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 Massachusetts General Court. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Massachusetts General Court. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

“Otis is in Confusion yet.”

On 6 May 1772, a Boston town meeting elected four men to represent the town in the Massachusetts General Court, or provincial legislature: Thomas Cushing, the House’s longtime Speaker; Samuel Adams, its Clerk; John Hancock; and William Phillips.

There were a couple of notable details about that election. One was how many votes Adams received relative to the other three men; I’ll deal with that later, around Election Day.

But the first thing to note is that James Otis, Jr. (shown here), was not on that slate of representatives. As a Boston representative, he had led the opposition to Gov. Francis Bernard through most of the 1760s.

Then in October 1769 Otis got into a coffee-house brawl with Customs Commissioner John Robinson and suffered a head injury. On 16 Jan 1770, John Adams wrote in his diary: “Otis is in Confusion yet. He looses himself. He rambles and wanders like a Ship without an Helm.”

Otis sat out the General Court election in March 1770. On the slate he was replaced by James Bowdoin, whom Gov. Bernard had pushed out of his usual seat on the Council. When the new governor, Thomas Hutchinson, let Bowdoin join the Council again, Boston had a special election and chose John Adams as its fourth representative.

Meanwhile, Otis’s behavior turned wild. On the 16th, merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary: “Mr. Otis got into a mad freak to-night, and broke a great many windows in the Town House.” On 22 April, the day after Ebenezer Richardson was convicted of murder for shooting out his window and killing a boy, Rowe wrote: “This afternoon Mr. Otis behaved very madly, firing guns out of his window, that caused a large number of people to assemble about him.” Acquaintances like John Adams had complained about Otis’s florid behavior on some private occasions, but these actions were public. Otis’s family sequestered him for more treatment.

By March 1771, Otis had recovered enough to stand for office again. (Meanwhile, John Adams was suffering health problems and souring on politics; he gave up the legislature and moved back to Braintree.) That year’s Boston representatives were once again Cushing, Adams, Hancock, and Otis.

But right away people wondered if Otis was going to be reliable.

TOMORROW: James Otis’s 1771.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Gov. Thomas Gage’s Very Bad Month

Yesterday I broke the news that I’ll be speaking about “The Near-Total Breakdown of Royal Rule in Massachusetts, September 1774” at Worcester’s celebration this Sunday of pre-Revolutionary events in that town.

How bad was that breakdown? At the start of the month, Gen. Thomas Gage had just returned to Boston from Salem, where the government in London had told him to summon the Massachusetts General Court, one of the measures to punish Boston for the Tea Party.

While Gage was there, both the Massachusetts legislature and the local town meeting had defied him. But on 1 September his soldiers took control of the provincial gunpowder and two cannon assigned to the Middlesex County militia. Gage was feeling confident enough that day to issue a call for new legislative elections.

And then things went to hell. By 25 September, Gage was sending this alarm to the Secretary of War, the Viscount Barrington:
I write to your Lordship by a private Ship fearing the Post to New York which must convey my Letters from hence for the Packet not quite safe, tho’ it has not yet been stopped; but People have been so questioned, and impeded on the Road, there is no knowing how soon the Post may be examined, for there seems no Respect for any Thing.

Affairs here are worse that even in the Time of the Stamp-Act, I don’t mean in Boston, for throughout the Country. The New England Provinces, except part of New Hampshire, are I may say in Arms, and the Question is now not whether you shall quell Disturbances in Boston, but whether those Provinces shall be conquered, and I find it is the General Resolution of all the Continent to support the Massachusett’s Bay in their Opposition to the late Acts.

From Appearances no People are more determined for a Civil War, the whole Country from hence to New York armed, training and providing Military Stores. 
At that point, it was clear, Gage could exercise royal authority, including enforcing Parliament’s new Coercive Acts, no farther west than the gates of Boston.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Samuel Adams’s Petition to the Legislature

Yesterday I mentioned a New England Historical and Genealogical Register obituary for Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams after his death in 1855. After giving some details about his parents it said:
At the time of the Revolution he was old enough to perform services in that cause, which he did, on the patriot side. About five years ago he applied to the General Court for remuneration for some losses which he sustained in the service. There were those in that body disposed to slight his application, but the Hon. J. T. Buckingham [a state senator from Suffolk County in 1850-51] effectually brought a majority to sustain it, and a small appropriation (probably more than was asked for) was granted for the relief of the truly deserving old citizen. In sustaining the application, Mr. Buckingham paid a well merited tribute to the honest old gentleman, whose peculiarities in matters of religion and politics, though admitted, were not allowed to debar him from his just rights.
Now that looks like a lead! A statement from Adams about his work “in the service” of the “patriot side” during the Revolution. A written statement in the most formal of circumstances, with potential legal ramifications if it were found to be exaggerated. A document that might still be on file in the state archives.

Alas, that anecdote turned out to be untrue in several respects. Adams did petition the Massachusetts legislature for support in 1850. But his claim was “for compensation for bringing a prisoner from Worcester to Boston jail, during Shays’ rebellion, 68 years ago,” according to the 25 February Daily Atlas. That would have been 1782, though the uprising in western Massachusetts actually happened in 1786-87.

Furthermore, while Buckingham may have been behind the favorable vote in the Massachusetts senate, which approved giving Adams $100, the bill aroused opposition in the Massachusetts house. An acidic letter from Boston published in the Barre Patriot on 15 February said:
If they give him money, why not vote as much more to the lady in Lexington who is now 102 years old, and needs it more than a hale man of only 90, or thereabouts. She succored the wounded in the Revolution.
So I had to look for that lady. She was Mary (Munroe) Sanderson, who died in 1852, less than a month after a private party raised $300 for her.

Back to Samuel Adams’s bill. The lower house discussed it twice before letting it die. Adams renewed his petition the next year. The committee on claims recommended paying him $100—but once again the bill died.

Newspapers in 1852 and 1853 refer to more rejected petitions from Samuel Adams. By that time Buckingham was no longer in the senate. The published journal of the Massachusetts House shows that in January 1854 yet another Adams petition “for compensation for services rendered during ‘Shay’s Rebellion’” was introduced, given leave to be withdrawn (i.e., rejected) the next month, reconsidered, and rejected again.

The Massachusetts State Library has just launched what it calls DSpace, offering digital copies of many public documents, including the Acts and Resolves for each year showing what bills did pass. And a search through those files shows that Samuel Adams never got special compensation for his work in 1782. Or 1787. Or whenever.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Joseph Snelling’s Delivery at Bunker Hill

Here’s another notable story of the Battle of Bunker Hill, told by the Rev. Joseph Snelling in his 1847 autobiography. It concerned his father, also named Joseph Snelling (1741-1816).

The elder Snelling was a bookbinder in Boston. He married Rachel Mayer in 1763 and evidently had a small shop of his own at the start of the war.

Snelling’s older brother Jonathan (1734-1782) was a merchant and officer in the Cadets. He dined with the Sons of Liberty as the Liberty Tree Tavern in Dorchester in 1769. But he signed the laudatory addresses to the royal governors in 1774, confirming himself as a Loyalist.

In contrast, Joseph the bookbinder “took an active part in our struggles for liberty, from the commencement to the close of the. American Revolution.” Or at least that’s what his son believed.

Joseph Snelling’s name doesn’t actually show up in the records of Patriot activities before 1775, so far as I can tell. According to his son, he continued to serve British officers and soldiers in his shop before the war: “the officers and soldiers were often in, paid honorably for the goods they purchased, and even treated the family with civility and respect.” The one possible example of prewar Patriot activity that Snelling’s son recorded was this:
At a certain time when the English had possession of Boston, our people at Watertown were in want of ammunition. My father hearing of this, volunteered with three or four others to convey it to them, if possible. Accordingly a scow was procured and loaded with arms and ammunition; and, to prevent suspicion, the whole was covered with boards. They then, in plain sight of English vessels, poled the scow to Watertown, and delivered the load to the people, who received it gladly.
There were trips to smuggle military material out of Boston before the war began. However, that story appears in the Snelling memoir after the Battle of Bunker Hill, when the family had moved out to Newton. Thus, that delivery may not have been from Boston, with a harbor patrolled by British warships, but from Newton down the Charles River, far from the enemy. (If it actually happened.)

As for Bunker Hill, the younger Snelling’s account is a combination of what he’d evidently heard from his father and what he understood about the battle, not always accurately. Thus:
On the afternoon before the battle of Bunker Hill, our people met at Cambridge, in order to make the necessary preparation for a battle which they were hourly expecting. My father was there with them. There was the brave General [Joseph] Warren, who came with his fusee and his powder-horn hung over his shoulder, and volunteered his services. When they were ready to start for Bunker Hill, Dr. [Peter] Thatcher offered a solemn and appropriate prayer to Almighty God, that their heads might be covered in the day of, battle, and they protected from their enemies.
According to our other sources, Warren wasn’t with the troops at Cambridge on 16 June 1775 but joined them in Charlestown the next day. The minister who prayed with those troops the evening before they went onto the peninsula was the Rev. Samuel Langdon, president of Harvard, not the Rev. Peter Thacher, who watched the battle from the far side of the Mystic River.

As for Joseph Snelling’s own experience:
Colonel Bradlee and my father were appointed to superintend the conveyance of five loads of provision to the fort for the refreshment of our people. Accordingly they engaged five ox teams, loaded with provision, and five men to drive them. In order to reach the fort they were obliged to cross a neck of land directly in front of the Glassgow frigate, and a floating battery, then lying in the river. These soon discovered the teams, and aimed their cannon at them, to prevent them from getting to the fort. As soon as the cannon balls began to whiz around them, the five teamsters left their teams, and fled with great precipitation.

Colonel Bradlee and my father then drove these five teams to the fort alone, which was the first time that my father ever drove a team. This was in the midst of the battle—but they were in more danger than the people at the fort. The balls flew thick and fast all around them, and I have heard my father say they were expecting every moment that their heads would be taken off, but a kind providence protected them; not a ball touched them, or one of their teams. Thus, agreeable to the prayer, their heads were covered in the day of battle.

When they arrived at the fort, they found our people almost exhausted, and suffering greatly with thirst—all their cry was water, water. Some hogsheads of beer were brought with the provision, by which they were greatly refreshed. The day was extremely warm, and our people, by the effect of the heat, the powder and smoke, resembled colored people. One man came to my father for refreshment, who had received a musket ball in the back of his head, which took out his eye without touching the brain—blood and water was then gushing from the wound. (Three months after this, the same man came to my father to receive his rations, his wound perfectly healed.)
A shorter version of this tale appears in Benjamin Woodbridge Dwight’s The History of the Descendants of Elder John Strong (1871); that refers to Snelling’s companion as “Col. Bradford, an associate commissary.” The Symmes Memorial, by John Adams Vinton (1873), doesn’t include the anecdote but says Snelling “joined the army…under Gen. [Artemas] Ward as a commissary.”

Joseph Snelling’s name doesn’t appear in the surviving records of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress or its Committee of Safety. However, a legislative act late in 1775 confirms that the Massachusetts government owed him money for somehow assisting its commissary general. (The General Court voted to recompense several other men as well, but not anyone named Bradlee or Bradford.)

In early 1812, the U.S. House considered a petition from Snelling “praying further compensation for services rendered as a clerk in the office of the Deputy Commissary General of Issues in the Revolutionary war.” The Committee of Claims responded “That the prayer of the petitioner ought not to be granted,” and it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that Snelling’s petition was exaggerated; its facts might simply not have met the threshold for further compensation.

But really the Snelling family lore does seem extraordinary. American accounts of the Bunker Hill battle talk about how the soldiers on the front lines didn’t receive any supplies. Young Robert Steele recalled a desperate search for water. If five ox carts (somehow driven by two men, one a complete novice) had brought in beer and other provisions after the fighting had started (given that one man was allegedly bleeding from a musket wound), then surely some soldiers would have taken note of that fact.

The Rev. Joseph Snelling clearly had a familial motive for telling this story, and a religious one: he wanted readers to understand that his father and Bradlee had been protected from enemy fire “agreeable to the prayer.” But it looks like there had been a lot of “memory creep” between the elder Joseph Snelling’s experiences delivering some supplies to the provincial army in 1775 and when his son wrote down this tale decades later.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Transformation of Thomas Cowdin

Today Bob O’Hara continues his story of Thomas Cowdin, an Irish-born farmer who became a prominent landowner in central Massachusetts.

In the weeks that followed the battle of Lexington and Concord, it’s tempting to think that all the residents of Massachusetts sorted themselves neatly into Patriot and Tory camps, with one side laying siege to Boston and the other side coming under siege in their homes and villages all across the countryside. But the career of Thomas Cowdin of Fitchburg reminds us that revolutions are rarely neat—for Thomas Cowdin was indeed a soldier of the Revolution, but not at first.

As described yesterday, when news of the fatal shots at Lexington and Concord reached Fitchburg, Cowdin resisted the call to join the militia alarm. But in August 1775, he traveled to the siege lines to ask Continental authorities for a commission as an army officer.

Cowdin’s reputation for reluctance had preceded him, however. Reporting for duty four months after the war had begun looked suspicious to some of his fellow townsmen. When Cowdin arrived in Cambridge, he was promptly arrested by Gen. Nathanael Greene for having “invariably opposed every Measure pursued for the Restoration of our violated Previlages,” and he was sent to Gen. George Washington’s headquarters on 6 Aug 1775 for examination. Washington, skillful politician that he was, declined to involve himself in a local matter and referred the Cowdin case to the newly-reconstituted Massachusetts legislature, then sitting at Watertown.

Before that assembly two days later, Cowdin acknowledged that he had been “Backward In town Affairs with Regard to the Liberties of the Country.” He begged “the forgiveness of the honourable Board & hous of Representatives & all the good People of this Country,” declaring that he was “Now Ready to Convince the World of this Solemn Declaration not only by Word Interest—but even by exposing my life itself if my Country Calls me there to.”

After due consideration of his public apology, the General Court politely declined to recommend Cowdin for the commission he was seeking. But because they did apprehend in him “evidence of a Reformation,” they agreed to send him home to Fitchburg with a certificate “for his own security against the further resentment of the Publick for his past offences.”

But Thomas Cowdin was never one to sit still, and over the coming two years he worked assiduously to regain the trust of his Fitchburg neighbors. By 1777 he was again accepted into the town’s militia company and served in New York. By 1779 he was that company’s captain. The next year, his townsmen elected him as their first representative to the Massachusetts General Court under the new state constitution drafted by John Adams. The General Court was the same body that had denied him a commission in 1775, so he surely must have considered his rehabilitation complete.

TOMORROW: The man with two monuments.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Massachusetts Got Its Constitution

Yesterday I quoted a letter from Alexander McDougall discussing the Massachusetts Convention of 1780 (shown courtesy of Springfield Technical Community College).

Here’s how Samuel Eliot Morison described the ratification of that document in A History of the Constitution of Massachusetts, published in 1917.
The mode of ratification adopted by the Convention was peculiar. Profiting by the experience of 1778 [when voters strongly rejected the legislature’s draft constitution], it did not submit the Constitution as a whole to popular vote. Instead, it asked the adult freemen to convene in their town meetings to consider and debate the Constitution clause by clause, to point out objections, if any, to particular articles, and to send in their returns to the secretary of the Convention, with the yeas and nays on every question. The people were then asked to empower the Convention at an adjourned session on June 5 to ratify and declare the Constitution in force if two-thirds of the voters were in favor of it, or, if not, to alter it in accordance with the popular will as expressed in the returns, and ratify it as thus amended. . . .

On June 5 the Convention convened for its fourth and last session at the old Brattle Street Church in Boston. . . . A committee was appointed to canvass the returns and report the result to the Convention. This committee adopted a system of tabulation which to-day would be called political jugglery. The towns had not voted on the Constitution as a whole, but article by article; and in many cases they proposed a substitute for an article they objected to, and voted on that instead of on the original. These votes on amended articles were either thrown out or counted as if cast for the original article. Hence it was made to appear that every article of the Constitution had well over a two-thirds majority, although a fair tabulation would have shown only a bare majority for at least two.
This sort of manipulation in Boston didn’t help relieve the unrest in the western counties which had made MacDougall doubt that Massachusetts would accept any sort of government. Nonetheless, the state constitution took effect, John Hancock took office as the first governor since Thomas Gage, and we still govern ourselves on the basis of that document. We even proudly boast that our constitution was a model for the federal Constitution adopted later in the decade.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Commemorating the “Worcester Revolution of 1774”

Another anniversary coming up next year is the 240th of the uprising that ended royal rule in Worcester County. Okay, that’s not a sestercentennial, but I sense the local history community wants to raise awareness of that transition and institute a commemoration so as to be ready for its 250th.

On 6 Sept 1774, 4,622 militiamen from 37 county towns marched into Worcester to stop the county court from meeting. This was part of a series of crowd actions all over Massachusetts as the populace protested Parliament’s Coercive Acts and refused to cooperate with royal appointees.

That fall, month towns were also electing representatives to the Massachusetts General Court or, in case Gov. Thomas Gage refused to call that legislature back into session, a Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The Worcester town meeting elected blacksmith Timothy Bigelow as its representative to the congress, a role traditionally reserved for upper-class gentlemen.

Furthermore, in its instructions for Bigelow, the Worcester town meeting declared:
you are to consider the people of this province…to all intents and purposes reduced to a state of nature; and you are to exert yourself in devising ways and means to raise from the dissolution of the old constitution, as from the ashes of the Phenix, a new form, wherein all officers shall be dependent on the suffrages of the people, whatever unfavorable constructions our enemies may put upon such procedure.
This went further than the resolutions of other towns in the same period, in effect a declaration of independence. It wasn’t an explicit break with the British Empire or king, but it was based on the same political philosophy that led to the Continental Congress’s Declaration over a year and a half later.

A group of historic and cultural organizations in Worcester County is planning a commemoration of this “Worcester Revolution of 1774.” Their effort has started with the www.revolution1774.org website. They envision a series of events over the course of next year, such as:
  • A county-wide reading of Ray Raphael’s The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord, which highlights central Massachusetts in 1774, through local book clubs and libraries.
  • Walking tours and narratives of historic locations.
  • Concerts by colonial music groups in the open air and concert halls.
  • Presentations by authors and academics on colonial Worcester County and 1774.
  • Visits by re-enactors to Worcester Public School classrooms.
  • Teacher workshops on 1774.
  • Museum exhibits, lectures, and more.
On 7 September there will be a free, day-long public celebration on Worcester Common, with historic reenactors and craftsmen and a dramatic presentation about the Revolutionary events.

The organizing consortium includes the American Antiquarian Society, Assumption College, Congress of American Revolution Round Tables, Daughters of the American Revolution Massachusetts Society, Old Sturbridge Village, Preservation Worcester, Sons of the American Revolution Massachusetts Society, Tenth Regiment of Foot, Worcester Historical Museum, and Worcester Public Schools. The Worcester Historical Museum is the fiscal agent for grants and donations to this project.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Elisha Adams’s Admission

Last night author Nathaniel Philbrick and I talked about the Battle of Bunker Hill at Cambridge Forum. That was taped to make a radio show or podcast, and I’ll post the link when it’s ready.

In the meantime, here’s a record of something else happening that same day, 17 June 1775, from the Boston Public Library’s collection, made available through archive.org.
Whereas I having been Suspected to be unfriendly and inimical to the Just rights & Liberties of America & the Constitution of the Province, Being Sensible that by Some imprudent Conversation & Conduct I have Justly Caused Such Suspicions, & more Especially in my Selling a horse on the way from Acton to Charlston ferry, but a Day or 2 before the late Hostilities Commenced at Concord, & also by Conversation with Katherine wife of Jonathan Adams sd. Relating to the Negro Plan for killing woman Children &c, And being Sensable of my Imprudence therein Do freely Say, That with Regard to Selling sd. horse I Sincerely Declare that I had no thought nor intention any way, whatsoever to Assist & Enable the British forces then at Boston to march into the Country, Neither Did I think any thing but that the sd. horse was to have been Sent Directly to Deerfield. But as it is Strongly Suspected the sd. horse was made use of in the sd. Hostilities, I am Sorry I Sold sd. horse as I Did, And with Regard to my Conversation with mrs. Adams Relative to the Negro plan afore sd., Altho. I had no unfriendly intention, yet I Acknowledg the sd. Conversation & Answers then made to Mrs. Adams Justly Aggravated the Suspicions Afore sd., and that thereby I manifested an unfriendly inhumane Disposition, for which unadvised Conduct I ask the forgiveness of my Neighbours & acquaintances & of Neighbour Adams & wife in Particular.

Elisha Adams
June 17 1775
Recreating the background of this document is a bit uncertain since there were so many families named Adams in Medway, where it’s from. But it looks like Elisha Adams (1719-1781) had been a big man in town: deacon, town clerk, and often selectman. He was Medway’s representative in the Massachusetts General Court for several years in the 1760s, but Jeremiah Adams had won that seat and held it since 1769.

Elisha’s neighbor Jonathan Adams (1737-1814) was some sort of cousin a generation younger. He may have recently become a selectman, or that might be another member of the same family.

In any event, Elisha Adams seems to have been less enthusiastic about the uprising against the royal government than his neighbors, and to have spread alarmist rumors about a slave revolt. There were similar alarms at other times in 1774 and 1775 with very little evidence behind them—it was simply a common fear in a slaveholding society. Other folks in Medway in turn assumed the worst about how Adams had sold his horse.

On 8 June Elisha Adams had signed another document declaring that he felt Parliament’s new laws were unconstitutional and that he would support the Continental Congress’s plans to counteract them. But the town’s committee of correspondence and selectmen evidently wanted a more specific admission of fault, hence this document.

All the Adamses remained in Medway during the war. Elisha paid a higher-than-average amount to maintain soldiers, presumably substitutes for himself or family members. He died in Medway in 1781 and is buried there.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Communication Protocols in the Revolution

Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution is an unusual study of America’s break from Britain. Author William B. Warner is a professor of English, not history, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His previous books have covered such topics as the rise of the novel in British culture. A book he co-edited, This Is Enlightenment, was an attempt to break away from the “cultural studies” approach to that era in favor of a “history of mediation.”

Protocols of Liberty likewise emphasizes the Whigs’ networks of communication, focusing on:

  • standing committees of correspondence started by the Boston town meeting in 1772;
  • the “popular declaration” as a new form of political literature culminating in the Declaration of Independence; and
  • the newspaper and postal system that spread those messages.
Eventually, the book argues, the American Whigs enjoyed an unprecedented non-hierarchical widespread communications network centered at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

In taking this approach, Warner emphasizes the act and forms of communication as much as or more than the content or context of those communications. The book often pauses to analyze the definitions and roots of words or to “translate” period statements into the language of modern communication. There are charts and tables to show the development or spread of particular messages.

Though Warner sets his book apart from “founders’ histories” and “intellectual histories,” it’s almost entirely focused on public messages from governmental and quasi-governmental bodies—i.e., elite men discussing events in the most cerebral terms. Thus, we read more about the royal commission that investigated the Gaspee attack and Whig responses to it than about the attack itself. The book mentions from afar the inflammatory rumors that spread west during the “Powder Alarm,” but that type of informal, in-person (and inaccurate) communication doesn’t get nearly as much space as the deliberations of Virginia gentlemen in Williamsburg in the summer of 1774.

Protocols of Liberty focuses on communication by the American Whigs, casting their political opponents as reactive and ineffectual. Warner paints a fine portrait of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson orating on the British constitution in early 1773, confident that his speech to the Massachusetts General Court would settle matters. I wish the book had also discussed whether Hutchinson felt he merely had to win over those legislators and their elite circles or whether he, too, expected his words to be effective through newspapers and other publications.

The royal Customs office supported the Boston Post-Boy, and the provincial administration favored the Boston News-Letter, guaranteeing friendly coverage. The book doesn’t mention the anti-Whig Boston Chronicle (forced out of business in 1770), and The Censor, the magazine that friends of government commissioned, appears only in a footnote. Why weren’t these pro-government publications as successful as those that leaned toward resistance?

By highlighting the Whigs’ successes, the book makes their triumph seem inevitable and their innovations significant. But the Whigs also stumbled. The book opens with Samuel Adams and the people of Boston responding to the Massacre in March 1770. That spring a captain offered to carry the town’s version of the event to London on a special ship, and the town meeting declined to pay the expense. As a result, the town got scooped by royal officials. In 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress remembered that lesson and sent the Quero racing to England with the first accounts of Lexington and Concord. What were the limits on the Whigs’ approach to communications?

Even within the topic of messaging, Protocols of Liberty often feels bloodless. Paul Revere shows up as one of the Boston activists, an engraver and courier who brought the Suffolk Resolves to Philadelphia in September 1774—but not as the rider who raced to warn the New Hampshire Whigs about a navy ship headed to Fort William and Mary in December 1774 and who alerted Lexington in April 1775. While discussing the post-rider system, the book doesn’t discuss the news of war spread by Isaac Bissell and colleagues in April 1775. The fighting itself takes place off stage as the action moves to Philadelphia and ends with the Declaration’s dissemination across thirteen colonies free of British soldiers.

Protocols of Liberty updates Bicentennial-era studies like Richard D. Brown’s Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts and David Ammerman’s In a Common Cause with today’s emphasis on information and social networks. Warner highlights some neglected events, like how the Massachusetts legislature responded to Hutchinson in 1773 with what ministers in London judged a “Declaration of Independence.” But this approach necessarily neglects other aspects of the American Revolution. As a result, I think Protocols of Liberty will end up classified among intellectual histories of the era, albeit not focused on ideology but on forms of political argument.

To explore the book further, visit its website.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

“Voucher for rations delivered at the Port of Williamston”?

Last month the Boston Globe reported on the opening of a vault in the Massachusetts State House. Officials found nothing earth-shaking inside, and the contents produced more small mysteries than they solved.
But perhaps the most intriguing item, provenance unknown, was a note inked in elaborate cursive script on a small piece of aged paper dated 1787: “Voucher for rations delivered at the Port of Williamston.”

Treasury staff members said they had no idea where the item was from or its significance. But that note and other historical documents from the safe are set to be examined this week by a specialist from the state archives.
That document is not among the items shown in the photo gallery accompanying the article, so I’m working with no more information than in those paragraphs. But here are some guesses.

Might “Williamston” be how this receipt writer spelled “Williamstown”?

Might “Port” actually be “Post” or “Fort”?

Why would Massachusetts have supplied food to a military post in Williamstown? There were forts built there when Englishmen settled the town in the 1750s, but they had long been put to other use by 1787.

That was the the year of the Shays Rebellion, however, when special militia regiments recruited in and around Boston marched west to confront an uprising of farmers and veterans. After a couple of skirmishes, the rebellion melted away (as did the militia, a few weeks later).

Some of the uprising’s leaders found refuge in Vermont, then an independent state. Militia officer Royall Tyler crossed the border to try to capture Daniel Shays in early 1787. He wrote home of “Driving 40 miles into the State of New York at the Head of a Party to apprehend Shay” and “closing the Pases to Canada.” Williamstown is at the border of Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont, so perhaps that was where Tyler’s militiamen were stationed and supplied for a while.

(Photograph courtesy of teacher Mr. Voelger.)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Revolutionary Talk at the State House, 24 Sept.

On Tuesday, 24 September, I’m going to be testifying at the Massachusetts State House about a search for weapons of mass destruction.

Well, not testifying, really. As part of a series of noontime brown-bag seminars hosted by the State Library, I’ll deliver an illustrated lecture on the question “What Were the British Soldiers Looking for in Concord in 1775?”

One unlikely incident in that story took place on the lower side of Boston Common, at the corner of West Street and what is now Tremont. The Boston militia train, or artillery company, had a gunhouse there, containing two of their four small brass cannon.

That little armory shared a fenced yard with the South Writing School, where 200 or more boys studied six days a week under the eye of Master Samuel Holbrook. These days we might think twice about putting an elementary school next to an artillery depot, but…simpler times.

In September 1774, there were also several British army regiments encamped on the Common “near, very near” the gunhouse, according to local diarist Thomas Newell. Gen. Thomas Gage even ordered soldiers to guard that locked building.

And yet on the morning of 16 September, those two cannon disappeared.

State House employees are the primary audience for this free talk, but I believe members of the public are welcome as long as there’s room in Room 442. Follow this link to find out how to reserve a slot.

Friday, August 23, 2013

“Exempted from all trainings”

Yesterday I quoted a 1707 Massachusetts law written to plug a supposed hole in the province’s militia law. Here’s part of that 1693 militia law, stating who didn’t have to show up for seasonal drills:

[Sect. 12] That the persons hereafter named be exempted from all trainings, viz:

the members of the council, the representatives for the time being, the secretary, justices of the peace, president, fellows, students, and servants of Harvard Colledge exempted by colledge charter, masters of art, ministers, elders and deacons of churches, sheriffs, allowed physitians or chirurgions, and profest schoolmasters; all such as have had [military] commissions, and served as field officers or captains, lieutenants or ensignes; coroners, treasurers, attourney-general, deputy sheriffs, clerks of courts, constables, constant ferrymen, and one miller to each grist mill; officers imployed in and about their majesties’ revenues; all masters of vessels of thirty tuns and upwards, usually imployed beyond sea; and constant herdsmen, lame persons or otherwise disabled in body (producing certificate thereof from two able chirurgions), indians and negro’s.

[Sect. 13] That the persons hereafter named be and hereby are exempted from military watches and wardings; viz., the members of the council, secretary, representatives for the time being, president, fellows, students of Harvard Colledge, and the gentlemen belonging to the governour’s guard, ministers and elders of churches, allowed phisitians and chyrurgeons, constables, constant ferrymen, and one miller to each grist mill.
Men not required to turn out for regular militia training thus included:
  • The very top of society, including the legislators who enacted this law and other high officials, anyone who had earned an M.A., ministers and doctors, and gentlemen who had already served as officers in the militia and therefore couldn’t be expected to just go back into the ranks.
  • Men who couldn’t be spared from their particular work, such as herdsmen and ferrymen.
  • The disabled, as long as they brought the required doctors’ notes.
  • The very bottom of society: blacks and Native Americans.
It makes sense for the legislature not to want to arm and train men of color who had plenty of reasons to be upset at the dominant society. But I see a couple of other reasons that white men of property didn’t want to drill with blacks and Natives. By the mid-1700s and probably earlier, militia drills were social occasions as much as military practice. In addition, militiamen elected their own company officers. Including men of color in those social rituals would grant them forms of equality and influence, and the upper classes weren’t going for that.

Interestingly, section 26 of the same law stated: “That all persons exempted by this law from trainings shall, notwithstanding, be provided with arms and ammunition compleat, upon the same penalty as those that are obliged to train.”

Despite the passive voice, that clause required men to supply their own arms suitable for military service. That section was probably aimed at the upper-class white men who, though they didn’t have to turn out to drill like ordinary farmers and craftsmen, were still expected to serve in a military emergency.

But the way the law was written suggests that it required blacks and Indians to own guns and ammunition even though they were exempt from militia discipline. And I can’t imagine that’s what the legislature had in mind.

One big question about provincial Massachusetts’s militia laws is how closely they were enforced. As I noted yesterday, by 1775 black and Native men were participating in town militia companies alongside white men. And I don’t know of records showing widespread fines for not coming to militia drills or showing up without all the equipment this law required. The very detailed militia law was probably an expression of the ideal rather than a reflection of how people actually did things.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

“Impowred to order and require so many days’ work yearly”

At a meeting at Minute Man National Historical Park yesterday, I mentioned a colonial Massachusetts law requiring free blacks to work on roads. I promised to track down that reference and decided also to highlight it here.

In 1707, the Massachusetts General Court took note of what its constituents—i.e., white men—considered an injustice. For decades all blacks and Native Americans had been excluded from regular militia training. But what about free black men? They had the protection of the militia without contributing to it. That question hadn’t arisen before, suggesting that the free black community had grown enough to warrant legislative attention.

So the General Court passed “An Act for the Regulating of Free Negro’s, &c.” in 1707:

Whereas, in the several towns and precincts within this province, there are several free negro’s and molatto’s, able of body and fit for labour, who are not charged with trainings, watchings and other services required of her majesty’s subjects, whereof they have share in the benefit,—

Be it enacted by His Excellency the Governour, Council and Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority, of the same,

[Sect. 1.] That the selectmen of each town or precinct be and hereby are impowred to order and require so many days’ work yearly, of each free male negro or molatto, able of body, dwelling within such town or precinct, in repairing of the highways, cleansing the streets, or other service, for the common benefit of the place, as, at the discretion of the selectmen, may be judged an equivalent to the services performed by others, as aforesaid.

[Sect. 2.] And every negro or molatto as aforesaid, being duely warned by the selectmen or other person appointed by them that shall neglect or refuse to attend and perform the labour and service, at the place and time as he is directed, shall forfeit and pay, to the use of the poor of such town or precinct, five shillings per diem for each day’s neglect of his duty in that respect.

And be it further enacted,

[Sect. 3.] That all free male negro’s or molatto’s, of the age of sixteen years and upward, able of body, in case of alarm, shall make their appearance at the parade of the military company of the precinct wherein they dwell, and attend such service, as the first commission officer of such company shall direct, during the time the company continues in armes, on pain of forfeiting the sum of twenty shillings to the use of the company, or performing eight day’s labour as aforesaid, without reasonable excuse, made and accepted, for not attending. And be it further enacted,

[Sect. 4.] That every free negro or molatto, who shall harbor or entertain any negro or molatto servant [i.e., slave] in his or her house without the leave and consent of their respective masters or mistresses, shall forfeit and pay the sum of five shillings to the use of the poor of the town, for each offence.

[Sect. 5.] And if any negro or molatto, as aforesaid, shall be unable to pay his or her fine, or shall neglect or refuse to attend the labour assign’d him as aforesaid, any of her majesty’s justices, upon complaint thereof made, are hereby impowred to commit such delinquent to the house of correction, there to receive the discipline of the house, and to be kept to hard labour double the number of days assign’d him to work as aforesaid, or as is the sum of his or her fine, at the rate of one shilling per diem. {Passed June 12; published July 4.
Here’s the law as published in 1759, and here’s the text on the state archives’ website.

The Boston selectmen tried to exact this labor from free black men from 1707 through 1767, as shown in this example. A special town meeting during the siege tried to do the same. As I read those records, it looks like the special rules for free blacks became increasingly unenforceable.

The records of other towns in Massachusetts might show whether their selectmen used the same power. We know that as of April 1775 many rural militia companies included African-American and Native American men alongside whites, though the old laws were still on the books.

TOMORROW: More militia exemptions.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Gen. Gage at Salem Maritime Park, 20-21 July

I didn’t hear about this event until yesterday, and it looks like the schedule is still being worked out (with one possible factor the rolling but oh-so-welcome thunderstorms):
General Gage and His Troops Return to Salem

In May of 1774, General Thomas Gage, the newly-appointed Governor of Massachusetts, arrived in Boston with some controversial orders in his pocket: move the capital of Massachusetts to Salem, where calmer heads would hopefully prevail after several years of upheaval in Boston. He was wrong. During that summer, the Massachusetts legislature defied him, sent representatives to the first Continental Congress, and rejected his authority as Governor, setting in motion the events that culminated in the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

To commemorate that event, Salem Maritime, the National Park in Salem, and the Center for 18th Century Life at Minute Man N.H.P. are once again hosting a British Encampment at Salem Maritime on July 20-21, 2013. The National Park Service has invited some of the best re-enactors in Massachusetts to portray General Gage, his staff, his troops, and the legislators and civilians that he met in Massachusetts.
The events are due to run 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. It makes an interesting bookend with last weekend’s reenactment of Gen. George Washington’s arrival in Cambridge in 1775. While the two homes Washington used are still in place, the house where Gage lived is now in Washington, D.C.—but of course there are many other Revolutionary-era sites to enjoy in Salem.

The image above comes from the N.P.S.’s gallery of photographs from a similar event in 2011.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Kempton Called Back to Service

Walter Spooner (1723-1803) was a representative to the Massachusetts General Court from the town of Dartmouth, which contained what’s become New Bedford. On 24 Jan 1776 Spooner wrote from Watertown, where the legislature was meeting, to Capt. Thomas Kempton of Dartmouth:

Sir—

It is with pleasure that I have it in my power to informe you that you are appointed a Lieut Colo. of a Regiment of Men to be raised as temporary reenforcement of men to continue for the Space of two months or until the first day of April next (if needed so long.) Jacob French is appointed Chief Colo. 50 men are to be raised in the County of Bristol, the other part are raised in the County of Cumberland, the Majr of F’[s] Regiment is appointed in the County & the Adjitent also, the other officers time would fail me to give you a perticuler account off.

Esqr. Baylies is appointed by the Court to come into the Town of Dartmouth in order to raise men. He will furnish you with more particular accompts. I also expect to be at home this weak and shall be glad to see you before I return again. Tho this appointment may be unexpected, yet I hope it will not be disagreeable. I wish your conduct may anser the expectations of your friends, for in your appointment I have taken no small part.

I with truth subscribe my Selfe

Your Friend,
W. Spooner.
Kempton had just finished eight months of service as a captain at the siege of Boston. He hadn’t reenlisted in the Continental Army at the end of 1775. But Gen. George Washington had asked the New England colonies to raise some militia regiments for a short period—two months in this case—to augment his depleted Continental forces. So the General Court gave Kempton a promotion from captain to lieutenant colonel and told him to report again.

Yesterday I quoted how Kempton’s grandson understood the way his Revolutionary War service started, as opposed to the slightly different story that documents from the time suggest. When Daniel Ricketson wrote his 1858 History of New Bedford, Kempton’s son told him that his father had “left service at the evacuation of Boston by the British troops” because of “a failure of health.” In fact, Lt. Col. Kempton’s term was up in April 1776.

It’s possible that health concerns played a role in Thomas Kempton’s decision not to reenlist in the Continental Army at the end of 1775 and later, though he was only in his mid-thirties and lived another thirty years. It’s also possible that Kempton had other reasons: a feeling that he’d done his part, pressure to be home with his family, better opportuntities in privateering (he had been a whaling captain years before) or civil government. But he did serve again in early 1776. When he died in New Bedford in 1806, the Columbian Centinel newspaper called him “Col. THOMAS KEMPTON, an aged and respectable inhabitant of that town.”

Today at 12:30 I’ll speak at Anderson House in Washington, D.C., about one of Thomas Kempton’s souvenirs of his military service in 1775: an engraved powderhorn now owned by that museum.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The British Plan to Burn Harvard College

On 22 Nov 1775, the Rev. Isaac Mansfield, Jr., a Continental Army chaplain, preached a Thanksgiving sermon in the camp at Roxbury. He leveled this accusation about the British military’s plans the previous April:
What, but the hand of Providence preserved the school of the prophets from their ravage, who would have deprived us of many advantages for moral or religious improvement.[?]
Okay, most of Mansfield’s listeners would probably have had little idea of what he was talking about. “School of the prophets”? But when he published this sermon the following year after becoming minister in Exeter, New Hampshire, Mansfield added a footnote:
“General Gage, as governor of this province, issued his precepts for convening a general assembly at Boston, designing to enforce a compliance with Lord North’s designing notion; they were to be kept as prisoners in garrison, till under the mouth of cannon and at the point of the bayonet they should be reduced to a mean and servile submission. To facilitate this matter, he was to send out a party to take possession of a magazine at Concord; presuming that this might be done without opposition, the said party upon their return from Concord were to lay waste till they should arrive at Cambridge common; there, after destroying the colleges [i.e., Harvard] and other buildings, they were to throw up an entrenchment upon the said common, their number was to be increased from the garrison [in Boston], and the next morning a part of the artillery to be removed and planted in the entrenchment aforesaid. This astonishing manoeuvre, it was supposed, would so effectually intimidate the constituents, that the general assembly by the compliance designed would literally represent their constituents.”

The author is not at liberty to publish the channel through which he received the foregoing; but begs leave to assure the reader, that it comes so direct that he cannot hesitate in giving credit to it. He recollects one circumstance, which renders it highly probable; Lord Percy (on April 19.) suspicious his progress to Concord might be retarded, by the plank of the bridge at Cambridge being taken away, brought out from Boston several loads of plank, with a number of carpenters; not finding occasion to use them, he carried them on his way to Concord, perhaps about a mile and an half from the bridge: About an hour after the plank were returned. If he had intended to repass that river at night, he must have reserved the plank; if he designed to stop in Cambridge, the plank must be an encumbrance. This conduct, in returning the plank, may be accounted for upon supposition of the foregoing plan of operation.
Mansfield thus accused the British commanders of planning to capture the Massachusetts legislators, destroy Harvard College, and fortify Cambridge common. He refused to identify his source for that inside information about enemy plans. And of course he was speaking in the midst of a war, when rumors and accusations fly at their fastest.

In fact, Mansfield’s claims don’t make sense. Gen. Thomas Gage did issue a call in September 1774 for the Massachusetts General Court to convene, but they were to gather in Salem, not Boston, and he quickly canceled that summons after the “Powder Alarm.” (The politicians gathered in Salem anyway, out of his reach, and formed a Provincial Congress instead.) There was no call for a legislature in April.

There was also nothing in Gen. Gage’s orders about Harvard. Indeed, the college was so little on Col. Percy’s mind on 19 April that he had to ask tutor Isaac Smith, Jr., which road led from there toward Concord. Percy didn’t have entrenching tools, and Cambridge was a poor place to stop and defend. So when Percy brought the column back through Cambridge, they didn’t pause at the college or the common, nor tried to recross the bridge over the Charles River, but pushed straight on to Charlestown, which was closer to the troops in Boston and more easily defended.

Not many authors repeated Mansfield’s accusations, but one who did say the British planned to burn Harvard was Frank Warren Coburn in The Battle of April 19, 1775, published in 1912. Coburn had found no further evidence of this plot. He merely wrote, “Mr. Mansfield fully believed such plans to have been made and states that his information came so direct that he could not hesitate to accept it…”

Coburn’s was one of the last histories of the Battle of Lexington and Concord written without access to many British sources or much interest in what the British actually planned or experienced, as opposed to what the provincials assumed and published about them. And however sincere those stories and accusations were, they aren’t solid evidence.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

“Making Saltpetre” Seminar in Boston, 2 April

On Tuesday, 2 April, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host a session of the Boston Area Early American History Seminar starting at 5:15. David Hsiung, professor at Juniata College, will present a paper on “Making Saltpetre for the Continental Army: How Americans Understood the Environment During the War of Independence.” His précis:
This case study focuses on how Americans understood the workings of the natural world as they imperfectly made gunpowder for the Continental Army. It argues that paying attention to the interactions between humans and the natural environment leads to a richer understanding of the war, and that modern American attitudes towards the environment have important roots in the Revolutionary period.
Juniata is known for its environmental study programs, and Prof. Hsiung is working on a history of the siege of Boston through the lens of environmental history.

The expert commenter on this paper will be Rob Martello from the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, who wrote a book on Paul Revere as manufacturer. I look forward to another uncommon perspective on the past. The paper is available online to seminar subscribers (in three pieces), and some hard copies might be available for members of the public to read before the discussion that afternoon.

American governments scrambled to promote the manufacture of gunpowder in 1775, but they had actually been trying that off and on for over a century. Back in June 1642, the Massachusetts General Court passed this resolution:
by raising and producing such materials amongst us as will perfect the making of gunpowder, the instrumental meanes that all nations lay hould on for their preservation, &c., do order that every plantation within this Colony shall erect a house in length about 20 or 30 foote, and twenty foote wide within one half year next coming, &c., to make saltpetre from urine of men, beasts, goates, henns, hogs, and horses’ dung, &c.
Urine provided nitrogen, a crucial ingredient of gunpowder. But it’s not hard to think why towns didn’t keep up that part of their local infrastructure.

(Satirical print from 1783 Britain courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Colin Nicolson on Gov. Francis Bernard, 20 Dec.

On Thursday, 20 December, at 3:00 P.M., the Colonial Society of Massachusetts will host a talk by Colin Nicolson, Lecturer in History and Politics at the University of Stirling in Scotland. The topic will be “Negotiating British Imperialism: Gov. Francis Bernard and the Stamp Act Crisis 1764-67.”

Nicolson wrote a biography of Bernard called The “Infamas Govener”, which no doubt confuses search engines. He’s editing the governor’s correspondence, being published in five volumes.

Bernard was royal governor of New Jersey for two and a half years and then of Massachusetts for nine years, August 1760 to August 1769. He had been gone from North America for half a decade by the time the Revolutionary War began. Yet he was probably one of the British Crown officials most involved in bringing it on.

When Bernard arrived in Massachusetts, he appears to have tried to work with local politicians. He put his sons in local schools instead of sending them home to Britain and invested in local land. (Indeed, he might have been too eager for local land.) But Bernard had the misfortune of following Gov. Thomas Pownall, who had become popular with the Boston merchants. His arrival corresponded with a shift at the Boston Customs office, making officials stricter about collecting duties.

Then Bernard decided to appoint Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson as Chief Justice of Massachusetts, setting aside Pownall’s promise to give James Otis, Sr., the next seat on the high court. Otis’s son James quit his royal appointments and allied with the Boston merchants to challenge Customs officers’ power to search for smuggled goods through writs of assistance.

Over the next few years Bernard tried to help enforce the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend duties, and otherwise promote the London government’s powers and priorities. When those laws produced violent protests, he recommended bringing troops to the town in 1768. He vetoed several opposition politicians’ seats on the Council, only to see towns elect many of them to the House instead. He demanded that the General Court rescind its letter of protest to other colonies and then dissolved the legislature when it refused.

But what really made Bernard infamous came in 1769, when someone in London leaked selections of his correspondence to government superiors. Those letters complained about Boston’s politicians, merchants, and mobs, and recommended changes to the Massachusetts charter that would have strengthened his hand. For New England Whigs, Bernard’s letters confirmed their suspicion that he was conspiring against their traditional rights. When he sailed away in August 1769, Boston celebrated. Nonetheless, the name of Bernardston, incorporated in 1762, still honors him.

Nicolson’s talk addresses the middle of Bernard’s Massachusetts career. The Stamp Act wasn’t his idea, but he did what he could to enforce the law and then to respond to the violent protests against it. Could any other royal appointee have done better? Or did Bernard’s personal choices and style exacerbate the situation?

The Colonial Society’s headquarters is at 87 Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill. This is a free event, with limited seating.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Vassalls’ Pension and Tonight’s Lecture in Medford

On 17 June 1858, an anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Massachusetts Historical Society held a special meeting at the house of member Henry W. Longfellow. Members shared some documents about the first owner of that house, John Vassall.

Massachusetts judge Lemuel Shaw recalled a case from early in his legal career that started when the state confiscated that property because Vassall was an absent Loyalist:
The estate having been confiscated by the Government because its owner was a Tory, when the commissioners were putting it up for sale, an old colored man, a slave, who had long served in the Vassal family, stepped forth, and said, that HE was no Tory, but a friend of liberty; and having lived on the estate all his life, he did not see any reason why he should be deprived of his dwelling. On petitioning the General Court, a resolve was framed, granting Tony a stipend of twelve pounds annually.

About 1810 (after Tony’s death), Cuba, his widow, went to the State Treasurer to get her stipend; but it was found that the resolve did not include herself. Mr. Shaw, then a member of the House, presented her petition for the continuance of the grant. It met with favor, and the annual sum was voted to Cuba during her natural life.
Shaw’s extemporaneous recollection wasn’t completely accurate, and reflects the dismissive racism of his time (referring to Tony and Cuba Vassall only by their first names), but it’s impressively close. The Massachusetts legislature responded to Tony Vassall’s petition by voting to pay “the sum of twelve pounds in specie, or a sum in bills of credit equivalent, to the said Anthony” each year.

Tony Vassall died in 1811, receiving obituaries in the Boston Repertory and Columbian Centinel. His widow Cuba petitioned for the pension to continue, and on 28 Feb 1812 the legislature granted her $40 per year. But she died only a few months later.

Tonight I’ll discuss the lives of Cuba Vassall and her mistress Penelope (Royall) Vassall at their first home in Massachusetts, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford. Later they lived on “Tory Row” in Cambridge; Penelope was John Vassall’s aunt and neighbor, and in the early 1770s Cuba was his property. I’ll discuss how the Revolution disrupted those old relationships and sent both women off on new paths. That talk starts at 7:30. Admission is free for members, $5 for non-members.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

New Old Letters from Isaiah Thomas

The American Antiquarian Society recently acquired twelve letters written by its founder, Isaiah Thomas. Among them are two to William Tudor, Jr., a Boston editor (and son of the America military’s first judge advocate general). According to the A.A.S.’s Almanac newsletter:

One is a reply to Tudor’s request for Thomas’s memories of James Otis, Jr. and the other concerns a Jewish phylactery found in western Massachusetts that was regarded by some as a proof that Native Americans were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.
Thomas wrote both letters in 1819. Tudor published his Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts in 1823. Evidently the letter didn’t offer good material since the book never mentions Thomas.

And that makes sense given the trajectory of Otis and Thomas’s careers. Otis became a political foe of the royal government in the 1760s, when Thomas was still a teenaged apprentice. Thomas released himself on his own recognizance and left Boston in 1765, returning in late 1770. By then Otis had suffered his first complete breakdown and was no longer a reliable political actor, with Samuel Adams superseding him in town meetings and the Massachusetts House.

Thomas and Otis worked on the same side of the political dispute for the next thirteen years, but their paths probably didn’t cross much. The two men were from different generations and classes. Anecdotes show Otis spending more time at Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette than at Thomas’s upstart Massachusetts Spy.

As for the Jewish phylactery or tefillin, that was a new one on me. This article by Lee M. Friedman from the American Jewish Historical Quarterly in 1917 reports that a farmer plowed it up in Pittsfield in 1815. Several gentlemen examined the scrolls written in Hebrew, including a Harvard professor, as detailed in this post at These Mysterious Hills. Eventually the tefillin was sent to Thomas, who was then collecting material for the A.A.S. And he lost track of it.

But that didn’t deter the Rev. Ethan Smith from publishing a book in 1823 (the same year as the Otis biography) arguing that the phylactery was proof that Native Americans were the Lost Tribes of Israel. One of Smith’s parishioners became a close associate of Joseph Smith (no relation), and some of the minister’s ideas appear in the earliest Mormon writings. Most scholars of the time felt, however, that the phylactery had been dropped in that field—used as a fort and a trading site—during the decades of travel by Europeans.

Years later, an A.A.S. librarian found a tefillin in the society’s collections and deduced that it was the Pittsfield phylactery.