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.

Follow by Email

Showing posts with label Dolly Hancock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dolly Hancock. Show all posts

Friday, September 05, 2014

John and Dorothy Hancock’s Chariot, on display 6 Sept.

On 21 Jan 1778, the New Jersey Gazette published this news item:
The owners of the privateer, Civil Usage, of Newburyport, have made a present to the Honorable John Hancock, Esq., of an elegant coach which was lately taken in one of their prizes, as a token of their respect for that gentleman, who has so nobly distinguished himself in the present contest with Great Britain, as the friend of his country.
Several weeks later, the 11 March Pennsylvania Ledger, published in British-occupied Philadelphia, quoted a less laudatory comment on the same development from a letter:
John Hancock of Boston appears in public with all the pageantry and state of an Oriental prince. He rides in an elegant chariot, which was taken in a prize to the “Civil Usage,” a pirate vessel, and by the owners presented to him. He is attended by four servants, dressed in superb livery, mounted on fine horses richly caparisoned, and escorted by fifty horsemen with drawn sabres, the one half of whom precede, and the other follow, his carriage. So, at present, figures this man, who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin.
The last line was quoting from Addison’s Cato.

That chariot ended up as part of the collection of the Dorothy Quincy Homestead in Quincy, childhood home of Hancock’s wife now owned by the Colonial Dames of Massachusetts. At some point in the 1800s the wheels were removed and replaced with runners, so it became a small sleigh.

This year the city of Quincy provided a grant to restore the chariot. Blackburn Conservation repainted the exterior, upholstered the interior while preserving the original embroidery, strengthened the structure, and put the sleigh on runners that approximate the vehicle’s original height.

The newly restored chariot/sleigh can be seen on “Discover Quincy Days,” 6 September and 4 October. On those Saturdays the Dorothy Quincy Homestead will open for tours between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M. The tours are free, but donations will be welcome.

[Photograph above by Patrick Ronan for the Quincy Patriot-Ledger. Hat tip to Graeme Marsden for alerting me to this story.]

Friday, May 10, 2013

“King Hancock” After the Revolution

Yet another complication in interpreting the phrase “King Hancock” in 1775 is John Hancock’s later political career. In 1780 he became governor of Massachusetts. That prominence affected how people spoke about him, and quite possibly about how people remembered others speaking about him.

As careful as he was to maintain his political popularity, Hancock developed rivals and enemies. In the new republic, one easy way to attack a rich politician was to tag him as having monarchical ambitions. Samuel Breck, born in Boston in 1771, recorded a sarcastic reference to Hancock in a political verse:
Madam Hancock dreamt a dream;
She dreamt she wanted something;
She dreamt she wanted a Yankee King,
To crown him with a pumpkin.
According to Breck, the line about “a Yankee King” was a commentary on Hancock’s political ambitions in the early federal period, when he enjoyed being the most important officeholder in New England and supposedly took as little notice as possible of the national government.

Within a couple of decades after Breck’s memoirs were posthumously published in Philadelphia in 1863, authors were saying the British had sung those lines in Boston at the start of the Revolutionary War. But back in early 1775 there was no “Madam Hancock” wishing her husband to be a king. (Or, rather, “Madam Hancock” was John’s aunt Lydia.) Hancock didn’t marry Dolly Quincy until after the war began. Breck had actually written that British soldiers had sung other words to “Yankee Doodle,” which he didn’t record.

I suspect that later memories of Hancock as an American politician also colored John Adams’s 1815 recollection about the Continental Congress’s choice of commander-in-chief:
Who, then, should be General? On this question, the members were greatly divided. A number were for Mr. Hancock, then President of Congress, and extremely popular throughout the United Colonies, and called “King Hancock” all over Europe.
In fact, in June 1775 Hancock wasn’t popular “throughout the United Colonies”; he was well known in New England, and folks elsewhere might have heard about Gen. Thomas Gage’s proclamation offering amnesty to any rebel but him and Samuel Adams. But Hancock had become president of the Congress only on 24 May and had hardly enough time to grow “extremely popular.”

Adams carefully avoided saying any Americans referred to the man they supposedly admired as “King Hancock,” but he did claim that people “all over Europe” used that phrase. Most likely, however, few Europeans had ever heard of John Hancock before the Declaration of Independence. When he visited England as a young businessman, Hancock was heartily annoyed at how little respect he got; he was used to being the biggest frog in Boston’s Frog Pond.

No evidence besides Adams’s letter forty years after the fact suggests that any Congress delegates wanted to appoint Hancock commander-in-chief. As with other details of Adams’s recollection, what he wrote about “King Hancock” makes me doubt the reliability of his storytelling.

COMING UP: A myth about another king.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Martha Washington: “perfectly agreeable”

James Duane. Digital ID: 1224407. New York Public LibraryYesterday we left the merchant Christopher Marshall (shown here, courtesy of the New York Public Library) at a “large and respectable” meeting of Philadelphia Patriots on 24 Nov 1775 demanding that there should be no balls “while these troublesome times [i.e., the war] continued.”

This meant that someone had to tell Martha Washington and Dolly Hancock, in whose honor a ball (or “meeting”) had been proposed, that there wasn’t going to be a party after all. Marshall wrote:

a Committee was appointed, immediately to go to inform the directors of this meeting, not to proceed any further in this affair, and also to wait upon Lady Washington, expressing this Committee’s great regard and affection to her, requesting her to accept of their grateful acknowledgment and respect, due to her on account of her near connection with our worthy and brave General, now exposed in the field of battle in defence of our rights and liberties, and request and desire her not to grace that company, to which, we are informed, she has an invitation this evening, &c., &c.

Came home near six. After I drank coffee, I went down to Samuel Adams’s lodgings, where was Col. [Eliphlaet] Dyer. Spent some time pleasantly, until Col. [Benjamin] Harrison [of Virginia] came to rebuke Samuel Adams for using his influence for the stopping of this entertainment, which he declared was legal, just and laudable. Many arguments were used by all present to convince him of the impropriety at this time, but all to no effect; so, as he came out of humor, he so returned, to appearance.

25. At half past eleven, went to the Committee Room at the Coffee House; came away near two. At this time, Major [John] Bayard, one of the four gentlemen appointed to wait on Lady Washington, reported that they had acted agreeably to directions, that the lady received them with great politeness, thanked the Committee for their kind care and regard in giving such timely notice, requesting her best compliments to be returned to them for their care and regard, and to assure them that their sentiments on this occasion, were perfectly agreeable unto her own.
This was probably the first political dilemma of Martha Washington’s life; we don’t have many of her personal letters, but she appears to have left such public dealings to her husbands. Several hundred miles from her home and from the general, she was nonetheless able to finesse this potentially difficult situation and come away with the locals’ admiration and affection.

Two days later, Marshall described her departure:
27. About ten, Lady Washington, attended by the troop of horse, two companies of light infantry, &c., &c., left this City, on her journey to the camp, at Cambridge.
At the end of the year, Washington described her time in Philadelphia for a Virginia friend this way:
I did not reach Philad till the tuesday after I left home, we were so attended and the gentlemen so kind, that I am lade under obligations to them that I shall not for get soon. I dont doubt but you have see the Figuer our arrival made in the Philadelphia paper—and I left it in as great pomp as if I had been a very great somebody
Though it took many more years before Martha Washington became an American icon, she had certainly preserved her husband’s popularity in Philadelphia in 1775.

TOMORROW: The Washingtons’ wedding anniversary.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A Ball for Lady Washington?

Today I’m speaking at another teacher workshop, this one sponsored by Boston National Historic Park at a number of historic sites in central Boston, Charlestown, and Cambridge. I’ll lead a short version of my “Ladies of Tory Row” walking tour, and then discuss “The Women of Washington’s Headquarters.”

The most prominent of those women is, of course, Martha Washington. She’s always listed first, and has the most stories told about her time there—some of which are even documented!

In that spirit, I’m quoting from the Philadelphia merchant Christopher Marshall’s diary about an episode in Washington’s journey northward in the fall of 1775, when she became the unwitting focus of a political dispute in Philadelphia:
21 [November 1775]. In company with Sampson Levy, Thomas Combs, and my son Benjamin, we viewed the inside of the new prison; thence into Chestnut Street, to view the arrival of Lady Washington, who was on her journey to Cambridge, to her husband. She was escorted into the City from Schuylkill Ferry, by the Colonel and other officers, and light infantry of the Second Battalion, and the company of Light Horse, &c.
Some Continental Congress delegates, probably Virginians and other southern planters, started to plan a ball in honor of the generalissimo’s wife. Like the term “Lady Washington,” which eventually stuck, not everyone thought highly of that idea. It smacked of luxury in wartime, as well as threatening to turn a military leader into an icon.

The month before, the Congress had even passed this resolve:
VIII. That we will in our several stations encourage frugality, economy, and industry; and promote agriculture, arts, and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.
Some people clearly saw a ball as a type of “extravagance and dissipation,” or at least an expensive entertainment. On the other hand, folks who were friends with Martha Washington back home in Virginia knew that she liked balls, and she was supposed to be an honored guest.

Marshall’s next journal entry reported the depth of the controversy, and his own efforts to resolve it:
24. After dinner, as I had heard some threats thrown out, that if the ball assembled this night, as it was proposed, they presumed that the New Tavern would cut but a poor figure to morrow morning, these fears of some commotion’s being made that would be very disagreeable at this melancholy time, in disturbing the peace of the City, I concluded, if possible, to prevent, in order to which, I went to Col. [John] Hancock’s lodgings, and finding he was not come from Congress, and the time grew short, being three o’clock, I walked up to the State House, in expectation of meeting him.

That failing, I requested the door-keeper to call Samuel Adams, which he accordingly did, and he came. I then informed him of the account received of a ball, that was to be held this evening, and where, and that Mrs. Washington and Col. Hancock’s wife were to be present, and as such meetings appeared to be contrary to the Eighth Resolve of Congress, I therefore requested he would give my respects to Col. Hancock, desire him to wait on Lady Washington to request her not to attend or go this evening. This he promised.

Thence I went and met the Committee at the Philosophical Hall, which was large and respectable, being called together for this purpose only to consider the propriety of this meeting or ball’s being held this evening in this city, at the New Tavern, where, after due and mature consideration, it was then concluded, there being but one dissenting voice (Sharp Delany), that there should be no such meeting held, not only this evening, but in future, while these troublesome times continued…
TOMORROW: Telling Lady Washington.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Who Really Wanted to Fight at Lexington?

Yesterday I wrote about how unlikely it seems that Samuel Adams secretly manipulated Capt. John Parker and the Lexington militia into standing their ground as the British army marched onto their Green at dawn on 19 Apr 1775.

But I still think it’s possible that another Patriot leader urged the militiamen to do exactly that. Indeed, we have evidence that one politician argued for confronting the army column—not because he expected the redcoats’ reaction to trigger a war, but because he believed it would be dishonorable not to stand up to them.

Arthur Bernon Tourtellot was so intent on building a case against Adams that he didn’t recognize how the evidence he’d amassed pointed to another man. Citing William Sumner’s notes on a dinner conversation with the widow of John Hancock in 1822, he wrote:

Hancock insisted on fighting the British himself. “It was with very great difficulty that he was dissuaded from it by Mr. [Jonas] Clarke and Mr. Adams.” He nevertheless went down to the Common to see the minutemen and came back to the Clarke house to repeat his desire to fight. Adams finally stopped the protests by pointing out the importance of Hancock…to the leadership of the cause.
Hancock’s widow, by then named Dorothy Scott, actually told Sumner:
Mr. H. was all the night cleaning his gun and sword, and putting his accoutrements in order, and was determined to go out to the plain by the meeting house, where the battle was, to fight with the men who had collected, but who, she says, were but partially provided with arms, and those they had were in most miserable order...
She was probably dramatizing her story; other parts of her recollection, such as Hancock’s aunt nearly being struck by a musket ball, are unlikely, given what other witnesses said about that night. Tourtellot read the widow’s recollections to mean that Hancock actually went down to the Green himself. I don’t think she said that—she said he wanted to.

But as for the wealthy young merchant’s wish to fight, we don’t have to rely on his widow. Tourtellot also quoted William Munroe’s 1825 deposition about this night. As a militia sergeant, Munroe was guarding the Hancock-Clarke parsonage when Paul Revere and William Dawes arrived. He recalled:
it was thought advisable, that Hancock and Adams should withdraw to some distant part of the town. To this Hancock assented with great reluctance, and said, as he went off, “If I had my musket, I would never turn my back upon these troops.”
That sure seems like a hint about what Munroe and other men with muskets should do.

Tourtellot tried to to argue that Adams and Clarke, the Lexington minister, must have gone to the Green with Hancock:
Samuel Adams...would never have let him out of sight in the midst of such promising events; and Clarke would have guided them down the road from the parsonage, around the corner of the Common to Buckman’s. . . .

Expert as he was in town mobs and their behavior, Adams, who had lived all his life in the heart of Boston, was weak in his knowledge of country people. Hancock knew nothing of them.
Hence the need for Clarke’s involvement in the plot.

In fact, Hancock had grown up for several years in rural Braintree and in Lexington itself. Hancock had lived in Clarke’s house for a while as a boy; it’s called the “Hancock-Clarke House” because it was built for the merchant’s grandfather, the town’s minister for half a century. Hancock had also been staying there for weeks before 19 April while his secretary and a trunk of papers were in Buckman’s tavern. Thus, he had probably gone back and forth between the parsonage and the Green many times.

Why didn’t Tourtellot think that Hancock could have inspired the Lexington militiamen? He wrote:
Hancock’s behavior, brave or simply foolhardy as it may have been, during those last four hours, ruled him out as a serious advisor on the military situation (he apparently saw nothing unwise and useless in the President of the Provincial Congress standing with sword drawn and pistol cocked in the line of march of British soldiers supposedly intent on arresting him)...
In other words, Hancock couldn’t possibly have told Capt. Parker, Sgt. Munroe, or the others that they should stand up to the redcoats because he was too busy yelling about how someone had to stand up to the redcoats. Hmmm.

Hancock, unlike Adams, had some military authority in colonial Massachusetts. He had been captain of the Company of Cadets, an upper-class militia unit in Boston, until late 1774, when Gov. Thomas Gage removed him from the post and the company dissolved in protest. People continued to refer to Hancock with the honorary title of “colonel.” (Because the Cadets were so upper-class, their captain got this honorary rank.)

Hancock also had more official civil authority than Adams. In April 1775, he was both the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the chairman of its Committee of Safety. Adams didn’t have those titles. There was no one in Lexington better positioned to give orders to Capt. Parker than John Hancock.

I’m not arguing that Hancock actually influenced the men on Lexington Green. None of those men described being inspired by him or his words, and in the early 1800s he remained popular enough that they would have had every reason to point to his leadership. But if authors want to find evidence of a Patriot leader prompting the fight in Lexington, they needn’t try to thread tenuous arguments about Samuel Adams. They should look at all the evidence about John Hancock.

(This posting is the culmination of a week of articles that began here.)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Real Samuel Adams and Real Life

I’ve been tracing the idea that Samuel Adams somehow instigated the shooting at Lexington on 19 Apr 1775, from the first suggestion by Harold Murdock through the development by Arthur Bernon Tourtellot to a recent elaboration by William H. Hallahan. I see three major holes in this thesis, even beyond the lack of any positive evidence for it whatsoever.

First, this theory writes off the fact that the Revolution was a mass movement. It involved hundreds of thousands of people. It was organized through committees, conventions, congresses, and other means of collective decision-making. Since the Powder Alarm of early September 1774, the Boston Whigs had realized that the Massachusetts countryside was more eager to fight than their own town.

Even among the political leaders of Massachusetts, Adams was only the foremost of a large group. Some twentieth-century writers gave him credit or blame for everything that happened in Boston and then in eastern Massachusetts. But Adams didn’t come to prominence until after 1765. He had a lot of colleagues in Boston, some of them (William Molineux, Dr. Thomas Young) much closer to the crowds than he was. He was pulled along by many significant events, and far away from some others. It’s foolish to believe that Adams was guiding every political development of the day.

Second, Adams’s contemporaries considered him to be a cautious politician, especially when it came to violence. There’s no strong evidence that he led mobs. James Otis, Jr., reportedly trusted Adams—and only him—to keep him from speaking too rashly. Adams’s writings show a consistent belief that there was no need for dramatic actions. Rather, he usually stated that steady unity and resolve would cause royal officials to back down or reveal their true tyrannical aims.

Thus, on 21 May 1774, Adams wrote from Philadelphia to James Warren:

I beseech you to implore every Friend in Boston by every thing dear and sacred to Men of Sense and Virtue to avoid Blood and Tumult. They will have time enough to dye. Let them give the other Provinces opportunity to think and resolve.

Rash Spirits that would by their Impetuosity involve us in unsurmountable Difficulties will be left to perish by themselves despisd by their Enemies, and almost detested by their Friends. Nothing can ruin us but our Violence. Reason teaches this. I have indubitable Intelligence, dreadful, as to the Designs against us; consolatory, if we are but prudent.
Even as he itched for independence, Adams wrote to the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper on 30 Apr 1776:
Indeed I have the Happiness of believing that what I most earnestly wish for will in due time be effected. We cannot make Events. Our Business is wisely to improve them.
To believe that Adams had indeed “made Events” in Lexington is to believe that he was completely duplicitous about his philosophy throughout life, even with his closest colleagues.

Furthermore, all the eyewitness testimony we have about Adams’s actions in the early hours of 19 Apr 1775 says that he spoke against confronting the troops. He urged leaving the Lexington parsonage as quickly and quietly as possible. Dolly Quincy reportedly heard him tell her future husband as the royal army approached, “that is not our business. We belong to the Cabinet.” In other words, elected officials had the responsibility to stay away from possible violence and keep the government running.

The third weakness of the Murdock/Tourtellot hypothesis is that it’s a conspiracy theory: a secret agreement among Adams, local minister Jonas Clarke, and militia captain John Parker to carry out a complex plot. That scheme depended on a precise understanding of how the Lexington militiamen would behave if ordered to stand on the Green, how the British troops would respond, and how the people of Massachusetts would respond in turn. The hypothesis requires nearly every action that men took in the early hours of 19 Apr 1775 to be the result of planning, and not just habit or circumstance. It posits a plot that men considered noble yet kept completely secret for decades.

(Hallahan’s wild tangent off the Murdock/Tourtellot hypothesis is even more clearly a conspiracy theory: in addition to those actions and reactions, it also posits a secret agreement between Adams and an unidentified gunman.)

One of the wisest rules for making sense of life, either in the present or in the past, is never to come up with a conspiracy theory for what can be explained by incompetence. (For variations on this dictum, see “Hanlon’s razor” and the words of Sir Bernard Ingham.) The British reports on the Concord march and the depositions from American veterans in the 1820s and 1830s offer little evidence of a conspiracy. But they show lots of evidence of incompetence, or rather of the limits on human competence: incomplete knowledge, inaccurate assumptions, misunderstandings, hesitations, poor memory, fatigue, compromises, circumstances beyond people’s control. In other words, real life.

TOMORROW: Which Patriot leader really called for standing up to the regulars.

Friday, May 16, 2008

“Adams and Clarke unquestionably made up a policy”

As I quoted yesterday, the writer Arthur Bernon Tourtellot was a big fan of banker-historian Harold Murdock. In his 1959 book William Diamond’s Drum, now published as Lexington and Concord, Tourtellot had special praise for Murdock’s The Nineteenth of April 1775: “Informed, critical, witty, the essays are of immense value for the lines of inquiry that they suggest...”

In particular, Tourtellot picked up on Murdock’s forty-three-year-old suggestion that Samuel Adams had maneuvered the Lexington militia into provoking the British troops at dawn on that fateful day. Tourtellot also pointed his finger at on the Rev. Jonas Clarke, minister of the town of Lexington. He concluded:

Adams and Clarke unquestionably made up a policy between themselves. Adams knew the broad strategy of the resistance, because he was at this point its sole architect. Clarke knew the men of Lexington and, what is more, could control them as no outsider could. The policy determined upon between the time of [Paul] Revere’s first alarm and of the minuteman’s first muster and the time of the actual arrival of the British troops, was for the minutemen, however outnumbered, to make a conspicuous stand but not to fire.
When Murdock had first proposed that theory, he had conceded there was no evidence for it. But in American Heritage magazine, Tourtellot noted how many documents about the skirmish at Lexington had come to light since Murdock had written. So what new evidence had convinced Tourtellot that Murdock was right, that Adams and Clarke had “unquestionably” decided the Lexington men should “make a conspicuous stand”?

Actually, none. The intervening decades had brought out lots about the British side of the march to Concord, but the documentation about the Massachusetts politicians and officers was nearly the same as it was when Murdock spoke in 1916. So to make his case, Tourtellot had to fall back on arguments like this:
Dorothy Quincy remembered that [John] Hancock went down to the Common. It can be taken as certain that, if he went, so did Samuel Adams, who would never have let him out of sight in the midst of such promising events; and Clarke would have guided them down the road from the parsonage, around the corner of the Common to Buckman’s.
Somehow Tourtellot seems more certain that Adams and Clarke visited Lexington Green than that Hancock did, even though Hancock was the only one of the three men that anyone described as going there. And just as no Lexington militiaman recalled being urged by Adams to stand in front of the regulars, no witness described Clarke as advocating that policy, either. This was still a conspiracy theory in search of supporting evidence.

But a lot of people read William Diamond’s Drum/Lexington and Concord. Overall, it’s a very good book: researched in detail, focused on individual stories as most of us readers like, and well written. Until it was superseded by David H. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, it was the best twentieth-century book on the first day of the Revolutionary War in Massachusetts. And just as Murdock’s “informed, critical, witty” writing and his prescience about the British officers’ motivations probably convinced Tourtellot that his theory about Samuel Adams had substance, so Tourtellot’s book has probably made lots of readers and some other authors overlook the holes in his variation on that theory.

TOMORROW: An example of Tourtellot’s legacy.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

When Did We Start Saying, “The British Are Coming”?

With Patriots’ Day coming up, I figure it’s time to discuss a few more “Myths of Lexington and Concord.” As a reminder, back in 2006 I defined a myth as “Something which someone somewhere has written down, which I can treat as conventional wisdom to be debunked, thus making what I write seem more original and important.” This is called “marketing.”

Today’s myth-busting comes with the help of Gretchen Adams, director of education at the Paul Revere House in Boston. On Saturday I participated in a teachers’ workshop Gretchen had helped to organize at Gen. George Washington’s Cambridge headquarters. During his presentation, historian Charles Bahne reminded us that Paul Revere did not yell, “The British are coming!”

Most people who have read some Revolutionary history probably know that already. It’s a well-known myth, like young Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Abner Doubleday inventing baseball. Nevertheless, more people are probably familiar with the mythical phrase “The British are coming!” than with what Revere and witnesses recalled him actually saying.

In April 1775, when Revere rode, Britain’s American colonists still thought of themselves as British. Indeed, the message their political leaders had tried to project for ten years was that they were standing up for traditional British liberties, and were thus being more patriotically British than the corrupt officials in London. It wouldn’t make sense for one British man to tell another, “The British are coming!”

The question Gretchen posed was: When did that famous phrase first appear in accounts of the Concord alarm? It doesn’t pop up in my usual round-up of primary-source material that can be searched online (links to the left). It doesn’t appear in the America’s Historical Newspapers database until well into the 1800s, and not in connection to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War until many years after that.

Gretchen had found what, as far as I can tell, is indeed the earliest use of the phrase, and it came from someone who was definitely at Lexington when the alarm began. However, that person didn’t say she’d heard the words from Paul Revere.

On 21 Nov 1822, a Boston man named William H. Sumner dined with Dorothy Scott, the widow of John Hancock. (After the governor’s death, she had married a second time to one of his ships’ captains and moved to New Hampshire.) Sumner heard such interesting stories that he went home and wrote them down in a “Memorandum” that was published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1854.

In April 1775, Dorothy Scott was still Dolly Quincy, Hancock’s young fiancée. She was staying with him and a large party (also including his aunt and Samuel Adams) in the parsonage at Lexington (shown above, courtesy of Battleroad.org). Revere and William Dawes arrived with a warning that troops were marching from Boston. (Those troops weren’t coming for Hancock and Adams, but that’s a separate myth.) After a great deal of trouble, the Hancock-Adams party finally left for Woburn.

According to Sumner, Scott recalled that on the afternoon of 19 April:

[They] were just sitting down to it [dinner], when in came a man from Lexington, whose house was upon the main road, and who cleared out, leaving his wife and family at home, as soon as he saw the British bayonets glistening as they descended the hills on their return from Concord. Half frightened to death, he exclaimed, “The British are coming! the British are coming! my wife’s in etarnity now.” Mr. H. and Mr. Adams supposing the British troops were at hand, went into the swamp and staid till the alarm was over.
No men in that anecdote come across as very courageous, do they?

I found another, independent use of the “British are coming” phrase in 1849, which was eventually published two years after Sumner’s memorandum. Extracts from the Diary and Correspondence of the Late Amos Lawrence (1856) quotes a letter from that merchant:
My father [Samuel Lawrence] belonged to a company of minute-men in Groton, at the commencement of the Revolution. On the morning of the 19th of April, 1775, when the news reached town that the British troops were on the road from Boston, General [Oliver] Prescott, who was a neighbor, came towards the house on horseback, at rapid speed, and cried out, “Samuel, notify your men: the British are coming.” My father mounted the general's horse, rode a distance of seven miles, notified the men of his circuit, and was back again at his father's house in forty minutes. In three hours the company was ready to march, and on the next day (the 20th) reached Cambridge.
Amos Lawrence was born in 1786, so he had no direct knowledge of the start of the Revolution, but his father lived until 1827 and could have told this story often.

Yet another family anecdote from the day of the Concord Alarm: Anna Eliot Ticknor’s Samuel Eliot (1869) states, in an anecdote about the family’s Atkins ancestors of Newbury, Massachusetts:
In April, 1775, came the rising of the people against the abuse of power, and one day a Mr. Tracy galloped through the streets of Newbury, crying “The British are coming, the British are coming!”
Ticknor wasn’t even born until the nineteenth century, so again the actual writer of this story was relying on tales from her older relatives. Interestingly, the Atkins family was among “the firmest adherents to the English Government.”

There are also incidents of the phrase being used later, such as when the Revolutionary War moved to New Jersey, and in the War of 1812 at Connecticut. It made sense for Americans to shout, “The British are coming!” after the population had broken with Britain and defined themselves as not-British. And since all our stories describing people saying, “The British are coming!” date from after the War of 1812, we have to consider whether people might have projected the language and outlook of that period back onto the start of the Revolution.

With some more online searching, it’s possible to trace the spread of “The British are coming!” from Dorothy Scott’s anecdote. Frederic Hudson’s “The Concord Fight,” published by Harper’s in May 1875, accurately picked up what William Sumner recalled hearing. That same article quotes riders from Boston warning, “The Regulars are coming!” before the first shots and the British retreat. That put both phrases into an authoritative, nationally distributed publication.

N. S. Dodge’s Stories of American History Teaching Lessons of Patriotism, published in Boston in 1879, has Paul Revere telling a sergeant guarding the parsonage at Lexington, “you will have noise enough before long; the British are coming.” Thus the phrase got into Revere’s own mouth, and into a schoolbook.

Even Louisa May Alcott played a role in cementing the phrase in the minds of the next generation of Americans. Her historical fiction “Tabby’s Table-Cloth”, which first appeared in St. Nicholas magazine in February 1884, offered this description of her home town of Concord on 19 Apr 1775:
the people leaped from their beds when young Dr. [Samuel] Prescott came, riding for his life, with the message Paul Revere brought from Boston in the night: — “Arm! arm! the British are coming!”
After that, we were stuck with the phrase.

TOMORROW: One witness’s statement of what Paul Revere actually said.

Monday, November 27, 2006

John G. W. Hancock: governor's son

The Smithsonian Institution's website offers a look at the silver and coral rattle that John and Dolly Hancock bought for their son, John G. W. Hancock, when he was born in 1778. He remained their only child. (The couple also had a daughter in 1776, but she died the following year.)

In 1787, when little John was eight, his father was reelected governor. (With his keen instincts for the electorate's mood and for avoiding tough decisions, Hancock had served in that office from 1780 to 1785, sat out the year in which the Shays Regulators closed down Massachusetts's courts and were then closed down themselves, and then returned to state politics with his popularity undiminished.)

In January, father and son were walking with a family friend in Milton. The boy saw a pair of skates in a store window and asked his father to buy them. The governor refused, so the friend said he'd make young John a present of the skates.

John G. W. Hancock soon tried out his new toys on a small patch of ice, fell, and hit his head. He died of the injury shortly afterwards, on the 27th.

The American Herald newspaper wrote:

This amiable child gave every indication of future eminence; and while his sweetness of temper, his strength of memory, and brilliancy of genius, led his parents to hope, that he would be not only the staff of their age, but eminently useful in the world!—Their hopes are suddenly blasted, and they feel the deepest affliction:
Why falls the budding flower? why dies the youth?
Presumptuous reason crys. 'Tis not for us
To search the ends of fate nor fault its means;
Religion answers and our breasts are calmed.
In fact, some friends said that John Hancock, son and grandson of ministers, never recovered emotionally from this loss. He died six years later, only fifty-six years old.

(Well, that was terribly sad, wasn't it? One aspect of this episode that strikes me is how the Hancocks and others of the time obviously knew who that well-meaning family friend was, but I've never seen an account of the boy's death that names him.)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Dorothy Hancock: political hostess

A detail rarely omitted from the story of Lexington and Concord is that Dorothy (Dolly) Quincy was with her fiancé, John Hancock, at the Clarke parsonage when they received word that British troops were approaching. Her presence adds a little romance and femininity to the martial story.

The two married in August 1775, making Dolly Hancock a politician's wife. And John was a natural politician, terribly concerned with public popularity and never losing a race. He left his heirs a much smaller fortune than he had received from his uncle because he put his money into being what everyone in Massachusetts wanted in a governor.

For Dolly Hancock, that meant a lot of dinner parties and other entertaining, and it wasn't easy. The following is from an article in the New England Historical & Genealogical Register for 1854 by William H. Sumner, recalling his conversations with the governor's widow. He said she

spoke freely of the character of Mr. Hancock, who was afterwards Governor, and said he would always have his orders executed through life. That he always kept open house, and spoke of his entertainment of the French officers and others at the time the French fleet was in Boston.

The poor cook, she said, was worn out, and could not set to picking turkeys every night after getting a great dinner, and the feathers were sometimes too visible on the poultry upon the table. Mr. H. was mortified at this, and to cure the cook, directed the turkey to be roasted with the feathers on.

This was actually done, and the turkey caught fire on the spit, and the feathers, when they were burnt down to the quill, popped off with such a noise, and made such a stench which annoyed every body in the house but Mr. H., who, though confined up stairs with the gout, affected not to smell it. . . .

She says at one time they had 150 live turkeys, which were shut up in the coach house at night, and let out to feed in the pasture, where the State House now is, by day, and that two or three were killed every night.
In 1778, the Hancocks invited thirty French naval officers for breakfast. The admiral accepted on behalf of his entire officer corps, more than one hundred men. According to a grandniece of Dolly Hancock quoted at the Colonial Hall site:
There was nothing to do but for the Governor to overlook the Frenchman's bad manners and accede to the request.

It was upon Mrs. Hancock's resourcefulness, however, that the duty fell hardest, of providing for so many guests in the short time available. The problem was speedily solved with the exception of the item of milk. The Governor's private dairy could not possibly furnish all that was needed, and there was not a place in Boston where such a supply could be obtained.

Mrs. Hancock summoned the life guards [i.e., the governor's honor guard] and bade them milk the cows pasturing on Boston Common, and if any persons complained, to send them to her. This was done and no one objected. Plenty of milk was obtained and the dinner to the Admiral and his officers was a great success.
Mrs. Hancock told Sumner that she had returned the admiral's favors by bringing “a party of five hundred” out to the fleet.

John Hancock died in October 1793. Less than three years later, his widow married James Scott, who had long been one of John's ship captains, and they moved to the quieter town of Portsmouth.