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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Sunday, March 07, 2021

“Emptied and threw the Tea into the Water”

On Sunday, 6 Mar 1774, as described yesterday, the brig Fortune carried 28 1/2 chests of tea into Boston harbor, along with “Gun-Powder, Duck and Hemp.”

“The next day,” Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wrote, “the vessel was haled to the wharffe, where the vessels lay which had the East India Company’s tea.” And we know what had happened to that tea the preceding December.

That same Monday, the Boston Gazette ran this calm and measured item:

Messi’rs Edes & Gill, PUBLISH THIS!

It is said that Capt. [Benjamin] Gorham who is just arrived from London, has brought Forty Chests of that baneful, detested, dutied Article TEA, shipped by the East-India Company, their Brokers or Employers, and consigned to HENRY LLOYD, Esq; of this Town, Merchant.

Justice to ourselves and to AMERICA—Justice even to the other Consignees—A Regard to our own Reputation and Honor—Every Obligation binds us most SOLEMNLY, at once to DETERMINE ABSOLUTELY to oppose its Landing—Experience has fully convinced us that the Governor and the Custom-House Officers concern’d will lay INSUPERABLE Bars in the Way of sending it back to London. The Consent of the Consignee to have it return’d would be to no Purpose, if he be waited upon to request it.

The SACHEMS must have a Talk upon this Matter—Upon THEM we depend to extricate us out of this fresh Difficulty; and to THEIR Decisions all the GOOD People will say, AMEN!
That dispatch got some factual details wrong—namely, the number of tea chests, who had sent them, and who was to receive them.

But the Whig newspaper was accurate in predicting the royal authorities would make no compromises to allow the tea to be returned to Britain.

The owners of the FortuneThomas Walley, Peter Boyer, and William Thompson—laid out what they were doing that Monday in the next Boston News-Letter. With Lloyd, who had been sent sixteen tea chests; Henry Bromfield, who owned much of the ship’s cargo; and Gorham they “applied to the Collector and Comptroller of the Customs, and unitedly requested a Qualification for the Vessel to return with the Tea.” Because otherwise, they declared, there was “Danger of this Tea’s being destroyed.”

The Customs officers replied:
it was absolutely contrary to their Duty, and therefore could not give any Papers to qualify the Vessel to go back; and that although no Report [legal notice of the arrival] had been then made, yet she could not go away without being liable to be seized, and that even if they should give a Clearance, she would inevitably be stopped by the Officers of the King’s Ships, who were also Custom-House Officers . . . moreover that she could not be reported that Day after two o’Clock, and if not reported within 24 Hours the Capt. as liable to a Penalty of £100 Sterling.
Seeing where his interest lay, Capt. Gorham quickly reported the ship’s arrival and “took out a Permit to unlade the Gun-Powder.” Everyone agreed that was a good idea.

As for further steps, Boston town clerk William Cooper wrote to the Brookline committee of correspondence, seeking to rebuild the united front that had formed the preceding December:
We think it our duty to acquaint you that a Brigantine Benjamin Gorham Master is just arrived from London with a quantity of Tea on board liable to a duty: We ask the favor of your Company at the Selectmens Chamber in Boston toMorrow afternoon 3. OClock in order for a joint consultation, relative to this matter——
As it turned out, that meeting became moot.

Evening fell. Illuminated pictures of the Boston Massacre shone out from the windows of Mary Clapham’s Royal Exchange Tavern on King Street. (That display had been postponed from the 5th because that fell on the eve of the Sabbath.) As I recounted back here, in 1774 there was a new image attacking Gov. Hutchinson and Chief Justice Peter Oliver.

Bostonians had spent weeks talking about what to do with the first three shiploads of tea. They had no patience left for the Fortune. In the words of a petition from shippers in London:
about Eight o’Clock in the Evening…a great Number of Persons all of whom were unknown to the Captain and many of them disguised and dressed and talking like Indians armed with Axes and Hatchets with Force and violence entered on Board the said Vessel and broke open the Hatches and proceeded to rummage the Hold and hoisted out Twenty eight Chests of Tea…upon the Deck of the said Vessel and there with Hatchets axes and Clubs broke open the said Chests and emptied and threw the Tea into the Water whereby the same was wholly lost and destroyed.
That was the lesser-known second Boston Tea Party on the night of 7 Mar 1774.

COMING UP: Discussing the “Indians.”

Saturday, March 06, 2021

“Chests of Bohea tea consigned to several persons”

At three o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, 6 Mar 1774, Bostonians were jolted by the arrival of the brig Fortune.

More specifically, people were jolted by the news that that ship was carrying chests of tea. This was about ten weeks after the Boston Tea Party and about five weeks after local shopkeepers had agreed not to sell any tea.

Thomas Newell wrote in his diary for that day:
Captain Benjamin Gorham, nine weeks from London, brought 28 1/2 chests of Bohea tea consigned to several persons here.
Who were those “several persons”? Sixteen chests—more than half of the total—were consigned to Henry Lloyd (1709-1795), a wealthy Anglican merchant with relatives locally and on Long Island in New York. Those chests had been shipped to him by the London partnership of Monkhouse Davison and Abraham Newman, with insurance to the amount of £480 backed up five other London businessmen.

A letter to the Boston News-Letter identified “a principal Freighter in said Vessel” as “Mr. Bromfield”—the merchant Henry Bromfield (1727-1820). The Fortune carried a variety of cargo, so it’s possible Bromfield had no tea assigned to him, but it’s also possible he was supposed to receive up to 12 1/2 chests.

Three other businessmen also had a big financial interest in the situation: the owners of the Fortune, who were Thomas Walley, Peter Boyer, and William Thompson.

Thompson is hard to trace, not least because his name was so common. Walley and Boyer, on the other hand, were stalwart members of Boston’s mercantile and civic community. Walley had held town offices since 1763 while Boyer had served on town committees. Both those men dined with Boston’s Sons of Liberty in August 1769. They had signed most of the petitions and non-importation agreements of the past ten years.

What’s more, Boyer was one of the fifteen men whose names Paul Revere had engraved on the so-called “Sons of Liberty Bowl.” In 1770 the Boston town meeting had chosen Boyer for a committee “to draw up an Agreement for the Shopkeepers that have or do deal in Tea, not to dispose of any more of that Article untill the Revenue Acts are repealed.”

So how did those men’s ship end up carrying tea? That’s what they’d like to know, they said. In a 9 March letter to Richard Draper, printer of the Boston News-Letter, Walley, Boyer, and Thompson declared that back in September they had sent the Fortune to London “to have her sold.” They had told Capt. Gorham that if he couldn’t obtain their low asking price, he should bring back “a Quantity of Hemp on the Owners Account.”

As for tea, those three merchants said, they had been explicit in their instructions:
P.S. We are informed the India Company intend to ship a Quantity of Tea to this Place in private Ships,—if our brig should come back on Freight, we absolutely refuse to take on board any Tea for that Company, let the Offer be never so advantageous, or our Loss in the Sale of the Vessel never so great.
Yet the Fortune had returned with tea. Not shipped directly by the East India Company to its North American agents, but tea nonetheless. What‘s more, “a certain William Bowes, Brazier on Dock-Square,” was telling people that the ship’s owners had “imported a Quantity of Tea in that Vessel upon their own Account.” That they firmly denied.

But still, what could be done with the 28 1/2 chests of tea aboard the Fortune? For ten weeks people all over eastern Massachusetts had worked to keep all British tea out of the colony, even chests washed overboard in a shipwreck.

The situation was a powder keg—almost literally, since the Fortune was also carrying gunpowder.

TOMORROW: Attempts at official action.

Friday, March 05, 2021

“My sincere attachment to the interest of my country”

On the morning of 3 Mar 1774, Andrew Oliver, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, died. He had previously held the offices of provincial secretary and stamp agent, though of course he never got to do any work in that last capacity.

John Adams viewed Oliver as one of ”the original Conspirators against the Public Liberty,” for monopolizing offices with his brother Peter and their relative by marriage Thomas Hutchinson; for reporting on the Council’s sensitive discussion after the Massacre; and for urging changes to the colonial constitution in the “Hutchinson Letters.”

Adams and colleagues quickly started speculating about what Oliver’s death might mean. At a dinner party the consensus was “Peter Oliver will be made Lieutenant Governor, Hutchinson will go home, and probably be continued Governor but reside in England, and Peter Oliver will reside here and rule the Province.” (That didn’t happen.)

The more immediate worry for the Boston Whigs was the 1774 Massacre oration. Past orators had been Dr. Thomas Young, James Lovell, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Dr. Benjamin Church, all known for their newspaper essays and/or poetry. But for this year the oration committee had decided the speaker would be John Hancock.

Though Hancock had been a selectman, General Court representative, and militia officer for several years, he wasn’t known for his public eloquence. Nor his rhetorical skills. Nor his hale and reliable health. But Hancock was prominent and popular, educated and young. If he wanted to deliver the oration, his colleagues couldn’t say no.

Evidence suggests that the Whigs clustered around Hancock to ensure his speech was up to par. In his autobiography John Adams recalled, “Mr. Samuel Adams told me that Dr. Church and Dr. Warren had composed Mr. Hancocks oration…, more than two thirds of it at least.” Other sources credited Samuel Adams himself and the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, Hancock’s eloquent minister.

On Saturday the 5th, Boston men gathered at Faneuil Hall for their first official town meeting since the previous November. They quickly went through the ritual of voting to have an oration, inviting Hancock to deliver it, and adjourning to the Old South Meeting-House, the largest enclosed space in town. The crowd gathered. The orator entered. The Whigs held their breaths.

Hancock’s speech began with remarks about his speaking abilities not being up to the occasion, traditional rhetoric but in this case perhaps right on the nose:
The attentive gravity; the venerable appearance of this crowded audience; the dignity which I behold in the countenances of so many in this great assembly; the solemnity of the occasion upon which we have met together, joined to a consideration of the part I am to take in the important business of this day, fill me with an awe hitherto unknown, and heighten the sense which I have ever had of my unworthiness to fill this sacred desk. But, allured by the call of some of my respected fellow-citizens, with whose request it is always my greatest pleasure to comply, I almost forgot my want of ability to perform what they required.

In this situation I find my only support in assuring myself that a generous people will not severely censure what they know was well intended, though its want of merit should prevent their being able to applaud it. And I pray that my sincere attachment to the interest of my country, and the hearty detestation of every design formed against her liberties, may be admitted as some apology for my appearance in this place.
Soon he started to spout the fiery rhetoric about the killings four years earlier:
Tell me, ye bloody butchers! ye villains high and low! ye wretches who contrived, as well as you who executed the inhuman deed! do you not feel the goads and stings of conscious guilt pierce through your savage bosoms? Though some of you may think yourselves exalted to a height that bids defiance to human justice, and others shroud yourselves beneath the mask of hypocrisy, and build your hopes of safety on the low arts of cunning, chicanery, and falsehood, yet do you not sometimes feel the gnawings of that worm which never dies? Do not the injured shades of Maverick, Gray, Caldwell, Attucks, and Carr attend you in your solitary walks, arrest you even in the midst of your debaucheries, and fill even your dreams with terror?
It’s noteworthy that that is the only passage in all the orations preserved between 1771 and 1783 to name all the people who died in the Massacre. I suspect that reflected Hancock’s instinct for democratic politics—which was actually sharper than most of his colleagues’.

Son and grandson of ministers, Hancock ultimately turned to exhorting his audience to look to their own moral virtue. He got particular points for warning the crowd against following the allure of rich, dishonest men:
Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed, by the soft arts of luxury and effeminacy, into the pit digged for your destruction. Despise the glare of wealth. That people who pay greater respect to a wealthy villain than to an honest, upright man in poverty, almost deserve to be enslaved; they plainly show that wealth, however it may be acquired, is, in their esteem, to be preferred to virtue.

But I thank God that America abounds in men who are superior to all temptation, whom nothing can divert from a steady pursuit of the interest of their country, who are at once its ornament and safeguard.
Again, I suspect that those words, whoever wrote them, reflected Hancock’s own convictions. He inherited a fortune and spent it down on politics, dying a popular but less wealthy man.

As for how people responded to John Hancock’s 1774 oration, I wrote about that last year.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Ripples from the Boston Tea Party in 1774

Without the Boston Massacre reenactment looming over my schedule this year, I’ll devote the next few days to the events of early March 1774.

That was less than three months after the Boston Tea Party, and the ripples from that big splash in the harbor were still spreading.

Most Bostonians were excited about how the event had turned out. The local Sons of Liberty had kept the tea tax from being collected, but they hadn’t hurt any other property or any people. Other towns and ports along the American coast sent messages of support.

On 20 January an agreement among Boston merchants and shopkeepers to stop selling all tea, regardless of tax status, took effect. The Whigs hauled three barrels of tea to King Street and burned them in front of the customs house.

To be sure, there was still some tea circulating in the colony. A fourth tea ship, the William, had wrecked on Cape Cod, and some chests had been salvaged from the wreck. Local Whig crowds were chasing those down.

Meanwhile, the London government was digesting reports of disorder in Boston the previous fall—even before the tea destruction. Ministers considered the big public meetings and the attack on Richard Clarke’s family warehouse described here. On 5 February, Secretary of State Dartmouth sent Attorney-General Edward Thurlow (1731-1806, shown above) evidence about those events.

Six days later, Thurlow and Solicitor-General Alexander Wedderburn replied that several Bostonians had likely committed high treason. They specifically noted:
The conduct of Mr. [William] Molynieux, and…[William] Denny, [Dr. Joseph] Warren, [Dr. Benjamin] Church, and Jonathan [Williams?] who in the characters of a committee went to the length of attacking Clarke, are chargeable with the crime of High Treason; and if it can be established in evidence, that they were so employed by the select men of Boston, Town Clerk, and members of the House of Representatives, these also are guilty of the same offence.
The law officers also cited Samuel Adams and Dr. Thomas Young for their work on the committee of correspondence and John Hancock for participating in the armed patrols that kept the tea from being landed. Of course, securing prosecutions of any of those men was a bigger challenge.

Also in early February, King George III interviewed Gen. Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the army in North America. Gage stated “his readiness, though so lately come from America, to return at a day’s notice if the conduct of the Colonies should induce the directing coercive measures.” He also opined that those measures wouldn’t need any more troops.

And all the while, a ship called the Fortune was plying the Atlantic toward Boston, carrying more tea.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

The Boston Massacre’s Political Resonance

The Boston Massacre was a political event, of course.

It arose from conflicts between sources of authority—the imperial government and the town government, the British army and the local community, two groups of people feeling threatened and in the right.

In the immediate aftermath, the Whigs memorialized that event as part of that larger political campaign. Then in 1783, when independence had been won and the U.S. of A. was no longer part of internal British politics, Boston stopped commissioning orations every March.

The Massacre gained new political meaning in the mid-1800s as William Cooper Nell and other abolitionists used the figure of Crispus Attucks to argue that Americans of African descent had long been central to the nation and deserved equal rights.

As Mitch Kachun traces in First Martyr of Liberty, Attucks became an emblem of African-American patriotism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When Boston erected a monument to the Massacre victims on the Common in 1889, black civil rights campaigners had been among its strongest proponents, and it was informally called “the Crispus Attucks monument.” (Not to be left out, Irish-Americans pointed to Patrick Carr and German-Americans to Christopher Seider as important martyrs.)

Other African-American heroes and models became prominent in the twentieth century, and Attucks’s name lost some of its resonance. In Boston, Melnea Cass revived the tradition of Crispus Attucks Day, shown in this photograph from 1970. His inspiration and her legacy will be discussed at Revolutionary Spaces’s ”Grief, Remembrance, Justice” online panel discussion on 5 March at 5:00 P.M.

Two months after that 1970 anniversary, National Guardsmen shot and killed four student protesters at Kent State University. Within days, Eric Hinderarker reports in Boston’s Massacre, someone published the poster shown above, paralleling the shooting on King Street and the shooting in Ohio. At almost the same time, Mississippi police officers killed two more students at Jackson State University.

Blacks were not the only Americans seeing their cause reflected in the Massacre of 1770. In Boston, the Bicentennial coincided with a federal court instituting busing to integrate schools. One of the more militant white groups resisting that order, R.O.A.R., attended the 1775 Massacre reenactment in force. When the muskets fired, as J. Anthony Lukas recounted here, scores of those protesters fell down, too—assuming the role of victims of an oppressive government.

The 1999 reenactment was the first I attended in a long time. It came a month after New York detectives had killed an African immigrant named Amadou Diallo, shooting 41 rounds at the unarmed man sitting on his front stoop. The current issue of the New Yorker, dated 8 March, showed a white policeman at a fairground shooting booth with a sign that read “41 Shots 10¢.” At the reenactment, I recall hearing a couple of spectators shout, “Forty-one shots for a dime!”

Last May after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on Boston Common, Boston police forcefully went after straggling groups of protesters, resulting in arrests, looting, and vandalism. There was slight damage to some historic sites and statuary. In subsequent days the governor called out the state militia, and Jake Sconyers caught a resonant image of a military vehicle parked in front of the Old State House on a spot where some of the crowd had stood on 5 March 1770.

As long as we have conflicting sources of authority, as long as groups feel threatened, rightly or wrongly—in other words, for the foreseeable future—the Massacre will continue to have contemporary political resonance.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The New Massachusetts Spy

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Massachusetts Spy had gone a full month without a new issue.

Zechariah Fowle and Isaiah Thomas had launched that newspaper in the summer of 1770 with ambitious goals. As described back here, it was smaller than the established Boston papers but promised to make up for that by appearing three times a week.

By October, Fowle had dropped out of the enterprise, and the Spy was appearing only twice a week. Thomas was still trying to appeal to more working-class readers than his competitors.

On 2 Feb 1771, Thomas published his last Saturday issue. And the last issue on any day for more than a month. He had already started to solicit subscriptions for a paper with a different design.

On 7 March, Thomas brought the Massachusetts Spy back, now as a weekly newspaper with four pages and four columns per page. In other words, printed in much the same format and at the same schedule as every other Boston newspaper.

The main distinction was that Thomas’s Spy came out on Thursdays, a day that Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter had had to itself for many years. The three other surviving newspapers, including Edes and Gill’s fervently Whig Boston Gazette, were published on Mondays.

Thomas later wrote about how the change in publication affected his business:
The majority of the customers for the former Spy preferred the way in which it had been published, and withdrew their subscriptions. On the appearance of this, the subscribers did not amount to two hundred; but after the first week they encreased daily, and in the course of two years the subscription list was larger than that of any other newspaper printed in Newengland.
I frankly don’t believe that last claim, but there’s no way to know for sure.

As for the newspaper’s editorial line, Thomas claimed political neutrality, printing the front page with the motto: “A Weekly, Political and Commercial PAPER; open to ALL Parties, but influenced by None.” He later wrote:
A number of gentlemen supplied this paper with political essays, which for the time were more particularly calculated for that class of citizens, who had composed the great majority of its readers. For a few weeks, some communications were furnished by those who were in favor of the royal prerogative, but they were exceeded by the writers on the other side; and the authors and subscribers, among the tories, denounced and quitted the Spy. The publisher then devoted it to the cause of his country, supported by the whigs, under whose banners he had enlisted.
In fact, Thomas’s own Whig leaning was in display from that first weekly issue. The first item was a column with thick black borders and a skull ornament mourning “Preston’s Massacre” one year before. With the second issue Thomas added a woodcut of “the goddess of Liberty sitting near a pedestal” to the left of the newspaper’s name. The Massachusetts Spy was another paper firmly behind the liberty party.

(One can buy a poster of the front page of the 7 Mar 1771 issue of the Massachusetts Spy here.)

Monday, March 01, 2021

Events on “Colonial North America” at Harvard

The Harvard University Library has a number of events lined up to spread news of its Colonial North America project.

For nearly a decade, the library has been digitizing manuscripts and archival materials from across the system. Thousands of items can now be studied online.

Thursday, 4 March, 3:00 P.M.
Unveiling the Virtual Exhibit: Portals to the Past, Selections from Colonial North America at Harvard Library
Join gallery co-curator Ross Mulcare on an exclusive first look and behind-the-scenes tour of the “new enhanced exhibition within the 360 virtual Widener Library platform.” In registering here, one can ask about particular people, places, or themes in early America, and they may go onto the list of topics to be discussed.

Thursday, 15 March, 3:00 P.M.
A Closer Look at Colonial North America Across Harvard Library
Curatorial experts from the Harvard libraries will deliver “lightning talks,” sharing a favorite early American item from their collection, explaining the context and importance for research of these materials. Again, registering for this session offers the chance to ask about particular topics that the curators could address.

In early April, the “Colonial North America Symposium: Culminating a Multi-Year Digital Project at Harvard Library” will have scholarly discussions spread over three days.

Tuesday, 6 April, 11:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M.
Keynote Address, “Digital Access and Making Early America Vast,” by Karin Wulf, Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and Professor of History at William & Mary College

Wednesday, 7 April, 11:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M.
Panel, “Using Digitized Manuscript Collections in New Contexts”

Thursday, 8 April, 11:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M.
Panel, ”Artificial Intelligence and Access to Manuscript Materials”

One can sign up for any or all three sessions here.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Long Search for Hercules Posey

At Zagat, the chef and culinary historian Ramin Ganeshram shared the story of her research into Hercules Posey, head cook at Mount Vernon and the Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia until he freed himself from slavery.

In this article, Ganeshram describes the roots of her quest in childhood. Like me, during the Bicentennial she and her family toured the seat of the Continental Congress and other Revolutionary sites, but with a different perspective:

In 1976, I visited Philadelphia and Washington’s Mount Vernon to celebrate the American Bicentennial with my Trinidadian father. As young as I was, I could sense my father was moved as we stood on a long line to see the Liberty Bell. We didn’t know it, but as we waited, we stood on the buried remains of the President’s House where Hercules had lived.

No one talked about the enslaved Africans in the city of independence. It would be decades before the President’s House site was excavated as an open-air exhibit honoring them. It was a week later while visiting George Washington’s Virginia home that I began to viscerally sense this omission, although I was too young to name it. Instead, I sensed it in how my father’s mood changed, how he asked the tour guides about the enslaved people of the house and the field, and how his questions were deflected with twittering Southern charm. Later he brooded a long time at the slave quarters and the kitchen—Hercules’ kitchen. When I asked what was wrong, he just shook his head darkly. For years after, even the mention of Mount Vernon gave me a shifting sense of unease.
Later learning about Posey, Ganeshram started gathering more facts about him. This project took her through a picture book, cancelled at the last moment; a historical novel; experts’ realization that the painting said for decades to be Posey’s portrait was in fact nothing of the kind; and finally her discovery of records of the man in nineteenth-century New York. (In 2019 I recounted her findings and added a data point.)

Ganeshram ends her essay at another location linked to Posey:
When he died of tuberculosis on May 15, 1812, at age 65, Hercules was buried at the 2nd African Burial Ground in Chrystie Street. The cemetery was overflowing its boundaries by the time of Hercules’ death. He, along with others, was likely buried under what is now pavement and roadway. When the cemetery was disinterred in the 19th century and moved to Cypress Hills in Brooklyn, some were left behind. I believe Hercules was among them.

When I first visited the site in 2019, I looked around Chrystie Street with fresh eyes, seeking clues about Hercules. Seeing none, I spoke to him in my mind as I often do, for we have come a long way together. I brooded as I walked. If only I had a sign that I was on the right track. Stopping for a light at a cross-street, I looked at the curb ahead of me and saw a small white van with Hercules Dry Cleaning emblazoned on its side. I pressed on.

The former burial ground is now a private lot with an apartment building. At the southern end of Chrystie street hulks the Manhattan Bridge. Across the street is a public park where I have been encouraging New York City’s parks department to place a commemorative plaque for the Burial Ground, the once-thriving Free Black community, and for Hercules Posey—who was America’s first celebrity chef and so much more.
This post from the New York Cemetery Project has maps showing where the city’s Second African Burying Ground lay.


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Studying America’s Earliest Jewish Communities

The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society is offering an online course on “Freedoms and Challenges: America’s Earliest Jewish Communities, 1650–1840” starting on 2 March.

The course description says:
American Jewish history begins over 100 years before the United States was founded, and the experiences of the earliest Jews lay out the foundational themes of America itself. In this four-part course we will explore the writings, architecture, ideas, and daily lives of American’s earliest Jewish individuals and communities—lives that were vigorous, variegated, and experimental.

Issues they faced still concern us today: desires of individuals vs. communities; the relationships of different communities to one another; how experiences differ by generation, geography, and gender; and the overall strategies, choices, and responses we make in creating and securing our identities in a nation that does not fully define them for us.
The teacher is Ellen Smith, Professor Emerita at Brandeis University. In September 2020 she retired as Director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, having taught in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Heller School for Social Management. Trained as a professional historian and a museum curator, Smith has produced over three dozen books, articles, and exhibitions on American Jewish history. She is the co-author and editor, with Jonathan D. Sarna, of The Jews of Boston and was the chief consultant to the Emmy award-winning WGBH television show of the same name. Prof. Smith is a past Curator of the American Jewish Historical Society, and was the Chief Curator in the planning stage of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

There are four classes scheduled, all at 4:00 to 5:30 P.M. on Tuesdays:
  • 2 March: Accidents and Opportunities
  • 9 March: Promise or Peril?
  • 16 March: American and Jewish Revolutions
  • 23 March: Beyond the Northeast
Participants will continue to have access to course materials until 30 June. The cost for this class is $85. People can register here.

The photo above shows the gravestone of Judah Monis. Its first part reads:
Here lies buried the remains of RABBI
JUDAH MONIS, MA, late HEBREW
instructer at HARVARD College in
Cambridge in which office he continued 40
years. He was by Birth and Religion a Jew but
embrac’d the Christian faith & was publickly
baptiz’d at Cambridge, AD 1722 and
departed this life April 25, 1764 Aged
81 years 2 months and 21 days.
After that are quotations from five Bible verses, three from the Hebrew Bible and two from the New Testament.

Monis was the most prominent man of Jewish ancestry in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, especially since there was practically no competition. Unlike Newport, Rhode Island, colonial Boston didn’t have enough Jewish people to form a community.

Monis was born in Italy in a family that had converted to Christianity under pressure, but he studied at Jewish academies there and in the Netherlands. He arrived in New York in 1715. Five years later, Monis came to Harvard College, earning an M.A. degree by writing a Hebrew grammar. The college asked him to teach Hebrew but required that he adopt Congregationalism. Monis’s conversion was controversial for both Jews and Christians in America, and he never became a professor, only an instructor connected to the college. Nonetheless, he was respected as the expert on his topic for decades. In his final years Monis lived with relatives in Northboro, where he was buried.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Investigating Slaves at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House

Last month the Cambridge Historical Society issued a report on the history of slavery at its headquarters, called the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House.

In particular, the society wanted to collect information about any enslaved people living in that farmhouse along the street between Cambridge and Watertown.

Among the “Tory Row” mansions, the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House is the oldest, built in 1684 and then remodeled inelegantly to look more like its newer Georgian neighbors. It in fact predates the arrival of the Vassalls family, who brought Caribbean slave-labor wealth to the neighborhood.

The elder John Vassall (1713-1747) married Elizabeth Phips (1716-1739), a daughter of Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips. Another daughter, Rebecca Phips, married Joseph Lee in 1755. The society’s report continues the story:
Three years after the marriage the couple bought the house to live among several of her socially prominent and wealthy relatives who resided on [what is now] Brattle Street.

Lee was thought to be a gentleman, respected by his peers, honorable, honest, and a good friend. He was a founder of the Loyalist Christ Church, Cambridge, gave parties for his neighbors and was an avid gardener on his extensive farm with its many outbuildings. About his outlook on slavery we have a glimpse from a letter a friend wrote to him from St. Johns, probably from a slave-worked plantation: “I remember an opinion you once sported – that Negros seems to be intended for Slaves, from their rank in the Scale of being – I combatted that Opinion then, but I adopt it now. I believe the Maker of all never intended Indians, Negroes or Monkeys, for Civilization.”

Lee was chosen…a special justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1764, a regular justice in 1769 and rose to be a special justice of the Superior Court of Judicature. He was elected to the General Court, or legislature, in 1764.

In 1774 Lee accepted a royal appointment to the much-hated Mandamus Council, a measure taken as one of the Intolerable Acts, which replaced a legislative and executive body elected by Massachusetts Bay Colony citizens. In response, a mob of Cambridge citizens rose against Lee and intended to invade his house, but relented after being offered liquor at a neighbor’s house if they did not. [This was the “Powder Alarm.”] Lee resigned from the Mandamus Council and fled to British-controlled Boston. Perhaps due to his resigning from the Mandamus Council, his house was neither seized nor occupied by the Cambridge Committee of Correspondence, as were others of the neighborhood’s Loyalists. When the British retreated from Cambridge in 1776, Lee returned to his Brattle Street house with its pleasant gardens and view of the Charles River.

Upon Judge Lee’s death in 1802, he left an annuity to Caesar, an enslaved man whom he inherited from his father. Lee also appears to have owned a man named Mark Lee, also known as Mark Lewis, who may have been freed when slavery was abolished in 1783. Mark married Juno and was able to regularly acquire, sell, and rent land. He purchased a house and farmed one-quarter of an acre near Sparks Street in 1786 on the top of the hill that distinguishes the street. Making three more land purchases by 1792, the couple sold nine acres to local landowner Andrew Craigie in 1792 and moved to a farm Judge Lee owned in Sherborn, Massachusetts. In 1798, the couple returned to Cambridge and were taxed for a house, barn, and a small amount of tillage: the following year they rented twenty-nine acres of mowing, tillage, and pasture from Craigie. Lewis continued to farm this Cambridge land until his death in 1808.
The society notes that the records of people like Caesar, Mark Lee/Lewis, and Juno Lewis are frustratingly sparse and sometimes contradictory. But they’re there.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Thorson on “Stone Walls on Minute Man,” 27 Feb.

On Saturday, 27 February, the Friends of Minute Man National Park will host its free Winter Lecture, this time beamed through the walls of our own homes.

This year Prof. Robert Thorson will speak about “The Stone Walls of Minute Man National Park.” Those walls are of course an icon of New England’s agricultural past.

After the battle of Lexington and Concord, many British officers and officials commented on the provincial militiamen using stone walls for cover. Historian and Member of Parliament Edward Gibbon, for instance, wrote: “Our troops during the march and retreat were chiefly harassed by flying parties from behind the stone walls along the road and by many shots from the windows as they passed through the villages.”

James T. Austin’s 1828 biography of Elbridge Gerry may be the earliest publication of Benjamin Franklin’s supposed response to people in London mentioning that detail as evidence of American cowardice: “I beg to enquire, if these same walls had not two sides to them?”

Whether or not that’s true, the Continental Congress delegate Charles Carroll credited Franklin with a parodic song published in the 27 Nov 1775 Boston Gazette called “The King’s Own Regulars.” Written in the voice of the redcoats, it includes this couplet:
Of their firing from behind fences, [Gage] makes a great pother,
Ev’ry fence has two sides; they made use of one, and we only forgot to use the other.
Back to Prof. Thorson’s talk. Thorson is a geologist who has authored several books on stone walls. He has an intimate knowledge of the walls of Minute Man Park through his work on various projects there, notably at the Old North Bridge, Parker’s Revenge, and Bloody Angle locations.

Folks will be able to view this lecture via Zoom, through the Minuteman Media Network website, or in Concord and Carlisle live on cable channel 99. It is scheduled to run from 2:00 to 3:30 P.M. on Saturday.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

“Adventurous Wives” Conference via Chawton House

Chawton House is an Elizabethan manor once owned by Jane Austen’s brother. It houses the research library of the Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600–1830.

In that capacity, Chawton House will host an online conference on 14-15 May 2021 on the theme of “Adventurous Wives in the Long Eighteenth Century: or, Virtue Reconsidered.”

While some of this program was planned for last year and postponed, organizers Alison Daniell and Kim Simpson have reopened the call for papers. This call also gives a sense of what one might expect at the conference:
In Charlotte Lennox’s 1752 novel, The Female Quixote, an eighteenth-century Countess is horrified when she is asked by the romance-obsessed heroine to relate her ‘adventures’, professing:
‘The word adventures carries in it so free and licentious a sound in the apprehensions of people at this period of time, that it can hardly with propriety be applied to those few and natural incidents which compose the history of a woman of honour.’
The idea that during the long eighteenth century virtuous wives were increasingly relegated to the domestic/private sphere, their legal and economic identities subsumed into that of their husbands, is a long-standing one. However, recent and ongoing research is challenging the orthodoxy of this narrative and demonstrating that the roles available to married women were more complex, nuanced and dynamic than mainstream assumptions have generally allowed.

For example, Elaine Chalus has explored women’s engagement with politics and the electoral process; Joanne Begiato’s examination of the divorce process has shed light on the lived experience of married women; Amy Louise Erikson has interrogated the laws relating to women’s property ownership; and Briony McDonagh has examined inter alia how landowning wives managed the combined duties of married life and estate management.

However, research specifically relating to ‘wives’ is often buried amongst the wider topic of ‘women’, and cross-disciplinary patterns and conclusions relating purely to married women may be lost or go unrecognised.
Drs. Daniell and Sampson therefore invite papers that ”bring these revisionist narratives together and examine the role(s) of the wife as seen through the fields of literature, social and economic history, law, art history and material culture.” In particular, they note these topics:
  • The economic and financial autonomy of women following marriage
  • Feme sole traders
  • The visibility of single versus married women in the literature of the period
  • Wives’ involvement in politics and public life
  • Working wives
  • Women and the divorce process
  • Inheritance and the transmission of property through the female line
  • Trusts, property ownership and separate estate
  • Wives as educators
  • Conduct literature and wives
  • The married woman as literary heroine
  • Quasi-marriages and kept Mistresses
  • The married female body
  • Material culture, fashion and taste
  • Housewifery
  • Wives as guardians of morality and social order
  • The historiography of the wife: change or continuity?
Interested scholars should submit abstracts of up to 500 words with a short bio (including one’s time zone) to the conference organizers at adventurousc18wives@gmail.com by 1 March 2021.

Drs. Daniell and Sampson hope people will “pre-record their talks, submitting them by 15 April.” At each session, those presentations will be played, followed by live questions and answers and discussion. (That’s one way of ensuring presenters remain within their allotted time.) Conference updates will come through @AdventurousWiv1 on Twitter.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

“Perpetual Memorial” from the Paul Revere House, 5 Mar.

Last March we commemorated the Sestercentennial of the Boston Massacre.

There was a big gathering at the Old South Meeting-House with remembrances of each victim. There were book talks and signings. There were many reenactment scenarios around the center of Boston, both before and after our dramatic recreation of the shooting near the original site.

And of course there was the Covid-19 virus. The news and health guidelines were both still hazy, but I remember elbow handshakes, hand sanitizer, and feeling grateful that was a mainly outdoor event.

Now, shameful revelations and half a million American deaths later, we know we have to be more strict about public gatherings. There will be no Massacre reenactment in 2021.

However, the Paul Revere House has organized an online Sestercentennial commemoration of how the silversmith illuminated his house on 5 March 1771 to keep alive the memory of the violent deaths in Boston the previous winter.

I’ve quoted the sources on how Revere illuminated pictures in his windows in 1771, and how those pictures were moved to windows overlooking the shooting site in the following years.

In announcing “‘A solemn and perpetual memorial’: A 250th Anniversary Reimagining of Paul Revere’s Boston Massacre Illuminations,” the Paul Revere House says:
On March 5, 1771, Paul Revere used his recently purchased home to keep the memory of the Boston Massacre and opposition to the British occupation in Boston fresh with a series of three illuminations displayed in the windows facing North Square.

According to contemporary reports, thousands streamed by his house in silence to witness the spectacle which was a key link in the Revolutionary chain between the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.

Our virtual program offers footage of a local artist’s reimagining of the illuminations, descriptions from period newspaper accounts, and an in-depth panel discussion with Revere engraving expert Prof. Nancy Siegel and Boston Massacre scholar Prof. Serena Zabin to add context and color to this incredibly significant event.
Folks can sign up for the online program here. There is a suggested donation of $10. All people who register by 6:30 on 5 March will receive a link to the YouTube premiere of this event and also be able to watch the recording of it later.

Monday, February 22, 2021

“Mentor” Remembers the Massacre

Before February ends, I need to note one event from this month 250 years ago.

On 11 Feb 1771, the Fleet brothersBoston Evening-Post ran as its first front-page item a letter signed “Mentor.” It recalled the previous year’s Boston Massacre and repeated the Whig arguments against standing armies and quartering troops in a populous town.

The author then offered a new idea:
I therefore propose it to the understanding and discreet, as well as the zealous, friends of liberty and mankind, that a regular plan be formed for an annual & solemn remembrance of the 5th of March.

I would speak my own mind on this occasion with freedom, tho’ with becoming diffidence. And I own, that in my present view of the matter, it seems to be expedient to exclude, the reverend and worthy gentlemen of the Clergy from being concerned in any part of the exercises of the day. This proposed exclusion does not arise from any aversion to that useful order of men, or from any doubt of their learning, integrity or fortitude. But I conceive that this celebration ought to be considered and conducted solely with a reference to civil society and domestick policy. And it is in general, perhaps, of little advantage to true religion, or good government, that the clergy should interfere in matters purely temporal, and wholly affecting social compacts and political oeconomy.

It may therefore be proper to chuse two persons to deliver (one in the forenoon and the other in the afternoon) a dissertation on—THE POLICY OF STANDING ARMIES; AND THE NATURAL TENDENCY OF QUARTERING REGULAR TROOPS IN POPULOUS CITIES IN TIME OF PEACE.—This choice should be at such a convenient time as to give the speaker opportunity to mature his thoughts, digest his arguments and form his diction.

By this means, it is likely the performance will be devoid of crude sentiments and inelegant language; and if the audience are not instructed with a sensible, judicious and useful disquisition on so important subjects, yet their time will not be wholly misemployed in giving countenance to those efforts of genius, which may throw some new ray of light upon those sciences, the knowledge of which can never be too generally diffused, or too universally inculcated.—But might we indulge the pleasing hopes, that on these occasions some rising worthy, some genius yet unborn, will pervade the mazy system and perplexed labyrinth of fraud and usurpation;—that will rescue one right from the jaws of power, and restore one liberty to oppressed mankind;—how would the flattering thought inspire our hearts—how would grateful millions bless the institution!

Many benefits resulting from this plan, I decline pointing out; of some plausible objections I am aware, but do not think myself obliged, at present, to obviate them. I have offered my sentiments in a manner becoming a good citizen:—they claim, I trust, some small attention. What is proposed with decency is intitled to candid treatment; but ill-placed ridicule, illiberal and censorious dogmatism, never promoted the cause of GOD or man.
It’s striking that “Mentor” was Josiah Quincy, Jr., the young lawyer whose role in the Boston Massacre had been on the defense teams for Capt. Thomas Preston and the eight British soldiers. He had helped to clear most of those men.

Quincy might have made his public proposal to shore up his standing as a Whig. But how many people knew he made it? Harbottle Dorr’s copy of this issue of the Evening–Post has “J. Quincy” written at top of the “Mentor” letter, but not in Dorr’s usual style and therefore perhaps a later addition. 

It’s striking that Quincy was very clear on what Boston’s Massacre orations should not be. Not a sermon, as much as the town liked a good long religious discourse glancing at the current events. The Massacre arose from a political problem, Quincy felt, and it deserved a wholly political response.

But Quincy was also concerned about ensuring that the orations “be devoid of crude sentiments and inelegant language,” to be “mature.” Was he concerned that some planned public commemorations or some Whig colleagues would be too populist and incendiary?

And what about the article’s wish that orators be chosen “at such a convenient time as to give the speaker opportunity to mature his thoughts”? Was Quincy warning fellow Bostonians that they should hurry up and ask someone because the anniversary was less than a month away, or was he worried about someone less “mature” offering to speak anytime?

The text of the “Mentor” letter is from the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s publication of Quincy’s writings, available here.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Dealing Out the Cards at the B.P.L.

Earlier this month, the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts department announced that it had finished scanning its entire card catalogue and uploading the result to the Internet Archive.

“With this project now complete,” the department’s blog said, “information about nearly every manuscript in the BPL’s collections is available online in at least some form — a major first.”

Curator and cataloguer Jay Moschella explained further on Twitter:
The BPL manuscript card catalog is a collection of almost a quarter million index cards, each of which describes a specific manuscript or collection of manuscripts that the BPL holds. . . .

John AdamsBoston Massacre notes, Boston’s early town records, the Frederick Douglass letters, the William Lloyd Garrison papers and the anti-slavery collection — all are parts of BPL’s overall manuscript collections. Think of the card catalog as a *blueprint* to all this. . .

Each card in the catalog was typed by hand and describes a single item in the collection. Taken as a whole, the manuscript card catalog represents well over a century (100 years!) of painstaking work by BPL librarians.
The cards have been digitized as images, not sent through an optical character recognition system to be converted into 98%-accurate searchable text. That means finding what one might be interested in investigating further requires treating the card catalogue like a, well, card catalogue. You choose a topic, usually a proper noun; go to the right drawer alphabetically; and then thumb through the cards to one that catches your eye.

Those cards have varying levels of detail to alert users into what the actual manuscript holds. For example, here’s a letter from the young lawyer Christopher Gore in 1780, talking about how Boston had been frozen in and discussing prisoner of war exchanges.

Here’s Gore’s father, John Gore, Sr., billing John Hancock for painting his—or rather his aunt Lydia’s—carriage in 1765. I’ve actually looked at that document. That carriage was vermilion.

And speaking of Hancock’s carriage, here’s another bill he received, this one from carriage-maker Adino Paddock in December 1774. That’s interesting because by that time the Boston Patriots were ostracizing Paddock (and the older Gore, a good friend) for siding with the Crown. Yet until recently Hancock had still been doing business with him.

Some of the papers came into the collection through the Boston town government, such as Richard Clarke’s 5 Nov 1773 letter saying he really can’t cancel his order of East India Company tea.

Others reflect private correspondence. Nearly all the documents filed under the name of William Molineux involve the bankruptcy of Nathaniel Wheelwright as Molineux became one of the agents of Wheelwright’s brother-in-law and principal creditor, Charles Ward Apthorp.

Again, these cards don’t transcribe the manuscript but describe them in greater or less detail. For researchers looking for all clues about particular people, or planning a trip when the pandemic ends, being able to flip through those descriptions outside the library will be a great convenience.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

“Leslie’s Retreat” Commemorations, 21 Feb.

On 21 Feb 1775, Dr. Benjamin Church secretly told Gen. Thomas Gage that “Twelve pieces of Brass Cannon mounted, are at Salem, & lodged near the North River, on the back of the Town.”

Gage was hunting for the brass cannon of the Boston militia train, which had disappeared from armories under redcoat watch the previous September. He therefore ordered Lt.-Col. Alexander Leslie to lead an expedition to Salem on Sunday, 26 February.

That mission got the name “Leslie’s Retreat,” which shows how well it well for Lt.-Col. Leslie. It’s an episode in many books, including The Road to Concord. I’m pleased with two contributions to the story:
  • showing the event through the eyes of nine-year-old Samuel Gray.
  • debunking the familial claim that John Pedrick was crucial to spreading the alarm; he was actually a Loyalist at the time.
In recent years, Salem has revived the celebration of Leslie’s Retreat, not as a period reenactment like some others but as a community event. Unfortunately, the pandemic makes all such events harder.

This year, the Leslie’s Retreat coalition has various ways to commemorate set up for Sunday, 21 February, all designed for safely distanced households.

2:30-2:45 P.M.
City-wide Bell Ringing
And general noise-making.

3:00-4:00 P.M.
Bridging the Divide: Civil Conflict, Violence, and Negotiation in 1775 & Today
An online conversation among historians Robert Allison, Peter Charles Hoffer, and Chenoh Sesay, Jr., moderated by Diana Dunlap. Register to listen here.

As People Choose
Traveling the Leslie’s Retreat Trail
There are two routes mapped, 3.0 and 5.3 miles long, which individuals and families can walk or run when the weather is amenable. One could even award oneself a badge.

As for Lt.-Col. Leslie, he was promoted to general in 1776 and saw action in many campaigns of the war, ending up as the last British commander of Charleston, South Carolina.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Meeting the Scollays Together

In December the Shelburne Museum in Burlington, Vermont, purchased John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mercy (Greenleaf) Scollay (1719-1793).

Unknown to the seller, at least at first, the museum already owned Copley’s matching portrait of Scollay’s husband, John Scollay (1712-1790).

Here’s the backstory recounted by Enfilade, the newsletter of the Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art & Architecture:
Completed in 1763, Mrs. Scollay’s portrait demonstrates Copley’s talents and abilities as a painter as evidenced through the beautifully rendered fabric draped around the sitter.

Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb assembled the American paintings collection with the intention of juxtaposing well-known artists such as Copley with lesser-known itinerant or ‘folk’ painters. She purchased the portrait of John Scollay from Harry Shaw Newman at the Old Print Shop in New York City in 1959. The Museum’s extensive collection of American paintings tell a story about how the fine arts developed and came of age in the United States, and the reunion of these pendants continues to enrich the narrative.
To celebrate the Scollays’ reunion on canvas and explore that acquisition, the director of the Shelburne Museum, Tom Denenberg, delivered an online talk which is now available on the museum’s website and Facebook page.

Denenberg’s talk might overstate Scollay’s political activity in a couple of directions. He was a member of the Boston merchants who often opposed Parliament’s new revenue laws and he served many years as a selectman, including during the siege of Boston. In that way Scollay was a “Son of Liberty,” but we shouldn’t view him as a radical; he was part of the establishment. In addition, as chair of the selectmen he was merely first among equals, not equivalent to a mayor.

The most distinct aspect of Scollay’s political career, I think, is how he was a selectman from 1754 to 1764 and then from 1772 to 1790. Why the break? Because he was caught up in the financial failure of Nathaniel Wheelwright in 1765 and had to declare bankruptcy and rebuild his estate. The fact that he succeeded and was able to return to the selectmen as the board’s senior member reflects how his neighbors must have respected him.

Copley produced another pair of portraits of the Scollays as well, in pastel instead of oil. That picture of Mercy Scollay is at the Harvard Art Museums, the picture of John at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Turtles All the Way Down

This advertisement appeared in the 13 Oct 1761 New-York Gazette.

Here are some tasty extracts from Washington biographer Alexis Coe’s conversation with Prof. Mary Draper about the background behind this ad:
Mary: In the 18th century, colonists throughout British America loved eating turtle. No one compared it to chicken (that I know of), but people routinely likened it to venison or veal. Merchants would ship live turtles in the hulls of vessels — alongside the other goods they bought and sold in the Atlantic world. They kept them alive by dousing them with salt water every few days.

When these vessels cruised into port, their arrival was cause for celebration. Merchants took out ads in local newspapers. Tavern keepers announced turtle feasts. And members of the early American elite attended “turtles” — elaborate parties where guests dined on turtle meat and caroused late into the evening. . . .

Alexis: The turtle escaped the day before it was to be cooked and eaten! What drama! But why is “CW” on the turtle’s shell? I hope it was painted, but I’m guessing it was carved.

Mary: Sometimes, these turtles were destined to specific people from the moment they were loaded onto a vessel. A local merchant might solicit a ship captain, asking him to acquire a turtle. Or someone living in a more tropical location might ship a turtle to friends elsewhere in the Atlantic world. When this happened, the turtle was marked with the recipient’s initials. I’ve come across other ads and letters that mention these markings and, sadly, they seem to be carved.

In 1776, The Pennsylvania Evening Post chronicled the capture of a ship sailing from Jamaica to London during the Revolutionary War. On board, there was a turtle to be delivered to Lord North, the British Prime Minister. His name was “nicely cut into the shell.” . . .

Alexis: Tell me everything you know about the turtle’s great escape.

Mary: First, we have to talk about crawls. Once turtles were off-loaded from vessels, they were placed in a crawl. This was an enclosed fence-like structure that was partly underwater. It allowed innkeepers and merchants to keep the turtles alive until the moment they were dressed. But they weren’t the most secure containers. Storms and high tides…could flood crawls and give turtles the perfect opportunity for escape. Hopefully, this turtle made its way back to the Atlantic Ocean, but we’ll never know.
More details and pictures at Coe’s website.

For more turtle content, here’s a P.D.F. download of Megan C. Hagseth’s doctoral dissertation ”Turtleizing Mariners: The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Consumption of Large Testudines in 16th- to 18th-Century Maritime Communities,” with numerous illustrations and newspaper extracts.

And here’s the Sea Control podcast episode in which Walker Mills interviews Dr. Sharika Crawford of the United States Naval Academy about her new book, The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation and Boundary Making.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

“One idea shared by just about every author of the Constitution”

From David Frum’s essay “The Founders Were Wrong about Democracy” in The Atlantic Monthly:

If there was one idea shared by just about every author of the Constitution, it was the one articulated by James Madison at the convention on June 26, 1787.

The mass of the people would be susceptible to “fickleness and passion,” he warned. They would suffer from “want of information as to their true interest.” Those who must “labour under all the hardships of life” would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” Over time, as the population expanded and crowded into cities, the risk would only worsen that “the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority.”

To protect property from the people—and ultimately, the people from themselves—the Framers would have to erect “a necessary fence” against “impetuous councils.” A Senate to counterbalance the House of Representatives, selected from a more elite few and serving for longer terms, would be one such fence. The indirect election of the president through an Electoral College would be another. A federal judiciary confirmed by the Senate and serving for life would provide one more. And so on through the constitutional design.

The system of government in the United States has evolved in many important ways since 1787. But the mistrust of unpropertied majorities—especially urban unpropertied majorities—persists. In no other comparably developed society is voting as difficult; in no peer society are votes weighted as unequally; in no peer society is there a legislative chamber where 41 percent of the lawmakers can routinely outvote 59 percent, as happens in the U.S. Senate. . . .

American anti-majoritarians have always promised that minority privilege will deliver positive results: stability, sobriety, the security of the public debt, and tranquil and peaceful presidential elections. But again and again, those promises have proved the exact opposite of reality. In practice, the privileged minority has shown itself to be unstable and unsober. . . .

The architects of the Electoral College imagined that indirect election would ensure a careful and thoughtful decision “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of the presidency], and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice,” as Alexander Hamilton wrote in “Federalist No. 68.” The mass of the people might be distracted by a lying, vulgar, criminal demagogue, but the select few of the Electoral College would be undeceived by such wiles. They would choose the candidate of dignity and worth over the candidate who crudely appealed to rancor and resentment.

Except, of course, that’s precisely the opposite of what happened in 2016, when the plurality of ordinary citizens made the sensible choice, and the anti-majoritarian Electoral College installed a flimflam man in the Oval Office.
Frum concludes that our republic should leave behind the self-serving prejudices of eighteenth-century gentlemen and resume the gradual democratization Americans enjoyed in the twentieth century. It’s not just a matter of fairness, he argues. It’s also necessary for stability and prosperity. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

“Revolutionary Harbor” Discussion, 17 Feb.

On Wednesday, 17 February, the National Parks of Boston and Boston Harbor Now will host an online discussion on “Revolutionary Harbor: The Transatlantic World of Peter Faneuil,” about the role of slavery in shaping Boston’s eighteenth-century economy.

Peter Faneuil was one of the town’s richest merchants in the first half of that century, honored for giving money that went to building the earliest version of Faneuil Hall.

Much of Faneuil’s inheritance and business was rooted in chattel slavery, either from supplying the sugar-producing slave-labor camps of the Caribbean or from bringing more kidnapped African people to the New World. In that, he wasn’t unusual among leading New England merchants; his family was simply wealthier than most.

Last October, the National Parks of Boston, the city of Boston, the Museum of African American History, and the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project installed a marker at the end of Long Wharf recognizing Boston’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade.

One side, headed “Coming from the Sea,” describes the trade in people in and out of Boston harbor. The other side, which one sees while facing the city, spotlights Crispus Attucks, Phillis Wheatley, Prince Hall, and Paul Cuffee as notable New Englanders of African descent.

It doesn’t look like Peter Faneuil’s name is on that marker, nor the name of any other individual slave trader or slave-camp supplier. Ironically, then, those merchants appear as a faceless mass—precisely what slavery and many decades of historiography reduced the captive Africans to. But in this case, anonymity might erase those men’s individual choices to participate in that trade.

Faneuil’s name remains, of course, on Faneuil Hall, nicknamed the “Cradle of Liberty,” which some people a paradox. I discussed the  potentials of renaming that building last September.

This discussion diving deeper into Peter Faneuil’s mercantile world is due to start on Wednesday at 7:00 P.M. and to run until 8:15. Register in advance here.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Guns that Didn’t Bark

One of my big unanswered questions about the Battle of Lexington and Concord on 19 Apr 1775 is why the provincial forces didn’t deploy any of the cannon they had just spent months collecting and preparing for a fight.

The guns that James Barrett had been overseeing in Concord were probably unavailable after being rushed into hiding-places in other towns. But what about the rest?

We can assume that the men of Lexington and Cambridge, towns along the British route, didn’t want to see an all-out battle along one of their main roads, with houses and possibly civilians nearby. Better to hurry the redcoats along than to make them desperate and angry with artillery.

But what about Watertown, which had actually deployed two cannon on 30 March, according to a British army captain? Jonathan Brown was “captain of the train”—Watertown’s own militia artillery company. The town wasn’t on the regulars’ route but was close enough to reach the road from Concord with mounted cannon. But there’s no mention of the Watertown guns coming out.

What about Newton, where a shot from one of the two cannon John Pigeon had given to the town summoned the militia company on 19 April? Those men reportedly gathered beside the cannon and then marched off to confront the king’s troops, leaving their most powerful weapons behind.

Other towns had also formed artillery companies, but those men marched out with muskets. Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould reported hearing cannon used as alarm guns during the march west, but neither he nor any other British officer saw them.  

Indeed, out of the scores of Massachusetts militia units that mustered independently on 19 April, sometimes zealously and sometimes after long conversations among local leaders, I haven’t found any that brought out their cannon as well. I haven’t read even a mention of that as a possibility under discussion.

Uncounted numbers of veterans of the 19th of April left descriptions of that day, some immediately and some decades later. In 1775 there may have been pressure not to mention the province’s artillery because that would acknowledge the countryside had prepared for war. Eventually, however, men did speak of topics that had been politically awkward before. Yet no one talked about cannon.

One possible explanation is that those artillery pieces weren’t as ready for combat as people had been saying. Back in February, representatives from four towns described the four iron cannon as “Nearly Compleated,” but 99% done isn’t done, especially if you’re going into combat. Provincial records show people were still scrambling to finish equipping some pieces in late April and May.

In particular, militia officers may have felt they didn’t have enough gunpowder for an artillery engagement, and the supply they did have was better divvied out to infantrymen. Or they might not have had the horses necessary to drag iron cannon across country and into battle—which farmer was willing to risk his livestock? For that matter, did the provincials dare to risk the guns themselves when there was probably bigger fighting ahead?

I suspect another factor is that on 19 April the men of Massachusetts weren’t yet ready to make an all-out attack on the king’s soldiers. Did they really want to wipe out hundreds of their fellow subjects? Instead of halting and capturing the expedition, wasn’t it better to keep it moving back toward Boston? Like a dog chasing a car, the Massachusetts militiamen wouldn’t have known what to do with that column if they’d caught it.