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, October 31, 2010

George Washington: Buried Alive?!

On 12 Dec 1799, George Washington caught a cold, which turned into an infected throat. (Acute bacterial epiglottitis, according to this site on his health.) The contemporaneous notes by his secretary, Tobias Lear, describe what happened next in great detail.

The former President’s throat swelled so that he could not swallow any medicine. He called an overseer to bleed him, though his wife Martha feared he would lose too much blood. “A piece of flannel dip’d in salvolatila was put around his neck, and his feet bathed in warm water; but without affording any relief.” Then the professionals arrived:

Dr. [James] Craik came in soon after, and upon examining the General, he put a blister of Cantharides on the throat, took some more blood from him, and had a gargle of Vinegar & sage tea, and ordered some Vinegar and hot water for him to inhale the steam which he did;—but in attempting to use the gargle he was almost suffocated. . . .

Dr. [Elisha Cullen] Dick came in about 3 o’clock, and Dr. [Gustavus] Brown arrived soon after. Upon Dr. Dick’s seeing the General and consulting a few minutes with Dr. Craik he was bled again; the blood came very slow, was thick, and did not produce any symptoms of fainting. Dr. Brown came into the chamber soon after; and upon feeling the General's pulse &c. the Physicians went out together.
Washington began to put his final affairs in order: rechecking his will, authorizing Lear to settle the account books, thanking his doctors. Meanwhile, they debated Dr. Dick’s suggestion of a tracheotomy, which was then a rare and difficult surgery; Dr. Craik decided it was too risky.

On Saturday, 14 December, Washington had one more piece of business to attend to:
About ten o’clk he made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said,—“I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.” I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again and said, “Do you understand me? I replied “Yes.” “Tis well” said he.
Evidently the general was afraid that he might be interred before he was truly dead. He had once seen one of his slaves revived after being thought dead, and didn’t want that possibility to be discarded too quickly.

Washington died within an hour of that conversation. The next day, 15 December, another doctor—William Thornton—arrived and proposed warming up the body to try the tracheotomy, just in case. Martha Washington declined. Lear wrote:
Mrs. Washington sent for me in the Morning and desired I would send up to Alxa. [Alexandria] and have a Cofiin made: which I did. Doctor Dick measured the body, the dimensions of which were as follows

In length6feet3 1/2inchs.exact.
Across the shoulders1"9""
Across the elbows2" ""
Of course, that was the general’s length lying down.

George Washington was interred on 18 December, four days after he died—fulfilling his last request.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

“The Ball Demolished His Head”

From Jeptha R. Simms’s Trappers of New York, published in 1850, comes this description of a gory incident from the Battle of Saratoga:

Among the death-daring spirits who followed [Benedict] Arnold to the Hessian camp, was Nicholas Stoner, and near the enemy’s works he was wounded in a singular manner. A cannon shot from the breastwork killed a soldier near Stoner, named Tyrrell. The ball demolished his head, sending its fragments into the face of Stoner, which was literally covered with brains, hair and fragments of the skull. He fell senseless, with the right of his head about the ear severely cut by portions of the skull bone, which injury still affects his hearing in that ear.

Shortly after, as the young fifer was missing, one Sweeney, an Irish soldier, was sent to seek out and bear him from the field; but a cannon shot whizzed so near his own head, that he soon returned without the object of his search.

Col. Livingston asked Sweeney where the lad Stoner was?

“Ja—s! colonel,” replied the soldier, “a goose has laid an egg there, and you don’t catch me to stay there!”

Lieut. William Wallace then proceeded to the spot indicated by the Irishman, and found our hero with his head reclining upon Tyrrell’s thigh, and taking him in his arms, bore him to the American camp. When young Stoner was found, a portion of the brim of his hat, say about one-fourth the size of a nine-pound shot, was observed to have been cut off very smoothly, the rest of it was covered with the ruins of the head of Tyrrell, who, to use the words of Stoner, did not know what hurt him.
(Irishmen in nineteenth-century stories are always saying, “Jaysus!”)

Nicholas Stoner was a fifer, about fifteen years old at this time, according to Simms. For more on his career (most of the details taken from Simms), here’s a 1965 American Heritage article. According to this webpage from Fulton County, New York, that photo above shows the “Nick Stoner monument at the Caroga Golf Course.”

TOMORROW: George Washington: Buried Alive?!

Friday, October 29, 2010

“The Immediate Cause of His Late Majesty’s Sudden Death”

George II died on 25 Oct 1760, at the age of seventy-seven. That was a long life, especially in the eighteenth century, but the king’s death was still sudden. About seven one morning, servants heard a thump from his rooms, and found him lying on the floor. Although the royal surgeon tried bleeding, it soon became clear that the king was most sincerely dead.

Readers of the Boston Post-Boy on 29 Dec 1760 got this news report from London, dated 4 November:

The following is an account of what appeared to the Surgeons upon opening the body of his late Majesty.

Kensington Palace Oct 26. 1760
“In obedience to the order transmitted to us by the Rt. Hon. Mr. Vice Chamberlain. We the under-signed have this day opened and examined the body of his late Majesty, in preserve of Sir Edward Wilmot, Bar[one]t and Dr Nichols, two of his late Majesty’s physicians; and first, on opening the Belly, we found all the parts therein contained in a natural and healthy state, except only that on the surface of each kidney there were some hydatides, or watery bladders, which however, we determined could not have been at this time of material consequence.

On opening the Breast we observed the pericardium or bag which contains the heart, to be very extended, which was owing to a large effusion of blood that had been discharged therein from a rupture in the substance of the right venticle [sic] of the heart. The quantity of the blood in the pericardium was at least a pint, the most of which was strongly coagulated.

The rupture of the venticle, and the consequent effusion of the blood in the pericardium, were certainly the immediate cause of his late Majesty’s sudden death. The brain lungs, and all the other parts were in a perfect state.

E. Wilmot,
Fr. Nicholls,
John Ranby.
C Hawkins[”]
The newspaper went on to say:
The case of a rupture in the heart of a great personage, is look’d upon by the medicinal gentlemen as without example, inasmuch that had the fact been certified by people of less eminent abilities in anatomy, than those to whom the inspection was committed, it would have staggered the faith of the faculty.
George II’s bowels were placed in an urn and taken to Westminster while the rest of his body laid in state in the House of Lords. The corpse was placed in a lead coffin, which was then placed in a mahogany coffin, which was finally placed in one “of lead, covered with purple velvet.” The coffins and corpse were interred “in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey.”

I learned about this article from this article from the Historical Society about the transmission of news from Britain to North America. Typing up that article apparently triggered a spellchecker to change “hydatides” to “hydrides.”

Dr. Nicholls sent a much longer description of the autopsy to the Royal Society in 1761, and it was published the next year. It offered more detail, such as that none of the hydatides “exceeded the bulk of a common walnut”; the spelling “ventricle”; and not one but two colored images of the king’s heart. The physician also wrote that it was natural for the king to have strained his aorta just before he died, “having been at the necessary-stool.”

Some people might have seen Nicholls’s report as an invasion of royal privacy or even an affront to royal dignity. But the article stated at the outset:
The inclosed papers have been laid before the Lord Chamberlain, for his Majesty [George III]’s inspection; and his Majesty’s answer was, That he saw no reason, why they may not be made public.
Later in life George III would, of course, have his own medical problems.

TOMORROW: CSI: Saratoga.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Blood of a Blue-Eyed King?

I read about this study in Chemical and Engineering News, but here I’m quoting from the Wired Science blog:

French revolutionists condemned Louis XVI to the guillotine on the morning of January 21, 1793. After a short but defiant speech and a menacing drum roll, one of the last kings of France lost his head as a crowd rushed the scaffold to dip handkerchiefs into his blood as mementos.

Or so the story goes.

Lending new life to the demise of Louis XVI, scientists performed a battery of DNA tests on dried blood inside a decorative gunpowder gourd that purportedly contained one such handkerchief. The results, described Oct. 12 in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics, show the blood belongs to a blue-eyed male from that time period: a possible dead-ringer for the executed king.

“The next step is find a descendant either of the king or his mother,” said Davide Pettener, a population geneticist at the University of Bologna in Italy who helped with the analysis. “Otherwise we’ll have to try to get a sample of the dried heart of Louis XVI’s son.”
Scientific investigation? Blood? The dried heart of a dead child? Why, it can only be a brief return of CSI: Colonial Boston, in time for the modern Hallowe’en holiday!

TOMORROW: Another dead king.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Were Your Revolutionary Ancestors Marbleheaders?

On Thursday, 4 November, at 2:00 P.M., the Marblehead Museum will host a lecture by Walter Hickey of the National Archives on “Researching your Revolutionary War Ancestors.” The museum’s press release says:

“This lecture supports the Museum’s genealogy initiative whose current research is focusing on the soldiers of [John] Glover’s Regiment,” says Pam Peterson, Executive Director of the Museum. “Led by Board Members Dick Carlson and Lynne Ambrose, our Genealogy Committee responded to the Old Burial Hill challenge put forth at the Museum’s Annual Meeting last April. At that meeting, historical conservation expert Ivan Meyjer challenged Marbleheaders to identify the names of all 600 soldiers who are buried in that cemetery.”
(I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work. If we know that 600 soldiers are in that cemetery, then shouldn’t we know their names already? And don’t we already have the names of lots of soldiers in Glover’s regiment?)

Hickey’s presentation will take place in the J.O.J. Frost Folk Art Gallery at the Marblehead Museum, 170 Washington Street. Admission is $10 for Museum members and $15 for non-members. Because of limited space, the museum recommends making reservations at 781-631-1768.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

“No Religious Test Shall Ever Be Required”

Tea Party Nation, one of the many overlapping political groups that grew out of the Republican right last year, has sent out an email stating reasons to vote against Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Among them:

He is the only Muslim member of congress.
That’s factually wrong, as Rachel Maddow’s commenters pointed out; two Congressmen are Muslim.

It’s also directly contrary to the language of the U.S. Constitution, which states in Article VI:
…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
The Constitution doesn’t bar individual voters from exercising their private bigotries, of course. But Tea Party Nation’s message undermines that movement’s claim to comprehend and follow the Constitution better than anyone else.

Indeed, this stipulation in Article VI is significant because it’s part of the original document, predating even the Bill of Rights. In an essay at History News Network, Prof. Jon Butler of Yale, among the most respected historians of religion in early America, argues that the legislative history of the First Amendment shows Congress choosing to expand the religious freedom it implied:
In June 1789 Congress declined a proposal from James Madison for a constitutional amendment about religion that said, “nor shall any national religion be established.” In September 1789, Congress rejected several additional proposals for a narrow religion amendment. These would have prohibited establishing “one religious sect or society in preference to others,” or “establishing any religious sect or society,” or “establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another.”

In the final version of the First Amendment, congressmen and senators used the broader word “religion,” and when discussing the issue of “free exercise” of religion they never limited its meaning to Christianity or Judaism.

No wonder. The new states in the 1790s already exhibited exceptional religious diversity—at least twenty-five different versions of Christianity, plus Judaism and Islam—and Americans seemed more fascinated than worried about religious diversity. In 1784 Hannah Adams of Medfield, Massachusetts, found a huge audience for her book “Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which have Appeared in the World from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day.”
That book is available online here. It’s mostly about Christian divisions and subdivisions, but Adams (shown above) discusses “the Mohammedans” in her Appendix, starting here and proceeding for thirteen pages.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Following John Singleton Copley Through the Years

The 18th-Century American Women blog has posted several entries on John Singleton Copley, colonial Boston’s self-made portrait artist. Among them is half a biography covering the first part of his career, in America.

Copley went to Europe to study shortly after his frustrated attempts to mediate the tea crisis for his in-laws, the Clarkes. He was therefore outside America when the Revolutionary War began, and there he remained. As an Anglican, a luxury craftsman, and the relative of a tea consignee, Copley’s interests all pulled him toward Britain instead of America (though he did leave his mother behind).

Copley reinvented himself in London as a history painter, breaking free of the portraits that nearly all his Americans clients had wanted. He produced some monumental images, but tended to work slowly. In America, Copley was the biggest fish in a small pond; in London, he faced much more competition, and more changes in artistic fashion.

Because Copley had left Massachusetts before the war, the state didn’t confiscate his large estate on the southwest part of Beacon Hill when it seized other absentees’ property. Some biographies suggest he lost that land as a Loyalist, but in fact he sold it to some Boston men in 1795, only to learn that the area was being developed and he might have gotten a better price.

The painter sent his oldest son, who had entered the law, to argue that the family should get the land back so he could sell it again. That went nowhere. John, Jr. (1772-1863), was more successful back in London, eventually becoming Baron Lyndhurst.

Back to the 18th-Century American Women blog. Other postings show how Copley used English engravings as models for his portraits, or borrowed clothing from such a print, or used the same dress and pose for three women in the same family. Examples like these remind us that Copley’s portraits aren’t photographs of exactly how people looked and dressed in colonial America, as lifelike as they may look; they were artistic creations, manipulated to create certain impressions.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Best Footnote of the Month

Number 14 on page 305 of Braddock’s March, by Thomas Crocker:

The first-hand accounts are conflicting and confusing as to where the flying column spent the night of July 1. Despite recent research on this phase of the march (see, e.g., Frank A. Cassell and Elizabeth W. Cassell, A Tour of Braddock’s Road from Fort Necessity to Braddock’s Field (Westmoreland Heritage) and article by Steeley, J. in Westmoreland History 7, no. 2, September 2002), historians and geographers will no doubt debate the exact location of the route of march and related encampments during the first days of July for years to come. For purposes of this narrative, however, it is sufficient to say that the army was in the middle of nowhere.
My thanks to the loyal Boston 1775 reader who alerted me to this paragraph.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Researching the Black Patriots of Rhode Island, 27 Oct.

The W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University is hosting a lunchtime colloquium on Wednesday, 27 October, with Prof. Louis Wilson of Smith College on his research project, “Black Patriots in the American Revolutionary War from Rhode Island.”

He describes his project this way:

My project will attempt to reconstruct the personal history of many of the approximately eight hundred previously neglected African Americans and Native Americans who fought in various Rhode Island army units from 1775 to 1783. Using only primary documents, first, I am attempting to identify who these men were, and second to reconstruct many of the men’s personal histories before, during and after the conflict.

Ethnically the men are divided into essentially two groups—Native Americans (Indians) and African Americans (Black, Negro, Mulatto, Mustee and colored). Each served in various Rhode Island army units—local militia, state regiments and the Rhode Island Continental regiments.

I have collected information, often extensive personal information, on many of these men, including birth dates, places of birth, occupations, height, family status, wills, if they were enslaved or free at the time they enlisted, and if their discharge papers were signed by General George Washington.
This event will take place from noon to 1:30 P.M. in the Thompson Room, Barker Center, 12 Quincy Street in Cambridge. A question-and-answer period will follow Wilson’s lecture, and attendees can feel free to bring a lunch.

The picture above shows a black soldier in the Rhode Island regiment, wearing the unit’s distinct uniform and cap, as painted by Jean-Baptiste Antoine de Verger (1762-1851) during the siege of Yorktown. Wilson aims to dig beyond such representations of a type to uncover the individual Rhode Islanders.

Friday, October 22, 2010

CHAViC Conference on Historical Prints, 12-13 Nov 2010

On 12-13 November, the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) at the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester is hosting a conference on “Historical Prints—Fact and Fiction”.

Among the presentations with Revolutionary-era content are:

  • Nancy Siegel, Associate Professor of Art History, Towson University, “Savage Conflict: The ‘Indian Princess’ as Aggressor and Aggrieved in 18th-Century Prints”
  • Carl Robert Keyes, Assistant Professor of History, Assumption College, “Marketing the New Nation: Patriotic Imperatives in Advertisements for Early American Prints” [a.k.a., using the Revolution to sell stuff!]
  • Laura Wasowicz, Curator of Children’s Books, American Antiquarian Society, “Where Bravery, History, and Fantasy Meet: Heroic Prints in Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Books”
  • Allison Stagg, Ph.D. Candidate, History of Art, University of London, “‘The first will grumble and the last will laugh:’ An American Audience for British Visual Humor, 1790-1810”
  • Aimee E. Newell, Director of Collections, National Heritage Museum, “Educational Exercise, Decoration or Symbol of Brotherhood? The Use of Historical Prints in Early American Masonic Lodges”
  • Anne Roth-Reinhardt, Ph.D. Candidate, English, University of Minnesota, “Pirate of Patriot? Representations of John Paul Jones in Melville’s Israel Potter
  • Christopher N. Phillips, Assistant Professor, English, Lafayette College, “How Benjamin West’s Prints Made Art Epic”
  • Daniel C. Lewis, Dean of Communications and Humanities, Northern Virginia Community College, “Printmaker Goupil, Leutze’s Washington the Delaware [sic], and the Prints that Made it a National Icon in Nineteenth-Century America”
More details about each paper on the conference website. Registration costs $65, and folks registering after 29 October or walking in must pay $10 extra.

Who can identify the Revolutionary War event shown in the image above? Answer in the comments.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Songs in Lexington (and One Particular Song from Castle Island)

This Friday, 22 October, the Lexington Historical Society will host a reception celebrating the release of a new C.D. from Diane Taraz called Songs of the Revolution. Taraz will be joined by Jonathan Gilbert on vocals, recorder, and mandolin, and by the Lexington Historical Society Colonial Singers. The organization’s announcement says, “Drop in anytime between 7 and 9 pm,” and promises refreshments as well as music.

One song on Taraz’s album is “The Castle Island Song,” so named in Frank Moore’s Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution, published in 1856. Using the tune of “Derry Down,” that song has become a staple of Americana since being widely republished during the Bicentennial. I was already looking into its history when I saw Taraz’s C.D. for sale.

Moore stated:

These verses appeared in a broadside, a short time after the “massacre of the fifth of March,” 1770, as a “new song much in vogue among the friends to arbitrary power, and the soldiery at Castle Island, where it was composed, since the troops have evacuated the town of Boston.”
Loyalists didn’t describe themselves that way, of course; only Whigs would have called them “friends to arbitrary power.” Some historians even say the whole song was composed by Whigs as a provocation. The lyrics certainly are provocative:
You simple Bostonians, I’d have you beware,
Of your liberty Tree, I would have you take care,
For if that we chance to return to the town,
Your houses and stores will come tumbling down,
Derry down, down, hey, derry down.

If you will not agree to Old England’s laws,
I fear that King Hancock will soon get the yaws.
But he need not fear, for I swear we will,
For the want of a doctor, give him a hard pill.

A brave re-inforcement we soon think to get;
Then we will make you, poor pumpkins, to sweat;
Our drums they’ll rattle, and then you will run
To the devil himself, from the sight of a gun.

Our fleet and our army, they soon will arrive,
Then to a bleak island, you shall not us drive.
In every house, you shall have three or four,
And if that will not please you, you shall have half a score.
Derry down, down, hey, derry down.
My questions about this song start with the fact that nobody appears to have found that broadside besides Moore. It’s not mentioned in Broadsides, Ballads, &c. Printed in Massachusetts, 1639-1800 (1922) or Massachusetts Broadsides of the American Revolution (1976). No copies are reproduced in the Archive of Americana or American Memory databases.

I associate the phrase “King Hancock” with the mid-1770s, and the lyrics about “Our fleet and our army” and “In every house” seem to reflect understandings dating from years or decades after 1770. “The Castle Island Song” can be lovely music, but I suspect it really belongs in the category of “remembering the Revolution.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ben Carp at the Old South Meetinghouse, 21 Oct.

I’ve mentioned this before, but at 6:30 P.M. on Thursday, 21 October, Prof. Benjamin Carp of Tufts will be speaking at the Old South Meetinghouse about his new book, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America.

Now if you search at Powell’s online bookstore for titles that include the phrase “Making of America,” you get no fewer than 166 hits. But the Boston Tea Party really was a crucial event in the colonies’ break with Britain. And it’s been a celebrated, symbolically laden event ever since the 1830s, when its memory bubbled back up into our national consciousness.

Almost every American has heard about the Tea Party, especially these days. But relatively few of us, I dare say, would be able to explain why Boston Patriots thought it was so very important to prevent that tea from being landed in North America. Defiance of the Patriots discusses the Tea Party’s local, continental, and worldwide causes and ramifications, and assesses the evidence about which men and boys were involved.

Ben’s spoken before many groups as he’s researched and written this book, including one or two previous appearances at Old South, where Bostonians met to protest the tea tax. But I understand he’s figured out a way to do something fresh for this event. It will be an interview rather than a lecture, with Marty Blatt, historian for the Boston National Historical Park, posing questions—including some submitted from the audience.

So read up on the Tea Party (last week Ben published this op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal) and bring your questions to the Meetinghouse on Thursday evening.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Because We Must All Be Connected All the Time

Though I like a lot of people on Facebook, I still have no emotional connection to the service itself besides frequent puzzlement. In contrast, I enjoy Twitter and post a lot of little things there. I even came in third in a tweet contest!

Boston 1775 readers might remember that I used to round up my Twitter postings and run them in big long lists when I wanted to take a break from essays had many important links and comments to share. I was using Loudtwitter to collect those postings for me.

Then the gent who’d set up Loudtwitter gratis decided not to maintain it further, and no one else has picked up the ball (yet). I tried another site called Twittinesis, and it seems to be oversubscribed. Meanwhile my time-wasting chatter important links and comments kept growing.

I’ve now added a Twitter feed in the column to the left. I tried three different gadgets, including the official Twitter code, before deciding on this one. It’s not ideal—this set-up takes two clicks and two new tabs/windows to get to the material I’m linking to. But it fits and works better than the other possibilities.

If anyone has recommendations for a better gadget (needs: flexible formatting, direct links outside the little feed window), or for an aggregator that works as Loudtwitter did (or better), please let me know.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mission US, or My First and Last Post about Videogames

It’s always a printer’s apprentice. Where does Johnny Tremain end up working? At the Boston Observer newspaper. Where do the Liberty’s Kids kids meet? In Benjamin Franklin’s shop, as I recall. Where does the hero of one of my unfinished novels hang out after leaving the ropewalk? At Edes and Gill’s printshop, and then Isaiah Thomas’s.

And here’s Mission US, a new online game from Channel Thirteen in New York. Its introduction says:

Mission US is a multimedia project featuring free interactive adventure games set in different eras of U.S. history. The first game, Mission 1: “For Crown or Colony?,” puts the player in the shoes of Nat Wheeler, a 14-year-old printer’s apprentice in 1770 Boston. As Nat navigates the city and completes tasks, he encounters a spectrum of people living and working there when tensions mount before the Boston Massacre. Ultimately, the player determines Nat’s fate by deciding where his loyalties lie.
Nat works for printer Benjamin Edes, who’s a character in the game. Other real people include Edes’s wife Martha, Phillis Wheatley, Pvt. Hugh White, and Paul Revere. I haven’t tried Mission US myself, but welcome comments from any historically-minded gamers in the target audience.

As for the popularity of printer’s apprentices as protagonists in historical fiction, it’s an easy way to make a young character privy to important information, and to give him (or in some cases her) work that modern readers can understand. Plus, writers feel a natural affinity for other people who work with the printed word. I rather wish I’d figured that out before I plotted my novel around a possible cliché.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Learning about John Adams and Abraham Whipple

On Thursday I attended a seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society discussing a chapter from Richard Ryerson’s intellectual biography of John Adams. A former editor of the Adams Papers, Dick is writing this book for Johns Hopkins University Press. He described how he started out focusing on Adams’s formal essays, tracing how the lawyer developed his notions of republicanism. Gradually he’s adding thoughts on how Adams’s life might have affected his political philosophy—which of course makes for much bigger chapters.

Among the topics we attendees discussed was how to handle Adams's vice presidency and presidency. He wrote no major political essays between 1791 and 1801, but he actually got/had to act on his ideas and ideals. I sensed the book getting longer still.

I still feel dubious about any of John Adams’s pronouncements that he was the only man on one side of a particular issue, and/or was brave to hold that position. Specifically, we discussed this remark in his Thoughts on Government from 1776:

A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern English men, to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadly. No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them.
Many of these political writers came from the period of the British Commonwealth, or were invoked to defend that supposedly non-monarchical government. Cromwell’s rule was seen as a mistake in Britain, and no longer openly celebrated even in New England. But to say one needed “No small fortitude” to admit to reading John Locke? Come on, John.

Curiously, on 27 March of that year Adams wrote to William Hooper: “In my early Youth, the Works of Sidney, Harrington, Lock, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, Hoadley, were put into my Hands…” So supposedly those same sneered-at authors—in the same order—were suitable reading for a man in “early Youth.”

The next day I sat in on a talk by Prof. Sheldon S. Cohen on his new biography of Commodore Abraham Whipple of Rhode Island. Like most of the top American naval officers of the Revolutionary War, Whipple had a stormy career. It’s actually pretty remarkable that we remember any naval commanders at all, they went up and down so fast. (It’s even more remarkable that the one we do remember is the tempestuous and unpopular John Paul Jones.)

After the war Whipple tried to retire to a plantation in Rhode Island, but suffered in the 1780s economy. He and his family moved to the new territory of Ohio and helped to settle the city of Marietta. How did a seaman adjust to life in a landlocked state? Cohen explained how Whipple and his fellow settlers built a shipyard on the Ohio River and started to transport goods downstream to New Orleans.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Betsy Ross and the Historiography of Bipolar Disorder

On Tuesday I caught Prof. Marla R. Miller at the American Antiquarian Society speaking about her biography Betsy Ross. I know Marla from the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife [now seeking papers on “New England in the Civil War”], but I hadn’t heard her lecture for a while. She’s a really good speaker, offering lots of content in a personable way.

Marla spoke in detail about the challenges of writing about Betsy Ross: cutting through the legends, and building up a portrait from family experiences to make up for lack of direct sources. Academics have largely dismissed Ross as (a) famous only because of a total myth which (b) reflects a retrograde, sentimental image of women in the 1700s. So picking her as a topic brings the risk of being perceived as a less than serious scholar. On the other hand, members of the public most eager to read about Betsy Ross might also be least interested in dispelling their illusions about her.

Toward the end of her talk, Marla mentioned that she had made a personal choice to note hints of how some of Ross’s relatives experienced mental illnesses. That topic also intrigues me—not that I’m drawn to study insanity or its treatment in history (which sounds dreary). But I keep my eyes open for evidence of psychiatric conditions, considering them part of human life in any era. And I may be a little bolder than academic historians in suggesting that modern diagnoses such as Asperger syndrome might apply.

By the U.S. Civil War, people had started to use the word “depressed” as we understand it today, so it’s not an anachronism for that period. Furthermore, psychiatrists have found that bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder and schizophrenia occur across many populations at about the same rate, suggesting they’re rooted in human biology, not particular human cultures. We don’t discuss smallpox today without drawing on modern virology, so should we rule out well established brain science in discussing episodes of insanity or eccentricity?

Nevertheless, writers coming from outside the academy seem to be most open to applying modern psychiatric labels. A couple of years ago I attended an Organization of American Historians panel that included a discussion of whether Gen. William T. Sherman was manic-depressive. Though Prof. Michael Fellman had considered that possibility while writing his biography of Sherman, he didn’t feel up to raising it explicitly. It took Mount Auburn psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi to read Fellman’s book and propose the possibility in an article.

Similarly, a National Park Service ranger, Jason Emerson, wrote the first book to suggest that Abraham Lincoln’s wife suffered from bipolar disorder: The Madness of Mary Lincoln (reviewed here on H-Net). Matthew Karp’s H-Net review of a collection of essays on John Brown titled Terrible Swift Sword says:

Probably the two most provocative and memorable essays…come from the scholars working farthest afield from history. Kenneth R. Carroll, a practicing clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania, uses a variety of remote psychological tests to “diagnose” Brown with bipolar disorder.

For Carroll, Brown’s family history of mental illness, his checkered personal life and business career, and the primary-source testimony of friends and neighbors exhibit a “remarkable consistency” that forms “a coherent picture” (p. 125). Brown’s grandiosity, mania, and “relentless drive toward self-aggrandizement” fit modern psychology’s standard diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder (p. 128).

Carroll argues that the diagnosis is clinched by his study, in which three John Brown experts completed “an objective psychological test, as if responding on behalf of John Brown.” The composite results yield a computer-generated “Interpretive Report” that suggests that “the possibility of a Bipolar Affective Disorder” should be evaluated (pp. 132-134).

Carroll’s diagnosis is hardly conclusive, of course, but he, along with [editors] Russo and Finkelman, are to be commended for their creative approach to the question of Brown’s mental state. His essay, at the very least, should provide the basis for a larger argument about the possibility of Brown being bipolar—a debate that can and should be joined by historians and psychologists alike.
There’s far less evidence about Betsy Ross’s family than about Sherman, Lincoln, or Brown. But what there is suggests that she had to worry about the mental health of certain relations, and perhaps about the possibility of becoming mentally ill herself—again, a part of life.

Betsy Ross is a big book and so far I’ve read bits, but now I’m even more eager to be able to sit and read it all the way through.

Friday, October 15, 2010

“Preserving the Harvest” Workshop, 30 Oct.

For reenactors and the reenactor-curious, the fine folks behind the Hive Workshops at Minute Man National Historical Park have set up a seminar on “Foodways: Preserving the Harvest.”

Take part in a living history day at Hartwell Tavern where we will be ensuring our food supply for the winter and early spring by employing period food preservation techniques. From meat to fruits and vegetables you’ll be able to both watch and participate in preparing foodstuffs for winter storage. . . . You’ll learn how drying, pickling, salting, brining, cellaring and canning were done, as well as how some of these foods were reconstituted for later use.
Reconstituted food—yum! (Actually, much of what I eat is probably reconstituted in some way.)

The “Foodways” workshop will take place on Saturday, 30 October, from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. at the Hartwell Tavern site along Route 2A in Lincoln. Please email organizer Stephanie Smith if you wish to come. The event is free, but if you want to partake of the lunch prepared that Saturday, tell Stephanie that you’re interested by the end of today and bring $5 per mouth to reimburse the cooks.

As usual, the Hive encourages people to come in eighteenth-century dress if it meets the clothing guidelines at the Battle Road website. Otherwise, wear the clothes you normally wear for drying, pickling, salting, brining, cellaring, and canning.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Independence Hall as You’ve Never Seen It Before

A comment last week reminded me of the Independence Mall in Wilmington, Delaware, a strip mall with the soul of a miniature golf course. It was designed in 1964 to look like a compact version of Carpenters’/Independence Hall connected to an old Philadelphia neighborhood full of little shops and townhouses.

The mall really shines after the Sun goes down behind the eagle-topped sign.
And I mean “really shines” literally. The Independence Hall part, which houses a replica of the Liberty Bell and a fondue restaurant named the Melting Pot, is lit up at night.
I’m sure that’s how Benjamin Franklin would have done it, if he had invented the electric bulb instead of the lightning rod.

(Here’s another, more prosaic picture from the parking lot, which gives a sense of scale.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Capturing George Washington’s Face in 1785

In yesterday’s Boston Globe an op-ed essay by George H. Rosen retold an anecdote about Jean-Antoine Houdon making a life mask of George Washington in 1785. I can’t confirm the details of that anecdote, which sound a lot like the story of John Henri Isaac Browere making a similar life mask of Thomas Jefferson forty years later. But the underlying incident is documented.

The state of Virginia wanted a full-size statue of its celebrated general. Jefferson, then an American diplomat in Paris, sought out Houdon, a promising French sculptor, and made a deal with him to travel to America to start the work. (Jefferson also bought insurance in case Houdon couldn’t finish the job.)

Houdon arrived at Mount Vernon in October 1785 with recommendations from Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. He spent a few days observing how his host stood, taking measurements, and deciding that the expression he wanted to capture was when the general became upset at a horse-trader.

On 10 October, Washington wrote in his diary: “Observed the process for preparing the plaster of Paris and mixing of it according to Mr. Houdon.” To capture the general’s physiognomy, Houdon would pour that plaster over the general’s face and let it harden.

Washington’s granddaughter Nelly Custis later recorded her memory of the process:

I was only six years old at that time, and perhaps should not have retained any recollection of Houdon & his visit, had I not seen the General as I supposed, dead, & laid out on a large table coverd with a sheet. I was passing the white servants Hall & saw as I thought the Corpse of one I considerd my Father, I went in, & found the General extended on his back on a large table, a sheet over him, except his face, on which Houdon was engaged in putting on plaster to form the cast. Quills were in the nostrills. I was very much alarmed until I was told that it was a bust, a likeness of the General & would not injure him.
I suppose folks might have told Nelly this was for a bust. The quills were to let Washington breathe through the plaster.

The cast no longer exists, it appears. The plaster mask Houdon made with it is at the Morgan Library and Museum, and the terra cotta bust that he made next is at Mount Vernon. Houdon returned to Paris to complete the full-sized statue, which stands in the Virginia capitol building; it’s a magnificent portrait. Many replicas have been made; I recall encountering two ’round these parts at the Boston Athenaeum and the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge.

(The image above is the replica of Houdon’s life mask of Washington that one can buy from Haunted Studios.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

“5,000 Scraps of Fabric” from 18th-Century London

On Saturday the Guardian in London ran a fascinating article about an exhibit that opens this week at the Foundling Museum. It opened in 1739 to look after infants whose mothers could not care for them.

In the mid-18th century thousands of poor women, similarly at the end of their tethers, deposited their newborn babies at the hospital. A sign instructed them to leave some kind of identifying token pinned to the child in the event they were one day in a position to take it home. Neither the name of the mother nor the baby would be recorded, so this token needed to be memorable and distinctive. . . .

5,000 of the infants deposited came with some kind of token attached. And by some lucky chance these tokens, mostly comprising bits of fabric carefully pinned to the baby’s admission billet [as shown above], have survived. . . . The exhibition’s curator, Professor John Styles of Hertfordshire University, is emphatic about the significance of these 5,000 scraps of fabric, mundane and beautiful, lumpy and sheer. They comprise, he explains, nothing less than the biggest archive of 18th-century materials surviving in Britain, probably in the world.
(Yes, the curator is an expert in decorative arts and fashion named Styles. He must hear about that a lot. He has his own webpage about the exhibit, and another about hand-spinning.)

The Guardian article goes on to discuss the difficulty of finding evidence about ordinary people’s dress in the eighteenth-century British Empire, and concludes, “even women at the very bottom of the pile – obliged to give up their babies because of poverty, illness and family breakdown – were able to participate in the new economy of pretty things.” A third of the token are ribbons, not scraps of cloth. Of course, these tokens were meant to be out-of-the-ordinary, not what any other baby would come with, so the mothers had reason to seek out the most unusual fabric they could afford.

As for the babies themselves:
Two-thirds of the foundlings died, which sounds shocking until you remember that nearly half the children born in London at the time would perish in infancy. . . . Within a few days of being received the children were shipped out to the country, where they were suckled by wet nurses. If they managed to survive for six years, they returned to Bloomsbury for some solid if rudimentary schooling. From there the boys were apprenticed in a variety of trades and the girls prepared for a life in service.
Less than 1% of the mothers ever returned to ask for their children, but apparently in those rare cases the token system did work.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Latest Common-Place

The latest issue of Common-Place, the online history magazine, offers a lot of eighteenth-century reading.

My favorite is A. Roger Ekirch’s article on the 1728 Ireland-to-America kidnapping case that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and other, less remembered novels. What storyteller could resist characters like this?

A short, homely man of slight build with gray eyes and black eyebrows, he delighted in low pleasures, best expressed perhaps upon offering a servant employment. “If you come to live with me,” promised the baron, “you shall never want a shilling in your pocket, a gun to fowl, a horse to ride, or a whore” (the offer was accepted).
And this action:
Upon James’s flight in 1740—successfully absconding on his third attempt to run away—first to Philadelphia, then to Jamaica, to London, and finally to Ireland, his Uncle Richard, now the sixth Earl of Anglesea, repeatedly tried to have him killed.
In another article Molly McCarthy makes a case for the almanac, stretching a case that it was early America’s equivalent of an smartphone. I expect there were a lot of dropped calls.

Tara Bynum writes about Phillis Wheatley's relationship to books and writing, inspired by modern students’ impatience with the “complacency” of African-American writers of the 1700s.

Among the book reviews are:
  • Margot Minardi on Douglas R. Egerton’s survey Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America.
  • Matthew Mason’s disappointed assessment of Peter A. Dorsey’s Common Bondage: Slavery as Metaphor in Revolutionary America.
  • Carol Faulkner on Susan Klepp’s study of fertility and pregnancy-prevention, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820. I just received a copy of this from the Omohundro Institute, and have looked only at the pictures—of which there are a lot.
A last book review going back to the 1600s: Ralph Bauer explores Walt Woodward’s eye-opening study of alchemy and magic in Connecticut, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Intelligence from Taunton

Last month the Taunton Daily Gazette reported on an effort by the city’s mayor to have the city—or at least its central area—be designated as some sort of National Park Service site:

Mayor Charles Crowley…said that Taunton is qualified because it has a “rich history” in its role as a bellwether for rebellion leading up to the Revolutionary War. He also discussed how Taunton’s industrial development was remarkable, especially when it came to silver.

Crowley started by detailing the totality of events that occurred in what he called the “theater” of downtown Taunton, including Church Green and the Taunton Green, where the Liberty and Union flag was raised. The flag was raised in 1774 by the revolutionary group the Sons of Liberty in the lead-up to the war against the British, according to historians.

Crowley said that the original pole that to hold up the flag in Taunton is missing, but the the Taunton green nonetheless served as a theater that hosted many of Americans founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin. . . .

Crowley noted the Sons of Liberty of Taunton embodied American values by going against the grain, refusing to act like cowards like most of the subjects in the colonies. He said they displayed their bravery by raising the Liberty and Union flag, impressing their fellow revolutionaries in Boston.
So take that, all those cowards everyone else in the colonies—only Taunton raised the flag!

Except it wasn’t only Taunton. Towns everywhere in New England were hoisting flags on Liberty Poles that season. It was the thing to do in the fall of 1774.

A report about Taunton did indeed get noticed in Boston, in the 24 Oct 1774 Boston Evening-Post:
We have just received the following intelligence from Taunton—that on Friday last [i.e., 21 October] a Liberty Pole 112 feet long was raised there on which a vane, and a Union flag flying with the words Liberty and Union thereon.
That motto was unusual, but a Union flag on a tall pole was not. When Isaiah Thomas took note of Taunton’s Liberty Pole in the Massachusetts Spy, he also reported on poles erected in Concord, Middleborough, Barnstable, Granville, Vineyard Haven, and Hanover, Massachusetts. Already the 3 October Newport Mercury had reported that “most of the towns” in Connecticut had erected Liberty Poles, with heights ranging from 100 to 170 feet.

And how did the town’s “theater” host Benjamin Franklin? On 10 Nov 1775, Sally Paine wrote to her husband, the Taunton lawyer and Continental Congress delegate Robert Treat Paine:
I had the happiness of seeing Doctor Franklin on his return to Philadelphia. He was so kind as to call at our house for letters or anything else that I wanted to send you. He made but a short stay with us and we would have been glad for more of his company.
Franklin was simply doing a favor to a colleague (and taking the opportunity to visit a pleasant woman—always a favorite activity). “He made but a short stay” in Taunton.

As the article explains, to support a new park the N.P.S. wants a site to be of national influence and not to duplicate the stories told in other parks. (There are also important factors of feasibility, budgets, and congressional support.) Clearly Taunton’s citizens took part in the regional Revolutionary movement, but I don’t see it standing out greatly from other New England towns.

(The conjectural recreation of Taunton “Liberty and Union” flag above is available from Flags Unlimited. Thanks to Rob Velella at the American Literary Blog for his tip about this news story.)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Did Washington Stable His Horse in Milton?

Yesterday Ben Edwards at Teach History alerted me to a “Washington slept here” statement that didn’t seem right. I dug to find confirmation, and couldn’t. So I dug a bit more to satisfy myself about how that belief might have arisen.

In a Wall Street Journal profile of Dr. Mark Vonnegut, Nancy Keates described his house in Milton as:

a 1740 beet-red former carriage house that locals believe housed George Washington’s horse; the building was once used as the stables for an inn across the street where the first president met with John Adams.
That story was even headlined “Washington’s Horse Slept Here.” But Washington’s diaries don’t mention Milton. Albert Kendall Teele’s The History of Milton, Mass., 1640-1887 doesn’t describe such a visit—and there’s nothing local historians liked more than filling out the details of George Washington’s visit to town.

George Washington did visit Massachusetts in 1789, during a progress through all thirteen states after he had been elected President. The roots of the Milton tradition may lie in his 1789 diary:
Sunday 25th [October]. Attended Divine Service at the Episcopal Church whereof Doctor [Samuel] Parker is the Incumbent in the forenoon, and the Congregational Church of Mr. [Peter] Thatcher in the Afternoon. Dined at my Lodgings with the Vice President.
That gives us Washington, Adams, and an inn, all in close proximity to the Rev. Peter Thacher. That minister was a native of Milton, where his grandfather of the same name was the town minister for a long, long time.

But Washington’s diary entry actually describes part of his visit to Boston, where the younger Thacher had become pastor of the Brattle Street Congregational Church. The “Episcopal Church” that morning was Trinity.

Maybe there’s a closer connection I’ve overlooked. If anyone knows more about this tradition and the evidence behind it, please share.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Invocations Right and Left

Last night I attended Jill Lepore’s talk at the Old South Meeting House in support of her new book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Most of her talk was about how America, and particularly our state of Massachusetts, prepared to celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976. As the book’s marketing copy says:

Lepore traces the roots of the far right’s reactionary history to the bicentennial in the 1970s, when no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings.
But I came away thinking that analysis missed the big point.

Americans have invoked the nation’s founding for all sorts of political causes, starting well before the 1970s. In the long national debate about slavery, for example, both Abolitionists and Slave Power apologists pointed to Revolutionary rhetoric and leaders to bolster their stands. Invoking the founding is an easy way to make any movement seem more patriotic.

With such a tradition, it’s no surprise that Americans of the late 1960s and early 1970s also invoked the Revolutionary period. The fact that many of the hot political arguments of the time involved equality and rights made the founding particularly meaningful, as was the fact that the head of state really was corrupt.

Sometimes people brought up specific Revolutionary events. Folks drew parallels between the Boston Massacre and how uniformed men killed six unarmed protesters at Kent State and Jackson State Universities in May 1970, and between the Massacre and the Boston school-integration program of 1974. (I must say the parallels to the former events are easier to spot.)

At other times Americans argued about principles, just as the founding generation did. Where is the best balance point between liberty and order? Between liberty and the common good? Between equal opportunities for all and the preservation of property for those who have it?

With our history of invoking our history, it’s no surprise that Americans also looked to the founding era in 2009 as we faced two long overseas wars, the worst economic crisis since the Depression, and a growing realization of our dependence on other countries, not entirely friendly. Of course, the country had just elected an African-American as President, which clearly stressed a minority of citizens even more.

What strikes me as extraordinary about the current political invocation of the Revolution is that it’s coming so strongly from one part of the political spectrum—the right wing of the Republican Party.

In other periods of American history, including the 1970s, our left has been just as vocal at proclaiming its political roots and inspiration in the Revolution. It was, after all, a revolution. The founding gave more power and rights to the people, based on principles eventually applied to even more people. It guaranteed that people political representation, creating the governmental structures that exist today. There are just as many Revolutionary precedents and parallels for progressive Democrats, not to mention the current centrist Democratic administration, as for the far right.

Why, then, are we not hearing those arguments? Or when we do hear them, as when President Obama retells an anecdote about Thomas Paine in his inaugural address, why are they drowned out? I reject the right wing’s exclusive claim on America’s founding, but what happened since the 1970s to mute the challenge to such a claim?

In sum, I don’t think the real question for cultural historians like Lepore is why traditionalist conservatives are buying three-cornered hats and Gadsden flags—that’s only to be expected. The real question is the other dog not barking: why our political left isn’t yet invoking American history the same way.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Arms and Archeology along the Battle Road

This Saturday, 9 October, the unit reenacting His Majesty’s First Regiment, Foot Guards, will be at the Hartwell Tavern in Minute Man National Historical Park from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. They will “perform eighteenth-century military maneuvers, display uniforms and equipment and educate visitors about life in the British Army during the American Revolutionary War.” That event is free.

That evening the park will host its “Battle Road Heroes” event, usually performed in April (as shown above):

Walk down a pathway to the past. Listen to the personal stories of residents who lived along the Battle Road on April 19, 1775. Join Captain William Smith, the Hartwells, the Lincoln Minute Men, drovers, musicians, and His Majesty’s soldiers for this special evening of theater and history. Starting at 7:00 p.m., tours leave approximately every fifteen minutes and last about one hour, walking. We recommend you wear comfortable shoes. This event is appropriate for ages 8 and up.
“Battle Road Heroes” costs $5.00 per person, $10.00 per family, with proceeds benefiting the Friends of Minute Man National Park.

On the Sundays in October after this weekend—i.e., 17, 24, and 31 October—from 3:00 to 5:00 P.M., the Lexington Historical Society will host an exhibit at its Buckman Tavern on Bedford Street called “The Reverend Hancock’s Household: Life in Early Colonial Lexington.” This exhibit showcases the archaeological finds from another site, the Hancock-Clarke House. There will be gallery talks each Sunday at 4:00, and admission is free. I think this is part of Archeology Month in Massachusetts.

ADDENDUM: Today’s Boston Globe ran a story on the Lexington archeology exhibit.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Birthplaces of the U.S. Navy

Last month I received a lecture announcement that begins:

What do Beverly and Marblehead, MA; Philadelphia, PA; Machias, ME; Providence, RI; and Whitehall, NY, have in common? They all claim to be the birthplace of the U.S. Navy.
Boston 1775 readers might recall that in February I gave a lecture proposing to add Cambridge, Massachusetts, to that list. While living in that town, Gen. George Washington ordered Col. John Glover to prepare armed schooners to attack British shipping. Apparently my proposal hasn’t yet come to the attention of the proper authorities.

This new lecture announcement continues:
To unravel the complicated history of the early years of the United States Navy - and perhaps at last determine who deserves this distinction - the National Archives and the USS Constitution Museum are hosting a public program on October 13, at 5:30 PM.

Using original documents from the holdings of the National Archives in Washington, DC, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, a native of Beverly and a Navy veteran, and Trevor Plante, a senior archivist at the National Archives specializing in military records, will shed light on the various arguments made by each town staking the birthplace claim.

Can the controversy be settled once and for all? Come to the program and find out!
This program, “The Founding of the US Navy - Setting the Record Straight,” will be free and open to the public. It starts at 5:30 P.M. on Wednesday, 13 October, at the U.S.S. Constitution Museum in the Charlestown Navy Yard.

(Photo of Constitution above courtesy of the National Park Service.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Needlework Exhibits in the Northeast

Last week the New York Times alerted me to three museum exhibits on eighteenth-century women’s needlework now open in the Northeast.

In Hartford, the Connecticut Historical Society launches “Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art and Family, 1740-1840” today. Its description:

Early American needlework is an art form created almost exclusively by women and girls. As art, these needlework pictures and useful household objects burst with color, imaginative design, and evidence of close observation. As history, these same items reveal clues to the lives and times of the girls and women who set those countless stitches into cloth. . . .

Beautifully decorated clothing, bedding, and accessories, school work by children as young as 6 years old, and masterpieces of needlework art depicting classical scenes, bucolic landscapes, and perfectly-rendered flora and fauna will all be featured. The final gallery will display needlework dedicated to preserving family history and highlight the work of one remarkable family – and an even more unusual young woman within that family, Prudence Punderson.
The museum also has a daylong conference on early American needlework scheduled for 30 October.
Further to the south, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme has just opened its exhibit “With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery From the Connecticut River Valley.” The image above is one sample of that embroidery, dating from 1758, and the museum’s website explains:
The Connecticut River Valley was one of the most important centers in America for the teaching and production of embroidered pictures by girls and young women in private academies during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. . . .

Over the course of their education, girls undertook progressively more complex and difficult needlework. Before the age of ten, they began with elementary samplers worked on linen and gradually developed a repertory of stitching techniques. During their studies, they executed canvaswork pieces, samplers, memorials, and silk pictures as evidence of the skills and accomplishments that would demonstrate their suitability as wives capable of managing a household and educating children.
Finally, in northern Delaware the Winterthur Museum is hosting a new exhibit titled “Betsy Ross: The Life Behind the Legend.” This exhibition, curated in part by Massachusetts-based biographer Marla R. Miller, presents authentic artifacts of the historical Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole (1752-1836), separate from depictions of the mythical woman. There is also a series of lunchtime lectures, including Bruce Cole speaking on the provocative topic, “The American Revolution: Who Cares”.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Boston’s Second Liberty Tree

I grew up and live in Boston’s western suburbs, which means that most of the North Shore and South Shore suburbs are nearly as foreign to me as the Solomon Islands. I think I’ve been to the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, but only once or twice. And I had no idea that its centerpiece for two decades was this piece of public art commemorating Liberty Tree in Boston.

According to the Boston Globe obituary for artist Albert A. Surman, he designed that tree for the New England pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

“He created the large-scale sculpture, a stylized tree composed of thousands of metal tubes as the centerpiece of his design for the New England pavilion,’’ said his son, Barry S. of Scarsdale, N.Y. “It symbolized an actual tree where the Sons of Liberty posted notices until it was chopped down by the British in the early days of the American Revolution. The sculpture’s multicolored glass leaves reflected New England’s famous fall colors.’’
After the fair, the tree was moved to Boston Common, as shown above in the Globe file photo. After being refurbished, from 1972 to 1992 it was the anchor for the Liberty Tree Mall.

Which is somewhat ironic since Liberty Tree was originally used to promote consumer boycotts. Okay, that’s not as ironic as the Huck Finn Shopping Center in Hannibal, Missouri (“Hey, let’s name the mall after a poor homeless kid!”), but it shows how we Americans can eventually harness nearly everything to commerce.

According to the mall and the Surman family, however, the tree has now disappeared. Anyone on the North Shore know where it is? Anyone?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A.A.S. Programs in the Fall

The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester is hosting several lectures for the public this season, including three on people from eighteenth-century America.

On Tuesday, 12 October, at 7:30 P.M., Prof. Marla Miller of the University of Massachusetts will speak on “Betsy Ross: The Life behind the Legend.”

Legend has it that Betsy Ross created the first American flag. The truth is far less certain and far more interesting. In this program Miller describes how she came to research and write the first scholarly biography of Ross. The story she uncovers is a richly textured study of Ross’s long and remarkable life, which included three marriages, seven children, and a successful career as a seamstress and upholsterer. The book also examines the world of Philadelphia artisans and provides new insights into the world of middle-class crafts people, women, and work during the tumultuous years of our nation’s founding.
Miller’s book on Ross is Betsy Ross and the Making of America.

On Thursday, 21 October, at 7:30 P.M., Prof. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard will speak on “Reflections on A Midwife’s Tale.”
Ulrich’s 1990 book examines the life of one Maine midwife and provides a vivid analysis of ordinary life in the early American republic, including the role of women in the household and local market economy, the nature of marriage, sexual relations, family life, aspects of medical practice, and the prevalence of crime and violence. The book won many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for History and the Bancroft Prize. A Midwife’s Tale was also developed into a film of the same name which aired on The American Experience television program. In this lecture Professor Ulrich reflects on the impact this book has had on the discipline of history, the field of women’s studies, and her own life.
This is the Seventh Annual Robert C. Baron Lecture, which invites distinguished A.A.S. members who have written seminal works of history to reflect on one book and its impact.

On Tuesday, 9 November, at 7:30 P.M., Prof. Paul Finkelman of Albany Law School will discuss “John Peter Zenger and His Brief Narrative.”
Published in 1736, A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger is one of the most significant publications of colonial America and represents a major turning point in the history of freedom of the press and in the political development of colonial America and the early republic. John Peter Zenger was the first colonial publisher acquitted on a charge of libeling the governor. Zenger later published his own narrative of the trial, which became the most widely read American publication before the Revolution. This talk, based on a new edition of the Zenger narrative edited by Professor Finkelman, will explain this landmark legal case and show how it affected later developments, including the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
I’m curious about the desigation of Zenger’s Narrative as “the most widely read American publication before the Revolution.” That might be measured by the number of reprintings, but of course it would be a favorite project for printers. Does “before the Revolution” mean before the 1765-1775 political movement?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Encountering Slavery in Newton

Historic Newton is sponsoring two talks this month on the theme of “Encountering Slavery and Race in New England,” both free to the public.

On Thursday, 7 October, at 7:00 P.M., Tom Lincoln will speak on “The Royall House and Slave Quarters of Medford.”

Lincoln, Executive Director of the Royall House, will present an illustrated talk on this National Historic Landmark and highlight the oft-neglected history of colonial slavery in Massachusetts through archaeological artifacts, architecture and narrative.
Many rural New England mansions of the 1700s had rooms or outbuildings for enslaved workers, but the Royall House is the only one where such a structure has been preserved and interpreted for the public.

On Thursday, 21 October, at 7:00 P.M., Joanne Pope Melish, Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, will speak on “The Worm in the Apple: Slavery, Emancipation, and Race in New England.”
She will address the amnesia New Englanders experience about slavery in their own region and its consequences for the development of racial ideologies.
Melish’s 1998 book Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 helped to start the current movement to reexamine slavery in the American northeast.

Both talks will take place at Myrtle Baptist Church, 21 Curve Street in West Newton.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Tea Party Patriots, Then and Now

The end of summer has brought the usual plethora of historical talks and events in Massachusetts. Here are three from the Old South Meeting House in Boston, circling around the Boston Tea Party.

On Thursday, 7 October, at 6:30 P.M., Prof. Jill Lepore of Harvard will speak on “The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle for American History.”

The 1773 Boston Tea Party is an iconic event in American history, a symbol for civic-minded citizens and activist organizations across the political spectrum. Since 2009, the far-right has laid claim to the Tea Party, creating a national campaign against taxation and tyranny in its modern forms. But what resemblance, if any, does this recent movement have to the original protests of 1773?
Lepore’s new book is The Whites of Their Eyes.

On Thursday, 21 October, at 6:30 P.M., Prof. Benjamin Carp of Tufts will speak on “Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party of 1773,” which is also the name of his new book, to be launched that night.
On the evening of December 16, 1773, a group of disguised Bostonians boarded three merchant ships and dumped more than forty-six tons of tea into Boston Harbor. The Boston Tea Party was a daring and revolutionary act that set the stage for war. This study brings to life the diverse array of people and places that the Tea Party brought together—from Chinese tea-pickers to English businessmen, Native American tribes, sugar plantation slaves, and Boston’s ladies of leisure.
Showing how crowded the month has become, I know of three other historical organization hosting talks on eighteenth-century history the same night. But for folks interested in the real story of the Tea Party, Defiance of the Patriots is the most thorough and wide-ranging account out there.

Finally, the Old South’s reenactment of the meetings preceding the Boston Tea Party is a big draw every year. While the professors’ talks above are free, it costs $9 to attend the reenactment, and tickets can sell out. But if you buy today, the cost is only $8.