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.

Follow by Email


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Henry Knox in Balance

I’ve been exploring the documentary record of Henry Knox’s activities just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. I don’t think it supports the picture that his biographers have painted: that he was, and was widely known as, a stout Whig.

In fact, I suspect that Knox’s June 1774 marriage to Lucy Flucker, daughter of Massachusetts royal secretary Thomas Flucker, made some people think that the young man would soon lean toward the Crown. He had much better prospects with the Fluckers’ support than on his own.

As I quoted here, after hearing about that marriage, the pro-Crown New York printer James Rivington stepped up his correspondence with Knox. Rivington also recommended his shop to officers of His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot, on its way to Boston. Knox’s New London Book Store became known as a gathering-place for British officers—which could only have reinforced any public impression that Knox was in the Crown camp.

Whether he intended that outcome or not, Knox’s contact with the royal forces proved useful to the Massachusetts Whigs. On 3 Jan 1775, Josiah Quincy, Sr., of Braintree wrote to his son, Josiah, Jr., then visiting England, with sensitive news:

Mr W— brings intelligence from Boston, that the seamen on board the fleet are grown mutinous;—that one of the navy officers, meeting with a land officer at K—x’s shop, told him that on board all the ships their men were grown so uneasy and tumultuous, that it was with great difficulty they could govern them. Upon which the land officer observed, that the uneasiness among the soldiers was full as great, if not greater, than among the seamen.
The way Quincy dropped Knox’s name (disguised with a dash) suggests that the bookseller himself was a conduit of this gossip.

I’ve already written how it seems likely that Knox was the man who warned that royal officials—in particular, his father-in-law—knew what Paul Revere’s intelligence network was discussing in November 1774. (See “Who Tipped Off Paul Revere?”) Again, that suggests Knox supported the Whigs, but not loudly.

In his business letters Knox expressed strong hopes for a political change in London, but he avoided radical rhetoric and talk of armed conflict. Like most people, he probably hoped for a peaceful solution to the crisis. He probably wanted to avoid harsh conflict within his family and with trading associates. But when the Whigs needed intelligence, he provided it.

In his memoirs William Heath looked back circumspectly on how Henry and Lucy Knox left Boston:
His military genius and acquaintance with our General [i.e., Heath] led him to be importunate with Capt. Knox to join the army: not did he need persuasion to join in the cause of his country. His removal out of Boston, and the then state of his domestic concerns, required some previous arrangement; as soon as this was effected, he joined the army.
I suspect there was a lot of family drama involved in those vague sentences. Were there arguments and tears? Or did Henry and Lucy make their plans in whispers, not telling the rest of her family? As it turned out, Lucy would never see her parents again.

In the spring of 1775, Henry Knox discarded the opportunities that came from marrying into the Flucker family and became an unpaid engineer for the provincials. I don’t see that as an easy, foregone decision. Knox could probably still have chosen to stick with his wife’s family and take advantage of their wealth and contacts. Having that option made his decision all the more dramatic.


Bob said...

Mr. Bell. The absence of evidence and the lack of full participation, in any particular situation, certainly does not indicate guilt or leanings, especially so if Sam Adams and his cohorts are the barometer by which all Boston men are to be judged regarding their political affiliations. Could it be that Knox, acting as the "spy" choose to keep a low profile to ascertain as much privileged information as possible? Also, many ardent patriots, especially those outside of Boston, hoped for an amicable resolution of New England's troubles with the crown. As with, perhaps Knox, that does not make them Tories or sympathizers. Considering Knox's later actions, it disturbs me to believe that Knox could be considered any less of a Whig, based solely on a lack of evidence or a lack of participation. One might think John Adams suspect for defending the British soldiers charged in the killings of Boston civilians.
Thank you once more for your articles. For full disclosure,Bob Heffner, actor who portrays General/Sec. of War Knox.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments, Bob Heffner. I think “absence of evidence” is a big problem in Knox biographies when it comes to his prewar activities. Puls repeated what’s in Callahan, who repeated what’s in Brooks, who repeated some of what’s in Drake but came up with more on his own and offered no sources for it. It’s time to go back to the original documents.

Let's think about the statement, "it disturbs me to believe that Knox could be considered any less of a Whig, based solely on a lack of evidence or a lack of participation." Why should we believe Knox was an active Whig before the war—or anything else—if there's no contemporaneous evidence?

Knox’s correspondence and other sources in 1774-75 reveal him as a moderate Whig anxious about his business. We don't need to measure Knox against Samuel Adams, who was a full-time politician, but we can compare him to Thomas Crafts, David Bradlee, Samuel Gore, and other businessmen who were Whig activists. There's a wide spectrum between those men and the “Tories,” not an either-or split (yet); as I wrote, Knox appears outwardly to have been in the middle with most others.

The contemporaneous record also shows that some pro-Crown people trusted Knox with sensitive information. I think that was a result of his marriage making him appear closer to the Loyalist camp than he was. He could have been still trying to make up his mind, or he could have been avoiding political arguments for the sake of friendship or business. Yet another possibility, as you note, is that Knox deliberately concealed strong political beliefs in order to gather information—even from his own family.

I’m not sure what “guilt” the first sentence refers to. The wording suggests that's the “guilt” of being a Loyalist, which I view as a political position, not a crime or sin. That "guilt" doesn't seem to refer to betraying the confidence of a father-in-law, which is how some might interpret the hypothesis that Knox tipped off Revere.

I think it most likely that Henry Knox was torn before the war, supporting the Whig movement but wary of the costs (personal and imperial) of a deep conflict with the Crown. When he made his decisive commitment to the Patriots in the spring of 1775, it wasn’t an easy choice. It was a hard one.

G. Lovely said...

As always I'm thankful to JLB for his careful research and thoughful exposition. The series on Knox, like all of his posts puts flesh on the bones of the people who made this nation.

Reading the ambiguous evidence for Knox's loyalties leading up to the outbreak of war, I was reminded of the general evolution in people's thinking I witnessed in the years 1966-69, when many in the US went through a dramatic transition in their feelings our involvement in Vietnam. To ascibe a simple narrative line to an individual's motivations based on limited evidence is always tempting, but the truth is likely far more complex. The actual reasons for our changes of heart we often hide, even from ourselves.