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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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.


Bill Caughlan said...

I enjoyed your interview, and was particularly surprised by your discovery that the "all hang together/separately" quote seemed to have been originally uttered by Richard Penn (You mistakenly said John Penn in the interview.) I've shared this interview with folks here at work, a place where Benjamin Franklin is front and center.
A few of us have some questions: 1. Do we know when Penn said this? Was it before Franklin returned from England in 1775, or later in 1775, after Penn fled? 2. If it was the latter, could Franklin have been around to hear it, and then just just crib it on August 2, 1776? 3. How you think Jared Sparks found out about the quote and then attribute it to Franklin?

J. L. Bell said...

The first publication of the witticism suggests that Richard Penn made the statement during the First Continental Congress or early in the Second, before he left for Britain. But it doesn't say exactly when.

One possibility is that Franklin heard the remark, either from Penn or secondhand, and he repeated it. He could have done so expecting his listeners to recall that Penn had said it first: 'You know what they say...' Franklin could have spoken on 2 Aug 1776 or people could have shifted their memory to that date.

Another possibility is that Jared Sparks heard the remark repeated decades later and either understood or decided that Franklin had said it at the signing. That makes for a better story for an American audience: a famous person, a famous moment. Unfortunately, Sparks left no indication in his book about where he had learned of the jest. It's conceivable that Sparks's papers at Harvard contain more clues, but I don't have high hopes. Sourcing on anecdotes just wasn't rigorous then.