J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 09, 2023

“Nothing but poor dead dogs!”

This week the B.B.C.’s History Today magazine published an article by Stephanie Howard-Smith titled “The War on Dogs,” apparently boiled down from her 2018 article in the Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies.

Howard-Smith writes:
Late in the summer of 1760, London was gripped by reports of mad dogs attacking people in the streets. On 26 August the Common Council of the City of London met and the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Chitty, issued a proclamation declaring that for the next two months, any dogs in the streets of the city should be killed and buried in mass graves. Similar orders followed in the surrounding areas.

Monetary rewards were offered to the officials initially tasked with the culling, but the cull inevitably descended into mob violence. Even pets were caught up in the bloodshed. The cullers clubbed pointers standing on their doorsteps and drowned greyhounds going for walks. A dog leaving the city on a lead was reportedly bludgeoned in the street.

The dog-loving writer and antiquarian Horace Walpole described the carnage he saw during the first week of the cull in a letter to a friend:
The streets are the very picture of the murder of the innocents – One drives over nothing but poor dead dogs! The dear, good-natured, honest, sensible creatures! Christ! How can anybody hurt them?
This sort of dog cull was not particularly unusual in itself – Edinburgh saw a cull of street dogs in 1738. Rather, it was notable because it was met with such vocal opposition.

An artist produced a satirical print of the cull depicting Thomas Chitty as King Herod and the cullers as violence-hungry thugs. Londoners began writing letters to newspapers criticising the Common Council’s order. Many were concerned that the brutality meted out to dogs might awaken latent savagery that could be transposed onto humans.
That satirical print can be viewed here, courtesy of the British Museum. Other figures in the cartoon included John Fielding and William Hogarth. The latter’s dog Trump, shown above in 1745, has his own Wikipedia page.

Thursday, June 08, 2023

Teleconnections of 1783

As the eastern U.S. of A. deals with smoke from forest fires in Canada, it seems appropriate to link to a recorded book talk about a similarly widespread environmental phenomenon that started in 1783.

I’ve mentioned Katrin Kleemann’s research a couple of times before. In this recording, she describes her book A Mist Connection: An Environmental History of the Laki Eruption of 1783 and Its Legacy, published this year, and answers questions.

The video description says:
In the summer of 1783, an unusual dry fog descended upon large parts of the northern hemisphere. The fog brought with it bloodred sunsets, a foul sulfuric odor, and a host of other peculiar weather events. Inspired by the Enlightenment, many naturalists attempted to find reasonable explanations for these occurrences.

Between 8 June 1783 and 7 February 1784, a 27-kilometer-long fissure volcano erupted in the Icelandic highlands. It produced the largest volume of lava released by any volcanic eruption on planet Earth in the last millennium. In Iceland, the eruption led to the death of one-fifth of the population. The jetstream carried its volcanic gases further afield to Europe and beyond, where they settled as a fog, the origin of which puzzled naturalists and laypersons.

A Mist Connection is an environmental history that documents the Laki eruption and its consequences for Iceland and the wider world. The book combines methods of historical disaster research, climate history, global history, history of science, and geology in an interdisciplinary approach. Icelandic flood lava eruptions of this scale have a statistical recurrence period of 200 to 500 years; it is crucial to understand their nature so that we can prepare for the next one.
One of the concepts Kleemann uses in this talk is “teleconnections,” a term borrowed from meteorology to refer to the effects of a weather phenomenon distant in space and time from that event. An event can also have teleconnections within societies, she argues.

For example, the eruption of 1783 didn’t kill thousands of Icelanders in an explosion; rather, it poisoned the air and the pasturage, killing most of the crops and livestock, and that led to widespread famine. The event has also been linked to a famine in Egypt as decreased rainfall in Africa put less water in the Nile. Some historians argue the volcano was also a factor in the French famine of 1785, which exacerbated the Revolution that started four years later.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Background to the Boston Tea Party

If Parliament had enacted a tariff on tea in 1765 instead of a Stamp Act for North America, would colonists have resisted that new tax as strongly as they did? It’s impossible to answer a historical counterfactual question, but nonetheless I keep asking myself this one.

The tea supply was, after all, made possible by the might and spread of the British Empire. Taxing people who enjoyed that commodity to support the imperial government therefore might seem justified.

Many colonists would have paid the stamp tax directly, making it easy for American Whigs to show that new revenue laws affected everyone, even farmers (and most Americans were farmers). In contrast, only the merchants importing tea paid the tea tariff. They passed that cost on to their customers, to be sure, but it wasn’t so obvious.

Furthermore, unlike some of the actions taxed by the Stamp Act, such as court filings and marriages, no one was legally required to buy tea. And yet, because tea supplied that pleasant touch of caffeine, many Americans were in the habit of drinking it.

In 1765, therefore, Americans might well have grumbled about an imperial tea tariff, but not massively and energetically enough to render the new law unenforceable. Would that revenue have satisfied the ministry in London enough that successive administrations wouldn’t have tried new tax laws? Or would it have provided a precedent for more tariffs based on similar commodities?

As it was, the ideas that the British constitution rightly bars taxation without representation, that corrupt royal appointees were draining money from the colonies, and that these problems could affect even people in small towns far from the ports were widespread by 1773. That made the Tea Act loom larger than it otherwise would have.

In this Sestercentennial year for the tea crisis, many institutions are examining that conflict through events and exhibits. Of course, the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum focuses on the climax of that crisis every day. It’s got two events coming up exploring the background of the event and commemorations of it.

Thursday, 8 June, 7:00 to 8:30 P.M.
Canton to Boston: How Chinese Tea Steeped at American Revolution
Abigail’s Tea Room and online (registration required)

Tea historian Bruce Richardson was recently granted access to the vaults of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, where he searched for teas like those tossed into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. He will share news of his detective work and the fascinating journey of the Boston teas as they left Canton bound for London’s East India Company warehouses and Colonial America.

Sunday, 25 June, 7:00 P.M.
Rev War Revelry: The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum
Facebook Live

Join the hosts at Emerging Revolutionary War as they talk with staff of the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum on the history of the events leading up to and on December 16, 1773, learn more about their interactive museum and learn about all the events planned around this year’s 250th anniversary.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Constituting Comics

Constitution Illustrated by R. Sikoryak is a unique edition of the document that frames the government of the U.S. of A.

Each clause of that Constitution is, as the title says, illustrated. And in color yet.

The School Library Journal’s Good Comics for Kids website said:
This book is educational in more ways than one. Beyond the legal chronicle, each page is drawn to resemble a different comic strip or character. Sikoryak is an amazing mimic of art styles, so everyone from the Peanuts gang to the cast of G.I. Joe appears herein. An index lists his influences, crediting the original artists, listing the characters, and stating roughly when they originally appeared. This is a pocket-sized history of popular comics.

Sikoryak did an amazing job choosing the comics to emulate. Diverse characters drawn in the style of Raina Telgemeier stand in for “we the people”. Dennis the Menace appears on the page about age limits, Uncle Scrooge for taxes, Sgt. Rock for raising an army, and Beetle Bailey for the militia. Calvin and Hobbes view a field of arguing snowmen while, of course, Wonder Woman explains women’s suffrage.
Sikoryak is now working on a similar edition of the Declaration of Independence, and a mini black-and-white sampler (what the comics industry might once have called an “ashcan comic”) is available for sale.

The complete Declaration Illustrated volume is scheduled for publication in 2024. With some irony, the publisher of both volumes is Drawn & Quarterly, based in Canada.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Hearing about the Seven Years’ War, Top to Bottom

Yesterday by chance I listened to two podcast episodes about the French & Indian War that were so diametrically different in approach that they ended up being good complements of each other.

One recording was from the History Extra podcast, issued by B.B.C. History Magazine. It was in that podcast’s “Everything You Wanted to Know” series, interviewing an expert about a historical topic using basic, far-reaching questions drawn from listeners and internet searches.

(Though this “Seven Years’ War” episode is restricted on the magazine website, it appears to be freely available through advertising-supported podcast services.)

In this case the interviewee is Jeremy Black, professor emeritus at the University of Exeter. Prof. Black came through Lexington fifteen years ago, as I reported back here. He tends to speak with a great deal of authority, based on a great deal of knowledge. Among his remarks about the French & Indian War were:
  • It was really two wars laid on top of each other, one involving lots of countries on the European continent and one between Britain and France in their imperial territories (with Spain making a poor choice to join in late).
  • Though often called a “world war,” should we really apply that label when China’s huge population wasn’t involved? Hadn’t European powers fought in many parts of the globe simultaneously before?
Those remarks give the sense of how this conversation took a big-picture approach.

In contrast, the 2 Complicated 4 History podcast from Dr. Lynn Price Robbins and Isaac S. Loftus get into small details on “George Washington, The Seven Years’ War, & Post-traumatic Stress.” Their guest was Daniel Cross, who portrays Col. Washington for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (as shown above).

Using Washington, his fellow Virginians, and British army officers as case studies, Robbins, Loftus, and Cross looked at the painful effects of warfare, particularly Braddock’s defeat. They suggest that George Washington’s marriage to Martha Custis gave him not only wealth and status but also the stability he needed to recover from the turmoil of the preceding years. Other men weren’t so fortunate.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

“He had faked all the seemingly new information”

As I’ve been discussing, Donald McCormick was the first author to present certain claims about Sir Francis Dashwood’s “Monks of Medmenham Abbey” and Benjamin Franklin, both under his own name in The Hell-Fire Club (1958) and under the pseudonym Richard Deacon.

McCormick/Deacon wrote about a very wide range of topics, from medieval poetry to Mossad. His Wikipedia page explains: “In his prolific output as a historian, McCormick was attracted to controversial topics on which verifiable evidence was scarce.” He built his books around what he described as newly discovered sources: diaries, long-missing documents, private interviews, and so on.

As McCormick or Deacon, he surrounded extracts from that unseen material with quotations and facts from standard sources. However, when experts sought the new documents, they were nowhere to be found. Instead, in many cases experts found those mysterious new sources were full of contradictions and impossibilities.

I’m reminded of how in the last few months people have been discovering that the A.I. experiment ChatGPT can imitate the form of scholarly or legal writing so well as to produce authentic-seeming citations and quotations out of thin air. McCormick did the same thing half a century ago.

In 1959 he published The Mystery of Lord Kitchener’s Death. In the late 1990s Melvin Harris wrote this essay about analyzing the claims of that book. Harris “ultimately reached this firm conclusion: the only new evidence (telling first-person 'revelations') was simply manufactured.”

Harris later turned to McCormick’s other book from 1959, The Identity of Jack the Ripper, finding its claims to be chronologically impossible.
…by 1987 the case against McCormick was overwhelming. He had faked all the seemingly new information that he had used in writing his book. When I put that to him he was truly staggered. No one had ever seen through the give-away bogus chronology before. He himself was blind to the fact that he had made a damning and fundamental blunder. Faced with the truth he could only wriggle and, first of all, try to blame [his source] Dutton. But his own false testimony about the AGE of the entries told against him. . . .

I wanted to set the record straight in a new book. I asked him if he now wished to publicly name the faker of the poem, but he said he was not ready. He was still happy, though, for me to use the old formula, that it was faked by "A very clever man who enjoys his quiet fun", and he winked as he said it! Yes, he was a likeable rogue. But he was trapped by his very likeability. Over the years he had kept up the bluff with so many people that he found it hard to disentangle himself, as I found out when I later wrote to him. He was, by then, unwilling to commit himself in writing, instead he wrote letters full of teasing, enigmatic clues.
Other researchers have found the same pattern in McCormick’s other work. Blogging as “Dr. Beachcombing,” the folklore researcher Dr. Simon Young addressed one of the pseudonymous books:
Richard Deacon in his Madoc and the Discovery of America (1966) made an exciting claim. A French scholar Duvivier had been in touch and had told Deacon that a précis of the [long-lost Welsh] poem survived in a French manuscript. This fourteenth-century manuscript supposedly told how Madog with his sea-nymph wife searched for the fountain of youth in the ocean. They found the fountain and then brought others there in a colony where all lived according to the precepts of love.

However, after the celebration, the problem. Richard Deacon’s book has three desperately important sources that not a single other Madog scholar has ever seen. And they are described in such a way that the author could deny the source: e.g. Deacon was relying on the French scholar Duvivier (who Beachcombing has found no trace of).
In 1976 McCormick as Deacon wrote Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General. Here’s the author Willow Winsham on one of its crucial new sources:
According to Deacon, [The Tendring Witchcraft Revelations] was an unpublished manuscript, dated 1725 and authored by C. S. Perryman. It consisted of information that had been “compiled by divers informers” between 1645 and 1650, and covered a wealth of information about Hopkins and the witch hunts of Essex and Suffolk. Throughout the book, much of which is based on the information contained in these “Revelations”, Deacon spins a tale of intrigue and espionage, magic and mystery. . . .

While still referenced by the unwary writer today, it is generally accepted that the "document" was in fact a product of the author's imagination. It has never been seen, and it is safe to say that it never existed outside of the fabricated quotes scattered through his book on Hopkins.
In 1993 McCormick wrote a short biography of Ian Fleming, whom he actually knew. The author Jeremy Duns’s response includes these remarks:
McCormick’s biography contained several elaborate hoaxes about the life and work of Ian Fleming, all of which have been reported in creditable newspapers and books, and continue to be to this day. . . .

McCormick footnoted his quotes from Delmer and Peter Fleming to issues of The Times from September 1969. I looked them up, and found that McCormick had omitted a rather salient fact: both Delmer and Peter Fleming had written about this incident in terms of dismissing an earlier telling of it. By none other than Donald McCormick. . . .

McCormick provided a footnote for this, citing Madeleine Masson’s 1975 biography Christine: A Search for Christine Granville, but he didn’t provide the corresponding page number. There was a very good reason for that: that particular piece of information didn’t in fact appear anywhere in Masson’s book.
In 1979 McCormack as Deacon published The British Connection, which among other claims accused the Cambridge economist A. C. Pigou of being a Soviet spy. That book was withdrawn by the publisher under legal threat. (Not the last time that happened to McCormick’s books.) The rival economist Friedrich Hayek embraced the accusation, however, which led scholars in 2014 to devote a whole volume of their Hayek: A Collaborative Biography journal to essays on McCormick’s frauds.

I’m sure you see the pattern here.

The reason no other researchers have studied the crucial documents and sources McCormick/Deacon quoted about Benjamin Franklin and Baron le Despencer is that those things never existed. The man made them up to create dramatic revelations. Later authors were suckered into quoting his books as if they were reliable. The quotations thus got laundered into wider use. 

We can’t rely on any “source” that McCormick/Deacon introduced to the world. Fortunately, Google Books and other resources make it possible to trace published quotations back through time. If a trail of citations leads back to a McCormick/Deacon book and stops, then we should throw that claim away.

COMING UP: So where does that leave Franklin and the “Monks of Medmenham Abbey”?

Saturday, June 03, 2023

“Whimsical and Puzzling”

Yesterday I quoted from books published in the late 1900s by Donald McCormick and Richard Deacon linking Benjamin Franklin to Baron le Despencer’s “Monks of Medmenham Abbey” and even to wartime espionage.

Those books pointed to five separate pieces of evidence:
  • a letter from Franklin praising Despencer’s “exquisite sense of classical design.”
  • an anecdote from the town of Marlow about Franklin being called “Brother Benjamin of Cookham.”
  • The “wine book” detailing purchases for the Medmenham group.
  • a story told by Despencer’s illegitimate daughter Rachael Frances Antonia Lee to the author Thomas de Quincey.
  • a 3 June 1778 entry in the diary of John Norris of Hughenden.
That may look like an impressive chain of evidence, but there are problems with it.

First, Donald McCormick and Richard Deacon were actually the same person. McCormick used the Deacon pseudonym for books he wrote on military and espionage matters.

Thus, these books don’t show us one author confirming and building on the work of another. Instead, the same man was repeating his own earlier claims—in fact, contradicting one of those claims.

Second, no author besides McCormick/Deacon has reported seeing that “wine book” of the Medmenham Monks. No other source describes the “Brother Benjamin of Cookham” anecdote from Marlow. No one else claimed to have seen the papers of John Norris who allegedly passed on Franklin’s intelligence by heliograph on a particular date in 1778.

Third, the words about “Brother Benjamin” Franklin as a British intelligence source that McCormick/Deacon quoted as coming from Despencer to Lee to De Quincey don’t appear in any of De Quincey’s writings. Or anywhere else but McCormick/Deacon’s books and subsequent books citing them.

Fourth, the Franklin letter praising Despencer’s “exquisite sense of classical design” and “whimsical and puzzling…imagery” doesn’t show up in Benjamin Franklin’s writings. And those writings have been meticulously collected in more than forty volumes and are now available for anyone to search at Founders Online.

It’s worth noting that McCormick/Deacon never provided a date for that “letter from Benjamin Franklin to a Mr. Acourt, of Philadelphia.” No correspondent with that name appears in Franklin’s papers. In a 1987 book, a Despencer descendant changed “Arcourt” to “D’Arcourt” and pegged the letter to 1772, but the Franklin experts still don’t have it.

And fifth, Donald McCormick/Richard Deacon was a notorious liar.

TOMORROW: A “fraudulent career.”

Friday, June 02, 2023

“Brother Benjamin of Cookham” Surfaces

In 1958 a British journalist named Donald McCormick published a book titled The Hell-Fire Club: The Story of the Amorous Knights of Wycombe. (It’s been reprinted in various forms since, including the eye-catching paperback edition shown here.)

McCormick described documents which, he said, hinted at how Benjamin Franklin was intimately acquainted with the activity of the notorious “Monks of Medmenham Abbey,” founded by his friend Baron le Despencer (formerly Sir Francis Dashwood, baronet).

For example, McCormick wrote:
A letter from Benjamin Franklin to a Mr. Acourt, of Philadelphia, mentioned “the exquisite sense of classical design, charmingly reproduced by the Lord le Despencer at West Wycombe, whimsical and puzzling as it may sometimes be in its imagery, is as evident below the earth as above it.”
That looked like a clear allusion to the caves that Despencer had decorated for his club.

And here was another hint:
It is also claimed that Franklin was a visitor to Borgnis’ caves at Marlow—apparently he was a keen speleologist—and on a visit to an inn at Marlow that landlord once asked: ‘Is not that Master Franklin?’ ‘No,’ he was told, ‘it is Brother Benjamin of Cookham.’ There was much mirth at this reply.

In the wine books of the [Medmenham] society there are references to “Brother Francis of Cookham” and “Brother Thomas of Cookham,” but none to “Brother Benjamin”. It would almost seem that “Brothers of Cookham” was used as an alias in certain circumstances…
McCormick’s book became a source for Daniel P. Mannix’s similar The Hellfire Club, published in the U.S. of A. a year later. [Incidentally, I met Mannix when I was a boy, brought together by mutual interests.] Many subsequent authors have quoted one book or the other rather than the original sources McCormick described.

More revelations were offered in two books by Richard Deacon, A History of the British Secret Service (1969) and The Silent War: A History of Western Naval Intelligence (1978), both reprinted over the years.

I’ll quote from a 1970 Argosy magazine article based on the first book:
An entry in the [Medmenham] society’s wine books reads: “On the 7th of July, 1773, Brother Benjamin of Cookham: 1 bottle of claret, 1 of port and 1 of calcavello.”
So, on closer examination, “Brother Benjamin” appeared in that source after all?

In that article Deacon provided another story about “Brother Benjamin,” with implications about Franklin’s activities during the war:
Toward the middle of the nineteenth century Lord le Despencer’s illegitimate daughter, Rachel Antonina Lee, told historian Thomas deQuincey that her father, in his last years, would often raise a toast to “Brother Benjamin of Cookham, who remained our friend and secret ally all the time he was in the enemy camp.”

She stated flatly that “Brother Benjamin” was Franklin, and that he “sent intelligence to London by devious routes, through Ireland, by courier from France and through a number of noble personages in various country houses.”
But wait! Deacon had another revelation:
John Norris, of Hughenden Manor,…had built a hundred-foot tower on a hill at Camberley, in Surrey, from the top of which he used to signal with a heliograph’s flashing mirror to Lord le Despencer at West Wycombe, to place bets. In those papers, this enigmatic note appears: “3 June, 1778. Did this day Heliograph Intelligence from Dr. Franklin in Paris to Wycombe.”
All that looks like a chain of evidence linking Franklin to Despencer’s club—and Despencer to Franklin’s wartime espionage.

We can find the quotations printed the McCormick and Deacon books repeated in other titles over the years since, and of course on the internet.

But the chain isn’t as strong as it might seem.

TOMORROW: The weakest links.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Franklin and the Monks of Medmenham

Over forty years ago I bought a paperback copy of Murder in the Hellfire Club by Donald Zochert. It was a historical murder mystery written in 1978 that featured Benjamin Franklin as the detective.

I never finished that book, but I suspect I’ve still got it. Somewhere.

I recalled that book after recent reading about the mid-1700s “Monks of Medmenham Abbey”—a group which, as discussed here, was dubbed a “Hellfire Club” by authors only in the next century. Franklin’s alleged connection to that organization struck me as a good case study of what we actually know.

Several books about this “Hellfire Club” claim that Franklin joined the group in 1757 or shortly afterward. He came to Britain that year and stayed until 1762. The Medmenham group had not yet fallen apart over political offices. Franklin knew lots of people, so a connection was at least possible.

But as for evidence of a link between Franklin and the Medmenham Monks? Well, there really isn’t any. One author, Geoffrey Ashe, acknowledged this in a backhanded way in his 1974 book, The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality:
By the later 1750s a change had set in. Some of the senior brethren were losing interest, and were being replaced by a fresh intake. To this phase, if to any, belongs the reputed membership of Benjamin Franklin. He sounds a surprising person to meet in this setting, but he was more anti-clerical, heavier in his drinking, and laxer in his sexual habits and outlook than American hagiography cares to admit. Dodington’s pamphleteer James Ralph was a former comrade of his and accompanied him on his first trip to England. Later in the life of Dashwood we encounter Franklin on close and admiring terms with him, and staying as his guest at West Wycombe. It was in 1757, however, that Franklin made his second visit to England, which lasted five years; the Dashwood connection could have begun then, and the story of his admission to Medmenham has not been refuted.
Look at all the hedging: “To this phase, if to any”; “reputed membership”; “could have begun”; and the crowning “has not been refuted.”

Of course, accurate history doesn’t rest on repeating statements that haven’t been refuted. It depends on citing evidence for the statements one makes.

I searched Franklin biographies for such evidence. His close friendship with Baron le Despencer, formerly the baronet Sir Francis Dashwood, in the 1770s is well documented by letters, Franklin’s autobiography, even a book they wrote together. Twenty years earlier Dashwood had been a founder of the Medmenham group. But did he make Franklin a member, or invite him to meetings?

The most that Phillips Russell could say in The True Benjamin Franklin (1926) is:
In Lord le Despencer Franklin found the kind of man which he most looked up to. His lordship was elegantly wicked, and so was possessed of a quality which Franklin admired with his whole heart. There can be little doubt that membership in the Hell Fire Club, though perhaps not accepted, would have enticed him irresistibly. We already know how he loved clubs and good company.
In sum, Russell had no evidence Despencer invited Franklin to his Medmenham club and no evidence that Franklin accepted, but wasn’t it fun to imagine?

And then in 1958 an author published a book about the Medmenham Monks with tantalizing hints that Franklin was indeed involved.

TOMORROW: The crucial breakthrough?

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Larson on American Inheritance in Boston, 31 May

On Wednesday, 31 May, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host a talk by Edward J. Larson on his new book, American Inheritance: Liberty & Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765–1795.

The publisher’s description of the book says:
New attention from historians and journalists is raising pointed questions about the founding period: was the American revolution waged to preserve slavery, and was the Constitution a pact with slavery or a landmark in the antislavery movement? . . .

With slavery thriving in Britain’s Caribbean empire and practiced in all of the American colonies, the independence movement’s calls for liberty proved narrow, though some Black observers and others made their full implications clear. In the war, both sides employed strategies to draw needed support from free and enslaved Blacks, whose responses varied by local conditions. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, a widening sectional divide shaped the fateful compromises over slavery that would prove disastrous in the coming decades.

Larson’s narrative delivers poignant moments that deepen our understanding: we witness New York’s tumultuous welcome of Washington as liberator through the eyes of Daniel Payne, a Black man who had escaped enslavement at Mount Vernon two years before. Indeed, throughout Larson’s history it is the voices of Black Americans that prove the most convincing of all on the urgency of liberty.
Larson is University Professor of History and Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University. His books include The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States, 1783-1789; A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign; and Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, which received a Pulitzer Prize.

This talk will be a hybrid event. The Zoom feed will start at 6:00 P.M. while in-person attendees can enjoy a reception in the preceding half-hour. Register for either form of access here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Brekus on “American ‘Choseness’,” 31 May

On Wednesday, 31 May, the Old North Church will host the 2023 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lecture on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State, delivered by Harvard Divinity School’s Dr. Catherine Brekus.

Prof. Brekus’s topic will be “The Myth of American ‘Chosenness’.” The talk will be followed by a panel discussion featuring four more thinkers on religion and then a reception, all co-hosted by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Brekus is the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School, chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and an associate member of the Program in American Studies and the Department of History.

She is currently writing a book about the relationship between American nationalism and Christianity and co-authoring a biography of Sarah Edwards (1710–1758) with Harry Stout and Ken Minkema. Among her many articles and books are Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 and Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelicalism in Early America.

The panel members will be:
  • The Rev. Dr. Jaimie Crumley (moderator), Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah and the outgoing Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated in Boston.
  • The Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher, Ph.D., assistant bishop in the Episcoal Church’s Diocese of Massachusetts.
  • Dr. Michael Hoberman, professor of American literature at Fitchburg State University and author of New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America.
  • The Rev. Darrell Hamilton, Administrative Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain and Protestant Chaplain at Babson College.
Doors will open at the church at 5:00 P.M. Prof. Brekus will speak for half an hour starting at 5:30, and the panel discussion will fill the next hour. For in-person attendees, the reception will last until 8:00. This event is free for all, either in person or online. Register through this link.

Monday, May 29, 2023

In Memory of Jonathan Hale

On the night of 4 Mar 1776, the Continental Army moved onto the Dorchester peninsula and started to fortify a position on the heights.

On 5 March, the British military inside Boston started a countermove, then aborted it when the weather made an already difficult mission impossible.

On 6 March, Gen. William Howe ordered the king’s forces and Loyalists to prepare to evacuate the town.

On on 7 March, militia captain Jonathan Hale of Glastonbury, Connecticut, died in Roxbury.

Hale’s death wasn’t mentioned in any account of fighting, which leads to the conclusion that he died of illness, possibly a form of “camp fever.” He had turned fifty-five the previous month.

Capt. Hale’s body was buried in a local burying-ground later named for nearby Walter Street. The original headstone read:
Here lyes Buried ye. Body of Capt Jonathan Hale of Glastonbury in Connecticut who dyed March 7 1776, in ye. 56 year of his age.
Back in Glastonbury, this line was entered into the church records:
Capt. Jonathan Hale, died in the army at Jamaica plains, Roxbury, Massachusetts bay.
In the late nineteenth century the remains of other Revolutionary War casualties, unknown soldiers who had died at the Loring-Greenough House and other army hospitals, were moved to the same cemetery, and a single memorial installed for them.

The Hale grave marker disappeared by the end of that century, and the Sons of the American Revolution installed a new stone, shown above, courtesy of photographer BSN and Find a Grave.

I suspect there’s another stone memorializing Capt. Hale, in a curious way.

In the fall of 1776 the late captain’s son, also named Jonathan, did some service in the American military. I think he mobilized with a militia unit to defend either the Connecticut coast (Col. Erastus Wolcott’s regiment had that mission in late 1776) or New York City.

In September, this Jonathan Hale came back to Glastonbury. The church records record his death:
Oct. 1, Jonathan Hale, died a few days after he returned sick from the army.
A Hale genealogy also reports that the man’s teen-aged sister Jerusha died on 26 September. While the records don’t state what he died of, that’s consistent with him catching dysentery in camp and bringing it home.

The younger Jonathan Hale’s original grave marker survives, and it says:
In Memory of Mr. Jonathan Son of Capt. Jonathan & Mrs. Elizabeth Hale who died Oct. ye. 1st. AD. 1776, in ye. 31st. Year of his Age.
Nearby is another Sons of the American Revolution marker that says:
Revolutionary War Capt.
Jonathan Hale 2d
Col. Wolcott’s Regt.
Died Oct. 1776
AE. 30.
I suspect that latter stone mixes together the two Jonathan Hales, father and son. The father served in Wolcott’s regiment as a captain, but I see no contemporaneous record of the son being an officer. Yet that’s definitely the son’s death data. This stone thus serves as a memorial to the son’s military service, not mentioned on his own marker, and a cenotaph for the father, buried one hundred miles away.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Capt. Jonathan Hale at the Siege of Boston

Jonathan Hale was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, on 1 Feb 1721, the eldest surviving child of Jonathan and Sarah (Talcott) Hale. As Jonathan grew up, his father held many public offices—town clerk, deputy to the Connecticut legislature, justice of the peace, and militia colonel among them.

The younger Jonathan Hale married Elizabeth Welles of Glastonbury in January 1744. Her father was likewise a legislator and militia colonel, so this marriage joined two of the town’s leading families. The groom’s father provided the couple with their own farmland.

Jonathan, Jr., and Elizabeth started having children the following December. Their first three were named, of course, Elizabeth, Jonathan, and Elizabeth—the first baby having died young. By 1770, Elizabeth had given birth to twelve children, eleven of them still alive.

Meanwhile, Jonathan’s younger brother Elizur went to Yale College and came back to Glastonbury to practice medicine. According to the 1885 guide to Yale graduates, “He is said to have been of dignified though rough exterior, witty and sarcastic, but benevolent and very useful.”

In 1772, Jonathan’s father died. He inherited more land and an enslaved man named Newport, and he got to drop the “Junior” after his name. By then he had become an officer in the Connecticut militia himself.

War broke out to the north in 1775. At the end of that year, the enlistments of New Englanders who had joined the army besieging Boston expired. In some desperation, Gen. George Washington asked the nearby colonies to send militia regiments for a few weeks to keep the British army bottled up.

Erastus Wolcott of East Windsor, son of a former governor, was commissioned colonel of one of Connecticut’s militia regiments. Among his captains was Jonathan Hale of Glastonbury—now a fifty-four-year-old grandfather. The regiment appears to have set out in early January 1776. It was assigned to the southern wing of the American forces in Roxbury under Gen. Joseph Spencer.

The Rev. Joseph Perry, a chaplain with those militia forces, wrote in his diary for 27 February:
About one P.M. when almost ready to dine came an alarm by General Spencers’ Sergeant brought it. The account was that the Regulars had landed on Dorchester point. Coll. Wolcott was ordered forth with to turn out with his Regiment. The Coll. sent the alarm to his Captins in every quarter to parade before his house immediately for an attack. . . .

Every face looked serious but determined and the thing was real to us. In a few moments the whole Regiment would have been moving to the expected scene of blood, but were countermanded by order from Genrl Spencer informing it was a false alarm. The men got out of the rain and mud as fast as they could and all was peace again.
Continental commanders were preparing to move onto the Dorchester heights and antsy about anything disrupting that plan. Washington wrote to Gen. Artemas Ward suggesting that he put “Six or Eight trusty men by way of Lookouts or Patrols” on that peninsula, “For should the Enemy get Possession of those Hills before us they would render it a difficult task to dispossess them.”


Saturday, May 27, 2023

Dispatches from an Age of Equipage

The blog of the Yale University Press in London recently featured an essay by Penelope J. Corfield, author of The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain, that intrigued me.

Corfield is an Emeritus Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and President of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

In this essay Corfield wrote:
I decided to provide a cultural overview of what people in the eighteenth century thought of their own era. Obviously, the surviving evidence came chiefly from the literate, who were able to record their views – although I also take note of popular songs and sayings. But I searched widely among the less well known and the completely unknown, as well as among the famous. It was the equivalent of tapping into Georgian journalism, both reflecting and trying to influence contemporary attitudes.

And the method that I used was to collect all the eighteenth-century statements that I could find, which took the form of a dictum: ‘It is an age of xxx’ (a common formulation) or a ‘century of xxx’. All these commentaries had to be made in the moment and of the moment. I was not interested (for this purpose) in people’s retrospective verdicts. But I wanted to know what they thought at the time – without any fore-knowledge of the outcome. . . .

A fairly sizable group defined the times in terms of material goods. . . . Thus an onlooker defined the era in 1736 ‘an age of Equipage’ – the smart term for a coach and a team of horses; or in 1756 as ‘this age of Vauxhalls and Ranelaghs’, referring to the new vogue for attending public pleasure gardens.

But much the largest category throughout the collection was the one I classified as ‘mood’. Some of the most frequently repeated claims were those expressing doubt: as in ‘an age of uncertainty’; ‘an age of anxiety’; ‘worrying times’. One British commentator in 1800 was completely woeful: ‘Never was the world in so calamitous or so perilous a state as at this moment’. (Hard not to laugh; but it was written in all seriousness).

Other onlookers, meanwhile, were full of hope, detecting ‘light’; ‘improvement’; even ‘an age in which knowledge is rapidly approaching towards perfection’. (The last quotation came from the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1776, when in euphoric vein).
In this essay, and in her book, Corfield ends up perceiving more optimism than pessimism in eighteenth-century Britain.