J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Two Talks about the Women behind the Commanders

Here are two more online talks to consider, both happening on Thursday but fortunately at different times.

Thursday, 2 December, 1:00 P.M.
New England Historic Genealogical Society
Julie Flavell, “The Howe Dynasty”

Many historians have documented the lives and exploits of Howe men including Richard Admiral Lord Howe and his younger brother British General Sir William Howe, victor in the Battle of Bunker Hill. But few have measured the influence of the Howe women including sister Caroline Howe, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, and her savvy aunt Mary Herbert Countess Pembroke.

Drawn from letters and correspondence, The Howe Dynasty sheds new light one of one of England’s most famous military families and forces us to reimagine the Revolutionary War. Don’t miss hearing about this unique and riveting narrative work and Julie Flavell’s discussion with the celebrated historian Mary Beth Norton.
Julie Flavell was born in Massachusetts and now lives in Britain. Her first book was When London Was Capital of America. Mary Beth Norton is the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History Emerita at Cornell University, and her latest book is 1774.

Register for this event here.

Thursday, 2 December, 6:30 P.M.
Fraunces Tavern Museum
Martha Sexton, “Mary Ball Washington: George’s Good Enough Mother”
This lecture provides a sketch of the challenging life of Mary Ball Washington, who raised George and his four siblings largely alone—as well as her unfair treatment at the hands of his biographers.

Saxton’s book The Widow Washington is the first life of Mary Washington based on archival sources. Her son’s biographers have, for the most part, painted her as self-centered and crude, a trial and an obstacle to her oldest child. But the records tell a very different story.

Mary Ball, the daughter of a wealthy planter and a formerly indentured servant, was orphaned young and grew up working hard, practicing frugality and piety. Stepping into Virginia’s upper class, she married an older man, the planter Augustine Washington, with whom she had five children before his death eleven years later. As a widow deprived of most of her late husband’s properties, Mary struggled to raise her children, but managed to secure them places among Virginia’s elite. As such, Mary Ball Washington had a greater impact on George than mothers of that time and place usually had on their sons.
Martha Saxton is a professor of history and women’s and gender studies at Amherst College. She is the author of several books, including Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography.

This lecture will take place via Zoom. Register here by 5:30 P.M. on the day of the lecture.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Upcoming Online Talks by Holton and Philbrick

Here are two notable online events over the next couple of days.

Tuesday, 30 November, 7:00 P.M.
American Antiquarian Society
Woody Holton, “The Hidden History of the American Revolution”

A sweeping reassessment of the American Revolution, Woody Holton’s new book, Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, shows how the Founders were influenced by overlooked Americans—women, Native Americans, African Americans, and religious dissenters.

Using more than a thousand eyewitness accounts, the book explores countless connections between the Patriots of 1776 and other Americans whose passion for freedom often brought them into conflict with the Founding Fathers. It also considers other underappreciated factors such as weather, North America’s unique geography, chance, misperception, attempts to manipulate public opinion, and (most of all) disease.

“It is all one story,” Holton writes, and in this program, he will discuss how, when examined together, these perspectives broaden and revivify a story we thought we already knew.
Holton is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. His previous books include Abigail Adams (2010), which was awarded the Bancroft Prize, and Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2008), a finalist for the National Book Award.

This event is free, but registration is required starting here. (That webpage says Thursday, but the registration is definitely for 30 November.)

Wednesday, 1 December, 7:00 P.M.
Lexington Historical Society
Nathaniel Philbrick, “Travels with George”
In the fall of 2018, Nathaniel Philbrick endeavored to follow in the literal footsteps of George Washington: tracing his 1789 presidential tour of the new United States.

Just months into his presidency, Washington was tasked with uniting a nation of thirteen disparate colonies with very different experiences and thoughts about their new leader. Hoping to prove that the American people were not simply trading one King George for another, he made his way from Maine down to Georgia to meet with the inhabitants of the fledgling country and prove his mettle.

Philbrick’s new book Travels with George echoes this inaugural tour, as he traveled from historic sites across the original 13 colonies, meeting with reenactors, tour guides, museum curators, and others who grapple with Washington’s iconic status and contradictions. At a time when the American public, and museums in particular, are trying to make sense of this enigmatic founding father during a time of deep political division, Philbrick learned not just about this snippet of Washington's life, but the hold that his story still has on America.
Nat Philbrick is the author of three Revolutionary War histories—Bunker Hill, Valiant Ambition, and In the Hurricane’s Eye—in addition to the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea and other narratives from American history.

Philbrick will be in a virtual conversation with Dr. Samuel A. Forman of the Lexington Minutemen, himself the author of Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty.

The Lexington Historical Society welcomes donations for this event. Register through this page.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Glimpsing Another Copy of Revere’s Massacre

Ben Edwards alerted me to this report from Antiques and the Arts about sales at the Doyle auction house early this month that set records for works by Paul Revere.

The items on sale all appear to have come from the collection of Monroe F. Dreher, an mid-20th-century advertising executive, and his wife Elizabeth. The “period rooms” in their Connecticut home was featured in The Magazine Antiques in 1954. Dreher was known for recording the provenances of the pieces he bought, many descended within families, and his collection hasn’t been on display or on the market for decades.

Among the silverware sold was a “Liverpool” pitcher by Revere from 1805 that sold for $94,500, or about three times the estimated price, and a cream jug made by Paul Revere, Jr., in 1783 for $22,680.

But the major sale was a copy of Revere’s “Bloody Massacre” engraving for $429,000, a new record for that print.

This is yet another example of the print with the face of one victim, upside-down and half-hidden within the crowd in the lower left corner, colored a little darker than the faces of other people around him.

This coloring can be only subtly different, enough to make one wonder whether it’s just an artifact of time, or that face can be a dark brown, as in the Philadelphia public library’s copy. This example is somewhere in between.

That pattern of an extra color wash, along with the dual chest wounds painted onto several copies, has convinced me that figure was always supposed to represent Crispus Attucks. Revere wasn’t able to depict him as a person of color in the engraving alone, but the coloring rendered him an individual.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

A Selection of Weekend Events

Local historical sites are offering a variety of special programs this weekend for families wishing to share more Revolutionary history with visitors or just get out of the house.

At Historic Deerfield, these culinary presentations are included with regular museum admission.

Saturday, 27 November, 9:30 to 11:00 A.M. and 12:30 to 4:00 P.M.
Hearth Cooking
See cooks prepare traditional Thanksgiving dishes over a warm open hearth. Learn about the history of harvest celebrations and the evolution of the American Thanksgiving holiday.

Saturday and Sunday, 27–28 November, 12:00 noon to 4:30 P.M.
Seek No Further: Heritage Apple Time
Apples were dried for winter keeping, pressed for cider, and covered with cloves to make decorative, aromatic objects known as pomanders. Visit the History Workshop to sample some unique apple varieties, including Westfield’s Seek No Further from the museum village’s rare tree.

The Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End has its period rooms decorated to reflect winter usage in the 17th and 18th centuries. This weekend and in December there will be author signings, free with museum admission.

Sunday, 28 November, 1:30 to 3:30 P.M.
Ben Edwards, One April in Boston
The Boston tour guide, educator, and perambulator will sign his children’s book following a boy who was a contemporary of Paul Revere (as well as a future in-law and Edwards’s ancestor).

Saturday, 11 December, 1:30 to 3:30 P.M.
Robert Martello, Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn
Prof. Martello of the Olin College of Engineering will autograph this fine study of Paul Revere as an early American industrialist and manufacturer.

During both signings David Neiman will play seasonal music on the hammered dulcimer in the Revere Room of the Visitor Center.

Finally, this is the last weekend in 2021 to visit the Lexington Historical Society’s Hancock-Clarke House and Munroe Tavern, though its Buckman Tavern will continue to be open on winter weekends. The opening hours are—

Saturday and Sunday, 27–28 November
  • Buckman Tavern: 9:30 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
  • Hancock-Clarke House: 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
  • Munroe Tavern: 12:00 noon to 4:00 P.M.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Hannah Glass’s Amulet

This recipe from a 1774 edition of Hannah Glass’s Art of Cookery makes much more sense once one realizes that “amulet” was Glass’s way of spelling the unfamiliar word “omelette.”

Notably, this omelette is made with egg yolks only, and the beans or other vegetables are on top, not inside.

For a modernized version of the recipe, check out Colonial Williamsburg.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Meeting the Clerks of Faneuil Hall Marketplace

Just to make matters confusing, the twelve men elected by the Boston town meeting to be clerks of the market for one year weren’t the only people in town with that title in the eighteenth century.

The town also chose one full-time clerk for each market. This man was in charge of assigning stalls to different provisioners, collecting rents, enforcing rules, and maintaining the infrastructure.

In the early eighteenth century Boston had three marketplaces, each with its own full-time clerk. After some argument, in 1742 the town consolidated those commercial spaces into one near the center of town. Thus, we need context to know what “Clerk of the Market” referred to.

In September 1742, the merchant Thomas Jackson was announced as “Clerk of the Market on Dock-Square.” According to Abram Brown’s Faneuil Hall and Faneuil Hall Market or, Peter Faneuil and His Gift (1901), the town gave Peter Faneuil the honor of naming the superintendent since he’d paid for the building. Jackson in turn hired Joseph Grey as assistant in charge of sweeping. When Faneuil died the next March, the market was named after him.

By 1749, Abijah Adams was the full-time clerk of Faneuil Hall Market, and Samuel Adams was an elected clerk of the market, starting his political career. There was a bad fire in 1761, and Abijah Adams rescued valuable goods and papers from the building, only to have to wait for the town to rebuild and repair it.

Abram Brown erred in writing that Adams was succeeded by Benjamin Clark as the pre-Revolutionary turmoil heated up; Clark was one of the elected clerks. The published selectmen’s records show how they chose a man to replace Adams in 1767 and what the daily duties of the clerk of Faneuil Hall Marketplace were:
The Selectmen having appointed Capt. James Clemmens to be Clerk of Faneuil Hall Market in the room of Mr. Abijah Adams who is in a declining state and as it is feared not like to appear abroad again, the following Orders were given said Clemmens, which bears date the Day on which he entred upon duty—vizt.—

Boston August 13. 1767
Capt. James Clemmens

You being by the Selectmen of Boston chosen to act as Clerk of Faneuil Hall Market it is our directions That you observe that the Butchers who hire the Stalls do conform to their Leases. Vizt.—

That they bring into the Market all the Hydes Skins and Tallow of all such Creatures as they kill; that they keep their respective Stalls clear, and at the shutting up of the Market at One O’Clock carry out all the Hydes Skins and Tallow and also all the Beef that shall be cut up that is less than a Quarter and all other sorts of Meal of what kind so ever—

that those Butchers who occupy the Stalls do not bring into the Market any kind of Poultry other than of their own raising to sell—

You’l Observe that every Person who erects a Stall or puts their Panyers or Carts, within the limits of the Market do pay for the same as follows—Vizt.—
  • For every Stand or Stall from the middle West Door on each side down to the Street Eight Shillings p. Month or eight Coppers p. Day,
  • for each Stand or Stall on the other parts of the West end of the Market Six Coppers p. Day—
  • For each Cart with Beef or Sauce or any other Article for Sale that stands in any other place within the Limmits of the Market four Coppers p. Day—
  • For each pair of Panyers two Coppers p. Day.
By Order of the Selectmen
Abijah Adams died a few months later in February 1768, aged 66 years.

James Clemens had been a sea captain, then a seller of spermaceti candles. In 1763 he announced he had become a licensed gauger, checking weights and measures, so people had come to trust him. Capt. Clemens died inside besieged Boston in February 1776, and in June the town chose George Lindsay Wallace to take his place.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

“Walk’d with Mr: English, as clerk of the market”

For evidence of what the job of clerk of the market in Boston actually entailed, we need to find a man not only conscientious enough to accept that job but also dedicated to write down and preserve his daily activities.

Fortunately, in 1792 the Boston town meeting elected “John Q. Adams” to be a clerk of the market.

Adams was then twenty-five years old, a young lawyer. He had seen a lot of Europe as a teenager working for his father and Francis Dana, the U.S. of A.’s minister to Russia. His father was now Vice President. He had just started to serve on town committees. And it was time for him to inspect bread.

Adams was not one of the twelve men chosen as clerks of the market in the first session of Boston’s big town meeting on 12 March. But some of those men begged off, and he was elected last among five new men on the afternoon of 27 March.

Adams didn’t record that election in his diary. In fact, he wasn’t even in town, having ridden out that morning to Worcester. (“Dined at How’s Marlborough. Singular couple he 6 1/2 feet long. She as much round.”) So I have no record of how he took the news. Maybe he was chosen because he wasn’t present to object.

Nonetheless, John Quincy embarked on his civic duty. The first mention appeared in his diary for 23 April:
Walk towards Eveg: Clerks of the market met at Coleman’s [tavern], but were interrupted by a cry of fire. Adjourned till to-morrow. fire soon extinguished.
The next day he wrote:
At Court all day. No business of much consequence done. Met the clerks of the market as by adjournment. Agreed upon our proceedings. To walk with Mr: [Thomas] English.
This tells us a couple of things. First, it took almost a month after election for the new clerks of the market to get organized. Second, they paired off to “walk,” or patrol the Faneuil Hall Market and the area surrounding it.

Adams made his first patrol on Tuesday, 1 May, and it was eventful:
Walk’d with Mr: English, as clerk of the market at 6. A.M. before breakfast, and again at 11. Seized a quantity of bread. A busy forenoon.
Clerks of the market were empowered to seize loaves of bread they deemed underweight for their prices. Sometimes this led to conflicts, as in this notice in the selectmen’s minutes for 29 Nov 1769:
Mr. [Joseph] Barrel, [Joseph?] Calf & [Benjamin] Andrews, a Committee from the Clerks of the Market Complain of Mr. Harris the Baker & his Servant Robert Davis, as having abused Mr. Barrel & Andrews, by charging the former with stealing their Bread & other ill Language & also Mr. Sircombs man named Cook—abused Mr. John Bernard.
The selectmen summoned all three of those bakers and presumably admonished them. (John Bernard was the son of the highly unpopular departed governor, but he was also a duly chosen town officer.)

John Quincy Adams didn’t record such friction. It’s tempting to think he and English took strict action on their first day to make sure the bakers understood their authority.

Adams never mentioned his market duty again until 2 November:
Eve & supper with Clerks of the market. Dull time.
And then on Wednesday, 28 November:
Snow almost gone. Walk’d with [Simon] Elliot as Clerk of the Market. 
Such sporadic references suggest that a clerk of the market didn’t patrol every day or even every week. Of course, it’s possible Adams did walk by the market stalls more regularly, but he was pretty thorough in recording his daily activities.

In March 1793 the Boston town meeting chose twelve new men to be clerks of the market for the following year. Again, John Quincy Adams didn't mention that election in his diary. His next remark about the position suggests that a year later he felt a little nostalgia for it, enough to attend an event on 28 March 1794:
Dinner of the Clerks of the market. Convivial; but too numerous; attended electioneering meeting.— returned to C[oncert?]. Hall. Stayed not long there. 
But only a little nostalgia.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Meeting the Clerks of the Market

Last week at dinner, the conversation turned to the question of what colonial Boston’s clerks of the market did. This is the kind of the dinner I like.

The post of clerk of the market was established in English law well before the kingdom colonized America, and it came to the colonies in different ways. In Philadelphia, the city charter of 1701 gave the mayor the power to appoint those officials. In contrast, the Boston town meeting elected clerks of the market, starting with two men in 1649. By the mid-1700s, there were twelve, one for each ward.

Clerks of the market were among the town’s lowest-ranking elected offices. But the post was a stepping-stone for young gentlemen seeking higher positions in politics or society. Many prominent men once served as clerks of the market for a year.

In March 1769, for example, the new clerks of the market included John Singleton Copley, Elisha Hutchinson, John Bernard, and John Gore, Jr. In 1770 the nod went to John Pulling, John Andrews, Nathaniel Wheatley, and Henry Jackson, among others.

The main stated duty of the clerks of the market was to ensure that the loaves of bread and the butter sold at the town market conformed to the selectmen’s stipulations. Each year, those officials announced what would be a fair weight for a loaf of bread of a standard price and quality. The price stayed the same, but the weight varied depending on the cost of grain, with a fair profit for the bakers mixed in.

For instance, in February 1773 the selectmen
Ordered that the Assize of Bread be set at Wheat at 7/ [seven shillings] p. bushel, and that 6d. [sixpence, or about 7%] p. bushel be allowed to the Bakers for their Charges Pains and Livelihood, which is computed as follows Vizt.
  • A Loaf of Brown Bread 3/4 Wheat 1/4 Rye meal must weigh 2 [lbs.] 8 [oz.]
  • a 4d. Ditto not above 1/2 Indian Meal must weigh 3 [lbs.] 8 [oz.]
  • Bisket of a Copper price 4 [oz.] 2 [drachms]
This was a long-established form of price-fixing, designed to avoid food riots like those in the 1710s. The selectmen tried to balance the needs of the populace against those of the bakers, as we can see in this extract from the town records in 1789:
On the application of Majr. [Edward] Tuckerman & Mr. [William] Breed two of the Town Bakers — It was agreed by the Selectmen that there should be 4 ounces instead of 2 ounces difference in the weight between 4d. white Loaf Bread & 4d. Superfine Brick Bread — and the Clerks of the Market were accordingly acquainted with this alteration, for their government in the weighing the same —
As that entry shows, the clerks of the market were supposed to enforce the bread rules. The law empowered them to seize loaves that were underweight, and even to go into any bakery or house where they knew bread was being baked for sale and check on how heavy the loaves were.

But did the elected clerks of the market really do that work? Usually a few of the men selected on the first round excused themselves by pleading inability and/or paying a fine, necessitating a second round. That suggests that many of those gentlemen weren’t actually that keen on the honor of serving their town that way.

Boston already had a full-time clerk of Faneuil Hall Market administering the rent on stalls, maintaining the infrastructure, and overseeing the maintenance staff of one. So were the gentlemen chosen to be clerks of the market actually out inspecting the bakers’ stalls every week? 

TOMORROW: Reading a clerk of the market’s diary.

[The image above comes from Food and Streets’ posting about making and tasting bread from an eighteenth-century recipe.]

Monday, November 22, 2021

New Movies about Arnold and Adams

A couple of films about the Revolutionary War debuted this month. I haven’t seen them, but I know and respect historians involved in these projects, so I’m passing on the news for folks who like to take in historical stories that way.

Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed is a docudrama available to rent or buy on YouTube, AppleTV, Amazon, and other platforms. It was directed by Chris Stearns and produced by Thomas Mercer and Anthony Vertucci, with co-producers Steve Letteri and Michael Camoin.

The main source was James Kirby Martin’s biography of Arnold. Martin was involved in the film as both an executive producer and an actor.

The trailer shows battle reenactments, enhanced with C.G.I., and dramatizations of important moments featuring Peter O’Meara as Arnold. The press release says the movie also “features insightful interviews with leading experts.” Martin Sheen supplied the narration.

The press material emphasizes how this movie gets beyond the caricature of Arnold as a treacherous villain. We probably haven’t seen authors offer such a one-sided portrayal in over a century, though. Dramas like the 2003 television movie Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor with Aidan Quinn and the later seasons of Turn: Washington’s Spies with Owain Yeoman also tried to depict why an American battlefield hero came to plot with the enemy and defect.

That said, phrases in the press release like “self-serving political and military leaders” and “an arbitrary system of personal favoritism and cronyism” make me suspect this movie goes further in portraying the situation as Arnold himself saw it.

Folks can watch the trailer for Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed on YouTube or I.M.D.B.

Quincy 400 just celebrated the local premiere of a feature-length documentary titled Beyond the Bloody Massacre. It features interviews with several historians who have written on that event: Hiller B. Zobel, Serena Zabin, Robert Allison, Kerima Lewis, and Daniel Coquillette.

The announcement of this movie says:
Beyond the Bloody Massacre presents the intersecting histories of the Boston Massacre Trials through the words and experiences of John Adams, and Josiah Quincy Jr., the two Quincy (formerly Braintree) born lawyers who defended a British Captain and seven [eight] soldiers in two murder trials in the late fall of 1770.
In addition, another local boy, Josiah’s older brother Samuel Quincy, was one of the prosecutors. And Christopher Seider, the young boy killed in Boston eleven days before the confrontation on King Street, was also born in the part of Braintree that became Quincy after the war.

This documentary was filmed last fall during the 250th anniversary of the Rex v. Preston and Rex v. Wemms et al. trials. The pandemic made it impossible to reenact those trials as we’d hoped. But this film promises to explore some of the legal, political, and moral issues they raised.

Quincy 400 appears to be an initiative of the city of Quincy, and particularly of longtime mayor Thomas P. Koch. The name refers to the 400th anniversary of British settlement of the area that includes Quincy in 2025.

I can’t find any information on who made Beyond the Bloody Massacre or how people can see it now. It’s not yet viewable online, but the Quincy 400 Facebook page promises “age appropriate school curriculum materials, live roundtable discussions, collaborative programs and future public viewings.” Plenty to come in three more years before that quadricentennial.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

“The opportunity to provide serious learning”?

Last week I received a spam message offering this ridiculous take on the U.S. Constitution.

What mildly educated American would believe that “The Constitution [does] not change”? The word “Amendment” means change. The Constitution has been formally changed twenty-seven times.

Likewise, this advertisement claims the Constitution’s “underlying principles do not change.” Somehow the same principles could provide electoral advantages for voters in states allowing slavery until 1865 and then abolish slavery after that date.

The principles defining the relationship between the national and state governments were somehow the same before and after the Fourteenth Amendment, even though its clauses fundamentally rewrote the rulebook for that relationship.

Those unchanging principles could change the unchanging Constitution to establish a national prohibition on alcohol in 1919 and end it fourteen years later.

And somehow without changing, those principles barred women from voting before 1920 and empowered them to vote after that.

Obviously, that claim is nonsense. It’s an expression of faith contrary to evidence. As such, it’s a fine way of sorting out who might be interested in “serious learning” from Hillsdale College.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

“I wish my wife and children out of the danger”

This is Charles Willson Peale’s painting of his family, now hanging at the New-York Historical Society. Peale is the man standing on the left, holding the artist’s palette in front of his unfinished canvas and looking at what his brothers are sketching at the table.

At the center of the picture sits the artist’s first wife, Rachel, with their fourth baby—the first to survive. At the time the family was living in Annapolis, Maryland.

Prof. Andrew Wehrman was startled to discover what happened to this family soon after Peale started to make this painting, as he wrote in a new essay at the Age of Revolutions:
Their fourth child Margaret brought them so much joy that Peale began painting one of his most famous works, The Peale Family, with Rachel and baby Margaret at the center. Before finishing the painting in the summer of 1772, and just after painting his first portrait of George Washington, Peale traveled to Philadelphia from Maryland in search of subjects to paint in the Colonies’ largest city.

Soon, tragedy struck. Peale read in the newspaper that smallpox had infected Annapolis, but, he wrote in a letter, “I have not heard in what house—(I have my fears) how dreadful the season, I wish my wife and children out of the danger of taking it.”

Neither Rachel nor baby Margaret had been inoculated and both caught the disease. Rachel recovered but Margaret did not. The Peales lost their fourth child, and it would be thirty-five years before Charles Willson could bring himself to revisit and complete The Peale Family.
Wehrman recounts how Peale went on to paint his baby, dressed in its shroud, and his grieving wife as a warning to other parents not to put off inoculation.

John Adams visited the artist’s studio and saw both pictures at a time he knew his wife and children were being inoculated in Boston.

Meanwhile, Gen. Washington was trying to figure out how to balance his soldiers’ demands for smallpox inoculation with the need to maintain army readiness.

Read the whole essay here. And get your booster shots.

Friday, November 19, 2021

“Some people talk of impeaching John Adams”

In 1802, Thomas Paine returned to the U.S. of A. after nearly a decade and a half in Europe.

Paine had spent the previous several years in France, some of them in prison. Before that he had built bridges in Britain and then burned them metaphorically with his books on religion and revolutionary politics.

Paine had also started a one-sided feud with President George Washington, who he thought hadn’t done enough to get him out of that French prison. But an invitation from President Thomas Jefferson convinced Paine that at least some Americans would be glad to see him return.

Paine wasted no time in going back to arguing about American politics. From a temporary base in Washington, he started to issue public letters to the citizens of his newly readopted country. The second one, dated 19 Nov 1802, included this passage:
Some of John Adams’s loyal subjects, I see, have been to present him with an address on his birthday; but the language they use is too tame for the occasion. Birthday addresses, like birthday odes, should not creep along like mildrops down a cabbage leaf, but roll in a torrent of poetical metaphor.

I will give them a specimen for the next year. Here it is:

When an ant, in traveling over the globe, lifts up its foot, and puts it again on the ground, it shakes the earth to its center: but when YOU, the mighty Ant of the East, was born, etc., etc., etc., the center jumped upon the surface.

This, gentlemen, is the proper style of addresses from well-bred ants to the monarch of the ant hills; and as I never take pay for preaching, praying, politics, or poetry, I make you a present of it.

Some people talk of impeaching John Adams; but I am for softer measures. I would keep him to make fun of. He will then answer one of the ends for which he was born, and he ought to be thankful that I am arrived to take his part.
It’s not hard to see how Paine made so many enemies.

See Jett B. Conner’s John Adams vs. Thomas Paine: Rival Plans for the Early Republic for more on the fraught relationship between those two advocates for independence.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

A King of Bath Stone and Coade Stone

Here’s a news story from London that caught my eye a couple of days ago and made me go digging for more detail.

This statue representing Alfred the Great stands outside Trinity Square Church in the borough of Southwark. At one point people thought that it or part of it was a medieval sculpture salvaged from an old church.

That would put Alfred among the contenders for the oldest outdoor statue in the British capital. Considering London’s smog problem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it must have weathered a lot.

Recently a team of conservators led by Dr. Kevin Hayward and Prof. Martin Henig studied the statue and announced that it is both younger and much older than people thought.

That team concluded that the lower part of the statue was originally carved from Bath stone to make a sculpture of the Roman goddess Minerva. Its style is typical of the early second century, around the time of the emperor Hadrian. When complete, that statue was about ten feet tall.

The upper part of the statue, including the chest, arms, head, and cloak that hangs down around the legs, wasn’t carved at all. It was molded in Coade stone, a mix of clay, terracotta, silicates, and glass fired in a very hot kiln for four days.

That process shrinks what the sculptors molded from that clay mixture, so making the top part of Alfred fit so well on the ancient stone bottom required expert calculations and manufacture.

Here’s where the eighteenth century fits in. The inventor of Coade stone was Eleanor Coade (1733-1821), a London businesswoman. Her father was a Baptist wool merchant in Exeter. Perhaps more importantly, her maternal grandmother, the widow Sarah Enchmarch, ran a very successful textile business from 1735 to 1760. After Eleanor’s father went bankrupt, the Coade family moved to London, and she set up her own business selling linen.

In 1769, Eleanor Coade bought Daniel Pincot’s artificial stone factory in Lambeth, keeping him as the manager. Two years later Coade found Pincot “representing himself as the chief proprietor,” so she fired him and promoted a sculptor named John Bacon to supervise the works.

Coade appears to have improved the formula for artificial stone. And she kept that formula secret; Coade stone wasn’t replicated until the 1990s. She also improved the line of products the company offered, exhibiting sculpture and ornamental goods at the Society of Artists in the 1770s. Among the designers Coade worked with was Benjamin West.

The Coade Artificial Stone Manufactory’s statuary and molded ornaments proved to be long-lasting. It offered designs to fit with the fashionable neoclassical style of architecture. In 1780 Coade landed a royal commission from George III to decorate a chapel at Windsor Castle, so she could boast a royal endorsement as well.

After Bacon’s death in 1799, Coade took on male cousins as her junior partners. She never married. In her will she left bequests to several female friends, stipulating that money would be their property independent of their husbands.

It’s not clear when the King Alfred statue was produced; the earliest record of its presence at the church is from 1831, so the Coade company might have produced it after Eleanor Coade’s death. There’s a Roman archeological site nearby, so one possibility is that the Georgian-period sculptors found the Minerva lower body, assumed it was from a medieval church, and produced the quasi-medieval statue of King Alfred to make the body whole again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Bipolar Disorder as a Factor in the American Revolution?

Instead of porphyria as the explanation for George III’s madness, in the paper I quoted yesterday Timothy Peters pointed to bipolar disorder: a cycle of mania and depression that debilitated the monarch for long, unpredictable stretches in his later life.

Andrew Roberts adopts this conclusion in his new biography of the king. Other scholars might have proposed the same answer as well.

Some might respond that that’s not so much of a diagnosis as a description of the king’s symptoms. Why did his mood shift so drastically? Indeed, part of the appeal of the preceding porphyria diagnosis is that it seems to offer an “explanation” to point to.

Many psychiatrists would counter that even if we don’t know the causal mechanisms of bipolar disorder, it’s a widely recognized condition. About the same fraction of people have it in many different cultures, strongly suggesting that a similar fraction of people had it in the eighteenth century.

Indeed, a number of other prominent figures in the American Revolution showed signs of the disorder. I’m not talking about people whose politics or opinions other people sometimes called “mad,” such as John Adams, but men who went through periods of not being able to function because of depression and other periods of exuberance that got them into trouble.

In Massachusetts, the most prominent example was the early radical leader James Otis, Jr. He suffered several periods of insanity in the 1770s and early 1780s, bad enough that his family bundled him off to houses in the country.

William Tudor, Jr.’s 1823 biography blamed Otis’s coffee-house brawl with John Robinson for those troubles. But John Adams’s diary and other contemporaneous sources from 1769 suggest that Otis’s troubles were already evident by then, and that he actually went into that confrontation during a manic period.

In addition, the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings for May 1858 refers to a letter from Otis’s younger brother, Samuel Allyne Otis, to their father with “evidence of the existence of a tendency to insanity in the younger [James] Otis, which manifested itself at an early period of his life.” Of course, being beaten on the skull didn’t help the man’s mental stability.

Contemporaries also recognized that the Northampton lawyer Joseph Hawley (1723-1788) fell into a debilitating depression around the start of the Revolutionary War. Until then, he had been a strong Whig voice from the western part of the province, sometimes voicing radical arguments in the courts and legislature. Indeed, in the late 1760s his criticism of the Superior Court was so strong it got him disbarred for a time.

In May 1775 Hawley wrote to his colleague Theodore Sedgwick that he felt “very low and melancholy,” complaining of “want of health or memory, weakness of body and Shocking impair of mind.” He declined requests to serve in the Continental Congress and retired entirely in late 1776. In the following years friends would find Hawley confined to his house, biographer E. Francis Brown wrote, sitting in front of his fire and smoking for hours with a “wild and piercing look” in his eyes.

I think another Massachusetts lawyer in the opposite political camp, attorney general Jonathan Sewall, also shows a pattern of manic-depressive behavior. He certainly suffered a severe depression after going into exile during the war. But Sewall’s refusal to participate in the Boston Massacre trials and his uneven output of newspaper essays might be best explained as signs of severely changing moods.

The cases of both Hawley and Sewall offer evidence of how there’s a hereditary aspect to bipolar disorder. Hawley’s father committed suicide, and Sewall’s son was also known to have depressive episodes.

In Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of Charles Lee (2014), Phillip Pappas posits that bipolar disorder is the best explanation of that general’s wild and often self-defeating behavior—the risk-taking that led to his capture in 1776, his choice as a prisoner to offer strategic advice to Gen. William Howe, what looks like an attempt to draw Gen. George Washington into a duel after the battle of Monmouth, and so on.

Assuming these men did have bipolar disorder, did that affect the course of the Revolution? I think it’s conceivable that Otis was a bit manic when he broke with the Crown in the early 1760s and formulated his foundational arguments about the illegitimacy of Parliament’s revenue laws. I’m not saying that political position was crazy, but it was radical enough that Otis might never have had the audacity to stake out that ground otherwise.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Streaming King George

This evening, Andrew Roberts is scheduled to speak at Mount Vernon on his new book The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III. The public can view that talk starting at 7:00 P.M. through the estate’s website.

I recently listened to the History Extra podcast’s conversation with Roberts, which focused mainly on the charge that George III was tyrannical. American Patriots used that claim to justify their total break with the British system in July 1776, piling onto the king all the policies of the government he represented and describing them in the worst possible way.

Later British Whig writers also criticized George III for trying to exercise political power simply on the basis of inheritance. Roberts argues that really they disliked his preference for “Tories” even when Whigs held the majority in the House of Commons. In reality, he says, George III was barely involved in governing even before his illness.

That position makes a provocative contrast with the conversations about the prime ministers who served under George III on Iain Dale’s “The Prime Ministers” podcast. A recurring theme of those interviews is that getting along with the king was close to a prerequisite for prime ministers in the late eighteenth century. Men like William Pitt in the late 1750s and Charles James Fox in the early 1780s held power in the House of Commons but needed a more congenial, noble First Lord of the Treasury as a buffer between themselves and the king. George III may not have gotten deep into the details of policy, but he did get into personalities.

Another of Roberts’s contentions involves the illness that debilitated George III. Back in the early 1960s Drs. Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter argued that disease was porphyria in two British Medical Journal papers; a book, George III and the Mad Business; and a pamphlet, Porphyria: A Royal Malady. Not everyone was convinced, but their hypothesis got a lot of traction.

Indeed, I remember learning the word “porphyria” as a boy back in the Bicentennial era, solely because of King George. All I knew about the disease is that it could render people insane and turn their urine purple.

In 2011 Timothy Peters published a paper in the journal Clinical Medicine titled “King George III, bipolar disorder, porphyria and lessons for historians.” He lambasted Macalpine and Hunter’s diagnosis, writing, “it is clear that their interpretation of [the king’s symptoms] as diagnostic of acute porphyria was misleading and some interpretations were bordering on the fraudulent.”

As for the urine:
The discoloured urine claimed by Hunter to be ‘the final proof of the diagnosis’ is worthy of some mention. Macalpine was able to identify four occasions during the 30 years of the King’s recurrent illness when the physicians reported discolouration. They subsequently claimed a further two unidentified occasions when coloured urine was noted. The bluish particulate material in a single urine sample during his final attack in January 1811…is particularly noteworthy.

However, Macalpine and Hunter and other researchers have failed to point to the six occasions in the six weeks leading up to this event when the physicians referred to pale, clear, yellow and normal urine samples. A single visit to the British Library to confirm the blue urine referred to in the Willis papers would surely have signalled even to non-medics the possibility of selectivity. The observation that three days before the blue urine episode the King commenced a new medication, extract of gentian, was a ‘red flag’ to the present author.
Roberts clearly trusts Peters’s analysis of the case.

TOMORROW: So what was the madness of George III?

Monday, November 15, 2021

“The unanimous assent of 11 States and Colonel Hamilton’s”

The Statutes and Stories blog has a couple of new posts detailing an archival discovery related to the New York delegation to the Constitutional Convention.

The first article by University of Wisconsin professor John Kaminski, attorney Adam Levinson, and Sergio Villavicencio of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society is a bit breathless for my taste, but the second steps back and raises a lot of thoughtful questions about how to interpret incomplete evidence.

The background of this story is that the state of New York sent three delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, aimed at revising the Articles of Confederation. One of those men was a leading proponent of having that meeting, Alexander Hamilton. You may have heard of him.

The other two were judge Robert Yates (1738-1801) and his former trainee, attorney John Lansing, Jr. (1754-1829?), both from Albany. The two men were related by marriage and also allied in politics. Like Gov. George Clinton, they opposed strengthening the national government. In sum, they went to Philadelphia to outvote Hamilton on the state’s delegation.

Around 30 June, after the convention had met for a little more than a month, Hamilton went home to New York City. He was getting to propose his ideas, but he couldn’t even get his own state to support them.

Yates and Lansing followed about 10 July. They could see that the convention was moving toward creating a constitution for a stronger federal government, and they didn’t want any part in that.

As the blog posts explain, on 20 August Hamilton told his fellow Federalist Rufus King:
I have written to my colleagues informing them, that if either of them would come down I would accompany him to Philadelphia. So much for the sake of propriety and public opinion.
No one has found Hamilton’s actual letter, so we don’t know how he phrased that offer. As the three authors ask, “Did Yates and Lansing understand Hamilton’s letter to mean that he would only go back to Philadelphia if one of them joined him?” The comment “So much for the sake of propriety and public opinion” suggests Hamilton wrote to the two men purely as a political move.

In any event, Hamilton did go back to participate in the closing sessions. He couldn’t vote on behalf of New York since that state had required all three of its delegates to be present for votes. But he was talking.

In early September the meeting approved a new draft Constitution for the U.S. of A., totally rebuilding the national government. On 17 September the chairman of what had become a Constitutional Convention, George Washington, wrote in his diary:
Met in Convention, when the Constitution received the unanimous assent of 11 States and Colonel Hamilton’s from New York.
Washington distinguished between the eleven states that had a quorum of delegates at the convention and the lone voice from New York piping up unofficially. (Rhode Island wasn’t there at all.) Everyone knew Hamilton didn’t represent his colleagues’ views. Nonetheless, New York didn’t oppose the new document.

Proponents of the new Constitution emphasized that seemingly unanimous vote of the states. Hamilton insisted that every delegate present should sign it. Gouverneur Morris came up with language to indicate the men were signing as witnesses to the state votes, not to endorse the new document personally. Even so, Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph refused to sign.

The new archival discovery is an expense report from Robert Yates to the government of New York for his service as a delegate, including “May June & July 1787 59 Days at 32s pr Day.” At the bottom of that document is the entry:
To my Comming as far as New York in my Way to Philadelphia for the Same purpose where I heard that the Convention rose [i.e., adjourned] a Day after my arrival and my return home 12 Days at the Same rate
As Kaminski, Levinson, and Villavicencio point out, this record shows Yates was on his way to Philadelphia as the convention was completing its work. Had he arrived in early September, his voice would have canceled out Hamilton’s approval of the Constitution. He could have added to the chorus protesting the document and refusing to sign. He could even have sent for Lansing and turned New York’s vote to a no.

Instead, Yates got as far as New York City, learned the convention was done, and went back home. He and Lansing both argued against ratifying the proposed Constitution at New York’s state convention. Their side lost narrowly, 30 votes to 27.

The Statutes and Stories blog posts discuss other small revelations coming out of these expense records, as well as questions they don’t answer but other documents might. It’s a good example of how even mundane bureaucratic documents can reveal crucial facts.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Assessing the Revolution’s Effect on Slavery in New England

Even though most New Englanders went into the Revolution and Revolutionary War with no thought of changing chattel slavery, the ideology of liberty and natural rights produced new thinking.

In the ten years before the war we can see hints of the system breaking down. The number of enslaved people in Massachusetts stopped growing with the overall population. Advertisements in newspapers offered to give away small children; as horrific as that sounds, it indicates the economics of slaveholding looked poor. The first anti-slavery pamphlets in decades appeared shortly before the war.

The departure of wealthy Loyalists, first from their rural homes and then from Boston in 1776, left some enslaved people at liberty. It also cut the number of local elite voices defending their investment in human property since the new wealthy arising during the war didn’t have such a history of slaveholding.

In New York and the southern states, the British were able to organize companies of black troops and support personnel from slaves who had freed themselves. But they couldn’t do that in Boston or Newport. Instead, it was the Continental Army that formed two Rhode Island regiments made up largely of black and Native men.

Even more important, from the start of the war, New England regiments enlisted black men alongside whites. The Rhode Islanders were eventually dispersed among other regiments that way as well. For a sizable number of enslaved New England men, serving in the Continental Army was a path to freedom, not serving the British army.

In 1777 the settlers who came to Vermont from New England decided that there would be no slavery in their new independent state. In 1783 the Massachusetts high court decided that state’s new constitution rendered slavery unenforceable. New Hampshire quickly followed. Connecticut and Rhode Island enacted gradual emancipation laws—very gradual—in 1784.

To be sure, those forms of abolition didn’t produce fair outcomes. Some former slaveholders used the law to justify not supporting older people who had worked for them without pay for years. People remained legally enslaved in southern New England until the eve of the Civil War. The region’s economy remained bound up with slave societies to the south.

Nonetheless, in this significant part of the new U.S. of A., the Revolution had strongly contributed to slavery’s end. So can we say that was a major effect of the Revolution?

I decided to look at the numbers. In 1765 the provincial census counted about 5,200 black people in Massachusetts, including Maine. The breakaway government found about the same number in 1776. The first U.S. census of 1790 counted 5,369 non-white citizens. A significant fraction of those people were already free before the Revolution, but that’s the maximum number of people in Massachusetts freed by the state court. The corresponding number for the state of New Hampshire was 630.

Meanwhile, in the 1780s and ’90s the port of Charleston, South Carolina, imported about 2,000 enslaved Africans each year, on top of children born into slavery. Thus, every three years the new American republic absorbed more people into life as slaves than the total freed by the northern New England abolitions. As positive as the effects of the Revolution were in some states, the strong overall trend of the new nation was toward enslaving more people, even before the cotton economy took over.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

“He is now exciting those very people to rise in arms”

When I first read about the idea that Americans rebelled because they worried about the British government moving to end chattel slavery, advanced in books by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen and Gerald Horne, I didn’t see how that fit the pattern of where the resistance broke out. Nor on where the ensuing Revolution had the greatest effect on slavery.

If the anxiety of slaveholders was a major driver in the onset of the Revolution, why did the worst early confrontations happen in New England, which had the smallest percentage of people enslaved?

Why did that obstreperous Massachusetts assembly vote twice in the decade before the war to end all imports of human property from Africa? Why did the legislature entertain petitions from enslaved men, reportedly encouraged by its clerk Samuel Adams? Why did those states move to end or limit slavery during and soon after the war?

Conversely, if slaveholders had become so anxious as to defy the government in London, why did Jamaica and the other Caribbean islands, which depended completely on chattel slavery, remain firmly loyal to Britain? Why was the British military able to reconquer Georgia and the capital of South Carolina, two of the three newly independent states with the largest fractions of their populations enslaved?

Those questions apply to the hypothesis that slaveholders were aroused by the Somerset decision of 1772, as the Blumrosens and Horne argued. And there’s already very little contemporaneous evidence to suggest that white colonists viewed that legal decision as portending any change for America.

On the other hand, if we look at the hypothesis that the slaveholders’ anxiety arose not from the Somerset case but from the Dunmore and Phillipsburg Proclamations, as Sylvia Frey, Woody Holton, and others have written, the pattern of resistance makes more sense.

In that view, the early resistance to new taxes, the shift of power in New England in late 1774, and the outbreak of war in 1775 were driven by a lot of other factors—not only economics and constitutional beliefs but everything from post-Puritan suspicion about the threat of an Anglican bishop over America to unspoken resentment over more vigorous Customs enforcement.

Chattel slavery wasn’t necessarily a big factor for American Whigs in that period, except in how Whig philosophy deemed people without traditional British rights as little more than ”slaves,” and the presence of some actual slaves in town might have made that threat feel more real. (Then again, the master class in a slave society is remarkably capable of not seeing themselves as having anything in common with the people they enslave.)

Once fighting began, however, British commanders looked for every resource they could. In late 1775 the Earl of Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, promised freedom to people enslaved by Patriots. His offer had power in only one colony, but Virginia wasn’t just any colony—it had the largest total population by far, and over 40% of those people were enslaved.

Dunmore’s campaign was shut down rather quickly, but not before, according to Holton, it pushed Virginians, and perhaps southern Patriots generally, toward independence in 1776. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson blamed King George III for perpetuating the slave trade and then wrote:
he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Southern delegates who wanted to maintain chattel slavery and avoid ridicule for total hypocrisy edited that down to seven words: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” The document moved quickly on to complaining about the Crown’s Native American allies. No one used the word “slave,” but everyone knew “domestic insurrections” meant slave revolts.

The war ground on. Gen. Henry Clinton renewed Dunmore’s policy in the Phillipsburg Proclamation of 1779 and extended it across all the rebellious colonies. But it had different effects in different regions.

By that point, New England, which already had the least to fear of slave uprisings, was also largely free from the British military. The Phillipsburg Proclamation meant about as little there as the Somerset decision.

The southern states had become the focus of Clinton’s strategy, and that was also where Patriot and neutral planters saw the most to lose from their human property escaping or rebelling. It makes sense for the biggest backlash against the British to arise there.

As for Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean, they had never rebelled, so Clinton’s proclamation meant nothing to those planters. The ocean blocked enslaved islanders from seeking freedom behind army lines. The same ocean also made those islands dependent on remaining part of the transatlantic trading system; despite some protests against the Stamp Act in 1765, the Caribbean planters were never in a position to rebel.

(These thoughts were prompted by Twitter conversation with Woody Holton in early September. He looked at the percentage of enslaved in different colonies. I’ve added the factor of when those places saw the most fighting.)

Friday, November 12, 2021

“The young Wood performed a scholarly triple axel”

This has been a good week for fans of American Revolution historiography. In addition to the article on “The 1619 Project” that I quoted the last two days, the Boston Review published David Waldstreicher’s review of Gordon Wood’s Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution and Carol Anderson’s The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America.

Waldstreicher is a professor of history at the City University of New York and author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (2009); Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution (2004); and In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (1997). His own review of the long controversies leading up to “The 1619 Project” appeared on the Boston Review in January 2020.

The new review assesses two very different books on American constitutionalism, which lets Waldstreicher make a long running start from Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and Warren G. Harding’s tradition-minded counterattack against it.

Eventually that brings us to Wood’s first book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, published in 1969:
That study won acclaim for highlighting the intellectual and practical dilemmas of republicanism and for seeming to split the difference between celebration and criticism of the founders. Wood argued that, ironically, the course of the 1780s led toward a Madisonian “science of politics” that sought to bury economic conflict in schemes of federalism and representation, and did it so successfully that it created an American political tradition that couldn’t deal honestly with class or money.

In this, the young Wood performed a scholarly triple axel. At great length and sophistication, he had offered something to those inclined to celebrate the Constitution, those who criticized it, and those looking for some way between. The republic, simply put, was moderate yet innovative, advanced yet caught up in self-deception.
The Creation of the American Republic was and remains an important book, but in the half-century since it appeared growing numbers of historians have pointed out the limits of its approach.

One factor in that change was simply that new scholars need to develop new ideas. About Cold War-era academics, Waldstreicher writes, “Ever Oedipal, young historians began to make their name by attacking the pieties of their Progressive forebears.” The same process applied to what seemed radical in 1969.

Another is how much America changed in the following decades. When women and people of color play a larger role in society, including the top ranks of our government, economy, and culture, it’s natural to wonder how those individuals were part of the American Revolution. Wood spent little time on those people or issues concerning them. The formal politics of the time excluded them, and he continues to view those politics as most important.

As a result, Waldstreicher and other historians don’t see much new in Wood’s latest book, or in the several that preceded it. It presents the big political documents of the Revolution—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—as world-changing while waving away all the ways life didn’t change for most Americans.

In contrast, Anderson’s The Second emphasizes the continuity from colonial-era slave codes through the Second Amendment’s protection of the white male militia to the armed backlash against Reconstruction and civil rights. Wood would probably say her perspective misses the big picture. She would probably say the same of his.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

“The most basic one of all: All men are created equal”

Yesterday I noted and quoted from New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein’s essay about “The 1619 Project,” originally a collection of articles in the Sunday newspaper and now a book.

Silverstein situates that project within the historiography of the American past, and specifically within the effort by some historians to highlight how the Revolutionary conflict included, excluded, and affected people of African descent.

Alongside a longer effort by other historians to ignore or downplay that aspect of the Revolution in order to make the American past look better in the present, whatever the present’s values happen to be at the time.

Here are some more extracts from Silverstein’s discussion:
[Benjamin] Quarles’s book “The Negro in the American Revolution,” published in 1961, was an important part of that decade’s historiographical reassessments. It was the first to thoroughly explore an often-overlooked feature of that war: that substantially more Black people were drawn to the British side than the Patriot cause, believing this the better path to freedom.

Quarles’s work posed profound questions about the traditional narrative of the founding era. While acknowledging that for some white people the ideals of the Revolution had “exposed the inconsistencies” of chattel slavery in a nation founded on equality, he also observed a deeply uncomfortable fact: “They were far outnumbered by those who detected no ideological inconsistency. These white Americans, not considering themselves counterrevolutionary, would never have dreamed of repudiating the theory of natural rights. Instead they skirted the dilemma by maintaining that blacks were an outgroup rather than members of the body politic.”

. . . today we find ourselves back in the midst of another battle over the teaching of American history. Though it differs in some respects from the debate over the national history standards, the two episodes have enough in common that the conclusions drawn by [Gary] Nash and [Charlotte] Crabtree in their 1997 book, “History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past,” written with Ross E. Dunn, offer some insight into our present struggles. . . . In their view, the standards’ opponents believed that “history that dwells on unsavory or even horrific episodes in our past is unpatriotic and likely to alienate young students from their own country.” Their own perspective was that “exposing students to grim chapters of our past is essential to the creation of informed, responsible citizens.” . . .

It’s a particularly American irony that the effort to do so has been deemed a “divisive concept” and banned from the classroom in 12 states. We may need, instead, legislation that requires us to study divisive concepts, beginning with the most basic one of all: All men are created equal.

As Quarles and others have explained, our founding concept of universal equality, in a country where one-fifth of the population was enslaved, led to an increase in racial prejudice by creating a cognitive dissonance — one that could be resolved only by the white citizenry’s assumption of Black inferiority and inhumanity. It’s an unsettling idea, that the most revered ideal of the Declaration of Independence might be considered our original divisive concept.
It’s a long essay, with many more interesting passages that I didn’t quote. It might also be paywalled, but I recommend reading it.

For anyone who comes away with a hunger for more about the shifting historiography of the American Revolution, check out Michael Hattem’s overview of the subject here and, less graphically, here. Hattem is an educator at Yale and author of Past as Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Short, Ongoing History of “The 1619 Project”

In connection with the publication of the revised and expanded book edition of The 1619 Project, Jake Silverstein, the New York Times Magazine editor who green-lighted Hannah Nikole-Jones’s original proposal for a special issue, wrote a long essay covering two topics:
  • the genesis of the original publication and how it became a focus of political controversy.
  • how the project fits into the historiography of the American Revolution.
On the first topic, Silverstein dates the “substantive” pushback against the project to a letter from five eminent American historians which the magazine published and responded to in December 2019.

The ever iconoclastic author William Hogeland noted that that framing left out how the World Socialists Web Site started to run interviews with those same historians the previous month. I quoted from the conversation with Gordon Wood back here.

The interviews were much longer than the letter, as well as more intemperate (and in some cases inaccurate) about what the original “1619 Project” said. They served but didn’t support the World Socialists’ own critique of the project, a Trotskyist approach that emphasizes economic issues over racial ones. Since socialists are one part of the political left, more powerful critics on the right were able to argue that opposition to the 1619 Project wasn’t simply reactionary.

Me, I think it’s impossible to find any activity that doesn’t have political meaning, even if it’s not easy to see at the time. Of course “The 1619 Project,” or anything about racial injustice in American society, has a political dimension. As does overheated opposition to it.

Silverstein’s essay recounts how far the political response went in a year with a Presidential election and another with an attempted coup:
By the end of the summer, 27 states had introduced strikingly similar versions of a “divisive concepts” bill, which swirled together misrepresentations of critical race theory and the 1619 Project with extreme examples of the diversity training that had proliferated since the previous summer. The list of these divisive concepts, which the laws would prohibit from being discussed in classrooms, included such ideas as “one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race, ethnic group or sex” and “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race, ethnicity or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race, ethnic group or sex,” as Arizona House Bill 2898 put it.

To be clear, these notions aren’t found in the 1619 Project or in any but the most fringe writings by adherents of critical race theory, but the legislation aimed at something broader. “The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States,” the A.H.A. [American Historical Association] and three other associations declared in a statement in June. “But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.”
One of the basic points of both “The 1619 Project” and “critical race theory” is that for at least three hundred years American schools and other institutions did operate on the basis that “one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another.” And that the consequences of those centuries still affect us every day. These “divisive concepts” laws prohibit promulgating such ideas further, but they also stifle teaching about the history and results of those ideas.

TOMORROW: The long effort to tell the history.