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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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Virginia Takes an Even Less Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act

None of Virginia’s established political leaders liked the Stamp Act. Gov. Francis Fauquier (shown here) had advised his superiors in London against it. John Robinson, speaker of the House of Burgesses, and Peyton Randolph, attorney general, had both protested the possibility.

But once Parliament did pass the Stamp Act in early 1765, those politicians felt that Virginia should be careful about defying it. Certainly more careful than rookie lawmaker Patrick Henry was in the debates on 29-30 May 1765.

Despite that powerful opposition, which also included the highly respected lawyer George Wythe, Henry won over the “young hot and giddy” members of the house. On 30 May 1765 they passed five bold resolutions insisting that only a Virginia legislature could tax Virginians. The fifth went so far as to say that a law like the Stamp Act “has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.”

Then Henry headed home, as most of the other burgesses already had. Gov. Fauquier and the other establishment figures seized the opportunity. The governor explained to London:
On Friday the 31st there having happened a small alteration in the House there was an attempt to strike all the Resolutions off the Journals. The 5th which was thought the most offensive was accordingly struck off, but it did not succeed as to the other four.
A letter printed in the London Gazetteer joked that “Resolves were passed one day, and erased the next.” Indeed, the official record of the House of Burgesses for 1765 doesn’t acknowledge the fifth of Henry’s resolutions. And none of the resolutions, even those that remained on the record, appeared in any of the Virginia Gazette newspapers then being published in the capital.

On 1 June, Gov. Fauquier dissolved the legislature to keep things under control. The House of Burgesses wouldn’t convene again for over a year.

The governor knew that opponents of the Stamp Act were fervent, but he hoped they had been contained. His report to London added:
I am informed the gentlemen had two more resolutions in their pocket, but finding the difficulty they had in carrying the 5th which was by a single voice, and knowing them to be more virulent and inflammatory; they did not produce them.
Those resolutions would eventually come out. I’ll get to them later this year.

It’s notable that Randolph and Wythe, who argued strenuously against all five resolutions, later became leading supporters of the Patriot movement. (Robinson and Fauquier died within three years.) They weren’t ready to be radical in 1765, but eventually Patrick Henry’s arguments became the norm.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Virginia Takes a Less Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act

On this date 250 years ago the Virginia House of Burgesses took up the resolutions against the Stamp Act that Patrick Henry had drafted the previous day. Those same legislators had narrowly approved them as a committee of the whole, but this was the official vote.

A Frenchman traveling through Virginia happened to be in Williamsburg that day and wrote this account:
May the 30th. Set out early from half-way house in the chair and broke fast at York[town], arived at Williamsburg at 12, where I saw three negroes hanging at the galous for having robbed Mr. Waltho of 300 pounds. I went immediately to the Assembly which was seting, where I was entertained with very strong debates concerning dutys that the Parlement wants to lay on the America colonys, which they call or stile stamp dutys.

Shortly after I came in, one of the members stood up and said he had read that in former time Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he did not doubt but some good American would stand up in favour of his Country; but (says he) in a more moderate manner, and was going to continue, when the Speaker of the House rose and, said he, the last that stood up had spoke traison, and was sorey to see that not one of the members of the House was loyal enough to stop him before he had gone so far.

Upon which the same member stood up again (his name is Henery) and said that if he had afronted the Speaker or the House, he was ready to ask pardon, and he would shew his loyalty to His Majesty King George the third at the expence of the last drop of his blood; but what he had said must be attributed to the interest of his country’s dying liberty which he had at heart, and the heat of passion might have lead him to have said something more than he intended; but, again, if he said anything wrong, be begged the Speaker and the House’s pardon. Some other members stood up and backed him, on which that afaire was droped.
Likewise, a letter from Virginia published in the 13 Aug 1765 London Gazetteer said:
Mr. ————— [Henry] has lately blazed out in the Assembly, where he compared —————— [George III] to a Tarquin, a Caesar, a Charles the First, threatening him with a Brutus, or an Oliver Cromwell; yet Mr. —————— [Henry] was not sent to the Tower: but having prevailed to get some ridiculous violent Resolutions passed, rode off in triumph…
Some recountings of the day say speaker of the house John Robinson wasn’t there, and attorney general Peyton Randolph presided in his place. However, Gov. Francis Fauquier reported to London:
The most strenuous opposers of this rash heat were the late Speaker, the King’s Attorney and Mr. [George] Wythe; but they were overpowered by the young hot and giddy members. In the course of the debates I have heard that very indecent language was used by a Mr. Henry a young lawyer who had not been a month a Member of the House; who carryed all the young Members with him; so that I hope I am authorised in saying there is cause at least to doubt whether this would have been the sense of the Colony if more of their Representatives had done their duty by attending to the end of the Session.
Henry himself recalled the event as a narrow victory. Late in life he wrote of his resolutions: “Upon offering them to the House violent debates ensued. Many threats were uttered, and much abuse cast on me by the party for submission. After a long and warm contest the resolutions passed by a very small majority, perhaps of one or two only.”

Fauquier’s letter confirmed that the house was closely divided, “the greatest majority being 22 to 17; for the 5th Resolution, 20 to 19 only.”

The official record of the house says:
Mr. Attorney, from the Committee of the whole House, reported, according to Order, that the Committee had considered of the Steps necessary to be taken in Consequence of the Resolutions of the House of Commons of Great Britain relative to the charging Stamp Duties in the Colonies and Plantations in America, and that they had come to several Resolutions thereon; which he read in his Place, and then delivered in at the Table, where they were again twice read, and agreed to by the House, with some Amendments, and are as follow:

Resolved, That the first Adventurers and Settlers of this his Majesty’s Colony and Dominion of Virginia brought with them, and transmitted to their Posterity, and all other his Majesty’s Subjects since inhabiting in this his Majesty’s said Colony, all the Liberties, Privileges, Franchises, and Immunities, that have at any Time been held, enjoyed, and possessed, by the people of Great Britain.

Resolved, That by two royal Charters, granted by King James the First, the Colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all Liberties, Privileges, and Immunities of Denizens and natural Subjects, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England.

Resolved, That the Taxation of the People by themselves, or by Persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what Taxes the People are able to bear, or the easiest Method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every Tax laid on the People, is the only Security against a burthensome Taxation, and the distinguishing Characteristick of British Freedom, without which the ancient Constitution cannot exist.

Resolved, That his Majesty’s liege People of this his most ancient and loyal Colony have without Interruption enjoyed the inestimable Right of being governed by such Laws, respecting their internal Polity and Taxation, as are derived from their own Consent, with the Approbation of their Sovereign, or his Substitute; and that the same hath never been forfeited or yielded up, but hath been constantly recognized by the Kings and People of Great Britain.
Those final resolutions showed some small changes in the language from Henry’s draft, such as adding the word “Liberties” multiple places. But the big change was that the fifth resolution didn’t appear in the record at all, though even Gov. Fauquier admitted it had passed, 20–19.

TOMORROW: How the empire struck back.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Virginia Considers a Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act

Britain’s North American colonies had a chance to weigh in on the Stamp Act before Parliament passed it, as described back here. All of them said it would be a Bad Thing. Few or none offered any alternative way for the Crown to raise revenue for its army on the continent. So Prime Minister George Grenville proposed the law, and it sailed through.

News of the Stamp Act arrived in North America in early May 1765. Virginia was the oldest, largest, and most populous of Britain’s colonies on the continent at that time, and 250 years ago today its House of Burgesses took up the matter.

That legislature’s official record for 29 May 1765 concludes like this:
On a Motion made,

Resolved, That the House resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House immediately, to consider of the Steps necessary to be taken in Consequence of the Resolutions of the House of Commons of Great Britain relative to the charging certain Stamp Duties in the Colonies and Plantations in America.

The House accordingly resolved itself into the said Committee, and after some Time spent therein Mr. Speaker resumed the Chair, and Mr. Attorney reported that the said Committee had had the said Matter under their Consideration, and had come to several s Resolutions thereon, which he was ready to deliver in at the Table.

Ordered, That the said Report be received Tomorrow.
By becoming a committee of the whole, the burgesses could set aside their usual procedures and record-keeping to debate more freely.

The speaker of the house was John Robinson. He was also the province’s treasurer. He had held both offices since 1738, or for more than a quarter-century. That turned out to have been a Bad Thing, as Virginians discovered the next year when he died suddenly and they checked his books.

The colony’s attorney general was Peyton Randolph, shown above. He had been the principal author of the colony’s objections to the proposed Stamp Act, which had yet to receive an official reply from London. Randolph had also served in his office for a long time: since 1744, with a one-year interruption. His father had held the same office before him. Virginia didn’t like change.

The principal author of the proposed resolutions, however, was a newcomer: a young lawyer named Patrick Henry. He had been elected partway through the year to fill an empty seat and had arrived in Williamsburg only nine days before. Nonetheless, he had things to say about the new Stamp Act.

Near the end of his life, Henry wrote:
I had been for the first time elected a Burgess a few days before, was young, inexperienced, unacquainted with the forms of the House, and the members that composed it. Finding the men of weight averse to opposition, and the commencement of the tax at hand, and that no person was likely to step forth, I determined to venture, and alone, unadvised, and unassisted, on a blank leaf of an old law-book, wrote the within.
This is what the older Henry put down as his draft version of the resolutions:
Resolved, That the first Adventurers and Settlers of this his Majesties Colony and Dominion brought with them and transmitted to their Posterity and all other his Majestie’s Subjects since inhabiting in this his Majestie’s said Colony all the Priviledges, Franchises & Immunities that have at any Time been held, enjoyed, & possessed by the People of Great Britain.

Resolved, That by the two royal Charters granted by King James the first the Colonists aforesaid are declared intituled to all the Priviledges, Liberties & Immunities of Denizens and natural born Subjects to all Intents and Purposes as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England.

Resolved, That the Taxation of the People by themselves or by Persons chosen by themselves to represent them who can only know what Taxes the People are able to bear and the easiest Mode of raising them and are equally affected by such Taxes themselves is the distinguishing Characteristick of British Freedom and without which the ancient Constitution cannot subsist.

Resolved, That his Majestie’s liege People of this most ancient Colony have uninteruptedly enjoyed the Right of being thus governed by their own assembly in the Article of their Taxes and internal Police and that the same hath never been forfeited or any other Way given up but hath been constantly recognized by the Kings of People of Great Britain.

Resolved, Therefore that the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and sole exclusive Right & Power to lay Taxes & Impositions upon the Inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any Person or Persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.
Those were very strong words for 1765.

Gov. Francis Fauquier complained to his superiors in London about how this complaint was brought up:
just at the end of the Session when most of the members had left the town, there being but 39 present out of 116 of which the House of Burgesses now consists, a motion was made to take into consideration the Stamp Act, a copy of which had crept into the House, and in a Committee of the whole House five resolutions were proposed and agreed to, all by very small majorities.
Though the top brass of the Virginia burgesses didn’t like the Stamp Act, they really didn’t like change. Still, once the committee of the whole had approved those resolutions, the house had to vote on them.

TOMORROW: Debate in the House of Burgesses.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


I”m sorry I didn’t spot this blog when it was running. In December 2013 and January 2014, the “Begs leaves to acquaint his subscribers” blog reproduced advertisements from the Boston Gazette for the corresponding weeks in 1771 and 1772.

The anonymous blogger not only transcribed the ads but took care to present them typographically similar to the way they first appeared, includong the long S. Thus:

Benjamin Andrews was later killed by his friend Benjamin Hichborn.

Alas, this excursion into long-ago marketing stopped when 1772’s Leap Day meant the Monday dates no longer aligned.

(Hat tip to Steve Rayner for spotting this.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Who Was Crispus Attucks’s Father?

Many websites and books identify Crispus Attucks’s father as Prince Yongey (or Young or Jonar), based on the fact that Framingham records say a man of that name married Nancy Peterattuck on 19 May 1737.

However, according to William Brown’s runaway advertisements, “Crispas” was about twenty-seven years old in 1750. That means he would have been about fourteen when Nancy Peterattuck married Prince Yongey.

Furthermore, in 1860 someone from Natick informed William C. Nell that Attucks’s parents were “Jacob Peter Attucks” and “Nanny,” which might have been another form of Nancy. This source said there were other children in the family—Sam, Sal, and Peter—and that they were all “uncommonly large.”

William Barry’s 1847 history of Framingham says Jacob Peterattucks was in that town by 1730 working for “Col. Buckminster.” There was a series of prominent men with that surname, including Joseph (1666-1747) and his sons Joseph (1697-1780) and Thomas (1698-1795).

It seems more likely, therefore, that Prince Yongey was Crispus Attucks’s stepfather, marrying his mother in 1737 after his father Jacob Peterattucks’s death. There are, of course, many other possible scenarios, including multiple people with the same name, unreliable informants, or a church marriage performed years into the relationship because the couple’s owner got religion.

Jacob Peterattucks was previously listed as a member of John Shipley’s military company in 1722, described as “Servt. John Wood.” On 16 May 1723, he was one of several men dismissed as “Sick, lame and unfit for Servis, by thear own Requests.” Notably, the lieutenant of that company was Joseph “Buckmaster.” Crispus Attucks was born around that year.

(In addition, a Moses Peter Attucks of Leicester served as a private at Fort Massachusetts under Lt. Elisha Hawley and Capt. Ephraim Williams in 1747-49. Another member of the family?)

We have no way of knowing whether Prince Yongey had any influence on Crispus Attucks, who was enslaved to Brown by 1750 and perhaps earlier, and therefore may never have lived with a stepfather. Yongey did become a Framingham fixture, as local historian Barry learned from townspeople who had known him:
But the most noted individual of the class under consideration, was Prince, sometimes called Prince Young, but whose name is recorded as Prince Yongey, and Prince Jonar, by which last name he is noticed [and “rated”] in the Town Rec. in 1767. He was brought from Africa when a young man of about 25 years, having been a person of consideration in his native land, from whence, probably, he derived his name. He was first owned by Col. Joseph Buckminster, and afterwards by his son, the late Dea. Thomas. He married, (by name Prince Yongey) in 1737, Nanny Peterattucks, of Framingham, (the name indicating Indian extraction) by whom he had several children, among them a son, who died young, and a daughter Phebe, who never married.

Prince was a faithful servant, and by his general honesty, temperance and prudence, so gained the confidence of his first master. Col. Buckminster, that for about a quarter of a century, he was left with the management of a large farm, during his master’s absence at the General Court. He occupied a cabin near the Turnpike, and cultivated, for his own use, a piece of meadow, which has since been known as Prince’s meadow. He chose the spot as resembling the soil of his native country.

During the latter part of his life he was offered his freedom, which he had the sagacity to decline; pithily saying, “massa eat the meat; he now pick the bone.” Prince shunned the society of persons of his own color, and though accustomed to appear in public armed with a tomahawk, was a great favorite with the young, whom, under all provocations, he was never known but in one instance to strike.

He had been sufficiently instructed to read, and possessed the religious turn characteristic of the African race. In his last sickness, he remarked with much simplicity, that he was “not afraid to be dead, but to die.” He passed an extreme old age in the family of Dea. Thos. Buckminster, and died Dec. 21, 1797, at the age of 99 years and some months. Numerous anecdotes are yet related, illustrating the simplicity, intelligence, and humor of “Old Prince.”
This description of Prince Yongey is evidently based on people who knew him as an old man, probably after his wife and perhaps his children were gone. He outlived the institution of slavery in Massachusetts, though he insisted that the Buckminster family was obliged to look after him in his old age, and he even outlived Deacon Buckminster.

It occurred to me that some elements of Prince Yongey’s life might have gotten mixed in with locals’ memories of Crispus Attucks, especially if they were indeed part of the same extended family. Brown’s descendants recalled Attucks being allowed to “trade cattle upon his own judgement”; locals recalled Yongey managing the Buckminster farm for his master. And did ”Prince’s meadow” become remembered as the “cellar hole” where the Attucks family lived?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sorting Out the Versions of Crispus Attucks

This is a view from the Crispus Attucks Footbridge in Framingham, built near the area where he was reportedly born and worked for William Brown. And it looks like a good place to pause and reflect about how to reconcile the conflicting traditions about Attucks’s life.

The standard modern story (which I’ve repeated myself) is that Attucks escaped from slavery in Framingham in 1750, when he was about twenty-seven years old, and made a new life for himself as a sailor traveling to the Caribbean and North Carolina. At least while he was back in Boston, he used the alias “Michael Johnson,” presumably to preserve his freedom; that was how he was identified immediately after he was killed. We don’t know how within three days printers knew he was “born in Framingham,” nor how his real name became known the next week.

The Brown family traditions don’t fit easily with that story, but they aren’t easy to dismiss, eoither. Descendants of William Brown told their story of his slave Crispus by 1857. We might suspect they were trying to seize on the celebrity that abolitionists like William C. Nell had conferred on Attucks, but in 1859 antiquarians found the Boston Gazette advertisement that backs up the family’s claim.

Brown descendants also brought forward a cup, teapot, and powderhorn that Attucks reportedly owned. The provenance of these “relics” is impossible to confirm, but the two items that survive do appear to date from the early 1700s. They’re also cheap and misshapen, unlikely to have been saved unless the family had invested them with some meaning.

The biggest contradiction between those two stories is that the Brown family said Attucks returned to his master after 1750 and remained in Framingham for the rest of his life. In the late 1800s, that tradition expanded to say that Brown also let Attucks go to sea, apparently to accommodate the documentary evidence from 1770. But there’s still no explanation why Attucks would be using the name “Michael Johnson” if he had his master’s permission to travel to Boston, trade cattle, and work on ships.

One possibility is that in the confusion after the Boston Massacre people misidentified the big mulatto man shot in the chest as the sailor Michael Johnson. William Brown alerted the authorities to their mistake. and they corrected the dead man’s name to Crispus Attucks in legal papers by the next week, but the printers didn’t catch up, leaving us with newspapers that still erroneously called that man a sailor.

This scenario raises more questions:
  • Why did the first reports about “Johnson” already connect him to Framingham?
  • Why did Boston bury Attucks as a “stranger” if he had a master and family still in close touch and living less than a day away?
  • Why didn’t William Brown seek compensation from the Crown for the loss of his slave?
  • Why did Bostonians like William Pierce (cited in Traits of the Tea Party) continue to say Attucks was a sailor for years afterward?
Another possibility is that the Brown family preserved the memories of Crispus Attucks working for their ancestor, trading cattle “on his own judgment,” but forgot the part about how he escaped and never came back. That may not have been his 1750 departure; Attucks may have returned then but left permanently later, and Brown didn’t bother advertising for him again. Other members of the extended Attucks family continued to work in Framingham for years, and the family could have attached memories of them to Crispus after he became famous.

Again, that scenario has a big hole:
  • If one of your family slaves has run away and you later learn he’s been killed in a riot in Boston, wouldn’t you remember him as a miscreant who got what was coming? Why would your family memory drop the fact that he’d run away when to you that was probably one of the most significant facts about his life?
Finally, there’s the Natick tradition that William C. Nell spoke about in 1860, one which named other members of the Attucks family. Nell’s informant said that his or her mother had heard Attucks’s sister Sal speak about him, apparently in the 1770s or 1780s. Nell didn’t name his source, and his papers have probably disappeared, leaving us with less to evaluate. To my knowledge that tradition never got into books, and no historians have grappled with it.

The Natick information emphasized Attucks as a big man, a bold man, and a law-breaker (smuggling horses, fighting soldiers). It said nothing about Attucks being enslaved to the Brown family, though it did identify him as a likely son of Jacob Peterattuck, “who lived with Capt. Thomas Buckminster of Framingham.” That tradition also said nothing about Attucks’s work at sea, saying instead that he had visited home “with three or four horses” shortly before the Massacre. Again, that’s hard to reconcile with the 1770 reports about “Michael Johnson” awaiting work on a ship south.

A lot of recent historical scholarship has used Crispus Attucks as an example of a politically aware sailor, not so much tied to Boston as part of a roving maritime working class within the British Empire. It emphasizes his life in the shadows as a runaway slave.

However, if the Brown family and Natick traditions are correct, then Attucks had much stronger links to life in rural Massachusetts than the standard profile suggests, though he may also have worked on ships. If not legally free, Attucks had at least some practical freedom within his bondage to William Brown. And he had an extended family out in the Framingham and Natick area, some of them known for carrying on Native American traditions (“the gourd-shell squaw”). That would provide new areas for historical consideration. But still, how did “Michael Johnson” enter that scenario?

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Last Relics of Crispus Attucks

William Cooper Nell wasn’t the only Boston author researching the Boston Massacre in the nineteenth century. Another was Frederic Kidder, who published his History of the Boston Massacre in 1870. In one footnote he wrote:
Crispus Attucks is described as a mulatto; he was born in Framingham near the Chochituate lake and not far from the line of Natick. Here an old cellar hole remains where the Attucks family formerly lived.
Kidder didn’t state a source for this information, but we can hope he went out to Framingham to see for himself.

In his 1887 history of that town Josiah H. Temple cribbed language from Kidder and added some more information:
Crispus Attucks...was a mulatto, born near the Framingham town line, a short distance to the eastward of the State Arsenal. The old cellar-hole where the Attucks family lived is still visible. He was probably a descendant of John Auttuck, an Indian, who was taken prisoner and executed at the same time with Capt. Tom, in June, 1676. . . . Probably the family had intermarried with negroes who were slaves, and as the offspring of such marriages were held to be slaves, he inherited their condition, although it seems likely that the blood of three races coursed through his veins. He had been bought by Dea. William Brown of Framingham, as early as 1747. . . .

[Temple here quoted the Gazette advertisement from 1750.]

A descendant of Dea. Brown says of him: “Crispus was well informed, and, except in the instance referred to in the advertisement, was faithful to his master. He was a good judge of cattle, and was allowed to buy and sell upon his own judgment of their value.” He was fond of a seafaring life, and probably with consent of his master, was accustomed to take coasting voyages. The account of the time says, “he lately belonged to New Providence, and was here in order to go to North Carolina.”

He was of huge bodily proportions, and brave almost to recklessness.
It’s notable that the words quoted from the Brown family descendant used some of the same phrases as in statements from 1857-1860: “well informed,” “allowed to sell and buy upon his own judgment,” and of course “faithful.” The family seems to have all been working from the same script.

Temple’s town genealogies offered this information about William Brown: He was born in Lexington in 1723 to Joseph and Ruhamah Brown, married and moved to Framingham in 1746, served in several town and church offices, and died in 1793.

Finally there’s the teapot this inquiry started with, the small pewter vessel now on display at the Boston Public Library. “Miss S. E. Kimball” donated it to the Bostonian Society about a century ago, and in 1918 that society donated it to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England. With the teapot Kimball gave a note that said:
This relic, once the property of Crispus Attucks, has been in possession of different members of the Brown family since his death. Deacon William Brown, who owned Crispus, was the younger brother of my mother's great-grandfather, Jonas Brown.
I believe that donor was Sarah E. Kimball, born 23 Jan 1831 and living in Westboro toward the end of the century. She was a daughter of Noah Kimball (1804-1876) and Martha Warren Brown, born in 1811 in Topsham, Maine. From what I see on the internet, Martha Warren Brown was a daughter of Gardner Brown (1769-1837), granddaughter of William Brown (1746-1829), great-granddaughter of Jonas Brown (1711-1772), and great-great-granddaughter of the same Joseph Brown who fathered the Framingham slaveowner. So that checks out.

(Incidentally, Jonas Brown married a daughter of the man who built the Munroe Tavern in Lexington. So there’s a family connection between the Boston Massacre and the fighting in that town five years later: the man who had owned Attucks and the man who owned that tavern in 1775 were first cousins. Massachusetts was a much smaller place in the eighteenth century.)

Historic New England also owns a small pewter cup, “twisted and dented,” said to have belonged to Attucks (shown above thanks to this Harvard site). Presumably this is the same “pewter drinking cup” seen in 1859, which Nell displayed as a “goblet” in 1860. The previous year, C. H. Morse told the New England Historic and Genealogical Register that Attucks had “worn” that cup when he was killed. But we don’t seem to have any information about how it was preserved or how it came to the society.

The powderhorn described in the 1850s has disappeared. And the cellar-hole has no doubt been filled in.

TOMORROW: So is that really Crispus Attucks’s teapot?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

More Information about the Attucks Family

In 1860 the historian and activist William C. Nell addressed a crowd at the ninetieth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. That event took place in an auditorium called the Meionaon, part of the Tremont Temple. [Why don’t we have a Meionaon anymore?]

As part of his speech, Nell shared some new information he had gathered about the family of Crispus Attucks, by then a symbol of African-American patriotism. Nell’s speech was printed in The Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper.

Later that year, a writer in the Boston Transcript argued that Attucks was an Indian rather than a black man. (He in all likelihood had both African and North American ancestry.) Nell drew on the same new information when he wrote into that mainstream newspaper to refute that claim.

First, a Massachusetts legislator from Framingham named James W. Brown wrote to Nell on 18 Feb 1860 to say:
He (Crispus) was the slave of my great grandfather, Deacon William Brown, of Framingham. He returned after his runaway excursion, and was a faithful servant. He was allowed to buy and sell cattle on his own judgment. It was probably upon one of these trading tours that he was drawn into the affray of March 5th. He pressed close upon the British troops, who received him and the other people with loaded muskets.

Attucks beat down their guns with a heavy stick, and shouted, “They dare not fire!” They did fire, and with what effect was known to all. Of stout and vigorous frame, athletic, bold and patriotic, had he lived, he would, doubtless, have acted a conspicuous and useful part in our great revolutionary struggle.
That was basically the same thing the Brown family had published three years before, down to the statement that their ancestor had let Attucks trade cattle “on his own judgment.” This letter made explicit that Attucks had returned to Framingham after the months in late 1750 when William Brown had advertised him as a runaway, and was still working for the Brown family when he died.

We should expect that story to reflect what the Browns wanted to believe, or wanted people to believe about them. It portrays William Brown as a lenient master, and Attucks as “faithful” and “patriotic.”

Nell didn’t name the person who had sent him a second letter from Natick dated 17 Feb 1860. It said in part:
Several persons are now living in Natick, who remember the Attucks family—viz., Cris, who was killed March 5th; Sam, whose name was abbreviated into Sam Attucks, or Smattox; Sal, also known as Slattox; and Peter, called Pea Tattox.

My mother, still living, aged 89, remembers Sal in particular, who used to be called the gourd-shell squaw, from the fact that she used to carry her rum in a gourd shell.

The whole family are described as having been uncommonly large, and are said to have been the children of Jacob Peter Attucks, who lived with Capt. Thomas Buckminster, of Framingham.

It has been conjectured that Jacob and Nanny were of Indian blood; but all who know the descendants, describe them as negroes. Crispus lived in many different places in Natick and Framingham.

When the inhabitants were detained in Boston, he used to smuggle their horses out of the town. He brought out three or four horses, which he took to Framingham, and then returned to kill the red-coats. His sister used to say that if they had not killed Cris, Cris would have killed them. Cris is said to have been in every street fight with the soldiers for some time previous to March 5th, 1770.
In addition, in writing to the Transcript Nell said, “Crispus Attucks was born in Framingham. A portion of his early life was passed in Sutton (now Millbury).” I’m not sure what the basis for that last statement is. Of course, all this information was second- or third-hand, about a man who had died ninety years before and had been born nearly a half-century before that.

But some parts seem to check out. There was indeed a prominent Thomas Buckminster (1698-1795) in Framingham. William Barry’s 1847 History of Framingham reported that Jacob Peterattucks “was in F[r]am., 1730, and worked for Col. Buckminster,” and that in May 1737 Nancy Peterattuck married Prince Yongey, a man enslaved to the Buckminster family. At that date Crispus Attucks was evidently in his teens. Was he indeed a son of Jacob Peterattucks? Was Nanny/Nancy his mother, remarrying? Or was this a more extended family?

Other parts of Nell’s new information raise questions, however. Though Framingham and Natick are next to each other, Sutton is twenty miles away. How did young Crispus go from one area to the other and back as Nell described?

Usually the phrase “inhabitants were detained in Boston” refers to the siege of 1775-76, but Attucks was dead by then. I know of no reason for people to “smuggle horses out of town” earlier.

Finally, all these stories about Crispus Attucks working steadily for his Framingham master until 1770 don’t square with the newspaper reports after his death that he was a sailor, nor with how Boston officials at first called him “Michael Johnson.” Those contemporaneous details fit better with the picture of a man who escaped from slavery by going to sea and then protected himself from recapture through an alias while back in Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: The teapot finally surfaces. You remember the teapot, right?

[My great thanks to Boston 1775 readers Joe Bauman and Liz Loveland for giving me the resources to transcribe the 16 Mar 1860 Liberator items fully and accurately. With their help I’ve revised this posting. Folks can find images of all Liberator issues here.]

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Brown Family Memories of Crispus Attucks

As I quoted yesterday, in 1857 the descendants of William Brown of Framingham published a claim that he had been the owner of Crispus Attucks, victim of the Boston Massacre.

They made that statement in a small book published to celebrate a wedding anniversary; it’s unlikely that any historian outside the family would have challenged it, or even seen it. So how credible was their claim?

And yet, two years later both the New England Historical and Genealogical Register and The Liberator reprinted an advertisement that William Brown had placed in the Boston Gazette on two dates in 1750. As quoted here, Brown was seeking an escaped slave named Crispas.

Because Crispas/Crispus was a rare name, and because both the escapee in 1750 and the man who died in 1770 were unusually tall mulatto men from Framingham, most readers then and now have assumed that notice described Attucks. The ad thus offers contemporaneous evidence to support the Brown family’s claim.

By the 1850s, Attucks was a significant figure in the American past. After decades of being largely forgotten, he had become a symbol of African-American patriotism and martyrdom. That was principally the work of William Cooper Nell, Boston’s leading black historian and abolitionist (shown above). Nell organized commemorations of the Boston Massacre that put Attucks front and center.

A member of the Brown family attended one of those ceremonies, as Nell wrote in that Liberator item from 1859:
It will be remembered that, at the Faneuil Hall commemoration of the Boston massacre, (March 5th, 1858,) Samuel H. Brown, Esq., a grandson of the above William Brown, was present, and narrated to several persons the traditions extant in the family relating to Crispus Attucks—of his goblet, powder-horn, &c.
That same year C. H. Morse of Cambridge wrote in the N.E.H.G.R.: “The descendants of Mr. Browne have a pewter drinking cup, worn by Attucks when he fell, which I have seen. They have also his powder horn.”

Those are the earliest mentions I’ve found of any objects said to be linked to Attucks. In 1860 Nell’s broadside announcing the ninetieth-anniversary commemoration of the Massacre promised a look at “a GOBLET, which belonged to CRISPUS ATTUCKS,” and a copy of the Boston Gazette with William Brown’s ad. (No teapot, though.)

TOMORROW: More information gathered by W. C. Nell.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Crispus Attucks Teapot

Among the artifacts in the “We Are One” exhibit at the Boston Public Library is a teapot linked to Crispus Attucks, now owned by Historic New England. (And shown here thanks to a Harvard course on material culture.)

I read about this teapot years ago, but I’d never seen it before. It’s smaller than I expected, about the size of one of those little individual pots a restaurant with airs brings out when one orders tea. It‘s pewter, plain, and poorly made. In short, it was a cheap teapot.

But is it Attucks’s?

The evidence from 1770 suggests that Attucks was working as a sailor under an assumed name, at least while he was in Massachusetts. Documents from the coroner’s inquiry immediately after he died in the Boston Massacre called him “Michael Johnson.” The Thursday newspapers identified him as:
A Mollatto Man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonging to New-Providence [Bahamas], and was here in order to go for North-Carolina, killed on the Spot, two Balls entering his Breast.
That day was both market day and the day of the funeral for Attucks and three other shooting victims. It’s conceivable those events brought people into Boston with new information. Alas, the Boston Gazette on Monday offered no explanation for identifying that same man as “Crispus Attucks,” and the legal system followed suit. Every source from 1770 agrees that Attucks was a sailor.

In the 1850s, after Attucks had become a touchstone for American abolitionists, a Framingham family named Brown came forward to claim part of his memory. In 1857 that family published a small anniversary book titled The Golden Wedding of Col. James Brown and His Wife. It included a “Speech of Mr. Wm. D. Brown” about his ancestors’ Revolutionary history, including this:
In the month of March 1770, a collision occured between the people of Boston and a portion of the King’s troops, then quartered in the town. The soldiers were very obnoxious to the citizens and a slight provocation was sufficient to raise a mob against them. The old school books tell us, that at this time the mob was led on by a stout negro whose name was Attucks. The mob pressed close up to the troops who received them with leveled muskets! Attucks beat down the guns with a heavy club and cried “they dare not fire!” They did fire, and Crispus Attucks, our great grandfather[ William Brown]’s slave, was shot dead!

Attucks was a well informed and faithful negro. He was a good judge of cattle and was allowed to sell and buy upon his own judgment. Crispus was sensible of the oppressions of Great Britain, and as indignant as the most patriotic, at the presence of hireling soldiers in the country, to enforce unjust laws.
It’s a curious passage, setting down family lore yet apparently relying on “old school books” for information about Attucks’s actions on 5 Mar 1770. In this description of a “faithful negro,…sensible of the oppressions of Great Britain,” there’s no hint that Attucks had become a sailor or used the name Michael Johnson.

TOMORROW: The Brown family and William C. Nell.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

“We Are One” Exhibit Opens in Boston

Earlier this year I recommended the “God Save the People” exhibit at the Massachusetts Historical Society. This month the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, just a few blocks away on Boyltston Street, opened a new exhibit called “We Are One.” It’s also very good. Both displays are up through the summer, and both are free.

There’s some overlap between the two exhibits. For example, both have copies of the Paul Revere engraving of the Boston Massacre. The B.P.L. also shows the overhead drawing of the killing scene credited to Revere, perhaps used in the legal proceedings that followed. The M.H.S. has two of the musket balls fired that night.

Likewise, both exhibits include a copy of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 collection of poetry. (Old South Meeting House is also displaying that book now.) The M.H.S. copy of Wheatley’s collection sits alongside what is reportedly her writing desk. The B.P.L. copy contains her signature.

“We Are One” is bigger, with a broader scope. “God Save the People” is focused on greater Boston; it starts with the Stamp Act of 1765 and ends with the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. In contrast, the B.P.L. exhibit goes back to trade routes in the mid-eighteenth-century British Empire, the end of the French & Indian War, and the British line of settlement in 1763. It extends through the ratification of the Constitution and the expansion of the U.S. of A. And it covers a lot of ground.

(I’m going to link to a lot of “We Are One” artifacts through the accompanying website. The “God Save the People” exhibit doesn’t have such an elaborate website, but, as this page says, many of its items are visible on the web.)

Because “We Are One” is from a Map Center, it naturally emphasizes cartography. Not just maps, but other ways of visualizing the world. One item I found striking was Georg Balthasar Probst’s view of the London skyline. It’s often said that when Paul Revere and Christian Remick created their view of British troops landing on Boston’s Long Wharf in 1768, they emphasized Boston’s church spires to underscore the town’s religiosity. But Probst’s view of London had even more spires. So was he making the same point, or were church spires the most notable features of any town?

Among my favorite Revolutionary artifacts are the watercolors that Lt. Richard Williams painted on top of Beacon Hill, showing each sector of the view in turn. Back in May 2006 (the month I started this blog), I noted that a set of those had come up for auction. Richard H. Brown has generously loaned them and other items for the “We Are One” exhibit; two originals will be on display in rotation while the whole series is reproduced overhead. Down below you can see me pointing out details of those pictures during a visit earlier this month. (Reproductions of a Williams panorama are also part of the display at the Lexington visitor center of Minute Man National Historical Park.)

Thanks to the B.P.L.’s collections, “We Are One” also goes well beyond cartography. It also includes the gold medal that the Continental Congress commissioned for Gen. George Washington at the end of the siege of Boston. What’s more, beside it is the gorget that Washington wore for his 1772 portrait. That actual gorget. And, back to maps, there’s a 1750 land survey that the teen-aged Washington drew.

Over the next couple of days I’ll discuss a couple of the “We Are One” items in more depth.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dedication of the African Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth

I was planning to post about something else today, but discussions at last night’s seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society reminded me of an important commemoration taking place this week in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

From today through Saturday, 23 May, the city is honoring the completion of the new African Burying Ground Memorial Park.

In the eighteenth century, the town’s black inhabitants were buried at a site on the town’s outskirts. Eventually Portsmouth grew over that location. Early in this century, construction on Chestnut Street unearthed the remains of thirteen burials, out of up to two hundred that might have taken place at the site. That history explains why this park has a subtitle: We Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten. It’s the only known African burying ground from the era in New England.

On Saturday, those remains will be reburied at the site within a series of commemorative events.

Wednesday, 20 May, 9:00 A.M.
Unveiling of Ceramic Tiles
Sculptor Jerome B. Meadows and students from Portsmouth Middle School will reveal the ceramic they designed to be installed in the decorative railing at the site.

9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Petition of 1779 on Display
On 12 Nov 1779 twenty black men signed a petition to the Revolutionary New Hampshire government seeking relief from slavery. That document from the state archives is on display at the Seacoast African American Cultural Center at 10 Middle Street. (The cultural center is also hosting a show of art by middle-school students about the African Burying Ground.)

6:30 P.M.
Public Art & Portsmouth: A Community Forum
A discussion of the value of public art with sculptor Jerome Meadows and local arts figures at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughn Street.

Friday, 22 May, 7:00 P.M. on
African Burying Ground Ancestral Vigil
As part of the reburial celebration, members of the community will hold an all-night vigil at the New Hope Baptist Church, 263 Peverly Hill Road. Services of remembrance are scheduled at 7:00 P.M., midnight, and 6:00 A.M. Saturday morning. The hours between services are open for anyone wanting to pay homage in their own way: sitting quietly, reciting a poem, saying a prayer, singing a song, playing the piano or other instrument, or otherwise. Those wishing to participate should contact JerriAnne Boggis or Kelvin Edwards with details.

Saturday, 23 May, 8:30 A.M.
Reburial Ceremony
Nine caskets will be placed in the vault constructed as part of the Memorial. The ceremony includes traditional African burial customs and the unveiling of the work of sculptor Jerome B. Meadows.

10:30 A.M.
Public Celebration of the Park
Following the reburial ceremony, a public celebration with food, music, and inspirational voices will take place at the Portsmouth Middle School Auditorium.

1:30 P.M.
Site Walk with Artist and Construction Team
Members of the construction team and sculptor Edwards will return to the African Burying Ground Park to answer questions about the Memorial installation.

5:00 P.M.
Burial Vault Lid Placement
At the close of the day, the burial vault lid will be placed on the vault. Members of the public will be invited to witness from a safe distance.

7:00 P.M.
Blind Boys of Alabama Concert
The gospel singing group formed in 1939 will offer a concert of traditional gospel songs and contemporary spirituals in celebration of the African Burying Ground Memorial at the Music Hall, 28 Chestnut Street.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New Word on The Revolution’s Last Men from Don Hagist, 27 May

On Wednesday, 27 May, the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston will host a book talk by Don N. Hagist, author of The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs.

The story of this book starts with another book:
During a Civil War that threatened to tear the United States apart came the realization that only a handful of veterans of the American Revolution still survived—men who had fought the war that created the nation. Six of these men were photographed and interviewed for a book that appeared late in 1864.

Their images have captivated generations since then; but, through a combination of faded memories and the interviewer’s patriotic agenda, the biographies accompanying these amazing photographs were garbled and distorted, containing information that ranged from inaccurate to implausible.
Westholme Publishing invited Don to investigate those soldiers again, using primary documents to correct and fill out their life stories. The result is a detailed exploration of the experiences of six young men serving in the American forces, alongside their actual faces in old age.

Don Hagist is an editor of the Journal of the American Revolution and author of the British Soldiers, American War blog. I’ve reported how he unearthed personal information in the British National Archives about three of the redcoats involved in the Boston Massacre.

Don’s previous history books include British Soldiers, American War (recommended here), A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution, and Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls. Don works as an engineering consultant in Rhode Island, and also writes for several well-known syndicated and freelance cartoonists.

The N.E.H.G.S. is at 99-101 Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay. This event is scheduled from 6:00 to 7:30 P.M., and is free to all.

(For folks who can’t get enough Revolutionary photographs, I’ll also note Joseph M. Bauman’s ebook edition of The Last Men of the Revolution with the old biographies but new images, and his follow-up with new photos and new bios of other veterans, Don’t Tread on Me, both discussed here. In addition, historic photo expert Maureen Taylor, who wrote the foreword for Don’s book, has published two Last Muster collections of portraits of folks who lived through the Revolution.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Ropes Mansion Reopening in Salem, 23 May

On Saturday, 23 May, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem will reopen its historic Ropes Mansion to the public. The museum says the site “reimagines what a historic house experience can be,…in which present-day and personal life experiences are placed in dialogue with the past.”

Some more background:
Built in 1727 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Ropes Mansion was home to four generations of the Ropes family and is recognized as one of New England’s most significant and thoroughly documented historic houses. Filled with original furnishings, the house contains superb examples of 18th- and 19th-century furniture, ceramics and glass, silver, kitchenwares, textiles and personal objects. The property has been closed to the public since 2009, following a fire that was swiftly contained by firefighters, and its reopening ushers in a new chapter for this stately and illustrious Georgian Colonial. . . .

On the first floor, the dining room is set as it would have appeared for Christmas dinner in 1847, details gleaned from a letter by Sally Fisk Ropes Orne who hosted the event. The installation features an elaborate dinner service, menu and serving techniques used on that festive occasion. The nearby kitchen offers a glimpse into the lives of the parlor maid and cook employed by the Ropes family in 1894 and the housekeeping practices used in their daily tasks. Cooking implements, recipes, as well as the plain china used by the servants are on view in the kitchen. Towels hanging near the sink feature printed instructions to kitchen staff on the correct way to wash dishes and clean silverware. Elsewhere, guests are invited to try their hand at historic napkin-folding techniques and learn period table manners and etiquette.

Upstairs bedrooms present tales of marriage, housekeeping and child rearing, as well as emotionally charged accounts of illness and death within the family. The childhood toys, books and seashells of Elizabeth Ropes Orne are given stark contrast by the locket, containing a lock of her hair, that was commissioned and worn by her mother after Elizabeth died of tuberculosis at age 24.

Period rooms within the Ropes Mansion welcome guests to explore the intimate surroundings with as few barriers as possible. Open drawers, trunks and desks are designed to pique curiosity and offer a naturalistic glimpse into the lives of Ropes family members. Reproduction bed hangings, carpet and wallpaper introduce vibrant color and texture to the home and, for the first time, the 1894-period bathroom will be on view.
The Ropes Mansion is at 318 Essex Street in Salem, a ten-minute walk from the museum. It will be open free to the public in season, Saturdays and Sundays, from noon to 4:00 P.M. Visitors will be able to freely circulate instead of following a tour, though guides will be present to answer questions.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Hutchinson Learned Latin and French

This is Thomas Hutchinson writing in the third person about himself as a young man:
When he left College [1727] he went into his father's counting house, and became a Merchant Apprentice, from 17 years to 21. He saw how much he had neglected his studies at College, and applied to his schoolmaster, (…whose tuition he was under about five years), and desired he would allow him to spend two or three evenings in a week in going over some of the Latin Classicks, which he readily consented to. In a short time he acquired a relish for the Latin tongue, which he never lost.

Soon after he put himself under M. [Andrew] Le Mercier, the French Minister, and then began to learn the French tongue; but Monsieur [Louis] Langloiseier, arriving at Boston soon after, in Gov. [William] Burnet's family, & Mr [John Henry] Lidius of Albany, who had lived and married in Canada, and Mr [Peter] Chardon, a young gentleman of fortune from London, being also in Boston, a French Club was formed, of which the three gentlemen above named were members, and Mr [Jeremiah] Gridley, the Lawyer, Mr Jo[seph]. Greene, [John] Lovell, and two or three more New England young gentlemen were members, & the whole conversation was to be in French.

In these ways he acquired a competent knowledge of the Latin & French, accustoming himself to reading authors in both languages, and at length he found very little difficulty in either.
Le Mercier, a native of Caen educated in Geneva, was minister of the Huguenot church in Boston, which faded after his death. Eventually that building on School Street became the town’s first Catholic church.

As Hutchinson noted, Langloiserie arrived in Boston with the new governor in 1728, but left for London on the sudden death of his patron. He came back, opened a French school in 1730, and started tutoring Harvard students in the language in 1733.

Lydius was a Dutch-born dealer in western lands, not always equipped with legal titles.

Chardon was a merchant of Huguenot ancestry whose name remains in New Chardon Street.

Gridley, Green, and Lovell were all New England-born Englishmen like Hutchinson, learned and upper-class. Gridley became the province’s leading lawyer and leader of the Freemasons. Greene was a merchant also known for his satirical verse. Lovell was the master of the South Latin School for decades.

Of these men, all who survived until the Revolution became Loyalists. (Well, Lydius was already in Britain in 1776, either seeking to validate his land claims or hiding out from the many people who had bought deeds from him.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

“Ellis’s strategy of building his narrative around four exemplary men”

Back in July 2013 I discussed historian Joseph J. Ellis’s focus on, in his words, “the most prominent members of the political leadership during this formative phase” of the nation, as opposed to the larger mass of less wealthy, privileged, and successful Americans.

Some reviews of Ellis’s latest book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, fault that approach when it comes to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

In the New York Times Book Review, R. B. Bernstein wrote:
Ellis sees American nationhood as the creation of a few politicians working from above. But what of sentiments of ­national identity among the American people? ­Ellis rejects the idea that American ­nationalism existed before 1787, even reproving Abraham Lincoln for making that claim; his endnotes airily dismiss scholarship arguing otherwise. Nonetheless, currents of nationalism before 1787 helped make possible both the American victory in the Revolution and the Constitution’s adoption. . . .

Another large question concerns Ellis’s understanding of politics itself. The path to the Constitution was studded with pivotal choices, critical decision points and balking institutions. . . . These and other choices resulted from political decisions by the Confederation Congress, the state legislatures and the state ratifying conventions, all outside the control of Ellis’s four heroes [Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay].

Ellis dedicates “The Quartet” to his friend and colleague Pauline Maier, one of the finest historians of the American Revolution and the Constitution’s origins. He writes movingly of her in ways that bring her to life for all fortunate enough to have known her. And yet Maier’s work cuts against “The Quartet.” She focused on politics and political processes; her deft illumination of them produced a story more persuasive than that of “The Quartet.”
That book would be Maier’s Ratification. And Ellis’s skill is indeed bringing such big personalities to life.

The Economist, which doesn’t name its contributors, said something similar:
But in focusing on a few exceptional men, Mr Ellis also deprives his narrative of vital context. From the beginning it is an unequal contest, pitting the visionaries against the narrow-minded, the righteous few against the feckless many. None of their opponents—with the possible exception of Patrick Henry, who makes a cameo appearance near the end of the book engaging in oratorical fisticuffs with Madison over Virginia’s ratification of the constitution—rises to the stature of Mr Ellis’s heroes, or even their supporting cast. Their most doughty opponent, it turns out, is the amorphous “spirit of ’76”, which makes the book less a clash of titans than an exercise in shadow boxing.

Mr Ellis’s strategy of building his narrative around four exemplary men certainly makes for more compelling reading than delving into tax rolls or birth registers. Inevitably, though, it also carries its own subtle bias. Although he occasionally draws the reader’s attention to the moral limitations of the Founding Fathers, for instance calling their treatment of the native population one of the “less attractive features of the western story”, this is largely a triumphalist tale. Mr Ellis is not blind to the moral compromises made in Philadelphia in 1787, but he accepts rather too complacently the notion that the constitution that emerged represented the best possible agreement under the circumstances.
I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve enjoyed some of Ellis’s previous books. I’ve found his analyses of personalities and conversations between two or three figures to be compelling. However, I’m not convinced that approach works as well in illuminating huge enterprises like nation-building.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Studying American Slavery at Brown and Columbia

On Thursday, 21 May, the the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University will open a new exhibit titled “A Peculiar Aesthetic: Representation and Images of Slavery.”

The event announcement says:
Racial slavery remains one of the most vexed issues in American and New World history. Its legacies haunt and shape our contemporary lives. Utilizing historic artwork from the Brown University Library Instructional Image Collection, the exhibition A Peculiar Aesthetic examines how these images coalesce to represent a world in which plantations, slave markets and dwellings, maroon ambushes, cosmetic boxes, figurines and decorative tables, and printers’ typefaces of runaway slaves – evoke again and again the realization of how central slavery was to ways of life within New World and American society.
From 5:00 to 7:00 P.M. on 21 May, there will be an opening reception at the center’s gallery, 94 Waterman Street in Providence, Rhode Island. The exhibition will remain on view there through 31 October, Monday through Friday, 8:45 A.M. to 3:45 P.M.

In related news, the New York Times reported on the findings of a history seminar at Columbia looking at that New York university’s connections to slavery.
Sharon Liao, a junior at Columbia College, uncovered 18th-century accounting records showing that the school not only received donations from prominent New York families with slave plantations in the West Indies, but sometimes lent them money at below-market interest rates.

“These guys were basically using Columbia as a bank,” Mr. [Eric] Foner said.
The seminar students’ basic finding was that Columbia had some students, faculty, and donors who vocally opposed slavery, more who benefited directly from it, and many more who didn’t oppose it while benefiting indirectly. Which part of that history has the institution promoted most in recent years? Not surprisingly, Columbia, like the U.S. of A. as a whole, has preferred to emphasize the slow move toward emancipation.

[The image above comes from a 1781 issue of the Royal Gazette of Jamaica, courtesy of the British Library and the Journal of the American Revolution.]

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Old North Lecture and Puppet Show, 20 May

On Wednesday, 20 May, the Old North Church is offering an unusual combination of programs.

At 6:30 P.M., Robert J. Allison will speak on the topic “How Did Old North Become Old North?” When Christ Church was built in Boston’s North End in 1723, there already was an “Old North,” the venerable Puritan Meeting House over which the Mathers presided. How did the upstart Anglican congregation become the “Old North” of Boston legend? This talk will focus on Old North’s place in Boston history and myth.

Bob Allison is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Suffolk University. He is the author of many books, including most recently The American Revolution: A Concise History. Allison is also president of the South Boston Historical Society, a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and vice president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

This talk, part of the church’s Spring Speaker Series, is free. Reserve tickets here.

At 8:00 P.M., or immediately after the lecture, Noah’s New Americans will perform “Paul Revere’s Ride: A Shadow Play.” This group is a colonial history club for youth aged 8 to 17 based at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut. They’ve prepared a dramatization of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem about Paul Revere using the ancient storytelling form of shadow puppetry.

As I said, an unusual combination.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

George Washington Makes Himself Clear

I’ve been tracing the relationship of George Washington and George Muse, an older Virginia planter who had served (badly) at Fort Necessity but then became a partner in real-estate speculation.

In late 1773 Muse wrote a letter about their business dealings which Washington didn’t like. How much did he dislike it? Here’s what Washington wrote back on 29 Jan 1774:

Your impertinent Letter of the 24th ulto [i.e., of last month], was delivered to me yesterday by Mr [Charles] Smith—

As I am not accustomed to receive such from any Man, nor would have taken the same language from you personally, without letting you feel some marks of my resentment; I would advise you to be cautious in writing me a second of the same tenour; for though I understand you were drunk when you did it, yet give me leave to tell you, that drunkeness is no excuse for rudeness; & that, but for your stupidity & sottishness you might have known, by attending to the public Gazettes, (particularly [William] Rinds of the 14th of January last) that you had your full quantity of ten thousand acres of Land allow’d you; that is, 9073 acres in the great Tract of 51,302 acres, & the remainder in the small tract of 927 acres; whilst I wanted near 500 acres of my quantity, Doctr [James] Craik 300 of his, and almost every other claimant little or much of theirs.

But suppose you had really fallen short 73 acres of your 10,000, do you think your superlative merit entitles you to greater indulgences than others? or that I was to make it good to you, if it did? when it was at the option of the Governor & Council to have allowed you but 500 acres in the whole, if they had been inclin’d so to do.

If either of these should happen to be your opinion, I am very well convinced you will stand singular in it; & all my concerns is, that I ever engag’d in behalf of so ungrateful & dirty a fellow as you are. But you may still stand in need of my assistance, as I can inform you that your affairs, in respect to these Lands, do not stand upon so solid a basis as you may imagine, & this you may take by way of hint. . . .

I wrote to you a few days ago concerning the other distribution, proposing an easy method of dividing our Lands; but since I find in what temper you are, I am sorry I took the trouble of mentioning the Land, or your name in a Letter, as I do not think you merit the least assistance from

G: Washington

This letter was my starting-point for looking into Washington’s relationship with George Muse. What, I wondered, could have caused someone so determined to keep his emotions in genteel check to write so bluntly?

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Washington had a reason to resent Muse from way back. I was surprised to see that they had continued to do business together for so long.

And I was even more surprised to find that their business relationship survived this letter in January 1774 to go on for several more years. They exchanged more polite business letters that year. In March 1783, as the war wound down, Muse asked to be reimbursed for expenses. The next year, Washington made Muse’s son his agent in the west. Evidently, real estate trumped rancor.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

“Several ask me if it was true that he had Challang’d you to fight”

Yesterday I described how the battle at Fort Necessity on 3 July 1754 didn’t reflect well on Lt. Col. George Washington, but really didn’t reflect well on Maj. George Muse. Other officers accused Muse of cowardice, and he resigned in a huff.

Another officer on that expedition was William La Péronie, an immigrant to Virginia from France. On 3 September, he made sure Washington knew what Muse and others were saying in Williamsburg:
Many enquired to me about Muses Braveries; poor Body I had pity him ha’nt he had the weakness to Confes his Coardise him Self, & the inpudence to taxe all the reste of the oficiers withoud exeption of the same imperfection. for he said to many of the Cousulars and Burgeses that he was Bad But th’ the reste was as Bad as he.

To speak francly had I been in town at the time I Cou’nt help’d to make use of my horse’s wheup for to vindicate the injury of that villain.

he Contrived his Business so that several ask me if it was true that he had Challang’d you to fight: my answer was no other But that he Should rather chuse to go to hell than doing of it. for had he had such thing declar’d: that was his Sure Road—I have made my particular Business to tray if any had some Bad intention against you here Below: But thank God I meet allowais with a goad wish for you from evry mouth each one entertining such Caracter of you as I have the honnour to do my Self
La Péronie was sucking up especially hard since Washington was helping him win a higher commission in the Virginia forces. He got the promotion, but died the following year while serving under Gen. Edward Braddock.

In addition to giving La Péronie that commission in 1754, the Virginia legislature issued a resolution thanking all the officers at Fort Necessity by name—except for George Muse and one other man.

Nonetheless, Muse was entitled to some of the western land claims granted to all the officers on the expedition. That meant he and Washington continued to share an economic interest in western settlement for decades. They met with other landowners, lobbied government officials, and in 1770 agreed to trade land back and forth.

Then in December 1773 Muse sent Washington a letter complaining about some aspect of those grants and how Washington was handling them.

TOMORROW: Washington angrier than I’ve ever read him.