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, June 30, 2023

Meet the Washingtons in Cambridge, 1 July

On Saturday, 1 July, the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge will welcome George and Martha Washington, as portrayed by experienced living-history actors John Koopman and Sandy Spector.

Back in 1775, Gen. Washington arrived in Cambridge on 2 July, taking command from Gen. Artemas Ward.

The new commander moved into the John Vassall mansion on what is now Brattle Street a couple of weeks later, around 15 July. (The best indicator of the move is a payment in the headquarters account book for cleaning the house after troops had been living inside.)

At that time Gen. Washington expected that his wife wouldn’t join him, not because he didn’t want to see Martha but because he hoped the crisis would be over by winter.

When George first wrote home about his decision to become commander-in-chief, he said: “I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preservd, & been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return safe to you in the fall.”

George imagined that Martha would want to live somewhere besides Mount Vernon when he was away:
If it should be your desire to remove into Alexandria (as you once mentioned upon an occasion of this sort) I am quite pleased that you should put it in practice, & Lund Washington may be directed, by you, to build a Kitchen and other Houses there proper for your reception—if on the other hand you should rather Incline to spend good part of your time among your Friends below, I wish you to do so—In short, my earnest, & ardent desire is, that you would pursue any Plan that is most likely to produce content, and a tolerable degree of Tranquility as it must add greatly to my uneasy feelings to hear that you are dissatisfied, and complaining at what I really could not avoid.
As you can see, he left the decision of where to live in Virginia up to her.

Five days later, George wrote another short note, still projecting a short stay: “in full confidence of a happy meeting with you sometime in the Fall.”

By October, the general had realized that the siege of Boston was going to extend into the next year, and he couldn’t leave. George therefore wrote to Martha about joining him in Cambridge. Since almost all of their correspondence was destroyed, we don’t know what they told each other directly and how they made decisions—whether, for example, Martha asked for an invitation to join George before George asked her to join him. But she made that journey in the fall, arriving on 11 December and setting a pattern for every winter of the war.

The reenacted Washingtons’ event at Washington’s Headquarters in Cambridge will take place from noon to 4:00 P.M. on Saturday. It also includes special tours and family activities. And it’s free to all.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

When Phillis Met Benjamin

On 7 July 1773, nearly two hundred fifty years ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his relative Jonathan Williams, Sr., in Boston:
Upon your Recommendation I went to see the black Poetess and offer’d her any Services I could do her. Before I left the House, I understood her Master was there and had sent her to me but did not come into the Room himself, and I thought was not pleased with the Visit. I should perhaps have enquired first for him; but I had heard nothing of him. And I have heard nothing since of her.
The “black Poetess” was, of course, Phillis Wheatley, in London to finalize arrangements for the publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Franklin Papers editors suggest that Nathaniel Wheatley kept away from the discussion because of the previous year’s Somerset v. Stewart case. Williams later apologized for having set up the meeting if the young man was going to behave that way. I think there could be any number of other reasons for his absence; we don’t have the Wheatleys’ side of this encounter.

Regardless of any awkwardness surrounding that event, Franklin’s letter shows that he and Wheatley did meet face to face. He came away with no reason to doubt what Bostonians reported about her intelligence and poetic skill.

Debbie Weiss wrote a play inspired by that event, “A Revolutionary Encounter in London.” It was an online presentation through the Massachusetts Historical Society a couple of years ago during the plague, and there are other videos online as well.

On Saturday, 1 July, the Lexington Historical Society will host a staged reading of “A Revolutionary Encounter in London,” directed by Weiss with Cathryn Phillipe portraying Phillis Wheatley and Josiah George as Benjamin Franklin. That presentation will start at 6:30 P.M. in the Lexington Depot. Tickets are $25, available here. Society members get a discount on tickets and can stay to talk with the actors and playwright-director over tea and desserts.

Weiss, Philippe, and George will next bring the show to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum on Thursday, 6 July, at 7:00 P.M. I think seats are included in the museum admission for that day.

Wheatley stayed in London for only about six weeks. Learning that Nathaniel’s mother Susannah Wheatley was ill, she left before her book was printed. The publisher shipped copies to Boston later in the year for her to sell.

Unfortunately, those books traveled on the Dartmouth, which also carried the first consignment of East India Company tea to reach Boston. Hence the Tea Party connection.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Joan Donovan on Political Memes at Old South, 29 June

On Thursday, 29 June, Revolutionary Spaces’ Old South Meeting House will host a conversation with Dr. Joan Donovan on “Benjamin Franklin, Rattlesnakes, and Pepe the Frog.”

This discussion will look at memes in American politics from the Founding Era to today. The event description says:
Memes—images that spread quickly through large groups—are a central part of internet culture. Not only have they have been instrumental in the rise of social media, they also have had a major influence on American political discourse.

According to leading media expert Dr. Joan Donovan, memes mirror the behavior of flags and broadsides of the American Revolution, including Benjamin Franklin’s ubiquitous Join or Die engraving and the iconic Gadsden Flag.
I’m intrigued because I’ve written about the quasi-scientific roots of American snakes as political symbols and spoken about Stamp Act protests as memes in the age of weekly newspapers.

Dr. Donovan is a public scholar specializing in media manipulation, political movements, critical internet studies, and online extremism. She is the Research Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and directs the Technology and Social Change project, exploring how media manipulation helps to control public conversation, derail democracy, and disrupt society. Donovan is the co-author of Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America with tech journalist Emily Dreyfuss and cultural ethnographer Brian Friedberg.

Donovan will be in conversation with Matthew Wilding, Director of Interpretation & Education at Revolutionary Spaces and curator of the upcoming exhibit “Impassioned Destruction: Politics, Vandalism & The Boston Tea Party” at the Old State House.

This event will start at 7:00 P.M., with doors opening thirty minutes earlier. There will be light snacks and refreshments. Register in advance for free.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Mystery of “Mr. Swift from the North”

I’ve been analyzing the publication of the story from Samuel Swift’s descendants that he tried to instigate an uprising against British troops inside besieged Boston before dying in the summer of 1775.

In the early twentieth century American historians did a lot of debunking. The Colonial Revival period had brought a lot of dramatic stories and traditions into print. Taking a more evidence-based approach, the next generations of authors lopped away at myths and hagiography.

The dramatic story of Samuel Swift’s martyrdom—coming from his family, unsupported by other evidence, incredible in its details—was the sort of lore that debunking authors tried to clear out of reliable histories.

But Samuel Swift’s reputation as a strong Patriot survived into the mid-1900s.

That’s because of a conjunction of sources. First, back on 7 Nov 1765 the Boston News-Letter reported about that year’s tightly controlled 5th of November celebration:
The Leaders, Mr. McIntosh from the South, and Mr. Swift from the North, appeared in Military Habits, with small Canes resting on their Left Arms…
(Pierre Eugène du Simitière’s sketch of leaders of the 1767 Pope Night parades, with canes and speaking trumpets, appears above.)

In the nineteenth century the authors Caleb Snow, Samuel A. Drake, and Francis S. Drake reprinted or paraphrased that 1765 news story, including the name “Swift.”

In 1891, the editors of the Jeremy Belknap Papers from the Massachusetts Historical Society identified Samuel Swift as “one of the Committee of Safety, and a prominent man at the North End.”

The “Committee of Safety” reference probably derives from a line in Samuel Swift’s 2 Oct 1774 letter to John Adams: “The Committee of Safety by me pay their best Regards to you.” But there was no formal “committee of safety” at the time. The town of Boston hadn’t named Swift to its committee of correspondence. He wouldn’t even be on the larger committee named on 7 December to enforce the Continental Congress’s Association boycott. It appears Swift was passing on regards from other men.

As for being “a prominent man at the North End,” Swift wasn’t a member of the North End Caucus. He didn’t hold high political office or militia rank. He was a justice of the peace from 1741 to 1760, but wasn’t reappointed under George III. As an attorney, Swift wasn’t a big employer, like shipyard owner John Ruddock.

I suspect the mention of “Mr. Swift from the North” in the 1765 newspapers caused those Belknap editors to identify that leader of the North End gang as Samuel Swift, thus making him “a prominent man” in that neighborhood.

Certainly that’s where George P. Anderson stood when he presented his ground-breaking paper “Ebenezer Mackintosh: Stamp Act Rioter and Patriot” to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts in 1924:
The leaders—Mackintosh of the South End and Samuel Swift of the North End—appeared in military habits, with small canes resting on their left arms, having music in front and at flank.
For decades after that, historians identified Samuel Swift as the leader of the North End gang. After all, well respected scholarly sources said so. 

But that never made sense. The Pope Night gangs were composed of young men and older boys from the working classes. Samuel Swift, a genteel fifty-year-old lawyer in 1765, was the sort of man they begged money from, not the sort to lead their raucous street processions.

In The Boston Massacre (1970), Hiller B. Zobel noted that Samuel Swift didn’t even live in the North End. The Thwing database shows he owned a house on Pleasant Street in the South End.

But among the people indicted for rioting after the 1764 Pope Night disturbances, Zobel reported, was a teen-aged shipwright named Henry Swift. Following his lead, many authors since 1970 have identified Henry Swift as the North End captain.

References to Samuel Swift as a politically active North End leader survive, however, including in the footnotes of older volumes digitized at Founders Online. He was an interesting character, but he wasn’t a militant in either 1765 or 1775.

Monday, June 26, 2023

“This scheme was revealed to General Gage”

Yesterday I analyzed the untenable claim that John Adams told descendants of Samuel Swift how the man had tried to spark an uprising inside besieged Boston.

So let’s set aside the claim that Adams was the source of this claim. How does the story itself stand up on its own?

The version published in The Memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift (1890) stated:
the zeal and resolution of Samuel Swift…caused many Bostonians to secrete their arms when Gov. [Thomas] Gage offered the town freedom if arms were brought in to the arsenal; and that Mr. Swift presided at a freemason’s meeting where it was covertly agreed to use the arms concealed, and, in addition, pitchforks and axes, if need be, to assail the soldiery on the common; which scheme was betrayed to Gage, causing the imprisonment of Swift and others.
That wording has led some authors to state that Swift died in jail. In fact, we have jailhouse diaries from John Leach and Peter Edes covering the period when he died, and they don’t mention the prominent lawyer being locked up with them.

Another version of the story, published in Teele’s History of Milton (1887) and reprinted in Roberts’s history of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, said:
This scheme was revealed to General Gage, and Mr. Swift was arrested, he was permitted to visit his family, then at Newton, upon his parole to return at a given time. At the appointed time he returned, against the remonstrance of his friends, and so high an opinion of his character was entertained by General Gage that he was permitted to occupy his own house under surveillance. From disease induced by confinement, he died a prisoner in his own house…
Again, the military authorities were locking up people like Leach, Edes, and James Lovell for lesser threats, but this tale asks us to believe that not only did they not lock up Swift, they let him leave town.

And then Swift supposedly went back into Boston. Because, according to this lore, he was willing to lead an attack on soldiers with pitchforks and axes, but not to break his promise to Gen. Gage.

Even before that, the story is hard to believe. Swift was sixty years old, had no military experience, and had never been a militant political activist. It’s true he told Adams in October 1774, “I am no Swordsman but with my Gun or flail I fear no man…,” so it’s conceivable that he made similar boasts when the townspeople discussed turning over their weapons in late April 1775. But few Bostonians would have chosen Samuel Swift to lead an armed revolt.

No contemporaneous source mentions such an uprising. Gage, John Burgoyne, Peter Oliver, and other royal appointees wrote a lot about threats from Patriots, but none of them complained about Swift and an attack with pitchforks and axes. Samuel Swift was popular in Boston’s legal and mercantile circles, and no other American credited him with proposing an assault on the troops.

From early on, Swift’s widow and descendants perceived him to be a victim of Gen. Gage. Furthermore, they complained that Swift’s death led to the disappearance of the family wealth. (Though they also blamed “the unfaithfulness of his agent” for that.) They believed the fallout of his death meant his eldest son, fifteen-year-old Francis Swift, couldn’t follow his path to Harvard College. (In fact, by 1768 Foster had dropped out of the college-prep Latin School and was attending a Writing School; he went on to train in medicine under Dr. Joseph Gardner and had a long professional career.)

We don’t know why Samuel Swift didn’t receive a pass to leave Boston while his wife and children went out to Springfield. We don’t know what health issues contributed to his death on 30 Aug 1775. But the Swift family perceived great significance in how Samuel Swift died, and, at least in later generations, they wanted it to be significant for the nation as well.

TOMORROW: A debunking derailed.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Three Ways to Misquote John Adams

There are a number of problems with the claims in The Memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift (1890), quoted back here, about the last months of the general’s grandfather, Samuel Swift.

That book told a dramatic story of Swift starting to organize an uprising against the British troops inside besieged Boston, only to be punished by being kept from his family and dying of illness as a result. It also credited that story to John Adams, a highly respected source who definitely knew Swift.

According to the section of that book in Joseph G. Swift’s own voice, Adams told him on 8 Oct 1817 about his grandfather: “I have written to Mr. [William] Wirt my opinion of the merits of that Whig, who fell a martyr to the fury of [Thomas] Gage.”

Adams’s first letter to Wirt did indeed mention Samuel Swift. However, Adams didn’t write that letter until 5 Jan 1818, three months after J. G. Swift’s well documented visit to Quincy.

Indeed, according to this letter from Thomas Cooper to Thomas Jefferson, as of 30 September Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry was still in press; “about 100 pages are printed.” That was one week before Swift was in Quincy, leaving not enough time for Adams to get that book, read it, and resolve to write to the author.

J. G. Swift’s memory of what Adams said (or genealogist Harrison Ellery’s rendition of that memory) must therefore have been shaped by later knowledge of Adams’s letter, which was published in 1819.

As quoted back here, the general wrote to Adams in 1824, asking for any details about his grandfather. That shows he hadn’t heard the story of the uprising by then. But there’s no evidence that Adams ever wrote back, much less sent the dramatic story printed in that family memoir. At the time Adams was busy telling stories about heroic Boston lawyers in the Revolution, yet none of his other letters includes this story about Swift, either.

The Memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift was sloppy about citing Adams in other ways. In the genealogical section Ellery wrote that Adams called Samuel Swift “a martyr to freedom’s cause.” But the J. G. Swift memoir says Adams actually said “martyr to the fury of Gage.” The “martyr to freedom’s cause” phrase came from A. K. Teele’s History of Milton. (Neither phrase appears in the surviving Adams Papers.)

Not that Teele’s book was on more solid ground. It followed James M. Robbins’s 1862 address on the history of Milton by quoting Adams this way: “Among the illustrious men who were agents in the Revolution must be remembered the name of Samuel Swift.”

In fact, Adams’s 1818 letter to Wirt said [emphases added]:
And in imitation of your example I would introduce Portraits of a long Catalogue of illustrious Men, who were Agents in the Revolution

Jeremiah Gridley the Father of the Bar in Boston and the Preceptor of Prat Otis Thatcher Cushing and many others; Benjamin Prat Chief Justice of New York James Otis of Boston Oxenbridge Thatcher Jonathan Sewal Attorney General and Judge of Admiralty Samuel Quincy Solicitor General, Daniel Leonard, Josiah Quincy Richard Dana and Francis Dana his Son, Minister to Russia and afterwards Chief Justice, Jonathan Mayhew D.D. Samuel Cooper D.D. James Warren and Joseph Warren, John Winthrop Professor at Harvard Colledge, And Member of Counsal, Samuel Dexter the Father John Worthington of Springfield Joseph Hawley of Northampton, Governors Huchenson Hancock Bowdoin Adams Sullivan and Gerry Lieutenant Governor Oliver Chief Justice Oliver, Judge Edmund Trowbridge Judge William Cushing, and Timothy Ruggles ought not to be omitted. The Military Characters Ward Lincoln Warren Knox Brooks & Heath &c must come in of Course. Not should Benjamin Kent, Samuel Swift or John Read be forgotten.
Adams named thirty-eight prominent men, some of them Loyalists and all but one occurring to him before he came to Samuel Swift.

[I’m not going to bother adding H.T.M.L. links for all those guys.]

TOMORROW: Examining the legend itself.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

“He will be in Danger of a Duplicity of Character”

On 24 June 1773, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport received two visitors from Cambridge. He wrote in his diary:
Visited me Rev. Mr. Samuel Locke President of Harvard College, and Mr. [John] Marsh a Tutor. Had much Conversation together on a Variety of Things both in Politics and Literature. The President is a Gentleman of fine Understanding, clear distinguishing Mind, rather adapted for active gubernatorial Life, than for the deep Researches of Literature. He keeps a good Lookout and will pass serenely through Life. He will be in Danger of a Duplicity of Character for he is ever adjusting himself to everybody, that it is somewhat difficult to find his real Judgment on some Points. Yet he is open and vigorous against the New Divinity.

In politics he will never oppose the Governor nor Crown Interest, and will rather lean on that side the Balla[nce] and against the patriots; but he can talk strong for Patriotism. I believe he likes neither at heart; and designs to trouble himself about neither, further than as either affects the Interest of College—in which Case he will secure both parties if possible, else that which will be most beneficial. He will make no stand in politics either for or against the Liberty of his Country, and will rather divert himself with the Folly of those who are most ventersome and enterprizing on both sides.

If America should become an independent Empire, he would be for a pretty firm Government which the people could not easily overthrow. His own Dominion would make a State happy. In his hands a Tyranny would be good Government. Was Pres’t Locke at the Head of Government either in a Tyranny or Republic, his Government would be administered with Firmness, Justice, Mildness. It would be so good that the most popular Republic would never call him to an account; it would be so good that the subjects of an absolute Monarchy would forget their Chains and think themselves in the fullest possession of true Liberty.

Under the Idea and Purpose of governing well, I believe his Judgment would adopt a Theory of high and Absolute Government. But was he in any other part of the world he would forget Theory and adapt his practice to the Exigencies and Usages of Places. Neither would he suffer himself to be harrassed with laboring the surreptitious Introduction of a Theory different and very opposite to that which took place where he was called to act. He will aim at the Glory of a really useful Man. He will have but little Leisure for Reading and Contemplation. But will profit by Conversation with the Literati of every Branch of Erudition. He has a liberal Understanding, a penetrating Discernment & is capable of looking into and judging upon everything.

He has great Affection for his Pupils, and feels the Father the tender Parent towards all of them. He tells me he has about 180 Undergraduates.

He is a man in almost all respects of an excellent Character. He is in the midst of Life or rather young, I believe about aet. [i.e., age] 38, he is a good classical scholar in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Chaldee—he made an Oration in Chaldee at the first public Commencement after his Election to the Presidency, which I heard; he is excellent in Philosophy and academical Literature—and in all Branches of Knowledge is far superior to any President of any of the American Colleges, unless Dr. [John] Witherspoon of Nassau Hall should excede him in Theology.

He is one of those Minds which will enlarge to a great Size, will grow and magnify through Life. His Morals are excellent; Piety and a holy Life set on him with a good Grace. I doubt not he is determined to live well, to act his part with Dignity, to die well, and obtain the Crown of immortal Glory. He is a firm Friend to Revelation.
Five years later, Stiles himself became president of a college, Yale. Locke had died earlier in 1778 at the age of forty-five. He had already left Harvard, as I’ll describe later this year.

Friday, June 23, 2023

“It was covertly agreed to use their concealed arms”

As I quoted yesterday, Ann Swift was convinced that her husband, Samuel Swift, was essentially “murdered” by royal authorities when they wouldn’t let him leave besieged Boston in the summer of 1775.

The Swifts’ grandson Joseph Gardner Swift inherited that idea, telling John Adams in 1824 that Samuel Swift “died in 1775 a Prisoner & Martyr under the Tyrrany of [Gen. Thomas] Gage.”

Over the course of the nineteenth century, that family tradition got into print and became more detailed and dramatic.

When Samuel and Ann Swift’s son, Dr. Foster Swift, died in 1835, the Army and Navy Chronicle’s obituary stated that the attorney had been “a distinguished Whig and martyr to the cause of Freedom while a prisoner in Boston, anno 1775.”

In the 1880s Harrison Ellery, who had married into the Swift family, assembled a genealogy that incorporated the family lore.

Ellery loaned his page proofs to local historian Albert Kendall Teele, so the first public version of the full tale of Samuel Swift, zealous Patriot, appeared in Teele’s History of Milton in 1887:
When General Gage offered the freedom of the town to Bostonians who would deposit their arms in the British Arsenal, Mr. Swift opposed the movement. He presided at a meeting where it was covertly agreed to use their concealed arms, also pitchforks and axes, to assail the soldiers on Boston Common.

This scheme was revealed to General Gage, and Mr. Swift was arrested, he was permitted to visit his family, then at Newton, upon his parole to return at a given time. At the appointed time he returned, against the remonstrance of his friends, and so high an opinion of his character was entertained by General Gage that he was permitted to occupy his own house under surveillance.

From disease induced by confinement, he died a prisoner in his own house, a martyr to freedom’s cause, Aug. 31, 1775. He was interred in his tomb, which had formerly belonged to the father of his first wife, Samuel Tyler, Esq.
Oliver Ayer Roberts relied on that account in his collection of biographies of members of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. It contained some clear errors, such as the date of Samuel Swift’s death and the surname of his first wife.

Ellery published his genealogy in 1890 as part of The Memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift. In the introduction to that book Ellery wrote of seeing Joseph G. Swift’s “journal,” but the chapters that follow are a retrospective narrative in the general’s voice. I can’t tell if Gen. Swift actually wrote out a memoir and Ellery called it a journal, or if Ellery himself adapted a real journal into narrative form. Either way, that’s the source on Gen. Swift’s one meeting with John Adams that I quoted back here.

The genealogical section of that volume offered Ellery’s rendering of the Samuel Swift legend:
President John Adams told his distinguished grandson, General Swift, while on a visit to his seat in Quincy in 1817 with President [James] Monroe, that Samuel Swift was a good man and a generous lawyer, and was called the widows’ friend; that he was a firm Whig whose memory the State ought to perpetuate. The same sentiments Mr. Adams expressed in a letter to William Wirt, of Virginia.

Mr. Adams also said it was owing to the zeal and resolution of Samuel Swift that caused many Bostonians to secrete their arms when Gov. Gage offered the town freedom if arms were brought in to the arsenal; and that Mr. Swift presided at a freemason’s meeting where it was covertly agreed to use the arms concealed, and, in addition, pitchforks and axes, if need be, to assail the soldiery on the common; which scheme was betrayed to Gage, causing the imprisonment of Swift and others.

This imprisonment brought on disease from which he never recovered, and he died August 30, 1775, aged 60 years, as President Adams said, “a martyr to freedom’s cause.” His remains were interred in the tomb in the stone chapel ground that had belonged to Samuel Tylly, Esq., the father of his first wife.
It’s certainly a dramatic picture, sixty-year-old lawyer Samuel Swift organizing an uprising against the British troops using guns, pitchforks, and axes. And the family’s stated source for that story was none other than President John Adams.

COMING UP: What’s wrong with this picture.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

“Do what you can to forward Mr. Swift to me”

Contemporaneous sources about Samuel Swift’s last months are thin.

Swift turned sixty years old on 9 June 1775. His first wife, the former Eliphal Tyley or Tilley (1713–1757), had borne three daughters in the 1740s.

One of those daughters, Sarah, had gone to live with her husband Amos Putnam in Sutton. The other two, Ann and Eliphal, were still unmarried in 1770, but I can’t trace them further.

In October 1757 Swift had married for a second time, to Ann Foster (1729–1788). That couple had six children between 1758 and 1773, and those children were with their parents in Boston when the war began.

The Swifts were still in the besieged town two months later, during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband on 25 June 1775:
As to Boston, there are many persons yet there who would be glad to get out if they could. Mr. [Thomas] Boylstone and Mr. [John] Gill the printer with his family are held upon the black list tis said. Tis certain they watch them so narrowly that they cannot escape, nor your Brother Swift and family.
Around that time, however, Ann Swift managed to get a pass for herself and her children from a British army officer named Handfield—probably Capt. William Handfield of the 94th Regiment, who was attached to the quartermaster’s department in June.

By the end of that month, Ann Swift and her family were in Springfield. She wrote in her diary, as printed in The Memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift:
Here I am in the woods, Boston being so surrounded by armies that we could not enjoy our home: no school for the children, and the town forsaken by the ministers—the pillars of the land.
In the following weeks she wrote to that army officer for another favor:
Capt. Handfield, S[i]r,

Your kindness in undertaking to get a pass for me emboldens me to ask the like favor for my dear husband whom I hear is in a very weak state of health. The anxiety of my mind is great about him. A word from you would have more weight than all the arguments that he could make use of.

Could I come to him, this favor I would not ask. O, S[i]r I trust in your goodness that you will do what you can to forward Mr. Swift to me and in doing so you will greatly oblige
Your distressed friend,

Should be glad if he would bring out two trunks which there is clothing in that I want very much for myself and children.
Evidently the royal authorities didn’t provide a second pass. Samuel Swift remained inside Boston. Margaret Draper’s Boston News-Letter reported that he died on 30 August.

On 4 September, Mercy Warren reported to John Adams in a bald postscript: “Swift of Boston is Really Dead.”

Ann Swift put in her diary this note about that 30 August date:
Departed this life, in the 61st year of his age, my dear husband, Samuel Swift. He died in Boston, or in other words, murdered there. He was not allowed to come to see me and live with his wife and children in the country. There he gave up the ghost—his heart was broken; the cruel treatment he met with in being a friend to his country was more than he could bear, with six fatherless children (in the woods) and all my substance in Boston.
Thus began the family tradition of blaming Gen. Thomas Gage for Swift’s death—not through violence but by not letting him leave Boston when ill to rejoin his family.

Swift’s body was placed in a tomb belonging to his first wife’s family in the burying-ground beside King’s Chapel, shown above.

TOMORROW: The family legend.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

“My opinion of the merits of that Whig”

In 1817, Gen. Joseph G. Swift (1783–1865), the U.S. Army’s chief of engineers, accompanied the new President, James Monroe, on a tour of fortifications and battlefields in the northern states.

On 8 July, Monroe and his company stopped in Quincy to meet former President John Adams (who was also the father of Monroe’s secretary of state).

Gen. Swift wrote in his memoir:
Mr. Adams at first mistook me for the son of his brother lawyer, Samuel Swift, and poured out his commendation, saying: “I have written to Mr. [William] Wirt my opinion of the merits of that Whig, who fell a martyr to the fury of [Thomas] Gage.”

I replied: “It was my grandfather, and you gave me my cadet’s warrant eighteen years ago,” upon which he was pleased to subjoin some civil commendation. The conversation naturally attracted the attention of the whole dinner party; and it was a scene of deep interest to hear the old man scan the days of his life in Congress, when he nominated Washington, etc.
In fact, Thomas Johnson of Maryland was the Continental Congress delegate who had nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief. Adams told a great story about making that nomination, but the Congress’s records contradict it.

As for the mention of William Wirt, in this period Adams was on a campaign to undercut Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry, which he felt gave too much credit for the Revolution to that legislator and Virginians as a whole. (Awkwardly enough, Wirt was President Monroe’s attorney general.) The former President was writing long letters to other authors laying out his version of history and encouraging William Tudor, Jr., son of his former law clerk, to write a biography of James Otis, Jr.

Seven years later, having retired from the army to become a civil engineer, Swift wrote back to the former President about his family:
When I had the honour to be at your residence in 1817 (while accompanying President Monroe) I was gratified by some account which you were pleased to give me, of my Grand Father Samuel Swift, formerly a Lawyer of Boston, whom you designated as a friend of yours & as the “Widows friend”—& whose name you had before mentioned, in some Printed Letters, as a distinguished Whig:—It is natural &, with just views, it is commendable in man to reflect with interest upon the conduct & character of his progenitor.—

I have heard that my G. Father was a zealous & a effective Whig—that he died in 1775 a Prisoner & Martyr under the Tyrrany of Gage,—that he was foremost & useful in Public Meetings in urging his fellow Citizens to resist oppression & especially to resist Gages call to the Bostonians to deliver up their Arms:—The premature death of their G Father led to the dilapidation & final loss of his Property while Boston was a Garrison,—This then Young family driven to various parts of this Country & made Poor, were dispersed, & thus we know little of this G. Father except from tradition.—

If you will at a leisure moment cause an amanuensis to note to me any information of the Character & Conduct of Saml. Swift & especially as touching the great struggle for Independence, it will be received as a distinguished favour,—One of my objects in taking this liberty is to be Enabled to tell my Six Sons what share their progenitor may have had in contributing to bring about that War which made a nation Free & Happy!—
If Adams wrote back over the next two years before his death, that letter doesn’t survive. But Swift’s letter certainly lays out the image of his grandfather that he wanted to confirm.

TOMORROW: Swift family sources.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Samuel Swift, Established Lawyer

Samuel Swift was a member of colonial Boston’s legal establishment—son of a Milton militia colonel and town representative (gravestone shown here), graduate of Harvard College, trained in the law by Jeremy Gridley.

Swift was a member of the St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons. John Adams recorded dining with him several times. John Rowe listed him as socializing with “the Possee,” a merchants’ club. 

Swift also maintained friendly relations with Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, who had an estate in Milton. In fact, two weeks after the Tea Party, Swift sent the governor a note (now lost) which prompted this reply:
I am obliged to you for the favorable opinion you express, in your letter of the 30 Dec, of my general disposition, and I think you will be satisfied of the propriety of my conduct in the particular instance you refer to, when I put you in mind that I have taken a solemn oath, as Governor, to do every thing in my power that the Acts of trade may be carried into execution. Now to have granted a pass to a Vessel which I knew had not cleared at the Custom house would have been such a direct countenancing & encouraging the violation of the Acts of Trade that I believe you would have altered your opinion of me and seen me ever after in an unfavorable light. I am sure if I could have preserved the property that is destroyed, or could have complied with the general desire of the people consistent with the duty which my station requires I would most readily have done it.
Reading backward, it appears Swift wrote that he generally admired Hutchinson’s adherence to the law, but that he should have been more flexible in this case. By that time, the most fervent Boston politicians had decided Hutchinson was two-faced and corrupt, so they wouldn’t have sent any praise.

Swift’s name appears on many Boston town committees over the years, but those rarely involved radical political action. He was in the group designated to invite James Lovell to deliver an oration commemorating the Massacre in April 1771, and the group tasked with responding to the remarks in the “Hutchinson Letters” in 1773. On those committees Swift’s role was to add establishment heft, not to plan tough action.

Swift’s letters to John Adams show that he grew more radical in the last months before the war. On 20 Oct 1774 he even said, “I am no Swordsman but with my Gun or flail I fear no man more especially my Cause being Good as I think other wise I would not engage.” Still, Swift wrote more in those letters about the wording of pamphlets and about food than about military preparations.

On 13 Mar 1775, Swift also told Adams, “I am in a Measure Confin’d,” hinting at some infirmity. He was fifty-nine years old. Nonetheless, on 3 April when Boston had a town meeting and Samuel Adams was busy at Concord, the inhabitants chose Swift to be their “Moderator of this Meeting Pro Tempore.”

Two weeks later, the province was at war. Two months after that, Adams complained about not having received a letter from Swift since he had departed for Philadelphia.

On 30 August, Samuel Swift died inside besieged Boston.

In his last decades, John Adams, now a former President, wrote letters listing Swift among the Boston lawyers who had advocated resistance to the Crown’s new laws. Adams was pushing a version of the Revolution which emphasized Massachusetts moving before Virginia, the legal profession leading the people instead of being pulled along, and, incidentally, himself near the center of events.

Adams’s telling did include Swift, but that man’s name appeared at the end of a long list of other men. In another letter, Adams recalled that when he said the bar shouldn’t provide a polite farewell address to Hutchinson at the end of his time as governor, “Samuel Swift Esquire, as if appalled and astonished, Sat mute.” I’m not saying any of Adams’s memories was fully reliable, but they were definitely mixed.

TOMORROW: A descendant seeking answers.

Monday, June 19, 2023

“I should not have chose this town for an Asylum”

On 17 June 1775, as I quoted yesterday, John Adams complained that five friends from Massachusetts hadn’t sent him any letters with news about the province since he’d left for the Second Continental Congress.

I decided to look into what those men did in the previous two months.

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper had fled from Boston on 9 April, halfway through Sunday services, wary that Gen. Thomas Gage might order his arrest. He settled in with Samuel P. Savage in Weston. By the end of the month Cooper had his wife, daughter, and clothing with him, but not his library or all his letters.

In early May, Cooper arranged to stand in as the minister in Groton. Or rather, since that town was far away and he liked being near the seat of Patriot power, he made deals with other ministers to go out and preach in Groton while he preached in their churches close by. For a while, at least, he could coast on his celebrity as Boston’s most silver-tongued minister and recycle his old sermons.

Prof. John Winthrop of Harvard College lived in Cambridge. As the king’s troops marched through town on 18–19 April, he and his wife Hannah fled for safety, first to the Fresh Pond area, then further the next day, fearing the redcoats would return.

Later Hannah Winthrop wrote to her friend Mercy Warren:
Thus with precipitancy were we driven to the town of Andover, following some of our acquaintance, five of us to be conveyd with one poor tired horse & Chaise. . . .

I should not have chose this town for an Asylum, being but 20 miles from Seaports where men of war & their Pirates are Stationed, but in being fixd here I see it is not in man to direct his steps. As you kindly enquire after our Situation, I must tell you it is Rural & romantically pleasing.
Back in Cambridge, militia companies arrived en masse, taking over the college buildings and larger mansions. Most of the townspeople left.

By mid-June, however, the Winthrops were back home, though only temporarily. The professor helped to pack up the Harvard College library and scientific equipment. College classes resumed in Concord in October, and the Winthrops settled there for the rest of the school year.

Adams’s list started with three lawyers, all from Boston. All also had ties of family or friendship to Loyalists, and that complicated their choices as the war broke out.

Benjamin Kent at some point got a pass out of Boston and, according to his profile in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, stayed with various friends in the countryside through the siege. Though he remained in the U.S. of A. through the war, in the mid-1780s he moved to Canada to spend his last years with his children.

William Tudor was just starting his legal career. He was also courting Delia Jarvis, a young lady from a Loyalist family. According to a family memoir, after the fighting started, Tudor tried to wrangle passes for himself, her, and her family from the Adm. Samuel Graves’s secretary, but that effort was fruitless.

On 12 May, Tudor “broke from Boston by the roundabout way of Point Sherly” in Chelsea (now Winthrop), leaving Delia and her family behind. He sought a position in the Patriot service. With John Adams championing him, Tudor became the Continental Army’s judge advocate general in the summer of 1775.

TOMORROW: The legend of Samuel Swift.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

“I have lamented excessively the Want of your Correspondence”

In his letter to Abigail Adams on 17 June 1775, which I started quoting yesterday, John Adams continued:
I have never been able to obtain from our Province, any regular and particular Intelligence since I left it. [Benjamin] Kent, [Samuel] Swift, [William] Tudor, Dr. [Samuel] Cooper, Dr. [John] Winthrop, and others wrote me often, last Fall—not a Line from them this Time.
Adams was referring to his time away at the First Continental Congress in late 1774, when he felt well informed.

Three days later, he wrote directly to Tudor:
I have lamented excessively the Want of your Correspondence ever since I have been here. Not a Line from Dr. Winthrop, Dr. Cooper, Mr. Kent, Swift, Tudor, from some or other of whom I was accustomed the last Fall, to receive Letters every Week. I know not the state, the Number, the Officers of the Army—the Condition of the poor People of Boston or any Thing else.
I decided to look into John Adams’s complaint, using the Adams Papers and Founders Online. He and his heirs were unusually conscientious about saving letters, so we’re at least very close to seeing all the correspondence he received.

To begin with, this chiding wasn’t fair to William Tudor (1750–1819, shown here later in life), who was Adams’s former law clerk. All the other men were senior to Adams, so he couldn’t nag them the same way.

Furthermore, back in the fall of 1774, those older gentlemen had actually sent Adams rather few letters. Tudor had sent more than all the other men combined. He’d also traveled to Philadelphia himself, carrying the only letter that Cooper wrote to Adams in that season.

The first two men Adams named were Benjamin Kent (1708–1788) and Samuel Swift (1715–1775), senior figures in the Boston bar. Indeed, Kent had founded the bar association and liked to preside over its get-togethers. Each man had written Adams one letter in the fall of 1774, and Swift had sent another to the whole Massachusetts delegation. Neither wrote Adams in spring 1775.

As I said above, young Tudor had brought Adams a letter from the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper (1725–1783) in October 1774. That minister didn’t send anything in the spring of 1775.

Finally, no 1774 letters to Adams survive from Prof. John Winthrop (1714–1779) of Harvard College. But four days after Adams’s initial complaint on 17 June 1775, Winthrop did send him one. Tudor wrote a few days later. Both men described what had happened on the same date when Adams complained—namely, the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Because while Adams was aching to know how the war was going, all the men he wanted to hear from were actually living in the war zone. They had other things on their minds besides correspondence.

TOMORROW: Getting out of Boston, and getting news from Boston.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

“The modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave…”

On 17 June 1775, John Adams wrote from Philadelphia to his wife, Abigail, with big news:
I can now inform you that the Congress have made Choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington Esqr., to be the General of the American Army, and that he is to repair as soon as possible to the Camp before Boston. This Appointment will have a great Effect, in cementing and securing the Union of these Colonies.

The Continent is really in earnest in defending the Country. They have voted Ten Companies of Rifle Men to be sent from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, to join the Army before Boston. These are an excellent Species of Light Infantry. They use a peculiar Kind of [gun?] [ca]ll’d a Rifle--it has circular or […] Grooves within the Barrell, and carries a Ball, with great Exactness to great Distances. They are the most accurate Marksmen in the World.

I begin to hope We shall not sit all Summer.
(They did.)

Adams then went back to his original topic, the new commander-in-chief:
I hope the People of our Province, will treat the General with all that Confidence and Affection, that Politeness and Respect, which is due to one of the most important Characters in the World. The Liberties of America, depend upon him, in a great Degree.
Adams wrote similar things to some of his political colleagues back in Massachusetts. A number of other New Englanders at the Continental Congress wrote to their contacts in the same fashion.

Indeed, the volume of letters from those delegates praising Washington in just a few days suggests that there was a concerted effort to prepare the army and people around Boston for the new generalissimo’s arrival. Massachusetts’s political leaders were in agreement that turning over command to a Virginian was a good trade-off for the other colonies’ support. But would the fighting men agree?

As it turned out, the quickest whiners in the army around Boston weren’t the enlisted men nor the commander Washington superseded, Artemas Ward, but the other generals. The Congress hadn’t figured out the seniority system those men used among themselves and ranked a couple below where they expected to be, leading to hurt feelings.

TOMORROW: Adams feeling forgotten.

Friday, June 16, 2023

“Slavery in Boston” Exhibit Now Open in Faneuil Hall

Today the city of Boston’s Department of Archaeology officially opens its new exhibit in Faneuil Hall, titled “Slavery in Boston.”

The display panels are already up, so I swung by to see them yesterday. The exhibit is in two parts, with an online component as well.

One part is on the ground floor of Faneuil Hall, among the shops selling books, souvenirs, and candy. This consists mostly of vertical panels set up around the building’s structural pillars. Some of the panels have basic introductory material, and some look at the legacy of race-based slavery in the area.

Most of the pillars, however, profile individual enslaved people, using all the sources available to show even a sense of their lives. That sees like a powerful way to communicate the experience of slavery on a one-to-one level to visitors who think they have just a minute or two to spare.

Those visitors who want to learn more (or use the restrooms) can go downstairs, where there’s a larger space and the rest of the exhibit. This area includes benches, a television monitor (now showing a video about abolitionist Lewis Hayden), and an activity table for kids.

Here the walls are lined with panels providing a more general introduction to the laws, economics, and demographics of slavery in Boston. Some of this repeats information upstairs, and sometimes it builds on that. One major message is that in the mid-1700s slavery affected all Bostonians’ daily lives and produced benefits for most free people, not just slaveowners.

At times, the presentation might even be too Boston-centered. One panel describes Charles Apthorp becoming the town’s richest merchant by trading with the Caribbean islands, Britain, and Africa. His business included buying and selling people. That panel could add that Apthorp’s ties to the slavery economy included marrying an heiress, Grizzell Eastwick, born on Jamaica.

A few of the “Slavery in Boston” panels display archeological finds related to households that included enslaved people, but most of the information behind this exhibit comes from documentary sources: legal and church records, newspapers, letters, and so on.

So why is this an Archaeology Department display? I suspect it’s because that’s the branch of local government most concerned with Boston’s past rather than its present and future.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

“The best Company in the World”

In October 1772, Baron le Despencer hosted Benjamin Franklin at his estate at West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire (shown here). At the time, Franklin’s London landlady was moving house, so he got to stay away from that “troublesome Affair.”

Franklin wrote to his son William, “I spent 16 Days at Lord Le Despencer’s most agreably, and return’d in good Health and Spirits.” To John Foxcroft, his fellow deputy postmaster general for the colonies, Franklin reported: “I spent a Fortnight lately at West Wyecomb, with our good Master Lord Le Despencer, and left him well.”

Although Franklin referred to the postmaster general as “our good Master,” the light-hearted tone of that reference seems very different from the way Foxcroft had written about “the Displeasure of our Honored Masters” when he worried his job was in jeopardy.

Either then or soon afterward, Despencer invited Franklin to work with him on editing down the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer. The baron wrote on his manuscript: “Doctor Franklyn is desired to add, alter, or diminish as he shall think proper anything herein contained. L[ord] L[e] D[espencer] is by no means tenacious.”

Early in the summer of 1773, the baron invited Franklin to visit his home again and accompany him to see Lord North installed as the new chancellor at Oxford. The two men stayed in adjoining chambers at Queen’s College. The American told his son, “Lord Le Despencer…is on all occasions very good to me, and seems of late very desirous of my Company.”

Franklin closed that letter by saying he would “allow my self no more Country Pleasure this Summer.” But in August he visited West Wycombe again—“quite a Paradise,” as he called the estate. And he was back again in late September.

By that time Franklin clearly returned the baron’s admiration, writing:
I am in this House as much at my Ease as if it was my own, and the Gardens are a Paradise. But a pleasanter Thing is the kind Countenance, the facetious and very Intelligent Conversation of mine Host, who having been for many Years engaged in publick Affairs, seen all Parts of Europe, and kept the best Company in the World is himself the best existing.
All those remarks show that by 1773 Franklin and Despencer had developed a real friendship; they were no longer just a noble supervisor and his colonial deputy.

That change is also evident in the way Franklin wrote to the baron. Yesterday I quoted a letter from 1770. By April 1774, Franklin started another letter “My dear Lord” instead of “My Lord,” and closed with “With unalterable Attachment” instead of “with the greatest Respect.” (In return, Despencer addressed his sole surviving letter to Franklin “Dear Doctor.”)

In early 1774 Lord North’s government stripped Franklin of his postal service appointment and income, but that didn’t end Despencer’s affection. The two men even attended a public event in London together.

After Franklin sailed for Pennsylvania, now at war with the British government, the baron told Foxcroft, “Whenever you write to Dr. Franklin assure him of my Sincere good will and Esteem. I fear much I shall not see him here so soon as he assured me I should.” Meanwhile, the doctor had sent his own friendly letter with good wishes for Despencer—and his mistress and their children.

That takes me back to the question I started this month with: What evidence is there linking Franklin with the “Monks of Medmenham Abbey” club that Baron le Despencer had started in the 1750s when he was Sir Francis Dashwood, baronet?

As I view the surviving documentary record, there are no recorded links between Franklin and Dashwood in the 1750s and early 1760s, when that club was active. The baron became the American’s superior in the postal service in 1767, but the two men remained on formal terms until 1770. I can’t see Dashwood/Despencer inviting Franklin into his secret activities during those years.

By 1773, however, that situation had changed. Franklin and Despencer admired each other, enjoyed each other’s company, exchanged potentially sensitive ideas about imperial politics and religion, and remained friends despite being separated by politics and war until the baron died in 1781.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

“A grateful Sense of your Lordship’s Good-will”

Only a few pieces of correspondence between Baron le Despencer and Benjamin Franklin survive in the Franklin Papers, but they show a developing relationship between the lord appointed to be a postmaster general and one of his deputies for North America.

By June 1770, Franklin could report on details of the baron’s home remodeling: “I am told by Lord Despencer, who has covered a long Piazza or Gallery with Copper, that the Expence is charged in this Account too high; for his cost but 1/10 per foot, all Charges included.”

The first surviving direct letter between the men dates from the next month. In that document Franklin both responded to a political memo from Despencer (now lost) and argued that he should keep his job.

At that time, Franklin was representing the refractory legislatures of multiple North American colonies before Parliament, so he was a voice of opposition to the Townshend Acts. (That after telling London in 1766 and 1767 that Americans would accept such tariffs as an “external tax.”)

On 18 March, Franklin had written to Charles Thomson, encouraging American merchants to keep up their non-importation agreements against the Townshend duties even though Lord North’s government was moving to repeal all but the tax on tea. Critics started to say that an official receiving a salary from the Crown shouldn’t behave that way.

It looked like time for Franklin to shore up support from Despencer, one of his two bosses. On 26 July he wrote with somewhat stiff, genteel formality:
My Lord,

I heartily wish your Lordship would urge the Plan of Reconciliation between the two Countries, which you did me the Honour to mention to me this Morning. I am persuaded that so far as the Consent of America is requisite, it must succeed. I am sure I should do everything in my Power there to promote it. . . .

I have Enemies, as every public Man always has. They would be glad to see me depriv’d of my Office; and there are others who would like to have it. I do not pretend to slight it. Three Hundred Pounds less would make a very serious Difference in my annual Income. But as I rose to that Office gradually thro’ a long Service of now almost Forty Years, have by my Industry and Management greatly improv’d it, and have ever acted in it with Fidelity to the Satisfaction of all my Superiors, I hope my political Opinions, or my Dislike of the late Measures with America (which I own I think very injudicious) exprest in my Letters to that Country; or the Advice I gave to adhere to their Resolutions till the whole Act was repealed, without extending their Demands any farther, will not be thought a good Reason for turning me out.

I shall, however, always retain a grateful Sense of your Lordship’s Good-will and many Civilities towards me, and remain as ever, with the greatest Respect, Your Lordship’s most obedient and most humble Servant
Franklin’s letter combined arguments for fairness and the greater good with some personal flattery—as the British patronage system of the time encouraged.

I don’t see any similar letters from Franklin to the other postmaster general at this time, the Earl of Sandwich. In fact, I don’t see any letters from Franklin to Sandwich at all, nor from Franklin to the previous office-holder, the Earl of Hillsborough.

That might hint that Franklin saw Despencer as his main protector within the British bureaucracy. At the same time, this letter doesn’t suggest a relationship closer than colleagues in government, one man clearly superior to the other.

Franklin did keep his postal service job. In a letter to his sister, Jane Mecom, he stated, “I had some Friends…who unrequested by me advis’d the” government to keep him on; “my Enemies were forc’d to content themselves with abusing me plentifully in the Newspapers, and endeavouring to provoke me to resign.” Was Despencer one of those friends? If so, was Franklin’s letter to the baron truly not a request to stay on? In any event, it worked.

TOMORROW: Warming up.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

“The Displeasure of our Honoured Masters”

Sir Francis Dashwood, baronet, served as chancellor of the exchequer in the government of the Earl of Bute. That went poorly for both of them, and Dashwood’s tenure lasted less than a year.

After leaving government, Dashwood made his case for inheriting the Despencer barony, the oldest in Britain not held by a peer with a higher title. That peerage gave him a guaranteed seat in the House of Lords.

Toward the end of 1766 the new Baron le Despencer was appointed one of the two postmasters general of the British Empire. This was a sinecure granted to various aristocrats, who in British society of the time usually failed upward.

In that year the other postmaster general was the Earl of Hillsborough, who was soon made Secretary of State for the colonies. The next appointee was the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who had previously been First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for the Northern Department (i.e., northern Europe) and would hold both those posts again.

Despencer, in contrast, kept the job of postmaster general until his death in 1781. He may not have totally ignored the job, though the real work was done by department secretaries Henry Potts (d. 1768) and Anthony Todd (1717–1798, shown above). That situation made Despencer a boss of the two deputy postmasters general for the colonies: John Foxcroft of New York and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.

Franklin had held that appointment since 1753. He had been quite successful, even making the American postal service profitable for the first time. By the mid-1760s Franklin was living full-time in London, focusing on representing Pennsylvania and other colonies to Parliament, but he continued to manage the postal system with Foxcroft. It brought him a valuable income.

Within the British government’s system of patronage appointments, that meant Franklin had a strong incentive to keep the Baron le Despencer happy. Sucking up to your bosses never hurt. Neither did sucking up to lords. And when those lords were your bosses, you went all out.

As a taste of how this worked, in February 1769 Foxcroft wrote to Franklin from Virginia, reporting that he and Gen. Thomas Gage had disagreed about when a packet ship should sail. Even though the regulations gave Foxcroft the authority to make that decision, Hillsborough took Gage’s side. “I have fallen under the Displeasure of our Honoured Masters,” Foxcroft lamented. “I hope my Dear Friend that you will be able to prevent any disagreable consequences taking place from this unfortunate mistake.”

We don’t know what happened next, but Foxcroft kept his appointment—probably because Hillsborough had moved on to the Colonial Office. Sandwich was a navy man, after all, and might not have gone out of his way for army concerns. When the system ran on personal favors and connections, a change of person could mean a lot.

As part of keeping the bosses in good humor, Franklin appears to have helped with Despencer’s agricultural experiments. He got favors in return, such as an invitation to dine on a buck from one of the postmasters’ estates. But those interactions were arranged through the secretaries, not directly.

TOMORROW: Forging a more personal connection.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Returning to Franklin and Dashwood

I’m returning to the question I started the month with, on the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and Sir Francis Dashwood, known after 1763 as the Baron le Despencer (shown here).

More specifically, did Franklin participate in activities of Dashwood’s “Monks of Medmenham Abbey,” dubbed by nineteenth-century chroniclers as a “Hellfire Club”?

In 1926 Phillips Russell wrote wishfully about their relationship in The True Benjamin Franklin:
In Lord le Despencer Franklin found the kind of man which he most looked up to. His lordship was elegantly wicked, and so was possessed of a quality which Franklin admired with his whole heart. There can be little doubt that membership in the Hell Fire Club, though perhaps not accepted, would have enticed him irresistibly. We already know how he loved clubs and good company.
But there was no actual evidence Russell could point to.

It’s striking that in 1974 the British author Geoffrey Ashe wrote of Franklin:
He sounds a surprising person to meet in this setting, but he was more anti-clerical, heavier in his drinking, and laxer in his sexual habits and outlook than American hagiography cares to admit.
Ashe appears to have been reacting to an older public memory of Franklin as the embodiment of his “Way to Wealth” essay—sober, self-regulated, and above all diligent. But by that time, as the earlier quotation shows, the American image of Franklin was already shifting to the sly, womanizing wit we admire today. The admiration stayed the same; what we as a culture were looking for in a Founder changed.

That meant it became easier to imagine Franklin among the Medmenham Monks, enjoying wine, women, and song in a highly decorated cave. But did that happen?

Into the vacuum of evidence stepped the British journalist Donald McCormick, bearing quotations about “Brother Benjamin of Cookham” and Franklin writing of the “classical design, charmingly reproduced by the Lord le Despencer at West Wycombe, whimsical and puzzling…as evident below the earth as above it.”

McCormick cleverly avoided saying he’d found direct evidence Franklin participated in Despencer’s revels, such as a Hellfire Club membership list. Instead, he laid down indirect pointers for readers to piece together with him. But, as was his pattern over many books, McCormick made all that up.

Where does that leave us when it comes to Franklin and Despencer? We know there are many holes in the historic record. We know some of those holes were created by people destroying documents about illicit or simply unsavory behavior. We know in-person interactions don’t necessarily leave a paper trail.

Must we therefore say that though there’s no documentary evidence that Franklin participated in the activities of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey when he came to Britain in 1757, or even knew Sir Francis Dashwood until years later, we just can’t be sure, so it’s an open question?

I think we can come closer to an answer with the documentation that does survive.

TOMORROW: The beginnings of a beautiful friendship.