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.

Follow by Email


Thursday, January 08, 2015

But Who’s Counting?

In all the coverage of the opening of the Massachusetts State House “time capsule” this week, including this Boston Globe story, I haven’t seen a discussion of the biggest mystery.

Not what the Globe called “an extra coin in the box,” beyond the inventory published in 1855.

Not which 1855 newspapers were folded inside, and whether they lean one way in the politics of that year.

No, why does the silver plate created for the original 1795 cornerstone ceremony call 4 July 1795 “the 20th Anniversary of American Independence,” as shown above?

The Columbian Centinel newspaper also called that date “the XXth Anniversary.”
And the 24 June Philadelphia Gazette called it “the XXth BIRTH-DAY OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE” in an item that several other newspapers picked up.

However, on 9 July the Boston Courier called the day “The XIXth ANNIVERSARY Of American Independence.” And other publications agreed with that way of counting years:

  • New York Argus, 10 July 1795: “Saturday last completed the XIXth year of American Independence.”
  • Gazette of the United States, 9 July 1795: “the Completion of the XIXth year of American Independence.”
  • The United States Almanac for the Year of Our Lord 1796, compiled by Gabriel Hutchins: “1796, being BISSEXTILE or LEAP-YEAR, and the XXth of American Independence, ’till 4th July.” 

So it looks like American printers hadn’t yet reached a consensus on what an “anniversary” meant—the beginning or start of a year.


Marc Shelikoff said...

Thank you for your excellent and informative blog.

I had similar thoughts as you after reading "20th anniversary." Also, notice how the word "Master" is spelled once with the long-s that looks like an "f" and once without. When I thought about those things after seeing the digital images, I realized that I'd thought about them before. I'd also seen that placement of Revere's and Adams's names before, and the memory of an image returned to me.

A (rough) tracing of this plaque exists somewhere, but I can't remember exactly where.

I'm fairly certain it was a tracing, but it may have been a drawing or a rubbing. The tracing must have been made in either 1795 or 1855. I saw it (or a digitized image of it) perhaps 6-10 years ago, but I forget the source. It was either on display at the Museum of Our National Heritage, at the State House, in a book, or online.

Yes, I know that doesn't narrow things down much. Online tools today are not helping me locate what I found by accident back then.

J. L. Bell said...

When this plate was created, printing was in the transition away from the long s, and, as you noticed, the engraving is inconsistent in how it uses that character. Most of the italic s's are short, but there's one long s in the first "Master."

I hadn't known about a drawing or tracing of the image. The Columbian Centinel newspaper printed the whole text, though not exactly. I'll keep my eye open for an image.

Garrett said...

Also interesting that they chose to use July 4 instead of July 2. Samuel should have known better having been there.

J. L. Bell said...

I think the July 2/July 4 argument was settled very early. Boston changed its oration date from 5 March to 4 July in 1783, as I recall. If the Congress wanted people to celebrate on 2 July, they should have published their proceedings more widely than their Declaration.

Byron DeLear said...

Great post! Also, nothing about the other conspicuous dating convention: "A.L. 5795" John have you found any other good descriptions of "Anno Lucis"?:

Anno Lucis (A.L.) This is Latin for “In the Year of Light”. The term is frequently used in Masonic procedure, and expresses a year that is 4,000 beyond Anno Domini (“The year of Our Lord”). There is a reason for this, of course. The date of the creation of the world is generally assumed to be 4,000 years before the birth of Our Lord, and the creation of the world saw the beginning of Light. (“Let there be Light. And there was Light.”) Dr. James Anderson, in his 1723 “Constitutions”, refers to the 4,000 year-advanced “Anno Lucis” as “The Year of Masonry” and the idea was adopted. That is why a Mason's Grand Lodge registration certificate has two dates recorded thereon, the Year of Light (or the Year of Masonry) and the accepted everyday calendar year (or the “Year of Our Lord”). So, therefore, if a person were made a Mason in 1955, this year (and the precise date) would appear on it,
as well as the Anno Lucis date, which would be 5955 and in Iowa the date on his 50 year certificate if he lost no time would be 6005. (See below.)

Marc Shelikoff said...

There's a good account of the 1855 unearthing and replacement at https://books.google.com/books?id=K_wqAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA367 .

I spoke briefly yesterday with the wonderful librarian at the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington (now called The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum). She ruled out the possibility that the tracing had been exhibited within the past several years, either at their museum or at the Massachusetts Freemasons Lodge downtown. We talked about a few other possibilities. Walking around the exhibits and then sleeping on it helped to jog my memory a little.

In '05-'06, I found and uploaded some images to Wikipedia related to Lexington and Concord. I wanted to find an image online of an old, on-site historical marker or statue placing Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock together during the night of April 18th/19th, 1775. I failed to do that. Some of the people reading this have probably looked for similar things. I'm about 80% confident in what follows:

Googling something similar to:

"Paul Revere" "John Hancock" "Samuel Adams" inscription

in '05/'06 led me eventually to a Masonic-related web page that contained a low quality image of a rough tracing of the plaque. My goal was to find nice photos, not scribbly things, so I tried to find a better quality image of the same plaque even before I read it or the web page. That was impossible, so I finally read the plaque tracing and web page.

I think the web page was very text-heavy and mostly about the 1795 ceremony. Hancock was mentioned because of the land the statehouse was built on. It had no information or provenance about the tracing. I don't remember if the 1855 viewing was mentioned. The "Corner stone" text of the plaque tracing itself made the connection to the remainder of the web page clear.

I probably thought something like "Well that explains why there aren't any nice photos. Too bad this doesn't have a more direct connection to the battle," and then web-surfed away. My browsing history from 3 hard drives in the past is long gone, of course.

That's the 80% likely option. The other 20% is that I saw the thing in a State House archives exhibit or somewhere else.