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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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Matthias Hammond’s House and Anne Proctor’s Doll

With all these stories about Founders’ children and dolls, I thought I should show an actual doll from the period.

The Hammond-Harwood House Museum stands in Annapolis, Maryland. The architect William Buckland designed it just before he died in 1774, and his assistant John Randall completed the building for a young tobacco planter named Matthias Hammond (1750–1786).

Hammond had just been elected to the Maryland General Assembly by Annapolis’s anti-taxation party. He was also a new member of the vestry of St. Anne’s Parish. With those responsibilities, he presumably wanted a house in town.

However, Hammond doesn’t appear to have ever lived in his Annapolis house for an extended period. Instead he stayed on his slave-labor plantation in what is now Gambril. He also never married, and thus never raised children in the house.

In 1926 St. John’s College bought the building to use as a museum, but ran into financial straits during the Depression. The Hammond-Harwood House Association formed in 1938 to maintain the site as an independent museum of architecture and the decorative arts.

Among the artifacts in the museum’s collection is this doll from a Baltimore family.

The museum’s webpage explains:
She is a Queen Anne style doll and dates to about 1785. She may have been made in England, starting as a block of wood and slowly taking shape as a carver turned the block on a lathe. It is easy to see why six-year-old Ann Proctor would have been attached to her, perhaps so attached that she insisted her doll be included in this portrait of her:
That’s a Charles Willson Peale painting from 1789. The museum notes that the doll is actually smaller than Peale painted it, so as not to distract from Anne (and her parrot). But clearly the doll had a lot of meaning for the Proctors.

Monday, September 25, 2023

“A Doll of the present mode”

The little stories I’ve told over the last two days about Benjamin Franklin’s and George Washington’s grandchildren raise the question: Did any Founders’ children not have to wait more than twelve months for toys to arrive from France?

Founders Online points me to one lucky child.

On 11 Sept 1785, American diplomat Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris to John Langdon (1741–1819), president of the Confederation Congress, enclosing a gift:
I beg leave to renew my acquaintance with Miss Langdon by sending her a Doll of the present mode, dressed in Muslin, a mode which prevailing here to an almost total exclusion of silk, has literally and truly starved a great number of people. I add to it a box in which she will find a small gentleman who will teach her a short-handed and graceful manner of going down stairs.
Elizabeth Langdon was born in 1777 and thus about eight years old when Jefferson wrote. She was living in the house her father had commissioned in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (now preserved by Historic New England). 

Unlike the other cases I discussed, Jefferson lucked out in the choice of ship he sent the toys and that letter on. By 7 December, Langdon was able to write back:
Our dear Bets, begs leave to present you with her grateful thanks, for the great honor you have been pleased to conferr on her, in sending such an agreable present: all Companies who come into the house must be entertained with the sight of her doll, and tumbling Gentleman; and she does not fail to confess her obligations to Governor Jefferson.
I’d like to know more about this “tumbling Gentleman” with “a short-handed and graceful manner of going down stairs.”

I wonder if that toy was designed along the same lines as this tumbling man in the collection of the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. That plaything dates from the mid-1800s, but the design was reportedly around well before then.

(To my surprise, I found that Elizabeth Langdon already made an appearance on this blog. In 1796, eleven years after receiving her toys from Jefferson, she recognized the Washingtons’ escaped slave Oney Judge in Portsmouth.)

Sunday, September 24, 2023

“An innocent Baby may become the Victim of strife”

Little Betsy Bache wasn’t alone in waiting a long time for a toy to arrive from France, as related yesterday.

On 15 Apr 1785, Adrienne, the Marquise de Lafayette (shown here), wrote to her husband’s dear friend George Washington:
how happy should I be, to meet with mrs [Martha] Washington, to recall together, all the circumstances of the war, every period of our anguish, and of your glory, and to see our children playing together.

wishing for so happy a moment, anastasie and Georges beg Leave, to send to the two youngest, miss Custis a toilett and a doll that is two play things with which my daughter is more delighted since two months, she is in possession of that she hopes, that her remembrance being some time mingled, with their entertainements, she may obtain some part in their frienship, whose she is so desirous of.

for the eldest miss Custis, we have so exalted an idea, of her reason and gravity, that we have only dared send to her a neeting bag, because she may with it, keep mrs Washington company, because I hear that she Likes this kind of work.

we send master Georges also, an optick with different wiews; but we have been moved by a personal interest, making him this gift. I hope that Looking at it, he will become fond of travelling that his travels will conduct him, into france, and perhaps he may bring you and mrs Washington here.
In that year the eldest of Martha’s grandchildren, Elizabeth Parke Custis, turned nine years old. Martha turned eight, Eleanor six, and little George Washington Parke Custis four. The two eldest lived with their widowed mother while George and Martha Washington were raising the two youngest at Mount Vernon. To the marquise’s credit, she sent something for everyone.

Lafayette himself alerted Washington that those things were on their way, writing the next day: “By mr Ridout’s Vessel my children Have Sent to yours at Mount Venon a few trifles which are very indifferent But may Amuse them two or three days.”

Unfortunately, due to various postal mix-ups, those gifts didn’t arrive at Mount Vernon until May 1786, thirteen months later.

Also to be lamented, we don’t appear to have any letters or other accounts from Mount Vernon describing how the children received those playthings from France.

But there may be a little hint in what Washington learned from watching children in letters he wrote in December 1798. By then two of the Custis sisters had married; settled in Washington, D.C.; and had babies named after them:
  • Martha Peter, born in January 1796.
  • Eliza Law, born in January 1797.
Meanwhile, Washington was serving as President in Philadelphia. There he often met with Elizabeth Powel, and she promised to help him pick out gifts for his female relatives. On 4 December Washington wrote:
let me tresspass upon your goodness to procure the second edition of the present (on my acct) that you intend for Eliza Law. Without which, a contest (regardless of right—no unusual thing)—in which an innocent Baby may become the Victim of strife.
Three days later Washington told Powel: “Your letter to Mrs Law shall be safely delivered to her and I will endeavor to do the same by the Doll to Eliza.” The doll cost $2.50.

So it looks like Powel told Washington she was going to supply a doll for Eliza Law, and he asked her to buy another for him to give to someone else, who I’m guessing was her older cousin Martha. That way both little girls, and both mothers, would be content.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

“Send her a doll not a fine one”

On 16 Sept 1779, Sarah Bache wrote from Philadelphia to her father, Benjamin Franklin, in France with news of his grandchildren:
Willy and our little Black ey’d parrot [Betsy] who I am sure you would be fond of if you knew her, (she is just the age Will was when you came from england, and goes down stairs just like him) both join in love to you, she desires you would send her a doll not a fine one, but one that will bear to be pul’d about with a great deal of Nursing, there is no such things to be had here as toys for Children
Betsy Bache had just turned two.

It took a long time for Sarah Bache’s request to get across the Atlantic and the gift to return. Not until 23 June 1781, when Betsy was well over three and a half, did she receive a present from her grandfather. Her mother wrote:
The things you sent me by C[ap]t. Smith came to hand safe he arrived in Boston, and I got them brought in a Waggon that was comming . . . Betsy was the hapiest Creature in the world with her Baby told every body who sent it
On 1 October, Sally Bache gave birth to another daughter. Her husband reported that they would name this baby Deborah after her grandmother, Franklin’s late wife.

Sarah resumed writing to her father on 19 October, saying:
the Children are delighted with their new Sister, and Betsy has gone so far as to say she loves her better than the Baby that came from France
A few weeks later we find the new Bache baby now nicknamed by her toddler brother, and we catch a last glimpse of that hard-to-find, long-traveled French doll:
Willy, Betsy, Luly Boy and Sister Deby De join in duty the last two names are of Louis’s making, they have just been striping the French Baby and dipping her in a tub of cold water—
(The first letter quoted above can be viewed here, courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.)

Friday, September 22, 2023

“The first English children’s novel” and Its Arrival in America

This month the Smithsonian Magazine website published V. M. Braganza’s article “The Revolutionary Influence of the First English Children’s Novel.”

What novel is that? Braganza writes:
Before her name became synonymous with sickly-sweet virtue, Goody Two-Shoes was the protagonist of the first English children’s novel, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. First published in 1765, the book was a groundbreaking work. It tells the life story of an orphaned girl, Margery Meanwell, whose poverty reduces her to rags—and to wearing just one shoe. When her fortunes improve and she acquires some new footwear, her excitement earns her the nickname “Goody Two-Shoes.” . . .

The book appeared in many editions in England and the United States, and it was beloved among famous writers like Robert Southey and Jane Austen, who kept her childhood copy until her death. One of the earliest works of children’s literature, Margery Meanwell’s adventures offered a striking alternative to prevailing gender norms. Over the course of the novel, Margery teaches herself to read, foils a major robbery, founds a school, earns her own living, stands up for animal rights and overcomes accusations of witchcraft. She was everything that 18th- and 19th-century British society thought women shouldn’t be: poor, well-educated, self-made and unmarried (at least until the last few pages).

Margery was wildly popular and one of the first heroines whom juvenile readers admired. It’s no stretch to say that the novel launched and definitively shaped children’s literature as a genre intended to entertain young readers while teaching foundational values like generosity, hard work and the virtues of education. It continues to exert an enormous, if forgotten, influence on culture today: Anyone who unconsciously quotes its title has been shaped by this book without knowing it.
The first edition of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was published in London by John Newbery, whose name the American children’s book field appropriated over a century later for its highest award. Writers attributed the story to Oliver Goldsmith, or possibly the brothers Griffith and Giles Jones; all of them wrote for Newbery.

I’ve found the book advertised in Philadelphia in 1769 along with other “LITTLE BOOKS, Adorned with a great Variety of PICTURES, calculated for the Improvement and Amusement of Children.”

Hugh Gaine published his own edition of Goody Two-Shoes in New York in 1775. Because people now expected children’s books to have pictures, that meant commissioning new woodblocks. The photo above shows one of two surviving blocks from this edition, sold by Heritage Auctions from the Justin G. Schiller collection in 2020.

A century ago some studies credited Isaiah Thomas as the first to publish the book in America, but Thomas’s edition appeared in 1787 and followed at least three other American editions.

Berganza has more to say about the storytelling and influence of Goody Two-Shoes, and Wilbur Macey Stone’s 1939 study in the American Antiquarian Society Proceedings can be downloaded here.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Informed Discussion of Peter Faneuil and His Legacy

This month the Boston Globe published Brian MacQuarrie’s article, many months in the making, about Peter Faneuil, the Atlantic slave economy, and what that might mean for Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

It’s a long and thoughtful article, presenting recent primary-source research and including many voices. The web version includes animated maps.

I hadn’t known this:
A 2021 survey suggested that Bostonians support renaming the hall, with 51 percent in favor, 36 percent opposed, and 12 percent undecided or declining to answer, according to the MassINC Polling Group. Black voters overwhelmingly backed the change, while white voters were nearly evenly split.
Of course, support for renaming would probably divide if people were asked about different possibilities instead of a generic change. But the minority strongly opposed to renaming are certainly overrepresented in this article’s comments section.

I wrote a series of postings about the name of Faneuil Hall back in 2020 (starting here), and in June reported on the site’s exhibit about slavery in Revolutionary Boston. My thinking, including the value of visible iconoclasm and highighting the many people involved in the building, hasn’t changed.

Renaming landmarks is something all societies do, of course. Revolutionary Boston included King Street, Queen Street, Hutchinson Street—all changed for political reasons in the new republic. For a while King’s Chapel was called the Stone Chapel. Prolonged public discussion of such issues highlights divisions in society, but being able to resolve those questions collectively should be a sign of health.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Preparing for the Battle Road Sestercentennial

The staff at Minute Man National Historical Park is already planning for the Sestercentennial of the Battle and Lexington and Concord in 2025.

And that means planning for the battle anniversary in 2024.

The park is alerting Revolutionary reenacting groups who want to participate in 2025 that they must sign up for and participate in the 2024 so they’ll know how to navigate the park and its rules before the crowds get huge.

Furthermore, in order to maintain the Battle Road standards for accuracy, units must register for the 2024 event between this month and 13 January.

The park explains here:
Q: Does my group really need to attend Battle Road prior to the 250th in order to attend in 2025?

A: Yes. Battle Road is unique for its complexity and physical demands. Also, in 2025 we are expecting possibly tens of thousands of visitors and even a Presidential visit. Park volunteers and staff can expect large crowds and even heavy traffic getting to the site. It is important for units to experience Battle Road in a more quiet year so they know where they need to go and what is expected of them so to avoid confusion in 2025. . . .

The entire unit does not have to participate in the 2024 event. Three or four members, preferably officers and NCOs, can attend and adequately represent a unit with the assumption that they can report back to the other members and help them make sense of the important information.

Q: I can't make it to the inspection, how do I get approved?

A: In 2024, the Battle Road Muster will be held on Saturday, March 30th. The main purpose of the muster is, primarily, to provide safety briefings, to drill and rehearse the tactical demonstrations. Also, it is a good opportunity to get eyes on participants and identify any last minute, hopefully minor, issues with drill, clothing, or equipment and take steps to correct them before the event on Saturday, April 13th.

However, in 2023 we learned that for groups with multiple or major issues, identifying these at the muster is too late. Therefore, we will open registration for 2024 in September of 2023 and will close it on January 13, 2024. Units must submit photographs no later than January 13th. New units may be asked to also provide a drill video if requested.

If sending group photos, please have the unit formed in one rank and provide front and rear photographs and a list of names (from right to left) of those in the photo. Any member not present must submit a photograph solo, through their unit commander, to the committee no later than January 13th.
Note the date for the 2024 commemoration: Saturday, 13 April. There will, of course, be a plethora of other events around that date, and an even larger number of celebrations, or even larger celebrations, in 2025.

(The image above is a screen capture of Grayson1Video’s recording of the 1975 parade, filmed on Super 8. It’s not meant to show current standards.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

O’Brien on Loyalists via Old North, 21 Sept.

On Thursday, 21 September, Old North Illuminated will host a virtual talk by G. Patrick O’Brien on “‘This Perilous Hour of Trial, Horror & Distress’: Loyalist Exile and Return.”

The event description says:
Between April 1775 and the early months of 1783, more than 75,000 colonists fled the upheaval of the Revolution for the protection of the British Empire. Nearly half of these refugees, including many New Englanders, landed on the rocky shores of Nova Scotia.

The most prominent of these exiles called themselves “loyalists,” a label they fashioned to accentuate their own unwavering fidelity, and the broader collective’s shared dedication to maintaining Britain’s empire in North America. . . .

Concentrating on a few loyalist families from the greater Boston area, including that of Rev. Mather Byles Jr., the rector of Old North Church until 1775, Dr. G. Patrick O’Brien of the University of Tampa will explore what it meant to be a loyalist during the American Revolution.

The talk will pay special attention to how marginalized loyalists, including women and enslaved people, grappled with the hardships of wartime exile and the role these figures had in bringing families back to their American homes after the war.
It’s notable that although the Rev. Mather Byles, Jr. (shown above), left with the British troops, his father, the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr., remained in Boston, as did his two half-sisters. The Boston Byles family continued to profess loyalty to the king, even in the new republic. While some Loyalists came back to the U.S. of A., or tried, these Byleses never left.

G. Patrick O’Brien is professor at the University of Tampa. He is working on a book about the experiences of loyalist women and families during the Revolution, their exile in Nova Scotia, and the social networks repatriating loyalists created between British Canada and the United States.

This online event will run from 7:00 to 8:30 P.M. Register for the link through this Eventbrite page; make a donation of of any amount to Old North Illuminated to support the preservation and interpretation efforts at Old North Church in the North End.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Taking a Scrap of History

Earlier this month Independence National Historical Park shared the photo above on Facebook.

That posting stated:
This scrap of newspaper was excavated from a privy at the National Constitution Center site where it had likely been used as toilet paper. That's right - this piece of paper likely wiped a bottom in ye old outhouse sometime following November 5, 1790, the day it was published. Sometimes the most fascinating objects are those that capture the most private moments of the past.
The clipping might also have come from the 8 Nov and 12 Nov 1790 Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser. Before and after those days, wine merchant Benjamin W. Morris’s advertisement differed slightly.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Case of the Adapted Anecdote

Today is Constitution Day, declared to commemorate the date on which the delegates at the Constitutional Convention signed off on their work.

Not the day on which that proposed constitution for the new U.S. of A. was ratified by a supermajority of the people’s representatives, nor the day on which it went into effect. But that’s another story.

Speaking of stories, I’m continuing to investigate the anecdote that James McHenry wrote and then rewrote about Benjamin Franklin telling Elizabeth Powel that the convention provided for a “a republic—if you can keep it.”

Two Supreme Court justices have written books using that phrase as their title. The more recent is by Neil Gorsuch, who alluded to the story only in passing.

The earlier was by Earl Warren in 1972, after he had retired from the bench. It offers this page at the start:

After a detailed description of Franklin encountering a woman outside the meeting hall, Warren cited the “Notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of the delegates,” adding, “Adapted from Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States, Government Printing Office, 1927.”

When I looked up that government publication, however, I found only the transcription of what McHenry wrote at the end of his convention notes, as published in Max Farrand’s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 in 1911.
A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.

The lady here aluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.
Warren accurately quoted Elizabeth Powel’s question about “a republic or a monarchy.” He didn’t insert the word “Madam” into Franklin’s response as some authors did.

However, none of the emotional detail in Warren’s anecdote—how the “delegates trudged out,” the “anxious woman in the crowd waiting at the entrance”—came from the source he cited. The phrase “Adapted from” shows that Warren must have realized how his telling differed from the original. Most likely, he had been influenced by other detailed retellings and imagined the scene that way.

American authors had been setting this exchange on the street for at least thirty years by then. (McHenry wrote that it happened indoors, and Powel insisted that it had happened in her salon if it had happened at all.)

Previous writers had described the questioner as “eager,” “concerned,” and “inquisitive.” This is the earliest version that I’ve found using the word “anxious,” an adjective repeated in reviews of this book and in later narrations. (Powel would have hated that characterization.)

This version of the anecdote appeared in a book by a former Chief Justice of the United States, with what appears to be a citation to a highly authoritative source. But tracing back that citation shows how many details of this tale were spun out of nothing.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

“A Sett of Controversial Discourses agreed upon by the Society”

In October 1722, almost a year after being inoculated against smallpox, Ebenezer Turell found a new use for his notebook.

He wrote out what he called “An account of a Society in Har: Colledge.” This was a more serious endeavor than the Telltale essay exchange the previous year.

Ten young men from the Harvard College class of 1721 plus four from nearby classes pledged to meet regularly for intellectual pursuits. One might share “a Discourse of about Twenty minuits,” or the group could engage in philosophical disputations, readings, and epistles.

They also promised “That if we see or hear of any Extraordinary Book, we will give ye best account we can of it to ye Society.”

As an example of what this society (formally) talked about, Turell’s two lectures were:
1 Upon Light, a Phisico-Theological Discourse
2 Upon Providence.
The group was still meeting in October 1723 when Turell took the lead in a new format, combining the discourse and the disputation into a single discussion:
E T read a Lecture to show that it is a point of Prudence To prove & Try all Doctrines in Religion, wch was to serve as an Introduction to a Sett of Controversial Discourses agreed upon by the Society to be successivly carried, one every week.
The last record is from January 1724 when the group agreed on topics for upcoming lectures and discussions. There’s no record of those meetings, however. It’s possible Turell switched to another notebook since he was coming close to the pages he’d already filled with the Telltale material, and that second document didn’t survive. It’s also possible this extracurricular activity just petered out in the winter of 1724 as members moved on.

In 1909 William C. Lane pointed out to the Colonial Society that nearly all the young men in that society went on to be ministers. Those included the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy and the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton of Boston and the Rev. John Lowell (shown above) of Newburyport, ancestor of the celebrated Lowell family.

Ebenezer Turell himself started to train for the pulpit under the Rev. Benjamin Colman of the Brattle Street Meeting in Boston. He became the minister in Medford in 1724, and Colman’s son-in-law two years later. Jane (Colman) Turell shared Ebenezer’s love of writing, though she had a religiously anxious life until she died in 1735.

Turell remarried twice, each time to women in the upper class. As a minister he was a firm Old Light and later a supporter of the Whigs. The Medford congregation granted him a pension in 1773, the year before he preached his last sermon, and he died in 1778. In all, the current church says, Turell oversaw the construction of two church buildings, admitted 323 communicants, baptized 1,037 people, and married 220 couples.

Friday, September 15, 2023

“Argumentive dialogue concerning inoculation”

The Telltale essays by Harvard College students in Ebenezer Turell’s notebook come to a stop on 1 Nov 1721.

In the preceding month, 411 people in Boston had died of smallpox. The epidemic had been spreading and killing since April.

People at Harvard were contracting the disease, including the maid of undergraduate Samuel Mather (1706–1785).

Samuel’s father, the Rev. Cotton Mather, had heard about inoculation against smallpox from his enslaved servant Onesimus and then from reading accounts of the procedure in Turkey. He urged Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to try this approach infecting people with a mild case of the disease in hopes of immunizing them for life.

In June 1721, Boylston inoculated his young son, an enslaved man, and that man’s son. When they didn’t die, he and Mather went public. Boston’s selectmen told him to stop. Boylston didn’t, inoculating young Samuel Mather among others.

Dr. William Douglass opposed inoculation with his pen and his authority as a Scottish-educated physician. The Rev. Benjamin Colman (shown above) supported Boylston and Mather with his Narrative of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-pox in New England. Other doctors and ministers divided on the question.

In that atmosphere, around the start of November Ebenezer Turell opened his Telltale notebook from the other end and wrote out a fourteen-page “Argumentive dialogue concerning inoculation between Dr. Hurry and Mr. Waitfort.” Dr. Hurry was, of course, eager for the new procedure, and Mr. Waitfort was still hanging back.

The dialogue consisted of exchanges like this one:
W[aitfort:…] He that bring sickness upon himself Voluntarily Breaks one of the divine Commandment (the 6th)…

H[urry:] I never heard yt the Bringing Sickness upon our selves was a Breach of ye Divine Law Absolutly for by vomitting Purging letting of Blood &c We make our selves sick and that voluntarily too
In the end Dr. Hurry prevailed. The essay concluded with this verse:
Theres none but Cowards fear ye Launce,
Heroes receive ye Wound
With rapturous joy they Skip & Dance,
While others hugg ye Ground.
According to Dr. Boylston’s published account, on 23 November he “inoculated Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton, and Mr. John Lowel, each about 18.” Both those young men were in Turell’s college class and in his circle. (Indeed, I suspect this John Lowell was the student he started the Telltale with.)

The next day, he administered the procedure to a Harvard professor, a tutor, and seven students, including “Mr. Ebenezer Turil.”

Turell went back into his notebook and added that his “Argumentive dialogue” was “Compos’d about three weeks before I was inoculated.”

TOMORROW: Ebenezer Turell’s Society.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Theophilus Evedropper and the Chair Lifters

As I wrote yesterday, on 9 Sept 1721 a Harvard College student—quite possibly Ebenezer Turell—using the signature “Telltale” wrote a short essay inviting a friend to write back about “The shamfull impertinences & monstrous inconsistencies yt daily perplex us.”

Instead, someone else found that note and wrote back. Turell didn’t record the reply.

“Telltale” then wrote directly to his target reader, “J. L.”—perhaps John Lowell, like Turell in the Harvard class of 1721. (The president of the college then was John Leverett, but he seems a less likely addressee.) That second letter said: “If you have any inclination for an epistolary correspondence with me you may deposit your Letters in that Famous tree call’d the Pliable Crotch on Monday Ev’ning.”

J. L. did write back, and other authors joined in the exchange, sharing essays over such pen names as Blablonge and Courage. Telltale himself also used the name Theophilus Evedropper. He collected the essays in a notebook under date headings with classical or literary mottos underneath, imitating British magazines like the Spectator.

Evidently someone else at Harvard was circulating similar essays under the title “The Censure or Muster Roll.” The 30 September offering from Telltale was devoted to criticizing this rival, as in: “The Subject he would treat of is Learning wch I entirly forgott before I had finish’d the first Page.”

Other essays appear to lampoon fellow students, and it’s not clear whether those were friendly joshing within the group or snaps at rivals. By October, the articles veer toward setting up a group called the Spy Club (and sniping at something called the Mock Club).

The Harvard Archives has called the Telltale material “the first student publication” at the college. However, there’s no suggestion the material was ever printed, and I’m not convinced it counts as a publication without more copies. It definitely appear to be an extracurricular activity, however.

John Lowell and Ebenezer Turell were in the college class of 1721, which meant they had graduated by September when these essays started to circulate. They were probably still in Cambridge, reading for their master’s degrees. It’s possible that the greater freedom accorded graduates empowered them to write and share these essays.

On the other hand, the Telltale articles do offer some glimpses of life that seems undergraduate (and remember that at this time most college students were what we think of as high-school age):
There [are] a number of Persons in Colledge who delight in nothing so much as in doing Mischief. This is what they call clean, showing their Parts &c. The great Number of these Persons adds to the Vexation. They are of very different inclinations & each of ym has his particular Art wherin he excells.

I was t’other Day in Company with some of them who go by the Name of Chair Lifters. These Cowards attack you while you are sitting in a Chair (a most defenceless Posture) flinging you to the Ground with Great Violence. For wch Sometimes you[r] Head, arms and Posteriors curse them a fort night after. . . .

There a[re] Divers other Troblesome Fellows of other Species…as rappers, clappers, Trippers, nippers, Thigh Duffers, Stroakers, Pokers, &c all of them when I have opportunity shall be satyrically animadverted upon.
All in all, the Telltale appears to have been motivated by a wish to chide others into proper behavior rather than the satirize the powerful. In that respect, among Boston-area writing it was more like the establishment Boston News-Letter and Boston Gazette than the cheeky New-England Courant.

TOMORROW: Serious matters.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

“Essay’d on the following Saturdays”

The Boston News-Letter was launched in 1704, the first ongoing newspaper in British North America.

The Boston Gazette followed in 1719. Like the News-Letter it was a weekly licensed by the province and indeed funded by government officials.

On 7 Aug 1721 James Franklin began the New-England Courant with the support of several gentlemen opposed to Boston’s Puritan orthodoxy. That meant poking fun of government officials, Congregationalist ministers, and their public concerns, such as the Rev. Cotton Mather’s ludicrous support for smallpox inoculation. 

Slightly more than a month after the Courant began running, a group of Harvard College students started “a Paper call’d the Telltale, or Criticisms on the Conversation & Beheavour of Schollars to promote right reasoning & good manner.”

The text of this “Paper” survives because Ebenezer Turell (1702–1778, shown here) from the Harvard class of 1721 copied the contents from Saturday, 9 September 9, to Wednesday, 1 November, into a little notebook. Indeed, Turell might have been the organizer of the Telltale to begin with.

That document came to the Harvard University library almost two centuries later, and it’s now digitized. Back in 1909 William C. Lane did a presentation on the manuscript to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and we can read his text here, including transcriptions of some parts of the Telltale.

As the Telltale told its own history, the first item was a little handwritten essay titled “The Preface”:
Tis a common observation, he yt remarks ye Folly of others has his own severly remark’d upon. However abjiciendus Timor quoties urget necessitas [throw away disgrace whenever necessity urges]. The shamfull impertinences & monstrous inconsistencies yt daily perplex us must have their career obstructed by some seasonable animadversions wch (Divino anuente numine [with God’s divine approval]) shall be essay’d on the following Saturdays.

Perhaps your enquiries will run more after my Person than the reason of my Discourses. But take this Caution. I am so envelop’d with clouds & vizards yt the most piercing eye can[not] distinguish me from Stoughton’s Hall. In this I am happy. What I intend is for the benefit of the Society & tho in some passages I may seem pritty facetious (wch erroneously call light & vain) It must be attributed to my natural constitution. I hope ther’s no Gentleman (I know ther’s none of worth) will be my antagonist in so laudable an undertaking. But if any man will appear so vain & foolish I defy his strength & Laugh att his attempt.

I would propose and desire ye Gentlemen of Witt & good Sense (of whom we have a considerable number) would unite in the Servasable affair & assume their rights in the other 5 Days. The time yt would be taken up in this matter would not amount to above an hour in a week, & yet how great the advantage!

Sign’d Telltale
The author of that notice left it “upon a pair of Stairs.” Someone picked it up and wrote something underneath in reply. But that someone wasn’t the person that Telltale wanted to hear from.

TOMORROW: “that Famous tree call’d the Pliable Crotch”.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

The Boarding of the Betty in Great Detail

Earlier this year the Cowper & Newton Museum in England posted an article headlined “John Newton, Tide Surveyor, and the boarding of the Betty.”

The authors are Darren White and Glen Huntley, who collaborate as Bygone Liverpool.

They begin:
When the Cowper & Newton Museum shared with us a photograph of a small paper exhibit from its collection—a boarding docket from John Newton’s time as a tide surveyor (1755–1764) in Liverpool—we didn’t think we would be able to unlock its secrets because there wasn’t that much information listed in it.
But they then proceed to assemble a long, detailed, and richly illustrated examination of the circumstances behind that document.

Through newspapers White and Huntley were able to confirm that the ship Betty had come from Virginia, and that it carried tobacco. They discuss Newton’s duties [see what I did there] as a Customs officer, and how the River Mersey looked to arriving ships.

American sources provided information on the Betty’s captain, Thomas Brereton. British sources illuminated the ship’s several owners.

Then it turns out the Betty was made into a privateer in 1761. The authors even found a diagram showing how it had sailed out of Chesapeake Bay that September in a protective convoy of tobacco ships.

The article traces the Betty to its demise off the coast of Ireland in 1763, with a final conflict between different groups fighting for the spoils of the wreck.

It’s a long read that goes in many directions, but it’s a wonderful example of what one can learn just by pulling on a few threads of historical evidence.

In 1764 Newton was ordained within the Anglican church, leaving the civil service and becoming curate for Olney. He’s best known as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and the rueful pamphlet Thoughts on the Slave Trade.

Monday, September 11, 2023

“William Dawes” and Other History Camp Boston Videos to Watch

History Camp Boston has now posted videos from its conference at Suffolk University Law School early last month.

That means you can see me talk about “William Dawes Before and After His Ride” (a/k/a “William Dawes’s Secret”).

One of the details I noticed while updating my notes for this talk is the timing of this item from the Boston Gazette published on Monday, 9 May 1768:
Last Tuesday was married, Mr. William Dawes, Jun. to Mrs. Mehitable May, both of this Town, and Yesterday made a handsome Appearance, dress’d wholly in the Manufactures of this Country, wherein he did Honor to himself, and merits the Respect of the Province, agreeable to their unanimous Vote passed the last session…
I hadn’t processed before that Dawes dressed up in his new suit not on his wedding day but on the first Sunday after his wedding, when he and Mehitable went to their church, Old South, for the first time as a married couple.

Weddings were usually small family affairs in colonial New England, but now I’m curious if there are other examples of the first Sunday after a wedding being the public.

History Camp Boston included many more talks about eighteenth-century and Revolutionary topics, so there are plenty of videos to sample, on topics like the Salem witch trials, James Otis, the Tea Party, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, John Hancock, and more. And of course some sessions considered other periods of history as well.

Some of these videos, including mine, were produced with a grant from the Americana Corner Foundation.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Carp on Land, Colonial Ports, Global Trade…

The Economic History Association’s EH.net site has shared Benjamin L. Carp review of Jeremy Land’s Colonial Ports, Global Trade, and the Roots of the American Revolution, 1700–1776.

Land is currently Postdoktor in the Department of Economy and Society at the University of Gothenburg and a visiting scholar at the University of Helsinki. He received Ph.D. at Georgia State University in 2019.

Carp summarizes Land’s argument this way:
First, he argues that scholars should understand Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia, as well as the smaller towns in their orbit, as a complex, integrated “port complex” or “port system” rather than fetishizing them as entrepôts for distinct regions (15). . . . Together they formed a “nodal center” that was independent of the British metropole (3).

Second, with that in mind Land argues that these cities’ mercantile interests developed and deployed their own resources, rather than acting as handmaidens to British sources of capital. Indeed, he argues, the metropole often stumbled as an inadequate manager of colonial economic interests. By contrast, since American merchants owned a third of the empire’s merchant marine tonnage, “colonial investment was quite capable of sustaining itself without being dependent on British capital” (51). . . .

Third, the British didn’t actively opt for a policy of “salutary neglect” toward the colonies (151). Imperial officials went through earnest phases of trying to enforce mercantilism, particularly after incurring debts during the Seven Years’ War, but these officials also went through phases of accommodating local merchants or leaving them alone. Ultimately, a lack of imperial capacity to enforce customs laws or provide sufficient specie forced the American cities to go outside the British Empire for circulating currency, specie, and trade routes.

Trade with the Caribbean and outside the empire was on the whole more important to American merchants than was trade with Great Britain. By referring to “trans-imperial trade networks,” Land avoids any romantic, Han Solo-esque associations we might have with smuggling and takes a clearer look at American trading networks outside the British Empire (2). While illegal trade can be difficult to document, Land finds plenty of suggestive evidence. As perhaps the best example, he draws from an earlier co-authored article to demonstrate that Lisbon records show 73% more trade with Philadelphia than the Philadelphia customs house records (Land and Dominguez, 2019, 148–49).
(That’s “Illicit Affairs: Philadelphia’s Trade with Lisbon before Independence, 1700-1775,” published in Ler Historia in 2019 and available here.)
By trading outside the empire, northern merchants had mounted a “resistance” to British mercantile policy long before the 1760s, and the customs service was essentially powerless to enforce its Navigation Acts (2). Although the British Empire ramped up its enforcement efforts after 1763, these efforts backfired. American merchants decided that “membership in the British Empire … was not worth the effort” (3).
At the end of the Revolutionary War, however, many American merchants were shocked to discover that they could no longer trade with those British Caribbean islands, or with the metropole (i.e., London and other British ports). There followed a painful adjustment as the nation tried the China trade, feelers into other empires, and finally a trade pact with Great Britain. Membership in the British Empire may not have been worth it, but independence wasn’t easy either.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

“So much disturbed by a Number of unruly People”

Two hundred fifty years ago today, on 9 Sept 1773, Jacob Bates ran this advertisement in the Boston News-Letter:
Is extremely sorry that the Ladies and Gentlemen were so much disturbed by a Number of unruly People on Wednesday last when he performed, and so much Mischief done to the Fence: —
He is determined for the future, to prosecute to the full Extent of the Law, any Person that shall attempt any thing of the Kind.

He performs again on SATURDAY next, the 11th Instant. The Doors open at 3 o’Clock.

*** TICKETS to be had at Col. Ingersoll’s, in King-Street, Mr. Bracket’s, in School-Street, and at the Place of Performance.

As Mr. BATES is willing to do every thing in his Power to oblige the Ladies and Gentlemen, he has lower’d the Price to Three Shillings each.

Mr. BATES is allowed by the greatest Judges in the Manly Art he professes, to excell any HORSEMAN that ever attempted any Thing of the Kind.
Apparently there had been some sort of disturbance at Bates’s first performance.

Or had there? Back in Philadelphia in September 1772, Bates had likewise posted how he was “extremely sorry that the Ladies and Gentlemen were disturbed by the MOB.” Such apologies might just have been a way to spread the word that his show was extremely popular, like restaurants taking out ads to apologize for running out of food last night.

As for Bates’s new lower price, three shillings was already his minimum price for tickets. He was discounting only the premium admission, perhaps admitting that he wasn’t selling a lot at the higher price.

(I’d like to provide a solid explanation for Bates’s distinction between “Tickets for the First Place” and “for the Second” beyond the obvious that the first were more expensive and therefore presumably better in some way. However, he was the only person to use that phrase in American newspapers in the quarter-century before the war.)

And speaking of those tickets, in addition to Bates’s enclosure at the bottom of the Mall, Bostonians could buy them at two long established taverns:
Taverns with enclosed courtyards were a common venue for traveling performers like Bates. Obviously he needed more space, but those publicans were probably comfortable with handling ticket sales for entertainers.

Friday, September 08, 2023

Bates “at the Bottom of the Mall in Boston”

When we last checked in with equestrian Jacob Bates, on 27 Aug 1773 the Boston selectmen denied his request “to erect a Fence in the Common which will inclose about 160 feet of Ground in order to show his feats in Horsmanship.”

Nonetheless, on 6 September, the Boston Gazette ran this notice:

Mr. BATES, (allowed by the greatest Judges in the Manly Art he professes, to excel any HORSEMAN that ever attempted any Thing of the Kind) on Wednesday next, if good Weather, if not the Friday following, will perform on one, two, and three Horses, at the Bottom of the Mall in Boston.

TICKETS for the first Place at one Dollar each, and for the second Three Shillings, to be had at Col. Ingersol’s, Mr. Bracket’s, and at the Place of Performance.
An even larger advertisement appeared the same day in the Boston Post-Boy:
The Original PERFORMER;
Who has had the Honour of performing before
THE Emperor of Germany, the Empress of Russia, and King of Great-Britain, the French King, the Kings of Prussia, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, and Poland, and the Prince of Orange; Also, at the Courts of Saxony, Bavaria, Brunswick, Mecklenburgh, Saxe-Gotha, Hilbourghausen, Anspach, and every other Court in Germany; at all which he received the greatest APPLAUSE, as can be made manifest by the Certificates from the several Courts, now in his Possession, and is allowed, by the greatest judges in the MANLY ART he professes, to excel any Horseman that ever attempted any Thing of the Kind.

the 8th September Instant,
If good Weather, if not, the Friday following,
He will perform on ONE, TWO, and THREE HORSES, at the Bottom of the MALL, in BOSTON.

The Doors will be opened at Three o’Clock, and he will mount precisely at Four.

The Seats are made proper for LADIES and GENTLEMEN.

He will take it as a particular Favour, if Gentlement will not suffer any Dogs to come with them.

TICKETS for the First Place at One Dollar each, and for the Second, Three Shillings Lawful Money, to be had at Colonel INGERSOL’s, in King-street, Mr. BRACKETT’s in School-street, and at the Place of Performance.

No Money will be taken at the Doors, nor Admittance without Tickets.
Obviously Bates had found a place to erect his fence anyway. The Mall was part of the Common, defined since the early 1700s by two rows of trees planted by the selectmen’s order along Tremont Street (then also called Common Street). The “Bottom of the Mall” was most likely privately owned land at the southern end of those trees in an area of town still not densely populated.
On Wednesday, 8 September, two and a half centuries ago today, the weather in Boston was good. Bates and his horses performed their show.

TOMORROW: Mr. Bates apologizes.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

“A painting so great, and so strange”

Laura Cummings’s review of the Derby Museum in England for the Guardian is the sort of review that makes me want to look up plane and train schedules:

There is a painting so great, and so strange, in the city of Derby as to be worth the visit to the gallery alone. It shows a group of spectators gathered in deep darkness round a clockwork model of the solar system. Their faces are illuminated only by an invisible source: the hidden lamp that stands in for the sun. . . .

Joseph Wright’s A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery (1766) has pride of place in Derby Museum and Art Gallery, as it should. During his life and long after his death, Wright (1734-97) was chiefly known for two things: having his name infrangibly bound to the Midlands town of his birth, and being Britain’s best painter of candlelight. . . .

Today’s museum feels uniquely intimate. Here is [Richard] Arkwright, and then a painting of his cotton mill, where the 12-hour shifts ran right through the night; and then a clock designed by John Whitehurst to record the running time of machines alongside standard time, on two dials; and then Wright’s portrait of Whitehurst.

Here too is the 120,000-year-old hippo found in a Derby suburb; the Roman dice discovered beneath the ring road; the pigeon King of Rome, which broke all speed records racing 1,001 miles back home from Italy in 1913. And all of this appears alongside French revolutionary shoes, Cycladic figures, samurai armour, Egyptian mummies and dinosaurs that children can touch.

All this place needs, as the gallery prepares to show 400 of Wright’s lithe and animate drawings in 2024, alongside his painted masterpieces, is a massive dose of money (come on, plutocrats) to lift its premises and presentation up to the standards of its Enlightenment stars. Then Derby Museum and Art Gallery can be what it ought to be, a miniature rival to the British Museum, without all the stealing.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

“Buckles grew larger and more elaborate”

The English Historical Review is sharing Matthew McCormack’s article “‘So Manly and Ornamental’: Shoe Buckles and Britain’s Eighteenth Century.”

I suspect this article could be of particular interest to reenactors, especially those portraying the upper-class and striving members of society.

From the abstract:
At the time, shoes were manufactured without fastenings and the buckle was purchased separately. This offered opportunities for decoration, particularly for men, whose shoes were otherwise plain and unchanging.

Over the course of the century, buckles grew larger and more elaborate, reaching their apogee in the ‘Artois’ style of the 1780s. In the wake of the French Revolution, buckles came to be associated with effeminacy and the excesses of the aristocracy, so fell from fashion.

This article explores the roles of gender and class in this story, and will challenge the usual association of the buckle with foppery, demonstrating that they were consistent with mainstream masculinities until the 1790s.
About that point, McCormack writes in the conclusion, “the buckle trade was done for.”

And even if you’re just not that into clothing, there’s some snazzy historiographical content:
The shoe historians Bernard and Therle Hughes deployed an extract from The London Spy (1698), in which city beaus wear ‘Shoes black as Jet, which shin’d by much Rubbing … displayed Buckles preserv’d bright in a Box of Cotton, that they dazzled the Eyes of each Beholder like a piece of Looking-Glass in the Sunshine’. This passage has been re-quoted by subsequent shoe historians, since it conveniently reinforces the image of buckles as showy and excessive, but it is in fact a misquotation: the original passage instead refers to black boots (which did not have buckles) and shiny spurs.
For more along the same lines, Routledge is ready to share McCormack’s chapter from the essay collection Everyday Political Objects, titled “Wooden Shoes and Wellington Boots: The Politics of Footwear in Georgian Britain.”

[Shown above: Jeremiah Lee’s shins and shoe buckles, by John Singleton Copley.]

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Ballot-Stuffing at the Boston Town Meeting

Last month Jake Sconyers devoted an episode of his HUB History podcast to the long history of King’s Chapel, from Gov. Edmund Andros’s seizure of some of the land Boston had set aside for its first burying-ground to a recent fire in a Nova Scotia church built from the timber left over when the current stone chapel rose around it.

This podcast is primarily a story about real estate and architecture, not theology. There could be another whole narrative on how King’s Chapel was philosophically “rebuilt” as one of the town’s first Unitarian congregations soon after the Revolution while still maintaining its upper-class status.

In 1748 the King’s Chapel leadership wanted to build a larger church and proposed a deal: If Boston would grant it more land on School Street, the congregation would pay for a new South Latin School.

This required a vote at town meeting. One name popped out for me in the story of how that vote proceeded. Here’s a quotation from the official town records, as transcribed for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts:
…thereupon the Inhabitants were directed to bring in their Votes in writing, & such of ’em as were accepting of said Draft of a Vote as prepared by the Committee & passing the same as the Vote of the Town in answer to said Petition were desired to write Yea and such as were not for accepting it to write Nay.

And the Inhabitants proceeded to bring in their Votes, and when the Selectmen were receiving ’em at the Door of the Hall they observed one of the Inhabitants Vizt John Pigeon to put in about a dozen with the Word Yea wrote on all of ’em and being charged with so doing he acknowledg’d it & was thereupon ordered by the Moderator to pay a fine of Five Pounds for putting in more than one Vote according to Law, and the Moderator thereupon declared to the Inhabitants that they must withdraw and bring in their Votes again in Manner as before
John Pigeon (1725–1800) was at that point a young man, still in his early twenties, starting out in business. He was an Anglican, so it’s not surprising that he supported the church expansion.

It’s more surprising that after officials detected Pigeon casting multiple votes in 1748, his standing in town remained high. He married a woman from a wealthy Huguenot family in 1752. Two years later, he began to advertise his mercantile business regularly. He became a warden of Christ Church, the Anglican church in the North End. Later he opened an insurance office.

In the 1760s Pigeon was wealthy enough to retire to a country estate in Newton. He became active in the Patriot movement, serving on the Provincial Congress’s committee of safety in early 1775. He was even the Massachusetts army’s first commissary general, though he left that post prematurely.

I can only think that the authorities accepted that Pigeon sincerely thought he could cast votes for other people not at the meeting. Written votes on questions like this land sale were rare, so the protocols might not have been clear.

Monday, September 04, 2023

“Strength, Spirit and Abilities so exhausted”

In the immediate aftermath of the Continental Congress’s vote for independence in early July 1776, almost all the Massachusetts delegation got sick.

As I wrote last month, on 15 July 1776 John Adams saw Elbridge Gerry off on a trip back to Massachusetts. Gerry was “worn out of of Health, by the Fatigues of this station,” Adams told his wife, Abigail.

To James Warren he wrote that Gerry “is obliged to take a Ride for his Health, as I shall be very soon or have none. God grant he may recover it for he is a Man of immense Worth.”

Eleven days later, Adams wrote to Warren more ominously:
My Health has lasted much longer, than I expected but at last it fails. The Increasing Heat of the Weather added to incessant application to Business, without any Intermissions of Exercise, has relaxed me, to such a degree that a few Weeks more would totally incapacitate me for any Thing. I must therefore return home.
And the next day:
I assure you the Necessity of your sending along fresh delegates, here, is not chimerical. [Robert Treat] Paine has been very ill for this whole Week and remains, in a bad Way. He has not been able to attend Congress, for several days, and if I was to judge by his Eye, his Skin, and his Cough, I should conclude he never would be fit to do duty there again, without a long Intermission, and a Course of Air, Exercise, Diet, and Medicine. In this I may be mistaken.

The Secretary [i.e., Massachusetts General Court clerk Samuel Adams], between you and me, is compleatly worn out. I wish he had gone home Six months ago, and rested himself. Then, he might have done it, without any Disadvantage. But in plain English he has been so long here, and his Strength, Spirit and Abilities so exhausted, that an hundred such delegates, here would not be worth a shilling.

My Case is worse. My Face is grown pale, my Eyes weak and inflamed, my Nerves tremulous, and my Mind weak as Water—fevourous Heats by Day and Sweats by Night are returned upon me, which is an infallible Symptom with me that it is Time to throw off all Care, for a Time, and take a little Rest. I have several Times with the Blessing of God, saved my Life in this Way, and am now determined to attempt it once more.

You must be very Speedy in appointing other Delegates, or you will not be represented here. Go home I will, if I leave the Massachusetts without a Member here.
I looked at Paine’s surviving correspondence from this month, and I don’t see him saying anything about being sick.

On 3 August, Gerry wrote back to both John and Samuel Adams from Massachusetts:
I have heard this Morning that Colo. Warren has received a Letter mentioning Mr. Pain’s Illness and your Intention to set off for N England in a fortnights’ Time; and that the Government would be unrepresented. I left Boston yesterday and the Letter had not then arrived, but Mr. [Benjamin] Edes mentions it as a Fact communicated to him by Colonel or rather Major General Warren and therefore I have no Doubt of it.

I should have been glad that You had tarryed untill my Return, as the Absence of so many at one Time will I fear be considered by the people as a discourageing Circumstance; but I shall at all Events Return in a Week or ten Days from hence notwithstanding It will be impossible in so short a Time to benefit much by the Journey, and to recover from a febrile State which the southern Climate has fixed upon me and within this Day or two I find increased.
On 12 August, Samuel Adams left Philadelphia. Gerry arrived back in that city by 6 September. Paine and John Adams never left.

Ironically, John Hancock, who was already becoming known for pleading ill health when he didn’t want to do something, was the one Massachusetts delegate who seems to have remained perfectly well in this period. And as chairman of the Congress, he had plenty of work to do.

Hancock did write to Thomas Cushing on 30 July: “I have Determin’d to move my Family to Boston the Beginning of September, and propose being there my self in all that month.” But that was probably because of his wife Dorothy’s health, not his own. She was pregnant with their first child.

The Massachusetts legislature didn’t send anybody new to the Continental Congress until 1777.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

Where Have You Gone, Colonel Robinson?

After Boston’s first anti-Stamp Act protest in 1765, Lemuel Robinson changed the sign outside the tavern he owned in Dorchester (shown above) to show Liberty Tree.

The Sign of the Liberty Tree hosted the big banquet of the Boston Sons of Liberty in August 1769.

Robinson was captain of a Suffolk County artillery company under Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, then a colonel after the Massachusetts Provincial Congress called on Patriots to reorganize their militia structure.

By January 1775 Robinson was hiding two of the Boston train’s small cannon on his property under dung heaps. Two more cannon, plus two mortars, were moved out there soon after. Committee of safety records hint that it took some prodding before Robinson turned those weapons over to provincial agents to be moved further out to Concord.

During the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Robinson made his tavern a center for feeding militiamen arriving outside Boston from the southwest. He became an officer in the New England army, but also stepped on other officers’ toes with his aggressive recruiting tactics.

Robinson then shifted to representing Dorchester in the Massachusetts General Court.

The British military wasn’t the only danger that year. Smallpox was spreading as well. After the king’s troops sailed away, there was a major effort to inoculate people.

On 3 Aug 1776 Elbridge Gerry wrote to his colleagues in Philadelphia about how a number of people they knew had come through that treatment:
Generals [James] Warren, [Benjamin] Lincoln Mrs. [Elizabeth] Bodwoin and a Number of our other Friends are recovered. Mrs. [Mercy] Warren in a good Way, poor Colo. Lem. Robinson dyed by imprudently pumping Cold Water on his Arm after getting well of the Distemper.
So how should we classify Lemuel Robinson’s death? As a result of smallpox? During the smallpox epidemic? Or that more obscure cause, “imprudently pumping Cold Water on his Arm”?

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Elbridge Gerry and the Signing

On 3 August 1776, Elbridge Gerry sent a second letter to his Continental Congress colleagues Samuel and John Adams.

Gerry wrote this time from Watertown, still the home of the Massachusetts legislature. He had traveled through Boston, seeing both Adams wives.

Gerry and the Adamses were among the Congress’s most radical delegates, resenting men who hung back from independence. In this letter, for instance, Gerry wrote of “our old Friend Mr. L—— or any other suspected Characters.”

Generally, the Marblehead merchant was optimistic about “the true State of Things in the eastern Colonies,” as people called New England. He had ideas about moving troops around and getting Benjamin Lincoln, then still a Massachusetts militia commander, a Continental commission. But he was confident in the militia system, concluding, “We have eastward of Hudson’s River at least 100000 Men well armed, a Force sufficient to repulse the Enemy if they were forty thousand strong at New York and Canada.”

One significant detail about this letter isn’t its text but its date. It shows that Gerry was in Massachusetts on 2 August when, as the Congress’s official record states, the delegates then present signed the engrossed (handsomely handwritten) Declaration of Independence. Gerry must therefore have added his signature later in the year.

In this article for the Journal of the American Revolution I discussed a story told about Gerry’s signing:
I am credibly informed that the following anecdote occurred on the day of signing the declaration. Mr. [Benjamin] Harrison, a delegate from Virginia, is a large portly man—Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts is slender and spare. A little time after the solemn transaction of signing the instrument, Mr. Harrison said smilingly to Mr. Gerry, “When the hanging scene comes to be exhibited I shall have the advantage over you on account of my size. All will be over with me in a moment, but you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.”
This anecdote comes to us in somewhat different forms from two seemingly independent sources: Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. James Thacher, both probably writing decades later. John Adams read both men’s words and didn’t quibble with the tale. I therefore concluded that this story was more reliable than other legends of the signing.

At the same time I wrote: “Of course it is possible that Rush’s recollection was not accurate. For example, Harrison could have come up with the witticism days later instead of at the dramatic moment of signing.” Or weeks before, when the delegates voted for independence. As Ray Raphael wrote earlier this summer, delegates conglomerated their memories of the vote and the signing.

We can therefore say the anecdote about Harrison and Gerry couldn’t have happened on 2 Aug 1776 when most Congress delegates lined up to sign the Declaration. But Harrison might still have shared his gallows humor sometime that year.

Friday, September 01, 2023

“Pray Subscribe for me the Declaration of Independence”

Elbridge Gerry left Philadelphia on 16 July 1776, heading for home in Massachusetts with a pound of green tea.

His fellow Continental Congress delegate John Adams wrote that Gerry was “worn out of Health, by the Fatigues of this station.”

But Adams also wrote that he expected Gerry to enthusiastically inspect the Continental Army and fortifications while traveling through New York, and that’s just what Gerry did.

On Sunday, 21 July, while staying near the King’s Bridge that connected Manhattan to the mainland, Gerry sat down to write a long letter to Adams and his cousin, Samuel Adams.

Gerry wrote of the Continental officers:
they appear to be in high Spirits for Action and agree in Sentiments that the Men’s as firm and determined as they wish them to be, having in View since the Declaration of Independence an object that they are ready to contend for, an object that they will chearfully pursue at the Risque of Life and every valuable Enjoyment.
The area was well fortified, he judged, and the people of New Jersey and New York City enthusiastic about the Patriot cause.

He reported on Adm. Lord William Howe’s interactions with Gen. George Washington, which included rejecting a proposal for a prisoner swap of Philip Skene, Loyalist governor of Crown Point and Ticonderoga, for James Lovell, a Boston Patriot.

Gerry recommended removing Gen. Philip Schuyler from command of the Northern Department. Indeed, he suggested that Schuyler should be “sent to Boston, recalled to answer any Charges that may be brot against him.” With the collapse of the invasion of Canada, “The N England Colonies are warm for the Measure.”

After discussing how to reenlist and resupply the army, Gerry shared an idea for increasing business with the French:
Would it not be a good Measure to propose to the French Court to supply with Grain their Army in the West Indies and to impower them to employ suitable persons in the States for that purpose who shall be supplyed by Congress with Money and Ship it in their own Vessels; Whilst they are to make Returns by allowing Us a Factor in their Kingdom to purchase Arms or other military Stores to a certain Amount who is to be furnished by their Court with Money for that purpose. This would be a speedy Way of coming at Arms and Ammunition, and open a Channel for a Breach with Britain.
Finally, Gerry addressed two political matters. He asked for one of the confidential printed copies of the new draft Articles of Confederation, and he wrote:
Pray Subscribe for me the Declaration of Independence if the same is to be signed as proposed. I think We ought to have the privilege when necessarily absent of voting and signing by proxy.
After Gerry had left Philadelphia, the Congress formally approved creating the handsome handwritten Declaration that we know. If Gerry’s proposal had been adopted, some of those signatures would not have been the delegates’ actual signatures but signatures of their friends for them. Gerry was worried that after voting for independence he’d be left out.

TOMORROW: About Gerry’s signature.