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

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Talks by Anderson and Kamensky at the B.P.L.

This month the Boston Public Library will host two lectures on the American Revolution, one by a novelist whose latest book is nonfiction, and one by a history professor who has cowritten a novel.

Wednesday, 14 October
M. T. Anderson, “A Revolution Within the Revolution: The African-American Struggle for Freedom”
Anderson has written stories for adults, picture books for children, adventure novels for young readers, and award-winning books for older readers. His highly praised Octavian Nothing saga is set in Boston during the American Revolution; the first volume, The Pox Party, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2006 and both the first and second volumes of that two-part series were Printz Honor Books. Meticulously researched and presented in 18th-century prose, Anderson’s sweeping 900-page epic explores race, science, morality, and the darker facets of America’s quest for liberty.
Wednesday, 28 October
Jane Kamensky, “John Singleton Copley and the Sideways American Revolution”
Professor of History and Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute of Advance Study, Kamensky is a historian of early America, the Atlantic world, and the age of revolutions, with particular interests in the histories of family, culture, and everyday life. Kamensky’s major publications include The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse (Viking, 2008), a finalist for the 2009 George Washington Book Prize; and Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England (Oxford U.P., 1997). With Edward G. Gray, she edited the Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (Oxford U.P., 2012). Her next book, Copley: A Life in Color, will be a history of painting and politics in the age of revolution centered on the life of John Singleton Copley.
Both talks are scheduled to begin at 6:00 P.M. in the Abbey Room. That’s the one with the impressive murals.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Chasing Down an Unsuccessful Suitor

After I read the exchange of letters between Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and William Fitzwilliam on 6 Apr 1771, I decided to track down who this young suitor was.

For a long time I was stymied because the most prominent “Lord Fitzwilliam” of the time was the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam (1748-1833), an active member of the House of Lords who voted with the Rockingham Whigs. He was a nephew and, in 1782, heir of the Marquess of Rockingham. He was also some sort of cousin to Gov. John Wentworth of New Hampshire. He appears here in a portrait by Joshua Reynolds.

But in 1771 the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam was only in his twenties and therefore couldn’t have had a son seeking a bride in Boston.

Then in the Irish peerage I came across the sixth Viscount Fitzwilliam of Meryon or Merrion (1711-1776), and the puzzle pieces fell into place. That less prominent and lower-ranking Lord Fitzwilliam had four sons; according to Wikipedia (but not older print sources), all but one of those men eventually succeeded to the title without leaving more sons, so the peerage disappeared.

The only son of the sixth viscount who never got to be a viscount was the second, the Hon. William Fitzwilliam (1749-1810). He was the right age for the Boston wooer, though I can’t confirm that he was in Boston in 1771. Some Hutchinson biographers who have written about Fitzwilliam have assumed he was an officer in the Royal Navy, but I haven’t found evidence for that.

I did confirm a connection between the Hon. William Fitzwilliam and George Onslow, the British politician who thanked Gov. Hutchinson for how he’d handled this affair. Hutchinson wrote that Onslow was Fitzwilliam’s uncle. The relationship wasn’t that close. Onslow’s wife was Henrietta Shelley, a granddaughter of Sir John Shelley, third baronet of that line. Sir John’s only daughter, Frances, had married the fifth Viscount Fitzwilliam, the grandfather of the young wooer. That makes Onslow the husband of the Hon. William Fitzwilliam’s first cousin, once removed.

The Hon. William Fitzwilliam eventually did marry, in August 1782, to the only daughter of John Eames (c. 1716-1795), a master of chancery and tax commissioner. Aside from that marriage and his death, I haven’t been able to nail down any more facts about the man.

Fitzwilliam’s unsuccessful proposal of marriage was first published in James K. Hosmer’s 1896 biography of Hutchinson, then reprinted as a curiosity in several American newspapers. Probably not how he’d have wished to be remembered.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

“A person more suitable to your birth & rank”

Yesterday I quoted a letter that Gov. Thomas Hutchinson received from William Fitzwilliam on 6 Apr 1771, asking for his youngest daughter Peggy’s hand in marriage.

As I said, Hutchinson knew that that young man was the son of a nobleman back in Britain. For many colonial politicians, the prospect of allying his family with the imperial aristocracy would have been very enticing.

Hutchinson wasn’t that sort of person. He loved his daughter dearly, and he also loved his late wife, who had died giving birth to her. He no doubt knew that the marriage of two young people who had never even spoken was unlikely to lead to happiness. A native Bostonian, Hutchinson collected offices at home but showed no ambition to join the noble class in Britain.

The governor was also a firm believer in the social order, and that gave him a way to let Peggy’s suitor down easy. He wrote back the same day:
I am not insensible that such an Alliance as you have proposed would be doing the greatest honour to me & my Family.

I am at the same time very sensible that it cannot be approved of by the Noble Family to which you belong—In my station, from Respect to My Lord FitzWilliam I should think it my duty to do all in my power to discourage one of his Sons from so unequal a match with any person in the Province and I should most certainly be highly criminal if I should countenance & encourage a match with my own daughter

I hope Sir you will think this a sufficient reason for my not acceding to your proposal & sincerely wish you happy in a person more suitable to your birth & rank & who may be approved of by your Honorable Parent

I have the honor to be
Sr. Yr. most obedt.
humble Sert.
Thomas Hutchinson
This action turned out to benefit Gov. Hutchinson in a small way. On 8 Nov 1774, after moving to London, he visited the British politician George Onslow. At the end of that conversation, which seems to have been full of mutual flattery, came this exchange, as Hutchinson recorded it in his diary:
He thanked me for conducting an affair of his nephew, Ld FitzWilliam’s son, in America. I had forgot he was his nephew. He hoped to cultivate an acquaintance, &c.
Peggy Hutchinson joined her father in London. She died three years later, never having married.

TOMORROW: Who was William Fitzwilliam?

Friday, October 09, 2015

“I have had the honor of seeing miss Hutchinson”

Among the creepier items in the Massachusetts Archives is this letter to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson from 1771:

The various methods there are of writing on the following subject, makes me rather at a loss which to take, as I am a stranger to you,—but as the nature of it requires plain dealing, I shall take the liberty to consider you as a friend, and write to you as such:—

You will prehaps Sir think it rather strange, and be much surprised at the receipt of this letter; particularly as I am going to ask a great favor;—no less Sir than the honor of an alliance to your family;—

I have had the honor of seeing miss Hutchinson, but never in my life spoke to her—I need not tell you I admire her, when I say I wish to call her mine;—on seeing her the first time, I determin’d to endeavour to cultivate her acquaintance, but have not been so happy as to succeed;—therefore I should wish as the most honorable method of proceeding, to get acquainted with her through the means of her Father; and I should be happy in obtaining your permission Sir to visit her:—

I would more on the occasion, but yet not near so much as what I could say to you in person;—therefore Sir if you’ll favor me with a line, directed to me at Mr Perkins near the old Brick meeting House, I will do myself the honor of waiting on you, any time you’ll apoint.

You will find me act, from beginning to end, as a man of honor, and I am very certain that you, on your part, will do the same:

I have the honor to remain with the utmost esteem and respect
Your very obedient and
most hble Sert.
Wm. Fitzwilliam

April ye. 6th 1771
“Miss Hutchinson” was the governor’s favorite daughter, Peggy, born in 1754 and thus only in her late teens. What were Hutchinson’s thoughts as he read this young man’s expression of interest in marrying her when he’d never even spoken to her?

Complicating matters was Fitzwilliam’s social standing—he was the son of a British peer, and thus an enticing prospect for a colonial politician with social ambitions.

TOMORROW: The governor’s reply.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Choice between Ruggles and Otis

One of the first acts of the Stamp Act Congress when it convened in New York in October 1765 was to elect a chairman.

Arguably, that was the first political office to derive its authority from the thirteen colonies that would form the U.S. of A. eleven years later. Even if only nine of them had actually sent delegates to that congress, the others (plus Nova Scotia) at least got an invitation.

The winner of the vote was Timothy Ruggles (1711-1795, shown here), brigadier in the Massachusetts militia. According to the New York merchant John Watts, writing to a friend:
Brigr. Ruggles is Chairman, [James] Otis aimed at it and would have succeeded but they thought as he had figured much in the popular way, it might give their meeting an ill grace, but it is observed Otis is now a quite different man, and so he seems to be to me, not riotous at all.
Nearly forty years later, delegate Thomas McKean of Delaware recounted his version of events to John Adams, starting:
In the congress of 1765 there were several conspicuous characters: Mr; James Otis appeared to me to be the boldest and best speaker.—I voted for him as our President, but Brigadier Ruggles succeeded by one vote, owing to the number of the committee from New-York, as we voted individually
The record of the Stamp Act Congress states that the delegates chose Ruggles, and suggests the vote wasn’t unanimous, but it doesn’t mention any other candidates or any vote count. No delegates kept diaries or sent gossipy letters that have survived. Thus, there’s no contemporaneous evidence to confirm or refute McKean’s recollection. (More on his claims to come.)

As its clerk, the congress chose John Cotton (1728-1775), who was deputy secretary of the province back in Massachusetts, as well as registrar of wills in Suffolk County. Cotton was also half-brother to Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s late wife and to the wife of former stamp agent Andrew Oliver, who was also his boss in the secretary’s office. In 1770 Hutchinson called Cotton “attached to Government and serviceable so far as his Sphere would permit.” He continued to hold offices in the royal bureaucracy until he died of the flux inside besieged Boston.

Cotton’s record of the congress is very spare, recording only the actions the body agreed to and not the preceding proposals, debates, and amendments. As their first procedural decision, later that first day, the delegates decided that each colony should have one vote, a precedent that remained for the Continental Congress of the 1770s. If McKean’s memory was accurate, then that form of voting would have made Otis the chairman instead of Ruggles.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

When the Stamp Act Congress Convened

On 7 Oct 1765, the Stamp Act Congress convened at City Hall in New York (shown here). It was a week behind schedule.

As proposed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives back in June, this was a convention of delegates from the colonial legislatures of North America to come up with a common response to the Stamp Act.

Royal governors had done their best to stymie legislatures’ plans to participate in the congress, mostly by declining to convene those legislatures in time to choose delegates.

As a result, in Delaware, New York, and New Jersey legislative leaders chose delegates through committees or in meetings held without the governors’ approval. Other colonies, including the oldest and most populous, Virginia, couldn’t finagle a way to send anyone. Out of fourteen colonial legislatures invited (including Nova Scotia), only nine had representatives at the congress.

Massachusetts was one of those nine, but royal governor Francis Bernard was confident that he had things under control, as he reported to the Board of Trade in London on 8 July 1765:
It was impossible to oppose this Measure [for the congress] to any good purpose: and therefore the friends of Government took the lead in it, & have kept it in their hands; in pursuance of which, of the Committee appointed by this house to meet the other Committees at New York on the first of Octr. next, Two of the three are fast friends to Government & prudent & discreet men, such as I am assured will never consent to any undutiful or improper applications to the Government of great Britain. It is the general Opinion that nothing will be done in consequence of this intended Congress: but I hope I may promise myself that this province will act no indecent part therein.
The three Massachusetts delegates were all members of the committee that had recommended proposing the congress:
Probably because Massachusetts had instigated the meeting, there seems to have been consensus among the delegates that their chairman should be from that colony. But which man?

TOMORROW: America’s first national election?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Archibald Robertson’s Views of Besieged Boston

I was delighted to discover last week that the New York Public Library’s digital image collection includes the illustrations from Archibald Robertson: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780, published in 1930.

The image above is labeled “View of Boston 4th Janry 1776 taken from the epaulment of the citadel on the heights of Charles Town”—i.e., the fort that the British army built on Bunker’s Hill. From the same point, Robertson (c.1745-1813) created a series of images of the Continental-held countryside. As an officer in the Royal Artillery, he had practice in studying and sketching landscapes, and inside besieged Boston he had a lot of time on his hands.

Robertson’s other pictures include views from Copp’s Hill in the North End and a study of the Boston Neck. There’s a “Sketch of the burning of the houses on Dorchester Neck, by our troops who went & returned upon the ice. 14 January, 1776.” and a “Sketch of the burning & destroying of Castle William in Boston Harbour” after the evacuation. Some are more stylized than others, with human figures in the foreground.

And there are some views of New York, Halifax, and other places, but who cares about seeing those?

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Mystery Button from “Parker’s Revenge”

Last week I showed this photo of an artifact found during the archeological study of the “Parker’s Revenge” area in Lexington. On Saturday I attended Dr. Meg Watters’s progress report on that work, which included a better photo of this item, and I was quite intrigued.

I flipped the available photo upside-down to make it a little easier to interpret. It’s a cast-copper button of the size that might be used on the front of a man’s waistcoat or at the knees of his breeches.

On the lower half of the button, apparently in the foreground, is what looks like a fox running from right to left. Above that shape is a horizontal ridge; the right light reveals that to be a bridge. On either side are a series of oval blobs, getting smaller as they rise; those are stylized trees. And in the top rear, the starry shape is a windmill with a vertical tower and four sails.

The mystery is that no one has been able to identify similar iconography on any other artifact, or identify what this scene or collection of symbols might mean. Fox, bridge, windmill, trees. Does that scene represent a family, a military unit, a hunting club?

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Lecture on James DeWolf in Newport, 8 Oct.

On Thursday, 8 October, the Newport Historical Society will host a talk on “James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade” by author Cynthia Mestad Johnson.

DeWolf (1764-1837) was a teen-aged sailor on privateers toward the end of the Revolutionary War. After the peace, he became a merchant captain and then a merchant focusing on a particular type of import:
Over thirty thousand slaves were brought to America on ships owned and captained by James DeWolf. When the United States took action to abolish slavery, this Bristol native manipulated the legal system and became actively involved in Rhode Island politics in order to pursue his trading ventures. DeWolf’s political power and central role in sustaining the state’s economy allowed him to evade prosecution from local and federal authorities—even on counts of murder.

Through archival records, author Cynthia Mestad Johnson uncovers the secrets of James DeWolf and tells an unsettling story of corruption and exploitation in the Ocean State from slave ships to politics.
Johnson will sign books after her talk. Admission is $1 for Newport Historical Society members, $5 for others. Seating is limited, so the society strongly encourages people to make reservations (email).

Saturday, October 03, 2015

“Thread, Wool and Silk” at Old South

Old South Meeting House is hosting a series of events this fall on costume and textile-making, and what they say about the economy, social class, politics, and other matters.

Friday, 9 October, 12:15-1:00 P.M.
Lady in the Blue Dress...and You!
Painted in an exquisite blue silk dress by her husband John Singleton Copley, the most famous artist in the American colonies, Susanna Copley was from Boston’s elite, a member of one of the town’s leading merchant families. But in 1773 she found herself surrounded by turmoil when her Loyalist family were named as tea consignees to sell British East India Company tea—the very tea that the Patriots were determined to refuse. Listen as she confides in a friend about her husband’s struggles and her fears for her family’s safety in a world where the established social and political order is coming under siege. Join in the conversation as historic reenactors Elizabeth Sulock and Elizabeth Mees share two well-clad women’s perspectives on a turbulent time.
Admission is free for Old South members, $6 for others. Ticket information here.

Friday, 23 October, 12:15-1:00 P.M.
Sheep to Shawl: Carding and Spinning at the Meeting House with Historic New England
Discover how New Englanders made clothes before the process became mechanized. Learn about the history and technology of spinning and dying wool and weaving cloth from Historic New England educator Carolin Collins. Then try your hand at picking, carding, and spinning wool from Historic New England’s flock of sheep in order to get a hands-on understanding of this vital historical craft!
Admission is free for Old South members, $6 for others. Ticket information here.

Friday, 12 November, 12:30-1:30 P.M.
Thread, Wool, and Silk: Weaving It All Together
Erica Lindamood, Education Director at Old South, will lead an informal discussion weaving together the programs on fashion, social class, and clothing production. Tea and cookies will be served, and participants can bring their own lunch if they wish. Admission is $5 for members, plus one guest.