J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

If This Is Wednesday, We Must Be at Faneuil Hall

I’m spending much of this week playing tour guide to dear friends from London. The twelve-year-old twins in that family will be studying the American Revolution for two semesters next year. That’s about two semesters more than I remember studying the English Civil War or Parliamentary reform, so I’m trying to help out by showing them the local Revolutionary sites.

Monday was Lexington and Concord. One twin took the photo above, though he was put off by the chest-banging aspects of the motto on the flagpole. Munroe Tavern’s presentation of the British soldiers’ experience was a good way to end the day. Today we’ll visit some of the sites in downtown Boston, and tomorrow Bunker Hill after I finish talking to the teachers.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Miscellaneous Observations from Dr. Ephraim Eliot

Toward the end of the 1821 Two Discourses pamphlet I’ve been quoting, the Rev. Henry Ware (shown here) started to add miscellaneous notes. Dr. Ephraim Eliot’s marginal notes in the copy at Harvard University therefore also got a bit miscellaneous, but the result is some more intriguing clues about life in eighteenth-century Boston.

On page 58 the pamphlet says:
The British troops, during the blockade of Boston, treated the churches with particular disrespect. The steeple of the West Church they destroyed, because they supposed it had been used as a signal staff…
Eliot, whose father had stayed in Boston through the siege, commented: “direction for bombardment” and “Christ church was frequently used for signals”. That suggests that locals did indeed use the West Meeting-House steeple and possibly that of Christ Church (now Old North Church) to signal Continental artillerists outside the town where their mortars were landing.

The West Meeting-House had the spire closest to the British army positions on the Common and the Continental Army positions in Cambridge. By the time Ware wrote, the use of the North Church spire by Paul Revere’s confederates on 18 Apr 1775 had already been revealed, but Eliot didn’t mention it in his note.

On the same page the pamphlet reprints an item from the church records:
“October 7, 1762. Voted, that the singers sound the base at the end of the lines, whenever they think proper.” I copy this vote simply because I do not know what it means.
Eliot added this explanation:
The meaning is, that the singers paused a few beats between every line, the bass in the most solemn tones [?] used to continue the sound of the last note in the three first lines of a verse, till the tenor sounded the first note of the next line. There was always a complete pause between the verses, bass & all.
Clearly there had been such a big change in church singing between 1762 and 1821 that even the Rev. Mr. Ware, first president of the Harvard Musical Association, didn’t know the old style.

Finally, on page 59:
In 1781 I find record of a baptism by immersion of a child about ten years old, at the particular request of his mother, “a bathing tub being prepared for that purpose in the meeting-house.“
Eliot added:
It was the tub of the old North [fire] engine then the largest in Boston.
This information was eventually repeated in A History of the Second Church, or Old North [Meeting], in Boston, by Chandler Robbins, published in 1852. However, I’ve been unable to identify the family involved.

Baptism by immersion wasn’t just fashion; it was a theological dividing-line between Boston’s Congregationalists and Baptists. In 1780 and 1781 ministers from Wells and Ipswich advertised pamphlets about the validity of sprinkling water on babies rather than fully immersing older people. But apparently the Rev. John Lathrop, though a Congregationalist, was willing to provide immersion at a mother’s insistence.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Dr. Eliot’s Gossip about Boston’s Ministers

Yesterday I started quoting from Dr. Ephraim Eliot’s notes inside a copy of an 1821 pamphlet in the Harvard library. That pamphlet is a sermon about the split of the New North Meeting-House’s congregation in 1719, a major event in Boston.

Eliot was the youngest son of the Rev. Andrew Eliot (1718-1778), a later minister of the New North Meeting. And the family clearly put some of the blame for the split on one of the ministers at the Old North Meeting:
The difficulties at the new north [meeting-house] were more owing to Cotton Mather & his influence than to any others. Increase [Mather] was in his dotage. He [Cotton] was afraid of [Rev. Peter] Thachers popular talents, joined & directed the opposition & thought to get them into his parish. if he had thought of their building another meeting house, he would have been quiet.
Instead, the group that split off from the New North formed a new congregation and built the New Brick Meeting-House, attracting some members from the Mathers’ church.

Eliot had other critical things to say about Cotton Mather in his marginal notes. On page 18 he wrote:
No greater enemy to the quakers existed. In his account of the witchcraft of John Goodman’s children, He says, that shewing them a bible or carrying them into his study, would instantly bring them out of their fits, the sight of a book of quakerism or the [Anglican] book of common prayer would throw them into horrid convulsions.
An Irish woman was hanged in Boston in 1688 on the testimony of the Goodman children.

Eliot recorded even juicier gossip about some of Boston’s other pre-Revolutionary ministers which I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. On page 23 and then page 41 he wrote about what the Rev. Samuel Checkley (1695-1769) of the New South Meeting was known for:
for eating; he was the largest man in Boston, & his mouth was always full, & his jaw going when not preaching. My father used to say, he hated to preach after Checkley, on acct of the cracking of raisin seeds under his feet with which the floor of the pulpit was always covered. While the people were singing, he was chomping plumbs. . . .

Checkley lost his popularity more from his gourmandising disposition than any other way. he laid out all his money in tidbits, cakes, Raisins, oysters, &c. & ran in debt for other things. To such a degree that his parish chose a committee to get from him a schedule of his debts, which they paid. But he was ashamed to note the debt he owed in small shops for gingerbread &c. Those creditors became noisy, & another committee was chosen to receive & pay all such claims.
Checkley’s daughter Elizabeth became the first wife of Samuel Adams.

And about the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton (1705-1777), minister of the New Brick Church starting in 1754:
So high did his vanity carry him that when asked by Mr. Eliot to exchange, he observed that his people would consent to hear no other parson. His popularity burned out. But the parish dwindled more from his being a violent Tory, & the Bosom friend of Gov [Thomas] Hutchinson, who was one of his parish. Many people would not worship at the New Brick because of that circumstance.
Thus, in 1777 the shrinking New Brick Meeting had a building but no pastor while the Old North Meeting had no building but a popular pastor—the Rev. John Lathrop (1740-1816). They worked out the obvious solution, thus starting to reverse the splits of the early decades.

TOMORROW: A few more tidbits from Dr. Eliot’s notes.

[The photograph above, courtesy of the Boston Public Library’s Flickr stream, shows the house in the North End where Dr. Ephraim Eliot grew up. It was originally built by the Rev. Increase Mather after the fire mentioned yesterday.]

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Someone’s Been Writing in Two Discourses

I stumbled across this Google Books file of Henry Ware’s Two Discourses Containing the History of the Old North and New Brick Churches, United as the Second Church of Boston, published in 1821, and noticed someone had written in it. These scans come from a copy owned by Harvard University.

The title page is signed by John F. Eliot, but the note on page 7 is signed “EE,” which indicates the notes come from that man’s father, Dr. Ephraim Eliot (1761-1827). Ephraim was a son of the Rev. Andrew Eliot and brother of the Rev. John Eliot. He left several detailed essays about the history of Boston, including a wonderful profile of Dr. Amos Windship.

Ephraim Eliot evidently went through this pamphlet and added his own recollections and family lore. Thus, after a description of the galleries built in the Old North Meeting-House in the 1680s, his handwritten footnote describes their shape (“altogether formed an octagon”), name (“they were called Hanging Galleries”), and fate:
upon a general repair of the house [they] were removed, when I was a small boy. The society had become very small, & they were for a long time useless. I remember the talk about taking away the hanging galleries, but never saw them.
And then that meetinghouse was torn down during the siege of Boston and turned into firewood.

On page 6 Eliot wrote this interesting note:
My good old grandmother was brought up in the belief, that Increase [Mather (1639-1723), shown above] was endowed with the gift of prophecy. as one instance of it, she used to tell, that on concluding his last sermon before the fire, he exclaimed, there must be an instant reformation, or there will be a [phrase ending “tation,” unreadable in the scan because of ink bleeding from the other side of the paper]. Before the next morning, the meeting house was in ashes, with many other buildings.
Enoch Pond’s 1870 biography of Mather suggests that Eliot’s grandmother wasn’t the only one who’d noticed that sequence of events:
In the year 1676,…Boston was visited with a distressing fire. In some unaccountable way, Mr. Mather had a presentiment of the approach of this calamity, and warned his people of it, two Sabbaths in succession. The very night of the second Sabbath, the fire broke out in his immediate neighborhood, his meeting-house and dwelling-house were both consumed, and whole streets were laid in ashes.
TOMORROW: Unabashed gossip about Boston’s ministers.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Almanac Oddities

Yesterday’s New York Times reported on the New-York Historical Society’s project to “to catalog its 5,700 American almanacs, one of the nation’s most comprehensive collections.”
For 18th-century American families, two kinds of books were considered indispensable: Bibles and yearly almanacs.

Yet in the almanacs, the routine daily weather predictions were practically afterthoughts; essays, data charts, cartoons and advertisements dominated the pages. Each almanac also had an editorial viewpoint and mood, depending on the publisher’s personality and local market trends. . . .

A 1713 almanac from Rhode Island provides puzzling weather predictions like “suspicious.” . . .

Handwritten notes also appear in the historical society’s collection. After the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, a New Yorker predicts that “rivers of blood will flow.”
The N.Y.H.S. collection includes several almanacs not known to survive anywhere else.

As for the weather predictions in almanacs, those always struck me as problematic. Only within the past few years have we expected meteorologists to be able to forecast the next week’s weather with any accuracy. It’s hard to believe, therefore, that farmers actually expected almanac makers to describe the weather more than twelve months in advance.

On the other hand, the phases of the Moon, sunrise and sunset times, and high and low tides were eminently calculable for eighteenth-century scholars like Dr. Nathaniel Ames (whose work is shown above). And that information was useful for farmers, mariners, and many others. I think those were the parts of an almanac that buyers relied on. This article from Common-place describes the form.

Of course, all the almanacs written for a particular location would have had the same astronomical data. So the rest of the material was necessary to make one almanac stand out from the competition, or at least not fall behind. But I suspect smart almanac-maker promoted information that wasn’t so easy to test as weather predictions.

For 1773, for example, Boston schoolboy Joshua Green used an almanac that featured Israel Remmington, a boy “giant” from Hingham. The New England Historic Genealogical Society also owns the almanac Joshua’s father chose for that year, and it’s definitely less sensational.

Friday, July 26, 2013

How Tall Was Benedict Arnold?

Yesterday I quoted Louisa Catherine Adams’s anecdote about a visit to her father’s house in England from the twice-retired general Benedict Arnold. She described him as “a small neat looking man.”

In response, Boston 1775 reader John L. Smith, Jr., asked:
I had read in some journal or book somewhere that Benedict Arnold was 5' 5" tall. Have you ever run across that?
I actually looked into the question of Arnold’s height when I drafted that posting, wondering if he really fit Adams’s description. And it turned out to be an interesting historiographical question.

So far as I know, no one who met Arnold ever wrote down his exact height. Instead, we have descriptions like these:
  • Samuel Downing, a veteran of Saratoga: “He was dark-skinned, with black hair, and middling height; there was n’t any wasted timber in him”.
  • John Henry, a veteran of the march to Québec: “He was well formed, very stoutly built, with a florid complexion.”
  • Rev. J. S. Leake, son of a neighbor: “My father…has often described him to me, as about his own size, which was something below the middle height, well formed, muscular, and capable of great endurance.” (Extra trivia: Leake also said Arnold was ”the most accomplished and graceful skater” his father ever saw.)
That record got confused because there is a record of a ”Benidick Arnold” who enlisted in the New York militia in 1758-60 and was measured as 5'9". Some early biographers wrote that this was the future general, which allowed them to treat his militia record as a forecast of his career in the Continental Army: he enlisted eagerly at the age of eighteen, took his enlistment bonus, and then deserted.

However, that Benedict Arnold was identified as a weaver and laborer while the future general was already in training as an apothecary clerk. That Benedict Arnold was listed as coming from Norwalk, not Norwich, Connecticut. And at 5'9" that Benedict Arnold was above average height for a British-American of his time, not “middling” or “something below the middle height.”

There were several Benedict Arnolds in Connecticut and Rhode Island at the time, named after a seventeenth-century governor. One of them joined the New York militia, most modern biographers agree. Another one, shorter and already on a more lucrative career path, became a famous officer in the Continental and British armies.

So I don’t think we can say Arnold was 5'5" tall, which implies we can be precise to the inch. But we can say that contemporaries thought he was around that height, on the short side of the average range. And Louisa Catherine Adams, whose father and husband were both about 5'7", told her children that Arnold was “small.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Joshua Johnson Receives a "small neat looking man”

Here’s more from Louisa Catherine Adams’s memoir of living in London in the 1790s, when her father, Joshua Johnson, was serving as a consul-general of the U.S. of A. in Britain. Johnson had been born in Maryland but moved to England, married, and entered business there before the war:
It was about this time that a Gentleman called on my father a small neat looking man in a very handsome chariot with livery Servants &ce. He walked into the Office entered into conversation very agreeably and then presented some papers to my father which concerned some American business to be done before the Consul—

My father returned the papers for signature and stood to see the name when to his utter surprize he discovered that it was the Traitor [Benedict] Arnold, and he deliberately took up the pen with the Tongs and put it into the fire—

The gentlemean sneaked off endeavouring not to notice the act—This trait will give you a real insight into your Grandfathers character—He was a perfect Gentleman in his manners and universally respected—
Adams wrote out this recollection around 1825 when her husband, John Quincy Adams, was President and his political rivals were trying to make hay of his marriage to a Englishwoman. She therefore had a strong reason to portray her father as a strong supporter of the U.S. of A.

Did Arnold really call on Johnson? (He wasn’t particularly “small” for his time, certainly not compared to some men in the Adams family. And what sort of “American business” did he expect to conduct?) Did Johnson really show his distaste for Arnold so openly? All we can say for sure is that Adams left this story for her descendants.

At another point in her memoir, Adams characterized her father’s move to Nantes in France in 1778 as politically motivated—getting closer to America’s new ally. But the footnotes in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s new edition of Adams’s papers suggest that he also had financial reasons: the war had hurt his main business of importing tobacco from North America to Britain. But telling stories about grandfather’s patriotism was a republican mother’s duty.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What the Rev. William Stith Truly Said

The Summer 2013 issue of Colonial Williamsburg contains an article titled, “Life, Liberty, and No Pistole,” by Susan Berg. It begins:
Twenty-three years before Virginia patriot Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” the Reverend Mr. William Stith of Williamsburg raised a glass and toasted “Life and liberty, and no pistole.” That sparked a protest against Lieutenant-Governor Robert Dinwiddie that spread throughout the colony and across the Atlantic to the upper levels of English government.
Unfortunately, the article renders Stith’s toast inaccurately. It didn’t actually start out like Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which the article quotes at the end. Stith’s words were “Liberty and property and no pistole.”

In this political dispute from 1753, Lt. Gov. Dinwiddie had imposed a one-pistole (16s.8d.) fee on new land patents. Naturally, Virginians who speculated in land disliked this. The House of Burgesses, which included a lot of land speculators, also disliked it on principle since Dinwiddie hadn’t gone through them; in essence, this was “taxation without representation” before that phrase was coined.

Stith, the new president of the College of William and Mary, became a leading voice against the fee. In 1940 the William & Mary Quarterly published his 21 Apr 1753 letter to the bishop of London in which he admitted:
Once in a publick Company, where that Subject had been much debated, being called upon for my Toast, I gave Liberty & Property and no Pistole; and I believe, I might afterward drink it six or eight times at my own Table. However, the thing took; and I have been told, that it has been since frequently drunk in various Parts of the Country.
A 1954 footnote in the same journal reported that a man named John Blair had also written to the bishop accusing Stith of making “the same toast,” but a 1958 issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography said Blair accused Stith of toasting, “Liberty & No Pistole.”

Percy Scott Flippin had quoted the same 1753 letter from Stith in his monograph “The Royal Government of Virginia,” published in Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law in 1919. But I mention that mostly because I just don’t have enough opportunities to write “Percy Scott Flippin.”

No period source quotes Stith as saying, “Life and liberty…” As of this writing, Google finds only three domains on the web which render his words that way. Two are run by Colonial Williamsburg and point back to this article. The third is a 2009 homework assignment from a California school.

Most of the article about Stith concerns his work as a minister, teacher, and historian. He does appear to have been a significant figure in the history of Virginia. The pistole-fee dispute was also a forerunner of the larger issues that led to the break between colonies and Crown. It’s a shame the article’s title and opening are based on a mistake.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Face of Joseph Corré

Yesterday I left Joseph Corré in 1803 with his Mount Vernon Gardens theater closing. He advertised that real estate for rent for many months in the New York newspapers. All of the other ads from him that I’ve seen in the 1800s are for real estate, not theater or catering services, suggesting he didn’t go back to those businesses.

The 14 Aug 1823 National Journal reported:
Yesterday afternoon, in the 76th year of his age, Joseph Corré, a native of France, and for many years a resident of this city. His friends and those of his family, are requested to attend the funeral this afternoon, at 5 o’clock, from his late dwelling No. 49 Lespinard st.
The 18 August Boston Daily Advertiser also reported that Corré had died in New York, aged 76.

More information appears in the Genealogy of the Bostwick Family in America, published in 1901, but it’s not fully reliable. That book says:
Joseph Corré was born in Montpelier, France, May 26, 1748. He married in Manheim, Germany, June 15, 1777, Barbara Baker. She was born in Manheim, Germany, Nov. 27, 1759.

The family name was originally spelled Corréard, and on his arrival in this country, having left his native land at the outbreak of the French Revolution, Joseph Corréard changed his name to Joseph Corré.

He died in New York City, Aug. 14, 1823, and his wife died there Apr. 4, 1845.
The couple had eleven children between January 1778 and September 1799, and the second-youngest daughter married into the Bostwick family in 1822.

That family tradition conflicts with William Dunlap’s recollection, quoted yesterday, about meeting Corré first in the winter of 1777 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, cooking for a British army officer. (At the time, the impressive white-wigged cook was apparently not yet thirty years old.) A plethora of newspaper advertisements show that Corré was in business in New York well before “the outbreak of the French Revolution.” But it might have been easier for the family to picture their ancestor as a refugee from the French Revolution than as part of the British military force.

Given that Joseph Corré was in America by early 1777, when and where did he marry Barbara Baker (whose name might originally have been Biekert or the like)? Her reported native city, Mannheim, is right beside modern Hesse, so perhaps she came to New York in 1776 attached to the king’s Hessian troops. Did the couple emigrate together? Or did they meet in New York and marry there? Their first child arrived seven and a half months after the wedding.

The Bostwick family also owned the portrait of Joseph Corré shown above, painted alongside one of Barbara by James Sharples (1751-1811). They were sold at Sotheby’s in January 2010 and at the Leighton Galleries in May 2010, if I read Artfact correctly.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Joseph Corré: cook, hotelier, impresario

Yesterday I introduced the figure of Joseph Corré, President George Washington’s ice cream supplier in the spring and summer of 1790. At the time, of course, New York was the capital of the U.S. of A.

Here’s a profile of the man from William Dunlap’s 1833 History of the American Theatre:

Mr. Corré will be long remembered by the elder citizens of New-York as an honest, industrious, and prosperous man. He was a Frenchman, and is first remembered as a cook in the service of Major Carew, of the 17th light dragoons, the servant of his Britannic majesty.
Sir John Fortescue’s History of the 17th Lancers: 1759-1894 and other sources confirm that Richard Carew or (more often) Crewe was a captain in that unit starting in 1769. Crewe embarked for America with his troop in April 1775, spending several months inside besieged Boston, and was promoted to major there in February 1776. He participated in the New York and New Jersey campaigns of 1776-77, and Corré accompanied him, at least to winter quarters, as Dunlap vividly recalled:
The first time the writer saw Corré, he stood with knife in hand, and in the full costume of his trade, looking as important as the mysteries of his craft entitle every cook to look, “with fair round belly, with good capon lined,” covered with a fair white apron, and his powdered locks compressed by an equally white cap. His rotundity of face and rotundity of person—for he was not related to Hogarth’s Cook at the gates of Calais—with this professional costume, made his figure, though by no means of gigantic height, appear awfully grand, as well as outré, and it was stamped upon the young mind of his admirer in lights and shadows never to be erased.

When we say the costume of his trade, we mean such as we see it in pictures, and as travellers see it; the writer had at that time never seen other than a female cook, and such always black as Erebus. This was in the winter of 1776-7, before the New-Jersey militia and the great chief of our citizen-soldiers had driven the English to the protection of their ships and the safety of water-girt islands. It was at Perth Amboy that Corré stood lord of the kitchen, which his lord, the major of dragoons, had wrested from the black cook of the writer’s father, and held by the same title which made the Corsican lord of the Continent of Europe—military force. The gallant major occupied and improved the upper part of the house, and Manager Corré ruled below.
Maj. Crewe retired on 3 June 1778, replaced by Oliver DeLancey. The major returned to Britain, but Joseph Corré remained in British-occupied New York. He opened a confectionary and catering business, then a tavern, moving to different addresses as the years passed.

When the war ended, Corré chose not to evacuate with the Loyalists but to remain in his adopted city. In 1791, the city council even chose his hotel to host a banquet celebrating the eighth anniversary of the British military’s departure. That same year, Corré first advertised theatricals at the City Tavern on Broadway, establishing a new tradition in American theater.

Over the next two decades, Corré expanded his business, as Dunlap watched:
Mr. Corré afterwards kept the City Tavern, in New-York, with reputation and success, and established those public gardens [i.e., theaters] in State Street still existing, on the site of a part of what was Fort George when he first saw America. He was a thriving and worthy man, and his descendants have reason to respect his memory, although these situations in life might little qualify him to direct public taste, except in the way of his original employment. Mr. Corré and the writer were now, in 1800, both theatrical managers, and Mr. Corré proved the most successful manager of the two. In regard to literary qualifications, Mr. Corré was probably not far behind many other managers who have since ruled the fates of actors and destinies of authors.
In 1801 Corré and a rival theater manager got into a newspaper debate over whether they could mount productions on the same nights. Corré, who was infringing on the other man’s usual dates, made the free-trade argument: “The public in America are not to be told, on Monday you shall go here, and on Tuesday you shall go there…” Nevertheless, Corré’s Mount Vernon Gardens closed after three years.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Presidential Ice Cream Order

According to this report, today as the third Sunday in July is National Ice Cream Day. Furthermore, in 1984 Ronald Reagan issued another order designating this whole month as National Ice Cream Month. And none of that should limit me: as a Bostonian, I consider every day to be Ice Cream Day. [Shout outs to Wally’s Wicked Good Ice Cream, Cabot’s, Lizzy’s, and J.P. Licks.]

Last week Lee Wright at The History List asked me about a statement that shows up in many feature articles this time of year that President George Washington spent a great deal on ice cream. Lee found statements of the current value of that purchase ranging from “over $5,000” to “about $100,000”—on ice cream in 1790. But what’s the historical basis of that claim?

I followed dribbles on the web back through Paul Dickson’s Great American Ice Cream Book (1973) to mid-century trade journals with titles like Confectionary and Ice Cream World and The Ice Cream Trade Journal. Several of those sources say the merchant who billed Washington for about $200 worth of ice cream was “Mr. Cove of Chatham Street.”

In fact, he was Joseph Corré, a native of France, reportedly a former cook for a British army officer who stayed in New York after the war. He ran nine notices in the New York Daily Advertiser in May-June 1790 thanking patrons for buying ice cream and ice from him. He sold out of his house at 55 Wall Street.

In May 1791 Corré opened a theater on State Street, presenting The Beaux’ Strategem and The Lying Valet. His Columbia Gardens and Mount Vernon Gardens businesses became notable values for plays and concerts in early New York, and he also appears in histories of the American circus.

According to this catalogue page, Mount Vernon owns Corré’s receipt for £51.6s.2d of ice cream and “mouls” (molds) delivered to Washington’s household from June to August 1790. I also saw mention in an antiques magazine of another Corré receipt for the President’s kitchen for earlier that spring, so he was a regular supplier. I don’t know when Corré’s ice cream receipt became public knowledge, but it looks like that happened about 150 years after he wrote it out.

Did George Washington eat that much ice cream? Not by himself. Rather, ice cream was part of how he and Martha entertained guests, officials, their wives, and members of the public at regular “levees,” or receptions. Abigail Adams described them in a letter to her older sister, Mary Cranch, on 27 July 1790:
mrs washington…has fix’d on every fryday 8 oclock. I attended upon the last, [with] mrs smith & charles. I found it quite a crowded Room. the form of Reception is this, the servants announce—& col [David] Humphries or mr [Tobias] Lear—receives every Lady at the door, & Hands her up to mrs washington to whom she makes a most Respectfull curtzey and then is seated without noticeing any of the rest of the company. the Pressident then comes up and speaks to the Lady, which he does with a grace dignity & ease, that leaves Royal George far behind him. the company are entertaind with Ice creems & Lemonade, and retire at their pleasure performing the same ceremony when they quit the Room.
Adams put a similar description, also including “Ice creams,” in her 6 Feb 1791 letter to Cotton Tufts.

(Those period quotations negate a statement in Benson J. Lossing’s Mary and Martha: “Ice-cream, the favorite delicacy of today, was then unknown.” But that book about the women in Washington’s life has long been recognized as hopeful myth. In fact, Mount Vernon has found records of the Washingtons buying ice cream equipment as early as 1784.)

The next question is how much £51.6s.2d. was worth in American dollars in 1790 and would be worth today? And that’s quite a complex question. In fact, examining how early American money worked is a very good way to realize that colonial life was by no means simple. There wasn’t enough specie (gold and silver coins) circulating in the economy, so most people paid off bills with paper notes whose values fluctuated depending on who had issued them, how far away the issuing institution or person was, and other factors. Most articles suggest the President’s ice cream purchase amounted to $200, which is probably a low approximation.

The next issue is how to calculate changes in currency between 1790 and today. The Measuring Worth website has been developed out of John J. McCusker’s monograph How Much Is That in Real Money? But there’s still a problem with equivalencies: because of technology, changing demands and supplies, the move away from coerced labor, and other factors, the real prices of different goods and services have changed at different rates. For example, unskilled labor is much more expensive these days while cloth is much cheaper. When I enter “£51” and “1790” into the Measuring Worth page for “Computing ‘Real Value’ Over Time With a Conversion Between U.K. Pounds and U.S. Dollars, 1774 to Present,” the result is:
When using the CPI/RPI, the (average) value in 2010 of £51 from 1790 is $6830.00. The range of values is from $0.00 to $9250.00. This answer is better if the subject is a consumer good or something else of interest to an individual.
Ice cream is of abiding interest to me, but I can’t say that fact makes narrowing a range between zero and $9,000 any easier. But I think we can eliminate the “about $100,000” figure cited above.

Because of modern refrigeration, ice cream is probably much cheaper relative to other foods than it was in Washington’s time. That means even if £51 in 1790 is on average about $6,800 today, I bet $6,800 today could buy even more ice cream than £51 bought for the Presidential mansion in 1790.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Gen. Gage at Salem Maritime Park, 20-21 July

I didn’t hear about this event until yesterday, and it looks like the schedule is still being worked out (with one possible factor the rolling but oh-so-welcome thunderstorms):
General Gage and His Troops Return to Salem

In May of 1774, General Thomas Gage, the newly-appointed Governor of Massachusetts, arrived in Boston with some controversial orders in his pocket: move the capital of Massachusetts to Salem, where calmer heads would hopefully prevail after several years of upheaval in Boston. He was wrong. During that summer, the Massachusetts legislature defied him, sent representatives to the first Continental Congress, and rejected his authority as Governor, setting in motion the events that culminated in the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

To commemorate that event, Salem Maritime, the National Park in Salem, and the Center for 18th Century Life at Minute Man N.H.P. are once again hosting a British Encampment at Salem Maritime on July 20-21, 2013. The National Park Service has invited some of the best re-enactors in Massachusetts to portray General Gage, his staff, his troops, and the legislators and civilians that he met in Massachusetts.
The events are due to run 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. It makes an interesting bookend with last weekend’s reenactment of Gen. George Washington’s arrival in Cambridge in 1775. While the two homes Washington used are still in place, the house where Gage lived is now in Washington, D.C.—but of course there are many other Revolutionary-era sites to enjoy in Salem.

The image above comes from the N.P.S.’s gallery of photographs from a similar event in 2011.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Henry Lloyd Worries about the Mail

The National Postal Museum has a webpage devoted to a 3 May 1775 letter from Henry Lloyd (1709-1795) to the New York merchants Oliver DeLancey and John Watts.

Lloyd was the eldest son in a mercantile family with roots in both Boston and Long Island, New York. He was a decided Loyalist. In March 1774 he tried to import tea into Boston, and a crowd destroyed it—part of the lesser-known second Boston Tea Party. By 1775 Lloyd was supplying the British military, which was the main topic of this letter.

At the time he wrote, Lloyd was besieged inside Boston with the British troops. He warned his New York colleagues that rebels might be opening their mail:
Your fav.r of 24th Ult.o [i.e., last month] came safe to hand Yesterday. Per Post & the Seal not broke, tho’ most of the Letters both publick & private were open’d before they got here & some of them stop’d, this Letter goes by a private Conveyance to Providence to be put into the Post Office there & hope it will reach you safe. . . .

Fresh provisions of all kinds are stop’d coming in here, & I don’t know how I shall be able to procure the Pork & Rice, Flour, & Pease I suppose may be had from Canada, some Butter I have procur’d here.
In 1776 Lloyd evacuated to Halifax with the royal authorities, and eventually the American governments confiscated his property in Massachusetts and New York. DeLancey and Watts remained in New York through the end of the war and then evacuated as well.

Henry’s younger brother James stayed in Boston after the siege. His neighbors knew he too was a Loyalist, but he was generally tolerated as a popular physician. James’s namesake son actually became a U.S. Senator.

(Photograph of the Lloyd brothers’ childhood home on Long Island courtesy of the Caumsett Foundation. The buildings are maintained by the Lloyd Harbor Historical Society.)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dr. Benjamin Rush Goes to a Jewish Wedding

Back in April 2010, novelist and comics scripter Greg Rucka wrote:
Ok, so...anyone out there have information on Sephardic wedding customs in 1770s America?
Out of gratitude for Gotham Central, I sprang into action.

Finding websites and books stating that the only surviving description of a Jewish wedding in early America came from Dr. Benjamin Rush, I tweeted back that lead.

I didn’t follow that path myself until recently, but here at last is the doctor’s account for his wife of attending Rachel Phillips’s wedding to Michael Levy in Philadelphia in June 1787:
I accepted the invitation with great pleasure, for you know I love to be in the way of adding to my stock of ideas upon all subjects. At 1 o’clock the company, consisting of 30 or 40 men, assembled in Mr. [Jonas] Philips’ common parlor, which was accommodated with benches for the purpose. The ceremony began with prayers in the Hebrew language, which were chaunted by an old rabbi and in which he was followed by the whole company. As I did not understand a word except now and then an Amen or Hallelujah, my attention was directed to the haste with which they covered their heads with their hats as soon as the prayers began, and to the freedom with which some of them conversed with each other during the whole time of this part of their worship.

As soon as these prayers were ended, which took up about 20 minutes, a small piece of parchment was produced, written in Hebrew, which contained a deed of settlement and which the groom subscribed in the presence of four witnesses. In this deed he conveyed a part of his fortune to his bride, by which she was provided for after his death in case she survived him.

This ceremony was followed by the erection of a beautiful canopy composed of white and red silk in the middle of the floor. It was supported by four young men (by means of four poles), who put on white gloves for the purpose. As soon as this canopy was fixed, the bride, accompanied with her mother, sister, and a long train of female relations, came downstairs. Her face was covered with a veil which reached halfways down her body. She was handsome at all times, but the occasion and her dress rendered her in a peculiar manner a most lovely and affecting object. I gazed with delight upon her. Innocence, modesty, fear, respect, and devotion appeared all at once in her countenance.

She was led by her two bridesmaids under the canopy. Two young men led the bridegroom after her and placed him, not by her side, but directly opposite to her. The priest now began again to chaunt an Hebrew prayer, in which he was followed by part of the company. After this he gave to the groom and bride a glass full of wine, from which they each sipped about a teaspoonful. Another prayer followed this act, after which he took a ring and directed the groom to place it upon the finger of his bride in the same manner as is practised in the marriage service of the Church of England. This ceremony was followed by handing the wine to the father of the bride and then a second time to the bride and groom. The groom after sipping the wine took the glass in his hand and threw it upon a large pewter dish which was suddenly placed at his feet. Upon its breaking into a number of small pieces, there was a general shout of joy and a declaration that the ceremony was over. The groom now saluted his bride, and kisses and congratulations became general through the room.

I asked the meaning, after the ceremony was over, of the canopy and of the drinking of the wine and breaking of the glass. I was told by one of the company that in Europe they generally marry in the open air, and that the canopy was introduced to defend the bride and groom from the action of the sun and from rain. Their mutually partaking of the same glass of wine was intended to denote the mutuality of their goods, and the breaking of the glass at the conclusion of the business was designed to teach them the brittleness and uncertainty of human life and the certainty of death, and thereby to temper and moderate their present joys.

Mr. Phillips pressed me to stay and dine with the company, but business and [junior partner] Dr. [James] Hall’s departure, which was to take place in the afternoon, forbade it. I stayed, however, to eat some wedding cake and to drink a glass of wine with the guests. Upon going into one of the rooms upstairs to ask how Mrs. [Rebecca] Philips did, who had fainted downstairs under the pressure of the heat (for she was weak from a previous indisposition), I discovered the bride and groom supping a bowl of broth together. Mrs. Phillips apologized for them by telling me they had eaten nothing (agreeably to the custom prescribed by their religion) since the night before.

Upon my taking leave of the company, Mrs. Phillips put a large piece of cake into my pocket for you, which she begged I would present to you with her best compliments. She says you are an old New York acquaintance of hers.
The bride’s father was actually from Germany, thus perhaps not Sephardic. (He was fluent in Yiddish, and when British authorities intercepted his letters during the war, they reportedly concluded he had written in code.) But the mother of the bride was a Machado, and the groom’s family (from what little we know) were also Sephardic.

Eventually this couple’s descendants would own and restore Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Death at Deacon Tudor’s

Here’s a notable entry from the diary of John Tudor (1709-1795), a merchant and deacon of Boston’s Second (Old North) Meeting-House in the North End:

1772 March 16th

This Morning died my old faithfull Servant, a Negro Man, that Lived with me about 34 Years. But the last 10 Years of his life he was Useless, more espesaly the last 7 Years. We supposed him to be between 90 & 100 Years Old. He Kept’d his bed, but one Day & Died very easey.

It ’tis remarkable throw the goodness of God, tho’ we have had a larg Famaly of Children & servants for near 40 Years til of late, and never had till this Morning, but one person that Died under my Roof: my Sons & other Relations Died abroad. Bessed be God for a helthy Famely & all other Merceys.

£3 coffin.
“Servant” was colonial Boston’s euphemism for a slave. The deacon was clearly affected by his old slave’s death, but not enough to record the man’s name.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

John Box: Not a Ropemaker?

The 1896 history of King’s Chapel states of one Revolutionary-era member of the congregation:
On the record of the death of Mr. John Box in the Church Books he is called ropemaker. This is a mistake. He owned much real estate, and belonging to it was a ropewalk. His niece was highly indignant at this statement of the record; said he never spun a rope in his life, but had a foreman who carried on the business.
In fact, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette stated on the man’s death:
Oct. 31, 1774. Died of a consumptive disorder, and on Thursday was decently interred, Mr. John Box, aged 75 years, who for upwards of 40 years was an eminent Ropemaker in this town. He was a Man of a fair unblemished character, strictly just in his dealings, a constant attender of Divine worship, Several years (in turn) a Warden of King’s Chapel and one of the Vestry, its assistant and promoter in rebuilding that Church. He was no medler in politicks, yet a well-wisher to the publick welfare; he loved Order, and condemned too great a stretch of power; much esteemed by his worthy Acquaintance, and by the publick in general. He was a tender, affectionate Husband and Parent.
Obviously Box’s family or friends supplied this death notice and didn’t object to the word “ropemaker.” The legal papers from his estate also used that term. What made his niece object sometime later?

I blame the Industrial Revolution. In the 1770s ropewalks were among the few American manufacturing enterprises with a large workforce. Shipyards were another proto-industrial business that had to employ lots of men on the same project. By contrast, most craftsmen worked in relatively small shops in which the boss directly supervised journeymen and apprentices and put his own hand to some advanced tasks.

With the Industrial Revolution, enterprises expanded, and a new profession and class of men developed: managers. These men ran businesses from behind desks. They dealt with customers, juggled supplies and inventories, and got large staffs to do the work. Paul Revere was the most famous Bostonian to make this jump, from working silver himself in the North End to supervising a copper-rolling mill in Canton in the early 1800s.

In eighteenth-century British and American society, men were legally identified by their profession or place in society. Legal documents referred to “Aaron Wood, yeoman [i.e., small farmer],” or “Benjamin Burdick, barber,” or “William Wemms, laborer.” These labels were crucial. One summons for John Hancock was squelched on the grounds that it didn’t refer to him as “John Hancock, gentleman.”

By the end of the century people were using the term “manufacturer” to refer to the men overseeing large enterprises, like Revere. John Box appears to have been an early example of that type: at Box and Austin’s ropewalk in the West End, he managed the money and sales and his partner Benjamin Austin ran the production process. But I don’t think society understood and accepted the term “manufacturer” yet. Thus, both Box and Austin were labeled as “ropemakers.”

And no one saw anything wrong with that in 1774. Ropemaking was an important business in a seafaring town. People knew it could lead to wealth. Another of Boston’s ropemakers, John Gray, was one of the richer citizens and brother of the provincial treasurer. He probably didn’t spin any more rope than John Box did. But there were so few men like them who “made” things without using their hands that the culture didn’t yet have a name for them.

Only after the Industrial Revolution reshaped the American economy and class system did it seem desirable to label ropewalk owners differently from the skilled workers they employed.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Louisa Catherine Adams Gossips about the Vassalls

I spent yesterday at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, originally the house of John Vassall. One part of the event was the “potluck” dinner that Gen. George Washington (portrayed by Bill Rose) offered to John Adams (portrayed by Tom Macy) in January 1776. Yesterday was considerably warmer.

That’s enough of a tie-in to share this helping of gossip from Adams’s daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine Adams, about Vassall’s first cousins, the daughters of his uncle William Vassall, in London in the 1790s:

The Vassalls were the most singular family, consisting of three or four females I dont recollect which; very tall, gaunt, masculine women, entirely independent and wealthy—their manners were like their persons coarse and unpleasant. They were old Maids and even their large fortunes could not lure a husband—

Each of them had some peculiarity but Miss Margaret [1761-1819] was the most conspicuous—She had fourteen Dogs who already slept in her chamber, a number of them in her bed, and whenever she went out to dine she carried a paper bag to take the gizzards of the fowls which she always made a point to ask for of the Lady of the House, and the conversation almost always turned upon little exploits of these charming puppies for the pleasure and edification of the company which she did the honour to join— The Sisters echoed the cry and we had the felicity of hearing the hounds without the possibility of flying the chase.

Lady Holland was the Cousin of these Ladies, and has likewise given some strong evidence of brutish tastes
That last cousin was Elizabeth Vassall, daughter of Richard Vassall. She was still in her mid-teens in 1786 when she married the thirty-eight-year-old baronet Sir Godfrey Webster. In 1794 the Websters were traveling in Naples when Elizabeth fell in love with Henry Fox, Baron Holland (1773-1840). Two years later, Elizabeth and Henry had a son. Sir Godfrey divorced her in exchange for keeping the Jamaican property she had inherited, but by 1800 he had gambled that away and shot himself.

Elizabeth and Henry wed two days after her divorce became official. Then Elizabeth’s uncle Florentius Vassall left her more Jamaican plantations. As Baroness Holland, Elizabeth was an important hostess in Georgian and Victorian England until her death in 1845. She gathered politicians and authors, introduced the dahlia to English gardens, and praised Napoleon, but was best known for both encouraging and dictating conversation at her dinner table. As for Baroness Holland’s “brutish tastes,” at least two of her portraits (including the one above) show her with dogs.

The gossipy passage above comes from the just-published volumes of Louisa Catherine Adams’s writings.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Boston’s 1767 Non-Importation Pledge List Comes to Light

This week John Overholt at Harvard’s Houghton Library announced that Karen Nipps and her cataloguing team had discovered six copies of an October 1767 broadside with the signatures of over 650 Bostonians pledging not to import a long list of goods from Britain to protest the new Townshend duties. The library’s blog offers images of three of those sheets and snatches of others.

Bostonians had already made a public stand against importing what they said were unnecessary luxury goods, particularly ostentatious mourning garb. This takes a further step, expanding the list of goods that people promised to boycott. The selectmen publicized the town’s vote (though exactly who received this letter announcing it is unclear).

After another year, the 1768 merchants’ agreement covered every type of import except for a few things deemed necessary for local industry. As Sam Forman describes, in 1769 the Boston Whigs also asked people not to buy goods from shopkeepers who did import.

The 1767 pledge sheets are thus an early look at who in Boston was willing to put their names to a protest against Parliament’s new taxes. The signatories include some future Loyalists, such as Adino Paddock, Hopestill Capen, and (I think) Thomas Flucker. Dr. John Jeffries was among the few who pledged not to buy imports for only one year.

It looks like the signatures might be organized loosely by neighborhood. For example, one sheet includes John Ruddock, John Tudor, and Paul Revere, all prominent in the North End, near the top. I can imagine men carrying each sheet around a ward, asking folks to add their names.

One of the most surprising details of these sheets is the number of women who signed. They often decided on purchases of household goods, of course, and sometimes owned or managed shops. Some of the visible sheets have no female signatories, others several in a row. In the 1769 non-consumption agreement, only 6 of 111 signatories were women; I wonder what proportion of these names are female.

Other mysteries:
  • Why did William Dawes, Jr., sign two sheets? (I don’t think there were two William Dawes, Jrs.)
  • Why is the name under John Machett’s crossed out?
  • Why does housewright John Bell’s name appear to be stamped instead of written?
  • Catharine Thompson signed with her mark—was she really active in commerce or politics?
There’s a lot more data to be gleaned out of this document and comparing it to other records. I understand that it’s being fully digitized for widespread viewing soon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Medfield’s Peak House at 302

Every New England town has its own historic landmarks, and in Medfield, Massachusetts, one of the most recognized is the Peak House—a small three-story building with a very sharp roof.

A couple of years ago Richard DeSorgher wrote in the Medfield Patch about the disagreement over its date:
The sign, installed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1930 and located in front of the Main Street house, proclaims its construction date to be 1680; rebuilt after it was burned in the attack on Medfield during the King Philip War in 1676. [That information also appears, as of today, on Wikipedia.]

Their supporting evidence comes from state records showing owner Benjamin Clark receiving payment in relief of taxes in 1680, due to the hardships suffered with the burning of his home. With that, he was able to rebuild. This 17th-century date has the support of famed architectural historian Abbott Lowell Cummings, director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), who studied the house a number of years ago ... not so fast.

William Tilden, famed Medfield Town Historian and author of the History of Medfield says in his publication: “The house was burned out by the Indians in 1676, but rebuilt upon the same spot. What is called the Peak House is an addition subsequently made to Benjamin Clark’s second house, in or about 1762. After the decay of the old part, “the Peak House section” was moved about 100 yards forward towards Main Street to its present location.”
Eighty years is a lot of room for error when it comes to New World properties. I suspect that one of the reasons the Peak House was so hard to date is its curious architecture—it doesn’t really fit into any style. Tilden’s theory that it wasn’t actually built to stand on its own at first might explain that odd shape.

The Medfield Historical Society hired Dan Miles, a dendrochronologist from Oxford, and announced his findings:
Six of the Peak House’s main frame timbers were sampled and analyzed. All six timbers were found to have been felled in the winter of 1710/11 with three of the timbers being from the same tree. These test results lead us to believe that the current Peak House was built during the summer of 1711.

This date jibes nicely with the coming of age of Benjamin’s youngest son, Seth, who would have been about 24 years of age that summer. Most likely part of Benjamin’s plan to give his son his inheritance included building a separate structure for Seth in front of his own dwelling (today’s Peak House). Indeed, Benjamin did give his property to Seth upon his death in 1724.
Thus, we can feel confident the Peak House is just over 300 years old.

The Medfield Historical Society is hosting tours of its house every Sunday from 2:00 to 5:00 P.M. through 15 September. They promise, “Even in the heat of summer, the Peak House is really cool—literally!” That’s what a very high roof does for you, I guess.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Great Men and Ordinary Americans

In his New York Times review of Joseph J. Ellis’s Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, Andrew Cayton of Miami University argued that the book is missing a very big part of what constituted a revolution:
It simply won’t do to talk about a revolutionary summer in which the only voices are those of prominent white men and the recollections of 15-year-old Joseph Plumb Martin, written decades later. Ellis includes a handful of paragraphs on women, enslaved Africans and working-class artisans. But they read like generic concessions to critics who have chastised him for celebrating already celebrated white men rather than the rest of North America’s diverse population. The point Ellis misses is that attention must be paid to the people outside Congress not from a desire to make history more inclusive but because their voices were loud and their choices important, not least in their impact on the actions of the men inside Congress.

Incorporating more people would fundamentally change Ellis’s story, making it messier and less predictable. The “conspicuous consensus” on independence that emerged in Congress occurred nowhere outside of New England. Nor, again, were the maneuvers of the British Army the only challenges confronting members of Congress. It seemed obvious to many Americans that a state of war had existed with Britain since shots were fired at Lexington on April 19, 1775. Everywhere ad hoc committees were creating new political institutions, agreeing with Thomas Paine in his best-selling “Common Sense” that monarchy, not George III, was the basic problem. Honest men could govern themselves better than “the Royal Brute of Britain” could; on the day Americans proclaimed a new charter of government in which “the law is king,” they should demolish a symbolic crown and scatter its pieces “among the people whose right it is.”

This stunning proposition horrified other Americans. Just as thousands were choosing independence because it promised revolution in favor of natural rights and self-government, so thousands were choosing the British Empire because they dreaded a democratic revolution that they feared would degenerate into anarchy and popular tyranny. Many believed the imperial tensions reflected inept administration rather than structural failure. Ellis writes that “most probably, a poll of the American population” in September 1776 “would have revealed a citizenry more politically divided and receptive” to Richard Howe’s peace terms “than the Continental Congress or its diplomatic representatives.” It is a point he fails to develop. [John] Adams spoke for a small percentage of the population. So did [John] Dickinson. . . .

In short, what made the summer of 1776 revolutionary was the range of options, the cacophony of voices, the increasing resort to violence, the growing sense that nothing was safe. Americans like to believe that their revolution as well as their independence was a moderate affair in which the founding fathers were in control of events rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, “Revolutionary Summer” reinforces that perception.
In a big sense, Ellis already responded to that sort of critique of his work twelve years earlier in his preface to Founding Brothers:
The apparently irresistible urge to capitalize and mythologize as “Founding Fathers” the most prominent members of the political leadership during this formative phase has some historical as well as psychological foundation, for in a very real sense we are, politically, if not genetically, still living their legacy. And the same principle also explains the parallel urge to demonize them, since any discussion of their achievement is also an implicit conversation about the distinctive character of American imperialism, both foreign and domestic.

A kind of electromagnetic field, therefore, surrounds this entire subject, manifesting itself as a golden haze or halo for the vast majority of contemporary Americans, or as a contaminated radioactive cloud for a smaller but quite vocal group of critics unhappy with what America has become or how we have gotten here. Within the scholarly community in recent years, the main tendency has been to take the latter side, or to sidestep the controversy by ignoring mainstream politics altogether. Much of the best work has taken the form of a concerted effort to recover the lost voices from the revolutionary generation—the daily life of Marsha Ballard as she raised a family and practiced midwifery on the Maine frontier; the experience of Venture Smith, a former slave who sustained his memories of Africa and published a memoir based on them in 1798. This trend is so pronounced that any budding historian who announces that he or she wishes to focus on the political history of the early republic and its most prominent practitioners is generally regarded as having inadvertently confessed a form of intellectual bankruptcy.

Though no longer a budding historian, my own efforts in recent years, including the pages that follow, constitute what I hope is a polite argument against the scholarly grain, based on a set of presumptions that are so disarmingly old-fashioned that they might begin to seem novel in the current climate. In my opinion, the central events and achievements of the revolutionary era and the early republic were political. These events and achievements are historically significant because they shaped the subsequent history of the United States, including our own time. The central players in the drama were not the marginal or peripheral figures, whose lives are more typical, but rather the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power. What's more, the shape and character of the political institutions were determined by a relatively small number of leaders who knew each other, who collaborated and collided with one another in patterns that replicated at the level of personality and ideology the principle of checks and balances imbedded structurally in the Constitution.
Given how much power elite men wielded in eighteenth-century society, it does make sense to look at their words and actions. And Cayton doesn’t argue that Revolutionary Summer should ignore the arguments of the politicians in Philadelphia. Rather, he reminds us that those men were influenced by the populace around them, sometimes in ways they didn’t recognize. It’s valuable to study the Revolution from both the top and the bottom.

And the fact that Ellis misspelled the name of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s subject Martha Ballard as “Marsha” undercut his implicit claim to have carefully considered other approaches.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Joseph J. Ellis’s Famous and Familiar Founders

Joseph J. Ellis has long focused on well-documented individuals in eighteenth-century America, which, given the structures of the time, mostly means white men with wealth and education. Not always famous men, though: his first book was about Samuel Johnson of Connecticut and King’s College, the sort of historical figure Wikipedia is made for, and the men profiled in After the Revolution are only slightly better known.

In 1993 Ellis wrote about a more famous individual, John Adams, but started with that President’s life after being President. The result, Passionate Sage, is probably his best book, bringing out new insights into Adams’s mind. It helped usher in new respect for Adams, though it took David McCullough’s more traditional biography to make him a television luminary.

Next Ellis wrote American Sphinx, about Thomas Jefferson—a more popular President to begin with. This book covered its subject’s entire national career, from the Second Continental Congress through retirement. The result was a more familiar study, but also a bestseller and winner of the National Book Award.

Since then, Ellis has focused closely not just on the Founders but mostly on well known parts of their lives, particularly their political activities. Founding Brothers and American Creation are in essence collective biographies, each a collection of essays about top politicians maneuvering among themselves. His Excellency covers President Washington, and First Family returns to John Adams—but this time as a more familiar study of his marriage and family.

In his review of First Family for The New Republic, Jack Rakove detected a formula in Ellis’s approach:
He likes to limit his books’ number of chapters (five to seven) and overall length. Each chapter has a clear theme, framed within neat chronological limits. Ellis is a natural storyteller, a conversational historian in the ease with which he addresses readers. He generally avoids the distractions and complications that other historians feel driven to work out. He projects a great deal of confidence in his own judgments, which smack of genuine scholarly insight.
Rakove’s review also suggested that Ellis had gotten sloppy with little facts that add up to a lot.

Ellis’s latest is Revolutionary Summer, about the period when the Congress voted for independence and Gen. Washington confronted the British military with nearly calamitous results. It comes in eight chapters plus a postscript. Andrew Cayton’s review of Ellis’s Revolutionary Summer in the New York Times Book Review begins: “If you know the musical ‘1776,’ you know the plot of Joseph J. Ellis’s breezy new book. It’s a stirring and conventional story.”

This approach has earned good reviews from authors with roots in journalism, such as David M. Shribman in the Boston Globe and David Holahan in the Christian Science Monitor. Those reviews basically retell the book’s narrative and argument about the importance of this period (which few would really argue with). But does Ellis’s focus on famous individuals mean he’s missed important parts of the story?

TOMORROW: Great men and ordinary people.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gen. Washington Coming to Cambridge Discovery Days

This weekend, 13-14 July, the city of Cambridge is hosting its annual Discovery Days of historic walks, lectures, and building tours. For the first time this year, that event includes a Revolutionary encampment at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site and Longfellow Park on either side of Brattle Street.

On 15 July 1775, Gen. George Washington paid for cleaning, and presumably moved into, the mansion that the Loyalist John Vassall had left behind the previous September after the “Powder Alarm.” For the next nine months Washington lived there with Gen. Horatio Gates, his secretaries and aides, and after December his wife Martha and her son and daughter-in-law.

Why did the new commander-in-chief choose that home for his headquarters? Neither he nor his staff nor the Massachusetts Provincial Congress left any direct statements about his thinking. I looked at several theories that authors have suggested over the years. For instance, some suggested that the Vassall house was further away from British artillery batteries—but eighteenth-century guns couldn’t have reached central Cambridge.

In the end I concluded that Washington’s most likely motive was not to get away from the British but to get away from his own men. The house that Gen. Artemas Ward used as his headquarters (now gone) and the first house Washington used when he arrived at Cambridge were both right next to Harvard College, where hundreds of Continental soldiers were barracked. Washington liked hierarchy. He liked order. He had work to do. I think he thought putting more distance between headquarters and the enlisted men was a good thing.

Plus, in 1775 the Vassall estate—the most expensive in Cambridge, with barns, stables, fields, gardens, orchards, and land extending to the Charles River—might have reminded Washington of Mount Vernon.

A gentleman who portrays Gen. Washington will be part of Cambridge Discovery Days’ reenactment on Sunday, 14 July. (I understand that he recently sustained an injury, so the general might be even stiffer than usual.) There will be infantry drills, demonstrations of medical care, and other aspects of life in the American camp. This being the middle of a city, the soldiers won’t be firing their muskets—so consider this event as reenacting camp in August after the general discovered how little gunpowder his army had and ordered the troops not to fire their guns needlessly.

ADDENDUM: This afternoon I obtained a schedule for the day. Highlights include:
  • 10:30 and 11:30 A.M., 1:30 and 3:30 P.M.: Drill demonstrations and training for young visitors (April 1775-April 1776).
  • 11:00 A.M.: Gen. Washington and his aides arrive (July 1775).
  • 12:00 noon: Gen. Washington inspects the troops and inquires into an officer’s behavior at Bunker Hill (July 1775).
  • 12:30 P.M.: The general invites John Adams to a potluck dinner (January 1776).
  • 1:00 P.M.: Col. Benedict Arnold arrives with a report and expenses from Ticonderoga (August 1775).
  • 2:00 P.M.: Is there a spy ensconced in the American camp? (September 1775)
  • 3:00 P.M.: Formal transfer of command from Gen. Artemas Ward (July 1775).

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Laurie Halse Anderson Has Some Gossip to Share

Laurie Halse Anderson is a novelist best known for her contemporary young-adult book Speak, which was a National Book Award finalist, a Printz Award Honor Book, and winner of the Golden Kite Award. It’s an unflinching study of a rape victim in high school, which a few people object to.

Anderson has also won acclaim for her historical fiction for young readers, starting with Fever 1793, about life in the American capital during the yellow-fever epidemic. She’s completing a trilogy of novels about the fight for liberty, individual and national, in the Revolutionary War: Chains, Forge (another National Book Award finalist), and the upcoming Ashes. She’s also written a nonfiction picture book called Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution.

Acknowledging “a strange affinity for muskets and chamberpots,” Anderson wants more young people to discover the fascinating world of eighteenth-century America. So she recently launched a Tumblr site that explains itself this way: “The reason you hate American history is because the people look weird. Let me adjust your senses.” The site is full of portraits from the period and is called “Hotties of the American Revolution.” Pass the word.