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

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Monday, July 04, 2022

“Rising up in oppugnation to the powers of government”

In the interest of equal time, I’m going to quote from former governor Thomas Hutchinson’s public response to the Declaration of Independence.

He called his booklet Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia.

Samuel Johnson gave this as one definition of “stricture”: “A slight touch upon a subject; not a set discourse.” Soon, however, the word came to have the meaning of “an adverse criticism.”

In sending around copies of the booklet, Hutchinson called it a “bagatelle,” so he probably had the first meaning of the word “strictures” in mind. Nonetheless, he definitely offered adverse criticism of the American document.

The exiled governor’s essay took the form of a letter to an unnamed earl (in fact the Earl of Hardwicke, a Rockinghamite) explaining what the Americans were on about. That meant analyzing, and dismissing, all the grievances in the Declaration, some of which Hutchinson knew were about him.

As for the opening paragraph that we focus more on today, Hutchinson said only this:
They begin my Lord, with a false hypothesis, that the colonies are one distinct people, and the kingdom another, connected by political bands. The Colonies, politically considered, never were a distinct people from the kingdom. There never has been but one political band, and that was just the same before the first Colonists emigrated as it has been ever since, the Supreme Legislative Authority, which hath essential right, and is indispensably bound to keep all parts of the Empire entire, until there may be a separation consistent with the general good of the Empire, of which good, from the nature of government, this authority must be the sole judge.

I should therefore be impertinent, if I attempted to shew in what case a whole people may be justified in rising up in oppugnation to the powers of government, altering or abolishing them, and substituting, in whole or in part, new powers in their stead; or in what sense all men are created equal; or how far life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may be said to be unalienable; only I could wish to ask the Delegates of Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, how their Constituents justify the depriving more than an hundred thousand Africans of their rights to liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in some degree to their lives, if these rights are so absolutely unalienable; nor shall I attempt to confute the absurd notions of government, or to expose the equivocal or inconclusive expressions contained in this Declaration…
It’s interesting that Hutchinson was able to envision a time when Britain’s “Supreme Legislative Authority,” the Parliament, might make the North American colonies independent. But only for “the general good of the Empire.”

Sunday, July 03, 2022

A Chain of Errors about Continental Army Nurses

Just as Google Books helped me find the actual sources for the quotations in the U.S. Army webpage about women in the service, it also offered some explanation for how those quotations got misattributed.

The first stop is an article in the journal The Military Surgeon: “The Forerunners of the American Army Nurse” by Maj. Julia C. Stimson, Capt. Sayres L. Milliken, and Ethel C. S. Thompson, published in 1926.

In a passage about “the army organized for the invasion of Canada” (shown above), the authors wrote:
Later Gen. [Horatio] Gates protested about the unsatisfactory health conditions in the Army on the northern frontier. The congressional committee, sent to investigate, evidently found to its surprise that the situation was even as black as Gen. Gates had painted. Although there was by that time a large supply of medicine, “the sick suffered much for want of good female nurses and comfortable bedding, many of those poor creatures being obliged to lay upon bare boards.”
As I showed yesterday, that concluding quotation came from a Continental Congress committee consisting of Richard Stockton and George Clymer. A quick reading, however, would lead one to believe those words actually came from Gates. The page’s citations to Peter Force’s American Archives are accurate but opaque.

(In fact, the names of Stockton and Clymer don’t appear in the American Archives entry, so Stimson, Milliken, and Thompson were probably hard-pressed to credit them by name. I had to look them up in another source—and could, thanks to Google Books.)

The next step was a U.S. Army publication issued in 1975 at the start of the Bicentennial, Highlights in the History of the Army Nurse. There’s no official author, but the foreword was signed by Lt. Col. Dorothy E. Zalaback, Army Nurse Corps Historian. Its text has been republished several times since, including on the web.

The first entry in that booklet’s timeline says:
14 Jun 1775 The Second Continental Congress authorized the Continental Army which later became the United States Army. Shortly thereafter, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates on the northern frontier reported to Commander in Chief George Washington that “the sick suffered much for Want of good female Nurses.” General Washington then asked the Congress for “a matron to supervise the nurses, bedding, etc.,” and for nurses “to attend the sick and obey the matron's orders.”
It looks like the History of the Army Nurse authorial team used the Military Surgeon article to attribute the statement about “female nurses” to Gates, and also mussed up the timeline between June 1775 and November 1776.

That raises the question of why the History of the Army Nurse team fixed on a quotation from an obscure Congress committee in late 1776 rather than the Congress’s official 27 July 1775 resolution setting up the military hospital with a “matron” and “nurses,” which has always been much easier to find.

I suspect the big factor was that the committee report was explicit in calling for “female nurses” (my emphasis). The 1775 resolution didn’t specify the nurses’ gender. The men at the Congress probably assumed that nurses should be female—it didn’t seem necessary to be explicit.

I want to note that in 1981 the army also published The Army Medical Department, 1775–1818, by Mary C. Gillett (P.D.F. download). That’s another Bicentennial-era history, but it quoted the Congress’s resolutions, the Stockton-Clymer committee report, and other documents accurately.

If I had the chance to rewrite the U.S. military webpage I started with, I’d say:
In July 1775, a month after establishing the Continental Army, the Continental Congress laid out its first guidelines for a military hospital. The staff was to include nurses “To attend the sick” and a “Matron…To supervise the nurses, bedding, &c.” There was to be one nurse for every ten patients, and later one matron for every hundred patients. The Congress expected women to fill those jobs, as shown by how in 1776 the northern wing of the army drafted soldiers’ wives for that work when “the Sick suffered much for Want of good female Nurses.”
That would remove Gen. Gates and Gen. Washington from the conversation—but then they weren’t really involved to begin with.

Saturday, July 02, 2022

“The Sick suffered much for Want of good female Nurses”

The fourth quotation to track down from that U.S. Army webpage is the first to appear in its paragraph about the creation of the Continental Congress’s nursing policy:
Shortly after the establishment of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates reported to Commander-in-Chief George Washington that “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses.”
The way that webpage lays out events, Gates’s warning prompted the Congress to hire nurses.

However, as I showed yesterday, the Congress established its standards for an army medical department in July 1775 without needing guidance from the generals at Cambridge

The phrase “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses” doesn’t appear on Founders Online, which includes all of Washington’s incoming and outgoing correspondence during the war.

It doesn’t appear in the Journals of the Continental Congress, still searchable through the Library of Congress’s old American Memory website, where we can find the paragraph’s other phrases (approximately) because those were part of official resolutions.

I tracked the phrase in question to Peter Force’s American Archives (digitized and searchable here) and the Orderly Book of the Northern Army, at Ticonderoga and Mt. Independence, published by Joel Munsell in 1859.

Not surprisingly, yet another committee of the Congress was involved. In November 1776, the Congress sent two delegates—Richard Stockton of New Jersey (shown above) and George Clymer of Pennsylvania—to northern New York to assess the Continental forces in the aftermath of the collapse of the invasion of Canada.

Stockton and Clymer consulted with Gen. Gates, Gen. Philip Schuyler, and commissary general Joseph Trumbull before reporting back to the Congress on 27 November. That body named a larger committee to take up the discussion and report back, which meant the original report wasn’t entered into the Congress’s journal.

The first committee report, as printed in the Munsell book, includes this about medical care:
Your Committee also beg leave further to Report, that they have visited the General Hospital for the Northern Army, situated at Fort George; that there is a Range of Buildings erected convenient for the Purpose, which on the 20th of October last contained about four hundred Sick, including those wounded and sent from General [Benedict] Arnold’s Fleet; that they were sufficiently supplied with fresh Mutton and Indian Meal, but wanted Vegetables; that the Director-General in that Department [Dr. Samuel Stringer] obtained a large Supply of Medicines, but the Sick suffered much for Want of good female Nurses and comfortable Bedding; many of those poor Creatures being obliged to lay upon the bare Boards. Your Committee endeavoured to procure Straw as the best temporary Expedient; but they earnestly recommend it to the Attention of Congress, that a Quantity of Bedding be speedily furnished,…
The American Archives version has fewer capital letters, more italics, and one added “that.”

Thus, a Revolutionary War source did say “the Sick suffered much for Want of good female Nurses.” But that source wasn’t Gen. Gates writing to Gen. Washington on or shortly after 14 June 1775. It was Richard Stockton and George Clymer reporting to the Continental Congress in November 1776.

That report came more than a year after the Congress authorized hiring nurses for its hospitals; it didn’t prompt that hiring. Stockton and Clymer were actually describing an anomaly in the army’s medical establishment. Up in the frontier fortifications along Lake Champlain and Lake George, there weren’t enough women to staff the army hospitals as commanders had come to expect.

In fact, back on 13 July 1776 Gen. Schuyler had ordered:
One woman from each company of each of the Pennsylvania Battalions now at this post, to be draughted as soon as possible, and sent to the General Hospital at Fort George. They will have the customary allowance of provisions, and so forth from Dr. Stringer, director of the hospital there.
The Continental Army expected soldiers’ wives to be ready to serve as nurses.

TOMORROW: How the error appeared and metastasized.

Friday, July 01, 2022

The Continental Congress’s Plans for Nurses

Yesterday I reproduced a paragraph from a U.S. military webpage that contained four quotations about Continental Army nurses attributed to Gen. Horatio Gates, Gen. George Washington, and a plan sent [by Washington’s office?] to the Continental Congress.

However, none of those quoted phrases appear in Washington’s correspondence. So where did they come from?

On 19 July 1775 the Continental Congress appointed a committee “to report the method of establishing an hospital” for its army besieging Boston.

The three delegates named to that committee were Francis Lewis of New York (shown here), Robert Treat Paine of Massachusetts, and Henry Middleton of South Carolina.

(This committee was formed two days before Washington wrote to the Congress asking for the hospital to be “immediately taken into Consideration.” The Congress was already ahead of him.)

On 24 July that committee submitted its recommendations, and three days later the Congress voted to establish a medical department for its army. Among the personnel it provided for were:
Surgeons, apothecary and mates,
To visit and attend the sick, and the mates to obey the orders of the physicians, surgeons and apothecary.

Matron. To superintend the nurses, bedding, &c.

Nurses. To attend the sick, and obey the matron’s orders.
Later in the day, the Congress agreed there should be “one nurse to every 10 sick.” It also named the man they thought best suited to direct the medical department: Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. Church lasted about two months before being exposed as a British spy.

Be that as it may, that’s the official beginning of the American army’s nursing corps. (There were women nursing sick and wounded men from the New England army before that, starting with volunteers on the first day of the war and including the first hospitals.)

That July 1775 resolution of the Congress looks like the real source of two of the four quoted phrases:
  • “a matron to supervise the nurses, bedding, etc.”—not exactly from the official record but recognizable.
  • nurses “to attend the sick and obey the matron’s orders.”
The reproduced passage attributes those quoted phrases to a request from Gen. Washington. But those words weren’t generated by the commander-in-chief or his staff. They came out of the Congress. There’s a hero-worshipping tendency among American authors to attribute to Washington a lot that we should credit to the institutions of democratic government.

Almost two years later, on 7 Apr 1777, the Congress again discussed how to organize its army hospitals. By this time the war had spread, so that department had grown. Its managers had a better idea of what worked. Among the provisions the Congress approved that day were:
That a matron be allowed to every hundred sick or wounded, who shall take care that the provisions are properly prepared; that the wards, beds, and utensils be kept in neat order, and that the most exact oeconomy be observed in her department:

That a nurse be allowed for every ten sick or wounded, who shall be under the direction of the matron:
This resolution is the source of the third of the four quotations (with “allotted” substituted for the original “allowed”). Those words indeed appear in a plan submitted to the Congress, as the army webpage says, but that plan was written two years into the war, not in the summer of 1775.

TOMORROW: The fourth quotation.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Gates, Washington, and the Continental Nurses

In connection with last week’s online event about unpaid and underpaid labor at the siege of Boston, I encountered this statement on the U.S. Army’s website about women in the military:
Shortly after the establishment of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates reported to Commander-in-Chief George Washington that “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses.” Gen. Washington then asked Congress for “a matron to supervise the nurses, bedding, etc.,” and for nurses “to attend the sick and obey the matron’s orders.” A plan was submitted to the Second Continental Congress that provided one nurse for every ten patients and provided “that a matron be allotted to every hundred sick or wounded.”
Though I’d studied Washington’s work in Cambridge in 1775–76, that first quotation was new to me. I’m always interested in more information, so I dug deeper, seeking more definite dates.

Those statements and quotations are echoed in other army webpages and textbooks about the history of nursing. After all, they come from the army itself.

Some of those overviews put Gates’s report on 14 June 1775 instead of “Shortly after” that date. But that timing wouldn’t make sense. As the original passage above states, the Congress created the Continental Army on 14 June—implicitly, by authorizing the recruitment of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Washington wasn’t commissioned commander-in-chief for another couple of days.

As for Gates (shown above), he learned of his appointment as adjutant general (with the rank of brigadier general) on 21 June, and he reached Cambridge on 9 July. So at what point “Shortly after” 14 June would he have made that quoted statement?

Fortunately, the specificity of the quotations makes it easy to look them up on Founders Online, which includes all known writing to and from George Washington during the war. Gates’s reports to Washington and the commander-in-chief’s requests to the Congress all appear there.

Yet none of the quoted phrases comes up in a Founders Online search.

TOMORROW: Real sources and real dates.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Supreme Court and “a fabricated case”

Back in 2012, I departed from the eighteenth century to consider an issue in the intersection of law and history.

What does it mean when a Supreme Court decision guiding decades of law and policy turns out to be based on a historical falsehood?

In 1953 the court issued what’s come to be known as the Reynolds decision, requiring courts to defer to the executive branch of the federal government when it invokes national security and the need for secrecy to demand an end to legal proceedings. The majority of justices concluded that the government wouldn’t do that for petty or self-serving reasons.

Over forty years later, documents emerged to show that the U.S. Air Force had done precisely what the Supreme Court said we must assume it wouldn’t do: hide evidence and stifle a lawsuit to avoid embarrassment and liability. Yet Reynolds remains a guiding legal precedent.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision, Kennedy v. Bermerton School District, that allowed a public school employee to lead public prayers on school grounds despite the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause and previous court precedents. What’s more, the majority decision misstated the facts of the case, as shown by citations and a photograph included in the minority dissent.

Ian Milhiser at Vox wrote that one consequence of those false statements is that it’s unclear what the decision actually allowed:
Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for himself and his fellow Republican appointees relies on a bizarre misrepresentation of the case’s facts. He repeatedly claims that Joseph Kennedy, a former public school football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state who ostentatiously prayed at the 50-yard line following football games — often joined by his players, members of the opposing team, and members of the general public — “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.” . . .

Moreover, because Gorsuch’s opinion relies so heavily on false facts, the Court does not actually decide what the Constitution has to say about a coach who ostentatiously prays in the presence of students and the public. Instead, it decides a fabricated case about a coach who merely engaged in “private” and “quiet” prayer. . . . [According to already established precedents] Public school employees may engage in private acts of devotion, such as saying a prayer over their lunch in a school cafeteria while they are on the job.

But there’s nothing private about a school employee conducting a media tour touting his plans to pray at the 50-yard line of a football field immediately after a game. There is nothing private about the coach carrying out that plan — especially when he does so surrounded by kneeling players, cameras, and members of the public.
Another consequence of this decision is, of course, that the U.S. Supreme Court majority has further damaged its own credibility. We expect disagreements over matters of opinion. But when justices define the nation’s law while stating things that we can all see are false, they make our legal system look deceptive and arbitrary.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Clothing Workshops at Minute Man Park

Minute Man National Historical Park has announced a schedule of clothing workshops it will host for living-history volunteers, “both veteran reenactors and new folks to create or improve their desired period impressions.”

These workshops are aimed at getting volunteers to “Battle Road Standards” for next April’s reenactments, as well as other events and general authenticity.

Saturday, 30 July 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Captain David Uhl Knapsack Workshop with Master Tailor Henry Cooke
Battle Road Standards now require linen knapsacks made in the style of the Captain David Uhl knapsack in the collection of Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, New York. The knapsack can be constructed of about one yard of medium coarseness linen or linen canvas or tabby weave hemp sheeting, a spool of unbleached linen thread, and three 1" buttons.

Saturday and Sunday, 20–21 Aug 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Waistcoat Workshop with Henry Cooke
Waistcoats were a foundational men’s garment of the 18th century and a very achievable project for new sewers. Materials needed: Pins, sewing needles, beeswax, scissors for thread and cloth trimming, a pair of shears/bent trimmers for cutting cloth if needed, tailor’s chalk; sewing machine optional, as most of the instruction is for hand sewing.

Saturday, 22 Oct 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M.
18th-Century Mitts with Vicki Lynn Embrey
Vicki Lynn Embrey, co-founder of the Heritage Sewing and Skill Building Group, will show the different types of mitts worn by 18th-century women of all social classes. Participants will construct a basic pair of unlined mitts out of linen (for summer) or wool flannel (for winter). ¾ yard linen for summer mitts or ¾ yard wool flannel for winter mitts. Winter mitts are made out of a fulled wool to avoid raveling, not stuff or worsted.

Sunday, 23 Oct 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
18th-Century Caps with Vicki Lynn Embrey
Caps were a basic item in every 18th-century woman’s wardrobe. Embrey will show caps varied by date and social class. Participants will be taught the parts and shapes used to make caps and the hand stitches used in constructing a cap. Students will experiment with fitting a cap and get started on constructing a cap of their own, choosing from several basic styles worn during the Revolutionary War in New England.

Saturday and Sunday, 19–20 Nov 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Breeches Workshop with Henry Cooke
Few garments in the hobby will serve you better than a sturdy, well-fitting pair of breeches. Battle Road Standards require them to be made of wool broadcloth. For warmer weather, linen or hemp canvas breeches are also acceptable. Other types of acceptable fabrics include wool kersey, linsey-woolsey, wool serge, cotton velvet, fine wale cotton corduroy, or wool plush. Battle Road Standards also require Crown Forces to have breeches of white or buff wool as appropriate to your regiment.

Saturday and Sunday, 14–15 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Coat Workshop with Henry Cooke
Constructing a coat can seem like a daunting challenge but is actually very achievable. Battle Road Standards require men to wear a wool coat or jacket of drab, brown, green, red, blue, gray or black wool. For warmer weather, a linen coat in natural, blue or brown is also acceptable.

Saturday and Sunday, 21–22 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Breeches Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday and Sunday, 28–29 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Coat Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday, 4 Feb 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Captain David Uhl Knapsack Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday and Sunday, 11–12 Feb 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Waistcoat Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

To register for any and all workshops, email Jim Hollister of Minute Man Park at jim_hollister@nps.gov. To order kits containing the materials needed for Henry Cooke’s workshops, email Cooke in advance; prices vary depending on the size and quality of the garment.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Marriage of Edmund and Elizabeth Randolph

Edmund Randolph and his future wife, Elizabeth Carter Nicholas, were born only a day apart in 1753. They learned to read at the same school.

Edmund returned to Virginia in late 1775 after a few months as an aide de camp to Gen. George Washington in Cambridge. He rekindled his acquaintance with Elizabeth, whom he called Betsey. In August 1776 they married.

Edmund later said he was a deist at that time, but Elizabeth’s faith won him back to Episcopal worship. They had children about once every two years while he rose in state politics.

From all accounts, Elizabeth Randolph wasn’t interested in politics or public life. People didn’t speak of her as a beauty or a glittering conversationalist, and she often complained of illness. But Edmund was devoted to her.

Having served as U.S. attorney general and secretary of state, Edmund Randolph’s career in government ended badly in a tiff with Washington and a costly lawsuit. In the early 1800s the Randolphs settled in Richmond, where Edmund commissioned the house shown above and practiced law, including representing Aaron Burr at his treason trial. Most of their children had grown up to marry other elite Virginians.

Elizabeth Randolph died on 6 Mar 1810. Nineteen days later, Edmund wrote a long letter to their children about their lives and emotional bond. He concluded:
My eyes are every moment beholding so many objects with which she was associated; I sometimes catch a sound which deludes me so much with the similitude of her voice; I carry about my heart and hold for a daily visit so many of her precious relics; and, above all, my present situation is so greatly contrasted by its vacancy, regrets, and anguish, with the purest and unchequred bliss, so far as it depended on her, for many years of varying fortune, that I have vowed at her grave daily to maintain with her a mental intercourse.
After visiting his Betsey’s grave on 9 April, Edmund suffered what he told President James Madison was a “dreadful attack from a hemiplegia, with which, by a kind of sympathy with my poor wife, I was afflicted in a few weeks from her death.”

Edmund reported that the stroke “happily affected no faculty of my mind,” and also reported that he felt “no pain,” but he developed trouble walking and came to “require in rough ground the aid of a crutch.” He cut back on his law practice and tried warm springs, but never fully regained his health. 

Edmund Randolph died on 12 Sept 1813 at age 60 while staying with a friend. He was buried in the nearby churchyard, his grave unmarked until decades later.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

“My affectionate bosom friend will be with me”

I told the story of Elizabeth and Edmund Randolph’s distress over a miscarriage through Edmund’s correspondence with James Madison.

Since the Randolphs were together at the time, there were of course no letters between them. But I find that Edward had written to Elizabeth just before he came home from New York, telling her he was moving the family to the capital for his job, and he knew she wouldn’t be happy about that.

Edmund wrote on 14 Feb 1790:
My dearest Betsy:

I can now inform you with certainty that I shall return to Virginia to bring my treasures thence; and indeed if the importunity of the President with me to stay had not been overwhelming I should not have hesitated about a resignation. . . .

The President insists, and I have promised to be here by the 20th April precisely. We must therefore without fail begin our journey on the first day of April. . . .

I am afraid it may be inconvenient and indeed painful to you, my dear wife, but I candidly tell you that I shall not be able to return to accompany you after the present trip. Let us not, I beseech you, be longer separated than the strange vicissitudes of life render indispensable. Prepare yourself and the girls for the trip. I shall provide the conveyances. . . .

My two chief anxieties on this subject are the difficulty of your travelling in your present situation [i.e., pregnancy], and the preference you would give to being confined in Virginia rather than here. But what am I to do, thou dearest object of my soul? I will consent to any thing but an absence from you. I will provide you with a gentle and easy passage.

I undergo a mixture of sensations when I think of our new plans. But it comforts me to think that my affectionate bosom friend will be with me, and that I really believe she may be happy. Until we meet, keep in remembrance my never-failing love for the best of women. Adieu, my dearest girl.
That text is quoted from Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph by Moncure Daniel Conway.

It shows that Elizabeth was already reluctant to make a big move, even before her pregnancy went awry. It also states exactly when Randolph had promised to be back at George Washington’s side while the new federal governmet took shape. The attorney general missed that deadline by weeks, so no wonder he was anxious about what the President would say.

At the same time, this letter shows how Edmund was still gushing with affection for Elizabeth fourteen years after their marriage—though also cajoling her into what he wanted.

TOMORROW: The farewell.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

“The escape of our friend from the most critical danger”

As I’ve been recounting, in the spring of 1790 Edmund Randolph felt torn between his family responsibilities and his duties to the new federal government.

On the one hand, his wife Elizabeth was carrying an apparently dead fetus and fearing she might die.

On the other hand, Edmund had just become the first attorney general of the U.S. of A., and President George Washington was expecting him to return to New York as fast as possible.

On 27 April, Randolph wrote to his friend James Madison, who was in the capital as a member of Congress: “I see no other alternative, than this; that I must surrender the office, if my absence cannot be dispensed with.”

Randolph had asked Madison to tell the President why he couldn’t immediately come to New York. Well, not “tell” exactly. The younger men seem to have been squeamish about informing Washington frankly about Elizabeth Randolph’s medical condition.

On 6 May, Madison tried to assure his friend:
I can not suppose that under your circumstances any criticism can be made on your absence from this place, or that you are under the least necessity of deciding on the alternative which you state.
But he still didn’t report that he’d told the President what was happening, or what the man’s response was.

Fortunately, fate provided a way out of the dilemma. Washington himself got sick! On 19 May, Madison wrote:
The President has been critically ill for some days past, but is now we hope out of danger. His complaint is a peripneumony, united probably with the Influenza. Since my last I have found that I did not go too far in intimating that the cause of your delay would forbid the smallest criticism on it. I earnestly pray that you may no longer have occasion to plead that apology.
And on the same day the situation in Virginia resolved itself as well as could be expected. Well before he got Madison’s news about the President, Randolph wrote on 20 May:
Very unexpectedly a diminished fœtus appeared; manifesting, that it had lost every energy of life for more than four months. The gloom of our house is converted into general satisfaction, at the escape of our friend from the most critical danger.

I have this moment informed the president, that I shall accompany my family by sea, or the head of the bay; and that we shall have no delay, but what may be necessary for Mrs. R. to recover from her temporary weakness.
Elizabeth Randolph did recover, make the trip north, and live for another twenty years. She may not have had another pregnancy after this one; capsule biographies say the Randolphs had six children, but I find lists of only five, the last born in 1788.

TOMORROW: Randolph looks back.

Friday, June 24, 2022

“To intimate the circumstances which you wish him to know”

As I recounted yesterday, in March 1790 Edmund Randolph wrote from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Rep. James Madison (shown here) in New York.

The sad news was that Randolph’s wife Elizabeth appeared to have lost the unborn child she was carrying.

The more dire news was that Randolph wouldn’t be able to come back to New York to resume his job as U.S. attorney general until Elizabeth had passed the fetus and was out of danger—and he wanted Madison to tell that to President George Washington.

On 23 March, Randolph sent Madison his third letter in the space of two weeks: “My dear wife is not better, than when I wrote to you last. I expect something determinate in a few days.”

The mail was unusually slow, so Madison didn’t respond to any of Randolph’s missives until 30 March:
Your favr. of the 15. which requests an immediate acknowledgment, by some irregularity did not come to hand till I had recd. that of the 18, nor till it was too late to comply with the request by the last mail. I have been so unlucky also as to miss seeing the President twice that I have waited on him in order to intimate the circumstances which you wish him to know. I shall continue to repeat my efforts until I shall have an opportunity of executing your commands.
As the end of April approached, Elizabeth Randolph still had the unmoving fetus inside her, and Edmund was feeling even more torn. On 27 April he told Madison:
I have been looking most anxiously for the second communication, which you promised me, as soon as you should have had an interview with the President.

Many times have I endeavoured to break in an easy way to my wife the necessity of my return to N. Y; in order to try her spirits, should I go off. As often has she been thrown into an agitation of real agony.

Prepared as I am, I would have entered upon the journey long ago; and were her indisposition of a common kind, or her situation no more than an usual approach to the increase of our family, I should quit her without hesitation. But she is impressed with a belief, that she cannot escape death, and, altho’ tolerably lively now, would sink, I suspect, into despair, were I to leave her.

What am I to do?
Stay with a wife who’s afraid she’s about to die or hurry back to President Washington? A tough choice for an eighteenth-century American gentleman!

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

Thursday, June 23, 2022

“The situation of my wife was very alarming”

In February 1790, Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) became the first attorney general of the U.S. of A.

As a young lawyer, Randolph had been one of Gen. George Washington’s first aides de camp to during the siege of Boston. He didn’t stay long, however. The death of his uncle Peyton Randolph in October 1775 took him back to Virginia to manage family affairs.

The next year, Randolph married Elizabeth Nicholas. He remained in Virginia during the war, serving in political posts, and won a term as governor in 1786.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Randolph declined to sign the document. Nonetheless, as chair of his state’s ratifying convention, Randolph convinced some fellow skeptics to vote for the document while hoping for amendments.

President Washington pressed Randolph to join him in setting up the federal government in New York. Randolph started work as attorney general, then returned to his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, to fetch his family. On 10 March, he wrote back to a fellow Virginian in the capital, James Madison:
After a fatiguing journey we arrived here on sunday evening, when I found all my family well, except my wife, who, I fear, is incumbered with a dead fœtus of more than seven months old. I am endeavouring to ward off by medical aid the consequences of this event. She is now in good spirits, and therefore I trust, that the mischief will not be fatal.
Five days later, the attorney general wrote with more anxiety about Elizabeth Randolph:
When I came home, I found my family in a really deplorable condition. Not to mention my children, most of whom were sick, the situation of my wife was very alarming. She gave every symptom of a painful and dangerous abortion being at hand. It is now a fortnight since she was first confined to her room, and every appearance grows more and more critical. It is almost certain, that the fœtus, now about six months old, is dead.
At this time “abortion” meant what we call a miscarriage; it could be either natural or induced. [I came across these letters while searching for what the correspondents on Founders Online had to say about what we call abortion.]

Randolph had something else on his mind: what would Washington think of his extended absence? And how to tell him?
Altho’ I know your readiness to sympathize with me, I should not have troubled you with this detail, were it not for a wish, that the outlines of it should be conveyed to the ears of the president. I would write to him; but the subject does not become an official letter, to be filed away in the public archives; and a private letter, does not seem adviseable, when the design is to premonish him of the cause of any delay, which may occur in my return. But I do not mean by this, that it is improbable that my return should be by the stipulated day; for if an abortion should take place, or there is a likelihood of a mature delivery, or in short if my absence would not precipitate her death I shall leave home, without any hesitation, that my family may follow in the summer.

I feel this request, not a little awkward to me, by being perhaps not less so to you. But the peculiarity of my situation will, I hope, apologize for the intrusion. Let me have a single line from you, as soon as you receive this.
But no response came for weeks.

TOMORROW: Madison’s advice at last.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

“The Work of Revolution” in Cambridge, 23 June

History Cambridge (previously the Cambridge Historical Society) is headquartered in the oldest of the colonial houses along what was later dubbed “Tory Row.”

Some years before the Revolution, the families in those houses were all related, and they all had ties to slave-labor plantations on Jamaica and Antigua. Most if not all of those families also had enslaved people working for them on their Cambridge estates.

History Cambridge is now hosting an art installation on its lawn titled “Forgotten Souls of Tory Row: Remembering the Enslaved People of Brattle Street.” Created by Black Coral, Inc., this artwork in glass and metal adopts the tradition of bottle trees to evoke the power of ancestors.

History Cambridge is also organizing an online panel discussion called “The Work of Revolution” on Thursday, 23 June. Its event description says:
How did unpaid labor enable the Revolutionary leaders of Cambridge to foment rebellion and to carry out the political and military duties of the War?

Although much is known about George Washington’s residency in Cambridge in the early days of the Revolution, the reality is that it was the labor of women and people of color that enabled the Continental Army to function, as well as feeding, housing, and serving both the American and British troops present in the city. By centering the work experiences of women and BIPOC during this period, we will be expanding the scope of the Revolutionary narrative and bringing to light stories that have not often been shared with a wider audience.
Prof. Robert Bellinger, professor of history and founder and director of the Black Studies Program at Suffolk University, will lead the discussion.

History Cambridge has invited me to be part of this panel, talking about what we know of the people who tended Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in the years 1775 and 1776.

The general brought some enslaved workers from Mount Vernon with him, including his body servant William Lee. Martha Washington probably brought more. Washington also employed a free black woman named Margaret Thomas, as well as a family and a teenager burned out of their homes in Charlestown during the Battle of Bunker Hill. 

Though Tory Row was a place of slavery in those years, it soon became a place of liberation. While in Cambridge, Washington was convinced to let black soldiers remain in the Continental Army. The absence of the Loyalist homeowners, shifting mores, and a change in Massachusetts law meant the people enslaved on “Tory Row” had a good chance to become free by the end of the war.

The “Work of Revolution” discussion is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. Register at this page.

There will be a public celebration of the “Forgotten Souls” artwork on 16 July, and a question-and-answer session with the artists on July 21. For more information, visit this page.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

“Extremely messy as documents”

In 1726, Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to rabbits.

This generated a lot of news coverage and debate in Britain. The episode continues to interest social historians.

Earlier this month Karen Harvey, author of The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England, wrote about her work on documents that seemed at once absolutely central to the event and very difficult to work with:
Mary Toft’s three ‘confessions’ were new to me. These were taken down by James Douglas, a doctor present on these three occasions that Toft was questioned by a Justice of the Peace. . . .

Reading these thirty-six pages was an absolute revelation. The writing jumped off the screen. In their form and their content, they were urgent, vivid and disturbing. They recorded Toft’s version of events in what appeared to be as close to a transcription as Douglas could possibly muster. They were also far richer than I had imagined from the fairly cursory discussions in existing scholarship.

But it also became immediately apparent why historians had not undertaken a thoroughgoing analysis of the confessions and placed this centre-stage in their accounts of the case. Not only were these extremely messy as documents – full of errors and deletions – but the narratives they offered were inconsistent and contradictory.
Before her book, Harvey wrote about the Toft confessions in this article for History Workshop Journal.

Her essay is part of a series from the University of Birmingham’s Eighteenth Century Centre on sources that historians have found powerful, including: