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, February 26, 2009

Harry Babcock’s “Distempered Mind”

Yesterday I described how Rhode Island removed Col. Henry Babcock (shown right, from a portrait by Joseph Blackburn) from command of its troops at Newport in April 1776 because, the legislature determined, he was mentally unstable. Unfortunately, the printed record doesn’t give us any juicy details.

Stephen Babcock’s 1903 genealogy of the Babcock family described the colonel’s infirmity this way: “In 1777 he had a severe fit of sickness which so affected his mind that he never entirely recovered.” But the records show people judged Babcock insane early in the previous year, and with hindsight George Washington recalled “Proofs...of a Distempered Mind” in December 1775.

Going back even before then, Babcock’s political loyalties might have been volatile. On 26 Dec 1774 a British officer in Boston wrote to a friend in Edinburgh about New England Loyalists:

You were right in your opinion, Brigadier General [Timothy] Ruggles of the Massachusetts, Colonel Babcock of Rhode-Island, and Colonel [Eleazer] Fitch of Connecticut, are staunch to Government
Was the second man Col. Henry Babcock? He was actually living over the border in Stonington, Connecticut, but closely associated with Rhode Island. I can’t find any other Col. Babcock.

Moving even further back, that Babcock genealogy is one of several books that describe this anecdote about Harry Babcock:
In 1761 he visited England, where he was treated with great respect. He was introduced to the Queen, and it is said that instead of kissing her hand, as was the custom of people in his rank, he boldly kissed her cheek, remarking that such was the “mark of politeness in America.” The correctness of this statement is doubted.
So was that behavior a sign of intermittent mania?

Certainly that diagnosis would fit with how Babcock reacted to being dumped from his Rhode Island command. On 28 May 1776, within a month of his official removal, he was writing to John Hancock with a bright new idea:
I should be extremely obliged to you if you would be pleased to lay before the honourable the Continental Congress the following proposals:

That I have leave to raise two battalions of marines, to consist of five hundred men each, and each battalion to consist of six companies, with a Captain-Lieutenant to each battalion, four officers to each company. Make not the least doubt, provided I have leave to name the officers, that I raise the men in two months. Would recommend the paying two months’ pay in advance, but that I leave to the wisdom of the Congress.

I should expect the rank of Brigadier-General, as the last war I had the rank of Colonel in the years ’58 and ’59, and one thousand in my regiment. . . .

I must desire, if the great load of cares which rests upon you will permit, that I may have the honour of a line from you next post. If the Congress adopt the scheme, which I believe would be of publick utility, [I] will immediately wait upon them.
Congress did not take up Col. Babcock’s offer.


Jerry said...

There was no other Col. Babcock from R.I. at that time. Do you have any idea what the ailment was?

J. L. Bell said...

My suspicion is that Henry Babcock had bipolar/manic-depressive illness. But I don’t have training in psychology or neurology, and there’s no way to really tell at this distance.

Unknown said...

Colonel Babcock in his letter to mr. Hancock appeared quite lucid and cogent in his ability to marshall his ideas. His idea may not have been taken up by the Continental Congress but it in no way appears the product of a disordered mind. As a direct ancestor, I'm quite proud of his military service.

J. L. Bell said...

Your assessment of Babcock in the late 1770s appears to disagree with those of his contemporaries and of the descendants whose book I quoted. Some mental disorders are not immediately apparent; for instance, Babcock’s plan for raising battalions might appear rational, but was it realistic? Some are episodic, meaning a person can be lucid or stable at times but not reliably so. There’s no question Babcock stepped forward as a military leader of his colony. There’s also no question that colony decided that because of his behavior he wasn’t the right person for the job.