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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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.

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