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 22, 2016

Looking at a Lantern

This lantern is in the collection of the Bostonian Society. According to its description, these words are painted on the bottom:
This LANTERN was on the Northwest Bough, (opposite Frog-lane), of the LIBERTY TREE; Illuminated last night with several hundred Lanterns, on the arrival of the News of the “Repeal of the Infamous GEORGE GRENVILLE Stamp Act.” Boston May 21st 1766 Eleazer Johnson
There was indeed a Capt. Eleazer Johnson active in Boston Whig politics (as well as other men of the same name in Charlestown and Newburyport, just to muddy the waters).

The lantern was donated to the Bostonian Society in 1889 by “Heirs of J. H. Hunneman”—presumably Joseph Hewes Hunneman (1812-1887). He had a first cousin named Eleazer Johnson Hewes (1803-1856), so it’s likely the family knew Johnson.

(Those cousins were both descended from Shubael Hewes (1732-1813), a butcher in Revolutionary Boston. Shubael Hewes was far from a Whig activist. He testified for the soldiers after the Boston Massacre, and he supplied meat to the British army during the siege of Boston. Yet Shubael Hewes didn’t leave with that army, either. He stayed in Boston and managed to regain the confidence of his neighbors enough to be elected to town office in 1781 and later. Other members of the family were active Whigs, including little brother George R. T. Hewes.)

There were articles about this lantern and two similar ones in The Magazine Antiques in 1930 and 1934. Discussing this lantern last year, Bostonian Society historian Nat Sheidley wrote:
In many ways the Bostonian Society’s lantern is relatively undistinguished. Like most lanterns of the second half of the eighteenth century, it is made of tin and glass. It is large enough to accommodate two candles, but at just over 20 inches by just under 8 ½ inches it is not oversized. It is painted green, red, and gold, and the tinwork is well executed but not overly ornate.

A closer look, however, reveals much that is of interest. The lantern bears a carefully wrought crown of elm leaf finials, a clear reference to the Liberty Tree itself. Importantly, the same finials are found atop all three surviving lanterns that hung from the Liberty Tree in May 1766. This suggests that the lanterns were made as a set, either by a single tin worker or by multiple craftsmen working together. Clearly, the lanterns were not a spontaneous outpouring contributed by Boston residents; instead, they were part of a carefully planned commemoration of the repeal and of the Liberty Tree’s role in the defeat of the Stamp Act.
Of course, we should always ask questions about Revolutionary artifacts that surface during the Colonial Revival with no earlier documentation. One detail of the label that makes me dubious is the phrase “the LIBERTY TREE.” In all the contemporaneous references I’ve seen, Bostonians called that elm “Liberty Tree” with no definite article. (They did write “the Tree of Liberty.”)

On the other hand, would someone writing on this lantern decades later really care about which British politician had been prime minister when the Stamp Act passed? Would a person faking this lantern based on newspaper reports have omitted the detail of 108 lanterns, which would have given verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative? Instead, the lantern says it was one of “several hundred,” the sort of exaggeration someone might write in the heat of the moment.

We might ask, would Johnson really label a common lantern on 21 May 1766 with so much historic detail that we’d be studying it 250 years later? That actually seems plausible. As the newspaper descriptions of the repeal celebrations show, Bostonians really did feel they were living through an important moment when they had helped to return justice and harmony to the British Empire.

TOMORROW: Celebration and tragedy in Hartford.

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