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, August 21, 2012

“A Gentleman lately sent to Philadelphia”

Among the published manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth is the summary of a letter from Brigadier General James Robertson, datelined 13 June 1775 in Boston. It described the situation in the besieged town and enclosed another note: “A Gentleman lately sent to Philadelphia brought me the inclosed, which I consider as the best Intelligence he brought.”

That enclosure was dated 25 May and said to be written in Philadelphia. The published collection summarizes it as follows:

The affair at Lexington has given such ideas of New England prowess that the Americans will listen to no terms but such as they themselves shall dictate. Delegates from the New England colonies declare openly against any Law of Parliament binding them in any respect. Congress proceedings. “It was said, and I believe truly, that Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin came out as an agent from Lord Chatham, to propose certain Terms, which he would push at home . . . We fear Lord Chatham: he is for having the supremacy acknowledged. . . . Lord North’s Motion would be slavery.” The taking of Ticonderoga has given great spirit to the Americans. New York has out-heroded Herod; its delegates are still the ablest in Congress. They hate the New Englanders. Strange and fabulous stories told of the provincials and the troops.
Who sent this intelligence?

My first thought was Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., who was “A Gentleman lately sent to Philadelphia” by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in May 1775. But the timing doesn’t quite seem to fit. He left Massachusetts on 20 May and evidently returned after 16 June, which makes him unlikely to have arrived in Philadelphia in time to gather intelligence and write the letter by 25 May, or to have “brought” it to Robertson by 13 June.

Furthermore, the phrase “sent to Philadelphia” probably refers to someone the Crown authorities sent there.


EJWitek said...

Benjamin Church departed the Boston area for Philadelphia and the Continental Congress driving a one horse sulky on May 20th, 1775 but made his first stop in Taunton, Mass where his mother, wife and children had taken refuge with the Crocker family. He arrived in Philadelphia on June 1, 1775 and delivered a letter from the Masschusetts Provincial Congress on June 2nd. He departed Philadelphia on June 10th and arrived back in Cambridge on June 16th while Bunker Hill was in progress.
He assuredly is not the person in question.

J. L. Bell said...

It took Church twelve days to go from Boston to Philadelphia (with a stop to see his family), but only six to return? That return seems awfully fast; Isaac Bissell and the other post riders carrying Joseph Palmer's important message about the shooting at Lexington took five days, and they presumably rode harder.

EJWitek said...

I agree that this seems very fast; but it's based on Church's account. It normally took the Boston to Philadelphia stage six days to cover this route and Church presumably made it in six and a half.
The Provincial Congress paid Church a little over 34 pounds for his expenses on the trip and that included the cost of the servant who accompanied him on horseback.
It has also been reported that Church was returning to Cambridge with some information "too secret to put in writing" that Samuel Adams gave him to pass on to James Warren. Perhaps that accounted for the urgency and speed of the trip.

J. L. Bell said...

Well, if we can’t trust Dr. Church’s accounts, what can we trust?

Starting early in the morning, arriving late in the day, six days—that seems more feasible. Especially if Church carried a pass of some sort from the Continental Congress.

Byron DeLear said...

I was amazed to read Washington's expense of $333 1/3 for intelligence out of Boston during the siege. That was a huge sum -- although, whoever the agent was, how much is putting your life on the line worth?

I wonder what fees or Royal promises were offered to the source of this intelligence in Philadelphia.

J. L. Bell said...

That $333 (£100) was actually Washington’s initial payment for intelligence. At the end of the siege he recorded a payment more than twice as large, with even less information about who received it, whether that was a lump sum or the total of many payments, &c.

I laid out my theory about who went into Boston to convey intelligence for the Continental commander starting here.

We know from Dr. Benjamin Church’s case that the royal authorities made payments for intelligence as well. But it’s also possible that this particular letter came from someone who was providing information to the royal authorities out of loyalty alone.