J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

The Crispus Attucks Teapot

Among the artifacts in the “We Are One” exhibit at the Boston Public Library is a teapot linked to Crispus Attucks, now owned by Historic New England. (And shown here thanks to a Harvard course on material culture.)

I read about this teapot years ago, but I’d never seen it before. It’s smaller than I expected, about the size of one of those little individual pots a restaurant with airs brings out when one orders tea. It‘s pewter, plain, and poorly made. In short, it was a cheap teapot.

But is it Attucks’s?

The evidence from 1770 suggests that Attucks was working as a sailor under an assumed name, at least while he was in Massachusetts. Documents from the coroner’s inquiry immediately after he died in the Boston Massacre called him “Michael Johnson.” The Thursday newspapers identified him as:
A Mollatto Man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonging to New-Providence [Bahamas], and was here in order to go for North-Carolina, killed on the Spot, two Balls entering his Breast.
That day was both market day and the day of the funeral for Attucks and three other shooting victims. It’s conceivable those events brought people into Boston with new information. Alas, the Boston Gazette on Monday offered no explanation for identifying that same man as “Crispus Attucks,” and the legal system followed suit. Every source from 1770 agrees that Attucks was a sailor.

In the 1850s, after Attucks had become a touchstone for American abolitionists, a Framingham family named Brown came forward to claim part of his memory. In 1857 that family published a small anniversary book titled The Golden Wedding of Col. James Brown and His Wife. It included a “Speech of Mr. Wm. D. Brown” about his ancestors’ Revolutionary history, including this:
In the month of March 1770, a collision occured between the people of Boston and a portion of the King’s troops, then quartered in the town. The soldiers were very obnoxious to the citizens and a slight provocation was sufficient to raise a mob against them. The old school books tell us, that at this time the mob was led on by a stout negro whose name was Attucks. The mob pressed close up to the troops who received them with leveled muskets! Attucks beat down the guns with a heavy club and cried “they dare not fire!” They did fire, and Crispus Attucks, our great grandfather[ William Brown]’s slave, was shot dead!

Attucks was a well informed and faithful negro. He was a good judge of cattle and was allowed to sell and buy upon his own judgment. Crispus was sensible of the oppressions of Great Britain, and as indignant as the most patriotic, at the presence of hireling soldiers in the country, to enforce unjust laws.
It’s a curious passage, setting down family lore yet apparently relying on “old school books” for information about Attucks’s actions on 5 Mar 1770. In this description of a “faithful negro,…sensible of the oppressions of Great Britain,” there’s no hint that Attucks had become a sailor or used the name Michael Johnson.

TOMORROW: The Brown family and William C. Nell.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

“We Are One” Exhibits Opens in Boston

Earlier this year I recommended the “God Save the People” exhibit at the Massachusetts Historical Society. This month the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, just a few blocks away on Boyltston Street, opened a new exhibit called “We Are One.” It’s also very good. Both displays are up through the summer, and both are free.

There’s some overlap between the two exhibits. For example, both have copies of the Paul Revere engraving of the Boston Massacre. The B.P.L. also shows the overhead drawing of the killing scene credited to Revere, perhaps used in the legal proceedings that followed. The M.H.S. has two of the musket balls fired that night.

Likewise, both exhibits include a copy of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 collection of poetry. (Old South Meeting House is also displaying that book now.) The M.H.S. copy of Wheatley’s collection sits alongside what is reportedly her writing desk. The B.P.L. copy contains her signature.

“We Are One” is bigger, with a broader scope. “God Save the People” is focused on greater Boston; it starts with the Stamp Act of 1765 and ends with the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. In contrast, the B.P.L. exhibit goes back to trade routes in the mid-eighteenth-century British Empire, the end of the French & Indian War, and the British line of settlement in 1763. It extends through the ratification of the Constitution and the expansion of the U.S. of A. And it covers a lot of ground.

(I’m going to link to a lot of “We Are One” artifacts through the accompanying website. The “God Save the People” exhibit doesn’t have such an elaborate website, but, as this page says, many of its items are visible on the web.)

Because “We Are One” is from a Map Center, it naturally emphasizes cartography. Not just maps, but other ways of visualizing the world. One item I found striking was Georg Balthasar Probst’s view of the London skyline. It’s often said that when Paul Revere and Christian Remick created their view of British troops landing on Boston’s Long Wharf in 1768, they emphasized Boston’s church spires to underscore the town’s religiosity. But Probst’s view of London had even more spires. So was he making the same point, or were church spires the most notable features of any town?

Among my favorite Revolutionary artifacts are the watercolors that Lt. Richard Williams painted on top of Beacon Hill, showing each sector of the view in turn. Back in May 2006 (the month I started this blog), I noted that a set of those had come up for auction. Richard H. Brown has generously loaned them and other items for the “We Are One” exhibit; two originals will be on display in rotation while the whole series is reproduced overhead. Down below you can see me pointing out details of those pictures during a visit earlier this month. (Reproductions of a Williams panorama are also part of the display at the Lexington visitor center of Minute Man National Historical Park.)

Thanks to the B.P.L.’s collections, “We Are One” also goes well beyond cartography. It also includes the gold medal that the Continental Congress commissioned for Gen. George Washington at the end of the siege of Boston. What’s more, beside it is the gorget that Washington wore for his 1772 portrait. That actual gorget. And, back to maps, there’s a 1750 land survey that the teen-aged Washington drew.

Over the next couple of days I’ll discuss a couple of the “We Are One” items in more depth.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dedication of the African Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth

I was planning to post about something else today, but discussions at last night’s seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society reminded me of an important commemoration taking place this week in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

From today through Saturday, 23 May, the city is honoring the completion of the new African Burying Ground Memorial Park.

In the eighteenth century, the town’s black inhabitants were buried at a site on the town’s outskirts. Eventually Portsmouth grew over that location. Early in this century, construction on Chestnut Street unearthed the remains of thirteen burials, out of up to two hundred that might have taken place at the site. That history explains why this park has a subtitle: We Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten. It’s the only known African burying ground from the era in New England.

On Saturday, those remains will be reburied at the site within a series of commemorative events.

Wednesday, 20 May, 9:00 A.M.
Unveiling of Ceramic Tiles
Sculptor Jerome B. Meadows and students from Portsmouth Middle School will reveal the ceramic they designed to be installed in the decorative railing at the site.

9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Petition of 1779 on Display
On 12 Nov 1779 twenty black men signed a petition to the Revolutionary New Hampshire government seeking relief from slavery. That document from the state archives is on display at the Seacoast African American Cultural Center at 10 Middle Street. (The cultural center is also hosting a show of art by middle-school students about the African Burying Ground.)

6:30 P.M.
Public Art & Portsmouth: A Community Forum
A discussion of the value of public art with sculptor Jerome Meadows and local arts figures at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughn Street.

Friday, 22 May, 7:00 P.M. on
African Burying Ground Ancestral Vigil
As part of the reburial celebration, members of the community will hold an all-night vigil at the New Hope Baptist Church, 263 Peverly Hill Road. Services of remembrance are scheduled at 7:00 P.M., midnight, and 6:00 A.M. Saturday morning. The hours between services are open for anyone wanting to pay homage in their own way: sitting quietly, reciting a poem, saying a prayer, singing a song, playing the piano or other instrument, or otherwise. Those wishing to participate should contact JerriAnne Boggis or Kelvin Edwards with details.

Saturday, 23 May, 8:30 A.M.
Reburial Ceremony
Nine caskets will be placed in the vault constructed as part of the Memorial. The ceremony includes traditional African burial customs and the unveiling of the work of sculptor Jerome B. Meadows.

10:30 A.M.
Public Celebration of the Park
Following the reburial ceremony, a public celebration with food, music, and inspirational voices will take place at the Portsmouth Middle School Auditorium.

1:30 P.M.
Site Walk with Artist and Construction Team
Members of the construction team and sculptor Edwards will return to the African Burying Ground Park to answer questions about the Memorial installation.

5:00 P.M.
Burial Vault Lid Placement
At the close of the day, the burial vault lid will be placed on the vault. Members of the public will be invited to witness from a safe distance.

7:00 P.M.
Blind Boys of Alabama Concert
The gospel singing group formed in 1939 will offer a concert of traditional gospel songs and contemporary spirituals in celebration of the African Burying Ground Memorial at the Music Hall, 28 Chestnut Street.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New Word on The Revolution’s Last Men from Don Hagist, 27 May

On Wednesday, 27 May, the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston will host a book talk by Don N. Hagist, author of The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs.

The story of this book starts with another book:
During a Civil War that threatened to tear the United States apart came the realization that only a handful of veterans of the American Revolution still survived—men who had fought the war that created the nation. Six of these men were photographed and interviewed for a book that appeared late in 1864.

Their images have captivated generations since then; but, through a combination of faded memories and the interviewer’s patriotic agenda, the biographies accompanying these amazing photographs were garbled and distorted, containing information that ranged from inaccurate to implausible.
Westholme Publishing invited Don to investigate those soldiers again, using primary documents to correct and fill out their life stories. The result is a detailed exploration of the experiences of six young men serving in the American forces, alongside their actual faces in old age.

Don Hagist is an editor of the Journal of the American Revolution and author of the British Soldiers, American War blog. I’ve reported how he unearthed personal information in the British National Archives about three of the redcoats involved in the Boston Massacre.

Don’s previous history books include British Soldiers, American War (recommended here), A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution, and Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls. Don works as an engineering consultant in Rhode Island, and also writes for several well-known syndicated and freelance cartoonists.

The N.E.H.G.S. is at 99-101 Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay. This event is scheduled from 6:00 to 7:30 P.M., and is free to all.

(For folks who can’t get enough Revolutionary photographs, I’ll also note Joseph M. Bauman’s ebook edition of The Last Men of the Revolution with the old biographies but new images, and his follow-up with new photos and new bios of other veterans, Don’t Tread on Me, both discussed here. In addition, historic photo expert Maureen Taylor, who wrote the foreword for Don’s book, has published two Last Muster collections of portraits of folks who lived through the Revolution.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Ropes Mansion Reopening in Salem, 23 May

On Saturday, 23 May, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem will reopen its historic Ropes Mansion to the public. The museum says the site “reimagines what a historic house experience can be,…in which present-day and personal life experiences are placed in dialogue with the past.”

Some more background:
Built in 1727 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Ropes Mansion was home to four generations of the Ropes family and is recognized as one of New England’s most significant and thoroughly documented historic houses. Filled with original furnishings, the house contains superb examples of 18th- and 19th-century furniture, ceramics and glass, silver, kitchenwares, textiles and personal objects. The property has been closed to the public since 2009, following a fire that was swiftly contained by firefighters, and its reopening ushers in a new chapter for this stately and illustrious Georgian Colonial. . . .

On the first floor, the dining room is set as it would have appeared for Christmas dinner in 1847, details gleaned from a letter by Sally Fisk Ropes Orne who hosted the event. The installation features an elaborate dinner service, menu and serving techniques used on that festive occasion. The nearby kitchen offers a glimpse into the lives of the parlor maid and cook employed by the Ropes family in 1894 and the housekeeping practices used in their daily tasks. Cooking implements, recipes, as well as the plain china used by the servants are on view in the kitchen. Towels hanging near the sink feature printed instructions to kitchen staff on the correct way to wash dishes and clean silverware. Elsewhere, guests are invited to try their hand at historic napkin-folding techniques and learn period table manners and etiquette.

Upstairs bedrooms present tales of marriage, housekeeping and child rearing, as well as emotionally charged accounts of illness and death within the family. The childhood toys, books and seashells of Elizabeth Ropes Orne are given stark contrast by the locket, containing a lock of her hair, that was commissioned and worn by her mother after Elizabeth died of tuberculosis at age 24.

Period rooms within the Ropes Mansion welcome guests to explore the intimate surroundings with as few barriers as possible. Open drawers, trunks and desks are designed to pique curiosity and offer a naturalistic glimpse into the lives of Ropes family members. Reproduction bed hangings, carpet and wallpaper introduce vibrant color and texture to the home and, for the first time, the 1894-period bathroom will be on view.
The Ropes Mansion is at 318 Essex Street in Salem, a ten-minute walk from the museum. It will be open free to the public in season, Saturdays and Sundays, from noon to 4:00 P.M. Visitors will be able to freely circulate instead of following a tour, though guides will be present to answer questions.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Hutchinson Learned Latin and French

This is Thomas Hutchinson writing in the third person about himself as a young man:
When he left College [1727] he went into his father's counting house, and became a Merchant Apprentice, from 17 years to 21. He saw how much he had neglected his studies at College, and applied to his schoolmaster, (…whose tuition he was under about five years), and desired he would allow him to spend two or three evenings in a week in going over some of the Latin Classicks, which he readily consented to. In a short time he acquired a relish for the Latin tongue, which he never lost.

Soon after he put himself under M. [Andrew] Le Mercier, the French Minister, and then began to learn the French tongue; but Monsieur [Louis] Langloiseier, arriving at Boston soon after, in Gov. [William] Burnet's family, & Mr [John Henry] Lidius of Albany, who had lived and married in Canada, and Mr [Peter] Chardon, a young gentleman of fortune from London, being also in Boston, a French Club was formed, of which the three gentlemen above named were members, and Mr [Jeremiah] Gridley, the Lawyer, Mr Jo[seph]. Greene, [John] Lovell, and two or three more New England young gentlemen were members, & the whole conversation was to be in French.

In these ways he acquired a competent knowledge of the Latin & French, accustoming himself to reading authors in both languages, and at length he found very little difficulty in either.
Le Mercier, a native of Caen educated in Geneva, was minister of the Huguenot church in Boston, which faded after his death. Eventually that building on School Street became the town’s first Catholic church.

As Hutchinson noted, Langloiserie arrived in Boston with the new governor in 1728, but left for London on the sudden death of his patron. He came back, opened a French school in 1730, and started tutoring Harvard students in the language in 1733.

Lydius was a Dutch-born dealer in western lands, not always equipped with legal titles.

Chardon was a merchant of Huguenot ancestry whose name remains in New Chardon Street.

Gridley, Green, and Lovell were all New England-born Englishmen like Hutchinson, learned and upper-class. Gridley became the province’s leading lawyer and leader of the Freemasons. Greene was a merchant also known for his satirical verse. Lovell was the master of the South Latin School for decades.

Of these men, all who survived until the Revolution became Loyalists. (Well, Lydius was already in Britain in 1776, either seeking to validate his land claims or hiding out from the many people who had bought deeds from him.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

“Ellis’s strategy of building his narrative around four exemplary men”

Back in July 2013 I discussed historian Joseph J. Ellis’s focus on, in his words, “the most prominent members of the political leadership during this formative phase” of the nation, as opposed to the larger mass of less wealthy, privileged, and successful Americans.

Some reviews of Ellis’s latest book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, fault that approach when it comes to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

In the New York Times Book Review, R. B. Bernstein wrote:
Ellis sees American nationhood as the creation of a few politicians working from above. But what of sentiments of ­national identity among the American people? ­Ellis rejects the idea that American ­nationalism existed before 1787, even reproving Abraham Lincoln for making that claim; his endnotes airily dismiss scholarship arguing otherwise. Nonetheless, currents of nationalism before 1787 helped make possible both the American victory in the Revolution and the Constitution’s adoption. . . .

Another large question concerns Ellis’s understanding of politics itself. The path to the Constitution was studded with pivotal choices, critical decision points and balking institutions. . . . These and other choices resulted from political decisions by the Confederation Congress, the state legislatures and the state ratifying conventions, all outside the control of Ellis’s four heroes [Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay].

Ellis dedicates “The Quartet” to his friend and colleague Pauline Maier, one of the finest historians of the American Revolution and the Constitution’s origins. He writes movingly of her in ways that bring her to life for all fortunate enough to have known her. And yet Maier’s work cuts against “The Quartet.” She focused on politics and political processes; her deft illumination of them produced a story more persuasive than that of “The Quartet.”
That book would be Maier’s Ratification. And Ellis’s skill is indeed bringing such big personalities to life.

The Economist, which doesn’t name its contributors, said something similar:
But in focusing on a few exceptional men, Mr Ellis also deprives his narrative of vital context. From the beginning it is an unequal contest, pitting the visionaries against the narrow-minded, the righteous few against the feckless many. None of their opponents—with the possible exception of Patrick Henry, who makes a cameo appearance near the end of the book engaging in oratorical fisticuffs with Madison over Virginia’s ratification of the constitution—rises to the stature of Mr Ellis’s heroes, or even their supporting cast. Their most doughty opponent, it turns out, is the amorphous “spirit of ’76”, which makes the book less a clash of titans than an exercise in shadow boxing.

Mr Ellis’s strategy of building his narrative around four exemplary men certainly makes for more compelling reading than delving into tax rolls or birth registers. Inevitably, though, it also carries its own subtle bias. Although he occasionally draws the reader’s attention to the moral limitations of the Founding Fathers, for instance calling their treatment of the native population one of the “less attractive features of the western story”, this is largely a triumphalist tale. Mr Ellis is not blind to the moral compromises made in Philadelphia in 1787, but he accepts rather too complacently the notion that the constitution that emerged represented the best possible agreement under the circumstances.
I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve enjoyed some of Ellis’s previous books. I’ve found his analyses of personalities and conversations between two or three figures to be compelling. However, I’m not convinced that approach works as well in illuminating huge enterprises like nation-building.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Studying American Slavery at Brown and Columbia

On Thursday, 21 May, the the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University will open a new exhibit titled “A Peculiar Aesthetic: Representation and Images of Slavery.”

The event announcement says:
Racial slavery remains one of the most vexed issues in American and New World history. Its legacies haunt and shape our contemporary lives. Utilizing historic artwork from the Brown University Library Instructional Image Collection, the exhibition A Peculiar Aesthetic examines how these images coalesce to represent a world in which plantations, slave markets and dwellings, maroon ambushes, cosmetic boxes, figurines and decorative tables, and printers’ typefaces of runaway slaves – evoke again and again the realization of how central slavery was to ways of life within New World and American society.
From 5:00 to 7:00 P.M. on 21 May, there will be an opening reception at the center’s gallery, 94 Waterman Street in Providence, Rhode Island. The exhibition will remain on view there through 31 October, Monday through Friday, 8:45 A.M. to 3:45 P.M.

In related news, the New York Times reported on the findings of a history seminar at Columbia looking at that New York university’s connections to slavery.
Sharon Liao, a junior at Columbia College, uncovered 18th-century accounting records showing that the school not only received donations from prominent New York families with slave plantations in the West Indies, but sometimes lent them money at below-market interest rates.

“These guys were basically using Columbia as a bank,” Mr. [Eric] Foner said.
The seminar students’ basic finding was that Columbia had some students, faculty, and donors who vocally opposed slavery, more who benefited directly from it, and many more who didn’t oppose it while benefiting indirectly. Which part of that history has the institution promoted most in recent years? Not surprisingly, Columbia, like the U.S. of A. as a whole, has preferred to emphasize the slow move toward emancipation.

[The image above comes from a 1781 issue of the Royal Gazette of Jamaica, courtesy of the British Library and the Journal of the American Revolution.]

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Old North Lecture and Puppet Show, 20 May

On Wednesday, 20 May, the Old North Church is offering an unusual combination of programs.

At 6:30 P.M., Robert J. Allison will speak on the topic “How Did Old North Become Old North?” When Christ Church was built in Boston’s North End in 1723, there already was an “Old North,” the venerable Puritan Meeting House over which the Mathers presided. How did the upstart Anglican congregation become the “Old North” of Boston legend? This talk will focus on Old North’s place in Boston history and myth.

Bob Allison is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Suffolk University. He is the author of many books, including most recently The American Revolution: A Concise History. Allison is also president of the South Boston Historical Society, a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and vice president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

This talk, part of the church’s Spring Speaker Series, is free. Reserve tickets here.

At 8:00 P.M., or immediately after the lecture, Noah’s New Americans will perform “Paul Revere’s Ride: A Shadow Play.” This group is a colonial history club for youth aged 8 to 17 based at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut. They’ve prepared a dramatization of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem about Paul Revere using the ancient storytelling form of shadow puppetry.

As I said, an unusual combination.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

George Washington Makes Himself Clear

I’ve been tracing the relationship of George Washington and George Muse, an older Virginia planter who had served (badly) at Fort Necessity but then became a partner in real-estate speculation.

In late 1773 Muse wrote a letter about their business dealings which Washington didn’t like. How much did he dislike it? Here’s what Washington wrote back on 29 Jan 1774:
Sir,

Your impertinent Letter of the 24th ulto [i.e., of last month], was delivered to me yesterday by Mr [Charles] Smith—

As I am not accustomed to receive such from any Man, nor would have taken the same language from you personally, without letting you feel some marks of my resentment; I would advise you to be cautious in writing me a second of the same tenour; for though I understand you were drunk when you did it, yet give me leave to tell you, that drunkeness is no excuse for rudeness; & that, but for your stupidity & sottishness you might have known, by attending to the public Gazettes, (particularly [William] Rinds of the 14th of January last) that you had your full quantity of ten thousand acres of Land allow’d you; that is, 9073 acres in the great Tract of 51,302 acres, & the remainder in the small tract of 927 acres; whilst I wanted near 500 acres of my quantity, Doctr [James] Craik 300 of his, and almost every other claimant little or much of theirs.

But suppose you had really fallen short 73 acres of your 10,000, do you think your superlative merit entitles you to greater indulgences than others? or that I was to make it good to you, if it did? when it was at the option of the Governor & Council to have allowed you but 500 acres in the whole, if they had been inclin’d so to do.

If either of these should happen to be your opinion, I am very well convinced you will stand singular in it; & all my concerns is, that I ever engag’d in behalf of so ungrateful & dirty a fellow as you are. But you may still stand in need of my assistance, as I can inform you that your affairs, in respect to these Lands, do not stand upon so solid a basis as you may imagine, & this you may take by way of hint. . . .

I wrote to you a few days ago concerning the other distribution, proposing an easy method of dividing our Lands; but since I find in what temper you are, I am sorry I took the trouble of mentioning the Land, or your name in a Letter, as I do not think you merit the least assistance from

G: Washington
Well!

This letter was my starting-point for looking into Washington’s relationship with George Muse. What, I wondered, could have caused someone so determined to keep his emotions in genteel check to write so bluntly?

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Washington had a reason to resent Muse from way back. I was surprised to see that they had continued to do business together for so long.

And I was even more surprised to find that their business relationship survived this letter in January 1774 to go on for several more years. They exchanged more polite business letters that year. In March 1783, as the war wound down, Muse asked to be reimbursed for expenses. The next year, Washington made Muse’s son his agent in the west. Evidently, real estate trumped rancor.