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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Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Sites of the Sheffield Resolves

It’s become common to call the Sheffield town meeting resolves of January 1773 the “Sheffield Declaration,” as a forerunner of the Declaration of Independence. Wikipedia does so.

Wikipedia’s entry also says that document was written “in the Colonel John Ashley House, a registered National Historic Landmark in Ashley Falls, a neighborhood of Sheffield, Massachusetts.”

The Ashley House, built in 1735 and moved in 1930, has been owned for the last half-century by the Trustees of Reservations. Its own website now emphasizes the paradox of John Ashley owning slaves while signing onto natural-rights rhetoric, and Elizabeth Freeman’s enslavement in the house.

The link between the Sheffield resolves and the Ashley house is actually quite thin, apparently based on the idea that Ashley was “moderator” of the committee to draft the resolutions.

When Boston newspapers reported that Ashley had been “chosen moderator,” that meant he moderated the 5 January town meeting that appointed the committee, not that he was moderator of the committee. He was just one of eleven men named to that subgroup. 

Committees had chairmen, not moderators, and the chairman was almost always the first man named in the record—in this case, young attorney Theodore Sedgewick. Towns often appointed a lawyer, schoolteacher, or other educated man to head such committees when they wanted some fancy words.

Sedgewick probably drafted the resolutions at his own home, which still stands in Sheffield but has been greatly modified. It also appears to be in private hands, thus not open to tourists.

The town committee probably met to go over Sedgewick’s draft in advance of the follow-up town meeting—whether a couple of days before or one hour before we don’t know. Did the committee meet at Ashley’s house? It’s possible, depending on whether that house was conveniently located and people liked the colonel’s hospitality. If he had a tavern license, the odds go up. But there’s nothing in the historical record to say the committee met there, much less that most of the drafting was done there.

Sheffield held its town meetings in its religious meetinghouse. That church still stands as well, moved back from the road and with a steeple added in 1819, and still has an active congregation. In that building the town formally adopted the resolves with a unanimous vote. That vote gave Sedgewick’s words official standing.

Nonetheless, the “Sheffield Declaration” gets associated with the Ashley House.

Historic houses benefit from having stories attached to them, preferably stories carrying emotional and historical weight. Stories benefit from having concrete settings, especially those people can visit. Thus, there’s a natural gravitation of stories to sites.

TOMORROW: A new statue in Sheffield.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Memory of “Mumbett”

In 1853 Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867, shown here), one of America’s most popular novelists, published an article in Bentley’s Miscellany titled “Slavery in New England.”

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds Sedgwick’s manuscript of that article, titled “Mumbett,” and has made it available in digital form.

Describing Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman (d. 1829), the black woman who helped to raise her, Sedgwick wrote:
It was soon after the close of the revolutionary war that she chanced, at the village “meeting-house” in Sheffield, to hear the declaration of Independence read. She went the next day to the Office of Mr Theodore Sedgwick then in the beginning of his honorable political & legal career.

“Sir” said she “I heard that paper read yesterday that says ‘all men are born equal &, that every man has a right to freedom’ — I am not a dumb Critter, wont the law give me my freedom’?

I can imagine her upright form as she stood dilating with her fresh hope based on the declaration of her intrinsic inalienable right.
At another point in the manuscript, Sedgwick wrote and crossed out these words:
The reader will be prepared for the intelligence & decision which led Mumbet on the very day after hearing the declaration of Independence read in Church to apply to Theodore Sedgwick then at the beginning of his honorable legal & political career to institute a suit for her freedom
The documentary record shows that Theodore Sedgwick, the novelist’s father, took the case of this woman, then called only Elizabeth, though the Hampshire County court in 1781. She won her freedom, took the surname Freeman, and went to work for the Sedgwick family.

That lawsuit produced one of the precedents that led the Massachusetts Superior Court to rule slavery unenforceable in the state in 1783.

Catharine Sedgwick wrote of the Declaration of Independence setting off those events. The Declaration was of course more resonant with a national audience in 1853. And that might well have been what she remembered from hearing the story as a girl.

Authors have discussed two other documents as triggering or contributing to Elizabeth Freeman’s suit. Citing conversations with the Sedgwicks, the British author Harriet Martineau tied Freeman’s request for freedom to having “heard gentlemen talking over the Bill of Rights and the new constitution of Massachusetts” in her Retrospect of Western Travel (1838).

The first article of the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780 says:
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
That fits with the date of Freeman’s lawsuit, and, unlike the other documents spelling out ideals, the state constitution had legal force.

The other document latterly linked to Elizabeth Freeman’s suit for freedom is the Sheffield resolutions of January 1773, as I quoted yesterday.

Freeman’s enslavers were Hannah and John Ashley, and their house was supposedly where a town committee met to discuss Theodore Sedgwick’s draft of those resolutions. Had Elizabeth overheard? 

TOMORROW: Evidence and tradition.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Sheffield and the State of Nature

In January 1773, the town meeting of Sheffield named a large committee “to take into consideration the grievances which Americans in general, and the inhabitants of this province in particular, labour under; and to make a draught of such proceedings as they think are necessary for this town, in these critical circumstances, to enter into.”

The head of that committee, and thus the person entrusted with the primary responsibility for drafting its report, was the lawyer Theodore Sedgewick, then still in his twenties.

Later accounts say the committee met at the house of John Ashley (1709–1802), a local militia colonel, judge, and town officeholder.

On 12 January, one week after receiving their charge, the committee presented a series of resolutions to the town meeting. The voters approved that document unanimously. A copy went to the town’s representative in the Massachusetts General Court. The text appeared in the 15 February Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers.

Most of those resolutions were a protest against Parliament taxing people in the colony to fund salaries for the royal governor, judges, and other appointed figures—taxes that the men of Massachusetts never voted on to pay officials they never voted on, either.

The town also complained about New York claiming land between the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers, an episode I hope to discuss later.

But the eventually most famous of the Sheffield resolutions was the first, laying out the philosophical basis for the complaints that followed:
Resolved, That Mankind in a State of Nature are equal, free and independent of each other, and have a Right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their Lives, their Liberty and Property.
When the men in Ashley’s house discussed their draft, they surely thought of that as a truism that strengthened their tax protest, with no broader implications.

However, Ashley was also a slaveholder.

TOMORROW: A new statue in Sheffield.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Mrs. Macaulay, Dr. Franklin, and Habeas Corpus

In late 1776 the Scottish artisan James Aitken, after receiving some encouragement of American diplomat Silas Deane, left incendiary bombs in the Royal Navy dockyards at Portsmouth and Bristol.

The British authorities tracked down Aitken, who had become known as “John the Painter.” He was tried, convicted, sentenced, and hanged by 10 Mar 1777. (Read the whole story in Jessica Warner’s study The Incendiary.)

Lord George Germain led the national government in another response to Aitken’s attacks: a Treason Act. Like laws that Parliament enacted during previous wars, this allowed the government to hold anyone suspected of treason or piracy without bail or trial—i.e., to suspend the right of habeas corpus—for the rest of the calendar year.

Parliament renewed this law each year until the end of the American war. The Massachusetts General Court passed a similar law to deal with traitors, though it promised more protections for the accused. Eventually the U.S. Constitution would carve out a wartime exception to habeas corpus as well.

Britain’s Treason Act was on Catharine Macaulay’s mind when she visited Paris at the end of 1777. Though her country wasn’t yet at war with France, there were American rebels in the capital—Deane, Arthur Lee, and most famously Benjamin Franklin.

I assume Mrs. Macaulay and Dr. Franklin had met in London during the 1760s when they were both Whig celebrities, but I don’t know if they became more than acquaintances. In late 1777, the two figures were definitely at the same dinner parties. According to Elizabeth Arnold, “Mrs. Macaulay met him several times, among the literati of Paris, at dinners given on her account, but she never received him at her hotel.”

Macaulay made a point of not visiting Franklin or inviting him to visit her. She explained herself to him in a letter dated 8 December:

I have some affaires which demand my immediat return to England. You are very sensible that the suspenssion of the Habeas Corpus Act subjects me to an immediat imprisonment on any suspicion of my having held a correspondence with your Countrymen on this side the Water. This Sir is the only reason why I did not fix a day to have the honor of seeing you at my own Hotel and why I have not been more forward in availing myself of my present situation to hold converse with my American friends who reside in this Capital.

I am sure Sir that you and every generous American would be exceedingly concerned to hear that my feeble constitution was totaly destroyed by a long imprisonment and to see me fall a sacrifice to the resentment of administration unpitied and unlamented as an impertinent individual who would needs make a bustle where she could not be of the smallest service and especially Sir as I hope the whole tenor of my conduct must have convinced you that I would with pleasure sacrifice my life to be of any real use to the public cause of freedom and that I am now nursing my constitution to enable me to treat largely on our fatal civil wars in the History I am now about.

I am Sir with a profound respect for your great Qualities as a Statesman Patriot and Phylosopher Your Very Obedient Humble Servant.
By “our fatal civil wars,” Macaulay meant the war then taking place in America—the very war that made it dangerous for her to be seen as too close to Franklin. And once again, Macaulay made a point of her delicate health.

COMING UP: Back home in Bath.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Dining with the “agreable society” of Paris

In the fall of 1777, the historian Catharine Macaulay and her companion Elizabeth Arnold arrived in Paris.

They were supposed to proceed to Nice for Macaulay’s health, but she discovered a reason to stay in the capital, as she later told the Earl of Harcourt:
When I arrived at Paris the Physician to whom Mr. [Horace] Walpole recommended me said that I should certainly perish on the road if I attempted to go farther.

Happily for me the Bark which I had before repeatedly tried in vain about a week after I was at Paris began to have so good an effect as to abate my fever sufficiently for me to partake of that agreable society.
Arnold later reported that the “agreable society” included the authors Anne-Marie du Boccage (shown above) and Marmontel, Madame Helvetius, Count Sarsfield, the Duc de Liancourt, the Duc de Harcourt, Abbé Seignelay Colbert de Castlehill, the British ambassador Lord Stormont, and the recently ousted government minister Turgot. (Plus a lady named “Madame Grigson” whom I couldn’t identify.)

As a British Whig, Macaulay expected to find the French capital under the oppression of an absolute monarchy. Instead, she heard a lot of people agreeing with her own ideas about republicanism.
I must tell your Lordship that after the French had paid me compliments on my genius and on my literary powers, the quality which they regarded as the next highest compliment was that I was a hater of kings.

In regard to the part they take in our civil wars, they are all American mad; and I do assure you, my Lord, that even your Lordship would not be well received in France if you were not an American. All the enlightened French wish ardently to see a large empire established on a republican basis to keep the monarchies of the world in order; and all the vulgar have the same earnest desire, through hatred and jealousy of the English.
By “our civil wars,” Macaulay meant the British government’s conflict with the thirteen breakaway colonies in North America.

To be sure, Macaulay wasn’t seeing a cross-section of French society. She met mainly with progressive intellectuals and aristocrats who knew of her as an anti-government author in Britain. And as she acknowledged, even Frenchmen who supported the traditional order (“the vulgar”) saw a reason to support the new U.S. of A.—in order to weaken Britain.

There was one thing Macaulay couldn’t stand about France, however, and after a few weeks it sent her back to Bath:
it was sad necessity which drove me away; as my stomach was always unfortunately delicate, I nauseated from the first, tho’ I was prejudiced in its favor, at all the food I met with in France; their meat is carrion, their poultry and even their game insipid, and their cookery most detestable. They have no good sources to season their meats with, and they use them too sparingly; their made dishes are a collection of gravy drawn from bad meat, fat, &c., without over flavour but what a little onion gives; thus the stomach is loaded with everything which is baneful to it without the assistance of warm spices to help digestion; and, in addition to these mortifications, as my stomach was very weak after my illness, all their wines turned sour upon it.

Thus all the juices of my body, vitiated by my long and important illness, was deprived of that nourishment which can alone restore the decayed strength and yield fresh balm to the oppressed constitution.
Macaulay thus found the French national constitution less oppressive than she expected, but her own constitution oppressed by French cuisine. Once again, her health was on a knife’s edge.

TOMORROW: A note to Dr. Franklin.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Catharine Macaulay on the Road

I once read the observation that a group of people traveling together moves as fast as the slowest member and has as much fun as the grumpiest member.

Catharine Macaulay’s health dictated the slow pace of her travel through France with Elizabeth Arnold. As to whether she was a happy companion, Arnold later wrote about her with great admiration, but it doesn’t sound like a fun time.

Here are some anecdotes from the road as eventually published in Mary Hays’s Female Biography.
Between Calais and Paris, she looked in vain for the healthy and well-fed peasant, the beautiful and luxuriant meadows, the cultivated farms, and comfortable farm-houses, of her native island. Despotism had palsied the hand of industry; an indigent and miserable people appeared thinly scattered over wild and dreary plains. . . .

The travellers stopped one day at Chantilly, where they met with two of their friends, and where they had an opportunity of observing a royal residence [shown above], and contrasting it with the wretchedness which they had so recently witnessed. Mrs. Macaulay was not in a state of health to bear the fatigue of inspecting the palace.

To Dr. [Treadway Russell?] Nash, one of the gentlemen whom she met at Chantilly, and who would, with apparent satisfaction, have described to her the curiosities and magnificence of the prince’s residence, she replied (after thanking him courteously for the trouble he was about to give himself,) that she would spare him the repetition, since she could receive no pleasure in hearing of the splendor of one mortal, while the misery of thousands pressed upon her recollection.
Actually, I have to admire Macaulay’s force in shutting down a bore there.
…at the first post-house at which they stopped to change horses, the feelings of the travellers were again excited by the objects which, crowding around their carriage, clamorously implored their charitable donations, while they exhibited in their persons and squalid appearance every variety of want and of human wretchedness. ‘My God! my God!’ exclaimed Mrs. Macaulay, with a benevolent enthusiasm, bursting into tears, ‘have mercy on the works of thine own hand!’ She made her servant distribute to them each three livres, and divided among them the provisions she had in the carriage.
Britons, and British Whigs in particular, believed France was a country of widely unequal wealth and oppressed, starving peasants, so these rural sights confirmed what Macaulay and Arnold expected to see.

During a stop in Abbeville, when Macaulay’s “health was in a languishing state,” Arnold expressed some worry about her dying, prompting this response:
After reproving her friend’s too great sensibility and solicitude on her account, “I thought and hoped,” said she, ”that you viewed my death but as a short separation between virtuous friends, and that your assurance of a re-union with me, in a more perfect state, would have preserved you from being thus severely affected by the idea of my dissolution.” She went on to console her companion and fellow-traveller in the same strain, “Consider our parting,” said she, “but as a short privation; for, be assured, the friendship of the good will not be dissolved by death: we shall again unite in another life.”

The feeble state of her frame, and consequent sufferings, she said, naturally led her to these reflections.
Again with the illness.

Macaulay was sincerely and conventionally religious, though her politics verged on the radical. That made an interesting contrast with her rival historian David Hume, who was religiously skeptical and quite traditional in his politics.

TOMORROW: Paris at last.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

“Her fever seemed to have left her”

In late 1777, as I’ve been relating, doctors advised the historian Catharine Macaulay to leave her home in Bath and travel to Nice for her health.

Macaulay needed a companion on that trip, a genteel woman about her age. Her favored physician, Dr. James Graham, may have been the one who recommended Elizabeth Arnold (1743–1802).

This lady was the wife of Dr. Thomas Arnold of Edinburgh. More important, she was Dr. Graham’s older sister.

Years later, Arnold wrote about what she’d first heard of Mrs. Macaulay and the real person she met:
“She is deformed, (said her adversaries, wholly unacquainted with her person), she is unfortunately ugly, she despairs of distinction and admiration as a woman, she seeks, therefore, to encroach on the province of man.”

These were the notions…that I was led to entertain of Mrs Macaulay, previous to my introduction to her acquaintance. Judge then of my surprise, when I saw a woman elegant in her manners, delicate in her person, and with features, if not perfectly beautiful, so fascinating in their expression, as deservedly to rank her face among the higher order of human countenances. . . .

Infirm health, too often the attendant on an active and highly cultivated understanding, gave to her countenance an extreme delicacy, which was peculiarly interesting. To this delicacy of constitution was added a most amiable sensibility of temper, which rendered her feelingly alive to whatever concerned those with whom she was connected either by nature or by friendship.
Those impressions appeared in Mary Hays’s Female Biography, published in 1805.

The two women and their servants set off from Bath, but they didn’t get far. Although Dr. Graham’s preparation of “bark” (probably cinchona bark) did something to relieve Macaulay’s fever, it hadn’t fully kicked in yet. She later wrote, “I was so weak when I left Bath, that from Bath to London I was obliged to be six days on the road, and to remain one fortnight in London to recover strength sufficient to pursue my journey.”

Finally the ladies boarded a ship to cross the Channel. According to Hays, because Macaulay “was severely exhausted by sickness, she rested two days at Calais.” But suddenly she got better:
she soon experienced, from the change of air, or possibly from the sea sickness itself, a salutary effect. Her fever seemed to have left her, and she suffered in the remainder of her journey to Paris but little inconvenience.
In Paris, a stout British Whig like Macaulay expected to see the oppressive effects of French political and religious tyranny. To complicate matters, in late 1777 the French government was weighing whether to formally ally with Britain’s breakaway colonies and go to war.

TOMORROW: French food and French people.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

“The dissolution of a very delicate frame”

Catharine Macaulay wasn’t a well woman, and she wanted people to know it.

She began her first letter to John Adams, on 19 July 1771, with:
A very laborious attention to the finishing the fifth vol of my history of England with a severe fever of five months duration the consequence of that attention has hitherto deprived me of the opportunity of answering your very polite letter…
And she quickly returned to that theme: “I am really very much concerned to hear that you labor under the heavy misfortune of a weak and infirm state of health. I simpathise with you in body and mind having rarely any alternative from either labor or pain.”

[I must note that Macaulay appears in Founders Online indexed under four separate names: Catharine Macaulay, Catherine Macaulay, Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay, and Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham. No one click brings up all the letters to and from her. Linking those seems like a quick and useful digital humanities project.]

As I quoted here, in late 1776 the historian asked Dr. James Graham to treat her. Early the next year she offered a public testimonial to his experimental methods:
I have the happiness to declare, that a great part of my disease immediately gave way to your Chemical Essences, your Ætherial, Magnetic, and Electric Applications; the pains in my ears and throat subsided, the fevers and irritations of my nerves left me, and my spirits were sufficiently invigorated to break from a confinement of six weeks, and to exercise in the open air.
In the summer of 1777, however, Macaulay’s health took a bad turn. She later told the new Earl of Harcourt:
By the accident of going into a tepid bath rather too cool and after a hot day, I was attacked, my Lord, at the end of the summer with one of the most formidable of all the species of intermittent fevers, and every symtom which could threaten the dissolution of a very delicate frame.

The [medical] faculty here, after having made what was very bad much worse by their unavailing remedies, in despair of my life, and not caring that I should dye under their hands, sent me over to Nice for change of air.
But Macaulay was in no shape to travel to the south of France. Fortunately, Dr. Graham hurried back from his wife and children in Edinburgh to his celebrated patient in Bath.

In February 1778 Macaulay told the Earl of Buchan:
I must do Dr Graham the justice to observe to your Lordship that he not only strengthened and returned the injured state of my nerves, injured greatly by a long and severe application, but when on his return from Edinburgh he found me on the brink of the grave from the severe attack of a Billious intermitting Autumnal fever he under God gave me a rescue from the Grim Tyrant by a judicious mixture of the Bark,

often I had repeatedly taken that Drug not only without success but with very ill effects when administered by others of the faculty, I do assure your Lordship I look upon Dr Graham as a happy Genius in the medical line of knowledge…
Macaulay started to feel strong enough to consider that trip to France. Dr. Graham evidently seconded his colleagues’ recommendation. But the historian’s health was still shaky enough that she needed a traveling companion, preferably a genteel lady like herself.

TOMORROW: A doctor’s wife.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Changing Image of Catharine Macaulay

In the mid-1760s, as I wrote yesterday, Catharine Macaulay became an icon for British Whigs.

Her History of England from the Accession of James I reinforced the Whiggish story of restoring and preserving ancient British liberties from the tyrannical encroachments of the Stuart monarchs.

Macaulay herself was from a respectable family, the sister of a Member of Parliament, after 1766 the widow of a physician with a young daughter. She wasn’t conventionally beautiful, with her thin face and long nose, but that face made her quickly recognizable.

The National Portrait Gallery in London shares some engraved images of Macaulay from this period, such as the one shown above, framing her as a matron from the Roman republic. Another print spelled out that linkage.

In the late 1760s, however, Macaulay’s public image began to change. The more she wrote about the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, the more radical she seemed. Then in 1774 she moved into the Rev. Dr. Thomas Wilson’s house in Bath, as discussed back here. And of course she was a woman in the public eye.

Those developments raised questions in people’s minds, which came out in this engraving issued in 1777, a double portrait of Macaulay and Wilson titled “The Political Platonic Lovers.” That label swirled together the two reasons people might look askance at Catharine Macaulay: her politics and her living arrangement.
Over the next couple of years, Wilson commissioned Robert Edge Pine to paint a portrait of Macaulay holding one of her letters to him. He commissioned Joseph Wright of Derby to paint himself and Macaulay’s daughter. He commissioned John Francis Moore to sculpt a statue of Macaulay as the muse Clio, which he eventually pressed upon the church he was supposed to be serving in London. He published odes to Macaulay on her forty-sixth birthday in 1777 from himself, the teenager Richard Polwhele, and Dr. James Graham. Clearly the minister was besotted with the historian.

Macaulay obviously appreciated the house to live in and the promised bequest to her daughter. But she resisted any offers or hints of marriage from Wilson. She maintained that the septuagenarian minister was merely a friend. Indeed, when she published the first volume of a less formal History of England from the Revolution as “a Series of Letters to a Friend,” that friend was Wilson.

In those same years, Macaulay was struggling to continue her history of 17th-century England; no volume had appeared since 1771. She was feeling sick much of the time. That was how she had become a patient and patron of Dr. Graham, who presented himself as an eye specialist with extra-special training from America.

Given her personal state, Macaulay surely would not have appreciated this crude colored print published later in 1777 and now digitized by the British Museum. Captioned “A Speedy and Effectual Preparation for the Next World,” the picture shows the historian, recognizable by her long nose, putting on her makeup as Death shakes sand out of an hourglass. A portrait of the Rev. Dr. Wilson hangs above her table.
TOMORROW: A journey for her health.

Monday, August 22, 2022

“Opposition to established error must needs be opposition to authority”

In May, prompted by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’s new acquisition of a double portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby, I started writing about the life and public image of historian Catharine Macaulay.

Then I broke off to address other matters, but at last I’m getting back to her. But first a running start with another historian, David Hume (1711–1776, shown here).

Hume began publishing philosophical essays with his Treatise on Human Nature in 1738, earning about as much as philosophers have usually earned. But in 1754 he published the first volume of his History of England. In eight years he wrote six volumes covering time from Julius Caesar to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That series was popular enough to make Hume moderately rich and famous.

As a national history, Hume’s work was notable for a couple of themes that might seem contradictory:
  • He was skeptical or critical about religion, casting it as an impediment to progress.
  • He was favorable about England’s monarchs, even the Stuarts.
Hume thought of himself as an independent Whig or standing politically between the Whigs and Tories, but the Whigs of the 1750s felt he had created a Tory history of their country.

In 1763 Catharine Macaulay published the first volume of her History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. She and her readership saw her as providing a truly Whiggish response to Hume. For her the Stuarts were bad kings, and the uprising against them a Good Thing.

The two authors exchanged letters in 1764. Hume stated, “I look upon all kinds of subdivision of power, from the monarchy of France to the freest democracy of some Swiss cantons, to be equally legal, if established by custom and authority.” Macaulay disagreed:
Your position, that all governments established by custom and authority carry with them obligations to submission and allegiance, does, I am afraid, involve all reformers in unavoidable guilt, since opposition to established error must needs be opposition to authority.
Whigs extolled Macaulay in the mid-1760s. Artists issued portraits of her as a Roman matron “lamenting the lost liberties.”

In 1768 Macaulay, recently widowed, published the fourth volume of her history, covering the trial and execution of Charles I. Even that event she portrayed as a Good Thing, arguing that “Kings, the servants of the State, when they degenerated into tyrants, forfeited their right to government.” Though she criticized Oliver Cromwell, she praised the Commonwealth of the 1650s.

That went too far for the British political establishment. People began to view Macaulay as a “republican,” someone who didn’t think any monarchy was necessary in Britain—and perhaps no social hierarchy, either. The Earl of Rockingham, his Whig faction, and his mouthpiece Edmund Burke distanced themselves from her. Having been celebrated, she was becoming controversial.

Macaulay herself had no formal role in politics, but in 1769 her brother John Sawbridge, a Member of Parliament and London alderman, helped to found the Society of the Gentleman Supporters of the Bill of Rights with the Rev. John Horne. Their original goal was to support John Wilkes in his battles with the government, but within a couple of years Sawbridge and Horne thought the group had become too focused on that one man. They wanted broader reforms, and Macaulay was part of the same circle.

Catharine Macaulay published the fifth volume of her history in 1771. And then she appears to have hit a wall. No sixth volume appeared for a decade.

To be sure, Macaulay did issue shorter works, such as her Address to the People of England, Scotland, and Ireland, on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs in 1775. That crisis was of course the outbreak of war in America, and Macaulay made clear which side she was on:
With an entire supineness, England, Scotland, and Ireland, have seen the Americans, year by year, stripped of the most valuable of their rights; and, to the eternal shame of this country, the stamp act, by which they were to be taxed in an arbitrary manner, met with no opposition, except from those who are particularly concerned, that the commercial intercourse between Great-Britain and her Colonies should meet with no interruption.

With the same guilty acquiescence, my countrymen, you have seen the late Parliament finish their venal course, with passing two acts for shutting up the Port of Boston, for indemnifying the murderers of the inhabitants of Massachusets-Bay, and changing their chartered constitution of government:
Macaulay also jumped ahead of her big history to publish the first volume of a History of England from the Revolution to the Present Time in 1778, but she adopted the less demanding form of “a Series of Letters to a Friend.” In those pages she went so far as to criticize the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for not putting enough curbs on the powers of monarchy.

TOMORROW: Moving to Bath, traveling to France.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

“A country undergoing a severe case of ancestor worship”?

From Louis Menand’s essay “American Democracy Was Never Designed to Be Democratic” in the New Yorker:

You might think that the further we get from 1789 the easier it would be to adjust the constitutional rule book, but the opposite appears to be true. We live in a country undergoing a severe case of ancestor worship (a symptom of insecurity and fear of the future), which is exacerbated by an absurdly unworkable and manipulable doctrine called originalism. Something that Alexander Hamilton wrote in a newspaper column—the Federalist Papers are basically a collection of op-eds—is treated like a passage in the Talmud. If we could unpack it correctly, it would show us the way.

The Bill of Rights, without which the Constitution would probably not have been ratified, is essentially a deck of counter-majoritarian trump cards, a list, directed at the federal government, of thou-shalt-nots. Americans argue about how far those commandments reach. Is nude dancing covered under the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of expression? (It is.) Does the Second Amendment prohibit a ban on assault weapons? (Right now, it’s anyone’s guess.) But no one proposes doing away with the first ten amendments. They underwrite a deeply rooted feature of American life, the “I have a right” syndrome. They may also make many policies that a majority of Americans say they favor, such as a ban on assault weapons, virtually impossible to enact because of an ambiguous sentence written in an era in which pretty much the only assault weapon widely available was a musket.

Some checks on direct democracy in the United States are structural. They are built into the system of government the Framers devised. One, obviously, is the Electoral College, which in two of the past six elections has chosen a President who did not win the popular vote. Even in 2020, when Joe Biden got seven million more votes than his opponent, he carried three states that he needed in order to win the Electoral College—Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania—by a total of about a hundred thousand votes. Flip those states and we would have elected a man who lost the popular vote by 6.9 million. Is that what James Madison had in mind?

Another check on democracy is the Senate, an almost comically malapportioned body that gives Wyoming’s five hundred and eighty thousand residents the same voting power as California’s thirty-nine million. The District of Columbia, which has ninety thousand more residents than Wyoming and twenty-five thousand more than Vermont, has no senators. Until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified, in 1913, senators were mostly not popularly elected. They were appointed by state legislatures.

Even though the Senate is split fifty-fifty, Democratic senators represent forty-two million more people than Republican senators do. As Eric Holder, the former Attorney General, points out in his book on the state of voting rights, “Our Unfinished March” (One World), the Senate is lopsided. Half the population today is represented by eighteen senators, the other half by eighty-two. The Senate also packs a parliamentary death ray, the filibuster, which would allow forty-one senators representing ten per cent of the public to block legislation supported by senators representing the other ninety per cent.
In addition to Holder’s book, Menand is responding to Nick Seabrook’s One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America and Jacob Grumbach’s Laboratories Against Democracy.

It makes sense to constitutionally insulate some political matters, such as those individual rights, off from democratic decision-making. It also makes sense to require representatives to win majorities (as opposed to pluralities), and possibly to require supermajorities for important issues.

But there’s no sound philosophical basis for a republic founded on the idea of natural rights and equality to allow numerical minorities to outvote majorities. History, not principle, tells us how those distortions came about, and history offers plenty of reasons to fix them.

Incidentally, Louis Menand’s mother, Catherine Menand, was Director of Archives and Records Preservation at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and a historical scholar who wrote about Justice John Ruddock, Samuel Adams, and other Revolutionary figures. It was a delight to know her.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Details in the Devil

For the Washington Post, University of Delaware history professor Zara Anishanslin wrote about the roots of far-right accusations that the Devil is involved in American politics reach down deep to the Revolutionary protest movement.

Devils were a crucial element of American protests against the Stamp Act, including the August 1765 effigies hanging from what became Liberty Tree, the subsequent processions modeled on that event in other colonies, and even Isaiah Thomas’s little stamps on the Halifax Gazette.

I’d push that form of politics back even further because the Stamp Act protest borrowed imagery from New England Pope Nights, which always included the Devil and multiple imps. Since that holiday was part of the British Empire’s loud stance against Roman Catholicism and the Stuart claimants to the throne, using a religious figure of evil made sense.

And Pope Night was always political as well. The Stuart claimants were contemporary figures, and Charles Edward Stuart almost came within striking distance of the British throne in 1745. A 1750s Pope Night was recalled as lambasting Adm. John Byng, another contemporaneous villain. So the shift to using Pope Night–like effigies against men associated with the Stamp Act wasn’t all that big.

Likewise, after Benedict Arnold defected in 1780, Americans resurrected the Pope Night imagery, largely suppressed while leaders sought alliances with the Québecois and French, to show their enmity to him. The details might change, but the Devil did not.

Anishanslin also writes:
How the devil looked was important. And in Colonial and revolutionary era America, the devil was often portrayed as a Black man. Illustrations of the devil in Cotton Mather’s account of the Salem Witch Trials and Paul Revere’s prints alike both showed the devil with black skin. Such depictions played into the racism and fear of slave revolt that undergirded much of the revolution.
That made me take a closer look at figures of the devil in American printing. The first thing I noticed is a difference between the depictions in woodcuts and in more expensive engravings, such as Revere’s “A Warm Place—Hell.” Engravings could show more detail, but they couldn’t depict solid black. The devils and demons on those pages tend to look like dark, hairy monsters.

In contrast, woodcuts like the one above usually did show the devil as almost a black silhouette. Often that silhouette had a tail, long pointed nose, and spiky horns or hair—different from how artists of the time showed a generic “Black man.” While the symbolism of blackness itself in British-American culture can’t be denied, I don’t think British-American artists were depicting the Devil in the form of either a man or an African. 

Friday, August 19, 2022

The Mysteries of Fortune Freeman

Earlier this year Boston National Historical Park shared a research article by Anjelica Oswald about an African-American Revolutionary War pensioner. It starts with this scene:
In the spring of 1818, an old man named Fortune Freeman…swore to the court that he served as a soldier in the Revolution, and applied for a veteran’s pension for some relief. Arriving to the court with merely the clothes on his back, Freeman provided few details about his personal life in his statement. Aside from his own declarations, few records of his life exist before or after the war. Only one of these precious few records remained in his possession when he approached the court: a discharge paper from the 4th Massachusetts, issued to him at the close of the Revolutionary War in 1783.
Because many veterans similarly lacked paperwork, and because the U.S. War Department had suffered a fire in 1800, the pension process for aging Revolutionary War veterans relied on applicants’ memories. That makes the pension files detailed historical sources but also leaves them riddled with gaps and contradictions.

In Fortune Freeman’s case, his memories didn’t match the remaining paper trail in several ways.
Freeman claimed to have first enlisted in Boston in 1776 in Captain Elijah Danforth’s company, Colonel Thomas Nixon’s regiment, later designated the 6th Massachusetts Regiment in 1779. He stated that he continued to serve in the same regiment until his honorable discharge in 1783. However, when looking through muster rolls, there is no record of a “Fortune Freeman” enlisting in 1776 in Danforth’s company. In fact, there is no record of a “Fortune Freeman” in Danforth’s company at all.
Capt. Danforth was from Billerica, serving from the first day of the war. But he left the army in March 1779. So whom commanded Fortune Freeman after that?

Freeman also testified to having been wounded at the Battle of Brandywine and to witnessing the surrender of Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga. Those two major battles took place in the same season hundreds of miles apart, so no army units were at both.

Freeman’s pension application thus shows some of those gaps and contradictions. However, Oswald also found that in May 1777 Col. James Barrett mustered a Billerica man named Fortune (or “Forten”) Conant into Capt. Danforth’s company. This man served in that Massachusetts regiment until 1780. Then there’s no further record of him.

But there is a record of a man named Fortune Freeman enlisting into the 4th Massachusetts regiment in 1781 and serving until the end of the war two years later. Those details matched the discharge paper Freeman presented with his pension application decades later.

Oswald’s essay explores the likelihood had Fortune Conant and Fortune Freeman were the same man, with some details dovetailing, others (like his later commanding officer) left aside, and a few (either Brandywine or Saratoga) embellished.

It also uses the record of the units Conant and Freeman were linked to, and later civilian records, to fill in the big holes of his/their life. Was Fortune Conant born enslaved, perhaps to the Conant family of Billerica? Did Fortune Freeman return to Massachusetts after being discharged? The U.S. government continued to pay his pension until 1824, so is that when this veteran died? The article is a detailed read, careful to distinguish evidence from supposition.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

H.M.S. Endeavour Under Attack?

The story of the shipwreck in Narragansett Bay that’s probably, but not officially, H.M.S. Endeavour continued this month as the Boston Globe reported that the remains are being eaten away.

Brian Amaral has been covering this story, and in this latest installment he described how Reuben Shipway came from the University of Plymouth to investigate the biology of the wreck (in cooperation with local authorities).

Not only did Shipway find naval shipworms, or Teredo navalis, in wood brought up from the seafloor, but “He saw larvae on their gills — that meant they were breeding.” Indeed, shipworm might share responsibility for only about 10–15% of the warship remaining.

What’s more, “Shipway found evidence that a crustacean species called gribbles had eaten at the wood from the outside, a sort of two-pronged attack that will, in time, eat anything that’s exposed to water until it’s gone.” While the material is safer when buried in sediment, currents in the bay and warming water mean that underwater environment will always be changing.

Shipway also examined his samples for evidence of species from distant oceans, which would add to the evidence that this particular wreck is the Endeavour, later renamed H.M.S. Lord Sandwich. None came to light, but Australian archeologists are already convinced.

There remains the big question of who wants to fund further exploration and any attempts at preservation. The ship came from the British navy. It’s in U.S. waters. In world history, it’s most significant as the vessel that brought Capt. James Cook and the British to Australia, and that country is most interested in it.

Meanwhile, the shipworms and gribbles are still living their lives.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

“More of the spirit of party, than of poetry”

The precocious poet Richard Polwhele’s The Spirit of Frazer (discussed yesterday) tries to use the form and language of heroic national verse to praise Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga and urge Great Britain to withdraw from its American war.

That would be a hard task for any writer, let alone a teenager. As the literary scholar Dafydd Moore wrote in what might well be the only recent study of Polwhele, “The language and devices of martial heroism are pushed beyond the point they can be credibly flexed.”

But back in 1778, when young Polwhele had his poem printed in Bath and sent to the London bookseller William Goldsmith and literary reviewers, reactions appeared to have hinged on politics.

The Spirit of Frazer was undoubtedly political, and magazine editors didn’t even have to read the poem to get that. By putting the name of “Mrs. [Catharine] Macaulay” on the title page, Polwhele allied himself with the country’s radical Whigs.

The Westminster Magazine’s reviewer wrote:
The inscription to the great Commonwealth heroine, or queen of the Amazons, sufficiently hints the principle on which these pieces are written; and as for the rest, there plainly appears more of the spirit of party, than of poetry, in them.
The Critical Review started out on the same point but actually had something to say about the poetry as poetry:
When the reader observes that these two poems are inscribed to the female historian, we need not add that they are of the patriotic cast. In the Tale we find some strokes of the pathetic, and the Ode contains some flashings of poetical fire.
In contrast, all the Town and Country Magazine had to say was, “Another patriotic reverie in verse.” British Whigs, like Americans, had adopted the term “Patriot” for their platform of political reforms, so it meant both more and less than basic loyalty to Britain.

Some reviewers really didn’t like Polwhele’s message. The Monthly Catalogue stated:
Of all the spirits we ever conversed with, this is the most spiritless. It persuades General Burgoyne (who, it seems, took its advice) to yield the day to [Horatio] Gates. . . . This is the genius—this the language of the gallant [Simon] Frazer!—No, ’tis a base counterfeit—the ghost of a By—g [Adm. John Byng],—or it is some dastard soul, the body of which had been shot in the back.—S’death! if the real spirit of General Frazer, now, perhaps, hovering, melancholy, over the fatal plain of Saratoga, could but hear of this poem, it would certainly waft itself back to Britain, and pull the Author by the nose.
And the London Review of English and Foreign Literature called The Spirit of Frazer:
A piece of Bath metal sent up to a London Goldsmith, to make money of.—What punishment ought not to be inflicted on such counterfeiters of poetical coin.
Still, nothing could daunt young Richard Polwhele from his literary career. He studied for a couple of years at Oxford and then went into the ministry, married, and raised a family while working as a country cleric. And he continued to write—more long poems, antiquarian and topographical studies, biographies.

People care about only one of Polwhele’s books, though: The Unsex’d Females, a 1798 poem (with lengthy footnotes) about the dangers of the French Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft. And that’s only because it shows the environment that women faced as public authors in the period.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

“Reason’s voice commands thee, yield”

The first person to use the death of Gen. Simon Fraser at Saratoga in art might have been the young poet Richard Polwhele (1760–1838, shown here).

His first tiny splash in the British literary world was as the youngest of the admirers writing odes to Catherine Macaulay for her birthday in 1777, mentioned back here.

Through the same printer the teenager soon published The Fate of Lewellyn; or, the Druid’s Sacrifice. A Legendary Tale. In Two Parts. To which is added Carnbré, a Poem. Agnes Repplier later wrote of that book:
The title-page stated modestly that the writer was “a young gentleman of Truro School”; whereupon an ill-disposed critic in the “Monthly Review” intimated that the master of Truro School would do well to keep his young gentlemen out of print. Dr. [Cornelius] Cardew, the said master, retorted hotly that the book had been published without his knowledge
Undaunted, in 1778 Polwhele enrolled at Oxford and put out yet another volume: The Spirit of Frazer, to General Burgoyne. An ode. To which is added, The Death of Hilda; an American Tale. Inscribed to Mrs. Macaulay. In fact, according to a 1798 profile, he wrote those poems before leaving school.

I haven’t found any online texts, and for that most people would be grateful. However, Dafydd Moore quoted and analyzed The Spirit of Frazer in his monograph Richard Polwhele and Romantic Culture: The Politics of Reaction and the Poetics of Place. So you’re not getting off that easily.

As Polwhele spins his tale, a few days after his death Fraser appears to Gen. John Burgoyne and poetically urges surrender to the American army. The brigadier’s ghost argues that this is the most honorable course because the war in America is both unjust and unwinnable.
Reason’s voice commands thee, yield:
Ev’n Frenzy’s self would scarce oppose!
Tempt not the horrors of the field,
Nor brave surrounding foes!
Nor Slavery’s dungeon be thy meed!
For Honour would disclaim the deed!
Yet stamps the Roll that bids the battle cease!
Burgoyne, the ghost says, should return to Britain and advocate for peace.
Go! and bid her spread no more
Her thunders o’er the Atlantic wave,
While glooms destruction’s threatning power,
Pointing to the yawning grave!
No more let War his flaming brand
Wide wave o’er Freedom’s ravag’d land,
Where soon a glorious Empire shall arise!
Polwhele thus had Fraser echo how Britain’s most radical anti-war Whigs were responding to news of Saratoga.

TOMORROW: The reviews roll in.

Monday, August 15, 2022

The Memory of Gen. Simon Fraser

Brigadier general Simon Fraser had a long career in the British army before dying in the Battle of Saratoga.

Even so, it appears that Gen. John Burgoyne’s description of his funeral, quoted back here, made Fraser into a British icon of sorts.

Burgoyne’s efforts were helped along by another narrative of that event in Lt. Thomas Anburey’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of America, published in 1789. Anburey wrote:
About sun-set, the corpse was carried up the hill; the procession was in view of both armies; as it passed by Generals Burgoyne, [William] Phillips and Riedesel, they were struck at the plain simplicity of the parade, being only attended by the officers of his suite…and urged by a natural wish to pay the last honors to him, in the eyes of the whole army, they joined the procession.

The enemy, with an inhumanity peculiar to Americans, cannonaded the procession as it passed, and during the service over the grave. The account given me by your friend Lieut. [Quin John] Freeman was, that there appeared an expressive mixture of sensibility and indignation upon every countenance—the scene must have been affecting.
Anburey spent years as a prisoner of war with the Convention Army—that was how he traveled through the interior parts of America. He didn’t come away with any fondness for the host nation.

In the same year Anburey’s account was published, a print appeared on the London market titled “View of the West Bank of the Hudson’s River, 3 Miles above Still Water, Upon which is the Army under the Command of Lt. Gen. Burgoyne (Showing General Frazer’s Funeral).”

Follow this link to a digitized image of this print from the Yale University Art Gallery. On the rightmost of the three hills is a line of tiny figures following two coffins. Some experts interpret the second one as representing Burgoyne’s aide-de-camp Sir Francis Clarke, also killed in the battle though not in any account buried with Fraser.

Finally in 1791 the Scottish artist John Graham (1754–1817) exhibited a painting of Fraser’s funeral. Graham was influenced by Benjamin West’s picture of the death of Gen. James Wolfe in 1759. So much so, in fact, that one critic of the time reviewed The Funeral of General Fraser by saying: “We should have been more pleased with the picture if we had not seen The Death of General Wolfe by West.”

As West had done before him (and as other West acolytes like John Singleton Copley and John Trumbull did), Graham sought out the officers who had been at the event he was depicting. He made studies of those men and portrayed them as individuals in his scene. That painting was made into a print in 1794, and the print was issued with a key to the figures.

(I can’t find Graham’s original on the web; the image above shows a copy in the collection of the National Army Museum.)

Burgoyne, Anburey, and Graham thus crafted Fraser’s funeral into an emblem of British fortitude and propriety even in defeat. This stuff-upper-lip behavior could easily, as Don Carleton commented last week, tip into Monty Python–style satire. Still, it was effective.

American chroniclers of the Battle of Saratoga felt a need to quote Riedesel and Burgoyne on Fraser’s death and metal—those sources are just too full of drama to ignore. But the same historians often added a protest that if only the British commanders had told the Americans that the generals were gathering for a funeral there would have been no artillery fire. I’m not entirely convinced.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Another Dispatch from James Madison’s Montpelier

The Culpepper Star-Exponent is reporting on an odd wrinkle in the already public conflict over historical interpretation at Montpelier, James Madison’s slave-labor plantation.

The U.S. Postal Service closed the small post office near that historic site on short notice in June because, as Allison Brophy Champion reports, “it objected to a historical exhibit there.” The small building that housed the post office is part of the property of the Montpelier Foundation.

A spokesperson told the newspaper, “Service at Montpelier Station was suspended after it was determined the display at the site was unacceptable to the Postal Service.”

The display at issue consists of one panel on the outside of the building and several more inside—through a door separate from the one that went to the working post office.

The exhibit is titled “In the Time of Segregation,” and it describes segregation at that post office, opened in 1912, and in other services in the Jim Crow states.

Now one might at first guess that this display was a project of the new management at Montpelier. In May, as I described here and here, the Montpelier Foundation resolved months of internal controversy by seating eleven new members representing descendants of people enslaved at that plantation and others nearby, and installing new top management. The organization seemed poised to focus more attention on the site’s history of slavery and segregation.

In fact, the “In the Time of Segregation” exhibit was installed twelve years ago when the post office building reopened after Montpelier restored it. Only in June, within a month of the Montpelier Foundation management change, did some U.S. Postal Service manager deem that presentation of history “unacceptable.”

The post office’s local spokesperson declined to offer any more information and also claimed, “we attempted to address the issue with the property owner.” The head of the Montpelier Foundation told the Star-Exponent, “The U.S. Postal Service did not contact the current CEO or chief of staff, nor did it contact the previous CEO or chief of staff.”

The closure doesn’t affect Montpelier alone. About a hundred people had boxes at that post office because they don’t get mail delivered to their houses nearby. They “were supposed to get temporary postal boxes in Orange,” about four miles away, but that hasn’t happened. The Postal Service also promised a public meeting, but there’s no report of one taking place.

Furthermore, the area’s representative in Congress has told the U.S.P.S. district manager that “To close a post office, the agency is required to make its determination in writing, made available to the customers served by the office, and may not close it until 60 days afterward.” That clearly didn’t happen.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Online Tools to Investigate the Myths of American History

Today I’m speaking at History Camp Boston, the gathering of history researchers, writers, and buffs organized by the Pursuit of History.

I’ve spoken at each annual History Camp Boston, and it will be good to return after two years in which the pandemic made such a congregation too risky.

Back in late 2019 or early 2020 the founder of the Pursuit of History, Lee Wright, suggested I speak at the next History Camp about debunking myths of Revolutionary history. I decided it would be better to focus on tools for people doing their own research. And then I had other, heavier things on my mind for more than two years.

But at last History Camp Boston is taking place, and my talk is:

Digging and Debunking: Using Online Tools to Investigate the Myths of American History

From Founders’ quotes to inspirational legends to details that historians have repeated for so long that nobody considers where they came from, our history abounds with assertions that we should be skeptical about. This workshop discusses how to assess such historical tales and tidbits. It will share tactics for using Google Books and other free resources to pinpoint when and where stories arose, and lay out the dynamic of “grandmother’s tales,” “memory creep,” and other ways legends spread. And every so often these techniques reveal that a story almost too good to be true is supported by solid evidence.
I expect to touch on the following websites since I use them regularly when I research new topics and details about individuals.

Google, especially Google Books, sometimes augmented with Google Ngram Viewer
HathiTrust Digital Library
Internet Archive

Founders Online
Colonial Society of Massachusetts publications
Massachusetts Historical Society Coming of the Revolution and other resources

Sites on false quotations from famous Founders
Monticello’s spurious quotes page
Mount Vernon’s spurious quotes page

Language sites
Johnson’s Dictionary Online

JSTOR (I can access through the Newton Free Library; a card from the Boston Public Library, which any Massachusetts resident can apply for, also offers access to electronic resources)

American Archives

GenealogyBank (paid subscription)
Harbottle Dorr collection of Boston newspapers at the Massachsuetts Historical Society
Virginia Gazettes at Colonial Williamsburg

Genealogy sites (for vital records)
Early Vital Records of Massachusetts
American Ancestors (N.E.H.G.S.) for local probate files, real estate, &c. (paid membership)

Fold3’s Revolutionary War Pensions (paid membership)

Sources on the naval war
American War of Independence at Sea
Three Decks
Naval Documents of the American Revolution

Town, state, and federal government records
Massachusetts House Journals
Massachusetts census of 1765
Boston town records
Boston tax records for 1780
A Century of Lawmaking on the Continental Congresses

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Funeral of Gen. Simon Fraser

Yesterday I quoted Frederika von Massow Riedesel on the death of Gen. Simon Fraser at Saratoga.

Wounded at Bemis Heights on 7 Oct 1777, Fraser died the following morning. By then the Crown forces had pulled back to their fortified camp, and the Continentals were attacking them.

Riedesel's memoir, in the 1827 translation, continued:
After he had been washed, he was wrapped in a sheet, and laid out. We then returned into the room, and had this melancholy spectacle before us the whole day. . . .

We were informed, that general [John] Burgoyne intended to comply with general Fraser’s last request, and to have him buried at 6 o’clock, in the place which he had designated. This occasioned an useless delay, and contributed to our military misfortunes. At 6 o’clock, the corpse was removed, and we saw all the generals, with their retinues, on the hill, assisting at the funeral ceremony.
Among those generals was Riedesel’s own husband, making what followed particularly unnerving for her. Especially since she obviously felt the army should be moving to a place of greater safety rather than going through this ceremony.

The chaplain who presided was the Rev. Edward Brudenell.

Gen. Burgoyne devoted space in his report to the House of Commons on the failed campaign to Fraser’s funeral:
The incessant cannonade during the solemnity; the steady attitude and unaltered voice with which the chaplain officiated, though frequently covered with dust, which the shot threw up on all sides of him; the mute but expressive mixture of sensibility and indignation upon every countenance: these objects will remain to the last of life upon the minds of every man who was present. The growing duskiness added to the scenery, and the whole marked a character of that juncture that would make one of the finest subjects for the pencil of a master that the field ever exhibited—

To the canvas and to the faithful page of a more important historian, gallant friend! I consign thy memory. There may thy talents, thy manly virtues, their progress and their period, find due distinction; and long may they survive;—long after the frail record of my pen shall be forgotten.
Can you tell that Burgoyne (shown above) was a dramatist?

COMING UP: A scene of British fortitude.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Death of Gen. Simon Fraser

During the fight at Bemis Heights, the second act of the Battle of Saratoga, an American rifleman picked off Simon Fraser, brigadier general and commander of His Majesty’s 24th Regiment of Foot.

Frederika von Massow Riedesel left a dramatic account of Fraser’s last hours. Wife of the officer commanding the Crown’s German-speaking hired regiments, she had traveled to North America with their young children.

This is from the 1827 translation of Riedesel’s memoir of the war:
About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, instead of the guests whom I expected, I saw one of them, poor general Fraser, brought upon a hand-barrow, mortally wounded. The table, which was already prepared for dinner, was immediately removed, and a bed placed in its stead for the general. I sat terrified and trembling in a corner. The noise grew more alarming, and I was in a continual agony and tremour, while thinking that my husband might soon also be brought in, wounded like general Fraser.

That poor general said to the surgeon, “tell me the truth: is there no hope?” . . . the ball had passed through his body, but unhappily for the general, he had that morning eaten a full breakfast, by which the stomach was distended, and the ball, as the surgeon remarked, passed directly through it. I heard often amidst his groans, such words as these, “O bad ambition! poor general Burgoyne! poor Mistress Fraser.” Prayers were read, after which he desired that general [John] Burgoyne should be requested to have him buried on the next day at 6 o’clock in the evening, on a hill where a breastwork had been constructed.

I knew not what to do: the entrance and all the rooms were full of sick, in consequence of the dysentery which prevailed in the camp. At length, towards evening, my husband came, and from that moment my affection was much soothed, and I breathed thanks to God. He dined with me and the aids-de-camp in great haste, in an open space in the rear of the house. We poor females had been told, that our troops had been victorious; but I well saw, by the melancholy countenance of my husband, that it was quite the contrary. On going away, he took me aside, to tell me every went badly, and that I should prepare myself to depart, but without saying any thing to any body. Under the pretence of removing the next day to my new lodgings, I ordered the baggage to be packed up. . . .

my children…were asleep, but…, I feared, might disturb the poor dying general. He sent me several messages to beg my pardon for the trouble he thought he gave me. About 3 o’clock, I was informed that he could not hold out much longer, and as I did not wish to be present at his last struggle, I wrapped my children in blankets, and retired into the entrance hall. About 8 o’clock in the morning he expired.
The 1827 translation says that the words in boldface above appeared in English in the original German publication of Riedesel’s memoir. In other words, they were supposedly the general’s exact words. Nonetheless, a later translation presented Fraser’s words as, “Oh, fatal ambition! Poor General Burgoyne! My poor wife!” 

TOMORROW: A memorable burial.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

All Dressed Up for the Sestercentennial

I got a new T-shirt this week, offered by JCD666 on TeePublic.

The best part is that the official U.S. Bicentennial logo is modified to look weathered, like a silkscreened shirt that’s gone through the laundry for nearly fifty years.