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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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.

Friday, May 26, 2023

“Remembering the American Revolution” with H-Early-America

Back in the last millennium, humanities scholars banded together to use one of the most advanced forms of internet as it then existed: email lists, or listservs. They created a network of such lists called H-Net.

With the advent of the World Wide Web, historians’ attention moved to websites, and then blogs. And then social networks and podcasts. H-Net continues to have those email lists, no longer the nexus of scholarly discussion but still useful, and it’s evolving in new forms.

Meanwhile, scholarly publishing has also evolved. As usual, that field is under the pressure of having little money to work with.

This week I saw those two forms of scholarly discourse and media and braiding together as one H-Net list, H-Early-America, proposes to publish and be the repository of a collection of research essays. Here’s the call for papers:
In 2026, the United States will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. There will be a host of events throughout the country to commemorate this momentous milestone, but also deep soul searching about the meanings of the revolution, independence, and liberty, and the proper way to commemorate such an event.

To participate in these conversations, H-Early-America invites essay submissions for Remembering the American Revolution at 250, a peer-reviewed publication hosted and freely available on the H-Net Publications Platform. Published essays will appear online on an open-access model, ensuring a broad readership.

Remembering the American Revolution at 250 will bring together historians, public historians, and other practitioners as the country commemorates the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We invite submissions in five broad categories:
  • Global Revolution: How are the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Founders remembered overseas? What are the stories of George Washington statues in Europe? How have states that joined the Union after 1776, such as Florida and Louisiana, remembered the revolution?
  • Texts of Revolution: How do we remember and interpret various, especially lesser-known, documents from the American Revolution? How have resource projects enhanced the availability and accessibility of these documents? How can we use these documents in our teaching?
  • Revolution—or Not?: How did those indifferent or antagonistic to the American Revolution or who viewed the British as the side of liberty view and remember the events? How have African Americans processed the tension between their remembrances of freedom and enslavement and national remembrances of independence and the Revolution? How did families with divided loyalties work through their differences?
  • Remembering Revolution: How have we remembered the American Revolution? What aspects of the Revolution have we willfully forgotten because they were unpleasant or inconvenient? How have books, historians, and popular media contributed to the remembering or forgetting of the American Revolution?
  • Revolution for a New Century: How do we adjust the teaching of the American Revolution as we face new challenges from political leaders? How do historic sites address the need to include a broader set of voices? How do we communicate the history of the Revolution to the U.S. public in the 21st century?
We are also interested in essays that discuss teaching, teaching experiences, or lesson plans, which we plan to publish in cooperation with the H-Teach Network.
The announcement goes on to say that all essays will go through peer review. For more detail, see the announcement on H-Net’s website. The editors will look at proposals on a rolling basis until 31 Oct 2023.

The editors of this volume are Abby Chandler of University of Massachusetts, Lowell; Darcy R. Fryer of the Brearley School; Patrick Luck of Florida Polytechnic University; and Niels Eichhorn, Vice President of Research and Publication at H-Net.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

From the “Lower Counties” to an Independent State

Earlier in the week, I wrote about the fewer-than-thirteen colonies represented in Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “JOIN, or DIE.” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette.

The snake parts included Pennsylvania but not Delaware. From one perspective, Delaware was merely a part or adjunct of Pennsylvania. From another, it was a separate polity. The question wasn’t settled until 1776.

The area on the west side of what we call the Delaware River was the home of the Lenape, Nanticoke, and possibly Tuscarora people at the start of the seventeenth century. In 1631 the Dutch established a colony near the site of today’s Lewes, but that lasted about a year.

In 1638 Sweden tried imperial expansion and set up a colony at what’s now Wilmington. The Dutch returned in strength and took back the territory in 1655. Then the English seized Delaware from the Dutch in 1664.

That English expedition was acting on behalf of Prince James, Duke of York, later James II. Baron Baltimore, proprietor of Maryland, argued that the land should belong to his colony, but a duke had more clout than a baron. York turned his territory over to William Penn in 1682.

Penn was pleased that Philadelphia now enjoyed access to the sea along the Delaware River. He included his new “lower counties” in the Pennsylvania general assembly. But the old and new parts of the province didn’t work well together. In 1704 a separate Delaware assembly began meeting at New Castle.

In the top-down view of the Penn family and the imperial government in London, Pennsylvania and Delaware remained a single entity. They always had the same appointed governor. In 1765 the ministers in London named John Hughes as stamp master for all of Pennsylvania, including the ”lower counties.”

Franklin’s emblem showed a similar perspective. Though as a member of the Pennsylvania assembly he knew that the lower counties met separately, he didn’t think Delaware needed to be treated as a whole colony on its own. It was just an appendage to rapidly growing Pennsylvania, lacking western lands and a major port.

Other newspapers copied the Pennsylvania Gazette emblem, also leaving out Delaware. When Isaiah Thomas and Paul Revere adapted the original snake into a more dangerous kind for the Massachusetts Spy masthead, they added Georgia—but still filed Delaware under “P.”

What changed the way people looked at Delaware? I think the arrival of continent-wide Congresses was a big factor. (Ironically, the “JOIN, or DIE.” emblem was created to promote the first such gathering, the Albany Congress, which didn’t really work.)

Colony legislatures, not governors, sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and later gatherings. That meant Delaware acted separately from Pennsylvania. The two delegations had equal votes in the Congresses. American Whigs happily counted twelve colonies at the First Continental Congress, thirteen at the second.

By 1776, those politicians were proclaiming that power rose from the people—or at least that top slice of the people who elected representatives. From that bottom-up perspective, Delaware was already separate from Pennsylvania. During that year, the Delaware legislature’s declarations and resolutions formally established the state as independent not only from Britain but also from its northern neighbor.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

“No body ever heard of a quarter Master in History as such”

As part of last weekend’s History Camp Valley Forge, I signed up for a tour of “F.O.B. Valley Forge” led by Army War College professor Ricardo A. Herrera, author of Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778.

I’ve visited Valley Forge before, but I was pleased to view the terrain again with an expert guide.

While standing in front of the oversized mounted statue of Gen. Anthony Wayne, Herrera spoke about how the Continental Army’s supply problems that winter were exacerbated by the lack of a quartermaster general. Thomas Mifflin resigned from that administrative post (for the second time) in November 1777.

In March 1778, Gen. George Washington finally twisted the arm of his most trusted lieutenant, Nathanael Greene, to take that job. It had been filled by civilians before, and Greene insisted on a promise that he could return to his army rank afterwards.

A year later, on 29 Apr 1779, Greene made his ongoing feelings about the assignment clear in a letter to Washington:
There is a great difference between being raisd to an Office and decending to one; which is my case. There is also a great difference betwext serving where you have a fair prospect of honor and laurels, and where you have no prospect of either let you discharge your duty ever so well. No body ever heard of a quarter Master in History as such or in relateing any brilliant Action.
But Greene was doing the job. His first big action as quartermaster general, Herrera explained, was to launch a “grand forage,” sending troops out into the countryside around Valley Forge to collect every type of supply that the army needed, paying in Continental scrip whether farmers were happy about that or not.

Greene put Wayne in charge of the main part of that effort. Col. Henry Lee and Cmdre. John Barry scoured other areas. That campaign for supplies kept the army together in the spring of 1777.

As I looked up at the statue of Wayne, I wondered whether there was a similar statue of Greene, given his importance. So I did some quick web-searching. Washington, Wayne, and Steuben appear to have been the only generals with standalone statues in Valley Forge National Park until this century.

In 2015, a statue of Greene by Susie Chisholm was put up near the Washington Memorial Chapel. It’s life-sized, not oversized. It’s on foot, not mounted. And I suspect it’s at that location because the chapel and its grounds are episcopal property, not part of the national park. (The National Park Service is in the business of preserving statues and monuments, not installing new ones.) Chapters of the Sons of the American Revolution funded this memorial.

And that public artwork is making sure that somebody has heard of a quartermaster.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Vaughn on “Tea, Taxes and World History,” 24 May

On Wednesday, 24 May, the American Revolution Institute in Washington, D.C., will host a talk by Prof. James M. Vaughn of the University of Chicago on “On Tea, Taxes and World History: The British East India Company and the Origins of the American Revolution.”

The event description says:
In May 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which instituted a tax of three cents per pound on all British tea sold in America. The act effectively granted a monopoly on the sale of tea in the American colonies to the British East India Company, which was looking to reduce its excessive stores of tea and relieve its financial burdens.

To commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Tea Act’s passage, James Vaughn, a historian of the British Empire at the University of Chicago, examines the developments in Britain, British North America and South Asia leading to the passage of the act, and discusses why a relatively mundane piece of parliamentary legislation renewed the imperial crisis and led to the outbreak of the American Revolution.
Vaughn is a professor at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the British Empire and Atlantic world during the eighteenth century. He is the author of The Politics of Empire at the Accession of George III: The East India Company and the Crisis and Transformation of Britain’s Imperial State and co-editor of Envisioning Empire: The New British World from 1763 to 1773.

Vaughn is currently preparing “a book on the American Revolution and the origins of liberal democracy in global context.”

This talk will also be available for viewing online, starting at 6:30 P.M. Register through this page.

Monday, May 22, 2023

More Reporting from Rennsylvania

Yesterday I posted about how an error crept into our cultural reading of the Pennsylvania Gazette’s “JOIN, or DIE.” snake emblem.

Here, thanks to History Dame (as seen on Instagram and Twitter), are three products on sale at the Franklin Institute that use images derived from the Library of Congress’s copy of that newspaper.

A T-shirt:

A sticker:
A tote bag:
As you can see, the speck in the paper touching the “P.” in a single copy of the newspaper at the Library of Congress keeps coming out as an “R”.

Ryan Strause shared several other examples, from various manufacturers and gift shops, during his talk on this topic at History Camp Valley Forge. For some a graphic designer even recreated the picture with modern type, including an “R”. Now that he’s alerted me to this quirk, I’m never going to be able to unsee it.