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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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

“An Officer carried a manuscript to Henry Knox”

I step away from The Saga of the Brazen Head at a moment of calamity to consider a passage in merchant John Andrews’s letter to a Philadelphia relative on 15 Jan 1775:
A few days since an Officer carried a manuscript to Henry Knox for him to publish; being an answer, as he said, to General [Charles] Lee’s pamphlet (which you sent me). He told him he did not mean to confute every part, as the principal of it was unanswerable.

Knox perus’d a few pages of it and found it to be rather a weak performance, and therefore declin’d undertaking the publishment—excusing himself as its being out of his way.
In November 1774, the New York printer James Rivington published A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans by Thomas Bradbury Chandler (1726–1790), a Yale graduate who had become an Anglican minister. That pamphlet argued for conciliation with the Crown. The Mills and Hicks print shop issued a Boston edition. Replies came quickly from John Adams (apparently never published), Philip Livingston, and, most successfully, Charles Lee.

Lee’s Strictures upon a “Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans” was first published in Philadelphia and then reprinted in New York, Newport, New London, and twice in Boston. It was one of the most widely read pamphlets of the year. Among other points, Lee argued that the British army was not really that formidable; the 17 Jan 1775 Essex Gazette suggested that he had erased New Englanders’ fear of the redcoats. We can therefore understand this officer’s wish to respond to Lee.

More interesting is what this story tells us about Henry Knox (shown here). As far as I can tell, no biography of Knox has discussed this incident. Authors have generally echoed Charles Savage, writing in 1856, in portraying Knox as an active Whig before the war: “he discovered an uncommon zeal in the cause of liberty.” But there’s actually little evidence of political activism by Knox.

In fact, this anecdote shows that a British military man expected Knox to support the royalist perspective by publishing and selling his pamphlet. That belief was no doubt due to Knox’s recent marriage to Lucy Flucker, daughter of the province’s royal secretary, Thomas Flucker. Why would a poor man with ambition marry into such a family and not be or become a Loyalist?

I think this is part of a pattern of evidence showing that in the crucial months of late 1774 and early 1775, Knox let Loyalists believe he was one of them. That made him privy to their gossip, which could be useful to the Patriots.

This anecdote also shows Knox concealing his true assessment of the pamphlet (“rather a weak performance”) by giving the author a different reason for not publishing (“its being out of his way”). But that was just being polite.

TOMORROW: The author.

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