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, January 16, 2021

Desk Job

Since I spent much of the afternoon assembling furniture, of the cheap, practical kind, I’m linking to this exploration of a writing desk made about 1778.

Part of Google’s Arts & Culture collaboration with museums around the world, this page combines close-up images of the desk with an analysis of how it was made, and by whom.
The ébéniste (furniture maker), Martin Carlin, put the entire piece together, including carving the wooden parts and applying the plaques and bronzes. A locksmith installed the locking mechanism for the drawer. A different person supplied the leather for the bureau top.

Dominique Daguerre not only coordinated all this work, but also designed the piece and purchased the materials. Daguerre, an art and furnishings merchant called a marchand-mercier, sold the finished piece to a very special buyer . . .

Catherine the Great, Czarina of Russia from 1762-1796, commissioned Pavlovsk as a gift for her son Paul Petrovitch and his wife, Maria Feodorovna
Sold by the Soviet government in 1931, the desk is at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but we can appreciate it from our homes.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Digging into the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown

I was intrigued by the Massachusetts Historical Council’s webpage for the archeological site of the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown.

As the page explains, Charlestown was settled in 1629, the year before Boston, and that site was originally the location of the Great House that served as a meetinghouse, storehouse, and protection. In 1635 a man named Robert Long bought part of the property and opened the Three Cranes Tavern, named after a well known public house in London.

The Three Cranes remained in the extended Long family and one of the town’s busiest taverns for the next 140 years. In that time, tax records and the archeological record show, the owners added a separate dwelling house, brewery, stone foundation, and wine cellar.

As of 1763, the tavern was the southern end of the stage coach route from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The horses were stabled there while passengers could continue over the ferry to Boston if they chose.

In 1766 proprietor Nathaniel Brown mortgaged the property to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. Without banks, I’m guessing, that was one of the province’s few chartered institutions that could lend out money.

Then came the war and destruction, as the webpage says:
The long history of the Three Cranes Tavern came to a fiery end on June 17, 1775. On the night of June 16, 1775, rebellious colonists occupied Breed‘s Hill. General [Thomas] Gage responded by sending British troops to remove the Americans from the hill. The famous Battle of Bunker Hill ensued. Rebel snipers in nearby Charlestown shot at British soldiers from windows, so General Gage [sic] turned his cannon on the town setting fires everywhere. By the end of the night most of downtown Charlestown, including the Three Cranes Tavern, had burnt to the ground.

Although the damage was great, most of the streets, chimneys, and foundations were visible among the rubble. The citizens of Charlestown cleaned up the debris, filled the site of the tavern over, and created an open market in its place. Market Square was renamed City Square in 1848 to celebrate Charlestown becoming a city.
It actually took quite a while to reuse the tavern site. Nathaniel Brown was a Loyalist and apparently gave up on the property, moving first to Pownalborough, Maine, and then to Nova Scotia. The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company went into abeyance from 1775 to 1786. Finally in 1794 the artillery company donated the land to the city.

For those who want to dig deeper, here’s a 2014 article about Boston city archeologist Joe Bagley’s work on the site and a 2016 reevaluation of the evidence by Craig S. Chartier.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

“News Media” Institute for Teachers at A.A.S., 26-31 July

Last summer, the American Antiquarian Society had planned a weeklong National Endowment for the Humanities Institute for educators. And then the pandemic began, and by fall the government had let it get out of control.

The A.A.S. has therefore rescheduled that N.E.H. Institute for this summer and moved it online. “The News Media and the Making of America, 1730–1800” will take place 26-31 July 2021. Full information is posted here.

N.E.H. Institutes are designed principally for American educators, including teachers and other professionals. This one is limited to twenty-five participants. There’s an application process, with a stipend and development certificates for those who are accepted. The application deadline for this course is 1 March.

This weeklong colloquium and workshop will explore how media was used during the Age of the American Revolution and how news—in all its various forms—was connected to civic engagement. According to the description, it will be organized into four thematic units:
(1) The Colonial Media Milieu, which will focus on the multiplicity of news sources in early America and explore what people thought was news, what sources they used to gather and authenticate news, and what role news seems to have played in their understanding of public life in their community.

(2) The Long Revolution, which will explore the forty-year period from 1760 to 1800 to examine how people living in rural Massachusetts interacted with the urban media in Boston; how the news of the violence at Lexington and Concord was portrayed in the newspapers and broadsides; and the relationships between printers and how personal, family, and business networks impacted what information they printed.

(3) The Republican Experiment, which will cover the decade or so between the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789 and Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800 by focusing on the concept of “republicanism.” The creation of the new federal union in 1887–89 in no way ended the controversies over how that union should be organized, and much of the news of those years had to do with conflict over the meaning of liberty, self-rule, federalism, and the proper structures of a government in a large and diverse republic such as the United States.

(4) The Revolution in Memory, which will act as a coda to our end date of 1800, tracing into the nineteenth century the public memory of the Revolution and the political uses of the Revolution’s events, language, and symbolism. An endless parade of bestselling biographies of the Founding Fathers and even a hit musical about Alexander Hamilton all attest to the long and significant afterlife of the Revolution.
The faculty scheduled for this institute include the expert A.A.S. staff; Prof. David Paul Nord, author of Communities of Journalism; Prof. Joseph Adelman, author of Revolutionary Networks; and Gary Gregory from the recreated Edes & Gill print shop in Faneuil Hall.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Manuscript Transcription in Your Own Home

This evening at 5:00 P.M., the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture is hosting an online workship titled “Making History thru Handwriting: An Introduction to Manuscript Transcription.”

Julie A. Fisher from the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and Sara Powell from Harvard University will discuss transcribing handwritten documents, the importance of that task in making more historic sources available for study, and practical tips for transcribers.

They will also talk about opportunities for the public to join transcription projects taking place across the United States and in Europe. This is a trend made possible by digital imaging. Transcribers can work at archives or at home, and images can be expertly manipulated to make marks clearer. That work can also go on when we’re staying healthy at home. There’s even specialized software for managing such projects.

Among local projects, Harvard University has invited people to participate in transcribing the thousands of documents from eighteenth-century North America that it has digitized in recent years. Another large crowd-sourced project is Transcribe Bentham at University College London. And the Georgian Papers Project straddles the Atlantic. More ongoing projects are listed on the From the Page software website.

Julie A. Fisher, Ph.D., specializes in Early American and Native American history. She’s developed digital humanities projects over the past four years at the American Philosophical Society and as a consulting editor with the Native Northeast Portal (formerly the Yale Indian Papers Project) at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. In March 2019 she hosted the Omohundro Institute’s first Transcribathon.

Sara Powell is the assistant curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library, specializing in medieval and Renaissance manuscripts—so she’s familiar with older handwriting styles that baffle us even more than ours will baffle the students of the late twenty-first century.

This workshop is scheduled to run from 5:00 to 5:45 P.M. on Wednesday, 13 January. It is free. To register, one must be logged in to the Omohundro Institute.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Warren on “America’s First Veterans,” 13 Jan.

On Wednesday, 13 January, the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati will offer an online talk by executive director Jack D. Warren, Jr., about the new book America’s First Veterans.

The institute’s announcement says:
Over a quarter of a million men served in the armed forces that won our independence. Those who survived became America’s first veterans. Using eighty-five manuscripts, rare books, prints, broadsides, paintings, and other artifacts, America’s First Veterans introduces the stories of the men—and some women—who bore arms in the Revolutionary War. The book follows their fate in the seventy years after the war’s end and traces the development of public sentiment that led to the first comprehensive military pensions in our history.

“These and thousands of other veterans of the Revolution,” Jack Warren writes, “were ordinary people, made extraordinary by their service in the struggle for American independence.” They believed in the American cause, he explains, and “many suffered for it, in ways their fellow Americans learned to honor and that we should honor as well.” In the words of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, who wrote the foreword to the book, their generation “seized an historic opportunity that forever changed the world.”
Warren’s talk will last about an hour on Zoom starting at 6:30 P.M. This event is free with registration here.

The institute is offering signed copies of America’s First Veterans through this page (and I haven’t found it on sale anywhere else). This book is tied to an ongoing exhibit at Anderson House, which unfortunately we can’t visit in person.

We can sample another recent publication of the American Revolution Institute online here. In The Art of War in the Age of the American Revolution: 100 Treasures from the Fergusson Collection, Ellen McCallister Clark highlights books, manuscripts, maps, broadsides, engravings, paintings, and other objects in the Society of the Cincinnati’s holdings.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Tracking Ebenezer Dumaresque

When Dr. Nathaniel Martyn “absconded” in 1770, leaving his wife and two children with her family, he left behind another child as well.

Three years earlier, the Boston Overseers of the Poor had indentured a boy named Ebenezer Dumaresque to Martyn. That contract was due to end when the boy came of age on 25 Nov 1781, meaning he was about to turn seven when he left Boston for the rural town of Harvard.

The Boston Overseers’ file on Ebenezer, visible at Digital Commonwealth, also includes this note: “Ebenr. Dumaresque bound to John Gleason of Woburn.” Gleason’s name doesn’t appear in the Overseers’ indentures ledger, published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts; only Nathaniel Martyn’s does. I take that paper trail to mean that the Overseers got Ebenezer back from the Martyns and then sent him out again, adding the note in his file.

I’m guessing that the boy’s new master was the John Gleason who was born in Brookline in 1720 and married in Watertown in 1740. He and his wife had children in Woburn from 1747 to 1755, and he died there after 1786.

Dr. Martyn had probably brought Ebenezer out to help around the house in 1767 as his wife was busy raising their newborn daughter. The Gleasons, in contrast, were at the end of their period of having children and might have needed farm labor to replace grown sons. But we don’t have hard evidence one way or another.

The name Ebenezer was common in eighteenth-century New England—the tenth most common male given name according to Daniel Scott Smith’s study of records from Hingham. But the name Dumaresque was quite uncommon. As long as we can keep up with the creative ways locals misspelled that surname, we can follow Ebenezer’s trail through the war years.

Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors has several entries for Ebenezer Dumaresque (Dumarsque, Dumasque, Damasque, Demasque) from Western (now Warren) in Worcester County. All those entries indicate the soldier was born about 1760, as our Ebenezer was. All but one describe him as a little over five feet tall with a dark complexion and dark hair. (One anomalous entry says he was 5'10".)

According to those state records, Ebenezer Dumaresque first served six months in late 1780 in Lt. Col. John Brooks’s regiment, then reenlisted in the spring of 1781 for three years “for bounty paid said Dumaresque by John Patrick and others, in behalf of a class of the town of Western.” He spent most of that time at West Point in New York. On 11 Nov 1782 Pvt. Dumaresque was tried by regimental court-martial for being absent without leave, but his commander pardoned him.

As of the 1790 U.S. Census, “Ebenr. Dumask” headed a household in Palmer, Massachusetts. In addition to himself, the house contained a white male aged 16 or more, a white male under age 16, and two white females.

On 23 Apr 1818, Ebenezer Dumaresque applied for a pension from the federal government as a Revolutionary War veteran. He declared under oath that in early 1781 he had signed up for three years in the 7th Massachusetts Regiment. During his service “he was engaged in no battles.” When the army shrank ”after the Restoration of Peace,” he was shuffled into another unit “under the command of Majors Porter and Preston (he thinks there was no Colonel).”

At the very end of 1783, Dumaresque stated, he was “regularly discharged under the Hand of Major General [Henry] Knox at West Point.” He kept that paperwork for more than a quarter-century until around 1810 “when under an expectation of obtaining a Soldier’s bounty land he sent his discharge to the State of Ohio by an agent” and never saw it again.

By the time he applied for a pension, Dumaresque had left Massachusetts and was living in Kingsbury, New York. He couldn’t supply testimony from any neighbors confirming his military service. All he could send with his application was a short inventory of movable property and a description of his poor health, indications of poverty as the law then required for a pension.

However, Dumaresque’s federal file also contains a July 1819 note from Alden Bradford, secretary of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. It stated:
The records in this office, relating to revolutionary services, are not later than 1780—

But, happily, for you, the Govr, who commanded 7th Regt, has a list of his men, & has furnished a certificate which is herewith forwarded
Lt. Col. John Brooks (shown above) had become the governor of Massachusetts. He personally wrote out a statement certifying that Ebenezer Dumaresque had indeed served under him in the Continental Army from early 1781 to mid-1783.

Dumaresque received his pension. At some point he moved from Kingsbury to the nearby town of Queensbury. Federal records indicate that he continued to receive his money, and to head his own household, past the 1840 census, in the year he turned eighty.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Mystery of Dr. Martyn

As I described yesterday, in the late 1760s Nathaniel Martyn held a respected position in rural Massachusetts society.

Youngest son of the minister at Northborough, he had become a physician and landowner in Harvard and married a young woman from Bolton. They had two young children. When they needed household help, the Harvard selectmen had assured Boston officials that Dr. Martyn was a suitable person to raise an orphan boy from the port town.

And then Dr. Martyn ran away. The Rev. Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough, who had seen Nathaniel Martyn grow up, wrote in his diary on 16 Aug 1770 that the physician had “absconded.” His wife had returned to her parents with the two little children.

When I read that in the excellent Ebenezer Parkman Project website, I hoped to find other sources that filled out the Martyn family’s story. Was there another woman? Another man? Money troubles? Religious conversion? Psychiatric difficulty? I’m sad to say that I haven’t found any further comment on why Dr. Martyn left his family.

I unearthed only two tenuous leads. In the 1921 book Northborough History, the Rev. Josiah Coleman Kent wrote that Nathaniel Martyn “resided for a time in Harvard, and later went south.” That could refer to the family’s move to Bolton, just south of Harvard, or it could refer to a longer journey. This statement came with no indication of its source, and of course Kent was publishing a century and a half after the event.

That statement is, however, consistent with the one other reference to a Dr. Nathaniel Martyn in North America that I’ve found after 1770. In 1775 Robert Hodge and Frederick Shober of New York published a collection of theological essays by the Rev. Dr. Hugh Knox, and the list of subscribers included Dr. Nathaniel Martyn of Hertford, North Carolina.

As for the family Martyn left behind, information about his wife Anna and son Nathaniel is sparse. But in 1790 his daughter, then twenty-three years old, married George Caryl from the Harvard College class of 1788. Caryl was like Pamela’s father in a couple of ways: youngest son of a town minister and trained in medicine, in his case under Dr. Samuel Willard of Uxbridge.

But unlike Nathaniel Martyn, Dr. George Caryl was firmly attached to his native soil. He brought his bride home to his father’s house in the part of Dedham that would become the town of Dover in 1836. Caryl was the only doctor in that district for a long time, and he also had patients in neighboring towns.

George and Pamela Caryl had nine children between 1797 and 1808, four surviving to adulthood. Inheriting the family homestead, Dr. Caryl lived and worked in Dover until 1829. His widow lived on until 1855.

The Caryl family house, shown above, is now owned by the Dover Historical Society.

TOMORROW: What about the orphan boy?

Saturday, January 09, 2021

How Natty Martyn Grew Up

Last September, we got a passing glimpse of fifteen-year-old Natty Martyn, youngest son of the minister in Northborough in 1756.

Natty had a bad sore, and his family had begun to despair for him. The Rev. John Martyn took his son to Dr. Ebenezer Dexter in the neighboring town of Middleborough, and he recovered.

Natty Martyn’s father was a Harvard graduate, though he didn’t go into the ministry until fifteen years after graduating. In the early 1760s the family also hosted the retired Harvard Hebrew instructor Judah Monis, who had married Natty’s maternal aunt. But neither Natty nor his older brothers went to college.

Instead, Nathaniel Martyn became a physician, training in the field like most other country doctors of the time. He set up a practice in the town of Harvard, where his father had been the first town clerk and filled other offices in the 1730s. The doctor was assigned “ye Sixth Seat Below” at the Harvard meetinghouse.

On 23 Dec 1765, the twenty-four-year-old Dr. Martyn married twenty-year-old Anna Townsend of Bolton. Their first child, named Michael after one of his paternal uncles, arrived in September, but died within two weeks.

In his diary for 16 June 1767, the Rev. Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough recorded that he “rode by the way of Dr. Martyns to see him—and the fine Farms at Still River Corner.” Martyn had bought the large farmhouse built in 1749 by Moses Haskell. The Massachusetts Historical Commission called this property “One of Still River’s earliest and largest farms.” The house still stands on Still River Road, as shown above, though altered considerably for use as a Benedictine chapel.

When Parkman visited, Anna Martyn was expecting another child. The couple had two before the end of the decade:
  • Pamela, born 24 Aug 1767.
  • Nathaniel, baptized 13 Aug 1769.
There was at least one other member of the household. In May 1767, the selectmen of Harvard signed a printed form for Boston’s Overseers of the Poor certifying that Dr. Nathaniel Martyn was “a Man of sober Life and Conversation; and in such Circumstances, that we can recommend him as a fit Person to bind an Apprentice to.” On 19 November, those officials indentured a boy named Ebenezer Dumaresque to the doctor. Ebenezer was to come of age on 25 Nov 1781, meaning he was six years old when he moved out to Harvard, most likely to work as a household servant.

Sometime in 1769, it appears from real estate records, Dr. Martyn sold his property in Harvard to Peter Green, a younger physician from the Harvard class of 1766. The Martyn family moved to Bolton, Anna’s home town.

On 16 Aug 1770, the Rev. Ebenezer Parkman wrote in his diary:
Dined at Mr. Harringtons, who acquainted me with the proceedings at Bolton and with Mr. Goss’s present Case under Confinement to his Bed, by Lameness. N.B. Dr. Wait has the Care of him. The brief Story of Dr. Wait. Called at Mr. Josh. Townsends by reason of what has occurred lately relative to Dr. Nat. Martyn, who has lately absconded. His wife and two Children at Mr. Townsends.
Anna Martyn was back home in her father’s house. And Dr. Nathaniel Martyn was nowhere to be found.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

Friday, January 08, 2021

“Equal Suffrage in the Senate”

When people discuss the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College, the conversation often leads on to the U.S. Senate.

After all, one way the Electoral College distorts our votes derives from how each state has two U.S. Senators and the electors were originally a shadow version of the entire Congress, both House and Senate. The result is disproportionately large representation in the Electoral College for voters who live in small-population states.

Of course, small-population states have even more disproportionate power in the Senate, which has approval power over major Presidential appointments, judges, and (with a two-thirds supermajority) treaties.

Equal representation for each state in the Senate was part of the compromise at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that convinced small states to give up their even more disproportionate power under the Articles of Confederation. It was a product of that historic moment.

Historians can point out that in 1790 the most populous state, Virginia, contained 748,000 people, or 631,000 as calculated by counting enslaved people as only three-fifths of a person, while Delaware had 59,000 or 55,000 people. The largest state was thus only about twelve times bigger than the smallest. Despite small states having disproportionate sway, Virginia, home of four of the first five Presidents, still managed to exercise a lot of political power.

In contrast, today the most populous state, California, is more than 67 times larger than the least populous, Wyoming. Despite being only 1.5% the size of California, Wyoming has 5.5% of the larger state’s weight in the Electoral College and 100% of its weight in the Senate.

Our incoming Senate is split down the middle in terms of political party, with fifty Republicans on one side and fifty Democrats and independents caucusing on the other. Yet the Democratic side represents 41 million more of us people—equivalent to the entire population of Argentina. 

I think there’s an argument to be made that we citizens are served by having some of our national representation determined by state boundaries. Because of differing laws, each state’s population does end up being an interest group in itself. But as to whether the Dakotas (combined population 1.7 million) should have twice the Senate power as Illinois (population 12.6 million), that’s hard to justify except on the basis of inertia.

Since the Constitution requires three-fourths of the states to approve amendments, it would be hard to change the Electoral College by re-amending Amendment 12. (That’s why the National Popular Vote Compact appears to be the most promising way to reform the system, asking state legislatures to make the decision and stick to it.)

Changing the makeup of the Senate, however, would be even harder—well nigh impossible. That’s because of a usually overlooked clause at the end of Article V of the Constitution:
…no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
Changing the design of the U.S. Senate would thus not only require a supermajority of states, as with an amendment, but complete unanimity. This is the only surviving exception to the amendment process. (The other was forbidding any attempt to limit the slave trade until 1807.)

It would probably be easier for the very large states to split into smaller ones, each having two Senate seats.

(The picture above, courtesy of Wired, is a British map of North America from 1741. Europeans still thought California was an island.)

Thursday, January 07, 2021

“None of this justified minority rule”

Back in early November, The Atlantic Monthly published an essay by Claremont McKenna College professor George Thomas titled “‘America Is a Republic, Not a Democracy’ Is a Dangerous—And Wrong—Argument.”

Thomas wrote:
When founding thinkers such as James Madison spoke of democracy, they were usually referring to direct democracy, what Madison frequently labeled “pure” democracy. Madison made the distinction between a republic and a direct democracy exquisitely clear in “Federalist No. 14”: “In a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.” Both a democracy and a republic were popular forms of government: Each drew its legitimacy from the people and depended on rule by the people. The crucial difference was that a republic relied on representation, while in a “pure” democracy, the people represented themselves.

At the time of the founding, a narrow vision of the people prevailed. Black people were largely excluded from the terms of citizenship, and slavery was a reality, even when frowned upon, that existed alongside an insistence on self-government. What this generation considered either a democracy or a republic is troublesome to us insofar as it largely granted only white men the full rights of citizens, albeit with some exceptions. America could not be considered a truly popular government until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which commanded equal citizenship for Black Americans. Yet this triumph was rooted in the founding generation’s insistence on what we would come to call democracy.

The history of democracy as grasped by the Founders, drawn largely from the ancient world, revealed that overbearing majorities could all too easily lend themselves to mob rule, dominating minorities and trampling individual rights. Democracy was also susceptible to demagogues—men of “factious tempers” and “sinister designs,” as Madison put it in “Federalist No. 10”—who relied on “vicious arts” to betray the interests of the people. Madison nevertheless sought to defend popular government—the rule of the many—rather than retreat to the rule of the few.

American constitutional design can best be understood as an effort to establish a sober form of democracy. It did so by embracing representation, the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the protection of individual rights—all concepts that were unknown in the ancient world where democracy had earned its poor reputation. . . .

while dependent on the people, the Constitution did not embrace simple majoritarian democracy. . . . But none of this justified minority rule, which was at odds with the “republican principle.” . . . The American experiment, as advanced by [Alexander] Hamilton and Madison, sought to redeem the cause of popular government against its checkered history. Given the success of the experiment by the standards of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we would come to use the term democracy as a stand-in for representative democracy, as distinct from direct democracy.
Since 2000, some have claimed that forms of minority rule are justified because the American system is “republican,” not “democratic.” Those people never seem to be able to define the difference between those Latin- and Greek-based synonyms in a convincing way, and they always seem to come from the minority enjoying undemocratic power.

The most obvious, least defensible undemocratic aspect of the U.S. Constitution is the Electoral College. I’ve been writing against its problems on this blog since 2006. The institution never worked the way the Framers at the Constitutional Convention hoped, and it was the first part of the Constitution to be rewritten.

Without the Electoral College, Donald Trump would never have slipped into the Presidency. Without the Electoral College, his campaign last year would never have been competitive. Without the Electoral College, the Trump administration wouldn’t have dared to downplay the early Covid-19 pandemic in “blue states.” That constitutional mechanism’s unplanned opening for minority rule, for giving power to a candidate manifestly not the first choice of the American people, probably cost the U.S. of A. hundreds of thousands of shortened lives in the last year.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Legal Trouble in Pembroke

Back on Thanksgiving, I mentioned that the Rev. Kilborn Whitman (1765-1835, shown here) delivered the holiday sermon in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1798.

I also noted that Whitman decided not to get involved in the Quincy Congregationalist meeting’s feuding factions and became a lawyer in Pembroke instead.

While looking into Whitman I came across this posting from the Hanson Historical Society, based on research by Mary Blauss Edwards. Until 1820, Hanson was the western parish of Pembroke.

The posting details the troubles that the couple John London Kelley and Susannah Prince ran into in 1804 after they started to farm land in Pembroke rented from Whitman. Kelley and Prince both had African and Native ancestry, so that while they had grown up in the town they were living on its margins.

This is how the troubles began:
One cold night in January 1805, an acquaintance, Benjamin Bates of Hanover, appeared at their door. Bates had overdue debts and had recently heard about a job opportunity to work as a sailor aboard a ship. Bates perhaps drunkenly heard about the job at a Pembroke or Hanover tavern, because he apparently did not inform any relatives or friends about his sudden money-making intentions.

Benjamin Bates was welcomed into John London Kelley and Susannah Prince’s home, where Bates asked to exchange some of his old clothes for food to take on his journey, then immeditately left for Plymouth or Boston port. Within several days, Bates’ friends began to speculate where he was, and rumors began to circulate throughout Pembroke and Hanover.

It quickly became apparent that Benjamin Bates had last been seen at the Kelleys’ home on the “evening of his departure.” The Kelleys later reported that “suspicions were excited against [us], that [we] had murdered the said Bates and concealed his death; popular prejudice being excited against us, it was but a short period before we began to experience some of its distressing effects.”
Kelley and Prince were jailed on suspicion of murder, then released because of lack of evidence—only to find that Whitman had rented the farm to another man. (Also a person of color.)

To forestall the couple’s complaints, or perhaps to drive them out of town, Whitman then filed suit against them for not paying rent while they were in jail. He won the case, forcing Kelley into financial default.

But the story wasn’t over. Visit the Hanson Historical Society page to read more.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Adventures of a Steel Dress Sword

I’ve been discussing myths of Frederick the Great’s admiration for George Washington—claims that he had the highest praise for the Continental Army’s maneuvers around Trenton and that he sent the American general a picture of himself with a laudatory description. Here’s another.

When George Washington died in 1799, his will included this clause:
To each of my Nephews, William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington and Samuel Washington, I give one of the Swords or Cutteaux of which I may die possessed; and they are to chuse in the order they are named. These Swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.
Bushrod Washington chose a dress sword, and after 1810 it passed to his brother, George C. Washington.

On 28 Feb 1832, as the U.S. of A. celebrated the centennial of Washington’s birth, the Connecticut Courant reprinted a letter that had just appeared in the New-York Mercantile Advertiser. It was from George C. Washington (misprinted as “George V. Washington”) to Silas E. Burrows, an organizer of New York’s celebration, and dated 18 February:
I take pleasure in complying with your request to be permitted to take with you to New York for the Centennial Birthday, the sword and pistols of Gen. Washington, and I accordingly commit to your care those valued relics of my venerated relative.

My Father, by the will of Gen. Washington, had the first choice of the swords bequeathed by him to his nephews, with the injunction “never to draw them except in self defence, or in defence of their country.” The sword which I have placed in your hands was presented by Frederick the 2d King of Prussia, accompanied by the compliment, “From the oldest General in the world to the greatest.”
Again, there’s no documentation of Frederick II ever sending a letter to Washington, much less a sword. But the Washington family had attached the 1780 anecdote about the Prussian king’s praise to this particular dress sword.

George C. Washington died in 1854 and passed the family relic to his son Lewis W. Washington, who lived on a family plantation about five miles outside Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

In the summer of 1859, Washington was walking in the town when a man he didn’t know greeted him and said, “I believe you have a great many interesting relics at your house; could I have permission to see them if I should walk out some day?” Assuming this stranger worked at the federal armory, Washington said yes.

The man made the promised visit in September. Washington showed him “The sword presented by Frederick the Great to General Washington, which he used as his dress sword, and one of the pistols presented to him by Lafayette.” They went outside and shot some guns. Washington noticed the name “John E. Cook” engraved on one of the stranger’s pistols. Cook acknowledged that was his name, and on parting said he planned to go to Kansas soon.

On the night of Sunday, 16 October, Washington heard someone call his name through his bedroom door. Wearing “night-shirt and slippers,” he opened the door to find five men pointing guns at him. As an added surprise, one of the men was Cook, who hadn’t gone to Kansas at all.

In fact, John Edwin Cook had been scouting the area for the radical abolitionist John Brown, who had just taken over the Harpers Ferry armory. Seeking valuable hostages, Brown had sent this detachment to collect prominent local slaveholders, and he also wanted the Washington family’s relics of the first President.

The raiders brought Washington, the weapons, and some of his enslaved workers to the engine house at Harpers Ferry, along with other locals. On 18 October the U.S. military, led by Gen. Henry Lee’s son Robert, attacked the building. Meanwhile, Lewis Washington was keeping his eye on the family sword. He later testified: “Brown carried that in his hand all day Monday, and when the attacking party came on he laid it on a fire engine, and after the rescue I got it.” Washington also pointed out Brown to the first U.S. Marine officer to break into the building.

That raid led to the execution of Brown, Cook, and five other men. It increased the sectional tensions that led to the U.S. Civil War within two years. And it made the sword supposedly sent by Frederick the Great more famous. Some authors claimed Brown had developed a superstitious attachment to that weapon “because it has been used by two successful generals.”

Lewis W. Washington sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War. I’ve found two accounts of what happened to his treasures in that time: either a poor neighbor hid them, or they were confiscated by the U.S. government and put on display at the Patent Office in the capital.

Washington died in October 1871. Already the family had arranged to sell several of his George Washington relics to the New York State Library; the state legislature approved the $20,000 purchase in April. Among those items was the steel dress sword.

In April 1901, the iconoclastic Virginian native Moncure D. Conway published an article in Century Magazine called “Washington and Frederick the Great, with the Story of a Mythical Sword.” By then it was being reported that the line “From the oldest General in the world to the greatest” was actually engraved on Washington’s dress sword——but it wasn’t. That discrepancy led Conway to research more deeply and discover there was no documentation at all to support the tradition of Frederick II’s gift.

The New York State Library staff still believed in its treasure, of course. In the winter of 1902, Prince Henry, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, visited Albany. The librarians and Gov. Benjamin Odell proudly showed the Washington sword to him. “Prince Henry drew the sword from the scabbard,” state historian Hugh Hastings later wrote, ”and vainly scrutinized it for a mark of identification to establish the place where the weapon was manufactured. It is needless to say that all marks had been obliterated by constant polishing.”

Spurred by Conway’s doubts and “considerable discussion” in the newspapers, Hastings wrote to the U.S. embassy in Berlin asking if they could find any papers about the sword. After a few letters back and forth, the secretary of the embassy reported on 23 Sept 1902: “the Foreign Office states that no record can be found of the matter in question,—the presentation of a sword to General Washington, by Frederick the Great of Prussia. Consequently, I am afraid that the tradition that such was the case, was not founded on fact.”

Hastings included that correspondence in his 1903 report, formally titled New York and the War with Spain. (Not, of course, the place one would look for information about an eighteenth-century German sword.) The next year, the American Historical Review published the article by Paul Leland Haworth that I mentioned back here, “Frederick the Great and the American Revolution”; that showed how little Frederick II cared about Washington. In 1911 Francis Vinton Greene’s The Revolutionary War and the Military Policy of the United States summed up and dismissed all the Frederick the Great–General Washington myths in one footnote (vol. 1, p. 73).

Nonetheless, one can visit the website of the New York State Library today and see a photograph of the dress sword with the caption, “This is one of Washington's dress swords, alleged to have been given to him by Frederick the Great of Germany.” Celebrity myths die hard.

Monday, January 04, 2021

The Myth of Frederick II’s Fan Letter to George Washington

portrait of the rosy-cheeked young Lafayette painted for Jefferson, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society
On 20 May 1780, the Providence Gazette ran a paragraph headed “Extract of a Letter from an Officer in the American Army, dated May 4, 1780.”

The article read:
On Thursday we were mustered and inspected by the Baron Stuben. We had likewise the Honor of his Excellency’s Presence. The Appearance of the Troops, their Arms, Accoutrements, &c. drew the Applause of that great Man, who does Honor to the Name of Soldier. The Dignity of his Manners, the Elevation of his Sentiments, and the Nobility of his Soul, speak him the first of Characters.

Did I ever mention to you an Anecdote which respects him? For Fear I never did, I’ll relate it:—His Majesty of Prussia wishing to bestow some Mark of his Esteem on so exalted a Character, sent him his Picture; underneath were these Words: “FROM THE OLDEST GENERAL IN EUROPE, TO THE GREATEST GENERAL IN THE WORLD.”
“His Excellency” who was, of course, Gen. George Washington. This laudatory item was reprinted in several other American newspapers that year. Whether or not the letter was genuine, it could be useful propaganda.

While relating the story of King Frederick II sending Gen. Washington a picture, this anonymous officer didn’t claim to have seen the picture itself. He was just retelling “an Anecdote” that was going around.

As I discussed yesterday, scholars studying the papers of Frederick the Great haven’t found any letter mentioning Washington by name, much less sending him a picture and fan letter. No such image or correspondence survives in Washington’s papers, and he was careful about saving such documents. So, of course, was the Prussian court.

In sum, this is just as much of a myth as Frederick the Great’s praise for Washington’s maneuvers around Princeton, yesterday’s example. This story arose during the war, rather than decades later, which makes it seem more reliable, but it lacks the confirmation we should expect.

The officer’s anecdote resurfaced decades later in the Eastern Argus of Portland, Maine, on 20 June 1825, in a review of a French pamphlet about Lafayette (shown above). That item stated that when Lafayette met Frederick II at “Pottsdam” in “the Autumn of 1782,” the Prussian monarch invited the French marquis to his palace and listened to his stories about Washington. In admiration, the king sent Washington an unidentified “token of remembrance” with the “greatest General” inscription. (This item in the Eastern Argus was said to be a letter to the editor of the Albany Argus, but I couldn’t find an issue of the New York newspaper carrying it.)

Lafayette did indeed visit Potsdam, but in 1785, as he reported to Washington in a letter dated 6 Feb 1786. The marquis stated:
I went to Make my Bow to the King, and notwisdanding what I Had Heard of Him, could not Help Being struck By that dress and Appearance of an old, Broken, dirty Corporal, coverd all over with Spanish snuff, with His Head almost leaning on one shoulder, and fingers quite distorted By the Gout. But what surprised me much more is the fire and some times the softeness of the most Beautifull Eyes I ever saw, which give as charming an expression to His phisiognomy as He Can take a Rough and threatening one at the Head of His troops
Obviously, Lafayette hadn’t met Frederick II before this moment. The two men had no long conversation about Washington. And Frederick definitely didn’t send a token to Washington to arrive by May 1780, as the Providence Gazette letter had claimed.

The story bobbed up again in 1839 when newspapers published an article called “The Character of Washington,” the recreation of a speech delivered at a Daniel Webster dinner party in early 1838 by Sen. Asher Robbins (1761-1845) of Rhode Island. Robbins included the anecdote about Frederick II sending a picture “from the oldest General in Europe, to the greatest General in the world.” He might have read that story as a Yale student in 1780 or later. From the newspapers, the speech and thus the story were published the next year in the Rev. Charles W. Upham’s Life of Washington and Ebenezer Smith Thomas’s Reminiscences. Again, there was still no such picture.

TOMORROW: Frederick the Great’s supposed encomium in a new form.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

What Frederick the Great Thought of Washington

The Bicentennial dubbed the time between the Continental Army’s expedition against Trenton on 25 Dec 1776 and the Battle of Princeton on 3 Jan 1777 the “ten crucial days” of the New Jersey campaign. More recently, William L. Kidder wrote a book of that name.

One widely repeated statement about that period appeared in a footnote of Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis in 1859. The “illustrative and explanatory notes” of that volume were written by Benson J. Lossing.

One of those notes concluded:
It is said Frederick the Great of Prussia declared, that the achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots, between the twenty-fifth of December, 1776, and the fourth of January, 1777, a space of ten days, were the most brilliant of any in the annals of military achievements.
Lossing provided no source for this statement. Indeed, by prefacing it with the phrase “It is said…” he acknowledged that he didn’t have an identifiable source and was relying on hearsay at best. Lossing also didn’t use quotation marks, signaling that he wasn’t claiming to reproduce Frederick’s words, even in translation.

In the following decades Lossing wrote more books about the Revolution, including school textbooks, in which he repeated this statement with no “It is said” beginning. Other authors quoted the phrases about “Washington and his little band of compatriots” and “the most brilliant of any in the annals” from Lossing, using quote marks. That made it appear that those words came from a reliable translation of Frederick’s own words.

Authors continue to repeat that so-called quotation from Frederick in this century. The words appear in Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington and Michael E. Newton’s book on Alexander Hamilton’s rise. My curiosity about the words was piqued by a tweet from Mount Vernon last month. But all the citations lead back to Lossing’s footnote, with its lack of a direct quotation and highly fudged attribution. (I didn’t find any mention of Frederick the Great in Larry Kidder’s book, nor in David H. Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing.)

In 1874, the American historian and diplomat George Bancroft published the tenth volume of his History of the United States, covering some of the war years. In the preface he described studying many archives in Europe, and especially in Berlin, where he was posted. But he wrote: “I sought for some expression, on the part of Frederic, of a personal interest in Washington; but I found none.” Bancroft really wanted to find such evidence, and he came up empty.

In 1904 Paul Leland Haworth published an article in the American Historical Review titled “Frederick the Great and the American Revolution.” By then the Prussian king’s papers had been archived, transcribed, and published. That let Haworth demonstrate how Frederick’s interest in the distant war in North America arose entirely from his pleasure at seeing the British Empire diminished. In his conclusion Haworth echoed Bancroft’s statement: “there is nowhere in Frederick's correspondence any trace of a personal interest in Washington.“

Whatever we might think of the Continental Army’s maneuvers at the end of 1776 and the start of 1777, we can’t ascribe that opinion to Frederick the Great.

TOMORROW: The letter, the portrait, and the sword.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Zabin via the Gilder Lehrman Institute, 3 Jan.

On Sunday, 3 January, the Gilder Lehrman Institute will host Serena Zabin discussing and answering questions about the Boston Massacre in its online Book Breaks series.

Zabin, who hails from Lexington and is now a professor at Carleton College, will speak about her book The Boston Massacre: A Family History. This 2020 study focuses on the personal connections that British soldiers and their families forged with the locals whom they rented rooms from, worked for, and had other common interactions with—including sex and marriage.

As the book’s catalogue copy says, “When soldiers shot unarmed citizens in the street, it was these intensely human, now broken bonds that fueled what quickly became a bitterly fought American Revolution.”

But not immediately. While Bostonians didn’t forget the people killed and wounded on King Street in 1770, the removal of the regiments from the center of town and the criminal trials at the end of the year appear to have brought some political peace. The end of most of the Townshend duties, leaving only tea to be taxed under that law, also removed much of the underlying conflict.

In 1771 the Boston Whigs tried to keep up the public unity and fervor against the royal government by producing not one but two Massacre memorial orations, which I’ll discuss as their Sestercentennial anniversaries arrive. But without the thousands of soldiers and their families in the town, ordinary people just didn’t have the same reasons to be upset as they had in previous years.

When army regiments disembarked in Boston again in May 1774, the fear of people dying returned. But even then, there were relationships between soldiers and civilians that in some cases outweighed the political conflict.

This Gilder Lehrman series of discussions is designed to be a resource for history teachers and students. Along with his own questions, host William Roka will ask Zabin some queries submitted by middle- and high-school students in advance of the program.

This session will begin online on Sunday at 2:00 P.M. Eastern time. Register through this page.

Upcoming Gilder Lehrman Book Breaks will feature Marcus P. Nevius on City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763–1856 on 10 January and Mary Beth Norton on 1774: The Long Year of Revolution on 31 January.

Friday, January 01, 2021

“May grateful omens now appear, To Make the New a happy Year”

Boston 1775 observed its first new year back in 2007 by establishing an annual tradition of quoting a newspaper carrier verse.

Those verses were usually composed, printed, and distributed and/or sung by boys who worked for newspapers as a way to ask for end-of-year tips.

The example I quoted then, and am repeating now, was dated 1 Jan 1771—250 years ago today.

This handbill was created for the apprentices and journeymen in Isaiah Thomas’s print shop and saved by him for the collection of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

The LAD who carries
The MASSACHUSETTS SPY,
Wishes all his kind Customers
A Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
And presents the following:


May grateful omens now appear,
To Make the New a happy Year,
And bless th’ ensuing days:
May future peace in every mind,
Like odours wafted by the wind,
Its sweetest incense raise.

May GEORGE in his extensive reign,
Subdue the pride of haughty SPAIN,
Submissive to his feet.
Thy princely smiles our ills appease,
Then grant that harmony and peace
The dawning year may greet.

Kind Sirs! your gen’rous bounty show,
Few shillings on your Lad bestow,
Which will reward his pains,
Who piercing Winter’s cold endures,
And to your hands the SPY secures,
And still his task maintains.
Among carrier verses from colonial New England, this one is unusual in mentioning Christmas as well as New Year’s. Thomas had spent some time as a printer in Nova Scotia and the Carolinas, colonies that didn’t have such strong Puritan roots.