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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Saturday, December 31, 2022

Inaugurating a Boston 1775 Membership Tier

When I launched Boston 1775 in 2006, it was on the front side of a wave of history blogs. Over time, public and professional attention shifted to group blogs, then social-media feeds, then podcasts.

This past year, a number of history bloggers moved to Substack and similar platforms that offer a combination of free and subscription-only content.

It also became clear to me that lots of people now read Boston 1775 by email rather than on the web. The posts in that channel arrive hours after they go live on this website, with different formatting, and ads I can’t control.

All that has made me want to try something beyond the 2006 approach. Since I’m wary of any enterprise that involves registering myself for new platforms, I decided to expand my use of Ko-fi. The initial concept behind that website was that you could use it to buy a creator a cup of coffee—i.e., make a quick thank-you gift of $3 or so. Now it’s offering a channel for sharing exclusive material.

I’ve therefore created a Boston 1775 membership tier on Ko-fi called “Buff and Blue.” People can still make small, one-time donations to my ice cream fund, and I’ll be heartily grateful. But for people who choose to send $3 each month, I’ll respond with some exclusive “content,” as the kids say.

Presently I’m envisioning that content over the course of the year to include:
  • Four longer articles with full citations about the American Revolution. Some of those would be drawn from material that’s appeared on Boston 1775 or in publications no longer available, polished and updated.
  • Four reviews of books, articles, museums, historical novels, movies, or other cultural enterprises related to Revolutionary history.
  • Four invitations to ask questions about Revolutionary New England or propose topics for investigation, which could seed new blog posts or articles.
I’m not saying that Ko-fi subscriptions are necessary for me to continue my research and writing. (In fact, I paid more up front to upgrade my page.) I don’t expect this revenue stream to fund my research travel or books, or even my entire ice cream budget.

Rather, I’m committing to the extra content to push myself to be more productive. A daily deadline for the blog keeps me exploring new topics. A monthly deadline will, I hope, give me the impetus to reshape material into longer and longer-lasting forms and finish up articles I already have in the works.

So please check out the Boston 1775 page at Ko-fi and consider signing up for the extra “Buff & Blue” content. This is an experiment. At the end of 2023, I’ll solicit readers’ feedback, assess the enterprise, and make adjustments if necessary.

(In addition, I’ve created a Mastodon account. This software operates somewhat like Twitter, my preferred social-media network, but without the problems brought on by Twitter’s new ownership. If you’re already participating on that site, look for me at @jlbellwriter@mstdn.social.)

Friday, December 30, 2022

“Printing ink is made of nut-oil”

In his Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, published in many editions in the early 1700s, Ephraim Chambers wrote: “Printing ink is made of nut-oil, or linseed-oil, turpentine, and lamp-black.”

The manufacturing process was complex, and no doubt part of the art and mystery of being a printer. One leading figure in that profession in London was John Baskerville (1707–1775, shown here).

Fifty years after Baskerville’s death, T. C. Hansard (1776–1833) published in Typographia what he understood to be the man’s method of making ink:
He took of the finest and oldest linseed oil three gallons, this was put into a vessel capable of holding four times the quantity, and boiled with a long-continued fire till it acquired a certain thickness or tenacity, according to the quality of the work it was intended to print, and which was judged of by putting small quantities upon a stone to cool, and then taking it up between the finger and thumb; on opening which, if it drew into a thread an inch long or more, it was considered sufficiently boiled. This mode of boiling can only be acquired by long practice, and requires particular skill and care in the person who superintends the operation, as, for want of this, the most serious consequences may occur, and have very frequently occurred.

The oil thus prepared was suffered to cool, and then a small quantity of black or amber rosin was dissolved in it, after which it was allowed some months to subside; it was then mixed with the fine black…to a proper thickness, and ground for use.
The “fine black” was soot collected from “glass-pinchers’ and solderers’ lamps,” according to William Savage’s On the Preparation of Printing Ink (1832). For red ink, printers used vermilion, a mercury compound.

The “most serious consequences” Hansard warned about meant fires. He advised printers not to boil linseed oil inside their shops, and also to be prepared to smother any oil fire by “instantly closing the pot or vessel, so that no air can draw in to feed the flame.”

The boiled linseed oil turned into a type of varnish. That base made printing ink very sticky, so it adhered to the printing type and then to paper without flowing or smearing.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

“Ink of a Very Different Sort”

Anisha Gupta and Renée Wolcott of the conservation department at the American Philosophical Society have shared an interesting series of blog posts about iron gall ink and the problems it can produce.

Iron gall ink has been around at least since the 300s. It offered scribes the advantage of being close to permanent, especially on parchment—but when the formula is off, it can damage that material.

Gupta explained what went into this type of ink:
Iron gall ink is comprised of four main ingredients:

1. Oak gall nuts. Oak gall nuts are a tree’s protective reaction to wasps depositing eggs beneath its bark. They are not actually nuts! Once collected, these are then soaked in a solvent.

2. Solvents. Acidic solvents, such as beer or wine, or allowing mold to grow on the gall nuts as they soak help produce gallic acid and increase the color of the ink.

3. Ferrous sulfate. Ferrous sulfate reacts with gallic acid to produce a blue-black iron-tannin complex.

4. Gum Arabic. Gum Arabic increases viscosity (improves ink flow), keeps pigment particles in suspension, binds ink to the writing surface, and gives the ink shine and depth.

The formation of the iron-tannin complex releases sulfuric acid, so iron gall ink is always extremely acidic, with a pH of 1-3. Acids attack the cellulose chains that paper is made of, shortening the chains and making the paper brown and brittle. If the iron gall ink contains an excess of iron (II) ions, it will also catalyze oxidation of the paper or parchment, which results in crosslinking and brittleness.
Wolcott highlighted a notebook from Benjamin Franklin’s papers recording his early experimentation (of course) with the substance:
at the very back of the book…Franklin had recorded the results of six iron gall ink recipes, including “Benj. Franklin’s Ink” from June 17, 1731, “Joseph Breitnall’s Ink” and “Ink of a Very Different Sort” from the same date. (Oh, how I wish I knew what made the different ink different!)

“Persian Ink made by James Austin” was “stir’d up June 19, 1731.” The “Japan Ink written June 22, 1731” was likely made from a commercial ink powder that could be mixed with water, and it has aged the most poorly, with brown haloes around the inked lines. “B. Franklin’s New Ink,” “written Aug. 3, 1731” and noted to be “pale when first wrote” has probably aged the best.
Finally, Wolcott showed an example of damage caused by iron gall ink that was too acidic for its paper.  

Iron gall ink was used in quill pens, so it had to flow and then dry. A completely different type of ink was developed for printing.

TOMORROW: Printers’ ink.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Thomas Boylston Adams and His Relations

In 1772, John and Abigail Adams had a third son, whom they named Thomas Boylston Adams (shown here, some years later).

The following August, John Adams explained this baby’s name this way:
Sept. 15. 1772 Thomas Boylston Adams was born at Braintree and Christened the next Sunday by Mr. [Anthony] Wibert. The childs great, great Grandfather was of the name of Thomas Boylston and built the Old house at Brooklyne where my mother was born; My mother had also an Uncle of the same name The father of the late Nich. Boylston Esq. and the present Thomas Boylston. Merchant.
As discussed the last couple of days, Adams personally knew the brothers Nicholas and Thomas Boylston.

He also knew—heck, everyone knew—that Nicholas had died in 1771 without any children. He had left most of his huge fortune to a nephew, born Ward Nicholas Hallowell (1749–1828). In return, that young man had legally changed his name to Ward Nicholas Boylston in 1770.

Nicholas’s brother Thomas also had a large fortune. He also had no children. Was he also looking for an heir?

And might knowing there was a little boy in the extended family who already bore his name (albeit from a common ancestor) have caught Thomas’s attention? Did the Adamses consider the prospect of an inheritance, even a little bit? After all, “Thomas Boylston. Merchant” did get a mention in this genealogical note about the baby, despite being only a first cousin twice removed.

As it turned out, Thomas Boylston lost his money in the failure of a London mercantile firm in 1793. He even spent time in a British debtors’ prison before dying in 1798. So there was no fortune to inherit.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

John Adams’s Dinner with the Hotspurs

As described yesterday, John Adams finally got to see the inside of his mother’s cousin Nicholas Boylston’s Boston mansion on 16 Jan 1766.

Adams had apparently heard stories of the witty analysis around Boylston’s dinner table, and he finally got to experience that.

Nicholas Boylston’s younger brother Thomas (1721–1798, shown here in another John Singleton Copley portrait) was on that night’s guest list. So was the Boylstons’ brother-in-law Benjamin Hallowell, already a high Customs officer. (Adams also noted the presence of two gentlemen named Smith, but he didn’t record them saying anything notable.)

Adams’s description of the banter in his diary began:
The Conversation of the two Boylstones and Hallowell is a Curiosity. Hotspurs all.—Tantivi.—
Samuel Johnson defined hotspurs as men “violent, passionate, precipitate and heady.” “Tantivy” was a hunting cry that for a century had been associated with British Tories.
Nick. is a warm Friend of the Lieutenant Governor [Thomas Hutchinson], and inclining towards the Governor [Francis Bernard]. Tom a firebrand against both. Tom is a perfect Viper—a Fiend—a Jew—a Devil—but is orthodox in Politicks however.
Adams wrestled with how to regard Thomas Boylston, who seemed to be on his side but was nastier than he then liked. Adams also revealed that he shared the nastiness of his society in using “Jew” to mean a betrayer.
Hallowell tells stories about [James] Otis and drops Hints about [Samuel] Adams, &c., and about Mr. Dudley Atkins of Newbury. Otis told him, he says, that the Parliament had a Right to tax the Colonies and he was a d—d fool who deny’d it, and that this People never would be quiet till we had a Council from Home [i.e., appointed instead of elected], till our Charter was taken away, and till we had regular Troops quartered upon Us.
Those were the very measures that Parliament adopted in 1774. Did Otis really speak as Hallowell described? If so, was he warning about what the London government would do, or have to do, to quell resistance? As for defending the Crown’s right to tax, Otis did occasionally make such remarks, to the annoyance of his Whig colleagues. But Hallowell wasn’t an unbiased source.  

Returning to that royal appointee:
He says he saw Adams under the Tree of Liberty, when the Effigies hung there and asked him who they were and what. He said he did not know, he could not tell. He wanted to enquire.

He says Mr. Dudley Atkins was too well acquainted with the Secret of some riots there, to be entirely depended on, in his Account, &c.
Typically, Samuel Adams was careful not to incriminate himself. And in fact he was almost certainly not involved in planning the Loyall Nine’s anti-Stamp Act protest in August 1765. I’ll discuss Dudley Atkins in a separate posting.

Back to Adams’s host:
Nick Boylstone is full of Stories about Jemmy [Otis] and Solomon Davis. Solomon says, Country man I dont see what Occasion there is for a Governor and Council and House. You and the Town would do well enough.
Solomon Davis (1716–1791) was another of Boston’s Whig merchants, like Otis originally from Barnstable. If Boylston quoted him correctly, Davis saw merit in a more democratic government for the colony, akin to a town meeting. But he was much more interested in commerce than politics.

That meal gave John Adams plenty to think about.

Monday, December 26, 2022

How John Adams “Dined at Mr. Nick Boylstones”

John Adams finally got his invitation to dinner at Nicholas Boylston’s mansion in January 1766.

Adams’s mother was a Boylston, first cousin to this Boston merchant. However, Adams visited Boylston’s home only after becoming a rising young lawyer from Braintree, in Boston for court business and a whirl of political conversations.

On 14 January, for instance, Adams dined at town clerk William Cooper’s house with Thomas Cushing, speaker of the house; William Story, an Admiralty Court official; and John Boylston, yet another cousin on his mother’s side.

Adams recorded in his diary:
Boylstone, affecting a Phylosophical Indifference about Dress, Furniture, Entertainments &c., laughed at the affectation of nicely distinguishing Tastes, such as the several Degrees of Sweet till you come up to the first degree of bitter, laughed at the great Expences for Furniture, as Nick Boylstones Carpetts, Tables, Chairs, Glasses, Beds &c. which Cooper said were the richest in N. America.—The highest Taste and newest Fashion, would soon flatten and grow old.
The next evening, Adams met with “the Sons of Liberty, at their own Apartment in Hanover Square, near the Tree of Liberty.” This was the group also called the “Loyall Nine,” principal organizers of the protests that had negated the Stamp Act the year before. They were preparing to celebrate the law’s expected repeal.

Finally came this diary entry:
Thurdsday. Jany. 16th. 1766.

Dined at Mr. Nick Boylstones, with the two Mr. Boylstones [Nicholas and his brother Thomas, probably], two Mr. [James and Isaac?] Smiths, Mr. [Benjamin] Hallowell and the Ladies [the Boylstons’ sister Mary Hallowell and possibly James Smith’s wife, Elizabeth]. An elegant Dinner indeed!

Went over the House to view the Furniture, which alone cost a thousand Pounds sterling. A Seat it is for a noble Man, a Prince. The Turkey Carpets, the painted Hangings, the Marble Tables, the rich Beds with crimson Damask Curtains and Counterpins, the beautiful Chimny Clock, the Spacious Garden, are the most magnificent of any Thing I have ever seen.
Even though those luxurious furnishings might “soon flatten and grow old,” they awed the young country lawyer.

TOMORROW: Dinner conversation.

[The image above shows how John Singleton Copley remade his portrait of Nicholas Boylston, shown yesterday. Harvard College commissioned this copy in 1773, after the merchant had died and left money for a professorship. To match other paintings Copley had made for the college, he turned his original composition into a taller, full-figure portrait. As a result, Boylston was immortalized in honking big red slippers.]

Sunday, December 25, 2022

A “Christmas eve” in John Adams’s Imagination

On 23 July 1813, John Adams wrote to his son-in-law, William Stephens Smith, then serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That letter was about political affairs, with the war going badly for the U.S. of A., but another big theme was how no one appreciated John Adams.

In making that case, the former President drew up a picture, possibly conjectural, of a Christmastime tradition among certain Boston gentlemen of the mid-1700s:
Remember the fate of Cassandra. The prophet of ill ’tho’ as true as a goose’s bow is always detested. I also have been now and then reckoned among the minor prophets. Not a bone of any Goose ever picked by Jo Green, Nick Boylston, & Master Lovel on a Christmas eve, tho’ they had Nat Gardner for a guest, and exhausted all their wit, Gibes, & Jokes upon it, ever foretold an approaching winter, with more certainty that I have foreseen two or three small events in the course of my Life, such as the American Independence, & the result of the french revolution for example. But I was always execrated for it; & persecuted worse than the hebrew prophets, when they were set in the stocks.
“Jo Green” was Joseph Green (1706–1780), known for his biting literary wit. That seems to have manifest mostly in semi-anonymous verse poking at the Rev. Mather Byles, Sr., and anything new in town, like Freemasons. After a career as a merchant, Green took a post in the Customs service and then had to evacuate town as a Loyalist.

“Nick Boylston” was Nicholas Boylston (1716–1771), Green’s even more wealthy business partner. He and Green, both bachelors, owned houses near each other on School Street. Boylston is best known these days for his portraits by John Singleton Copley (one shown above). For those he posed as a wealthy man of learning, wearing a casual banyan and nightcap and leaning on a book. But I don’t recall any example of Boylston’s own writing or wit.

“Master Lovel” was John Lovell (1710–1778), master of the South Latin School for decades. He, too, was known for writing poetry, in his case serious verse and in various languages. Like Green and Boylston, Lovell’s surviving portrait shows him in a nightcap instead of a formal wig, signalling that he was concerned more with learning than with commerce. He, too, left Boston with the British troops in March 1776.

“Nat Gardner” was Nathaniel Gardner, Jr. (1719–1760), regarded in the 1750s as Boston’s leading poet, particularly in Latin. He was Lovell‘s usher, or assistant master, at the grammar school. Gardner died at forty-one and was soon largely forgotten. In 1989 David S. Shields wrote a study designed to bring him and his work back “from limbo.”

The appearance of Gardner at this Christmas Eve gathering shows that Adams was imagining a scene in the 1750s, when he himself was a university student, country schoolmaster, and legal trainee. He wouldn’t have been invited.

Nonetheless, Adams left a picture of how Boston’s small intellectual crowd spent their Christmas Eves, exchanging witticisms over a roasted goose.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

“Declaring that we were all Torys at Nantucket”

As I discussed yesterday, the British government exempted the island of Nantucket from its Restraining Act, which limited trade with America.

At the time, Nantucket’s chief industry was whaling, and the chief market for its products was Britain. Neither the islanders nor the home country wanted to derail that business.

Furthermore, most Nantucketers were Quakers, so they had a religious reason, or excuse, to remain neutral in the imperial government’s conflict with the thirteen colonies.

In May 1775, the Continental Congress responded to Parliament’s law by forbidding anyone in the thirteen colonies from trading with parts of the continent that still supported the Crown. That was followed on 29 May by a special resolution:
That no provisions or necessaries of any kind be exported to the island of Nantucket, except from the colony of the Massachusetts Bay, the convention of which colony is desired to take measures for effectually providing the said island, upon their application to purchase the same, with as much provision as shall be necessary for its internal use, and no more. The Congress deeming it of great importance to North America, that the British fishery should not be furnished with provisions from this continent through Nantucket, earnestly recommend a vigilant execution of this resolve to all committees.
At the time, Nantucket—or to be exact, the town of Sherburne—wasn’t participating in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The congress had tried to appoint a committee of correspondence for Nantucket County in April, but the men it named hadn’t taken up the call.

In July, the provincial congress wound down its work. It called on all towns, including Sherburne, to elect a new, official Massachusetts General Court. Among the congress’s final resolutions was:
whereas, the inhabitants of Nantucket have by them, large quantities of provisions in their stores, and are fitting out a large fleet of whaling vessels, whereby they intend to avail themselves of the act aforementioned [the Restraining Act], and the provisions they have by them may be unnecessarily expended, in foreign and not domestic consumption:

therefore, Resolved, that no provisions or necessaries of any kind be exported from any part of this colony to the island of Nantucket, until the inhabitants of said island shall have given full and sufficient satisfaction to this Congress, or some future house of representatives, that the provisions they have now by them, have not been, and shall not be, expended in foreign, but for domestic consumption.
Meanwhile, on 6 July a Nantucket sea captain returned to the island from a voyage to Philadelphia. He had hoped to bring back a load of flour. But, wrote Kezia Coffin, “the Congress would not suffer him to bring any declaring that we were all Torys at Nantucket.”

COMING UP: More tacking around Nantucket Island.

Friday, December 23, 2022

“The Island of Nantucket, employed in the whale fishery”

In the early spring of 1775, even before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Parliament took steps to clamp down on New England and its allies.

Given that almost all of Massachusetts had set up a rival government in open defiance of the Massachusetts Government Act, that New Hampshire had driven away Gov. John Wentworth, and that the elected governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island were doing as little as possible to support royal policy, Parliament felt stricter measures were justified.

On 30 March it enacted the New England Restraining Act, also called the New England Trade and Fisheries Act. This law restricted trade and barred ships from the rebellious colonies from the rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland. However, that law also included a clause exempting whaling vessels from Nantucket from its new rules.

Nantucket was then the center of the North American whaling industry, which supplied a great deal of the whale oil, spermaceti candles, and other products that Britain used. In addition, many of the island’s leading families were Quakers and thus religious pacifists.

The Nantucket whaling captains could thus make the case in London both that they wanted no part in any coming war, and that their business was too important to interfere with. As a result, Nantucket got this special exemption.

When Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act in December 1775, authorizing the Royal Navy and privateers to capture ships from the rebellious colonies, that new law once again exempted ships from Nantucket:
XL. Provided also, and it is hereby further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That nothing in this act contained shall extend, or be construed to extend, to any ship or vessel, being the property of any of the inhabitants of the Island of Nantucket, employed in the whale fishery only, if it shall appear by the papers on board that such ship or vessel was fitted and cleared out from thence before the 1st day of December, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five; or if the master, or other person having the charge of any such ship or vessel as aforesaid, shall produce a certificate under the hand and seal of the Governour or Commander-in-Chief of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, setting forth that such ship or vessel (expressing her name, and the name of her master, and describing her built and burthen) is the whole and entire property of his Majesty’s subjects of the said Island of Nantucket, and was the property of one or more of them on or before the 25th day of March, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five.
In the same year, the American governments were also trying to figure out what to do with Nantucket. The options shrank as war arrived, since in that situation people tend to view neutrals as helping the other side.

TOMORROW: A local headache.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

An Act to prohibit all Trade and Intercourse with the Colonies

On 22 Dec 1775, King George III approved the repeal of the Boston Port Bill, which Parliament had passed in early 1774.

His approval also repealed the Restraining Acts passed in early 1775. Those laws barred New England fishing ships from the rich grounds off Newfoundland and limited trade from nine North American colonies.

(Why only nine? The government in London was under the impression that New York, Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia hadn’t singed onto the Continental Congress’s boycott of British goods.)

Those repeals were the good news. The bad news was that they were superseded by a stricter law:
An Act to prohibit all Trade and Intercourse with the Colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode-Island, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the three lower Counties on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, during the continuance of the present Rebellion within the said Colonies respectively
The meat of this law was to make American ships legal targets of the Royal Navy and British privateers:
all ships and vessels of or belonging to the inhabitants of the said Colonies, together with their cargoes, apparel, and furniture, and all other ships and vessels whatsoever, together with their cargoes, apparel, and furniture, which shall he found trading in any port or place of the said Colonies, or going to trade, or coming from trading, in any such port or place, shall become forfeited to his Majesty, as if the same were the ships and effects of open enemies, and shall be so adjudged, deemed, and taken, in all Courts of Admiralty, and in all other Courts whatsoever.
Many pages of legislation followed, all concerned with setting up the rules and procedures for seizures at sea.

To be sure, there were a couple of exceptions. One was ships serving the Crown military and loyal territories:
such ships and vessels as shall be actually retained or employed in his Majesty’s service, or to such ships and vessels as shall be laden with provisions for the use of his Majesty’s fleets, armies, or garrisons, or for the use of the inhabitants of any town or place garrisoned or possessed by any of his Majesty’s troops, provided the masters of such ships and vessels respectively shall produce a licence in writing
The other exception was surprisingly close to the heart of the rebellion.

TOMORROW: The exception off the Massachusetts coast.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

“How to tell the story of chocolate and trade and enslavement”

Boston.com offers an article by Madeleine Aitken detailing an important shift in historical storytelling by the Old North Church’s historical wing, now called Old North Illuminated:
Nearly a decade ago, the church opened a Colonial-themed chocolate shop where re-enactors in traditional costumes ground cacao by hand and told tourists about the chocolate trade and its relevance to Boston. The store was called Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop, named for Captain Newark Jackson, who they believed to be a key figure in both the historic church and Boston’s 18th century chocolate trade with the British.
The church commissioned Prof. Jared Hardesty to do some deeper research into Jackson for the chocolate-shop employees to use.
This research eventually turned into “Mutiny on the Rising Sun: A Tragic Tale of Slavery, Smuggling, and Chocolate,” a book Hardesty released in the fall of 2021 [review quoted here]. The book exposed Jackson as not only being a cacao trader, but a human trafficker and a slave holder — he transported, owned, and traded enslaved people. . . .

“The board made the decision to take Captain Jackson’s name off of the shop and off of the program, but there was a strong desire to still tell the story, just in an honest and comprehensive way,” said Nikki Stewart, executive director of Old North Illuminated, the organization that works to preserve and share the church’s story.

Maddy Rodriguez, the chair of the board of Old North Illuminated, said finding out about the true history of Jackson was a “shock.”

“I think it was really jarring because of the fact that up to that point, the chocolate program had been super successful. It was a unique opportunity for guests, especially families, to engage with the history of Old North,” Rodriguez told Boston.com. “To hear that the person that we had decided to name the exhibit after was involved in smuggling human beings in the slave trade was just completely opposite to that intent, that mission, that previous feeling that we had had.”

So they pivoted, re-envisioning how to tell the story of chocolate and trade and enslavement.
That admirable decision has resulted in several educational units for different grades, a new interpretive plan, a revamped audio tour, and a “complete redesign of the exhibit and signings inside the church,” scheduled to debut in the summer of 2023.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

How Big Was a “Half Chest” of Tea?

Returning to the leafy details of the Boston Tea Party, earlier this month I quoted the Boston Gazette reporting that Ebenezer Withington had found “a half chest which had floated and was cast up on Dorchester point.”

Around the same time John Rowe wrote that people had confiscated “about half a Chest of Tea” from Withington.

Rowe’s report was almost certainly secondhand. The Gazette article could also have been hearsay, or could have come from an eyewitness to the tea confiscation and burning.

Withington’s own surviving statement said nothing about the quantity of tea or the size of the container it arrived in.

The phrase “a half chest” prompted local historian Charles Bahne to comment:
The East India Company's official inventory of the tea destroyed in Boston — which I discussed in these pages on December 17, 2009 — indicates that this particular cargo was shipped in full chests, weighing an average of 353 pounds each (net weight, not counting the chest itself); and in smaller chests that averaged 77 pounds net. Those smaller chests were about a quarter the weight of a full chest, so presumably they were "quarter chests". There don't seem to be any "half chests" on board.

So where did Withington's half chest come from?
Christopher Sherwood Davis, who researched the shipments for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, then responded:
It's my theory that "half chest" functioned as a generic term for a smaller chest, while also being a more technical term for a chest one half the weight of a whole chest. Much like how "barrel" is both a generic term for a cask and a type of cask with a specific volume. Drake's Tea Leaves has the Polly's freight invoice for the tea, and it refers to the same 130 chests as both "half" and "quarter" in different places. The Dartmouth's logbook also calls the chests "half chests", but as you pointed out the average weights are more consistent with the quarter chests.
That accords with other reports of measurements I’ve seen from merchants and mechanics. It wasn’t yet a time of exactitude.

Another source on tea shipments that I’ve mentioned is Dan Du’s doctoral thesis, “This World in a Teacup: Chinese-American Tea Trade in the Nineteenth Century.” On page 42 Du transcribed a chart that Jonathan Donnison, captain of the General Washington, entered into his log in 1791. That chart shows different dimensions for chests of different types of tea.

According to the General Washington log, “Half Chests of Bohea Tea,” the basic kind of black tea, were 2'10" long, 2' broad, and 1'3.5" deep. That’s over 7 cubic feet.

In contrast, a “Chest of Souchong Tea,” which was more expensive, was 1'5" long, 1'4" broad, and 1'.5" to 1'3" deep. That's about 2 cubic feet.

A “Half Chest of Hyson” was listed as about the same size as a “Chest of Souchong.” Donnison set down two listings for a “Chest of Hyson,” differing by a full foot in length (at least as transcribed). Even at the higher length, the resulting container wasn’t as big as the “Half Chests of Bohea.”

Now those figures from the Du thesis might be in error, or they might apply only to chests from Capt. Donnison’s suppliers in 1791 and say nothing about the East India Company’s shipping containers two decades earlier. But they do suggest that a “chest of tea” or “half chest of tea” was far from a standard measurement. To understand what a “chest of tea” meant, one had to know the type of tea inside. The more precious the leaves, the smaller the standard container of those leaves.

None of the reports about Ebenezer Withington’s tea said anything about the type of tea he’d found. The Gazette’s use of “a half chest” suggests he hadn’t brought home one of the large containers of Bohea that made up the bulk of the East India Company’s shipment, but his box could have counted as a full chest of Souchon or Hyson. That in turns suggests that Withington had lucked out (for a while) in finding a supply of a more expensive variety.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Button Gwinnett as a MacGuffin

Carolyn Wells wrote more than eighty books during her career as one of the most popular American mystery novelists of the first half of the 1900s (as well as another eighty books in other genres).

In Murder in the Bookshop (1936), Wells’s MacGuffin is a small book signed by Button Gwinnett, delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Georgia.

Gwinnett was one of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence. He died less than a year later, on 19 May 1777, leaving behind a much sparser paper trail than his colleagues who didn’t engage in dueling.

In the nineteenth century, there was a craze for collecting historical autographs, which resulted in the mutilation of lots of letters and forms. Wealthy Americans competed to own a signature from each Declaration signer. Gwinnett was the rarest. As of 2016, only fifty-one examples of his signature were known to survive, with only ten of those in private hands.

It would thus make sense for a book signed by Gwinnett to be worth a lot of money, possibly even worth killing for. A character in Murder in the Bookshop describes the object of desire this way:
“It’s a small book, a pamphlet, but in fine condition. It is entitled Taxation Laws of Great Britain and U.S.A. Gwinnett was a student of Government and Politics and this was his book. He had not only autographed it on the fly-leaf but had signed it two other times and, moreover, had made annotations in his own hand on various pages. So you can grasp the importance of the book. Such finds do occur, but very seldom.”
My eyes perked up at that description, but not because I imagined the book as valuable. I knew that there were no ‘taxation laws of the U.S. of A.’ by the time Gwinnett died in 1777 or for many years afterward. The U.S. government didn’t become a legal entity until the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, and didn’t gain the power to levy taxes until after the new Constitution in 1789.

Thus, there couldn’t have been a copy of Taxation Laws of Great Britain and U.S.A. printed in time for Gwinnett to sign it. Was that a clue? Perhaps the detective would reveal this book was a fraud, and the finger of suspicion would swing toward the book dealer.

But as I read a little further, it became clear that all the characters in Murder in the Bookshop behave absurdly. No one comes across as a genuine, logical person.

Wells knew the world of book-collecting well—she amassed a top-notch collection of Walt Whitman material. She wanted to set a story in that milieu. But by this point in her writing career, she was putting out four mysteries a year, and it seems that she expected readers to value the right twists (secret lovers! second murder! kidnapping! masked genius!) more than logic.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

“Not only relishing the sociable but actively contriving it”

Like the Georgian Papers Programme, Digit.En.S is a study of eighteenth-century Britain funded by the E.U. and based at a continental university.

Digit.En.S hosts the Digital Encyclopedia of British Sociability in the Long Eighteenth Century, designed to “Explore the wide range of topics related to British Sociability from 1650 to 1850 and learn about the circulation of models of sociability that shaped European and colonial societies.”

Be that as it may, I enjoyed Allen Ingram’s profile of James Boswell:
…he was, quite simply, good company – attentive, amusing, intelligent and above all lively. [Samuel] Johnson, most clearly, and [Pasquale] Paoli, once exiled in England, became lifelong friends and were pleased to see him often during his annual spring visits to London from Edinburgh. Through Johnson in particular, Boswell became friends with a set of men he might not otherwise have met, or met so soon and so favourably. These included Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith; but other friends, like John Wilkes, and various members of the Scottish nobility, were already part of Boswell’s circle, and would remain so – indeed, he even contrived a dinner in London in May 1776 that brought Johnson and Wilkes, the bitterest of political rivals, together in an atmosphere of sociability and mutual good humour, though the good humour found its focus in making jokes at Boswell’s expense.

But this was part of Boswell’s talent, not only relishing the sociable but actively contriving it. He could be immensely self-promoting, often in a highly embarrassing way, as at the annual dinner of the Company of Grocers in London in November 1790, in the presence of Prime Minister William Pitt, an honorary member of the Company, when Boswell sang the semi-satirical ballad, ‘William Pitt, The Grocer of London’, six times, apparently by popular acclaim, in a misguided attempt to curry favour from Pitt in his political ambitions. But Boswell seems to have been utterly beyond embarrassment, especially at large social occasions, and especially after consuming alcohol. . . .

Drinking for Boswell almost always took place within a social context. He was not particularly choosey, though, about the nature of that context, or about the location of his drinking. As long as there was company, he would drink: with lords and ladies, as at Northumberland House, where Trafalgar Square now is, where the set surrounding the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland congregated, as he did in London during his visit of 1762-1763; or with politicians and genteel tradesmen, as at the Grocers’ dinner cited above; or with his legal friends and acquaintances back in Edinburgh, as he did all his life; or with prostitutes in London, or Edinburgh, or anywhere, as he also did all his life; or, as he did returning to Edinburgh from Auchinleck in March 1777 with an old friend, Richard Montgomery, ‘at some low ale-house’, where ‘I drank outrageously’ and ‘arrived at Edinburgh very drunk’.

Boswell’s taste in women and in female society was if anything even wider than his taste in alcohol and his expectations of the kind of sociability that was possible from it changed the further down the social scale he went. Few if any of his sexual relationships were with women of the highest social class. With such women his expectations were similar to the sociability he enjoyed with men, with the bonus of their being female: he enjoyed their company and was able to flirt as an amusement rather than as a preliminary to anything. . . . [In contrast,] His relationship with the actress ‘Louisa’ (Anne Lewis) in London in 1762-1763…observes all the polite social niceties, with a mix of gallantry, wit and deference:
‘Madam, I was very happy to find you. From the first time that I saw you, I admired you.’ ‘O, Sir.’ ‘I did, indeed. What I like beyond everything is an agreeable female companion, where I can be at home and have tea and genteel conversation. I was quite happy to be here. ‘Sir, you are welcome here as often as you please.’ (London Journal 115)
The pay-off, however, when it comes is a level of physical reality far beyond ‘tea and genteel conversation’: ‘A more voluptuous night I never enjoyed. Five times was I fairly lost in supreme rapture. Louisa was madly fond of me; she declared I was a prodigy.’
Boswell published essays, travel accounts, and his biography of Johnson in his lifetime, but he came back to life only in the 1900s when his private diaries were discovered and put into print.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

“The Secret of the Faculty Wife” at Contingent

Contingent is an online history magazine. It explains: “Our writers are adjuncts, museum workers, independent scholars—all people who work outside the tenure-track professoriate.” Learn more here.

Recently the Contingent editors commissioned a series of articles about the intersection between history and mystery stories. The article launching that “History & Mystery” series today is “The Secret of the Faculty Wife,” my look at Lillian McCue, who in her early forties created a career as mystery author Lillian de la Torre.

I wrote about De la Torre’s whodunnit stories about Dr. Samuel Johnson earlier this fall. This short article looks at the situation from another angle: the choices of a faculty wife, restricted by sexism and the employment policies of the Depression from fulfilling her own intellectual potential.

That situation has been in my head more since finding an essay my mother wrote around 1970 when she was in a similar situation. Her graduate studies in English literature had stalled out as she had two children, now my brother and I were going off to school, and it wasn’t clear what she should do with her time. As it turned out, Mom earned a doctorate in chemistry and later a nursing license, becoming college faculty in both fields. She finished her work life as a piano technician and knitting consultant.

That’s not the same plight as contingent faculty members, who have too much teaching to do for too little pay and not much hope of advancing up the professorial ladder. But it’s close enough that I thought the story of Lillian McCue’s career would speak to this audience.

I’m looking forward to seeing how other writers approached the “History & Mystery” theme.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Flagging the “Object of History” Podcast

The latest episode of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s podcast, The Object of History, is titled “Who Were the Bucks of America?”

The description says:
In this episode, we closely examine one of the most noteworthy items in the MHS collection: the Bucks of America flag. The flag is one of the only remaining artifacts of the Bucks of America, an African American militia based in Boston during the Revolutionary era. There is very little known about the unit with no official military record of their service. We discuss the few pieces of evidence that we have including the flag presented by Governor John Hancock after the end of the Revolutionary War.
The guests are Ben Remillard from the University of New Hampshire and myself.

I haven’t listened yet. Last month I talked with Cassandra Cloutier for an hour, dumping all my thoughts and theories about the Bucks of America and George Middleton on her—the Dr. James Lloyd connection, the false link to the Battle of Groton Heights, the evidence that he and Lewis Glapion both had wives and children when they owned a house together. Only the best and most relevant pronouncements made this thirty-five-minute episode, I presume.

The first person with whom I shared ideas about the Bucks of America flag, several years ago, was curator Anne Bentley. So I’m taking this opportunity to note that the New England Museum Association just gave Bentley one of its 2022 Awards for Excellence. The citation says:
Her almost 50 years of service to the organization highlights her dedication and passion for Art and artifacts. She has had the privilege to work on such notable collections as the Adams and Winthrop families, her final lab project was Thomas Jefferson’s manuscript “Notes on the State of Virginia.” As curator of the art and artifact collection and acting registrar from 1998 through 2021, she enjoyed collaborating with curators and registrars in New England and beyond. . . .

“Retiring” at the end of 2021, Anne now works a three-day week, recataloging artifacts and numismatics and assisting the reading room staff in making these materials available to researchers.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

“Another Vessel took the Tea on board”

Four ships carrying British East India Company tea set out for Boston in 1773, but only three made it.

The fourth was the William, captained by Joseph Loring, son of the man who built the Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain.

As with the other three ships, tea was just part of the William’s cargo. It also carried hundreds of glass globes that Boston had ordered for its first street lamps.

On 2 December, Loring ran aground off the northern tip of Cape Cod near Provincetown. The next day, bad weather damaged the William, ensuring it wouldn’t complete its voyage. Most of the cargo, however, was still intact. Over the next couple of weeks, people took off as much as they could.

Jonathan Clarke salvaged most of the tea on behalf of his family firm, one of the original tea consignees. In his Journal of the American Revolution article, James R. Fichter calculated that Clarke managed to secure 54 of 59 chests of tea on the William.

Three or four containers wound up in other people’s hands. That situation set up a new tempest as Massachusetts Patriots tried to keep anyone from selling any surviving tea, even if it had bypassed the tea tax. Mary Beth Norton described those efforts in her book 1774. Peter Drummey covered a local angle in this talk for the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

It took a while for Clarke to find a ship with a crew willing to carry his rescued tea chests into Boston harbor. We glimpse that situation in this 3 Jan 1774 report in the Boston Evening-Post:
Last Saturday [i.e., 1 January] a Vessel arrived here from Cape-Cod with Part of the Cargo of Capt. Loring’s Brig lately stranded there, among which are the Lamps for the Use of the Town.—Another Vessel took the Tea on board, which, we hear, is intended to be landed at the Castle.
Citing a document preserved in Britain’s India Records papers, Fichter explained what ultimately happened to those chests in his article “The Tea That Survived the Boston Tea Party.”

The 6 January Massachusetts Spy included a detail about the first ship’s arrival from the Cape that the Evening-Post left out:
Last Saturday arrived a vessel with the goods saved out of the Brig William, Capt. Loring, lately cast away at Cape-Cod; and the same evening was visited by a number of Indians, who made thorough search, but found no tea.
Again, this is evidence of Bostonians using “Indians” as a way to refer to locals enforcing the loyal tea boycott by force without acknowledging those men were locals enforcing the loyal tea boycott by force. I doubt these inspectors were disguised with paint and costumes. Instead, everyone knew they’d be better off keeping those men’s identities secret.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

“Ebenezer Withington hath declared that he hath sold a Part of the Tea”

Yesterday I quoted the proceedings of the Dorchester town meeting as printed in the Massachusetts Spy on 13 Jan 1774.

They included:
  • Ebenezer Withington’s public admission that he had picked up some tea left over from the Boston Tea Party and sold it, but was sorry.
  • The town’s long declaration that selling tea like that was very wrong, for the most important political reasons, but Withington hadn’t meant any harm.
Now for some close reading of the details.

First, this one contemporaneous report is not evidence for locals finding Tea Party detritus along the Dorchester shore on the morning after.

Bostonians destroyed that tea on the evening of Thursday, 16 December. The next morning was Friday. Withington was clear he “found said Tea on Saturday, on going round upon the Marshes.” So it may have taken longer than a day for that half-chest to float across Boston harbor.

Not a big deal, but it does hint at how we like to compact details to make better stories. “The next morning” works better than “a day and a half later.”

Second, I wish I knew all the implications of the phrase “some Gentlemen belonging to the Castle,” the description in Withington’s statement of men who asked him about the tea he’d found. During the Tea Party, Castle William (shown above) was the home base of Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie’s 64th Regiment. It also served as a refuge for Boston’s top Customs officials and the tea consignees. And at least a few civilians worked on that island.

Whoever talked to Withington obviously knew that most of his “Neighbors” supported the strict tea boycott. What might they have said about a man salvaging tea for himself? Especially if they were friends of the royal government! No wonder Dorchester leaders expressed concern that people might insinuate “that the whole of the Tea said to have been destroyed was plundered.”

Finally, I was struck by the elevated language of these Dorchester documents. The statement Withington signed begins, “I found said Tea…” There’s nothing about tea before that in the printed proceedings, but the statement may have been written in response to a reference in the warrant for the town meeting, or in a letter from the selectmen. In any event, that “said” was the legal language of depositions.

Likewise, the four town resolutions that follow are in the most formal style. The first even uses “hath” instead of “has,” despite being about a poor man pulling a soggy chest of tea out of a swamp. Dorchester clerk Noah Clap clearly knew he was writing for public consumption and depicted his town at its most upright and proper.

TOMORROW: Inspectors.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

“He hath been discovered selling said Tea”

On Monday, 3 Jan 1774, as I quoted yesterday, the Boston Gazette reported on men confiscating a supply of tea from a poor Dorchester man named Ebenezer Withington.

The same day, Dorchester had a town meeting about the matter. The community might have thought that would resolve everything.

But on Thursday, 6 January, the Boston News-Letter and Massachusetts Spy repeated the Gazette story. The next day, it appears, Dorchester’s clerk copied out the proceedings of the town meeting and sent them to Spy printer Isaiah Thomas.

It took a week for Thomas to put out his next issue. The proceedings appeared on 13 January, but with a 7 January dateline; with a decorative first initial, but without any introductory explanation.

At a Meeting of the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of the Town of DORCHESTER, January 3d, 1774, by Adjournment from December 28th, 1773.

EBENEZER WITHINGTON of this Town, Labourer, personally appeared and acknowledged in this Meeting and subscribed the following with his own Hand:
“I found said Tea on Saturday, on going round upon the Marshes; brought off the same thinking no Harm; returning I met some Gentlemen belonging to the Castle, who asked me if I had been picking up the Ruins? I asked them if there was any Harm? they said no except from my Neighbours.—Accordingly, I brought Home the same, part of which I disposed of, and the Remainder took from me since.

RESOLVED, That his Conduct therein proceeded from inadvertency, and it gives the greatest Satisfaction to this Town that he hath been discovered selling said Tea, otherwise the Conspirators against our Rights and Liberties might have taken Occasion to have insinuated, as their Manner is, that the whole of the Tea said to have been destroyed was plundered and privately sold contrary to the most notorious Facts:

And whereas the said Ebenezer Withington hath declared that he hath sold a Part of the Tea which he had taken up as before said to divers Persons,

RESOLVED, That the said Persons be and are hereby desired to deliver to the Committee of Correspondence for this Town the Tea thus purchased by them of the said Withington, to the intent that the same may be totally destroyed; and if said Persons or either of them shall refuse so to do, they shall be deemed as Enemies who have joined with the Ten Consignees and other Conspirators, to promote the use of the detested Article, and their Names shall be publicly posted accordingly, . . .

RESOLVED, That this Town, will by all Means in their Power, discountenance the use of Tea, while it is subject to a Duty, imposed on it by the British Parliament for the Purpose of raising a Revenue in America without our Consent, . . .

RESOLVED, That this Town on the most mature Deliberation highly approve of the Proceedings of the People who assembled in the Old South Meeting House in Boston on the 29th of November last and since. . . . it is the Opinion of this Town that the Destruction of the Tea proceeded entirely from the Obstinacy of the Consignees, and the Collector of the Customs [Richard Harrison] in refusing to grant a Clearance, and of the Governor [Thomas Hutchinson] in refusing to grant a Pass for Mr. [Francis] Rotch’s Ship.

A true Copy from Dorchester Records.
Attest. NOAH CLAP, Town-Clerk.
And that publicly put to rest the issue of the half-chest of tea that had floated away from the Boston Tea Party and ended up on Dorchester. The town got to present itself as committed to the tea boycott for all the right reasons. Withington got to declare he meant no harm. As for the people who had bought tea from Withington, they could keep their names quiet by giving up their stashes.

So does Ebenezer Withington’s story prove that people really did collect detritus of the Tea Party on the morning after the event, as much lore claims? Actually not.

TOMORROW: Reading the details.

Monday, December 12, 2022

“They found part of a half chest which had floated”

A natural question after hearing the stories of chests from the Boston Tea Party floating across the bay to the Dorchester shore is whether that was even possible.

The men and boys of the Tea Party worked hard to break open all the chests, pour out the tea leaves, and even then make sure those leaves got submerged in the salt water. Could a container of tea have escaped their attention?

In fact, there’s good evidence from 1773 for a small chest making it across the water with some drinkable tea inside.

Samuel Pierce of Dorchester wrote in his diary for 30 December:
There was a number of men came from Boston in disguise, about 40; they came to Mr Eben Withington’s down in town, and demanded his Tee from him which he had taken up, and carried it off and burnt it at Boston.
The merchant John Rowe recorded the same event from his Bostonian perspective the next day:
There was found in the House of One Withington of Dorchester about half a Chest of Tea—the People gathered together & took the Tea, Brought it into the Common of Boston & Burnt it this night about eleven of Clock

This is supposed to be part of the Tea that was taken out of the Ships & floated over to Dorchester.
On 3 Jan 1774, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette laid out the story that the town’s Whig leaders wanted people to know:
Whereas it was reported that one Withington, of Dorchester, had taken up and partly disposed of a Chest of the East-India Company’s Tea: a Number of the Cape or Narragansett-Indians, went to the Houses of Capt. Ebenezer Withington, and his Brother Philip Withington, (both living upon the lower Road from Boston to Milton) last Friday Evening, and with their consent thoroughly searched their Houses, without offering the least offence to any one.

But finding no Tea they proceeded to the House of old Ebenezer Withington, at a place called Sodom, below Dorchester Meeting House, where they found part of a half chest which had floated and was cast up on Dorchester point. This they seized and brought to Boston Common where they committed it to the flames.
Pierce identified the men enforcing the tea boycott as “from Boston,” but the Gazette referred to them as “Cape or Narragansett-Indians.” This is an early example of the Whigs realizing that referring to the men who destroyed the tea as unrecognizable Natives let everyone maintain deniability.

There were many Withingtons in Dorchester, obviously. The Gazette emphasized how two Withingtons of the higher class—the militia captain and his brother—had done nothing wrong and were eager to cooperate with the searchers.

“Old Ebenezer Withington” didn’t come off as well. This is the only reference I’ve found to a place in eighteenth-century Dorchester being called “Sodom.”

On the same day that issue of the Boston Gazette appeared, old Ebenezer Withington had to answer to the Dorchester town meeting.

TOMORROW: The town takes a stand.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Thompson on Hardesty, Mutiny on the Rising Sun

Last month the H-Early-America list shared Mark L. Thompson’s review of Mutiny on the Rising Sun: A Tragic Tale of Slavery, Smuggling, and Chocolate by Jared Ross Hardesty.

Here’s a taste:
…Hardesty draws on this Dutch and Atlantic research but offers something new: a microhistorical account of a single smuggling venture and the wide cast of characters who were involved in and touched by it. If most contraband trade was a prosaic affair that attracted little notice, this ill-starred voyage from Barbados to Suriname in 1743 proved in several respects to be quite the opposite, as it led to murder trials, official investigations, gory printed accounts, and transcontinental legal wrangling.

Working from the long paper trail that followed in the Rising Sun’s bloody wake, Hardesty and a team of researchers in New England and the Netherlands (in particular, Ramona Negrón, a doctoral candidate in history at Leiden University) have been able to trace out the story in many directions through extensive archival research. The result is a detailed account that weaves together multiple historical threads into a well-constructed narrative.

Although the book calls itself a tragedy, it borrows its form (and appearance) from true crime with a splash of gothic horror. The dust jacket is printed in muddy black and brown tones with blood-red accents (while the cloth cover beneath is bright red with golden print along the spine). True to form, the introduction begins with an apparently placid but foreboding scene—the Rising Sun’s boatswain steering the ship on a calm June night—but by the third page the captain, supercargo, and clerk have been stabbed about twenty times, chopped with an axe, sliced with a cutlass, and, in the case of the captain, thrown overboard, “scream[ing] as he plunged into the dark abyss”. . . .

The epilogue, meanwhile, offers a fascinating account of the origins of the book, which began as an earnest effort to learn more about the namesake of “Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop,” a tourist attraction and heritage site associated with the Old North Church along the Freedom Trail in Boston. In a strange turn of events, the research for the book (sponsored in part by the candy company Mars Wrigley Confectionary) actually led to the shutting down of the chocolate shop. . . . Today the eighteenth-century Clough House that once marketed historic chocolate is home to a colonial-style print shop and an artisanal gift store. Captain Jackson’s lurid past has been well scrubbed away.
I think that last sentence could easily be read as suggesting Old North “scrubbed away…Jackson’s lurid past.” The bloody story of this voyage was scrubbed away centuries ago; Boston historians didn’t know about it.

Hardesty and his team, with the support of Old North, have brought that “lurid past” back into the light. To be sure, knowing more about Edward Jackson means his name is no longer attached to a church shop selling candy to tourists and school groups, but that seems like a Good Thing.

Thompson’s full review can be downloaded here.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Keagle on “Henry Knox” in Lake George, 19 Dec.

On Monday, 19 December, the Lake George Battlefield Park Alliance and the Warren County Historical Society will host a talk on “Henry Knox and the Hunt for Heavy Artillery” by Dr. Matthew Keagle, Curator at the Fort Ticonderoga Museum.

The event description says:
Keagle will explore the Continental Army’s need for heavy cannon in 1775 and how it informed not only Henry Knox’s famous 300-mile expedition from Ticonderoga to Boston, but the broader plans for the campaign of 1775 in the Lake George and Lake Champlain region.

The presentation will explore questions such as: did Knox think up the plan to get cannon from Fort Ticonderoga? did he strip the fort of its artillery? and how did Benedict Arnold aid Knox’s efforts and anticipate the Continental Army’s ongoing needs?
This may be a spoiler, but the answers to the first and third questions are related.

This program will begin at 7:00 P.M. at the Holiday Inn Lake George, 2223 Canada Street. It is free and open to the public. To register for a seat, email info@lakegeorgebattlefield.org.

Friday, December 09, 2022

“Extremely reluctant to take on the premiership”

The History of Parliament project shared Dr. Robin Eagles’s assessment of Lord North’s work as prime minister.

Here’s a sample:
North had been just 37 years old when he became Prime Minister. The circumstances were unpropitious, and like the (even more youthful) Younger Pitt in his first few weeks in office, he faced a turbulent situation in Parliament as he settled into the role. His appointment had come following a period of crisis in government with the king at one point reported to have laid his hand on his sword insisting ‘I will have recourse to this sooner than yield to a dissolution’. [John Brooke, George III, p.158]

Unsurprisingly, North had been extremely reluctant to take on the premiership. Despite this, some senior politicians were cautiously optimistic about him. Lord Holland noted in a letter to a friend:
I believe you hear, as I do, a very good account of Lord North of whom, without knowing him, I have a very high opinion; but whether good omens will be follow’d by good events or no, you will not wonder that I don’t guess…
Campbell Correspondence, ed. Davies, p.316
One advantage was that, unlike Pitt, North was able to draw on a lengthy political apprenticeship. He had been returned to the Commons in his early twenties in 1754, and had become a predictably fast friend of the king, continuing the family tradition of loyal dependability. He accepted his first post in government in 1759 and from 1767 had served as chancellor of the exchequer. All of this ought, on the face of it, to have made him well prepared for the task ahead.

All of North’s good qualities – and there were plenty of them – were insufficient for a crisis of the proportions that was about to assail his administration from America. Some were out of North’s control; others stemmed from policies to which he had contributed in previous administrations.

Perhaps the biggest problem was that no one ever seemed entirely sure quite what government policy towards the colonies was supposed to be, though there should have been little doubt given the king’s own very clear determination to keep America as a British possession. North’s own response left everyone mildly confused. On one occasion, he was asked what the government plan was, only for him to reply that no one had come up with one.
To be fair, Lord North never sought the premiership. He simply couldn’t refuse the sovereign’s insistence that he take the job until the defeat at Yorktown made that ministry untenable. At that point, even the king was drafting abdication letters. The result was a change or clarification in the British constitution. While getting along well with the king remained a plus for a prime minister, it was henceforth to be the responsibility of the monarch to support ministry policy more than the dictate it.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

Winter Book Fair at the Paul Revere House, 10–11 Dec.

On this upcoming weekend, the Paul Revere House is hosting a Winter Book Fair.

This event will take place on Saturday and Sunday afternoon inside the site’s Education and Visitor Center, meaning weather won’t be a factor.

There will be a different lineup of authors on the two days. I haven’t seen a complete schedule, so I’ve tried to recreate it from social-media postings. I therefore caution people against relying wholly on this information.

Saturday, 10 December, 1 to 3 P.M.:
  • Abigail Ewing Zelz and Eric Zelz, Pass the Pandowdy, Please: Chewing on History with Famous Folks and Their Fabulous Foods
  • Charles Bahne, The Complete Guide to the Freedom Trail
  • Robert Martello, Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Growth of American Enterprise
Sunday, 11 December, 1 to 3 P.M.:
  • Steven Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919
  • Patrick Leehey, The Bells of Paul Revere, His Sons, and Grandsons and other publications from the Paul Revere House itself
  • Ben L. Edwards, One April in Boston: The Gift of the Spyglass
In addition, Dave Neiman playing music on the hammered dulcimer both days. Access to this event is included in regular admission to the museum on those days.

These books and others can also be ordered through the site’s online bookstore.

Also on Saturday, the nearby North Bennet Street School is hosting its Winter Market, featuring items crafted by its students in jewelry-making, carpentry, bookbinding, and other crafts.

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Charles Pinckney in Hindsight and the Supreme Court

Yesterday I was struck by Pema Levy’s article at Mother Jones about a false document being cited to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Levy based her article on September essay at Politico by Ethen Herenstein and Brian Palmer, and by briefs that have been filed with the court since.

Levy writes:
Three decades after the Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams set about assembling the government’s official Journal of the Convention. Missing from the records was the proposal submitted by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina [shown here]. So Adams wrote him to request a copy. Pinckney replied with an extraordinary document: a draft that so closely resembled the final Constitution that he would have to have been clairvoyant to have written it. . . .

“At the distance of nearly thirty two Years it is impossible for me now to say which of the 4 or 5 draughts I have was the one,” he replied to Adams’ request in 1818, “but enclosed I send you the one I believe was it.” Oddly, the document was written on paper with a 1797 watermark, matching his accompanying letter. Nonetheless, Adams published it.

The debunkings came fast. James Madison, the convention’s most meticulous notetaker, soon wrote to friends that the draft was inaccurate. Years later, Madison discredited Pinckney’s fraud in writing, explaining the document contained language that had only been arrived at after weeks of debate and could not have been divined before the convention began. Madison, convinced it was a fake, detailed how Pinckney’s supposed draft contradicted a more contemporaneous account of the South Carolinian’s actual proposal.
Max Farrand included the Pinckney document in his comprehensive twentieth-century compilation of documents related to the U.S. Constitution, but with a note and additional documents making quite clear that it was not a reliable historical source. A genuine contemporaneous copy of Pinckney’s actual plan survived in the papers of James Wilson and was published in 1904.

Advocates for the “Independent State Legislature” theory have seized on one small detail in the post-Constitution Pinckney document, arguing that it shows the Framers (not just Pinckney) planned at the start of the Constitutional Convention (not two to four decades later) to give states unlimited power over federal elections.

Levy says:
there is no evidence that the framers of the Constitution intended to give legislatures such authority over federal elections. Nor is there any record this interpretation was accepted in the republic’s early years. In fact, history shows that the independent state legislature theory is a modern invention. . . .

It’s possible that the lawyers…who cited the version of the document in Farrand’s 1911 compendium, simply failed to read past the plan to the historian’s conclusion that it was a fake, and that they likewise failed to read Madison’s public takedown or his private letters expressing doubts, all of which were included by Farrand. Whether they meant to or not, they hung their argument on a fake document because it offered a glimmer of originalist evidence to back up their case.
Historians and legal scholars, including some on the political right, have filed briefs arguing against reliance on this document in particular and the theory being espoused in general.

The response has been legal tap-dancing:
the lawyers filed a new brief defending their use of the Pinckney plan. They argued that the plan was not technically “a fake” because it is “undisputed” that Pinckney wrote it, and allege that the generations of historians who discredited the document were hoodwinked by Madison’s “campaign to diminish the significance of [Pinckney’s] role at the convention.”
Justices on the Supreme Court today have been willing to deny photographic evidence and ignore decades of legal and historical precedent in order to reach the verdicts they want. In this case, a majority could adopt the “Independent State Legislature” theory without mentioning one problematic document. But if the final decisions do mention Pinckney, that will be yet more evidence that the “originalists” on the court aren’t interested in the original Constitution at all.