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, July 31, 2008

The Last of the Boston Light

Earlier this month, Christopher Klein, author of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands, contributed two articles about the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island and the Continental Army’s raid on that lighthouse on 20 July 1775. But that wasn’t the end of the story, or the end of the lighthouse.

Here’s Chris’s conclusion:

Just 11 days after their first attack on Boston Light, the patriots hit again. This time, a detachment of 300 men led by Major Benjamin Tupper set out in whaleboats from Nantasket during the night of 30 July 1775 and landed on Little Brewster Island in the early hours of the morning on 31 July.

The patriots overcame the guard, gained the upper hand on the British marines stationed on the island, and burned the lighthouse and buildings on the island. Tupper’s men killed between 10 and 12 British troops and made prisoners of the rest while suffering only one fatality of their own.

In his letter to the Continental Congress dated August 4 and 5 of 1775, General George Washington reported:

A Number of Workmen having been sent down to repair [Boston Light] with a Guard of 22 Marines & a Subaltern, Major Tupper last Monday Morning about 2 oClock landed there with about 300 Men, attack’d them killed the Officer, & 4 Privates, but being detained by the Tide, in his Return he was attack’d by several Boats, but he happily got through with the Loss of one Man killed & another wounded. The Remainder of the ministerial [i.e., British] Troops, 3 of which are badly wounded, he brought off Prisoners, with 10 Tories all of whom are on their Way to Springfield Gaol.
Washington’s general orders of 1 August 1775 also included this item:
The General thanks Major Tupper, and the Officers and Soldiers under his Command, for their gallant and soldierlike behaviour in possessing themselves of the enemy’s post at the Light House, and for the Number of Prisoners they took there, and doubts not, but the Continental Army, will be as famous for their mercy as for their valour.
By June 1776, the British had evacuated Boston but their ships still lurked in the harbor. When they were finally driven out of the harbor for good on 13 June 1776, the British returned the favor to the colonists and blew up the tower of Boston Light using a timed charge. It was an ignominious “parting gift” from the Redcoats, who were led by the aptly named Captain Bangs.

The British destruction of the lighthouse is the reason why the beacon at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, which dates to 1764, has the distinction of being the oldest lighthouse structure in America, although Boston Light is still the oldest light station in the country. Boston Light would lay dark for seven years before it was rebuilt under orders from John Hancock in 1783.

Today, the distinguished, bold pillar of Boston Light is a postcard-perfect lighthouse, and it is the last to retain a Coast Guard keeper. Tours of Boston Light run from Thursday to Sunday through early October. For more information, visit www.bostonislands.org.

Thanks again, Chris!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Looking for Thomas Woodson and Finding a Blank

Annette Gordon-Reed’s book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and Eugene A. Foster’s genetic study brought a lot more attention to the question of Thomas Jefferson’s African-American descendants in the late 1990s. Among the responses was the publication in 2001 of A President in the Family, by Byron W. Woodson. The author laid out his family’s case to have descended from Jefferson through a man named Thomas Woodson.

Unfortunately, this book doesn’t distinguish between facts shown in contemporary documents and the Woodson family’s understandings. It doesn’t show how early the family story was recorded, and what independent traditions exist in different branches of the family—both useful in establishing the validity of oral traditions. And it doesn’t address the big holes in the theory of a Jefferson-Woodson link:

  • There’s no documented link between Thomas Woodson and Monticello or nearby parts of Virginia. (In contrast, Sally Hemings’s youngest sons Madison and Eston are well established in Monticello and Charlottesville records, and there are clear mentions of older siblings as well.)
  • Thomas Woodson left no account of his childhood as Jefferson’s son (unlike Madison Hemings).
  • There’s no genetic match between the Woodson and Jefferson Y chromosomes (unlike the situation with patrilineal descendants of Eston Jefferson, who had been born Eston Hemings).
  • Had Woodson been born in 1790, as his descendants came to believe, then he would have been only seventeen when he entered the historical record. At that time he was already a husband, a father, and a landowner in western Virginia. It would have been exceptional for a minor to do those things, much less a minor born into slavery.
I suspect that in the late 1800s, after Thomas Woodson’s long life, his relatives tried to learn more about his origin, and connected hints about his past with statements about Sally Hemings that had been in print for decades. Then that tradition was passed down, feeling more certain with each generation. It’s tough to give up the understandings we grow up with. But Thomas Woodson and his family have plenty of accomplishments of their own (documented in the book) which don’t depend on a presidential past.

The William & Mary Quarterly review of A President in the Family noted the book’s flaws but praised Woodson for drawing attention to a pertinent detail of Jefferson’s farm book. I suspect Woodson consulted a published transcript of that notebook, but we no longer have to. The Massachusetts Historical Society, which owns the farm book, has posted page images online.

Page 31 lists children born enslaved on two Jefferson estates from 1779 to 1799. In the year 1790, according to rumors published by the political journalist James T. Callender in 1802 and the recollections of Madison Hemings in 1873, Sally Hemings gave birth to a boy conceived with Thomas Jefferson while they were in Paris. There’s no record of such a birth in the farm book—but an entry has been erased in the box for boys born in 1790.

Woodson saw this as possible evidence that Jefferson had covered up the birth of a boy named Thomas when it became politically or socially damaging. After looking at the page, I’m not so sure. There are other full or partial erasures in the notebook. The birth of Sally Hemings’s son Beverly in 1798 is still recorded on the right side of the same page. And the remnants of the mother’s name don’t seem to fit the word “Sally’s.”

COMING UP: More about the Jefferson farm records.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On the Trail of the Jefferson Y Chromosome

Yesterday I wrote about Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed reexamining the evidence about the paternity of Sally Hemings’s children in 1997 and concluding that certainty lay in the realm of medical science, not documentary history.

That’s where Eugene A. Foster, M.D., entered the picture. He had been a pathologist and professor of forensic medicine at Tufts and the University of Virginia. Like Gordon-Reed, he was trained to think rigorously about evidence. Foster had read about the question of whether Hemings’s owner, Thomas Jefferson, fathered those Hemings children, and wondered if there could be a genetic answer.

These remarks come from Frontline’s interview with Foster:

The experts and I had thought that, after five, six or seven generations, the DNA of the person who you’re interested in...would be diluted so much that you can hardly find any. In other words, in each generation, a parent passes on only half or less of his or her DNA to the children, so with each generation, it begins to disappear. So even if we knew what was specifically characteristic of Thomas Jefferson’s DNA, we would have very little chance of finding it in people who are his descendants or think they’re his descendants.

And then the whole thing was complicated because of other family relationships, like the fact that Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s wife probably had the same father. The Carr brothers, who were also implicated in this affair, had ancestors common with the Jeffersons, and so forth. So it was just going to be impossible. . . .

But the Y chromosome is something that is passed. It’s the chromosome that determines whether you are a man. So a man has the Y chromosome and an X chromosome and the woman has two X chromosomes. The beauty of that is, since you only have one Y chromosome and it’s gotten only from your father, that means it isn’t diluted. It goes from generation to generation, father to son, unchanged. No one had thought of using it for these purposes, because it had not been thought to have enough variation.
Foster’s contribution to history was to apply a new discovery in medical science to an old, seemingly intractable question. He turned what seemed like a boring quality in genetics—“not enough variation” in men’s Y chromosome—into an advantage when it came to studying paternity nearly two centuries before.

With the assistance of genealogist Herbert Barger and others, Foster located patrilineal (i.e., son of a son of a son...) descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle, one Hemings child, Thomas Woodson, and the Carr brothers. Then a team of British and Dutch geneticists tested those men’s Y chromosomes to find close matches, and some British statisticians analyzed the results.

Foster published the team’s findings in Nature in 1998, and the news immediately made headlines. They had found a match between the Jefferson and Hemings lines, and no match between those lines and those of the Woodson or Carr families. Given the elimination of any Carr link to Sally Hemings’s children, the documentary evidence already pointing to Thomas Jefferson as their father, and the total lack of evidence from the nineteenth century pointing to any other Jefferson, Foster’s study settled the question for most historians and other observers.

What I find especially convincing about this analysis is that no one in the nineteenth century could have predicted D.N.A. science, or known who would have patrilineal descendants alive in 1998. In other words, someone making up a story about the Hemings children in the 1800s had no idea what evidence that story would have to match and explain in the future. And of all the detailed accounts of the Hemings family set down in the nineteenth century, only one—the memories of Madison Hemings—was fully consistent with the Foster study.

Foster died last week at age 81, and his obituaries led with his Jefferson work.

TOMORROW: The mystery of Thomas Woodson.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Sea Change in an American Controversy

Back in 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor at New York University, published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. It’s a well argued book, if not a well written one. It looked at two things: all the documentary evidence about Sally Hemings’s children, and all that historians and journalists had written since 1802 about the various reports that Thomas Jefferson or others had fathered those children.

Gordon-Reed’s firmest conclusion was that historians had not given fair consideration to the people who said that Jefferson was the father. And no one could really argue with that after looking at her evidence and arguments. Authors had clearly used double standards to judge those remarks against the denials from Jefferson’s acknowledged descendants.

As for the validity of different people’s claims to be descended from Jefferson, Gordon-Reed later told the P.B.S. show Frontline in an interview archived here how she found some stronger than others:

I researched the question of whether or not Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a child named Tom, who was first Tom Hemings, and then later changed his name to Tom Woodson. I came to the conclusion that that story was not supportable.

There was simply not enough in the documentary record for me to say that I believed that Thomas Woodson, who definitely existed, was in fact the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I came to that conclusion because there are no records at Monticello ever listing him as a child of Sally Hemings, even when he would have been a very small child.

Madison Hemings’s memoir says that [his mother] Sally Hemings was pregnant when she returned from France with Jefferson, but that that child had died, and the thinking is that perhaps he just didn’t know. . . . But why would his mother say that the child died?

There was no documentary record of Tom, unlike the Madison Hemings situation, where you actually have a child telling his story. Madison Hemings’s story is not really properly cast as oral history [i.e., a tradition passed down in a chain of people]. He is a witness, a historical witness from the time, who’s telling you about his life.

The oral history of the Woodson family is very strong, but it was not enough for me to say that that story was as wrapped up as the Madison Hemings story.
Gordon-Reed didn’t include Thomas Woodson or any child named Tom on the Hemings family tree in the frontmatter of her 1997 book. She held back from judging Madison Hemings’s claim as valid, arguing only that it needed fairer consideration. Instead, in her introduction she wrote:
It is not my goal to prove that the story is true or that it is false. I suspect that if that is ever done, it will be the result of the miracles of modern science and all the wonders of D.N.A. research, and not because of any interpretation of documents and statements.
Despite that caution, I think that Gordon-Reed’s book produced a sea change in how American historians looked at this question, from believing that a Jefferson-Hemings relationship was unlikely (as had been stated the year before by Joseph Ellis in American Sphinx) to believing that it was more likely than not.

TOMORROW: The wonders of D.N.A. research.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Revolution Comes to Sturbridge?

From Old Sturbridge Village comes this news of a military reenactment on 2-3 August:

The Village is transformed into a military camp focusing on what life was like during the War for Independence. Camped in the fields and pastures from the Common to Freeman Farm, hundreds of Revolution-era troops will be drilling and marching, fifing and drumming, cooking and camping in 18th-century fashion, along with civilian tagalongs—including doctors, wives, and children.

Kids will be invited to learn to march, cannons and muskets will be booming, and there’ll even be a military “fashion show” to enjoy.

On Saturday evening (August 2) from 5 to 9 p.m., join the troops and their families for a Twilight Encampment and gain insight into camp life beyond the daytime focus on military activities. Free for Village members and the day’s front gate visitors, the evening encampment is also open to walk-ins for a late-day admission fee.
The O.S.V. website promises updates on what reenactor units will attend. In addition, Hitchcock Academy in nearby Brimfield is hosting a U.S. Civil War reenactment on the same weekend, and visitors to either event can receive a discount on visiting the other.

Of course, a Revolutionary-era event in Old Sturbridge is an anachronism. The village is a recreation of a New England town from the 1830s, and displays buildings (the bank) and technology (the carding mill) that didn’t exist in New England during the Revolution. But it’s also a lovely landscape with excellent collections, so we just have to think hard enough not to lump all historical periods together as “yore.”

Friday, July 25, 2008

Tracking Tomahawk through the Decades

Having subtly reestablished my scholarly standing yesterday, I feel free to highlight some images that I gathered for Wednesday’s workshop at Old South Meeting House about using graphic novels (comics) to teach the Revolutionary War.

The most successful American comic book about that historical period was DC’s Tomahawk, published monthly and then bimonthly from 1950 to 1972 (the last ten issues under the title Son of Tomahawk). The character of Tom Hawk, Revolutionary frontier warrior, also appeared in Star Spangled Comics (1947-52) and World’s Finest Comics (1948-59). I linked to Scott Shaw!’s essay about this comic last November, but that link seems to have broken, so I have to point to Don Markstein’s Toonopedia instead.

Most of the time Tomahawk was a western that just happened to be set during the Revolutionary War. The hero’s costume (and that of his boy sidekick) reflected the mid-1900s image of American frontiersmen regardless of time period: fringed buckskin and coonskin cap. Only the dress of other white characters showed that these stories took place in the eighteenth century, along the old northwest frontier.

Tomahawk usually fought Native Americans as well as British soldiers, though (as in the real Revolution) the Continental forces also had Native allies. The covers of the Tomahawk magazine tended to emphasize those “Old West”-style battles, as on this one from August 1954.

But the fad for western comics faded, and Tomahawk had to keep up with the times. In the late 1950s, comics of all sorts were borrowing from science fiction; that was when Batman kept leaving Gotham City to go into space, or into other dimensions. This issue of Tomahawk from Sept-Oct 1958 is one of many which show the frontiersman meeting monsters of one sort or another.
The word “dinosaur” wasn’t coined until 1841, and the Enlightenment was only barely beginning to conceive of the possibility of “prehistoric” times. But such details didn’t stop America’s Favorite Frontier Hero!

Costumed superheroes started to dominate the comic book form again in the late 1950s and early 1960s, eventually driving out nearly every other type of story. Again, Tomahawk reflected that fashion in July-Aug 1962 by adding a costumed heroine who dropped by periodically.

By the end of Tomahawk’s second decade, many comic books were reflecting their young target audience’s concerns about social justice, and trying to offer more emotional realism. This remarkable issue from Mar-Apr 1969 portrays the Indian fighter’s regrets about, well, fighting Indians.
The Tomahawk comic book doesn’t really teach the Revolutionary War, of course, but it shows how comic books changed over time. All these covers, and more, come from the Grand Comics Database.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

“Creative and Provocative Analysis”

H-Childhood, the H-Net email list about the history of childhood, has just distributed a review of Children in Colonial America by Prof. Gail S. Murray of Rhodes College in Memphis. The review will eventually be has now been archived at the H-Net website, when you can confirm that she wrote:

The strength of the collection, however, is the way it expands one’s thinking about colonial America, a society dominated numerically by those under the age of twenty. . . .

Marten took care to include studies of the mix of peoples populating colonial America. . . . More familiar British-American childhoods also receive creative and provocative analysis, as in J. L. Bells’s [sic] “From Saucy Boys to Sons of Liberty” and Darcy R. Fryer’s exploration of “Growing Up Rich in Eighteenth-Century South Carolina.”
Also, I missed it at the time because I wasn’t yet reading Philobiblos and it unaccountably didn’t include my name, but in March 2007 Jeremy Dibbell called the book “A useful, current and largely impressive anthology on an under-studied topic.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hunting for “The Year of the Hangman”

Yesterday I responded to novelist Laurie Halse Anderson’s question about whether John Adams actually wrote about 1777 as “the year of the hangman.” I quoted Adams’s words from over a decade later indicating that unspecified, untraceable “Tories” had said that 1777 “had three gallowses in it, meaning the three sevens.”

However, Adams didn’t write “the year of the hangman,” and neither did anyone else I can find in the 1770s. The label doesn’t appear the Archive of Americana database of period newspapers and pamphlets. Nor is it in the Adams family letters, the George Washington Papers, and the other digital databases I usually check for period usage.

In fact, the earliest use of that phrase for 1777 that I found through Google Books is Lynn Montross’s The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, published in 1950. That book includes a chapter titled “Year of the Hangman,” and at one point says, “It was the year of the hangman, and the gallows jokes exchanged in the State House were not so humorous after the imprisonment of [Richard] Stockton...”

As far as I can tell, Montross coined that phrase; I haven’t uncovered an earlier usage. He didn’t say the words came from 1777, only that it reflected how the Patriots saw their situation that year. But then the same words appeared in other books, with the growing implication that it was a genuine period phrase:

  • The 1966 Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, edited by Mark Boatner, included an entry on “Hangman, year of the.”
  • One part of The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783, authored by Dave Richard Palmer in 1969, carried that title.
  • The phrase “year of the gallows” comes from a character’s mouth in Thomas Fleming’s 1976 novel Liberty Tavern.
  • John S. Pancake’s 1777: The Year of the Hangman (1977) quotes Adams’s original letter to explain its subtitle.
  • Gary Blackwood’s The Year of the Hangman (2002) is an alternate history marketed to teen-aged readers.
  • The strategy game shown above, designed by Ed Wimble, is “an operational study of the campaign for Philadelphia.”
  • Most recently, Glenn F. Williams’s award-winning military history Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois was published in 2005.
As its subtitle indicates, that last book isn’t really about hangings of American rebels or British convicts, but about the ruthless war on the U.S. of A.’s northwest frontier. It’s a long way from Adams’s original claim that Tories joked that 1777 would see a lot of rebels going to the gallows. I think the phrase’s appearance on that book shows the real appeal of “Year of the Hangman”—it just sounds like a cool title.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

John Adams and the “Three Gallowses”

Boston 1775 reader Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Fever 1793 and the upcoming Chains, just wrote to me:

All kinds of books quote [John] Adams as calling 1777 “the year of the hangman,” but I can’t find anyone who cites a primary source document so I can a) verify it and b) put it in context with whatever else he was writing.

Do you have a clue about where this one comes from?
Laurie hit on a mystery that’s been bugging me, too. I’ve seen various writers say that 1777 was called “the year of the hangman” because the date looked like a line of gallows, and because the British authorities were threatening to hang lots of people—either convicts in Britain or rebels in America, it’s not clear which. But I haven’t seen any citation of a primary source. So I went hunting.

In 1789, Adams exchanged letters with Henry Marchant of Rhode Island (shown above, courtesy of Wikipedia), recollecting their experiences in the Continental Congress. The Vice President wrote:
I left Congress on the 11th of November, 1777, that year which the Tories said, had three gallowses in it, meaning the three sevens...
I don’t know the exact date of that letter because it appeared only in a footnote in the third volume of The Works of John Adams, edited by grandson Charles Francis Adams and published in 1851.

Within a decade, historians were taking John Adams’s word for it that Tories had indeed said the year 1777 should be read that way. The November 1859 Atlantic Monthly included an article that stated: “The Tories felt certain of victory. In the political almanac of that party, 1777 was ‘the year with three gallows in it.’

There are only two problems with that conclusion:
  • We still don’t have any citations of an actual Tory saying or writing anything of the sort. The phrase “three gallows(es)” doesn’t appear in the Archive of Americana database for that period. Perhaps there were such quotations—in Britain? in undigitized newspapers? in private letters? But I haven’t found them yet.
  • It’s possible that this remark didn’t make it into writing, but Adams heard Loyalists say it. But where would a Continental Congress delegate known for pushing independence hear such remarks?
  • As I’ve noted before, Adams liked to see himself as facing up to stronger opposition and criticism than was really out there. It seems quite plausible that he heard one political opponent—or even a political ally—joke about the sevens in 1777 and recalled that was what “Tories” threatened in general.
TOMORROW: But what about “the year of the hangman”?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Samuel Adams in Mezzotint

In May, Boston 1775 reader Judy Cataldo sent me this tidbit from the Boston Gazette, dated 3 Apr 1775—two weeks before the shooting in Lexington:

In a few days to be Published, (Price Half a Dollar)
A fine Mezzotinto Print of that truly worthy Patriot S.A. the size of the Print 14 inches by 10 and half, Executed and Published by and for Charles Reek and Samuel Okey, in Newport, Rhode Island, to whom Letters sent will be duly answered; and to be sold by Edes and Gill, and James Foster Condy, in Boston.
Just two months before, Bloomsbury Auctions in New York had resold one of those mezzotints, as recorded (and pictured) on Live Auctioneers. Its description reads:
In this portrait [Samuel] Adams is standing in front of a table with a paper in his hand, engraved with the words “Instructions from ye Town of Boston”—probably referring to his famous Circular Letter. [Actually, I bet that showed the town meeting’s instructions to its representatives to the Massachusetts General Court. Adams often had a hand in writing those instructions as well as in carrying them out.]

Below the title are eight lines of verse in two columns celebrating Adams’s opposition to the Intolerable Acts [sic]:
When haughty North impress’d wth proud Disdain,
Spurn’d at the Virtue, which rejects his Chain;
Heard with a Tyrant Soon our Rights implor’d,
And when we su’d for Justice sent the Sword:
Lo! Adams rose, in Warfare nobly try’d,
His Country’s Saviour, Father, Shield & Guide,
Urg’d by her Wrongs he wag’d ye glorious Strife
Nor paus’d to waste a Coward-Thought on Life.
The painting by J. Mitchell after which the mezzotint was designed was based on J. S. Copley’s portrait of Adams now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts [and originally painted for John Hancock]. Samuel Okey had only a very short working life in the Americas: he engraved and published in Newport from 1773-1775, and had returned to London by 1778.
Quite likely Okey was simply giving the New England market what he and Reak thought it wanted rather than expressing his own politics.

On the other hand, the men who sold this print in army-occupied Boston were big Adams fans. Benjamin Edes and John Gill were the printers of the Gazette, and two of the busiest radicals in town. James Foster Condy was a bookseller and Tea Party veteran. He was, friends of the royal government noted, “Cashiered [as a] Cadet for Abusing one of the Honourable Commissioners of his Majesties Customs” while in uniform. Being forced out of that prestigious militia company only made him popular, and Boston’s town meeting appointed Condy to the large committee promoting the Continental Congress’s boycott of British imports.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Skirmish at the Boston Light

Yesterday guest blogger Christopher Klein, author of the new book Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands: A Guide to the City’s Hidden Shores, described the importance of the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island. That first North American lighthouse is shown above in a late-1800s sketch based of a mezzotint engraving created by William Burgis in 1729.

In 1775, that lighthouse made it safe for the Royal Navy and British supply ships to navigate Boston harbor at night. The islands were the British military’s nearest source of fodder and vegetables. Aiming to strike at the Crown forces, Maj. Joseph Vose of the Continental Army led a raiding party onto the Nantasket peninsula on the night of 18 July 1775. Their ultimate goal was Little Brewster Island. Chris describes what happened next:

The patriots landed on the island on the morning of 20 July 1775, burned the wooden parts of the lighthouse, and removed three casks of oil, gunpowder, and furniture. Seeing the beacon in flames, several British barges, a cutter, and an armed schooner attacked Vose’s detachment, but only two patriots were wounded in the action.

A letter from Brigadier General William Heath to George Washington, dated 21 July 1775, recounted the actions of Vose’s detachment, both on Little Brewster Island and on other islands in Boston Harbor:


I have the Pleasure to inform your Excellency that Major Vose of my own Regiment; beside[s] securing the Barley on Nantasket; yesterday morning Landed on the Light-House Island with Six or Seven Boats, the Light House was set on Fire and the wood work Burnt, the Party brought off Three Casks of Oyl, all the furniture of the Light house, about 50 wt of Gun Powder, a Quantity of Cordage &c. (an Inventory of which will be forwarded to your Excellency;)

Some of the Brave men who effected this with their Lives in their Hands, have just now applied to me to know whether it was to be consid[ered] as Plunder, or otherwise; I was not able to detirmine this matter, but told them that I would Lay the matter before your Excellency; I would beg leave to add that these Brave men, were some of them at Grape Island, Deer Island & at Long Island when each of those Islands were Stripped of their Stock &c.

I have the Honor to be your Excellency’s most obedient & very Humble Servt
W. Heath
The British quickly deployed Loyalist workers, protected by a guard of marines, to repair Boston Light. “With this Party,” Vice Admiral Samuel Graves wrote, “the Engineers were of opinion the Light House might well be defended, until Succours arrived, against 1000 men, and the Admiral expected to have the Building soon repaired and a Light shewn as before.”

And it appears the British did proceed quickly in their repair of the light. In a letter to John Adams, James Warren reported that by the night of 29 July the British efforts to rebuild the beacon were “in such forwardness as Actually to shew a Light.”

However, the other assessment by Graves as to the ease of defending Boston Light would soon be put to the test.

Check back at Boston 1775 on 31 July for the next chapter in the lighthouse’s war story. Thanks, Chris!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Boston Light and Little Brewster Island

I’ve flown off to Iowa to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday, lucky enough to have Christopher Klein offering to fill in as a guest blogger. Chris is the author of the new book Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands, published by Union Park Press. In this article, he describes Boston harbor’s main landmark in the eighteenth century.

When Boston Light was kindled in 1716, the solitary sentinel commanding the entrance to Boston Harbor became the first lighthouse in North America. It was a magnificent triumph for the maritime interests of Boston, providing them with a competitive advantage against commercial rivals such as New York City. Not only was Boston Light the first lighthouse in North America, it was one of only a handful to be found anywhere in the world at that time.

Unfortunately, 60 years after its beams first bounced across the waves of Massachusetts Bay, the original lighthouse was destroyed in the opening act of the American Revolution.

Following the devastating battles at Lexington and Concord, the beleaguered British troops and their sympathizers under siege on the peninsula of Boston were in desperate need of supplies. With land routes cut off, the British set their sights on the farms of the Boston Harbor Islands, which remained readily available to them as their naval supremacy remained intact. The hay, vegetables, and livestock on the islands were of strategic importance to both sides, and periodic island skirmishes between the British and the colonists broke out between May and July of 1775. Long, Peddocks, Deer, and Grape Islands were all scenes of skirmishes in the spring and summer of 1775.

Perhaps no island, however, was of more strategic importance than Little Brewster Island, simply because it was the location of Boston Light. The lighthouse was still in British hands in July 1775 when the patriots, seeking to disrupt British control of the harbor, launched two daring raids on Little Brewster Island.

On the night of 18 July 1775, a detachment of approximately 400 soldiers led by Major Joseph Vose set out for Nantasket peninsula on the southern shore of Boston Harbor where they cut and removed 1,000 bushels of barley and a large quantity of hay, thus depriving the British of these badly needed supplies. From Nantasket, a company of soldiers set off in whaleboats for Little Brewster Island.

TOMORROW: The Continentals make landfall, and the British counterattack.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Upcoming Live Appearances

On Wednesday, 23 July, I’ll be one speaker at a teachers’ workshop on “Enhancing Study of the American Revolution through Literature and Film,” co-sponsored by the Old South Meeting House and the Paul Revere House. My topic will be using comic books graphic novels to teach Revolutionary history. Other parts of the program look at picture books about the Boston Tea Party and Johnny Tremain in both book and movie form. I don’t know if there are spaces still available, but you can contact Aliza Saivetz at Old South to ask.

In August, on Saturday the 9th and Saturday the 16th, I’ll once again lead a walking tour of Brattle Street in Cambridge titled “The Powder Alarm of 1774 and the End of British Government in Massachusetts.” We meet at 2:00 P.M. outside the Cambridge Center for Adult Education building at 42 Brattle Street, and the walk covers a little less than two miles. You can download a complete list of Cambridge Discovery Days events from the city’s Historical Commission. Below is a photograph by Boston 1775 reader Robert Mitchell showing one of last year’s tours stopped for a welcome pause outside the Cambridge Historical Society.

“Yesterday the Declaration for Independency was Published”

Of course I’m going to link to this document when the Massachusetts Historical Society makes it so easy!

On 18 July 1776, Sheriff William Greenleaf, assisted by Col. Thomas Crafts, read the Declaration of Independence aloud to the Massachusetts Council and the public gathered outside the Town House (now called the Old State House). The M.H.S.’s object of the month is a letter from Henry Alline to family members describing that event.

Yesterday the Declaration for Independency was Published ou[t] of the Balcony of the Town House. A detachment of the Train of Artillery with two field pieces. And also a detachment of the Colony Troops attended in King Street [soon renamed State Street, for obvious reasons], and after the[y] finished Reading the Declaration there [were] three hearty Chears given, And the field pieces were discharged a Number of times, & the Musquettry, & the Several batteries in Town & upon the Islands and at Nantaskett fired, the Bells rang, and in the Afternoon was tore down the Lion & the Unicon upon the East End of the Town House & the Kings Arms taken down from the Council Chamber, Court House & other places & towards Evening all were Committed to the flames to the Satisfaction of every body but Tories.
Most of Alline’s letter is actually taken up with smallpox inoculations for the family and the frustrating quest to recover property and documents that had gone missing during the siege.

Links on the M.H.S.’s webpage lead to other accounts of the reading from Abigail Adams and John Rowe.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Revolutionary War Records Talk in Boston, 23 July

On Wednesday, 23 July, the New England Historic Genealogical Society will host a lecture on “Researching with Revolutionary War Records” by David Allen Lambert. Though he’s the society’s online genealogist, this is an actual, in-person event.

This talk will take place at 10:00 A.M. in the N.E.H.G.S.’s headquarters at 101 Newbury Street in Boston. It’s free to the public. (There’s a fee for non-members who want to use the society’s research library.)

For more information, contact Ryan Woods at 617-226-1226.

Protecting the Right to Spout Nonsense

At last here are my own thoughts on the law and lawsuit in Philadelphia about licensing tour guides. As I understand it, the city plans to charge potential tour guides $25 to take a certification exam on their knowledge of local history, and to fine them $300 if they lead tours in the city’s historic center without such certification.

I think the certification is a good idea, but I don’t like the fines. And if that approach allows tour-guide misinformation to flourish, I’m okay with that.

Even though I can’t resist pointing out the media games and possible double standards underlying the suit against the new law, I still think it has some basic philosophical merit. One outcome of America’s Revolutionary turmoil was a written guarantee of speech free of federal government interference. There are logical and legal limits to that freedom, but they involve harm to others. No one’s going to be seriously hurt by hearing the old saw that “Sleep tight” refers to rope beds (it doesn’t) or that Benjamin Franklin wrote all those little maxims in Poor Richard’s Almanac (he didn’t). In short, tour guides have a First Amendment right to spout nonsense.

Yes, I hate hearing any guide spout nonsense about the past, especially nonsense that doesn’t stand up to a minute’s scrutiny. I also hate restaurant menus that offer meat “with au jus,” having to figure out a control mechanism suitable for flying the space shuttle when I just want to take a shower, and the growing number of people who think that an apostrophe is necessary in forming plural nouns. But those irksome things don’t warrant government penalties. It’s not as if a one-hour tour is a family’s only possible source for historic information; I’m pretty sure Philadelphia still has bookstores.

I think the Philadelphia government or a non-profit organization could administer a program to certify tour guides as knowledgeable about city history, perhaps funded by application fees. Boston 1775 reader Guy Curtis sent a link to the Association of Professional Tourist Guides in London, known for their “Blue Badge” certification, which could be a good model.

Guides who pass a basic history test would be able to present themselves to tourists and school groups as reliable “certified historical guides” or some such. Other tour guides who haven’t passed the test could seek a different competitive advantage in being cheaper, more comedic, ideologically pure—whatever they think their audiences want. As long as there’s no fraud involved, there’s no foul to be called. If the real problem is noise pollution, then the solution should focus on noise, not knowledge.

The situation in Philadelphia might be more complex if it involves limited public resources, such as space in the tourist areas. Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky wrote this March that:

outside the Independence Visitor Center,...sidewalks used to be crammed with a hodge-podge of operators passing out brochures, hawking tickets and undercutting competitors so aggressively that visitors complained.
If there’s room for only a certain number of historic guides and more applicants than slots, then I think the city should be able to favor certified guides over uncertified. But that’s still a long way from fining people for telling tourists about history without government authorization.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Production of History, Myths, and Tours

I’ve been writing about the controversy over Philadelphia’s plan to license tour guides to work in the historic center: useful local regulation or affront to free speech? This flared briefly into a national story while I was out of the country, and I looked into it after reading Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke’s comments on Cliopatria. That’s one of the central blogs of historical study due to its home at History News Network.

Burke offered this take on the issue:

There has already been the standard objection that this test is an unnecessary bureaucratic or regulatory burden. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that argument, not the least because I wonder what kind of test is likely to come out of Philadelphia’s municipal bureaucracy, and about how such a test is likely to acquire all sorts of encrustations and excesses over time.

But my real objection is...

I teach a class called “The Production of History” where I try to focus on the way the past is known, debated, contested and reimagined in public life, the way that historical knowledge circulates in everyday contexts. It’s tremendously difficult to get many of my students to progress past the point where they view popular or common conceptions and representations of history as errors in need of official or scholarly correction, where they start to see that how the past is known and imagined, told and retold, is something to understand and think about, not simply correct or repair.

So the problem with the proposed regulation in Philadelphia is not just the question of what kind of standard the city will end up establishing. It is also that the city is going to try to regulate fabulisms and retellings out of existence, to be a positivist nanny. I trust in the tumultuous processes by which stories about the past come into being, and through which stories about the past are evaluated by audiences (including tourists).
At first, I read Burke as saying that he values the silly stories some tour guides tell as teaching material—an approach only a history professor could take. But on third or fourth reading, I finally caught up to what he was saying. He accepts “fabulisms and retellings” as a necessary part of the process of producing fresh public understandings of the past; he trusts that process to work itself out, just as many economists trust the market.

Burke’s brief essay appears to take for granted that his readers (most of whom are, after all, other academic historians) are also aware of those “tumultuous processes,” fabulisms and all, and other their value; no examples seem necessary. In contrast, as he notes, most history students, history fans, and members of the general public are concerned with “getting it right” factually.

I think there are some weak spots in this argument. First, even college professors like folks to acknowledge documented facts. The complaints that led to Philadelphia’s new law weren’t about tour guides stating debatable points, such as how much the Navigation Acts motivated popular opposition to the Crown in the 1760s. They were about guides reportedly saying that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had dinner together. I presume any test for tour guides would focus on the most solid, documented facts.

Equally, I’ve found many members of the public to be interested in the “Production of History.” How do we know things about the past? What did earlier generations believe? What are the big debates in the field? What new evidence has appeared? To be sure, people often ask those questions with an underlying belief that there are definite answers about what happened in the past, and that historians have the job of ferreting out those answers rather than just keeping track of the “tumultuous processes.” But I think the public is ready for some ambiguity.

Secondly, in Philadelphia those valuable tumultuous processes have produced the Betsy Ross House as one of the anchors of the historic district. More visitors to the city probably know Ross’s name than that of any other Philadelphian of the time but Franklin. And yet there’s no solid evidence linking her to the creation of the U.S. flag, as her legend has it. Yes, it’s fascinating how Americans have come to remember Ross so much more than such contemporaries as Thomas Mifflin, Esther Reed, or Margaret Thomas. But historical tourism in Philadelphia may not have the best record of helping audiences evaluate the stories of the past.

Finally, to return to my analogy about economists trusting the market, most of those social scientists also see the need for some government regulation. (Some economists don’t, of course.) In the same vein, governments often step in to influence the generation and spread of stories about the past: by publishing records, vetting textbooks, preserving sites, erecting statuary, choosing holidays, employing history professors, &c. Testing and licensing tour guides would be just another government step in Philadelphia, one that other cities and sites have already taken.

So we still have the original question of whether Philadelphia’s plan is a useful or an unwarranted intrusion into the marketplace/process.

TOMORROW: My own prescription for the City of Brotherly Love.

[ADDENDUM: By coincidence, the latest issue of Colonial Williamsburg magazine contains an article by Ed Crews titled “The Truth About Betsy Ross.”]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Libertarian Lawyers, Tour Guides, and Straw Men

As I described yesterday, in April the Philadelphia government decided to launch a process for educating, testing, and licensing tour guides working in its historic center. On 2 July, the libertarian Institute for Justice sued on behalf of three guides to block that law. On the same day, an institute lawyer published an opinion piece in the upscale Philadelphia Inquirer, and one plaintiff, Mike Tait, published a similar piece in the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News.

That date was more than two months after the law was enacted, more than three before it was due to take effect. But it was—as the institute noted in its press release—“two days before Philadelphia celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence.” (Ironically, the 2nd of July is the actual anniversary of the Continental Congress’s vote for independence, but no one observes that.)

That timing maximized the coverage over the holiday weekend, when—who could have imagined?—many city officials were out of the office or busy at public events and therefore unavailable for comment. I’ve noted political advocates using this tactic before.

The Institute for Justice describes itself as “our nation’s only libertarian public interest law firm,” founded in 1991 and headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. Sourcewatch says the initial funding came from Koch Family Foundations which also support the Cato Institute. Given the space that the Institute for Justice’s website gives to the Philadelphia lawsuit, its people obviously think they have a public-relations winner.

The suit is based on the principle of free speech. It casts the Philadelphia law not as a matter of public education, or consumer protection, or minimal standards for people using public resources, but as a case of individual rights restrained by government. In essence, the plaintiffs argue that Philadelphia tour guides have a First Amendment right to spout whatever nonsense they want.

Of course, neither the institute nor its clients frame the case that way. Rather, Tait argued that the city might interfere with guides’ right to express valid but unpopular facts and opinions. He wrote, “What if officials don’t want us to discuss the fact that the Cradle of Liberty [hey, didn’t Rep. Joshua Cushman call Massachusetts the “Cradle of Liberty” in 1822?] had loyalists and and a favorite son [Benjamin Franklin] may have been involved in slavery?” And indeed that’s a problem with any government or majority attempt to control the discourse of history.

Tait’s employer, the Constitutional Walking Tour (originally modeled on Boston’s Freedom Trail), has issued a statement supporting the lawsuit. I’d be more impressed with that organization’s readiness to tackle such delicate subjects as Loyalism or slavery if its website contained the words “Loyalist” or “slave” or anything like them. And more impressed with Tait’s commitment to historical accuracy if he didn’t acknowledge leading the company’s “Spirit of ’76 Ghost Tours, where—besides historical facts—we wade through haunted folklore.” In other words, spouting nonsense for people’s entertainment.

Arguments about suppressing statements on slavery, Loyalism, or other potentially tender subjects are, at this point, purely hypothetical. The last big historical controversy in Philadelphia involved conservatives complaining that the new Liberty Bell Center was giving too much attention to people kept enslaved at George Washington’s Presidential mansion. (In a couple of cases, those people secured liberty for themselves by leaving.) Whenever I see folks offering “slippery slope” arguments from the start, I know that they don’t have any actual problems to highlight.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Walking Tour company and one of Tait’s fellow plaintiffs from another firm are also allies in a dispute involving a big rival called Ride the Duck. As reported by Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky on 25 March, Ride the Duck secured four loading spaces outside Independence Visitor Center by incorporating itself as four separate companies, one for each vehicle. (Ride the Duck has also inspired an opposition campaign simply by being noisy.)

I can’t help but see some attempts to have it both ways here. The tour guide plaintiffs want Philadelphia to be more strict about regulating tour parking spaces, but less strict about regulating tour guides. The Constitutional company objects to how a rival has incorporated itself and presented itself in different guises for different purposes. Yet the Constitutional has used incorporation to position itself as a non-profit educational resource, with outreach to schools and a student essay contest, but also uses the “Spirits of ’76” name to market spooky entertainment.

TOMORROW: A historian’s take on this tempest.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Philadelphia Moves to License Historic Tour Guides

On 28 Aug 2007, the Christian Science Monitor reported on a bill “to educate, test, and license guides who offer tours for money on public property in Philadelphia”:

If Ron Avery has his way, Philadelphia tour guides will stop telling you things that will make you flunk your history test.

They’ll stop saying that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln once dined together. Or that Ben Franklin had not one, but 69, illegitimate children. That basement kitchens had outdoor exits so as to spare the furniture should the cook’s skirts catch fire. Or that a house would be left to burn if it didn’t display an insurance company fire mark.

Mr. Avery, a part-time tour guide and retired reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, is out to halt what he sees as “nonsense” parading as history among those paid handsomely to tutor tourists. He compiled a list of 80 inaccuracies he has heard–or heard of–while traveling incognito over the years on tourist trolleys, double-decker buses, and horse-drawn carriages in this most historic of American cities...
(“Most historic”? Saint Augustine was an organized settlement for over fifty years before Europeans settled in either Philadelphia or Boston. But I digress.)

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation favored the legislation. Though some tour guides complained that this would produce another layer of bureaucracy, the city council and mayor approved the bill, and it became law in April, to take effect on 13 October.

On 13 May, Amy Chen of Newsweek filled in the details:
Once the program is running in little more than a year from now, the city’s tourism website gophila.com plans to list the companies with certified guides.

Philly’s exam, which will cost $25, hasn’t been developed yet. It will be written by a group of tour operators, historians, and university professors.

After two years, the City Council plans to review the program and will likely expand it beyond the historic district.
That article added, “Philadelphia isn’t the first city to require that its tour guides be licensed. Charleston, New Orleans, New York City, Savannah, and Washington, D.C.,—and cities overseas, such as Rome—already license their tour guides.” Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, the federal government has licensed guides for the Gettysburg battlefield since 1915; each must pass a tough examination process.

TOMORROW: The politicized pushback.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Estimating Loyalist Strength and Numbers

So how many Loyalists were in the thirteen colonies/states during the Revolutionary War? It’s just a myth that John Adams said a third of Americans were against the Revolution and a third were neutral about it. It’s tough to parse what Adams meant when he estimated the fraction of Loyalists in the population.

Furthermore, loyalty to the British Empire changed over the course of the war. In mid-1775, most American colonists were probably hoping for a political compromise with the Crown, now that Parliament could see how serious they were about preserving their liberties. A year on, the Declaration of Independence was greeted with enthusiasm. Several years of war and inflation later, and the Continental Congress was rather unpopular but most people had probably committed to independence.

Most white men, that is. Even harder than figuring out the loyalties of the enfranchised population is trying to discern the political ideas of the much larger group of children, women, blacks (most of them enslaved), and Native Americans.

Finally, individuals could feel conflicted, or switch sides, or keep quiet about their preferences, depending on their circumstances. Naturally your family could feel a lot more loyal to the king if the British army was camped nearby, or the Continental Army had just cleaned out your winter supplies on a foraging expedition. And vice versa. Nothing makes you wish the war was over as quickly as possible than seeing it outside your own doorway.

Loyalists themselves tended to overestimate their popularity, and underestimate the solidity of the Whig or Patriot forces. They were constantly telling each other and friends back in Britain that people would come to their senses and return to the king any minute now.

Very soon.

Any minute now.

Still waiting...

And that’s one of the most reliable measures of Loyalist strength: the British government lost the war. The Patriots didn’t win because they had better weapons or training; the royal troops were better equipped (especially at the start) and fully professional. In fact, the Continentals lost most of the big battlefield confrontations. The new U.S. of A.’s big advantage, even above the French alliance, was broader support from the American population.

The best numerical study of this question is still Paul H. Smith’s 1968 William & Mary Quarterly article, “The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organization and Numerical Strength.” Looking at the number of colonists who fought or worked for the British government and/or left with its troops, Smith concluded that the Loyalist population for all thirteen colonies was “16% of the total population, or 19.8% of the white Americans.” Not a third, but not negligible, either.

(We also have to recall what Prof. Jeremy Black pointed out in Lexington this spring: Britain had twenty-six colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and the other thirteen remained solidly loyal. These included the biggest in geographic size and in economic value.)

In Massachusetts and in New England as a whole, the Loyalist population was smaller than in the thirteen colonies overall. This conclusion is clear from several standpoints:

  • The pro-government party in the Massachusetts General Court lost vote after vote in the years leading up to 1775. Crowds closed the provincial courts in the summer of 1774 through sheer numbers. More towns voted to send delegates to the first Provincial Congress of 1774 than to the usual legislature. Resistance to the Crown was a very popular cause.
  • Starting in September 1774, Loyalist families moved into Boston to be under the army’s protection, yet when the army sailed away in March 1776 only about a thousand civilians left with it. That was only about one of every 300 Massachusetts citizens.
  • During the war, the British military occupied two easily defended New England ports for several months each (Boston, Newport), held the island fort on the Penobscot in Maine, and made some fast overnight raids on Concord, Danbury, and New London. But the only large body of British troops that ever managed to sleep overnight in the New England countryside was the “Convention Army”: prisoners of war captured in the Saratoga campaign. The British military knew New England was hostile territory for them.
In contrast, there were enough Loyalists (or neutrals) in the middle colonies for the British military to occupy New York for most of the war, and to march through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and points south basically at will until 1781. The British reestablished a royal government in Georgia, and took Charleston on their second try. The war in the southern colonies was truly a civil war, the sides closely matched.

Why was New England more united in opposition to the Crown than other regions? I suspect that was because New Englanders were highly homogeneous in ethnic background (English), religion (Congregationalist), and culture (farming communities governed by town meetings). The result was like a monoculture, miles and miles of fields planted with the same crop, and in 1774 the meme that men had to resist the London government or lose their freedoms spread across the region like a crop blight.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

John Adams’s Thirds

Yesterday I discussed how a passage from one of John Adams’s letters has been quoted out of context to indicate that he believed that only a third of Americans supported the Revolution, another third opposed it, and the remaining third was neutral. He was actually writing about American attitudes toward the French Revolution during his administration in the late 1790s. So we can all go home now, right?

Actually, the situation’s not that simple. On other occasions Adams wrote similar—but not identical—things about the divisions in American loyalties. And on still other occasions he wrote or said different things. For example, when he was American minister to Holland during the Revolutionary War, he assured the Dutch government that only one in twenty Americans still supported the British government. Of course, he then had a strong motivation to minimize the Loyalist movement.

Many years later, on 31 Aug 1813, Adams wrote this to Thomas McKean:

You say that at the time of the [Stamp Act] Congress, in 1765, “The great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America.” “The great mass of the people” is an expression that deserves analysis. . . .

Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample? Are not two thirds of the nation now with the administration? Divided we ever have been, and ever must be. Two thirds always had and will have more difficulty to struggle with the one third than with all our foreign enemies.
And on 12 Nov 1813, describing the First Continental Congress of 1774 to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote:
To draw the characters of them all would require a volume, and would now be considered as a caricature-print; one third tories, another whigs, and the rest mongrels.
So what do these comments tell us? My only definite conclusion is that John Adams really liked to divide groups into thirds.

In another letter to Jefferson, dated 24 Aug 1815, Adams famously argued that the Revolution occurred before the Revolutionary War:
What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.
Thus, Adams’s judgment that one in three American colonists supported the London government during the Stamp Act controversy of 1765 wouldn’t necessarily apply to the situation during the war. Indeed, the implication of Adams’s later letter is that by 1775 more Americans had turned against London than before—i.e., that by then Loyalists were less than a third of the population.

As for Adams’s judgment of the First Continental Congress, he obviously had an expansive notion of what made men “tories.” That Congress was clearly organized to protest Parliament’s recent acts, and few strong supporters of royal authority participated. I’ve read that of all the men at that meeting in Philadelphia, only Joseph Galloway and the Rev. Jacob Duche (whom Samuel Adams proposed bringing in to lead a prayer) became Loyalists—i.e., left America to remain in the British Empire. Adams probably considered all delegates who argued for anything less than total defiance as “tories.”

Finally, as I discussed in regard to Adams’s memories of the Boston Massacre, he tended to exaggerate the number or strength of the people opposed to him. He was probably doing the same thing when he looked back on Loyalism during the Revolution, however he defined that position: he was likely to remember the number of Loyalists and their fervor as bigger than they really were.

Even so, Adams never claimed that the Patriot cause had support from only a third of the American population.

TOMORROW: Estimates of the number of New England Loyalists.

Friday, July 11, 2008

John Adams Misquoted on Loyalist Numbers

In January 1815, former President John Adams wrote a letter to James Lloyd that said, in part:

If I were called to calculate the divisions among the people of America, as Mr. [Edmund] Burke did those of the people of England, I should say that full one third were averse to the revolution. These, retaining that overweening fondness, in which they had been educated, for the English, could not cordially like the French; indeed, they most heartily detested them. An opposite third conceived a hatred of the English, and gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to France. The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm both to England and France; and sometimes stragglers from them, and sometimes the whole body, united with the first or the last third, according to circumstances.

The depredations of France upon our commerce, and her insolence to our ambassadors, and even to the government, united, though for a short time, with infinite reluctance, the second third with the first, and produced that burst of applause to the administration...
This letter was published in 1856 in the multi-volume set of Adams’s autobiography and memoirs edited by his grandson.

The former President’s references to French attacks on American ships and “insolence to our ambassadors” make clear that he was talking about a period other than the Revolutionary War, when France was the U.S. of A.’s strongest ally. The whole correspondence shows that Adams was writing to Lloyd about the period when his administration was steering between Great Britain and France, with some Americans clamoring for an alliance with one or the other warring power. Adams’s estimate that “one third were averse to the revolution” refers to the French Revolution as seen from America.

However, in the early 1900s, the historian Sydney George Fisher quoted parts of the first paragraph out of context, having convinced himself that the former President had been writing about American attitudes toward their own Revolution. And since then many other authors have stated, on Adams’s authority, that only a third of all Americans supported the independence movement, and an equal number opposed it.

The letter to the Boston Globe I quoted yesterday is one recent reflection of this notion; it stated, without evidence, that “two-thirds [of rural Massachusetts men] were either unsympathetic or indifferent to the war effort.” In fact, Massachusetts farmers’ actions showed that they overwhelmingly supported the war effort, though they weren’t always ready to leave their farms to fight and they did grumble about wartime deprivations.

Historians have long recognized the true context of the Adams quote above, and how it doesn’t address the notion of a large Loyalist population. That debunking is a centerpiece of Prof. William Marina’s essay “The American Revolution and the Minority Myth,” first published in 1975. But the factoid survives in many books because it seems so interesting. And, to be fair, Adams wrote similar things on other occasions.

TOMORROW: Adams’s other statements on how many Loyalists there were.

(The Gilbert Stuart portrait of the elderly Adams above belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts. Another version hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, and I got to see it last Saturday.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Massachusetts’s Country Men

In response to the Boston Globe opinion piece by Prof. Edward Glaeser that I quoted yesterday, Brad Arndt of Somerville told the newspaper:

Most militiamen who fought and perished for the colonial cause were conscripted into service from outlying farmlands and rural communities. And of these country men, a full two-thirds were either unsympathetic or indifferent to the war effort, aware no doubt that they, more than their well-heeled city brethren, would shoulder the real costs of attaining freedom for the new republic.
There’s more than a little rural resentment in this letter, and it seems unfounded.

Yes, most of the Massachusetts men who fought in the Revolutionary War were from rural areas. But so were the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts men. The state population was about 350,000 in 1776. Even before the war, Boston had fewer then 16,000 people. The large maritime communities of Salem, Gloucester, Ipswich, and Marblehead had about 4,000 to 6,000 people each. Almost every other town—more than 85% of the population—was mostly or totally rural. It’s only natural that most soldiers came from those farming communities. Before suggesting that either the rural or urban population offered a disproportionate service, I’d like to see some comparative figures (including work on privateers).

The letter describes men “conscripted into service.” Service in the militia was mandatory (in both rural towns and ports), but it was tough to force men to serve if they didn’t want to. The turnout for the 19 Apr 1775 alarm was largely voluntary. Later in the war, the state did supply men to the Continental Army based on a quota system. However, those quotas were proportional to town populations, so they didn’t fall most heavily on rural towns. Furthermore, individuals were rarely forced into service; rather, town officials cajoled and paid enough men to take up arms to come close to their quotas. (Prof. Daniel Scott Smith is studying these numbers, and presented some findings at last month’s Omohundro Institute conference.)

Finally, as I said yesterday in response to Glaeser’s essay, the rural parts of Massachusetts weren’t dragged into war by rapacious and intractable city-dwellers. In 1774 and 1775, farmers were more fervent about resisting the Crown by force than their urban counterparts. Well after the Lexington uprising, rural New England mobilized to oppose Gen. John Burgoyne’s attack from Canada in 1777. The western part of the state remained militant up through the Regulation its opponents dismissed as Shays’ Rebellion; that was the real urban/rural, wealthy/poor conflict that Arndt perceives.

TOMORROW: “Two-thirds were either unsympathetic or indifferent to the war effort”?

(The thumbnail of the 1804 map of Massachusetts above comes courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

“Our revolution had its origins in urban connections”?

On 4 July, the Boston Globe published an opinion piece by Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser which proposed a novel understanding of the American Revolution: it was all about population density.

Democracies have a massive free-rider problem where all of us have a natural tendency to let someone else die for our liberty. Solving this free rider problem requires coordination and this is what urban density has done for millennia. Urban density connects citizens and enables them to meet and plan and talk. With enough talking, groups like the Sons of Liberty may even convince themselves that it is worth dying for a common cause. . . .

Our revolution had its origins in the urban connections between John Hancock, the two Adams cousins, and assorted other enemies of British colonial policy. Brought together by Boston, a merchant-prince could help finance riots led by a brewer. The lawyers could argue cases and the writers could push pamphlets. David Hackett Fischer’s account of Paul Revere taught us that this silversmith was not a lone rider, but part of a dense, urban network that collectively fought for independence.
The Revolutionary turmoil of the 1770s indeed began in Boston, the third-largest settlement in British North America. Such studies as Benjamin Carp’s Rebels Rising show the importance of Boston and cities to the south in political developments from the 1760s on.

I’ve even seen an interesting observation (in an essay published years ago by the Bostonian Society, as I recall) that in Massachusetts the pro-government leaders tended to have their businesses in Boston but lived out of town as much as they could (Thomas Hutchinson, Peter Oliver, Francis Bernard) while Patriot leaders included many men who had moved into Boston from other places (James Otis, Jr.; John Adams; Dr. Joseph Warren; William Molineux; Dr. Thomas Young). The implication was that working-class city-dwellers knew who was on their side.

However, it’s only natural for colonial resistance to Parliament’s new tariffs to arise mostly in the big ports; that’s where the imports arrived and the tariffs were collected. Furthermore, urban turmoil tends to be more visible in the historical record than rural turmoil because newspapers and government officials were concentrated in cities. We know about similar crowd actions in farm towns mostly through private letters, such as those of Christian Barnes of Marlborough.

Most important, in the final months leading up to war, people on both sides of the conflict wrote about how the rural parts of Massachusetts had become much more militant than Boston. The western counties closed their courts and intimidated their Council members into resigning well before the eastern. Gen. Thomas Gage basically lost all power outside of Boston (and a stripe of Marshfield) in September 1774, months before the fighting began.

Glaeser writes that Paul Revere “was not a lone rider, but part of a dense, urban network.” Aside from Revere and William Dawes, Jr., however, the riders on 18-19 April 1775 were a spread-out, rural network. So were all the town militia companies who risked “dying for a common cause.” Despite the fears of British officers, Bostonians never rose up against the army regiments in their town.

Undoubtedly there’s a lot to learn about how the Revolutionary political ideas formulated mostly in port towns spread into New England’s rural areas. But we have to remember that the white male farmers in those areas already governed themselves as democratically as any population in the world. There’s much more to this story than urbanites having the numbers to talk themselves into resistance.