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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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

“On the floating zephyrs of heaven”

When we left off the 1859 book Twelve Messages from the Spirit of John Quincy Adams, the spiritual medium Joseph Stiles had just channeled Adams’s meeting in the afterlife with George Washington.

Washington’s presence leads to another discussion of the evils of slavery. The spirit of Charles Follen, Harvard professor and abolitionist, joins in.

Having brought on Washington, where could the book go next? The next message puts Adams back into conversation with the spirit of Peter Whitney. Who? He was a minister in the Adamses’ home town of Quincy from 1800 to 1843. The two longtime acquaintances have a longer discussion about the spiritual world. A much longer discussion.

Message XI then shows us jubilant freed slaves, Jesus forgiving Judas, and James Monroe—which seems like a bit of an anticlimax.

The spirits divide into four groups. The leaders of the first three groups are, naturally, Josephine, Joan of Arc, and Napoleon. Adams says, “The Commander of the Fourth Division now arrests my attention. He was an intelligence. of invincible will and firmness, yet ever yielding when convinced he was in the wrong”—Thomas Paine!

Adams praises his mother, recalling how they watched the smoke from the burning of Charlestown in 1775. Abigail responds at equal length, describing how America needs good mothers.

Finally we reach the twelfth message. It starts with a look at “The Sphere of Prejudice and Error,” which includes “The Circle of Intolerance,” “The Circle of Bigotry,” and so on. The people who carried out what the book calls the “Massacre of St. Bartholomew” are there, for instance. Reflecting a deep misunderstanding of Islam, Muslims are in “The Circle of Idolatry,” though “the once partially inspired Spirit of the Prophet Mohammed had long since unfolded into the blessed Religion of the Only True God,—the Ever-living Jehovah.” And thus we conquer intolerance and bigotry.

But there’s still more to learn.

Helping Franklin to produce the defecated electricity are Isaac Newton and other scientists. They feed its charge to a circle of Native Americans including Samoset, Osceola, and Pocahontas.

Adams then turns back down to visit George Jeffreys, Lord Chancellor during the “Bloody Assizes” of the 1680s. We read another critique of the Fugitive Slave Act. Adams sees the martyr Jane Grey leading spirits to enlightenment. He describes welcoming “Calhoun, Clay, and Webster” to the afterlife. And after checking off all those boxes the former President offers readers a closing exhortation:
Ye who are travelling the ways of darkness, come forward, and aid us to start this Juggernaut of Truth on its glorious march of victory, until the Demon of Error, and its hideous children, Ignorance, Superstition and Bigotry, are crushed out of existence, beneath the ceaseless rotations of its ponderous wheels!
But that’s still not all! Just as Stiles finished writing Adams’s last message, “another spirit…immediately took possession of his arm.” He wrote out a letter to Adams from another spirit in a different handwriting. This is none other than George Washington again, expressing regret at slavery:
I am aware that the holding of human beings in bondage was incompatible and at war with the mighty cause for which I was so vigorously contending. And gladly would I have rid myself of this incubus to my happiness,—this source of deep mental anxiety. But the strong prejudices of that age were not easily surmounted, and they wound around me a fortress which my better feelings and impulses could not then storm.
After Adams’s brief reply, Stiles wrote out the signatures of “five hundred and forty individuals,” all in different handwritings and some in unintelligible scribbles so we know they must come from ancient cultures. And anyone who can write out five hundred different people’s signatures has got to be trustworthy.

Now it turns out that the notebooks in which Stiles originally wrote all this out survive in the Library of Congress. (To get there, by the way, they passed through the hands of Harry Houdini.) John Benedict Buescher has investigated those documents and shared his findings in this P.D.F. report.

Sadly, Buescher discovered that the text Stiles wrote under the influence of John Quincy Adams’s spirit is quite different from what was published. Material was moved around, shortened, lengthened, and reworded. Hancock, Henry, Warren, Arnold, and others originally made no appearances in Adams’s messages. So I’m sorry to say that the published book is not a reliable account of the afterlife.

Buescher also explored the reception for the book. William Lloyd Garrison, who actually gets a shout-out of praise from Adams’s spirit, responded with less than enthusiasm in The Liberator:
While, with unfeigned respect and good-will to Mr. Stiles…, we feel constrained to pronounce the claim set up for the spiritual origin of this work as preposterous and delusive, we are nevertheless highly gratified with its many excellent and fearless sentiments on the subject of slavery, war, the rights of woman, universal reform, and everlasting progression…
The Spiritual Telegraph, which we might expect to praise these revelations, stated:
We rather regard them as coming from that mid-region of dreams and phantasmagoria which is made up of the exuviae and odds and ends of all celestial, infernal and mundane spheres, agglomerated into mental and visual forms correspondent with the predominant associative spirit-thought and desire, and with the existing mediative susceptibilities.
And The Spiritual Age stated:
In fact, so markedly is the style throughout that of an uncultivated youth, and so different from what we should expect from the “Sage of Quincy,” the “Old Man Eloquent,” that it is difficult to believe he had any hand—or anything more than a hand—in it.
But then the Civil War broke out, and the parts of the book that warned of national division over slavery—particularly the parts said to come from Washington himself—gained new respect. “Had the people of this country been sufficiently enlightened to investigate these messages fairly, they would have seen that there was sufficient evidence that this warning really came from Washington,” wrote Joseph Rodes Buchanan in 1887.

Joseph Stiles went on to a long career as a performing medium. He died in Weymouth in 1897 at the age of sixty-nine.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Afterlife of John Quincy Adams

There’s a pretty fierce competition for the strangest Revolution-related book that I’ve encountered this year, but one very strong competitor is Twelve Messages from the Spirit of John Quincy Adams, through Joseph D. Stiles, Medium, to Josiah Brigham, prepared for the press by Allen Putnam and published in Boston in 1859, eleven years after Adams’s death.

At the beginning of the book Brigham attested:
The messages contained in this book, coming from the immortal spirit of John Quincy Adams, were written out in manuscripts, at various times, at my house in Quincy, Mass., and at the house of my son-in-law, C. F. Baxter, Boston, during the last four years, through the hand of Joseph D. Stiles, medium, when in an entranced state, and who, at the time of writing them, was unconscious of what was being written.

The whole was written in an almost perfect fac-simile of that peculiar, tremulous handwriting of Mr. Adams in the last years of his earthly life,—a handwriting which probably no man living could, in his natural state of mind, so perfectly imitate, and which is wholly unlike the usual handwriting of the medium.

The writing of these messages in manuscript was commenced in August, 1854, and closed in March, 1857. The medium (in trance] commenced copying and revising them for publication about the first of April following, and finished in June, 1858, making some additions and some omissions.
So what did the spirit of John Quincy Adams have to say? The book explains that he has discovered a “Celestial Telegraph” which works as “a thin line of clarified electricity” extending from a “Spiritual Circle” and lets him visit Earth through various mediums. (Media?)

Other figures from the American Revolution show up in the book, rather like the Florentines whom Dante meets in Hell. None other than John Hancock welcomes Adams to the afterlife. John and Abigail Adams are pleased to see him as well but don’t say anything particularly parental at first—they must have moved beyond earthly concerns.

Then two more spirits appear “in full military costumes, similar to those worn by the soldiers during the Revolutionary War”—none of those white robes. One comes forward and turns out to be…Lafayette! Adams was President when Lafayette made his return tour of America in the 1820s, after all.

Adams gets to meet Christopher Columbus and “Americus Vespucius,” which leads to a long discussion of scientific discoveries, such as spiritualism. For example, “The so-called Salem Witchcraft” turns out to have been “the attempt of spirits to manifest their presences to earth’s children.” Too bad about the people who were hanged and crushed to death.

Back to Revolutionary celebrities: John André, “dressed, not in a flowing robe, but in a British uniform”! Joseph Warren! Patrick Henry! Benedict Arnold!

Benedict Arnold? “Desiring to eradicate, as far as possible, the sins of his mortal career, and to become a useful member of Celestial Society, he earnestly sought the instruction of Higher Minds, and other means necessary to insure happiness and a perfect unfoldmept of his spiritual faculties.” So this book offers hope for everyone.

And the sight of a repentant Arnold leads swiftly to a condemnation of “the Fugitive-Slave Bill” and what it says to people seeking freedom:
No! Massachusetts cannot give
The boon thy soul doth fondly crave;
The poor and panting fugitive
Must on her soil Remain a slave!

Her Bunker Hill, where patriot blood
In freedom’s cause was freely spent,
Cannot a shelter give to thee
Beneath its tow’ring monument!
There’s a lot of anti-slavery rhetoric in this book, and a lot of poetry, too. Which makes perfect sense, since John Quincy Adams did devote a lot of time to both activities.

After some mild adventures, Adams and Lafayette ascend higher, thus reaching the same sphere as “William Penn, Shakspeare, Mary Washington, Augustine Washington, Martha Washington, Hannah More, Felicia Hemans, Jane Grey, Josephine, Elizabeth Frye, John Howard, Peter Whitney.” Followed by “Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, Israel Putnam.”

Then Napoleon, the Duke D’Enghein, Joan of Arc, Peter Melanchthon, William Ellery Channing, Confucius, François de Fenelon, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elias, and, high above the others, Christ. Followed by Mary and Joseph.

But whom haven’t we heard from yet? Finally in the ninth message George Washington appears to speak to Adams—though their conversation gets interrupted by Martin Luther, of all people. Adams rhapsodizes about Washington:
Can any one doubt but that spirits from the immortal world sustained him through all the disheartening trials and almost unendurable sufferings of Valley Forge,—cheered his heart, and those of his desponding soldiers when they were so heroically laboring to release their dear native land from the clutches of a tyrannical potentate and his myrmidons?
Myrmidons including, you know, André.

TOMORROW: But wait, there’s more! We’re only up to Message IX.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Between Aphra Behn and Jane Austen

Today instead of writing about books I’ll write about a podcast about books.

Earlier this year Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the British magazine The New Statesman, hosted six conversations for its podcast Hidden Histories. That first series of recordings is titled “The Great Forgetting,” and it focuses on the early history of the British novel.

The standard summary of that topic presents a progression through Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, and a few other authors before getting to Jane Austen. And there’s nothing wrong with those novelists. (Well, except Richardson.)

Yet in that eighteenth century most British novels were written by women. Likewise, people expected women to be the main audience for most novels, so many if not most novels were about women. So how does that usual list of British novelists before Austen contain nothing but men?

“The Great Forgetting” aims to unearth the female novelists who worked before Austen, and the female literary society that existed in 1700s Britain. Lewis’s interlocutors are Sophie Coulombeau, Elizabeth Edwards, and Jennie Batchelor, scholars at different British universities. Their six conversations are on these topics:
  • Re-writing the Rise of the Novel: whom do conventional accounts of the era overlook?
  • Bluestocking Culture: how did women become writers?
  • Sociable Spaces: what did it mean to have a magazine by women?
  • Unsex’d Females: women writers and radical politics
  • Fight Club: who’s the most interesting female writer of the eighteenth century?
  • The Great Forgetting: why are the authors we remember mostly men?
For people who enjoy exploring eighteenth-century fiction (as well as essays, histories, biographies, poetry, plays, and other literary forms), the conversations will provide some long reading lists. The podcast page also includes links to supporting articles, such as this article about the Whig historian Catharine Macaulay. The recordings can all be downloaded from iTunes. I enjoyed them.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Studying Musket Balls with Daniel M. Sivilich

One of the folks who contributed expertise to the “Parker’s Revenge” project I discussed yesterday is Daniel M. Sivilich, president of the Battlefield Restoration and Archaeological Volunteer Organization and author of Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification.

Starting on the Monmouth battlefield in the late 1980s, Sivilich has been collecting musket balls and other metal shot—which isn’t that hard in New Jersey, the “crossroads of the American Revolution.” But he’s also analyzed and categorized those artifacts in ways that shed more light on them, and thus on the lives of soldiers and the action of battles.

The “Parker’s Revenge” project found 32 musket balls; 31 showed signs of having been fired, and the last one was pristine enough to have been dropped. Sorting the fired balls by weight produced a clear pattern: those found at the expected British position were on average lighter than the balls found around the provincial position. That data matched the hypothesis of the Lexington militiamen firing at the British with smaller-caliber muskets and then withdrawing under fire from the regulars’ heavier shot.

I got to hear Sivilich speak about his work toward the end of this project. Among other topics, he spoke about chewed musket balls. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers accused their enemies of chewing musket balls in an attempt to poison whomever they wounded, as shown in quotations here. Later, as Sivilich wrote in his first paper from 1996 (P.D.F. file), authors came to associate biting on a musket ball with soldiers undergoing painful surgery.

Sivilich has indeed found some balls with the imprints of human teeth. But more often, he’s concluded since publishing that paper, the very chewed-up balls found on battlefields came out of pigs’ mouths, not humans’. This page from Jefferson Patterson Park in Maryland discusses some of the evidence. Another way Sivilich investigated that question? Chewing on a piece of shot to test how much distortion a human jaw could cause. (Not that much.)

Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification doesn’t stop there. In his review of the book for the Journal of the American Revolution, Don Hagist wrote:
Several chapters of this book are devoted to the different ways that spherical lead projectiles were misshapen: imprecise casting; impressions made by ramrods, multiple projectiles, and fabric patches during loading; and the wide range of deformation caused by impacts. If you’ve wondered how a ball that struck a fence rail different from one that hit a tree, or how to distinguish a ricocheted ball from a spent one, this book will explain it with words and pictures.
Over 300 pictures, in fact. Let’s face it: this book is a detailed dive into a technical subject. But for folks working on eighteenth-century battlefield archeology, it’s a must.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Final “Parker’s Revenge” Archeology Report

Last month the Friends of Minute Man National Park published the final report on the Parker’s Revenge Archeological Project. I first posted about this project back in 2012 when it was just getting started, then shared periodic updates based on lead archeologist Meg Watters’s public presentations.

Now Watters has finished her formal report, and anyone can download it from this page. The Friends announced:
Technologies utilized in the research informed formal excavations and 1775 battlefield reconstructions. These methods included: 3D laser scanning, GPS feature mapping, and geophysical surveys including metallic surveys, ground penetrating radar, magnetic gradient and conductivity/magnetic susceptibility.

Taken together, the technologies enabled researchers to locate a farmhouse that figured prominently in the battle terrain, to recreate the actual 1775 battlefield landscape and battlefield features and even to model exactly what combatants could and could not see at various positions along the battle road.

Artifacts discovered included 29 British and colonial musket balls from the battle. The location and spatial patterning of the musket balls recovered enabled archaeologists to interpret the exact positions where individuals were standing during the battle—and then outline battle tactics most likely deployed.
The findings appear to validate the local tradition—stated early but without detail—that Lexington militiamen took some shots at the British column as it returned to their town from Concord. Since many of those same militiamen had been on the town common under Capt. John Parker that morning, when the regulars fired the first fatal shots of the war, a twentieth-century historian dubbed the skirmish “Parker’s Revenge.”

For folks who want to read the report, be aware that in P.D.F. form it comprises 35 megabytes of data. My download from the Friends of Minute Man site stopped several times, so I had to keep an eye on it to poke the restart button.

The report contains over 300 pages with more than 100 illustrations, most in color. Those illustrations include photographs of artifacts and researchers, maps of the field, and charts. Unfortunately—and this is the biggest shortcoming of the report in P.D.F. form—many of those maps have blurry text and lines, making them hard to interpret.

This is a scientific report and a government report (not produced by the government, but for a government agency). As such, it includes a lot of information that’s necessary for future study but may not interest more casual readers. There are a lot of blank pages, a list of every artifact found in the study, and transcripts of discussions among experts assembled a year ago.

The portions I found most interesting are:
  • pages 51-65, on the original verbal sources about the event and how historians have described and interpreted it.
  • the detailed recreation of the skirmish based on the new evidence, pages 153-197.
  • for technical details, descriptions of the field work (pages 81-99 and 140-150) and the recreation of land use in 1775 (pages 103-121).
This project was a big undertaking. We should be grateful to Watters, the Friends and their donors, Minute Man National Historical Park, and all the enthusiastic volunteers who made it happen.

(The image above, by Kyle Zick, appears in the report. It shows the British column moving east into Lexington. See that rock outcrop at the rear center? That’s going to be trouble.)

Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Talk at the Massachusetts State Library, 29 Nov.

I’m pleased to report that The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War is now available in digital form for both the Kindle and Nook readers, as well as through iBooks.

I suppose that as a modern author I should add a plea to people who have enjoyed the book to post reviews of it at those online retailers or others, or at Goodreads. But I’m very slow at rating and reviewing products at such sites myself. So all I can say is that if you’re already in the habit of posting book reviews on a website you like, please consider addressing The Road to Concord as well. Thanks!

On Tuesday, 29 November, I’ll speak at the State Library of Massachusetts inside the new State House. (The one with the dome, not the one with the lion and unicorn.) That’s a lunchtime talk, noon to 1:00 P.M., on Beacon Hill, and I’ll sign books afterward.

Given the venue, and given how I already spoke about Boston’s militia cannon at the State House in 2013, I couldn’t resist titling this talk “Overthrowing the Government of Massachusetts: The Bottom-Up Revolution of 1774.” Our event description:
Published earlier this year, The Road to Concord explores the confrontations in New England that led up to the Revolutionary War. It starts with the action-packed days of September 1774, when a spontaneous rural uprising overthrew the royal government of Massachusetts outside of Boston. In the following months, the colony’s Patriots worked to build up a military force. Meanwhile, the British military, under the leadership of General Thomas Gage, tried to thwart those efforts. Central to this story are four small brass cannon belonging to the colonial militia that were smuggled out of Boston by radical Patriots and subsequently located by British spies on a farm in Concord. For different reasons, both the Patriots and Gage strove to keep these guns out of their public reports. In his thoroughly documented book, Mr. Bell argues that these little-known episodes sparked the beginning of the Revolutionary War.
This talk will focus on the “Powder Alarm” that opens the book and sets off New England’s “arms race.” I’ll look forward to seeing folks on Tuesday in Room 341 of the Massachusetts State House.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

“Half a dozen cooks were employed upon this occasion”

In the spring of 1761 there was an argument in the pages of Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette over whether the dinner to celebrate the installation of a new minister at the Old South Meeting-House had been too elaborate.

The initial report called the celebration “very sumptuous and elegant,” and declared “many poor People were the better for what remained of so plentiful and splendid a Feast.”

But then a correspondent identifying himself as from the countryside declared the event a “disgusting” contradiction of ministers’ disapproval of “Feasting, Jollity and Revelling.” On 11 May 1761 that writer described what he understood of the meal itself:
There were six tables, that held one with another 18 persons, upon each table a good rich plum pudding, a dish of boil’d pork and fowls, and a corn’d leg of pork, with sauce proper for it, a leg of bacon, a piece of alamode beef, a leg of mutton with caper sauce, a piece of roast beef, a roast line [loin] of veal, a roast turkey, a venison pastee, besides chess cakes and tarts, cheese and butter.

Half a dozen cooks were employed upon this occasion, upwards of twenty tenders to wait upon the tables; they had the best of old cyder, one barrel of Lisbon wine, punch in plenty before and after dinner, made of old Barbados spirit.

The cost of this moderate dinner was upwards of fifty pounds lawful money.
Which was, indeed, an awful lot.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Caroline Cox’s Young Continentals

Caroline Cox’s Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution was published earlier this year by the University of North Carolina Press.

Unfortunately, Cox, a professor at the University of the Pacific, passed away in 2014. She hadn’t finished writing all the book’s introductory material and may not have polished the text as much as she’d planned after feedback from her colleagues.

Cox’s friends pushed the book through to completion. Robert Middlekauff, author of The Glorious Cause, provided a foreword to take the place of the preface and acknowledgments Cox never got to write.

As published, the book shows no obvious yawning gaps, but there are some potholes. The most obvious glitch is on page 52: in the middle of a long quotation appears “(CHK),” Cox’s note to herself to go back and confirm that transcription. (I’m likewise dubious about the five exclamation points on page 144.) Daniel Granger of Andover, who served in the siege of Boston, is referred to as “David.” And I came away from the book wondering if Cox might have added a further layer of analysis to pull everything together if she’d just had more time with this manuscript.

Cox’s earlier book, A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army, explored the class differences between officers and enlisted men in the Continental Army. She returned to the same main set of sources—Revolutionary War pension applications—for Boy Soldiers, focusing on pensioners who had joined the army at the age of sixteen or younger. In addition, Cox drew on a few memoirs of long-lived soldiers, the recollections from men of the same age who didn’t go to war, the experiences of American boys who fought in other wars before and after the Revolution, and general studies of childhood.

Many young Continentals were musicians, others became servants for officers, but some were (at least nominally) infantrymen. Smaller muskets, lighter drums, and the introduction of fifes into martial music made it possible for boys to fill those roles in the eighteenth-century military, Cox wrote. At the same time, British-American society was raising the age at which it expected males to do such work, so there would be far fewer under-seventeen soldiers in the War of 1812.

Often boys enlisted with their older brothers, fathers, or other relatives. Even if they were the only family members to go to war, the way the Continental Army was organized meant soldiers usually served in a company with their neighbors. “Boys rarely served without being near someone they knew,” Cox concluded.

During the Seven Years’ War, the book reports, soldiers had a poor reputation and American families had tried to keep their young sons out of the army. The Revolutionary War was different, perhaps because the cause seemed more immediate or more noble. Many veterans recalled their fathers or even their mothers encouraging them to enlist. And perhaps the Continental enlistment terms were better.

On privateers, boys usually earned half of a man’s share. In farm work, they tended to be paid about two-thirds of a man’s wages. In contrast, the Continental Army made no distinction between a fifteen-year-old soldier and a twenty-five-year-old—they got equal pay. (For many young soldiers that pay remained abstract, however; the money went to a relative or guardian.)

After the first years of the war, local drafts were the usual way for young soldiers to enter the Continental Army. A household would become responsible for supplying a soldier, and an adolescent with a greater sense of adventure and lesser responsibilities seemed like the best candidate, even if he was under seventeen. Cox wrote, “When young boys of any race substituted for their fathers and other male relatives or friends, they gave no indication later that they felt exploited. Indeed, the vast majority of substitutes, men or boys made no comment upon it other than that it happened.”

We can catch glimpses of distinctions based on age or size. At Fort Plank in New York’s Mohawk Valley, two fourteen-year-old boys had to do soldiers’ duty while a thirteen-year-old didn’t. On the other hand, Capt. Thomas Price brought his ten-year-old Thomas along to war on the Carolina frontier because he was so tall that his father feared Tories might treat him as a legitimate target at home.

Every so often Boy Soldiers shows us its subjects in all their naïveté. Two fourteen-year-olds finished their Continental enlistments at the end of 1777 and headed home. Unfortunately, their families lived in Philadelphia, which the British army had just occupied. The royal authorities quickly detained the young veterans, interrogated them, and even threatened to hang them as spies. Ultimately, the Crown let those teens go, apparently deciding that they really were stupid enough to expect they could simply go back to being boys.

To her regret, Cox did not find much information about non-white combatants. Around one in ten Continental soldiers was African-American, she estimated, but she found few examples of black boys serving in the army. Perhaps those veterans didn’t live long enough to apply for pensions. Perhaps their ages aren’t so clear from the records.

In her effort to provide context for the young soldiers’ lives, Cox mined other sources on eighteenth-century American childhood—sometimes without making a clear connection to those soldiers. There’s a long paragraph on charitable schools, for example, even though none of the book’s examples attended one. Boy Soldiers discusses violence as part of child-rearing in the eighteenth century, but it remains unclear how young soldiers compared military discipline to what they were used to at home.

To get inside her subjects’ heads, Cox chose a novel interpretive technique that just didn’t work for me. In each chapter, after quoting and analyzing some sources about a particular boy, she launched into a new section headed “Perhaps it was like this:”. Then three or so pages offer an attempt to recreate that young soldier’s experience through his eyes based on various suppositions.

Thus, Cox wrote, young fifer John Piatt “had never seen so many people in one place” as when he came to camp. But we don’t read that from Piatt himself. Such details could indeed add drama in historical fiction, but while reading this book I keep imagining other possible scenarios. “They all had to learn to play their fifes,” Cox wrote, and I couldn’t help but recall how John Greenwood learned to play for militia training days years before he ran off to join the army. Cox posited that as busy officers John Piatt’s father and uncle had no time for him, but other fathers who took their young sons to war kept them close.

Sometimes that approach even seems to get in the way of the evidence. Cox discussed John Jenks enlisting as a drummer in the 5th Connecticut Regiment in 1780, so small that he was assigned a special drum. (In this book Cox said Jenks was ten years old while her chapter in James Marten’s Children and Youth in the New Nation described him as twelve; Jenks wasn’t sure himself, according to his pension documents.) Because of Jenks’s unusual youth, and an awkward accusation of forgery, the U.S. government suspended his pension. In response, Jenks “repeatedly explained how he came to enter the army at such a young age” to various authorities. Instead of seeing his words on that topic, however, we shift into a “Perhaps it was like this:” section.

Of course, there’s only so much that those pension records can tell us. I’m particularly interested in the coming-of-age process and boys’ efforts to prove themselves as men. Memoirs may simply have more room to expound on those themes than pension applications, which focused on the basic details of service. Cox’s Boy Soldiers mines that set of sources well, and will be invaluable for future study of the topic, but I think there’s more to be gleaned about those young Continentals.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tom Feelings and Revolutionary Black History

I had the honor of meeting the artist Tom Feelings shortly before his death in 2003 when I drove him to a writers’ conference in New Hampshire.

Feelings was then speaking about his monumental book of drawings depicting the transatlantic slave trade, The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo. He had earlier illustrated such award-winning children’s books as To Be a Slave by Julius Lester and Moja Means One by Muriel Feelings.

Feelings’s career as an illustrator spanned nearly half a century. On returning from service in the Air Force in 1958, he created a comic strip for the New York Age, a Harlem weekly. At a time when mainstream American culture ignored almost all of African and African-American history, Tommy Traveler: In the World of Negro History put those stories in front of young black readers.

In 1991 Black Butterfly Books collected several series of Feelings’s strip, had them colored and relettered, and published them in picture-book form. The new title was Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History. That volume is now out of print, but some libraries still have copies.

Tommy is a young black boy who’s read all of his local library’s books on black history. The librarian sends him across town to Doctor Gray, who has an extensive library. Tommy starts reading, and “with his active imagination he quickly slides into another world,” ending up alongside various historical figures. Two stories in the Tommy Traveler collection take place during the American Revolution.

The strip began by taking Tommy to New York in 1776 for an eight-page story set at the Fraunces Tavern. In the mid-1900s there was a widespread belief that its proprietor, Samuel Fraunces, was of African descent. That was evidently based on his nickname, “Black Sam”; his birth in the Caribbean; and his work as a caterer. But at a time when black men were labeled “Negro” in legal documents, there’s no corroboration that Fraunces was black, and his portrait shows a pale man.

The story starts with Tommy meeting the tavern-keeper’s daughter, Phoebe. Again, there’s no evidence Samuel Fraunces had a daughter of that name. She first appeared in a story in the January 1876 Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, inspired by a tale that Benson J. Lossing had told sixteen years earlier. Thus, in depicting Samuel and Phoebe Fraunces as part of African-American history, Feelings was retelling a myth, but one that many earlier authors had already presented as true.

In Feelings’s version, Tommy sees that Phoebe has fallen in love with a soldier named Tom Hickey, a deserter from the British Army to the Continentals. Gen. George Washington is also staying at Fraunces’s inn (as in Lossing, but not in historical sources). Hickey gives Phoebe a poisoned pear to feed to the general, but—warned by Tommy—she knocks it out of the general’s hand just before he eats it. (Lossing wrote that the poison was in a dish of peas.) Hickey goes to the gallows, as his real-life equivalent did in 1776.

Later in this collection, Tommy travels to 1770 for a fourteen-page story. Working on a ship called the Romney, he meets Crispus Attucks. This black man turns out to be a political leader on the streets of Boston, calling meetings and announcing such things as: “Otis is right. Stand up and fight for your rights!” The crowd roars back, “Lead us and we’ll follow!

Again, Feelings’s depiction reflects how the few African-American history books published at that time portrayed Attucks. They showed him as a leader of the crowd—which he was on the night of 5 Mar 1770, according to other men’s testimony, but which he probably wasn’t when it came to political organization. The comic strip doesn’t mention Attucks’s Native American heritage. Indeed, the character speaks of being “sold into slavery when I was just a young boy.”

Attucks’s protests against Crown taxes lead to a fight against mitred grenadiers. Captain Preston orders a soldier named Montgomery to capture “that tall, dark fellow” as the crowd’s leader. Instead, the soldiers fire their guns, killing Attucks and other men. Tommy identifies his friend by name to Lt. Gov. Hutchinson, adding, “His beliefs won’t ever die. Someday we will have our independence, someday…”

Other stories in this volume profile Aesop, Joe Louis, Frederick Douglass, and Emmet Till (killed only three or four years earlier). In the eighteenth-century tales, the clothing and hair styles (especially women’s) are a hodgepodge of past fashions rather than appropriate for the 1770s. The stories are dreadfully didactic. As for the art, Feelings was talented but not yet practiced. All in all, Tommy Traveller is interesting as a period piece—a snapshot from early in the modern civil-rights era of how African-Americans were making their rightful claim to have been part of western civilization all along.

About a decade after Tommy Traveler ran its course, Feelings returned to the story of Crispus Attucks in the comic book Golden Legacy. Bertram Fitzgerald developed that series, he stated, to “implant pride and self-esteem in Negro youth while dispelling myths in others.” The third issue is titled “Crispus Attucks and the Minutemen.” (Other issues cover Toussaint L’Ouverture, Benjamin Banneker, and figures from other historical eras.) Reprints are still available. I haven’t seen the Attucks issue, but I assume it reflects the same understanding of the Boston Massacre as in Tommy Traveler.

In depicting African-American history, Feelings’s masterpiece remains The Middle Passage.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Longmore’s Invention of George Washington

In 1771 George Washington ordered a bookplate incorporating his family coat-of-arms to be engraved and asked for more than 400 printed copies. He didn’t have anywhere near 400 books at the time. But he planned to make himself into a gentleman with a big library.

That fact comes from The Invention of George Washington, by Paul K. Longmore, which became one of my favorite books about Washington when I was working on my study for the National Park Service. That book was published by the University of California Press in 1988 and is now available in paperback from the University of Virginia Press.

Longmore painted “a portrait of Washington as a self-fashioning representative of his turbulent time,” as the book cover states. As a younger son from the lower colonial gentry, he shaped himself to succeed within his society. The aloof, always correct image that’s come down to us, Longmore argued, isn’t just a creation of Washington’s family or admiring historians. It was how Washington ultimately invented himself.

The first stage in that process was as an hard-working and frankly pushy young officer from Virginia. Basically every complaint that Washington as general had about uncooperative officers in the Revolutionary War could also be applied to Washington as colonel in the French and Indian War. It’s remarkable how marriage to Martha Custis calmed down that ambitious young man.

In Chapter 14, Longmore reexamined the Continental Congress’s choice of Washington as commander-in-chief of its army. Many historians have taken John Adams’s memoirs and later letters as their main source for that moment, retelling how Adams, as he suggested Washington to be commander-in-chief, saw the big Virginian slip out the door while John Hancock grew angry at being passed over.

There are problems reconciling that anecdote with the contemporaneous record and other delegates’ recollections, Longmore pointed out. For example, Adams described a lot of opposition to Washington, naming such delegates as Edmund Pendleton as arguing against the choice. But many of those men actually favored Washington, and he treated them as supporters: that month the new generalissimo asked Pendleton to write both his will and his acceptance speech. The whole story falls too easily into Adams’s pattern of recalling more opposition to himself than we can see through other sources.

Longmore hypothesized instead that Adams mixed up his memories of arguing for Washington as commander-in-chief (which probably produced little opposition) with arguing for Charles Lee to be another high-ranking general (which contemporaneous sources, including Adams’s letters, show was controversial). A big reason I admire Longmore’s book is his willingness to go against received wisdom like the Adams story.

I didn’t realize until this year how much effort Longmore had to put into the book, however. Longmore contracted polio when he was seven years old and lost the use of both hands. He needed a ventilator to breathe for much of the day. When he wrote, he held a pen in his mouth and punched a keyboard with it. The Invention of George Washington took ten years to finish.

After that biography was published, Longmore burned a copy in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles to protest how royalties from it would reduce his Social Security disability payments, thus discouraging him or other disabled people from doing creative work. (Those rules were later changed.)

Longmore became a professor at San Francisco State University. He specialized in the study of disability in American history, helping to establish that historical field. He coedited the anthology The New Disability History: American Perspectives and published the collection Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability.

Longmore died in 2010 at age sixty-four. The Institute on Disability he co-founded at San Francisco State is now named after him. Earlier this year, Longmore’s colleagues completed the publication of his last history book, Telethons.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

How to Save a Penny and More at Franklin’s Grave

Last week the Philadelphia newspapers ran a short article about an effort to preserve the gravestone of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.

That marble stone, in the Christ Church Burial Ground across from Independence Mall, has developed “developed a significant crack on top of the pitting caused by the tens of thousands of pennies tossed onto the marker annually in tribute to Franklin.”

The article suggested people threw those pennies on the stone “in tribute to Franklin, who coined the adage that ‘a penny saved, is a penny earned.’” But throwing pennies away is hardly saving them, is it?

No, this was just another manifestation of tourists’ wish to make their mark everywhere (while reassuring themselves they’re not actually vandalizing sites or causing damage). I recall climbing up the Bunker Hill Monument a few years back and seeing that people had shoved pennies through the wire grills on the windows, all to leave some hard sign they had passed through.

What’s more, though the “penny saved” adage sounds like something Franklin would write, he never actually did. He didn’t even quote it in Poor Richard’s Almanac, the way many other old sayings came to be attributed to him.

[CORRECTION: My source on that was wrong, as the comments below reveal. When I searched Founders Online to confirm that source, I searched for “penny saved”—but Franklin used the spelling “penny sav’d,” darn him.]

We have three examples of Franklin using variations on that adage:

  • In a 1732 Pennsylvania Gazette essay under the pseudonym Celia Single, Franklin wrote: “you know a penny sav’d is a penny got, a pin a day is a groat a year, every little makes a mickle…”
  • In his 1737 almanac’s “Hints for those that would be Rich,” Franklin offered an even higher return: “A Penny sav’d is Twopence clear, A Pin a day is a Groat a Year.”
  • In a 2 Oct 1779 letter on designing American coins, Franklin recommended that they display financial advice, including, “a Penny sav’d is a Penny got.”

But Franklin didn’t originate that saying.

According to this analysis, Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England (c. 1661) was the first book to note, “a penny saved is a penny gained.” Edward Ravenscroft’s Canterbury Guests (1695) preferred, “A penny sav’d, is a penny got.”

George Washington quoted the latter form of the adage to Anthony Whitting, an alcoholic farm manager at Mount Vernon, on 16 Dec 1792. And then again on 20 Jan 1793. And again on 5 May 1793. Whitting died later that year, or no doubt he would have read the words a lot more. Washington quoted the wisdom one last time to his last farm manager, James Anderson, on 29 Jan 1797.

At the end of 1831, the British and then American and then British political writer William Cobbett gave a lecture in Manchester in which he stated, “‘A penny saved is a penny earned,’ says the proverb.” Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register printed that version of the saying in January 1832.

But the adage wasn’t done evolving. In 1841 Gould’s Universal Index, and Every Body’s Own Book, by the American stenographer Marcus T. C. Gould, offered yet another version. A lecture in that schoolbook starts off, “Franklin has said that ‘Time is money;’ that ‘A penny saved is worth two earned.’” So American authors were starting to link versions of the adage back to Franklin.

Finally, everything came together in the form we know in the sixteenth Annual Report of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, published in Cambridge in 1848: “…according to Dr. Franklin, a penny saved is a penny earned.” Since then, many American sources have printed that version of the saying with that attribution. But Franklin himself said it a little differently.

Back to Philadelphia. The Christ Church Preservation Trust raised $66,000 for the gravestone restoration project before turning to GoFundMe for another $10,000. Within a day or two after local publicity hit, musician Jon Bon Jovi, his wife Dorothea, and the Philadelphia Eagles football team pledged the bulk of the money needed.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

“Seeing him buried under Liberty Tree”

On 22 Aug 1774, the Boston Gazette carried a small item at the end of its front-page news from Britain:
Died, a few days since, at Backway, near Cambridge, Philip Billes, Esq: possessed of a considerable fortune, which he had left to two gentlemen, no relations, on condition of seeing him buried under Liberty Tree at Boston, in New England.
The most recent dateline for London news in that paper was 1 June, probably the date of its British newspaper that printers Edes and Gill copied this item from. I’ve also seen a mention in the Craftsman or Say’s Weekly Journal for 4 June of the death of “Philip Billes, Esq; a gentleman possessed of a considerable fortune, which he has left to two gentlemen.”

I believe “Backway” was a variant spelling of Barkway, a village and parish in northeast Hertfordshire fifteen miles from Cambridge. Billes might be the person baptized in November 1700 in Dorset, from a genteel family whose last name also appears as Biles and Byles.

But I haven’t been able to find anything more about Billes or his body. When he died, the Boston Port Bill had come into effect, complicating any effort to ship a casket into Boston. War broke out the following spring, and by September Liberty Tree was as dead as Mr. Billes. So he probably never got his wish. Presumably his two friends still enjoyed his fortune.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thomas Machin “employed in ye. Colony service”

I left off yesterday with Gen. George Washington asking the Massachusetts government to release Lt. Thomas Machin from his project surveying a canal through Cape Cod and join the Continental Army around New York. Washington needed engineers to build fortifications.

On 10 June, Washington’s military secretary Robert Hanson Harrison told Gen. Artemas Ward:
I am commanded by his Excy to request you to send immediately to this place Lt Machin of the Train, provided, he does not belong to either of the Artilly Companies, in Boston—If he does not, he will come with all possible dispatch
A week later, Ward wrote back to the commander-in-chief: “Last evening I received Major Harrison’s Letter of the tenth Instant, and agreeable [to] your desire have directed Lieut. Machin to be ready as soon as possible to set out for New York.”

But “as soon as possible” appears to have meant different things to different people. Massachusetts still wanted that canal, which would make shipping from Boston to the southern states quicker and safer. Evidently Machin continued to work on the project. On 19 June the head of the Massachusetts Council, James Bowdoin (shown above), wrote to him at Nantasket, or Hull:
I informed the committee that you could go to Sandwich on the survey if it could be taken this week; in consequence of which, we agreed that you might set out as soon as is thought proper, and begin the survey, and that we would follow, and be there next Tuesday. I beg you would let me see you to-morrow evening, that the committee may hear what to depend on.
He also provided a pass: “Lieut. Machin, the bearer hereof, being employed in ye. Colony service, it is desired he may pass from hence to Sandwich and back without interruption.” That was dated “Boston, June 20, 1776.”

But Massachusetts couldn’t keep Machin much longer. A month later, on 21 July, he was in New York City, Gen. Washington sent him up the Hudson River, telling a secret committee of the state government:
Mr Machine a Lieut. in the Train, who has just returned from overseeing the Works at Boston, he is as proper a person as any I can send, being an ingenious faithfull hand, And One that has had considerable experience as an Engineer
Washington’s orders for Machin were:
You are without delay to proceed for Fort Montgomery, or Constitution in the High Lands on Hudsons River, and put yourself under command of Colo. George [actually James] Clinton or the Commanding Officer there, to Act as Engineer in compleating such Works as are already laid out, and such others as you, with the advice of Colo. Clinton may think Necessary—’tis expected and required of You—that you pay strict and close Attention to this Business—and drive on the Works with all possible Dispatch, In Case of an Attack from the Enemy, or in any Action with them you are to join and act with the Artillery on that Station, and to return to your Duty in the Regiment as soon as you can be spared from the Works
That was the beginning of Machin’s long service fortifying and protecting the upper Hudson against British ships, which included his most storied feat: building a chain of barriers across the river at West Point.

Machin had left something behind in Massachusetts, however. On 10 Aug 1778 Dr. Nathaniel Freeman wrote to Machin from Sandwich: “Your chest of books and instruments are safe here, and ready to be delivered to your order at any time…”

As for Massachusetts’s big engineering project, Freeman wrote, “Our report respecting the channel was seasonably made and in favor of it, but nothing done.” The Cape Cod Canal wasn’t completed until the early twentieth century.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Lt. Machin and the Cape Cod Canal

On Saturday I’m going to Sandwich to speak to the Cape Cod Sons of the American Revolution about The Road to Concord. So I decided to look for something interesting about Revolutionary Sandwich.

That led me back to one of my favorite characters from the siege of Boston: Thomas Machin. As I’ve written, Machin came to the town in 1774 as a private in His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot.

Machin left town on the night of 26 July 1775, “when sentry on the fire boat in the river near the neck.” He took his fellow regular’s musket while he slept, got into a canoe, and headed for the American lines.

In Cambridge, Machin was debriefed by Gen. George Washington himself. He then helped John Trumbull sketch the British fortifications; when he defected, two British officers wrote in their diaries that he knew something about that topic. Machin then probably worked in quartermaster Thomas Mifflin’s department. In January 1776, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Continental Artillery—one of the American army’s few engineers.

After the siege, Washington ordered Machin to stay in the Boston area to help fortify the harbor against any new British attack. But in May the Massachusetts legislature got a new idea:
It is represented to this Court that a navigable canal may without much difficulty be cut through the isthmus which separates Buzzards Bay and Barnstable Bay, whereby the Hazardous Navigation round Cape Cod, both on account of the shoals and enemy, may be prevented, and a safe communication between this colony and the southern colonies be so far secured
The notion of a canal through Cape Cod had been around for decades. With the Royal Navy lurking out in the Atlantic, this seemed like an excellent time to push it through.

People understood that Machin had experience digging canals. According to family tradition set down in the mid-1800s, he had worked for the British canal engineer James Brindley. Indeed, Brindley was active in the part of central England where Machin reportedly hailed from. However, that family tradition is suspect, creating a fictional past for the man instead of identifying him as a deserter.

Whatever his background, Lt. Machin went to work surveying the canal route and making other plans. But on 10 June 1776, Gen. Washington wrote to James Bowdoin, senior member of the Massachusetts Council:
I am hopeful that you applied to General [Artemas] Ward, and have received all the Assistance that Mr Machin could give in determining upon the practacability of cutting a Canal, between Barnstable & Buzzards Bay ’ere this, as the great demand we have for Engineer’s in this Department [i.e., New York], Canada, &ca, has obliged me to order Mr Machin hither to assist in that branch of business.
Just as the canal construction might be starting that summer, the engineer was called back to the army.

TOMORROW: Can this project be saved?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Jonathan Sewall on John Adams

The new books about John Adams and his thoughts on aristocracy give me a chance to quote one of my favorite passages about him, from his old friend Jonathan Sewall.

Sewall became an attorney for the Crown, then a Loyalist, then a very depressed shut-in. He recovered and retired to Canada with his sons. In 1787 Sewall wrote to a friend in the energetic, expansive prose he produced when he was feeling well:
While I was in London, my quondam friend, John Adams, sent me a complimentary card, and afterwards made me a long friendly visit, as Mrs. [Abigail] Adams soon after did to Mrs. [Esther] Sewall. [The two women were cousins.] And they then earnestly pressed us to take a family dinner with them, in a way so evidently friendly and hearty, that I was sorry I could not comply. But having resolved to make no visits nor accept of any invitations, and having upon this ground previously declined invitations to dine with Sir William Pepperell, your friend Mr. [Richard?] Clark, and several other friends, I was obliged, to avoid giving offence, to decline this.

When Mr. Adams came in, he took my hand in both his, and, with a hearty squeeze, accosted me in these words: “How do you do, my dear old friend?” Our conversation was just such as might be expected at the meeting of two old sincere friends after a long separation.

Adams has a heart formed for friendship, and susceptible of its finest feelings. He is humane, generous, and open; warm in his friendly attachments, though, perhaps, rather implacable to those whom he thinks his enemies. And though, during the American contest, an unbounded ambition and an enthusiastic zeal for the imagined or real glory and welfare of his country, (the offspring, perhaps in part, though imperceptible to himself, of disappointed ambition,) may have suspended the operation of those social and friendly principles which, I am positive, are in him, innate and congenial, yet sure I am they could not be eradicated. They might sleep, inactive, like the body in the grave, during the storm raised by more violent and impetuous passions in his political career for the goal to which zeal and ambition, united, kept his eye immovably fixed; but a resuscitation must have been the immediate consequence of the peace.

Gratified in the two darling wishes of his soul, the independence of America acknowledged and established, and he himself placed on the very pinnacle of the temple of honor, why, the very devil himself must have felt loving and good-natured after so complete a victory; much more, a man in whose heart lay dormant every good and virtuous social and friendly principles. Nature must, and, I have no doubt, did break forth and assert her rights. Of this I am so well convinced, that if he could but play backgammon, I declare I would choose him, in preference to all the men in the world, for my fidus Achates, in my projected asylum.

And I believe he would soon find it the happiest state; for, if I am not mistaken, now he has reached the summit of his ambition, he finds himself quite out of his element, and looks back with regret to those happy days, when in a snug house, with a pretty farm about him at Braintree, he sat quiet, in the full possession of domestic happiness, with an amiable, sensible wife, and an annual increase of olive-plants round his table, for whose present and future support he was, by his own honest industry, for he was an honest lawyer as ever broke bread, rapidly making ample provision.

He is not qualified, by nature or education, to shine in courts. His abilities are, undoubtedly, quite equal to the mechanical parts of his business as ambassador; but this is not enough. He cannot dance, drink, game, flatter, promise, dress, swear with the gentlemen, and talk small talk and flirt with the ladies; in short, he has none of the essential arts or ornaments which constitute a courtier. There are thousands, who, with a tenth part of his understanding and without a spark of his honesty, would distance him infinitely in any court in Europe.
At this time Adams was the U.S. minister to London. Sewall thought he was ill suited to being a diplomat at a royal court. Of course, Sewall also thought that Adams had reached the “summit of his ambition,” with no idea of the positions of Vice President and President that the Constitutional Convention was about to create.

(This text of the letter appears in a footnote in the first edition of John Adams’s diary and memoir. It’s unclear how the editor of those books, Adams’s grandson, came by it.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Luke Mayville on John Adams and Aristocracy

There are actually two books about John Adams’s political thinking on aristocracy coming out this year. In addition to the one author Richard Alan Ryerson will speak about tomorrow, there’s also John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy by Luke Mayville, published by Princeton University Press.

Earlier this fall the Course of Human Events blog discussed that book with Mayville. Here’s some of its posting:
“I argue in the book,” Mayville explains, “that John Adams is probably the most profound analyst and critic of oligarchy in American history.” (Mayville substantiates this claim, in part, by pointing to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, a book that would also contend for the title of most profound analysis of oligarchy. Mills viewed Adams as a predecessor for his own analysis.) Adams’ writings about oligarchy are interesting, of course, because of his importance in the foundation of this country. But his writings are especially interesting and relevant because the classical concept of the few and the many faded in his lifetime as the more modern concept of a single, classless citizenry became popular. . . .

Adams’ views on oligarchy have drawn criticism from historians who believe his thinking is obsolete or irrelevant for our time. Mayville accepts this criticism to a point, given Adams’ defense, as he puts it, of “certain far-fetched institutions or implausible institutional arrangements.” For example, he proposed a senate exclusively for aristocrats. As Mayville explains, “it wasn’t meant so much to privilege the aristocracy as to—in Adams’s words—ostracize them.” Essentially, the idea was to corral the social-economic elite in a single chamber of government and thereby prevent them from controlling the entire government. Leaving the “far-fetched” aside, Mayville argues that Adams’ thinking remains “uniquely relevant” because, more than his contemporaries and more than many thinkers in the tradition of American political thought, “he retained a critical perspective on the power of elites and the role they play in politics.”

Who exactly did John Adams count among the elites? . . . Mayville asserts that Adams “repeatedly pointed to wealth as the most reliable source of aristocracy or elite power. And in this sense, I think there are important parallels between his view and the contemporary idea of the 1%.” . . . Mayville notes: “Adams shared today’s growing suspicion that the wealth of the few or the 1% isn’t so much the product of work or talent as it is the product of luck or inheritance.”
Adams also described and praised a “natural and actual aristocracy among mankind,” families that can “rise up” through talent. In a 1790 letter to Samuel Adams (quoted here) he praised four Boston families as exemplifying that process: “the Craftses, Gores, Daweses, and Austins.”

Incidentally, the Crafts, Gore, and Dawes families all play major roles in the events of The Road to Concord. So they really are important.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Ryerson on Adams’s Political Thinking, 16 Nov.

On Wednesday, 16 November, the Massachusetts Historical Society will welcome back Richard Alan Ryerson, once editor of the Adams Papers. He will speak about his new book, John Adams’s Republic: The One, the Few, and the Many, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

The event description says:
Of all the founding fathers, Ryerson argues, John Adams may have worried the most about the problem of social jealousy and political conflict in the new republic. Ryerson explains how these concerns, coupled with Adams’s concept of executive authority and his fear of aristocracy, deeply influenced his political mindset. How, Adams asked, could a self-governing country counter the natural power and influence of wealthy elites and their friends in government? Ryerson argues that he came to believe a strong executive could hold at bay the aristocratic forces that posed the most serious dangers to a republican society.
Registration is required for this event, and there is a $10 fee for non-members. The event starts at 5:30 P.M. with a reception, and Ryerson will speak at 6:00 before signing books.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Hogarth Begging for Another Look

Last month the Print Shop Window reported on a new expert ruling about a painting attributed to William Hogarth in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. (Ours, not Britain’s.)

The website’s story, cleverly titled “The Fake’s Progress,” stated:
The painting, which was originally believed to be one of five versions of A Scene from the Beggar’s Opera that Hogarth painted sometime during the late 1720s, will be offically ‘outed’ as a forgery in a catalogue raisonné due to be published by the Paul Mellon Centre next month. Elizabeth Einberg, the British Hogarth expert responsible compiling the book, concluded that “The touch, the colour… the handling of the paint is not simply not the same” as that of a true Hogarth.

Professor Robin Simon, author of Hogarth, France and British Art, alerted Einberg to the possibility of the work being a forgery after making close comparisons between the Washington painting and those known to be by Hogarth. He concluded that “Hogarth was incredibly careful to make sure you could recognise… individual actors [and their] roles in each of the four versions…. In the Washington picture you can’t make out anybody’s individual features.”
The American collector Paul Mellon bought the painting and donated it to the gallery in 1983, sixteen years before his death. That’s the same Paul Mellon who endowed the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art at Yale University, the publisher of the book that downgrades this painting. But Mellon was enough of a scholar to be pleased by the accumulation of knowledge.

You can compare the National Gallery’s painting (shown above and zoomable through this link) with this undoubted Hogarth from the Tate Gallery in London:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A “(Mostly) True” Picture Book Landing Now

On Publishers Weekly’s new list of the best picture books of the year is A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785, written by Matthew Olshan and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

The journal’s review of the book said:
The team behind the The Mighty Lalouche (2013) recounts the first international balloon journey, an expedition across the English Channel undertaken by a British doctor named Jeffries and a French balloonist named Blanchard in 1785. Tension arises even before the balloon leaves the ground as Jeffries discovers that Blanchard is plotting to exclude him from the trip. The two men cold-shoulder each other as the journey gets underway, but when the balloon starts to lose altitude, Blanchard’s heroism turns them into friends and allies. (They’re in their bloomers at the time, and Olshan keeps their rapprochement from getting too sentimental with a hilarious peeing scene.)

The baroque ornamentation and carefully lettered speech balloons of Blackall’s spreads recall the work of George Cruikshank; like him, she has a gift for revealing that people dressed in petticoats and tricorne hats are just as human as the rest of us. With humor that’s never snarky, Olshan reminds readers that, sometimes, the challenge adventurers must overcome is not the elements; it’s their own vanity. Ages 4–8.
Dr. John Jeffries was indeed British at the time of this flight, but he was born and raised in Boston. He had become a Loyalist, serving as a British military physician during the war. In 1789, after tensions had dissipated a bit (and he saw an inheritance in Massachusetts while running out of money in Britain), Jeffries returned to his native town for the latter part of his career.

Deborah Kalb interviewed Olshan about the book, asking in particular about that parenthetical word in the subtitle:
Q: The subtitle describes it as a “(mostly) true story.” What did you see as the right blend of the historical facts and your own imagination?

A: The phrase you singled out from the subtitle—“(mostly) true”—is a source of lively conversation about the book. Roger Sutton of The Horn Book wrote an editorial on this very subject in his blog,…in which he describes the challenge for a reviewer in properly categorizing A Voyage in the Clouds; i.e., can a book that characterizes itself as “mostly true” be considered “non-fiction?”

My story was certainly inspired by the flight of Jeffries and Blanchard; most of the events in the story actually happened as they’re described, as I explain in the Author’s Note. But I did take a few liberties in the interest of keeping young readers engaged.

If a book is to be presented as “non-fiction” or taught in classrooms as “history,” I think an author has a responsibility to volunteer the fact that he has departed from the historical record.

But even a story that hews as closely as possible to historical facts as they’ve been received and strives mightily to represent the “factual” is going to wind up being fiction, to a certain degree, if only by depicting the modern author’s impossible intimacy with his protagonists.

The author can’t have known them, but it’s essential to his “authority” that he seem to have.
For Boston 1775’s intimate retelling of Dr. Jeffries’s voyage with Jean Pierre Blanchard, from all the way back in 2006, start here.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Brief Army Career of John Anthony Aborn

Quoting from Donald A. D’Amato’s Warwick: A City at the Crossroads, this website about the history of Warwick, Rhode Island, describes the experiences of the Aborn family:
The fort at Pawtuxet was manned by the Pawtuxet Rangers who are officially ranked in the state militia as the Second Independent Company of the County of Kent. At that time they numbered 50. The commander of the militia unit was Samuel Aborn, one of the leading citizens of the village and the “host at the Golden Ball Inn, on Post Road, at the western end of the village.” Aborn two years earlier, in his small sloop, Sally, had taken the anchors, guns, stores, and other effects from the Gaspee to Pawtuxet. Aborn remained the Rangers’ commander throughout the struggle for independence. His officers were First Lieut. Benjamin Arnold, Second Lieut. Rhodes Arnold and Ensign Stephen Greene.

Captain Aborn’s experiences during the war serve to remind us of the bitterness and the tragedy of the time. Very early in the struggle, his sloop, Sally, was captured by the British, causing him serious financial hardship. Later, his young son, a boy of 14, joined the Continental Army. Boys at that young age were anxious to take part in the war and often served as drummer-boys. Young Aborn, at the special request of Gen. Nathanael Greene, was granted permission to return home because of ill health. [Horace] Belcher tells us it was too late as “the boy came home only to die”.
Horace Belcher was a Pawtuxet newspaper reporter and chronicler.

On 5 Sept 1775, Gen. Nathanael Greene indeed wrote from Prospect Hill to his commanding officer, Gen. Charles Lee, encamped on Winter Hill, with a special request (and a variant spelling):
The bearer Colonel Ebbons from Rhode Island is a Gentleman of good Character and a family of distinction—from his public Spirit he has permitted his Son to enter into the Service a lad of about fourteen years of age. He is now Sick in hospital—the Doctor recommends a ride into the Country—The Colonel has brought down a Shaize to carry him and one Thornton home with him, they are both unfit for duty and will be for some time. As soon as they get fit for duty the Colonel promises to return them to Camp—You may depend upon his honor in what he engages—I wish you may find freedom to gratify the Colonel in his request.
Lee did as Greene asked, granting “John Anthony Aborn & Christr Thornton in Colo [James] Varnum’s Regiment” a “leave of absence for five weeks for the recovery of their Health.”

John Anthony Aborn had been born on 4 Nov 1761 in Providence, according to this genealogy page. That means he was well short of his fourteenth birthday when he served in the siege of Boston.

Other documents show that Rhode Island rented Samuel Aborn’s ship Sally in 1776, and it was then captured by the British. So the sequence of events in that passage is off: Aborn lost his ship after his young son’s service.

Further research also reveals good news. The name “John A. Aborn” appears among the privates in a company on duty at Pawtuxet in July 1778. On 16 July 1789, the United States Chronicle, a newspaper issued in Providence, reported the marriage of Sally Rhodes and “Capt. John A. Aborn, at Pawtuxet.” The following year, President George Washington nominated young Aborn to be “Surveyor of the Port of Patuxet,” though he declined. The census that year recorded him living with two free white females in Warwick.

Rather than dying young, Revolutionary veteran John Anthony Aborn died in Pawtuxet on 1 Apr 1821, age fifty-nine.

[The picture above is the banner of the recreated Pawtuxet Rangers.]