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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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Upcoming Events at the Royall House

The Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford will host a series of book talks on the history of slavery in America over the next three months.

Thursday, 5 February, 7:00 P.M.
Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites
This event will launch a new collection of articles edited by Kristin Gallas and James DeWolf Perry from the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery. They will speak about how historic sites and museums can facilitate the sharing of the history of slavery, and how those stories tie into vital contemporary public debates. This event is free. A book signing will follow. (The museum can accept only cash or checks for purchases.)

Wednesday, 18 March, 7:30 P.M.
Boston: Origin of American Slavery
Journalists Lisa Braxton and Alex Reid will speak about their upcoming book about the ship Desire. Built in Marblehead, the Desire was the first American-built slave ship. In February 1638 William Pierce piloted it into Boston harbor, carrying people captured and bought in Africa to serve the Puritans of the ”City on a Hill.” Though slavery was not written into law until 1641, it thus became part of Massachusetts’s economy and society and would remain so until the Revolutionary War.

Wednesday, 15 April, 7:30 P.M.
The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory
Journalist Anne Farrow, coauthor of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery, will discuss her new book, based on records kept by a New London merchant‘s son starting in 1757. His first voyage was to the tiny island of Bence off Sierra Leone, and The Logbooks uses his records to unearth new realities of Connecticut’s slave trade. A book signing will follow. (The museum can accept only cash or checks for purchases.)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

William Russell’s Toasts on Offer

Last month I quoted an 1874 profile of William Russell that contained a description of a “Sons of Liberty” medal, worn by Boston activists on public occasions. Noting that no example of such a medal survives and no other source describes one, I expressed skepticism about that statement.

That same profile also quoted from a small document said to have been written by William Russell, a document being auctioned on 31 January by Seth Kaller and Keno Auctions. One side appears to have arithmetic exercises, perhaps from Russell’s work as a school teacher. The other reads:
May the Sons of Liberty
Shine with Lustre


Wilks & Liberty

August the 14th. 1769.

Liberty without
End. Amen.

Americans Wilks
92         45
This appears to be notes for two or three toasts delivered at a celebration of the fourth anniversary of Boston’s first Stamp Act protest. American Whigs saw themselves in league with John Wilkes, a leading political reformer in London. The numbers 45 and 92 gained great symbolic importance in 1760s Massachusetts for reasons which are easy to explain, hard to fathom.

The phrase “liberty without end. Amen” also appears as a refrain in a pamphlet titled Britannia’s Intercession for the Deliverance of John Wilkes, Esq. from Persecution and Banishment, first printed in London in 1763. Daniel Kneeland reprinted that in Boston in 1769, so the phrase was current in the town then.

Both the 1874 article and the auction house’s webpage for this document link it to the Boston Sons of Liberty banquet on 14 Aug 1769, held at the Liberty Tree tavern in Dorchester. However, the 21 August Boston Evening-Post printed all the toasts offered that day—fourteen at Liberty Tree itself in Boston’s South End and forty-five at the tavern—and they don’t include the phrases on this document.

So that left me with a picture of William Russell carefully writing out toasts in case he might be called on, and then watching as other men got invited to voice their thoughts, and the number of those men inexorably climbed to the magical forty-five, when no one else would be called. And then Russell sadly taking his little slip of paper home.

But then I checked the list of gentlemen who attended that Dorchester banquet. William Russell’s name doesn't appear on it at all. He had just turned twenty-one that year and probably wasn’t prominent enough to warrant an invitation.

So my new, cheerier theory is that Russell got together with some other young men in Boston and had their own banquet with their own toasts. Including these.

In any event, this document helps to confirm that, even if there was no Sons of Liberty medal, William Russell was involved in that movement as early as 1769. He’s also linked to the Tea Party and served in the war.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Discovering Prince Demah, an African-American Artist

Back in 2006 and 2008 I wrote about a young black artist mentioned in the letters of Christian Barnes, a Marlborough merchant’s wife (shown here). All I knew about him was the given name “Prince.”

Paula Bagger, working with the Hingham Historical Society, has found out a lot more. The society owns portraits of Christian Barnes and her husband Henry, and we know that she sat for Prince to paint her. Then it turned out that the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a portrait of William Duguid in the same style that’s signed on the back “Prince Demah Barnes.”

Bagger just wrote an article about the artist for the historical society’s blog. And in the January 2015 issue of The Magazine Antiques, she and Amelia Peck of the Metropolitan Museum of Art discuss all three known oil portraits by Prince.

On the blog Bagger filled in more about the artist’s life:
Prince enjoyed a short professional painting career before the Revolution changed the lives of Christian, Henry, and Prince. Christian and Henry fled [as Loyalists,] and Prince enlisted in the Massachusetts militia as a free man–Prince Demah (no more “Barnes”)–and served as a matross. He died, likely of smallpox or other disease, in March 1778. As “Prince Demah, limner,” he wrote his will, leaving all he had to [his mother] Daphney.
Christian Barnes’s letters show that Prince Demah practiced with both oils and pastels. She tried to line up friends to sit for him, and there are several years between when she first mentioned his talent and the disruption of the war. So there might well be more portraits by this newly identified African-American artist and Continental soldier, perhaps in private hands or historical society collections. Bagger and her colleagues are on the hunt!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reading the Smiles of 18th-Century Art

The 12 January New Yorker includes Jonathan Kalb’s article “Give Me a Smile,” which describes in personal terms the importance of being able to smile.

Kalb writes, “The spontaneously joyful smile is the facial expression most easily recognized from a distance—as far as a hundred metres, researchers say.” Since the late 1800s, scientists have claimed and amassed evidence that the smile is a universal human expression.

I was struck, therefore, by this Boston Globe interview with Colin Jones about his new book, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris. According to this book, through the early 1700s “smiling widely in portraits meant that you were probably destitute, indecent, or mentally ill.” Here’s more detail:
JONES: The type of facial regime which is prevalent in France in the early 18th century is more negative about the smile. It tends to see the smile as a gesture of superiority over some misfortune, rather like laughter at that time is seen in very negative terms—you’re somehow rejoicing in the suffering of others. So when people smile, they smile, first of all in a restrained way which doesn’t show teeth...but also very often in ways which are seen as sardonic or contemptuous or disdainful.

IDEAS: What changed?

JONES: There are two principal factors....One is the emergence of something which is clearly, for the first time, close to modern scientific dentistry, which highlights good, healthy, and hopefully white teeth, and methods of care which are not simply, as they had been in the past, extraction of bad teeth but also a regime of prevention of mouth ailments and sickness....

Secondly, I try to tie it up with...the emergence of a cult of sensibility. I associate this particularly with the emergence of the novels of sentimentality and sensibility by Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who emphasize the overt and public expression of feelings, rather than their repression or distortion. People who look at the cult of sensibility often stress that people are always weeping in the 18th century—weeping with pleasure, weeping with ecstasy, weeping with anything, if you like. But actually part of that is this new smile, which somehow sends a transcendent message of selfhood and generosity and fellow-feeling.
Of course, the open-lipped smile remained rare in formal portraits. And later, Jones says, portrait photography followed that style for decades, even after better chemistry and quicker exposures could capture natural smiles.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Real Story of the Fake Sarah Munroe Letter

Last week I noted a letter describing George Washington’s Presidential visit to Lexington in 1789. And I said it looked like a fake.

Polly Kienle of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum helpfully commented on that post confirming that young Sarah Munroe didn’t write that letter. Rather, it came from the pen of James Phinney Munroe (1862-1929), president of the Lexington Historical Society. And he spent years trying to live it down.

On 5 Nov 1889, J. P. Munroe wrote, he was invited to speak about the hundredth anniversary of Washington’s visit at a public dinner. He recalled, “Wishing only to be informal, to avoid the conventions of after-dinner speaking, to relieve the solemnity of history with a touch of human nature, in an evil hour I forged the name of a great-aunt (dead these many years) to a letter that she did not write, that (kindly soul) she would not have written, that so circumstantial is it she could not have written, had she tried…”

And then he placed the letter in the inaugural issue of the Proceedings of the Lexington Historical Society. That magazine also printed his prefatory remarks:
When I was asked to assume the honorable task of representing my great-grandfather here to-night, I, naturally, searched the old Munroe tavern for memorials of him, but without success. A hunt through the garret of the old Mason house, was, however, more fortunate, as it resulted in this letter. The original, of which this is a copy, bears the date Nov. 7, 1789, and is indorsed, in a fine Italian hand, “Miss Sarah Munroe, Lexington, to Miss Mary Mason, New York.” Sarah was the second daughter of Colonel William Munroe, the other children being William, Anna, Jonas, Lucinda, and Edmund. Mary was the only daughter of Mr. Joseph Mason, a famous pedagogue, and for many years, including 1789, town clerk. Of the reason of Miss Mason’s sojourn in New York, we are not informed.
Later J. P. Munroe wrote, “the Mason house having no garret worth mentioning, the non-existence of that attic suggested a manufactured letter.”

But clearly not enough people picked up that clue. Over the next few years, Munroe saw the letter cited as an authentic source in publications like the Boston Evening Transcript. It was reprinted in the program for an 1898 banquet of the California Sons of the American Revolution (who obviously hadn’t explored deeply enough in the Mason house). Munroe insisted that “Real historians” weren’t fooled, but, as Kienle commented, he was “caught up in a ‘viral’ whirlwind before the days of instantaneous online dissemination.”

Munroe wrote at least two letters to the Transcript proclaiming that the letter was a fake. In 1900 he published a pamphlet titled A Sketch of the Munroe Clan with an appendix all about the letter. In that he wrote, “The fraud seemed to me so patent, the possibility of belief by any one that a half-educated young girl would prepare a narrative so straightforward and circumstantial appeared to me so remote, that I had no thought of the skit being taken seriously.”

Two years later, the Dedham Historical Register published the letter again as a genuine document. In 1917, the Journal of American History did the same. In 1924, it even appeared in St. Nicholas magazine for young readers. And now, will the internet bring it back?

(Hear genuine stories of President Washington’s visit to New England in 1789, and his interactions with Gov. John Hancock, when you come to the Cambridge Forum tonight.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top Honors from the Journal of the American Revolution

The Journal of the American Revolution just announced its 2014 Book of the Year Award.

The winning title is Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence, by Ken Miller. The Continental authorities housed 13,000 British and Hessian prisoners of war around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and this is an in-depth study of how that affected the community. I haven’t read this book myself—without a New England connection, other titles keep going higher on my list—but I’ve heard good things.

Shortlisted and receiving honorable mentions are:
Nick Bunker, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America. I shared my complimentary thoughts on this book here.
John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller, III, Inventing Ethan Allen. I’m reading this now and enjoying it—but of course I’d like a book that compares a New England legend to contemporaneous sources.

Monday, January 19, 2015

“Made by Hand” at Old South

The Old South Meeting House is hosting a series of midday events on the theme of “Made by Hand in Boston: The Crafts of Everyday Life,” cosponsored by Artists Crossing Gallery. These sessions explore the cross between artistry and commerce in the pre-industrial economy.

This Friday, 23 January, the historian of science and technology Robert Martello will speak about “Benjamin Franklin, Tradesman.” The event announcement says:
Follow Franklin’s footsteps from the time he ran his brother’s press as a young apprentice, through the many life adventures that shaped his life as a wordsmith, statesman, and printer. Printing was a tricky business in the 18th century, and Franklin’s combination of business acumen and intellectual prowess contributed to his success and versatility in the trade. Don’t miss this chance to learn how Franklin changed printing, and how printing changed Franklin.
On Friday, 6 February, Boston City Archaeologist Joe Bagley will speak on “From Pewter to Pottery: The Archaeology of Boston's Colonial Craftspeople”:
[Bagley] will offer an overview of the city’s archaeological collections as a rich source of data, then explore in depth what archaeological research has revealed about two mid-18th-century Boston professional craftspeople—Grace Parker, who had a redware ceramic business, and John Carnes, who ran a pewter workshop.
That was the father of the Rev. John Carnes who spied during the siege.

On Friday, 13 February, historical tailor Henry M. Cooke (shown above) will speak about “William Waine: Tailor to the Common Man”:
With a shop in Boston's South End, Waine tailored to working-class Bostonians—including longshoremen, and perhaps some participants in the Boston Tea Party! This illustrated talk will open your eyes to the tailor’s craft as a window into economy, social stratification, and everyday life in 1770s Boston.
These sessions will all take place from 12:15 to 1:00 P.M., with guests welcome at noon. They are free to Old South members, $6 for others. To make reservations, use this webpage.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

T. H. Breen on BackStory

As another sort of preparation for T. H. Breen’s talk at Cambridge Forum on Wednesday, I’ll point to this episode of BackStory, the public-radio show on American history. I enjoy that show as a podcast.

This particular episode, ”Counter Culture,” is about shopping in American life. Cohost Peter Onuf interviews Breen about the topic of his book The Marketplace of Revolution, which argues that the boycotts of non-essential goods from Britain starting in the mid-1760s helped to bond the North American colonies more tightly than they ever had been. In listening to the show, it’s important to remember than “consumerism” means something different to social historians than it does to shoppers today.

BackStory is cohosted by three historians representing early America (Onuf), the nineteenth century (Ed Ayers), and the twentieth century (Brian Balogh). Each episode therefore covers a wide swath of time and offers multiple perspectives on its theme. The episode I linked to, for example, also includes segments on the advent of the big discount department store chains in 1962 and L. Frank Baum’s work promoting shop-window displays at the same time he started his career writing for children.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

President Washington and Major Gibbs

Here’s a final glimpse for the week of President George Washington’s visit to Massachusetts in 1789.

On Friday, 30 October, Washington left Boston for the north shore and New Hampshire. His diary entry for that day was all about the bridges along the way, such as the one over the Charles River, shown above courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

The 19 July 1823 Columbian Centinel added this anecdote:
It will be recollected by many, that when he visited Boston, in 1789, he appointed 8 o’clock in the morning, as the hour when he should set out for Salem, &c. and that while the Old South clock was striking 8, he was crossing his saddle.

It will also be remembered, that the company of cavalry which volunteered to escort him, not anticipating this strict punctuality, were parading in Tremont-street after his departure; and it was not until the President had reached Charles river bridge, (where he stopped a few minutes to examine the draw) that the troop of horse overtook him.

On passing the corps, the President, with perfect good humor, said to the Commander, “Major ———, I thought you had been too long in my family not to know when it was 8 o’clock.”
That anecdote was reprinted in later years (without citation) in the Literary Register, various anecdote collections, and eventually by authors back in Boston who identified the mounted major as Caleb Gibbs (1748-1818).

Gibbs had indeed been in Washington’s military “family” through most of the Revolutionary War. He started in the Continental Army as adjutant of John Glover’s Marblehead regiment, but on 12 Mar 1776 Washington appointed him head of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard. In that job Gibbs was responsible for transporting and guarding the headquarters papers, organizing the general’s living quarters, and sitting in as an aide-de-camp when necessary. He was a popular member of the headquarters staff, known for his easygoing temperament and fondness for singing.

Gibbs officially transferred to the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment in 1781 but seems still to have worked at headquarters. He suffered a wound at Yorktown and left the army in 1784. Gibbs settled in Boston and married Catherine Hall in 1787. That was his situation when President Washington came through town in 1789.

Unfortunately, Gibbs did poorly in business. He invested a lot of money with the merchant Nathaniel Tracy, who then went into bankruptcy. In 1790 Gibbs wrote to Washington that he had sold most of his furniture at auction and was moving from Boston to Barre, Massachusetts, which he called “the wilderness, incompassed by an uncooth neighbourhood, and to occupy a house prehaps not tennantable.”

From that town Gibbs wrote to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, another old colleague from headquarters, about money the federal government supposedly owed Tracy and about federal job openings. It struck me how often in that surviving correspondence Gibbs mentioned his wife:
  • 16 Jan 1791: “Mrs. Gibbs would go with me almost any where if a Comfortable competence offers (even with the strictest oeconomy) and can be obtained. Perhaps something within your own sphere can be found. Think of me My good Sir and notwithstanding the Presidents forgetfulness of me a hint from you I know would answer every purpose.” 
  • 16 May 1791: “And what is still more effecting to me, to see my amiable wife looking over the Letter and exclaiming is it possible, is it possible Mr. Gibbs that you have lost that hard earned money you friendly lent that wicked man [Tracy]. Indeed my friend it was too much for her to bear.” 
  • 10 Sept 1792: “Mrs. Gibbs cannot no longer content herself in this wilderness. Her seperation from her dearest connections, the great distance and extreem bad roads to Boston, and what is still more trying is the Education of her Children and an innumerable number of difficulties to incounter, has brought me to a Resolution to Linger out the cold Inclement winter at this place and return to Boston Early in April next if possible to get there.”
In 1794 the administration made Gibbs a clerk at the Boston Navy Yard. (Oddly, at the time the U.S. of A. did not have a navy.) That job did not, however, end Gibbs’s letters to the capital seeking better jobs. After eighteen years, during the Madison administration, he became superintendent of the yard.

Friday, January 16, 2015

President Washington in Sickness and in Lexington

Having spent many autumn days outdoors meeting lots of American citizens, on 26 Oct 1789 President George Washington…got sick.

He wrote in his diary:
The day being Rainy & Stormy—myself much disordered by a Cold and inflamation in the left eye, I was prevented from visiting Lexington (where the first blood in the dispute with G. Britn.) was drawn. . . . in the Evening I drank Tea with Govr. [John] Hancock & called upon Mr. [James] Bowdoin on my return to my lodgings.
(The President’s encounters with Gov. Hancock will be the focus of T. H. Breen’s talk at the Cambridge Forum next Wednesday evening.)

According to the editors of the Washington Papers, the President might have been suffering from the “widespread epidemic of respiratory ailments” spreading in the central and southern states. In fact, Washington and his retinue may have carried the virus north. Certainly a lot of the people who had crowded onto the Boston streets to see him came down with a big, and local newspapers began to refer to the “Washington influenza.”

Washington eventually made it to Lexington, visiting the town on his swing south after seeing New Hampshire.
Thursday 5th. About Sun rise I set out, crossing the Merimack River at the Town over to the Township of Bradford and in nine Miles came to Abbots Tavern in Andover where we breakfasted, and met with much attention from Mr. [William] Philips President of the Senate of Massachusetts, who accompanied us thro’ Bellarika to Lexington, where I dined, and viewed the Spot on which the first blood was spilt in the dispute with great Britain on the 19th. of April 1775.
The President dined at William Munroe’s tavern, now a museum of the Lexington Historical Society (shown above).

In 1917, the Journal of American History published “A Young Woman’s Sprightly Account of Washington’s Visit to Lexington in 1789,” said to be written by Munroe’s daughter Sarah. It looks like a total fake. But sprightly.