J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

“‘Nae Luck aboot the House” in Braintree

Gwen Fries at the Massachusetts Historical Society highlighted how Abigail Adams came to love a particular Scottish song while her husband John was far away in France.

On 13 Dec 1778, after describing lonely winter nights, Adams wrote:
I cannot discribe to you How much I was affected the other day with a Scotch song which was sung to me by a young Lady in order to divert a Melancholy hour, but it had a quite different Effect, and the Native Simplicity of it, had all the power of a well wrought Tradidy. When I could conquer my Sensibility I beg'd the song, and Master Charles has learnt it and consoles his Mamma by singing it to her.
The song, identifiable from the lines that Adams wrote down, was “There’s Nae Luck aboot the House.” It’s traditionally attributed to Jean Adam (1704-1765), a Scottish poet, teacher, and housekeeper. The song had only recently become popular in London, judging by publications.

“There’s Nae Luck aboot the House” was about a wife yearning for her husband to come home from the sea, so no wonder Abigail Adams felt it keenly. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, including the lines she quoted:
And are ye sure the news is true?
And are ye sure he’s weel?
Is this a time to talk o’ wark?
Ye jades, fling by your wheel!
Is this a time to think o’ wark,
When Colin’s at the door?
Gie me my cloak! I’ll to the quay,
And see him come ashore.
Chorus
For there’s nae luck about the house,
There’s nae luck ava’;
There’s little pleasure in the house,
When our gudeman’s awa’.
. . .
Sae true his words, sae smooth his speech,
His breath like caller air,
His very foot has music in’t,
When he comes up the stair:
And will I see his face again?
And will I hear him speak?
I’m downright dizzie wi’ the thought,
In troth I’m like to greet!
John Adams responded that he, too, was touched by the song, and it looks like Benjamin Franklin asked to copy it as well.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Dr. Franklin and the Volcano

In May 1784, Benjamin Franklin published an essay titled “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures.”

In it Franklin observed that “the winter of 1783-84, was more severe than any that happened for many years.” Though he was writing in and about Europe, such American planters as George Washington and James Madison also complained about that season.

Franklin attributed the harsh winter to “a constant fog over all Europe” in the summer of 1783, though those months had been unusually hot. As for the nature of that haze in the atmosphere, Franklin saw different possibilities, including meteors and
the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing to issue during the summer from Hecla, in Iceland, and that other volcano which arose out of the sea near that island, which smoke might be spread by various winds over the northern part of the world
The eruptions on Iceland and the ensuing livestock deaths and crop failures reportedly killed a fifth of the population on that island. Even in Britain, people blamed the unhealthy atmosphere for thousands of deaths. But Franklin was apparently the first person to suggest that a volcanic eruption might affect the winter months later.

In 2011, as reported by the website phys.org, Geophysical Research Letters published a paper by Rosanne D’Arrigo and colleagues which concluded the “1783-84 weather was most likely the result of a rare confluence: A warm tropical eastern Pacific Ocean—El Niño—combined with a strong negative pressure in the North Atlantic Ocean.” The same effect occurred in 2009-10, the team wrote. They therefore didn’t think the volcano was a necessary part of the explanation (and no one talks about Franklin’s meteor hypothesis).

However, this month a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research with Brian Zambri as lead author took another look at the eruption, which was huge:
The eight-month eruption of the Laki volcano, beginning in June 1783, was the largest high-latitude eruption in the last 1,000 years. It injected about six times as much sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere as the 1883 Krakatau or 1991 Pinatubo eruptions…
Using computer models, these authors tried to isolate the volcano’s effect. They concluded that it didn’t make the summer of 1783 unusually warm; in fact, “It would have been even warmer without the eruption.” But the following winter was definitely colder because of Laki, as Franklin had guessed.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Somos on the “State of Nature" in Boston and Quincy

Mark Somos, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Fellow and Senior Research Affiliate at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, is visiting the Boston area this week to speak about his book American States of Nature: The Origins of Independence, 1761-1775.

The event description:
The “state of nature” refers to mankind’s pre-political condition; interstate relations; nudity; hell; or innocence. The term appeared in these senses thousands of times in juridical, theological, medical, political, economic, and other texts produced in the British American colonies between 1630 and 1810.

By the 1760s, a coherent and distinctively American state of nature discourse started to emerge. It combined existing meanings and sidelined others in moments of intense contestation, such as the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66 and the First Continental Congress of 1774. In laws, resolutions, petitions, sermons, broadsides, pamphlets, letters and diaries, the American state of nature, where the colonists’ natural rights became collective rights, came to justify independence as much as formulations of liberty, property, and individual rights did.

The founding generation deliberately transformed this flexible concept into a powerful theme that shapes US constitutional and international law to this day. No constitutional history of the Revolution can be written without it.
On Wednesday, 22 May, Somos will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. That event begins with a reception at 5:30 P.M., and the lecture is scheduled for 6:00. Admission is $10, free to M.H.S. Fellows and Members and E.B.I.T. cardholders. Register here.

On Thursday, 23 May, Somos will speak in the carriage house at Adams National Historical Park, 135 Adams Street in Quincy. That event will start at 7:00 P.M. This talk is free and doesn’t require reservations.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Two Prisoners of War Who Escaped

This series about redcoats in captivity after 19 Apr 1775 concentrated on the two men who gave depositions to provincial magistrates a few days after the battle.

One of those men, Pvt. John Beaton, died in captivity and was buried in Concord. The other, Pvt. James Marr, might have joined the Continental Army and entered American society. Some of the other soldiers held in the Concord jail with them did likewise.

But I left a couple of men still in the Concord jail at the end of 1775. The Rev. William Gordon talked to them in the spring. They signed a petition to the Massachusetts authorities seeking warmer clothing on 13 December, as shown above.

Fortunately, Dan Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution can come to the rescue again. He’s written blog entries about both men.

About Pvt. William McDonald, Don wrote:
McDonald was still in Concord’s jail on 6 December, when a list of the prisoners was made that indicated that his wife was still in Boston. This gave him strong incentive to get away. . . . Whatever the means, McDonald was back in Boston by 20 February 1776, when a British officer of the 40th Regiment wrote,
A grenadier of the 38th regiment, who was wounded and taken prisoner on the 19th of April (the affair at Lexington) has found means to make his escape. He says, there are many friends to Government who would be happy to get under the protection of our troops, but are apprehensive of failing in the attempt.
As Don’s posting reveals, McDonald’s story intersects with that of another British soldier, a man who had deserted from the army before the war, then tried to get back into besieged Boston and was confined by the provincial government. When he finally escaped with the help of Sgt. Matthew Hayes, another prisoner from 19 April who signed the petition above, the British army tried the man for desertion. McDonald was a witness at that trial.

And here’s the story of Pvt. Evan Davis who had been moved from Concord to Ipswich:
At dusk on 7 May 1777, after two years as a prisoner of war, Davis escaped with two fellow prisoners. It was almost three full weeks before they were advertised in the newspapers:
Deserted from the town of Ipswich, on Wednesday the 7th inst. between day light and dark, three prisoners of war, viz. Donnel McBean, a highland volunteer, of a sprightly make, dark hair, and ruddy countenance, about 21 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high. Ewen Davis, of slim stature, has lost the sight of one of his eyes, about 5 feet 10 inches high. And one Lile, a Highlander, a shoemaker, dark complexion, about 5 feet 6 inches high. Whoever shall take up said prisoners, and convey them to any goal within this State, shall have Five Dollars reward for each of them, and all necessary charges paid by Michael Farley, Sheriff.
[Boston Gazette, 26 May 1777]
Somehow, Evan Davis made his way back to his regiment. Most likely he was able to get to the British garrison in Rhode Island and from there sail to New York, but we have no details on his journey. On 24 August he was placed back into the grenadier company, just in time for British campaign to Philadelphia.
Thanks, Don!

I’ll leave off talking about prisoners of war for a while, but sooner or later we’re going to circle back to Sgt. Hayes.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

“The said Marr further declared…”

As Don Hagist showed yesterday, it’s unlikely that Pvt. John Bateman was close enough to the Lexington common on 19 Apr 1775 to see the first shots there. As a grenadier of the 52nd Regiment, he was probably in the middle of the British column, not up front.

Multiple people nonetheless reported hearing Bateman as a prisoner blame the regulars for shooting first, which was definitely what his provincial captors wanted to hear. Whether he was speaking honestly, or planning to defect, or felt he had to curry favor with the local doctors to get his wound treated, that’s what he said.

However, another captured redcoat, Pvt. James Marr of the 4th Regiment, almost certainly was at the common at the crucial time. The light infantry company of the 4th was near the front of the British column. What’s more, Marr told the Rev. William Gordon that he was part of “the advanced guard, consisting of six, besides a sergeant and corporal.”

Marr told Gordon:
They were met by three men on horseback before they got to the meeting-house a good way; an officer bid them stop; to which it was answered, you had better turn back, for you shall not enter the Town; when the said three persons rode back again, and at some distance one of them offered to fire, but the piece flashed in the pan without going off. I asked Marr whether he could tell if the piece was designed at the soldiers, or to give an alarrm? He could not say which.
That matches the report of Lt. William Sutherland, riding at the head of the column. He wrote:
I went on with the front party which Consisted of a Serjeant & 6 or 8 men, I shall Observe here that the road before you go into Lexington is level for about 1000 Yards, Here we saw Shots fired to the right and left of us, but as we heared no Whissing of Balls I conclude they were to Alarm the body that was there of our approach. On coming within Gunshot of the village of Lexington a fellow from the corner of the road on the right hand Cock’d his piece at me, burnt priming…
Sutherland and Lt. Jesse Adair of the marines reported this encounter to Maj. John Pitcairn, who in turn informed Gen. Thomas Gage a few days later:
When I arrived at the head of the advance Company, two officers came and informed me, that a man of the rebels advanced from those that were assembled, had presented his musket and attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan.
Pvt. Marr thus confirmed a Crown talking-point about the battle, though he probably didn’t know Gage and his officers were making a big deal about that early shot. (It’s also striking that Gordon wrote down Marr’s remark and had it published within a few weeks of the battle, even though it didn’t help his side of the conflict. He left that detail out of his History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of America, however.)

As for the shots on the Lexington common, Gordon went on:
The said Marr further declared, that when they and the others were advanced, Major Pitcairn said to the Lexington Company, (which, by the by, was the only one there,) stop, you rebels! and he supposed that the design was to take away their arms; but upon seeing the Regulars they dispersed, and a firing commenced, but who fired first he could not say.
Marr’s account agrees with what a lot of British eyewitnesses described—but not with the testimony that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress published in April 1775. Those depositions, collected from provincials and Pvt. Bateman, chorused that Maj. Pitcairn had ordered the regulars to fire the first shots. In contrast, Marr said Pitcairn yelled something else, and he didn’t know which side fired first.

Marr was at the front of the British column at Lexington and thus had an excellent view of what happened. He cooperated with the magistrates collecting evidence for the congress, but his description was of no value to those Patriot authorities. As a result, they published a deposition from Marr—but about the first shots at Concord instead.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Where Was Pvt. John Bateman?

Back when I quoted the April 1775 deposition of Pvt. John Bateman about the shooting at Lexington, I said I was more interested in analyzing the circumstances of that document than its content.

But Don Hagist, chief editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, noticed something about the content that’s worth considering. So I asked to run his message as a “guest blogger” posting.

We’ll start with a reminder of Bateman’s testimony:

I, John Bateman, belonging to the fifty second regiment, commanded by Colonel [Valentine] Jones, on Wednesday morning, on the nineteenth day of April instant, was in the party marching to Concord. Being at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex, being nigh the meeting-house in said Lexington, there was a small party of men gathered together in that place, when our said troops marched by; and I testify and declare, that I heard the word of command given to the troops to fire, and some of said troops did fire, and I saw one of said small party lie dead on the ground nigh said meeting-house; and I testify, that I never heard any of the inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.
And here’s Don:

Reading the testimony of Pvt. John Bateman of the 52nd Regiment, I realized something that calls the veracity of his testimony into question. Bateman was a grenadier. As such, he was probably pretty far away from the first shot on Lexington green, not in good position to know who fired it.

There is no disputing that the light infantry got to Lexington first, and that the companies of the 4th and 10th Regiments went onto the green first. This accords well with typical British formations that put the most senior units on the flanks when in line. A number of period maps show that grenadier and light infantry battalions formed in the same way. Formed in a line by seniority, the light infantry companies on April 19, 1775, would be arranged with the 4th on the right, the 5th on the left, the 10th next on the right, 23rd, next on the left, and so forth working inwards. Marching by column from the right puts the 4th and 10th as the first two companies, making them first on Lexington green.

With this formation, Bateman's company from the 52nd Regiment would be near the middle of the grenadier battalion, in column behind the light infantry. Only if they had proceeded partway past the green by the time the first shot was fired would Bateman have been in a position to see who fired it.

This assumes that Bateman was with his company and not with an advanced party. Lt. William Sutherland of the 38th Regiment wrote that, before arriving at Lexington, the column halted “in order to make a Disposition, by advancing men in front & on the flanks to prevent a surprise.” He himself was not a grenadier or light infantry officer, and “went on with the front party which consisted of a serjeant & 6 or 8 men” who could have been chosen from any company in the column. And Lt. Jesse Adair of the Marines said that he was at the head of the column, even though the Marines were between the 38th and 43rd in seniority, and so should have been in the middle of the column.

We don’t know where John Bateman was when the shooting started on April 19, but it doesn’t seem likely that he was in a good position to see who fired the first shot.

Thanks, Don!

I agree with this analysis and think it also reflects the reality of what Bateman said. He claimed to have heard the command to fire, but he didn’t describe seeing those shots or their immediate aftermath. He saw only one dead body, and we know that several men died on Lexington green. Because, most likely, Bateman marched by the scene after the shooting was over.

TOMORROW: But you know who was in a position to see the first shots at Lexington?

[The image above shows a detail from the muster roll of the 52nd Regiment, supplied by Don. It shows how Bateman’s commanders gave him up as dead as of 21 April—two days before his deposition and probably two weeks or more before he died.] 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Whatever Happened to James Marr?

As quoted yesterday, in 1835 the Revolutionary War veteran Thaddeus Blood told Ralph Waldo Emerson that he doubted the deposition published over the name of Pvt. John Bateman really came from that prisoner.

Bateman, Blood said, was too badly injured on 19 Apr 1775 to give testimony. He believed instead that “It was probably Carr’s or Starr’s deposition.” But there’s no one named Carr or Starr in this story.

There was, however, a Pvt. James Marr, another British soldier captured on the first day of the war and held in Concord. Marr also gave a deposition to provincial magistrates and spoke to the Rev. William Gordon. I suspect Blood remembered that man but not exactly.

Blood saw Bateman’s deposition reprinted in “Dr. R’s History”—A History of the Fight at Concord, by the Rev. Dr. Ezra Ripley, first published in 1827. Blood knew Ripley well; the minister provided a character reference when the veteran applied for a pension.

Ripley’s book focused on whether the Lexington militiamen had fired back at the redcoats on 19 April in some significant way. It did not cite or reprint James Marr’s deposition, which was about the fight at the North Bridge.

Bateman thus had no reminder about Marr’s name in front of him. He also didn’t see how every time Patriots recorded Bateman’s testimony in 1775, they took down Marr’s testimony the same day. In other words, there was no motive for them to put Marr’s words into Bateman’s mouth since it would have been easier just to credit those words to Marr.


Blood had a vivid memory of Bateman when he was dying in Concord; “his wounds stunk intolerably,” the old man recalled sixty years later. But before the infection set in, Bateman was probably well enough to testify. Blood also must have remembered Marr, but less exactly, as a cooperative prisoner, the kind who would give testimony against his own army. Why would Blood recall Marr that way?

One clue appears in Lemuel Shattuck’s history of Concord, published the same year that Blood spoke to Emerson. Shattuck listed a James Marr among the men from Middlesex County whom Col. James Barrett enrolled in the Continental Army for three years starting in January 1777.
This may be the same James Marr(s) who is recorded as serving during the 1780s out of Groton, according to documents transcribed in Samuel Abbott Green’s Groton During the Revolution. Volume 25 of the Proceedings of the Worcester Society of Antiquity likewise lists James Marr in Capt. Sylvanus Smith’s company but doesn’t state a home town.

Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War puts James Marr of Groton in Capt. Sylvanus Smith’s company, Col. Timothy Bigelow’s regiment. He was 5'9" tall and turned 24 years old at the end of 1780, which would make him 18 when the war began. This Marr was even promoted to sergeant. But his name never appeared in the Groton vital records, and there’s no clue about where he settled after the war.
To be sure, the James Marr from Groton might not have been the former prisoner. (There was at least one other James Marr from Massachusetts serving in the Continental Army, a man from Scarborough and Limington, Maine.) But I suspect the James Marr who cooperated with the provincials in April 1775 did even more cooperating in the years that followed.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

“Bateman, he thinks, could not have made the deposition”

When the Rev. William Gordon visited British prisoners of war in Concord in the spring of 1775, he reported that Pvt. John Bateman was “too ill to admit of my conversing with him.”

Bateman didn’t get any better. In 1835 local historian Lemuel Shattuck wrote that this wounded redcoat “died and was buried on the hill.” That was Concord’s elevated burying-ground, shown in the right foreground of the Amos Doolittle print of regulars searching the town.

In 1825 Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington argued that the militiamen of Lexington were the first to shoot back at the redcoats. Two years later, the Rev. Ezra Ripley of Concord published A History of the Fight at Concord to refute that claim; five years later, Ripley brought out an expanded edition.

Both Phinney and Ripley gathered new testimony from veterans of the battle to support their case. Ripley also republished John Bateman’s deposition from 1775, which had said, “I testify, that I never heard any of the [Lexington] inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.”

A few weeks back, I quoted some statements that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote into his diary after a visit from Thaddeus Blood, a long-lived veteran, on 5 Aug 1835. (Thanks to Joel Bohy for alerting me to this latter-day source.) After recording Blood’s recollection of Lt. Isaac Potter, Emerson wrote:
Bateman, he thinks, could not have made the deposition in Dr. R[ipley]’s History. A ball passed through his cap and he cried, “A miss is as good as a mile.” Immediately another ball struck his ear and passed out at the side of his mouth, knocking out two teeth. He lived about three weeks, and his wounds stunk intolerably. It was probably Carr’s or Starr’s deposition.
Evidently Bateman’s wound became infected, and he died in American custody. Don Hagist tells me the muster rolls of Bateman’s regiment, the 52nd, state he died on 21 April, but his deposition was dated 23 April and Gordon encountered him after that. He probably died in early May.

Was Blood correct in saying that Bateman was never well enough to give the testimony published over his name? Probably not. In addition to magistrates Dr. John Cuming and Duncan Ingraham on 23 April, four other people told Gordon that they “heard the said Bateman say, that the Regulars fired first, and saw him go through the solemnity of confirming the same by an oath on the bible.” Those four reported witnesses were Bateman’s fellow prisoners in Concord.

I therefore think Bateman’s 23 April deposition was authentic, though he may well have been under the duress of being a prisoner and needing medical care.

TOMORROW: So who was “Carr” or “Starr”?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

“The prisoners at Concord in free conversation”

The Rev. William Gordon visited British prisoners in the Concord jail and wrote about it in the form of a letter dated 17 May 1775.

Though from England, Gordon served a meeting in Roxbury and was a strong supporter of the Massachusetts cause. He happily accepted and spread stories that told the provincial side of how the shooting had started on 19 April.

Gordon wrote:
The simple truth, I take to be this, which I received from one of the prisoners at Concord in free conversation, one James Marr, a native of Aberdeen, in Scotland, of the Fourth Regiment, who was upon the advanced guard, consisting of six, besides a sergeant and corporal:

They were met by three men on horseback before they got to the meeting-house a good way; an officer bid them stop; to which it was answered, you had better turn back, for you shall not enter the Town; when the said three persons rode back again, and at some distance one of them offered to fire, but the piece flashed in the pan without going off. I asked Marr whether he could tell if the piece was designed at the soldiers, or to give an alarrm? He could not say which.

The said Marr further declared, that when they and the others were advanced, Major [John] Pitcairn said to the Lexington Company, (which, by the by, was the only one there,) stop, you rebels! and he supposed that the design was to take away their arms; but upon seeing the Regulars they dispersed, and a firing commenced, but who fired first he could not say.

The said Marr, together with Evan Davies of the Twenty-Third, George Cooper of the Twenty-Third, and William McDonald of the Thirty-Eighth, respectively assured me in each other’s presence, that being in the room where John Bateman, of the Fifty-Second, was, (he was in an adjoining room, too ill to admit of my conversing with him,) they heard the said Bateman say, that the Regulars fired first, and saw him go through the solemnity of confirming the same by an oath on the bible.

Samuel Lee, a private in the Eighteenth Regiment, Royal Irish, acquainted me, that it was the talk among the soldiers that Major Pitcairn fired his pistol, then drew his sword, and ordered them to fire…
Most of the prisoners Gordon spoke to were cooperative or even friendly to their captors. Pvts. Marr and Bateman had given depositions to local magistrates back on 23 April, as quoted here.

Pvt. Samuel Lee would end up marrying a local woman named Mary Piper in July 1776. Local tradition says she worked for the Concord physician Timothy Minot. The Lees settled in Concord and raised a family, supported by his skills as a master tailor.

George Cooper was likewise remembered for marrying a local woman, in his case “a woman who lived with Dr. [John] Cuming” as a servant.

That leaves only Pvts. Evan Davies and William McDonald. And they were still left in the Concord jail as of December, shown by another document from the Massachusetts archives that Joel Bohy shared with me.

TOMORROW: How was Pvt. Bateman “too ill to admit of my conversing with him”?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Dr. John Cuming, Justice of the Peace

The other Concord magistrate who collected depositions from captured British soldiers on 23 Apr 1775 was John Cuming according to one printed version and John Cummings according to another.

Dr. John Cuming (c. 1728-1788) was from a branch of an aristocratic Scottish family that had settled in Concord. His sisters Ame and Elizabeth Cumings were shopkeepers and “she-merchants” in Boston. They defied the non-importation boycott of 1769-1770, at one point publicly criticized as “enemies of the country.” The Cumings sisters would remain loyal to the Crown.

John Cuming, in contrast, established deep roots in Massachusetts. He became a Concord selectman, chairman of the committee of correspondence, colonel of the local militia, in 1776 a representative to the state legislature, and in 1779 a delegate to the convention to write a new state constitution. He owned slaves and lots of land. He left substantial bequests to Harvard College and the poor of Concord. Even today there’s a building at the local hospital named for him.

After the battle on 19 April, Cuming treated the wounded, including redcoats. According to Concord historian Lemuel Shattuck, based on an interview with Mary Barrett in 1831, “Eight of the wounded [prisoners] received medical attendance from Dr. Cuming, at the house then standing near Captain Stacy’s.” (I don’t know if that’s the same as the Cuming house shown above, but let’s assume.) Reportedly those men included Pvt. John Bateman, one of the redcoats who gave a deposition.

But Bateman doesn’t appear to have been Cuming’s patient yet on 23 April. That deposition was said to have been signed in Lincoln, not Concord. An invoice from Dr. Joseph Fiske that Joel Bohy found in the Massachusetts state archives shows that on 20 April he dressed two prisoners’ wounds in Lincoln, and one of those men was probably Bateman.

After Pvt. Bateman recovered somewhat, the provincial authorities moved him out to Concord to be held with other British men at the county jail. That’s when Dr. Cuming presumably took over caring for him.

TOMORROW: A visit to the jail.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Duncan Ingraham, Justice of the Peace

Yesterday I quoted two depositions of British soldiers taken prisoner on 19 Apr 1775—John Bateman of the 52nd Regiment and James Marr of the 4th.

Both depositions were dated 23 April and attested to by justices of the peace from Concord: Dr. John Cuming (also spelled Cumings, Cumming, and Cummings, of course) and Duncan Ingraham. Interestingly, both those magistrates had Loyalist ties.

First, Ingraham (1726-1811). A sea captain, he was one of the Boston merchants who attacked Loyalist printer John Mein in late 1769.

After a wealthy marriage, Ingraham settled in Concord in 1772 and moved away from the Whig movement. He refused to participate in the renewed boycott of British imports, was ready to hold court sessions in late 1774, and even hosted British army officers at dinner. His neighbors showed their disapproval of that behavior by hanging a sheep’s head and guts on his chaise.

The people of Concord also confiscated Ingraham’s property. In October 1774 the town took four four-pounder cannon from Ingraham—quite possibly the four that were still in town on 19 April. On 3 Jan 1775, Dr. Joseph Lee (another Crown supporter) wrote in his diary, “The mob unloaded Capt. Ingraham’s Bords that were to go to Boston,” where the army might have used them to build barracks.

Because of those conflicts, I’ve even suspected Ingraham of being the “Concord spy” discussed in The Road to Concord, but there’s no smoking cannon to reveal that informant’s identity.

Within a few days after the battle, however, Ingraham was helping to gather and certify depositions from local militiamen, as well as those two captive soldiers, for the Patriot cause. He remained in America through the war and eventually gained enough trust from his neighbors to be elected to the Massachusetts General Court. (That’s when he finally got paid for those cannon.)

After another wealthy marriage, Ingraham moved on to Medford for the last decades of his life. A detail from his gravestone appears above.

TOMORROW: Coming to Dr. Cuming.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Depositions from Two Prisoners of War

Last month I wrote about a couple of the British officers who were captured on 19 Apr 1775.

While Gen. Thomas Gage’s report on the battle for London listed all those officers by name, the much larger group of “missing” were enlisted men. Some of those redcoats were dead or dying, but most had been taken prisoner, more or less willingly.

Within a few days the Massachusetts Provincial Congress published depositions from two of those enlisted men, then being held as prisoners of war. Here’s what they had to say:
I, John Bateman, belonging to the fifty second regiment, commanded by Colonel [Valentine] Jones, on Wednesday morning, on the nineteenth day of April instant, was in the party marching to Concord. Being at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex, being nigh the meeting-house in said Lexington, there was a small party of men gathered together in that place, when our said troops marched by; and I testify and declare, that I heard the word of command given to the troops to fire, and some of said troops did fire, and I saw one of said small party lie dead on the ground nigh said meeting-house; and I testify, that I never heard any of the inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.

I, James Marr, of lawful age, testify and say, that in the evening of the eighteenth instant, I received orders from [Lt.] George Hutchinson, adjutant of the fourth regiment of the regular troops stationed in Boston, to prepare and march: to which order I attended, and marched to Concord, where I was ordered by an officer, with about one hundred men to guard a certain bridge there. While attending that service, a number of people came along, in order, as I supposed, to cross said bridge, at which time a number of regular troops first fired upon them.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress thus had British soldiers stating under oath that their side had fired first at both Lexington and Concord. The congress eagerly published that testimony to the world.

Right now I’m less interested in what those men said, possibly under duress or inducement, and more in the circumstances of their depositions. For example, both men had to have been at both Lexington and Concord, yet each testified for the record about only one confrontation. What else had they seen? How had they been captured? We don’t know because the congress was collecting information for propaganda reasons, not history.

TOMORROW: Details of the depositions.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Pickering on the Beginning of the Siege

Earlier this week the Journal of the American Revolution made the first publication of a 21 Apr 1775 letter by Timothy Pickering, colonel of the Essex County militia. The letter now belongs to the Harlan Crow Library in Dallas.

The title of library curator Samuel Fore’s article emphasizes Pickering as an “Eyewitness to the British Retreat from Lexington.” However, the letter doesn’t say anything about the events of 19 April (including Pickering’s own actions, which were controversial for decades).

Rather, on 21 April Pickering wrote about how the siege of Boston was taking shape. Or at least about the situation on the northern wing of the siege; he didn’t mention what was going on in Roxbury at all. Instead, he told a colleague from Essex County:
The regulars were entrenching on the first hill beyond Charlestown neck; also on a point of ground (as well as I could learn) in Cambridge river, just as it opens to the Bay. For what purposes I cannot tell, but conjecture to prevent the provincials entering Boston by the way of Charlestown, or by boats going down Cambridge river. The provincials, perhaps three or four thousand men, were scattered about Cambridge common too much at random.
Lack of discipline by the common soldier was a fairly constant theme in Pickering’s military writings.

As a regimental commander, Pickering was invited to a council of war in Cambridge headed by Gen. Artemas Ward and Gen. William Heath, with Dr. Joseph Warren sitting in. Characteristically, Pickering voiced his opinions, including on whether the Massachusetts troops should attack the British positions:
I ventured to declare my opinion “That we ought to act only on the defensive; but some thought that now was the time to strike, & that now the day might be our own, & end the dispute. I could not think so: for besides the scanty portion of ammunition we at present could come at, our men were not sufficiently prepared for action; they were not disciplined even for an irregular engagement; few, very few, have had experience; & the officers in general have neither instructed themselves nor men how to act: The confusions of yesterday, testified by every officer I could talk with, fully justify these assertions. . . .

Another & what appeared to me an important reason for acting only on the defensive was this. The attack is universally said by our people to have been begun by the King’s troops: This may serve to justify a return of fire from us; and tho by pursuing them we seemed to act offensively, yet that was a natural consequence of the first attack, & might be excused: but to attack the troops, while they remained, as now, quiet in the trenches, would be deemed a much more atrocious act, & fatally prevent an accommodation, which notwithstanding yesterday’s skirmish, did not appear wholly impracticable.[”]
That reinforces Pickering’s reputation for wanting to find an “accommodation” with the royal government when other Massachusetts Patriots were ready to push harder. People groused that his attitude had kept the Essex County troops from engaging with the British column on 19 April.

Another question the Massachusetts commanders faced was whether to maintain maximum forces around Boston or send some militia units back home to defend their coastal towns from possible attack by the Royal Navy. Pickering didn’t want to leave Salem undefended:
I told them the seaports were so greatly exposed it appeared to me & others not expedient that any of the militia should leave them, & therefore, after consulting with the chief officers present I had directed and advised the Salem, Beverly, and Manchester militia to return. This was rather contrary to the previous desire of the Council of War, (composed of the General & field officers above mentioned;) but afterwards it appeared that they also judged it expedient, by directing the Ipswich companies to return:
That shows us how loose Gen. Ward’s authority was. The previous day’s council of war had agreed to keep troops at the siege lines, but Pickering had already sent some of his men home.

Toward the end of his letter, Pickering wrote: “I have also just heard by a man from Boston, that Earl Percy is badly if not dangerously wounded.” That rumor was false. Lt. Col. Francis Smith had been wounded, though not badly, but Col. Percy was unhurt.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Full History of “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God”

The epitaph for John Bradshaw that Bryan Edwards sent to another gentleman in January 1775, quoted yesterday, varies slightly but significantly from every other surviving example of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph.”

All the others have the same wording, though they differ in line breaks, punctuation, and capitalization, as was common at the time. Here are the differences between that set and the version Edwards supplied (on the right):
  • Ere thou pass, contemplate this (CANNON / marble):
  • despising alike (the pagentry of courtly splendor / what the world calls greatness),
  • who (fairly and openly / openly, and fairly), adjudged
  • Charles Stuart, (Tyrant / King) of England,
  • thereby presenting to the (amazed / astonished) world,
  • and (never, never / never) forget
The weightiest difference is the first. Most versions describe the epitaph as already carved on the cannon that marked Bradshaw’s grave. Edwards’s January 1775 letter instead describes a cannon planted near the grave over a century before and proposed a “cenotaph” of “marble”—which hadn’t actually been created.

I suspect, therefore, that the epitaph never was engraved on metal or stone, and that all the reports that it actually had been carved were too wishful. The monument never got past the planning stage. “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” always and only existed on paper.

Edwards’s letter doesn’t give a date for when the epitaph was composed, but it seems to have been a few years before 1775. The letter refers to a moment when Edwards “repeated” those lines to his correspondent, showing that he was spreading them around. He may also have revised the lines since first distributing them, which would account for the difference between this version and the one that circulated before appearing in print in Philadelphia, months after the letter.

Samuel Johnson defined the word “cenotaph” to mean “A monument for one buried elsewhere.” In using that word in his letter, Edwards accepted that Bradshaw’s remains hadn’t actually been buried on Martha Brae in Jamaica.

It’s interesting to put the 1775 letter alongside Edwards’s remarks about the Bradshaw story in his 1793 History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. Together they suggest that he had become even more dubious that Bradshaw’s “dust” was ever brought to Jamaica. Edwards also appears to have grown less excited, after the American War and the early French Revolution, about the whole notion of “Rebellion to tyrants…”

This, then, is my hypothesis of the origin story for the line “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”:
  • The sentence was coined by Bryan Edwards and perhaps some friends on Jamaica in the early 1770s as part of a tribute to the English republican John Bradshaw.
  • Edwards and possibly his friends shared the epitaph in letters to other parts of the British Empire, including Annapolis and London by 1773.
  • Thomas Hollis copied the epitaph into his historical collection by 1774, believing that it had already been engraved on a cannon in Jamaica and posted in houses in many other American colonies.
  • Benjamin Franklin copied the epitaph and brought it to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, showing it to Thomas Jefferson and others. Those men believed that the epitaph was a relic of seventeenth-century English republicanism.
  • Franklin or a colleague supplied the epitaph to the printers of the Pennsylvania Evening Post in December 1775, and it was finally put into print.
  • Jefferson entertained doubts about the epitaph’s authenticity in the mid-1770s but eventually accepted it and used its final line as a motto.
  • Meanwhile, Edwards had come to doubt the lore of Bradshaw’s body, and in 1793 tried to downplay the whole story in his history of the Caribbean.
Under this theory, “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” was at no point a deliberate hoax, knowingly passed on with false information. But people who liked the lines were too quick to assume that they had already been engraved at Martha Brae, then that they had been composed back in the seventeenth century. The man who knew the most about the real story, Bryan Edwards, cast doubt on it in print without ever coming out and admitting his own role in launching the tale.

The line “Rebellion to tyrants is resistance to God” is thus not a creation of Thomas Jefferson, nor a hoax by Benjamin Franklin. It’s most likely a sincere product of the political movement in Britain’s North American colonies resisting new Crown measures in the 1760s and 1770s—but not on the mainland.

(Shown above, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg: A medal minted by Virginia in 1780 to give to Native allies displaying the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”)

Thursday, May 09, 2019

“It was proposed to erect a cenotaph to the President’s memory”

The quotable line “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” comes from a tribute to John Bradshaw, the Member of Parliament who presided over the trial and death sentence of Charles I.

And the search for the origin of that epitaph has led to a statement by Jamaican planter, politician, and historian Bryan Edwards in 1793 that it was, “to my own knowledge, a modern composition.” What knowledge was Edwards referring to?

We find the answer in George Wilson Bridges’s Annals of Jamaica, published in 1828. That book quoted a letter from Edwards then “in the possession of a branch of the ancient and respectable family of the Bradshaws, who possess property at Chipping Sodbury in Gloucestershire.” (And what source is more dependable than the landed gentry of Chipping Sodbury?)
January 13th, 1775.

My dear Sir,

I have great pleasure in obeying your commands in regard to the epitaph I told you of on John Bradshaw.

The circumstances of his burial in Jamaica are said to be these. The President died in England a year before Cromwell. His son, James Bradshaw, seeing from the general spirit which began to prevail, that the restoration of the royal line would probably take place on the Protector’s death, and being well assured on that event that such of the late king’s judges as should be then living could have little hopes of safety, was apprehensive that even the grave would not protect his father’s ashes from insult; and having many friends and relatives among Cromwell’s soldiers who had lately settled in Jamaica, on the conquest of that island from the Spaniards, he embarked thither with his father’s corpse, which the soldiery on his arrival interred with great honour, on a very high hill, near a harbour now called Martha Brae, and placed a cannon on the grave by way of memorial.

James’s apprehensions were well grounded, for the parliament, on the restoration, ordered the bodies of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw to be dug up, and hung up at Tyburn,—a foolish and impotent mark of vengeance which, however, the remains of Bradshaw, through the pious care of his son, fortunately escaped. Certain it is that the body of Bradshaw could not be found in Westminster Abbey where it was supposed to be buried.

Such is the tradition which prevails in Jamaica: but though I always entertained a great respect for the memory of this distinguished person, as well as from the firmness and ability which he displayed on the king’s trial, as from his uniform conduct and steady virtue in his opposition afterwards to the tyranny of Cromwell, yet I should have treated the tradition as wholly fabulous, had not a gentleman of strict honour and veracity, now living in Jamaica, assured me, that in consequence of it he had caused a search to be made for the cannon said to be placed on the grave, which he actually found on the reputed spot.

The place is now so entirely covered with wood, that he believes no human footstep has trod there for a century past, and it is clear that a great exertion of human strength, which is seldom bestowed (voluntarily at least) in such a climate, on trivial occasions, must necessarily have been employed in placing the cannon where it lies. This gentleman found also, by searching the public records, that the land was afterwards patented in the name of James Bradshaw.

On this concurrent testimony it was proposed to erect a cenotaph to the President’s memory; and the lines which I repeated to you were intended by way of inscription, a copy of which you have herewith. I wish this account may give you satisfaction, being, with great regard, &c. &c.

Bryan Edwards.
That story shows why Edwards was confident in calling the epitaph “a modern composition,” not one from the late seventeenth century when Bradshaw was reportedly reburied on Jamaica. He had been witness to its creation.

Edwards used the passive voice to disguise who actually came up with the idea of a cenotaph and the lines to be put on it (“was proposed,” “were intended”). I suspect he was following eighteenth-century genteel etiquette and not taking credit for himself—while at the same time placing himself so close to the action that anyone could guess he was deeply involved.

I’m not the first to reach that conclusion. In Monumental Inscriptions of the British West Indies from the Earliest Date (1875), J. H. Lawrence-Archer called the lines a “spurious epitaph, written by the historian, Edwards.” But American historians have credited the epitaph to Benjamin Franklin.

TOMORROW: Going deeper into Edwards’s 1775 letter.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

“It is, to my own knowledge, a modern composition”

Bryan Edwards (1743-1800) inherited several slave-labor plantations in Jamaica in 1769. He became a leading legislator there, then returned to Britain to run for Parliament. It took a while, but he finally secured a corrupt seat in 1796.

In the House of Commons Edwards was a voice for the interest of Caribbean planters, meaning he supported freer trade with the new U.S. of A. and opposed any move that limited slavery.

Edwards also wrote histories, essays, and poems about the Caribbean. In 1793 he published The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, which took note of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph,” as published in London thirteen years earlier:
It is reported also that the remains of President [John] Bradshaw were interred in Jamaica; and I observe in a splendid book, entitled Memoirs of Thomas Hollis, an epitaph which is said to have been inscribed on a cannon that was placed on the President’s grave; but it is, to my own knowledge, a modern composition. President Bradshaw died in London, in November 1659, and had a magnificent funeral in Westminster abbey.
Several later historians have cited that passage as showing that Bryan dismissed the whole story of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph”—that the regicide’s remains were ever brought to Jamaica, that there was a cannon placed as a monument to him, that the lines were genuine.

I think that interpretation missed a crucial detail. Edwards didn’t cast doubt on the epitaph by, for example, saying he had walked all over the Martha Brae hill where that cannon supposedly stood and saw no such thing.

Instead, Edwards wrote that the epitaph was “to my own knowledge, a modern composition.” The only way he could have had first-hand knowledge that the epitaph had been written recently was if he was somehow involved in the writing.

TOMORROW: The smoking cannon.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

“Often seen pasted up in the houses in North America”

I’ve seen two signs that “Bradshaw’s Epitaph,” with its final line “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” was circulating before the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed it on 14 Dec 1775.

Those hints appear in books published after that date, so they’re not as probative as an actual earlier publication would be. If anyone does find the epitaph quoted in British or Caribbean publications, or a dated manuscript, by all means tell me!

The first of those publications is the Memoirs of Thomas Hollis, published in 1780 by Francis Blackburne. Hollis (1720-1774, shown here) was a British scholar and political activist with a great interest in America. He corresponded with several colonial gentlemen and published American political writings in London. Hollis died in 1774.

Appendix II of Blackburne’s book is titled “Respecting Virtù, and a general Idea of Mr. Hollis’s Collection.” It printed transcripts of a great many manuscripts that Hollis had accumulated. Number 98, on page 789, was “Bradshaw’s Epitaph,” introduced this way:
THE following Epitaph is often seen pasted up in the houses in North America. It throws some light upon the principles of the people, and may in some measure account for the asperity of the war carrying on against them. The original is engraved upon a cannon at the summit of a steep hill near Martha Bray in Jamaica.
That’s the same source for the epitaph that the Pennsylvania newspaper cited in late 1775. The newspaper treated that item as news while Hollis (wishfully?) believed it was already popular in America.

The crucial point is that if Hollis added that epitaph to his collection before he died in 1774, then it couldn’t have been composed by Benjamin Franklin in late 1775. Now it’s possible this manuscript had been added to the collection after Hollis’s death by his dear friend and heir, Thomas Brand (who also took the Hollis name). But the book presents it as Hollis’s own.

The other indication of the epitaph predating the Philadelphia publication appears in Charles Symmons’s Life of John Milton, published in 1810. That book says of John Bradshaw:
Enough has been said of Bradshaw to satisfy the demand of my subject: but for the amusement of my readers I am inclined to insert in this place an inscription on this resolute but mistaken republican, written by an American pen and deeply blotted with the intemperance of party. It is transcribed from a copy, dated, Annapolis, June 21, 1773, and is here given merely as a curiosity, and as a symptom of that fiery spirit which was working in the bosom of our colonies before it acquired its full strength, and, in consequence of the injudicious measures of our government, burst into pernicious action. The inscription is stated to have been engraven on a cannon; whence copies were taken and hung up in almost every house throughout the continent of America.
Symmons then quoted the epitaph, even though he disagreed with regicide, calling it “an act in atrocious opposition to the law and the constitution of England” and “a MURDER.”

Symmons reported that he was looking at “a copy, dated, Annapolis, June 21, 1773.” That could have been Annapolis, Maryland, or Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. That date was a Sunday, so Symmons was looking at a letter or manuscript, not a newspaper. The 1773 date fits with the Pennsylvania Evening Post’s late 1775 statement that the epitaph was “made out three years ago.”

Whatever his source was, if we accept that Symmons stated the right date, “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” was circulating on both sides of the Atlantic two years before it saw print in Philadelphia.

TOMORROW: Off to Jamaica.

Monday, May 06, 2019

“Road to Concord” Runs through Watertown, 8 May

On Wednesday, 8 May, I’ll speak at the annual members’ meeting of the Historical Society of Watertown. My topic will be “The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War,” with special attention to Watertown’s place near the center of that story.

As the event description says:
In early 1775, Watertown was armed with cannon. The town also received a visit from spies for royal governor Thomas Gage. The British general had sent those men on a search for artillery, both to stymie New England’s growing rebellion and to erase the embarrassment of having let four brass cannon vanish from militia armories under redcoat guard.
Gen. Gage was intent on retrieving those cannon stolen from Boston. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Patriots were moving artillery pieces around the countryside. On one of the British army’s practice marches in early spring, officers spotted two cannon on the bridge over the Charles River in Watertown. No locals had stayed to man those guns, and the British didn’t move to seize them, but that moment established the high stakes of the army’s march to Concord weeks later.

I’ll speak on that confrontation about two blocks from where that bridge stood, at the Watertown library. The evening will start with about fifteen minutes of formal society business, including the election of the board, and then I’ll take over.

The program is scheduled to begin at 7:00 in the meeting room of the Watertown Free Public Library, 123 Main Street. Metered parking is available in the lot behind the building and on the streets out front. This program is free and open to the public.

“The marvellous intelligence of Franklin”

In the nineteenth century several British historians pointed out that there were good reasons to doubt the story of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” as published in the U.S. of A. in late 1776 and after.

For one thing, there’s ample evidence that John Bradshaw’s body was never taken to Jamaica. Rather, it was interred in Westminster Abbey in 1659 with all the attention due to an important national judge.

What’s more, that wasn’t the last time the English people saw the judge’s body. After Charles II came to power the next year, the corpses of Bradshaw, Oliver Cromwell, and Henry Ireton were dug up and ritually beheaded, with their skulls displayed on pikes in London for decades. To be sure, there were persistent conspiracy theories about both Bradshaw and Cromwell being secretly reburied elsewhere, but no hard evidence.

Furthermore, no one ever found the cannon in Jamaica that had reportedly been engraved with “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” and its quotable last line about “Rebellion to tyrants.”

By the late 1800s, therefore, historians had largely adopted the idea that Henry S. Randall published in his biography of Thomas Jefferson: “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” was a hoax perpetrated on the historical record by Benjamin Franklin.

The most enthusiastic, even bombastic, presentation of this argument came from Howard Payson Arnold in a book he titled Historic Side-Lights (1899). Arnold was a Boston lawyer who wrote on a number of topics, including the life of one of the Warren family of doctors. The starting point for Historic Side-Lights was the effort to design a seal for the United States, but Arnold followed every little side-path and didn’t trim any of what he found, so the table of contents is a bewildering list of topics.

After many pages Arnold concluded that Franklin created the epitaph and the story around it. Here’s a sample of his argument:
It certainly offers a farther proof of the marvellous intelligence of Franklin and of his clear insight into the future and of his thorough grasp of the situation, that in the face of all this broadside of overpowering testimony he should have presumed to invent and to print that preposterous fable, that barefaced imposition on the credulity of the people, relying solely on the plausible assumptions of a winning style and on the sympathetic temper of his readers, who, as his wisdom led him to foresee, would be only too glad to welcome any tale, however absurd, that agreed with their own hopes and inclinations. The whole scheme reveals the very audacity of genius and of that fertility of resource for which he was noted to the end.
That historical consensus solidified even though Franklin never claimed “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” for himself and no other evidence has surfaced. The Franklin Papers and the Founders Online database now include it as “a Hoax Attributed to Franklin.” Many quotation references credit the crucial line “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” to Franklin.

Why do Americans so readily accept the idea of Benjamin Franklin writing a spurious epitaph, circulating it to his political colleagues, and publishing it in a newspaper? As I’ve written before, Franklin serves as our national Trickster. We celebrate other statesmen for their honesty, but we celebrate Franklin for clever hoaxes, from his early “Silence Dogood” letters to his misinformation campaigns during the war.

Thus, in his official History of the Great Seal of the United States (1909), Gaillard Hunt wrote:
That anyone should seize upon the rumors surrounding Bradshaw’s death and make them the basis of a fictitious epitaph is a cause of wonder, until we remember that the author was Benjamin Franklin, whose unique imagination was amused by constructing epitaphs and kindred compositions. His object in this case may easily have been the very effect of inflaming public opinion…
In other words, Franklin was a liar, but he was our liar, lying in a great national cause.

Some authors go further and treat Franklin as too clever to be taken in by other people’s lies. (See, for example, John Macaulay Palmer’s treatment of Franklin and Gen. de Steuben, discussed here.) That assumption gets in the way of a third possible origin of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” besides it being authentic and it being a Franklin hoax: that it was created by someone other than Franklin, and it misled Franklin as much as everyone else.

After all, there’s evidence that the epitaph was circulating before its 14 Dec 1775 appearance in the Pennsylvania Evening Post.

TOMORROW: Earlier shadows.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Assessing “Bradshaw’s Supposititious Epitaph”

As I quoted yesterday, around 1828 Nicholas Philip Trist, husband of one of Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughters, found an old chest in the former President’s attic.

In an appendix to his three-volume biography of Jefferson, Henry S. Randall quoted Trist’s description of taking a manuscript from that chest:
The epitaph on [John] Bradshaw, written on a narrow slip of thin paper, was a fine specimen. This has gone to France, through Gen. La Fayette, for M. De Lyon, a young friend of his who accompanied him on his triumphal visit to our country, and was with him at Monticello. De Lyon (who afterwards did his part in the “three days”) having expressed an earnest desire to possess a piece of Mr. J.’s MS., I had promised to make his wish known at some suitable moment. But, having postponed doing so until too late, and being struck with the appropriateness of this epitaph as a present for a pupil of La Fayette (and, through him, to the mind of “Young France”), I asked and obtained Mr. [Thomas Jefferson] Randolph’s consent to its receiving that destination.

’Tis evident, that the motto which we find on one of Mr. J.’s seals was taken from this epitaph, which, as we see from the note appended thereto, was supposed to be one of Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin’s spirit-stirring inspirations.
Because a note on the same paper in Jefferson’s handwriting stated:
From many circumstances, there is reason to believe there does not exist any such inscription as the above [in Jamaica], and that it was written by Dr. Franklin, in whose hands it was first seen.
Randall therefore titled his appendix “Bradshaw’s Supposititious Epitaph.”

(Speaking of suppositions, I can’t find any companion of Lafayette named “De Lyon.” Eyewitness accounts of the marquis’s trip to Monticello mention his son George Washington de Lafayette and his secretary, Auguste Levasseur. The latter was wounded during France’s 1830 revolution, sometimes called “the three glorious days,” so probably Trist just remembered that man’s name wrong.)

In the paper trail for “Bradshaw’s Epitaph,” most or all of the original documents have disappeared. We don’t have Jefferson’s copy of the epitaph, including the note at the bottom which Trist believed Jefferson had written himself. We have only Trist’s memo about the document. But let’s assume he produced an accurate transcription.

According to Trist, he found Jefferson’s copy of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” in a box of papers from the late 1770s that had been stowed away and forgotten. Jefferson never added the letters in that box to his carefully filed correspondence. Thus, there’s no indication that he ever opened the box after 1777, the date of the last letter inside. So Jefferson must have expressed his suspicion that Franklin wrote “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” around that time.

But we know that Jefferson repeated the statement “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” later in life. He had it engraved on an official Virginia medal in 1780. He used it as a motto on his personal seal after 1790. In 1823 he referred to the line in writing as “the motto of one, I believe, of the regicides of Charles I”—not as a stirring remark that Franklin came up with early in the Revolutionary War.

One possible explanation is that Jefferson concluded that Franklin had indeed made up the story of Bradshaw’s monument and composed the epitaph, but decided that he liked its last line so much that he’d ignore that hoaxing.

Jefferson is famous for having compartmentalized parts of his life and his thinking. Nevertheless, I don’t think he of all people would have been comfortable presenting that motto as historical when he knew it wasn’t. Adopting a stirring anti-tyrannical saying because it sounds good is one thing; telling a correspondent that it was a regicide’s motto is another. Why not just credit wise Dr. Franklin with composing the motto?

I therefore think Jefferson changed his mind about the epitaph between when he wrote about his doubt in the late 1770s and later. Maybe he talked to other Patriots and found they didn’t share his skepticism. Maybe he gained new information, perhaps in speaking with Franklin himself. He may not have been correct, but whatever happened, Jefferson’s early suspicions about the epitaph were washed away—until Henry S. Randall published that long-hidden note in 1858.

TOMORROW: More reasons to doubt.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

“All the strength and beauty of the antithesis”

Yesterday I quoted “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” as first printed in December 1775. No American politician liked its final line—“Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”—more than Thomas Jefferson.

In late 1776, that statement was one of two possible mottoes that Jefferson proposed for the independent state of Virginia. As governor of Virginia in 1780, he had it engraved on a medal to be shared with Native American allies.

(The other possible motto was “Rex est qui regem non habet,” words from a Latin satire by the Dutch scholar and statesman Janus Dousa. I think for Jefferson that translated into “Whoever doesn’t have a king over him is a king.”)

Jefferson also had the “Rebellion to tyrants” line engraved on one of his personal seals, shown here, courtesy of Monticello. He was using this seal on his letters by 1790.

In an 1823 letter discussing the value of bending grammatical rules for the sake of style, Jefferson wrote:
to explain my meaning by an English example, I will quote the motto of one, I believe, of the regicides of Charles I. ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.’ correct it’s syntax ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God,’ it has lost all the strength and beauty of the antithesis.
Jefferson famously died on 4 July 1826. Two years later, Nicholas Philip Trist, a grandson-in-law, went through his papers at Monticello researching a legal question. Trist later wrote a memo about what he had found, quoted by Henry S. Randall in his 1858 Life of Thomas Jefferson. Here’s the relevant bit:
It occurred to me to ascertain what might be the contents of a little trunk, evidently very old, which, on visiting a closet over the alcove containing his bed, I had noticed among the many old things collected there. Ascending once more the steep step-ladder which led to this omnium gatherum, I raised the lid of that little trunk, upon which lay a thickness of dust, indicating that it had not turned upon its hinges for a long period. It was filled with papers—law papers almost exclusively. . . .

The bundles were, of course, all examined by me—the tape around them giving way in the act of untying it. In one I found the epitaph of John Bradshaw; and, in its company, copies of several letters bearing date years before the earliest of those contained among his papers as arranged by himself, which, to the best of my recollection, began in 1779. Among them was one to his old preceptor Dr. [William] Small, two to John Randolph, and one to Dr. Franklin; the three former written in 1775, the last in 1777. . . . These MSS. were in Mr. Jefferson's hand-writing of that period; the most beautiful, to my taste, I have ever seen.
The page also included a note at the bottom, “evidently a remark by Mr. J. himself,” Trist wrote:
From many circumstances, there is reason to believe there does not exist any such inscription as the above, and that it was written by Dr. Franklin, in whose hands it was first seen.
Wait. So the whole epitaph was a hoax by Benjamin Franklin?

TOMORROW: What did Jefferson really think of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph”?

Friday, May 03, 2019

The Emergence of “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”

On 14 Dec 1775, the Pennsylvania Evening Post shared this article with its readers, including many delegates to the Second Continental Congress:
The following inscription was made out three years ago on the cannon near which the ashes of President Bradshaw were lodged, on the top of a high hill near Martha Bray in Jamaica, to avoid the rage against the Regicides exhibited at the Restoration:

STRANGER,
Ere thou pass, contemplate this CANNON,
Nor regardless be told
That near its base lies deposited the dust of
JOHN BRADSHAW,
Who, nobly superior to all selfish regards,
Despising alike the pagentry of courtly splendor,
The blast of calumny, and the terrors of royal vengeance,
Presided in the illustrious band of heroes and patriots,
Who fairly and openly adjudged
CHARLES STUART,
Tyrant of England,
To a public and exemplary death,
Thereby presenting to the amazed world,
And transmitting down, through applauding ages,
The most glorious example
Of unshaken virtue, love of freedom, and impartial justice,
Ever exhibited on the blood-stained theatre of human action.
O, reader,
Pass not on till thou hast blessed his memory,
And never————never forget
THAT REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE 
TO GOD.
That publication coincided with the American colonies’ decisive turn away from George III. In short order Patriots decided the king was a tyrant rather than their last hope for relief from ministerial tyranny. The role of John Bradshaw (1602-1659, shown above) in the execution of Charles I became something to admire rather than to regret. The epitaph was reprinted in many American newspapers in late 1775 and early 1776.

A few months later, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the epitaph’s final line—“Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”—be a motto on the official seal of the United States. (That never happened, as I discussed back here.)

In 1794, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles repeated that line as a refrain A History of Three of the Judges of King Charles I, saying he’d seen it in print in 1775.

But the biggest fan of the “Rebellion to tyrants” line was Thomas Jefferson.

TOMORROW: Jefferson takes up the motto.