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, March 29, 2021

Reverse Course on the Copley Cartoon?

Yesterday I mused about the possibility that a British political cartoon inspired some elements of the Loyall Nine’s anti-Stamp Act protests in late 1765—in particular, hanging the stamp agents in effigy and dedicating a tree to liberty.

That idea was based on the common belief that the cartoon was created in London in the spring of 1765 and shipped to America in time for Boston’s 14 August protest. And that later that cartoon inspired John Singleton Copley to publish his own version on 1 November.

I have to note another possibility, however. What if the sequence was different, with the Loyall Nine’s protests inspiring Copley’s cartoon, which in turn inspired a version for the London market?

The British cartoon has been assigned the date of 22 Mar 1765 for over a century. But that’s actually the date when Parliament passed the Stamp Act. The print must have followed the law, but how much later? Since an Atlantic crossing usually took six weeks, it could have come out as late as June and still had plenty of time to reach Boston before the first protest in August.

However, the British Museum’s webpage about this picture says, “The print was announced in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 2 January 1766.” Would an engraving several months old have warranted such an announcement? (It would be nice to see the actual language of this announcement.)

The picture also appeared in the fifth volume of The British Antidote, a series of collections of anti-Bute cartoons. According to the 1883 catalogue of the British Museum’s prints, the 28 Nov 1766 Public Advertiser stated that fifth volume of The British Antidote “contains all the Political Prints that have been published since Nov. 1. 1765, down to the present Time.”

Thus, we don’t have a definite mention of the British “Deplorable State of America” print until two months after Copley’s print was published in Boston. And the description of the British Antidote implied that picture appeared in or after November, not months earlier.

Just as a copy of the print could have traveled from Britain to America in six spring or summer weeks, one could have traveled from America to Britain in six fall weeks. That would leave a couple more weeks for the practiced artists of the imperial capital to come out with their own version of “The Deplorable State of America” by 2 January.

I don’t know enough about the nuances of British political printmaking to assess the probability of the latter scenario. How long did it take to bring a print to market? How often did London artists adapt (not copy) work from the provinces? Did print sellers advertise pictures months after they first appeared?

But I have to acknowledge the possibility that the British version of “The Deplorable State of America” didn’t inspire the form of protests in North America but rather depicted those protests for British viewers. In that case, the slim tree labeled “To Liberty” couldn’t have been the seed for Boston’s Liberty Tree but rather a London artist’s attempt to interpret Copley’s picture of that tree for the local audience.

One of the major differences between the London and Boston prints involves the depiction of kings. The British picture shows the French king bribing a corrupt boot and the British king losing his crown and scepter. Copley presented France as an allegorical woman and used the even more symbolic figure Loyalty instead of his monarch.

In sum, the British print was far more direct and radical than the American one. Did Copley tone down the original, or did the London artist amplify Copley’s allegory with real rulers? Given the cultural dominance of London, the first scenario seems more likely, but it raises questions—and the limited evidence raises more. 


Charles Bahne said...

I'm intrigued by the cartoon's caption, and its reference to "Sc-----h Government". Was this another allusion to Lord Bute, who was from Edinburgh?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the allusion to “Scotch/Scottish Government” and the boot receiving a bribe from France show one of the targets of this cartoon to be the third Earl of Bute.

No matter that Lord Bute had left office and retired from politics almost two years before Parliament passed the Stamp Act. It was easy to blame a “North Briton” for the Tory turn at Whitehall.

The Loyall Nine’s display at Liberty Tree in August 1765 likewise included a boot with a devil’s head sticking out of it.