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?

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