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, November 07, 2012

Alfred F. Young, a Giant of a Historian

The historian Alfred F. Young died yesterday at the age of 87. He was the author of significant books about the American Revolution, with particular attention to people from Massachusetts:
Perhaps even more important, Al Young edited or coedited some landmark collections of essays and the catalog for a permanent exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society:
In all his books, Al focused on ordinary people rather than political and military leaders from the elite. He studied men like Ebenezer Mackintosh and events like Pope Night (well, he used the term “Pope’s Day”). Appropriate for a man given the middle name “Fabian,” as in Fabian socialism—and as in Gen. George Washington’s Fabian strategy for patiently winning the war.

Al was also a friend and a mentor. I’m not an academic, and I had no institutional affiliation when I attended my first Omohundro Institute conference on early American history. Al welcomed me and introduced me around. On Sunday morning, as many attendees left early, we had hours of one-on-one conversation about his upcoming work on Deborah Sampson and my research on kids.

Al was always eager to make connections, to bring new folks into the conversation. Though he felt that some of the dominant “consensus” school of American Revolutionary history missed important points by focusing on the top, he didn’t spend his time complaining about those omissions. Instead, as a speaker and writer Al emphasized the good work he saw people doing and tried to ensure more people heard about it.

I helped Al with computer research for his book Liberty Pole, collecting and analyzing newspaper reports about Liberty Trees and Liberty Poles in pre-Revolutionary America. Did they have the same meaning, or were they independent symbols? Earlier this fall I sent Al my experience of a visit to the Boston Tea Party Museum as he planned a new essay.

In late October Ray Raphael told me that Al had fallen ill. I’d just sent him some pages from my George Washington study that I thought he’d like, piecing together the life of a teen-aged girl who worked at the general’s Cambridge headquarters. I ended that letter this way:
Your advice, inspiration, and unflagging encouragement over the past several years have been a great strength for me. You welcomed me into the historical field when I made my first, uncredentialed steps into it, and you’ve given me the confidence to take on greater challenges. I know you’ve done the same for many other researchers, and I’m gratified to have been in that company. Thank you.
There’s no better introduction to Al’s work than The Shoemaker and the Tea Party. It combines an updated an expanded version of his award-winning William & Mary Quarterly paper about George R. T. Hewes with analysis of how we came to celebrate the Tea Party above all the other pre-Revolutionary political action in Boston.


Anonymous said...

I am so, so sad to hear of Alfred's passing. I corresponded with him when I was researching INDEPENDENT DAMES. He was a kind gentleman and a treasure for everyone who loves American history.

Thank you very much for the entry about him. I'm glad you had the chance to tell him how much he meant to you, and that we have people like you who can continue his legacy.

Laurie Halse Anderson

Runciman1903 said...

I read 'The Shoemaker and the Tea Party'. Mr. Young did a great job of showing how easily one's life story can fall by the wayside, as time marches on. Well done.