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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Friday, November 30, 2012

“Instead, he cites Annette Gordon-Reed?”

Until I read this week’s New York Times article on Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, I didn’t realize how that book treats the work of Annette Gordon-Reed.

As I wrote yesterday, Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy sparked the recent boom in books about the third President’s conflicted attitudes toward slavery. Her The Hemingses of Monticello, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, is a major study of American slavery, not just slavery at Monticello.

So how does Wiencek discuss Gordon-Reed’s work? Master of the Mountain mentions her books only three times. Two endnotes mention (but don’t quote) transcription errors in the first edition of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Those are undoubtedly sensitive spots for Gordon-Reed since a Jefferson descendant who disliked that book tried to use those errors to have her fired from New York University in July 2001. The Times reports:
David Waldstreicher, a historian at Temple University and the author of several books about slavery and the founders, called those footnotes (which do not identify the errors or acknowledge that Ms. Gordon-Reed corrected one of the transcriptions a decade ago in a reissue of her 1997 book) “fighting words” and “about as nasty as it gets.” A professional historian, he continued, “would publish this in a scholarly journal and make it very clear how it makes a difference, instead of using it to say, ‘I am the last word.’”
Wiencek told the newspaper “that the transcription errors were minor,” but his endnotes don’t leave that impression.

The third reference to Gordon-Reed’s work is this passage:
Many writers on slavery today have emphasized the “agency” of the enslaved people, insisting that we pay heed to the efforts of the slaves to resist their condition and assert their humanity under a dehumanizing system. But as slaves gain “agency” in historical analyses, the masters seem to lose it. As the slaves become heroic figures, triumphing over their condition, slave owners recede as historical actors and are replaced by a faceless system of “context” and “forces.” So we end up with slavery somehow afloat in a world in which nobody is responsible.

One historian writes about Monticello’s slaves as if they had no master: “There is every indication that they grasped the baleful situation they had been born into, and knew that forces were actively working to keep them down.”
And there’s an endnote pointing to page 405 of Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello. That sentence comes from a paragraph about how Sally Hemings’s son Madison learned to read. The same paragraph refers to Jefferson by name and calls his grandchildren Madison’s “white nieces and nephews, who were his age and going to a school that he knew he could never attend, but wanted to.” That’s not a picture of a “faceless system”—it puts specific faces on the system and tells us exactly who was “responsible” for Madison Hemings’s oppression and who benefited from it.

That’s why Prof. Jan Lewis of Rutgers told the Times, “There are historians who in their eagerness to discover the slave perspective have averted our attention from the ways in which slavery really was a horrible, unjust institution, but he doesn’t cite them. Instead, he cites Annette Gordon-Reed? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I suspect that treatment was a big reason why Gordon-Reed and Lewis published their critical assessments of Master of the Mountain so quickly after its publication, and in online venues (Slate and The Daily Beast) where those reviews could run immediately. Ordinarily the wheels of scholarship grind slow. But this was personal.*

Reading Wiencek’s response to those critical reviews on the Smithsonian website, I think he further mischaracterized Gordon-Reed’s work:
I am not surprised that Gordon-Reed disliked my book so much, given that it systematically demolishes her portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves. In The Hemingses of Monticello, she described with approval Jefferson’s “plans for his version of a kinder, gentler slavery at Monticello with his experiments with the nail factory.”
If Master of the Mountain had “systematically” addressed Gordon-Reed’s portrayal of Jefferson, it really should have cited her work more than three times. And this is the actual passage from The Hemingses of Monticello that Wiencek partially quoted in his riposte:
Building the nation was Jefferson’s true obsession [as President], not the end of slavery and definitely not the racial question.

As he retreated from the antislavery rhetoric of his youth, and grew comfortable in his role as the champion of the common man (the common white man), Jefferson, like others of his type, began to accommodate himself to the institution of slavery. As was discussed earlier, Lucia Stanton has detailed his plans for his version of a kinder, gentler slavery at Monticello with his experiments with the nail factory. He also brought in overseers who eschewed violence in favor of incentives as a way of motivating enslaved worked; for unexplained reasons, however, the men did not remain in his service. Jefferson was again, in all of this, ahead of his time—on the leading edge of adopting the sort of paternalism that would in the coming decades turn his white grandchildren’s generation into full-throated apologists for the peculiar institution.
Gordon-Reed published that book in 2008, during the sunset of George W. Bush’s Presidency. How can anyone think that she used the phrase “kinder, gentler” without irony? Wiencek appears to have missed not only that sentence’s tone but also how it expresses Jefferson’s perception, not Gordon-Reed’s: “his plans for his version…”

Where is the “approval” that Wiencek perceives from Gordon-Reed? Where is her portrayal of Jefferson as a “kindly master”? The only time The Hemingses of Monticello uses the word “kindly” for Jefferson is in describing how his acknowledged grandchildren perceived him. And that paragraph ends, “Kindly, doting grandfathers can be sexual beings, too…” Gordon-Reed assesses the master of Monticello like this:
It may be difficult from our vantage point to believe that Jefferson had an internal sense of justice and fairness, depending as he did on a labor system that was constitutively unjust and unfair. By holding upward of two hundred “souls,” as he called them, in bondage, he worked injustice and unfairness in their lives every single day. . . . But Jefferson did have his own sense of fairness within the confines of his inhumane way of life…
It appears that Wiencek perceives any attempt to understand Jefferson’s thinking instead of simply calling him monstrous as “approval.” For fifteen years Gordon-Reed has been attacked by reactionary critics who felt she was out to denigrate Jefferson when she studied his contradictions. Now Wiencek brands that same work as the most prominent attempt to gloss over Jefferson’s racism.

* Speaking of personal, I should say that I’ve chatted with Gordon-Reed after a couple of her talks over the past decade and exchanged a few emails with Wiencek years back, but I’m not a friend or colleague of either.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Academic History, Popular History, and Jefferson’s Slaveholding

A more salient element of the debate over Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves than differing interpretations is the divide between popular and academic history.

Wiencek is an “independent scholar,” not an academic. And more power to him. He’s written two books on American slavery and its legacy, The Hairstons and An Imperfect God, that received good reviews from in and outside academia.

Master of the Mountain’s loudest critics have come from inside the academy. Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of history and law at Harvard. Jan E. Lewis is a professor of history at Rutgers. David Waldstreicher, also quoted in the recent New York Times article about the controversy, is a professor at Temple. Another researcher who raised her voice on their side, Lucia Stanton, recently retired as historian at Monticello.

But there’s no real enmity between scholarly and popular historians. There’s even some overlap, with some professors publishing through commercial presses that don’t use peer review and some popular writers winning research fellowships. It may well be more of a system of mutual envy from both sides of the fence. Independent scholars might wish for the regular salaries, library access, and prestige of professors. Academic authors might wish they had no teaching responsibilities and could reap big advances by retelling great stories that break no new historiographical ground. But that situation has been in place for years; it inspires more bemusement than passion.

Book marketing might be a source of more friction. Basically, all history books these days have to be promoted as “the untold story.” Even if a book is about a topic that dozens of people have already covered, its publisher wants to be able to announce that it offers important new information. And academic and popular historians have different yardsticks for what’s new. For a professor, the innovation might lie in a research finding, interpretation, or methodology. In contrast, popularizers often define what’s “new” as what overturns the understandings of the general public, which can lag the scholarly discussion by decades.

In writing about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, Wiencek certainly isn’t traversing unexplored territory. The last fifteen years of Jefferson historiography have been largely consumed with assessing the man’s attitude toward slavery, with particular regard to the strong evidence that he had children with his slave Sally Hemings. Though there were important antecedents, that trend picked up after Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was vindicated by D.N.A. findings in 1998. Lots of books followed, including some by scholars who had previously dismissed the Hemings evidence and were catching up.

Furthermore, that sea change in interpreting the Jefferson-Hemings relationship made the newspapers. It prompted new depictions of the third President in popular entertainment. Today Americans are probably more sensitive than ever before to how Jefferson exploited enslaved people. To be sure, there are diehard Jefferson “defenders,” just as there are a few examples of what Wiencek refers to as “slavery’s retrospective apologists.” But there really aren’t enough of those folks to make the case that it’s “new” to reveal Jefferson as a slaveholder.

Master of the Mountain strives for novelty in arguing that Thomas Jefferson was a harsher slaveholder than previous authors have described. In some respects it does this by presenting new arguments. The book is the first to make much of two documents I noted yesterday: Jefferson’s 1793 letter about the growth of slave economies and the 1801 letter about whipping boys in the nail factory. Wiencek’s depiction of Jefferson committing himself to lifelong slaveholding in the early 1790s is new—and debated. But such interpretations aren’t what’s got the academics so upset.

Rather, Master of the Mountain increases its claim to novelty by complaining that previous writing on Jefferson (all of it? a lot? too much?) has minimized or excused the man’s slaveholding. Among those titles Wiencek includes not just older works but some of the groundbreaking academic books of recent years. And some of the arguments in his book appear “new” only in that they don’t acknowledge similar arguments in recent studies.

For example, Wiencek discusses how Jefferson handled Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s bequest suggesting that he free some of his slaves. Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Hodges were exploring that episode back in 2007. They published a book on the topic: Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull. As far as I can tell, Master of the Mountain doesn’t mention their work at all.

But even that, I don’t think, is what’s fueling the current critique. For decades academic authors have watched popularizers write books that are twenty years behind scholarly findings and take those “new” stories onto the bestseller lists. Something else is happening in this case.

TOMORROW: How Master of the Mountain treats Gordon-Reed’s work.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Debate over Master of the Mountain

The debate over Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves merited a long article in the New York Times yesterday. To review, this book is a highly critical look at Jefferson’s slaveholding that prompted:
Wiencek responded to the critical reviews through the Smithsonian site, and another historian from the same circle answered with a letter she had sent to a Virginia magazine.

On the surface this conflict is about different views of the importance of a few documents. For example, Wiencek feels that Jefferson’s 1793 letter to George Washington about the growth of slaves’ economic value reflected and influenced his personal thinking, turning him decisively against the idea of ending slavery for rest of his life. The other authors agree that Jefferson never stopped exploiting and depending on other people’s forced labor, but also feel that he continued to wrestle with the conflict between that lifestyle and his stated ideals.

Another issue involves this letter to Jefferson about the harsh treatment of enslaved boys working at his nail-making forge. Edwin M. Betts didn’t quote that letter in Jefferson’s Farm Book (1953). Wiencek’s Smithsonian article states that Betts “decided that the image of children being beaten at Monticello had to be suppressed.” Certainly evidence of forced child labor conflicted with Betts’s picture of Monticello as an “ideal rural community.”

But, Wiencek’s critics point out, Betts didn’t present his book as a complete set of documents about Monticello. He published plenty of details about the hard work at the nailery. And anyone who’s read about either slavery or childhood in eighteenth-century America already knows that beatings were common and accepted. (They were also more accepted in 1953 than now.) If Betts had highlighted that letter about beating young boys, it indeed would have undercut his image of Monticello. But is that enough evidence to warrant writing Betts “decided that…had to be suppressed”?

To some extent, these are philosophical questions. Wiencek expresses a rather Manichean view, seeing Jefferson decisively choosing the evil of slavery and Betts as deliberately deceiving his readers. Wiencek’s critics see more room for conflicted minds and well-intentioned folly. I think there’s value in having both interpretations to consider.

But that’s not enough to explain the fervor of this debate. Historians disagree about the importance of documents and how to interpret them all the time. There are a couple of other conflicts going on here.

TOMORROW: Academic historians and “popular” historians.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Housewright’s Workshop in Duxbury

Last week a regional edition of the Boston Globe reported on a discovery in Duxbury, “a largely intact woodworking shop dating from the latter half of the 18th century.”

The small building is on land of the Berrybrook School for little ones, and had been used for storage. In the late 1700s that same land was owned by Luther Sampson (1760-1847), a housewright and joiner who had fought several years in the Revolutionary War.

There are no tools remaining in the shed, but the room’s fixtures show how Sampson and his workers operated:
Framed in original sills, joists, and pineboard walls, the shop’s interior reveals two original work benches, one pitted with marks from hand tools. The second was a “planing bench,” lacking gouges or other tool scars because skilled millwork with wood planes was performed there. The wall above the bench has shelving to hold the planes.

The planing bench also reveals a groove added later to allow craftsmen to install a treadle lathe for turning wood, powered by a foot pedal.

The shop also has its original tool racks for chisels, awls, and brace (hand drill) bits, and a rack near the ceiling for handsaws. Holes in the wall board above the joinery bench and to the right of the window show where awls were stuck to keep them close at hand.

Sketches and hash marks on another wall preserve the living sense of a place where woodworkers spend long hours. Someone painted a sketch of a man standing with his back against a wall, one knee lifted, a hand extended. Much of the outline remains, the colors dulled but visible.

Sketches in pencil appear on another wall, including the outline of a bird probably sketched for a weather vane. Cross-hatchings over a door show the tallying of some quantity. Supplies? Boards? Wainscoting panels completed?

Cuts in the wall board reveal the location and shape of the shop’s fireplace, probably removed in the 19th century in favor of a woodstove.

Painted in black on a joist in the shop’s small storeroom, large digits spell out a date, “1789.” It may be a construction date, but Burrey says some construction techniques suggest an earlier date.
There has been a formal request for Duxbury to designate some of its Community Preservation Act funds for preserving the building and doing some archeological work on the site.

The photo above, by Barry Chin for the Globe, shows the bracket for drill bits attached to one wall. (Hat tip to Emily Murphy for the alert about this article.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Reporting on Reporting the Revolutionary War

National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition just reported on Reporting the Revolutionary War, the new journalism-based overview of the Revolution assembled by Todd Andrlik of Rag Linen. From that story:
There’s a lot more in those old newspapers than in your high school and college textbooks, he adds. “The Boston Tea Party, it was not universally celebrated in America. The ‘Shot Heard Round the World,’ well, it came very close to happening four months earlier, in New Hampshire. Benedict Arnold, he actually revitalized the American Revolution. The fact that Paul Revere was one of thousands of people caught up in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and that he really wasn’t mentioned in the newspapers of the period because they didn’t want to let out how they had alerted the countryside.”
I’ll proudly add that it’s one of my two essays in this book that points out how Revere didn’t make the news in 1775.

Here’s an Associated Press dispatch on the book, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, and Kirkus’s review of Reporting the Revolutionary War. I understand that Barnes & Noble will have its special edition on sale through today, and Amazon can match the price but not the extras.

Which brings me to Sunday, 2 December. At 5:30, Prof. Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University and I will join Todd for a panel discussion about the book at the Old State House in Boston. Earlier that day, at 2:00 P.M., Todd will sign books at the Harvard Coop. For more signings and talks, see the book’s events page.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Call for New Papers on “Foodways in the Northeast”

The days after Thanksgiving are always a good time to consider traditional New England cuisine. And how much better the Massachusetts settlers’ banquets would have had if their cookbooks had included well-made Peking ravioli.

In fact, the term “Peking ravioli” is another element of New England foodways, invented by restaurateur Joyce Chen in the mid-20th century. Other folks call those dumplings potstickers, jiaozi, or just dumplings.

The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife will examine that whole range of New England culinary culture at its next conference. Back in 1984, the seminar published a collection of papers titled Foodways in the Northeast. It examined such topics as “Food Theft and Domestic Conflict in Seventeenth-Century Essex County,” “The Fireplace at Memorial Hall, Deerfield, Massachusetts,” and “The Archeology of Urban Foodways in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.” Those papers focused mainly on the colonial period and its portrayal.

On 21-23 June 2013, the seminar will return to Historic Deerfield for “Foodways in the Northeast II: A Second Helping.” Plans are to publish a selection of that conference’s papers in a new volume. But first we have to get the scholarship on the table. Here’s the call for proposals for that conference:
The Seminar is now accepting proposals for papers, tours, and presentations on New England’s culinary history—food-preparation, cooking, and eating—in the period from 1600 to the present.

Addressing the larger concepts of food sustainability, geography, and ethnicity; food reform and hygiene; and the memory and language of food, the conference hopes to consider new scholarly developments in a subject explored by the Seminar thirty years ago in Deerfield in 1982. Possible topics include changes in diet over time, food as medicine, food preservation, table settings and presentations, cooking and eating utensils, and period cookbooks and family-centered recipe books.

The conference could also consider specialty New England items such as maple sugaring, lobsters, and oyster houses as well as the role of county fairs, state farms, and food exhibitions. Other topics might include the commodification or “branding” of food, the impact of weather, food shortages and surpluses, food markets and distribution, the evolution of the kitchen and built-in domestic spaces, children’s food, ships’ provisioning, food diplomacy, food as a social divider, food and religion, “slow food” and “local food” movements, and hybridization.

The Seminar encourages papers from the fields of anthropology, archaeology, art history, economics, folkloristics, gastronomy, gender studies, history, sociology, and other fields that reflect original research, especially those based on primary or underused resources such as letters and diaries, recipe books, newspapers, prints and photographs, business records, material culture, archaeological investigations, and autobiographies. Interdisciplinary work is welcomed.
There will be time for about seventeen presentations, each twenty minutes long. If you’re interested in proposing a paper for this conference, send an email with your full contact information and a “one-page prospectus that cites sources” and “a one-page vita or biography” as attachment to seminar director Peter Benes. The due date for proposals is 15 Jan 2013.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The End of the Constitutional Telegraphe

When we left off with John S. Lillie on Tuesday, he was feeling triumphant about the election of Thomas Jefferson as President in 1800. His Constitutional Telegraphe newspaper had strongly supported the Jeffersonian party, though—given how Massachusetts had a favorite son in the race and was already awarding all its Electoral College votes to whoever won the state—that hadn’t actually affected the election.

But Federalists were still in power in New England. And Americans were still working out their understanding of a free press. In February 1801 Chief Justice Francis Dana convinced a jury to indict Lillie for printing an anonymous piece that called him “Lord Chief Justice of the Common Law of England” and cast other aspersions on his integrity. Dana had been trying to apply English libel law in Massachusetts as a way to stamp out “sedition.”

Lillie announced in his 18 February paper that he “prefers to remain for a short time incog.” Too short a time, since state authorities brought him to court in August. Lillie produced the handwritten essay he had published about Dana. People recognized the writing of John Vinal—I suspect this was the man born in 1761 who taught in Boston’s Writing Schools and not his namesake father.

Both Lillie and Vinal were tried in the spring of 1802. For his attorney Lillie had George Blake, who had published essays about the case in the Independent Chronicle and had just been appointed U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. Vinal had Harrison Gray Otis and John Quincy Adams. That team argued that handwriting wasn’t legal evidence—and indeed it wasn’t yet. So Vinal was acquitted for lack of proof.

There was no question, however, that Lillie’s name appeared on the Constitutional Telegraphe’s masthead. And the U.S. hadn’t established our current understanding of protected political speech. So Lillie was convicted of libel and sentenced to three months in jail and a $100 fine. At the end of March 1802, nineteen days into his term, he published an angry account of the proceedings from his cell and announced he was giving up the newspaper.

A printer named John Moseley Dunham took over, soon changing the paper’s title to the Republican Gazetteer. (The fad for Telelgraphe newspapers had passed.) Later it got new owners and became the Democrat. Dunham went into the ink business before moving to Ohio.

On 12 Oct 1803 Lillie wrote to President Jefferson, enclosing a bill for $4.50 for sending him the Constitutional Telegraphe for six months (October 1801 to April 1802). He explained:
When I was Editor of the News Paper called the Constitutional Telegraphe, I sent it on to you, as did Doctr. [Samuel S.] Parker, who was the original Editor of that Paper. I should not at this late period have thought of forwarding my Bill to you, which I have inclosed in this Letter, but for my misfortunes. I have suffered, Sir, very much in consequence of my too ardent zeal in the Republican cause, & am willing, if it should be necessary, still to suffer more, neither the neglect of my Republican friends, nor the contumely or contempt of my federal enemies, will, I trust, ever induce me to alter my political creed. Perhaps my zeal in the Republican cause when I edited the Telegraphe, made me rather imprudent; I certainly meant well, & my concience does not reproach me with an intention, to injure, either directly, or indirectly, the private character of any man. The distress of my family was great during my unfortunate imprisonment for a supposed libel on Judge Dana; at that time, two of my Children lay at the point of Death, particularly, the youngest, who has the honor to bear your name . . .

You no doubt will recollect Sir, that the Constitutl. Telegraphe, was, at one time, the only decided Republican Paper in this State. and if I know my own heart, when I became its Editor, I had no other view, than the good of my native Country, in the promotion of Republicanism in your Election to the Chief magistracy of the nation, and to this single point I exerted with pleasure all the abilities which I possessed, & had the inexpressible satisfaction to find the cause triumphant
Lillie got what look like federal patronage jobs in the U. S. Loan Office and the U.S. Bank. In 1802 he also inherited the “the old Franklin house on Milk Street”—the Benjamin Franklin birthplace—from his uncle. However, he enjoyed that house for only eight years before it burned down. Lillie died at age 76 in 1842.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Monument to Hot Air

Since some folks are reportedly shopping for holiday gifts today, I’ll just say that I wouldn’t mind receiving this at the end of December.

From the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this is a terra cotta model that Clodion (Claude Michel) sculpted in Paris around 1784. He was proposing a large monument to the invention of the balloon. The Met’s webpage offers several more views of the model.

I love the combination of the latest and greatest science of the day with mythological figures. Winged cherubim gather fuel to make the balloon launch, and winged angels trumpet the achievement.

You’d think with all those wings, the cherubs and angels wouldn’t be that impressed by ballooning. “Oh, you can get off the ground now. That’s lovely. Can you decide which direction to go? No? Well, keep working on that. We’ll be over here. Or over here. Or wherever we choose, you see.”

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Memories from John Marston

For the holiday I’ll quote John Marston’s recollection of Thanksgiving in Boston before the Revolution. Marston evidently wrote this letter to Anne Adams about 1830, and it was first published in The Treat Family: A Genealogy of Trott, Tratt, and Treat for Fifteen Generations, and Four Hundred and Fifty Years in England and America in 1893.

Dear Cousin,

This is Thanksgiving day and we have eaten our plum pudding alone, a circumstance I do not remember having occurred before in the course of my life. All anniversaries bring with them solemn reflections and reminders of former days. I have been cogitating on one of the earliest I can remember when I was about ten years old. My father always invited a large party to supper on the evenings of those days, and by carrying you back to one, I may be able to give you some idea of the “olden times” you express a wish to hear about.

The room in which were to be assembled the invited guests was what we call the Drawing room, but in those days it was called the large parlour. At the upper end of which a large mahogany desk and book case. Between the windows hung a large Pier glass with a black and gold frame, and under it, a mahogany round table, covered with the beautiful chintz of that day. Opposite to this was another glass in a gilt frame, and under it a valuable marble slab on a richly covered mahogany frame. The chairs were carved mahogany with black morocco seats.

In one corner stood a clock with a blue enameled case, and in the other corner, a “Beau fet,” fashionable in those days, the upper part of which displayed the richest burnt China, enameled [porcelain with underglaze blue decoration and overglaze red and gilding], and the lower part a goodly assortment of silver plate which was more common then than now.

The window curtains were blue, made of a fabric not now in use, composed of worsted and cotton, or may be linen, very handsome. The carpet was humble Scotch and considered at the time a great luxury. The walls were hung over with flowered paper, and covered with elegant prints of the King and Queen, Lord Chatham and some others I do not recollect of a different description. The old fashioned walnut wood fire, must not be omitted, and the brass fire-set. We seldom see now this cheerful accompaniment of a family gathering.

The only children present, were, on that occasion, your aunt Bessie Treat, and myself. We were anxiously looking for the company as they arrived. And first came our dear old grandfather [Nathaniel] Greenwood with the countenance of a saint, his silver locks flowing on his shoulder, his cambrick neckcloth tucked through the button hole of his coat.

And next our venerable grandmother [Elizabeth Greenwood], with a rich brocade, so substantial it might have stood alone; yet, with the address of her sex, she would occasionally raise her dress, so as to discover a scarlet broad cloth skirt with a broad gold lace round the bottom.

Then came my aunt [Eunice] Bowers in a rich dove colored damask dress. I have since seen many Duchesses while in England, who with all their diamonds were vastly her inferiors in beauty and dignity of port and elegance of manners. She was at this time a widow.

Next her sat my good aunt [Anna] Treat, your worthy Grandmother: dressed in a brocade the color of which I have forgotten. There too was her noble husband, my uncle Robert Treat, your Grandfather, dressed in a blue coat, scarlet vest, black small clothes, and white hose. He had the face of Apollo! with the dignity of Mars.

There were also your uncles Nathaniel and Samuel Greenwood in plain suits—their brother Miles was approaching to a Maccaroni—what we now call a dandy. His coat was scarlet with a dash of gold lace. He was naturally fond of dress, but at that time he was secretary to the Governor of Nova Scotia, in which position a young man would wish to appear well dressed.

And last, not not least my beloved father and mother—their portraits are familiar to you. When we recollect, my dear Cousin, our worthy ancestors, who were possessed of high moral worth and most of them of deep and ardent piety, should we not feel proud of our progenitors?

On this occasion my father invited other guests. On this occasion I remember the Rev’d Mr. Allan, an English Patriot, James Otis—well known in the history of the Revolution—Dr. [Thomas] Young and some others.

At nine o’clock the company were ushered into the supper room. The first course was served on highly polished pewter. The second on the finest of china. The knives and forks had silver handles. The candlesticks were of pure silver. The table was of polished oak, and covered with the finest linen damask.
As Caitlin G. D. Hopkins noted when she shared this letter two years ago, Marston expended a great deal of effort on describing furniture and clothing. Even when the meal begins, his words focus on the plates and silverware. No tastes, no smells, no snatches of conversation.

This recollection has been dated to 1766, when Marston was ten years old. However, if “the Rev’d Mr. Allen, an English Patriot,” was John Allen, then it was around 1772 and Marston was sixteen. Allen was a Particular Baptist minister who published “The Spirit of Liberty” in London in 1770 and “An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty” in New England in 1772. According to John Adams (Anne Adams’s father-in-law) in May 1773, “Coll. Otis [the Whig lawyer’s father] reads to large Circles of the common People, Allens Oration on the Beauties of Liberty and recommends it as an excellent Production.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

America’s First Telegraphes and Telegraph

Yesterday I noted how the late 1790s brought a spate of new American newspapers called the Telegraphe, most of which went out of business in Thomas Jefferson’s first term. Which is a little odd considering that most of them were pro-Jefferson. And that Samuel Morse didn’t invent what we know as the telegraph for another three decades.

The key to those puzzles appears in Boston’s Columbian Centinel newspaper for 15 Nov 1794, in an item headlined “THE TELEGRAPHE”:
The plan of the new French instrument for conveying intelligence (the Telegraphe,) is by beacons on heights, at the distance of 12 or 15 miles from each other; in all of which are placed glasses. The words to be conveyed, are exhibited on the first, read, and exhibited by a short process at the second, and so on through the whole line. What the process is for copying the words so expeditiously, and for throwing such a body of light as to make them visible at such a distance, does not yet appear; but it is clear that the experiment has complete success.

Conde surrendered at six o’clock in the morning. At the meeting of the Convention at nine o’clock the same day, it was announced to them by the Telegraphe from Lisle. They instantly changed its name to Nord Libre, and resolved that the Northern army continued to deserve well of their country. These resolutions were ordered to be conveyed to Lisle by the Telegraphe. They were so; and before the Convention separated for dinner, they received the answer that their resolutions had arrived at Lisle, so that the very same day the army received the thanks of the nation for their achievement.
The beacon on Beacon Hill could send only one signal: lighting the tar barrel atop that pole meant Boston was in danger. Claude Chappe and his brothers had developed a much more sophisticated and flexible system, and it remained part of France’s communications infrastructure for half a century. Low-tech Magazine, Boing Boing, and of course Wikipedia have more detail on how it worked.

So to Americans of the 1790s, a “telegraphe“ was:
  • the latest, most advanced technology for transmitting news over a distance…
  • particularly news about threats to the republic…
  • developed in Revolutionary France.
No wonder Jeffersonian printers adopted that term for their newspapers! They spent the last part of George Washington’s Presidency and all of John Adams’s warning about Federalist encroachments on Americans’ rights and lauding the French republic. Once Jefferson won the top office, those newspapers changed their titles (or their proprietors got political jobs).

A few years later, Massachusetts had another sort of “optical telegraph,” invented by Jonathan Grout (1737-1807) of Belcherstown, a Revolutionary War veteran and anti-Federalist who had represented part of Massachusetts in the first federal Congress. In 1801 he built an optical telegraph that sent shipping news from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard via Hull, Scituate, Marshfield, and other towns. Caleb Bingham’s Historical Grammar (Boston: 1802) said Grout’s telegraph
is upon a plan entirely different from, and far superior to, any ever used in Europe. With this Mr. Grout has asked a question, and received an answer from a distance of 90 miles, in ten minutes.
Grout’s system doesn’t appear to have lasted for long after his death, however.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Clues to the Constitutional Telegraphe

Yesterday I quoted an obituary from a Boston newspaper titled the Constitutional Telegraphe in 1800. At the time, Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) was a schoolboy in Charlestown. He didn’t invent the telegraph as we know it until 1832. So where, I wondered, did that newspaper get its name? And what did that name signify?

The first clue is that there were other newspapers called the Telegraphe around the same time:
  • the American Telegraphe of Newfield (later Bridgeport), Connecticut, which published April 1795 to October 1800.
  • the Baltimore Telegraphe of 1795 to 1800, with a special broadside of 1803.
  • the Greenfield Gazette, or, Massachusetts and Vermont Telegraphe of 1795-97.
  • Massachusetts’s Moral and Political Telegraphe, or, Brookfield Advertiser of Massachusetts, 1795-96.
  • the Telegraphe of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, also 1795-96.
  • the Telegraphe, and Charleston Daily Advertiser from South Carolina, known for a single week of publication in 1795.
All those newspapers were founded and published in a very brief period—from George Washington’s second term as President through the 1800 Presidential race.

The second clue is that most of those papers appear to have leaned toward the Jeffersonian party. In fact, in the mid-1800s Joseph T. Buckingham wrote about how Dr. Samuel Stillman Parker, son of a physician and Baptist minister out in Harvard, founded Boston’s Constitutional Telegraphe:
Common rumor said that the editor was instigated to the enterprize by a belief that the [Independent] Chronicle did not quite satisfy the wishes and expectations of some of the most ultra of the republican party. . . .

[Printer] Jonathan S. Copp…was a native of New-London, and though he served his apprenticeship with a decided federal printer, he was a bitter reviler of every thing that had the odor of federalism.

At the end of the first volume, September 27, 1800, Parker gave notice that he had “sold out his proprietorship” to John S. Lillie, “who had agreed to carry it on in support of the republican interest, for which it was sincerely instituted.”
Lillie was a dry-goods merchant, educated in the Boston public schools in the 1770s. Buckingham wrote:
He was an invincible disciple of the Jeffersonian school of politics, and endured the reproaches of his federal contemporaries with a firmness and perseverance, which his most inveterate opponents could not but admire. . . .

Mr. Lillie began his editorial career with a pledge to conduct the Telegraphe on the principles adopted by his predecessor, and a promise that nothing should be admitted, in opposition to the equal rights of man. The political paragraphs were more numerous, and more severe in their tone, and as the presidential election soon after terminated in favor of Mr. Jefferson, the writers in the Telegraphe assumed a more triumphant and defiant style towards their political opponents.
In September 1800, Lillie even named a son after Thomas Jefferson. (The Columbian Minerva of Dedham reported that alongside the baptism of another child named after John Adams.)

COMING UP: The Federalists strike back.

BUT FIRST: Yeah, yeah, what does this all have to do with a “telegraphe”?

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Schoolmaster During the Siege

I’ve shared reminiscences from Benjamin Russell and Harrison Gray Otis of how their Boston public schools closed in April 1775 with the outbreak of war (and how their stories got intertwined). That was the end of town-sponsored education in Boston until after the British military left the next March. Families probably kept up lessons for little kids, teaching them to read—which had always been a private responsibility. But I didn’t think anyone was teaching the handwriting, business math, or Latin and Greek of the public schools.

Then I found a mention of Elias Dupee in Zechariah Whitman’s 1842 history of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company. That eventually led me to this sentence in Caleb Snow’s 1828 History of Boston:
During the siege, the town schools were suspended: a few children attended the instructions of Mr. Elias Dupee, who remained in Boston, and gratuitously devoted himself to his employment of a teacher, in which he took peculiar delight.
A number of other books repeat that statement, sometimes in different words but without additional details. Oliver A. Roberts’s later history of the Ancients & Honorables says that Dupee was a Freemason and held several town offices, including tax collector and constable. From 1764 to 1769 he regularly advertised in Boston newspapers that he was selling goods in a “New Auction-Room,” which moved around a bit; in February 1769 he was “over Mr. John Dupee, Mathematical Instrument Maker’s Shop.”

Poking around for more information about Dupee’s pedagogical career, I found that on 9 Apr 1776 private-school teacher John Leach wrote from Boston to one of the public-school masters, John Tileston, then staying at Windham, Connecticut:
The Selectmen have been so busy that I have not had opportunity to see them in a Body. The people are flocking into Town very fast, and there are great Numbers already Come in. I see Mr. Webb, and Mr. Holmes, and Mr. Parker, and several of our Friends, and they are all of opinion that you had better return to your school as soon as you can. . . . Martin [Master? Samuel] Hunt is in Town, and Dupee still continues at your Schoole
So during the siege Dupee used the North Writing School, owned by the town. The selectmen voted to reopen the public schools on 5 June. Tileston was back by then, and the records don’t mention Dupee.

At some point Dupee set up his own school in the Sandemanian meeting-house off Middle Street (now Hanover) in the North End. The Sandemanians were a Christian sect out of Scotland that had won over some locals in the decade before the Revolution. Many left with the British troops. On 5 Oct 1785, selectmen Moses Grant and John Andrews became “a Committee to treat with Mr. [Isaac] Winslow respecting a Schoolhouse lately improved by Mr. [Elias] Dupe known by the Name of Sandemons Meeting house.”

Within a month, the selectmen and Winslow on behalf of the Sandemanians agreed to a rent of £20 per year, minus what “three indifferent Persons” judged to be the fair cost of the town’s repairs “to the Wood House & Necessarys.” That suggests Dupee may not have been teaching in that building very recently; he was the latest user, but perhaps not a recent one.

That building became known as the Middle Street Writing School and was assigned to Master Samuel Cheney. Tileston was still at the North Writing School, so it looks like the North End’s youth population was growing enough to require two schools in that part of town. In 1789 Boston undertook a big education reform, and the next year the town gave up the lease and built new schools for itself. Elias Dupee never became one of Boston’s public schoolmasters.

The 27 Dec 1800 Constitutional Telegraphe of Boston reported at the top of its list of deaths: “Suddenly, on Wednesday last at Dedham Mr. Elias Dupee, formerly a Schoolmaster in this town, Aged 74.” Dedham town records say he died “of old Age” at the house of Daniel Baldwin, where he was boarding, and was aged 76. Some sources say Dupee had been born in 1716, and was thus 84.

TOMORROW: The Constitutional Telegraphe?!

[The thumbnail above shows the historical marker for the site of teacher John Tileston’s house in the North End, courtesy of Leo Reynolds’s Flickr stream under a Creative Commons license.]

Sunday, November 18, 2012

What Upset Deborah Putnam?

After Gen. George Washington organized the Continental Army into brigades in late July 1775, Gen. Israel Putnam moved into the Ralph Inman mansion in east Cambridge. He had already stationed his son Daniel there with instructions to see that Elizabeth (Murray Campbell Smith) Inman wasn’t harassed.

Soon, however, Inman moved to the estate she had inherited in Milton, and the army finished filling her Cambridge farm with barracks and fortifications. At some point Gen. Putnam’s wife Deborah joined him, as shown by some letters he exchanged with the Cambridge committee of safety in 1776.

After leaving Massachusetts, on 22 May Putnam sent back a letter that “remonstrated against the treatment that Mrs. Putnam had received from an agent of this committee.” The only surviving excerpt, probably with its spelling and punctuation cleaned up, offers a sense of that letter’s tone:

Pray did not I labor and toil night and day, through wet and cold, and venture my life in the high places of the field, for the safety of my country, and the town of Cambridge in particular? For it was thought we could never hold Cambridge, and that we had better quit it, and go back and fortify on the heights of Brookline. I always told them we must hold Cambridge; and pray did not I take possession of Prospect Hill the very night after the fight on Bunker Hill, without having any orders from any person? And was not I the only general officer that tarried there? The taking of said hill I never could obtain leave for before, which is allowed by the best judges was the salvation of Cambridge, if not of the country.
On 18 June the committee replied that Putnam’s conduct
while in Cambridge, in every respect, and more especially as a general, (without having it set forth,) we hold in the highest veneration, and ever shall. . . .

Nothing was ever aimed at treating you or yours unbecoming the many obligations that we are under for the extraordinary services you have done to this town, which must always be acknowledged with the highest gratitude, not only by us, but by rising generations.
Richard Frothingham quoted from those letters in his History of the Siege of Boston, thanking “J. Harlow, Esq.” for a look at the original documents. As a historian he was mostly interested in the question of what role Putnam played in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Frothingham avoided stating why the general had complained to the committee about “the treatment that Mrs. Putnam had received.”

The best evidence we have about the root of that conflict, and it’s a tradition without a cited source, appears in Old Cambridge and New by local historian Thomas C. Amory, published in 1871. He wrote that:
Mrs. Putnam took her airings in the [Inman] family coach. The Cambridge selectmen, provoked at this by them unwarranted appropriation of confiscated property, had the presumption, when she was some distance from home, to compel her to alight. The general was not of a temper to submit very meekly to such an affront, and his indignation was expressed with sufficient force to have become historical.
That appears to be based on local memory rather than documents. It mixes up the selectmen and the committee of safety (though they probably overlapped). But the fact that Frothingham saw letters referring to a dispute means something serious must have happened.

It’s conceivable that Deborah Putnam tried to take the coach not for “airings” but for her journey south at the end of the siege. That could explain why the general wrote back to the committee rather than storm into their meeting-place and cuss them out, which would be more his style. It also fits the legal issues involved: Patriot committees were happy to let the army use local Loyalists’ property during the siege but didn’t want it permanently removed or damaged without legal authorization.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Exploring the World of Assassin’s Creed 3

One of the big videogames of the season is Assassin’s Creed 3 from UbiSoft. The Los Angeles Times review was mixed, finding the game play limited but the mise-en-scène amazing:
Set largely in the period during the American Revolution, “Assassins Creed 3” (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) is an action-adventure at its most expertly researched, and it is the all-too-rare title to prominently explore Native American culture. Colonial cities such as Boston are constructed via 18th century maps, and Ubisoft hired a Mohawk community consultant for language accuracy. It’s perhaps the only game released in 2012 that could be more fun to experience as a historical fact-checker than a player.
I already did that, based on a preview video of the game, and you can hear the interview here. Since I’m not a gamer, I can’t speak to the elaborate backstory, the character movement, the narrative options, and the like. But the visual recreation of colonial Boston looks great.

I’ve seen some articles describe the game’s version of Boston as “one-third scale,” which means the characters should be peering over the tops of houses. I think that’s a confused reference to the designers recreating about a third of the town. I know characters can jump around the Town House (now Old State House) and the docks, but they may not be able to make it down to Pleasant Street or all the way out to the Mill Pond.

Slate called the result “the most accessible reconstruction of the Revolutionary War era that’s ever been made.”
Walking the cobblestone streets of Boston means maneuvering around pigs, dogs, and street urchins, down lanes and alleys that are unrecognizable even to a longtime Boston resident like me. Town criers belt out news of shots fired in anger in other cities and of troop movements, first by the French and later, as the revolution sets in, by the British. There are bonnets and britches and tricorn hats, and most of the small talk and bickering you overhear doesn’t come with Boston’s infamous accent but in slang and jabs imported from England, Germany, and the rest of the Old World.

If this sounds a little unpleasant, that's because it is. Colonial Boston is boldly, fascinatingly ugly. It’s relentlessly brown—the docks are brown, as are the fences, the wood-sided buildings, and the clothes on most passersby. “The irony is that the game you see is far less brown than it was,” Hutchinson says. “We spent a lot of time telling the art director, ‘Everything’s brown,’ and he would say, ‘But everything was brown.’”
Assassin’s Creed 3 was developed by a French company with a big office in Montreal and developers all over the world. At the launch party this fall, I heard all sorts of accents. That national diversity meant the developers could contemplate the Revolutionary conflict from many angles, not bound consciously or unconsciously to America’s heroic origin story.

The game’s main hero, Connor, is of Irish and Mohawk origin (as well as somehow related to assassins in the medieval and Renaissance versions of the game—the details escape me). He may not feel complete allegiance to one side—there were men of Irish and Mohawk descent on both sides of the war, after all. According to this L.A. Times story, the game’s writers chose that hero to be “someone who would be coming into Colonial society for the very first time,” like the game’s players. And he seems to voice a modern sensibility:
For example, at one point in the game, Connor meets with Samuel Adams. As the two walk through the streets of late 18th century Boston, Connor criticizes the Founding Father’s position on slavery. Though Adams personally opposes slavery and abolished the practice in his own household, he does not use his pulpit to speak publicly on the issue — a decision that Connor finds incongruous with the patriots’ cause.
Which is a fair question—but one usually brought up by Loyalists in Revolutionary Massachusetts.

UbiSoft’s developers were even able to take their first downloadable add-on somewhere that past American authors would have found anathema: a post-Revolutionary America where George Washington has become a tyrannical king and must, presumably, be assassinated. I doubt the next downloadable add-on invites players to leave the army and return peacefully to a farm.

If anyone has played through Assassin’s Creed 3 and has strong impressions of the game and its depiction of history, you’re welcome to share your thoughts here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Crossing the Delaware by Air?

If you’ve long felt that the only problem with the American War for Independence is that it didn’t have enough airships, then you should check out the Kickstarter campaign for Steam Patriots.

Steam Patriots is a “transmedia interactive project” from Noble Beast Books, publisher of speculative fiction in print, digital, and audio forms. Its past titles include Steampunk Holmes.

The image above is a detail of Patrick Arrasmith’s scratchboard illustration “George Washington with Airships.” See the full image at the Steam Patriots site. It “will be included in the interactive iPad edition and will be sold separately as a poster.”

I first heard about this project some months ago, but apparently a necessary part of launching a Kickstarter campaign these days is to create video promotions and previews. That seem circular to me, but then I’m old enough to remember when videos were harder to produce than manuscripts, photographs, and drawings.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gen. Lee on the New England Regiments

What did Gen. Charles Lee think of the regiments he discovered in along the siege lines outside Boston? Here are his comments to Dr. Benjamin Rush on 20 July 1775:

Upon my Soul the materials here (I mean the private men) are [admira]ble—had they proper uniforms, arms, and proper officers, their zeal, youth, bodily strength, good humour [and dext]erity, must make em an invincible army.

The Rhode [Islanders] are well off in the article of officers and the young [officers of] the other Provinces are willing, and with a little time will do very well—but from the old big wigs[—libera] nos Domine [God save us]—the abilities of their Engineers are not [evi?]dant—I really believe not a single man of ’em is [capable] of constructing an Oven
And to Robert Morris on 27 July:
Our miserable defect of Engineers imposes upon me eternal work in a department to which I am rather a stranger—the undoing what we found done gives us more trouble than doing what was left undone—however we have contrived to make ourselves pretty secure—the Enemy seem to aim at the same object—Upon the whole they act and I believe will act upon the defensive unless they turn to a piratical war [i.e., Royal Navy operations] . . .

This announces at least a lowness of pulse. If I were General [George] Washington however I should jump at the offer of your third Battalion [of] Riflemen—indeed I should demand some entire Battalion from your Province—and should propose disbanding the same number of Battalions of Massachusetts—Not but the Private men are admirable and the young officers tolerable but they have in fact engaged for more than they can perform, Eight Thousand are full as much as they can compleat. Connecticut, N. Hampshire could furnish many more than is settled by the Congress.
Lee had told Morris something similar at the start of the month. But he spoke less favorably about the Connecticut troops that fall.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Vassalls’ Pension and Tonight’s Lecture in Medford

On 17 June 1858, an anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Massachusetts Historical Society held a special meeting at the house of member Henry W. Longfellow. Members shared some documents about the first owner of that house, John Vassall.

Massachusetts judge Lemuel Shaw recalled a case from early in his legal career that started when the state confiscated that property because Vassall was an absent Loyalist:
The estate having been confiscated by the Government because its owner was a Tory, when the commissioners were putting it up for sale, an old colored man, a slave, who had long served in the Vassal family, stepped forth, and said, that HE was no Tory, but a friend of liberty; and having lived on the estate all his life, he did not see any reason why he should be deprived of his dwelling. On petitioning the General Court, a resolve was framed, granting Tony a stipend of twelve pounds annually.

About 1810 (after Tony’s death), Cuba, his widow, went to the State Treasurer to get her stipend; but it was found that the resolve did not include herself. Mr. Shaw, then a member of the House, presented her petition for the continuance of the grant. It met with favor, and the annual sum was voted to Cuba during her natural life.
Shaw’s extemporaneous recollection wasn’t completely accurate, and reflects the dismissive racism of his time (referring to Tony and Cuba Vassall only by their first names), but it’s impressively close. The Massachusetts legislature responded to Tony Vassall’s petition by voting to pay “the sum of twelve pounds in specie, or a sum in bills of credit equivalent, to the said Anthony” each year.

Tony Vassall died in 1811, receiving obituaries in the Boston Repertory and Columbian Centinel. His widow Cuba petitioned for the pension to continue, and on 28 Feb 1812 the legislature granted her $40 per year. But she died only a few months later.

Tonight I’ll discuss the lives of Cuba Vassall and her mistress Penelope (Royall) Vassall at their first home in Massachusetts, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford. Later they lived on “Tory Row” in Cambridge; Penelope was John Vassall’s aunt and neighbor, and in the early 1770s Cuba was his property. I’ll discuss how the Revolution disrupted those old relationships and sent both women off on new paths. That talk starts at 7:30. Admission is free for members, $5 for non-members.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

“General Fry, that wonderful man”

Back on Friday, I listed all the New England generals whom Gen. George Washington found along the siege lines when he arrived in Massachusetts in July 1775. The next few postings have detailed what happened to all those men—except one.

Joseph Frye (1712-1794), appointed a Massachusetts general on 21 June, was working closely with Gen. Artemas Ward when they learned of the Continental Congress’s choice of generals. That list didn’t include Frye. Ward personally went out to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Watertown to talk to its leaders about sending a full list of its appointees to Philadelphia. At least that’s how Frye recalled the situation the following spring.

Frye agreed to stay on the job until his promotion came through. When Ward moved to Roxbury in late July to oversee the southern wing of the army, Frye went with him. In August, some Continental Congress delegates visited Ward’s divisional headquarters. Frye asked what happened to his commission.

The visitors answered that “in the letter sent to them in regard to him and others, his Christian name was not mentioned, and…they could not satisfy themselves it was he.” Was there any other military man in Massachusetts named Frye? Certainly not such a prominent one. Whatever the excuse, there was still no Continental appointment. Frye gave the delegates his résumé and stayed on.

Occasionally that summer, Washington’s general orders referred to “Frye’s brigade,” but officially he was still just the senior colonel, not a brigadier general. Washington did want another brigadier. He just didn’t particularly want Frye. That’s clear in a 31 August letter to the Congress in which he mentioned two candidates for that rank.

The first was an old colleague from the French & Indian War, Col. John Armstrong: “his general military Conduct, & Spirit much approved by all who served with him; besides which, his Character was distinguished by an Enterprize against the Indians, which he plann’d with great Judgment, & executed with equal Courage, & Success.”

As for Joseph Frye:
He entered into the Service as early as 1745, & rose thro’ the different military Ranks in the succeeding Wars, to that of Colonel, untill last June, when he was appointed a Major General by the Congress of this Province. From these Circumstances together with the favourable report made to me of him I presume he sustained the Character of a good Officer—Tho’ I do not find it distinguished by any peculiar Service.
The Congress got the message and commissioned Armstrong, but he served in the south.

On 12 October, Frye heard that headquarters didn’t expect to receive a new brigadier appointment in the near future. He left for his home in Maine, where he was laying out what would become Fryeburg. (Above is his surveyor’s compass, courtesy of the Virtual Museum of Surveying.)

Once the old colonel was a safe distance away, Washington wrote to Philadelphia on 2 November: “I must beg leave to recall the attention of the Congress to the Appointment of a Brigadier General—an Officer as necessary to a Brigade as a Colonel is to a Regiment, and will be exceedingly wanted in the new Arrangement.” The next month he passed on the name of Henry Babcock of Rhode Island. (That was before Babcock went mad.)

In January the Congress finally decided to make Joseph Frye a brigadier in the army at Boston. That news took a while to reach Maine. Frye arrived back at the siege lines on 15 February, and Washington gave Frye his commission the next day. On the 24th, he sent Frye a short note about chaplains. And that’s the only message to the man in the commander-in-chief’s correspondence.

Which is not to say that Washington didn’t write about him. On 7 March he told his former secretary, Joseph Reed, that Frye “keeps his room, and talks learnedly of emetics, cathartics, &c. For my own part, I see nothing but a declining life that matters [to] him.”

The day after the last British ship sailed from Boston, Frye sent in his resignation from the army, effective 11 April. Washington wrote to Charles Lee about that detail: “the choice of the day became a matter of great speculation, and remained profoundly mysterious till he exhibited his account, when there appeared neither more nor less in it, than the completion of three calender months.” In other words, Frye wanted to be paid for a full quarter of the year.

On 1 April, Washington told Reed:
General Fry, that wonderful man, has made a most wonderful hand of it. . . . He has drawn three hundred and seventy-five dollars, never done one day’s duty, scarce been three times out of his house, discovered that he was too old and too infirm for a moving camp, but remembers that he has been young, active, and very capable of doing what is now out of his power to accomplish; and therefore has left Congress to find out another man capable of making, if possible, a more brilliant figure than he has done
Washington was rarely that free with his opinions in official correspondence.

To be sure, Frye was more than two decades older than Washington. He had served in King George’s War and the French & Indian War, writing the standard account of the siege of Fort William Henry. He may have been better off staying retired. Still, he was healthy enough to live another eighteen years to the age of eighty-two.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gen. Washington’s “three Grand Divisions”

The day before Gen. George Washington wrote his letter asking Gen. John Thomas to stay with the Continental Army, he announced a new organization for those troops outside Boston. This was the first time the new commander-in-chief had changed how those forces operated, thus the first major exercise of his new authority.

Washington faced two short-term problems: the Boston and Charlestown Necks. Since the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British military controlled both those towns, well protected on their peninsulas. Washington feared that at any time the royal troops could charge out either isthmus, breaking through the Continentals’ lines. As soon as he and Gen. Charles Lee arrived in Massachusetts in early July 1775, their first priority was strengthening the fortifications at the base of those two necks.

Gen. Washington’s longer-term problem was strengthening the Continental Army as an institution. He wanted his soldiers, both officers and men, to think of themselves as protecting the united colonies, not as men from separate colonies committed only to officers they knew. Washington was also trying to soothe the hurt feelings that came from how the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had ranked the generals.

The 22 July reorganization of the American army into “three Grand Divisions,” each containing two brigades, addressed all those problems. Washington didn’t explain his thinking at length, so I can’t even say for sure what his purpose was or whether this was all his idea. But this is the effect of the change.

On his northern wing at Winter Hill and Prospect Hill, facing off against the British troops in Charlestown, Washington placed Maj. Gen. Lee, Brig. Gen. John Sullivan of New Hampshire, and Brig. Gen. Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. Lee was the most experienced military man in the Continental forces, so he could bring along those young brigadiers, neither of whom had ever been in a war.

On the southern wing in Roxbury and Dorchester, protecting against a charge off the Boston Neck, Washington placed Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward, Brig. Gen. Thomas, and Brig. Gen. Joseph Spencer of Connecticut. Those officers were all war veterans, and Ward and Thomas had been the top New England commanders before Washington arrived, so he could trust them to handle whatever came up on the far side of the Charles River.

Finally, in the center at east Cambridge, Washington placed Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam, Brig. Gen. William Heath, and a brigadier to be named later. This division was to function as “also a Corps-de-Reserve, for the defence of the several posts, north of Roxbury, not already named.” Creating it had the added benefit of ensuring that Putnam didn’t oversee Spencer, who had objected to his former subordinate’s new rank, and Heath and Thomas needn’t have awkward discussions of their relative seniority.

As part of this reorganization, Washington assigned some of the many Massachusetts regiments to the northern wing even though it had no Massachusetts general. Soon he would mix in the new companies of riflemen from the south, assigning them to different brigades as needed. That was the start of Gen. Washington’s effort to meld regiments from different colonies/states into a single, national force.

TOMORROW: One last detail—does anyone remember Gen. Frye?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

“Your Country will do ample Justice to your Merits”

Gen. George Washington was displeased that Gen. Joseph Spencer stormed home to Connecticut in July 1775 in a snit over rank, but he probably didn’t worry too much about losing the man. The real threat was that Gen. John Thomas of Plymouth, Massachusetts (shown here, courtesy of Find a Grave), might do the same.

Since April, Thomas had been second-in-command of the provincial troops, leading the forces massed in Roxbury against a British advance down Boston Neck. There are some signs that Thomas operated almost independently of Gen. Artemas Ward in Cambridge. Observers such as James Warren of the Massachusetts government thought Thomas was the better commander. Yet the Continental Congress ranked him low on its list of brigadiers—below Gen. William Heath, who had actually been reporting to him.

Fortunately, Warren saw a solution on that same list. On 4 July he and Joseph Hawley of Northampton wrote to Washington:
As [first-ranked brigadier Seth] Pomroy is now Absent, and at the distance of an hundred miles from the Army, if it can be consistent with your Excellencys Trust and the Service to retain his Commission untill you shall receive Advice from the Continental Congress, and we shall be able to prevail with Heath to make a concession Honourable to himself, and advantageous to the publick, We humbly conceive the way would be open to do Justice to Thomas.
In sum, if we slip Thomas into Pomeroy’s top slot, then he’ll once again outrank all the other Massachusetts generals but Ward. The only man moved ahead of Thomas would then be Israel Putnam. Washington didn’t have the authority to make that change, but the suggestion made its way to Philadelphia.

For weeks Thomas stewed in Roxbury, making noises about resigning and going home. On 23 July, both Washington and the celebrated Gen. Charles Lee wrote to him about the matter. Washington said:
For the Sake of your bleeding Country, your devoted Province, your Charter rights, & by the Memory of those brave Men who have already fell in this great Cause, I conjure you to banish from your Mind every Suggestion of Anger and Disappointment: your Country will do ample Justice to your Merits—they already do it, by the Sorrow & Regret expressed on the Occasion and the Sacrifice you are called to make, will in the Judgment of every good Man, & lover of his Country, do you more real Honour than the most distinguished Victory.
Characteristically, Lee was both more expansive and more egocentric:
You think yourself not justly dealt with in the appointments of the Continental Congress. I am quite of the same opinion, but is this a time Sir, when the liberties of your country, the fate of posterity, the rights of mankind are at stake, to indulge our resentments for any ill treatment we may have received as individuals? I have myself, Sir, full as great, perhaps greater reason to complain than yourself. I have passed through the highest ranks, in some of the most respectable services in Europe. According then to modern etiquette notions of a soldier’s honor and delicacy, I ought to consider at least the preferment given to General Ward over me as the highest indignity, but I thought it my duty as a citizen and asserter of liberty, to waive every consideration.

On this principle, although a Major General of five years standing [a largely honorary rank from the king of Poland], and not a native of America, I consented to serve under General Ward, because I was taught to think that the concession would be grateful to his countrymen, and flatter myself that the concession has done me credit in the eye of the world; and can you, Sir, born in this very country, which a banditti of ministerial assassins are now attempting utterly to destroy with sword, fire and famine, abandon the defence of her, because you have been personally ill used?
Four days before, the Congress had voted to make Thomas the senior brigadier general. A backdated commission was rushed up to Massachusetts, and on 4 August the commander-in-chief was able to report, “General Thomas has accepted his Commission and I have heard nothing of his retirement since, so that I hope he is satisfied.”

TOMORROW: Dealing the generals into three piles.