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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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Archibald Robertson’s Views of Besieged Boston

I was delighted to discover last week that the New York Public Library’s digital image collection includes the illustrations from Archibald Robertson: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780, published in 1930.

The image above is labeled “View of Boston 4th Janry 1776 taken from the epaulment of the citadel on the heights of Charles Town”—i.e., the fort that the British army built on Bunker’s Hill. From the same point, Robertson (c.1745-1813) created a series of images of the Continental-held countryside. As an officer in the Royal Artillery, he had practice in studying and sketching landscapes, and inside besieged Boston he had a lot of time on his hands.

Robertson’s other pictures include views from Copp’s Hill in the North End and a study of the Boston Neck. There’s a “Sketch of the burning of the houses on Dorchester Neck, by our troops who went & returned upon the ice. 14 January, 1776.” and a “Sketch of the burning & destroying of Castle William in Boston Harbour” after the evacuation. Some are more stylized than others, with human figures in the foreground.

And there are some views of New York, Halifax, and other places, but who cares about seeing those?

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Mystery Button from “Parker’s Revenge”

Last week I showed this photo of an artifact found during the archeological study of the “Parker’s Revenge” area in Lexington. On Saturday I attended Dr. Meg Watters’s progress report on that work, which included a better photo of this item, and I was quite intrigued.

I flipped the available photo upside-down to make it a little easier to interpret. It’s a cast-copper button of the size that might be used on the front of a man’s waistcoat or at the knees of his breeches.

On the lower half of the button, apparently in the foreground, is what looks like a fox running from right to left. Above that shape is a horizontal ridge; the right light reveals that to be a bridge. On either side are a series of oval blobs, getting smaller as they rise; those are stylized trees. And in the top rear, the starry shape is a windmill with a vertical tower and four sails.

The mystery is that no one has been able to identify similar iconography on any other artifact, or identify what this scene or collection of symbols might mean. Fox, bridge, windmill, trees. Does that scene represent a family, a military unit, a hunting club?

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Lecture on James DeWolf in Newport, 8 Oct.

On Thursday, 8 October, the Newport Historical Society will host a talk on “James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade” by author Cynthia Mestad Johnson.

DeWolf (1764-1837) was a teen-aged sailor on privateers toward the end of the Revolutionary War. After the peace, he became a merchant captain and then a merchant focusing on a particular type of import:
Over thirty thousand slaves were brought to America on ships owned and captained by James DeWolf. When the United States took action to abolish slavery, this Bristol native manipulated the legal system and became actively involved in Rhode Island politics in order to pursue his trading ventures. DeWolf’s political power and central role in sustaining the state’s economy allowed him to evade prosecution from local and federal authorities—even on counts of murder.

Through archival records, author Cynthia Mestad Johnson uncovers the secrets of James DeWolf and tells an unsettling story of corruption and exploitation in the Ocean State from slave ships to politics.
Johnson will sign books after her talk. Admission is $1 for Newport Historical Society members, $5 for others. Seating is limited, so the society strongly encourages people to make reservations (email).

Saturday, October 03, 2015

“Thread, Wool and Silk” at Old South

Old South Meeting House is hosting a series of events this fall on costume and textile-making, and what they say about the economy, social class, politics, and other matters.

Friday, 9 October, 12:15-1:00 P.M.
Lady in the Blue Dress...and You!
Painted in an exquisite blue silk dress by her husband John Singleton Copley, the most famous artist in the American colonies, Susanna Copley was from Boston’s elite, a member of one of the town’s leading merchant families. But in 1773 she found herself surrounded by turmoil when her Loyalist family were named as tea consignees to sell British East India Company tea—the very tea that the Patriots were determined to refuse. Listen as she confides in a friend about her husband’s struggles and her fears for her family’s safety in a world where the established social and political order is coming under siege. Join in the conversation as historic reenactors Elizabeth Sulock and Elizabeth Mees share two well-clad women’s perspectives on a turbulent time.
Admission is free for Old South members, $6 for others. Ticket information here.

Friday, 23 October, 12:15-1:00 P.M.
Sheep to Shawl: Carding and Spinning at the Meeting House with Historic New England
Discover how New Englanders made clothes before the process became mechanized. Learn about the history and technology of spinning and dying wool and weaving cloth from Historic New England educator Carolin Collins. Then try your hand at picking, carding, and spinning wool from Historic New England’s flock of sheep in order to get a hands-on understanding of this vital historical craft!
Admission is free for Old South members, $6 for others. Ticket information here.

Friday, 12 November, 12:30-1:30 P.M.
Thread, Wool, and Silk: Weaving It All Together
Erica Lindamood, Education Director at Old South, will lead an informal discussion weaving together the programs on fashion, social class, and clothing production. Tea and cookies will be served, and participants can bring their own lunch if they wish. Admission is $5 for members, plus one guest.

Friday, October 02, 2015

The Latest Update on Parker’s Revenge, 3 Oct.

On Saturday, 3 October, archeologist Meg Watters will speak at the Concord public library on “Parker’s Revenge Revealed: Notes from the Field.”

This is the latest public update about the re-exploration of part of Battle Road in west Lexington where Capt. John Parker reportedly led his militia company in a counterattack on the British column making its way back from Concord.

The Parker’s Revenge Project is in the last months of its archeological stage, and the Friends of Minute Man Park just issued a press release that says:
Today, the 44-acre site of Parker’s Revenge is on a heavily wooded hillside within the confines of Minute Man National Historical Park. Utilizing a suite of technologies, the Parker’s Revenge project is reconstructing the historic 1775 landscape.

“What we have found to date is very significant. Due to the location and spatial patterning of the musket balls recovered, we now know the exact place where individuals were standing during the battle, allowing us to begin to paint a much clearer picture about what happened that day,” said Dr. Meg Watters, project archaeologist.

A dropped musket ball indicates the geographical position of a combatant. In addition, since the effective range of a 1775 musket was only approximately 100 yards, a fired musket ball also provides clues to combatant positioning. Archaeological investigations have discovered British and colonial musket balls, and a 1775-era copper button from a waistcoat. These findings are significant because they are located within 80 yards of each other. The small cluster is the only occurrence of battle related artifacts over the 44-acre site, clearly identifying the position of individuals fighting that day. Continued archaeological excavations and metallic surveys will complete the historic landscape investigation.
Dr. Watters’s talk, sponsored by the Friends of Minute Man, will start at 7:00 P.M.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Imprint of Madison’s Hand

A couple of years ago, I attended a seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society on a paper by Prof. Mary Sarah Bilder of Boston College Law School. She had been studying James Madison’s record of the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787.

That in itself wasn’t unusual; Madison’s notes, first published in 1840, have become the standard source on what happened in those discussions. For folks who take an “originalist” stance to legal interpretations, they’re crucial to what the Founders supposedly meant.

Bilder had focused not on Madison’s record but on how that record had changed since 1787, as revealed by surviving notes and versions copied out by other people in the meantime. The result is the new book Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention.

In this History News Network article, Bilder laid out the basis of her book:
To a remarkable degree, Madison’s revised Notes created the narrative we inherit of the Convention. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the Convention. They rely on one manuscript: Madison’s Notes. In 1840, after Madison’s death, Dolley Madison published his Notes. They remain the authority for scholars, historians, journalists, lawyers, and judges.

Madison’s Notes are the only source that covers every day of the Convention from May 14 to September 17, 1787. No other source depicts the Convention as Madison’s Notes do: as a political drama, with compelling characters, lengthy discourses on political theories, crushing disappointments, and seemingly miraculous successes. The Notes are, as the Library of Congress catalogs them, properly considered a “Top Treasure” of the American people.

But the Notes do not date in their entirety to the summer of 1787. They are covered in revisions. This fact is known–but the number is a shock. When I saw the manuscript in the conservation lab at the Library of Congress—in the aptly named Madison Building—the additions appear in various ink shades, with handwriting, some youthful, some with the shake of Madison’s later years. Madison even added slips of paper with longer revisions. . . .

Madison’s Notes were revised as he changed his understanding about the Convention, the Constitution, and his own role. Madison’s Notes were originally taken as a legislative diary for himself and likely Thomas Jefferson. They tracked his political ideas, his strategies, and the positions of allies and opponents. The original Notes reflected what Madison cared about.

I love talking about the Notes with students because they know that one cannot take notes of oneself speaking. When they are called on, they either leave their notes blank or they compose that section later, reflecting what they realized afterwards was the right answer. Madison’s own speeches are thus the most troubling in terms of reliability. In fact, in the years immediately after the Convention, he likely replaced several of the sheets containing his speeches in order to distance himself from statements that became controversial. . . .

Beginning in 1789, Madison began to revise the Notes to convert his diary into a record of debates. Along the way, he converted himself into a different Madison. In the original Notes, Madison was annoyed and frustrated. Slowly by altering a word here, a phrase there, he became a moderate, dispassionate observer and intellectual founder of the Constitution.
One particular area of evolution was Madison’s idea of how much control the federal government had over the states. He went into the convention with the idea that the national government should have a veto over state laws, but that idea was unpopular enough that his notes preserve no record of such  suggestion. Of course, Madison continued to change his thinking about the balance of power between state and nation from the late 1780s to the mid-1810s, depending on his circumstances.

Another issue, inextricably related to that one, was how the Constitution treated slavery. Bilder addressed that in a recent essay at We’re History:
Madison’s role in promoting slavery is often overlooked because historians have relied on Madison’s revised version of his record of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, known to historians as Madison’s Notes. They are the most important source for what happened at the Constitutional Convention. In two comments Madison recorded in his Notes, he spoke against slavery at the Convention. They are the only two times in the Notes he claims to have spoken against slavery. Both occasions occur on August 25. No other delegates’ notes from the Convention contain a single word indicating that Madison was opposed to slavery.

New evidence suggests that Madison composed his anti-slavery comments two years after it appeared he had written them. Madison did not finish the Notes until after the Convention, and he wrote the Notes from August 22 to September 17 after the fall of 1789. Curiously, one of the sentences Madison attributes to himself bears a strange resemblance to a statement that he had originally recorded another delegate, Maryland’s Luther Martin, making on August 21.
Madison was the delegate who suggested enumerating enslaved people not as property but as three-fifths of people, the basis of what became known as the “slave power” in ante-bellum America.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Momentous Day for Samuel Adams

A couple of days ago, I listed Boston’s three representatives to the Massachusetts General Court as of 25 Sept 1765.

Under the pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts constitution, Boston could elect four representatives. (That still left its population underrepresented compared to the much smaller rural towns.) But one of the men Bostonians had elected in May, the young attorney Oxenbridge Thacher, had died unexpectedly on 9 July.

On the morning of 27 September, therefore, Boston had a special election in Faneuil Hall to fill Thacher’s seat. The town records say that the meeting began with a prayer by the Rev. Samuel Checkley. The selectmen then asked for all white male Bostonians who met the higher property requirements for a General Court election to vote by noon.
the Inhabitants withdrew & brought in their Votes for a Representative, and upon counting and sorting them it appeared that the number of Votes were 572 of which

Note that Adams did not yet have the wealth to be accorded the honorific “Esq.” Nor did he have a mathematical majority, though he had a clear plurality.

The selectmen then organized a second round of voting. That time Adams received 265 votes out of 448 and “was duly Elected.”

Thus, four days after Adams had drafted Boston’s special instructions to its legislative representatives, he became one of those representatives. He made the short walk over to the Town House where the General Court was meeting and was sworn in that afternoon.

Whereupon Gov. Francis Bernard announced that sadly this legislative session was conflicting with important court dates and keeping some gentlemen away, so he had no choice but to adjourn the Massachusetts General Court until 23 October. That would be after the Stamp Act Congress in New York, and only about a week before the Stamp Act was supposed to take effect.

Thus ended Samuel Adams’s first day as a Massachusetts legislator.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Gov. Bernard’s Instructions to the General Court

As soon as the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court reported that it had a quorum on 25 Sept 1765, Gov. Francis Bernard summoned that body up to the Council Chamber in the Town House (now the Old State House) for a serious talk.

Since Bernard was the governor, he got to do all the talking. He delivered a long address about the legislature’s response to the Stamp Act—what it had done wrong and what it should do right. Early on, Bernard said, “I shall not enter into any Disquisition of the Policy of the Act.” Once Parliament passed the law, he said, the province had to obey it.

Bernard made four principal points to the legislators:

  • The House’s call for a Stamp Act Congress was not in the spirit of loyalty to the Crown that its authors professed.
  • Closing the courts and the ports so as not to have to use stamped paper would cause great damage to the economy and society.
  • All branches of the government had to respond with unity and firmness to the “violences which had been committed in this town.”
  • In particular, the legislature should provide “a Compensation to be made to the Sufferers of the late Disturbances.”

The members of the lower house listened to the governor. They had the speech read to them again the next morning. Then they debated it and named a committee to respond to Bernard. They did not repudiate the idea of the congress or start to work on compensating Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson for the destruction of his house.

The next day, Gov. Bernard notified the legislature that a ship had arrived with stamped paper for Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. With Andrew Oliver no longer acting as the province’s stamp agent, Bernard wanted the legislature to come up with a plan for keeping that paper safe, it “being the King’s Property.”

The assembly’s committee, which included Thomas Cushing, Artemas Ward, and others, soon responded that since the stamped paper had been sent to Massachusetts without the involvement of its legislature, keeping it safe was not the business of the Massachusetts General Court. This was not the cooperation the governor had been hoping for.

TOMORROW: A special election in Boston.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Massachusetts Towns Line Up Against the Stamp Act

Two hundred and fifty years ago, representatives to the Massachusetts General Court were heading home after a very short legislative session.

Gov. Francis Bernard had called the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature to convene on Wednesday, 25 September, in Boston. Most of the representatives summoned to that meeting had been elected back in May, and their towns had given them instructions about how to vote on the big issues of the day. But the Stamp Act, and New England’s forceful response to it, had produced a bigger confrontation than anyone imagined. Many towns therefore held another meeting to come up with additional instructions for their legislators.

On 23 September, Boston’s town meeting approved its special instructions, reiterating its opposition to the Stamp Act and anything that looked like compromise about that new law. That argument came out of a committee, but the man who gets the most credit for drafting it is Samuel Adams. Though the instructions didn’t use the phrase “taxation without representation” (not coined until 1767), that idea was the philosophical basis for Boston’s objection to the stamp tax.

When Boston created its instructions, its representatives in the House were:
  • James Otis, Jr., the fiery attorney who a few years before had resigned his royal appointments and started to represent the interests of the Boston merchants.
  • Thomas Cushing, one of those merchants. His late father had employed Samuel Adams in his mercantile house as a young man, with results that convinced both of them that Adams’s talents didn’t lie in business.
  • Thomas Gray (1721-1774), also the province’s auditor. As a sign of how cozy the political class was then, the province treasurer whose accounts he checked was his older brother, Harrison Gray.
And there was a player to be named later.

Other Massachusetts towns came up with similar instructions for their representatives. In Braintree, Samuel Adams’s second cousin John was the principal drafter. John Adams later claimed that his draft had been adopted nearly without editing (there was a moderate amount of editing), and that it was the model for many other towns’ instructions (other towns were already making the same arguments). Braintree’s protest did use an impressive amount of legal jargon, however.

TOMORROW: The governor’s opening speech.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Two Talks by Ray and Marie Raphael

Ray Raphael has a new history of the American founding, written with his wife Marie, and they’re coming to Massachusetts to talk about it in the next week.

The book is The Spirit of ’74: How the American Revolution Began. It builds on Ray’s The First American Revolution, published in 2002, filling out the argument that America’s political shift to republican rule was well under way in New England before the actual shooting started in 1775 and well before independence in 1776.

On Wednesday, 30 September, at 7:00 P.M., Ray and Marie Raphael will speak and sign books at the Worcester Historical Museum. This free event is sponsored by the Worcester Revolution of 1774, the consortium commemorating the local events that played a big role in the Spirit of ’74 story. The museum is at 30 Elm Street in Worcester, and there’s free parking off Chestnut Street.

On the next night, Thursday, 1 October, at 7:30 P.M., the Raphaels will speak at the Minute Man National Historical Park visitor center in Lexington. That park is of course where the war began in earnest, but also the site of crucial Massachusetts Provincial Congress sessions earlier. Again, there will be a book-signing after the talk.