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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Friday, September 21, 2018

Adams on Rogers on Bernard on Adams

On 21 Sept 1775, John Adams met Robert Rogers, the famous army ranger from the French and Indian War.

After that war, Rogers fought in the British war against Pontiac. Then he tried governing a far west territory, only to get into a feud with Gen. Thomas Gage and rack up a lot of debts. Rogers spent the early 1770s in London—some of that time in debtor’s prison. He returned to North America after the new war broke out.

On that Thursday in September, the veteran was in Philadelphia, chatting with members of the Continental Congress. Here’s how Adams recorded their conversation:
The famous Partisan Major Rogers came to our Lodgings to make Us a Visit. He has been in Prison—discharged by some insolvent or bankrupt Act.

He thinks We shall have hot Work, next Spring. He told me an old half Pay Officer, such as himself, would sell well next Spring. And when he went away, he said to S[amuel]. A[dams]. and me, if you want me, next Spring for any Service, you know where I am, send for me. I am to be sold.—

He says the Scotch Men at home, say d——n that Adams and [Thomas] Cushing. We must have their Heads, &c. [Francis] Bernard used to d——n that Adams—every dip of his Pen stung like an horned Snake, &c.

[Charles] Paxton made his Will in favour of Ld. Townsend, and by that Maneuvre got himself made a Commissioner [of Customs]. There was a great deal of Beauty in that Stroke of Policy. We must laugh at such sublime Strokes of Politicks, &c. &c. &c.
Many authors have since repeated that Gov. Bernard said that “every dip of [Samuel Adams’s] Pen stung like an horned Snake.” But was Rogers a reliable source? There are a few reasons to think not.

Rogers was offering his military services at a price. That means he had good reason to butter up the Massachusetts delegates with flattery or news they wanted to hear. The idea of “the Scotch Men at home” fit into Whig suspicions that Lord Bute (long retired) was pulling strings in the government, for instance. The report that Commissioner Paxton had bought his way into his job was delicious gossip. And what Adams wouldn’t want to know he’d gotten under the skin of Gov. Bernard?

What’s more, Rogers’s offer may not have been sincere. Within a few months, American politicians decided that he was actually gathering information for the British. When the major visited Cambridge, Gen. George Washington declined to meet with him. Back in Philadelphia, the Congress ordered Rogers locked up. If he didn’t already support the Crown, that certainly cemented him as a Loyalist. He escaped, made his way to New York, and tricked Nathan Hale into revealing that he was on a secret mission. If Rogers was trying to wheedle his way into the Adamses’ trust as a British operative, he’d have even more reason to lie to them.

Finally, Rogers may have been unreliable for everyone by this point because of his drinking. Though he took command of the Queen’s Rangers in August 1776, he was removed in early 1777 and never achieved anything meaningful during the war.

Gov. Bernard definitely didn’t like Samuel Adams and his writing. But he never used a snake metaphor for that writing or anything else in his correspondence between 1759 and 1769, as published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. In fact, as an aristocratic gentleman and government authority, Bernard generally tried to shrug off the “stings” of his opponents’ rhetoric.

Thus, while it’s possible Bernard really did liken Samuel Adams’s pen to a snake’s tooth, I think it’s safer to write that Maj. Rogers quoted him as saying so.

No comments: