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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Monday, July 31, 2023

Behind Watson and the Shark

The National Gallery of Art recently shared Alysha Page’s article about an unusual figure in John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark.

Copley actually made three versions of this picture for merchant Brook Watson, the oldest now in the National Gallery. A second copy, also from 1778, is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. A smaller version painted in 1782 is in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Page’s essay focuses on one figure, writing: “The Black man stands upright at the top of the pyramid-like composition of this busy harbor scene.” I think the apex of the pyramid is clearly the right hand of the white sailor beside that man, about to thrust a lance down toward the shark. At the very least that white sailor’s head is at the same level as the black man’s.

It seems significant that the black sailor in the boat is positioned behind all the white men. Though he loosely holds the rope tossed to Watson, we don’t see him throwing out that life line. Instead, other sailors are frozen in dramatic action: spearing the shark, leaning down toward the water to grasp Watson.

All that said, the mere presence of a black sailor among Watson’s rescuers is clearly significant. As Page points out, Copley’s sketch for the scene showed that man as white, so he made a conscious effort to change that detail.

Among Copley’s other canvases is a study of a black man’s face, usually assumed to be the model for this figure in Watson and the Shark. I think the study is much more individualized and expressive than the figure in Watson and the Shark. But it was so rare for paintings to show black men among white men that the final figure doesn’t have to be most lively, or at the apex of the people shown, to be meaningful.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Memories of “A Bee Line for Boston”

Earlier this month at the Emerging Revolutionary War blog, Kevin Pawlak described the impressively fast journey of the Virginia rifle companies to the siege of Boston:
On June 14, the Continental Congress declared that “six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia.” Once formed and equipped, “each company…shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army.”

The Virginia companies went to Daniel Morgan, who organized his company in Winchester, and Hugh Stephenson, the leader of the company rendezvousing at Mecklenburg. Joining soldiers signed one-year enlistments. . . .

It took less than seven days to raise each company to the strength of 100 men. Only the delay in getting enough rifles to arm the entire Mecklenburg company prevented them from leaving immediately after filling the ranks.

Once mustered, Stephenson and Morgan agreed to meet in Frederick, Maryland, and march to Boston together. On July 15, Morgan’s men marched first, stealing a step on the Mecklenburg men, who left Morgan’s Grove on July 17. “Morgan having the start we used every exertion to overhaul him, in Vain, altho’ we marched (always in single file) from 30 to 36 miles a number of days,” said [company lieutenant Henry] Bedinger.

Food and cheering citizens greeted Stephenson’s men along the march and kept their marching feet moving at the blistering pace needed to catch Morgan. Only two men failed to make the entire march (one was court-martialed, and the other was accidentally wounded).

On August 11, after a march of over 500 miles in 25 days and just behind Morgan’s men, Stephenson’s company halted in front of General George Washington in Cambridge.
In 1860 Rep. Alexander Robinson Boteler of Virginia referred to the men from his state as having made “a bee-line for Boston.” He used this phrase both in a speech in the House of Representatives and in the anonymous book My Ride to the Barbecue, or Revolutionary Reminiscences of the Old Dominion. He was trying to make a case for national unity, arguing that slavery wasn’t a divisive issue in 1775 so it shouldn’t be now.

The U.S. Civil War followed. The town where the riflemen’s march started, Shepherdstown, Virginia, became Shepherdstown, West Virginia. But Boteler’s phrase survived in writings of the late 1800s and became the root of the label Pawlak used for the Virginia soldiers’ feat, “the Beeline March.”

Saturday, July 29, 2023

“Bawdy Bodies” Online from Yale

In 2015–16, the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale hosted an exhibition of eighteenth-century British prints called “Bawdy Bodies: Satires of Unruly Women,” co-curated by Dr. Hope Saska and Dr. Cynthia Roman.

That display has now been turned into an online exhibit, available here.

The introductory page says:
The works on display focus in particular on images that ridicule the highly accomplished and creative women who dared to transgress or test the boundaries of propriety that circumscribed their gender.

While late eighteenth-century commentators often celebrated the florescence of graphic caricature and satire that openly lampooned political figures—including the royal family—many of the satires exhibited here expressed trenchantly conservative views concerning social roles and manners. Loath to celebrate new-found intellectual, social, and political freedoms and empowerment for women, graphic satirists instead harshly ridiculed female liberties and accomplishments to the delight of largely male audiences.
Among the examples is Thomas Rowlandson’s satire “Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club,” shown above. Though that phrase initially meant all the people who came to Lady Elizabeth Montagu’s salons, male or female, by the late 1700s it was gendered and pejorative.

I didn’t see material on Catharine Macaulay, but this exhibit provides context for the prints satirizing her intellectual output, personal life, and distinct appearance.

Friday, July 28, 2023

“Both fell into the Water”

This week I found myself discussing significant details that Boston newspapers left out of their reports:
Presumably if Bostonians really wanted to know the missing information, they could ask around the town of 16,000 people and find out.

Here’s another example from the same month. The same 1 Oct 1767 Boston News-Letter report on the storm that beached Capt. Richard Coffin’s ship also included this detail:
A Gentleman and his Lady who had just landed on one of the Wharves from a Boat that had been below, was by the extreme Darkness of the Night, led to the edge of the Wharf and both fell into the Water, and would probably have been drowned, had not some of the Company immediately assisted and got them out.
What unlucky couple was that? What was their story?

Fortunately, I have some people I can ask. Here’s John Rowe’s diary from 24 September:
We had A Very Severy Storm it Blew as hard as I ever heard it, Accompanied with Thunder Lighting & very heavy Rain.

Mr Walter & Wife had Like to have been drownd at pecks Wharf
And 27 September:
After Noon I went to Church

Mr Walter Read prayers & preachd from the 103d. Psalm & the 19th Verse, The Lord hath prepard his Throne in the Heavens and his Kingdom Reigneth.

Over all, this was A very Pathetick & Good Discourse & very Applicable to Mr Walters Late Misfortune—in which Wee All Rejoyce for Gods Remarkable Deliverance of him & Wife—
William Walter was the rector at Trinity Church. So it wasn’t just any gentleman who fell off the wharf; it was one of the town’s handful of Anglican clergymen.

And his wife? Just shy of a year before that storm, the Rev. Mr. Walter had married Lydia Lynde. Her early-1760s portrait by John Singleton Copley appears above.

That sent me to the diary of Lydia Walter’s father, Massachusetts chief justice Benjamin Lynde (the second chief justice of that name). His entry for 23 September says:
A fine morning, but a great storm by night. My daughter Walter with her husband by wind carryed off the wharfe into the water, where she sank, and in most hazardous state, but got out, and thro’ God’s great goodness not hurt, tho’ then within 2 months of her time.
So the lady who fell off the wharf was seven months pregnant!

And here’s the happy ending from Lynde’s diary of 13 November:
My daughter Walter (notwithstanding her fall into the water), safely delivered of a son, baptized the 16th, Lynde; [Recompense Wadsworth?] Stimpson and wife Godfather and mother, Sheriff [Stephen] Greenleaf ye. other.
The Walter family left Boston in the evacuation of 1776, but William and Lydia Walter came back after the war when he was named rector of Christ Church.

Young Lynde Walter married in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, in 1791, then again in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1798. Eventually he returned to Boston, where he died in 1844 at age seventy-six. His namesake son was the first editor of the Boston Evening Transcript.

But all that was possible only because people had helped fish his grandmother out of Boston harbor on a stormy night in September 1767.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Call for Essays on “Wheatley in London”

Speaking of Phillis Wheatley, Studies in Romanticism has issued a call for articles for a special issue of the journal with the theme “Wheatley in London.”

The call says:
Phillis Wheatley traveled to London in the summer of 1773, prior to the September publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The literary-historical implications of this fact are far reaching, touching on Wheatley’s place in the canons of African-American, Black Diasporic, American, and British literature. The aim of this forum is to situate Wheatley’s career in relation to British studies, shoring up the significance of London, and of Britain more generally, as one of the multiple contexts she negotiated during her short and remarkable life.

Wheatley’s writing addressed audiences in the metropole as well as the American colonies, but she is still largely taught as a founding figure for African-American literature. “Wheatley in London” asks what happens when we return her to a context in which she also flourished: transatlantic evangelical English-language print culture of the 1770s. . . .

Attention to the British context reminds us that there were Black intellectuals in 1770s London; that there was a thriving abolitionist movement and an array of evangelical Christian sects that intersected with that movement in complicated ways. Thanks to the publication of laboring-class poets, “natural genius” was in vogue. Still, no matter how skillful and innovative Wheatley’s use of conventions like the heroic couplet, those conventions retain their association with white British poets, sometimes posing a dilemma for readers and critics.
Adding to the flood of publications about Wheatley as we approach the sestercentennial of her book, this project aims to “focus on the view from London in 1773.”

The editors of this issue of the journal will be Bakary Diaby of Skidmore College and Abigail Zitin of Rutgers University. They’re seeking essays between 3,000 and 6,000 words long, and the submission deadline is 1 Feb 2024.

(The picture above shows the Earl of Dartmouth, the British government’s secretary of state for the colonies in 1773. Wheatley met with him in London. A hereditary earl, one of the most powerful individuals in the British Empire, conversing with an enslaved woman probably only twenty years old. That wide disparity of legal power and stature shows what an extraordinary event Wheatley’s trip to London was.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Journey of Phillis Wheatley’s First Published Poem

As related in yesterday’s posting, a storm in September 1767 pushed a schooner packed with whale oil onto Cape Cod.

But that ship wasn’t lost, the cargo was preserved, and nobody died. Not much drama after all.

Nonetheless, the stories of two survivors—evidently Nantucketers Stephen Hussey and Richard Coffin—contained enough emotion to inspire John Wheatley’s enslaved teen-aged servant Phillis to write 24 lines of poetry (plus a prose interlude).

Titled “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” that poem appeared in Samuel Hall’s Newport Mercury on 21 Dec 1767—the first recognized publication by Phillis Wheatley. You can read the lines here alongside Amelia Yeager’s essay about the publication for the Newport Historical Society.

David Waldstreicher starts his new study of the poet, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley, with this poem and returns to it often as a touchstone of her work, particularly for her braiding of classical and Calvinist motifs and her ocean imagery.

The poem and its publication raise some small questions beyond the identity of the two men, discussed yesterday. One is why Hussey’s name appears first in the poem’s title and in the anecdote published with it in the newspaper even though Coffin was the ship’s captain and the only person named in the reports of the grounding.

I suspect this was a matter of personality. Hussey seems to have been a sociable man, connecting the Boston and Nantucket business communities before the war; serving in Whig political gatherings; speaking for Nantucket businessmen to both the British and Patriot governments during the war (islanders wanted to stay neutral for both economic and religious reasons); and eventually taking a post with the federal Customs bureau. I suspect he just told the story better.

Another question is whether Phillis Wheatley and the family who owned her sought this publication. I think the answer to that is clear in how the poem appeared in the Boston Post-Boy when that newspaper reprinted it on 11 Jan 1768. The “Wheatley” name was eliminated:
  • “belonging to one Mr. Wheatley of Boston” became “belonging to a Gentelman [sic] of Boston”
  • “being at Mr. Wheatley’s, and, while at Dinner” became “being at Dinner”
  • The name at the bottom of the poem changed from “Phillis Wheatley” to simply “PHILLIS.”
Obviously printers John Green and Joseph Russell thought the Wheatleys didn’t want their surname linked to the poem. They may even have heard directly from the family. However supportive of their protégée and property the Wheatleys became later, at the start of 1768 they were still reticent about what we’d call publicity.

I suspect that’s why this poem didn’t appear in a Boston newspaper until after it could be credited as “From the Newport Mercury.” John Wheatley was a wealthy merchant who occasionally advertised, the sort of gentleman local newspaper printers would want to keep happy.

Still, someone must have circulated the poem privately in manuscript for it to get from Boston to Newport. That might have been the Wheatleys, sharing the news among friends and expecting it to stay private. Conversely, the poem might have been spread by Hussey and Coffin within their Quaker network. (I doubt the teen poet had developed her own out-of-town network yet.)

I tested a couple of other possible explanations for the first publication in Rhode Island:
  • Did the Newport Mercury run poetry while the Boston papers weren’t yet in that habit? No, Boston printers shared a lot of poems in the 1760s.
  • Was Capt. Coffin’s near-shipwreck bigger news in Rhode Island than in Boston since it involved a Nantucket ship? Not only is Nantucket closer to Newport, but both places had large Quaker communities. However, Samuel Hall didn’t pick up the Boston reports about the schooner grounding. (The Providence Gazette for 10 October did carry the second item, reporting Coffin’s ship was safe.*)
In the end, I think someone in Newport who didn’t know the Wheatleys learned about the poem and the story behind it, and asked the local printer to publish it. Hall in turn was beyond John Wheatley’s reach.

What would have prompted such a Newporter to send to poem to Hall? That person was clearly struck by how the author was “a Negro Girl,” and enslaved at that. That’s not merely a footnote to the poem; it’s in the preface, the implicit reason for printing it.

Even the name “Phillis Wheatley” at the bottom of the poem might be significant. Many other early publications credited the poet only by her first name. For example, Ezekiel Russell’s broadside of her elegy to the Rev. George Whitefield said: “By PHILLIS, a Servant Girl of 17 Years of Age, Belonging to Mr. J. WHEATLEY, of Boston.” By 1770 the Wheatley family had become comfortable having their names attached to such publications, but the prevailing style was still not to formally acknowledge enslaved people’s surnames.

Those details make me think whoever asked Hall to print the poem wanted readers of the Newport Mercury to know an enslaved girl had written it—and perhaps to see that that girl was an individual. And, though nothing about the presentation commented on the injustice of slavery, was it possible to avoid that thought?

(* In the database that I access through Genealogy Bank, the 10 October and 3 October Providence Gazettes are mushed together. Looks like something went wrong when they were photographed for microfilm.)

“Castaway on the Back of Cape-Cod”

On Thursday, 1 Oct 1767, the biggest local story in the Boston News-Letter was the weather:
The Beginning of last Week we had here very serene pleasant Weather, until Wednesday Evening, when at about 8 o’clock came on, and continued for several Hours, a most violent Storm of Wind and Rain, with some Thunder and Lighting…
Among the consequences lower down in that paragraph:
Capt. Coffin in a Schooner loaded with Oil was castaway on the Back of Cape-Cod, the Cargo and People saved, and in hopes of getting the Vessel off.
In fact, for all the worry during the storm about ships, fishing vessels, and pleasure boats, “Through the Goodness of Divine Providence no Lives were lost” at sea. (A father and son, aged 84 and 52 respectively, both died after losing their separate ways on roads north of Boston.)

Four days later, on 5 October, the Boston Post-Boy followed up on that story:
Capt. Coffin in a Schooner loaded with Oyl, was cast ashore in the Storm mentioned in our last, on the Back of Cape Cod; but the Vessel has since been got off, and arrived here Yesterday.
That incident fits the details reported in the Newport Mercury on 21 December, as quoted yesterday:
Messrs Hussey and Coffin,…belonging to Nantucket, being bound from thence to Boston, narrowly escaped being cast away on Cape-Cod, in one of the late Storms; upon their Arrival, being at Mr. [John] Wheatley’s, and, while at Dinner, told of their narrow Escape
Unfortunately, none of these newspaper items gives Coffin’s or Hussey’s full names. And lots of men from Nantucket shared those surnames, their families intermarrying just to confuse matters further.

However, for his recent Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley David Waldstreicher spotted that on 7 October the merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary that he “Din’d at home with Stephen Hussey, Abisha Folger junr Richard Coffin Isaac Paddock All four from Nantucket.” That was three days after “Capt. Coffin” and his oil had arrived safely in Boston.

What’s more, in September 1775 Stephen Hussey and Richard Coffin were co-owners of a whaling brig named the Mayflower, according to British Treasury records.

So it looks like the two men from Nantucket who told their story of nearly being shipwrecked on Cape Cod in late September 1767 were most likely Stephen Hussey and Richard Coffin.

This was probably the same Stephen Hussey (1735–1805) who “was a blacksmith, shipsmith, and whaling merchant.” Having been elected to represent his town at the Massachusetts Convention of 1768 and the Provincial Congress, he became the island’s first Customs Collector under the new federal government.

TOMORROW: The Newport connection?

Monday, July 24, 2023

The Mystery of Phillis Wheatley’s First Published Poem

Earlier this month the Newport Historical Society shared Amelia Yeager’s essay on a question about the career of Phillis Wheatley: Why did the teenager’s poetry first appear in print in the 21 Dec 1767 Newport Mercury rather than a Boston newspaper?

Yeager phrases the question as “Why would Phillis Wheatley publish her first poem in a Newport paper rather than one of the many newspapers local to Boston?” She writes of printer Samuel Hall’s choice “to accept the poem,” as if it had been a submission to a literary magazine.

As much as I’m all for recognizing the agency of enslaved people, I doubt the young poet had much say in that matter. Not only was she enslaved, but she was still in her early teens. Furthermore, in a society without copyrights, writers rarely had control over where their words might appear in print. In modern terms, printers compensated young creatives with exposure.

In the Newport Mercury Hall prefaced this poem with the cover message he had received:

Please to insert the following Lines, composed by a Negro Girl (belonging to one Mr. Wheatley of Boston) on the following Occasion, viz. Messrs Hussey and Coffin, as undermentioned, belonging to Nantucket, being bound from thence to Boston, narrowly escaped being cast away on Cape-Cod, in one of the late Storms; upon their Arrival, being at Mr. Wheatley’s, and, while at Dinner, told of their narrow Escape, this Negro Girl at the same Time ’tending Table, heard the Relation, from which she composed the following Verses.
That paragraph wasn’t written from the perspective of the “Negro Girl” herself, or even from the family of her legal owner John Wheatley, identified unfamiliarly as “one Mr. Wheatley of Boston.” Rather, it’s the voice of someone who heard this fascinating anecdote and wanted to pass it on. (To be sure, anyone in the Wheatley family could have adopted that persona, but it doesn’t match how they presented her later work.)

Likewise, Yeager also writes:
Later in her life, Wheatley would have difficulty placing poems for publication; it was only with patronage from England that her first and only book of poetry was published.
Again, I think that misinterprets the situation by viewing it through the lens of hopeful writers in a more recent environment. Wheatley had many poems printed in Boston in the early 1770s. She was recognized locally. What she wanted, understandably, was to be paid for her writing—and to minimize the publication costs that authors usually assumed for a first edition.

By that time, Phillis Wheatley was five years older, with several publications under her belt, including an elegy on the Rev. George Whitefield that had been reprinted in multiple cities and formats (with no payment to her). By 1772, sources say, she was making decisions about her authorial career despite still being enslaved.

Wheatley’s first attempt to publish a collection for sale was to solicit subscriptions for a collection to be printed by Ezekiel Russell, as I discussed back here. John Andrews’s letters indicate that some Americans did pledge money for that crowdfunding effort. But then, that merchant wrote, Wheatley was “made to expt [expect] a large emolument if she sent ye copy home [i.e., to Britain], which induced her to remand yt of ye printer & dld [delivered] it Capt [Robert] Calef.” In other words, she still had prospects in Boston, but she had better prospects in London.

TOMORROW: My thoughts on why this early poem appeared in Newport before Boston.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Examining a Copy of an Almanac for 1737

I enjoyed reading Renée Wolcott’s essay on investigating a copy of Poor Richard’s Almanac from 1737, recently shared by the American Philosophical Society, where she’s Assistant Head of Conservation.

In 1923 a collector of material on Benjamin Franklin gave this copy of the 1737 alamanac to the society. Unlike most almanacs, which were utilitarian ephemera, this one showed very little damage to its edges. To the naked eye, it looked complete and well preserved.

However, a note with the copy said that the title page and a later page were “in facsimile,” meaning that they had been reproduced.

After a display this spring, Wolcott decided to look more closely at that pamphlet. She started by examining the pages under ultraviolet light. The wide page margins, and all or part of those two designated pages, glowed differently from the paper under the central text.

Next she evaluated light shone through the paper. That revealed different fiber structure in those parts of the pages.

Finally, with a strong microscope and a raking light, Wolcott could spot the borders where “old and new papers were beveled with a knife, overlapped, and adhered together” to make what appeared to be an intact original page. That magnification also showed the ink in the newer portion of the page to be slightly more purple than the original.

Wolcott thus confirmed that the two pages in this Poor Richard’s for 1737 labeled as facsimiles were indeed reproductions in whole or part, and also that the margins of the other pages had been augmented, though nothing was printed on them.

Since the main alterations were disclosed and the almanac donated, this work wasn’t done to deceive but to make the artifact look as handsome and complete as possible.

Check out Wolcott’s essay for more detail and photographs of the crucial evidence.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

“Never more than one quarter a year”

Last month the Cambridge Core website shared Carole Shammas’s essay “How Long did the School Year Last in Early America?”

I’ve studied schooling in Boston, but the opportunities there weren’t typical for a mainly rural society. Shammas offers a wider view:
The eighteenth century addition of cursive handwriting and arithmetic to reading as the desired skills to be transmitted to free boys and then girls in a primary school environment notably increased the cost of education. The latter two skills demanded classrooms, textbooks and stationery supplies. . . . Children had to go to school, often a distance away, and that journey meant taking time from their field or domestic work and employment from a third party that supplemented their family’s income. . . .

Consequently, the poor relief records that I examined indicate that children of indigent parents most commonly obtained schooling through the indenturing of their labor to a master until they reached adulthood, 16-18 for girls and 21 for boys. . . . In exchange, this system required the new master to take over support of the child by providing him or her with shelter, food, and clothing as well as a specified amount of instruction—boys sometimes received instruction up through arithmetic and girls usually learned reading and needlework. Other indentures instead set aside a time period for schooling, never more than one quarter a year (13 weeks), and usually in the winter, which in an urban area could also be in the evening. In effect, these children self-funded their education through their labor services. . . .

Children in rural areas had more difficulty accessing their schoolhouses during bad weather, which kept them home more than students in cities. Additionally, farmers, more than workers in other occupations, viewed what they called “ornamental” learning suspiciously and had greater reluctance to increase the time devoted to their children’s education.

Census data revealed these trends. I found in a one-of-a-kind school census from 1798 for New York state that children living in more newly-settled, low-density, high-fertility agricultural areas attended school for a significantly fewer number of days than did children living in more urban and less agricultural counties. All in all, the average attendance in those counties ranged from 9-13 weeks. . .

Because of the need for child labor, few boys or girls enrolled for a full academic year or the equivalent of three quarters, and even fewer attended even 90% of the time. Because the majority of North American households engaged in agriculture, boys could be utilized for fieldwork and animal husbandry most months. However, having only a quarter year of schooling meant that children had to constantly re-learn material the following year before they could be presented with new lessons.
Shammas holds the John R. Hubbard Chair Emerita in History at the University of Southern California. Having written books about inheritance, household government, investing, consumption, and other aspects of everyday life in America and Britain, she is currently studying “the long, torturous process whereby American children mastered the three Rs.”

(The image above is a handwriting specimen that John Molineux produced in the 1760s for his writing-school master, Abiah Holbrook, now in the Harvard University library collection.)

Friday, July 21, 2023

George Washington Book Prize Nominees for 2023

Mount Vernon has announced the nominees for the 2023 George Washington Book Prize.

There will be an author event at the site on 24 August, and the winner will be announced on 21 September in New York City, home of the cosponsoring Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. (The third cosponsor in Washington College in Maryland.)

Here are this year’s nominated books.

Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution by Mary Sarah Bilder, the Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. Eliza Harriot Barons O’Connor was a path-breaking female educator who lectured at the University of Pennsylvania during the Constitutional Convention to an audience that included George Washington and other delegates. Bilder argues that Harriot, as the first such female public lecturer in America, inspired the gender-neutral language of the Constitution.

His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer by Fred Kaplan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This book is an appreciation of Jefferson’s writing skills as key to his personality and public career. Though he could wield his pen with unrivaled power, he was also a master of using words to both reveal and conceal from others and himself the complications, the inconsistencies, and the contradictions between his principles and his policies.

The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a past George Washington Prize. Here we see Adams’s transformation from aimless son of a well-off family to tireless, beguiling radical. Shrewd, eloquent, and intensely disciplined, Adams led what could be called the greatest campaign of civil resistance in American history. He packaged and amplified the Boston Massacre. He helped to mastermind the Boston Tea Party. He employed every tool in an innovative arsenal to rally a town, a colony, and eventually a band of colonies behind creating a country.

First among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity by Maurizio Valsania, professor of American History at the University of Turin. Washington is frequently portrayed as tremendously effective in action, but this aggressive and muscular vision is largely a creation of the nineteenth century. Eighteenth-century ideals of upper-class masculinity preferred a man with refined aesthetic tastes, graceful and elegant movements, and the ability and willingness to clearly articulate his emotions. Valsania considers Washington’s complexity and how his real life diverges from the legend.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

“Arms (deliver’d by the Inhabitants in April 1775)”

On 27 Apr 1775, Boston’s selectmen and designated committee members delivered to the royal governor, Gen. Thomas Gage, “the return made to them by the constables of the town relative to the delivery of arms in their respective wards.”

In other words, the count of how many weapons people had turned over to town officials in exchange for being allowed to leave the besieged town.

The next day, one member of that committee, former selectman Henderson Inches, left Boston and went to where the Massachusetts committee of safety was meeting in Cambridge. He brought the same data:
Mr. Henderson Inches, who left Boston this day, attended, and informed the committee, that the inhabitants of Boston had agreed with the general, to have liberty to leave Boston with their effects, provided that they lodged their arms with the selectmen of that town, to be by them kept during the present dispute, and that, agreeably to said agreement, the inhabitants had, on yesterday, lodged 1778 fire-arms, 634 pistols, 973 bayonets, and 38 blunderbusses, with their selectmen.
In 1900, Boston published an inventory of these weapons with the owners’ names attached (and somewhat different figures from Inches’s). The date on this record is 24 April, the first full day after the town voted to start collecting weapons, but that process took three days at least. It’s notable that this count of weapons “in the Town House” includes guns owned by the town itself. 

Recently Caitlin G. DeAngelis reported finding another inventory of “Arms (deliver’d by the Inhabitants in April 1775) in the Town House Chambers,” dated 1 March 1776, as the British military was slowly preparing to depart. (That process sped up considerably a few days later.) This list comes from Francis Green’s file submitted to the Loyalists Commission, preserved in the British National Archives, series AO 13 (Massachusetts). The photo above from DeAngelis shows the totals, including a note that most of the weapons were in poor repair.

Over the last twenty years I’ve mentioned the published list in a few history forums, hinting that it might provide useful data for a study of gun ownership in occupied Boston. The Green list, which differs slightly in what’s counted and in the totals, could add to that data. No one’s taken up that challenge so far.

The publications that discuss Gage’s demand that Bostonians lodge their firearms with the town are by and large those arguing that a significant factor in the American Revolution was the royal government’s attempts to confiscate individuals’ guns, with implications for modern political conflicts.

Now I’ve written a book about the competition between Gage’s government and the Patriot underground for artillery pieces in 1774 and 1775. I argue that was a precipitating factor in how the war began. But I don’t see evidence for a similar conflict over muskets, pistols, and other individually owned and operated weapons.

Gen. Gage arrived in Boston in May 1774. The “Powder Alarm” in September made both sides shift to military preparations. Samuel Dyer tried to assassinate two British officers with pistols in October. A small British army squad and the New Hampshire militia exchanged fire at Fort William and Mary in December. And at no time before 19 April 1775 did Gage try to confiscate people’s muskets or pistols.

Only after the war had started, the redcoats had suffered hundreds of casualties, and thousands of militiamen were besieging his base did Gen. Gage seek to disarm the civilians all around him. Until then, he’d respected private property and the province’s militia law. And even after he took this step to protect his soldiers from an armed uprising, Gage asked elected town officials to collect and store the weapons, not his army or appointees. This was a wartime measure, not a peacetime policy.

COMING UP: The bargain collapses.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

“The town relying on the honor and faith of General Gage”

On 27 Apr 1775, in another session of Boston’s ongoing town meeting not preserved in the official records, a committee of selectmen and eminent gentlemen told voters how they had carried out their mandate from four days before.

As printed in the 26 June Boston Gazette:
They reported as follows, viz.

The committee waited on his excellency General [Thomas] Gage, with the papers containing the account of the arms delivered to the select-men, and the return made to them by the constables of the town relative to the delivery of arms in their respective wards.

After long conversation on the subject of the inhabitants removing themselves and effects from the town; his excellency being obliged to attend other business, left the affair to be settled with Brigadier General Robinson, who after further conference, and reporting the substance of it to General Gage, returned to the committee, and declared to them that General Gage, gives liberty to the inhabitants to remove out of town with their effects; and desires that such inhabitants as intend to remove, would give their names to the selectmen, and signify whether they mean to convey out their effects by land or water, in order that passes may be prepared; for which passes, application may be made to General Robinson, any time after eight o’clock to morrow morning; such passes to be had as soon as persons wanting them shall be ready to depart.

VOTED, That the foregoing report be accepted, the town relying on the honor and faith of General Gage, that he will perform his part of the contract, as they have faithfully performed their part of it.

Then the meeting was adjourned to monday next, ten o’clock in the forenoon.

A true copy, examined
Per Henry Alline, jun. Town Clerk, P. T.
I’ve found no record of another town meeting session on the following Monday, 1 May, but such adjournments were a legal way around the restrictions of the Massachusetts Government Act.

This is one of many places I’ve seen the surname of brigadier general James Robertson (1717–1788), the British barrack master general, rendered as “Robinson.” Was this the result of some collision between his Scottish accent and the Boston accent?

Robertson had already served many years as a military administrator in New York, and he would go on to be promoted to lieutenant general and royal governor of New York before the end of the war.

The town clerk pro tem. who took down these minutes was Henry Alline (1736–1804). Different sources say he had been trained as a “housewright and gauger” or “bred a Scrivener,” but he made his living as a notary public and clerk for such organizations as the Plymouth Company and the Kennebeck proprietors. In 1791 the Columbian Centinel reported that “his bodily health is such as renders a stationary business necessary and agreeable.”

In other words, Alline was a natural bureaucrat. After marrying in 1764, he was able to support a growing family; his society didn’t provide a lot of openings for those skills compared to ours, but it rewarded men who could do the job. Evidently in this emergency the town called on Alline to fill in for absent town clerk William Cooper.

In July 1776 Henry Alline had his family inoculated against smallpox and witnessed the reading of the Declaration of Independence from the Town House balcony, as he described in this letter at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In 1791 Alline succeeded Nathaniel Green as the Suffolk County registrar of deeds. He held that job for five years until retiring because of failing eyesight. Then his son William, born in 1770, won election and served until 1821. Then William’s son Henry was registrar of deeds until 1860. That’s almost seventy unbroken years of the same family holding the position.

TOMORROW: Counting the guns.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

“The Affair of delivering up the Arms”

On 23 Apr 1775, as recounted yesterday, the Boston town meeting approved an arrangement with Gen. Thomas Gage for people to store their weapons in exchange for the chance to leave their besieged town.

The committee who served as intermediaries between Gage and the town quickly wrote to Dr. Joseph Warren, chair of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety:

The following proceedings contain the Agreement made between his Excellency General Gage and the Town of Boston.

You are informed it is the earnest desire of the inhabitants, that such persons as incline to remove into the Town with their effects, may be permitted so to do without molestation, and they having appointed us as a Committee to write to you on this subject, we hope this request will be complied with, as the Town, in a very full meeting, was unanimous in this and every other vote, relating to this matter; and we beg the favour of as speedy an answer as may be.

We are, most respectfully, your obedient humble servants,
James Bowdoin, John Pitts,
John Scollay, Ezek. Goldthwait,
Tim. Newell, Alexander Hill,
Thos. Marshall, Henderson Inches,
Samuel Austin, Edward Payne.
That letter was later printed in Peter Force’s American Archives (probably with stylistic editing).

Town officials then got to work collecting people’s guns. The records of the selectmen are entirely blank from 19 Apr 1775 to 20 May 1776, but other sources offer peeks into this work.

Selectman Scollay (shown above) later wrote, “The Affair of delivering up the Arms & of the Inhabitants removal has given us great trouble.” That was even with the help of the constables the town had elected back in March—up to twelve men.

The family of lawyer Samuel Swift later claimed that his “zeal and resolution…caused many Bostonians to secrete their arms.” There’s not much evidence to support that flattering lore, but then arms-hiding would have been secret. Most townspeople seem to have cooperated grumpily. On 24 April the hat merchant Thomas Handysyd Peck even wrote to Gen. Gage about cannon:
their is two Iron Guns in my store I think about four Pounders if your Exellency thinks best that the guns should be Removed if you Sir will order to what Place I will take Care and have it Done. . . .

PS Those Guns have no Carrages and have laid ever since last war.
It looks like the selectmen thought the collection could be finished in a couple of days. The 26 June Boston Gazette stated:
The meeting was then adjourned to Tuesday morning the 25th of April, ten o’clock in the Forenoon, and was continued by successive adjournments to thursday, P. M. the 20th [sic, 27th] of April, 1775, when the town met to receive the further report of the committee.
TOMORROW: What the committee had to say.

Monday, July 17, 2023

“The vote of the town complying with his excellency’s proposal”

On Sunday, 23 Apr 1775, Boston’s emergency town meeting considered whether to accept Gen. Thomas Gage’s condition for letting people leave the besieged town: all Bostonians had to turn their firearms over to the selectmen to be stored in a central place.

Massachusetts’s militia law required most men to own and train with firelocks. Provincials were proud of that self-defense system. Indeed, they were now relying on it to resolve their dispute with Crown authorities.

Furthermore, Gen. Gage’s demand that men lock up their guns may have come as a surprise; that issue doesn’t appear on the records of the town meeting the day before.

Nonetheless, Bostonians wanted to get out of the town, to be away from the expected battles and food shortages.

As soon as the town’s committee put their understanding of the agreement with the governor in writing, the men at the town meeting acted on it:
Whereupon, Voted,
That the town accept of his excellency’s proposal, and will lodge their arms with the select men accordingly.

Voted, That the same committee be desired to wait upon his excellency the governor with the vote of the town complying with his excellency’s proposal, and the committee are desired to request of his excellency that the removal may be by land and water, as may be most convenient for the inhabitants.
The men at that meeting wanted out. Unlike the previous day’s vote on a promise not to attack the redcoats, this vote wasn’t recorded as unanimous. But it came quickly, and there’s no indication of any counterproposals.

The record published in the 26 June Boston Gazette doesn’t indicate how long the committee’s further consultation with Gage took, instead continuing:
The Committee appointed to wait upon his Excellency, report; that they accordingly waited upon him, and read the vote of the town, which was accepted by his Excellency; and at the same time his Excellency agreed that the inhabitants might remove from the town by land and water with their effects, within the limits prescribed by the Port Act:
Parliament had outlawed most sea voyages from Boston to ports outside of Massachusetts, and Gage felt he had to maintain that law.
…and also informed the committee he would desire the Admiral [Samuel Graves] to lend his boats to facilitate the removal of the effects of the inhabitants, and would allow carriages to pass and repass for that purpose: Likewise would take care, that the poor that may remain in Town should not suffer for want of provision after their own stock is expended, and desire that a letter might be wrote to Doctor [Joseph] Warren, chairman of the committee of the [Massachusetts Provincial] Congress, that those persons in the country who may incline to remove into Boston, with their effects, may have liberty so to do without molestation.

The town unanimously accepted of the foregoing report, and desired the inhabitants would deliver their arms to the Selectmen as soon as may be.
The townsfolk then voted to adjourn their meeting until “Tuesday morning the 25th of April, ten o’clock in the Forenoon.” And most of the men went home to find their guns.

TOMORROW: Implementing the agreement.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

“Being informed that General Gage has proposed a Treaty”

On 22 Apr 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren, chair of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety, wrote a letter to the Boston selectmen approving an arrangement that would let civilians leave the newly besieged town.

As transcribed by Warren biographer Samuel Forman, the doctor’s letter said:
Joseph Warren to the Select Men and Inhabitants of the Town of Boston


The Committee of Congress being informed that General [Thomas] Gage has proposed a Treaty with the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, wherein he stipulates that the Women and Children with all their Effects shall have safe Conduct without the Garrison and their Men also, upon Condition that the Male Inhabitants within the Town shall on their Part solemnly engage that they will not take up Arms against the King’s Troops, within the Town, sh:d an attack be made from without:

We cannot but esteem those Conditions to be just & reasonable, and as the Inhabitants are in Danger of suffering from the want of Provisions, which in this time of general Confusion cannot be conveyed into the Town: we are willing you should enter into and faithfully keep the Engagement aforementioned said to be required of you, and to remove yourselves, the Women, Children & Effects as soon as may be—

By Order of the Committee of Congress—

Joseph Warren, Chairman

Cambridge 22nd April 1775
It’s significant that Warren and his committee believed Gen. Gage had proposed this arrangement. This letter doesn’t hint at how they came to believe that.

Warren’s letter didn’t hint at any other concessions besides a promise not to attack the redcoats. He wrote that families could leave “with all their Effects.” He noted “the want of Provisions” inside Boston without suggesting the Patriot forces might let food into the town. He didn’t say he still hoped for a peaceful resolution.

Originally Warren told the selectmen, ”we would earnestly pray your acceptance of his proposals,” before toning that down to “we are willing you should enter into and faithfully keep the Engagement aforementioned said to be required of you.” Again, the committee of safety thought that Gage had set forth his conditions.

It’s not clear whether that letter reached the town meeting on 22 April in time to influence the discussion there. However, on that Saturday, Bostonians approved a long statement to Gage that “the selectmen in behalf of the town engaged for the peaceable behaviour of the inhabitants.” Their resolutions then went on at more length reminding Gage of his past promises of good treatment.

When the town’s high-powered committee visited the royal governor, however, he had another condition. Perhaps Gage had had that proviso in mind all along, but to the Bostonians it may have seemed like a new requirement. A “long conference” between the general and the committee resulted, as reported in the 26 June Boston Gazette.

Gen. Gage asked that Bostonians agree to “lodging their arms in Faneuil-hall, or any other convenient place, under the care of the Selectmen.” That way, men couldn’t attack the soldiers with those guns or hand them over to besieging militiamen. Only then would he let families leave the town.

Thus, when the committee returned to the town meeting on Sunday, 23 April, they were recommending the people accept a condition that neither that meeting nor the committee of safety had officially discussed before.

TOMORROW: Decision time.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

“Upon the inhabitants in general lodging their arms in Faneuil-hall”

On 22 Apr 1775, with the Massachusetts militia besieging the king’s soldiers inside Boston, many townspeople wanted to get out of the way.

Gen. Thomas Gage, army commander and royal governor, had his own priorities: forestalling any citizen uprising against those soldiers.

Gage had approached Boston’s selectmen to start discussions on avoiding discontent and unrest. Those officials seized the opening to talk about letting people leave town.

In addition to five of the seven selectmen (John Hancock and Oliver Wendell had left Boston earlier in the month before fighting broke out), the town appointed four men to communicate with the governor. They were all established businessmen with political experience:
  • James Bowdoin, a member of the Council, firm Whig, and, therefore, longtime headache for Govs. Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson. He was, however, wealthy and learned, thus undeniably respectable. Also, though Bowdoin might excuse violence after the fact, he didn’t encourage it beforehand.
  • Ezekiel Goldthwait (shown above), insurance broker, registrar of deeds, and veteran of other political offices, including Boston town clerk. While calling himself a Whig, Goldthwait was more centrist than most in that party and maintained friendly relations with the royal governors. Some people even called him a Tory.
  • Henderson Inches, a Boston selectman voted out earlier in the decade for not pushing as hard on the Massacre orations as the voting public wanted, but still in the Whig party.
  • Edward Payne, wounded in the Boston Massacre while standing peacefully on his front steps—but he chose not to sue about it. 
  • Alexander Hill, a warden and fireward often chosen to audit the town’s accounts. Though he had been put on the town’s committee of correspondence, Hill was rarely involved in protests and debates over imperial issues.
In sum, these were gentlemen whom the governor couldn’t dismiss or treat with suspicion.

It’s a sign of the emergency situation that the town met on Sunday, 23 April. Indeed, Hill’s job as warden had been to ensure that people didn’t conduct business on the Sabbath. But these were desperate times.

The record published in the 26 June Boston Gazette continued:
Sabbath morning ten o’clock, April 23, 1775.

The town met according to adjournment.

The said committee made a verbal report. Whereupon it was desired that the committee would withdraw and reduce their report to writing, which was accordingly done, and is as follows, viz.

The committee appointed by the town to wait upon his excellency General Gage, with a copy of the two votes passed by the town yesterday in the afternoon; report, that they being read to him by the committee, and a long conference had with him upon the subject matter contained in the said votes, his excellency finally gave for answer, that upon the inhabitants in general lodging their arms in Faneuil-hall, or any other convenient place, under the care of the Selectmen, marked with the names of the respective owners, that all such inhabitants as are inclined may depart from the town, with their family’s and effects; and those who remain may depend upon his protection. And that the arms aforesaid at a suitable time would be return’d to the owners.
Most men in Boston, as in other towns, were required by law to drill with the militia and therefore owned firelocks. Gen. Gage didn’t want those guns used against his soldiers. He also didn’t want people to take their weapons out of town, join the besieging force, or arm fighters in that force.

On the other hand, the province had just gone through several months of Patriots complaining that they had the right—indeed, the obligation—to amass weapons, gunpowder, and other military supplies. Bostonians couldn’t participate much in that arming of the countryside, being under army occupation, but they supported it. Would they give up their means of self-defense?

TOMORROW: The townspeople’s expectations?

Friday, July 14, 2023

Boston’s Town Meeting on the Fourth Day of the War

As quoted yesterday, on 3 Apr 1775 the Boston town meeting voted to continue their work by adjournment on 17 April.

By that date, town clerk William Cooper had slipped out of town with the official records. Also unavailable were Samuel Adams, chosen moderator of that meeting, and selectman John Hancock.

I’ve found no record of a notice that Bostonians would not meet that day, nor indication that they tried. The following day, Gen. Thomas Gage set his plan for the Concord expedition in motion, and the day after that the province was at war.

The first indication of another town meeting appeared in Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, newly moved to Worcester, on 3 May. After a detailed account of the first day of fighting, that paper stated:
It is now thirteen days since Boston was entirely shut up. The Sunday after the battle there were but two or three religious assemblies that met in Boston. In the Forenoon there was a town meeting, at which a Committee, consisting of the Select-Man, were chosen to wait upon General Gage, in order to get permission for the inhabitants to remove out of town with their effects.
A more detailed and apparently more accurate account appeared in the Boston Gazette on 26 June. This report used the legal formula of Boston’s other town meetings, and it’s clear the selectmen were involved, so this appears to meet all the criteria to be an official meeting.
Boston, ff. At a Meeting of the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of the Town of Boston legally warned, on Saturday the Twenty second day of April, A. D. 1775.

The Hon. JAMES BOWDOIN, Esq [shown above]; was chosen Moderator.

The Moderator informed the town that the present meeting was in consequence of an interview between his excellency General Gage and the Selectmen, at his desire, and mentioned the substance of the conversation that pass’d; and also that the Selectmen with the advice and assistance of a number of gentlemen had prepared several votes, which they thought it might be proper for the town to pass—And which in conjunction with the assurances that had been given to his excellency by the selectmen, they apprehended from the interview aforesaid, would be satisfactory to his excellency——

The Hon. James Bowdoin, Esq; Ezekiel Goldthwait, Esq; Mr. Henderson Inches, Mr. Edward Paine, Mr. Alexander Hill, together with the selectmen, viz. John Scollay, Esq; Mr. Timothy Newell, Mr. Samuel Austin, Thomas Marshall, Esq; & Mr. John Pitts, were appointed a committee to consider of this important matter, and were desired to report as soon as may be.

The said Committee made report, and after some debate, the two following votes passed unanimously, viz.

His excellency General Gage in an interview with the selectmen, having represented that there was a large body of men in arms assembled in the neighbourhood of this town, with hostile intentions against his majesty’s troops stationed here, and that in case the troops should be attacked by them, and the attack should be aided by the inhabitants of the town, it might issue in very unhappy consequences to the town.

For prevention whereof, his excellency assured the selectmen, that whatever might be the event of the attack, he would take effectual care, that the troops should do no damage, nor commit any act of violence in the town; but that the lives and properties of the inhabitants should be protected and secured, if the inhabitants behaved peaceably; and the selectmen in behalf of the town engaged for the peaceable behaviour of the inhabitants accordingly:

In confirmation of which engagement—Voted,
That as the town have behaved peaceably towards the troops hitherto, they hereby engage to continue to do so; and the peace officers, and all other town officers, are enjoined, and the magistrates, and all persons of influence in the town, are earnestly requested to exert their utmost endeavors to preserve the peace of the town:

The Town at the same time relying on the assurances of his excellency, that no insult, violence or damage shall be done to the persons or property of the inhabitants, either by the troops or the kings Ships, whatever may be the event of the attack his excellency seems to apprehend; but of which attack we have no knowledge or information whatever, as all communication between the town and country has been interrupted by his excellency’s order, ever since the collection of the body aforesaid.

Whereas the communication between this town and the country both by land and by water is at present stop’d by order of his excellency General Gage, and the inhabitants cannot be supplied with provisions, fuel and other necessaries of life; by which means the sick and all invalids must suffer greatly, and immediately; and the inhabitants in general be distress’d, especially such (which is by much the greatest part) as have not had the means of laying in a stock of provisions, but depend for daily supplies from the country for their daily support, and may be in danger of perishing, unless the communication be opened:

Therefore, Resolved,
That a committee be appointed to wait on his excellency General Gage, to represent to him the state of the town in this regard, and to remind his excellency of his declarations in answer to addresses made to him when the works on the neck were erecting, viz. “That he had no intention of stopping up the avenue to the Town, or of obstructing the inhabitants or any of the country people coming in or going out of the town as usual;” that “he had no intention to prevent the free egress and regress, of any person to and from the town, or of reducing it to the state of a garrison; that he could not possibly intercept the intercourse between the town and country;” that “it is his duty and interest to encourage it; and it is as much inconsistent with his duty and interest to form the strange scheme of reducing the inhabitants to a state of humiliation and vassalage, by stopping their supplies,”—

Also, to represent to him, that in consequence of these repeated assurances of his excellency, the fears and apprehensions of the inhabitants, had generally subsided, and many persons who had determined to remove with their effects, have remain’d in town, whilst others largely concern’d in navigation, had introduced many valuable goods, in full confidence of the promised security:

That the Town think his Excellency incapable of acting on principles inconsistent with honor, justice and humanity, and therefore that they desire his excellency will please to give orders for opening the communication, not only for bringing provisions into the town, but also, that the inhabitants, such of them as incline, may retire from the town with their effects without molestation.

The same Committee were appointed to wait upon the General with the foregoing votes.

Then the meeting was adjourned to Sabbath morning, ten o’clock.
The town was reminding Gen. Gage of all the promises he’d made in the preceding months of keeping life as normal as possible. Of course, now there was a besieging army outside (“a large body of men in arms assembled in the neighbourhood”). How would the general respond?

TOMORROW: Sunday meeting.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Gap in the Town Clerk’s Records

The official published records of the town of Boston say that on Monday, 3 Apr 1775, the inhabitants held a meeting in Faneuil Hall.

With Samuel Adams busy at the Massachusetts Provincial Congress at Concord, that meeting chose Samuel Swift to preside in his place.

Voters filled some offices that the men they elected in the preceding month had declined. For instance, this town meeting chose the sons of William Molineux and Royall Tyler to be clerks of the market, an entry-level job for young gentlemen.

The other agenda item was collecting a tax approved in July 1774 “for the Relief of the Poor”—a response to the Boston Port Bill. A committee recommended naming collectors, but the citizens put off a decision until their next gathering.

To get around the Massachusetts Government Act’s limit on town meetings without Gov. Thomas Gage’s approval, the citizens then voted to adjourn to 17 April. As long as they kept the same meeting going by adjournment, they were within the law, right?

If a town meeting took place as scheduled on that day, it wasn’t recorded on the following page. That’s because the town clerk, William Cooper, slipped out of Boston around 10 April. He was apparently acting in response to intelligence that the secretary of state, Lord Dartmouth, had recommended to Gage that he start arresting leaders of the rebellion in Massachusetts.

Cooper took the notebooks that recorded town meetings with him. Some of the selectmen remained in town: Timothy Newell, John Scollay, Thomas Marshall, and Samuel Austin. In the following months, as Newell’s journal shows, they tried to document the damages and injustices of war and to stand up for their fellow citizens.

According to Cooper’s records, the next Boston town meeting took place in Watertown on 5 March. This was the annual oration in memory of the Boston Massacre, delivered that year by the Rev. Peter Thacher. That was, of course, the same day the British army saw the Continental fortifications on the Dorchester heights, so Thacher’s speech probably didn’t command people’s total attention.

The British military sailed away on 17 March. Bostonians gathered for another town meeting twelve days later, on 29 March. They met in the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy’s church, the “old Brick Meeting House” (shown above). The main order of business was to elect officials for the upcoming year, starting with the town clerk. William Cooper continued to fill that role until his death in 1809.

However, there were at least two town meetings held inside besieged Boston that never got recorded in Cooper’s notes.

TOMORROW: The first lost meeting.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Events in Marblehead and Quincy, 15 July

Weather permitting, on Saturday, 15 July, folks in Boston’s North Shore and South Shore regions can both enjoy local Revolutionary-era events on the grounds of historic sites.

The recreated Glover’s Marblehead Regiment will hold its annual encampment at Fort Sewall from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Scheduled events include:
  • 10:15 A.M. and 2:00 P.M.: Children’s Drill
  • 10:30 A.M.: March through town with music past Gen. John Glover’s home
  • 11:30 A.M.: Skirmish with Crown forces at Seaside Park
  • 3:30 P.M.: Battle with Crown forces on Gas House Beach
  • 5:00 P.M.: Cannon salute to close camp, followed by sea chanties
Meanwhile, down in Quincy from 11:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. the Dorothy Quincy Homestead will host Henry Cooke speaking on and demonstrating “The Tailor’s Art: Making Clothing and Making a Living in 18th-Century New England.”

Cooke is an internationally recognized expert on Revolutionary-era tailoring, having among other commissions created clothing for figures of George Washington on display at Mount Vernon. He’s also a stalwart of local reenactments—his face will be familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed the tea meetings in Old South Meeting House in recent years.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

“Enough of that, for this confused State!”

Yesterday I rode along the Battle Road with folks from Old North Illuminated, so even though we’re no longer in Patriots Day season this report from April 1775 seems timely.

It was a letter to authorities in Connecticut, printed in the Norwich Packet newspaper on 27 April as well as on at least one broadside:
Cambridge, Saturday Morning, April 22


I HAVE waited on the general and the several Committees, and they all agree that the Men must come down to this Place, for we know not when we shall be attacked in this confused State.

The Troops in Boston are in Motion, and preparing to make an Attack some where; but we have no News from Boston unless by some few of the Inhabitants, that run the Risk of their Lives by getting out of the Town by Stealth, for Boston is shut up!---There is no coming in or going out any other Way!---

The People of the Town are all Prisoners, and what their Fate will be, GOD only knows; for the Troops have behaved in a very cruel and barbarous Manner; going into Houses and killing sick People, that were not able to go one Step, putting the Muzzle of the Gun into their Mouths and blowing their Heads in Pieces. Some Children had their Brains beat out!---Several Houses and Barns burned!---and, for Miles together, not a House nor Shop but had their Windows broke, and hundreds of Shot in them!---

There were about 40 of our People killed; but rather more of the Troops, and 70 or 80 of the Latter are taken Prisoners.---Enough of that, for this confused State!---

Pray let the Men be properly inlisted and officered; let there be Teams to bring Provision, and a farther Supply sent immediately after them. Take Care they be sent in good Order.
Hezekiah Bissell.
Putnam was, of course, the earthy, excitable militia colonel from Brooklyn, Connecticut, soon to be general. Bissell was a committee-man from nearby Windham. They wanted more of their colony’s troops to join them along the siege lines.

Most of the atrocities this letter described never happened. No sick people had their heads blown to pieces. No children had their brains beat out. The Boston selectmen and Gen. Thomas Gage were working out an agreement that would let people leave town (though that agreement fell apart weeks later).

Still, this report is valuable for showing the emotional tenor of those days, at least for some gentlemen.