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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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tracking The Incendiary

Jessica Warner’s short, thorough, and lively history book The Incendiary was originally published as John the Painter, which was the alias of arsonist James Aitken. That title probably made Aitken sound too much like, well, a painter. What makes him interesting is that during the Revolutionary War he was a terrorist—before that word gained its current meaning or was even coined. And he was a terrorist for the U.S. of A.

Aitken was a poor boy from Edinburgh who received a solid elementary education and training as a house painter but had trouble finding work. He traveled to London, briefly tried his luck as a highwayman, and then sailed for Philadelphia as an indentured servant around 1773. Aitken spent only a short time in America before returning to Europe in mid-1775, reportedly accused of being a Loyalist, but he nevertheless became enamored of the Patriot cause.

In the fall of 1776, Aitken went to Paris and managed to meet with the American diplomat Silas Deane. He presented his grand plan to cripple the Royal Navy by setting fire to the naval shipyards at Portsmouth and Bristol. Deane gave him a little money and a little encouragement, which means that, even though Aitken was entirely self-directed, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t an American agent. Aitken never forgot that support, though Deane was later embarrassed by it.

Aitken then returned to Britain with his incendiary devices. In December 1776, he left one in a building at the Portsmouth shipyard. Soon the terrible threat of “John the Painter” was all over the British newspapers. The blind London magistrate Sir John Fielding deployed his Bow Street runners and Hue and Cry magazine to hunt Aitken down. Half-panicked, Aitken set more small fires in Bristol.

Warner skillfully narrates Aitken’s life and plan, the authorities’ countermoves, and the documentary history of the case. The result is a consuming narrative that also reveals a lot about life in Britain in the 1770s. You’ll notice I’m not telling you how the story ends; that’s because Warner does such a good job of telling it.

A year ago, History Carnival XLIII at the Axis of Evel Knievel [I’ve been wanting to write that for a long time] quoted Historymike’s take on this book:

I disagree with Warner’s dismissal of Aitkin as some sort of working-class radical. John the Painter, despite his flaws and his over-inflated sense of destiny, rationally flouted English property laws (which at the time were capital crimes) because his attempts at “honest” work led to impoverishment.
I think this analysis may give too much credit to Aitken’s thinking. Clearly he was too intelligent and/or ambitious to be happy as a poor house painter: even while he was on the run, he carried books and pamphlets to read, and he hoped the Americans would make him a “captain” while British society offered no such possibilities.

However, Aitken’s politics seem to be based more on attaching himself to a team than on a coherent philosophy, and as a saboteur he was ineffectual, tripping himself up because he couldn’t work with others. He managed not to find “honest work” even in Pennsylvania, which had a great demand for labor. In fact, at several points in The Incendiary I sensed Aitken having difficulty with social cues: assuming that other people knew what he was up to, becoming overly attached to men like Deane. I began to wonder whether he might have had a pervasive developmental disorder which made life even more frustrating than it was for other men in his social circumstances, and sharpened his anger at Great Britain.


EHT said...

Interesting post. I'm the one on my team who always winds up with the Aspergers child and I do have a special place in my heart for them.

I was struck by your comment about how he wanted to aspire to something British society would not allow him to be. There were many colonists who were in the same boat so to speak, and the colonies gave them more opportunity to be who they wanted to be.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve been thinking about the opportunity that Revolutionary society provided since finding two privates who deserted from the British army while in Boston and joined the Patriot cause.

Both men had useful skills—writing and engineering—recognized by their British commanders. But the social structure of the army meant they had very little chance of advancing from the enlisted ranks.

In the American forces, one became a major, the other a captain. They were counted as gentlemen at the end of the war. The colonial cause gave those men opportunity.

Interestingly, the histories that their families passed on (perhaps at their behest) erased their desertion and fogged what came before it. These stories claimed that the men had been distinguished in British society as well.

So even though these men fit the model of being “self-made” in the New World, they and/or their families still felt a need to burnish their social backgrounds.

Anonymous said...

Have you read Tom Flemming's new book on the postwar period? Silas Dean doesn;t come off looking to well, Arthur Lee even worse.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m about four titles behind on Fleming’s books, so I haven’t read that one.

I’m not sure where outside Wethersfield, Connecticut, Silas Deane does come off looking good. The Incendiary basically treats him as in over his head, too quick to jump on Aitken’s scheme. He may have reached his Peter Principle level with that job, and it was all downhill after that.

Arthur Lee, as I recall, had been in Europe for years as an agent for American colonies in London. With the Revolution, that job was over, and I bet he had some struggle adjusting to the new way of doing business. But what was his big post-war plan?