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, May 16, 2017

Orreries in a Time of War

Silas Deane was the first American diplomat in Paris during the Revolutionary War, trying to win support for the Continental Congress from the French government.

Since France was a monarchy, Deane decided to do some old-fashioned fawning, presenting influential people with special gifts from America.

On 28 Nov 1776 he wrote to the Congress’s Committee of Secret Correspondence, which was directing foreign policy:
I wish I had here one of the best saddle-horses of the American or Rhode Island breed. A present of that kind would be money well laid out with a certain personage. Other curious American productions at this time would, though trifles in themselves, be of consequence rightly timed and placed. I mentioned Mr. [David] Rittenhouse’s orrery in a former letter, and I think Arnold’s collection of insects, etc., but I submit any step of this kind to your mature judgment.
I haven’t come across that “former letter,” but a few days later, on 3 December, Deane wrote to John Jay with the same bright ideas—and an identification for that “certain personage”:
The queen is fond of parade, and I believe wishes a war, and is our friend. She loves riding on horseback. Could you send me a narrowhegansett horse or two; the present might be money exceedingly well laid out. Rittenhouse’s orrery, or Arnold’s collection of insects, a phaeton of American make and a pair of bay horses, a few barrels of apples, of walnuts, of butternuts, etc., would be great curiosities here, where everything American is gazed at, and where the American contest engages the attention of all ages, ranks, and sexes.
On 10 May 1777, John Adams wrote to his wife:
Upon a Hint, from one of our Commissioners abroad, We are looking about for American Curiosities, to send across the Atlantic as presents to the Ladies. Mr. Rittenhouse’s Planetarium, Mr. Arnolds Collection of Rareties in the Virtuoso Way, which I once saw at Norwalk in Connecticutt, Narragansett Pacing Mares, Mooses, Wood ducks, Flying Squirrells, Redwinged Black birds, Cramberries, and Rattlesnakes have all been thought of.

Is not this a pretty Employment for great Statesmen, as We think ourselves to be? Frivolous as it seems, it may be of some Consequence. Little Attentions have great Influence. I think, however, We ought to consult the Ladies upon this Point. Pray what is your Opinion?
I haven’t found Abigail Adams’s reply to the idea of shipping rattlesnakes and other curiosities to Queen Marie Antoinette.

The man behind “Arnold’s collection of insects” was Edward Arnold of Norwalk. On his way to the Congress in May 1775, Robert Treat Paine “Went to see Mr. Edward Arnold and saw his Museum a very large Collection of Birds, Insects, Fossils, Beasts, Fishes &c w’h he has been 9 yrs collecting.” Those curiosities did eventually make its way to Europe. According to Adams, Arnold sold his collection to William Tryon, royal governor of New York, who shipped it to London. Those specimens went into Sir Ashton Lever’s private museum.

It’s not clear to me how Deane expected the Congress to obtain a Rittenhouse orrery for Marie Antoinette. Was the Congress to buy or confiscate one of the devices from the college at Princeton or Philadelphia? [The one at Philadelphia appears above.] Or did he want the legislature to commission a new device from Rittenhouse, despite the going price of £300-400?

In January 1777, soon after Deane wrote, the British and Continental Armies battled over the town of Princeton, each occupying the college buildings in turn. The Congress’s envoy to Spain, Arthur Lee, told Deane and Benjamin Franklin that “The barbarity of these Sarracen Invaders went so far as to destroy the Philosophical Apparatus at Princeton College, with the Orrery constructed by Dr. Rittenhouse.” That report was exaggerated, but after that news Deane stopped asking about shipping over an American orrery for the queen.

TOMORROW: Boston’s own orrery.

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