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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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Gates, Washington, and the Continental Nurses

In connection with last week’s online event about unpaid and underpaid labor at the siege of Boston, I encountered this statement on the U.S. Army’s website about women in the military:
Shortly after the establishment of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates reported to Commander-in-Chief George Washington that “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses.” Gen. Washington then asked Congress for “a matron to supervise the nurses, bedding, etc.,” and for nurses “to attend the sick and obey the matron’s orders.” A plan was submitted to the Second Continental Congress that provided one nurse for every ten patients and provided “that a matron be allotted to every hundred sick or wounded.”
Though I’d studied Washington’s work in Cambridge in 1775–76, that first quotation was new to me. I’m always interested in more information, so I dug deeper, seeking more definite dates.

Those statements and quotations are echoed in other army webpages and textbooks about the history of nursing. After all, they come from the army itself.

Some of those overviews put Gates’s report on 14 June 1775 instead of “Shortly after” that date. But that timing wouldn’t make sense. As the original passage above states, the Congress created the Continental Army on 14 June—implicitly, by authorizing the recruitment of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Washington wasn’t commissioned commander-in-chief for another couple of days.

As for Gates (shown above), he learned of his appointment as adjutant general (with the rank of brigadier general) on 21 June, and he reached Cambridge on 9 July. So at what point “Shortly after” 14 June would he have made that quoted statement?

Fortunately, the specificity of the quotations makes it easy to look them up on Founders Online, which includes all known writing to and from George Washington during the war. Gates’s reports to Washington and the commander-in-chief’s requests to the Congress all appear there.

Yet none of the quoted phrases comes up in a Founders Online search.

TOMORROW: Real sources and real dates.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Supreme Court and “a fabricated case”

Back in 2012, I departed from the eighteenth century to consider an issue in the intersection of law and history.

What does it mean when a Supreme Court decision guiding decades of law and policy turns out to be based on a historical falsehood?

In 1953 the court issued what’s come to be known as the Reynolds decision, requiring courts to defer to the executive branch of the federal government when it invokes national security and the need for secrecy to demand an end to legal proceedings. The majority of justices concluded that the government wouldn’t do that for petty or self-serving reasons.

Over forty years later, documents emerged to show that the U.S. Air Force had done precisely what the Supreme Court said we must assume it wouldn’t do: hide evidence and stifle a lawsuit to avoid embarrassment and liability. Yet Reynolds remains a guiding legal precedent.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision, Kennedy v. Bermerton School District, that allowed a public school employee to lead public prayers on school grounds despite the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause and previous court precedents. What’s more, the majority decision misstated the facts of the case, as shown by citations and a photograph included in the minority dissent.

Ian Milhiser at Vox wrote that one consequence of those false statements is that it’s unclear what the decision actually allowed:
Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for himself and his fellow Republican appointees relies on a bizarre misrepresentation of the case’s facts. He repeatedly claims that Joseph Kennedy, a former public school football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state who ostentatiously prayed at the 50-yard line following football games — often joined by his players, members of the opposing team, and members of the general public — “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.” . . .

Moreover, because Gorsuch’s opinion relies so heavily on false facts, the Court does not actually decide what the Constitution has to say about a coach who ostentatiously prays in the presence of students and the public. Instead, it decides a fabricated case about a coach who merely engaged in “private” and “quiet” prayer. . . . [According to already established precedents] Public school employees may engage in private acts of devotion, such as saying a prayer over their lunch in a school cafeteria while they are on the job.

But there’s nothing private about a school employee conducting a media tour touting his plans to pray at the 50-yard line of a football field immediately after a game. There is nothing private about the coach carrying out that plan — especially when he does so surrounded by kneeling players, cameras, and members of the public.
Another consequence of this decision is, of course, that the U.S. Supreme Court majority has further damaged its own credibility. We expect disagreements over matters of opinion. But when justices define the nation’s law while stating things that we can all see are false, they make our legal system look deceptive and arbitrary.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Clothing Workshops at Minute Man Park

Minute Man National Historical Park has announced a schedule of clothing workshops it will host for living-history volunteers, “both veteran reenactors and new folks to create or improve their desired period impressions.”

These workshops are aimed at getting volunteers to “Battle Road Standards” for next April’s reenactments, as well as other events and general authenticity.

Saturday, 30 July 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Captain David Uhl Knapsack Workshop with Master Tailor Henry Cooke
Battle Road Standards now require linen knapsacks made in the style of the Captain David Uhl knapsack in the collection of Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, New York. The knapsack can be constructed of about one yard of medium coarseness linen or linen canvas or tabby weave hemp sheeting, a spool of unbleached linen thread, and three 1" buttons.

Saturday and Sunday, 20–21 Aug 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Waistcoat Workshop with Henry Cooke
Waistcoats were a foundational men’s garment of the 18th century and a very achievable project for new sewers. Materials needed: Pins, sewing needles, beeswax, scissors for thread and cloth trimming, a pair of shears/bent trimmers for cutting cloth if needed, tailor’s chalk; sewing machine optional, as most of the instruction is for hand sewing.

Saturday, 22 Oct 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M.
18th-Century Mitts with Vicki Lynn Embrey
Vicki Lynn Embrey, co-founder of the Heritage Sewing and Skill Building Group, will show the different types of mitts worn by 18th-century women of all social classes. Participants will construct a basic pair of unlined mitts out of linen (for summer) or wool flannel (for winter). ¾ yard linen for summer mitts or ¾ yard wool flannel for winter mitts. Winter mitts are made out of a fulled wool to avoid raveling, not stuff or worsted.

Sunday, 23 Oct 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
18th-Century Caps with Vicki Lynn Embrey
Caps were a basic item in every 18th-century woman’s wardrobe. Embrey will show caps varied by date and social class. Participants will be taught the parts and shapes used to make caps and the hand stitches used in constructing a cap. Students will experiment with fitting a cap and get started on constructing a cap of their own, choosing from several basic styles worn during the Revolutionary War in New England.

Saturday and Sunday, 19–20 Nov 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Breeches Workshop with Henry Cooke
Few garments in the hobby will serve you better than a sturdy, well-fitting pair of breeches. Battle Road Standards require them to be made of wool broadcloth. For warmer weather, linen or hemp canvas breeches are also acceptable. Other types of acceptable fabrics include wool kersey, linsey-woolsey, wool serge, cotton velvet, fine wale cotton corduroy, or wool plush. Battle Road Standards also require Crown Forces to have breeches of white or buff wool as appropriate to your regiment.

Saturday and Sunday, 14–15 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Coat Workshop with Henry Cooke
Constructing a coat can seem like a daunting challenge but is actually very achievable. Battle Road Standards require men to wear a wool coat or jacket of drab, brown, green, red, blue, gray or black wool. For warmer weather, a linen coat in natural, blue or brown is also acceptable.

Saturday and Sunday, 21–22 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Breeches Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday and Sunday, 28–29 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Coat Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday, 4 Feb 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Captain David Uhl Knapsack Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday and Sunday, 11–12 Feb 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Waistcoat Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

To register for any and all workshops, email Jim Hollister of Minute Man Park at jim_hollister@nps.gov. To order kits containing the materials needed for Henry Cooke’s workshops, email Cooke in advance; prices vary depending on the size and quality of the garment.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Marriage of Edmund and Elizabeth Randolph

Edmund Randolph and his future wife, Elizabeth Carter Nicholas, were born only a day apart in 1753. They learned to read at the same school.

Edmund returned to Virginia in late 1775 after a few months as an aide de camp to Gen. George Washington in Cambridge. He rekindled his acquaintance with Elizabeth, whom he called Betsey. In August 1776 they married.

Edmund later said he was a deist at that time, but Elizabeth’s faith won him back to Episcopal worship. They had children about once every two years while he rose in state politics.

From all accounts, Elizabeth Randolph wasn’t interested in politics or public life. People didn’t speak of her as a beauty or a glittering conversationalist, and she often complained of illness. But Edmund was devoted to her.

Having served as U.S. attorney general and secretary of state, Edmund Randolph’s career in government ended badly in a tiff with Washington and a costly lawsuit. In the early 1800s the Randolphs settled in Richmond, where Edmund commissioned the house shown above and practiced law, including representing Aaron Burr at his treason trial. Most of their children had grown up to marry other elite Virginians.

Elizabeth Randolph died on 6 Mar 1810. Nineteen days later, Edmund wrote a long letter to their children about their lives and emotional bond. He concluded:
My eyes are every moment beholding so many objects with which she was associated; I sometimes catch a sound which deludes me so much with the similitude of her voice; I carry about my heart and hold for a daily visit so many of her precious relics; and, above all, my present situation is so greatly contrasted by its vacancy, regrets, and anguish, with the purest and unchequred bliss, so far as it depended on her, for many years of varying fortune, that I have vowed at her grave daily to maintain with her a mental intercourse.
After visiting his Betsey’s grave on 9 April, Edmund suffered what he told President James Madison was a “dreadful attack from a hemiplegia, with which, by a kind of sympathy with my poor wife, I was afflicted in a few weeks from her death.”

Edmund reported that the stroke “happily affected no faculty of my mind,” and also reported that he felt “no pain,” but he developed trouble walking and came to “require in rough ground the aid of a crutch.” He cut back on his law practice and tried warm springs, but never fully regained his health. 

Edmund Randolph died on 12 Sept 1813 at age 60 while staying with a friend. He was buried in the nearby churchyard, his grave unmarked until decades later.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

“My affectionate bosom friend will be with me”

I told the story of Elizabeth and Edmund Randolph’s distress over a miscarriage through Edmund’s correspondence with James Madison.

Since the Randolphs were together at the time, there were of course no letters between them. But I find that Edward had written to Elizabeth just before he came home from New York, telling her he was moving the family to the capital for his job, and he knew she wouldn’t be happy about that.

Edmund wrote on 14 Feb 1790:
My dearest Betsy:

I can now inform you with certainty that I shall return to Virginia to bring my treasures thence; and indeed if the importunity of the President with me to stay had not been overwhelming I should not have hesitated about a resignation. . . .

The President insists, and I have promised to be here by the 20th April precisely. We must therefore without fail begin our journey on the first day of April. . . .

I am afraid it may be inconvenient and indeed painful to you, my dear wife, but I candidly tell you that I shall not be able to return to accompany you after the present trip. Let us not, I beseech you, be longer separated than the strange vicissitudes of life render indispensable. Prepare yourself and the girls for the trip. I shall provide the conveyances. . . .

My two chief anxieties on this subject are the difficulty of your travelling in your present situation [i.e., pregnancy], and the preference you would give to being confined in Virginia rather than here. But what am I to do, thou dearest object of my soul? I will consent to any thing but an absence from you. I will provide you with a gentle and easy passage.

I undergo a mixture of sensations when I think of our new plans. But it comforts me to think that my affectionate bosom friend will be with me, and that I really believe she may be happy. Until we meet, keep in remembrance my never-failing love for the best of women. Adieu, my dearest girl.
That text is quoted from Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph by Moncure Daniel Conway.

It shows that Elizabeth was already reluctant to make a big move, even before her pregnancy went awry. It also states exactly when Randolph had promised to be back at George Washington’s side while the new federal governmet took shape. The attorney general missed that deadline by weeks, so no wonder he was anxious about what the President would say.

At the same time, this letter shows how Edmund was still gushing with affection for Elizabeth fourteen years after their marriage—though also cajoling her into what he wanted.

TOMORROW: The farewell.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

“The escape of our friend from the most critical danger”

As I’ve been recounting, in the spring of 1790 Edmund Randolph felt torn between his family responsibilities and his duties to the new federal government.

On the one hand, his wife Elizabeth was carrying an apparently dead fetus and fearing she might die.

On the other hand, Edmund had just become the first attorney general of the U.S. of A., and President George Washington was expecting him to return to New York as fast as possible.

On 27 April, Randolph wrote to his friend James Madison, who was in the capital as a member of Congress: “I see no other alternative, than this; that I must surrender the office, if my absence cannot be dispensed with.”

Randolph had asked Madison to tell the President why he couldn’t immediately come to New York. Well, not “tell” exactly. The younger men seem to have been squeamish about informing Washington frankly about Elizabeth Randolph’s medical condition.

On 6 May, Madison tried to assure his friend:
I can not suppose that under your circumstances any criticism can be made on your absence from this place, or that you are under the least necessity of deciding on the alternative which you state.
But he still didn’t report that he’d told the President what was happening, or what the man’s response was.

Fortunately, fate provided a way out of the dilemma. Washington himself got sick! On 19 May, Madison wrote:
The President has been critically ill for some days past, but is now we hope out of danger. His complaint is a peripneumony, united probably with the Influenza. Since my last I have found that I did not go too far in intimating that the cause of your delay would forbid the smallest criticism on it. I earnestly pray that you may no longer have occasion to plead that apology.
And on the same day the situation in Virginia resolved itself as well as could be expected. Well before he got Madison’s news about the President, Randolph wrote on 20 May:
Very unexpectedly a diminished fœtus appeared; manifesting, that it had lost every energy of life for more than four months. The gloom of our house is converted into general satisfaction, at the escape of our friend from the most critical danger.

I have this moment informed the president, that I shall accompany my family by sea, or the head of the bay; and that we shall have no delay, but what may be necessary for Mrs. R. to recover from her temporary weakness.
Elizabeth Randolph did recover, make the trip north, and live for another twenty years. She may not have had another pregnancy after this one; capsule biographies say the Randolphs had six children, but I find lists of only five, the last born in 1788.

TOMORROW: Randolph looks back.

Friday, June 24, 2022

“To intimate the circumstances which you wish him to know”

As I recounted yesterday, in March 1790 Edmund Randolph wrote from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Rep. James Madison (shown here) in New York.

The sad news was that Randolph’s wife Elizabeth appeared to have lost the unborn child she was carrying.

The more dire news was that Randolph wouldn’t be able to come back to New York to resume his job as U.S. attorney general until Elizabeth had passed the fetus and was out of danger—and he wanted Madison to tell that to President George Washington.

On 23 March, Randolph sent Madison his third letter in the space of two weeks: “My dear wife is not better, than when I wrote to you last. I expect something determinate in a few days.”

The mail was unusually slow, so Madison didn’t respond to any of Randolph’s missives until 30 March:
Your favr. of the 15. which requests an immediate acknowledgment, by some irregularity did not come to hand till I had recd. that of the 18, nor till it was too late to comply with the request by the last mail. I have been so unlucky also as to miss seeing the President twice that I have waited on him in order to intimate the circumstances which you wish him to know. I shall continue to repeat my efforts until I shall have an opportunity of executing your commands.
As the end of April approached, Elizabeth Randolph still had the unmoving fetus inside her, and Edmund was feeling even more torn. On 27 April he told Madison:
I have been looking most anxiously for the second communication, which you promised me, as soon as you should have had an interview with the President.

Many times have I endeavoured to break in an easy way to my wife the necessity of my return to N. Y; in order to try her spirits, should I go off. As often has she been thrown into an agitation of real agony.

Prepared as I am, I would have entered upon the journey long ago; and were her indisposition of a common kind, or her situation no more than an usual approach to the increase of our family, I should quit her without hesitation. But she is impressed with a belief, that she cannot escape death, and, altho’ tolerably lively now, would sink, I suspect, into despair, were I to leave her.

What am I to do?
Stay with a wife who’s afraid she’s about to die or hurry back to President Washington? A tough choice for an eighteenth-century American gentleman!

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

Thursday, June 23, 2022

“The situation of my wife was very alarming”

In February 1790, Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) became the first attorney general of the U.S. of A.

As a young lawyer, Randolph had been one of Gen. George Washington’s first aides de camp to during the siege of Boston. He didn’t stay long, however. The death of his uncle Peyton Randolph in October 1775 took him back to Virginia to manage family affairs.

The next year, Randolph married Elizabeth Nicholas. He remained in Virginia during the war, serving in political posts, and won a term as governor in 1786.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Randolph declined to sign the document. Nonetheless, as chair of his state’s ratifying convention, Randolph convinced some fellow skeptics to vote for the document while hoping for amendments.

President Washington pressed Randolph to join him in setting up the federal government in New York. Randolph started work as attorney general, then returned to his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, to fetch his family. On 10 March, he wrote back to a fellow Virginian in the capital, James Madison:
After a fatiguing journey we arrived here on sunday evening, when I found all my family well, except my wife, who, I fear, is incumbered with a dead fœtus of more than seven months old. I am endeavouring to ward off by medical aid the consequences of this event. She is now in good spirits, and therefore I trust, that the mischief will not be fatal.
Five days later, the attorney general wrote with more anxiety about Elizabeth Randolph:
When I came home, I found my family in a really deplorable condition. Not to mention my children, most of whom were sick, the situation of my wife was very alarming. She gave every symptom of a painful and dangerous abortion being at hand. It is now a fortnight since she was first confined to her room, and every appearance grows more and more critical. It is almost certain, that the fœtus, now about six months old, is dead.
At this time “abortion” meant what we call a miscarriage; it could be either natural or induced. [I came across these letters while searching for what the correspondents on Founders Online had to say about what we call abortion.]

Randolph had something else on his mind: what would Washington think of his extended absence? And how to tell him?
Altho’ I know your readiness to sympathize with me, I should not have troubled you with this detail, were it not for a wish, that the outlines of it should be conveyed to the ears of the president. I would write to him; but the subject does not become an official letter, to be filed away in the public archives; and a private letter, does not seem adviseable, when the design is to premonish him of the cause of any delay, which may occur in my return. But I do not mean by this, that it is improbable that my return should be by the stipulated day; for if an abortion should take place, or there is a likelihood of a mature delivery, or in short if my absence would not precipitate her death I shall leave home, without any hesitation, that my family may follow in the summer.

I feel this request, not a little awkward to me, by being perhaps not less so to you. But the peculiarity of my situation will, I hope, apologize for the intrusion. Let me have a single line from you, as soon as you receive this.
But no response came for weeks.

TOMORROW: Madison’s advice at last.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

“The Work of Revolution” in Cambridge, 23 June

History Cambridge (previously the Cambridge Historical Society) is headquartered in the oldest of the colonial houses along what was later dubbed “Tory Row.”

Some years before the Revolution, the families in those houses were all related, and they all had ties to slave-labor plantations on Jamaica and Antigua. Most if not all of those families also had enslaved people working for them on their Cambridge estates.

History Cambridge is now hosting an art installation on its lawn titled “Forgotten Souls of Tory Row: Remembering the Enslaved People of Brattle Street.” Created by Black Coral, Inc., this artwork in glass and metal adopts the tradition of bottle trees to evoke the power of ancestors.

History Cambridge is also organizing an online panel discussion called “The Work of Revolution” on Thursday, 23 June. Its event description says:
How did unpaid labor enable the Revolutionary leaders of Cambridge to foment rebellion and to carry out the political and military duties of the War?

Although much is known about George Washington’s residency in Cambridge in the early days of the Revolution, the reality is that it was the labor of women and people of color that enabled the Continental Army to function, as well as feeding, housing, and serving both the American and British troops present in the city. By centering the work experiences of women and BIPOC during this period, we will be expanding the scope of the Revolutionary narrative and bringing to light stories that have not often been shared with a wider audience.
Prof. Robert Bellinger, professor of history and founder and director of the Black Studies Program at Suffolk University, will lead the discussion.

History Cambridge has invited me to be part of this panel, talking about what we know of the people who tended Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in the years 1775 and 1776.

The general brought some enslaved workers from Mount Vernon with him, including his body servant William Lee. Martha Washington probably brought more. Washington also employed a free black woman named Margaret Thomas, as well as a family and a teenager burned out of their homes in Charlestown during the Battle of Bunker Hill. 

Though Tory Row was a place of slavery in those years, it soon became a place of liberation. While in Cambridge, Washington was convinced to let black soldiers remain in the Continental Army. The absence of the Loyalist homeowners, shifting mores, and a change in Massachusetts law meant the people enslaved on “Tory Row” had a good chance to become free by the end of the war.

The “Work of Revolution” discussion is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. Register at this page.

There will be a public celebration of the “Forgotten Souls” artwork on 16 July, and a question-and-answer session with the artists on July 21. For more information, visit this page.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

“Extremely messy as documents”

In 1726, Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to rabbits.

This generated a lot of news coverage and debate in Britain. The episode continues to interest social historians.

Earlier this month Karen Harvey, author of The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England, wrote about her work on documents that seemed at once absolutely central to the event and very difficult to work with:
Mary Toft’s three ‘confessions’ were new to me. These were taken down by James Douglas, a doctor present on these three occasions that Toft was questioned by a Justice of the Peace. . . .

Reading these thirty-six pages was an absolute revelation. The writing jumped off the screen. In their form and their content, they were urgent, vivid and disturbing. They recorded Toft’s version of events in what appeared to be as close to a transcription as Douglas could possibly muster. They were also far richer than I had imagined from the fairly cursory discussions in existing scholarship.

But it also became immediately apparent why historians had not undertaken a thoroughgoing analysis of the confessions and placed this centre-stage in their accounts of the case. Not only were these extremely messy as documents – full of errors and deletions – but the narratives they offered were inconsistent and contradictory.
Before her book, Harvey wrote about the Toft confessions in this article for History Workshop Journal.

Her essay is part of a series from the University of Birmingham’s Eighteenth Century Centre on sources that historians have found powerful, including:

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Record of a Pennsylvania Dutch Midwife

Pennsylvania Heritage shares an interesting article by Patrick J. Donmoyer of Kutztown University on the “Hebamme Büchlein” or work record of the midwife Rosina Heydrich (1737–1828).

Heydrich was part of the Schwenkfelder community, a religious sect that immigrated from Lower Silesia to the Perkiomen Valley of Pennsylvania in the decade before she was born. That area is now part of Montgomery County. Her parents’ marriage had been the occasion for those immigrants to choose a minister and establish a meeting.

Heydrich began her notebook by copying out more than a hundred herbal remedies. Donmoyer writes, “Some remedies are notably ritual in nature, describing the use of healing objects or procedures enacted in a particular manner or at certain times.”

On 1 Aug 1770, Heydrich recorded her first delivery in the book. That was also her only delivery that year, so perhaps she was still in training, or busy with her own family. In 1771 Heydrich attended at two births, and the next years at three, and during the war years she appears to have become her community’s principal midwife.

Over the next 84 pages, and the next 49 years, Heydrich and her assistant (who Donmoyer suggests was a daughter) set down the basic details of more then 1,700 more births. That’s more babies than in the similar journal that Martha Ballard kept in Maine, but Heydrich didn’t also mention local events.

It’s clear Heydrich and her assistant maintained this record for their own use, not as a public record. “Passages freely combine German and Latin script, fraktur calligraphy, and Latin printing in varying degrees on a single page and even sometimes in a single inscription.” That made the document a challenging read.

Heydrich’s manuscript was held for decades by the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center in Pennsburg. Under a grant from state agencies, specialists have transcribed, translated, and digitized the pages, and the notebook is now available for anyone to read through the P.O.W.E.R. Library.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

“Admiral Graves foresaw a great likelihood…”

The Road to Concord describes the Boston militia artillery company’s theft of their own cannon in September 1774, and how Gen. Thomas Gage reacted to that.

Robert Beatson’s Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783, published in 1804, includes a passage describing how Gage’s counterpart in the Royal Navy, Adm. Samuel Graves, reacted to events in and around Boston that month.

This recounting of events was very characteristic of Graves’s own reports home:
The rebellious designs of the people became every day more evident, and a mob attempted to remove some pieces of cannon during the night from Boston; and actually carried some from Charlestown [on 7 September], which place may be regarded as a suburb of that town. The disaffected gave out at the same time, that their intention was to fortify a camp in the country; and soon after, the boats of the Lively and Preston seized a flat-boat belonging to the Americans [on 20 September], with six very good guns, six pounders, which they were carrying up Charlestown river, and were supposed to be destined for the same service.

From the disposition of the people, Admiral Graves foresaw a great likelihood, that there would soon be a want of artificers to work for Government, although Boston abounded with shipwrights, sailmakers, caulkers, &c. He therefore wrote, in the most pressing terms, to Captain [James] Ayscough of his Majesty’s sloop the Swan, then at New York, but under orders to return to Boston, to procure such work-people as might be necessary to keep the ships under his command in proper repair, lest those at Boston should refuse their assistance. This precaution eventually proved of great service; for after the skirmish at Lexington, none of the Americans durst work for the King, either in the navy or army departments, but at the hazard of their lives.
In sum:
  • The Bostonians were a criminal mob deteremined on rebellion.
  • By implication, Gen. Gage and the army couldn’t handle that problem.
  • In contrast, Adm. Graves was far-sighted and realistic, and more people should have listened to him. 
As I said, characteristic.

This passage also strongly suggests that Gage never informed the admiral about the disappearance of the militia field-pieces. Otherwise, the admiral would surely have mentioned that embarrassing fact in London, as another thing that was by no means his fault.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Calvin Piper in Sickness, War, and Peace

Yesterday we left eleven-year-old Calvin Piper of Westborough in bed after falling off a colt and banging his head in August 1774.

Dr. James Hawes gave the boy a poor prognosis. The Rev. Ebenezer Parkman came to pray with him.

After a few days, Hawes gathered some medical colleagues to consult and perhaps perform surgery to relieve pressure in Calvin’s skull.

But on that morning of 6 August, Calvin woke up feeling much better than before. He was no longer delirious or babbling. The surgeons reconsidered.

The Rev. Mr. Parkman wrote in his diary:
It was feared the Trepan must be used: but it was first determined to take off part of his scalp and examine his Head. We began with prayer. Dr. [Charles] Russel [shown here] performed the Operation, and finding the grumous Blood, and that there was no Fracture, desisted from any thing further.
So Calvin was sewn up and allowed to keep recovering on his own. Parkman visited him again a couple of days later, and then Calvin drops out of the minister’s diary, presumably going back to normal farm boy behavior.

Nearly two years later, as the British military was preparing to leave Boston, Parkman had to visit the Piper family again. On Sunday, 10 Mar 1776, he wrote:
At Even went to see Mrs. Piper, newly brought to bed, and is very low; prayed with her in her Distresses.
The next day, Parkman added, “She is in a dangerous state.” And on Tuesday:
Capt. Wheelock early, Suddenly, hastily calls me to Visit Mrs. Piper as being near her End. I rode speedily (before Breakfast — nay before Family Prayer), found her groaning as in very great Distress. Prayed with her, Commending her Case to God, most gracious and compassionate. . . .

Mrs. Piper dyed about noon, about 42 and an half.
The funeral was on Thursday, 14 March. The minister noted, “her Father Whitcomb and one of her Brothers were there.”

The Parkman diary thus contains some clues to the Piper family history. The mention of “Father Whitcomb” might indicate Mary Piper’s surname at birth. There were Mary Whitcombs born in Bolton and its parent town, Lancaster, in the 1730s. However, none was born in 1733 and thus “about 42 and an half” in 1776. It’s also possible that “Father Whitcomb” was a stepfather.

In addition, Parkman’s record confirms that this Mary Piper died in 1776. John Piper remarried the next year to a woman from Templeton named Mary White. That means there were two wives named Mary Piper having John’s children in quick succession, and some genealogies don’t recognize they were separate women.

Back to Calvin Piper: As he reached his late teens, he had a new stepmother. Did that push him to leave the house? Or did he want some adventure, or just need money? Whatever the combination of reasons, on 1 July 1780 Calvin enlisted among the “men raised to reinforce the Continental Army for the term of 6 months.” When he reported to the camp at Springfield, Calvin was recorded as seventeen years old, 5'4" tall, with a ruddy complexion.

Pvt. Piper served a little more than five months at West Point, New York, before being discharged. He liked the experience enough to reenlist the following June. By now he was an inch taller and had been trained as a tanner, perhaps in a family shop. This time there was a dispute about whether he was counted in the quota for Lancaster or Templeton—not that it mattered to him. Piper agreed to serve three years, but the war ended before that term was up.

The twenty-year-old veteran moved to Norridgewock in the district of Maine. In April 1785 he married Zeriah Parker there. Five years later, however, Mrs. Zeriah Piper remarried, indicating that Calvin Piper had died in his late twenties—about fifteen years after he escaped having a hole drilled in his skull.

Friday, June 17, 2022

“The Case of the poor Boy, Calvin Piper”

In 1758, a young man named John Piper bought farmland in Bolton. He married around the same time, and from 1759 to 1765 Mary Piper had four children in Bolton. The third was a boy named Calvin, born 11 Apr 1763.

In 1764 John Piper, alongside his brothers and several neighbors, started buying farmland to the west in the town of Templeton. The next year, John moved his family onto sixty acres there.

After another few years, the Piper family moved again, this time back east to Westborough. A family genealogist found no evidence John Piper bought land in that town and guessed he “had decided to rely on his work as a tanner to support the family.” It’s also possible that the Pipers were now poor enough they had to work on other people’s land.

On 29 Apr 1774, Westborough’s minister, the Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, wrote in his diary:
At Eve came Mr. John Piper who is newly come to live among us, and asks the privilege to communicate with us, as also that his Wife Mary, may; they being Members of the Church in Templeton.
The Pipers were trying to fit into the Westborough community and congregation.

That summer, many Massachusetts towns became even more roiled in imperial politics than they were already. On 1 August, Westborough had a town meeting about “Subscribing the Agreement” and “bearing of the Charge of the Congress.” 

On that same Monday, Parkman wrote:
Martin Piper, a Lad in his 12th Year, was thrown by a Colt, and his Head came down on a Rock, nigh Mr. Newtons. He was carryed in there. It was feared to be a mortal Blow. Mr. Newton came in haste for me. I went. He was delirious. Dr. [James] Hawes soon blooded him. He bled well. Vomited Several Times — inclined to sleep; when any thing was given him, he cryed out bitterly, but could not speak. I prayed with him. What a Warning! Especially to Youth! But how great the Mercy he was not killed! His parents much distressed.
As subsequent journal entries make clear, this was Calvin Piper. In his distress, and not knowing the family well, the minister mistakenly called him “Martin” (after another Protestant leader?).

Delirium, vomiting, sleepiness—those are all symptoms of a serious head injury. Parkman was not optimistic (but then he rarely seems to have been). The next day, the minister visited the house of militia lieutenant Joseph Baker “to see young Piper”—despite his injury, the boy had been moved. Parkman wrote, “He is no better. Prayed with him.”

On Saturday morning, a coterie of rural surgeons came to Baker’s house. In addition to the local Dr. Hawes, Parkman also listed Charles Russell of Lincoln (politically a Loyalist, but still valued as a doctor), Edward Flynt of Shrewsbury, and “a Number of Doctors besides being there on the Case of the poor Boy, Calvin Piper.”

Fortunately, there were now good signs. The minister reported that the boy “last Evening began to recover his senses and to Speak—and is this morning composed and utters himself pertinently.”

Still, those doctors had come prepared to trepan the kid—to drill a hole in Calvin’s skull to remove fluids and relieve pressure on his brain. They had no doubt brought their drills and other tools. It would have been a shame not to use any of that equipment.

TOMORROW: The operation and the aftermath.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Prize Papers Project’s Peri

The Prize Papers Project is a largely German research endeavor exploring documents at the British National Archives.

Between 1582 and 1817, the English and then British government authorized the country’s naval ships and privateers to capture enemy vessels during war—and there were a lot of wars.

The crews of those naval ships and privateers, the privateers’ investors, and the Crown could claim shares of the value of the captured ships and the cargo they carried. But to keep that practice respectable, the governments established prize courts to value the captures and adjudicate disputes over them.

The project website explains:

For the seafarers setting out to take prizes, this meant that they had to swear and adhere to a strict legal procedure, which included making sure that every last scrap of paper travelling on board the captured ship was confiscated as evidence for the ensuing court process. The confiscated documents that were deemed part of a legal capture were then stored in the Admiralty’s archives, along with all juridical documents emerging from the respective captures.
Once those documents went into the files, they usually stayed there, unread. Ultimately the British government built up “documents from more than 35,000 captured ships, held in around 4088 boxes and 71 printed volumes.”

These include “at least 160,000 undelivered letters,” each a peephole into the lives of two people—mercantile partners, relatives, bureaucrats—who were trying to maintain some sort of link in wartime. Those letters never got to the intended recipients. Most have never been opened. They are in at least nineteen different languages, showing how many enemies the British Empire had over time.

The Prize Papers Project has publicized some of the stories scholars have found in that archive, hoping to attract more researchers. Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, however, ran an article that might make scholars less interested in being the first to open those bundles.
This photo shows a page from the ledger of a slave-trading vessel that sailed from La Rochelle, France, to the Guinea coast and then Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1743. The ledger then moved with some crew members onto a different ship headed back to France. But this happened during the War of the Austrian Succession. British privateers captured the vessel and confiscated the ledger.

As National Archives specialist Oliver Finnegan found when he opened the volume to digitize it, it also contained a large dead cockroach.

This insect was very much part of the Atlantic world. The species is native to Africa but during the slave trade was brought to the Americas, where it thrived so much that it’s called Periplaneta americana. Since the species is uncommon in Britain, the archivists could feel confident that this bug hadn’t crawled into the volume in recent decades.

The Guardian states that the National Archives staff have now nicknamed and catalogued the roach:
Peri, now pinned and mounted in a box with a Perspex lid, will have his own reference number, and will be kept in a drawer available to order up for anyone wishing to inspect him further in a special room at the National Archives.
Book your trips to London now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

When Did Benjamin Franklin Fly His Kite?

Today, 15 June, is the anniversary of the date in 1752 when Benjamin Franklin conducted his famously picturesque experiment with a kite, a key, and a lightning storm.

At least, this is the anniversary according to The New American Cyclopædia, edited by George Ripley and Charles A. Dana and published in 1860. Many other reference books of the nineteenth century echoed that statement.

That date might come as a surprise for people who remember that just five days ago, on 10 June, many institutions sent out tweets saying that was the anniversary of Franklin’s kite experiment. The 10 June date appears as early as 1935 and dominates recent books and the web.

However, still other authorities differ. In an article for the American Antiquarian Society’s Proceedings titled “The Date of Franklin’s Kite Experiment” (P.D.F. download), Alexander McAdie wrote: “Most biographers say that experiments were made by Franklin on June 6, 1752.” (He cited no examples, and I haven’t found any. In any event, McAdie was skeptical.)

Yet another strain of information gives the auspicious date of 4 July 1752, as in Richard Anderson’s Lightning Conductors (1885).

In fact, there’s no real information about what date Franklin flew that kite. He wrote about how scientists might trap lightning as a form of electricity in 1750 and explained how to do so with a kite in a letter dated 19 Oct 1752.

In 1767 Joseph Priestley wrote about Franklin’s experiment in his History and Present Status of Electricity, probably based on conversations with the experimenter himself. Priestley stated the doctor and his son William flew their kite in June 1752, but gave no specific date.

In that month, a letter was coming to Franklin from Europe describing a similar experiment, so to maintain his originality Franklin might have been keen to state that he had flown his kite before seeing that letter. A small number of authors doubt Franklin did the experiment at all, given that he wasn’t electrocuted. But most accept the kite story without a specific date.

We might therefore ask how 15 June, or 10 June, or any day of the month became attached to the event. Yet it might be more fruitful to ask why.

Some articles about Franklin’s kite experiment, such as these from the Constitution Center and History.com, acknowledge the lack of a definite date. But many more sources of information, especially single sentences in timelines or tweets, state a particular day in June with no doubt attached.

I see similar pressure to assign definite dates to when Olaudah Equiano or Phillis Wheatley were born, when Wheatley became free, and when a Massachusetts court ruled in the Quock Walker cases.

Our culture likes to have a date as an anchor for historical discussions. I ran across lots of material for teachers in the early twentieth century pointing to the 15 or 10 June dates as a prompt for classroom lessons. I’m sure the now-prevalent 10 June appears on a lot of timelines for people in the media looking for “on this date” hooks. And with information coming at us faster than ever, those hooks have to be sharp.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

“Too deeply impressed with the melancholy Situation”

A few days back I mentioned fireworks at New York’s celebration of King George III’s birthday in June 1774. I thought the report of that event in John Holt’s New-York Journal was interesting.

Saturday, June 4, of that year was when the king “entered the 27th Year of his Age.” The newspaper started with a discussion of the British military’s actions under Gen. Frederick Haldimand and Cdr. James Ayscough. (Gov. William Tryon was in Britain or else he would probably have led the celebration.)

The item continued:
In the Evening some very curious Fireworks were exhibited, and a small Number of Houses were illuminated; but the Generality of the Inhabitants (though perfectly well affected to his Majesty’s Person and Family, and prefering the English Constitution to every other Form of Government) were too deeply impressed with the melancholy Situation of all the British Colonies, to assume the least Appearance of public rejoicing, while it remains in Suspense whether we shall remain Freeman by maintaining our Rights, or submit to be Slaves.
Hugh Gaine’s New York Gazette and [James] Rivington’s New York Gazetteer didn’t include any of the words after “illuminated.”

In Philadelphia the diarist Christopher Marshall reported even less visible enthusiasm on what was ordinarily a patriotic holiday:
4th. This being the birth day of King George III., scarcely, if any, notice was taken of it in this city, by way of rejoicing: not one of our bells suffered to ring, and but very few colours were shown by the shipping in the harbour; no, nor not one bonfire kindled.
The problem was the Boston Port Bill and other Coercive Acts. Americans Whigs like Marshall were alarmed by how Parliament was clamping down after the Tea Party and wanted to make their fellow colonists equally alarmed that the same could happen to them.

At the same time, Whig printer Holt wanted to assure readers in America and Britain that the colonists were still loyal to the king and constitution. They just differed with the ministers in London about what that constitution demanded.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Decades of Change in Studying Slavery

In 1989, or a third of a century ago, David Hackett Fischer published Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

That book described four important migrations from Britain to its North American colonies, starting with the Puritans of East Anglia populating New England.

After issuing Paul Revere’s Ride in 1994 and Washington’s Crossing in 2004, among other books, Fischer returned to the cultural beat in 2005 with Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas.

That book’s card page (publishing jargon for the page listing an author’s other works) identified it as the third volume in a series that began with Albion’s Seed, a series called “America: A Cultural History.”

The second of the four listed volumes was to be American Plantations: African and European Folkways in the New World. That came out this year with a new title, African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals.

LitHub just extracted a historiographical portion of African Founders in a web article is titled “How Empirical Databases Have Changed Our Understanding of Early American Slavery,” which stresses “New Tools of Truth-Seeking.”

In fact, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database launched on C.D. in 1999 and has been on the web at SlaveVoyages.org since 2008. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall published her Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy on disk in 2000, and that’s also online now. These databases are well known to scholars in the field.

Fischer doesn’t make the claim that those resources are new, though they may well have arrived since he started work on this book. Rather, he wrote about them to give credit where it’s due and show readers the changes in the field. For instance:
Some American historians have long believed that many or even most slaves who came to the mainland colonies in North America had been “seasoned” in the Caribbean, or born and raised there, or were “Atlantic Creoles” who had been raised there and in other Atlantic places. There was some truth in these beliefs, during early years of the slave trade to North America.

But overall, [the Intra-American Slave Trade Database produced by Gregory] O’Malley found them to be very much mistaken. In his database of slaves shipped from the West Indies to North America, 92 percent were “new negroes” from Africa, who were quickly transshipped through West Indian ports to mainland colonies. Only about 8 percent were “seasoned” or “Creole” West Indian slaves.
Unfortunately, because the article is based on the book text, it doesn’t include links to the databases it discusses. But it does offer some pointers for people researching American slavery on their own. And I added some of those links here.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

John Shy and John Phillip Reid

Two noted historians of the American Revolution died in their nineties within a couple of days in early April.

John Shy was his generation’s preeminent military historian of the American Revolution, having graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and served in the army in the 1950s before going to graduate school.

When Shy retired, the University of Michigan stated:
He has led the way in emancipating military history from its traditionally narrow focus upon strategy and tactics, making it instead an essential component of any full understanding of humanity’s past. Professor Shy’s first work, Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the Revolution, published in 1956, was instantly recognized as a seminal contribution, and received the John H. Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association. Since that time, he has published extensively. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, published in 1976 and in a revised edition in 1990, is widely praised because of its perceptivity and breadth of vision.
Later Shy edited Winding Down: The Revolutionary War Letters of Lieutenant Benjamin Gilbert of Massachusetts, 1780-1783.

I had Toward Lexington in mind as I wrote The Road to Concord. The two books are very different, but they both look not at the war but at how British soldiers and British colonists came to be at war.

John Phillip Reid
was a scholar of early American constitutional and legal history who taught at the N.Y.U. Law School. His major work was The Constitutional History of the American Revolution, first a four-volume study and then a one-volume abridgment. Other books focused on the legalities of New Hampshire and the old Northwest.

At Law & Liberty, Aaron N. Coleman wrote of Reid:
His work on the constitutional dimensions of the Revolution challenged both the progressive interpretation, which viewed the conflict through the lens of socio-economic conflict, and the ideological school, which connected the American arguments to the republican intellectual tradition. Both schools, he believed, failed to grasp the essence of the era’s thinking. The American Revolution, he concluded, was concerned predominantly with the nature of the British constitution. . . .

One of Reid’s most persistent criticisms centered on historians’ presumption that law and constitution are the commands of the sovereign. Far too often, historians assume that what Parliament stated was the law, thereby concluding that the only way to understand the negative American response to measures such as the Stamp Act and the Coercive Acts must be to look beyond the law to political ideology. In the eighteenth century, however, “constitutional,” “legal,” and “political” lacked the precision they now carry. In that era, “constitutional” still retained its older definition rooted in custom, “to proceed in conformity to law, in conformity to custom, and in conformity to the current constitutional conventions.” At the same time, “legality” meant acting within the confines of the customary constitution, while the “political” was “a matter of choice rather than precedent” designed for immediacy rather than durability. Hence, the British constitution of the eighteenth century remained one in which custom, traditions, and values restrained power.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

When George Washington “went to the Fire works”

One of the arguments for the importance of the Gaspee incident in the American Revolution is that George Washington attended fireworks in Williamsburg, Virginia, commemorating the second anniversary of the destruction of that Royal Navy schooner.

Or so wrote Shelby Little in her 1929 book George Washington: “he spent 3s.9d. to see the fireworks in celebration of the anniversary of the burning of the Gaspee.” That book was criticized for not having citations for all quotations or statements, just a long list of sources at the back.

Luckily, the Washington Papers and Founders Online make it possible for us to see what Washington recorded about on 10 June 1774 in his terse diary of activities, his weather diary, and his expense notebook:
10. Dined at the Raleigh, & went to the Fire works.

10. Again warm with the Wind in the same place and some appearances of Rain.

10— …By Cash paid for seeing the Fireworks 0. 3. 9
Nothing about the Gaspee. The 10th of June was indeed the anniversary of the destruction of that schooner. It was also, by coincidence, the anniversary of the seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty. But if people in Williamsburg were trying to make a point about the Gaspee with fireworks, I’d expect some public discussion of that issue.

There were three Virginia Gazette newspapers published at that time. The printers reported on the Gaspee controversy in 1772 and 1773, but they didn’t mention it in 1774, much less spotlight the June anniversary. As I wrote last month, American Whigs complained about the Crown’s measures to investigate that event, but they avoided defending or celebrating the attack itself.

In the late spring of 1774, the Virginia House of Burgesses wasn’t shying away from controversy. Thomas Jefferson and others proposed a fast day to protest the Boston Port Bill. Gov. Dunmore responded by dissolving the legislature, and the legislators responded by gathering in the Raleigh Tavern on 27 May, pledging to boycott the East India Company, and proposing a Continental Congress. Washington was part of that move (though that same evening he attended a ball for the governor’s wife).

At the end of May, Speaker Peyton Randolph proposed that the Burgesses gather on 1 August, regardless of the governor. That defiant meeting would become the first Virginia Convention. Yet those politicians didn’t list the Gaspee among their grievances.

So what was the purpose of the fireworks Washington paid to see? My first thought was George III’s birthday on 4 June. The Williamsburg newspapers reported on a fireworks display in his honor in New York. But I doubt Virginians would have been a week late for that. (If there were fireworks in Williamsburg around that date, Washington wasn’t in town to see them.)

Finally I looked up Washington’s other references to fireworks in these years:
Novr. 1st [1771]. Dined at Mrs. Dawson’s. Went to the Fireworks in the Afternoon and to the Play at Night.

17 [Jan 1774]— By Club at Mrs Hawkinss—& Fireworks 0.15. 0
Those dates don’t correspond to the king or queen’s birthdays or the anniversary of the king’s coronation. Maybe there were local occasions for them, but Washington didn’t note such purposes. Rather, it looks like every so often taverns hosted fireworks to entertain their guests.

In sum, George Washington paid to see fireworks just because he liked seeing fireworks.

Friday, June 10, 2022

A Boston Boy Rebuilding the British Empire

Yesterday’s précis of the life of Charlotte Biggs promised a connection to pre-Revolutionary Boston.

You remember that young man whom Charlotte fell in love with as a teenager before her marriage? The one who went off to India to make his fortune?

His name was David Ochterlony, and he came from Boston.

Ochterlony (shown here) was born on 12 Feb 1758, eldest son of a Scottish merchant captain with the same name. His mother was Katherine Tyler, a niece of the first Sir William Pepperrell. The family house from 1762 was a brick mansion on Back Street.

In 1766 David entered John Lovell’s South Latin School. The year before, however, his father had died on a voyage to the Caribbean. The estate was in debt, not paid off until well after the war.

What happened next to young David and his siblings isn’t easy to sort out. There’s evidence he spent some time studying under Samuel Moody at the Byfield school endowed by Lt. Gov. William Dummer, now the Governor’s Academy.

Katherine Ochterlony moved to Britain and in the early 1770s married Sir Isaac Heard, a Royal Navy veteran, merchant, and, of all things, heraldric official.

The Ochterlony children joined their mother in Britain, and Heard welcomed them into his family. It’s said that David developed a close relationship with his stepfather.

When the American War began, David Ochterlony showed his loyalty to the British Empire by joining the army, or pledging to. During this time in London, the teenager evidently met Charlotte Williams, and she fell in love with him.

Ochterlony shipped out to India as an army cadet. In 1778 he gained the rank of ensign, and in three years became quartermaster for the 71st Regiment. During the Second Anglo-Mysore War, connected with Britain and France’s fight on the other side of the world, Ochterlony was captured and spent two years as a prisoner. Then he returned to army staff positions.

The loss of the most populous North American colonies turned British attention to India, and Ochterlony’s career rose with the empire there. In 1812 he became a major general, and in 1816 a baronet and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. (Those are the sorts of honors his stepfather loved studying.) In the first quarter of the nineteenth century Ochterlony was among the British Empire’s most powerful administrators on the subcontinent.

Gen. Sir David Ochterlony was known for adopting the local aristocratic lifestyle rather than maintaining British, or Boston, ways. He had thirteen concubines or wives, who reportedly paraded around Delhi on elephants. A son by one of those women became the heir to his baronetcy after the general died in India in 1825.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the teen-aged girl who had become Charlotte Biggs, author and intelligence source, was still carrying a torch for the aspiring officer she had met in the 1770s. When she wrote an autobiography late in life, she addressed it to Ochterlony, evidently still hoping to see him again. (That manuscript became the basis of Joanne Major and Sarah Murden’s biography, A Georgian Heroine.)

Thursday, June 09, 2022

The Adventures of Mrs. Charlotte Biggs

From the essay I quoted yesterday I learned that Britain’s celebration of George III’s Jubilee in 1809–10 was “the brain-child of a middle-class widow from the Welsh Borders, Mrs Biggs.”

I wanted to learn more, and it turns out there’s a recent biography of Rachel Charlotte (Williams) Biggs (d. 1827) by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden: A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs.

Young Charlotte Williams’s early life reads like a novel—specifically, an imitation of Samuel Richardson. She was educated in France, a sign that her family had at least a toehold in the genteel class. She was about seventeen years old in the late 1770s when a lumber merchant abducted and raped her—repeatedly.

After escaping from that merchant, Williams fell in love with another young man, only to watch him head off to India to make his fortune.

She married Benjamin Hunt Biggs. The couple went to France during the first years of the republic, only to end up in prison during the Jacobin regime. After getting out and getting back to Britain, Mrs. Biggs published her first book, A Residence in France during the Years 1792, 1793, 1794, and 1795.

In quick succession Biggs wrote a play titled What Is She? and a pamphlet on agricultural policy. In the early 1800s she went back to Napoleon’s France, ostensibly for her poor health but gathering information she shipped home.

Politically, Biggs was a voice of loyalty to the British government under William Pitt. The same sentiment was behind her proposal for a nationwide celebration of the sixtieth year of George III’s reign. She claimed to have written hundreds of anonymous letters promoting the Jubilee.

Peace in Europe after the Battle of Waterloo left Biggs in France without government support. According to Benjamin Colbert at British Travel Writing:
In her last letter to Vansittart dated 21 April 1816, her attempt to underline her value (at a time when open access to the continent was no doubt depreciating it) strikes a gothic tone. She describes an unknown hand throwing a packet into her carriage unseen by the coachman. Opening it in the secrecy of her chambers, she finds a note warning her off her inquiries. Hardly has she read it when it spontaneously combusts (‘some chemical operation’), leaving no evidence of its existence.
Again, Biggs’s life story reads like a novel, at least in part because she wrote it that way.

TOMORROW: The connection to Revolutionary Boston (because of course there had to be one).

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

“George III’s unusual accessibility”

You may have noticed reports that Britain is celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s “Platinum Jubilee”—a new term since few peoples have imagined their monarch ruling for seventy years.

Last week at the Social Bodies blog at the University of Birmingham, Sarah Fox looked back on the first British ruler to have a Jubilee: George III. The empire celebrated the fiftieth year of his reign in 1809 and 1810.

As Fox writes, the king and his household advisors had managed to build his popularity through what Linda Colley has called “a cunning and influential blend of ritual splendour and winning domesticity.”

George III and Queen Charlotte became a model for Britain’s growing middle class, or upper class of commoners, despite their royal trappings and responsibilities. That’s not dissimilar to the current queen.

Fox’s essay focuses on how the British public literally saw the king:
George’s Hanoverian predecessors had shunned the Stuart monarchy’s tendency to ‘progress’ round the country. George III reinstated regular royal processions, particularly in London, creating a sense of familiarity between him, his family, and large numbers of the general public. Such processions were often connected to the militia: aligning the monarchy with an important engine of growing British power, patriotism, and global expansion as well as developing notions of nationhood and identity. . . .

George III’s unusual accessibility was, in part, due to restrictions on space and money in the royal household. When he, or a member of his family, wished to see an opera, or visit the theatre, he went to London like many of his subjects. There he could be seen behaving in ways that onlookers both recognised and understood.
This strikes me as a London-centered view, despite the blog’s roots in Birmingham. Traditional royal progresses covered large parts of the kingdom. In contrast, George III never went 100 miles from London until he had to recuperate at Cheltenham Spa in 1789, and he stuck close to the capital after that. And of course the only people who would see the royal family at the theater were London theatergoers.

There are other aspects of George III’s relations with his subjects beyond the scope of this essay. Most prominent, of course, are his periods of insanity. Those became a matter of public debate in 1788, and the king had serious relapses in 1801 and 1804. He was stable as the Jubilee year began, but suffered deep troubles before it ended. The regency officially began in 1811. Those psychological difficulties apparently made the king and his family more relatable.

This analysis also makes me wonder about the number of times people attacked George III, or were grabbed for doing so. (I started discussing those back here.) Those assaults were possible precisely because he was visible in London. There was even one plot to assassinate him in a theater. How do we reconcile the king’s popularity with so many reported attempts on his life?

A couple of those assassinations were politically motivated, but in most cases the lone assailants appear to have become fixated on the king precisely because they felt a personal connection or believed he could help them. In other words, his humanity and approachability produced false hopes, then frustration and desperation.

George III survived all those attacks, of course, and stayed on the throne for over fifty years. That let British society be as forgiving of most of the obsessed attackers as they were of the king’s own mental illness. While attacking the king was still capital treason, most of the accused would-be assassins were put into asylums.

TOMORROW: Who had the idea for a Jubilee?

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Commemorating the Gaspee Sestercentennial This Week

On the evening of 9 June 1772, 250 years ago this week, a small flotilla of longboats set off from points near Providence, Rhode Island.

They headed for H.M.S. Gaspee, a Royal Navy schooner that had run aground off the coast while chasing a ship suspected of smuggling.

By morning, the commander of that ship, Lt. William Dudingston, was bleeding from two wounds and under the care of a local medical trainee. His crew had been bundled ashore. And the king’s schooner was on fire.

On Thursday, 9 June, Steven Park of Wheaton College will speak about “The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution” at the American Revolution Institute in Washington, D.C., and online. The event description says:
On June 9, 1772, a group of prominent Rhode Islanders rowed out to the British schooner Gaspee, which had run aground six miles south of Providence while on an anti-smuggling patrol. After threatening and shooting its commanding officer, the raiders looted the vessel and burned it to the waterline.

Despite colony-wide sympathy for the raid, neither the government in Providence nor authorities in London could let this pass without a response. As a result, a Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Rhode Island governor Joseph Wanton zealously investigated the incident. Historian Steven Park reveals that what started out as a customs battle over the seizure of a prominent citizen’s rum was soon transformed into one of the sparks that ignited patriot fervor in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.
The bio attached to that event description comes from the jacket of Park’s book about the Gaspee attack, so it discusses his career and other publications without making clear that book exists. So I’m showing it above with a link to his (our) publisher.

Park is scheduled to speak at 6:30 P.M. Go to this page to sign up for the online feed.

The town of Warwick, Rhode Island, is celebrating the Sestercentennial of the Gaspee attack this weekend, 11–12 June. Here’s the full schedule of 2022 events, which includes:
  • Gaspee Days parade on Saturday morning starting at 10:00 A.M.
  • Colonial encampment Saturday and Sunday
  • ceremonial burning of a ship effigy, Sunday at 4:00 P.M.
This is as much a celebration of local pride in the community today as a commemoration of what happened 250 years ago.

For a thorough round-up of sources and interpretations on the Gaspee affair, check out the Gaspee Virtual Archives. The coding shows how it was created years before this Sestercentennial, but the information is still fresh.