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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Saturday, October 31, 2020

“Lost Holiday” Online Talk, 5 Nov.

On Thursday, 5 November, I’ll speak via Boston by Foot on the topic “Lost Holiday: How Colonial Boston Celebrated the Fifth of November.”

Our event description:
The 5th of November was a milestone in the annual calendar for the youth of Boston. On that date they got to march around town in costume, making noise, asking for money, and topping off the evening with a gang brawl and a bonfire. In accord with New England's anti-Catholicism, they called it “Pope Night.”

This talk looks at the roots of that holiday in British history, how its rituals became part of Boston's pre-Revolutionary politics, and how the Revolutionary War brought the tradition to an end.
To be sure, some of that holiday’s rituals survived—in processions during and just after the Revolutionary War that reviled Benedict Arnold; in a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, tradition called “Pork Night”; and in how modern Americans have (at least until this plague year) observed Halloween.

This talk is scheduled to begin at 7:00 P.M. Sign up through this link. In the spirit of Pope Night, the gang politely suggests a modest donation.

Friday, October 30, 2020

In the Spy 250 Years Ago

On 30 Oct 1770, 250 years ago today, John Adams turned thirty-five years old.

Two years later, he wrote in his diary: “Thirty Seven Years, more than half the Life of Man, are run out.—What an Atom, an Animalcule I am!-The Remainder of my Days I shall rather decline, in Sense, Spirit, and Activity.” Was Adams in the same mood when he hit exactly half of threescore years and ten? We don’t know because, darn it, he wasn’t keeping his diary in late 1770.

Also on 30 October, printer Isaiah Thomas put out the first issue of the Massachusetts Spy in his own name. Back in August, he’d started publishing the newspaper with his old master, Zechariah Fowle, but evidently that man wanted out. (The preceding issues had no printers’ names attached, so the transition might have been gradual.)

Thomas was still publishing at the unusual pace of two pages on three days of the week. With the next issues he would switch to two days a week, Mondays and Thursdays, thus going head to head with all of Boston’s established papers.

But on this Tuesday, 30 October, the Massachusetts Spy was the only new newspaper to appear, and Thomas thus had an exclusive on that morning’s big news from the courthouse:

John Adams, Josiah Quincy, and Robert Auchmuty had gotten their client off on the charge of murder.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Case for Capt. Preston

On 25 Oct 1770, Capt. Thomas Preston’s attorneys began to make the case for his acquittal for murder after the Boston Massacre.

The defense team consisted of three men. Robert Auchmuty was a senior attorney allied with Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s adminstration. John Adams appears to have called the first witnesses and started questioning them. The youngest team member, Josiah Quincy, Jr. (shown here), worked in a subordinate role, also posing questions.

The first defense witness was William Jackson, proprietor of the Brazen Head hardware store. His mother, Mary Jackson, had rented a room to Capt. Preston, and he testified about how soldiers had come to fetch the officer because of fighting on the street.

The defense called two more witnesses on 25 October, eighteen the next day, and one or two the day after that, in addition to the owner of an enslaved witness to testify to his veracity. (The prosecutors also called back one of their witnesses for brief testimony.) Among the eyewitnesses were:
  • Benjamin Davis, who lived directly across from the Customs house.
  • Richard Palmes, a hot-headed apothecary who said that at the first musket shot “I had then my hand on the Captains shoulder.” Then, in swinging his cane at a soldier poking at him with a bayonet, Palmes said, he accidentally hit Preston on his arm.
  • Andrew a Negro Servant” (i.e., slave) owned by the merchant Oliver Wendell.
  • “Jack Negro Servant to Doctr. [James] Lloyd.”
  • Jane Whitehouse, who married a solder between the shooting and her testimony.
  • Newton Prince, a free black man who later settled in London as a Loyalist.
  • Capt. James Gifford and Capt. Brabazon O’Hara of the 14th Regiment.
  • Hat merchant Thomas Handysyd Peck.
  • Harrison Gray, Jr., son of the provincial treasurer.
  • Lt. Gov. Hutchinson himself, reporting what he had found on the scene when summoned after the shooting and what little he could recall of his conversation with Preston.
None of these defense witnesses described hearing Preston give an order to fire. Some were certain he didn’t. (Palmes suggested he might have, but he was close enough to be touching the captain and heard nothing.) While some prosecution witnesses said Capt. Preston had ordered the soldiers to load their guns, one defense witness said that Cpl. William Wemms had made that call.

The main value of all this testimony was in building a picture of an angry crowd, verging on violence, and of confusion in the crush around the soldiers. Preston’s attorneys were laying the blame for the deaths on the mob or the soldiers, but not the captain. (The soldiers were afraid that would happen.)

There was also conflict within the defense team. According to Hutchinson, Adams and Quincy had “a difference in opinion…of the necessity of entring into the examination of the Conduct of the Towns people previous to the Action itself.” Was it necessary to portray the Boston crowd as habitually violent in order to get Preston off?

The Rev. William Gordon’s history of the Revolution later described the interaction this way:
Mr. Quincy pushes the examination and cross-examination of the witnesses to such an extent, that Mr. Adams, in order to check it, is obliged to tell him, that if he will not desist, he shall decline having anything further to do in the cause. The captain and his friends are alarmed, and consult about engaging another counsellor; but Mr. Adams has no intention of abandoning his client. He is sensible that there is sufficient evidence to obtain a favorable verdict from an impartial jury; and only feels for the honor of the town, which he apprehends will suffer yet more, if the witnesses are examined too closely and particularly…
Hutchinson likewise saw Adams as protecting Boston’s reputation: “he being a Representative of the Town and a great Partisan wishes to blacken the people as little as may be consistent with his Duty to his Clients.”

Adams himself responded to the passage in Gordon’s book by stating, “His Clients lives were hazarded by Quincy’s too youthful ardour.” It’s not clear what Adams had in mind here. Did he fear that Quincy would make the Suffolk County jury so resentful they’d vote to convict, or that he’d rouse the crowd outside against Preston?

The defense counsels rested their case on Saturday, 27 October. Under the custom of the time, they then made their closing arguments to the jury—first Adams, then Auchmuty. With darkness falling, the court adjourned for the Sabbath.

On Monday, 29 October, Robert Treat Paine summed up the prosecution case. Then Judge Edmund Trowbridge analyzed both the evidence and the law at length, followed by each of the three more senior judges. It wasn’t until 5:00 P.M. that the jurors retired to deliberate—all night if they had to.

TOMORROW: The first verdict.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Case against Capt. Preston

In 1770, 28 October was a Sunday—the Sunday right in the middle of Capt. Thomas Preston’s trial for murder.

The fact that this criminal trial stretched over multiple days was unprecedented in Massachusetts. Courts always got through seating a jury, hearing testimony, and summations by the attorneys and judges within a day.

Sometimes a jury had to deliberate late into the night, as at the murder trial of Ebenezer Richardson earlier in 1770. But common-law rules dictated that no food or firewood could be delivered to the jurors, prodding them to quicker decisions.

Everyone knew Capt. Preston’s trial was exceptional and had to be handled with rigorous fairness. The jury selection involved a lot of challenges, and there were dozens of witnesses called to testify.

On 24 October Samuel Quincy, Advocate-General but younger than and thus junior to special prosecutor Robert Treat Paine, opened for the Crown. The first prosecution witness was a child, probably in his teens: barber’s apprentice Edward Garrick, described how he had argued with the sentry outside the Customs office, Pvt. Hugh White. But the boy said nothing about Preston.

Next came Thomas Marshall, tailor and colonel of the Boston militia regiment. Deploying his military experience, Marshall declared, “Between the firing the first and second Gun there was time enough for an Officer to step forward and to give the word Recover if he was so minded.” That was the sort of testimony the prosecution needed to establish Preston’s responsibility for the deaths.

Among the six other witnesses that day, Peter Cunningham said, “I am pretty positive the Capt. bid ’em Prime and load. I stood about 4 feet off him. Heard no Order given to fire.”

According to Paine’s notes, ship’s captain William Wyatt testified that Preston “Stampt and said damn your blood fire let the consequence be what it will.” However, the next witness, John Cox, quoted Preston saying the same thing after the soldiers had fired, apparently threatening them with retribution if they fired a second time. An unsigned summary of the testimony sent to London quoted that line from Cox but not from Wyatt.

In sum, the night of the shooting on King Street was often a confusing mess, and so are our inexact sources on what the witnesses said.

The next day, the prosecutors called fifteen more witnesses, including town watchmen Benjamin Burdick and Edward Langford, selectman Jonathan Mason, blacksmith Obadiah Whiston, bookseller Henry Knox, and Jonathan Williams Austin, law clerk to John Adams, one of the defense attorneys. Several of those men testified that they hadn’t seen or heard Capt. Preston give an order to fire; some were sure he hadn’t.

Only one man, Robert Goddard, stated that Capt. Preston definitely did tell the soldiers to shoot:
The Capt. was behind the Soldiers. The Captain told them to fire. One Gun went off. A Sailor or Townsman struck the Captain. He thereupon said damn your bloods fire think I’ll be treated in this manner. This Man that struck the Captain came from among the People who were seven feet off and were round on one wing. I saw no person speak to him. I was so near I should have seen it. After the Capt. said Damn your bloods fire they all fired one after another about 7 or 8 in all, and then the officer bid Prime and load again. He stood behind all the time.
Goddard had said the same thing at a coroner’s inquest, even going to the Boston jail to identify Preston. He had said the same thing in a deposition for Boston’s Short Narrative report. He was clearly the most dangerous witness for the defense.

TOMORROW: The captain’s argument.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

“Finding a Voice without the Vote” Panel, 29 Oct.

On Thursday, 29 October, I’ll be part of an online panel discussion on “Finding a Voice without the Vote: 18th Century,” presented by Revolutionary Spaces, custodian of the Old South Meeting House and Old State House in Boston.

“In this contentious election year,” the event description says, “we’re reminded voting has never been the only way to make your voice heard. Join us as we reflect on ways some 18th-century New Englanders built power and shaped priorities both within and outside of their communities.”

The panel will be:
  • Amanda Moniz, the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, discussing how women and African Americans shaped public priorities through philanthropy.
  • Kerima Lewis, an early American historian with a focus on slavery in New England, exploring “Negro Election Days” and how they helped build power within enslaved communities.
  • J. L. Bell, talking about how poor men and youth affected public policy through service in militia organizations.
The organizers invite people registering for this event to share other “under-told stories of exercising leadership and power to inform priorities within communities outside of typical government power structures.”

This discussion is scheduled to start at 6:30 P.M. (That means people can switch over after watching Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed discuss the changing image of Thomas Jefferson for the Massachusetts Historical Society, starting at 5:30.) To register, please start at this page.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Miss Quincy, Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Storer, and the Adamses

In the fall of 1761, Hannah (Quincy) Lincoln (shown here, courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums) struck up a correspondence with Abigail Smith, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the minister of Weymouth.

At the time, Lincoln was twenty-five years old and had been married a little over a year. She apparently set out to mentor the teen-aged girl in finding a beau.

On 5 October, Abigail wrote back (in a version probably regularized in spelling and punctuation before being published in 1840):
You bid me tell one of my sparks (I think that was the word) to bring me to see you. Why! I believe you think they are as plenty as herrings, when, alas! there is as great a scarcity of them as there is of justice, honesty, prudence, and many other virtues. I’ve no pretensions to one.
Back in 1759, a young lawyer named John Adams had accompanied his friend Richard Cranch on a visit to the Smith household. Cranch would eventually marry the oldest daughter, Mary. But Adams had come away unimpressed by the Smith girls—“Not fond, not frank, not candid.” In his eyes then, they didn’t compare to “H.Q.,” whom he thought “Tender and fond. Loving and compassionate.”

As I quoted back here, Adams came close to proposing to Hannah Quincy, but didn’t. Which of course meant that she may have had no idea how interested he was. She married Dr. Bela Lincoln instead.

On 30 Dec 1761, a little less than two months after Abigail had told Mrs. Lincoln she had no beaus, John Adams wrote with Cranch to her older sister to say, “our good Wishes are pour’d forth for the felicity of you, your family and Neighbours.—My—I dont know what—to Mrs. Nabby.” He was trying to flirt. Within three years, John Adams and Abigail Smith were married.

Both the Adamses remained friendly with Hannah Lincoln—she was, after all, a cousin of Abigail’s; a sister of John’s legal colleagues Samuel and Josiah Quincy, Jr.; and a neighbor back in Braintree after the death of her first husband.

In October 1777 Abigail was pleased to report to John that “our Friend Mrs. L——n of this Town” was engaged “to Deacon S——r of Boston, an exceeding good match and much approved of.” Everybody liked and respected Ebenezer Storer.

As Abigail Adams traveled away from Massachusetts in the 1780s and 1790s, Hannah Storer continued to correspond with her on topics like social events, children, and fashions. Her political comments were general, though she expressed indignation at John Adams being turned out of the Presidency.

Ebenezer Storer died in 1807. Abigail Adams died in 1818. Their widowed spouses lived on in Boston and Braintree, evidently not seeing each other regularly if at all.

Josiah Quincy, Jr. (1802-1882), Hannah Storer’s great-nephew, wrote in his memoir Figures of the Past about bringing them together sometime in the 1820s:
Among my boyish recollections [of Braintree] there is distinctly visible a very pretty hill, which rose from the banks of the river, or what passed for one, and was covered with trees of the original forest growth. This was known as Cupid’s Grove; and it had been known under that title for at least three generations, and perhaps from the settlement of the town. The name suggests the purposes to which this sylvan spot was dedicated. It was the resort of the lovers of the vicinage, or of those who, if circumstances favored, might become so. The trunks of the trees were cut and scarred all over with the initials of ladies who were fair and beloved. . . .

I, a young man, just entering life, was deputed to attend my venerable relative on a visit to the equally venerable ex-President. Both parties were verging upon their ninetieth year. They had met very infrequently, if at all, since the days of their early intimacy.

When Mrs. Storer entered the room, the old gentleman’s face lighted up, as he exclaimed, with ardor, “What! Madam, shall we not go walk in Cupid’s Grove together?”

To say the truth, the lady seemed somewhat embarrassed by this utterly unlooked-for salutation. It seemed to hurry her back through the past with such rapidity as fairly to take away her breath. But self-possession came at last, and with it a suspicion of girlish archness, as she replied, “Ah, sir, it would not be the first time that we have walked there!”
Mrs. Storer could still flirt. And President Adams, he was still trying.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Ebenezer Storer, at Your Service

In December 1774, a few months after Hannah (Quincy) Lincoln’s husband Bela died, a Boston merchant named Ebenezer Storer was also widowed.

Storer appears here in a pastel portrait rendered by John Singleton Copley in the late 1760s, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ebenezer Storer was known for his piety, his meticulous attention to business, and his willingness to do committee work.

After earning degrees from Harvard, he had joined his father’s firm and married Elizabeth Green in 1751. They had at least six children between 1752 and 1764.

In business, Storer became his father’s partner in 1754 and inherited the firm five years later. Storer also followed his father as a deacon of the Brattle Street Meeting from 1759 to 1773, and people referred to him as “Deacon Storer” well after that.

For the town of Boston, Storer served at various times as a warden, selectman, Overseer of the Poor, and member of many town committees. In 1770 he was in the delegation that visited Capt. Thomas Preston in jail and the group of merchants who tried to cajole towns in Essex County back to non-importation.

Other organizations Storer helped to run included the Hopkins Foundation, the Massachusetts Society for Propagation of Christian Knowledge, the New England Company, the Company for Promoting Good Order (Religious), and the Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce.

A few months after Elizabeth Storer died, the war broke out and Boston was besieged. Ebenezer found refuge in Needham but in February 1776 went back into Boston under a flag of truce. People didn’t doubt his loyalty, though. The town made him a selectman and Overseer again for another year as it recovered.

Another institution that called on Storer’s talents at this time was Harvard College. John Hancock had neglected his work as college treasurer under the heavy, and enticing, responsibilities of politics. Storer took over that job in July 1777 and stayed at it through the currency fluctuations of the 1780s and all the way to 1807.

Four months later, Storer married widow Hannah Lincoln at her father’s house in Braintree. In the following years she gave birth to her only children—daughters Hannah (1779), Anna (1780), and Susan (1783).

The family settled into the Storer mansion on Sudbury Street in Boston. Ebenezer continued to keep the books for all sorts of enterprises, including the Second Massachusetts Regiment, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Society for Propagating the Gospel in North America.
Meanwhile, the Storer business was failing. Ebenezer couldn’t keep up his usual trade with London. He invested in Continental bonds, then had to turn them over to creditors in the 1780s for a fraction of their value. The result, he told President George Washington, was “almost a total loss of my property.” However, he kept his father’s big house and his social standing.

Eventually the John Adams administration found Ebenezer Storer a job and steady income as a regional inspector in the U.S. excise office. After Thomas Jefferson became President, he shifted over to be treasurer of the town of Boston.

The Storers hosted many gatherings of relatives and friends. Future mayor Josiah Quincy described his aunt and uncle as “a hospitable, pleasant family, entertaining their friends most agreeably,” with regular parties on Sunday nights. (He met his wife at one of those events.) 

Ebenezer and Hannah Storer were known as a generous, genteel, and happy couple until he died in his sleep in January 1807.

TOMORROW: A widow once more

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Career of Dr. Bela Lincoln

When Bela Lincoln was growing up in Hingham in the 1740s, his father—a wealthy farmer, town official, and militia colonel—insisted on sending him to Harvard College.

Some people didn’t think Bela had the smarts for it. Others felt that his talent was merely hidden by "a natural bashfulness.”

Bela Lincoln did fine at Harvard. After graduating in 1754, he returned to Hingham to study medicine with Dr. Ezekiel Hersey. In 1756 he took a province job as doctor for the community of Acadian exiles (“French neutrals”) resettled in Sherborn.

Young Dr. Lincoln was building his practice during the time he became engaged to Hannah Quincy, from a similarly upper-class family in Braintree. Most of our information about their courtship comes from the diary of John Adams, who also entertained thoughts of proposing to Quincy and therefore wasn’t a neutral observer.

Bela Lincoln and Hannah Quincy married on 1 May 1760. Yesterday I shared Adams’s alarmed description from that December of how rudely the doctor behaved toward his wife, her parents, and the entire gathering. Whatever bashfulness Lincoln had shown as a child, he didn’t show it that night—though perhaps he was overcompensating.

I don’t know of other evidence of strains in the Lincolns’ marriage, though, unless their lack of children counts. I haven’t found anyone else writing of Bela Lincoln as such an obnoxious, overbearing man.

Dr. Lincoln’s career seemed to advance steadily. In 1761, Gov. Francis Bernard appointed him a justice of the peace for Middlesex County. The men of Sherborn elected him to the Massachusetts General Court.

In late 1764 Lincoln sailed to Britain for more medical training, also carrying messages from speaker of the house Thomas Cushing to the province’s agent. He came back the next year with an M.D. from King’s College in Aberdeen, which reflected some combination of study and payment.

Now looking even more prestigious, Dr. Lincoln returned to Hingham to resume his practice. The governor made him a justice in Suffolk County. He trained younger doctors, including the hapless schemer Amos Windship, whom he set up in practice in exchange for a mortgage on an inheritance.

Then Dr. Lincoln fell ill. In the summer of 1771 Edmund Quincy described him as “in a very dangerous State.” At the time he and Hannah were on Georges Island in Boston harbor, perhaps for his health. They had been married more than a decade.

Dr. Bela Lincoln finally died in Hingham on 16 July 1774, leaving his wife Hannah a widow at age thirty-five. (His older brother Benjamin went on to have a distinguished political and military career.)

TOMORROW: A better prospect?

Friday, October 23, 2020

“Dr. Lincoln and his Lady”

Earlier this month I discussed how John Adams, the Rev. Anthony Wibird, and Dr. Bela Lincoln of Hingham competed for the attention of Hannah Quincy in north Braintree.

Sometime in the spring of 1759 John wrote that he almost proposed to Hannah, only to be interrupted before he could speak by her sister Esther and his friend Jonathan Sewall—who were becoming a couple.

That “gave room for Lincolns addresses,” Adams wrote, clearly indicating that the doctor had won the contest.

But in the summer of 1759, Adams quoted Lincoln in his diary as saying:
My father gave me a serious Lecture last Saturday night. He says I have waited on H.Q. two Journeys, and have called and made Visits there so often, that her Relations among others have said I am courting of her. And the Story has spread so wide now, that, if I dont marry her, she will be said to have Jockied me, or I to have Jockied her, and he says the Girl shall not suffer. A story shall be spread, that she repelled me.
Evidently Dr. Lincoln and Miss Quincy weren’t as sure about their engagement as all their relatives and neighbors.

On 1 May 1760, however, the nuptials were celebrated. Just seven months later, on 2 December, Adams described what he considered a horrifying display of rudeness at the house of Col. Josiah Quincy, the bride’s father:
About the middle of the Evening Dr. Lincoln and his Lady came in. The Dr. gave us an ample Confirmation of our Opinion of his Brutality and Rusticity. He treated his Wife, as no drunken Cobler, or Clothier would have done, before Company. Her father never gave such Looks and Answers to one of his slaves in my Hearing. And he contradicted he Squibd, shrugged, scouled, laughd at the Coll. in such a Manner as the Coll. would have called Boorish, ungentlemanly, unpolite, ridiculous, in any other Man. . . .

His treatment of his Wife amazed me. Miss[tress] Q. asked the Dr. a Question. Miss[tress] Lincoln seeing the Dr. engaged with me, gave her Mother an Answer, which however was not satisfactory. Miss[tress] Q. repeats it. “Dr. you did not hear my Question.”—“Yes I did, replies the Dr., and the Answer to it, my Wife is so pert, she must put in her Oar, or she must blabb, before I could speak.” And then shrugged And affected a laugh, to cow her as he used to, the freshmen and sophymores at Colledge.—She sunk into silence and shame and Grief, as I thought.—

After supper, she says “Oh my dear, do let my father see that Letter we read on the road.” Bela answers, like the great Mogul, like Nero or Caligula, “he shant.”—Why, Dr., do let me have it! do!—He turns his face about as stern as the Devil, sour as Vinegar. “I wont.”—Why sir says she, what makes you answer me so sternly, shant and wont?—Because I wont, says he. Then the poor Girl, between shame and Grief and Resentment and Contempt, at last, strives to turn it off with a Laugh.—“I wish I had it. Ide shew it, I know.”—

Bela really acts the Part of the Tamer of the Shrew in Shakespear. Thus a kind Look, an obliging Air, a civil Answer, is a boon that she cant obtain from her Husband. Farmers, Tradesmen, Soldiers, Sailors, People of no fortune, Figure, Education, are really more civil, obliging, kind, to their Wives than he is.—She always is under Restraint before me. She never dares shew her endearing Airs, nor any fondness for him.
Adams felt the smart, flirtatious woman who had beguiled him two years before was being beaten down psychologically.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

[The picture above shows the actor Henry Woodward (1714-1777) costumed as Petruchio for the play Catharine and Petruchio, adapted from Shakespeare by David Garrick in 1754. In Britain it became far more popular than the original. But Adams, as a young Massachusetts man, had read Shakespeare and never seen either version on stage.]

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A Memorial to a Mother

Jane Cave, later Jane Winscom (1752-1812), started writing poetry as a teen. Her first datable poem is about the death of the Rev. George Whitefield in September 1770.

When the American War for Independence broke out and there was a general fast declared in Britain, Cave wrote about, “When armies after armies prostrate lie, / And brother, by his brother’s hand must die.”

Years later, in the early 1800s, Winscom published a large collection under the pen name “Mrs. Rueful.” Those poems detailed the troubles of her marriage and her migraine headaches.

Today I’m quoting an extract from Jane Cave’s poem later titled “On the Death of a Beloved Mother, Who died February 6, 1777”:
She gave me birth, and twenty fleeting years
I’ve been the object of her anxious cares.
Thro’ belpless infancy she sav’d from harms
And nurs’d, and bore me in her tender arms.
She sympathiz’d in every pain and grief.
And would have borne it all for my relief.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Investigating the Jason Russell House

The Arlington Historical Society just provided an interim report on various investigations into one of its historic properties, the Jason Russell House.

This building was the focus of the deadliest skirmish on 19 Apr 1775. Russell and eleven militiamen, mostly from Danvers, were killed in and around the house after being caught by a flanking guard of regulars protecting the main British column.

Joel Bohy has assembled a team to study the bullet holes preserved in the fabric of the house. They found more holes than had been previously identified, some at trajectories indicating they were ”fired through the [upper] windows from the street below, either as a preventative measure or to target a person shooting out of them.”

The dispatch describes how those bullet holes are being studied:
The team examined every hole and strike and measured with calipers to determine the caliber, which can often determine whether the projectile was discharged by a British soldier or provincial. They used metal detectors and a video scope to investigate within the walls. Scott swabbed each hole to detect for lead residue, and the team used ballistics rods and laser lights to determine the trajectory of each musket ball.
Other ongoing investigations include 3-D laser mapping of the building and grounds, a scan of the grounds by ground-penetrating radar, and even experiments firing flintlock muskets at targets built to mimic the house’s walls.

In addition, the society is still hunting for the house’s bullet-riddled door, which the Russell family sold to a collector in the late 1800s.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Taylor Looks Back on William Cooper’s Town, 22 Oct.

On Thursday, 22 October, the American Antiquarian Society is hosting an online talk by Alan Taylor about his book William Cooper’s Town.

This is the latest in a series of annual A.A.S. lectures featuring leading historians looking back on important works. And in early American history you can’t get more leading than Taylor. As for the book, it won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes, so that’s pretty important.

The event descoption says:
When the book William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic appeared in 1995, it deftly combined social history, biography, and literary analysis to explore the business and political career of James Fenimore Cooper’s father and the development of the western New York frontier region of Otsego County.

The book charts the rise and fall of the elder Cooper’s financial and political fortunes and examines how these impacted the literary ambitions and career of his son. It also describes the shifting political landscape as the nascent nation developed and then redefined ideals of republican gentility and democratic power.

In this talk, Alan Taylor will examine the genesis of this book and its impact on scholarship and society since it was first published.
Taylor is currently the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His other books include Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier 1760–1820 (1990), which follows Henry Knox after the war; Writing Early American History (2005); The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (2006); The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (2010); The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia (2013); Thomas Jefferson’s Education (2019); and the ongoing series of overviews American Colonies (2001), American Revolutions (2016), and American Republics (2021).

Among his colleagues, Taylor is known for his plentiful output of books and his choice not to use social media. These things may well be related.

One aspect of William Cooper’s Town that really struck me came toward the end when Taylor argued that Cooper’s success in establishing his New York community and becoming famous for it was all a matter of lucky timing. Other men had tried to found towns in the same region before him, but the area hadn’t had the economy and infrastructure to support their settlements.

Cooper’s own scheme depended on Native removal, plenteous land titles, and a thick growth of hardwood trees to harvest for potash. With the new republic and New York growing around him, he looked like a genius. Once those resources were gone, his enterprise didn’t sustain itself. Cooper’s fortunes were falling when he died under murky circumstances, which Taylor did his best to unravel.

In other words, William Cooper’s Town takes the general shape of a biography, but in the end it undercuts a basic premise of the genre—that an individual’s character and choices are the defining force in his or her life. Maybe that’s why Taylor’s Pulitzer came in the History category while the winner of the Biography prize that year was Jack Miles’s God: A Biography.

This event is scheduled to start at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday. Register in advance.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Seminar on John Dickinson and the Constitution, Starting 21 Oct.

Back in 2012 I made a point about the steady flow of books on Thomas Paine by comparing that output to the sparse number of books on John Dickinson.

I counted over a dozen recent books on Paine and only two on Dickinson—one published by an outfit co-founded by William F. Buckley to promote conservative politics on college campuses and one written by Jane E. Calvert, who became a professor at the University of Kentucky.

Calvert formed the John Dickinson Writings Project to produce a scholarly edition of this Founder’s output, which will ease further research and publications on his work.

That enterprise has now published the first volume of The Complete Writings and Selected Correspondence of John Dickinson, covering the man’s legal training in London and early law practice in the 1750s. The editorial staff is forging ahead on more.

This autumn Prof. Calvert is leading a three-session seminar on “John Dickinson and the Making the the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1788” through the Library Company of Philadelphia.
This seminar will consider the innovative contributions of John Dickinson to the creation of the United States Constitution through his work on the Articles of Confederation (1776), the Annapolis Convention (1786) that met to consider the shortcomings of the Articles, the ensuing Federal Convention (1787), and the debate over ratification (1788).

As the only leading figure to contribute substantially to every phase of the American Founding beginning with the Stamp Act resistance, Dickinson also played a key role during the constitutional era. This timely seminar will explore drafts, notes, and essays, along with selected secondary source readings, to understand Dickinson’s contributions to the U.S. Constitution, reflecting on both what he offered and what his colleagues rejected.
Calvert’s seminar guests will include Liz Covart of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast, John Kaminski of the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jack N. Rakove, emeritus W. R. Coe Professor of History and American studies at Stanford University.

The conversations will take place online over three Wednesday evenings, 5:30–7:00, two weeks apart: on 21 October, 4 November, and 18 November. Register here. Registrants will receive a syllabus and readings for the three sessions.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Conversations to Watch and Texts to Read

At the start of the month I participated in a couple of online conversations recorded for history.

First was the “Onesimus and Rev. Cotton Mather: Race, Religion, and the Press in Colonial America” organized by the Freedom Forum. This was part of a series titled “Religious Resolve,” and it focused on the response to smallpox in Boston in 1721. Here’s the recording.

Here are some of the texts and studies we mentioned in this discussion: 
  • John Adams’s account of being inoculated against smallpox in 1764.
  • Abigail Adams’s account of having her household inoculated in 1776.
  • Benjamin Franklin’s remarks on his son not being inoculated, in 1736 and decades later.
  • Kathryn Koo’s article “Strangers in the House of God: Cotton Mather, Onesimus, and an Experiment in Christian Slaveholding” (P.D.F. download).
  • Lorenzo J. Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776 (1942).
  • William D. Pierson, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (1988).
  • Daniel R. Mandell, Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (1996).
  • Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (2002).
  • Alex Goldfeld, The North End, A Brief History of Boston's Oldest Neighborhood (2009).
  • C. S. Manegold, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North (2009).
  • Stephen Coss, The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics (2009).
  • Jared Hardesty, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston (2016).

The second recording comes from the Dr. Joseph Warren Historical Society, founded by Christian DiSpigna and Randy Flood. They’ve been posting a series of video interviews with authors and invited me to be a guest host for a conversation with Serena Zabin about her new book The Boston Massacre: A Family History. That recording is here.

In addition to Zabin’s new book, we talked about some older texts, and here’s what I remember:
  • Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre (1970).
  • The Legal Papers of John Adams, edited by L. Kinvin Wroth and Zobel (1965), readable here.
  • A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, Boston’s official report on the event, readable here.
  • My articles on Pvt. John Moies of the 14th Regiment, starting here.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Last Years of Parson Wibird

To answer yesterday’s question, the Rev. Anthony Wibird, minister of the north precinct of Braintree (which became Quincy) never married.

Even as he discussed marriage with the parson as another young man attracted to Hannah Quincy, John Adams may have sensed that Wibird wasn’t really that interested in marrying. He wrote that the parson showed a “dronish effiminacy,” which seems like a sort of queerness, though whether it’s asexuality or homosexuality Adams didn’t clarify—or maybe didn’t understand.

Adams felt that Wibird was waiting for a woman to ”conquer him and rouse his spirit.” None did. As a minister with a salary of £100 a year, Wibird could offer social and economic status. Perhaps the physical disabilties Adams described as quoted here (or the physiognomic oddities Adams also described but I didn’t quote) turned women off. But other men with greater disabilities and less social status got married, and Parson Wibird never did.

As a result, according to Paul Nagel in The Adams Women, the community duties that a minister’s wife usually performed fell to Mary Cranch. She and her husband Richard became organizers of the congregation while her younger sister Abigail spent more and more years away from Braintree with her husband John, and her baby sister Betsy married a minister in Haverhill.

By the late 1780s, Parson Wibird’s infirmities became more pronounced. People noticed that he wasn’t keeping his house or his clothing clean. In 1787 Mary Cranch wrote of “that vile house,” and said, “if it was in Boston the Select men would pull it down.”

Wibird had always repeated sermons, but now that habit got worse, and he missed dates. In the 1790s, there was a multi-year effort to hire an assistant minister to make up for Wibird’s declining abilities and ease him out.

Congregants worried about how Wibird would take that, but he dutifully attended his young colleague’s ordination in early 1800. Then people noticed he kept wearing the same shirt for six weeks. Like his house, it became infested with vermin. Finally, Mary Cranch assembled a committee of male neighbors and marched in.

They bathed Wibird, rubbed salve on his insect bites, packed some belongings, and took him, partly by force, to a neighbor’s house to live. There the septuagenarian parson read books and chatted with visitors for a couple more months before dying.

(In the twenty years since Nagel wrote The Adams Women, the Adams Family Correspondence volumes have caught up to the letters that he quoted from microfilm, but the volume covering the minister’s bath is still not available digitally.)

COMING UP: Hannah Quincy and her husband.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Bachelors in Braintree

When Anthony Wibird came to Braintree to be the minister of the north parish in 1755, the congregation offered him £80 a year and £120 as a lump sum in “settlement money” when he married.

Wibird held out instead for £100 a year with no extra help in setting up a household.

We can do the calculation and see that after six years as a bachelor Parson Wibird would be ahead.

Which is not to say the minister didn’t talk about marriage. In fact, that seems to have been a major topic in his conversations when the young lawyer John Adams slept over one Tuesday in January 1759. Adams wrote in his diary:
Met Mr. Wibirt at the Coll’s door, went with him to his Lodgings, slept with him and spent all the next day with him, reading the Reflections on Courtship and Marriage, . . .

In P[arson] Wib[ird] s Company, Something is to be learned, of human Nature, human Life, Love, Court Ship, Marriage. He has spent much of his Life, from his Youth, in Conversation with young and old Persons of both sexes, maried and unmaried, and therefore has his Mind stuffed with Remarks and stories of human Virtues, and Vices, Wisdom and folly, &c. But his Opinion, out of Poetry, Love, Court ship, Mariage, Politicks, War, Beauty, Grace, Decency &c. is not very valuable. His Soul is lost, in a dronish effeminacy. Ide rather be lost in a Whirlwind of Activity, Study, Business, great and good Designs of promoting the Honour, Grandeur, Wealth, Happiness of Mankind.

He says he has not Resolution enough to court a Woman. He wants to find one that will charm, conquer him and rouse his spirit. He is like a Turkey, retiring to Roost. . . .

Wib[ir]t exposes very freely to me his Disposition, the past and present state of his mind, his susceptibility of Impressions from Beauty &c., his Being amourous, and inclined to love, his Want of Resolution to Court, his Regard, fondness, for O., his Intimacy and dalliance with her &c. He has if I mistake not a good many half born Thoughts, of courting O.
“O.” was Adams’s code for the young lady he called “Orlinda”: Hannah Quincy (1736-1826), eldest daughter of Col. Josiah Quincy. [The house the colonel built in 1770 appears above as a stand-in for the family’s previous house.]

Adams himself was beguiled by Hannah Quincy, filling his diary with their dialogues and analyzing how she treated young gentlemen.
She lets us see a face of Ridicule, and Spying, sometimes, inadvertently, tho she looks familiarly, and pleasantly for the most part. She is apparently frank, but really reserved, seemingly pleased, and almost charmed, when she is really laughing with Contempt. Her face and Hart have no Correspondence.

Hannah checks Parson Wibirt with Irony.—It was very sawcy to disturb you, very sawcy Im sure &c.

I am very thankful for these Checks. Good Treatment makes me think I am admired, beloved, and [my] own Vanity will be indulged in me. So I dismiss my Gard and grow weak, silly, vain, conceited, ostentatious. But a Check, a frown, a sneer, a Sarcasm rouses my Spirits, makes me more careful and considerate. . . .

Mr. Wibirt has not an unsuspicious openness of face. You may see in his face, a silly Pain when he hears the Girls, a whispering, and snickering.
For his part, in the summer the parson declared, “Out of H[annah] and E[sther Quincy, her cousin] might be made a very personable Woman but not a great soul.”

Adams likewise began to resent Hannah Quincy’s behavior:
Should have said, H. you was dissatisfied with your situation and desirous of a Husband. In order to get one, you Wheedled Wibirt; you wheedled Lincoln. You gave each of them hints and Encouragement to Court you. But especially you wheedled me. For 6 months past you and I have never been alone together but you have given me broad Hints, that you desired I should court you, &c. &c.
Adams once came close to proposing to “Orlinda,” but he never did. The rival he called “Lincoln”—Dr. Bela Lincoln (1734–1773) of Hingham, brother of Benjamin Lincoln—proposed first. He and Hannah Quincy wed on 1 May 1760.

In his diary Adams assured himself that he’d made a narrow escape, that he didn’t really want to marry “Orlinda” anyhow:
[Jonathan] Sewal and Esther [Quincy] broke in upon H. and me and interrupted a Conversation that would have terminated in a Courtship, which would in spight of the Dr. have terminated in a Marriage, which Marriage might have depressed me to absolute Poverty and obscurity, to the End of my Life. But the Accident seperated us, and gave room for Lincolns addresses, which have delivered me from very dangerous shackles, and left me at Liberty, if I will but mind my studies, of making a Character and a fortune.
A couple of years later, Adams met young Abigail Smith of Weymouth, and they married in 1764. That same year, Adams’s friend Jonathan Sewall married Esther Quincy after a long engagement. Another of their circle, Robert Treat Paine, finally married Sally Cobb in 1770, two months before their first child was born.

TOMORROW: And Parson Wibird?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

A Portrait of Parson Wibird

In the letter discussed yesterday, Mary Cranch wrote about how “mrs P——l——r was brought to Bed” with a mysterious new baby. Cranch heard that news from “mr wibird.”

That was the Rev. Anthony Wibird (1729-1800), the minister for the north precinct of Braintree (later Quincy). He was an excellent gossip, entertaining and careful not to take sides in town feuds.

In fact, he was a better gossip than he was a minister, because he had a tendency to repeat his sermons over and over (though John Quincy Adams felt he did an excellent job reading psalms).

Back in 1759 John Adams tried to assess what made Wibird popular locally:
He plays with Babes and young Children that begin to prattle, and talks with their Mothers, asks them familiar, pleasant Questions, about their affection to their Children. His familiar careless way of conversing with People, Men and Women. He has Wit, and Humour.
The minister’s personal popularity was notable because he also had a neurological condition that affected his posture and gait at a time when many people looked down on such a disability. That same spring Adams wrote uncharitably:
P[arson] W[ibird] is crooked, his Head bends forwards, his shoulders are round and his Body is writhed, and bended, his head and half his Body, have a list one Way, the other half declines the other Way, and his lower Parts from his Middle, incline another Way. His features are as coarse and crooked as his Limbs. . . .

But his Air, and Gesture, is still more extraordinary. When he stands, He stands, bended, in and out before and behind and to both Right and left; he tosses his Head on one side. When he prays at home, he raises one Knee upon the Chair, and throws one Hand over the back of it. With the other he scratches his Neck, pulls the Hair of his Wigg, strokes his Beard, rubbs his Eyes, and Lips.

When he Walks, he heaves away, and swaggs on one side, and steps almost twice as far with one foot, as with the other.

When he sitts, he sometimes lolls on the arms of his Chair, sometimes on the Table. He entwines his leggs round the Leggs of his Chair, lays hold of the Iron Rod of the stand with one Hand. Sometimes throws him self, over the back of his Chair, and scratches his Hed, Vibrates the foretop of his Wigg, thrusts his Hand up under his Wigg, &c.

When he speakes, he cocks and rolls his Eyes, shakes his Head, and jerks his Body about.

Thus clumsy, careless, slovenly, and lazy is this sensible Man.

It is surprizing to me that the Delicacy of his Mind has not corrected these Indecent, as well as ungraceful Instances of Behaviour. He has Wit, and he has Fancy, and he has Judgment. He is a Genius. But he has no Industry, no Delicacy, no Politeness. Tho’ he seems to have a sort of Civility, and Cleverness in his Manners. A civil, clever Man.
Young Adams didn’t get that Wibird’s behavior and appearance weren’t a matter of intellectual or moral choices.

To be sure, Adams may have been feeling sour about the parson because that year they were rivals for the attention of Miss Hannah Quincy.

TOMORROW: Bachelors in Braintree.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

A New Women’s History Podcast to Enjoy

Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant is a new podcast hosted by Kathryn Gehred, one of the editors working on the forthcoming scholarly collection of Martha Washington’s correspondence.

Each episode digs into one letter to or from a woman in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, highlighting the historical and personal context of that communication.

I like how Gehred and her guests are comfortable with the fact that one of the appeals of historical research is being able to read other people’s private mail.

Episode 5, “An Age of Discovery,” is a fine example. This conversation delves into a letter that Mary Cranch wrote to her younger sister Abigail Adams in 1786. As Gehred and her guest Rachel Steinberg discuss, Cranch crafted her letter to lead up to the juiciest piece of local gossip.

Go listen and come back. Or at least read the letter. Because I’m going to tack more gossip onto this episode.

Mary Cranch was married to Richard Cranch, as the podcast says. He came to America in 1746 with his sister Mary and her husband, Joseph Palmer. The Palmers and Cranches joined the locally grown Quincys and Adamses in making up north Braintree’s Whig gentry.

The Palmers’ eldest son was Joseph Pearse Palmer, who married Elizabeth Hunt across the border in New Hampshire in 1772. He was twenty-two, a recent Harvard graduate; she was seventeen. After the war, the Palmer family moved into Boston, but their fortunes fell through a combination of business failures, ill health, and general economic stress. The elder Joseph Palmer ended up in a dispute over debts with John Hancock before dying in 1788.

Joseph Pearse Palmer, through professional setbacks, psychological depression, and perhaps other personal issues, spent months at a time away from his family. Elizabeth Palmer took in boarders, including a young attorney and author named Royall Tyler (shown above).

Back in 1782, Tyler had settled in Braintree, boarding with the Cranches. During that time he wooed Nabby Adams, the Adamses’ eldest child. Her parents and the Cranches were more enthused about this than she was. Nabby put Tyler off until she sailed with her mother to Europe. There she met and married William Stephens Smith, the “Coll Smith” mentioned in this letter. Tyler came away with the first surviving volume of John Adams’s diary, eventually discovered among his papers, and looked around for new conquests.

That provided the conditions for the scene Mary Cranch described at the end of this letter, which must have taken place at Elizabeth Palmer’s boarding house in Boston. In the spring of 1786, Joseph P. Palmer had come home after many months to find his wife very friendly with boarder Tyler and a few months pregnant. The baby arrived in September 1786.

“I was determin’d to see” the newborn girl, Mary Cranch told her sister, to confirm that the baby had arrived full term. She saw Joseph P. Palmer, Elizabeth Palmer, and Royall Tyler all in a bedroom together, resolutely not acknowledging anything odd about the situation.

And this is the point I can’t stress enough: Joseph P. Palmer, the dupe of Mary Cranch’s story, was her own nephew.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Electoral College as a “Problem Half-Solved”

With another Presidential coming up, it’s time for a topic I’ve addressed on this site since 2006: how the Electoral College can interfere with the consent of the governed, and how claims for its benefits fall apart on examination.

This time I’m quoting from Jonathan Wilson’s essay “The Electoral Punt” at Contingent Magazine:
The truth is, the electoral college has never worked as intended by its creators. This is partly because they did not make clear what their intention was.

For several humid summer months in 1787, the Constitutional Convention could not agree on a good way to choose a president. James Madison’s notes show they debated the issue off and on from June to September, going in circles until, near the convention’s end, they came up with a way to leave the problem half-solved.
The Framers, all elite politicians gathered in response to the Shays Rebellion and other popular unrest, didn’t want to leave the choice of President completely in the hands of the voters. They also didn’t want to make the President wholly dependent on the national legislature. And people in control of state governments still wanted sway in the new national system. The result was a process that gave all three sources of political authority a potential role.
Writing later, Alexander Hamilton—who originally wanted the president to serve for life like an elected king—published a rationale for this. In number 68 of The Federalist, Hamilton claimed the framers had come up with a clever way to balance different principles.

First, Hamilton wrote, “the people of America” obviously should get a direct say in choosing the president. But asking all the citizens across the nation to debate together would result in “tumult and disorder,” so the actual decision was entrusted to smaller groups of people elected by the people in each state. If no clear winner emerged from that group’s deliberation, then the House of Representatives would make sure the final choice had nationwide public support.

Many Americans have since treated Hamilton’s claim as a description of how the electoral college was originally intended to work. Yet notice that the electoral college has never—not once—worked that way. Even in the first presidential elections, contrary to Hamilton’s description (and what some framers apparently hoped), citizens in many states were excluded from participating.
Note that there’s nothing in Hamilton’s argument about reserving extra power for some states or some portions of the population, as some modern apologists for the Electoral College claim the Framers had in mind.

In fact, the Framers’ own choices in the early republic show how thin those claims are. If, for instance, the Framers supposedly didn’t want to leave the Presidency in the hands of the largest states, why were all the Presidents elected in the first twenty years of the republic from Virginia and Massachusetts, the two largest states? (In the 1810 census, New York and Pennsylvania overtook them in population. By then, the Twelfth Amendment altered the Electoral College from its original design.)

Another modern claim is that the Framers wanted to give extra power to rural areas. But those men had no idea how the Industrial Revolution would change America. Rural areas overwhelmingly dominated their society. The most “urbanized” state, Rhode Island, had two “cities,” Newport and Providence, with less than 7,000 people apiece; more than 80% of the state population lived in farming communities.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Facts about Alexander Hamilton and Slavery

The Schuyler Mansion historic site, a New York state park, just published a report by interpreter Jessie Serfilippi titled “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver” (P.D.F. download).

As Serfilippi notes at the beginning, Alexander Hamilton has long been described as an opponent of slavery. Lately authors have said that attitude was motivated by what he saw as a boy growing up in the Caribbean. This portrayal became a big part of American popular culture through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton.

The report shows that claim has old roots:
Starting with the first published biography of Hamilton, written by his son, John Church Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton has been almost exclusively portrayed as an abolitionist. In volume II of the biography he wrote about his father, John C. Hamilton writes “[Alexander Hamilton] never owned a slave, but on the contrary, having heard that a domestic whom he had hired was about to be sold by her master, he immediately purchased her freedom.” No evidence of such a sale has been found.
In fact, as Serfilippi documents in detail, Hamilton owned multiple “servants” in his New York mansion:
In 1804, it is possible there were four servants at The Grange. The first would be the woman Hamilton purchased for Eliza in 1781, the woman and boy, and the maid for Angelica [Church]. It is known that a man or boy named Dick died, meaning it is more likely that there were three enslaved servants in 1804. . . . Who they were may never be known, but the presence of “servants” on the inventory of Hamilton’s estate is proof enslaved servants were present at The Grange when Alexander Hamilton died in 1804.
The report notes that the 1810 U.S. Census found no one enslaved in the widow Eliza Hamilton’s household, so “slavery in the Hamilton family ended with Alexander Hamilton’s death.” Nonetheless, John Church Hamilton was eleven years old when his father died and surely recalled the household before that year. His 1840s biography made his father more politically palatable for the ante-bellum North.

Serfilippi also collects the evidence of Alexander Hamilton buying people for his family and friends. As an attorney, he sometimes argued for people’s freedom and may have done work for the Manumission Society, but in other cases he represented slaveholders. His public political writing on slavery issues appears to have tacked with his party’s course.

When we think about it, none of that should be a big surprise given Hamilton’s identification with his society’s elite, his anti-democratic conservatism, and his Schuyler in-laws’ slaveholding. But we’ve had the opposite message for over a century now. It’s good to see the hard evidence.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

“Those Letters were not the writings he meant”

When William Story told Thomas Hutchinson in the summer of 1772 that he’d seen some problematic “writings” by the governor, he probably didn’t couch that in the form of a threat.

Rather, Story likely used the language of the patronage system, speaking about loyalty and reciprocal favors as he sought a royal appointment.

But Hutchinson certainly took Story’s words as a threat. In October 1773 he wrote to a correspondent in Britain:
One Story who had been in London…sollicited me for a place that was vacant and upon my declining it he let me know by a letter that he hoped he should not be obliged to make publick the substance & purport of some writings of mine he had seen in London & which I should not like to have known.
We have a third-hand source on the two men’s interaction from the Rev. Ezra Stiles of Newport. On 10 June 1773 the minister recorded a conversation he’d just had with Judge Peter Oliver (shown here), close to Hutchinson by both politics and family. Stiles didn’t get Story’s name correct, and he was a sucker for any good story that confirmed his beliefs, so we can’t rely on everything he wrote down. But this is how he understood the situation:
Mr. Storer of Boston suffered in the Stamp Act 1765 and went home for Redress. The Ministry put him off, till he should obtain Governor Hutchinson’s Recommendation, and indeed it was finally referred to the Governor to provide for him some provincial office. It has not been done.

Mr. Storer to have a Rod over &c. procured 18 Letters of Lt. Gov. [Andrew] Oliver and half a dozen of Governor Hutch. to one of the Secretaries of some of the Ministerial Boards in London, as a specimen of their Correspondence for 15 years past urging and recommending the present arbitrary Government over the Colonies. The Governors Hutchinson and Oliver were last year given to understand that Mr. Storer had them in his power by means of a Collection of these Letters, and that the only Condition of not exposing them was his being provided for. The matter was neglected.

Judge Oliver now here once took occasion to ask the Governor whether there was any Danger &c. when the Gov. said he was under no Apprehensions. The Judge says, he himself apprehended both for Governor Hutchinson and especially for his Brother the Lieutenant Governor who was greatly exasperated in the Time of the Stamp Act.—
Stiles wrote that down as the Massachusetts house was tussling with the governor over the letters but hadn’t yet made them public. Stiles had nonetheless heard correctly that that collection contained a letter from “Mr. [George] Rome of Newport Rh. Isld.”

I wrote about how the Massachusetts Whigs dealt with those documents starting here. Later that June, the house did publish the papers it had received. The collection included six letters from Hutchinson, four from Andrew Oliver, and a handful from other men in their circle. All that correspondence had gone to Thomas Whately, a Member of Parliament who died in June 1772, and then been copied and distributed as part of a push to change Massachusetts’s constitution in 1770.

When Gov. Hutchinson heard about these letters, he naturally thought back to his interaction with William Story the year before. At first he believed the man had brought those letters back from London. But on reflection, the governor realized, the timing didn’t work, in two ways:
  • First, people in London suspected that the letters had been purloined from Whately’s brother, executor of his estate. Since Whately died a few weeks after Story set sail for Boston, Story couldn’t have carried out such a theft.
  • Second, Hutchinson knew that Story had returned a full year before the letters were published. “I cant trace them in this country farther back than the last Spring,” the governor wrote of those documents. He believed there was no way the Boston Whigs could have sat on that evidence for so long without making a fuss, and in that he was definitely correct.
Furthermore, Story himself started to insist that as for “the Letters which were before the Assembly that he never saw them and they were not brot by him to N. E.” At the end of October Hutchinson wrote to Whatley’s brother:
It has been reported that the original letters which had been wrote by the Lt. Gov. & by me to your late worthy brother were bro’t over here by one Mr. Story. I am desired by the Lt. Gov. to acquaint you that altho Mr. Story gave out that he had seen in London writings of mine yet he has affirmd to me those Letters were not the writings he meant & that he knew nothing of the manner in which they came here.
In sum, Story confirmed that he’d tried to pressure Gov. Hutchinson with the content of some embarrassing letters, but he insisted that he meant some other embarrassing letters.

And the details Stiles wrote down support that. The minister understood Story to have procured six letters from Gov. Hutchinson and eighteen from Lt. Gov. Oliver to “one of the Secretaries of some of the Ministerial Boards.” The documents that came over in the spring of 1773 included only four from Oliver, and Whately hadn’t been a board secretary since 1765. That suggests there were at least two sets of supposedly scandalous letters from Hutchinson and Oliver circulating in London in the early 1770s.

It also looks to me like Story might never have brought back documents at all, just knowledge of documents. Only Stiles wrote that Story had “procured” letters; Hutchinson didn’t say that. The Boston Whigs made no additional disclosures from Hutchinson and Oliver’s correspondence before the war began. Maybe what Story had seen in London seemed minor compared to what the house revealed in June 1773. Maybe enough damage had been done. 

Or maybe Story hadn’t seen any letters at all. He might have only heard about the letters to Whately while he was seeking favors in London, came back to Boston, and added incorrect details while he played a weak hand the best he could. 

[My thanks to John W. Tyler, editor of the Hutchinson letters for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, for some peeks at the governor’s correspondence in late 1773 as he tried to figure out what had happened.]