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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Friday, September 30, 2022

“Great wonderment made at the New England Coffee house”

On 8 Nov 1774, Capt. Nathaniel Byfield Lyde of the Boston Packet left Josiah Quincy, Jr., “at Falmouth in the county of Cornwall” before sailing on to London.

Quincy made his way to the imperial capital over land, seeing the Plymouth Dockyard, Exeter, Salisbury, “the famous Roman or Druid Temple at Stonehenge,” and at least three peers’ lordly seats. He arrived in the imperial capital on the morning of 17 November.

Word of Quincy’s arrival got around quickly. He wrote in his journal that day that the Boston merchant Thomas Bromfield, a relative of his wife, reported “there was great wonderment made at the New England Coffee house about what brought me to London.” One man even said, “he has been blowing up the seeds of sedition in America and had now come to do the same here.”

Quincy told Bromfield to reply “that if I had done nothing but blow up seeds they would probably be very harmless, as they would never take root, but if I should have to sow any here and they should afterwards ripen, he or the ministry might blow them about at their leisure.”

Other visitors that first day were Edward Dilly, the London bookseller who published Catharine Macaulay, and Jonathan Williams (1750–1815, shown above), who had secured an easy job as “Inspector of the Customs in the Massachusetts Bay” but sided with the American Whigs. Later Quincy went to tea at the home of Williams’s great-uncle, Benjamin Franklin.

The next day Williams visited Quincy again for a long private talk. He reported:
Governor [Thomas] Hutchinson had repeatedly assured the Ministry, that a union of the Colonies was utterly impracticable: that the people were greatly divided among themselves in every colony, and that there could be no doubt, that all America would submit, and that they must, and moreover would, soon. . . . Governor Hutchinson had more than once said the same to persons in the Ministry in his presence.
Williams wanted Quincy to meet with Lord North, the prime minister, and the Earl of Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for North America. Quincy signaled that he was ready if those officials wanted to meet with him.

That day Quincy dined at Franklin’s house with Williams and Dr. Edward Bancroft. (During the war, Bancroft would serve the first U.S. diplomats in France as a secretary and, simultaneously, the Crown as a spy.) Franklin echoed what his great-nephew had said about Hutchinson.

In the evening, Quincy went to the Covent Garden Theater, a novel experience for a man raised in Massachusetts. He wrote:
the actresses in several striking elegances of Gesture, voice and action, convinced [me] that women equal men [in] the powers of Eloquence. I am still further satisfied in my opinion, that the Stage is the nursery of vice, and disseminates the seeds of vice far and wide—with an amazing and banefull success.
Meanwhile, royal officials were discussing this visitor from Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: Through Hutchinson’s eyes.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Josiah Quincy’s Fellow Travelers

Once his ship was safely clear of Salem harbor, Josiah Quincy, Jr., must have come up to enjoy the sea air. One of the benefits of his voyage to Britain was supposed to be relief from his tuberculosis.

I suspect his presence startled his fellow passengers aboard the Boston Packet. In his diary of the trip, Quincy listed those men this way:
With us went passengers Messrs. W. Hyslop and son; Dr. Paine and Rufus Chandler, Esq., of Worcester; Mr. Higginson, of Salem, and Mr. Sylvester Oliver, son of the late Lieutenant-Governor. Some of us might say, “Nos dulcia linquimus arva,” [We abandon our sweet fields] while others were obliged to mourn, “Nos patriam fugimus.” [We fly from our country]
Those Latin tags appear together in Virgil’s first Eclogue. Quincy evidently thought one applied to some of the men and one to the rest.

Who were those fellow travelers?

William Hyslop (1714–1796) was a merchant of Scottish descent, close to the Rev. Charles Chauncy and involved in missionizing charities. By 1774 he was “liveing out of town,” as Jane Mecom wrote, in a Brookline house he bought from Dr. Zabdiel Boylston. (Mecom had asked Hyslop to carry a letter to her brother in London, Benjamin Franklin, but he’d forgotten.) Hyslop’s son traveling with him was probably William Hyslop (1753–1792).

Hyslop appears to have been stranded in Britain by the outbreak of war. In May 1778 he wrote to John Adams from London to say he had “not heard from his Wife, Family, and other Friends at B—— since the 21st of September last” and was “impatiently waiting for a favourable opportunity to return to his Family and Friends from whom he has been so long involuntarily absent.” He probably didn’t want to be counted among the “absentees”; if so, the state might assume he was a Loyalist and confiscate his property.

Hyslop eventually did return to his family and property. He funded a school building for Brookline in 1793, and the town still has a road named for him.

Dr. William Paine (1750–1833, shown above) and Rufus Chandler (1747–1823) were both Harvard-educated young professionals, Paine a physician-apothecary and Chandler a lawyer. Their families were also related. They had been building genteel lives in Worcester until they sided with the Crown in the town’s increasingly Whiggish politics.

In August 1774, “near 3000 people” visited Paine’s father, Timothy Paine, to express their displeasure at him accepting a seat on the mandamus Council. The next month, over 4,500 Worcester County Patriots turned out to close the courts where Chandler worked. The two men decided they were better off visiting London.

Paine and Chandler returned to Massachusetts in the spring of 1775, landing in Salem in May only to find that there was a war under way and they were on the wrong side of the lines. They quickly moved into Boston and took stock of their situations.

Paine sailed back to Britain, where he bought and wheedled a medical degree and an appointment as apothecary for Gen. Sir William Howe’s army in 1776. During the early 1780s he held some offices in Nova Scotia. But in 1787, Paine came back to Massachusetts and rebuilt his upper-class life.

Chandler stayed in Boston through the siege, evacuated to Halifax with his wife, and then spent most of the war years in New York City. He tried to establish a lucrative legal practice in Halifax and Annapolis Royal, but eventually gave up and moved to London for his final decades.

Stephen Higginson (1743–1828) had become a merchant in Salem after spending a decade as a young ship’s captain. During this trip to London, the House of Commons invited him to testify about how the fishermen of Massachusetts would respond to a proposed new law. Higginson’s answers didn’t endear him to all his Essex County neighbors, and Salem’s committee of safety had to ask the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to vouch for him in June 1775.

Higginson repaired his reputation well enough, particularly by financing privateers, that toward the end of the war he became one of Massachusetts’s delegates to the Continental Congress. During the Shays Rebellion, he helped to lead the militia that Gov. James Bowdoin sent to quell the unrest, and he was a strong Federalist in the early republic.

Finally, Brinley Sylvester Oliver (1755–1828) was indeed a son of Massachusetts’s late lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver. His mother died in March 1773, his father a year later, just before he graduated from Harvard College. Oliver started attending Anglican services, a sign of his alienation from the Massachusetts society of his ancestors.

Syvlester Oliver was also a nephew of former governor Thomas Hutchinson, who greeted him warmly in London and loaned him £150. Eventually he gained the rank of purser in the Royal Navy and a Loyalist pension. He saw naval action against the French, including at the Battle of Trafalgar. Oliver died in London, a fairly wealthy man.

TOMORROW: Arriving in London.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Josiah Quincy’s “clandestine Departure”

On 28 Sept 1774, Josiah Quincy, Jr., sailed for Britain aboard the Boston Packet, captained by Nathaniel Byfield Lyde.

Because the Boston Port Bill had outlawed ships traveling from Boston to other colonies or Britain, Quincy embarked from Salem.

He did so in great secrecy. Back on 20 August, Quincy had written to Samuel Adams about his plans:
I have taken my passage and sail (God willing) for London in 18 days certain. The master with whom I go, will not know who is his passenger till he is 3 Leagues below the Light house. Nay he is not to know that any one sails with him as a passenger, and it is to Leave too far to receive the orders of the owner who is our friend William Dennie (otherwise to favor the plan all in his power).
And he closed that letter: “Post PS. I desire that my sailing for London may be kept a secret as long as possible. All our friends join in the Utility of such secrecy.”

Of course, he was telling Adams, and asking Adams to spread the word among First Continental Congress delegates. On the same day, Quincy had written to John Dickinson:
My design is to be kept as long secret as possible, I hope till I get to Europe. Should it transpire, that I was going Home, our public enemies here would be indefatigable and persevering to my injury, as they have been to the Cause in which I am engaged heart and hand; perhaps more so, as personal pique would be added to public malevolence.
Quincy wanted Dickinson and other leaders from colonies to the south to tell their supportive contacts in London he was coming.

As it turned out, it took a whole month longer for Quincy to prepare for his journey, and he traveled on a different ship. Nonetheless, he was still able to keep his departure largely a surprise.

A few weeks later, Quincy’s father wrote to him:
All the Tories and some of the Whigs resent your clandestine Departure. Many of the Former say, that as soon as your Arrival is known, you will be apprehended and secured. One in particular offered to lay 10 Guineas you were not gone to London, provided another 10 Guinea were laid, that you would not be hanged when you got there. Some say, you are gone to Holland, and from thence to the south of France. Others say, the general Congress have appointed, and Commissioned you their Agent at the Court of Great Britain, and that you had your Credentials and Instructions from them before you went away.

Your Friends say, your principal Motive is the recovery of your Health, which if Providence should please to restore, they rest assured of your best Endeavours to procure, a Redress of the Grievances, and a speedy Removal of the intolerable Burthens, with which your native Country is, and has been long oppressed.

I had almost forgot to tell you, that your Sister Quincy, who is here upon a Visit, says, she heard a Gentleman say, you loved money too much, to be trusted at a Court where every thing is bought and sold: That if they could not refute your Arguments in Defence of your Country, they would offer invincible Arguments to induce you to betray it.

Thus you see, how much you are a general Subject of Conversations: Perhaps, there never was an american, not even a D[ickinson] nor a [Benjamin] F[ranklin], whose Abilities have raised the Expectations of their American Brethren more than yours. God Almighty grant, if your Life and Health is spared, that you may exceed them in every Respect.
Indeed, this does seem to be putting a lot of weight on one young attorney without any official standing, without previous contacts in London, to make a big difference in the imperial crisis.

TOMORROW: Fellow passengers.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Revere House‘s Fall Lowell Lecture Series

The Paul Revere House’s annual Fall Lowell Lecture Series starts tonight, with the talks available for free both in-person and online.

The theme for this year’s series is “Beyond the 13: The American Revolutionary Era Outside the Emerging United States,” and the speakers will focus on “areas that have not traditionally received much attention in explorations of the American Revolutionary period.” Here’s the lineup:

Tuesday, 27 September, 6:30–7:45 P.M.
“‘To Begin the World over Again’: Revolutionary Rights”
Janet Polasky, Presidential Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire, explores how American claims to Revolutionary rights have reverberated throughout the Atlantic world and influenced our understanding of liberty and equality from the eighteenth century to the present.

Tuesday, 11 October, 6:30–7:45 P.M.
“The Other Fourth of July: The American War of Independence in the Southern Caribbean”
Tessa Murphy, Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University, considers what the American Revolution meant to British colonial subjects in some lesser-studied parts of the Americas. Indigenous, enslaved, and free people all seized the opportunity to ally with Great Britain’s chief rival, France, and many used this moment of disruption to seek freedom, sovereignty, or autonomy.

Tuesday, 25 October, 6:30–7:45 P.M.
“Slavery and Smallpox Inoculation”
Elise A. Mitchell, Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University, looks at the rich African Atlantic history of smallpox inoculation. Her lecture contextualizes the more familiar history of Onesimus and Cotton Mather in early eighteenth-century Boston within the broader history of Africans performing inoculations in West Africa, Jamaica, and Saint Domingue (Haiti) in the Revolutionary Era.

All these talks will be held in the Commons of Sargent Hall, Suffolk University, at 120 Tremont Street. They will also be streamed and recorded for later viewing via GBH’s Forum Network.

The Paul Revere House also has special offerings each Saturday—music, crafts demonstrations, first-person interpreters, and so on. Check its website for details.

Monday, September 26, 2022

“Bailyn tells us all we need to know”

The latest issue of the New England Quarterly is devoted to Bernard Bailyn, dean of the influential “Ideological” school of historians of the American Revolution and professor at Harvard University for many years.

Among the essays is Robert Allison’s description of working as one of Bailyn’s graduate students, teaching assistants, and research assistants.

During that time Bailyn was editing a collection of writings about the ratification of the U.S. Constitution for the Library of America. Allison shares this anecdote:
For the biographical sketches, I began with a list of every person—all 134—quoted in the volumes, either as a writer or a speaker at a convention—and found what information I could. These posed different problems. Not the French diplomats—as I was working with the sketch of Louis-Guilaume Otto, Comte de Mosloy from the Biographe Universelle, my wife asked if Bailyn knew that I could not read French. No matter; with a dictionary I powered through. More troubling was Washington, or Franklin, about whom we know too much, or William Jones of Maine, about whom we know very little (and for someone named William Jones, unlikely to know more). . . .

One of my favorite characters was Samuel Spencer of North Carolina, not so much for his accomplishments as for the lesson learned writing his biographical sketch. Born in Connecticut, Spencer went to Princeton in the 1750s then moved to North Carolina to practice law. This was enough to lead me to James McLachlan's Princetonians: 1748–1768. Spencer fought to suppress the North Carolina Regulators, served in the legislature, and became a judge, and he opposed ratification at both of the North Carolina conventions.

Judge Spencer's untimely end struck me as the most interesting part of his story. One warm April afternoon he sat, wearing a red hat, on his front porch in Anson County. In the warm afternoon sun, Spencer began to nod off. A turkey in the yard saw the bobbing red hat, took it for a challenge, and attacked the napping judge. Though Spencer fought off the bird, it had severely bitten his hand. Judge Spencer died of the infection.

My sketch of Spencer ended with this story—the warm afternoon sun, the red hat bobbing, the turkey attacking, the ensuing infection. Bailyn made a red X through the turkey story. In the next draft I condensed—taking out some extraneous details (the warm April sun). Again, he crossed it all out. I cut some more—was the red hat important? He crossed it all out again. This back and forth continued: I wrote and he crossed out. He never asked why I kept putting the story in; I never asked why he kept taking it out. Finally, as it all was going off to our heroes in New York [i.e., the publisher], I delivered a final version, sure that the turkey would not make his final cut.

When The Debate on the Constitution volumes appeared a few years later, and I saw them for the first time-on a shelf at the Harvard COOP, I immediately turned to volume 2, page 1013. There was Samuel Spencer, whose profile ends, “Died at home in Anson County on April 20, 1793, of an infected hand wound sustained from an attack by a turkey.”

Twelve words! It took me sixty-plus to retell the story above. Spencer is the only character for whom we give a cause of death, and without an unnecessary, extraneous, or distracting word Bailyn tells us all we need to know, in an elegant “wound sustained from an attack by a turkey.”
That’s certainly the sort of detail that would make me perk up and try to seek more information. Not unlike the death of John Lansing.

Bob Allison survived his stint with Prof. Bailyn and has become a prominent local professor himself—at Suffolk University, and at the head of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and Revolution 250.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Explaining the Summer of 1783

I looked up the Massachusetts newspaper coverage of Europe’s unusual atmosphere in 1783, quoted yesterday, after reading Katrin Kleemann’s online article from a few years back, “Speculating About the Weather: The Unusual Dry Fog of 1783.”

Kleemann wrote:
…in the summer of 1783, Europeans had more than enough reasons to be concerned with the weather. A peculiar dry fog with an odd sulfuric smell cloaked Europe and remained for months, with neither wind nor rain managing to disperse it. The fog was not the only oddity these individuals were facing that summer: The sun had a blood red color when it set and rose; an unusual number of thunderstorms seemed to pass through; meteors were visible over western Europe, earthquakes occurred in Italy, and a new island emerged from the sea off the coast of Iceland. Speculation was rife as to the cause of all this.

Hekla, an Icelandic volcano, known in Europe since medieval times as the gate to hell, was thought to be a potential culprit. When referring to historical maps of Iceland, Hekla is usually pictured as erupting. Famously, Benjamin Franklin suggested that Hekla or Nyey, the newly emerging island, might have caused the dry fog. However, what is often forgotten in this context is that in the same paragraph, Franklin suggested “great burning balls” (meteors) might alternatively have caused it.

At the time a very fashionable explanation was electricity: Lightning was believed to fertilize the soil when it hit the ground. The numerous thunderstorms of the summer quickened the spread of the lightning rod, which had not yet had its breakthrough. The lightning rod was believed to withdraw the beneficial electricity from the atmosphere, which—so the theory went—caused the dry fog, as sulfuric odor had previously been consumed by the “electrical fire.”

There was yet another story making its rounds in the newspapers in July 1783: Not just one but two volcanic eruptions were described within the German territories. The Cottaberg near Dresden as well as the Gleichberg mountains near Hildburghausen were said to have roared to life and to be spitting fire. Both mountains are actually of volcanic origin—however, their last eruptions occurred 25 and 15 million years ago, respectively. The reports were retracted a few weeks later.

The most popular theory of the time suggested that earthquakes in Italy and this dry fog were directly related: people believed the earthquakes had opened a crack in the Earth, which released sulfuric odor from the Earth’s interior into the air. The concept of a subterraneous revolution plausibly explained the sulfuric smell, the fog, the earthquakes, and the newly emerging island.
As Kleemann related, the answer to the atmospheric mystery did lie in Iceland, but it took a long time to come out. Eleven years after that odd summer, an Icelandic scientist named Sveinn Pálsson (1762-1840, shown above) described the volcanic fissure now called Laki. That system had erupted from June 1783 to February 1784, emitting huge amounts of basalt lava and poisonous clouds. The effects in continental Europe were nothing compared to what happened locally, as more than half of Iceland’s livestock died, followed by most of the crops, followed within a few years by about a quarter of the humans from famine.

Despite all those effects, Pálsson’s report wasn’t published by the Danish Society of Natural History but simply filed away. A century later, the eruption of Krakatoa confirmed that massive volcanic activity could affect the atmosphere all over the planet. People rediscovered what Pálsson had written. His manuscript was finally published in full in 1945, explaining the odd summer of 1783.

(Kleeman’s article appeared on the website of N.I.C.H.E., which is both the Network In Canadian History & Environment and the Nouvelle Initiative Canadienne en Histoire de l’Environnement. Coming up with a name to justify a good acronym is tough enough, but doing so in two languages at once is a real feat.)

Saturday, September 24, 2022

“The air is superphlogisticated”

On 20 Nov 1783, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy ran an “Extract of a letter from Sailon in Provence, July 11.” It reported:
For twenty days, a singular fog, such as the oldest man here has before not seen, has reigned in most part of Provence; the atmosphere is filled with it, and the sun, although extremely hot, for at noon the barometer rises forty five degrees, is not sufficiently so to dissipate it; it continues day and night, though not equally thick; for sometimes it clouds the neighbouring mountains.

The horizon, which is usually of a beautiful azure in this country, appears of a whitish grey, the sun, which during the day is very pale, is at setting and rising quite read, and so absorbed are his rays by the fog, that one may at any time look steadily at him without being in the least incommoded.

It is an observation made by many, that the fog at some times emits a strong odour, the nature of which is not easily determined; it is so dry as not to tarnish a looking-glass, and instead of liquifying salts it drys them; the hidrometer does not ascend, and evaporation is abundant; the eyes are affected with a slight heat, and such as have weak lungs, are disagreeably affected.
The article went on to report an unusual “storm of thunder and hail” on the solstice and the air being “greatly electrified.”

However, this correspondent concluded: “The constant drought which has prevented the usual exhalations from the earth, seems to be the sole cause of this mist, the late rains having diluted the matter of which these exhalations are formed, they now ascend with their vehicle the water.”

The London printer that Thomas copied this article from then stated:
It may not be unentertaining to our readers to be informed that Dr. [Joseph] Priestly has long ago discovered that the changes in the atmosphere depend very much on the quantity of phlogiston contained in it. The excessive burning and sultry weather we have had of late shews that the air is superphlogisticated. Letters from all parts of Europe describe exactly the same season that we have had.
The real reason for Europe’s strange atmospheric conditions in the summer of 1783 wouldn’t be discovered for more than another century.

TOMORROW: It wasn’t drought or phlogiston.

[The picture above shows Priestley before he took refuge in the U.S. of A.]

Friday, September 23, 2022

Hingham Historical Lecture Series Starts This Weekend

Starting this weekend, the Hingham Historical Society will host a series of lectures on the theme of “Native Homelands/Settler Colonialism.”

The talks will take place on Sunday afternoons at the Hingham Heritage Museum but also on Zoom. Some of the speakers will be present, and others speaking from their homes.

Launching the series on Sunday, 23 September, is Prof. Alan Taylor speaking about “Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the American Revolution.”

Taylor is one of the most respected historians of Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America today, as well as one of the most productive. Originally from Maine, he wrote The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution in 2006. Taylor won Pulitzer Prizes for William Cooper’s Town in 1996 and The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 in 2014.

Here are the upcoming talks.
  • 6 November: Robert Miller, “The International Law of Colonialism and New England”
  • 4 December: David S. Jones, “Epidemics, Conflict, and Caregiving during the Colonization of New England” 
  • 22 January 2023: Virginia D. Anderson, “Native Americans, English Colonists, and Strange Beasts” 
  • 26 March: Jean M. O’Brien, “Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence”
  • 23 April: Lisa Brooks, “A New History of King Philip’s War”
A subscription to all six lectures in person or by video costs $175, or $150 for Hingham Historical Society members.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

John Dickinson Symposium in Philadelphia, 20–21 Oct.

To celebrate the publication of the first volumes of The Complete Writings and Selected Correspondence of John Dickinson, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia is hosting a free “John Dickinson Symposium: New Perspectives on the American Founding.”

This symposium will begin on the evening of Thursday, 20 October, with a plenary address by Jack N. Rakove: “John Dickinson, Political Conscience, and the Dilemma of the Moderates.”

The panel discussions scheduled for the following day show the wide range of issues Dickinson addressed and contributions he made:
Communication
  • Jelte Olthof, “John Dickinson: Pluralist and Orator”
  • Helena Yoo, “Letters from Before He Became a Farmer: John Dickinson’s Transatlantic Correspondence”
  • David Forte, “‘Like Lightening thro the Land’: John Dickinson and the Freedom of the Press”
Matters of State
  • Charlotte Crane, “Contribution and Representation: John Dickinson’s Contributions to the Fiscal Design of the Emerging Federal Government”
  • Charles Fithian, “‘A System, concise, easy and efficient’: John Dickinson’s Version of von Steuben’s Regulations for the Delaware Militia, 1782”
  • Nathan R. Kozuskanich, “‘A Certain Coldness in my Presbyterian Friends’: Dickinson and the Pennsylvania Radicals”
Social Justice
  • Jon Kershner, “‘Nature Planted Them in this Land’: John Dickinson’s Quakerly Diplomacy and Indian Concerns”
  • Kevin Bendesky, “‘Defending the Innocent & redressing the injurd’: The Criminal Jurisprudence and Penology of John Dickinson”
  • Jane E. Calvert, “Black Freedom and Its Limits in the Thought of John Dickinson”
Gender and Social Concerns
  • James Emmett Ryan, “John Dickinson and Public Education”
  • Rebecca Brannon, “John Dickinson and Aging”
  • Nathaniel Green, “‘From a Common Stock of Rights’: Human Rights and Political Power in John Dickinson’s America”
And that doesn’t even get into the man’s songwriting.

Two years ago, after the very first volume of Dickinson’s collected writings appeared, the Library Company of Philadelphia hosted a smaller, online event. But of course late 2020 was a time for online events. This symposium is the first time these scholars will be gathered in the same place.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Cronin Lectures Coming Up in Lexington

The Lexington Historical Society’s Cronin Lecture Series is starting again this week. Here’s the lineup.

Thursday, 22 September, 7:00 P.M.
Lexington Depot
Nancy Rubin Stuart on Poor Richard’s Women
Behind any founding father are numerous founding mothers, sisters, and lovers. Benjamin Franklin had a large cast of women in his life, most importantly his wife of 44 years, Deborah Read Franklin. While frequently absent from the historical narrative due to their frequent time apart, Deborah was an important witness to and active participant in the political workings of the early Revolution, running the family businesses and raising a family in tumultuous times with her husband often away. Then as Franklin traveled the globe, his social circle also expanded to include landladies and liaisons in London and Paris.

Nancy Rubin Stuart, author of Defiant Brides, The Muse of the Revolution, and more, will give us an expanded look into Ben Franklin’s world through the eyes of the women who influenced it as told in her new book Poor Richard’s Women. Books will be available for purchase.
Thursday, 13 October, 7:00 P.M.
Lexington Depot
Past the Cemetery Gate with the Gravestone Girls
The Gravestone Girls, led by Brenda Sullivan, are experts in gravestone art and history, tapping into our historic graveyards as an important tool to learn about the past. Join us for a look at how they can assist genealogists and historians in “Past the Cemetery Gate”, where we learn to ‘read’ the cemetery for clues and information. Using both direct observation and deductive reasoning from objects such as the writing, art, geology and the cemetery landscape, much new insight can be revealed. That new insight can answer questions, create new inquiries and open doors for further detective work. Many use the cemetery as a cursory resource for learning, genealogy or entertainment, some haven’t tapped it at all. This program will get guests looking at these spaces, both old and new, as a valuable resource for their data collection activities!
This lecture is part of October programming that also includes tours of the town’s old burying-ground twice a day every Saturday.

The Depot opens for these events with refreshments at 6:30 P.M. They are free, but advance registration is requested and sometimes required. Visit the Lexington Historical Society’s events pages to see all the offerings.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Boston’s Special Collections Department Reopens

Earlier this month the Boston Public Library reopened its Special Collections Department after a $15.7 million renovation.

This was a five-year project funded by the city to improve the department’s public spaces, including a new reading room and lobby; to upgrade the collections storage for rare books and manuscripts; and to install a state-of-the-art conservation lab and fire-suppression system.

The collection includes everything from a First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare to Robert McCloskey’s preliminary drawings for Make Way for Ducklings.

But of course I’m fondest of the extensive holdings about the Revolutionary period, including the town archives. I’ve used B.P.L. materials to study the town’s watchmen, the militia armories, coroners’ inquests after the Boston Massacre, and even John Hancock’s bills for his aunt’s carriage (he contracted from Adino Paddock and John Gore—only the best).

The department’s rare books division holds John Adams’s large personal library and the Rev. Thomas Prince’s library, once housed in Old South, where the Rev. Ezra Stiles consulted it.

The Boston Public Library is one of only two public members of the Association of Research Libraries, the other being the New York Public Library. Most other members are at universities. Special Collections Department head Beth Prindle states, “Our collections are available for the study and enjoyment of everyone. As it says on the side of the McKim building, we are dedicated to making these treasured items ‘Free to All.’”

Having been closed during this renovation, the department now welcomes the public in three ways:
  • Visitors to the Boston Public Library’s central branch can view a selection of objects on display in the Special Collections Lobby.
  • Researchers can use the department website to learn more about its holdings.
  • And researchers who see something intriguing can create a reading room account and file a request to use materials at their preferred date and time.

Monday, September 19, 2022

“History Camp America 2022” Coming in November

I spent a couple of days last week traveling along the Battle Road between Concord and Menotomy to prepare a video talk to be shared in History Camp America 2022, scheduled for 5 November.

Organized by the team behind the regional History Camps, America’s Road Trip, and last year’s inaugural History Camp America, this will be a collection of more than forty online lectures, behind-the-scenes tours, cooking demonstrations, and other presentations exploring the past.

Registration costs $149.95 for access to all those videos on the day of the event and afterward, and registrants will also receive a box of souvenirs and artifacts celebrating American history.

My talk will be:
Looking for the Shot Heard ’Round the World

Travel the Battle Road to and from Concord as J. L. Bell, proprietor of Boston 1775, explores the start of the Revolutionary War

In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the phrase “the shot heard ’round the world” for what he deemed to be the most important gunfire of the Revolutionary War. Emerson was a son of Concord, and it was only natural for him to view the shooting that took place within sight of his grandfather’s house as crucial.

But was that gunfire the start of the Revolutionary War? If we define the war as beginning when organized military units confront each other with lethal force, then it had actually started four months before and more than sixty miles away. If we look for the first shot on April 19, 1775, that was definitely fired in Lexington—though British army officers reported it came before their soldiers even arrived at the town common.

This video talk visits more than half a dozen sites, famous and little-known, from Menotomy to Concord and back, to discuss when and how the Revolutionary War began, according to different perspectives. It traces how both sides tried to show restraint at dawn but, in seeing the worst of the enemy, went all-out by the end. Examining the events of April 18–19, 1775, (and earlier) illuminates what it really means to go into a war.
As the History Camp America 2022 schedule develops, I’m seeing speakers I always enjoy hearing from and places I’ve wondered about visiting, plus other topics and places that are totally new. Check out the quick video preview.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

McBurney on Dark Voyage, 20 and 22 Sept.

Christian McBurney will speak about his new book Dark Voyage: American Privateer's War on Britain's African Slave Trade at two venues this week, both accessible for online viewers.

This book is a microhistory following an American privateer that sailed to the coast of Africa to attack British shipping there—which meant disrupting the British slave trade. The publisher’s copy says:
Based on a little-known contemporary primary source, The Journal of the Good Ship Marlborough, the story of this remarkable voyage is told here for the first time and will have a major impact on our understanding of the Atlantic slave trade and the American Revolution. The voyage of the Marlborough was the brainchild of John Brown, a prominent Rhode Island merchant—and an investor in two slave trading voyages himself. The motivation was not altruistic. The officers and crew of the Marlborough wanted to advance the cause of independence from Britain through harming Britain’s economy, but they also desired to enrich themselves by selling the plunder they captured—including enslaved Africans.

The work of the Marlborough and other American privateers was so disruptive that it led to an unintended consequence: virtually halting the British slave trade. British slave merchants, alarmed at losing money from their ships being captured, invested in many fewer slave voyages. As a result tens of thousands of Africans were not forced onto slave ships, transported to the New World, and consigned to a lifetime of slavery or an early death.
That wartime effect sounds good, but we should also remember that after independence the new U.S. of A. greatly increased the import of humans from Africa, even as some states barred the trade or limited slavery itself. I presume the trade to the British Caribbean also went up after the Treaty of Paris, at least until the next round of wars with the French.

Christian McBurney is author of six books on the American Revolutionary war, including Kidnapping the Enemy, George Washington’s Nemesis, Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island, and The Rhode Island Campaign. He manages the online journal Small State, Big History, devoted to the history of Rhode Island. And yet he also finds time to practice law in Washington, D.C.

History Author Talks will host an interview with McBurney about Dark Voyage on Tuesday, September 20, at 7:00 P.M. Register for that conversation here.

McBurney will also speak about his new book at the American Revolution Institute in Washington on Tuesday, September 22, starting at 6:30 P.M. That talk will also be streamed on the web for people who can’t attend in person. Register for the feed here.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

“The honest fervour which distinguished the friends of liberty in 1775”

I want to complete the life story of Nathaniel Barber, captain of Boston’s North Battery in the years leading up to the war.

I discussed how Gov. Thomas Hutchinson gave him that militia assignment, which came with the title of major, back here. And also how that favor from the royal governor didn’t stop Barber’s political activity against the royal government.

During the war, Barber remained on Boston’s committee of correspondence. He also served as muster master for Suffolk County. In 1782 the Massachusetts General Court chose Barber to be the state navy’s agent in Boston.

In addition, Barber’s son Nathaniel, Jr., became a commissary of stores for the eastern department of the Continental Army from April 1776 to April 1781. The two men are sometimes amalgamated, but the father was supplying the navy, the son the army.

Barber held the naval title from 1782 to 1785. Then the legislature chose James Lovell. He did the job for two years before becoming collector of impost and excise for Suffolk County, which sounds more lucrative. At that point, in July 1787, the legislature hired Barber again.

But Barber didn’t last long in the job. He died in October 1787 at the age of fifty-nine. His remains were placed in the family tomb at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. The Massachusetts Gazette called him: “An honest man, and a firm patriot.” The American Herald said he was “a staunch, sincere friend to his country, and an upright, honest citizen.”

And the Massachusetts Centinel for 20 Oct 1787 stated:
On the 13th instant died, very suddenly, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, and on Thursday last were respectfully deposited in the tomb of his ancestors, attended by the Honourable Members of the Senate and House of Representatives, and many of his fellow townsmen, the remains of NATHANIEL BARBER, Esq. Naval-Officer for the port of Boston.—

A numerous family mourn their loss—the publick regret their being deprived of a faithful and approved servant—and the friends of liberty could not but drop a tear over the grave of so known and tried a patriot—

His attention and integrity in the cause of his country, expressed in the most dangerous and trying moments, more especially as one of the committee of correspondence, of which he was always a member, marked his character—and it may be justly said, that the honest fervour which distinguished the friends of liberty in 1775, was retained by Col. Barber in its full warmth to the moment of his death.

Friday, September 16, 2022

“Major Barber was declared rebel”

On Monday, 19 Sept 1774, the Fleet brothers’ Boston Evening-Post reprinted the article from the New-York Gazetteer that I’ve been discussing, listing eighteen Boston men as “authors” of rebellion in Massachusetts.

That article took the form of a letter “To the Officers and Soldiers of his Majesty’s Troops at Boston.”

One obvious question is: Did those men get the message? Did that newspaper item have any effect?

For an answer, I point to the 3 October Boston Gazette. It contained a long letter from Enoch Brown, who owned a house and store on the Boston Neck. On the map shown here, it’s the building with a label in the lower left corner.

Writing to Edes and Gill on 24 September, Brown detailed a dispute with the British army that he said started a week before.

(Army officers argued that the trouble started back during the “Powder Alarm,” and I may analyze that part of Brown’s letter sometime. For now, I’m confining myself to what happened on 17 September and afterward.)

Brown refused to sell rum to a British soldier that Saturday afternoon. The redcoat swore at him and, Brown said, “attempted to strike me with a large club.” Brown ran to the army camp to complain. He was told to speak to Lt. Col. George Maddison. Then came the Sabbath, and Brown finally met Maddison on Monday.

“Col. Maddison…received me with great politeness,” Brown stated. The soldier was already on trial for “getting drunk,” so the colonel added Brown’s accusation as another charge and asked him to return for the trial the next day.

On the morning of Tuesday, 20 September, Brown came back to the camp with two witnesses, William Shattuck and Nathaniel Barber, Jr. The proceeding didn’t go well for the locals. The officers trying the case believed they were rebels and the soldiers were justified in calling them that or worse. One officer
ask’d Mr. Barber whether there was not a man in town called Major Barber—

yes sir, replied Mr. Barber and he is my father——

The officer then said, that Major Barber was declared rebel, and told the son that he was doubtless tainted with the same principles, and therefore unworthy to be admitted as evidence against a soldier;

to which Mr. Barber replied that his father was an honest man, but be that as it might, he thought it extremely hard to be censur’d for his father’s conduct;

A very honest man indeed! return’d the officer
Shattuck and Barber also described the presiding officer reprimanding Brown this way:
how dare you—you rascal! who are a rebel—have the impudence to come here to complain of a soldier, and bring for evidence the son of a declared rebel.
Something appeared to have happened between Monday morning, when Lt. Col. Maddison was polite to Brown and took his accusation seriously, and Tuesday morning, when officers of the same regiment lambasted Brown and Barber as lying rebels.

In between those two mornings, the Boston Evening-Post printed the item listing “Major Nathaniel Barber” among the leaders of rebellion in Boston. And the next day, army officers clearly knew his name.

TOMORROW: Nathaniel Barber to the end.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

“An authentic Copy of a Letter, which was thrown into both the Camps”?

Today I’m returning to the question of whether the letter printed in James Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer on 8 Sept 1774, naming particular Boston Whigs as the chief troublemakers, was indeed “authentic.”

Some nineteenth-century authors accepted the accompanying statement that the letter “was thrown into both the Camps, on Monday Night last,” and even called it a “handbill,” suggesting it was printed.

I see no evidence for that. None of the sources from 1774 referred to a handbill. It’s less trouble to copy two or three copies of a letter than to set it in type.

The Harvard biographer Clifford K. Shipton suggested the letter might be Patriot propaganda, aimed at riling up the Boston crowd to defend their leaders from perfidious Loyalists and redcoats.

That theory seems untenable for two reasons. First, as Charles W. Akers argued, the Patriots wouldn’t have sullied two of the town’s leading ministers with charges of being political, even while putting them in someone else’s mouth.

Even more convincing, Boston’s radical press didn’t trumpet this supposed evidence of danger but made nothing of the threats at all. The only newspaper in town to pick up the item from New York was the moderate Whig Boston Evening-Post.

In sum, the letter does seem to be a genuine Loyalist attempt to direct the attention of British army officers (and possibly enlisted men) at leading Boston Whigs. But how did that message get out?

One possibility is that copies of the letter were truly tossed into the compounds where the army was camping in Boston around the start of September 1774, with a copy sent to New York.

Another is that the writer cut out the step of distributing copies in Boston and just sent the letter to New York with a false cover story.

And the third is that the letter was created in New York, false story and all, with the real goal of influencing redcoats who were about to embark for Boston.

I lean slightly toward the last possibility because of these details:
  • The lack of any mention of such a letter in Boston before it surfaced in New York.
  • The reference to “both the Camps” when the Boston press always spoke of “the Camp” on the Common (even though some redcoats were camped at the South Battery).
  • The slip of replacing of the name of William Dennie, a well-known Boston merchant, with William Denning, a New York merchant and activist.
It’s possible that the omission of Dr. Joseph Warren from the list of troublemakers also reflected incomplete knowledge of who the most fervent Boston leaders were, based on reading newspapers or hearing reports. To be sure, whoever wrote this letter might just have respected Warren personally and thought he didn’t deserve to be lambasted as much as others.

At the end of the year, Rivington presented readers with extracts of another letter from Boston. Mills and Hicks repeated that item in their pro-government Boston Post-Boy while Isaiah Thomas denounced part of it as “A d——d lie” in the Massachusetts Spy. So there might be a pattern here.

Of course, that’s just a guess. If I see more evidence, such as someone printing the letter before Rivington, I’ll have to rethink everything.

TOMORROW: Did this letter have any effect?

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

“Charming black Eyes indeed!”

When Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks took over the Boston Post-Boy in 1773, they tried to make their shop the favored printer of the Customs office.

They also turned that newspaper, which had a sort of lukewarm Whig profile in previous years, into an organ supporting the royal government, a little more scrappy than Richard and Margaret Draper’s establishment Boston News-Letter.

On 27 June 1774, the Boston Post-Boy ran an item that began:
Messieurs PRINTERS,

THE following is a List of the Committee of Correspondence, so called, for this Town: “The Eyes of the Province and of the whole Continent,” as they have vainly stiled themselves. Charming black Eyes indeed! It is published for the Information of the Committees of Correspondence in the other Provinces, and of the other Towns in this Province, many of whom, it is believed, have not heard their Names.

It must be candidly acknowledge that there are some worthy Characters on the List; these, perhaps ashamed of their Company, have in a Manner seperated themselves from their Brethren, and have not ever joined in their Correspondence or their Counsels. By this Conduct they have partly saved their Reputation, had they publicly declared off at first, they would be quite free from the the Imputation which many may now lay on them, of giving Countenance, by their Silence, to Measures, some of which have been of the most wicked and pernicious Tendency.

In a short Time, Portraits of the Characters of several of the most active of them will be given to the Public. The Author, not copying the base and scandalous Example of the Committee, will advance nothing but the most incontestable Facts, which if requested shall be clearly avouched.
The newspaper then ran the names of the Boston committee of correspondence, from James Otis and Samuel Adams at the top to William Molineux and Robert Peirpoint at the end.

So far as I know, none of the threatened “Portraits of the Characters” ever saw print. I mention this newspaper item because it shows that Loyalists in Boston were circulating the committee’s names with the avowed goal of making them more known, and also distinguishing which were “the most active.”

The 8 September list of Boston activists printed in New York named only nine of the twenty-one men on the committee, mostly grouped together. That list added:
Those changes indicate that whoever created the list had some knowledge of the town’s real Whig leadership. With the exception of Dr. Joseph Warren, the September list does seem to point to the most fervent and active Whigs.

At the same time, it might have been possible to pick up that knowledge from reading Boston’s newspapers or talking with Bostonians, either while one traveled to the Bay Colony or while they traveled to, say, New York.

TOMORROW: Back to the origin question.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

William Dennie, Merchant and Bachelor

On the list of political troublemakers in Boston published in the New-York Gazetteer in September 1774, the last name is William Denning.

There was no one in Boston with that name. In their analysis of this list, Dan and Leslie Landrigan of the New England Historical Society guessed that meant William Denning (1740–1819), a New York Whig who went on to serve one term in the U.S. House.

That makes no sense, or, as the Landrigans put it, “William Denning stands out” on a list of men from Boston because he wasn’t from Boston.

I think whoever wrote the list must have been thinking of William Dennie (1726–1783), a merchant whom the Boston Whigs pulled onto committees when they wanted more representation from the business community.

Writing in 1898, H. W. Small characterized Dennie as “a wealthy Scot.” His family roots were in Scotland, but Dennie was born in Fairfield, Connecticut, the seventh child of a large established family.

Dennie was working as a merchant in Boston by his early twenties, according to a 1752 lawsuit against William Vassall. In 1755 he joined many other businessmen in signing a petition to abate Boston’s taxes. In the next decade his shop was “at the lower End of King Street,” near the Long Wharf. Among many other goods he sold tea, some shown by John W. Tyler as coming from Holland. By 1771, the town tax list found he owned a house, a warehouse, one slave, 280 tons of shipping, and £1,500 worth of merchandise.

William’s older brother John Dennie was also a prominent Boston merchant in the 1750s, building an estate in the part of Cambridge that became Brighton. He went bankrupt in the wake of Nathaniel Wheelwright’s default in early 1765. Politically, John Dennie was a Loyalist; he remained in Massachusetts but died in 1777.

John and William’s brother Joseph Dennie also came to live in Boston. He married into the Green family who staffed many American print shops and the Boston Customs office. He went insane around 1776. Joseph’s namesake son worked in James Swan’s mercantile house as a teenager before becoming one of the early republic’s leading essayists.

Another of William Dennie’s nephews was William Hooper, who moved to North Carolina and represented that colony at the Continental Congress, signing the Declaration of Independence.

Unlike William Molineux, John Bradford, and Nathaniel Barber, three other businessmen on the 1774 list, Dennie was not prominent at many Boston protests. He was more the type to sign petitions and join clubs.

In fact, in 1768 Dennie declined to sign the town’s first non-importation agreement to oppose the Townshend duties. By early 1770, however, the Whigs had won him over, and he served on committees to remonstrate with the remaining holdouts, particularly the Hutchinson brothers.

In November 1772 Dennie agreed to be part of Boston’s new committee of correspondence while other prominent merchants, including John Hancock and Thomas Cushing, declined.

On 27 May 1774, John Rowe wrote in his diary that Dennie was one of the loudest voices booing the Customs Commissioners when they gathered for a dinner, along with Molineux and Paul Revere. Later that year Dennie was one of Molineux’s pallbearers.

That was as radical as Dennie got, it appears. He didn’t become part of the large committee to enforce the First Continental Congress’s boycott of goods from Britain. In August 1776 he begged out of serving on Boston’s wartime committee of safety. Three years later he was criticized for charging too much for duck cloth and tea, and had to go before a town committee and promise not to do that again.

William Dennie never married. According to John Mein, he “kept Mr. Barnabas Clark’s Wife [Hepzibah] many years. & employs her Husband abroad while he is getting Children for him at home.” The 1771 tax list does say Dennie was hosting Barnabas Clark (1722–1772) at his house. He later employed the Clarks’ son Samuel as a shipmaster.

In 1773 there was a dispute in Barnstable over whether that town should appoint a committee of correspondence to communicate with Boston’s. Joseph Otis recalled that a neighbor named Edward Bacon objected to the character of the Boston committee men, specifically
Mr. Mollineaux Mr. Dennie & Dr. [Thomas] Young as men of very bad Characters (as near as I can Remember), Intimating one was an Atheist, one Never Went to Meeting, and the Other was Incontinent
Molineux and Young were known for their religious skepticism, which leaves Dennie as “Incontinent”; Dr. Samuel Johnson defined that word as meaning “Unchaste; indulging unlawful pleasure.”

When Dennie died in 1783, he left legacies to many relatives, but the biggest bequest was to Hepzibah Swan (1757–1825, shown above), wife of James Swan, his executor. She was also the daughter of Barnabas and Hepzibah Clark.

Monday, September 12, 2022

“Remarkable for bullying and rioting”?

On Saturday, I traced the life of Boston insurance broker Nathaniel Barber up until October 1772, when Gov. Thomas Hutchinson made him captain of the militia company staffing the North Battery, with the rank of major.

Before then, Barber had been publicly noted for his adherence to the Whig cause, commissioning the Sons of Liberty bowl and naming his children after John Wilkes, Oliver Cromwell, and Catharine Macaulay.

So how did a favor from the royal governor change Barber’s politics? Not at all.

The very next month, in November 1772, Barber agreed to serve on Boston’s committee of correspondence. That group, with official status as a standing committee of the town meeting, became the main organ for resistance in Massachusetts.

In the same period, Barber was active in the North End Caucus—moderating meetings, communicating with the South End Caucus, writing out lists of candidates for voters to support.

At the end of 1773, the tea crisis arose. One 3 November, “a large body of people” visited the warehouse of the Clarke family, where the East India Company’s consignees and their supporters had gathered. Barber was one of the committee of nine men, led by William Molineux, who went in to remonstrate with the tea importers. Later that confrontation became violent, but it’s not clear what role Barber played at that stage.

According to Francis S. Drake’s Tea Laves (1884), Barber’s family preserved a tradition that he was part of the Boston Tea Party. No other details provided, but that belief is bolstered by what Benjamin Bussey Thatcher reported in Traits of the Tea Party (1835) about how the event wrapped up:
Pitts, who was quite a military man, as well as a mighty Son of Liberty, was appointed commander-in-chief of the forces then and there assembled; they were formed in rank and file by his direction, with the aid of Barber, Proctor, and some others; and “shouldering” their arms, such as they had—tomahawks included—they marched up the wharf to the music of a fife, to what is now the termination of Pearl Street, back into town, and there separated in a short time, and went quietly home.
According to this tradition, Lendell Pitts, Edward Procter, and Barber drew on their authority as militia officers to organize the men of the Tea Party so they could demonstrate order and discipline (and not do any more damage that night).

Thus, Nathaniel Barber was definitely among the Boston Whig organizers. He didn’t hold public office or write essays, but he served on committees, led marches, and talked up the ideology in his everyday business and social dealings. If you wanted to foment political resistance in town, he was someone to have on your side.

Of course, that behavior looked quite different from the other side. Writing from London in 1775, John Mein said Barber was “remarkable for bullying and rioting.”

TOMORROW: The mysterious Mr. Denning.

(The picture above is an image from Disney’s Johnny Tremain, showing men marching home from the Tea Party. In the movie that’s a musical number, and I’m not convinced about the costuming, but thematically it seemed to fit.)

Sunday, September 11, 2022

“General Gage’s Spies” via the Golden Ball Tavern, 15 Sept.

On Thursday, 15 September, I’ll deliver an online lecture for the Golden Ball Tavern Museum in Weston.

The talk will be titled “General Gage’s Spies,” and here’s our event description:
On February 23, 1775, three men arrived at Isaac Jones’s tavern in Weston, saying they were surveyors from Boston. They were actually two officers and a private from the king’s army. The royal governor, General Thomas Gage, had assigned them to find cannons and other military supplies that the rebel Massachusetts government was collecting outside of Boston. Drawn from new research, this talk discusses who those men were, the crucial role they played in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and what happened to them after the Revolutionary War.
The spies’ visit to Jones’s Golden Ball Tavern is fairly well known. In The Road to Concord I showed how their mission fit into Gen. Gage’s larger strategy to locate and neutralize the artillery that rural Patriots were hiding. Since then I’ve gathered some more information about the two army officers, which will be part of this talk.

Yet another new wrinkle is that even as those spies were staying at the Golden Ball on their way to Worcester, people elsewhere in Weston were preparing two cannon for battle. Braddyll Smith, recently chosen to be both Weston’s representative to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and colonel of the local militia regiment, knew about that effort and was probably in charge.

Smith’s predecessor in those posts was Elisha Jones, a Loyalist who had left for Boston around the turn of the year. Presumably Smith and his Patriot neighbors made sure that Elisha’s cousin Isaac, proprietor at the Golden Ball, never heard about their two cannon. After all, you didn’t know who might come through town.

My talk is scheduled to start at 6:00 P.M. Here’s the link to register. This event is free, thanks to support from the Weston Cultural Council, and folks can also join or donate to the Golden Ball Tavern Museum to support and learn about more such events.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

“Nathaniel Barber, Esq; Captain of the North-Battery”

Nathaniel Barber (1728–1787) was an insurance broker with an office in the North End of Boston.

He became one of the more gung-ho Whigs in Boston, though he didn’t hold significant political offices or (to our knowledge) publish political essays.

Barber married Elizabeth Maxwell in 1750, and the couple started having children the next year with Nathaniel, Jr. Barber probably worked as an ordinary merchant before opening his insurance office by 1762.

On 24 Sept 1766, Barber was in the crowd watching the Customs officials try unsuccessfully to search the warehouse of Daniel Malcom for smuggled goods. Not coincidentally, Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson reported that “Malcolm is a principal underwriter” of Barber’s insurance firm.

In two depositions after that event, Barber insisted that he had no idea who told him “that Upon Mr Malcoms House being attacked the Old North Bell was to Ring” to assemble defenders, and denied having passed on that rumor to magistrate John Tudor.

Barber also claimed that “from the appearance and behavior of the People assembled who were worthy Gentlemen and good sort of People, there was not the least appearance of disorder, much less Opposition to any legal Authority.” (The Customs officials didn’t see things the same way.)

Here are three notable mentions of Barber in the newspapers, starting with the Boston Gazette for 8 Aug 1768:
We hear that the Week before last was finished, by Order and for the Use of the Gentlemen belonging to the Insurance Office kept by Mr. Nathaniel Barber, at the North-End, an elegant Silver BOWL, weighing forty-five Ounces, and holding forty-five Gills.

On one Side is engraved within a handsome Border—To the Memory of the glorious NINETY-TWO Members of the Honorable House of REPRESENTATIVES of the MASSACHUSETTS-BAY, who undaunted by the Insolent Menaces of Villains in Power, and out of strict Regard to Conscience, and the LIBERTIES of their Constituents, on the 30th of June 1768, VOTED NOT TO RESCIND.—Over which is the Cap of Liberty in an Oaken Crown.

On the other Side, in a Circle adorned with Flowers, &c. is No. 45, WILKES AND LIBERTY, under which is General Warrants torn to Pieces. On the Top of the Cap of Liberty, and out of each Side, is a Standard, on one is MAGNA CHARTA, the other BILL OF RIGHTS.

On Monday Evening last, the Gentlemen belonging to the Office made a genteel Entertainment, and invited a Number of Gentlemen of Distinction in the Town, when 45 Loyal Toasts were drank, and the whole concluded with a new Song, the Chorus of which is, In Freedom we’re born, and in Freedom we’ll live, &c.
The silversmith who made that bowl was Paul Revere, and today it’s a treasure of the Museum of Fine Arts. The song was “The Liberty Song,” printed the month before.

In the 30 Apr 1770 Boston Gazette:
Yesterday se’nnight a Daughter of Mr. Nathaniel Barber, at the North End, was Baptized at the Reverend Dr. [Andrew] Eliot’s Meeting-House, by the Name of Catharine Macaulay. The same Gentleman about 18 Months ago had a Child christened by the Name of Oliver Cromwell, and about 18 Months before that, another by the Name of Wilkes.
Edes and Gill’s newspaper had reported the christening of each boy, with a note that little Wilkes “had No. 45, in Bows, pinn’d on its Breast” at the ceremony.

On 1 Oct 1772, the Boston News-Letter reported:
His Excellency the Governor has been pleased to Commission Nathaniel Barber, Esq; Captain of the North-Battery in this Town, with the Rank of Major.
You might ask why Gov. Hutchinson granted a prestigious rank to someone so obviously in the political opposition. In that period he was trying to use his patronage powers as commander-in-chief of the militia to peel men away from the Whigs.

COMING UP: Did that work?

Friday, September 09, 2022

“A brave and valiant sea-commander, only a little bashful”

When James Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer ran what it said was a letter alerting British army officers in Boston to the men behind the town’s political troubles, its list of fifteen names included two we don’t usually read among Revolutionary leaders:
Both those men do already have tags here on Boston 1775, but you know this is an unusual place.

Neither Bradford nor Barber were elected to major political offices or wrote significant newspaper essays (that we know about). They weren’t in the top tier of Boston organizers, nor in my view in the next tier, either. They were too old to fight in the war, serving in civil offices instead, and neither survived the 1780s to help construct the federal government, two ways people got remembered.

Nonetheless, as their titles suggest, Bradford and Barber commanded respect in colonial Boston. Both were staunch Whig businessmen, the sort who spoke out in town meetings, signed protests, and served on committees. Indeed, both Bradford and Barber were part of Boston’s first committee of correspondence in 1772 and then the larger committee to enforce the Association boycott in 1774.

John Bradford (1735–84) was a merchant captain, sailing ships to London and Jamaica. In his study Smugglers and Patriots, John Tyler reported evidence that Bradford belonged in both categories. In 1775 the printer John Mein would call Bradford “a brave and valiant sea-commander, only a little bashful, which is well known to the underwriters in London.” Unfortunately, it’s not well known to us what Mein was referring to, probably sarcastically.

In the 1760s Bradford stopped commanding the ships himself, settled into his North End home, and focused on managing imports through his shop in Boston. He was elected an Overseer of the Poor in 1768 and a warden in 1772.

Bradford was also a slave-owner. Among his servants was a teenager born in Africa and renamed Chloe Spear, subject of a biography published in 1832 by Rebecca Warren Brown, daughter of Dr. John Warren. According to that book, Spear sought to learn to read by studying a psalter:
She kept the book secreted in her pocket, and whenever she had a few moments leisure, she would take it out and try to spell a word. While thus engaged one day, her master discovered the book in her hand, and inquired what she was doing. She told the truth, and this led to a full disclosure of the case. He angrily forbade her going again to the schoolmistress for instruction, even under penalty of being suspended by her two thumbs, and severely whipped; he said it made negroes saucy to know how to read, &c.
Nonetheless, Bradford joined the crusade to preserve political liberty for men like him.

In 1769–70 Bradford was among several Boston merchants who enforced the non-importation agreement—walking aboard ships, demanding Customs documents, leaning on merchants who defied the boycott. After James Otis, Jr., and Customs Commissioner John Robinson brawled in the British Coffee-House, Bradford was seen “looking for Mr. Otis’s Hat & Wig.” He was also on the town committee to hire a ship to carry the town’s report on the Boston Massacre to London, though cost worries scuttled that plan.

On 2 Sept 1774, a week before the New York newspaper item appeared, Capt. John Bradford was among the Boston Whigs who went out to Cambridge to calm the militiamen gathered in the “Powder Alarm.” After two colleagues, William Cooper and William Molineux, told the crowd that the gunpowder the royal authorities had seized was probably old and worthless anyway, Bradford had the boldness to publicly disagree. (The next month, Bradford was a pallbearer at Molineux’s funeral.)

The Bradford household appears to have escaped from the siege of Boston as refugees in Andover, boarding with a family named Adams. Their host helped Chloe Spear learn to read and converted her to a fervent Christianity.

In April 1776 the Continental Congress appointed Capt. Bradford its prize agent for all British ships captured and brought into Boston harbor—which some historians estimate amounted to half of all the prizes that Americans captured during the war. Bradford also became an agent for the Congress’s marine committee, purchasing ships and supplies. Those responsibilities reflect both his nautical knowledge and how the Boston Whigs believed Bradford deserved trust and rewards.

According to the Chloe Spear biography:
As a reward of her integrity, her master gave her a certificate of manumission, (freedom) which was to take effect at a specified period not very distant. But shortly after, by a law of the Commonwealth, all the slaves in the State were made free.
That would have been in 1783. John Bradford died in May 1784 “after a lingering illness.”

TOMORROW: Major Barber.