is not recollected.
Smith died on 13 Jan 1835 at age eighty-four, according to Josiah Pierce’s 1862 History of the Town of Gorham.

In his History of Gorham, Maine, published in 1908, Hugh D. McClellan added another anecdote from Smith, presumably passed down among relatives and inhabitants:
In December, 1773, he was in Boston with his vessel. Seeing a crowd he joined in and was one of the men who went on board the English vessels, and threw the tea overboard. He often told the story of one of the men, who, wishing to carry a little tea home to his wife, unwittingly put so much into his coat-tail pocket as to make it too prominent. This was discovered by some co-patriots, when a jackknife soon made his coat into a short jacket. That part containing the obnoxious weed was thrown into the dock [i.e., the water beside the wharf] much to his disgust, and the amusement of the boys and the crowd generally.
I find Smith’s story less convincing than Simpson’s. It contains little information that wasn’t widely known in Boston during or soon after the event. The man who tried to get away with tea, for example, was Charles Conner.

A detail from Smith’s telling that doesn’t appear in public accounts is that the tea destroyers “assembled at the town house.” That’s hard to believe and even harder to believe no other witness noticed. The building was the center of town and one of the seats of government.

I suspect Smith was in Boston during or soon after the Tea Party of December 1773, but I doubt that he was a participant. Nonetheless, the Maine press was proud to list him as one.

TOMORROW: Another claimant from down east.

[The map of Maine above was published by Anthony Finley in 1830 and is available from the Philadelphia Print Shop.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Master Teachers Seminar in Washington, July 2019

The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati will offer a weeklong Master Teachers Seminar in Washington, D.C., on 8-12 July 2019. The theme is “The American Revolution and the Cause of Independence: ‘Between Submission and the Sword.’” Independence is, the seminar description says, “one of the four major achievements of the American Revolution and a central concept of the American Revolution Institute Curriculum.”

This Master Teachers Seminar is a week-long residential program for middle- and high-school teachers focusing on the American Revolution. It is held each summer at Anderson House, the headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati near Dupont Circle. The seminar includes morning lectures and discussions about teaching the Revolution and afternoon sessions working with the resources of the Institute’s library and museum. The best lesson plans that participating teachers develop during the session are published on the Institute website with credit to their authors.

Teachers chosen to participate in the seminar will receive a stipend for travel to and from Washington, D.C., and be treated to meals and lodging at Anderson House. Since Anderson House is a Gilded Age mansion, those quarters are not spartan. (The photo above of one of my talks there reveals the difficult conditions under which I sometimes have to work.) Each participant will also receive a letter documenting sixty hours of professional development.

The institute will be accepting applications for the 2019 Master Teachers Seminar until 22 February.
The application must include a cover letter describing how students will benefit from one’s participation in the program, a résumé, and a draft Revolutionary War lesson plan dealing with the idea of independence and spanning two class periods. For more detail, see this webpage. Applications will be judged on the potential of the lesson plans with preference given to those that include a preliminary bibliography on the chosen topic that uses the Institute’s collections.

Applicants should upload their material through this webpage by 22 Feb 2019. Questions can be sent to Stacia Smith, Director of Education at Anderson House.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

What Ticked Off William Claggett

On Thursday, 13 December, the Newport Historical Society will have its annual meeting. Dr. Elaine Forman Crane will speak on “The Vintner and the Indian,” and the society staff will unveil the revamped NewportHistory.org website. That starts at 4:00 P.M. at the Colony House in Washington Square.

That Thursday evening, the society will celebrate the opening of a new exhibit titled “‘My small Ability’: The Life and Work of William Claggett,” inspired by the new book Claggett: Newport’s Illustrious Clockmaker by Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III.

Claggett made clocks in Newport from 1716 until his death in 1748, and also trained other craftsmen. The exhibit features tall case clocks by Claggett and his trainees, clothing, maps, a mahogany board, and the Claggett wall clock in the society’s Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House. Also included are copperplates that Claggett engraved to print Rhode Island currency. And there are more Claggett clocks on display at the Redwood Library.

As a good New Englander, Claggett also got involved in religious disputes. The society recently ran a blog post by scholar Margaret Hanson about his 1721 book A Looking-Glass for Elder Clarke and Elder Wightman And the Church under their Care, about a controversy at the Second Baptist Church:
The trouble began when the church Elders, Daniel Wightman and James Clarke, suspended church member John Rhodes from communion following a complaint regarding his business practices. Claggett felt that Rhodes’s dismissal was unfair. In response, he and another congregant, Captain John Rogers, withdrew from communion.

This led to further disagreements: while Claggett and Rogers protested the church Elders’ decision to suspend Rhodes, others defended them and reprimanded Claggett and Rogers for withdrawing from the communion. The dispute continued over the next 21 months, as Claggett, Rogers, Rhodes, the church elders, and various other congregants argued during church meetings, in private conversations, in publications, and through written correspondence.

Recently, we discovered a folder among Second Baptist Church records in the NHS archives containing exciting materials related to the Looking-Glass dispute. The newly discovered materials include letters (both originals and manuscript copies) exchanged among the disputants in 1720 and 1721, several of which are reproduced in A Looking-Glass.

The folder also contains a booklet titled A Just Vindication (1721) which outlines the church’s defense of the elders and complaints regarding Claggett. While Claggett’s Looking-Glass does not include a full reproduction of A Just Vindication, this document was important in motivating him to write and publish his own version of the dispute. Furthermore, the final section of Claggett’s book, titled A Reply to Your Un-just Vindication, is dedicated to refuting the church’s arguments and narrative.

The folder also contains several letters written between 1723 and 1725, after the publication of Claggett’s Looking-Glass, which comment on its contents, as well as its author.
Not surprisingly, Claggett ended up leaving that church.

The exhibit opening starts at 6:30 P.M. at the society’s Resource Center, 82 Touro Street in Newport. Like the annual meeting, it is free and open to the public. Register for space here.

Monday, December 10, 2018

“He ordered powder casks to be filled with sand”

Here’s one last story of gunpowder and sand supposedly getting mixed up during the siege of Boston. It comes from the recollections of William H. Sumner (shown here), who wasn’t even born until 1780. He later became adjutant general of the Massachusetts militia, so he got to hear a lot of older men’s stories.

Sumner wrote down this account of the end of the siege about 1825, and it appeared in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1858:
In the following year, we took possession of Dorchester heights ourselves. At the time they were taken possession of, as I have received the impression from some person—whose name I do not now recollect—[Gen. George] Washington had but little ammunition. In order to conceal from the soldiers the true state of the army in that respect, he ordered powder casks to be filled with sand, and that several loads of them should be carried to the heights by the way of Roxbury, where the right wing of the army, under Gen. [John] Thomas, was posted. By this deception, the soldiers were satisfied that the army was in a condition to defend itself, notwithstanding the reports that the supply of ammunition was nearly exhausted.

After possession was taken of the heights, hogsheads were filled with earth, and so placed that they could be rolled down upon the enemy to break the columns, if they should dare attempt to march up the hill.
Again, this has no support from contemporaneous sources. Washington felt himself well supplied with powder by early 1776. Gen. Artemas Ward was overseeing the right wing of the army from Roxbury, with Thomas under him.

The Continental plan to defend their quickly built fortifications on Dorchester Heights definitely  involved barrels full of rocks, dirt, and/or sand. Washington even wrote a special note to Ward about that: “Remember [the?] Barrels.” Author and early-photography collector Joe Bauman just sent me an email quoting the aged veteran Simeon Hicks’s pension application as stating that “he assisted in filling Hogsheads & Barrels with sand to roll upon the British should they attempt to ascend.”

It’s conceivable, therefore, that some Continentals or members of the militia companies mobilized for that final push saw wagons moving barrels toward or onto the Dorchester peninsula and assumed they were full of gunpowder, only to learn later they were (to be?) filled with sand. But that’s not the same as Washington ordering barrels of sand to be trucked around to fool his own men.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Ezekiel Price: “Sand was mixt with the powder”

I don’t trust Elkanah Watson’s story of a Continental Army powderhouse stocked with barrels of sand to make the gunpowder supply look bigger than it was. And I completely discount Edward Everett Hale’s statement that Gen. George Washington was taken aback by such a subterfuge by Gen. Artemas Ward. But there was a moment during the siege of Boston when Americans worried about such a mix-up.

That moment was right after the Battle of Bunker Hill, before the provincials realized how much damage they had inflicted on the British troops. In those early days, people were looking around for someone to blame for losing the Charlestown peninsula.

Ezekiel Price was a Boston court officer and insurance broker who had taken up residence in Milton after the war broke out. He kept a diary recording lots of the gossip he picked up, including this news on Monday, 19 June 1775, two days after the battle:
Further reports relating to the unfortunate action at Charlestown,—that the Continental Army fought like lions, and mowed down the Regular Army as they approached the entrenchments, until their ammunition was expended, and until a fatal mistake (as I call it) was discovered,—that the cartridges and shot for the artillery proved wholly unfit for them, and could not be used; besides which, an opinion prevails among the Continental Army, that treachery was in some of the Continental officers. A suspicion also arises among them that sand was mixt with the powder, and that the cartridges and ball being thus sent was with design: all which creates great uneasiness in the camp.
This rumor appears to have confined the problem of sand and gunpowder just to the cartridges, or bags of powder, supplied to the New England artillery, not to the entire army’s powder supply.

There had indeed been problems with the cartridges for Capt. John Callender’s artillery company: the cartridges sent out with his cannon were too large to fit into the barrels. But once provincial soldiers broke open those cartridges, the powder inside proved quite explosive.

The next day, Price discounted all those rumors on the basis of new rumors:
Heard that the Continental Army had received a fresh supply of powder, and that they were in high spirits; . . . that all the reports of treachery were entirely without foundation, and propagated by the enemies to the cause, and weak, discontented men, and by some cowards who fled from the engagement, and formed these lies to favor their escape from danger.
Those counter-rumors might protest too much, but that would only confirm that we can’t treat all the tales Price recorded as reliable fact. Most likely, the suspicion about sand and gunpowder grew from an early attempt to explain why the provincial artillery regiment had performed so badly overall. Once more information spread, blame focused on Callender and other specific officers.

TOMORROW: One last mix of sand and gunpowder.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Hale’s “barrels of sand marked as powder”

Elkanah Watson told a nifty story about the Continental Army using barrels of sand to disguise its lack of gunpowder during the siege of Boston. Several authors in the late nineteenth century repeated the tale, despite the lack of supporting evidence.

The most interesting way that story resurfaced was in the books of the Boston chronicler Edward Everett Hale (shown here). This is from The Life of George Washington, Studied Anew (1888):
The history of those months is indeed dramatic. First of all, there comes in the terrible revelation that he [Washington] and his army were almost entirely without powder. It is said that he was silent for a long time after this revelation was made to him, and well may it have been that none of the gentlemen around him dared to break this silence.

It is not yet fully explained how the misunderstanding took place, by which he and the other officers in chief command had been deceived. It would appear that an effort had been made to conceal from the guards themselves, the small amount of powder in the storehouses. This was an effort dictated by the finest military insight and is highly creditable to [Artemas] Ward, or whoever carried it into effect. In the execution of this plan, barrels of sand marked as powder, had been delivered with the proper amount of parade, from time to time, and had been entered by the unconscious clerks in charge, as if they were the powder which they should have been. The secret was so well maintained that it deceived even those who ought not to have been deceived. And when, for his own use, Washington had an accurate statement of the amount of real powder and of the amount of sand, which he had in store, he was literally struck dumb by the revelation. He had not nine cartridges for each man in his army.
And from Memories of a Hundred Years (1902):
It is only a few years since the old stone powder-house was removed which stood, in Revolutionary days, surrounded with salt marsh, where the Cottage Farms bridge now crosses the Charles River. When General Washington was first making his rounds to the various posts of the Continental Army besieging Boston, he visited this powder-house. The day of the visit is to be found in the “American Archives.” As he came out, the officer in charge called him aside and said that he supposed he understood that the kegs of powder which they had been inspecting were filled with black sand. This had been one of the precautions of General Ward, who had deceived even his own staff as to the amount of what is called, in the letters of that time, “the essential article.” It is of this visit that the tradition is that Washington did not speak for an hour afterward.
This series started with a recent Atlantic article crediting Washington with knowingly using barrels of sand to hide his army’s gunpowder shortage from the British. Edward Everett Hale presented events the other way around, saying that the barrels of sand had confused Washington and led to that sudden shortage. (There’s a little irony in how Hale’s most famous piece of fiction appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1863.)

In fact, neither of Hale’s descriptions of events match the contemporaneous accounts of how Gen. Washington heard about the gunpowder shortage at a meeting with Massachusetts officials on 3 Aug 1775. Nor would it make the least sense for any commander to fill his powderhouses with barrels of sand marked as gunpowder and believed by the supply clerks to be gunpowder when there was a war on. The problem was a bureaucratic error, not a too-clever conspiracy.

TOMORROW: Contemporaneous rumors about sand and powder.

Friday, December 07, 2018

John Brown’s Gunpowder for Sale

Yesterday I quoted a story from Elkanah Watson describing a trip to Medford with gunpowder for the Continental Army during the siege of Boston.

Watson’s memoir didn’t specify a date for that mission. We know from contemporaneous sources that Gen. George Washington was confident about his army’s gunpowder supply until 3 Aug 1775. Then suddenly Massachusetts officials told him that their reports showed what gunpowder they had collected without subtracting the powder that the army had used.

Immediately after that bad news, Washington wrote to the Continental Congress and regional governments asking for more powder. He issued sharp orders that Continental soldiers should not to fire their guns unnecessarily. (He did not, however, spread rumors to British informants of having 1,800 barrels of gunpowder on hand, as biographer James T. Flexner claimed.) More powder started to arrive, enough so that by September the commander was ready to propose an attack on the British Boston.

Elkanah Watson’s employer, the Rhode Island merchant John Brown (shown here), entered this story with a letter dated 3 November:
I having a Vessel arrived at Norwich [Connecticut] from Suranam which having brought a Small Quantity of Powder Viz. Forty four Cask Containing a Half hundred Each, I thought it proper to acquaint you thereof, but I am at a loss to determin which may be best for the General Cause for it to go to the Camp or to be Sold out here, so that People in General may be better quallified to Defend the Sea Coast…
With a postscript written the next day:
Since the above, Our General Assembly has applyed for the Refusel of the Powder. and if they Give the price which will make it as Good to me as tho the money had bin Layd out in mello. Viz. 6/ per ¶ Ct, must Give them the prefference.
The response came from Stephen Moylan, the Continental mustermaster general just elevated into the role of Washington’s acting military secretary. He wrote on 8 November: “As the powder you mention to have Imported, is disposed of, I have nothing to say thereon.”

More than two weeks later, on 21 November, Brown wrote again to say he hadn’t heard back from the general. Either Moylan’s letter never arrived or Brown decided to pretend it hadn’t since he still had powder to sell after all: “This is to Offer you One Ton of good Pistol Powder at Six shillings per pound here.” That was 50% more than Washington had paid for powder from another supplier in late October.

Moylan responded:
in your Letter of the 21st you make an offer of one ton of good Pistol powder at 6/per pound The General Will take it tho it is a most exorbitant price, he is willing to encourage the importation of that necessy article.

P.S. There are two Companys orderd from your quarter to this place, Governor [Nicholas] Cooke will inform you when they march you will please to Send the powder under their Guard in a Coverd Waggon shoud they have Set out before this reaches you must get a few of the minute or militia men of your Colony to guard it to this place
Brown presumably sent that gunpowder in December. It’s conceivable that he entrusted the shipment to his teen-aged apprentice Watson, who recalled having made such a journey with “six or eight recruits.“ Indeed, an escort of militiamen, if they were indeed men, might have made Brown more comfortable sending young Watson.

However, even if this was the mission Watson described, it’s clear that he exaggerated the details in his memoir. The army’s gunpowder supply never dropped to “four rounds to a man,” even at the crisis point in August, and that crisis was well past by December. Brown offered a ton of gunpowder, not “a ton and a half.” And the merchant didn’t “immediately forward” the powder to Cambridge once his ship arrived; he played two potential customers off against each other for a couple of weeks in order to get his high asking price.

Elkanah Watson may well have delivered gunpowder to the American lines for his master. But as to whether he supervised the shipment, met the commander-in-chief at his headquarters, or learned anything about barrels of black sand in the powderhouse, I suspect some of those details were embellishments to make the memory more interesting.

TOMORROW: A myth built on top of a myth.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Elkanah Watson’s Story Built on Sand

This week The Atlantic published Amy Zegart’s article “George Washington Was a Master of Deception.”

Most of the examples are from the Revolutionary War when Washington was trying to fool the British commanders about his military capacities and plans. That was, of course, normal behavior for eighteenth-century generals, not to mention generals today. Even people who want to believe Mason Weems’s “cannot tell a lie” myth don’t begrudge Washington those untruths.

One particular example caught my eye:
After a summer of skirmishes around Boston, rebel gunpowder was nearly gone; Washington’s soldiers had enough only for nine bullets per man. To hide this potentially fatal weakness from the British while he scrambled to get supplies, Washington ordered that fake gunpowder casks be filled with sand and shipped to depots where they would be spotted by British spies.
The citation for this claim points to Elkanah Watson’s memoir Men and Times of the Revolution, published posthumously in 1856. This anecdote comes a passage in which Watson (shown above) discusses his apprenticeship to the Providence merchant John Brown:
On the 3d of July, 1775, Gen. Washington assumed the command of the forces then besieging Boston. He found an army animated with zeal and patriotism, but nearly destitute of every munition of war, and of powder in particular. Mr. Brown, anticipating the war, had instructed the captains of his vessels to freight on their return voyages with that article. At this crisis, when the army before Boston had not four rounds to a man, most fortunately one of Mr. Brown’s ships brought in a ton and a half of powder. It was immediately forwarded, under my charge, to headquarters at Cambridge. I took with me six or eight recruits to guard it.

I delivered my letter to Gen. Washington in person, and was deeply impressed with an emotion I cannot describe, in contemplating that great man, his august person, his majestic mien, his dignified and commanding deportment, the more conspicuous, perhaps, at that moment, from the fact that he was in the act of admonishing a militia colonial with some animation.

He directed a young officer to accompany me, and superintend the delivery of the powder at Mystic [Medford], two miles distant. Whilst delivering it at the powder-house, I observed to the officer, “Sir, I am happy to see so many barrels of powder here.”

He whispered a secret in my ear, with an indiscretion that marked the novice in military affairs, “These barrels are filled with sand.”

“And wherefore?” I inquired.

“To deceive the enemy,” he replied, “should any spy by chance look in.” Such was the wretched appointment of that army upon which rested the hopes of American liberty.
Like a lot of stories in Watson’s memoir, this one makes him look important. He was entrusted with ferrying a ton and a half of desperately needed gunpowder to the Continental lines. He had an audience with Gen. Washington himself (and weathered it better than that “militia colonel”). He was privy to the vital secret of the fake powder, but also wise enough to realize that telling the secret was “an indiscretion that marked the novice.” And all when he was only seventeen years old!

Then Zegart paints Washington as even more tricky than Watson did. The memoir said the powderhouse was kept full “should any spy by chance look in.” The Atlantic article says the commander knew the barrels of sand “would be spotted by British spies.”

The result is a great little story, but I haven’t found any support for Watson’s claim. Filling many barrels with sand and transporting them to powderhouses would have required a lot of people. The army would have needed a way to tell the barrels of sand apart from the barrels of genuine powder. And none of the people involved in this operation would have had any reason to keep that secret after the end of the war. Yet no one mentioned it until Watson wrote fifty years later.

TOMORROW: The contemporaneous record.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

“Likewise This Day Published”

As I reported yesterday, in February 1769 the printer Ezekiel Russell advertised the publication of Pvt. William Clarke’s play The Miser in the Boston Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.

On 6 March Russell had the Edes and Gill shop expand that ad to promote another pamphlet as well. I was amused by the juxtaposition of the two titles. The second part of the expanded notice read:
(Price Eight Pence,)
And Sold at the above Place,
ANOTHER High Road to Hell,—An ESSAY on the pernicious Nature and destructive Effects of the modern Entertainments from the PULPIT.—Occasioned by a Pamphlet, entitled, The Stage the High Road to Hell, &c.——Said to be wrote by the learned Mr. PIKE, one of the Author of the Twenty Six Cases of Conscience, and an eminient Sandemanian Speaker in LONDON. 

The Russell print shop was thus simultaneously marketing both a theatrical comedy and a pamphlet built on a denunciation of the theater as the quickest path to damnation.

You might think that Boston’s orthodox Congregationalists would have been in accord with English authors denouncing plays and “modern Entertainments from the PULPIT” since they also disliked theater and high-church Anglicanism. They certainly wouldn’t have favored Henry Flitcroft’s response to the first pamphlet, titled Theatrical Entertainments Consistent with Society, Morality, and Religion.

But the Russell shop presented The Stage the High Road to Hell as the work of the Rev. Samuel Pike, a convert to Sandemanianism. (I don’t see any bibliographers echoing that credit, so I don’t know how reliable it is.) Likewise, Another High Road to Hell is thought to have been written by another Sandemanian: John Chater, one of the first edition’s publisher who was also a former minister.

The Sandemanian sect was a recent arrival in New England. They weren’t yet seen as allies of the royal government, but the descendants of early Puritan settlers were nonetheless suspicious of their ideas. Another High Road to Hell is thus another example of the Russell print shop printing something unusual—and they advertised it in the radical Whigs’ favored newspaper.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

“A Comedy of Three Acts, Never Before Printed”

When I read the broadside seeking money to print William Clarke’s play The Miser: or, The Soldier’s Humour in 1768, I thought the (very few) published interpretations of this artifact were all wrong.

This wasn’t a sincere solicitation for a new play, I theorized. It didn’t really come from Pvt. William Clarke of the 29th Regiment. Elisha Brown didn’t print it, as many bibliographers had guessed. Instead, it was a satire using the format of a play proposal to comment on the recent Manufactory siege. In early 1770 the Boston Chronicle played the same game, running an advertisement for a tragedy called The Witches to criticize the non-importation protests roiling the town.

In the case of The Miser, I theorized, the broadside preserved some jokes that the people of Boston recognized but which are lost to us today. “The SOLDIER’S HUMOUR, A Comedy of Three Acts, As it is acted by his Majesty’s Servants,” had to refer to the actions of the king’s soldiers in town. Pvt. Clarke, named on the sheet, must have made himself notorious in some way. And the last paragraph’s reference to “ELISHA BROWN, at the Manufactory-House,” drove home the joke. After all, it was silly to think that a private soldier would be publishing a three-act comedy in Boston, selling copies through a cloth weaver whose family had just been fighting off the army.

But on 27 Feb 1769, a notice appeared in both Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette and Green and Russell’s Boston Post-Boy (this version of the text from the latter):
This Day Published,
(Price Eight Pence, covered in blue Paper,)
And sold by Ezekiel Russell, at the New Printing-
Office, a few Doors Northward of Concert-Hall,
Hanover-Street: The
Or, The
Soldier’s Humour.
Of Three Acts,
Never Before Printed:
By WILLIAM CLARKE, of the 29th Regiment.
Non possum placeto Omnibus.
Ezekiel Russell and his wife Sarah were printers who had no newspaper in pre-Revolutionary Boston but kept busy printing two other things: crowd-pleasing ballads about recent events and whatever authors or sponsors were willing to pay for. Isaiah Thomas, who worked briefly for Ezekiel Russell as a runaway apprentice in 1766, had little praise for the shop’s publications in his history of printing.

But the Russels actually issued a lot of interesting material—they were bold or desperate enough to take chances. Ezekiel Russell was the printer, though not the publisher, of the Censor magazine supporting the royal administration in the early 1770s. The Russells issued Phillis Wheatley’s first proposal for a collection of poems and James Swan’s argument to abolish slavery. They partnered with Joseph Greenleaf when he decided to go into printing. They published the disabled young almanac-maker Daniel George and the female poets Hannah Wheaton and Jenny Fenno.

And the Russells evidently published Pvt. William Clarke’s comedy, The Miser, exactly as proposed in December 1768. Clarke must have raised enough money through Elisha Brown and other people passing out his broadside proposal (no doubt printed at the Russell shop, not in the Manufactory). Maybe the customers were British military gentlemen—that seems more likely than Bostonians investing in an unproduced play by a soldier.

It’s still a mystery how Elisha Brown came to be soliciting advance orders for Clarke. I suspect an important factor is that, just as Clarke was an unusual redcoat with literary ambitions, Brown wasn’t a typical Boston craftsman. I believe the Browns were English by birth, bringing their weaving skills to Massachusetts. Elisha Brown might therefore have been more open to working with a soldier and peddling a play than the sons of Puritans.

Unfortunately, no copies of The Miser are known to have survived. That comedy wasn’t the end of Pvt. William Clarke’s literary ambitions, however, or of his adventures in Boston. It looks like he’ll play a notable role in Serena Zabin’s upcoming book Occupying Boston: An Intimate History of the Boston Massacre.

Monday, December 03, 2018

“An incitement for the Author,” Willilam Clarke

In December 1768, the same month that John Brown advertised for customers at the Manufactory as quoted yesterday, his relative Elisha Brown appeared in another plea for business.

That plea took the form of a broadside, a tattered copy of which is visible courtesy of the Library of Congress. It says:
Boston, December, 1768.

For printing by Subscription,
Or The
Of Three Acts,
As it is acted by his Majesty's Servants.

By William Clarke,
Soldier in His Majesty’s XXIXth Regiment.

Non possum placeto Omnibus.

No more Libels shall in my Works be found,
I’ll gently tickle whilst I probe the Wound.

As this new and ingenious Pamphlet was never before printed (though the Author has been often importuned to grant a Copy of the same) it is hoped it will meet with that Applause from the Publick, the Merit of the Performance so justly deserves, which will be an incitement for the Author further to gratify the Curiosity of his Readers in this Way.

The Price to Subscribers will be Eight Pence, L.M. each Book, which will be nearly printed on a good Type, and fine Paper, and will be covered with blue Paper.

Those Persons who subscribe for Six Books shall have a Seventh gratis.

Subscriptions are taken in by ELISHA BROWN, at the Manufactory-House, and by those Gentlemen who are possessed of these Proposals.
Such a proposal was a standard way of raising money to print something when the author didn’t have the funds to pay up front—basically running a Kickstarter campaign, selling copies in advance. The offer of seven for the price of six was an attempt to interest booksellers in carrying the title.

Several details made this proposal unusual, however. First, it was for publishing a play in a town that banned theater. To be sure, Bostonians read plays, and booksellers sold them. But this was said to be a new play, never before printed, and not a respectable, established drama like Addison’s Cato.

Second, the playwright was a private soldier. The name of “William Clark” appears on the rolls of Capt. Ponsonby Molesworth’s company in the 29th. Many men in that regiment couldn’t sign their own names, and William Clarke had written a three-act comedy. His notice even included a Latin motto and a quotation in verse. Now that Latin, apparently meant to say, “It’s not possible to please everyone,” wasn’t accurate Latin. And half the verse, but only half, came straight from one of John Dryden’s translations of Persius. But Clarke was clearly making a claim to be learned.

Finally, the one man named as collecting money for this endeavor was “ELISHA BROWN, at the Manufactory-House”—one of the cloth weavers who had been forcibly resisting the British army just two months before. Brown’s role was even immortalized on his tombstone in 1785. How had Clarke and Brown gone into business together like this?

In October 1923, the Massachusetts Historical Society took note of this broadside. A short article in its Proceedings titled “An Unpublished Comedy” said that nothing was known about “Clarke and his unpublished comedy. . . . No copy of the pamphlet is known and it is doubtful if the response to the ‘Proposals’ were such as to warrant its printing.”

TOMORROW: But Clarke’s play was published.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

John Brown’s “inclination of serving a people”

In October, I tracked the conflict over the big Manufactory building beside Boston Common as the soldiers of the 14th Regiment tried to push out the people working and living inside.

Most of those soldiers were pulled out by the end of that month, and the regiment moved into privately owned buildings. But that didn’t mean the controversy was over. It simply moved into the courts and the newspapers.

On 2 Dec 1768, 250 years ago today, John Brown of the Manufactory wrote out an advertisement to the Boston public:
The unprecedented violence exercised and sixteen days continued on the Manufactory-House, and the works therein carrying on, to the great disappointment and chagrin of the numerous customers of the Subscriber, whereby they were driven from him to apply elsewhere, to the almost total destruction of his business:

He finds himself in this manner obliged to entreat the return of their favor and employ; that he may not be obliged to seek bread in some other part of the country, much against his inclination of serving a people to whom he acknowledges himself deeply indebted for the most zealous and finally successful endeavours to preserve his privilege.

He assures the publick that nothing shall be wanting on his part to render them substantial service, and that on terms as reasonable as any thing performed with equal care can be afforded. He cordially thanks the Public in general, and the town of Boston in special, for the favourable notice they have been pleased to take of his interest, and begs leave to subscribe himself
their much obliged
humble Servant,

Boston, Decemb. 2, 1768.
That advertisement appeared in the 12 December Boston Gazette, Benjamin Edes and John Gill’s radical Whig newspaper. Which is odd since its date suggests it was meant for the 5 December issue. Maybe Brown just didn’t get around to delivering his text to the print shop, or maybe that issue was already full—though those printers seem like the sort to find space for a politically tinged ad. (Of course, it’s also possible Brown or the printers just got the date wrong.)

Brown and his family were cloth weavers. The Massachusetts General Court had granted them the right to use the colony-owned Manufactory at little rent—the “privilege” that Brown described preserving. But doing so had come at a cost to the family business. The ad implies that customers had been kept from the building by soldiers, or that the Browns had had trouble supplying their customers during the crisis.

Perhaps the Browns also suffered from having so visibly taken sides in a political controversy. Had friends of the royal government stopped doing business with them? Conversely, now that they were Whig heroes, the Browns might have been angling for more business from like-minded customers by pleading poverty.

TOMORROW: A new line of business for the Browns.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

A Busy Month in Princeton

If you’re anywhere around Princeton, New Jersey, tomorrow, consider checking out the Princeton Battlefield Society Education Forum. This year’s theme is “Soldiers and Civilians in Princeton Winter 1776 to 1777,” focusing on the “Ten Crucial Days” bridging the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton.

The speakers at this year’s forum are:
  • Larry Kidder on the disruptive experiences of the people living in and near Princeton during those busy months. Kidder is the author of A People Harassed and Exhausted: The Story of a New Jersey Militia Regiment in the American Revolution, Crossroads of the American Revolution: Trenton 1774 to 1783, and Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds.
  • Don N. Hagist on His Majesty’s 17th Regiment of Foot, which fought at Princeton, analyzing the nationalities, ages, background, and experience of the common British soldiers. Don is managing editor of Journal of the American Revolution and maintains the British Soldiers, American Revolution blog. His most recent books are The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers behind the Photographs and British Soldiers, American War.
  • Joseph Seymour on the Philadelphia Associators, a Pennsylvania militia “association” formed to defend the neighboring state. Seymour is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. He is the author of Pennsylvania Associators, 1747-1777 and several articles on the subject.
  • Glenn F. Williams is the afternoon’s moderator. A Senior Historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Dr. Williams is a retired Army officer who wrote the award-winning Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign against the Iroquois and Dunmore’s War: The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era.
This forum will take place from 1:30 to 5:00 P.M. in the Stockton Education Center of Morven, the estate that once belonged to Richard Stockton. The registration cost is $20.

The Princeton Battlefield Society has other events coming up this month.

On Saturday, 8 December, it will host a gathering of children’s-book creators at the Princeton Friends School:
  • Trinka Hakes Noble, author of The Scarlet Stockings Spy, The New Jersey Reader, and many other books.
  • William P. “Wil” Mara, author of If You Were a Kid During the American Revolution, If You Were a Kid in the Thirteen Colonies, and dozens of the biographies for young readers.
  • Rob Skead, coauthor of Patriots, Redcoats, and Spies and Submarines, Secrets, and a Daring Rescue.
Find more information and registration for that event here.

Finally, on the morning of Sunday, 30 December, the society will host its “Battle of Princeton in Real Time Tour” featuring local reenactors and Gen. George Washington on horseback. For more information, go here.

Friday, November 30, 2018

“Whether we are or are not a proper garrison town”

It’s time for another peek into the Boston Whigs’ complaints about soldiers being stationed in their town. Here’s the entry from their “Journal of Occurrences” dated 30 Nov 1768, or 250 years ago today.
An honourable gentleman of his Majesty’s Council, lately riding over Boston Neck in his coach, was stopped by some soldiers on guard, one of which had the assurance to open the door, and put in his head; upon being asked what had occasioned such freedom, he had the insolence to reply, that he was only examining whether any deserter was concealed there.
As I wrote earlier, the main reason for the checkpoints on Boston Neck at this point was to stop deserters. The army command did have reason to suspect that locals, even members of the Council, didn’t care as much about desertion as they did. Earlier in the week a jury had acquitted “A countryman named Geary” on the charge of enticing soldiers to desert. (This may have been the same man whom Capt. John Willson had confined at the Castle in October.)

But there were army guards posted elsewhere in town as well:
A number of gentlemen passing in the night by the Town-House, were hailed by the guards three [there?] several times, without answering; whereupon they were stopped and confined in the guard-house for a considerable time:

A young gentleman in another part of the town, having a lanthorn with him, was challenged by some soldiers, but not answering so readily as was expected, he was threatened with having his brains immediately blown out unless he stopped:

A merchant of the town passing the grand guard this night about ten o’clock, was several times challenged by the soldiers, and upon telling them, that as an inhabitant he was not obliged to answer, not had they any business with him; they replied that this was a garrison town, and accordingly they presented their bayonets to his breast, took and detained him a prisoner for above half an hour, when he was set free; having procured the names of those who had thus used him, he is prosecuting them for the same; and we may expect soon to have it determined, whether we are or are not a proper garrison town.

Perhaps by treating the most respectable of our inhabitants in this sort, it is intended to impress our minds with formidable ideas of a military government, that we may be induced the sooner to give up such trifling things as rights and privileges, in support of which we are now suffering such great insults and injuries.
A 1780 military dictionary defined a “Garrison Town” as “a strong place, in which troops are quartered, and do duty for the security of the town; keeping guards at each port, and a main guard in the market place.” That would mean taking control from the town watch and other civil authorities.

The “Journal of Occurrences” was sounding a classic British Whig political warning: if people don’t protest abridgments of their rights, even small ones, then gradually they’ll be reduced to vassalage and slavery.

Of course, the same Whigs had earlier approvingly reported that “orders have been given by the Selectmen to the town watch, to take up and secure all such Negro servants as shall be absent from their master’s houses, at an unseasonable time of night.” Slavery meant different things for different people.

The 30 November mention of the “young gentleman” out walking with a “lanthorn” is notable. Supposedly carrying a light signaled that one was out for an innocent purpose. By November 1769 the watchmen were specifically instructed that enslaved people of color out after 9:00 P.M. had to be “carrying Lanthorns with light Candles.”

[The photograph above comes from Revolution250’s recent “Boston Occupied” reenactment, photographed by Chris Christo for this gallery at the Boston Herald.]

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Fate of Levi Ames’s Body

Last month I took another look at the crimes and execution of Levi Ames, but I neglected the important topic of what happened to his body.

Back in 2009 I discussed how groups of medical students competed to seize Ames’s body for dissection. In a postscript to his letter describing the chase, William Eustis wrote:
By the way, we have since heard that Stillman’s gang rowed him back from the Point up to the town, and after laying him out in mode and figure, buried him—God knows where! Clark & Co. went to the Point to look for him, but were disappointed as well as we.
“Stillman” was the Rev. Samuel Stillman, minister of Boston’s second Baptist meeting. Ames had begged him to preserve his body from the anatomists, and he succeeded.

So what happened to the corpse? The printer John Boyle left us an answer: “His Body was carried to Groton after his Execution to be bury’d with his Relations.”

Levi Ames was the son of Jacob Ames, Jr., and Olive Davis of Groton. They married in Westford in 1749. Levi was their second child, born on 1 May 1752. In his confession, Levi Ames said his father died when he was two years old., though there are no vital records to confirm that.

On 9 Oct 1765, Olive Ames married Samuel Nutting in Groton. Nutting was a Waltham widower with children born from 1752 to 1761. Levi Ames and his little brother Jacob thus became part of a blended family—presumably in Waltham, where Samuel and Olive Nutting had a little girl named Olive in 1770.

In his dying speech, Ames described committing some minor thefts in his childhood and promising his mother he would stop. At some point in his teens he was apprenticed into a household he didn’t identify and didn’t like. He stated:
Having got from under my mother’s eye, I still went on in my old way of stealing; and not being permitted to live with the person I chose to live with, I ran away from my master, which opened a wide door to temptation, and helped on my ruin; for being indolent in temper, and having no honest way of supporting myself, I robbed others of their property.
Ames robbed “Mr. Jonas Cutler, of Groton” and “Jonathan Hammond, of Waltham,” as well as householders in other towns where he didn’t have family.

Levi Ames’s corpse was buried among his Groton relatives in 1773. There was no marker.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

“Pre-Revolutionary Newspaper Wars” in Jamaica Plain, 4 Dec.

On Tuesday, 4 December, I’ll speak at the Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain on the topic of “Boston’s Pre-Revolutionary Newspaper Wars (and What They May Tell Us About Today’s News Media).”

This is part of the site’s “Tuesday in the Parlor” lecture series. Here’s the description we came up with:
In the period leading up to the Revolution, colonial journalists produced a lively array of print publications aimed at keeping the populace informed about—or inflamed by—the political news of the day.

On the left were The Boston Gazette and The Massachusetts Spy while The Boston News-Letter, The Boston Chronicle, and Boston Weekly Post-Boy espoused viewpoints from the right. The Boston Evening-Post tried to maintain a centrist voice. The newspaper business could be a nasty and dangerous one, prompting rivalries between printers and occasional violence.

Join us for J. L. Bell’s enlightening talk about the how America’s early news medium operated in the volatile pre-Revolutionary environment and the significance of this history for today’s information media.
We’re scheduled to start promptly at 7:00 P.M. After the talk, there will be a book signing and light refreshments.

Tickets for this event are $5 for members of the Loring-Greenhough House and $10 for the public, plus a small processing fee to Eventbrite. Folks who join now will of course enjoy discounted tickets for events all the coming year.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Holiday Traditions at the Paul Revere House, 1-2 Dec.

This weekend, 1-2 December, the Paul Revere House is hosting “Traditions of the Season,” a series of special events free with admission to the site.

The event description says:
Why did New England colonists consider Thanksgiving “the one day above all others”? Which Bostonians kept Christmas and which did not? What types of gifts were exchanged at New Years? Learn the answers while helping us celebrate the holiday season in the style of colonial Bostonians with 18th-century music, culinary delights, and crafts.

Festivities will be held on Saturday and Sunday; sample warm, mulled cider and treats baked from period recipes all day.

Visit with Rachel Revere, portrayed by History At Play’s Judith Kalaora, from 11:00-3:00 throughout the site.

Craftspeople working in traditional methods will demonstrate and sell wares from 12:00-4:00 in our Education and Visitor Center.

R. P. Hale will play 18th c. Advent music on the harpsichord and hammered dulcimer from 12:00-4:00 in the Pierce/Hichborn House.
At the top of this post is the music for “A Christmas Hymn” engraved by Revere for a collection titled Sixteen Anthems, published by fellow silversmith Josiah Flagg (1738-1795) in 1766. This image comes courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society’s online display of Revere’s engravings.

Regular admission to the Paul Revere House is $5.00 for adults, $4.50 for seniors and college students, and $1.00 for children ages 5 to 17. (Members and North End residents can visit free at all times.) The house will be open 9:30 A.M. to 4:15 P.M. that weekend.

Monday, November 26, 2018

“Went so far as to wound some officers with their Watch Crooks”

Yesterday I quoted the Boston Whigs’ side of some early confrontations between British army officers and the town watch.

There were, of course, two sides to such stories. I haven’t found officers’ accounts of such conflicts from the 1768-70 occupation, but there are reports from 1774-75.

On 15 Nov 1774, Capt. Hugh Maginis of the 38th Regiment told Gen. Thomas Gage that three nights before he and another captain had been attacked near Liberty Tree by a local named Bennet and his “whole Guard” armed with “long Poles with Spikes & Bills at the Ends of them.”

Looking back from 1782, Ens. Jeremy Lister of the 10th noted this same incident in his account of the outbreak of war. Bostonians, he wrote, “even went so far as to wound some officers with their Watch Crooks Captn. McGinny of the 28th. [sic] Regt. was one of those unfortunate gentlemen amongst many more.”

The way those officers described the altercation shows how they rejected the authority of the watchmen. Magenis mentioned “long Poles with Spikes & Bills at the Ends of them,” which were the billhooks or pikes that watchmen carried all over the British Empire. Lister even called those weapons “Watch Crooks.” But neither officer deigned to admit that those men might have had legal power to stop people.

The leader of that crowd probably even identified himself to Magenis since the captain knew his surname. Checking the Boston town records shows that man must have been John Bennet, appointed “Constable of the Watch at the South and near the sign of the Lamb” in December 1772.

Notably, back on 28 Sept 1774 Bennet had reported “a very Warm dispute between an Officer of the Fourth Regiment about the Right of Challening of One of their Cloth”—i.e., someone wearing a scarlet army uniform. That confrontation ”was Decided by an Officer of the 38 who Comanded the Grand Rounds at that Time”—the same regiment Magenis came from. Since Bennet didn’t complain about that second officer’s decision, he must have been satisfied with the outcome. Not every confrontation had to end in violence.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Officers versus Watchmen in the Streets of Boston

I’ve remarked a few times on how Boston’s town watchmen and the British army officers sent to the town in the fall of 1768 got into arguments and fights.

Those conflicts were about different forms of government authority, and they were about class deference. In fact, some of the combatants made those arguments explicit, as in this report from the Whigs’ “Journal of Occurrences” on 25 Nov 1768, 250 years ago today:
The town watch has been lately greatly abused and interrupted in their duty by some officers, two of them came to the Town-House watch with swords under their arms, calling them damned scoundrels, forbidding them to challenge officers as they passed, or to give the time of night in their rounds as also from keeping in the watch house, threatening that in such case they would have them in irons, and bring four regiments to blow them all to hell; also telling the watchmen they were the King’s soldiers and gentlemen, who had orders from his Majesty, and they were above the Selectmen who gave them their orders:

Upon another night, others officers came to the dock-watch, one of them with a drawn hanger or bayonet, striking it against the door and asking, whether they thought the times were now as they had been, and that they could stand four regiments; also damning them, and threatening to burn all of us to ashes, and to send us all to hell in one month’s time:—

At another time the south watch was also assaulted, one of the men struck at, and much abused with profane and threatening language.
I happily quoted the first paragraph of that complaint about “the King’s soldiers and gentlemen” in my Dublin Seminar paper about the town watch in the years leading up to the Boston Massacre, published in this volume.

Depending on the individuals, of course, there might have been other factors in those conflicts. Some British officers in their late teens and early twenties might have still been enjoying their wild youth. The watchmen tended to be middle-aged and tasked with keeping the peace. And surprising as it might seem, alcohol might have been involved in some of these incidents.

The same dispatch from the Whigs had other complaints about military officers:
The last evening a gentleman of distinction, seeing an officer of a man of war in the coffee-house, who had two evenings before called out to him in a rude manner, thought proper to ask him why he was thus accosted; upon which the officer desired him to go into a room, for he wanted the pleasure of taking his life; that as he did not suppose him acquainted with the sword, pistols would do; he then called out to the gentleman, will you not fight me? upon which the gentleman desired, and the officer agreed to meet him at his house in the morning, to determine what was to be done; the officer not coming, we hear the gentleman having learned he was a Lieut. of marines, intended a prosecution, but was prevented by his confining himself to his ship.
This report suggests the marine lieutenant was threatening a duel with swords or pistols, but the local “gentleman of distinction” responded with a legal “prosecution” instead—another example of New England culture at odds with the manners of British military gentlemen.

Finally, there were more complaints about Capt. John Willson of the 59th Regiment:
Captain W——n, of the regulars, tho’ bound to his good behaviour for the Negro business, has notwithstanding repeated his offences, by drawing his sword upon some persons the last evening and otherwise abusing them, and we hear complaint has been made to one of our magistrates respecting this affair.
Again, Boston’s civil authorities were trying to keep army officers bound to the local law.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen”

Now it’s true that at one point Benjamin Franklin suggested that the turkey, rather than the bald or American eagle, should be the emblem of the new nation.

But Franklin didn’t make that remark in 1776 during the earliest discussions of the U.S. national seal. He wrote that in January 1784 after learning about the public debate over the Society of the Cincinnati, the new hereditary organization of Continental Army officers and their male heirs.

Still the U.S. minister to France, Franklin wrote to his daughter Sarah Bache (pronounced “Beach”):
I received by Captn. Barney those relating to the Cincinnati. My opinion of the institution cannot be of much importance. I only wonder that when the united wisdom of our nation had, in the Articles of Confederation, manifested their dislike of establishing ranks of nobility, by authority either of the Congress or of any particular state, a number of private persons should think proper to distinguish themselves and their posterity, from their fellow citizens, and form an order of hereditary Knights, in direct opposition to the solemnly declared sense of their country.
In interpreting this letter, it’s useful to recognize how Franklin handled it. Yes, he addressed his daughter and kept the tone folksy. But he rarely discussed politics with Sarah Bache, and this letter didn’t include any personal news that she would presumably want to hear. He was simply using the form of a family letter to get some political thoughts off his chest.

Even more significantly, Franklin actually never sent this letter to his daughter. Instead, in the spring of 1784 he shared it with a couple of French friends, the abbé André Morellet and the comte de Mirabeau. He also continued to revise the text.

All three men appear to have agreed that it would be impolitic for Franklin to publicize his views of the Cincinnati under his own name. Instead, Mirabeau quoted portions of the letter without attribution later that year in a London pamphlet titled Considérations sur l’ordre de Cincinnatus, ou imitation d’un pamphlet anglo-américain. Morellet published a complete French translation after Franklin’s death in 1790. (The Society of the Cincinnati included a French branch as well as one for each of the thirteen states, so French noblemen knew about the debate.)

Franklin’s whole letter didn’t appear in English until his grandson William Temple Franklin published a collection of writings in 1817. By then the founding of the Cincinnati was no longer a burning political issue. The comments about the national emblem were more striking, even if Franklin had originally drafted them to make sarcastic points about a particular issue:
Others object to the bald eagle [of the Cincinnati medal, example show above], as looking too much like a Dindon or turkey. For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.

You may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him. With all this injustice, he is never in good case, but like those among men who live by sharping and robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: the little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.

He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America, who have driven all the king birds from our country, though exactly fit for that order of knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie [i.e., “knights of the road”]. I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey.

For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and served up at the wedding table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, (though a little vain and silly tis true, but not the worse emblem for that) a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.
(Ironically, that American emblem the turkey was named after a European country, either because Turkish merchants sold New World turkeys in early modern Europe or because sixteenth-century Englishman conflated turkeys with guinea fowl that Turkish merchants imported from Africa.)

The musical 1776 therefore has a slight foundation for portraying Benjamin Franklin in the song “The Egg” as wanting the turkey to be the U.S. of A.’s national bird.

However, as I discussed yesterday, there’s no evidence for John Adams championing the eagle, as in that song. And I’ve found no evidence for Thomas Jefferson suggesting that the national symbol should be a dove.

The whole debate in “The Egg” was a last-minute creation of songwriter Sherman Edwards. During the tryouts of 1776 in New Haven, Edwards and his colleagues decided the show needed a light-hearted number in the second act. The musical’s poster, designed by Fay Gage, showed a patriotic eagle hatching. With the inspiration of that art and Franklin’s 1784 letter, Edwards imagined his lead characters arguing over the national bird.

And a few years later, I watched that scene as an impressionable schoolboy and assumed it had some solid basis in fact. Another Bicentennial myth shattered!

Friday, November 23, 2018

“The great Seal should on one side have…”

As discussed yesterday, in the summer of 1776 a committee of Continental Congress heavyweights—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—asked the Swiss-born artist and historical collector Pierre Eugène du Simitière to design a seal for the new United States of America.

Of course, each of those gentlemen also gave the artist a helpful, and contradictory, suggestion of what the seal should look like. And Du Simitière had his own ideas.

Jefferson reported the result of that committee discussion to the Congress on 20 August:
The great Seal should on one side have the arms of the United States of America which arms should be as follows. The Shield has six Quarters, parti one, coupe two. The 1st. Or, a Rose enammelled gules and argent for England: the 2d Argent, a Thistle proper, for Scotland: the 3d. Verd, a Harp Or, for Ireland: the 4th. Azure a Flower de Luce Or for France: the 5th. Or the Imperial Eagle Sable for Germany: and the 6th. Or the Belgic Lion Gules for Holland, pointing out the Countries from which the States have been peopled.

The Shield within a Border Gules entwind of thirteen Scutcheons Argent linked together by a Chain Or, each charged with initial Letters Sable as follows: 1st. NH. 2d M.B. 3d RI. 4th C. 5th NY. 6th NJ. 7th P. 8th DC. 9 M. 10th V. 11th NC. 12th. SC. 13 G. for each of the thirteen independent States of America.

Supporters, dexter the Goddess Liberty in a corselet of Armour alluding to the present Times [i.e., the ongoing war], holding in her right Hand the Spear and Cap and with her left supporting the Shield of the States; sinister, the Goddess Justice bearing a Sword in her right hand, and in her left a Balance.

Crest. The Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle whose Glory extends over the Shield and beyond the Figures.

Motto e pluribus unum.

Legend round the whole Atchievement. Seal of the United States of America mdcclxxvi.

On the other side of the said Great Seal should be the following Device. Pharoah sitting in an open Chariot a Crown on his head and a Sword in his hand passing through the divided Waters of the Red Sea in Pursuit of the Israelites: Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Cloud, expressive of the divine Presence and Comman[d] beaming on Moses who stands on the Shore and extending his hand over the Sea causes it to overwhe[lm] Pharoah.

Motto Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.
The shields showing the countries where most European-Americans had come from was Du Simitière’s idea. He was, after all, an immigrant—though not from any of the nations represented. Du Simitière had originally pictured an American rifleman standing opposite Liberty, but Justice made a better pairing.

The Biblical scene on the reverse side was Franklin’s suggestion, with the addition of the “Pillar of Fire” from Jefferson. The motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” also came from Franklin, though it had an older history (which I’ll discuss at some point). Jefferson liked that saying so much he added it to a seal for Virginia that he commissioned from Du Simitière in this same summer. None of Adams’s ideas made it to the final proposal.

The committee presented this proposal to the Congress. With the British army about to attack New York City, the delegates tabled that symbolic matter till later. And they didn’t return to the question of a national seal until four years later, when Franklin and Adams were in Europe and Jefferson was in Virginia. And then the Congress tossed out their 1776 report and started over.

The U.S. of A. had to get along without a seal for another couple of years as more committees discussed the question. Finally in 1782 the Congress’s secretary, Charles Thomson, got sick of waiting and drew one himself. Only two elements from the 1776 proposals survived to the final seal: the “Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle” and the motto “E pluribus unum.” There’s no positive evidence about who came up with either.

Thomson adopted the latest committee’s suggestion of a heraldic eagle but chose the bald or “American Eagle” because that species was American, he later explained to James Madison. The idea of an eagle definitely didn’t come from John Adams, whatever the 1776 musical depicts.

TOMORROW: And how did the turkey and the dove come in?

[The picture above shows a nineteenth-century recreation of the seal that Du Simitière described, courtesy of Mental Floss; no drawings from 1776 survive.]