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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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Rev. William Gordon Goes to Press

After the Rev. William Gordon’s The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America was printed in England in 1788 and then reprinted in the U.S. of A., Bostonians who had heard the minister read from his manuscript were puzzled. Parts of it seemed to be missing.

One man, writing to a Boston newspaper in 1821-22, recalled hearing Gordon read “three or four pages” about how the 47th Regiment of Foot had tarred and feathered a Billerica farmer named Thomas Ditson, Jr., in March 1775. In the printed version, that episode occupied only “a few lines.” Another correspondent noted a sensitive topic that had dropped out: “I refer here particularly to the subject of negro slavery.” He added that Gordon “was also persuaded to soften his harsh picture of the illustrious Exempt.” I have no idea what that means, but it could refer to the portrayal of such popular figures as John Hancock.

The first writer told the newspaper, in a reminiscence reprinted in Hezekiah Niles’s Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America, of what he’d heard about the book’s publication:

In 1790 I embarked for England, where I was introduced to a relation of Doctor Gordon, of whom I enquired how the Doctor had succeeded in his history? He smiled and said, “It was not Doctor Gordon’s history!”

On my requesting an explanation, he hold me, that on the Doctor’s arrival in England, he placed his manuscript in the hands of an intelligent friend, on whom he could depend, who, (after perusing it with care), declared that it was not suited to the meridian of England, consequently would never sell. The style was not agreeable—it was too favourable to the Americans—above all, it was too full of libels against some of the most respectable characters in the British army and navy—and that if he possessed a fortune equal to the duke of Bedford’s, he would not be able to pay the damages that might be recovered against him, as the truth would not be allowed to be produced in evidence.

The doctor had returned to his native country, and expected to enjoy “otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity].” Overwhelmed with mortification, and almost with despair, he asked the advice of his friend; who recommended him to place the manuscript in the hands of a professional gentleman, that it might be new modelled, and made agreeable to English readers; this was assented to by the doctor, and the history which bears his name was compiled and written from his manuscript, by another hand!
In any event, the history didn’t become a success. People saw its style as stodgy. Gordon was unable to retire on the proceeds, and ended up a poor minister for a poor congregation.

Furthermore, the final text—whoever was responsible for it—destroyed Gordon’s reputation as a historian a century later. In the Annual Report of the American Historical Association for 1899, Orin Grant Libby showed that large portions of Gordon’s History were copied or closely paraphrased from The Annual Register, a Whiggish review of the events of each previous year co-founded by Edmund Burke. Other passages came from The History of the Revolution in South Carolina (1785), by Dr. David Ramsay (shown above, courtesy of the Smithsonian).

Kids, don’t try this at school! Our standards on plagiarism have become much stricter, especially in the last few years. Authors quoted much more freely in the 18th century. In fact, Ramsay also borrowed from The Annual Register, and when he revised his own book, historian Arthur H. Shaffer noted, he adopted some of Gordon’s rewrites of his prose.

Without Gordon’s original manuscript, it’s impossible to know whether he had copied that material himself or his British editor did. But he certainly signed off on the final text and hoped to make money off it. And the result of its twisted journey to print is that most modern historians consult Gordon’s book for sporadic passages about Revolutionary politics and war in Massachusetts, where he had first-hand knowledge, and ignore the rest as derivative.

(Back in April, the 18th-Century Reading Room ran a passage from Gordon’s book about Gen. Charles Lee.)


William Thomas Sherman said...

You write: "Without Gordon’s original manuscript, it’s impossible to know whether he had copied that material himself or his British editor did. But he certainly signed off on the final text and hoped to make money off it. And the result of its twisted journey to print is that most modern historians consult Gordon’s book for sporadic passages about Revolutionary politics and war in
Massachusetts, where he had first-hand knowledge, and ignore the rest as derivative."

Perhaps you might explain to all why you have such an axe to grind against Gordon. Evidently, you have not read him or read him much yourself, for had you done so you would realize there are is historical material in Gordon which first came to the printed page through him; particulalry information pertaining to the American army and war effort. For example Gordon had available to him the testimonies of several American officers of military events not had or known to the Register or the Remembrancer, such as the papers of Otho Williams.

As for Gordon being derivative generally and otherwise, this is in large measure true, but in fairness he was more interested in geting history and the record straight, and jusifying the American cause, then being overly preoccupied with procuring literary laurels for himself. Certainly one could wish there was more polish and original nuance to his manner of writing and presentation, yet given the newness (Gibbon, by contrast and for instance, had centuries to help prepare his famous work) and wide scope of his task, he perfomed his job admirably in many if not all respects.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t have “an axe to grind against Gordon,” but you certainly appear to have an axe to grind for him.

The whole point of this series of postings was to explore how so many American historians stopped trusting Gordon’s history even though the record is quite clear that he was (a) on or close to the scene of the outbreak of war, and (b) friendly with several of the major players.

I quote Gordon regularly, while recognizing his political leanings (not just for the Patriots, for example, but for Samuel Adams over John Hancock). Clicking on the William Gordon link would have shown you that.

There was no need to embarrass yourself by casting aspersions.

William Thomas Sherman said...

Anyone who reads your original article and then my response can see who first was being pronouncedly sarcastic and negative -- I merely responded in Gordon's defense.
Moreover, you contradict yourself. If he plagiarized so grossly and ubiquitously, as you claim; and himself (including his personal contacts; such as I mentioned), had nothing new or of interest to add to the Register, then from whom did he steal his stodginess? ;)

William Thomas Sherman said...

Poor old tory!

J. L. Bell said...

You seem unable to distinguish between my reporting on others’ thinking (“most modern historians consult Gordon’s book for sporadic passages…,” “People saw its style as stodgy”) and what I myself wrote. That should be an elementary skill for a historian or literary scholar.

The fact that Gordon’s book contains long passages from the Annual Register and Ramsay’s history is beyond dispute. So are the facts that such borrowing was common in the eighteenth century, and that accusations of plagiarism hurt Gordon’s reputation as a historian in the early 1900s.

You grudgingly acknowledge “Gordon being derivative generally and otherwise.” Yet you seem to resent my mentioning those facts.

I quoted the newspaper report about Gordon having an Englishman edit his manuscript because I hadn’t seen that mentioned in modern discussions of his historiography. It has a bearing on how other authors’ words might have gotten into Gordon’s book, and it suggests that he’d written other material about Boston that’s now lost.

Since I’ve quoted Gordon on Revolutionary Boston several times on this website and elsewhere, I obviously see value in his writing. I think that loss is a damn shame. We’re probably in agreement that historians who dismissed Gordon as a mere plagiarist missed some valuable material they can’t find anywhere else.

Unfortunately, you chose to make that point with silly accusations like “you have such an axe to grind against Gordon” and “you have not read him.” Instead of complaining that Orin Grant Libby went too far in dismissing Gordon, you keep trying to ascribe Libby’s opinion to me.