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, 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.

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