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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Saturday, July 30, 2016

When Gen. Gage Proclaimed Martial Law

I sometimes see people write that the arrival of Gen. Thomas Gage as royal governor of Massachusetts in May 1774 placed the town of Boston under “martial law.” That’s a misunderstanding.

Gage was indeed commander-in-chief of the British army in North America, but the ministry in London made him governor in the normal civil process under Massachusetts’s 1692 charter. Other men with military appointments also served as colonial governors, and Gov. William Shirley had also been the North American commander-in-chief.

Gage brought troops with him, and stationing those troops in Boston (and later in Salem and Marshfield) meant that civilians had to follow certain rules, but that didn’t constitute “martial law.” That term has a particular meaning in the British and American legal systems, referring to the suspension of ordinary legislation and justice. Gage didn’t take that step in 1774.

In fact, Gage tried to keep the Massachusetts courts operating that summer and fall. The Patriot movement closed those courts down, starting in the western counties. Gage did adjourn the Massachusetts General Court early in the summer after it chose delegates to the First Continental Congress, but he had the power to do so under the regular charter, and he summoned a new legislature in early September. [I discuss how that turned out in The Road to Concord.]

Gage really did declare martial law on 12 June 1775—almost two months after the Revolutionary War began. On that date he issued a proclamation that began:
WHEREAS the infatuated multitudes, who have long suffered themselves to be conducted by certain well known Incendiaries and Traitors, in a fatal progression of crimes, against the constitutional authority of the state, have at length proceeded to avowed rebellion; and the good effects which were expected arise from the patience and lenity of the King’s government, have been often frustated, and are now rendered hopeless, by the influence of the same evil counsels; it only remains for those who are entrusted with supreme rule, as well for the punishment of the guilty, as the protection of the well-affected, to prove they do not bear the sword in vain.
And finally got around to saying:
And whereas, during the continuance of the present unnatural rebellion, justice cannot be administered by the common law of the land, the course whereof has, for a longtime past, been violently impeded, and wholly interrupted; from whence results a necessity for using and exercising the law martial; I have therefore thought fit, by the authority vested in me, by the Royal Charter to this province, to publish, and I do hereby publish, proclaim and order the use and exercise of the law martial, within and throughout this province, for so long time as the present unhappy occasion shall necessarily require; whereof all persons are hereby required to take notice, and govern themselves, as well to maintain order and regularity among the peaceable inhabitants of the province, as to resist, encounter, and subdue the Rebels and Traitors above-described by such as shall be called upon those purposes.
(The imperfect transcription here seems to be the best text of this document on the web.)

Gage didn’t write that proclamation. It came from the pen of Gen. John Burgoyne (shown above), who had arrived in Boston in May, after the war had begun. In a letter to Attorney General Edward Thurlow on 20 August, Burgoyne stated:
…I am sometimes called upon to draw a pen instead of a sword. If the proclamation for the exercise of martial law, the correspondence with [Charles] Lee, or the answer to [George] Washington upon the subject of rebel prisoners, fall into your hands, I request you to consider those productions with all the allowances your candour can suggest—not as voluntary undertakings, but proceeding from a principle to refuse no task assigned to me, and to deal out vigour where I could in this great cause, though by the exercise of a weapon for which I was most unfit.
In eighteenth-century genteel language, that was the equivalent of, “Hey, take a look at what I wrote!” For posterity Burgoyne kept a copy of the 12 June proclamation in his handwriting labeled “Drawn up by me at the request of General Gage.” So he wasn’t really hiding his work on this proclamation.

TOMORROW: The clauses offering lenience.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Workings of Gradual Emancipation in Pennsylvania

In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law ending slavery in the state—but not yet.

This blog post from the Manuscripts and Archives Department of the Yale University Library explains:
The Act, which represented an early approach by a U.S. state to abolishing slavery, simply banned importation of new slaves into the state. Slaves already in the state remained enslaved for life, and children born to them were afforded the status of indentured servants, forced to serve their mothers’ master until the age of 28.

The Act stipulated that residents of the state had to register their existing slaves with the county government annually or risk manumission. Foreshadowing a long tradition to come, members of the U.S. Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia under the Articles of Confederation, were exempted from the Pennsylvania Act.
The Yale library holds the registry of slaves in Chester County from 1780 to 1821, indexed by the owners’ names. Pennsylvania became known as an anti-slavery state, a refuge for people escaping from the states to the south. But it maintained the property claims of local slave-owners until 1847.

[Featuring a document from Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives Department has some sentimental meaning for me since I worked there part-time for a couple of years.]

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The “unutterable things” of Gen. Charles Lee

In the movie Bull Durham, the veteran catcher counsels the hot pitching prospect, “Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shower shoes and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you’re a slob.”

The reverse process happened to Gen. Charles Lee. In 1775-76, Americans saw him as a military genius and were willing to chuckle about his many eccentricities. Once he challenged Gen. George Washington in 1778, however, Lee became less popular. After Washington became President and was apotheosized after his death, Lee became one of the villains of American history, and authors were happy to highlight his character flaws.

In 1788 the Rev. William Gordon published this anecdote about Lee, dating it to late 1776. (It’s not clear whether Gordon actually wrote this in 1776, but his history of the Revolution took the form of a series of contemporaneous letters to a friend in Britain.)
Gen. Lee, while at White Plains, lodged in a small house close in with the road, by which gen. Washington had to pass when out on reconnoitring. Returning with his officers they called in and took a dinner. They were no sooner gone, than Lee told his aids, “You must look me out another place, for I shall have Washington and all his puppies continually calling upon me, and they will eat me up.”

The next day Lee seeing Washington out upon the like business, and supposing that he should have another visit, ordered his servant to write with chalk upon the door—No victuals dressed here to-day. When the company approached and saw the writing, they pushed off with much good humor for their own table, without resenting the habitual oddity of the man.
Here’s another story about the same trait of Lee’s, published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections by Thomas Amory Lee in 1917. See if you can spot the difference in tone:
Gen. Lee was not only slovenly in his dress and rude in manner, but remarkable for his sordid parsimony. Col. [William Raymond] Lee often remarked on these inhospitable and repulsive peculiarities of an officer of his superior education, large service in European armies, and constant intercourse with the first gentlemen in every country in which he had resided.

Col. Lee stated that as acting brigade major of the brigade which Col. [John] Glover temporarily commanded, he was obliged daily as senior officer in General Lee’s division, and at all hours to visit the headquarters of Gen. Lee. On one occasion, happening to call just as the General was sitting down to dinner, he observed, “Major Lee, why the devil do you never dine, breakfast, or sup with me; you are frequently at my quarters, either in the morning, at the dinner hour, or in the evening.”

The major replied, “General, you have never invited me to take a seat at your table.”

“That is just like all you damned Yankees; never stand on ceremony, but in future, whenever you come into my quarters at the time I am taking my meals, sit down and call on the servant for a plate.”

“Very well, sir,” said the major, “I am very much obliged to you and will avail myself of your politeness now,” and placing a chair at the table, requested that a plate might be brought to him.

The General was astonished, looked unutterable things, and never again hinted that Major Lee’s company would be agreeable.
In his recent biography Renegade Revolutionary, Phillip Papas speculated that Lee might have had bipolar or manic-depressive disorder. This is a far more understanding approach than deciding he was just a Bad Person. Of course, Lee could also have been a Bad Person.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

“What Comes Next?” on Turn: Washington‘s Spies

Yesterday the A.M.C. television channel announced that it had ordered ten more episodes of Turn: Washington’s Spies to make up a fourth and final season of the show.

Though the series hasn’t earned stellar ratings or awards, it attracts a steady audience of the young and middle-aged consumers that advertisers like. There’s definitely an online community of fans, though I can’t say how its size compares to others.

I’ve reviewed every episode of Turn for Den of Geek, and you can revisit my assessments here. If you haven’t watched the show, in each weekly review I tried to avoid giving away the biggest surprises of the latest episode, but I couldn’t keep the turns concealed in succeeding weeks. But of course anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Revolutionary War has a good idea about how the story of Gen. Benedict Arnold and Maj. John André worked out.

Last month, as the world awaited news of whether there would be a fourth season, I wrote an additional essay for Den of Geek on “What Comes Next?” Having brought us to the end of André’s rope, does Turn have somewhere else to go? I wrote:
U.S. history certainly provides such a story in the events of 1781. (Season 3 appears to have concluded in the winter of 1777-78, but Turn has always played loose with actual chronology, so the show could jump ahead as needed.) Throughout the first months of 1781, Gen. Henry Clinton inside New York and Gen. George Washington outside jockeyed for advantage. Late that summer, Washington concluded that he could strike a decisive blow against the British army by moving most of his army with Gen. Rochambeau’s French troops south to Virginia to attack the British general Cornwallis at Yorktown.

That decision was preceded by months of espionage work, offering plenty of work for Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge and Oliver De Lancey, the New York-born British army officer who succeeded André as adjutant-general. Washington asked his agents for clues to whether Clinton would send more troops south or mount a major attack from the city. Likewise, Clinton’s intelligence staff wanted to know when Washington would make a move. Both sides tried to feed false information across the lines and made feints to deceive, distract, or draw off the other side.

To keep the Americans busy in the north, Clinton ordered none other than Brig. Gen. Arnold to lead a raid on New London, Connecticut. As a site of Continental naval operations, that coastal town was a legitimate target. That didn’t stop Americans from complaining that Arnold was driven by resentment toward the state where he had grown up. For Turn’s hotheaded Arnold, that motivation could be a real factor.
Check out that essay for further thoughts on how Turn’s other regular characters could fit into those events and on some aspects of the Revolutionary War that the show hasn’t explored thoroughly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Another Watson, Another Shark

Around here, “Watson and the Shark” is the John Singleton Copley painting of Brook Watson’s rescue from a shark in Havana. The Museum of Fine Arts has one of several copies Copley made for Watson.

At English Historical Fiction Authors, Mimi Matthews recently wrote about another shark and another Watson:

On January 1, 1787, some fishermen spied a shark in the [Thames] river and, with much difficulty, captured the creature and drew it into their boat. The shark was alive, but, as [author George Henry] Birch states, “apparently sickly.” The cause of his illness was soon discovered. Upon taking him ashore and cutting him open, the fishermen found within his body a silver watch, chain, and “cornelian” seal. A 1787 edition of the Northampton Mercury reports that they also found:

“…some Pieces of Gold Lace, which were conjectured to have belonged to some young Gentleman, who was swallowed by that voracious Fish.”

On further examination, it was found that the watch was engraved with the maker’s name and number: Henry Watson, London, No. 1369. Mr. Watson lived in Shoreditch and, when applied to for information regarding that particular watch, the Northampton Mercury reports that Mr. Watson revealed that he had:

“…sold the Watch two Years ago to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, as a Present for his Son on going out on his first Voyage (as what is called a Guinea-Pig) on board the ship Polly, Capt. Vane, bound to Coast and Bay.”
In a storm off Falmouth, the Annual Register for 1787 finished the story, “Master Thompson fell overboard, and was no more seen.” But his father bought the shark as a memorial; one newspaper even said that “he calls [the fish] his son’s executor.”

The term “guinea pig” appears as British maritime slang as early as 1767, and a generation later was specified to mean a midshipman in the East India service.

Monday, July 25, 2016

How Should We Refer to the Chevalier D’Eon?

Four years ago I reported on art dealer Philip Mould’s identification of a portrait as showing the Chevalier d’Eon.

A French diplomat and spy, D’Eon ran afoul of his own government and took refuge in London. Dressing as a woman while teaching men to fence, D’Eon became a celebrity, eventually claiming to have been a woman all along.

The National Portrait Gallery in London acquired that oil painting to go with its many engravings of D’Eon made for a wider audience. In connection with the display of that portrait, Assistant Curator Claire Barlow recently wrote:
D’Eon’s extraordinary story sparked a debate over the display of the portrait: which pronoun to use? The answer ought to be whichever pronoun D’Eon preferred but here we hit the great problem of working with historical objects – the limitations of surviving evidence. While living as a man, D’Eon had bought women’s clothes for himself but he only began living exclusively as a woman due to external pressure. The French court, convinced by persistent rumours about D’Eon’s gender, only agreed to give him a pension if he wore ‘clothing appropriate to her sex’. This ruling reflects the strict eighteenth-century gender division: ultimately, D’Eon had to choose. He took the pension and lived the rest of his life as a woman, forging a very successful career in Britain as a female fencer.

We simply don’t know whether D’Eon would have chosen to be transvestite, transsexual or something else entirely if those options had been available. We didn’t want to repeat the mistake of the French king, in not realising that a man could choose to wear a dress, so we decided to use the male pronoun.
The chevalier’s Wikipedia entry, in contrast, suggests the article’s editors have tried to avoid pronouns at all, producing sentences like “In an effort to save d'Éon's station in London, d'Éon published much of the secret diplomatic correspondence about d'Éon's recall…”

I’m not sure D’Eon was really forced into the choice of living as a woman. The 1777 agreement between D’Eon and Pierre-Augustin Caron du Beaumarchais, acting on behalf of the French government, did state that D’Eon had to dress as a woman as a condition of returning to France with a pension. However, it also served as a royal ruling that D’Eon was a woman and used female terms like “demoiselle” and “spinster.”

D’Eon’s additions to that agreement, crossed out by Beaumarchais, insisted that the chevalier had been female all along: “Seeing that son sexe has been proved by witnesses, physicians, surgeons, matrons and legal documents”; and “That I have already worn [female clothing] upon several occasions known to his Majesty.” Those don’t seem like the protests of someone being made to do something against his will. Saying the king made D’Eon dress in female clothing seems like saying Brer Fox made Brer Rabbit go into the briar patch.

Furthermore, in 1785 D’Eon returned to Britain, beyond Louis XVI’s reach. The French Revolution ended the pension from Paris in the early 1790s. Yet D’Eon continued to live as a woman until dying in 1810, so consistently that it was a surprise when physicians reported the chevalier had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed.”

I agree that it’s impossible to know whether the Chevalier d’Eon would have chosen any of the modern categories of transvestite, transsexual, or genderqueer. But it looks to me like D’Eon did choose to maneuver into the eighteenth-century category of woman.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Standing Member from Massachusetts

Before leaving that day when the Constitutional Convention debated whether the size of the U.S. Army in peacetime mattered, I want to address another tradition that’s arisen about it.

Several recent books (e.g., Isaacson, Chernow, Beschloss, Stewart) and lots of websites quote Elbridge Gerry as making an analogy between a standing army and an erection.

The term used for that anatomical feature differs from one version of the tale to another, but all the versions climax with Gerry saying that either was “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

The earliest such statement that I could find appears in The Oxford History of the American People by Samuel Eliot Morison, published in 1965, or 178 years after the supposed event:
Elbridge Gerry, seconded by Luther Martin, wished to restrict the members of the United States Army to 3000 in time of peace, and made a humorous comparison (transmitted by oral tradition) of a standing army to a standing member—“an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”
Morison, a descendant of Harrison Gray Otis, did apparently inherit some oral traditions that he put down on paper for the first time. At least, I’ve cited schoolboy rhymes and hijinks that Morison published in the first edition of his biography of his ancestor.

But about this quotation, I’m dubious. Gerry did not see a standing army as “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity.” He saw it as a potential domestic danger, tempting citizens to ignore their militia system and let oppression flow. Politically, the story thus seems to be quite a stretch.

But for today’s sensibilities, that line seems like too much fun to let go of.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

“He would produce a better one”

In investigating the anecdote about George Washington’s whisper at the Constitutional Convention, I started to wonder about the political views of Maryland delegate John Francis Mercer.

Mercer arrived at the Philadelphia convention on 6 Aug 1787. On that day he told his fellow Marylanders that he didn’t think the government set up by the Articles of Confederation “was susceptable of a revision which would sufficiently invigorate it for the exigencies of the times.”

But a couple of days later Mercer told James McHenry “that he did not like the [newly proposed] system, that it was weak—That he would produce a better one since the convention had undertaken to go radically to work, that perhaps he would not be supported by any one, but if he was not, he would go with the stream.”

Remember that Mercer was only twenty-eight years old, younger than all but one delegate, and he had arrived after the other men had been working out issues and compromises for months. I can’t imagine his brand-new proposals were welcomed with any enthusiasm.

Mercer is often grouped with the Anti-Federalists who preferred to keep more power with the states, such as his Maryland colleague Luther Martin. But at the convention, Mercer’s big complaints had to do with the relationship between the branches of the federal government. At times he argued for strict separation of powers, speaking out against Senate approval of treaties (an executive function, he said) and judicial review of laws (a legislative function).

On 14 August, the debate focused on what might seem like a quaint question: whether the President could appoint legislators to positions in the government. On that question, Mercer didn’t want to maintain the separation between executive and legislative. He delivered his longest argument to get into James Madison’s notes, revealing his political philosophy:
It is a first principle in political science, that whenever the rights of property are secured, an aristocracy will grow out of it. Elective governments also necessarily become aristocratic, because the rulers being few can and will draw emoluments for themselves from the many. The governments of America will become aristocracies. They are so already. The public measures are calculated for the benefit of the governors, not of the people. The people are dissatisfied, and complain. They change their rulers, and the public measures are changed, but it is only a change of one scheme of emolument to the rulers, for another. The people gain nothing by it, but an addition of instability and uncertainty to their other evils.

Governments can only be maintained by force or influence. The Executive has not force,—deprive him of influence, by rendering the members of the Legislature ineligible to Executive offices, and he becomes a mere phantom of authority. The aristocratic part will not even let him in for a share of the plunder.

The Legislature must and will be composed of wealth and abilities, and the people will be governed by a junto. The Executive ought to have a Council, being members of both Houses. Without such an influence, the war will be between the aristocracy and the people. He wished it to be between the aristocracy and the Executive. Nothing else can protect the people against those speculating Legislatures, which are now plundering them throughout the United States. . . .

Mr. MERCER was extremely anxious on this point. What led to the appointment of this Convention? The corruption and mutability of the legislative councils of the States. If the plan does not remedy these, it will not recommend itself; and we shall not be able in our private capacities, to support and enforce it: nor will the best part of our citizens exert themselves for the purpose.

It is a great mistake to suppose that the paper we are to propose will govern the United States. It is the men whom it will bring into the Government, and interest in maintaining it, that are to govern them. The paper will only mark out the mode and the form. Men are the substance, and must do the business.

All government must be by force or influence. It is not the King of France, but 200,000 janissaries of power, that govern that kingdom. There will be no such force here; influence, then, must be substituted; and he would ask, whether this could be done, if the members of the Legislature should be ineligible to offices of State; whether such a disqualification would not determine all the most influential men to stay at home, and prefer appointments within their respective States.
Madison added, “On these points he was opposed by Elbridge Gerry.” Gerry was another of the convention’s champions of keeping more power in the states and of limiting the executive power.

Mercer left the convention early and opposed ratification of the Constitution. When the nation ratified the plan anyway, he served some terms in the U.S. Congress, allying himself with the Jeffersonian party that included Martin and Gerry. But I don’t think Mercer was with them during the convention.

Friday, July 22, 2016

“The army shall not consist of more than — thousand men”

When John Francis Mercer arrived late at the Constitutional Convention on 6 Aug 1787, he was only twenty-eight years old—the second youngest man there. But he wasn’t shy about speaking up.

The day after Mercer signed in, James Madison’s notes portray the young Maryland delegate as saying, “The Constitution is objectionable in many points, but in none more than the present” issue. The next day: “Mr. MERCER expressed his dislike of the whole plan, and his opinion that it never could succeed.”

This Teaching American History profile says Mercer attended the convention until 16 August, but Madison recorded him speaking the following day as well. That was his last documented contribution to the debate. But did he stick around silently (or silently enough for Madison not to quote him)?

On Saturday, 18 August, George Mason and Elbridge Gerry (shown above) spoke at length about the danger of a standing (permanent) army and the value of a militia system. Madison’s notes say:
Mr. MASON introduced the subject of regulating the militia. He thought such a power necessary to be given to the General Government. He hoped there would be no standing army in time of peace, unless it might be for a few garrisons. The militia ought, therefore, to be the more effectually prepared for the public defence. . . .

Mr. GERRY took notice that there was no check here against standing armies in time of peace. The existing Congress is so constructed that it cannot of itself maintain an army. This would not be the case under the new system. The people were jealous on this head, and great opposition to the plan would spring from such an omission. He suspected that preparations of force were now making against it. [He seemed to allude to the activity of the Governor of New York at this crisis in disciplining the militia of that State.] He thought an army dangerous in time of peace, and could never consent to a power to keep up an indefinite number. He proposed that there should not be kept up in time of peace more than — thousand troops. His idea was, that the blank should be filled with two or three thousand.
That seem to be the basis of the anecdote about George Washington that I quoted yesterday: “A member made a motion that congress should be restricted to a standing army not exceeding five thousand, at any one time.” Supposedly Washington, chairing the convention, whispered to a Maryland delegate “to amend the motion, by providing that no foreign enemy should invade the United States, at any one time, with more than three thousand troops.”

Mercer, uncle of the Virginia legislator who told that story in 1817, seems the most likely candidate to have been that Maryland delegate. However, Madison’s notes make no mention of Mercer in the discussion that followed:
Mr. L[uther]. MARTIN and Mr. GERRY now regularly moved, “provided that in time of peace the army shall not consist of more than — thousand men.”

General [Charles Cotesworth] PINCKNEY asked, whether no troops were ever to be raised until an attack should be made on us?

Mr. GERRY. If there be no restriction, a few States may establish a military government.

Mr. [Hugh] WILLIAMSON reminded him of Mr. MASON’S motion for limiting the appropriation of revenue as the best guard in this case.

Mr. [John] LANGDON saw no room for Mr. GERRY’S distrust of the representatives of the people.

Mr. [Jonathan] DAYTON. Preparations for war are generally made in time of peace; and a standing force of some sort may, for aught we know, become unavoidable. He should object to no restrictions consistent with these ideas.

The motion of Mr. MARTIN and Mr. GERRY was disagreed to, nem. con.
“Nem. con.” meant that motion to limit the army was voted down unanimously.

Was John F. Mercer even present that day? As I said above, Mercer doesn’t appear in Madison’s notes after 17 August, and he left the convention sometime before its end because he disagreed with its goal. But the anecdote about Washington’s whisper, if we believe it, hints that Mercer was still present on 18 August.

Dr. James McHenry, another Maryland delegate Washington may have addressed so frankly, definitely was present on 18 August. He wrote brief notes on the discussion. McHenry didn’t record anything about the size of the standing army, however. That might have been because he mostly wrote down when the convention agreed to amend its draft, not when it decided not to.

Either way, there was a moment when the Constitutional Convention discussed the possibility of a numerical limit on the size of the U.S. Army. And the anecdote about Washington’s whisper described that moment almost two decades before Madison’s notes were published.

TOMORROW: John F. Mercer’s objections.

[Who was the youngest delegate to the convention? Jonathan Dayton, who had the last word in that debate over the size of the U.S. army.]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Washington’s Whisper

In 1817, the Philadelphia Federalist magazine The Port Folio (possibly cribbing from an unnamed newspaper) published this anecdote about the Constitutional Convention:
Anecdote of [George] Washington.—In debate, in the house of delegates of Virginia, 1817, on the bill relative to a map of the state, in which something was said of military roads, Mr. Mercer, (L) related and applied an anecdote of general Washington, which he had received from a member of the convention that formed the constitution of the United States.

The subject of power to be given the new congress, relative to a standing army, was on the tapis. A member made a motion that congress should be restricted to a standing army not exceeding five thousand, at any one time. General Washington, who, being chairman, could not offer a motion, whispered to a member from Maryland, to amend the motion, by providing that no foreign enemy should invade the United States, at any one time, with more than three thousand troops.
This story struck me as odd for Washington. If we’d heard about that quip without knowing who said it, we’d ascribe it to Benjamin Franklin or Gouverneur Morris or someone else known for sarcastic wit. Washington was indeed a stickler for protocol as chairman—so much so that I was surprised that he might violate neutrality even in this whispered way. So I got curious about whether I could tease out any more information about this story’s provenance.

During the 1816-17 legislative session, the Virginia House of Delegates did indeed debate a bill about “a map of the state.” Formally it was “An act ‘to repeal in part an act entitled “an act to provide an accurate chart of each county, and a general map of the territory of this Commonwealth,”[’”] but some earlier law needed amending in order to get the work done.

The reference to “Mr. Mercer, (L)” confused me until I figured out there were two men named Mercer in the Virginia House of Delegates that term. John Mercer represented Spottsylvania County, and Charles Fenton Mercer represented Loudoun County. The “(L)” stood for Loudoun and was a way to designate the right man.

Charles Fenton Mercer was a nephew of John Francis Mercer (1759-1821), who spent a couple of weeks at the Constitutional Convention in August 1787 representing Maryland—and thus fits the description of the source for this story.

Washington was well acquainted with John F. Mercer, having employed his older half-brother George as an aide de camp during the Seven Years’ War. (George Mercer’s career in Virginia ended after he accepted the job of stamp master in 1765.) John F. Mercer himself served in the Revolutionary War as an officer under the general’s second cousin William Washington, as an aide to Gen. Charles Lee in 1778-79, and finally as a cavalry officer at Yorktown.

The Mercers owed Washington money, resulting in a long correspondence from 1783 on. In 1786, for instance, Washington wrote a letter to John F. Mercer with a notable remark on slave-trading. They also discussed the debt in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

TOMORROW: When could this exchange about a standing army have happened?