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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Monday, September 11, 2017

Fake News from Overseas in 1777

On 17 June 1777, the young Rev. John Eliot wrote from Boston to his New Hampshire friend and colleague, the Rev. Jeremy Belknap.

Eliot’s letter discussed, among other topics, foreign press coverage of the ongoing Revolution:
We have here among us some Irish Magazines which Capt [Samuel] Smedly took lately [in a naval capture]. I wish you could see them. There is plenty of matter edifying & entertaining. Your brother & I think them far beyond any thing of the kind that we have seen. But ye reason of my mentioning them at this time is to let you know how they speak of our politicians & hero’s. They appear to be friend[s] to America & say much in our praise; but they seem to be very much mistaken in ye Characters, or else speak contrary, from their Hibernian dialect.

The frontispiece is the President of our Continental Congress [John Hancock]. It is said he is a person of surprising eloquence, a fine writer, argumentative & cool, as may be seen in the addresses of the Congress, all which were penned by him; that he hath lately married one of the most accomplished ladies on the continent, who has bro’t him a great addition to his paternal fortune. So much for him.
Okay, to get the joke you really had to be there—in Revolutionary Boston. Because Eliot, Belknap, and all the other learned young gentlemen in their circle knew that Hancock was no writer. The biggest piece of eloquence in his name was his Massacre oration of 1774, which the Rev. Samuel Cooper and others had written for him. As chairman of the Congress, Hancock simply signed what other delegates wrote. Furthermore, his father had left no fortune (he inherited from an uncle), and his wife was from the poorer branch of the Quincy family.

Mr S[amuel]. Adams is a gentleman who hath sacrificed an immense fortune in the service of his country. He is an orator likewise, & there is a famous oration upon the independance of America, which, it is said, he delivered at Philadelphia, January, 1776, but which was never seen in America before.
Adams never had “an immense fortune,” and his moderate inheritance was gone long before the Revolutionary turmoil. He also wasn’t a great public speaker because of a tremor that could affect his throat; I discussed that putative oration last month.
General [George] Washington, they say, was first a private in the King’s Guards, & fought against the Rebels in [the Jacobite uprising of] 1745. Afterwards he went to America, & was promoted till he rose to be the accomplished gentleman the world now views him.
We all know Washington was born in Virginia, never went to Britain, never served in the regular British army, and never was a private past the age of eighteen.
Old [Israel] Putnam was a long time in the service of the King of Prussia.
Putnam had seen military action from Fort Detroit to Cuba, but never under the Prussian king.
In short, if you had nothing to judge from but the Characters, you would suppose it to be entirely burlesque. But from the whole of the Magazine you must impute it to ignorance. It is my own opinion that some Irishmen set down & conjectured what might be the characters of the American worthies, & dealt them out according to his own sentiments.

The most surprising circumstance is that they suppose Major [Robert] Rogers is a general in our army, & that he left the British service upon the disgust he took at his treatment some years ago. After giving his general character, they enlarge upon the ingratitude of Britain in treating such men as he, [Charles] Lee, [Richard] Montgomery, &c., in such a manner.
At the start of the war Rogers concealed his loyalties, but by 1777 Americans knew he was back with the British. Evidently the editors of this Irish magazine didn’t.

Finally, Eliot closed with a little personal news:
These things have diverted me during my confinement, which has been off & on these three weeks, owing to lameness. I was so terribly galled by a hard trotting horse sometimes that I could scarcely walk for a week, & when I did walk it was in such a manner that I was obliged to tie a handkerchief round my leg to save appearances. The next week a bad sore came in that very place where the hankerchief was tied. And last night, when my leg had got pretty well, I sprained my knee, & am unable to stir out of my chair today, & am in great pain. It would divert you to see me, however.
The picture above is a portrait of Gen. Washington, not taken from life at all but published in Germany during the war to satisfy public interest, courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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