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 30, 2019

Lt. Isaac Potter as a House Guest

We have a couple of glimpses of Lt. Isaac Potter as an involuntary guest of Concord harness-marker Reuben Brown after the start of the Revolutionary War.

Earlier this year Joel Bohy alerted me to a passage from the diary of Ralph Waldo Emerson dated 5 Aug 1835:
It is a good trait of the manners of the times that Thaddeus Blood told me this morning that he (then twenty years old) and Mr. Ball (fifty) were set out to guard Lieutenant Potter, the British Officer taken at Lexington, 19 April, ’75; and, whilst staying at Reuben Brown’s, Potter invited them both to dine with him.

He, Lieutenant Potter, asked a blessing, and after dinner asked Mr. Ball to dismiss the table, “which he did very well for an old farmer.” Lieutenant Potter then poured out a glass of wine to each and they left the table.

Presently came by a company from Groton, and Lieutenant Potter was alarmed for his own safety. They bolted the doors, etc., etc.
Presumably those were men from Groton on their way to the siege lines. Their town was in a struggle with its Loyalist minister that verged on violence, so they may well have had a reputation for being especially hearty Patriots.

Thaddeus Blood was indeed an aged veteran of the Revolutionary War, the author of a long and detailed account of the start of the fighting that was finally published in the 1880s. As for old Mr. Ball, so many men named Ball were living in Concord at the time—there’s a whole website devoted to them—that I haven’t been able to identify the one about age fifty who dismissed the table.

Lt. Potter reportedly left something else behind at Brown’s house: a military sword. It was displayed at the one-hundredth anniversary of the battle in 1875 and described like this:
The weapon is much heavier than the American swords, and the blade wider and longer. It appears to be a fighting sword, while the others are more of an ornamental or parade article. The handle is black, with heavy brass surroundings on the hilt. The inscription on the guard is ”Xth Rgt. Co. VI. No. 10.” This is also the property of Mr. [Cummings E.] Davis.
By then, people in Concord misremembered Potter’s first name as “James.” He was an officer in the marines, so it’s not clear why he would have been carrying a sword marked for the army’s 10th Regiment of Foot. It’s possible that sword was lost by an officer in the 10th and then mistakenly linked to Potter.

The last we see of Lt. Potter was during a prisoner exchange in Charlestown on 6 June. The newspaper report listed one of the British officers being returned to his side of the lines as “Lieut. Potter, of the marines, in a chaise”—presumably he was still feeling the effects of his wounds.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Prisoner at Reuben Brown’s

At the end of the day on 19 Apr 1775, the British commanders inside Boston had no idea what had happened to 2d. Lt. Isaac Potter of the marines.

For days Potter was listed as missing—the only officer whose fate was unaccounted for. Just before sending his report on the battle to London, Gen. Thomas Gage added at the bottom:
N.B. Lieutenant Isaac Potter reported to be wounded and taken prisoner.
Yesterday I followed Ellen Chase in guessing that Potter was traveling back to Boston in a chaise ahead of the withdrawing column, which suggests he had been wounded back in Concord. It’s also possible he was wounded and captured during the withdrawal. Whatever happened, it must have been chaotic for his fellow officers to have lost track of him.

The evidence suggests the provincials captured Potter in Menotomy and then sent him back to Concord, to the house shown above. That was the home of Reuben Brown, a maker of harnesses, saddles, and other leather gear. It stood beside a large workshop on the main road. Brown’s business helps to explain why the regulars took a chaise from his yard to transport their wounded.

The harness-maker lived until 1832 and evidently loved to tell stories about the opening of the war. After he died, the New England Farmer reprinted an obituary from the Boston Courier which said of Brown on that morning:
his wife with her infant children [was] instructed to manage for herself in the woods north of the town, with many other females and infirm people of the place. Mr Brown then mounted his horse again, it being now about day-break, and commenced the task of alarming the neighboring country. And his efforts will need no comment when we say that he rode that day about 120 miles in the performance of this noble duty.
Likewise, the author of a profile of Gen. Benjamin Lincoln published in The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans in 1865 mentioned:
The writer has frequently conversed with a venerable citizen of Concord [named in a footnote as Brown], since deceased, then an artisan in the village, who, having at the first news of the approach of the enemy some time before day-break, commenced the voluntary labor of alarming the neighboring country, actually rode on horseback more than one hundred miles during the next twenty-four hours…
Apparently Brown wasn’t even home for most of the day of the battle. It’s therefore unclear why Lt. Potter ended up in Brown’s house.

But he was there within a couple of days. According to Lemuel Shattuck’s 1835 history of Concord:
Lieutenant Isaac Potter, of the marines, was taken prisoner, and confined some time at Reuben Brown’s. Colonel [James] Barrett was directed, April 22d, to give him liberty to walk round the house, but to keep a constant guard of three men, day and night, to present his being insulted or making his escape.
David Mason was in Concord working with Barrett to prepare cannon for the provincial army. Mason wrote “Lieut Potter of the Marines” in a notebook, so he must have crossed paths with the prisoner, too.

TOMORROW: Lt. Isaac Potter, house guest.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Hunt for Reuben Brown’s Chaise

Reuben Brown rode from Concord to Lexington early on the morning of 19 Apr 1775, scouting the road at the request of his neighbors.

He arrived just in time to see the first shots on Lexington common, then turned around and rode back with news that the regulars were coming—and they were shooting.

Later that day, the British were preparing to withdraw from Concord, having suffered casualties and aware that militiamen were massing against them. Some officers looked for vehicles to carry wounded men—well, fellow officers—back to Boston. According to Lemuel Shattuck in 1835, “A chaise was taken from Reuben Brown, and another from John Beaton, which were furnished with bedding, pillaged as were many other articles from the neighbouring houses.”

Those officers didn’t make it. In a footnote Shattuck added that Joseph Hayward of Concord, a veteran of the previous war, “took these two chaises in Cambridge, and brought them to Concord, having killed a man in each.” That casualty count might be an exaggeration.

Another report appeared in the 24 Apr 1824 Concord Monitor: “Mr. Brown’s chaise was found a few days after in Lexington, with bullet holes through it, much stained with blood.”

We have more contemporaneous evidence about Brown’s chaise from an advertisement that appeared in the 17 Aug 1775 New-England Chronicle:
Lieut. Joseph Hayward of Concord gives Notice, that on the 19th April last, in the Fight, he took from the Regulars in Menotomy, a Horse and Chaise; the Chaise was owned by Mr. Reuben Brown of Concord; what remains in his Hands is a mouse-colour’d Horse, near 13 Hands high, old, poor and dull; a good Bed Quilt, Tammy on both Sides; a good camblet Ridinghood, brown colour; one Pillow; and a Piece of Bed-Tick. The Owner may have them by telling the Marks and paying the Charge of this Advertisement.
Yesterday I posited that Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould and Lt. Edward Hull were together in one of those chaises. Soon people in Boston knew that they had been captured.

However, the British commanders didn’t know the fate of an officer in the other chaise until days later. That officer had apparently been taken back to Concord and turned over to…Reuben Brown.

TOMORROW: The lieutenant at Mr. Brown’s house.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The First Captured British Officer to Die in the Revolutionary War

When provincial militia companies fired at the British soldiers holding the North Bridge in Concord, they wounded four army officers:
Unable to march back to Boston, Gould commandeered a chaise in Concord and set out with Hull, who seems to have been more badly hurt. They raced back to safe ground through the hostile countryside.

Somewhere east of Lexington, the lieutenants met up with Col. Percy and the British relief column. Gould briefed the colonel about what had happened in Concord and drove on. But by the time the chaise reached Meontomy, the provincial militia was out in force.

Someone fired at the vehicle, wounding Hull again. Gould surrendered and was taken to Medford. Hull was carried into a deserted house beside the road. When the homeowners, Samuel and Elizabeth Butterfield, returned at the end of the day, they found a provincial man, Daniel Hemenway, shot in the chest but relatively healthy, and Lt. Hull, grievously wounded.

The next day, the Rev. David McClure had been in the Butterfields’ house. He wrote:
I went into a house in Menotomy, where was a stout farmer, walking the room, from whose side a surgeon had just cut out a musket ball . . .

In the same room, lay mortally wounded, a british Officer, Lieut. Hull, a youthful, fair & delicate countinance. He was of a respectable family of fortune, in Scotland. Sitting on one feather bed, he leaned on another, & was attempting to suck the juice of an Orange, which some neighbour had brought. The physician of the place had been to dress his wounds, & a woman was appointed to attend him. His breaches were bloody, lying on the bed. . . .

I asked him, if he was dangerously wounded? he replied, “yes, mortally.” That he had received three balls in his body. His countenance expressed great bodily anguish. I conversed with him a short time, on the prospect of death & a preperation for that solemn scene, to which he appeared to pay serious attention.
A rumor about Hull’s captivity circulated among his fellow officers in Boston, as recorded by Lt. Frederick Mackenzie on 30 April:
Lt. Hull of the 43rd Regiment who was dangerously wounded on the 19th Instant, was left in a house in the Village of Menotomy. ’Tis said the Rebels placed three deserters from the 43rd Regt over him while he lay on a bed unable to move, and that one of those Villains threatened to shoot him for having formerly brought him to a Court Martial.
There’s no hint of such treatment in provincial sources. The head of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, Dr. Joseph Warren, had written to Gen. Thomas Gage assuring him that Hull and Gould were getting medical care. He invited the general to send out any British army surgeon he chose.

In Igniting the American Revolution, Derek W. Beck writes that toward the end of the month, as Hull weakened, Warren sent Gage another note saying that the lieutenant hoped to see his regimental adjutant. That was Lt. William Miller; he was promoted to captain at the end of the year and was still at that rank when he died in 1789.

Hull died on 2 May. The next day, Gen. Artemas Ward ordered three lieutenants and three adjutants to escort the lieutenant’s coffin to Charlestown and turn it over to the British military. A barge from H.M.S. Somerset carried it across the Charles River to Boston.

On 4 May Lt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment wrote in his diary:
The late Lt. Hull of the 43d was buried today: he was wounded and taken Prisoner on the 19th and the day before yesterday died of his wounds; they yesterday brought him to town as he had requested it.

They won’t give up any of their Prisoners, but I hear they treat ’em pretty well.
(The photo above shows the monument to two British privates killed and buried near the North Bridge in Concord. We don’t know where Lt. Hull’s body was interred.)

Friday, April 26, 2019

“Drive them British from that bridge”

As I discussed yesterday, the militia companies from the western side of Sudbury were better equipped than those on the east side. Under Lt. Col. Ezekiel How, Capt. Aaron Haynes, and Capt. John Nixon, they responded first when the alarm arrived on 19 Apr 1775.

Among those west Sudbury men was Josiah Haynes, a farmer born in 1696. He had served as a selectman and became a deacon in 1733. At age seventy-eight, Haynes no longer required to do militia duty—he was getting too old for that stuff. Nevertheless, on the morning of 19 April he turned out with his neighbors.

According to Lemuel Shattuck’s 1835 history of Concord, the two companies “received orders from a person stationed at the entrance of the town for the purpose of a guide, to proceed to the north instead of the south bridge.” That Concord man was later identified as Stephen Barrett (1750-1824), son of Col. James Barrett, commander of a Middlesex County militia regiment.

J. H. Temple’s 1887 History of Framingham said that the first order for Capt. Nixon’s Sudbury minutemen was to halt within sight of the South Bridge. At mid-morning British regulars showed up to hold that choke point as others searched designated properties in town.

Some Sudbury men wanted to attack those soldiers. Deacon Haynes reportedly told the captain, “If you don’t go and drive them British from that bridge, I shall call you a coward!” Nixon replied, “I should rather be called a coward by you, than called to account by my superior officer, for disobedience of orders.” Eventually orders arrived for the Sudbury men to march on the North Bridge by a roundabout route that took them past the Barrett farm.

Stephen Barrett’s father was on horseback with the Concord companies, which had withdrawn as the British column arrived and massed on the far side of the North Bridge on Punkatasset Hill. Barrett was also the principal custodian of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s artillery and other supplies in town. [See The Road to Concord for more details.]

Stephen’s mother, Rebeckah, was at the family home, watching British soldiers search the place for those weapons. Thanks to hard work by the Barretts and their neighbors in recent days, all of that ordnance had been hauled away and hidden. The regulars found only some carriage wheels, which they set about burning.

The Sudbury companies passed within sight of the Barrett farm while the British were at work. Lt. Col. How reportedly looked at the scene and said, “If any blood has been shed, not one of the rascals shall escape.” Shattuck wrote that he rode on alone to find out for sure, “disguising himself”—which might just have meant leaving his weapons behind so he looked like an ordinary farmer.

According to an 1875 account in Harper’s Magazine, How went all the way to Barrett’s farm and even talked with some of the British officers. Stephen Barrett also returned home around this time. Soldiers realized he was a Barrett and put him under arrest. Rebeckah Barrett intervened, pointing out that Stephen was her son, not her husband.

How rejoined the Sudbury men and they moved on, avoiding a clash with British troops for the second time that morning. But as they neared Punkatasset Hill, the provincials and the regulars started trading shots. The Sudbury companies hurried forward and joined in pushing the regulars away from the North Bridge before withdrawing again.

All the provincial companies that had arrived in Concord moved east, skirting the town center and taking positions to attack the British soldiers as soon as they left the populated area. That was the real start of the battle. The Sudbury militiamen joined in that fight, following the regulars east.

Somewhere in Lexington, old Deacon Haynes was shot and died. Here is his gravestone in Sudbury, courtesy of Find-a-Grave.

The inscription reads:
In Memory of
who died
in Freedoms Cause ye
19th of April, 1775.
In the 79th
Year of his Age.

Come listen all unto this call
Which God doth make today
For You must die as well as I
And pass from hence away

Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Snapshot of the Sudbury Militia in Spring 1775

I’m cleverly using yesterday’s break for event announcements to segue away from Lexington on 19 Apr 1775 and on to Concord. Or, actually, to Sudbury.

Ezekiel How (1720-1796) was a veteran of the Seven Years’ War and a lieutenant colonel in the Middlesex County militia based in Sudbury. He was also the proprietor of a tavern that eventually grew into Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, shown here during a reenactment.

On 27 March, How made out a report about the readiness of the militia companies in his town. According to Alfred Sereno Hudson’s History of Sudbury, the innkeeper listed:
Capt. Moses Stone’s Company — 92 men of them, 18 no guns, at Least one third part ye. firelocks unfit for Sarvis others wais un a quipt.

Capt. Aaron Hayns Company — 60 men well provided With Arms the most of them Provided with Bayonets or hatchets a boute one quarter Part with Catrige Boxes.

Capt. Joseph Smith’s Company consisting of 75 able Bodied men forty well a quipt twenty Promis to find and a quip themselves Emedetly fifteen no guns and other wais un a quipt

The Troop [of horse] Capt. Isaac Locer — 21 Besides what are on the minit Role well a quipt
The “minit Role” covered two more companies under the command of Capt. John Nixon and Capt. Nathaniel Cudworth. Those men were well equipped and engaged in extra training. In addition, there was an “Alarm list” of older men under Jabez Puffer not required to train but expected to turn out in an emergency.

The militia companies were organized by region. Haynes and Nixon commanded men from the west side of Sudbury, Smith and Cudworth men from the east side (which split off in 1780 and eventually became Wayland), and Stone men from the “Lanham District” in the south.

According to Lt. Col. How, about half of the men in Stone’s and Smith’s companies weren’t equipped for fighting. Stone had the largest company at 92, but 20% of those men had “no guns” and “at Least one third” of the remainder had guns “unfit for Sarvis.” Of Smith’s men, a little more than half were “well a quipt” with another quarter promising to get right on that task.

Less than three weeks after How’s report, people in Sudbury heard that British soldiers were headed to the neighboring town of Concord. And it’s no surprise that Capt. Haynes’s well equipped company, along with Capt. Nixon’s minutemen, responded faster than their closer but more poorly armed neighbors to the east.

All the Sudbury militia and minute companies, and the troop of horse, eventually did go into action on 19 April. But only Haynes and Nixon’s men, along with Lt. Col. How, arrived in time for the fight at the North Bridge.

TOMORROW: The West Sudbury men arrive at the South Bridge.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Upcoming Events in Charlestown and Weston

Here are a couple of interesting Revolutionary history happenings in the next few days.

On Thursday, 25 April, the Bunker Hill Museum will host a talk by Salem Maritime National Historic Site historian Emily Murphy titled “‘I Am An Honest Woman’: Female Revolutionary Resistance.”

Dr. Murphy will describe how middling-class women in Boston, Salem, and other towns of eastern Massachusetts participated in the colony’s resistance in the years before 1775. Though restricted by law and society, colonial women still found ways to express their political convictions.

This talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. in the lower-floor meeting room of the museum, 43 Monument Square in Charlestown. It is free and open to the public.

On the afternoon of Sunday, 28 April, Brian Donahue, associate professor of American environmental studies at Brandeis, will lead a walking tour of Weston, exploring its eighteenth-century landscape.

Donahue, author of The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord, has created G.I.S. maps detailing how Weston big man Isaac Jones assembled and used his farm. This tour will start at the Golden Ball Tavern with a short presentation showing how innkeeper Jones’s farm developed over several generations and was divided among heirs.

Participants will then walk for one to two hours south, crossing Route 20 and on trails and roads back to Chestnut Street and into Highland Forest—all part of the Jones farm—and then back by a slight variation. We will look at lanes and stone walls and talk about what various parcels were likely used for (meadow hay, tillage, orchard, pasture, woodland) along the way. (There will be a turning-off point for those who do not want to continue up into Highland Forest.)

To join in all or part of this walk through history, please send an R.S.V.P. to gbtmuseum@gmail.com and hope for a lovely spring day. The Golden Ball Tavern is at 662 Boston Post Road in Weston.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Lt. William Sutherland’s Wild Ride

Yesterday I quoted (Alexander Cain quoting) Lt. William Tidd of the Lexington militia company on how a mounted British officer had chased him off the common on 19 Apr 1775.

I suspect that officer was Lt. William Sutherland, and he wasn’t chasing anyone. Here’s his description of the shots at Lexington, prepared for his commanders in Boston a few days afterward:
When we came up to the Main body who were drawn up in the plain opposite to the Church when several Officers called out, throw down your Arms & you shall come by no harm, or words to that effect

which they refusing to do, instantaneously the Gentlemen who were on horseback rode in amongst them at which time I heared Major [John] Pitcairns voice call out Soldiers dont fire keep your ranks and form & surround them,

instantly some of the Villains were got over the hedge, fired at us, & it was then & not before that the Soldiers fired which sett my horse agoing who gallopped with me 600 yards or more down a road to the right amongst the middle of them, at last I turned him and in returning a vast number who were in a wood at the right of the Grenadiers fired at me, but the distance was so great that I only heared the Whissing of the Balls, but saw a great number of people in this Wood,

in consequence of their discovering them being there our Grenadiers who were then on our flank and close to them gave them a very smart fire.
The main point of Sutherland’s narrative was that the provincials fired first—even before the British vanguard reached the Lexington common and again there. These weren’t a few peaceful subjects but a large mass of armed rebels. Sutherland emphasized how his sudden ride took him “amongst the middle of them,” with men on the common to his left, more around the Buckman tavern to his right, and “a vast number” in the woods further along.

Meanwhile, how did Sutherland’s behavior look to the men of Lexington? In the midst of the soldiers’ first volley of shots he charged “600 yards or more down a road to the right”—i.e., the road toward the Lexington parsonage, which militiamen had been out guarding all night. Sutherland’s horse had bolted, but the locals didn’t know that. (This moment might even have produced the wild story that British soldiers actually did raid the Lexington parsonage.)

The Lexington men also saw Sutherland turn and ride swiftly back to the regulars under fire. Like Lt. Tidd, they might have assumed that their shots had forced him back from his goal when in fact Sutherland never wanted to go down that road—it was all his horse’s idea.

Lt. Sutherland made it back to the army column unscathed and continued on to Concord, where he was also present for the exchange of fire at the North Bridge. Quite a day for an officer who hadn’t even been assigned to the march—Sutherland rode along as a volunteer.

Monday, April 22, 2019

“At wch time they took from him his gun”

Over at Historical Nerdery, Alexander Cain found a new source about the fight of Lexington: the claims that militiamen from that town made to the Massachusetts legislature seeking compensation for items lost in the skirmish.

Specifically, they complained about having lost guns. Cain writes:
As we reviewed the legislature’s response to these petitions, we discovered several claims from Lexington militia men or their family asserting that in the aftermath of the battle, British troops looted the dead and wounded of their arms and equipment.

For example, John Tidd asserted “on the 19th of April he received a wound in the head (by a Cutlass) from the enemy, which brought him (senceless) to the ground at wch time they took from him his gun, cartridge box, powder horn &c.” Thomas Winship, who was wounded in the engagement, sought compensation for a “sum of one pound for shillings in full for a gun lost in the Battle of Lexington.”
And there are other examples as well.

As Cain notes, these petitions suggest that the Lexington militiamen weren’t lightly armed, as some authors assumed. Some had bayonets. They also depict the British soldiers grabbing weapons from the ground after the shooting, making it safer for them and their comrades to pass by.

Sometimes when I see the Massachusetts government respond to such petitions for property lost in battle, I suspect that the payments aren’t really driven by the value of the property. Instead, the legislature might have seized on that channel as a simple way to recompense petitioners for other sorts of sacrifices. There were no pensions established for veterans or survivors yet.

About one example, Cain writes:
Lieutenant William Tidd, who also escaped the engagement unharmed, submitted a petition asserting his “losses by the Kings troops on the 19th of April 1775 … [included] ... a musket cut as under &c.” In a deposition years later, Tidd recalled being chased from the green by an officer on horseback. He claimed “I found I could not escape him, unless I left the road. Therefore I sprang over a pair of bars, made a stand and discharged my gun at him; upon which he immediately turned to the main body, which shortly after took up their march for Concord.”

It is possible Tidd lost his possessions as he hurdled over the fence. As for the “musket cut as under”, this appears to be a reference to a damaged gun. Whether this occurred at the battle or later in the day is unknown.
It’s indeed mysterious how Lt. Tidd could have effectively shot his musket at the mounted officer if it had been cut asunder. It’s also possible, I can’t help but note, that by 1824 Tidd’s story of driving that officer away had improved over time.

TOMORROW: The mounted officer’s story?

Sunday, April 21, 2019

More Glimpses from the Lexington Parsonage

Yesterday I quoted the recollections of Dorothy Quincy about her experiences at the Lexington parsonage on 19 Apr 1775, where she was staying as fiancée of John Hancock.

As recorded in 1822 by William H. Sumner, the widow Dorothy Scott described the aftermath of the battle this way:
Mrs. Scott was at the chamber window [i.e., upstairs] looking at the fight. She says two of the wounded men were brought into the house. One of them, whose head was grazed by a ball, insisted on it that he was dead; the other, who was shot in the arm, behaved better. The first was more scared than hurt.
In 1912 the Lexington Historical Society published another woman’s memory of that morning in the parsonage. This came from Elizabeth Clarke (1763-1844), the Rev. Jonas Clarke’s oldest daughter, writing to a niece in 1841:
this day which is sixty six years since the war began on the Common which I now can see from this window as here I sit writing, and can see, in my mind, just as plain, all the British Troops marching off the Common to Concord, and the whole scene, how Aunt [Lydia] Hancock and Miss Dolly Quinsy, with their cloaks and bonnets on, Aunt Crying and ringing her hands and helping Mother Dress the children, Dolly going round with Father, to hide Money, watches and anything down in the potatoes and up Garrett, and then Grandfather Clarke sent down men with carts, took your Mother and all the children but Jonas [1760-1828] and me and Sally [1774-1843] a Babe six months old. Father sent Jonas down to Grandfather Cook’s to see who was killed and what their condition was…
The hiding of valuables and wringing of hands probably preceded the arrival of the redcoats, though the appearance of those soldiers and the shooting must have increased the anxiety.

Back to Dorothy Scott:
After the British passed on towards Concord, they received a letter from Mr. H. informing them where he and Mr. [Samuel] Adams were, wishing them to get into the carriage and come over, and bring the fine salmon that they had had sent to them for dinner. This they carried over in the carriage…
Back in Lexington, the minister and his family eventually turned to look after the community:
…in the afternoon, Father, Mother with me and the Baby went to the Meeting House, there was the eight men that was killed, seven of them my Father's parishoners, one [Asahel Porter] from Woburn, all in Boxes made of four large Boards Nailed up and, after Pa had prayed, they were put into two horse carts and took into the grave yard where your Grandfather and some of the Neighbors had made a large trench, as near the Woods as possible and there we followed the bodies of those first slain, Father, Mother, I and the Baby,

there I stood and there I saw them let down into the ground, it was a little rainey but we waited to see them Covered up with the Clods and then for fear the British should find them, my Father thought some of the men had best Cut some pine or oak bows and spread them on their place of burial so that it looked like a heap of Brush.
Clarke’s recollection didn’t include anything about the British returning to Lexington from both east and west—Col. Percy and his relief column arriving from Boston at the same time the remnants of Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s expedition made it back from Concord. That occurred about 2:30 P.M.

In his biography The Patriot Parson of Lexington, Richard P. Kollen posits that the Clarkes kept hidden until the combined British forces had withdrawn to the east and then went to the meetinghouse to view the bodies around 4:00.

Other sources say that the weather on 19 April wasn’t even “a little rainey” but cool and dry. It’s possible that the wet interment Betty Clarke remembered occurred on the next day, or that her memory combined a couple of events. Three more Lexington men were killed in the afternoon fighting, and the town also had a British soldier to bury.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

A Musket Ball “whizzed by old Mrs. Hancock’s head”?

In 1822, William H. Sumner visited Dorothy Scott, the widow of John Hancock.

Before going to bed, Sumner wrote down notes on their conversation. That memorandum was published in the New England Historic and Genealogical Register in 1854.

About the first shots on Lexington common on the morning of 19 Apr 1775 Sumner wrote:
Mrs. Scott says the British fired first, she is sure. This was a point much contested at the time, and many depositions were taken to prove the fact that the British were the actual aggressors.

One of the first British bullets whizzed by old Mrs. Hancock’s head, as she was looking out of the door, and struck the barn; she cried out, What is that? they told her it was a bullet, and she must take care of herself.
Was Lydia Hancock (shown above) really almost hit by a musket ball from Lexington common?

From the end of the common, where the British troops were standing, one could look down a road to the parsonage. (The barn no longer stands, and I have no idea where it was.)

However, the distance between those spots is more than a quarter-mile. As Michael Barbieri documents in this Journal of the American Revolution article, eighteenth-century experts agreed that a “musket shot” was 300 yards—which is significantly longer than most modern authorities say.

Now that 300 yards was based on firing from a leveled musket, so it’s conceivable that an elevated shot would travel farther. But then it would have come down at an angle as well—unlikely to be whizzing by the head of a lady at the door of a house and then hitting a separate barn.

Of course, it’s possible that Lydia Hancock heard something strike the barn and then felt certain it had whizzed by her head. Or that Dorothy Scott’s recollection of the first shots at Lexington became more dramatic than it actually was.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Ebenezer Lock at Lexington

Ebenezer Lock (1732-1816) was at Lexington on the morning of 19 Apr 1775. He’s often listed among the militiamen on the town common that day, but with an asterisk, because he wasn’t really.

Lock lived in Woburn and was enrolled in that town’s militia company. He had many ties to Lexington, including worshipping at its meetinghouse, so he must have lived nearby and was interested in what happened there.

In 1824 Amos Lock, Ebenezer’s first cousin and Woburn neighbor, testified about how the two of them experienced the outbreak of war. Amos said that he heard an alarm bell between 2:00 and 3:00 A.M., and knew John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying in Lexington.
Therefore Ebenezer Lock and myself, both being armed, repaired, with all possible speed, to the [Lexington] meetingthouse. On our arrival, we found the militia were collecting; but, shortly after, some person came up the road with a report, that there were not any regulars between Boston and Lexington.

Consequently we concluded to return to our families. We had not proceeded far, before we heard a firing; upon which we immediately returned, coming up towards the easterly side of the common, where, under the cover of a Wall, about twenty rods distant from the common, where the British then were, we found Asahel Porter, of Woburn, shot through the body; upon which Ebenezer Lock took aim, and discharged his gun at the Britons, who were then but about twenty rods from us.

We then fell back a short distance, and the enemy, soon after, commenced their march for Concord.
Ebenezer Lock moved to Wendell, New Hampshire, by 1790. His body was interred in East Deering, and Lexington historian Bill Poole reports that locals honored his grave even more than other veterans because of his role at Lexington. Supposedly he was the first provincial to fire a shot in the war!

Lock fired the first shot that he and his cousin saw, but that clearly came after the initial “firing.” There were probably a few militia muskets mixed in with the regulars’ guns in those seconds, not even to mention the question of where the very first shot came from.

In April 1859, the Historical Magazine ran a more dramatic account of Ebenezer Lock’s activity on 19 Apr 1775, unsourced but probably based on family or New Hampshire local tradition:
The first American who discharged his gun on the day of the battle of Lexington was Ebenezer Lock, who died at Deering, N.H., about fifty years ago. He resided at Lexington in 1775. The British regulars, at the order of Major [John] Pitcairn, having fired at a few “rebels” on the green in front of the meeting-house, killing some and wounding others, it was a signal for war. “The citizens,” writes one, might be seen coming from all directions, in the roads, over fields, and through the woods—each with his rifle in his hand, his powderhorn hung to his side, and his pockets provided with bullets.

Among the number was Ebenezer Lock. The British had posted a reserve of infantry a mile in the direction of Boston. This was in the neighborhood of Mr. Lock, who, instead of hastening to join the party at the green, placed himself in an open cellar, at a convenient distance for doing execution.

A portion of the reserve was standing on a bridge, and Mr. Lock commenced firing at them. There was no other American in sight. He worked valiantly for some minutes, bringing down one of the enemy at nearly every shot. Up to this time not a shot had been fired elsewhere by the rebels.

The British, greatly disturbed at losing so many men by the random firing of an unseen enemy, were not long in discovering the man in the cellar, and discharged a volley of balls, which lodged on the walls opposite. Mr. Lock within, remaining unhurt, continued to load and fire with the precision of a finished marksman. He was driven to such close quarters, however, by the British on the right and left, that he was compelled to retreat.

He had just one bullet left, and there was now but one way to escape, and that was through an orchard, and not one moment was to be lost; he levelled his gun at the man near by, and shot him through the heart. The bullets whistled about him. Lock reached the brink of a hill, dropped his gun, and throwing himself upon the ground, tumbled downwards, rolling as if mortally wounded. In this way he escaped unhurt.
Needless to say, that’s not what Ebenezer Lock’s cousin had testified to thirty-five years before. Bill Poole suggests there may be some basis for this story in Lock’s activity later in the day, after the Woburn companies had mustered and helped to counterattack the British column as it returned east. Even so, the tale has clearly undergone some improvements for later audiences.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Capt. Thomas Barnard and the Signal from Old North

Last spring I wrote a bunch of postings about the debate over who hung the signal lanterns from Old North Church on 18 Apr 1775, John Pulling or Robert Newman.

My conclusion: They were both involved, and in fact the earliest stories told by their descendants each mention another man, who was probably the other claimant. There’s no need for a debate.

However, a third name comes up in those accounts: sea captain Thomas Barnard. This posting is an attempt to sort out his place in the historiography of the event.

A 30 Dec 1873 Boston Traveler article (quoted here) credited sexton Robert Newman with hanging the lanterns and mentioned his “friend, a sea captain, who was watching the movement of the regulars.” That same article said (following the Longfellow poem) that Paul Revere was on the opposite shore of the Charles, which elevated Newman’s role but was wrong.

When the Rev. John Lee Watson first complained that Newman was being honored for the work he’d grown up hearing credited to his relative John Pulling, he wrote to the rector at the church. The Rev. Henry Burroughs wrote back noting how multiple people supported the Newman family account, including (as Watson put it in his letter in the 20 July 1876 Boston Daily Advertiser):
William Green, who lives at the North End, is the grandson of Captain Thomas Barnard. His sister, eighty-four years old, remembers Robert Newman.
The Barnard name thus came up first as someone whose grandchild remembered Newman. There was no claim to the man’s own role in signaling the Patriots of Charlestown.

Two years later, in his History of Paul Revere’s Signal Lanterns, April 18, 1775, William Willder Wheildon expanded on that story:
Miss Maria Green, living in Weston, born in 1793, is a daughter of William Green, who lived in Boston, near the North Church, where also her grand parents resided. She heard many times from her mother the story of the lanterns, and says, “I distinctly remember that she said her father, Capt. Thomas Barnard, was engaged on that night in watching the movements of the troops in order to obtain for Robert Newman the necessary information concerning their departure. Our family were familiar with the story of hanging out the lanterns owing to the connection of Capt. Barnard with it, and we never heard the act ascribed to any other person than Robert Newman, or to any other place than Christ Church.”

Mr. Green, a brother of the lady above mentioned, who died recently in Boston, is known to have made a similar statement.
Thomas Barnard’s grandchildren thus claimed that he was part of the story of 18-19 April, but only in watching the British troops (as many Bostonians had). They also suggested that Newman himself gathered information on the troops’ movements rather than taking direction from Dr. Joseph Warren through Revere.

Thomas Barnard was a ship’s captain who lived at one point on Middle Street. He was active in Boston maritime life and business until his death at age sixty-two in 1803. He may have been the Capt. Thomas Barnard who commanded the New York packet, often mentioned in the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap’s letters because he was always sending things to friends there. (This Barnard is distinct from the Rev. Thomas Barnard of Salem who played a big role in “Leslie’s Retreat”; to confuse matters further, that minister’s meetinghouse has also been called “the old North Church.”)

In the twentieth century Thomas Barnard’s role in the lantern-hanging shifted—without, as far as I can see, any new evidence coming to light. In Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942), Esther Forbes wrote of the lantern-hanging:
One of the vestrymen at Christ’s, John Pulling, went with Newman, as probably did Revere’s neighbor, Thomas Barnard.
In a note Forbes added, “What Revere’s next-door neighbor, Barnard, was doing is even vaguer [than details about Pulling and Newman], but tradition says he did something.”

Fifty years later, in Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), David Hackett Fischer described this scene in detail:
On the afternoon of April 18, Revere alerted Newman and Pulling, and also another friend and neighbor, Thomas Bernard [sic], and asked them to help with the lanterns.

It was about 10 o’clock in the evening when Paul Revere left Dr. Warren’s surgery. He went quickly to the Newman house at the corner of Salem and Sheafe streets. As he approached the building, he peered through the windows and was startled to see a party of British officers who boarded with Mrs. Newman playing cards at a parlor table and laughing boisterously among themselves. Revere hesitated for a moment, then went round to the back of the house, and slipped through an iron gate into a dark garden, wondering what to do next.

Suddenly, Newman stepped out of the shadows. The young man explained that when the officers sat down to their cards, he pretended to go to bed early. The agile young sexton retired upstairs to his chamber, opened a window, climbed outside, and dropped as silently as a cat to the garden below. There he met Pulling and Bernard, and waited for Revere to arrive.

Revere told his friends to go into the church and hang two lanterns in the steeple window on the north side facing Charlestown. He did not stay with them, but hurried away toward his own home. The men left him and walked across the street to the Old North Church. Robert Newman tugged his great sexton’s key out of his pocket and unlocked the heavy door. He and Captain Pulling slipped inside, while Thomas Bernard stood guard.
This seems to be an attempt to reconcile the claims of both Pulling’s and Newman’s descendants that their ancestor actually hung the lanterns while keeping someone at watch down below. In turn, Fischer’s authoritative telling shaped the story in several books published in this century.

But, as I said, I’ve found no claim that Barnard actually was at Old North that night.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

“Paul Revere never made the midnight ride”?

A lot of legend grew up around the American Revolution in the late 1800s, and Henry W. Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” made the events of 18-19 Apr 1775 especially famed and susceptible to mythologizing.

In the early 1900s the pendulum swung the other way, toward debunking and skepticism. This is when the story of Boston’s stolen militia cannon dropped out the standard telling—that story seemed too dramatic to be true. Sometimes debunking went too far.

Here’s another example from the 29 Nov 1908 New York Times—a story headlined “Paul Revere’s Ride Is Fiction, He Says”:
Walter Benjamin, publisher of The Collector, has in his possession a letter which he believes proves conclusively that Paul Revere never made the midnight ride attributed to him by Longfellow and tradition.

The document is a letter from John Hancock to Elbridge Gerry, dated Lexington, April 18, 1775, at 9 o’clock. . . . The message reads:
Dear Sir: I am much obliged for your notice. It is said the officers are gone along the Concord Road, and I will send word thither. I am full with you that we ought to be serious, and I hope your decision will be effectual. I intend doing myself the pleasure of being with you tomorrow. My respects to the committee. I am your real friend, JOHN HANCOCK.
Mr. Benjamin says that it Hancock of the Committee of Safety, knew at 9 o’clock that the troops had gone along the Concord road and hoped they would be “serious,” that Lexington and Concord were fully aroused to the danger of the coming of British troops, and that there would be no need for Paul Revere. . . .
The article noted that a version of this letter had been published in the 1828 biography of Gerry, but without the time included. Benjamin argued that the omission of “at 9 o’clock“ meant people hadn’t realized its significance.

On the other hand, the Times continued, “the learned professors…did manage to find a plain prose version of Paul Revere among the old manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society papers.” The article summarized Revere’s own account, which the M.H.S. had published in 1798 and certainly wasn’t hiding from view.

The Times story concludes:
However, the historians are not altogether satisfied with the Revere letter, for he wrote it in 1798, twenty-four years after the ride, and, conceding his honesty, his memory might easily have been bad. Considering the many doubts which the learned have come to have of Paul Revere’s ride, Mr. Benjamin believes that the evidence contained in the Hancock-Gerry letter shows that it never happened at all, outside Longfellow’s poems.
Benjamin made a couple of errors in interpreting the document he’d bought. First, Gerry and Hancock exchanged notes about a squad of “officers,” not the full “coming of British troops.” Those officers were mounted scouts with a mission of stopping messengers from getting out of Boston and into Concord. The hundreds of grenadiers and light infantrymen who followed the scouts presented a much bigger threat. About three hours after Hancock wrote his note, Revere reached Lexington with news of that column.

Benjamin’s second error was concluding that the letter showed “Lexington and Concord were fully aroused to the danger of the coming of British troops” before Revere arrived. They were only partially aroused. James Barrett’s household was busy moving the most valuable weaponry off his Concord farm. The sight of the mounted officers caused Sgt. William Munroe to summon a guard at the Lexington parsonage. But again, news of the much larger column of soldiers increased the alert level in both towns, producing the full militia alarms.

It looked like this debunking was itself quickly debunked and didn’t affect early-20th-century recountings of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The letter itself appears to have stayed in private collections because authors continued to quote the published version only.

Then in 2014, Hancock’s letter to Gerry was displayed in an excellent exhibit at the Concord Museum. I saw it there and grabbed a brief quotation for The Road to Concord. (My transcription varies a bit from both the Gerry bio and this Times article, but not meaningfully.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

“Mr. Adjutant Daws & the Sergeants”

In Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer made an impressive case that Paul Revere had a social network among the Boston Whigs second only to Dr. Joseph Warren.

As I’ve delved into the sources myself, I came to see the data that went into that analysis as seriously flawed. Nonetheless, I think the conclusion about about the importance of those two men’s social networks is sound.

One of the main themes of my talk last weekend about William Dawes, Jr., was that he, too, enjoyed a broad and buzzing social network.

Dawes got off too a good start as first cousin to the builder Thomas Dawes (1731-1809), who hosted a political caucus in the early 1760s, later rose to be colonel of the Boston militia regiment, and eventually was a deacon at Old South.

In the early 1770s, William Dawes began to climb in Boston society by those same routes. He was elected to office in town meetings, starting as an “Informer of Deer”—basically a game warden. Provincial law required all towns to elect such deer-reeves. Boston was unlikely to have had many deer being hunted out of season, and I can’t tell if Dawes got this job as a sinecure or because as a leather-dresser he was actually in touch with deer poachers.

Dawes also rose within the militia, being designated as the regiment’s adjutant with the rank of lieutenant in 1772. (In The Road to Concord I said he was “junior adjutant” because I was misled by old typography and didn’t think through old prose with new knowledge. The “Junr.” was part of Dawes’s name, not his rank.) As adjutant, he helped organize the militia drills and therefore must have gotten to know all the officers and most of the men.

On 4 Nov 1772, for example, the selectmen of Boston (including John Hancock) met at Faneuil Hall to consider a request for the use of that building. According to the official town records:
Mr. Adjutant Dows, has desired on behalf of a milatary chore [i.e. corps] to have the use of Faneuil Hall three Monday Nights in a Month which was granted accordingly.
Dawes’s crowd used the hall through that winter. On 10 Mar 1773, another militia officer came to the selectmen with a competing request:
The Selectmen having heard Capt. Waters and Mr. Adjutant Dows relative to the Hall, it was determined that they should each have the Hall two Nights, in a Month. the Adjutant to have the first Monday Night.
I believe “Capt. Waters” was Josiah Waters, Sr. (1721-1784), listed with that rank in the militia in 1774. He was also William Dawes’s uncle by marriage.

A few weeks later, on 28 April, Waters was back at the selectmen’s office:
Capt. Waters attended, and desired the use of the Hall for his Company every Monday Evening, as Capt. Waters informs that Mr. Adjutant Daws & the Sergeants have done with it.
It would be nice to know how “Mr. Adjutant Daws & the Sergeants” used Faneuil Hall. Were they training themselves in the standard drill so they could train the men, training some of those men, or just socializing?

That winter the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company met in Faneuil Hall every first Wednesday evening before shifting to Fridays. Dawes was also a member of that organization from 1768, and he served as a sergeant in 1770. In 1772, however, he was fined a shilling for not appearing at a meeting. After the war, Dawes helped to revive the company by signing up a large class of new members, several related to him—more networking.

Since Dawes knew so many men in Boston, it makes sense that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety went to him in early 1775 when they needed to connect with the militiamen hiding two brass cannon. Likewise, he made a good messenger for Dr. Warren. Col. John Hancock of the Company of Cadets must have recognized Adjutant Dawes in Lexington in the early morning of April 19, 1775, just as he recognized Paul Revere.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Spero on “Frontier Rebels” in Worcester, 16 Apr.

On Tuesday, 16 April, the American Antiquarian Society will host a lecture by Patrick Spero on “Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776,” based on his recent book.

The event description:
Spero will recast the familiar narrative of the American Revolution, moving the action from the Eastern Seaboard to the treacherous western frontier and recounting the untold story of the 1765 rebellion of the “Black Boys.” In doing so, he will reveal an often-overlooked truth: the West played a crucial role in igniting the flame of American independence.

In 1763, the Seven Years’ War ended in a spectacular victory for the British, but many Native Americans, fearing that the British Empire would expand onto their lands and conquer them, refused to lay down their weapons. Under the leadership of a shrewd Ottawa warrior named Pontiac, they kept fighting for their freedom, eventually spurring the British to organize one of the largest peace offerings ever assembled.

As the cargo moved into the interior of North America in search of Pontiac, a ragtag group of frontiersmen known as the “Black Boys”—dressed as Native Americans and smearing their faces with charcoal—set about stopping this peace deal in its tracks. Furious at the Empire for capitulating to Native groups, whom they considered their sworn enemies, and suspicious of British intentions, these colonists turned Native American tactics of warfare on the British Empire. The outcome of these interwoven struggles would determine whose independence would prevail on the American frontier.
Patrick Spero is the director of the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. His other books include Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania and the anthology The American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century (based on this conference). Before joining the A.P.S., Spero taught at Williams College in Massachusetts.

This event is cosponsored by the Franklin M. Loew Lecture Series at Becker College. It will start at 7:00 P.M. in the newly expanded A.A.S. building, 185 Salisbury Street in Worcester. It is free to the public.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Special Events for Patriots’ Day 2019

Many events happen annually on Patriots’ Day (weather permitting), but here are a couple of events scheduled for tomorrow that will occur this year only.

From 10:00 A.M. until noon, the Roxbury Historical Society will celebrate the reopening of the Dillaway–Thomas House. This building was started in 1750 as the parsonage for Roxbury’s first meetinghouse. During the siege of Boston, Gen. John Thomas used it as his headquarters.

When plans for a new school called for the house to be torn down, local preservationists rallied, so now the Timilty Middle School wraps around two sides of the building. The site is now an anchor of Roxbury Heritage State Park. The historical society has been working with the state to refurbish the site with “public amenities, new exhibits, and a public archeology laboratory.”

The Dillaway–Thomas House is at Eliot Square on Roxbury Street. The Patriots’ Day tours are free, as are the 9:00 ceremony leading to the National Lancers’ reenactment of William Dawes’s 18 Apr 1775 ride through Roxbury and the 11:30 trolley tour of the neighborhood’s historic sites by historian and politician Byron Rushing.

In the evening, the Concord Museum hosts William H. Fowler, Jr., speaking on “The Revolution’s Odd Couple: Sam Adams and John Hancock.” The partnership of Hancock and Adams was crucial to Massachusetts’s move to independence and, though they split personally and politically in the late 1770s, the two men were partners again as successive governors in the 1790s.

A charming storyteller and speaker, Fowler has written short biographies of each man. In fact, his book about Adams was what enticed me to plunge into researching local Revolutionary history twenty-odd years ago.

This talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. in the museum’s new events hall. Seats cost $10, or $5 for members. Register here. Fowler will be happy to sign copies of his books afterward.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

What Was Really Wrong about the “Hutchinson Letters”

I enjoyed tracking the Massachusetts Whigs’ logical dance as they justified sharing and then publishing the “Hutchinson letters” that arrived from Benjamin Franklin in 1773 along with restrictions on, well, sharing and publishing them. Boston politicians recognized the political power of those documents.

Focusing on that shady side of the story, however, obscures the far more darker claim in that dispute: that everyone should have kept those letters secret. By modern democratic standards, those documents should never have been secret to begin with.

British governments of the period demanded control over information about their workings, with only halting steps toward openness. Before 1770, for example, it was unclear whether it was legal to report in detail about debates in Parliament. Governors, generals, and other public appointees took their correspondence files home with them when they retired. Legislative or public oversight of government officials was weak.

In 1769, William Bollan leaked the official correspondence between Gov. Francis Bernard and the Secretary of State in London, Lord Hillsborough. Those pages described Bernard’s meetings with the Massachusetts Council and dealings with the Massachusetts house, as well as other public events. They made recommendations for Crown policy toward the province, from one unelected official to another. Today we expect such discussions to be conducted with as much openness as possible.

In 1773, Franklin followed Bollan’s example by sending over letters collected by Member of Parliament Thomas Whately, known for his political attachment to George Grenville and his interest in American policy. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson kept repeating that those documents were “private letters,” written before he became governor. But in 1768-1769 he was Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Hutchinson and Whately had never met and weren’t business partners. Their only reason to write to each other was to share information and views on Massachusetts government.

Whately’s correspondence with Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, then provincial Secretary, included discussion of how the Massachusetts constitution should be changed. Oliver’s goal was to insulate the Council from popular pressure—a major concern among eighteenth-century aristocrats (or aristocrats of any period). That goal obviously depended on keeping the people ignorant of such discussions.

We now base our governments on the consent of the governed and the choice of the people, not filtered through a hereditary monarchy and nobility and the excuses people invent to justify such a system. Public knowledge and full access to government information for the public’s representatives are key to making our system work.

It should come as no surprise that I got interested in the “Hutchinson letters” this month because of the current U.S. administration’s attempts to conceal significant public documents. These include the uncensored Mueller report, the Trump Organization tax filings, orders overriding denials of security clearances, the paper trail of Supreme Court candidates, the President’s interference in building a new F.B.I. Headquarters, visitor logs at the White House, and much more.

Some of those attempts to conceal our government’s workings go against legal and legislative precedent. Others violate stated law. In all cases, they undercut our ability as a people to govern ourselves—an ability Americans first won after men working in the imperial capital slipped the Massachusetts legislature documents that royal appointees wanted to conceal.

Friday, April 12, 2019

“Why does not this Man make his Letters publick?”

Thomas Hutchinson wasn’t the first royal governor of Massachusetts to see his letters to officials in London published and pilloried back home. In fact, I think that precedent was a big part of the problem.

One of my big ideas about the American Revolution is that the Townshend Act of 1767 and the Tea Act of 1773 wouldn’t have provoked such widespread opposition in North America if the Stamp Act of 1765 hadn’t gone further than either and set the terms for the debate.

The Stamp Act impinged on many aspects of daily life, from getting married to reading a newspaper to suing a neighbor for debt. It was designed to spread out the cost of enjoying the benefits of living in the British Empire. But that also meant a lot of British colonists suddenly felt that they were being taxed by a distant legislature.

The Townshend Act and Tea Act focused on particular commodities as they were shipped from Britain. Sure, most households used tea, glass, and paper, but only the importers were actually taxed. By 1767, however, the troubling idea that Parliament was imposing taxation without representation and that would lead to political slavery had been established in Americans’ minds.

Likewise, the trouble for Hutchinson started when William Bollan (d. 1776), once agent for the Massachusetts Council in London, sent home copies of the correspondence of Gov. Francis Bernard to Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State. The 8 Apr 1769 Boston town meeting, 250 years ago this month, laid out the implications of those documents:
It has been long apprehended that the publick transactions & general State of the Town as well as the Behavior of particular persons have been greatly misrepresented to his Majestys Ministers by some of the principal Servants of the Crown & others here. . . .

These Apprehensions are greatly strengthend by the unexpected favor of a Gentleman of Character in London who has been so kind as to procure & transmit to his Majestys Council of the province certain Letters from Governor Bernard to the Earl of Hillsborough together with one from General [Thomas] Gage to the same noble Lord.
In October 1769 Boston issued An Appeal to the World, largely written by Samuel Adams, analyzing those letters in detail. A footnote stated:
It is remarkable that Governor Bernard, not long before these Letters were made public, expressed to a certain Gentleman, his earnest Wish, that the People of this Province could have a Sight of all his Letters to the Ministry, being assured that they would thereby be fully convinced that he was a Friend to the Province—Indeed he made a Declaration to the same Purpose, in one of his public Speeches to the House of Representatives.

Upon the Arrival of the Letters however, he discovered, as some say, a certain Paleness, and complained of as an Hardship that his Letters, wrote in Confidence, should be expos'd to the View of the Public.—A striking Proof of the Baseness, as well as the Perfidy of his Heart!
It is, of course, very suspicious when an official claims to want to share documents with the public but then does everything in his power to keep them under wraps. Bernard’s letters turned out to be far from complimentary about the people and government of Massachusetts.

That 1769 leak led to Bernard’s departure, so the Massachusetts Whigs and their allies viewed that tactic as a success. On 18 Sept 1770 Stephen Sayre (1736-1818, shown above) made his case to be one of the Massachusetts house’s agents by writing to Adams:
My worthy friend, Mr. Richard Cary, advises me that he has reason to believe that you would not be displeased with such intelligence as I might sometimes give you relative to public affairs. . . . if you wish to know the most secret transactions of your enemies here, I shall be proud of the opportunity to inform you in every particular as soon as matters transpire.
Specifically, Sayre hinted of letters that Hutchinson “wrote before Bernard embarkd for England” which were “oppugnant to the Form of your Govt.”

Adams replied on 23 November and criticized how Hutchinson, newly promoted to governor, was curtailing the legislature:
Could it possibly be imagind that a man who is bone of our Bone, & flesh of our flesh—who boasts that his Ancestors were of the first Rank & figure in the Country, who has had all the Honors lavishly heapd upon him which his Fellow Citizens had it in their power to bestow, who with all the Arts of personal Address professes the strongest Attachmt. to his native Country & the most tender feeling for its Rights. 
In 1773 John Adams criticized Hutchinson in the same terms, as I quoted back here: “Bone of our Bone, born and educated among us!”

Samuel Adams’s 1770 letter to Sayre asked of Gov. Hutchinson, “Why does not this Man make his Letters publick?” Hutchinson was keeping secrets, Adams implied, only because he had a lot to hide. Massachusetts colonists were already primed to hear another story of a royal governor claiming he’d been advocating for the province only to be exposed as denigrating it.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The “Hutchinson Letters” Published at Last

I’ve been tracing the maneuvers in 1773 around the “Hutchinson letters.” Benjamin Franklin sent those documents to the speaker of the Massachusetts house under conditions of secrecy. The Massachusetts Whigs nibbled away at the edges of that promise until in June they just decided to publish.

Edes and Gill issued the letters about Massachusetts in pamphlet form. (Their first edition omitted the letters from others about Connecticut and Rhode Island.) Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy reprinted them all over the following weeks. Here is a British reprinting of the letters, plus a defense of them and an attack on Franklin for divulging them.

In order of publication, those documents were:
  • Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, 18 June 1768, on the Liberty seizure and riot.
  • Hutchinson, August 1768, on protests against the Customs Commissioners.
  • Hutchinson, 4 Oct 1768, on unrest and the landing of the regiments.
  • Robert Auchmuty to Hutchinson, 14 Sept 1768, warning about a death threat (enclosed with the above).
  • Hutchinson, 10 Dec 1768, on actions of the Massachusetts Council.
  • Hutchinson, 20 Jan 1769, on Parliament’s relationship to Massachusetts. (This is the letter that stated, “There must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties.”)
  • Hutchinson, 26 Oct 1769, on the non-importation boycott and Gov. Francis Bernard’s departure.
  • Secretary Andrew Oliver (shown above), 7 May 1767, on the problems of an elected Council, his salary, and other matters.
  • Oliver, 11 May 1768, on protests against the lieutenant governor and Customs Commissioners.
  • Oliver, 13 Feb 1769, with ideas for changing the Council to be independent of the lower house.
  • Oliver, 12 Aug 1769 from New York on colonial business, non-importation, and his appointment.
  • Customs Commissioner Charles Paxton, 20 June 1768 from H.M.S. Romney, on the Liberty riot. (Very short.)
  • Nathaniel Rogers (Hutchinson’s nephew), 12 Dec 1768, seeking Oliver’s position if Hutchinson moved up to become governor and Oliver moved up to become lieutenant governor.
As Hutchinson pointed out after the publication, his letters never proposed new laws or changes to the Massachusetts charter. (Oliver mused on such possibilities, and the letters from Rhode Island and Connecticut were open about change.) Hutchinson’s phrase “an abridgment of what are called English liberties” came after a lament about the distance between North America and London; in his mind, it was a statement of regrettable fact, not a prescription.

Neither Hutchinson nor Oliver suggested sending troops into Boston to keep order. As Hutchinson noted, his report on the Liberty riot couldn’t have reached London until the ministry already had those plans under weigh.

Finally, Hutchinson pointed out that in the year before these letters leaked, he had engaged in a public debate with the Massachusetts house about the relationship between the elected colonial government and the royal authorities, making the same points he had made in his letters. So how could he have engaged in a secret conspiracy?

Nonetheless, the letters destroyed Hutchinson’s credibility and political career in Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: What was wrong with the letters.