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, June 20, 2019

Thomas Kettell: Underage Prisoner after Bunker Hill

One of the last survivors of the Battle of Bunker Hill was Thomas Kettell, who died on 17 Sept 1850. He had lived seventy-five years after the battle, long enough to see the Bunker Hill Monument (for which he subscribed $5) not only started but completed.

The Boston Evening Transcript stated that Kettell was ninety years old when he died and

the last survivor of four brothers, all of whom bore arms in the revolutionary war. At the age of fourteen he was taken prisoner by the British, when they burnt Charlestown at the battle of Bunker Hill. He afterwards served in several campaigns in the Massachusetts forces.
Since Thomas was born on 23 Feb 1760, he was actually fifteen during the battle. He was definitely a prisoner of war for a short time. Newspapers from September 1775 list him among the provincials held by the British after the battle, but he’s the only one noted as “(a lad, dismissed),” or freed.

I haven’t found a record of Thomas Kettell’s later military service. There’s no entry for him in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War and no pension file, despite his long life.

Thomas was born and raised in Charlestown. There were a lot of Kettells in that town, including at least one more Thomas Kettell born five years before. This Thomas came from a family of bakers but went into silversmithing. He became an established Charlestown businessman, also serving as clerk of the Middlesex Canal corporation.

Thomas Bellows Wyman’s Genealogies and Estates of Charlestown (1879) called Kettell “a gentleman of the old school, rigid and unyielding in manners, and of the like firm integrity.” An obituary reprinted in the Baltimore Sun stated:
During a life of nearly a century he was esteemed by all who knew him, for the uprightness and integrity of his character, his kind manners, and his observance of all the duties of a citizen and sincere christian.
Given Kettell’s long life and his career in Charlestown, I presume that he had plenty of chances to tell his story of what happened on 17 June 1775. What did he see during the Battle of Bunker Hill? What part of the provincial forces was he attached to, or was he a civilian caught up in the action? What was his experience as a young prisoner of war?

Sadly, I haven’t found any account by or attributed to him. Aside from the 1775 newspapers and the 1850 obituaries, we’d never know that young Thomas Kettell had any connection to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Thomas’s older brother John left a May-September 1775 diary that Richard Frothingham quoted several times in his History of the Siege of Boston (which renders Thomas’s first name as “Timothy” in the only mention of him). If that document ever turns up, perhaps it mentions Thomas’s release from captivity.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Myths of Lt. Col. James Abercrombie’s Death

Lt. Col. James Abercrombie (1732-1775) led the battalion of British grenadiers, detached from their regiments, at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was mortally wounded, becoming the most senior British officer to die in the fight.

Not only did Abercrombie outrank all the other British dead, but he was known to be close to Gen. Thomas Gage and he was a Scotsman. Some combination of those factors meant that his death almost immediately began to accrete myths like barnacles on an underwater wreck.

Don Hagist wrote about Abercrombie at the Journal of the American Revolution, quoting from a letter the lieutenant colonel dictated to solidify the real story:
The grenadiers and light infantry were the first to land on Charleston Neck at a point out of American musketry range. Here they formed, the grenadiers into a line facing the rail-fence breastwork that extended from the redoubt down to the shore, the light infantry into a column for their advance along the beach to the right. Two regiments formed on the left facing the redoubt. While the grenadiers advanced with deliberate slowness as a distraction, the light infantry trotted along the beach. It was expected that the narrow beach would provide an avenue around the end of the breastwork. Unknown to the attackers, the Americans had constructed a barrier across the beach and manned it. . . .

It is not clearly exactly when the grenadiers became aware of the failure of the flanking movement, but they fatefully continued their advance towards the breastworks. Progress was perilously slow…because of a series of fences, brick kilns, enclosures and other obstructions. . . . The battered light infantry battalion, having withdrawn from the barricade on the beach, reformed into a line near their initial staging area. The shape of the coastline put them behind the advancing grenadier battalion. From this disadvantageous position they opened fire. The distance was too great to have any material effect on the enemy, but the impact on the grenadier battalion was disastrous.

This friendly fire incident is occasionally mentioned by historians, but the importance of it is largely overlooked. . . . In a letter dated three days after the battle, Abercrombie indicated that “our Light Infantry killed many of the Grends.” After ordering them to desist, the friendly fire abated for eight or ten minutes, but then the light infantry “gave me a plumper & killed two officers & 3 private.” He used the vernacular “plumper” to refer to a volley of lead. . . . Of particular importance was that the grenadiers’ commander, Abercrombie himself, was among the wounded.
In my own J.A.R. article about who really killed Maj. John Pitcairn, I quoted an 1880 Massachusetts local history which said Salem Poor shot Abercrombie “As that officer sprang on the redoubt.” That was how American sources described his death. But the lieutenant colonel had been taken out of action much earlier, before the final British push against the main provincial position. In addition, from 1775 the British press reported that Abercrombie was a victim of what we now call friendly fire—shot “supposed accidentally from some of his own soldiers.”

As with Pitcairn, Americans wanted to believe that their soldiers killed such an important officer at the climax of the battle. Therefore, Abercrombie was listed among the officers shot storming the redoubt on Breed’s Hill. And after both Peter Salem and Salem Poor got credit for killing Pitcairn, one American author decided that Salem Poor must have killed Abercrombie instead.

John Trumbull’s painting of the death of Dr. Joseph Warren reflects the American belief that Abercrombie should have died at the end of the battle and near the center of the action. The detail above portrays the lieutenant colonel lying dead at the redoubt as Maj. John Small steps over (on?) him. In the key that identified figures in the painting, Trumbull acknowledged that he didn’t know what Abercrombie actually looked like.

Another legend of Abercrombie’s death appeared in the 14 Oct 1775 Pennsylvania Ledger, quoting the Public Ledger of London:
A letter from an officer who was wounded at the late engagement at Boston, says, that when the troops were very near the trenches, the rebels called out to Col. Abercrombie, who was among the first of the troops, “Abercrombie, we won’t miss you.” However, the Colonel got into the trenches unhurt, and was run through the body. When he was dying, he told the officers about him, that if they took Gen. [Israel] Putnam prisoner, not to hang him as he was a brave fellow.
That story was reprinted in many American newspapers and, through Samuel Swett’s early history of the battle, many history books. It’s attached to inaccurate information—Abercrombie wasn’t “run through” but shot—and seems unlikely.

Lt. Col. Abercrombie didn’t die until 22 June. At first doctors didn’t think his wound would be fatal, but then infection set in. Back in 2014, I quoted a description of his death from the British press. The August 1775 Scots Magazine said the musket ball had pushed “a toothpick-case, which he had in his waistcoat pocket, along with it. . . . part of the toothpick being got so far, it baffled the art of the surgeons, and began to mortify.” Don’s article quotes the 17 Aug 1775 Edinburgh Advertiser saying something very similar except that the fatal foreign body was “part of the pen case…which he had in his side pocket.” I have no idea why those reports differed.

The Pennsylvania Ledger also quoted a speech that Abercrombie supposedly delivered two hours before his death:
My friends, we have fought in a bad cause, and therefore I have my reward, as the rest have had that have gone before me; had I fell in fighting against the enemy, I had died with honour, but posterity will brand us for massacreing our fellow subjects; therefore, my friends, sheath your swords till you have an enemy to engage with.
I’ve found this printed in the 27 July 1775 Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser, so it definitely circulated in Britain. It’s almost certainly propaganda from someone supporting the Americans, using Abercrombie’s good name to discourage men from joining the British military.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Pvt. Simon Fobes: “fully resolved to go as far as my officers did”

Simon Fobes was a nineteen-year-old provincial soldier when he fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. More than forty years later he moved to Ohio, and in 1835 one of his sons wrote down his recollections of the Revolution. That memoir was published in Historical Collections of the Mahoning Valley in 1876.

Fobes’s ancestors had first settled in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, under the name Forbes, but lost the R to the nascent Boston accent before his own branch moved to Canterbury, Connecticut. He was born there in 1756. Not owning much property, Simon’s parents moved the family again to Amherst when he was about fourteen.

At his father’s urging, Simon Fobes became a minuteman. But he was visiting relations back in Canterbury when the fighting started in Lexington. He got the news in Union, raced home, “made some change of clothing, took my gun and accouterments, and started, in company with some others, for Cambridge.” Once there, Fobes enlisted for the rest of the year in the company of Capt. Eliakim Smith of Hadley, Lt. Col. Jonathan Ward’s regiment.

Around midday on 17 June 1775, Fobes’s regiment was ordered onto the Charlestown peninsula. He told his son:
Soon after the firing, on that memorable day, had begun, about one-half of our regiment marched, as a re-enforcement, from Cambridge to Charlestown Neck, where the British were continually firing. There we lay awhile, waiting for orders. When the orders came we marched on behind the buildings, as well as we could, across the Neck, which was partially flooded, it being high water.

When we started from the fort, in Cambridge, marching in double files, I was near the center of the detachment, fully resolved to go as far as my officers did. In crossing the Neck I soon perceived that fully one-half of our soldiers were missing, and I was now near the front of the detachment.

As we ascended the hill the other side of the Neck, the musketballs whistled merrily. I noticed my officers dodging, first one way, then the other. For my part I knew not which way to dodge. A ball struck my gun near the lock as I was carrying it on my shoulder, and split off a piece of the stock. All this, together with the frequent meeting of our men, bringing off the wounded and the dying, made it a trying time for young soldiers. I can not tell which way or how my hair stood, for it seemed to me it stood every way.

As we were hurrying on without much order, some one called to us to come that way, and there was a good place. We advanced to a post and rail fence through a shower of musket-balls, where we made a stand.

I discharged my gun three times at the British, taking deliberate aim as if at a squirrel, and saw a number of men fall. I had become calm as a clock. When loading my gun the fourth time, I happened to cast my eyes around, and, to my astonishment, my fellow-soldiers were running at full speed down the hill. I had heard no orders to retreat. That instant my sergeant, who stood near me, started to follow them.

Then it was I saw a company of British regulars marching rapidly toward us. I finished loading my gun as quick as I could. When they had got within a few rods of us, however, I fired it off at them, and then ran for my life. At the same time the British were ordered to halt, make ready, and fire.

The balls whistled again, but did no material injury. One of my mates received a flesh wound. Firing down hill they shot over us.

A very large number of men, both old and young, had now collected. All seemed to be bustle and tumult. Charlestown, now wrapped in flames, added greatly to the interest of the scene. I saw the lofty steeple when on fire. It trembled and fell to the ground. Our officers, with evident anxiety and perplexity, were running to and fro, endeavoring to devise some plan by which we could drive the British from the hill.

A noted officer (I do not recollect his name) now stepped forward, and marched round in the crowd calling for volunteers to attempt the retaking of the hill. A large body of us volunteered, and we marched on near to the neck, where our commander came upon General [Israel] Putnam. Our soldiers were very poorly equipped, nearly one-half being armed with old rusty guns without bayonets. I was so fortunate as to have a good gun and bayonet.

The British had now paraded on the top of the hill with heavy artillery. While General Putnam and our commanding officer were talking together, a cannon-ball struck the stone wall near the former. After conversing awhile, General Putnam wheeled his horse and rode off.

Prudence seemed to direct that the attempt should be abandoned. After remaining in suspense until near dark, we were dismissed, and with our officers marched back to our tents.

In the mean time some of our soldiers had been to Cambridge, and got a pail of rum for us to drink when we returned. It being hot weather, I had become very thirsty and was much fatigued. At the door of the tent stood a pail, containing water as I supposed, with a pint tin cup in it. Some one asked me to drink. I took the cup and dipped it almost full, and drank the most of it before I was aware that it was rum. I was very much startled, fearing the consequences of what I had done. Being very weary, I lay down, and was soon asleep, and did not awake until the next morning.

When I arose I found that my fears were not realized. I had sustained no material injury, as in ordinary circumstances I doubtless should have done, and I was ready to do my duty as usual.
After Gen. George Washington arrived, Fobes’s regiment was moved to Dorchester on the southern wing of the siege. In September he volunteered to join Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Québec, but that’s another story.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Refighting Bunker Hill with the Angry Staff Officer

This is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. For an overview of the action this year, I’m pointing to the Angry Staff Officer’s article “Warfighter: Bunker Hill.”

It sets aside the mysteries, ambiguities, and evidence that historians focus on, and also applies modern military terms to the situation in 1775. Here’s a taste:
On the night of June 16, Col. [William] Prescott with chief engineer Richard Gridley and about 500 men crossed Charlestown Neck and occupied Breed’s Hill. Equipped with survivability equipment, they began construction of a fighting position on the height of the crest. During the night, ISR assets on the Royal Navy ships in the harbor spotted the movement and called for fire on the hill. Rounds began to impact, but the guns soon fell silent: Admiral Richard [sic—Samuel] Graves had been awoken by the firing and ordered the men to cease fire. Working all night, the Patriots dug a substantial fortification on Breed’s Hill with earthworks and firing platforms. When the sun rose, the British found that the height had been seized and fortified.

During the morning hours, more men arrived on the neck and began improving the fighting positions. An earthen trench was constructed down the left side of the redoubt. Just behind it, the New Hampshire and Connecticut troops constructed additional defenses extending to the left using log fences and stone walls to erect a position that ran down the slope towards the Mystic River. Between the fence and the trench, pioneers dug three v-shaped trenches to tie in the trench and the fence. This still left the extreme left vulnerable to flanking parties moving along the coast, so Col. [John] Stark led a detachment down the bluff to the river and emplaced a series of rock walls in depth. He then placed detachments of marksmen behind each wall, with strict fire control measures. He drove a stake forty yards in front of this position, with instructions for his men to aim at the enemy’s feet; this compensated for the natural rise of the musket and would place their fire center mass.

Arrayed across the dominant heights, the Patriot forces overlooked the key terrain where the British would have conduct an amphibious landing. Between this beach and the heights lay a series of swamps and rail fences that served as natural obstacles that would disrupt British movement and maneuver.

Secondary fighting positions were constructed on Bunker Hill to the rear of Breed’s Hill to serve as a fallback position for Patriot forces should they be forced to retrograde.


With their navy, the British brought significant fires dominance to the battlefield. Naval gunfire began again in the early morning hours of June 17 to suppress the Patriot lines. Over 100 guns were brought to bear on the enemy lines. This sustained fire was also meant to disrupt Patriot movement, but the natural lay of the land allowed Patriots to maneuver their forces in relative safety. In the afternoon, the British landed 12 pound and 6 pound batteries on the beach to provide additional suppressive fire.

The Patriots had four guns in position between the Connecticut and Massachusetts troops, but their gunners abandoned the field prior to the battle and so negated the majority of effects of the guns.


The British were forced to move all supplies via boat across the river, slowing their rate of supply and reinforcement significantly. The 6 pounder battery commander neglected to conduct a precombat inspection prior to deployment and found to their chagrin that their caissons were filled with 12 pound shot rather than 6 pound shot. This denied General [William] Howe his mobile fire support that he was counting on for close in fires.

On the Patriot side, they were already dangerously short of gunpowder. Each soldier had only about 30-40 rounds of ammunition. Lack of an overall field commander meant that there was no one individual tasked with overseeing logistics from the assembly area to the forward line of troops. This oversight would play an outsized role in the coming fight.
Now that we’ve reviewed the big picture, I’ll get into the smaller stories and questions.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

An Archive about Commemorating Bunker Hill

The Raab Collection is offering for sale an archive of documents collected by the Bunker-Hill Memorial Association as it built the monument in Charlestown and commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Raab Collection webpage says the collection was “assembled in the 1870s” and refers to “George Washington Warren’s binding.” Warren (1813-1883) wrote The History of the Bunker Hill Monument Association in 1877, having been a mayor of Charlestown.

Most of the documents appear to be about promoting and planning the Bunker Hill Monument, even including budget estimates. That stone tower was the project of the generation that came after the Revolutionaries, in many cases literally. The leading voice was William Tudor, Jr., son of the first Judge Advocate General of the Continental Army. The engineer was Loammi Baldwin, Jr., son of the officer who oversaw the northern edge of Boston harbor during the siege.

The association also organized the commemoration of 1825. The Marquis de Lafayette came to Boston to help lay the tower’s cornerstone. Daniel Webster delivered an oration, just as he would nearly two decades later when the stone obelisk was finally finished. Both men are represented in the archive. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison couldn’t come, but they sent letters included here.

The volume includes some first-person accounts of the battle, such as a short statement by Robert Steele about his experience as a provincial drummer:
I Robert Steele of Dedham in the County of Norfolk… Listed 17 days before Bunker Hill fight in Col [Ephraim] Doolittle’s Regiment. After Major Mores [Willard Moore] was wounded, I was ordered down the hill to get some run [rum] to dress his wounds with Benjamin Blood. When we got to the shop the man was down cellar to keep out of the way of the shots which were fired from the gun boats that lay in the river. He asked who was there we told him our errand he then said take whatever you want. We delivered some rum and ran back as soon a possible but before we had time to reach spot they were retreating.
I quoted a longer telling from Steele back here. Note that that letter rendered his companion’s name as Benjamin Ballard, not Benjamin Blood; Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors agrees with the former. The picture of Steele’s letter in the archive show he was also asking for money since he’d lost his pension for not being poor enough.

I’d be pleasantly surprised if there are detailed new accounts from veterans in this collection. Warren’s history and the Raab Collection would no doubt highlight those. Rather, it’s about the effort to memorialize the event.

At least one collection of such accounts did come out the semicentennial event as historians swarmed over the old soldiers who attended. I’ll discuss what happened to that archive in this year’s run of postings on the history and memory of Bunker Hill.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Graphic Profile of Phillis Wheatley

Earlier this week, Dave Kellett’s Sheldon comic strip featured a single panel titled “Anatomy of Phillis Wheatley.” Around a picture of the young poet are remarks on her life and legacy.

Back in 2011 I discussed why I think it’s mistaken to say Wheatley “had to go to court to prove” that she wrote her poems. That’s an exaggerated reading of what Henry Louis Gates wrote about her, which was in turn an exaggerated reading of the testimonial that Boston clergymen and other notables supplied for her book.

The comic also states, “She was even offered an audience with the king of England.” That’s based on an early biographical profile written by a great-grandniece of Susannah Wheatley, the woman who owned and raised Wheatley. She wrote in 1834 that Phillis Wheatley declined the invitation and returned to Boston after learning that her mistress was in poor health. Wheatley’s best biographer, Vincent Carretta, said the story is “plausible,” but she herself made no mention of it.

Thanks to Eric Gjovaag for alerting me to this strip.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Rev. Jonathan Boucher: “I did know Mr. Washington well”

The Washington Papers Project just shared Kathryn Gehred’s profile of the Rev. Jonathan Boucher, a Virginia and Maryland minister who had the unenviable job of tutoring Jack Custis in the early 1770s.

“I never did in my Life know a Youth so exceedingly indolent, or so surprizingly voluptuous: one wd suppose Nature had intended Him for some Asiatic Prince,” Boucher wrote to the teenager’s stepfather, a Virginia planter named George Washington.

Boucher supported the royal government in the political arguments of the early 1770s, at one point carrying pistols to his pulpit to defend himself.

He reported seeing Washington for the last time on a ferry as the Virginian headed to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, where he would accept the position of commander-in-chief of a rebel army.

Years later, in his memoirs, Boucher described Washington this way:
I did know Mr. Washington well; and tho’ occasions may call forth traits of character that never would have been discovered in the more sequestered scenes of life, I cannot conceive how he could, otherwise than through the interested representations of party, have ever been spoken of as a great man.

He is shy, silent, stern, slow and cautious, but has no quickness of parts, extraordinary penetration, nor an elevated style of thinking. In his moral character he is regular, temperate, strictly just and honest (excepting that as a Virginian, he has lately found out that there is no moral turpitude in not paying what he confesses he owes to a British creditor) and, as I always thought, religious: having heretofore been pretty constant, and even exemplary, in his attendance on public worship in the Church of England. But he seems to have nothing generous or affectionate in his nature.
In 1876 Boucher’s grandson published this and other extracts of his memoir in the London magazine Notes and Queries. Americans, in the midst of the Colonial Revival, disliked that description of the first President. But half a century later, an American press published Boucher’s memoir in full.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Pvt. James Melvin’s Journal in Manuscript

The American Revolution Institute, part of the Anderson House museum and library of the Society of the Cincinnati, has acquired the manuscript journal of Pvt. James Melvin.

Melvin was born in Concord in 1749, according to John Melvin of Charlestown and Concord, Mass. and His Descendants (1905), but different calculations of his age suggest he was born as late as 1753. James’s father moved the family to Chester, Nova Scotia. After his father’s remarriage and an unhappy indenture, James returned to Concord to live with an older brother. He mustered for the April 1775 alarm and enlisted in the army from yet another Massachusetts town, Hubbardston.

In the summer of 1775, Melvin joined Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition through Maine to Québec. His journal covers that journey from the soldiers’ departure in September through imprisonment in Canada to freedom on parole in August 1776.

Pvt. Melvin’s journal was transcribed and published in 1857. That text was issued twice more on its own, most recently in 1902. The total number of copies from those editions was 450.

Kenneth Roberts reprinted the whole Melvin journal in March to Quebec while also suggesting its text had been copied and developed from the diary of another soldier, Moses Kimball.

However, Stephen Darley collected all the known journals of the Quebec mission in Voices from a Wilderness Expedition (2011). He reports the Melvin and Kimball journals each have material not found in the other, with Melvin’s continuing for months after its supposed source. On the other hand, Darley says the Melvin diary offers “no special content,” meaning no historical events that other diaries don’t already document.

The fact that so many men on the Quebec mission kept journals shows how significant they and their descendants felt that undertaking was. Some of those diaries are near copies of others while some are quite individual. Some documents appear to have been the actual papers men carried on the trek while others are later copies.

After returning to the U.S. of A. in late 1776, Melvin remained in the army, stationed for the most part at the artillery laboratory in Springfield, making gunpowder. He married a widow there in 1778 after they conceived a child and lived the rest of his life in Springfield and Chester, Massachusetts. Melvin lived at least until 1828, when he unsuccessfully applied for a pension.

Melvin’s record was still in her family’s hands when it was first published, but then it went underground—until now. The American Revolution Institute plans to digitize the manuscript and share the images. It reports the manuscript also contains a couple of essays titled “Treatise upon Air” and “An Explanation of Scripture Taken from the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Gallations.” There’s no report of text on the Québec march that we haven’t seen before, but we’ll see Melvin’s account in its oldest surviving form.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Underwater Archeology off Yorktown

This Daily Press article out of Newport News about marine archeology in the York River near Yorktown speaks to human perseverance in a couple of ways.

First, it runs down all the ways Gen. Cornwallis tried to drive off the French fleet at the river’s mouth so that he could evacuate instead of surrendering.
He sets a few of his own ships afire and tries to drift them into the French warships. No luck.

He tries to slip away, loading his men into small boats to make for Gloucester, but a storm roars in and swamps the attempt.

Finally, he resorts to a tactic that’s been used by others: He sacrifices his own fleet.

Cornwallis sends a line of his ships toward the Yorktown beach until they run aground, forming a barrier he hopes will stop the French from landing troops.

To keep the rest out of his convoy out of enemy hands — as well as block the river with wreckage — Cornwallis issues orders to scuttle. Holes are drilled or chiseled in hulls and the vessels sink.
Which left a lot of ships’ hulls in the river.

The article also talks about the archeologists’ persistent efforts to investigate those wrecks since the Bicentennial period as public funding for such endeavors was being scuttled. The investigation is led, as was the one in the 1980s, by John Broadwater, then Virginia’s state underwater archeologist.
In 1988, a 20-page spread in National Geographic detailed their accomplishments — more than 5,000 relics recovered for posterity from one wreck alone, a ship named Betsy.

But state budget cuts came shortly after, and Broadwater’s position was axed. Work stopped on the project, and relics went into storage — many of them uninspected, which led to a scramble just last year, when live hand grenades from The Betsy were discovered sitting on shelves at the Department of Historic Resources in Richmond.

Now, at 75 years old, Broadwater has come home. He’s working with volunteers — some from the old Betsy days. Most of their equipment is donated. Most expenses are covered by the partners’ own money.
On the plus side, it looks like new technology has made locating wrecks easier than it was before. The picture above, coming from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, shows a “side-scan sonar image” of a newly found wreck. Of course, the team needs access to that technology and more.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

How Pvt. Joshua Williams Ended Up in Boston

A couple of days back I quoted a deposition from Pvt. Joshua Williams of His Majesty’s 29th Regiment about a bad encounter with Bostonians in June 1769. Williams said he was then new in the regiment and new in Boston, which intrigued me but which I didn’t know enough about British army bureaucracy to explain.

Luckily for me, that also intrigued Don Hagist, author of
British Soldiers, American War and editor of the Journal of the American Revolution. He looked up Williams in his sources and added his deep knowledge of how the British army worked in the Revolutionary era. Here’s what Don found out:

Joshua Williams, a soldier in the 29th Regiment, said that he was assaulted in June 1769 “a few days after he joined the regiment in Boston.” The regiment had arrived the year before, so Williams was either new to the regiment or had stayed behind somewhere when the regiment sailed for Boston.

Particularly interesting is that the “Mob of People” recognized that Williams was new to Boston, “a new or a Strange Lobster.” Did Bostonians know the faces of over three hundred soldiers of the 29th Regiment that well, or was there something else about Williams that made him stand out as being new in town?

Williams first appears on the regiment’s muster rolls prepared in October 1769, with no indication of where he came from. Following his career forward on the rolls shows that he recovered sufficiently from his injuries to serve in the 29th Regiment for two more years. He was discharged on June 4, 1771, when the regiment was in New Jersey, along with a number of other soldiers.

Men who had been injured while serving as soldiers often received pensions after returning to Great Britain and going before the pension examining board in Chelsea, a London suburb. The records of that board show that Joshua Williams appeared there on August 29, 1771, and was granted a pension. On that date he was thirty-two years old and had been in the army for nine years; he was from “Glocester” and had no skilled trade, instead being called a “labourer.”

With nine years in the army but only two in the 29th Regiment, he must have transferred from another corps into the 29th. When a regiment that was on foreign service was sent home, it was not unusual for able-bodied men to be drafted—transferred—into other regiments still on service in the foreign land. Although the 29th’s rolls do not record where their new men like Williams came from, his entry in the pension examination book suggests that he was, indeed, a draft.

The disability that made him eligible for a pension was having been “wounded at Fort Pitt,” probably during the siege of that place in 1763 during Pontiac’s War.

As a draft into the 29th, Williams probably retained his uniform from his previous regiment; he would not receive one from the 29th until the next annual clothing issue, late in the year for regiments in America. This would make him easily recognizable to the Boston mob.

And, since British soldiers owned their own clothing, the loss of his “new Regimental Hatt” meant that he would have to purchase a new one—unless the mob could be convinced to return the property of a man who had been wounded defending colonists on the western frontier.

Thanks, Don!

Monday, June 10, 2019

Di Spigna on Dr. Joseph Warren in the Coming Week

Christian Di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero is making another swing through New England with book talks and signings.

These events coincide with the conjunction of the paperback edition of Founding Martyr, Warren’s birthday (both on the 11th), Father’s Day (the 16th), and the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill (the 17th).

Here are Christian’s upcoming public appearances:

Monday, 10 June, 7:00 P.M.
West End Museum, 150 Staniford Street, Boston

Tuesday, 11 June, 7:00 P.M.
Charlestown Historical Society, 43 Monument Square, Charlestown

Wednesday, 12 June, 7:00 P.M.
Adams National Historic Park, 1250 Hancock Street, Quincy

Thursday, 13 June, 6:00 P.M.
General Henry Knox Museum, 30 High Street, Thomaston, Maine

Tuesday, 18 June, 1:00 to 3:00 P.M.
Paul Revere House, 19 North Square Boston

Sunday, June 09, 2019

“A bayonet wrested from one of the pursuers”

Yesterday I quoted a deposition by a sergeant of the 29th Regiment about his run-in with John Ruddock, justice of the peace and captain of militia in Boston’s North End, 250 years ago this month.

Justice Ruddock was used to getting his way in that neighborhood. He was a big man—probably 300 pounds or more. In September 1766 he told Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf that he was “Unable to Walk far [and] must be Carried in his Chaise.” At that time, Ruddock was rattling off excuses why he couldn’t come help the sheriff and Customs officers search the storehouse of Daniel Malcom for smuggled goods. Because Ruddock was no fan of royal officials.

When the Crown government stationed troops in Boston in 1768, Ruddock was among their most active opponents. He was one of the magistrates who prosecuted Capt. John Willson for allegedly encouraging enslaved Bostonians to revolt. He arrested soldiers for disturbing the peace in both January and February 1769.

Sgt. John Norfolk of the 14th Regiment complained about another such confrontation:
That on or about the 22d. February 1769, in the evening, he heard a great noise in the street; and found it was occasioned by some Soldiers and Inhabitants who were at high words amongst whom was one Ruddock, who said he was a Justice of the peace, and expressed the words, Go fetch my broad sword and Fusee and Damn the Scoundrels, let us drive the Bloody backs to their Quarters, Send for my Company of Men, for I think we are men enough for them.

He the deponent did what was in his power to prevent their Quarreling and in striving to part the Soldiers and Inhabitants Received great abuses from a son of the said Ruddocks who took him by the hair and pulled him into a passage leading into the yard of Said Ruddocks house, shutting the Door upon him, and by repeated blows laid him on the ground quite insensible after he came to himself thay opened the door and kick’d him out of the passage, at the same time they took the opportunity of taking him his side, his Bayonet which he wore (being then a Corporol), and which is now in the possession of said Ruddock who hath refused to return it tho’ properly demanded, both by himself and a Serjeant sent By his Captain for that purpose.
According to Norfolk, Justice Ruddock wasn’t slowed at all by his weight that night. And his son—either John, Jr., or Abiel—yanked him into the family home.

Of course, the justice had his own view of the situation. He thought he was keeping the peace in the face of rowdy military men. Here’s how the Whigs reported the same event for newspapers in other colonies:
As some sailors were passing near Mr. Justice Ruddock’s house, the other night, with a woman in company, they were met by a number of soldiers, one of whom, as usual with those people, claimed the woman for his wife; this soon bro’t on a battle in which the sailors were much bruised, and a young man of the town, who was only a spectator, received a considerable wound on his head; a great cry of murder, brought out the justice, and his son, into the street; when the former who is a gentleman of spirit, immediately laid his hands upon two of the assailants, and called out to one who pretended to be an officer, and all other persons present, requiring them in his Majesty’s name to assist him as a magistrate, in securing those rioters;

instead of this, he was presently surrounded with thirty or forty soldiers, who had their bayonets in their hands, notwithstanding the unseasonable time of night; some of whom endeavoured to loose his hold of the persons he had seized, but not being able to do it, they then made at him with their fists and bayonets; when he received such blows as obliged him to seek his safety by flight;

they struck down a young woman at his door holding out a candle, and followed him and son into the entry-way of his house with their bayonets, uttering the most profane & abusive language, and swearing they would be the death of them both;

upon the first assault given to the magistrate, one of the persons present posted away to the Town-House, and acquainted the commanding officer of the picquet guard, of what was taking place; but it seems the officer did not apprehend himself at liberty to order a party out to secure, or disperse those riotous drunken soldiers.

Due enquiry is making for the discovery of those daring offenders, in order to their being presented to the grand jury, a bayonet wrested from one of the pursuers in the entry, may lead to a knowledge of the owner, and be a means of procuring proof.
The bayonet that the Ruddocks came away with is the link between these two accounts.

On 27 March, the Whigs reported a grand jury had brought charges “against a number of soldiers, for assaulting with drawn cutlasses and bayonets; smiting and wounded [sic], John Ruddock, Esq; one of his Majesty’s justices of the peace, when suppressing a riot at the north part of the town, late at night, in which they were actors.”

As of 21 April the royal judges still hadn’t begun that trial, the Whigs reported, “nor has any thing been done upon it, as we can yet learn.” Norfolk said nothing about being tried, so probably the whole matter dropped, leaving everyone angry.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

“Here comes A new or A Strange Lobster”

I’ve gotten away from reporting on what was happening in Boston 250 years ago, but this date offers a chance to catch up.

John Ruddock was the North End’s big man. He owned a shipyard and thus employed a large number of laborers. He was a justice of the peace and later a selectman. He was the captain of the militia company that manned the North Battery protecting that part of Boston harbor. (The picture of the North Battery above was engraved by Paul Revere for a militia certificate; the copy at the American Antiquarian Society is signed by Ruddock.) Ruddock was a fervent Whig in the pre-Revolutionary turmoil, as were his adult sons, John, Jr., and Abiel.

Justice Ruddock was also literally, physically big. When he died in 1772, John Andrews reported that he was “ye most corpulent man among us, weighing, they say between 5 and 600 weight.” Andrews’s numbers were typically exaggerated, but even Ruddock declared he was “a Very Heavy Man.”

So keep that picture in mind as we consider today’s sestercentennial event, recounted by Sgt. Thomas Smilie of His Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot:
That on the 8th. day of June 1769, John Ruddock [Jr.] Gent: with others assaulted said Serjt. Thomas Smilie on His Guard with Stones, Sticks &ca. & upon Sd. Smilie Entreating them to Desist from such outrages, they Swore bitterly that they would Either Kill or be Killed before they would go away, useing at the same time the most scurrilous & abusive Language to Sd. Smili, Such as Blood back Rascal, Red Herring &ca.,

Upon which Sd. Smilie Secured the Sd. John Ruddock untill he Could acquaint his Father being a Magistrate of the Town of Boston, Who Came Soon after in a Chaise with another Son, who used the Same Invectives Swearing that they would make the bloody back Rascals pay for it, Wishing fervently to have Sd. Smilie farther from the Barrack, Swearing if they had or his Guard should never Disturb the Inhabitants of Boston More.
Another member of the 29th Regiment also complained about how Bostonians behaved in June 1769, as recorded in mid-1770 by magistrates more sympathetic to the Crown than John Ruddock was.

Pvt. Joshua Williams stated:
That in the Month of June one Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty Nine A few Days after he Joined the Regiment in Boston, he was going to his Barracks and was met by a Mob of People unknown to him, being A stranger in the place, they speaking to Each other in this manner, here comes A new or A Strange Lobster, and saing who sent him here, knock him Down, which they did, their Weapons being wood with one Sharp Edge, which Weapons Fractured, this Deponents Scull, some of them drove A Pike or Other Weapon into his Temples A Considerable length, they used this Deponent most Barbarous after he was knocked Down and was going to throw him into the Sea, others sai’d never mind him further, he is Dead already they Imediately left Deponent takeing A new Regimental Hatt, with them
It’s striking how Williams said his skull was fractured and he was left for dead, but he was still upset about that new hat. I suspect he got in trouble with his sergeant for losing that hat.

In both these cases, we have only a soldier’s description of what happened. Smilie and Williams provided sworn testimony, but they weren’t questioned by anyone representing the people they accused. We don’t know if they left out pertinent information that would complicate the picture of peaceful soldiers whom angry locals suddenly assaulted for no reason.

For example, Pvt. Williams’s story would look quite different if it turned out the men who attacked him with “A Pike or Other Weapon” were town watchmen carrying bill-hooks, trying to enforce the law.

So how does Sgt. Smilie’s depiction of the Ruddocks match up with what other sources say?

TOMORROW: A conflict from two sides.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Taking a New Look at the Saratoga Battlefield

The Saratogian reports on a four-week project at Saratoga National Historical Park in which military veterans help archeologists search for evidence of the battle there in 1777.

This project uses G.P.S. (Global Positioning System) and Li.D.A.R. (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to map the terrain, and metal detectors to find military artifacts with minimal disruption of the surface. The article reports:
The project’s focus is Barber’s Wheatfield where the decisive Second Battle of Saratoga was fought on the afternoon of Oct. 7, 1777, leading to the British Army’s surrender 10 days later in present-day Schuylerville.

British soldiers and their German allies needed the site’s wheat crop, which was ripe for harvesting because Americans had cut their food supply lines.

The battle that ensued lasted less than an hour and ultimately changed world history.

But no archaeology had ever been done there, so much of what occurred has remained a mystery for more than two centuries.

“Basically the battlefield is unknown,” said William A. Griswold, Ph.D., a National Park Service archaeologist for the Northeast Region. “We’re trying to get a handle on where the lines were, how the battle unfolded and how people were moving across the landscape.”

Hundreds of musket balls have been recovered since work began last week along with case shot from six- and 12-pound cannon.
Thirty-three veterans are working on the project, spending two weeks searching for artifacts and another fortnight cataloguing them.

In addition to the National Park Service, the program is organized by the American Battlefield Trust and the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery. More support is coming from local civic groups providing housing and meals and occupational therapy students from nearby Sacred Heart University making sure the participants don’t wear themselves out.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Joanne Freeman on “Hamilton: The Exhibition”

The Yale News recently interviewed Prof. Joanne Freeman about her work on Alexander Hamilton. The article explains:
For a long time Freeman, professor of history and of American studies, was the only person she knew of who had much of an interest in Hamilton. “I spent many decades lecturing about Hamilton and essentially saying, ‘I know you’ve never heard of this person but you should, because he actually played an important role in the founding of our country,’” says Freeman.

“Now, with everyone adoring Hamilton due to the play, I spend a lot of time saying: ‘You know, he’s not as great as you think he is. He was a flawed figure with problematic politics.’ In my work, I want to show Hamilton in all of his complexity.”
Of course, Freeman shares some of the blame, or credit, for Hamilton’s newfound heroic status. She was one of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sources for the Hamilton musical. She’s a more formal advisor for “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” a multimedia display in Chicago that’s popped up in conjunction with the performances of the musical there.

The exhibit comes from the same team that created the show, and Freeman says one of their goals was to fill in some holes—and correct some historical misconceptions—that the play leaves its excited audiences with. In the interview, Freeman says:
One major lapse in the show concerns the institution of slavery. It isn’t discussed for more than a line or two in “Hamilton” — yet the United States and the early modern world were grounded on the institution of slavery, so that had to be in the foreground of the exhibition. When you enter the first room of the exhibition (after the introductory film), you see shackles; the institution of slavery is the first thing you confront. It was at the center of Hamilton’s world.

The exhibit adds a lot of context along those lines — concerning slavery and any number of other topics: the role of women, the contributions of non-elite folk, and more. There are also more specific corrections that are almost like Easter eggs in the exhibit, such as a plaque that explains that [Thomas] Jefferson didn’t win the election of 1800 “in a landslide,” as the play suggests, or another one that notes (in a more comical vein) that Martha Washington did not name her feral tomcat Hamilton.
(I discussed that feline myth back here.)
Some topics were difficult to figure out how to put into physical form. One of them was Hamilton’s financial plan, which – to be honest — doesn’t sound inherently interesting to most people. We spent quite a long time trying to figure out how to make it compelling to the average person walking through the exhibit.

At one point, I said: ‘Here’s the thing. The entire government was an experiment, no one knew if it was going to function, and certainly no one knew if Hamilton’s financial plan was going to work. His plan proposed some radical ideas that a lot of people disagreed with, so there was a lot of uncertainty.’

And then there was a pause – and then David Korins [set designer for “Hamilton” the play] said, “What if when you enter the financial plan section, the floor is uneven so people feel a bit thrown off?” A fascinating suggestion — something that never would have occurred to me in a thousand years; making a historical concept concrete through set design. . . .

The day that the exhibition opened to the public, I watched people walk through the part of the exhibit that deals with Hamilton’s financial plan and sure enough when people crossed over into that room they immediately paused, and looked down at the floor.
Freeman is also a cohost of the Backstory podcast and author most recently of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. The portrait of her above is by Justin Greenwood, from his and Jonathan Hennessey’s Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Boles on Non-Whites in Colonial Churches at Old South, 5 June

Tonight at Old South Meeting House, Richard Boles will speak on the topic “Interracial But Not Integrated: African Americans, Native Americans, and New England’s Colonial Churches.”

The event description says:

Many Native Americans and mostly-enslaved African Americans participated in New England churches between the 1730s and 1790s, including the Old South Meeting House and other Boston churches. They participated by attending services, being baptized, and taking the Lord’s Supper, and did so despite segregated seating arrangements and prohibitions against voting and holding church leadership positions.
New England’s Puritan culture avidly pushed everyone to participate in (Congregationalist) religious worship. At the same time, that society wanted to maintain lines between whites and non-whites, free and enslaved.

One manifestation of this was the requirement that black and Indian worshippers (as well as adolescent apprentices) sit in meetinghouse galleries or balconies, away from the pews owned by established families. Some meetings tried to maintain that customs well after New England states started to end slavery, insisting on segregated “negro galleries” even if African-American families had purchased pews. I quoted William C. Nell on how two churches mistreated the family of one Revolutionary War veteran way back here.

Richard Boles is professor of history at Oklahoma State University, specializing in the study of early American religion from the perspective of non-European worshippers and observers.

This event starts tonight at 6:30. It is co-presented by the Congregational Library & Archives and funded by the Lowell Institute. It is free and open to the public, though registration is requested.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Slavery and the Vermont Constitution, Then and Now

In The Atlantic, Parker Richards reports on a push in Vermont to amend the state constitution to remove the clause referring to slavery even though that clause forbids the practice.

The first clause of the independent state’s 1777 constitution’s declaration of rights said:
THAT all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. Therefore, no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law, for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.
That paragraph was later changed to treat men and women equally, setting the age of majority for both at twenty-one. (That meant taking three years of majority away from women. I’m not sure when that change was made, and it’s quite possible that twenty-year-old women still had far fewer legal freedoms than twenty-year-old boys.)

The original Vermont constitution thus preserved some forms of unpaid labor common in the eighteenth century: apprenticeship of minors, indentured servitude for adults agreeing to such a contract, and work that courts required of people paying off debts and fines.

In practice, as I discussed back in 2014, some elite Vermonters still kept people enslaved in their households in the late 1700s. And the case of “Judge Jacobs’s Diana” shows a well-connected jurist exploiting Vermont’s anti-slavery constitution to avoid having to pay to support his former slave when she became ill.

Nonetheless, the language of Vermont’s 1777 constitution was revolutionary. It made quite clear that the new government would not enforce chattel slavery as practiced in the U.S. of A. and Britain’s remaining North American colonies. It rooted that stance in a belief in equality and natural rights. It made no distinction between locals and people “brought from over sea.”

Some present-day Vermonters don’t want the state constitution to include the word “slave,” or to reflect that there might ever be a legal way to compel someone else to work. This stance doesn’t appear to be based in a practical worry, such as that courts might force people into labor for unpayable debts. Rather, it’s bound up in concerns about current discrimination in the state.

The first proposed amendment would have removed the clause entirely. One chamber of the state legislature has instead passed language that preserves the original natural-rights statements and then spells out a prohibition on forced labor:
That all persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety; therefore slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.
Of course, that approach still acknowledges slavery. (It also doesn’t bar apprenticeships, which were sort of like unpaid internships except the food was better.) The process of amending the constitution in Vermont is long and involved, so it seems possible there will be further developments, or this particular initiative could falter.

Monday, June 03, 2019

When Wartime Riots Paralyzed London

On 2 June 1780, as I described yesterday, a crowd of over 50,000 people surrounded Parliament while Lord George Gordon presented a petition demanding a return to strictures on Catholics.

The House of Commons dismissed that petition, and the crowd dispersed from that part of London. But that evening people attacked the embassy of Sardinia. They destroyed a chapel connected to the embassy of Bavaria. They attacked neighborhoods of prominent Catholics. Sir John Fielding’s Bow Street Runners and other authorities arrested some rioters and locked them in Newgate Prison.

The next day, 3 June, larger crowds rampaged through Moorfields, a neighborhood where a lot of Irish workers had settled. A mob attacked Newgate Prison, freed fellow rioters and other prisoners, and then basically destroyed the complex. Then people attacked other prisons, and other embassies. They attacked the home of Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, who had supported the more liberal law about Catholics.

Violence continued for days, spilling well beyond the original grievances. On 7 June, there was a concerted assault on the Bank of England, stopped only by an upper-class militia unit and regular troops. All in all, the property damage cost up to £180,000, which many historians say was far more than the city of Paris suffered during the whole French Revolution. (I’d like to see the comparable figures, but that’s what they say.)

On that 7 June, the British government clamped down on the rioters with force. It brought in regular troops, including the Horse Guards and Foot Guards, as well as militias from nearby counties—12,000 armed men in all. Soldiers killed nearly 300 people and arrested 450, pacifying the city after a week of chaos. The government put scores of men on trial and sentenced dozens to death for acts of violence and theft, though not all those sentences were carried out.

London’s upper and middle classes, scared by the violence, supported such harsh measures. The Crown fined the Lord Mayor for not reading the Riot Act to the crowds earlier. A former Lord Mayor, John Wilkes, led troops against the rioters, ruining his reputation as a champion of the people and thus his political career. Another radical Whig, the Earl of Shelburne, responded to the uprising by proposing a national police force, but nothing came of that.

As for Lord George Gordon, he was locked up in the Tower and tried for treason, but acquitted. Nevertheless, the disturbances were named after him: the Gordon Riots. He continued to get in trouble with the authorities, eventually locked up again for insulting Marie Antoinette of France and the British legal system. By then he had converted to Judaism—beard, circumcision, and all—and he became quite a curiosity while locked up in the rebuilt Newgate Prison.

The unrest had at least one effect on the American Revolution. Early in 1780 Spain and Britain had started secret negotiations which could have led to Spain pulling its support for the new U.S. of A. The riots convinced Spanish diplomats that Lord North’s government might soon fall, so they ended the talks.

The B.B.C. radio program In Our Time recently hosted a discussion about the Gordon Riots, available as a podcast. The London Historians offers an introduction to the unrest by Prof. Jerry White in P.D.F. form. The episode was also fodder for nineteenth-century British novelists: Maria Edgeworth with Harrington and Charles Dickens with Barnaby Rudge. But of course, unlike the Stamp Act riots in North America and the storming of the Bastille in Paris, the Gordon Riots didn’t lead to revolution.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Lord George Gordon’s Petition to Parliament

The engraving above shows Lord George Gordon, youngest son of the Duke of Gordon, delivering a petition to Parliament in 1780. That document came with over 400 pages of signatures, and there were other copies circulating. Estimates of the total number of people to sign Gordon's petition run as high as 120,000 Britons. In eighteenth-century society, that’s a mind-boggling number.

What did all those people want from Parliament? They asked the British government to repeal the Papists Act of 1778, which had lifted some of the legal restrictions on Roman Catholics imposed after the Glorious Revolution. Not that the new law allowed Catholics to vote or hold office in Britain, but they could now, for example, buy real estate.

One impetus for the new law was the British government’s need to recruit more Irish Catholics into the army to fight the American War. Previously men had to abjure their Catholic faith to become redcoats. After 1778, they simply had to swear allegiance to the Hanoverian king. Lord Mansfield, Britain’s Chief Justice, was one of the main proponents of this reform.

As for Gordon, he was a former Royal Navy lieutenant and Member of Parliament. In the House of Commons he had opposed Lord North’s policies toward the American colonies, but he didn’t get along with the opposition parties, either.

In 1779 Gordon formed the Protestant Association because he believed that British Catholics remained a threat who had to be suppressed. By then two of Europe’s big Catholic powers, France and Spain, had joined the Americans' war against the British Crown. Gordon and many of his supporters suspected that people in the government too sympathetic to the Catholics had brought on the war and were endangering the Empire.

Now we like to think of the American Revolution as connected to freedom of religion. Indeed, it pushed American society in that direction. Even in Massachusetts, where the Congregationalist establishment lasted until the 1830s, the war ended with a Catholic Church in Boston. Virginia adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. And we agree that’s a Good Thing, right?

But in the 1770s, the political lines were drawn differently. Gordon supported political reform within the British Empire, and he saw Catholicism as the worst form of old-fashioned despotism, so he didn’t want Catholics to get any closer to power. Meanwhile, Mansfield opposed the American rebels but was liberal toward religious minorities within the Empire.

On 2 June 1780, about 50,000 supporters of the Protestant Association gathered in St. George’s Field, an open area in South London. (Eleven years before, a rally for John Wilkes at that place had ended in bloodshed.) Many in the crowd blue cockades, the movement’s symbol. Some carried banners that read “No Popery.”

Lord George Gordon led his supporters on a march to Westminster to present their huge petition, as shown above. The crowd grew even larger as it moved through the city streets.

With his genteel status, Gordon made it into the House of Commons and presented the Protestant Association petition. Outside, thousands of people surrounded the Parliament building, roughing up some peers and vandalizing carriages.

Members of Parliament voted to dismiss the petition, 192-6. Gordon went home disappointed but not surprised. Soldiers arrived and dispersed the crowd. The government thought the crisis had passed.

TOMORROW: It hadn’t.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

How to Assess a Founder’s Quote

In the last two days I ran into two false Founder’s Quotes on Twitter:

  • a statement attributed to John Hancock at a council with Iroquois leaders that he never attended. (The statement could arguably have been attributed to Philip Schuyler, who led the Continental delegation there, but was presented as a joint statement.)
  • words from Alexander Hamilton about limited government, ironic since in his time he was a champion of an expansive federal government.

I therefore decided this was a good time to lay out my rules of dealing with Founder’s Quotes. You know, those statements attributed to someone involved in setting up the U.S. of A. which so often happen to accord with the political outlook of the person repeating the quotation.

First, what not to do.

Don’t trust memes, T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, or the like. The people who make those things want your money and/or your mind.

Don’t trust quotation websites. They’re crowdsourced but don’t seem to check sources, and they copy from one another. Put a fake quote onto one of those sites, and it can spread like measles through an unvaccinated daycare. The exception is Wikiquote, which asks people to provide sources for the quotations they upload and is formatted to allow other people to question and discuss those quotations. Still not authoritative, but better.

Don’t trust books published after quotation websites began to proliferate. Especially books about political topics. Authors are all too happy to go onto one of those quotation websites and grab a statement that appears to come from a Founder and fits their message.

Here are some easy places to check.

The Washington Library at Mount Vernon has a section of its website devoted to spurious Washington quotations.

Monticello has the same for ersatz Jefferson statements.

Some Wikiquote pages have an “Attributed” and/or “Disputed” section for questionable quotes and a “Misattributed” section for no-question falsehoods.

It’s always fun to check in with Garson O’Toole’s Quote Investigator, devoted to tracking down who said what when and first. Most of its targets seem to come from more recent centuries, but the Founders make a showing.

If the situation still warrants investigation, here are the steps I take.

Break the quote down into segments of five to seven words. Look for unusual words and words that don’t often appear in that exact sequence. Searching for long quotes can return false negatives because of (a) variable eighteenth-century spelling, (b) words dropped from the middle of a phrase to make it more pithy, and (c) O.C.R. difficulties in scanning.

Search for each segment at Founders Online. Put the segment in quotation marks. The results will still contain a lot of examples which are like the phrase, not exact matches, but those might be useful. For more hints, look at the site’s “Searching” functions.

Search for each segment on Google Books. Again, put the segment in quotation marks. The top results will be exact matches, followed by near matches. If you see a lot of books published in this century, click on “Tools” and then under “Any Time” ask for appearances only in the 20th century, then only in the 19th century.

The major Founders were so well documented that most of what they’ve written was collected and published by the end of the 1900s. Thus, if a quote shows up only in books printed in this century, that’s a good reason to doubt it can really be traced to the Founders’ time. It more likely came through one of those quotation websites.

Don’t be satisfied with a book presenting the quotation as a quotation: “As Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said,…” Or even, “As John Jay wrote,…” Look for citations to particular documents—a letter written on a specific date, an essay. Look for the quotation within a longer passage.

Be alert to words coined after the eighteenth century. Franklin never ate “lunch.” Samuel Adams didn’t know from “brush fires.” Dictionary sites like Merriam-Webster and Etymonline say when a word first appeared in print.

If you find a quotation in a passage reliably attributed to a Founder, take an extra second to assess the context. Eighteenth-century prose tended toward long sentences, full of cascading clauses and modifiers that build to their conclusions. In contrast, modern taste runs toward the pithy. Even authentic Founders’ Quotes are often extracts from much longer sentences, which can alter their meaning.

Knowing context might change how you choose to characterize or use the quotation. For example, a lot of the aphorisms in Poor Richard’s Almanack didn’t come from Franklin’s wit but from books of sayings he used to fill space. John Adams’s “Facts are stubborn things” was a common saying. Hamilton’s statement “Here sir, the people govern” wasn’t about the U.S. of A. but about the House of Representatives as a contrast to the Senate.

Finally, the burden of proof remains on the person quoting a Founder. If you’re skeptical, it’s not your job to prove a Founder didn’t say or write something. It’s the job of the quoter to show that the Founder did. {{Attribution always needed.}}