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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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Benjamin Carp on Revolutionary Networking in Newton, 13 Feb.

On Monday, 13 February, at 7:00 P.M., Prof. Benjamin Carp of Tufts will speak on “‘Our United Sentiments’: Boston, Newton, and the Cause of Liberty” at the Newton Free Library. The library’s description:
Boston is famous as the vanguard of the American Revolution—but the Revolution would have been impossible without the men and women of rural Massachusetts. This talk explores the revolutionary network that linked Boston and its neighbors, including Newton. The leaders of the resistance against Great Britain made a massive effort to galvanize Massachusetts. The Durant family and their community offer a window into the inner workings of the Revolution.
This talk is free and open to the public.

I like how that description treats Newton as a typical example among rural towns rather than trying to make a case that it was special. Every so often Boston 1775 has taken issue with a Massachusetts town’s claims of unusual Revolutionary significance, whether it’s having a large militia contingent or hoisting a rare flag or being the resting-place of Benedict Arnold’s widow.

All those towns participated in the Revolutionary movement, to be sure. Some did have distinctions. But too often local authors haven’t realized or acknowledged how many towns reacted to British imperial policy in much the same way. It was that rural solidarity which made the movement so powerful.

(The handsome image of the stairwell in the Newton Free Library above comes from Elisif Photography, specializing in architectural images.)

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Profile of Andrew Craigie

Harvard’s alumni magazine recently ran Anthony J. Connors’s story about Andrew Craigie (1754-1821). He had no real connection to the college, but lived nearby and was crucial in developing the east part of Cambridge.

Connors describes the start of Craigie’s career supplying the Continental Army with medicines and medical supplies:
The son of a Scottish ship captain and his Nantucket wife, Craigie attended Boston Latin, and by April 1775 had gained sufficient pharmaceutical experience to be appointed apothecary of the Massachusetts army. After tending the wounded at Bunker Hill, he was introduced to Samuel Adams as “a very clever fellow,” and his name came to the attention of General George Washington; he was commissioned Apothecary General in 1777.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress actually gave Craigie his first appointment in the spring of 1775. At the time he was only twenty-one years old, and I’d love to know what connections he had to get that important and lucrative post. Washington never met him during the siege of Boston, or at least didn’t remember him when he wrote a letter a few years later.

Craigie was on the job for Massachusetts when the Continental Congress decided to take over the colony’s hospitals. The Congress’s first Surgeon-General was Dr. Benjamin Church, who lasted less than two months before he was found to be corresponding with the enemy. The Congress then sent Dr. John Morgan from Philadelphia to take over. Morgan wanted to replace Craigie with his own protégé, but the young man from Boston outmaneuvered and outlasted his boss, enlisting support from the hospital’s young doctors—one of whom was Samuel Adams’s son. Talk about connections!

After the war, Craigie bought the house that Gen. Washington had used as his main headquarters in Cambridge. He expanded it, entertained lavishly, and started to invest in local real estate. Connors continues the story:
Craigie’s development of East Cambridge left an indelible mark. With partners, he secretly bought up 300 acres around Lechmere Point: farms and marshland became a vibrant residential and industrial area, especially after Craigie persuaded Middlesex County authorities to relocate the county court from Harvard Square to a new Charles Bulfinch building in East Cambridge. In 1809, he and his associates completed construction of Craigie Bridge, connecting Cambridge to Boston. His rerouting of roads to steer traffic toward his toll bridge did not enhance his popularity.
But then everything came crashing down. Read Connors’s story for the rest.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

My “Marital Infidelity and Espionage” at the M.H.S., 7 February

On Tuesday, 7 February, the Boston Area Early American History Seminar will meet at the Massachusetts Historical Society to discuss my paper “Marital Infidelity and Espionage in the Siege of Boston.”

The description:
This paper will examine patterns in the popular linkage between marital and political infidelities over a range of espionage cases from the start of the Revolutionary War. Drawing on new findings about such spies as Dr. Benjamin Church, Benjamin Thompson, and the Rev. John Carnes, it will address the topic from multiple perspectives, including actual cases, the use of marital disloyalty as a metaphor for political disloyalty, and how stories of family splits were hidden, preserved, or retold.

Each side of the political conflict tried to portray the other’s leaders, up to and including Thomas Gage and George Washington, as unfaithful husbands. Betrayal in the home, such reports suggested, led to betrayal of the public. Some men involved in espionage did indeed make a habit of extramarital affairs, but others appear to have undertaken their risky ventures to support their wives and children. Both at the time and in later generations, Americans have been selective about which family splits they recorded, and thus which side’s agents appeared most treacherous.
In addition to the names dropped above, the paper discusses Henry Knox (shown above) and his in-laws and the shadowy past of the American artillerist Thomas Machin. And in the final version I focused just on people secretly providing intelligence for the American side, so Benjamin Thompson, always a slippery fellow, escaped into a footnote.

As usual in this seminar series, the paper will be available at the M.H.S. for reading in advance. The seminar begins at 5:15 P.M. with Prof. Robert Allison of Suffolk University commenting on my draft. Then there will be a more general discussion with everyone invited to participate, followed by sandwiches. The society asks people to email if you plan to attend so they know approximately how many sandwich fixings to put out. I look forward to chatting with folks there!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A House in Beverly and Its Revolutionary Owner

In Beverly, a developer has offered a 1715 house to anyone who will move it away from its present location, where the firm plans to build a drugstore. The Salem News reported that offer this month, describing the house like this:
Built in 1715, it is one of the last remaining First Period homes from Beverly’s earliest settlement. It was the home of Nathaniel Greenwood, a captain in the militia and a member of the Sons of Liberty, a group of patriots that included John Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere.
An earlier article described the building’s history in more detail:
The wood-frame house was built by a shoemaker named Nehemiah Wood between 1715 and 1725 and was later owned by Nathaniel Greenwood, an officer in the Boston Regiment. The building was a grocery store in the early 1900s. It was bought by Johnny Appleseed’s in 1947 and became the clothing company’s headquarters.
It’s currently a real-estate office.

As for former owner Nathaniel Greenwood, the articles appear to be combining two men of that name, father and son. The son owned the house and kept an inn there for a while later in the eighteenth century. He was born in 1732, married Priscilla Snelling of Boston in 1766, and moved out of town during the war. Later he returned to Boston, established a sail-making business, and died in 1823.

The older Nathaniel Greenwood was born in 1693 and became a merchant, militia captain, town official, and Old South member. Everyone seemed to know who “Captain Greenwood” was. He died in 1780, having lived his last couple of years with his son in this Beverly house.

Much of the information about the family comes from The Greenwood Family of Norwich, England in America (1934), and I can’t confirm a lot of it. The genealogy says, “Nathaniel Greenwood belonged to the ‘North End Caucus’, the most important political club in the town at the time.” But I don’t see that name in the only surviving records of that group, published in Elbridge Goss’s Life of Col. Paul Revere.

The name of “Capt. Greenwood” is indeed on the long list of men who dined with the Sons of Liberty in August 1769. This was a large event that involved most of the prominent men in Boston. Some of those diners later became Loyalists, others Patriots.

The Greenwood family included men in both political camps. The captain’s son-in-law John Marston was a fairly prominent Whig. Yet the captain’s son Samuel Greenwood (1741-1826) joined the Sandemanian sect, which preached against rebellion, and became a Loyalist. (Interestingly, Samuel’s second wife was another Snelling. The captain had been business partner with their father.)

In the spring of 1774, Nathaniel Greenwood, Sr., signed a complimentary address to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson as he prepared to sail to England. He also signed a protest against actions of the Whig-dominated town meeting. That put the octogenarian captain into the Loyalist camp, at least that year. [ADDENDUM: In late 1773, during the tea crisis, Greenwood was one of the liaisons between the public meetings and the governor’s sons, who were tea importers.]

When the British military left Boston in 1776, Samuel Greenwood and his family sailed with them. But his brother Nathaniel stayed behind, and the old captain evidently stayed with him. They moved out of Boston, eventually settling in that house in Beverly. So saying that building was home to “a member of the Sons of Liberty” makes a complex picture too simple. But a muddle doesn’t sell buildings.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Intimate Acquaintance

After Abigail Adams learned the details of Dr. Benjamin Church’s correspondence with the British command, conducted at one point through his mistress, she wrote to her husband in Philadelphia:
What are your thoughts with regard to Dr. Church? Had you much knowledg of him? I think you had no intimate acquaintance with him.
This is the sort of query for which there’s really only one acceptable answer. It’s not, “We worked together for years as political organizers, and everyone kept quiet about his mistresses.” It’s, “I barely knew the man, honey.”

(By the time John Adams received that letter, he’d actually already sent Abigail his thoughts about the “detestible Subject” of Dr. Church, so he got the answer right.)

On Sunday, 5 February, at 2:00 P.M. the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury will host a performance of “The Intimate Correspondence of John and Abigail Adams,” based on letters like that one. The press release says:
Today, over 230 years later, we can still listen to their conversations, share in their thoughts and desires, and get to know them as real people, not just as words in a history textbook. During the “Love Letters” presentation, the audience will hear letters that began with John’s and Abigail’s courtship, and continuing through John’s years at the Continental Congress. Enjoy these iconic personalities as they reveal their teasing humor, their pleasure in children and farm, their deepest hopes for the future, and their undying love and respect for each other.

“Love Letters” will be presented by two Adams scholars and living history performers—Patricia Bridgman and Thomas Macy—who have over forty years of living history experience between them.
After the show, there will be a question-and-answer session in character and refreshments. Admission is $10 for the general public, $5 for members of the Shirley-Eustis House Association. Call 617-442-2275 to reserve seats.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Occupy the Royall Estate

Maj. Andrew McClary of New Hampshire was the highest-ranking American officer killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. After his death on 17 June, the New Hampshire Provincial Congress received an expense account from his estate that included payment “To Horse-keeping six weeks at Colonl. Royall’s.”

That’s one contemporaneous source showing that Col. John Stark’s New Hampshire regiment started using Isaac Royall’s estate in Medford within a short time after arriving at the siege lines outside Boston.

In his Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark, published in 1860, Caleb Stark told this story of how his ancestor had come to use that mansion:
a gentleman named “Royal,” who, on retiring to the city [Boston], had left his lady, with a family of beautiful and accomplished daughters, in possession of his abode. The mansion being conveniently situated for his “head quarters,” Colonel Stark called upon the family, and proposed, if agreeable to them, his occupancy of a few rooms for that purpose; to which Madame Royal most cheerfully assented, being well aware that the presence of an officer of his rank would afford her family and premises the best protection against any possible insult or encroachment
That all sounds mighty chivalric, doesn’t it?

The problem with that story is that Isaac Royall (1719?-1781) was a widower. His “lady” Elizabeth had died in 1770. Their daughters Mary, Elizabeth, and Miriam (the first two shown above, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts) had all married before the war.

Col. Stark probably just invoked military necessity and moved into the house that Isaac Royall had left behind in April. Later in the siege, Gen. Charles Lee and Gen. John Sullivan also slept in the Royall House until Gen. George Washington firmly suggested they should be closer to the front lines. Today it’s maintained by the Royall House and Slave Quarters Association and often hosts events of the Medford Historical Society.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Symposium on the Deerfield Raid, 3 March

On Saturday, 3 March, Historic Deerfield will host a one-day symposium on “Exploring the 1704 Deerfield Raid.” This event will take place from 8:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. at the Deerfield Community Center.

The scheduled speakers are:
  • John Demos, Samuel Knight Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University.
  • William M. Fowler, Jr., Northeastern University, Distinguished Professor of History.
  • Alice Nash, Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
  • R. Scott Stephenson, Director of Collections and Interpretation, American Revolution Center.
  • Kevin Sweeney, Professor of History at Amherst College.
  • Philip Zea, President of Historic Deerfield.
Demos wrote The Unredeemed Captive. Sweeney cowrote Captors and Captives, which I really liked. Stephenson’s talk is titled “From Deerfield to Deerslayer: Borderlands Conflict and the Origins of the American Rifleman.” I know other speakers and think it’s an impressive lineup.

Participants will receive a copy of a new “1704 Raid Walking Tour,” and can view the Flynt Center’s new exhibit “Furnishing the Frontier: The Material World of the Connecticut River Valley, 1680-1720.” I’d also stop in at the Memorial Hall Museum because I think it’s done a good job of updating its display on the raid, preserving the older form while reflecting modern understandings.

Pre-registration is required to attend the symposium. The registration fee is $75 ($65 for Historic Deerfield members and school teachers, who can also receive P.D.P.’s). Visit the website at top for more information and online registration. Folks can also reserve a space by email or by calling Julie Marcinkiewicz at 413-775-7179.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Anna Lætitia Barbauld: “The awe this day struck into me”

Anna Lætitia Barbauld (1743-1825) was a writer, teacher, and minister’s wife in England. She moved in circles of religious and political dissenters, and was acquainted with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is the last part of Barbauld’s poem “Washing Day,” first published in the Monthly Magazine of December 1797. It’s an evocative slice of life, showing a moment when laundry day meant all the women in a household were busy and little girls weren’t allowed jelly or butter, yet science was about to let people fly:
I well remember, when a child, the awe
This day struck into me; for then the maids,
I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;
Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope
Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,
Relique of costly suppers, and set by
For me their petted one; or butter’d toast,
When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale
Of ghost, or witch, or murder — so I went
And shelter’d me beside the parlour fire:
There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,
Tended the little ones, and watched from harm,
Anxiously fond, tho’ oft her spectacles
With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins
Drawn from her ravell’d stocking, might have sour’d
One less indulgent. —
At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,
Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,
All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,
To fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
Then would I sit me down, and ponder much
Why washings were. Sometimes thro’ hollow bowl
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles, little dreaming then
To see, Mongolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds — so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air, and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them — this most of all.
Read the whole poem here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The New Sexual Freedom of the 1700s

Larry Cebula at Northwest History alerted me to this interesting extract in the Guardian from The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala. Although Dabhoiwala focused on life in England, some of the findings would also apply to eighteenth-century America, even New England:
The most obvious change was a surge in pre- and extramarital sex. We can measure this, crudely but unmistakably, in the numbers of children conceived out of wedlock. During the 17th century this figure had been extremely low: in 1650 only about 1% of all births in England were illegitimate. But by 1800, almost 40% of brides came to the altar pregnant, and about a quarter of all first-born children were illegitimate. It was to be a permanent change in behaviour.

Just as striking was the collapse of public punishment, which made this new sexual freedom possible. By 1800, most forms of consensual sex between men and women had come to be treated as private, beyond the reach of the law. This extraordinary reversal of centuries of severity was partly the result of increasing social pressures. The traditional methods of moral policing had evolved in small, slow, rural communities in which conformity was easy to enforce. Things were different in towns, especially in London. . . .

Urban living provided many more opportunities for sexual adventure. It also gave rise to new, professional systems of policing, which prioritised public order. Crime became distinguished from sin. And the fast circulation of news and ideas created a different, freer and more pluralist intellectual environment.

This was crucial to the development of the ideal of sexual freedom. By the later 18th century, for the first time, many serious observers had come to take it for granted that sex was a private matter, that men and women should be free to indulge in it irrespective of marriage, and that sexual pleasure should be celebrated as one of the purposes of life. As well as reinterpreting the Bible, they found support in new ideas about the importance of personal conscience and in the laws of nature, which were regarded as more clearly indicative of God’s will than the inherited dogma of the church and the text of the scriptures. In his 1730 work, Christianity as Old as the Creation, the Oxford don Matthew Tindal ridiculed traditional sexual norms as priestly inventions, no more appropriate to a modern state than the biblical prohibitions against drinking blood or lending money: “Enjoying a woman, or lusting after her, can’t be said, without considering the circumstances, to be either good or evil. That warm desire, which is implanted in human nature, can’t be criminal, when perused after such a manner as tends most to promote the happiness of the parties, and to propagate and preserve the species.” . . .

It’s no accident that all these early celebrations of the new sexual world were voiced by white, upper-class men. In practice, sexual liberty was limited in important ways. The bastardy laws continued to apply to the labouring classes: their morals remained a public matter. The new permissiveness towards “natural” freedoms also led to a sharper definition and abhorrence of supposedly “unnatural” behaviour. . . .

James Boswell’s diary records the tragic story of Jean, the brilliant only daughter of Henry Home, Lord Kames, one of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. In the early 1760s, when she was only 16 or 17 and already married, she embarked on a passionate affair with Boswell, arguing to him that they were doing nothing wrong:

“She was a subtle philosopher. She said, ‘I love my husband as a husband, and you as a lover, each in his own sphere. I perform for him all the duties of a good wife. With you, I give myself up to delicious pleasures. We keep our secret. Nature has so made me that I shall never bear children. No one suffers because of our loves. My conscience does not reproach me, and I am sure that God cannot be offended by them.’”

A decade later, when her husband divorced her over another affair, she declared “that she hoped that God Almighty would not punish her for the only crime she could charge herself with, which was the gratification of those passions which he himself had implanted in her nature.” But her father, the scholar and moral authority, took the conventional view that adultery in a man “may happen occasionally, with little or no alienation of affection”, but in a woman was unpardonable. After his daughter’s divorce, he and Lady Kames exiled her to France and never saw her again.
Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex is being published in the U.S. of A. by Oxford University Press in May.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The End of Gov. Bowdoin’s Dinner Party

Boston saw its first worthwhile snowstorm of the season this weekend, so I’m pulling out an anecdote that real-estate lawyer Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch (1805-1861) published under the pseudonym “The Gleaner” in the Boston Daily Transcript in 1855. It concerns Gov. James Bowdoin and his mansion on Beacon Hill:
The house [was…] placed back from the street, being approached by a high flight of stone steps. At a dinner party once…a rain occurred, and the weather becoming cold the steps were found to be entirely covered with ice.

Under any circumstances there would have been almost a certainty that life or limb would be put in jeopardy by an attempt to walk down; and the guests had probably done justice to the generous wines of their host,—a circumstance which tended to increase the difficulty. At last they all concluded to sit down on the upper step, and so hitch along from step to step in a perfectly safe, though, it must be confessed, in a somewhat ungraceful manner.

Probably, indeed, there never was an occasion where so many of our first citizens voluntarily took such low seats; or where the dignity of small clothes, silk stockings, and cocked hats was sacrificed to necessity or expediency in a more amusing manner.
Bowdoin was governor in 1785-87 and died in 1790, so this event—or whatever gave rise to the memory—probably occurred in that decade.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Actors Wanted for Tea Party Museum

The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum organization is looking for actors for its opening season this summer. And the organization is advertising on Craigslist. The notice says:
The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum is dedicated to reliving the historic night of the Boston Tea Party. The museum will be a multilayered experience that will feature interactive exhibits, live historical performance, and historical artifacts. The site will also feature three historically accurate colonial ships which our guests will be free to explore.

We are looking to create an ensemble of actors to portray historical characters throughout the experience and to serve as hosts to our guests as they explore the attraction. Each actor will perform multiple roles. Must be comfortable working with and leading large groups of people. Prior performance experience, experience in improvisation, and an interest in history strongly preferred.
The museum invite hopefuls to email for an appointment and “prepare a one-minute monologue that is appropriate for a historical performance.” Auditions begin 13 February, training in early April, and the museum opening on 25 June.

I believe the museum is opening with only one ship at first, or maybe two. According to the museum website, the third is still in the drawing stage. The Boston Tea Party Museum blog shows progress on the building and its exhibits. I’m really not sure why there will be a statue of John Parker, captain of the Lexington militia in 1775, but he does have nice shoes.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Running the Numbers in 1776

While I was confirming some figures in Charles H. Lesser’s The Sinews of Independence, a Bicentennial book collecting the best records of the size of the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War, I spotted a couple of curious trends.

We often think of the first American invasion of British Canada as coming to a spectacular end in the attack on Québec on 31 Dec 1775. Gen. Richard Montgomery was killed; Col. Benedict Arnold wounded; Capt. Daniel Morgan, Capt. Henry Dearborn, and many other men captured. (John Trumbull’s painting of Montgomery’s death above.)

But the Continental Congress actually ordered more troops north after that battle. In late February 1776, Arnold (now a brigadier general) reported having 1,290 soldiers under his command, of whom 964 were able to fight. The next month, that number had grown to 2,505 men, with 1,719 in shape. The invasion of Canada outlasted the siege of Boston. But it doesn’t have a good narrative shape, with a long, dreary second act.

Meanwhile, Col. Henry Knox was moving his artillery regiment south—and losing men. As of February 1776, he reported having 604 artillerists under his command outside Boston, with 563 ready to fight. As soon as the units left New England, where almost all those troops came from, they evidently began peeling off. In April, Knox could report only 421 men, of whom 358 were listed as available. Through October, he never had more than 500 soldiers assigned to him, and never was able to field even 400.

Lesser’s book, thorough as it is, isn’t a useful source for the strength of American armies in really bad times early in the war: when the invasion of Canada collapsed under the onslaught of smallpox, when the British forces drove Gen. George Washington and Knox out of New York and across New Jersey. In those hectic months, the army couldn’t collect and maintain systematic returns, so no total figures survive.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

William Scott’s Wives

In publishing ladies’ reactions to his poem about his beard, and to the beard itself, shoemaker William Scott seemed to argue that some found it attractive, outrageously unfashionable as it was. So I wondered if Scott ever married.

Fortunately, researcher Annie Haven Thwing found some real-estate transactions involving William Scott, cordwainer (an old term for a shoemaker). Those deeds also state his first wife’s name, which allowed Thwing to single him out from the other men named William Scott (or Scot) in Boston records.

Our William Scott married Nancy or Nanny Coit on 24 Nov 1748, in a ceremony conducted by the Rev. Samuel Cooper (shown here, since I don’t have a picture of anyone else). They deeded some land beside their property on Ann Street in 1750, and bought two houses on North Centre Street later that month.

The Scotts had two children: Nanny born in 1751 and William in 1753. Nanny (Coit) Scott must have died shortly after the birth of that son because William married Ann Thomas on 27 Nov 1755. That second marriage produced a son named Benjamin in 1758.

In 1756 and 1758, William Scott bought more North End land from a Gloucester man with the wonderful name of Nymphas Stacey, Jr.; Stacey’s first wife was a Coit, so those deals were probably within the extended family. Stacey was a also shoemaker. In 1757 William Scott and his new wife deeded land to a blacksmith named Edward Marion.

According to Hannah Mather Crocker, Scott started to wear his beard long in the early 1760s, so there’s no evidence that he attracted a wife after growing it. He may well have still been married to his second wife, Ann, of course. It was unusual for a woman in colonial America to have a long marriage and only one child, but maybe Thwing and I just haven’t found the rest.

On 28 Apr 1774, William Scott announced the death of a son in the Boston News-Letter. Later that same week, he deeded land to Jonathan Williams, one of the town selectmen. He died in that year or the next, according to Crocker, but I didn’t find a record of his death.

So over all I’m left with more questions than answers about the hirsute William Scott.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

For Lovers of a Good Beaumarchais

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais is known for two things. First, he coordinated the initially secret French program to supply the nascent U.S. of A. with money and arms early in the Revolutionary War. (Here’s the C.I.A. version of that history.)

At the same time, he was writing The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, two somewhat subversive plays that soon became more famous as the source for Mozart’s adaptation. I recall reading the first in school at some point and liking it, though I haven’t gone back to the whole series.

At Kickstarter, Talia Felix is inviting people to support her project to translate all of Beaumarchais’s plays from the French and release the new English texts into the public domain.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Women Respond to William Scott

Yesterday I quoted a rather bad poem that Boston shoemaker William Scott sent to the New-Hampshire Gazette in 1764 explaining why he liked to wear his beard unfashionably, outrageously long. And oiled. And “combed and tied together as the gentlemen of that day wore their cravats,” according to Hannah Mather Crocker.

It appears Scott also sent along some responses to his lines, probably from his relatives or customers (he specialized in women’s shoes).

So the newspaper item continued:
Upon which several young Ladies desire you’ll print their Attempts to rival the Bard.

Sophia’s Face is smooth and fair,
On Scott’s is awful Beard of Hair,
She screams and says it shant be there.
Clarissa Peep.
A Woman’s Face in smooth and fair,
On Man’s is plac’d a Beard of Hair,
But Women love to feel it there.
Arabelle Tickle.
The Women now are out of Shoes,
and sorely they complain,
They view Scott’s Face, and gratify
a curious Taste though vain.
Ann Sober.
The Women being out of Shoes,
to Scott they run for more;
They view his Beard, and then return
saying, he’s now Fourscore.
Betty Simper.

Of course, it’s possible that Scott made up those responses to amuse himself. I even wondered if someone else wrote out the whole thing as a joke on him, but the poetry seems too bad for that.

Shoemakers were usually among the poorest of craftsmen, and we hardly ever hear from them. (Ebenezer Mackintosh and George R. T. Hewes are two exceptions.) Scott was unusual in publishing in a newspaper, as well as for having his portrait made by Joseph Badger (who also started out as a craftsman). Of course, Crocker wrote about Scott as one of Boston’s biggest “excentrics,” so he wasn’t bound by social norms.

Monday, January 16, 2012

“A Beard is sweet as any Rose, Because it’s put so near the Nose.”

Yesterday I quoted Hannah Mather Crocker about a shoemaker named Scott who wore an immensely unfashionable long beard in Boston starting in the 1760s. Crocker didn’t record his first name, but I found the given name William in a contemporaneous source.

In fact, that source is a poem attributed to William Scott himself.  The 3 Feb 1764 New Hampshire Gazette, published in Portsmouth by Daniel Fowle, included this unusual item:
Mr. Fowle,
Please to print the following Lines, as they shew the Poetical Genius of Mr. William Scott, a Shoemaker in Boston, wrote with his own Hand.

MEN love Women with Lips quite bare,
Who on their Chins have got no Hair:
Why Beard on Man, should they dispise,
Pray why not comely in their Eyes?
If God sees fit to plant it there,
It must be equal to the Fair.
The Ladies they may well suppose
A Beard is sweet as any Rose,
Because it’s put so near the Nose.
One Reason more why Beard is sweet,
Is it grows close by where we eat.
It must be so as it is plac’d,
All round the Mouth the Seat of Taste;
For who alive presumes to tell
That God offends both Taste and Smell.
Psalms one Hundred and thirty-third,
There you may find that precious Word,
Inspir’d King David has compar’d,
Unim to Ointment on a Beard.
Once Kings and Princes us’d to wear
Not only Part but all their Hair;
At which some gaze and curse and swear.
But if they dispise Things that are made,
They Slight the Maker, may be said.
God’s Works no one will ridicule,
But a conceited wicked Fool.
Seventeen Hundred sixty-three
These Lines were then compos’d by me,
Boston December twenty-third,
I wrote them all down Word for Word,
Which may be soon quite all forgot,
So may the Author William Scott.
These Lines I hope you will excuse,
As I get Bread by making Shoes.

Mr. Scott has his Picture drawn by Mr. [Joseph] Badger, under which is the following Lines, composed by himself.

IF Women’s Chins are made both smooth and Fair,
And on Man’s is fix’t a Beard of Hair,
Pray why the same should they not wear?
The portrait by Badger has not survived.

TOMORROW: Women respond to Scott’s poetic question.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

“He wore a long beard which he used to oile and comb…”

Last Thursday I went to Eileen Hunt Botting’s talk to the North End Historical Society about how Hannah Mather Crocker described Boston’s religious history through the 1820s. I’d ordered a copy of Crocker’s Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston, co-edited by Botting and Sarah L. Houser, but it hadn’t arrived by that morning. (I found it on my front stoop when I came home that night.)

At the talk I chatted with Eileen Botting, whom I’d met before only by email, about how our childhood memories are often our strongest, and how that might have affected Crocker’s storytelling.

I also chatted with Samantha Nelson of the Bostonian Society about a completely different matter: how eighteenth-century British-American fashion required men to be clean-shaven and what that means for eighteenth-century reenactments today.

Thumbing through Crocker’s Reminiscences, I came across a passage that amazingly speaks to both those points:
Till the [year] 1774 or 5 there was a very singular man in Boston by the name of Scott, a shoe maker by trade famous for making ladies’ shoes. He wore a long beard which he used to oile and comb and tye it together as the gentlemen of that day wore their [cravats]. He used to parade about town to show himself. He used to hold himself justified by the example as expressed in the 133 psalm, “How good and precious it is for brethern to dwell together in unity, (ver 2) tis like the precious ointment upon the head that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard that went down to the skirts of his garments.” This was his wise plea for wearing a foolish troublesome long beard. He was quite an excentric man. Several now living remember him as he was, a terror to many little children. He died 1774 or 5 and many rejoiced to be “Scott free.”
I get the strong feeling that Crocker herself (born in 1752) was among those “many little children” who were scared by Scott the shoemaker.

And as for reenactors who want to wear beards, here’s a precedent for doing so—as long as you’re portraying an “excentric” who wore what people thought was a “foolish troublesome long beard” in a very peculiar way and scared children so much they delighted in his death. In other words, Scott wasn’t just atypical for his time; he was outlandish! But he did exist.

TOMORROW: William Scott the shoemaker in his own words.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Going Back to Sybil Ludington

Back in June 2006, less than a month after launching Boston 1775, I wrote my first analysis of the story of Sybil Ludington. I posted a complete quote from Willis Fletcher Johnson’s Colonel Henry Ludington: A Memoir (1907) that November.

Back then, I read that book the old-fashioned way: by tracking down a rare printed copy in a library. Today I don’t even have to stand up to read it. (This does not bode well for my cardiovascular fitness.)

I thought Johnson’s book was the earliest source of the Sybil Ludington tale. He didn’t mention any previous source, and neither did any of the twentieth-century books I’d found about her.

This week, the pseudonymous Samuel Wilson kindly alerted me to an earlier appearance of the story: in the second volume of Martha J. Lamb’s History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, published in 1880. Google Books digitized that volume in 2010.

While describing the British army raid on a Continental storage depot in Danbury, Connecticut, Lamb wrote on pages 159-60:
The country was aroused far and near. [Gen. David] Wooster and [Gen. Benedict] Arnold were both in New Haven on furloughs, but were quickly speeding by a forced march to the rescue, and [Gen. Gold Selleck] Silliman was on the wing. Late in the evening a flying messenger for aid reached Colonel [Henry] Ludington in Carmel, New York, whose men were at their homes scattered over the distance of many miles; no one being at hand to call them, his daughter Sibyl Ludington, a spirited young girl of sixteen, mounted her horse in the dead of night and performed this service, and by breakfast-time the next morning the whole regiment was on its rapid march to Danbury. But the mischief had been accomplished.
Lamb’s book also has versions of the Ludington family tales of Sybil [to use the usual modern spelling, odd as it is] and her sister Rebecca guarding the homestead, “guns in their hands on the piazza,” and of the family hosting spy Enoch Crosby. Both those tales resurface in Johnson’s book.

This makes the Sybil Ludington legend a little more credible because:
  • There’s only a 103-year lag between the ride and the earliest known written description of it, instead of 125 years. (Also in 1907, the story appeared in an issue of The Connecticut Magazine.)
  • Lamb published for a national readership while Johnson published for the Ludington family, an uncritical audience.
  • Lamb didn’t claim that Sybil’s ride turned out to be important, which fits the contemporaneous record. The Danbury raid was a success for the British army, and there still doesn’t seem to be any record of Col. Ludington’s militia unit getting into the fight.
That said, Lamb clearly relied on stories from the Ludington family; she mentioned no other sources, and lauded the colonel. Lamb didn’t cite documents to support most of her statements.

For example, Lamb wrote about Col. Ludington working closely with Gen. George Washington. The family claimed he was an “aide” to the commander at the Battle of White Plains in 1776. But the Ludington name appears in the commander-in-chief’s papers only three times, all after 1778 and all referring to the man’s house, not the man.

Lamb stated that Gen. William Howe offered a “large reward” for Ludington’s capture or killing. Johnson and later authors specified that the reward was 300 guineas. But no one seems to have provided a source for such a specific statement.

So I’m still skeptical until more solid evidence turns up.

Friday, January 13, 2012

“We should be suspicious of stories.”

And as long as I’m going all theoretical, I might as well quote economist Tyler Cowen on the danger of storytelling at an event unpronounceably named TEDxMidAtlantic:
I was told to come here and tell you all stories, but what I'd like to do is instead tell you why I'm suspicious of stories, why stories make me nervous. In fact, the more inspired a story makes me feel, very often the more nervous I get. So the best stories are often the trickiest ones. The good and bad things about stories is they're a kind of filter. They take a lot of information, and they leave some of it out, and they keep some of it in. But the thing about this filter, it always leaves the same things in. You're always left with the same few stories. . . .

There was a study done, we asked some people to describe their lives. And when asked to describe their lives, what's interesting is how few people said, "mess". It's probably the best answer; I don't mean that in a bad way. "Mess" can be liberating, "mess" can be empowering, "mess" can be a way of drawing upon multiple strengths. But what people wanted to say was, "My life is a journey." 51% wanted to turn his or her life into a story. 11% said, "My life is a battle." Again, that's a kind of story. 8% said, "My life is a novel," 5% "My life is a play." I don't think anyone said, "My life is a reality TV show."

Again, we're imposing order on the mess we observe, and it's taking the same patterns, and when something is in the form of a story, often we remember it when we shouldn't. So how many of you know the story about George Washington and the cherry tree? It's not obvious that's exactly what happened. The story of Paul Revere, it's not obvious that that's exactly the way it happened. So again, we should be suspicious of stories.

We're biologically programmed to respond to them. They contain a lot of information. They have social power. They connect us to other people. So they're like a kind of candy that we're fed when we consume political information, when we read novels. When we read nonfiction books, we're really being fed stories. Nonfiction is, in a sense, the new fiction. The book may happen to say true things, but everything's taking the same form of these stories. . . .

The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it's a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. . . .

Another set of stories that are popular - if you know Oliver Stone movies or Michael Moore movies. You can't make a movie and say, "It was all a big accident." No, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together, because a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action but not of human design. No, a story is about evil people plotting together. So you hear stories about plots, or even stories about good people plotting things together, just like when you're watching movies. This, again, is reason to be suspicious.

As a good rule of thumb, "When I hear a story, when should I be especially suspicious?" If you hear a story and you think, "Wow, that would make a great movie!" That's when the "uh-oh" reaction should pop in a bit more, and you should start thinking more in terms of how the whole thing is maybe a bit of a mess.

Another common story or storyline - the claim that we "have to get tough". You hear this in so many contexts. "We have to get tough with the banks." "We had to get tough with the labor unions." "We need to get tough with some other country, some foreign dictator, someone we're negotiating with." Now, again, the point is not against getting tough. Sometimes we should get tough. That we got tough with the Nazis was a good thing. But this is a story we fall back upon all too readily. When we don't really know why something happened, we blame someone, and we say, "We need to get tough with them!" as if it had never occurred to your predecessor this idea of getting tough. . . .
How many of the stories of the American Revolution we hear take the form of good v. evil, a conspiracy, or finally getting tough? Basically all of them. After all, that’s how the two sides interpreted events for themselves.

I think there are some other archetypal stories in our standard accounts as well. But they all derive from the same assumptions Cowen points to here: that one trend is superior to another, that human intent drives events, and that something happened because someone finally wanted it hard enough. Of course, sometimes those things are true.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

“Skills and understandings that are unique to the discipline”

Last month Abby Reisman spoke at the National Council for Social Studies meeting about her experiments in teaching U.S. history to high school juniors. Craig Thurtell’s report on that talk for the History News Network listed Reisman’s theoretical bases:

One premise of this approach holds that history requires the application of certain cognitive skills and understandings that are unique to the discipline.

A second premise is that these skills are neither natural nor intuitive; on the contrary, to be learned effectively, they require an explicit naming and repetitive use. They must be incorporated into history curricula as an essential component of historical understanding.

Another premise is that when students approach history as an inquiry-based enterprise, they come to grasp that history is not a single story, but a contested one, and they can, once they have mastered the skills, make their own meaning out of the evidence left to us by the past.

With this understanding, the study of history can actually provoke excitement—the late Roy Rosenzweig’s nationwide survey of attitudes toward history classes found that “boring” was the most common word associated with the subject.
I was particularly struck by the assumption that the skills for studying history don’t come naturally. But surely after a certain age (and Piagetian stage) we learn that life is “not a single story, but a contested one.” We learn that the same events appear differently to different people because of incomplete knowledge, competing desires, divergent attitudes, and other factors. Is it actually counterintuitive to apply the same thinking to the past?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps we want our past to be more stable and uncontested than our present. We can tolerate uncertainty in the present because we believe that time will bring enough knowledge to settle the contest of views. The present may be unfolding, we acknowledge, but the past should be bound in a narrative.

That desire for solidity might be particularly strong when it comes to the past that’s shaped our collective identity and is therefore most likely to be taught in our schools. In other words, it’s all very well to admit that the history of Serbo-Croatian mining claims is contested, but many Americans want the history of the U.S. Constitution to be rock-solid.

Another detail:
Reisman emphasized that she often found it necessary to modify the language in documents to make them accessible to struggling readers. She acknowledged that this practice is controversial, with many (this writer included) fearing the damage to the “pastness” and integrity of historical documents. Reisman argued pragmatically that the use of documents, crucial to any interrogation of the past, would be rendered impossible for struggling readers without modification.
I wrestle with the same questions here. I preserve spelling, capitalization, and punctuation from sources I quote. However, for this online format I have to alter the style of emphases and abbreviations. And, as in the first passage quoted in this posting, I sometimes break long paragraphs to make them easier to read on the web. Because when I read stuff on the web, I often have even less patience than I did as a high-school junior.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Botting on Hannah Mather Crocker in the North End, 12 Jan.

Tomorrow night at 6:00 P.M., the North End Historical Society is hosting Dr. Eileen Botting of the University of Notre Dame, co-editor of Hannah Mather Crocker’s Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston.

Crocker (1752-1829) was a descendant of the famous Mather family, great-granddaughter of Increase and granddaughter of Cotton. She was also a niece of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, and an eyewitness to the aftermath of the attack on his North End mansion in August 1765.

She inherited the Mather library and published essays on women’s rights, Freemasonry, and other controversial topics. So, naturally, she was labeled a “bluestocking.”

Crocker assembled her local history using those books, public documents, and her own memories, but was never able to get it published. Though known to scholars, the manuscript was never in print until the New England Historic Genealogical Society issued it in a handsome hardcover volume last year.

Botting’s talk and book-signing will take place in Sacred Heart Church Hall at 9 Sun Court Street in the North End. Because there’s limited space, the society asks people to email or call 617-680-3829 to be sure of having a seat reserved.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Training for Eighteenth-Century Cartographers

The Department of the Geographer, an organization reenacting the cartographic unit of the Continental Army, has announced its fifth annual Cartography, Surveying & Engineering School of Instruction, to be held next month in West Virginia.

The group’s website explains:
At so many of the events we participate in, we are so busy working with the public that we don’t get to conduct training exercises for ourselves. Sessions for the weekend include:
  • Creating (draughting) maps from survey data
  • Thomas Hutchins’ study of magnetic needle dip around the world
  • Colouring maps and plans with period watercolors
  • Observing the 2012 Transit of Venus
  • Enhancing living history impressions by studying museum collections
  • Basics of 18th-century surveying
This is the sort of event I have no interest in attending, but am tickled pink to know that it’s out there.

The next transit of Venus, incidentally, is on 5 June, so make your plans now.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Not That Benedict Arnold’s Widow

Vital Records of Uxbridge, Massachusetts was published in 1916, collecting records from the town’s churches and small Quaker meetinghouse (shown here, courtesy of Wikipedia).

As Pennsylvania historian John F. Watson reported in 1844, there is indeed a record from that meetinghouse of Benedict Arnold’s widow dying in Uxbridge on 14 Feb 1836. It appears in the genealogical volume on page 356: Sarah Arnold, widow of Benedict, age eighty-three.

However, page 25 of the same book states that a boy named Benedict Arnold was born in that town in 1752 and his wife Sarah in 1754. There’s no record of their marriage, but there are listings for their children Dorcas (1775), William (1777), and Mary (1781). All those births are recorded in a way that indicates the family was Quaker. Page 356 also says that Benedict died in 1802, which left Sarah a widow.

According to the Rhode Island Genealogical Register, Benedict’s will mentioned his wife Sarah and his children William, Dorcas, and Mary. The family is also mentioned in Richard H. Benson’s The Arnold Family of Smithfield, Rhode Island.

So while it’s true that Benedict Arnold’s widow died in Uxbridge, there’s really no doubt that she wasn’t that Benedict Arnold’s widow. The same source that preserves details of her death also records her life with a local Quaker man and their three children.

In fact, there were multiple Benedict Arnolds in southern New England in the late 1700s, many named in memory of a governor of Rhode Island a couple of generations earlier. That causes problems for biographers looking for exploits of the future general’s youth before he became the Benedict Arnold and Americans completely stopped naming their children Benedict Arnold.

The death of the general’s widow was clearly reported in London in 1804. Since she was receiving a pension from the Crown, the British government had a financial incentive to keep track. In 1931 J. G. Taylor published a short book titled Some New Light on the Later Life and Last Resting Place of Benedict Arnold and of His Wife Margaret Shippen, quoting records of the Battersea Church where the couple was buried.

So you might think that the already suspicious claim that Peggy Arnold secretly returned to America and lived for over thirty years in a Massachusetts town where she knew no one would have dissolved a long time ago.

But no, this is the age of the internet! Old claims no longer have to die. Indeed, the fact that Taylor’s 1931 book is still under copyright while Watson’s 1840s books are searchable means that the claim is easier to stumble across than some of the solid evidence.

So now there are webpages, some from reputable organizations like the Penn State University libraries and that new standby Wikipedia, stating that Peggy (Shippen) Arnold died in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Some even say she did so in 1804, which means the authors had access to the right information but added on a layer of wrong.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Did Benedict Arnold’s Widow Die in Uxbridge?

In Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, published in 1844, John F. Watson wrote:
The wife of Benedict Arnold was a Philadelphian, a Peggy Shippen, and died on the 14th February, 1836, at Uxbridge, Mass., aged 83 [about the same time a sister of Major Andre, aged 81, died in England.] It seems a strange affair, that the wife of such a general should under any circumstances get back to America—to get, too, not to her own home, and with her nearest relatives, in Pennsylvania, but should go to Massachusetts—the same state where her first ancestor, Edward Shippen, first mayor of Philadelphia, had been publicly punished in Boston as a Quaker!
Two years later Watson repeated his statement about Peggy Arnold in Annals and Occurrences of New York City and State, in the Olden Time:
Gen. [Benedict] Arnold died in London, in 1801, unhonoured and unnoticed there; and afterwards his wife returned to the United States, incognito, and died at Uxbridge, Mass. at the age of eighty-three years, on the 14th Feb. 1836.
A similar statement, with the year of her death changed to 1834, appeared in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1897 edition and probably others. It may well have popped up in other reference books.

Obviously, the death of Gen. Arnold’s widow in Massachusetts raises a lot of questions, as Watson acknowledged but didn’t pursue:
  • If this woman was truly incognito and away from relatives, how could anyone identify her as Benedict Arnold’s widow after she died?
  • How could this woman die at age 83 in 1836 (i.e., born around 1753) when Pennsylvania records show Peggy Shippen, future wife of the general, was born in 1760?
  • Most important, why did the September 1804 Gentleman’s Magazine in London report the following among its death notices?
In Bryanstone-street, Portman-square, in her 44th year, Mrs. Margaret Arnold, widow of Brigadier-gen. A. who died June 14, 1801…, and daughter of the late Hon. Edward Shippen, chief justice of the state of Pennsylvania, N. America.
Ah, but perhaps that was how the widow faked her death so that she could escape back to America. Because there’s an undisputed, contemporaneous record of the death of the widow of Benedict Arnold in Uxbridge in 1836.

TOMORROW: Examining the vital records.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Back to the New-York Historical Society

This fall I noted the opening of the New-York Historical Society’s “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn” exhibit, and a critique of that exhibit by Prof. Alan Singer. It’s only fair, therefore, to quote the heated rebuttal to Singer, also on History News Network, from chief curator Richard Rabinowitz.
Enflamed by his mission to uncover the exhibition’s “right-wing agenda,” Singer’s method is to locate single sentences within secondary or tertiary level interpretive panels, elevate them arbitrarily to the status of “major themes,” and then dismiss them as platitudinous or even worse, as inaccurate. Then he lays on long lists of humanity’s troubles in the post-revolutionary era to disprove the “themes” he has chosen to attack. Every one of his observations, astonishingly, deliberately misreads the exhibition text, ignoring the ideas presented before and after, and neglecting altogether the evidences presented by the documents in the exhibition.

The first of Singer’s examples comes from the very last line of the very last text panel in the exhibition. He writes,
“The Age of Revolution made us all citizens of the world as well as our own nation, loyal to global ideals as well as local and group bonds.” I only wish this were true. If it were, slavery in the United States might not have continued into the 1860s…
Perhaps we are as stupid as the professor suggests. But I prefer to think, as most historians do (e.g., Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights), that the past two centuries have witnessed the rise of a global humanitarianism, stemming from the intellectual, moral, and religious impulses of the Age of Revolution, as well as political and economic forces.
On this point, Rabinowitz seems to be trying to have it both ways. He later faults Singer for discussing the 1830s slave rebellions in the Caribbean at length, saying they have nothing to do with the exhibit’s “eighteenth-century age of revolutions,” but here he insists that anyone not “stupid” would interpret the exhibit’s concluding sentence as referring not just to the 1700s but to “the past two centuries” since.

At best, the panel’s phrase “made us all citizens…” expresses an ideal that came out of the eighteenth century, not a practice (and not an uncontested ideal, either). So is Singer wrong to point out that, contrary to that statement’s past tense, those revolutions didn’t make all of us citizens?

On the other hand, Rabinowitz seems to be correct in accusing Singer of quoting some statements on the signs out of context:
At the bottom of an interpretive text panel that explores the opportunities offered by British forces in the War of Independence for black Americans to escape slavery, Singer locates a sentence about Washington’s begrudging acceptance of black troops into the Continental Army. Forgetting the opening paragraphs, the professor then astonishingly accuses us of failing to stress that more blacks joined the British than the patriots. He takes no notice of the actual original proclamation by Governor Dunmore of Virginia just inches away from the offending text panel.
Singer’s description of that sentence led me to think that the exhibit might not have mentioned black Loyalists, but clearly it does. (I also posted a correction to Singer’s understanding of the Continental Army policy toward blacks at H.N.N.)

The biggest difference between Rabinowitz and Singer might be in how the two scholars approach the exhibit itself. It’s striking how the curator focuses on the artifacts while the professor focuses on the text panels.

Rabinowitz lists many things that Singer “missed”—i.e., didn’t acknowledge despite the tremendous effort it took to bring them all to one place. He seems almost hurt as he writes, “the professor did not take notice of any of the 300 objects, documents, and images (from 73 repositories in 18 countries) collected for this exhibition.”

But what does a look at the official Stamp Act as a scroll or the ”first genre painting in American art” (showing one American sea captain vomiting into another’s pocket) tell us about revolutions and human rights? Those artifacts don’t speak for themselves, which is why Rabinowitz and his staff wrote the interpretive labels and text panels around them. And if Singer sees omissions or bias in those labels, of course he’d focus his critique on their words.

Thus, Rabinowitz writes that Singer “missed the copy of Notes on Virginia that Jefferson gave to Abbé Morellet to translate into French (and the French translation that came of it).” But Singer actually complains that the exhibit interpreted that object inaccurately:
According to another panel, in Notes on the States [sic] of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson expressed his “fundamental opposition to slavery and his fear of what emancipation would bring.” I think it would be more accurate to say Jefferson expressed his total antipathy towards people of African ancestry. . . .
Singer goes on to quote racist words from Jefferson’s book. Rabinowitz displayed a significant copy of that book, yet the nearby panel describes Jefferson’s “fundamental opposition to slavery” without noting that he never changed his lifestyle fundamentally based on slavery. So which is inaccurate?

At H-Public, Darlene Roth wrote more on the gap between a history professor’s job of teaching and writing and a history curator’s job of creating an exhibit for the public.
Singer refutes the NYHS exhibit point by point and takes 2811 words to do so. If his response were translated into an exhibit format, his words would fill 19 text panels, (granting him a generous 150 words per panel). This would require an exhibit gallery that could accommodate 95 linear feet for the panel displays alone, (giving each panel a 2.5 foot buffer on all edges). Given that the average person reads 40 wpm, this would require that the visitor stand and read for 70 minutes—without counting the time it would take to step from panel to panel or to lay eyes on the first object.
There are similar concerns in television history: the amount of text one can get through in an hour is frustratingly low.

It might be fruitful for critics like Singer to try to write their own interpretive panels for the artifacts in this exhibit, seeing how much (or how little) can fit into the available space. Perhaps they’d do a better job. But they’d certainly come to appreciate the challenges for curators like Rabinowitz.

Friday, January 06, 2012

George Washington Harvests His Hemp

It’s been about two decades since I first recall someone telling me that George Washington grew hemp for smoking. The only evidence anyone has ever offered to back up this assertion is the sort that appears in Harvey Wasserman’s article “Was Washington a Gay Pot Smoker?” from March 2009:
As for smoking, I know of no significant communication among the Founders extolling their “great weed.”

But in one of his meticulous agricultural journals, dated 1765, Washington regrets being late to separate his male hemp plants from his females. For a master farmer like George, there would be little reason to do this except to make the females ripe for smoking.

The medicinal uses of cannabis were known to the ancient Chinese. Thousands of years later, it’s inconceivable American growers would not indulge in its recreational powers.
Inconceivable to some who can’t imagine life without that recreation, I suppose. But I rarely see eighteenth-century Americans doing something just because the ancient Chinese did it.

Wasserman, a twenty-first century writer, couldn’t think of a reason to separate male from female hemp plants “except to make the females ripe for smoking,” so he projected his knowledge and priorities into the mind of an eighteenth-century planter. But we don’t have to do that.

Here’s cannabis cultivation advice from the entry on cannabis in The Gardeners Dictionary, published by Philip Miller in London in 1759:
In the Choice of the Seed, the heaviest and brightest coloured should be prefered, and particular Care should be had to the Kernel of the Seed, so that some of them should be cracked to see if they have the Germ or future Plant perfect; for in some Places the male Plants are drawn out too soon from the female; i.e. before they have impregnated the female Plants with the Farina; in which Case, though the Seeds produced by these female Plants may seem fair to the Eye, yet they will not grow. . . .

The first Season for pulling the Hemp is usually about the Middle of August, when they begin to pull what they call the Fimble Hemp, which is the male Plants; but it would be much the better Method to defer this a Fortnight or three Weeks longer, until these male Plants have fully shed their Dust, without which, the Seeds will prove abortive, produce nothing if sown the next Year, nor will those concerned in the Oil Mills give any Thing for them, there being only empty Husks, without any Kernels to produce the Oil. These male Plants decay soon after they have shed their Farina.

The second Pulling is a little after Michaelmas [29 September], when the Seeds are ripe: This is usually called Karle Hemp, it is the female Plants, which were left at the Time when the male were pulled.
And here are the relevant passages from Washington’s farm diaries in 1765:
7 [August]. Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp at Do [ditto for the part of his lands he called “Muddy hole”]—rather too late.

9. Abt. 6 Oclock put some Hemp in the Rivr. to Rot.

10. Seperated my Ewes & Rams but I believe it was full late—many of the Ewes having taken Ram.

3. Finish’d Sowing Wheat at the Rivr. Plantn. i.e. in the corn ground. 123 Bushels it took to do it.

15. The English Hemp i.e. the Hemp from the English Seed was pickd at Muddy hole this day & was ripe.

Began to separate Hemp in the neck.

17. Finishd Sowing Wheat in the Corn field, which lyes over the Run at the Mill 27 Bushl.

22. Put some Hemp into the Water about 6 Oclock in the Afternoon—note this Hemp had been pulld the 8th. Instt. & was well dryed, & took it out again the 26th.

4 [September]. Began to Pull the Seed Hemp but it was not sufficiently ripe.
Thus we see Washington ordered the male hemp plants pulled a couple of weeks before the female plants in the month of August—much as described in an agricultural manual published just six years before. The “English Hemp” at Muddy hole was harvested first, the crop “in the neck” later in the month. Crops in Virginia obviously came in earlier than those in Britain.

Washington’s next step was to have the stalks put in water to rot—part of extracting the valuable fibers. As even Wasserman admits, there’s not a word in the planter’s writings to indicate Washington gave any thought to smoking the buds. Nor did The Gardeners Dictionary or other eighteenth-century British farming manuals suggest doing that, no matter what people had discovered in ancient China.

[The thumbnail above shows an image by Daniel Baxter for Whole Health Magazine, featured at The I Spot.]

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Washington, Jefferson, and Gingrich on Hemp: One of These Things Doesn’t Belong

Here’s a specialized dispatch from the campaign trail off Buzzfeed yesterday:
[Newt] Gingrich fielded a number of questions about drug policy, including one from a man who said that many in the Live Free or Die state don't like the federal government's involvement in stopping weed growing operations. "Would Thomas Jefferson or George Washington be arrested for growing marijuana?" the man asked.

Gingrich responded, "I think Jefferson and George Washington would strongly discourage you from growing marijuana, and their tactics to stop you would be more violent than they would be today."

Gingrich, a historian, did not mention that both Washington and Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations.
And would therefore be subject to arrest today because of U.S. anti-marijuana laws—which was the questioner’s point.

One comment on this story noted that Gingrich is now on record as saying that the first and third Presidents “would be more violent” against illicit farmers than today’s. That won’t endear him to the folks who want to believe the Obama administration is oppressive in order to explain why he makes them nervous. All in all, this remark looks like yet another example of how Gingrich’s hunger to claim intellectual authority trumps the value of thinking through what he’s about to say.

Hemp was a vital crop in the eighteenth-century British Empire mostly because its fibers were used in making the ropes that the Royal Navy and merchant fleet needed. Britain imported a lot of raw hemp from Russia, so the imperial and colonial governments encouraged planters to grow it domestically. Washington and Jefferson were among the many planters who responded and encouraged others to do the same.

Hemp was also a local government concern. John Gray served as Boston’s Surveyor of Hemp—a quality inspector—for many years before the Revolution. He was the owner of a large ropewalk in the South End as well as brother of the province’s royal treasurer.

When the Boston Whigs started their non-importation boycott of British goods to protest the Townshend duties in 1769, they specified that people could import as much hemp as they wanted because it was important for local ship-builders and mariners. The ship caught up in the second Boston Tea Party of March 1774 had brought in hemp as well as East India Company tea; locals welcomed the former, tossed out the latter.

But I heartily doubt that the New Hampshire man who asked Gingrich about marijuana had the domestic manufacture of rope in mind. And some of the folks who commented on that item at Buzzfeed repeated myths about Washington’s hemp-farming.

TOMORROW: Washington and his hemp crop.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Making Oneself Notorious

Last year Steve Sheinkin won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for children’s nonfiction with The Notorious Benedict Arnold. I missed the awards ceremony, but the Horn Book has just posted Sheinkin’s acceptance speech. Here’s a taste:
I was living in New York City, working as a history textbook writer. Our company was beginning work on a new fifth-grade U.S. history, and we told one another, “This won’t be the typical boring textbook. This time we’re going to make history come alive!” Part of my job was to come up with grabbers—quick, exciting stories that would draw kids into the action of each lesson. So I thought: here’s my big chance to use some of my Arnold material! I’ll work him in early, during the raucous, pre-Revolution tax protest days.

In the conference room at our office, I met with two very experienced editors and pitched a story that I have in my notes like this:
It is a cold, drizzly night in New Haven, Connecticut, in January 1766. Five young sailors hurry down a quiet street. They come to a dark house and begin banging on the front door. A twenty-five-year-old merchant named Benedict Arnold opens the door. The men start talking, all at once. Arnold appears to be growing angry. “What!” he cries. “He’s still in town?”

Moments later, Arnold is striding down the street, the young sailors falling in behind him. Arnold comes to Beecher’s Tavern, kicks in the door, enters, and takes a quick look around. There, sitting alone at a table, is the man he is looking for. The man jumps up and stumbles toward the back door, but Arnold pounces on him, drags him outside, ties him to a post, rips off his shirt, and begins whipping him. The sailors shout “Huzzah!” as each stroke cracks across the man’s back, wet now with blood and rain.

Who is Benedict Arnold? And why is he whipping this man? You will read that story next.
There was a long silence at the table. A very long silence. I explained that the man being whipped was a sailor who’d informed on Arnold for not paying British import duties. It was a perfect lead-in to the Stamp Act, Sam Adams, tax protests, the whole thing.

The editors were not convinced. Actually, they seemed to be in a small amount of physical pain.

“Benedict Arnold makes me…nervous,” one told me.

“Me, too,” said the other.

I thought, That’s the whole point! He made Congress nervous. He made George Washington nervous. He was America’s original loose-cannon action hero, a sort of brooding, cursing Bruce Willis character, two centuries before Hollywood. What I didn’t realize at the time was that for textbooks, this is not necessarily a good thing.
Eventually Sheinkin found a more welcoming format for his research. (The link offers a video as well.)