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, March 31, 2008

Discussion of the Boston Massacre Trial Tonight

Tonight, 31 March, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host a public discussion of the role of memory in history and the law, looking specifically at the trial of the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. That trial hinged on eyewitnesses’ memories, often conflicting, of a violent, emotional event months earlier. Furthermore, our public memory of the shootings and trial has changed greatly over the centuries.

Most recently we’ve seen those events depicted in ways that were both more dramatic and simpler than period documents suggest in the H.B.O. miniseries on John Adams (as I discussed here). The public memory, or possible lack thereof, of the event also proved crucial to actor Tom Hanks’s decision to produce the television series. According to his charming interview in yesterday’s Boston Globe and statements elsewhere, he started reading David McCullough’s biography of Adams:

I got up to his defense of the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre and I said, “Why don’t I know this? Why didn’t my teachers explain that the future president of the United States got these guys off?”
(I’ve heard from at least three people who say they were surprised Hanks didn’t know that since it was in their history textbooks.)

Leading tonight’s discussion will be the Hon. Hiller B. Zobel, who was appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1979. Before going off on that wild tangent, though, Zobel was the coeditor of The Legal Papers of John Adams with L. Kinvin Wroth, and author of The Boston Massacre, still the best book on the event. For background reading, check out chapters 17-19. You’ll find a more scattershot series of remarks here on Boston 1775 by following the Boston Massacre label.

The historical society is at 1154 Boylston Street in Boston—all the way down Boylston nearly to the Fenway. The nearest T stop is Hynes Convention Center. The conversation will be preceded by an informal reception. Audience members will be invited, though not required, to participate in the discussion.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

British Advantages in 1776

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk that Jeremy Black, professor at the University of Exeter, delivered to the Lexington Historical Society on Friday night. And so did the standing-room-only crowd.

Prof. Black has written an astonishingly long list of books of political and military history, including this biography of George III published by Yale University Press. Among his most popular titles is The Politics of James Bond, and it was clear from the discussion over “biscuits” afterwards that Black thinks as seriously about popular cinema as about military history.

In his talk, titled “Could the British Have Won the American War of Independence?”, Black asked us to consider the advantages the British government had going into the North American colonial revolt that broke out hereabouts in 1775.

First, the British Empire had the world’s strongest navy. In contrast, the U.S. of A. had none. It eventually sent out individual privateers, but didn’t commission a true navy until the John Adams administration. With 75% of the American population living 75 miles or less from the Atlantic coast, the British military could reach a great deal of what mattered in the colonies. After leaving Boston in 1776, the British held each of the other five largest U.S. ports for extended periods.

Second, the British government had the world’s strongest financial system. British credit could raise money easily at home and in Europe, so the government prosecuted the war for years without raising taxes. In contrast, the young U.S. government was not only financially unproven, but, since the rebellion had started as resistance to new taxes, it faced a hard task in asking its citizens to pay higher taxes, even now that they were represented in its Continental Congress.

Third, Lord North’s government won an election in 1774, and another in 1780. It had the support of the king. Though there was a vocal opposition to that government’s North American policy in Parliament, those voices remained decidedly in the minority.

Fourth, the British military had commanders and soldiers experienced both in putting down rebellions, such as Charles Stuart’s incursion from Scotland in 1745, and even more recently in fighting in North America.

Fifth, of Britain’s twenty-six colonies in North America, only thirteen joined the rebellion, even after concerted diplomatic and military efforts by the Congress. The Royal Navy still had its two major bases in the hemisphere, at Halifax and Jamaica. Despite an American invasion of Canada and naval raids on Caribbean provinces, that part of the empire remained basically intact through the war.

Sixth, there was a significant minority of colonists, larger in some regions and smaller in others (such as New England and Virginia), larger at some times and smaller at others, who were willing to align with the Crown and even fight for it.

Finally, from 1775 to 1777, the British military had no other active foes to fight—not its usual situation in the eighteenth century. Not until the first half of 1778 did France enter the war on the American side, threatening British ships in the Atlantic and imperial outposts in India, Senegal, and the Caribbean.

Given those strengths and the corresponding American weaknesses, Black reminded us, it’s easy to imagine ways that George III’s Britain might have forced another end to the war, short of independence for all thirteen rebellious colonies in 1783. The people of the time certainly didn’t take that outcome of the conflict for granted. However, Black also felt that eventually what we know as the U.S. of A. would have become independent within a few decades in any event. (He argued that the decade most important for determining power in North America was actually 1861-71, when the U.S. stayed united and started to spread west more rapidly, and Britain and France joined Spain in pulling out of our neighbors to the north and south.)

As I look over Black’s list of British strengths, I’m struck by how many the Crown still had at the end of the war. Its navy was still powerful, its army held two of America’s five largest ports, its other colonies were still solidly in the Empire, and its government and financial system were still sound (especially compared to what had happened to the Congress and its currency). But news of Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown dismayed the independent Members of Parliament who had previously supported North’s government. Their votes of no confidence forced George III to offer the ministry to the opposition Rockingham Whigs, who demanded a change in policy toward America. The Empire could have kept up the war; the question had become, why would it want to?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Barack Obama and the Founders

This week Barack Obama started a speech on economic policy in New York with this analysis of the U.S. debate over that issue—in the late 1780s:

With all the history that’s passed through the narrow canyons of Lower Manhattan, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the role that the market has played in the development of the American story. The great task before our founders was putting into practice the ideal that government could simultaneously serve liberty and advance the common good.

For Alexander Hamilton, the young secretary of the treasury, that task was bound to the vigor of the American economy. Hamilton had a strong belief in the power of the market, but he balanced that belief with a conviction that human enterprise, and I quote, “may be beneficially stimulated by prudent aids and encouragements on the part of the government.” Government, he believed, had an important role to play in advancing our common prosperity. So he nationalized the state Revolutionary War debts, weaving together the economies of the states and creating an American system of credit and capital markets. And he encouraged manufacturing and infrastructure, so products could be moved to market.

Hamilton met fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson, who worried that this brand of capitalism would favor the interests of the few over the many. Jefferson preferred an agrarian economy, because he believed that it would give individual landowners freedom and that this freedom would nurture our democratic institutions.

But despite their differences, there was one thing that Jefferson and Hamilton agreed on: that economic growth depended upon the talent and ingenuity of the American people; that in order to harness that talent, opportunity had to remain open to all; and that through education in particular, every American could climb the ladder of social and economic mobility and achieve the American dream. In the more than two centuries since then, we’ve struggled to balance the same forces that confronted Hamilton and Jefferson: self-interest and community, markets and democracy, the concentration of wealth and power and the necessity of transparency and opportunity for each and every citizen.
It’s so refreshing to imagine a President discussing history with more command than a sixth-grader sullenly reading something his teacher has written for him. And without the serious errors of fact that other candidates made in the last year when trying to invoke the Revolutionary era. Of course, Sen. Obama was a professor of constitutional law for several years (though the law’s approach to history is not always the same as historians’).

Obama’s descriptions of the U.S. of A.’s founding are hardly revolutionary, either in promulgating an unusual view of that history or in invoking historical traditions that favor major change. Indeed, his statements reflect a consensus view of the nation’s beginning that most Americans find reassuring. Even this discussion of the deep disagreements within George Washington’s cabinet leaves out the vituperation of the press in those days, and the fact that Hamilton was eventually killed in a duel fueled by politics. We don’t work out our economic difference that way anymore.

Earlier in the month William Hogeland, author of somewhat iconoclastic history The Whiskey Rebellion, analyzed how Barack Obama described and invoked America’s founding in his already-famous speech on race:
Voters of many persuasions have viewed Barack Obama as coming from the left. Yet in his March 18 speech, addressing both his relationship to the black activist preacher Jeremiah Wright and the history of slavery and race oppression in the United States, Obama hymned the creation of the U.S. Constitution in terms that gave off no whiff of radicalism. . . .

Obama’s speech thus opened with a particularly jaunty rendering of what historians call the “consensus” interpretation of the founding. It has its points. Nobody expects anyone running for president to explore less happy interpretations of our constitution’s history: the “strict constructionism,” say, that turns a cold eye on amendments and judicial decisions crucial to Obama’s faith in progress. Or readings that emphasize another stark omission made by the framers, enfranchising women (especially relevant to the current moment and all but absent from Obama’s speech). Or arguments made for a century by progressive historians that the constitutional convention by no means meant to enable an “experiment in democracy,” as Obama has it, but the very opposite: to repair what Edmund Randolph of Virginia, in the convention’s opening speech, called “insufficient checks against the democracy” that had been unleashed by events leading up to the Declaration. . . .

The March 18 speech has been praised for not talking down to its audience. That would mean Obama genuinely believes that our settling, founding, and progress through the centuries add up only to a string of moral triumphs that can’t be described in terms elevated enough to do them justice — marred, horribly, only by slavery and racial oppression. If he does believe that, he’s got plenty of company. It’s the view routinely dramatized in museum exhibits, documentaries, and other manifestations of well-funded public history, offered to large audiences who can’t tolerate — so our curators, as well as our politicians, seem to be certain — even a hint of complication.
Hogeland restates his opinion most succinctly in a comment that follows the article:
Obama invoked the popular understanding of the framing of the country. But that understanding isn’t just oversimplified; it’s false, even in certain ways absurd. Certainly many a pol before him has invoked the comfortable, July-4th-parade falsehoods; they’re standards, as you say, and clichés, as I do. But to extinguish the reality of the social turmoil of the founding, when “democracy” was a dirty word to almost all of the framers, in the service of serving up a stronger dose of reality on the history of race than has been given before, places Obama in an untenable position (intellectually, I should emphasize, not necessarily politically).
I think this response reflects the exceptionally high hopes and standards many people have for Sen. Obama. Most of us Americans look upon the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution of 1787 as part of a single organic “founding,” and sometimes we throw in the British settlement of the country more than a century and a half before as well. It seems a lot to ask of any candidate in the middle of a presidential race to argue the public into accepting that our Constitution was actually an elite pushback against the regional populism of 1774-1786.

In emphasizing “democracy” and “opportunity for each and every citizen,” Obama seems to me to be taking the approach represented by another Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln emphasized the Declaration’s and Constitution’s statements of equality rather than their statements of organization and hierarchy. He recast “All men are created equal” from a supposedly self-evident triusm into a “proposition” the U.S. of A. was dedicated to proving, acknowledging the imperfections of the nation in its early decades while laying out the potential for a progressive national narrative.

(Though it’s not directly related to the topic of this posting, I want to praise former candidate Huckabee’s response to the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments. As a fellow preacher, he understood their context, and as a Southerner, he grounded his comments in a solid understanding of 20th-century history.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Accents in John Adams

In a discussion of the John Adams miniseries on The New Republic’s website, author Steven Waldman wrote, “I’d personally be interested in hearing how they figured out what kinds of accents to give each figure.” Earlier he had written, “This series depicts some of the founders as having accents—some English, some Scottish, some a unique new hybrid.” I’ve been, well, totally baffled by that question myself, trying to figure out tonal differences between Southerners and Northerners, upper-class and middling-class, and Tom Wilkinson’s Franklin and everyone else.

Screenwriter and producer Kirk Ellis replied to Waldman’s question:

From the beginning, we wanted to emphasize that independence was a battle between British Americans and their brethren in England, not, as so often depicted, a conflict that pitted Crown officers with plumy Oxonian accents against patriots with full-blown American dialects. All our research pointed to the fact that, in written and spoken speech, America was much closer to the mother country than had been acknowledged in past dramatizations.

From our advisors in Colonial Williamsburg, we learned that one’s residence in America frequently depended on one’s point of origin in England. Virginia, for instance, was largely settled by residents of East Anglia—in terms of dialect and accent a very distinctive region. Moreover, a goodly number of our characters (notably John Dickinson) had been educated in English schools and had acquired the manners and speech of the time and place. Still others, such as Adams’s Secretary of War James McHenry, were themselves immigrants whose accents (Irish, in McHenry’s case) were noted at the time.

Our dialect coach, the gifted Catherine Charlton, asked me to provide miniature biographies of each character, from which she was able to reconstruct that person’s likely accent. Catherine had had past experience in such linguistic archaeology, having had to essentially re-invent a lost Native American language for Terence Malick’s film about Jamestown, The New World. The results of the painstaking craftsmanship are evident in the rich tapestry of accents heard throughout the series, which we regard as accurate an approximation as can be reached at this distance in time, without the benefit of recording.
This question (or a press release about it) also prompted Vanity Fair to interview the dialect coach herself. Charlton says such things as, “when we’re talking about the Boston area, the Puritans believed that if you did not speak clearly and loudly enough then God would not hear what you were saying while reading the Bible.” Hmmm. Also, East Anglia was the starting-point for most Puritan emigrants to New England; I hadn’t heard it as the home base for lots of Virginians.

But at least it’s good to see that the miniseries-makers made a serious effort at figuring out how their characters should speak. We Americans do have a tendency, whether in Spartacus or Die Hard or All About Eve, to equate upper-class British accents with villainy about to be upended. A lot of American Patriots went into the political conflict with London hoping to end up more like upper-class British, not less.

I haven’t sat down to study Revolutionary-era dialects, but we do have a lot of clues about New England pronunciation from such phonetic spellers as Quincy Thaxter and this Rhode Island officer. Some things have definitely changed: Fanueil Hall used to be pronounced “Funnel Hall,” which is a little closer to the original French name than our modern rendering. We know Boston boys in 1737 found a Scotch-Irish newcomer’s pronunciation amusing, and that in 1775 British officers and Bostonians were divided by their slang.

I’ll see if the next episode of the series leaves me any less baffled by how different characters talk.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Quizzing John Adams: The Answers

Yesterday I offered thumbnail descriptions of four dramatic moments in episode 3 of the John Adams miniseries, and asked which of them never actually happened to John Adams. Here they are again, with documentation for my answers.

  • On his first trip to Europe as a diplomat for the U.S. of A., John’s ship met an armed British vessel. The American captain asked John to go below for his own safety, but he quietly came back up on deck with his gun.
That anecdote was published as early as 1822 in Hezekiah Niles’s Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America and repeated in A Selection of Eulogies, Pronounced in the Several States, in Honor of Those Illustrious Patriots and Statesmen, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, published in Hartford in 1826:
[Capt. Samuel] Tucker saw a large English ship showing a tier of guns, and asked Mr Adams’ consent to take her; this was granted. Upon hailing her, she answered by a broadside. Mr. Adams had been requested to retire to the cock-pit—but Tucker looking forward, observed Mr. Adams among the marines, with a musket in his hand, having privately applied to the officer of the marines for a gun, and taking his station among them.

At this sight, Capt. Tucker became alarmed, for he was responsible for the safety of Mr. Adams, and walking up to the ambassador, desired to know how he came there; upon which the other smiled, gave up his gun, and went immediately below.
The miniseries showed John sneaking back up to the deck with his own gun, and even firing the first shot of the encounter. What really happened wasn’t that dramatic, but John did go on deck to help in the fight. The other vessel was not a Royal Navy warship but an armed merchantman, and Capt. Tucker was able to cow its captain into surrendering without much resistance.

  • John assisted during an emergency shipboard surgery, helping to hold down a wounded man while his leg was sawed off.
From John Adams’s autobiography, describing an event between 11 and 20 Mar 1778:
Mr. Barrons our first Lieutenant, attempting to fire a Gun as a Signal to the Brigg, the Cannon burst, and tore in pieces the right leg of this worthy officer so that the Surgeon was obliged to amputate it, a little below the Knee.

I was present at this afflicting Scene, and, together with Captain Tucker, held Mr. Barron in our Arms, while the Doctor put on the Turnequett and cutt off the Limb. Mr. Barron bore it with fortitude, but thought he should die, and his principal concern seemed to be for his family.
The miniseries showed a man wounded in the sea skirmish mentioned above, and the amputation taking place as the fighting goes on. John’s autobiography is clear that Barron was wounded at least two days later as a cannon burst during a salute to a friendly ship. Once again, John really did have this experience, but the television script altered details to make it even more dramatic. (As for Mr. Barron, he didn’t survive.)

  • During his posting in Paris, John was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the Congress had appointed Franklin as the first American minister plenipotentiary to France.
John had actually recommended that Congress name Franklin to this ambassadorial post, so the news did not come as a surprise to him. On 12 Feb 1779 he wrote in his diary:
But this Day, Dr. Winship arrived here, from Brest, and soon afterwards, the Aid du Camp of Le Marquis de Fayette, with Dispatches, from Congress, by which it appears that Dr. Franklin is sole Plenipotentiary, and of Consequence that I am displaced.

The greatest Relief to my Mind, that I have ever found since the Appearance of the Address [by Silas Deane]. Now Business may be done by Dr. Franklin alone. Before it seemed as if nothing could be done.
But just because Franklin’s appointment wasn’t a surprise doesn’t mean it was pleasant. Over the next week John tried writing at least five letters to Abigail, and only on 20 February managed to express the news and what he really felt about it:
A new Commission has arrived by which the Dr. [i.e., Franklin] is sole Minister. Mr. [Arthur] Lee continues Commissioner for Spain, but I am reduced to the Condition of a private Citizen. The Congress has not taken the least Notice of me. On the 11. of September they resolved to have one Minister only in France, on the 14 they chose the Dr., in October they made out his Commission, the Alliance sailed in 14 Jany. and in all that Interval, they never so much as bid me come home, bid me stay, or told me I had done well or done ill.
Soon John sailed back home to Massachusetts, only to return to Europe before the end of the year to start negotiating a peace treaty with Britain. The miniseries left out that round trip, presumably to simplify its story.

  • Because he could speak French, John Quincy Adams was made secretary to the U.S. minister to Russia, which entailed traveling more than a thousand miles across Europe, even though he was only fourteen years old.
John Quincy was born 11 July 1767. Here’s a portion of his letter from St. Petersburg in September 1781 to his old tutor John Thaxter:
We arriv’d here the 16th of August old stile, (which is universally used yet, all over this Country;) having left Berlin, the 2d. of the same month, new stile, and rode the whole way, day and night, stopping only at the principal towns which lay in our way, viz: at Dantzic, three days, at Konigsberg, one, at Memel, one night, at Riga, four days, and at Narva, two: between these places, which are distant from one another, from one to four hundred English Miles there is hardly a Village to be seen. The whole route from Berlin here may be call’d a barren desart...
At fourteen years old, John Quincy was at the age when Boston boys left the town schools (if they attended at all) and started work in their chosen professions or went to that college in Cambridge. John Quincy and his younger brother Charles had already begun studying at the University of Leyden in January 1781. So the Adamses didn’t consider it odd to send their son away so young. Nonetheless, all the way to Russia was quite a distance.

Shown above is a handsome embroidered waistcoat owned by Francis Dana, the dipomat John Quincy accompanied to Russia. Dana family tradition says he brought it to wear when he presented his credentials to Catherine the Great. However, the czarina, hedging her bets about this new republic in North America, never granted him an audience. Dana, the waistcoat, and John Quincy returned after a few frustrating months. In 1809, President James Madison appointed John Quincy Adams the U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Russia, and this time he was received. As for the waistcoat, it became part of the collections of the Longfellow House in Cambridge.

So as I score this quiz, only one of the four dramatic moments I described never happened. A couple more were goosed up a little. But John Adams really did have a dramatic life.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Quizzing John Adams: Episode 3

As Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam notes today, I’ve been thinking and chatting a lot about the H.B.O. miniseries on John Adams. In particular, I’ve been thinking about interesting episodes in the man’s life that didn’t make it onto the screen this time. My top five such episodes so far (all post-1770, since that’s when the series started):

  • In the summer of 1775, a young Boston lawyer named Benjamin Hichborn was arrested while carrying some of John’s personal letters home from Philadelphia to Massachusetts. The royal authorities had these documents published, revealing John’s critical remarks about the Continental Congress (“The Fidgets, the Whims, the Caprice, the Vanity, the Superstition, the Irritability of some of us”) and in particular John Dickinson (“A certain great fortune and piddling genius”). The miniseries quoted John on how he was disliked in Congress, and showed the political disagreements between him and Dickinson, but it didn’t show how he had really contributed to those strains.
  • The following summer, the Congress declared independence (a scene I thought the miniseries handled nicely, with no triumphal music, emphasizing how the delegates couldn’t know what would come next). At the same time, a huge British fleet appeared off New York and started landing soldiers. The Congress sent John, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge on a last-ditch effort to negotiate an acceptable peace with Adm. Richard Howe. Along the way, John and Franklin shared a bed and a memorable conversation. Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Franklin (shown above) has been so delicious so far that I wish we could have seen this moment.
  • After the British scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 Sept 1777, the Congress had to evacuate Philadelphia in a hurry. As late as 23 August, John was writing Abigail to reassure her that Gen. George Washington would be able to protect the city. As he hurried to leave ahead of the British troops, John found his cousin Samuel Adams burning letters in a fireplace, declaring that no one would suffer because of his carelessness. (A televised scene with Abigail alludes to the loss of Philadelphia, as I recall, but we don’t see it.)
  • During a trip home from Europe in 1779, John drafted much of the Massachusetts constitution—the oldest written constitution still in effect today. I realize that is largely of local interest, but it was one of John’s biggest solo accomplishments, and a major influence on the U.S. Constitution. (The miniseries skips that whole trip back to Massachusetts, implying that John made only one voyage to Europe during the war instead of two.)
  • John returned to Europe in late 1779 with not only John Quincy Adams but also middle son Charles (shown staying back home in the series) and the boys’ tutor, John Thaxter. Along the way, the ship sprang a leak and everyone had to take turns at the pumps before they limped into a Spanish port.
I’m personally fond of the last event because that voyage was when John Quincy started to keep his lifelong diary. I studied those early documents and two other journals from the same trip for a paper I delivered at the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife last year.

Now to scenes that the miniseries did show. Last week I noted a few striking moments from the first couple of episodes that didn’t happen, and geographically or chronologically couldn’t have happened. All four of the following dramatic events appeared in the third episode. Which of these never happened?
  • On his first trip to Europe as a diplomat for the U.S. of A., John’s ship met an armed British vessel. The American captain asked John to go below for his own safety, but he quietly came back up on deck with his gun.
  • John assisted during an emergency shipboard surgery, helping to hold down a wounded man while his leg was sawed off.
  • During his posting in Paris, John was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the Congress had appointed Franklin as the first American minister plenipotentiary to France.
  • Because he could speak French, John Quincy Adams was made secretary to the U.S. minister to Russia, which entailed traveling more than a thousand miles across Europe, even though he was only fourteen years old.
At least one of these things didn’t happen—and there may even be more than one correct answer. Answer(s) and commentary tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quartering Act Questions and Evidence

I’ve been pointing out that the British royal authorities didn’t force American colonists to house soldiers in their homes in peacetime under the British 1765 and 1774 Quartering Acts. Some people have asked why, in that case, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution and the 1791 Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbade the state and federal governments from doing so.

This is a classic “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” stumble (though any argument expressed in Latin would be, ipso facto, “classic”). Just because one event preceded a second doesn’t mean it caused the second. If every statement of rights in our constitutions came out of abuses during the Revolution, then we should look for royal attempts in the 1760s and 1770s to prohibit “the free exercise of religion,” to impose “cruel and unusual punishments,” or to forbid people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The U.S. Bill of Rights includes all those rights as well, after all. We might also want to look for infringements on copyright and patent laws since the Constitution provided for those.

In fact, our guarantees against householders having to billet soldiers in peacetime grew out of a long tradition in British law. In 1776, Delaware put that protection into its founding state documents, and the British army hadn’t yet operated there. Quartering in private homes was a big issue during the English Civil War of the 1600s. There are precedents for this guarantee in English history going back to the London city charter of 1131.

The actual arguments over quartering in 1760s America involved whether communities had to provide resources—food, firewood, buildings—to regiments sent by the London government with no approval from the local legislatures. I’m still looking for any example of a New England family forced under the Quartering Act to house soldiers before the war. If there had been such an example, the Whigs of the time would have complained about the problem at great length and volume, and they didn’t.

What’s more, when we consider that one of the British command’s biggest headaches was enlisted men being enticed to desert, we can understand why they quartered those privates in large barracks. They had to keep those men under watch. Sending small batches of enlisted men into homes where the families were hostile to the royal authorities would have made desertion much easier.

Some Boston families did have military men in their homes before the war, but in every example I’ve seen those men were:

  • officers, and thus of a higher social class.
  • renting rooms from willing property owners.
Indeed, because army officers were paid in hard cash on a regular basis, they were good tenants, especially in tough economic times—such as when the Boston port was closed.

One famous example is the Newman family of Boston’s North End. According to tradition, twenty-three-year-old Robert Newman had to evade British officers living in his family home when he went out to hang two signal lanterns in the Old North Church (shown above, courtesy of the Freedom Trail Foundation) for Paul Revere in 1775. Had those officers been quartered by force of law on the Newman family?

According to a small book about Robert Newman written by Robert Newman Sheets and published by the Newman Family Society in 1975, the force was economic, not legal: “Hard times had forced the family to rent out rooms.” David Hackett Fischer summed up the family’s situation in Paul Revere’s Ride:
When Robert Newman was two years old, the family’s fortunes were shattered by his father’s death. His mother was forced to convert their handsome home into a boarding house, and Robert was apprenticed to a maker of leather breeches. Like many other families in Boston, the Newman family was hard-pressed in 1775. They earned a few shillings by renting rooms to British officers, whom they disliked and resented. Robert Newman was unable to find work in his trade and could get employment only as a church sexton, a job that he despised.
The Newmans may not have liked the British officers, and their presence certainly made the young sexton’s clandestine departure and return on 18 Apr 1775 harder. But his mother hadn’t been legally compelled by the Quartering Act to host those men any more than he’d been legally compelled to take the job of sexton.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Back to the Myths of the Quartering Act

On 24 Mar 1765, Parliament passed the first Quartering Act, setting out rules for housing its troops in the North American colonies. This law became a political issue in New York and then in Boston during the late 1760s after the army insisted that the local authorities supply provisions and space for its regiments. In 1774, while sending more troops into Boston to enforce strict new post-Tea Party laws, Parliament passed another Quartering Act that amended the first.

As a callow but educated youth, I understood that Parliament’s Quartering Acts, especially that of 1774, forced people to house soldiers in their homes, even during peacetime. Obviously, that would feel oppressive, and would curtail political discussions and organizing, and altogether would be a Bad Thing.

I discarded that position after reading about the actual disputes in colonial Boston and New York, and after reading the texts of the Quartering Acts themselves. Back in March 2007, I wrote a couple of posts on the myth of the Quartering Act and the real disputes. But of course the same books I’d read earlier are still out there, and they leave the same misunderstanding of the laws.

There are also some clear statements available about what the Quartering Acts really said, such as Don R. Gerlach’s article in the New England Quarterly back in 1966:

This [1774] measure has received such varied treatment by historians that perhaps the law and its antecedents are worth closer attention, especially for American historians of the “patriotic school.” Some scholars have correctly reported the content and purpose of the law, and some have avoided errors by the brevity of their remarks. Others have clearly misstated its provisions, and some writers have so phrased their comments as to support the allegation that the act was tyrannical, or they have suggested this by a kind of innuendo.

The chief offense, however, appears to be a failure to report accurately and adequately the content and intent of the law; indeed some writers have boldly stated that it provided an innovation and a despotism that any reader of the measure will find difficult to detect. Still others have suggested how the measure might have operated without duly examining how it actually was executed. . . .

the law does not suggest any intention of forcing troops into private homes. Rather, it outlined the conditions and procedure for billeting royal troops in unoccupied buildings when barracks were not conveniently located and where the soldiers’ presence was required.
David Ammerman’s In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 presents the same arguments, and serves as Wikipedia’s main source on the matter.

And no one has to take those authors’ word for what the laws say. Georgia Tech offers the texts of both the 1765 and 1774 Quartering Acts on its website. Both use the phrase “uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings.” The 1774 law didn’t expand the types of buildings where soldiers could be housed; rather, it spelled out how a military officer and a royally-appointed magistrate could seize uninhabited buildings without seeking approval from local selectmen or legislators. The Patriot movement found that objectionable, of course, but not because individual families suddenly had soldiers sleeping in their homes.

(Today’s thumbnail image shows a march on the House of Commons in 1780, and comes courtesy of the British Parliament.)

Prof. Jeremy Black Lectures in Lexington, 28 March

This Friday, 28 March, at 8:00 P.M., the Lexington Historical Society is hosting a free lecture at its Lexington Depot site by British military historian Jeremy Black. His topic will be “Could the British Have Won the American War of Independence?” The lecture description says:

Professor Black will examine established interpretations of the American Revolution, placing the conflict in the context of British and American military history.
The Depot is near the center of Lexington, just off Massachusetts Avenue. The society promises ample parking, dessert, and coffee.

It looks like Prof. Black may be in town to consult with the society on its plan to reinterpret Munroe Tavern (shown below) as a “Museum of the British” in Lexington. That sounds like an interesting enterprise.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

No Pox Party in John Adams

I thought I was done writing about H.B.O.’s John Adams miniseries for a while, but interesting comments on Dr. Samuel Gelston’s smallpox hospitals got me thinking about that part of the show. Many critics have singled out the sequence in which Abigail Adams and the children are inoculated against smallpox as a particularly gritty portrayal of history.

There were actually two significant epidemics during the siege of Boston:

  • “The bloody flux,” a form of dysentery that Judy Cataldo wrote about back here. This disease reached Braintree in October 1775, making Abigail and her three-year-old Tommy sick. Her mother, Elizabeth Smith, and John’s younger brother Elihu Adams both died.
  • Smallpox, an untreatable, contagious disease with a death rate of close to 30% and a really scary rash.
The screenplay apparently combined these two diseases into something called “the bloody pox.”

After the winter of 1775-76, smallpox was the bigger worry for both armies and the civilian populations. Indeed, the epidemic eventually affected the whole continent, as Elizabeth Anne Fenn described in Pox Americana.

John Adams’s great-uncle, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston (1676 or ’79-1766), was the first American physician to try inoculating people against smallpox, provoking a huge controversy in 1720s Boston. The Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather supported him, citing advice from his enslaved man Onesimus. James and Benjamin Franklin attacked the practice in their newspaper. Because inoculation involved deliberately giving people (what everyone hoped was) a mild case of the disease, and those people remained contagious for a while, at first it seemed like a step backward in public health.

In 1730 Dr. Boylston published his results in London (as shown above, courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine). He reported that although some patients had died after inoculation, their death rate was significantly smaller than that of people who caught the disease naturally. And the more smallpox survivors there were in a population, the less easily the disease could spread. By the middle of the 1700s, it was clear that inoculation saved lives. But it was still risky.

John had himself inoculated shortly before marrying. As a lawyer, he expected to travel and meet a lot of people, so he needed to protect himself. Abigail and the children were still vulnerable to smallpox in the summer of 1776, however. She decided to make arrangements for inoculation as she described to John in a letter dated 13 July:
I now date from Boston where I yesterday arrived and was with all 4 of our Little ones innoculated for the small pox. My unkle and Aunt [probably James and Elizabeth Cunningham] were so kind as to send me an invitation with my family.

Mr. [Richard] Cranch and wife [Abigail’s older sister, Mary] and family, My Sister Betsy and her Little Neice, Cotton Tufts [a cousin and physician] and Mr. [John] Thaxter [another cousin and tutor to the boys], a maid who has had the Distemper and my old Nurse compose our family. A Boy too I should have added. 17 in all. My unkles maid with his Little daughter and a Negro Man are here.

We had our Bedding &c. to bring. A Cow we have driven down from B[raintre]e and some Hay I have had put into the Stable, wood &c. and we have really commenced housekeepers here. The House was furnished with almost every article (except Beds) which we have free use of, and think ourselves much obliged by the fine accommodations and kind offer of our Friends. All our necessary Stores we purchase jointly.

Our Little ones stood the opperation Manfully. Dr. [Thomas] Bulfinch is our Physician. Such a Spirit of innoculation never before took place; the Town and every House in it, as are as full as they can hold. I believe there are not less than 30 persons from Braintree. Mrs. Quincy, Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Betsy and Nancy [okay, I’m giving up on the identifications] are our near Neighbours. God Grant that we may all go comfortably thro the Distemper, the phisick part is bad enough I know.

I knew your mind so perfectly upon the subject that I thought nothing, but our recovery would give you eaquel pleasure, and as to safety there was none. The Soldiers innoculated privately, so did many of the inhabitants and the paper curency spread it everywhere. I immediately determined to set myself about it, and get ready with my children. I wish it was so you could have been with us, but I submit.
The last paragraph reveals that Abigail had decided to go through with the treatment without waiting for a decision from John. As the war went on and their separations increased, she grew more comfortable making such decisions on her own. The whole family survived, as did most of their friends.

In the miniseries, Abigail and the Adams children undergo the inoculation and recovery at their home in Braintree without any servants, relatives, or neighbors in sight. A physician comes to their home with a poxy teenager in a wagon; that was the least realistic aspect for me. As the story of Dr. Gelston shows, towns were extremely edgy about confining and isolating people who might be infectious.

The actual inoculation process shown on screen—scraping pus from an infected person’s sores and inserting it into a cut on the inoculatee—was one of the cruder medical protocols of the time. Physicians also used ground-up scabs and threads dipped in pus to transmit the disease. They looked for infected people who seemed to have mild cases. According to an anonymous commenter on this posting, the series showed pus too thick to be from the early stage of the disease, and thus not contagious. I must confess that I don’t know my pus that well. But I commend the miniseries for including this unattractive but common aspect of eighteenth-century life, even within the confines of its budget.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

John Adams on Trial

The big dramatic anchor of the first episode of the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams is the murder trial that followed the Boston Massacre. As this series tells the story, John Adams single-handedly defended Capt. Thomas Preston and his soldiers in the face of violent opposition, a heckling crowd, and reluctant witnesses. The lawyer cleverly elicits testimony from the witnesses and defendants that implicates the crowd, and one Son of Liberty in particular, in prompting the soldiers to fire. The jury then clears all the soldiers. Though his business suffers, Adams feels proud that he’s served justice.

How historically accurate is that scene? I’ll list differences between what plays out on screen and what the documents of the time tell us. Some of those changes must have been dictated by the need to keep the cast and sets limited, the story short and simple. Others reveal some misunderstandings of the eighteenth century, and then there might be unconscious ideological distortions. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which changes are trivial, which are significant, and whether there’s an overall bias in the portrayal. (Some of these deviations from the record have also been pointed out by Jeremy Stern at History News Network.)

  • Capt. Preston was tried separately from the eight soldiers. Their legal interests were, after all, different. His defense was that he’d never ordered those men to fire their weapons, which shifted the criminal onus onto them. Some of the soldiers petitioned to be tried at the same time as Preston, but were denied.
  • James Forrest wasn’t beaten up while trying to secure representation for Capt. Preston. After the war he wrote a petition to the Loyalists Commission detailing all he’d done and suffered for the British Empire, and made no remarks about such injuries. (In fact, Forrest didn’t even mention helping Preston find a lawyer.) Adams, the sole source for this conversation, wrote nothing about Forrest being hurt. Adams recalled Forrest weeping with emotion, as he supposedly often did, but the episode didn’t show a tear.
  • Adams wasn’t the only defense counsel. Much of the witness questioning was done by the junior member of the team, Josiah Quincy, Jr. The senior member, Robert Auchmuty, handled part of the summation for the jury.
  • Robert Treat Paine wasn’t the only prosecutor. Samuel Quincy, Josiah’s older brother, shared that job.
  • Jonathan Sewall, the royal Attorney General for Massachusetts, wasn’t observing the trial from a prominent window seat. In fact, he was supposed to be prosecuting it, but a combination of political distaste and (my theory) biological depression kept him from even coming into Boston for months. Also, Sewall didn’t offer Adams a major royal appointment right after the trial; he’d made that offer two years before.
  • Three judges presided over the trials, not just Benjamin Lynde. One of those judges, Peter Oliver, was a delightfully outspoken Loyalist who clearly leaned toward the defense.
  • Under British law, the defendants weren’t allowed to speak as witnesses on their own behalf. After all, they had an interest in the case.
  • The witness Richard Palmes wasn’t a lumbering, unshaven ropemaker. He was a genteel merchant who had tried to break up fights in the evening before the Massacre. He was at the front of the crowd because he was urging Capt. Preston to obey the law and not order his men to shoot. The stick Palmes carried was a walking-stick, and he swung it at soldiers only after they had started to fire their guns. He testified to a town committee and at both trials (once for the defense and once for the prosecution), so he wasn’t a reluctant witness.
  • The witness Robert Goddard did testify that he’d heard Capt. Preston give an order to fire; he said as much in three separate legal documents. He did not, however, state that he was in an alley behind the soldiers; there was no such alley since those men were backed up against a corner of the Customs house. I haven’t found evidence that Goddard was active in Whig politics.
  • Before the trial, the miniseries’s Samuel Adams criticizes his cousin’s decision to represent Preston and the soldiers, and declares that “a Boston jury” would never acquit the soldiers. In reality, Samuel Adams was among the Whig leaders who urged Quincy to work on the case. John never wrote of criticism from his cousin. The show doesn’t mention that all the jurors were chosen from parts of the county outside Boston in an attempt to avoid prejudice. (Furthermore, in The Boston Massacre Hiller B. Zobel presents evidence that Preston’s jury was stacked with men sympathetic to the royal authorities.)
  • Capt. Preston, as a gentleman, was probably jailed separately from his men and allowed to shave. The soldiers probably didn’t wear their full uniforms, including wigs, during the trial since one witness identified a soldier by his bald head. Most of the soldiers were grenadiers, whose uniforms were different from those of ordinary soldiers.
  • On television, the trial occurs so soon after the Massacre that one soldier still has bruises on his face from the riot. In fact, because of canny delays by the defense and sympathetic judges, the soldiers’ trial started more than eight months after the shootings, after passions had cooled a bit.
  • Pvt. Montgomery wasn’t a fresh-faced youth; he was a husband with three children. Pvt. Montgomery wasn’t the sentry at the Customs house; that was Pvt. Hugh White. Pvt. Montgomery wasn’t named Hugh; he was named Edward. (Okay, that last fact is a Boston 1775 exclusive; the Massachusetts court records say Hugh, but the army muster rolls in London say Edward.) Pvt. Montgomery wasn’t the soldier whom locals insulted by saying he should empty an outhouse; that was Pvt. Patrick Walker, three days earlier. Finally, the miniseries doesn’t mention that after the trial was over the real Pvt. Montgomery told one of his lawyers that he’d shouted “Fire!” to his fellow soldiers.
  • The crowd in the courtroom wasn’t a howling mob, according to even the most hostile observers, such as Justice Oliver. Dozens of Bostonians testified as defense witnesses, not a reluctant few.
  • It’s very hard to find evidence that John Adams’s law practice or political stature suffered as a result of his work defending Capt. Preston and the soldiers. Indeed, after he took their cases, Boston elected him to the Massachusetts General Court.
  • Adams’s final argument to the jury wasn’t simply that “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” as valuable as that statement is. He also played on the jurors’ prejudices by calling the crowd “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.”
  • The jury in the soldiers’ trial voted to convict two soldiers—Montgomery and Pvt. Mathew Kilroy—of manslaughter, a potentially capital crime. They didn’t acquit all the men outright, as the television jury does. Under British law, those two men were sentenced to be branded on one thumb.
My favorite inaccuracy in the trial scene involves the witness whom Adams addresses as “Mr. Holmes.” He’s a black man with dark skin and an accent—obviously meant to be an African- or Caribbean-born worker. But gentlemen and the law didn’t grant the title “Mr.” to men of color. The first newspaper reports on the Massacre referred to all the adult victims as “Mr.” except Crispus Attucks.

The credits for this first episode of John Adams identify that witness as “Andrew Holmes.” That and his words reveal that this character was based on an enslaved man named Andrew who testified at length for the defense in both trials. The records refer to him consistently just by “Andrew.” Where did the surname “Holmes” come from? His owner was the merchant Oliver Wendell. Did screenwriter Kirk Ellis mix that man up with the baby named after him in 1809, the first Oliver Wendell Holmes?

Friday, March 21, 2008

What’s Missing in the John Adams Household

In the John Adams miniseries on H.B.O., Laura Linney as Abigail Adams has received universally good reviews in a very sympathetic part. (Some authors, such as Paul Nagel, might say that part was written too sympathetically.) Paul Giamatti as John has been getting generally good reviews, with a few critics saying he’s not up to carrying the series. I think he’s doing a fine job in a role that’s written to carry a tremendous burden (all of American independence!) yet is never fully likable and admirable. But I’ve been a fan of Giamatti’s acting since I saw him in a college production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

So far the series looks mighty impressive in terms of sets, costumes, and other details of everyday life in eighteenth-century America. I’ve seen complaints about the details of the British military uniforms, which are part of tomorrow’s entry. Kent Sepkowitz wrote at Slate about the differences evident on screen between modern show-business teeth and the teeth of the past. (Thanks to PhiloBiblos for this tip.)

One of the most difficult things to get right in historical movies, as Jill Lepore hinted at in her New Yorker review, is people’s behavior inside the sets and costumes. The action and manners of the John Adams characters often seem too forward and modern. I’ve been thinking in particular about how the miniseries portrays the Adams household in light of the quotations I’ve posted over the past few days.

The series shows the Adamses as a modern nuclear family: mother, father, and (by the end of episode two) four kids. We see John and young John Quincy working in the fields. We see John saddling his own horse. We see Abigail scrubbing the floors by herself and watching over the children as they recover from smallpox inoculation. Though we don’t do those same activities today, it’s easy to imagine modern parents doing equivalent tasks in much the same way.

But eighteenth-century genteel families didn’t live the same way that twenty-first-century middle-class families do. They lived a lot closer together, with less stuff in less space but more people from outside the nuclear family. The miniseries’s picture of the Adamses’ domestic life appears to be missing the following elements.

Servants. On the night of the Boston Massacre in 1770, John worried about Abigail being “alone, excepting her Maids and a Boy in the House.” In other words, Abigail was alone except for three people whose jobs were to look after her, the house, and the children (then aged four and two). The Adamses never had slaves, but as a genteel family they were used to having servants. Here are letters they exchanged in 1764 as they were setting up their household and hiring help. Here’s a receipt from Rachel Marsh, who received “one pound six shillings and eight pence lawful money for a quarters wages” from Abigail in May 1765. Most modern Americans are unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, with the idea of personal servants, but that was an essential element of eighteenth-century genteel life. John Adams did work in his fields. Abigail did clean her house. But they didn’t do that work all alone.

Relatives. The Adamses had nearby relatives whom they often visited, hosted, or worked alongside. Abigail was very close to her older sister Mary Cranch, who had settled in Braintree, and her in-laws. Abigail and Mary’s parents and younger sister Betsy lived in nearby Weymouth. John Quincy Adams recalled that these Smith grandparents “seemed to me as a second father and mother.” When John was out of town, Abigail had to do business through her male relatives because, as a woman, she had limited legal rights. John’s parents were dead, but he had brothers in town. In 1774 Abigail’s cousin John Thaxter came from Hingham to be John’s law clerk; since John was away at the Continental Congress and the courts were closed, Thaxter ended up becoming tutor to John Quincy and Charles for years. He hasn’t shown up in the series yet; I wonder if he’ll appear on the boys’ voyage to Europe in 1779 because he certainly went along.

Books. John Adams’s personal library was notably large in his time, and represented a big investment for a middle-aged lawyer. I was struck by a line from John Quincy Adams’s 1823 letter about his memories of the outbreak of war:

I remember the packing up and sending away of the books and furniture from the reach of [Gen. Thomas] Gage’s troops, while we ourselves were hourly exposed for many months to have been butchered by them.
The children can face a little risk, but save the books! That’s the sort of family value I believe in. A scene of packing up all the books might have shown what made the Adams family distinct, and how valuable books were.

I suspect that these details of the series were partly dictated by the budget—putting servants and relations on screen, even in the background, would have meant paying for more actors, more costumes, more takes, &c. But those choices also reflect, and reinforce, our difficulty in imagining how much people’s daily lives have greatly over the centuries.

(The portrait above of Abigail Adams around 1766 comes from the Massachusetts Historical Society, and is on display in its current exhibit of Adams family letters.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

How John Adams Shows Samuel Adams

Longtime Boston 1775 readers know that I occasionally grouse about misrepresentations of Samuel Adams as an unreasonable troublemaker. But only occasionally.

The first episode of H.B.O.’s John Adams miniseries depicts Samuel Adams pretty much along those terms. He appears as the dangerous radical leader of pre-Revolutionary Boston, provoking conflicts and violence and making wild claims about British tyranny. Jeremy Stern has written a detailed critique at History News Network of this dismissive portrayal of the elder Adams and basically the entire nine years of protests before 1774. Here’s just one part:

Samuel and his allies are also shown cynically exploiting the Massacre as propaganda to whip up a public frenzy. In fact, though enraged by the shootings, the radical leaders were also deeply concerned: they had sought since 1765 to avoid violence, which would only seem to validate their enemies’ claims that Massachusetts was lawless and disloyal. But they considered the military’s presence in Boston since 1768 unnecessary and illegal; inevitable popular resentment, in friction with arrogant and abusive soldiers, had now led to bloodshed. Thus, in addition to condemning the soldiers, the radicals wanted to emphasize that an illegitimate occupation had caused the tragedy: Boston, they stressed, was a law-abiding town, never in need of troops to enforce order.

In the television episode, Samuel is shown publicly assailing John Adams for taking the soldiers’ cases, even interrupting the trial with shouted threats. It is true that John met with hostility and anger from some quarters. But he was not opposed by Samuel and other radical leaders. Rising radical lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr., who joined John Adams in the defense, at first refused to take the case, but changed his mind when urged by a host of radical leaders, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock and the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Samuel, determined to exonerate the crowd for the violence, was certainly not pleased by the acquittals. But he knew it was essential that Massachusetts prove its ability to provide a fair trial. . . .

The program’s tone abruptly changes when it reaches the 1774 watershed: suddenly, the Coercive Acts – closing Boston’s port, reimposing harsh military occupation and altering the system of government – appear as uncontrovertibly oppressive. The more subtle and complex issues of the earlier years, which can make opposition look petulant if the immense gravity of those issues is not explored, are set aside: being a revolutionary suddenly seems more fashionable. The illogic of this abrupt transition is highlighted by a curious turn in the drama: in and after 1774, the darkly drawn Samuel Adams suddenly becomes a sympathetic if not a heroic figure, fighting for a just cause.
Indeed, in most of episode two Samuel Adams is simply the tall man sitting beside his cousin at the Continental Congress, his wig suddenly kempt, his behavior sedate. All Samuel’s warnings appear to have come true, but John—who found radicalism distasteful earlier—now supersedes him as the champion of resistance and independence. As Jill Lepore noted, “‘He United the States of America’ is the miniseries’ motto, giving credit to [John] Adams for everything.”

I’ll once again note Ira Stoll’s review of the series’ obligatory tar-and-feathers scene (can’t do a Revolutionary story without one of those!). It depicts Hancock as calling for mob violence and Samuel Adams as condoning it. Before the series aired, I thought that scene might be based on compressing two events involving Hancock’s ship Liberty in the late 1760s. To my surprise, I saw that the script actually tied it to the tea crisis of 1773. There was no tarring and feathering at that time. The scene also identifies the three tea ships as “British ships.” The Beaver and Dartmouth were owned by the Rotch family of Nantucket. The Eleanor was owned by the Boston merchant John Rowe. Life in pre-Revolutionary Boston was much less simple than these scenes let on.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How Bunker Hill Appears in John Adams

Yesterday I wrote of ways the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams shifts some history and geography to let its title character and his wife witness some famous Revolutionary events they didn’t actually see.

The miniseries also shows Abigail Adams and her children viewing the Battle of Bunker Hill from a high spot in Braintree. That really did happen. I’m not sure they could have seen all the details that the quick special-effects shot shows. Rather, I suspect they saw smoke and flame rising from Charlestown as it burned, and heard the booming artillery. But that was scary enough.

Abigail was already worrying about an amphibious assault on the nearby coast. On 16 June, the day before the Bunker Hill battle, she had written John, “We now expect our Sea coasts ravaged. Perhaps, the very next Letter I write will inform you that I am driven away from our, yet quiet cottage.”

John Quincy Adams was about to turn nine years old that month. Here’s how he recalled the start of the war for his little brother Thomas Boylston Adams in a letter dated 3 Apr 1813:

I remember the melting of the pewter spoons in our house into bullets immediately after the 19th of April, 1775. I remember the smoke and the flames of Charlestown which I saw from the orchard on Penn’s Hill. I remember the packing up and sending away of the books and furniture from the reach of [Gen. Thomas] Gage’s troops, while we ourselves were hourly exposed for many months to have been butchered by them.
And here’s another J. Q. Adams letter about the event from 1846, this time to someone outside the family:
my mother with her children lived in unintermitted danger of being consumed with them all in a conflagration kindled by a torch in the same hands which on the 17th of June lighted the fires of Charlestown. I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the battle of Bunker’s Hill, and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own, at the fall of [Dr. Joseph] Warren, a dear friend of my father, and a beloved Physician to me. He had been our family physician and surgeon, and had saved my forefinger from amputation under a very bad fracture.
The Adams family did not, however, see wounded and dying American soldiers after that battle. It was on the other side of Boston, after all. That would have been a hell of a long way for a bleeding man to limp.

As for father John, the miniseries shows him using news of the Battle of Bunker Hill to finally convince the reluctant Continental Congress to adopt the New England troops as the Continental Army, and to appoint George Washington as its commander-in-chief. That’s not only wrong, it’s impossible. Congress voted to support the army on 14 June 1775, and appointed Washington the next day. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought two days later, and the news didn’t reach Philadelphia until a few days after that.

A lot of public scenes in the John Adams miniseries so far are combinations of separate events: the two major trials following the Boston Massacre have become one, the tea protests of 1773 have melded with the attacks on Customs men in 1769-70, the Massachusetts delegates to the Second Continental Congress are introduced as delegates to the First, and so on. But showing an event on 17 June as necessary to motivate important decisions on 14 and 15 June seems like a serious distortion of the facts.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Re-Revisiting “Paul Revere’s Ride”

On Thursday, 20 March, at 7:00 P.M., Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury will host a talk by local scholar Charles Bahne titled “‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ Revisited.” I had the pleasure of hearing an earlier version of this talk last fall, as I wrote about here. Among Charlie’s discoveries are lines in Henry W. Longfellow’s early manuscript that the poet cut and never published, reflecting a different legend of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. As published in 1861, “Paul Revere’s Ride” has become a vitally important text in how the events of 19 Apr 1775 have been remembered and retold.

This talk is free and open to the public, with no reservations needed. It is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its “Big Read” program and by the Poetry Foundation.

What John and Abigail Really Saw

The Comcast cable-television repairman is outside my house now, so this seems an appropriate time to discuss the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams, which debuted on Sunday. This television drama shows some of the signal events of the American Revolution in Massachusetts through the eyes of John and Abigail Adams—even when they weren’t there.

The first episode quickly offers some exciting action: shortly after arriving home in Boston on 5 Mar 1770, John hears church bells ring. He rushes away from his family to fight a fire, hears the shots of the Boston Massacre, and comes upon bodies in the snow and British soldiers drawn up before the Customs house. It’s all very dramatic.

Here’s what John actually recalled seeing on that night, in the autobiography he wrote in the early 1800s:

The Evening of the fifth of March, I spent at Mr. Henderson Inches’s House at the South End of Boston, in Company with a Clubb, with whom I had been associated for several Years.

About nine O Clock We were allarmed with the ringing of Bells, and supposing it to be the Signal of fire, We snatched our Hats and Cloaks, broke up the Clubb, and went out to assist in quenching the fire or aiding our friends who might be in danger. In the Street We were informed that the British Soldiers had fired on the Inhabitants, killed some and wounded others near the Town house. A Croud of People was flowing down the Street, to the Scene of Action.

When We arrived We saw nothing but some field Pieces placed before the south door of the Town house and some Engineers and Grenadiers drawn up to protect them. Mrs. Adams was in Circumstances [i.e., pregnant], and I was apprehensive of the Effect of the Surprise upon her,...alone, excepting her Maids and a Boy in the House.

Having therefore surveyed round the Town house and seeing all quiet, I walked down Boylstons Alley into Brattle Square, where a Company or two of regular Soldiers were drawn up in Front of Dr. [Samuel] Coopers old Church with their Musquets all shouldered and their Bayonetts all fixed. I had no other way to proceed but along the whole front in a very narrow Space which they had left for foot passengers. Pursuing my Way, without taking the least notice of them or they of me, any more than if they had been marble Statues, I went directly home to Cold Lane. My Wife having heard that the Town was still and likely to continue so, had recovered from her first Apprehensions, and We had nothing but our Reflections to interrupt our Repose.
No dead bodies or even blood. Soldiers, but not those involved in the shooting. And John didn’t leave Abigail at the alarm; rather, he left his gentlemen friends and hurried home to her. (Incidentally, Samuel Adams appears to have been another member of that club, in case people wonder where he probably was during the Massacre.)

In the second episode the Adamses are at their home in north Braintree (now Quincy) when a horseman brings news that the British army has marched on Concord. John immediately rides out, once again leaving Abigail and the children. He meets dead and wounded militiamen, then his physician and friend, Dr. Joseph Warren.

Here’s what John wrote in his autobiography about that outbreak of war in Massachusetts:
...the Battle of Lexington on the 19th of April, changed the Instruments of Warfare from the Penn to the Sword. A few days after this Event I rode to Cambridge where I saw General [Artemas] Ward, General [William] Heath, General Joseph Warren, and the New England Army. There was great Confusion and much distress: Artillery, Arms, Cloathing were wanting and a sufficient Supply of Provisions not easily obtained. Neither the officers nor Men however wanted Spirits or Resolution. I rode from thence to Lexington and along the Scene of Action for many miles and enquired of the Inhabitants, the Circumstances.
So John didn’t visit the battlefield until days after the battle. Dr. Warren was involved in the fighting on 19 April, but many miles from the Adams homestead. There were no casualties from Braintree and nearby towns. We don’t actually know what John Adams did on 19 April; he wasn’t keeping his diary. (Both these quotes come from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Electronic Archive.)

At one point in the second episode John tells the Continental Congress that his family is living only “five miles” from “the might of the British army.” The Adams homestead is more than eight miles from Castle Island, where the nearest redcoats were stationed. But that farm seems to shift around a bit for the sake of television drama. At one point Col. Henry Knox rides past the Adamses’ front door with some of the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga. The Knox Trail is well mapped, and north Braintree was miles out of the way.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Continentals Take Possession of the Town

Timothy Newell’s journal offers this perspective on the departure of the British military from Boston on 17 Mar 1776:

Lord’s day. This morning at 3 o’clock, the troops began to move—Guards Chevaux de freze, Crow feet strewed in the streets to prevent being pursued. They all embarked at about 9 oclock and the whole fleet came to sail. Every vessel which they did not carry off, they rendered unfit for use. Not even a boat left to cross the River.—

Thus was this unhappy distressed town (thro’ a manifest interposition of divine providence) relieved from a set of men, whose unparralled wickedness, profanity, debauchery and cruelty is inexpressible, enduring a siege from the 19th. April 1775 to the 17th. March 1776.

Immediately upon the fleet’s sailing the Select Men set off, through the lines, to Roxbury to acquaint General [George] Washington of the evacuation of the town. After sending a message Major [Joseph] Ward aid to General [Artemas] Ward, came to us at the lines and soon after the General himself, who received us in the most polite and affectionate manner, and permitted us to pass to Watertown to acquaint the Council of this happy event.

The General immediately ordered a detachment of 2000 troops to take possession of the town under the command of General [Israel] Putnam who the next day began their works in fortifying Forthill &c., for the better security of the Town. A number of loaded Shells with trains of Powder covered with straw, were found in houses left by the Regulars near the fortifycation.
Newell’s diary apparently ended then; he was creating this document not for personal reasons but as a town selectman, recording what he considered the injustices of the royal authorities for future reference.

Boston’s population had sunk to less than a third of what it had been before the war, and the economy took years to recover—trade within the British Empire was no longer an option, and many young men would be away serving in the war.

Many of the town’s wooden structures, from fences and shacks to the Old North Meeting-house and the West Meeting-house steeple, had been torn down for security or firewood. The town’s largest building, the Old South Meeting-house, had been converted into a riding stable. Considering that the town had been under siege by a large army for eleven months, however, it was in pretty good physical shape. Charlestown, across the mouth of the Charles River, was in ashes.

The picture above shows a medal commemorating the end of the Boston siege, courtesy of the Notre Dame University coin collection.