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, October 03, 2022

“We spoke considerably upon the sentiments of Americans”

On 19 Nov 1774, Josiah Quincy, Jr., the young Whig lawyer from Massachusetts, sat down with Lord North, the prime minister, to discuss the crisis in America.

Quincy left a detailed account of the meeting in his diary of his London trip:
Early this morning Jonathan Williams Esqr. waited upon me with the Compliments of Lord North, and his request to see me this morning. I went about half past 9 oClock . . . . After a short time his Lordship sent for Mr. Williams and myself into his Apartment. His reception was polite and with a chearfull affability.

His Lordship soon enquired into the state in which I left American affairs. I gave him my sentiments upon them[,] together with what I took to be the cause of most of our political evils—gross misrepresentation and falsehood.

His Lordship replied he did not doubt there had been much, but added that very honest [men] frequently gave a wrong state of matters through mistake[,] prejudice, prepossessions and byasses of one kind or other.

I conceded the possibility of this, but further added, that it would be happy if none of those who had given accounts relative to America had varied from known truth from worse motives.
Quincy was voicing the Boston Whig position that Boston’s strict adherence to the British constitution had been grossly misrepresented by Gov. Francis Bernard, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, and others.

He didn’t know that Lord North consulted with Hutchinson regularly and obviously trusted his judgment. And he didn’t pick up on the prime minister’s nudge about “very honest [men]” being misunderstood, instead continuing to point to the possibility of “worse motives.”

The two men discussed the Boston Port Bill, the destruction of the tea, and the Gaspee investigation, but soon ascended into the political and constitutional principles behind those disputes. “We spoke considerably upon the sentiments of Americans of the rights claimed by Parliament to tax,” Quincy wrote.

Quincy noted that he “should have said more had not his Lordship’s propensity to converse, been incompatible with a full indulgence of my own loquacity.” The meeting lasted nearly two hours, “many Letters and messages” being brought to the prime minister all that time, while he insisted that Quincy didn’t have to leave.

Lord North appears to have been exceedingly polite—“His Lordship several times smiled and once seem[ed] touched,” Quincy wrote. At the end of their conversation Lord North told his visitor “He hoped the air of the Island would contribute to my health.”

TOMORROW: A meeting with the secretary of state.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Who Asked for the Meeting between Quincy and Lord North?

You may have noticed a conflict in the last two postings about Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s 1774 visit to London.

On 18 November, Quincy told Jonathan Williams, a Customs officer born in Boston, that he was willing to meet with government ministers Lord North and Lord Dartmouth but only if they asked: “as it was not at their Lordships’ desire…, I declined going for the present.”

Yet in his diary former governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote that Lord North “let me know Quincy had desired to see him, and that he was determined to allow it.”

So did Quincy seek to converse with Lord North or not? And when on the morning of 19 November Williams, as Quincy wrote, “waited upon me with the Compliments of Lord North, and his request to see me this morning,” had the prime minister made that request? Which man had asked the other’s people for the meeting?

A couple of weeks later Hutchinson noted the contradiction: “Ld. North told me that Quincy desired to be admitted to speak with him. Quincy tells his friends that Ld. North desired to speak with him. It seems Mr. Williams, the Inspector, was the messenger between them.”

Without spelling it out, Hutchinson focused on Williams as the person who’d probably told each man that the other wanted to talk. Williams was part of the British Customs bureaucracy, to be sure; in particular, he appears to have worked closely with Commissioner Corbyn Morris. But Williams was also a great-nephew of Benjamin Franklin, and he felt loyalty to his home town of Boston. If he could facilitate a solution to the conflict between Massachusetts and the ministry in London, Williams was ready to bend some protocols.

It’s also possible that Lord North changed his mind about being ”determined” to meet Quincy after hearing what Hutchinson had to say about him and was ready to keep the visitor from Massachusetts waiting. In mid-December, Hutchinson heard this story from Israel Mauduit, an unofficial lobbyist for the province and the former governor:
Lord North…said he not send for him [Quincy]. Williams wrote him a letter that such a person was arrived from Boston, and if it would be agreeable, he would bring him to wait on his Lordship. The morning Wms. went himself to Lord North’s, who supposed to be come for an answer. Upon his being admitted, he brought Quincy in with him.
However it happened, the meeting was on.

(Another contradiction in the records: Both Hutchinson’s diary and Quincy’s diary recorded a long morning meeting between that man and the prime minister on 19 November. I suspect the date in the Hutchinson book was wrong, and he actually talked with Lord North the previous day. An alternate possibility is that Lord North went from his conversation with Quincy into a discussion between Hutchinson and John Pownall, asked Hutchinson about Quincy, and never let on that he had just met the man.)

TOMORROW: The prime minister and the attorney from Massachusetts.

(The picture above shows Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire, Lord North’s country seat. This was not where he met with Hutchinson or Quincy, but it shows the style to which he was accustomed.)

Saturday, October 01, 2022

“I fancied his errand here was to inflame the people”

On 17 Nov 1774, the day that Josiah Quincy, Jr., arrived in London, nineteen-year-old Brinley Sylvester Oliver went to the London house of his uncle, Thomas Hutchinson, to say hello and deliver letters. Oliver had sailed from Salem on the Boston Packet, the same ship that carried Quincy.

The former governor wasn’t home, so Oliver left a note, name-dropping his fellow passengers, and came back the next morning.

Among the letters Sylvester Oliver had brought were some from Gen. Thomas Gage to the government, and Hutchinson sent those on immediately. (Part of running a worldwide empire was asking a teenager to hand-deliver official and sensitive documents to his retired uncle, who would then forward them on to the right government office.) Hutchinson quizzed his nephew about “Quincy’s business,” but the young man knew nothing.

Soon the under-secretary of state at the American department, John Pownall, sent for Hutchinson “upon an affair of very great importance.” The former governor called a cab and hurried to Whitehall. Pownall’s news was:
General Gage had wrote that there was a person unknown, supposed to be going over in Lyde [i.e., on the Boston Packet], upon a bad design, some said to Holland, and that young Mr. Oliver, who was a passenger in the same ship, would probably be able to give some account of him; and therefore Ld. North had desired Pownall to examine Mr. O.
Quincy had managed to hide from Gage’s administration that he was sailing to Britain, but the governor found out that someone from the Boston Whigs was taking a trip. And then Gage sent that news to London on the same ship that carried Quincy.

Hutchinson told Pownall that his nephew knew nothing of Quincy’s plans but invited the under-secretary to dinner to talk with the young man himself. Oliver’s intelligence must had been unimpressive because Pownall “was convinced at dinner that it was best to make no public or particular inquiry.”

On 19 November, Hutchinson sat down with Lord North to share his responses to the various news from New England. Among other things, the prime minister reported that “Quincy had desired to see him, and that he was determined to allow it; but he wished to know what he was.”

Hutchinson described his briefing for the prime minister this way in his diary:
I informed him he [Quincy] was a lawyer, as inflamatory in Town Meetings, &c., as almost any of the party: that I fancied his errand here was to inflame the people by his newspaper pieces, and in every other way possible; and to give information to those at Boston, of the same spirit and party, what was doing here, and whether they were in danger.
In a letter written that same day, Hutchinson said of Quincy:
I gave his Lordship his just character and acquainted him that he called upon Doctor F[ranklin]. the first day after he landed, and brought recomendatory letters to [John] Wilkes; and I had reason to believe republished a piece in the Public Ledger of to-day; so that his Lordship will be able to make a shrewd guess what will be his principal business
Quincy’s journal said nothing about the Public Ledger that week, and he surely would have recorded placing an essay or seeing his own words in that newspaper. But Hutchinson recalled Quincy’s 1760s newspaper essays as “Hyperion” and his “infamous” instructions on behalf of the Boston town meeting in 1770, writing then that Quincy wanted to be “a Successor to [James] Otis and it is much if he does not run mad also.”

TOMORROW: Who wanted the meeting most? 

Friday, September 30, 2022

“Great wonderment made at the New England Coffee house”

On 8 Nov 1774, Capt. Nathaniel Byfield Lyde of the Boston Packet left Josiah Quincy, Jr., “at Falmouth in the county of Cornwall” before sailing on to London.

Quincy made his way to the imperial capital over land, seeing the Plymouth Dockyard, Exeter, Salisbury, “the famous Roman or Druid Temple at Stonehenge,” and at least three peers’ lordly seats. He arrived in the imperial capital on the morning of 17 November.

Word of Quincy’s arrival got around quickly. He wrote in his journal that day that the Boston merchant Thomas Bromfield, a relative of his wife, reported “there was great wonderment made at the New England Coffee house about what brought me to London.” One man even said, “he has been blowing up the seeds of sedition in America and had now come to do the same here.”

Quincy told Bromfield to reply “that if I had done nothing but blow up seeds they would probably be very harmless, as they would never take root, but if I should have to sow any here and they should afterwards ripen, he or the ministry might blow them about at their leisure.”

Other visitors that first day were Edward Dilly, the London bookseller who published Catharine Macaulay, and Jonathan Williams (1750–1815, shown above), who had secured an easy job as “Inspector of the Customs in the Massachusetts Bay” but sided with the American Whigs. Later Quincy went to tea at the home of Williams’s great-uncle, Benjamin Franklin.

The next day Williams visited Quincy again for a long private talk. He reported:
Governor [Thomas] Hutchinson had repeatedly assured the Ministry, that a union of the Colonies was utterly impracticable: that the people were greatly divided among themselves in every colony, and that there could be no doubt, that all America would submit, and that they must, and moreover would, soon. . . . Governor Hutchinson had more than once said the same to persons in the Ministry in his presence.
Williams wanted Quincy to meet with Lord North, the prime minister, and the Earl of Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for North America. Quincy signaled that he was ready if those officials wanted to meet with him.

That day Quincy dined at Franklin’s house with Williams and Dr. Edward Bancroft. (During the war, Bancroft would serve the first U.S. diplomats in France as a secretary and, simultaneously, the Crown as a spy.) Franklin echoed what his great-nephew had said about Hutchinson.

In the evening, Quincy went to the Covent Garden Theater, a novel experience for a man raised in Massachusetts. He wrote:
the actresses in several striking elegances of Gesture, voice and action, convinced [me] that women equal men [in] the powers of Eloquence. I am still further satisfied in my opinion, that the Stage is the nursery of vice, and disseminates the seeds of vice far and wide—with an amazing and banefull success.
Meanwhile, royal officials were discussing this visitor from Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: Through Hutchinson’s eyes.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Josiah Quincy’s Fellow Travelers

Once his ship was safely clear of Salem harbor, Josiah Quincy, Jr., must have come up to enjoy the sea air. One of the benefits of his voyage to Britain was supposed to be relief from his tuberculosis.

I suspect his presence startled his fellow passengers aboard the Boston Packet. In his diary of the trip, Quincy listed those men this way:
With us went passengers Messrs. W. Hyslop and son; Dr. Paine and Rufus Chandler, Esq., of Worcester; Mr. Higginson, of Salem, and Mr. Sylvester Oliver, son of the late Lieutenant-Governor. Some of us might say, “Nos dulcia linquimus arva,” [We abandon our sweet fields] while others were obliged to mourn, “Nos patriam fugimus.” [We fly from our country]
Those Latin tags appear together in Virgil’s first Eclogue. Quincy evidently thought one applied to some of the men and one to the rest.

Who were those fellow travelers?

William Hyslop (1714–1796) was a merchant of Scottish descent, close to the Rev. Charles Chauncy and involved in missionizing charities. By 1774 he was “liveing out of town,” as Jane Mecom wrote, in a Brookline house he bought from Dr. Zabdiel Boylston. (Mecom had asked Hyslop to carry a letter to her brother in London, Benjamin Franklin, but he’d forgotten.) Hyslop’s son traveling with him was probably William Hyslop (1753–1792).

Hyslop appears to have been stranded in Britain by the outbreak of war. In May 1778 he wrote to John Adams from London to say he had “not heard from his Wife, Family, and other Friends at B—— since the 21st of September last” and was “impatiently waiting for a favourable opportunity to return to his Family and Friends from whom he has been so long involuntarily absent.” He probably didn’t want to be counted among the “absentees”; if so, the state might assume he was a Loyalist and confiscate his property.

Hyslop eventually did return to his family and property. He funded a school building for Brookline in 1793, and the town still has a road named for him.

Dr. William Paine (1750–1833, shown above) and Rufus Chandler (1747–1823) were both Harvard-educated young professionals, Paine a physician-apothecary and Chandler a lawyer. Their families were also related. They had been building genteel lives in Worcester until they sided with the Crown in the town’s increasingly Whiggish politics.

In August 1774, “near 3000 people” visited Paine’s father, Timothy Paine, to express their displeasure at him accepting a seat on the mandamus Council. The next month, over 4,500 Worcester County Patriots turned out to close the courts where Chandler worked. The two men decided they were better off visiting London.

Paine and Chandler returned to Massachusetts in the spring of 1775, landing in Salem in May only to find that there was a war under way and they were on the wrong side of the lines. They quickly moved into Boston and took stock of their situations.

Paine sailed back to Britain, where he bought and wheedled a medical degree and an appointment as apothecary for Gen. Sir William Howe’s army in 1776. During the early 1780s he held some offices in Nova Scotia. But in 1787, Paine came back to Massachusetts and rebuilt his upper-class life.

Chandler stayed in Boston through the siege, evacuated to Halifax with his wife, and then spent most of the war years in New York City. He tried to establish a lucrative legal practice in Halifax and Annapolis Royal, but eventually gave up and moved to London for his final decades.

Stephen Higginson (1743–1828) had become a merchant in Salem after spending a decade as a young ship’s captain. During this trip to London, the House of Commons invited him to testify about how the fishermen of Massachusetts would respond to a proposed new law. Higginson’s answers didn’t endear him to all his Essex County neighbors, and Salem’s committee of safety had to ask the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to vouch for him in June 1775.

Higginson repaired his reputation well enough, particularly by financing privateers, that toward the end of the war he became one of Massachusetts’s delegates to the Continental Congress. During the Shays Rebellion, he helped to lead the militia that Gov. James Bowdoin sent to quell the unrest, and he was a strong Federalist in the early republic.

Finally, Brinley Sylvester Oliver (1755–1828) was indeed a son of Massachusetts’s late lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver. His mother died in March 1773, his father a year later, just before he graduated from Harvard College. Oliver started attending Anglican services, a sign of his alienation from the Massachusetts society of his ancestors.

Syvlester Oliver was also a nephew of former governor Thomas Hutchinson, who greeted him warmly in London and loaned him £150. Eventually he gained the rank of purser in the Royal Navy and a Loyalist pension. He saw naval action against the French, including at the Battle of Trafalgar. Oliver died in London, a fairly wealthy man.

TOMORROW: Arriving in London.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Josiah Quincy’s “clandestine Departure”

On 28 Sept 1774, Josiah Quincy, Jr., sailed for Britain aboard the Boston Packet, captained by Nathaniel Byfield Lyde.

Because the Boston Port Bill had outlawed ships traveling from Boston to other colonies or Britain, Quincy embarked from Salem.

He did so in great secrecy. Back on 20 August, Quincy had written to Samuel Adams about his plans:
I have taken my passage and sail (God willing) for London in 18 days certain. The master with whom I go, will not know who is his passenger till he is 3 Leagues below the Light house. Nay he is not to know that any one sails with him as a passenger, and it is to Leave too far to receive the orders of the owner who is our friend William Dennie (otherwise to favor the plan all in his power).
And he closed that letter: “Post PS. I desire that my sailing for London may be kept a secret as long as possible. All our friends join in the Utility of such secrecy.”

Of course, he was telling Adams, and asking Adams to spread the word among First Continental Congress delegates. On the same day, Quincy had written to John Dickinson:
My design is to be kept as long secret as possible, I hope till I get to Europe. Should it transpire, that I was going Home, our public enemies here would be indefatigable and persevering to my injury, as they have been to the Cause in which I am engaged heart and hand; perhaps more so, as personal pique would be added to public malevolence.
Quincy wanted Dickinson and other leaders from colonies to the south to tell their supportive contacts in London he was coming.

As it turned out, it took a whole month longer for Quincy to prepare for his journey, and he traveled on a different ship. Nonetheless, he was still able to keep his departure largely a surprise.

A few weeks later, Quincy’s father wrote to him:
All the Tories and some of the Whigs resent your clandestine Departure. Many of the Former say, that as soon as your Arrival is known, you will be apprehended and secured. One in particular offered to lay 10 Guineas you were not gone to London, provided another 10 Guinea were laid, that you would not be hanged when you got there. Some say, you are gone to Holland, and from thence to the south of France. Others say, the general Congress have appointed, and Commissioned you their Agent at the Court of Great Britain, and that you had your Credentials and Instructions from them before you went away.

Your Friends say, your principal Motive is the recovery of your Health, which if Providence should please to restore, they rest assured of your best Endeavours to procure, a Redress of the Grievances, and a speedy Removal of the intolerable Burthens, with which your native Country is, and has been long oppressed.

I had almost forgot to tell you, that your Sister Quincy, who is here upon a Visit, says, she heard a Gentleman say, you loved money too much, to be trusted at a Court where every thing is bought and sold: That if they could not refute your Arguments in Defence of your Country, they would offer invincible Arguments to induce you to betray it.

Thus you see, how much you are a general Subject of Conversations: Perhaps, there never was an american, not even a D[ickinson] nor a [Benjamin] F[ranklin], whose Abilities have raised the Expectations of their American Brethren more than yours. God Almighty grant, if your Life and Health is spared, that you may exceed them in every Respect.
Indeed, this does seem to be putting a lot of weight on one young attorney without any official standing, without previous contacts in London, to make a big difference in the imperial crisis.

TOMORROW: Fellow passengers.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Revere House‘s Fall Lowell Lecture Series

The Paul Revere House’s annual Fall Lowell Lecture Series starts tonight, with the talks available for free both in-person and online.

The theme for this year’s series is “Beyond the 13: The American Revolutionary Era Outside the Emerging United States,” and the speakers will focus on “areas that have not traditionally received much attention in explorations of the American Revolutionary period.” Here’s the lineup:

Tuesday, 27 September, 6:30–7:45 P.M.
“‘To Begin the World over Again’: Revolutionary Rights”
Janet Polasky, Presidential Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire, explores how American claims to Revolutionary rights have reverberated throughout the Atlantic world and influenced our understanding of liberty and equality from the eighteenth century to the present.

Tuesday, 11 October, 6:30–7:45 P.M.
“The Other Fourth of July: The American War of Independence in the Southern Caribbean”
Tessa Murphy, Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University, considers what the American Revolution meant to British colonial subjects in some lesser-studied parts of the Americas. Indigenous, enslaved, and free people all seized the opportunity to ally with Great Britain’s chief rival, France, and many used this moment of disruption to seek freedom, sovereignty, or autonomy.

Tuesday, 25 October, 6:30–7:45 P.M.
“Slavery and Smallpox Inoculation”
Elise A. Mitchell, Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University, looks at the rich African Atlantic history of smallpox inoculation. Her lecture contextualizes the more familiar history of Onesimus and Cotton Mather in early eighteenth-century Boston within the broader history of Africans performing inoculations in West Africa, Jamaica, and Saint Domingue (Haiti) in the Revolutionary Era.

All these talks will be held in the Commons of Sargent Hall, Suffolk University, at 120 Tremont Street. They will also be streamed and recorded for later viewing via GBH’s Forum Network.

The Paul Revere House also has special offerings each Saturday—music, crafts demonstrations, first-person interpreters, and so on. Check its website for details.

Monday, September 26, 2022

“Bailyn tells us all we need to know”

The latest issue of the New England Quarterly is devoted to Bernard Bailyn, dean of the influential “Ideological” school of historians of the American Revolution and professor at Harvard University for many years.

Among the essays is Robert Allison’s description of working as one of Bailyn’s graduate students, teaching assistants, and research assistants.

During that time Bailyn was editing a collection of writings about the ratification of the U.S. Constitution for the Library of America. Allison shares this anecdote:
For the biographical sketches, I began with a list of every person—all 134—quoted in the volumes, either as a writer or a speaker at a convention—and found what information I could. These posed different problems. Not the French diplomats—as I was working with the sketch of Louis-Guilaume Otto, Comte de Mosloy from the Biographe Universelle, my wife asked if Bailyn knew that I could not read French. No matter; with a dictionary I powered through. More troubling was Washington, or Franklin, about whom we know too much, or William Jones of Maine, about whom we know very little (and for someone named William Jones, unlikely to know more). . . .

One of my favorite characters was Samuel Spencer of North Carolina, not so much for his accomplishments as for the lesson learned writing his biographical sketch. Born in Connecticut, Spencer went to Princeton in the 1750s then moved to North Carolina to practice law. This was enough to lead me to James McLachlan's Princetonians: 1748–1768. Spencer fought to suppress the North Carolina Regulators, served in the legislature, and became a judge, and he opposed ratification at both of the North Carolina conventions.

Judge Spencer's untimely end struck me as the most interesting part of his story. One warm April afternoon he sat, wearing a red hat, on his front porch in Anson County. In the warm afternoon sun, Spencer began to nod off. A turkey in the yard saw the bobbing red hat, took it for a challenge, and attacked the napping judge. Though Spencer fought off the bird, it had severely bitten his hand. Judge Spencer died of the infection.

My sketch of Spencer ended with this story—the warm afternoon sun, the red hat bobbing, the turkey attacking, the ensuing infection. Bailyn made a red X through the turkey story. In the next draft I condensed—taking out some extraneous details (the warm April sun). Again, he crossed it all out. I cut some more—was the red hat important? He crossed it all out again. This back and forth continued: I wrote and he crossed out. He never asked why I kept putting the story in; I never asked why he kept taking it out. Finally, as it all was going off to our heroes in New York [i.e., the publisher], I delivered a final version, sure that the turkey would not make his final cut.

When The Debate on the Constitution volumes appeared a few years later, and I saw them for the first time-on a shelf at the Harvard COOP, I immediately turned to volume 2, page 1013. There was Samuel Spencer, whose profile ends, “Died at home in Anson County on April 20, 1793, of an infected hand wound sustained from an attack by a turkey.”

Twelve words! It took me sixty-plus to retell the story above. Spencer is the only character for whom we give a cause of death, and without an unnecessary, extraneous, or distracting word Bailyn tells us all we need to know, in an elegant “wound sustained from an attack by a turkey.”
That’s certainly the sort of detail that would make me perk up and try to seek more information. Not unlike the death of John Lansing.

Bob Allison survived his stint with Prof. Bailyn and has become a prominent local professor himself—at Suffolk University, and at the head of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and Revolution 250.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Explaining the Summer of 1783

I looked up the Massachusetts newspaper coverage of Europe’s unusual atmosphere in 1783, quoted yesterday, after reading Katrin Kleemann’s online article from a few years back, “Speculating About the Weather: The Unusual Dry Fog of 1783.”

Kleemann wrote:
…in the summer of 1783, Europeans had more than enough reasons to be concerned with the weather. A peculiar dry fog with an odd sulfuric smell cloaked Europe and remained for months, with neither wind nor rain managing to disperse it. The fog was not the only oddity these individuals were facing that summer: The sun had a blood red color when it set and rose; an unusual number of thunderstorms seemed to pass through; meteors were visible over western Europe, earthquakes occurred in Italy, and a new island emerged from the sea off the coast of Iceland. Speculation was rife as to the cause of all this.

Hekla, an Icelandic volcano, known in Europe since medieval times as the gate to hell, was thought to be a potential culprit. When referring to historical maps of Iceland, Hekla is usually pictured as erupting. Famously, Benjamin Franklin suggested that Hekla or Nyey, the newly emerging island, might have caused the dry fog. However, what is often forgotten in this context is that in the same paragraph, Franklin suggested “great burning balls” (meteors) might alternatively have caused it.

At the time a very fashionable explanation was electricity: Lightning was believed to fertilize the soil when it hit the ground. The numerous thunderstorms of the summer quickened the spread of the lightning rod, which had not yet had its breakthrough. The lightning rod was believed to withdraw the beneficial electricity from the atmosphere, which—so the theory went—caused the dry fog, as sulfuric odor had previously been consumed by the “electrical fire.”

There was yet another story making its rounds in the newspapers in July 1783: Not just one but two volcanic eruptions were described within the German territories. The Cottaberg near Dresden as well as the Gleichberg mountains near Hildburghausen were said to have roared to life and to be spitting fire. Both mountains are actually of volcanic origin—however, their last eruptions occurred 25 and 15 million years ago, respectively. The reports were retracted a few weeks later.

The most popular theory of the time suggested that earthquakes in Italy and this dry fog were directly related: people believed the earthquakes had opened a crack in the Earth, which released sulfuric odor from the Earth’s interior into the air. The concept of a subterraneous revolution plausibly explained the sulfuric smell, the fog, the earthquakes, and the newly emerging island.
As Kleemann related, the answer to the atmospheric mystery did lie in Iceland, but it took a long time to come out. Eleven years after that odd summer, an Icelandic scientist named Sveinn Pálsson (1762-1840, shown above) described the volcanic fissure now called Laki. That system had erupted from June 1783 to February 1784, emitting huge amounts of basalt lava and poisonous clouds. The effects in continental Europe were nothing compared to what happened locally, as more than half of Iceland’s livestock died, followed by most of the crops, followed within a few years by about a quarter of the humans from famine.

Despite all those effects, Pálsson’s report wasn’t published by the Danish Society of Natural History but simply filed away. A century later, the eruption of Krakatoa confirmed that massive volcanic activity could affect the atmosphere all over the planet. People rediscovered what Pálsson had written. His manuscript was finally published in full in 1945, explaining the odd summer of 1783.

(Kleeman’s article appeared on the website of N.I.C.H.E., which is both the Network In Canadian History & Environment and the Nouvelle Initiative Canadienne en Histoire de l’Environnement. Coming up with a name to justify a good acronym is tough enough, but doing so in two languages at once is a real feat.)

Saturday, September 24, 2022

“The air is superphlogisticated”

On 20 Nov 1783, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy ran an “Extract of a letter from Sailon in Provence, July 11.” It reported:
For twenty days, a singular fog, such as the oldest man here has before not seen, has reigned in most part of Provence; the atmosphere is filled with it, and the sun, although extremely hot, for at noon the barometer rises forty five degrees, is not sufficiently so to dissipate it; it continues day and night, though not equally thick; for sometimes it clouds the neighbouring mountains.

The horizon, which is usually of a beautiful azure in this country, appears of a whitish grey, the sun, which during the day is very pale, is at setting and rising quite read, and so absorbed are his rays by the fog, that one may at any time look steadily at him without being in the least incommoded.

It is an observation made by many, that the fog at some times emits a strong odour, the nature of which is not easily determined; it is so dry as not to tarnish a looking-glass, and instead of liquifying salts it drys them; the hidrometer does not ascend, and evaporation is abundant; the eyes are affected with a slight heat, and such as have weak lungs, are disagreeably affected.
The article went on to report an unusual “storm of thunder and hail” on the solstice and the air being “greatly electrified.”

However, this correspondent concluded: “The constant drought which has prevented the usual exhalations from the earth, seems to be the sole cause of this mist, the late rains having diluted the matter of which these exhalations are formed, they now ascend with their vehicle the water.”

The London printer that Thomas copied this article from then stated:
It may not be unentertaining to our readers to be informed that Dr. [Joseph] Priestly has long ago discovered that the changes in the atmosphere depend very much on the quantity of phlogiston contained in it. The excessive burning and sultry weather we have had of late shews that the air is superphlogisticated. Letters from all parts of Europe describe exactly the same season that we have had.
The real reason for Europe’s strange atmospheric conditions in the summer of 1783 wouldn’t be discovered for more than another century.

TOMORROW: It wasn’t drought or phlogiston.

[The picture above shows Priestley before he took refuge in the U.S. of A.]

Friday, September 23, 2022

Hingham Historical Lecture Series Starts This Weekend

Starting this weekend, the Hingham Historical Society will host a series of lectures on the theme of “Native Homelands/Settler Colonialism.”

The talks will take place on Sunday afternoons at the Hingham Heritage Museum but also on Zoom. Some of the speakers will be present, and others speaking from their homes.

Launching the series on Sunday, 23 September, is Prof. Alan Taylor speaking about “Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the American Revolution.”

Taylor is one of the most respected historians of Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America today, as well as one of the most productive. Originally from Maine, he wrote The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution in 2006. Taylor won Pulitzer Prizes for William Cooper’s Town in 1996 and The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 in 2014.

Here are the upcoming talks.
  • 6 November: Robert Miller, “The International Law of Colonialism and New England”
  • 4 December: David S. Jones, “Epidemics, Conflict, and Caregiving during the Colonization of New England” 
  • 22 January 2023: Virginia D. Anderson, “Native Americans, English Colonists, and Strange Beasts” 
  • 26 March: Jean M. O’Brien, “Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence”
  • 23 April: Lisa Brooks, “A New History of King Philip’s War”
A subscription to all six lectures in person or by video costs $175, or $150 for Hingham Historical Society members.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

John Dickinson Symposium in Philadelphia, 20–21 Oct.

To celebrate the publication of the first volumes of The Complete Writings and Selected Correspondence of John Dickinson, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia is hosting a free “John Dickinson Symposium: New Perspectives on the American Founding.”

This symposium will begin on the evening of Thursday, 20 October, with a plenary address by Jack N. Rakove: “John Dickinson, Political Conscience, and the Dilemma of the Moderates.”

The panel discussions scheduled for the following day show the wide range of issues Dickinson addressed and contributions he made:
  • Jelte Olthof, “John Dickinson: Pluralist and Orator”
  • Helena Yoo, “Letters from Before He Became a Farmer: John Dickinson’s Transatlantic Correspondence”
  • David Forte, “‘Like Lightening thro the Land’: John Dickinson and the Freedom of the Press”
Matters of State
  • Charlotte Crane, “Contribution and Representation: John Dickinson’s Contributions to the Fiscal Design of the Emerging Federal Government”
  • Charles Fithian, “‘A System, concise, easy and efficient’: John Dickinson’s Version of von Steuben’s Regulations for the Delaware Militia, 1782”
  • Nathan R. Kozuskanich, “‘A Certain Coldness in my Presbyterian Friends’: Dickinson and the Pennsylvania Radicals”
Social Justice
  • Jon Kershner, “‘Nature Planted Them in this Land’: John Dickinson’s Quakerly Diplomacy and Indian Concerns”
  • Kevin Bendesky, “‘Defending the Innocent & redressing the injurd’: The Criminal Jurisprudence and Penology of John Dickinson”
  • Jane E. Calvert, “Black Freedom and Its Limits in the Thought of John Dickinson”
Gender and Social Concerns
  • James Emmett Ryan, “John Dickinson and Public Education”
  • Rebecca Brannon, “John Dickinson and Aging”
  • Nathaniel Green, “‘From a Common Stock of Rights’: Human Rights and Political Power in John Dickinson’s America”
And that doesn’t even get into the man’s songwriting.

Two years ago, after the very first volume of Dickinson’s collected writings appeared, the Library Company of Philadelphia hosted a smaller, online event. But of course late 2020 was a time for online events. This symposium is the first time these scholars will be gathered in the same place.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Cronin Lectures Coming Up in Lexington

The Lexington Historical Society’s Cronin Lecture Series is starting again this week. Here’s the lineup.

Thursday, 22 September, 7:00 P.M.
Lexington Depot
Nancy Rubin Stuart on Poor Richard’s Women
Behind any founding father are numerous founding mothers, sisters, and lovers. Benjamin Franklin had a large cast of women in his life, most importantly his wife of 44 years, Deborah Read Franklin. While frequently absent from the historical narrative due to their frequent time apart, Deborah was an important witness to and active participant in the political workings of the early Revolution, running the family businesses and raising a family in tumultuous times with her husband often away. Then as Franklin traveled the globe, his social circle also expanded to include landladies and liaisons in London and Paris.

Nancy Rubin Stuart, author of Defiant Brides, The Muse of the Revolution, and more, will give us an expanded look into Ben Franklin’s world through the eyes of the women who influenced it as told in her new book Poor Richard’s Women. Books will be available for purchase.
Thursday, 13 October, 7:00 P.M.
Lexington Depot
Past the Cemetery Gate with the Gravestone Girls
The Gravestone Girls, led by Brenda Sullivan, are experts in gravestone art and history, tapping into our historic graveyards as an important tool to learn about the past. Join us for a look at how they can assist genealogists and historians in “Past the Cemetery Gate”, where we learn to ‘read’ the cemetery for clues and information. Using both direct observation and deductive reasoning from objects such as the writing, art, geology and the cemetery landscape, much new insight can be revealed. That new insight can answer questions, create new inquiries and open doors for further detective work. Many use the cemetery as a cursory resource for learning, genealogy or entertainment, some haven’t tapped it at all. This program will get guests looking at these spaces, both old and new, as a valuable resource for their data collection activities!
This lecture is part of October programming that also includes tours of the town’s old burying-ground twice a day every Saturday.

The Depot opens for these events with refreshments at 6:30 P.M. They are free, but advance registration is requested and sometimes required. Visit the Lexington Historical Society’s events pages to see all the offerings.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Boston’s Special Collections Department Reopens

Earlier this month the Boston Public Library reopened its Special Collections Department after a $15.7 million renovation.

This was a five-year project funded by the city to improve the department’s public spaces, including a new reading room and lobby; to upgrade the collections storage for rare books and manuscripts; and to install a state-of-the-art conservation lab and fire-suppression system.

The collection includes everything from a First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare to Robert McCloskey’s preliminary drawings for Make Way for Ducklings.

But of course I’m fondest of the extensive holdings about the Revolutionary period, including the town archives. I’ve used B.P.L. materials to study the town’s watchmen, the militia armories, coroners’ inquests after the Boston Massacre, and even John Hancock’s bills for his aunt’s carriage (he contracted from Adino Paddock and John Gore—only the best).

The department’s rare books division holds John Adams’s large personal library and the Rev. Thomas Prince’s library, once housed in Old South, where the Rev. Ezra Stiles consulted it.

The Boston Public Library is one of only two public members of the Association of Research Libraries, the other being the New York Public Library. Most other members are at universities. Special Collections Department head Beth Prindle states, “Our collections are available for the study and enjoyment of everyone. As it says on the side of the McKim building, we are dedicated to making these treasured items ‘Free to All.’”

Having been closed during this renovation, the department now welcomes the public in three ways:
  • Visitors to the Boston Public Library’s central branch can view a selection of objects on display in the Special Collections Lobby.
  • Researchers can use the department website to learn more about its holdings.
  • And researchers who see something intriguing can create a reading room account and file a request to use materials at their preferred date and time.