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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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reviewing John Adams’s Political Ideas

Today’s leg of my trip takes me from Philadelphia to the Washington, D.C., area—a move the federal government made in John Adams’s administration.

Here are extracts from Tom Cutterham’s review for the American Journal of Legal History of two books published last year about Adams’s political thinking: John Adams’ Republic: The One, the Few, and the Many by Richard Alan Ryerson, and John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy by Luke Mayville.
John Adams’ reputation as a reactionary proponent of American aristocracy emerged from the bitter political disputes of the 1790s, when the norms and structures of the new republic were still being shaped. Thomas Jefferson first promoted the hypothesis that Adams had been swayed from the path of revolutionary republicanism by his time as ambassador in the courts of Europe. Mercy Otis Warren repeated the claim in her anti-Federalist history of the revolution. Most historians since, at least those who have not specialised in Adams’ thought, broadly accepted the Jeffersonian narrative. But it was false. John Adams never was a friend of aristocracy. In fact, he was its most vigilant and perceptive critic. . . .

Whether it was best described as aristocracy or oligarchy, Ryerson and Mayville agree that the primary quality of this dangerous grouping was its money. The revolution, and especially the exigencies of the war, had helped create “a new, enlarged, aggressive aristocracy of wealth,” transforming Boston and other cities in the new republic (Ryerson, p. 243). Yet Adams could be slippery with his definition. As Ryerson emphasises, aristocracy implied a quality rather than a quantity—a distinction which fits Adams’ approach. What mattered was not the precise membership of the category, but the processes that created it. Mayville, following C. Wright Mills, pins Adams as a theorist of the “power elite.” We might simply call it the ruling class. . . .

While Ryerson’s account embeds Adams’ political thought deep in the context of his own life and writings, it does not pay much attention to other thinkers. Mayville’s book, while much shorter, gives us a better sense of the authors with whom Adams was in conversation, including contemporaries like Jefferson, James Madison, and John Taylor of Caroline, as well as European authorities like Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Jean-Louis de Lolme. Of course, what all these men shared—most of the time, anyway—was a disdain for the political abilities and virtue of ordinary citizens. Both Mayville and Ryerson are clear that Adams was no democrat. His theorising was bent on the task of taming natural aristocracy without handing control to the licentious mob.

In 1774 it was the masses, not the aristocrats, who overthrew imperial rule in Massachusetts. “Real authority now derived from the people, exercised directly in their town meetings and militia companies” (Ryerson, p. 156). Their government had neither executive nor judicial branches, and Adams was “deeply impressed, indeed astonished,” at their “good order” (p. 161). If his theory of aristocracy foresaw that men of wealth and influence would never allow such conditions to persist, there was a certain perverse ingenuity to the way Adams and men like him—politicians, thinkers, natural aristocrats—helped bring his prediction to pass.
So Adams might have been more of a critic of the aristocracy on paper than in practice.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Franklin’s Autobiography in Franklin’s Hand

Today I’m scheduled to travel from Boston to Philadelphia, much as young Benjamin Franklin did almost three centuries ago.

The manuscript in which Franklin recounted his early life for his children can be viewed in digital form thanks to the library of the University of Pennsylvania. (The manuscript itself belongs to the Huntington Library in California.)

Here’s Franklin describing the extent of his formal schooling:
My elder Brothers were all put Apprentices to different Trades. I was put to the Grammar School at Eight Years of Age, my Father intending to devote me, as the Tithe of his Sons, to the Service of the Church. My early Readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read), and the Opinion of all his Friends that I should certainly make a good Scholar, encourag’d him in this Purpose of his. My Uncle Benjamin too approv’d of it, and propos’d to give me all his Shorthand Volumes of Sermons, I suppose as a stock to set up with, if I would learn his Character.

I continu’d however at the Grammar School not quite one Year, tho’ in that time I had risen gradually from the Middle of the Class of that Year to be the Head of it, and farther was remov’d into the next Class above it, in order to go with that into the third at the End of the Year. But my Father in the mean time, from a view of the Expence of a College Education which, having so large a Family, he could not well afford, and the mean Living many so educated were afterwards able to obtain, Reasons that be gave to his Friends in my Hearing, altered his first Intention, took me from the Grammar School, and sent me to a School for Writing and Arithmetic kept by a then famous Man, Mr. Geo. Brownell, very successful in his Profession generally, and that by mild encouraging Methods. Under him I acquired fair Writing pretty soon, but I failed in the Arithmetic, & made no Progress in it.

At Ten Years old I was taken home to assist my Father in his Business, which was that of a Tallow Chandler and Sope-boiler; a Business he was not bred to, but had assumed on his Arrival in New England & on finding his Dying Trade would not maintain his Family, being in little Request. Accordingly I was employed in cutting Wick for the Candles, filling the Dipping Mold, & the Molds for cast Candles, attending the Shop, going of Errands, &c.
The manuscript shows Franklin’s little edits, such as changing his time at Boston’s Latin School from “only one Year” to “not quite one Year” and adding the description of Brownell’s “mild encouraging Methods” of teaching.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Women in Debt

I’m about to embark on a summer road trip, so I’ve stockpiled a bunch of interesting items from various corners of the web.

First up is an essay by Alex Wakelam on the Early Modern Prisons site about “The Persistent Presence of the Eighteenth-Century Female Debtor”:
On the 11th December 1742, the young Samuel Foote arrived at London’s imposing Fleet debtors’ prison. At the age of twenty-two the eccentric and extravagant failed lawyer had already been thrown out of Oxford under a cloud of debt, married into money, spent all his wife’s money in London’s premier coffee houses and tailors, and exhausted even the most patient of his creditors. He was thus committed to prison until he came up with the money he owed, amounting to over £650, the equivalent of about £60,000 today.

Foote eventually wrote his way to solvency, cashing in on a highly public family scandal, subsequently taking the London comic scene by storm and ending his life as one of London’s wealthiest theatrical figures as master of the Haymarket theatre. . . .

Behind the young actor entering the Fleet that day was Mary Walpole, a Westminster widow, committed to answer two debts, £20 to William Oakley and £60 to William Harris. Nor was she alone, women made up 9% of commitments to the Fleet that year. They were hardly a majority group though they were certainly far more frequent and representative than artists like Foote. Indeed, other years experienced almost twice as large a female share of commitments.

Even if Foote had somehow not noticed Mary, or (improbably) failed to meet any of the rest of that 9% of prisoners, a letter that arrived shortly after his arrival made him only too aware. The letter, written by his mother Eleanor back home in Truro, must have raised Foote’s hopes upon its arrival, though its contents dashed any hope of rescue, simply reading: “Dear Sam, I am in prison for debt. Come and assist your loving mother – E Foote”. Samuel, without much choice, wrote back “Dear Mother, so am I”.
Dr. Joseph Warren’s mother Mary Warren never went to prison for debt, but she was one of the many people who declared bankruptcy in the mid-1760s after the business failure of Nathaniel Wheelwright. Debt was so widespread in that period that Massachusetts rewrote its bankruptcy law because the prison method clearly wasn’t going to settle enough debt.

Ironically, probate court judge Thomas Hutchinson appointed Dr. Warren to settle Wheelwright’s estate, a knotty task still unfinished when he died at the Battle of Bunker Hill and for several years afterward.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

“Colonial hijinks, high political drama, and Revolutionary War heroes”

Daniel Ford, author of the upcoming novel Sid Sanford Lives!, wrote a very nice review of my book on the website for the Writers’ Bone podcast. It’s part of a roundup headlined “Books That Should Be on Your Radar”:
J.L. Bell is a Massachusetts writer who runs the terrific history blog, “Boston 1775.” His book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, features everything that makes Bell’s site great: accessible writing style, innovative historical storytelling, and a fresh perspective on events that occurred nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago. The Road to Concord focuses on how four stolen cannons (that British general Thomas Gage was desperately, and perhaps foolishly, trying to recover) may have helped spark the American Revolution. The narrative features colonial hijinks, high political drama, and Revolutionary War heroes not often discussed alongside Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. The Road to Concord is refreshingly original and structured like a thriller. Learning about what led the British and the colonies to war has never been this much fun.
I was particularly gratified by the “structured like a thriller” line. I really did borrow all the tricks I could from fiction without deviating from the historical record, such as ending chapters with cliffhangers. Of course, it helps when the narrative is actually about stealing cannon from an armory under guard inside an occupied town and about spies hunting for those cannon in an unfriendly countryside.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Abigail Adams Birthplace Tours, 13 Aug. & 10 Sept.

On 13 Oct 1764, Abigail Smith sent a note to the young lawyer John Adams from Boston:
When I wrote you by the Doctor I was in hopes that I should have been out the next day, but my disorder did not leave me as I expected and I am still confind extreemly weak, and I believe low spirited. The Doctor encourages me, tells me I shall be better in a few days. I hope to find his words true, but at present I feel, I dont know how, hardly myself. I would not have the Cart come a tuesday but should be extreemly glad to see you a Monday.
Twelve days later, Abigail was recovered enough to marry John at the house of her father, the Rev. William Smith.

On Sunday, 13 August, that house, now named the Abigail Adams Birthplace in Weymouth, will be open for tours. This is the one day of this month when people can visit the building without making special arrangements in advance. The next such day, 10 September, will also feature apple cider pressing.

People can view the Abigail Adams Birthplace on that Sunday by guided tours only, starting on the hour and half-hour from 1:00 to 3:30 P.M. The building is located at 180 Norton Street in North Weymouth. Admission is $5, $1 for children under age twelve.

Friday, August 11, 2017

“Echoes of the Past” in Boston, 12 Aug.

On Saturday, 12 August, the Old State House in Boston is once again site for the Bostonian Society’s “Echoes of the Past” interactive history game.
Join us in a full day of immersive history as we present an interactive history game that places you in the middle of the Stamp Act protest of 1765. Experience an 18th-century marketplace, converse with historic interpreters in period garb, and join in a raucous reenactment of the infamous protest marches through the streets of Boston.

Echoes of the Past is a fusion of interactive theater and puzzle-solving where participants will unravel the compelling true story of politics and intrigue and leave feeling excited about Boston’s history. Players are invited to begin their adventure at the registration table beside the entrance to the Old State House where they will receive an introduction and a guidebook. Players will meet live costumed interpreters, who will quickly draw players into the political intrigues of 1765. With riddles, ciphers, secret societies, grudges, and plots, every interaction will entertain and enlighten, and every player’s choices will make their experience unique.
Players can register online or at the Old State House at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 P.M. on Saturday. The event lasts until 5:00. And thanks to the Bostonian Society staff and volunteers, it’s all free.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Why I’m Dubious about the “letter from an officer in Charles-Town”

Yesterday I quoted a letter published in the Pennsylvania Packet in December 1781, reportedly written by a British army officer to a friend back home in May of that year.

Some American newspapers reprinted the letter, stating it had appeared in the London press. If indeed a London newspaper first published the letter, that suggests it’s authentic. But I haven’t seen any citation pointing that way. All the paths lead back to Philadelphia.

The content of the letter makes me suspect it wasn’t written by British army officer at all, but rather by an American propagandist. Here’s why:
  • There isn’t a single personal remark, either about writer or recipient. Granted, such comments might have been edited out before publication.
  • The writer explains a classical allusion: “like Antæus, of whom it was fabled, that being the son of the goddess Tellus, or the earth, every fall which he received from Hercules gave him more strength, so that the hero was forced to strangle him in his arms at last.” The whole point of a gentleman referring to a classical myth that he wouldn’t have to explain it—other gentlemen shared the same knowledge. Indeed, implying that one’s genteel correspondent wouldn’t recognize a story of Hercules’s labors would be insulting. If, on the other hand, someone is writing for the American public, then it would be important to ensure the allusion is clear.
  • The writer complains about all the genteel men and women inside Charleston supporting the American cause, to the point of the women wearing “in their breast knots, and even on their shoes, something that resembles their flag of thirteen stripes.” The British military took Charleston in early 1780 and held it until the end of the war. It became a haven for southern Loyalists; thousands were evacuated after the peace treaty. But this letter describes the entire city in May 1781 as hostile to the British officers, to the point of exhibiting the enemy’s emblem.
  • The phrase “retrograde progress” in the opening line feels like an allusion to a widely published report from Lafayette earlier in 1781, describing the British army with that term.
All in all, the letter seems composed to assure American readers that everything they might hear about the British hold on Charleston is a lie: the press there is publishing fake news, the locals toast the king only under duress, the women are defiant and committed to the American cause, the British officers are grumpy and undersexed and eager to go home.

I see this letter cited as evidence for American women’s dedication to the new nation, and particularly in how they showed that feeling in their clothing. But unless someone turns up an earlier publication in the London press, I don’t think it’s real, and thus I don’t think anything it describes actually happened.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

“An officer told Lord Cornwallis not long ago…”

On 11 Dec 1781 the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper published some news under the dateline “London, July 28.” That was the usual signal to readers that the following items were copied from the latest London newspaper to arrive in Philadelphia.

Then after a bit of white space came this item:
Extract of a letter from an officer in Charles-Town, to his friend in London, dated May 20th.

“The retrograde progress of our arms in this country, you have seen in your news-papers, if they dare tell you the truth. This precious commodity is not to be had in the government paper which is printed here, for a fell licenser hangs over the press, and will suffer nothing to pass but what is palatable, that is, in plain terms what is false. Our victories have been dearly bought, for the rebels seem to grow stronger by every defeat, like Antæus, of whom it was fabled, that being the son of the goddess Tellus, or the earth, every fall which he received from Hercules gave him more strength, so that the hero was forced to strangle him in his arms at last. I wish our ministry would send us a Hercules to conquer these obstinate Americans, whose aversion to the cause of Britain grows stronger every day.

“If you go into company with any of them occasionally, they are barely civil; and that is, as Jack Falstaff says, by compulsion. They are in general sullen, silent, and thoughtful. The king’s health they dare not refuse, but they drink it in such a manner, as if they expected it would choak them.

“The assemblies which the officers have opened, in hopes to give an air of gaiety and chearfulness to themselves and the inhabitants, are but dull and gloomy meetings; the men play at cards, indeed to avoid talking, the women are seldom or never to be persuaded to dance. Even in their dresses the females seem to bid us defiance; the gay toys which are imported here, they despise: they wear their own homespun manufactures, and take care to have in their breast knots, and even on their shoes, something that resembles their flag of thirteen stripes. An officer told lord Cornwallis not long ago, that he believed if he had destroyed all the men in North-America, we should have enough to do to conquer the women.—I am heartily tired of this country, and wish myself at home.”
This article was reprinted in 29 Dec 1781 Boston Evening-Post and the 31 Jan 1782 Salem Gazette, as well as other American newspapers. In early 1782 American printers began to label the letter as having appeared in a London newspaper, as the layout in the Packet had merely implied.

In 1860 Frank Moore transcribed that article with reasonable accuracy into his Diary of the American Revolution, citing the Packet.

The penultimate sentence, as it appeared in Moore’s book, is undoubtedly the source of the passage from Mary Elizabeth Springer in 1896 that I quoted yesterday: “A British officer once remarked to him [Cornwallis], ‘If we destroy all the men in America, we still would have enough to do to conquer the women.’” And Springer’s article in turn gave birth to slightly different versions of the line, down to the present day, when some authors attribute that statement to Cornwallis himself.

TOMORROW: Who wrote this letter?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Cornwallis and the Women of America

While Ben Franklin’s World host Liz Covart was at Mount Vernon recently, an interpreter gave her a paper with this quotation attributed to Gen. Cornwallis: “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.”

That line appears in Cokie Roberts’s Founding Mothers, which says Cornwallis wrote it during the war. However, most other recent sources, including a couple of textbooks, state the words came from a British army officer speaking or writing to Cornwallis.

Among the publications describing the statement is a 1965 government booklet for people becoming U.S. citizens titled “Our Government.” So the quotation certainly appears to have authority behind it—governmental if not historical.

I went looking for an early appearance, one which specifies the speaker or the specific circumstances or the documentary source for these words. The first appearance of the exact quotation that I could find was Camille Benson Bird’s article “Women of Revolutionary Times in New England” published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the American Monthly Magazine in 1908.

However, back in 1896 that same magazine had published Mary Elizabeth Springer’s “Men and Women of the Revolution,” which rendered the quotation slightly differently:
While the British held Charleston, the women wore homespun, disdaining to wear foreign manufactures, and furthermore they displayed their patriotism by wearing on their breasts ribbons and bows resembling the flag with thirteen stripes. They would have nothing to do with the English officers, and Cornwallis’s proud boast that he would bring the Southern beauties to time was not accomplished. A British officer once remarked to him, “If we destroy all the men in America, we still would have enough to do to conquer the women.”
Versions of the quotation are thus over a century old. But those versions are also still a century removed from the Revolutionary War. Furthermore, neither of those appearances offer any documentation to show the quotation is authentic.

I was thinking about a posting on the evolution of the tradition from 1896 to now and the various ways authors have used it to bolster different causes or interpretations. But then I found a lead that got me all the way back to 1781.

TOMORROW: An actual contemporaneous source!

Monday, August 07, 2017

Julian Peters’s Battle of Québec

Julian Peters is a comics creator from Montréal, Canada. Among his current projects is a graphic novel about the 1759 siege of Québec, in which Gen. James Wolfe took the city from Gen. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.

On this webpage, Peters shares eight pages of his work and explains:
I am currently at work on “Each in His Narrow Cell,” a graphic novel recounting the siege of Quebec and the Battle of The Plains of Abraham in 1759. In revisiting this pivotal moment in Canadian history, my intention is not simply to present a didactic history lesson in visual form, but rather to create an emotionally engaging, character-driven narrative centered on the personal motivations and inner conflicts of the French, English and Indigenous participants. . . .

One of the parameters I set for myself with the colouring was that all the characters from a particular nation would be depicted in a combination of a neutral grey tone and one characteristic colour—blue for the French, red for the English, purple for the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and so on. Similarly, the colour of the lettering in the speech bubbles indicates what language is being spoken. Chief Nissowaquet of the Odawa of l’Arbre Croche appears in yellow, a decision based on the background colour of the present-day flag of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa, within whose reservation boundaries the village of l’Arbre Croche was situated.
In the sample section, Gen. Montcalm arrives home in Languedoc, having learned that one of his four daughters has died—but not knowing which family member is lost. He discovers more pressing concerns.

To balance that, here’s a bit of Wolfe.

Peters’s previous historical work included a previous depiction of the 1759 Battle of Québec, this time as a national food fight, and a 1709 chanson.