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, August 31, 2018

“After the Destruction of Captn. Chambers’s Tea”

Everyone agreed that during the New York Tea Party of 22 Apr 1774 and associated demonstrations, the rest of the city was peaceful. Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden told the absent governor, William Tryon, “the Quarter where I reside, and the greatest Part of the Town were perfectly Quiet.”

For the Whigs, that showed how the New York community was normally peaceful and under control; right-thinking locals destroyed the eighteen chests of offensive tea and did no other damage. For their opponents, the fact that only a small fraction of New Yorkers got involved showed how the movement wasn’t really popular.

That split reflected the ongoing battle for public opinion. The Whig committee that orchestrated the tea destruction was playing to several audiences. They wanted to show the government and mercantile community in London, and the East India Company, that their city was adamantly opposed to paying the new tea tax. They wanted to warn merchants and sea captains like James Chambers against trying to evade that boycott.

They also wanted to show the Whigs of Boston and Philadelphia and other North American ports, who had already dealt with tea shipments, that they were just as strongly opposed. As Hugh Gaine’s New-York Gazette concluded its 25 April report:
Thus, to the great Mortification of the Secret and open enemies of America, and the joy of all the friends of liberty and human nature, the union of these Colonies is maintained in a contest of the utmost importance to their safety and felicity.
In addition, the Whigs wanted to assure the city’s riled-up populace, who actually started destroying the tea before the self-appointed leaders wanted, that their committee was looking out for the public interest.

Of course, not everyone supported the tea destruction. The first newspaper attack on the action appeared in James Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer on 28 April. In highly emphasized language a correspondent demanded:
What is the Committee of Observation? By whom were they appointed? and what authority had they to order Capt. Chambers, or any body else, to attend them at Mr. [Samuel] Francis’s, or any other place whatsoever? Who says, and upon what authority does he say, that the sense of the city was asked, relatively, either to the sending away Capt. [Benjamin] Lockyer, or the destruction of the tea on board the London? Has not every London Captain brought tea, under the same circumstances? And, if so, what were the Apostates that informed against the unfortunate man, who was threatened with DEATH for obeying the laws of his country? . . .

I wish the printers of public chronicles would be cautious of disgracing their papers, by publishing party relations. While they adhere to matters of fact, ’tis all well; but when they expand their columns to either patriot or ministerial minions, without any known evidence,— nay, contrary to the truth of fact,—they must not, they cannot, they shall not hope to escape the animadversions of a lover of Constitutional Liberty; but a sworn foe to Coblers and Taylors, so long as they take upon their everlasting and unmeasurable shoulders, the power of directing the loyal and sensible inhabitants of the CITY and PROVINCE of NEW-YORK.
According to Lt. Gov. Colden, the radical Whigs actually lost the ensuing political struggle. On 7 Sept 1774, he wrote to the governor:
After the Destruction of Captn. Chambers’s Tea, and some other violent Proceedings of the pretended Patriots, the principal Inhabitants began to be apprehensive and resolved to attend the Meetings of the Inhabitants when called together by Hand Bills.

The Consequence has been that [John Morin] Scott, [Alexander] McDougall, [Isaac] Sears & [John] Lamb are all in disgrace, and the People are now directed by more moderate Men. I hope that the giving [of] any new offence to Parliament will be guarded against.
New York City remained in a delicate balance between factions. In the summer of 1775 it simultaneously welcomed both Gov. Tryon and Gen. George Washington. In 1776 New Yorkers celebrated the Declaration of Independence by tearing down George III’s statue, and then half a year later the city, retaken by the British military, became the center of Loyalism for the rest of the war.

TOMORROW: What happened to Capt. James Chambers?

Thursday, August 30, 2018

“Through the Multitude, to the End of Murray’s Wharf”

On the night of 22 Apr 1774, New Yorkers emptied eighteen chests of tea belonging to Capt. James Chambers into the harbor while hundreds of people watched. This eventually became known as the New York Tea Party.

According to diarist William Smith, the crowd then carried the empty wooden chests to the Merchants Coffee House (shown here) and built a bonfire in the street. This blaze both celebrated the merchants’ unity and warned those gentlemen not to break the boycott as Chambers had.

The city’s activists had already summoned the public to the waterfront on Saturday morning to see off Benjamin Lockyer, captain of a ship carrying 698 chests of tea waiting outside the harbor near Sandy Hook. Again, that demonstration was supposed to both thank Lockyer for agreeing to sail that tea back to London and to make sure he understood how unwelcome it was.

On Saturday morning, the 25 April New-York Gazette reported, all the ships in the harbor flew the British flag, and “a large flag was hoisted on the Liberty Pole.” At 8:00 all the church bells rang. Then:
About 9, the greatest Number of People were collected at and near the Coffee-House, that was ever known in this City. At a Quarter past Nine the Committee came out of the Coffee-House with Captain Lockyer, upon which the Band of Musick attending, played, God save the King.

Immediately there was a Call for Captain Chambers,—where is he? where is he? Capt. Lockyer must not go till we find Capt. Chambers to send him with the Tea Ship.

This produced Marks of Fear in Capt. Lockyer, who imagining some Mischief was intended him; but upon Assurances being given him to the contrary, he appeared composed.

The Committee, with the Musick, conducted him through the Multitude, to the End of Murray’s Wharf, where he was put on board the Pilot Boat, and wished a safe Passage; upon which the Multitude gave loud Huzza’s, and many Guns were fired, expressive of their Joy at his Departure.
Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden added in a letter that Chambers “thought it was best to go off himself next Day with Captain Lockyer.”

For a while, some of Lockyer’s crew didn’t want to make that voyage. The Whigs’ committee of observation reported:
that the sailors of the Tea Ship, being unwilling to proceed with her to London, made a raft of spars and boards, in order to quit the ship with the tide of flood, but were observed by the Captain, and being aided by the Committee, who offered their assistance to him, they desisted from their project.
The merchants’ committee didn’t want ordinary sailors to get too independent, after all.

At 10:00 A.M. on Sunday the Nancy finally weighed anchor and headed back out to sea, still carrying the 698 chests of East India Company tea loaded the preceding fall. The committee’s sloop followed the ship for three leagues to be sure it was leaving and then turned back to New York.

TOMORROW: Fallout from the New York Tea Party.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

“The Mohawks were prepared to do their Duty”

On the afternoon of 22 Apr 1774, Capt. James Chambers admitted to the committee enforcing New York City’s tea boycott that he had brought in eighteen chests of tea on his ship London.

The 25 April New-York Gazette reported, “The Owners [of the ship?] and the Committee immediately met at Mr. Francis’s.” That was Samuel Fraunces’s tavern in southern Manhattan, now the Fraunces Tavern Museum, shown above. Which makes it only logical for the museum’s new exhibit “Fear & Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty” to highlight this confrontation from 1774.

Despite having been alerted by two informants, the committee must have been a little surprised by Chambers’s action. As Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden wrote on 4 May, “Last Voyage he claim’d applause here, for being the first who refused to take the India Company’s Tea on Board his Ship; and received Public thanks from the People of this place for it.” For that reason, his arrival with tea “drew the particular Resentment of the People upon himself by the duplicity of his Conduct.”

Chambers might have argued that he hadn’t broken his promise because he hadn’t imported tea that still belonged to the East India Company and was designated for its American sales agents. As he told the committee, “he was sole Owner of it.” Did Chambers just not realize that the tea boycott had been extended to include all tea from Britain?

It’s worth noting that Chambers had done something similar back in the Stamp Act crisis. He had carried stamped paper into New York harbor, reportedly designated for Connecticut agent Jared Ingersoll, in early January 1766. In that case the captain had left London on 22 October, meaning he had probably heard about the early anti-Stamp Act demonstrations in Boston and elsewhere before setting out, but he was still willing to risk carrying politically incorrect cargo.

Chambers couldn’t plead ignorance of the broader tea boycott since he had repeatedly lied to committee members about having any tea on board. It wasn’t hard for those men to deduce what the captain was up to: he hoped to make a nice profit for himself by reselling his eighteen chests of tea into a market deprived of fresh caffeine.

In 1766, Chambers had received “public censure” for carrying stamped paper. This time, the crowd wasn’t in a mood to be so lenient. In fact, it looks like the committee saw themselves as standing between Chambers and the mob. Fortunately, the Boston Tea Party (and second Boston Tea Party) provided a model for what Whig activists should do in this situation.

The New-York Gazette reported what happened next:
After the most mature Deliberation, it was determined to communicate the whole State of the Matter to the People, who were convened near the Ship; which was accordingly done.

The Mohawks were prepared to do their Duty at a proper Hour, but the Body of the People were so impatient that before it arrived a Number of them entered the Ship, about 8 P. M. took out the Tea, which was at Hand, broke the Cases and started their Contents in the River, without doing any Damage to the Ship or Cargo.

Several Persons of Reputation were placed below to keep Talley, and about the Companion to prevent ill disposed Persons from going below the Deck.

At 10 the People all dispersed in good Order, but in great Wrath against the Captain; and it was not without some Risque of his Life that he escaped.
As quoted back here, New Yorkers had been referring to “Mohawks” destroying tea since the preceding fall. (It took another century before that term became regularly linked to the Boston Tea Party.)

TOMORROW: A send-off for the captains.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

“Expose so considerable a property to inevitable destruction”


Yesterday we left Capt. Benjamin Lockyer in New York City, having arrived on 20 Apr 1774 after a long, stormy voyage from London with 698 chests of East India Company tea.

He in turn had left his damaged ship Nancy floating outside the official harbor area, beyond Customs jurisdiction, while he tried to figure out if he could land that tea as he had been hired to do.

A large committee of New York citizens was determined to keep the tea out. The 25 April New-York Gazette reported that “The Committee conducted him to the House of the Hon. Henry White, Esq; one of the Consignees.”

According to documents printed in Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves, back on 27 Dec 1773 White and his colleagues had written a letter to be delivered to Lockyer before he entered the inner harbor. (It’s not clear whether this letter actually reached him; if it did, he didn’t believe it.) The New York consignees reported that they had heard the tea sent to Boston had been destroyed, the tea sent to Philadelphia had been turned back, and the tea sent to Charleston had been impounded. They concluded:

We therefore think it is a duty we owe to the said Company, as we can neither receive the tea or pay the duty, to apprize you of your danger, and to give you our opinion, that for the safety of your cargo, your vessel, and your persons, it will be most prudent for you to return, as soon as you can be supplied with such necessaries as you may have occasion for on the voyage.
They sent a letter with similar recommendations to the board of the East India Company in London.

The paper trail continued on 20 April. Lockyer wrote a short note to the consignees stating that he was ready to unload. White and colleagues wrote back reiterating that such an effort “would not only be fruitless, but expose so considerable a property to inevitable destruction. Under these circumstances it would be highly imprudent in us to take any steps to receive your cargo.” Everyone thus covered their asses as best they could in writing.

Lockyer then announced to the committee: “That as the Consignees would not receive his Cargo, he would go to the Custom-House, and would make all the Dispatch he could to leave the City.” The Whigs chose a “Committee of Observation…to go down in a Sloop to the Hook, to remain there near the Tea Ship till she departs for London.”

The committee also arranged for a handbill to be printed, urging the populace to convene at the waterfront on Saturday morning when Lockyer was planning to leave to demonstrate “their Detestation of the Measures pursued by the Ministry and the India Company, to enslave this Country.”

That alleviated the threat of the Nancy with its 698 chests of tea. But that night another captain arrived from London confirming the earlier report that Capt. James Chambers was bringing in “18 Boxes of Fine Tea.” On Thursday the new arrival even showed the committee “a Memorandum in his Pocket Book, which he took from the Cocket in the middle of Capt. Chambers’s File of Papers in the Searcher’s Office at Gravesend.” (A cocket was a certificate from the Customs service warranting that its staff had inspected and cleared certain goods.)

On Friday the 22nd at noon, Capt. Chambers’s ship London was spotted at Sandy Hook. A pilot boarded and asked the captain if it carried any tea. He declared he had no tea.

Two members of the Committee of Observation watching the Nancy went on board and told Chambers they had heard otherwise. They “demanded a sight of all his Cockets, which was accordingly given them.” There was nothing about tea in those documents or the ship’s manifest.

Accordingly, the pilot brought the London into the wharf, arriving about 4:00 P.M. The ship “was boarded by a Number of the Citizens.” They asked Chambers again about tea. Again, he denied there was any tea on board.

The committee men then said: “it was vain to deny it, for there was good Proof of its being on board; for it would be found, as there were Committees appointed to open every Package, and there he had been be open and candid about it; and demanded the Cocket for the Tea.”

On which Capt. Chambers said, more or less, “Oh, you mean that tea,” and handed over the paperwork for eighteen chests.

Eighteen chests which had now come all the way into New York harbor and were therefore subject to Customs regulations.

TOMORROW: Party time.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

“The determined Resolution of the Citizens” of New York

Now I’ll get back to the New York Tea Party of 1774. New Yorkers had mobilized against the East India Company specially taxed tea in the fall of 1773 like the people of the other major American ports. But they had no tea to mobilize against. Nothing arrived from London. Meanwhile, New Yorkers read about what people had done to the tea in Philadelphia, Charleston, and, most dramatically, Boston.

One sign of the communication between ports appeared in the New-York Gazette on 25 Apr 1774:
On Monday last [i.e., 18 April], Advice was received from Philadelphia, that Capt. [James] Chambers of the ship London, of this Port, had taken on Board at the Port of London, 18 Boxes of fine Tea, which were regularly cleared, and the Mark and Numbers were taken from the Cocket by Capt. All, of Philadelphia.
Isaac All (d. 1789) had started his career in Newport, married a niece of Benjamin Franklin, and moved his base to Philadelphia, where he boarded while on shore with Deborah Franklin. Those connections might explain why All was peering at another captain’s paperwork in London. Or perhaps it was common for sea captains to share information on their cargos, just in case one of them was lost at sea.

As I wrote back here, in the summer of 1773 Capt. Chambers had publicly declared that he would never carry East India Company tea as long as the Tea Act was in force. The New York committee therefore didn’t know what to make of this warning from Philadelphia. They decided Chambers must not know about the tea aboard his London and “supposed it to have been shipt by some ministerial Tool, under another Denomination, in order to injure the Owners, or the Reputation of the Master, or to make an Experiment of this Mode of introducing the Teas to America.”

In other words, the New York Whigs accused their political enemies of smuggling tea—an activity some of them had probably practiced back when it was illegal and not simply politically unpopular. The willingness to entertain such a conspiracy theory with no evidence showed how wide the political divide had become. The committee determined to keep a careful watch for Capt. Chambers’s ship.

But instead, another vessel arrived, stuffed to the rails with tea:
In the night the long expected Tea Ship, Nancy, Capt. [Benjamin] Lockyer, arrived at Sandy Hook, without her Mizen Mast and one of her anchors, which were lost in a Gale of Wind the 2d Instant [i.e., of this month]; when her Main-Top-Mast was sprung and thrown on her Beam Ends.
That was actually the second damaging storm the Nancy had run into. On its voyage across the Atlantic the previous fall, it was tossed around so badly that Lockyer had spent the winter in Antigua making repairs.

According to documents quoted on the Oliver Pluff company website, the Nancy was carrying more tea than any other ship sent to the colonies in 1773: 698 chests. That was more than twice as many chests as had arrived in Boston (and been destroyed) the previous fall.

Now there was a legal significance in the tea ship floating out near Sandy Hook, waiting for a harbor pilot to steer it in to a dock. That spot wasn’t legally inside New York harbor. Therefore, as far as Customs laws were concerned, the Nancy hadn’t yet arrived, which means it wasn’t yet subject to the rule requiring all cargo to be unloaded within a certain number of days or be confiscated by the royal authorities. That law had determined the timing of the Boston Tea Party.

The New York committee sprang into action to ensure the Nancy stay out of the harbor. They sent Lockyer a letter “informing him of the determined Resolution of the Citizens not to suffer the Tea on board of his Ship to be landed.” In reply, Lockyer asked the pilot to bring him into the city “to procure Necessaries and make a Protest.” But the pilot wouldn’t even do that without prior approval from the citizens.

On the morning of 19 April the committee discussed the situation. They decided “the Sense of the City” was that Capt. Lockyer could come in as long as he left the Nancy at the Hook. The committee then had a handbill printed to alert the public that that’s what it was thinking. Even so, when the pilot boat arrived with Lockyer, “the Wharf was crouded with the Citizens.” In the language of the Gazette, New Yorkers had “long and impatiently wished [for] an Opportunity to Co-operate with the other Colonies.” Why should Boston have all the fun?

TOMORROW: One crisis averted as another loomed.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

“Dorchester Hill would be a very important Post”

On 25 Aug 1775, Gen. Artemas Ward wrote from his “Camp at Roxbury” to the man who had replaced him at the head of the army besieging Boston, Gen. George Washington:
Sir.

The Relations of Several Persons last out of Boston all tending to confirm our Belief that our active & restless Enemy are making large Preparation for some important Step & having ocular Demonstration that they have stript Colo. [John] Hancocks Lime Trees as well as many other Trees in Boston which we are informed was done for the Purpose of making Facines

I beg Leave to suggest to your Excellency that Dorchester Hill would be a very important Post to them as it would inevitably deprive us of the Advantage of a very considerable Part of our Works & supply the Enemy with Forage for their Cattle which we may rationally Judge is no inconsiderable Object of their Wishes:

As we ever ought to be watching a Powerful & sagacious Enemy & considering what Posts they might take which by Nature are rendered easily defensible & convenient to annoy us so also we ought carefully to consider what Steps may be taken consistent with Prudence & Safety should an Enemy in Part gain such an Ascendency—

If Sir, the Object they have in View is to entrench upon Dorchester Hill (their Facines are Indicative of entrenching or throwing up a Breast Work somewhere) I beg your Excellency to give me some Instructions relative to my Duty in that Case: I need not inform you of the Situation of the Hill nor how narrow the Passage is from the main Land to the Hill.

Whether an Attempt (should the Enemy move that Way) is to be made to dislodge them or whether they are to be permitted to go on unmolested in fortifying the Hill I shall be much obliged for particular Orders which I always shall endeavor faithfully to ex[e]cute.

I am with the greatest Respect your Excellencys most obedient Servant.
In sum, Gen. Ward worried that the British army would take possession of the Dorchester peninsula and its strategic heights, as they had taken the Charlestown heights after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He wanted to know what to do about that. As it turned out, Gens. Thomas Gage and William Howe had become convinced that the best course was to leave Boston, but they needed approval from London before acting.

Ward might have been hinting that the Continentals themselves should move onto the Dorchester peninsula to forestall a British move. But the American army was still short of gunpowder and would probably have had a hard time holding that position against a major amphibious attack. Plus, Washington was still more interested in a glorious assault on the town.

Come February, when yet another of the commander-in-chief’s proposed attacks was voted down by his council of war, he asked what those generals wanted him to do. And Ward said, no doubt more politely than this, that they should think about Dorchester Heights as he’d been saying for six months!

Friday, August 24, 2018

“Liberty Triumphant” for Sale

Tomorrow Heritage Auctions of Dallas is offering for auction a copy of this political cartoon from 1774, titled “Liberty Triumphant or the Downfall of Oppression.”

It shows the reaction to the Boston Tea Party by various figures, mostly allegorical. The Americans are represented as Natives, but there are also symbolic armed women, an angel, and a devil. Practically every figure rates a word balloon.

The artist is thought to be “Philadelphia and New York engraver Henry Dawkins.” He came to New York from England in the early 1750s and found work as an engraver there and in Philadelphia. His known work includes bookplates, maps, and diagrams for the American Philosophical Society.

In May 1776 Dawkins was hauled before the New York authorities on charges of counterfeiting money, which was a form of engraving society frowned on. Two year later, however, he designed the new New York state’s coat of arms, and two years after that engraved its currency—legally this time. His last known work was a series of copperplates advertised in Philadelphia in 1786.

Heritage Auctions says, “it knows of only six other copies” of “Liberty Triumphant,” and is starting bids at $15,000.

I found mention of copies in the collections of:
In addition, according to Colonial Williamsburg, the New-York Historical Society has a copy—but I couldn’t find it listed in the catalogue there. None on those copies is on the collectors’ market, of course.

COMING UP: Back to the New York Tea Party.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Capt. James Chambers on the London

As promised, I’m going to explore the story of the “New York Tea Party.” And I’ll start with the sea captain James Chambers.

The Roster of Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, compiled by William M. McBean in 1911, says Chambers was active in New York from 1757, sailing to various ports. In 1762, for example, his ship Manchester was equipped with “eight carriage guns” and an unusually large crew of twenty to protect its cargo of furs and skins in wartime.

The 4 June 1770 New-York Gazette reported that on a voyage ”from the Musqueto Shore for Jamaica” Chamber’s brig had been cast away on Trinidad. The ship was “entirely lost,” but the crew and cargo survived—as did the captain, though reportedly the Spanish authorities kept him in jail for a while.

Late that November, Chambers was back in New York, commanding the ship London. He appears to have made regular trips on that vessel between New York and London after that.

Around that time a young sailor named Thomas Truxton (1755-1822, shown above as an older man), who had grown up on Long Island, asked to serve under Chambers. When they were in London in 1771, the Royal Navy impressed the teenager aboard H.M.S. Prudent. After several months, some Americans in London got Thomas released back to Chambers.

The year 1773 of course brought the Tea Act. According to the 25 Apr 1774 New-York Gazette, “Capt. Chambers was one of the First who refused to take the India Company’s Tea on Freight the last Summer, for which he received the Thanks of the Citizens.” When the London sailed back into New York harbor from Britain on 8 October, it carried no tea, but it did bring a celebrity to America: Lt. Col. Charles Lee.

Capt. Chambers was thus in North America as the tea crisis was reaching its zenith. He saw the crowds in New York demand a united front against not only the East India Company’s tea but all tea, to ensure that none of the dutied weed slipped through. He may even have heard about the Boston Tea Party in December before he sailed for Britain again.

COMING UP: When New York heard that tea was on its way.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

New York’s Sons of Liberty at the Fraunces Tavern

Today the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City opens its new exhibition, “Fear & Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty.” This display will remain on view in the Mesick Gallery for the next two years.

The museum’s announcement says:
On display in the Museum’s largest gallery, the exhibition will immerse visitors in New York City in the late 18th century, when the Sons of Liberty first began to make a name for themselves as an organized group who opposed British rule through violent resistance prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution.

The exhibition will take visitors through a timeline that chronicles key players and stories behind some of the most dramatic events that ignited the spark of revolution in the 13 colonies, from the staging of New York’s very own “tea party,” to tarring and feathering Loyalists.
The New York Tea Party took place on 22 Apr 1774, four months after the famous Boston Tea Party and one month after the less famous second Boston Tea Party. But I can see why this site wants to highlight the New York event, and I’ll say more about it tomorrow.

As for “tarring and feathering Loyalists,” New Yorkers actually carried out that public punishment on Customs employees or informers before Bostonians did, though folks in some of the smaller ports along Massachusetts’s north shore had established the tradition even earlier.

New York’s Sons of Liberty definitely originated Liberty Poles. They showed their patriotism by flying a British flag—while also tussling with British soldiers quartered nearby. The soldiers resented what they probably saw as hypocrisy or effrontery, and that produced a series of brawls, attempts to fell the locals’ flagpole, and erections of even larger flagpoles. Because when it came to Liberty Poles, size mattered.

In March 1770 the Sons of Liberty John Lamb and William Cunningham reportedly bought land for New York’s biggest Liberty Pole yet. Five years later when the war broke out, Lamb became a Continental Army artillery officer while Cunningham became provost, or head of prisoners, for the British army. I’d love to know more about Cunningham’s career in New York before 1775. Will this exhibit have something to say?

Among the artifacts to be displayed in the Fraunces Tavern’s largest room are “an iron fence fragment from the tearing down of the King George III statue in Bowling Green Park” in 1776 after the reading of the Declaration of Independence. A few months later, the royal forces took the city, and the Sons of Liberty had to go into hiding for more than six years. Perhaps a future Fraunces Tavern Museum exhibit will look at the New York City as the center of Loyalism during most of the war.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Reenacting Life in 1778 Newport, 25 Aug.

On Saturday, 25 August, the Newport Historical Society will sponsor its fifth annual summer living history program. This year’s subject is “Life During the 1778 Battle of Rhode Island.”

Dozens of costumed interpreters will portray residents of colonial Newport and the British soldiers who occupied the town 240 years ago. Events will include:
  • Costumed interpreters stationed around Washington Square portraying daily life in the Pitts Head Tavern, the Crown Coffeehouse, and the British Officer’s Club. 
  • A laundry demonstration in the same area.
  • At the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House (17 Broadway), Mary Almy preparing her boarding house and family for the potential battle with the Continentals.
  • British soldiers army standing guard at a sentry box outside the Colony House—ideal for visitors who want to snap a selfie.
  • Children’s activities at the Museum of Newport History & Shop (127 Thames Street).
Also at the Museum of Newport History, visitors can purchase material for the Spy Challenge, a special activity with proceeds helping to offset the overall event costs. The Spy Challenge lets folks step into the reenactment by following clues to collect important intelligence from undercover spies. Can you help transport that information off the island to the Continental forces?

This event will take place in the center of Newport from 12:00 noon to 5:00 P.M. Aside from the Spy Challenge, these presentations are free to all, but donations are welcome.

Monday, August 20, 2018

“They well know that a guinea never glistened in my eyes”

Because there was barely any copyright protection in early America, once a piece of writing was published, basically any other printer could publish it just by going to the trouble of setting it in type again.

Joseph Delaplaine’s short biography of Samuel Adams reappeared in whole or in part in books from Thomas Rogers’s A New American Biographical Dictionary (1824) to The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans (1839) and John Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1847). Some compilers even credited Delaplaine.

An abridged version, including the bribe story, appeared in The Family Magazine, or Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge in 1837, a version issued by Eli Taylor of Cincinnati.

That might have prompted the editor of the Cincinnati Evening Post, Ebenezer Smith Thomas (1775-1845), to publish his own reminiscence of Adams. Thomas was a nephew of Isaiah Thomas and apprenticed with him in the early republic. From Massachusetts he moved on to South Carolina, Maryland, and finally Ohio, editing and publishing newspapers.

In his last of many years as head of the Cincinnati Evening Post, E. S. Thomas published a series of essays about famous events and men he had encountered. These articles were collected and republished as Reminiscences of the Last Sixty-Five Years in 1840.

Thomas started with a profile of John Hancock, and sometime early in October or November 1837 turned his attention to Samuel Adams. I can’t access the Cincinnati Evening Post for that year, but the profile was reprinted in the Newark Daily Advertiser on 16 November and then in many other newspapers around the U.S. of A.

Thomas addressed the question of royal authorities trying to bribe Adams this way:
It is recorded of Mr. Adams, that a large sum was offered him by agents of the British government, to take sides with it against his native land, but it was indignantly spurned, and on a subsequent occasion, when a similar circumstance was alluded to, he exclaimed, “they well know that a guinea never glistened in my eyes.” It was well for our country, and for mankind, that there were such men, in whose eyes guineas did not glisten; they appear to have been raised up for the occasion, and having accomplished the great work given them to do, have disappeared from the face of the earth, and there have arisen in their stead, a race of men so unlike them, that it seems scarcely possible they can be the descendants of such sires. 
This passage merely alludes to the actual bribery, not offering concrete details about who made the offer or when. But it’s evidence that in later years Adams and people around him discussed how he had refused such an offer.


So did Gen. Thomas Gage really send John Fenton to Adams with a warning not to continue opposing the Crown and a promise of reward if he stopped, as Delaplaine had written? I suspect that Adams believed Gage had done so, even if Fenton was acting on his own or just feeling him out. And I have absolutely no doubt that Adams spurned any such offer. Which was, after all, the point of the story. 

(The photo above shows E. S. Thomas’s bookplate in one of his own copies of his Remininscences, later owned by the sculptor Daniel Chester French, on sale through North Star Rare Books of Great Barrington.)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

“The same facts of…the late Samuel Adams”

In 1815 and 1816, Joseph Delaplaine (1777-1824, shown here) published one and a half volumes of Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished American Characters.

The first biography in the second volume was about Samuel Adams. It included this paragraph:
Some years before the revolution, it was reported, that Mr. Adams was offered a lucrative place under the British government, if he would change his political conduct, and abandon that cause and interest, in which he was engaged. That this offer was made after the dissolution of the general assembly of that year, soon after its first session; that, in consequence of this last circumstance, he was deprived of a stipend allowed to him by the representatives, as clerk of the house, which, though small, was still a great part of his support. But yet, in this critical condition, he reprobated the offer, choosing rather to subsist by individual, or common beneficence, or even perish, than to sacrifice the cause of truth, and betray the liberty of his country.
That appeared in the midst of paragraphs about the late 1760s and 1770, suggesting it refers to 1768, when Gov. Francis Bernard shut down the Massachusetts General Court abruptly after that assembly (under Adams’s leadership) refused to rescind its Circular Letter.

Delaplaine went on to tell a related story set in 1774:
Every method had been tried to induce Mr. Adams to abandon the cause of his country, which he had supported with so much zeal, courage, and ability. Threats and caresses had proved equally unavailing. Prior to this time there is no certain proof that any direct attempt was made upon his virtue and integrity, although a report had been publicly and freely circulated, that it had been unsuccessfully tried by governor Bernard. [Thomas] Hutchinson knew him too well to make the attempt. But governor [Thomas] Gage was empowered to make the experiment.

He sent to him a confidential and verbal message by colonel [John] Fenton, who waited upon Mr. Adams, and after the customary salutations, he stated the object of his visit. He said that an adjustment of the disputes which existed between England and the colonies, and a reconciliation, was very desirable, as well as important to both. That he was authorized from governor Gage to assure him, that he had been empowered to confer upon him such benefits as would be satisfactory, upon the condition, that he would engage to cease in his opposition to the measures of government. He also observed, that it was the advice of governor Gage, to him, not to incur the further displeasure of his majesty; that his conduct had been such as made him liable to the penalties of an act of Henry VIII. by which persons could be sent to England for trial of treason, or misprison of treason, at the discretion of a governor of a province, but by changing his political course, he would not only receive great personal advantages, but would thereby make his peace with the king.

Mr. Adams listened with apparent interest to this recital. He asked colonel Fenton if he would truly deliver his reply as it should be given. After some hesitation he assented. Mr. Adams required his word of honour, which he pledged.

Then rising from his chair, and assuming a determined manner, he replied, “I trust I have long since made MY PEACE WITH THE KING OF KINGS. No personal consideration shall induce me to abandon the righteous cause of my country. Tell governor Gage, IT IS THE ADVICE OF SAMUEL ADAMS TO HIM, no longer to insult the feelings of an exasperated people.”
That is, of course, the same story that appeared in William V. Wells’s 1865 biography of Adams. The latter version included fewer details, such as Adams’s request to deliver his exact answer to Gov. Gage. It didn’t include the erroneous description of Fenton as commander of one of the royal army regiments that arrived in Boston in 1774.

Wells identified the story as “Narration by Mrs. Hannah Wells in 1818.” But most of those words were in print two years before that date. Did Hannah Wells, Adams’s aged daughter, copy down the story from Delaplaine’s book? Or was she Delaplaine’s source? Unfortunately, he didn’t specify his sources.

Delaplaine corresponded with many surviving Revolutionary figures while he worked on his book. On 24 Dec 1815 he wrote to John Adams requesting an interview, biographical data, and “the same facts of your brother the late Samuel Adams Esqr.” That of course prompted a correction. Eventually the former President provided basic information about his second cousin, but his surviving letters don’t contain stories like this one. Delaplaine presumably talked with others.

Delaplaine wanted to publish engraved portraits of all his subjects, so he commissioned Samuel F. B. Morse and other artists to paint them. (Eventually he opened a museum in Philadelphia he called a “National Panzographia.”) If a subject had already died, Delaplaine asked his sources about existing portraits. John Adams directed him to Hannah Wells as the owner of John Singleton Copley’s portrait of her father, so the biographer probably contacted her. But that still doesn’t clarify in which direction the information flowed.

TOMORROW: An alternate version of the tale.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Colonel Fenton’s “confidential and verbal message” for Samuel Adams

In 1865 William V. Wells published a biography of his great-grandfather: The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams. It’s both a highly laudatory, one-sided portrait of Adams and a necessary source for any subsequent scholars.

Among the stories Wells told is one about an attempt by Gov. Thomas Gage to bribe Adams in the summer of 1774:
Gage was perhaps privately instructed in England to make the attempt, if an opportunity should offer. The occasion seemed to present itself after the dissolution of the Assembly in June of this year, for thenceforth Adams was deprived of his stipend as its Clerk; and this, added to the distress which the closing of the harbor had entailed upon the town, left him with scarcely the means of feeding his little family.

“By Colonel Fenton, who commanded one of the newly arrived regiments, the Governor sent a confidential and verbal message. The officer, after the customary salutations, stated the object of his visit. He said that an adjustment of the existing disputes was very desirable, as well as important to the interests of both. That he was authorized by Governor Gage to assure him that he had been empowered to confer upon him such benefits as would be satisfactory, upon the condition that he would engage to cease in his opposition to the measures of government, and that it was the advice of Governor Gage to him not to incur the further displeasure of his Majesty; that his conduct had been such as made him liable to the penalties of an act of Henry the Eighth, by which persons could be sent to England for trial, and, by changing his course, he would not only receive great personal advantages, but would thereby make his peace with the King.

[“]Adams listened with apparent interest to this recital, until the messenger had concluded. Then rising, he replied, glowing with indignation: ‘Sir, I trust I have long since made my peace with the King of kings. No personal consideration shall induce me to abandon the righteous cause of my country. Tell Governor Gage it is the advice of Samuel Adams to him no longer to insult the feelings of an exasperated people.’”
The passage in quotation marks was credited as “Narration by Mrs. Hannah Wells in 1818.” Hannah (Adams) Wells (1756-1821) was the politician’s last surviving child. Since her grandson William V. Wells wasn’t born until 1826, either she wrote down the story in this form or an intervening relative passed it along orally.

In one respect, at least, details got mangled. “Colonel Fenton” wasn’t an active British army officer who “commanded one of the newly arrived regiments.” John Fenton (d. 1785) was an army captain, born in Ireland, who retired at the end of the French and Indian War. In 1755 he had married Elizabeth Temple, a daughter of Robert Temple of Medford. Though officially a Customs officer at Albany, New York, in the 1760s, Fenton stayed in the Boston area and did little government work.

In 1772 Fenton received a large grant of land in Plymouth, New Hampshire, from Gov. John Wentworth. He moved there and started to promote a settlement. Wentworth granted him several civic and militia titles, so in April 1774 John Adams wrote of him as “Collonell Judge, Clerk, Captain Fenton.”

In that letter Adams relayed news from Fenton to Robert Treat Paine: “He says that the spirit runs like wild Fire, to the very Extremities of N. H[amp]shire and that their Government is as determined, as ours”—presumably to oppose whatever Parliament was planning in response to the Boston Tea Party.

The new Massachusetts governor, Gen. Gage, arrived the next month with the Boston Port Bill. By June Gage had shut down the Massachusetts legislature and the work of its clerk, Samuel Adams. (The house’s last act was to choose a delegation to the First Continental Congress. Since Adams was one of the delegates, he still had plenty to keep him busy.)

Fenton’s correspondence with John Adams suggests that he, though allied with the Crown, still had enough links to the Massachusetts Whigs to sound out Samuel Adams about toning it down a bit.

If indeed the conversation described in Wells’s biography ever happened. No one has found corroboration for it in Gage’s papers, other British documents, or contemporaneous New England sources.

TOMORROW: An earlier source?

Friday, August 17, 2018

Phillis Wheatley Day at Old South, 18 Aug.

The Old South Meeting House traditionally observes 18 August as Phillis Wheatley Day, commemorating the anniversary of when the young African-born poet joined the congregation in 1771.

This year that date falls on this coming Saturday. At 12:00 noon and 1:00 P.M. a Freedom Trail Foundation Player will portray Wheatley, sharing with visitors her experiences as an enslaved writer in colonial Boston. This program will be free as part of paid admission to the historic site.

Here’s some of Wheatley’s writing on her faith as it pertained to her African heritage and enslavement. The first is the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” composed in 1768 when she was still in her teens and published in her 1773 volume:
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
On 11 Feb 1774, after becoming free, Wheatley wrote to the Rev. Samson Occom, a Mohegan minister, with more thoughts on the state of slavery:
I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign’d so long, is converting into beautiful Order, and reveals more and more clearly, the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one without the other:

Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian Slavery; I don't say they would have been contented without it, by no Means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honor upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures.

This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree,—I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.
In both documents Wheatley adopted the western notion of Africa, which she must have barely remembered and then through the lens of trauma, as a “Pagan land” of “thick Darkness.” And in both she presents Christianity as a source of redemption and refinement. But in the latter letter, which was published in New England newspapers, Wheatley challenged Americans sounding “the cry for Liberty” to live up to that Christian ideal.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Deerfield Symposium on “Fashion and Conflict,” 28-30 Sept.

On 28-30 September, Historic Deerfield will host its fall symposium on the topic of “Fashion and Conflict in Early America.”

This event is designed to produce “an in-depth look at the broad meanings of conflict on clothing and textiles that defined culture in 18th- and early-19th-century British and French North America.”

Sessions include:
  • “How Colonial America’s Hunger for Fashion in an Era of Mercantilist Competition Drove the British Industrial Revolution,” John Styles, University of Hertfordshire
  • “Fashioning an Imperial Fabric: India, Calico, and Colonial Consumers in British Policy,” Jonathan Eacott, University of California, Riverside
  • “Sophia Thifty Opines on Shoes on the Eve of the Stamp Act: Or, The Printer, the Cordwainer, and the Matron,” Kimberly S. Alexander, University of New Hampshire
  • “‘American Greivances red-dressed’: British Uniforms and their Symbolism in Boston during the Townshend Acts Crisis,” David Niescior, Old Barracks Museum
  • “A ‘New-Fashioned Jacket’: Dress and Undress in the Practice and Depiction of Tarring and Feathering,” Arinn Amer, C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center
  • “A Cutting Narrative: 18th-Century Boston Tailoring,” David E. (Ned) Lazaro, Historic Deerfield
  • “Linen or Lace? How George Washington’s Shirt Ruffles Defined the American Presidency,” Amanda Isaac, Mount Vernon
  • “Conflict and Conservation: A Proposal for the Treatment of George Washington’s 1789 Inaugural Coat,” Colleen Callahan
  • “‘...Kind of armour, being peculiar to America’: The American Hunting Shirt,” Neal T. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg
  • “The Age of Reform: American Military Dress in the Revolutionary Atlantic, 1760-1790,” Matthew Keagle, Fort Ticonderoga
  • “The Razor’s Edge: Contextualizing Shaving Practices in 18th-Century America,” Jacqueline Delisle
  • “‘Scarce and Valuable British and French Dry Goods’: Textiles Taken by American Privateers in the War of 1812,” Ann Buermann Wass, Riversdale House Museum
  • “À la créole: Caribbean Self-Fashioning in an Age of Revolution,” Phillipe Halbert, Yale University
In addition, there are museum talks and workshops available for additional fees. Follow this link for complete information and registration form.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Living History in Quincy, 18 Aug.

On Saturday, 18 August, the Dorothy Quincy Homestead in Quincy is hosting a living-history event highlighting the Quincy, Hancock, and Adams families. The title for this event is Lydia, Liberty, and Loyality.”

Those three families had a lot to talk about 250 years ago. In June, as I related back here, in the spring the Customs service tried to get Massachusetts attorney general Jonathan Sewall to prosecute John Hancock for interfering with their personnel aboard his ship Lydia. Sewall refused, saying the law was on Hancock’s side.

In June top Customs officers, with the help of the Royal Navy, seized Hancock’s ship Liberty for smuggling. This time they got Sewall to prosecute the case. Hancock retained John Adams as his lawyer.

Hancock and Adams had known each other since they were boys; Adams was a Braintree selectman’s son, and Hancock’s father was a minister in that town before his early death. Adams was also good friends with his fellow lawyer Sewall, though they were drifting apart because of political differences.

Even more fraught with drama, Sewall’s wife was the former Esther Quincy, part of the family that had owned that mansion earlier in the 1760s. Hancock would eventually marry Esther’s younger sister Dolly. And John Adams’s wife Abigail was cousin to the Quincys.

Also present at this event will be John Singleton Copley, portrait painter for the wealthy. In the 1760s he painted John Hancock and yet another Quincy cousin, attorney Samuel, and his wife. Eventually Copley would paint John Adams, but only after almost two decades had swelled Adams from a country lawyer to the American minister to the Court of St. James. For the Adamses and Sewalls in 1768, Copley was too expensive.

The Dorothy Quincy Homestead is co-owned by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That organization is co-sponsoring this event with Discover Quincy, Revolution250, and the Guild of Historic Interpreters South. Guides will also offer tours of the mansion.

This event is scheduled to run from 11:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. at the Dorothy Quincy Homestead, 34 Butler Road in Quincy. It is free to all, but donations will be gladly accepted.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

News of the Revolution in Vienna

Back in February, the Age of Revolutions blog featured Jonathan Singerton’s interesting analysis of how the American Revolution was reported in the Holy Roman Empire.

As the article’s headline notes, the Empire was an “Absolutist State” with strict censorship of the news. As in authoritarian regimes today, the rulers feared that any critique of other rulers could be interpreted as critique of themselves and inspire the local opposition.

Singerton focuses on the news reported in the Wienerisches Diarium, Vienna’s newspaper, and the behind-the-scenes arguments over that reporting. About the Declaration of Independence, he writes:
First news of an announcement arrived in Vienna in mid-August 1776, but on 17th August, the Diarium proclaimed, “We have news from America, which reports that the General Congress has finally declared itself independent with a small majority.”[12] The fact that Congress’s adoption was unanimous and only New York abstained was lost on the Diarium and the Declaration was not immediately reproduced. On August 31st, only the concluding paragraph of the Declaration appeared, and several weeks later, the immortal lines of the preamble featured in the September 11th edition.[13] The body of the Declaration, however, parts of which enumerated the grievances against King George III, were omitted – the Diarium’s managers could not risk disseminating such anti-monarchical writing.

When this edition reached the Queen-Regent Maria Theresa (1717-1780) [shown above] and her co-regent son Joseph II (1741-1790), they were incensed that such an article had passed the censors. Count Christian August von Seilern (1717-1801), the Governor of Lower Austria and previously Ambassador in London (1766-1770), sympathised with the article and futilely attempted to reason with the monarchs, insisting that their authority had not been questioned.[14] The newspaper’s perceived transgressions brought an even higher level of scrutiny.

This reporting created a hotbed of pro-American sentiment in Habsburg territories, which influenced the first diplomatic mission between the United States and the Habsburgs in 1778, when the American representative William Lee arrived in Vienna hoping to procure an alliance with the monarchs. Though he failed to get access to the court, the fervor for the American cause stoked by newspaper coverage created a welcoming environment outside of the court for Lee. He remarked to his brother about his amazement of such interest, “Some of distinction here are warm for the part of America.”[15]
That William Lee was a brother of Richard Henry, Francis Lightfoot, and Arthur Lee—a Virginia dynasty not quite as controlling as the Hapsburgs.

Monday, August 13, 2018

More Linguistic Analysis of the Second Amendment

In June I discussed one scholar’s recent conclusions about how people of the Founding Era used the phrase “bear arms.”

On the Panorama blog Alison L. LaCroix just shared her own findings in an essay headed “Historical Semantics and the Meaning of the Second Amendment.” Summarizing work she’s down with Jason Merchant of the University of Chicago’s linguistics department, LaCroix writes:

Much of originalism’s appeal lies in its reliance on a specific type of historical authority, and in the fact that it portrays historical meaning as an objective fact capable of being ascertained by a non-specialist reader. According to originalism’s “fixed-meaning canon” as articulated by Justice [Antonin] Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, “Words must be given the meaning they had when the text was adopted.” The words of the Constitution are, for the most part, recognizable to a modern speaker of English. The canon therefore rests on two premises: first, that there was a single meaning of the words at the time the text was adopted (for the Second Amendment, 1791); second, that this meaning is accessible to modern readers.

Originalism’s version of a historical approach stands in stark contrast to the rigorous empirical research that Chief Justice [John] Roberts dismissed as “sociological gobbledygook” in last term’s partisan gerrymandering case, Gill v. Whitford.[1] Any informed modern speaker of English can read an old text and determine what it means, the theory implies. Moreover, the theory relies on a tool that most historians, as well as linguists, treat with caution: the dictionary. In particular, the justices tend to reach for Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755. . . .

In our work, we have asked two questions: (1) Does the subject of “bear arms” always have to denote a collectivity? (2) Does the subject always have to be plural?

Using the Google Books corpus, we searched a range of published materials dating from the period between 1760 and 1795 for the phrase “bear arms.” We then classified by hand each of the 181 texts that our search produced according to the following categories: the use or sense in which the phrase “bear arms” was employed (collective, individual, or undeterminable), and the type of subject that accompanied the phrase (plural, singular, or undeterminable). A last category was for heraldic uses. . . .

According to our research, then, in 67.4 percent of the instances in which the phrase “bear arms” was used in books published between 1760 and 1795, the phrase was being employed in a collective sense. (The results for newspapers are even more dramatic.) For most ordinary citizens in the founding generation, then, the phrase “bear arms” referred to an activity undertaken by groups of people, not only by individuals. 
Which fits perfectly with what the Second Amendment states as the right that it preserves: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Stedman in Suriname

At the online magazine OZY, Kristina Gaddy wrote about John Gabriel Stedman’s memoir of life in Suriname in the 1770s.

Stedman was born into a military family, his father a Scotsman who had joined the army of the Dutch Republic and his mother reportedly a Dutch noblewoman.

At twenty-seven years old, feeling the need for both money and adventure, Stedman volunteered to command a corps fighting “Maroons,” or people of African descent who had freed themselves from slavery and were challenging the white colonial society.

Stedman arrived in Suriname, a South American colony that really functioned as part of the West Indies, in February 1773. He stayed for four years, fighting Maroons and his boss with equal fervor.

Gaddy explained:
In his diary, Stedman described the Maroons, the armed tribes he was fighting, the lush landscape and the indigenous Arawaks who lived in the dense tropical jungle. He also wrote about his relationship with an enslaved woman named Joanna, the many sexual encounters he had and the lives of both masters and the enslaved. What he did, the music he heard, the unusual foods he ate and the indigenous plants he saw — everything was recorded in his journal. In addition, he collected “curiosities” — now part of the collection at the Museum Volkenkunde (the National Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden, the Netherlands — and painted vivid watercolors of scenes from Suriname.

When he returned to the Netherlands in 1777, Stedman set to crafting a story from his diary entries, eventually selling the rights to Joseph Johnson, a London publisher. Starting in 1790, Johnson devoted six years to transforming Stedman’s watercolors into engravings — he commissioned William Blake to produce several plates — that could be reproduced for the book.

That book — Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America — came out in 1796 and became an immediate popular success. While slavery existed in Europe, large plantations did not, and Stedman’s evocative, at times graphic account of both free and enslaved lives was richly illuminating to people across the Continent. “[Stedman’s book] was fundamental to people’s understanding of slavery” in the late 18th and early 19th century, says Karwan Fatah-Black, assistant professor of history at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Narrative was quickly translated into Dutch, Swedish, Italian, French and German, and became an international best-seller that would ultimately appear in 25 editions.

It was the kind of overnight success that would have thrilled most authors. But Stedman was enraged. It turned out that Joseph Johnson had secretly hired an editor to revise the original text and then published a version Stedman condemned as an outright distortion. “My book was printed full of lies and nonsense,” he wrote to his sister-in-law, and he claimed to have burned 2,000 copies.
In 1988 Richard and Sally Price finally created an edition that compared Stedman’s manuscript diary, which ended up at the University of Minnesota, against the published version. The original had a lot more sex, it seems.

Interestingly, the editing also made Stedman out to be more supportive of slavery than he really was. (It sounds like he was a bit cynical about everything.) Nonetheless, Stedman’s account of the slave society—perhaps because it wasn’t about a British colony—became one of the foundational texts of the British anti-slavery movement.

The Wikipedia article on Stedman is impressively detailed and worth reading alongside Gaddy’s.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

When Did Susanna Rowson First Come to America?

Susanna Rowson’s biographers, from Elias Nason to R. W. G. Vail in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society in 1932, state that she first arrived in America in January 1767. That reflects a date stated in her novel Rebecca, or The Fille de Chambre.

Many of the details in that book chapter do match contemporaneous accounts of Rowson’s passage across the Atlantic Ocean as a young girl. As dramatic as the hardships described in Rebecca are, they closely echo what the Boston press reported in early 1768.

The first reports appeared on 1 Feb 1768, saying that the brig Abigail under Capt. James Harding Stevens had reached Boston harbor the preceding Thursday, 28 January. “Capt. Stevens left England the 9th November,” said the Boston Chronicle; “he met with contrary winds the whole passage.” The Boston Evening-Post added: “He has been from London 14 weeks, but last from the Downs [off the English coast] in 10 Weeks; they had very bad Weather on the Coast, and most the People on board, (35 in Number) are more or less Frost-bitten.”

The 4 February Boston News-Letter agreed: “most of the People belonging to the Vessel had their Hands and Feet froze.” Also, “the Ship’s Company were at a short Allowance for 5 Weeks before their Arrival, being 36 Persons in Number Passengers included.” That confirms Rowson’s memory of the food shortage, though the newspapers didn’t print anecdotes about her own family.

And then the Abigail ran aground. It was “in a snow storm, drove ashore on Lovel’s-island, and can’t be got off without unloading part of her cargo,” said the Chronicle. The Evening-Post was optimistic, saying, “’tis thought [it] will be got off without much Damage.”

By 4 February, the News-Letter could say, “they are taking out the Goods.” And on 8 February the Evening-Post updated its readers: “The Brig Abigail, Capt. Stevens, from London, mentioned in our last to be drove ashore at Lovell’s island, is since got off and is come up to Town.”

Newspapers and Boston town records confirm that Lt. William Haswell, late of the Royal Navy (and known to Bostonians since he’d helped to patrol their harbor in the early 1760s), and his family were aboard the Abigail. They don’t describe how he lowered his little daughter over the ship’s rail on a rope so a sailor could carry her to shore, but it seems certain that Susanna Rowson didn’t invent that experience.

When Rowson set the landing of the ship in Rebecca in January 1767, she might have been quietly fictionalizing her experience. Or she might have been genuinely confused about what year she arrived in Boston—after all, she was only five years old at the time. But because her ship’s passage was so awful, we have the documentation to say for certain that Rowson first touched land in America on the morning of 29 Jan 1768.

(In the image above, Lovell’s Island isn’t labeled but lies to the right of the words “Ship Channel.”)

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Stormy Voyage from Fiction to Biography

Susanna Rowson died in 1824, having spent the last half of her life writing and teaching in greater Boston. Her novel Charlotte Temple was still selling, and her sequel Charlotte’s Daughter, or The Three Orphans came out posthumously in 1828.

In 1870 the Rev. Elias Nason wrote a biography of Rowson. He took up her invitation to read passages from Rebecca as first-hand accounts of her own experiences. Thus, Nason described the author’s passage to America this way, citing the novel:
The voyage was long and perilous. The brig encountered the fearful storms and contrary winds of that inclement season, and the provisions failing, each passenger was finally put upon an allowance of a single biscuit, and a half a pint of water per day. Mrs. Rowson often spoke in after life of the intense thirst she then experienced, and of her bitter disappointment, when her father, with a tearful eye, presented her a cup of wine instead of water. Her faithful nurse subsisted many days on half of her own scanty allowance, affectionately reserving the other portion for her beloved Susanna, should they be reduced to a more terrible necessity.

Having thus been driven to and fro by wintry storms for many weeks, and having endured the pangs of famine to the last extremity, their hearts were overwhelmed with joy when the sweet cry of “Land ahead!” was heard late in the afternoon of the 28th of January, 1767. They were approaching Boston harbor, and anticipating quick relief from their protracted sufferings; but a severer trial yet awaited them. The wind rose suddenly; the night fell darkling over the ill-fated vessel; the sleet encased the ropes in ice; the sailors were benumbed with cold; the brig became unmanageable; and to add to their dismay, they lost sight of the beacon at the entrance of the harbor, and were drifting hopelessly in amongst the rocks and breakers.

At ten o’clock that dreadful night, their fears were realized. Suddenly the vessel struck a rock. It proved to be upon that long, low point running out north-westwardly from Lovell’s island, opposite Ram’s head, in Boston harbor. The floods came beating violently over deck, and there, all through that long, cold, dreary, stormy night, the little weather-beaten company remained in agony, anticipating instant death.

But the good brig held together; and when the tide receded in the morning, the kind people of the island wading into the sea and placing a ladder against the side of the vessel, received the passengers and conducted them safely to the land; the rounds of the ladder, however, being soon covered with ice, Lieut. [William] Haswell did not dare to risk his little daughter on them; and so, fastening a strong cord round her waist, he swung her out over the bulwarks of the brig into the arms of a stout old sailor, standing up to his waist in the water to receive her.
Nason recognized that not every detail in the novel applied to little Susanna Haswell. The young girl in the novel was seven years old; Susanna was only five. The girl traveled with two older brothers as well as her widowed father; Susanna’s only family at this time was her father, a retired naval lieutenant.

In other details, however, Nason was too quick to accept the novel’s details. Rebecca describes the girl traveling with a “nurse,” and that word also appears in the biography. But in Boston’s records of who came ashore, the Haswells are listed as bringing a “Maid,” which isn’t quite so genteel.

Most significant, Mason adopted the date that appeared in Rebecca. The novel stated that its heroine reached mainland Boston on “the thirtieth of January, 1767.” Nason therefore calculated that the crew had sighted land “late in the afternoon of the 28th of January, 1767.” But both dates were off.

TOMORROW: When the Haswells really arrived.