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, July 31, 2016

“Excepting only from the benefit of such pardon”

Yesterday I quoted from Gen. Thomas Gage’s proclamation on 12 June 1775 declaring martial law in Massachusetts.

Since at the time Gage controlled only the peninsula of Boston and Castle William, that proclamation didn’t have a big effect in the province. A couple days later, he and his generals started planning to take the Dorchester and Charlestown peninsulas as well, but few people were living in those areas, either.

The part of the proclamation that people most noticed at the time and remember today is its offer of pardon to any surrendering rebels, with a couple of notable exceptions:
In this exigency of complicated calamities, I avail myself of the last effort within the bounds of my duty, to spare the effusion of blood; to offer, and I do hereby in his Majesty’s name, offer and promise, his most gracious pardon in all who shall forthwith lay down their arms, and return to the duties of peaceable subjects, excepting only from the benefit of such pardon, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whose offences are of too flagitious a nature to admit of any other consideration than that of condign punishment.

And to the end that no person within the limits of this proffered mercy, may plead ignorance of the conseqences of refusing it, I by these presents proclaim not only the persons above-named and excepted, but also all their adherents, associates and abettors, meaning to comprehend in those terms, all and every person, and persons of what class, denomination or description soever, who have appeared in arms against the King’s government, and shall not lay down the same as afore-mentioned, and likewise all such as shall so take arms after the date hereof, or who shall in any-wise protects or conceal such offenders, or assist them with money, provision, cattle, arms, ammunition, carriages, or any other necessary for subsistence or offence; or shall hold secret correspondence with them by letter, message, signal, or otherwise, to be rebels and traitors, and as such as to be treated.
Those passages appeared in italics in the printed proclamation, presumably to signal that Gage really, really meant it.

This proclamation is also significant in what it doesn’t say. It offers no financial reward for Hancock and Adams, or any other Patriot leader.

In the 1800s it was common for American authors to say that the British Crown had promised £500 for the capture of Hancock, Adams, and sometimes other men. Some authors say that offer came in early 1775, others in early 1776. But as far as I’ve seen, there’s no evidence the Crown ever offered such a reward at all. None of those authors cites a document to back up the claim.

Gage and his colleagues wouldn’t have kept such a bounty secret; when you make an offer like that, you spread the news as wide as possible. Here, for example, and the proclamations from:
Even without a reward, Adams and Hancock clearly benefited from being singled out as “flagitious” by Gov. Gage, just as they had benefited from the mistaken belief that the king’s troops had tried to catch them in Lexington on 19 April. [I present the evidence against that belief in The Road to Concord.]

TOMORROW: John Hancock’s famous signature.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

When Gen. Gage Proclaimed Martial Law

I sometimes see people write that the arrival of Gen. Thomas Gage as royal governor of Massachusetts in May 1774 placed the town of Boston under “martial law.” That’s a misunderstanding.

Gage was indeed commander-in-chief of the British army in North America, but the ministry in London made him governor in the normal civil process under Massachusetts’s 1692 charter. Other men with military appointments also served as colonial governors, and Gov. William Shirley had also been the North American commander-in-chief.

Gage brought troops with him, and stationing those troops in Boston (and later in Salem and Marshfield) meant that civilians had to follow certain rules, but that didn’t constitute “martial law.” That term has a particular meaning in the British and American legal systems, referring to the suspension of ordinary legislation and justice. Gage didn’t take that step in 1774.

In fact, Gage tried to keep the Massachusetts courts operating that summer and fall. The Patriot movement closed those courts down, starting in the western counties. Gage did adjourn the Massachusetts General Court early in the summer after it chose delegates to the First Continental Congress, but he had the power to do so under the regular charter, and he summoned a new legislature in early September. [I discuss how that turned out in The Road to Concord.]

Gage really did declare martial law on 12 June 1775—almost two months after the Revolutionary War began. On that date he issued a proclamation that began:
WHEREAS the infatuated multitudes, who have long suffered themselves to be conducted by certain well known Incendiaries and Traitors, in a fatal progression of crimes, against the constitutional authority of the state, have at length proceeded to avowed rebellion; and the good effects which were expected arise from the patience and lenity of the King’s government, have been often frustated, and are now rendered hopeless, by the influence of the same evil counsels; it only remains for those who are entrusted with supreme rule, as well for the punishment of the guilty, as the protection of the well-affected, to prove they do not bear the sword in vain.
And finally got around to saying:
And whereas, during the continuance of the present unnatural rebellion, justice cannot be administered by the common law of the land, the course whereof has, for a longtime past, been violently impeded, and wholly interrupted; from whence results a necessity for using and exercising the law martial; I have therefore thought fit, by the authority vested in me, by the Royal Charter to this province, to publish, and I do hereby publish, proclaim and order the use and exercise of the law martial, within and throughout this province, for so long time as the present unhappy occasion shall necessarily require; whereof all persons are hereby required to take notice, and govern themselves, as well to maintain order and regularity among the peaceable inhabitants of the province, as to resist, encounter, and subdue the Rebels and Traitors above-described by such as shall be called upon those purposes.
(The imperfect transcription here seems to be the best text of this document on the web.)

Gage didn’t write that proclamation. It came from the pen of Gen. John Burgoyne (shown above), who had arrived in Boston in May, after the war had begun. In a letter to Attorney General Edward Thurlow on 20 August, Burgoyne stated:
…I am sometimes called upon to draw a pen instead of a sword. If the proclamation for the exercise of martial law, the correspondence with [Charles] Lee, or the answer to [George] Washington upon the subject of rebel prisoners, fall into your hands, I request you to consider those productions with all the allowances your candour can suggest—not as voluntary undertakings, but proceeding from a principle to refuse no task assigned to me, and to deal out vigour where I could in this great cause, though by the exercise of a weapon for which I was most unfit.
In eighteenth-century genteel language, that was the equivalent of, “Hey, take a look at what I wrote!” For posterity Burgoyne kept a copy of the 12 June proclamation in his handwriting labeled “Drawn up by me at the request of General Gage.” So he wasn’t really hiding his work on this proclamation.

TOMORROW: The clauses offering lenience.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Workings of Gradual Emancipation in Pennsylvania

In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law ending slavery in the state—but not yet.

This blog post from the Manuscripts and Archives Department of the Yale University Library explains:
The Act, which represented an early approach by a U.S. state to abolishing slavery, simply banned importation of new slaves into the state. Slaves already in the state remained enslaved for life, and children born to them were afforded the status of indentured servants, forced to serve their mothers’ master until the age of 28.

The Act stipulated that residents of the state had to register their existing slaves with the county government annually or risk manumission. Foreshadowing a long tradition to come, members of the U.S. Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia under the Articles of Confederation, were exempted from the Pennsylvania Act.
The Yale library holds the registry of slaves in Chester County from 1780 to 1821, indexed by the owners’ names. Pennsylvania became known as an anti-slavery state, a refuge for people escaping from the states to the south. But it maintained the property claims of local slave-owners until 1847.

[Featuring a document from Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives Department has some sentimental meaning for me since I worked there part-time for a couple of years.]

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The “unutterable things” of Gen. Charles Lee

In the movie Bull Durham, the veteran catcher counsels the hot pitching prospect, “Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shower shoes and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you’re a slob.”

The reverse process happened to Gen. Charles Lee. In 1775-76, Americans saw him as a military genius and were willing to chuckle about his many eccentricities. Once he challenged Gen. George Washington in 1778, however, Lee became less popular. After Washington became President and was apotheosized after his death, Lee became one of the villains of American history, and authors were happy to highlight his character flaws.

In 1788 the Rev. William Gordon published this anecdote about Lee, dating it to late 1776. (It’s not clear whether Gordon actually wrote this in 1776, but his history of the Revolution took the form of a series of contemporaneous letters to a friend in Britain.)
Gen. Lee, while at White Plains, lodged in a small house close in with the road, by which gen. Washington had to pass when out on reconnoitring. Returning with his officers they called in and took a dinner. They were no sooner gone, than Lee told his aids, “You must look me out another place, for I shall have Washington and all his puppies continually calling upon me, and they will eat me up.”

The next day Lee seeing Washington out upon the like business, and supposing that he should have another visit, ordered his servant to write with chalk upon the door—No victuals dressed here to-day. When the company approached and saw the writing, they pushed off with much good humor for their own table, without resenting the habitual oddity of the man.
Here’s another story about the same trait of Lee’s, published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections by Thomas Amory Lee in 1917. See if you can spot the difference in tone:
Gen. Lee was not only slovenly in his dress and rude in manner, but remarkable for his sordid parsimony. Col. [William Raymond] Lee often remarked on these inhospitable and repulsive peculiarities of an officer of his superior education, large service in European armies, and constant intercourse with the first gentlemen in every country in which he had resided.

Col. Lee stated that as acting brigade major of the brigade which Col. [John] Glover temporarily commanded, he was obliged daily as senior officer in General Lee’s division, and at all hours to visit the headquarters of Gen. Lee. On one occasion, happening to call just as the General was sitting down to dinner, he observed, “Major Lee, why the devil do you never dine, breakfast, or sup with me; you are frequently at my quarters, either in the morning, at the dinner hour, or in the evening.”

The major replied, “General, you have never invited me to take a seat at your table.”

“That is just like all you damned Yankees; never stand on ceremony, but in future, whenever you come into my quarters at the time I am taking my meals, sit down and call on the servant for a plate.”

“Very well, sir,” said the major, “I am very much obliged to you and will avail myself of your politeness now,” and placing a chair at the table, requested that a plate might be brought to him.

The General was astonished, looked unutterable things, and never again hinted that Major Lee’s company would be agreeable.
In his recent biography Renegade Revolutionary, Phillip Papas speculated that Lee might have had bipolar or manic-depressive disorder. This is a far more understanding approach than deciding he was just a Bad Person. Of course, Lee could also have been a Bad Person.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

“What Comes Next?” on Turn: Washington‘s Spies

Yesterday the A.M.C. television channel announced that it had ordered ten more episodes of Turn: Washington’s Spies to make up a fourth and final season of the show.

Though the series hasn’t earned stellar ratings or awards, it attracts a steady audience of the young and middle-aged consumers that advertisers like. There’s definitely an online community of fans, though I can’t say how its size compares to others.

I’ve reviewed every episode of Turn for Den of Geek, and you can revisit my assessments here. If you haven’t watched the show, in each weekly review I tried to avoid giving away the biggest surprises of the latest episode, but I couldn’t keep the turns concealed in succeeding weeks. But of course anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Revolutionary War has a good idea about how the story of Gen. Benedict Arnold and Maj. John André worked out.

Last month, as the world awaited news of whether there would be a fourth season, I wrote an additional essay for Den of Geek on “What Comes Next?” Having brought us to the end of André’s rope, does Turn have somewhere else to go? I wrote:
U.S. history certainly provides such a story in the events of 1781. (Season 3 appears to have concluded in the winter of 1777-78, but Turn has always played loose with actual chronology, so the show could jump ahead as needed.) Throughout the first months of 1781, Gen. Henry Clinton inside New York and Gen. George Washington outside jockeyed for advantage. Late that summer, Washington concluded that he could strike a decisive blow against the British army by moving most of his army with Gen. Rochambeau’s French troops south to Virginia to attack the British general Cornwallis at Yorktown.

That decision was preceded by months of espionage work, offering plenty of work for Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge and Oliver De Lancey, the New York-born British army officer who succeeded André as adjutant-general. Washington asked his agents for clues to whether Clinton would send more troops south or mount a major attack from the city. Likewise, Clinton’s intelligence staff wanted to know when Washington would make a move. Both sides tried to feed false information across the lines and made feints to deceive, distract, or draw off the other side.

To keep the Americans busy in the north, Clinton ordered none other than Brig. Gen. Arnold to lead a raid on New London, Connecticut. As a site of Continental naval operations, that coastal town was a legitimate target. That didn’t stop Americans from complaining that Arnold was driven by resentment toward the state where he had grown up. For Turn’s hotheaded Arnold, that motivation could be a real factor.
Check out that essay for further thoughts on how Turn’s other regular characters could fit into those events and on some aspects of the Revolutionary War that the show hasn’t explored thoroughly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Another Watson, Another Shark

Around here, “Watson and the Shark” is the John Singleton Copley painting of Brook Watson’s rescue from a shark in Havana. The Museum of Fine Arts has one of several copies Copley made for Watson.

At English Historical Fiction Authors, Mimi Matthews recently wrote about another shark and another Watson:

On January 1, 1787, some fishermen spied a shark in the [Thames] river and, with much difficulty, captured the creature and drew it into their boat. The shark was alive, but, as [author George Henry] Birch states, “apparently sickly.” The cause of his illness was soon discovered. Upon taking him ashore and cutting him open, the fishermen found within his body a silver watch, chain, and “cornelian” seal. A 1787 edition of the Northampton Mercury reports that they also found:

“…some Pieces of Gold Lace, which were conjectured to have belonged to some young Gentleman, who was swallowed by that voracious Fish.”

On further examination, it was found that the watch was engraved with the maker’s name and number: Henry Watson, London, No. 1369. Mr. Watson lived in Shoreditch and, when applied to for information regarding that particular watch, the Northampton Mercury reports that Mr. Watson revealed that he had:

“…sold the Watch two Years ago to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, as a Present for his Son on going out on his first Voyage (as what is called a Guinea-Pig) on board the ship Polly, Capt. Vane, bound to Coast and Bay.”
In a storm off Falmouth, the Annual Register for 1787 finished the story, “Master Thompson fell overboard, and was no more seen.” But his father bought the shark as a memorial; one newspaper even said that “he calls [the fish] his son’s executor.”

The term “guinea pig” appears as British maritime slang as early as 1767, and a generation later was specified to mean a midshipman in the East India service.

Monday, July 25, 2016

How Should We Refer to the Chevalier D’Eon?

Four years ago I reported on art dealer Philip Mould’s identification of a portrait as showing the Chevalier d’Eon.

A French diplomat and spy, D’Eon ran afoul of his own government and took refuge in London. Dressing as a woman while teaching men to fence, D’Eon became a celebrity, eventually claiming to have been a woman all along.

The National Portrait Gallery in London acquired that oil painting to go with its many engravings of D’Eon made for a wider audience. In connection with the display of that portrait, Assistant Curator Claire Barlow recently wrote:
D’Eon’s extraordinary story sparked a debate over the display of the portrait: which pronoun to use? The answer ought to be whichever pronoun D’Eon preferred but here we hit the great problem of working with historical objects – the limitations of surviving evidence. While living as a man, D’Eon had bought women’s clothes for himself but he only began living exclusively as a woman due to external pressure. The French court, convinced by persistent rumours about D’Eon’s gender, only agreed to give him a pension if he wore ‘clothing appropriate to her sex’. This ruling reflects the strict eighteenth-century gender division: ultimately, D’Eon had to choose. He took the pension and lived the rest of his life as a woman, forging a very successful career in Britain as a female fencer.

We simply don’t know whether D’Eon would have chosen to be transvestite, transsexual or something else entirely if those options had been available. We didn’t want to repeat the mistake of the French king, in not realising that a man could choose to wear a dress, so we decided to use the male pronoun.
The chevalier’s Wikipedia entry, in contrast, suggests the article’s editors have tried to avoid pronouns at all, producing sentences like “In an effort to save d'Éon's station in London, d'Éon published much of the secret diplomatic correspondence about d'Éon's recall…”

I’m not sure D’Eon was really forced into the choice of living as a woman. The 1777 agreement between D’Eon and Pierre-Augustin Caron du Beaumarchais, acting on behalf of the French government, did state that D’Eon had to dress as a woman as a condition of returning to France with a pension. However, it also served as a royal ruling that D’Eon was a woman and used female terms like “demoiselle” and “spinster.”

D’Eon’s additions to that agreement, crossed out by Beaumarchais, insisted that the chevalier had been female all along: “Seeing that son sexe has been proved by witnesses, physicians, surgeons, matrons and legal documents”; and “That I have already worn [female clothing] upon several occasions known to his Majesty.” Those don’t seem like the protests of someone being made to do something against his will. Saying the king made D’Eon dress in female clothing seems like saying Brer Fox made Brer Rabbit go into the briar patch.

Furthermore, in 1785 D’Eon returned to Britain, beyond Louis XVI’s reach. The French Revolution ended the pension from Paris in the early 1790s. Yet D’Eon continued to live as a woman until dying in 1810, so consistently that it was a surprise when physicians reported the chevalier had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed.”

I agree that it’s impossible to know whether the Chevalier d’Eon would have chosen any of the modern categories of transvestite, transsexual, or genderqueer. But it looks to me like D’Eon did choose to maneuver into the eighteenth-century category of woman.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Standing Member from Massachusetts

Before leaving that day when the Constitutional Convention debated whether the size of the U.S. Army in peacetime mattered, I want to address another tradition that’s arisen about it.

Several recent books (e.g., Isaacson, Chernow, Beschloss, Stewart) and lots of websites quote Elbridge Gerry as making an analogy between a standing army and an erection.

The term used for that anatomical feature differs from one version of the tale to another, but all the versions climax with Gerry saying that either was “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

The earliest such statement that I could find appears in The Oxford History of the American People by Samuel Eliot Morison, published in 1965, or 178 years after the supposed event:
Elbridge Gerry, seconded by Luther Martin, wished to restrict the members of the United States Army to 3000 in time of peace, and made a humorous comparison (transmitted by oral tradition) of a standing army to a standing member—“an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”
Morison, a descendant of Harrison Gray Otis, did apparently inherit some oral traditions that he put down on paper for the first time. At least, I’ve cited schoolboy rhymes and hijinks that Morison published in the first edition of his biography of his ancestor.

But about this quotation, I’m dubious. Gerry did not see a standing army as “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity.” He saw it as a potential domestic danger, tempting citizens to ignore their militia system and let oppression flow. Politically, the story thus seems to be quite a stretch.

But for today’s sensibilities, that line seems like too much fun to let go of.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

“He would produce a better one”

In investigating the anecdote about George Washington’s whisper at the Constitutional Convention, I started to wonder about the political views of Maryland delegate John Francis Mercer.

Mercer arrived at the Philadelphia convention on 6 Aug 1787. On that day he told his fellow Marylanders that he didn’t think the government set up by the Articles of Confederation “was susceptable of a revision which would sufficiently invigorate it for the exigencies of the times.”

But a couple of days later Mercer told James McHenry “that he did not like the [newly proposed] system, that it was weak—That he would produce a better one since the convention had undertaken to go radically to work, that perhaps he would not be supported by any one, but if he was not, he would go with the stream.”

Remember that Mercer was only twenty-eight years old, younger than all but one delegate, and he had arrived after the other men had been working out issues and compromises for months. I can’t imagine his brand-new proposals were welcomed with any enthusiasm.

Mercer is often grouped with the Anti-Federalists who preferred to keep more power with the states, such as his Maryland colleague Luther Martin. But at the convention, Mercer’s big complaints had to do with the relationship between the branches of the federal government. At times he argued for strict separation of powers, speaking out against Senate approval of treaties (an executive function, he said) and judicial review of laws (a legislative function).

On 14 August, the debate focused on what might seem like a quaint question: whether the President could appoint legislators to positions in the government. On that question, Mercer didn’t want to maintain the separation between executive and legislative. He delivered his longest argument to get into James Madison’s notes, revealing his political philosophy:
It is a first principle in political science, that whenever the rights of property are secured, an aristocracy will grow out of it. Elective governments also necessarily become aristocratic, because the rulers being few can and will draw emoluments for themselves from the many. The governments of America will become aristocracies. They are so already. The public measures are calculated for the benefit of the governors, not of the people. The people are dissatisfied, and complain. They change their rulers, and the public measures are changed, but it is only a change of one scheme of emolument to the rulers, for another. The people gain nothing by it, but an addition of instability and uncertainty to their other evils.

Governments can only be maintained by force or influence. The Executive has not force,—deprive him of influence, by rendering the members of the Legislature ineligible to Executive offices, and he becomes a mere phantom of authority. The aristocratic part will not even let him in for a share of the plunder.

The Legislature must and will be composed of wealth and abilities, and the people will be governed by a junto. The Executive ought to have a Council, being members of both Houses. Without such an influence, the war will be between the aristocracy and the people. He wished it to be between the aristocracy and the Executive. Nothing else can protect the people against those speculating Legislatures, which are now plundering them throughout the United States. . . .

Mr. MERCER was extremely anxious on this point. What led to the appointment of this Convention? The corruption and mutability of the legislative councils of the States. If the plan does not remedy these, it will not recommend itself; and we shall not be able in our private capacities, to support and enforce it: nor will the best part of our citizens exert themselves for the purpose.

It is a great mistake to suppose that the paper we are to propose will govern the United States. It is the men whom it will bring into the Government, and interest in maintaining it, that are to govern them. The paper will only mark out the mode and the form. Men are the substance, and must do the business.

All government must be by force or influence. It is not the King of France, but 200,000 janissaries of power, that govern that kingdom. There will be no such force here; influence, then, must be substituted; and he would ask, whether this could be done, if the members of the Legislature should be ineligible to offices of State; whether such a disqualification would not determine all the most influential men to stay at home, and prefer appointments within their respective States.
Madison added, “On these points he was opposed by Elbridge Gerry.” Gerry was another of the convention’s champions of keeping more power in the states and of limiting the executive power.

Mercer left the convention early and opposed ratification of the Constitution. When the nation ratified the plan anyway, he served some terms in the U.S. Congress, allying himself with the Jeffersonian party that included Martin and Gerry. But I don’t think Mercer was with them during the convention.

Friday, July 22, 2016

“The army shall not consist of more than — thousand men”

When John Francis Mercer arrived late at the Constitutional Convention on 6 Aug 1787, he was only twenty-eight years old—the second youngest man there. But he wasn’t shy about speaking up.

The day after Mercer signed in, James Madison’s notes portray the young Maryland delegate as saying, “The Constitution is objectionable in many points, but in none more than the present” issue. The next day: “Mr. MERCER expressed his dislike of the whole plan, and his opinion that it never could succeed.”

This Teaching American History profile says Mercer attended the convention until 16 August, but Madison recorded him speaking the following day as well. That was his last documented contribution to the debate. But did he stick around silently (or silently enough for Madison not to quote him)?

On Saturday, 18 August, George Mason and Elbridge Gerry (shown above) spoke at length about the danger of a standing (permanent) army and the value of a militia system. Madison’s notes say:
Mr. MASON introduced the subject of regulating the militia. He thought such a power necessary to be given to the General Government. He hoped there would be no standing army in time of peace, unless it might be for a few garrisons. The militia ought, therefore, to be the more effectually prepared for the public defence. . . .

Mr. GERRY took notice that there was no check here against standing armies in time of peace. The existing Congress is so constructed that it cannot of itself maintain an army. This would not be the case under the new system. The people were jealous on this head, and great opposition to the plan would spring from such an omission. He suspected that preparations of force were now making against it. [He seemed to allude to the activity of the Governor of New York at this crisis in disciplining the militia of that State.] He thought an army dangerous in time of peace, and could never consent to a power to keep up an indefinite number. He proposed that there should not be kept up in time of peace more than — thousand troops. His idea was, that the blank should be filled with two or three thousand.
That seem to be the basis of the anecdote about George Washington that I quoted yesterday: “A member made a motion that congress should be restricted to a standing army not exceeding five thousand, at any one time.” Supposedly Washington, chairing the convention, whispered to a Maryland delegate “to amend the motion, by providing that no foreign enemy should invade the United States, at any one time, with more than three thousand troops.”

Mercer, uncle of the Virginia legislator who told that story in 1817, seems the most likely candidate to have been that Maryland delegate. However, Madison’s notes make no mention of Mercer in the discussion that followed:
Mr. L[uther]. MARTIN and Mr. GERRY now regularly moved, “provided that in time of peace the army shall not consist of more than — thousand men.”

General [Charles Cotesworth] PINCKNEY asked, whether no troops were ever to be raised until an attack should be made on us?

Mr. GERRY. If there be no restriction, a few States may establish a military government.

Mr. [Hugh] WILLIAMSON reminded him of Mr. MASON’S motion for limiting the appropriation of revenue as the best guard in this case.

Mr. [John] LANGDON saw no room for Mr. GERRY’S distrust of the representatives of the people.

Mr. [Jonathan] DAYTON. Preparations for war are generally made in time of peace; and a standing force of some sort may, for aught we know, become unavoidable. He should object to no restrictions consistent with these ideas.

The motion of Mr. MARTIN and Mr. GERRY was disagreed to, nem. con.
“Nem. con.” meant that motion to limit the army was voted down unanimously.

Was John F. Mercer even present that day? As I said above, Mercer doesn’t appear in Madison’s notes after 17 August, and he left the convention sometime before its end because he disagreed with its goal. But the anecdote about Washington’s whisper, if we believe it, hints that Mercer was still present on 18 August.

Dr. James McHenry, another Maryland delegate Washington may have addressed so frankly, definitely was present on 18 August. He wrote brief notes on the discussion. McHenry didn’t record anything about the size of the standing army, however. That might have been because he mostly wrote down when the convention agreed to amend its draft, not when it decided not to.

Either way, there was a moment when the Constitutional Convention discussed the possibility of a numerical limit on the size of the U.S. Army. And the anecdote about Washington’s whisper described that moment almost two decades before Madison’s notes were published.

TOMORROW: John F. Mercer’s objections.

[Who was the youngest delegate to the convention? Jonathan Dayton, who had the last word in that debate over the size of the U.S. army.]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Washington’s Whisper

In 1817, the Philadelphia Federalist magazine The Port Folio (possibly cribbing from an unnamed newspaper) published this anecdote about the Constitutional Convention:
Anecdote of [George] Washington.—In debate, in the house of delegates of Virginia, 1817, on the bill relative to a map of the state, in which something was said of military roads, Mr. Mercer, (L) related and applied an anecdote of general Washington, which he had received from a member of the convention that formed the constitution of the United States.

The subject of power to be given the new congress, relative to a standing army, was on the tapis. A member made a motion that congress should be restricted to a standing army not exceeding five thousand, at any one time. General Washington, who, being chairman, could not offer a motion, whispered to a member from Maryland, to amend the motion, by providing that no foreign enemy should invade the United States, at any one time, with more than three thousand troops.
This story struck me as odd for Washington. If we’d heard about that quip without knowing who said it, we’d ascribe it to Benjamin Franklin or Gouverneur Morris or someone else known for sarcastic wit. Washington was indeed a stickler for protocol as chairman—so much so that I was surprised that he might violate neutrality even in this whispered way. So I got curious about whether I could tease out any more information about this story’s provenance.

During the 1816-17 legislative session, the Virginia House of Delegates did indeed debate a bill about “a map of the state.” Formally it was “An act ‘to repeal in part an act entitled “an act to provide an accurate chart of each county, and a general map of the territory of this Commonwealth,”[’”] but some earlier law needed amending in order to get the work done.

The reference to “Mr. Mercer, (L)” confused me until I figured out there were two men named Mercer in the Virginia House of Delegates that term. John Mercer represented Spottsylvania County, and Charles Fenton Mercer represented Loudoun County. The “(L)” stood for Loudoun and was a way to designate the right man.

Charles Fenton Mercer was a nephew of John Francis Mercer (1759-1821), who spent a couple of weeks at the Constitutional Convention in August 1787 representing Maryland—and thus fits the description of the source for this story.

Washington was well acquainted with John F. Mercer, having employed his older half-brother George as an aide de camp during the Seven Years’ War. (George Mercer’s career in Virginia ended after he accepted the job of stamp master in 1765.) John F. Mercer himself served in the Revolutionary War as an officer under the general’s second cousin William Washington, as an aide to Gen. Charles Lee in 1778-79, and finally as a cavalry officer at Yorktown.

The Mercers owed Washington money, resulting in a long correspondence from 1783 on. In 1786, for instance, Washington wrote a letter to John F. Mercer with a notable remark on slave-trading. They also discussed the debt in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

TOMORROW: When could this exchange about a standing army have happened?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Patrick Henry’s Gerrymandering

Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker essay “Drawing the Line,” a review of David Daley’s new book on modern computer-aided gerrymandering, starts out with this snatch of early Virginia politics:
Sometime around October 20, 1788, Patrick Henry rode from his seventeen-hundred-acre farm in Prince Edward [County], Virginia, to a session of the General Assembly in Richmond. Henry is now famous for having declared, on the eve of the Revolution, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”—a phrase it’s doubtful that he ever uttered—but in the late seventeen-eighties he was best known as a leader of the Anti-Federalists. He and his faction had tried to sink the Constitution, only to be outmaneuvered by the likes of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. When Henry arrived in the state capital, his adversaries assumed he would seek revenge. They just weren’t sure how.

“He appears to be involved in gloomy mystery,” one of them reported.

The Constitution had left it to state lawmakers to determine how elections should be held, and in Virginia the Anti-Federalists controlled the legislature. Knowing that his enemy Madison was planning a run for the House of Representatives, Henry set to work. First, he and his confederates resolved that Virginia’s congressmen would be elected from districts. (Several other states had chosen to elect their representatives on a statewide basis, a practice that persisted until Congress intervened, in 1842.) Next, they stipulated that each representative from Virginia would have to run from the district where he resided. Finally, they stuck in the shiv. They drew the Fifth District, around Madison’s home in the town of Orange, to include as many Anti-Federalists as possible.

An ally of Madison’s who attended the session in Richmond wrote to him that while it was unusual for the legislature to “bend its utmost efforts” against a single individual, this was, indeed, what had happened: “The object of the majority of today has been to prevent yr. Election in the house of Representatives.” Another friend reported, “The Counties annexed to yours are arranged so, as to render your Election, I fear, extremely doubtful.” George Washington, too, was pessimistic; Madison’s defeat seemed to him “not at all improbable.”
This was of course decades before the term “gerrymandering” was devised, immortalizing another opponent of the U.S. Constitution. And back then the voter data wasn’t as detailed and reliable as it is now. As we know, James Madison did make it to the first federal Congress.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Taking Stock of Richard Stockton

Back in 2008 I wrote a series of postings about Richard Stockton, a judge from New Jersey who signed the Declaration of Independence in August 1776. Four months later he was in the custody of the British army.

As I discussed in my first posting, the standard story of Stockton for the past century and a half matches this passage from the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence:
Judge Richard Stockton was the only signer to be put in irons, starved and imprisoned under brutal conditions by the British four months after signing the Declaration of Independence.
He reportedly became ill, returned home to find his estate ruined, and died poor and sick as a result of his imprisonment.

My postings pointed out that after Stockton’s release his contemporaries, family members, and clergy didn’t speak of the British army treating him cruelly. (His colleagues did worry while he was in custody in December 1776 and they had little information.) Instead, as soon as Stockton came home, fellow members of the Continental Congress wrote ruefully about how he had “sued for pardon” and “Rec’d General How’s protection.” He resigned from the Congress; rebuilt his health, estate, and legal career; and died of an oral cancer in 1781.

In 2009 Loyalist expert Todd Braisted, now author of Grand Forage 1778, provided a gun with at least a wisp of smoke coming from it: a document showing that Adm. Lord Richard Howe and Gen. Sir William Howe had granted Stockton “a full pardon” by 29 Dec 1776. That cut the judge’s time in enemy hands to less than a month. It also strongly suggested he had reached some sort of deal with the Howes—if not a loyalty oath to the Crown then (as I rather suspect) an agreement between gentlemen to sit out the war.

My articles also discussed how the legend of Stockton’s suffering blossomed in the early 1800s as the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration approached. They really took off in the latter part of that century, despite some evidence to contradict the story and no solid evidence for its more extreme claims. That story turned Stockton into one of New Jersey’s most honored heroes, namesake of Stockton University and subject of a statue in the U.S. Capitol.

Christian McBurney has now rounded up all that material about Stockton and more in an article at the Journal of the American Revolution titled “Was Richard Stockton a Hero?” McBurney has become an expert on captures during the Revolutionary War, the topic of his books Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott and Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Other Military and Civilian Leaders. The latter book covers the Stockton capture.

McBurney’s article concludes:
To summarize, I believe Richard Stockton showed great courage in signing the Declaration of Independence. For that reason, and for other work he performed as a Patriot, I believe he is a hero of the American Revolution. But because strong evidence indicates that he signed an oath of allegiance to the Crown, I do not believe he should be celebrated as one of New Jersey’s greatest heroes.
There will no doubt be pushback from fans, descendants, and others invested in the story of Richard Stockton as a martyr for independence.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Visit the History List for Signed Books and More

The History List is an online resource of events at historical sites, tours, reenactments, conferences—whatever organizations choose to list.

You can visit the site to see what’s coming up in your state or sign up for one of its weekly mailing lists for your area.

The History List site is also the only place online now where you can now buy a pre-signed copy of The Road to Concord. All the profits from those sales support the History List.

The site’s shop offers a miscellany of history-celebrating T-shirts, books, and other products, including Sam Forman’s biography of Dr. Joseph Warren, also autographed.

Lee Wright at the History List is also the organizer and proponent of History Camps. At the end of this month I’ll be one of the speakers at History Camp Pioneer Valley, talking about on rural Massachusetts’s uprising against royal rule months before the Revolutionary War began; that event is now sold out with a waitlist. The next History Camp after that is in Denver.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Jerks, Shockers, and Lucky Dogs at the J.A.R.

The Journal of the American Revolution has just concluded one of its popular group interviews, in which chief editor Todd Andrlik asks a bunch of us contributors for our opinions on various questions. Sometimes we agree, sometimes there are almost as many answers as respondents.

This week the questions were:
The J.A.R. also recently opened an online shop selling unique Revolutionary-themed T-shirts, posters, and books, including The Road to Concord.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Behind Blood on the Snow

The Summer 2016 issue of Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, includes a short article by me about Blood on the Snow, the play that the Bostonian Society commissioned and hosted this spring.

As I noted back in early May, this play was produced within the same walls as the events it fictionalizes: the Massachusetts Council’s discussion of how to respond to the Boston Massacre.

For readers from out of town, the article offers some more detail:
One of the Old State House’s main rooms was designed for the governor to meet with his council, the gentlemen selected to advise the royal appointee but often at odds with him. In recent years, the museum refurnished the Council Chamber using inventories from the mid 1700s. Visitors can sit in the governor’s upholstered chair at the long wooden table and examine reproductions of official documents. Nat Sheidley, the society’s historian, came to view the space as “a set that wanted to be peopled.”

But how? The Old State House already uses other methods of bringing history to life: a program of costumed interpreters called “Revolutionary Characters” and an annual outdoor reenactment of the massacre by dedicated volunteers. As he considered possibilities, Sheidley was struck by Boston’s response to the marathon bombing of 2013. Exploring how the community reacted to an earlier calamity could move the Council Chamber beyond politics to show “human beings living through the trauma.”

To dramatize that moment, Sheidley had to find the right playwright. Patrick Gabridge brought experience in writing dramas about historical events and for specific sites. Just as important, he came with a background in producing plays and had many contacts in Boston theater. He could assess the dramatic potential of the Council Chamber and recruit director Courtney O’Connor and a cast of ten.
Read more about the results, and the potential for similar projects elsewhere, here.

Friday, July 15, 2016

When Minutemen Marched into Marshfield

So in 1775 there were a hundred British soldiers stationed in Marshfield, mostly on the estate of Nathaniel Ray Thomas. Their commander was Capt. Nisbet Balfour of the 4th Regiment.

And on the morning of 20 April, according to Isaac Thomas (who was nine years old at the time), the Marshfield militia was summoned by musket shots and drum.

I wouldn’t just leave the story there, would I?

The colonel of the Plymouth County militia was Theophilus Cotton (detail of his gravestone shown above, courtesy of Find-a-Grave). We have many documents about militia companies that he commanded that day, such as this roster from Hanson. That’s because the men who turned out in April 1775 expected to be paid, so the Massachusetts government asked for and kept paperwork with their names and days of service.

However, we don’t have, to my knowledge, contemporaneous narratives of what happened in Marshfield, from either the locals or the British troops. Instead, we have accounts written decades later by the historians of nearby towns, based and focused on the activities of men from those towns.

Dr. James Thacher’s History of the Town of Plymouth (1832) relates two detailed and flattering anecdotes about how Plymouth’s “watchful sons of liberty” intimidated British officers visiting from Marshfield. As for the military activity in Marshfield, he wrote:

Capt. Balfour, with his company remained at Marshfield for several weeks unmolested, but the day after Lexington battle, governor [Thomas] Gage, apprised of their danger, took off his troops, by water, to Boston.

At this period minute companies were organized in town, and immediately on hearing of the bloodshed at Lexington, Col. Theophilus Cotton, of this town, marched to Marshfield with a detachment of militia under his command. There were at the same time about sixty fishing vessels with their crews on board at anchor in Plymouth harbor. The fishermen voluntarily left their vessels, and speedily marched to Marshfield with their arms, resolutely determined to attack the company of British troops. When arrived at Marshfield, their numbers had increased to near one thousand men, collected from the different towns, burning with the feelings of revenge: they might have surrounded and captured the whole company before they could get to their vessels, but were restrained by Col. Cotton, who it is said had received no orders for the attack.
A more detailed account appeared seventeen more years on in Justin Winsor’s History of Duxbury (1849):
Immediately after the news arrived of the bloodshed at Lexington, Col. Cotton with his regiment formed for an attack on Balfour’s party. On the 20th Col. Cotton and Maj. [Ebenezer] Sprout met in Duxbury, at Col. Briggs Alden’s for consultation. Maj. Judah Alden, who was in Rhode Island when the news came of the fight, had just returned, having ridden all day on horseback, and soon after learning the circumstances of the case, he met Cato, a negro who had been sent by Capt. Balfour to ascertain the numbers of the men who were marching against him. Maj. Alden suspecting his design, told him to tell Balfour, they were coming in a host after him, and dismissed him.

Col. Cotton again returned to Plymouth; and, about 7 o’clock, on the morning of the 21st, marched for Marshfield with a portion of his regiment, consisting of the Plymouth company under Capt. [Thomas] Mayhew, the Kingston under Capt. Peleg Wadsworth, and the Duxbury under Capt. Geo. Partridge. They proceeded to Col. Anthony Thomas’ [sic], about a mile N. W. of Capt. John Thomas’, where were Balfour’s troops.

At this juncture Col. Cotton and Lt. Col. Alden held a long conference, as to the course to be taken. At noon there were assembled about 500 men, including the crews of many fishing vessels in the harbor. In the afternoon Capt. [Earl] Clapp’s company from Rochester and Capt. [Jesse] Harlow’s from Plympton arrived. Capt. Peleg Wadsworth was greatly dissatisfied with the delay, and moved forward his company until within a short distance of the enemy, and then halted as his numbers were too small to venture an attack.

About 3 o’clock, P. M., two sloops hove in sight and anchored off the Brant rock. Balfour then conveyed his company through the Cut river [Green Harbor] in boats, and reaching the sloops soon sailed for Boston, leaving however several sentinels behind to watch the movements of the Americans, who also set guards for the night.

The British watch finally left and in going to their boats, they passed one of the American sentry posts, where were stationed Blanie Phillips, and Jacob Dingley, both of Duxbury. Dingley was seized, and conveyed to their boat, when they concluded to release him. Phillips escaped, fired his gun, and gave an alarm, which roused the country for many miles around.

Balfour, it is reported, said that if he had been attacked, he should have surrendered without a gun. In their hurry to escape they left much of their camp equipage behind.
That final detail is the sort that always makes me skeptical: no source for information from the other side of the war, flattering to the author and readers as local descendants. In the following sentences Winsor cited “an inhabitant of Duxbury” whom Balfour spoke with in New York later in the war, so it’s possible the captain told that person. But it’s also possible that’s what the Plymouth County men told themselves.

With Capt. Balfour and the regulars went Nathaniel Ray Thomas, who settled in Nova Scotia, and possibly some other Marshfield Loyalists. His Patriot son John regained the mansion at the center of the estate after the war. Later Daniel Webster bought that house and enlarged it, creating the Victorian structure which (after a fire) is now reproduced on the property. Locals point out that could have been the site of the second battle of the Revolutionary War.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Child’s View of the Revolution in Marshfield

In his History of Shipbuilding on North River, Plymouth County, Massachusetts (1889), L. Vernon Briggs recorded some recollections he remembered hearing from Isaac Thomas (1765-1859) of Marshfield.

Isaac was nine years old when the Revolutionary War began. His father Zenas was one of the men who signed the letter complaining about the town’s official condemnation of the Boston Tea Party in 1774. (Zenas Thomas was, therefore, protesting the protest against a protest.)

Briggs wrote of young Isaac:
On Dec. 20, 1774 he beheld and followed with boyish curiosity the Queen’s Guards commanded by Capt. [Nisbet] Balfour as they marched by the common, where his school room was situated, on their way from North River to their destined quarters at the mansion house of Nathaniel Ray Thomas. He often spoke of the brightness of their bayonets as they glittered in that midday sun of one of the mildest days that the annals of past Decembers have recorded.
Actually, that arrival occurred on 23 Jan 1775. But it still should have been cold. As for “the Queen’s Guards,” that seems to be poetic license; those hundred soldiers in Marshfield were drafted from several regiments in Boston.
He also, on the morning succeeding the battle of Lexington, witnessed Capt. William Thomas and his young kinsman as they ascended to the summit of the hill, and saw him discharge the three alarm guns while his attendant beat the drum, which was the concerted signal to acquaint the surrounding inhabitants of the commencement of hostilities.

He saw the burning of the obnoxious tea on the height which yet bears its name, and saw the torch touched to the fire fated pile by that devoted Whig, Jeremiah Low.
That tea-burning happened in December 1773, shortly after the Tea Party.
He was fond of relating descriptions of the olden school room.
Surely ’twas a rustic school-room
All unplastered there it stood,
Broad and deep its ancient hearthstone
Where they rolled the logs of wood;
Coarse the furniture within it,
Diamond lattices for light,
Cross-legged table for the master
Where he did the copies write.
I haven’t found a source for those lines aside from Isaac Thomas.

TOMORROW: Withdrawal from Marshfield.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Rev. Ebenezer Thompson, Minister to the Marshfield Loyalists

Ebenezer Thompson was born in West Haven, Connecticut, in 1712. He graduated from Yale College in 1733, married the following March, and then did what Yale graduates weren’t supposed to do: start worshipping in the Church of England. In fact, in 1743 Thompson took holy orders in England, becoming an ordained Anglican minister.

At that time the Church of England considered most of New England to be missionary territory, hostile or indifferent to the established denomination. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (seal shown here) paid ministers to take posts there since the congregations were too small to support them.

The S.P.G. sent Thompson to Scituate, Massachusetts, at the end of 1743 with a salary of £40 per year. His job was not only to serve Anglicans in that town, where St. Andrew’s Church had been built in 1731, but also to proselytize in the neighboring towns.

In November 1748 Thompson wrote back to his employer:
I beg leave to acquaint the Venerable Society that by the blessing of God on my sincere Endeavours, the Church of England continues to increase in these parts, and people in general begin to conceive a much better opinion of it than they had when I first came here. The good people of Marshfield have so far finished the new Church that on Sunday the 18th of September last, I preached in it to a large Congregation and administered the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to 18 regular Communicants. I hope the Honorable Society will be pleased to favour this new Church with a Bible and Prayer Book.
Thompson’s reports back to the S.P.G. appear to be almost the only records of Marshfield’s first Anglican church, called Trinity. The presence of that place of worship was a big change for the community. Marshfield was one of Massachusetts’s oldest settlements, its earliest English inhabitants defining themselves by not being Anglican. When Thompson reported performing a service in nearby Plymouth in 1755, he added, “although the town had been settled more than 120 years, the Liturgy of the Church of England had never before been used in public.”

By 1754 Thompson was preaching “once a Month to the New Church at Marshfield, where, and at his own Church of Scituate he has the Pleasure to see the neigbouring Indians come frequently to Church.” Four years later the S.P.G. understood his three churches “at Scituate, Marshfield, and Bridgewater” to be “in a flourishing and encreasing State.” He received a raise to £50 per year.

In March 1760 Thompson reported that his three congregations “live among themselves and with the Dissenters their Neighbours in Friendship and Love; some of whom, of various Denominations, observing the Order and Regularity of our Church, begin to have a much better Opinion thereof than heretofore.” As of 1763 he counted “700 Families of various Persuasions” in those towns, “50 of which profess themselves of the Church of England, and attend the publick Worship with Seriousness, Decency and Devotion.” He had forty-seven white communicants and three Indians, and preached once every five weeks in Marshfield.

Thompson’s Anglican community continued to grow through conversions. In 1771 the minister wrote, “there has been added to the Church four families of good reputation from among the Dissenters.” In 1774 the S.P.G. understood, “The Rev. Mr. Thompson's congregation at Scituate and Marshfield have received an addition of 8 families from the Dissenters.” The Anglican communicants were up to 57 people in 1774, the year that Marshfield had its open political split.

Clearly most of Thompson’s adherents were in Scituate, but it appears some of the most prominent were in Marshfield. Without surviving church records, I can’t say for sure which of Marshfield’s political leaders became Anglican. Cynthia Hagar Krusell’s 1976 pamphlet Of Tea and Tories says the White and Little families did, and Loyalist leader Nathaniel Ray Thomas was definitely C. of E. after he settled in Nova Scotia in 1776.

In the early 1770s the S.P.G. reported, “The Rev. Mr. Thompson Missionary at Scituate and Marshfield, informs the Society that there is more harmony than formerly between his People and the Dissenters.” But that denominational difference was probably significant in the split of 1774. The Anglican ministers of New England were among the strongest proponents of remaining loyal to the government of the king, who was also the head of their church. Thompson’s work was a likely factor in how Marshfield had more Loyalists, and more fervent Loyalists, than nearby towns—even Scituate.

The Rev. Mr. Thompson died on 2 Dec 1775, after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. In reporting his death to the S.P.G. the following April, the Rev. Edward Winslow of Braintree said:
He continued firm to his principles to the last. In the support of them, and of his duty to the Church, he met with some harsh treatment, under which he gave substantial evidence of a truly Christian temper, as he also did under a long and painful exercise from bodily infirmities.
The Rev. Dr. Henry Caner of Boston’s King’s Chapel wrote, “It is said that his death was partly owing to bodily disorder, and partly to some uncivil treatment from the rebels in his neighbourhood.” An 1899 book went further: “Being a Royalist he felt it imperative upon him, during the Revolution, to continue praying for the King and was imprisoned therefor, dying from the accompanying exposure.” That was too far, in fact—there are no records of Thompson’s imprisonment. But political stress probably contributed to Thompson’s death at sixty-three.

Thompson’s widow stayed in Scituate and died there in 1813 at the age of ninety-nine. After 1775 the Anglican church in Marshfield lacked both a minister and enough parishioners to remain open. Not until decades later did Trinity Church have a significant presence in the town again.

TOMORROW: A child’s view of Marshfield’s Revolution.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Mystery of Marshfield’s “many ill disposed people”

I’ve been tracing the political back-and-forth in Marshfield, Massachusetts, often labeled a “Tory town” but more clearly a split town.

When the story left off, the Patriot faction was in the ascendancy. Loyalist leader Nathaniel Ray Thomas had been chased out of Marshfield by crowds from the neighboring communities. As its legislative representative the town had replaced Loyalist Abijah White with a moderate Whig, town clerk and treasurer Nehemiah Thomas. A public meeting had then approved sending him to the extralegal Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

But that wasn’t the end of the seesawing. In January 1775 Abijah White and four other citizens of Marshfield, all also named White, plus five men from neighboring Scituate “In behalf of ourselves and our Associates” wrote to the royal governor, Gen. Thomas Gage:
We the Subscribers Inhabitants of Scituate and Marshfield, being loyall Subjects of his Majesty King George the Third, desireous of Supporting his Crown, & dignity and the Laws of Great Brittain, But being insulted, our persons and property’s threatned by many ill disposed people, who declare their intention of Assembling in great numbers to Attack & destroy us and many others among us who are determined as far as in us lies to Support the Laws of the Realm, and repel by force every unlawfull Attempt to destroy his Majestys good Government over us, Desire we may be Assisted with One Hundred of his Majestys troops to repair to Marshfield as Soon as conveniently may (or such number as may be thought proper) by whose Assistance we will to the Utmost of our power repel and resist any violent or rebellious attempt that may be made against us, or any other of his Majesty’s loyall & peaceable Subjects whom we can protect there are about two Hundred & forty in Marshfield & Scituate who are loyally disposed & who we have good reason to believe will stand forth in Support of his Majestys Government:
That brings us back to the moment when I started this series of posts, the arrival of Capt. Nisbet Balfour and one hundred soldiers, two drummers, four corporals, four sergeants, and three subaltern officers in Marshfield on 23 Jan 1775.

It’s unclear to me whether Nathaniel Ray Thomas was back on his large farm by that time or came back with the troops. In any event, he hosted most of the hundred soldiers while others lived at a nearby tavern belonging to a man the Boston Evening-Post called “Tory White.”

And that tilted the political seesaw once again. As I quoted back here, in February the Loyalists had the numbers to control the town meeting, and they voted official thanks to Gage and Adm. Samuel Graves for providing military support. Sixty-four men left in the minority could do no more than issue a public protest. That’s how the situation remained when the war began.

What were the tensions underlying Marshfield’s split? As of October 1765, the town had appeared united against the Stamp Act, calling it “so terrible a calamity as threatens this Province” and urging its representative to respect the Stamp Act Congress in New York. (Marshfield also condemned “the late riotous proceedings in the town of Boston,” but even Boston was embarrassed about those.) The committee who drew up that anti-Crown message included future Loyalists Abijah White and Nathaniel Ray Thomas as well as future Whig Nehemiah Thomas. So whatever divided the town so deeply and evenly appears to have happened in the next eight years.

Unlike in some other communities I’ve seen, this conflict wasn’t between people whose ancestors had joined the Puritan migration of the early 1600s and other families who had arrived more recently and thus felt a tighter tie to Britain. All the men involved had ancestors among the town’s earliest English settlers.

Nor did this political divide seem to reflect old feuds between families. Certainly family networks were involved in each side’s organizing—as in, for instance, all those Whites asking for troops. But other members of that family were Patriots, such as Benjamin White, who took the responsibility of hiding the town militia company’s gunpowder away from those regulars at his house near the town border.

Likewise, the old Little and Winslow families had politically active members on both sides of the conflict. Nathaniel Ray Thomas and Nehemiah Thomas actually descended from two different early settlers surnamed Thomas, but all the families had intermarried, so it looks very hard to draw lines between them.

Geography played some role in the disagreements. Like a lot of old Massachusetts towns, Marshfield had more than one village by this point, and people living in one spot clamored not to have to go all the way to the old town center for worship, town meetings, and school. A second Congregational meeting had been established in the northern part of town in 1738, called the “Chapel of Ease.”

I mentioned how a proposal to annex part of Scituate, to the west, had become an area of contention between almost evenly matched parties in the early 1770s. Sometime in 1774 the town voted that “one-half of the annual town meeting for the future shall be held & kept at the North meeting house.” In contrast, when Marshfield voted to participate in the Provincial Congress, the body met “at the South meeting house.” And the people who protested the town’s thank-you message to Gen. Gage complained that meeting had been “held in a part of the Town where a Town Meeting was never before had.”

Yet there doesn’t seem to have been one neighborhood where all the Loyalists lived. Crown supporters Nathaniel Ray Thomas and Dr. Isaac Winslow lived in the south part of town, as did Whig Nehemiah Thomas and radical young men like Benjamin White.

The weather may have been a factor in which party won votes at town meetings, especially if that factor was combined with having to travel longer. Generally the pro-Crown party prevailed at meetings held in January through March while the pro-Whig party won votes from June through October. But that might be just an artifact of incomplete records and turbulent years.

TOMORROW: Was the Rev. Ebenezer Thompson a factor in Marshfield’s split?

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Political Seesaw in 1774 Marshfield

As the year 1774 began, the Loyalist party in Marshfield was on top, pushing through a town-meeting resolution disapproving of the destruction of tea in Boston harbor the previous month. (And implicitly of the burning of tea in Marshfield itself.)

The town’s representative to the Massachusetts General Court, Abijah White, leaned toward the Crown; he made sure that resolution was published in the Boston papers. White’s fellow selectmen, Dr. Isaac Winslow and Ephraim Little, were also Loyalists. And behind them was Nathaniel Ray Thomas, whose estate was said to be the largest in Plymouth County.

But already those men were reported to be worried about violent opposition from their neighbors. A letter from Duxbury dated 5 February and appearing in the 14 February Boston Gazette claimed:

We hear from Marshfield that the puissant A[bijah] W[hite] Esq. lately went into a neighbor’s house and being seated, tho’ very uneasy, he was inquired of what made him so, when he instantly arose and drew forth a Sword, (being formerly a valiant Soldier) declaring he would make Day-light shine thro’ ’em, but what he would carry his Point, giving as a Reason, that he was afraid of his Life without being arm’d, tho’ never assaulted. Being thus accout’red, one Day on going to his Barn, his Cattle being affrighted, and taking him to be a Stranger, surrounded him, and we hear ’twas with Difficulty that he escaped with his Life and the Loss of his Sword.
Within months, however, the imperial government’s response to the same Boston Tea Party prompted a popular response that reversed the situation in Marshfield. First came the Boston Port Bill and the return of the British army to Boston. Then came the Massachusetts Government Act, permanently changing the province’s constitution in ways large and small.

Along with the latter law came London’s list of members of the new Massachusetts Council, appointed rather than elected. And among those gentlemen, chosen for their loyalty to the royal government, was Nathaniel Ray Thomas. He took his oath of office in Salem on 16 Aug 1774.

Already the Massachusetts people were rising up against those new measures, starting in the western part of the province. That opposition took two main forms: preventing the county courts from opening and trying to intimidate Councilors into resigning. In both types of action, men turned out in their militia units. That was an easy way for them to organize and maintain discipline, a demonstration of how they represented the bulk of the people, and an implicit threat of force.

On 2 September the “Powder Alarm” took place in Cambridge, a response to Gen. Thomas Gage‘s securing militia gunpowder and cannon for the Crown. Thousands of Middlesex County men marched into town and demanded the resignation of two Councilors from Cambridge, as well as Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver (whose resignation was so clearly coerced that no one believed it—see the opening chapters of The Road to Concord for more detail).

That emboldened the Whigs of Plymouth County, and on 6 September crowds from several towns around Marshfield headed for Nathaniel Ray Thomas’s large house, determined to force him to resign from the Council. The 12 September Boston Gazette reported:
We hear from the County of Plymouth, that last Wednesday upwards of 2000 of the substantial Yeomanry, collected from the several Towns of Plymouth, Hanover, and Pembroke, repaired to the House of Nathaniel Ray Thomas of Marshfield, one of the new Council; but he having had some previous Intimation of the intended Visit of the People, he thought it unsafe to remain even in Marshfield, and accordingly fled the night before with all Speed to the city of Refuge.
With Councilor Thomas gone and other Loyalists perhaps cowed, Marshfield’s town meeting flipped. Later in September the town elected moderate Whig Nehemiah Thomas instead of Abijah White to represent it at the General Court. In October the men of Marshfield met again in the south meetinghouse and confirmed that their town clerk should take a seat in the Provincial Congress, disregarding any complaints about its legality.

TOMORROW: The seesaw tilts again.