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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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Harrison-Gerry Anecdote

In his Military Journal, published in 1823, Dr. James Thacher inserted this anecdote into his entry for 18 July 1776, which described the reading of the Declaration of Independence at Boston’s Town House:
I am credibly informed that the following anecdote occurred on the day of signing the declaration. Mr. [Benjamin] Harrison, a delegate from Virginia, is a large portly man—Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry of Massachusetts is slender and spare [as shown here]. A little time after the solemn transaction of signing the instrument, Mr. Harrison said smilingly to Mr. Gerry, “When the hanging scene comes to be exhibited I shall have the advantage over you on account of my size. All will be over with me in a moment, but you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.”
Obviously, Thacher couldn’t have heard that story on 18 July 1776 since the calligraphic copy of the Declaration we know so well wasn’t ready for anyone to sign until early August. But his Military Journal is really a memoir aided by a contemporaneous journal and hindsight.

Thacher appears to have been the first man to publish that story. Niles’s Weekly Register picked it up in its 20 Sept 1823 issue, and it was reprinted in the 1825 Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee and in an 1832 issue of the magazine Atkinson’s Casket of Gems of Literature, Wit and Sentiment.

Just as quickly, however, some critics attacked the tale as preposterous. A review of Thacher’s book in the 18 October Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, published in London, cited it a “specimen of his ‘historical facts.’” However, the other example it provided, about the attack on Charlestown during the staging of The Blockade of Boston on 8 Jan 1776, was absolutely true, with contemporaneous reports from both sides of the conflict.

TOMORROW: Thacher’s source, published at last?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Brief Glimpse of Jane Austen at the Bod, 1 March

On Thursday, and for that day only, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University will display two items related to author Jane Austen.

One is the portrait made public last year, said to show Austen as an adult. Its authenticity is under debate. For many decades the only Austen portrait accepted as authentic was a watercolor made by her sister when they were both teenagers.

The second item is a needlework sampler dated 1787, when Austen was eleven. (The Guardian reports the stitches are so worn it looks like it’s dated 1797.)

Both the sampler and the portrait are in private hands, so folks don’t get to see them often. They’re on display Thursday because that’s World Book Day.

Monday, February 27, 2012

March Lectures from the Friends of Minute Man National Park

The Friends of Minute Man National Park is sponsoring a series of lectures on Sunday afternoons in March.

4 March: Hilary Anderson Stelling, “Sowing the Seeds of Liberty: Lexington and the American Revolution”
On a spring day more than 200 years ago, battles at Lexington and Concord launched the American war for independence. “Sowing the Seeds of Liberty: Lexington and the American Revolution” will introduce some of the members of the Lexington community who played a role in these important events, discuss the political and social circumstances that led to the armed confrontation and explore what the choices made on April 19th meant for Lexington residents in the years to come.
11 March: Emily Murphy and Alicia Paresi, “Town and Country: An Exploration of Archeological Collections”
One of the best ways that we can get an idea of how people lived in past centuries is through what they left behind. Join National Park Service historian Emily Murphy and NPS archaeologist Alicia Paresi to explore what the archaeological records say about life in Salem and Lincoln in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the surprising similarities between the two.
18 March: George Quintal, “Patriots of Color at Battle Road and Bunker Hill”
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, a little more than 20 Patriot men of color responded to the alarm and actively engaged the British on the Battle Road. In the weeks leading up to the Battle of Bunker Hill, hundreds of men of color converged from all over New England to assist at the Siege of Boston. More than 100 fought at Bunker Hill. For decades, these men were forgotten. This talk is one small step in telling their story.
25 March: David Wood, “The Greatest Events of the Present Era: Collecting History at the Concord Museum”
The events of April 19, 1775, permanently changed the way Concord has viewed itself. One example of that is the collection that was begun in 1850 and in 1886 became the Concord Antiquarian Society, now the Concord Museum. In an illustrated presentation Concord Museum curator David Wood will discuss some examples from the museum’s remarkable collection, including objects associated with April 19th and the people who were there on that epochal day.
All these lectures start at 3:00 P.M. at the Minute Man Visitor Center in Lincoln, and all are free—though the Friends suggests a friendly $5 donation.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Persons of Bronze

Michael Aubrecht at Blog, or Die just posted information about the choice of a design for the Battle of Pines Bridge Monument in Virginia. That model, by Jay Warren, is striking, to be sure.

The Pines Bridge Monument Committee explains its subject this way:
On May 14, 1781, just after sunrise there was a surprise attack on the first Rhode Island Regiment headquartered at the Davenport House in Croton Heights. This regiment was comprised of African American, Native American and European American soldiers under the command of Colonel Christopher Greene.
Earlier in the war, the First Rhode Island was known for being mostly composed of soldiers of color. Other regiments of the Continental Army had some black and Native soldiers, but they were interspersed among a larger number of whites. That made the First Rhode Island a source of pride for some Americans, but not to others.

On 29 June 1780, Gen. George Washington responded to news of its recruiting difficulties by telling Gen. William Heath, “The objection to joining Greenes Regiment may be removed by dividing the Blacks in such a manner between the two [regiments], as to abolish the name and appearance of a Black Corps.” After that the First Rhode Island’s enlisted ranks were racially integrated like other Continental regiments. Of course, it still had a disproportionately large number of veteran soldiers with African and Native American ancestry.

Coincidentally, at the David Library of the American Revolution’s blog, Judith Van Buskirk just shared thoughts on the challenge of researching the individual men of that regiment.

And I might as well mention that on Saturday, 3 March, I’ll have a public conversation with Marty Blatt, historian of Boston National Historical Park, about Washington’s changing thoughts on black soldiers while he was in Massachusetts in 1775-76. That will take place at noon in the National Park Service visitor center at 15 State Street.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Right Gentleman’s

The University of Otago in New Zealand has put up an online exhibit about The Gentleman’s Magazine, the magazine that helped to define the British upper class in the eighteenth century.

The images are slow to download, perhaps because the pixels have to come all the way around the world. Still, it’s useful to see an antipodean judgment of what’s interesting in the magazine. The “Battles” section doesn’t include the major North American battles, and the “Americas” section shows how little people knew.

A lot of the online exhibit focuses on the magazine’s pictures—which are often the best part of any magazine. The portrait of an armadilla comes with a helpful description, but other images speak for themselves, such as the conjoined twins, royal procession, and “Apparatus for conveying Heat to Bodies apparently dead”.

But some material is far too truncated. For example, there’s the introduction to a letter from a father to his fourteen-year-old daughter, but only a little of the letter itself. Fortunately, Google Books also has a lot, if not all, of The Gentlemen’s Magazine in its database, so we can read the rest there. The letter turns out to be all about grammar and commonly confused words (prebendary/prebend). Quite disappointing, really.

Another example is this “Plan of an American Country Town”, showing a carefully symmetric grid. When did that appear? Who created that plan? Was any town actually laid out along those lines? More context shows the answers are: 1770, it’s impossible to say, and almost definitely not.

The university’s exhibit is subtitled “the 18th Century Answer to Google,” but frankly Google is still the answer.

(Thanks to Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos for the pointer.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

John Adams on Benjamin Harrison’s “Pleasantries”?

Yesterday I quoted John Adams’s critical description of Benjamin Harrison, a Virginian delegate to the Continental Congress, in his autobiography. At another point in that manuscript, Adams wrote of Harrison, “This was an indolent, luxurious, heavy Gentleman, of no Use in Congress or Committees, but a great Embarrassment to both.”

So Adams really didn’t like Harrison. But some people, particularly folks writing about Virginia, really want Adams to have said something nice about Harrison. Clifford Dowdey wrote in The Great Plantation (1957):
Although later Adams conceded Harrison’s contributions and “many pleasantries” that steadied rough sessions, the clashing passions involved in united action are illustrated by venomousness of even John Adams to a fellow patriot…
And in America’s Political Dynasties (1966), which lists Dowdey’s book as a source, Stephen Hess wrote:
Even John Adams, who wrote that Harrison was “of no use in Congress,” had later to admit that the Virginian had contributed “many pleasantries” that steadied rough sessions.
On Wikipedia that’s become:
Adams also commented that “Harrison’s contributions and many pleasantries steadied rough sessions.”
Citation needed, of course.

In a similar process, Freeman Cleaves’s Old Tippecanoe (1990) says:
While Randolph filled the President’s chair, Harrison’s tongue and temper and his “many pleasantries,” according to John Adams, helped to steady a groping Congress.
In Mary Jane Child Queen’s William Henry Harrison: General and President (2006), which lists Cleaves’s book as a source, that became:
It was John Adams who stated, “Harrison’s tongue and temper and his many pleasantries helped to steady a groping congress (Continental).”
So a lot of Cleaves cleaved to the two words he actually ascribed to Adams.

And what’s the source of those two words, “many pleasantries”? Darned if I can find it. That phrase doesn’t appear in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s digital editions of the Adams Papers. To be sure, that project doesn’t yet cover the letters Adams wrote late in his retirement. But the phrase also doesn’t pop up in searching the mid-1800s edition of Adams’s collected writings. It doesn’t appear anywhere in connection with Adams and Harrison before 1957.

Adams was favorably impressed with Harrison when they met. On 2 Sept 1774, at the start of the First Continental Congress, Adams recorded first impressions of the Virginians in his diary:
After Coffee We went to the Tavern, where we were introduced to Peyton Randolph Esqr., Speaker of Virginia, Coll. Harrison, Richard Henry Lee Esq., and Coll. [Richard] Bland. Randolph is a large, well looking Man. Lee is a tall, spare Man. Bland is a learned, bookish Man.

These Gentlemen from Virginia appear to be the most spirited and consistent, of any. Harrison said he would have come on foot rather than not come. Bland said he would have gone, upon this Occasion, if it had been to Jericho.
Later Adams came to dislike Harrison intensely. Not only were they on opposite sides of a lot of debates, but Harrison was big, jovial, and very rich—all things that Adams was not.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tell Us How You Really Feel, Mr. Adams

In his manuscript autobiography, John Adams looked back on his Continental Congress colleague Benjamin Harrison:
Although Harrison was another Sir John Falstaff, excepting in his Larcenies and Robberies, his Conversation disgusting to every Man of Delicacy or decorum, Obscæne, profane, impious, perpetually ridiculing the Bible, calling it the Worst Book in the World, yet as I saw he was to be often nominated with Us in Business, I took no notice of his Vices or Follies, but treated him…with uniform Politeness.
Adams’s grandson edited that passage down when he published the autobiography in the mid-1800s, removing the phrases that touched on Harrison’s religious remarks.

Interestingly, in the Congress and in early state politics Harrison was a conservative, whatever his conversation, habits, or thinking.

TOMORROW: Adams has more to say about Harrison.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“Mr. Daulton a Tory”?

One of my favorite Revolutionary War memoirs is that of Daniel Granger (born 1762), published in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review in 1930.

Daniel was only thirteen when he showed up on the siege lines in December 1775 to serve in place of his older brother, who was sick and needed to go home. The brothers switched places again around the end of February 1776, so Daniel served less than three months of the siege. But his memories of those months are very vivid, probably because it was such a short, intense time. In December, I was able to use Daniel’s memory of a password to date one of his anecdotes.

However, there’s one detail I just can’t find a match for. Apparently referring to Lechmere Point in Cambridge, Granger wrote:
I well recollect that on the Westerly part of this Point stood a very beautiful Seat, which belonged to a Mr. Daulton a Tory as I was informed with a beautiful Yard, Garden, Trees & Serpentine walks &c &c. But every thing had been cruelly mutillated by the Soldiers out of spite to Toryism.
I can’t find a prominent man named “Daulton” in this area. It’s possible that Daniel heard or remembered the name wrong, or that it was garbled in transcription. Or that the estate he remembered was somewhere else. Or that I haven’t searched for the right spelling variation. Still looking.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Upcoming Lectures in Falmouth, Mass.

The Falmouth Historical Society is hosting a couple of off-season lectures about Revolutionary history in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, 22 February
William Fowler on An American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years after Yorktown, 1781-1783
Most people believe the American Revolution ended in October, 1781, after the battle of Yorktown; in fact the war continued for two more traumatic years. During that time, the Revolution came closer to being lost than at any time in the previous half dozen. Fowler, former director of the Massachusetts Historical Society and emeritus professor of history at Northeastern University, examines how Washington held the Revolution together at a time when all of his victories might have been for naught.
This lecture and signing will start at 6:30 P.M. at the Cape Cod Conservatory, 60 Highfield Drive, Falmouth.

Friday, 30 March
Harlow Giles Unger on American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution
On Thursday, December 16, 1773, an estimated seven dozen men, many dressed as Indians, dumped roughly £10,000 worth of tea in Boston Harbor. Whatever their motives at the time, they unleashed a social, political, and economic firestorm that would culminate in the Declaration of Independence two-and-a-half years later.
This event will start at 6:30 P.M. at the First Congregational Church of Falmouth, 68 Main Street.

The cost for each program is $4 for members of the society, $5 for non-members. Tickets can be purchased at the venue or at the society, 65 Palmer Avenue.

Monday, February 20, 2012

U.S. News Gets Around to the American Revolution

A few months back, I chatted by phone with Michael Morella, Associate Editor at U.S. News & World Report, about the Boston Massacre. That magazine’s editors had decided to assemble a special issue devoted to the American Revolution.

That timely magazine hit the market this month, and it looks like a solid introduction to the topic built from recent books and interviews with recognized experts. The articles are grouped under four themes:
  • Turning Points
  • Diplomacy & Discord
  • In the Trenches 
  • Myths & Legends
As a grab-bag of basic information and intriguing facts, the magazine reminds me of a little paperback I picked up in the Bicentennial and still have. It could well spark some other young person’s interest in the future.

The pictures are a combination of illustrations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that reflect the outlook of their times, photographs that reflect the outlook of ours, and a few eighteenth-century images.

The articles I’ve sampled are all reasonably solid on facts (with the exception of Harlow Giles Unger’s brief description of the tar-and-feathering of Thomas Ditson, Jr., from his book about the Tea Party). I wouldn’t have included four pages on John Peter Zenger’s libel trial a full generation before the Revolution, but then I’m not in the news-printing business. We all have our biases.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

House Tours at Washington’s Headquarters, 22 Feb.

On Wednesday, 22 February, Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters in Cambridge is offering free tours focusing on the house’s Revolutionary history every half-hour from 11:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. Tours usually take about an hour, and there’s a limit to how many people can be in each group.

George Washington moved into this mansion, left behind by Loyalist John Vassall and family, in the middle of July 1775. Martha Washington joined him in December. The couple was living there during the general’s birthday in 1776, when he turned forty-four. At the time, he was probably more engrossed in deciding whether to move onto the Dorchester peninsula than in celebrating.

This year’s Washington’s Birthday open house marks a changing of the guard at the site. Nancy Jones, Supervisory Park Ranger for several years, is retiring from the National Park Service at the end of the month. Meanwhile, Garrett Cloer has arrived as a new ranger, bringing experience from Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. Both will be leading tours on Wednesday. Stop in and say hi!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

How to Make Your Own Prophetic Egg

From volume 9 of The Percy Anecdotes, published in London in 1826:

In the year 1819, there was exhibiting in Boston in America, a wonderful egg, said to have been found at a farm house near Bordeaux, having thereon the following inscription:

“Ceci avertit, que Napoleon Bonaparte, remontera sur la trone de France, le 15th Novembre, 1818.”

“This is to give notice, that Napoleon Bonaparte will re-ascend the throne of France, November 15, 1818.”

The advertiser says, “this egg was boiled for breakfast, and discovered by a Lieutenant Patterson, of the British army; and was sold in London in September, for three hundred guineas.”

We should hardly have supposed, that the good folks of Boston could be deceived by such a miserable hoax as this. Nothing is more simple or easy, than the art of making inscriptions upon eggs. Write any words you please upon an egg, with grease, and boil the egg in lime water, with a little onion juice; or place the egg in strong vinegar, for a few hours; and the inscription will appear prominent. We have likewise seen letters raised upon an egg so ingeniously, as hardly to be discovered, with no other instrument than a sharp penknife. The Yankee who can manufacture wooden nutmegs, can make prophetic eggs with as little trouble or expense.
In searching for Plymouth’s “prophetic egg,” I found references to others appearing in Portugal during the Peninsular War and in Macon, Georgia, during the U.S. Civil War. They seem to appear in times of crisis. And now you can make your own for the next time.

(Photograph by Marie Richie, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

“A speaking Egg they substitute”

As I quoted yesterday, a parodic item in the Freeman’s Journal of Portsmouth on 28 Jan 1777 stated that the following lines were discovered on a marble rock by a highly symbolic hermit. They were an answer to the “prophetic Egg” found in Plymouth around that time, warning that Gen. William Howe would conquer America.
——Britannia– sinks beneath her Crimes,
She dies——she——dies——Let Empire rise,
And Freedom cheer the Western Skies.

When every art and menace fails,
And Tory lies and Tory tales,
Are universally abhor’d,
They now pretend to fear the Lord.
Instead of virtue, a long face;
Instead of piety, grimace;
Pretend strange revelation giv’n,
And intimation sent from Heav’n.

To carry on the schemes of Bute,
A speaking Egg they substitute,
A strange Phænomenon indeed,
The stratagem must sure succeed;
And every mortal die with fear,
When they the sad prediction hear.

The Egg was laid without the Tent
Ergo it was from Heav’n sent;
The Egg was found within a barn,
Ergo from it we surely learn,
When Eggs can speak what Fools indite,
And Hens can talk as well as write,
When Crocodiles shed honest tears,
And truth with Hypocrites appears;
When every man becomes a knave,
And feels the spirit of the Slave;
And when veracity again,
Shall in a Tory's bosom reign;
When vice is virtue, darkness light,
And Freemen are afraid to fight;
When they forget to play the men,
And with the spirit of a hen,
Desert the just, the sacred cause,
And op’ning Heaven smiles applause;
On such a bloody barbarous foe,
Then I’ll be conquered by a Howe.
“Bute” means the third Earl of Bute, tutor to George III and prime minister for less than a year in the early 1760s. American Patriots continued to invoke him as a villain because he was Scottish, because he was a Tory in British politics, and because his name was easy to rhyme.

Frank Moore reprinted this poem (without citing a source) in his Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution in 1855. More people probably saw it in that book than in the original newspaper.

TOMORROW: How to inscribe a message on an egg.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

“About the Time the prophetic Egg was laid in the Town of Plymouth”

After reading the nineteenth-century reports of a pro-William Howe message appearing mysteriously on an egg in Plymouth during the Revolution, I went looking for contemporaneous sources. I found only one reference in the America’s Historical Newspapers database.

That calls into question Dr. James Thacher’s statement in 1832 that “the story of the egg was the subject of newspaper speculation in various parts of the country.” Of course, there might be other articles not picked up by that system, or I may not have searched for the right terms. (Additional mentions welcome!)

The lone response to the egg appeared in The Freeman’s Journal, or New-Hampshire Gazette, published in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 28 Jan 1777. That date supports Elkanah Watson’s memory of this event occurring at the same time that Plymouth received word of the American victory at Trenton in late December 1776.

The item started by dismissing superstition—but then it went on to both parody and exploit that credulity:


As the Superstition and Weakness of human Nature is such, that sometimes the most trivial Circumstance or grossest Absurdity, is attended with serious Consequences; you are desired to acquaint the Timid & Credulous, that Characters inscribed on Adamant are much more durable than when wrote only on an Egg-Shell. And also to inform the Public, that about the Time the prophetic Egg was laid in the Town of Plymouth, with this wonderful Prediction wrote on its Shell, “Oh, oh, America Howe shall be thy Conqueror,” a Hermit resembling the Genius of America, who had resided in a certain Forest from the first Settlement of the Country, found the following Lines inscribed on a Fragment of Marble near his Cave, visited by the Curious from all Parts of Europe, for the remarkable Eccho which oft reverberated in loud Peals, heard beyond the Atlantic,
TOMORROW: The following lines.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dr. James Thacher’s Story of the Egg

In 1832, Revolutionary War veteran Dr. James Thacher (1754-1844) published a History of the Town of Plymouth that included this anecdote:
An innocent trick was devised by some persons in this town, which occasioned at that time a general surprise and agitation. An egg was produced with the following words imprinted on the shell by the artifice of some tories. ‘O America, America, Howe shall be thy conqueror.’

The egg being taken from the hen roost of Mr. H. on Sunday morning, and exhibited to a concourse of people assembled for public worship excited the greatest agitation, and the meeting was for some time suspended. The tories affected to believe that the phenomenon was supernatural, and a revelation from heaven favoring their cause and predictions; and some whigs were ready to fall into the delusion, when one less credulous, observed that it was absurd to suppose that the Almighty would reveal his decrees to man through the medium of an old hen.

Thus ended the farce; but the story of the egg was the subject of newspaper speculation in various parts of the country, and the alarm which it occasioned in the minds of some people here was truly astonishing.
This story appears to be independent of the first-hand account I quoted yesterday from Elkanah Watson. Thacher inserted the story among anecdotes from before the war while Watson linked it to a Sunday in late 1776 or early 1777 when word of the Battle of Trenton reached Plymouth. Watson misspelled the name of the town’s Whig minister, which appears several times in Thacher’s book: Chandler Robbins.

The two writers also show different attitudes toward the event. Watson had to be convinced by “an ingenious painter” that the message could have been put onto the egg artificially. Thacher, on the other hand, suggested the notion of divine messages by that channel was prima facie “absurd” and a “farce.” Watson and his friends thought the egg was a Tory’s dirty trick. Thacher called it “an innocent trick.”

Both authors independently agreed on one detail: that the egg came from a hen owned by a family with the initial H.

TOMORROW: Tracking back to 1777.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Elkanah Watson’s Magic Egg

This anecdote is from Men and Times of the Revolution, the posthumously assembled memoirs of Elkanah Watson (1758-1842). It starts in December 1776 just after young Watson and some friends were inoculated against smallpox:
About the time we left the hospital, Major Thomas, of the army, arrived at Plymouth, from head-quarters. He had left Washington retreating through New-Jersey. I spent the evening with him, in company with many devoted Whigs. We looked upon the contest as near its close, and considered ourselves a vanquished people. The young men present determined to emigrate, and seek some spot where liberty dwelt, and where the arm of British tyranny could not reach us. Major Thomas animated our desponding spirits by the assurance that Washington was not dismayed, but evinced the same serenity and confidence as ever. Upon him rested all our hopes.

On the ensuing Sunday morning, as the people were on their way to church, I suddenly witnessed a great commotion in the street, and a general rush to the back door of Mrs. H—’s dwelling. Supposing the house to be on fire, I darted into the crowd, and on entering the house, heard the good woman’s voice above the rest, exclaiming, with an egg in her hand—“There, there, see for yourselves.” I seized the magic egg, and to my utter astonishment read upon it, in legible characters formed by the shell itself, “Oh, America, America, Howe shall be thy conqueror!”

The agitation and despondency produced, will hardly be appreciated by those unacquainted with the deep excitability of the public mind at that period. We were soon relieved from our gloom and apprehension, by ascertaining from an ingenious painter, who happily came in, that the supernatural intimation was the effect of a simple chemical process. We were convinced it was a device of some Tory to operate on the public feeling.

In the afternoon, an express arrived from Boston; a hand-bill was sent into the pulpit, and at the close of the service our venerable Whig Parson [Chandler] Robins, read from his desk the heart-thrilling news of the capture of the Hessians at Trenton—a happy retort upon the Tories.
Watson’s memoir was published in 1856, or nearly eighty years after this reported event.

TOMORROW: An earlier version of the same anecdote.

(Click on the portrait above or here for the Princeton University Art Museum’s exploration of John Singleton Copley’s 1782 portrait of Elkanah Watson.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

The King’s Bathtub Rediscovered

From the Guardian, 5 February:
As two centuries of lumber was cleared out of the abandoned Georgian kitchens at Kew Palace in west London – the smallest of the royal residences – a unique and poignant piece of royal history was uncovered.

The brown tin tub found stashed away in a chimney opening was the bath in which King George III took regular soakings in hot water, a prescription to calm him as he and his attendants wrestled with his terrifying bouts of mania.

At that time, the early 1800s, he was assumed to have been mad; he is now believed to have developed the hereditary condition porphyria. He was virtually imprisoned at Kew to prevent a political crisis if the full extent of his condition became known, as the previously gentle and clever king roared obscenities and terrified his wife, Queen Charlotte.

The discovery bears out a Kew legend that the tormented king took his baths not in the sumptuously furnished main house, but amid the domestic clatter of the royal kitchen.
Here’s the link to the Guardian article, but I have to warn you that page kept crashing my browser. It doesn’t show the actual tub, which will go on display at the palace.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

George Washington: “when I was young”

On 28 May 1754, Lt. Col. George Washington of Virginia was involved in an embarrassing skirmish that helped to spark the global conflict called the Seven Years’ War. (This little event is sometimes grandly called the Battle of Jumonville Glen.)

Three days later, the twenty-two-year-old officer wrote a letter to his brother John Augustine (Jack) Washington about the experience. It included the line: “I heard the bullet’s whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound…”

That letter got to the Virginia press, and thence to other North American newspapers, and eventually to the August issue of the London Magazine. It made George Washington famous across the British Empire—as an idiot. Or at least a callow youth.

According to Horace Walpole, even George II commented on Washington’s claim to be charmed by whistling bullets: “He would not think so, if he had been used to hear many.”

Meanwhile, Washington suffered a well-deserved and embarrassing loss at Fort Necessity. The next year, he volunteered as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock. That commander’s British column was caught in an ambush by Native and French soldiers, and Washington was the only aide not killed or wounded. He helped to lead the surviving British forces to safety, keeping the disaster from being even worse.

Once again, reports of that battle, many including Washington’s name, spread across the empire. On 31 Mar 1756, the Earl of Halifax wrote: “I know nothing of Mr. Washington’s character, but that we have it under his own hand, that he loves the whistling of Bullets, and they say he behaved as bravely in Braddocks action, as if he really did.”

More than twenty years after his first skirmish, Washington arrived in Massachusetts as general of the newly adopted Continental Army. The Rev. William Gordon wrote that at some point a gentleman—probably Gordon himself—asked the general about that old “heard the bullet’s whistle” line. Gordon said Washington answered, “If I said so, it was when I was young.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fun & Games at the Paul Revere House, 22-23 Feb.

School vacation week is coming up, and the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End is planning two special programs on “Fun and Games in the 1700s” on Wednesday morning and Thursday afternoon.

The site’s write-up says:
In colonial Boston did men, women, and children work from sunrise to sunset? The answer is a resounding NO! During a tour of the Revere House, children (and accompanying adults) search for beans, a thimble, bed wrench and other examples of household items the Reveres likely used for both work and play. Then, all participants will try their hands at popular colonial games such as Snail, Ninepins, Jackstraws, and Beast-Fish-Fowl.

Families will leave inspired to turn everyday objects into toys and games and with rules for these and other colonial amusements!
The two sessions are:

  • Wednesday, 22 February, 10:30 A.M. to 12:00 noon
  • Thursday, 23 February, 2:00-3:30 P.M.

The fee is $4.50 for children aged 7-11 and accompanying adults. The price includes admission to the Revere House. Each presentation is limited to 20 people, and reservations are required; call the Revere House at 617-523-2338.

(Picture on top: Thomas Rowlandson’s “Dr. Syntax Playing a Game of Ninepines” from the 1810s but set in an earlier time.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills

This is a little outside my self-imposed period, but it’s too good to ignore. From Romeo Vitelli’s Providentia blog:
Even today, archaeologists tracing the campsites used by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their historic expedition across the Great Plains from 1804 to 1806 can still rely on the relatively high mercury deposits to be found in the soil where the explorers dug their latrines. According to Sam Kean and his excellent book, The Disappearing Spoon, not only did Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition armed with microscopes, compasses, three mercury thermometers, and other scientific instruments, they also carried more than six hundred mercury laxatives, each four times the size of an aspirin, to be used for any digestive problems that they might encounter along the way.

The laxatives, marketed under the name of Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, were supplied by Meriwether Lewis’ chief medical advisor and the foremost health authority for the still-growing United States, Dr. Benjamin Rush.
The rest of that posting discusses Rush’s eminence as a physician in the early republic. Vitelli’s Part 2 mainly discusses Rush’s ideas on mental illness and how he had to treat his own son.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Rev. Bentley Returns to Salem, 15 Feb.

Last week I sat in a Dublin Seminar meeting with Donald Friary, former director of Historic Deerfield and now a consultant to historical organizations. As usual, he was knowledgeable, helpful, and wise. I had no idea that Donald also does first-person history interpretation.

Which is to say, he’ll be holding forth as the Rev. William Bentley (shown here, looking rather little like Donald) at Salem’s Old Town Hall on Wednesday, 15 February, starting at 7:30 P.M.

Bentley was minister in that town’s East Parish from 1783 to 1819. He left an extensive diary full of gossip, opinions, and observations about life in Salem, which was then reaching its economic and cultural peak. It’s a terrific source that I’ve never explored in depth, but keep being led back to. There’s no doubt he’d be an interesting evening companion.

Tickets for this event are $10 for general admission, and $5 for students. You can buy them in advance at Old Town Hall Lectures or at the door.

This presentation is the first of the 2012 Old Town Hall Lecture Series in Salem. Upcoming events include:
  • 21 March: Bonnie Hurd Smith on her new book, We Believe in You: 12 Stories of Courage, Action, and Faith from Massachusetts Women’s History
  • 18 April: Maryellen Smiley, curator, on the history of Brookhouse Residence for Women in Salem.
  • 16 May: public-television producer Andrew Giles Buckley on the 1787 Columbia Expedition, the first American trade voyage around the globe.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Measuring the U.S. Constitution’s Influence

A couple of days ago the New York Times published a front-page article by Adam Liptak headlined, “‘We the People’ Loses Appeal with People Around the World.” The information presented in that article didn’t strike me as a supporting the headline, so I went to look for the abstract of the underlying paper in the New York University Law Review.

David S. Law and Mila Versteeg summarize their findings this way:

In this Article, we show empirically that other countries have, in recent decades, become increasingly unlikely to model either the rights-related provisions or the basic structural provisions of their own constitutions upon those found in the U.S. Constitution. . . .

We find some support in the data for the notion that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has influenced constitution-making in other countries.
The Times article focuses almost entirely attention on the rights enumerated in different constitutions. There’s even a chart. It says little about governmental structure, but the paper does cover that topic.

The Canadian Charter was instituted in 1982. I’m not surprised that it reflects today’s understanding of human rights better than the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees, which come mainly from the first federal Congress. The oldest parts of our Constitution reflect eighteenth-century Whig ideology and controversies, with the inherent limitations of that society.

Some of the rights that Law and Veerstag looked for, such as a presumption of innocence in criminal trials, aren’t part of the U.S. Constitution but nonetheless part of U.S. law. They’re probably part of U.S. culture as well; we citizens would be upset not to have them. Perhaps they should be in the national charter, but as a nation we’ve been reluctant to amend the Constitution—or maybe its amendment process is too difficult.

It’s also no surprise to anyone who reads a newspaper that a lot more governments have a prime minister reflecting a parliamentary majority than the U.S. of A.’s structure of divided government. Even our own government chose a parliamentary system for Japan after World War 2. And no country, to my knowledge, has copied the American Electoral College.

On the other hand, one important aspect of the U.S Constitution has remained very influential, it seems to me: the fact that there is a written constitution that takes its authority from “We the People.” The requirement of a written constitution, drafted and ratified by people who at least claimed to represent the population, underlies most of the world’s present constitutions. There weren’t a lot of examples of that in 1787. Many of them, in fact, came from the American states. For most statesmen then, a nation’s “constitution” was an abstraction, a status rather than a set document, like an individual’s medical constitution.

In that respect, every country that sits down to write a national constitution has been influenced by the U.S. document, even if they choose models that offer more individual protections and a different structure of government. Article 2 or the Third Amendment might not be models, but “We the People” still has appeal.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Thomas Marshall, Tailor and Town Officer

Yesterday I tripped across this webpage from the National Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C., highlighting a portrait from its collection.

The subject is Thomas Marshall (1719-1800), a Boston tailor. That profession included very poor men and rather rich ones. Marshall was on the rich side, as the mere existence of this portrait shows. He served as colonel of the Boston militia regiment and a selectman.

Marshall shows up at a number of notable moments in the town’s Revolutionary history:

  • When angry merchants confronted pistol-wielding printer John Mein during the non-importation arguments of October 1769, Marshall swung at Mein’s back with a handy shovel.
  • Marshall testified about the night of the Boston Massacre in 1770, saying he saw fights between soldiers and locals, and insisting there were no more than 100 people in King Street during the shooting.
  • As a selectmen Marshall stayed in Boston through the siege; at the end, he was one of the officials who helped to convey an unofficial message from Gen. William Howe to Gen. George Washington in March 1776.
The painter was John Singleton Copley, early in his career. His technique hadn’t fully developed, but already he was conveying a sense of individual character.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Paine of Mitt Romney

In his victory speech after the Florida Republican primary, Mitt Romney said:
Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses. In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!
We might ask how Romney and his speechwriters can reconcile their accusations that President Barack Obama has launched so many harmful programs with this claim that he’s “chosen to follow.” But consistency and accuracy have never been Romney’s values on the national stage.

Which makes using a spurious quotation quite appropriate. As BuzzFeed reported:
The quote is widely attributed to Paine online, but searching through his works [also easily done online] revealed that the quote doesn't appear in any of them. Fred Shapiro, editor of the authoritative Yale Book of Quotations published by Yale University Press, told BuzzFeed that “the notion that Thomas Paine said this is extremely ridiculous.”

“The diction and tone of ‘lead, follow, or get out of the way’ are, of course, far too modern to have been said by Thomas Paine,” Shapiro said.
Eighteenth-century prose is built on long sentences. Paine could actually be more pithy and direct than many of his contemporaries with his “These are the times that try men’s souls” opening to The American Crisis. That wasn’t his complete sentence, though; it’s just punctuated as such in more recent reprints.

Reading lots of eighteenth-century prose makes the differences between it and more recent writing, even nineteenth-century writing, immediately obvious. (Last week I saw someone tweeting a George Washington quotation that clanged so loud to me that I felt there had to be a mistake. I discovered that most websites attribute those words to George Washington Carver. Not that I’m sure they were his, either.)

As for the words Romney attributed to Paine, BuzzFeed went on to say:
A similar form of the quote—“push, pull, or get out of the way”—can be traced to a proverb dating back to 1909, according to Shapiro, who is the author of a forthcoming book on notable misquotes. And there is a newspaper mention of the quote from 1961, but it’s from the governor of Ohio. According to Paine biographer Craig Nelson, Paine “never said it. George Patton did.” (You can also find the quote attributed to Patton on the Internet).
Romney’s exploitation of Paine’s name raises two questions. First, anyone with the least familiarity with Thomas Paine knows that his radical ideas on politics and religion make a poor match for Romney as a politician. Paine wasn’t just a “Founding Father”; he was a radical on two continents.

Paine scholars like Ken Burchell and Harvey J. Kaye quickly pointed out the incongruity. William Scheick told BuzzFeed that Romney’s misquotation was:
another deplorable example of politicians distorting history to advance themselves and their shadowy supporters. . . . For me, that's the real story here—that Romney and his audience apparently have no clue to what a searing liberal freethinker Paine was.
Lily Kuo at Reuters and John Nichols at The Nation wondered why Romney would quote a radical who favored democratic revolution, social programs, and a breakdown of the church. So did Charlie Pierce at Esquire, with more exasperation.

For me the bigger issue is how Romney and his speechwriters introduced the quotation: “Thomas Paine is reported to have said…” They knew that attribution was dubious. They knew that the Republican frontrunner was probably going to repeat a falsehood, so they added some weasel words as protection. It’s one thing to repeat a lie you honestly believe; it’s another to repeat something that you suspect is a lie but want to exploit anyway. That detail suggests the Romney campaign is running on a pervasive level of dishonesty.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Long View

“I believe that a wiser Generation will enjoy the Fruits of the Toil of Patriots & Heroes in the present Day.”
—Samuel Adams, 15 Jan 1781

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Gen. Washington Changes His Mind

For the last three days I’ve been tracing the debate within the Revolutionary leadership over whether to enlist black troops in the Continental Army in 1775. There were, in fact, already African-American soldiers among the troops besieging Boston. But when Gen. George Washington arrived, he saw their presence as a sign of weakness.

The Continental Congress had a heated debate about whether to discharge all those men right away. John Adams made inquiries. Washington and his fellow generals discussed whether to let black men enlist for the new year, and voted strongly against. As of the end of October 1775, that was the clear Continental policy, approved by two levels of government and pushed by the commander-in-chief himself.

And then on 30 Dec 1775 Washington announced in his general orders:
As the General is informed, that Numbers of Free Negroes are desirous of inlisting, he gives leave to the recruiting Officers to entertain them, and promises to lay the matter before the Congress, who he doubts not will approve of it.
And the next day he wrote to the Congress:
it has been represented to me that the free negroes who have Served in this Army, are very much disatisfied at being discarded—as it is to be apprehended, that they may Seek employ in the ministerial Army—I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them, & have given Licence for their being enlisted, if this is disapproved by Congress, I will put a Stop to it.
Once again the legislature followed their generalissimo’s lead and approved a new policy.

The stricture that only blacks who had already been in the army could join “but no others” doesn’t appear to have taken hold in practice. There were new black soldiers every year of the war.

Furthermore, they enlisted on the same terms as white soldiers, and for the most part they served in the same units. There were some companies composed entirely of African-American and Native American men from Rhode Island in the late 1770s, but their regiments were eventually integrated as well. Washington supported the move “to abolish the name and appearance of a Black Corps.” The Continental Army was thus the last American army to be integrated—if only at the enlisted level—until after World War 2.

What caused Gen. Washington to make a 180° turnaround on that issue in two months? I’ve been studying Washington’s work in Cambridge during the siege, and see multiple influences on his thinking:
  • At the end of 1775, the general was worried that his troops would all go home when their enlistments were up and the British would try an attack. He didn’t feel he could afford to send away any men willing to fight.
  • He could see that the black soldiers in the army were doing their duty, not weakening the army. Officers even singled out Salem Poor for praise in that period.
  • In Virginia, Governor Dunmore’s offer of freedom for enslaved blacks who joined his royal troops changed the politics of the question—though the importance of that factor has also been overstated.
  • Washington couldn’t have missed that he was supposed to be leading a fight for natural liberty. He enjoyed his lifestyle, based on slavery, but he actually believed in that value.
Boston National Historical Park historian Marty Blatt and I will discuss Washington’s change of mind and other parts of black history in Revolutionary America in a public conversation scheduled for noon on 3 March at the park’s visitor center, 15 State Street. This was initially planned as a briefing for park employees and interpreters, but the public can attend as well.

(At top is John Trumbull’s painting of Washington from 1780, with an African-American groom in the background, courtesy of the George Washington Papers.)

Friday, February 03, 2012

“Whether there be a Distinction between such as are Slaves & those who are free?”

Although the Continental Congress decided not to order Gen. George Washington to discharge all black soldiers he found in the Continental Army when he arrived in Massachusetts in July 1775, that doesn’t meant that American governments were okay with the idea of African-Americans in arms.

In fact, on 8 July, less than a week after the new commander’s arrival, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress told officers recruiting new men: “You are not to enlist any deserter from the Ministerial Army, nor any stroller, negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America, nor any under eighteen years of age.” Gen. Horatio Gates, the army’s adjutant general, repeated those instructions in his orders a few days later.

On 5 October, Washington convened his generals in a council of war at his headquarters. He was trying to come up with recommendations to the Congress about the new army that would take the field in January since all the current soldiers had enlisted only till the end of the year or sooner.

Among the questions the generals discussed was: “Whether it will be adviseable to re-inlist any Negroes in the new Army—or whether there be a Distinction between such as are Slaves & those who are free?”

Sending off enslaved men to battle for other people’s liberty was foolhardy, everyone agreed, not to mention hypocritical. But what about free blacks? According to the official minutes of the meeting, the council “Agreed unanimously to reject all Slaves, & by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether.” Most of the generals wanted to maintain the rules instituted in July. Only a small minority—maybe one to three men out of ten—were willing to accept any black soldiers.

A history student named Patrick Charles looked into this debate and published his findings in Washington’s Decision. And by “published,” I don’t mean he convinced a scholarly journal or press to publish his work. He published it himself through BookSurge.

The resulting paperback has grammatical and typographical errors and sometimes unclear language. But the research looks solid. Charles corrects some misconceptions about the topic, distinguishes facts from supposition, and offers a strong argument for his conclusions.

Among other things, he guesses that the minority in that October meeting included, or consisted of, Gen. John Thomas and Gen. Nathanael Greene. As quoted yesterday, Thomas said the black troops serving under him were as good as the whites. Greene later supported his cousin Christopher Greene’s effort to recruit African-American and Native American men into the First Rhode Island Regiment.

Whatever the generals said in their meeting, they decided against retaining any black soldiers. On 23 October, Washington met with three delegates visiting from the Congress and raised the question again: “Ought not Negroes to be excluded from the new Inlistment especially such as are Slaves—all were thought improper by the Council of Officers?” There’s no doubt about what answer he was pushing for.

Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Lynch, having sat through the previous month’s debate in Philadelphia, agreed that black soldiers should “be rejected altogether.” At the end of the month Gen. Washington issued recruiting orders for the new army specifically excluding “Negroes…, which the Congress do not incline to inlist again.”

That policy lasted for only two months.

TOMORROW: Gen. Washington changes his mind.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Two Massachusetts Generals on Their Black Troops

In October 1775, some members of the Continental Congress were criticizing the quality of American troops besieging Boston. Among their complaints was the number of black soldiers. Most of the army then came from Massachusetts, so John Adams took those remarks personally. (Of course, he took a lot personally.)

Adams sent similar letters to the two brigadier generals from Massachusetts, William Heath (shown here) and John Thomas, asking for their frank assessments of the troops:

It is represented in this city by some persons, and it makes an unfriendly impression upon some minds, that in the Massachusetts Regiments, there are great numbers of boys, old men, and negroes, such as are unsuitable for the service, and therefore that the Continent is paying for a much greater number of men than are fit for active or any service. I have endeavoured to the utmost of my power to rectify these mistakes, as I take them to be, and I hope with some success, but still the impression is not quite removed.

I would beg the favour of you therefore, Sir, to inform me whether there is any truth at all in this report, or not. It is natural to suppose there are some young men and some old ones and some negroes in the service, but I should be glad to know if there are more of these in proportion in the Massachusetts Regiments, than in those of Connecticutt, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, or even among the Riflemen.
The riflemen were from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.

Gen. Thomas wrote back:
I am Sorrey to hear that any Prejudice Should take Place in any of the Southern Colony’s with Respect to the Troops Raised in this; I am Certain the Insinuations you Mention are Injurious; if we Consider with what Precipitation we were Obliged to Collect an Army. The Regiments at Roxbury, the Privates are Equal to any that I Served with Last war, very few Old men, and in the Ranks very few boys, Our Fifers are many of them boys, we have Some Negros, but I Look on them in General Equally Servicable with other men, for Fatigue and in Action; many of them have Proved themselves brave…
And Heath said:
Rhode Island has a Number of Negroes and Indians, Connecticut has fewer Negroes but a number of Indians. The New Hampshire Regiments have less of Both. The men from Connecticut I think in General are rather stouter than those of either of the other Colonies, But the Troops of our Colony are Robust, Agile, and as fine Fellows in General as I ever would wish to see in the Field.
While writing favorably about black soldiers, Thomas was still a slaveholder. His servant Oakley was in the American camp, trying to look after the general’s son, during the final advance onto the Dorchester peninsula.

Heath, though not saying anything bad about non-white soldiers in 1775, was clear about his racism two years later when he wrote that black soldiers were “generally able bodied, but for my own part I must confess I am neaver pleased to see them mixed with white men.”

TOMORROW: Turning consensus into army policy.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Quintal on Black Soldiers in the Continental Army, 7 Feb.

On Tuesday, 7 February, at 7:30 P.M. in Lincoln’s Bemis Hall, George Quintal, Jr., will speak on the role of black soldiers in the American Revolution. The Lincoln Minute Men will host this presentation.

Back in 2005, Quintal assembled a study of African-Americans and Native Americans in the provincial forces during the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill for the National Park Service, and I know he’s continued to research since. (There’s a preview of that study on Google Books. Unfortunately, but the Government Printing Office says it’s no longer available.)

Anyone reading the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s report about the opening day of the war saw that among the wounded was “Prince Easterbrooks (a Negro man)” of Lexington. Salem Poor fought notably in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

But for a major slaveholder like Gen. George Washington, the sight of armed black men was at the least novel, and probably a bit disturbing. He saw it as evidence the New England recruiters had scraped the bottom of the barrel. In his first report back to the Continental Congress, he wrote:
From the Number of Boys, Deserters and negroes which have inlisted in this Province, I entertain some doubts whether the Number required, can be raised here…
That news seems to have produced even more anxiety among the some of the Congress delegates, particularly those from colonies with large enslaved black populations. In September the South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (shown above) proposed discharging all African-American men from the army.

According to New Jersey delegate Richard Smith, Rutledge “was strongly supported by many of the Southern Delegates but so powerfully opposed that he lost the Point.” Like a lot of other controversial matters, that debate was kept out of the Congress’s official record. But the vote didn’t settle the question.

TOMORROW: John Adams writes home for reassurance.