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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Friday, December 11, 2009

Gates’s “Filial Relationship of a Less Sanctified Character”

As I quoted two days ago, in 1855 Washington Irving wrote about Gen. Horatio Gates this way:

Horace Walpole, whose Christian name he bore, speaks of him in one of his letters as his godson, though some have insinuated that he stood in filial relationship of a less sanctified character.
Irving had probably heard that insinuation whispered around New York.

On 27 Sept 1833, Christopher C. Baldwin, librarian at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, put this statement in his diary:
Mr. Stevens, a classmate of Rev. George Allen of Shrewsbury, and son of Gen. Ebenezer Stevens, told me that Gen. Horatio Gates was an illegitimate son of Horace Walpole. A brother of Mr. Stevens had the library of Gen. Gates, and in many of the books was the autograph signature of Mr. Walpole.
How reliable could such gossip be? Well, the Rev. George Allen graduated from Yale in 1813. Among his classmates was John Austin Stevens, a son of militia general Ebenezer Stevens.

In 1810, Gates’s second wife and sole heir left John Austin Stevens’s older brother Samuel “all the remainder of my books and library,” save one volume. Mary Gates also left the general’s watch and $2,500 to another brother, not coincidentally named Horatio Gates Stevens.

The two families were obviously close. Back in 1806, after Gen. Gates died, the Mercantile Advertiser of New York reported that Ebenezer Stevens had wanted to eulogize him at a public funeral. Gates’s will demanded a small, private ceremony, and Stevens may have satisfied his desire by writing the long, laudatory notice in that newspaper.

In sum, John Austin Stevens’s gossip to the Worcester archivist was probably based on actually seeing Walpole’s signature in the general’s books, and there’s no sign of any personal or political hostility toward Gates motivating the rumor.

But, as discussed yesterday, the author Horace Walpole was only nine to eleven years old when Gates was born. Walpole was also probably gay, but that’s beside the point—he couldn’t have been the baby’s father. In fact, his youth might have been a reason why he was invited to be the godfather: he might have unquestioningly accepted the mother’s new husband as the baby’s father while adults whispered otherwise.

TOMORROW: The Walpole connection, part 3.

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