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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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.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Reporting from Rennsylvania

Yesterday at History Camp Valley Forge, the first presentation I attended was Ryan Strause’s talk about correcting the record on the Pennsylvania Gazette’s “JOIN, or DIE.” image from 1754.

Most of this talk was about Strause’s personal story of noticing a misperception that affected reproductions of Benjamin Franklin’s emblem and doggedly urging institutions to correct it.

The underlying historical story is quicker but might hold wider lessons.

Back in 1754, one copy of the Pennsylvania Gazette was printed on paper that had a speck in it. Unluckily, this speck was right next to the “P.” for Pennsylvania in the snake cartoon. That made the “P.” on that copy look on a first glance like an “R”.

Even more unluckily, that one copy of the Gazette page ended up in the collection of the Library of Congress. That institution’s image was easy to find and to reproduce, with no permission fees. And in black-and-white reproductions, the “P.” with a speck looked even more like an “R.”

By the early 21st century, if not before, the Library of Congress’s cataloguing information even said the letters along the snake were “S.C., N.C., V., M., R., N.J., N.Y., N.E.” And that of course appeared to be an authoritative source.

As a result, many modern reproductions of the cartoon, whether photographic or recreated, showed an “R” in place of a “P.”

Even though an “R” made no sense historically. Even though other surviving copies of the same printed page showed the “P.” Even though period artwork based on the 1754 Pennsylvania Gazette image showed the “P.”

Thanks for Strause’s efforts, the Library of Congress’s cataloguing information has been corrected, and the correction is presumably working its way through the culture, like a snake digesting a rodent.

For a while yet, though, we’ll still see “S.C., N.C., V., M., R., N.J., N.Y., N.E.” flags, beach towels, T-shirts, and textbook illustrations.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Recruiting at Samuel Gettys’s Tavern

Yesterday I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. What, you might ask, does that city have to do with Boston 1775?

After all, the boundaries of Gettysburg weren’t drawn until 1786, and it wasn’t incorporated as a borough for another twenty years after that.

Way back in 1761 a man from Ireland named Samuel Gettys settled at the intersection of roads between Philadelphia and Fort Pitt and between Shippensburg and Baltimore. He opened a tavern for soldiers, traders, hunters, and others traveling in that part of western York County.

When the Continental Congress resolved to recruit companies of riflemen to join the New England army besieging Boston, Gettys’s tavern was where most of the men of Capt. Michael Doudel’s company signed up, on 24 June 1775.

Those men marched out of York on 1 July, arriving in Cambridge twenty-four days later.

On 29 July, a letter back home to Pennsylvania reported, Doudel’s company was ordered “to march down to our advanced post, on Charlestown Neck, to endeavor to surround the enemy’s advanced guard, and bring off some prisoners, from whom we expected to learn the enemy’s design in throwing up the abattis in the Neck.”

Doudel led thirty-men to the right of the British position on Bunker’s Hill. By “creeping on their hands and knees, [they] got into the rear of the enemies sentries without being discovered.”

Meanwhile, Lt. Henry Miller led an equal number “in getting behind the sentries on the left.” The two lines of riflemen got to “within a few yards of joining” and surrounding the British advance guard.

But then “a party of regulars came down the hill to relieve their guard” and spotted Doudel’s riflemen. They fired from a distance of twenty yards. The Pennsylvanians fired back.

Then, it appears, almost all the soldiers dashed back to their own lines. The Continentals claimed “two prisoners and their muskets.” The British captured Cpl. Walter Cruise; there were soon rumors he was dead or executed, and it took well over a year before he made it back to the American side, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Shortly after that, Capt. Doudel fell ill, resigned, and returned home. Lt. Miller took command of the company for the rest of the siege of Boston.

After the war, the people of western York County started to agitate for their own governmental structure. In 1800 the state of Pennsylvania set off Adams County, named after President John Adams, and established the county seat as Gettysburg, named after the late tavern owner.

(The historical marker shown above is in York, where the Doudel’s company mustered before marching north. Fortunately, the area around where Samuel Gettys’s tavern stood has plenty of other historical markers and monuments.)

Friday, May 19, 2023

Meeting the Medmenham Monks

This month’s research topics took me to this page at the History of Parliament site about the fabled “Monks of Medmenham Abbey.”

John Wilkes played a big part in this story, as in many other British events of the 1760s and 1770s. Regardless of what one might think of his politics, Wilkes appears to have spread chaos almost everywhere he went. And on 15 June 1762 he was writing to one of his allies, Charles Churchill, “next Monday we meet at Medmenham.”

That article explains that Medmenham Abbey was “the headquarters of the co-called ‘Order of St Francis of Medmenham’, also known (erroneously) as the Hellfire Club.” (Another club name was the “Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe.”)

The first Duke of Wharton had founded what he called the Hellfire Club back in 1718, and in the nineteenth century an author with a penchant for the lurid applied the same label to the Medmenham group and others. But those gentlemen never used the term “Hellfire Club” for themselves.

The blog reports:
Quite what went on at Medmenham has long been the subject of occasionally lurid speculation and as one historian has suggested, it is a topic that ‘attracts cranks and repels scholars’ [N.A.M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl, p.80]. At its most extreme some have suggested, almost certainly without foundation, that devil worship took place there, while at the other end it has been proposed that it was a somewhat eccentric antiquarian-cum-erotic meeting place of senior politicians, who assembled to indulge in boating parties, cavort with sex workers brought in from London for the purpose, share their interest in classical authors and plot. . . .

The founder of the fraternity was Sir Francis Dashwood [shown above], chancellor of the exchequer during the premiership of the earl of Bute, and later a member of the Lords as Baron le Despencer. Dashwood had leased Medmenham, close to his own seat at West Wycombe, in 1751, and proceeded to renovate the dilapidated abbey buildings, turning the site into a summer pleasure ground, where he could invite friends for parties on the Thames and picnicking among the ruins.

It was an important juncture. That year the heir to the throne, and focal point of the main opposition alliance, Frederick Prince of Wales, had died unexpectedly, leaving the opposition without an obvious rallying point.
The Medmenham gathering appears to have flourished in the 1750s. But then it foundered on its members’ own success after George II died. Frederick’s son, George III, came to the throne and installed a favorite, the Earl of Bute, as prime minister.

Bute made Dashwood his chancellor of the exchequer and found appointments for other men in the Medmenham circle, or just outside it. But he didn’t find a job for Wilkes.

This essay suggests that disappointment was enough for Wilkes to go into opposition in the worst way. However, Wilkes was already a champion of William Pitt, which would have made him a bad fit for Bute’s policies.

Wilkes and Churchill founded The North-Briton weekly in 1762 as a vehicle for attacking Bute. He also started to tell stories about the Medmenham club’s salacious activity. Other members objected, called Wilkes a liar or a cad.

One might think the fact that Wilkes was one of the group’s most licentious members would have undercut his own credibility. However, as the History of Parliament blog has said about Wilkes’s later career, lots of people already knew about his habits. Being a libertine was baked into his public image, so further revelations didn’t change his standing. If anything, Wilkes’s stories seemed more reputable because he was known for being disreputable.

Whatever the impetus for his break with the established political structure, Wilkes’s legal and political struggles over the next decade and a half created important forums for Britons to debate such issues as free speech, fair elections, government use of lethal force, and more. The Boston Whigs reached out to him for mutual support even though they would have detested his personal habits.

As for the Medmenham gatherings, Dashwood seems to have calmed down after becoming Baron le Despencer in 1763 and later postmaster general. In that decade he also became a close friend of Benjamin Franklin. Some authors link Franklin to the Medmenham monks, but by the time he was close to Despencer the club had really fallen apart.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

“Indigenous Histories in New England” in Deerfield, 23–24 June

The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife has announced the program of its 2023 conference on “Indigenous Histories in New England: Pastkeepers and Pastkeeping,” to take place on 23–24 June in Deerfield.

The Dublin Seminar website states:
This year’s seminar will address the gaps in Indigenous voice and visibility in public views of the past. We will critically consider who has claimed responsibility for “keeping” the Indigenous past in New England, including how it has been represented, how historical research can be decolonized and improved, and what museums and tribal nations have done to engage the public in better understandings.
The conference schedule starts with an optional visit on Friday morning to Amherst College Library, where its Special Collections staff will introduce the Amherst College Collection of Native American Literature.

Sessions inside the Deerfield Community Center begin at 1:30 P.M. on Friday. That afternoon and evening offers three panel discussions:
  • Indigenous Histories and Intergenerational Collaboration: Honoring Neal Salisbury, Pastkeeper, Spacemaker
  • Confronting Colonization at a Commemorative Moment: Reflections on Plymouth 400
  • Re-Covering and Re-Visioning: Indigenous Histories in New England Museums
On Saturday, a series of scholars will present their research in sessions built around these themes:
  • New Stories for Familiar Histories
  • Relocation, Resistance, & Resilience
  • Archives and Identity: Reciprocal Conversations
  • Land and Indigenous Values
Registration at the conference includes lunch on Saturday with fellow attendees.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Beatty on In Dependence in Boston, 19 May

On Friday, 19 May, the Old State House will host a discussion between Jacqueline Beatty and Daniel Carpenter about Dr. Beatty’s new book, In Dependence: Women and the Patriarchal State in Revolutionary America.

The event description explains:
Through a close review of thousands of legislative, judicial, and institutional pleas across 70 years of history in three urban centers, Dr. Beatty illustrates the ways in which women in the Revolutionary era asserted their status as dependents, demanding the protections owed to them as the assumed subordinates of men. In Dependence shows how women’s coming to consciousness as rights-bearing individuals laid the groundwork for the activism and collective petitioning efforts of later generations of American feminists.
Jacqueline Beatty is an Assistant Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania. She received her bachelor’s degree from Boston College and returned to this metropolis for part of her research into women’s lives in Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia.

Daniel Carpenter is the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government and Chair of the Department of Government at Harvard University. Like Beatty, he has examined citizens’ petitions to their governments. His Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870 received the James P. Hanlan Book Award from the New England Historical Association, among other honors.

This is an in-person event starting at 5:30 P.M. at the Old State House, with the program scheduled for 6:00. It is co-sponsored by Mass N.O.W. and the Royall House and Slave Quarters, and financially supported by the Lowell Institute. The event is free to the public, but advance registration is recommended.

For people who can’t attend at the Old State House, here are a couple of other ways to learn about In Dependence.

A Commonplace Article on Phillis Wheatley

Yesterday my article “Phillis Wheatley’s ‘Mrs. W—’: Identifying the Woman Who Inspired ‘Ode to Neptune’” appeared on Commonplace, the web magazine on early America.

This year marks the sestercentennial of the publication of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

That anniversary has prompted a lot of new scholarship, including David Waldstreicher’s biography, a reissue of Vincent Carretta’s biography, and the issue of Early American Literature I linked to yesterday. This article is my small contribution to that work.

Some folks might spot how I developed this article from material originally posted here on Boston 1775 in 2015. Since this blog could disappear with the flick of a switch at the Alphabet corporation, I looked for a more lasting place to share those findings.

It’s gratifying to see this article on Commonplace since I’ve been reading that web magazine for over twenty years now. In citing that site, I always have trouble remembering how to spell the title, and it turns out there’s a good reason for that: “Commonplace originally launched in 2000 as Common-Place: The Journal of Early American Life.”

The founding editors were Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, and the original institutional sponsor was the American Antiquarian Society. Today it’s an initiative of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture as well as the A.A.S. It no longer follows the model of academic journals with a collection of articles all published together each quarter, but rolls out material weekly and in a newsletter for subscribers. On this article I had the benefit of working with editor Joshua Greenberg and copyeditor Jordan Taylor, and I can recommend the process.