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

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Friday, May 29, 2020

Preparing for the Political Season to Reopen

Back in May 1768, the Massachusetts General Court added seven Whig House members involved in the Circular Letter dispute to the Council, which functioned as the legislature’s upper house and an advisory board for the governor.

Gov. Francis Bernard had vetoed six of those seven men.

In May 1769, a new legislature convened and elected those six men to the Council again. On 1 June, Gov. Bernard vetoed them again. He also vetoed five more names, including:
A couple of weeks later, Gov. Bernard moved the whole legislature out to Cambridge. Meeting in Harvard Hall (a building the governor himself had designed, shown above) instead of Boston’s Town House produced even more controversy. The House petitioned the Crown to remove Bernard from office. The legislative session ended in July. Bernard left Massachusetts forever in August.

On 15 Mar 1770, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson called the Massachusetts General Court back into session, once again in Cambridge. He said that he didn’t feel he had the authority to change the venue. There was a lot more arguing about that, as well as about Bernard’s and other officials’ letters to London, the recent Boston Massacre, and more.

Towns held elections for new General Court representatives in May. I discussed the Boston election here. The legislature was due to reconvene on 30 May, once again in Cambridge, and one of the first tasks would be to elect a new Council. The 28 May Boston Gazette shows the Whigs maneuvering to resume the arguments from the previous years.

One Councilor whom Bernard had removed in 1768 and 1769 was James Otis, Sr., but he would be back in the legislature nonetheless:
The Town of Barnstable have made Choice of the Hon. JAMES OTIS, Esq; to represent the Great and General Court the Year ensuing.——It is observable the good old Patriot had 92 Votes out of 101.
Edes and Gill also reported a complaint from the legislature’s unwitting host:
We hear that the Honorable Corporation of Harvard College, from a Regard to the Rights of the People and the good of that Seminary, have lately presented a Remonstrance to his Honor the Lieutenant-Governor, on the General Court’s being summoned to meet at that Seat of Learning, and have also entered a Protest on their Records to present this illegal Measure from being drawn into a Precedent.
The other big political development chronicled in that issue of the Boston Gazette was that Parliament had repealed most of the Townshend duties while keeping the most lucrative one, the tax on tea. What did that mean for the North American non-importation protest against all those tariffs? Merchants in Newport were reportedly shipping in goods already. Committees in Philadelphia and New York were asking what Boston would do.

On 23 May the Whigs had convened another public meeting of “the Trade” in Faneuil Hall, which “VOTED almost unanimously” to “still strictly adhere to the Non-importation Agreement.” The Boston Gazette assured “our Brethren of the other Colonies” that Boston wouldn’t be the first to reopen for regular business.

TOMORROW: Election day in Boston.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

“To catch a red herring at last”

Yesterday I shared a use of the phrase “red herring” in a political setting from 1782. Here’s a trail to an even earlier usage.

Lord Carteret, who after 1744 was the second Earl Granville, was active in the British government from 1719 on. He was mostly involved in foreign policy. Through the 1720s and 1730s he was one of prime minister Robert Walpole’s rivals, partly from their convictions and partly from their sheer ambitions.

Lord Carteret was the most influential man in the British government after Walpole’s fall in 1742, but he himself was forced out of his office as Secretary of State two years later.

In 1751 the earl became Lord President of the Privy Council, a high-ranking position with little direct power. He remained in that post until he died in early 1763.

Later that year the British press published “A Dialogue Between the Late Earls of Orford [i.e., Walpole] and Granville,” depicting the two old opponents meeting in the afterlife. This item appeared in the 21-23 June London Chronicle and John Caesar Wilkes’s Weekly Magazine for 27 June. The Beauties of All Magazines reprinted it in July.

A longer version of that dialogue appeared in the June 1763 issue of The Universal Museum and Complete Magazine (volume 2, page 319). That appears to be the original; Frederick M. Keener lists it as such in his English Dialogues of the Dead: A Critical History, an Anthology, and a Check List (1973). Although I’m pretty sure the Universal Museum from 1763 is in the public domain now, Google Books offers only snippet views and no copies are available on HathiTrust.

As someone in this etymological discussion also found, a portion of the dialogue that didn’t make it into the London Chronicle or other sources was:
Lord G. It is right, however, that mankind should pursue it. It is productive of many good effects. The trumpet of fame rouses great minds to great actions.

Lord O. And to many bad ones too. Fame, you know, my Lord, has two trumpets. And though the pursuit of it may be good exercise for the general pack of mankind, and keep them in breath, it seems (to speak in my favourite language of a sportsman) to be only hunting a trail, to catch a red herring at last.
This may be the first print source to take the common, smelly object of a kipper, as used in training a hunting pack, and make it into a metaphor for something that distracts people from what’s really important. And it’s from 1763.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

John Courtenay: “On the red herring scent of American taxation”

This week I learned from the Words for Granted podcast that one of the first documented uses of the phrase “red herring” as a metaphor for a distracting false lead arose from the American Revolution.

For centuries “red herring” meant a herring preserved by smoking, or a kipper. There are also references from the late 1600s to smelly red herrings being used to train horses or dogs to follow a scent in preparation for hunting.

On 20 Mar 1782, a Member of Parliament named John Courtenay (1738-1816) was speaking in the House of Commons. Courtenay was a former British army lieutenant born in Ireland. He represented Tamworth in the 1780s, but really he was a witty mouthpiece for his political patrons, at this point Viscount (later Marquess) Townshend.

As reported in volume 6 of The Parliamentary Register, published later in 1782:
The noise, clamour, and cry to adjourn were so strong, that Mr. Courtenay, though he spoke in a strong, and elevated tone of voice, could scarcely be heard, upon which he called out very audibly, “that neither his temper, disposition, nor country, inclined him to be intimidated, embarrassed, or easily put out of countenance, he would therefore finish what he had to say before he sat down,” which was, that though he had not the honour of being one of those sagacious country gentlemen, who have so long vociferated for the American war, (a war which he should ever think impolitic, unjust, and inexpedient) who had so long run on the red herring scent of American taxation, before they found out there was no game on foot; they, who like (their prototype) Don Quixote, had mistaken the barber’s bason for a golden helmet, he now congratulated them on having, at last, recovered their senses, and found out their error…
The references to “country gentlemen” and “no game on foot” clearly tie this metaphor to aristocratic rural hunters. Courtenay thus presented “American taxation” as a foolish and distracting political goal, not worth chasing.

As I’ve noted before, at the start of the unrest in America, British printers were still prosecuted for reporting on speeches in Parliament. John Almon had started to issue the Parliamentary Register in 1775, just in time for the American war.

By the 1780s reporting on debates had become acceptable enough for John Stockdale to issue Beauties of the British Senate: Taken from the Debates of the Debates of the Lords and Commons, as a “greatest hits” collection of rhetoric with extracts of speeches back to Robert Walpole’s ministry. Courtenay’s entries were listed in the contents under “Humour,” “Remarkable Sayings,” “Satire,” “Simile,” and “Wit” rather than, say, “East-India Affairs” or “Freedom of Election.” The red herring speech, rendered in first-person present instead of third-person past, was one of his memorable “Similes.”

A few years later, Courtenay broke with William Pitt’s party to join Charles James Fox’s opposition. Deploying truckloads of sarcasm, he supported the changes across the Channel in Philosophical Reflections on the Late Revolution in France (1790). In parliamentary debate Courtenay reminded Edmund Burke “how he exulted at the victories of the rebel [George] Washington.”

Many authorities credit William Cobbett (1763-1835, shown above) with coining the metaphor of a “red herring,” based on a story he published in his Political Register weekly in 1807 and expanded in 1833. Cobbett did indeed use the phrase “political red herring” at the end of a shaggy-dog story about him as a boy drawing hounds off the scent of a hare with a kipper.

However, in that period Cobbett and his printer, Thomas Curson Hansard, were also publishing their own Parliamentary Debates reports and a multi-volume Parliamentary History of England. Volume 22 of Cobbett’s Parliamentary History, which came out in 1814, presented Courtenay’s speech as printed back in 1782, with changes only in punctuation. So Cobbett knew about Courtenay’s earlier use.

TOMORROW: An even earlier appearance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

“Including the records of very poor people”

I’ve been analyzing Michael Bellesiles’s interview on Daniel Gullotta’s Age of Jackson podcast last year, particularly his comments about the Emory University committee that criticized his book Arming America.

The relevant part of that podcast was transcribed here at Contingent magazine.

As my last point, I find these statements from Bellesiles particularly audacious:
They also criticized me for my approach, for including the probate records of the poor. . . . The committee wrote that I clearly examined the probate records I listed, but they criticized me for including the records of very poor people who owned very little.
Nothing in the Emory report criticizes Bellesiles for “including the records of very poor people.” In fact, it’s ludicrous to imagine any set of modern American historians disparaging good study of the poor.

What’s the basis of Bellesiles’s description? I suspect it grew from passages like this:
Our concern about his definition of “inventory” was raised first by his conflating of “wills” and “inventories” in his handling of the Providence, Rhode Island inventories. Obviously including wills in the total count of records greatly reduced the percentage of guns in estates, since few wills list guns or any other specific kind of personal property. . . . we think that the extraordinarily low percentages of guns in Professor Bellesiles counts may be a consequence of an unusually broad definition of what constitutes an inventory…
Specifically discussing records from Northampton County, Pennsylvania, the report found Bellesiles’s “results (only 5 guns in 39 inventories) are so at odds with hers [Alice Hanson Jones’s] (5 in 21 inventories). Apparently his definition of an inventory was broader than hers.”

Alice Hanson Jones (1904-1985, shown above) was an economic historian who worked for the U.S government and taught at Washington University in St. Louis. Her magnum opus was Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of the Revolution, supplemented by three volumes of inventory transcriptions, American Colonial Wealth: Documents and Methods.

In assessing who owned what, Jones analyzed only probate files that included inventories of goods. A file might contain no inventory because that paperwork had disappeared, or because the estate didn’t need to be divided or evaluated to settle debts, or because people didn’t think inventorying would be worthwhile since the deceased had so little property. As Jones acknowledged, that last factor meant poor people were less likely to have their estates inventoried. But without an inventory, it’s nearly impossible to say whether a particular person was poor or owned any particular item.

It appears that Bellesiles’s approach was to count probate files with guns listed in inventories and then divide not by all inventoried estates but by all estates. In other words, he lumped all the estates that had no inventories in with those that had inventories but no guns—in effect, assuming that every dead person not explicitly found to have owned a gun didn’t own one. As the report found, that method “greatly reduced the percentage of guns in estates.” It raised the number of poor people reflected in the data, but with no way of knowing which of the added people were poor or were gun-owners.

I see no evidence that in his articles, book, and responses to the Emory committee Bellesiles ever cited the need to include poor people’s estates as the reason for counting as he did. The Emory committee therefore had no reason to criticize Bellesiles “for including the records of very poor people,” and they didn’t. Instead, those senior historians criticized the approach behind Arming America as badly defined, not clearly explained to readers, liable to error, and impossible to trace back.

To me this aspect of Bellesiles’s response to the Emory report looks like not only denial of the problems inherent in his approach, but an attempt to tar the committee members as snobbish and unconcerned about poor people.

Monday, May 25, 2020

“Prolix, confusing, evasive and occasionally contradictory”

As I described yesterday, in 2002 Emory University asked three senior historians from other colleges to investigate specific questions about Michael Bellesiles’s research in Arming America.

The committee’s report (P.D.F. download) concluded:
Subsequent to the allegations of research misconduct, his responses have been prolix, confusing, evasive and occasionally contradictory. . . . The Committee's investigation has been seriously hampered by the absence or unavailability of Professor Bellesiles’ critical and apparently lost research records and by the failures of memory and careful record keeping which Professor Bellesiles himself describes. . . .

the best that can be said of his work with the probate and militia records is that he is guilty of unprofessional and misleading work. . . . his scholarly integrity is seriously in question.
Emory had asked the committee to assess the evidence for intentional falsification of data. The senior historians could not find such intent on two of the five questions they were given. They went on:
On Question 3, we find that the strained character of Professor Bellesiles’ explanation raises questions about his veracity with respect to his account of having consulted probate records in San Francisco County. On Question 4, dealing with the construction of the vital Table One, we find evidence of falsification. And on Question 5, which raises the standard of professional historical scholarship, we find that Professor Bellesiles falls short on all three counts.
In his conversation with Daniel Gullotta for the Age of Jackson podcast, Bellesiles characterized the committee’s conclusions differently:
That committee acknowledged that I had in fact conducted the research in the archives listed in the book, but they criticized my record-keeping as archaic, for relying on paper rather than the new computer-based systems. . . . The committee wrote that I clearly examined the probate records I listed…
In fact, the committee concluded:
Given his conflicting statements and accounts, it has been difficult to establish where and how Professor Bellesiles conducted his research into the probate records he cites: for example, what was read in microfilm and where and in what volume, what archives, in some cases, were actually visited and what they contained.
The committee cited particular doubts about Bellesiles’s claims to have examined archives in California, Georgia, and Massachusetts. I think a proper summary of the committee’s findings is that they confirmed his visits to some archives, accepted his claims about others, and were skeptical but unable to disprove his (revised) claims on still more. And that’s before discussing how he handled information from those archives. The committee summarized, “Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed.”

Continuing his theme, Bellesiles stated:
The committee also noted that I had done extensive research in military archives, feeling the need to quote one archivist as stating that I was there often, but that he didn’t like me. (I still don’t understand why they felt the need to include that gratuitous dig.)
Here’s the relevant passage in the Emory committee’s report, from an appendix written by the research assistant:
I visited the Worcester Facility on 14 June 2002 and spoke with the Director of Historical Services, Col. Leonid Kondratiuk, who told me that the reference I had given him did not correspond to a document.

Although I did not tell Col. Kondratiuk that I was checking Prof. Bellesiles’s footnotes, he recognized the reference from other researchers who had previously asked for information about the table. He told me that Prof. Bellesiles had been to the archives about eight years ago but that no one who had been at the archives at that time worked there any longer. Col. Kondratiuk made no attempt to conceal his negative opinions about Prof. Bellesiles or his book, and this is important because the archives manuscript resources are not accessible by card catalog, and I was forced to rely on Col. Kondratiuk’s knowledge of what materials the archive contained. I have no reason to believe that Col. Kondratiuk concealed information from me. He spent several hours with me, allowed me access to restricted space and showed me several letter books whose titles were similar to the one Bellesiles gave or which he thought might contain similar information.
It’s obvious why the report mentioned Kondratiuk’s “negative opinions about Prof. Bellesiles or his book”—to acknowledge the possibility that the facility director might not have been eager to cooperate in vindicating the professor’s claims. In other words, that information could have been helpful to Bellesiles’s case.

What’s more, Bellesiles’s description of “one archivist as stating that I was there often, but that he didn’t like me,” leaves the impression that Kondratiuk had personally seen Bellesiles at work and taken against him. In fact, the colonel told the committee researcher that neither he nor any current colleagues had ever met Bellesiles at the archive. Kondratiuk also said nothing about Bellesiles visiting the facility “often.”

[Kondratiuk appears above in a photo from the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge, portraying Paul Revere in the National Lancers’ recreation of Revere’s ride on Patriots’ Day in 2016. He is now a brigadier general.]

Bellesiles told Gullotta:
I was able to recover one-quarter of my probate material from my notes and put it on the Web. The committee acknowledged this fact, but they faulted my reliance on paper and pencil rather than a computer database.
The report doesn’t include the word “pencil” nor say that Bellesiles should have used a “computer.” The committee did say, “his recording methods were at best primitive and altogether unsystematic,” but that wasn’t a matter of the medium he used. Instead, the report concluded, “Bellesiles seems to have been utterly unaware of the importance of the possibility of the replication of his research.”

The committee report did mention Bellesiles’s website (now down) multiple times. The passage with the most detail is:
Professor Bellesiles responded to the intense criticism of his probate data in Arming America with a website that purported to move beyond his earlier work with new information gathered more systematically and with samples extending over several years. At this writing, the website includes only two areas cited in the sources for the JAH article and Table One in Arming America—the Vermont data that he gathered in the 1980s and a summary of an unknown number of probate files from Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. How the Westmoreland material survived the flood in his office, we do not know.
The J.A.H. article cited what the committee called “an apparently comprehensive survey of records from 38 jurisdictions,” but only two of those locations reportedly overlapped with what Bellesiles put on the website. That doesn’t add up to an acknowledgment that he had recovered “one-quarter of my probate material.”

TOMORROW: A final accusation.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Arming America: How “the Controversy Arose”

As I described yesterday, in 2002 Emory University asked three outside scholars to investigate charges of “failures of scholarly care and integrity” against Michael Bellesiles, author of Arming America.

Those scholars were academic heavyweights: Stanley N. Katz of Princeton, Hanna H. Gray of the University of Chicago, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard. They had the assistance of a graduate student who visited archives in Massachusetts, checked other sources, and reran calculations.

That committee filed their report (P.D.F. download) in July. Emory University released it in October. On the same day, Bellesiles resigned.

In his interview last year with Daniel Gullotta for the Age of Jackson podcast, Bellesiles made some comments about that report and other criticism of his book. I decided to assess those remarks against the historical record.

Bellesiles told Gullotta:
The controversy arose because seventeen years ago, there was a flood in Bowden Hall at Emory University in Atlanta, which severely damaged the offices of numerous professors in the history and philosophy departments, including mine. Most of the original notes for my book Arming America were destroyed in that flood. And within days, opponents of the book picked up on this loss to argue that I had never conducted the research supporting three paragraphs in the book that concern probate records.
The sprinkler-pipe flood happened in April 2000, nineteen (not seventeen) years before this conversation. Arming America was published in early September 2000, so “opponents of the book” couldn’t have responded to the flood “within days” because the book didn’t yet exist. But of course we may not recall exact details of a difficult time.

Here’s the sequence of events as best I can recreate it. Bellesiles published a paper on gun ownership in early America in the Journal of American History in 1996. Its evidence included travel accounts and probate inventories. Clayton E. Cramer, a graduate student with whom Bellesiles had corresponded about gun laws, then wrote to the journal listing other travel accounts that contradicted the paper’s findings. Bellesiles replied by dismissing Cramer’s criticism as politically motivated.

Meanwhile, Bellesiles had agreed with the Knopf division of Random House to publish what became Arming America. The July 1999 Economist reported on the upcoming book. In December, Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, sniped at Bellesiles’s work. The editing and production process on the book must have also begun in 1999. That sprinkler pipe burst in April 2000, making news only in the Emory community. In that same month, the New York Times reported on Bellesiles’s intriguing conclusions.

Arming America was officially published in September 2000, receiving prominent and mostly positive reviews in the mainstream press. As early as 30 August, Prof. James Lindgren of Northwestern University wrote to Bellesiles with questions about his research since he’d been working on the same questions using probate inventories. On 19 September, Bellesiles sent Lindgren an email saying, among other things, that the office flood had destroyed his notes. That appears to have been the first link between the burst pipe and the probate data, and it came from Bellesiles himself. (Subsequently, the Emory committee found, Bellesiles made a “disavowal” of some other statements in those 30 August and 19 September emails to Lindgren.)

The first public mention of that flood’s effect on the debate that I’ve found was a draft of Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather’s essay “Counting Guns in Early America” dated 28 December. Some critics of the book were indeed skeptical of Bellesiles’s explanation about the loss of his probate data—some had to be convinced there even was an office flood. But Lindgren and others accepted, if only for argument, that Bellesiles had indeed counted probate records on yellow pads as he described and included that in their analyses of his work. That was sloppy technique and the numbers still didn’t add up, they said.

But that aspect of the book wasn’t where the “controversy arose” first. Cramer had objected to Bellesiles’s conclusions back in 1997. After the book appeared, Cramer expanded on his criticism, finding more omitted and distorted sources. As a software engineer, he used his expertise with computers to set up webpages sharing those findings. Unfortunately for the appearance of political leanings, Cramer located his pages within the website of the Golden Gate United National Rifle Association, making it easy for Bellesiles and his defenders to dismiss the complaints.

Cramer, as a graduate student in California, didn’t have the resources to try to replicate most of Bellesiles’s probate research in the east. But he found plenty of other details in Arming America to criticize. Lindgren and his team had already worked in some of those probate archives, so they could analyze what data Bellesiles reported and find discrepancies. Eventually formal reviews in scholarly journals voiced more doubts, though most didn’t appear until late 2001 or 2002, after Arming America had received the Bancroft Prize.

I’ve always been struck by how Lindgren’s critique carried much more weight than Cramer’s. According to Bellesiles in his interview with Gullotta:
Now, I think the reason they picked on the probate records is because those are the most obscure of all the materials I use, that pretty much require you to go to the individual archives in order to examine them. It’s not something that could easily be verified by going to a good research university library.
Except that Cramer found a lot wrong with Arming America by “going to a good research university library.” Bellesiles’s ongoing emphasis on the book’s small section about probate inventories gives the false impression that no one had found other problems with the book.

There are better explanations of why Lindgren’s criticism got more traction within the academic world than Cramer’s. Lindgren was a professor at Northwestern. Cramer was a graduate student at Sonoma State University. Lindgren wasn’t a proponent of gun ownership in contemporary America while Cramer was. Lindgren’s argument rested mostly (but not wholly) on numbers. Cramer’s critique was largely about words, which can seem more open to interpretation. But isn’t quoting words out of context just as inaccurate as reporting a false count of wills?

Whatever the reason, we can see that Emory University gave more weight to the Lindgren critique. All five of the questions it tasked the outside committee with examining involved “probate records” of some sort. Furthermore, the committee noted that its mandate covered “ONLY” those questions. (In Appendix B, Part 3, the research assistant did address discrepancies with travel narratives that Lindgren had noted, but disagreed with parts of his assessment.)

TOMORROW: Bellesiles’s comments on the committee’s conclusions.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Arming America Twenty Years On

As my Sestercentennial postings from last fall recounted, the last part of the year 1769 in Boston was punctuated with gunfire:
There were no serious injuries from those gunshots, much less deaths. Nonetheless, they showed that violence in Boston was becoming more lethal. And indeed, the first two months of 1770 would bring the shooting deaths of Christopher Seider and then five people in the Boston Massacre.

Back in 2000, Michael Bellesiles published a study titled Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. It received prominent pre-publication blurbs and lots of newspaper reviews, most of them (but not all) laudatory. At the time, I looked at the book for what it said about pre-Revolutionary Boston and was surprised to see this statement on page 177:
The only incidence of gunfire in the long decade before the Revolution came in Boston in 1770, when British soldiers opened fire on an angry crowd and killed five men.
I already knew that Boston alone provided several counterexamples to that blanket statement. Bellesiles had apparently missed not only the non-fatal shots of 1769 but Ebenezer Richardson shooting a child from his window—not to mention James Otis shooting out his own window two months later.

Back then, the main platform for discussion among historians was listservs and other forms of email groups. (A few years later, blogs took over, with Boston 1775 among them. A few years after that, and most of the discussion moved to Twitter, with podcasts gaining ground.) I noted that mistake in the book on H-Net’s OIEAHC listserv (now H-Early-America) in October 2000 and probably on the Revlist group on Yahoo! as well.

During those months, however, I wasn’t ready to write off Bellesiles’s entire book. Those examples of more gunfire in Boston didn’t necessarily negate Arming America’s larger argument because it claimed that there were more guns in port towns than in interior farming communities. The unwelcome stationing of the army regiments in Boston in 1768-1770 definitely made it an exceptional place.

I also wasn’t ready to conclude that such errors were evidence that Bellesiles had knowingly misrepresented the historical record—not without more solid evidence. As long as there was a way to reconcile the evidence he cited with what others were bringing to light, I felt we should consider that before deciding the only explanation was fraud.

At the same time, I found myself speaking up in the online discussions for Bellesiles’s harshest critics, reminding scholars not to dismiss them because they came from outside academia without considering the evidence.

As time went on, it became clear that Bellesiles’s evidence was full of holes. The book’s citations didn’t support its claims. A burst pipe in his Emory University office building had destroyed his notes on probate inventories, he said. (There was indeed such a disaster.) But then other researchers found that his counts of those inventories didn’t add up—mathematically couldn’t add up. Some of the archives he listed as having consulted didn’t exist.

In that context, what might have seemed like careless errors—overlooking the gunfire in pre-Revolutionary Boston, misreading accounts of life on the frontier, missing examples of gun crimes in the courts—came together in a more ominous pattern. On the H-Net listservs I posted messages about how I found Bellesiles’s explanations unconvincing, which prompted some pearl-clutching for a week and also produced one of the first academic citations of my work.

In 2002 Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize it had awarded Bellesiles for Arming America. Emory commissioned three respected historians to review particular accusations about his work—not all of them, just those raised by other academics and most easily tested. Random House stopped publishing the book, though Soft Skull Press issued a paperback edition with Bellesiles’s corrections and response to his critics (the edition shown above).

Last year, Daniel Gullotta of the Age of Jackson podcast tracked down Bellesiles and interviewed him at length following a discussion of the book with one of its early critics, Joyce Lee Malcolm. The transcript of the second half of the Bellesiles interview was published on the Contingent Magazine website. And I found myself wading back into those waters.

TOMORROW: Assessing claims in that interview.

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Influenza Epidemic of 1760

Yesterday I quoted Dr. Ernest Caulfield on the dysentery epidemic of late 1775.

Caulfield wrote a few years later on influenza epidemics in colonial New England. Not only did the British subjects of that time not understand the disease, they didn’t even have a name for it:
That name, influenza, coined by the Italians to signify the influence of celestial bodies on man’s affairs, was first used in England during the epidemic of 1743, but was not used in this country, so far as I could determine, until after the Revolution. The colonial epidemics when given definite names at all were usually called “uncommon colds,” “very deep colds,” “pleuritic fever,” or “malignant pleurisy.” . . .

Although influenza attacked all age groups children withstood it much better than adults, for statistics when available usually show that adults comprise about two-thirds of the total deaths. During many colonial epidemics the fact was stressed that this disease was unusually fatal to those in the prime of life, the group that was expected to withstand epidemic diseases best of all. . . .

It is generally accepted among medical historians that severe influenza spread throughout most of the country during the winter and spring of 1760-1761. Early in September, 1760, rumors had reached the country towns that as many as twenty persons were dying in Boston daily, but the News-Letter of September 11, in denying such stories, said that there were not twenty deaths a week, yet acknowledged the prevalence of two diseases, the bloody flux and colds.

Various sources indicate that by late September “Great Colds” were prevalent throughout Massachusetts, and October was “a tedious Time for Colds and Caughs” among the Massachusetts men in the camps around Ticonderoga.
British forces had just taken that fort from the French the previous year.
The New London Summary (February 20, 1761) said that “Great Colds” had prevailed in Connecticut throughout the autumn. The first indication of severe influenza was the outbreak which began in Bethlehem, Connecticut, that November and caused 34 deaths, five of them in the home of Dr. Zephaniah Hull.

“During this epidemic, a flock of quails flew over the chimney of a house, in which were several diseased persons, and five of them [meaning quails, I presume] fell dead on the spot.” [Noah] Webster thought that this was natural in view of the concentration of infected air.
People still had a lot to learn about disease.

Dr. Caulfield published this study in the April 1950 issue of the American Antiquarian Society Proceedings (P.D.F. download).

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Looking Back on the Bloody Flux of 1775

In a time of pandemic, one’s thoughts turn naturally toward outbreaks of the past.

In April 1942, Dr. Ernest Caulfield presented a paper on “Some Common Diseases of Colonial Children” to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. It can be read here.

Caulfield wrote about the seven diseases now known as measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, mumps, chicken pox, and dysentery. (Some of those names were used in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but people had other terms as well.)

Today an American can encounter most of those diseases only through the vaccinations that prevent them. But dysentery is carried by the shigella bacteria spread through feces, so caring for a sick person without being able to be sanitary leaves one vulnerable to infection.

A few years back, Boston 1775 friend Judy Cataldo noticed a pattern of deaths in late 1775 in Needham, which led her to evidence of a dysentery epidemic behind the Continental siege lines. Caulfield found a hint of that in the printed newspapers, but only a hint:
It was characteristic of dysentery years for the disease to break out in the southern and middle colonies before it broke out in New England. But also contributing greatly to the magnitude of the New England epidemic were the British troops in Boston and the American troops in Cambridge.

The first reports of the disease appeared in the newspapers during July: “We hear the camp distemper rages in the regular army in Boston, as also among the distressed inhabitants who are confined in that town by order of Tom. Gage, in open violation of his most solemn engagement. It is to be hoped he will meet the fate of Pharoah of old, whose example he so exactly follows.” In August a letter sent through the lines mentioned that two members of the Cotton family and two of the Wiswall family were dead of the flux. It was also learned that three thousand British troops were sick.

Apparently by the end of August the disease had appeared in many inland towns, for there was published on the front page of the Massachusetts Spy a whole column of medical news entitled “A Cure for the Bloody Flux.”
It looks like the Patriot printers were happy to share news of an epidemic within British-held Boston, down the details of which families were sick. But they didn’t report in the same way on the epidemic in New England towns. Isaiah Thomas provided some medical advice in his Spy but not statistics on local deaths.

Similarly, we now know, during the First World War the fighting countries censured news of an epidemic affecting their populations. Only neutral Spain reported deaths accurately, so we ended up giving that disease the unfair name of the Spanish influenza.

For evidence of the full scope of the dysentery epidemic of 1775, one has to look at church records, graveyards, and doctors’ diaries. Both Caulfield and Cataldo wrote about waves of deaths, especially among young children, in the early years of the war. “Altogether it was one of the most fatal periods for children in colonial history,” Caulfield stated.

Last month Judy Cataldo spoke with the hosts of the Hub History podcast about that 1775 epidemic, deadly yet overshadowed by the war. Here’s the link to that episode, with extracts from the diary of Abigail Adams as she reacted to deaths around her.

And here’s Judy’s website with more resources. Among those is a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage about stopping shigella. The section on prevention says, “The best defense against shigellosis is thorough, frequent handwashing…”

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

John Quincy Adams and the Characters of Harvard

I promised more cattiness from John Quincy Adams as a college student.

In his diary for the year 1787, Adams inserted several profiles of his classmates and other people he met at Harvard. Often he was complimentary, understanding of people’s weaknesses and attempts to improve, and frank about his own flaws. But that’s no fun, is it?

Sometimes it’s clear that Adams really didn’t like a fellow student, or a faculty member. And he really didn’t like his time being wasted in church. Here are some choice comments from early in the year.

11 February, after hearing a sermon by Cambridge minister Timothy Hilliard (1746-1790):
Mr. Hilliard entertained us all day, with a couple of Sermons, upon the whole armour of god. The shield, and the helmet, the sword and the arrow, afforded subject for description, and application. The improvements which might result from these two discourses, are wholly concealed to me; that it is the duty of man, to avoid Sin, is a self evident maxim, which needs not the assistance of a preacher for proof; yet it was all Mr. H. aimed to show: how barren must the imagination of a man be, who is reduced to give descriptions of warlike instruments, to fill up a discourse of 20 minutes!
17 February:
Samuel Angier: His character is far from amiable. Envy and vanity appear to me to be the most remarkable traits which distinguish him. He always appears discontented with himself and with all the world beside. There is but one person, of whom he speaks uniformly, and invariably well; and perhaps this is because, no one will ever take the task from him. Such is his admiration for this gentleman, that being incapable of displaying the same talents he is contented with aping his foibles which are sufficiently numerous and conspicuous. He proposes studying physic, and in that profession I hope, he will be useful; for any other he would not be suited, for I believe he would be a surly lawyer, and, an illiberal bigoted divine.
Angier did indeed become a medical doctor. I wish I knew whom he admired so much (and why Adams clearly loathed the man).

11 March, back in church:
Mr. Hilliard preach’d; but not very much to the purpose: what with the fatigue of my yesterday’s ride, the little sleep I had last night, and some soporific qualities in the discourses which were read, I was much refreshed by a couple of naps which I took; one beforenoon and the other after.
17 March:
Caleb Child: …were it not for a considerable degree of envy his disposition would not be bad. As a scholar he is not remarkable; and although he has endeavoured more than once to display his genius by declaiming his own composition, yet the most common opinion is that he has not succeeded. Divinity will be his profession, and he has already acquired a ministerial cant, which is such an essential quality to a preacher.
Child became a minister in upstate New York.

23 March:
Joshua Cushman: In composition, an admiration of beautiful periods, and elegant expression, have taken from the natural taste for that simplicity in which alone true beauty and elegance consist. His conversation sometimes degenerates into bombast; to express that he wants a glass of water he will say, that within the concave excavation of his body, there are certain cylindric tubes which require to be replenished from, the limpid fountain or the meandering rivulet. In the public exercices of composition his greatest fault is prolixity. He will write two sheets of paper full, for a forensic, while scarcely any other of the Class will scarcely fill half one.
Cushman also became a minister but then went into politics, serving in the Massachusetts General Court and Maine legislature around the time that Adams was President.

And back in church on 25 March:
We heard Mr. Evans preach, all day: he attempted to be quite pathetic in the afternoon; but when art is seen through it must be disgusting; and when a person appears deeply affected upon a subject, which cannot be very interesting, we must conclude, that he grieves for the pleasure of grieving.
This was evidently the Rev. Israel Evans (1747-1807, shown above), a Continental Army chaplain who eventually found a long-term pulpit in Concord, New Hampshire.