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

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Critical Mass of Deborah Champion Retellings?

In recent years, an increasing number of books have referred to Deborah Champion’s experience carrying dispatches. Usually those are brief mentions, such as her name dropped in Liberty’s Daughters (1980), by Mary Beth Norton, a landmark in American women’s history. Holly A. Mayer describes Champion’s trip in a footnote of Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution (1996), citing the Library of Congress typescript.

The most prominent recent description seems to be two pages of Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (2007). It appears in a chapter on stories that have “come down to us only through family tales, told and retold, exaggerated and embellished in the process, but with a kernel of truth nevertheless.” Despite that warning about the retellings being less than fully reliable, Berkin then retells the story in full, including the easily refuted statement that “the British were already at Providence” and praise from Gen. George Washington.

Revolutionary Mothers doesn’t cite any primary source directly. Rather, its note points to:
  • Sally Smith Booth’s The Women of ’76 (1973), which I quoted yesterday.
  • the 1986 Connecticut report Great Women in Connecticut History, which in turn relied on the Bicentennial report described yesterday,
  • the one-sentence mention of Deborah Champion in Ray Raphael’s A People’s History of the American Revolution (2002).
That approach reflects how Revolutionary Mothers is a summary work for a popular audience. But it gains its authority because Berkin is a respected pioneer in women’s history.

As the Deborah Champion story has appeared in more such books, it appears more reliable. With each brief mention in an authoritative book, the story has gained more critical mass, making it seem more credible to the next author.

The Deborah Champion story seems to be especially popular in textbooks and reference books, which can have the names of major historians on the cover but are usually composed by committees working from secondary sources. In these, the tale can become even more dramatic and less accurate. Berkin and Wood’s Land of Promise (1983) told students, “Deborah Champion of Massachusetts was captured and interrogated as she carried a message for General Washington.” Sue Heinemann’s Timelines of American Women’s History (1996) included, “Deborah Champion gallops two days through enemy lines…” A Reader’s Digest book called The American Story (1998) declared, “Twenty-three-year-old Deborah Champion Gilbert of Connecticut rode more than 100 miles through enemy lines to deliver army payroll and dispatches…”

A few recent books quote some form of the Deborah Champion letter at length. David C. King’s American Heritage, American Voices: Colonies and Revolution (2003) uses the text published by Mary R. Beard. Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present (2005), by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, prints the entire Library of Congress text. Jeanne Munn Bracken’s Women in the American Revolution (2007) quotes Grunwald and Adler but omits the description of “Uncle Aristarchus” as a slave and his stereotypical trembling and dialect.

In addition, the University of Connecticut’s Early American Women Writers website quotes the Library of Congress version of Deborah Champion’s adventure. And it’s increasingly easy to find other websites quoting the letter or retelling its story.

TOMORROW: The Deborah Champion myth in an online world.

1 comment:

The Lady from Philadelphia said...

I think that Deborah Champion may be your generation's Betsy Ross. People my age, we really believed in Betsy Ross, and we learned how to snip a five-pointed star with one cut, in case our country again needed to be saved by needlework. Your generation is more vigorous, but it's the same sort of belief and the same sort of impulse.