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, January 15, 2014

A Second Look at Deborah Champion and “Uncle Aristarchus”

Yesterday I brought the story of the Deborah Champion letter into the 1970s, when the Bicentennial and the search for female heroes in American history brought her back into print. The rise of women’s history not only brought more attention to the experiences of women in the American Revolution, but also new rigor to the study of that history.

Apparently around that time—we don’t know exactly when—another version of the letter arrived at the Library of Congress. That document offered a more plausible October 1775 date and cut some of the more dubious details about the siege of Boston in the 1912/1926 text. It was also the first transcript to mention an original document, supposedly owned by descendants. And of course the Library of Congress Manuscripts Department carries a lot of authority in a footnote.

One of the major differences between the two texts of the letter is the figure of Aristarchus, the enslaved man who supposedly accompanied the young woman on her ride from Connecticut to Massachusetts. Aristarchus appears twice in the text first published in 1912:
So, dear Patience, it was finally settled that I should start in the early morning and Aristarchus should go with me. He has been devoted to me since I made a huge cake to grace his wedding with Glory and found a name for the dusky baby which we call Sophronista. For a slave he has his fair share of wits, also. . . .

Suddenly, I was ordered to halt; as I could n’t help myself I did so. I could almost hear Aristarchus’ teeth rattle in his mouth, but I knew he would obey my instructions and if I was detained, would try to find the way alone.
In the text at the Library of Congress, Aristarchus is more prominent. In fact, most of the passages that appear only in that version refer to him in some way. In addition, that text changes his wife’s name from Glory to Chloe.

The Library of Congress text also turns Aristarchus into even more of a comic character. At the outset of the journey, the letter states: “Uncle Aristarchus looked very pompous, as if he was Captain and felt the responsibility.” But when a British sentry appears out of nowhere, the narrator says, “I really believe I heard Aristarchus’ teeth chatter as he rode to my side and whispered ‘De British missus for sure.’” This version has no suggestion that Aristarchus might complete the journey on his own.

I suspect that the Library of Congress text is the later one, revised to fix some glitches in the text that Mary Rebecca Adams Squire had written out before 1912. The changing treatment of Aristarchus also suggests that the person who revised the letter thought readers would expect more comedy from the figure of a black slave. Ironically, those same parts of the letter feel most dated and discomfiting now, and since the 1970s authors have often edited them out while quoting other passages.

A final note on the man’s name: Deborah (Champion) Gilbert had a nephew named Aristarchus, born 23 Oct 1784 to her brother Henry, the Continental Army officer. Aristarchus Champion graduated from Yale in 1807, settled in Rochester, and had a long career in law, real estate, and philanthropy before dying a bachelor in 1871.

It would be quite remarkable for an upper-class family like the Champions to name one of their sons after a man they had kept as a slave. (To be sure, naming your twin sons Aristarchus and Aristobulus was remarkable to begin with.) I see the real, well documented “Uncle Aristarchus” as another reason to think that the Deborah Champion letter was concocted from a stew of half-remembered lore and details that seemed old-fashioned to someone in the early 1900s.

TOMORROW: A critical mass of Deborah Champion.

[The photograph above is Jacksonville Stumpe’s picture of the Township Hall in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Aristarchus Champion inherited a considerable part of the land in that area, and in 1848 endowed the construction of this building as a town library. Champion never lived in Ohio, though.]


J. L. Bell said...

Aristarchus Champion ended up being the victim of a notorious bond swindel in the 1860s. When he died, his estate was reportedly worth "only" $300,000. He left most of it to religious organizations, so long as they hadn't fallen under the sway of Baptists. Simpler times.

Unknown said...

I love the added comment. Simpler times indeed ;)