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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Thursday, November 23, 2017

“Our Civil and Religious Rights and Liberties”

In the last, posthumously published volume of his History of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson claimed that “the continuance of civil and religious liberties had constantly, perhaps without exception, been mentioned” in royal governors’ Thanksgiving proclamations.

Therefore, in using that language in his 1771 proclamation, Hutchinson said he was merely following tradition. So any objections to his phrasing had to be an artificial controversy.

But what does the historical record say? Gov. William Shirley’s Thanksgiving proclamation for 1754 [all these proclamation links lead to P.D.F. files] and Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips’s for 1756 do indeed include some variant of the phrase about civil and religious liberties.

Gov. Thomas Pownall (shown here), a favorite of the local Whigs, used such language consistently during his short administration:
  • Declaring a Thanksgiving on 27 Oct 1757, “to continue to the People of this Province their civil and religious Rights and Privileges.”
  • 23 Nov 1758, “to support Us in our Civil and Religious Rights and Liberties.”
  • 29 Nov 1759, “to continue to us the Enjoyment of our civil and religious Rights and Liberties.”
At first Gov. Francis Bernard adhered to that tradition:
  • 27 Sept 1760, for war victories “whereby the future Security of our Civil and Religious Liberties is put into our own Hands.”
  • 27 Nov 1760, mentioning “general liberties, as well religious as civil.”
But in 1761, coinciding with the ascension of George III, the writs of assistance case, and the emergence of political opposition under James Otis, Jr., Bernard stopped including language about Massachusetts’s liberties.

No such phrase appeared in the governor’s Thanksgiving proclamations for 3 Dec 1761; 7 Oct 1762, celebrating war victories; 9 Dec 1762; 11 Aug 1763, for peace; 8 Dec 1763; 29 Nov 1764; 5 Dec 1765; 24 July 1766, for the repeal of the Stamp Act; 27 Nov 1766; 3 Dec 1767; and 1 Dec 1768. In August 1769, Bernard left the province.

The responsibility of declaring Thanksgivings thus fell to Lt. Gov. Hutchinson. For the holidays on 16 Nov 1769 and 6 Dec 1770, he stuck to Bernard’s model, not mentioning “liberties.”

Thus, contrary to what Hutchinson the historian wrote, in 1771 Hutchinson the governor didn’t simply use language that “had constantly, perhaps without exception,” appeared in Thanksgiving proclamations. He returned to a tradition that had last prevailed over a decade before—a decade in which a lot had changed in Massachusetts politics.

(Incidentally, Gov. John Wentworth of New Hampshire had included phrases like “the Continuance of our Civil and Ecclesiastical Privileges” in his Thanksgiving proclamations since 1767 But the political conflict wasn’t so deep there.)

TOMORROW: The Whig reaction.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

“They could not join in giving thanks”

Yesterday I shared the 1771 Thanksgiving proclamation issued by Gov. Thomas Hutchinson (shown here). It quickly became a source of controversy.

Why? In his role as historian, Hutchinson presented his side of the story this way:
It had been a long, uninterrupted practice for the governor, as soon as harvest was over, to issue every year a proclamation for a publick thanksgiving, and, among the enumerated publick mercies, the continuance of civil and religious liberties had constantly, perhaps without exception, been mentioned. The proclamation, by advice of council, was issued this year in the usual form.

After the people of the province had been prepared for such an attempt by the publick newspapers, a number of persons, in the character of a committee, attended upon the ministers of Boston, to desire that they would not read the proclamation to their congregations. One had read it; the rest, one excepted [the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton], complied with the desire of the committee. There was not sufficient time to prepare the ministers of the country towns. Some, however, declined reading it; and some declared in the pulpit, that if the continuance of all our liberties was intended, they could not join in giving thanks.

It having been the constant practice to read such proclamations in all the churches through the province, a more artful method of exciting the general attention of the people, which would otherwise, for want of subject, have ceased, could not have been projected.
Hutchinson thus presented the objections to the phrase “the continuance of civil and religious liberties” as an artificial controversy, ginned up by the Whig political faction to attack him.

And it’s true that 1771 had been a quiet year. With no troops stationed in Boston and most of the Townshend duties repealed, Samuel Adams was having trouble finding ways to demonstrate the imperial government’s overreach that resonated with the people.

But Hutchinson overstated his case as well.

TOMORROW: Examining the Thanksgiving record.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

“A Day of Publick Thanksgiving” in 1771

By tradition, the royal governor of Massachusetts proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in the province every autumn, usually in late November or early December.

(Governors sometimes also proclaimed Thanksgivings in response to military challenges or triumphs, but those special days didn’t replace the late-autumn holiday.)

On 23 Oct 1771, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson followed that ritual, announcing that 21 November would be a Thanksgiving. This was the first year he could issue that proclamation as governor rather than as lieutenant governor acting in the absence of a governor.

Hutchinson’s proclamation stated:
FORASMUCH as the frequent Religious Observance of Days of Publick Thanksgiving tends to excite and preserve in our Minds a due Sense of our Obligations to GOD, our daily Benefactor, the Mercies of whose common Providence are altogether unmerited by us.:

I HAVE therefore thought fit to appoint, and I do, with the Advice of His Majesty’s Council, appoint Thursday the Twenty-first day of November next, to be observed as a Day of Publick Thanksgiving throughout the Province, recommending to Ministers and People to assemble on that Day in the several Churches or Places for Religious Worship, and to offer up their humble and hearty Thanks to Almighty GOD, for all the Instances of his Goodness and Loving-kindness to us in the Course of the Year past; more especially for that He has been pleased to continue the Life and Health of our Sovereign Lord the KING—to increase His Illustrious Family by the Birth of a Prince—to succeed His Endeavours for preserving the Blessing of Peace to His Dominions, when threatned with the Judgment of War—to afford a good Measure of Health to the People of this Province----to continue to them their civil and religious Privileges—to enlarge and increase their Commerce----and to favour them with a remarkably plentiful Harvest.

AND I further recommend to the several Religious Assemblies aforesaid, to accompany their Thanksgivings with devout and fervent Prayers to the Giver of every good and perfect Gift, that we may be enabled to shew forth his Praise not only with our Lips, but in our Lives, by giving ourselves to his Service, and by walking before Him in Holiness and Righteousness all our Days.

AND all servile Labour is forbidden on the said Day.
That proclamation sparked a province-wide controversy with committees of protest, newspaper essays, ministers refusing to read the proclamation from their pulpits as written or being criticized by their congregations if they did.

Can you tell what was so controversial about Gov. Hutchinson’s wording?

TOMORROW: The offending phrase.

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Visit to Marlborough, 28 Nov.

On Tuesday, 28 November, I’ll speak about The Road to Concord to the Marlborough Historical Society.

The town of Marlborough pops up multiple times in the story that book tells, starting with how it reportedly sent both infantry and mounted militia companies to the “Powder Alarm” on 2 Sept 1774.

The following February, British officers Capt. William Brown and Ens. Henry DeBerniere came to Marlborough dressed in civilian clothing. They had a short but memorable visit, as DeBerniere reported to Gen. Thomas Gage:
At two o’clock it ceased snowing a little, and we resolved to set off for Marlborough, which was about sixteen miles off; we found the roads very bad, every step up to our ankles; we passed through Sudbury, a very large village, near a mile long, the causeway lies across a great swamp, or overflowing of the river Sudbury, and commanded by a high ground on the opposite side;

nobody took the least notice of us until we arrived within three miles of Marlborough, (it was snowing hard all the while) when a horseman overtook us and asked us from whence we came, we said from Weston, he asked if we lived there, we said no; he then asked us where we resided, and as we found there was no evading his questions, we told him we lived at Boston; he then asked us where we were going, we told him to Marlborough, to see a friend, (as we intended to go to Mr. [Henry] Barns’s, a gentleman to whom we were recommended, and a friend to government;)

he then asked us if we were in the army, we said not, but were a good deal alarmed at his asking us that question; he asked several rather impertinent questions, and then rode on for Marlborough, as we suppose, to give them intelligence there of our coming,—for on our entering the town, the people came out of their houses (tho’ it snowed and blew very hard) to look at us, in particular a baker asked Capt. Brown where are you going master, he answered on to see Mr. Barnes.—

We proceeded to Mr. Barnes’s, and on our beginning to make an apology for taking the liberty to make use of his house and discovering to him that we were officers in disguise, he told us we need not be at the pains of telling him, that he knew our situation, that we were very well known (he was afraid) by the town’s people.—

We begged he would recommend some tavern where we should be safe, he told us we could be safe no where but in his house; that the town was very violent, and that we had been expected at Col. [Abraham] Williams’s [tavern] the night before, where there had gone a party of liberty people to meet us,—(we suspected, and indeed had every reason to believe, that the horseman [Timothy Bigelow] that met us and took such particular notice of me the morning we left Worcester, was the man who told them we should be at Marlborough the night before, but our taking the Framingham road when he had passed us, deceived him:)—Whilst we were talking the people were gathering in little groups in every part of the town.—

Mr. Barnes asked us who had spoke to us on our coming into the town, we told him a baker; he seemed a little startled at that, told us he was a very mischievous fellow, and that there was a deserter at his house; Capt. Brown asked the man’s name, he said it was [John] Swain, that he had been a drummer; Brown knew him too well, as he was a man of his own company, and had not been gone above a month—so we found we were discovered.—We asked Mr. Barnes if they did get us into their hands, what they would do with us; he did not seem to like to answer; we asked him again, he then said we knew the people very well, that we might expect the worst of treatment from them.—

Immediately after this, Mr. Barnes was called out; he returned a little after and told us the doctor of the town had come to tell him he was come to sup with him—(now this fellow had not been within Mr. Barnes’s doors for two years before, and came now for no other business than to see and betray us)—Barnes told him he had company and could not have the pleasure of attending him that night; upon this the fellow stared about the house and asked one of Mr. Barnes’s children who her father had got with him, the child innocently answered that she had asked her pappa, but he told her it was not her business; he then went, I suppose, to tell the rest of his crew.—

When we found we were in that situation, we resolved to lie down for two or three hours, and set off at twelve o’clock at night; so we got some supper on the table and were just beginning to eat, when Barnes (who had been making enquiry of his servants) found they intended to attack us, and then he told us plainly he was very uneasy for us, that we could be no longer in safety in that town: upon which we resolved to set off immediately, and asked Mr. Barnes if there was no road round the town, so that we might not be seen; he took us out of his house by the stables, and directed us a bye road which was to lead us a quarter of a mile from the town,

it snowed and blew as much as ever I see it in my life; however, we walked pretty fast, fearing we should be pursued; at first we felt much fatigued, having not been more than twenty minutes at Mr. Barnes’s to refresh ourselves, and the roads (if possible) were worse than when we came; but in a little time after it wore off, and we got without being perceived, as far as the hills that command the causeway at Sudbury, and went into a little wood where we eat a bit of bread that we took from Mr. Barnes’s, and eat a little snow to wash it down.—

After that we proceeded about one hundred yards, when a man came out of a house and said those words to Capt. Brown, “What do you think will become of you now,”…
Henry Barnes appears above in a portrait by Prince Demah, once one of his slaves. A few years before this encounter, Whigs in Marlborough had tarred and feathered Barnes’s horse to punish him for buying goods from Britain in defiance of the non-importation agreement. I’m sure he remembered that as he led the officers “out of his house by the stables.”

I expect a warmer welcome in Marlborough on 28 November. My talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. in the Little Theater of Marlborough High School, 431 Bolton Street. I’ll bring copies of my book for purchase and signing.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Bearded Portrait Painter in 1753

British and American gentlemen of the middle and late eighteenth century didn’t wear beards.

Revolutionary War reenacting groups have to decide whether their adult male members must shave off their beards, mustaches, or [most distinguished of all] sideburns for events to make the most accurate visual impression.

Sometimes people try to argue that merely because we don’t see beards in portraits doesn’t mean men never wore them. Beards may have been rare but still common enough not to provoke remarks.

Back in 2012 I wrote a couple of postings about the Boston shoemaker William Scott which refute that argument. For religious reasons he grew his beard long. And his appearance was so unusual he scared children on the street.

Recently I ran across another discussion of a bearded man in the eighteenth-century British Empire at the Walpole 300 site. Jean Etienne Liotard was a portrait painter who spent years in the eastern Mediterranean region. The Lewis Walpole Library explains:
European travelers to the Levant commonly adopted local costumes, including caftans and turbans, but upon returning to Europe, they shaved their beards and shed their oriental dress. (Gullström et al., 187.) Not so Liotard, who had taken a liking to the loose Turkish garments and continued to wear them throughout the rest of his life. In 1743, when the artist arrived in Vienna, he caused an immediate sensation with his oriental robes, large fur hat, and the long beard he had grown according to local custom while in Moldova at the court of prince Constantin Mavrocordato. He attracted the attention of Empress Maria-Theresa and soon received prestigious commissions at the imperial court.

In 1748, Liotard traveled on to Paris where he exhibited his beard and costume at the opera in order to stimulate interest in his person, and thus to enhance his business as a portraitist. In fact, some of Liotard’s critics claimed that his success depended entirely on his sartorial performance rather than on his talents as a painter. . . .

In 1753, Horace Walpole described Liotard’s arrival in England in a letter to Horace Mann, pointing out the artist’s exotic looks: “From having lived in Constantinople he wears a Turkish habit and a beard down to his girdle: this and his extravagant prices, which he has raised even beyond what he asked at Paris, will probably get him as much money as he covets for he is avaricious beyond imagination.” (Walpole, Correspondence, 20:362.)
The Lewis Walpole Library owns the miniature portrait shown above, which is inscribed “Liotard / by Himself / 1753.” Lady Maria Churchill gave it to Horace Walpole, her older half-brother. And I’m sure we can agree that that’s an impressive beard—especially since no other man in Britain was wearing anything like it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Preserving the Memories of Lesser-Known Bostonians

This month the city of Boston announced that it had established a “pattern library” for city websites and applications.

One purpose is to ensure that city websites have a common look so citizens recognize them as official and familiar. Another is to cut down on the number of decisions that city employees and contractors must make in setting up a new webpage.

Boston’s pattern library is named Fleet. That name also probably has two purposes. One is to signal the speed that it’s supposed to bring to the task of communicating with constituents.

The second is to keep alive the memory of Peter Fleet, the enslaved engraver and printer who worked on the Boston Evening-Post and many books and pamphlets in eighteenth-century Boston. In making that announcement, the city linked to this Boston 1775 posting about Peter Fleet.

So that’s cool.

Another piece of news this week: The Old North Church has received a generous “Mars Wrigley Confectionery US, LLC Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant” to fund new research into the life of Capt. Newark Jackson, owner of a chocolate mill in the North End in the early 1700s, and to share that work with the public in various forms, including a comic. I played a small part in that grant application and look forward to tasting the results.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Letter on London Politics

Edward Griffin Porter’s Rambles in Old Boston (1886) quotes this letter sent to the private teacher John Leach in Boston. It offers a glimpse of radical politicians in London and of the Boston Whigs’ attempts to make common cause with them.

The writer was the London printer John Meres (1733-1776). He had inherited the Daily Post newspaper from his namesake father, who had gotten in trouble multiple times for printing news the government didn’t like. The younger Meres followed in the family tradition.

Meres’s letter is datelined “Old Baily, May 21, 1769,” and evidently replies to a political essay Leach had sent to the imperial capital:
Dr. Cozn.,—

I had the Pleasure of receiving your political Creed accompanied with the Presents, the One agreeable to my Sentiments, the Other to my Fancy.

Your Letter I presented to Mr. [John] Wilkes, who read it with much Satisfaction; desired me to leave it with him & begg’d I would present his best Respects to you unknown & hoped there were many of the same Opinion as yourself; it was shown to Mr. Serjt. [John] Glynn [shown above], the only worthy Member [of Parliament] for the County of Middlesex, who thought it rather too dangerous for the Press except the Inflamatory Paper I now publish entitled the Nh. Briton, the Government having after a serious of Insults upon the People deprived me of printing The London Evening Post, & that Paper is now become the tame Vehicle for Ministers and their Ductiles. The Duke of Grafton promised me in private that nothing should be done prejudicial to me or my Interest, but are Jockeys Words to be taken? but alas! our Ministry consist of few others than that class—but to return.

Mr. Wilkes has been three Times elected Member for the County of Middlesex & was refused his seat in any House (except the King’s Bench). He was chosen by the Inhabitants of the Ward, Alderman for Farringdon Without (the largest in the City), in which I reside; the Court of Aldermen would not swear him in; the Inhabitants rechose him, Ditto, so that the Ward being without an Alderman, the Inhabitants will not pay the Taxes, not being properly represented & the Ward Books not signed by Mr. Alderman Wilkes.

I could add much more of the above Gentles. sufferings, but cannot write with propriety being much afflicted with the Gout…

I remain, your Lovg. Cozn.
J. MERES.
The 103rd issue of the North Briton, dated 22 Apr 1769, says it was “Printed for W. BINGLEY, at the King’s-Bench Prison, and sold by J. MERES, in the Old Bailey.” The issue dated one day before this letter indicates that William Bingley was out of jail and back at his shop in the Strand. By then Meres was not only selling the latest issue but all back issues as well.

The magazines didn’t say who did the actual printing, but Bingley spent two years in prison without trial and is usually credited as the publisher of the magazine. However, at least to his cousin in Boston, Meres claimed in May 1769 to “now publish” the North Briton.

John Meres had two sons who became teen-aged Royal Navy officers during the Revolutionary War.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Gen. Gage’s Trunks

The Clements Library at the University of Michigan owns the papers of Gen. Thomas Gage (1719-1787), last royal governor of Massachusetts.

Back in the 1700s, gentlemen involved in politics maintained possession and ownership of the papers they accumulated in their public careers. (Indeed, up until the Watergate scandal Presidents of the U.S. of A. were the legal owners of their own Presidential papers; now those by law go into the National Archives.)

Because of that custom, Gen. Gage’s correspondence with his superiors in London, his intelligence notes, and other important documents went home with him after he sailed away from Boston in the autumn of 1775. He had a house in London and also spent time at the family seat, Firle Place.

Before he died, Gage answered questions about the American War from the historian George Chalmers (1742-1845), but he appears to have relied on his memory and impressions rather than consulting those papers. He never published self-serving arguments that he was right all along like some of his successors in the American command. Gage appears to have preferred to leave the that part of his life completely in the past. So his papers remained packed up.

Gen. Gage’s papers were still sitting in Firle Place when an American construction-equipment magnate called on his descendants in the early twentieth century. The Clements Library blog recently discussed the trunks that those documents sat in:
William L. Clements was fortunate to purchase the papers directly from General Gage’s descendants. Not only was their provenance perfectly documented, but the papers were even shipped from England to Bay City in the same twelve military document trunks in which they had been filed during Gage’s command and then sent to England in 1775. In 1937, following the settlement of Clements’s estate, the twelve boxes full of documents arrived at the Library in Ann Arbor.

The Gage Papers were mounted and bound to make them accessible to researchers. But what of the trunks? Each is a significant artifact of the American Revolution that had spent its days in America at the epicenter of the British command. Unlike the letters and documents, however, the twelve trunks were “realia,” (three-dimensional objects). To many archivists they were of little or no use in a research library. Over the twenty years after their arrival at the Library the trunks were gradually dispersed until only one remained. Even that one had been given away but was later returned to the Clements.

This lone box appeared to be of a standard design, 32 x 21 x 12 inches high, constructed of sturdy pine planks dove-tailed at the corners with wrought iron hinges and handles and a lock. The lid is covered with a sheet of canvas painted in “Spanish brown” (a reddish brown color) to repel water. The rest of the box is painted the same color. On the lid, spelled out in upholstery tacks is the message “Secty Off / N 7 / 1770.” We have interpreted this to mean “Secretary’s Office, Number 7, 1770.” The seventh year of Gage’s actual appointment as commander was 1770, which might explain the number and date. Coincidence? Inside is a level of built-in pigeonholes with 14 slots (2 x 7). Above this is a removable tray with another 14 slots. Small paper labels once identified the contents of each box.
Putting out a call to the Ann Arbor community brought out two more trunks, similarly constructed and marked. That means nine of Gen. Gage’s trunks are still unaccounted for.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Voice from Nantucket

For the last couple of days I’ve quoted newspaper accounts from October 1738 about a violent uprising of Wampanoag people on Nantucket that not only never happened but was, contrary to the first reports, never even planned.

In the winter 1996 issue of Historic Nantucket, later adapted in his book Away Off Shore, Nathaniel Philbrick discussed another apparent account of the same fear, preserved in the Nantucket Historical Association’s archives.

This story was set down in 1895 by Eliza Mitchell, then close to ninety years old. She recorded a story she remembered hearing as a child in the 1810s from another woman who had then been about the same age—thus putting the origin of the tale in the 1730s.

Philbrick described the older woman’s recollection this way:
As the girl and her older brothers and sisters changed into their night clothes and tightened their beds, there was a sound at the front door. It was their father. He was clearly agitated and yet was trying desperately to remain calm, announcing that mother “need not retire or undress the children.” When asked why, he simply said that “there was trouble brewing with the Indians.” But all of them, especially her brothers and sisters, demanded to know more. Reluctantly, her father explained: The day before, an Indian had come into town and “carefully, though very privately” told of a secret plot by the two tribes to attack the English settlement and take over the island. Even though the character of the Indian informant was somewhat suspect, the town officials were inclined to take the warning seriously. When you lived on an island that was a three-hour sail from the mainland (in ideal conditions), you were not about to dismiss even the wildest rumor.

Word went out to all the men that they would be divided into several companies: some would stay in town to protect the women and children in case the attack materialized; other groups would head out to the various Indian villages in an attempt to discover if, in fact, an uprising was in the works. In the meantime, it had been “thought best not to inform their families until the last minute.”

But now the truth was out, and according to the old woman, there were “many fears and some tears.” Borrowing a page from the frontier towns in the western half of the colonies, the Nantucketers decided to consolidate the women and children into a few, easily defended houses, and so “the families gathered their little ones close around them, club’d together, well as they could.” The old woman remembered laying her head upon her mother’s lap, and gradually falling to sleep, “as children will.”

It was time for the men to search the darkness for Indian war parties. All night they patrolled the treeless moors in the swirling mist, their eyes and ears straining for some indication of the Indian bands their imaginations inevitably placed behind every rise of land and within every hollow. But by daybreak they had found nothing. Exhausted, they returned to town and made their report.

The next day, the town’s sheriff and “fifty well-armed men” set out to determine, if possible, the “meaning of it all.” Instead of finding the Indians in the midst of a war dance, “they found all quiet.” It was harvest time, and the Indians were “merrily husking their corn.” When they learned about the white people’s fears, the natives were deeply disturbed and demanded to know who had told them this false story.

As it turned out, the informant had spent the last three days in a drunken stupor, having used the money the English had paid him to purchase rum. According to the old woman, the Indians were “so highly incensed [that] they came near tearing him apart.” Eventually it was decided that he would receive no less than thirty lashes (the limit allowed by colonial law) at the town’s whipping post.
Mitchell went on to describe the punishment, saying it was the last public whipping on the island.

This story fits the mold of what I call “grandmothers’ tales”—historic stories we hear as children and never doubt, even though the original storyteller might not have meant them to be taken literally. Some of our best legends get into print that way.

In this case, however, the story matches some important aspects of the earliest Boston News-Letter report of the conspiracy: a single Native man alerting the white settlers on Nantucket, prompting a brief but consuming fear “wholly contradicted” a short time later. According to Mitchell, the man initially hailed in Boston as “an honest Indian Fellow” ended up being whipped for lying.

In his Early American Studies article “Inventing an Indian Slave Conspiracy on Nantucket, 1738,” Justin Pope blames John Draper of the Boston News-Letter not only for printing an unfounded rumor but for largely creating it. According to that paper’s abstract, Draper chose to “invent a sensational account of an imminent Indian uprising” based on “conventions established over years of reporting slave unrest.”

The Nantucket tradition that Mitchell wrote down suggests that the island’s British people truly were afraid of a Native uprising around the start of October 1738, enough to gather their women and children and organize patrols. With those “conventions” about uprisings already established, local whites could have sensationalized their fears themselves. Draper might have accurately reported the news that mariners from Nantucket brought to Boston. Or newspaper reports and local gossip could have built on each other in a spiraling account.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Nantucket Conspiracy “wholly contradicted”

Yesterday I quoted items from the Boston News-Letter of 5 Oct 1738 and the Boston Evening-Post of 9 Oct 1738 about a narrowly averted uprising of Wampanoags on Nantucket Island, and ongoing fears that the Native sailors on whaling ships might have risen up, too.

However, on 16 October the Boston Gazette, which had reprinted the News-Letter’s news the week before, stated:

The News that we had in the publick Prints of October 9th, that 16 Indians of the Island of Nantucket had lately a horrid Scheme contriv’d to set Fire to the Houses of the English inhabitants in the Night, and kill as many as they could, is wholly contradicted by a Vessel that arrived here a few Days ago:

This Report arose by a drunken Indian Woman of that Island being in Liquor reported such Things, and she and another Woman was brought before a Justice of the Peace and examin’d, an could make nothing of it but a drunken Story.
(One curious detail: None of the earlier reports I’ve seen stated that “16 Indians” had conspired. That number might reflect how details, true or false, circulated without initially getting into the newspapers.)

Other Boston newspapers ran the same correction, as did papers in Newport and Philadelphia that had printed the first story. But of course not everyone saw that second item—especially decades later.

As Justin Pope describes in his recent article, “Inventing an Indian Slave Conspiracy on Nantucket, 1738,” later historians found the initial report but not the refutation. Obed Macy’s 1835 The History of Nantucket and Alexander Starbuck’s 1878 History of the American Whale Fishery both used the News-Letter article as their authority for describing an actual Wampanoag uprising.

So, for that matter, did Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, published in 2000. Except that Linebaugh and Rediker looked more favorably on that alleged bid for freedom. That reflects a larger ongoing debate among historians about whether slave uprisings in the New World were actual attempts by people to free themselves or imagined plots by paranoid slaveholders who coerced confessions from innocent people. The answer to that question offers different pictures of enslaved communities—as resistant rebels or as oppressed victims.

Other historians have caught the printers’ corrections and thus the real significance of this particular story as revealing colonists’ fears. In New York Burning Jill Lepore wrote:
If a single drunken Indian woman could come up with a plot and a completely plausible justification so compelling that it terrified an entire island of English colonists and was reported up and down the Atlantic seaboard, even though there were no fires on Nantucket that fall, the degree of panic inspired by actual fires like the ten that blazed in New York in March and April 1741 is hard to imagine.
TOMORROW: A memory of the fear on Nantucket.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A “horrid Scheme” on Nantucket?

On 5 Oct 1738, the Boston News-Letter published an article describing a planned uprising by Wampanoags on Nantucket Island:
We hear from Nantucket, That there has been lately a horrid Scheme conceiv’d by the Indians of that Island, to set Fire to the Houses of the English Inhabitants in the Night, and then to fall upon them arm’d, and kill as many as they could.

But the Execution of this vile Design was happily prevented by an honest Indian Fellow, whom they could by no means seduce to join with them in so desperate an Undertaking, but gave Timely Notice to the Inhabitants thereof, who accordingly keeping upon their Guard, the Indians have desisted.

It seems these Indians have for some Time past appear’d surly and discontented; and ’tis said the above Affair was conceived last Spring, before the Vessels sail’d on the whaling Voyages; and that the Indians who went out with the English on those Voyages were in the Confederacy, and were to do their Part by destroying the English on the Sea:

As several of those Vessels are not arrived tho’ long expected; and as the greater Number in the Crews were Indians, the Consequence thereof is much to be feared.
On 9 October, the Boston Evening-Post reprinted most of that item, adding in the middle:
The Pretence the Indians have for this cruel Attempt, is, as we hear, that the English at first took the Land from their Ancestors by Force, and have kept it ever since, without giving them any valuable Consideration for it;…

Upon the Discovery of the Plot, the English took to their Arms, and stood on their Defence, which discouraged the Indians from making any Attempt upon them; and we are impatient to hear whether their whaling Vessels are return’d in Safety, and what Measures have been taken to secure the Peace and Safety of the Island.
This summer, Missouri University of Science and Technology history professor Justin Pope published a study of this incident in the Early American Studies journal. The university proudly touted that publication, saying:
The “Nantucket conspiracy,” as Pope calls it, is also a cautionary tale for historians who rely on newspaper reports for their accounts of life in colonial America, Pope says. . . . The 1738 newspaper story began as a rumor that “would have passed into local lore if not for the newspaper men of Boston,” writes Pope. It began with printer John Draper, who first reported the account in his Boston News-Letter on Sept. 28, 1738.
That issue of the newspaper is actually dated 28 Sept–5 Oct 1738 on its front. That means it was printed and distributed on 5 October, collecting news that had arrived since 28 September.

Back to the university press release:
…the Boston News-Letter story “took off,” Pope writes. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic ran with the story, which soon became the 18th century equivalent of a viral social media post. “Draper’s story made for good copy,” Pope adds.

“Within a week, his rivals in Boston had copied his version of the conspiracy verbatim,” writes Pope. Within two weeks, printers John Peter Zenger in New York City and Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia were running the story.
But that wasn’t the final word.

TOMORROW: “wholly contradicted.”

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Boles on Jefferson in Boston, 16 Nov.

Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty is a new biography of the third President by John B. Boles, a professor of history at Rice University. He was co-editor of the essay collection Seeing Jefferson Anew.

Jonathan Yardley, longtime book critic for the Washington Post, really likes this book. How much? He recently wrote in that newspaper:
“Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty” is perhaps the finest one-volume biography of an American president. Boles…has spent many years studying Jefferson’s native American South in all its mysteries, contradictions, follies and outrages, as well as its unique contributions to the national culture and literature. This biography is the culmination of a long, distinguished career. I admire it so passionately that, almost 2 1/2 years into a happy retirement, I had no choice except to violate my pledge never again to write another book review.
Boles will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society this Thursday, 16 November. The event will start with a reception at 5:30, followed by the author’s remarks at 6:00 and book-signing to follow. The cost is $10 per person, free for M.H.S. members and fellows. Reserve a seat through this page.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

When Alexander Wished for a War

On 11 Nov 1769, a young clerk on the island of St. Croix wrote to his friend Edward Stevens, who had headed off to King’s College in New York.
As to what you say respecting your having soon the happiness of seeing us all, I wish, for an accomplishment of your hopes provided they are Concomitant with your welfare, otherwise not, tho doubt whether I shall be Present or not for to confess my weakness, Ned, my Ambition is prevalent that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station.

Im confident, Ned that my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. Im no Philosopher you see and may be jusly said to Build Castles in the Air. My Folly makes me ashamd and beg youll Conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such Schemes successfull when the Projector is Constant I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a War.
The clerk who wrote this letter was Alexander Hamilton. He was either twelve or fourteen years old at the time; on reaching North America he consistently stated that he was born in 1757, but some earlier documents from the Caribbean suggest he was born in 1755 and thus revised his age in college to appear to be more of a prodigy. Whichever age Alexander was at this time, his letter is remarkable for its frank ambition.

Earlier this year the Library of Congress made its Hamilton Papers available online, as explained here. This 1769 letter, for example, can be viewed here.

Another source of new perspectives on Hamilton is Michael E. Newton’s blog Discovering Hamilton, which will roll out new documents and theories over time.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Clues to Young George’s Education

A couple of months back, the Oxford University Press blog ran an extract from Kevin J. Hayes’s George Washington: A Life in Books discussing the first President’s school days and early reading.

Here’s an extract from that extract:
Further evidence shows that at one point in his education Washington did attend school with other boys. Friend and fellow patriot George Mason mentioned to him a man named David Piper, whom he described as “my Neighbour and Your old School-fellow.” Like Washington, Piper would turn to surveying once he left school, becoming surveyor of roads for Fairfax County. He was also something of a bad boy. Piper was repeatedly brought to court on various civil and criminal matters. Together Washington and Piper could have attended school at the Lower Church of Washington Parish, Westmoreland County, where Mattox Creek enters the Potomac River, but there is no saying for sure. The story of Washington’s education is shrouded in mystery.

His school exercises indicate what he studied inside the classroom and out. They show him mastering many different subjects, learning what he would need to make his way through colonial Virginia whether that way took him down a deer track or up Duke of Gloucester Street. Some of the exercises are dated, revealing that this set of school papers as a whole ranges from 1743 to 1748, that is, from the year Washington turned eleven to the year he turned sixteen. Other evidence demonstrates that he continued his studies beyond the latest exercises in the manuscript collection. Altogether the exercises and the books Washington read during his school days reveal his early literary interests, his fascination with mathematics, and the genesis of his career as a surveyor.

Washington became curious about poetry in his youth, as two manuscript poems that survive with the school exercises reveal. When he first read these poems, he transcribed them to create personal copies he could reread whenever he wished. His copies reveal Washington’s ambition to excel in penmanship, and their texts shed light on his state of mind at the end of adolescence.
I’m not convinced about that last interpretation. A big part of a gentleman’s education in the eighteenth century was learning elegant handwriting, and boys learned that by copying models provided or written out by their teachers. These poems, which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1734 and 1743, might therefore have been handwriting exercises, with their content mattering less than their form.

Certainly young George set down those two poems in a handsome hand. In the same copybook he wrote out twenty-one pages of legal forms, instructions “To Keep Ink from Freezing or Moulding,” and the famous “Rules…of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”

Thursday, November 09, 2017

A Presidential Plodder

Plodding Through the Presidents is Howard Dorre’s ongoing blog about reading Presidential biographies, starting with Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man and getting as far as, well, Andrew Jackson. So the important ones, really.

Dorre has a delightfully irreverent attitude toward this process, as shown in his discussion of Harlow Giles Unger’s treatment of two successive chief executives:
The Monroe Doctrine, in Unger’s words, “declared an end to foreign colonization in the New World and warned the Old World that the United States would no longer tolerate foreign incursions in the Americas.” It basically told Europe to stay out of the western hemisphere, and it still has impacts on our foreign policy today.

It’s widely known that [James] Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, had a major role in authoring the policy as part of Monroe’s annual address to Congress in 1823. But Unger didn’t see it that way. He wrote:
“Contrary to the writings of some historians, Monroe’s proclamation was entirely his own – not Adams’s. The assertion that Adams authored the “Monroe Doctrine” is not only untrue; it borders on the ludicrous by implying that President Monroe was little more than a puppet manipulated by another’s hand. Such assertions show little insight into the presidency itself and the type of man who aspires to and assumes that office; indeed, they denigrate the character, the intellect, the intensity, and the sense of power that drive American presidents.”
Not only does he make a wildly contrarian claim, but he also shits all over most historians in the process. And his main point seems to be that only a president could write the Monroe Doctrine – certainly not John Quincy Adams, even though he became president just a year later.

Three years after publishing his Monroe biography, Unger released John Quincy Adams. His thoughts on the Monroe Doctrine’s authorship seem to have magically evolved, as if he cared more about lionizing whoever his subject was than being consistent.

Unger wrote that JQA “wrote the core provision of the Monroe Doctrine” which the president included “verbatim, in his annual message.” He went on to say that “Monroe embraced John Quincy’s political philosophy and formally closed the Western Hemisphere to further colonization.”

So, according to Unger, it’s ludicrous to think John Quincy Adams “authored” the Monroe Doctrine but he did “write” it. And even though it was based on Adams’s own political philosophy that Monroe embraced, the doctrine was entirely Monroe’s and not Adams’s.
There are also postings drawn from other books, inquiries into Presidential myths and mysteries, and personal history, such as how Dorre’s interest in serial killers spurred him to investigate J. Q. Adams’s childhood reading.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Horace Walpole’s 300th Year

The year 2017 marks the tercentenary of the author and aristocrat Horace Walpole’s birth, as well as the 220th anniversary of his death.

The Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut, has launched what it’s calling “Walpolooza”—a yearlong exploration of the man’s life and work, including displays, seminars, panel discussions, and a dramatic performance.

The library is now featuring the exhibition “Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole.” It presents “conflicting visions of empire in the 18th century through the domains of political economy, diplomacy, slavery, and indigenous peoples.”

On 9-10 November, the library will host a “Literary Walpole Weekend” mini-conference organized by Jonathan Kramnick, the Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale University, on Walpole’s ground-breaking gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and other writings.

Another conference will take place on 9-10 Feb 2018 at the Graduate Club in New Haven about “new archival-based research on Britain’s global empire in the 18th century.”

On 2 May 2018, the Yale Center for British Art will host a staged reading of Walpole’s controversial verse tragedy The Mysterious Mother, “a tale of incest and intrigue that Walpole initially circulated only among his friends, and never permitted it to be performed during his lifetime except as a private theatrical.” That will be followed by a scholarly symposium featuring the director of the performance, Misty G. Anderson, the Lindsay Young Professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

Online, the weekly Horace Walpole at 300 blog is sharing items from the Lewis Walpole Library’s collection. These include rare books he owned, others he had printed at his own press, artworks, and manuscripts.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Tea Party Seeking Tea, of All Things

The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has started to publicize this year’s reenactment of Boston’s last meeting about the East India Company’s tea and the destruction of that cargo which followed.

That press release refers to the commemoration as “one of the largest moving historical reenactments in the U.S.” I think that refers to how the event starts at the Old South Meetinghouse and then goes through the nighttime streets to the waterfront for the second act. A logistical challenge for the organizers, to be sure.

This year the museum has a new feature:
NEW IN 2017: Inviting one and all to send loose tea to be thrown into Boston Harbor as part of this year's reenactment.

HOW TO SEND TEA:
Send dried loose leaf tea (NO used tea bags) to: Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, ATTN: 'Toss That Tea', 306 Congress St, Boston, MA 02210. Include name, address, e-mail & phone number. An official certificate of participation will be sent to each partaker sending tea. Deadline to send tea: December 1, 2017.
London’s East India Company will provide over 220 pounds of “Expired Loose Tea” to be thrown into the harbor. The original event involved, as Charles Bahne documented here, 92,616 pounds of tea. So even if we’re looking at dumping only one ship’s worth, we’ve got a way to go before matching the original total.

That said, I have a problem with this form of promotion. Sending loose tea in to this event would leave one with less tea. I’m struggling to find a way around that problem. Maybe I could get rid of that fake-aristocratic bergamot-doused stuff.

Monday, November 06, 2017

A Fifth of November Wagon Rolls Again

It’s been nearly twenty years since I started to research Revolutionary Boston intensely. At first my goal was to develop a sense of what it was like for a young apprentice to live in Boston in 1770.

Among the early books I read was Patricia Bradley’s Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution. Almost in passing, Prof. Bradley mentioned that there were sketches of Boston’s Pope Night festivities at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. On-the-spot pictures of what an apprentice would have seen on 5 Nov 1767!

At the time I had grandparents living outside of Philadelphia, so during a visit to them I took a day to go into the city and research at that organization. Sure enough, its documents from the Swiss-born artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière included several sketches of youths tugging decorated wagons like this one, from Boston’s South End gang.

The first time I attended the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, I mentioned those pictures to director Peter Benes. He invited me to write an article analyzing them for the seminar collection slated for 2003. The H.S.P. sent me photographs—on actual glossy paper, not pixels—and gave permission for them to be published for the first time. That was my first journal publication.

In 2006 I began this blog. I continued writing articles, chapters for books, a big study for the National Park Service, and eventually The Road to Concord. Folks at local historical organizations whose job is to look ahead as well as back noticed that the sestercentennial of the American Revolution in Massachusetts was upon us and started Revolution 250, and I joined that effort.

This past weekend, I was speaking about where Gen. George Washington slept in Cambridge, a result of the N.P.S. study. That required being at Mount Vernon, and it was a great experience, both educational and fun. Most unfortunately, that meant I had to miss the “Devil and the Crown” reenactment on the streets of Boston the same afternoon.

And look at what that event’s amazing volunteers and interpreters did!
Photograph from Jim Hollister’s Facebook feed. Check out the Facebook pages of Minute Man Park and The History List for videos.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Henry Hulton and “twenty Devils, Popes, & Pretenders”

I’ve focused on Charles Paxton as the chief target of Boston’s Pope Night processions in 1767, but two other new Commissioners of His Majesty’s Customs arrived in Boston on that same Fifth of November.

One was Henry Hulton, born in 1732 in Hampshire, England. He became one of the British Empire’s civil servants, eventually winning the post in Boston. Which turned out to be a lot more trouble than he anticipated.

Hulton wrote back to his family on his arrival, and his sister Ann Hulton passed on his news in a 17 Dec 1767 letter:
He says they happen’d unluckily to arrive on the most riotous day in the year, the 5th. Novr believes the Mob carried twenty Devils, Popes, & Pretenders, thro the Streets, with Labels on their breasts, Liberty & Property & no Commissioners, he laughed at ’em with the rest.
Later Henry’s wife and children joined him, as did Ann. She observed:
The Mobs here are very different from those in O[ld] England where a few lights put into the Windows will pacify, or the interposition of a Magistrate restrain them, but here they act from principle & under Countenance.
The Hultons moved into a house on Walnut Street in Brookline. According to Ann, a Scottish man named Logan “purchased this House & Land for my Bro[the]r in his own name, at the time nobody wou’d Lett or Sell to a Commissioner.” That estate provided Hulton with a rural retreat from the political turmoil in Boston. But on at least one occasion the mob visited him out there, and he had to flee to Castle William.

Ann Hulton’s reports home were published in 1927 as Letters of a Loyalist Lady. Henry Hulton’s political writings remained unpublished until 2010 when the Colonial Society of Massachusetts issued Henry Hulton and the American Revolution: An Outsider’s Inside View, edited by Neil Longley York. It contains Hulton’s letters; his first-hand history of the coming of the Revolution, owned by Princeton University; and a collection of essays and poems, held at the Clements Library. The complete text is now available online.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

“He fitted himself with a Pair of Women’s Shoes”?

I’ve been discussing the public image of Customs official Charles Paxton (shown here in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s portrait).

Paxton’s neighbors teased him for his elaborate courtesy and his bachelor status. A big part of those criticisms, I suspect, was that Paxton didn’t fit New England’s model of masculinity.

That becomes quite clear in this anecdote, which appeared in the 18 Dec 1769 Boston Gazette:
Whereas a Sett of naughty Boys, not having the Fear of the reforming Justice, nor of his M[ajest]y’s Troops here stationed, before their Eyes, did in a very tumultuous and outrageous Manner assemble themselves together in Order to Tar and Feather a rascally Informer [George Gailer on 28 Oct 1769], to the great Terror of sundry of his M[ajest]y’s timorous Subjects usually distinguished by the opprobious Name of C[o]mm[issione]rs;

and whereas the right valiant and right worshipful and right noble Charles Froth, Esq [the way Whig newspapers had referred to Paxton since 1761]; on seeing the woful Spectacle exhibited, was then seized with an unusual panic and trepidation to the great discomfort of his delicate Nerves, and to the evident Disorder of his weak Intellects, insomuch as to Occasion a precipitate Retreat thro’ Back and By-Ways to his Kinsman Ph—ps’s, and when there thro’ the Excess of bodily Fear, all pale and trembling, he betook himself to a close Chamber, which was fast shut and barricaded strong, and to the disordering of the grisly Locks and gallant Apparel of the said antiquated Beau, he was necessitated for further Security to conceal himself beneath a huge Feather Bed, where he sweat most profusely for several Hours, to his great Damage, as he saith, and was at last with great Difficulty perswaded to emerge from Durance to take some Refreshment:

And further to the Loss of his necessary Repose there continued at his Cousin’s till near Day-break, at which Time having collected some small Share of Resolution, he formed the bold Design of venturing to his own Home; to which Purpose he fitted himself with a Pair of Women’s Shoes borrowed of Mrs. C—— [perhaps Paxton’s sister Susannah Cunningham], and a Ridinghood supplied him by his humane Cousin, and thus accoutred sallied forth under the Auspices of the Night, and the friendly Attendance of a brawny African, and without further Damage reached his own House.

This is therefore to caution these unruly Boys, that at any Time hereafter when they propose a Game of Foot-Ball, or any other noisy Diversion, that they take timely Care to advertise the said Charles Froth, Esq; that they intend him no Injury.
I doubt Paxton really tried to disguise himself in women’s shoes and a “Ridinghood.” But his enemies were happy to portray him as an “antiquated Beau” who could be scared by a football game and needed the protection of “a brawny African.” Eighteenth-century British society didn’t think about gender and sexuality exactly as we do today, but that newspaper item looks a lot like gay-baiting.

Paxton’s personal manners probably wouldn’t have made the newspapers if he hadn’t thrown himself into his work as a Customs officer and become one of the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Customs. But the other men appointed to that board never got the sort of personal criticism that Paxton did.

Three of those Commissioners disembarked from Britain on 5 Nov 1767 (as reenacted this afternoon around Faneuil Hall). Paxton was the only one whom the Pope Night processions individually lampooned. And his effigies bore labels like “poor charles the bachelor.”

Friday, November 03, 2017

“Poor Charles the batchelor that was once master of the ceremonies”

When I say that Customs official Charles Paxton was “queer,” I’m not claiming to know whom he had sex with, or wanted to have sex with. I’m saying that Bostonians saw something odd in Paxton’s lifestyle and manners, and they teased him for supposedly lacking masculinity. From 1761 on, Whig newspapers referred to Paxton as “Charles Froth, Esq.,” bubbly and insubstantial.

Paxton never married. That stood out in New England society, which encouraged men to find a wife and have lots of children. Of course, there were other lifelong bachelors in Revolutionary Boston, such as the Boylston brothers and Dr. Joseph Gardner.

But Bostonians made a big deal out of Paxton not marrying. During the 1767 Pope Night processions, one of the signs recorded by the artist Pierre Eugene du Simitière in the drawing above read, “poor charles the bachelor.” (Those drawings are in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.)

That label continued, “…that was once master of the ceremonies.” Another sign read, “everybody’s humble servant & nobody’s friend.” Locals evidently knew what those lines alluded to without needing to read anything more.

For those of us from farther away, we have an explanatory anecdote printed in the 6 Nov 1769 Boston Gazette:
one day, after having fleeced a very worthy gentleman, [Paxton] met him, and with the impudence of Beau Nash and Tobit’s Dog, but in the antique, aukward air of the last century, accosted him with “Mr —, your most obedient humble servant, Sir!”

Yes, yes, answered the other, “every man’s humble servant, but no man’s friend.”
Lots of people must have repeated that story because as late as 1809 Bostonians still remembered Paxton as “no man’s friend.”

Beau Nash meant Richard Nash, noted dandy and master of ceremonies at Bath in the early and mid-1700s. As for “Tobit’s Dog,” it looks like eighteenth-century authors used that Biblical figure as an emblem of slavish devotion. According to Samuel Johnson, “impudence” meant shamelessness.

Thus, Bostonians looked at Paxton and saw a fawning courtier with overly elaborate manners and the “antique, aukward air of the last century.”

TOMORROW: A cross-dressing anecdote from 1769.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Charles Paxton, Customs Commissioner

Charles Paxton (1708-1788, shown here in a portrait at the American Antiquarian Society) was a major figure in Boston’s 1767 Pope Night procession.

Not as a member of the North End or South End Gangs, to be sure. Paxton was the target of those processions, which became a protest against the Townshend duties and the new Commissioners of His Majesty’s Customs. (The daytime protest will be part of the “Devil and the Crown” reenactment this Saturday.)

Paxton was one of those five Commissioners, having risen in the Customs service in Massachusetts. He had tried to join that agency as early as 1734, proposing a new office at Plymouth with himself in charge. He got a post in Marblehead and Salem in the early 1740s.

Paxton also became marshal of Boston’s vice-admiralty court, which helped to enforce the Customs laws. So he made money from seizures of smuggled goods in all sorts of ways. Some said he played favorites with whose goods he seized, though it’s possible they just meant he should be as lenient as other Customs officers.

Naturally, Paxton’s work made him unpopular with the maritime community in Essex County. In 1752 he gained the post of Surveyor of Customs in Boston, allowing him to become just as unpopular with an even larger maritime community.

When Boston’s merchants sued to overturn writs of assistance in 1761, Paxton was the nominal defendant. He won that case, and others, in the Massachusetts courts. The fact that Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson was one of Paxton’s oldest friends didn’t mollify their opponents.

During the first Stamp Act riot on 14 Aug 1765, Paxton reportedly offered shelter to the stamp agent, Andrew Oliver. So during the second Stamp Act riot on 26 August, a mob went to Paxton’s home and threatened to pull it apart.

Paxton’s landlord, Thomas Palmer, came out and convinced the crowd not to harm his property. He bought them a barrel of punch at a nearby tavern. So instead those people headed to the North End and ripped apart Hutchinson’s house, among others.

In July 1766 Paxton sailed for London, nominally for his health. He happened to be in the capital when Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend proposed new tariffs and a new board to enforce them. Bostonians blamed Paxton for suggesting those measures, but there’s no evidence for that. He no doubt did lobby to be named as one of the Commissioners, and succeeded.

Thus, when Paxton arrived back in Boston on 5 Nov 1767, he had made himself into the most unpopular royal appointee in the colony. In 1768 Samuel Adams would look back on Paxton’s trip in a newspaper essay published under the name of “Candidus”:
Happy for America’s sons had mother Ocean taken him into her bosom (father Abra’m surely never will)

happy I say had it been for America, nay thrice happy for the mother country had he never reached Albion’s shore: less treasure had been expended by her; less animosity had taken place between the mother and her children; less villainy had been perpetrated here, had he never returned.
When your neighbors publicly wish you had drowned at sea for the good of the nation, you are not popular.

Another thing made Paxton a target of Boston’s crowds: he was queer.

TOMORROW: Poor Charles the Bachelor.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

How Bostonians Pledged Not to Buy Imported Goods

A few days back, I quoted from the town meeting on 28 Oct 1767 that set out Boston’s response to the Townshend Act. (That meeting is part of the inspiration for the “Devil and the Crown” public-history event in the works for this Saturday.)

That reaction took the form of printed sheets like the one above, which the selectmen were directed to distribute “among the Freeholders of this Town.” Those papers spelled out this pledge:
We therefore the Subscribers being sensible that it is absolutely necessary, in Order to extricate us out of these embarrassed and distressed Circumstances, to promote Industry, Oeconomy and Manufactures among ourselves, and by this Means prevent the unnecessary Importation of European Commodities, the excessive Use of which threatens the Country with Poverty and Ruin, DO promise and engage, to and with each other, that we will encourage the Use and Consumption of all Articles manufactured in any of the British American Colonies, and more especially in this Province; and that we will not from and after the 31st. of December next ensuing, purchase any of the following Articles, Imported from Abroad…
And below that text was lots of space for people to sign. Because a boycott like this works only if everyone participates.

A few years back, the Harvard librarian John Overholt spotted eight signed copies of this sheet in the university’s collection. He fast-tracked them for digitization, and now we can read those pages here.

Dr. Sam Forman then spearheaded an effort to transcribe all the names on the documents. As his analysis shows, fifty-two women signed the pledge. That’s about 8% of the total—a small slice, but one that shows women as business owners and consumers were part of Boston’s movement against new taxes.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

“My hair rose on end, and seemed to lift my hat from my head”

Since this is Hallowe’en, I’ll relay a story from the newspaper publisher and politician Benjamin Russell (1761-1845), who grew up in Boston before the Revolutionary War.

The printer Joseph T. Buckingham set down and published Russell’s story “as near as can be recollected”:
It was a part of my duty as an assistant in the domestic affairs of the family, to have the care of the cow. One evening, after it was quite dark, I was driving the cow to her pasturage,—the common. Passing by the burial-ground, adjoining the Stone Chapel, I saw several lights that appeared to be springing from the earth, among the graves and immediately sinking again to the ground, or expiring. To my young imagination, these lights could be nothing but ghosts. I left the cow to find her way to the common, or wherever else she pleased, and ran home at my utmost speed.

Having told my father the cause of my fright, as well as I was able, while in such a state of terror and agitation, he took me by the hand and led me directly to the spot, where the supposed ghosts were still leaping and playing their pranks near the surface of the ground. My hair rose on end, and seemed to lift my hat from my head. My flesh was chilled through to my very bones. I trembled so that I could scarcely walk. Still my father continued rapidly marching towards the spot that inspired me with so much terror.

When lo! there was a sexton, up to his shoulders in a grave, throwing out, as he proceeded in digging, bones and fragments of rotten coffins. The phosphorus in the decaying wood, blended with the peculiar state of the atmosphere, presented the appearance that had completely unstrung my nerves, and terrified me beyond description.

I was never afterwards troubled with the fear of ghosts.
So nothing to worry about, kids! Just the sexton digging up old bones and glow-in-the-dark coffins to make room for new bodies.

And since I’ll speak at Old North Church tomorrow about Revolutionary Boston’s schools, here is Buckingham on Russell’s education:
When quite a child Russell was noted for a remarkably retentive memory and more than ordinary facility in learning the tasks prescribed by his teacher. He was placed at the public school taught by Master [James] Carter, whose aptness in teaching and mildness of discipline were somewhat celebrated. Nothing was then taught in the common schools of Boston but the simplest elements of education. The tasks, that Russell had to perform, embraced nothing but easy lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
No science, history, geography, or other subjects.