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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Wednesday, January 01, 2020

“Where BOSTONIA lifts her spires”

It’s a Boston 1775 tradition to share a “carrier verse” at the turn of the year. Traditionally those were poems written and printed by newspaper apprentices as a way to cadge tips from their customers.

Often those apprentices commented on political concerns, but usually in a general, patriotic way, looking ahead to a better year. They didn’t want to put anybody in an ungenerous mood, after all.

In the early republic the high Federalist “Connecticut Wits” seized on the “carrier verse” form as a vehicle for their political satire. Without the same economic pressures as the apprentices, they dug deeper into domestic public affairs, lambasted their political rivals, and went on and on. And on.

Dr. Lemuel Hopkins (1750-1801, shown here as painted by John Trumbull, courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery) wrote such a poem for the Connecticut Courant’s 1 Jan 1795 issue. Here’s just a snatch of it, the part dealing with Massachusetts politics:
Yet where BOSTONIA lifts her spires.
Like Phenix from devouring fires,
See federal Virtue take her stand,
And ward Destruction from the land.
Hail Nurse of Heroes! Statesmen sage!
The guard and glory of the age!
At the end of June 1794, a fire broke out in the ropewalk district of Boston’s South End. It consumed those proto-industrial buildings and many nearby houses before people could put it out. Hopkins praised Boston for rising above such disasters through the strength of its Federalist politics.
Above the mists of mouldering time,
Thy Fame, O ADAMS! soars sublime,
Who first the British lion spurn’d,
And gave the terms when peace return’d;
Cull’d from the lapse of ages past,
And fram’d a Work with time to last;
Display’d in truth’s celestial light,
How Freedom, Law, and Power unite.
Even though President George Washington hadn’t yet announced that he would not seek reelection, New England Federalists were coalescing behind John Adams as his obvious successor. These lines laud Adams’s early support for independence and his role in negotiating the 1783 Treaty of Paris. They couldn’t praise his accomplishments as Vice President since, of course, there weren’t any.
May choicest Sowers with tears bedew’d,
O’er thy brave WARREN’s grave be strew’d;
And long heroic LINCOLN stand,
The laurel’d bulwark of the land.
Here Hopkins referred to Dr. Joseph Warren and Gen. Benjamin Lincoln. Warren was a beloved martyr who for obvious reasons left no thoughts about the politics of the 1790s and therefore could be seized on by either party.

Lincoln had led the repression of the Shays Rebellion in between serving briefly as U.S. Secretary of War under the Congress and as lieutenant governor under John Hancock. Lincoln wasn’t really involved in politics anymore by this time, but he was a Federalist.

That praise out of the way, Hopkins turned to what the Connecticut Wits did best—saying nasty things about what they disliked.

TOMORROW: New Year’s wishes for one’s enemies.

4 comments:

Mike said...

That stare, though! The good doctor has the same look I give my son just as he's about to do something stupid.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, once I stumbled across that painting I had to include it.

Unknown said...

There is a tradition in the United States Navy that the first log entry of the New Year is to be written in verse. This is true in no other navy in the world. Could there be a connection between the practice in Boston of 1775?

J. L. Bell said...

I doubt there’s a specific connection to Boston because composing “carriers’ verses” was a tradition all over North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.