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.

Follow by Email

•••••••••••••••••

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reviewing John Adams’s Political Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Franklin’s Autobiography in Franklin’s Hand

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

Women in Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

“An officer told Lord Cornwallis not long ago…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOMORROW: Who wrote this letter?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Cornwallis and the Women of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOMORROW: An actual contemporaneous source!

Monday, August 07, 2017

Julian Peters’s Battle of Québec

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Filled-In Trench in Charleston?

Here’s an archeological find that caught my eye several weeks back, as reported in the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina:
The Historic Charleston Foundation has been researching the rear yard behind its Aiken Rhett House property [from 1820] to learn more about how wealthy residents and their slaves shared the large area, which might have contained an ornamental garden as well as work space.

Recent ground-penetrating radar showed evidence of a pit and possibly pathways of brick, shell or compacted earth.

But it also found evidence “consistent with a filled ditch.”
That was significant because military historians knew that the British army built trenches on the peninsula during their campaign to take the port city in the spring of 1780.

A later Post and Courier story continued:
In the late 18th century, the city was mostly concentrated below present-day Calhoun Street. British troops dug trenches in the uninhabited areas farther north, allowing them to stealthily move troops across the city from the east to capture the patriots’ fortification in the area now known as Marion Square.

After the British forces seized control of the city, they filled in the trenches to keep them from being used in a counter-attack.

In the decades after the war, new streets and suburban homes, such as the Aiken-Rhett House, were built on top of the filled-in trenches, making it especially difficult for today’s historians to pinpoint where they were.

Martha Zierden, curator of historical archaeology at the Charleston Museum, said if they can verify the location of one trench, they can use old maps to estimate where all the others are buried.

On Friday, the team of archaeologists and students on Elizabeth Street got one step closer to that goal. After they finally finished removing a layer of old bricks and slate in the excavation pit, they reached the soil dating back to the 1780s that indicated the dirt had been disturbed, most likely for a trench.

“There would have been no other reason for anybody to be digging in that area because it was uninhabited in the late 18th century,” said Carl Borick, director of the Charleston Museum.

He said the area also lines up with a map of the trenches drawn by [Charles Blaskowitz,] the British Army’s chief mapmaker for the Siege of Charleston.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Minute Man Park Presentations in August

Here are free public presentations scheduled for today and the rest of August in Minute Man National Historical Park.

Saturday, 5 August, and Sunday, 6 August, at 2:00 P.M.
The Wayside Living History Players
The Wayside, 455 Lexington Road in Concord
Experience the living history program developed by local high school students celebrating the lives of the teenagers who grew up in The Wayside. Let them take you through their home as it was during different periods of time from 1775 to 1900. Ask the students what it was like to prepare and present the program based on more than two hundred years of history.

Saturday, 12 August, 1:00 P.M.
Abigail Adams: Life, Love, Letters
Buttrick Garden at North Bridge Visitor Center, 174 Liberty Street in Concord
Join Abigail Adams, portrayed by actress and historian Pat Bridgman, as she reflects on her courtship, marriage, and love in wartime.

Saturday, 19 August, 11:30 A.M., 12:30 P.M., and 1:45 P.M.
Colonial Justice
Hartwell Tavern, 106 North Great Road in Lincoln
What crimes came before the local Magistrate in the early 1770s? Come to Hartwell Tavern and meet the Magistrate and the Constable as well as a motley group of offenders (portrayed by the Guild of Historic Interpreters). Will the defendents the fined, sentenced to community service, or be exonerated? You will have a say in the matter!

Sunday, 20 August, 1:00 and 3:00 P.M.
The British Redcoat
Minute Man Visitor Center, Route 2A in Lexington
Why were the Regulars in Massachusetts? Why did they come to Concord? What happened on April 19, 1775 from the perspective of the King’s Army? Join Park Ranger Roger Fuller to explore the answers to these questions.


Friday, August 04, 2017

The Massachusetts Militia, and Its Exceptional Men

Next week I’ll be one of the presenters at a teachers’ workshop organized by Minute Man National Historical Park. My topic will be the Massachusetts militia system and that institution’s role in The Road to Concord.

Preparing for that session, I’ve been reviewing the Massachusetts militia laws. In January 1776 the General Court approved an update of the main law, which dated to the reign of William and Mary.

The new law defined the people required to participate in the militia’s seasonal military training this way [my formatting for clarity]:
That that Part of the Militia of this Colony, commonly called the Training-Band, shall be constituted of all the able-bodied Male Persons therein, from sixteen Years old to fifty, excepting
  • Members of the American Congress,
  • Members of the Council, and of the House of Representatives for the Time being,
  • the Secretary of the Colony, all Civil Officers that have been, or shall be appointed by the General Court or either Branch of it,
  • Officers and Students of Harvard-College,
  • Ministers of the Gospel, Elders and Deacons of Churches, Church-Wardens,
  • Grammar School-Masters,
  • Masters of Arts,
  • the Denomination of Christians called Quakers,
  • Select Men for the Time being,
  • those who have by Commission under any Government or Congress, or by Election in Pursuance of the Vote of any Congress of the Continent, or of this, or any other Colony, held the Post of a Subaltern, or higher Officer,
  • Persons while actually employed as Masters of Vessels of more than thirty Tons Burthen, other than Fishing Vessels, and Vessels coasting this Colony, and to and from this Colony to the other New-England Governments,
  • Constables, and Deputy Sheriffs,
  • Negroes, Indians and Mulatoes,
and shall be under the Command of such Officers as shall be chosen, impowered and commissionated over them, as is by this Act provided;

and the Select-Men, or the major Part of them of each town, shall be, and hereby are impowered by Writing under their Hands, to excuse from Time to Time such Physicians, Surgeons, Ferrymen and Millers in their respective Towns, from common and ordinary Trainings, as they shall judge it necessary to excuse:
In effect, this law excused gentlemen at the top of society (Harvard men, office-holders, and ministers) from training while also barring men from the bottom (non-whites). Some workplaces were deemed so important that their employees could also be excused: transatlantic ships, ferries, mills.

That left the vast majority of white men in the colony in the training band: small farmers, as well as craftsmen. The previous militia law included men between the ages of fifty-one and sixty; this one assumed fiftysomethings didn’t need more training. However, a later clause of the same law stated that white men aged fifty to sixty-five were on the “Alarm List” to be called up in a military emergency—“Provided, That no Persons above sixty Years of Age, nor such Millers and Ferrymen,…shall be compelled to march out of the Town wherein they have their usual Place of Abode.”

Men who had ever been commissioned as military officers didn’t have to show up for drills; presumably, they already knew the drill. And perhaps legislators felt that it would be awkward for such men to stand in the ranks and receive orders from militia officers with less experience.

Not being required to attend training didn’t exclude men from turning out with the militia in an emergency. We know such men of African descent as Prince Estabrook, David Lamson, and Caesar Ferrit marched with the provincial militia companies on 19 Apr 1775. In an actual battle, I suspect, neighbors were happy for all the support they could get. But it’s also possible that by the 1770s towns were ignoring the part of the provincial law that excluded non-whites from training.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Who Was Behind Samuel Adams’s 1776 “Oration”?

Another reason to doubt that Samuel Adams actually wrote and delivered the oration credited to him by a London pamphlet of 1776 is that he wasn’t known as an orator.

For example, when the town of Boston commissioned annual orations from 1771 into the 1800s on the Fifth of March or the Fourth of July, Adams never took on the task of speaking. He attended, and even took the lead in thanking the orators, but he didn’t seek that spotlight.

One factor was that Adams was affected what modern physicians have diagnosed as an essential tremor. This affected his speaking voice in unpredictable ways. His biographer William V. Wells wrote:
Mr. Adams, from about middle life, was more or less affected with a constitutional tremulousness of voice and hand, peculiar to his family, which sometimes continued for several weeks together, and then disappeared for as long a time. . .

To the end of his days he continued to wear garments in the style of the Revolution, which, added to his gravity of aspect and dignity of address, gave an impressiveness to his remarks, not lessened by a very clear and decisive manner of speaking, while the tremulousness of voice accorded with his veteran appearance.
Adams certainly did speak in town meetings and legislatures, but if Philadelphians wanted someone to orate about American liberty on 1 Aug 1776 (and there’s no evidence they really did) there were many other men in the Continental Congress better known for public speaking.

Rather than planned public orations, Adams expressed himself in writing through newspaper essays, government statements, and letters. Such publications made his name well known in Britain by 1776. Thus, British readers wouldn’t have been surprised to see an oration credited to Adams—but his friends in Boston were immediately skeptical.

Some scholars have hypothesized that the 1776 “Oration” was created by pro-Crown propagandists in London in an attempt to alarm their British citizens into believing that the Americans were aiming for independence.

If so, those authors missed a number of chances to highlight the danger or hypocrisy of the American cause. There’s no mention of slavery, for example. The pamphlet didn’t bring up attacks on Crown officials, loyal British subjects, or the provinces of Canada, even in the guise of justifying them.

And of course by the time an oration delivered on 1 Aug 1776 could reach London, the imperial capital already had news of the Congress declaring independence on 4 July. So telling the British public that the Americans wanted independence was old news.

Another possibility, which I’m leaning toward after reading the piece, is that it was actually written by a British supporter of America and of political reform—perhaps even republicanism—in Britain. By publishing those arguments in the voice of Adams, the author protected himself (or herself) from charges of sedition.

That’s why the pamphlet engages with European authors like Richard Price (shown above) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau more than with American issues. That’s why it has more to say about Parliament’s corruption than about the new American governments.

If Samuel Adams ever saw this pamphlet, he probably wasn’t upset by the words it put into his mouth. But he might have been puzzled by the choice of himself as a mouthpiece.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

“Purporting to have been delivered by Samuel Adams”

Yesterday I described an oration that Samuel Adams delivered in Philadelphia on 1 Aug 1776—or at least that was what a pamphlet published in London said.

In his 1865 biography of Adams, descendant William V. Wells wrote:
There appeared in London this year a printed oration, purporting to have been delivered by Samuel Adams on the 1st of August at Philadelphia. Written in the style of Adams, with but one or two exceptions, it was evidently prepared by some person familiar with his writings. Even his frequent italicizing of words, intended to convey pointed meanings, is not neglected. It must have had an extended circulation, several copies being now preserved in various libraries. Its spuriousness was not suspected in England, where its effect had been the principal object of the author; but whoever was the writer, it is difficult to see what was the immediate point to be gained by the deception. . . . The only contemporary notice was apparently written in London, after a perusal of the oration; and the writer expresses the general opinion of the subtlety of Samuel Adams as beyond that of all others in Congress.
In a footnote Wells laid out the “numerous and palpable” arguments against the authenticity of the pamphlet:
1. Congress was in session on the 1st of August, when the oration purports to have been delivered. It is hardly possible that on such an occasion, that body would not have adjourned; and the title-page bears the words, “delivered at the State House.”

2. Contemporary records make no mention of any public celebration on the 1st of August; nor could the signing of the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence on the following day have had any association with the speech. None of the American reminiscences of those times refer to it, either in diaries, letters, or newspapers, and it is not likely that so interesting an occurrence would have escaped mention.

3. This professes to be a reprint of the original Philadelphia pamphlet. No such American edition has ever been seen, but at least four copies are known of the London issue.

4. Though the oration is dated nearly a month after the Declaration of Independence, it is silent as to that event, which the unceasing efforts of Adams had particularly pushed to consummation, showing that the author (evidently in London) was ignorant of the Declaration. . . .

6. The oration repeatedly alludes to the “present Constitution” as then in force, as being already “composed, established, and approved.” No constitution existed at this date. The only approach to such an instrument were the Articles of Confederation; and Samuel Adams being one of the committee which had reported them in the previous month, none better than he knew that they had not been approved. Congress, on that very day, resolved upon the consideration of them, and the debate continued far into August, when they were laid aside, and not taken up until the next spring.
Wells also stated that “contains certain indecent passages which it would be absurd to suppose for a moment that Samuel Adams could ever have written.” Unfortunately, those were too indecent to point out. Nothing stands out as indecent to my eyes, but I immediately had doubts about Adams quoting Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In 1875, Charles Francis Adams showed a copy of the oration to the Massachusetts Historical Society while adding that “there was no evidence that Samuel Adams ever delivered such an oration, nor had there ever been discovered a copy published in Philadelphia.”

In the early 1900s, Harry Alonzo Cushing edited a comprehensive collection of The Writings of Samuel Adams. He referred to the pamphlet only in a footnote, citing Wells’s arguments against its authenticity while noting that the text continued to be reprinted “as recently as 1900.” Cushing also quoted a contemporaneous American reference to the “oration” as dubious:
John Eliot of Boston apparently had the matter in mind when he wrote to Jeremy Belknap, June 17, 1777: “Mr S. Adams is a gentleman who hath sacrificed an immense fortune in the service of his country. He is an orator likewise, & there is a famous oration upon the independance of America, which, it is said, he delivered at Philadelphia, January [sic], 1776, but which was never seen in America before.”
Today the oration is recognized as a hoax by bibliographers and booksellers. But with so many anthologies of American oratory reprinting the text in the 1800s and early 1900s, the internet has rediscovered it and brought it back as a seemingly authentic statement by Samuel Adams. The sentence “Truth loves an appeal to the common sense of mankind” seems particularly popular and, given the deceptive source, particularly ironic.

TOMORROW: Who created this hoax?

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Philadelphia Oration of Samuel Adams

In late 1776 a pamphlet appeared in London with the title:
An Oration Delivered at the State-House, in Philadelphia, to a very numerous Audience, on Thursday the 1st of August, 1776; by Samuel Adams, Member of the **** ******** the General Congress of the ****** ****** of America.
This speech was said to have been first published in Philadelphia and then reprinted in London by J. Johnson. The price was one shilling.

That material was reprinted in the Gentleman’s Magazine and by several other printers in the British Isles. Adams’s descendant and biographer William V. Wells reported that French and German translations appeared during the war. We can read the whole thing in modern typography here.

The text of the oration began with an acknowledgment of being excited about the prospect of American independence:
I will not deny the Charge of my Enemies, that Resentment for the accumulated Injuries of our Country, and an Ardour for her Glory, rising to Enthusiasm, may deprive me of that accuracy of Judgment and expression which Men of cooler passions may possess. Let me beseech you then to hear me with Caution; to examine without prejudice, and to correct the mistakes into which I may be hurried by my Zeal.
The author linked the political changes in America to the venerated Protestant Reformation: “Our Fore-Fathers threw off the Yoke of Popery in Religion; for you is reserved the honor of levelling the popery of Politicks.” The text also drew on history for examples of the corruption of kings.

The pamphlet then jumped forward to the contribution of the colonies to the British Empire and the rise of the North American colonies in population and production. There are few specifics about the ongoing war, the disputes between colonial Whigs and the Crown over the preceding eleven years, or contemporary political issues in Philadelphia. Indeed, the oratory has more to say about the British Parliament:
When a general Election will be nothing but a general Auction of Boroughs; and when the Parliament, the grand Council of the Nation, and once the faithful Guardian of the State, and a terror to evil Ministers, will be degenerated into a body of Sycophants, dependent and venal, always ready to confirm any measures, and little more than a public Court for registering royal Edicts.—Such it is possible, may, some time or other, be the state of Great Britain.—What will at that period be the duty of the Colonies? 
The pamphlet quotes Richard Price’s Observations on Civil Liberty and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Treatise on the Social Contract, but not the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in Philadelphia less than a month before.

Overall, the text is a well-argued case for American independence as the best way to preserve traditional British liberties. It portrays British institutions as corrupt and in decline. In contrast, North America is rising, and the Caribbean colonies will soon “from necessity wish to enjoy the benefit of our [American] Protection.” It tells the audience that they are and should be in control of their government: “You are now the guardians of your own liberties.” To our modern eyes, this pamphlet seems very forward-looking (once we get past that “Yoke of Popery” stuff).

Unfortunately, this oration was almost certainly not written or delivered by Samuel Adams.

TOMORROW: Suspicious circumstances.