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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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Washington’s Inauguration Rewritten

This is the anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as President of the United States in 1789. One often-repeated detail of that event was that Washington added the words “So help me God” to the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution. The recent John Adams miniseries on H.B.O. depicted the moment that way.

However, as I wrote back here, no contemporary description of Washington’s inauguration says anything of the sort. Because this was a new and potentially momentous event, a lot of people were paying attention (such as William Maclay, quoted at Eyewitness to History). All his life Washington was concerned with following genteel protocol, but not religious rituals. He had presided over the convention that wrote the Constitution and the presidential oath it contains, and I believe he would have been scrupulous about reciting that oath as it was written.

The first statement that Washington finished his oath with “So help me God” appears in The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington, by Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857), first published in 1854. Did it really take two-thirds of a century for a significant detail of a well-attended public ceremony to be described in print?

And not only described, but described in intimate detail:

The Bible was raised, and as the President bowed to kiss its sacred pages, he said audibly, “I swear,” and added, with fervor, his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication, “So help me God!”
Who was Griswold’s source for that action? He didn’t say, but on the next page he wrote:
Few persons are now living who witnessed the induction of the first President of the United States into his office; but...not many months ago...Washington Irving related to Dr. [John Wakefield] Francis and myself his recollections of these scenes, with that graceful conversational eloquence of which he is one of the greatest of living masters. He had watched the procession till the President entered Federal Hall, and from the corner of New street and Wall street had observed the subsequent proceedings in the balcony.
I suspect Griswold mentioned Irving to signal readers that that venerable American author was the source for the details preceding that paragraph. Some of Griswold’s earliest reviewers thought so, too.

Washington Irving was then working on a multi-volume biography of George Washington, for whom he had been named, with the assistance of his nephew, Pierre M. Irving. Wayne R. Kime has described their collaboration. The older author had had the idea for this biography in 1825, started research by the early 1840s, and was writing by the early 1850s.

Irving had therefore been thinking about how to narrate Washington’s first inauguration for a long time before his talk with Griswold, and might have even drafted the scene. Until May 1855, Irving had planned to end the whole biography with that moment. Once he decided to cover Washington’s presidential terms, he made the first inauguration into the climax of volume 4. The passage in Griswold’s book seems like a sneak preview of what Irving himself would publish three years later.

Griswold obviously believed that Irving himself had witnessed Washington’s inauguration, and was therefore a reliable authority on its details. However, there are good reasons for doubting that:
  • Washington Irving was only six years old when George Washington was inaugurated.
  • In his long biography of his uncle and collaborator, Pierre Irving wrote nothing about young Washington Irving witnessing the inauguration. He described how the boy had met the President in a shop. He described his uncle saying that he’d drawn on childhood memories for his description of Genet’s arrival in New York in 1793, when he was ten. But Washington’s first inauguration goes unmentioned.
  • Raymond Soller has pointed out that even if young Irving had watched the inauguration or parade from “the corner of New street and Wall street,” as Griswold stated, that would have been 200 feet from the balcony where the oath took place—too far away to hear, and too far away to see that Washington had “his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication.” [ADDENDUM: Soller writes to credit Michael Newdow for the idea and some of the work of checking how far that corner was from the inaugural balcony.]
In short, the story that Washington added “So help me God” to the presidential oath is not supported by any contemporaneous or reliable sources. It looks like a literary concoction of the 1850s, created to add more drama to descriptions of the ceremony.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Passing the Hat for Christopher Monk

Yesterday I wrote about how shipwright Thomas Walker had asked the town of Boston for money to pay for the care of Christopher Monk, his apprentice wounded during the Boston Massacre of 1770. On 14 Mar 1774, the Boston town meeting turned down Walker’s request.

But that wasn’t because of lack of compassion. Rather, Bostonians had already provided a sizeable amount of cash for young Monk’s care through a voluntary collection after John Hancock’s oration about the Massacre on 5 Mar 1774 in the Old South Meeting-house (thumbnail shown here, courtesy of Prof. Jeffery Howe’s scrapbook of Georgian architecture).

The oration was also a legal town meeting, and Boston’s records say:

Upon a Motion made Voted, that there be a Collection made in this Meeting, for Mr. Christopher Monk, a young Man now languishing under a Wound receiv’d in his Lungs, by a Shot from [Capt. Thomas] Preston’s Bloody Party of Soldiers on 5th. March 1770.

A Collection for Mr. Monk was made accordingly, which amounted to the Sum of Three Hundred and Nineteen Pounds 13/3 old Tenor, & the same by Order of the Town, was lodged with the Select Men for the Use of the said Monk.
On 9 March this note appeared in the minutes of the selectmen’s meetings:
A Collection was made by the Town at their meeting on the 5 of March Instant for Christopher Monk of Forty two pounds twelve Shillings & 4d. which by Order of the Town was deposited with the Selectmen for the use of said Monk—The Selectmen having determined to deliver the same to him at twelve different times, the whole was lodged with Deacon [Timothy] Newell for that purpose, who has made him one of these Monthly payments.
How did the collection manage to shrink from £319 to £42 in four days? The first sum was calculated in “old Tenor,” or the devalued local currency, and the 9 March total was probably in real money. Wikipedia has a brief description of the fall of the Massachusetts pound over the 1700s. It says that after 1759 new money was worth ten times the “Old Tenor,” so the selectmen might actually have collected more for Monk since the night of Hancock’s speech.

It’s also interesting that the selectmen didn’t trust Monk—or, more likely, Walker—to handle the whole £42 at once, and doled it out over the full year.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Thomas Walker Seeks Help with Health Care Costs

On 25 Feb 1774, shipwright Thomas Walker (not to be confused with British army drummer Thomas Walker) delivered a petition to Boston’s selectmen, describing himself as “a very great Sufferer by the Barbarous Firing of the Soldiers of the 29th. Regiment upon the Inhabatents of this Town on the Memorable fifth of March 1770”—i.e., the Boston Massacre.

Walker doesn’t appear on the list of dead or wounded from that event. Instead, he really wrote on behalf of his teen-aged apprentice, for whom he had taken legal responsibility:

His Apprentice Christopher Monk then in the siventyth [i.e., seventeenth] Year of his Age, havng been at that time Dangerously wounded by a Bullett passing through his Lungs, Whereby you Petitioner besides loosing the most Valuiable Part of his Apprentices Time, was Obliged to surport him, and pay for his Nursing, which was a very Expence, and has also the Sergen’s Bill amountg. to One Hundred & Eighteen pounds five shillings, & four pence lawfull Money now laying against him, and altho the Surgeon has generously consented to give in his whole Charge for Dressing and Attendance, and to take only what the Medicenes amounts to charged at the Usal rate, yet this is more than yr. Petitioner us able to Pay without greatly Straitning himself and Family.

He Therefore Humbly Prays that you would take into Consideration, the Great share of that Public Calamity which has fallen to his Lott, that you would Commerate his Circumstances and grant him that Relief which your Wisdom and Generosity to a Distressed fellow Citizeon whose Missfortunes are not owing to any Crime or Indiscretion in him, or in his Aforesaid Apprentice shall point Out.
Walker signed this petition, but someone else had written it out for him. The matter appeared on the agenda for Boston’s 14 March town meeting.

That meeting came just after the anniversary of the Massacre, commemorated in 1774 by an oration from John Hancock (shown above). Unlike previous years’ orators, Hancock specifically mentioned Monk. Addressing the “bloody butchers” in the royal government who had supposedly instigated that shooting, Hancock declared:
surely even your obdurate hearts must shrink, and your guilty blood must chill within your rigid veins, when you behold the miserable Monk, the wretched victim of your savage cruelty. Observe his tottering knees, which scarce sustain his wasted body ; look on his haggard eyes; mark well the death-like paleness on his fallen cheek, and tell me, does not the sight plant daggers in your souls?

unhappy Monk! cut off in the gay morn of manhood, from all the joys which sweeten life, doomed to drag on a pitiful existence, without even a hope to taste the pleasures of returning health! yet Monk, thou livest not in vain; thou livest a warning to thy country, which sympathizes with thee in thy sufferings; thou livest an affecting, an alarming instance of the unbounded violence which lust of power, assisted by a standing army, can lead a traitor to commit.
Despite such ringing rhetoric, however, the town meeting responded to Walker’s petition like this: “it was moved that the Petition be dismissed, and it was accordingly dismissed.”

TOMORROW: What Boston did for Christopher Monk instead.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

No Tolerance for “Intolerable Acts”

I’ve written a few times on the Quartering Acts, and what Parliament’s laws on housing soldiers really said (as opposed to what many latter-day American authors have claimed). While I did that research, I read several authors saying that American Patriots had listed the Quartering Act of 1774 as one of the “Intolerable Acts” while several others said the Patriots had left it off those lists. I decided to check out the original sources, and here’s what I found.

There were no lists of “Intolerable Acts.” In fact, I couldn’t find the phrase “Intolerable Acts” in any of my digital sources from the pre-Revolutionary period (most of them listed at the left). Boston 1775 readers know I like to point out myths, but this one astonished even me.

Encarta defines “Intolerable Acts” this way:

popular name given by Americans to four laws passed by the British Parliament in 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party.
And that reference site is by no means alone in that definition. Many resources state that in Britain those same laws were referred to as “Coercive Acts” since they were meant to coerce Massachusetts into behaving better.

However, the Early American Newspapers database pops out the first use of the phrase “intolerable act(s)” only in 1808, and then in regard to recent foreign news. The first newspaper story in that database to use “Intolerable Acts“ in connection to the American Revolution was the Kansas City Times on 25 May 1913.

The phrase “intolerable act(s)” doesn’t appear in the George Washington correspondence on the Library of Congress’s American Memory website or the George Washington Papers project at the University of Virginia (except in modern footnotes). The phrase doesn’t appear in John Adams’s diary, autobiography, and correspondence with Abigail Adams available through the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“Intolerable act(s)” doesn’t appear in the Library of Congress’s “Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention” or “A Century of Lawmaking” databases. The phrase doesn’t appear in the documents printed in the massive American Archives, compiled by Peter Force in the early 1800s.

The American Patriots did occasionally use the word “intolerable,” as in the Continental Congress’s resolution on 9 June 1775 authorizing Massachusetts to hold elections for its General Court again. But I’m still looking for the phrase “Intolerable Acts.”

Back in 1810, Robert Bisset’s History of the Reign of George III characterized the Congress’s 1774 “Address to the People of Great Britain” this way:
Their grievances (they said) arose from eleven acts of parliament passed in the present reign; but the most intolerable resulted from the three acts of the last session of parliament, respecting the colony of Massachusetts Bay, and the law for extending the limits of Canada.
However, Congress’s actual address, drafted by John Jay, didn’t use the word “intolerable.”

In 1826, Edward Everett gave an Independence Day speech in Cambridge that described the Patriots this way:
Not only was the independence, for which they struggled, a great and arduous adventure, of which they were to encounter the risk, and others to enjoy the benefits; but the oppressions, which roused them, had assumed, in their day, no worse form than that of a pernicious principle. No intolerable acts of oppression had ground them to the dust. They were not slaves rising in desperation from beneath the agonies of the lash; but free men, snuffing from afar “the tainted gale of tyranny.”
In The American Laborer in 1842, co-published by Horace Greeley, an author complained:
The degrading restrictions imposed upon our industry while British Colonies, were intolerable acts of oppression, and enforced with the utmost rigor by the Parliament of Great Britain.
Those ante-bellum writers used the phrase “intolerable acts” in a general sense. That implies that they didn’t link the phrase to the 1774 coercive measures, and they didn’t expect their audiences to do so.

The earliest example of the phrase “Intolerable Acts” as a label for specific legislation that I’ve found on Google Books appears in A History of the United States for Schools, by Alexander Johnston, with a copyright date of 1885. It lists “The Four Intolerable Acts,” the same four that Bisset had said were most grievous. In 1893, A History of the United States, a rival school textbook by Allen C. Thomas, went further and listed “The Five Intolerable Acts.” (That’s when the Quartering Act of 1774 entered the picture.)

Within a few years, a new orthodoxy appeared in American textbooks and popular histories: whether there were four or five parliamentary bills involved (and books continued to differ), people had called them the “Coercive Acts” in Britain and the “Intolerable Acts” in America. Still, no book quoted a Revolutionary-era source for the second label.

Even the “Coercive Acts” label appears to have been less common than that textbook formulation implies, but at least it’s documented in one very prominent place: George III’s speech to Parliament on 26 Oct 1775.

As for me, unless I hear from someone with a period reference, I’m swearing off any mention of “the Intolerable Acts.” (Not that I liked the phrase to begin with.)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the Matters of Felix Cuff and Ishmael Coffee

At the beginning of this week, the Boston Globe ran two articles about Revolutionary War soldiers from Massachusetts with African ancestry—often the poorest and poorest documented veterans. In both cases, the men are known largely through legal disputes in which they were the objects of arguments rather than as parties themselves. Their own lives, work, aspirations, and voices are difficult to discern.

Stephanie V. Siek wrote about Felix Cuff, who enlisted in the Continental Army in 1780 as the town of Waltham was struggling to supply its quota of soldiers. A man named Edward Garfield then seized Cuff as his property. In a letter to Gen. William Heath (displayed on the Massachusetts Historical Society website), the Waltham selectmen insisted Garfield had let Cuff enlist, and Lt. Eliphalet Hastings (1734-1824) and another recent enlistee named Abijah Fiske took Cuff back to the army. Garfield sued them, Fiske petitioned for protection, and the town indemnified him. Then a different army officer, Col. John Jacobs, told Heath (in another letter on display) that Garfield had a valid claim and he would discharge Cuff to his master’s custody.

Cuff took refuge with two other black men in a cave near Waltham’s Stony Brook. When Lt. Hastings came to take Cuff again (this time presumably to deliver him back to Garfield), the men claimed their freedom under Massachusetts’s new constitution. They took their case into court by suing Hastings for unlawful assault. Again, the town sided with Cuff and refused to defend Hastings in court. It’s conceivable to me that Cuff, Hastings, and the town had come up with this way of getting the soldier’s freedom on the legal record at last, by creating a legal precedent that he couldn’t be seized as property.

For enlisting, Hastings and Fiske are recorded as receiving £1,770 each while Cuff received £1,500 and 60 bushels of corn. Those payments were in Continental paper currency, whose value dwindled rapidly in the early 1780s. After becoming free, Felix falls out of the known records.

Rachana Rathi reported on two genealogists seeking information about Ishmael Coffee, a soldier of “Mulatto complexion” from Medway. His name appears on the military rolls of that town, but he’s best documented through two court cases.

Massachusetts towns had the obligation to support their poor inhabitants, which meant that selectmen spent a fair amount of time arguing that other towns were responsible for certain individuals. In 1810, Medway and Natick went to court over who had to support Coffee’s daughter Roba Vickons. She had married a white man from Natick in 1789, and that transfered responsibility for her from her native town of Medway. Natick contended that that marriage was illegal because she was a mulatto. The court ruled that under Massachusetts law she wasn’t, since her father wasn’t classified as Negro. The Globe article notes evidence that he had some Native American ancestry as well as African.

In 1819, Coffee himself required town assistance. (This was more than forty years after he’d appeared on the Medway military rolls.) In this case pitting Needham against Medway, the crucial question was whether Coffee’s marriage to a white woman was legal. Because he wasn’t labeled as white, they hadn’t been allowed to marry in Massachusetts, so they married in Rhode Island. The court decided:

Now it is a principle adopted for general convenience and security, that a marriage which is good according to the laws of the country [i.e., state] where it was entered into, shall be valid in any other country. And this principle is considered so essential, that even when it appears that the parties went into another state to evade the laws of their own country, the marriage in the foreign state shall nevertheless be valid in the country where the parties live.
It seems like that legal precedent has significance again today.

Both “Cuff” and “Coffee” were versions of the same common African name which means “born on a Friday.” These days we know it best as “Kofi,” as in the diplomat Kofi Annan.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Attack on Patrick McMaster

I’ve been meaning to mention Colin Nicolson’s article “A Plan to ‘banish all the Scotchmen’: Victimization and Political Mobilization in Pre-Revolutionary Boston” since I got the 2007 issue of the Massachusetts Historical Review last fall. (Some older articles from this periodical are available online, but not the latest.)

This article focuses on the suffering of Patrick McMaster, a merchant born in Galloway in 1741 who came to Boston in 1767 and lived to regret it. Here’s a capsule history of the man, in notes about his claim to the British government’s Loyalists Commission on 26 Dec 1785:

He is a Partner in the House of James & Patrick McMaster & Co., which consisted of the three Brothers... [the third being John].

They are all natives of Scotland & went to America before 1768, and at the commencement of the troubles they carried on Trade at Boston & Portsmouth. John left America in 1772, & has remained in London ever since.

In 1770 the Witness was seized by the Mob and carted through the streets of Boston, at that time the mob forced him to take an oath that he should not return to Boston—the cause of his treatment was that the House imported British Goods.

He took shelter with the 14th Regt. at Castle William.

In 1775 the Witness was settled at Boston, John was settled at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They were both uniformly attached to Great Britain & Patrick was enrolled in the North British Association at Boston.

He quitted Boston at the Evacuation—he has been carrying on trade within the British lines & at home ever since—he is now settled in Halifax as a Mercht.
The assault on McMaster in 1770 was a unique event in that turbulent period: he ended up nearly being tarred and feathered.

On 1 June, Dr. Thomas Young led a crowd of “hundreds of Men and Boys” to the McMasters’ shop and ordered them out of town by six o’clock on the 4th. Ever since the previous fall, the brothers had been defying the Boston Whigs’ “nonimportation” (or boycott) of British goods. They were relatively recent arrivals to town, and they were Scottish. Since March, after the Boston Massacre, there were no soldiers patrolling the town, and in May a mob led by a New London ship’s captain had tarred and feathered a Customs officer named Owen Richards.

The McMasters apparently communicated to Whig leaders that they were willing to compromise, and stayed in town. But on 19 June, a mob appeared at their shop (apparently without Dr. Young) and tore down their sign. Patrick was the only one home, so the people dragged him out and put him into a cart with a barrel of pine tar. As he was rolled around Boston, McMaster fainted, prompting a stop at an apothecary shop. According to Customs Commissioner Henry Hulton:
[McMaster] fainting away from apprehension of what was to befall him, they spared him this ignimony, and contented themselves with leading him thro’ the town in the Cart to Roxbury, where they turned him out, spiting upon him, & otherwise contemptuously & rudely treating him.
The merchant promised not to return to Boston. (That evening, a mob attacked Hulton’s home in Brookline.)

The fact that McMaster had fainted was clearly one factor in the mob’s leniency. He probably also benefited from deference to his class as a gentleman (most victims of such attacks were working-class). Furthermore, he may not have seemed like quite the right target for tar and feathers. Almost all the other victims of such attacks in Massachusetts were low- and mid-level employees of the Customs service. The McMasters had no connection to that branch of the Treasury.

McMaster wrote an account of his ordeal, dated 27 June 1770, which Nicolson reprints with his article. The merchant named three men among his attackers. One was John Ballard, who administered the oath in which the Scotsman swore not to come back to Boston. Ballard also ran a wharf that the McMaster brothers used for unloading their goods from Britain; his motivation for treating a customer this way is unclear.

Another assailant McMaster named was “Eliga Story.” Could that have been Dr. Elisha Story? It seems unusual for a genteel doctor to have been part a tar-and-feathers mob. Then again, McMaster might not have named Story as one of the mob’s leaders, merely as one of the few faces he’d recognized.

Dr. Story was born in 1743 to William Story, a local Customs official whose own house was mildly mobbed during the Stamp Act protests of 1765; after William’s career in the royal bureaucracy stalled, he retired to Ipswich and became a firm Whig. Dr. Story was also a son-in-law of John Ruddock, the “big man” of the North End. The doctor participated in the North End Caucus and helped to patrol the docks to ensure the East India Company tea would not be landed. I’ve seen his appointments book at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and he cleared his schedule in the week leading up to the Boston Tea Party. A few months after that event, Dr. Story moved to Marblehead, where he remained until his death in 1805.

As for Patrick McMaster’s fate after the war, Beamish Murdoch’s A History of Nova Scotia states:
About christmas, 1797, a small schooner was lost on the bay of Fundy shores, near Wilmot. Three mutilated dead bodies were found on the bank, and three others who had been frozen to death in the woods after escaping from the water. Mr. Patrick McMaster, a merchant of Halifax, was one of the three who had been drowned...
(I put that last bit in partly so I could include the name “Beamish Murdoch.”)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Who Tipped Off Samuel Adams?

The Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America, first published in London in 1788, described Samuel Adams receiving word of the upcoming British march in April 1775:

A daughter of liberty, unequally yoked in point of politics, sent word, by a trusty hand, to Mr. Samuel Adams, residing in company with Mr. [John] Hancock at Lexington, about thirteen miles from Charlestown, that the troops were coming out in a few days.

Mr. Adams inferred from the number to be employed, that these [stores in Concord] were the objects, and not himself and Mr. Hancock, who might more easily be seized in a private way by a few armed individuals, than by a large body of troops that must march, for miles together, under the eyes of the public.
Gordon, a minister in Roxbury in 1775, probably got his information from Adams himself, like other anecdotes. It’s interesting that the messenger went directly to Adams and not to Hancock, who was then the head of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Adams’s confidence that he and Hancock weren’t the targets of the army march might have been increased by hindsight; on 19 April, as troops were approaching, he advocated getting far out of their way.

The “unequally yoked” phrase comes from Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, which both Gordon and Adams knew well: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” That allusion implies that while Adams’s informant supported the Patriot cause (“A daughter of liberty”), her husband didn’t—so perhaps he was high up in the royal government, privy to Gen. Thomas Gage’s planning.

This woman sent her warning “a few days” before the march to Concord, around the same time that other Patriots were departing Boston, fearing arrest, perhaps because Gage had received new orders from London. She seems also to have had a good idea of the number of soldiers the general planned to send. Col. Percy reportedly recalled Gage saying that he’d told only one other person of his plans for the Concord march before revealing them to his top officers on the evening of 18 Apr 1775.

Several authors have suggested that Gen. Gage’s New York-born wife, Margaret (shown above in a John S. Copley portrait), was Adams’s informant. Some have gone on to suggest, with no additional evidence, that she also spoke to Dr. Joseph Warren on 18 April 1775. According to Paul Revere, after the doctor had been told about several signs of a British troop movement, he checked with one more important, confidential source before setting off the Massachusetts alarm system. But Revere never hinted (and maybe never knew) if that source was female.

The general sent Margaret Gage home by herself soon after the war started. Some historians view that as a sign that he had come to suspect her. Of course, he was getting her out of a besieged town, so that action might have been a sign of affection rather than alienation. According to David Hackett Fischer, the Gages’ relationship was bad after 1775. According to John R. Alden, “no indication of an estrangement between the Gages because of the events of 1775 has been brought forward.”

A few other women fit Gordon’s vague description of a “daughter of liberty, unequally yoked in point of politics.” I can think of Esther Sewall, wife of Attorney General Jonathan Sewall and sister of Dorothy Quincy, and Hannah Quincy, wife of Advocate General Samuel Quincy. (Before you wonder, Samuel was a cousin of Esther and Dorothy.) But those ladies and their husbands were unlikely to have been privy to Gage’s secret military planning.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rules for Harvard Freshmen, 1741

Adams entered Harvard at fifteen,” says John Patrick Diggins’s short biography, John Adams. That sounds mighty impressive from our perspective, when a typical college freshman is eighteen. But fifteen was slightly on the late side in the mid-1700s. With the benefit of a Boston education, John Hancock started college at thirteen, and there was an even younger student in his incoming class.

In the 1700s, ordinary schooling for Boston boys ran from about age seven to age thirteen or fourteen, if they lasted through the whole course. Therefore, the few boys who went on to college were still truly boys, only in their early teens. Usually they graduated college at eighteen, still years away from their legal majority.

The fact that college students were the age of high-school students now, and away from their families in an nearly all-male environment, helps to explain such traditions as these rules for Harvard’s incoming class in 1741.

1. No Freshman shall wear his hat in the College yard, except it rains, hails, or snows, he be on horseback, or hath both hands full.

2. No Freshman shall pass by his Senior, without pulling his hat off.

3. No Freshman shall be saucy to his Senior, or speak to him with his hat on.

4. No Freshman shall laugh in his Senior’s face.

5. No Freshman shall ask his Senior any impertinent question.

6, No Freshman shall intrude into his Senior’s company.

7. Freshmen are to take notice that a Senior Sophister can take a Freshman from a Sophimore, a Master from a Senior Sophister, and a Fellow from a Master.

8. When a Freshman is sent of an errand, he shall not loiter by the way, but shall make haste, and give a direct answer if asked who he is going for.

9. No Freshman shall tell who he is a going for (unless asked), or what he is a going for, unless asked by a Fellow.

10. No Freshman, when he is going of errands, shall go away, except he be dismissed, which is known by saying, “It is well,” “You may go,” “I thank you,” or the like.

11. Freshman are to find the rest of the scholars with bats, balls, and footballs.

12. Freshmen shall pay three shillings to the Butler to have their names set up in the Buttery.

13. No Freshman shall wear his hat in his Senior’s chambers, nor in his own if his Senior be there.

14. When anybody knocks at a Freshman’s door, he shall not ask who is there, but immediately open the door.

15. When a Freshman knocks at his Senior’s door, he shall tell his name immediately.

16. No Freshman shall call his classmate by the name of Freshman.

17. No Freshman shall call up or down, to or from his Senior’s chamber or his own.

18. No Freshman shall call or throw anything across the College yard, nor go into the Fellows’ Cuz-John.

19. No Freshman shall mingo against the College walls.

20. Freshmen are to carry themselves, in all respects, as to be in no wise saucy to their Seniors.

21. Whatsoever Freshman shall break any of these customs, he shall be severely punished.
“Cuz-John,” short for “Cousin John,” was a euphemism for the privy. According to the wonderful World Wide Words website, a set of rules for Harvard boys written down by a member of the class of 1738 is the earliest recorded use of the word “john” in this particular context. And “mingo”? That’s what boys can do while standing up in a cuz-john.

Prof. Diggins has been participating with Steven Waldman, Alan Taylor, and screenwriter-producer Kirk Ellis in a lengthy discussion of the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams on The New Republic’s website.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sunday Dinner with the Adamses

The last episode of the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams depicted the former President in retirement, dealing with old age. It showed the death of his wife Abigail in 1818, his attempts to explain and justify his political career, and, of course, his long-distance reconciliation with Thomas Jefferson.

That put me in mind of this recollection of the Adamses from about 1809, written by Josiah Quincy (1802-1882)—the fourth prominent man and second Boston mayor of that name. He was the grandson of the Josiah Quincy, Jr., who helped John Adams defend the soldiers after the Boston Massacre.

When I was about six years old, I was put to school to the Reverend Peter Whitney; and, spending the winter in his family, was often asked to dine on Sunday with Mr. and Mrs. Adams.

This was at first somewhat of an ordeal for a boy; but the genuine kindness of the President, who had not the smallest chip of an iceberg in his composition, soon made me perfectly at ease in his society. With Mrs. Adams there was a shade more formality. A consciousness of age and dignity, which was often somewhat oppressive, and was customary with old people of that day in the presence of the young. Something of this Mrs. Adams certainly had, though it wore off or came to be disregarded by me, for in the end I was strongly attached to her. She always dressed handsomely, and her rich silks and laces seemed appropriate to a lady of her dignified position in the town.

I well remember the modest dinners at the President’s, to which I brought a schoolboy’s appetite. The pudding, generally composed of boiled corn meal, always constituted the first course. This was the custom of the time,—it being thought desirable to take the edge off one’s hunger before reaching the joint. Indeed, it was considered wise to stimulate the young to fill themselves with pudding, by the assurance that the boy who managed to eat the most of it should be helped most abundantly to the meat, which was to follow. It need not be said that neither the winner nor his competitors found much room for meat at the close of their contest; and so the domestic economy of the arrangement was very apparent.

Miss [Louisa] Smith, a niece of Mrs. Adams, was an inmate of the President’s family, and one of these ladies always carved. Mr. Adams made his contribution to the service of the table in the form of that good-humored, easy banter, which makes a dinner of herbs more digestible than is a stalled ox without it. . . . I can distinctly picture to myself a certain iron spoon which the old gentleman once fished up from the depths of a pudding in which it had been unwittingly cooked.
The “stalled ox” phrase is an adaptation to Proverbs 15:17, where it’s sometimes translated as “fatted calf.” (See what I learn from making sure that wasn’t just a typo!)

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Concord Alarm and the Casablanca Rule

As promised, this posting continues my extended response to Garden Keeper’s thoughtful comment on the posting “Without Paul Revere.” That comment argued for Paul Revere’s importance on 19 Apr 1775 this way:

As for your point about the value of the Revere's ride, who could have rousted Hancock and Adams - Dawes or Revere. As you noted, Hancock was loathe to abandon Lexington. Would Dawes have the stature to make the argument? Your earlier note about Monroe recalling a "Mr. Lincoln" suggests otherwise. If Hancock and Adams had not abandoned the Clarke home, would Parker and the others turned away from the British troops? Or would they have felt a greater need to sacrifice themselves to allow for an escape? They sustained heavy losses - and, at the moment, weren't even engaged with the troops. It could have been far worse.

And, let's not ignore the considerable heroism of the Prescott family that day. Did Dawes know who Samuel Prescott was? Revere did. His later recollection was that Dr. Prescott was recognized as a son of liberty. After all, Revere HAD been to Concord twice in the prior two weeks before the troops left Boston. If Dr. Prescott had not been recruited as a rider that evening, would Acton had been notified in time to be at the bridge that day? Would Abel Prescott had been sent off to Sudbury and Framingham? Perhaps young Abel would have survived the day unscathed...

It's a terrific point to consider but I would submit that Revere's ride was a considerable part of the success of the day.
To start slowly (since I did get up early this morning), I don’t think Revere knew who Dr. Samuel Prescott was when they met on the road from Lexington to Concord. In 1775 Revere wrote of him as “Mr. Prescot” rather than as a doctor. In 1798, Revere recalled: “We were overtaken by a young Docter Prescot, whom we found to be a high Son of Liberty.” I think the phrase “whom we found” indicates that Revere and Dawes hadn’t known about the doctor’s politics until they got to talking.

That said, I think your remarks get to the larger question about Revere’s personal influence on events. He had intangible qualities we can only infer from the preserved records, including his level of confidence, dedication, and contacts with top Whigs in and out of Boston. Revere himself recognized how Dr. Prescott’s personal contacts were useful on the road from Lexington to Concord:
we had better allarm all the Inhabitents till we got to Concord; the young Doctor much approved of it, and said, he would stop with either of us, for the people between that and Concord knew him, and would give the more credit to what we said.
William Dawes, Jr., wasn’t as well known as Revere. He was adjutant (or clerk) of the Boston militia company and a member of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, a private group for militia officers that reached outside Boston. Through his wife, he had contacts in Roxbury. But he hadn’t sat in on meetings of the top Whigs in Boston, as Revere had. He hadn’t been out to Concord and Charlestown earlier in the month, making arrangements for an alarm, as Revere had. The major thesis of David H. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride is that the silversmith was uniquely positioned to spread the word of the British march.

But the bigger question remains, how much did Revere’s personal connections matter at the end of the day? And in that inquiry I’m taking the long view and following what I’ll call the Casablanca rule: “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” In other words, rather than looking at how Revere affected individual people’s fates, such as the number of men shot in Lexington or the activity of the Prescott brothers, we should consider the broader picture.

On the “crazy world” scale, what were the important developments of 19 Apr 1775?
  • There was a sustained clash between the British army and the British colonists of Massachusetts, with significant numbers of lives lost on both sides, signaling to everyone that the long political conflict had turned into a military one.
  • Both sides felt that the other had started the violence and/or carried it out brutally and unfairly.
  • The army failed to find the Provincial Congress’s most important supplies in Concord.
  • The militias didn’t capture the army column (though it’s not clear that provincial commanders wanted to do that).
  • At the end of the day, provincial troops had Boston under siege.
If we take away Revere’s ride—say, by imagining him detained by British officers along the Charlestown/Cambridge border—do those big developments change? One can never be sure about a counterfactual hypothesis, but I’m not sure they shift significantly.

To start with, Col. James Barrett and his family were already moving the Congress’s arms off his farm in the days before 19 April. Gen. Thomas Gage’s mission was doomed to failure before it began.

More important, the Massachusetts countryside had been on high alert for a long time. The Powder Alarm of the previous September showed how the rumor of an army attack could put thousands of militiamen on the march. Concord was farther inland than Gage had ever sent troops before, bringing more opportunities for conflict. It took only a little stimulus—a shot no one can trace in Lexington, smoke from burning artillery carriage wheels in Concord—to lead to fatal violence. With or without Revere, that march was very likely to have triggered the war.

The first shooting might even have happened at the same places without Revere. The record from Lexington indicates that several messengers alerted Capt. John Parker about troop movements, starting with local teenager Solomon Brown and including Dawes. The town’s militia had been assembled (and dismissed, and reassembled) for more than four hours when the British column finally arrived. Parker was sending riders both west to Concord and east to see how close the troops were. He and his men didn’t necessarily need to hear from Revere that night to be on the alert, on edge, and on the green.

What about Concord? If Revere hadn’t made it to Lexington, then Dawes may well have decided not to ride on to Concord, and Prescott wouldn’t have met anyone on the road, and Prescott may have been stopped (along with Brown and others) by the British scouts. In that case, Concord wouldn’t have received Prescott’s alert at 2:00 A.M. But, as I noted above, Col. Barrett, commander of the Concord militia, was already wary of a possible army raid. And in the several hours between two o’clock and the first shots at the North Bridge, other riders came into the town with news of the troops.

Finally, in the broad view, did the early alerts amount to more than “a hill of beans”? Our public history emphasizes the minutemen, ready at a minute’s notice to defend the countryside. And indeed thousands of men heard the various summonses in their towns and quickly gathered in their militia units. And then what happened? A lot of them stood around for a while, discussing what to do. That’s partly what military service is like: “Hurry up and wait.” And it’s partly what the New England culture was like, with a lot of consensus decision-making; there’s nothing wrong with discussing things before you go into a war. But that lessens the crucial importance of the initial alert.

Thus, even after the shooting on Lexington green, even after the shooting at the North Bridge, the Massachusetts militia didn’t make a serious attack on the British column until it had started to withdraw from Concord, sometime after noon on 19 April. Eleven hours had passed since Revere’s capture, about seven since the first fatalities of the day, and about two since some of those same militiamen had exchanged shots with regulars. The war’s start involved minutemen, but it wasn’t determined in minutes.

Granted, some town militia companies might have mustered later without Revere’s message, and thus might not have arrived along the battle road in time to attack the British column. But would that have mattered, given that the column got through to Charlestown anyway? The big military development was the start of the siege, and the siege would probably have started much the same way even if Revere hadn’t been able to do all he did.

Some might say, as Jay Fitzgerald’s Hub Blog did, “couldn't the same be said of the actions of 99.9 percent of those who participated in the events of April 18-19, 1775?” And the same could indeed be said. But often people describe Paul Revere as crucial for determining the major results of the day; nobody else gets that treatment. Revere’s story has built-in appeal; it’s a dramatic narrative about admirable actions. (So is Casablanca.) But by presenting Revere alone as crucial to the start of the war, we can lose sight of the Revolution as a mass movement involving thousands of people already prepared for armed conflict.

Alert the Media

I observed this Patriots’ Day (observed) morning by getting up early to speak to The Bryant Park Project about John Adams and his latest miniseries. This is a National Public Radio show that seems to be the equivalent of Morning Edition for the young, hip crowd. I don’t think it yet has a broadcast home in Boston, but hey—young, hip people get all their news off the internet, anyway! So here’s a link to the Adams segment.

For folks who couldn’t make the Battle Road reenactment in Minute Man National Historical Park on Saturday, here are photo galleries from Scott and from Kathryn Ramsey. [ADDENDUM: And one from Ann Irish and two from Carlton SooHoo.]

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What Did the British Officers Inquire About?

My deliberately iconoclastic posting about the likelihood that the Battle of Lexington and Concord would have happened much the same way even without all of Paul Revere’s activity on 18-19 Apr 1775 prompted some interesting replies.

One was from Jay Fitzgerald at Hub Blog, who seemed to think that the posting was directed at Longfellow’s poem rather than nonfiction histories of the battle. While that poem created or perpetuated some popular misconceptions about Revere, no history reader takes it as accurate, and its myths are easily dismissed. Fitzgerald appears to want to celebrate the semi-fictional Revere for “capturing the public's imagination,” but celebrations are a matter of heritage, not history.

More thoughtfully, Garden Keeper wrote a long comment that began:

I know that you have written several times about the "myth" that the British troops were after John Hancock and Samuel Adams. I would respectfully differ on whether it is a "myth". I cannot find the citation right now, but I believe that General Gage received orders from London in the days before April 17th. Those orders, along other things, directed him to arrest the provincial leaders. As the British communication system was notably less secure than our own Belichick system, it is doubtless that these orders were known by Warren and others.

Further, while you have noted that Gage's written orders said nothing about the capture of Hancock and Adams, Gage also sent 20 officers on horseback into Middlesex County to thwart the Revere and the other riders. As Hackett Fischer notes, "In particular, [the patrols] inquired about the whereabouts of John Hancock and Samuel Adams."

So while the written orders suggest otherwise, there was good reason to fear that the expedition to Concord might have ancillary targets. Written orders, after all, have some limits. Gage also ordered that property not be damaged which didn't prevent the burning of some Lexington homes.
Yes, the orders that Gen. Thomas Gage received from London in early April 1775 recommended that he arrest the Massachusetts resistance leaders as the first step in restoring order. The Boston Whigs almost certainly knew about those orders. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper got out of town. Elbridge Gerry, Azor Orne, and Jeremiah Lee were so afraid of being captured that they spent hours hiding in a field. And as soon as he knew the army was marching west, Dr. Joseph Warren sent William Dawes and Revere out to Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams.

However, we have Gen. Gage’s actual orders for the march to Concord, we have his intelligence files (in the Clements Libary), and we have reports from several of the British officers on that march. None of those sources show any interest in locating Hancock and Adams. No American description of what happened in Lexington on the morning of 19 April shows the army making any move to find or chase those two men.

So what evidence is left that the British were seeking Hancock and Adams? On page 132 of Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer quotes Elijah Sanderson as saying of British officers, “They particularly inquired where Hancock and Adams were.” These words come from a long deposition Sanderson gave in 1824, published in Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington.

Sanderson was also one of the three men who signed the deposition I quoted yesterday. And in that testimony, given less than a week after the night they were describing, he and his comrades said the officers “enquired about the Magazine at Concord, whether any Guards were posted there, and whether the bridges were up.” Those details fit exactly with what Gage wrote in his orders, including the fact that the troops would have to cross bridges to get to some weapons. The 1775 deposition said nothing about Hancock and Adams, and Sanderson’s 1824 deposition said nothing about the arms at Concord. I think that nearly half a century of American writers’ emphasis on Hancock and Adams had colored Sanderson’s memory.

None of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s other 1775 depositions mentioned Hancock or Adams, either. Capt. John Parker of Lexington recalled hearing that “Regular Troops were on their March from Boston in order to take the Province Stores at Concord.” The two depositions signed by many of Parker’s men together both mentioned how “Regulars were marching from Boston towards Concord, with intent (as it was supposed) to take the Stores, belonging to the Colony, in that town.” The Provincial Congress’s report described “an apparent Design to take or destroy the military and other stores, provided for the Defence of this Colony, and deposited at Concord.” All those statements came after the actual battle, and thus were based on knowledge of what the British troops had and hadn’t done.

Did the Provincial Congress have evidence that the army had sought Hancock and Adams, but suppressed it, thinking it would play better to tell the world that it was amassing “military and other stores” to use against the king’s troops? It’s hard to see why the body would do that. Why not portray the British march as an attempt to kidnap two popular gentlemen? (Some newspapers ran with that story anyway.)

As for “the burning of some Lexington homes,” that happened, but only after the British column had returned through the town and met its reinforcements. By that point in the afternoon, the battle was on, the regulars had suffered their worst losses, and battlefield commanders were taking actions on their own authority. It’s clear that Gage’s aim for the mission was to destroy the Concord weaponry with minimal collateral damage.

TOMORROW: The big question of what mattered on 19 Apr 1775.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The First Detainees of the War?

Three days after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress formed a committee to collect depositions of what had happened on 18-19 Apr 1775. Political activists on both sides had likewise collected such sworn testimony after the Boston Massacre in 1770 and other disputed events.

Here’s the first of those depositions as they were eventually printed, written down and sworn to at Lexington on 25 April:

We, Solomon Brown, Jonathan Loring, and Elijah Sanderson, all of lawful Age, and of Lexington, in the County of Middlesex, and Collony of the Massachusett Bay, in New England, do testifie and declare, that on the evening of the Eighteenth of April, Instant [i.e., this year], being on the Road between Concord and Lexington, and all of us mounted on Horses, we were, about ten of the Clock, suddenly surprized by nine Persons, whom we took to be Regular [i.e., army] Officers, who Rode up to us, mounted and armed, each having a Pistol in His Hand, and after Putting Pistols to our Breasts, and seizing the Bridles of our Horses, they swore, that if we stirred another step, we should be all Dead Men, upon which we surrendered our selves.

They Detained us until Two o’Clock the next morning, in which tune they searched and greatly abused us; having first enquired about the Magazine at Concord, whether any Guards were posted there, and whether the bridges were up, and said four or five Regiments of Regulars would be in Possession of the stores soon; they then brought us back to Lexington, cut the Horses Bridles and Girts, turned them Loose, and then Left us.



What an outrage against British and American liberty! Young men detained at pistol point on threat of death—their horses taken away—all by officers of a standing army!

Yet somehow these three deponents have managed to leave out some details:
  • Just why they were riding between Lexington and Concord at 10:00 at night.
  • Anyone else who was detained by the same British officers during the next four hours—in particular, a man who’d come all the way to Lexington from Boston named Paul Revere.
  • What they did after they were released from army custody.
In other words, this deposition was probably the truth and nothing but the truth; it just wasn’t the whole truth.

Brown was eighteen years old in 1775, Loring twenty-six, and Sanderson probably twenty-four. They would all live into the next century, and two would eventually say more about their experiences on the first day of the Revolutionary War. I’ll be quoting more from and about them.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Without Paul Revere

Today is the anniversary of Paul Revere’s 18-19 Apr 1775 ride to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that British troops were coming out of Boston. So I’m going to discuss the one myth of this event that we have the hardest time dealing with.

It’s not the myth created by H. W. Longfellow’s poem that Revere was in Charlestown awaiting the two-lantern signal from Old North Church. Most books these days remind us that Revere arranged to send that signal from Boston, not receive it; he was already aware that the army would start its expedition by crossing the Charles River. Only after the signal had been sent did he cross the Charles himself as a backup rider and proceed west.

It’s not the myth, also implied by that poem, that Revere was a lone rider. Many people know the name of William Dawes, Jr., who carried the same message out of Boston through Roxbury a few hours before Revere crossed the Charles. David H. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride does an excellent job of documenting how Revere was also just the start of a cascade of alarm riders, like a nuclear chain reaction, fanning out from the towns he passed through.

It’s not the myth that Revere yelled, “The British are coming!”; I discussed that here.

It’s not the myth that Revere rode all the way to Concord with the news. Again, history books are clear that mounted officers sent out ahead of the army’s march captured Revere and Dawes on the road between Lexington and Concord. There’s a historic marker at that point, and a yearly ceremony. The two Boston men had happened to pick up a third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott; he was a local man, perhaps with a fresher horse, and he escaped from the officers and brought news of the approaching troops to Concord.

It’s not the more recent myth that after Revere was captured he fearfully spilled his guts to those officers. He did tell them how he’d warned the countryside about their army’s march, but that was in all likelihood an attempt to make them tell their commanders to call back those troops before anyone got hurt.

It’s not even the myth that the provincial militiamen at Concord stopped the British army at the North Bridge. Three companies of soldiers crossed that bridge and proceeded to James Barrett’s farm, then returned hours later, without being blocked or attacked. The firing at the bridge occurred after the locals advanced on the army companies trying to hold it. The militiamen drove that rear guard away, but then withdrew and didn’t try to trap the advance units.

Rather, the most troublesome myth of Paul Revere’s ride is that Paul Revere’s ride mattered a lot.

There’s no doubt that Revere was very active on the night of 18-19 Apr 1775. After telling Hancock and Adams that troops were coming so that they could move out of reach, Revere rode on toward Concord with Dawes and then Prescott, was captured, was released, walked back to Lexington—and found Hancock and Adams still hadn’t left town. Revere then helped convince Hancock to get in the damn carriage, and the political leaders set off for Woburn—only to realize that Hancock had left some Provincial Congress papers behind in a tavern. So Revere returned to Lexington and was helping to move those papers during the first shots on Lexington green.

The ironic or even farcical part of all that dedicated activity was that Gen. Thomas Gage had written nothing in his orders about John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The officers commanding the expedition knew nothing about those men being at the Lexington parsonage, or about Hancock’s trunk. No soldiers went toward those buildings on the morning of 18 April.

Hancock, Adams, Revere, and Dawes could have decided to hunker down in the parsonage with guns, swords, and a militia guard, and waited for the army to try to grab them. And those troops would have marched straight through Lexington without noticing. Gen. Gage’s only target was armaments stored in Concord.

Without Revere, the Lexington militia would still have been on the alert by dawn on 19 April after hearing the same news from Dawes. There were hours between when he arrived and when the troops did, during which several more riders came into town. Capt. John Parker thus had more than enough time to assemble his men.

Dawes may not have taken the initiative to ride on to Concord without Revere, and thus no man from Boston might have met Dr. Prescott. In that case, the warnings Col. Barrett heard in Concord might not have seemed as authoritative as when he knew Revere was behind them. Earlier in the month, Revere had established contact with men in Concord.

Nonetheless, there were about two hours between the British soldiers’ arrival at Concord and the exchange of shots at the North Bridge. There was another two hours between then and when the troops withdrew from the town and headed back toward Boston. So in all there were more than six hours between the shots at Lexington and when the provincial militias began to counterattack the British column in earnest. That was enough time for many towns to mobilize and reach the battle area, even without a warning the night before. So as brave, hard-working, and dramatic as Paul Revere’s ride was on 18-19 Apr 1775, it may not have changed events all that much.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Big Mystery of Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver

This afternoon I talked to folks from the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement about the Powder Alarm of early September 1774, which I consider to be the end of British government in Massachusetts outside of Boston.

One of the people who played a big role in that event was Thomas Oliver (1733-1815), the last lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. He was commissioned in late May 1774 and took office in August after the death of the previous lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver—no relation.

On the morning of 2 Sept 1774, Oliver couldn’t help but notice the men from the country marching past his mansion house in Cambridge (shown here, courtesy of its current owner, Harvard University). After all, more than 3,000 of those men had passed by 8:00 A.M.

On the previous day, British troops had removed gunpowder from the provincial powder magazine in neighboring Charlestown (now Somerville). Rumors had described the soldiers doing much worse, and the farmers of Middlesex County had marched to Cambridge in their militia companies to fight back.

Here’s Oliver’s own account of how that busy day began for him:

Early in the morning a number of inhabitants of Charlestown called at my house to acquaint me that a large body of people from several towns in the county were on their way coming down to Cambridge; that they were afraid some bad consequences might ensue, and begged I would go out to meet them, and endeavor to prevail on them to return.

In a very short time, before I could prepare myself to go, they appeared in sight. I went out to them, and asked the reasons of their appearance in that manner; they respectfully answered, they “came peaceably to inquire into their grievances, not with design to hurt any man.” I perceived they were landholders of the neighboring towns, and was thoroughly persuaded they would do no harm. I was desired to speak to them: I accordingly did, in such a manner as I thought best calculated to quiet their minds. They thanked me for my advice, said they were no mob, but sober, orderly people, who would commit no disorders; and then proceeded on their way. I returned to my house.

Soon after they had arrived on the Common at Cambridge, a report arose that the troops were on their march from Boston; I was desired to go and intercede with his Excellency [Gov. Thomas Gage] to prevent their coming. From principles of humanity to the country, from a general love of mankind, and from persuasions that they were orderly people, I readily undertook it; and is there a man on earth, who, placed in my circumstances, could have refused it?
Oliver convinced Gage that the confrontation in Cambridge would end peacefully, and that sending troops to disperse the crowd would end in bloodshed. When he returned home, however, Oliver found the crowd demanding that he resign from the Council because he had been appointed to that body under the Massachusetts Government Act instead of elected by the General Court. Oliver did so, adding at the end of his declaration, “My house at Cambridge being surrounded by about four thousand people, in compliance with their command I sign my name.” The people didn’t ask him to resign as lieutenant governor.

The big mystery of Thomas Oliver’s political career is why he got to be lieutenant governor in the first place. He had been born to a wealthy family in Dorchester, gone to Harvard, and become a militia colonel. He was Anglican and loyal to the Crown. But so were a number of other gentlemen. Oliver had never been active in politics, and he was only forty-one years old when he received his appointment.

The Essex Gazette advanced one theory on 10 Jan 1775, citing an October dispatch from London:
Mr. Thomas Oliver of Boston, was appointed Lieut. Governor of that Province in consequence of Richard Oliver giving the casting vote last year against Mr. [John] Wilkes being Lord Mayor.
Richard Oliver (1735-1784) was a London alderman and sheriff who owned plantations in Antigua. Thomas’s father was named Richard and had come from Antigua to Massachusetts in 1737. However, the alderman and the lieutenant governor seem to have been distant cousins at best; there were several Antiguan planters named Richard and Thomas Oliver to sort out.

Another theory holds that Gov. Thomas Hutchinson suggested Thomas Oliver for lieutenant governor because he thought the young man was Andrew Oliver’s brother and wanted to keep the job in the family. Since Hutchinson was a longtime friend of Andrew Oliver and his real younger brother, Peter, and their children had intermarried, that ignorance seems unlikely. Someone else in London might well have made that mistake, though.

Thomas Oliver did succeed at the biggest challenge he faced in office, keeping the Powder Alarm from becoming a crisis. Shortly afterwards, he moved into Boston, where British troops offered more security. In March 1776, he left with the royal military. Although Oliver lost his Massachusetts property during the war, he still owned the Antiguan plantations that made him wealthy.

Oliver also remained, as far as the British government was concerned, the lieutenant governor of the province of the Massachusetts Bay. Even though he had served in that office for less than two years, and spent most of that time bottled up in Boston, I believe that he received the salary for the job until his death in 1815—thirty-nine years after he last set foot in Massachusetts.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Patriots’ Day Coming Up Again

Last year I did a lot of typing to assemble a list of Patriots’ Day activities in eastern Massachusetts. And when that holiday arrived, rain came down in buckets. Public-safety authorities canceled some events. Other commemorations went through in the rain, conducted by such hardy souls as young Randy Wilson, captured here by Joanne Rath for the Boston Globe.

Last month I used Boston 1775 to promote this year’s reenactment of the Boston Massacre at the Old State House. And once again, it was rainy and windy, the state meteorologists warned about floods, and the event had to be called off.

So I’ve learned my lesson. Patriots’ Day is coming up again, but I won’t tempt the weather gods by announcing any of the big outdoor events. You won’t hear from me that there’s a thorough schedule of those events in Middlesex County at BattleRoad.org. Nope, not from me.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Power of Narrative in History

Last night I attended the last of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s four public conversations on history and memory, moderated by Stephen Marini of Wellesley. This event featured Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor of American History at Harvard and author of A Midwife’s Tale, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Although the announced topic was how objects—or, in the jargon of modern historiography, “material culture”—affect historical memory, the conversation was more far-ranging.

One of Ulrich’s interesting comments involved the film adaptation of A Midwife’s Tale shown a few years ago on P.B.S.’s American Experience. During the filming, the producers were anxious to tell the life story of Martha Ballard (1735-1812), the Maine midwife, in a dramatic way. Ulrich sensed that they were seeking a “heroic narrative.”

For historians, “narrative” is a label for a particular way of writing history: describe a series of events, in chronological order, on a human scale, emphasizing individuals’ intentions and actions as driving events. Many scholars try to get beyond this form, or at least analyze it critically. They point out that individual human intentions aren’t always as important as we’d like to think, mass actions and attitudes might be more powerful than individual choices, some historical events (such as climatic or demographic change) follow a much longer timeframe, this style tends to highlight the most powerful in society at the expense of the most numerous, and so on.

For fictional storytellers, a “narrative” is something slightly different. It’s a particular construction of events, again driven by human intentions and actions, but also with a resolution brought about by those actions. Fictional narratives derive their power by:

  • following individual protagonists as they seek to fulfill specific desires.
  • showing events arising from those protagonists’ (and any antagonists’) choices, and not from outside forces or actors or mere coincidence.
  • concluding with an outcome that says something, implicitly or explicitly, about those individuals and how the world works.
Having just come from a writers’ conference where I talked about plot, I was especially sensitive to this understanding of narrative.

Ulrich felt that the Midwife’s Tale filmmakers were in danger of creating a fictional narrative for Martha Ballard that, while it might please viewers, wasn’t supported by the historical documentation. She was even willing to leave the project over that issue. The creative team was able to adapt, and the resulting film is both very affecting and historically grounded.

And does it have a heroic narrative? At this point I piped up from the audience to argue that the Midwife’s Tale movie does offer such a narrative—not about Ballard, but about Ulrich. While the movie shows several vignettes from Ballard’s life, the storyline that runs through it and fuels it is the historian’s investigation of the midwife’s diary. An individual sets out on a quest (to learn what that document can reveal), faces obstacles, devises strategies, makes breakthroughs, and achieves acclaim.

Even the cinematography serves that storyline, as Ulrich described it. Producer-writer Laurie Kahn-Levitt and director Richard P. Rogers used framing, lighting, and focus to make our first glimpses of the actress playing Ballard incomplete and hard to make out. Gradually she comes into sharper focus, with stronger lighting and the camera capturing her face. We viewers thus gain clearer views of Ballard as the movie shows Ulrich coming to understand her diary.

Historians like Ulrich are usually reluctant to shape their books around the story of their investigations, to put themselves in the foreground—they leave that to their introductions and personal appearances. But every so often a history book will follow the actions of an individual investigating the past as a way to bring us into understanding that past. One example I recently read is The Telephone Gambit, by Seth Shulman (a Boston story, but from the 1870s instead of the 1770s).

A final thought on narratives and history: These days, our most popular cinematic narratives are adapted into yet another form, one which leaves the resolution up to the viewer. Or rather to the player, because I’m referring to videogames. Instead of watching Harry Potter, we get to play at being Harry Potter, and the outcome of the story depends on our own choices (and the reset button). A Midwife’s Tale has the equivalent of that form in the website DoHistory.org, which lets visitors take over Ulrich’s role and explore Ballard’s diary.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Col. McDonald After the British Evacuation

On 14 Apr 1776, almost a month after the British military had evacuated Boston, the Scottish veteran and Loyalist officer Alexander McDonald tried to cheer up his wife Susannah (or “Susey”) with a letter from Halifax. McDonald had left his wife and children on Staten Island in the fall of 1774 when he went to raise soldiers for the Crown. In this letter, the colonel assured Susey that the force which had left Boston was still in good fighting shape, and that more troops were on the way from Britain to restore order.

I dare Say you will hear a varst number of Militias & false Reports about our Armys Leaving boston, these falsehoods will be spread among the poor deluded, and unwary inhabitants of America, though the truth is that General [William] How with his army Left that place as well as the Admiral and the fleet under his Command, by a positive order from home, to be in readiness to join the Grand Army and Navy, now on their way to America, Consisting of 60000 troops 70 Sail of men of war small and great, when these are joined with what there is already in America planns will be formed for the opperations of the Ensuing Campaign, where attacks will be made is unknown, and even if it was Known to me I could not acquaint you of it, one thing is most certain, that its fully determined to Conquer America and the Longer they will Continue obstinate & hold out the worst will their terms be.

No doubt it will be reported through the Country that the army was forced to Leave boston, if so it is a most Infamous falshood, the army embarked on board their transports with all their baggage stores and artillery and every thing that was worth the Carrying without the Least hindrance or Mollestation, or the Loss of one Single Man, and which is more rare not a single Soldier of any of the Regiments attempted to desert though hundred’s of them might Concealed themselves in Cellers and Empty houses about the town, and none of the Yankees durst venture into the town for twenty four hours after the army had Left it.

I have nothing more to add but that I am in perfect Good health and greatly at a Loss which way to advise You, tho’ there is nothing on Earth I wish for More than to have you and the Children along with me, yet the dread of the fatigues and dangers you must Undergo Strikes a damp upon me that I cannot run the risque of ordering you and the Children to be exposed to Such dangers, this, and the Uncertainty of my staying in this place and yet unknown where I am to go, puts it intirely out of my thoughts to give you any such orders. I will certainly write by every opportunity, and Let you know, my farther thoughts upon this affair.

Surely the people has not got so barberously mad as to Mollest or hurt a poor innocent woman and still more Innocent poor Children and Especialy till they know how Matters are to be Settled in America. Should you form a Resolution of Coming to me with the Children, I have given directions to the Commanding officer of His Majestys Ships in the harbor of New Yorke to Send you all the asistance In his power, and procure you a passage in any of his Majestys Ships that Should Come this way; it’s to be hoped you will be allowed to depart in peace and dispose of as much of your Effects as you dont chuse to Carry along with You. You may bring as much Corn, oats, wheat or flour, Gammons, & fowls, of all Sorts as you can possibly get aboard.

David & Donald & Gilbert if he chuses shall Come along with You, all this is only in Case you should Chuse to Come, but if you could Live happy and at peace where you are, I would Like it better as I think it was best for you, for a Little time ’til I am able to know how Matters are Like to go—Peggy is perfectly recovered, her daughter is to be Christened this afternoon by the Name of Susanah McDonald, all the Gentlemen of our Core are very well, those of your acquaintance desires their kind Love to you and the Children. James McDonald mounted his post Guard to day as Lieutenant and I asure you will make a fine brisk officer.
(As usual, I’m adding a few more paragraph breaks into these documents to make them easier to enjoy online. Please go to AmericanRevolution.org to check out more exact transcriptions.)

Col. McDonald recognized that the evacuation of Boston meant that there were no significant British troops left anywhere in the thirteen colonies that had formed the Continental Congress. He didn’t know what that would mean for his family. In this period American public opinion swung to favor independence from Britain, and on 2 July Congress voted for that split as well. But that same day, the British force that McDonald described was landing in Staten Island, poised to take over Long Island and then Manhattan Island.

In his letter, the colonel alluded to David, Donald, and Gilbert, his and Susey’s children. Donald had been studying at Princeton, but his father was angling to get him a British army commission; on 19 Feb 1776, he’d pointed out to Maj. John Small on 19 Feb 1776 that “Mr. Day [a recently commissioned ensign] is not much bigger or older than My Son Donald.” James McDonald was, I suspect, a nephew of the colonel, and Peggy perhaps his wife.

The most famous member of this family was Alexander’s sister-in-law Flora McDonald, who had helped Charles Stuart escape capture in 1746. She had emigrated to North Carolina in 1773 and returned to Britain six years later, suffering a wound during a sea battle on the way back. The picture of Flora McDonald above comes from FirstFoot.com, which offers a more decidedly iconoclastic view of “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”