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, November 26, 2019

William Eustis Returning to Roxbury

At the start of the Revolutionary War, William Eustis (1753-1825) was a medical student of Dr. Joseph Warren. A son of Dr. Benjamin Eustis, the young man was going into the family business.

Eustis’s training was cut short in 1775 for obvious reasons. He joined the New England army as a surgeon for the artillery regiment, treating the wounded after Bunker Hill and the battles of the New York and New Jersey campaign. In 1777 Eustis shifted to overseeing a military hospital north of New York City.

At the end of the war, William Eustis returned to Boston and began a private practice. He entered politics after the Shays Rebellion, serving several years in the Massachusetts House and Governor’s Council. In 1800 he ran for Congress as a Jeffersonian, beating the future mayor Josiah Quincy; in 1804 those two men competed again, and this time Quincy won. Around 1806, William Eustis sat for a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, shown above.

President James Madison appointed Eustis to be his first Secretary of War, hoping to win over New Englanders. With neither the military experience nor the bureaucratic finesse necessary for the job, the doctor lasted right up until there actually was a war in 1812. A couple of years later, Madison made Eustis the U.S. minister to the Netherlands. At least that wasn’t a disaster.

Back in the U.S. of A., Dr. Eustis bought the mansion originally built on a Roxbury hilltop for Gov. William Shirley. He and his wife Caroline, who was also his sister-in-law, lived there for more than forty-five years until her death.

Eustis once again ran for Congress in 1820. Meanwhile, he was also the Jeffersonians’ candidate for Massachusetts governor, losing to a fellow doctor and Revolutionary War veteran, John Brooks. In 1822 Brooks chose not to run again, and the Federalists nominated the archconservative Harrison Gray Otis. That let the Jeffersonians portray Eustis as the moderate, experienced elder statesman. He won the race, and the Federalist Party was wiped out of power in the legislature the following year. Gov. Eustis died in office in 1825.

The Shirley-Eustis House, as the Roxbury mansion is now called, became a pioneering preservation project and museum in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Stuart’s portrait of Dr. Eustis went into the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—but that institution had so many Stuarts it was hardly ever on display. This year the Met decided to deaccession the painting. Members of the Shirley-Eustis House Association raised the money to bid for it at auction.

Dr. Eustis’s portrait will therefore be welcoming visitors to Dr. Eustis’s house starting in 2020.


G. Lovely said...

You used "the" Shays Rebellion. Would you explain?

J. L. Bell said...

The Massachusetts establishment coined the term “Shays’ Rebellion” to try to pin the whole unrest on Daniel Shays. That minimized the widespread grievances and mass movement. It was all just one troublemaker! The western Massachusetts men themselves thought what they were doing was a “regulation,” just like similar actions starting in 1774.

Historians recognize that ploy today, but nobody has come up with a widely accepted term for those events besides “Shays’ Rebellion.” So I usually write “the Shays Rebellion” as a way to acknowledge, if only to myself, that it didn’t actually belong to Daniel Shays.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this update, J.L. It shifts where I give credit for the portrait when I use it in my book. Finally located in the right place!