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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Saturday, August 17, 2019

”A Procession that extended near a Mile and a half”

On rereading the Boston Gazette’s description of the Sons of Liberty 14 Aug 1769 dinner this year, I was struck by the detail that three times the men punctuated their toasts with “A Discharge of Cannon.” Perhaps only one cannon, but still.

By the early 1770s, the innkeeper who hosted that celebration, Lemuel Robinson of Dorchester, was captain of a militia artillery company protecting Suffolk County outside of Boston.

His Liberty Tree tavern—shown above, in a sketch from the Dorchester Historical Society—was where the Massachusetts Committee of Safety hid the Boston train’s four missing cannon in early 1775. (And the committee’s records suggests there was some effort required to get Robinson to let them out of his hands to be hidden in Concord.) But Robinson had cannon on his property, at least for this special occasion, as early as 1769.

The Sons of Liberty dinner also included music. John Adams wrote in his diary:
We had also the Liberty Song—that by the Farmer, and that by Dr. Ch[urc]h, and the whole Company joined in the Chorus.
“The Farmer” was John Dickinson. As I detailed here, he cowrote the original “Liberty Song” the previous year. Adams’s mention of Dr. Benjamin Church is the reason scholars attribute the version of the song that begins “Come swallow your Bumpers, ye Tories! and roar,” to that poetic physician.

Adams then wrote:
Between 4 and 5 O clock, the Carriages were all got ready and the Company rode off in Procession, Mr. [John] Hancock first in his Charriot and another Charriot bringing up the Rear.
Adams had to head out of town, but the Boston Gazette reported on the gentlemen’s return to Boston:
About Five o’Clock the Company left Mr. Robinson’s in a Procession that extended near a Mile and a half, and before Dark entered the City, went round the State-House, and retired each to his own House.
Merchant John Rowe, who wasn’t at the dinner, added in his diary that the procession contained “139 Carriages” and “Mr. [James] Otis brought up the rear.”

That circle around the seat of government was a victory lap over Gov. Francis Bernard, and a warning to remaining royal officials that the Whigs dominated the landscape. To rub that in, the Gazette added:
Should this Account overtake the Baronet of Nettleham on this Side T–b—n, he and Ld. H——h are at Liberty to write seventy-seven Volumes of their High Dutch and low Diabolical Commentaries, “about it, and about it.”
The baronet was Bernard. “Lord H——h” was the Earl of Hillsborough, secretary of state overseeing the colonies. “T–b—n” was Tyburn, where criminals and traitors were hanged. “About it, and about it” was a common way to say “and on and on.” And the whole sentence crowed over how Bernard’s letters complaining about the Whigs had leaked and destroyed his standing in the province.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Memories of “Mr. Balch’s Mimickry”

As I detailed yesterday, Nathaniel Balch (shown here, courtesy of Balchipedia) was a hatter. But at heart he was an entertainer, known across Boston for his humor and charm.

When Josiah Quincy, Jr., was traveling in the southern colonies on 6 Mar 1773, he wrote in his diary: “In walking with ——— occurred a singular event, of which Balch could make a humorous story.” Unfortunately, Quincy didn’t record that event and we don’t know what Balch made of it.

Most of our descriptions of Balch come from after independence, when he became known as a bosom friend of Gov. John Hancock. The French political reformer Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) wrote of an encounter in 1788: “Governor Hancock…has the virtues and the address of popularism; that is to say, that without effort he shews himself the equal and the friend of all. I supped at his house with a hatter, who appeared to be in great familiarity with him.”

The most lively pictures of Balch appear in the memoirs of men writing in the mid-1800s who had been boys growing up in Hancock’s Boston. E. S. Thomas wrote about Gov. Hancock in 1840:
He was very fond of joke and repartee, so much so, that a worthy citizen of Boston, Nathaniel Balch, Esq., a hatter, who never failed to appear among the invited guests at his hospitable board, obtained the unenvied appellation of “the Governor’s Jester.
Sidney Willard wrote in 1855:
For his three-cornered hat, his cocked hat, my father resorted to Nathan Balch, a very worthy and respectable man, sometimes irreverently called Nat. Balch; a frequent guest of Governor Hancock, and entertainer of his other guests, adding zest to the viands and the vina at the dinner-board by anecdotes and stories, mimetric [sic] art, humor, witticism, and song, drawn from his inexhaustible storehouse.
And Samuel Breck’s posthumously published memoir said:
We had a medley of eccentric tradesmen in Boston in 1788, who were a compound of flat simplicity in manners and acute cleverness in conversation, shrewd, perhaps somewhat cunning; often witty; always smart and intelligent.

…above all, Balch, the hatter. His shop was the principal lounge even of the first people in the town. Governor Hancock, when the gout permitted, resorted to this grand rendezvous, and there exchanged jokes with Balch and his company, or, as sometimes happened, discussed grave political subjects, and, tout en badinant, settled leading principles of his administration.
So what material did Balch pull out for the Sons of Liberty dinner in August 1769, with more than three hundred of Boston’s leading gentlemen present?

According to John Adams:
After Dinner was over and the Toasts drank we were diverted with Mr. Balch’s Mimickry. He gave Us, the Lawyers Head, and the Hunting of a Bitch fox.
Hmm. I guess you had to be there.

TOMORROW: The party’s over.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Nathaniel Balch at the Sign of the Hat

The man who provided after-dinner, after-toasts entertainment for the big Sons of Liberty dinner on 14 Aug 1769 was Nathaniel Balch (1735-1808).

Balch was born into an old New England family in Boston, baptized at the New South Meetinghouse. In May 1760 he was admitted as a freeman in Rhode Island, living in Providence. An advertisement in the 15 Oct 1763 Providence Gazette called him “Capt. Nathaniel Balch” and said he was established at “the Sign of the Hat.”

Balch didn’t sell just hats, though. On 7 Jan 1764 he offered “enamell’d Stone Ware”; glassware; pipes “by the Box, Gross, or Dozen”; snuff; pepper and other spices; cheese; and “the very best Hyson Tea,” all “as cheap as they can be purchased in Boston.”

Not to mention “Choice new Philadelphia Flour,” chocolate, brown sugar, “Melasses,” rum, shoes from Lynn, and tickets to lotteries authorized by both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Along with, of course, “FELT and CASTOR HATS.”

According to Dr. Galusha B. Balch’s Genealogy of the Balch Families in America (1897), Nathaniel married Mary Fletcher, a distant cousin, on 26 May 1763. Their oldest child, Nathaniel, Jr., was born in Providence on 26 Feb 1764. (This genealogy contradicts itself by stating elsewhere that all of Nathaniel and Mary’s children were born in Boston.)

The Balches lived in a “Two-Story Dwelling-House…at the North End of the Town…fronting two Streets.” Balch wrote: “It has an excellent Cellar, two commodious Shops, with a small Garden adjoining, whereon stands a large Store, Stable, Wood-House, and Chaise-House.” Of course, he was trying to sell the property at the time.

In May 1764, Balch began to advertise for customers to settle their balances with him. In January 1765 he put his house on the market, and in May he announced that “he purposes to leave the Colony in a few Days.” The Balches returned to Boston in time for the birth of their second son, William, on 11 July 1765.

Back in his home town, Balch first worked out of “Mr. Bligh’s Shop in Marlborough Street” before moving to “Mr. John Langdon’s in Fore Street, near the Draw-Bridge” over the creek that separated the North End from the central district. On 14 July 1766 he advertised:
The best, Beaver, Beaveret, Castor and Felt Hats, of his own make.

Also a compleat Assortment of Glass, China and Delph Ware, French Indigo, Flask Oyl, Spices of all sorts, Allum, Copperas, Mustard, Poland Starch, Stone blue, House Brushes, Salt Petre, Isinglass, Kippen’s Snuff, Jappan’d Ware, Mahogany Trays and Tea Chests, Sugar Canisters, Baskets for China, Knives and Bread, Knives and Forks, Shoe Buckles, Candlesticks, Snuff Boxes, Pipes, Figs, Currants, best Hyson and Bohea Tea, Coffee and Chocolate, Loaf and Brown Sugar, and many other Articles all Cheap for Cash.——
The March 1767 Boston town meeting elected Nathaniel Balch a Clerk of the Market, a beginning-level town office that showed he had the respect of his neighbors. He didn’t seek higher office at this time, though.

At the end of 1770 Balch moved from Fort Street to Cornhill, right in the center of town. From that point until 1774 his advertisements were all about hats:
Best Beaver and Beaveritt Hatts,
of his own make, cock’d in the newest Taste, genteel white riding Hatts for Ladies and Gentlemen, Children’s round turn-up Hatts or Whimseys, both black and white of all Prices, Felt Hatts of all Sorts. Also, an Assortment of Hatters Trimmings.
Balch’s ads appeared in the Boston News-Letter, the newspaper that supported the royal government but also had the most genteel readership. He was clearly establishing himself.

But I don’t think Balch’s heart was really in hatmaking.

TOMORROW: A natural entertainer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Dinner at the Sign of Liberty Tree

On 14 Aug 1769, 250 years ago today, Boston’s Sons of Liberty gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the first public protest against the Stamp Act, four years earlier.

Of course, they were also celebrating what they saw as their triumph over Gov. Francis Bernard, who had sailed away from Massachusetts at the start of the month, never to return.

The celebration actually began with fourteen toasts at Liberty Tree at eleven o’clock. Those started with “The KING” and “The QUEEN and Royal Family,” moved through John Wilkes, the “Glorious Ninety-Two,” Paschal Paoli and his Corsicans, “American Manufactures,” and finally “May the 14th of August be the annual Jubilee of Americans, till Time shall be no more.”

Then the company left town. The Sons had organized dinner for more than 300 at Lemuel Robinson’s tavern in Dorchester, the Sign of Liberty Tree. [In the winter of 1775, that tavern was a crucial spot in the story of The Road to Concord.] By dining outside of Boston, the upper-class politicians guaranteed that they could control their setting and the level of festivity.

This dinner was in honor of “the Farmer”—John Dickinson, author of The Farmer’s Letters and coauthor of “The Liberty Song.” He wasn’t there. But two of his friends from Philadelphia were: his brother, Philemon Dickinson, and Joseph Reed, then secretary of the colony of New Jersey.

John Hancock’s business protégé William Palfrey made a list of 355 gentlemen at the dinner. That list included far more than Boston's political activists. The most important elected officials were all there, including some who would later be Loyalists. The town’s schoolmasters had taken the day off, as had many merchants, doctors, lawyers, and militia officers. John Adams wrote in his diary about feeling pressure to attend: “many might suspect, that I was not hearty in the Cause, if I had been absent whereas none of them are more sincere, and stedfast than I am."

Adams described the banquet setting this way:
We had two Tables laid in the open Field by the Barn, with between 300 and 400 Plates, and an Arning of Sail Cloth overhead, and should have spent a most agreable Day had not the Rain made some Abatement in our Pleasures.
There’s that New England non-rhotic R in how Adams spelled “awning.”

Because the fourteen toasts before noon weren’t enough, after dinner the party drank forty-five more. This series started with the “King, Queen and Royal Family,” followed by “A Discharge of Cannon, and three Cheers.” The toasters named fourteen British politicians considered friendly to America and the historian Catharine Macaulay. They honored “The Cantons of Switzerland,” “The States General of the seven United Provinces” of Holland, and “The King of Prussia.”

Some of the after-dinner toasts delineated the Whigs’ political ideals: “Annual Parliaments,” “A perpetual Constitutional Union and Harmony between Great Britain and the Colonies,” and “Liberty without Licentiousness.” Others identified enemies: “May the detested Names of the very few Importers every where, be transmitted to Posterity with Infamy” (more cannon). And finally “Strong Halters, Firm Blocks, and Sharp Axes, to all such as deserve either.”

Evidently the diners didn’t imbibe deeply at each and every toast because Adams declared, “To the Honour of the Sons, I did not see one Person intoxicated.”

As for the subsequent entertainment, the Sons of Liberty had provided…a hatter.

TOMORROW: But not just any hatter.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Plea for Relief after the Great Fire of 1794

The State Library of Massachusetts is spotlighting, both on the web and at the State House, a broadside from 1794.

Its blog posting explains:
This month, we’re displaying a broadside that was distributed as an “Appeal from Boston for Aid after the Great Fire, 1794”. In 1794, the part of downtown Boston that is currently bordered by Milk, Pearl, Purchase and Congress Streets was home to residences and a number of ropewalks (a long, narrow building where ropes are woven by hand). In the early morning of July 30, a fire broke out in one of the ropewalks and spread quickly, destroying seven ropewalks and approximately ninety other buildings (primarily houses, outbuildings, barns, and stores).

The fire was so extensive that additional engines were brought in from Brookline, Cambridge, Charlestown, Milton, Roxbury, and Watertown. An account of the fire was written up in the July 31 edition of the American Apollo, a copy of which is also in the State Library’s collection. The article, titled “Horrid Fire,” describes the affected area, lists the home and business owners who lost property, and thanks the fire engines from neighboring towns that provided assistance.

On August 5, Boston Selectmen issued a broadside in response to the devastation caused by the fire, calling attention to the residents whose lives changed “in an instant, from a situation convenient and comfortable, to a state of deplorable poverty and want.” The broadside was then distributed to cities and towns throughout the state in an effort to raise funds for assistance. The copy in the State Library’s collection was sent to the selectmen of Shutesbury, along with the handwritten instruction to share it with the town, likely as an announcement during a town meeting.
This “Great Fire” was of course not the great fire of 1760, which started in the Brazen Head and which eventually I’ll get back to. Nor the previous great fires, nor the great fire of 1870. But it was great enough.

One effect was that those proto-industrial ropewalks near the center of town—the workshops whose employees had brawled with soldiers in the days leading up to the Boston Massacre—were rebuilt out on new land south of the Common. Eventually that land had to be bought back from the ropemaking firms when the city decided to build the Public Garden.

In looking at the broadside, I was struck with how the selectmen’s names are set in a font reminiscent of the round hand to suggest their signatures. Whichever printer got the contract to produce this broadside obviously had some spiffy new type to use.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Chatting about the Signers and How They Chatted

I wasn’t planning on a run of weblinks about me, but this morning I’m the interviewee on Dispatches, the Journal of the American Revolution’s podcast.

This thirty-minute interview goes over my article about legends of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Which of those stories can be traced back to men who were in the room where it happened, and which stories make no sense at all?

The conversation closely follows the article, which was based on some Boston 1775 posts over the years. But only in the audio version can you hear me putting on different voices for Benjamin Harrison, Benjamin Franklin, and other figures.

After the formal interview, podcast host Brady Crytzer and I chatted about regional interviews. He grew up in Pittsburgh but doesn’t have the classic Pittsburgh accent, and I grew up in greater Boston but don’t have the classic Boston or New England accent.

The most prominent detail of that New England accent—the non-rhotic R—goes back a long way. Last week the Harvard scholar Caitlin G. DeAngelis shared several examples on Twitter of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gravestones from the region on which the carvers initially forgot to spell “departed” with an R. They presumably spelled the word the way it sounded.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

When the “Powder Alarm” Came to Shrewsbury

Here’s a link to something else I didn’t realize was on the web: video of my Road to Concord presentation in Shrewsbury in January 2018.

Chapter 2 of the book begins in that town:
While Gen. Gage was arranging to remove the gunpowder from Charlestown, a young Irish merchant named McNeil was traveling from Litchfield, Connecticut, toward Boston, where a relative was baking bread for the king’s troops. On August 30, McNeil had watched a large crowd in Springfield pressure the local judges into not holding court sessions under the Massachusetts Government Act. On the night of September 1 he stopped at a tavern in Shrewsbury in central Massachusetts. “[A]bout midnight or perhaps one o’Clock,” McNeil later told the Rev. Ezra Stiles of Newport, he woke up to hear “somebody violently rapping up the Landlord, telling the doleful Story that the Powder was taken, six men killed.”
That was the “Powder Alarm,” reaching Shrewsbury as the rumor traveled west. By the end of the day, royal rule was finished in most of Massachusetts. But the race for gunpowder, artillery, and other matérial of war had just begun.

In honor of the Shrewsbury connection, I focused this talk on that day and its fallout. Also, I see, I wore a suit.

Thanks to the Shrewsbury Historical Society for hosting me, the local cable-access service for recording the events, and Ben Edwards of Walking Boston for the link.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

“An especially clever piece” in Children of Colonial America

While preparing for a teachers’ workshop next week, I came across for the first time Judith Ridner’s review of Children in Colonial America, a volume edited by James Marten and Philip J. Greven, for the journal Pennsylvania History.

You’ll forgive me for quoting a passage:
The volume concludes with an especially clever piece by J. L. Bell about the politicization of youth in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Fifty-two percent of Boston’s population in 1765, he notes, were white youth under the age of sixteen (204). Yet, when scholars write of that city’s famous series of pre-revolutionary protests, they rarely acknowledge the unique contributions children and youths made to the crowd. Bell corrects that shortcoming. He describes the functions of Boston’s youth gangs and also analyzes the symbolic importance of eleven-year-old Christopher Seider at the Boston Massacre. For him, the actions of Boston’s youth demonstrate how the Revolution was about lived experience, not ideology.
That’s Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 76 (2009), 379-80.

Ridner is now a professor of history at Mississippi State University and author most recently of The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania: A Varied People. I’m grateful for her kind words.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Laying Out Roxbury’s History in the Dillaway-Thomas House

On the corporate blog of Content•Design Collaborative LLC, which is in the business of “effective visitor experiences for public and private institutions,” there’s an interesting discussion of how the firm helped to redesign the Dillaway-Thomas House in Roxbury Heritage State Park for the Roxbury Historical Society and the city of Boston.

The park is a single acre between the First Church and the Timilty Middle School, and the house contains 2,200 square feet of exhibit space or, as the organization says, “a mere 600 square-feet per century” of town history.

The solution was to use each room for a different historical era:
Visitors enter the House from the accessible annex, the first thing you encounter is a cavernous ten-foot wide cooking hearth, so we deemed this space the Parsons Kitchen, and it covered the pre-revolutionary war era. This gallery was followed by the Revolutionary War gallery, or the Thomas Gallery, for General [John] Thomas who took residence there during the Siege of Boston. Next comes the Dillaway Room, named after Charles K. Dillaway, a scholar and early headmaster of Boston Latin. The next exhibit area is the Historic Hallway and the 20th Century Roxbury Room. Upstairs the House featured a gallery loosely dedicated to 21st Century Roxbury accompanied the multi-purpose changeable art gallery and community meeting space.
In the eighteenth century Roxbury was the large rural town right outside of Boston by land. It was enmeshed in Boston’s politics and social issues. In 1768, for example, town minister Amos Adams and his wife Elizabeth hosted a spinning meeting. There’s no evidence about slavery at that site, but in 1771 Roxbury’s population included 21 “servants for life.” The museum therefore includes displays about slavery in the town.

As for the Revolutionary War:
With all hell breaking loose in the spring of 1775, the leaders of the colonial rebels appointed veteran John Thomas as a leader of the militia tasked with keeping the British troops in Boston. Roxbury stood on one side of the only ground route called Boston Neck. Our exhibit features a letter from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society where General Benjamin Lincoln informs Amos Adams that “It would be quite agreeable for General Thomas to remove into your house…”. Other experiences are a recreation of General Thomas’s field desk where you can hear a dramatic reading of one of his many letters to his wife and an interactive map placing the House in context of the siege of 1775-76.
(Lincoln wasn’t yet a general when he wrote that letter to Thomas; he was clerk of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. As for Thomas’s letters home, they’re terrific.)

One interesting requirement from the Roxbury Historical Society was that the maps inside the house “show the 1868 borders when Roxbury was annexed to Boston.” That area is larger than the Boston neighborhood now designated as Roxbury—it includes the Fenway, the Longwood Medical District, and Mission Hill. But it’s much smaller than the Roxbury of the eighteenth century, which also included Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and the modern Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park—part of the big town’s farmland.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

“The ladies of Massachusetts begin to give their cheese”

On 8 Aug 1801, the Impartial Observer of Providence, said to be a “short-lived Jeffersonian paper," ran this exclusive news item:

The Cheshire Ladies’ respect to President Jefferson.

In the town of Cheshire, state of Massachusetts, the ladies of the Rev. Mr. Leland’s church and society agreed to make a cheese to present to his Excellency Thomas Jefferson as a mark of the exalted esteem they had of him as a man of virtue, benevolence, and a real sincere friend to all Christian denominations, and their full coincidence in his being placed in the Executive chair of the American nation, and their full assurance of his wielding the government at much less expence than his predecessor, and as well, and it is hoped much better.

Accordingly, they requested Mr. Leland to procure a cheese vat at their expense six feet diameter, and twenty one inches thick, to press the cheese in; and on a certain day they were to assemble at Mr. Daniel Brown’s with the curd to make the cheese. They all punctually attended and placed the vat in a cyder press and then filled it with curd. The vat held fourteen hundred weight of curd, and they had three hundred weight left. This cheese was made from the milk of 900 cows at one milking. When our informant left Cheshire, the cheese had not been turned, but would be in a few days, as the machinery for that purpose was nearly completed.

If the ladies of Massachusetts begin to give their cheese out of respect to Mr. Jefferson, and if some of the high toned Adams men do not soon turn and become friendly to Jefferson and the ladies, it is thought they will lose their esteem and have to eat their bread without cheese. This cheese is to be sent on in the spring of 1802, to the seat of government, under the care of Mr. Lealand, who was formerly a neighbour to Mr. Jefferson fifteen years in the State of Virginia. The motto on this cheese is “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

I discussed the origin of that motto back in May, and how it became a particular favorite of Jefferson. The plans for this cheese show how Americans associated the line with Jefferson. A week earlier, the Impartial Observer also listed it among the Fourth of July toasts at a celebration in New York.

Later in August, the Federalist Hampshire Gazette picked up the story of Cheshire’s cheese for the President, adding some sarcastic commentary. The printer headed that item “THE MAMMOTH CHEESE,” which was both a reference to Jefferson’s interest in natural history and the first use of “mammoth” as an adjective.

Was the ”J.” who sent this report to the Impartial Observer the Rev. John Leland himself? Possible but unproven. He was an itinerant Baptist evangelist who had been born in Grafton in 1754. The American Antiquarian Society published L. H. Butterfield’s biographical article about Leland, available as a P.D.F. here. Pictured above is the town of Cheshire’s monument to Leland and the cheese.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Looking into a Busy Tavern

In a discussion with Kurt Manwaring, Vaughan Scribner described his book Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society and offered this word picture of Henry Wetherburn’s tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia (shown above in its current form):
I especially like this tavern because of its diversity—it had the “Bullhead Room” for elites, the “Middle Room” for the middling sorts, and the “Great Room” for mixed companies (mostly the lower classes).

From the historical record, an ordinary evening would include a group of elitist colonists locking themselves in the Bullhead Room for a club. They would probably say this club is erudite and exclusive, but by late in the evening this group of men would probably be drunk and disorderly, spilling out into the Great Room for bumpers and sociability.

In the Great Room, meanwhile, a diverse set of ordinary colonists would have crowded the bar, asking for sloshing bowls of rum punch and tankards of local ale.

There probably would have been a fiddler in one corner, while in another corner a group of slaves waited for their masters to finish in the Bullhead Room or Middle Room.

Wetherburn’s female servants would have flitted among the male crowd, yelling back at them and telling them how it was.

Like colonial American society, tavern interactions were confused and complicated, resting upon ad-hoc communications more than established notions of hierarchy and order.
Scribner argues that in the eighteenth century taverns “were basically the internet, bank, hotel, restaurant, bar, auto-repair shop, brothel, and library all in one.”

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Spinning History Events in Lexington

The Lexington Historical Society is commemorating the town’s 1769 spinning meeting, reported yesterday, with two events this month.

First, on Thursday, 8 August, Emily Murphy of the National Park Service will speak on the ideology and social expectations behind such events. Here’s a précis of her talk, “I Am An Honest Woman: Female Revolutionary Resistance”:
Most women had limited opportunities for political action during the American Revolution. While some of the lower classes could take to the streets, “genteel” women had to find more subtle ways to support the Patriot cause, while maintaining the illusion of domestic contentment. . . . These women were able to take an active role in the Revolution by politicizing traditional female activities, like spinning flax into linen to create homespun fabric in protest of British imports. A group of 50 protesting Bostonian men would incite a riot, but who would cross a crowd of dutiful housewives showing off their domestic skills?
Murphy will speak at the Lexington Depot starting at 7:00 P.M. There’s a $5 suggested donation at the door. Because space is limited, reservations are required; email programs@lexingtonhistory.org to save a seat.

On Saturday, 31 August, the 250th anniversary of the dispatch to the Boston Gazette describing the spinning meeting in Lexington, the historical society wil host a free public reenactment of it on Harrington Road across from the town common.

There will be women spinning in period dress as well as “interpreters sharing information about the craft of spinning, the political climate of the time and the British goods boycott that sparked the 1769 spinning bee.” That will take place from noon to 4:00 P.M.

In addition, on that day the society will offer “a preview of our 2020 Buckman Tavern exhibit on women and protest.”

Monday, August 05, 2019

“At the House of Mr. Daniel Harrington”

On 16 Oct 1769, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette ran this news item with the dateline “Lexington, Aug. 31, 1769.”:
Very early in the Morning, the young Ladies of this Town, to the Number of 45, assembled at the House of Mr. Daniel Harrington, with their Spinning-Wheels, where they spent the Day in the most pleasing Satisfaction: And at Night presented Mrs. Harrington, with the Spinning of 602 Knots of Linnen, and 546 Knots of Cotton.

If any should be inclin’d to treat such Assemblies or the Publication of them, with a Contemptuous Sneer, as thinking them Ludicrous: Such Persons would do well first to consider what would become of one of our (so much boasted) Manufactures, on which we pretend the Welfare [of] our Country is so much depending, if those of the fair Sex should refuse to lay their “Hands to the Spindle,” or be unwilling to “hold the Distaff.”
The quotations at the end were noted as coming from “Prov. 31. 19.”

The phrase “Very early in the Morning” also appeared in an earlier report about a similar spinning meeting in Beverly. Getting to work early was a sign of diligence.

The “Number of 45” was of course a symbol of John Wilkes’s reform campaign in London.

Daniel Harrington (1739-1818) was a young man whose house faced the Lexington common. In May 1760, shortly before turning twenty, he had married Anna Munroe. Their first child arrived six months later, and by 1769 they had four living children plus one—Daniel, Jr.—memorialized by the stone shown above. By 1775 Harrington would be clerk of the Lexington militia company, later rising to captain. He became a selectman in 1777 and was chosen to lead the singing in the meetinghouse in 1781.

Perhaps the most puzzling detail of this article is that a month and a half had passed since the Lexington spinning meeting. The Gazette had run reports on several similar events in the preceding months, and it would no doubt have welcomed this one as well. Someone in Lexington had to prepare the report, however; Richard Kollen speculates that was the Rev. Jonas Clarke. In many towns, the minister hosted the spinning and received the results, but not here, and perhaps that caused the delay.

The second paragraph of the report, chiding people who dismissed spinning meetings, indicates some people were indeed sneering at those events. And to be true, they didn’t produce enough good thread to have practical value. But these events were important to the Whig movement as propaganda—so they had to get into the papers.

TOMORROW: Lexington looks back on this spinning meeting.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

“I was not called home in the Way of Disgrace”

Two weeks after Gov. Sir Francis Bernard left Boston, the town’s Sons of Liberty hosted a big festive banquet. The date was 14 Aug 1769, fourth anniversary of the first public protest against the Stamp Act, when crowds hanged Andrew Oliver in effigy from what was yet to be dubbed Liberty Tree.

The Boston Whigs viewed Bernard’s departure as a triumph for their side, just as they viewed the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766. That feeling of victory undoubtedly reinforced the idea that they had hit on a winning political strategy. Indeed, as I noted yesterday, as soon as Bernard sailed away, the Whigs stopped sending their “Journal of the Times” dispatches to other colonies—that propaganda was no longer necessary.

To be sure, there were still two regiments patrolling Boston. But hadn’t Bernard’s letters shown that he’d misled the Crown into sending them there? Wouldn’t a more reasonable governor have those soldiers removed?

True, the Customs service was still collecting the Townshend duties. But the Whigs could now devote more energy to strengthening the non-importation boycott against those taxes, the same tactic that they had used in 1765—successfully, they thought.

If, however, the Whigs believed that their actions had caused the British ministry to withdraw Bernard as harmful to imperial relations, they were badly mistaken. The Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State, was quite clear that he and his colleagues supported Bernard’s work. On 24 March, the secretary wrote to the governor:
His Majesty having thought fit, upon a consideration of the present state of affairs in the Province of Massachuset’s Bay, that you should return to this Kingdom, in order to make a full Report thereof to His Majesty, I herewith inclose to you the King’s Royal Licence for that purpose; and have the satisfaction at the same time to acquaint you, that His Majesty has been pleased to direct a Patent to be passed for conferring upon you the Dignity of a Baronet, as a Testimony of His Majesty’s Royal Favour and gracious Approbation of your Services.
In a private letter two days before, Hillsborough spelled out the political point of the baronetcy:
the honourable Mark of Favour which the King has been pleased to conferr upon you, by which His Majesty means to demonstrate to you, & to His Subjects of Massachusett’s Bay his gracious Approbation of your Services in your Government of that Province
Bernard picked up the message, writing to a friend that the honor “was, I suppose, thus timed to show the People that I was not called home in the Way of Disgrace.”

This case of mismatched perceptions was similar to how colonial Americans viewed the fall of George Grenville’s ministry in 1765. That change in prime minister opened the door to Parliament repealing the failed Stamp Act, but it had nothing to do with American protests. The change was all about the intricacies of court politics. The appearance of success may have left American activists too confident in their ability to push Parliament into rethinking laws they didn’t like.

Of course, the American Whigs weren’t the only party deluding themselves. For years Bernard had been telling his superiors that the problem in Massachusetts was a small “faction” of recalcitrant radicals misleading the moderates and the people. If only the provincial government could strip power away from that thin top layer of malcontents, then the vast majority would be happy and the protests would stop.

The London government thought enough of Bernard’s analysis to ask him to advise the king and his privy council. For the next several years, interrupted by a stroke, the baronet repeated his ideas to the ministers. Specifically, he advocated for a Council appointed from London rather than elected—an idea finally implemented in the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774.

And we all know how well that turned out.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

“The general Joy of this City”

On 31 July 1769 the Boston Gazette alerted its readers that Gov. Francis Bernard was leaving Massachusetts at last:
HIS EXCELLENCY sir FRANCIS BERNARD, BARONET OF NETTLEHAM IN LINCOLNSHIRE OLD ENGLAND, sails for London the first fair Wind.—NOTE, Nettleham is a poor obscure little Village, about as far from the City of London, as the Baronet’s Tom Trott of a Country House at Jamaica Pond is from Boston. The People at Nettleham subsist chiefly by carrying Garden Stuff to Lincoln; Here it may be presumed the Bart. learnt the little he knows of Gardening; but that he should set himself up for an Architect and Politician, is altogether unaccountable.
That gave the radical Gazette’s readers plenty of time to prepare for the news that the governor had indeed gone on aboard the navy ship Rippon, headed for London.

What’s more, the Gazette’s next issue noted, 1 August was also the anniversary of the Hanoverian succession back in 1714. That produced a lot to celebrate:
1. The Accession of the present Royal Family.
2. That the King has been graciously pleased to recall a very bad Governor.
3. The sure and certain Hopes that a very good one will be sent out, and placed in his Stead.
4. That a worse cannot be found on this Side ——, if there.
I suspect that blank meant “this side of Hell.”

That newspaper continued:
So soon as the Rippon was under Sail on Tuesday, the Cannon at the Castle were fired with Joy—The Union Flagg was displayed from LIBERTY-TREE, where it was kept flying ’till Friday.—Colours were also flung out from most of the Vessels in the Harbour—And from the Tops of the Houses in Town.—The Bells were rang, and Cannon fired incessantly ’till Sunset.—

In the Evening there was a Bonfire on Fort-Hill, and another in the Heights of Charlestown. The general Joy of this City was soon diffused through the neighbouring Towns, who gave similar Demonstrations of it. There was not the least Disorder committed, and the Night was the most quiet the Town has enjoyed since August, 1760, the Time of the Baronet’s Arrival here.
John Rowe’s diary indicates there was also “A Great Bonfire in King St.” That one was probably unauthorized and perhaps squelched by the authorities.

In the 3 August Boston News-Letter, Richard Draper acknowledged “the Ringing of Bells,—the displaying of Colours on Liberty-Tree, and on board several Vessels…& the Bonfire on Fort-Hill.” But he said he couldn’t print “any formal Account” of the celebration since “it could not be found upon Enquiry by whose Directions they were done; and it is said this Method of testifying their Joy was disapproved of by many Persons.”

The author of the Gazette account declared that he himself “was concerned, in promoting to his utmost, the Rejoicings on that Day.” Furthermore, if he’d known earlier “of the Endeavours of the Cabal, or the more dangerous Machinations of a few timid or trimming Whigs, to suppress every outward Token of Joy, he would have taken effectual Care that there should have been Bonfires on every Hill round Massachusetts-Bay.”

Because Bernard’s departure coincided with the Hanoverian anniversary, it’s impossible to say that all the patriotic celebration on 1 August was a response to the governor’s departure. The cannon fire from Castle William might have been a regular salute to a royal governor, but the Whigs certainly spun those shots as “fired with Joy.” And they left their British flag flying at Liberty Tree for days until the governor’s ship finally cleared the harbor.

Another way the Boston Whigs observed the importance of Bernard’s departure: the last dispatch of the Boston Whigs’ “Journal of Occurrences” or “Journal of the Times” was dated 1 Aug 1769. It began with a long excoriation of Gov. Bernard, then went on to describe his final confrontation with the General Court. The legislature, expecting him to leave, refused to vote him any more salary. The governor then prorogued the House until January, which the Whigs tried to spin as a sign of low confidence in his successor, Thomas Hutchinson.

TOMORROW: A Whig victory?

Friday, August 02, 2019

The Departure of Sir Francis Bernard

On 2 Aug 1769, two hundred fifty years ago today, the leadership of the royal government of Massachusetts changed hands.

That leadership had also changed hands exactly nine years before, on 2 Aug 1760. That was when Francis Bernard (shown here) rode in from his previous posting in New Jersey with his new commission to be royal governor of Massachusetts.

Officially, Bernard remained governor after August 1769, but he was no longer in Massachusetts exercising that authority. He had no credibility after the publication of his letters to his superiors in London, described back here. The Massachusetts General Court had requested his removal.

The royal government in London had thought Bernard did a good enough job to warrant making him a baronet (a hereditary knight) in April. But he asked for leave to come home to England, both to contest the legislature’s charges and to seek a more lucrative post in colonial administration, possibly on one of the Caribbean islands.

On Monday, 31 July, the next week’s Boston Evening-Post reported, Gov. Bernard “left his Seat at Roxbury and went to Castle William. The next Morning about Nine o’Clock he embarked on board His Majesty’s Ship Rippon, then lying in King-Road.” That route allowed him to depart without traveling through Boston.

The next day, the Massachusetts Council witnessed the formal transfer of authority, as reported in its records:
His Excellency Sir Francis Bernard Bart Governor of this Province having embarked for Great Britain, His Honor the Lieutenant Governor came into the Council Chamber, and in the presence of the Council took the Oaths appointed by Act of Parliament to be taken, instead of the Oaths of Allegiance & Supremacy, repeated and subscribed the Test or Declaration therein contained, together with the Oath of Abjuration, as also an Oath that he would do his utmost that all clauses matters and things contained in the Acts of Parliament passed as well since as before the enacting of the Act of the 7th and 8th of William the Third and at this time in force, relating to the Colonies and Plantations, and that all and every the clauses contained in the said Act intitled “An Act for preventing Frauds and regulating Abuses in the Plantation Trade” be punctually and bona fide observed, according to the true intent and meaning thereof: And that he would faithfully perform the duties of his Office of Commander in chief of said Province, according to the best of his judgment and skill. After which His Honor took the chair.
Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson was formally only the acting governor, the same role he had played a decade earlier before Bernard arrived. He felt bound to carry out the orders and policies of the London government.

Meanwhile, the Rippon had run into unfavorable winds and had come to stop after traveling only a mile or two.

TOMORROW: The grand send-off.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Sexy Mamas of the 1700s

Joanne Begiato of Oxford Brookes University has been sharing long essays about the history of sexuality and gender in early modern Britain on her website. Here’s an extract from one on how sex fit into marriage:

Thanks to the centrality of reproduction to concepts of marriage, children were perceived as expressions of sexual love. This is represented by the rather charming expression of offspring as ‘pledges of love’. One tale in The Lady’s Magazine, 1782, described children as ‘the dearest pledges of our mutual attachment’.

Children were proofs not only of a loving marriage, but of a satisfying sexual relationship too since both were linked with successful conception. Seventeenth-century midwifery texts, for instance, explained that marital love improved chances of bearing children, no doubt influenced by an earlier idea that women as well as men needed to orgasm in order to conceive, and in turn the want of love caused barrenness.

In some cases, therefore, lack of children indicated marital failure. Lawyers even took up this motif when defending husbands who sued their wives’ lovers for criminal damages. The wonderfully emotive Counsel for Captain Parslow, 1789, Thomas Erskine, declared that ‘There was every reason to believe, that but for the intrusion of this defendant (Francis Sykes), many children would have blessed the parents, and adorned the family – Children at once the care and happy fruits of the nuptial bed’. Clearly the seducer was being held culpable for the cessation of marital sex and love.

Another example is seen in Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s La Mere bien-aimee 1769, which Emma Barker describes as an eroticised vision of family life. The father returns from hunting to be a spectator (along with the male viewer) of his wife’s overwhelming maternity – depicted by her open bosom (this was when maternal breastfeeding was being relentlessly promoted) and her numerous offspring tumbling over her. Daudet de Jossan responded to the exhibition of this painting in 1769 by imagining that it would seduce men, observing that there was ‘nothing more seductive than to see her with her cortege … it makes one’s mouth water to be a father, and especially with such a mummy’.
Here’s an engraving based on that Greuze painting. To modern eyes, it looks like the mother would all in all rather enjoy a couple of days’ peace.
I’m never sure how much New England, an unusual religious outpost within the British Empire, followed the larger trends. Some of what this essay describes, such as the sharp rise in couples who must have conceived their first children before marrying, is mirrored by records from New England, albeit a little later. So now I’ll keep my eyes open for hints from the culture that child-bearing increased a woman’s sexual appeal.