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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rattlesnake Reforms

As Britain’s North American colonies became more rebellious, the rattlesnake in Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” cartoon from 1754 (discussed yesterday) took on a new meaning.

Whigs now urged the colonies to unite not on behalf of the British Empire, but against a supposedly corrupt government in London. And new rattlesnakes were born.

In 1774, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy newspaper adopted the masthead shown above, engraved by Paul Revere. Though this snake is divided in pieces from New England to Georgia, those pieces are nearly united, and the snake’s clearly ready to fight the dragon that threatens American liberties.

I never thought of rattlesnakes as a marine animal, but American naval units were among the first to adopt the rattlesnake in their insignia. Under international law, the Continental Navy needed a flag to distinguish its ships from the Royal Navy. The rattlesnake had long been a symbol of the strange powers to be found in North America. The “Gadsden flag” and “First Navy Jack” display rattlesnakes—now firmly in one piece—and the new motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”

I’m not sure whether the design for those flags that we often see reproduced today can actually be traced to 1775-76. Flag history is vexed by visual interpretations of vague verbal descriptions. But there’s definite documentary evidence of Americans adopting the rattlesnake as one of their national symbols early in the Revolutionary War.

[ADDENDUM: The rattlesnake resurfaces in 1775.]

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The “Join, or Die” Rattlesnake

Last week the New York Times reported that one of the few surviving copies of the 9 May 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette is up for auction.

That’s the issue that contained the original “Join, or Die” political cartoon, supporting the program of the Albany Congress of 1754. Publisher Benjamin Franklin wanted the North American colonies to form a united defense against the French and Indians. He was having trouble even in his own adopted colony of Pennsylvania because of its Quaker founders’ aversion to war for any reason, particularly conquest.

The rattlesnake was a symbol of North America because Europeans had never seen such an animal. Normally, I’d think, we primates would instinctively view a chopped-up venomous snake as a Good Thing. But Franklin’s message depended on his readers identifying with the snake.

There are copies of this newspaper at the Library of Congress, New-York Historical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, and American Antiquarian Society. But this may be the only one still in private hands. Until recently, it was owned by Stephen A. Geppi, founder of Diamond Comics Distributors, and displayed in his museum in Baltimore. The new owner has put it back on the market.

One notable detail of this image is that the four New England colonies are all lumped together as one piece of the snake. Of course, they’re the head—the poisonous part. The snake also combines Pennsylvania and Delaware, as they legally were then, and ends before it gets to Georgia and the Floridas.

TOMORROW: The rattlesnake’s second life.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Life and Death in the Camps with Pvt. David How

David How (1758-1842) of Methuen enlisted in the Continental Army at the end of 1775. He kept a diary, largely for financial transactions, though he also included notes about sermons and major military events.

It’s often noted that in the eighteenth century more soldiers died in camps of disease or other causes than on the battlefield. Here are extracts from David How’s diary in February 1776, during the siege of Boston, that pertain to life and death:
7 [Feb 1776] This Day two men In Cambridge got a bantering Who wodd Drink the most and they Drinkd So much That one of them Died In About one houre or two after . . .

10 There was two women Drumd out of Camp This fore noon
That man was Buried that killed himself Drinking . . .

12 There was a man found Dead in a room with A. Woman this morning. It is not known what killed him. . . .

17 Liet. Chandler Broke out with the Small pox and was sent To the pest house this afterNoon . . .

21 Leut. Chandler Died with the Small pox At the pest house About one a Clock in the Day . . .

27 Daniel Chandler paid me Lawfull money that Lieut. Chandler owd me.
As I said, mostly financial transactions. And yet How was just seventeen.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

But Did the Flakes Get Caught in Your Teeth?

Michel Aubrecht at Blog, or Die reminded me of Washington Crisps, a breakfast cereal sold a century ago in the midst of the Colonial Revival.

Some Washington Crisps advertisements, such as the one Aubrecht highlighted from 1912, explicitly linked the cereal to George Washington’s character—and of course the character of the nation and its breakfast-eating children.

Other ads used the first President in other ways, as in a 1911 entry from the Washington (D.C.) Herald:

Washington is the biggest man in the history of this country.
(Best Quality Corn Flakes Toasted)
is the biggest 10c. package in the history of the food business. And it’s “D-E-E-E-LICIOUS!”
And some ads didn’t mention the cereal’s namesake at all.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gen. Putnam Nearly Killed by Friendly Fire

From the letters of Capt. John Chester of Connecticut, stationed in Cambridge on 13 Feb 1776:
Sunday night as [Gen. Israel] Putnam was passing by Colledge and on the west side the street, a Centry haild from the far part of the Colledge Yard. He could not think he called to him as he had yt. moment passd one & given ye Con. Sign & was just that minute hailed by another. However the Centry in ye Yard not finding an answer up & fired as direct as he could at the Genl which providentially escaped him tho’ he heard the ball whistle.
Unfortunately, there’s no record of what Old Put said in response.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Harbottle Dorr Newspapers Reunited

On Monday I mentioned how one of four volumes of Harbottle Dorr’s collection of Revolutionary-era newspapers, pamphlets, political cartoons, and broadsheets was coming up for sale at the James D. Julia auction house in Maine.

The Massachusetts Historical Society acquired that volume for, the Portland Sentinel reported, $345,000, somewhat above the estimate. The M.H.S. press release says, “The purchase was made possible through a combination of gifts to the MHS from anonymous donors and a distribution from the Society’s acquisition fund.”

That is indeed good news. This purchase will reunite Dorr’s entire collection in one repository. It means that fourth volume won’t be pulled apart to sell as individual items (which some people had worried about), but instead will be preserved at the highest standards.

Dorr would no doubt be pleased. As an introduction to the last volume, Dorr wrote:
I have thought it worth while to collect them, tho’ at considerable expence, and VERY GREAT TROUBLE, in hopes that in future, they may be of some service, towards forming a POLITICAL History of this Country, during the shameful, and abandoned administration of George the third’s despotic Ministry.
The M.H.S. announcement answered some of my questions on Monday about the collection. The 1798 gift from Josiah Quincy consisted of the middle two volumes of Dorr’s collection. The society bought the earliest volume in 1888. And this volume is the last, with material dating from 1772 to 1776.

The announcement also quotes Prof. Bernard Bailyn on the value of this collection:
The more ordinary the mind and the more typical the career, the more valuable the documentation, and there is no more ordinary active participant in the Revolution and no one who left behind a more revealing record of the inner, personal meaning of the Revolution than a Boston shopkeeper with the unlikely name of Harbottle Dorr. His passionately patriotic scribbling in the margins of the newspapers and pamphlets he collected and his comments in his superbly confused indexes to his volumes are unique in the literature of the Revolution.
I’m not sure I’d say Dorr was so completely ordinary; he did become a selectman during the war, and wrote a few political essays himself. But his marginalia in these newspapers are our best documentation of how a middling businessman, not a lawyer or professional politician, responded to the arguments of the day.

Quite passionately, in fact.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lectures on “Hidden Gems” of Georgian Architecture

Next month the Paul Revere House is sponsoring and Old South Meeting House is hosting a series of free lectures on “Hidden Gems: Historic Georgian Houses in the Boston Area.” Each talk will take place on a Wednesday evening from 6:30 to 7:30 P.M.

7 September
“Liberty Road: Boston’s Georgian Landmarks of the Revolution”
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the construction of the Pierce-Hichborn House, one of the earliest Georgian buildings in Boston. Like that house, many of Boston’s Georgian landmarks have undergone significant transformation over the years. Key civic and religious landmarks, like the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, and the Old North Church, looked quite different in the 18th century than they do today. In addition to discussing surviving Georgian-era buildings, architect and preservation planner Frederic C. Detwiller will also consider such long-vanished buildings as the Province House, the Brattle Street Church, and the Clark-Frankland and Hutchinson mansions in the North End.

14 September
“Freedom and Independence in Colonial Massachusetts: The Royall House and Slave Quarters of Medford”
The Royalls were one of New England’s wealthiest families, having made their fortune from their Antigua sugar plantations. In 1732, they retired to Medford where they lived in lavish style in an early Georgian mansion supported by 25 to 35 slaves. Tom Lincoln, Executive Director of the Royall House Association, will consider the architecture and history of the Royall House mansion and site in the broader context of a slavery regime whose existence and outlines have been well hidden until recent years. He will also discuss recent efforts to re-interpret the slave quarters, and show how the site and its history teach powerful lessons about life in the 18th century.

21 September
“‘A Constant Round of Entertainments’: The Life of the William Brattle House”
Built in 1727 for militia general William Brattle, reputedly the wealthiest man in Massachusetts at the time, the William Brattle House is one of seven Georgian mansions on Cambridge’s Brattle Street known together as “Tory Row.” After the Brattle family was forced to leave following the “powder alarm” of 1774, the house served as base for the Quartermaster General of the Continental Army during the siege of Boston. Wendy Frontiero, architect and historic preservation consultant, will discuss the entire history of the building, including its use as the home of writer and feminist Margaret Fuller, as the residence of numerous Harvard students, and as headquarters of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.

28 September
“Rediscovering the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House”
In 2008, the Cambridge Historical Society embarked on an innovative and exciting exploration of the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, a late-17th-century building later modified into a Georgian mansion. Because the house was already closed to the public for repainting and electrical work, and because a recent paint study raised questions that could not be answered, the organization seized this rare opportunity to carefully open Georgian casings and discover what might remain of the original first period structure. Cambridge Historical Society Executive Director Gavin Kleespies will show how the paint analysis, a small amount of dendrochronology, and information gathered from a number of strategic openings in the skin of the building answered some questions and provoked many more.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Archeological Findings along Battle Road

Tim Greenman at Walking the Berkshires alerted me to a report from the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center:
Archaeologists in Massachusetts recently excavated several military artifacts from a Revolutionary war era site probably dating back to a well-documented skirmish of April 19, 1775 known as “Parker’s Revenge.” The previously undisturbed site, located on an unused area of Hanscom Air Force Base in Concord, is being prepared for transfer from the United States Air Force to the National Park Service.

Among the artifacts found are musket balls (fired and un-fired), a brass shoe buckle, a fascine knife or “bill hook,” and a musket ball bullet mold that produces a size caliber ball for pistols. All of these artifacts were fragile and corroded when excavated and required immediate treatment for preservation.

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, one of the leading institutions in the northeast for archaeological conservation, was contracted by the United States Air Force to document and treat these important historical objects. Over the last year and a half the Conservation Department has photographed, x-rayed, removed corrosion, and stabilized all the artifacts from the “Parker’s Revenge” site to preserve them.
The bullet mold (at top) presumably belonged to locals; wouldn’t the British troops who marched to Concord have left their molds behind? I suppose the curved knife, used for cutting brush or as a weapon, might have been carried by a man on either side.

Incidentally, the phrase “Parker’s revenge” seems to be a twentieth-century coinage. It doesn’t show up in early histories of the battle, so far as I can tell. It’s now applied to a part of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, where and when Capt. John Parker’s Lexington men fired at the British soldiers withdrawing toward Boston—including soldiers who had shot at their militia company on the Lexington common.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Big ConConCon

In September the Harvard Law School will be the host of a Conference on the Constitutional Convention, a name that has inspired the organizers to call their website conconcon.org. This event’s statement of purpose starts:
From the Right and the Left, citizens are increasingly coming to recognize that our Republic does not work as our Framers intended.
In fact, the Constitution never worked as its authors intended. As soon as George Washington stepped down from the presidency, the Electoral College produced unwanted results: a President and Vice President from opposing parties, followed by the even stranger and more rancorous election of 1800. That led politicians to seek a change in the Constitution’s clauses on governance. The first generation of U.S. citizens knew they didn’t have all the right answers.

The Conference on a Constitutional Convention is intended to discuss the idea of a new convention under Article V:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
(What’s that about “the Ninth Section of the first Article”? Even a convention wasn’t allowed to halt the transatlantic slave trade before 1808—a problem the Founders recognized, and recognized they didn’t have the will to do anything about.)

The conference’s F.A.Q. notes that the closest the U.S. of A. came to a second Constitutional Convention was in 1910, when nearly two-thirds of the states had voted to authorize one so that citizens instead of state legislatures could elect U.S. Senators. That prompted Congress to issue its own amendment language before a convention could happen.

Curiously, factions of the “Tea Party” have called for scrapping the resulting Seventeenth Amendment, which raises questions about what exactly those factions think preserving power for the people looks like.

Be that as it may, this conference is intended to discuss whether a Constitutional Convention can solve today’s political gridlock. I think the gridlock in Congress simply reflects the gridlock in the population, and in most of our own aspirations. With the exception of the presidential election of 2000, all our recent elections have reflected the will of the voters, contradictory and mixed as the results have been. Would a Constitutional Convention be any different?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Harbottle Dorr’s Old Newspapers for Sale

I know it’s early to think about holiday presents, but I just want to let people know that I’d be delighted to find a volume of Harbottle Dorr’s newspaper collection in my stocking.

As the Portland Press Herald explains:
On Jan. 7, 1765, in the middle of the Stamp Act controversy, Boston shopkeeper Harbottle Dorr bought an issue of the Boston Evening-Post and commented on its contents in the margins.

Every week for the next 12 years, he did the exact same thing.

The result is 3,280 pages of newspapers-turned-diaries that give an unprecedented look at the American Revolution as it happened, by someone in the center of it.
Dorr (1730-1794), was a hardware dealer and active Whig, but at heart he was an archivist. He indexed his collection, and often wrote down who he thought wrote anonymous essays; his identifications seem reliable, matching what we know from other sources. Dorr wrote some articles himself as “A Consistent Whig,” and his name pops up in political groups. In 1777, he became a Boston selectman.

Dorr evidently bound his newspaper collection into four volumes. Three of them (now rebound) are owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. (I don’t know how these related to a gift the society recorded in 1798: “The Boston Gazette, twelve volumes, with MS. notes by the late Harbottle Dorr, Esq.;…From Josiah Quincy, Esq.,” future mayor of Boston.)

This fourth volume has been in the collections of the Bangor Historical Society since 1915, one year after donor Dr. Samuel U. Coe bought it at auction. But that society is “on the verge of shuttering because of lack of money,” so it put its volume up for auction on 26 August. That one item might bring in a quarter of a million dollars.

So it would be a very nice holiday present, indeed. I’m just saying.

There’s a jolly essay about Harbottle Dorr’s newspapers in Bernard Bailyn’s Faces of Revolution. Sam Ryan wrote about Dorr’s link to the Boston Massacre. His entire newspaper collection has already been collected on one set of microfilm for researchers.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Real Green Dragon Tavern

We’ll close “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” Week with a visit to the Green Dragon Tavern. That was an important site in pre-Revolutionary political organizing, and it gets its own pin in the website/app.

That building contained a “public house” or tavern by 1714. There are period references to a Green Dragon Tavern in Boston before that date, but it’s not clear they refer to an enterprise at this location.

In 1764 the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons bought this building to use as their lodge. That was the organization of Dr. Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, and other strivers, as opposed to the more establishment St. John’s Lodge. Naturally, the Freemasons kept the Green Dragon running as a bar, too. Benjamin Burdick, who was also captain of the watch for the middle part of town, managed the establishment in the early 1770s under a short-lived new name, the Mason’s Arms. Lots of unofficial political meetings took place there.

Unfortunately, the blue pin for the Green Dragon Tavern on the “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” map is not in the right place. It should be up higher, on the part of Union Street that leads from Hanover to the Mill Pond. The pin shows the location of the modern business that uses the Green Dragon Tavern name.

That’s a common confusion because the modern Green Dragon Tavern desperately wants people to think it’s the historic site. I took the liberty of correcting the opening paragraph on its website, historically and grammatically:
The Green Dragon Tavern [that stood in another spot until nearly 200 years ago] has a long and rich history, playing an important part in the freedom of Boston during the War of Independence. Established in 1654 [actually, that’s four decades before the earliest reference][add comma] The the Green Dragon was a favorite haunt of Paul Revere (Wwhom [but points for using the objective pronoun] we consider a close Nneighbor [even though he lived on the other side of the North End]) and John Hancock [he attended very few lodge meetings after accepting membership] (who’s whose brother lived next door! [if you have to treat Ebenezer Hancock as a celebrity, you’re stretching]). Indeed, as has been ratified [I do not think this word means what you think it means] by Daniel Webster – the famous historian [he was famous as an attorney, senator, and secretary of state], [choose either em-dashes or commas for apposite phrases, not one of each] that it was in the Green Dragon that the plans for the invasion [pretty strong word for the British government sending British soldiers to part of the British Empire] of Lexington and Concorde Concord were overheard [so British officials and military commanders were hanging out with the radical activists in this tavern? I don’t think so. And that’s not even what the myth says.] [add comma] thus starting the famous ride of Paul Revere.
In fact, Revere said he had his committee of observers stop meeting at the Green Dragon in late 1774 after hearing from someone—quite possibly Henry Knox—that their activities were known to the royal authorities. That doesn’t make the original Green Dragon Tavern any less historic, of course. And it doesn’t make the current one any more so.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Peeking into Old South on the Night of the Tea Party

Among the “Political Crisis” pins in the Bostonian Society’s “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website/app are a couple describing the public meetings that led up to the Boston Tea Party.

In 1964, Benjamin Woods Labaree published the first scholarly study on that event for decades Most previous books about the Tea Party had simply presented it as a heroic event, isolated from both the unusual circumstances that led up to it and the bureaucratic reaction. The Boston Tea Party looked at the tea destruction in context, especially its wider economics.

And then, one year after Labaree’s book appeared, a detailed eyewitness account of the Tea Party meetings in Old South was published for the first time, instantly rendering the book’s description of those events out of date.

Of course, there’s other good material in Labaree’s Boston Tea Party. His description of the actual night of 16 December 1773 was, in fact, hazy and too generous toward questionable sources. The book’s value lay elsewhere.

The new document was a report titled “Proceedings of ye Body Respecting the Tea,” written by an anonymous witness and found in the Sewell Papers at the Public Archives of Canada by L. F. S. Upton, who transcribed it for the William and Mary Quarterly.

Jonathan Sewall was the last royal Attorney General of Massachusetts, and his son Jonathan became an important jurist in Canada. Two other reports in the same handwriting described the “Powder Alarm” mobs around their family home in Cambridge in September 1774. Those are marked “Colman,” the surname of some Sewall cousins, so quite possibly a Colman was in the crowd at Old South.

Among the document’s revelations:

  • As I noted back here, Bostonians’ memories that merchant John Rowe had posed a question like “Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?” had been right all along. For decades, historians had trusted the suggestion of his diary (and its editors) that he disapproved of the tea protests. Rowe may have done so, but he wasn’t above playing to the crowd.
  • After Francis Rotch returned from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s home without getting permission to send his ship away, Samuel Adams announced “he could think of nothing further to be done, that they had now done all they could for the Salvation of their country”—quite similar to what his descendants later quoted him as saying. But, contrary to their memory, about ten minutes passed before “an hideous Yelling in the Street.”
  • Then “Mr. Adams Mr. Hancock Dr. Young with several others called out to the People to stay” rather than sending them off to the waterfront. Those who stayed got to hear Young speak for a quarter-hour on “the ill Effects of Tea on the Constitution”—he was a doctor, after all. And then they spent the rest of their lives wondering why they’d wasted their time listening to that instead of going down to the docks to watch the real action. 
  • Among the last to leave Old South were “Mr. Samuel Adams Mr. John Hancock Mr. William Cooper Mr. John Scollay Mr. John Pitts Dr. Thomas Young, Dr. Joseph Warren”—i.e., those are the men we know were not at the docks destroying tea. In fact, they probably stayed behind and kept hundreds of people with them to create airtight alibis. Notably, however, “Mr. [William] Molineux was not present at the last Meetings.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

“Brought in the talk of Whigs & Tories”

Another of the Bostonians who get their own pins in the “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website/app is Anna Green Winslow (1759-1780). We know less about girls in late colonial Boston than we know about boys, and a lot of what we know about girls comes from Anna’s letters to her mother (published as a “diary”).

Here are two passages from Anna’s letters that show the beginning of a political consciousness, against the backdrop of her upper-class social life.

14 Apr 1772:

I went a visiting yesterday to Col. [Richard] Gridley’s with my aunt. After tea Miss Becky Gridley [the colonel’s youngest, b. 1741] sang a minuet. Miss Polly Deming [Anna’s cousin] & I danced to her musick, which when perform’d was approv’d of by Mrs [Sarah] Gridley, Mrs [Sarah] Deming, Mrs Thompson, Mrs [John] Avery, Miss Sally Hill, Miss Becky Gridley, Miss Polly Gridley & Miss Sally Winslow. Coln. Gridley was out o’ the room. Coln. brought in the talk of Whigs & Tories & taught me the difference between them.
31 May 1772:
Monday last I was at the factory to see a piece of cloth cousin Sally spun for a summer coat for unkle. After viewing the work we recollected the room we sat down in was Libberty Assembly Hall, otherwise called factory hall, so Miss Gridley & I did ourselves the Honour of dancing a minuet in it.
Spinning and weaving cloth, rather than importing it, had heavy political meaning at the time. Anna still hadn’t mastered spinning, so dancing was the best way she could honor the cloth being produced in the Manufactory.

I’m not sure Anna’s parents in Nova Scotia would have supported this awakening, though. Her father was a royal appointee, and the family became Loyalists.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Did Anyone Feel That? Like a Rumbling? Anyone?

Most of the articles under the pins of the Bostonian Society’s “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website/app were drafted by students at Wellesley, Suffolk, and Harvard. There were layers of vetting and editing, but those students deserve their credit for starting the process.

One of those pins touches on the Earthquake of 1755. The original article focused on Prof. John Winthrop of Harvard, and his suggestion that the tremor was the product of underground gases and not, as some of his prominent forebears would have said, the anger of God.

The subject doesn’t link to Boston’s political Revolution—the quake came ten years before the Stamp Act, twenty years before the war. But it ties into the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution, the ongoing shift away from theocracy in New England, and daily life in colonial Boston.

Unfortunately, with that focus the article didn’t provide a place to put the pin. Prof. Winthrop lived and worked in Cambridge (I like to think of his house as under the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in the Garage). The map under “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” shows only the Boston peninsula in 1769.

So one of my tasks was to find a way to connect that article to a place in Boston. Surely someone in town mentioned the earthquake. After all, it was…an earthquake! Unfortunately, there’s much less published about 1755 than about 1765 or 1775. Eventually I remembered that John Tudor kept a diary for many years before the war, and his descendants published it in 1896.

Sure enough, Deacon Tudor wrote a few lines about the earthquake. He even pinpointed where in Boston the worst damage occurred! So that’s why the article starts with him, and then zips across the Charles River to discuss Winthrop’s commentary.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Anthony Haswell and Isaiah Thomas

During the preparation of “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website/app, as I recall, someone asked if there was enough information to profile a printer’s apprentice—like Johnny Tremain, but real. So I worked up an article on the youth of Anthony Haswell (1756-1816).

The text under young Anthony’s yellow pin describes how he was born in England, brought to Boston by his father, and basically abandoned when he was a teen. He worked through the town’s Overseers of the Poor to get himself apprenticed to a printer instead of a potter.

Those paragraphs don’t cover Haswell’s later life: possible military service during the Revolutionary War; a return to printing; starting the first newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, with Elisha Babcock in 1782; and then settling in Bennington, Vermont, as postmaster and publisher of the Vermont Gazette a year later.

I was surprised to find no biographical information about Haswell in Isaiah Thomas’s History of Printing in America, first published in 1810. Thomas claimed to write about everyone in the profession through the Revolution. To be sure, he highlighted firsts, and the Vermont Gazette was that state’s second newspaper, but Haswell was a very prominent printer in that state up through the time Thomas wrote his book.

Furthermore, Thomas must have watched Haswell’s career because he was the printer who’d signed up young Anthony as an apprentice back in 1771. During the war, when Thomas was beset by creditors, Haswell even became the nominal publisher of Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy for a while. That episode prompted the only mention of Haswell in Thomas’s History, and it’s hardly flattering:

The printer of the Massachusetts Spy, or Boston Journal, was obliged to leave Boston, as has been mentioned, on account of the commencement of hostilities between the colonies and the parent country. He settled in this place [Worcester], and on the 3d of May, 1775, recommenced the publication of that paper, which he continued until the British troops evacuated Boston; when he leased it for one year to William Stearns and Daniel Bigelow. . . .

After the first lease expired, the paper was leased for another year, to Anthony Haswell, printer. Owing to unskilful workmen, bad ink, wretched paper, and worn down types, the Spy appeared in a miserable dishabille during the two years for which it had been leased, and for some time after. At the end of that term, the proprietor returned to Worcester, and resumed its publication…
Why did Thomas have so little, and nothing good, to say about his former apprentice? I suspect politics was involved. Thomas was a Federalist. Haswell became a Jeffersonian, and not just any Jeffersonian—he was one of the printers jailed under the Sedition Act in 1799 and made into a martyr for press freedom. Here’s a page about Haswell at the Bennington Museum, and another from the Posterity Project.

So Anthony Haswell might not have been discussed in Thomas’s History of Printing because he was too prominent a printer.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Marking the Bounds of John Singleton Copley’s “Farm”

“Mapping Revolutionary Boston” Week at Boston 1775 starts with a look at the “Copley Farm,” one of the pins in the upper part of the map on that website/app from the Bostonian Society and Wellesley College.

That land was property on the western slope of Beacon Hill assembled by John Singleton Copley in the early 1770s, after he’d established himself as North America’s premiere portraitist and married into the wealthy Clarke family. Some of the buildings on that land appear in the upper left of Christian Remick’s picture above.

In 1795 Copley’s younger half-brother (and former model and assistant) Henry Pelham wrote to him about that property:
I now return you an answer to your several inquiries respecting your land on [i.e., facing on] the Common, in Boston, which I have particularly known for upwards of thirty years, having, when a boy at school, almost constantly bathed at the strand upon the western side of it. But from the time of your purchasing the western part from Mr. [Peter] Chardon I have been intimately acquainted with it, having twice had it under my care.

First, in the year 1771, while you were in New York, when I renewed part of the fences, and, with the concurrence of the selectmen, laid out a broad road from George’s Street [Hancock Street] to the water, and planted a row of trees in continuation of those in front of Governor [John] Hancock’s ground; and, next, in the year 1775, when I inclosed the whole with a Portland rail fence, to replace the former fence, which had been demolished for fire-wood by the troops, who, the winter before, were quartered in Boston. . . .

At the northwest corner of the field was a very high, steep cliff of loose, rolling gravel, which made it necessary to run the fence upon the upper edge of it,…both for the safety of cattle and for the ease of fencing. . . .

I can testify that you had such possession till your leaving the country in 1774; that in the year 1775 I inclosed the grounds on your behalf, and held the possession for your use till hostilities commenced between Great Britain and America, when those grounds were occupied by the British troops for encampment and erecting fortifications.
Copley had written to Pelham for that confirming information because he was about to start a lawsuit to get back that land. He had lived in England since a few months before the Revolutionary War began, meaning that Massachusetts’s laws confiscating the property of Loyalists who left during the war didn’t affect him. As agent for his Boston property, Copley had chosen Samuel Cabot, husband of one of his wife’s cousins.

In 1795 Cabot reached a deal to sell that land to the Mount Vernon Proprietors for five times what Copley had paid. At first, the painter was quite pleased. Then he learned that the new Massachusetts State House was to be built nearby. Copley decided that Cabot could have gotten a better price, and might have colluded with the buyers. He sent his son, a young lawyer, to Boston to contest the sale in court, but lost. And that was the start of the posh neighborhood of Beacon Hill west of the State House.

Monday, August 15, 2011

“Mapping Revolutionary Boston” on Your iPhone

The Bostonian Society has unveiled a free iPhone app for its “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website. As shown above, this site uses the 1769 map of Boston as the platform for sharing the stories of people, places, and political events of the town. Clicking on each of the colored pins in the app or website brings up information about what happened there.

I understand the next version of the app will include G.P.S. data, allowing users to match colonial-era locations with today’s crossroads. After all, the city’s topography and street names have changed so much that it’s virtually unrecognizable. For now, orient yourself by the contours of the Common (which hasn’t changed), surviving landmarks like the Old State House, and the fact that the road down the Neck is now known as Washington Street.

I was one of the many people involved in creating content for “Mapping Revolutionary Boston.” (I have neither the skills nor the responsibility for the programming.) For next few days, I’ll pluck some stories from those pins and expand on them.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Sample of Newport Samplers, 13-14 August

This weekend the Newport Antiques Show is hosting an exhibit called “Their Manners Pleasing, and Their Education Complete: Newport Samplers 1728-1835.” The exhibit title comes from an advertisement that Frances Townsend ran for her school for Rhode Island girls in 1787.

The eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century samplers in the show come from the collection of the Newport Historical Society, a beneficiary of the event. They show “the evolution of Newport needlework over the course of a century.”

On Saturday, 13 August, at 11:00 A.M., Prof. Margaret Ordonez of the Textiles Department at the University of Rhode Island will discuss what went into these samplers and how time, mounting methods, and use have affected their condition. She’ll offer advice on storing and displaying samplers.

The image above shows an alphabet sampler with the line “Ann Baker her Piece 1754” at the bottom.

Cell-Phone Tour of Cambridge—That’s Revolutionary!

This is the second and last Cambridge Discovery Day of 2011. I’ll lead a walking tour on the theme of “1775: Cambridge as the Seat of Civil War” starting at 3:00 P.M. on Cambridge Common at the Washington Gate—that’s the stone structure on the corner closest to Harvard Square.

For folks who can’t make that or want more, last year the Cambridge Historical Society set up a website on “Cambridge and the American Revolution,” researched and writen by Caitlin Deneen and Anna Gedal. It highlights thirty-three sites of Revolutionary significance in the city, some for what used to be there and some for what still stands.

There’s an interactive map of the sites; clicking on the dots takes you to webpages with photographs of the historic buildings, if there are any. (It’s clearer to see how things changed between those photos and now than between the 1770s and those photos.)

The site also offers a cell-phone walking tour (P.D.F. download) prepared by Gedal focusing on the public sites in central Cambridge. I’m going over some of the same ground tomorrow, but also going off the map.

(Photograph of the Washington Gate above by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Revolution as A Grand Mistake?

Even more provocative than yesterday’s title is The American Revolution: A Grand Mistake, by Leland G. Stauber, a retired professor of political science at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Stauber recognizes four great advantages to America of how it became independent through the Revolutionary War of 1775-83:
  • The “Great Declaration,” including its prefatory statement of equality and natural rights.
  • Rejection of titled nobility and monarchy, in contrast to Latin America.
  • Early economic independence from Britain.
  • “Early democratization to universal white manhood suffrage.”
But then he contrasts the U.S. of A.’s political path with Canada’s route to what’s basically the same level of freedom and self-government, and asks:
Were there, however, with the advantage of hindsight, also major disadvantages to the train of events that led to the total independence of the United States, as distinct from enlarged autonomy and partial independence, at the early date of 1783 and in the context of armed conflict?
Stauber lists four major areas of disadvantage for America:
  • The dilemma of slavery. That of course led to a bloody civil war and decades of official discrimination based on race.
  • “Legislative union v. Purely voluntary federation.” On this point, Stauber misses the fact that the Articles of Confederation attempted to settle that question by declaring the colonies’ union to be “perpetual.” The Continental Congress actually tried to settle that question; during the early republic’s political battles, some Founders reopened it.
  • The American system’s checks and balances, separate legislative and executive branches, and overlapping national and state governments. “It inherently stacked the cards in favor of conservative interests, including a powerful business community, concerned to block governmental actions. It also ranks low, in international comparison, in capacity for coherent decision making.” [You think?] Most democracies now have parliamentary governments, in which the majority of the larger house also determines the executive branch, so there’s no divided government to gridlock. In addition, Stauber notes that it’s relatively difficult to amend the U.S. Constitution—though producing a comprehensive written national constitution was a valuable innovation at the time.
  • Underlying American mind-sets about the role of government, projecting the specific concerns about the British government’s expansion in the 1760s onto all centralized government.

Stauber discusses the influence of the American Revolution on Britain, the rest of Europe, Canada, and South America. Curiously, however, there’s only one, negative mention of Haiti, whose first revolution was directly inspired by the American example and led in part by veterans of the American war.

I grant Stauber his argument that having a war of independence wasn’t a necessary prerequisite for entering the 20th century as a large democratic republic in North America. And today there are many more examples of such republics with all sorts of different histories. However, his calculations of how things might have been different don’t factor in the inspirational aspect of U.S. independence by 1783. The American republic offered an example to the rest of the world.

If we think about how the U.S. might have developed differently without the Revolution, we should also think about how the world might have developed differently in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries without the U.S. Only then should it be possible to conclude that there was “a grand mistake.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Looking Back for The Freedoms We Lost

Last year brought a couple of history books that looked at the American Revolution from iconoclastic perspectives. I haven’t had time to read and digest these as carefully as I’d like, so I’m going to let them speak for themselves because they raise interesting questions.

First up is Barbara Clark Smith’s The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America. Smith, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian, writes in her introduction.
It is far from my intention to dispute the idea that people gained freedoms during the Revolutionary era. . . . This book proposes something far more modest and (so I hope) far more reasonable. I want to suggest that there existed in colonial America elements of liberty, forms of participation in public affairs, that later generations would not experience. Put differently, I want to raise the possibility that some (not all) colonial Americans were not so much less free than succeeding generations, as differently free.
Smith focuses on the class she calls “ordinary” or “common” men: “free, white men, many of whom owned sufficient property to vote for a delegate to their provincial legislature, but who did not aspire to serve as a representative or provincial figures themselves.”
In popular crowd actions and boycotts of trade, ordinary colonists expressed the understanding that Patriots—significantly called “friends to their country”—were those who put aside self-interest and self-regard to join with the neighbors in common sense. . . . In forming that coalition, colonists of the ordinary sort to worked to establish a broad public jurisdiction over political, economic, and social actions, requiring that all those who aspired to be recognized as “Patriots” renounce aspirations to oppress, that they establish themselves thereby as neighbors and brethren to one another. . . .

Chapter 4 traces both the persistence and the unraveling of the coalition between elite and ordinary Patriots during the years 1776 to 1780. During these years, the common cause continued to depend profoundly on the participation of ordinary men and on their standards of Patriotism. We see this most particularly in popular agitation for sharing the burdens of the war, for equitable pricing and supply of goods, and against the influence of Loyalists within American societies. In these contests, many continued to support Patriotism by the standards and values of neighboring. Yet public debates about popular political activity and the related issue of social and financial policy began to divide the movement.

Like other historians before me, I see a change in the nature of the Revolution around the year 1780. By then, a good many leading Patriots sought to discredit and discourage popular participation, whether by voters or by participants in crowds and committees. Many of the Patriot elite became less hospitable to ordinary men’s participation, as they became more concerned with winning the support of moneyed men.
I certainly agree that the Revolutionary movement was built on a perceived need to protect common or community rights rather than individual rights. Even before the war, Patriots were quick to abridge the rights of their political opponents to speak out, publish, break boycotts, worship as they chose, &c. if they felt those activities damaged the interest of the community.

As for the change during the course of the Revolution that Smith highlights, was that a shift in the movement’s nature, or the resurfacing of long-time class divisions under economic pressure?

Here’s a podcast interview with Barbara Clark Smith by Lewis Lapham at Bloomberg News.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi at Boston Public Library Tonight

I’m going outside the eighteenth century to mention that Dr. Nassir Ghaemi will speak at the Boston Public Library this evening at 6:00 P.M. about his new book, A First-Rate Madness.

Two years back, when I was at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Seattle, I attended a session where Dr. Ghaemi spoke. His topic was the intersection of modern psychiatry and history—specifically, the case of Gen. William T. Sherman of the Union Army, and his history of depression.

As I noted a year later, Dr. Ghaemi had a broader argument: that bipolar/manic-depressive disorder and schizophrenia are found at a fairly steady rate across all societies, so they most likely have a biological rather than cultural basis, and we should assume those conditions appeared with the same frequency in the nineteenth century—or the eighteenth.

In addition to Sherman, A First-Rate Madness looks at Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, King, Kennedy, and others from the last hundred and fifty years. It posits that at times those men’s psychological challenges made them better leaders by enhancing their “realism, empathy, resilience, and creativity.” Here’s the Boston Globe’s review (and an interview with Dr. Ghaemi about his own reading).

Are there similar examples from the eighteenth century? Unfortunately, most of our sources on people of that period describe their moods only when they’re debilitated one way or another, like Lt. Neil Wanchope or Samuel Dana. We know less about mood changes they got through without so much difficulty.

Thus, it’s easy to say that former Massachusetts Attorney General Jonathan Sewall was severely depressed when he didn’t come out of his bedroom for several months straight after the war. But was depression also why he went unusually silent during the Boston Massacre trials of 1770, and the Massachusettensis-Novanglus debate of 1774-75?

Did manic energy, empathy, and a clearer sense of risks help Robert Clive build the British Empire in India? Did depression contribute to his suicide in 1774? And did earlier personal problems—or the loss of his leadership—produce the British East India Company’s fiscal disaster in the early 1770s, which in turn led to a new tea tax and then the Boston Tea Party?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Still Standing in Framingham

From Along the King’s Highway and the Metrowest Daily News, I learned of the following event last Friday:
A Framingham man told police yesterday that he had a “couple too many” before he crashed his car into the Blacksmith Minuteman statue on Union Avenue, police said. . . .

The force of the crash turned the statue 45 degrees, Pereira said.
But the blacksmith was tough enough to survive undamaged. He’s a blacksmith, after all.

According to Framingham Historic Preservation, this Minuteman statue was designed by Henry Kitson, who also did Lexington’s, and executed by his wife Theo Alice Kitson. It was dedicated in 1905 and moved to its current location in 1941, before being moved again very slightly last week.

ADDENDUM: But Universal Hub shows that a colonial-era milestone in Allston wasn’t so lucky, and now needs to be remounted. Charles Bahne tells me:
Despite the date mentioned on the web, it’s a 1729 milestone erected by Paul Dudley, marking six miles from the Old State House. Research I did a few years ago showed that it was discovered in 1916 during excavation of a nearby lot. It’s one of four stones still surviving between Roxbury Crossing and Harvard Business School, all erected by Paul Dudley in 1729. . . . This was the only one of the Dudley stones that was erected this close to the street—all the others are set back behind the sidewalk, some embedded in brick walls.
Dudley (1675-1751) was a son of a colonial governor and former colonial attorney general sitting on the Superior Court when he installed a set of milestones. They can be recognized by his initials or name under the travel information.

Monday, August 08, 2011

A New Old Print Shop in Boston

Last week the Boston Globe welcomed the Edes and Gill print shop back to Boston—but only in its North End edition. So for the rest of us here’s Jeremy C. Fox’s profile of printer, reenactor, and sometime tour guide Gary Gregory and his new educational enterprise:
The sign outside this room just around the corner from the Old North Church reads “The Printing Offices of Edes & Gill,” and inside Gregory offers his best approximation of that historic colonial print shop.

Benjamin Edes and John Gill were the publishers of the Boston Gazette between 1755 and 1775, with Edes continuing for about another 20 years after the dissolution of their partnership. In their hands, the weekly newspaper was an important element in fomenting the American Revolution.

The recreated print shop is a collaboration between the Old North Foundation, which owns this building, and Lessons on Liberty, a nonprofit organization founded by Gregory that offers Freedom Trail tours. To prepare to run it, Gregory learned from master printers at Colonial Williamsburg and acquired two printing presses.

The larger press, which Gregory uses for demonstrations, is a reproduction of an English common press made for Colonial Williamsburg in 1949. The other, which is too delicate to use, was built between 1730 and 1750 and is one of four in the world that survive from that era.
Gary Gregory is welcoming visitors from Boston and points further afield through the summer.

Full disclosure: I’m on the Edes & Gill Print Shop’s “Executive Advisory Board,” which so far has involved no work at all. I’ve known Gary for years, and it’s exciting to see him make his dream of starting a colonial-style print shop into a solid reality.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

George R. T. Hewes Becomes a Celebrity

In 1833 Niles’ Weekly Register reprinted an article from the Otsego Republican about an old man named George Robert Twelves Hewes:
It is not known perhaps to but few, if any, of the American people, except to some of the inhabitants in the county of Otsego, in the state of New York, that a man is still living in that county, who was born in Boston in the year 1734 [actually 1742], and that he is one (supposed to be the last survivor [not quite]) of the little band of patriots who drowned the British tea in Boston harbor sixty years ago. Although now ninety-nine years old, he is generally occupied with some object that requires him to be standing or walking. The average distance which he walks daily, unless prevented by the badness of the weather, is from two to three miles.

On the 4th of July last, he was invited, as has been usual on such occasions, to dine with some gentlemen who met to commemorate the jubilee of our independence; on which occasion he walked to the place where he dined, and home to his place of residence, a distance of between five and six miles. Among the several toasts given during that festival, this venerable veteran of the revolution was noticed by the following.—

George R. T. Hewes, who drowned the British tea in Boston harbor sixty years ago, the noise of whose tomahawk was to tyrants throughout the world as the knell of their departing hour—may the gratitude of his country be commensurate with the glory of that memorable event,” which was echoed with enthusiastic applause.

When it is considered that this man by one memorable deed, has entitled himself to more substantial fame and durable glory than the conquest of the world should confer on its hero, and witness bis present depressed condition, pressed down as he is by the iron hand of poverty, and secluded from the usual civilities of social intercourse, we cannot but be deeply impressed with a deplorable sense of the forgetfulness to which great and glorious achievements may be consigned by the thought less ingratitude of the world.

Mr. Hewes has been always distinguished for his integrity, and for his habits of temperance and industry. Besides being an actor in the memorable enterprise of stopping the progress of British imposition, by the destruction of the tea, he was engaged in the service of his country most of the time during the revolutionary war [actually only some of the time], whilst he had a family to support, and received nothing for his services but paper money, a little better than rags.

A few years ago he lost his wife, with whom he had lived about seventy years, and is now a solitary boarder in the house of a stranger. The destruction of the British tea, an event so interesting in the history of the civil state, as well as the memory of a man so well deserving the esteem and gratitude of his country, well entitles him to a place in the historic page; and it must be gratifying to the friends of American liberty to learn, that a biography of this venerable veteran of the revolution is preparing for the press, with the perusal of which, it is hoped, the public will soon be indulged.
That book was James Hawkes’s Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, published in 1834. It brought Hewes an invitation to be an honored guest in Boston, where he was interviewed for another book, Traits of the Tea Party. His portrait was also painted—a very rare event for a poor man—and is in the collection of the Bostonian Society.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Questions about the “Connecticut Compromise”

The July 2011 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography newly transcribes and reprints James Wilson’s notes from the Constitutional Convention’s Committee of Detail, which transformed six pages of resolutions into a twelve-page first draft of the Constitution ready for further debate and revision. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania also displays images from Wilson’s first and second drafts.

William Ewald and Lorianne Updike Toler of the University of Pennsylvania Law School prepared the new transcription and provided an introductory discussion of how historians of the Constitutional Convention has treated those documents:
Only after the Civil War did the scholarly study of the convention properly commence. In 1882 George Bancroft published the two volumes of his History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America. . . . Bancroft, a passionate defender of the Union, told the story of the convention as a dramatic struggle between the states, pitting the Virginia Plan [representation proportional to population] against the New Jersey Plan [equal representation to each state]. The convention (and, by extension, the nation) almost tore itself apart until [on 16 July 1787], in a very American gesture of reconciliation, a compromise was reached—which Bancroft was the first to call the “Connecticut Compromise.” . . .

The standard historiography, following the footsteps of Bancroft and [Max] Farrand, agrees in seeing the vote of July 16 as the defining moment of the convention and the work of the Committee of Detail as an episode of secondary importance. . . .

It is true that [James] Madison and Wilson both viewed the “Connecticut Compromise” as a major flaw, and many political scientists have criticized it for its violation of the democratic principle of “one-person-one-vote.” But whether one views it as a flaw or as a virtue, it is hard, two centuries after the event, to see it as a major flaw or a major virtue. It has given rise to no substantive litigation; votes in the Senate virtually never pit large states (as such) against small states (as such); and if it were replaced by a more Madisonian principle of representation, the American system of governance would still be recognizably the same. Like the Electoral College or the vice presidency, it is more of a quirk of the system than a central and defining feature.
But that quirk also has major unintended consequences. That quirky Electoral College was made to reflect the makeup of the Congress, with each state getting the same number of electors as it had representatives in the House and Senate combined. This gives small states disproportionate power in presidential elections. Though small states have never voted en bloc, the result can still skew elections undemocratically. In 1877, 1889, and 2001 a President and Vice President took office without, as the Declaration of Independence called it, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Unfortunately, fixing this flaw requires the support of a significant number of the states who receive disproportionately high power. So the Bancroftian story that the Connecticut Compromise was an American triumph lives.

Friday, August 05, 2011

“The fine old Vassall mansion was in gala dress”

Yesterday I quoted the brief passage from Washington Irving’s biography of George Washington stating that his wife Martha overcame his objections and celebrated their wedding anniversary on 6 Jan 1776, while they were living at his military headquarters in Cambridge.

What sort of celebration? Irving’s passage is vague: he wrote of “due style,” and “duly celebrated”? Probably he had no information about what took place, and avoided giving details.

Other writers filled in the blanks. Among them was Mary Williams Greeley, who created the fictional “Diary of Dorothy Dudley” for a book published in Cambridge to celebrate the Centennial. Her fictional diarist says:
Madame Washington has enlivened the monotony of her winter among us by a reception, on the seventeenth anniversary of her wedding day. The fine old Vassall mansion was in gala dress, and the coming and going of guests brightened the sober aspect of the General’s head-quarters. The General and his wife stood in the drawing-room at the left of the front entrance, and there received the company. General Washington’s study is the room opposite, and opening out of this, the one set apart for his military family. These of course were all thrown open for the accommodation of the guests. There was much chatting and walking to and fro, and easy and social manners were the rule. The General does not talk much, but is gracious and courteous to all. His lady is very unceremonious and easy like other Virginia ladies, though there, is no lack of dignity in her manner. Of course simplicity of dress was noticeable,—no jewels or costly ornaments,—though tasteful gowns, daintly trimmed by their owner’s fingers, were numerous. The occasion was a most enjoyable one.
Within a few years, people were treating the “Dudley diary” as an authentic source.

Between Irving and “Dudley,” the picture of the Washingtons hosting a reception—eventually “a grand party”—on their anniversary became a standard part of Cambridge history. It also appears in biographies of Martha by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton (1897) and Helen Bryan (2002), and in biographies of George by Wayne Whipple (1911) and Ron Chernow (2010).

But that whole tradition appears to rest on the unsupported statement of Irving’s source, an unnamed “descendant of one who was an occasional inmate” at headquarters. We don’t know who that informant was, and thus can’t assay the value of his or her information. All we know is that it doesn’t appear to have any support.

(The photo above of Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters in winter comes from Tom Stohlman, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Did the Washingtons Celebrate Their Anniversary?

George and Martha Washington married on 6 Jan 1759. At left are the slippers Martha reportedly wore on that occasion, or a careful modern reproduction, courtesy of Mount Vernon.

The Washingtons’ wedding anniversary always fell on Twelfth Night. On that day in 1776, they were in Cambridge, at the home still nominally owned by departed Loyalist John Vassall.

In his 1855 biography of the first President, Washington Irving wrote of Martha in Cambridge:
She presided at head-quarters with mingled dignity and affability. We have an anecdote or two of the internal affairs of headquarters, furnished by the descendant of one who was an occasional inmate there. . . .

Not long after her arrival in camp, Mrs. Washington claimed to keep twelfth-night in due style as the anniversary of her wedding. “The general,” says the same informant, “was somewhat thoughtful, and said he was afraid he must refuse it.” His objections were overcome, and twelfth-night and the wedding anniversary were duly celebrated.
I’ve found no contemporaneous evidence of this celebration—no mention of it by the Washingtons or others, no indication of a special dinner or ball in the household accounts.

Furthermore, scholars who have examined George Washington’s diaries found no sign that the couple celebrated their wedding anniversary in other years, either. In one year that date coincided with a large number of guests at Mount Vernon, but that was only one year, and it could easily have been happenstance.

Gen. Washington noted the anniversary of Gen. Edward Braddock’s defeat in a letter to a fellow veteran in 1776, but he never mentioned the anniversary of his wedding in his surviving papers. Of course, Martha Washington burned almost all the correspondence between her and her husband.

John and Abigail Adams, who saved almost everything, noted their wedding anniversary in letters in 1777 and 1782—well, Abigail did. But her point was that she regretted how they were apart. The family made a big deal of John and Abigail’s fiftieth anniversary in 1814, a “day of jubilee.” But I’m not seeing mentions of receptions or parties on earlier marriage dates when they were together. Such celebrations don’t appear to have been a common custom.

TOMORROW: Filling in the gaps.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Martha Washington: “perfectly agreeable”

James Duane. Digital ID: 1224407. New York Public LibraryYesterday we left the merchant Christopher Marshall (shown here, courtesy of the New York Public Library) at a “large and respectable” meeting of Philadelphia Patriots on 24 Nov 1775 demanding that there should be no balls “while these troublesome times [i.e., the war] continued.”

This meant that someone had to tell Martha Washington and Dolly Hancock, in whose honor a ball (or “meeting”) had been proposed, that there wasn’t going to be a party after all. Marshall wrote:

a Committee was appointed, immediately to go to inform the directors of this meeting, not to proceed any further in this affair, and also to wait upon Lady Washington, expressing this Committee’s great regard and affection to her, requesting her to accept of their grateful acknowledgment and respect, due to her on account of her near connection with our worthy and brave General, now exposed in the field of battle in defence of our rights and liberties, and request and desire her not to grace that company, to which, we are informed, she has an invitation this evening, &c., &c.

Came home near six. After I drank coffee, I went down to Samuel Adams’s lodgings, where was Col. [Eliphlaet] Dyer. Spent some time pleasantly, until Col. [Benjamin] Harrison [of Virginia] came to rebuke Samuel Adams for using his influence for the stopping of this entertainment, which he declared was legal, just and laudable. Many arguments were used by all present to convince him of the impropriety at this time, but all to no effect; so, as he came out of humor, he so returned, to appearance.

25. At half past eleven, went to the Committee Room at the Coffee House; came away near two. At this time, Major [John] Bayard, one of the four gentlemen appointed to wait on Lady Washington, reported that they had acted agreeably to directions, that the lady received them with great politeness, thanked the Committee for their kind care and regard in giving such timely notice, requesting her best compliments to be returned to them for their care and regard, and to assure them that their sentiments on this occasion, were perfectly agreeable unto her own.
This was probably the first political dilemma of Martha Washington’s life; we don’t have many of her personal letters, but she appears to have left such public dealings to her husbands. Several hundred miles from her home and from the general, she was nonetheless able to finesse this potentially difficult situation and come away with the locals’ admiration and affection.

Two days later, Marshall described her departure:
27. About ten, Lady Washington, attended by the troop of horse, two companies of light infantry, &c., &c., left this City, on her journey to the camp, at Cambridge.
At the end of the year, Washington described her time in Philadelphia for a Virginia friend this way:
I did not reach Philad till the tuesday after I left home, we were so attended and the gentlemen so kind, that I am lade under obligations to them that I shall not for get soon. I dont doubt but you have see the Figuer our arrival made in the Philadelphia paper—and I left it in as great pomp as if I had been a very great somebody
Though it took many more years before Martha Washington became an American icon, she had certainly preserved her husband’s popularity in Philadelphia in 1775.

TOMORROW: The Washingtons’ wedding anniversary.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A Ball for Lady Washington?

Today I’m speaking at another teacher workshop, this one sponsored by Boston National Historic Park at a number of historic sites in central Boston, Charlestown, and Cambridge. I’ll lead a short version of my “Ladies of Tory Row” walking tour, and then discuss “The Women of Washington’s Headquarters.”

The most prominent of those women is, of course, Martha Washington. She’s always listed first, and has the most stories told about her time there—some of which are even documented!

In that spirit, I’m quoting from the Philadelphia merchant Christopher Marshall’s diary about an episode in Washington’s journey northward in the fall of 1775, when she became the unwitting focus of a political dispute in Philadelphia:
21 [November 1775]. In company with Sampson Levy, Thomas Combs, and my son Benjamin, we viewed the inside of the new prison; thence into Chestnut Street, to view the arrival of Lady Washington, who was on her journey to Cambridge, to her husband. She was escorted into the City from Schuylkill Ferry, by the Colonel and other officers, and light infantry of the Second Battalion, and the company of Light Horse, &c.
Some Continental Congress delegates, probably Virginians and other southern planters, started to plan a ball in honor of the generalissimo’s wife. Like the term “Lady Washington,” which eventually stuck, not everyone thought highly of that idea. It smacked of luxury in wartime, as well as threatening to turn a military leader into an icon.

The month before, the Congress had even passed this resolve:
VIII. That we will in our several stations encourage frugality, economy, and industry; and promote agriculture, arts, and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.
Some people clearly saw a ball as a type of “extravagance and dissipation,” or at least an expensive entertainment. On the other hand, folks who were friends with Martha Washington back home in Virginia knew that she liked balls, and she was supposed to be an honored guest.

Marshall’s next journal entry reported the depth of the controversy, and his own efforts to resolve it:
24. After dinner, as I had heard some threats thrown out, that if the ball assembled this night, as it was proposed, they presumed that the New Tavern would cut but a poor figure to morrow morning, these fears of some commotion’s being made that would be very disagreeable at this melancholy time, in disturbing the peace of the City, I concluded, if possible, to prevent, in order to which, I went to Col. [John] Hancock’s lodgings, and finding he was not come from Congress, and the time grew short, being three o’clock, I walked up to the State House, in expectation of meeting him.

That failing, I requested the door-keeper to call Samuel Adams, which he accordingly did, and he came. I then informed him of the account received of a ball, that was to be held this evening, and where, and that Mrs. Washington and Col. Hancock’s wife were to be present, and as such meetings appeared to be contrary to the Eighth Resolve of Congress, I therefore requested he would give my respects to Col. Hancock, desire him to wait on Lady Washington to request her not to attend or go this evening. This he promised.

Thence I went and met the Committee at the Philosophical Hall, which was large and respectable, being called together for this purpose only to consider the propriety of this meeting or ball’s being held this evening in this city, at the New Tavern, where, after due and mature consideration, it was then concluded, there being but one dissenting voice (Sharp Delany), that there should be no such meeting held, not only this evening, but in future, while these troublesome times continued…
TOMORROW: Telling Lady Washington.