J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Nifty Idea Wasted through Sloppy Research

A few days back, I promised a fuller explanation of what I find wrong in The Day the American Revolution Began, by William H. Hallahan. By “wrong” I don’t mean I disagree with the author’s theories and conclusions, or his general approach to studying or writing history, or his use of the serial comma. I mean “wrong” as in basic errors of fact.

Hallahan had a nifty idea for a book. In addition to relating the history of the Concord alarm of 19 Apr 1775 in Massachusetts, The Day the American Revolution Began promises to describe how other parts of America and the world reacted to the news of that fight, in many cases weeks later. The Revolution thus “began” on different days in different places. That’s a fresh, interesting take. Unfortunately, the book was badly researched and written, biased in its treatment of the subjects, and inaccurate in its statements.

Where to begin? Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver was not a brother of Chief Justice Peter Oliver [page 58]. Thomas Brattle was not William Brattle [57-8, 286]. James Warren was not a “brilliant physician” [35], but a merchant; obviously Hallahan mixed him up with Dr. Joseph Warren. And speaking of Joseph Warren, he was not the “Loyalist governor” of Rhode Island [79]; that was Joseph Wanton.

William Molineux was not “a draper” [234], but a hardware merchant. Henry Knox did not lose fingers in a hunting accident “many years before” the siege of Boston [73], but three years before, in July 1772. There’s no evidence that Paul Revere’s horse “collapsed, and died on the Concord road” [284]; we don’t know what happened to it.

John Adams didn’t retire from politics in 1770 [298]; he was elected to represent Boston in the Massachusetts General Court in the middle of that year. Oddly enough, on page 71, Hallahan falsely dates that same election to 1771. Adams was not a close friend of newspaper essayist Daniel Leonard [59-60]; rather, he had been a close friend of Jonathan Sewall, and mistakenly thought Sewall wrote Leonard’s Massachusettensis essays.

There were not “500 indictments for smuggling” pending against John Hancock in 1775 [25]; there were none. At no point were Boston Customs inspectors “pitched overboard into the harbor” [76]. John Malcolm was not “A [sic] elderly dockworker” [60], but a middle-aged Customs official. Malcolm was not attacked in January 1774 by “a gang celebrating the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party” since that event had occurred only six weeks before. He was attacked because he had clubbed shoemaker George R. T. Hewes.

The Boston Massacre did not occur in 1765, but in 1770 [85]. Gen. Thomas Gage did not bring the unpopular 29th Regiment back to Boston in 1774 [85]. British soldiers had not “already tarred and feathered others” in New England before Thomas Ditson, Jr., on 8 Mar 1775 [7].

Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould did not die “of his wound not long after” signing a deposition for the Provincial Congress when he was a prisoner of war [285]. He was exchanged for other prisoners, sailed to England, got married, testified in John Horne Tooke’s state trial, and lived for many years.

The sloppiness extends to the book’s illustrations. Page 1 shows a picture of Faneuil Hall as it appeared after Charles Bulfinch greatly expanded it in 1805. Page 245 shows a picture of the Houses of Parliament that were being constructed half a century later. In other words, neither view has any connection to the day the American Revolution began, however that’s defined.

And then there’s all that Hallahan had to say about Samuel Adams.

TOMORROW: Don’t get me started.


Anonymous said...

The statement about John Adams may not be an error--I think he did leave the General Court soon after being seated in 1770 because he was exhausted. At least that's what I've read--worth double-checking?

Sarah Rettger said...

Wow, J.L. I was about to ask whether you were reading an ARC or a finished copy until I saw the pub date.

Do you know if anyone noticed the errors eight years ago?

J. L. Bell said...

Ben, as I recall, John Adams served one term in the House from mid-1770 to May 1771, and then indeed retired with his first bout of nervous exhaustion. Of course, the fact that James Otis, Jr., was apparently well and wishing to serve again was another factor in Adams’s withdrawal. But in the same period Adams moved out of Boston and visited the medicinal springs in Stafford, Connecticut, so he really was sick.

The Hallahan book manages to botch the dates so they come out in reverse: Adams elected in 1771, retired in 1770.

J. L. Bell said...

I posted about some of these errors on Amazon back when the book came out—the first and last time I’ve ever done that. (And as of today, 28 of 35 people said they found that comment helpful.)