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, February 28, 2013

Richard Palmes Gives More Testimony—and This Time It’s Personal

After providing testimony for an inquest on 6 Mar 1770, apothecary Richard Palmes testified four more times about the Boston Massacre:
  • He provided a deposition for Boston’s official report on the event, titled A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre.
  • A polished version of Palmes’s inquest testimony, written in the week after the shootings, appeared in A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston, printed in London in response to the Short Narrative. Palmes’s original text was broken up into sentences with standardized punctuation, but only one small detail was added.
  • Palmes was a (probably reluctant) defense witness at Capt. Thomas Preston’s trial.
  • He was a prosecution witness in the soldiers’ trial.
Furthermore, we have three versions of Palmes’s testimony at Preston’s trial:
Palmes formatted his account in question-and-answer form, like the recently published transcript of the soldiers’ trial, but that text also broke off for the note “as per Narrative,” referring to the Boston report. Thus, it’s unclear whether those questions and answers were really based on contemporaneous records or if Palmes wrote out what he remembered (or wanted to remember) months later. He didn’t present his whole testimony, just the portion about whether Preston might have ordered his men to shoot into the crowd.

As for the soldiers’s trial, the situation is even more complicated. Palmes’s testimony survives in four forms:
  • brief notes from the same report to London mentioned above.
  • trial notes from defense attorney John Adams.
  • the transcript of the proceedings by shorthand expert John Hodgson, published by John Fleeming.
  • Palmes’s own version, published in the 25 Mar 1771 Boston Gazette, with specific complaints about Hodgson’s accuracy.
There’s an old saying that a person with one watch always knows what time it is, and a person with two watches never does. A historian with one source can report what people said; a historian with two sources can’t.

TOMORROW: The points Palmes wanted to emphasize.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Richard Palmes’s Inquest Testimony

Richard Palmes had a front-row view of the Boston Massacre. He was close enough to Capt. Thomas Preston that, as he later said, “my left hand was on his right shoulder.” At Preston’s trial Palmes said, “The Gun which went off first had scorched the nap of my Surtout at the elbow.” He then laid about him with a “heavy [walking] stick,” knocking one soldier’s hand off his gun, before realizing it would be wise to run away.

The next day, Palmes provided a deposition for coroner Thomas Dawes’s inquest on the death of Samuel Gray. I’ve added paragraph breaks and included all interpolated text to make it easier to read, but there’s only so much I can do:

I Richd. Palmes of Boston Apoth’y [?] of Lawfull Age Testafieth & Sayeth, that about 9 oClock Last evening I heard one of the Bells Ring, which I Suppos’d was for fier, upon which I Went towards ware I supposed it was, I ask what the matter was, I was told that the Soldgers was abusing the Inhabetents, I ask ware the Soldgers was, and was told in King Street & that there was a Rumpus at the Custom-house Door,

assoon [sic] as I got their, I saw one Capt. Preson at the head of Six or Eight Soldgers, the Soldgers had their Guns Brest high, I went ameadiatly to the Sd. Capt Preson, I ask him if the Soldgers guns were Loaded his Reply was that they ware Loaded with Powder & Ball I then ask him if he intended they should fire his Answer was by no Means, but I Did not here him tell the men not to fire

I saw apice [sic] of Ice fall among the Soldgers Ameadiatly upon this the Soldger at his right hand fired his Gun that Instant I herd the word fire, but who said it I know Not; the Soldgers at his Left fired Next, and the others as fast as they Could one after the other, I turned my Self as Soon as I could & Saw one Lay Dead at my Left, upon wich I struck at the Soldger that fird the first Gun I hit his Left hand which maid his Gun fall, at which I made a Stroke at the offiser, & Struck him on the Arm at him, and thought I hitt his head, but sd. officer Preson Says I hitt his Arm, on my makg. the Strook I fell on my Right knee, the I then saw the Soldger that first fird, agoing to push his Bayanett at me, upon which I threw my Stick at his head, so he gave Back—and Gave me an Opportunity to Jump frome him, or I must Ben Run threw my Bodey,

Directly I past threw Exchange Lane, and so up the Next Lane by Mr. Kents office, & Saw the Bodey of three persons Laying on the Ground I followd the [body] of Capt. Mortons apprentice Carrg By [?] I followd it up to the parson house, and Saw he had a Ball, shot threw his Breast &c and further Sayeth not.
“Capt. Mortons apprentice” was victim James Caldwell; there’s a discussion of his body’s travels here. I tried to nail down Morton’s identity here. “Mr. Kent” was the Whig lawyer Benjamin Kent.

Palmes’s inquest testimony is preserved in the Boston Public Library’s Mellen Chamberlain collection.

TOMORROW: Richard Palmes gets the last word.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The 2013 Boston Massacre, 2 March

The Boston Massacre will come early this year!

The Bostonian Society’s annual reenactment is scheduled for Saturday, 2 March, starting at 7:00 P.M. That’s the Saturday nearest the actual anniversary on the 5th. Unless the weather is rainy enough to make the firelocks inoperable or renders the event even more dangerous than a massacre ought to be, the show will go on.

This society and its volunteers work hard to portray this event as authentically as possible. The clothing standards for civilians are at “Battle Road standards,” with beards forbidden. The soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot wear hand-tailored uniforms matching the British army regulations of the late 1760s, when that unit was dispatched to North America. And the officers—their uniforms are even more stunning. (Absolutely gorgets, one might say.)

Because of the confined space and sight lines in downtown Boston, it’s best to think of experiencing the Massacre reenactment, not just watching it. If you find yourself in a crowd glimpsing confused actions, hearing louder and louder yells and then gunshots, wondering what exactly happened and being glad you weren’t hurt—well, that’s how the event was for most of the people on King Street in 1770.

This year’s reenactment has a new ingredient: a narrator to provide background information and introduce the vignettes that precede the main action. And the voice you’ll hear will be mine.

The Bostonian Society has also scheduled daytime events for young visitors, starting at 11:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. with a free “Little Redcoats and Little Bostonians” program outside the Old State House museum. Half an hour later, young museumgoers can participate in and view sessions of the “Trial of the Century,” acting out the soldiers’ trial after the shooting; that requires reserving a space, and the museum opens at 9:00 in the morning.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Visiting the Durant-Kenrick House on Film, 28 Feb.

On Thursday, 28 February, at 7:00 P.M., Historic Newton and the Newton Free Library are sponsoring a free showing of the documentary “The Durant-Kenrick Homestead: A House of Many Stories.” The event description says:
Built in 1734 and continuously occupied for nearly 275 years, the Durant-Kenrick House is Newton’s connection to many of the pivotal events of American history. This new documentary by award-winning historical documentarian Joe Hunter tells the story of the house and its occupants. Through the stories of the house’s residents, we wrestle with the fundamental questions they spent their lives answering: What is liberty? What is our responsibility to defend it? Who is a citizen?

Following the showing, Historic Newton Director Cindy Stone and other project representatives will offer more insight into the history of the house and discuss its current transformation into an educational center.
I wrote about the history of this house back in April 2012. It seems significant not because what happened there affected lots of other people but because its “many stories” reflect important trends and shifts in early American life. The movie will be shown at the Newton library, at the corner of Homer and Walnut Streets.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Seeing the Death of Christopher Seider

If I ever get the chance to curate an exhibit about Ebenezer Richardson’s killing of Christopher Seider in 1770 (with, of course, no limit on space or money), the portrait of Madam Grizzell Apthorp that I showed yesterday is one item I’d want to include.

Another would be the big broadside titled “Major-General James Wolfe, who reach’d the summit of human glory, September 13th, 1759,” that I described back here. According to the Boston Evening-Post, Christopher had a copy in his pocket when he died, showing early signs of “a martial genius.” So far as I know, the Massachusetts Historical Society owns the only copy.

A third item is the only contemporaneous visual depiction of that event that’s survived. It’s a woodcut picture that illustrates a broadside titled “The Life, and Humble Confessions, of Richardson, the Informer.” The Historical Society of Pennsylvania appears to be the only archive with a copy, and the image below comes courtesy of its website.

The paper hasn’t survived in great shape, and the the image and printing weren’t very crisp to begin with. But it’s enough to depict the whole event. At the left we can see the shop of Theophilus Lillie, helpfully labeled “Importer.” The giant head of an effigy stands on a stick to the right of the shop. Above it, a smoking firelock has fired out a window at the crowd on the right. One of the little figures representing boys is lying on the street in the right foreground—Christopher Seider, mortally wounded.

Some elements of this image echo the famous engraving of the Boston Massacre by Henry Pelham (copied by Paul Revere). There’s the general composition of the urban scene, with buildings slanting in on either side. In the background is a church steeple—perhaps the New Brick Meeting-House in the North End, known as the “Cockerel Church” for its weathervane.

In the foreground just below the gun barrel, a woman rushes into the scene. That’s probably a representation of Christopher’s mother, Sarah Seider, just as the Massacre print is said to include the widow Mary Maverick, come to look for her son. Mrs. Seider is carrying something which at first glance might look like a pitchfork, but I think it was meant to be a distaff, symbolizing her hard work at a respectable domestic craft.

This broadside was probably printed in 1772 as Richardson languished, neither hanged nor pardoned, in Boston’s jail. Al Young guessed that Isaiah Thomas carved it; Thomas did say he learned to carve such plates as an apprentice, not very well but adequately. In any event, it reflects the Whig interpretation of the event, which had foreshadowed and been overshadowed by the Massacre.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Grizzell Apthorp: Widow, Employer, Property Owner

This is an image of Robert Feke’s portrait of Grizzell Apthorp (1709-1796), made in the late 1740s. The original now belongs to the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

The sitter was born Grizzell Eastwick in Jamaica. Her maternal grandfather was Sir John Lloyd, a baronet. Grizzell’s family moved to Boston in 1716, and ten years later she married Charles Apthorp (1698-1758) at King’s Chapel. They were part of a class of wealthy Anglicans who had a lot of money from Caribbean sugar plantations and slave labor.

Charles Apthorp earned even more money as a merchant and supplier of specie to the British army during the imperial wars of the mid-1700s. As a measure of how rich he became, his junior partner was Thomas Hancock, the rich uncle who left his fortune to John Hancock. In other words, the Apthorps had even more money than the Hancocks. In 1758 the New-Hampshire Gazette called Charles Apthorp “the greatest merchant on this continent.”

Having married in her teens, Grizzell Apthorp had the good health to bear eighteen children, over a dozen surviving to adulthood. Grizzell’s namesake daughter married Barlow Trecothick, who became a London alderman and briefly lord mayor. Her daughter Susan married Dr. Thomas Bulfinch, father of the architect, and her daughter Ann married Nathaniel Wheelwright, a linchpin of Boston finance until 1765.

Charles died in 1758, and his eldest son Charles Ward Apthorp took over most of his business, moving to New York when the army command located there. Another son, Thomas, succeeded his father as paymaster to the British troops. Other sons remained in Boston. East Apthorp was the first minister of Christ Church in Cambridge, but the provincial reaction to him was so hostile that he moved to England; the mansion he commissioned, still called Apthorp House, is now part of Harvard.

After her husband’s death Grizzell was usually called “Madam Apthorp,” the title of respect for a rich widow as opposed to an ordinary one. She was a devout supporter of King’s Chapel. A 1771 letter to Robert Treat Paine shows she was also active in looking after her real estate outside town.

Grizzell Apthorp became connected to the political violence of early 1770 in at least two ways:
  • Young Christopher Seider was “living” at her house when he died on 22 February, meaning that he was working there at least part-time as a domestic servant.
  • She owned the house on King Street that the Customs service rented as an office. The Boston Massacre occurred outside that building on 5 March.
In addition, in 1821 octogenarian Mary Turell recalled that some of the British army officers of the time boarded in another house Madam Apthorp owned.

Though most of her family were Loyalists, Grizzell Apthorp never left Massachusetts and thus never lost her property during the war. She remained in Boston and in the King’s Chapel congregation through the changes of the 1780s, still “Madam Apthorp” to her neighbors. A death notice declared: “So unexceptionable was her deportment in every relation of life, though she remained near a century upon its theatre, and passed through successive empires of beauty and fortune, envy never dared to utter a lisp, or slander to forge a dart against her fame.”

Friday, February 22, 2013

The First News of Christopher Seider’s Death

On Thursday, 22 Feb 1770, the Boston News-Letter contained this item in italics at the bottom of its local news:
This Instant we hear that one Richardson having attempted to destroy some Effigies in the North End, the Lads beat him off into his House, and broke his Windows, upon which he fired among them, mortally wounded one Boy, & slightly wounded two or three others. Richardson is now under Examination.
The issue of the Boston Chronicle dated 19-22 Feb 1770 closed its local news this way:
This forenoon, a boy of about 14 years of age, was mortally wounded, and two others slightly wounded by a shot from a musket, fired out of a house at the north end.—Two persons, who were in the house from whence the gun was fired, are now under examination at Faneuil Hall.

*** The Western Post not arrived at 2 o’Clock
The wounded lad, who would die later that afternoon, was Christopher Seider. He wasn’t fourteen, as the Loyalist Chronicle guessed, but only about eleven. His wound was indeed mortal, as both newspapers said. There was only one other person wounded, Samuel Gore, though a sailor named Robert Patterson complained that pieces of shot went through his pants.

Because Ebenezer Richardson shot at the boys mobbing his house on Thursday, one of the two days when newspapers were printed in Boston, this is a rare example of being able to read a local news story written as it broke.

Furthermore, this story tells us a couple of things about the newspapers themselves. The Chronicle dated 19-22 February was published at the end of that stretch; in chronological indexes that issue’s often pegged to the start date. Furthermore, the Chronicle’s note that the printer was still waiting for mail at 2:00 show that newspapers were printed in the early afternoon of the date on their front pages. They weren’t ready first thing in the morning, at least these editions.

At the time, the Chronicle was being supported by the Customs service with stationery orders, advertising, and leaks. And it appears the newspaper’s printer, then John Fleeming, reciprocated by not mentioning Richardson even by last name: he was a Customs employee, and a notorious one.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Washington’s Birthday at Washington’s Headquarters

Tomorrow, 22 February, is the date America finally settled on as the anniversary of George Washington’s birth. And shortly before the Bicentennial the federal government established its Washington’s Birthday (Presidents’ Day) holiday as the third Monday in February, which can never be the 22nd.

At least one part of the government still celebrates Washington on the 22nd, however. The National Park Service rangers at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge are offering free tours of that mansion each half-hour from 1:00 to 4:00 on Friday afternoon. These tours focus on how the commander-in-chief used the house as his headquarters in 1775-76. Each tour takes about half an hour, well suited for kids on school vacation.

On Thursday, 14 March, the site will offer longer tours on the hour from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M. These, too, will focus on Gen. Washington’s life and work in the house as Evacuation Day approaches.

That evening, I’ll speak at the site on:
George Washington, Crisis Manager: The Shaky Startup of the Continental Army Headquarters

When George Washington became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he had to assemble an effective headquarters staff. Over his first several months the new general struggled to identify the talents he needed, to recruit the right men, and then to replace them when they left. This talk looks at Washington’s learning curve as a manager and the workings of the military “family” he brought together in Cambridge.
At this talk I’ll gossip about which men Washington insisted that the Continental Congress commission as generals. And what quartermaster Thomas Mifflin and military secretary Joseph Reed didn’t tell their wives. And why, after Reed and aide Edmund Randolph left the Cambridge headquarters short-handed in the fall of 1775, Washington nevertheless sent his other aide George Baylor off to Connecticut.

To reserve a seat for that 14 March talk or any of the house tours about Gen. Washington, email the site.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Monarchism in Mid-1780s Massachusetts?

As I noted a couple of days ago, in 1779 a group of gentlemen began meeting annually in Milton to celebrate the birthday of George Washington.

On 10 Feb 1784, the day before the “birth of the illustrious General WASHINGTON, is to be celebrated as usual, at Milton,” the Independent Ledger printed many verses of a song written to the tune of “God Bless America.” Here’s the opening.

AMERICANS rejoice,
While songs employ each voice,
Let trumpets sound.
The thirteen stripes display,
In flags and streamers gay
’Tis WASHINGTON’S birth day,
Let joy abound.

From scenes of rural peace,
From affluence and ease,
At freedom’s call;
A hero from his birth,
Great Washington stands forth,
The scourge of George and North,
And tyrants all.
Those words don’t fit the tune we all know as “God Bless America,” but even Irving Berlin hadn’t been born yet. I bet in 1784 people were supposed to sing those lyrics to the melody of “God Save the King.” Though the tune was now about “America,” these verses were all about Washington.

A couple more years, and Boston’s schoolboys had their own celebration, whether conceived by their teachers or by themselves. The 15 Feb 1786 Massachusetts Centinel reported:
Last Saturday, being the anniversary of the birth-day of GEORGE WASHINGTON, Esq; the day was noticed here by a discharge of cannon, &c. A circumstance which then occurred, being singular, may deserve notice—About 10 o’clock, the scholars of the several publick schools in town, to the number of two or three hundred, proceeded into State-Street, where they testified their respect for the day, on which was born the Deliverer of their Country, by repeated huzzas; after which they returned to their several schools.
That became an annual event.

Colonial Americans really shared only two holidays in the years leading up to the Revolution. The Puritans of New England made a point of not celebrating Christmas. Thanksgivings varied from one colony to another. Saints’ days, such as the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Andrew, had ethnic implications. But everyone up and down the Atlantic seaboard celebrated the birthdays of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Militia units paraded, cannon fired, flags flew, and gentlemen gathered to drink toasts.

For obvious reasons, those royal holidays went away after independence. But less than three years later, Americans started to bring back the same rituals to celebrate Gen. Washington’s birthday. They even sang new lyrics to “God Save the King” about him.

Furthermore, those celebrations grew after Washington stepped down from his official position. In the mid-1780s he was no longer the commander-in-chief of the army, and he wasn’t yet part of the national government. These tributes were entirely for the man, not the office. No wonder his critics would complain about creeping monarchism.

(Washington’s Birthday postcard above courtesy of Dave, via Flickr.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Washington’s Birthday Shifts

When George Washington was born, the British Empire was still using the Julian Calendar and refusing to abide by the more accurate, but papist, Gregorian Calendar. His birth was recorded as coming on 11 Feb 1731/2. The format of that “Old Style” date acknowledged how for most of continental Europe and their colonies the new year had started on 1 January instead of at the spring equinox. The Gregorian date was eleven days later in the month.

Britain and its colonies finally adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. But it’s not clear when Washington himself started to consider his birthday as now pegged to 22 February. His diaries don’t mention anniversary celebrations or ruminations on either date.

In publishing an edition of Gen. Washington’s wartime expense accounts, John C. Fitzpatrick speculated that the first public celebration of the commander’s birthday occurred at Valley Forge on 22 Feb 1778. However, his only evidence was how on that date the general’s office paid the musicians from Col. Thomas Procter’s artillery regiment 15s. And that payment could mean a lot of things.

As I quoted yesterday, gentlemen in Milton, Massachusetts, celebrated Washington’s birthday on 11 Feb 1779. I’ve seen reports but not sources for a celebration in Winchester, Virginia, the same day. On 12 Feb 1781 (the eleventh being a Sunday), the French general Rochambeau declared a holiday for his troops in honor of the American commander-in-chief. Throughout the 1780s, in fact, the public celebrations of Washington’s birthday were pegged to the 11th.

On 14 Feb 1790 Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear wrote to Clement Biddle, U.S. Marshal for Pennsylvania:
In reply to your wish to know the Presidents birthday it will be sufficient to observe that it is on the 11th of February Old Style; but the almanack makers have generally set it down opposite to the 11th day of February of the present Style; how far that may go towards establishing it on that day I dont know; but I could never consider it any otherways than as stealing so many days from his valuable life as is the difference between the old and the new Style.
In 1790 the new Society of St. Tammany in New York voted to celebrate Washington’s birthday on 22 February, and in the decade that followed other celebrations shifted to that date. As late as 1799, however, Alexandria, Virginia, still observed Washington’s birthday on 11 February even though earlier that month he wrote to Jonathan Trumbull about “my birthday (the 22d. instant [i.e., of this month]).”

TOMORROW: The meaning of Washington’s birthday.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Washington’s Birthday Observed in Milton

Over a century ago, Albert Matthews of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts was keeping his eye open for newsaper reports of Americans celebrating George Washington’s birthday. His earliest find appears to be in John Gill’s Continental Journal dated 18 Feb 1779:
Thursday the 11th instant [i.e., of this month], the glorious anniversary birthday of his Excellency General WASHINGTON, was celebrated at Milton, by a large number of gentlemen, with an elegant festival. After dinner the following Toasts were drank:
1. The glorious and auspicious 11th of February, 1732.*
2. May this anniversary be celebrated to the honor of our illustrious Chief, till time shall be no more.
3. May the wisdom and integrity of Congress frustrate all the arts and stratagems devised to darken and divide their counsels.
4. Perpetual union and freedom to the American States.
5. His Most Christian Majesty [i.e., the King of France].
6. American Ministers at foreign Courts.
7. The honorable Sieur Gerard [the French minister to the U.S. of A.].
8. The American Army and Navy.
9. The Army and Navy of our great Ally.
10. May the names of Warren, Montgomery, and all the heroes who have fell in our glorious cause, be immortalized in the annals of America.
11. May the United American States ever prove a happy asylum to the oppressed of all nations.
12. May the genial rays of true religion and science dispell the mist of ignorance and error from all quarters of the globe.
* General Washington was born in Virginia, in the county of Westmoreland, the 11th February, 1732.
On 18 Feb 1780, Gill printed the description of another birthday celebration, most likely at the same tavern:
FRIDAY last a large number of Gentlemen met at Mr. Robinson’s, by Milton Bridge, to celebrate the anniversary Birth Day of his Excellency General Washington—Every breast was filled with pious joy to Heaven for preserving the invaluable Life of our illustrious General.—After an elegant Dinner, the following Toasts were given out:
1. The illustrious Hero of the day.
2. Wisdom and Integrity to the Congress.
3. The American Army and Navy.
4. The combined Fleets of France and Spain.
5. Poverty to Extortioners, and Bread to the Poor.
6. Condign punishment to all Peculators.
7. The advocates for civil and religious Liberty.
8. May America flourish, ’till time shall be no more.
9. Agriculture and Navigation.
10. Our Friends in captivity.
11. Our Friends at Foreign Courts.
12. May the dictates of Reason and Conscience govern mankind.
13. Peace and good Government to all Nations. Huzza!
The 18 Feb 1782 Independent Ledger carried a shorter report for that year:
Last Tuesday a large number of Gentlemen met at Mr. Robinson’s Tavern on Milton Hill, to celebrate the anniversary Birth Day of His Excellency General WASHINGTON.—The Company were honored with the presence of General [Benjamin] LINCOLN, and many other American officers of distinction.
You’ve no doubt noticed that all those celebrations were held on the 11th of February while we now observe Washington’s birthday on the 22nd.

TOMORROW: When did that shift happen?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Real Lessons of the Three-Fifths Compromise

American historians’ Twitter feeds lit up yesterday with links and responses to an essay from James Wagner, the president of Emory University, extolling the value of compromise. Though the essay started talking about national politics, by the end it was clear that Wagner was also addressing the opposition to his program to change the university.

But what really raised eyebrows was the example of compromise Wagner chose to praise:
One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union.
Wagner in the past has expressed regret about slavery on Emory’s behalf and written of the university’s “elective amnesia.” But he seems to have had a relapse.

Wagner’s new essay expresses an old view of the Constitution, casting the lifelong servitude of generations of Americans as an acceptable price for creating or preserving the U.S. of A. The rich, white politicians who forged this compromise and benefited most from that union didn’t give up much for it. The provision’s burden fell almost entirely on poor black slaves, and to a lesser extent on relatively poor free farmers in other districts and states who lost voting power.

In fact, most of the states had already agreed to a version of the three-fifths compromise proposed by James Madison during a debate over taxation under the Articles of Confederation. Only two states—New Hampshire and New York—objected, but that was enough to kill the provision under that constitution. James Wilson and Charles Pinckney proposed the same ratio at the Constitutional Convention. After debating the idea, applied to both representation and a “direct tax,” off and on for weeks, the convention adopted it in Article One, Section 2. The convention also declared that its document would be adopted even if four states voted no.

Wagner has other historical examples of compromises to point to. The Constitutional Convention also had to work out deals on a bicameral legislature with two forms of apportionment and the overlapping powers of the government’s three branches. (Of course, some might say those decisions led to periodic gridlock in Washington later.) Nineteenth-century politicians hailed legislative compromises like the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act—but they, like the three-fifths clause, had the effect of strengthening slavery.

If I had to choose one example of political compromise from early America that eventually brought wide benefits, it would be the agreement during the states’ ratification conventions to make immediate amendments to the Constitution. The result, today called the Bill of Rights, was mostly a statement of individual rights and protections. But that compromise arose out of a much wider public debate than the elite convention. And Americans didn’t fully enjoy those rights until the Fourteenth Amendment and twentieth-century judicial decisions requiring state and local governments to respect them.

In contrast, the three-fifths clause is now inoperative and repudiated by all. Indeed, it’s so far back in our past that most people don’t understand how it operated. The Constitution didn’t define blacks as three-fifths human, as some now interpret that clause. For purposes of calculating representation in Congress, the Constitution counted enslaved people in a district and multiplied by three-fifths before adding that number to the free people (white and black). But for all other purposes, the Constitution defined slaves as no-fifths of humans—they were property without rights.

Enslaved Americans might have been better off not being counted for representation. As it was, their numbers, multiplied by three-fifths, provided more influence for the rich white men in the parts of the country where they were enslaved. Those elite voters wielded disproportionate power in the U.S. Congress, the Electoral College, and state legislatures that followed the same system. Their representatives used that power to maintain their status and their human property for decades.

That’s the real lesson of the three-fifths compromise: decision-making by the elite alone tends to maintain the advantages of that elite at a cost to others. Real compromises require the participation of all the people involved and real sacrifices, even from the top.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

“I have myself a large share of malicious Slander”

When James Warren wrote to Elbridge Gerry on 20 July 1788, the two political allies were digesting the legal ratification of the new U.S. Constitution, which they had opposed.

Warren and his wife Mercy had just moved out of the mansion in Milton where Gov. Thomas Hutchinson had lived before the war. Gerry was living on the Cambridge estate confiscated from Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver.

That’s the context for the Massachusetts Historical Society’s newly acquired letter, which Warren started by commiserating with Gerry about the political attacks on him. Soon, however, he was complaining about his own troubles:

Neither the stationing of Centries, or the malicious wishes & Obliquy of the federals will ever prevent my visiting my friend at Cambridge when it is in my power. No Man, or at least very few, can at this day possess that invaluable Treasure Mens Conscia recti [from Virgil, “a mind aware of what is right”] as I firmly beleive you do without being marked by detraction & Ill nature.

I have myself a large share of malicious Slander which I never deserved from this Country I heartily despise it. my spirits shall never be affected by it, & among the numerous resources of Consolation it certainly is no inconsiderable one to be associated with a Man who I so much Esteem & with whom I have been associated in the most Zealous & faithful services to this Country. they now wish us to be Bankcrupt, & despondent, or they would not spread such ill founded rumours. they gratify their Malice instead of exerciscing those feelings which pity if not gratitude should Excite on such an occasion if true.

No Man was ever persecuted with such inveterate Malice as I am. it follows me in every step I take. an Instance has lately occurred in which the public certainly had no Concern, but more Noise has been made about my takeing of a few Lockes from Milton House, than would have been made if another Man had burned it[.] it is so in every thing, & I suppose will be so for the same reason it has been so. I will quit this subject after giveing you one anecdote, which I think sufficient to silence Malevolence itself. I went to his Agent & Informed him that there were a variety of Articles which would be very Convenient to Mr Lee, that he should have the preference at a moderate price if he Inclined to have them, & afterwards received this surly answer, that he would not lay out a Shillings there, & now Complains that they are taken away.—

(we are now to see the Operation of the New Constitution with all its splendid Advantages. you must prepare yourself for takeing a part in the Execution in one House or the other. Policy will prevail over Malevolence, & make your Election certain.) and your Acceptance I think must be as certain as your Election, & will be a Choice only of the least evil. I have much to say to you on this & other subjects, which I design to do ere long viva voce in the mean time give my great regards to the federal Lady & believe me to be your Friend &c &c
Warren had just sold his Milton mansion to Patrick Jeffrey, estranged husband of Mary Wilkes Hayley. I can’t identify the “Mr. Lee” whom Warren wrote about.

Trying to milk this letter for further gossip, I note Warren’s phrase “give my great regards to the federal Lady.” Did that refer to Gerry’s wife Ann, and does that mean she favored the Constitution?

In any event, as Warren counseled, Gerry did participate in the new federal government as a member of the first two Congresses, opposing George Washington’s administration; then as a diplomat under John Adams; and finally as Vice President under James Madison. He also slipped in a term as Massachusetts governor. Ann Gerry (1763-1849), nineteen years younger than her husband, was the last surviving widow of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Gerry and Warren, Anti-Federalist Allies

The Massachusetts Historical Society recently bought a 1788 letter from James Warren to Elbridge Gerry (shown here) that hasn’t appeared in any published correspondence of the two politicians. It does appear online at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s monumental roundup of documents about the ratification of the Constitution.

By 1788, Warren and Gerry had worked together for nearly two decades, first as Whigs opposing the Crown in the Massachusetts legislature and Provincial Congress, then as part of the Revolutionary War effort—Warren as paymaster general for the army in 1775-76 and leader of the Massachusetts legislature, Gerry as a member of the Continental Congress.

In the mid-1780s Warren, unlike many of his wealthy Massachusetts merchant friends, didn’t fully condemn the Shays’ Rebellion. He and his wife, Mercy, preferred a weak national government and feared an overreaction to that rural uprising. There was indeed a Constitutional Convention in response. Gerry served as a Massachusetts delegate to it and came away opposed to the result.

Gerry reported to the Massachusetts legislature on 18 Oct 1787 about what he saw wrong with the proposed new government:
My principal objections to the plan are that there is no adequate provision for a representation of the people—that they have no security for the right of election—that some of the powers of the Legislature are ambiguous and others are indefinite and dangerous—that the Executive is blended with and will have an undue influence over the Legislature—that the judicial department will be oppressive—that treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the President with the advice of two thirds of a quorum of the Senate—and that the system is without the security of a bill of rights. These are objections which are not local but apply equally to all the States.
The Massachusetts ratification convention met in early 1787. It asked Gerry to testify, but when he did Richard Dana, a Federalist, complained that he was trying to enter into the debate even though he wasn’t a delegate. Gerry published an angry defense of himself. Despite his arguments, the Massachusetts convention ratified the new Constitution with a request for amendments.

By then the debate was becoming national. Gerry and fellow Anti-Federalist Luther Martin of Maryland engaged in a newspaper exchange with the Federalist delegate Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, who wrote as “A Landholder.” Ellsworth then claimed that Gerry had badmouthed Martin during the national convention, apparently trying to drive a wedge between them. Gerry published an open letter complaining about that.

By the summer of 1788, enough states had ratified the Constitution to give it legal force. Gerry was feeling rather ill used, and that’s when James Warren sent him this sympathetic letter about unfair attacks on him.

TOMORROW: Which rather veered off the topic.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

American Revolution Conference in Williamsburg, 22-24 Mar.

America’s History, L.L.C., is sponsoring its second annual Conference on the American Revolution in Williamsburg, Virginia, on 22-24 March. Although there are academics on the list of speakers, this conference is not designed for academic scholars and job-seekers but for independent researchers and history buffs.

The scheduled program is:

  • Edward G. Lengel: “Revolutionary Rivals: Horatio Gates and George Washington
  • Douglas Cubbison: “Man on a Mission: John Burgoyne and the Campaign of 1777”
  • Joshua Howard: “The Swamp Fox: Francis Marion, Revolutionary War Hero of South Carolina”
  • James Kirby Martin: “Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary America’s Heroic General”
  • Andrew O’Shaughnessy: “Fighting with Friends and Enemies Simultaneously: Sir Henry Clinton
  • Jim Piecuch: “Frustrated Ambitions: “Light Horse Harry Lee’s Conflicts On and Off the Battlefield”
  • John V. Quarstein: “Closing the Door on Cornwallis: The Battle of the Capes September 1781”
  • Glenn F. Williams: “Lord Dunmore’s War: Training Ground for Continental Officers”
As you see, there’s an emphasis on military commanders this year rather than, say, politics, battles or other events, ordinary soldiers, social movements, technology, &c.

There will also be two panel discussions: “The Best and Worst Military Commanders of the Revolutionary War” and “A Revolutionary War Bookshelf: What You Should Own and What Books Will Be Published Soon.”

The conference package costs $225 and includes lunch, two breakfasts, and refreshment breaks. There are rooms available at the Williamsburg Hospitality House, which I think is also the site of the sessions. On the Friday afternoon before the conference begins, there’s an optional bus tour of Petersburg and other sites led by William Welsch of the local American Revolution Round Table; that costs $95 extra. I hadn’t thought seriously about going to Virginia next month, but two feet of snow has a way of making me reconsider.

America’s History offers a range of other tours and events this year, including sessions on “Religion, Rebellion, and the Founding Fathers” in Pennsylvania with John Fea; "Defending the Highlands” in Newburgh, New York, with Bill Welsch and Bruce Venter; “Braddock's Campaign to Fort Duquesne” in Pennsylvania with Doug Cubbison; and “Burgoyne’s Campaign of 1777” in conjunction with the 10th annual American Revolution Seminar at Fort Ticonderoga.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Predictions for America

In his column in yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks wrote:
In 1800, Noah Webster projected that the U.S. would someday have 300 million citizens, and that a country that big should have its own dictionary.
Actually, the passage Brooks alluded to came from a preface Webster wrote for a reissue of that dictionary in 1828. Webster flattered his main audience this way:
The United States commenced their existence under circumstances wholly novel and unexampled in the history of nations. They commenced with civilization, with learning, with science, with constitutions of free government, and with that best gift of God to man, the Christian religion. Their population is now equal to that of England; in arts and sciences, our citizens are very little behind the most enlightened people on earth; in some respects, they have no superiors; and our language, within two centuries, will be spoken by more people in this country than any other language on earth, except the Chinese, in Asia, and even that may not be an exception.

It has been my aim in this work, now offered to my fellow citizens, to ascertain the true principles of the language, in its orthography and structure; to purify it from some palpable errors, and reduce the number of its anomalies, thus giving it more regularity and consistency in its forms, both of words and sentences; and in this manner, to furnish a standard of our vernacular tongue, which we shall not be ashamed to bequeath to three hundred millions of people, who are destined to occupy, and I hope, to adorn the vast territory within our jurisdiction.
In an 1824 letter, Webster wrote that he had arrived at that number through “the regular laws of population” applied to “two Centuries.” (That letter also made clear he included Canada in his counting.) I believe Webster was calculating not the population of America at a given time but the number of people who would live in America over those centuries. In other words, he would still have been surprised that there are about 315,000,000 people living in the U.S. of A. right now.

As for Webster’s earlier prediction, experts estimate that there are more native speakers of both Chinese and Spanish than English. In many fields, of course, English has become that oddly named lingua franca.

Brooks also wrote:
In 1775, Sam Adams confidently predicted that the scraggly little colonies would one day be the world’s most powerful nation.
It’s not too hard to figure out what Brooks was alluding to since he quoted a passage from Adams’s writings in his book On Paradise Drive (later collected in The Paradise Suite), also dating it to 1775.

However, that passage comes from Adams’s 4 Apr 1774 letter to Arthur Lee in London:
I wish for a permanent union with the mother country, but only on the principles of liberty and truth. No advantage that can accrue to America from such an union can compensate for the loss of liberty. The time may come sooner than they are aware of it, when the being of the British nation, I mean the being of its importance, however strange it may now appear to some, will depend on her union with America. It requires but a small portion of the gift of discernment for any one to foresee, that providence will erect a mighty empire in America; and our posterity will have it recorded in history, that their fathers migrated from an island in a distant part of the world, the inhabitants of which had long been revered for wisdom and valour. They grew rich and powerful; these emigrants increased in numbers and strength. But they were at last absorbed in luxury and dissipation; and to support themselves in their vanity and extravagance they coveted and seized the honest earnings of those industrious emigrants. This laid a foundation of distrust, animosity and hatred, till the emigrants, feeling their own vigour and independence, dissolved every former band of connexion between them, and the islanders sunk into obscurity and contempt.
Adams wasn’t pleased when the postwar generation opened Boston up to new forms of conspicuous consumption and recreation, including theater. “Luxury and dissipation,” as he called it. There were limits to his predictive powers.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Peirce Family Anecdotes about Henry Knox

In 1849 Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review published an obituary of a descendant of Joseph and Ann Peirce, apparently based on information from the family or even written by a member of the family. That article turns out to contain interesting information about Henry Knox that I’d never seen before and that doesn’t appear in any Knox biography I know of. Whether it’s reliable information is another question.

Joseph Peirce founded Boston’s militia grenadier company in 1772 with Henry Knox as his lieutenant. The two men kept up a correspondence after the war when both invested heavily in Maine land. And some traditions about Knox came down in the Peirce family and made their way into that magazine:
Mr. Joseph Peirce, although a merchant of Boston, had, prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, organized a company of grenadiers, which he continued to command with Henry Knox, afterward Gen. Knox, as lieutenant, down to the day on which the tea was cast into Boston harbor. The grenadier corps was one of the finest in the colonies, and being drawn up in State, then King-street, to receive the new Governor [Thomas] Gage, on his arrival from England, elicited from that officer the remark that “he did not know his Majesty had any troops in America”—a compliment to the soldierly appearance of the corps long cherished by its officers even when patriotism had led them to oppose the king’s troops. Capt. Peirce was in charge of the tea ships as guard on the night previous to the appearance of those world-renowned “Indians,” of whom his brother John was one. That event brought about the dissolution of the corps; but the friendship then formed between Gen. Knox and Mr. Peirce existed uninterruptedly to the death of the former, in 1806.
There are two interesting anecdotes in that passage, and unfortunately they’re contradictory. If the grenadier company had dissolved soon after the Tea Party in December 1773, it could not have greeted Gen. Gage when he arrived in Boston in May 1774. Furthermore, Gage was commander-in-chief of the British army in North America and knew exactly how many troops his Majesty had there.

Gage’s alleged praise for the grenadiers echoes a story that evidently circulated in Maine about a British officer seeing the grenadiers and saying, “that “a country that produced such boy soldiers, cannot long be held in subjection.” I doubt either version of the story is wholly reliable, but they might have had a common source in a real event.

I haven’t seen any contemporaneous mention of the grenadier company dissolving shortly after the Tea Party. Rather, Boston’s specialized militia companies appear to have broken up in late 1774 as the political divide widened: the Company of Cadets in August after Gage dismissed their commander, John Hancock, and the artillery train in mid-September after its cannon vanished. The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, not officially part of the militia, went into abeyance late in the year. It would make sense for the grenadiers to do so as well.

The obituary went on to provide this anecdote about Henry and Lucy Knox’s departure from Boston:
When Lieut. Knox, impelled by his glowing patriotism, sought to join the army of Washington, then at Cambridge, preparatory to the fight at Bunker’s Hill, he had some difficulty in escaping from Boston, but he was enabled to do so through a permit obtained by Mr. Peirce for a chaise to pass the lines on Boston Neck. As he took leave of the future general, the latter remarked, “My sword-blade is thrust through the cushions on which we sit, and Lucy (his wife) has the hilt in her pocket.”
Again, whoever wrote this story had difficulty with chronology. The Knoxes appear to have been out of Boston by 14 May 1775. Gen. George Washington didn’t arrive in Cambridge until July.

Another version of the Peirce lore appeared in print the year before, in a review of J. T. Headley’s Washington and His Generals in the United States Democratic Review. The reviewer identified himself (or herself) as someone who had Joseph Peirce as a “maternal grandfather,” and told readers, “we have often listened with delight to the anecdotes of Knox, told by his octogenarian commander.” About the Knoxes’ departure:
[Headley’s] memoir remarks that Knox had some difficulty in escaping from Boston when the war broke out, and that his wife accompanied him, concealing his sword beneath her dress. This is not strictly correct. The lines as they were called, were on “the Neck,” and Knox’s former commander in the grenadiers having been to the lines to procure the passage of a chaise containing a nurse and child that had been in the country for its health, on his return, met Knox riding out of town. The future General remarked, “I have at last got clear, I think. My sword blade is thrust through the cushions on which we sat, and Lucy has the hilt in her pocket.”
In this version, Peirce didn’t secure the pass that the Knoxes used; he simply met Henry after he’d exited the gates. But the quotation is the same.

The Peirce story overlaps with one recorded by Knox’s first biographer, Francis S. Drake, in 1873: that Lucy smuggled out Henry’s sword “quilted into the lining of her cloak.” Hiding it in the cushions seems more effective. But really, swords weren’t what the provincial army needed.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Henry Knox and the Boston Tea Party

An email from a Boston 1775 reader after yesterday’s posting made me look into Henry Knox’s actions during the tea crisis of 1773. That political event occurred between when Knox badly injured his hand in a shooting accident and when he paid his doctors, both attached to the royal military. [Unlike two of his fingers, which weren’t attached to anything anymore.]

When the tea meeting called for volunteers to patrol the docks and ensure that no tea was unloaded, among the first to sign up was “Joseph Peirce, Jr.” You can see the notes of that meeting here, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

That was Joseph Peirce (1745-1828, shown here about 1800), commander of the Boston militia regiment’s grenadier company. In 1771 Peirce married Ann Dawes, daughter of Thomas Dawes, a politically active housewright and at one point commander of the entire regiment.

According to family tradition set down in The Pickering Genealogy (1897), Peirce was “never a robust man,” and “his hair was as white at twenty as it was at eighty.” Would a frail man really be the best candidate to lead a company of grenadiers? Perhaps that part of the tradition was tinged by memories of Peirce late in life; perhaps the family played it up to excuse him not fighting in the Revolutionary War.

Knox had helped Peirce launch that grenadier company in 1772 and became its second-in-command with the rank of lieutenant. Unlike Peirce, however, Knox doesn’t appear on any of the surviving lists of volunteers to patrol the docks. The first biography of him, published in 1873, states that the company’s “members, Knox included, had volunteered as a guard over the tea ships.” That book cites no source for that information, but its author had access to early-1800s reminiscences from people who had known or served with Knox.

The Pickering Genealogy further says of Peirce:
He is said to have been one of those in charge of the tea ship, as guard, on the night before the appearance of the “Indians,” of whom his brother John was one.
Actually, I can’t find any list of Tea Party participants that includes John Peirce (or Pierce). I’ve found a source for that statement from 1849, but it comes with its own problems; I’ll discuss that tomorrow.

Recollections from Ebenezer Stevens and his family offer some confirmation that by December 1773 the dock patrols were being recruited from militia companies. Volunteers from the artillery company in which Stevens served happened to be on patrol when the tea was destroyed.

So I think it’s plausible that Peirce, Knox, and others from the grenadier company participated in patrolling the docks, perhaps taking the previous night’s shift. But the only person I can reliably document as volunteering for that duty is Peirce.

TOMORROW: The end of the grenadier company?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Henry Knox’s Thank-You Letter

On 10 Feb 1774, a young Boston bookseller wrote this florid thank-you letter:

The mariner, when the danger is past, looks back with pleasure and surprize on the quicksands and rocks he has escaped, and if perchance it was owing to the skillfulness of the pilot or great activity of some brother seaman on board, the first ebullitions of his gratitude are violent but afterwards settle to a firm respect and esteem for the means of his existence. So, Sir, gratitude obliges me to tender you my most sincere thanks for the attention and care you took of me in a late unlucky accident.

The readiness with which you attended, your skill to observe and humanity in executing, are written upon my heart in indelible characters. Believe me, Sir, while memory faithfully performs her office the name of Doct. White will be retained with the most pleasing sensations. Accept then, Sir, the annex’d as the smallest token of respect from him who is with the greatest pleasure your much obliged and most obd’t H’ble Servant,

Henry Knox
Knox sent this letter with three guineas (a coin used mostly by gentlemen) “To Doctor White of the King’s Hospital, Boston.” He sent a similar letter with five guineas “To Doctor Peterson of the ship ‘Captain’ and Surgeon to his Excellency Admiral [John] Montague, Boston.”

It appears that the “late unhappy accident” Knox alluded to was when he blew off some fingers on his left hand while hunting birds on a Boston harbor island on 24 July 1773, according to his earliest biographer. Gen. Henry Burbeck recalled the event this way: “the fusee accidentally bursting in his hand occasioned the loss I think of two or three of his fingers and otherwise mutilating his hand.” (This is of course a widely published example of a gun accident in the founding era.)

It’s notable that the two doctors who attended Knox were attached to the British military. The “King’s Hospital” had been set up to treat the soldiers at Castle William, and Peterson arrived with the navy. Those men may simply have been the nearest physicians, but Knox sought care from British military surgeons instead of the town’s notable Whig doctors. As I’ve written before, I think contemporaneous evidence shows Knox trying to find middle ground in pre-war politics rather than, as later biographers said, being a well-known Whig.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Update #3: Mysteries of the Elizabeth Bull Wedding Gown

Last November I attended an event at the Bostonian Society about one of its prize artifacts, the Elizabeth Bull wedding dress, which was about to be sent off for study and conservation. I’m no expert in fashion, either eighteenth-century or twenty-first-century, but I know some folks who are, and I’m interested in how stories get passed down.

The Smithsonian Institution is sometimes called the nation’s attic, and the Bostonian Society could be considered Boston’s attic. But the Bostonian Society wasn’t founded until 1881, when citizens decided to restore the Old State House and turn it into a museum. That means the museum’s collections contain lots of historic things, but not so significant that they weren’t already owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society, American Antiquarian Society, Harvard University, Museum of Fine Arts, or other older institutions. It also means that the stories behind many of its colonial artifacts are based in family lore passed down for over a century and thus liable to evolution.

The Elizabeth Bull wedding dress is one of those treasures. As I understand the situation, its documentation was created in 1910 when descendants of Elizabeth (Bull) Price donated the garment to the society. They reported their understanding that:
  • Elizabeth Bull began to embroider the silk gown with flowers while she was a schoolgirl in 1731.
  • She wore the dress at her wedding to the Rev. Roger Price in 1735.
  • Her daughter wore it to George III’s coronation in 1760.
However, as the museum’s photograph of an anonymous model wearing the dress shows, the dress doesn’t have an eighteenth-century silhouette. The skirt was taken in above the knees, in some places by cutting and seaming through the original embroidery. The resulting shape is most appropriate for the 1820s or ’30s. Conservator Katherine Tarleton reported that these alterations were “really finely stitched,” not slapdash for a single occasion as she’s seen in other altered garments. Later the gown’s bodice was remade with nineteenth-century fabric, but this time less skillfully, and that section hasn’t held up well.

The Bull gown was on display in the Old State House for most of the first half of the twentieth century, according to newspaper reports. (The museum’s internal records don’t preserve such detail.) Such long display, perhaps with exposure to some sunlight or drips, has left the backs of the sleeves “shattered” and the skirt stained. These days, conservators told us, the professional rule of thumb is to display a costume for four months and then to keep it in storage for four years.

In addition to the pieces of the gown shown in the photo, there are some matching bits. One is an eighteenth-century underskirt that’s in better shape than the overskirt, not having been exposed to light or spills. It also has a wider circumference, suggesting the dimensions of the original gown. There are also pieces of an old bodice, perhaps the original top of the gown or perhaps a part that was never completed and attached.

Those bodice pieces are marked with drawings of flowers for someone to embroider. So did Elizabeth Bull wear this gown at her wedding even though it obviously wasn’t finished? Was there originally a plain bodice that’s been discarded? Or were the unsewn flowers drawn on later because someone wanted more embellishment, but no one ever finished embroidering them?

Elizabeth and Roger Price moved to England in the mid-1700s. Their daughter reportedly attended a coronation in this gown—still apparently unfinished. She and her brother moved back to Massachusetts after the Revolutionary War, when celebrating George III was no longer a popular activity. Might the family memory of the gown have then morphed from a coronation gown to the gown their ancestor wore at her Boston wedding? Did the daughter, who lived until 1826, have the gown altered, or was that a relative’s decision?

I doubt we’ll ever know the full story of this garment, but the conservation will preserve the mystery for another generation.

Friday, February 08, 2013

New Reading from Williamsburg

The book reviews from the January 2013 issue of the William & Mary Quarterly are now online, readable in P.D.F. form through this webpage. Those reviews include Edward G. Gray’s roundup of three recent books on Loyalism headlined “Liberty’s Losers” because, as Gray points out, British society didn’t actually suffer that much damage from the war:

Less than a decade after the conclusive battle at Yorktown, ordinary Britons could point to few lingering consequences of the war. Americans who had traveled to London for culture and knowledge before the war were coming again. Prewar trading patterns had been more or less restored. Dynastic tensions with France and Spain remained largely unchanged; they neither improved nor worsened, although in 1790 they did nearly erupt into a war over the remote Nootka Sound. In Ireland little changed as a result of the war, despite the seemingly bold 1782 repeal of Poyning’s Law, granting the Irish Parliament a measure of legislative independence. Whatever fears Britons had about the spread of American-style revolution on their side of the Atlantic—and those fears appear to have been minimal—quickly dissipated. Before the appearance of the second part of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1792, republicanism showed no real sign of departing from its moderate Whig roots. Similarly, aside from a very brief Whig ascendency in 1782 and 1783, the overall cast of British politics changed very little as a result of the war. The opposition remained more or less as it had been before the war, and the government of William Pitt the Younger essentially sustained the constitutional order that had prevailed before and during the war.
In contrast, the Loyalists who left the area that became the new U.S. of A.—the largest number of war refugees created by any of the West’s late-eighteenth-century wars—had to rebuild their lives in new homes. But that didn’t mean they shared the same experience, outlook, or values. Gray writes of the “frustratingly elusive quality of loyalism,” and concludes that much of the best material in the books he reviews focuses on particular communities.

Also online now are articles from the latest issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, including items on George Washington’s wealth, George Wythe’s murder, and archeology at Jamestown.

Benjamin Carp’s essay “Separated by a Common History” considers how American authors came to emphasize differences between the North and South that really didn’t play a big role in the colonial and Revolutionary periods. Ben gets off this line:
Colonial American leaders primarily looked in four directions: eastward for goods, westward for land, upward for God, and down their noses at everyone else.
I’m also represented in this issue of the Journal. On page 9, the Correction says: “Two readers wrote that the magazine misspelled the first name of the father of gerrymandering…” I’m one of those two. So proud.