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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Monday, January 24, 2022

“The general said that his confidence had been betrayed”

Earlier this month I noted the American Revolution Institute’s article about a likely caricature of Gen. Thomas and Margaret Gage published in London in 1776.

Comments on that post raised the question of when historians started to consider the possibility that Margaret Gage had betrayed her husband by leaking his plans for the 18 Apr 1775 expedition to Concord to the Patriots.

Not that anyone involved in that discussion believed that theory. Rather, we were just wondering when it arose and what evidence, if any, supported it.

By the end of the eighteenth century there were three readily available printed sources speaking to this question. The first was the Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America, published in London in 1788. Gordon knew the Boston Whigs well and was particularly close to Samuel Adams. He wrote of April 1775:
The grenadier and light infantry companies were taken off duty, upon the plea of learning a new exercise, which made the Bostonians jealous that there was some scheme on foot. A daughter of liberty, unequally yoked in point of politics, sent word, by a trusty hand, to Mr. Samuel Adams, residing in company with Mr. [John] Hancock, at Lexington, about thirteen miles from Charlestown, that the troops were coming out in a few days. Upon this their friends at Boston were advised to move out their plate, &c. and the committee of safety voted [18 April], “that all the ammunition be deposited in nine different towns. . .”

Mr. Adams inferred from the number to be employed, that these [military stores] were the objects, and not himself and Mr. Hancock, who might more easily be seized in a private way, by a few armed individuals, than by a large body of troops, that must march for miles together under the eyes of the public. . . .

When the corps was nearly ready to proceed upon the expedition, Dr. [Joseph] Warren, by a mere accident, had notice of it just in time to send messengers over the Neck and across the ferry, on to Lexington, before the orders for preventing every person’s quitting the town were executed.
I quoted from the 1801 edition, which differs a little in punctuation but not wording from the original.

Gordon described two pieces of information reaching two different Patriots. First, Adams outside Boston heard from a sympathetic woman with a Loyalist husband that a march would happen “in a few days.” There’s no clear hint that woman had inside information; instead, Gordon pointed to the orders for the flank companies, which lots of people heard about.

The Patriot leadership had already acted on that advice when Warren “by a mere accident” heard the march was imminent just in time to send messengers—we now know these were William Dawes and Paul Revere—out to Lexington.

From the British side, former officer Charles Stedman’s 1794 History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War confirmed that Gen. Gage was focused on Concord and tried to keep the mission secret:
In war there is nothing that so much avails as secresy of design and celerity of execution: Nor, on the contrary, so hurtful as unnecessary openness and procrastination. General Gage on the evening of the eighteenth of April told lord Percy, that he intended to send a detachment to seize the stores at Concord, and to give the command to colonel [Francis] Smith, ”who knew that he was to go, but not where.” He meant it to be a secret expedition, and begged of lord Percy to keep it a profound secret.

As this nobleman was passing from the general’s quarters home to his own, perceiving eight or ten men conversing together on the common, he made up to them; when one of the men said—“The British troops have marched, but they will miss their aim.”

“What aim?“ said lord Percy.

“Why,” the man replied, ”the cannon at Concord.”

Lord Percy immediately returned on his steps, and acquainted general Gage, not without marks of surprize and disapprobation, of what he had just heard. The general said that his confidence had been betrayed, for that he had communicated his design to one person only besides his lordship.
I broke Stedman’s single long paragraph into shorter paragraphs for easier reading.

Clearly Col. Percy was Stedman’s source for this story. And clearly Percy believed Gage’s plans had leaked, presumably through that “one person” (or maybe Gage hadn’t been as circumspect as he claimed).

Gage and Percy might not have guessed correctly about a leak. The man speaking on the Common might have been speculating about what the British goal was, based on the number of soldiers who were departing. After all, Adams had reportedly made the same guess.

One more early printed source was Paul Revere’s letter to the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap about the opening of the war, published in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Collections series in 1798:
The Saturday night preceding the 19th of April, about 12 o’clock at night, the boats belonging to the transports were all launched, and carried under the sterns of the men of war. (They had been previously hauled up and repaired.) We likewise found that the grenadiers and light Infantry were all taken off duty.

From these movements, we expected something serious was to be transacted. On Tuesday evening, the 18th, it was observed, that a number of soldiers were marching towards the bottom of the Common. About 10 o’clock, Dr. Warren sent in great haste for me, and begged that I would imediately set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the movement, and that it was thought they were the objects. When I got to Dr. Warren’s house, I found he had sent an express by land to Lexington—a Mr. William Dawes.
Belknap cleaned up some of Revere’s spellings before publishing. See the original here. Revere’s letter was reprinted in the Worcester Magazine and Historical Journal in 1826 and in the New England Magazine in 1832.

Thus, before the turn of the nineteenth century historians had sources close to the action revealing that:
  • The commander and second-in-command of the British troops thought the secret plan for the march had leaked, despite only three people knowing about it.
  • Bostonians had actually been talking about the likely plan for days, based on publicly visible signs; Samuel Adams had deduced the general’s goal; and the committee of safety was acting on that warning.
  • Warren sent Dawes and Revere to Lexington based on the mistaken idea that “the objects” of the march were Adams and Hancock; in other words, whatever last-minute information the doctor received “by a mere accident,” that source did not tell him that Gage was focused on Concord.

TOMORROW: The view from the mid-1800s.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Two Attacks on George III’s Coach

Last week I wrote about George III’s gilded coach, and how some Londoners stoned it in October 1795.

It turns out this wasn’t the first time a crowd had attacked that royal coach. Or was it?

The Georgian Lords Twitter account led me to this passage from the diary of Queen Charlotte on 21 Jan 1794:
To Day the Kg. went to Open the Parliament about 3 a Clock. in going there were two attempts made at throwing a Stone at the Kg. the first broke the Side Glass of the Coach, & the Second was thrown from behind & fell over the Coachmans Head.
You can view the actual diary page here.

On 24 January the Oracle newspaper, also called Bell’s New World, stated:
some daring ruffian threw a stone at his Majesty…which broke the coach window. We have not yet had the pleasure to hear of the villain’s apprehension.
However, the Times of London had reported on 23 January:
Tuesday, as his Majesty was going in state to the House of Peers, one of the halberts of the Yeomen struck against the window of the King’s coach and smashed it. Happily no mischief was occasioned, but the circumstances gave rise to a report of some madman having thrown a stone at the window, which we are happy to contradict.
Was the queen correct in recording an attack on the royal coach? It looks like she wasn’t there, but of course she would have heard from the king. It certainly looks like he was convinced people had attacked him with stones.

And yet a leading establishment newspaper assured the public that the “report” circulating was mistaken, that there was no “madman” or “ruffian” to hunt down—let alone two. Publicizing an assault when there was no way to find the criminal would probably have only made the authorities look ineffectual.

In contrast, the government took quite public action when people threw stones at the king’s coach toward the end of the following year, on 29 Oct 1795. Parliament undertook an immediate investigation. The questioning of witnesses was transcribed and later published. Two men were charged:
  • Edward Collins, “Keeper of an Eating-house,” accused by an eyewitness of throwing a stone at the king, a crime of high treason.
  • Kidd Wake, journeyman printer, heard to shout “No war!” but not seen to throw anything, and thus charged with “a misdemeanor in hissing and hooting the king in a riotous manner.”
The authorities also offered a £1000 reward for information about any other rioters, but it doesn’t look like anyone came forward.

The ministry under William Pitt took advantage of the moment to press two bills, one “for the Safety and Preservation of His Majesty’s Person and Government” and the other “for the More Effectually Preventing Seditious Meetings and Assemblies.” Those laws let the British government crack down on opponents of its war policy.

Kidd Wake went on trial in February 1796, and his fate can be seen in the title of a publication he offered for sixpence in 1801: The Case of Kidd Wake: Being a Narrative of His Sufferings, During Five Years Confinement!!! In Glocester Penitentiary House: for Hooting, Hissing, and Calling Out No War! as His Majesty was Passing in State. Among Wake’s reported sufferings was contracting tapeworms. He died in a wagon accident in 1807.

As for Edward Collins, he was eventually released without trial, but I’ve found no report on that development in the mainstream British news media. It’s tempting to say he had served his purpose for the ministry.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

“Big Chill” Lectures at Historic Deerfield

Historic Deerfield is observing the winter season with a series of online lectures on the theme of “The Big Chill: Early Environmental Histories of Climate Change.” The first takes place tomorrow, followed by one in each of the next two months.

The series description says:
From a centuries-long Little Ice Age to the global aftermath of the largest volcanic eruption in the last 10,000 years, this year’s series is devoted to early environmental histories and their impact on people and places. Join us for three virtual webinars this winter exploring how North American Indigenous communities and European colonizers understood and experienced the plunging temperatures and deep freezes, catastrophic flooding, and severe droughts and famine that became part of cultural memory and identity.
Here are the individual lectures—

Sunday, 23 January, 2:00 P.M.
“The Problem of Climate in Early Colonial History”
Presented by Sam White, Ohio State University

Sunday, 27 February, 2:00 P.M.
“Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World” [in 1815]
Presented by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, University of Illinois

Sunday, 27 March, 2:00 P.M.
“Snow Cover and Winter Knowledge of the Little Ice Age”
Presented by Thomas M. Wickman, Trinity College, author of Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast

People who register in advance can watch these lecture live via Zoom and/or watch them for two weeks afterwards. These talks are free, but donating to or becoming a member of Historic Deerfield while enjoying these public programs would be a warm gesture.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Two New Artistic Depictions of Revolutionary Stories

Naden Rowe teaches history at an “American” middle school overseas. He occasionally parodies popular songs with new lyrics to explain some part of his lessons.

Last year he reworked “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo and Dan Nigro into “Act of Violence,” narrating the Boston Massacre from the perspective of a teen-aged girl in Boston.

Rowe turned to a nearby singer who goes by the name Nyah (here’s her Tiktok feed) to record the new lyrics.

Then a sixth-grader dubbed Yakuza Baby asked to make an animated video for the song, using the Paul Revere engraving combined with new art.

All in all, it’s very impressive. Rowe’s song rightly depicts the first violence of the night on King Street coming from a soldier, analyzes what feelings the propaganda print would produce, and highlights the event’s ambiguities. Nyah’s vocal performance is affecting. And Yakuza Baby’s animation effects are varied and striking.

Another creator who caught my attention this week on Twitter was Sean Dermond, who shared “Mrs. Benedict Arnold,” an online picture book. It provides his take on the story of Peggy Shippen using cutouts within paper dioramas, a technique that reminds me of the 1970s Paddington television series. Handsome draftsmanship and photography under pandemic conditions. Check it out on Dermond’s webpage.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Passing of Dr. Jenn Steenshorne

The Selected Papers of John Jay project at Columbia University just published its seventh and final printed volume, covering the years 1799 to 1829.

The project is also converting those volumes into a digital edition. A couple of years ago, the National Archives’ Founders Online website added those documents to its database, which symbolically elevates Jay to the top tier of Founders along with Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison.

After all, Jay was a strong voice in the Continental Congress, U.S. minister to Spain, signer of the Treaty of Paris, Confederation secretary of foreign affairs, contributor to the “Federalist” essays, first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, negotiator of a crucial and controversial treaty with Great Britain, and governor of New York for six years.

The completion of The Selected Papers of John Jay was tinged with sadness this month as word spread that one long-time editor on the project, Jennifer Steenshorne, had died suddenly of Covid-19. On 28 December she tweeted, “Just took a home Covid test. Positive. I’ve had two shots, so not so bad aside from the exhaustion and cough.” However, the next day she added, “My Covid Cough makes me feel like I have been slammed in the ribs by baseball bats.” Three days later, she died.

Dr. Steenshorne was a warm presence among academic historians on Twitter, so her loss produced a real outpouring of sadness. I never met her, but I liked spotting the avatar of “Dr. JE Steenshorne, Harborer of Cats” (shown above). I knew her comments would be smart and kind. Scrolling back, I saw that my birthday gifts in 2020 included her reply to one of my silly tweets about British clerics’ overblown sleeves (not that she knew it was my birthday).

New York University colleague George Platt wrote:
Besides her many professional accomplishments, Jennifer was a supportive colleague and great friend to many of us, and was always ready with a precisely relevant fact from her encyclopedic knowledge of New York City. Her vast array of interests ranged from fashion and design (having worked for Perry Ellis), to music (having interned with Electra Records), to horse racing, and public health. She brewed stouts and porters. A fan of the Rolling Stones, she worked for jazz legends Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. . . . She also published on topics as diverse as cemetery removal in Manhattan, and James Bond films.
In 2018, Steenshorne became director and editor-in-chief of the Washington Papers. Colleagues at the University of Virginia Press lamented:
Beyond conferring about John Jay, George Washington, and the founding generation, we recall lively discussions about such wide-ranging figures as Ann Cary Randolph Morris, George Templeton Strong, and Joseph Urban—wonderful conversations that made evident the breadth of her knowledge and her interests, from the substantive role of women in the early republic to the rigors of the Civil War era to the design of Ziegfeld’s Follies. She will be missed.
Steenshorne’s husband, Brant M. Vogel, was a co-editor at the Jay Papers. He just announced that on Friday, 21 January, from 6:00 to 9:00 P.M. the Jazz Alternatives show on WKCR will play a tribute show to Dr. Jenn Steenshorne. Anyone can tune in at http://wkcr.org.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

“The great curiosity of seeing the King’s new coach”

The rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence makes George III out as America’s great villain and antagonist of the Revolution.

But of course the king was just the visible embodiment of the British government. The ministry acted in his name, but he didn’t make all decisions. Though George III exercised influence, especially in the choice of ministers, but he wasn’t a tyrant dictating policy from his gilded carriage.

To be sure, he had a gilded carriage.

George III’s state coach survives at Buckingham Palace, as shown in this photo from Rachel Knowles’s blog.

This vehicle was commissioned soon after the young man came to the throne in 1760, designed by Sir William Chambers with decorative allegorical panels painted by Giovanni Battista Cipriani, an artist from Florence.

The coach cost more than £7,661, with £2,504 going to the carver, £1,673 to the coachmaker and wheelwright, £933 to the gilder, and £737 to the “lace-man.”

The coach made it public debut on at the opening of Parliament in October 1762. Richard Rigby reported to the Duke of Bedford:
The great curiosity of seeing the King’s new coach yesterday had filled the park and streets, by all accounts, fuller than they were at the coronation. I was above three hours upon the road from the end of Pall Mall to the middle of Parliament Street, where I was obliged at last to get into a chair and be carried a back way to the House of Commons.

In this crowd Lord Bute [the prime minister] was very much insulted, hissed in every gross manner, and a little pelted. It is said, but it is denied also, that the King was insulted.

Both Houses were up about four; the crowd of coaches and mob on foot not the least abated; it was so great that the King’s coach, with his Majesty in it, upon his return from the House was a full hour in Palace Yard. Lord Bute to avoid the like treatment he had met in going, returned in a hackney chair, but the mob discovered him, followed him, broke the glasses of the chair, and, in short, by threats and menaces, put him very reasonably in great fear; if they had once overturned the chair, he might very soon have been demolished.
Bute was out as prime minister in April 1763. (Though you wouldn’t know that from all the Whig cartoons and effigies that continued to blame him for royal policies over the next decade.)

The royal coach continued to roll out on ceremonial occasions. In October 1795 George III rode to another opening of Parliament. This time the crowd attacked the coach, breaking a window. People were reportedly calling, “Down with Pitt,” “No War,” “Give Us Bread,” and even “No George.” The satirical artist James Gillray portrayed the gold coach under attack from “republicans.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Unaker and the Making of America

The website of the journal British Art Studies is sharing R. Ruthie Dibble and Joseph Mizhakii Zordan’s article “Cherokee Unaker, British Ceramics, and Productions of Whiteness in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Worlds.”

Enhanced by many illustrations, the article begins:
In October 1767 Cherokee leaders gathered at Keowee, a Cherokee Mother Town in the far northwestern corner of the British Province of South Carolina, to determine a pathway to peace with the Mohawk and other northern Indigenous nations.

Their negotiations, however, were interrupted by a foreign visitor, the English merchant Thomas Griffiths. Griffiths had been hired by the potter and inventor Josiah Wedgwood to negotiate the purchase of five tons of unaker, a bright white mineral used by the Cherokee for millennia to make white ceramics and architecture.
Dibble and Zordan use unaker to trace the relations between Cherokee craftspeople, British settlers in America, imperial officials, Chinese ceramicists, and British manufacturers from the early colonial period through the disruptive Revolution and even up to the commemoration of the Roanoke Colony in 1985.

Along the way are geological samples, teapots, formal portraits, classical vases, and the c.1780 medallion above which shows, of course, George Washington.

Monday, January 17, 2022

“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt”

Here’s a passage from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 that doesn’t get quoted as often as other passages:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
In the latter part of the speech, improvised from remarks he had given before, King returned to the U.S. of A.’s Founding documents when he said:
I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream–one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.”
Americans opposed to King’s demands for equality called him anti-American. But quotations like these show that he was deeply invested in his country’s Founding ideals, as much as or more than his opponents.

We see Americans making similar demands for equality today, and being called the same name. Like King, today’s activists are challenging American society to live up to its professed values.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Victory on Battle Road

The latest issue of Discover Concord magazine includes an article by one of our region’s most knowledgeable and experienced public interpreters of the Revolutionary War, Ranger Jim Hollister of Minute Man National Historical Park.

In just two pages (with handsome photographs) this article tackles the question of who won the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Ranger Jim begins:
On the surface this may seem simple. The colonists were able to keep most of their military supplies safely out of British hands. The British soldiers then suffered heavy casualties during their retreat to Boston where they were trapped and besieged.

However, though things certainly did not go the way they wanted, did the British Army actually lose on April 19, 1775? The answer depends upon how you define victory.
The article then examines the mission from the British point of view, quoting Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders, Humphrey Bland’s military manual, and the accounts of officers like Capt. John Barker and Lt. Frederick Mackenzie. The popular view of the event doesn’t really take British perspectives into account, not least because many of those sources weren’t available as the American version cemented.

Another aspect of the battle is that, as those early lines of the article say, the provincials’ primary objective was to keep hold of their military supplies. The Committee of Safety had established a policy of “opposing” an army expedition into the countryside, but did that mean stopping the column from returning to Boston?

In that respect the militia regiments were like the proverbial dog chasing a car. Imagine that dog is successful—what would it do with a car? Likewise, no one in Massachusetts had made any plans about what to do with a few hundred captured soldiers. People had to improvise fast when they ended up with a couple dozen.

Had the provincials made a concerted effort to cut off the British troops, they might have succeeded. But those militiamen would certainly have suffered more casualties, put nearby property and civilian lives at risk, and prompted a stronger response from the Crown. They might well have lost the moral upper hand, so important in the following weeks, and they could even have ended up suffering a demoralizing defeat. By eking out a partial success in leading the redcoats back to safety, Col. Percy might have left both sides in stronger positions.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Franklin’s Lost Comments about His Armonica

Michael Hillegas (1729-1804) was one of Benjamin Franklin’s colleagues in Philadelphia. Son of immigrants from Germany, he became a merchant, then invested in refining both sugar and iron.

In 1775 the Continental Congress appointed Hillegas one of its two treasurers. The other, George Clymer, became a delegate to the Congress the next year, leaving Hillegas as the sole treasurer until 1789. 

Hillegas was an early member of Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, and he had a particular interest in music. Sources say he played the flute and violin, and he ran a shop offering musical instruments, printed music, staff paper, strings, and lessons.

Sometime in the late 1760s Hillegas asked his friend Franklin to send him that new glass instrument, the glassy-chord or armonica. Unfortunately, when it arrived, some of the glass bowls were broken, and in January 1769 Franklin promised to order replacement parts.

By November nothing had arrived, so Hillegas reminded Franklin of his request in a letter that also asked about other things. Franklin wrote back on 17 Mar 1770.

Some of those letters between Franklin and Hillegas no longer survive, but Hillegas and his nineteenth-century descendants made the documents now lost available to scholars.

The earliest publication of Franklin’s 17 Mar 1770 letter was in Mathew Carey’s American Museum, or, Universal Magazine in 1790. The same text appeared in William Temple Franklin’s 1817 set The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin. That transcription contained a single paragraph about what sort of metal plates different European nationalities were using on their roofs. (Ah, the Enlightenment!)

In 1859, however, the Historical Magazine printed a longer text of what it said was the same letter. This transcription appears to have been made from the original since the article is prefaced with this comment:

The original of the following letters from Benjamin Franklin to Michael Hillegas, Esq., were found among the papers of the late Mr. Henry Kuhl, of this city, a son-in-law of Mr. Hillegas. Mr. Hillegas was an alderman of Philadelphia, and a prominent citizen.

W. D.
The paragraph printed in 1859 but not in 1790 or 1817 reads:
Charles James, who undertook to provide your Glasses, and the only Workman here acquainted with such Matters, was a very negligent, dilatory Man, and put me off from time to time. At length he died suddenly. And those who succeed him in the Shop cannot find the Directions. They were in your Letter which I left with him and I have no Copy. So I think you cannot do better than to go to my House and suit yourself out of the Glasses I left there. If you get one of the proper Size but too sharp, Mr. [Francis] Hopkinson will show you how to grind it down, tho’ it were a Note or two.
Obviously, that paragraph is significant in the history of Franklin’s glassy-chord/armonica. It also shows a less flattering side of the inventor, his annoyance at not receiving his order simply because the skilled artisan he relied on had died. Supply-chain problems!

Now we get into the mysteries of modern editorial practices. The current Papers of Benjamin Franklin project, as digitized at its own website and at the National Archives’ Founders Online, includes only the first paragraph of Franklin’s 17 Mar 1770 letter, quoted from The American Magazine. The paragraph about the late armonica builder is nowhere to be seen.

However, the Franklin Papers cites the Historical Magazine transcription as a source about the making of the armonica, even quoting from the missing second paragraph. At some points the Papers editors deemed the Historical Magazine transcription to be reliable, but they didn’t reprint the entire text.

The Franklin Papers’ truncated quotation of the second paragraph has proved misleading. The original sentences make clear that Franklin’s glassblower “died suddenly” before he could complete the order. The editors’ summary is ambiguous about who died, the artisan or the friend who was supposed to receive the instrument (i.e., Hillegas). William Zeitler at the thorough website glassarmonica.com guessed that the intended recipient died instead of the glassblower.

Now it’s possible that I’ve missed some explanation or supplemental material in the Papers of Benjamin Franklin because I’m relying on the electronic versions rather than the printed volumes. But for the sake of glassy-chord scholars everywhere, I’m making noise about the Historical Magazine transcription.

Friday, January 14, 2022

How Franklin Rebranded His Musical Invention

Rob Scallon’s long and lively video about his visit to musician Dennis James prompted me to look up more information about the glass instrument they played.

The first evidence of this new invention appeared in the Bristol Journal newspaper on 12 Jan 1762, as reprinted elsewhere:
The celebrated glassy-chord, invented by Mr. [Benjamin] Franklin of Philadelphia: who has greatly improved the musical glasses, and formed them into a compleat instrument to accompany the voice; capable of a thorough bass, and never out of tune.

Miss Davies from London, was to perform in the month of January, several favourite airs, English, Scotch and Italian, on the Glassychord (being the only one of the Kind that has yet been produced) accompanied occasionally with the voice and the German Flute.
The performer was Marianne Davies (1744–1816?). Her parents were musicians, and she had been on the stage since the age of seven, singing and playing the harpsichord and flute. In July 1762, Davies and her father entertained an audience that included envoys from the Cherokee nation.

Around the same time, on 13 July 1762, Franklin wrote a long letter to Father Giambatista Beccaria, a professor of physics in Turin, introducing his invention. But he didn’t use the term “glassy-chord”:
Perhaps, however, it may be agreeable to you, as you live in a musical country, to have an account of the new instrument lately added here to the great number that charming science was before possessed of: As it is an instrument that seems peculiarly adapted to Italian music, especially that of the soft and plaintive kind, I will endeavour to give you such a description of it, and of the manner of constructing it, that you, or any one of your friends may be enabled to imitate it, if you incline so to do, without being at the expence and trouble of the many experiments I have made in endeavouring to bring it to its present perfection. . . .

The advantages of this instrument are, that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressures of the finger, and continued to any length; and that the instrument, being once well tuned, never again wants tuning.

In honour of your musical language, I have borrowed from it the name of this instrument, calling it the Armonica.
We thus call Franklin’s instrument an armonica rather than a “glassy-chord.” (But from now on I’m always going to think of the original name.)

TOMORROW: A missing source?

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Face of Esek Hopkins

To get back to my original point about the American Revolution Institute essay on a print issued in London in 1776, shown here is the same publisher’s portrait of Continental Navy commander Esek Hopkins.

This digital copy comes via the New York Public Library’s very helpful images collection.

As I noted two days ago, the London publisher Thomas Hart didn’t exist. Some other portraits of American leaders in the same series are clearly not based on actually looking at the men they claimed to depict.

Thus, we should be quite dubious that this image shows Esek Hopkins rather than any other white man on the planet. And thus skeptical that Hopkins, who would turn sixty in 1778, had a round face, dark hair, cleft chin, and other features visible here.

Yet if we look for other images of Hopkins, such as on this fine website about the Gaspée affair or this webpage from the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command wing, we find pictures clearly based on what Thomas Hart published.

One exceptional portrait on the U.S. Navy site is captioned:
Line engraving published in the Hibernian Magazine, Dublin, Ireland, August 1776. As with most contemporary Hibernian Magazine portraits, this is probably a purely fanciful representation of the subject. The engraver also provided an incorrect forename for Hopkins.
This portrayal is close enough to the Hart print that one could reasonably decide the two pictures show the same man. But if so, that man still probably wasn’t Hopkins.

In fact, only one image of Hopkins appears to have been created by an artist who actually knew him. That’s the infamous “Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam” painting by John Greenwood. (The Gaspée website includes a detail from this image on its Hopkins page as an alternative view.)

Greenwood wasn’t the greatest portraitist, and in this painting he put his effort into creating a broad scene of revelry rather than representing the precise facial features of every person involved.

Nonetheless, heirs of the man who commissioned and owned this picture understood that Greenwood had depicted some particular individuals, Rhode Islanders who traded in Surinam. Those identifications were written down in 1878 and published in Rhode Island History in 1977.

According to that tradition, “The gentleman on the far side of the table wearing a tricorn hat and blue coat with red facing is said to be Esek Hopkins. . . . Esek would have been about 40 when Greenwood painted the picture” in the late 1750s.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty involved, but the image of Commodore Esek Hopkins that we have the best reason to rely on is actually this one.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

A Closer Look at the Gages

The main thrust of the American Revolution Institute blog posting I pointed to yesterday concerns the subject of the engraving titled “The Hero returned from Boston.”

This print says it was published in London on 7 Sept 1776 by Thomas Hart. Hart didn’t exist, the image bears signs of having been produced in Augsburg, and there’s probably no way to confirm the date.

Regardless, someone went to the trouble of engraving this picture of a woman, her gown flowing and one breast bared, kissing a gentleman holding a sword. Which meant someone believed there would be public demand for such a print. And it all had something to do with Boston around 1776.

The blog post posits:
The man in the print bears a casual resemblance to General Thomas Gage as portrayed by John Singleton Copley in 1768. Gage had commissioned the portrait and when it was complete, sent it home to England. “The Generals Picture was received at home with universal applause,” one of Gage’s aides [John Small] reported to Copley in 1770, “and Looked on by real good Judges as a Masterly performance. It is placed in one of the Capital Apartments of Lord Gage’s house in Arlington Street.”
Gage then commissioned a portrait of his wife, Margaret. Copley painted her in an unusual pose and garments, probably evoking her family roots in eastern Europe. The blog post elaborates:
Part of the attraction of turquerie was that it was sexually suggestive without being lewd. In Copley’s portrait Mrs. Gage is not wearing a corset and reclines in her loose fitting clothes. Copley called it “beyond Compare the best Lady’s portrait I ever Drew.” Proud of the portrait, the Gages packed it off to London, where it created a mild sensation when it was displayed.
In January 1773, Benjamin West told Copley: “the portrait of Mrs Gage as a picture has received every praise from the lovers of arts. her Friends did not think the likeness so favourable as they could wish, but Honour’d it as a pice of art.”

Thus, people in London had seen and discussed the Gages’ portraits. They had seen the Gages themselves in 1774, when the general assured King George III that he could bring Massachusetts back under control. They had followed the news from Boston as the conflict got worse. They had seen Gov. Gage return defeated after the outbreak of war and the costly Battle of Bunker Hill, his wife preceding him by a few weeks.

I find that interpretation of “The Hero returned from Boston” as a lampoon of the Gages convincing. In addition to the points in the blog post, the man in the print grips his sword the same way Copley’s general grips his cane. The engraver didn’t show Gage in uniform, but that might have been a satirical step too far, and Gage no longer had a military command, anyway.

The last section of the blog post discusses the supposition that Margaret Gage sympathized with the rebels and even disclosed her husband’s plans to them. Ultimately the author discards that idea (citing some of my own writing on the subject). Along the way the essay acknowledges counterarguments, however, and this passage caught my eye:
A local guest at one of the Gage’s parties attended by British officers wrote in June 1775 that “Madam Gage presided with the social adroitness and tact of a lady of a high New Jersey family . . . Yet suspicion attended this lady as not being too loyal to her husband’s party and to the King. It was hinted that the Governor was uxorious, and had no secrets from his wife, who passed word to the spies swarming outside.”
I didn’t recognize that quotation. Had I missed a source so close to Gage? I had to track this “local guest” down. And here’s what I found.

That’s not a contemporaneous statement from someone who socialized with the Gages. Rather, the historian Henry Bentley Belcher wrote those words in The First American Civil War, published in 1911, summarizing how he perceived rumors and leaks swirling around the Gage household.

What’s the source of that misinterpretation? In 2016 Deborah Gage wrote on the website for Firle Castle, the Gage family seat:
It has long been rumoured that Margaret provided Dr. [Joseph] Warren with the information that the British troops would be moving out the evening of April 19th, 1774 bound for Lexington and Concord, for example as cited in this letter written by Dr. Belcher in June 1775 ‘Entertainment at Providence House, where Madam Gage presided with the social adroitness and tact of a lady of a high New Jersey family, were crowded with uniformed men from both fleet and camp. Yet suspicion attended this lady as not being too loyal to her husband’s party and to the King. It was hinted that the Governor was uxorious, and had no secrets from his wife, who passed word to the spies swarming outside. At any rate whatever was designed in Boston was, it is alleged, known within an hour or two at Medford, at Roxbury, at Cambridge, at Brookline and in every Boston tavern.’
That quotation introduced some big errors. The governor’s mansion, Province House, became “Providence House.” Dr. Henry Bentley became “Dr. Belcher.” And, most important, a statement by a historian in 1911 was put into the pen of someone in 1775.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Mysterious Mezzotints of Thomas Hart

In October the American Revolution Institute published an intriguing article about a British print in its collection, one of only two known copies. (The other copy is at the Yale University Art Gallery.)

The image is titled “The Hero returned from Boston,” and its stated origin is: “London. Printed for Thos. Hart, as Act directs, 7th Sepr. 1776.”

The blog post adds more nuance:
The name of the publisher, Thomas Hart, is associated with a series of fictitious portraits of American leaders, including George Washington (including one on horseback and one on foot), John Hancock, Israel Putnam, David Wooster, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Esek Hopkins, Benedict Arnold, John Sullivan, and John Paul Jones, dated between 1775 and 1779. These prints, all of which are mezzotints, are attributed to publishers Thomas Hart, C. Shepherd, and John Morris.

None of these prints bears any real resemblance to its subject, despite the publishers’ effort to persuade customers that they were authentic likenesses. . . . The portraits were mostly fraudulent, turned out quickly to meet public demand for images of the leaders of the American rebellion. All of the prints may, in fact, have been produced for the London market in Augsburg, a German city that was a center of commercial print production. Their style—the markedly heavy features, large eyes, dark shadows, and treatment of details of clothing and accoutrements—is characteristic of Augsburg engravings.

Even more curious, the names of Thomas Hart, C. Shepherd, and John Morris seem to be fictitious as well. With one exception, their names are not associated with any other prints. The only plausible explanation for the use of these fictitious names is that the true publishers wanted to profit by selling images of the American Revolutionaries but preferred not to be closely associated with these products, which were, after all, heroic images of traitors who had taken up arms against the king.

The Hero returned from Boston is the outlier among the odd prints published by the fictitious Thomas Hart. It is the only etching, with aquatint or otherwise, associated with Hart’s name. The Hero returned from Boston is also the only one of the Hart prints in which the subjects are not named. Who is the hero returned from Boston? And who is the woman clinging so provocatively to him?
Before we go on to that mystery, I want to pause to consider the implications of the Hart/Shepherd/Morris portraits being unreliable.

We have multiple images of some of those American Patriots, such as Washington, Hancock, and Gates. In those cases, scholars have no trouble looking at a picture from the same period by Charles Willson Peale or John Singleton Copley and seeing how little the European prints resemble them. Take a look for yourself.

But in other cases, such as Hopkins, Wooster, and Charles Lee (shown above), we have so few portraits that for many decades people have copied or reprinted what are clearly unreliable pictures. I may well have done so myself (except I rarely have anything to say about Hopkins and Wooster, and I like the caricature of Lee with his dog better).

After all, some period image may seem better than nothing at all. But is it?

TOMORROW: Interpreting the oddball etching.

Monday, January 10, 2022

“Safely delivered of three Male Children”?

On 4 Dec 1752, Thomas Bourne and Susannah Beal married in Hingham’s second parish meetinghouse. In 1765 that community was designated as a district, and ten years later it became the independent town of Cohasset.

Susannah was born in February 1737, making her fifteen years old when she married. Calculating back from Thomas’s reported age at death, he was twenty-two.

Thomas and Susannah Bourne did not have their first child within seven months of their wedding. In fact, they didn’t have their first child within seven years. This was apparently a great disappointment.

On 5 Nov 1764, the Boston Evening-Post ran this article:
We hear from the second Parish in Hingham, that one Mrs. Bourne of that Place (a Person peculiarly fond of Children) was on Monday Evening [i.e., 29 October], to the great Joy of herself and Friends, safely delivered of three Male Children, after having lived upwards of Eleven Years in the connubial State without Offspring with one of the kindest Husbands, and enjoying with an unblemished Reputation every other Species of Earthly Felicity.
This is where the story turns sad. The Cohasset vital records say that all three of the Bournes’ babies died on Tuesday, 30 October. A local history says they were baptized that day and died “soon” after.

Either way, by the time the announcement of the birth of triplets appeared in Boston, those babies were dead. They had no recorded names.

This is where the story turns happy again. Exactly three years after the Evening-Post article, on 5 Nov 1767, Thomas and Susannah Bourne had a son they named Thomas, Jr. He grew up as an only child.

In 1774 and the early years of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Bourne, Sr., served on Cohasset’s governing committees. He turned out with the local militia to guard Hull beach in the winter of 1775–76. He died in 1796 at the age of sixty-six.

Thomas, Jr., grew up and married Jane Doane in 1786, when they were both still in their teens. Her uncle, the Rev. John Brown, performed the ceremony, as he had done for Thomas’s parents.

Jane died giving birth on 9 June 1787. Thomas, Jr., named their baby after her mother.

In April 1790, Thomas Bourne, Jr., married twenty-year-old Betty or Betsy Tower. That September, she gave birth to twin boys who died as infants—the family history seemed to be repeating. The following year, they had a daughter, Priscilla, who died at fourteen months. Then, however, Thomas and Betsy Bourne had a series of daughters and sons:
  • Eliza, 1793.
  • a second Priscilla, 1797.
  • Mary, 1799.
  • a new Thomas, Jr., 1803.
  • Elias, 1807.
  • Marshal, 1811.
The Doane genealogy says this Thomas Bourne became a physician; the local history says he was a farmer like his father. Public records show he served Cohasset as a church deacon, a coroner, a selectman, and eventually a representative in the Massachusetts General Court.

Susanna Bourne, widow of the older Thomas, died in 1819. She was thought to be ninety, but she was really eighty-two. Betsy Bourne, widow of the younger Thomas, died in 1846 at the age of seventy-six.

(The photo above shows Cohasset’s First Parish Meeting House, its oldest part built in 1747.)

Sunday, January 09, 2022

“The variety of reasons a play might be deemed inappropriate”

Prof. David O’Shaughnessy of the National University of Ireland in Galway just won this year’s British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Prize for Digital Resources for his website The Censorship of British Theatre, 1737-1843.

O’Shaughnessy’s website explains itself this way:
This digital resource hosts a selection of manuscripts of plays submitted to the Examiner of Plays, the office established by the Lord Chamberlain in the wake of the Stage Licensing Act of 1737, who had the primary responsibility of safeguarding the morals of theatre audiences. The manuscripts are drawn from the Larpent Collection (Huntington Library, San Marino) and the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays (British Library) and have been carefully selected to show the variety of reasons a play might be deemed inappropriate through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. . . .

It contains high resolution scans of 40 manuscripts from the period 1737-1843—from the Stage Licensing Act to its successor the Theatres Act—in order that scholars can get a sense of the line-by-line attention given to plays by the Examiner’s office. Each scan is accompanied by a brief note (2000-5000 words) that gives an author bio, a plot summary, a succinct note on the play’s reception history, a commentary on the censorship imposed on the manuscript, and some suggestions as to further introductory reading related to that play.
The U.R.L. for the website is tobeomitted.tcd.ie, and a significant part of the analysis focuses on what the government officials insisted should not go on the stage. Sometimes they marked passages to change, sometimes they just forbade any performance. Impresarios and playwrights also made cuts, and so did audiences—there are numerous anecdotes about producers assuring first-night crowds that certain disliked aspects of a show would be removed.

One can flip through the website to get a sense of British theater in this period beyond the plays that entered the canon. Class distinctions were important, subtlety not. Here’s a clip from the summary of Thomas Holcroft’s He’s Much to Blame (1798):
Maria, disguised as a man and accompanied by her resourceful maid Lucy, is seeking Sir George Versatile. She had been his lover up until he inherited his title but, at the inn, Maria is informed by the comical German quack Dr Gosterman that Versatile is now in love with Lady Jane Vibrate. . . .
The framing material also offers choice glimpses of the time’s show business and its more showy players, such as this remark about Charles Macklin, author of The Man of the World (1770):
He gained a certain degree of notoriety in 1734 when he was convicted of the manslaughter of a fellow actor after a backstage scuffle over a wig: an unexpected result of this was that he gained a taste for the law and the remainder of his career would see him involved in some high profile cases where he would represent himself.
And Elizabeth Griffith, author of The Platonic Wife (1765):
She stopped acting after becoming pregnant with a second child and [her husband] Richard’s business interests collapsed around the same time. Forced into desperate action, the Griffiths published their courtship correspondence as A Series of Genuine Letters between Henry and Frances in 1757. It went through a number of editions and there were follow-up publications. 
Boston of course forbade public theater until years after the Revolutionary War, part of its Puritan legacy. And if the pre-Revolutionary town fathers could see this website, they would undoubtedly feel they were making the right decision.

Saturday, January 08, 2022

What Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s Book Had to Say

Among the digitized items in the Harvard Libraries’ Slavery, Abolition, Emancipation, and Freedom collection that I mentioned yesterday is A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as related by himself.

Published in Bath, England, in 1770, this was the first autobiography of a black former slave published in English, and one of the first handful of English books of any kind by a black author.

Interestingly, Gronniosaw was literate only in Dutch, having learned to read while enslaved in New York early in the century. His story was taken down by “a young lady of the town of Leominster.”

Gronniosaw dedicated his memoir to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, the same evangelical noblewoman who financed the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s first book of poems. Gronniosaw also composed a letter to the countess thanking her for financial support a couple of years later—the only other known sample of his words.

Harvard’s copy of this book is labeled the second edition, but it doesn’t state where and when it was printed. (Sen. Charles Sumner, champion of abolition and civil rights, bequeathed this copy to the university.) The first American edition was published in Newport by Solomon Southwick in 1774. The Harvard library also owns a copy of a Welsh translation published in 1779, and there were several more editions in the decades that followed, showing the book’s popularity.

One notable aspect of Gronniosaw’s story is his description of how he first understood reading when he saw a white sea captain doing it—he thought that the book was talking to that man but wouldn’t talk to him as well. Henry Louis Gates traced this “Talking Book” trope through several more slave narratives in his study The Signifying Monkey. (Gates also included Gronniosaw’s text in Pioneers of the Black Atlantic, summarizing his earlier analysis in the introduction.)

Gronniosaw depicted himself as a prince in his birthplace, Bornu, at least by his maternal ancestry. He also said he was a dissenting monotheist among pagans. Gates therefore connects Gronniosaw’s description of himself to the idea of the Noble Savage, already established in British literature.

After being captured and sold into slavery in his teens, Gronniosaw recounted, he was shipped to Barbados, then New York, where he converted to Christianity and learned to read. Freed by his clerical master’s will, he signed onto a privateer and later into the 28th Regiment of Foot, but his goal was to reach England.

Once there, Gronniosaw struggled as a poor laborer. He married a widowed weaver, and they moved from one city to another during the 1760s and early 1770s, raising their children. In Kinderminster, Gronniosaw connected with a Dissenting minister who knew the Countess of Huntingdon, and that led to his life story being published.

Unlike other African-born memoirists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Gronniosaw did not condemn slavery. He did condemn racism, but seemed to feel that he deserved equal treatment in Britain because he was a Christian, not because he was a person. 

For many decades Gronniosaw’s book was the only evidence of his life. Then scholars discovered a death notice in the Chester Chronicle dated 2 Oct 1775 and a line in the burial register for that city’s church of St. Oswald. The newspaper repeated the book’s information about Gronniosaw, including both his Christian and original African names, and both sources said he had died at the age of seventy.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Thousands of Curiosities from the Harvard Libraries

The Harvard Libraries have created a set of webpages called “CURIOSity Digital Collections” which provide “Curated views that provide specialized search options and unique content.”

That content comes from the university’s own holdings, and since the Harvard system adds up to one of the largest libraries on the planet, there’s a lot of content to choose from.

Some of the topics covered by these pages are:
The newest collection looks at Slavery, Abolition, Emancipation, and Freedom. Linking to more than a thousand items related to black history and culture, this collection is the result of a university-wide effort that digital collections program manager Dorothy Berry has led since 2020, as reported in the Harvard Gazette.

Some of the eighteenth-century items to explore in that section are:
Plus, there are pamphlets from the same years printed in Philadelphia, London, and other important British cities.

This collection extends into the nineteenth century, so there are many items from the fight for (and against) abolition in the U.S. of A. and around the world. Plus, more to come.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

“Burke surely rolls over in his discreetly marked grave”

Back in December 2020, after the election and before the insurrection, the L.A. Review of Books published an op-ed essay by Jessica Riskin, a professor of history at Stanford University.

Riskin’s started with the way Edmund Burke (1729–1797) defined conservative politics in the 1790s.

Burke had been an ally of the American Whigs. In 1765 he was private secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham, who led one opposition Whig faction in Parliament. Toward the end of that year, the marquess became prime minister. His team found a pocket borough to send Burke to Parliament, where his oratory made a quick impression.

Rockingham was soon out of power, but Burke continued to be his faction’s most eloquent voice, in both speeches and print. In 1774 he won a seat from Bristol and promptly told his constituents that he would vote as he saw best, not as they told him; he didn’t win reelection from that district six years later.

When Rockingham returned to power after the British defeat at Yorktown, he made Burke Paymaster of the Forces. Rather than maintain the job as a lucrative sinecure, Burke introduced a law to reduce its financial latitude. He wrote other reform bills as well, though some stuck only after other people introduced them.

After Rockingham died, Burke allied with Charles James Fox. That worked out during the brief Fox-North coalition government, but then William Pitt the Younger became prime minister and stayed in the job for the rest of the century. Because of faction rather than strong ideological reasons, Burke was stuck in the opposition during his final years.

Those were also the years of the French Revolution, which inspired Burke’s statements on conservatism. In her op-ed, Prof. Riskin drew a hard line between that ideology and the political methods of Donald Trump and his followers:
Each time a commentator refers to Trumpism as “conservative” — probably hundreds of times a day — Edmund Burke surely rolls over in his discreetly marked grave in Buckinghamshire.

Burke, the Irish political philosopher and Whig MP who originated Anglo–American conservatism, supported the rebellion of the British colonies in North America but hated the revolutionaries in France, and there you have conservatism in a nutshell. The American rebellion, Burke judged, was not a revolution but a movement to conserve an ancient principle of the British constitution, the people’s power of “granting their own money” to the government. Also in keeping with Burke’s “principle of conservation” was the colonists’ preservation of other longstanding institutions such as slavery, which Burke favored eliminating, but only “gradually.”

In France, on the other hand, people went rushing around hurling kings from their thrones, abolishing feudalism, summarily eliminating aristocratic and clerical exemptions and privileges, and making a lot of vulgar noise about equality. That sort of revolution was anathema to Burke. The discreet marker on his grave was a compromise: he had asked that it be altogether unmarked, sure that the Jacobins would arrive in droves to desecrate his final resting place, if they could find it, as they had desecrated the institutions of the Old Regime.

His abhorrence of the French Revolution led Burke to define the political philosophy that would come to be known as conservatism. His central principle was that abstract political ideals, such as the ideal of absolute equality, were dangerous because they led people to destroy longstanding traditions in their name. A society could not rest upon airy abstractions, Burke argued, but only upon solid things: traditional institutions, such as the institutions of property and inheritance. Burke’s “principle of conservation” held that any reform must be undertaken gradually, keeping always in mind that traditions were the bedrock of society, and that to eliminate them was to invite mayhem. . . .

“Conservative” in reference to Trumpism is dangerously misleading. If you’re a conservative, you’ll think the word denotes wisdom and judiciousness, two things Trumpians don’t even pretend to embrace, but make a show of flouting. If you disagree with conservatism as a political philosophy, you might think it sounds stodgy, benighted, even oppressive, but in a static or at least a slow-moving way, not in a way that poses an immediate threat of civil war. No one associates an attempted coup, even an inept one such as we’ve been witnessing, with the word “conservative.”
Note that Riskin wrote thirteen months ago, before 6 Jan 2021.

On that day Trump told thousands of followers, “we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you,…we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. . . . And we’re going to the Capitol.” And then he went home to watch the resulting violence on television. That habitual deceit isn’t even “Trumpism”; it was just trumpery.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

The Ninety-Four Years of Charles Thomson

Portrait of Charles Thomson, wearing a white wig and brown coat and holding a leatherbound book, painted by Joseph Wright
The second person to sign the Declaration of Independence, after John Hancock, was Charles Thomson.

Thomson wasn’t a delegate to the Continental Congress, and thus didn’t sign the famous handwritten copy of the Declaration.

Rather, he was the Congress’s secretary, chosen unanimously in the first week of meetings and serving fifteen straight years to the launch of the federal government in 1789. He co-signed all the body’s official pronouncements before sending them to the printer.

Last month the American Philosophical Society ran a blog post by Michael Miller about Thomson, inspired by some recently acquired manuscripts from his later years.

Charles Thomson had a remarkable early life—straight out of a melodramatic novel if we believe the details in John Fanning Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia (1830), which I’ll put in brackets. He was born in Londonderry in 1729, and his mother died when he was ten. His father decided to move the family to America but died on the voyage over [within sight of the coast!]. The kids were then split up [after the captain took all their father’s money!], but they remained in touch.

Charles was placed in a blacksmith’s household. [After watching the man make a nail, he pounded out one himself! Overhearing the smith and his wife talk about legally making him an apprentice, Charles ran away! He met a kind anonymous lady who sent him to school!] By 1743, when he was fourteen, Charles was attending Francis Allison’s academy in New London, Pennsylvania, with support from one of his older brothers.

On coming of age in 1750, Thomson moved to Philadelphia. With the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, he became a tutor in languages at the Academy. He joined some of the city’s intellectual societies, eventually serving as corresponding secretary of the A.P.S., and the Presbyterian Church. He became involved in political matters like the colony’s Indian policy, and after the Stamp Act he allied himself with John Dickinson and other organizers of resistance to Crown taxes.

In September 1774 Thomson married Hannah Harrison, daughter of a wealthy Quaker. This cemented his position in the top echelon of Philadelphia society. That was also when the First Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia and, as I said, the delegates chose Thomson to be the secretary. Anyone who’s seen 1776 can recall how big a presence Thomson was, as played by Ralston Hill—and that was just handling official business.

Since Thomson maintained the Congress’s official records, he exercised influence behind the scenes as well, and he managed a lot of official correspondence, foreign and domestic. When he got fed up with delegates not deciding on the design of an official seal for the U.S. of A., he created the eagle symbol the country still uses. Thomson’s power annoyed some people, and he once got into a physical altercation with delegate James Searle.

The A.P.S. blog post focuses on Thomson’s big post-Congress project:
Upon retiring from politics in 1789, at age 60, Thomson devoted himself to studying the Bible in Greek. He acquired a 1665 copy of the Septuagint edited by the English theologian John Pearson. When New Testament writers quoted Scripture, they used the Septuagint, more often than they used Hebrew sources. In order to better understand the Greek text himself and to share his work with an American audience, Thomson saw the merit in translating the Septuagint into English for the first time.

Thomson completed his translation of the Bible, both Old Testament and New, in 1808. His rendition is titled The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Covenant, Commonly Called the Old and New Testament: Translated from the Greek. Only a thousand copies were printed; most went unsold and ended up as scrap paper.
Undaunted, seven years later Thomson published A Synopsis of the Four Evangelists, a summary of the four canonical gospels into one unified text.

Thomson lived to be ninety-four, dying just a couple of weeks short of the fiftieth anniversary of the First Continental Congress. By that time, Thomas Jefferson had heard, the former secretary had senile dementia and could not recognize family members; “It is at most but the life of a cabbage,” Jefferson wrote. Still, Thomson had outlived all but three of the other men who signed the Declarationa after him.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

“A full Display of his truly sublime & extensive Genius”

Portrait of Francis Hopkinson, paused in thought at his writing desk, painted by Robert Edge Pine
Francis Hopkinson, designer of the U.S. flag, was another Philadelphia Federalist who disliked Eleazer Oswald’s poetic commentary on how Boston had a parade to celebrate ratifying the new Constitution.

In fact, Hopkinson was still upset at the end of March 1788, more than a month after Oswald’s gibe appeared in his Independent Gazetteer.

Hopkinson’s response took the form of a literary essay purporting to analyze the classical poetic qualities of that newspaper’s “There they went up, up, up” verses. It began:

On the first of January 1788, it was determined in a certain Seminary of Learning to institute a Professorship of Poetry & the Belle Lettres.

As this was intended to be only an honorary Appointment (the Gratuity being only a Barrel of strong Beer per Quarter to the Professor) it was left to the present Faculty to determine which of their Members should fill the new Chair.

The Faculty, having conven’d for the Purpose, it was moved & agreed to that the Candidates should compose probationary Odes to be exhibited on Monday the 18th of February, & that this new Professorship should be awarded to the Author of the most approved Performance.

On the Day of Decision it appeared that none of the Professors except Dr. D——— had enter’d the Lists, & that he had only two of the Tutors for his Competitors. So that there were but three probationary Odes produced on this Occasion. These being read & considered, the Ballots were when, & Dr. D———’s Performance was declared the most worthy, by a very decided Majority. And on the Day following his admirable Ode was given to the impatient Public.

The Doctor had chosen for his Subject the grand Procession made at Boston on the Adoption & Ratification of the proposed federal Constitution by the State of Massachusetts. This judicious Choice gave the Doctor Room for a full Display of his truly sublime & extensive Genius, & he has exerted himself accordingly; as will fully appear by exhibiting the Ode itself verbatim & literatim.
“There they went up, up, up,
And there they went down, down, downy,
There they went backwards & forwards
And poop for Boston Towny. . . .”
After the full eight lines of verse came a detailed English and Latin philological analysis that filled more than two pages of the American Literature journal in 1930. Because that was where Hopkinson’s parodic essay first saw print. If he intended it for a general audience in 1788, no newspaper or magazine editor agreed to publish it.

Hopkinson’s “Dr. D———” appears to refer to James Davidson, professor of the Greek and Latin languages at the University of the State of Pennsylvania. Perhaps Davidson was an Anti-Federalist—but he left no evidence of such views. Perhaps Hopkinson was tweaking his alma mater for some reason.

Or maybe Hopkinson didn’t mean to lampoon Prof. Davidson at all, but was simply amused at the idea that a classical scholar penning the silly “down, down, downy” verses. Again, for all the effort Hopkinson put into this response on behalf of the Federalist cause, it reached a very limited audience.