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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Friday, May 31, 2019

“Declaring Independence: Then & Now” in Concord, 2 June

The next session of the “Declaring Independence: Then & Now” public reading and discussion of the Declaration of Independence will take place on Sunday, 2 June, in Concord.

“Declaring Independence: Then & Now” is a program developed by the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area and the American Antiquarian Society. I observed multiple sessions last year as part of an American Association for State and Local History evaluation. Every session is different, depending on what the local partners and attendees choose.

The basic questions are:
What does the Declaration of Independence mean today and what did it mean to citizens throughout the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area when it was conceived and debated during their lifetime? The thought-provoking public performance piece Declaring Independence: Then & Now seeks to answer this question by integrating a reading of the Declaration of Independence with first-person accounts presented by living-history performers. As the 18th-century words and ideas are performed, the narrator explores their meaning to challenge the audience to consider their relevance and power for today.
The First Parish in Concord’s Social Action Council is hosting a session at the First Parish, 20 Lexington Road, from 12:30 to 2:00 P.M. The event is free, and the public is invited to come and participate in the discussion. 

The next “Declaring Independence: Then & Now” session on the schedule is at the First Parish Church of Fitchburg, 923 Main Street, on Thursday, 20 June, starting at 6:00 P.M. That is co-hosted by the Fitchburg Historical Society. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Rediscovery and Remembrance of Robert Newman

For half a century after Robert Newman the Old North sexton killed himself in 1804, nobody much outside of his family remembered him.

He wasn’t named in public accounts of Revolutionary Boston. He had no monument in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, near the church he had tended.

(In contrast, his namesake Capt. Robert Newman did have a gravestone, which Thomas Bridgman described in detail in Epitaphs from Copp’s Hill Burial Ground, Boston: With Notes in 1851.)

Then at the start of 1861 Henry W. Longfellow published his poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” That made Paul Revere and the lanterns hung in the Old North steeple famous. People started asking who hung those lanterns. Newman’s son and other descendants came forward to say that he had done it.

That led to a protracted dispute with the descendants of John Pulling, who grew up understanding that he deserved the credit. I already rehashed that unnecessary dispute; it seems quite clear that both men were involved.

More important to this week’s discussion, the rediscovery of the lantern story led to new interest in Robert Newman. Suddenly he was remembered. Meanwhile, the fact that another man of the same name had lived in the North End at the same time was forgotten.

As a result, starting in the late 1800s people gathered information about both Robert Newmans and wrote about them as a single person. By 1927 the Sons of the American Revolution had installed “an iron memorial” on Copp’s Hill that reportedly read:
APRIL 19th, 1775
Historians of Freemasonry who were themselves Masons were particularly pleased by how this composite individual offered another link between Freemasonry and a famous Revolutionary moment. For example, this Masonic Genealogy website conflates the sea captain’s gravestone and Masonic career with the sexton’s activity on 18 Apr 1775. As I wrote yesterday, I’m skeptical that Newman the sexton was ever a Freemason.

Edward MacDonald’s Old Copp’s Hill and Burial Ground: With Historical Sketches, published in 1894, mentioned the sexton’s recently demolished house but said nothing about a gravestone for him. Within ten years, however, a stone had been installed for that Robert Newman at Copp’s Hill, as shown by the 1904 photo shown above.

The sexton’s stone reads:
BORN IN BOSTON, MCH. 20, 1752,
(And then a Freemasons’ emblem—whether or not appropriate.)
The typography is, in a word, weird. It looks like a Colonial Revival attempt to replicate real eighteenth-century stones that’s at once too regular in its spacing and too irregular in its spelling. To me the type also looks similar to the monument in the Old Granary Burying Ground to Christopher Seider and the Boston Massacre victims, erected by “Boston Chapter S.A.R. 1906.”

I don’t mind Robert Newman the sexton having a monument, of course. I just wish we did a better job keeping him and his life distinct from that of Robert Newman the captain.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Capt. Robert Newman, Freemason

I’m seeking to distinguish the two men named Robert Newman who lived in the North End and died two years apart in 1804 and 1806.

According to the records of the St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons in Boston, a Robert Newman became a member in 1783. At the end of 1792 he was chosen to be one of the “Toilers for the ensuing year.”

In 1790 a new Masonic lodge was founded in Newburyport. Four years later, those Freemasons conferred the higher title of “Knight Templar” on Robert Newman.

I’m convinced both these items refer to Capt. Robert Newman, the mariner who commanded a privateer during the Revolutionary War. He had a house in Boston in the mid-1780s and a family in Newbury by 1790. As a ship’s captain he was of the right socioeconomic class to join a Masonic lodge in that period.

The mariner’s early-1800s gravestone at the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground displays Masonic emblems (above the word “Memory”). That stone reads:
In Memory of
Who died
March 23, 1806;
Æt. 51.

Though Neptune’s waves and Boreas’ blasts
Have tossed me to and fro,
Now well escaped from all their rage,
I’m anchored here below.
Safely I’ll ride in triumph here,
With many of our fleet,
Till signals call to weigh again,
Our Admiral Christ to meet.
O may all those I’ve left behind
Be washed in Jesus’ blood,
And when they leave this world of sin
Be ever with their Lord.

WHO DIED AT SEA Dec. 14, 1816.
The other Robert Newman living in Boston’s North End until 1804 was unlikely to have been a Freemason, I believe. He was a church sexton, a profession then associated with poverty. He didn’t command genteel authority in that society. But through the quirks of history, Newman the sexton has been posthumously made a Mason.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Two Robert Newmans in the North End

Map of Boston's North End, bristling with wharves, in 1769
On 13 Mar 1806, the Independent Chronicle of Boston ran this death notice:
Mr. Robert Newman, aged 51. His funeral will be from his late dwelling-house, head of Battery-Wharf, north-end, this afternoon, at 4 o’clock; which the relations and friends are requested to attend.
This was not the same Robert Newman as the man who hung the lanterns in the Old North Church on 19 Apr 1775. That Newman’s death notice had appeared in the Independent Chronicle two years earlier on 28 May 1804:
On Saturday last, Mr. Robert Newman, aged 52—for many years sexton of the North Church. He put a period to his existence with a pistol.
Those two death notices show that there were two men named Robert Newman living in Boston’s North End at the same time. I don’t know if they were related, but they weren’t part of the same household.

Those two Robert Newmans have been thoroughly confused and conflated in local history. So I’m going to try to sort them out.

The Robert Newman who died in 1806 was born in or around 1755. He enlisted in Col. Moses Little’s regiment out of Ipswich in May 1775, as shown in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. He served a few months that year. He may have also served short stints in 1778 and 1779 and then on the brigantine Pallas during the Penobscot expedition. This Newman married Esther Treadwell in Ipswich on 22 May 1778.

In September 1779 a group of men petitioned the Massachusetts Council to commission this Robert Newman as commander of a privateer ship: the Adventure out of Beverly. The 16 Mar 1780 Independent Chronicle ran a legal notice referring to “Robert Newman, commander of the armed schooner Adventure.” He turned twenty-five that year.

Robert Newman “at the North End” of Boston was appointed to administer a shipwright’s estate in 1785, according to the 26 September Boston Gazette. This was probably the mariner. He appears to have made a home in Boston while maintaining his family up on the North Shore.

In July 1790 a child of Robert Newman died in Ipswich of “fits.” On 13 Aug 1797, a four-month-old child of Robert and Esther Newman died in Newbury. One week later, four children of Robert Newman were baptized in that town at once: Robert, Sally, Thomas, and William.

The 25 Mar 1800 Newburyport Herald reported that “Mrs. Newman, consort, of Capt. Robert Newman,” had died. Newbury vital records confirm her name was Esther, and she was forty-three years old. Six years later the captain himself died in Boston.

Meanwhile, the other Robert Newman was working as the sexton of Christ Church, better known now as Old North. In addition to hanging the lanterns in April 1775, he has also appeared on Boston 1775 charging visitors to see the bodies of British officers killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In May 1786 the selectmen of Boston designated twelve men as “Undertakers” and set the prices for burial, tolling a bell, alerting mourners, and “Extraordinary cases, such as putting the bodies into tar’d sheets.” Most if not all those men were sextons, and among them was Robert Newman.

On 14 June 1794 the Centinel reported that the next day Mrs. Abigail Sumner’s funeral would take place “from the house of Mr. Robert Newman, Salem Street.” That looks like part of his work as an undertaker since I can’t find any family connection.

The sexton had married Rebecca Knox in 1772, but divorced her for having an affair with “one John Skinner.” On 5 Feb 1791 the Columbian Centinel reported the death of “Mrs. Rebecca Newman, formerly the wife of Mr. Robert Newman, aged 41.” The sexton had already married again, to Mary Hammond, who would bear more of his children and settle his estate. This Robert Newman took his own life in 1804.

TOMORROW: The Freemasonry connection.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Serfin’ U.S.A. with Benjamin Franklin

Yesterday I examined the facts and logic of a recent USA Today opinion essay, “Killing the Electoral College Means Rural Americans Would Be Serfs” by Trent England. I found them unconvincing.

The portions of the essay that invoke history are more alarmist and equally slipshod. England writes:
…history shows that city dwellers have a nasty habit of taking advantage of their country cousins. Greeks enslaved whole masses of rural people, known as helots. Medieval Europe had feudalism. The Russians had their serfs.
That’s laughable, and not just because this conception of world history appears to be confined to the western half of Eurasia.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the overwhelming proportion of people in all large societies worked in agriculture. Cities were relatively small. Urban elites didn’t just head out to the countryside and enslave the people they found there. Rather, local strongmen forced the bulk of their neighbors to work the fields for them in exchange for protection. Only over time did elite families take urban dwellings as well, and only later did urban traders turn themselves into country aristocrats.

Notably, England doesn’t discuss the U.S. of A.’s own history of enslaving and oppressing people to make them work on agricultural production. In the ante-bellum period and then in the Jim Crow era, the Electoral College preserved the power of the local elites who maintained and benefited from that exploitation. Nobody looking at U.S. history should think that the Electoral College system has protected the rural Americans who actually did the work.

“The idea that every vote should count equally is attractive,” England writes. Yes, that’s why his state of Oklahoma and every other counts votes equally for local elections. I have yet to see proponents of the national Electoral College demand a similar system for their own states. The U.S. Supreme Court has even ruled that state and local elections must be based on the principle of “one person, one vote.”

England goes on:
But a quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin famously reminds us that democracy can be “two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for lunch.” (City dwellers who think that meat comes from the grocery store might not understand why this is such a big problem for the lamb.)
England snidely suggests that “city dwellers” don’t know where meat comes from, but really he destroys his claim to speak for rural America by treating “two wolves and a lamb” as the norm.

There are more than 5,000,000 sheep in America and fewer than 25,000 wolves. Lambs would be well off in a “one animal, one vote” democracy where sheep could easily outvote wolves. The only time wolves outnumber sheep is when they maneuver to create that situation for their own advantage. Likewise, politicians worried about losing fair votes manipulate electoral districts (gerrymandering) or cling to an old imbalanced system (the Electoral College).

Franklin never made that mistake about wolves and sheep because Franklin never said what England quotes him as saying. The line appears nowhere in the Franklin Papers at Founders Online. Wikiquote not only notes that lack of a credible source but also how the word “lunch” appeared well after Franklin’s lifetime. England’s phrase “a quote often attributed to” hints that he recognized how unreliable this attribution was but decided to use it anyway because it served his purposes.

Likewise, the present Electoral College system continues to serve the purposes of some Americans, so they’ll use any argument to make it appear to be fair, logical, or beneficial. But those arguments melt on scrutiny.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Being More Equal Than Others in the Electoral College

The Nevada legislature just voted to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, another step to ensuring the Electoral College count reflects the actual vote of us Americans. This initiative has obviously started to worry defenders of the Electoral College because they’re attacking it.

This week USA Today published an opinion piece by an activist from Oklahoma named Trent England with the attention-seeking title “Killing the Electoral College Means Rural Americans Would Be Serfs.” Its presentation of both contemporary facts and history is unconvincing.

To start with, the essay never explains how it defines “rural Americans.” Different government agencies classify parts of the country in different ways, and we Americans tend to define our own home areas differently still.

England’s discussion slips back and forth between “rural” areas and small-population states, the ones overrepresented in the Electoral College. Those aren’t the same. Some small-population states have few rural areas, like Rhode Island. All large-population states, such as California, Texas, New York, and Illinois, have significant numbers of voters living in rural areas. In most cases, those people’s votes are entirely diluted by the current Electoral College system.

Americans living in rural places, whether in small states or large, deserve to have their votes counted equally with those living in more urban areas. Of course, there are fewer rural Americans than metropolitan Americans now. The U.S. of A. has been a majority-urban country for a century, as the 1920 census showed. England has therefore taken on the challenge of showing that a minority of voters should be, in George Orwell’s words, more equal than others.

England argues that small-population states deserve disproportionate power through the Electoral College based on the production of certain commodities:

Rural America produces almost all our country’s food, as well as raw materials like metals, cotton and timber. Energy, fossil fuels but also alternatives like wind and solar come mostly from rural areas. In other words, the material inputs of modern life flow out of rural communities and into cities.
This is a selective way to measure economic output. Rather than focus on raw commodities, we might just as well ask where those materials are turned into goods with the most value. We might ask which states do the most trading with other countries, or produce the most new patents. We could measure overall economic production without privileging certain kinds. Or we could, you know, count every person’s vote equally.

A little digging into the essay’s claims about economic importance shows reasons for doubt. For instance, it states “wind and solar [energy] come mostly from rural areas,” with a link to an essay at Real Clear Energy, part of a right-of-center network of news sites now mostly owned by Forbes Media. But that essay doesn’t actually say what England claims it does. It talks (in loaded language) about how rural states and rural electric cooperatives are participating in the shift to clean energy. Somehow that’s been turned into a claim that those areas produce most such energy.

Likewise, the claim that “Rural America produces almost all our country’s food” is linked to a Vox article titled “40 Maps That Explain Food in America.” Those maps show many things, such as the typical age of farmers in different regions and how close the average McDonald’s is. None of those maps show where “almost all our country’s food” comes.

But for the sake of argument, let’s accept that certain foods, other agricultural commodities, metals, and energy are so important that the people who live in the top-producing states should get extra power in national elections. Does the Electoral College provide that? Not really.

  • Of the top five food-producing states, three (California, Texas, and Illinois) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College. This looks like a measurement of agricultural output. Including seafood and imports with the rest of our food would, of course, raise the ranking of coastal states.
  • Of the five states producing the most solar energy, four (California, North Carolina, Arizona, and Texas) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College.
  • Of the five states producing the most wind energy, three (Texas, California, and Illinois) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College.
  • Of the five states producing the most oil, two (Texas and California) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College. North Dakota recently jumped way up on this list, and if the Electoral College really rewarded such productivity it should gain more political power as well, but of course the Electoral College doesn’t do that.
  • Of the five states producing the most coal, two (Pennsylvania and Illinois) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College.
  • The essay doesn’t define what “metals” it values, but of the five states producing the most minerals, three (Arizona, Texas, and California) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College.

In sum, there’s no correlation between the current Electoral College system and extra power for “rural” Americans producing more of certain commodities. Claiming that the Electoral College protects the interest of those voters therefore seems fallacious.

TOMORROW: Lessons of history.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

“I am My Dear Marquis with the truest affection…”

portrait of the rosy-cheeked young Lafayette painted for Jefferson, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society
There was a lot of news coverage earlier this month about locating a letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette that was stolen from the Massachusetts State Archives sometime around 1940.

Fortunately for the study of history, the archive had made a photostat of the document before it disappeared. The text of the letter was therefore available to be included in the printed edition of Hamilton’s papers and at Founders Online. That in turn led to a document dealer recognizing that the original had been stolen when it came back onto the market. Now the state is taking legal steps to get that document back.

Here’s the text of the 21 July 1780 dispatch:
My Dear Marquis

We have just received advice from New York through different channels that the enemy are making an embarkation with which they menace the French fleet and army. Fifty transports are said to have gone up the Sound to take in troops and proceed directly to Rhode Island.

The General is absent and may not return before evening. Though this may be only a demonstration yet as it may be serious, I think it best to forward it without waiting the Generals return.

We have different accounts from New York of an action in the West Indies in which the English lost several ships. I am inclined to credit them.

I am My Dear Marquis
with the truest affection
Yr. Most Obedt
A Hamilton
Aide De Camp
The letter highlights some of the relationships depicted—indeed exaggerated—in the Broadway musical Hamilton: the close friendship between these two young officers and young Hamilton’s willingness to act on Gen. George Washington’s behalf.

Another link to recent popular culture: The warning Hamilton sent on had come from the Culper Ring on Long Island, inspiration for the recent television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. The rumor about a Caribbean naval battle, which was false, had come through Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, another character on that show.

The mystery I can’t figure out is why this letter was in the Massachusetts archives in the first place. It has nothing to do with Massachusetts.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Hogarth’s Noise Goes on Display in London

The Foundling Museum in London is mounting a new exhibit focusing on the visual artist William Hogarth in an innovative way:
Hogarth & the Art of Noise will reveal Hogarth’s innovative use of sound, introducing visitors to a previously unexplored but important aspect of his art, and further cementing his reputation as the 18th century’s most original artist.

Famed for his social commentary, no painter before or since Hogarth has made such overt use of sound as a way of communicating a narrative. Taking as its focus the artist’s masterpiece, The March of the Guards to Finchley, the exhibition unpacks the painting’s rich social, cultural and political commentary, from the Jacobite uprising and the situation for chimney boys, to the origins of God Save the King.

Using sound, wall-based interpretation, engravings, and a specially-commissioned immersive soundscape by acclaimed musician and producer Martyn Ware, the exhibition will reveal how Hogarth orchestrated the natural and man-made sounds of London, to depict the city in all its guises.
The former Foundling Hospital may seem like an odd venue for an art exhibit, but, thanks to Hogarth, it featured fund-raising art exhibits back in the eighteenth century. Hogarth also drew the institution’s original brand, designed uniforms, donated portraits, and served as a governor and “inspector of wet nurses.”

This exhibit opens today and runs through 1 September.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

“‘Nae Luck aboot the House” in Braintree

Gwen Fries at the Massachusetts Historical Society highlighted how Abigail Adams came to love a particular Scottish song while her husband John was far away in France.

On 13 Dec 1778, after describing lonely winter nights, Adams wrote:
I cannot discribe to you How much I was affected the other day with a Scotch song which was sung to me by a young Lady in order to divert a Melancholy hour, but it had a quite different Effect, and the Native Simplicity of it, had all the power of a well wrought Tradidy. When I could conquer my Sensibility I beg'd the song, and Master Charles has learnt it and consoles his Mamma by singing it to her.
The song, identifiable from the lines that Adams wrote down, was “There’s Nae Luck aboot the House.” It’s traditionally attributed to Jean Adam (1704-1765), a Scottish poet, teacher, and housekeeper. The song had only recently become popular in London, judging by publications.

“There’s Nae Luck aboot the House” was about a wife yearning for her husband to come home from the sea, so no wonder Abigail Adams felt it keenly. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, including the lines she quoted:
And are ye sure the news is true?
And are ye sure he’s weel?
Is this a time to talk o’ wark?
Ye jades, fling by your wheel!
Is this a time to think o’ wark,
When Colin’s at the door?
Gie me my cloak! I’ll to the quay,
And see him come ashore.
For there’s nae luck about the house,
There’s nae luck ava’;
There’s little pleasure in the house,
When our gudeman’s awa’.
. . .
Sae true his words, sae smooth his speech,
His breath like caller air,
His very foot has music in’t,
When he comes up the stair:
And will I see his face again?
And will I hear him speak?
I’m downright dizzie wi’ the thought,
In troth I’m like to greet!
John Adams responded that he, too, was touched by the song, and it looks like Benjamin Franklin asked to copy it as well.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Dr. Franklin and the Volcano

In May 1784, Benjamin Franklin published an essay titled “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures.”

In it Franklin observed that “the winter of 1783-84, was more severe than any that happened for many years.” Though he was writing in and about Europe, such American planters as George Washington and James Madison also complained about that season.

Franklin attributed the harsh winter to “a constant fog over all Europe” in the summer of 1783, though those months had been unusually hot. As for the nature of that haze in the atmosphere, Franklin saw different possibilities, including meteors and
the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing to issue during the summer from Hecla, in Iceland, and that other volcano which arose out of the sea near that island, which smoke might be spread by various winds over the northern part of the world
The eruptions on Iceland and the ensuing livestock deaths and crop failures reportedly killed a fifth of the population on that island. Even in Britain, people blamed the unhealthy atmosphere for thousands of deaths. But Franklin was apparently the first person to suggest that a volcanic eruption might affect the winter months later.

In 2011, as reported by the website phys.org, Geophysical Research Letters published a paper by Rosanne D’Arrigo and colleagues which concluded the “1783-84 weather was most likely the result of a rare confluence: A warm tropical eastern Pacific Ocean—El Niño—combined with a strong negative pressure in the North Atlantic Ocean.” The same effect occurred in 2009-10, the team wrote. They therefore didn’t think the volcano was a necessary part of the explanation (and no one talks about Franklin’s meteor hypothesis).

However, this month a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research with Brian Zambri as lead author took another look at the eruption, which was huge:
The eight-month eruption of the Laki volcano, beginning in June 1783, was the largest high-latitude eruption in the last 1,000 years. It injected about six times as much sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere as the 1883 Krakatau or 1991 Pinatubo eruptions…
Using computer models, these authors tried to isolate the volcano’s effect. They concluded that it didn’t make the summer of 1783 unusually warm; in fact, “It would have been even warmer without the eruption.” But the following winter was definitely colder because of Laki, as Franklin had guessed.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Somos on the “State of Nature" in Boston and Quincy

Mark Somos, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Fellow and Senior Research Affiliate at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, is visiting the Boston area this week to speak about his book American States of Nature: The Origins of Independence, 1761-1775.

The event description:
The “state of nature” refers to mankind’s pre-political condition; interstate relations; nudity; hell; or innocence. The term appeared in these senses thousands of times in juridical, theological, medical, political, economic, and other texts produced in the British American colonies between 1630 and 1810.

By the 1760s, a coherent and distinctively American state of nature discourse started to emerge. It combined existing meanings and sidelined others in moments of intense contestation, such as the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66 and the First Continental Congress of 1774. In laws, resolutions, petitions, sermons, broadsides, pamphlets, letters and diaries, the American state of nature, where the colonists’ natural rights became collective rights, came to justify independence as much as formulations of liberty, property, and individual rights did.

The founding generation deliberately transformed this flexible concept into a powerful theme that shapes US constitutional and international law to this day. No constitutional history of the Revolution can be written without it.
On Wednesday, 22 May, Somos will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. That event begins with a reception at 5:30 P.M., and the lecture is scheduled for 6:00. Admission is $10, free to M.H.S. Fellows and Members and E.B.I.T. cardholders. Register here.

On Thursday, 23 May, Somos will speak in the carriage house at Adams National Historical Park, 135 Adams Street in Quincy. That event will start at 7:00 P.M. This talk is free and doesn’t require reservations.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Two Prisoners of War Who Escaped

This series about redcoats in captivity after 19 Apr 1775 concentrated on the two men who gave depositions to provincial magistrates a few days after the battle.

One of those men, Pvt. John Beaton, died in captivity and was buried in Concord. The other, Pvt. James Marr, might have joined the Continental Army and entered American society. Some of the other soldiers held in the Concord jail with them did likewise.

But I left a couple of men still in the Concord jail at the end of 1775. The Rev. William Gordon talked to them in the spring. They signed a petition to the Massachusetts authorities seeking warmer clothing on 13 December, as shown above.

Fortunately, Dan Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution can come to the rescue again. He’s written blog entries about both men.

About Pvt. William McDonald, Don wrote:
McDonald was still in Concord’s jail on 6 December, when a list of the prisoners was made that indicated that his wife was still in Boston. This gave him strong incentive to get away. . . . Whatever the means, McDonald was back in Boston by 20 February 1776, when a British officer of the 40th Regiment wrote,
A grenadier of the 38th regiment, who was wounded and taken prisoner on the 19th of April (the affair at Lexington) has found means to make his escape. He says, there are many friends to Government who would be happy to get under the protection of our troops, but are apprehensive of failing in the attempt.
As Don’s posting reveals, McDonald’s story intersects with that of another British soldier, a man who had deserted from the army before the war, then tried to get back into besieged Boston and was confined by the provincial government. When he finally escaped with the help of Sgt. Matthew Hayes, another prisoner from 19 April who signed the petition above, the British army tried the man for desertion. McDonald was a witness at that trial.

And here’s the story of Pvt. Evan Davis who had been moved from Concord to Ipswich:
At dusk on 7 May 1777, after two years as a prisoner of war, Davis escaped with two fellow prisoners. It was almost three full weeks before they were advertised in the newspapers:
Deserted from the town of Ipswich, on Wednesday the 7th inst. between day light and dark, three prisoners of war, viz. Donnel McBean, a highland volunteer, of a sprightly make, dark hair, and ruddy countenance, about 21 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high. Ewen Davis, of slim stature, has lost the sight of one of his eyes, about 5 feet 10 inches high. And one Lile, a Highlander, a shoemaker, dark complexion, about 5 feet 6 inches high. Whoever shall take up said prisoners, and convey them to any goal within this State, shall have Five Dollars reward for each of them, and all necessary charges paid by Michael Farley, Sheriff.
[Boston Gazette, 26 May 1777]
Somehow, Evan Davis made his way back to his regiment. Most likely he was able to get to the British garrison in Rhode Island and from there sail to New York, but we have no details on his journey. On 24 August he was placed back into the grenadier company, just in time for British campaign to Philadelphia.
Thanks, Don!

I’ll leave off talking about prisoners of war for a while, but sooner or later we’re going to circle back to Sgt. Hayes.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

“The said Marr further declared…”

As Don Hagist showed yesterday, it’s unlikely that Pvt. John Bateman was close enough to the Lexington common on 19 Apr 1775 to see the first shots there. As a grenadier of the 52nd Regiment, he was probably in the middle of the British column, not up front.

Multiple people nonetheless reported hearing Bateman as a prisoner blame the regulars for shooting first, which was definitely what his provincial captors wanted to hear. Whether he was speaking honestly, or planning to defect, or felt he had to curry favor with the local doctors to get his wound treated, that’s what he said.

However, another captured redcoat, Pvt. James Marr of the 4th Regiment, almost certainly was at the common at the crucial time. The light infantry company of the 4th was near the front of the British column. What’s more, Marr told the Rev. William Gordon that he was part of “the advanced guard, consisting of six, besides a sergeant and corporal.”

Marr told Gordon:
They were met by three men on horseback before they got to the meeting-house a good way; an officer bid them stop; to which it was answered, you had better turn back, for you shall not enter the Town; when the said three persons rode back again, and at some distance one of them offered to fire, but the piece flashed in the pan without going off. I asked Marr whether he could tell if the piece was designed at the soldiers, or to give an alarrm? He could not say which.
That matches the report of Lt. William Sutherland, riding at the head of the column. He wrote:
I went on with the front party which Consisted of a Serjeant & 6 or 8 men, I shall Observe here that the road before you go into Lexington is level for about 1000 Yards, Here we saw Shots fired to the right and left of us, but as we heared no Whissing of Balls I conclude they were to Alarm the body that was there of our approach. On coming within Gunshot of the village of Lexington a fellow from the corner of the road on the right hand Cock’d his piece at me, burnt priming…
Sutherland and Lt. Jesse Adair of the marines reported this encounter to Maj. John Pitcairn, who in turn informed Gen. Thomas Gage a few days later:
When I arrived at the head of the advance Company, two officers came and informed me, that a man of the rebels advanced from those that were assembled, had presented his musket and attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan.
Pvt. Marr thus confirmed a Crown talking-point about the battle, though he probably didn’t know Gage and his officers were making a big deal about that early shot. (It’s also striking that Gordon wrote down Marr’s remark and had it published within a few weeks of the battle, even though it didn’t help his side of the conflict. He left that detail out of his History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of America, however.)

As for the shots on the Lexington common, Gordon went on:
The said Marr further declared, that when they and the others were advanced, Major Pitcairn said to the Lexington Company, (which, by the by, was the only one there,) stop, you rebels! and he supposed that the design was to take away their arms; but upon seeing the Regulars they dispersed, and a firing commenced, but who fired first he could not say.
Marr’s account agrees with what a lot of British eyewitnesses described—but not with the testimony that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress published in April 1775. Those depositions, collected from provincials and Pvt. Bateman, chorused that Maj. Pitcairn had ordered the regulars to fire the first shots. In contrast, Marr said Pitcairn yelled something else, and he didn’t know which side fired first.

Marr was at the front of the British column at Lexington and thus had an excellent view of what happened. He cooperated with the magistrates collecting evidence for the congress, but his description was of no value to those Patriot authorities. As a result, they published a deposition from Marr—but about the first shots at Concord instead.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Where Was Pvt. John Bateman?

Back when I quoted the April 1775 deposition of Pvt. John Bateman about the shooting at Lexington, I said I was more interested in analyzing the circumstances of that document than its content.

But Don Hagist, chief editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, noticed something about the content that’s worth considering. So I asked to run his message as a “guest blogger” posting.

We’ll start with a reminder of Bateman’s testimony:

I, John Bateman, belonging to the fifty second regiment, commanded by Colonel [Valentine] Jones, on Wednesday morning, on the nineteenth day of April instant, was in the party marching to Concord. Being at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex, being nigh the meeting-house in said Lexington, there was a small party of men gathered together in that place, when our said troops marched by; and I testify and declare, that I heard the word of command given to the troops to fire, and some of said troops did fire, and I saw one of said small party lie dead on the ground nigh said meeting-house; and I testify, that I never heard any of the inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.
And here’s Don:

Reading the testimony of Pvt. John Bateman of the 52nd Regiment, I realized something that calls the veracity of his testimony into question. Bateman was a grenadier. As such, he was probably pretty far away from the first shot on Lexington green, not in good position to know who fired it.

There is no disputing that the light infantry got to Lexington first, and that the companies of the 4th and 10th Regiments went onto the green first. This accords well with typical British formations that put the most senior units on the flanks when in line. A number of period maps show that grenadier and light infantry battalions formed in the same way. Formed in a line by seniority, the light infantry companies on April 19, 1775, would be arranged with the 4th on the right, the 5th on the left, the 10th next on the right, 23rd, next on the left, and so forth working inwards. Marching by column from the right puts the 4th and 10th as the first two companies, making them first on Lexington green.

With this formation, Bateman's company from the 52nd Regiment would be near the middle of the grenadier battalion, in column behind the light infantry. Only if they had proceeded partway past the green by the time the first shot was fired would Bateman have been in a position to see who fired it.

This assumes that Bateman was with his company and not with an advanced party. Lt. William Sutherland of the 38th Regiment wrote that, before arriving at Lexington, the column halted “in order to make a Disposition, by advancing men in front & on the flanks to prevent a surprise.” He himself was not a grenadier or light infantry officer, and “went on with the front party which consisted of a serjeant & 6 or 8 men” who could have been chosen from any company in the column. And Lt. Jesse Adair of the Marines said that he was at the head of the column, even though the Marines were between the 38th and 43rd in seniority, and so should have been in the middle of the column.

We don’t know where John Bateman was when the shooting started on April 19, but it doesn’t seem likely that he was in a good position to see who fired the first shot.

Thanks, Don!

I agree with this analysis and think it also reflects the reality of what Bateman said. He claimed to have heard the command to fire, but he didn’t describe seeing those shots or their immediate aftermath. He saw only one dead body, and we know that several men died on Lexington green. Because, most likely, Bateman marched by the scene after the shooting was over.

TOMORROW: But you know who was in a position to see the first shots at Lexington?

[The image above shows a detail from the muster roll of the 52nd Regiment, supplied by Don. It shows how Bateman’s commanders gave him up as dead as of 21 April—two days before his deposition and probably two weeks or more before he died.] 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Whatever Happened to James Marr?

As quoted yesterday, in 1835 the Revolutionary War veteran Thaddeus Blood told Ralph Waldo Emerson that he doubted the deposition published over the name of Pvt. John Bateman really came from that prisoner.

Bateman, Blood said, was too badly injured on 19 Apr 1775 to give testimony. He believed instead that “It was probably Carr’s or Starr’s deposition.” But there’s no one named Carr or Starr in this story.

There was, however, a Pvt. James Marr, another British soldier captured on the first day of the war and held in Concord. Marr also gave a deposition to provincial magistrates and spoke to the Rev. William Gordon. I suspect Blood remembered that man but not exactly.

Blood saw Bateman’s deposition reprinted in “Dr. R’s History”—A History of the Fight at Concord, by the Rev. Dr. Ezra Ripley, first published in 1827. Blood knew Ripley well; the minister provided a character reference when the veteran applied for a pension.

Ripley’s book focused on whether the Lexington militiamen had fired back at the redcoats on 19 April in some significant way. It did not cite or reprint James Marr’s deposition, which was about the fight at the North Bridge.

Bateman thus had no reminder about Marr’s name in front of him. He also didn’t see how every time Patriots recorded Bateman’s testimony in 1775, they took down Marr’s testimony the same day. In other words, there was no motive for them to put Marr’s words into Bateman’s mouth since it would have been easier just to credit those words to Marr.

Blood had a vivid memory of Bateman when he was dying in Concord; “his wounds stunk intolerably,” the old man recalled sixty years later. But before the infection set in, Bateman was probably well enough to testify. Blood also must have remembered Marr, but less exactly, as a cooperative prisoner, the kind who would give testimony against his own army. Why would Blood recall Marr that way?

One clue appears in Lemuel Shattuck’s history of Concord, published the same year that Blood spoke to Emerson. Shattuck listed a James Marr among the men from Middlesex County whom Col. James Barrett enrolled in the Continental Army for three years starting in January 1777.
This may be the same James Marr(s) who is recorded as serving during the 1780s out of Groton, according to documents transcribed in Samuel Abbott Green’s Groton During the Revolution. Volume 25 of the Proceedings of the Worcester Society of Antiquity likewise lists James Marr in Capt. Sylvanus Smith’s company but doesn’t state a home town.

Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War puts James Marr of Groton in Capt. Sylvanus Smith’s company, Col. Timothy Bigelow’s regiment. He was 5'9" tall and turned 24 years old at the end of 1780, which would make him 18 when the war began. This Marr was even promoted to sergeant. But his name never appeared in the Groton vital records, and there’s no clue about where he settled after the war.
To be sure, the James Marr from Groton might not have been the former prisoner. (There was at least one other James Marr from Massachusetts serving in the Continental Army, a man from Scarborough and Limington, Maine.) But I suspect the James Marr who cooperated with the provincials in April 1775 did even more cooperating in the years that followed.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

“Bateman, he thinks, could not have made the deposition”

When the Rev. William Gordon visited British prisoners of war in Concord in the spring of 1775, he reported that Pvt. John Bateman was “too ill to admit of my conversing with him.”

Bateman didn’t get any better. In 1835 local historian Lemuel Shattuck wrote that this wounded redcoat “died and was buried on the hill.” That was Concord’s elevated burying-ground, shown in the right foreground of the Amos Doolittle print of regulars searching the town.

In 1825 Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington argued that the militiamen of Lexington were the first to shoot back at the redcoats. Two years later, the Rev. Ezra Ripley of Concord published A History of the Fight at Concord to refute that claim; five years later, Ripley brought out an expanded edition.

Both Phinney and Ripley gathered new testimony from veterans of the battle to support their case. Ripley also republished John Bateman’s deposition from 1775, which had said, “I testify, that I never heard any of the [Lexington] inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.”

A few weeks back, I quoted some statements that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote into his diary after a visit from Thaddeus Blood, a long-lived veteran, on 5 Aug 1835. (Thanks to Joel Bohy for alerting me to this latter-day source.) After recording Blood’s recollection of Lt. Isaac Potter, Emerson wrote:
Bateman, he thinks, could not have made the deposition in Dr. R[ipley]’s History. A ball passed through his cap and he cried, “A miss is as good as a mile.” Immediately another ball struck his ear and passed out at the side of his mouth, knocking out two teeth. He lived about three weeks, and his wounds stunk intolerably. It was probably Carr’s or Starr’s deposition.
Evidently Bateman’s wound became infected, and he died in American custody. Don Hagist tells me the muster rolls of Bateman’s regiment, the 52nd, state he died on 21 April, but his deposition was dated 23 April and Gordon encountered him after that. He probably died in early May.

Was Blood correct in saying that Bateman was never well enough to give the testimony published over his name? Probably not. In addition to magistrates Dr. John Cuming and Duncan Ingraham on 23 April, four other people told Gordon that they “heard the said Bateman say, that the Regulars fired first, and saw him go through the solemnity of confirming the same by an oath on the bible.” Those four reported witnesses were Bateman’s fellow prisoners in Concord.

I therefore think Bateman’s 23 April deposition was authentic, though he may well have been under the duress of being a prisoner and needing medical care.

TOMORROW: So who was “Carr” or “Starr”?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

“The prisoners at Concord in free conversation”

The Rev. William Gordon visited British prisoners in the Concord jail and wrote about it in the form of a letter dated 17 May 1775.

Though from England, Gordon served a meeting in Roxbury and was a strong supporter of the Massachusetts cause. He happily accepted and spread stories that told the provincial side of how the shooting had started on 19 April.

Gordon wrote:
The simple truth, I take to be this, which I received from one of the prisoners at Concord in free conversation, one James Marr, a native of Aberdeen, in Scotland, of the Fourth Regiment, who was upon the advanced guard, consisting of six, besides a sergeant and corporal:

They were met by three men on horseback before they got to the meeting-house a good way; an officer bid them stop; to which it was answered, you had better turn back, for you shall not enter the Town; when the said three persons rode back again, and at some distance one of them offered to fire, but the piece flashed in the pan without going off. I asked Marr whether he could tell if the piece was designed at the soldiers, or to give an alarrm? He could not say which.

The said Marr further declared, that when they and the others were advanced, Major [John] Pitcairn said to the Lexington Company, (which, by the by, was the only one there,) stop, you rebels! and he supposed that the design was to take away their arms; but upon seeing the Regulars they dispersed, and a firing commenced, but who fired first he could not say.

The said Marr, together with Evan Davies of the Twenty-Third, George Cooper of the Twenty-Third, and William McDonald of the Thirty-Eighth, respectively assured me in each other’s presence, that being in the room where John Bateman, of the Fifty-Second, was, (he was in an adjoining room, too ill to admit of my conversing with him,) they heard the said Bateman say, that the Regulars fired first, and saw him go through the solemnity of confirming the same by an oath on the bible.

Samuel Lee, a private in the Eighteenth Regiment, Royal Irish, acquainted me, that it was the talk among the soldiers that Major Pitcairn fired his pistol, then drew his sword, and ordered them to fire…
Most of the prisoners Gordon spoke to were cooperative or even friendly to their captors. Pvts. Marr and Bateman had given depositions to local magistrates back on 23 April, as quoted here.

Pvt. Samuel Lee would end up marrying a local woman named Mary Piper in July 1776. Local tradition says she worked for the Concord physician Timothy Minot. The Lees settled in Concord and raised a family, supported by his skills as a master tailor.

George Cooper was likewise remembered for marrying a local woman, in his case “a woman who lived with Dr. [John] Cuming” as a servant.

That leaves only Pvts. Evan Davies and William McDonald. And they were still left in the Concord jail as of December, shown by another document from the Massachusetts archives that Joel Bohy shared with me.

TOMORROW: How was Pvt. Bateman “too ill to admit of my conversing with him”?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Dr. John Cuming, Justice of the Peace

The other Concord magistrate who collected depositions from captured British soldiers on 23 Apr 1775 was John Cuming according to one printed version and John Cummings according to another.

Dr. John Cuming (c. 1728-1788) was from a branch of an aristocratic Scottish family that had settled in Concord. His sisters Ame and Elizabeth Cumings were shopkeepers and “she-merchants” in Boston. They defied the non-importation boycott of 1769-1770, at one point publicly criticized as “enemies of the country.” The Cumings sisters would remain loyal to the Crown.

John Cuming, in contrast, established deep roots in Massachusetts. He became a Concord selectman, chairman of the committee of correspondence, colonel of the local militia, in 1776 a representative to the state legislature, and in 1779 a delegate to the convention to write a new state constitution. He owned slaves and lots of land. He left substantial bequests to Harvard College and the poor of Concord. Even today there’s a building at the local hospital named for him.

After the battle on 19 April, Cuming treated the wounded, including redcoats. According to Concord historian Lemuel Shattuck, based on an interview with Mary Barrett in 1831, “Eight of the wounded [prisoners] received medical attendance from Dr. Cuming, at the house then standing near Captain Stacy’s.” (I don’t know if that’s the same as the Cuming house shown above, but let’s assume.) Reportedly those men included Pvt. John Bateman, one of the redcoats who gave a deposition.

But Bateman doesn’t appear to have been Cuming’s patient yet on 23 April. That deposition was said to have been signed in Lincoln, not Concord. An invoice from Dr. Joseph Fiske that Joel Bohy found in the Massachusetts state archives shows that on 20 April he dressed two prisoners’ wounds in Lincoln, and one of those men was probably Bateman.

After Pvt. Bateman recovered somewhat, the provincial authorities moved him out to Concord to be held with other British men at the county jail. That’s when Dr. Cuming presumably took over caring for him.

TOMORROW: A visit to the jail.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Duncan Ingraham, Justice of the Peace

Yesterday I quoted two depositions of British soldiers taken prisoner on 19 Apr 1775—John Bateman of the 52nd Regiment and James Marr of the 4th.

Both depositions were dated 23 April and attested to by justices of the peace from Concord: Dr. John Cuming (also spelled Cumings, Cumming, and Cummings, of course) and Duncan Ingraham. Interestingly, both those magistrates had Loyalist ties.

First, Ingraham (1726-1811). A sea captain, he was one of the Boston merchants who attacked Loyalist printer John Mein in late 1769.

After a wealthy marriage, Ingraham settled in Concord in 1772 and moved away from the Whig movement. He refused to participate in the renewed boycott of British imports, was ready to hold court sessions in late 1774, and even hosted British army officers at dinner. His neighbors showed their disapproval of that behavior by hanging a sheep’s head and guts on his chaise.

The people of Concord also confiscated Ingraham’s property. In October 1774 the town took four four-pounder cannon from Ingraham—quite possibly the four that were still in town on 19 April. On 3 Jan 1775, Dr. Joseph Lee (another Crown supporter) wrote in his diary, “The mob unloaded Capt. Ingraham’s Bords that were to go to Boston,” where the army might have used them to build barracks.

Because of those conflicts, I’ve even suspected Ingraham of being the “Concord spy” discussed in The Road to Concord, but there’s no smoking cannon to reveal that informant’s identity.

Within a few days after the battle, however, Ingraham was helping to gather and certify depositions from local militiamen, as well as those two captive soldiers, for the Patriot cause. He remained in America through the war and eventually gained enough trust from his neighbors to be elected to the Massachusetts General Court. (That’s when he finally got paid for those cannon.)

After another wealthy marriage, Ingraham moved on to Medford for the last decades of his life. A detail from his gravestone appears above.

TOMORROW: Coming to Dr. Cuming.

[The crossed-out sentence above was corrected in a series of 2021 postings including this one.]

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Depositions from Two Prisoners of War

Last month I wrote about a couple of the British officers who were captured on 19 Apr 1775.

While Gen. Thomas Gage’s report on the battle for London listed all those officers by name, the much larger group of “missing” were enlisted men. Some of those redcoats were dead or dying, but most had been taken prisoner, more or less willingly.

Within a few days the Massachusetts Provincial Congress published depositions from two of those enlisted men, then being held as prisoners of war. Here’s what they had to say:
I, John Bateman, belonging to the fifty second regiment, commanded by Colonel [Valentine] Jones, on Wednesday morning, on the nineteenth day of April instant, was in the party marching to Concord. Being at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex, being nigh the meeting-house in said Lexington, there was a small party of men gathered together in that place, when our said troops marched by; and I testify and declare, that I heard the word of command given to the troops to fire, and some of said troops did fire, and I saw one of said small party lie dead on the ground nigh said meeting-house; and I testify, that I never heard any of the inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.

I, James Marr, of lawful age, testify and say, that in the evening of the eighteenth instant, I received orders from [Lt.] George Hutchinson, adjutant of the fourth regiment of the regular troops stationed in Boston, to prepare and march: to which order I attended, and marched to Concord, where I was ordered by an officer, with about one hundred men to guard a certain bridge there. While attending that service, a number of people came along, in order, as I supposed, to cross said bridge, at which time a number of regular troops first fired upon them.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress thus had British soldiers stating under oath that their side had fired first at both Lexington and Concord. The congress eagerly published that testimony to the world.

Right now I’m less interested in what those men said, possibly under duress or inducement, and more in the circumstances of their depositions. For example, both men had to have been at both Lexington and Concord, yet each testified for the record about only one confrontation. What else had they seen? How had they been captured? We don’t know because the congress was collecting information for propaganda reasons, not history.

TOMORROW: Details of the depositions.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Pickering on the Beginning of the Siege

Earlier this week the Journal of the American Revolution made the first publication of a 21 Apr 1775 letter by Timothy Pickering, colonel of the Essex County militia. The letter now belongs to the Harlan Crow Library in Dallas.

The title of library curator Samuel Fore’s article emphasizes Pickering as an “Eyewitness to the British Retreat from Lexington.” However, the letter doesn’t say anything about the events of 19 April (including Pickering’s own actions, which were controversial for decades).

Rather, on 21 April Pickering wrote about how the siege of Boston was taking shape. Or at least about the situation on the northern wing of the siege; he didn’t mention what was going on in Roxbury at all. Instead, he told a colleague from Essex County:
The regulars were entrenching on the first hill beyond Charlestown neck; also on a point of ground (as well as I could learn) in Cambridge river, just as it opens to the Bay. For what purposes I cannot tell, but conjecture to prevent the provincials entering Boston by the way of Charlestown, or by boats going down Cambridge river. The provincials, perhaps three or four thousand men, were scattered about Cambridge common too much at random.
Lack of discipline by the common soldier was a fairly constant theme in Pickering’s military writings.

As a regimental commander, Pickering was invited to a council of war in Cambridge headed by Gen. Artemas Ward and Gen. William Heath, with Dr. Joseph Warren sitting in. Characteristically, Pickering voiced his opinions, including on whether the Massachusetts troops should attack the British positions:
I ventured to declare my opinion “That we ought to act only on the defensive; but some thought that now was the time to strike, & that now the day might be our own, & end the dispute. I could not think so: for besides the scanty portion of ammunition we at present could come at, our men were not sufficiently prepared for action; they were not disciplined even for an irregular engagement; few, very few, have had experience; & the officers in general have neither instructed themselves nor men how to act: The confusions of yesterday, testified by every officer I could talk with, fully justify these assertions. . . .

Another & what appeared to me an important reason for acting only on the defensive was this. The attack is universally said by our people to have been begun by the King’s troops: This may serve to justify a return of fire from us; and tho by pursuing them we seemed to act offensively, yet that was a natural consequence of the first attack, & might be excused: but to attack the troops, while they remained, as now, quiet in the trenches, would be deemed a much more atrocious act, & fatally prevent an accommodation, which notwithstanding yesterday’s skirmish, did not appear wholly impracticable.[”]
That reinforces Pickering’s reputation for wanting to find an “accommodation” with the royal government when other Massachusetts Patriots were ready to push harder. People groused that his attitude had kept the Essex County troops from engaging with the British column on 19 April.

Another question the Massachusetts commanders faced was whether to maintain maximum forces around Boston or send some militia units back home to defend their coastal towns from possible attack by the Royal Navy. Pickering didn’t want to leave Salem undefended:
I told them the seaports were so greatly exposed it appeared to me & others not expedient that any of the militia should leave them, & therefore, after consulting with the chief officers present I had directed and advised the Salem, Beverly, and Manchester militia to return. This was rather contrary to the previous desire of the Council of War, (composed of the General & field officers above mentioned;) but afterwards it appeared that they also judged it expedient, by directing the Ipswich companies to return:
That shows us how loose Gen. Ward’s authority was. The previous day’s council of war had agreed to keep troops at the siege lines, but Pickering had already sent some of his men home.

Toward the end of his letter, Pickering wrote: “I have also just heard by a man from Boston, that Earl Percy is badly if not dangerously wounded.” That rumor was false. Lt. Col. Francis Smith had been wounded, though not badly, but Col. Percy was unhurt.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Full History of “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God”

The epitaph for John Bradshaw that Bryan Edwards sent to another gentleman in January 1775, quoted yesterday, varies slightly but significantly from every other surviving example of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph.”

All the others have the same wording, though they differ in line breaks, punctuation, and capitalization, as was common at the time. Here are the differences between that set and the version Edwards supplied (on the right):
  • Ere thou pass, contemplate this (CANNON / marble):
  • despising alike (the pagentry of courtly splendor / what the world calls greatness),
  • who (fairly and openly / openly, and fairly), adjudged
  • Charles Stuart, (Tyrant / King) of England,
  • thereby presenting to the (amazed / astonished) world,
  • and (never, never / never) forget
The weightiest difference is the first. Most versions describe the epitaph as already carved on the cannon that marked Bradshaw’s grave. Edwards’s January 1775 letter instead describes a cannon planted near the grave over a century before and proposed a “cenotaph” of “marble”—which hadn’t actually been created.

I suspect, therefore, that the epitaph never was engraved on metal or stone, and that all the reports that it actually had been carved were too wishful. The monument never got past the planning stage. “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” always and only existed on paper.

Edwards’s letter doesn’t give a date for when the epitaph was composed, but it seems to have been a few years before 1775. The letter refers to a moment when Edwards “repeated” those lines to his correspondent, showing that he was spreading them around. He may also have revised the lines since first distributing them, which would account for the difference between this version and the one that circulated before appearing in print in Philadelphia, months after the letter.

Samuel Johnson defined the word “cenotaph” to mean “A monument for one buried elsewhere.” In using that word in his letter, Edwards accepted that Bradshaw’s remains hadn’t actually been buried on Martha Brae in Jamaica.

It’s interesting to put the 1775 letter alongside Edwards’s remarks about the Bradshaw story in his 1793 History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. Together they suggest that he had become even more dubious that Bradshaw’s “dust” was ever brought to Jamaica. Edwards also appears to have grown less excited, after the American War and the early French Revolution, about the whole notion of “Rebellion to tyrants…”

This, then, is my hypothesis of the origin story for the line “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”:
  • The sentence was coined by Bryan Edwards and perhaps some friends on Jamaica in the early 1770s as part of a tribute to the English republican John Bradshaw.
  • Edwards and possibly his friends shared the epitaph in letters to other parts of the British Empire, including Annapolis and London by 1773.
  • Thomas Hollis copied the epitaph into his historical collection by 1774, believing that it had already been engraved on a cannon in Jamaica and posted in houses in many other American colonies.
  • Benjamin Franklin copied the epitaph and brought it to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, showing it to Thomas Jefferson and others. Those men believed that the epitaph was a relic of seventeenth-century English republicanism.
  • Franklin or a colleague supplied the epitaph to the printers of the Pennsylvania Evening Post in December 1775, and it was finally put into print.
  • Jefferson entertained doubts about the epitaph’s authenticity in the mid-1770s but eventually accepted it and used its final line as a motto.
  • Meanwhile, Edwards had come to doubt the lore of Bradshaw’s body, and in 1793 tried to downplay the whole story in his history of the Caribbean.
Under this theory, “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” was at no point a deliberate hoax, knowingly passed on with false information. But people who liked the lines were too quick to assume that they had already been engraved at Martha Brae, then that they had been composed back in the seventeenth century. The man who knew the most about the real story, Bryan Edwards, cast doubt on it in print without ever coming out and admitting his own role in launching the tale.

The line “Rebellion to tyrants is resistance to God” is thus not a creation of Thomas Jefferson, nor a hoax by Benjamin Franklin. It’s most likely a sincere product of the political movement in Britain’s North American colonies resisting new Crown measures in the 1760s and 1770s—but not on the mainland.

(Shown above: A medal minted by Virginia in 1780 to give to Native allies displaying the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”)