J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

“Sent you one of phillis whetleys books”

Yesterday I quoted from a letter that Deborah Cushing sent her husband Thomas in September 1774 when he was serving in the First Continental Congress.

When that letter is cited today, it’s usually because Cushing mentioned the poet Phillis Wheatley. She said:
I rote you by Mr [Richard] Cary and sent you one of phillis whetleys books which you will wonder att but Mrs. Dickerson and Mrs. Clymer Mrs. Bull with some other ladys ware so pleasd with Phillis and her performances that they bought her Books and got her to compose some pieces for them which put me in mind of mrs vanhorn to hume

I thought it would be very agreabel
In an undated letter that talks about Gov. Thomas Gage removing John Hancock from command of the Cadets, and therefore must come from August 1774, Deborah Cushing wrote that “mr Dickerson & mr Climer & ladies” had recently visited her. (She also cautioned her husband, “Dont Eat any meat super which you know always make you sick.”)

George Clymer (shown above) was one of the more radical Philadelphia Whigs. In 1774 he made his second visit to Boston, having previously traveled there for his health.

As for “Dickerson,” we can narrow down his identity with the help of John Adams’s diary for 31 August:
Mr. [John] Dickenson, the Farmer of Pensylvania, came to Mr. Wards Lodgings to see us, in his Coach and four beautifull Horses. He was introduced to Us, and very politely said he was exceedingly glad to have the Pleasure of seeing these Gentlemen, made some Enquiry after the Health of his Brother and Sister, who are now in Boston.
Dickinson’s most famous brother was Philemon Dickinson, a general in the Revolutionary War and later a U.S. senator. But there were other brothers and half-brothers. Back in 1769, a Dickinson brother had visited Boston and dined with the Sons of Liberty at Lemuel Robinson’s tavern in Dorchester. However, the list of attendees and John Adams’s diary for that date both refer to Dickinson’s brother simply as his brother, poor guy. And we don’t even know if the man visiting in 1774 was the same brother.

Nor have I been able to identify the sister of John Dickinson who was visiting Boston. Was she “Mrs. Bull”? Complicating that inquiry is that people of the time sometimes referred to their siblings-in-law without the “in-law” appendage, so by Dickinson’s “Brother and Sister” Adams could have meant his “brother and his brother’s wife.”

Lastly, I’m baffled by what Deborah Cushing meant by “got her to compose some pieces for them which put me in mind of mrs vanhorn to hume.” Cushing wasn’t great with names (see “Dickerson”), but clearly she had some allusion in mind. Any ideas?

On 4 October, Thomas Cushing wrote back to Deborah, saying he had shown her letters to John Dickinson, Thomas Mifflin, Charles Thomson, and their wives, and they had praised her “patriotic, calm & undaunted spirit.” Which I hope was reassuring since she’d already reminded him she was nervous about her writing skills.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

It could be read as
"which put me in mind of Mrs. VanHorn, to whom I thought it would be very agreeable."

J. L. Bell said...

Ooh, good thought! A William Vanhorn represented Bucks County in the Pennsylvania convention of 1776 alongside George Clymer and John Bull from Philadelphia.

J. L. Bell said...

There was also a Rev. Peter Peterson Vanhorn in Cape May, New Jersey.