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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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sion Seabury’s Bright Ideas

On 11 Nov 1774, a man from Tiverton, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to John Hancock, the head of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress that was meeting outside Boston to organize resistance to the royal authorities. Seabury said:

While anxiously concerned for the Destresses of Boston & devising Methods for its Relief, the preceeding Inventions occurred to my Mind, about six Weeks ago: which yielded me an assurance that the Canon and Works on Boston Neck might be safely approached & taken without the Loss of a single Life on our Part.

I could not resist an Inclination I instantly conceived to communicate it for the Benefit of our suffering Brethren. The Invention was to me new & original as well as satisfactory. And altho’ I now understand that an Attack by a Line of Moveable Fascines has been thought of, & is now under Contemplation: Yet I am desirous of testifying my Ardor in the common Cause, by communicating my Method also.

I am, Sir,
Your unknown Humb. Servt.
Sion Seabury.
Seabury (1713-1801) was a Presbyterian living in Tiverton in 1760, according to other notes from Stiles. I haven’t found any trace of his letter in Hancock’s correspondence as a delegate to the Continental Congress, in the published records of the Provincial Congress, or in newspapers. But the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles copied this letter and its enclosure into his diary on 5 December. Here are Seabury’s brilliant ideas:
Inventions of Mr. Sion Seabury of Tiverton for the Relief of Boston in its present Siege.

1. A solid Timber Roller 7 or 8 feet Diameter & 8 or 10 feet more or less, to defend against the Canon on Bo[ston]. Neck. Sundry of these connected together by a Central Chain thro’ them all & Chains around them, will form an extended movable Breastwork for covering a Body of Men sufficient for seizing & possessing themselves of the Artillery & Fortifica. upon the Neck or elsewhere.

At the ends of the Line of Rolling Breastwork, may be a Range of Rollers following after, so as to guard the sides. A Mast or span at the open End, may keep the whole steady and at the same Time employ the Men in pulling aft as well as pushing forwards. The side Defence might be made with a Frame on small Wheels charged with Wool packs. The great Front Rollers may be made of Cedar or light Wood. (& perhaps in part filled with Wool or Wool-Rollers intirely.) Mr. Seabury thinks Wood only the best.

2. A Plank Breastwork to be carried to defend against Small Arms; and upon coming up to the Canon so that they are silenced or useless, to be raised up on the Top of the Front Line of Rollers, to cover the Men firing thro’ small port-holes to oblige the Engineers & Soldiery to abandon the Canon.

3. To blind and deceive the Enemy, (especially if the attack be in the Night) let several Bbs. [barrels] of Tarr or Pitch be set on fire between the Enemy’s Ships & place of Attack; this will render the Progress of the moveable Breastwork invisible to the Shipping, & be advantageous for the attack. These Tarbarrels might be fired on Water by Floats as well as on Land. The same Thing may be practised to render an Army invisible, should it in the Night march over Ice, or procede in Boats across the Water to Town. Exod. xiv, 19, 20.
A couple of things struck me about these documents. First, New Englander that he was, Seabury felt that citing Biblical verses would show the value of his idea. The verses he had in mind:
And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them:

And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.
It doesn’t seem to have struck Seabury that that anecdote was supposed to be miraculous, not something that could be recreated with some tar barrels.

Second, even in late 1774, more than four months before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, even before the exchange of fire at Portsmouth, Seabury was referring to the situation around Boston as a “siege” and trying to invent a military solution. Of course, he might have been a crackpot.

(The image above, showing the British army’s fortifications on Boston Neck later during the siege, comes from YankeeGhosts.com.)

Cliopatria’s Nominations

Each year the Cliopatria blog at History News Network collects nominations for its annual History Blogs awards. This is the final day of the 2008 nominations period, which means there are lots of nominated blogs to learn about and explore. They appear in the comments under the description of each award:

Another of the resources I just found through Cliopatria is the History Carnival Aggregator, rounding up several separate collections of best-of-the-month history blogging.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

No, No, We Meant that Other Sect Is Contemptible!

People outside New England noticed the Boston Gazette’s criticism of “two or three weak and imbittered Persons, of the most insignificant and contemptible of all Sects,” for opening their shops on the Patriots’ Thanksgiving in December 1774. And some of those people didn’t realize, as the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles did, that the sect at issue was the Sandemanians rather than the Quakers.

Memories of Massachusetts’s seventeenth-century persecution of Quakers were still vivid enough to cause problems for the Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress. Furthermore, unlike the small and weak Sandemanians, Quakers had political power and wealth in the Middle Colonies. Therefore, the Patriots moved to correct the misunderstanding.

On 18 Feb 1775, the Pennsylvania Ledger in Philadelphia carried a “Letter from a Gentleman in Boston, to his Friend in this city, dated Feb. 1, 1775”:

The day appointed by the provincial congress for a public thanksgiving, a number of persons, in this town, showed their disapprobation thereto, by opening their shops as usual, for which they were treated in an uncivil manner, and those persons were said to be Quakers.

I therefore think it my duty, as an honest, impartial, and most unbiassed member of this community, and one who wished nothing more ardently that that a true, fair, and candid representation of facts might appear, to assure thee, and I can of my own certain knowledge assure thee, that it is a most malicious and injurious falsehood, and no doubt, propagated by the base enemies of our invaluable constitutional rights and privileges, for the most vile and malevolent purposes—for I do well know, that the Friends in this town, did not open their shops on said Thanksgiving day; nor have I heard the least unfriendly or uncivil expression uttered by any of the inhabitants of this town against them, as a people, for many year; but, on the contrary, I do most certainly know, that they are always, and on all occasions, treated with full as much (and I think more) catholic tenderness, friendly and neighbourly kindess and affection, than persons of any other sect of denomination amongst us.
I especially like how the writer dropped the Quaker “thee” into his prose.

This letter acknowledged what the earlier report in the Boston Gazette had not: that “uncivil” criticism of the shopkeepers had come from locals as well as passing British soldiers. Furthermore, while describing Bostonians’ kindness toward the Quakers—who had political power in the Middle Colonies—the writer glossed over the community’s hostility toward the Sandemanians.

One day before the date of that letter, Samuel Adams wrote on the same topic to Stephen Collins, a Quaker merchant he had met in Philadelphia, with some more detail:
It is also a Misrepresentation that the sect taken notice of for opening their Shops on our late Thanksgiving Day, was that of the People called Quaquers. They were the Disciples of the late Mr. [Robert] Sanderman, who worship God here without the least Molestation according to their own manner, and are in no other Light disregarded here but as it is said they are in general avowed Friends of the Ministerial Measures.

This is what I am told, for my own part I know but little or nothing about them. The Different denominations of Christians here (excepting those amongst them who Espouse the cause of our Enemies) are in perfect peace and Harmony, as I trust they always will be.
Adams was being disingenuous here, in several ways. First, he and his colleagues bitterly opposed Catholicism, as did most of the British Empire; the Massachusetts Thanksgiving proclamation even referred to the “Protestant Succession” as something to be thankful for.

Second, the Sandemanians’ religion and politics were intricately entwined. Their faith required them to be Loyalists, or at least loyal to whatever government was in power. And the newspaper’s criticism of them wasn’t limited to their support of “the Ministerial Measures”; it described the Sandemanians as “the most insignificant and contemptible of all Sects, (who make Pretensions to Christianity).”

Finally, some of those Sandemanians were vocal in Boston politics, so it’s hard to believe Adams when he wrote, “for my own part I know but little or nothing about them.” I’m sure he had opinions.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Not Everyone Observes Thanksgiving in 1774

Not everyone in Boston observed the Thanksgiving holiday on 15 Dec 1774, as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had asked people to do. This report appeared in the 19 December Boston Gazette:

On the late Thanksgiving-Day two or three weak and imbittered Persons, of the most insignificant and contemptible of all Sects, (who make Pretensions to Christianity) opened their Shops; five or six Soldiers passing one of them, made a full stop, and asked the deluded Owner whether he was not ashamed so to insult his Countrymen, and advised him to shut up his Shop and hide his Head, adding, that he was an Enemy to his Country.—

As this was said by a Soldier, they may perhaps spare the cry of Persecution on the Occasion.
I have no doubt that soldier was speaking sarcastically, parodying what he expected the local political leaders to say about those shopkeepers. And the fact that radical printers Edes and Gill were able to ascribe those words to a soldier doesn’t hide the fact that they obviously agreed with them.

What “Sect” were those shopkeepers from? We find the answer in the journal of the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles. Five days after describing how he had held a Thanksgiving service in his Rhode Island meeting-house, Stiles wrote:
The Sandimanians opened Shops in Boston on Thanksgiving day last & the Episcopa[ls]. at Cambridge refused to observe it: the young Dr. Biles Episco. Clergyman refused to open his Church in Boston to the great Offence of his little Flock, which are more for Liberty than any Episco. Congregation north of Maryland.
The Sandemanians were a small Christian sect following the ideas of a Scotsman named John Glas (shown above, courtesy of the University of Dundee) and his son-in-law Robert Sandeman, who had moved to New England to spread the word. Part of their doctrine was obedience to government authorities, so they firmly supported the royal governor. There was a small group of Sandemanians in Boston, a small group in southeastern Connecticut, and even smaller groups elsewhere.

The other people Stiles specified as not observing the Thanksgiving were Anglicans. Cambridge was one of the few Massachusetts towns—perhaps the only one not on the seacoast—with an Anglican church and congregation. The Rev. Mather Byles, Jr., was minister at Christ Church in Boston, now also called Old North. (He was the son of the more famous Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, who remained a Congregationalist minister even as he supported the royal governors.)

Stiles’s remark about the younger Byles’s North End congregation wishing to observe Thanksgiving in church might not have been accurate. He was often a little too eager to record news that confirmed his political sensibilities, and I’ve learned not to take the reports in his diary at face value. However, as the Gazette report shows, Stiles was correct about the Sandemanians’ choice to ignore the holiday.

TOMORROW: Criticism of the Sandemanians’ non-Thanksgiving becomes a political issue.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Massachusetts Thanksgiving in Newport

We consider Thanksgiving a very inclusive American holiday, but back during the Revolutionary turmoil it was actually a source of division.

In 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress declared that Thursday, 15 December, would be a Thanksgiving. Proclaiming such holidays was traditionally the prerogative of the governor, so this was a sign that royal authority had broken down in the province even before the outbreak of war.

Furthermore, as I discussed back here, New Englanders saw Thanksgiving as a Puritan/Congregationalist and Yankee tradition. Anglicans and friends of the royal government didn’t have the same fondness for it. They celebrated Christmas while most Congregationalists ignored that holiday and kept their shops open.

When the 15th arrived, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport wrote in his diary:

This day public Thanksgiving thro’ the Province of Massachusetts Bay. It was not appointed as usual by the Governor & Council, who issued no proclamation; but by the Provincial Congress which recommended to the Churches to set apart & observe this day as a day of public Thanksgiving, & printed the same signed by Jno. Hancock President. It was later than usual, I suppose, that we might have the more intelligence from England.
The Harvard Square Library offers a look at the Provincial Congress’s proclamation. Stiles’s comment on “intelligence from England” might refer to the news of the Parliament elected in Britain that September. Patriot leaders had hoped its members would repeal the new acts punishing Massachusetts for the Tea Party, but instead Lord North’s ministry became stronger and firmer. The governors of Connecticut and New Hampshire had proclaimed Thanksgivings on 24 November, so the Massachusetts holiday was indeed late.

Stiles recorded that “Our two Congregational Churches in Newport” observed the holiday as well. He started a service in his meeting-house at 10:30 A.M. with the singing of Isaac Watts’s setting of the 100th Psalm. Later the congregation sang part of Watts’s 145th Psalm, and Stiles preached on it. He concluded his notes on the day by writing, “I dined at Mr. Chesebroughs”.

TOMORROW: But some New Englanders conspicuously didn’t observe that Thanksgiving in 1774.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

“Hearth and Harvest” in Lexington, 28 Nov

The Lexington Historical Society will host its annual Hearth and Harvest event at Buckman Tavern this Friday, 28 November, from 4:00 to 8:00 P.M. There will be colonial music and song by the Liberty Singers and Scottish fiddle music by Emerald Rae, craft displays, puzzles, and scavenger hunts and games for children.

The announcement I received also said:

See the Society’s Colonial portrait collection come alive as interpreters in period-appropriate dress speak to the lives of the people in the pictures.
Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for children, and include a shot at light refreshments on the site. Call 781-862-1703 to reserve tickets, or buy them at the tavern, 1 Bedford Street in Lexington, starting at 10:00 on the morning of the event. The Lexington folks seem really eager to welcome people to this event—I’ve now received the news five different ways!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How to Upset Your Commander-in-Chief

From Gen. George Washington’s general orders to the entire Continental Army around Boston, issued 27 July 1775:

For the future when any Deserters come to any of the out Guards, they are with the least delay to be sent by a Corporals Guard, to the next Guard in the Lines, who is immediately to escort them in the same manner to the Major General commanding that division of the Army, who as soon as he has examined them will forthwith send them under a proper Escort from his guard to the head quarters [now Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge]:

Some Deserters being made drunk, who came last night from the Enemy, before they reached Head Quarters; It will be considered as a Breach of orders in any person, who gives Rum to Deserters, before they are examined by the General.
I’d love to have been privy to the new commander-in-chief’s attempt to interrogate those British army deserters while they were under the influence of New England rum.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Alert for Historical Hoaxing

Back on 25 August, Prof. T. Mills Kelly at Edwired wrote:

what really has me charged up this semester is that I’m teaching a new course, “Lying About the Past” that is an investigation of historical hoaxes, plagiarism, and fakery. The first half of the semester my students will be examining the history of historical hoaxes. The second half of the course is a practicum, by which I mean we will work together as a group to create an online historical hoax that we will then turn loose on the Internet to see if we can actually fool anyone.

They have already been warned that several topics are off limits. Given the incredibly detailed knowledge of the American Civil War out there in the community of Civil War buffs, we’d never fool anyone if we tried to pull of a historical hoax on that topic. Similarly, anything to do with national security or terrorism is off limits, largely because I don’t think a vacation in Cuba would be any fun. And they have to scratch anything to do with medicine from their plans, because it would not be funny at all if we hoaxed someone seeking information about medical treatments. With those minimal guidelines, they will have to decide what their hoax will be and I’m sure we’ll spend some quality time discussing the ethical and legal landscape before settling on a final project.

As you might imagine, not every historian I tell about this class thinks it’s a great idea. I’ve already been told that I’m violating some sort of historian’s Hyppocratic [sic] oath by encouraging my students to wilfully mislead a possibly credulous public. Aside from the fact that I don’t remember taking such an oath, my own view is that we need to be playful sometimes in the study of history and that this course is a good way to do just that, even as we do some serious learning along the way. . . .

Our plan is to launch the hoax, whatever it might be, before the end of the semester.
The last day of classes at George Mason University, where Kelly teaches, is 6 December. So you’ve been warned.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania teachers behind All About Explorers are well ahead of this game. Check out that site’s biography of Samuel de Champlain before reading about the site. (Thanks to Fuse #8 for the link.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Benedict Arnold and the “Dynamite Duo”

In October I wrote about how for some years after 1780 Americans burned effigies of Benedict Arnold as they had once burned effigies of the Pope or the Stuart Pretenders on Pope Night, or Guy Fawkes Day. Just as the pre-war pageantry had portrayed the Devil whispering into the Pope’s ear, the patriotic young American culture showed the Devil guiding Arnold.

That linkage of Benedict Arnold and the Devil has had a surprisingly long life in American popular culture. As evidence, and as the wrap-up to this Comics Week at Boston 1775, here are panels from the first issue of Batman Family, published by D.C. Comics in the fall of 1975. The art is by Mike Grell, and the script by Elliot S! Maggin.

The story, such as there was of it: Barbara Gordon (secretly Batgirl) is a young Congresswoman in Washington. Dick Grayson (secretly Robin) is working as an intern in her office between college terms. They confront a mysterious and powerful apparition of Gen. Benedict Arnold, determined to overthrow the American republic.

Though Arnold is dressed in Continental Army blue, he’s supported by redcoat infantry, as well as horsemen and a couple of cannons. After the “Dynamite Duo” hold their own against those forces, they all vanish as quickly as they arrived, leaving only Arnold. He challenges the crime-fighters to combat by swords.

And who is that man in red, watching the action? He reveals his true nature when Robin and Batgirl once again thwart Arnold’s murderous intentions.

The Devil takes Arnold back to hell, Robin and Batgirl shake their heads in wonderment, and the U.S. of A. sails safely into its Bicentennial celebration. With an adventure like that, Batman Family sold so well that D.C. rushed out another issue reprinting an earlier story of the “Dynamite Duo.”

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Looking in on Loyalty & Liberty

Loyalty & Liberty is a webcomic that Tamara “Meezer” Clarke is producing here in Massachusetts. It’s a one-person labor of love, so the story appears slowly, about one page a week, and the punctuation in the word balloons isn’t always standard.

On the other hand, Loyalty & Liberty is one of the most detailed depictions of the coming of the Revolution that I’ve seen in comics form. The first story arc is titled “The Powder Alarm,” and it begins with the early-morning removal of gunpowder from the militia storehouse in Charlestown (now Somerville).

I agree that that event and the colonial reaction the next day were when the political conflict turned into a military one, when the royal government lost control of most of New England. So it’s nice to see attention paid to that event—and to see an accurate picture of the powderhouse as redcoats wait for daybreak before going inside. (After all, you don’t want to carry a torch into a gunpowder storehouse.)

Clarke and her husband are Revolutionary War reenactors, so she values accuracy in visual details. Most comics artists who come to depict this period don’t realize, for instance, that a regular infantry uniform was different from the uniform for a light infantryman, a grenadier, or a musician, or that different regiments wore slightly different uniforms, or that “redcoats” in the Royal Artillery were blue. Clarke is interested enough in British army life to portray rivalry between different types of soldiers.

This comic also promises to be more politically balanced than most. Clarke is Canadian, and originally intended to portray to Loyalists’ perspective on the conflict. Now she’s aiming to show both sides. And I plan to keep peeking in on her website regularly to see how the story is coming along.

I keep thinking that something else makes Loyalty & Liberty unique. What is it? What is it?

Oh, yeah! All the characters are portrayed as cats.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Finding “Founding Fathers Funnies”

Peter Bagge made his name as a cartoonist in the magazine Hate. His current project is Apocalypse Nerd, the story of a tech guy trying to survive a nuclear apocalypse. However, many critics say his best work might be a series of short pieces in the back of Apocalypse Nerd called “Founding Fathers Funnies.”

Alas, no “Founding Fathers Funnies” were included in the Apocalypse Nerd paperback collections. My Space/Dark Horse includes a couple of those one-pagers in this free online promotional sample, and two, about George and Martha Washington, appear in the just-published My Space Dark Horse Presents, volume 1. But they’re still too hard to find.

Here’s a tantalizing taste from Ink 19’s interview with Bagge, showing how much thought he puts into those comical portrayals.

How much did you research the different historical figures? Are their personalities solely something that you’ve projected on them, or more or less based upon things you've read?

I’ve always read a lot about the founding fathers, though not to a scholarly degree. I’ve always been struck by what characters they were though, with very strong, distinctive personalities. Some people may not agree with the way I portray them, but I think I’m being pretty consistent with the way they come off not only in biographies but in their own writings. The only liberties I take is rephrasing things to fit into my little comic book stories, but other than that it’s all based on true comments and events.

So what specifically is it about the founders? Just your interest in American politics?

I can’t imagine a more interesting group of people to write about.

Any favorites amongst the fathers? You really socked it to [Alexander] Hamilton [for more information on Hamilton-socking, please consult the back cover of Apocalypse Nerd #1].

Actually, that joke was just as much at [Thomas] Jefferson’s expense, even though Jefferson was the one who always told that anecdote as ‘proof’ of what an ‘idiot’ Hamilton was. I think Hamilton was the smartest, bravest and most forward-thinking of all the founders. Unfortunately for him, he also was a bit too reckless and arrogant for his own good. Jefferson, on the other hand, was a brilliant writer and thinker, but he also was an unbelievable hypocrite, in that whenever it came down to sticking to his principles and living the good life he always opted for the latter.
Perhaps Bagge will eventually have enough for a Founding Fathers book, with longer looks at the Revolutionary statesmen.

[ADDENDUM: Today I discovered that the first volume of Comics Introspective, devoted to Bagge, includes some examples of “Founding Fathers Funnies” and more thoughts on the historical figures behind it. The preview download from Twomorrows doesn’t include those pages, but does show Bagge at work on a “Founding” page.]

In a similar mode, here is Kate Beaton’s “Benedict Arnold Invades Quebec, 1775,” part of her History Project.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Suspended in History

My last two postings have been about Sons of Liberty, a Revolutionary War graphic novel illustrated by Leland Purvis. I was delighted to see that he was also the artist of another comic that tackles a knotty challenge in depicting history.

As I discussed back here, one of the big challenges of writing any sort of historical fiction, or any sort of history for kids, is conveying that there’s so much about the past that we don’t know. The narratives that historians tell are incomplete and often contested.

Saying that “this happened at the Boston Tea Party because George R. T. Hewes said so” is based on a lot of assumptions: that Hewes was truthful, accurate, and privy to everything significant; that his words were transmitted to us fully and correctly; that we can judge the crucial moments from our perspective; and so on. But when a book describes the Tea Party in a particular way, and even more so when a comic or movie shows it, those contingencies and nuances usually fall away.

But comics don’t just show what happened; unlike some other forms of illustrated storytelling, they also show the invisible, in word balloons, sound effects, motion lines, fantasy sequences, and emotional signals.

Which brings me to the following panels, from Suspended in Language: A Book about Niels Bohr, scripted by Jim Ottaviani and drawn by Purvis. I actually saw them first in The Year’s Best Graphic Novels, Comics & Manga, that year being June 2003 to December 2004. (The math will just confuse you.) These images depict a meeting between Neils Bohr and the German physicist Werner Heisenberg during World War 2, based on claims from the two men and speculation by others.
This comic uses repeated or barely changing panels, a technique discussed here, here, and here. Often such repetitive images are useful for showing the passage of time. This set shows the suspension of time at a crucial moment, letting the words lay out different paths and possibilities. Ottaviano and Purvis thus communicate how history isn’t just what happened; it’s often our best guess at what happened.

Imagine that technique applied to other historical events. An image of Lexington Common with a shot coming from the local militia in the woods, then the same image with the shot coming from the British column, then the same image with the shot coming from Buckman’s tavern yard. Which (if any) is accurate? We don’t know. And it therefore might be most accurate to show readers all three possibilities, suspended in time.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Missing the Points in Sons of Liberty

In assessing the history in Sons of Liberty, a graphic novel for young readers by Iowa historian Marshall Poe and comics artist Leland Purvis, I’ll start with the good stuff.

The book quotes directly from George R. T. Hewes’s account of the Boston Tea Party and from Paul Revere’s narrative of his midnight ride when depicting those events. Even in edited form, that gives young readers a sense of early American language, and of how first-hand accounts inform our understandings of the past.

Purvis was obviously careful to use visual references: we can recognize Old South Meeting-house, the Boston peninsula, and other settings. There are small glitches with clothing: women not wearing caps, boys outside without hats and waistcoats. But there aren’t any men with beards, women wearing fashions from half a century later, or similar missteps I’ve seen in other history comics.

The story, however, has some real historical anomalies. The first conflict is a mob attack on British soldiers who have confiscated John Hancock’s ship Liberty. The British government stationed soldiers in Boston after that riot, precisely because Customs officials said it and earlier fights showed they weren’t safe.

Most baffling is this explanation of the tea crisis of 1773, put into the mouth of none other than George III:
What’s the phrase I’m looking for? Oh, yes. Utterly and completely wrong.

The East India Company tea was taxed. That’s why most American colonists objected to it. It was taxed in such a way that as soon as the tea was landed on shore, the duty could be collected in London; the tea agents expected to repay themselves by selling the tea, and since that was a desired and untraceable commodity they probably could have. Meanwhile, the tea revenue went to salaries for the Customs service and other royal officials, thus insulating them from popular opinion in the colonies. That was why the tea was so controversial.

Some colonial merchants were selling tea smuggled in from Holland, and their business would have taken a hit from having to compete with East India Company tea sold at rock-bottom prices. But those merchants didn’t “have to charge higher prices” because “they have to pay taxes on their goods,” as the king says above. No one paid taxes on smuggled tea. That was the point of the smuggling.

The tea conflict is complex; back here I argued that such a tempest over tea makes sense only if we consider all the earlier “taxation without representation” debates that led up to it. It would take some effort to summarize that history for kids. But the depiction in Sons of Liberty is simply bass-ackwards.

As reviewed here, Marc Aronson’s The Real Revolution is a much better grounded, heavily illustrated, and nonfiction history of the tea conflict for young people. Not a graphic novel, but highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fathers and Sons of Liberty

Sons of Liberty is a graphic novel scripted by Iowa history professor Marshall Poe, illustrated by Leland Purvis, and published in Simon & Schuster’s Turning Points series. I heard about it at the beginning of the year, and grabbed a just-published copy when I was in London with my dad this summer.

Unlike most of the graphic novels for classrooms that I discussed during Comics Week last year, Sons of Liberty declares itself as fiction. Using a trim size and black-and-white printing familiar to kids who like manga, this book tracks Revolutionary history through a Boston boy named Nathaniel Smithfield.

We meet Nathaniel as a ten-year-old in 1768 during the riot over the Customs service seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty. In fact, the boy fears he may have set off that riot. (Throwing a rock at soldiers can do that.) In 1770, Nathaniel goes to work for Paul Revere, delivering his engravings of the Boston Massacre. Despite living in Boston, he manages to be on Lexington Common on 19 Apr 1775. A year later, the eighteen-year-old carries messages to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. As the story ends, he appears to be a clerk of that legislature, reading the Declaration of Independence. Nathaniel’s story thus brings us to several turning points in the early American Revolution.

As a fictional comic, Sons of Liberty can do some things that nonfiction can’t. One is to dramatize the political arguments of the time by putting them into the mouths of two related characters, in this case Nathaniel and his father.
This argument between parent and child parallels a common Revolutionary-era metaphor, which has come to dominate how we remember that conflict (as Michael Kammen analyzed in Season of Youth). Americans see the independence movement as our national coming of age, breaking away from the influence of a well-meaning but oppressive mother country. As in most American novels about the period, the hero’s maturing process stands in for the nation’s.

I haven’t found many real examples of father-son conflict like this in Revolutionary Boston. Even more than we do now, children tended to take their political leads from their parents. And the patriarchal ideal probably meant that such arguments, if they occurred, weren’t written down for us to know about.

Eventually Mr. Smithfield comes over to the Patriot side. And if you’ve read Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain or Howard Fast’s April Morning, then you know what’s going to happen to Nathaniel and his father at Lexington.

Poe’s choice to put Nathaniel on the scene of half the major political developments of the period makes them even more dramatic. However, it also strains credibility. After a promising start as a rambunctious boy torn between loyalties, the main character turns into a convenient symbol of American youth.

At least Poe didn’t need to find an excuse to make Nathaniel privy to decision-making at the top of the London government as well. These days we generally expect prose novels to stick closely to their protagonists’ points of view, showing us only what those characters can see. But comics, like movies, can shift scenes in an instant with a simple caption, as these panels show.
(In the top two frames of the second page, note how Purvis sketches objects in the background with thinner lines and no dark areas, pushing our attention to the figures in the foreground.)

TOMORROW: How accurate is the history in Sons of Liberty?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stoll Speaks on Samuel Adams at B.P.L., 20 Nov

On Thursday, 20 November, Ira Stoll will speak at the Boston Public Library about his new book, Samuel Adams: A Life. This event starts at 6:00 P.M. in the Mezzanine Conference Room, and concludes with a book-signing.

Many critical accounts of Samuel Adams’s career say that his contribution to the American Revolution basically ended with the outbreak of war, or with independence at the latest. That writes off his continued service in the Continental Congress, his agonized and influential decision to back the new U.S. Constitution in 1788, and his terms as Massachusetts governor.

It’s therefore notable that Stoll starts his book with a preface (available courtesy of the publisher) about Adams’s speech to the Continental Congress in September 1777, more than a year after the Declaration of Independence. Washington has just lost the Battle of Brandywine, and the Congress has fled Philadelphia for York, Pennsylvania.

“If we despond, public confidence is destroyed, the people will no longer yield their support to a hopeless contest, and American liberty is no more,” Samuel Adams said in the voice John Adams described as clear and harmonious. “Through the darkness which shrouds our prospects the ark of safety is visible. Despondency becomes not the dignity of our cause, nor the character of those who are its supporters.”

He went on, comparing the American revolutionaries to the Israelites who had left the slavery of Egypt. According to Exodus, chapter 13, God had guided them in the wilderness with a “pillar of cloud by day” and a ”pillar of fire by night.” Samuel Adams addressed the delegates:
Let us awaken then, and evince a different spirit,—a spirit that shall inspire the people with confidence in themselves and in us,—a spirit that will encourage them to persevere in this glorious struggle, until their rights and liberties shall be established on a rock. We have proclaimed to the world our determination “to die freemen, rather than to live slaves.” We have appealed to Heaven for the justice of our cause, and in Heaven we have placed our trust. Numerous have been the manifestations of God’s providence in sustaining us. In the gloomy period of adversity, we have had ”our cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.” We have been reduced to distress, and the arm of Omnipotence has raised us up. Let us still rely in humble confidence on Him who is mighty to save. Good tidings will soon arrive. We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid and protection.
Some writers on America’s modern political right still fear Adams as a radical organizer, based in part on misunderstandings and misrepresentations in the early 1900s. Stoll, managing editor of the late New York Sun, represents a new approach to the man from the same side of our politics: he emphasizes the man’s conservative religious ideas. As the passage above shows, Adams had the “humble confidence” of a faithful zealot.

More Wisdom from xkcd

Last November I announced the first Comics Week at Boston 1775, looking at how the medium now given the high-falutin’ term “graphic novels” has treated the American Revolution. Now, a little more than a year later, it’s time for Comics Week again!

We’ll start with xkcd, Randall Munroe’s “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”

From the sequence of strips that starts here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Digital Library from London

My last new online resource for the week is British History Online, a “digital library containing some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles...Created by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust.” It looks especially useful for British history and genealogy, but I came across it while Googling for information on an American family.

Among the printed sources digitized on British History Online and available for free (as opposed to by paid subscription only) are the Journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations, the official notes of the board that governed commerce in the British Empire.

Those notes cover a meeting in February 1777 when the board members reviewed a:

Copy of a letter from Mr. Gridley to Mr. Read, relative to the sea cow fishery, and the annoyance given thereto by two New England schooners. Remarks upon the sea cow fishery.
The board met again in April 1777 and:
Read a memorial of Mr. Gridley, praying to be recommended for a grant of the Madelaine Islands in the Gulph of St. Lawrence, upon certain duties and conditions, for the purpose of carrying on the sea cow fishery.

Their lordships, agreable to a minute of the Board of the 6th of February, 1771, were of opinion, that such a grant ought not to be made without a valuable consideration being given to the Crown for the same.
Samuel Gridley had been petitioning that board for an exclusive right for his family to hunt seals and walruses on the Magdalen Islands since early 1763. He based his request on his Boston-born father’s service to the Crown in the wars against the French, as recorded in March 1772:
Read a memorial of Samuel Gridley of the city of Bristol, merchant, stating the services of his father Colonel [Richard] Gridley, and praying, that, in consideration of the great expence that both himself and his father have been at, and the losses they have sustained, in making establishments and carrying on these a cow fishery in the Magdalene Islands, the said islands may be granted to him in preference to any other person, or that the person, to whom they may be granted, shall be obliged to reimburse him for the very usefull and necessary buildings and improvements erected and made there.
The irony of Samuel Gridley’s 1777 complaint about “New England schooners” was that by that time his father had become a colonel in the Continental Army. Richard Gridley was in fact the first commander of the American artillery, starting in April 1775. He had fought in some of the early skirmishes of the war, laid out the redoubt on Breed’s Hill, and was wounded in the ensuing Battle of Bunker Hill. Samuel’s younger brother Scarborough was also an officer in that artillery regiment, though not a good one.

By 1777, the colonel had been kicked upstairs to a position as Chief Engineer for the Northern Department, replaced in the field with Henry Knox. Scarborough was out of the army altogether. But Samuel was still pushing for the Crown to grant him the sole right to hunt those walruses based on family loyalty.

He didn’t get it. Within a couple of years, I understand, Samuel made his way back to Massachusetts. The London government eventually granted those islands to another, more loyal son of Boston: Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin.

I have to thank David B. Ingram, an expert on the Gridley family, for this lead. He actually found all this stuff some years ago when it was available only in printed volumes or in the actual London archives. I was following up his lead about the New England schooners when Google brought me to the British History Online site, giving me another reason to be grateful to Dave.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

John Quincy Adams’s Lost Breeches

As I described yesterday, I started to look through the Massachusetts Historical Society’s new Founding Families: Digital Edition of the Adams family papers, and was intrigued by an entry in the index under John Quincy Adams: “loses breeches.” Unfortunately, the link beside that entry was a dead end.

Fortunately, I’d also hit the link for “JQA / loses eight guineas in gold,” and it turned out to refer to the same incident. That second link led to this footnote attached to a John Adams diary entry:

JA and [William] McCreery corresponded on commercial subjects for some years, though at first their letters rather amusingly centered on a pair of homespun breeches, lost by JQA in Bordeaux, that contained eight guineas sewed into the waistband.
So at that point I could go back to the index and look up McCreery’s name. (Which is alphabetized ahead of the “Ma...” entries, in the pre-digital way.) And that in turn led to four documents which tell the sad tale.

John Adams’s 15 Apr 1778 letter to McCreery:
I have another Thing to mention to you, which is, that in unpacking my Baggage, I miss a pair of coarse homespun Breeches, which my little son wore in the Passage. If they are at your House, I should be obliged to you if you would rip open the Waistband in which you will find a few Guineas, 8 at least.

The Breeches you may give to the first Child that wants them. The Guineas, you may send to me, or ship the Value of them, deducting your Commissions in any Thing you please, to Mrs. Adams at Braintree near Boston, to the Care of Isaac Smith Esqr., Queen Street Boston. Linnens, or Cambricks, I suppose would be as acceptable as any Thing.
McCreery’s reply on 3 May, quoted in a footnote to that letter:
I have made all possible search and enquiry for the Breeches you mention belonging to your Son, containing the Money, but have not been able to get any tidings of them. I do not remember having seen any such at the time you were here. I know that many things were left carelessly loose by the Servants, and am affraid that some of the Porters have got hold of them. I really do not expect that they will be found in this House, after the search that has been made.
Adams on 14 May (a letter he drafted but never sent because it contained other, sensitive information):
I thank you for the trouble you have taken in searching for the Breeches. I have no suspicion of the Servants at your house. I rather conjecture that once, upon the road, when a few Things were taken out of my Trunk, this Article might slip aside. The Gold could not have been the temptation for it was hid in the Waistband. However, whether it is in the hands of a Thief or an honest finder, I wish he knew of the Gold for it might be of Service to him. So much for that.
And finally Adams’s entry in his accounting for “To 8 English Guineas, lost in a Garment which was stole on the Road bet. Bourdeaux and Paris,—the Guineas were sewn up in the Garment, to conceal them from the Enemy in Case of Capture at Sea.”

So I think it’s a little hard on young John Quincy for the Adams Papers index to suggest that he lost his breeches in the same way we say Robert Treat Paine lost his purse. The boy probably had nothing to do with the breeches’ disappearance. And anyway, he was only ten years old.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A New Adams Archive at the M.H.S.

In addition to the Coming of the American Revolution web project that I’ve been writing about, this season the Massachusetts Historical Society unveiled its Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Adamses section. This is still a work in progress, but it shows big promise.

The Founding Families: Digital Editions project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Harvard University Press, aims to put all the content of the published Adams Papers volumes and (eventually) the Winthrop Papers online in a searchable form.

This is separate from the M.H.S.’s long-standing (in web terms) Adams Family Papers: Electronic Archive, though the two overlap. Each has material and features that the other doesn’t.

The Adams Electronic Archive:

  • contains John Adams’s diary and autobiography and the letters he exchanged with his wife Abigail.
  • can be searched with modern spellings of words; those have been hidden in the H.T.M.L. coding, no doubt at great effort.
  • offers views of the actual documents.
The Founding Families Adams archive:
  • contains many more documents: the contents of every volume published in the Adams Papers series so far, including letters from other people besides John and Abigail, John’s legal papers, notes from the Continental Congress, and so on.
  • has an index that links to all the relevant documents in all the volumes.
  • can’t be searched with modern spellings, only with the spellings, misspellings, and abbreviations the correspondents actually used. Plus, there are still a few bugs in the search function programming as of this week. As a result, the index is the better way to go.
  • shows where documents fall in the printed volumes, in case you’re looking for a document by page number rather than date.
  • replicates the exact text of the printed volumes, and doesn’t show images of the documents themselves.
At this point, I find the first archive familiar and user-friendly while the second is frustrating, but that could change as more of its features are locked into place. That second contains much more information that can’t be found anywhere else online. (Everything in the first archive was published, albeit in an edited form, in the 1800s and is therefore in the public domain.)

As a test, I went looking for one of John Quincy Adams’s earliest preserved letters, asking his father (who was in Philadelphia) to buy him a notebook. First I had to figure out that I should look up my boy in the index under “JQA” rather than, oh, “Adams, John Quincy.” I couldn’t find a working chronological list of his letters, so I browsed the alphabetical topics list. I found a tantalizing index entry for “JQA / loses breeches,” but that led to a document about some diplomatic spat in France. Is that an error in the printed version? In transfering data to the digital? In my mind? By this time I’d given up on finding that early letter.

TOMORROW: I get lucky and trip over the trail of those breeches.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

You Never Know Whom You Might Meet

Yesterday evening I stopped by the Watertown Public Library because I needed to return some books, and I needed a light supper, and that institution offers both opportunities. As I was walking across the parking lot, I spotted a gentleman putting on a scarlet coat over his crimson sash and gorget—the emblems of a British army officer of the eighteenth century. We greeted each other politely, but it took us both a while to recognize that we’d been on the same bill at the Paul Revere House last year.

It turned out the Historical Society of Watertown was meeting in the library that evening. The featured speaker was Michael Lepage, in the person of Gen. Thomas Gage. Through History Relived of Foxboro, Michael offers that and other first-person historic impressions, including Loyalist Judge Peter Oliver—the name under which I’d met him before. So I zipped through my chicken soup in time to enjoy the show.

While there, I also heard reminders of the New England History Festival at Hibernian Hall in Watertown this Saturday, and opening hours at Watertown’s Edmund Fowle House on Sunday.

Reading Rowe

One of the major primary sources in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s new Coming of the American Revolution web project is the diary of Boston merchant John Rowe. Through that site, we can read his reactions to almost all the major events between 1764 and 1776. Rowe’s diary was fairly detailed, and he knew practically all the leaders on both sides of the political conflict.

Rowe knew them because he tried to remain friendly with both sides. He was a notorious “trimmer,” often changing his positions and alliances. As a result, neither side trusted him. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson suspected Rowe of being behind the attack on his North End mansion on 26 Aug 1765. Yet in 1773 the Boston crowd called Rowe a “great Tory.” He stayed in town through the siege of 1775-76, then chose not to leave with the British authorities.

As a result, Rowe witnessed a lot of events, but I don’t think we can assume that he was a trustworthy witness. His diary is a slippery document. For example, on the evening of the Tea Party he wrote, “I am sincerely sorry for the Event.” Yet a contemporaneous account of the public tea meetings, not published until 1965, confirmed people’s recollection that during the crisis Rowe had been the first to publicly suggest: “Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?”

Rowe’s diary stretches from September 1764 to July 1779, but there are three missing sections:

  • 17 Aug 1765 to 10 Apr 1766, the period of the worst Stamp Act riots.
  • 1 June to 24 Dec 1775, when he was in the besieged town.
  • 19 Nov 1776 to 12 Aug 1778, early in the new republic.
It’s not unusual for one or two volumes to go missing from a long diary like this, but one thing makes me a little suspicious about those holes: Rowe’s diary entry for 16 Mar 1775. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had declared that should be a fast-day to protest the troops in Boston. Supporters of the royal government objected. On that day, Rowe wrote in his diary:
This day is kept by many People as a Publick Fast, which gives great umbrage to a great many People which does not pay any Regard to it, and I think they are Right because the Order does not originate under the Direction of Good Government.
But, as can easily be seen on the original page, the merchant at some moment returned and added a few words (emphasized here):
This day is kept by many People as a Publick Fast, which gives great umbrage to a great many People which does not pay any Regard to it, and I think they are not Right because they say the Order does not originate under the Direction of Good Government—yet it can do no harm.
That change isn’t noted in either of the published versions of Rowe’s diary, both prepared in cooperation with his descendants. (I’d love to see it added to the “Rowe’s Revolution” section of the M.H.S. website. Hint, hint.)

We know, therefore, that John Rowe changed his diary in hindsight, either because he had made a 180° turn in his politics or because he didn’t want anyone else to see his original statement. Might the missing volumes have been so full of embarrassing entries that he decided to do away with them altogether? We’ll never know.

After the British evacuation, Rowe endured some embarrassing moments, such as his attempt to attend the funeral of Dr. Joseph Warren, when he “to my great mortification was very much Insulted.” But eventually he rode out suspicions about his loyalty, finally achieving his goal of representing Boston in the Massachusetts General Court in 1780-84. The only legislative initiative Rowe is remembered for was donating the large carved wooden cod which still hangs in the State House. But his name lives on at Rowes Wharf.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ben Carp on the Tea Party in Lexington, 21 Nov

Richard Kollen at the Lexington Historical Society tells me the group is sponsoring a free lecture by Tufts professor Benjamin Carp on 21 Nov 2008 at the Lexington Depot.

Ben’s talk, which begins at 8:00 P.M., is entitled “Lexington, the Locals, and the Boston Tea Party,” and will feature material from his upcoming book Teapot in a Tempest: The Boston Tea Party of 1773. That book is a new attempt to identify who exactly destroyed the East India Company’s tea in Boston harbor on 16 Dec 1773, and one of the questions Ben’s had to wrestle with is how many men from outside Boston were involved. I’ve written skeptically about the claims from descendants of Benjamin Rice of North Brookfield and Samuel Smith of Topsfield. But Lexington was closer to Boston than either of those towns.

Ben is also the author of Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, which I wrote about back here.


Today I’m continuing my exploration of The Coming of the American Revolution, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s new online historical resource. Here’s the text of an item from the 14 Mar 1774 Boston Gazette. That was three months after the famous Boston Tea Party, on 16 Dec 1773.

At the end of that winter, a fourth ship carrying tea had arrived in Boston harbor. The Gazette article describes what had happened to that cargo on board the Fortune on the night of 7 March—but it describes the event in coded form:

His Majesty OKNOOKORTUNKOGOG King of the Narraganset Tribe of Indians, on receiving Information of the arrival of another Cargo of that Cursed Weed TEA, immediately Summoned his Council at the Great Swamp by the River Jordan, who did Advise and Consent to the immediate Destruction thereof, after Resolving that the IMPORTATION of this Herb, by ANY Persons whatever, was attended with pernicious Consequences to the Lives and Properties of all his Subjects throughout America.

Orders were then issued to their Seizor & Destroyer General, and their Deputies to assemble the executive Body under their Command, to proceed directly to the Place where the noxious Herb was. They arrived last Monday Evening in Town, and finding the Vessel, they emptied every Chest, into the Great Pacific Ocean, and effectually Destroyed the whole, (Twenty-eight Chests and an half.)

They are now returned to Narragansett to make Report of their doings to his Majesty, who we hear is determined to honour them with Commissions for the Peace [i.e., to make them magistrates].
In other words, Boston men had kept the new tea from landing the same way they’d handled the cargo on the earlier three ships—by tossing it into the harbor.

This newspaper item shows how the cover story about “Indians” destroying tea was taking hold. Originally the tea-destroyers appear to have simply put paint or soot on their faces to hide their identities. Ebenezer Stevens insisted that few of them wore any disguises at all. The printers of the Gazette, Benjamin Edes and John Gill, were well aware of what exactly happened. After all, according to Edes’s son, a lot of the crowd had gotten ready at the Edes and Gill shop.

But writing about “the Narragansett Tribe” or “Mohawks” gave the newspaper a way to report on the tea destruction without giving anything away. Within a generation, artists were showing the men on the tea ships in full Native American garb, including feathers and bare chests (on a mid-December night). The Indian disguises became a central part of the Tea Party legend.

As for the second destruction of tea at Boston, on 7 Mar 1774, that tended to get left out of the legend entirely. But at the time, it was significant. News of that act reached London as Parliament was debating how strongly to respond to the first Tea Party. That legislature had already passed the Boston Port Bill, and Lord North was pushing for the Massachusetts Government Act and the Administration of Justice Act. As one might imagine, the news from Boston squelched most calls for leniency. The new laws passed by overwhelming margins.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New from the Massachusetts Historical Society

This week I’m going to highlight several new online historical resources. (And if they’re not really new, they’re new to me.)

To start with, the Massachusetts Historical Society has launched an ambitious educational project called The Coming of the American Revolution. It provides digital images and transcriptions of hundreds of primary-source documents from the Revolutionary period, organized around fifteen chronological topics from “The Sugar Act” in 1764 to “Declarations of Independence” in 1776.

Some of those documents are well known, but others are rare, and provide unusual insights into the events. Take, for example, the Boston Massacre on 5 Mar 1770.

Where was Whig crowd organizer William Molineux on that evening? The diary of merchant John Rowe shows that Molineux was “at Mrs Cordis [i.e., the British Coffee-House] with the Fire Club.” That implies he wasn’t the man in the white wig who urged men down at the dock to stand up for their rights.

Back here I wrote about Dr. Benjamin Church’s autopsy of Crispus Attucks. You can read the original printing of Church’s deposition here, in the Boston town report calmly titled A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre.

Supporters of the Crown were active, too. They gathered depositions in Boston, shipped them to London, and printed their own report there: A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England. That pamphlet’s never been reprinted (unlike the Boston report), and it isn’t part of the Readex’s Archive of Americana because it was printed in London. Now it’s available with a transcript here.

The trials of British military men for the Massacre ended with acquittals for most of the accused and convictions on manslaughter for Pvt. Edward Montgomery and Pvt. Mathew Kilroy. Here’s the one-sentence report in the 17 Dec 1770 Boston Gazette about those two men being branded on the thumb.

Some other highlights from The Coming of the American Revolution.

The site includes lots of educational modules, guidance for students on interpreting historic documents, and links to other useful sites (including Boston 1775). This ongoing project was funded by the Education Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lectures on Warren and Williams

The New England Historic Genealogical Society is hosting a couple of events this month about Massachusetts women who lived through the Revolution—but apparently had opposing feelings about it.

The Muse of the Revolution: Mercy Otis Warren
Monday, November 17, 2008, 6:00 PM

Join NEHGS and award-winning author Nancy Rubin Stuart for the “story of how Mercy Otis Warren’s dedication to original patriotic ideals of the Revolution contributed to its eventual success and then critically informed the creation of American state.” Drawn from the correspondence of Mercy Otis Warren and the letters of colonial patriots, including John and Abigail Adams, George and Martha Washington and Henry Knox, The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation is a tale not to be missed.

Advanced registration is required. $10 admission. To RSVP please call 617-226-1226 or email.

Living in the Past: Esther Williams and Her Relics
Wednesday, November 19, 2008, 6:00 PM

Donald Friary, president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and director emeritus of Historic Deerfield will present the interesting case of a woman who seemed to have added nothing to her household after the American Revolution. Based on the 1800 probate inventory of Esther Williams, widow of a Deerfield Tory, who was surrounded by old forms of furniture and French and Indian War heroes. There are no card tables or sideboards or maps of the new nation or images of Washington. She was living in the past.

No reservation or admission fee required for this educational program.
Esther (Williams) Williams moved to Deerfield from Weston in 1748 as the second wife of Dr. Thomas Williams. She’s not the more famous Esther Williams, captured in the 1704 raid on Deerfield, or the most famous Esther Williams, co-star of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Traveling on “Waterways and Byways” in 2009

The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife will have its next annual conference on 13-14 June 2009, and the topic will be “Waterways and Byways, 1600-1890.”

The call for papers says:

The Seminar is accepting proposals for papers and presentations on the subject of early transportation networks operating within New England and contiguous portions of New York and Canada before 1890.

Based on the premise that New England’s everyday economy, much like its culture, depended on regional interconnectivity, this conference attempts to examine the physical, professional, and cultural networks that facilitated and encouraged this movement.

Specifically, the conference seeks proposals on river and canal life, on tavern circuits, and on the rise of overland stagecoach routes. The conference also seeks papers on packet boats and coaster trades; the evolution of an inland shipbuilding legacy; the introduction of locks to major rivers; and the growth of commercial turnpikes, steamboats, and early railways.

Planners also look for papers on traditional native ferrying points and fords, on bridge and road builders, as well as on entrepreneurs—such as peddlers, entertainers, civil engineers, coach and carriage makers, and travel diarists—who provided or made use of this connectivity.

The Seminar welcomes proposals from authors, academic and museum scholars working in the public humanities, graduate students, teachers, and the general public. Preference will be given to papers based on primary sources such as account books, diaries, reminiscences, personal and business papers, newspapers and artifacts as well as topographic and toponymic data.
Each paper should be about twenty to twenty-five minutes long (that’s 10-12 double-spaced pages), to be read aloud to the assembly. To propose a paper, email the Seminar a one-page prospectus that cites sources and a one-page vita as attachments by 1 February 2009. Selected papers will appear in a proceedings volume issued about a year after the conference.

Why the cut-off date of 1890? This conference is focused on inland travel before the automobile.

The picture above shows the stagecoach that Old Sturbridge Village hosted last summer. I got to see it in action. I also got to see it standing still after one of the horses stumbled and fell. A couple who were visiting the museum knew enough about horses to get that animal and its teammate calm enough for it to scramble back to its feet, and then they and the coach went home for the day. A little too much authenticity, I thought.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Challenge of Emancipation in the New Republic

Last month Douglas R. Egerton posted a review for the H-SHEAR list of Eva Sheppard Wolf’s Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion (Louisiana State University Press, 2006). I thought this was an interesting start:

As the American Revolution dawned, Virginia was home not merely to the largest number of African Americans of any new state, but it also boasted a large number of reformers, white and black alike, who desired an end to unfree labor. Wealthy planter Robert Carter created a schedule by which he freed his slaves, and attorney St. George Tucker published a lengthy plan for gradual emancipation, as did Fernando Fairfax, who combined his scheme with the forced removal of freedpersons. Such slaves as Harry Washington abandoned Mount Vernon with John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, only to return as black Loyalist Corporal Washington.

Yet despite black flight and white manumission, by the war’s end in 1783, there were 105,000 more slaves in the state than in 1776, and by the time Nat Turner swung from a tree in 1831, state leaders were well down the intransigent road of positive good theory. Why this promising story did not turn out better has been examined by numerous historians and biographers, but few have waded into the sources as deeply as has Eva Sheppard Wolf.
The “positive good theory” refers to a shift in how American slaveholders discussed slavery. In the late 1700s, most Americans—even those whose wealth depended on keeping people in bondage—agreed publicly that slavery was a bad thing, but argued it was too difficult to do away with immediately. That thinking was particularly strong in the Revolutionary generation, who had spent so much time talking about natural rights and liberty.

Under greater pressure from Abolitionists after the early 1800s, slaveholders developed a new way of thinking, that slavery was a “positive good” for the enslaved people and for society. That of course made emancipation more difficult.

Even just after the Revolution, state populations had difficulty renouncing slavery. Vermont did so as an independent republic, but there were hardly any slaves there to free. Pennsylvania opted for gradual emancipation, as did other northern states over time. In Massachusetts the change came through a 1783 judicial decision affirming that all people deserved equal rights; there was never a popular referendum or vote by the towns’ representatives on the issue.

Here are other reviews of Wolf’s book by David H. Gellman for H-Law, and (in PDF download) by James Sidbury for the William & Mary Quarterly.