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

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Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Boston Massacre as Never Seen Before

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia just opened an exhibit of Don Troiani’s paintings of the conflict.

Troiani is not only a talented realistic artist but also one of the country’s most dedicated collectors of historical clothing, weapons, and other artifacts. His work reflects the best thinking about what things really looked like at momentous moments.

WHYY just ran an interesting story about how the museum is making its Troiani exhibit more accessible to people who can’t see those details in the paintings because of limited vision.

There’s a lot in the article, and this is just part of what it says about the presentation of one painting:
The tour at the museum started with Troiani’s painting of the Boston Massacre, the first episode of violence of the American Revolution in 1770 when British soldiers opened fire on an angry rally of Boston residents.

With the help of Trish Maunder, director of Philly Touch Tours, [testers] Mayeux and Bonenfant were first shown how large the painting is, roughly 2 feet by 3 feet. Walking along the width of the painting with their fingers on the frame, they feel in their paces the scale of the work. . . .

“We are standing in this painting behind a group of British soldiers, so imagine them in their bright red coats. There’s about six inches of snow on the ground,” said Tyler Putnam, the museum’s manager of gallery interpretation, describing the painting. “We’re looking at their backs and they are surrounded by a huge crowd.”

Because the perspective of the painting is behind the line of British soldiers, the viewer cannot see their faces in favor of the opposing colonists, whose panicked faces are lit by flashes of black gunpowder explosions.

Putnam then passed around the tactile graphic papers, so Mayeux and Bonenfant could feel the layout of the painting’s composition. Created by the Braille printhouse Clovernook, the paper had been embossed with different types of textures to indicate the surrounding brick buildings, the snow on the ground, and the flashes of gunpowder. A Braille legend in an upper corner identifies what the textures represent.

Although there are several dozen figures in the painting — the crowd of colonists reaches deep into the background of the canvas — the tactile graphic had to be greatly simplified so it could be coherent to fingertips. Only six figures are in the graphic. Most of the information Troiani had put in his painting was eliminated.
The picture above shows the graphic translation of Troiani’s Massacre scene, which folks can view here.

At the left is a sword-wielding civilian, possibly town watchman Benjamin Burdick, and then sentry Pvt. Hugh White in his overcoat. Then two of the seven grenadiers and Capt. Thomas Preston. At the right is another civilian, the apothecary Richard Palmes swiping at Preston with his cane. [Incidentally, Palmes is an important figure in the new book Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth by Claire Bellerjeau and Tiffany Yecke Brooks.]

As the news story says, the tactile graphic leaves out a lot—most of the soldiers and all but two of the large crowd. The two visitors who tested this method of interpretation clearly preferred in-depth description and discussion, though of course most museums can’t provide that all the time.

As the article says, “The tactile graphics are in a trial phase.” As I think about this particular image, I think the layers might be the most important information—the line of soldiers in the foreground, then the first line of locals facing them, then the rest of the crowd, and finally the Town House and other buildings with their straight lines and angles in the background. That would require flipping through three or four tactile graphics. But it was a complex event, after all.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

“The present popular Punishment for modern delinquents”

The 6 Nov 1769 Boston Gazette carried this item at the top of its local news:
Last Thursday Afternoon a young Woman from the Country was decoyed into one of the Barracks in Town, and most shamefully abused by some of the Soldiers there:—

the Person that enticed her thither, with promises of disposing of all her marketing there (who also belonged to the Country) was afterwards taken by the Populace and several times duck’d in the Water at one of the Docks in Town; but luckily for him he made his escape from them sooner than was intended;—

however, we hear, that after he had crossed the Ferry to Charlestown, on his return home, the People there being informed of the base Part he had been acting, took him and placed him in a Cart, and after tarring and feathering him (the present popular Punishment for modern delinquents) they carted him about that Town for two or three Hours, as a Spectacle of Contempt and a Warning to others from practising such vile Artifices for the Delusion and Ruin of the virtuous and innocent:

He was then dismissed, and permitted to proceed to the Town were he belonged, for them to act with him as they should think proper.
The same text appeared word for word later that day in the Boston Evening-Post, in the middle of the local news. Then it was repeated in various out-of-town newspapers, copied from one of the Boston articles.

So far as I know, this is the only record of such an event taking place on 2 November. As a Thursday, that was indeed a market day when people from rural towns brought their goods into Boston to sell.

Unlike other tar-and-feathers attacks, such as the assault on sailor George Gailer on 28 October, there’s no mention of this mobbing in contemporary letters or diaries. None of the people involved appears to have filed a lawsuit (though it’s possible we still need to take a thorough look at Middlesex County records). I haven’t found a mention in other Boston newspapers published later that week.

This attack would be unusual in another way: All the other examples of tarring and feathering around this time involved punishing people who worked for or helped the Customs service, or broke the non-importation boycott which that agency opposed.

In contrast, this episode involved punishing a man for putting a young woman in sexual danger from soldiers. That was another way of violating community values, but on a much more local scale.

Does that suggest rural towns were inflicting similar tar-and-feather chastisements regularly? Or might Charlestown have used those materials only because the attacks on Cape Ann and in Boston a few days before had indeed made that “the present popular Punishment”?

Contrariwise, did the Boston Whig press make up this incident, or insert details like the out-of-town tar and feathers, in order to distract public attention from the well documented attack on Gailer? Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson was issuing proclamations and promises of rewards for finding the culprits in that riot. The Whigs might have seen benefits in confusing newspaper readers with a similar incident, or spreading the idea that the victim the acting governor was talking about had actually harmed a young woman.

Friday, November 05, 2021

The Road to Concord Leads to History Happy Hour, 7 Nov.

On Sunday, 7 November, I’ll be the guest on History Happy Hour, a weekly video conversation with Chris Anderson and Rick Beyer of Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours.

Folks around here remember Rick from his years in Lexington. He created the film “First Shot!: The Day the Revolution Began” and accompanying book and helped to establish the reenactment of the town’s 1773 tea-burning as an annual event. A few years back, I got to work with Rick and the Lexington Historical Society on the Buckman Tavern exhibit “#Alarmed!: 18th-Century Social Media.”

Since then Rick has moved to Chicago and published the book Rivals Unto Death about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Cohost Chris Anderson is a former editor of WWII Magazine, now based in London. He’s published numerous books about World War 2 and, in healthy times, leads tours of the European Theater.

We’re going to discuss The Road to Concord:
a tale you likely have never heard about the lead-up to the famous battles of Lexington and Concord. Discover the secret story of the role played by four stolen cannons. Both Redcoats and Patriots alike had reason to keep this hot take under wraps, and both sides succeeded well enough that the full story has never appeared until now.
I’m sure Rick will be pleased to hear that since publishing the book I’ve learned more about how Lexington was involved in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s effort to build up an artillery force by hook or crook.

Anderson and Beyer have two more discussions on Revolutionary history scheduled this month:
  • 14 November: Mike Duncan, author, Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution
  • 21 November: Andrew Roberts, author, The Last King of America, about George III
Folks can watch the conversations live on the History Happy Hour website and its Facebook page. We’re scheduled to start at 4:00 P.M. on Sunday, Boston time. Eventually the videos go up on YouTube as well.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

British Policy and the Backlash

In 1991, Sylvia Frey published Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age, mostly about the last years of the Revolutionary War.

During those years the British army operated under a policy that Gen. Sir Henry Clinton declared in the Phillipsburg Proclamation of June 1779:
I do most strictly forbid any Person to sell or claim Right over any NEGROE, the property of a Rebel, who may take Refuge with any part of this Army: And I do promise to every NEGROE who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper.
In other words, any enslaved American who made it to the British lines and claimed to have escaped from a rebel could become free, and could even help the British military forces against the Americans.

Clinton acted out of pragmatism, not ideology. He and his subordinate generals hoped that measure would encourage slave owners to remain loyal (the proclamation didn’t address Loyalists’ slaves). They wanted to harm rebel planters’ wealth and disrupt their society.

But the result, Frey argued, was that white colonists became more frightened and resentful. Men who had been mild Patriots became militant, and men who had been neutral joined the Patriots—enough to tip a largely even battle in the southern countryside in favor of the Americans. Ultimately the result was Gen. Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Clinton’s proclamation thus came back to bite him in the arse.

In 1999 Woody Holton’s Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia highlighted a similar dynamic earlier in the war. As Frey documented in an early chapter, whites in Britain’s slaveholding colonies constantly feared an uprising by the people they held in bondage. Throughout 1775 there were rumors that Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, was encouraging enslaved people to rebel against the rebels. And toward the end of the year, Dunmore made those rumors true!

While promoting a new book covering the entire Revolution, Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, Holton has been using Twitter to share many bits of evidence about those fears in 1775 and how they affected people’s thinking. He argues that white southern leaders’ fear about royal policy on slaves alienated them from the Crown and turned a significant number of them in favor of independence by early 1776.

Or in the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” essay: “…one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

Now I think that the context of that sentence in Hannah-Jones’s essay indicates she relied more on the idea that anti-slavery sentiment in Britain was a major factor and less on military developments in America. I don’t see evidence that American colonists really worried about Granville Sharp’s few followers. But many colonists, especially in the areas with large enslaved populations, did worry that royal officials would make reckless decisions that threatened their wealth and their lives. That was part of the stew that led to the July 1776 vote for independence. And later to the military victory that cemented independence.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Misreading “The 1619 Project”

As I discussed in the past couple of days, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay in “The 1619 Project” repeated a couple of common errors about the American Revolution and implied too much about anti-slavery sentiment in 1770s Britain.

But the project’s most vituperative critics focused their attention on this sentence:
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.
I see the critics as reading more into that sentence than its words require. In some cases people have obviously mischaracterized the claim, perhaps to justify their ire at the essay’s other evidence and overall argument.

If we say that one of the primary reasons the Americans decided to declare war on Great Britain in 1812 was that they hoped to annex Canada, are we saying there were no other reasons? Obviously not. The phrase “one of the primary reasons” acknowledges multiple significant motivations.

Does that same statement mean every American wanted northern expansion? I think the multiple “primary reasons” and the millions of people involved mean it’s unrealistic and uncharitable to read the sentence to mean all Americans felt the same way. There’s a clear statement that a significant number of Americans felt that motivation, but no claim to uniformity or unanimity.

I don’t recall anyone who insisted Hannah-Jones’s “the colonists” must mean “all colonists” complaining that it misrepresented the Loyalists among those colonists, even though that would be a logical result of that interpretation.

Finally, the sentence in question addressed why “the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain,” a specific step in July 1776. That independence vote is not synonymous with the American Revolution as a whole. It came after years of protests, boycotts, and riots against Parliament’s new taxes and other Crown measures; “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced,” John Adams wrote in 1818. Perhaps wrongly, we also tend to treat the Revolution as continuing until the establishment of the new federal government in 1789.

Historians emphasize how that Americans didn’t want independence from Britain when they resisted those new laws from London. Patriots didn’t call for independence even as they went to war in April 1775.

The sentence in question therefore doesn’t make claims about what motivated colonists to engage in political resistance, to set up extralegal governments, or even to start shooting at the king’s troops. It focuses on how Americans “decided to declare their independence,” a process that happened between the fall of 1775 and the spring of 1776. I’ll look at that time period tomorrow.

Some people who read “The 1619 Project” in its original form clearly didn’t like its implications. What it actually said, however, apparently wasn’t enough to justify their responses because they ended up claiming it said something else. Most notably, in a conversation with the World Socialists website in November 2019, august historian Gordon Wood stated early on:
I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans’ desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery.
Hannah-Jones wrote that slavery was “one of the primary reasons,” and Wood interpreted her as saying slavery was “primarily” the reason. Hannah-Jones wrote about the decision to declare independence; Wood turned that into “the Revolution” as a whole. Hannah-Jones wrote about Britain being “deeply conflicted” about slavery, and Wood claimed she’d said “the British were on the warpath” against it. Wood objected to a straw figure of his own making.

Under pressure from Wood, some other historians, and a lot of right-wing pundits, the New York Times publicly edited the sentence quoted above. The text changed from saying “the colonists” to “some of the colonists.” That cemented an interpretation that I think was already present; it certainly didn’t add any useful information.

Were the people who complained that that sentence implied too much satisfied with the new language? Not as far as I could see. Which suggests the actual sentence wasn’t ever the real problem.

TOMORROW: Deciding on independence.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

“Deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution”

Yesterday I shared more than a thousand words about the American Revolution from Nikole Hannah-Jones’s opening essay in “The 1619 Project,” as originally published by the New York Times.

Most of those words don’t seem to have produced any objections, at least on factual grounds.

Almost all the ire focused on these 135 words, particularly the first three sentences:
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.
I’ll discuss the first sentence tomorrow.

I see more problems with the next two sentences, about anti-slavery views in Britain. The abolition movement in that country was still in its infancy, not strong enough to make the body politic “deeply conflicted.” We might well find individual writers who felt “conflicted” in an intellectual or psychological sense, opposing the brutality of the slave trade and chattel slavery while still thinking the empire required it, at least in the short term. But it took decades for seriously deep political fissures to appear.

The British high court’s 1772 decision in Somerset v. Steuart did limit slavery—but only in Britain. While that case did become an inspiration and precedent for later anti-slavery advocates, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield made clear that his legal ruling didn’t have force over in “the Western Hemisphere.”

A few British writers followed the Somerset decision with calls to limit slavery further. In 1774 the Rev. John Wesley published Thoughts Upon Slavery, which advocated (in a footnote) an end to the slave trade and reform of labor practices in the Caribbean islands. The following year, the nine-year-old, policy-free letters between the formerly enslaved Ignatius Sancho and the bestselling novelist Laurence Sterne were published. Those were indeed part of “growing calls to abolish the slave trade” in 1770s London, but those calls were growing only because they started from nearly nothing—basically Granville Sharp’s 1769 A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery.

Left out of the paragraph above is how in the decade before the war the legislatures of two large North American colonies—Massachusetts and Virginia—voted to end the transatlantic slave trade into their ports. The royal governors vetoed those measures. Thus, the parts of the British Empire furthest along to actually barring the slave trade were two of the provinces kicking up the most resistance to the Crown. And the Massachusetts assembly repeated its vote after the Somerset decision.

Of course, some Western Hemisphere slaveowners didn’t like how the Somerset case ended. Caribbean planters had bankrolled Steuart’s defense because they worried about an adverse ruling. Despite Mansfield’s insistence, some continued to fret about a slippery-slope trend that could eventually limit the profits from their slave-labor sugar plantations.

How strong was that worry for North American colonists? In 2005 Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen wrote Slave Nation: An Unflinching Look at the Racism that Inspired the American Revolution, arguing that “racist fury over [the Somerset case] united the Northern and Southern colonies and convinced them to fight for independence.” (Their son Steven Blumrosen is credited as coauthor of the paperback edition, which might have been revised.) In 2014 Gerald Horne echoed that argument in The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America and emphasized white Americans’ fears about uprisings of the enslaved before and during the war.

All three of those authors were respected professors, though they were working outside their core specialties; the Blumrosens were experts on discrimination law while most of Horne’s books are about nineteenth- and twentieth-century history. Both titles received early praise for raising provocative and important questions about the Revolution and some prominent mainstream reviews.

In most historical journals, however, reviewers criticized the lack of evidence that leaders of the American resistance showed so much concern about the Somerset case, or any concern at all. Some pointed out how the authors had misinterpreted their eighteenth-century sources, or read backward from later abolitionist writers. However, no one argued that these books were so flawed that we should reject them entirely. They were part of an ongoing historiographical debate.

Hannah-Jones’s essay in “The 1619 Project” appears to have relied on Horne’s argument and possibly the Blumrosens’, among others. However, she stopped short of adopting their position that fear of an end to slavery because of British policy and/or uprisings was the cause, or even the main cause, of the American Revolution.

Nevertheless, some critics of “The 1619 Project” insist on misreading the paragraph above that way.

TOMORROW: Actual words.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Reading “The 1619 Project”

Two years ago the New York Times published a special issue of its Sunday magazine called “The 1619 Project.” And the historiographical disputes it kicked up are still going on.

Not only is there an expanded and revised form of that essay collection coming out as a book this season, but so are multiple books that seek to refute its argument.

Most of the negative attention has focused on project leader Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which begins, “My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard…” More particularly, on her take on the American Revolution.

I’ll quote the portions of Hannah-Jones’s original text that relate directly to the Revolution and the founding of the U.S. of A.:
Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. . . . They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. . . .

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. . . .

The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man who himself was not free. Crispus Attucks was a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century. . . .

In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson sat at his portable writing desk in a rented room in Philadelphia and penned these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the last 243 years, this fierce assertion of the fundamental and natural rights of humankind to freedom and self-governance has defined our global reputation as a land of liberty. As Jefferson composed his inspiring words, however, a teenage boy who would enjoy none of those rights and liberties waited nearby to serve at his master’s beck and call. His name was Robert Hemings, and he was the half brother of Jefferson’s wife, born to Martha Jefferson’s father and a woman he owned. It was common for white enslavers to keep their half-black children in slavery. Jefferson had chosen Hemings, from among about 130 enslaved people that worked on the forced-labor camp he called Monticello, to accompany him to Philadelphia and ensure his every comfort as he drafted the text making the case for a new democratic republic based on the individual rights of men.

At the time, one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies struggled under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before. Chattel slavery was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently. Jefferson’s fellow white colonists knew that black people were human beings, but they created a network of laws and customs, astounding for both their precision and cruelty, that ensured that enslaved people would never be treated as such. . . .

Yet in making the argument against Britain’s tyranny, one of the colonists’ favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves — to Britain. For this duplicity, they faced burning criticism both at home and abroad. As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and Tory opposed to American independence, quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.

Jefferson and the other founders were keenly aware of this hypocrisy. And so in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he tried to argue that it wasn’t the colonists’ fault. Instead, he blamed the king of England for forcing the institution of slavery on the unwilling colonists and called the trafficking in human beings a crime. Yet neither Jefferson nor most of the founders intended to abolish slavery, and in the end, they struck the passage.

There is no mention of slavery in the final Declaration of Independence. Similarly, 11 years later, when it came time to draft the Constitution, the framers carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery without ever using the word. In the texts in which they were making the case for freedom to the world, they did not want to explicitly enshrine their hypocrisy, so they sought to hide it. The Constitution contains 84 clauses. Six deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement, as the historian David Waldstreicher has written, and five more hold implications for slavery. The Constitution protected the “property” of those who enslaved black people, prohibited the federal government from intervening to end the importation of enslaved Africans for a term of 20 years, allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved and forced states that had outlawed slavery to turn over enslaved people who had run away seeking refuge.
The essay, having already discussed the arrival of enslaved Africans at Jamestown in 1619, then went on to address the ante-bellum period, the Civil War, the backlash against Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and finally the civil rights movement. The extracts I’ve quoted total more than 1,000 words, and they’re just one part of this essay, which in turn was just one essay in “The 1619 Project.”

Almost immediately, in August 2019, the magazine noted that this essay had made a common error in saying the Declaration of Independence was “signed” on 4 July 1776. Well, the text was signed that day, but only by Continental Congress chairman John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to signify that the body had approved it.

When we talk about the Declaration signing, we usually mean when dozens of delegates put their names on the handsome, widely reproduced handwritten copy. That process started on 2 August. So the Times scrupulously changed “signed on July 4” to “approved on July 4” and noted the correction, as good news outlets do.

I would also change the statement “The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man,…Crispus Attucks.” Young Christopher Seider was killed eleven days earlier in violence arising directly from Boston’s effort to resist the Townshend duties. Forgetting him is another very common error.

In addition, while Attucks surely had African ancestry, eyewitnesses saw as much or more Native ancestry in his appearance; they referred to him as “the mulatto” or even “the Indian.” Attucks might well be considered “black” today. Nonetheless, I think we shouldn’t omit his full heritage nor forget the European conquest of the Americas began well before the establishment of chattel slavery on those continents.

Neither of those details was what in these thousand words kicked up so much controversy, however.

TOMORROW: Primary reasons.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Britain’s Forty American Colonies

This month I listened in on some of the sessions of the American Philosophical Society’s “Meanings of Independence” conference.

One of the panelists was Prof. Holly Brewer of the University of Maryland, author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority, published in 2005 and winner of three major prizes in the specialty of legal history.

Brewer mentioned her growing website on “Slavery, Law, and Power” in the Revolutionary period. As a taste of the features on that site, here’s a map of the British Empire in the Americas at the time of the Revolution, labeling all the colonies.

In recent years it’s become common to note that there were twenty-six British colonies in North America, so the thirteen mainland colonies that broke away were only half of the total. I’ve used the number twenty-six myself. It came up in the debate between Woody Holton and Gordon Wood that I also listened to this month and will discuss later.

However, Brewer counts forty British colonies, large and small, on that map. Her explanation of that count, which appears under the teal button with the horizontal line segments, begins: “Note that it is surrounded by a question of whether to count each colony separately or to count administrative units. I vote for the latter, since the 13 colonies that rebelled would be only 9 administrative units if counted separately. If we count them as 13, then the entire number should be 40.” 

And those forty colonies are—

The thirteen colonies that rebelled (if going by administrative units, the four New England colonies are one, and Delaware disappears into Pennsylvania)
  • Massachusetts (including Maine, of course)
  • New Hampshire
  • Connecticut
  • Rhode Island
  • New York (including Vermont, though New Hampshire would disagree)
  • New Jersey (East and West Jersey were united in 1702)
  • Pennsylvania
  • Delaware (had its own legislature but shared a governor with Pennsylvania and was considered part of that unit until 1776)
  • Maryland
  • Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia
Canada: six
  • Cape Breton Island
  • Newfoundland
  • Nova Scotia
  • Prince Edward Island
  • Quebec
  • Rupert’s Land
Other North American mainland (Brewer counted only the two Floridas as colonies since the West was supposed to be off-limits to British settlers) 
  • East Florida
  • West Florida
  • West (Indian Territory), after 1763 a separate unit
Leeward Islands (based on administrative structure it’s possible to group these islands, but each had a separate assembly)
  • St. Christophers
  • Antigua
  • Barbuda
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Montserrat
  • Nevis
South Caribbean Islands
  • St. Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Tobago
  • Dominica
  • Grenada
Jamaica & Islands
  • Jamaica
  • Bay Islands (administered by Jamaica)
  • British Honduras (administered by Jamaica)
  • Cayman Islands (administered by Jamaica)


Mosquito Coast

St. Lucia


Saturday, October 30, 2021

What Colonial Americans Could Read about Ventilators

The last two days’ fascinating discussion of ship ventilators was based on papers and nineteenth-century books that relied mostly on the pamphlets published by the inventors themselves or their supporters.

Naturally, those inventors came across as intelligent and progressive, hampered by irrational opponents, and ultimately vindicated through their own insight and perseverance.

I decided to check newspapers in colonial America to see if they’d said anything about ventilating ships in the same years. How far did word of those inventions travel?

The London news in the 27 Nov 1746 Pennsylvania Journal included this item:
Sept. 23. There are Letters from Capt. Thompson, and the Commanding Officer, on board the Success Frigate, now in Plymouth Sound, with the Recruits bound for Georgia, in which they write, that all the Persons on board, who are near 300, are healthy, and have not had the Sickness with which the other Vessels have been afflicted; which they chiefly attribute to the Ventilators which are fixed in that ship by the Order of General [James] Oglethorpe, which they say entirely prevents the hot sickly Smell which is generally found when great Numbers are on board.

They also say, that the Men are so sensible of the usefulness of them, that they require no driving to work that Instrument, from which they receive so much Benefit.
The fact that men needed to work those ventilators suggests they were the Rev. Dr. Stephen Hales’s design.

Oglethorpe’s reputation was under attack that year because he’d failed to trap a Jacobite force in December 1745. So any piece of good news helped.

The 14 Sept 1749 Boston News-Letter carried this London article dated 27 June:
The Ventilators invented by the Rev. Dr. Hales being daily more and more experienced to be of great advantage…; the good Dr, by desire of the secretary of war, was this day at the Savoy prison to direct a proper place for erecting a large ventilator. One of these useful machines is also fixing in each of the transport ships, which are to carry 500 Germans to the British plantations, so that ’tis not questioned but this invention will be brought into general use in the navy——

For though a ship may not be crowded with slaves and passengers, or laden with corn, in which case the ventilators have been chiefly recommended preferably to all other methods; yet being worked but half an hour in each day, into the hold, they will be of very considerable benefit, by introducing fresh, and send out the foul damp air, which rots the timber.
It took a few more years before the Royal Navy did make ventilators standard equipment.

Meanwhile, Hales had added another technological innovation, according to a report reprinted in Benjamin Franklin’s 15 Oct 1751 Pennsylvania Gazette:
We hear, that two Pair of large Ventilators, under the Direction of Dr. Hales, are now placing, on each other, on the lower Deck of the Sheerness, at Deptford; which being work’d by small Windmills fixed on the upper Deck, blow at the Rate of 7000 Tons of Air in an Hour into the closed Hold; whence it is conveyed thro’ the Seams of the Ceiling or Lining of the Hold, up to the Top of the Gunwell; with Intent to keep the Ship wholesome, and preserve the Timbers and Planks from decaying.
This seems to refer to H.M.S. Sheerness, launched in 1743. If Hales couldn’t convince the navy to install ventilators for the benefit of the men, he could tout the benefits to the ships themselves.

(The picture above shows the windmill installed in 1752 to power Hales’s ventilators in Newgate Prison.)

Friday, October 29, 2021

“Dr. Hale’s Ventilators shall be placed on board every Ship”

In 1741, the same year that Samuel Sutton convinced the Royal Navy to test his system for ventilating warships, the Rev. Stephen Hales (shown here) started to promote his own method, using bellows.

Two years later, as naval officials sent Sutton on his way, Hales published A Description of the Ventilators: Whereby Great Quantities of Fresh Air May with Ease Be Conveyed into Mines, Gaols, Hospitals, Work-Houses and Ships, in Exchange for Their Noxious Air. He cultivated acquaintances like Frederick, Prince of Wales, and navy captain Edward Boscawen.

Like Sutton, Hales managed to demonstrate his system for Sir Jacob Acworth, Surveyor of the Royal Navy. Acworth appears to have been more polite to Hales, a respectable clergyman, than to coffeehouse-owner Sutton. But in the end the Surveyor’s decision was the same: he opposed both inventions.

Acworth, born around 1687, had been a leading ship-builder for the navy before joining the Admiralty. He apparently believed he knew everything about designing warships. For ventilation he trusted the “wind-sail,” a cloth rigged over a hatchway to divert moving air downward into the ship.

Sutton and Hales both pointed out that method worked only if air was already moving briskly across the ship. Their systems, they insisted, could ventilate belowdecks even when there was no wind.

Those men were not the first to make that argument to Acworth. Back in 1734 the engineer John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683-1744) said the same as he demonstrated his system for ventilation using fans, like those he had installed in the houses of Parliament. But Acworth had insisted on running a test during a windy day in 1740 and then pointed out how the wind-sails had worked better.

The Royal Navy went through the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) without ventilated warships. In two months of the 1741 siege of Cartagena, the military lost thousands of men to diseases, many of them blamed (in some cases even accurately) on unhealthy air. But the Admiralty refused to adopt new technology.

Finally, Britain’s naval inventors had a breakthrough. In 1749 Sir Jacob Acworth died. Sutton died the same year, so he couldn’t take advantage of new opportunities. Desaguliers was already dead. But Hales was still pushing his ideas.

In 1754 war broke out again in North America. The following year Boscawen, now a vice admiral and member of Parliament, led a squadron of warships against the French, capturing two ships off Newfoundland. Since one of those ships was carrying £80,000 in pay, that was a good day for Adm. Boscawen. But soon his fleet was crippled by an epidemic, and he had to put into Halifax.

In 1756 Adm. Boscawen took command of H.M.S. Royal George, the largest warship in the world. He lobbied to have Hales’s ventilators installed on board to keep the crew healthy. Though that system required men to pump the bellows, labor was plentiful aboard a large warship.

Dr. Joseph J. Krulder quoted the results of this experiment from the 20 Aug 1756 Daily Advertiser:
We hear that Admiral Boscawen having wrote to the Lords of the Admiralty, to acquaint them of great Healthiness of the Crew of the Royal George, owing to Dr. Hale’s [ventilators] on board that Ship, and the different Condition of those on board every other Ship in his Fleet, which have had from forty to a hundred and twenty sick at a Time, their Lordships have been pleased to order that Dr. Hale’s Ventilators shall be placed on board every Ship in his Majesty’s Navy.
Meanwhile, private ships had been adopting one or another of the ventilation systems then on offer. Owners of slave ships were particularly ready to make the investment in order to be able to pack as much human cargo into their crowded holds as possible.

Another relatively early adopter was the French navy. The Encyclopédie of 1765 stated: “Le célébre M. Hales, un des grands physiciens de ce siècle et un des mieux intentionnés pour le bien public, a inventé un ventilateur d’un usage presque universel.” The famous Mr. Hales, one of the great physicists of the century and one of the most motivated for the public good, invented a ventilator in almost universal use.

In fact, Hales’s system wasn’t as efficient or novel as Sutton’s. So this story shows the importance of connections in forcing technical change. And of outlasting the people who insist on standing in the way.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

“A New Method for Extracting the Foul Air out of Ships”

As the Royal Navy expanded in the early eighteenth century, its leaders became more concerned about shipboard illnesses.

Warships carried big crews, not only all the men needed to sail those large ships but extra men to fight other ships and to take them over as prize vessels. All those people living in close proximity belowdecks, taking turns in the bunks and hammocks, were easy prey for diseases.

According to the latest medical thinking, the biggest threat was bad air. Doctors declared that was the cause of typhus (actually a bacterial disease), scurvy (actually a dietary deficiency), and more. And given how badly some ships smelled, that seemed like an obvious theory.

As Arnold Zuckerman related in a 1976 article in Eighteenth-Century Studies, in 1741 two Englishmen came forward with plans for shipboard ventilators, which would ostensibly remove the bad air from below decks and produce a healthier environment. Those men were:
  • Rev. Stephen Hales (1677-1761), which envisioned a system of bellows worked by pumps.
  • Samuel Sutton (d. 1749), a brewer and coffeehouse owner who had a good technical mind; his system used tubes full of warm air expanding naturally from the oven in the galley.
(A third inventor, the Swedish military architect Martin Triewald, produced his own system the same year. It used bellows, like Hale’s.)

Sutton described his idea to naval officers in his coffeehouse, only to hear one of them talk about him “as being really mad, and out of my senses.” He finally got an appointment with the Surveyor of the Navy, Sir Jacob Acworth, who kept him waiting for long periods and then declared, “no experiment should be made, if he could hinder it.”

The inventor sought help from Dr. Richard Mead (1673-1754, shown above), a royal physician. Mead was impressed. He introduced Sutton to the president of the Royal Society, read a paper about the brewer’s invention to that society, and later helped Sutton publish a pamphlet on his system. Mead used his connections to appeal to the Admiralty.

In September 1741, Sutton demonstrated his ventilation system to naval officials on a hulk at Deptford. That went well enough that in November the Royal Navy authorized him to install the tubes on H.M.S. Norwich, about to sail to Africa and the Caribbean. The tropical region was, of course, known to be ridden with disease.

For the next year, Sutton kept hoping to receive good news, and a payment, from the Admiralty. But he heard nothing. Not until the end of 1743 did the agency reply to his inquiries. And then it turned out the captain of the Norwich had reported two things. First, he’d had trouble getting all the ventilator tubes to work right. Second:
I was not able to judge of their use, having been so healthy as to bury only two men all the time I was on the coast.
The Royal Navy wouldn’t support a system designed to keep sailors from getting sick because too many sailors had stayed well.

TOMORROW: Vindication for ventilation.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Expanding “Eleven Names Project”

Wayne Tucker began the Eleven Names Project, as he wrote on his website, to look into people documented as enslaved to the Dudleys of Roxbury, including a Massachusetts governor and a chief justice, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

By 1826, Tucker found, a crossroads in Roxbury was being called “Dudley Square” after the prominent family that once lived there. The Boston city government officially adopted that name around the turn of the next century, during the Colonial Revival.

In 1910 there was a proposal to name the square after Edward Everett Hale because no official “Dudley” signs had ever gone up. As if New Englanders need road signs! The Boston city council decreed that locals knew that place was Dudley Square and, more or less, that anyone who didn’t already know that didn’t really belong there.

Over the next century the surrounding neighborhood changed to become largely African-American. In December 2019, following a vote in nearby precincts, the city changed the area’s official name to Nubian Square. The Dudley family’s ties to slavery, both making it legal in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and practicing it, were factors in that decision.

Recently Tucker has expanded his research into tracking another set of enslaved people through the archives, those enslaved to two prominent men in Abington:
  • The Rev. Samuel Brown (1687-1749), the town’s first minister and a traditional “Old Light.”
  • Josiah Torrey (1720-1783), a wealthy farmer who married Brown’s widow and then married the widow of Brown’s successor.
Because Torrey’s death and will coincide with the Massachusetts high court’s decision to render slavery unenforceable in the state, the fates of this group of people also show how the local institution broke down.

Thus, Tucker writes about one mother and son:
Besse Goold was born into slavery on Reverend Brown’s farm in 1734 to the abovesaid Cesar and Flora; from whence the Goold surname came, it is unknown. Besse would in turn bear a child in 1759 named Brister Goold while living in bondage at the Torrey farm.

A search of probate file archives yields Josiah Torrey’s original 1783 will, said to be in his handwriting. Directly under a £3 donation to the Congregational church, he returns Besse her stolen freedom. Below that, we see Torrey returns the freedom of Brister upon his 25th birthday, which fell a year later in December of 1784. Surprisingly, Torrey further bequeaths Brister 15 acres of land.

Abington’s vital records show that Brister died in 1823, aged 63, where he is categorized as “a person of color”; luckily, his will survives in the archive, too. We see that he still owned property left to him by Torrey and that his widow Phebe is executrix of his estate.
The stories that Tucker has pieced together about Brister Goold, his wife Phebe Wamsley, and their children include preserved Native traditions, service in the Revolutionary War, and of course (given the nature of these sources) small-town bureaucracy.

That’s a reward of digging into the lives of ordinary people in New England communities: following all the connections eventually unearths a range of stories connected to nearly every part of society and nearly every endeavor.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

“A large Collection of interesting Papers”

In 1843, the London bookselling firm of Thomas Thorpe issued its catalogue of manuscripts for sale, “Upon Papyrus, Vellum, and Paper, in Various Languages.”

Among those items was “A large Collection of interesting Papers, formed by the late George Chalmers, Esq., relating to New England, from 1635 to 1780, in 4 vols. folio, neatly bound in calf, £21.”

Chalmers (1742-1825, shown here) was born in Scotland and at age twenty-one settled in Maryland as a young lawyer. In early 1776 he published Plain Truth, a point-by-point riposte to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. That went over so well that Chalmers soon moved back to Britain.

In 1780 Chalmers published Political Annals of the Present United Colonies from Their Settlement to the Peace of 1763. Or rather, he published the first volume of documents about the colonial governments, tracing the history up to 1688, but never produced the second.

In 1786 Chalmers became a secretary to Britain’s privy council, and he kept that postion for decades. It provided him with the income and access he needed to collect manuscripts and write books and pamphlets about the history of Scotland, Shakespeare, other authors, controversial issues of the day, and much more.

In 1796, as Britain fought Revolutionary France, the government paid Chalmers to write a critical biography of Paine. He issued that under the pseudonym of Francis Oldys, supposedly a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. Otherwise, he focused mainly on British topics, particularly the long history of Scotland.

Nevertheless, Chalmers’s manuscript collection shows that he never gave up on accumulating material about the old North American colonies. After his death, his papers went to a nephew, and two years after that man died in 1841, they were on the market.

Here’s a sample of what the collection included from the Revolutionary years, according to the bookseller’s catalogue:
  • Various papers relating to the paper currency in the colonies, 1740-60.
  • Account of the dispute at New London, at the burial of a corpse, 1764.
  • List of graduates in Harvard College, who have made any figure in the world.
  • Part of Mr. Otes’s speech in the general assembly at Boston, in 1768.
  • Autograph letter from W. Molineux, relating to the riots at Boston, 1768.
  • Letters relating to the seizure of the sloop Liberty, 1768, very curious.
  • Information of Richard Silvester, of the speeches of the Boston leaders, 1769.
  • Declaration of Nathaniel Coffin to Governor J. [sic] Bernard, on the designs to drive off the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, 1769.
  • Key to the characters published in the Boston Chronicle of Oct. 26, 1769, (The Boston patriots characterized.)
  • Autograph letter from George Mason, containing an account of the riot and attack of Mr. Mein’s house, 1769.
  • Copy of a curious letter from Boston, relating to Franklin’s duplicity, &c. 1769.
  • Autograph letters from John Mein and George Mason to Joseph Harrison, concerning the riot at Boston, 1769.
  • Papers relating to the outrage on Owen Richards, an officer of the customs at Boston, 1770.
  • Copy of a letter from Lord Dartmouth to Dr. Benjamin Franklin, about presenting a remonstrance of the court to the king, 1773.
  • Account of the proceedings of Governor Hutchinson, relating to Massachusetts, &c., 52 pages, 1774.
  • Account of an attack that happened on His Majesty’s troops, by a number of the people of the province of Massachusetts Bay, 1775.
It looks like Chalmers obtained many of those documents from Joseph Harrison, a Boston-based Customs official, or his estate.

Prof. Jared Sparks (1799-1866) of Harvard College must have seen the bookseller’s listing. He apparently arranged for the college library to buy some of Chalmers’s papers in 1847 while he bought others for himself, leaving them to the library on his death. Thus, the papers listed above are now at the Houghton Library and digitized as part of the university’s Colonial North America project.

Monday, October 25, 2021

More Podcast Pickings

Here are a couple more podcast reports from this weekend’s listening.

At Mainely History, Ian Saxine welcomed Sara Georgini of the Adams Papers for a discussion of John Adams’s work in the 1760s and early 1770s as an attorney. During those years Adams regularly traveled to the county courts in Maine and represented the powerful Kennebec Proprietors in their many lawsuits.

The Pownalborough Court House, built in the late 1760s and shown here, was one of the places Adams argued. It was also, Saxine states, an artifact of the Proprietors’ bid for influence and profits.

I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing something Saxine said in this conversation because it speaks to the interpretation of legal sources, with their particular rules and rituals:
One aspect of the writs that I thought was worth mentioning, especially since listeners who haven’t seen these sources would be surprised and confused, is that a lot of the way the writs work is that if you’re going to allege that something happened or accuse somebody of something you can’t bring up the evidence later on, and so these writs initially will just accuse the object of everything under the sun within this general umbrella.

So if you’re charging somebody with trespassing, you have to say, “And Sara Georgini did with force of arms did forcibly and willingly trespass, breaking down my fences…” Even if I know you did none of those things, but you still trespassed, just in case we find out that any of those things happened in the case, we need to go out and say it in the writ because otherwise we can’t bring it up. . . .

I know as a grad student I was thinking like, “Oh, my gosh! This is such a violent place! Everybody’s ‘through force of arms’ everythinging” because I was looking at a lot of trespass suits. And then I learned, no, no, this is just the language they used.
Georgini reports that Adams was conscientious about protecting his clients’ privileges and privacy. Therefore, as open as his family letters and diaries were, he rarely complained about the people he was working for or the weakness of their cases. More’s the pity.

Another interesting perspective came through in History Extra’s conversation with Ian Keable on his book The Century of Deception: The Birth of the Hoax in Eighteenth-Century England.

Keable is not just a historical researcher (and not just a chartered accountant), but a professional magician and mindreader. He thus brought a practiced eye to interpreting the witnesses who declared that, for example, Mary Toft couldn’t possibly have deceived anyone about giving birth to rabbits since they were watching her the whole time. Keable knows all too well how easily those people could be misdirected and fooled.