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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Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Hancocks’ Dinner Table

Ticonderoga, New York, boasts the most accurate recreation of the Hancock mansion that used to stand on Beacon Hill.

The merchant Thomas Hancock built the original and passed it to his nephew John.

The replica was erected in 1925, long after the original was torn down, based on detailed architectural drawings. It is the headquarters of the Ticonderoga Historical Society.

Now the society is also the owner of a dinner table that was in the Hancock mansion, as the New York History Blog explains.
The table was the gift of Benn and Claire Eilers of Bend, Oregon. Benn Eilers is a descendant of Hancock’s sister-in-law, Sarah Quincy [who married William Greenleaf, sheriff of Worcester County].

With leaves that extend to 30 feet, the table is constructed of birds-eye walnut, a relatively rare wood. It is believed that George Washington dined at the table while visiting the Hancock House in Boston in 1789, during Hancock’s time as Governor of Massachusetts.
Hancock served many terms as governor, so depending on when he had that table he and his wife Dolly could have used it to entertain French army and naval officers, local politicians, and close friends.

However, I don’t think Washington dined at the Hancocks’ house in 1789. The governor invited him to do so, but the new President was trying to establish that he outranked American governors, so he wanted Hancock to wait on him instead of the other way around. Eventually Hancock relented and visited the President at a tavern, pleading infirmity for not coming out earlier. There was also a public dinner for Washington at Faneuil Hall. But I can’t find a mention of the President visiting Beacon Hill.

The table is on display in the parlor of Ticonderoga’s Hancock House daily until Labor Day. The society is hoping to raise funds to interpret a table setting in John Hancock’s time.

TOMORROW: Why that display should include plum cake.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

“Mr. Mason’s objection to the President’s power of pardoning”

Among George Mason’s objections to the proposed U.S. Constitution of 1787 was that it gave too much power to the President.

Specifically, Mason feared that a President would abuse the power to pardon criminals. On the back of a committee report, he wrote:
The President of the United States has the unrestrained power of granting pardons for treason, which may be sometimes exercised to screen from punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the crime, and thereby prevent a discovery of his own guilt.
At the Virginia ratifying convention that began in June 1788 Mason expounded on that danger:
Now, I conceive that the President ought not to have the power of pardoning, because he may frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself. It may happen, at some future day, that he will establish a monarchy, and destroy the republic. If he has the power of granting pardons before indictment, or conviction, may he not stop inquiry and prevent detection?
By then Mason’s notes had been circulated and printed, so advocates for the Constitution were prepared for his argument. Early in the ratifying debate George Nicholas responded that the threat of impeachment was crucial to ensuring government officials, including the President, didn’t abuse their powers:
In England, very few ministers have dared to bring on themselves an accusation by the representatives of the people, by pursuing means contrary to their rights and liberties. Few ministers will ever run the risk of being impeached, when they know the king cannot protect them by a pardon. This power must have much greater force in America, where the President himself is personally amenable for his mal-administration; the power of impeachment must be a sufficient check on the President’s power of pardoning before conviction. 
James Madison made the same point at more length. As the record of that state convention says:
Mr. MADISON, adverting to Mr. Mason’s objection to the President’s power of pardoning, said it would be extremely improper to vest it in the House of Representatives, and not much less so to place it in the Senate; because numerous bodies were actuated more or less by passion, and might, in the moment of vengeance, forget humanity. It was an established practice in Massachusetts for the legislature to determine in such cases. It was found, says he, that two different sessions, before each of which the question came with respect to pardoning the delinquents of the [Shays] rebellion, were governed precisely by different sentiments: the one would execute with universal vengeance, and the other would extend general mercy.

There is one security in this case to which gentlemen may not have adverted: if the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty; they can suspend him when suspected, and the power will devolve on the Vice-President. Should he be suspected, also, he may likewise be suspended till he be impeached and removed, and the legislature may make a temporary appointment. This is a great security.
Madison thus declared that Congress could impeach the President not just if he pardoned someone to protect himself, but “if the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him.”

Madison also suggested something the Constitution didn’t have an explicit provision for at the time: suspending an impeached President and Vice President and replacing them with “a temporary appointment” until the Senate ruled on their guilt.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Mixed Meaning of Richard Stockton

In 2008 I posted a multi-part inquiry into the legend of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey.

According to the standard story, in late 1776 the British forces captured Stockton and treated him so badly that he was in poor health until he died from the consequences in 1781. That story led to New Jersey honoring Stockton in multiple ways, including putting his statue in the U.S. Capitol as a state hero.

I pointed out that:
  • Stockton’s Continental Congress colleagues immediately shared reports and concerns that after being captured he abjured his support for independence.
  • Sources from the 1770s and 1780s say little about mistreatment or extended illness arising from it. Stockton died of an oral cancer, not something normally brought on by cold.
  • Only in the 1820s did American authors start to complain that Stockton was mistreated and died as a result. Reported details of that treatment, still unsupported by documents, became worse as time went on.
The following year, Todd Braisted, now author of Grand Forage 1778, provided a smoking gun: a December 1776 letter from a British army officer stating that Adm. Lord Richard Howe and Gen. Sir William Howe had “granted a full pardon to Richard Stockton, Esq”. The judge then removed himself from politics and the war. Not only does that letter suggest that Stockton reached some kind of agreement for his freedom, but it also shows he was in British custody for less than a month.

Drawing on those postings and further research, Christian McBurney discussed Stockton’s case in detail in his book Abductions in the American Revolution and in this 2016 article for the Journal of the American Revolution. He questioned whether New Jersey should continue to have Stockton be one of the two figures it displays in the U.S. Capitol, given the state’s other heroes.

This month brought news that Stockton University in New Jersey has removed a bust of Richard Stockton (shown above) from its library. The reason was not, however, because his iconic status in the state rests on a shaky legend of stoic suffering at the hands of the enemy.

Rather, the university removed the bust because Stockton owned slaves. Those people are documented in his will, in which the judge said his widow Annis could free them if she chose. (I’ve found no evidence she did so. Their son Richard owned slaves as an adult, as did their daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush—even though he advocated for an end to slavery.)

As a public university, and one founded to provide more opportunities for students who don’t have advantages in our society, Stockton University has good reason not to glorify someone who participated in slave-owning even while championing liberty for gentlemen like himself.

At the same time, I don’t see how removing Stockton’s bust will fix that contradiction when the institution is still, you know, named Stockton University.

The school started in the 1970s as South Jersey State College and evolved through Stockton State College, Richard Stockton State College, and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey before becoming Stockton University in 2015. Has the Stockton name developed enough of its own legacy to leave the judge behind? Does Stockton’s documented interest in higher education (as a trustee of Princeton College) make him a good namesake for a university despite his other behavior?

Ironically, Stockton University is in Galloway Township. There’s some thought that the Crown named that settlement in 1774 after the Pennsylvania politician Joseph Galloway. He was one of America’s leading Loyalists, fleeing to exile in Britain four years later. And yet the name lives on.

Monday, August 28, 2017

“The Government of this Colledge is very Strict”

Yesterday I quoted the start of John Adams’s description of his first visit to Princeton in August 1774, when he was on his way to the First Continental Congress.

Adams viewed the college’s Nassau Hall, the mansion of Judge Richard Stockton, the Rittenhouse orrery, and equipment for electrical experiments (which didn’t work in New Jersey’s humid August).

Adams’s account continues:
By this Time the Bell rang for Prayers. We went into the Chappell, the President [John Witherspoon, shown here] soon came in, and we attended. The Schollars sing as badly as the Presbyterians at New York. After Prayers the President attended Us to the Balcony of the Colledge, where We have a Prospect of an Horizon of about 80 Miles Diameter.

We went into the Presidents House, and drank a Glass of Wine. He is as high a Son of Liberty, as any Man in America. He says it is necessary that the Congress should raise Money and employ a Number of Writers in the Newspapers in England, to explain to the Public the American Plea, and remove the Prejudices of Britons. He says also We should recommend it to every Colony to form a Society for the Encouragement of Protestant Emigrants from the 3 Kingdoms [i.e., England, Scotland, and Ireland].

The Dr. waited on us to our Lodgings and took a Dish of Coffee. He is one of the Committee of Correspondence, and was upon the Provincial Congress for appointing Delegates from this Province to the general [i.e., Continental] Congress. Mr. William Livingston and He laboured he says to procure an Instruction that the Tea should not be paid for. Livingston he says is very sincere and very able in the public Cause, but a bad Speaker, tho a good Writer.

Here we saw a Mr. Hood a Lawyer of Brunswick, and a Mr. Jonathan Dickenson Serjeant, a young Lawyer of Prince town, both cordial Friends to American Liberty. In the Evening, young [Samuel] Whitwell, a student at this Colledge, Son of Mr. [Samuel] Whitwell at Boston to whom we brought a Letter, came to see us.

By the Account of Whitwell and [fellow student John] Pidgeon, the Government of this Colledge is very Strict, and the Schollars study very hard. The President says they are all Sons of Liberty.
It’s notable how many of the men Adams met in Princeton eventually became New Jersey delegates to the Continental Congress: college president Witherspoon, professor William Huston, and lawyer Sergeant, not to mention neighbor Stockton.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

John Adams’s First Visit to Princeton

On 27 Aug 1775, John Adams visited the College of New Jersey in Princeton. He arrived in town about noon, checking into Jacob Hyer’s tavern at the “Sign of Hudibrass,” near the college’s Nassau Hall (shown here).

In his diary Adams recorded his impressions:
The Colledge is a stone building about as large as that at New York [i.e., what is now Columbia]. It stands upon rising Ground and so commands a Prospect of the Country.

After Dinner Mr. [John] Pidgeon a student of Nassau Hall, Son of Mr. [John] Pidgeon of Watertown [actually Newton] from whom we brought a Letter, took a Walk with us and shewed us the Seat of Mr. [Richard] Stockton a Lawyer in this Place and one of the Council, and one of the Trustees of the Colledge. As we returned we met Mr. Euston [William Houston], the Professor of Mathematicks and natural Philosophy, who kindly invited Us to his Chamber. We went.

The Colledge is conveniently constructed. Instead of Entries across the Building, the Entries are from End to End, and the Chambers are on each side of the Entries. There are such Entries one above another in every Story. Each Chamber has 3 Windows, two studies, with one Window in each, and one Window between the studies to enlighten the Chamber.

Mr. Euston then shewed us the Library. It is not large, but has some good Books. He then led us into the Apparatus. Here we saw a most beautifull Machine, an Orrery, or Planetarium, constructed by Mr. [David] Writtenhouse of Philadelphia. It exhibits allmost every Motion in the astronomical World. The Motions of the Sun and all the Planetts with all their Satellites. The Eclipses of the Sun and Moon &c. He shewed us another orrery, which exhibits the true Inclination of the orbit of each of the Planetts to the Plane of the Ecliptic.

He then shewed Us the electrical Apparatus, which is the most compleat and elegant that I have seen. He charged the Bottle and attempted an Experiment, but the State of the Air was not favourable.
For more about Rittenhouse’s orreries, see here.

TOMORROW: Adams’s college tour continues.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

“Very fit for a Saturday morning’s declamation”

Yesterday we left William Wirt at about age thirteen in 1785 or so, chafing at an unjust accusation and physical punishment by his school’s usher, or assistant master. Wirt was living with the master of his school, the Rev. James Hunt, and from his books had already developed literary ambitions.
Our youth was an author, be it remembered. and that is not a race to take an injury, much less an affront, calmly. The quill, too, was a fair weapon against an usher, and by way of vent to his indignation at this and other continued outrages, but with no view to what so seriously fell out from it in furtherance of his revenge, he indited some time afterward an ethical essay on Anger.

In this, after due exhibition of its unhappy effects, which, it may be, would have enlightened Seneca, though he has himself professed to treat the same subject, he reviewed those relations and functions of life most exposed to the assaults of this Fury. A parent with an undutiful son, said our moralist, must often be very angry;—a master with his servant, an inn-keeper with his guests;—but it is an usher that must the oftenest be vexed by this bad passion, and, right or wrong, find himself in a terrible rage; and so he went on, in a manner very edifying, and very descriptive of the case, character and manner of the expounder of Cicero.

Well pleased with his work, our author found a most admiring reader in an elder boy, who, charmed with the mischief as much as the wit of the occasion, pronounced it a most excellent performance, and very fit for a Saturday morning’s declamation. In vain did our wit object strenuously the dangers of this mode of publication. The essay was “got by heart,” and declaimed in the presence of the school and of the usher himself, who, enraged at the satire, demanded the writer, otherwise threatening the declaimer with the rod.

His magnanimity was not proof against this, and he betrayed the incognito of our author, who happened the same evening to be in his garret when master usher, the obnoxious satire in hand, came into the apartment below to lay his complaint before his principal. Mr. Hunt’s house was one of those one-story rustic mansions yet to be seen in Maryland, where the floor of the attic, without the intervention of ceiling, forms the roof of the apartment below, so that the culprit could easily be the hearer, and even the partial spectator, of the inquisition held on his case.

“Let us see this offensive libel,” said the preceptor, and awful were the first silent moments of its perusal, which were broken, first by a suppressed titter, and finally, to the mighty relief of the listener, by a loud burst of laughter. “Pooh! pooh! Mr. ——, this is but the sally of a lively boy, and best say no more about it; besides that, in foro conscientia, we can hardly find him guilty of the ‘publication.’”

This was a victory; and when Mr. Hunt left the room, the conqueror, tempted to sing his “Io triumphe” [a Roman cheer of victory] in some song allusive to the country of the discomfited party, who was a foreigner, was put to flight by the latter's rushing furiously into the attic, and snatching from under his pillow some hickories, the fasces of his office, and inflicting some smart strokes on the flying satirist, who did not stay, like Voltaire, to write a receipt for them. The usher left the school in dudgeon not long afterward… 
The literature that Wirt recalled from Hunt’s library included the classical historian Josephus, poet Alexander Pope, essayist Joseph Addison, and Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism (1762), which seems to have been quite progressive in its time.

From “a carpenter in the employ of Mr. Hunt” young Wirt borrowed less formal literature: the play Guy, the Earl of Warwick and probably some of Tobias Smollett’s novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle.

[The image above comes from an 1857 elocution textbook. It shows the correct stance and gesture for an orator making an “indignant appeal.”]

Friday, August 25, 2017

William Wirt’s Schooldays

William Wirt (1772-1834) was an author, biographer of Patrick Henry, lawyer, and U.S. Attorney General for nearly twelve years.

Shortly before dying, Peter H. Cruse (1795-1832) wrote a biographical sketch of Wirt that was published in a volume of early newspaper essays. It included the following anecdote from Wirt’s schooldays.

At the age of eleven, Wirt had started to study with the Rev. James Hunt (1731-1793) in Montgomery County, Maryland. By reading the minister’s books, the young scholar discovered literature—and literary ambitions.
The discovery that [Alexander] Pope began to compose at twelve years of age, begat in our student the same sort of emulation as the like example in [Abraham] Cowley did in Pope. He reproached himself for his backwardness when he was now already thirteen.

The first attempt was a little discouraging. It was in verse, and he was embarrassed as usual by the awkward alternative of sacrificing the rhythm to the thought, or (which is the usual preference in such cases,) the thought to the rhythm. He came to the disappointing conclusion that he was no poet, but indemnified himself by more lucky efforts in prose, one of which falling into the hands of Mr. Hunt, he expressed his favourable surprise, and exhorted the adventurer to persevere, who thus encouraged became a confirmed reader and author.

One of these juvenile essays was engendered by a school incident, and was a piece of revenge, more legitimate than schoolboy invention is apt to inflict when sharpened by wrongs real or imaginary. There was an usher [i.e., assistant master] at the school, and this usher, who was more learned and methodical than even-tempered, was one morning delayed in the customary routine by the absence of his principal scholar, who was young Wirt himself. In his impatience he went often to the door, and espying some boys clinging like a knot of bees to a cherry-tree not far off, he concluded that the expected absentee was of the number, and nursed his wrath accordingly.

The truth was, that the servant of a neighbour with whom Wirt was boarded at the time, had gone that morning to mill, and the indispensable breakfast had been delayed by his late return. This apology, however, was urged in vain on the usher, who charged in corroboration the plunder of the cherry-tree; and though this was as stoutly as truly rejoined to be the act of an English school hard by, the recitation of master Wirt proceeded under very threatening prognostics of storm.

The lesson was in Cicero, and at every hesitation of the reciter, the eloquent volume, brandished by the yet chafing tutor, descended within an inch of his head, without quailing his facetiousness however, for he said archly, “take care, or you’ll kill me.” We have heard better timed jests since from the dexterous orator, for the next slip brought a blow in good earnest, which being as forcible as if Logic herself, with her “closed fist,” had dealt it, felled our hero to the ground.

“I’ll pay you for this, if I live,” said the fallen champion, as he rose from the field.

“Pay me, will you?” said the usher, quite furious; “you will never live to do that.”

“Yes, I will,” said the boy.
TOMORROW: Billy Wirt’s revenge.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thomas Coram and a Symposium in Greenwich

On 30 October there will be a symposium in London on “Art, Charity & the Navy: The Greenwich & Foundling Hospitals.” This event is hosted and co-sponsored by the Foundling Hospital and Royal Museums Greenwich with its Queen’s House and Old Royal Naval College.

This event will “explore similarities in the origins, artistic involvement and philanthropic purpose of the Foundling Hospital and the Greenwich Royal Hospital for Seamen.” And there’s a Massachusetts connection.

The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 by Thomas Coram (c. 1668-1751, shown here). Born in Dorset, he went to sea at age eleven. By 1694 he was set up as a shipwright in the part of Taunton soon to be called Dighton. He also apparently had a house, and maybe a shipyard, in Boston, and he certainly worshipped there.

Coram was an Anglican. Most of his Taunton neighbors, like most other New Englanders, were proudly independent of the empire’s established church. In 1703 Coram put 59 acres in trust with the vestry of King’s Chapel in Boston under this condition:
if ever hereafter the inhabitants of the town of Taunton should be more civilized than they now are, and if they should incline to have a Church of England built amongst them, or in their town, then upon application of the inhabitants of said town, that is to say, forty ratable men of them, upon their application, or petition to the said vestry, or their successors, for any suitable part of said land, to build a Church of England, or a school house for the use and service of said church.
Taunton didn’t have an Anglican congregation until 1728. And those worshippers didn’t get the benefit of Coram’s grant; the King’s Chapel vestry sold the land for their own church’s benefit in 1754.

In 1704 Coram returned to England, settling in London. He lobbied Parliament to support the import of tar from North America, which suggests what his own business was. During the early imperial wars, Coram commanded a merchant ship. Afterwards, he promoted settlement in Maine, Georgia, and Nova Scotia. Thomas Coram and his wife Eunice had no children, which freed his fortune for charitable endeavors. Indeed, their surname lives on as a charitable foundation.

As for the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, it was set up in 1692 as a marine counterpart to the Chelsea Hospital for old soldiers, receiving a royal charter two years later. The Royal Hospital School was added in 1712. The buildings are a handsome highlight of the Thames waterside.

The speakers at this symposium will include museum officials and curators. The day also includes:
  • A tour of the Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College, formerly the place of worship for the inhabitants of the Royal Hospital for Seamen
  • The opportunity to see the Foundling Museum’s Court Room and Picture Gallery, displaying works of art by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Highmore, Ramsay and many others
  • A visit to the Foundling Museum exhibition “Basic Instincts”
  • Lunch, tea and coffee, and early evening drinks reception
The morning session will take place at the Royal Museums Greenwich, the afternoon at the Foundling Museum, and participants are responsible for not getting lost in between. Full-price tickets are £50.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Legal Realities of the Touro Synagogue

This month the U.S. Circuit Court in Boston decided which congregation owned the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and (the crux of the case) the eighteenth-century rimonim that silversmith Myer Myers made to adorn its Torah scrolls.

As reported by the New York Times and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the dispute has its roots in the British military occupation of Newport in 1776-1780 and the town’s economic straits during and after the war.

Many of the synagogue’s congregants moved to New York and joined Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the country. All those worshippers were Sephardic Jews from Iberia. Shearith Israel thus became the trustee of the largely abandoned synagogue building in Newport.

Over time, the Jewish population of the U.S. of A. grew with new immigration from eastern Europe. By the late 1800s there were enough of such Ashkenazi Jews in Newport to form a new congregation, Jeshuat Israel. The New Yorkers authorized Jeshuat Israel to use the Touro Synagogue and sent back the silver and gold rimonim. But there were also disputes between the groups; in 1901 the New Yorkers even locked the Newporters out of the synagogue. After a court case, the two congregations formalized their arrangement with a written lease in 1903.

In 2011, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts offered to buy the Touro Synagogue’s silver and gold rimonim. (The photo above shows them on display in the museum.) The appraised value was over $7 million, which would go a long way toward supporting a rabbi and a historic building. But which congregation had the power to approve that sale and use the proceeds?

A federal district court ruled that Shearith Israel was supposed to act as a trust securing the best interests of Jeshuat Israel. But the circuit court has now overturned that ruling. Writing for his colleagues, retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter relied heavily on the 1903 contract between the congregations. He said it shows Shearith Israel kept ownership of the building and its paraphernalia, merely renting them to Jeshuat Israel for a nominal $1 per year.

One interesting aspect of this case is the lack of historical documentation. That 1903 contract appears to be the first clear statement about the use of the Touro Synagogue since the American Revolution. The departure of Newport’s original Jewish community was gradual; we don’t really know when people left or died, or what they were thinking at the time. The care of the synagogue in the subsequent decades was privately arranged. And when new Jewish worshippers began to use the building regularly, that arrangement was first informal and gradually grew into a tradition.

No doubt because of the legal dispute, the Museum of Fine Arts rescinded its offer to buy the rimonim. Even now, the Circuit Court decision might not be the last word, leaving their eventual ownership still in doubt.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Trial and Execution in India

What was happening in India while the siege of Boston got under way on the far side of the world? The Executed Today blog describes a controversial court case:
On [5 Aug] 1775, inconvenient Indian official Nandakumar (or Nand Kumar, or Nuncomar) was hanged on a forgery charge — all too conveniently inflicted at the very time he was accusing British Governor-General Warren Hastings [shown here] of corruption.

Nandakumar and Hastings decidedly did not get along; the Indian believed he had been unfairly denied a plum career assignment. He leveled in response an accusation that Hastings was taking payola in exchange for his appointments.

English pols involved in the administration of India, such as Philip Francis, John Clavering and George Monson, had their own rivalries with Hastings and wanted to pursue these charges. Instead, within weeks, Nandakumar was facing years-old forgery charges, and two months after his trial, he was at the end of a rope. . . .

(He forged part of a will to recover a bad loan. All concerned appear to agree that this charge is factually accurate, which is, of course, a long way from explaining why the matter required immediate adjudication at this juncture. Incidentally, while forgery could get you hanged in England, it was a much less serious offense under Hindu law.) . . .

Parliamentarian heavyweight Edmund Burke would eventually weigh in on the hanged man’s side, charging that Hastings had “murdered this man, by the hands of [Chief Justice] Sir Elijah Impey.” In a report to the select committee established by the Amending Act (cited in this tome), Burke noted
that this Trial and Execution was looked upon by many of the Natives as political; nor does the Committee conceive it possible, that, combining all the Circumstances together, they should look upon it in the Light of a common judicial Proceeding; but must regard it as a political Measure, the Tendency of which is, to make the Natives feel the extreme Hazard of accusing, or even giving Evidence of corrupt Practices against any British Subject in Station, even though supported by other British Subjects of equal Rank and Authority. It will be rather a Mockery, than a Relief to the Natives, to see Channels of Justice opened to them, at their great Charge, both in the Institution and in the Use, and then Appeals, still more expensive, carefully provided for them, when, at the same Time, Practices are countenanced, which render the Resort to those Remedies far more dangerous than a patient Endurance of Oppression, under which they may labour.
Hastings was impeached for corruption in 1787 — it took Burke, who served as one of the prosecutors, two full days to read the 20-count indictment against him, though Burke’s own attempt to add judicial murder to the bill of particulars was jettisoned.
The House of Lords finally acquitted Hastings in 1795. Britain continued to enjoy the new empire he had assembled in India, even richer than the colonies lost in North America.

Executed Today points to three sources on this case: Henry Beveridge’s The Trial of Maharaja Nanda Kumar (1886); J. Duncan M. Derrett’s article “Nandakumar’s Forgery” in The English Historical Review (April 1960); and Nicholas B. Dirks’s The Scandal of Empire (2008).

Monday, August 21, 2017

Dr. Joshua Frost’s Calculation of an Eclipse

While exploring the fictionalized account of the early military career of Jacob Frost, I mentioned his younger brother, Dr. Joshua Frost.

Dr. Frost graduated from Harvard College in 1793. The university still holds his drawing of the lunar eclipse that would occur on 14 Feb 1794. Massachusetts was on the edge of the viewing area while states outside of New England got no sight of this eclipse.

Thus, even though David Rittenhouse was making astronomical observations in Philadelphia that year, he had nothing to observe.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Stoneham Meeting and the Rev. John Carnes

The Congregational Library recently announced that it had added the church records of two more Massachusetts towns—Brockton and Stoneham—to its “Hidden Histories” digital collection.

The description of the Stoneham materials says:
The town of Stoneham, previously known as Charlestown End, was incorporated in 1725. A vote in 1726 provided for the building of a 1,440-square-foot meetinghouse. First Church itself was not founded until July 1729. Their first pastor was Rev. James Osgood who was called in October 1728, and ordained and installed in September 1729. Osgood served until his death in 1746 and was replaced by Rev. John Carnes, who was dismissed from his position in 1757.

John Searl succeeded John Carnes in 1758/59, followed by the ordination of John Cleaveland in 1785. Cleaveland’s ministry began amicably and he continued in the town and church's favor until the death of his wife in 1793. After his wife’s death, Cleaveland married Elizabeth Evans, his housekeeper, which created tensions in the town. While the church chose to support Cleaveland, the town did not, and both Cleaveland and the church building itself were targets of the town’s ire. An ecclesiastical council called late September 1794 dissolved Cleaveland’s relationship with the town and church.
Despite distractions, my eye was caught by the name of the Rev. John Carnes. A few years back, I named him as Gen. George Washington’s first paid spy. However, that was nearly twenty years after Carnes’s contentious tenure at Stoneham.

Alas, the early volume of church records digitized in this collection—the one document that covers Carnes’s period as minister—doesn’t appear to mention his conflict with the congregation at all. Nor the decision to build a parsonage for him, shown above.

William B. Stevens’s 1891 town history quotes a letter from Carnes to the meeting on 17 May 1750:
I have year after year desired you to consider me with regard to my Salary, but notwithstanding this, and notwithstanding I have sunk by ye fall several Hundred Pounds, I have never had since my ordination but a poor pitiful consideration of £50 Old Ternor.

Whatever you think of it, gentlemen, you have been guilty of great Injustice & oppression and have withheld from your minister more than is meet, not considering what you read, Prov. 11, 24, 25, which Verses run thus. There is that scattereth and yet Increaseth, and there is yt witholdeth more than is meet but it tendeth to poverty. The liberal soul shall be made fat; and he yt watereth shall be watered also himself.

You have never made good your contract with your minister, and was it not for some of his good Friends in this Town and other Places, he must have suffered. Time has been when I have had no corn nor meal in my House & when I have wanted many other necessaries and havent had one Forty shillings in ye World, nor yet Thirty shillings, and when I have been obliged to live by borrowing; and this is ye case now.

But I shall say no more about my circumstances and your Injustice and oppression. What I desire of you now is that you would at this meeting act like honest men and make good your contract that you would make such an addition to my Salary for the present year as that I may be able to subsist. I desire nothing that is unreasonable, make good what you first voted me and I shall be easy. I remain your friend and servant, John Carnes.

P. S. Gentlemen—Please to send me word before your meeting is over what you have done, yt I may send you a Line or two in order to let you know I am easy with what you done or not; for if I cant get a Support by the ministry I must pursue something else; must betake myself to some other business and will immediately do it.
Carnes lasted seven more years at Stoneham before asking to be dismissed. He published a newspaper essay about the conflict, prompting a town meeting vote to respond. Despite that friction, Carnes secured another pulpit at Rehoboth—but that lasted even less time. Finally he opened a shop in Boston, his last career before becoming a spy.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

“British Occupation of Newport,” 26 Aug.

On Saturday, 26 August, the Newport Historical Society will host another of its highly regarded living history events, this one depicting “The British Occupation of Newport’s Old Quarter.”  

The overview:
During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied Newport, Rhode Island, for nearly three years—a time that dramatically changed the city. Prior to the war, Newport was the fifth-largest city in the American colonies and was experiencing a Golden Age of wealth. But beginning in December 1776, British troops arrived, and the course of Newport’s future was dramatically altered. Much of the population left, and those who remained struggled; tensions between local Loyalists and British troops grew during each year of the three-year occupation.

The afternoon program will open with a heated argument between two gentlemen who favor the Crown, and will close with the capture of General Richard Prescott.
The activity takes place from 12:00 noon to 5:00 P.M. The main action in the public areas is free. It looks like these include:
  • Eighteenth-century auction beside the Museum of Newport History at the Brick Market.
  • Preparations for a wedding between a British solider and a local woman in the yard of the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House.
  • Sentry box with British soldiers outside the Colony House, a fine opportunity for selfies.
  • In Washington Square, visitors can mingle with such residents as an apothecary, a printer, merchants, food sutlers, and owners of a boarding-house and tavern.
The Newport Historical Society takes advantage of the space around its colonial buildings and attracts some of the country’s best historical reenactors as enthusiastic volunteers. If all goes according to plan, this will be the society’s largest living-history event yet.

In addition, there are special events for additional fees.

The Spy Challenge: “For a $3 fee per family, purchase a handout at the Brick Market Museum Shop that offers clues guiding visitors to collect important intelligence information at select interpretative stations. Participants must then figure out how to transport the intelligence off of the island to help General Washington win the War for Independence. Upon successfully completing the Spy Challenge, participants can collect a small prize. Proceeds help offset event operation costs.”

American Revolution in Newport Walking Tour: This tour will wind its way through the action in Washington Square and end with a “tot of rum” in a reproduction eighteenth-century Royal Navy cup, a silver and brass souvenir included in the tour price. Starting from the Brick Market Museum at 2:00, this tour is for people aged 21 or older with photo identification. It costs $35 per person, $30 for society members and active-duty military personnel. Limited to twenty participants, so reserve a space by calling 401-841-8770.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Tarleton’s Designs and Daughter

As a follow-up to yesterday’s posting about the British actress Mary Robinson, here’s an investigation by Sarah Murden of All Things Georgian about Robinson, her daughter, and her (their?) lover, Col. Banastre Tarleton:
In 1797 Major General Banastre Tarleton was ending his relationship with the actress and courtesan Mary Robinson (before Banastre she was better known as the Perdita to the Prince of Wales’ Florizel). The diarist Joseph Farington recorded on the 2nd May 1797 that Banastre and Mary had separated due to his designs on her daughter ‘who is now 21.’ Maria Elizabeth Robinson, the daughter of Mary and Thomas Robinson, the husband from whom she had separated many years before, had been born in October 1774 so was actually a year older than the diarist thought.

In December 1798 Banastre married Susan Priscilla Bertie, illegitimate daughter and heiress of his former friend Robert Bertie, 4th Duke of Ancaster, who had been brought up by her titled grandmother and her aunt Lady Cholmondeley and who was almost a quarter of a century her husband’s junior.

And at some point around his split from Mary and before his marriage to Susan Priscilla, Banastre was to father an illegitimate daughter, named in his honour and for his friend the Prince, as Banina Georgiana Tarleton. Born on the 19th December 1797, the little girl was not baptized until the 26th May 1801, at the Old Church in Saint Pancras, her mother simply named as Kolina on the baptism register.

This girl had but a short life, almost anonymous until a notice of her death appeared at the age of just twenty years on the 12th April 1818. If her birth date (which is given in the parish register entry of her baptism) is correct, then she must have been conceived around the middle of March 1797, and Banastre appears to be resident in London at that time. Interestingly, the only other woman he is linked with by the press in 1797, other than Mary Robinson, was her daughter.
Murden dug up more about Banina Georgiana Tarleton and others in her circle, though she wasn’t able to reach a firm conclusion about the baby’s mother.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Mary Robinson, Fashion Icon

Earlier this month, Prof. Terry F. Robinson wrote on the 18th-Century Common website about the British actress Mary Robinson (1757?-1800) and how she was an early example of a celebrity who shaped clothing fashion:
Mary Robinson’s meteoric rise to fame began in 1776 with her dazzling performance on the London stage as Juliet, and in 1779 with her spirited rendering of Perdita in David Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The latter representation captivated the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), and an infamous romance between the newly styled “Perdita” and “Florizel” ensued.

Like many starlets today, her love life became a source of scandal and intrigue. When the Prince’s affection waned, Robinson left the stage and travelled to France. She befriended Marie Antoinette and was courted by the wealthiest man in Europe, the Duke de Chartres. In 1782, after her return from the Continent, Robinson indulged in romances with the dashing young dragoon Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a leading commander of British troops in the war against the American colonies, and Charles James Fox, the charismatic leader of the Whig party.

Robinson’s stage career, though brief (she retired from the boards at the close of the 1779-1780 season), was a tour de force. Her performances—both as an actress and a mistress—earned her widespread acclaim and notoriety. . . . But while Robinson’s acting and amours sparked her popularity, it was her fashion sense and style that kept the flame ablaze. By decorating herself in stunning confections known as the “Perdita Hood,” the “Robinson hat for Ranelagh,” the “Perdita handkerchief,” and the “Robinson gown,” she transformed herself into one of the foremost fashion icons of her day and sent the stylish set into a frenzy.
TOMORROW: Tarleton and the Robinsons.

Elizabeth Armistead, Wife of Charles James Fox

Last month Geri Walton, author of Marie Antoinette’s Confidante, profiled Elizabeth Armistead (1750-1841).

A courtesan and actress in London, Armistead was mistress to the second Viscount Bolingbroke; Gen. Richard Smith, head of the East India Company; the third Duke of Dorset; the twelfth Earl of Derby; and Lord George Cavendish.

And then came Charles James Fox, the Whig politician who was Foreign Secretary at the end of the American war. Walton wrote:
Fox and Elizabeth did not start out as lovers. They had a decade long platonic friendship before they became lovers. After their love affair began, one person asked Fox why he was suddenly absent so much from the gentleman’s club he attended called Brooks’s. He supposedly replied:
“You know I have pledged myself to the public to keep a strict eye on Lord Shelburne’s motions; and that is my sole motive for being so much in Berkeley-square; and that, you may tell my friends, in the sole reason they have not seen me at Brookes’s [sic].”
Fox had always been considered a rake, a drinker, and a gambler. Moreover, he was a notorious womanizer. . . . If Elizabeth planned to have a temporary fling with Fox, it soon turned long-lasting and exclusive. The exclusivity soon caused her financial problems and when she attempted to end her relationship with Fox, Fox would not allow it as he was too smitten.
“I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country, everything than live without Liz.”
Fox’s gay and frivolous lifestyle ended when he married Elizabeth secretly on 28 September 1795. . . . because of Elizabeth’s past, news of the marriage would cause a scandal and so Fox felt that he could not introduce her into society (supposedly she also insisted that he not do so).

It took seven years before he formally introduced Elizabeth as his wife.
Can this marriage be saved? See Walton’s full article for the full story.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reviewing John Adams’s Political Ideas

Today’s leg of my trip takes me from Philadelphia to the Washington, D.C., area—a move the federal government made in John Adams’s administration.

Here are extracts from Tom Cutterham’s review for the American Journal of Legal History of two books published last year about Adams’s political thinking: John Adams’ Republic: The One, the Few, and the Many by Richard Alan Ryerson, and John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy by Luke Mayville.
John Adams’ reputation as a reactionary proponent of American aristocracy emerged from the bitter political disputes of the 1790s, when the norms and structures of the new republic were still being shaped. Thomas Jefferson first promoted the hypothesis that Adams had been swayed from the path of revolutionary republicanism by his time as ambassador in the courts of Europe. Mercy Otis Warren repeated the claim in her anti-Federalist history of the revolution. Most historians since, at least those who have not specialised in Adams’ thought, broadly accepted the Jeffersonian narrative. But it was false. John Adams never was a friend of aristocracy. In fact, he was its most vigilant and perceptive critic. . . .

Whether it was best described as aristocracy or oligarchy, Ryerson and Mayville agree that the primary quality of this dangerous grouping was its money. The revolution, and especially the exigencies of the war, had helped create “a new, enlarged, aggressive aristocracy of wealth,” transforming Boston and other cities in the new republic (Ryerson, p. 243). Yet Adams could be slippery with his definition. As Ryerson emphasises, aristocracy implied a quality rather than a quantity—a distinction which fits Adams’ approach. What mattered was not the precise membership of the category, but the processes that created it. Mayville, following C. Wright Mills, pins Adams as a theorist of the “power elite.” We might simply call it the ruling class. . . .

While Ryerson’s account embeds Adams’ political thought deep in the context of his own life and writings, it does not pay much attention to other thinkers. Mayville’s book, while much shorter, gives us a better sense of the authors with whom Adams was in conversation, including contemporaries like Jefferson, James Madison, and John Taylor of Caroline, as well as European authorities like Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Jean-Louis de Lolme. Of course, what all these men shared—most of the time, anyway—was a disdain for the political abilities and virtue of ordinary citizens. Both Mayville and Ryerson are clear that Adams was no democrat. His theorising was bent on the task of taming natural aristocracy without handing control to the licentious mob.

In 1774 it was the masses, not the aristocrats, who overthrew imperial rule in Massachusetts. “Real authority now derived from the people, exercised directly in their town meetings and militia companies” (Ryerson, p. 156). Their government had neither executive nor judicial branches, and Adams was “deeply impressed, indeed astonished,” at their “good order” (p. 161). If his theory of aristocracy foresaw that men of wealth and influence would never allow such conditions to persist, there was a certain perverse ingenuity to the way Adams and men like him—politicians, thinkers, natural aristocrats—helped bring his prediction to pass.
So Adams might have been more of a critic of the aristocracy on paper than in practice.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Franklin’s Autobiography in Franklin’s Hand

Today I’m scheduled to travel from Boston to Philadelphia, much as young Benjamin Franklin did almost three centuries ago.

The manuscript in which Franklin recounted his early life for his children can be viewed in digital form thanks to the library of the University of Pennsylvania. (The manuscript itself belongs to the Huntington Library in California.)

Here’s Franklin describing the extent of his formal schooling:
My elder Brothers were all put Apprentices to different Trades. I was put to the Grammar School at Eight Years of Age, my Father intending to devote me, as the Tithe of his Sons, to the Service of the Church. My early Readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read), and the Opinion of all his Friends that I should certainly make a good Scholar, encourag’d him in this Purpose of his. My Uncle Benjamin too approv’d of it, and propos’d to give me all his Shorthand Volumes of Sermons, I suppose as a stock to set up with, if I would learn his Character.

I continu’d however at the Grammar School not quite one Year, tho’ in that time I had risen gradually from the Middle of the Class of that Year to be the Head of it, and farther was remov’d into the next Class above it, in order to go with that into the third at the End of the Year. But my Father in the mean time, from a view of the Expence of a College Education which, having so large a Family, he could not well afford, and the mean Living many so educated were afterwards able to obtain, Reasons that be gave to his Friends in my Hearing, altered his first Intention, took me from the Grammar School, and sent me to a School for Writing and Arithmetic kept by a then famous Man, Mr. Geo. Brownell, very successful in his Profession generally, and that by mild encouraging Methods. Under him I acquired fair Writing pretty soon, but I failed in the Arithmetic, & made no Progress in it.

At Ten Years old I was taken home to assist my Father in his Business, which was that of a Tallow Chandler and Sope-boiler; a Business he was not bred to, but had assumed on his Arrival in New England & on finding his Dying Trade would not maintain his Family, being in little Request. Accordingly I was employed in cutting Wick for the Candles, filling the Dipping Mold, & the Molds for cast Candles, attending the Shop, going of Errands, &c.
The manuscript shows Franklin’s little edits, such as changing his time at Boston’s Latin School from “only one Year” to “not quite one Year” and adding the description of Brownell’s “mild encouraging Methods” of teaching.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Women in Debt

I’m about to embark on a summer road trip, so I’ve stockpiled a bunch of interesting items from various corners of the web.

First up is an essay by Alex Wakelam on the Early Modern Prisons site about “The Persistent Presence of the Eighteenth-Century Female Debtor”:
On the 11th December 1742, the young Samuel Foote arrived at London’s imposing Fleet debtors’ prison. At the age of twenty-two the eccentric and extravagant failed lawyer had already been thrown out of Oxford under a cloud of debt, married into money, spent all his wife’s money in London’s premier coffee houses and tailors, and exhausted even the most patient of his creditors. He was thus committed to prison until he came up with the money he owed, amounting to over £650, the equivalent of about £60,000 today.

Foote eventually wrote his way to solvency, cashing in on a highly public family scandal, subsequently taking the London comic scene by storm and ending his life as one of London’s wealthiest theatrical figures as master of the Haymarket theatre. . . .

Behind the young actor entering the Fleet that day was Mary Walpole, a Westminster widow, committed to answer two debts, £20 to William Oakley and £60 to William Harris. Nor was she alone, women made up 9% of commitments to the Fleet that year. They were hardly a majority group though they were certainly far more frequent and representative than artists like Foote. Indeed, other years experienced almost twice as large a female share of commitments.

Even if Foote had somehow not noticed Mary, or (improbably) failed to meet any of the rest of that 9% of prisoners, a letter that arrived shortly after his arrival made him only too aware. The letter, written by his mother Eleanor back home in Truro, must have raised Foote’s hopes upon its arrival, though its contents dashed any hope of rescue, simply reading: “Dear Sam, I am in prison for debt. Come and assist your loving mother – E Foote”. Samuel, without much choice, wrote back “Dear Mother, so am I”.
Dr. Joseph Warren’s mother Mary Warren never went to prison for debt, but she was one of the many people who declared bankruptcy in the mid-1760s after the business failure of Nathaniel Wheelwright. Debt was so widespread in that period that Massachusetts rewrote its bankruptcy law because the prison method clearly wasn’t going to settle enough debt.

Ironically, probate court judge Thomas Hutchinson appointed Dr. Warren to settle Wheelwright’s estate, a knotty task still unfinished when he died at the Battle of Bunker Hill and for several years afterward.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

“Colonial hijinks, high political drama, and Revolutionary War heroes”

Daniel Ford, author of the upcoming novel Sid Sanford Lives!, wrote a very nice review of my book on the website for the Writers’ Bone podcast. It’s part of a roundup headlined “Books That Should Be on Your Radar”:
J.L. Bell is a Massachusetts writer who runs the terrific history blog, “Boston 1775.” His book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, features everything that makes Bell’s site great: accessible writing style, innovative historical storytelling, and a fresh perspective on events that occurred nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago. The Road to Concord focuses on how four stolen cannons (that British general Thomas Gage was desperately, and perhaps foolishly, trying to recover) may have helped spark the American Revolution. The narrative features colonial hijinks, high political drama, and Revolutionary War heroes not often discussed alongside Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. The Road to Concord is refreshingly original and structured like a thriller. Learning about what led the British and the colonies to war has never been this much fun.
I was particularly gratified by the “structured like a thriller” line. I really did borrow all the tricks I could from fiction without deviating from the historical record, such as ending chapters with cliffhangers. Of course, it helps when the narrative is actually about stealing cannon from an armory under guard inside an occupied town and about spies hunting for those cannon in an unfriendly countryside.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Abigail Adams Birthplace Tours, 13 Aug. & 10 Sept.

On 13 Oct 1764, Abigail Smith sent a note to the young lawyer John Adams from Boston:
When I wrote you by the Doctor I was in hopes that I should have been out the next day, but my disorder did not leave me as I expected and I am still confind extreemly weak, and I believe low spirited. The Doctor encourages me, tells me I shall be better in a few days. I hope to find his words true, but at present I feel, I dont know how, hardly myself. I would not have the Cart come a tuesday but should be extreemly glad to see you a Monday.
Twelve days later, Abigail was recovered enough to marry John at the house of her father, the Rev. William Smith.

On Sunday, 13 August, that house, now named the Abigail Adams Birthplace in Weymouth, will be open for tours. This is the one day of this month when people can visit the building without making special arrangements in advance. The next such day, 10 September, will also feature apple cider pressing.

People can view the Abigail Adams Birthplace on that Sunday by guided tours only, starting on the hour and half-hour from 1:00 to 3:30 P.M. The building is located at 180 Norton Street in North Weymouth. Admission is $5, $1 for children under age twelve.

Friday, August 11, 2017

“Echoes of the Past” in Boston, 12 Aug.

On Saturday, 12 August, the Old State House in Boston is once again site for the Bostonian Society’s “Echoes of the Past” interactive history game.
Join us in a full day of immersive history as we present an interactive history game that places you in the middle of the Stamp Act protest of 1765. Experience an 18th-century marketplace, converse with historic interpreters in period garb, and join in a raucous reenactment of the infamous protest marches through the streets of Boston.

Echoes of the Past is a fusion of interactive theater and puzzle-solving where participants will unravel the compelling true story of politics and intrigue and leave feeling excited about Boston’s history. Players are invited to begin their adventure at the registration table beside the entrance to the Old State House where they will receive an introduction and a guidebook. Players will meet live costumed interpreters, who will quickly draw players into the political intrigues of 1765. With riddles, ciphers, secret societies, grudges, and plots, every interaction will entertain and enlighten, and every player’s choices will make their experience unique.
Players can register online or at the Old State House at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 P.M. on Saturday. The event lasts until 5:00. And thanks to the Bostonian Society staff and volunteers, it’s all free.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Why I’m Dubious about the “letter from an officer in Charles-Town”

Yesterday I quoted a letter published in the Pennsylvania Packet in December 1781, reportedly written by a British army officer to a friend back home in May of that year.

Some American newspapers reprinted the letter, stating it had appeared in the London press. If indeed a London newspaper first published the letter, that suggests it’s authentic. But I haven’t seen any citation pointing that way. All the paths lead back to Philadelphia.

The content of the letter makes me suspect it wasn’t written by British army officer at all, but rather by an American propagandist. Here’s why:
  • There isn’t a single personal remark, either about writer or recipient. Granted, such comments might have been edited out before publication.
  • The writer explains a classical allusion: “like Antæus, of whom it was fabled, that being the son of the goddess Tellus, or the earth, every fall which he received from Hercules gave him more strength, so that the hero was forced to strangle him in his arms at last.” The whole point of a gentleman referring to a classical myth that he wouldn’t have to explain it—other gentlemen shared the same knowledge. Indeed, implying that one’s genteel correspondent wouldn’t recognize a story of Hercules’s labors would be insulting. If, on the other hand, someone is writing for the American public, then it would be important to ensure the allusion is clear.
  • The writer complains about all the genteel men and women inside Charleston supporting the American cause, to the point of the women wearing “in their breast knots, and even on their shoes, something that resembles their flag of thirteen stripes.” The British military took Charleston in early 1780 and held it until the end of the war. It became a haven for southern Loyalists; thousands were evacuated after the peace treaty. But this letter describes the entire city in May 1781 as hostile to the British officers, to the point of exhibiting the enemy’s emblem.
  • The phrase “retrograde progress” in the opening line feels like an allusion to a widely published report from Lafayette earlier in 1781, describing the British army with that term.
All in all, the letter seems composed to assure American readers that everything they might hear about the British hold on Charleston is a lie: the press there is publishing fake news, the locals toast the king only under duress, the women are defiant and committed to the American cause, the British officers are grumpy and undersexed and eager to go home.

I see this letter cited as evidence for American women’s dedication to the new nation, and particularly in how they showed that feeling in their clothing. But unless someone turns up an earlier publication in the London press, I don’t think it’s real, and thus I don’t think anything it describes actually happened.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

“An officer told Lord Cornwallis not long ago…”

On 11 Dec 1781 the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper published some news under the dateline “London, July 28.” That was the usual signal to readers that the following items were copied from the latest London newspaper to arrive in Philadelphia.

Then after a bit of white space came this item:
Extract of a letter from an officer in Charles-Town, to his friend in London, dated May 20th.

“The retrograde progress of our arms in this country, you have seen in your news-papers, if they dare tell you the truth. This precious commodity is not to be had in the government paper which is printed here, for a fell licenser hangs over the press, and will suffer nothing to pass but what is palatable, that is, in plain terms what is false. Our victories have been dearly bought, for the rebels seem to grow stronger by every defeat, like Antæus, of whom it was fabled, that being the son of the goddess Tellus, or the earth, every fall which he received from Hercules gave him more strength, so that the hero was forced to strangle him in his arms at last. I wish our ministry would send us a Hercules to conquer these obstinate Americans, whose aversion to the cause of Britain grows stronger every day.

“If you go into company with any of them occasionally, they are barely civil; and that is, as Jack Falstaff says, by compulsion. They are in general sullen, silent, and thoughtful. The king’s health they dare not refuse, but they drink it in such a manner, as if they expected it would choak them.

“The assemblies which the officers have opened, in hopes to give an air of gaiety and chearfulness to themselves and the inhabitants, are but dull and gloomy meetings; the men play at cards, indeed to avoid talking, the women are seldom or never to be persuaded to dance. Even in their dresses the females seem to bid us defiance; the gay toys which are imported here, they despise: they wear their own homespun manufactures, and take care to have in their breast knots, and even on their shoes, something that resembles their flag of thirteen stripes. An officer told lord Cornwallis not long ago, that he believed if he had destroyed all the men in North-America, we should have enough to do to conquer the women.—I am heartily tired of this country, and wish myself at home.”
This article was reprinted in 29 Dec 1781 Boston Evening-Post and the 31 Jan 1782 Salem Gazette, as well as other American newspapers. In early 1782 American printers began to label the letter as having appeared in a London newspaper, as the layout in the Packet had merely implied.

In 1860 Frank Moore transcribed that article with reasonable accuracy into his Diary of the American Revolution, citing the Packet.

The penultimate sentence, as it appeared in Moore’s book, is undoubtedly the source of the passage from Mary Elizabeth Springer in 1896 that I quoted yesterday: “A British officer once remarked to him [Cornwallis], ‘If we destroy all the men in America, we still would have enough to do to conquer the women.’” And Springer’s article in turn gave birth to slightly different versions of the line, down to the present day, when some authors attribute that statement to Cornwallis himself.

TOMORROW: Who wrote this letter?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Cornwallis and the Women of America

While Ben Franklin’s World host Liz Covart was at Mount Vernon recently, an interpreter gave her a paper with this quotation attributed to Gen. Cornwallis: “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.”

That line appears in Cokie Roberts’s Founding Mothers, which says Cornwallis wrote it during the war. However, most other recent sources, including a couple of textbooks, state the words came from a British army officer speaking or writing to Cornwallis.

Among the publications describing the statement is a 1965 government booklet for people becoming U.S. citizens titled “Our Government.” So the quotation certainly appears to have authority behind it—governmental if not historical.

I went looking for an early appearance, one which specifies the speaker or the specific circumstances or the documentary source for these words. The first appearance of the exact quotation that I could find was Camille Benson Bird’s article “Women of Revolutionary Times in New England” published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the American Monthly Magazine in 1908.

However, back in 1896 that same magazine had published Mary Elizabeth Springer’s “Men and Women of the Revolution,” which rendered the quotation slightly differently:
While the British held Charleston, the women wore homespun, disdaining to wear foreign manufactures, and furthermore they displayed their patriotism by wearing on their breasts ribbons and bows resembling the flag with thirteen stripes. They would have nothing to do with the English officers, and Cornwallis’s proud boast that he would bring the Southern beauties to time was not accomplished. A British officer once remarked to him, “If we destroy all the men in America, we still would have enough to do to conquer the women.”
Versions of the quotation are thus over a century old. But those versions are also still a century removed from the Revolutionary War. Furthermore, neither of those appearances offer any documentation to show the quotation is authentic.

I was thinking about a posting on the evolution of the tradition from 1896 to now and the various ways authors have used it to bolster different causes or interpretations. But then I found a lead that got me all the way back to 1781.

TOMORROW: An actual contemporaneous source!

Monday, August 07, 2017

Julian Peters’s Battle of Québec

Julian Peters is a comics creator from Montréal, Canada. Among his current projects is a graphic novel about the 1759 siege of Québec, in which Gen. James Wolfe took the city from Gen. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.

On this webpage, Peters shares eight pages of his work and explains:
I am currently at work on “Each in His Narrow Cell,” a graphic novel recounting the siege of Quebec and the Battle of The Plains of Abraham in 1759. In revisiting this pivotal moment in Canadian history, my intention is not simply to present a didactic history lesson in visual form, but rather to create an emotionally engaging, character-driven narrative centered on the personal motivations and inner conflicts of the French, English and Indigenous participants. . . .

One of the parameters I set for myself with the colouring was that all the characters from a particular nation would be depicted in a combination of a neutral grey tone and one characteristic colour—blue for the French, red for the English, purple for the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and so on. Similarly, the colour of the lettering in the speech bubbles indicates what language is being spoken. Chief Nissowaquet of the Odawa of l’Arbre Croche appears in yellow, a decision based on the background colour of the present-day flag of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa, within whose reservation boundaries the village of l’Arbre Croche was situated.
In the sample section, Gen. Montcalm arrives home in Languedoc, having learned that one of his four daughters has died—but not knowing which family member is lost. He discovers more pressing concerns.

To balance that, here’s a bit of Wolfe.

Peters’s previous historical work included a previous depiction of the 1759 Battle of Québec, this time as a national food fight, and a 1709 chanson.