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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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Under the Cornerstone of the State House

The big Boston historical news this week was the discovery of a time capsule sealed in the cornerstone of the State House, laid in 1795. Or rather, the rediscovery of the eighteenth-century artifacts inside that capsule because they were previously found in 1855.

But let’s start at the beginning. The first news reports, such as this C.N.N. dispatch referred to “a time capsule believed buried by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.” My first guess was that a whole bunch of prominent Bostonians had attended the cornerstone-laying in 1795 and journalists scanning the list of attendees simply pulled out the two men who had become brand names.

But no, Adams and Revere really were the two most prominent dignitaries at the event on Independence Day in 1795. Adams was seventy-two years old and the governor of Massachusetts, having succeeded John Hancock two years earlier. Revere, for his part, had recently become Grand Master of Massachusetts’s Freemasons. Even though few of those Masons were really masons, they participated in a lot of stone-laying then.

Other notables at the event included the Rev. Peter Thacher, chaplain of the state senate; architect Charles Bulfinch; and builder/politician Thomas Dawes. Fifteen white horses, representing the fifteen states then in the U.S. of A., drew the cornerstone through the streets and up to Beacon Hill.

The 8 July 1795 Columbian Centinel reported that Adams and Revere placed a silver plate under the stone which said:
This Corner Stone of a Building, intended for the use of the Legislature, and Executive Branches of Government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esq., Governor of said Commonwealth.

Assisted by the Most Worshipful Paul Revere, Gr. Master, And Right Worshipful William Scollay, Dp. G. Master, The Grand Wardens and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.

On the 4th day of July, AN. DOM., 1795. A. L. 5795.

Being the XXth Anniversary of American Independence.
Note that the twentieth anniversary of independence would actually come a year later.

The main speaker that day was a young lawyer named George Blake (1769-1841), whose speech was printed and sold by Benjamin Edes. A Jeffersonian, Blake spoke about how Royal Navy ships were once again preying on American crews. He went on to serve in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature and as U.S. Attorney for the district from 1802 to 1829.

Gov. Adams’s brief remarks on the new building included:
May the superstructure be raised even to the top stone without any untoward accident and remain permanent as the everlasting mountains. May the principles of our excellent Constitution founded in nature and in the rights of man, be ably defended here. And may the same principles be deeply engraven on the hearts of all citizens and there be fixed unimpaired and in full vigor till time shall be no more.
I think the constitution Adams referred to was the state’s, not the federal; the state’s was more explicit about natural rights. As to “permanent as the everlasting mountains,” less than two decades later developers began to cut down the crest of Beacon Hill, as shown above. And then in August 1855 a construction crew dug up that corner of the State House to repair the foundation.

They discovered the silver plate set between two sheets of lead—along with some other objects that the 1795 newspaper hadn’t mentioned.

TOMORROW: An expanded time capsule.

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