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, October 24, 2020

The Career of Dr. Bela Lincoln

When Bela Lincoln was growing up in Hingham in the 1740s, his father—a wealthy farmer, town official, and militia colonel—insisted on sending him to Harvard College.

Some people didn’t think Bela had the smarts for it. Others felt that his talent was merely hidden by "a natural bashfulness.”

Bela Lincoln did fine at Harvard. After graduating in 1754, he returned to Hingham to study medicine with Dr. Ezekiel Hersey. In 1756 he took a province job as doctor for the community of Acadian exiles (“French neutrals”) resettled in Sherborn.

Young Dr. Lincoln was building his practice during the time he became engaged to Hannah Quincy, from a similarly upper-class family in Braintree. Most of our information about their courtship comes from the diary of John Adams, who also entertained thoughts of proposing to Quincy and therefore wasn’t a neutral observer.

Bela Lincoln and Hannah Quincy married on 1 May 1760. Yesterday I shared Adams’s alarmed description from that December of how rudely the doctor behaved toward his wife, her parents, and the entire gathering. Whatever bashfulness Lincoln had shown as a child, he didn’t show it that night—though perhaps he was overcompensating.

I don’t know of other evidence of strains in the Lincolns’ marriage, though, unless their lack of children counts. I haven’t found anyone else writing of Bela Lincoln as such an obnoxious, overbearing man.

Dr. Lincoln’s career seemed to advance steadily. In 1761, Gov. Francis Bernard appointed him a justice of the peace for Middlesex County. The men of Sherborn elected him to the Massachusetts General Court.

In late 1764 Lincoln sailed to Britain for more medical training, also carrying messages from speaker of the house Thomas Cushing to the province’s agent. He came back the next year with an M.D. from King’s College in Aberdeen, which reflected some combination of study and payment.

Now looking even more prestigious, Dr. Lincoln returned to Hingham to resume his practice. The governor made him a justice in Suffolk County. He trained younger doctors, including the hapless schemer Amos Windship, whom he set up in practice in exchange for a mortgage on an inheritance.

Then Dr. Lincoln fell ill. In the summer of 1771 Edmund Quincy described him as “in a very dangerous State.” At the time he and Hannah were on Georges Island in Boston harbor, perhaps for his health. They had been married more than a decade.

Dr. Bela Lincoln finally died in Hingham on 16 July 1774, leaving his wife Hannah a widow at age thirty-five. (His older brother Benjamin went on to have a distinguished political and military career.)

TOMORROW: A better prospect?


Dean Slone said...

I haven’t found anyone else writing of Bela Lincoln as such an obnoxious, overbearing man.

Knowing that his dinner guest had been a serious suitor of Hannah Quincey do you suppose that Bela Lincoln was simply being a possessive man and showing John Adams that he, Bela, had won and Adams had lost in the race for her affections?

Could it also be that John Adams had written in his diary, while still hurting from seeing the couple together, from a position of sour grapes and his assessment of the Doctor and the marriage was tainted?

J. L. Bell said...

Because our only peek into the Lincolns’ private lives is John Adams’s diary, and because he was an interested party, it’s really hard to be sure what was going on.

For example, John certainly viewed himself as wooing Hannah Quincy. But did Hannah realize that’s how he felt, or perceive his attention as that serious? Did Bela view John as a rival? The doctor’s frank talk in front of Adams about his father pushing him to formalize the engagement suggests he didn’t see the little lawyer as a threat. (Unless Bela was trying to prod John into speaking up and taking Hannah away from him.)

I think something awkward happened at the Quincy household when the Lincolns visited, as Adams described. He simply set down too much detail and mentioned too many other people being involved, including Hannah’s parents, for it all to be him reading what he wanted into an ordinary scene.

But what Bela was up to during that conversation is unclear. John interpreted the doctor as acting like Petruchio, trying to “tame” his bride. According to John’s own experience earlier, Hannah could be not shrewish but very flirtatious. Perhaps Bela felt he needed to remind his lively new wife of her subordinate place in an eighteenth-century marriage. Perhaps he was just in a mood. Perhaps they bantered, and John had just never seen that before.

Because we have such a vibrant picture of that night from John Adams’s diary, suffused with (his) emotions, lots of authors have treated the Lincolns’ marriage as dysfunctional and Hannah’s second marriage as a relief. But we don’t have any other sources to corroborate that portrait of the Lincolns, even from the Adamses. So while that’s one valid way to read our limited sources, I don’t think it’s the only way.