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, September 30, 2007

McCain Misreads the Constitution and the Bible

Beliefnet’s interview with John McCain has been getting a lot of attention because of the Republican presidential candidate’s odd conception of the U.S. Constitution:

Has the candidates’ personal faith become too big an issue in the presidential race?
...I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, “Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?”

It doesn’t seem like a Muslim candidate would do very well, according to that standard.
...I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles... personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith. . . .

A recent poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation. What do you think?
I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn’t say, “I only welcome Christians.” We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.
I realize how hard it is for a political candidate, even one who claims to engage in “straight talk,” to say that 55% of the electorate is wrong. But in this case they are, and so is he.

The U.S. Constitution is very clear on the questions of whether it establishes a Christian nation and whether candidates’ faiths should be an issue in elections. It states: “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Quite simply, Americans who vote on the basis of candidates’ religions behave unconstitutionally, though there’s no penalty for doing so. (Unlike elected officials like McCain, we ordinary citizens aren’t bound by oath to uphold the Constitution.)

Furthermore, the First Amendment reinforced that the federal government had no established religion in the U.S. of A., and could not favor one religious belief or practice over any other. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution makes no mention of providence or a deity. McCain’s predecessors in the Senate and President John Adams recognized that basis for the country they had helped to found when in 1797 they ratified a treaty with Tripoli that stated, “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”

I suppose McCain would acknowledge those facts if pressed, or when his campaign is over. (Sooner or later he’ll recognize that he’s already lost the religious right because of his principled stand on campaign financing. They have their priorities, after all.) McCain wasn’t trying to be exclusionary. Rather, he seems to feel, as much of that 55% of us might as well, that the Constitution is “Christian” in the sense that it reflects values he also associates with his faith. In other words, Constitution = good; Christian = good; therefore, Constitution = Christian.

That approach shows as much wishful thinking about Christianity as about the Constitution because there’s so little overlap between the forms of good each aims for. Christianity is unlike the western world’s other major faiths in not having much advice on government in its holy scriptures. Those documents were written before any Christian rulers were in power. In contrast, at least part of the holy writings of Judaism and Islam were set down after adherents of those faiths started to govern societies. The Hebrew Bible and Koran thus contain advice, either explicit or in the form of stories, about how to govern, conduct war, decide legal disputes, and do other things that states usually do.

The early Christian scriptures are instead focused on another world. In fact, Jesus’s teachings, such as turning the other cheek and giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, are impractical for governing a society in this world. Even Paul, who had to grapple with the question of why that other world hadn’t arrived yet, wrote about how to run a small, oppressed cult, not a state. Christian theologians and politicians have been struggling to reconcile their Bible’s priorities with their societies’ for about 1,700 years. It’s not easy. Of course, Jesus never promised it would be.

As a result of that history, the U.S. Constitution and the Christian New Testament talk about separate activities with separate goals. There’s nothing in the Sermon on the Mount about the power to declare war. The Constitution does not endorse the economic system that the Apostles demanded of their followers in Acts 5. Paul’s Epistles say nothing about three branches of government with overlapping powers, and Revelations doesn’t depict a representative legislature in heaven. The New Testament has a lot to say about capital punishment, but not as part of a model justice system.

This country’s founders drew their ideas of national government from British traditions, Roman law, and Enlightenment philosophy. Among the elements of European governments that they discarded were those most closely linked to religion: established churches, legalized discrimination on the basis of faith, and divinely granted royal powers. They saw the purpose of government as securing a better life for “ourselves and our Posterity,” not as securing an immortal life.

There are, to be sure, some similarities that Christian politicians can be guided by, if they’re brave enough. Jesus’s emphasis on “the least of us” and “doing unto others” can be matched with the Bill of Rights’ emphasis on preserving rights against federal power and the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equality under law. However, that same tenet didn’t guide the original Constitution’s protection of slavery, exclusion of Native Americans, or omission of women. The document, and this country, would look quite different if they had indeed been “founded primarily on Christian principles” as Jesus expressed them.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Getting in Bed with John Adams

Prof. Larry Cebula at Northwest History blog directed me to this parodic mashup of 1776 and Brokeback Mountain, made all the more believable by hunky Ken Howard in the role of Thomas Jefferson.

But in fact, during the Second Continental Congress the fellow delegate whom John Adams slept with was not Jefferson but Benjamin Franklin. So Adams wrote many years later in his autobiography, describing their trip to the New York area to negotiate with Gen. William Howe.

Monday September 9, 1776.
At [New] Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a little Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window. The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night, shut it close.

Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated.

I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air.

Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.

Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. [Samuel] Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold.

The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together: but I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last Words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep. . . .
In Passionate Sage, his engaging study of the second President in retirement, Prof. Joseph Ellis pointed out how in this anecdote Adams managed to slough off what many folks have seen as his most costly character flaw. As Adams told the story, he was the amenable bedfellow and Franklin the man who was too insistent and long-winded.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Fife & Drum Muster in Sudbury, 29 Sept 2007

Saturday, 29 September, will bring the annual Colonial Faire and Muster of Fyfe & Drum opposite Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury. I took today’s photo at a Sudbury Muster a few years back, before the William Diamond Junior Fife & Drum Corps got more authentic hats.

Many more groups will be playing at the muster, including the Middlesex 4-H Fife & Drum Corps, Middlesex County Volunteers, Regimental Music of Saintonge, &c. &c. Plus, there will be food, craft demonstrations, photogenic reenactors, children’s games, and many handmade goods and clothing for sale. All hosted by the Sudbury Minutemen and Sudbury Ancient Fyfe & Drum Companie.

For historical content, check out Boston 1775’s recounting of John Greenwood’s experiences as a young fifer in the 1770s.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Determined to Go Through with this Affair

On 26 Sept 1775, Capt. John Barker of the British army’s 4th Regiment wrote in his diary:

The Cerberus Frigate returned from England, with answers to the dispatches sent home after the Action of the 17th June, reports that England is determined to go through with this Affair for which reinforcements are to be here soon.

Several Deserters from the Rebels are lately come in; they all say that it is intended to attack us.
The Cerberus was the same royal warship that had brought Gens. William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton to Boston in May, and now it brought word of yet more troops. At the same time, people expected the American army to attack the town or the British lines. It appeared that both sides were still determined to break the stalemate by force.

But in fact the Cerberus had brought news of a major change on the British side. Boston selectman Timothy Newell heard about it the next day:
These several days have been tolerably quiet. The works at the Southward go on.

Yesterday the Cerberus Man of war arrived in 7 weeks from London—brings advices of coercive measures by Administration—5 Regiments—one thousand Marines, another Admiral with a fleet of men of war &c.—and General [Thomas] Gage called home.
Immediately after receiving Gen. Gage’s report on the costly victory at Bunker Hill, the ministry had scrapped its planned instructions for him and replaced them with these orders, dated 2 August:
From the tenor of your letters, and from the state of affairs after the action of the 17th, the king is led to conclude that you have little expectation of effecting anything further this campaign, and has therefore commanded me to signify to you his majesty’s pleasure, that you do, as soon as conveniently may be after you receive this letter, return to England, in order to give his majesty exact information of everything that it may be necessary to prepare, as early as possible, for the operations of next year, and to suggest to his majesty such matters in relation thereto as your knowledge and experience of the service enable you to furnish.
Gage was to turn over command of all British troops in North America to Gen. Howe (shown above, courtesy of NNDB.com). Howe had probably been making the important military decisions for weeks, though orders were still issued in Gage’s name as governor and commander-in-chief.

On 5 October, Gen. George Washington shared the intelligence with the Continental Congress:
That General Gage is recalled and last Sunday resigned his command to General Howe. That Lord Piercy, Col: [Francis] Smith and other Officers who were at Lexington, are Ordered home with Gage.
Washington was undoubtedly wondering what the new British commander’s strategy would be.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Capt. William Pawlett Loses a Leg

While looking into how Brook Watson lost his leg (to a shark), I neglected to mention how Capt. William Pawlett of the British army lost his leg (not to a shark) 232 years ago this week.

Once again I quote the diary of British army captain John Barker:

17 Sept: “A Soldier of the 4th or King’s Own had his leg shot off as the relief was going to the Lines at Boston; this is the first Man who has suffer’d by the Rebels Cannon.”

23 Sept: “Captn. Pawlett of the 59th Regt. had his leg shot off as he was sitting at breakfast at Boston Lines.”
It seems significant that although Capt. Barker almost certainly knew the private soldier who had his leg shot off, since they were in the same regiment, he didn’t record the man’s name. But he did name a captain who suffered the same injury. Similarly, officers sent home many lists of fellow officers killed at the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, but no comprehensive roll of casualties among the enlisted men.

Then again, Capt. Pawlett’s injury also seemed more significant to Boston selectman Timothy Newell, whose notes on 14-19 September read:
[The army] Began taking down houses at the South end, to build a new line of Works—A good deal of cannonading on both sides the lines for many days past. Several shots came thro’ houses at the South end. Capt. Poulet lost his leg, &c. &c. &c.
On 8 Dec 1781, the Norfolk Chronicle reported:
Last Sunday died, after a few hours illness, at Kenninghall Palace, in this county, William PAWLETT, Esq., late Captain in the army; much respected in the service, much lamented by his wife and family, and much esteemed by his acquaintance and the neighbourhood in which he resided—as an agreeable companion and a worthy man. He served in the last war with great reputation, and after being again called into service, after behaving on many occasions with great gallantry and address, lost a leg by a cannonball shot from the American lines, Roxborough-hill, whilst on duty in the trenches at Boston-neck. On his return to England he was ship-wrecked on the Isle of Scilly, and preserved with great difficulty.

His Majesty, in consideration of his eminent services, appointed him to a company of Invalids in the island of Jersey, which he enjoyed to his death.
According to the Annual Register, Pawlett was made “Captain of an independent company of invalids at Jersey” on 8 Oct 1776. He died at age fifty, and is memorialized in the church at Kenninghall.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Gov. Gage Needs "Judgment and Discretion of his own"?

I was just looking at the records of the Massachusetts General Court in 1774 this afternoon. (Ah, but weren’t we all?) I was struck by how that assembly protested new governor Thomas Gage’s announcement that he was calling the next legislative session in Salem, not Boston.

On 26 May 1774, the second day that the newly elected legislature met in Boston, Gage called the assembly members into the chamber of the Old State House where he met with his Council (the upper house) and told them to be aware that as of “the first of next Month,...I have the King’s particular Commands for holding the General Court at Salem from that Day, until His Majesty shall have signified his Royal Will and Pleasure for holding it again at Boston.” This move was part of punishing Boston for the destruction of the East India Company tea the previous December.

On 7 June, the General Court reconvened at the courthouse in Salem. The assembly’s only business that day was to appoint a committee to consider how to respond to being moved. The next day that committee recommended a resolution, which the legislators adopted:

Resolved, That by the Royal Charter of this Province, the Power of convening, proroguing and adjourning the Great and General Court or Assembly, from Time to Time, is vested in the Governor, to be exercised as he shall judge necessary, and for the Good of the People.


Resolved, That it is clearly the Opinion of this House, That whensoever the Governor of the Province doth convene or hold the General Assembly at any Time or Place unnecessarily, or merely in Obedience to an Instruction, and without exercising that Judgment and Discretion of his own, with which by Charter he is specially vested for the Good of the Province, it is manifestly inconsistent with the Letter, as well as the Spirit and Intention of the Charter.
In other words, the assembly agreed that the governor had the power to summon the legislature in Salem or anywhere else, whenever he pleased. But it said the governor had to make his own decision, not just follow the instructions of the king—even though the governor’s power came from the king’s “Royal Charter.” Do you sense the assembly was stretching for a justification? Complaints like this almost make me sympathetic for Gen. Gage.

In another couple of years, the Declaration of Independence would list moving of the General Court among the faults of the king:
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 laid out a new balance of power between the legislature and chief executive. Article 1 says that Congress decides it meets each year, and can “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District...as may...become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”

There’s still a relic of the old royal power to summon legislatures. Article 2 says the President “may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he [sic] may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper.” But the word “extraordinary” signals that Congress has the upper hand, as Thomas Jefferson and other politicians of the time recognized.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Shark Politics in Parliament

Yesterday’s Boston Globe “Ideas” section featured an article by Prof. Marcus Rediker, author of the upcoming The Slave Ship: A Human History, titled “Slavery: A Shark’s Perspective.”

The article described a 1792 satirical essay by Scottish encyclopedist James Tyler, which Rediker says showed “a dark and daring kind of humor I had never known to exist among abolitionists.” Taking the form of a petition to Parliament, the document asks the government on behalf of “the SHARKS of AFRICA” not to outlaw the slave trade, which provided them with so much food in the form of ill, injured, or suicidal captives.

Thus benefited, as your petitioners are, by this widely extended traffic, a traffic which has never before been molested, it is with the utmost indignation they hear that there are in Britain men, who under the specious plea of humanity, are endeavouring to accomplish its abolition.— But your petitioners trust that this attempt at innovation, this flourishing of the trumpet of liberty, by which “more is meant than meets the ear,” will be effectually frustrated.

Should the lower branch of the legislature be so far infatuated by this new-fangled humanity as seriously to meditate the destruction of this highly beneficial commerce, your petitioners have the firmest reliance on the wisdom and fellow-feeling of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain.
The Boston Globe website supplies an image of the document, and Jack Campin of Edinburgh has transcribed the text. At least three American newspapers reprinted the essay between 1792 and 1807, the last one being The Friend of Salem, Massachusetts.

I wonder if putting this argument into the gaping mouths of sharks had a special resonance because one of the slave trade’s defenders in Parliament had himself famously survived a shark attack. In 1793 Brook Watson (1735-1807) was an Alderman of London. He had grown up in Boston from 1741 until he went to sea as a cabin boy. In 1749 he was swimming in Havana harbor (where, legally, his ship should not have been trading) when a shark bit off his leg. The story of Watson’s injury was well known in London.

During the Parliamentary debates of the 1790s, Watson made much the same argument as the “Sharks of Africa”—that the slave trade so benefited his constituency that the government must not shut it down. Watson also argued that the Newfoundland fishing trade would lose its main market without the enslaved populations of the Caribbean, and put forward an early “positive good” argument for slavery:
He held that those who had brought them from their own country had brought them to happiness, and wound up by telling the House that there could not be a more delightful scene than that presented by the dancing and other amusements of the happy slaves on a well-managed estate.
It seems the “Sharks of Africa” agreed with Watson as much as Watson’s leg agreed with that Cuban shark.

Today’s image shows the painting that Brook Watson commissioned from John Singleton Copley in 1778 of his shark attack. This copy is in the National Gallery in Washington, and part of a very nice online exhibit. There’s another copy at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier

This month sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de la Fayette, better known to his American fans simply as Lafayette.

On Monday, 24 September 2007, at 6:30 P.M., the New England Historical Genealogical Society on Newbury Street in Boston will be the site of a talk by James R. Gaines, author of the new For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions. Gaines’s presentation will be followed by a book signing and reception. A minimum $25 donation is requested.

Also contributing to this event are members of the French Heritage Society, Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Hampshire, and the Consulate General of France in Boston.

New Light on "Paul Revere's Ride"

Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending Charles Bahne’s lecture on “‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ Revisited” at the Old South Meeting-House. He gave a detailed account of how Henry W. Longfellow wrote that famous poem, including his artistic choice to deviate from his main source, Revere’s own account, in order to create a better story.

In Longfellow’s papers, Charlie found what appears to be the first complete draft of “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It includes an entire lost stanza about a “tall, gray rider,” inspired by the legend of Hezekiah Wyman. (Someday I’ll discuss the basis of that story.) I suspect Longfellow dropped those lines because focusing attention on that man—another rider, in fact—would have dimmed his poetic spotlight on Revere as a lone hero.

Charlie’s talk also made me rethink the political significance of “Paul Revere’s Ride” in its own time. The poem is usually interpreted as Longfellow’s call to arms to loyal Americans as the Civil War approached. It was published in the issue of The Atlantic Monthly that went on sale on 20 Dec 1860, the same day that the slaveholders who held power in South Carolina voted to secede. War was on its way.

However, Longfellow started writing his poem in early April 1860, before the Democratic Party split over slavery and before the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. Longfellow finished that first draft on 13 October, when the election was still more than three weeks away. Because he was pacifist, I doubt he would have looked ahead to a war while he could still imagine the country avoiding it. So although I believe Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” to inspire his contemporaries, I’m not sure the crisis he was thinking about was a future war.

Instead, I look at the political atmosphere that surrounded Longfellow as he wrote, under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Longfellow was an Abolitionist, giving that movement both his Poems on Slavery and financial contributions for both organizations and escapees. (Read about the notations in his account books in this downloadable issue of the Longfellow House Bulletin.)

Read against the background of mid-1860, there’s a different historical resonance to Longfellow’s lines:

A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
The call in the night sounds like a call to help refugees, defying the authorities who might be marching after them. Of course, by the time “Paul Revere’s Ride” was actually in print, the U.S. of A. faced a crisis of a different form.

In a matter of weeks, Charlie Bahne’s presentation will be available at the WGBH Forum Network for everyone to enjoy. [ADDENDUM: Here it is.] This was the first time those lost lines of “Paul Revere’s Ride” were ever read publicly.

This month’s series of Longfellow lectures ends on Wednesday, 26 September, at 7:30 P.M. at the First Parish in Cambridge, right off Harvard Square. National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia and Poetry Foundation president John Barr will talk about Longfellow’s legacy as a public poet. See the Cambridge Forum website for more details.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

William Dall: apprentice schoolteacher, merchant

“Back to School” Week(s) at Boston 1775 comes to a close with this profile of a young schoolteacher caught up in the start of the Revolution.

William Dall was the son of William and Elizabeth (Bradford) Dall, born in Boston on 22 Dec 1753. He prepared for a career in business by attending the town’s Writing School on Queen Street, and apparently became a star student. In 1767, at the age of thirteen, he drew a writing sample, a design of ovals around the words “Viva la Plume,” that’s now part of the Abiah Holbrook collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library.

The following year, William went to work as the assistant to Master John Tileston at the North Writing School in Boston’s North End. He was probably no more than a few months older than the top class in the school. I suspect a large part of his job was cutting pens for the younger boys. The town allocated £34 to Tileston for William’s work, or two-thirds of what it usually paid a full-grown assistant teacher, or “usher.”

In December 1774, Dall turned twenty-one, no longer a minor. He was already seeking to earn some extra money for himself with this advertisement in the 26 Sept Boston Gazette:

Writing and Arithmetic
To be taught in Evenings.
The School to be open’d 1st Monday in October next,
at the Writing School House in Queen-Street,
and to be continued for the Season.
Where due Care will be taken for Instruction in its various Branches as usual, and it is hoped will meet with a like Acceptance, which shall be the Aim of the Subscriber, as Assistant in one of the public Schools.
Six and a half months later, the war began, and Boston’s schools closed. The majority of the schoolteachers sided with the Patriots and left town, seeking some way to support themselves.

Dall went to New Haven, Connecticut, and in the 14 June 1775 Connecticut Gazette announced:
Writing & Arithmetick

William Dall, Respectfully informs the Public, That he has opened school, in the small building adjoining Deacon Abraham Abgur’s house; where youth will be taught the above branches in the most concise and methodical manner:—

He flatters himself, that he shall be able to give satisfaction, as he had been employ’d by the town of Boston, in one of the public schools, for several years past, and hopes he shall merit approbation, as he is determin’d to exert every faculty for the improvement of those put under his care.

N B. Reading and spelling likewise taught at said school.
After the British military left Boston, Dall returned and worked in the public schools until 1777. However, with a much smaller population than before the war, the town didn’t need so many teachers.

Dall became a merchant instead. In 1779 he was the first employer of Thomas Handysyd Perkins, who later became wildly successful in the China trade and opium business. In April 1790, Dall advertised “a general assortment of Spring Goods,” mostly cloth, just imported on the ship Neptune. The 1796 Boston directory listed him as owning a shop on Orange Street and a house on Washington Street.

In 1781 Dall married Mary Parker in the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper’s church; they had two children together, but she died in 1783. In 1791 he married Rebecca Keen in Pembroke, her home town; they had five children.

Dall served as a militia captain in Boston. In 1787 he became a member of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, but he never held any office in that private group.

William Dall died on 18 Sept 1829. Some of his correspondence with his sons William and James after 1810 is in the University of Massachusetts library. The Bernard & S. Dean Levy galleries have recently offered portraits of Dall (thumbnail above; note that he’s holding a pen) and his second wife.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Save Our History in Boston, 22 September

On the evening of Saturday, 22 September, the History Channel’s Save Our History program will offer a new episode titled “Revolution in Boston.” It looks at the Old State House (built in 1713, shown here courtesy of Louise Barnewall and Flickr) and the African Meeting House (1804), what took place in these local monuments, and the ongoing efforts to preserve them.

The episode features a brief reenactment of the Boston Massacre. Both the producers and the reenactors were eager to achieve historical accuracy, even in a short sequence—though this July did offer them a limited supply of snow.

I like the pairing of a building connected to the American Revolution with another connected to the long struggle for liberty and rights in the new republic, inspired by that Revolution.

The episode will be repeated at midnight and on Sunday morning.

The Queen Street Writing School Closes for War

Yesterday’s post was about the sudden end of lessons at Boston’s South Latin School when the Revolutionary War began on 19 Apr 1775. What happened at that school’s disdained rival, the Writing School on Queen Street taught by Master James Carter? Here’s the experience of a boy who was probably expecting to graduate from that school in the summer of ’75, from a profile of printer, newspaper publisher, and Federalist politician Benjamin Russell (1761-1845, shown here):

On the morning of the memorable Nineteenth of April, 1775, it became known throughout the town that a detachment of the British troops had crossed the ferry [i.e., left town by crossing the Charles River] the night before, and were on their march to Concord, intending to destroy the military stores at that place. About eight o’clock, another detachment, under Lord Percy had paraded in Tremont-street, and were immediately in motion, towards Roxbury. The whole town was in agitation.

As soon as the customary morning prayer had been offered in the school,...Master Carter said,—“Boys, the war’s begun, and you may run.”

Russell, with several other boys near his age, followed the detachment through Roxbury and Brookline to Cambridge. The troops proceeded on towards Concord, with the intent of aiding and supporting the detachment, which preceded them the night before. The boys spent the day, amusing themselves, on Cambridge common, intending to follow the soldiers into Boston on their return.

The bridge over Charles River in Cambridge was taken up, or rendered impassable, during the day, and when the British army returned from their expedition about dusk, there was no way of getting into Boston but by the ferry. The boys from Boston attempted to follow them, but found it impracticable, and they were thus shut out from their homes.

All intercourse between Boston and the country was prohibited by orders of the British commander, and his orders were rigidly enforced. Russell and his companions were unprovided with the means of subsistence, and had no resource but to solicit food and shelter, which were provided for them by the selectmen and other citizens of Cambridge.

The militia of New-England soon began to assemble from all directions, and several of these vagrant lads attached themselves to the officers,—not by regular enlistment, but informally, as waiters, or errand-boys, performing various services of usefulness and convenience. In this way Russell hung around the army, for more than three months, having no intercourse with his parents.
Remind me someday to mention whether Ben Russell ever reunited with his family.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The South Latin School Closes for War

Yesterday I quoted Harrison Gray Otis on his first day at the South Latin School in Boston. Today I quote his memory of his last day under Master John Lovell, which was the memorable morning of 19 Apr 1775.

In the morning about seven, Percy’s brigade [i.e., the British reinforcement column] was drawn up extending from Scollay’s building [underneath the J.F.K. Federal Building] thro’ Tremont Street nearly to the bottom of the Mall [on the Common], preparing to take up their march for Lexington.

A corporal came up to me as I was going to school, and turned me off to pass down Court St. which I did, and came up School St. to the School-house. It may well be imagined that great agitation prevailed, the British line being drawn up only a few yards from the School-house door.

As I entered School I heard the announcement of “deponite libros” and ran home for fear of the regulars.

Here ended my connection with Mr. Lovell’s administration of the School. Soon afterwards I left town and did not return until after the evacuation by the British in March, 1776.
“Deponite libros”—“Put down the books”—was the way the Latin School masters traditionally ended the school day.

By that evening, Boston was under siege by the provincial militia. On 24 April, Harry Otis’s classmate Joshua Green, Jr., wrote in his diary: “Bro’t my books home from Latin School”—by then it was clear that school would be closed for a while. (Joshua’s diary was published by a descendant in Facts Relating to the History of Groton, Massachusetts, volume 2, of all places.)

Two weeks later, the Greens left Boston to stay with relatives in Westfield. At the same time, the Otis family went to Barnstable, where Harry’s grandfather had a large estate. Most other wealthy families who adhered to the Patriot cause also departed, leaving the Loyalists.

Among those Loyalists were Master Lovell and most of his relations. But his son and assistant, James, was a Patriot. With his wife pregnant and himself suffering from diarrhea, he felt he couldn’t leave. Instead, he arranged for some of their older children to go out, and tried to make himself useful to the provincials. In August, Nathaniel Appleton quoted James Lovell as saying that a return to teaching would be “spending his time idlely schooling the children of a pack of Villains.”

But by that point James Lovell no longer had much choice about where he would spend his time. In late June, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the military authorities had put him in jail on suspicion of spying for the rebels. Chroniclers say that in March 1776 the Lovell family sailed from Boston to Halifax on one ship, Master John as a passenger and James as a prisoner. The Latin School on School Street reopened later that year without them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Latin School Entrance Exam

Master John Lovell (shown here, in an image from the 1886 Catalogue of the Boston Public Latin School) didn’t let just any child into Boston’s South Latin School in the decades before the Revolutionary War. No, a child had to be male and white. He had to be old enough—usually seven years old. He had to read English already. And it helped to be prompt.

Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) recalled the admission process in a letter he wrote to a Boston newspaper in 1844, which was quoted in the Catalogue:

I perfectly remember the day I entered the School, July, 1773, being then seven years and nine months old.

Immediately after the end of [Harvard] Commencement week, I repaired, according to the rule prescribed for candidates for admission to the lowest form [i.e., the youngest class], to old Master Lovell’s house, situate in School Street, nearly opposite the site of the old School House. I was early on the ground, anticipated only by Mr. John Hubbard, who lived near—it being understood that the boys were to take their places on the form in the same routine that they had presented themselves at the house.

The probationary exercise was reading a few verses of the Bible. Having passed muster in this, I was admitted as second boy in the lowest form.
Throughout their scholastic career, the boys were seated according to their class rank. That made it clear to them and everyone else how well they were performing. Thus, ambitious young Harry Otis kept careful track of his ranking, and might have resented John Hubbard for living close enough to Master Lovell’s house to get an early lead.

In fact, lists kept by Master Lovell and his son and by classmate Joshua Green, Jr., show that Harry was initially ranked third or fourth, behind an unidentified Lovell, Hubbard, and Samuel Taylor. But by the end of 1773 “H. G. Otis” was at the head of his form, and probably stayed there until the Revolution began.

Jonathan Homer (1759-1843) had a different reason to feel miffed about this admission process because the Lovells turned him away, probably for being too young:
At the age of six and a half years, I was sent to master John Lovell’s Latin School. The only requirement was reading well; but, though fully qualified, I was sent away to Master [John] Griffith, a private teacher, to learn to read, write and spell.
Homer returned to the South Latin School the next year, went on to Harvard, and became a minister in Newton, where Homer Street starts (or ends) at the site of his church.

REMINDERS: Events at Old South

At 6:30 tonight at Old South Meeting-House, Charles Bahne speaks about the history behind and the history of Henry W. Longfellow’s famous poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Tomorrow night at 6:30 the same venue hosts a look at “John Quincy Adams in Russia.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Schooling for Soldiers and Their Children

Yesterday I discussed the likelihood that the British military establishment in Boston included hundreds of children, and raised the question of where, if anyplace, those youngsters went to school.

I haven’t found evidence that soldiers’ sons were among the boys in Boston’s public schools. The Latin Schools were too genteel and impractical for enlisted men’s children (though Gov. Francis Bernard educated some of his sons by that route in the 1760s). The records of the Writing Schools are sparse, but I’ve kept my eyes open for protests in town meetings about the public expense of educating soldiers’ sons, or any anecdotes about local boys studying alongside such outsiders. And I’ve found nothing.

The most common form of schooling in Boston wasn’t public, however. Boys were expected to know how to read before they entered a Writing School or Latin School at around age seven, and New England’s Puritan heritage meant that region valued female literacy more than any other part of the British Empire. Hence, the town had many private reading schools for boys and girls, often kept by neighborhood women in their homes. (I suspect these doubled as what we’d call day-care centers.) We have practically no records on those businesses. Did soldiers’ children attend lessons like that?

I now suspect many did, but not in local homes. Rather, the British military community itself probably offered that sort of informal education. The rest of this posting is, as you’ll see, almost entirely indebted to author Don Hagist, who wrote about this topic last month on the 18cWoman list.

In A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Economy for a Battalion of Infantry, first published in London in 1768, Capt. Bennett Cuthbertson wrote:

From the common people (the English in particular) employing their children very early, in works of labour, their education becomes totally neglected, and as the Soldiery is in general from that class, many of them (although otherwise properly qualified for Non-commission-officers) can neither read nor write, which being absolutely necessary for those employed as such, it would be of infinite improvement, if (as is the case, in some of the Corps of Scotch Hollanders) every Regiment was to establish a school, under the management of an old Soldier qualified for such an undertaking, and to be supported by voluntary contributions from the Officers; by which means, not only the Soldiers, who were desirous of improvement, might be taught to read and write, but also the children of the Regiment, which institution, besides the advantage it must always be, to have a number of men so far well qualified for Non-commission-officers, would likewise be a real charity, by educating children, who from the poverty of their parents, must ever remain in a state of ignorance.
(I find it interesting that Cuthbertson thought Scottish units were ahead of “the English” in educating children.) With Mark Tully, Don has transcribed the complete text of Cuthbertson and three other military manuals from the period on a CD-ROM titled The Compleat Cuthbertson.

Cuthbertson’s recommendation was echoed in 1776 by Thomas Simes in A Military Guide for Young Officers:
A Serjeant, or Corporal, whose sobriety, honesty, and good conduct, can be depended upon, and who is capable to teach writing, reading, and arithmetic, should be employed to act in the capacity of school-master, by whom soldiers and their children may be carefully instructed: a room or tent should be appointed for that use; and it would be highly commendable if the Chaplain, or his deputy, would pay some attention to the conduct of the school.
This passage appears in Don’s article about “The Women of the British Army in America.”

Of course, it’s one thing for these writers to say it would be a good idea for the officers and chaplain of a regiment to establish schools for illiterate enlisted men and children. It’s another for the regiments actually to act on those ideas. I have a bunch of good ideas myself, but I haven’t heard from the capital about implementing them.

Don has found documentation that the 32nd Regiment of Foot, stationed in Ireland during the Revolutionary War, did establish a school “for instructing the younger Men in Writing & Arithematick.” In addition, during the British army’s occupation of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1777, a local schoolmaster named Joseph Rhodes kept accounts for “Schooling Soldiers Children.”

Finally, Don can quote Roger Lamb, whose books he’s edited into A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution. In 1774 Lamb was a young soldier in Ireland with valuable skills. He wrote:
Indeed it would almost have been impossible for me to have supported life with any degree of comfort, had it not been, that I was employed by a serjeant and his wife to teach their son writing and arithmetic. These people were very kind to me, frequently inviting me to their table; and paying me beside.
In addition, on the Revlist Steve Rayner quoted the British reform activist William Cobbett (1763-1835) describing how in the 1780s he tutored a Yorkshire solider named Smaller in his “ABC,” and the man “was promoted as soon as he could write and read; and he well deserved it, for he was more fit to command a regiment than any Colonel or Major that I ever saw.”

As Cobbett, Cuthbertson, and the sergeant who paid Lamb to tutor his son all knew, the army needed literate enlisted men to help keep records. Being able to read, write, and calculate well could thus allow a smart young man to rise above the rank of private. And that probably meant that soldiers and their wives did what they could afford to help their children learn the same valuable skills.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Children Attached to the British Military

Almost all the anecdotes I know about children in Revolutionary Boston concern locals. I have a few more about the children of British imperial officials. But that leaves out a fairly large group: children associated with the British military forces. When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, there were probably scores and possibly hundreds of minors who were part of the army or navy in Boston or whose fathers were.

One child connected with the Crown military is mentioned in Customs Commmissioner Henry Hulton’s account of the coming of the war, now in the library at Princeton University. This undated anecdote comes from a section of the manuscript in which Hulton listed every act of Patriot violence he had heard of:

A Little boy belonging to the Admirals Ship, was thrown down by a person who swore he would break his leg, and then he took it up and wrenched it till it snaped.
By using the term “Little boy,” Hulton probably signaled that this wasn’t an older teen. (The word “teenager” hadn’t been invented yet, so “boys” could be as old as twenty.) The Commissioner didn’t mention the boy’s father, as he did in his next, similar anecdote, which implies the unfortunate lad probably wasn’t connected to the ship’s officers. Instead, he was probably part of the regular handful of boys in the crew.

There were also children attached to the British army—not as musicians but in soldiers’ families. I mentioned three such minors in my profile of Pvt. Edward Montgomery, one of the grenadiers tried for the Boston Massacre in 1770. He and his wife Isabela had children named Mary, Esther, and William, according to records of an official who warned that they could not call on the town for financial assistance. Neither those records nor anything else I’ve found indicates how old those children were.

Even though I’ve found few other references to such children in Boston, there were probably quite a lot. Don Hagist’s article “The Women of the British Army in America,” published in The Brigade Dispatch and now available on the web, documents how many women and children were living with the British troops in New York during 1779-80.

On 21 Nov 1779, British officers counted seven regiments containing 2,886 men, which had an additional 367 women and 296 children as dependents. On 25 Sept 1780, the command counted seven more regiments containing 3,013 men, and this time there were 542 women and 454 children. In the four regiments counted both times, the number of soldiers dropped slightly, but the number of women and children rose. So the processes of biology were not suspended during wartime.

The British troops in New York were in a different situation from those in Boston in 1768-70 and 1774-76. The New York garrison was also besieged, but it was on a big, well-fortified, well-supplied island with a generally cooperative population. Boston probably wasn’t so family-friendly when it came to soldiers’ families. Nevertheless, Crown policy and personal affection meant that some soldiers did arrive in Boston with their wives, and thus with their children.

TOMORROW: It’s back to “Back to School Week” as we consider where those military children might have gone to school.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

John Quincy Adams Goes to Russia

When John Quincy Adams came to Harvard College in 1785, he was eighteen, a couple of years older than the usual entrant. At that time, boys tended to go off to college at age fourteen or fifteen. John Quincy was so mature and did so well on his entrance exams that he was immediately ranked as a junior.

John Quincy had spent those extra years serving as his father’s assistant on missions to France, Holland, and Britain, and as American diplomat Francis Dana’s secretary and French interpreter in the court of Catherine of Russia in 1781 and 1782. The second job was rather frustrating since the empress never actually received the American minister, not being ready to recognize the new republic. The handsome embroidered waistcoat Dana apparently commissioned for the trip remains well preserved in the collections at Longfellow House. Later the two countries formalized their diplomatic relations, and John Quincy Adams returned to St. Petersburg as the U.S. of A.’s minister in his own right for five years (1809-1814).

On Thursday, 20 September, at 6:30 P.M., Old South Meeting-House will host an event titled “John Quincy Adams in Russia,” featuring biographer Lyn Parsons and actor Jim Cooke. They will “explore how Adams’s years as a diplomat shaped his notions of liberty for years to come.” This free program is a collaboration with the American Antiquarian Society in a series called “Partners in Public Dialogue.”

Starting on 27 September and running through to the end of October, every day from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M., the Massachusetts Historical Society will welcome visitors to an exhibit titled “Moments of Destiny: Two Centuries of Russian-American Diplomatic Relations from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.” The free exhibition will feature John Quincy’s diary as a teen-aged diplomat, his wife Louisa’s account of traveling across the war-torn empire after the Napoleonic wars, and documents from more recent events in U.S.-U.S.S.R./Russian relations.

From the M.H.S., here’s a selection of letters to John Quincy from his father while they were stationed at separate courts. Here are some of John Quincy’s observations about traveling through Europe. And here is the volume of his diary in which he first visited Russia. It starts characteristically on 19 June 1781:

Got up in the morning about 6 o’clock, & set myself to work; breakfasted at half past seven on tea. At about 1 o’clock Poppa came from the Hague; and ask’d me if I wou’d go to Amsterdam with him; I told him I wou’d, with all my heart.
This burst of interest in John Quincy’s first job observes “the bicentennial of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia.”

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Deacon Newell Chooses Not to Be Seen

Yesterday I quoted Deacon Timothy Newell’s first response to demands that he turn over the key to the Brattle Street Meeting-House to a group of Loyalist Presbyterians who wanted to worship there. After a curt exchange, he refused to talk with them.

So, on 15 Sept 1775, they turned up the pressure:

As I was attending a funeral, the Provost Mr. [William] Cunningham, came to me and told me “It was his Excellency the Genls command, I should immediately deliver him the Key of Dr. [Samuel] Cooper’s Meetinghouse[”]—I replied, I must see the Governor—he told me he would not see me till I had delivered the Key. I told him, I must see the General, and refused to deliver the Key. He left me in a great rage and swore he would immediately go and break open the doors.

I left the funeral and proceeded to the Governor’s,—calling on Capt. [John?] Erving to go with me.—He excused himself, so I went alone. The Governor received me civilly. I addressed myself to him and most earnestly intreated him that he would be pleased to withdraw his order, urging that Dr. [Andrew] Elliot, in order to accommodate our people, was to preach in said Meetinghouse next Sabbath, or the Sabbath after and that the person they proposed was a Man of infamous character, which had it been otherwise, I should not oppose it &c. And I desired his Excellency would consider of it. He told me he would and that I might keep the Key, and if he sent for it he expected I would deliver it,—so left him.—

I had not been, I believed 20 minutes from him, before the Provost came with a written order to deliver the Key immediately, which I did accordingly.

When I at first urged the Governor to excuse my delivering the Key for the reasons given—he replied that a number of creditable people had applied to him, and he saw no reason why that house should not be made use of as any other. Gen’l Robinson (when I mentioned the preacher being of an infamous character) said he knew no harm of the man, but this he knew that he had left a very bad service and taken up with a good one.

The next day the Provost came to my shop, I not being there, he left word that he came for the apparatus of the Pulpit and that he must have the Key under the Pulpit, supposing the curtain and cushions were there.

The Provost the same day came again. I chose not to be there. He left orders to send him the aforesaid and swore most bitterly that if I did not send them, he would split the door open—and accordingly I hear the same was forced open[—]and that if Dr. Cooper and Dr. Warren were there, he would break their heads and that he would drag me in the gutter, &c. &c. &c.—

This being Saturday afternoon, I chose not to be seen—spent the evening at Major [William] Phillips’s—consulted with a few friends—advised still to be as much out of the way as possible.—

Dr. Elliot invited me to come very early in the morning (being Lords day) and breakfast with him and also dine, which I did and returned home after nine at night—found Serjent with a Letter had been twice at our house for me—Thus ends a Sabbath which exclusive of the perplexities and insults before mentioned, has has [sic] been a good day for me.

P.S. Capt. Erving and myself being the only persons of the Committee remaining in town, I acquainted him of the demands of the General, who advised me that if the Gen’l insisted on the delivery of the Key, to deliver the same.

The next week several of our Parish thought proper to petition the Genl.—I advised with Foster Hutchinson Esqr., who thought it very proper, and accordingly at my desire he drew a petition, but upon further consideration and hearing of the opinion of the General, he thought it best not to present it.
Provost William Cunningham was one the most notorious villains of the Revolutionary War, according to Americans. He was reviled for the suffering of prisoners of war under his care, and Americans delighted in newspaper reports that he had been hanged in England for financial crimes in 1791. However, British historians later wrote they could find no evidence that actually happened. Practically all the facts that most sources state about Cunningham’s life come from the “confession” published at his “execution,” which renders them more than a little dubious. I’ve just started digging into him (and frankly wish he had a more unusual name).

Foster Hutchinson (1724-1799) was younger brother of former governor Thomas Hutchinson. Newell might have thought he’d have some pull with the royal governor, but he apparently decided to defer to Gage instead.

I haven’t been able to identify “Gen’l Robinson.”

Friday, September 14, 2007

Deacon Newell's Emotion of Resentment

Boston 1775 interrupts “Back to School Week” because of a crisis in the life of Timothy Newell. So far, when I’ve quoted Newell’s diary of the siege of Boston, I’ve identified him as a selectman. But he had another important role in his society: he was a deacon of the Meeting-House on Brattle Street, the town’s wealthiest Congregationalist religious society. (Picture courtesy of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.)

Newell held a position of great prestige and responsibility, all the more since the church’s minister, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, had slipped out of town just before the war began. Because Cooper was one of Boston’s most respected Whigs, and John Hancock was one of the congregation’s financial stalwarts, the Crown authorities viewed the Brattle Street Meeting as a font of rebellion. So it was only natural for them to think how that big handsome building could be put to better, more loyal use. Their decisions prompted Deacon Newell to write the longest, most outraged entries in his journal, starting with this:

Memorandum 14th Sept. 1775.

Messrs. [Archibald or Thomas] Auchinclosh, [John] Morrisson, and another person came to me, as three Scotchmen had been before—they showed me a paper directed to me setting forth that “the Revd. Mr. Morrisson was permitted by his Excellency Genl. [Thomas] Gage to preach and desired he may have the use of Dr. Cooper’s Meetinghouse[”]—signed by about 30 Scotchmen and others—viz. B[enjamin]. Hallowill J[ames]. Forrest &c.—

I desired they would leave the Paper for my consideration.—They did not chuse I should keep it and began to urge their having the house.—For answer I told them, I looked upon it a high insult upon the Society their proposing it, and turned my back upon them and so left them.

PM. [i.e., in the afternoon] Messrs. Black, Dixon [William Dickson?], [William?] Hunter, came and told me his Excellency the General, had consented they should have our Meetinghouse and desired I would deliver them the Key. I told them when I see such an order I should know how to proceed. One said to me—so, you refuse to deliver the Key. I answered with an emotion of resentment, Yes I do.
Newell’s resentment probably had deep roots in his Yankee prejudices. The “Scotchmen” were out-of-towners, mostly from New Hampshire and, before that, Scotland. They were Presbyterians, not Congregationalists (despite most British soldiers’ assumption that those creeds were the same thing). The men supporting their demands were friends of the royal government.

And as for their choice of new minister, the Rev. John Morrison, where had Newell seen him before? Oh, yes, Morrison had deserted from the provincial troops in late June. And Newell had undoubtedly heard about the accusations against Morrison up in Peterborough. And this man would occupy the most prestigious pulpit in Boston?

TOMORROW: Deacon Newell refuses to cooperate.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Lessons of Writing School

Having discussed what Boston’s Latin School boys were studying, I now turn to the bigger question: what the larger crowd of Writing School boys were taught. Boston had three public Writing Schools, one on Bennet Street in the North End, one on West Street near the Common, and one in what later became Scollay Square. Together they contained four times the number of boys as the two Latin Schools in 1770.

The main subject at the Writing Schools was—no surprise—writing. Writing five-paragraph essays? Writing book reports or short stories or political essays? Nope. Literally, the main lesson plan was learning to write beautifully with a quill pen.

As Ray Nash stated in American Writing Masters and Copybooks: History and Bibliography Through Colonial Times, published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts in 1959:

The writing master was ready to show him [the scholar] how to hold the pen properly between fingers and thumb, how to sit correctly at the desk, where to place the paper or ruled writing book in front of him.

Then came the demonstration of the strokes of the letters in due order, of the letters themselves, and eventually of the letters joined into words and the words arranged in improving sentences that are still remembered in the pejorative term “copybook maxims.”

The master wrote the model for the lesson at the top of a fresh page in the learner’s writing book—this was called setting the copy. It was then the pupil’s business to reproduce the copy as nearly as he could, studying each thick and thin, every curve and join, line after line to the bottom of the page under correction of the master.

Much of the master’s time was occupied in the making and mending of pens.
Diderot’s Encyclopédie offers us illustrations of the proper posture and tools for writing and how to cut a quill pen.

For their advanced students, the Writing School masters copied elaborate pages from books, particularly George Bickham’s Universal Penman, published in London in installments in the early 1740s. Here are two large examples of Bickham’s model pages, both on the theme of writing itself. You can also view a bunch of smaller Bickham page images from Davidson Galleries, and two more examples from DK Images.

Above is a facsimile of a smaller Bickham production, The Young Clerk’s Assistant, or Penmanship made easy. This edition has been reprinted by Sullivan Press, which makes a specialty of the paperwork forms and manuals of the Revolutionary War. The title page alone shows how many styles of handwriting which a gentleman and/or businessman was expected to know.

The 1748 edition of George Fisher’s The American Instructor, published by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, included five styles of writing:
  • “the Italian Hand”: slanted, flowing, with spiral flourishes
  • “the secretary Hand”: upright, thick, old-fashioned
  • “An easy copy for Round Hand”: slanted but thicker, with less pronounced flourishes
  • a “Flourishing Alphabet”: all capital letters
  • a neat style of printing
With all correspondence conducted by handwritten letters, all financial accounts kept by hand, and no practical way to copy documents but to rewrite them, a man in business did a lot of writing. Furthermore, if that man had pretensions to be a gentleman, his handwriting, like the way he dressed and carried himself, was supposed to show effortless grace and propriety. Therefore, smooth, clear handwriting was a valuable skill in colonial American society.

Boston’s Writing Schools also taught the “ciphering,” or arithmetic, that young businessmen would need to know, such as long division, “vulgar fractions,” “the rule of three,” “tare and trett,” “single fellowship,” &c. Thanks to the Georgia state government, we can page through a copybook created by Thomas Perry, Jr., in 1793, which lays out many mathematical processes in a flourishing hand. (At the end of Perry’s book are examples of another thing Writing School students probably practiced copying: exemplary business documents. As far as I can tell, the boys were never encouraged to compose anything original.)

Many Boston boys who dropped out of a Latin School started going to a Writing School instead; that was the path traveled by Samuel Breck. Others, such as William Molineux, Jr., and Thomas Handysyd Perkins, seem to have spent their entire scholastic careers in Writing Schools, preparing for the business world.

Even for the boys left in Latin School, good handwriting was such an important skill that they often took writing lessons during their midday dinner breaks or at the end of their school days. Such Latin School boys as John Hancock, Joshua Green, and Harrison Gray Otis took such private lessons from writing masters.

And boys weren’t the only young people who needed good handwriting. Upper-class women were expected to write neatly, too. Anna Green Winslow was one girl who attended Master Samuel Holbrook’s private writing lessons, at least when the weather was good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Joshua Green Begins in the Accidence

A Boston 1775 reader asked to know more about the difference between the two types of public schools in colonial Boston that I mentioned on Monday: Latin Schools and Writing Schools. Since the town apparently saw more value in the Latin or grammar schools, to judge by what it paid the schoolmasters, I’ll start with those.

On 26 July 1773, Joshua Green, Jr., wrote in his diary, “I enter’d at Latin School & began in ye. Accidence.” In fact, he began studying the copy of the Accidence shown right here, printed in Boston in 1766. He wrote his name in the upper right corner. (I think I found this image years ago in Pauline Holmes’s Tercentenary History of the Boston Public Latin School). Joshua was about nine years old, and some of his classmates were only seven.

This textbook was often called “Cheever’s Accidence” after Ezekiel Cheever (1614-1708), who had taught in New England grammar schools for seven decades. However, it was probably assembled by Cheever’s last usher, or assistant teacher, Nathaniel Williams. Williams succeeded his mentor in 1708, and the first edition appeared on the market in 1709. With revisions, it continued to be printed until 1838.

And what an exciting read the Accidence was, too:

A Noune is the name of a thing that may be seen, felt, heard or understand. As the name of my hand in Latin, is Manus: The name of an house, is Domus: The name of goodnesse, is Bonitas.

Of Nounes some be Substantives, and some be Adjectives. A Noune Substantive is that standeth by him selfe, and requireth not an other worde to be joyned with him: as Homo, a Man: and it is declined with one article: as Hic magister, a Maister: or else with two at moste: as Hic & haec parens, a Father or Mother. A Noune Adjective is that can not stand by him selfe, but requireth to be joyned with an other worde: as Bonus, good: Pulcher, faire. And it is declined either with thre terminations: - as Bonus, bona, bonum: or els with thre articles: as Hic haec & hoc Foelix, Happy. Hic & haec levis, & hoc leve, Light.

A Verbe is a parte of speche, declined with mode and tense, and betokenenth dooying: as Amo, I love: or suffering: as Amor, I am loved: or beeying: as Sum, I am.
That’s not necessarily the text as Joshua would have seen it in 1773; it comes from this site from Holy Cross College on the teaching of Latin in the 1600s and 1700s. But it no doubt has the same flavor. Pedagogical technique at the time involved a great deal of reciting aloud and memorization.

In September, Joshua moved on to “Nomenclator,” then “Corderius.” Eventually Latin School lessons consisted of “making verses,” or translating back and forth. Scholars in the top two classes (or forms) at the school studied the rudiments of Greek. All this was to prepare the boys for Harvard College, and particularly for the ministry. Creating a supply of Puritan ministers was, after all, why the Massachusetts Bay colony had founded Harvard and required all towns above a certain size to provide some sort of public schooling for their boys. Nevertheless, by the 1700s most Harvard graduates were going into law, medicine, or business, not the pulpit.

The Latin School curriculum left out a lot of interesting and useful subjects:
  • science
  • math
  • history (besides what was in Caesar and other Latin writers)
  • geography (One Latin School graduate recalled, “I never saw a map, except in Caesar’s Commentaries, and did not know what that meant.”)
  • handwriting
  • literature or composition in English
  • other languages
  • business
  • art and music
The upshot was that if a boy wasn’t doing well enough at a Latin School to go on to Harvard or another college, there was almost no value in remaining at that school at all. It was a highly impractical education. In the two decades before the Revolutionary War, only one-third of the boys who entered Boston’s South Latin School finished all seven years. Notable grammar-school dropouts included Benjamin Franklin, Henry Knox, Henry Pelham, and Samuel Breck.

A Lad Blown Off in a Canoe

In the midst of Back to School Week, I’m checking in on the diary of Timothy Newell, keeping track of events during the siege of 1775-76:

11th. Sept. [1775] A Serjent and 5 men taken by the Provincials at Dorchester

12th. Went in a boat to relieve a lad blown off in a Canoe.
A selectman’s work was never done.

ADDENDUM: While posting this extract, I was wondering how the provincials could have captured a squad of soldiers in Dorchester; I didn’t recall any British operations there yet. I tried to find the answer in my usual accounts of the siege, and couldn’t.

But it turned out my bedtime reading explained everything. Pvt. Thomas Sullivan wrote in his journal for 13 Sept 1775:
There was a working party carrying Timber and Provisions from the Town to the Lines, in Boats, and the wind blew excessive strong, so that the Harbour was very rough. A Serjeant and six men that were in a boat, and rowing up to the Neck, were driven on the opposite side, and soon were seized by the Enemy, with all that was in the Boat.
So everyone was being blown around the harbor in that couple of days.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bob Hewes Brings a Note from His Mother

Like most white children in eighteenth-century Boston, George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840) learned to read at a couple of private neighborhood schools. He told his 1835 biographer about learning from “Mrs. Tincum” and “Mother McCleod.” Then about age seven he went off to the Queen Street Writing School, kept at the time by Master Samuel Holyoke.

But young Hewes wasn’t always diligent in his attendance, as this anecdote from Traits of the Tea Party shows:

He had been late or absent one morning, when his mother, at his request, gave him a note to “the Master,” which was the usual mode of escaping punishment for such an offence.

She complied readily, and he went on his way rejoicing, till, as he passed by the house or shop of his uncle Robert—for whom he was named, and always a great friend of his—he was questioned a little about his late hours, and called in. “Well, Bob, what’s that you have in your hands?” asked the good man, as he was sending him off again with a word of advice.

The lad offered the paper for inspection. His uncle questioned him farther. He told all the truth of the case, as usual, without hesitation, confessing his misdemeanor, but rejoicing in his “excuse,” which, however, turned out to be a request for Master Holyoke to give poor Robert a sound whipping, duly signed by Abigail Hewes herself.

He began to cry, and his uncle began to write. He gave him another paper, differently worded, and every syllable of which he was to remember to the last hour of his life.

“Well, Robert,” said the good lady when he returned, “what did the Master say to you?”

“Nothing, ma’am—only to sit down.”

“Only to sit down! was that all?”

“Yes, ma’am!” said the boy, pulling his hat a little over his eyes.

The old lady pondered the matter a moment. “Did you call at your uncle’s, Bob?” said she.

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Ah-ha! you did, indeed! Well, remember this, Bob, if you run away again, I shall go to school with you myself.
About 1752, the Queen Street school was closed because of a smallpox epidemic. Eventually it reopened, but young Hewes never went back. His schooling was over.

(Portrait of Hewes at age 93 courtesy of The Bostonian Society.)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Boston's Schools in 1770 by the Numbers

I’ve decided it’s “Back to School Week” at Boston 1775. Every posting (well, ’most every posting) for the next few days will be about schooling in Boston during the Revolutionary era.

In the summer of 1770, the annual committee to inspect Boston’s five public schools counted how many boys were studying at each.

  • South Latin School: 119
  • North Latin School: 56
  • South Writing School: 231
  • Queen Street Writing School: 268
  • North Writing School: 250
By my estimate, in 1765 a little over half of all white boys of school age in Boston were attending one of the town schools. The rest were presumably working, and perhaps taking private part-time lessons as well.

How many teachers were there? Typically, a school had one master and one “usher,” or assistant teacher. In practice, there were variations on this set-up.
You can do the math on student-teacher ratios. It’s not a pretty picture.

Finally, here’s the total of what the town voted to pay the schoolteachers at the town meeting in March of that year.
  • South Latin School: £220 (£120 to Master Lovell and £60 to James Lovell, plus a £40 grant to the younger man “as an encouragement for him to remain and exert himself in the Service of the Town”)
  • North Latin School: £100 (Master Hunt had asked for a salary equal to Master Lovell’s, but was denied. Even so, proportional to his student body he was the best paid teacher in town.)
  • South Writing School: £150 (£100 to Master Holbrook and £50 to the unnamed usher)
  • Queen Street Writing School: £175 (£100 to Master Proctor and £50 to Carter, plus a £25 grant)
  • North Writing School: £134 (£100 to Master Tileston and £34 for young William)
The town spent far more on each Latin School student than on each Writing School student.