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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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.


Bill Harshaw said...

For much of its history, a church was the tallest building in NYC.


J. L. Bell said...

From the 1300s to the completion of the Washington Monument, churches and cathedrals were the tallest buildings in the world.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

John, in taking an initial look at the "We Are One" website, I was disappointed to read right off the bat that the Stamp Act was intended "to raise funds to pay for the French and Indian War," a repetition of a common misconception of the Act's purpose.

The Yale Law School Avalon website gives a full transcription of the Act, the preamble to which states that its purpose is "defraying the expences [sic] of defending, protecting, and securing" the "British colonies and plantations in America."

Clearly, British anxieties about the Seven Years War debt loomed large in the policy context for the Stamp Act, but to claim it was a measure specifically designed to help retire that war debt seems to me be interpretively imprecise...

J. L. Bell said...

True, but money is fungible. And according to Oliver Dickerson's calculations, the tea duties under the Townshend Act (which were actually collected, unlike the Stamp tax) were entirely consumed by salaries within the Customs service and colonial civil administration. So none of that revenue went to the troops in North America or the war debt.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Point taken about fungibility, John.

But I think that exhibit text writers should be (not pedantic) but precise in their word choices.To say that the Stamp Act's purpose was to "raise funds to pay for the French and Indian War" is just flat out wrong.

The fact that war debts were the context for the Act could be underlined by saying something like "Following the costly 'French and Indian' or Seven Years War, a British Parliament anxious to find new ways to fund the defense and administration of their vastly expanded American empire passed the Stamp Act..."

J. L. Bell said...

I agree your wording is more accurate. It also involves more words. That's not a huge issue on the website, but I understand it's a huge issue for the folks who write museum labels. I don't recall what the signs in this exhibit say about that point.