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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Monday, December 10, 2007

Founding Fathers in Houses and Taverns

On Friday evening I went to George Washington’s Cambridge headquarters for a book talk by Hugh Howard, author of Houses of the Founding Fathers, which also features many color photographs by Roger Straus III. This oversize illustrated (i.e., “coffee table”) book offers a tour of surviving Georgian and Federal mansions connected to the first generation of Americans.

How do we define “Founding Fathers”? There are the men at the Second Continental Congress, of course, and the Constitutional Convention. And important generals, such as Henry Knox. But that still didn’t produce enough buildings to fill a book. Howard and Straus’s challenge was not just to find the houses of historically significant people, but houses that were still photogenic.

From his towering perspective (he’s very tall), Howard cast a wider net. He included the houses where Gen. George Washington slept for a significant time, such as Longfellow House or the Ford Mansion in Morristown. And then there are the mansions of regional Patriot leaders. For instance, the cover shows wonderful Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina; it was home to William Henry Drayton, president of the South Carolina Provincial Congress and Continental Congress delegate for a year.

Among the Massachusetts houses that Howard featured in the book and in his talk is the Marblehead mansion of Col. Jeremiah Lee. The Marblehead Museum & Historical Society offers an online slide show of the house and actual tours from June through October. It’s an unusually large North American Georgian mansion, with seven windows across its front.

Like Drayton, Col. Lee was notable within his province but had limited influence elsewhere, dying during the war. Lee was a Marblehead merchant, militia commander, and member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee on Supplies, which before April 1775 was gathering military equipment for the militia in case there would be war. David Mason, the Salem painter chosen by the Provincial Congress in November 1774 to collect ordnance, recorded receiving money from Lee twice.

On 18 Apr 1775, Lee attended a joint meeting of the Committee on Supplies and the Committee of Safety at a tavern in Menotomy, now Arlington. When the meeting broke up, he and two other men from Marblehead, Elbridge Gerry and Azor Orne, decided to stay the night. Richard Devens of Charlestown later wrote:

After we had finished the business of the day, we adjourned to meet at Woburn on the morrow,—left to lodge at Newell’s [the tavern], Gerry, Orne, and Lee. Mr. [Abraham] Watson and myself came off in my chaise at sunset.

On the road we met a great number of B[ritish]. O[fficers]. and their servants on horseback, who had dined that day at Cambridge. We rode some way after we met them, and then turned back and rode through them, went and informed our friends at Newell’s. We stopped there till they [the officers] came up and rode by. We then left our friends, and I came home, after leaving Mr. Watson at his house.
The province was abuzz with rumors that the London government had ordered Gen. Thomas Gage to arrest leaders of the rebellion—and those rumors were pretty much true. Even though Devens and Watson had passed through the British officers twice with no trouble, the committee men were nervous about being detained. Gerry sent a warning to John Hancock and Samuel Adams, then staying at Lexington.

Later that evening, a long column of British troops passed the tavern. Lee, Gerry, and Orne got out of bed to watch. Suddenly they perceived some soldiers from that column coming toward the tavern. Half-dressed, the three men dashed out the back door and threw themselves down in a field, hoping the stalks of the previous year’s crop would hide them. They remained on the ground for about an hour before they decided it was safe to return to the building.

Lee, who had just turned 54, took sick and died on 10 May. His family and friends blamed the fright, exertion, and cold of that night.

Here’s the sad irony: the British troops weren’t seeking to arrest anyone on the Committee on Supplies. An 1828 biography of Gerry, who became a controversial governor of Massachusetts, claimed:
Every apartment of the house was searched for the members of the rebel congress; even the beds in which they had lain were examined. But their property, and among other things a valuable watch of Mr. Gerry’s, which was under his pillow, was not disturbed.
But Gage’s orders for that march say nothing about arresting Provincial Congress members or searching buildings before the column reached Concord. None of the several British officers who left accounts of the night wrote anything about such a search on the way west. I don’t know of any contemporary evidence to support that biography’s statement.

I rather suspect that if any British soldiers came to that tavern door on 18 April, they wanted nothing more than a drink of water or other refreshment, and that they never searched the building or the committee men’s room. I think that Lee, Gerry, and Orne could have stayed inside the whole night without being disturbed, and Lee might have lived in his Marblehead mansion for many more years.

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