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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Friday, June 30, 2006

Walking this weekend and beyond

A quick reminder on historically themed walking tours this holiday weekend!

Caesar: "noted in Town by having no Legs"

On the 28th of August, 1768, the Boston Post-Boy published a curious advertisement:

Caesar a Negro Fellow noted in Town by having no Legs, is supposed to be strolling about the Country: If he can be brought to the Printer for One Dollar, besides necessary Expences, it shall be paid.

The first time I read that text, it was quoted (approximately) in Traits of the Tea Party, the second of the two books about George Robert Twelves Hewes. I thought it might be a joke—especially given the juxtaposition of "having no Legs" and "strolling about the Country."

But when I tracked down the actual text through the New England Historic Genealogical Society's access to the Early American Newspapers database, I found that the same ad appeared in the Post-Boy multiple times in Sept 1768. And a good joker knows that material doesn't improve when it's repeated word for word to the same audience.

So this ad seems to be genuine: evidence that a Boston man given the name Caesar had freed himself from servitude, at least for a while—despite not having any legs. In the 1700s, "strolling about the Country" didn't mean recreational walking; rather, it meant being a vagabond not attached to any particular household or town. In Caesar's case, it most likely meant working and surviving however he could, free of his master. If you get tired during a historic walking tour, just think of Caesar.

Despite the newspaper's statement about Caesar being "noted in Town," I haven't found another mention of him. (Unless he appears under a different name, such as Caesar Merriam.) I'd love to know more.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Samuel Adams: the blog response

I've complained about how many authors have painted a distorted picture of Samuel Adams, squeezing a Puritan gentleman politician of the late 1700s into the mold of a radical street organizer of the late 1800s. At least Buckeye Hamburger at the Daily Kos noticed.

On the other hand, the flame-broiled one repeats the "Adams was the most radical" picture, with approval instead of regret:

Among the Founding Fathers, none of whom was a slouch when it came to patriotic passion, Adams was undoubtedly the most radical, uncompromising and inflammatory.
I'd score that as one out of three. Adams was indeed loath to compromise on his principles and his conviction that the London ministry and its appointees were up to no good.

But Adams's political program wasn't as radical as that of Dr. Thomas Young, who was a deist and perhaps even a democrat. Active in Boston from 1768 to 1774, Young actually thought it would be a good idea to build spectator galleries in legislatures so that people could watch their laws being made and voice their own ideas. Imagine! Adams's program was basically conservative: returning to when Massachusetts men largely governed themselves with a lot of guidance from their Congregationalist traditions.

Nor was Adams the most inflammatory in his rhetoric of the Massachusetts Whigs. James Otis, Jr., allowed Adams—and only Adams—to hold him back in the legislature and edit his newspaper essays because he knew he could get carried way. (And eventually he was—straitjacketed in a coach, reportedly.)

Also more inflammatory than Adams was Dr. Joseph Warren, whose modern biographer John Cary has written:
In comparison with other contemporaries such as Samuel Adams,…Warren’s style is more personal, bombastic, and emotional. He uses the personal pronoun "I" more frequently and an inordinate number of imperative sentences charging the people to action. . . . A striking contrast to Warren’s style is that of Samuel Adams, whose writings are easily identifiable by his extraordinary number of long sentences and extensive use of the semicolon.
Long sentences and semicolons are hardly the hallmark of incendiary prose.

Dr. Warren was one of the Boston Whigs who came closest to being charged with a crime for his political writings. (Adams was never in that danger.) In the 29 Feb 1768 Boston Gazette he published a letter that ended:
We never can treat good and patriotic rulers with too great reverence. But it is certain that men totally abandoned to wickedness can never merit our regard, be their stations ever so high.

"If such men are by God appointed, The Devil may be the Lord's anointed."

Gov. Francis Bernard and Chief Justice/Lt.-Gov. Thomas Hutchinson tried to get a grand jury to indict Warren for libel, but the locals refused.

After he became governor himself, Hutchinson tried the same tactic against Joseph Greenleaf, a country magistrate who had moved to Boston and become a partner of printer Isaiah Thomas. Again, the grand jury resisted, and Hutchinson dropped the case.

Those examples provide a parallel to today's events worthy of the Daily Kos. The White House and Republicans in Congress, smarting from criticism, have accused newspaper publishers of "treason." In pre-Revolutionary Boston royal appointees opposed political opinions, but today's authorities object to accurate accounts of our government's controversial activities overseas. Those officials claim that they're upset to see information about tracking international finances made public—which seems odd since they've boasted about such efforts for years. And, of course, have disclosed even more tightly classified information.

Could it be that there's an election coming up in the U.S. of A.? And whom do we have to thank for those elections? Men like Adams, Young, Otis, Warren, and Greenleaf.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

under cover with George Washington, Spymaster

Thomas B. Allen's kids' book George Washington, Spymaster looks like fun from front to back. Not only is it about spying (oooh!), but National Geographic Books has used all the tricks in a designer's bag. Messages are hidden on the front cover and many pages inside. The book offers a transcription of Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge's code book and examples of secret messages. The usual period (and not-so-period) engravings we see in children's books about the Revolution are supplemented with new art in woodblock style by Cheryl Harness. The typeface is artfully distressed Caslon. Even the small size of the book evokes the 18th century.

But how reliable is the book's information? Espionage is always a murky subject, and years after a war it gets even harder to separate truth from wishful claims. Stories of spying are a great way to burnish a family's or town's patriotic standing. They can explain an ancestor who didn't seem to do much. They can even explain an ancestor who acted like a Loyalist. "Grandpa John? Oh, he only said all those things to maintain his cover. He was in contact with General Washington all along." And if there's no documentation for those family claims—well, that shows how deep under cover Grandpa and Grandma had to be!

In that vein, I don't believe the legend of John Honeyman and the Battle of Trenton (pp. 46-9)—and neither does David H. Fischer. The stories of Alexander Bryan (75), "Old Mom" Rinker (101-2), and Lydia Darragh (102-8) seem to be equally free of contemporaneous documentation. They may be true, they may be fiction, they may be a mix of the two. Allen notes that family lore is the source for most of those tales but tells them anyway, alongside stories with strong contemporaneous documentation. I suspect this actually puts the period spy stories at a disadvantage since they're full of murk, false starts, and loose ends—like real life. The grandmothers' tales, on the other hand, were polished by years of telling and retelling before they were captured on paper. (See this posting for a link to my paper on grandmothers' tales.)

Since I concentrate my research on the start of the Revolution in New England, I know rather little about what went on down in New York, Philadelphia, and other tropical climes. I can't say whether Allen's portrayal of Tallmadge, Darragh, John Andre, Nathan Hale, Hercules Mulligan, and other figures is reasonably accurate. But it makes me nervous when I see the book is mistaken on some Boston details:

  • Gen. Thomas Gage didn't order troops to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington on their way to Concord, as page 27 says. Patriots thought that was probably the British column's mission, and prepared accordingly, but our intelligence is a lot better now because we have Gage's papers (at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor). We have two drafts of the general's orders. We have his intelligence file, telling us what he was tracking. We also have lots of eyewitness testimony about what the British soldiers did in Lexington after it had sent the local militia fleeing. Nothing points to an attempt to capture Hancock and Adams.
  • Allen says James Lovell was among the Patriots who broke the cipher that Dr. Benjamin Church and printer John Fleeming used to communicate in late 1775 (37). Lovell was deep into codes later in the war, but at that time he was locked up tight in Boston jail.
  • George Robert Twelves Hewes did not become "a Patriot after seeing his shop 'pulled down and burned by British troops'" (168). The army converted his little shoemaking shop into firewood in the winter of 1775-76. By that time, Hewes had chased a British soldier for mugging a woman, witnessed the Boston Massacre, pushed his way into the Boston Tea Party, and argued with a Customs man, prompting a major riot on his behalf in January 1774. Hewes was a staunch Patriot well before the war started.
The first two of these points have a lot to do with espionage, so Allen should have found more accurate information in his research.

So my bottom line on George Washington, Spymaster: Kids, treat this book like a spymaster treats a new intelligence source. Enjoy the stories and the games, but don't believe every word.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Old South Meeting-House steeple tours

As of Monday afternoon, the Old South Meeting-House Association still had slots left on its 2006 "Climb the 1729 Old South Steeple" tour on Friday, 30 June, and Saturday, 1 July, starting at 11:00. The price is $12. The organization's website says:

Climb the tower and get a bird's eye view of downtown crossing. Take advantage of this rare opportunity to see an original piece of colonial Boston that few have seen this close in over 270 years. Led by an Old South staff member, the tour will cover the original weather vane, the belfry, the steeple [&] the 1766 tower clock.
For more information and how to reserve a space, look for the event in this listing.

Having climbed to the roof of Ely Cathedral, I'm pretty sure I can handle Old South. But this isn't just recreation, it's research! As in the Rev. Ezra Stiles's itinerary entry for 19 July 1770:
all foren[oon]. in So. Chh. Steeple transcrib’g &c. MSS.
Aft. in the Lib’y of venerable Rich’d., Increase, Cott., & now Sam’l Mathers.
Stiles had come to the Boston area from Newport for the Harvard commencement, and of course no travel is complete without research.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Christopher Seider: household servant, schoolboy?

Christopher Seider was the young boy killed by Customs employee Ebenezer Richardson after a political demonstration turned violent on 22 Feb 1770, eleven days before the Boston Massacre. Back in this posting, I described what recent research has found about Christopher’s family. This post assembles the evidence about the boy's life in Boston.

In its 26 Feb 1770 report on the shooting, the Boston Evening-Post described Christopher as “a boy about eleven years of age, who lived with Madam Apthorp.” Grizzell Apthorp was a very wealthy widow who owned a mansion on Tremont Street. She was a stalwart of King’s Chapel, the upper-class Anglican church, where we can still see a marble memorial panel honoring her husband. Ordinary widows were called “Widow [Surname]”; rich widows got the “Madam” honorific.

Christopher’s parents didn’t live with Madam Apthorp, however. They lived, according to the same newspaper article, “in Frog Lane, opposite to Liberty Tree.” That street is now called Boylston, and it borders the Common on the south, leading to the Public Garden.

What was Christopher doing in the Apthorp house? Probably working. Bostonians of the late 1700s wouldn’t have called him a “servant,” though. They reserved that term for enslaved workers, whom the tax rolls labeled “servants for life.” All sources agree that the Seider family was poor, so "living with Madam Apthorp" probably meant his parents had sent him there to earn his keep.

Even with his job, it seems likely that Christopher was also getting lessons of some sort. On 13 Apr 1772, Samuel Adams wrote to James Warren of Plymouth about how he would look after a young servant:

I am much obligd for your Care in procurng for me a Boy. I shall be ready to receive him about the middle of next month and shall take the best care of him that shall be in my Power till he is 14 years old, perfecting him in his reading and teaching him to write and cypher if capable of it under my own Tuition for I cannot spare him the time to attend School. Will strictly regard his Morals and at the End of time I will if his parents shall desire it, seek a good place for him to learn such a Trade as he and they shall chuse.

There’s some evidence that, unlike Adams's servant, Christopher Seider did “attend School.” In the 1840s a woman named “Mrs. Preston” told a writer working on a (never finished) biography of Henry Knox that she’d gone to school with the German boy who was killed. If this is reliable, the school must have been private; girls didn’t yet attend Boston’s public schools. Christopher and the future Mrs. Preston might have learned to read together before they were seven, or they might have attended private writing lessons later.

Furthermore, the Boston News-Letter reported on 1 March 1770 that Christopher “was going from School” when he came across the political demonstration. That newspaper had been criticized for having “partially related” the story of his shooting the week before, and therefore in this issue may have tried to present Christopher's actions in the best light. On the other hand, Boston schools did let out early on Thursday mornings, and schoolboys did spontaneously join in protests.

It’s quite clear that Christopher Seider was a reader. The Evening-Post reported after his death that
several heroic pieces found in his pocket, particularly Wolfe’s Summit of human glory, give reason to think he had a martial genius and would have made a clever man.
I haven’t found any broadside titled “Wolfe’s Summit of human glory,” but this passage implies it was a martial poem about Gen. James Wolfe and the Battle of Quebec. And that was only one of “several heroic pieces” Christopher was carrying around with him when he died.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hoffer's Past Imperfect split in two

Prof. Peter Charles Hoffer wrote Past Imperfect as a response to the historiographical scandals of 2002, two of which touched on the Revolutionary period. Hoffer also wrote in response to a division he sees between academic historians and the reading public. But are those two things related?

The first part of Hoffer's book traces broad trends in writing American history over the past century and more. I doubt anyone would argue that, compared to sixty years ago, academic historians now pay more attention to women and less, relatively, to men. More attention to our society's racial and ethnic minorities and less to dominant northern European groups. More attention to the poor and less to the rich. More attention to social movements and less to military movements. More attention to economic trends and less to individual politicians. More attention to history's "losers" and neglected and less to already celebrated heroes. And under today's egalitarian values it would be hard to complain that those changes are a bad thing, though some people try. Most who criticize the trends say simply that they've gone too far.

Be that as it may, the second part of Past Imperfect looks at the four scandals that caught more attention from the public than the average university-press history book—indeed, more than any successful university-press history book. Those controversies are:

  • Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles's Arming America was found to be riddled with misrepresentations of sources and facts, particularly his statistics on probate inventories in the 1700s. His explanations of those errors were untenable.
  • Retired University of New Orleans professor Stephen Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers and many other books, was accused of borrowing too much language from his stated sources. The complaints involved several books written over many years.
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin acknowledged having replicated the language of Lynne McTaggart's biography of Kathleen Kennedy and a couple of other sources for her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Goodwin and McTaggart had reached a financial settlement years before.
  • Mount Holyoke College professor Joseph Ellis admitted making false statements about his own role in two of the three major historical events of the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. He had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers, about the political personalities of the early republic. Unlike the other three cases, Ellis's false claims never appeared in his books.
I don't rank the Goodwin kerfuffle with the other three. Goodwin had been a professor of government in the 1970s, but wrote her Kennedy saga after leaving academia. The New York Times called that book "popular history." Since when have commercial books about the Kennedy family been held to the standards of scholarly history? Of course, plagiarizing language is wrong, even if you acknowledge the source in notes; I question whether Goodwin's book was an example of academic history.

For a fourth scandal, I might have substituted the participation of Alf Mapp, Forrest MacDonald, Harvey Mansfield, and other professors in the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society's "Scholars' Commission," selected to fog the evidence that Jefferson had children by a woman he kept enslaved. But relatively few people noticed that report or linked it to the individual scholars who signed it.

Bellesiles's falsehoods had been well documented when Hoffer wrote, first by Clayton E. Cramer (then an independent scholar) and later by law professors and historians, so Hoffer's summary added little for me. (You can sample my evolving remarks on the Bellesiles case here, here, here, and here. Otherwise, here's the most useful thing I can tell you: It's pronounced, "bel-LEEL.")

Past Imperfect shows that Ambrose had borrowed stirring language from his sources without quote marks for many years. Goodwin had done the same, but on a smaller scale. Hoffer also notes that the standards for what constituted plagiarism were much more lenient in the 1800s. I wish he'd dug into whether our culture's standards for plagiarism (at least for books) became more strict in just the past couple of decades. In our most recent bloodletting on this issue, the national press jumped all over teen novelist Kaavya Viswanathan for writing genre fiction that read very much like other genre fiction—which is what genre fiction is supposed to do. Viswanathan clearly did replicate short passages from a couple of other writers, but several trumpeted examples were simply her versions of standard set-pieces, like the makeover scene.

The most interesting part of Past Imperfect's second half, I think, is Hoffer's comparison between Joseph Ellis's approach to writing history and his fabulism about his own career. As a storyteller, Ellis is terrific. Founding Brothers is a delightful series of linked vignettes. Passionate Sage is a great character study. The strength of his books is getting into the main figures' heads. The same skill that lets Ellis imagine the thinking and interaction of the U.S. of A.'s first politicians, Hoffer suggests, led him to be too imaginative when he spoke to students and interviews about his own career. (Ellis did serve as an officer in the Vietnam-era army, but he taught at West Point instead of fighting in Vietnam. He was involved in some political activities during the late 1960s, but did no civil-rights organizing in the South.) Hoffer's analysis reminds us that a historian's greatest strength can also be a weakness.

I think the big hole in Past Imperfect is the gap between the two halves. They don't fit together. Ambrose made his name writing mostly about white men at war. Also white men in the Oval Office, white men crossing North America, and Crazy Horse. Given the trends described in my second paragraph above, Ambrose wrote an old-fashioned style of history. Goodwin, too, has concentrated on biography of "great men" and their families: Kennedys, Roosevelts, Johnson, and now Lincoln. Ellis focuses on the elite political class; some historians say he gives too little attention to the social and other forces that determined what those top men could and wanted to do. Ellis's preface for Founding Brothers, in return, argues for the importance of individual decisions in history. So these three authors are not representative of academic historians as Hoffer described the class.

What about Bellesiles? His book promised to look at the broad American population, not just the wealthy (who owned guns disproportionately, he claimed). It offered a simulacrum of social history through probate inventories. But Bellesiles's earlier work was on Ethan and Ira Allen and the Green Mountain Boys: white, Anglo-Saxon men long lionized for their leadership in military and political affairs. Ethan Allen is even a brand name. Bellesiles has never dipped into the biographical genre as deeply as Ambrose, Goodwin, and Ellis, but his early work had clear ties to the traditional approach Hoffer describes.

Past Imperfect links its two halves this way: academic historians lost the affection and trust of the general public in the late 1900s. Therefore, the public was primed to jump on the scandals of 2002, and see them as tainting the whole profession. Yet two of those scandals (Ambrose, Goodwin) had arisen because of authors' wishes to please popular audiences with stirring language, a third (Ellis) to please them with a personal link to important movements. Bellesiles published through a commercial press that did no peer review but an excellent job of getting pre-publication news coverage and prominent reviews. One half of Past Imperfect is about historians not pleasing the public's tastes. The other half is about historians trying too hard to please. But, as I wrote above, are those two things related?

Saturday, June 24, 2006

historic walking tours of Cambridge

The Historic Cambridge Collaborative tells me it will offer free walking tours of the city on the first two Saturdays of July, the 1st and the 8th, rain or shine.

Tours with Revolutionary-era themes include "Tales of Old Cambridge," "Harvard, Cambridge & the American Revolution," "The British Loyalists of Brattle Street," "Harvard Square's Colonial Churches," and, particularly for lactose-tolerant kids, "Have You Milked the Cow Today?" Other tours cover early settlement, literary life in the 1800s, and the architecture of MIT.

You can download a guide to the offerings, including when and where each tour begins, from the Cambridge Historical Commission website.

the Forbes Smiley effect

On Thursday, as the New York Times and Hartford Courant and other papers reported, antique map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III pleaded guilty to stealing a very rare map, "an object of cultural heritage," from Beinecke Library at Yale. In court he also admitted to stealing 96 other maps from a total of seven libraries.

I've done research at Beinecke, and back in college I had a part-time job in another Yale library, so I've followed this case with some curiosity. Nonetheless, I was surprised to read that the Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted it is the older brother of one of my college roommates. (Smiley himself is not a Yalie; he just sounds like he should be, which no doubt helped with his dealings.)

But the carefree days of the past are gone. As the Map Room blog picked up, the Courant has reported on backroom firings at Yale. And since Smiley was arrested in June 2005, I've found several archives have made their security procedures for researchers more strict—an understandable phenomenon I call "the Smiley effect."

Only one archive I've visited before and after the thefts didn't seem to have visibly tighter security: the Boston Public Library Rare Books Department. Ironically, the Times says, "Boston Public Library suffered the biggest loss in terms of numbers. It lost 34 maps to Mr. Smiley, according to an accounting by federal prosecutors." And two of those are in the "unrecoverable" category. But, like a lot of public libraries, the BPL may already be stretching its funding and staff as far as they can go. All the more reason to support our public institutions.

Smiley's cobwebsite continues to offer maps. In fact, it's useful for a bigger view of the exquisite Henry Pelham map of besieged Boston I mentioned yesterday. But who knows where that came from?

Friday, June 23, 2006

A Travel Guide that will lead kids astray, part 3

Today I resume my ranting on the flaws in A Travel Guide to Colonial Boston, started this date and continued that one. But this is my last posting on this topic. I promise.

You may notice that I’ve not mentioned the author’s name. Having worked in publishing, I’m not sure the author bears full responsibility for the book's problems. This Travel Guide is being sold as part of a series, and the author doesn't hold the copyright. So in the spirit of "work for hire" contracts, I assign all responsibility to Lucent Books.

(Full disclosure: Lucent is an imprint of Thomson-Gale, and I wrote a couple of entries in the Thomson-Gale encyclopedia Americans at War. ["Highly recommended."—Choice] I'd urge everyone to rush out and buy many copies for my sake, except for those darn "work for hire" contracts. So consider buying this $415 four-volume specialized reference work purely for your enjoyment. End of commercial.)

It's easy to suspect that this book was originally supposed to present a pre-Revolutionary perspective, but then was shifted to 1793 without enough time for the author to redo all his research. That would make sense of the title: this Guide to Colonial Boston is actually set in the post-colonial Federal period. A lot of the facts are accurate before the war, but not after:

  • The book gives a population figure of "sixteen thousand residents," which would be right for 1765, but the 1790 census counted over 18,000 Bostonians.
  • The text uses many outdated street names, such as King Street (changed to State Street in 1776, for obvious reasons) and Cornhill (changed to Washington Street in 1788, as the City Record blog points out).
  • Page 56 says the town has a yearly oration on the anniversary of the Massacre. Boston switched its annual oration to Independence Day in 1783—and since the book is tied to the Independence Day celebration, that’s relevant.
  • Harvard ranked students by their families' social status as described on page 92—but only until 1769.
  • Page 80 advises the putative readers of 1793, "get your hands on one of the city’s two excellent newspapers: the Boston News-Letter and the Gazette and Country Journal." The pro-Crown Boston News-Letter ceased publication in March 1776, when its proprietress left with the British military. The Boston Gazette was still publishing in 1793, but without the Country Journal appendage. In that year the Columbian Centinel and Independent Chronicle dominated the market, and the Massachusetts Mercury had just debuted. Early American newspapers are very well documented. In fact, they are documents!
On the other hand, the book also includes plenty of anachronisms from well after 1793. Page 71 quotes Daniel Webster, who was eleven years old in that year. Page 52 quotes John Adams “in his journal,” but the words come from a letter Adams wrote during his retirement; Adams's journal has been online and searchable for years, thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Page 34 says, "Pick up a map of Boston at one of the city’s bookstores; a good one to try is the Corner Book Store, approximately located at the corner of School and Cornhill Streets." But you might have to wait since, as this webpage on that shop explains, no one sold books there until 1832.

(Where to buy the best maps of Boston in 1788? Samuel Gore's paint shop off Court Street. He had imported copies of the exquisite map of the besieged city by Henry Pelham. End of commercial.)

Another reason to lay the onus on the publisher is that the art offers as many errors as the text. Most illustrations are engravings from a mishmash of periods—standard fare for these sorts of books. But even the new art contains obvious inaccuracies. The publisher commissioned the picture of the Old State House on page 53, which shows a spiral staircase at the building's center. Go to that museum today (Really: go. End of commercial.), and you'll find an exhibit about how that staircase is not an accurate restoration and what the State House probably looked like in the 1700s.

There's another illustration error that even the publisher isn't responsible for. Page 35 shows an engraving of Boston which you can find in the Giraudon collection of prints, as the publisher did. This image was created by Franz Xavier Habermann in the late 1700s and printed in Germany for people curious about the new U.S. of A. The picture is a fraud. Habermann was never in Boston. But the Germans he sold his print to didn't know that. And neither did Lucent Books.

(You can buy an accurate, American image of Boston's Old State House in the federal period at Travel-Posters.info. End of commercial. I have to start charging for these.)

A little Googling wouldn't have caught Habermann's 200-year-old fraud, but it could have caught most of the other problems I've listed. In fact, anyone with even basic knowledge of the start of the Revolution should have spotted the errors in this sentence from page 89:
The large elm on the northwest corner of the Common [in Cambridge] is the very place where George Washington mustered his troops prior to marching into Boston a few days before the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was 17 June 1775. Washington arrived in Cambridge on 3 July 1775. He marched his troops into Boston in March 1776. (Furthermore, The “Washington elm” did not stand in the northwest corner of the Common, and Cambridge acknowledges there’s no evidence predating the 1830s that Washington mustered troops under it.)

Nobody working for Lucent Books—no editors, production staff, freelancers, reviewers, salespeople—caught those mistakes. And now this Travel Guide to Colonial Boston is in school libraries, looking to young readers like an authoritative source. That's why the publisher bears the responsibility for it.

(Thanks to M. T. Anderson for alerting me to that choice sentence on page 89, and to this book as a whole. Not that he'd necessarily be proud of what I've made of it.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Samuel Adams: beyond the caricature, part 3

Here's more about Samuel Adams and how he's been caricatured by some historians (as I've discussed previously here and here). This passage is from John Richard Alden's General Gage in America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1948). Page 110, if you want to be nosy about it.

In May, 1764, under the inspiration of Samuel Adams, a Boston town meeting—Boston town meetings meant nothing but trouble from that time until firing began at Lexington—boldly set forth the doctrine "no taxation without representation." "If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representative where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable status of tributary slaves?" Of course, Samuel Adams, having dissipated a rather considerable property inherited from his father, could not suffer very much directly because of taxes levied by Parliament. But the public business had become his private business, and he was contending for a principle. Like most men contending solely for a principle he was distinctly a "trouble-maker."

This Adams character sounds like a terrible man indeed! But when we peel back Alden's rhetoric and look at his evidence and logic, a different picture emerges.

Why were Boston town meetings "nothing but trouble"? Because, apparently, they were forums for objecting to "taxation without representation" and other Crown policies. Alden's criticism of those meetings seems to rest on rejecting the idea that people should have a say in how they're taxed and governed.

Why was Adams "distinctly a 'trouble-maker'"? Because he was "contending for a principle." Indeed, Alden gives us an example of how Adams's principles tripped up Gen. Gage on page 209:
An attempt made by the general shortly after the dismissal of the legislature to bribe Samuel Adams was not merely a failure—it was a farce. Adams received the offer of pelf, made through one Colonel Fenton, with outraged virtue and lofty indignation.
(This statement is based only on a story that Adams's daughter told in 1818, but Alden was happy to accept it for his argument.) So Adams was a "trouble-maker" because he refused bribes and otherwise couldn't be swayed from his guiding principle. A principled proponent of self-government—how troubling!

And let's consider the phrase "dissipated a rather considerable property." Authors usually use the word "dissipated" to imply disapproval. Adams did indeed inherit businesses from his father, didn't run them well, and apparently sold them off when he went into politics. His interests, it appears, lay elsewhere. But Adams was hardly known for living luxuriously or spending rashly. According to one tale from the time, wealthy Whig merchants banded together secretly in 1774 to buy him new clothes so that he'd make a respectable show at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Furthermore, when we look again at Alden's sentence, we realize he's saying that Adams's politics were not driven by his own self-interest. Usually, that's a good thing.

Let's imagine this passage with the same facts but written in pro-Adams rhetoric:
In May, 1764, with Samuel Adams presiding, a Boston town meeting—Boston town meetings consistently opposed new Crown revenue laws up to the first shots at Lexington—boldly set forth the doctrine "no taxation without representation." "If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representative where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable status of tributary slaves?" Adams did not promote this doctrine for personal gain since he had little wealth left from his father's estate and had chosen politics instead of private business. He was contending for a principle. Like most people driven by principle, Adams meant trouble for governors who expected bribes and positions to sway ambitious men to their side.
I'm not saying that paragraph paints a complete image of Samuel Adams. But it doesn't put me on the side of taxation without representation and bribery.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

end of slavery in Massachusetts

Some folks are proposing that "Juneteenth," the 19th of June, go onto the calendar of Massachusetts commemorations. The Boston Globe reported on a petition to that effect, and columnist Derrick Jackson wrote about why Americans should remember Juneteenth—though without speaking to the question of an official holiday. Among bloggers, Derek at Third Decade, Chris at LeftCenterLeft, and the Great White Snark offer their opinions.

So of course I must have mine. To start with, it doesn't matter whether governments or businesses can afford a new holiday closing so close to Memorial Day. The national proposal is to observe Juneteenth as a "holiday observance similar to Flag Day," the Globe reports, and nobody gets Flag Day off. Juneteenth is "observed on the third Saturday of the month" in a few states, so nobody's getting that day off, either. This push is about adding an "official" label to the commemoration, and thus giving it some level of official respect.

Juneteenth is pegged to the arrival of the news of emancipation in the region of Galveston, Texas. That was a big deal—in Texas. It makes sense for the Texas government to observe the anniversary (as "Emancipation Day"). But should Juneteenth become the focus of the whole country's remembrance of slavery? What about the day Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (22 September), the day it took effect (1 January, already a federal holiday), or the day the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified (18 December)? Those dates were more significant for the USA as a whole. Focusing on Juneteenth is a synecdoche, one small piece standing for the whole because people are tickled by the day's quaint name and story.

But what about that story? The popular narrative of Juneteenth is that the enslaved people around Galveston didn't know of emancipation until the U.S. army arrived. Ignorant black people needing rescue by white authorities—is that really the picture of emancipation to emphasize? As Derrick Jackson notes, news of the legal end of slavery had reached Texas, and some enslaved people were freeing themselves already. The problem was recalcitrant slave owners who continued to keep workers in bondage. The U.S. army didn't bring news of the Thirteenth Amendment to the slaves; it brought news to slaveholders that it was going to enforce that amendment.

All that said, what would be the harm of adding Juneteenth to Massachusetts's list of holidays? I fear it might distract us from understanding our own state's history. Not because Juneteenth would come only two days after Bunker Hill Day. But because Massachusetts has its own history of slavery and emancipation that predates the Thirteenth Amendment, and in fact predates that Constitution. A Massachusetts holiday about slavery and its end should include that history.

The movement that ended slavery in Massachusetts started before the Revolution, as the pre-war lobbying of Newton Prince shows. In a period of republican ideology based on the idea of natural liberty, many people came to believe that slavery was untenable. Emancipation was thus directly related to the state struggle for political liberty. While Prince Hall and other blacks continued to petition the legislature, abolitionist lawyers like Theodore Sedgwick looked for test cases to move through the judicial branch. The case of Brom and Mum Bett in 1780 established a county-court precedent based on the new Massachusetts constitution's statement of natural equality. Then the Quock Walker case made that precedent stick statewide. Chief Justice William Cushing told a Superior Court jury in April 1783:

...whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses—features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal—and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property—and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature...
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Walker, declaring that his former owner had been wrong to try to recapture him and had therefore committed assault on a free man.

Of course, there are some wrinkles to that history. (History's so old it's always wrinkled.) Massachusetts was the first British colony in North America to sanction slavery under the law, in 1641. There were even slaves in Massachusetts even before that, as the travel writings of John Josselyn show. That means Massachusetts law allowed slavery for 142 years, and its real duration was even longer. As a contrast, slavery was legal in Georgia from 1751 to 1863, or 112 years. The long history of enslavement in Massachusetts shouldn't be forgotten.

Second, the Quock Walker decision wasn't welcomed by all. Some saw its emphasis on human rights over property rights and tradition as egregious judicial activism. Over a decade later, on 4 March 1795, James Winthrop, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, wrote to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap:
By a misconstruction of our State Constitution, which declares all men by nature free and equal, a number of citizens have been deprived of property formerly acquired under the protection of law.
Winthrop also wrote that in 1795 African-Americans "have the same privileges of schooling, as other people"—which they did not, at least in Boston. And that "they can neither elect or be elected to offices of government"—which was indeed the custom, but not the law.

Finally, despite the Walker decision, Massachusetts didn't become a slavery-free zone right away. That case wasn't reported or publicized, so only in retrospect did it become a landmark. We still don't know the exact date of the decision (which makes it hard to observe its anniversary). Many enslaved workers continued to live in the same households, working in exchange for room, board, and clothing as they had before. It took a few more decades before state courts decided that slaveholders living elsewhere lost their legal ownership if they brought their human property into the state. But the Walker case told Massachusetts slave owners that they could no longer ask the state courts to enforce their power.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

children's squabble turned into political incident

Last Wednesday, 14 June, the anti-marriage political group MassResistance issued a press release claiming that the first-grade son of one of its members had been mobbed on a school playground for political reasons. According to the Lexington Minuteman article:

A press release was issued by MassResistance...alleging J**** P*****, the first-grade son of David and Tonia P*****, was assaulted on the playground at the Estabrook Elementary School on May 17, the two-year anniversary of gay marriage in Massachusetts. . . . Brian Camenker, of MassResistance, alleged J**** P***** was approached during recess, taken to a corner of the play area and assaulted by eight to 10 students.
(I'm using the eighteenth-century convention of substituting asterisks for letters in a name in order to preserve a bit of the child's privacy.)

Several things seemed off about this story from the start:
  • Nearly a month passed between the fight and the press release, hardly the hallmark of parents seeking to shield their child from serious danger.
  • In that time the P***** family didn't consult with school authorities, medical authorities, or the police. Instead, they went to their lawyer and then the news media.
  • Camenker would have us believe that first-graders keep track of the anniversary of the Goodridge court case and plan "premeditated" playground fights around it. Camenker and I have lived in the same city for years, and he simply doesn't realize that most people don't spend as much time thinking about homosexuality as he does. Especially first-graders.

In today's Boston Globe the superintendent of schools in Lexington shared a very different description of the 17 May squabble:
School officials, citing interviews with the children involved, said the fight actually started over where students would sit in the cafeteria and then spilled onto the playground. The student, the 7-year-old son of David P*****, who filed a federal lawsuit in April over the teaching of homosexuality in school, was punched several times during the May 17 fight.

"These were two first-graders having a child squabble on a playground," said Superintendent Paul Ash. "Some adults are exploiting these children for political purposes."
According to school officials' investigation, one child hit P*****'s son two to four times during recess, and the boy fell to his knees as about five students watched. A teacher's aide intervened. The child who hit P*****'s son was sent to the assistant principal's office, where he wrote an apology and was denied recess for two days. P*****'s son and the boy have since had a play date, Ash said.

Notably, P***** was interviewed by the Globe and didn't quibble with any of the officials' factual statements—not that his son had fought one child instead of "eight to ten," not that the other child has written an apology, not the play date in the last month. So I think Ash's judgment that "Some adults are exploiting these children" is valid. It's a pity that one of those adults seems to be J****'s own parent.

This incident put me in mind of another fight between seven-year-olds that made the newspapers with a heavy political overlay. The following passage is from the "Journal of the Times," a series of Whig dispatches to colonial newspapers outside Boston in 1768-69, the first period when British army regiments were stationed in the town. Those dispatches painted the army and royal authorities in the worst possible light; some historians assume that the writer(s?) made up events, but I think they simply provided one-sided accounts and incendiary commentary. This event seems to have taken place on 22 May 1769:
The next day, when the 14th regiment mustered in King-Street at roll-call, a fray happened between two little boys about seven years old, which as usual, gathered a crowd of people; several persons going through the streets were oblig’d, in order to avoid the crowd, to pass near the right wing of the regiment; for which daring intrusion, four persons were successively struck down by a drummer.—The battle of the boys naturally produced a larger one between some of the inhabitants, when a constable interposed, to preserve the peace;—one of the soldiers gave the word to hustle the constable, immediately upon which, his hat and wig were struck off, and he was toss’d about from one to another, though he repeatedly cried, he was a King’s officer in the execution of his duty; some of the inhabitants being near, he called to them for their assistance, and many of them readily went to his assistance; upon which the battle became general, and the constable, and his assistants were much abus’d by the soldiers. Some of the officers of the regiment were present, none of whom offered to interpose, till Col. Dalrymple came into the street, and being told what had happened, he quickly dispers’d the soldiers. . . . It is said one of his Majesty’s Council perceiving the first reforming magistrate in the street when the quarrel began, went to him, and motioned his taking proper measures to quell it; but the reformer only shruged his shoulders, and went off.
"King-Street" is modern State Street. "Constable" might mean the Constable of the Watch who supervised the town watchmen ("his assistants"?) for that part of the town. But this incident seems to have occurred in the daytime, and watches patrolled at night. The Constable's cry that "he was a King’s officer" implies that he was one of the town's elected Constables, who usually delivered writs, and the "assistants" were simply men who came to help him.

"Col. Dalrymple" was Lt.-Col. William Dalrymple, commander of the 14th regiment. The "first reforming magistrate" probably means James Murray, a Scottish-born Justice of the Peace who fervently supported the royal government. There were too many Whig members of "his Majesty’s Council" to identify which one suggested that the magistrate intervene, then told his story for the "Journal of the Times."

One of the details I find most interesting about this report is that the writer felt it "usual" for a fight between seven-year-olds to draw a crowd, and "natural" that the boys' tussle would produce a fight among older inhabitants. At least we don't do that anymore. Nowadays, it seems, we go straight to the newspapers.

Monday, June 19, 2006

food for the mind from the Dublin Seminar

I'm back from a busy and stimulating two days at the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, followed by a brief visit to Historic Deerfield, where I studied the engraved powder horns on display at the Flynt Center of Early New England Life.

At the Dublin Seminar, one of the talks I had the honor of introducing was Raoul N. Smith of Northeastern describing how he's used some common software programs to analyze the diaries of the Rev. Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847). With Word, Excel, and other common programs, Raoul can do in an afternoon what would once have taken many months of graduate student time. For instance, any word-processing program can help a scholar count how many times a diarist uses particular words each year to see if they change over time.

There are some practical obstacles to applying those techniques more widely, but they're hardly insurmountable:

  • The entire text of the diary has to exist as a digital text. Raoul has such a text for the first part of the Fisher diaries since he's translating it from the minister's phonetic alphabet. Older printed diary transcriptions would have to be turned into digital texts with scanners and OCR software—which is becoming increasingly easy. Handwritten diaries, however, would have to be transcribed by individual scholars, and that can take years.
  • Spelling was variable in the past, especially for people without much formal education, and abbreviations more common. (At least until text-messaging.) Again, Raoul has an advantage since he's rendering Jonathan Fisher's phonetic writing into consistent modern spelling.

I came away from the conference wondering what some of Raoul's techniques might reveal about other long diaries that speakers were working on. For instance, Linda S. Meditz, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, discussed her early work on the diary of the Rev. Stephen Williams (1693-1782). Linda focused on the refrain in Williams's diary about feeling "dull." That term comes up a lot in Puritan ministers' writing. A word-count comparison could tell us exactly how often Williams's proclamations of dullness compare to those in other ministers' writings.

Several people in the audience (including me) wondered if Williams's "dullness" indicated a recurring psychological/biological depression that he was interpreting through a theological lens. Or did a theological struggle affect his psychology? How did Williams's boyhood experience as a captive after the 1704 Deerfield raid play into either possibility? (And what about the experience of living in Longmeadow? That might have been "dull" all by itself.)

Again, there might be a software solution. Raoul had talked about the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, developed
to determine the rate at which the authors/speakers use positive or negative emotion words, self-references, big words, or words that refer to sex, eating, or religion.
Those measurements, in turn, are said to offer psychologists better understanding of the writers' mental and emotional states. (I see in this article from Northeastern's alumni magazine that Raoul has also worked on another kind of intersection of psychology and computers.)

Is it possible now, or will it become possible, to scan a long text like Stephen Williams's diary for signs of depression? Would a tool created for our society and our language be applicable to the world of the 1700s? Naturally, researchers would have to do a lot of testing to establish the validity of such a method. And they might also have to overcome historians' professional worry about pasting modern labels onto past behavior patterns. We mustn't let our understandings get in the way of understanding their understandings, if you see what I mean. And we'll never be able to gather as much diagnostic data from historical figures as therapists can get from their clients and patients, so such retrospective diagnoses will always be iffier.

But we don't discuss smallpox in purely eighteenth-century terms; we always apply what we know about the smallpox virus. Similarly, someday we may not discuss historical figures' psychological behavior without considering what we've learned about brain science and how brain conditions come out in our language and behavior.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Anna Green Winslow: fashion-conscious teen

Anna Green Winslow arrived in Boston in 1770. She was ten years old and had grown up in Nova Scotia, where her father was the commissary-general, or supplier for the British army. Anna's parents had sent her to Boston, their home town, for advanced schooling that Halifax couldn't yet supply: mostly sewing, dancing, and handwriting, as well as informal lessons in the deportment department. Anna lived with her aunt; attended the Old South Meeting and the religious lecture on Thursday mornings; and developed her social skills in the company of other young ladies.

While she was away from home, Anna wrote a series of decreasingly detailed letters to her mother. (In other words, the letters get shorter and less frequent as time goes on.) It looks to me like she copied those letters into a little bound sheaf of paper, which was transcribed and published by Alice Morse Earle in 1894 as Diary of Anna Green Winslow. Diaries must have been more marketable than collections of letters. That book is still in print today, but the current cover from Applewood Books has completely anachronistic artwork. That's why I'm showing the previous cover, which shows Anna herself.

One of Anna's big concerns was dressing well. Her laments may sound familiar to parents, as in this letter from 30 Nov 1771:

The black Hatt I gratefully receive as your present, but if Captain Jarvise had arrived here with it about the time he sail’d from this place for Cumberland it would have been of more service to me, for I have been oblig’d to borrow. I wore Miss Griswold's Bonnet on my journey to Portsmouth, & my cousin Sallys Hatt ever since I came home, & now I am to leave off my black ribbins tomorrow, & am to put onmy red cloak and black hatt—I hope aunt wont let me wear the black hatt with the red Dominie—for the people will ask me what I have got to sell as I go along street if I do, or, how the folk at New guinie do? Dear mamma, you dont know the fation here—I beg to look like other folk. You dont know what a stir would be made in sudbury street, were I to make my appearance there in my red Dominie & black Hatt.

By 25 May 1773, Anna's head decorations had become more outlandish, as even she recognized:
I took a walk with cousin Sally to see the good folks in Sudbury Street, & found them all well. I had my HEDDUS roll on, aunt Storer says it ought to be made less, Aunt Deming said it ought not to be made at all. It makes my head itch, & ach, & burn like anything Mamma. This famous roll is not made wholly of a red Cow Tail, but is a mixture of that, & horsehair (very course) & a little human hair of the yellow hue, that I supposed was taken out of the back part of an old wig. But D——— made it (our head) all carded together and twisted up. When it first came home, aunt put it on, & my new cap on it, she then took up her apron & mesur’d me, & from the roots of my hair on my forehead to the top of my notions, I mesur’d above an inch longer than I did downwards from the roots of my hair to the end of my chin. Nothing renders a young person more amiable than virtue & modesty without the help of fals hair, red Cow Tail, or D——— (the barber).
The most excellent history website Common-Place features an article by Kate Haulman on the hairstyles of the time, with Anna as one of the best sources.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Battle of Bunker Hill: two boys' views

The British and New England armies fought the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775. It was the first pitched battle of the Revolutionary War, and one of the most costly battles for the British army of the entire era. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an excellent online exhibit about the battle. Here are memories of the event from two teenaged boys who were caught up in it on opposite sides.

Martin Hunter was a seventeen-year-old lieutenant in the 52nd Regiment of the British army. Eventually he became a general and governor of New Brunswick. His memories of Bunker Hill are oddly concerned with trivia:

It was very extraordinary, but that morning, the 17th of June, the 52nd had received an entire new set of arms, and were trying them at marks, when they received orders to march immediately to Charlestown Ferry, with one day’s provisions. I may add that, singularly enough, not a firelock had missed fire. . . .

Charlestown was set on fire by the frigate, and before the action began the whole town was burning. In the steeple of the church several people were seen, while the body of the church was in one entire blaze; and as they could not get out, they were seen from Boston to fall with the steeple. . . .

Lord Rawdon, now Earl of Moira, was lieutenant in the 5th Regiment; he received a shot through a cat-skin cap that he wore that day, and desired me to observe how narrowly he had escaped being shot through the head. He, with many other officers, asked me to go and look for a surgeon for Major Williams; but though a very young soldier, I had sense enough to know that I was much safer close under the works than I could be at a few yards from it, as the enemy could not depress their arms sufficiently to do any execution to those that were close under, and to have gone to the rear to look for a surgeon would have been almost certain death; indeed, the Major was not a very great favourite, as he had obliged me to sell a pony that I had bought for seven and sixpence.

John Greenwood was a Boston boy, fifteen years old, who had enlisted in the provincial army as a fifer. On the day of Bunker Hill, he had just been reunited with his mother after months apart, but then lost her in the confusion of Charlestown's evacuation.
Not finding my mother at Mr. Grout’s on my return, and not knowing where she was, I let the horse go, saddle and all, to find the way home the best way it could, and down I went toward the battle to find the company I belonged to, then about two miles off. As I passed through Cambridge common I saw a number of wounded who had been brought from the field of conflict. Everywhere the greatest terror and confusion seemed to prevail, and as I ran along the road leading to Bunker Hill it was filled with chairs and wagons, bearing the wounded and dead, while groups of men were employed in assisting others, not badly injured, to walk. Never having beheld such a sight before, I felt very much frightened, and would have given the world if I had not enlisted as a soldier; I could positively feel my hair stand on end. Just as I came near the place a negro man, wounded in the back of his neck, passed me and, his collar being open and he not having anything on except his shirt and trousers, I saw the wound quite plainly and the blood running down his back. I asked him if it hurt much as he did not seem to mind it; he said no, that he was only going to get a plaster put on it, and meant to return. You cannot conceive what encouragement this immediately gave me; I began to feel brave and like a soldier from that moment, and fear never troubled me afterward during the whole war.

As good luck would have it I found the company I belonged to stationed on the road in sight of the battle, with two field-pieces, it having been joined to the regiment commanded by Colonel John Patterson from Stockbridge (afterward the 12th Massachusetts Bay Regiment). Captain Bliss, who had given me permission the day before to go a distance of more than twenty miles, was astonished to see me, and asked how I had returned so soon. I thought I might as well appear brave as not and make myself to be thought so by others, so I told him that, having heard cannon firing early in the morning, I considered it my duty to be with my fellow-soldiers; that I had run all the way back for that purpose, and intended to go into the battle to find them—which I certainly would have done, as big a coward as I was on setting out to join my companions. The cause of my fears then was, I presume, being alone, for I cannot say that I ever felt so afterward. I was much caressed by my captain and the company, who regarded me as a brave little fellow.

As my father lived near the ferry [in Boston] my brothers were at this point and, the river being only half a mile wide, saw the whole battle. The wounded were brought over in the boats belonging to the men-of-war, and they were obliged to bail the blood out of them like water, while those very boats carried back fresh troops who stood ready to reinforce those engaged. My brother told me that the wives, or women, of the British soldiers were at the ferry encouraging them, saying: "D—— the Yankee rebels, my brave British boys; give it to them!" He observed likewise that the soldiers looked as pale as death when they got into the boats, for they could plainly see their brother redcoats mowed down like grass by the Yankees, the whole scene being directly before their eyes. The Americans were all chiefly marksmen, and loading their guns each with a ball and five buck-shot, reserved their fire until the English troops had advanced within pistol range. I was told the enemy fell like grass when mowed, and while they were filling up their ranks to advance again the Yankees gave them the second fire with the same effect, two or three dropping at the discharge or every gun.

Friday, June 16, 2006

2006 Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife

Today I take off for the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, a conference in oh-so-historic Deerfield, Massachusetts. This year's theme, New England diaries, has brought out an exceptionally large number of papers, so the presentations run from Friday night to Sunday morning with nary a break. I'm introducing speakers on Saturday morning at an hour when I normally avoid human contact, both for my sake and that of the humans. So we'll see how that goes.

Since a blog named "Boston 1775" shouldn't miss the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, I'm posting an early entry for Saturday.

In the meantime, I invite fans of New England history to peruse the volumes of Dublin Seminar papers on various topics. Each collection has in-depth material on daily life in the region. I'm particularly fond of The Worlds of Children, from the 2002 conference, since it includes my report on drawings of Pope Night in Boston in 1767. (See part of the better-known but less detailed woodcut of that raucous holiday here.)

Old North from the inside

Rhea Becker's blog offers a tour guide's perspective on Old North Church, along with a nice image from an early-20th-century postcard of the landmark.

Ironically, for a church that's now so associated with the Patriot side of the Revolution, in 1775 Old North—known as "Christ Church"—was Anglican and therefore leaned Loyalist. Paul Revere arranged for a signal to be sent from its steeple to Charlestown not because it was his family church but because that was the tallest tower in the North End. Shortly after the two lanterns appeared in the steeple, British military authorities came to take them down.

In another irony, the anonymous rider who got the message that British troops were moving across the Charles (going "by sea," in the rhyming phrase of H. W. Longfellow) didn't carry that warning very far west. He was most likely stopped by British mounted officers as he headed from Charlestown to Cambridge.

Revere, taking it upon himself to carry the same message a while later, spotted trouble ahead and veered off the Cambridge road northwest toward Medford. He thus got through as far as Lexington before other officers captured him. All of which shows that the British military authorities were well aware of the danger posed by a Patriot alarm system, and tried hard to stifle it. They just didn't succeed.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Samuel Adams: beyond the caricature, part 2

Yesterday the Boston Globe ran a review of Infamous Scribblers, by Fox News host Eric Burns, headlined "An objective and colorful look at Colonial news bias." Obviously reviewer Matthew Price had not read my grumpy comments about Burns's mistaken caricature of Samuel Adams. Which will only make me more grumpy.

Price says, quoting Burns as he goes:

Adams was a loose cannon: In 1765, he incited a rabble, "all of them jacked up on ninety-proof Sam Adams prose," to ransack the house of Thomas Hutchinson, an important Crown official.
I'm certain that Burns's book offers no example of that "ninety-proof Sam Adams prose" from before the Hutchinson house attack on 26 Aug 1765. That's because, as the Google Book page images from The Writings of Samuel Adams, volume 1, show, there's only one piece of political prose attributed to Samuel Adams before that date, and it was the standard product of a town committee. The only way such documents count as "ninety-proof" is that they could be soporific.

Furthermore, as Marvin Olasky has written:
If Adams was a man bent on destruction, it is curious that he was so critical of the politically-arousing Stamp Act attack on the home of royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, which he called an action of "a truly mobbish Nature."
Apparently the term "Objective" is now going the way of "Fair" and "Balanced."

Boston's solid ground

In May, the Boston Globe ran a story about Boston’s earthquake risk, with a map showing the areas that face the greatest danger. The color thumbnail image in this post shows a detail from that map with the contrasts turned up: the pink parts of the land are more vulnerable to quakes, the cream parts more stable.

The Globe’s map of relatively safe areas makes a rather close match to a map of Boston and its neighbors in 1775. The grayscale thumbnail image is a detail from one such map, now for sale at Historic Urban Plans.

The Boston of the Revolution (at center, and marked "Downtown" in the new map) is relatively safe from quake danger, along with Dorchester Heights, central Charlestown, and several harbor islands and former islands—i.e., all the dry ground of the 1700s. But much of today’s city was built on landfill in the 1800s: the Back Bay, what we now call the South End, Logan Airport, and land connecting some islands to the mainland. (Modern Boston also includes several parts that were separate towns in the 1700s: Dorchester, Charlestown, Roxbury, &c.)

Most of the areas that glow pink on the modern quake-danger map were underwater at high tide back in 1775. Only one narrow strip of land then connected Boston to the mainland. That's why the settlers of 1630 chose the area as their base, and why the British army could hold off a much larger provincial force for eleven months in 1775-76—a peninsula is easy to defend. Now Boston's old “Neck” has thickened like a wrestler’s so we can easily commute into the expanded city. But one day the original confines of the town may still offer the best refuge.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Travel Guide that will lead kids astray, part 2

Today I return to fussing about A Travel Guide to Colonial Boston, the schoolbook with so many misleading statements about Boston in the eighteenth century. (See part 1 for fuss over one page.) The idea behind this book is a clever one that the publisher, Lucent Books, has used before: a modern-style travel guide to a significant site in history. In this case, the book establishes its temporal base in 1793, allowing the text to discuss the “recent” events of the Revolution and daily life in the early U.S. of A.

Speaking to modern readers requires some understandable compromises. For instance, there’s a page about Paul Revere’s house. In 1793 that was an undistinguished building owned by a man of middling importance. Visitors would have been more eager to see Gov. John Hancock’s handsome stone mansion on Beacon Hill. But the Hancock house was pulled down in 1863, and the only replica is in Ticonderoga, New York—a nice town, but not the same. Revere’s house, on the other hand, survives in Boston's North End and welcomes school groups.

But even within the conceit of a travel guide, the book presents misleading information and missed opportunities. Page 42 offers a sidebar on “Elegant Dining.” But upper-class restaurants weren’t part of American culture for another few decades. If you were rich enough to afford a fancy dinner, you ordered your servants to cook one. The publisher’s art staff chose to decorate this page with a modern picture of a lobster. One reason they couldn’t find any period pictures of lobsters is that no one considered them an elegant food until the 1840s. They are, after all, giant bugs that feed on sludge. That sidebar is an example of projecting our modern lifestyle—what today's travel guides discuss—onto the past.

More importantly, the book misses what travelers of 1793 would really need to know about New England: traveling from one town to another on a Sunday was illegal unless you had a very good reason, such as a medical emergency. You didn’t have to spend the Christian Sabbath day in worship, but you couldn’t work or travel instead. That rule tripped up Thomas Jefferson and James Madison when they visited in 1791, and Lafayette when he visited in 1824. Even some locals chafed at this restriction. The fourth Josiah Quincy told a story about deacons gathering in Andover to block the roads of a Sunday. A man rode past them, saying, “I assure you that my mother is lying dead in Boston.” After getting beyond reach, he added, “for the last twenty years!

This Travel Guide discusses the Puritans who founded Boston, but misses those Sabbath rules and other ways in which Puritan traditions still governed the town in 1793. An example of how wrong this can be appears on pages 80 and 82:

For highbrow guests, the city’s theaters offer Shakespeare and the classical music of Europe’s great composers. . . . One of the more brutal blood sports favored by a large segment of Boston’s population is cockfighting.
What else do we learn in school about Puritans, people? That they wanted to suppress theater and blood sports in Jacobean England. Puritans settled Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire to create a society without theaters or cockfighting (or bearbaiting, also mentioned on page 80). In the mid-1700s Boston’s selectmen were still keeping Punch & Judy puppeteers out of town.

The year 1793 was very important for theater in Boston, as Jacqueline Carr discusses in After the Siege. For two years Boston town meeting had debated whether to license theaters, with younger gents generally arguing for it and older patriots, such as Samuel Adams, arguing against. In late 1792 an unlicensed theater had opened in Board Alley. The selectmen apparently tried to ignore it in hopes that it would go away. In early 1793 the Massachusetts legislature repealed its old law forbidding theaters, but the vote was close and the anti-theater sentiment still fervent. Gov. John Hancock, who tried not to expend any of his considerable political capital on unpopular issues, declined to either sign or veto the bill. The selectmen didn't know what they were supposed to do.

What, therefore, should a 1793 Boston travel guide have told a "highbrow guest" who wants to attend a theater? That there's one in town, but it's down an alley. You shouldn't speak about playgoing too loudly because half the populace thinks it's sinful. There's still a chance that the authorities will shut down the show. But besides that, have a fun evening!

Now I think kids would find that situation and the limits on Sunday travel interesting because they're so different from our own culture. Of course, religion and its strictures are a touchy subject for public schools and textbooks. But writing about eighteenth-century Boston without mentioning religion is like writing about twenty-first-century Basra without mentioning religion. The Puritan tradition helped set New England off from the rest of America. One of the Revolution's major effects in the region was to erode the Congregationalist orthodoxy's control over government. That was the big story of 1793, not "Shakespeare and the classical music of Europe’s great composers."

ADDENDUM: Who bears the biggest responsibility for this book's errors? See part 3.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Outside the Textbook" and beyond Mount Whoredom

I spent most of Monday at the "Outside the Textbook" conference on public history, sponsored by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. It was a very pleasant, if occasionally inaudible, day. Gretchen Adams of the Paul Revere House said extraordinarily nice things about a teacher's workshop I led there in 2002. Wendy Lement of Theatre Espresso shared some of her plans for an educational drama about the Boston Massacre, "Uprising on King Street." And I enjoyed meeting and hearing from many other people who are researching, writing, and presenting Massachusetts history of periods other than the Revolution.

Graciously postponing lunch, Charles Swift gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of his City Record and Boston News-Letter blog, one inspiration for finally getting this one off the ground. Charles's entry for Monday discusses the original name for the area of Boston renamed "Mount Vernon" and "Louisburg Square" by real-estate developers after the Revolution. In the pre-war period it was called "Mount Whoredom" because of the high concentration of prostitutes working in that somewhat-out-of-the-way area to the west of the Common.

Interestingly, the "Whoredom" name appears most often in documents and on maps created by British army officers, such as the map of Boston by Lt Thomas Page that Charles's blog highlights. Other examples:

Lt Frederick Mackenzie, diary, 25 Apr 1775: "Our Regiment Encamped his morning on Fort Hill; The 4th Regiment on Mount Whoredom, and the Marines on the Common."

Lt John Barker, diary, 26 Apr 1775: “the 1st upon Whoredom Hill.”

Gen. Percy, letter to his clergyman uncle: "Camp on Mount Whoredom, Augt. 12. 1775. . . . A strange Place Dear Dr. to write from to a Clergyman—Yet so it is, My Tent is upon the highest Summit of it.”
The British officers clearly savored the irony of the puritanical town having a red-light district. And perhaps some savored the district as well.

Gen. George Washington, on the other hand, used a delicate misspelling when writing to the Continental Congress on 7 Mar 1776 about contingency plans to storm Boston:
Four thousand chosen men who were held in readiness, were to ford have embarked at the mouth of Cambridge River in two divisions; The first under the command of Brig. Genl. Sullivan, the second under Brig. Genl. Greene, the whole to have been commanded by Major General Putnam. The first division was to land at the Powder House and gain possession of Bacon Hill and Mount Horam.
Less than two weeks before, when Greene, Putnam, Sullivan, and Gen. Horatio Gates had drawn up this plan for Washington, they had used the label "Mount Whoredom." So the generalissimo knew what the hill's real name was.

ADDENDUM: New older information on “Mount Whoredom” here.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Caesar Merriam: black property owner, protester

On 24 August 1775, the Essex Gazette newspaper, which had relocated from Salem to Cambridge to be closer to the American troops besieging the British military in Boston, reported:

We are informed that the negroes in Boston were lately summoned to meet in Faneuil Hall, for the purpose of choosing out of their body a certain number to be employed in cleaning the streets,—in which meeting Joshua Loring, Esq., presided as moderator. The well-known Caesar Merriam opposed the measure, for which he was committed to prison, and confined until the streets are all cleaned.
[ADDENDUM in 2020: This is the article as transcribed in Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston (1849). The original differs in spellings and capitalization and gives the protesting man’s name as “Cesar Meriam.”]

Massachusetts had a law requiring free black men to mend and clean roads or do other work as directed by town selectmen as a substitute for serving in the militia. (Thanks to Daniel R. Mandell and Cornelia Hughes Dayton for pointing me to sources on this law and its enforcement a few months back.) However, in Boston this system had been in decline since at least the early 1760s, as town selectmen records show. Judging by the number of free (and even enslaved) black men identified as serving in rural militias in George Quintal, Jr.'s report "Patriots of Color," those laws may no longer have been enforced widely outside Boston, either.

This legally nebulous situation explains both why in 1775 the government of the town under military occupation thought it could compel Boston's free blacks to clean the streets, and why some of those men objected to unequal treatment and forced labor—even if the black population got to choose which individuals would do the work.

Who was the Caesar Merriam who spoke up at Faneuil Hall? Why did the newspaper's printer think that he would be "well-known" to readers outside the town?

Boston's 1771 tax list contains an entry for "Caesar Marion," which by the standards of eighteenth-century spelling was the same name as "Merriam." This man was not classified as a potential voter, as was standard for white men. "Caesar" was a common name for a black man in New England but rare for a white. Therefore, even though that tax record didn't list Caesar Marion as having African ancestry, he probably did.

Marion/Merriam paid tax on one work building worth £4 in yearly rent in ward 6. That wasn't much property, but it made him one of the few African-American property owners in colonial Boston. Perhaps he was simply an oddity to the white inhabitants, but perhaps his relative wealth and independence made him a leader of Boston’s blacks. Either way, he was apparently "well-known." It would be great to know more about him now.