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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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Poking through the Joseph Hawley Papers

Harvard University isn’t the only institution digitizing Revolutionary-era documents, of course.

The New York Public Library ended up with a bunch of significant papers from Massachusetts, including Samuel Adams’s papers and the correspondence of the Boston Committee of Correspondence. It too has been scanning lots of documents and making them available to the world for free as part of its Early American Manuscripts Project.

I’ll start with the Joseph Hawley Papers. Hawley was an attorney in Northampton, respected by all Massachusetts Whigs for his legal knowledge and judgment. He was quite active in the Massachusetts legislature leading up to the Revolutionary War.

This is Hawley’s copy of the text of a letter that William Brattle sent to Gen. Thomas Gage in late August 1774 warning about rumblings of military preparation in the countryside. Gage responded by removing gunpowder from the provincial powderhouse in what is now Somerville. The rural militia mobilized in what became known as the “Powder Alarm.” That event signaled how Massachusetts farmers had become more confrontational than Bostonians.

Here’s a letter from a man in Boston on 27 Feb 1775 worrying that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress has given too much power to its Committee of Safety to call out the militia again:
when once the Soldiers are mustered by order of the Committee they will suppose it their duty to fight, and for fear of being Impeached for Cowardice, it is more than probable they will Commence Hostilities…
Who wrote that letter? The page with the signature doesn’t appear to have survived. But the handwriting looks a lot like that in this July 1775 letter from Thomas Cushing—Boston merchant, speaker of the Massachusetts house, and delegate to the Continental Congress.

Later in July Cushing wrote again with news that the Congress had chosen Hawley to help negotiate with Native American nations in the northern theater. Hawley’s papers also include a commission signed by John Hancock. There follow a few letters from the other commissioners, asking why they hadn’t heard from Hawley. Finally he wrote to the Congress saying he couldn’t take on the job because of this health—quite possibly the beginning of a long depression that curtailed his political activity.

Hawley appears to have remained active in local affairs, at least at times. His papers include an August 1775 document in which a bunch of British prisoners signed onto the terms of their parole within the town of Northampton. Here are notes on how Hawley’s town voted to pay “nine-month men” enlisting in the Continental Army, and here’s the list of some men who signed up on those terms.


DCC said...

Thank you, JL. It's exciting every time I hear about a new digitalization project. How do you hear about these initiatives? I'm aware of several but I know there are many more out there. Do you know of any blogs or websites that report that information?

J. L. Bell said...

I guess I learned about these launches on social media. The archivists and librarians who work on the digitization projects want people to come see and use the material, so they try to spread the word. The challenge might be connecting that news to people from outside the profession and the academy.