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, July 09, 2019

“We shall conduct our Embassy”

Yale professor Mark Peterson recently published The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865, which has a provocative thesis.

For centuries, Peterson posits, Boston tried to operate not only as regional capital of New England but also politically aloof from its national capitals, London and Washington, D.C.

Rather than concentrate on supplying goods to London like a good mercantilist colony, early Bostonians learned to trade with the Caribbean colonies and outside the British Empire entirely. Massachusetts minted its own coins in the mid-1600s and outfitted its own invasion force in the mid-1700s. As late as the Hartford Convention, this “city-state” wanted to go its own way. I look forward to digging more deeply into his thesis.

This Yale News article about Peterson highlights a smaller story that touches on the Revolution and its memory:
While doing research for the book Peterson took note of facts that “struck him as strange,” such as the curious evolution of a letter from John Adams, American statesman and second president of the United States, to his wife Abigail Adams. The letter underwent an almost imperceptible — but critically important — revision in language when published many years later, says Peterson.

In September 1774, John Adams attended the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and wrote to Abigail about his encounters with the delegates from 12 of the other 13 colonies for the first time. Adams wrote: “I flatter myself, however, that we shall conduct our embassy in such a manner as to merit the approbation of our country.”

In this letter, Adams was quite rightly describing himself and the other Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress as if they were ambassadors to a foreign power, explains Peterson. “And when Adams says ‘our country,’ he is referring to Massachusetts,” not the United States, notes Peterson, who adds that up until the Civil War, both nationally and internationally Boston and its New England hinterland was thought of as a separate country with its own “national” identity.

However, following the Civil War in 1875, John Adams’ grandson Charles Francis Adams published an edition of his grandfather’s letters. In that volume, the same sentence written by John Adams was changed ever so slightly — but with an enormous impact on how Boston is perceived historically, notes Peterson. In this later edition, the younger Adams changed the phrase “our embassy” to “ourselves.”
Charles Francis Adams’s guess about his grandfather’s letter (detail shown here courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society) didn’t account for a lot of squiggles. But, to be fair, John Adams’s writing wasn’t the clearest. And Peterson is right that the younger Adams clearly didn’t have the mindset to expect that word to be “Embassy.”

1 comment:

AMC said...

As a descendant of families in the Bahamas and New England, I am pleased that Mark Peterson is researching the ties that connected the colonies in the Caribbean to early Massachusetts. The first permanent settlement in the Bahamas was that established by Puritans cast out of Bermuda in the late 1640s. Among the emigres was Patrick Copeland, who had been in communication - for some years - with Governor John Winthrop over "Captive Indians" shipped to Bermuda. It was the good people of Boston, in fact, who came to the rescue of the "Islathera"Puritans after their vessel wrecked on a reef and their supplies were all destroyed. (The settlers eventually repaid their debt by settling a gift of hardwoods on Harvard College.) This is just one of many documented anecdotes that establish relationship between the islands and 17th century New England.