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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

From the News Boys of the Massachusetts Mercury

It’s a Boston 1775 tradition around New Year’s to quote from the verses that newspaper apprentices printed and sold around that holiday. This year’s lines come out of a rather long piece of poetry set by the youth of the Massachusetts Mercury to greet the new year of 1800.

Looking at other verses from that year shows it had become common for the apprentices to work their employer’s address into their verse. The Massachusetts Mercury was published out of State Street, as you’ll be able to guess. This poem also alluded to a landmark on Beacon Hill—the memorial column with an eagle at the top—before drawing a helpful picture of how Bostonians consumed their newspapers in 1799:
Each proper morn, in routine way,
When Beacon’s EAGLE spies the day,
We sally forth from Street of State,
And as at breakfast board you set,
Present the sheet, t’inform, amuse—
You coffee sip and read the News.
Reclin’d at ease in elbow chair,
You smile at this, at that you stare;
And as the columns you pursue,
Lo, the whole World comes in review.
You, like the SUN, o’er Nations glance,
Nor rest at Russian, Britain, France.
You soon discern who basely Prints,
That “RORA’s” cloudy, “ARGUS” squints;
That the pert “BEE”’s a worthless dunce,
Sans sting or honey of his own.
But dropping anger, loud you laugh,
At signals false of “TELEGRAPH.”
Those latter lines look like trash-talking about Jeffersonian rivals. Boston had a new newspaper called The Constitutional Telegraphe, discussed back here. The other references appear to be to Philadelphia’s American Aurora, New London’s Bee, and New York’s Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser, which had Argus on its masthead. Others Boston carrier verses for this year also refer to their rivals or the pseudonyms of their usual contributors; before the war, such verses usually bad-mouthed foreign enemies and extolled patriotic unity rather than playing out domestic political quarrels.

The Mercury boys’ verse continues:
Perhaps at Store our sheet you view,
Or in some Office learn what’s New
—To us the toils the same—the treat to you.

Say, who besides, for Public Good,
Like the News Boys have yet withstood
The fretting Snows—the bruising Hail,
And the North-wester’s freezing Gale?
The drenching Rain—the sultry Air,
The Thunder’s Roar—the Light’nings Glare?
Too much for us small Lads to bear,
Did not HOPE lend her potent cheer.
She points us to your purse and face—
There’s pence, she cries, and there is grace.
The purpose of these broadsides, you may remember, was to remind customers that New Year’s was the traditional time to tip one’s newspaper carriers.

But the turn of the year 1800 wasn’t just any year.

TOMORROW: A hastily written extra.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

At the Armchair General website, Scott Stephenson wrote a very gratifying review of the Journal of the American Revolution’s first collection of articles, noting two of my own contributions to the volume among many others:
I found more information in this one volume than I have in the last half-dozen books on the Revolutionary War that I read. . . . For the student of history this book is a wonderful treat. Articles such as the biography of Artemas Ward, or the story of Nathan Hale’s capture, or the life of British army camp followers are engagingly written and provide a great look at the Revolutionary War. Military enthusiasts will delight in the aforementioned Delaware crossing article, the details of Pyle’s Massacre, and coverage of Eutaw Springs and the skirmish at Monmouth that occurred two years before the better-known Battle Of Monmouth. There are even a few recipes for making 18th-century food such as savory chicken pie and boiled pudding (you don’t need a bread oven, you can use modern conveniences).

So what about the hard-core, dyed-in-the-indigo, I Know What Cornwallis Ate For Breakfast student of the American Revolution? You’ll learn that the famous 1776 “Take Notice” recruiting poster was actually printed in 1798 for the Quasi-War with France. You’ll discover the phrase “no taxation without representation” first appeared as a newspaper headline in 1768 London and deeply researched pieces on the deaths of Major John Pitcairn and General Simon Fraser. The origin of the Molly Pitcher legend, what happened after the 1780 Battle of Camden before General Nathaniel Greene took command of the colonial forces, a biography of John Trumbull, an interview with best-selling author Thomas Fleming—this book contains all that and so much more.
My emphasis.

Last week the J.A.R. site offered a group interview with contributors on these five questions:
Question #2 produced the broadest disagreements. I was surprised by the relative lack of variety in answers to #5.

And now a look ahead at what 2014 will bring for Boston 1775. I’ve completed over seven years of blogging daily about Revolutionary New England. In the coming months I plan to rerun some older postings I particularly like, refreshing their links and adding any necessary corrections or new information. Those might amount to one or two postings a week. I’m hoping that will yield a little more time for other projects.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Commemorating the “Worcester Revolution of 1774”

Another anniversary coming up next year is the 240th of the uprising that ended royal rule in Worcester County. Okay, that’s not a sestercentennial, but I sense the local history community wants to raise awareness of that transition and institute a commemoration so as to be ready for its 250th.

On 6 Sept 1774, 4,622 militiamen from 37 county towns marched into Worcester to stop the county court from meeting. This was part of a series of crowd actions all over Massachusetts as the populace protested Parliament’s Coercive Acts and refused to cooperate with royal appointees.

That fall, month towns were also electing representatives to the Massachusetts General Court or, in case Gov. Thomas Gage refused to call that legislature back into session, a Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The Worcester town meeting elected blacksmith Timothy Bigelow as its representative to the congress, a role traditionally reserved for upper-class gentlemen.

Furthermore, in its instructions for Bigelow, the Worcester town meeting declared:
you are to consider the people of this province…to all intents and purposes reduced to a state of nature; and you are to exert yourself in devising ways and means to raise from the dissolution of the old constitution, as from the ashes of the Phenix, a new form, wherein all officers shall be dependent on the suffrages of the people, whatever unfavorable constructions our enemies may put upon such procedure.
This went further than the resolutions of other towns in the same period, in effect a declaration of independence. It wasn’t an explicit break with the British Empire or king, but it was based on the same political philosophy that led to the Continental Congress’s Declaration over a year and a half later.

A group of historic and cultural organizations in Worcester County is planning a commemoration of this “Worcester Revolution of 1774.” Their effort has started with the www.revolution1774.org website. They envision a series of events over the course of next year, such as:
  • A county-wide reading of Ray Raphael’s The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord, which highlights central Massachusetts in 1774, through local book clubs and libraries.
  • Walking tours and narratives of historic locations.
  • Concerts by colonial music groups in the open air and concert halls.
  • Presentations by authors and academics on colonial Worcester County and 1774.
  • Visits by re-enactors to Worcester Public School classrooms.
  • Teacher workshops on 1774.
  • Museum exhibits, lectures, and more.
On 7 September there will be a free, day-long public celebration on Worcester Common, with historic reenactors and craftsmen and a dramatic presentation about the Revolutionary events.

The organizing consortium includes the American Antiquarian Society, Assumption College, Congress of American Revolution Round Tables, Daughters of the American Revolution Massachusetts Society, Old Sturbridge Village, Preservation Worcester, Sons of the American Revolution Massachusetts Society, Tenth Regiment of Foot, Worcester Historical Museum, and Worcester Public Schools. The Worcester Historical Museum is the fiscal agent for grants and donations to this project.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Annual Flag-Raising in Somerville, 1 Jan.

The new year can’t start without Somerville’s annual commemoration of the raising of the “Grand Union flag” at Prospect Hill Park. That will start on 11:30 A.M. on Wednesday as an actor on horseback portraying Gen. George Washington leads a procession from Somerville City Hall to Prospect Hill Park, just north of Union Square.

This year’s ceremony will feature a presentation by Byron DeLear of the North American Vexillological Association. He’s found evidence that the phrase “United States of America” was first written in Washington’s Cambridge headquarters early in 1776, soon after that flag-raising.

Back on 4 July 1775, the new commander-in-chief had told the army that “They are now the Troops of the UNITED PROVINCES of North America.” That was still the Continental Congress’s official term for the entities it represented. The shift to calling those entities “states” was a step toward thinking of them as independent of Britain. Ironically, the first man on record to do so was an immigrant to America.

The Somerville ceremony will also feature songs, readings, and His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot representing the British Army. A Grand Union flag will be raised atop the Prospect Hill Tower.

Of course, the term “Grand Union flag” was coined by George Preble in 1872, an error for what Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet called “the great Union Flag” in its 15 Jan 1776 issue. (The Pennsylvania Gazette used the same phrase on 17 January.) Gen. Washington had termed that banner a “Union flag” in his letter to Joseph Reed on 4 January.

Another vexillologist, Peter Ansoff, has argued that “Union flag” was the standard term for the British standard, showing how the Congress and Washington were not yet ready to break with Britain but still fighting for British rights within the Empire. Byron believes that the evidence supports the tradition that the Prospect Hill flag was a new design of the Union Jack with thirteen stripes. Unfortunately, a definite answer to that question harder to pin down than the phrase “United States of America” in a letter.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The St. Michael’s Tercentenary in Marblehead

Over the next week I’ll highlight some intriguing historical events coming up in the new year.

In Marblehead, St. Michael’s Church will celebrate its 300th anniversary. This is the oldest Episcopal Church in New England still conducting services in its original building, erected in 1714. Its first minister, supplied by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, arrived from Britain the next year, and the building grew with a new roof in 1728.

In that century Marblehead was the second-largest town in Massachusetts, with its own port. The townspeople were more focused on fishing and trading than the farmers of rural towns, and more open to immigrants and Anglicans. Still, the Rev. George Pigot’s sermon defending the celebration of Christmas in 1728 prompted a pamphlet war.

The reredos or altarpiece inside the church is thought to date to 1714. Other eighteenth-century artifacts include the twelve-branched chandelier, donated in 1732 by a Customs official in Bristol, and a 1745 silver flagon.

According to the church’s website, “St. Michael’s first bell was hung in 1718. When news of the Declaration of Independence broke out in 1776, it was rung so hard by fervent patriots that it cracked.” (Those Patriots, who were probably not part of the congregation, also pulled down the royal coat of arms.) The bell in the tower today was cast by the Paul Revere & Sons Foundry in 1818.

In the coming year, historians of early America and architecture will present a series of public lectures about the church’s history. Musicians will perform concerts on its organ. On 7 June there will be a scholarly symposium produced with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. The 28 September anniversary worship service will include the Bishop of London, whose predecessors oversaw St. Michael’s Church up until the Revolution.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Importance of “Being George”

On 26 Dec 1776, Gen. George Washington led a successful attack on Crown forces at Trenton, his first battlefield triumph of the Revolutionary War. That move began with his fabled Crossing of the Delaware River, which local volunteers reenact yearly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Or try to reenact. When the weather is too harsh or the current too strong, local governments call off the row for the sake of safety—for both participants and spectators. (Already the crossing is scheduled for daytime when people can see it easily rather than night-time when people couldn’t.) I recall many news stories over the years about reenactors glumly walking across the bridge instead of getting to travel in the boats.

I also recall reports of some resentments about who got the plum role of Gen. Washington. For a long time that was a matter of seniority within the local reenacting group. Then the director of Washington’s Crossing Historic Park asserted more control. The current process is more formal, with auditions before a panel of judges from local historical organizations, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of controversy.

The Star-Ledger newspaper produced a documentary titled “Being George”, about the choice of Washington in 2012. Directed by Nyier Abdou and Adya Beasley, the video is about forty-five minutes long and focuses on four of the ten men who vied for the post:
  • the incumbent, breaking with a recent precedent of not seeking the role again after a three-year term.
  • a past Washington who never got to cross by water in his years.
  • a devoted Washington impersonator from outside the local community.
  • a long-time reenactor in his forties, about the same age Washington was in 1776. (The other candidates, and our image of Washington, are older.)
Who has the strongest claim? Who would do the best job? Unfortunately for the sake of the documentary, the auditions and the judges’ discussions of them were off-limits to the camera. And unfortunately for the sake of “reality” television, the candidates are too polite for fireworks to erupt on screen. But the emotions are clear, both in the video and in the comments section below it. And there’s always next year.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Toys for the Custis Children

As I described yesterday, a number of recent publications have included a list of toys that George Washington supposedly ordered for his new stepchildren, Jacky and Patsy, on his first Christmas with them in 1759. But no such list appears in The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, which can be searched at Founders Online.

However, I found that John C. Fitzpatrick used some of the phrases on that list in his 1933 biography, George Washington Himself. Fitzpatrick was then overseeing the edition of Washington’s papers put out by the federal government in the early twentieth century.

That encouraged me to revisit the Library of Congress’s American Memory digital database of Washington’s papers, which includes transcriptions of the notes that Fitzpatrick included in that edition. Those notes quote some documents not included in the current edition of the papers (which is in other ways more complete).

And indeed, Fitzpatrick noted a March 1760 invoice to Washington from Robert Cary & Co. that included:
from Unwin & Wrigglesworth—
A Tunbridge Tea Sett ... ¼
3 Neat Tunbridge Toys ... 1/
A Neat Book lash Tea Chest ... 4/6
A Bird on Bellows ... 5d.
A Cuckoo ... 10d.
A turnabout Parrot ... 1/3
A Grocers Shop ... 5/

and from Mount & Page—
6 Small Books for Children ... 3/.
A Box best Household Stuff ... 4/6
A Straw patch box wt. a Glass ... 2/
A Neat dressd Wax Baby ... 3/6
An Aviary ... 1/3
A Prussian Dragoon ... 1/3
A Man Smoakg. ... 1/
For his biography Fitzpatrick plucked out items from that list which were most likely children’s toys. The Mount Vernon Midden blog shows images from those invoices. The 1760 Universal Pocket Companion for Londoners listed Unwin & Wrigglesworth as “hardwaremen” doing business on Cheapside; they probably sold more than toys.

Olive Bailey included a similar list in Christmas with the Washingtons (1948). She also transcribed a list of toys that Unwin & Wrigglesworth had shipped earlier, billing Daniel Parke Custis, Martha’s first husband, who died in 1757:
A child’s fiddle
A coach and six in a box
A stable with six horses
A corner cupboard
A neat walnut bureau
A filigree watch
A neat enameled watch box
A toy whip
A child’s huzzif
So we’re on solid ground to say that Washington bought that list of items I quoted yesterday, and that most of those things were toys. But we can’t say that Washington ordered those toys specifically. The Mount Vernon Midden blog quotes him as vaguely ordering “‘10 [shillings] worth of Toys’ for Jacky and ‘A Fash[ionably] Dres[sed] Baby…& other Toys’” for Patsy in September 1759. The London merchants picked out what they thought those children would like.

We also can’t say those goods had anything to do with Washington’s first Christmas as a stepfather. They were apparently ordered in September 1759 but not shipped until March 1760. In fact, Washington’s papers say almost nothing about Christmas celebrations at Mount Vernon. (In 1769 he won some money on cards that evening while visiting Fielding Lewis.)

Instead, it appears that twentieth-century authors chose to view these goods through the lens of our own traditions. Most Americans give children lots of toys on Christmas, and our culture encourages us to give even more. Therefore, these toys appeared in Christmas with the Washingtons and Reader’s Digest Book of Christmas even though they had no link to the Washington-Custis family’s holiday. Jacky and Patsy were probably glad to get them whenever they arrived.

(The image above shows the remains of two small clay figurines found in an archeological dig at Mount Vernon. Were those some of Jacky and Patsy Custis’s toys? Or the toys of Jacky’s children?)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Shopping with George Washington?

This month HistoryTube shared a heart-warming glimpse of George Washington, the just-retired young colonel of the Virginia forces, as a new stepfather:
In 1759 George and Martha Washington spent their first Christmas together at Mount Vernon. They had been married less than a year. A list of presents George Washington intended to purchase for stepson John (Jacky), age 5, and stepdaughter Martha (Patsy), age 3, shows a heartfelt appreciation for the joys of childhood. His list reads:

A bird on Bellows
A Cuckoo
A turnabout Parrott
A Grocers Shop
An Aviary
A Prussian Dragoon
A Man Smoaking
A Tunbridge Tea Sett
3 Neat Tunbridge Toys
A Neat Book fash Teas Chest
A box best Household Stuff
A straw Patch box w. a Glass
A neat dressed Wax Baby

The items on the list would have likely been handmade and imported from Europe. Many mechanical and hand-carved toys of this period were produced in the cities and towns of northern Germany, such as Hamburg and Hannover. Although we can’t be sure what each one looked like, several were fairly common. The bird on bellows, cuckoo, turnabout parrot and “smoaking” man were probably mechanical toys made of metal. The bird and parrot would have contained whistles and may have had flapping wings. The grocer’s shop also likely was made in northern Germany, where elaborate miniature toy room settings were crafted and sold. The Prussian dragoon was probably a metal toy soldier, and the wax baby doll would have been made of poured, tinted and painted wax, a common method for doll construction in the 1700s.

The three Tunbridge toys were probably made in Tunbridge, Kent, England. They may have been puzzle boxes, yo-yos or small decorative chests, made in the Tunbridge fashion, of many small pieces of wood glued together to create a mosaic effect. The tea set and tea chest may have been toys or could have been for a dowry for Patsy. The patch box contained small cloth patches to apply to the face as beauty marks. Were these for Patsy to play with, or meant as a present for Martha?
I’m always touched by watching Washington try so hard to do the right thing. Here he was achieving his social and economic aims by marrying wealthy widow Martha Custis, and he’s suddenly thrust into the role of patriarch responsible for providing for two young children as well.

Since I usually like to add a little something when I quote from other blogs, I went looking for more context for that list of toys. And I found that phrases like “Prussian Dragoon” and “turnabout Parrott” don’t appear in Founders Online, which includes the latest edition of Washington’s colonial papers.

Instead, my searches found this list appeared in a lot of recent books, in the 1973 Reader’s Digest Book of Christmas, and in a 1969 editor’s note at the start of an issue of the American Bar Association Journal. None of the publications I saw indicated a source. So I started to worry.

TOMORROW: It’s a Christmas miracle. (Sort of.)

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Original “Wicked Statesman”

A week ago I shared this picture, engraved by Paul Revere for Isaiah Thomas’s 1774 almanac. It shows a “Wicked Statesman” being tormented by Death and a Devil. Under his left arm is a £1,500 salary—what Gov. Thomas Hutchinson was accepting from the tea tax. That engraving is part of the American Antiquarian Society’s online catalogue of all its engravings connected with Revere.

In a comment E. J. Witek wrote that Revere based this picture on a British original titled “The Minister in Surprize.” Indeed, Revere was an excellent silversmith but not a talented draftsman, and he based almost all his engravings on someone else’s work. In some cases, he collaborated with a local artist like Christian Remick. In others, he copied without permission, as in his scene of the Boston Massacre cribbed from Henry Pelham. Often Revere based his engravings on British originals.

In this case, I think the original isn’t “The Minister in Surprize” but the likely source of both: “The wicked Statesman, or The Traitor to his Country, at the hour of Death.” That’s the same title as Revere’s picture, and it has the figures of Death and the Devil while the “Minister in Surprize” has only the Devil.

The original “Wicked Statesman” appeared in the Oxford Magazine in August 1772. It’s an attack on the “Earl of ———” for “Selling England to the French.” At his feet the earl has books labeled Art of Bribery and Machiavel.

This might have been aimed at the Earl of Bute, though by that year he’d been out of politics for nearly a decade; his enemies did accuse him of bribery, affairs with the king’s mother, and scheming to debase Britain under some Catholic power. However, they also disliked the fact that he was a Scotsman and usually showed him in a kilt or other ethnic clothing, which is not seen here.

“The Minister in Surprize” simplified that picture, removing Death and, alas, the crocodile-demon at lower right. It also turned the cartoon into a comment on American policy. The sign held up by that image’s Devil reads “The American Resolves are a Devil of a Dose.” The minister’s papers say ”New Members” and “Civil List in Arrears” while the books below are American Constitution and List of Pensioners. Overall, I think that’s meant to suggest the surprised minister has been trampling American rights to bring in more money to pay off pensioners, civil servants, and Members of Parliament.

Both the “Minister in Surprize” and Revere’s “Wicked Statesman” are reversed left to right from the original “Wicked Statesman.” That’s because prints are mirror images of their engravings, and if you had a print it was easiest to copy it directly onto a sheet of copper and then produce prints that flipped the original around. (It’s also possible that “The Minister in Surprize” came first, a second British artist added figures and details while reversing the scene to create the first “Wicked Statesman,” and Revere copied that derivative to create his own “Wicked Statesman,” reversing it again.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Newly Discovered Map of New York in Late 1776?

Earlier this month DNA Info New York reported that British map dealer Andrew Adamson says he might have found an unusual hand-drawn map of New York from 1776. The story goes:
A few years ago, Adamson was looking through archives at the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office in Somerset, England, when he came across a “very brown and dusty plan” that showed New York City and its surrounding areas.

“What was of immediate interest was the inclusion on the map of British troop positions, including General [William] Howe’s headquarters at Newtown, Long Island,” Adamson told DNAinfo New York via email. [The label “Head Quarters” seems to appear near the center of the detail above.]

Based on those troop positions, Adamson surmised that the map showed British-occupied New York in the summer of 1776, the period between the Battle of Brooklyn and the Battle of Harlem Heights. Adamson said he believes the document was part of a working military field map at the time.

Also of interest to Adamson was a second, smaller piece of paper at the center of the map that shows Manhattan in great detail. He said he believes this sheet is a drawing by Bernard Ratzer — a famous cartographer of that period — that was copied and used to make a larger, well-known Ratzer map of New York that was published in 1776. . . .

The rest of the map Adamson found was less carefully drawn, and he believes the smaller piece of paper was used as a starting point for other surveyors to sketch out the rest of it. He also believes the document is one portion of what was once a much larger map, since its edges are frayed.
The hand-drawn map, which belongs to a branch of the British government, still has to be authenticated.

Adamson’s firm, Heritage Charts, sells reproductions of the Ratzer map. A couple of years ago the Brooklyn Historical Society had its copy of that map conserved, and Barnet Schechter, author of The Battle for New York and George Washington’s America, spoke about it; that lecture is available as a podcast.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

More Things at All Things Liberty

This month I’ve been busy contributing to the Journal of the American Revolution. (That’s the website that published its first collection this fall, with other essays by me.) The new articles include:

“Five Myths of Tarring and Feathering”: From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux” to the John Adams miniseries, scenes of Boston mobs attacking genteel officials with tar and feathers have been a staple of American popular culture. But how common were such attacks really, and how much damage did they do? This article now comes recommended by Debby Witt at National Review Online. [Insert snarky political comment of your choice here.]

“Washington’s Five Books”: This short piece grew from a section of my study for the National Park Service of George Washington’s first few months as commander-in-chief. With the help of Don Hagist and the internet, I found more details about the books the general recommended to an old Virginia colleague who had just accepted a colonel’s position. For example, when Washington recommended a particular edition of a book recently republished in Philadelphia, it turns out that edition had been dedicated to…Washington.

“An Interview with Richard C. Wiggin”: Rick Wiggin has already shared some stories from his book Embattled Farmers: Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1775-1783 here as a guest blogger. This conversation goes into much more detail about the background of the book, Rick’s research, and what we can learn from the lives of one town’s Revolutionary War soldiers.

Next week, visit AllThingsLiberty.com for my responses along with those of other contributors in a week-long group interview about the burning issues of the Revolution, such as riots and time travel.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Rhode Island’s First Major General

A few days back, I quoted Samuel Ward’s December 1774 letter describing how Rhode Island was putting itself on a footing for war by, among other things, appointing the first major-general in the colony’s history. That was not Nathanael Greene, who sprang from the rank of private to that of general only after the war had begun. So who was it?

The Rhode Island legislature appointed Simeon Potter (1720-1806) of Bristol. He had gained wealth and notoriety as a privateer during the mid-century imperial wars and allegedly helped to lead the raid on the Royal Navy’s Gaspée in 1772.

According to Beggarman, Spy: The Secret Life and Times of Israel Potter, by David Chacko and Alexander Kulcsar, Simeon Potter was not a mild-tempered man. For instance, in 1761 he beat up a seventy-four-year-old minister. (To be fair, the minister had told Potter, “There is whoring wherever you go.”)

What did Maj.-Gen. Potter do in the spring of 1775? On 19 April, two members of the Massachusetts Provincial CongressJames Warren of Plymouth and Dr. Charles Pynchon (1719-1783) of Springfield—came to Providence to consult with Rhode Island legislators about the outbreak of fighting in Middlesex County. One of the Rhode Island politicians, Stephen Hopkins, sent Potter a letter reporting:
The King’s Troops are actually engaged butchering and destroying our brethren in the most inhuman manner. The inhabitants oppose them with great zeal and courage.
Hopkins asked Potter to come to Providence to consult with Lt. Gov. Darius Sessions, who had been put in charge of the colony’s military preparations.

Potter never took the field. According to Beggarman, Spy, he “claimed to have received a letter from the commanding general of the Massachusetts Militia telling him that no troops were needed.” Unfortunately, Chacko and Kulcsar don’t quote that letter, and their citation isn’t specific or clear.

That book’s notes mention “Simeon Potter’s letter of September 3, 1774 to his nephew Nathan Miller of Warren in WHS [Warren Historical Society] that is only partially reprinted in NDAR [Naval Documents of the American Revolution].” The second volume of N.D.A.R. does include a letter from Potter dated 3 Sept 1775, saying it went to Col. William Turner Miller and is at the Rhode Island Historical Society. But that letter says nothing about the April crisis or a message from Massachusetts. It’s conceivable that that published transcript is based on an incomplete, mislabeled copy and that the Warren Historical Society holds a longer document, but I wish the information were more solid.

In any event, the Rhode Island legislature cleaned house in May 1775. It replaced Lt. Gov. Sessions with Nicholas Cooke, and later pushed out Gov. Joseph Wanton in favor of Cooke as well. It made Greene a brigadier-general commanding three regiments of infantry and an artillery company outside Boston. For its own defense, the colony chose a new major-general: William Bradford (1729-1808), also of Bristol. In October Bradford became lieutenant governor and Joshua Babcock (1707-1783) of Westerly became the new major general.

As for Potter, one of these days I’ll quote that September 1775 letter to show his resentment about the whole situation. Potter did end up providing cannon for the Continental Army—at a price. In 1776 the Rhode Island legislature even appointed him an Assistant, or member of the upper house. But Potter didn’t show up for sessions, the next year he stopped serving in town offices, and he refused to pay taxes to the new government. That didn’t save him from losing his mansion in a British raid in 1778. Potter had to move into a smaller house, which is now a bed-and-breakfast.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Meeting William Pencak

Yet another historian of early America who died this fall was William Pencak, who spent most of his career at Penn State. He wrote on a great many topics, including Pennsylvania’s Revolution and Jews and Gentiles in Early America, 1654-1800, but also the American Legion and Icelandic sagas.

In War, Politics, and Revolution in Provincial Massachusetts (1981), he looked at the Revolutionary unrest with a long lens:
Before 1760, it had been customary for men to marry before the age of twenty-five, usually between twenty-one and twenty-three. After 1760, marriages of men in their late twenties became more common. When the Revolution broke out, weddings by men over thirty became the rule rather than the exception. . . . During nearly two decades of war, migration had been primarily female and predominantly local. Beginning in 1765, migration not only increased phenomenally but became primarily male. The newcomers now came not only from Massachusetts, but from other colonies and overseas. The end of warfare, the disbanding of the army, and a postwar depression reinforced in Massachusetts by the catastrophic drought of 1763 to 1764 accounted for the presence of so many single men in Boston. They undoubtedly swelled the size and added to the vigor of the “Boston mob.”
He also co-edited a volume titled Riot and Revelry in Early America.

I met Bill this spring at the “Revolution Reborn” conference in Philadelphia. He sat in the balcony and boomed down comments, but he was also happy to engage with non-academic “buffs” like myself. He had retired from Penn State and seemed to delight in shocking academic colleagues with the news that he’d taken a position at the University of South Alabama.

Bill was also part of a panel on the Treaty of 1763 at Faneuil Hall a few days later, and afterward we walked over to the Old State House together. Or rather, we tried. It was raining hard, the path was uphill, and Bill finally begged off, saying he was exhausted. He really didn’t look well, and I worried about whether he could get back to where he was staying. (Not that Bill let me walk him further than the T stop.)

So I can’t say I was shocked to learn of Bill’s death during heart surgery at age sixty-two. But I was definitely sad. He was still working on at least two big projects, a Jewish Studies program at his new university and a biography of Philadelphia’s first Episcopal bishop, and clearly still enjoying his work.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Michael G. Kammen’s Season of Youth

Last month brought news of the death of Michael G. Kammen, an American historian who taught for several decades at Cornell University.

Kammen’s first book was A Rope of Sand: The Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution (1968), about the colonies’ lobbyists in London. He wrote other histories of early America, such as Colonial New York (1975) and People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1973.

However, the field that Kammen staked out for himself wasn’t so much what happened as how we Americans have liked to remember events happening. A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986) won the Francis Parkman and Henry Adams Prizes by discussing what we think of when we talk about the Constitution. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991) treated our understanding of history as itself a historical construct, and spearheaded a school of books about how we consider and commemorate the past.

The Kammen book most meaningful to me, because of my interests, was A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (1978), which isn’t always included among his major works. Among other topics that book considered the historical fiction set during the Revolution, and why the most popular books set in that period are about boys coming of age:
Almost to the point of numbing monotony,…imaginative writers have consistently perceived the American Revolution as a national rite de passage, and have relentlessly projected that vision to an ever-widening readership. . . .

In some instances…a divided family exemplifies the divided empire; but much more common is the intergenerational conflict between father and son within the colonies, or a young man and his prospective father-in-law.
Of course, American Patriots coined the metaphor of parent and child when discussing relations with Britain, among other ways of viewing the crisis. But later generations seized on it.

Kammen traced a pattern of American novels through school staples like Johnny Tremain (1943) and and My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) and lesser examples like Thomas Forty (1947), April Morning (1961), and even Kenneth Roberts’s Loyalist novel Oliver Wiswell (1940). Further examples published since Kammen’s book include the two volumes of The Life and Astonishing Adventures of Octavian Nothing and the eventual three volumes of the Forge trilogy.

We might counter that most fiction for young readers is at some level about coming of age, and the adult supporting characters will almost always be less complex than the young main characters. But Esther Forbes actually labeled Johnny Tremain “A Novel for Old and Young,” suggesting she wasn’t just trying to write for fifth-graders. If her hero was a teenager, that’s because she felt Johnny’s story was a good vehicle for his society’s political awakening. And that book remains the twentieth-century novel of the Revolution that has struck the most chords for American readers.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Junto Reviews the Books of Pauline Maier

Early this month The Junto devoted a week of their blog to reviewing the legacy of historian Pauline Maier, who died this summer. Their essays discuss both Pauline’s four major books (she also wrote valuable articles, reviews, and teaching texts) and where she fit into the late-1900s “ideology” school of historians of the Revolution. All the posts are worth reading, but here are some highlights.

Michael Blaakman on From Resistance to Revolution:
Maier demonstrated just how much a scholar can do by writing a history of both ideas and events, in ways that seem to me to have inspired many of the questions and methods that drove the subsequent generation of New New Political Historians. That ever-elusive sweet spot—where ideas and action, process and perception, meet—was the source of Maier’s powerful argument about why the revolutionaries opted for republican self-government after independence, and about how they learned its ins and outs through the work of colonial resistance.
Sara Georgini on The Old Revolutionaries:
Maier’s prosopography of five men and their “worlds,” accentuated by a thoughtful “interlude” on the rigors of political life in the colonies, marked a change in how historians used individual biographies to retell the Revolution to post-bicentennial Americans. First given as a series of lectures at New York University in 1976, the essays gather a fairly random matrix of people for a group shot of colonial life: Samuel Adams, Isaac Sears, Dr. Thomas Young, Richard Henry Lee, and Charles Carroll [plus] [New Hampshire Continental Congress delegate] Josiah and [wife] Mary Bartlett. . . . Wisely, Maier seized this opportunity to remind the reader that revolutionary thought did not happen outside of the colonists’ mundane or personal experience, but during and because of it.
Roy Rogers on American Scripture:
Maier makes several downright revolutionary moves in her interpretation of the Declaration and the movement toward American independence, more broadly. The most important, and most challenging to the common assumptions of historians and laypersons alike, is that there is nothing truly original about the Declaration. Maier sees the document “as a statement of political philosophy, [it] was…purposefully unexceptional in 1776.”
Ken Owen on Ratification:
The attention to detail, and especially the evident desire to treat each and every participant in the debates [over the Constitution] with respect for their views, is an approach that could easily tend to the arcane. Yet Maier writes with a verve and an evident passion for telling the story that can engage academic specialists with its attention to detail, yet also provide a gripping read for. It is easy to see that Maier had great fun researching, writing, and talking to others about this book…
Of these books I found From Resistance to Revolution most helpful for what interests me about pre-Revolutionary New England. The Old Revolutionaries might be the best for more casual reading since it focuses on individuals and each chapter can be taken on its own.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Undefil’d with Art

This poem appeared on the front page of the 16 Dec 1773 Boston News-Letter.


G overn’d by Wisdom, steadily he rules,
O ver the thinking Wise, and giddy Fools;
V irtuously dispos’d, of noble Mind;
E nvy itself must see, except it’s Blind.
R evil’d, publicly insulted, he,
N ever forgets to bless his Enemy;
O pen and frankly gives Advice to all.
U nbiased, to Rich, to Great, to Small,
R ightly determines when on him they call.

H ere view the Man, who to his Sovereign’s true:
U seful in Church, in State, a Patriot too;
T rue to his God; firm in Religion’s Cause;
C hristianity his Guide, with wholsome Laws;
H earty in Friendship; undefil’d with Art;
I ndustrious to inform the erring Heart.
N or let New-Albion’s Sons mistake the Man,
S ince he profoundest Rules of Art can Scan;
O n him shall lasting Peace and Honours rest,
N one’s happier than the Magistrate thus blest.
By then most people in Massachusetts didn’t share those sentiments about Thomas Hutchinson, their royally appointed governor. That evening, Bostonians would defy him by destroying a large shipment of tea. Meanwhile, Isaiah Thomas was selling an almanac that featured this picture of Hutchinson, engraved by Paul Revere.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Web Exhibit about the Raids on Fort William & Mary

At the same time that Rhode Island’s preparations for war included moving cannon from Newport to Providence, where they would be beyond reach of the Royal Navy, the New Hampshire militia was taking similar but more dramatic action.

This website from the University of New Hampshire library preserves an exhibit on the militia raids on Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth’s harbor on 14-15 Dec 1774. The exhibit is largely based on chemistry professor Charles Lathrop Parsons’s The Capture of Fort William and Mary, published in 1903. It provides a good overview of this lesser-known event.

There are still some glitches in the online exhibit. The link labeled “The Gunpowder at Bunker Hill” leads instead to a letter from the governor; I haven’t found a webpage on powder. The webpage titled “Gentleman in Boston writing to a Mr. Rivitigton of New York” actually refers to James Rivington, printer of the Loyalist New York Gazetteer. That letter, as transcribed in American Archives, clearly did not endorse what had gone on in Portsmouth starting the night of 14 December:
With difficulty a number of men were persuaded to convene, who proceeded to the Fort, which is situated at New-Castle, an Island about two miles from the Town, and being there joined by a number of the inhabitants of said New-Castle, amounted to near four hundred men; they invested the Fort, and being refused admittance by the Commander of it [John Cochran], who had only five men with him, and who discharged several guns at them, scaled the walls, and soon overpowered and pinioned the Commander; they then struck the King’s colours, with three cheers, broke open the Powder House, and carried off one hundred and three barrels of Powder, leaving only one behind.

Previous to this expresses had been sent out to alarm the country; accordingly, a large body of men marched the next day from Durham, headed by two Generals; Major [John] Sullivan, one of the worthy Delegates, who represented that Province in the Continental Congress, and the Parson of the Parish [John Adams], who having been long-accustomed to apply himself more to the cure of the bodies than the souls of his parishioners, had forgotten that the weapons of his warfare ought to be spiritual, and not carnal, and therefore marched down to supply himself with the latter, from the King’s Fort, and assisted in robbing him of his warlike stores.

After being drawn up on the parade, they chose a Committee, consisting of those persons who had been most active in the riot of the preceding day, with Major Sullivan and some others, to wait on the Governour [John Wentworth], and know of him whether any of the King’s Ships or Troops were expected. The Governour, after expressing to them his great concern for the consequences of taking the Powder from the Fort, of which they pretended to disapprove and to be ignorant of, assured them that he knew of neither Troops or Ships coming into the Province, and ordered the Major, as a Magistrate, to go and disperse the people.

When the Committee returned to the body, and reported what the Governour had told them, they voted that it was satisfactory, and that they would return home. But, by the eloquent harangue of their Demosthenes [i.e., Sullivan], they were first prevailed upon to vote that they took part with, and approved of, the measures of those who had taken the Powder.

Matters appeared then to subside, and it was thought every man had peaceably returned to his own home, instead of this Major Sullivan, with about seventy of his clients, concealed themselves till the evening, and then went to the Fort, and brought off in Gondolas all the small arms, with fifteen 4-pounders, and one 9-pounder, and a quantity of twelve and four and twenty pound shot, which they conveyed, to Durham, &c.
Two opposing military forces facing off against each other (albeit one comprising only six men). The royal troops firing muskets and cannon, and the colonial militia storming a fortification and capturing the men inside (albeit with no killed or wounded on either side). Territory, gunpowder, and ordnance changing hands. The end of royal government in New Hampshire as Wentworth sought shelter and then departed for Boston. One might even think that a war had begun.

The Rev. John Adams, minister at Durham from 1748 to 1778, suffered from what we’d now call bipolar disorder, according to the description of the Rev. John Eliot:
For he was in his best days, and when he was not exposed to peculiar trials of his ministry, very much the sport of his feelings. Sometimes he was so depressed as to seem like a being mingling with the dust, and suddenly would mount up to heaven with a bolder wing than any of his contemporaries.
Local tradition says that he allowed some of the gunpowder from Fort William and Mary to be hidden under his pulpit. It probably seemed like a good idea at that moment.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rhode Island Prepares for War

Samuel Ward was one of Rhode Island’s delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774. There he met John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, and other men pushing for a united opposition to the London government’s strictures on Massachusetts.

On 19 Oct 1774, the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for North America, sent a letter to all the colonial governors reporting that the privy council had barred the export of gunpowder and arms to the colonies. In most colonies the governors were royal appointees, and Ward appears to have assumed they’d keep this news to themselves. In Rhode Island and Connecticut, however, the governors were elected by the colonial legislature, and Gov. Joseph Wanton had shared the letter with his fellow politicians.

Ward and his Patriot colleagues saw the cut-off of gunpowder and arms as a clear attempt to limit the colonies’ ability to defend themselves. On 14 December he fired off warnings to Dickinson and to Lee from his home in Westerly. Here’s how his letter to Lee begins:
As it is of the greatest Importance that every Colony should have the earliest Notice of the hostile Intentions of Administration I have enclosed You Copies of Lord Dartmouths Letter & the Order received with it. Our Genl. Assembly immediately ordered Copies of them to be sent to Mr. [Thomas] Cushing to be communicated to the [Massachusetts] provincial Congress. They then ordered the Cannon at [Newport’s] Fort George (which was not tenable) to be sent to Providence where they will be safe and ready for Service, 200 bbls. of Powder, a proportionate quantity of Lead & Flints & several Pieces of brass Cannon for the Artillery Compy. were order’d to be purchased, a Major General (an officer never before chosen in the Colony) was appointed, several independent Companies of light Infantry Fusiliers, Hunters &c were formed, the Militia was order’d to be disciplined & the Commanding Officers empowered to march the Troops to the Assistance of any Sister Colony.

The Spirit & Ardor with which all this was done gave Me ineffable Pleasure and I heartily wish that the other Colonies may proceed in the same spirited Manner for I fear the last Appeal to Heaven must now be made & if We are unprepared We must be undone. The Idea of taking up Arms against Great Britain is shocking but if We must become Slaves or fly to Arms I shall not hesitate one Moment which to chuse for all the Horrors of civil War & even Death itself in every Shape is infinitely prefarable to Slavery which in one Word comprehends every Species of Distress Misery Infamy & Ruin.
Moving cannon to a more secure place, buying weaponry when the London government had just forbade that export, appointing a major general and forming new militia companies, invoking John Locke’s “Appeal to Heaven”—Ward’s Rhode Island was clearly preparing for war in December 1774.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Peering into “the Gulf”

On Thanksgiving I quoted Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin’s description of his regiment’s holiday in December 1777. At the time those soldiers were passing through an area he called “the Gulf.” I decided to plumb that depth and find out more.

This area is currently know as Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania. A large part of the Continental Army camped there for a week starting on 13 Dec 1777 before they moved on to Valley Forge for the winter. So the Gulph Mills encampment got relegated to a footnote.

But the local civic association is happy to promote local history:
Records do not tell just where Washington’s headquarters were as some of his letters were dated “Headquarters Gulph Mill,” others “near the gulph” and one to the Board of War was dated “Headquarters Gulph Creek, 14th December, 1777.” It is thought the Headquarters were the Hughs home at the Walnut Grove Farm, now a part of the Gulph Mills golf course.

General Lafayette’s Headquarters was at the site where the Mary MacFarland Cutler home stood. The Mary Cutler home was torn down to build the Gulph Mills approach to the Expressway. Part of the landscaping of the home can be observed today.
One landmark that does survive is the “hanging rock.” After some proposals to run a highway over it, it’s now on the registry of historic places.

Sheilah Vance wrote a day-by-day series on the encampment, starting here. As a taste, here’s surgeon Albigence Waldo in his diary on 16 December:
Cold Rainy Day, Baggage ordered over the Gulph of our Division, which were to march at Ten, but the baggage was order’d back and for the first time since we have been here the Tents were pitch’d, to keep the men more comfortable.

Good morning Brother Soldier (says one to another) how are you? All wet I thank’e, hope you are so (says the other).

The Enemy have been at Chestnut Hill Opposite to us near our last encampment the other side Schuylkill, made some Ravages, kill’d two of our Horsemen, taken some prisoners. We have done the like by them…
After the army moved into Valley Forge on 19 December, Gulph Mills became an advanced position, occasionally commanded by Col. Aaron Burr.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Elisha Adams’s Admission

Last night author Nathaniel Philbrick and I talked about the Battle of Bunker Hill at Cambridge Forum. That was taped to make a radio show or podcast, and I’ll post the link when it’s ready.

In the meantime, here’s a record of something else happening that same day, 17 June 1775, from the Boston Public Library’s collection, made available through archive.org.
Whereas I having been Suspected to be unfriendly and inimical to the Just rights & Liberties of America & the Constitution of the Province, Being Sensible that by Some imprudent Conversation & Conduct I have Justly Caused Such Suspicions, & more Especially in my Selling a horse on the way from Acton to Charlston ferry, but a Day or 2 before the late Hostilities Commenced at Concord, & also by Conversation with Katherine wife of Jonathan Adams sd. Relating to the Negro Plan for killing woman Children &c, And being Sensable of my Imprudence therein Do freely Say, That with Regard to Selling sd. horse I Sincerely Declare that I had no thought nor intention any way, whatsoever to Assist & Enable the British forces then at Boston to march into the Country, Neither Did I think any thing but that the sd. horse was to have been Sent Directly to Deerfield. But as it is Strongly Suspected the sd. horse was made use of in the sd. Hostilities, I am Sorry I Sold sd. horse as I Did, And with Regard to my Conversation with mrs. Adams Relative to the Negro plan afore sd., Altho. I had no unfriendly intention, yet I Acknowledg the sd. Conversation & Answers then made to Mrs. Adams Justly Aggravated the Suspicions Afore sd., and that thereby I manifested an unfriendly inhumane Disposition, for which unadvised Conduct I ask the forgiveness of my Neighbours & acquaintances & of Neighbour Adams & wife in Particular.

Elisha Adams
June 17 1775
Recreating the background of this document is a bit uncertain since there were so many families named Adams in Medway, where it’s from. But it looks like Elisha Adams (1719-1781) had been a big man in town: deacon, town clerk, and often selectman. He was Medway’s representative in the Massachusetts General Court for several years in the 1760s, but Jeremiah Adams had won that seat and held it since 1769.

Elisha’s neighbor Jonathan Adams (1737-1814) was some sort of cousin a generation younger. He may have recently become a selectman, or that might be another member of the same family.

In any event, Elisha Adams seems to have been less enthusiastic about the uprising against the royal government than his neighbors, and to have spread alarmist rumors about a slave revolt. There were similar alarms at other times in 1774 and 1775 with very little evidence behind them—it was simply a common fear in a slaveholding society. Other folks in Medway in turn assumed the worst about how Adams had sold his horse.

On 8 June Elisha Adams had signed another document declaring that he felt Parliament’s new laws were unconstitutional and that he would support the Continental Congress’s plans to counteract them. But the town’s committee of correspondence and selectmen evidently wanted a more specific admission of fault, hence this document.

All the Adamses remained in Medway during the war. Elisha paid a higher-than-average amount to maintain soldiers, presumably substitutes for himself or family members. He died in Medway in 1781 and is buried there.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dr. Joseph Warren’s Psalm Book?

Tonight I’ll be discussing the Battle of Bunker Hill with author Nathaniel Philbrick at Cambridge Forum, and the name of Dr. Joseph Warren is sure to come up. Relics of Dr. Warren have been one of the recurring themes of Boston 1775, and here’s yet another example.

In the 1852 edition of his book The Hundred Boston Orators (and perhaps in other editions), James S. Loring wrote:
A British soldier, on his return to London, exhibited a Psalm-book to Rev. Dr. Samuel Wilton, of that city, stating that he took the volume from the pocket of Gen. Warren, after the battle of Bunker Hill.

The clergyman, knowing that it would be a treasure to the Warren family, purchased the book of the soldier, and transmitted it to the Rev. Dr. William Gordon, of Roxbury, the historian, with a request that it might be given to the nearest relative of the general. It was, therefore, given to his youngest brother, Dr. John Warren, of Boston, March 15, 1778.

The title of the volume, which the editor has examined, is as follows: “The Boke of Psalmes, wherein are contained praires, meditations and thanksgivings to God, for his benefits toward his Church, translated faithfully according to the Hebrew. With brief and apt annotations in the margin. Printed at Geneva, by Rowland Hall. 1559.” It is less than the 32mo. size. On the inside cover of this book is inscribed,—“Taken at ye Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, out of Dr. Warren’s pocket.” On the inside cover, at the end of the book, is written, “Thomas Knight,”—probably the regular who secured the book.

Warren’s signature was on a blank leaf, but it has been abstracted.
In other words, the page with the signature had been sliced out.

Benjamin Silliman described seeing this book in 1835. The Warren family wrote about it in a biography of Dr. John C. Warren and eventually donated the book to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Dr. Sam Forman’s recent biography of Joseph Warren describes the book and shows a photo of its title page and the notes about its provenance opposite.

The Rev. Samuel Wilton (his D.D. was an honorary one from Princeton) was indeed a friend and correspondent of the Rev. William Gordon of Roxbury. Wilton’s father was a church deacon in the East London parish of Wapping, and he became a dissenting minister in the South London parish of Tooting. He was still in his early thirties when he died in the spring of 1778, soon after sending that psalm book across the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, we have only the Warren family’s memory about the page signed with Joseph Warren’s name. That would be the crucial link in the chain of evidence connecting the book back to the doctor. Without it, we have to consider the possibility that a British army veteran might have taken advantage of a minister with some ties to New England and sold him an old psalm book and a story.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Reenactment of the Lexington Tea-Burning, 14 Dec.

As I’ve mentioned before, Old South Meeting House and the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum will host their annual reenactment of the Boston Tea Party on Monday, 16 December. That’s the 240th anniversary of the event. Tickets are still available.

Two days before then, on Saturday the 14th, the Lexington Historical Society will host its second annnual “Burning of the Tea” reenactment. That event actually occurred on 13 Dec 1773, and three days later the radical Massachusetts Spy reported:
We are positively informed that the patriotic inhabitants of Lexington, at a late meeting, unanimously resolved against the use of Bohea Tea of all sorts, Dutch or English importation; and to manifest the sincerity of their resolution, they bro’t together every ounce contained in the town, and committed it to one common bonfire.
That item went on to say that the people of Charlestown were considering the same action.

The next Monday newspapers, including the Boston Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, reprinted the first paragraph but not the second. I don’t know whether that means Charlestown didn’t proceed to destroying tea or whether its inhabitants’ action was lost in the excitement over the Tea Party. Because by then, of course, a much larger amount of tea had been sunk in Boston harbor.

Though the tea-burning in Lexington was thus overshadowed, it’s still significant as an early sign of rural support for Boston. The interests of farmers didn’t necessarily align with those of merchants, mariners, and craftsmen, but the voters of Lexington chose to support the people of the port. The Boston Gazette for 20 December printed the Lexington town meeting’s detailed resolves against the tea, adopted just before the burning, as the first item on its front page. (The Boston Post-Boy, which leaned toward the Crown, declined to run those resolves on account of space.)

Lexington’s reenactment of the tea burning will take place at 3:00 P.M. at Munroe Tavern (shown above), 1332 Massachusetts Avenue. The Rev. Peter Meek will portray the Rev. Jonas Clarke. The Boy Scouts will build a bonfire, and the William Diamond Fife and Drum Corps will play music. All other children must be supervised.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

If You Missed the RevWar Schmoozer…

Last month Journal of the American Revolution editor Todd Andrlik organized what he called a “RevWar Schmoozer” for anyone in Boston involved in Revolutionary history—researching, preserving, interpreting, reenacting, writing, teaching, guiding, whatever.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at that event, but I when I walked in and saw a fellow in a redcoat uniform (from the Freedom Trail Foundation) chatting with a gent in a modern U.S. Navy uniform (from the U.S.S. Constitution), I knew that Todd’s vision had panned out.

I found friendly faces from the National Park Service and many individual sites, from tour companies, from the publishing industry, not to mention from my home-town ice cream parlor. Later that evening, Gary Gregory from Edes & Gill noted the irony that it took a guy from Chicago to make that event happen in Boston.

Well, we locals have another opportunity to gather in Cambridge this Wednesday at 9:00 P.M. That evening Nathaniel Philbrick will be answering my questions about Bunker Hill and George Washington at Cambridge Forum—a free event starting at 7:00. After Nat finishes signing books, we’ll walk over to the Nubar restaurant in the Sheraton Commander Hotel for a reception in his honor hosted by the Friends of the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters with support from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

There will be some hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar. And as many Revolutionary-history folks as want to come and schmooze with each other. Even if you can’t make the Cambridge Forum conversation, stop by the reception to say hello to fellow professionals and enthusiasts.

(Above: A photo of some Boston history folks at the end of the “schmoozer” after most people had gone home. Todd’s the big fellow in the back. Note Ben Edwards in front holding a copy of the first Journal of the American Revolution collection.)

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Environmental History Methods Panel, 10 Dec.

Starting in late 1769, there was a famine in Bengal which lasted deep into the next year. Those poor harvests, followed by shortfalls in the next two years, are blamed for ten million deaths. They also caused many people to migrate from the most affected areas, some of which turned back into tropical jungle.

The government of Bengal—which at that time was the British East India Company—had no control over the environment, of course. But many historians say the famine was exacerbated by its policies. As a profit-seeking corporation, it had pressed farmers to switch to non-food cash crops (opium, indigo), discouraged food “hoarding” for lean times, and kept raising and collecting the tax on land while harvests failed.

Even so, the East India Company remained in terrible financial straits in the early 1770s. For years gentlemen in London had been debating how to reform the company, and reports of the famine suggested that there would be no quick recovery to solve the problem. With many Members of Parliament owning stock, the East India Company was obviously too big to fail.

Lord North and his ministers came up with what they thought was a clever solution: the company could increase revenue by exporting its overstock of Chinese tea directly to North America. By cutting out middlemen, the company could increase its revenue even as it lowered the cost of tea to consumers. The tea tax, in place since 1767 and to be collected as soon as the tea was legally landed, would continue to finance the Customs service and salaries for royal governors and other appointees.

North Americans disagreed.

The connection between the Bengal Famine and the Boston Tea Party of 1773, along with other anti-tea protests in America, is a fairly obvious example of how the environment helps to drive what we usually consider economic and political history. Environmental historians are drawing out much more subtle effects with more sophisticated methods.

On Tuesday, 10 December, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host a panel discussion on “Telling Environmental History.” It will explore “different ways of presenting environmental history, including the use of G.I.S., the intersection of environmental history and planning history, incorporating visual materials, and environmental history as narrative.”

The participants will be:
  • Brian Donahue, Brandeis University
  • Karl Haglund, Department of Conservation and Recreation, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Megan Kate Nelson, Brown University
  • Aaron Sachs, Cornell University
  • Anthony N. Penna, Northeastern University (moderator)
This discussion is scheduled to start at 5:15 P.M. and run until 7:30, including discussion over a light buffet afterwards. It’s part of a series on Environmental History that the society hosts. Sessions are free and open to the public; email the M.H.S. if you want a seat.