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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Monday, January 31, 2011

Twitter Feed, 20-29 Jan 2011

  • RT @NYPLMaps: Happy birthday John Fitch! Inventor of steamboat was born in Windsor, CT, 1743 map: [New England 1690?] bit.ly/dZge6x #
  • RT @Newburghr: sure this will be interesting:@brooklynhistory: abt BHS's 1770 Ratzer map on the podcast: bit.ly/chMidF #
  • RT @NS_Archives: Petition on behalf of the Black Pioneers [Loyalist refugees from USA, 1784] bit.ly/eQmA48 #
  • @OtisPetunia James Otis beaten in late 1769, but occasional signs of mania even before then. Waters's OTIS FAMILY a good analysis. #
  • @JudyPatooty Thanks for pointers on RI divorces. #
  • RT @Oh_the_Places: Anyone have a good video clip for Boston Massacre for elem kids #edchat #elemchat #sschat #ushistory #historyteacher #
  • From Am Lit Blog, the roman à clef that scandalized Boston in 1789: bit.ly/eLfO8q Real story involved Mass Atty Gnl Perez Morton. #
  • RT @PresNation: House targeting funding programs that save and protect America's historic and cultural assets. ow.ly/3HZEQ Please RT! #
  • RT @Jeffersoninst: Monticello's Architectural Conservator highlights the fascinating details of the house design: bit.ly/hStD9T#
  • From Paul Burns, a Boston boy named James Proctor who joins Royal Navy, ends up on Norfolk Island: bit.ly/giTWE2 #
  • From Brad Hart, profile of South Carolina immigrant and official Francis Salvador, died after scalping in 1776: bit.ly/hVGJDY #
  • RT @AFBurialGrndNPS: Riot involving NYC's African Burial Ground and unscrupulous doctors, 1788. From the LANCET: ow.ly/3IfyQ #
  • RT @gordonbelt: Outstanding post by @Boston1775 on Tennessee Tea Party's vision of America: bit.ly/f35bWl Also: bit.ly/f6i9LT #
  • RT @56Signers: Behold portrait of man we call the Bachelor Signer. #declaration #1776 #founders #july4 yfrog.com/jxkewsj #sschat #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Check out VIDEO from our trial of Benedict Arnold, American history's most heroic traitor: ow.ly/3HQeP #
  • RT @womenshistory: Since our site legislation did not pass in last session of Congress, we must start all over again. fb.me/SK4wfT76 #
  • RT @Yesterday_Today: 1779: Tory partisan Claudius Smith, aka "Cowboy of the Ramapos," hanged in Goshen, NY #
  • RT @ELanghorst: You know you're a history teacher when 3 year old daughter explains that her John Smith Barbie doll should be John Rolfe #
  • From @RagLinen, newspaper reporting "TREASON of the blackest dye" by Benedict Arnold ow.ly/3Ixue #RevWar #
  • Redcoat POW James Buchanan escapes in 1778, ends up convicted of murder in Massachusetts: bit.ly/i1lJLE #RevWar #
  • From @KevinLevin, thoughts on teaching US history in a sea of digital misinformation: nyti.ms/gccy7f #
  • RT @davidlibrary: International authority on Colonial era footwear speaking at Library today. D. A. Saguto of Colonial Williamsburg #
  • RT @56Signers: Hancock famous signature affixed Aug2 '76 2 document. Story abt writing large so King can read w/o spectacles probably MYTH #
  • RT @56Signers: Hancock resented by #JohnAdams 4 election 2 prez #Congress. Classic personality conflict. Hancock likeable, J Adams not. #
  • @hutchisonm @56Signers To be fair to CBS, no C-SPAN footage of actual Hancock signing Declaration. And modern TV news has to show SOMETHING. #
  • NPS's Cambridge site has new official name: Longfellow House–Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site! bit.ly/g3dgo7 #
  • Snopes debunks yet another anti-Obama email: bit.ly/e6Ue4Z Right-wing pattern of lies just gets worse: bit.ly/eMe21i #
  • From Jonathan Rowe at American Creation, the trial of Universalist Rev. John Murray in Massachusetts, 1783-86: bit.ly/fHTV5y #
  • From Sapping Attention, fascinating test of how library access affects results in Google Books' Ngram Viewer: bit.ly/hRELYK #
  • Res Obscura samples (bit.ly/gI30GA) Handler-Tuite database of images of slavery in the Americas (bit.ly/gZguJN). #
  • In BOSTON REVIEW, Nancy Cott looks at the history of American marriages, from coverture to equality: bit.ly/hlyzZ8 #
  • From CHRONICLE OF HIGHER ED, learning to write from Benjamin Franklin's AUTOBIOGRAPHY: bit.ly/gRi3eW #
  • RT @peterfrancisco: Amazing #RevWar paintings from historical artist Dan Nance: ht.ly/3JybF including Battle of Kings Mountain. #
  • RT @2nerdyhistgirls: Exciting rediscovery: locket commemorating affair between Lady Hamilton & Lord Nelson: bit.ly/hvQp6A #
  • RT @CloudHopper9: BBC News - Robert Burns letter found at Floors Castle www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-12265197 #
  • @ignatzz Constitution didn't require larger House of Reps. It limited number of people in each district. Framers just didn't foresee growth. #
  • At Daily Dish, reader explains real meaning and harm of US Constitution's 3/5ths compromise: bit.ly/efm2EA #
  • RT @gordonbelt: "Rewriting history doesn't do anyone any good. It doesn't honor our history." RT @andersoncooper bit.ly/f6VlIW #
  • @ignatzz We know Framers of 1787 enacted limited franchise. They didn't foresee Industrial Revolution, modern medicine, pop of 300 million. #
  • @ignatzz Some Framers would probably want smaller Congress districts today. Others probably would not. Party politics took over fast. #
  • RT @PaulRevereHouse: On Jan 26, 1775 Paul rode from Boston to Exeter, NH (& possibly returned in 1 day!) to liaison w/ NH's Congress. #
  • RT @gordonbelt: Jefferson would have been amused: bit.ly/iffhqV But probably would have preferred a Mockingbird: bit.ly/fqm1Kl #
  • RT @2nerdyhistgirls: Fascinating letter RT@MorganLibrary: Napoleon congratulates Josephine on her (bogus?) pregnancy on.fb.me/gWDxcW #
  • Michael Kenney reviews Edward Lengel's INVENTING GEORGE WASHINGTON in BOSTON GLOBE: bit.ly/eUdx4y #
  • Looks like Michael Kenney also reviewed Barnet Schechter's book on Washington's maps, but that was cut short: bit.ly/eUdx4y #
  • I'll speak on Gen. Washington's earliest intelligence/counterintelligence activities in Cambridge on 17 Mar: on.fb.me/i5vz9l #
  • RT @rarenewspapers: BEN FRANKLIN Kite Experiment ELECTRICITY 1752 Magazine - eBay (item 390284155123): bit.ly/elDQUw via @addthis #
  • RT @2palaver: Americana museums find ways to reinvent themselves, attract new visitors- today @ 12PM on VPR bit.ly/gJ8EIf #
  • Watched BRAD MELTZER: DECODED episode on #RevWar's Culper Spy Ring. What a strange show. Even by basic cable "history" standards. #
  • Titular host of BRAD MELTZER: DECODED stuck in studio palming invisible basketball. Doesn't even credit one segment he puts on air. #
  • BRAD MELTZER: DECODED kept asking whether "Culper Ring is still around" after #RevWar. Was that a sop to Y: THE LAST MAN fans? #
  • From Walking the Berkshires, a mystery involving George Washington's horse in 1781: bit.ly/foU3Sx #
  • From @lucyinglis, a streetwalker named Sarah Knight takes her life in 1774 London: bit.ly/giAcrV #
  • Long view of the debate over federal tax-funded health care from COMMON-PLACE's Jeff Pasley: bit.ly/ib7dnO #
  • RT @gordonbelt: Watch as all your Facebook friends die of dysentery: bit.ly/eL95bs // Anything for a peaceful life. #
  • RT @SecondVirginia: 18th-century wharf revealed by accident in Newburyport fb.me/SUKReDLH #
  • RT @unionparkpress: Come hear @Megmuck's talk on February 9th, Cambridge Historical Society, 6-8pm ht.ly/3LnDp #
  • From Walking the Berkshires, the games #RevWar soldiers played while awaiting the British invasion in Sept 1776: bit.ly/g4E9DP #
  • RT @RoutledgeHist: Great post about history blogging can be read here ow.ly/3LWyq #history #
  • Roof collapses over library of school named for #RevWar vet in Foster, RI: bit.ly/haHoOX Happily, it was a snow day; no one hurt. #
  • RT @2palaver: Historic Brown-Pearl House on display at MFA-Boston bit.ly/eAaJdR // Built ~1703, furnished as in following decades #
  • RT @visitvf: Valley Forge NHP has a youtube site & new vid detailing rehabilitation work at Washington HQ. bit.ly/e6k3oy #
  • RT @BearlyReadBooks: Today was the birthday of John Baskerville (1706), a printer and typographer. Change your font to 'Baskerville' today. #
  • RT @illustr8r: Va. couple to sell house where George Washington slept wapo.st/dI2mpX // more on house: bit.ly/f7FVoM #
  • RT @NYHistory: An Update for New-York Historical Society Members & Friends on.fb.me/ems8Ov // 2011 Renovation schedule #
  • RT @austenonly: Exhibition Review- Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County at the Dorset County Museum: wp.me/pGJsu-1p3 #
  • Was this London workhouse built 1775-78 inspiration for OLIVER TWIST? Or is that claim just a strategy to preserve it? bit.ly/eh4gIk #
  • RT @BirkbeckNews: Lecture: The Birth of the Politician in Eighteenth-Century France: 2 February 6pm ow.ly/3LXKD #
  • RT @tami24: Loving the Revolutionary Philly rooms @PhilaMuseum. Esp the kitchen, the Peales, and the telling of the Loyalist story. #
  • .@tami24 Some of @PhilaMuseum's period rooms come from Salem, Mass.'s Derby family, as I recall. #
  • There seems to be a rule that people interviewed on radio can't answer a question, "Yes." They must say, "Absolutely." #
  • Thomas Paine could write bad political poetry as well as any other 18th-century writers: bit.ly/hPXgU7 #

Sunday, January 30, 2011

“Rum Parties” Lecture at Shirley-Eustis House, 30 Jan.

On Sunday, 30 January, the Shirley-Eustis House hosts a lecture by Jonathan L. Fairbanks titled, “Rum Parties – Not Tea — Launched Liberty in 1768 for Boston and America.”

Fairbanks will illustrate consequences of disobedience by Members of the House who voted NOT TO RESCIND THE CIRCULAR LETTER in 1768. To celebrate this act, Paul Revere produced the Sons of Liberty Bowl (to hold rum punch) and posed for his famous portrait (pictured holding a teapot) made by John Singleton Copley. Both bowl and portrait were made in 1768. They are displayed together in the newly opened American Arts Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. . . .

The speaker, Jonathan Fairbanks, founded the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture in 1971 and headed that department at the Museum of Fine Arts with an endowed curatorship until 1999 as The Katharine Lane Weems Curator (now emeritus). He is currently the Vice President for Research at http://www.artifact.com/ and continues work as a painter of landscapes, portraits and other subjects.
The Shirley-Eustis House, built by royal governor William Shirley in 1747 and home of Democratic-Republican governor William Eustis in 1819, is located on 33 Shirley Street in Roxbury.

The lecture starts at 1:30 P.M. Refreshments will be provided. The event is free, but donations for further historical educational programming will be welcome. Because of the volume of snow piled on the curbs, the site has arranged for parking space at the Ralph Waldo Emerson School at the end of Shirley Street. Also because of the snow, attendees should enter the Shirley-Eustis House through its rear entrance.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

“Washington’s First Spy Ring” in Cambridge, 17 March

To finish off this week of postings about events at the mansion now officially called Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be speaking there on 17 March, to commemorate the British evacuation that ended the siege of Boston.

My talk will be titled “Washington’s First Spy Ring.” I’ll tell various stories about Gen. George Washington’s intelligence and counterintelligence efforts during his first months as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Those tales include:

  • intelligence reports passed on by Col. Loammi Baldwin in Chelsea.
  • the discovery of Dr. Benjamin Church as a British spy.
  • [for the first time anywhere!] the name and subsequent career of the deserter who brought Washington plans of the British fortifications in July 1775.
Depending on time and what I discover between now and then, I may also tackle such questions as: How did intelligence from New Hampshire lead to the Battle of Bunker Hill? Did Henry Knox’s military career rest on his untold activities as a spy? And why did one of the cipher experts who helped unmask Church take a horse from Washington’s stable?

My talk is scheduled to begin at 6:00 P.M. It’s free, but because of limited seating, the site asks people to make reservations by phone or through this webpage.

Friday, January 28, 2011

George Lewis: “diligent in whatever duty is required”?

Yesterday’s Boston 1775 posting introduced George Lewis (1757-1821), a son of George Washington’s sister Betty. On 14 Nov 1775 his father, Fielding Lewis, wrote to the general:

You will receive this Letter by my Son George who accompanys your Lady, the Winter is so far advanced that I am fearfull she will have a very disagreeable Journey but I expect she will meet with every assistance. . . .

George is very desireous of remaining with you as long as you stay with the Army, this I have no objection against provided he can have some little part that will bear his expences, I am in hopes your will find him diligent in whatever duty is required of him…
That letter closed with the news that George’s brother Charles, younger by three years, had died eight days before “of an Inflamitary Fever after a short illness.”

So Gen. Washington, in the middle of the siege of Boston, was asked to find some paying work for his eighteen-year-old nephew. Young George was apparently skilled as a horseman, which might have been useful along the road from Virginia to Cambridge, but he could not have been experienced in business or travel. As I noted yesterday, he made so little impression in Philadelphia that the newspapers misidentified him.

George Lewis almost certainly lived in the John Vassall house after he arrived at Cambridge in December 1775. Over the next three months, he may have helped with administrative tasks at that headquarters. The latest editors of Gen. Washington’s papers suggest that Lewis wrote a 19 Feb 1776 letter to Christopher French, a captured British officer who sent the commander a ceaseless stream of complaints about his detention; apparently the unsigned copy on file is not in the handwriting of any known aides.

In March 1776, Lewis was commissioned as a lieutenant in the commander-in-chief’s guard. This unit was created to guard the headquarters papers and equipment. He served in that capacity until December, and then became a captain in the 2nd Continental Dragoons, seeing action in 1777.

Capt. Lewis spent a lot of 1778 away from his regiment. The general wrote him a chiding letter on 13 Feb 1779, so he resigned his commission and went home to Virginia to stay. George Lewis had evidently lost the desire to serve with his uncle “as long as you stay with the Army.”

(The thumbnail photo above shows Lewis’s gravestone, courtesy of waymarking.com which gives his full name as George Washington Lewis.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mrs. Warner Lewis and the Chain of Errors

Martha Washington arrived at the mansion that is now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site on 11 Dec 1775. (The portrait at right shows her fifteen years later, as painted by Edward Savage.) With her was Elizabeth Gates, wife of Gen. Horatio Gates, who I think was also staying in that house. Both women had traveled from Virginia, though they had met and started sharing a carriage only in Philadelphia.

Also on that northern leg of the journey, according to Helen Bryan’s Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty (2002), was “Mrs. Warner Lewis, a relative of George’s.” Yet there’s no indication of why Mrs. Warner Lewis would have come along, nor anyone who recorded meeting her in Cambridge.

Bryan evidently relied on Anne Hollingsworth Wharton’s Martha Washington (1897), which states:

From the “Pennsylvania Gazette,” of November 29, it appears that Mrs. Washington and her party, which had been joined by Mrs. Gates, wife of General Gates, and Mrs. Warner Lewis, left Philadelphia on the twenty-seventh…
That book was in turn probably informed by a footnote in the 1889 edition of Washington’s writings, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford, which quotes the 29 Nov 1775 Pennsylvania Gazette this way:
On Monday last, the Lady of His Excellency General Washington, the Lady of General Gates, J. Curtis, Esq; and Lady of Warner Lewis, Esq; set out for Cambridge.
But in fact that newspaper item reads:
On Monday last, the Lady of His Excellency General WASHINGTON, the Lady of General GATES, J. CURTIS, Esq; and Lady, and WARNER LEWIS, Esq; set out for Cambridge.
So the “Lady” in question was actually the wife of Curtis, and Warner Lewis was a man. Which offers the lesson of always relying on the earliest sources.

Except that the 1775 newspaper contained mistakes as well. “Curtis” was really John Parke Custis, son of Martha Washington and her first husband. He and his wife Nelly accompanied his mother to Cambridge and back home in the spring.

And while there was a prominent Virginia planter named Warner Lewis related to the commander-in-chief, he didn’t travel with Martha Washington in 1775. Nor did his son of the same name. The newspaper printer misidentified Washington’s teen-aged nephew George Lewis.

TOMORROW: Why George Lewis came to Cambridge.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“General Washington was exceedingly affronted…”

Back in 2007, when I first wrote about Dr. Benjamin Church’s intercepted letter into Boston, I said that among the men who volunteered to decipher it “was Elbridge Gerry, the Marblehead merchant and politician, who also recruited Col. Elisha Porter.”

And that’s what several authors say. But Gerry’s own letters suggest that he played only a minor part in the deciphering. His major role was obtaining a copy of the coded letter for Porter, a Massachusetts House representative from Hadley, and then spreading around the results.

On Sunday, 1 Oct 1775, Gerry started a letter to Continental Congress delegate Robert Treat Paine with the bad news about Church’s apparent treachery. The next day, Porter received a copy of the doctor’s document. Before Gerry mailed his letter to Paine on 3 October, he could add this confirming postscript:

the Letter (I am informed by Colo. [Joseph] Palmer) is decyphered; the Contents respect the State of the Army, the Quantity of powder now in our possession, what is expected & where, together with other Intelligence of a black & treacherous Nature.
Porter’s decoding exactly matched a translation by the Rev. Samuel West, who had delivered his work directly to Washington at what is now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Thus, no one could deny what Church’s letter said.

Was Gen. Washington pleased with Gerry’s activity? Not at all. Gerry also sent Paine a copy of the deciphered letter, and Washington disliked having the Congress learn important news from anyone but him. He hadn’t written his own report on the Church affair yet.

Washington expressed his displeasure to his secretary Joseph Reed, who sent a note to James Warren, speaker of the Massachusetts House and thus in some way Gerry’s boss. On 5 October, Gerry responded to Reed somewhat hotly:
Col. Warren communicated your Letter which you sent him yesterday, affirming that General Washington was exceedingly affronted at my sending to Philadelphia a copy of Dr. Church’s Letter, that I ought to have known better than to have interfered in a matter in which I had not been consulted, to have seen ye impropriety of copying a Letter intrusted in confidence to another person & that I had just as much Right to have taken the original; all of which must appear highly injurious & if not supported by reason & grounded on Facts to be meer Invective, rendered the more unjustifiable by ye Manner in which it was conveyed.

With respect to ye Letter of Doctor Church’s referred to, hearing Sunday Morning that it was intercepted & wrote in cypher, & knowing the Colo. Porter was expert in decyphering, I desired him (as every friend of America had a Right to do) to offer to ye General his services for ye purpose mentioned, but did not apply in person, or by any other conduct whatever give you an opportunity of asserting as you ungenerously have that I had interfered in a Matter in which I had not be consulted. When ye Letter was sent here on Monday Evening Colo. Porter informed me of it, & shewed it without ever a suspicion that it was intrusted in Confidence as is unreasonably represented in your letter to Colo. Warren.

In consequence of which & being somewhat acquainted with decyphering I continue with him untill ye Business was finished agreeable to his desire, He had no objection to my taking a copy & ye person who wrote it having contrary to Directions taken a second copy it was immediately recovered & delivered to Colo. [Thomas] Mifflin who promised to hand it to ye General and take no other without his leave

I think it must now appear that ye copy of ye Letter came properly into my hands; that ye sending it to some particular Gentleman of ye Congress cannot effect ye Tryal of Doctor Church or with any propriety be considered an affront to ye General
Washington and Gerry—who was elected to the Continental Congress and then the Constitutional Convention—continued to work together, but I don’t think their relationship was ever warm. Gerry became an Anti-Federalist, then a Republican governor of Massachusetts and Vice President of the U.S. under Madison. (The bust of Gerry above sits in the U.S. Capitol.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

General Investigation

In late September 1775, Gen. Nathanael Greene (shown here) brought two fellow Rhode Islanders to meet his commander, Gen. George Washington, at what is now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

One of those men, Adam Maxwell, was Greene’s old Latin and mathematics tutor. The other was Godfrey Wenwood, a Newport baker who was holding onto a letter, written in cipher, that an old lover had asked him to pass on to British officials. Obviously, a coded communication to the enemy was a serious concern.

Wenwood’s former lover was living in “Little Cambridge,” the part of Cambridge on the south side of the Charles River, now Brighton. Washington sent Wenwood there to find out who had given her the ciphered letter. As James Warren, speaker of the Massachusetts House, described it, the baker’s mission was “to draw from the Girl, by Useing the Confidence She had in him, the whole Secret.”

Wenwood failed. (“She is a suttle, shrewd Jade,” Warren complained.) So Gen. Washington ordered the woman to be brought to headquarters. In 1851 Washington Irving wrote that Gen. Israel Putnam carried out this task in dramatic fashion:

Tradition gives us a graphic scene connected with her arrest. Washington was in his chamber at head-quarters, when he beheld from his window, General Putnam approaching on horseback, with a stout woman en croupe behind him. He had pounced upon the culprit.

The group presented by the old general and his prize, overpowered even Washington’s gravity. It was the only occasion throughout the whole campaign on which he was known to laugh heartily. He had recovered his gravity by the time the delinquent was brought to the foot of the broad staircase in head-quarters, and assured her in a severe tone from the head of it, that, unless she confessed everything before the next morning, a halter would be in readiness for her.

So far the tradition;…
This anecdote is consistent with other stories about Putnam. However, there’s no contemporaneous evidence for it, especially for the detail of Washington laughing in his own bedroom. After all, who could know that? Even Irving seems dubious, twice labeling the story “tradition.”

James Warren’s contemporaneous description of the woman’s arrest is more basic: “She was then Taken into Custody, and Brought to the Generals Quarters that Night. It was not till the next day that any thing could be got from her.” An officer in the Roxbury camp passed on a more detailed but less reliable rumor: the “Girl…after an Examination and 4 Hours under guard Confessd.”

The man who had given her the coded letter, the woman told Washington, was Dr. Benjamin Church, a leader of the Massachusetts Whigs, representative from Boston in the Massachusetts legislature, and Surgeon-General of the American army.

I wrote about the process of deciphering that letter back here in 2007. But since then I’ve learned some additional details.

TOMORROW: How the deciphering put Elbridge Gerry on the general’s bad side.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Gen. Washington’s Welcome to His New Headquarters?

According to a story told in nineteenth-century Cambridge, when Gen. George Washington came to his new headquarters in the John Vassall house, one of the first people he met was a child—a black child still legally enslaved to the absent Loyalist owners of that house.

The first appearance of this story in print was in a New England Historical and Genealogical Register article about Longfellow House published in 1871:

An anecdote is related of one of these [slaves], called Tonie Vassall, who, when Washington in 1775 took possession of Mr. Longfellow’s house, was found swinging on the gate. Learning that Tonie belonged to the place, the General, to set his mind at rest for his future, told him to go into the house and they would tell him what to do and give him something to eat.

Feeling the value of his freedom, Tonie inquired what would be the wages, at which Washington expressed surprise at his being so unreasonable at such a time as to expect to be paid.

Tonie lived to a great age, and when on one occasion he was asked what he remembered of Washington, said he was no gentleman, he wanted [a] boy to work without wages.
Decades later, the Cambridge historian Samuel F. Batchelder pointed out that Anthony Vassall was thought to be over sixty years old in 1775, and thus could not have been a “boy…swinging on the gate” that July. The long-lived former slave who told this anecdote about Washington, Batchelder wrote, must have been Tony’s son Darby Vassall (1769-1861).

Obviously, the transmission of that anecdote is hazy. Nonetheless, I think it contains a germ of truth because in nineteenth-century America George Washington was so revered that there was no advantage to making up stories that put him in a bad light—especially if one was a poor black man.

Given the risk in telling such an anecdote, Darby Vassall must have been strongly motivated to do so, most likely by his memory of a difficult encounter. Vassall’s unusual perspective on Washington is probably also why his contemporaries recalled and repeated the tale.

It’s also conceivable that the person who met Gen. Washington was the grown-up Tony Vassall, ready to work for wages, and the white chroniclers who recorded the story told by him and his family preferred to imagine him as a “boy.”

Either way, there’s no evidence in the headquarters accounts or Massachusetts records of Tony Vassall’s family being paid to work for Gen. Washington. But somebody maintained the Vassall fields, gardens, and orchards in those months, and documents show Tony Vassall and his family remained on the estate in the later 1770s. Most likely they received food and other necessities in exchange for their labor, and were treated as property belonging to the estate and therefore unpaid.

(Thumbnail of vintage postcard of the Longfellow House’s front gate above courtesy of dejean.com’s gallery of photos from the Maynard Workshop.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Highlighting Washington’s Headquarters

Late last month President Obama signed a law redesignating the Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge as the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Here is a story from National Parks Traveler reporting on the name change.

The point of that bill, originally introduced by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and then taken up by Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Michael Capuano, is to highlight the site’s full significance in American history. The mansion, long known as “Longfellow House,” is recognized as important to the nation’s literary culture, but it was also a major military headquarters.

From mid-July 1775 to early April 1776, Gen. George Washington and his staff lived in the mansion. The Loyalist who had commissioned the building in 1759, John Vassall, had taken his family into Boston for the protection of the British army in September 1774. Washington spent a longer stretch in the Vassalls’ abandoned house than in any other Revolutionary War building but one: his headquarters in Newburgh, New York.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family were proud of their home’s past, installing pictures of the Washingtons and a bust of the general in the front hall. The poet felt a duty to welcome visitors who wanted to see the general’s headquarters, though such curiosity-seekers could themselves prove to be a curious bunch. For example, Longfellow wrote to his son Ernest on 5 Aug 1876:

A party of sight-seers has just been here from Illinois and elsewhere. They all called me “General,” and perhaps mistook me for General Washington, or “G. Washington,” as another visitor yesterday irreverently called the Father of his Country. The Centennial Year brings its inconveniences as well as its pleasures.
At the time, many Americans viewed Longfellow as a national treasure, as beloved for his poetry as a pop music star today, but not everyone recognized who led their tours. Octavius Brooks Frothingham reported in his profile of the poet:
he always did the honors of it with perfect urbanity, whether the caller knew anything about Washington or himself, and he did not forbear his jest when some remarkably obtuse specimen appeared,—as when one to whom he had shown the rooms asked in parting, “And who be you?” and another, not knowing what else to say, patronized the trees.
For the rest of the week Boston 1775 will look at stories from Gen. Washington’s period in the new Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Tennessee Tea Party Vision of American History

Last week the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Nashville City Paper reported that about a dozen members of “Tea Party” groups in Tennessee had gone to the capital to present their legislative “demands.” One item that got a lot of attention, including a critical editorial in the Commercial Appeal, involved history education. Or, as an unfortunately edited handout put it, “educating students the truth about America.”

The Memphis paper reported:

Regarding education, the material they distributed said, “Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”

That would include, the documents say, that “the Constitution created a Republic, not a Democracy.”

The material calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
As Caitlin G. D. Hopkins noted, focusing on “the majority of citizens” should mean concentrating on the history of children, because they were the most numerous group in any society before the 1900s. If “majority” is defined along gender lines, that means women’s history. But these groups seem to be defining “majority” and “minority” only along ethnic and racial lines. Evidently they wish Tennessee schools to focus on Natives through the Revolution, and whites since statehood. (The same standard in some other states would mean studying black history for much of the ante-bellum period, since African-Americans comprised the majority of their populations.)

As to how the groups define “Republic” and “Democracy,” the article doesn’t say. Curiously, the groups’ other demands include being able to elect the state’s attorney general, which would be more democratic than the current system. Their respect for the considered decision of elected representatives—a hallmark of a democratic republic—is obviously limited to the laws they like.

The newspaper report quoted one particular activist on history education:
Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds, whose website identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran of the Air Force and FedEx retiree who became a lawyer in 1995.
Critics immediately pointed out that the founding generation did intrude on the Indians—that’s how we got the state of Tennessee. They did have slaves, despite praising liberty as a natural right. To be fair, Rounds doesn’t suggest those facts are “made-up,” only that the criticism is. Or something like that.

Here is Rounds’s bio on his website. He offers a “Constitution Refresher” lecture and was an attorney for the Tennessee Firearms Association, though a more prominent part of his practice seems to have been contesting speeding tickets.

Other websites identify Rounds as “Education Committee Chairman--Tennessee Tea Party Coalition, Fayette County Tea Party.” He was on the board of the Tennessee Conservatives Fund, and headed the Libertarian Party of Shelby County. However, his form of libertarianism does not preclude the government from telling people whom they can marry or whether they can enter the country.

Naturally, I was most curious about Rounds’s views on American history. For example, in 2008 he wrote about the aftermath of the Civil War:
Reconstruction was the Marshall plan in reverse, a military occupation which concentrated on keeping all the experienced, competent public officials out of public affairs, to tax and restrict economic activity, and to maintain a monologue of hatred against the former rebels. Reconstruction was successful in driving the entire South deeper into poverty and chaos than it had been at the end of the war.
In addition, this site says:
Hal has drafted a booklet on why the South seceded and he has copyrighted a T-shirt featuring the Rebel’s Creed that he sells.
I haven’t found those texts, but the evidence suggests that Rounds is an adherent of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

What is his understanding of the early republic? On 9 Apr 2009 Rounds published a letter in the Commercial Appeal that claimed “Obama Is Extinguishing Our Spark” [and, perhaps, blocking our precious bodily fluids] this way:
The Somali pirates’ attack on an American ship is an event that illustrates the conflict between the American character and President Barack Obama’s vision.

Americans have always been the exception: From our beginnings, rather than pay the ransom the European powers had been yielding to the Arab hijackers of that time, we chanted “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” and Thomas Jefferson sent the Marines to release American hostages. . . .
In fact, from 1786 to 1801, U.S. governments paid the North African states protection money and ransom amounting to millions of dollars. Before becoming President and sending the Marines to Tripoli, as Secretary of State Jefferson had sent diplomats to negotiate treaties. Without a navy (which he opposed), the country couldn’t do much else.

The First Barbary War ended with the U.S. of A. still paying a much reduced ransom to redeem captives. From 1807 to 1815, North African states resumed seizing American crews, and the U.S. resumed paying ransoms. The Second Barbary War in 1815 finally ended the issue. Rounds’s summary of that history was incomplete, one-sided, and politicized.

Three days after that letter appeared, U.S. Navy forces acting on President Obama’s orders killed three pirates and rescued the captured captain. I haven’t found Rounds’s response to that development, but his dislike of Obama is an enduring theme in his public writing. In that April 2009 letter he falsely claimed, “Obama has made his mark by apologizing for all the achievements our independence, courage and persistence have bestowed on the world.” Rounds called Michelle Obama anti-American and totalitarian, and said the Obama administration as “inhabited by personalities whose expressed positions on vital American issues are unmistakably anti-American” (P.D.F. download). I believe the term for such statements is “an awful lot of made-up criticism.”

During the 2010 election, many “Tea Party” groups claimed to be interested only in lower taxes and smaller government. However, events like this show that members are happy to fight the “culture wars” and impose their values and prejudices on others wherever they can.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Twitter Feed, 7-19 Jan 2011

  • RT @WilliamHogeland: HNN picked up the Lepore-Wood story (and FB board): bit.ly/ikpawx // Thanks for the alert! #
  • Cliopatria's awards for history blogs in 2010: bit.ly/iawKnh #
  • RT @alberkes: Here's a cool demonstration of Jefferson portraiture in action: bit.ly/gjD8Y8 [video] #
  • RT @BOAFNPS: Seasonal Park Ranger position available at Boston African American National Historic Site. Interviews... fb.me/ESSWI05U #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: 6 Jan 1759: 26 y.o. George Washington marries Martha. One of her gowns: ow.ly/3lVsq #
  • RT @WestholmePub: Like spies? Author John Nagy on INVISIBLE INK at Franklin T'shp Library, Somerset NJ, 1/12, 7pm on.fb.me/hEqhGN #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1789: America's first presidential election is held. You know who won, right? ow.ly/3lVCb #
  • From Walking the Berkshires, archeological finds from the #RevWar Battle of Short Hills, NJ, 1777: bit.ly/hpz7fS #
  • From Walking the Berkshires, mapping study of #RevWar Battle of Princeton, 1777: bit.ly/gE2F6b #
  • From BOSTON GLOBE, curious collection of links on Paul Revere for kids: bit.ly/g9k0Kc No Paul Revere House, no paulreveresride.org #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1790: Pres. George Washington delivers the 1st State of the Union address. ow.ly/3lW93 #
  • RT @INDEPENDENCENHP: Jan and Feb. no tickets required to visit Independence Hall! Tix never required for Liberty Bell! ow.ly/3zwBJ #
  • @IamSauerkraut Doesn't look like Princeton battlefield report is public. Commissioned by nonprofit gp in NJ. #
  • BOSTON GLOBE article by @ericanoonan on @rmartello's new book about @PaulRevere1734's manufactures: bit.ly/heXOKY #
  • RT @joe_allen_black: How well do you know Paul Revere? Test yourself with this quiz from Boston.com - ow.ly/3AK8q #
  • @beatonna Hutchinson finished his history book, got to tell his side of Revolution with courageous, put-upon royal governor and all. #
  • Drummer Samuel Newby, 35 years a soldier, including thru the #RevWar: bit.ly/htys89 #
  • RT @RagLinen: RT @chuckholland: Nice simple interactive on the American Revolution. bit.ly/bfCqeA #sschat #historyteacher #RevWar #
  • Link to Gordon Wood's full review of Jill Lepore's WHITES OF THEIR EYES: www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=179181182147&topic=16888 #
  • Russell Freedman picture book on Lafayette won Sibert Honor this morning. The KIRKUS review: bit.ly/fZK0e1 #
  • RT @UChicagoMag: What would the U.S. look like under an originalist [? Scalia's] interpretation of the Constitution? nyti.ms/g0XbBy #
  • RT @gordonbelt: A face from King's Mountain from The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation bit.ly/gSrRJl #
  • RT @LooknBackward: When Copley couldn't find a corkscrew... bit.ly/gF2PCd // Hard to believe this was painted without model. #
  • Links and comments from @williamhogeland and myself on Wood review of Lepore: on.fb.me/dFLvSc Join the conversation! #
  • Panel on American Founders & Religion at Virginia Festival of the Book in March: bit.ly/eFr16P #
  • From Discovery News, a saponified mummy from 18th-century Philadelphia: bit.ly/hrJoaU #
  • From @ValleyForgeNHP, "Lock, Stock and Barrel" conference on life & culture of #RevWar soldiers, Mar 2011 bit.ly/fS6Bdq #
  • RT @2nerdyhistgirls: Visit Bath instead of snowy NE: RT@austenonly Lady Russell's Winter Pleasure wp.me/pGJsu-1mk #
  • @2nerdyhistgirls Last time I was in Bath, it was snowing lightly. #
  • RT @vahistorical: VHS lecture Thurs 1/13 @ noon: "The Jeffersons at Shadwell" by Susan Kern: tiny.cc/kr014. #rva #va #
  • RT @derekwbeck: Protests at Funerals: a Tradition as Old as Samuel Adams bit.ly/hA5M6m @Boston1775 #
  • @2nerdyhistgirls Never been to Bath, Maine. But you're right—snow wouldn't be so notable there. #
  • .@brianjohnriggs: @Boston1775 is a good place to start understanding history through technology. // Thanks! #
  • In the NEW YORKER, historian Jill Lepore on how we read the Constitution: nyr.kr/eVnAaM #
  • How portraits of William Dawes and wife ended up in Evanston, Ill., courtesy of US Veep Charles G. Dawes: bit.ly/eZwxeI #
  • Inside Higher Ed's podcast with Elise Lemire, author of BLACK WALDEN, about slavery and aftermath in Concord, Mass.: bit.ly/g6m9Yi #
  • RT @historytavern: "@Yesterday_Today: 1776: #RevWar - British forces raided Prudence Island, RI, to steal sheep tl.gd/84gcs7 #
  • RT @AFBurialGrndNPS: A slaveholder's diary documents resistance of self-emancipated #Africans during #RevWar: ow.ly/3CWcO #
  • RT @marianpl: I wish I could get to #Boston more often. Great talks at the Boston Public Library this Spring #genealogy ow.ly/3DA75 #
  • @bencarp NEHGS announced your talk there without a starting time. Also not on website's schedule. So if crowd is sparse, it's not you. #
  • RT @ToddHouse: RT @archivesinfo Copp's Hill in Decay. How can we reverse trend? New ArchivesInfo blogpost bit.ly/dILM7Q #
  • From BOSTON GLOBE, interview with new head of Concord Museum: bit.ly/gpjVHJ #
  • Upcoming lecture on tracing Boston Tea Party participants at NEHGS by @bencarp: web1.americanancestors.org/Event.aspx?id=22465 #
  • @bencarp A new addition to that calendar grid. Thanks! #
  • RT @56Signers: SIGNER MYTH ALERT! Black #soldiers did fight that #Christmas #1776 #battle, but Whipple & Prince did not #sschat #
  • RT @davidlibrary: David Library lecture by D. A. Saguto examines 'sole' of the American Revolution bit.ly/gV4DDG #
  • RT @56Signers: Brits offered #freedom to slaves who ran away to fight for Brits. #Washington & #Jefferson both lost slaves this way. #
  • @jmadelman: "Via Megan McArdle, a response about two-spacing" // Everyone has right to opinion, but that opinion is wrong. #
  • 2nd-grade research on Phillis Wheatley at Massachusetts Historical Socy: bit.ly/dZN9c0 #
  • RT @davidlibrary: Was George Washington a "swinger"? davidlibraryar.blogspot.com/ #
  • RT @myHNN: Team May Have Found Sword Hilt Belonging to Blackbeard bit.ly/fx7nje #
  • RT @Readex: Historical Society: Primary Sources: Indentures histsociety.blogspot.com/2011/01/reading-primary-sources-indentures.html #
  • RT @bradhart78: New Connecticut (Vermont) Declares Independence nblo.gs/d36tT #
  • Hearing tumultuous applause in M L King's "I Have a Dream" speech as he quotes from Declaration of Independence. #
  • Gravestone for a Connecticut man who died marching to Boston, Sept 1775: bit.ly/fV2kYy #RevWar #
  • Turns out Voltaire never wrote, "…I will defend to the death your right to say it." A woman did. bit.ly/dTaoCo #
  • From artist Sage Stossel & BOSTON GLOBE, Battle Road house sees expat Sudanese vote on their south's independence: bit.ly/ecf8W8 #
  • Anyone want to buy me this Paul Revere print of the Boston Massacre from 1770? bit.ly/gdODjX #
  • How about Gen Nathanael Greene's Society of the Cincinnati medal? bit.ly/e0uYLF #
  • ~1768 embroidery by Polly Burns (1753-1794?) of Boston estimated to sell for $60,000+: bit.ly/g9dKXi #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1706: Benjamin Franklin born. Podcast on his legacy, interplay of technology & democracy: ow.ly/3m26Y #
  • RT @56Signers: Boiling books to restore a 1770s map. nyti.ms/e4jkmn // Only 4th copy of Ratzer's NYC map known to survive. #
  • Grandson of Lexington's Capt John Parker offered thoughts that inspired M L King's "bends toward justice" statement: bit.ly/i162Qz #
  • Tomorrow at Massachusetts Historical Socy, the state's connection to the French Revolution: bit.ly/dHFK0T #
  • At American Antiquarian Socy, commonplace book of Boston merchant Thomas Hubbard (1702-73): bit.ly/eS9cTj #
  • RT @SecondVirginia: Historic Mount Vernon: Washington's Estate & Gardens seeking part-time historic trade interpreters fb.me/MBqDIXxR #
  • Lahontan's critique of Europe ~1700 thru observations on Native Canadians: bit.ly/fWSOeN #
  • RT @InlySchool: via Sommer Reading: I just finished Forge, the sequel to Laurie Halsen Anderson's a... ow.ly/1aUr2f #
  • Okay, Bill Maher misrepresents the Founders also: bit.ly/gDWAYp But at least he's funny on purpose. #
  • Profile of Boston immigrant, printer, and Loyalist John Fleeming: bit.ly/fPISgR #RevWar #
  • From HNN, Thomas S. Kidd on faith and our sainted George Washington: bit.ly/fgAKqj #
  • RT @history_book: Materials and Medicine: Trade, Conquest & Therapeutics in the 18th Century - by Pratik Chakrabarti amzn.to/iiRp7E #
  • RT @handsonhistory: Republican Introduces Bill That Kills Historic Preservation Funding bit.ly/i7s1B7 #
  • From Dan Allosso at the Historical Society, reading estate inventories in western Massachusetts: bit.ly/i3BcHW #
  • RT @RagLinen: On May 29, 1789, President Washington hosted America's 1st state dinner for ministers from France & Spain. ow.ly/3GMyt #
  • RT @2nerdyhistgirls: Yes, that's Lady Worsley bit.ly/hYXJV6 more about her marriage & #scandal that ended it: bit.ly/gnpnLw #
  • RT @AYWalton: The fate of George Washington's enslaved cook Hercules: www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/slaves/hercules.htm #
  • Anyone know tips, resources, or archives on divorces in Rhode Island, ~1775? Looking for particular unhappy couple. #genealogy #rhodeisland #

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Burgoyne Returned to Parliament

Don Hagist of the British Soldiers, American War blog unearthed this item from the Cumbria Packet, a regional British newspaper, on 9 June 1778. It turns on the aftermath of the Battle of Saratoga, and how British politics uses the word “returned” as a synonym for “elected.”

Bon Mot.

A day or two after General [John] Burgoyne arrived, a large party being at dinner, the conversation turned upon the propriety, or impropriety, of his taking his seat in Parliament, previous to a court of inquiry:

“Poh, poh, (says a gentleman of the party) independent of his borough here, he has a right to take his seat in the House.”

“How will you make that out?” said the company,

“because (says the other) he’s returned by America.”
Ha ha! Well, maybe one had to be there.

(Burgoyne’s image above comes courtesy of the University of Houston’s Digital History site.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

“Evil intreated the said James & other Enormities”

In November, Bill West contacted me about a legal document describing a dispute between lawyer James Otis, Jr., and merchant Lewis Gray. Bill later posted a transcription of that 1771 writ at West in New England. In it Otis complained how:

the said Lewis Gray at said Boston in the eleventh day of this Instant November with Force of Arms between the Hours of five and seven o’clock Post meridiem with Force and arms broke and entered the said James Otis’s dwelling situate in Queen Street in said Boston being so enter’d being with Force as aforesaid, continued in the said House from the eleventh to the twelfth Instant six o’clock in the Forenoon & then & there between the Hour aforesaid with Force as aforesaid…assaulted, beat wounded and evil intreated the said James & other Enormities did then there commit & perpetrate…
The writ was served on 12 Nov 1771—within hours of the alleged assault.

Neither I nor Boston 1775 reader Jeff Purcell, who’s studying Otis, could find other sources about this incident. But here are some thoughts:
  • Lewis Gray wasn’t just any merchant. He was related to Otis, his younger sister Elizabeth having married the lawyer’s younger brother Samuel Allyne Otis.
  • Gray was also son of the royal treasurer of Massachusetts, Harrison Gray. He later became a Loyalist.
  • In the early 1770s, Otis’s psychiatric difficulties had become inescapable. Sometimes he was lucid and capable of working, and at other times his family committed him to private institutions outside Boston.
One scenario that might have produced this document was that Otis began behaving oddly, Gray arrived at the Otis house to help control him, and Otis treated that as an assault, hastily creating this writ. The number of times the document mentions “Force”—it’s repetitive even by the standards of eighteenth-century legal language—suggests that it wasn’t written in full rationality. If the family bundled James Otis out of town shortly afterward and the authorities let his lawsuit lapse, that might explain why it never came to biographers’ attention. Of course, there are other possibilities.

If anyone has come across other documents mentioning this dispute between James Otis and Lewis Gray, give Bill West a buzz.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Considering the N.H.P.R.C.’s Grants Budget

As Congress returns to work this week, one issue that historians are watching with interest involves the budget for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. This commission has been part of the National Archives and Records Administration since 1934, and has been making grants since 1964 to preserve and publish non-federal records of historical value.

After the last election, the National Coalition for History reported that the incoming House leadership might try to cut the N.H.P.R.C.’s budget significantly:

As far back as the Reagan administration, Republicans have been trying to eliminate the NHPRC. Earlier this year, House Republicans asked the public to vote on their website for federal programs to eliminate and the NHPRC came out near the top. Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have blocked NHPRC reauthorization legislation in the House by threatening to offer amendments that would gut the program. Without an authorization, the NHPRC might be vulnerable to elimination.
That House Republican website mentioned there is the YouCut page on Rep. Eric Cantor’s site. When I first heard about that, I thought it listed all the parts of the federal budget so that we citizens could weigh their value, rather like this New York Times webpage. Instead, it simply listed some programs Cantor and his party colleagues saw as unnecessary; the interactive gimmick invites visitors to choose which seemed most unnecessary that week.

In late October, the site hopped on the controversy over Juan Williams’s comments on Fox News to suggest cutting funding for National Public Radio. Apparently that funding hadn’t been unnecessary before. The election soon followed, and then the site stopped being updated. Presumably the original list of targets remains, but Cantor and his House colleagues, now in the majority, no longer seek input the same way.

At a hearing about the N.H.P.R.C. in June 2010 by the House subcommittee overseeing the National Archives, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), then the Speaker’s representative on the commission, argued that 90% of the commission’s funding creates or saves jobs. Historians and archivists testified about the value of the projects it funds.

The N.H.P.R.C. has been particularly generous toward projects to preserve and publish the papers of America’s Founders—ironically, the historical figures that the new House Republicans’ most vocal supporters say they revere. In December the commission announced:
Publishing Grants totaling $1.7 million were awarded for 12 publishing projects from the U.S. Colonial and Early National Period, including the papers of Founders Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
Recent grants have supported putting papers online, as with the Adams Papers from the Massachusetts Historical Society, available to the public for free. The commission is working with the University of Virginia to do the same for its Washington Papers. Everyone researching Revolutionary history benefits from those resources.

However, the likely cuts threaten projects on lesser-known politicians of that generation, such as the unpublished papers of Robert Treat Paine. And I suspect that projects on other periods of American history might be at even greater risk. (Here are all the grants awarded in Massachusetts over time, showing the range.)

I think it makes sense to discuss what our federal government can pay for, given the economy, the deficit built up since 2001, and society’s other pressing needs. There might be an inefficient overlap between the N.H.P.R.C.’s grants and those from the National Endowment for the Humanities. However, I think any such discussion needs to be conducted on an open, honest basis, with all federal expenditures examined together. The N.H.P.R.C. is a very small part of the national budget, and may provide an unusually long-lasting benefit to our national culture.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Archeology at Boston’s Oldest House, 31 Jan.

The South Boston Historical Society and the Friends of the South Boston Library are hosting a talk at the end of the month called “Digging Up the Dot: The Archaeology of the Oldest House in Boston.”

Ellen Berkland, archeologist with the city’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, will discuss recent work near the James Blake House in Dorchester.

That house is the oldest structure in modern Boston, built about 1661. However, it’s been at its present location only since 1895, when the Dorchester Historical Society moved it about 1,200 feet to preserve it. The Blake House is also Berkland’s home.

The Dorchester Historical Society has a webpage on archeological work at the site. Here’s an article from 2007 on the preservation of the Blake House, and additional information from the Dorchester Atheneum. The photograph above, showing the house in 1930 with a fence that no longer stands, comes from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr collection. Finally, here’s a conversation with Berkland.

So now we’re prepared for her talk at the South Boston Library, 646 East Broadway, starting at 6:30 P.M. on Monday, 31 January. Admission is free, and there will even be refreshments.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

“General Lee is a perfect original”

And speaking of Gen. Charles Lee, here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about him. On 21 Oct 1775, the Rev. Jeremy Belknap dined in Cambridge at the house of Thomas Mifflin, quartermaster general for the American army. The other guests included:

It’s testament to Lee’s forceful personality that Belknap’s journal entry about the dinner was almost entirely about him:
General Lee is a perfect original, a good scholar and soldier, and an odd genius; full of fire and passion, and but little good manners; a great sloven, wretchedly profane, and a great admirer of dogs,—of which he had two at dinner with him, one of them a native of Pomerania, which I should have taken for a bear had I seen him in the woods.

A letter which he wrote General [Israel] Putnam yesterday is a copy of his odd mind. It is, as nearly as I can recollect, as follows; being a letter of introduction of one Page, a Church [of England] clergyman: —
Hobgoblin Hall, Oct. 19, 1775.

Dear General,—

Mr. Page, the bearer of this, is a Mr. Page. He has the laudable ambition of seeing the great General Putnam. I therefore desire you would array yourself in all your majesty and terrors for his reception. Your blue and gold must be mounted, your pistols stuck in your girdle; and it would not be amiss if you should black one half of your face.

I am, dear general, with fear and trembling, your humble servant,
Charles Lee.
This Page is suspected by some to be a spy, as he has a plan of the lines, and is bound to England.
And of course one general should introduce a suspected spy to another.

I wonder if this Page was the same man who preached in Newport in March 1773 and got the Rev. Ezra Stiles all gossipy. He claimed to be a chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon, who was financing Methodism back in Britain. I can’t find a record of that minister’s first name.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What Really Happened in Wadsworth House

Boston 1775 reader Robert C. Mitchell alerted me to this webpage from Harvard University. It says of Wadsworth House, once home of the college president and now office of the university marshal:

General George Washington, with the assistance of Henry Lee (then an officer in the Patriot Forces, and later father to General Robert E. Lee), set up his first headquarters in the house. From there, on July 3, 1775, Washington rode out to the Cambridge Common to take command of the Revolutionary troops. It is also said that the plans to oust King George from Boston took form in Wadsworth Parlor.
This description mixes up Charles Lee with Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee. Charles was a former British army officer appointed major general of the Continental Army. He rode with Washington from Philadelphia to Cambridge, and spent some days sharing this house with the commander-in-chief.

Henry was a young man, still in his teens, whom Washington knew back in Virginia. By coincidence, both these Lees had visited Mount Vernon in late April, as Washington prepared for the Second Continental Congress. But in 1775 young Harry remained in Virginia, joining the Continental Army only in June 1776. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the end of the war.

The paragraph above also perpetuates the myth that Washington took command of the New England troops on the Cambridge common on 3 July 1775, a story usually set beneath the Washington Elm. Most scholars now agree that Gen. Artemas Ward handed over authority to Washington on the evening of 2 July in the college steward’s house around the corner (which is no longer standing).

Finally, it’s a stretch to say that the plans laid in Wadsworth House drove “King George” or his metonymic troops out of Boston. When Washington and Lee arrived in Cambridge, their immediate priorities were to strengthen American defenses and figure out just how many soldiers they had. Those tasks took weeks. Washington had no chance to plan an offensive until after he had moved out of this house into the abandoned Vassall mansion.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Boston 1775 Visits the Ngram Viewer

Last month brought a new time sink from Google Books, the Ngram Viewer, which searches the entire database for requested phrases. As an example, LibraryThing’s Jeremy Dibbell mentioned how @cliotropic had asked to compare terms for trousers (including the modern “jeans” and “pants”). I pushed that backwards, asking for a comparison of “breeches” (“britches,” the phonic spelling, produced negligible results), “pantaloons”, “trowsers” (the old spelling), “trousers”, and “pants.” Here’s the result.

The words “breeches” and “pants” have additional, non-sartorial meanings, of course. Nonetheless, it’s clear how the first word/garment became much less popular between 1780 and 1980, and the second much more. “Trowsers” overtook “pantaloons” and “pants” in the 1810s, and bowed to “trousers” in the 1830s.

However, I also found some glitches in the Ngram Viewer database. Its results are only as good as the input data. Here’s a comparison of the phrases “Boston Tea Party” and “destruction of the tea.” That shows some examples of the former phrase from before 1820, but clicking into the data reveals that those are simply volumes with the wrong publication date applied. With numbers so small, a few errors can really shift the lines. Still, we can see how the “Boston Tea Party” label overtook the older “destruction of the tea” around 1890, and eclipsed it since.

Other quirks:

All those grains of salt applied, Ngram Viewer is still a compulsive delight.

Who got the most press, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams? (Of course, there might be more than one John Adams.)

When did Americans start writing about “Sally Hemings”? (But note: That blip of early mentions is mostly misdated material. I can’t figure out a way to see examples of people writing about her without using her full name.)

Look how “von Steuben” overtook “de Steuben” (the general’s own usage) in the twentieth century.

How famous did Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, become in the early 1800s, relative to other scientists?

Are people learning how to spell the name of young Christopher Seider?

See how “lobster back” starts to appear in significant numbers after 1820, and “lobsterback” at the time of the Centennial.

Or headgear. “Mob cap” starts its rise in 1800, “tricorn hat” in 1880.

In the late 1900s the name of Crispus Attucks starts to appear far more often than the (more common) names of the other victims of the Boston Massacre.

The new term “vaccination” overtook “inoculation” twice, and “smallpox” replaced “small pox.”

Of the spellings “huzzah”, “hurray”, “huzzay”, “hooray”, “hoorah”, or “hurrah,” the last has dominated for a long time. Remove it to see how the Z spellings used to be more popular.

Where do we see the euphemisms “appeal to heaven” and “recourse to arms”?

The phrases “liberty tree”, “liberty pole”, and “liberty cap”? (Once again, the results for the early end of the timeline look suspect to me. I’ve learned to distrust those symmetric plateaus.)

How Henry W. Longfellow (after 1860) and Esther Forbes (after 1940) made Paul Revere a household name, with John Hancock and Henry Knox for comparison.