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, October 31, 2011

What Do We Want? When Do We Want It?

On Friday, 4 November, the Barker Center at Harvard University will host a symposium on a new collection of historiographic essays titled American History Now.

The first part of the book is organized chronologically. Its essays on the period that Boston 1775 covers are “Squaring the Circles: The Reach of Colonial America” by Alan Taylor and “American Revolution and Early Republic” by Woody Holton.

The second part of the book is organized thematically, with chapters on the U.S. and the world, cultural matters, immigration and ethnicities, religion, frontiers, capitalism, and other topics—all factors that also shaped colonial and Revolutionary America.

At this symposium the scheduled speakers are Lisa McGirr (editor and “The Interwar Years”), Eric Foner (editor), Ned Blackhawk (“American Indians and the Study of U.S. History”), Sarah Phillips (“Environmental History”), Seth Rockman (“Jacksonian America”), and Rebecca Edwards (“Women’s and Gender History”).

The symposium is scheduled from 4:00 to 6:00 P.M. in the Thompson Room.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Vincent Carretta on Phillis Wheatley, 2 Nov.

I hope folks have been enjoying the postings on Phillis Wheatley’s path to publication, and how she was regarded in Boston. To learn a lot more, I recommend attending Vincent Carretta’s talk at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Wednesday, 2 November, at 6:00 P.M., about his new book, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. (Refreshments available for a half-hour before; book signing afterward.)

Carretta has already edited an edition of Wheatley’s poetry for Penguin. This book is, its publisher says, “the first full-length biography” of the poet. “First full-length” is in the eyes of a publisher’s marketing department, but in this case I know the book will have information not in any previous study.

In particular, Carretta has uncovered solid evidence about the black businessman Phillis married in 1778, John Peters. Most of what we’ve known about him came from relatives of the white Wheatleys, who appear to have been somewhat miffed that he became more important to her than they were. Carretta has found documents from Peters himself.

This book follows Carretta’s discoveries about Olaudah Equiano, another very important figure in African-American literature. He found two documents that say Equiano was born in South Carolina, not Africa as described in his autobiography. Not every scholars accepts those documents as more reliable, but Carretta’s book prompted fresh discussion and interpretations of the man.

Carretta also built up the record of Francis Williams’s life as a black man of property and learning in Jamaica, replacing legend and hearsay, as I summarized here. Like Wheatley, Williams became known for his intellectual achievements, making him a symbol for people on both sides of the British-American argument over slavery and racial quality; details about the real person got lost in the shuffle.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

“Phillis Wheatley, the extraordinary Poetical Genius”

By early 1773, as merchant John Andrews’s 24 February letter shows, news had spread in Boston that a London printer was ready to publish Phillis Wheatley’s poems. If there were widespread doubts or hostility about the enslaved young poet, we should expect skeptics to have spoken up in newspapers, letters, and diaries at that time.

Instead, Wheatley’s local profile had grown since the first proposal for a volume of her writing. Her poems about the deaths of the Rev. Timothy Pitkin’s wife and Thomas Hubbard’s daughter were published in 1772 as broadsides with her name attached. Her poem about the death of Samuel Eliot’s baby circulated in manuscript.

On 6 May 1773, the Boston News-Letter reported that Phillis Wheatley had departed for England after an invitation by the Countess of Huntingdon. That was premature, but it reflected how the young writer had become a local celebrity. The next week’s newspaper got the story right:
Saturday last Capt. [Robert] Calef sailed for London, in whom went Passengers Mr. Nathaniel Wheatley, Merchant; also, Phillis, the extraordinary Negro Poet, Servant to Mr. John Wheatley.
“Servant” was colonial New England’s euphemism for “slave.” The newspaper then published Phillis’s poem “Farewell to America.” Prof. William H. Robinson found mentions of Wheatley’s departure in the Providence Gazette, Boston Post-Boy, Connecticut Gazette, and New York Gazette as well.

Similarly, the 13 Sept 1773 Boston Post-Boy reported that Calef had returned to the harbor with four notable passengers, the last being “Phillis Wheatley, the extraordinary Poetical Genius, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley.” The same phrase appeared in the 16 September Boston News-Letter. Other articles about her return ran in the Massachusetts Spy, Providence Gazette, and Newport Mercury.

There’s no question that American and British readers responded to Phillis Wheatley’s writing based on their thinking about race and slavery. Thomas Jefferson, for example, denied any notable quality in what he called the “compositions published under her name.” Jefferson’s insinuation about authorship is clear (even if he would have mumbled a denial of that intent). But there’s little evidence that many colonial Bostonians entertained such doubt.

TOMORROW: The author of a new biography of Phillis Wheatley speaks in Boston.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Wheatleys’ Men in London

On 19 Nov 1772, Robert Calef, captain of the Wheatley family’s ship London, set sail from Massachusetts to England. He carried:

  • a document signed by eighteen local notables attesting to the genuine poetic talent of the family’s slave Phillis.
  • a short biography of Phillis, probably drafted by herself and signed by John Wheatley on 14 November.
  • a manuscript collection of her poems, possibly the same one he had failed to sell in London earlier that year.
In London, Calef met with the printer Archibald Bell. According to a letter that Calef sent back to Boston on 7 Jan 1773, about five weeks earlier the printer has met with Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon and read out copies of Phillis Wheatley’s poems. (It’s possible that Calef got the timing wrong, and Bell read from the new manuscript.)

Calef wrote:
he waited upon the Countess of Huntingdon with the Poems, who was greatly pleas’d with them, and pray’d him to Read them; and often would break in upon him and Say, “is not this, or that, very fine? do read another,” and then expressd herself, She found her heart to knit with her and Questioned him much, whether she was Real without a deception? He then Convinc’d her by bringing my Name in question.
Again, this was a person outside Boston, who had never had the chance of meeting Phillis Wheatley, needing assurances about her talents.

Bell planned to meet with the countess when she was in London that January, and to bring Calef (and the Bostonians’ testimonial) along. Lady Huntingdon was clearly leaning toward letting the book be dedicated to her, which would attract attention, and she had made one request:
She desir’d which She Said She hardly tho’t would be denied her, that was to have Phillis’ picture in the frontispiece. So that, if you would get it done it can be Engrav’d here, I do imagine it can be Easily done, and think would contribute greatly to the Sale of the Book.
That news got back to Boston by March 1773. The Wheatleys quickly commissioned a portrait of their slave, most likely painted by another artistically talented slave named Scipio Moorhead. His legal owner was the Rev. John Moorhead, a Presbyterian minister who had signed the attestation.

On 16 April, the Boston News-Letter carried this new advertisement:
From Printing in London by SUBSCRIPTION,
A Volume of POEMS,
Dedicated by Permission to the Right Hon. the COUNTESS OF HUNTINGDON,
Written by PHILLIS,
A Negro Servant to Mr. Wheatley, of Boston in New-England.

Terms of Subscription.
I. The Book to be neatly printed in 12mo. [duodecimo], on a new Type and a fine Paper, adorned with an elegant Frontispiece, representing the Author.
II. That the Price to Subscribers shall be Two Shillings sewed, or Two Shillings and Six-pence neatly bound.
II [sic]. That every Subscriber deposit One Shilling at the Time of subscribing; and the Remainder to be paid on the Delivery of the Book.
Subscriptions are received by COX & BERRY, in Boston.
Cox and Berry ran a bookstore. Even though this book would include an engraving and be shipped across the Atlantic, its price was about a third less than what Ezekiel Russell had proposed, and thus closer to what Bostonians were used to paying for poetry.

TOMORROW: Boston’s response to this news.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Was Three Shillings Too Much to Ask?

As I’ve discussed in recent postings, Bostonians of the early 1770s appear to have accepted that Phillis Wheatley wrote the poems ascribed to her; the people who voiced skepticism in surviving sources lived elsewhere. Her neighbors might still have refused to buy her first proposed book because of racism, of course. But I suspect there was another factor at work: cost.

In his early 1772 advertisements for the collection, printer Ezekiel Russell announced:
The Price to Subscribers, handsomely bound and lettered, will be Four Shillings.——Stitched in blue [i.e., paperback], Three Shillings.
Those prices were much higher than Russell’s usual offerings. My unsystematic sampling of his advertisements in the early 1770s found these titles and prices:
  • James Allen, The Poem Which the Committee of the Town of Boston Had Voted Unanimously to Be with the Late Oration (1772): 30 pages, “one Pistareen,” or about 1s.3d.
  • Death Realized; Or, Mr. Allen’s Dying Soliloquy (1773): 6d.
  • Isaac Skillman?, An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty (1773): 80 pages, 9d. at first, raised to 1s. ten days later.
  • Francis Hargraves, An Argument in the case of James Sommersett (1774): 56 pages, 1s.
[I can always use this reminder: “12d.” = 12 pence = 1 shilling = “1s.”]

Russell’s catalogue seems typical of Boston printers. In 1773, Isaiah Thomas printed A New Book of Poems for the Rev. Elhanan Winchester, Jr.; it filled 72 pages, and was priced at 1s.4d. I haven’t found the price for Jane Dunlap’s poems about the Rev. George Whitefield, but they ran to 20 pages.

In sum, Russell’s proposed price for Wheatley’s volume was two to three times as expensive as similar material he was offering. To be sure, her book was also supposed to be much larger than the other titles: “about 200 Pages.” So on a per-page basis, it might have offered more value. (Then again, Russell’s length estimate was way off. The London edition of Wheatley’s work, containing considerably more poems, came to only 128 pages.)

Three or four shillings for a book of poetry looks like an unusually hefty investment for Bostonians in 1772. Secular books were already a luxury item; Gloria T. Main’s study of New England probate inventories found that they were concentrated in the top fifth of estates.

In those years I found only one American poetry collection advertised in New England newspapers for a price higher than Wheatley’s. In September 1771, three Boston papers ran ads from Philadelphia printer John Dunlap seeking subscriptions for a collection of poems and other writing by the late Rev. Nathaniel Evans of New Jersey. The announced price for that book was five shillings bound.

Evans’s book had been a tough sell. His former teacher William Smith first proposed it in Philadelphia in January 1770, with a long extract in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. In March 1771, a notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette said the book was “ready to be committed to the Press.” Yet that fall printer John Dunlap was still soliciting orders in New York and Boston. He also printed special handbills.

Evans’s Poems on Several Occasions with Some Other Compositions was finally published in 1772, filling 188 pages. I don’t know how many Bostonians bought copies, if any. (Evans was an Anglican minister.)

It thus took more than two years and advertising in three American cities to collect the subscribers for Evans’s five-shilling collection. Phillis Wheatley and her supporters didn’t wait that long for three hundred orders. Less than a year after Russell started advertising her collection in the soon-to-fold Boston Censor, the Wheatleys had sent her manuscript to London.

A more thorough survey of sources about publishing in Boston in the early 1770s might produce more data and a better picture of how Wheatley’s proposal fit into that economy. But I don’t think we can overlook price as a factor in what her fan John Andrews called “the want of spirit to carry on any thing of the kind here.” And we should also credit Wheatley with as much desire as any other author to seek the best publishing opportunity.

TOMORROW: Phillis Wheatley’s book takes shape in England.

(Photograph of a hand-operated printing press above courtesy of the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, open to visitors in Boston’s North End.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Richard Cary: “The Negro Girl of Mr. Wheatley’s”

When Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote about the life of Phillis Wheatley, he interpreted the “attestation” of her talents by eighteen Bostonians to be “one of the oddest oral examinations on record.” That’s an academic metaphor, reflecting his field.

I spent my first eleven years after college in commercial publishing, so I look at the same documents about Wheatley’s book from a different perspective. I can’t help but interpret them as evidence of an author seeking the best publishing deal, and her publishers doing their best to market her book.

As I pointed out earlier, by 1772 printers in Boston were already publishing Wheatley’s poetry, crediting her for it, and highlighting her status as a young African slave. People in Boston could visit the Wheatley household, or speak to the growing number of people who had met the girl. Ezekiel Russell’s proposal for a collection of her poems tried to dispel any remaining skepticism among potential customers by reminding them that “the best Judges…find that the declared Author was capable of writing” those poems.

But subscriptions didn’t come in right away. And that spring, the Wheatleys heard that Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon (shown above), was asking about Phillis. John and Susannah Wheatley had already hosted some of the evangelical ministers whom Lady Huntingdon had sponsored in America, and at some point Phillis had sent a copy of her poem about the Rev. George Whitefield, who was the countess’s official chaplain.

On 25 May 1772, the Charlestown merchant Richard Cary answered the countess’s inquiry:
The Negro Girl of Mr. Wheatley’s, by her virtuous Behaviour and Conversation in Life gives Reason to believe, she’s a Subject of Divine Grace—remarkable for her Piety, of an extraordinary Genius, and in full Communion with one of the Churches; the Family, & Girl, was Affected at the kind enquiry your Ladyship made after her.
What might Lady Huntingdon’s interest mean for the poetry collection? That year she sponsored the publication of A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself, one of the earliest autobiographies of an African who had been enslaved. Her prestige, and possibly her money, had raised that book’s profile.

At that point, I believe, Phillis Wheatley and her advisors decided that her best prospects lay in having her poems published in London. That would be more prestigious, and the result might look better as well. (Russell wasn’t known for beautiful printing.) As Boston merchant John Andrews later described the situation, Wheatley was “made to exp[ect] a large emolument if she sent ye copy home [i.e., to England], which inducd her to remand it of ye printer” in Boston.

The Wheatleys delivered that manuscript to Capt. Robert Calef, who set off on his regular trip to London. But apparently, even with telling printers about the countess’s interest, he couldn’t find a deal. Londoners, unlike Bostonians, couldn’t just drop by the Wheatleys to dispel their skepticism. They had been exposed to only a couple of examples of Phillis’s work (the poem about Whitefield and her lines on “Recollection”), in a much larger literary pool. So in the fall of 1772, Calef brought the manuscript back.

TOMORROW: The publishing environment of 1772.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

John Andrews: “In regard to Phillis’s poems”

On 24 Feb 1773, the Boston merchant John Andrews, who had signed up for a book of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry months before, relayed news of the project to his brother-in-law in Philadelphia. That letter came back to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and today it’s available for online viewing.

In 1977, William H. Robinson published what I think was the first transcription of the relevant passage in his book Black New England Letters:
In regard to Phillis’ poems, they will originate from a London press, as she was [illegible, blam’d?] by her friends for printing them here & made to expect a large emolument if she sent the copy home [sic, i.e., England], which induc’d her to remand it of the printers & also of Capt Calef who could not sell it by the reason of their not crediting the performances to be by a Negro, since which she has had had [sic] papers drawn up & sign’d by the Gov. Council, Ministers & most of the people of note in this place, certifying the authenticity of it; which Capt Calef carried last fall…
The transcription on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s webpage for this document is similar.

However, in 1989 Julian D. Mason published an edition of The Poems of Phillis Wheatley which transcribed the same letter in a different way:
In regard to Phillis’s poems they will originate from a London press, as she was blamd by her friends for printg them here & made to exp a large emolument if she sent ye copy home, which inducd her to remand it of ye printer & dld it Capt Calef, who could not sell it by reason of their not crediting ye performance to be by a Negro, since which she has had a paper drawn up & signed by the Gov. Council, Ministers & most of ye people of note in this place, certifying the authenticity of it, which paper Capt. Calef carried last fall…
I shared my own interpretation of the letter back here. You can also download a big image of Andrews’s page for yourself.

One crucial difference is the phrase before “Capt Calef.” Did Wheatley take her manuscript back from printer Ezekiel Russell “& also of” Calef? Or did she take it back from Russell “& dld [i.e., delivered] it” to Calef? Andrews used the “dld” abbreviation in other letters; for example, on 28 Jan 1774 he finally wrote: “After so long a time, have at last got Phillis’s poems in print, which will be dld you by Capt Dunn.”

We know that Robert Calef made regular runs between Boston and London for the Wheatley family firm. That suggests he wouldn’t have been in Boston long enough to help sell the manuscript in there. But he would have been (indeed, we know he later was) the family’s agent promoting the project in London.

Then we have to interpret what pronouns mean. Does the “who” in “who could not sell it” refer to the Boston printer(s) and Calef together, or Calef alone? Does the “their” in “their not crediting ye performance” refer to book-buyers in Boston or publishers in London?

TOMORROW: My perspective.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Phillis Wheatley’s Early Published Work

When Ezekiel Russell invited readers of the Boston Censor to order a collection of poems by Phillis Wheatley in early 1772, she was already known in town as a poet.

Wheatley’s verses circulated in manuscript, and some had been printed. Her first published work was a 1766 poem on two sailors who had nearly been lost at sea, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin”; it appeared in the Newport Mercury on 21 Dec 1767. A note in that Rhode Island newspaper described her as “a Negro Girl (belonging to one Mr. Wheatley of Boston).” When Hussey and Coffin dined at John Wheatley’s house and “told of their narrow Escape, this Negro Girl at the same Time ’tending Table, heard the Relation, from which she composed the following Verses.”

In 1770, Wheatley wrote her poem on the death of the immensely popular Rev. George Whitefield. Russell and John Boyle published that on 11 October in two different forms in Boston—broadside and pamphlet. Those editions stated that the author was “PHILLIS, a Servant Girl of 17 Years of Age, belonging to Mr. J. WHEATLEY, of Boston.—And has been but 9 Years in this Country from Africa.” The printers went to the expense of advertising one form (which cost “7 Coppers”) in the Boston News-Letter.

Boosted by Whitefield’s popularity, that poem was reissued by other Boston printers, and by printers in Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and London. It was appended to the back of the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton’s sermon on Whitefield’s death, published in both Boston and London, with the name of “PHIILIS, a Negro Girl, of Seventeen Years of Age,” on the title page (as shown above).

The following year, a Boston woman named Jane Dunlap published a pamphlet titled Poems Upon Several Sermons Preached by the Rev’d and Renowned George Whitefield While in Boston, She alluded to Wheatley’s reputation with these lines:
Shall his due praises be so loudly sung
By a young Afric damsels virgin tongue?
And I be silent!
In 1771, a broadside titled “To Mrs. Leonard, on the Death of her HUSBAND” was published with the credit “Phillis Wheatley” at the bottom. (This is a rare example of her being identified with a surname before she became free.) Her “On the Death of Doctor Samuel Marshall” appeared anonymously in the Boston Evening-Post on 7 October. Some scholars suggests other poems in Boston newspapers, including one on the Boston Massacre, were also Phillis Wheatley’s work.

Obviously, all those printers accepted that those poems were worthy of publication. Almost all gave Wheatley credit for them, highlighting rather than hiding her status as a young slave from Africa. Jane Dunlap acknowledged her as a poetic forerunner.

Furthermore, in nearly two centuries of research about Wheatley, no one has yet found any Bostonian expressing doubt that she composed her own verses. No one wrote to those newspapers pooh-poohing their credits—and Bostonians weren’t shy about arguing in the newspapers. No letters survive voicing skepticism about the Wheatley family’s outlandish claims about their slave girl.

I’m sure that some Bostonians were surprised at the notion of an enslaved teenager who had arrived in America only in 1761 being able to write poetry in the high style. It was a remarkable achievement. But the only person we know put that surprise into writing was Thomas Wooldridge, visiting from New York, and he was quickly convinced.

So where’s the evidence that Bostonians were “piqued” about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry?

TOMORROW: Two readings of one letter.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

“As soon as three Hundred Copies are subscribed for”

On 29 Feb 1772, this announcement appeared in the Boston Censor magazine:
For Printing by Subscription,
A Collection of POEMS, wrote at several times, and upon various occasions, by PHILLIS, a Negro Girl, from the Strength of her own Genius, it being but a few Years since she came to this Town an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa. The Poems having been seen and read by the best Judges, who think them well worthy of this Publick View, and upon critical examination, they find that the declared Author was capable of writing them.
There followed a long list of poem titles, many including the names of prominent New Englanders: the Rev. Dr. Samuel Sewall, Christopher Seider, Samuel Quincy, James Sullivan, and so on. Of course the list included Phillis Wheatley’s most famous poem at the time, “On the Death of the Rev. George Whitefield.”

The notice concluded:
It is supposed they will make one small Octavo Volume, and will contain about 200 Pages.

They will be printed on Demy Paper, and beautiful Types.

The Price to Subscribers, handsomely bound and lettered, will be Four Shillings.——Stitched in blue [i.e., paperback], Three Shillings.

It is hoped to Encouragement will be given to this Publication, as a reward to a very uncommon Genius, at present a Slave.

The Work will be put to the Press as soon as three Hundred Copies are subscribed for, and and [sic] shall be published with all Speed.

Subscriptions are taken in by E. RUSSELL, in Marlborough Street.
Ezekiel Russell was also the printer of the Censor. He had co-published Wheatley’s poem on the death of Whitefield, adorned with the woodcut of the minister’s body shown above. In fact, according to Isaiah Thomas, the Russell shop was known for printing “ballads on recent tragical events,…immediately printed, and set off with wooden cuts of coffins, etc.”

“Printing by Subscription” meant that Russell was ready for advance orders. Only after three hundred people had signed up for copies of the book would he invest the work and materials necessary to produce it—rather like Kickstarter.

The Censor repeated that ad in its issues of 14 March and 18 April, so Russell was still waiting for three hundred orders. And the magazine folded after its 2 May issue, having lasted less than six months. That couldn’t have made Russell more eager for a speculative project.

We know that the merchant John Andrews subscribed for a copy of Wheatley’s book because on 29 May he told a relative:
Its above two months since I subscribed for Phillis’s poems, which I expected to have sent you long ago, but the want of spirit to carry on any thing of the kind here has prevented it, as they are not yet publish’d.
In a chapter of his Black New England Letters, published by the Boston Public Library in 1977, William H. Robinson interpreted that “want of spirit” to mean “racist indifference from piqued Boston whites” who didn’t believe Wheatley actually wrote those poems.

TOMORROW: Testing that hypothesis.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

“I asked if she could write on any Subject”

Thomas Wooldridge was a British businessman who moved to St. Augustine after the Floridas became part of the British Empire in 1763. He got appointed as provost marshal, fort adjutant, and barrack master for the army base, and receiver general of quit rents for the civil government. The first jobs included some work, the latter none. Wooldridge married a local widow in 1768; she died two years later.

In 1769, Gov. James Grant started to maneuver Wooldridge out of his offices, so the man sent a plea for help to the Earl of Dartmouth (shown here). In November 1771 Wooldridge told Dartmouth that the governor hadn’t paid his salary. Since he was writing from New York, having left Florida without leave from his superiors, one can see the governor’s point. The following July, Grant’s successor suspended Wooldridge from his Florida posts.

Wooldridge went to London and tried to sell his positions, but the Secretary at War refused to accept his resignation under those circumstances. Wooldridge kept complaining to Dartmouth, and after he returned to North America he started sending reports on the political situation there. It looked like he had bet on the right horse when Lord Dartmouth became Secretary of State in the summer of 1772.

That October, Wooldridge was in Boston, where he encountered Phillis Wheatley. The next month, he sent his patron an account of their interactions:

While in Boston, I heard of a very extraordinary female slave, who had made some verses on our mutually dear deceased Friend [Rev. George Whitefield]; I visited her mistress, and found by conversing with the African, that she was no Impostor: I asked if she could write on any Subject; she said Yes; we had just heard of your Lordship’s appointment; I gave her your name, which she was acquainted with. She immediately wrote a rough Copy of the inclosed Address & Letter, which I promised to convey or deliver.

I was astonish’d, and could hardly believe my own Eyes. I was present while she wrote and can attest that it is her own production; she shew’d me her Letter to Lady Huntingdon, which I daresay, Your Lordship has seen; I send you an account signed by her master of her Importation, Education &c. they are all wrote in her own hand.

Pardon the account I have given you of this poor untutor’d slave, when, possibly, your precious time may be very ill bestowed in reading my scrawls
Along with his own letter, dated 24 November in New York, Wooldridge sent a letter and verses from Wheatley dated 10 October and a short biographical sketch credited to her owner’s son Nathaniel Wheatley and dated 12 October. (That would later be the basis of the biography that appeared at the start of her Poems on Various Subjects.)

Wheatley’s letter was printed in the 3 June 1773 New-York Journal, along with a further account of Wooldridge’s visit:
A Gentleman who had seen several of the Pieces ascribed to her, thought them so much superior to her Situation, and Opportunities of Knowledge, that he doubted their being genuine—And in order to be satisfied, went to her Master’s House, told his Doubts, and to remove them, desired that she would write something before him. She told him she was then busy and engaged for the Day, but if he would propose a Subject, and call in the Morning, she would endeavour to satisfy him. Accordingly, he gave for a Subject, The Earl of Dartmouth, and calling the next Morning, she wrote in his Presence, as follows…
(Both quotations come the 1988 edition of Wheatley’s works, edited by John C. Shields.)

Thus, we have a contemporaneous account of how Phillis Wheatley responded to a stranger skeptical about her ability to write poetry. We don’t have to imagine the details of a “tribunal” of eighteen Bostonians quizzing her in the Town House.

It’s a bit awkward that the evidence Wheatley produced was a tribute to a British government minister who soon became unpopular with Americans. But in the fall of 1772, Whigs held out hope that Dartmouth would change London’s colonial policies.

Phillis Wheatley composed her verses and letter for Lord Dartmouth just a few days before the date on the document in which Boston’s most elite gentlemen attested to her talents. Both steps were part of her preparations to have her poems published in London.

TOMORROW: Why not in Boston?

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Endorsement of Phillis Wheatley

The belief that eighteen Boston gentlemen sat down together to test Phillis Wheatley’s intellect starts with an attestation dated 8 Oct 1772 and first printed in September 1773 in issues of the Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle and the Morning Post and Advertiser of London. The bookseller Archibald Bell had already stated in the Morning Post and Advertiser that the document could be viewed at his shop.

Later Bell had the same text (without its date) printed in the frontmatter of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, as shown above. The earliest copies misprinted a few of the Bostonians’ names, mostly corrected later in the printing process.

The names on that list comprise the elite of Boston:
It’s an impressive community endorsement. As the London bookseller stated, those eighteen gentlemen were among “the most respectable Characters in Boston.

However, those eighteen men didn’t claim to have examined Phillis Wheatley themselves. Rather, they said they believed that she wrote her poems because, in part, “She has been examined by some of the best Judges”—evidently referring to other people.

In fact, the first proposal for publishing Wheatley’s poems back in Boston, appearing in the 29 Feb 1772 Boston Censor and thus months before this attestation, stated:
The Poems having been seen and read by the best Judges, who think them worthy of the Publick View; and upon critical examination, they find that the declared Author was capable of writing them.
So any “critical examination” Phillis Wheatley underwent to prove that she could write took place before that February date. We don’t know who the judges were, or how many were involved. We don’t know where they examined her, or how formal the test was. We do know that eighteen eminent Bostonians thought that examination—and everything else they knew of Phillis Wheatley—was enough to endorse her poetry in late October. By then, it was clear, she was seeking publication in London.

TOMORROW: One man describes his test of Phillis Wheatley.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

“One of the oddest oral examinations on record”

Early in his lecture series The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (published in 2003), Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offered this image:
Sometime before October 8, 1772, Phillis Wheatley, a slim, African slave in her late teens, met with eighteen gentlemen so august that they could later allow themselves to be identified publicly “as the most respectable characters in Boston.” The panel has been assembled to verify the authorship of her poems and to answer a much larger question: was a Negro capable of producing literature?

The details of the meeting have been lost to history, but I have often imagined how it might have happened. She entered the room—perhaps in Boston’s Town Hall, the Old Colony House—carrying a manuscript consisting of twenty-odd poems that she claims to have written. No doubt the young woman would have been demure, soft-spoken, and frightened, for she was about to undergo one of the oddest oral examinations on record.
At several spots Gates called this meeting a “tribunal,” suggesting a formal or official judgment. He imagined details down to who was sitting where: “At the center no doubt would have sat His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts…”

That wasn’t the first time Gates imagined such an event in print. Fifteen years earlier, in an introduction to a Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley edited by John C. Shields, he wrote:
Sometime in 1772, a young African girl walked demurely into a room in Boston to undergo an oral examination, the results of which would determine the direction of her life and work. Perhaps she was shocked upon entering the appointed room. For there, perhaps gathered in a semicircle, sat eighteen of Boston’s most notable citizens.
Then, too, Gates called the event he described “surely one of the oddest oral examinations on record.” It’s a metaphor that modern academics can easily relate to, but perhaps a projection onto colonial Boston.

Both books credit the work of William H. Robinson, who had published his own collection of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in 1984, cataloguing the different states of her Poems on Various Subjects and tracking down unpublished manuscripts.

Robinson referred to the “the Old Colony House (today’s memorial Old State House).” In fact, pre-Revolutionary Bostonians called that building “the Town House.” (The Old Colony House was a similar building in Rhode Island, where Robinson taught.) Misnaming a building isn’t a harmful error, but like a D.N.A. marker its reappearance in another book nearly two decades later shows how much Gates relied on Robinson’s work and didn’t research Wheatley’s life independently.

Both Robinson and Gates are literary scholars, and their books contain other errors and omissions about pre-Revolutionary Boston. Robinson wrote that “In 1765,…Boston had a population of 15,520, of which about 1000 were blacks, by one count.” The 1765 census that provides the total population figure also reported exactly 811 black Bostonians. Robinson stated, “In the Boston of 1762, Boston Selectmen counted only eighteen free blacks.” Those selectmen were seeking only free black men of militia age, not all free blacks. Robinson misstated the terms of the Quartering Act, mixed up the Old North Church and the Old North Meeting-House, and referred to “the siege of 1769-1770.”

On documents and reports relating to Phillis Wheatley’s writing career, however, Robinson seems very thorough, especially considering how he worked in the years before digital archives. I’m not convinced by all the conclusions he drew—for example, there seems to be a leap from Wheatley receiving 300 copies of her book in one shipment from London to stating that every print run consisted of 300 copies. But I trust that Robinson would have reprinted any report about Wheatley meeting with eighteen gentlemen for a formal examination.

Thus, Gates seems to have come up with the idea of Phillis Wheatley’s “oral examination” based entirely on one document, which Robinson didn’t interpret the same way.

TOMORROW: That document.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Assessing a Big Test

Phillis’s Big Test is a picture-book biography of Phillis Wheatley written by Prof. Catherine Clinton (who’s also scripted the graphic novel Booth) and illustrated by Sean Qualls. It was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2008.

For a picture book, Phillis’s Big Test has a curious structure: it follows the teen-aged poet to a meeting with eighteen of Boston’s most eminent citizens. The main action is thus literally a young woman walking through the streets and thinking. Earlier events in Wheatley’s life appear as brief flashbacks. We never see the meeting itself, nor Wheatley’s trip to London, publication, or marriage and children. There’s no challenge–response–triumph plot as usual.

That text has its heroine passing Old North Church in the North End on her way from home to “the public hall” where she would meet with the citizens. Since the Wheatleys lived near the center of town, and thus near the Town House, the Province House, and Faneuil Hall (all the “public halls” available), such a walk would take her well out of her way.

The author’s epilogue overstates a couple more facts. It says Wheatley “gladly made” the journey to meet Gen. George Washington at his headquarters, but there’s no good evidence for such a meeting, which would have attracted attention; the first claim that it happened appeared in 1841, from unreliable journalist Benson J. Lossing. The afterword also says that Wheatley’s “unpublished poems disappeared.” Some poems known from her advertisements are indeed lost, but several survive in manuscript.

The biggest question I have about this book, however, is its very basis: the idea that eighteen Bostonians made a formal test of Wheatley’s intellect. The men involved include Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, James Bowdoin, the Rev. Andrew Eliot, John Hancock, and many other well-documented notables. To my knowledge, none of those men left accounts of such a meeting. Nobody else in Boston in 1772 reported that it happened. None of the early-1800s accounts of Phillis Wheatley’s life includes that moment.

Nevertheless, Phillis Wheatley’s “big test” has become a standard part of her biography in the last forty years. It’s the central metaphor of Prof. Henry Louis Gates’s New Yorker article “Phillis Wheatley on Trial” and lecture collection The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (both published in 2003). The scene appears in Ann Rinaldi’s Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons (1996), a historical novel. (In contrast, Clinton and Qualls’s picture book gets filed in the biographies for young children.)

TOMORROW: The birth and spread of a meme.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Three Early American Studies

Three items in the latest issue of Early American Studies caught my eye last month because of their Revolutionary-era content:
The Wheatleyan Moment
David Waldstreicher
Despite the recent profusion of interest in Phillis Wheatley by literary scholars, who increasingly recognize her artfulness and her challenge to slavery, she has not been seen as a political actor in real time. This essay argues for her canny timing and careful interventions in the politics of slavery from 1772 to 1784. The “Mansfieldian Moment” in the politics of slavery can also be called a Wheatleyan Moment, when leading whites were forced to respond to the art and politics of slaves and their allies. Wheatley garnered specific and consequential responses from Lord Dartmouth, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. A more interactive approach to the politics of slavery explains much about Wheatley strategies as well as the range of specific responses to antislavery among participants in the American Revolution—responses which cannot be ascribed merely to racism or the lack thereof.

Rattlesnakes in the Garden: The Fascinating Serpents of the Early, Edenic Republic
Zachary McLeod Hutchins
This essay considers the various ways in which writers and visual artists deployed the rattlesnake in order to advance and, later, destabilize nationalist agendas between the French and Indian War and the Civil War. During the intervening century the rattlesnake, with its powers of fascination, evolved into a multifaceted symbol used to represent a wide range of ideas: British colonial unity; American national identity; (white) fears of interracial conflict and miscegenation; and the lingering belief that original sin represented a serious threat to a secular republic whose well-being could only be insured by the virtuous behavior of its citizens. Between 1751 and 1861 visual artists like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Gadsden, together with writers such as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur and Oliver Wendell Holmes, made the rattlesnake a symbol of the national transition from imported art to endogenous culture, from indigenous inhabitants to European emigrants, from innocence to experience.
(Some Boston 1775 discussion of the rattlesnake starts here.)
The First Gerrymander? Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, and Virginia’s 1788 Congressional Districting
Thomas Rogers Hunter
While the term gerrymander was coined following Massachusetts’ state Senate districting in 1812, many scholars have posited that it was actually Patrick Henry who first practiced this art, by designing an unnatural district that would ensure rival James Madison’s defeat in Virginia’s first Congressional elections in early 1789. Historians have ample evidence to buttress such claims, for numerous Founding Fathers bitterly complained that Henry was going out of his way to design a district for Madison’s defeat. Through hard and smart campaigning, however, Madison managed to defeat his opponent James Monroe — thus marking the only Congressional election in American history pitting two future Presidents. This article closely examines Virginia’s 1788 Congressional districting, and finds that contrary to the accepted wisdom, “ingenious and artificial combinations” were not used to design Madison’s district, for it was composed of a compact group of whole counties entirely within the Piedmont region, and bounded on all sides by natural geographic features; Madison’s true problem was not the district’s formulation, but that he lived in an area that was predominantly Anti-Federalist. In fact, Virginia’s entire 1788 districting scheme shows no marks of partisan purpose, for it was both fair politically, and one of the most geographically logical plans in all of American history.
Starting tomorrow, I’ll share some thoughts on Phillis Wheatley and her reception in pre-Revolutionary Boston.

Monday, October 17, 2011

“I have often wished the dissolution of the present Town House”

During yesterday’s ceremony at Old South, I got into a discussion about the spectators’ gallery added to the House chamber in the Town House (now the Old State House) in the 1760s. For the first time the Massachusetts public had a formally designated area for watching their elected representatives at work.

I mentioned a letter about that subject which is now at Harvard’s Houghton Library, written by Dr. Thomas Young to John Wendell on 23 Nov 1766. That was soon after Young, originally from the Albany region, had moved to Boston. He told Wendell, “My Family arrived safe last week all well and I am settled perhaps for life if the people please me.”

Wendell apparently sent Young a report or drawing of the gallery in the legislative chamber. Young replied:
The Gallery so much drew my attention that I have often wished the dissolution of the present Town House on condition we might (at a very considerable expence) have a Structure equal to the most finished playhouse for the conveniency of all that chose to attend the Debates of the house. . . tho’ they cou’d not thunder from the Rostrum [they] wou’d inform [?] and instruct from the Press whence such light might frequently arise as shou’d cause the path of many an honest Senator to appear plain, who might otherwise grope in darkness on many critical subjects hastily controverted in the wisest Assembly.
Why, that’s practically democratic!

Young was clearly an outsider in colonial Boston, to write so highly of a “most finished playhouse.” Not to mention doing anything “at a very considerable expence.”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jasanoff Speaks on Loyalists at Old South, 20 Oct.

Today at 2:00 the Old South Meeting House is installing its new bell, amid a planned peal from dozens of other public bells around Boston.

On Thursday at 6:30 P.M., the site will host a talk by Maya Jasanoff, author of Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. Reviewing that book in The Wilson Quarterly, Nancy Isenberg wrote:
In this smart and gracefully written book, Jasanoff provides an instructive story of how losers shape history. A historian at Harvard, she specializes in modern British and imperial history, and thus easily avoids the pitfalls of seeing the loyalists through the distorted lens of their patriot adversaries. The cast of characters she introduces at the beginning of the book are three-dimensional figures—people who speak in their own words, are fascinating in their own right, and exhibit conflicted views and divergent aspirations. . . .

These disparate personal narratives tell a larger story about how loyalists spread across the British Empire, changing it in the process. Jasanoff exposes the irony that loyalists more resembled their provincial enemies than they did their allies in the British Isles. . . .

Jasanoff forces us to rethink the Revolution's losers. Loyalists parted with vast tracts of property, ancestral homes, and beloved family members. But as they rebuilt their lives, they redefined the British Empire. They came from different religious backgrounds, different colonies, different races and classes. Yet the British government’s desire to incorporate the exiles, and thus to advance Britain’s global objectives, allowed the loyalists to assume a unique position: Fighting to regain their lost status, or in the case of free blacks, to ensure their new status, they became dynamic agents of political change. As a result, Jasanoff concludes, “these losers were winners in the end.”
Prof. Jasanoff’s talk is free and open to the public.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Look at Cambridge’s Christ Church around 1781

One of my favorite schoolboys from Revolutionary Boston is Joshua Green (1764-1847) because he saved a lot of stuff from his youth that other men, and their families, threw away.

We have Joshua’s textbooks from the South Latin School, and his notes on how much those books cost him, and his notes on class ranking, and his almanac for the year 1773. Unfortunately, his papers were spread around among different libraries by his grandson, historian Samuel Abbott Green.

Only this month I learned that a few of Joshua Green’s architectural drawings from early in his college years are at Harvard. The thumbnail image here shows Cambridge’s Christ Church as it appeared around 1781, when it was thirty years old. (Today the congregation celebrates the building’s 250th anniversary.) Click here for the whole collection of drawings.

Friday, October 14, 2011

“Making Fine Music to My Ear”?

Yesterday I quoted a January 1776 letter from William Palfrey about his modified Anglican service in Christ Church, Cambridge. On 30 Dec 1875, the Boston Daily Advertiser published another account of that event, quoting what the newspaper’s editors understood was the transcription of a letter that Lydia Biddle had written on 1 Jan 1776.

It described the service at Christ Church in detail, with particular attention to the music:
Unfortunately, the organ could not be used; some of the leaden pipes had been taken out to furnish ammunition for our men at the fight in Charlestown last June, and it was quite out of order, but a bass viol and clarionet, played by some musical soldiers, led the singing, which was very good, the strong voices of the many men who thronged the church making fine music to my ear; and when part of Psalm cxviii. and a verse from the cxix. was rolled out, I saw some tearful eyes…
As soon as this letter appeared, people wrote to the newspaper to express doubts about its authenticity.

The letter was addressed “To Mrs. Sarah Morris Mifflin,” wife of Continental Army quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin, at Philadelphia. (The couple appears above in a pre-war portrait by John Singleton Copley.) Right away that made me dubious for two reasons:
  • That woman was known during her married life as “Sarah Mifflin.” Not until the nineteenth century did it become common to preserve a married woman’s maiden name as her middle name.
  • Sarah Mifflin was actually in Cambridge with her husband over the winter of 1775-76.
And back in 1876, Boston newspaper readers offered other reasons for skepticism.

There was still no definite information about the source of the letter, however. The Cambridge historian Samuel F. Batchelder spent some time around the turn of the century trying to solve the mystery. In a 10 May 1905 letter, he wrote (with a little pique) about having just learned that it had been composed by a local lady named Isabella James—his own aunt.

James also contributed a nonfiction article to the Cambridge of 1776 volume that included Mary Williams Greeley’s “Diary of Dorothy Dudley”—another literary attempt to recreate life in Cambridge during the Revolutionary War. And, just like the Dudley diary, James’s fiction continues to be quoted as a reliable source, particularly by historians of music. But, alas, our only source on the New Year’s service in Cambridge’s Christ Church is Palfrey’s letter.

TOMORROW: An authentic look at Christ Church from about 1781.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Capt. William Palfrey: “What think you of my turning parson?”

On 2 Jan 1776, Capt. William Palfrey, an aide-de-camp to Gen. Charles Lee, wrote to his wife about an unusual ceremony:
What think you of my turning parson? I yesterday, at the request of Mrs. [Martha] Washington [shown here], performed divine service at the church at Cambridge. There was present the General and lady, Mrs. [Elizabeth] Gates, Mrs. [Eleanor] Custis, and a number of others, and they were pleased to compliment me on my performance. I made a form of prayer, instead of the prayer for the King, which was much approved. I gave it to Mrs. Washington, at her desire, and did not keep a copy, but will get one and send it you.
The reference to the “church at Cambridge” instead of a meetinghouse, and to a proscribed prayer for the king mean that Palfrey had presided over a service in Christ Church. As an Anglican, Martha Washington probably felt more at home in that house of worship than in Cambridge’s Congregationalist meeting.

A mid-1800s minister and chronicler of Christ Church, the Rev. Nicholas Hoppin, examined this document and concluded:
The letter is dated Tuesday evening, 11 o’clock, 2d January, which would make the service to have been held the day before, i.e. Monday, New Year’s Day; but it bears some marks of having been written or sketched on Monday, and copied on Tuesday. The word “Last” stands erased before the portion quoted above: so that the service was probably on Sunday, the last day of the year 1775.
Palfrey’s new “form of prayer” offered a transition from the Book of Common Prayer’s standard plea for the king’s welfare to one that asked God to “Open his eyes and enlighten his understanding, that he may pursue the true interest of the people over whom thou, in thy providence, hast placed him.”

Palfrey also added a prayer “to bless the Continental Congress,” and to
Be with thy servant, the Commander-in-chief of the American forces. Afford him thy presence in all his undertakings; strengthen him, that he may vanquish and overcome all his enemies; and grant that we may, in thy due time, be restored to the enjoyment of those inestimable blessings we have been deprived of by the devices of cruel and bloodthirsty men, for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
This prayer reflected how American feelings of allegiance to the British king were waning, while still stopping short of a total break from royal authority.

TOMORROW: Was there music at that ceremony?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Christ Church in Cambridge Turns 250

In August, one of the stops on my walking tour of Cambridge as a seat of civil war was Christ Church, the city’s oldest surviving house of worship. At the time, however, the building looked decidedly modern because it was sheathed in scaffolding and dust walls.

As the photo at the left shows, that construction concluded this fall in time for the church’s anniversary. This Associated Press dispatch in the Boston Globe explains:
The building, designed by famed Colonial architect Peter Harrison, opened Oct. 15, 1761, two years after Anglicans in Cambridge founded the congregation so they could attend a church closer than King’s Chapel in Boston. The original members wanted to it look like a typical limestone church found in southern England. But, lacking the stone, it was painted tan and the boards were molded to look like masonry to resemble it as best it could.

Members decided the same look would be “quite of a leap of faith” today, Allen said. The new coat of platinum gray paint matches the traditional New England Colonial style, though few colonists welcomed the church when it first opened.

And as the Revolution approached, suspicions deepened about the wealthy Tory congregation and its loyalty to the British crown. The congregants were eventually forced to flee, and the building became a barracks across from Cambridge Common, where the Minutemen assembled before the Battle of Bunker Hull and during the Siege of Boston.

The church did hold a few notable services during the war years. In 1775, Martha Washington, an Anglican, arranged for a New Year’s Eve service, which was also attended by her husband, George Washington, who would become president 14 years later. Then, in 1778, it opened for a funeral for a British prisoner of war who’d been accidentally killed. But this became an occasion for the church to be trashed by townspeople in a wave of anti-British sentiment.

The pulpit, pews and a communion table were destroyed, the windows were shattered and shots were fired — a bullet hole that remains inside is thought to have been left by the outburst.
On 15 October, the Christ Church congregation will celebrate the 250th anniversary of their building. This week I’ll share some sources about its history.

TOMORROW: Martha Washington’s service.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bell-Ringing and Raising at Old South This Weekend

This weekend the Old South Meeting House is installing an 1801 bell in its steeple, and celebrating that upgrade with a series of public events.

Friday, 14 October, 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M.
Meet Paul Revere
The silversmith and Patriot was also an early industrialist whose firm cast the meeting-house’s new bronze bell in 1801. Learn about the art of bell-casting in early America, the history of that particular bell, and Revere’s famous ride. Free with museum admission.

Saturday, 15 October, 11:00 A.M.
Old South Ringers in Concert
The Old South Ringers, a handbell choir from Old South Church (the congregation that once worshiped at the Meeting House), will perform their music for visitors. Learn about the musical tradition that grew out of the rehearsals for church bell change-ringers in the 17th century. Free with museum admission.

Sunday, 16 October
A Bell-Raising Celebration
All the following events free and open to the public

11:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M.
The last chance to see the bell up close before it goes to work, chiming the 1766 tower clock on the hour.

1:00 P.M.
Music and celebratory remarks from:
  • Old South Church Choir
  • Boston Landmarks Orchestra Brass Ensemble
  • Back Bay Bell Ringers
  • Boston Children’s Chorus
  • Rev. James Crawford
  • Hon. Thomas Menino

2:00 P.M.
A crane is scheduled to lift the bell up to the steeple as other public bells in Boston ring out. The meeting-house invites everyone to bring along their own bells and join the choir.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Upcoming Lectures at the A.A.S.

The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester has three upcoming public lectures on different aspects of eighteenth-century American history.

Thursday, 20 October, 7:30 P.M.
John P. Demos
“The Unredeemed Captive: Her Journey, and My Own”

The Eighth Annual Robert C. Baron Lecture

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America was published in 1994, and won the Francis Parkman and Ray Allen Billington prizes in American history. It offered a striking retelling of the aftermath of the 1704 French and Native American raid on the Puritan settlement in Deerfield, Massachusetts. One captured child, Eunice, converted to Catholicism and married a Native American in Canada. Despite the ongoing attempts of Eunice’s family to persuade her to return to Massachusetts, she chose her new life, and her new family, thus remaining “unredeemed.” In this lecture, Demos will reflect on the book’s career, as well as its impact on his own career as a scholar and teacher of generations of early Americanists at Brandeis and Yale.

Tuesday, 25 October, 7:30 P.M.
Joseph J. Ellis
“American Love Story: Abigail and John”

In this lecture, Joseph J. Ellis will recount one of the most remarkable partnerships in all of American history. The friendship and love of John and Abigail Adams is contained in the letters they left behind, nearly twelve hundred of which still exist today. Together, John and Abigail also illustrate the challenges of effecting and winning a Revolution, negotiating peace, and instituting and implementing a federal Constitution—all while trying to keep their marriage strong and their family united. Based on his latest book, First Family: Abigail and John Adams, Ellis will draw upon these sources to study the relationship of this dynamic couple, analyzing how and why their friendship prevailed even in times of doubt and distress.

Tuesday, 15 November, 7:30 P.M.
Carolyn Eastman
“‘Grandeurs wch. I had heard of’: Books and the Imagined World of Travel in the Eighteenth Century”

In the eighteenth century, lavishly illustrated travel narratives became one of the most popular book genres for American readers. These books told the tales of adventurers whose experiences were so dramatic they could seem better than fiction. Better yet, their pages were interleaved with elaborately detailed copperplate engravings that offered still more insights into a world full of strange peoples. This talk will examine not just how those books taught Americans how to think about a larger world, but how men and women in remote American towns and villages learned to consider travel to be an educational and potentially life-changing experience. This lecture is based upon Eastman’s current research on the changing views of gender and sexuality in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. She is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and a 2011-12 A.A.S.-N.E.H. Fellow.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

“A winding and turning; perplexed state of things; intricacy”

From the Boston 1775 agritainment desk, here’s an image from Mike’s Maze in Sunderland, Massachusetts.

Can you identify the American born in 1758 whose portrait has been plowed into this field?

Click on the image for the answer from Mike’s. The maze will be open to the public through 30 October.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Benjamin Russell, thirteen-year-old company clerk

When we left thirteen-year-old Benjamin Russell yesterday, he and some schoolmates had walked out of Boston behind Col. Percy’s reinforcement column on 19 Apr 1775, and stayed in Cambridge while the British troops continued west. At the end of that exciting day, the boys discovered that they couldn’t get back into Boston. And, we can presume, their families were discovering that they had disappeared.

Russell later wrote that he and his chums “could not inform our parents of the situation.” Of course, over the next several weeks people got passes to go into Boston, the two competing military authorities exchanged written messages, and friends and relatives sometimes met at the lines to share news.

Young Benjamin and friends knew how to write. They had just come from the Queen Street Writing School, after all. They were sleeping at Harvard College, where, Russell later recalled, Samuel Hall had set up a printing press issuing “streams of intelligence, and those patriotic songs and tracts which so pre-eminently animated the defenders of American liberty.” They surely could have gotten some pens and paper.

In fact, by late June, according to Russell’s account, the boys had been drafted as company clerks.

It fell to my lot to become the clerk of the company of Connecticut troops commanded by Captain [Daniel] Putnam, a nephew or son of the General [Israel Putnam, shown above]. We were stationed with other troops on Prospect Hill, where the General was in command.
Obviously, Benjamin and the other boys were having too much fun to tell their parents, and risk being told to do something else. They even got to watch some military action. When they heard cannonading on 17 June, they hiked over to Charlestown. According to eulogist Francis Baylies:
Several of the boys…crossed and recrossed the neck during the battle—that same neck over which an American officer told General Putnam no one could cross and live. General Putnam, who was a great favorite with the boys, in his eccentric movements on his “long-tailed Connecticut horse, often came near us,” says Major Russell, “and then we cheered him with an huzza for Old Put.”
But fun like that couldn’t last, as Russell explained:
One day [in August] I was returning from the Commissaries’ depot, with the weekly provisions of the company, having four men with me, and I met my father and uncle, who had just escaped from Boston. My father had not seen or heard of me since the 19th of April. He was so rejoiced to see me, that he was about to shake me for not writing to him.

One of the soldiers took fire—“Don’t shake that boy, Sir,” said he, “he is our clerk.”
Benjamin explained his situation. His father hauled him off immediately to Gen. Putnam. The general discharged the boy into his father’s custody—honorably, he said.

The next day, John Russell took his son to Worcester and indentured him to a young printer who had moved his Massachusetts Spy out there: Isaiah Thomas. (For Russell’s recollection of working for Thomas, see this posting.) Benjamin Russell didn’t officially enlist in the Continental Army until July 1780, at the age of eighteen.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Benjamin Russell’s Busy Day

I’ve previously quoted Joseph T. Buckingham’s account of how young Benjamin Russell (shown here as a dignified publisher and politician) experienced the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Russell wrote his own account as well; it doesn’t seem to have been published, but Francis Baylies summarized and quoted from it in his eulogy for Russell in 1845.

Benjamin was born in September 1761, so he was nearly at the end of his career at Master James Carter’s writing school in April 1775. Baylies’s account:

In the morning, soon after the opening of the town school (which was kept in Scollay’s Buildings [later Scollay Square, now gone]), martial music was heard, and the Regulars were seen in motion. They were soon paraded in Long Acre [Tremont Street], and the line extended from the head of the Mall [Park Street] to the head of Queen [Court] Street, facing which was the school-house. Lord Percy, mounted on a white horse, was busy in arranging the column. . . .

When these movements were seen, Master Carter sent out one of the boys for information. It came full soon. The British had fallen on the Americans at Lexington, killed several, and sent for a reinforcement. [It seems too soon for Bostonians to have heard about the shooting at Lexington, but they did know of the departure of an earlier column of royal troops, so Percy’s mission was clear.]

Master Carter then said: “Boys, war has begun; the school is broken up.” This announcement was received with three cheers, and the boys, having gained their own freedom, sallied forth to see whether the men would gain theirs.

They followed in the rear of the column, when the British took up the line of march, and at Roxbury, through the courtesy of the Provost Marshal, (an unwonted quality in such characters,) they were permitted to pass the fortifications, and followed as far as the Colleges in Cambridge. The boys being wearied, rested on the Common, and Lord Percy’s column proceeded through West Cambridge to Lexington.

The boys remained in play on the common until near sunset, and as the firing then appeared to be near, they ascended a rising ground and saw the British army, followed by the Americans, in full retreat. They heard the whistling of the bullets, but…knew not what it meant, until they were informed by Farmer Hastings, of Cambridge [probably Jonathan Hastings, not a farmer but steward of Harvard College], that they were in danger.

They descended, regained the Cambridge road, and began to think of eating, for since breakfasting they had taken no food. On an examination, they found their pockets nearly as empty as their stomachs, but through the kindness of Mr. Hastings, they obtained a supper, and lay down to their rest in one of the colleges, and amidst the din of arms they slept the sleep which heaven in its mercy sends to the weary and the young.
According to Russell himself, the boys awoke with “nothing to regret except that, owing to the closeness of the siege, we could not inform our parents of our situation.”

TOMORROW: Do the Russells ever find young Benjamin?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Leventhal Map Center Finding Its Way to New Location

On 22 October, the Leventhal Map Center will reopen to the public in the older McKim wing of the Boston Public Library.

The photo above, from the Boston Globe, shows executive director Janet Spitz in front of a feature of that new space: a map of Boston in 1775 enlarged on glass by the Lynn Hovey Studio. The original is credited to Lt. Richard Williams of His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot.

In the meantime, check out the center’s Flickr collection as well as its online catalogue.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

“We have an interest in the efficacy of agency”

In a book review titled “Wild Thing” in the 14 Mar 2011 New Yorker, Harvard professor Louis Menand wrote:

There is history in the way Tolstoy imagined it, as a great, slow-moving weather system in which even tsars and generals are just leaves before the storm. And there is history the way Hollywood imagines it, as a single story line in which the right move by the tsar or the wrong move by the general changes everything.

Most of us, deep down, are probably Hollywood people. We like to invent “what if” scenarios—what if x had never happened, what if y had happened instead?—because we like to believe that individual decisions make a difference: that, if not for x, or if only there had been y, history might have been plunged forever down a completely different path. Since we are agents, we have an interest in the efficacy of agency.

Stories of intelligence operations, of espionage and covert warfare, sabotage and assassination plots have a lot of “what if” fascination about them. There is always the hope that one ingenious plan, one stolen document, or one successful assassination might change the course of history.
Which tempts us to treat espionage operations as especially significant historical events. Who knows what enemy operations they might have prevented?

I’ve been digging into George Washington’s espionage efforts during the siege of Boston, and, sad to say, they really don’t seem to have made that much difference in the course of the campaign. They obviously caused a lot of drama for the individuals involved, but from a distance those folks look like leaves whirling around in the wind but not traveling very far.