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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Friday, February 28, 2014

The Signature Style of Paul Revere

Yesterday I showed a watercolor painting of a British officer that the Skinner auction house is selling this weekend. And here’s the detail that makes this image so interesting: the words at the bottom of the picture identifying the subject as “Major John Pitcairn” and the artist as “P. Revere.”

I’m skeptical of most things from the Revolution that aren’t clearly contemporaneous, and some that are. I was therefore skeptical about the authenticity of this portrait. As Skinner says, it’s the only known painting credited to Paul Revere. For his engravings he relied on other artists like Christian Remick and Henry Pelham, or he copied prints from Britain. Even that note on the back of this picture’s frame says:
The portrait is a really creditable piece of painting, revealing the facial evidences of individual character, a work that must enhance his artistic reputation, at present resting upon the various engraved Views in which the figures barely escape caricature.
Yet the draftsmanship is neither so competent nor so incompetent as to indicate, at least to these untrained eyes, whether it’s authentic. If George W. Bush can take up painting in retirement, why couldn’t Revere?

On the other hand, if the only thing connecting this artwork to Revere is his signature, I figured I should take a hard look at that. I went looking for other examples of Revere’s signature, and found variations over time.

Here’s how Revere signed the 1767 non-consumption agreement recently digitized at Harvard’s Houghton Library:
The way he wrote his name at the start of his first deposition about the events of 18-19 Apr 1775, digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society:
His name at the start of the “fair copy” of that deposition, also through the M.H.S.:
And his formal signature on the bottom of that document:
Finally, an 1816 receipt:
In all those signatures, the left leg of the P and R swoops up to the left. Those two capital letters also have a big swoop down from the top—sometimes a huge swoop. Those details also appear in the name on the painting.
However, in the penned signatures above, all the letters after the initial capitals are connected. In contrast, the “P. Revere” on the watercolor is made up of separate letters. And the little R is in a different style from the same letter in all the examples above. In those respects, that label is more like the way Revere added his name to engravings, as shown below in images from the American Antiquarian Society.
But, as you can see, Revere used different lettering styles on different prints. I didn’t try to capture all the variations. Yet another consideration is that Revere had engraved his names on those plates backwards. So it would be natural for him to write his name a little different when he wrote it in pen, even if he was trying to write it as it usually appeared on his engravings.

And, of course, someone else writing Revere’s name on this watercolor could have found similar examples to copy.

In sum, I was hoping to find definitive evidence to confirm or allay my skepticism about this painting, and I didn’t find it in the signature.

TOMORROW: Peeking inside the frame.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Would Paul Revere Have Painted Major Pitcairn?

This weekend the Skinner auction house is offering this watercolor painting of a British army officer on horseback, which is labeled at the bottom “Major John Pitcairn” and “P. Revere del.” for “Paul Revere drew this.”

According to a typewritten note glued to the back, this picture was owned by the furniture-maker Duncan Phyfe. Thus, this one artifact links three historic names famous during the Colonial Revival.

In his blog post on the painting, Skinner specialist Joel Bohy offered this hypothesis about how the painting came about:
Pitcairn was quartered at a home in Boston that belonged to Francis Shaw, Paul Revere’s neighbor. According to lore, the locals respected Pitcairn at first. Paul Revere may have sketched his portrait during late 1774 or early 1775 in preparation for an engraving. But it seems that before an engraving could be made, a revolution intervened.
I offered a different idea: that the image might date from the early republic. Yes, some sources say that Pitcairn earned the respect of locals in 1774-75, but he was still part of the very unpopular royal military occupation. But after the war that didn’t matter so much. Pitcairn had died at Bunker Hill, and his body was a tourist attraction under the Old North Church, which would certainly have prompted interest in him. That was when people began to say the major wasn’t such a bad guy. In addition, the American print media had expanded, producing new outlets for engravings like the Massachusetts Magazine.

But there doesn’t seem to be a way to date this painting since there’s no evidence of its origin besides that label. It surfaced in the early 1900s in the estate of Phyfe’s grandson.

TOMORROW: Exploring the details.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Should Today Be “Salem Gunpowder Day”?

Earlier this month the Boston Globe published an essay by the historian Peter Charles Hoffer that it headlined, “Happy Salem Gunpowder Day! Did American independence start with a peaceful protest? The case for a new holiday.”

That holiday would be today, 26 February, and the article began:
In nine weeks, America will once more celebrate Patriot’s Day, in honor of the battles of Lexington and Concord. . . . But when it comes to the start of the Revolution, history has forgotten another crucial British retreat, one that might just as well be the day we celebrate instead. It happened on a Salem bridge on Feb. 26, 1775—239 years ago next Wednesday.

No shots were fired; no patriots or regulars fell. But on that day, for the first time, the Colonists stood up to a British Army serving field commander, and the British withdrew.

The story of the fierce but bloodless showdown that sparked the war is a reminder that our country was born not just out of violence, but from another kind of resistance altogether. If we were to commemorate that day instead—call it Salem Gunpowder Day—it would put a very different spin on our understanding of how our country’s war for independence began.
By no coincidence, Hoffer’s latest book is Prelude to Revolution: The Salem Gunpowder Raid of 1775. He was doing his job as an author, using the news media to bring attention to his book and argue for its importance.

But for me this essay left me less convinced Hoffer knows what he’s talking about. That’s harsh, especially since I’ve enjoyed some of his previous writing, but the run-up to the Revolutionary War in New England is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time on.

If we want to celebrate (mostly) non-violent resistance, then we should highlight the events of the late summer of 1774. Crowds in Massachusetts’s western counties closed their courts, and four thousand men massed on Cambridge common, all to protest the Massachusetts Government Act. Those unarmed crowd actions forced royal appointees to resign their posts or agree not to act under that law. By the end of the first week of September, it was clear that Gov. Thomas Gage exercised no authority outside of Boston. That opened a vacuum for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress formed weeks later.

If we want to spotlight the moment when the political conflict in New England turned military, then we might want to look at the shots fired at Fort William & Mary in Portsmouth harbor in December 1774. Nobody was killed there, but that confrontation got closer to being fatal than the Salem raid.

Why wasn’t the confrontation in Salem fatal? Hoffer paints the provincial obstruction as non-violent, but parts of the Essex County militia did mobilize and march to Salem. They simply arrived too late to get involved, after the British troops had started to withdraw. Only because the crisis was over by then could Hoffer call the event “bloodless.”

In fact, local historians didn’t call the confrontation at the drawbridge “bloodless.” Instead, Salem authors claimed that their townspeople shed the “first blood” of the Revolutionary War because the king’s soldiers pricked some locals in the chests with their bayonets. Not many authors from outside the county have agreed that that blood was so significant.

But most striking to me is how Hoffer refers to the “Salem Gunpowder Raid” and “Salem Gunpowder Day.” What gunpowder? In justifying the action to London, Gen. Gage wrote:
The circumstance of the eight field pieces at Salem led us into a mistake, for supposing them to be brass guns brought from Holland, or some of the foreign isles, which report had also given reasons to suspect, a detachment of 400 men under Lieut. Col. [Alexander] Leslie, was sent privately off by water to seize them. The places they were said to be concealed in were strictly searched, but no artillery could be found. And we have since discovered, that there had been only some old ship’s guns, which had been carried away from Salem some time ago.
Gage’s orders were all about cannon. That was why Lt. Col. Lesie headed for a blacksmith’s shop across the drawbridge across Salem’s North River—because David Mason had collected cannon there to be mounted on carriages.

Mason and his Patriot colleagues hadn’t collected gunpowder there. We know that because one of the rules that people in the eighteenth century knew to live by was:

You don’t store gunpowder in a blacksmith’s shop.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Newly Recognized Example of Paul Revere’s Silver Work

The Newport Historical Society received this teapot in a large gift of artifacts, historic clothing, and documents from Frances Raymond in 1998. In fact, her gift was so large that it took a long time before a staff member was able to examine the teapot closely and see that it’s marked “Revere.” The maker’s mark and rococo style indicate that it came from the workshop of Boston silversmith Paul Revere in the 1760s. (Compare it to the one that John Singleton Copley painted in Revere’s hand.)

On Thursday, 6 March, the Newport Historical Society will host a lecture by Gerald W. R. Ward on “A Revere Revelation: A ‘New’ Teapot by Paul Revere the Patriot.” Ward is Senior Consulting Curator and the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture Emeritus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He is a co-editor of Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000.

In his talk Ward plans to “place the teapot in the context of Revere’s work as Boston’s leading silversmith of the day and of the turbulent times of Boston in the 1760s.” A few years back he helped to plan the Museum of Fine Arts’ American Wing, which does a fine job at the same task; one of the highlights is the Copley portrait of Revere displayed next to the man’s silver.

This talk will start at 5:30 P.M. at the Colony House on Washington Square in Newport. Admission costs $5 per person, $1 for Newport Historical Society members with membership card. To reserve spaces, call 401-841-8770.

Monday, February 24, 2014

“The Honors of the Preceding Night”

Yesterday I broke off the story of the first documented public celebration of Gen. George Washington’s birthday in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1779 just as things were getting interesting: the celebrants were ready to set off two cannon. Dudley Digges, a member of the state Council, was determined to stop them.

Digges had already told the young men planning that party that it would be improper during a war. When he saw them grabbing the cannon from a smithy, he sent a lieutenant to bring those guns back, and the partygoers refused.

Most of those celebrants appear to have been students at the College of William & Mary, and their master of ceremonies was former school usher James Innes. It’s striking that Innes was a generation younger than Digges but held a higher military rank.

The account from college student David Meade Randolph continues:
Captain Digges went immediately to the Arena, where, in the pride of his power, with sixty men, he drew up in form; and demanded the cannon at the point of his bayonets! Innis stept up to Captain Digges, and shaking his cane at him, swore that he would cane him, if he did not depart instantly with his men! This enraging Digges,—he said that if the pieces were not surrendered, he would fire upon the party. Innis repeating his threat,—ordered [William] Finnie to charge the cannon with brick bats: the mob in the street, and the gentlemen of the ball, re-echoing the order. The pieces were soon charged with brick bats: Innis all the while firmly standing by the Captain at the head of his men, daring him to fire! After some delay, the Captain retreated with his men; and the evening closed with great joy.

Next day, Innis was arraigned before the Hustings Court, for Riot! confronted by the valiant Captain Digges. During the proceedings, when Innis replied to the charge, Digges in the body of the Court, and Innis in the Bar—among other particulars characteristic of the Colonel's temper and genius, he swore “it made no odds whether Captain Digges wore a red coat, or a black coat, he would cane him!” The case was attended with no farther particulars. Innis facing the Court, and repeating his threats; till at length he was dismissed, and triumphantly walked out of Court, attended by most of his friends, who had shared the honors of the preceding night.
I can’t help but think the punch being served at that party had a significant alcohol content.

And let’s think about how the events of that night were first reported, in one of the Williamsburg newspapers:
On Monday the 22d instant a very elegant entertainment was given at the Raleigh tavern by the inhabitants of this city, to celebrate the anniversary of that date which gave birth to GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON, Commander in Chief of the United States, the saviour of his country, and the brave asserter of the rights and liberties of mankind.
Given the private recounting by a participant, that newspaper item looks like an attempt to sweep the whole thing under the rug.

Finally, let’s think of how Gen. Washington would have reacted if he’d heard the story of this behavior in his honor. Wouldn’t he have been proud?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

“It was thought proper to enliven the occasion by discharges of cannon”

Yesterday I quoted a 1779 newspaper from Williamsburg, Virginia, briefly describing an “elegant entertainment” in honor of Gen. George Washington on the 22nd of that February.

Decades later, in 1835, the Southern Literary Messenger published a longer, franker account of the same event:
We are permitted by RICHARD RANDOLPH, ESQ. to publish the following extract, from a Journal kept by his father, the late David Meade Randolph, when a Student at William & Mary College in 1779 under the patronage of PROFESSOR [Robert] ANDREWS. It is a curious anecdote and will be read with interest.

Washington’s Birth Night. On the 22d February, 1779, the students of William & Mary College, and most of the respectable inhabitants of Williamsburg, prepared a subscription paper for celebrating Washington’s birth night; and the pleasure of presenting it, was confided to certain students immediately under the patronage of Professor Andrews.

Governor [Patrick] Henry was first waited on, and offered the paper: he refused his signature! “He could not think of any kind of rejoicing at a time when our country was engaged in war, with such gloomy prospects.” Dudley Digges [1729-1790], and Bolling Starke [1733-1788], members of the Council, were both waited on by the same persons, and received less courteous denials, and similar excuses.

The ball, nevertheless, was given at the Raleigh. Colonel [James] Innis [1754-1798], more prominent than any other member of the association, directed its proceedings. It was thought proper to enliven the occasion by discharges of cannon. There were two pieces at the shop of Mr. [Josias?] Moody that had lately been mounted. There was a Captain commanding a company of soldiers, under the orders of Governor Henry; but the cannon were under no other care or authority at the time, than that of Mr. Moody the mechanic. Colonel Innis, with a party seconded by Colonel [William] Finnie [1739-1804], brought the two pieces before the door of the Raleigh. On the way from the shop to the Raleigh, not two hundred yards, Colonel Innis saw Captain Digges passing up the street. Whilst the party concerned were collecting powder, and preparing for firing, Lieutenant [William?] Vaughan appeared before the Raleigh with a platoon, demanding possession of the cannon. He was carried in; took some punch; and said that he was ordered by Captain Digges to take away the pieces, by force, if they were not surrendered peaceably. This was refused. Vaughan repeated his orders: He was prevailed upon to return to his quarters, and report to Capt. Digges. Captain Digges waited on the Governor, and reported the state of things; and soliciting instructions how to proceed. The Governor referred Captain Digges to his own judgment.
Southern gentlemen! Cannon! Punch! Surely this disagreement will be resolved through rational discussion unaffected by questions of relative honor and masculinity.

TOMORROW: So how did this evening turn out?

[Gov. Patrick Henry observes the proceedings above.]

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Washington’s Birthday Observed in Virginia

Around about Washington’s Birthday in 2013, Boston 1775 ran a few postings that were, well, about Washington’s Birthday. They quoted descriptions of celebrations from the middle of the Revolutionary War, the earliest in 1779 in Milton.

All those celebrations took place on 11 February, which was the date on the British calendar when George Washington was born. However, by the end of the century, with some prodding from his secretary Tobias Lear, most Americans had switched to celebrating on 22 February, that same day’s date on the Gregorian calendar. The British Empire had made the shift when Washington was a young man.

An old newspaper clipping quoting Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman mentioned another celebration of Washington’s birthday in 1779, this one on 22 February, eleven days later. I wondered if that date was solid or had simply been attached to accord with later tradition. Colonial Williamsburg historian Taylor Stoermer found me the contemporaneous article in Dixon and Nicolson’s Virginia Gazette:
WILLIAMSBURG, February 26.

On Monday the 22d instant [i.e., of this month] a very elegant entertainment was given at the Raleigh tavern by the inhabitants of this city, to celebrate the anniversary of that date which gave birth to GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON, Commander in Chief of the United States, the saviour of his country, and the brave asserter of the rights and liberties of mankind.
Thus, in early 1779 Americans in Massachusetts and Virginia were both starting to celebrate Gen. Washington’s birthday publicly (as they had previously celebrated the king’s birthday). But they hadn’t settled on the proper date. Eventually the Virginia position won out.

TOMORROW: What happened in Williamsburg that night.

[The photo above shows Colonial Williamsburg’s rebuilt Raleigh Tavern.]

Friday, February 21, 2014

Elizabeth Canning of Connecticut

Elizabeth Canning was a nineteen-year-old houseservant when she disappeared in London in January 1753. She was gone for a month, returning dirty, bleeding, and missing her stays. On recovering, she described being kidnapped by gypsies while coming home from relatives and held captive under pressure to become a prostitute.

The novelist and playwright Henry Fielding investigated Canning’s case in his capacity as a magistrate. In February he accused several individuals of holding Canning captive and stealing her stays; the latter was actually the more serious crime under British law because theft could bring the death penalty.

Crowds mobbed the courthouse during the ensuing trial, reportedly frightening away witnesses ready to testify the defendants were nowhere near the village where Canning said she’d been held. The verdict came in guilty, with one woman sentenced to hang.

One of the judges, with the delightful name of Sir Crisp Gascoyne, found Canning’s story improbable and her supporters dislikable, so he decided to investigate further. He found more witnesses to exonerate the accused and lots of holes in Canning’s testimony. In March, Gascoyne indicted the young woman for perjury. George II remanded the death penalty (there were many more death sentences in Georgian England than actual executions), though the defendants remained in prison.

Over the next several months, Canning lay low, and the British press and bar divided into two camps. Both Gascoyne and Fielding published pamphlets about the case. Some of Canning’s witnesses recanted, others were indicted for perjury. People’s prejudices about class, ethnicity, religion, and gender all came out, and of course the arguments turned personal. The closest analogue in our time is the Tawana Brawley case of 1987-1988.

In the spring of 1754 Canning presented herself at Old Bailey to be tried for perjury. Dozens of witnesses testified on both sides, though no one answered the question of where the defendant had been in January 1753. The court finally decided Canning had lied under oath and sentenced her to a short imprisonment followed by exile. Canning agreed to emigrate to the Connecticut colony as an indentured servant. She continued to have devoted supporters.

Canning arrived in America in late 1754 and took up residence with Elisha Williams in Wethersfield. Williams’s career had included being a town minister, rector of Yale College, both chaplain and colonel of the colony’s regiment, and a lawyer, judge, and political representative. Theologically Williams appears to have been an early “New Light.” Canning didn’t work for him for long, however, because he died in 1755.

In late 1756 Elizabeth married a local man named John Treat, and their first child arrived seven months later. They had three more children before Elizabeth died unexpectedly in 1773. The Connecticut Courant in nearby Hartford noted the passing of “Mrs. Elizabeth Treat,…formerly the famous Elizabeth Canning.”

The couple’s oldest child, Joseph Canning Treat, joined the Continental Army in 1777 and served until 1783. Later he received a pension. Thus, members of the Sons of the American Revolution and Daughters of the American Revolution could be descended from the notorious convict Elizabeth Canning.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Listening Closely to Elizabeth Parsons

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography podcast doesn’t have an exciting format—it consists of professional readings of O.D.N.B. entries. But the podcast producers obviously like picking out quirky subjects to share with listeners.

I recently caught the life story of Elizabeth Parsons (download), a teen-aged girl in London who became the focus of a supernatural mystery in 1762. Eventually Horace Walpole, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Lord Mansfield all came into her story, which is better known as the tale of the Cock Lane Ghost or Scratching Fanny.

The cartoon about the case above, available through Wikipedia, notes several famous examples of “English Credulity” in the eighteenth century, including the man who advertised that he would jump into a bottle, the woman who claimed to have given birth to rabbits, and alleged kidnapping victim Elizabeth Canning.

After her moment of fame, the O.D.N.B. reports, Elizabeth Parsons got on with her life, married, and died in 1807.

TOMORROW: And Elizabeth Canning?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

St. Michael’s Lectures in Marblehead

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Marblehead has announced the first three lectures in its
Tercentenary Celebration.

On Wednesday, 26 February, Judy Anderson will speak about “Marblehead: 1714”, the year that church was erected. Her illustrated talk will discuss community and social life of the period, including how Marblehead residents dressed and furnished their houses. She’ll describe the many domestic and public buildings built in the seaport town in the early 1700s. Formerly curator of Marblehead’s Jeremiah Lee Mansion, Judy is author of Glorious Splendor: The 18th-Century Wallpapers in the Jeremiah Lee Mansion.

Robert Booth’s Tuesday, 11 March, lecture is titled “Who Filled the Pews in St. Michael’s Church: 1714-1750?” Booth, author of Death of an Empire: The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City, will discuss the Anglicans in a town with a Congregationalist majority. Who chose to belong to Marblehead’s poorest and smallest congregation? Why did they do so, and what was their place in a community evolving from a depressed fishing town to a wealthy seaport?

On Wednesday, 30 April, architect Edward O. Nilsson will discuss “The Architecture of St. Michael’s: English and Dutch Antecedents.” Nilsson’s visual essay will explore possible 17th-century English and Dutch antecedents of the church, which is unique in American ecclesiastical architecture. The presentation will also look at 19th-century modifications to the building fabric that renewed the worship environment to the liturgical practices of the day.

More events are coming up.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

“African American Stories” in Medford, 19 Feb.

Tomorrow evening, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford will host an illustrated talk by Jennifer Pustz titled “Uncovering African American Stories at Historic New England.”

Historic New England was founded in 1910 as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and it was about as Yankee an organization as one could imagine. But people of African descent have been part of New England life for nearly four centuries, and they lived and worked at many of the sites Historic New England preserves. The organization has been doing great work expanding beyond its initial scope.

The description of the talk elaborates:
Though too often hidden, the contributions of African Americans, enslaved and free, are important to understanding the history of New England. The story of Prince Sayward of York, Maine, who fought in the American Revolution, and that of Cuff Gardner, a free African American who worked at Rhode Island’s Casey Farm at the turn of the nineteenth century, reveal new aspects of daily life at these sites. These stories are about labor, but also about these individuals’ participation in the fight for freedom and in such uniquely New England traditions as “Negro Elections.”
Pustz is museum historian at Historic New England and author of Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. She has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa.

This talk will begin on Wednesday evening at 7:30. It’s free to Royall House members, $5 for others. There’s on-street parking in that neighborhood of Medford, and the museum is also located on the 96 and 101 bus routes.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Seeing “Whites of Their Eyes” Everywhere and Nowhere

After Liz Covart tweeted about my post tracing a variation of “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” to Israel Putnam, I had an interesting chat about the quotation on Twitter with Alexander Rose, author of Washington’s Spies.

We agree that it’s unlikely Putnam coined the phrase in 1775, that probably many officers in the British Empire had said such words to many infantrymen and sailors. That seems even more likely given yesterday’s quotation credited to Adm. Richard Howe in 1794, which hints that the phrase had already become linked (at least in Englishmen’s minds) to “the Old English way of fighting.”

But if the quote was really so common, I wonder, why doesn’t it appear in several British or American sources before 1794? I’ve searched in all the databases I have access to, including Google Books, books on Archive.org, Readex’s Archive of Americana, Founders Online, and British History Online. Using those resources let me push back the publication date as far as I have. I’ve found the phrase “whites of their eyes” in other eighteenth-century contexts—medical, veterinary, even religious—but not military.

Many modern books and articles credit particular British military officers with saying some variation on “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” at specific battles in the mid-1700s. But those statements don’t appear in print until the mid-1800s, after the phrase had already become famous in American history.

For example, Gen. Sir Andrew Agnew is said to have told his troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 not to fire “till they saw the white of their een.” But I can’t find a written report of Agnew saying those words before Thomas Maccrie published The Memoirs of Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw about a descendant in 1850. (That quotation evolved into “Dinna fire till ye see the whites o’ their e’en!” by the time of The Agnews of Lochnaw in 1864. Curiously, in the April 1841 United Service Magazine a veteran officer put the words “Dinna fire, men, till ye see the wheights of their eyes” into the mouth of Lt.-Col. William Gordon of the 50th Regiment during the Peninsula War against Napoleon.)

In January 1806 The Gentleman’s Magazine published a letter from “W.P.” crediting Capt. Robert Faulknor of the Royal Navy with saying, “My boys, hold hard, I’ll tell you when to fire; let us see the whites of their eyes first.” That was supposedly in 1761 during a fight between the Bellona and the French Courageux. Of course, forty-five years elapsed between the battle and the letter, which offered no other information to back up its statement. Did anyone record Faulknor’s words at the time? Were they the inspiration for Adm. Howe?

Wikipedia says Gen. James Wolfe (shown above) gave an order about “whites of their eyes” during the attack on Quebec of 1759. But its citation for that order is a book from 1960. Wolfe got a huge amount of press in colonial America after that battle. His orders and subordinates’ battle reports were widely reprinted. So why can’t we find an eighteenth-century source for such an order?

Of course, as more printed materials, especially British periodicals, are digitized, the key words could pop up in a mid-1700s publication. They could even be visible now, but hidden by imperfect scanning and transcription, variations in wording, or dialect like the Scottish variations above. But so far they’ve eluded me.

I’m not saying that lack of evidence means no eighteenth-century British military officer told his men, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” or the like. In fact, there’s a strong argument that because the phrase pops up in different military sources around 1800 it had probably spread orally before then. But if we credit those words to a particular man at a particular time, we should have solid evidence for that attribution, not just a claim made decades later.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Old English “Whites of their Eyes”?

On 1 June 1794, the Royal Navy fought a fleet of French warships in the eastern Atlantic, an action that became known (in Britain, anyway) as “the Glorious First of June.”

There are two connections between this fight and America. First, the French warships were escorting a grain convoy from the U.S. of A. to Revolutionary France, and Britain wanted to interrupt that supply.

Second, the British commander was Adm. Richard Howe, by then Earl Howe (shown above), who with his brother Gen. Sir William Howe had once commanded the British forces in North America.

Because that battle was so close to London, before the month was out the the Gentleman’s Magazine published a detailed account of the action dated 14 June from “a Naval Correspondent of high Rank.” Among his comments:
Never was so much havock, and so complete a victory, gained in so short a time. Earl Howe plainly convinced the Sans culottes that he could yet shew them the Old English way of fighting, “not to fire before he could see the whites of their eyes.” The crews of the ships that sunk all perished; a fine gang for Old Davy indeed!
This presents an interesting foil to the report that I quoted yesterday, about Gen. Israel Putnam saying he’d given an order at Bunker Hill for his soldiers not to fire until they could see the whites of their enemies’ eyes. In between when Putnam reportedly made that claim (before he died in 1790) and when it appeared in print (in 1800), a British commander was quoted as using the same phrase. To add to the irony, Admiral Howe’s brother had commanded the troops facing Putnam in 1775.

The Gentleman’s Magazine correspondent suggested that holding fire till you see the white of their eyes was “the Old English way of fighting” (presumably as opposed to new-fangled, Revolutionary, Sans culottes methods). One might therefore expect to find a lot of earlier uses of the phrase in British military sources. But I haven’t turned up any. An equivalent phrase is documented in German sources in the mid-1700s, but that’s not “the Old English way of fighting,” is it?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Solid Source for the “Whites of Their Eyes” Tradition

“Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” is the most famous quotation arising from the Battle of Bunker Hill. Authors have debated which American officer said it, which has been another way of debating who was in command. In recent decades most historians have treated those words as a legend, or at least a tradition that can’t be verified.

That tradition doesn’t benefit from the fact that for a long time the earliest chronicle known to quote the line was the biography of George Washington by Mason Weems, whose tales of cherry trees and praying in the snow at Valley Forge have become exemplars of American mythology.

This month I got lucky in some digital databases and found an earlier source for the “whites of their eyes” tradition, with a clear chain of transmission from the battlefield.

The story starts with David Humphreys’s publication of An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major-General Israel Putnam in 1788. That book’s description of Bunker Hill does not include the quotation. It also suggested that Dr. Joseph Warren was directing the New England forces in his new capacity as a Massachusetts major general.

The Rev. Josiah Whitney (1731-1824), minister in Brooklyn, Connecticut, followed that up with his most famous parishioner, Israel Putnam. The retired general said that Warren had come onto the battlefield as a volunteer, not a commissioned officer, and didn’t presume to take command. Putnam died in 1790, and Whitney described their conversation in a footnote to his sermon A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of the Honorable Major-General Israel Putnam, of Brooklyn.

Ten years later, the Rev. Elijah Parish (1762-1825) of Byfield, Massachusetts, published An Oration, Delivered at Byfield, February 22d, 1800, the Day of National Mourning for the Death of General George Washington. On page 15 he added his own footnote describing the Battle of Bunker Hill. Parish, who originally came from Lebanon, Connecticut, said he’d discussed that battle with his older colleague Whitney.

Parish wrote:

Putnam was the commanding officer of the party, who went upon the hill the evening before the action: he commanded in the action: : he harangued his men as the British first advanced, charged them to reserve their fire, till they were near, ‘till they could see the white of their eyes,’ were his words.—At the second assault he commended their former calmness, assured them “they would now do much better,” and directed them “to aim at the officers.” They obeyed. The fire was tremendous. ‘My God,’ said said Putnam, in telling the story, ‘I never saw such a carnage of the human race.’

These things he related to the Reverend Mr. Whitney, his Minister, by whose permission they are now published.
Parish repeated this story in a history textbook he cowrote with the Rev. Dr. Jedidiah Morse, A Compendious History of New England (1804).

Thus, we have a clear line of transmission for the quotation:
  • Gen. Israel Putnam reminiscing to Rev. Josiah Whitney, probably between 1788 and 1790.
  • Whitney passing on an interesting anecdote to Rev. Elijah Parish between 1790 and 1800.
  • Parish publishing the story twice in the early 1800s, enough to bring it to the attention of the Rev. Mason Weems by 1810.
That doesn’t mean Putnam coined the “white of their eyes” phrase, but it’s more likely that he said those words at Bunker Hill, just as a few veterans reported later. Eventually the phrase evolved into the now-famous “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.”

TOMORROW: When Howe said “not to fire before he could see the whites of their eyes.”

Friday, February 14, 2014

Grace Under Pressure

The following item appeared in a bunch of American newspapers toward the end of 1768, possibly in a British gazette the next year, and finally in some British publications about fifty years later.

But its first appearance appears to have been in the Boston Evening-Post dated 28 Nov 1768:
Extract of a letter from New York, Nov. 17.

“We have here a new Species of Creature called a Dutchess—Some time ago a Milliner’s Prentice of this Town was to wait on the Dutchess, but fearful of committing some Error in her Address she went to consult with a Friend about it, who told her that when she came before the Dutchess she must say her Grace to her,

accordingly away went the Girl, and being introduced, after a very low Curtesy, she said For what we are going to receive the Lord make us thankful; to which the Dutchess answered, Amen.”——
The 1 Sept 1768 New-York Journal passed on a rumor than the Duchess of Gordon was on board a ship to New York. That’s the only item I could find suggesting that a duchess was actually in the city that year. The Duchess of Gordon was a famous beauty, a wit, and a leader in fashion who had only nine fingers. There’s no evidence she actually visited America; in fact, in that month she was about to have her first child. But I’m showing her picture with her oldest son anyway.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Judge Jacobs and His Dinah

Reading about Harvey Amani Whitfield’s new book on slavery lingering in Vermont even after being banned in the new republic’s 1777 constitution led me to this Vermont Today article from 2006 about a court case in the early 1800s.

All the parties agreed that Stephen Jacobs had bought a woman named Dinah as a slave in 1783, the same year he moved to Windsor, Vermont. A Yale-educated lawyer, Jacobs prospered eventually became a member of Vermont’s supreme court. As for Dinah, by the end of the century she had become “infirm, sick, and blind,” needing support.

But who had the responsibility to provide that support? New England towns had funds for their poor citizens, but Windsor felt that Dinah should be Jacobs’s charge alone. He insisted that he would pay his share of taxes for her support but no more.

In 1800 Jacobs’s lawyers got the case thrown out on the ground that the deputy sheriff who had served the action was also a citizen of Windsor and therefore had an interest in the case. The town appealed.

In 1802 the Windsor selectmen’s attorney argued that Jacobs had “discarded” Dinah two years earlier when she was no longer of value to him. Jacobs’s lawyers responded that “several of the inhabitants of Windsor…[had] inveigled her from her master’s family and service by the syren songs of liberty and equality” and that she had “spent the vigour of her life with these people.” The record is unclear about when that happened and how long Dinah had been away from Jacobs’s household.

The judge who decided the dilemma was Boston native Royall Tyler. He convinced his colleagues that the 1783 bill of sale for Dinah carried no legal weight under Vermont’s constitution and therefore the town could not introduce it as evidence that Jacobs legally owned the woman. No evidence, no case. I can’t help but get the sense that the state judiciary was looking for ways to decide in favor of their colleague.

Windsor paid for Dinah’s board in different houses over the next few years, for her medical care and burial. However, town records continued to refer to her as “Judge Jacob’s Dinah.”

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Long Did Slavery Linger in Vermont?

Last month the Seven Days alternative newsweekly in Burlington reported on Harvey Amani Whitfield’s research on remnants of slavery in Vermont, which we New Englanders usually consider to be the foundation of our anti-slavery tradition:
Whitfield’s research explodes the myth that the abolitionist provision in the Republic of Vermont’s 1777 constitution ended slavery in the territory. The ban on holding black adults as slaves was indeed the first of its kind in the New World and launched Vermont’s progressive tradition, Whitfield acknowledges. But, he adds, an unknown but significant number of black Vermonters remained in bondage several years after slavery was supposedly prohibited.

“In fact, the state is home not only to a rich abolitionist history, but also to the more troublesome story of slavery,” Whitfield writes in The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.

Limiting the ban to African males older than 21 and females over the age of 18 meant children could lawfully remain enslaved in Vermont for as long as 20 years after the constitution was promulgated. But plenty of adult Vermonters of African descent also did not gain freedom because the 1777 decree went unenforced, Whitfield points out.

Many residents of what would become the State of Vermont in 1791 apparently had no problem with neighbors who continued to hold slaves, Whitfield suggests. Those defying the emancipation initiative included some of “the most respectable inhabitants of the state,” the historian observes in his book.

Among this slave-holding and lawless elite were Vermont Supreme Court Judge Stephen Jacob and Levi Allen, described by Whitfield as “Ethan’s troublesome brother.” And nearly 60 years after the supposed abolition of slavery in Vermont, Ethan Allen’s daughter, Lucy Caroline Hitchcock [1768-1842], returned to Burlington from Alabama in possession of two slaves—a mother and child. Hitchcock continued to enslave this pair for six years in the Queen City.

Ethan Allen himself may also have been a slave owner, Whitfield suggested in an interview. “I can’t say this will be proven, but he does refer to having servants, and in the English Atlantic world references to ‘servants’ often means ‘slaves,’” Whitfield said.
Whitfield is a professor at the University of Vermont, and his book is published by the Vermont Historical Society. Whitfield is speaking at Phoenix Books in Burlington on 13 March.

TOMORROW: Stephen Jacobs and “a certain Negro woman by name of Dinah.”

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Mysteries of Ezekiel Russell’s Wife

I’ve been writing about printer Ezekiel Russell’s wife, who, according to Isaiah Thomas’s History of Printing, was a great help to him in his business. Indeed, as I quoted yesterday, the first edition of that book said she learned the printing business and wrote memorial verses for broadsides.

Since 2009 I’ve been calling that woman Penelope Russell because that’s what later printing historian Josiah Snow called her in 1847. But over the past few days I’ve realized that her name was Sarah Russell.

That’s clear from a series of documents:
  • The record of the marriage of Ezekiel Russell and Sarah Hood in Hampton, New Hampshire, on 7 Oct 1773.
  • Biographies of their oldest (surviving) child, Nathaniel Pope Russell, born in Danvers in 1779.
  • The births of two younger children in Boston in 1785 and 1787.
  • The baptisms of four younger children at Ezekiel Russell’s house by the minister of the Hollis Street Meetinghouse, all on one day in May 1787.
  • Real estate records from Boston in the 1780s and 1790s.
  • Ezekiel’s death notice in the 12 Sept 1796 Federal Orrery, and Sarah’s notice for administering his estate in the 7 Oct 1796 Massachusetts Mercury.
  • Sarah’s unusual listing as a printer in the 1798 Directory of Boston.
  • Sarah’s death notices in the 16 Oct 1806 Boston Gazette and 24 Oct 1806 Farmer’s Museum.
And then there’s this letter that a descendant has shared online, sent by Sarah’s mother from besieged Boston in January 1776 when the Russells were living in Salem.

So where did the name Penelope Russell come from? Was she just an error by Snow, repeated by later authors through to me? Or, since Waters linked her to the Censor, published in 1771-72, perhaps she was Russell’s first wife (though I haven’t found any other trace of her). If the latter, that could mean both of Russell’s wives were active in the printing house.

Another question: Bostonians didn’t go up to Hampton, New Hampshire, to be married by a Presbyterian minister unless they were eloping. What was the story behind the Russells’ marriage in 1773? Did they have any children in the mid-1770s? Why did they have four children baptized by a Congregationalist minister at their home in 1787, but not the oldest, Nathaniel Pope Russell? (If there was illness in the family, the baby survived, but I don’t know about the middle children.)

Monday, February 10, 2014

What Isaiah Thomas Wrote about Ezekiel Russell’s Wife

Back in 2009, I quoted the passsage above from Isaiah Thomas’s History of Printing in America (1874 edition) about Ezekiel Russell and his wife. I then added:
Josiah Snow’s [1847] account (quoted yesterday) credited those ballads to Penelope Russell herself, even saying she could compose them while she set the type. Perhaps Thomas’s phrase “A young woman who lived in Russell’s family” was a coy way of alluding to Penelope without pointing the finger directly. Or perhaps Ezekiel Russell’s struggling shop was kept afloat by the work of two young women instead of just one.
After I mentioned the Russells in my lecture on Friday, I checked out Thomas’s history again—but this time the original, 1810 edition. And here’s what Thomas first published.
So no wonder Josiah Snow thought Ezekiel Russell’s wife wrote those ballads—that’s exactly what Thomas’s book said. The “young woman” didn’t appear in print until decades later.

Thomas left a copy of his book with handwritten corrections at his American Antiquarian Society, which undertook to update and republish it. If that copy still exists, it could confirm if Thomas himself entered the revised information about the Russell printing house.

Given that Thomas and the Russells were both printing in Boston in the early 1770s, and that Thomas kept track of Ezekiel Russell in his movements to Salem, Danvers, and back to Boston, it seems odd for him not to know who wrote those tragical ballads. The passages also shift away from saying that Russell’s wife “made herself acquainted with the printing business,” leaving her just assisting.

That again raises the possibility that the mention of a “young woman” was a ruse designed to fit Mrs. Russell into a more traditional “help meet” model rather than a business partner writing for publication. The couple’s son, Nathaniel Pope Russell (1779-1848), became an important insurance broker in ante-bellum Boston. (In fact, his business records are at the American Antiquarian Society.) So the family may have wished for a more genteel portrait of their ancestress.

TOMORROW: More revisions about Ezekiel Russell’s wife.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

“A sad tale to relate”

Yesterday I noted a mistake I made in Reporting the Revolutionary War, saying that John Derby took the 28 Apr 1775 issue of the Salem Gazette to London to convince folks there that a war had broken out in New England.

Derby left Salem on 28 April, so he could have carried a copy of that day’s Salem Gazette—if there were one. But no copy of that issue exists.

It looks like printer Ezekiel Russell closed his newspaper only one issue into the war. He might have worried about economic disruptions and lack of supplies. He might have lost patronage; in Boston, friends of the royal government had paid him to put out the Censor, so folks in Salem could have seen him as a “Tory.”

But Russell was really an opportunist. He reissued his report on the first day of fighting as a broadside titled “A Bloody Butchery by the British Troops.” At the bottom was “A Funeral Elegy to the Imortal Memory” of the fallen militiamen, beginning:
Aid me ye nine! my muse assist,
A sad tale to relate,
When such a number of brave men
Met their unhappy fate.
At Lexington they met their foe
Completely all equip’d,
Their guns and swords made glit’ring show,
But their base scheme was nipp’d.
(Complete transcription of a later, inexact reprint here.)

TOMORROW: Who wrote that elegy?

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Footnotes on “Reporting the Battle of Lexington”

Last night’s talk at the Lexington Historical Society was fun, and I learned new stuff while preparing it.

For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston owns this John Smibert portrait of Samuel Pemberton painted in 1734 when he was eleven years old. Not too young to shave his head and wear a wig, however. In 1770, Pemberton was on the committee with James Bowdoin and Dr. Joseph Warren to prepare Boston’s official report on the Boston Massacre.

The main thesis of my talk was that the Massachusetts Patriots, and Warren in particular, learned from that episode in 1770 that they could be scooped by royal officials if they didn’t send their version of events to London quickly. So after the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, Dr. Warren and his Massachusetts Provincial Congress colleagues worked fast and commissioned the Derby brothers of Salem to speed their documents to London ahead of Gen. Thomas Gage’s dispatches.

In writing about that voyage in Reporting the Revolutionary War, I said that John Derby sailed with issues of the Salem Gazette dated 21 and 28 Apr 1775. I was relying on my notes on Robert S. Rantoul’s article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections for 1900, “The Cruise of the ‘Quero’.” As shown here, Rantoul wrote that Derby “had with him copies of the Salem Gazette for April 21st and 25th.” The Salem Gazette, like almost all colonial newspapers, was a weekly, so issue dates had to be seven days apart. I figured either Rantoul or I had made a mistake in our notes and “25th” should be “28th.”

Before my talk Todd Andrlik, chief author of Reporting the Revolutionary War, sent me an image from the 27-30 May 1775 London Chronicle showing a long quotation from the 25 April Essex Gazette, published up the coast from Salem in Newburyport. So that was one of the newspapers Derby had brought to convince people in London there really had been a battle. I should have corrected Rantoul not on the date but on the name of the paper: Derby sailed with the 21 April Salem Gazette and the 25 April Essex Gazette.

Friday, February 07, 2014

When Did London Learn of the Boston Massacre?

Another aspect of my talk at the Lexington Depot tonight is how long it typically took for news to travel from Boston to London.

We can measure that time by looking at the spread of news of the Boston Massacre, which took place on the evening of 5 Mar 1770. According to the 21 June 1770 Boston News-Letter, the first word about the shooting on King Street had reached London on 22 April. Government ministers met to discuss the situation the next day. So if a ship had sailed out of Boston harbor on 6 March, it needed 47 days to cross the Atlantic.

In addition, the issue of the London Chronicle dated 26-28 April and published on the latter date included a letter from Boston dated 12 March. Again, that totals to 47 days.

That separation in space and time was crucial in how the London government managed its North American colonies. By the time colonial officials saw the ministry’s response to some news from America, at least three months and possibly four had passed since it had happened, meaning the situation could have changed drastically. Orders from London were usually expressed in contingent and conditional terms, not just because of upper-class British politesse but because the ministers knew they had to give their appointees enough leeway to adjust policy to events on the ground.

I don’t think we should imagine those officials sitting around and moping that they couldn’t communicate more quickly, however. The British imperial communications system was one of the fastest and more dependable humans had ever come up with. Officials and merchants could rely on regular shipments of mail and news. Three thousand miles of ocean in just forty-seven days!

However, after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress wanted to send the news faster than usual. They wanted their version of events to be the first to reach Britain. At tonight’s talk, I’ll discuss why and what steps the Patriots took toward that goal.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

“Undoubted intelligence of hostilities being begun at Boston”

The 28 Apr 1775 Pennsylvania Mercury newspaper contained several letters about the fighting in Massachusetts nine days before. One that had just arrived in Philadelphia the previous evening began:
Hartford, April 23, 1775.

Dear Sir,

These are to inform you, that we have undoubted intelligence of hostilities being begun at Boston by the regular troops; the truth of which we are assured divers ways, and especially by Mr. Adams the post [rider]; the particulars of which, as nigh as I can recollect, are as follow:

General [Thomas] Gage, last Tuesday night, draughted out about 1000 or 1200 of his best troops in a secret manner, which he embarked on board transports, and carried and landed at Cambridge that night, and early Wednesday morning by day break they marched up to Lexington, where a number of the inhabitants were exercising before breakfast as usual, about 30 in number, upon whom the regulars fired without the least provocation about 15 minutes, without a single shot from our men, who retreated as fast as possible, in which fire they killed 6 of our men, and wounded several, from thence they proceeded to Concord;

on the road thither, they fired at, and killed a man on horseback, went to the house where Mr. [John] Hancock lodged, who, with Samuel Adams, luckily got out of their way by secret and speedy intelligence from Paul Revere, who is now missing, and nothing heard of him since;

when they searched the house for Mr. Hancock, and Adams, and not finding them there, killed the woman of the house and all the children, and set fire to the house; from thence they proceeded on their way to Concord, firing at, and killing hogs, geese, cattle and every thing that came in their way, and burning houses. 
The letter’s description continued through the action at Concord, the march of the British reinforcement, the capture of prisoners, and many other events. Interesting events like “the death of General [Frederick] Haldimand,” Lord Percy being “burnt with other dead bodies, by the troops in a barn,” and the 300-man British contingent at Marshfield “all killed and taken prisoners.”

Alexander McDougall, one of the Patriot leaders in New York, had endorsed this document as an accurate copy of the original letter. Sharing and copying such letters was a common way to spread news in a crisis.

Of course, much of the information in this letter was completely false. Ironically, it’s one of the few public reports of Paul Revere’s part in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but he’s lost in a great fog of unfounded accusations about the royal troops and unfounded boasts about the damage the provincials had done.

Tomorrow night I’ll speak to the Lexington Historical Society about the Massachusetts Patriots’ efforts to spread news of the events of 19 Apr 1775 and win public sympathy for their actions. I’m not sure whether this letter would count in that campaign as a success or a failure.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

This Article on Samuel Adams Will Change Your Life

This morning’s article at the online Journal of the American Revolution bears the reprehensible clickbait title “You Won’t Believe How Samuel Adams Recruited Sons of Liberty.” And I wrote it.

In fact, thinking of that title, at first as a joke, helped me figure out how to pull together some Boston 1775 postings and comments from 2006 into a new article. I did a lot of rewriting, but I decided to stick with the opening that had gotten me started.

Todd Andrlik at the J.A.R. keeps track of what articles get the most clicks, out of curiosity and wanting to serve the readership and not because of advertising. I’m curious to see if that title might have any effect. Here and on the Boston 1775 Facebook page, the postings that prompt the most clicks and comments often aren’t the ones that share new sources or try to break new ground in interpretation. Rather, it’s those that address current topics like the use of Revolutionary War history in today’s politics or the historical inaccuracies in Sleepy Hollow. Of course, I probably respond the same way on other sites.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Memory of Samuel Ely

For the last two days I’ve quoted advertisements from Connecticut newspapers spelling out a dispute between militia colonel William Williams of Wilmington, Vermont, and the former minister Samuel Ely. That wasn’t the last dispute that Ely got into.

In April 1782, while living in Conway, Massachusetts, Ely led a crowd that kept the Hampshire County court closed, just as similar crowds had done in 1774 and throughout the war. Though Massachusetts had a new constitution, Ely and the scores of men who supported him didn’t think the system was fair to poor farmers. Ely is described as picking up a stick and shouting, “Come on, my brave boys, we’ll go to the woodpiles and get clubs enough to knock their grey wigs off!” State authorities arrested Ely, but a crowd of over a hundred men broke him out of the Northampton jail.

Ely returned to Wilmington, Vermont, for refuge, only to find the same issues in that little nation. By the end of the year Ely was convicted for saying, “The state of Vermont is a damned state, and the act for the purpose of raising ten shillings upon every hundred acres of land is a cursed act, and they that made it are a cursed body of men.” Vermont officials happily gave Ely back to Massachusetts, which locked him up for a while.

After winning his release, Ely seems to have laid low, or perhaps he just got lost in the crowds of the Shays’ Rebellion. But he resurfaced in Maine in 1790, and was soon leading a settlers’ campaign against big landowner Henry Knox. While hiding from legal authorities he managed to publish pamphlets with titles like The Unmasked Nabob of Hancock County; or, The Scales Dropt from the Eyes of the People and The Deformity of a Hideous Monster, Discovered in the Province of Maine, by a Man in the Woods, Looking after Liberty. Ely finally died in the late 1790s.

In short, Samuel Ely was a radical organizer, constantly fighting against economic inequality according to his interpretation of Christian scripture. He wasn’t the sort of Revolutionary whom America’s wealthy liked to remember.

In Travels in New-York and New-England, Timothy Dwight (1752-1817, shown above) called Ely “the great fomenter of discontent, confusion, and sedition, in Massachusetts,” and wrote, “The remainder of his life was a tissue, woven of nothing but guilt and infamy.” Dwight had the most to say about Ely’s early work as a minister in Somers, Connecticut:
Ely was an unlicensed and disorderly preacher, and could not obtain an ordination. His character even at that time, although less known and probably less corrupted than it was afterwards, was yet so stained, as to render it impossible for him to enter the ministry. But he possessed the spirit, and so far as his slender abilities would permit the arts, of a demagogue in an unusual degree. He was voluble, vehement in address, bold, persevering, active, brazen-faced in wickedness, and under the accusation and proof of his crimes would still wear a face of serenity, and make strong professions of piety. At the same time he declared himself, everywhere, the friend of the suffering and oppressed, and the champion of violated rights. Wherever he went, he industriously awakened the jealousy of the humble and ignorant against all men of superior reputation, as haughty, insolent, and oppressive. Jealousy he knew to be, among human passions, the most easily and certainly kindled. Both his character and his circumstances were in his own view deplorable; and he felt therefore, that he had nothing to lose beside his neck; a loss too uncommon, in this state, to be seriously dreaded, except in the case of murder. Of course, he undauntedly applied himself to any wickedness, which promised him either consequence or bread.
In fact, Ely was qualified to preach as a graduate of Yale, the same college where Dwight was president for twenty-two years. Dwight was an arch-conservative of early America, so of course he hated Ely’s preaching against the upper class. Despite the omissions and obvious political leaning of Dwight’s statement, later authors repeated his judgment on Ely.

In 1858 Benjamin H. Hall’s History of Eastern Vermont described Samuel Ely’s military career this way:
A bold, but rash and impetuous man, he had served in the battle of Bennington as a volunteer, and being connected with no company or regiment had fought without the advice or direction of any person. He had been court-martialed after the action on account of his singular conduct in retaining a large amount of valuable plunder, but had been honorably discharged on proof that he had taken only such articles as he had won in his own independent method of warfare.
That account said nothing about Ely commanding of the Wilmington militiamen after their colonel had left, as three of them later wrote. Instead, it painted Ely as unable to get along with any group, and getting away with looting on that account. (Hall had only good things to say about Ely’s accuser William Williams, though he had to note that Williams had ended up moving to Canada.)

Another Yale-connected author actually concealed some favorable information about Ely. In Yale and Her Honor-roll in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1888), Henry P. Johnston quoted the 1778 advertisements from Ely’s supporters in Vermont, but incompletely. He left out the part about Ely leading the Wilmington militia and the Vermont men’s denunciations of Williams for plundering himself. Johnston did state: “After the war Mr. Ely agitated socialistic views, got into trouble, defied the authorities in Massachusetts, was denounced as a ‘mobber,’ and arrested.”

It wasn’t until the Depression that historians began to recognize Samuel Ely as a political leader, albeit an unsuccessful one. In 1932 the New England Quarterly published an article by Robert E. Moody titled “Samuel Ely: Forerunner of Shays.” In 1986 the Maine Historical Society Quarterly published Alan Taylor’s “The Disciples of Samuel Ely: Settler Resistance against Henry Knox on the Waldo Patent, 1785-1801.” And now the new Massachusetts Historical Review offers Shelby M. Balik’s “‘Persecuted in the Bowels of a Free Republic’: Samuel Ely and the Agrarian Theology of Justice, 1768-1797.”

Monday, February 03, 2014

Samuel Ely and the “Plunder Master General”

It took several months for Samuel Ely to respond to the accusation that militia colonel William Williams lobbed down at him from Vermont after the Battle of Bennington. But when he did, Ely had some impressive allies on his side.

On 13 Nov 1778, the Connecticut Gazette of New London published two new messages from Vermont:
Benington, Sep. 5, 1778.

These Certify, that Mr. Samuel Ely, the Preacher, who [was] in the two bloody Battles at Benington, and behaved with the greatest Honor, Valiantry and Courage in both Actions, and all the other Accounts did, when desired, appear before the Court of Enquiry, and made a handsome Defence relative to the Plunder he had taken; as he said what he had taken was at the point of the Sword, as a Volunteer for his groaning, bleeding Country; and he further said, he supported himself and lived upon his own Money while in Camp, and was at no charge to his Country. And the Court being fully satisfied with what he said and what he did, they never ordered Mr. Ely to be advertised, nor stigmatized, to my certain Knowledge, as I was both a Member and Clerk of that Court, at the same Time. This I solemnly declare as real Fact, and accordingly I request this to be published both by my own and Mr. Ely’s desire.

SAM ROBISON; Captain, and Clerk of that Court of Enquiry.

Wilmington, Sept. 11, 1788.
To the PUBLIC.

We the Committee of Safety, are very sorry we are obliged to inform the World, that Williams, who advertised Mr. Ely in Hartford Papers, after Benington Battle, should act such a dirty, scurrilous Part as to advertise Mr. Ely in the Name of the Court of Enquiry, when we are absolutely certain the Court never had it in their Hearts to do it, as appears by the Records of the Clerk and other good Evidence we have obtained; and what adds to the Guilt of Williams in his cruel and abusive Conduct towards Mr. Ely is his boldly and openly denying that he ever ordered Mr. Ely to be advertised, but as he did prove a Coward in leaving the Field in Time of Action, so Mr. Ely taking his Place and Command, the World will at once judge why he wickedly advertised Mr. Ely; We therefore declare that Williams whom the Soldiers universally called Plunder Master General, has acted like himself, and abused Mr. Ely without the least Cause or Reason; And as to Mr. Ely, we all know that General [John] Stark said, if he had five Thousand such Men as Mr. Ely, he would drive Burgoyne and his Army to the D___. Besides, we are sorry that Mr. Ely should be so treated by Williams and some others, when no Man could exert himself more for his distressed Country then he has done in various Instances.

Signed by the Committee of Safety for Wilmington, in Vermont State.

N.B. This we request to be printed in any of the Printing-Offices in Connecticut.
So according to those four men (whose names I confirmed are in Vermont records), Williams had neither a valid reason nor the authority to call for Ely’s arrest. And according to three of them, Williams had shirked his own duty as a militia officer during the Bennington campaign even though that meant forgoing his habitual opportunities for plunder.

In fact, if those Vermonters were telling the truth, the list of things Williams had accused Ely of stealing the year before while leading the Wilmington militia might actually have been items he would have taken for himself. (So no wonder Williams was so upset.)

TOMORROW: How this dispute has been treated in the history books.

[The image above is a latter-day portrait of Gen. John Stark.]