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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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”?

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