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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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Exploring Mehetabel Coit’s Diary, 6 Feb.

If it’s sounding like there are lots of historical events in greater Boston at the beginning of February, that’s because there are. I guess we like to take advantage of the good weather. Here’s another.

On Wednesday, 6 February, at 6:00 P.M., the New England Historic Genealogical Society will host a talk by Michelle Marchetti Coughlin on her new book, One Colonial Woman’s World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit, published by the University of Massachusetts Press:
Mehetabel Coit (1673-1758) is the author of what may be the earliest surviving diary by an American woman. A native of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who later moved to Connecticut, Mehetabel began her diary at the age of fifteen and kept it intermittently until she was well into her seventies.

A previously overlooked resource, the diary contains entries on a broad range of topics as well as poems, recipes, folk and herbal medical remedies, religious meditations, and financial accounts. An extensive collection of letters by Mehetabel and her female relatives has also survived, shedding further light on her experiences. Mehetabel’s long life covered an eventful period in American history, and this book explores the numerous—and sometimes surprising—ways in which her personal history was linked to broader social and political developments.
The lecture will be followed by a book signing for a total of about ninety minutes. This event is free and open to the public. The N.E.H.G.S. is at 99-101 Newbury Street in Boston.

The website for Coughlin’s book lists a number of other venues where she’s speaking in the upcoming weeks and months.

For people especially interested in women’s experiences and how they related them, I’ll add a pointer to In the Words of Women, a blog based on a recent book of the same name by Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge, and Landa M. Freeman. Every entry is about a diary, letter, or other writing by a woman during America’s Revolutionary era.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

“Rum and Revolution” in Lexington, 8 Feb.

On Friday, 8 February, the Lexington Historical Society will do something a little different for its annual Neil Cronin Lecture by hosting “Rum and Revolution,” an evening of music, history, and rum punch. The performers will be Jeremy Bell and Lawrence Young with the society’s own Colonial Singers.

Bell and Young portray taverngoers Abijah Toddy and Tobias Tripp:
Between musical selections sung and played on period instruments, they bring to life the manners and mannerisms of the age with actual 18th century jokes and more than a few little known truths about how rum and helped to start the Revolution. This fascinating story centers on Paul Revere’s Liberty Bowl and involves Ben Franklin drinking Hellfire Punch! Guests may gain insights into the times by sampling a cup of Old Rum punch for themselves. Attendees will hear the tale of John Hancock’s “Madeira riots” of 1768, find out what the Liberty Song was (and why did the British hated it) and learn about how a tavern song became our national anthem.
The facial hair appears to be a special guest from either the seventeenth or nineteenth century.

“Rum and Revolution” starts at 8:00 P.M. at the Lexington Depot. It’s open to people over 21 years old only, for obvious reasons. Admission is $10. Reserve seats by calling the Lexington History Society at 781-862-1703 during business hours.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Worcester Revolt and the American Revolution Round Table

The Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the American Revolution has published Melvin H. Bernstein’s essay “Setting the Record Straight: The Worcester Revolt of September 6, 1774” on its website. A shorter version appeared last month in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.

This essay discusses the organized uprising to close the Worcester County courts before their September 1774 session, effectively ending royal government in the region seven months before the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The local populace demanded that men holding royal commissions refuse to act under them as long as Parliament’s Coercive Acts remained in effect.

Bernstein advocates a regional commemoration of the 1774 uprising next year on its 240th anniversary:

Taking note of the odd revolutionary historical vacuum that persists in Worcester, a local initiative was launched in 2012 to organize a commemorative day for September 6, 1774, to be held on that date in 2014. The initiative encompasses the following core group of revolutionary, historical and cultural organizations: Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, Worcester Daughters of the American Revolution, Preservation Worcester, and the Worcester Historical Museum.
Cambridge could likewise commemorate the massive uprising four days earlier, later named the “Powder Alarm.” That came to a head on Cambridge common and at the house of Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver on the Watertown road. Worcester County men were also part of that event, though it doesn’t show up in the essay. That militia mobilization warned Gen. Thomas Gage that the rural population was largely united against him, prompting him to rescind his optimistic call for new legislative elections. Together those and similar demonstrations elsewhere in Massachusetts produced a largely peaceful de facto change in government leading to the Provincial Congress.

Bernstein’s essay grew out of discussions of Ray Raphael’s book The First American Revolution as part of the American Revolution Round Table, which he chairs. Another meeting of that group is coming up on at 7:00 P.M. on Monday, 4 February, in Lincoln. The topic will be Samuel A. Forman’s biography, Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty, with the author on hand to discuss his work. Seating is limited, so anyone hoping to attend should contact Melvin Bernstein about the possibility of reserving a place.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Panel on Slavery and Religion, Old State House, 5 Feb.

On Tuesday, 5 February, at 5:15 P.M., the Old State House in Boston will host a meeting of the Boston Area Early American History Seminars sponsored and normally hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Another change from the seminar series’ usual format is that it will be a panel discussion of two papers rather than a discussion of one. The panelists will be:
  • Richard Boles, George Washington University.
  • Jared Hardesty, Boston College.
  • Linford Fisher, Brown University, commenter.
Boles’s paper, “African American and Indian Church Affiliation: Reevaluating Race and Religion in the North, 1730-1776,” explores black and Indian participation in the region’s meetinghouses and how those congregants might have influenced theology and church practices. Hardesty’s “A World of Deference and Dependence: Slavery and Unfreedom in Eighteenth-Century Boston” challenges the slave/free dichotomy that most authors on colonial New England use.

This seminar is free and open to the public. Copies of the papers will be available at the event, but the authors won’t read them aloud. There will be a light buffet supper afterward, and the M.H.S. asks people to reserve a space by email.

The Old State House’s Representatives Hall is accessible only by a pretty, and pretty daunting, circular staircase. Photo of that staircase above by JoeyBLS Photography via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

“When the senate should have had an opportunity to act”

Joseph Story was only a boy in Marblehead when the Constitution was written. However, he became a Supreme Court justice and a Harvard law professor and thus a very influential commenter on that document. This is how he interpreted the recess appointment clause in 1833:
the president should be authorized to make temporary appointments during the recess, which should expire, when the senate should have had an opportunity to act on the subject. . . . [This course] combines convenience, promptitude of action, and general security.

The appointments so made, by the very language of the constitution, expire at the next session of the senate; and the commissions given by him have the same duration. When the senate is assembled, if the president nominates the same officer to the office, this is to all intents and purposes a new nomination to office; and, if approved by the senate, the appointment is a new appointment, and not a mere continuation of the old appointment.
Story clearly believed that a recess appointment “should expire, when the senate should have had an opportunity to act on the subject.” He even wrote that such appointments “expire at the next session” of the Senate, not “at the End of their next Session,” which is the Constitution’s language (with my emphasis).

Story wrote only a few years after a conflict over appointments between President Andrew Jackson and the Senate. During an 1829 Senate recess, Jackson named many political supporters to federal offices, particularly newspaper editors. The Senate eventually got to vote on those men and rejected at least nine. Though the administration later renominated those supporters or found new posts for them, that conflict appears to fit within Justice Story’s interpretation of the recess appointments clause: such appointments should last only until the Senate has a chance to vote on them.

In 1884 and afterwards, however, the U.S. courts ruled that the Senate could not remove an official named by recess appointment from office. Those decisions have their roots in Justice Department documents from the Jackson administration back in 1830, but they disagree with Story’s understanding and, I suspect, the Constitutional Convention’s expectations.

Since then, Presidents of both parties have expanded the use of the recess appointment. They have filled positions not just between formal Senate sessions but also in shorter recesses during those sessions. Presidents have argued that such appointments become necessary as the Senate increasingly refuses to vote on nominees, even when a majority is ready to; such filibusters also seem like a distortion of what the Constitutional Convention imagined, and unproductive for the country as well.

Nevertheless, our legal system isn’t based just on what Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1788 or Joseph Story wrote in 1833, but on the whole line of precedents. Courts have considered many aspects of recess appointments and generally found the practice constitutional. This week a U.S. Circuit Court panel ruled the other way, saying President Barack Obama overstepped that authority and imposing limits not applied to recent past Presidents. The issue seems headed for the Supreme Court.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Birth of the Recess Appointment

Article Two of the U.S. Constitution includes this clause, proposed by Richard Dobbs Spaight of North Carolina:
The President shall have power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
This language was modeled after a clause in the North Carolina constitution. It wasn’t part of the first draft of the new federal document, but the men of the Constitutional Convention—many of whom probably expected to be Senators—knew they wouldn’t want to spend all their time at the capital just in case an important position should become vacant.

No one dissented on this clause, and therefore there was no formal debate about its meaning. The Constitution doesn’t define the parameters of the Senate’s “recess” or “session” except to say that it can’t “adjourn for more than three days” without the House of Representatives’ consent or meet somewhere away from the House. The founders at the Constitutional Convention shared a basic understanding of how legislatures worked, so they didn’t think it worthwhile to spell that all out.

The 67th installment of The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, explained that clause this way:
The ordinary power of appointment is confined to the President and Senate jointly, and can therefore only be exercised during the session of the Senate; but as it would have been improper to oblige this body to be continually in session for the appointment of officers and as vacancies might happen in their recess, which it might be necessary for the public service to fill without delay, the succeeding clause is evidently intended to authorize the President, singly, to make temporary appointments “during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.”
Hamilton’s main goal in that essay, context makes clear, was to assure readers that the President could not appoint Senators, as some critics of the Constitution had evidently claimed. The actual workings of the recess appointment were only a minor consideration for him.

The first President to make a recess appointment was the first President, George Washington. He named officials in the very first break of the first Congress. Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison (also kind of an expert on the Constitution) also used this power. Jefferson, in fact, delayed his nomination of Albert Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury so he could make a recess appointment; he didn’t submit Gallatin’s name to the Senate until almost eight months later in January 1802, when there was a Republican majority.

In fact, most of those early recess appointments were later confirmed by the Senate, or at least not rejected. But there was a notable exception. In June 1795 Washington named John Rutledge of South Carolina to be Chief Justice while the Senate was in recess. Less than three weeks later, Rutledge made a speech against the Jay Treaty negotiated by his predecessor, saying that he hoped Washington would die rather than sign it. This reduced his popularity within the administration.

Nevertheless, Rutledge presided over some court sessions that fall, and the President formalized his nomination in December 1795. By then, however, people were speaking openly about the new Chief Justice’s alcoholism, depressions, and failing mind. The Senate rejected the nomination, keeping its debate off the record. Rutledge went home to Charleston and attempted suicide. That didn’t work out, either.

Two days later, Rutledge wrote to Washington, resigning his commission as Chief Justice. Under the literal language of the Constitution, that commission was due to expire at the end of the Senate’s current session, or about five months later. Because Rutledge resigned, however, the country didn’t test the question of whether his commission should have ended as soon as the Senate had considered and rejected his appointment.

TOMORROW: Justice Joseph Story’s interpretation.

Friday, January 25, 2013

America’s Anti-Catholic Turnaround

I think it was Prof. John Fea who recently alerted me to these Belief.net articles by Steven Waldman from 2008:
Anti-Catholicism defined British polity in the eighteenth century after the ouster of James II in 1688’s “Glorious Revolution” and Parliament’s choice to skip his heirs in favor of the Protestant George I. Anti-Catholicism was even stronger in Puritan-rooted New England and tinged the rhetoric of the pre-Revolutionary arguments, as Waldman wrote:
During the lead up to revolution, rebels seeking to stoke hatred of Great Britain routinely equated the practices of the Church of England with that of the Catholic Church. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, colonists celebrated anti-Pope Days, an anti-Catholic festival derived from the English Guy Fawkes day (named for a Catholic who attempted to assassinated King James I). . . .

Roger Sherman and other members of Continental Congress wanted to prohibit Catholics from serving in the Continental Army.

In 1774, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, taking the enlightened position that the Catholic Church could remain the official church of Quebec. This appalled and terrified many colonists, who assumed this to be a British attempt to subjugate them religiously by allowing the loathsome Catholics to expand into the colonies. Colonial newspapers railed against the Popish threat. . . . In Rhode Island, every single issue of the Newport Mercury from October 2, 1774 to March 20, 1775 contained “at least one invidious reference to the Catholic religion of the Canadians,” according to historian Charles Metzger.
At top is Paul Revere’s cartoon “The Mitred Minuet,” engraved for Isaiah Thomas’s Royal American Magazine. It’s another example of American anti-Catholic (and anti-Québec and anti-Scottish) propaganda.

However, Anti-Catholicism is also a clear example of how American Patriots changed their tenets, or at least their policies. At the start of the war they were trying to be more British than the British, and thus more anti-Catholic. But they soon realized they wanted to win over the French Catholic inhabitants of Canada, which meant toning down the “evil Papists” talk.

Gen. George Washington, not from New England and skeptical of people’s abilities to discern the ways of providence, was a leading voice for religious acceptance. Waldman wrote, “On September 14, 1775, he banned the practice of burning effigies of the Pope once a year.” I think that’s a reference to Washington’s letter on how to treat the Canadians and accompanying orders to Col. Benedict Arnold. But those documents applied only to Arnold’s small contingent in Canada.

On 5 November, Washington took the bigger step by ordering his own larger body of troops around Boston, most of them New Englanders, not to celebrate Pope Night:
As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.
At the time, one of the general’s senior aides at headquarters was Stephen Moylan, an Irish immigrant to Pennsylvania whose brother Francis had just become the Roman Catholic bishop of Kerry. Moylan might even have drafted that paragraph for the commander-in-chief’s approval. I don’t think a lot of the New England troops or officers knew about his background, however.

Later the Congress made alliances with France and Spain, only a few years after some of those same American politicians had accused those Catholic powers of conspiring against their British liberties. Soon after the war, even Boston had a Catholic church, and the federal government required itself to be neutral on all religious questions. (Tax support for Congregationalist churches continued in most of New England for decades.) This was one of the biggest turnarounds of the Revolutionary movement, so complete that most of us don’t recognize the religious prejudices it started out with.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Search for a Usable Gordon Wood

One of the drawbacks of subscribing to a blog through Google Reader is that I see posts early and miss conversations that later erupt in the comments. Luckily, Bill Hogeland’s Twitter feed alerted me to the response to Michael D. Hattem’s posting “Where Have You Gone, Gordon Wood?” at the Junto.

The comments actually helped Hattem clarify the point of his post:
Wood looms large in the field and yet there is a fair number of people who think of him as merely a caricature or as the butt of a joke, which I find somewhat sad because he has made significant contributions to the field. Hence, I wrote the piece because I thought it would help me think through why this was happening.
One of Hattem’s themes is “generational differences between early Americanists,” with Wood being perhaps the last giant of the “republican,” “ideological,” or “consensus” school, followed by a generation that demanded study of the non-elite as well. Hattem, currently a graduate student, sees himself two generations below Wood, thus having perspective not only on him but on the stars of the intervening years.

Paul wrote in response:
It strikes me that as much as historians try to deny it, nevertheless it appears that a certain teleology or more strikingly a whiggishness haunts the profession. There is the understanding that we stand on the shoulders of those who go before us but the fundamental assumption that the previous generations have built an understanding of history that is broken or incomplete and that succeeding generations can right the wrong is inherent in the discipline.
Is there indeed a generational, even oedipal, conflict with the next generation of historians having to overthrow the most prominent of the previous? Is this the Hegelian dialectic at work, with Wood having helped to define a new synthesis only for it to become the new thesis to be challenged? Or is there just something about the human life cycle that takes many people who start by pushing against boundaries and has them end up yelling at kids to get off the lawn?

Roy Rogers commented:
Wood, himself, is responsible to “poisoning the well” of his relationship with the academy as much as anyone. Since the late 1980s (getting worse into the 1990s to present), Wood has been reviewing many race/class/gender paradigm books negatively – often in snarky and (sometimes) disrespectful ways. You can watch this evolution in Wood’s collection of reviews – “The Purpose of the Past.”
I recall that Wood’s review of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes seemed to bend over backwards to find value in what he acknowledged were false notions of the founding.

Hattem’s remarks and the comments also get into the perpetual issue of popular history versus academic history (i.e., Why don’t more people read my book instead of the latest from a former sportswriter?). That’s a tougher fit because for all his talk about communicating to the public Wood doesn’t really qualify as a popular writer; the closest he’s gotten to that mode is The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, and his big books sell because they’re used in classrooms, not because they entertain. Hattem restates a good point:
I tried to make the point that thinking of narrative as the savior of the profession is a bit naive, especially when you consider popular early American history. The majority of readers who devour books by [David] McCullough and [Ron] Chernow…read them not because they are narratives per se but because they are a particular kind of narrative about the founding and the founders.
I had more to say on “narrative history” in 2009.

Thomas J. Gillan wrote:
I think it’s fair to say, as Dan Rodgers did in 1992, that the republican synthesis was a product of its time and place, that it was a response, in Rodgers’s words, “not to evidence” but to the “interpretive problematics” of a particular moment.
That refers to Daniel T. Rodgers’s article “Republicanism: The Career of a Concept” (P.D.F. download). Rodgers is an intellectual historian, and here he looked not at eighteenth-century ideas of the republic but at late-twentieth-century thinking about those ideas. (Rodgers is also my uncle Dan, hence the special link.)

Finally, I’d push Alec Rogers’s questioning whether Hattem’s phrase “the historians’ version of the chitlin circuit” is the right metaphor. The “rubber-chicken circuit” seems like a better analogy since that involves speaking comfortably to the comfortable. Chitlins are pigs’ intestines, eaten by poor people who couldn’t afford to let any protein go to waste, and they gave their name to a string of legally segregated entertainment venues. In contrast, chicken breasts become rubbery when cooked en masse to please a large group of well-off people who don’t want to be surprised by their food.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Washington and “The Peaceful Transfer of Power”

Prof. Larry Cebula of Northwest History alerted me to this detail of Monday’s inaugural speeches. In his brief remarks, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said:
Last year, at Mount Vernon, a tour guide told me that our first president, George Washington, once posed this question, “What is most important,” Washington asked, “of this grand experiment, the United States?” And then Washington answered his own question in this way: “Not the election of the first president, but the election of its second president. The peaceful transfer of power is what will separate our country from every other country in the world.”
That quotation appears on the Mount Vernon website, but on the page about “Spurious Quotations” wrongly attributed to the first President.

That page begins:
The following represents a list of spurious quotations attributed to George Washington that have been sent for verification or questioning to the Mount Vernon library in recent years. This list will continue to grow as research staff at Mount Vernon become aware of other misattributed or false statements that have been attributed to Washington.
Evidently not all the Mount Vernon staff are equally aware.

Google Books doesn’t locate the words that Alexander read in any book, suggesting that the coinage is very recent. In fact, I don’t see web uses before this week.

We should recall that Washington had witnessed a “peaceful transfer of power” in many governments during his lifetime: when a monarch died and his heir took over, when the ministry in London shifted hands, when the independent American states elected new governors and legislatures during the Confederation, and when the new Constitution brought him to power nationally. He actually didn’t survive to see the shift of power from one party (his and John Adams’s Federalists) to another (Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans), which was much more divisive.

Since Washington’s time, of course, many nations have enjoyed peaceful transfers of power. We Americans like to think of ourselves as exceptional, but that quality doesn’t separate the U.S. of A. from “every other country,” then or now.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reviewing Henry and the Cannons

I quoted the October 1775 inventory of Continental artillery ordnance yesterday because it bears on my review in the latest issue of The Horn Book.

I looked at Henry and the Cannons by Don Brown, officially published today. This is a picture-book retelling of Henry Knox’s trek to Lake Champlain to collect cannon and mortars for the Continental Army around Boston.

As an artist Brown has a somewhat “cartoony” style that’s lively and often funny, but he doesn’t turn his illustrations into cartoons. (With one exception: his picture of the firing from Dorchester Heights leaves out the stretch of water between there and Boston, which is kind of important.) He depicts Knox’s draft animals all as oxen; most were horses, but these oxen have such long-suffering expressions that I thought they were cute.

Brown’s text errs in following previous retellings that said Gen. George Washington’s army had no cannon until Knox got involved. That was the main flaw I saw in the book, which is otherwise grounded in period sources (particularly Knox’s diary) and well written for its target age group.

Back in 2008, Brown addressed the start of the siege of Boston with Let It Begin Here!: April 19, 1775: The Day the American Revolution Began, which I also reviewed for The Horn Book. It has a more complex history to tell, so Brown used more text and smaller pictures. I saw a few glitches in that book, but overall I thought it was quite solid.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How Many Cannon Did Washington Have in 1775?

On 20 Oct 1775, Col. Richard Gridley of the Continental artillery regiment presented his commander-in-chief, George Washington, with an “Inventory of Ordnance and Stores necessary for the present Army, supposing it to consist of twenty thousand Men.”

At the bottom of that sheet was a section headed “Ordnance, Shot, and Shells, now in Camp.” That listed:
24 pounders, 5; shot, 449.
18 pounders, 6; shot, 260.
12 pounders, 2; shot, 149.
9 pounders, 3; shot, 1,175.
8 pounder, 1.
6 pounders, 2.
5 1/4 pounders, 4; shot, 1,134.
4 pounders, 7; shot, 1,475.
3 pounders, 9; shot, 3,079.
2 1/2 pounders, 2; shot, 1,009.

Total number of cannon, 41.
Total number of shot, 8,730.
Carriages, ladles, rammers and sponges, &c., complete.

10 inch mortars, 3; shells, 374.
8 inch mortars 2; 8 inch howitzers, 3; shells, 452.
7 inch brass mortars, 2; shells, 641.

Total number of mortars, 10.
Total number of shells, 1,467.
With beds, carriages, and implements, complet.
That was more than a month before Capt. John Manley captured the British ordnance ship Nancy with brass cannon and mortars aboard, and three months before Col. Henry Knox, Gridley’s successor, returned from Lake Champlain with more heavy cannon.

I quote this inventory to refute the common idea that Washington’s army had no artillery until Knox came back. It had dozens of cannon, including some that shot balls as large as any from Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. Of course, like any good general, Washington wanted more.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Non-Fatal Battle of Golden Hill

Yesterday was the anniversary of what New York historians later called “The Battle of Golden Hill.” That’s a mighty name for what was really the biggest of a series of brawls between British soldiers stationed in the city and local men over the first Liberty Pole.

Some accounts of the fighting 19 Jan 1770 say that it produced “the first blood of the Revolutionary War.” Others even say it included the first death. New York historians were pleased to find an event that predated the killing of Christopher Seider and the Boston Massacre (which also got a mighty name).

There was surely some bloodletting in the fight, but there had been blood shed earlier as well. The first violent death of the conflict might have been the killing of Lt. Henry Panton at sea in April 1769, or we might interpret that as part of sailors’ ongoing resistance to Royal Navy impressment, with no direct link to the Revolutionary argument.

As for fatalities, there were indeed early reports that a citizen was killed in the fighting on 19 Jan 1770. For example, a letter dated 22 January and published in the St. James Chronicle stated, “One sailor got run through the body who has since died, &c.”

However, no New York newspaper ever published the name of that dead man, and the local Whigs would surely have made a public martyr of him. We know from the Boston Massacre that activists publicized the names of all the dead and then some. Paul Revere’s print of the shooting says Christopher Monk and John Clark had been wounded “mortally,” but both apprentices lived for years. I think that sailor fell into the same category, dead enough to complain about but not really dead.

A special supplement to the New-York Journal on 1 Mar 1770 printed a long, detailed account of the fighting dated 31 January. Though signed “An Impartial Observer,” the writer clearly leaned toward the local side of the conflict. And that account stated there were no fatalities, though only by luck. Here’s a sample of that blow-by-blow between soldiers wielding bayonets, swords, and clubs and locals wielding, well, swords and clubs:
Those few that had the sticks maintained their ground in the narrow passage in which they stood, and defended their defenceless fellow citizens, for some time, against the furious and unmanly attacks of armed soldiers, until one of them missing his aim, in a stroke made at one of the assailants, lost his stick, which obliged the former to retreat, to look for some instrument of defence; the soldiers pursued him down to the main street; one of them made a stroke, with a cutlass at Mr. Francis Field, one of the people called Quakers, standing in an inoffensive posture in Mr. Field’s door, at the corner; and cut him on the right cheek, and if the corner had not broke the stroke, it would have probably killed him.

This party that came down to the main street cut a tea-water man driving his cart, and a fisherman’s finger; in short they madly attacked every person that they could reach: And their companions on Golden-Hill were more inhuman; for, besides cuting a sailor’s head and finger, that was defended himself against them, they stabbed another with a bayonet, going about his business, so badly, that his life was thought in danger.

Not satiated with all this cruelty, two of them followed a boy going for sugar, into Mr. Elsworth’s house, one of them cut him on the head with a cutlass, and the other made a lung[e] with a bayonet at the woman in the entry, that answered the child. Capt. Richardson was violently attacked by two of the soldiers, with swords, and expected to have been cut to pieces; but was so fortunate as to defend himself with a stick for a considerable time, ’till a halbert was put into his hands, with which he could have killed several of them; but he made no other use of it, than to defend himself, and his naked fellow-citizens.—

Mr. John Targe, hearing from his house, the cry of murder, went out unarmed, to see the occasion of it, and when he came in view of the soldiers, three of them pursued him to his house, with their arms drawn, from whence he took a halbert, with which he defended himself against their attacks (with sticks of wood, which they took from a heap that lay in the street, and threw at his legs, as they could not reach his body with their arms) and obliged them to retire to their companions; in which time their lives were in his power, had he been disposed to have taken them.
And so on. I suspect the man whose “life was thought in danger” was the sailor earlier rumored to have died.

Most modern accounts agree with me and say the “Battle of Golden Hill” produced no deaths, but every so often a chronicler repeats the claim that it was the first fatal confrontation of the Revolution.

(The image above is Charles Lefferts’s painting of “The Battle of Golden Hill,” completed about 1920 and now at the New-York Historical Society.)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Understanding the Twenty-Seventh Amendment

The Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has a curious history. It was part of the earliest discussion in the 1780s of what should be fixed in that document, but it wasn’t actually enacted until 1992. And now some of our current Congress, in the same week that body had one of its televised readings of (most of) the Constitution, is moving to violate the amendment.

The Twenty-Seventh Amendment is quite simple:
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
In other words, Congressmen couldn’t vote to change their own pay; they could change pay only for the people whom voters approved in the next election. James Madison drafted those words in 1789, the second of nineteen amendments he proposed and the second of twelve that the whole Congress approved and sent to the states for ratification.

(Incidentally, that shows the fallacy of arguing that Madison and his colleagues saw the First Amendment or Second Amendment as so important that they put them at the top of the list. They listed the amendments to match the order of the constitutional articles they amended. New rules about administering Congress came first, then limits on what laws that legislature could pass, and so on.)

Within a few months, enough states had ratified ten of the first Congress’s twelve amendments that they became part of the Constitution. (Some states skipped the vote after it seemed unnecessary.) But only seven states ratified the Twenty-Seventh, and nobody even seems to have noticed Kentucky’s vote. Ohio approved the amendment in 1873, Wyoming in 1978, and then a concerted push in the 1980s amassed the required supermajority of states.

By that time members of Congress were already cannily delaying pay increases until after the next election or linking them to the cost of living, thus making the Twenty-Seventh Amendment practically moot.

However, a recent proposal from the U.S. House runs counter to the amendment’s language. Madison, a smart lawyer with a broad knowledge of political practices, composed the text to forbid any law “varying the compensation” for members of Congress. He didn’t restrict that prohibition only to laws raising pay or benefits, or even lowering them for that matter. Such language was easily available from the article about the President’s pay, which “shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected.”

Madison knew that colonial legislatures, including the Massachusetts General Court in the 1760s, delayed paying mandated salaries to royal appointees as a form of leverage over those officials. Parliament enacted the Townshend duties in part to collect revenue that the imperial government could use to pay those officials, thus insulating them from public pressure. We should therefore interpret Madison’s general phrase “varying the compensation” to cover timing as well as amount.

Leaders of the U.S. House are now pushing a proposal to hold back pay from members of Congress (i.e., the U.S. Senate) until their body passes a budget—a provision they call “No Budget, No Pay.” But the Twenty-Seventh Amendment renders such a law unconstitutional.

Furthermore, in their reading of the Constitution, Representatives might have noticed that it does not require Congress to pass a budget. The word “budget” never appears in the document. The Constitution does give Congress the “Power To lay and collect Taxes,” “To borrow money on the credit of the United States,” and “To coin Money, [and] regulate the Value thereof.” It requires that “a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.” But our modern annual budgeting process dates to 1921.

The “No Budget, No Pay” proposal thus elevates the annual budget, which isn’t part of the Constitution, while setting aside the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which is.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Getting Ready for the 2013 Reenactment Season

There’s slush on the ground, but already New England Revolutionary War reenactors are preparing for the upcoming season. That’s where the Hive comes in: an organization of dedicated expert reenactors sharing their knowledge with others to improve the experience for both participants and spectators.

The first Hive session of 2013 will take place this Sunday afternoon, 20 January, at Minuteman Vocational Technical High School. It’s all about authentic clothing. The main lecture is “The Process of Putting Together a Great Kit” and breakout sessions cover:
  • Newbie Clinic for Women.
  • Kit Tune up for Men—Fixing Baggie Breeches & Wobbly Waistcoats.
  • Converting Your Center-Front Closing Gown into a Stomacher/Robings Gown.
  • Darning a Sock.
  • Hand Sewing 101.
  • Finishing Your Shift.
These events are free of charge and open to all Minute Man National Historical Park Volunteers and members of the living history community. Visit the Hive website for more details and a link for registration. Two more Hive sessions follow later in the winter.

In addition, on 23 February the Second New England Reenactors’ Swap Meet will take place at the Sturbridge Host Hotel from 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. Groups and vendors focused on many periods, from the mid-1700s through World War 2 at least, will be displaying goods and signing up new members. Admission for adults is $4.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

I Can Haz Mezzotints

Two Nerdy History Girls alerted me to this engraving by James McArdell after the artist Philippe Mercier, which the Yale Center for British Art estimates to have been published in Britain in 1756.

Its caption is “Love Me, Love My Cat.”

Which shows that people were forcing their friends to look at pictures of cats long before the internet. We’ve just gotten more sophisticated at it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A New John Adams Note?

The Warwick (Rhode Island) Beacon reports that today in North Kingston auctioneer William Spicer will sell a short, ragged John Adams letter—really more of a note. I don’t believe this document is mentioned in the published Papers of John Adams.

The letter is dated “Boston Decr. 26 1772” and addressed to an “old Friend” named William Elliot. The newspaper’s transcription reads:
We are all in a fury here about the Dependency of the governor and the Dependency of the Judges, the Commission for trying the Rhode Islanders for Burning the Gaspee. I wonder how your Colony happens to sleep so securely in a whole skin, when her sisters are so worried and tormented! . . .

[Postscript:] The Fools call it the Independency of the Govr, Judges etc
The letter comments on two political issues. One was the royal inquiry into the destruction of the Royal Navy ship Gaspee, which was disrupting Adams’s court schedule because it required the attention of some judicial figures.

The other was the Crown’s move to pay salaries to royal governors, judges, and other colonial appointees from the tea tax rather than leave it up to the local legislatures to pay those salaries (or delay doing so). The Crown salaries made those officials more independent of local opinion, more dependent on royal favor—hence the semantic debate within the letter.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

“Bringing up curiosities from the sunken wreck”

Yesterday I described the sinking of the Royal Navy ship Hussar in the Hell-Gate portion of New York harbor in 1780.

In August 1814, the American Weekly Messenger reported that “The gentlemen who manage the diving bell…last summer were daily bringing up curiosities from the sunken wreck of the British frigate Hussar.” However, they had moved on to another sunken warship, the Mercury. (At the time, notably, the U.S. of A. was once again at war with Britain.)

Then a rumor began to circulate that the Hussar had gone down with the British military payroll in gold and silver. The warship had certainly brought that specie to America in 1780. The ship had also carried American prisoners across the ocean for exchange, and another rumor started to circulate, saying they had gone down with the ship and that their skeletons remained at the bottom, still in chains. With New York recently agitated about the prison ship dead, that possibility brought new attention to the Hussar. Why, it was practically a patriotic duty to search for the ship and bring up those brave martyrs’ remains! (Along with whatever gold and silver one might find along the way.)

In October 1818, the New Monthly Magazine reported that a “company of adventurers” had hired the diving bell to revisit the Hussar and search for gold. An 1819 letter said that expedition succeeded in bringing up “most of the guns from her upper deck,” but no gold.

Reports of that expedition evidently prompted a letter to the Edinburgh Observer in 1827. Former petty officer Fletcher Yetts recalled helping to offload the specie to the army paymasters two days before the wreck. He mentioned the loss of seamen on the ship, but no prisoners, so those Americans had gone ashore as well.

Still, there was another expedition to find the Hussar in 1856, and a group from Worcester planned to try again in 1876. That same year the Army Corps of Engineers tamed the Hell-Gate by blowing it up with dynamite, obliterating whatever was on the bottom. Nonetheless, another man got government permission to try for the wreck in the 1890s; he called off his attempt when research in British archives indicated that there would be no treasure to be found.

Robert Apuzzo recounts this history in detail in The Endless Search for the H.M.S. Hussar: New York’s Legendary Treasure Shipwreck. Landfill has since covered the likely area of the wreck. The cannon given to Central Park in the 1860s—and the recently discovered gunpowder, ball and wadding inside—may be what little is left of the Hussar.

(The thumbnail above shows Thomas Kitchin’s 1777 map of New York harbor and Hell-Gate, courtesy of antique maps dealer Barry Lawrence Ruderman.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Secrets of H.M.S. Hussar

Many news outlets are carrying the story, first reported by the local C.B.S. station and then spread by the Associated Press, of New York’s Central Park Conservancy finding that one of the park’s monuments had contained a loaded cannon.

The cannon was donated to Central Park about the time of the U.S. Civil War and remained on display, its mouth plugged with cement, until 1996. Then it was removed for preservation. Conservators who started to work on the gun recently discovered that underneath the plug was cotton wadding, iron ball, and 800 grams of black powder. A New York police explosives unit took over the job and removed the dangerous material with no harm to anyone.

Now Boston 1775 dives deeper for more of the story.

That cannon, the news outlets reported, came from H.M.S. Hussar, commissioned in 1763. The Hussar was part of Adm. George Rodney’s fleet in New York harbor in 1780. On 23 November, Capt. Charles Morice Pole sailed the ship out of the East River to Long Island, where the admiral had ordered the fleet to anchor. Crossing the difficult Hell-Gate narrows, the Hussar hit a landmark called “Pot Rock” and sank in sixteen fathoms of water.

An 1827 letter in the Edinburgh Observer from one of the ship’s officers said the wreck claimed “107 brave fellows, part of her crew.” A 1780 article in the Boston Gazette said eighty people survived. That sudden sinking during a move when French ships were known to be hanging about New York is probably why the cannon was loaded when it went down.

But the Hussar also had an afterlife.

TOMORROW: Rumors of treasure and skeletons in chains.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Antigua Conspiracy of 1736—Who Was Really Conspiring?

Mike Dash at the Smithsonian Magazine blog examines the evidence about a revolt of people enslaved on Antigua in 1736:
According to David Barry Gaspar, who has written in more detail on the subject than anybody else, Klaas was one of the masterminds behind an elaborate plot, hatched late in 1735, to overthrow white rule on Antigua. The conspiracy allegedly involved slaves on a number of large plantations, and was built around an audacious effort to destroy the island’s planters in a single spectacular explosion. . . .

In the eyes of the Antiguan government, Prince Klaas’s planned rebellion was well evidenced. A stream of witnesses testified that the plot existed; Klaas himself, together with his chief lieutenant—a creole (that is, a slave born on the island) known as Tomboy, whose job it would have been to plant the powder—eventually confessed to it. . . .

Yet—confessions aside—little physical evidence of a conspiracy was ever produced. The “10-gallon barrel of powder” that Tomboy was to have used to blow up the ball was not recovered; nor, despite extensive searches, were any weapons caches found.

All this has led researchers such as Jason Sharples and Kwasi Konadu to direct renewed attention to the slaves’ own testimonies. And here, it must be acknowledged, there is good reason to doubt that the confessions obtained by Arbuthnot were wholly reliable. Konadu persuasively argues that Klaas’s “dance” was probably a familiar Ashanti ceremony acclaiming a newly chosen leader, and not a declaration of war.

Sharples demonstrates that Arbuthnot’s prisoners would have found it easy to exchange information and discuss what the captors wished to hear, and adds that they must have known that a confession—and the betrayal of as many of their fellow Africans as possible—was their one hope of saving themselves. He also supplies an especially revealing detail: that one slave, known as “Langford’s Billy,” who “escaped with his life by furnishing evidence against at least fourteen suspects” and was merely banished in consequence, turned up in New York four years later, heavily implicated in another suspected slave plot that many researchers now concede was merely a product of hysteria.
This debate over the Antiguan revolt mirrors similar debates over other slave revolts throughout North America. Were there actual conspiracies nipped in the bud, or did paranoid white authorities torture and threaten false confessions out of people they had enslaved? Complicating the question is how slave rebellions can be appealing, if tragic, stories of people seeking liberty that we don’t want to give up. And we would be left with stories of hundreds of innocent victims—88 in this one Antiguan episode alone—being tortured and executed over their enslavers’ groundless fear.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

“He had taken a Cold and became sick”

From the memoir of Pvt. Daniel Granger of Andover, published in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review in 1930:
My first services in the Revolution were on Winter Hill in the Fall and Winter of 1775. I at the age of 13 years. In the Month of December, News came up, that my Brother was sick and unable to do Duty, he was very thinly clad, as most of the Soldiers were at the time; he had taken a Cold and became sick. My parents said that I must take the Horse and go down and bring him home. But if the Officers would receive me in his sted, (and he being able to ride alone) I might stay in his room: I went down, & found him, he went with me to the Officers, to offer my services and to obtain a Furlow for himself: they questioned me a little and finally said that I might stay in his room if I thought that I could do the duty of a Soldier, & I gave my Consent, my Brother took the Horse & went home, & I took his Accoutrements and went in his Mess. The Barracks were then building, but were not finished. The Weather was extremely cold.
It looks like Daniel’s older brother was named Jacob and born about 1758. (All the other brothers whom that genealogy site lists were even younger than Daniel.) According to Sarah Loring Bailey’s Historical Sketches of Andover, in late 1777 Jacob marched north with a town militia company to defend against Gen. John Burgoyne’s thrust from Canada. The following spring Daniel, still only a teenager, served three months as a militia drummer at West Point.

My sinuses are feeling a bit like Jacob’s today, but—alas—I don’t have a thirteen-year-old brother to stand in for me.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Maps of Christopher Colles

The John Carter Brown Library’s website is highlighting the efforts of Christopher Colles to publish a map of the young U.S. of A.’s roads:
As early as 1789, Christopher Colles had published his Survey of the Roads of the United States. His Survey consisted of 83 strip maps of roads covering the area from Albany to Annapolis. Each section covered twelve miles of road at a scale of 1 to 4/7 inch of a mile. Precise notation of distance was made possible by Colles’s use of a perambulator that measured mileage by revolutions of a wheel attached to the back of a carriage. Each section looked remarkably like a page from AAA’s master idea [the Triptik].

Christopher Colles was an Irish-born engineer and surveyor and man of constant ideas, one of which was the idea of mapping roads in the early United States in great detail. Unfortunately he was forced to bring his strip map road map project to an end in 1792 after he failed to find enough subscriptions to carry on the work. He did manage to map about 1000 miles, however, and those maps are very interesting for understanding the developing road systems in the developing nation of the United States.
The library also shares a wonderful quote from Colles on the failure of his business: “Had I been brought up a hatter, people would have come into the world without heads.” An edition of his cartography is still on sale, though.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Washington’s “Dishy Letter” about L’Enfant

Last month the Washington Post reported that local real estate developer Albert H. Small had bought what it called “George Washington’s dishy letter about Pierre Charles L’Enfant” at a Christie’s auction. Small plans to donate his entire collection about the first President, including this letter, to George Washington University.

That’s appropriate since Washington and L’Enfant worked together on developing a new national capital. Today we remember L’Enfant as that city’s principal planner. But in fact Washington lost faith in the Frenchman early in the project, which for a long time was a mess. Unfortunately, when it comes to unabashed gossip this letter is more disappointing than “dishy.”

In January 1792 the President had written: “The conduct of Majr. L’Enfant and those employed under him, astonishes me beyond measure! and something more than even appears, must be meant by them!” Bob Arnebeck, author of Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790-1800, suggests that part of Washington’s discomfort might have been due to L’Enfant being gay; more about that here.

The federal government fired L’Enfant in February 1792, and months passed without much progress. On 30 November the President wrote this recently purchased letter to David Stuart, one of the government’s three commissioners overseeing the new city:
You will consider what I am now about to say as a private communication; the object of which is only to express more freely than I did in my last letter to the Commissioners, the idea that is entertained of the necessity of appointing a Superintendant of the execution of the plans & measures which shall be resolved upon by the Commissioners of the Federal City—one who shall always reside there—and being a man of skill & judgment—of industry & integrity, would from having a view of the business constantly before his eyes be enabled to conduct it to greater advantage than the Commissioners can possibly do unless they were to devote their whole time to it. . . .

But where, you may ask, is the character to be found who possesses these qualifications? I frankly answer I know not! Major L’Enfant (who it is said is performing wonders at the new town of Patterson [New Jersey]) if he could have been restrained within proper bounds and his temper was less untoward, is the only person with whose turn to matters of this sort I am acquainted, that I think fit for it. There may, notwithstanding, be many others although they are unknown to me, equally so.

Mr. [Samuel] Blodget seems to be the person on whom many eyes are turned, & among others who look that way, are some of the Proprietors. He has travelled, I am told, a good deal in Europe, & has turned his attention (according to his account) to architecture & matters of this kind. He has staked much on the issue of the Law establishing the permanent residence; and is certainly a projecting genius, with a pretty general acquaintance. To which may be added, if he has any influence in this country, it must be in a quarter where it is most needed; and where, indeed, an antidote is necessary to the poison which Mr. F———s C——t is spreading, by insinuations, that the accomplishment of the Plan is no more to be expected than the fabric of a vision, & will vanish in like manner.
In addition, Washington wrote, Thomas Jefferson “has a high opinion of Mr [Étienne Sulpice] Hallet, but whether Mr Hallet has qualities, & is sufficiently known to fit him for a general Superintendency I cannot pretend even to give an opinion upon.” Both Blodget and Hallet ended up working on the federal capital, and both ran into trouble doing so. L’Enfant ended up suing for back pay.

As for “Mr. F———s C——t,” that was Francis Cabot, a merchant from Boston who had moved to Philadelphia in the 1790s. He was somehow involved in developing the federal city. In February and March 1792, Washington and Stuart wrote each other letters warning of rumors that Cabot had bribed his way into the business and was skimming off government contracts. A man named Samuel Davidson later testified that in 1793 Cabot had charge of L’Enfant’s trunks and “the first plan exhibited of the city of Washington, by Gen. Washington.” Was Cabot the man of that name born in Salem in 1757 and dying in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1832?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Founding Boys, Before It Disappears

Founding Boys was a webcomic that ran from December 2010 to June 2012. It’s a mashup of Revolutionary American history, Japanese manga, British boarding-school stories, and the musical 1776.

Here, for instance, is a discussion between John Adams, who’s the allegorical school’s overly intense scholar, and Benjamin Franklin, who appears to be the grumpy teacher secretly in sympathy with the rebellious students.

Founding Boys ends abruptly as George Washington, the school’s big silent jock, steps over a spill of Delaware milk. But it’s still an impressive run considering the pseudonymous cartoonist was a high-school student all that time. A student who also won a national award for best high-school newspaper comic strip. And people say kids don’t care about history anymore.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Playing Assassin’s Creed III as an Early American Historian

Last week at The Junto blog, Michael D. Hattem reviewed the Assassin’s Creed III videogame as a scholar of early America:
What drew me to the game, as an early Americanist, was the historically accurate renderings of the colonial and revolutionary settings. Also, throughout the game you interact with actual historical figures and play important roles in the most important events of the period. What early Americanist wouldn’t want the chance to walk around Boston in 1754, a Mohawk village, Valley Forge, and, especially for me, New York in 1776? Or participate in the Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Battle of Monmouth? . . .

I am not ashamed to admit that I found it quite exciting to walk into the Green Dragon Tavern to interact with Samuel Adams and to subsequently board the Dartmouth to take part in the Tea Party. At one point, your character has to ride his horse from Boston all the way out to Lexington on a snowy evening, the rendering of which was stunning. During the Battles of Lexington and Concord, you ride along with Paul Revere and end up commanding the Minutemen charged with holding the North Bridge. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, you are tasked with swimming out into the harbor and destroying the cannon on one of the ships bombarding Breed’s Hill. To do so, you have to run down through Charlestown while buildings, including the church steeple, collapse in front of you due to cannon fire. . . .

In the end, barring a time machine, this game is as close as one can get to a dynamic visual experience of colonial and revolutionary settings. For the non-historian, the game will also bring home the violent nature of the Revolution, something often downplayed in popular history and oft-ignored even in the scholarship. Being an early Americanist, the game has led me to consider more the nature of the settings in which the historical subjects about whom I write lived. But, most of all, it proved to be just a whole lot of fun.
Hattem reported that there’s a setting to turn down the gore, making the many attacks more bloodless, and that his six-year-old son enjoyed the game. The younger Hattem had been somewhat prepared for the storyline by episodes of Liberty’s Kids, one of those television cartoons that will never die.

This Junto review included a helpful video with clips of the action, and those made me pause. And rewind and look again to be sure of what I was seeing:
  • Lots of non-eighteenth-century facial hair, on such figures as Capt. John Parker.
  • British soldiers attacking the Tea Party. There weren’t any redcoats in central Boston in 1773. Royal officials didn’t dare interfere with that action.
  • Provincial militiamen defending the North Bridge at Concord from advancing British soldiers rather than the other way around.
So for all the care the game makers took with the settings, for all the details they included (William Molineux memorialized in a videogame? Amazing!), Assassin’s Creed III promotes some fundamentally mistaken notions about important Revolutionary events. Those might grow from misconceptions or compromises to make the play more exciting. But through lifelike images and sheer ubiquity this game will probably help to shape how a generation pictures the Revolution.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Reviewing Jefferson the Politician

The Jefferson tussles continue with Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain, assessing Jon Meacham’s political biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power in The New Republic:
Meacham has read the scholarly literature on Jefferson—some of it critical—but doesn’t let enough of this debate intrude on the storytelling, which nearly always puts Jefferson in the best possible light. . . .

In his notes, Meacham concedes that “a vapor of duplicity,” as Charles Francis Adams wrote, beclouds this founder. But Meacham hastens to reassure us that Jefferson would never tell a lie. If his language seemed to deceive, the deception must be in the ear of the listener: “He hated arguing face-to-face, preferring to smooth out the rough edges of conversation …” Thus, Jefferson gets a pass for lying to [George] Washington when he sought to deceive the president about his deep involvement in the propaganda wars raging in the newspaper: “Jefferson had been dishonest …preferring to mislead Washington rather than force a confrontation.” This was power politics at its dirtiest—and most fascinating—yet Meacham gives it only cursory attention, perhaps because, as he admits, Jefferson’s financial ties to the propaganda hounds reeked of “the smell of the stables.”
Abigail Adams fell out with Jefferson not just over the 1800 election but over his bald-faced denials that he had anything to do with press attacks on her husband. On 1 July 1804 Abigail wrote to the President of the U.S. of A.:
And now Sir I will freely disclose to you what has severed the bonds of former Friendship, and placed you in a light very different from what I once viewed you in. . . .

Until I read [James Thomson] Callenders seventh Letter containing your compliments to him as a writer and your reward of 50 dollars, I could not be made to believe, that such measures could have been resorted to: to stab the fair fame and upright intentions of one, who to use your own Language “was acting from an honest conviction in his own mind that he was right.” [In other words, her husband.] This Sir I considerd as a personal injury. This was the Sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party Spirit, by rivalship by Jealousy or any other malignant fiend.
Jefferson, of course, denied that he had been supporting Callender when that printer attacked the Adams administration. Abigail Adams didn’t believe him, and rightly so.

As author of a study of Jefferson’s slaveholding, Wiencek naturally considers what Meacham has to say on that topic:
The shadow of the Peculiar Institution looms over this book and, I suspect, is the main reason why Meacham so persistently emphasizes Jefferson’s political “realism” and his refusal to move farther and faster than the law or the public mood allowed. Meacham has no problem with bold presidential moves such as the Louisiana Purchase, which as Meacham admits, was illegal (the Constitution did not provide for its acquisition) and Jefferson’s naval action against the Barbary pirates, which he pursued without Congressional approval (he secured it retroactively). But slavery is always a special case. Slavery was just one of “the complexities of life.” Sally Hemings was not enslaved by Jefferson but by “geography and culture.” When the political issue is slavery, the man who elsewhere seizes control and imposes his will, immediately gives up: “Wounded by the defeats of his progressive efforts on slavery, Jefferson was finally to retreat to a more conventional position.” Meacham does not let Jefferson entirely off the hook, but his rebuke is gentle.
Meacham uses the phrase “geography and culture” when writing of young Sally Hemings in Paris, saying that having previously enslaved her (i.e., she was born to an enslaved mother in British-speaking North America), those circumstances now offered a risky opportunity for freedom. On the same page of the book, Meacham writes that Jefferson had this “beautiful woman at his command” because of “an evil system,” and “he was not a man to deny himself what he wanted.” So it’s not as if Meacham erases Jefferson and his desires from the picture.

In fact, Meacham, unlike most Jefferson biographers before 1998, cites Madison Hemings’s account as the most reliable source on his mother Sally’s life. Seeing a complimentary biographer do that reveals how much the ground has shifted on the consensus picture of Jefferson.

Nevertheless, Wiencek makes an important point. If Meacham’s Jefferson “was not a man to deny himself what he wanted” yet took very few steps toward ending slavery at Monticello, he can’t have wanted emancipation as much as he said he did. At the very least, he wanted other things more.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Pilots of the Revolution

Founders’ Chic is apparently washing up on American television, just a few years after H.B.O.’s John Adams miniseries garnered acclaim. Late last year, Deadline.com reported on two networks starting work on different series set in eighteenth-century America.

N.B.C. is developing George Washington, a drama that David Seidler will adapt from Ron Chernow’s biography of the first President. Barry Levinson is slated to direct the pilot if the project gets that far. That’s two Oscar winners working with Carnival Films & Television, the company behind Downton Abbey. The article states:
George Washington is described as an intimate look at the enigmatic leader who became the father of a nation on one side of the Atlantic and a terrorist on the other, a man to be eliminated at all costs by the British Crown. As episodes move back and forth through the war hero and President’s life and tell the little-known and unlikely story of his survival and triumph, his true character is revealed for the first time. And he is not the man who chopped down the cherry tree.

“There’s George Washington the national icon, gazing out from the dollar bill with his mouthful of supposedly wooden teeth, and then there’s the George Washington who had an adulterous affair with his best friend’s wife,” Seidler said. “The George Washington obsessed with social status, finely-tailored clothes, his image. Not an icon, a very human human-being, who learned how to lead. That’s the man I want to understand.”
That “adulterous affair” is presumably young Washington’s relationship with Sally Fairfax. Historians and biographers debate how far they actually went, but he certainly flirted in letters to her. Chernow actually concluded that Fairfax “rebuffed” Washington’s declaration of love, and that his brief “infatuation” faded quickly. So has Seidler decided that making television drama, or at least promoting it, requires declaring that there definitely was “an adulterous affair”?

Over at A.M.C., the network has expressed interest in a comedy called We Hate Paul Revere. It centers on “two brothers living in Colonial Boston who are not fans of local industrialist and activist Paul Revere.” I don’t think it’s fair to call Revere an “industrialist” until after “Colonial Boston” had given way to Federal Boston, so I have questions about the historical accuracy of this one, too. There’s definitely fodder for comedy in pre-Revolutionary Boston—social friction can always be funny. But getting the history right might give the result even less mass appeal than The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.

Of course, I’m not holding my breath for either of these shows to appear in my cable box. Neither yet appears to be at the pilot stage, much less scheduled to air. Many more movies and television shows go into “development” than come out on screens. Back in 1995, the Los Angeles Times and Variety were reporting that Ben Stiller was about to direct himself and Danny DeVito in Spies and Innkeepers, “a comedy set in the American Revolution” written by Jeff Kahn. That never happened, though Universal still owns the property.

(Picture above from an April 1984 issue of TV Guide showing Mike Wallace interviewing Barry Bostwick as George Washington. Remember that miniseries? Jaclyn Smith played Sally Fairfax, and who wouldn’t be infatuated with her?)