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

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Sunday, May 22, 2022

“A genuine extract of the letter from Lord Dartmouth”

On 31 Dec 1772, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, Isaiah Thomas, had a scoop.

Setting type so hastily that he datelined the item “TURSDAY” instead of “THURSDAY,” Thomas presented to the world “a genuine extract of the letter from Lord Dartmouth, to the Governor of Rhode Island, dated Whitehall, September 4, 1772”:
The particulars of that atrocious proceeding (referring to the burning the Gaspee schooner) have by the King’s command been examined and considered with the greatest attention; and although there are some circumstances attending it, in regard to the robbery and plunder of the vessel, which seperately considered, might bring it within the description of an act of piracy; yet in the obvious view of the whole transaction, and taking all the circumstances together, the offence is in the opinion of the law servants of the crown, who have been consulted upon that question, of a much deeper dye, and is considered in no other light, than as an act of high treason, viz. levying war against the King.

And in order that you may have all proper advice and assistance in a matter of so great importance; his Majesty has thought fit, with the advice of his privy council, to issue his royal commission, under the great seal of Great-Britain, nominating yourself and the Chief Justices of New-York, New-Jersey, and the Massachusetts-Bay, together with the Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court established at Boston, to be his Majesty’s commissioners for enquiring into and making report to his Majesty, of all the circumstances relative to the attacking, plundering and burning the Gaspee schooner.

The King trusts, that all persons in the colony will pay a due respect to his royal commission, and that the business of it will be carried on without molestation; at the same time the nature of this offence, and the great number of persons who appear to have been concerned in it make every precaution necessary. His Majesty has therefore for the further support in the execution of this duty, thought fit to direct me to signify his pleasure to Lieutenant-General [Thomas] Gage, that he do hold himself in readiness to send troops into Rhode Island, whenever he shall be called upon by the commissioners for that purpose, in order to aid and assist the civil magistrate in the suppression of any riot or disturbances, and in the preservation of the public peace.

I have only to add upon that head, that his Majesty depends on the care and vigilance of the civil magistrates of the colony, to take the proper measures for the arresting and committing to custody, in order to their being brought to justice, such persons, as shall, upon proper information made before them, or before His Majesty’s commissioners, appear to have been concerned in the plundering and destroying the Gaspee schooner.

It is his Majesty’s intention, in consequence of the advice of his privy council, that the persons concerned in the burning the Gaspee schooner, and in the other violences which attended that daring insult, should be brought to England to be tried; and I am therefore to signify to you his Majesty’s pleasure, that such of the said offenders as may have been or shall be arrested and committed within the colony of Rhode-Island, be delivered to the care and custody of Rear Admiral [John] Montagu, or the commander in chief of his Majesty’s ships in North-America for the time being, or to such officers as he shall appoint to receive them; taking care that you do give notice to the persons accused, in order that they may procure such witnesses on their behalf as they shall judge necessary; which witnesses together with all such as may be proper, to support the charge against them, will be received and sent hither with the prisoners.
In the same issue, Thomas reprinted the “Americanus” essay I quoted yesterday.

Lord Dartmouth’s instructions to Gov. Joseph Wanton—and no one seems to have doubted this long quotation was genuine—validated some of the warnings from Whigs like “Americanus.” The Crown was planning to transport people accused of attacking H.M.S. Gaspee to Britain for trial. The army and navy had orders to help.

At the same time, the secretary of state also reminded Wanton that those defendants should be able to bring along witnesses on their behalf. Not that a long sea voyage and an indeterminate time in London would be convenient for such witnesses. But the ministers in London still wanted to stick to British standards for fair trials—they just didn’t think that would happen with Rhode Island jurors.

Notably, whatever official leaked this confidential letter did so through a printer in Boston, beyond the reach of Rhode Island law. When the Newport Mercury reprinted the letter in the new year, it credited Isaiah Thomas’s Spy.

TOMORROW: Going viral.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

“Whether our inalienable rights and privileges are any longer worth contending for”

Before the Revolution, messages between the British secretary of state in London and royal governors were deemed confidential.

Govs. Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson spent a lot of time telling the Massachusetts General Court that no, they wouldn’t share the instructions they had received or their reports back to the ministry. The 1769 publication of Bernard’s letters, leaked by William Bollan, ended his effectiveness.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Joseph Wanton had a different understanding. Elected by the legislature, and he felt he should share the Earl of Dartmouth’s 4 Sept 1772 message about investigating the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee with those legislators and other top officials.

Wanton held those consultations sometime early in December. Details of Lord Dartmouth’s instructions quickly reached the newspapers.

As I wrote before, New England printers had reported on the Gaspee attack in June, but very plainly—a few select facts with minimal commentary. Once news of the royal commission arrived in December, printers started to editorialize.

Then on 21 December Solomon Southwick’s Newport Mercury published a long letter signed “Americanus.” I believe this was the first major newspaper essay addressing the Gaspee case. The writer pulled out all the rhetorical effects:
To be, or not to be, that’s the question: Whether our inalienable rights and privileges are any longer worth contending for, is now to be determined.——Permit me, my countrymen, to beseech you to attend to your alarming situation. . . .

A court of inquisition, more horrid than that of Spain and Portugal, is established within this colony, to inquire into the circumstances of destroying the Gaspee schooner, and the persons who are the commissioners of this new-fangled court are vested with most exorbitant and unconstitutional power.—

They are directed to summon witnesses, apprehend persons not only impeached, but even suspected! And them, and every of them to deliver to Admiral [John] Montagu, who is ordered to have a ship in readiness to carry them to England, where they are to be tried.— . . .

Upon the whole, it is more than probable, it is almost an absolute certainty, that, according to present appearances, the state of an American subject, instead of enjoying the privileges of an Englishman, will soon be infinitely worse than that of a subject of France, Spain, Portugal, or any other the most despotic power on earth: . . .

Ten thousand deaths, by the halter or the ax, are infinitely preferable to a miserable life of slavery, in chains, under a pack of worse than Egyptian tyrants, whose avarice nothing less than your whole substance and income will satisfy; and who, if they can’t extort that, will glory in making a sacrifice of you and your posterity, to gratify their master, the d––l, who is a tyrant, and the father of tyrants and of liars.
Who was “Americanus”? Some have assigned this essay to Samuel Adams, who had used a similar pseudonym in Boston. I doubt that, and not just because this essay started by quoting from [gasp!] the theater. Letters indicate that Adams didn’t know about the Gaspee commission until days after this essay appeared.

According to Neil L. York, the top candidate for Rhode Island’s “Americanus” is chief justice Stephen Hopkins (shown above).

TOMORROW: Dartmouth’s own words.

Friday, May 20, 2022

“The Idea of seizing a Number of Persons”

Though the first report about the London government’s plan for a special commission to investigate the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee was optimistic, as described yesterday, New England newspapers soon started to spread more alarming rumors.

Isaiah Thomas’s 17 Dec 1772 Massachusetts Spy told readers:
It is currently reported, that two regiments are ordered from New-York to Rhode-Island, to support the trial of persons there suspected, or rather informed against, for being concerned in burning the Gaspee armed schooner.

The Governor and Lieut Governor of this province, two of the appointed Judges, will shortly set out for Newport.

The Lively ship of war is also to sail, on board of which, the Admiral, another of the Judges, is to hoist his flag.
None of those statements turned out to be true. No army troops moved to Rhode Island, though the ministry did alert Gen. Thomas Gage in New York to be alert to requests from that colony.

Neither Gov. Thomas Hutchinson nor Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver was put on the commission of inquiry. Their relative Peter Oliver, chief justice of Massachusetts, and Vice Admiralty court judge Robert Auchmuty represented Massachusetts instead.

Adm. John Montagu wasn’t a commissioner, either, and he and his flagship remained in Boston harbor for the winter.

Finally, the commission was empowered to investigate the attack, not to try defendants.

The Spy added, “Others say, that these devoted persons [i.e., accused] are to be taken agreeable to a late Act of Parliament, and sent for trial to London!” That complaint was closer to the truth, but the royal commission never managed to identify any likely culprits.

The fake news didn’t stop Whig newspaper writers from preemptively deploring the threat of such proceedings. The Spy’s report ended by complaining:
Can any one hear of…subjecting the inhabitants to trial, without Juries, on matters done within the body of a county, or what is worse, if possible, transporting them beyond the seas, and think himself secure in the enjoyment of his natural and constitutional rights! — How long, O LORD——How long!
Within a couple of days, the Whigs had received more accurate information about the ministry’s plan. Writers narrowed in on the threat of accused men being taken to Britain. The 19 December Providence Gazette, published by John Carter (shown above), said:
In this Situation of Affairs, every Friend to our violated Constitution cannot but be greatly alarmed.—The Idea of seizing a Number of Persons, under the Points of Bayonets, and transporting them Three Thousand Miles for Trial, where, whether guilty or innocent, they must unavoidably fall Victims alike to Revenge or Prejudice, is shocking to Humanity, repugnant to every Dictate of Reason, Liberty and Justice, and in which Americans and Freeman ought never to acquiesce.
Again, that hadn’t happened yet and never would happen, but at last the American Whigs had found the issue to hammer on.

TOMORROW: Leaks and laments.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

“The most clement measures shall be adopted towards the Americans”

By the fall of 1772, Rhode Island’s investigations of the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee had run aground as surely as the schooner itself had back on 9 June.

As was standard, Gov. Joseph Wanton had quickly issued a proclamation offering a reward for information—£100, in fact. By July, Adm. John Montagu (shown here) had collected testimony from Aaron Briggs or Biggs, who implicated some prominent merchants.

But Gov. Wanton soon had contradictory testimony from four other people.

James Helme, senior justice in Kings County, told his colleagues that at the October court session he
fully intended to give the affair of burning the said schooner and wounding the lieutenant, in charge to the jury; but having been nearly two months on the circuit, it entirely went out of my mind, when the grand jury was empannelled; and there being no business laid before said jury, they were soon dismissed.

However, more was happening in London. In August, the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Hillsborough, sent to Rhode Island the text of Parliament’s new Dockyards Law. Enacted that spring, it established that destroying a ship in a Royal Navy shipyard was tantamount to treason and subject to capital punishment.

Eventually Crown lawyers agreed that the Dockyards Law didn’t apply since the Gaspee hadn’t been in a naval shipyard when the raiders set fire to it. But Hillsborough’s message told Gov. Wanton how harshly the London government wanted to punish the men who attacked the schooner. (The only person ever executed under the Dockyards Law was James Aitken, alias “John the Painter,” who set fires at the Portsmouth Shipyard in 1777 in sympathy with the American cause.)

For unrelated reasons, in August the Earl of Dartmouth replaced Hillsborough as secretary of state. On 4 September the new minister sent a letter to Gov. Wanton detailing the plan for a royal commission to investigate the Gaspee incident and surrounding conflicts.

Rhode Island’s first report of this commission contained some positive details. The 30 November Newport Mercury shared the news under a 25 September London dateline, emphasizing signs of leniency:
His Majesty… [is] offering his pardon to any of the said offenders (excepting the person who wounded Lieutenant [William] Duddington, & excepting two others who assumed to be sheriffs of the colony, and the Captain or leader of the insurgents) who shall discover any of their accomplices, and also offering rewards for such discovery.

A correspondent informs us, that Lord Dartmouth has signified his determined resolution that the most clement measures shall be adopted towards the Americans.
Furthermore, Gov. Wanton was designated to chair the inquiry commission.

But soon, Rhode Islanders were hearing more ominous details.

TOMORROW: A leak from the legislature.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

“Great expectations from the late affair at Rhode Island”

On 12 June 1772, the day after the Boston News-Letter broke the news of the Gaspee burning, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson sent a copy of that newspaper to the secretary of state in London, the Earl of Hillsborough.

Hutchinson added his own commentary:
If some measures are not taken in England in consequence of so flagrant an insult upon the King’s authority I fear it will encourage the neighbouring Colonies to persevere in their opposition to the Laws of Trade and to be guilty of the like & greater Acts of Violence.

As the Town of Providence joins to this Province and is less than 50 miles from this Town and the flame may spread here I hope your Lordship will not think that I go out of my line in this information.
That letter appears in the latest volume of The Correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson issued by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, which runs through June 1772.

Hutchinson had experienced the limits of Massachusetts justice himself after an anti-Stamp Act mob destroyed his house in the North End in 1765. He then witnessed more problematic proceedings as governor. He expected the Rhode Island courts to be ineffectual against these rioters. 

On 25 June the governor wrote to Hillsborough again, reporting, “A Gentleman yesterday from Providence informs me that the Perpetrators of the late atrocious crime are well known but that it would be as much as a man’s life is worth to bring forward a prosecution.”

That second letter also raised the possibility of American smugglers arming ships to fight government vessels, which would be “Acts of Rebellion upon the High Seas.” Anyone captured doing that, the governor suggested, should be shipped to England where “the Law must take its course.”

At the end of the month Hutchinson returned to that idea in telling Royal Navy commodore James Gambier about the Gaspee attack:
I hope if there should be another like attempt, some concerned in it may be taken prisoners and carried directly to England. A few punished at Execution Dock would be the only effectual preventive of any further attempts. In every Colony they are sure of escaping with impunity.
It’s notable that the governor didn’t suggest that the Gaspee attackers themselves be taken to Britain for trial. Instead, he wrote about conjectural future events. That was partly keeping himself out of the Rhode Island case, partly “slippery slope” thinking.

Later in the summer Hutchinson began to raise another possible response by the imperial government: changing the constitution of Rhode Island so that London had more leverage there.

On 29 August the governor wrote to John Pownall, the secretary managing the Colonial Office:
People in this province, both friends an enemies to government, are in great expectations from the late affair at Rhode Island of burning the King’s schooner, and they consider the manner in which the news of it will be received in England, and the measures to be taken, as decisive.

If it is passed over without a full inquiry and due resentment, our liberty people will think they may with impunity commit any acts of violence, be they ever so atrocious, and the friends to government will despond, and give up all hopes of being able to withstand the faction.

The persons who were immediate actors are men of estate and property in the colony. A prosecution is impossible. If ever the government of that colony is to be reformed, this seems to be the time, and it would have a happy effect on the colonies which adjoin to it.
Hutchinson felt he wasn’t alone in that assessment, telling Adm. Samuel Hood on 2 September:
So daring an insult as burning the King’s schooner, by people who are as well known as any who were concerned in the last rebellion and yet cannot be prosecuted, will certainly rouse the British lion, which has been asleep these four or five years. Admiral [John] Montague says that Lord Sandwich will never leave pursuing the colony, until it is disenfranchised.
After the Revolutionary War broke out, Patriots found Hutchinson’s copies of those letters left behind in his Milton mansion. Newspapers published most of these quoted passages in late 1775. By then, the Massachusetts Whigs were convinced that Hutchinson and his crowd had been conspiring against their self-government, and these letters seemed to confirm that.

TOMORROW: A letter from London.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

“No one justifies the burning of the Gaspee”

The first Boston newspapers to report the 11 June 1772 attack on H.M.S. Gaspee were Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter, which supported the Crown, and Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, which didn’t.

The 11 June News-Letter told readers that a Rhode Island mob had “dangerously wounded the commander, Lieut. [William] Duddington, and used the Company cruelly” before burning his schooner.

The same day’s Spy said nothing about Dudingston’s injury and stated only that the attackers “bound the men.” It also added in editorializing italics:
To what a dreadful dilemma are the people reduced!—They must suffer themselves to be plundered, or——
However, over the next several weeks the Boston newspapers appear to have reported as little as possible about the Gaspee affair. They stated the facts with a bit of spin, but, after that initial Spy comment, they didn’t use the event as fodder for political arguments. Likewise, neither Samuel Adams nor his cousin John mentioned the Gaspee in their surviving writing from that summer.

“No one justifies the burning of the Gaspee,” the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport (shown above) insisted to a fellow minister the following year. The closest to a defense of the event he could offer was, “But no one ever thought of such a Thing as being Treason.”

That sounds a bit like the Costanza Defense: ‘Storming a government ship—assaulting a naval officer—destroying an entire schooner—was that wrong? Because if we’d known that sort of thing was frowned upon…’

Crowds had in fact attacked British government ships before, as in the Liberty riots in Boston in 1768 and Newport in 1769. In those instances, local press and politicians decried the violence but argued that it was a natural response to seeing the Customs service overreaching.

That argument was harder to make in the case of the Gaspee. The June 1772 attack did grow from the ongoing conflict between merchants ready to break imperial trade laws for higher profits and the royal authorities determined to enforce those laws (and augment their salaries by doing so). But otherwise the locals’ actions looked bad.

Storming the Gaspee wasn’t a spontaneous reaction by waterfront workers. It was obviously a carefully planned operation, with three boats full of armed men rowing out to the schooner after it had run aground.

The men who boarded the Gaspee were the aggressors, not on the defense. They wounded an officer and burned a ship of the Royal Navy, pride of the British people. That action was impossible to spin into a dignified political protest against Parliament’s unjust new laws. It looked much more like racketeers using violence against legal authorities to protect their personal profits.

Boston’s Whigs made sure their destruction of East India Company tea in December 1773 looked different. They protected the Customs officials and others aboard the ships from personal violence. They forbade participants from taking any tea for their own gain and publicly punished one man who tried.

Before that Boston Tea Party, the owners of those three ships were worried that mobs would ruin their valuable property. Instead, leaders of the action ensured that their crew hurt nothing but the tea itself. They even replaced a lock they had broken open—and made sure the press reported on that restitution.

As with the Crown’s frustrated response to the Gaspee attack, the main lesson that American Whigs took from the event was what not to do in future.

TOMORROW: When the royal government gave the Whigs an opening.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Rhode Island and the Royal Commission of Inquiry

Yesterday I pointed to the upcoming sestercentennial of the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee, a Royal Navy ship patrolling Narragansett Bay for smugglers.

Some of Rhode Island‘s leading merchants were involved in some way in destroying that ship, including the Browns, the Greenes, Abraham Whipple, and the notorious Simeon Potter.

The organized attackers wounded a British military officer, Lt. William Dudingston, and destroyed a British warship. Some authors, especially from Rhode Island, view it as a prelude or even the first battle of the Revolutionary War. But as I wrote yesterday, it seems significant that this event, for all its bellicosity, didn’t lead to a broader crackdown and war.

One big reason is that the Crown had far less leverage in Rhode Island. That colony was one of only two in North America (the other being Connecticut) where citizens elected their governor via the legislature. In the other colonies, London chose the governor, and usually he arrived with no local allegiances or favors owed.

Furthermore, the Rhode Island legislature chose judges for each year. Elsewhere, the royal government appointed judges for life. And elsewhere those appointed royal governors also appointed sheriffs and justices of the peace.

Rhode Island’s unusual charter left the Crown with only two groups of officials who owed their position and thus their full allegiance to London: the Customs service and the Royal Navy. And of course those arms of government had limited local popularity, as shown by the fact that Rhode Islanders had just burned a naval schooner enforcing the Customs laws.

To investigate the attack, therefore, Lord North’s government set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry. The five officials appointed to it were:
The first four men were already strong Loyalists. Wanton wasn’t yet in that camp, and he was also the only man with local knowledge. When Adm. John Montagu used testimony from an indentured servant named Aaron Briggs to demand an investigation of John Brown, Simeon Potter, and others, Wanton responded by collecting evidence that undercut what Briggs said. The commission’s investigation led nowhere.

Royal authorities in Massachusetts and London learned from the frustrations of the Gaspee inquiry and put those lessons into practice after the next big attack—the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. They didn’t wait for local authorities, even the more numerous and powerful Crown appointees, to identify individual malefactors. Instead, Parliament adopted the Boston Port Bill to pressure the whole town, installed a more forceful governor, sent in troops, and eventually tried to rewrite the provincial constitution.

Thus, for the Crown the main lesson of the Gaspee affair was what not to do.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Preparing for the Storming of the Gaspee

As I mentioned yesterday, the sestercentennial of the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee is coming up on 10 June.

The Gaspee Days Committee has a program of commemorations scheduled for the weekend of 11–12 June in Warwick, Rhode Island, including a parade, a colonial encampment, musical performances, church services, games for children, and the burning of a model ship.

On Tuesday, 17 May, the Revolution 250 podcast will feature a conversation with Prof. Steven Park, author of The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution. You can tune in on YouTube or podcast platforms.

The Rhode Island State Archives has opened an exhibit subtitled “The Spark that Ignited the American Revolution” featuring documents from its collection related to the event. See news coverage here.

Now it’s the editorial position of Boston 1775 that the American Revolution began before 1772, and that what ignited the Revolutionary War was four stolen cannon.

That’s not to say the attack on the Gaspee, the Crown’s attempts to investigate it, and locals’ resistance to that investigation aren’t a dramatic and revealing episode in the build-up to the thirteen colonies’ break from Britain. Park’s book and the Gaspee Virutal Archives are very interesting reading.

But as I look at the 10 June 1772 attack today, I’m struck how little it didn’t ignite (apart from the Gaspee itself, of course).

Depending on what incidents one counts, the storming and burning of the Gaspee was the third or fourth time Rhode Islanders had attacked a ship owned by the British government in the preceding decade. Locals swarmed on board like pirates, clearly prepared and not just carried away like a mob. They shot a Royal Navy lieutenant in the groin. Expensive royal property was destroyed.

Yet there was no equivalent of the Boston Port Bill, closing Rhode Island’s big harbor to trade. The Crown didn’t send in troops, as it did in Boston in 1768 and then in 1774. Parliament didn’t rewrite the Rhode Island constitution the way it tried with the Massachusetts Government Act. Other colonies therefore didn’t respond with a Continental Congress or other extralegal steps.

Like Arthur Conan Doyle‘s dog that didn’t bark, the lack of a strong response from the central government might be the most significant dimension of the Gaspee burning in terms of how the overall American Revolution turned out.

TOMORROW: Lessons from the attack.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Dredging Up Details

Here are some recent dispatches from the realm of eighteenth-century marine archeology.

A few miles downstream from Savannah, a dredging operation has brought up nineteen cannon that experts believe date from the Revolutionary War.

Specifically, from the fall of 1779:
When French ships carrying troops were spotted off the Georgia coast, the British hurried to scuttle at least six ships in the Savannah River downstream from the city to block the French vessels.
Since the cannon would have been useful on other ships or ashore, the scuttling must have been hasty indeed.

Read more from WAMU here.

In Alexandria, Virginia, officials are trying to decide what to do with timbers from four ships discovered along the Potomac River from 2015 to 2018, as shown above. These were most likely merchant ships, not warships.

Preserving that wood requires keeping it wet. Since the finds, most of the timbers have been kept in city tanks while “Some pieces of the largest ship have been undergoing restorative treatment and study at Texas A&M.”

Now there’s a proposal to carefully place the pieces of at least one keel in a pond in a public park, which would be turned into a waterfront museum featuring the artifacts.

WJLA has more details.

Finally, with the 250th anniversary of the burning of H.M.S. Gaspee coming up next month, Rhode Islanders have renewed efforts to locate the remains of that ship.

Finding the Gaspee appears to depend on the wreck being preserved and hidden in deep silt that can nevertheless be penetrated by “sub-bottom-profiling sonar.”

Recovering artifacts would be a more expensive proposition for another season, and then there’s a legal issue: the Gaspee is still the property of the British government.

For more coverage, see the Providence Journal.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Whose Handprint Is on the Declaration?

Fontana Micucci’s article at Boundary Stones focused my attention on something I’d seen for years without thinking about—there’s a handprint on the corner of the Declaration of Independence.

By “Declaration of Independence” in this case, I mean the engrossed copy written out by scribe Timothy Matlack in the summer of 1776.

(I think we’ve come to equate that physical document too closely with the Declaration and forget that for the first generations of Americans it was a set of words, not an object they ever saw, even in facsimile. The Declaration was originally a text, not a textile. But I digress.)

The National Archives, current custodian of the engrossed copy, has a detailed article on its preservation over the years. Perhaps because that agency was put in charge of the Declaration only after World War 2, it’s candid about earlier missteps.

I remember reading that the handwritten Declaration is so faded today because the first facsimiles of it, authorized in 1823 by John Quincy Adams as secretary of state, had been produced using a “wet transfer” process that removed some of the ink. With great irony, the reproductions that made that handwritten document into a national icon left the original permanently damaged. All legible copies of the Declaration today are actually reproductions of the early copperplate engraving because the original has faded so much.

The National Archives article upended my understanding a bit. While time and the wet transfer process did cause some fading in the Declaration’s first century, a series of photographs starting in 1883 shows that most of the damage to the words happened in the early 1900s.

A 1903 photo shows “a text that is completely legible and free of water stains.” And back then, there was no handprint.

The Library of Congress commissioned more photos in 1922, but those images can’t be located. The next surviving photographs therefore come from 1940.

By then, the Declaration had suffered noticeable damage in several areas. The ink was more faded. Some of the words no longer looked as crisp as they had four decades earlier. New marks on the parchment included the imprint of a left hand at lower left and water stains near the center.

Most significant, the National Archives article reports, “Some signatures, such as John Hancock’s, were enhanced while others were rewritten in efforts to make them more visible.” The H in Hancock was overwritten to be taller, for example.

People probably tried to clean or restore the Declaration in the early twentieth century, and that effort (or series of efforts) went awry. But evidently no U.S. government records survive to say when and how that happened. And the handprint, while obviously on the document today, isn’t clear enough to identify the responsible party.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Mysterious “Negro Co. from Sharon”

Earlier this spring, my eye was caught by a description of this document on the Internet Archive:
Muster roll of Negro Co. from Sharon.
The document is a Revolutionary War muster roll in the collection of the Boston Public Library.

The document and description also show up on Umbra Search, aggregating material related to African-American history from thousands of library catalogues.

I knew about the Rhode Island regiments that recruited from men of African and Native descent. But I also knew those were exceptions to how the Continental Army operated, and after a couple of years commanders decided to spread out the veterans of those regiments among others. On the enlisted level, all sources say, the Continentals were integrated.

So what was up with this “Negro Co. from Sharon”?

I looked more closely at the document. None of the men is designated as “Negro.” None have names that suggest they had been enslaved, such as Quock, Prince, or Caesar. In fact, the label “Negro Co[mpany]” appears nowhere on this paper.

Here’s what I’m sure happened. The commander of this company was Capt. William Burley of Ipswich. In February 1780 he was captured by Crown forces in the Battle for Young’s House outside New York that I happened to write about back here. Burley’s name still appears first on this muster roll, but he was listed as a prisoner of war.

The regimental commander, Col. Benjamin Tupper from the part of Stoughton became Sharon in 1775, therefore took direct command of Burley’s company. In British regiments, the colonel often had a company assigned to him, though a captain-lieutenant or lieutenant usually did all the real work. The Continental Army didn’t follow that pattern after the first months of the war, but this was a special case.

In September, Col. Tupper reported, “There is a very considerable deficiency of Officers in the Regiment,” and recommended several men for commissions. Recognizing the need, Gen. George Washington gave blanket approval for new officers.

Nevertheless, at the end of 1780, when Lt. Nehemiah Emerson of Haverhill made out this muster roll, Tupper was still the acting company commander. Emerson therefore labeled this listing as “the Colo. Company”—the colonel’s company.

At some point a cataloguer looked at that abbreviation and interpreted it to mean “the colored company.” Then or later, that language was updated to “the Negro company.” And that label hung around in the cataloguing data long enough to catch my eye and make me scratch my head for a while.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

How I Spent My Spring Vacation

For the past week I was on a road trip to visit family for the first time in more than two years.

Of course, I also squeezed in some visits to historical archives—my first in-person visits to those archives in even longer.

I was working again on how James McHenry recorded what’s become a famous exchange between Elizabeth Powel and Benjamin Franklin at the end of the Constitutional Convention:
[Powel:] Well, Doctor what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?

[Franklin:] A republic, if you can keep it.
And how McHenry used that memory in essays during the early 1800s in a way that changed the story’s implications to fit his political fears. And finally how Powel responded to having her name invoked.

The first question I had to answer on this trip was whether the essays signed “The Mirror” in the Baltimore Republican in 1803 which I attributed to McHenry were indeed his work. I was 95% sure, but I sought certainty in the McHenry Papers at the Library of Congress.

Indeed, those papers contain two drafts of the essays that later appeared in print, complete with the footnotes (which few other newspaper essayists used).

Reading McHenry’s drafts told me little that I didn’t already know from the printed texts. He didn’t, for example, write down the anecdote exactly as he had in 1787 and then cross out crucial words to make it confirm his interpretation.

After the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper dismissed the Franklin anecdote as false, McHenry tried to invoke Powel’s authority as a participant without divulging her name because she was female. He wrestled with how to explain that half-disclosure to readers, as shown by some crossed-out text. But McHenry’s handwriting was sketchy enough that I could make out only the phrase “motives of delicacy.” There’s no indication he wrote out Powel’s name and then removed it.

In 1811 McHenry finally did name Powel as the woman in the anecdote in a pamphlet titled The Three Patriots, Or, the Cause and Cure of Present Evils. I didn’t find a draft of that essay, but an 1876 biography identified it as McHenry’s.

I also visited the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to look at the correspondence of Elizabeth Powel and her family.

In 1814, that family reacted to what McHenry had said about Elizabeth Powel. Her favorite nephew, John Hare Powel (shown above), wrote to her wondering if the story was true. Powel asked a niece to review that letter with her because the man’s casual handwriting was so bad she wanted to be sure she read it properly. (There are multiple John Hare Powel letters in the archive on which someone has penciled in words that are hard to decipher.) The niece then took down Aunt Elizabeth’s reply, and finally there was a response from John Hare Powel.

I’d already examined Elizabeth Powel’s dictated letter and her nephew’s response, but I wanted to find John Hare Powel’s initial letter about the anecdote—if it survived. That would tell us exactly what story Mrs. Powel was responding to.

I also looked for any document showing James McHenry and John Hare Powel interacting. Powel worked in Baltimore for the Philadelphia militia and U.S. army during the War of 1812, so the two men could well have met, but did they exchange letters? Mention each other? Anything?

Those quests turned up nothing. I wasn’t surprised since David W. Maxey and others have already examined the Powel papers and no doubt looked for the same documents. Nonetheless, I needed to turn over those stones. That meant paging or cranking through the folders of undated and unidentified correspondence in both the McHenry and the Powel Family Papers. I can report that Elizabeth Powel’s handwriting was clear and regular, and that she corresponded with an awful lot of nephews.

Also, I enjoyed John Hare Powel’s carefully written response to another man’s demand:
The voice of your creditors whom you have not paid—the Bills of the Grand jury by whom you were indicted—the books of the Commissioners by whom you were employed—the docket of the Office whence you have been expelled—the facts shown to the Legislature before whom you were arraigned are better evidence of “your standing” than any proofs you could bring if I had either leisure or disposition to engage in the discussion which you have the insolence to propose

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Botto Sculteus Aeneae’s American War

At the Age of Revolutions site, Tessa de Boer shared a new source on the latter years of the American War for Independence through the eyes of a youth.

In August 1781, Botto Sculteus Aeneae was “a twelve-year-old boy from Amsterdam, feverishly excited about his fanciful midshipman job.”

He was serving on a ship called the South Carolina, ferrying military supplies from the Dutch island of Texel to Charleston in the young United States of America.

On 25 Nov 1783, Botto was back in Amsterdam. He described his previous two and a half years to a notary. The intervening experiences included:
  • shying away from the Charleston port on learning that it had been recaptured by the British. 
  • sailing the Caribbean on the South Carolina, taking prizes.
  • helping the Spanish military seize the Bahamas in May 1782. 
  • reaching Philadelphia, where the ship had to be restaffed with “mostly inexperienced youth desiring adventure, and Germans recruited out of British prisoner camps.” 
  • quickly being captured by three British warships. 
  • being sent as a prisoner onto the infamous Jersey prison ship in New York harbor. 
Of course, the existence of the manuscript shows that Botto Sculteus Aeneae survived the Jersey and the war, making it back to his home town. However, the same document suggests he was preparing a lawsuit of some sort, possibly seeking compensation for his service better than the Continental bond and grants of land in North America that American authorities had offered.

That purpose also makes Botto’s deposition somewhat frustrating. He didn’t tell his story to inform his family what he went through, to entertain readers, or to create meaning for himself. He was simply getting his experiences and basic suffering down on paper for the record. The account doesn’t have a lot of daily detail or emotion beyond frustration and suffering. 

Still, it’s a side of the war we rarely see from an even more unusual witness and participant. De Boer’s translation of the text appears under the notes for her essay about it.

Monday, May 09, 2022

“Even more exciting when you fully engage with its ambiguity“

Last month the Age of Revolutions site ran Tom Cutterham’s interview with Woody Holton about his new book, Liberty Is Sweet.

The conversation is as much about the process of writing that book and the current public debate about Revolutionary legacies as about the American Revolution itself.

That approach has its own interests, as this long passage from Holton early in the conversation shows:
I really wanted to reach people who love history but don’t realize that what they have seen so far—mostly wealthy white men—is only the tip of the iceberg. My pitch to American Revolution lovers is that their favorite topic becomes even more exciting when you fully engage with its ambiguity and kaleidoscopic diversity.

My focus on non-scholars shaped the book in two ways, only the first of which I anticipated. I knew history buffs would want a narrative, and I was happy to provide one, since one of my main points is that women’s, Indigenous, military, and all the other histories transpired on the same timeline, constantly influencing each other, and we miss a lot when we devote one chapter to African Americans, one to diplomacy, one to the economy, and so on. But going chronological does not have to mean merely telling stories. I tried to use events like the boughs of a Christmas tree, with the ornaments being placed where I paused the narrative to share various social historians’ insights as well as my own.

The unintended consequence of my determination to reach beyond college towns was that I became a military historian! My initial attitude toward the battles was cynical: amateur historians demand them, so I had to write them up. But as I began that research, I overcame the conventional academic prejudice that military history is mere storytelling, and I ended up offering what I consider some fairly new interpretations of the war.

Here’s one: the British realized early on that they could not win, since whenever they captured a hill—starting with Breed’s/Bunker—at the cost of 50 percent casualties, all the rebels had to do was drop back to the next hill and start the process over again. So all the Whigs (I found Patriots too partisan) had to do was stay on defense. But George Washington was initially bent on going on offense, and his classic elite-British-empire-masculine aggressiveness several times nearly ended in disaster. But he learned from his mistakes, and while he devised nearly a dozen plans to drive the British from their headquarters in Manhattan, he never actually executed even one of them. Ultimately Washington’s greatest contribution to the war effort was restraining his own aggressive instincts.
Here’s the whole interview.