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 22, 2024

“Over-emphasized the early conflict in the northern colonies”?

Last month Gene Procknow reviewed Alan Pell Crawford’s This Fierce People: The Untold Story of America’s Revolutionary War in the South, just published.

Procknow reports that Crawford
asserts that Revolutionary War historians have over-emphasized the early conflict in the northern colonies, leaving the impression that the conflict was “George Washington’s War.” As evidence, he cites that a more significant percentage of the eight-year war occurred in the southern colonies, while Washington’s army remained relatively inactive in the north.
He praises the book’s focus on particular individuals’ experiences, starting with the Bavarian-French volunteer Baron de Kalb. That allows the book to cover “over one hundred battles” vividly without bogging down in details.

“Storytelling is the veteran journalist and political analyst’s strong suit,” Procknow says of Crawford. “The book is laced with vignettes that engender reader interest and comprehension.”

However, the review also faults Crawford for repeating details from secondary sources not backed up by contemporaneous evidence, citing multiple examples, from Gen. Horatio Gates’s purported nickname to important details of the Battle of Guildford Court House.

Sunday, July 21, 2024

“What government policy towards the colonies was supposed to be”

The History of Parliament site shared Dr. Robin Eagles‘s profile of Lord North, prime minister from 1770 to nearly the end of the Revolutionary War.

The length of that term would have marked North as an unusually successful prime minister—except for one thing.

Eagles writes:

North was able to draw on a lengthy political apprenticeship. He had been returned to the Commons in his early twenties in 1754, and had become a predictably fast friend of the king, continuing the family tradition of loyal dependability. He accepted his first post in government in 1759 and from 1767 had served as chancellor of the exchequer. All of this ought, on the face of it, to have made him well prepared for the task ahead.

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

Perhaps the biggest problem was that no one ever seemed entirely sure quite what government policy towards the colonies was supposed to be, though there should have been little doubt given the king’s own very clear determination to keep America as a British possession. North’s own response left everyone mildly confused. On one occasion, he was asked what the government plan was, only for him to reply that no one had come up with one.
Keeping the American colonies was not a plane but a goal, of course. Neither George III nor Lord North nor the other administrators contemplated what concessions they might make to achieve that goal until it was too late for compromise.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

“ Newport baker Godfrey Wainwood purchased Robert”

At Small State, Big History, Robert A. Selig recently discussed slave sales in Newport, Rhode Island, during and at the end of the Revolutionary War.

As Selig notes, just before the war the small colony had started to move away from importing enslaved people. (Rhode Island merchants were still entirely free to transport captives elsewhere, though.)

In “Newport’s Last Slave Auction: Rochambeau’s Prizes,” Selig writes of cases like this:

According to court documents, the slave named Robert who initiated the legal proceedings ran away from his owner in early in 1781, leaving behind his enslaved mother and father. Robert hailed from Port Royal in Caroline County, Virginia . . . .

Perhaps Robert and the others thought that their chances of securing freedom would improve by boarding a French vessel but it is more likely that they mistook the French vessel for a British ship. Either way, boarding the French vessel did not mean freedom but rather more years in slavery. Destouches brought the slaves to Newport—where based on a 1774 Rhode Island law forbidding the importation of slaves they should have been freed.

Destouches was probably unaware of that law but Rhode Island and Newport authorities should have been and thus should have prohibited the sale. They did not. Maybe they did not want to annoy their “illustrious ally.” . . .

On 13 June the sale went ahead as planned. After trading bids with Henry Sherburne, Newport baker Godfrey Wainwood purchased Robert for 170 Spanish silver dollars . . .

In 1789 a dispute arose over the length of the contract Robert was supposed to work for Wainwood; Wainwood claimed nine years, Robert claimed seven years. After lengthy legal proceeding it was in the fall of 1791 that Robert was finally “[wrested] from the iron grasps of despotism and [restored] to the capacity of enjoying himself as a man.”
Mention of the Newport baker Godfrey Wainwood immediately caught my eye.

Wainwood was the man who turned in his ex-wife for trying to send a ciphered letter into Boston in the summer of 1775, setting off the investigation that unmasked Dr. Benjamin Church as a paid British agent.

A German-speaking immigrant, Wainwood managed to establish himself solidly in Newport. Purchasing an enslaved man reflected growing wealth.

Friday, July 19, 2024

“The Fate of This Country” in Concord, 20 July

Last Saturday, Minute Man National Historical Park celebrated Archeology Day by unveiling musket balls found last year near the North Bridge.

There were also fine technical talks about recent archeology projects in national parks across the Northeast and about analyzing musket balls from Revolutionary War battles.

This Saturday, 20 July, the park’s programming continues with “The Fate of This Country: Massachusetts Militia on Alarm 1757–1775.” The event description says:
In 1757, the people of Massachusetts were under threat of French invasion. Through the crisis, they learned valuable lessons to better prepare themselves for the future. In 1774, a new threat emerged, and the people drew from their past experiences to confront it.

Join us across the street from the home of Major John Buttrick, who marched on alarm in 1757 and 1775, for two interpretive talks that explore the experiences of the Massachusetts militia on alarm.
Those talks will take place at the North Bridge Visitor Center at 1:00 and 3:00 P.M. They are scheduled to last about thirty-five minutes.

Visitors will also be able to enjoy the park’s ongoing presentations on such topics as “Concord’s North Bridge: History and Memory” and “Enemies to Their Country.”

Thursday, July 18, 2024

“Like a torrent are rushing upon it with increasing violence”

As I wrote yesterday, the text of the Solemn League and Covenant that towns like Westford and Attleboro approved was not the first version of that document printed in an American newspaper.

On 22 June 1774, one day before Margaret Draper published the agreement in Boston, William Bradford’s Pennsylvania Journal issued a “Postscript” or supplement that included an article datelined “Philadelphia.” It began:
The following is a Circular Letter, written by the Committee of the Town of BOSTON, to the neighbouring towns with a copy of an agreement, which was to begin signing in every town in that government nearly at the same time.
The newspaper then printed William Cooper’s 8 June letter followed by a text that started the same way as what would appear in Draper’s Boston News-Letter.

But at the end of the second point, this text added the phrase “and never to renew any commerce or trade with them.”

Then it went on in a different direction. This text didn’t include an oath for retailers to swear. It included language not seen in the News-Letter version:
And, Whereas the promoting of industry, œconomy, arts and manufactures among ourselves is of the last importance to the civil and religious welfare of a community; we engage,

3dly, That from and after the first day of October next ensuing, we will, not by ourselves, or any for, by, or under us, purchase or use any goods, wares, manufactures or merchandize, whensoever or howsoever imported from Great Britain, until the harbour of Boston shall be opened, and our charter rights restored. And,

Lastly, As a refusal to come into any agreement which promises the deliverance of our country from the calamities it now feels, and which, like a torrent are rushing upon it with increasing violence, must evidence a disposition enimical to, or criminally negligent of, the common safety…
Both versions conclude with similar promises to shun doing business with any “contumacious importers.” The News-Letter text said signers wouldn’t buy “any article whatever” from those people. The Pennsylvania Journal text said they would be shunned “forever.” Both absolutes, but in different dimensions.

In comparing these two texts in 1915, Albert Matthews called the version that first surfaced in Philadelphia “Form B.” He didn’t cite that newspaper article but rather drew on a broadside at the American Antiquarian Society.

Matthews concluded that Form A was Boston’s proposed text and Form B originated in Worcester, created because Boston’s was “too drastic.” More recent scholars disagree.

COMING UP: The Worcester connection.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

“We will suspend all commercial intercourse with the said island”

In his 1915 study of the Solemn League and Covenant, Albert Matthews based what he called Form A on a printed broadside preserved in Westford, as shown here and here.

Matching broadsides survive in the state archive and in Attleboro, as reported here.

That text also matches what appeared in Margaret Draper’s Boston News-Letter on 23 June 1774, printed at the request of an opponent of the boycott campaign.

The broadside version had blank spaces for leaders of each town to write in its name and the date in “June [blank] 1774” on which it voted to sign onto the agreement.

The text itself consists of a preamble and four promises for consumers:
1st, That from henceforth we will suspend all commercial intercourse with the said island of Great Britain, until the said act for blocking up the said harbour be repealed, and a full restoration of our charter rights be obtained. And,

2dly, …that we will not buy, purchase or consume, or suffer any person, by, for or under us to purchase or consume, in any manner whatever, any goods, wares, or merchandize which shall arrive in America from Great Britain aforesaid, from and after the last day of August next ensuing. . . .

3dly, That such persons may not have it in their power to impose upon us by any pretence whatever, we further agree to purchase no article of merchandize from them, or any of them, who shall not have signed this, or a similar covenant . . .

Lastly, we agree, that after this, or a similar covenant has been offered to any person and they refuse to sign it, or produce the oath, abovesaid, we will consider them as contumacious importers, and withdraw all commercial connexions with them, so far as not to purchase of them, any article whatever, and publish their names to the world.
This was the oath for retailers to swear if they wanted to retain their customers:
I [blank] of [blank] in the county of [blank] do solemnly swear that the goods I have now on hand, and propose for sale, have not, to the best of my knowledge, been imported from Great Britain, into any port of America since the last day of August, one thousand seven hundred and seventy four, and that I will not, contrary to the spirit of an agreement entering into through this province import or purchase of any person so importing any goods as aforesaid, until the port or harbour of Boston, shall be opened, and we are fully restored to the free use of our constitutional and charter rights.
The last part of the broadside was a generous stretch of blank paper for individual people to fill up with their signatures, as we can see on the copy above.


Tuesday, July 16, 2024

“The foregoing is a Copy of a Covenant…”

The Boston committee of correspondence’s Solemn League and Covenant went further than previous boycotts by having ordinary people pledge not to buy any goods from Britain after a certain date, and to shun business with anyone who continued to sell.

That’s why the 30 May town meeting voted “That the Comittee of Correspondence be & hereby are directed, to comunicate the Non Consumption Agreement aforesaid to the other Towns in the Province.” Not just non-importation by merchants but non-consumption by everyone.

According to the merchant John Andrews, that agreement was “sent out in printed copies by the Clerk to the Committee. W[illiam]. Cooper,” along with his printed letter dated 8 June 1774.

One might think that it would therefore be easy to identify the official text of that boycott agreement.

But there’s a lingering mystery about the Solemn League and Covenant. Two different texts were printed in American newspapers by the end of the month. Both also exist as broadsides carrying the date of June 1774. To add to the muddle, a third text was also printed as a broadside.

In 1915 Albert Matthews compared the two June 1774 texts for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, calling them Form A and Form B. I guess I’ll call that third version Form C when I get to it.

Normally the Boston town government favored the Edes and Gill print shop. The letter and broadside might well have come from its presses. On 20 June Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette editorialized in favor of it:
The Solemn League & Covenant for a non-consumption of British Merchandize is an Ax to the Root of the tree; by coming into it we establish our own Manufactures, save our Money, and finally our Country from the destruction that threatens it.
But that newspaper didn’t report the actual text of the new agreement. The Boston committee evidently didn’t want to publicize details of the boycott in town, at least not until a lot of rural communities had signed on to it.

Instead, the recently widowed Margaret Draper printed the document in her Boston News-Letter on 23 June. This wasn’t an official release. The document was prefaced with a request to print it and followed by:
The foregoing is a Copy of a Covenant, which I am told great Pains are now taking to promote in the Country. As I think it is of the most pernicious Tendency, as at present circumstanced, I beg Leave through your Paper to propose some Questions relating thereto.
Nearly a full column of political questions and argument followed. Then came an even longer series of questions leading to the suggestion not to take any action until “the approaching Congress.”

Four days later Mills and Hicks’s Boston Post-Boy printed the entire text of Cooper’s letter followed by the same form of the Solemn League and Covenant as in the News-Letter.

In other words, the Solemn League and Covenant wasn’t announced by Boston’s committee of correspondence. It was leaked by opponents through the Loyalist press.


Monday, July 15, 2024

“For every inhabitant in each town to sign”

Among the Bostonians objecting to the town committee of correspondence’s Solemn League and Covenant of June 1774 was John Andrews. Normally a supporter of the Whigs, that merchant wrote on 12 June:
Our committee of correspondence, not content with the calamities already come upon us, have issued out letters to every town in the province (without consulting ye. town in regard to the expediency of such a measure) accompanied with a Solemn League and covenant, so stil’d, for every inhabitant in each town to sign, whereby they obligate themselves by the most sacred oaths not to purchase any kind of goods fabricated in England, either already here, or that may be hereafter imported.

Such is the cursed zeal that now prevails: animosities run higher than ever, each party charging the other as bringing ruin upon their country; that unless some expediency is adopted to get the Port open by paying for the tea (which seems to be the only one) am afraid we shall experience the worst of evils, a civil war, which God avert! . . .

those who have govern’d the town for years past and were in a great measure the authors of all our evils, by their injudicious conduct—are grown more obstinate than ever, and seem determin’d to bring total destruction upon us: which may be sufficiently evinced by all their conduct. They not only intend to deprive us of trade in future, but render us utterly incapable of contributing that assistance which will be absolutely necessary for the support of the indigent the approaching fall and winter, by their cruel endeavors to stop the little inland trade we expected.
Andrews hadn’t seen the text of the Solemn League and Covenant as of 12 June, but obviously he didn’t like what he’d heard about it.

The complaint that the committee had acted “without consulting ye. town” isn’t entirely fair. A vote in the town meeting had ordered the committee to send a non-consumption agreement to other towns. Another vote scheduled the next meeting session more than two weeks away with no indication that the committee should hold their work until then. But clearly Andrews wished he (or like-minded colleagues) had had a chance to review the details.

There may also have been pushback from the other Massachusetts towns who received the printed letter from Boston, accompanied by a printed pledge with blanks to fill in. On 10 June, only two days after sending out his first letter, town clerk William Cooper sent a follow-up, also printed:
Whereas several of our brethren, members of the committees of correspondence in the neighbouring towns, have since our letter of the 8th instant applied to us, to know whether it was expected that the form of the covenant which we inclosed in our letter should be literally adopted by the several towns:

We have thought it necessary to inform our respectable fellow countrymen, that the committee, neither in this or any other matter mean to dictate to them, but are humbly of opinion, that if they keep to the spirit of that covenant, and solemnly engage not to purchase any goods which shall be imported from Great Britain after the time stipulated, and agree to suspend dealing with such persons as shall persist in counteracting the salutary design, by continuing to import or purchase British articles so imported, the end we proposed will be fully answered, and the salvation of North-America, under providence, thereby insured.
That suggests other towns’ selectmen or committees resented something about the Boston documents. Did the problem lie in the parameters of the boycott, the language, or the speed of the campaign? Or simply in Boston appearing to issue forms for smaller towns to fill out?After all, this was a crusade for local self-government.

TOMORROW: Conflicting texts.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

“Universally come into a solemn league”

By the end of May 1774, Boston had held several sessions of a town meeting about how to respond to the Boston Port Bill.

On the afternoon of 13 May, the meeting had resolved, with no dissent, that some sort of continent-wide boycott was the solution to the crisis.

Over the next couple of sessions, the meeting kept asking for its committee to recommend a specific plan. Thomas Cushing kept replying that the committee didn’t yet have a report. Then the town would ask the committee to “sit again”—i.e., get to work.

On 30 May, the town meeting spelled out what it wanted by voting:
That the Committee appointed to receive Proposals & consider of Ways & Means, be desired to prepare a Paper, to be carried to each Family in the Town, the Report of which to be, not to purchase any Articles of British Manufactures, that can be obtained among Ourselves, & that they will purchase Nothing of, but totally desert those who shall Counter-work the Salutary Measures of the Town.

Voted, That the Comittee of Correspondence be & hereby are directed, to comunicate the Non Consumption Agreement aforesaid to the other Towns in the Province.
The meeting also said that the next session would be on 17 June. The committee shouldn’t expect any more guidance until then.

The committee of correspondence acted on 8 June. Town clerk William Cooper sent out a two-page printed letter to rural towns that began:

THE evils which we have long foreseen are now come upon this town and province, the long meditated stroke is now given to the civil liberty of this country? How long we may be allowed the enjoyment of our religious liberty is a question of infinite moment. . . .
How the committee got from trade restrictions to “our religious liberty” isn’t at all clear, but they definitely played on New England’s religious sentiment and tradition.

Boston’s letter said the people of Massachusetts should “universally come into a solemn league, not to import goods from Great Britain, and not to buy any goods that shall hereafter be imported from thence.” That phrase “solemn league” echoed the name of an agreement from 1643, early in the English Civil War. The actual agreement the committee sent included another word from that original, “covenant.” As a result, this boycott agreement came to be known as the Solemn League and Covenant, usurping that label from the earlier document.

On the day Cooper sent his circular letter, Cushing, Samuel Adams, and other elected politicians were in Salem for a session of the Massachusetts General Court. Perhaps Cushing’s caution and Adams’s savvy might have moderated the committee’s call for a boycott, or at least toned down the language. Or perhaps those leaders had signed off on the drafts before going to Salem.

In any event, some people thought the committee had gone too far.

TOMORROW: Complaints in and out of town.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

“Many among us, who are for compromising matters”

John Andrews was another merchant who left a lively record of the discussions in Boston in spring 1774 as the business community grappled with the impending effects of the Boston Port Bill.

Andrews was more aligned with the Whigs than John Rowe, but still didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the radicals.

Andrews’s account appears in a series of letters to an in-law in Philadelphia, now in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. On 18 May he wrote in the most dire tone:
Imagine to yourself the horror painted in the faces of a string of slaves condemn’d by the Inquisition to perpetual drudgery at the oar! Such is the dejection imprinted on every countenance we meet in this once happy, but now totally ruin’d town.
Andrews urged his correspondent to sign on to “an entire stoppage of trade, both to England and the West Indies, throughout the continent.” Any alternative would be to “acknowledge the right of parliament to d—n us whenever they please.”

Later that day Andrews added the news that “we have had advice from Salem, Newbury, etc’a., that they will haul up all their vessels, and stop every trade, provided it becomes general through the continent.”

If accurate, that news must have after the day’s town meeting session, where a committee reported merely that the selectmen of Marblehead and Salem had sounded sympathetic and promised to call meetings in their towns, too.

Note how the promise from those smaller Massachusetts ports was contingent on all the other ports in North America signing on to a boycott as well. That’s often how collective action has to be organized: promising party A that party B is ready to act if party A will, and promising party B that party A is ready to act if party B will.

Yet Andrews also reported some Boston merchants calling for a different approach:
At the same time, we have many among us, who are for compromising matters, and put forward a subscription to pay for the Tea.

George Erving has declar’d this day. that if it should be promoted, he is ready to put down two thousand pounds sterling towards it, and will take it upon himself to wait on Governor [Thomas] Gage and know what his demands upon us are—which circumstance Jno. Amory mentioned at ye. town meeting this day, which was in general rejected, though he urged the matter much.
George Erving (1738–1806) and John Amory (1728-1803, shown above) were both Loyalists during the war. Amory ultimately returned to Massachusetts, and Erving’s son became a U.S. diplomat.

Though the Boston Tea Party had cost the East India Company over £9,000, five merchants pledging the amount Erving promised would have been enough to cover that sum. But the community “rejected” that idea.

At that point in late May 1774, Boston’s committee of correspondence may well have felt they had solid popular support for promoting a general boycott to protest the Port Bill. But when the committee drafted its “Solemn League and Covenant” and sent it to other towns and provinces, its members may have overplayed their hand.

TOMORROW: Going too far?

Friday, July 12, 2024

“Town Meeting. Nothing done but Harangue.”

As recounted yesterday, in May 1774 the Boston town meeting named merchant John Rowe to its committee to formulate responses to the Boston Port Bill.

Rowe attended committee meetings on 14 and 16 May. In his diary he noted who else came but nothing more.

In contrast, Rowe had a lot to say about what happened on 17 May:
This morning Genl. [Thomas] Gage Our New Governour landed from the Castle after having breakfasted with Admiral [John] Montague on board the Captain Man of Warr—he was saluted by the Castle & the Captain Man of Warr & Rec’d at the Long Wharf by Colo. [John] Hancock’s Company of Cadets.

The [militia] Regiment was under arms in King street. The Company of Grenadiers made a good appearance. Capt. [Adino] Paddock’s Company of Artillery & Colo. [David] Phipps Company of [horse] Guards were also under arms in King street.

He came to the Town House, had his Commission Read by the Secretary [Thomas Flucker] & took the Usual Oaths—from thence he was escorted to Faneuil Hall where a good Dinner by his Majesty’s Council. There were but very few Gentlemen of the Town asked to dine there.
That last remark was Rowe consoling himself that he wasn’t invited. But the next day Rowe got to write: “I waited on Genl. Gage this morning who Received me very Cordially.”

Rowe had already expressed hope that the new governor would soften the blow of the new law: “God Grant his Instructions be not severe as I think him to be a Very Good Man.”

Notably, on the same day Gage received Rowe, the merchant skipped the next session of the town meeting. “I was so Busy I could not attend.”

He never mentioned sitting down with the town committee again. We can see Rowe’s allegiance solidify by the end of the month.
  • 24 May: “The Merchants met at the Town House on Business of Importance.”
  • 30 May: “I paid the General a visit this morning. Town Meeting. Nothing done but Harangue.”
  • 2 June: “I met the Gentlemen Merchts at the West Side of the Court House in Boston.”
TOMORROW: More merchants’ voices.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

“Spent most part of the Day with the Town Committee”

The merchant John Rowe had an unusual perspective on the crisis of the Boston Port Bill.

On the one hand, he cared most about his business and trimmed his politics accordingly. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson suspected him of being behind all sorts of nefarious deals, but the local crowd considered him “a great Tory.”

I suspect Rowe also liked being liked, “trimming” to play to his current audience. During the big public meetings on the ships full of East India Company tea, he made an offhand remark about mixing tea with saltwater. That got him applause, and the crowd believed he’d come over to the radicals. Privately Rowe was upset, but he didn’t try to clarify his stance.

In those same months Rowe was spearheading a complex and costly effort to import and install Boston’s first street lamps. He seems to have long hoped to be elected to public office, and here he was visibly serving the public. How long could he keep that up?

On 10 May 1774, the same day Boston reelected its representatives to the Massachusetts General Court, the town received the first shocking news of the new law. Rowe went back to that day’s diary entry to add: “The Harmony Capt. Shayler arrived from London & brings the Severest Act ever was Penned against the Town of Boston.”

Three days later, with the news confirmed, Rowe lamented the “Late Act of Parliament for Blocking up the Harbour of Boston which is & will be a Great Evill.”

On that day, Boston called a sudden town meeting, ultimately choosing a committee to recommend what to do. The citizens put Rowe on that committee. In fact, he was the second man named, right after Samuel Adams.

This committee of eleven included gentlemen from various groups:
There was, to be sure, some overlap in those groups, particularly the centrists and merchants.

To his credit, Rowe actually participated in the committee discussions. On 14 May he “Spent most part of the Day with the Town Committee at the Representatives Room” inside the Town House and then went back on 16 May. Boylston and Appleton didn’t attend either of those meetings, so Rowe was the merchants’ voice.

Not that the discussions was productive. On 18 May, the committee reported back to the town that they had received “several Proposals & plans” but hadn’t had time to digest them. The ongoing meeting pushed them to hurry and come up with solutions.

Rowe never recorded attending any more of those committee discussions. Instead, he began to pay more attention to other sources of authority in town. As I wrote back here, he declined an invitation to chair the town meeting, and expressed deep disagreement with it—privately, of course.

TOMORROW: Here comes the general.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

A Sestercentennial Town Meeting in Old South

Tomorrow, 11 July, and then again on Thursdays every two weeks, Revolutionary Spaces’ Old South Meeting House will host programs based on the Boston town meeting that started on 13 May 1774.

In fact, two town meetings happened in Faneuil Hall that day. The first convened at 10:00 A.M., a continuation of Boston’s regular May meeting. That’s when men who met the property qualification voted on the town’s representatives to the Massachusetts assembly and then dealt with various other matters.

That May those other matters included “firing small Arms on the Neck,” a proposal for a well and pump in Dock Square, and so on. Most questions, like the schoolteachers’ salaries, were put off. The citizens formally adjourned until the first Monday in July.

But at 11:00 A.M. a new meeting officially started. News of the Boston Port Bill had arrived in town, and it presented an emergency.

The gathering chose Samuel Adams as the moderator; he’d served the same role in the earlier meeting (after being reelected to the legislature).

The first motion was to read the Port Bill, the second to ask the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper (shown above) to lead a prayer. He came to do so, after making sure the meeting understood “he was just returned fatigued from a Journey.”

Then came the inevitable proposal to form a committee, in this case to formulate a response to the new law. “After some Debate” on that, the meeting broke off for midday dinner and resumed at 3:00 P.M.

In the afternoon, everyone (with no dissenting votes) agreed to appoint a committee “to take the several Proposals, that have been made, & others that may be made, relative to our Conduct on the present Exigency, into their Consideration, & report, as soon as may be, their Opinion.” That’s a very vague mandate, probably recognizing a range of proposals and a lot of unknowns.

There were practical problems, like how to employ or support the many people who would lose work without the maritime trade. There were political considerations like assessing and strengthening support elsewhere—one action everyone agreed right away was communicating with other towns, especially the port of Salem and Marblehead. And finally, there was the choice posed by the Boston Port Bill itself: Should the town (or citizens) repay the cost of the tea destroyed in December?

The staff of Boston National Historical Park designed a program to recreate that discussion, 250 years ago in May. That program is usually offered in the big meeting space in Faneuil Hall, but that’s being refurbished. Like Boston’s overflow public meetings, therefore, these sessions have been moved to Old South.

The events will start at 5:30 P.M. on 11 July, 25 July, 8 August, and 22 August. They’re free, but registration is encouraged.

The programs last about half an hour—much less time than Boston’s town meeting that began on 13 May—and I don’t think was ever officially dissolved.

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

A Dig into the Lives of Pompey and Isaac Hower

Last month Northeastern Global News published an article about an archeological excavation in what is now Saugus and historical research about a past owner of that site.

This project is a collaboration by Meghan Howey, Alyssa Moreau, and Diane Fiske of the University of New Hampshire’s Great Bay Archaeological Survey; Prof. Kabria Baumgartner of the Northeastern University history department; and their students.

That team is digging into the property and the records of a man named Pompey who lived in Lynn in the late 1700s. According to Alonzo Lewis’s 1829 History of Lynn, Pompey hosted the African-born people of the region for a one-day celebration each year. Baumgartner ties this tradition to the “Negro Election” tradition across New England in that period.

Research into real estate and town records provides some facts that both strengthen that tradition by confirming Pompey’s status as a free black property owner and complicate it with questions of dates:
For instance, research confirmed Pompey’s 1745 marriage to a woman named Phyllis or Phebe, and that he was enslaved by a man named Daniel Mansfield II.

Historians believe Pompey was manumitted, or freed, by the 1750s, but apparently not — as legend holds — in Mansfield’s 1757 will.

“It’s not in the will, and we haven’t found any manumission papers,” Baumgartner says. But she notes that manumission papers are rare to find.

Upon securing his freedom, Pompey borrowed money from another Black man named Isaac Hower to purchase two acres along the Saugus River in 1762. The deed was not recorded until 1787, however, at which time Pompey signed the property over to Hower’s widow, Flora.

But many questions remain unanswered. For instance, if not freed in Mansfield’s will, did Pompey free himself?
And then of course there’s the question of Isaac Hower. What was his story, and how did he gain enough money to be able to lend it out?

The vital records of Salem offer some hints. On 23 Jan 1754, Isaac, enslaved by Samuel Gardner, married Jane, enslaved by Richard Derby. According to the first volume of The Pickering Genealogy, in 1757 Isaac owned the covenant and joined Salem’s First Meeting; this book says he had formerly been called Cato, but the marriage record indicates he was already known as Isaac before that religious experience.

An abstract of Samuel Gardner’s will, dated 1766 and probated in 1769, stated:
As my negro slave named Isaac has generally served me with great diligence and integrity, I give to the same Isaac £10 lawful money with his apparel, and his freedom. If he is unable to support himself, my sons George, Weld, and Henry, to support him.
The Northeastern article thus says Pompey borrowed money from Hower to buy property before Hower was freed, which calls out for more research. Perhaps the purchase and mortgage were separate acts.

The vital records of Salem also record that “Isaac Hower, formerly servant to the late Samuel Gardner, Esq.,” married Mary Banister of Boston in March 1774. Later, it appears, he married a woman named Flora.

The 6 Nov 1787 Salem Mercury reported this death:
Isaac Howard (an African) aged 60——formerly a domestick of the late Samuel Gardner, Esq.---A “good and faithful servant.”
“Honour and shame from no complexion rise;
Act well your part, there all the honour lies.”
Those lines are an adaptation of a couplet in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, with the word “condition” swapped out for “complexion.” Such a notice indicated that Hower had stature in Salem.

When Daniel Smith advertised to settle the estate the following January, he used the spelling “Hower,” as did the man’s son, so that was the family’s preference. In December 1788, Flora Hower married Reuben Pernam. The vital records don’t help after that.

Monday, July 08, 2024

A City Project to Reconstruct Charlestown in June 1775

Last month, on the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Boston’s Archaeology Program announced the release of research on the people who lived in Charlestown at that time.

During the battle, most of the town burned to the ground. That event provided a physical marker in the ground, and also a documentary milestone as inhabitants filed claims for their losses. However, the department notes, “Despite multiple attempts over half a century, no funds were ever granted.”

Using real estate records compiled by Thomas Bellows Wyman in The Genealogies and Estates of Charlestown (two volumes, 1879), the City Archaeology Team produced a map of property ownership in June 1775 that can be viewed here. The announcement says, “Each property is clickable, with details including a direct link to the property deed (via free familysearch.org account).”

The next step: “property descriptions based on deeds and claims documents to better understand the layout of buildings, structures, wharves, agricultural spaces, fences, and other landscape features for a future 3D landscape reconstruction of 1775 Charlestown.”

Another product of this effort is a reconstructed “census” for Charlestown in 1775, here in spreadsheet form.

Finally, there are multiple databases about the claims themselves, now housed in the Boston Public Library. Those documents have been scanned and are being transcribed, but the index is already available.

One name that stood out for researchers and myself was Margaret Thomas, filing for the loss of a house and furnishings worth £68.9, as shown here.

Wyman listed Margaret Thomas as “Spinster,” house owner, and “negro of Bartholomew Trow,” a Charlestown militia officer. Perhaps she had been enslaved in the Trow family, and anxious authorities still recorded that link even after she was buying real estate of her own.

Was this the same Margaret Thomas who worked at Gen. George Washington’s Cambridge headquarters by February 1776, joined the general’s traveling domestic staff, and married William Lee before the end of the war? We know that other people who came to work at the commander’s headquarters in 1775–76 had been burned out of Charlestown.

The handwriting on the “Summary Accompt.” filed with the town doesn’t match the signature on a receipt Margaret Thomas signed in Valley Forge in April 1778. But it’s possible that the claim was filed by someone else on Thomas’s behalf, or that this summary was copied by someone else. It’s definitely a lead worth following up.

Sunday, July 07, 2024

A Guide to the “Powder Alarm” and More

The sestercentennial of the “Powder Alarm” is coming up on 2 September, and American Heritage revisits the event with “The Revolution Could Have Started Here,” an excerpt from Bob Thompson’s book Revolutionary Roads.

Here’s a taste:

Today, 42 Brattle houses the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. In 1774, as tensions between Great Britain and New England neared an all-time high, it was home to William Brattle, a 68-year-old gentleman farmer and Massachusetts militia general who had kicked off the September craziness by writing the governor a letter. Composed in late August, it informed [Thomas] Gage, who was his boss, that gunpowder was starting to disappear from the Powder House. Gage took the hint. Before dawn on September 1, longboats ferried some 250 Boston-based British soldiers three miles up the Mystic River, where they got out and marched another mile to their destination. Removing hobnailed boots, lest a spark blow them to kingdom come, they collected the remaining powder in the tower; a few went to Cambridge to confiscate a couple of artillery pieces, as well. All were safely back in Boston by noon, and the governor was a happy man.

Not for long, though.

Later that day, Gage’s enemies somehow got their hands on Brattle’s letter. A crowd of local protesters showed up outside his house, but, by then, the owner was gone. “He went into Boston,” Bell said, “and never saw Cambridge again.” Unsatisfied, the crowd reassembled half a mile up the street, at the home of a colonial official named Jonathan Sewall, whose wife said he wasn’t home. The protesters didn’t believe her and tried to break in. Someone inside fired a pistol—accidentally, it was claimed—which sobered everybody up, and the crowd dispersed.
You may have noticed the name “Bell” in there. I was Thompson’s tour guide along Brattle Street nearly a decade ago. This article also profiles me, in case you were curious.

Saturday, July 06, 2024

“Throw himself on the justice of his country”

Josh Marshall, who earned a doctorate in American history before founding the Talking Points Memo political website, recently quoted Thomas Jefferson on the question of whether the responsibilities of U.S. Presidents put them above the law.

I think the Founders would have been aghast at the idea that any government officials weren’t subject to the rule of law. That was the whole point of founding a republic without a monarch or a hereditary nobility with its own separate court system.

Until recently, only a small fraction of people disagreed with that notion, most of them with deep personal interests at stake—like Richard Nixon.

As a former chief executive Jefferson had experience with the choice of acting for what he perceived as the public good or staying strictly within defined law.

In a letter to John B. Colvin dated 20 Sept 1810, Jefferson wrote:
Whether circumstances do not sometimes occur which make it a duty in officers of high trust to assume authorities beyond the law, is easy of solution in principle, but sometimes embarrasing in practice. a strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen: but it is not the highest. the laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property & all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.
But once a President or other high officials make such a decision, Jefferson went on to say, they also have the responsibility to subject themselves to public inquiry, including in the courts.
the officer who is called to act on this superior ground, does indeed risk himself on the justice of the controuling powers of the constitution, and his station makes it his duty to incur that risk. but those controuling powers, and his fellow citizens generally, are bound to judge according to the circumstances under which he acted. they are not to transfer the information of this place or moment to the time & place of his action: but to put themselves into his situation. . . .

it is incumbent on those only who accept of great charges, to risk themselves on great occasions, when the safety of the nation, or some of it’s very high interests are at stake. an officer is bound to obey orders: yet he would be a bad one who should do it in cases for which they were not intended, and which involved the most important consequences. the line of discrimination between cases may be difficult; but the good officer is bound to draw it at his own peril, & throw himself on the justice of his country and the rectitude of his motives.
If an executive’s reasons were really so good, Jefferson felt confident in saying, he’d be able to “throw himself on the justice of his country” and make a case for himself.

Friday, July 05, 2024

Isaac Bissell and My “More Plausible Scenario”

Earlier this week the Journal of the American Revolution published my article “The Story of Isaac Bissell—and the Legend of Israel Bissell.”

With the sestercentennial of the Battle of Lexington and Concord coming up next spring, I thought it was high time to put on record the evidence that the name of the man who carried Joseph Palmer’s alert from Watertown was Isaac Bissell, not (as the name was first misspelled by people copying it in a hurry) Israel Bissell.

That core identification was made years back by Lion G. Miles, and I give him full credit in the article, as I have in my talks on the topic.

I also felt obligated to add something new to the story if I could. That led me into digging up new material on the close but secret relations between the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the government of Connecticut, an earlier note sent by Palmer, and the details of Connecticut’s alert.

But still, the core of this article is Isaac, not Israel, Bissell.

The first footnote ends:
As of this writing, Wikipedia includes entries for both Isaac Bissell and Israel Bissell, the latter supposedly taking over in Worcester from a man with a nearly identical name. This article presents a more plausible scenario.
The same situation pertains today. It’s hard to correct hallowed traditions, even if replacing the name of one young Connecticut farmer for another makes little difference to most people today.

If during next spring’s anniversary more commemorations and articles name Isaac Bissell, I’ll feel this study has fulfilled its purpose.

We can thank Israel Bissell for his brief military service in 1776 and acknowledge that lauding him for the last century was literally a typographical error.

Thursday, July 04, 2024

“In free countries the Law ought to be the King”

For Independence Day I’m going back before the Declaration to a text published at the end of 1775 which paved the way for blaming everything on King George III.

These passages are from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, advocating both independence from Britain and a republican form of government—meaning he set out to convince people who had lived under a monarch their whole lives that that figure wasn’t necessary.
The powers of governing still remaining in the hands of the king, he will have a negative [i.e., veto] over the whole legislation of this continent. And as he hath shewn himself such an inveterate enemy to liberty, and discovered such a thirst for arbitrary power; is he, or is he not, a proper man to say to these colonies, You shall make no laws but what I please?

And is there any inhabitant in America so ignorant, as not to know, that according to what is called the present constitution, that this continent can make no laws, but what the king gives leave to: and is there any man so unwise, as not to see, that (considering what has happened) he will suffer no law to be made here, but such as suits his purpose? . . .

BUT where, say some, is the King of America? I will tell you, friend, he reigns above, and does not make havock of mankind like the Royal Brute of Great Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honours, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth, placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far we approve of monarchy, that in America, THE LAW IS KING.

For as in absolute governments the King is Law, so in free countries the Law ought to be the King; and there ought to be no other. But left any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown, at the conclusion of the ceremony, be demolished, and scattered among the people, whose right it is.

A GOVERNMENT of our own is our natural right; and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now, some Massanello may hereafter arise, who, laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.
When Paine republished Common Sense in London in 1791, some lines in these passages still constitutied lese-majeste. The printer left blank spaces at those spots instead. In the copy scanned for Google Books, someone has gone through and inserted the original text by hand.

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

For and Against the Committee of Correspondence

During Boston’s town meeting session on 27 June 1774, town clerk William Cooper didn’t record who spoke.

But the merchant John Rowe did.

In his diary, Rowe listed the defenders of the standing committee of correspondence as:
Aside from Kent, those names are familiar to Boston 1775 readers. They were most of the town’s most visible Whig leaders. All but Kent had been named to the committee of correspondence back in 1772.

Speaking “against the Behaviour of the Committee” were:
Those men were evidently representing Boston’s merchants, not the friends of the royal government. Most of them weren’t politically active. Only Harrison Gray, Green, and Goldthwait had signed the addresses to the royal governors that spring. Gray and Goldthwait did have major government appointments, but they tried to present themselves as moderate centrists serving both the people and the Crown.

We don’t know what paths Thomas Gray would have chosen when war broke out and when the British military left Boston because he died after a carriage accident in November 1774. But we do known the political choices of all the other men.

Harrison Gray, Amory, and Green left Boston with the redcoats, becoming Loyalists. Amory and Green eventually returned to Massachusetts, however.

Elliot, Barrett, Payne, and Goldthwait stayed in Massachusetts, some serving in civic offices under the new republican order. Barrett appears to have thrown in with the Patriots just a couple of months after this town meeting, participating in the Suffolk County Convention and taking on wartime tasks for the state. In contrast, Goldthwait retired from public life.

The argument of this group was likely that, while it was important to stand up for liberty and protest unjust laws, the Boston committee of correspondence’s methods had been too confrontational and led the town into trouble. It was time to back off, settle accounts for the Tea Party, and reopen for business.

John Rowe himself wrote privately: “the Committee are wrong in the matter. The Merchants have taken up against them, they have in my Opinion exceeded their Power.” But he didn’t speak up in the meeting himself.

COMING UP: Mutual resentments.

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

“On the Conduct of the Comittee of Correspondence”

On Monday, 27 June 1774, the political argument over Boston’s committee of correspondence came to a head.

Merchants and friends of the royal government felt that the committee was wielding too much power, dragging the entire community into a costly and treasonous confrontation with the Crown.

Parliament’s Boston Port Bill was stifling every Bostonian’s livelihood, but that problem could go away at the (admittedly significant) cost of £9,660.

The committee’s Solemn League and Covenant boycott was going further than any non-importation measure so far, not only proscribing more goods from Britain and making people pledge not to do any business with people who did import goods. Was that going too far for the country folk?

The Boston Whigs, who had established the standing committee of correspondence back in November 1772, stuck to their position that for the people to make any retreat or compromise would be giving up their British constitutional rights.

The Boston town meeting resumed in Faneuil Hall at 10:00 A.M. His work with the Massachusetts General Court in Salem done (since the Massachusetts General Court in Salem was done), Samuel Adams was once again in the chair.

A motion passed that the meeting should review all the letters the committee of correspondence had written to other towns and colonies about the Port Bill.

But then came another motion: “that this Meeting be adjourned to the Old South Meeting House, the Hall not being sufficient to contain all the Inhabitants assembled.”

The committee chosen to go to Old South and ask if the town could use that space consisted of William Molineux, town clerk William Cooper, and Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.—all radical Whigs. That alone signaled that their party had the votes to control the meeting. But what if more people came for one side or the other?

In Old South, the meeting reaffirmed its earlier vote to review the correspondence. Cooper began to read the letters aloud. After a while the crowd became bored, and they amended their earlier vote to cover only the Solemn League and Covenant, the letter sent out with that proposal, and “any other Letters that may be particularly called for.”

Eventually someone moved “that some Censure be now passed By the Town on the Conduct of the Comittee of Correspondence; and that said Committee be annihilated.” That would be a total repudiation of the committee and its work.

Adams stated that “he had the Honor of being a Member” of that committee, so someone else should moderate that discussion. By stepping away from the podium for a while, Adams not only made a point of being scrupulously fair but also allowed himself to speak, since the moderator usually didn’t express opinions on motions.

As the temporary chair, the meeting chose Thomas Cushing—merchant, speaker of the House, and another member of the Boston Whigs (though in the moderate set). Again, that showed how that group was in control of this body.

Nonetheless, the debate went on until dark, and still the opponents of the committee said “they had farther to offer.” The meeting voted to adjourn until the next morning at 10:00 A.M.

TOMORROW: The speakers and the vote.

Monday, July 01, 2024

“Deliberating upon the Steps to be taken on the present Exigencies”

On 17 June 1774, as Samuel Adams was orchestrating what would be the last session of the Massachusetts General Court under royal rule, his cousin John took the chair of Boston’s town meeting.

In Faneuil Hall, the first item of business was a report from the committee on ways and means.

The Adams family physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, stood up and said “they thought it best to defer making Report, till they had heard from the other Governments.” So enough of that.

Then the meeting got to the article stated in the warrant—i.e., the official reason for this meeting:
To consider & determine what Measures are proper to be taken upon the present Exigency of our public Affairs, more especially relative to the late Edict of the British Parliament for Blocking up the Harbour of Boston, & annihilating the Trade of this Town
Town clerk William Cooper recorded that there were “very serious Debates” on that very broad question. He also put on paper that only one brave voter (his name not recorded) dissented from this resolution:
That the Comittee of Correspondence be enjoined forthwith to write to all the other Colonies, acquainting them that we are not idle, that we are deliberating upon the Steps to be taken on the present Exigencies of our public Affairs; that our Brethren the landed Interest of the Province, with an unexampled Spirit and Unanimity, are entring into a NonConsumption agreement; And that we are waiting with anxious Expectation for the Result of a Continental Congress; whose Meeting we impatiently desire, & in whose Wisdom & Firmness we can Confide, & in whose Determinations we shall chearfully acquiesce
The meeting then broke for midday dinner, reconvening at 3:00 P.M.

The afternoon session, John Adams still in the chair, the gathering authorized the committee of correspondence to send thanks to other towns and colonies for their support, and then thanked the committee itself.

Some of those towns and colonies were sending donations for the Boston poor. The meeting delegated the distribution of that aid to the elected Overseers of the Poor “in Concert with the Comittee lately appointed by this Town for the Consideration of the Ways & Means of Employing the Poor.”

Finally, the meeting ordered Cooper to “Publish the Proceedings,” paying the town’s chosen printers, Edes and Gill, to issue a broadside based on his record.

All those afternoon actions were obviously designed to show support for the standing committees, validating them in defying the Crown and refusing to seek a compromise.

By the end of the month, there would be pushback.

TOMORROW: The same town meeting continues, ten days later.