Posts Tagged ‘myths’
As shown yesterday, on 1 Nov 1765 Bostonians hung an effigy of John Huske from Liberty Tree. Most histories say this was based on the mistaken notion that Huske had proposed the Stamp Act in Parliament when in fact he had opposed it.
A lot of Bostonians knew Huske. He was a son of Ellis Huske, postmaster of Boston and chief justice of New Hampshire. He was named for an uncle who became a prominent general. After being born in Portsmouth, the young Huske moved to Boston for schooling and to begin his career in business.
In 1748 Huske headed to London to make his fortune. He seems to have done that in several ways over the next two decades, losing his money an equal number of times. He also went into politics, attaching himself to Charles Townshend. His campaigning in the district of Hull in 1757 prompted a letter to a duke that said:
Mr. Huske finding that he could make no impression even upon the mob which I had secured, and which he expected great matters from, thought it yesterday most prudent to retire which saved us the trouble of throwing him into the Humber
In 1763, Huske finally got elected to the House of Commons from Maldon.
As a native of America and a merchant doing business with the colonies, Huske often spoke in Parliament about American policy. Some people were more impressed than others. Horace Walpole called him “a wild, absurd man.” He had a lot of ideas, but he wasn’t close enough to the Grenville administration for most people to pay attention to them.
The chancellor of the Exchequer at first proposed it as a measure to take place this sessions, but Mr. Alderman [William] Beckford and Mr. Huske signifying their wish to have the colonies apprized of the intention of Parliament, Mr. Grenville readily acquiesced, declaring it was far from his inclination to press any measure upon any part of the dominions without giving them time to be heard, should they have objections thereto.
Thus, rather than proposing the Stamp Act, Huske actually helped to delay it for a year.
In August 1764, Huske sent a letter to his brother-in-law Edmund Quincy, Jr. (1726-1782), who published it in the 29 Oct 1764 Boston Gazette. It was a reply to “the Committee of Merchants in Boston” who had addressed him about the state of trade the previous February, and was long enough to take up a full page of the paper.
In that letter Huske lamented the Sugar Act and warned that a Stamp Act was likely to pass in Parliament’s upcoming session. He asked the Massachusetts merchants to send any him information he could use to argue against it: “why the provincial stamp did not succeed with you and at New-York;…with every reason you can assign against the establishment of a general stamp duty throughout America.”
Huske blamed “the indiscreet conversation of some Americans, who deny the rights of Kings, Lords and Commons, to impose such a tax on America.” Raising that argument had forced the ministry’s hand, he suggested; the only way for them to confirm Parliament’s sovereignty across the whole Empire now was to enact just such “an inland tax.”
Huske then went to grumble about “the principal author and abettor of this mushroom policy” becoming known “as the person to whom the colonists are indebted for the postponing of the Stamp duty.” He wrote opaquely about “the other undiscerning American he has drawn into the adoption of his sentiments,” and of yet “another Gentleman” whom Americans saw “as their honestest, ablest, firmest, and most successful friend.” All that suggests there was a lot of jockeying, and some backstabbing, among the men in London who claimed to represent American interests. Huske obviously wanted his Massachusetts correspondents to give him more credit for the Stamp Act’s delay.
However, Huske had apparently made his own proposal for raising revenue in North America. According to James Harris’s notes on parliamentary speeches, on 31 Jan 1764 Huske had “proposed an entire new bill of his own—a capitation tax, I think—to be extended through Scotland, Ireland and America.” That’s another term for a poll tax, and it would have hit every free adult male on top of the colonies’ own poll taxes. A few days after that speech, someone wrote to Boston warning that Huske was not “standing an advocate for his injured Country” but had “officiously proposed…a tax on the Colonies.”
Thus, although John Huske was an opponent of the Stamp Act, he was a proponent of imperial taxes on American colonists. Indeed, his proposal would have directly affected more householders than the Stamp Act. Bostonians were receiving contradictory messages from Huske and other correspondents in London, which might have reinforced an existing idea that he was an ambitious, devious man who could play to both sides.
So was it fair or unfair for Bostonians to hang Huske in effigy from Liberty Tree?
He also returned to the moment hundreds of pages later, when Rutledge was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and chairing its Committee of Detail (which Barry called by a different name):
At the first meeting of the Drafting Committee, on the morning of July 27, in Independence Hall, Rutledge, as chairman, drew from his pocket a parchment, which had never been referred to in the Convention or by any of the delegates outside, and read it aloud.
It was a replica of the constitution of the Treaty of the Five Nations (the Iroquois) of 1520. Rutledge read what the Indians had written more than two and a half centuries before: “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity and order. . . .”
The chairman made no speech. He merely read the dry, quaint, and archaic words of the Indian parchment. The inference lay in the act. [Charles] Pinckney, [James] Madison, [William] Paterson, and the others had gone back through England and Greece. The fruit of their research lay to hand in the documents on the table. They would be utilized. But for the first brief moment Rutledge was saying to his committee, in effect: We are American, of this soil and none other.
Barry’s citations offer no source for this anecdote, and we skeptical readers shouldn’t accept such claims without evidence. As I noted yesterday, Barry’s statement that Rutledge had discussed the Iroquois form of government with Sir William Johnson in October 1765 doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Furthermore, words on “a parchment” wasn’t how the Iroquois Great Law of Peace worked. The Five Nations hadn’t “written” anything in 1520 (or in whatever year they allied); they didn’t have a written language yet. Wampum belts served as memory aids for the agreement but didn’t preserve exact language. English interpretations of the Great Law of Peace don’t start with “We, the people,…” but with the first-person voice of Dekanawidah, the Great Peacemaker.
Finally, Rutledge’s Committee of Detail didn’t even draft the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the part that starts “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”—phrasing supposedly adapted from that mythical Iroquois parchment. The first draft of the Preamble came out of the Committee on Style and Arrangement weeks later.
The gaping holes in Barry’s story didn’t stop Charles L. Mee, Jr., from repeating it briefly in The Genius of the People (1987), a popular history of the Constitution. Donald A. Grindé and Bruce E. Johansen then used that “evidence” in their argument in Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of American Democracy (1991) that the example of the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the Founders of the U.S. of A.
The popularity of that thesis in some circles appears in turn to have inspired Joy Hakim to go back to Barry’s book for the tale of Rutledge and Johnson, which she retold in A History of US: From Colonies to Country. That school textbook, published by Oxford University Press, is well regarded. It does a good job of getting beyond traditional power structures to tell the story of the whole American nation. However, in this instance the author was misled by a biographer who had just made stuff up.
As quoted yesterday, Richard Barry’s 1942 biography of John Rutledge described in dramatic detail how that South Carolina jurist met Sir William Johnson (shown at right, in red), the British Empire’s representative to the Six Nations.
Barry directly quoted Johnson’s joke about the congress, but he didn’t provide any specific citations for those words. Instead, his notes were general, pointing to the Thomas Addis Emmett Collection on the Stamp Act Congress in the New York Public Library, the Laurens Papers at the Long Island Historical Society [now at the Kendall Whaling Museum], and the Rutledge Family Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
But we don’t have to go through all those archives to check Barry’s story. We can look at Sir William Johnson’s papers in the New York state library. In 1909 the state published a Calendar, or chronological list, of that correspondence. Two years later, that institution suffered a disastrous fire. In the 1920s, New York published transcripts of the surviving Johnson documents.
Both the Calendar of the Sir William Johnson Manuscripts and the published correspondence show that in October 1765 Johnson was writing letters from Albany and from his home at Johnson Hall, another hundred miles farther from New York City. He was nowhere near the Stamp Act Congress. (One of Sir William’s sons was in New York on 12 October, heading to Britain, according to a letter by John Watts.)
Furthermore, there’s no mention of a large body of Native American men camping north of New York in the city newspapers for that month. Merchant Thomas Ellison wrote a series of letters about events in the city that year, and the Iroquois didn’t come up.
Barry’s book turns out to be full of other refutable claims, stories without evidence, and outlandish interpretations. When he wrote John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (University of Georgia Press, 1997), James Haw wrote: “The only previous biography of John Rutledge, Richard Barry’s Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, is unreliable. I have followed the advice of Professor George C. Rogers, Jr., to ignore Barry’s book.”
TOMORROW: And yet the Rutledge-Johnson meeting is in a respected textbook today.
It comes from the pages of Richard Barry’s Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, a biography of delegate John Rutledge (shown here) published in 1942.
The day after Rutledge put up at the Kings Arms Inn, New York was startled by the arrival of two hundred Indians, heavily armed, but without war paint and in holiday attire. They came down the Albany Post Road as the retinue of Sir William Johnson, High Commissioner of His Majesty to the Six Nations, who was arriving from his castle a hundred miles beyond Albany for his annual visit.
John Rutledge hired a coach and rode out to the Mohawk camp to call on Sir William. As Rutledge entered the tent of the High Commissioner, nude red braves, Seneca warriors, lifted the flap. The visitor had never seen such native males, sleek, alert, silent.
“I see you’ve come to comb the King’s hair!” Sir William shouted as he greeted the young southerner. “Good! Only don’t take his wig off!” He laughed uproariously.
After they had talked a while, Rutledge wanted to know about the operation of the Hodenosenee, the parliament of the Six Nations. Sir William explained: each nation was sovereign internally, but externally, especially in war, the council of sachems was supreme; this gave individuality to six nations, yet they had the united strength of one; the autocratic power granted the chiefs in war was for limited periods and was not hereditary.
“If England is ever to become a great nation,” the High Commissioner summed up, “she must go to school to the Iroquois. The Six Nations control this continent, not by accident, but through the triumph of their science of government. If it had a chance their system could master Europe—or the world.“
Rutledge eventually chaired the congress’s committee to write a petition to the House of Lords, one of three documents it created. His biographer therefore claimed that “JR caused George III to repeal the Stamp Act.” As you might guess, Barry did not have a high threshold of evidence for what he wrote about Rutledge.
In fact, that story about Rutledge, Johnson, and the Iroquois visitors in New York is complete bunkum.
TOMORROW: Negotiating the burden of proof.
A couple of years ago, I attended a seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society on a paper by Prof. Mary Sarah Bilder of Boston College Law School. She had been studying James Madison’s record of the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787.
That in itself wasn’t unusual; Madison’s notes, first published in 1840, have become the standard source on what happened in those discussions. For folks who take an “originalist” stance to legal interpretations, they’re crucial to what the Founders supposedly meant.
Bilder had focused not on Madison’s record but on how that record had changed since 1787, as revealed by surviving notes and versions copied out by other people in the meantime. The result is the new book Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention.
In this History News Network article, Bilder laid out the basis of her book:
To a remarkable degree, Madison’s revised Notes created the narrative we inherit of the Convention. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the Convention. They rely on one manuscript: Madison’s Notes. In 1840, after Madison’s death, Dolley Madison published his Notes. They remain the authority for scholars, historians, journalists, lawyers, and judges.
Madison’s Notes are the only source that covers every day of the Convention from May 14 to September 17, 1787. No other source depicts the Convention as Madison’s Notes do: as a political drama, with compelling characters, lengthy discourses on political theories, crushing disappointments, and seemingly miraculous successes. The Notes are, as the Library of Congress catalogs them, properly considered a “Top Treasure” of the American people.
But the Notes do not date in their entirety to the summer of 1787. They are covered in revisions. This fact is known–but the number is a shock. When I saw the manuscript in the conservation lab at the Library of Congress—in the aptly named Madison Building—the additions appear in various ink shades, with handwriting, some youthful, some with the shake of Madison’s later years. Madison even added slips of paper with longer revisions. . . .
Madison’s Notes were revised as he changed his understanding about the Convention, the Constitution, and his own role. Madison’s Notes were originally taken as a legislative diary for himself and likely Thomas Jefferson. They tracked his political ideas, his strategies, and the positions of allies and opponents. The original Notes reflected what Madison cared about.
I love talking about the Notes with students because they know that one cannot take notes of oneself speaking. When they are called on, they either leave their notes blank or they compose that section later, reflecting what they realized afterwards was the right answer. Madison’s own speeches are thus the most troubling in terms of reliability. In fact, in the years immediately after the Convention, he likely replaced several of the sheets containing his speeches in order to distance himself from statements that became controversial. . . .
Beginning in 1789, Madison began to revise the Notes to convert his diary into a record of debates. Along the way, he converted himself into a different Madison. In the original Notes, Madison was annoyed and frustrated. Slowly by altering a word here, a phrase there, he became a moderate, dispassionate observer and intellectual founder of the Constitution.
One particular area of evolution was Madison’s idea of how much control the federal government had over the states. He went into the convention with the idea that the national government should have a veto over state laws, but that idea was unpopular enough that his notes preserve no record of such a suggestion. Of course, Madison continued to change his thinking about the balance of power between state and nation from the late 1780s to the mid-1810s, depending on his circumstances.
Madison’s role in promoting slavery is often overlooked because historians have relied on Madison’s revised version of his record of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, known to historians as Madison’s Notes. They are the most important source for what happened at the Constitutional Convention. In two comments Madison recorded in his Notes, he spoke against slavery at the Convention. They are the only two times in the Notes he claims to have spoken against slavery. Both occasions occur on August 25. No other delegates’ notes from the Convention contain a single word indicating that Madison was opposed to slavery.
New evidence suggests that Madison composed his anti-slavery comments two years after it appeared he had written them. Madison did not finish the Notes until after the Convention, and he wrote the Notes from August 22 to September 17 after the fall of 1789. Curiously, one of the sentences Madison attributes to himself bears a strange resemblance to a statement that he had originally recorded another delegate, Maryland’s Luther Martin, making on August 21.
Madison was the delegate who suggested enumerating enslaved people not as property but as three-fifths of people, the basis of what became known as the “slave power” in ante-bellum America.
Recent news about the Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard College included the detail that it claimed Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams as alumni. And indeed it does, listing at the head of its list of notable past members:
John Adams, 1775
Attended First Continental Congress; Signed Declaration of Independence; First US Vice President, 1789; Second US President, 1796
John Quincy Adams, 1788
US Senator; Secretary of State under President James Monroe; Sixth US President, 1825-1829; US Representative
The two President Adamses’ portraits appear also prominently on the club’s overview page.
That seemed odd to me. The Harvard and Massachusetts rules against theatricals in the Adamses’ time weren’t the issue since the Hasty Pudding Club’s activities didn’t coalesce around theater until the mid-1800s.
Rather, it’s the question of dates. John Adams was at Harvard College from 1751 to 1755 and later earned an M.A. in 1758 while teaching school and studying the law. His son attended the college from 1784 to 1787 and received his M.A. in 1790. (M.A.’s were pretty informal back then.) So right away there’s a question of how those dates for the Adamses’ inductions match their careers at Harvard College.
And those dates match the society’s history. The Hasty Pudding Club was founded in 1795. So it couldn’t have inducted members, even honorary ones from the college alumni, twenty and seven years before.
As an undergraduate in the class of 1787, John Quincy Adams did join a speaking club that eventually became known as the Institute of 1770, after its founding date. That merged with the Hasty Pudding Club in 1925, so the combined organization can claim that President as an alumnus—if its history acknowledged that he was actually in the speaking club. But his father, John Adams, still doesn’t even appear on the rolls of the Institute.
I found a catalogue of Hasty Pudding members from 1867 which does indeed list John Adams and John Quincy Adams. However, those young men were both less distinguished grandsons of the Presidents with the same names:
Yesterday I quoted Phillis Wheatley’s “Ode to Neptune,” published in London in 1773 with the subtitle “On Mrs. W——’s Voyage to England” and dateline “Boston, October 10, 1772.”
For readers seeking to identify “Mrs. W——,” the poem offers some internal clues:
- Her last initial was W, of course, and she was almost certainly married and alive in October 1772.
- Later the poem addresses her as “my Susannah.”
- She was about to make a voyage across the ocean to the Thames River in England.
Given the first two clues, most people’s first guess is that Phillis wrote this poem to her mistress, Susannah Wheatley. Except that other evidence strongly suggests that Susannah Wheatley never went to England.
Phillis Wheatley almost certainly addressed her mistress in another poem titled “A Farewel to America. To Mrs. S. W.” But that was when Phillis was about to sail to London and Susannah was staying behind in Boston.
The next guess is based on notes in a copy of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 book of poetry owned by the American Antiquarian Society. Beside the “Farewel” poem someone penned “Mrs. Susannah Wright,” and then a different someone penciled, “eminent for her Wax Works etc.”
Scholars agree that the “Mrs. S.W.” mentioned in “A Farewel” is Susannah Wheatley. So some have argued that the notes in that A.A.S. copy were actually meant for another poem—namely, “Ode to Neptune.” A woman named “Susannah Wright” who traveled to England in late 1772 would fit all the internal clues. However, no one has identified such a woman or linked her to the Wheatleys.
The “eminent for her Wax Works” line has prompted other interpreters to assert that Wheatley addressed her “Ode to Neptune” to Patience Wright (shown above), who indeed became famous on both sides of the Atlantic for her wax likenesses of people. Wright was in Boston in the early 1770s, and, like Wheatley, she created a tribute to the Rev. George Whitefield.
Patrick Moseley wrote a whole article in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (2011) about the relationship of Patience Wright and Phillis Wheatley as two women seeking sustenance and respect from their arts in the pre-Revolutionary British Empire. But there remain some inconvenient facts:
- Patience Wright sailed for England in February 1772, months before Phillis Wheatley wrote her poem about “Mrs. W——” embarking.
- Wheatley’s poem clearly addresses its subject as “Susannah.”
- There’s no evidence Wheatley and Wright had any relationship aside from those notes in the A.A.S. copy, which have no source, get Wright’s name wrong, and are attached to a different poem written for someone else.
So here’s my contribution to Wheatley scholarship: The “Mrs. W——” mentioned in “Ode to Neptune” was Susanna Wool(d)ridge, daughter of London merchant William Kelly.
Earlier this month the Baltimore Sun reported on the installation of a historical plaque in a downtown Rite-Aid pharmacy.
That drugstore is on the probable site of the Goddard print shop in 1777. On 18 January of that year, Mary Katherine Goddard issued a broadside reprinting the Declaration of Independence with the names of all the Continental Congress delegates who had signed the document so far.
The Sun article has such headlines as “How a Baltimore woman defied the Redcoats” and “See how Mary Katherine Goddard helped win the Revolutionary War.”
It quotes Andrew Carroll, author of Here Is Where and promoter of this plaque, saying that her printing “was a total act of defiance. She was saying, ‘I’m stepping forward and I’m putting my life at risk in the expectation that other people will do the same. There’s no turning back now.’”
Printing the Declaration, the article says, “put her life at risk.” An official at the Maryland Historical Society states of Goddard, “If the war had ended differently, the signers would have been convicted and hanged for treason, and she probably would have been hanged as well.”
For the record we should note that:
- There were no redcoats in Baltimore to defy. The British army was no closer than Princeton, New Jersey, that month, and it never attacked or occupied Baltimore.
- The British authorities had just held New Jersey signer Richard Stockton in custody and did not try or hang him.
- There’s no example of the Crown executing an American printer for supporting independence or printing the Declaration. In fact, many British printers reprinted that text because it was significant news.
- While making the Declaration look nice for the Congress no doubt suggested support for its cause, Goddard’s status as a woman would have given her more insulation from political accusations—not that she was ever in British custody to be so accused.
Goddard’s work as both printer and postmaster was undoubtedly significant and deserves to be remembered. But the rhetoric around the installation of this plaque seems unduly sensational.
Last week I started quoting lengthy passages from an 1835 United Service Journal article about the capture of ships carrying men of the 71st Regiment of Foot in Boston harbor, said to be extracted from letters that a young Scottish officer wrote to his sister.
This week I quoted reports of that event written in 1776 by various participants, including the commander of those Crown forces. Some salient details match, but others are far off.
As we stood up for Nantasket road, an American battery opened upon us; which was the first serious proof we had that there could scarcely be many of our friends at Boston…
The 1835 account echoes that moment with more drama:
The men were clustering in the forecastle, and the officers leaning over the taffrail, with glasses turned towards the town, when a flash from the battery on the island, followed by an instantaneous report, caused us to look up. We had scarce done so, when a ball, after touching the water once or twice in its course, buried itself in a swell of the sea, just under our stern. We stared with astonishment one upon another, for the signal—if such it was—had been very awkwardly managed; but ere a Word had been exchanged, another and another gun was fired, the shots from which passed some ahead, some far over, and one right through the shrouds, so as to cut away several of the ratlins. “This is a rough reception,” said our commanding officer; “and devil take me if I don’t see into it.”
(When first quoting that passage I assumed the battery was part of Castle William, but it doesn’t have to be. The letter from a Massachusetts artillery officer specified it was on “point alderson,” or Point Allerton in Hull. Nearby Fort Revere, on a site first fortified in 1776 and decommissioned in 1947, is shown above.)
But the 1835 account is entirely missing what must have been a significant part of the Scottish ships’ voyage: four small American privateers had chased them toward Boston all the previous day. Campbell refers to that engagement, counting casualties from it. So does the artillerist’s letter and even Capt. Seth Harding’s battle report (though he left out the role of those ships in the final capture).
Instead, the 1835 account says that after that first shot from the battery, the two Scottish troop ships were attacked by ”a numerous flotilla, consisting of schooners, launches, and row-boats of the most formidable size, put off from the town.“ No contemporaneous report agrees with that.
The 1835 account says the British troops, once they realized their commanders had to surrender, destroyed their equipment to ensure it didn’t fall into Yankee hands:
our soldiers no sooner found themselves below, than they ran to the arm-racks. In five minutes there was not a musket there of which the stock was not broken across. The belts, cartouchboxes, and bayonets likewise were caught up, and all, together with the fragments of the firelocks, were cast into the sea.
When American authorities searched the George, they found “31 small-arms,” “361 black shoulder belts; 74 bundles and 1 bag gun straps;” “7 bundles leather bullet pouches; 3 cartouch boxes;” and “2 bags with belts and knapsacks.”
So the troops captured on that ship didn’t destroy everything, but that does seem like a small number of muskets for so many soldiers. Gen. George Washington’s aide-de-camp Samuel Blachley Webb wrote in July that the commander-in-chief thought as much: “he is surprized that out of upwards of 400 Prisoners only 73 Arms have been sent on, as he supposed every man must have his Arms with him”.
However, so far I’ve found no statement from Massachusetts explaining that the prisoners had destroyed most of their arms. Webb seems to have suspected that local authorities had requisitioned those weapons for their own forces rather than sending them south to the Continental Army. So Massachusetts officials did have a reason to explain.
Finally, the 1835 story describes the American attackers’ last act this way:
they plundered the transport of everything contained in it, whether of public property or belonging to individuals; and finding on examination that it would not float, they summed up all by setting it on fire.
But an advertisement from 1776 show that within a couple of months all three of the captured troop ships were up for auction at Hancock’s Wharf. No period source indicates that the Americans burned any of those vessels.
As a result of those discrepancies with the fight in Boston harbor, the event of the 1835 narrative that prompted the most contemporaneous records, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the United Service Journal articles aren’t a reliable source. Not just the narrator’s flight from captivity and the Indian ambush in darkest Connecticut (which always seemed like a romance), but also the British officers listening to the Declaration of Independence and even their difficulties training the new Highlander soldiers aboard ship.
It’s possible that some 71st Regiment officer’s letters or anecdotes were the basis for those articles. But any eyewitness memories have been so built up with additional detail and drama—whether extrapolated, drawn from published sources, or made up—that it’s impossible to separate out what’s authentic from what’s wishful. Which is too bad, because those articles contain some really good storytelling.
The further the British officer’s story printed in the United Service Journal in 1835 goes on, the more melodramatic and less credible it becomes.
At first the narrative sticks pretty closely to the documented experiences of the officers of the 71st Regiment. They were still prisoners in Boston at the end of 1776. But with the Continental Army suffering reverses and rumors that Gen. Charles Lee was being treated badly in Crown custody (he wasn’t), their conditions changed. Instead of letting Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell walk around Boston on parole, the Massachusetts authorities sent him out to the county jail in Concord—conditions he complained about to Gen. George Washington.
The experiences of Campbell’s subalterns are less well documented. This account says that the narrator and a fellow captured officer, “Captain Menzies,” were marched out to Lexington, ”a pretty village, built round a large green or common, in which were a church, an inn, and a blacksmith’s forge.” The two men had already started to talk about escaping.
We had…gone so far as to provide ourselves with disguises; with sailors’ dresses, rough jackets and trousers, such as were worn by the fishermen along the coast, and would therefore, we trusted, some day or another, do us good service. Havresacks also had been procured, in which a change of linen and provisions might be stowed away; and, above all, we had purchased, with a view of guarding against the worst, clasp-knives, with blades six inches in length.
Confined upstairs in that Lexington inn (we know there was more than one tavern in the town, but let’s assume it was Buckman’s Tavern, shown above), the officers got the lieutenant, sergeant, and corporal in their guard drunk over dinner.
It was now past midnight; and the silence which prevailed elsewhere gave notice that the people of the house, and probably the troops on duty, were all fast asleep. . . . Menzies passed on tiptoe towards the door, into the staple of which, so as to keep the latch from being lifted, he quietly thrust a knife. Meanwhile I stole to the window, and threw it open.
The night was as dark as pitch; so dark indeed, as to render fruitless every endeavour to ascertain how far we were from the ground. There was not a star in the heavens; and over the village swept a low moaning wind, the sure prelude to a storm. In some respects all this was in our favour: the excessive darkness would help to baffle pursuit were we fairly in flight, and the wind would probably drown whatever noise we might make in descending. But to descend in total ignorance both of the spot which was to receive us and of the position of the sentinels, whom we could not doubt the officer had planted, was what we should have hesitated about doing had a less urgent necessity driven us on.
The author makes the jump, and in good literary fashion the narrative breaks there, to resume in the following issue.
The second installment of this account (which is the third in the magazine’s “Traditions of the American War of Independence” series) picks up from that moment with the narrator realizing he’s badly hurt his ankle. He and Menzies hide from pursuers in the woods, get separated crossing a deep stream and reunited, and overpower a suspicious rural couple. There are long passages on the narrator’s despair about his ankle and the experience of being alone in the forest. There’s a great deal of male bonding between the narrator and Menzies.
Alas, we have Lt. Col. Campbell’s letter listing all the officers who fell into the Bostonians’ hands in June 1776, and that list includes no captain named Menzies. (Maj. Robert Menzies died in the fight when the transport ships were captured.) So our author has either forgotten his companion’s name, disguised his identity, or made it all up.
Other details defy confirmation. The account quotes from a paper describing the two escapees for American pursuers: “One considerably taller than the other; dressed in frieze jackets and trowsers; supposed to pass themselves off as seafaring men.” I’ve found no runaway ad with those phrases, but the account doesn’t say that was a published advertisement, and it’s easy to excuse the author from remembering the exact words.
Likewise, the geography remains murky. The narrator apparently thought he was in Connecticut soon after escaping, yet mentions “Holleston,” “Providence River,” and “Daubeny.” Are those odd details the result of imperfect knowledge and memory, or was the writer just making things up?
And then things get really weird. The narrator and Menzies are recaptured by American “riflemen,” along with an old man named Simcoe accused of being a Loyalist. With the narrator’s ankle still painful, he’s put into a wagon for the ride back to Boston. But then Indians and the Loyalist’s son burst from the woods to rescue them, killing and scalping all the American guards. Finally, the narrator and Menzies make it to New York. By that point, it seems more clear, whoever was penning the account was simply looking to entertain a British readership.
And was that the only point of this account all along?
TOMORROW: Back to the fight in Boston harbor.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew recently announced a plan to add a notable American woman to the next redesign of the ten-dollar bill. It’s been more than a century since Martha Washington appeared on a U.S. silver certificate.
Alexander Hamilton will still appear on the note even after the yet-to-be-selected woman makes her debut. The Treasury either will design two bills or Hamilton and the woman will share the same bill.
Somehow I think Hamilton would like the space-sharing solution. (Ladies…) Nonetheless, Lew’s plan has been decried as “replacing” Hamilton.
This announcement followed a campaign to put an American woman on the twenty-dollar bill in place of Andrew Jackson, a very important President with repressive policies and an antipathy to a national bank. But the ten-dollar bill happens to be the next up for redesign.
Fans of Hamilton (now appearing on Broadway) came to his defense, making the obvious argument that the Treasury Department owes loyalty to its founder. Some, such as Steven Rattner in the New York Times, added that Hamilton’s political views are better in tune with today’s values than Jackson (who hasn’t been the lead character in a Broadway musical in, what, two years).
William Hogeland, author of The Whiskey Rebellion, agrees on the irony of reducing Hamilton’s place on Treasury notes, but he thinks that Rattner’s comparisons are fallacious. The whole essay is a delight, but here are a couple of choice bits:
Jackson was a slaveowner, and he defended the institution. While there is ample evidence to suggest that Hamilton at times owned slaves, Hamilton opposed the institution, so Rattner repeats a familiar fallacy: “Hamilton was an abolitionist.” Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow says that about Hamilton too; most of the biographers do, and why not? it’s a lovely thought. But it’s not true.
Readers interested in that subject will want to start with this balanced, scrupulous paper by the historian Michelle DuRross. Hamilton the “staunch abolitionist” (Chernow) is such a longstanding biographical fantasy, with such a tangled history, that a certain kind of graduate student would have a ball unraveling it. Readers may be forgiven for believing that young Hamilton had the horrors of the slave markets of the Caribbean so painfully seared on his brain that in adulthood he was inspired to oppose slavery: most of the major and not-so-major Hamilton biographies — Lodge’s, Miller’s, Mitchell’s, Randall’s, McDonald’s, Brookhiser’s and Chernow’s — tell that story. Literally none can cite a primary source. Some cite one another: Randall cites Mitchell, Miller cites Lodge, e.g. The story is such common knowledge that I don’t think Chernow even gives it a citation. Its origin is unclear. But it’s made up.
DuRoss reminds us of the difference between promoting manumission (encouraging slave owners to free their human property) and campaigning for abolition (using the law to end slavery).
And as for Hamilton being more appropriate for a printed bill:
Hamilton’s entire career, before and after becoming Secretary, was based on demolishing paper finance, the depreciating populist currencies of his day that built debt relief into money. With the entire lending-and-investing class that he represented and promoted, Hamilton liked specie, metal. Big notes like those written on the Bank of the United States were not, to Hamilton, a “national currency,” as Rattner tortures history to assert. The federal government did not print paper currencies as long as (and well after) Hamilton had anything to say about it.
As I described yesterday, the widow Wilmot Marsden based her plea for a federal pension on her memory of having married her husband George in Medford on 25 Nov 1775, when he was an officer in the Continental Army. She recalled the minister who officiated at their wedding as “a professor in the Harvard University” named Martin. Alas, the college had no record of such a man.
But there was a clergyman in the area who seems a likely candidate for marrying the Marsdens: the Rev. John Martin, born (as he told the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles) in the west of Ireland in 1750 and coming to Nova Scotia in 1772.
The earliest sign of Martin in North America that I’ve found is an advertisement in the 21 Oct 1774 New-Hampshire Gazette stating that “JOHN MARTIN, Minister of the Gospel,” had lost a silver watch somewhere between the meetinghouse of Rochester, New Hampshire, and Berwick, Maine.
Shortly afterward this notice appeared in the 7 November Boston Gazette and 16 and 23 November Essex Journal of Newburyport:
L O S T.
An old Sea-Chest, (supposed to be taken out of Captain [Jonathan] Mason’s Store on the Long Wharf in Salem,) broad at the Bottom, painted blue but much wore off. If it has any Mark, it’s J. M. Should it be opened, it contains Weston’s Stenography, some Books of Physick, and some of Divinity, and considerable Writings, and both Men and Womens Cloths. Whoever shall give Information of the said Chest to the Rev. Dr. [Nathaniel] Whittaker in Salem, or the Rev. Samuel Stillman in Boston, so that the Subscriber may have it, they shall be well rewarded, and all reasonable Charges paid by
Martin appears to have been a very unlucky traveler indeed. On the other hand, these ads might have been a way to announce to the region that one is the sort of learned gentleman to travel with a silver watch and a trunk full of books even if one doesn’t actually have those goods with one. Another notable point: The ministers Martin designated as his local contacts weren’t the orthodox Congregationalists but a Presbyterian and a Baptist.
Martin preached in place of the Rev. Dr. Stiles in Newport on 16 Apr 1775. Stiles went to see him speak again on 19 April and quizzed him about his background. Martin described religious peregrination from a Catholic school through the Episcopal Church and Deism to some form of Calvinist Protestantism that Stiles found acceptable. But the Rhode Island minister was suspicious of Martin’s tale of having been a chaplain to the Pretender in Ireland in 1771. Stiles was a sucker for stories he wanted to believe, and he didn’t want to believe Bonnie Prince Charlie was genuinely Protestant.
Meanwhile, the war was starting. Martin evidently went to the siege lines. He returned to Rhode Island after the Battle of Bunker Hill, reporting that he’d served as a chaplain on the battlefield and had taken part not only in the fighting but also in overseeing the redoubt, deploying troops, and more. Fanfiction critics would recognize the story Martin told as a “self-insert,” in which he was the bravest, most perceptive, and indispensable man on the American side of the battle lines.
As outlandish as Martin’s story was, this time people wanted to believe him. On 28 June, the Rhode Island Assembly appointed “John Martin” surgeon of its army brigade at a salary of £9 per month. There were other, better established men named John Martin in that colony, but I suspect this new surgeon was the young minister because he’d claimed to own “some Books of Physick” and because of a newspaper statement the next month that he’d been “appointed to a post in the Rhode Island regiment.”
On 30 June, Martin returned to Stiles’s doorstep in Newport, telling his story of the battle, and the minister wrote it all down. That evening he listened as Martin preached “a high Liberty Sermon.” On 18 July, the New-Hampshire Gazette reported briefly how Martin had “fought gallantly at Bunker-Hill.” Presumably he headed back to the war zone.
On 28 September and 28 December 1775, the New-England Chronicle newspaper reported that letters for John Martin were waiting in the Cambridge post office. Again, this may be another man of the same name (he’s not identified as a minister or a surgeon). But it’s quite clear who Sgt. Henry Bedinger of the Virginia riflemen heard preach in Roxbury on 3 Oct 1775:
We had also a Very Good Sermon preached to us by the Reverend Mr. Martin, Who Took part of the Command on Bunker’s Hill In that Battle.
This is clearly the same Martin who visited Stiles, and he was once again acting as a clergyman in the fall of 1775.
Thus, the Rev. John Martin seems like an excellent candidate to be the minister who married George Marsden and Wilmot Lee in Medford in November. He would have no qualms about breaking the Massachusetts law against traveling clergy performing marriages. And, just as he left the riflemen and others with the idea that he’d been a commander at Bunker Hill, he could easily have left Wilmot Marsden convinced he was a “professor at Harvard University.”
COMING UP: What happened to the Rev. John Martin?
Don checked his thorough records and found that Marsden first arrived in New England in 1768 with the 59th Regiment of Foot in a company commanded by Capt. John Willson. They came to Boston, and local Whigs soon made Capt. Willson notorious for supposedly encouraging slaves to revolt.
As Don told me:
Marsden is on the April 1769 roll for the grenadier company, prepared in Boston. On the October 1770 roll for the company he shows up as being appointed serjeant, but in 1774 he’s a private again.
Unfortunately, the regiment did a lousy job in filing its paperwork, so we don’t know about anything the dates in between except that the regiment was in Nova Scotia from 1769 to 1774. (Marsden’s descendants also understood him as coming through Nova Scotia with the British army, but as an officer during the earlier French and Indian War.)
The fact that Marsden (usually written “Marsdin” in the muster rolls) became a sergeant suggests that his officers saw him as intelligent and dependable. Furthermore, while enlisted men often bounced from private to corporal and back depending on the regiment’s needs, a sergeant usually stayed a sergeant. So what’s the significance of Marsden’s demotion? Had he lost his superiors’ confidence? Did he resent losing that rank? We don’t know.
On 24 July 1774, the 59th Regiment prepared to sail from Nova Scotia back to Boston as part of Gen. Thomas Gage’s build-up of troops. And Pvt. George Marsden was no longer with them.
Don tells me that British regiments often suffered a wave of desertions just before they made a big move. Soldiers might have built ties with locals that they were loath to break, or they might have realized that their officers’ departure meant this was a good chance to make a run for it.
After July 1774 Marsden disappears from all records, as far as I can tell, until he enlisted in Col. James Scamman’s Massachusetts regiment on 19 May 1775. That unit was made up of men from southern Maine and New Hampshire. Marsden’s home was then listed as “Londonderry,” which one later researcher interpreted to mean Londonderry in Ireland. However, that same document listed several other men from Londonderry as well, so it probably referred to Londonderry, New Hampshire. Evidently Marsden had found his way to that town.
Marsden became the Scamman regiment’s adjutant, an administrative post, undoubtedly because of his experience as a sergeant in the British army. A month later came the Battle of Bunker Hill. Marsden’s old regiment, the 59th, was fighting on the British side. Had Marsden been captured, he would almost surely have been recognized, tried as a deserter in arms with the enemy, and executed. Nevertheless, he pushed ahead to the front lines faster than his colonel.
Adj. Marsden testified against Col. Scamman in his court-martial the following month, and I can’t imagine that the regimental meetings were smooth after that. At the end of the year, however, it was clear who prevailed. Scamman was left out of the Continental Army. In contrast, Marsden was commissioned as a Lieutenant in Col. William Prescott’s regiment—i.e., the commander who had actually been in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill was ready to fight alongside him. (Similarly, Ens. Joshua Trafton, who also got on Scamman’s bad side, was offered a lieutenant’s commission and eventually became a captain.)
George Marsden is thus like Thomas Machin, Daniel Box, Andrew Brown—deserters from the king’s army who had been recognized for their skills but barred by the British class system from rising into the officer class. In the Continental Army, Marsden became an officer. In the new republic, he was considered a gentleman. Like Machin and Brown, Marsden or his family retroactively came up with a more genteel history for him in Britain, making him an officer of the king who resigned before the war and wiping out any embarrassment about his having deserted.
TOMORROW: Marsden’s mysterious marriage.
Those lines were written by the Rev. John Pierpont (1785-1866). After graduating from Yale, he became minister at the Hollis Street Meeting in Boston, originally established for the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr.
Pierpont stayed at that church for over twenty-five years, becoming increasingly controversial as he became increasingly active in the temperance and abolition movements. Later Pierpont was a minister in Medford and ran for office in a couple of those fringe parties that actually wanted to end slavery.
Pierpont was also heavily involved in efforts at education, and in 1827 he published a school book called The National Reader. It collected examples of both prose and poetry for students to read or recite. Lessons 127 to 132 were all about Bunker Hill—excerpts from Carlo Botta’s history in translation and Daniel Webster’s oration at the dedication of the monument, a hymn that Pierpont had written for that ceremony, and “Warren’s Address.”
Stand! the ground’s your own, my braves!
Will ye give it up to slaves?
Will ye look for greener graves?
Hope ye mercy still?
What’s the mercy despots feel?
Hear it in that battle-peal!
Read it on yon bristling steel!
Ask it,—ye who will.
Fear ye foes who kill for hire?
Will ye to your homes retire?
Look behind you!—they’re afire!
And, before you, see
Who have done it! From the vale
On they come!—and will ye quail?
Leaden rain and iron hail
Let their welcome be!
In the God of battles trust!
Die we may,—and die we must:
But, O, where can dust to dust
Be consigned so well,
As where heaven its dews shall shed
On the martyred patriot’s bed,
And the rocks shall raise their head,
Of his deeds to tell?
We must remember that Dr. Joseph Warren declined to command in the Breed’s Hill redoubt and never delivered such a speech, in rhyme or not. Also, Pierpont composed this for use in schools, so we should imagine it being recited by an emotive, squeaky-voiced fourteen-year-old in an assembly hall.
One of Pierpont’s sons wrote “Jingle Bells.” One of his grandsons, named after him, was J. Pierpont Morgan.
Many websites and books identify Crispus Attucks’s father as Prince Yongey (or Young or Jonar), based on the fact that Framingham records say a man of that name married Nancy Peterattuck on 19 May 1737.
However, according to William Brown’s runaway advertisements, “Crispas” was about twenty-seven years old in 1750. That means he would have been about fourteen when Nancy Peterattuck married Prince Yongey.
Furthermore, in 1860 someone from Natick informed William C. Nell that Attucks’s parents were “Jacob Peter Attucks” and “Nanny,” which might have been another form of Nancy. This source said there were other children in the family—Sam, Sal, and Peter—and that they were all “uncommonly large.”
William Barry’s 1847 history of Framingham says Jacob Peterattucks was in that town by 1730 working for “Col. Buckminster.” There was a series of prominent men with that surname, including Joseph (1666-1747) and his sons Joseph (1697-1780) and Thomas (1698-1795).
It seems more likely, therefore, that Prince Yongey was Crispus Attucks’s stepfather, marrying his mother in 1737 after his father Jacob Peterattucks’s death. There are, of course, many other possible scenarios, including multiple people with the same name, unreliable informants, or a church marriage performed years into the relationship because the couple’s owner got religion.
Jacob Peterattucks was previously listed as a member of John Shipley’s military company in 1722, described as “Servt. John Wood.” On 16 May 1723, he was one of several men dismissed as “Sick, lame and unfit for Servis, by thear own Requests.” Notably, the lieutenant of that company was Joseph “Buckmaster.” Crispus Attucks was born around that year.
(In addition, a Moses Peter Attucks of Leicester served as a private at Fort Massachusetts under Lt. Elisha Hawley and Capt. Ephraim Williams in 1747-49. Another member of the family?)
We have no way of knowing whether Prince Yongey had any influence on Crispus Attucks, who was enslaved to Brown by 1750 and perhaps earlier, and therefore may never have lived with a stepfather. Yongey did become a Framingham fixture, as local historian Barry learned from townspeople who had known him:
But the most noted individual of the class under consideration, was Prince, sometimes called Prince Young, but whose name is recorded as Prince Yongey, and Prince Jonar, by which last name he is noticed [and “rated”] in the Town Rec. in 1767. He was brought from Africa when a young man of about 25 years, having been a person of consideration in his native land, from whence, probably, he derived his name. He was first owned by Col. Joseph Buckminster, and afterwards by his son, the late Dea. Thomas. He married, (by name Prince Yongey) in 1737, Nanny Peterattucks, of Framingham, (the name indicating Indian extraction) by whom he had several children, among them a son, who died young, and a daughter Phebe, who never married.
Prince was a faithful servant, and by his general honesty, temperance and prudence, so gained the confidence of his first master. Col. Buckminster, that for about a quarter of a century, he was left with the management of a large farm, during his master’s absence at the General Court. He occupied a cabin near the Turnpike, and cultivated, for his own use, a piece of meadow, which has since been known as Prince’s meadow. He chose the spot as resembling the soil of his native country.
During the latter part of his life he was offered his freedom, which he had the sagacity to decline; pithily saying, “massa eat the meat; he now pick the bone.” Prince shunned the society of persons of his own color, and though accustomed to appear in public armed with a tomahawk, was a great favorite with the young, whom, under all provocations, he was never known but in one instance to strike.
He had been sufficiently instructed to read, and possessed the religious turn characteristic of the African race. In his last sickness, he remarked with much simplicity, that he was “not afraid to be dead, but to die.” He passed an extreme old age in the family of Dea. Thos. Buckminster, and died Dec. 21, 1797, at the age of 99 years and some months. Numerous anecdotes are yet related, illustrating the simplicity, intelligence, and humor of “Old Prince.”
This description of Prince Yongey is evidently based on people who knew him as an old man, probably after his wife and perhaps his children were gone. He outlived the institution of slavery in Massachusetts, though he insisted that the Buckminster family was obliged to look after him in his old age, and he even outlived Deacon Buckminster.
It occurred to me that some elements of Prince Yongey’s life might have gotten mixed in with locals’ memories of Crispus Attucks, especially if they were indeed part of the same extended family. Brown’s descendants recalled Attucks being allowed to “trade cattle upon his own judgement”; locals recalled Yongey managing the Buckminster farm for his master. And did ”Prince’s meadow” become remembered as the “cellar hole” where the Attucks family lived?
On the New Yorker website, Nicola Twilley recently wrote about Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a guide to the prostitutes of London published annually between 1757 and 1795.
The Wellcome Library in London recently digitized the 1787 and 1788 volumes. Twilley quotes the library’s head of research, Richard Aspin, on the volumes’ rarity.
The article also notes that there are a lot of mysteries about Harris’s List, starting with who started compiling it, who updated it over the decades, and what its real purpose was:
Aspin has no theories as to its authorship, but he brings up another point of scholarly contention: whether “Harris’s List” was actually soft-core erotic fiction, merely served up in the guise of a practical guide. “If you compare the cast of characters in these two editions, there seems to be almost a wholesale replacement of the names from one year to the next,” he points out. The book purports to list “the most celebrated ladies now on the town”—but it seems quite unlikely that the top one hundred or so prostitutes of London would really change so radically from year to year. . . .
Even assuming the descriptions are of real people, or at least based on real people, Aspin points out that eighty-six ladies (the tally in the 1787 edition; the total varies from year to year) is an infinitesimal fraction of the total number of prostitutes in London at the time, which is estimated to have been more than sixty thousand…
The world expert on Harris’s List appears to be London-based author Hallie Rubenhold, who has published a study called The Covent Garden Ladies; Pimp General Jack and the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List and a compilation of entries from many editions. Those books don’t appear to be in print in the U.S. of A. Like the original publications, however, one ought to be able to obtain copies by asking the right people.
One of Boston 1775’s long-running questions is how much evidence there is for the belief that Margaret Gage, American-born wife of Gen. Thomas Gage, betrayed her husband by leaking his plans about the march on 18-19 Apr 1775 to Dr. Joseph Warren. After David Hackett Fischer made a case for that hypothesis in Paul Revere’s Ride, the story was widely retold at Boston historic sites.
That theory rests on the conclusion that Thomas and Margaret Gage became estranged after April 1775, with the general sending her home to England and treating her coldly thereafter. But, as I noted back here, they continued to have children.
Asa Gage of Atlanta, who notes that Margaret was “a distant cousin,” sent some additional material related to the Gages’ later life. With his permission, I’m sharing portions of his transcription of the general’s will, proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and obtained through the British National Archives.
Margaret had two children after she returned to England, both conceived after the possible estrangement:
- Emily Gage, b. 25 Apr 1776.
- William Hall Gage, b. 2 Oct 1777.
Further, in his 1786 will the general takes very good care of Margaret, and refers to her as “beloved” on several occasions. Again, he may be bowing to convention in his language, but it does raise a question. He also made her his executrix:
…first I give unto my beloved wife Margaret Gage all my linen plate china and books together with my horses and equipage and also all my liquors of every sort and also all my pictures except my two miniature pictures . . .
it is my desire that what I have herein before given to my said wife shall be at her disposal at her pleasure. . . .
In trust to permit and suffer my wife Margaret Gage to hold and enjoy my said house in Portland Place with the appurtenances and all the goods and household furniture therein and to receive the rents and profits thereof for her own use and benefit during her life . . .
my said trustees shall during the life of my said wife receive the rents and benefits of my said plantations and estates in the island of Montserrat and do and shall pay one moiety or half part of the clear yearly rents and profits thereof unto my said wife during her natural life . . .
if any surplus should remain after the payment of my debts and funeral expenses upon trust to pay one third part of such surplus unto my said wife for her own use . . .
lastly I do hereby nominate constitute and appoint my said dear brother William Hall Lord Viscount Gage and my beloved wife Margaret Gage executor and executrix of this my last will and guardians to my children until they attain their respective ages of twenty one years
Finally, Margaret’s brother Samuel Kemble of Friday Hill, Essex County, was one of three trustees for the general’s house in Portland Place, his plantations and estates on the island of Montserrat, his 18,000 acres of land on the Mohawk River in the New York state in North America, and other miscellaneous properties.
All in all, I see evidences of a continued normal relationship between Thomas and Margaret, but haven’t found any indication of actual estrangement.
Thanks to Asa Gage for this additional information and sound analysis.
The first book devoted to Dr. Joseph Warren was Stories about General Warren: in Relation to the Fifth of March Massacre, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, a biography for young readers published in 1835. The anonymous author was the doctor’s niece Rebecca Brown (1789-1855), shown here courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Stories about General Warren took the form of a dialogue between a mother and two children named William and Mary, who say things like, “Did not all the boys like him, mamma? I am sure I should have liked him.”
The book was reviewed that year in the Southern Literary Messenger, mainly to give the reviewer a chance to write about Warren. He (and the tone almost requires one to assume the anonymous reviewer was a he) devotes a long column to “the book’s childishness of style” and “many offences far more atrocious in a critic’s eyes—sins against grammar, idiom, and good taste.” That part of the essay ended:
Let the author be entreated to get the aid of some friend who is master (if she is not mistress) of grammar and taste enough, to reform these and the other errors of her little work, and then give us a new edition, calling in all the copies of the first, that are within her reach.
Not the type of notice an author wishes to receive.
The reviewer then launched into his own version of Warren’s life. Many points of that biography are unreliable, as when it gives Warren the rank of a general months before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress did. Here’s his telling of Warren’s activity during the Battle of Lexington and Concord:
Scouts of his had notified him on the 18th of April, that a detachment of troops was to march that night towards Concord: and then, remaining himself upon the watch, he saw Colonel [Francis] Smith and 8 or 900 men embark for Charlestown [sic]. Knowing the stores and ammunition at Concord to be their object [he didn’t really], he instantly sent messengers over the surrounding country, to give the alarm; and himself rode all night [no, Warren left Boston near dawn]—passing so near the enemy, as to be more than once in great danger of capture. . . .
Warren, sleepless and in motion throughout the night, hurried to the scene of action: and, when the enemy were retreating from Concord, he was among the foremost in hanging upon their rear, and assailing their flanks. By pressing them too closely, he once narrowly escaped death. A musket ball took off a lock of hair, which curled close to his head, in the fashion of that time.
When his mother first saw him after the battle, and heard of this escape, she entreated him with tears not again to risk a life so precious. “Where danger is, dear mother,” he answered, “there must your son be. Now is no time for any of America’s children to shrink from any hazard. I will see her free, or die.”
Rebecca Brown had written something similar, but not the same:
When his mother first saw him after this escape, she entreated him, with tears in her eyes, not again to risk a life so dear to her, and so necessary to his country. “Wherever danger is, dear mother,” was his reply, “there must your son be, now is no time for one of America’s children to shrink from the most hazardous duty. I will either see my country free, or shed my last drop of blood to make her so.”
Presumably the reviewer rewrote Brown’s quote to minimize the “sins against grammar, idiom, and good taste.” He did not indicate having any better source of information.
Not that either version of the quote is probably accurate. But at least there’s a chance that Rebecca Brown had heard about that meeting from her grandmother Mary Warren, who lived until 1803.
In his History of Bradford County, Pennsylvania (1891), Henry C. Bradsby set down this unusual anecdote of the aftermath of the Revolutionary War’s first day:
Betsey Hagar…was born in Boston in 1750, and at nine years of age was left alone in the world to shift for herself. She grew up on a farm, was of a strong muscular frame, and learned to do all rough farm work, as well as being an expert at the loom.
When the Revolution broke out she was at work for a man named Leverett, in his blacksmith shop; he was very ingenious, and he and Betsey were secretly busy fixing the old match-lock guns for the patriots. She would file and grind and scour the work, and fit it as fast as he would turn it out. The two, it should be remembered, were working gratuitously—solely for the cause of freedom.
At the battle of Concord the British fled, and left six nice brass cannon, but all spiked. They were taken to Leverett’s shop, where he and his helper drilled holes opposite the spikes and then they could punch them out and stop up the hole with a screw. She worked hard at these cannon six weeks. She also made cartridges, and when her supply of flannel for this purpose gave out, she took off her underclothes and used them. At night, after the battle, she helped care for and nurse the wounded. Thus she helped during the seven years’ war.
In 1813 she married John Pratt, and they were on a rented farm at the time the “Shay rebellion” broke out, when she said: “John, you go and help kill Shay, and I will look after the crop.” John went, and she made a fine crop. Her son was Thomas Pratt.
In 1816 the family came to Burlington township [Pennsylvania], and settled on the G. A. Johnson farm. Among her other gifts was much knowledge of medicine—the herbs, roots and flowers of the country, and she often ministered to the sick, and was as much respected and “looked up to” as any person in the settlement. She lived to a green old age, dying in Granville in 1843, aged ninety-three years.
Two decades later, Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green were looking for stories for The Pioneer Mothers of America. They put Betsy Hagar into their second volume, right before Molly Pitcher. That version added some details:
- Young Betsy was “bound out” at an early age.
- The blacksmith was named Samuel Leverett.
- John Pratt marched during the Lexington Alarm, carrying a gun that Samuel Leverett and Betsy Hagar had repaired.
- Betsy was caring for the wounded after the Battle of Lexington and Concord when she spotted the six spiked cannon.
- Betsy and John married “shortly after the close of the war.”
- In Pennsylvania, Betsy was a vocal opponent of “an English doctor named Lee” offering smallpox vaccinations in 1813. (The county history mentioned Dr. Ira Lee, but not in connection to the Pratts, who it said didn’t settle there until three years later.)
The Greens thus appear to have had additional sources for their telling—but they didn’t say what those sources were, leaving no way to evaluate them. And, as I discussed in the case of Deborah Champion, the Greens tended to smooth out contradictions in their sources instead of acknowledging reasons for doubt.
Elizabeth Pratt’s Find-a-Grave page (source of the image above) offers yet another contradictory detail, saying she died “died July 12, 1843, aged 88 years, 1 month and 4 days,” meaning she was actually born in June 1755. Those words seem to come from a more recent local history.
Alas, I’ve found no documents to confirm any of the story of Betsey Hagar. I’ve looked in Boston records for her birth or her binding out by the Overseers of the Poor. I’ve looked for a blacksmith named Samuel Leverett. Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors, volume 12, pages 691-5, lists multiple John Pratts who served in the American military during the Revolutionary War as shown by one contemporaneous document or another. That group includes at least four who marched in April 1775: from Chelsea, Dorchester, and two from Reading. But none was from Concord or a town nearby.
Most important, the part of the story that makes Betsey Hagar most significant, the repair of “six nice brass cannon” left behind by the British, is clearly a myth. The British army didn’t bring any cannon all the way to Concord, nor leave any of its own artillery behind. While in Concord, the troops did damage some cannon that the town had mounted, but those guns were made of iron. Such sources as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress records and the recollections of Dr. James Thacher show that the province had only four brass cannon at the first months of the war, none of them found by the British and spiked.
The story of Betsey Hagar, though repeated many places in the last fifty years, thus seems to be a legend that can be traced only as far back as the Pennsylvania towns where her descendants lived in the mid-1800s.
Jeremiah Lee was a non-battlefield casualty of the fight on 18-19 Apr 1775. On the one hand, that’s appropriate because he was central to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s effort to build up an artillery force, which prompted the British army march tp Concord. On the other hand, Lee’s death was probably unnecessary.
Lee was a Marblehead merchant, militia commander, and member of the congress’s Committee on Supplies. He was the conduit for its payments to the Salem painter David Mason as he collected and mounted cannons.
On 18 April, Lee attended a joint meeting of the Committee on Supplies and the Committee of Safety at a tavern in Menotomy, the western village of Cambridge that’s now Arlington. When the meeting broke up, he and two other men from Marblehead, Elbridge Gerry and Azor Orne, decided to stay the night. Richard Devens of Charlestown later wrote:
After we had finished the business of the day, we adjourned to meet at Woburn on the morrow,—left to lodge at Newell’s [the tavern], Gerry, Orne, and Lee. Mr. [Abraham] Watson and myself came off in my chaise at sunset.
On the road we met a great number of B[ritish]. O[fficers]. and their servants on horseback, who had dined that day at Cambridge. We rode some way after we met them, and then turned back and rode through them, went and informed our friends at Newell’s. We stopped there till they [the officers] came up and rode by. We then left our friends, and I came home, after leaving Mr. Watson at his house.
Likewise, Gen. William Heath wrote of himself in the third person: “on his return home, soon after he left the committee, and about sun-setting, he met eight or nine British officers on horseback, with their swords and pistols, riding up the road towards Lexington.”
The province was abuzz with rumors that the London government had ordered Gen. Thomas Gage to arrest leaders of the rebellion—and those rumors were pretty much true. The committee men were naturally nervous. Gerry sent a warning west to John Hancock and Samuel Adams, then staying at Lexington. Nonetheless, Devens and Watson had passed through the British officers twice with no trouble.
Later that evening, a long column of British troops passed by the tavern on the way to Concord. Lee, Gerry, and Orne got out of bed to watch. Suddenly they perceived some soldiers from that column coming toward the front door. Half-dressed, the three men dashed out the back and threw themselves down in a field, hoping the stalks of the previous year’s crop would hide them. Heath wrote that he heard they suffered “some injury from obstacles in the way, in their undressed state.”
The three men remained on the ground for about an hour before they decided it was safe to return to the building. Lee, who had just turned fifty-four, took sick from the cold and stress. He died on 10 May, his family and friends blaming the events of that night.
Here’s the sad irony: those British troops weren’t seeking to arrest anyone on the Committee on Supplies. Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders for that march say nothing about arresting Provincial Congress members or searching buildings before the column reached Concord. None of the several British officers who left detailed accounts of the night wrote about such a search on the way west. Heath wrote that he’d heard the troops “halted” outside the tavern, which they might have done just to get water from a well, but he didn’t say they went inside.
In his 1828 biography of Gerry, James T. Austin wrote that British troops had searched Newell’s tavern on the night of 18 April. Of course, saying that made Gerry’s decision to hide outside in the fields seem more smart than scared. And although Austin claimed, “even the beds in which they had lain were examined,” he had to acknowledge that nothing, not even “a valuable watch of Mr. Gerry’s, which was under his pillow,” had been disturbed. No eyewitness accounts from 1775 said troops had gone into the tavern, and the Massachusetts Patriots hadn’t shied from complaining about British actions that day.
I therefore suspect that Lee, Gerry, and Orne could have stayed inside their bedroom the whole night without being disturbed. And Lee might have lived for many more years.
There is a humorous story told about town of one of the deserters, though I cannot say it is absolutely to be depended upon as a fact: a soldier, whose name is Patrick, deserted sometime ago and settled in a country town at some distance, and there undertook to instruct a company of about fifty men in military exercises.
A sergeant and eight men were sent to apprehend deserters, got intelligence of him, and agreed with a countryman, for a couple of guineas, to conduct them to him. Patrick, it seems, was at that time exercising his company; however, being called by the sergeant and his men, he immediately came up to them. The sergeant demanded what he did there, told him he was his prisoner, and ordered him to return and join his regiment.
Sir, said Patrick, I beg your pardon, but I don’t think it possible for me to obey you at present. The sergeant repeated his orders in a very peremptory style. Patrick still assured him of the great improbability of his being able to comply with the command; but told him, as it was not absolutely certain, he would see what could be done about it.
You must know, said he, that we determine every thing here by a vote—and turning to his company, which had by this time come up,—gentlemen, says he, if it be your mind that I should leave the town and return to my regiment, please to manifest it. Not a single hand appeared in favor of the motion. He then desired that those who were contrary-minded should manifest it, which passed nem. con. [i.e., no dissenting votes]
The sergeant and his men, finding themselves in so small a minority, and seeing it in vain to oppose the general voice of the meeting, were about to return again in peace, when one or two of his men were desirous to have it put to vote whether they should not stay also. Patrick, as moderator, immediately put the question, which it was not difficult to carry in such an assembly, and the sergeant, knowing it vain to resist, returned with six men to his regiment.
It seems significant that not even Trumbull suggested this tale was factual. But it reflects how he and other New Englanders liked to see themselves in 1774: committed to traditional voting and group solidarity, capable of using force but preferring to use calm reason and numbers.
A footnote in Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, written largely by George Washington Parke Custis and edited by Benson J. Lossing in 1861, passes on this story:
It is related of the Honorable Gouverneur Morris, who was remarkable for his freedom of deportment toward his friends, that on one occasion he offered a wager that he could treat General [George] Washington with the same familiarity as he did others. This challenge was accepted, and the performance tried. Mr. Morris slapped Washington familiarly on the shoulder, and said, “How are you, this morning, general?” Washington made no reply, but turned his eyes upon Mr. Morris with a glance that fairly withered him. He afterward acknowledged, that nothing could induce him to attempt the same thing again.
No source is stated, and both Custis and Lossing were “print the legend” guys, often unreliable on both details and broad strokes. However, in this case there seems to be a stronger basis for the tale.
In Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States, written by Martin Van Buren and published after his death by his sons in 1867, a letter dated 1857 passes on a story that Jacob Burnet (1770-1853) told in 1852:
He related an anecdote of Washington which he had from the lips of Alexander Hamilton.
When the Convention to form a Constitution was sitting in Philadelphia in 1787, of which General Washington was President, he had stated evenings to receive the calls of his friends. At an interview between Hamilton, the Morrises, and others, the former remarked that Washington was reserved and aristocratic even to his intimate friends, and allowed no one to be familiar with him. Gouverneur Morris said that was a mere fancy, and he could be as familiar with Washington as with any of his other friends. Hamilton replied, “If you will, at the next reception evening, gently slap him on the shoulder and say, ‘My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well!’ a supper and wine shall be provided for you and a dozen of your friends.”
The challenge was accepted. On the evening appointed a large number attended, and at an early hour Gouverneur Morris entered, bowed, shook hands, laid his left hand on Washington’s shoulder, and said: “My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well!” Washington withdrew his hand, stepped suddenly back, fixed his eye on Morris for several minutes with an angry frown, until the latter retreated abashed and sought refuge in the crowd. The company looked on in silence.
At the supper which was provided by Hamilton, Morris said: “I have won the bet but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”
That story went into James Parton’s Life of Thomas Jefferson (1874), and from there into Max Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (1911). That’s one of the most authoritative sources in American historiography, which might mean it deserves more scrutiny.
Farrand also noted another version of the same anecdote. In his Life and Correspondence of George Read (1870), William Thompson Read said he’d received the same story from “Mrs. Susan[ne] Eckard [1776-1861], of Philadelphia, daughter of Colonel James Read [1743-1822],” who administered the Continental Congress’s Marine department in the 1780s:
Gouverneur Morris, a very handsome, bold, and—I have heard the ladies say—very impudent man. His talents and services are part of American history. He wore a wooden leg. He was not related to the great financier, who was said to be a natural child. The office of Mr. [Robert] Morris was only divided from papa’s by a small entry, and was constantly visited by Mr. Gouverneur Morris, and papa’s also.
One day the latter entered, and papa was so struck by his crest-fallen appearance that he asked, “Are you not well?”
He replied, “I am not,—the devil got possession of me last night.”
“I have often cautioned you against him,” said papa, playfully, “but what has happened to disturb you?”
“I was at the President’s last night; several members of the Cabinet were there. The then absorbing question, (‘I forget,’ Mrs. E. writes, ‘what it was’) was brought up. The President was standing with his arms behind him,—his usual position,—his back to the fire, listening. Hamilton made a speech I did not like. I started up and spoke, stamping, as I walked up and down, with my wooden leg; and, as I was certain I had the best of the argument, as I finished I stalked up to the President, slapped him on the back, and said, ‘Ain’t I right, general?’ The President did not speak, but the majesty of the American people was before me. Oh, his look! How I wished the floor would open and I could descend to the cellar!
“You know me,” continued Mr. Morris, “and you know my eye would never quail before any other mortal.”
In fact, Gouverneur Morris wasn’t in the U.S. of A. during Washington’s terms as President, so that version of the story could not be true. But it’s quite plausible that Eckard misunderstood a reference to Washington as president of the Constitutional Convention, as in the Burnet version of the tale.
We thus have what appear to be three strands of an oral tradition, one put to paper in 1857, another printed in 1860, and a third, independent version written down before 1861. Each of the two letters describes a short chain of storytellers leading back to Hamilton and Morris. So even though this incident didn’t get set down in any form until seven decades after it supposedly happened, it looks credible.
That December, a daughter of Mohegan leader Robert Ashbow, motivated by a religious vision, returned home after what appears to have been a long absence. By the end of the month, the young woman was dying. On Christmas Eve, Occom wrote an account of the last moments of her life, which included a conversation with her mother. (The daughter’s name, unfortunately, is never given.)
The beginning is typical for Christian deathbed narratives—a confirmation of belief in God and an acceptance of death. But then the woman declares, “No one that fights Shall ever enter the Kingdom of Heaven, nor them that Cary Sharp Weapons and Heavy things for the first Christians did not fight but were Loving.” She adds that her aunt Hannah thought herself “better and above” Hannah’s daughter-in-law, Jerusha, but Jerusha had “better inheritance.” These are unusual, unexplained statements.
At first, we thought “inheritance” referred to spiritual redemption. But as we reconstructed the lives of the people in the narrative, another explanation seemed plausible. Hannah’s husband, we found, was Rev. Samuel Ashbow, Robert Ashbow’s brother. The couple had lost one of their sons, Samuel Jr., at Bunker Hill—the first Native American killed in the Revolution. For Hannah and Samuel, that death would begin their family tragedy: they would lose three more sons before the war was over. On the other hand, Jerusha, the widow of Samuel Jr., had a young son whose life was just beginning. Were the dying woman’s remarks a comment on the futility of war? A portent of the immense physical and cultural losses the Mohegans would endure as a result of that war?
Did they reflect that particular moment during the war in late 1776, when the royal forces were handily dispatching the Continental Army and armed resistance seemed like a poor idea? With so few written sources preserved, we‘re unlikely to have the answers to those questions.
The same magazine also notes a rare harpsichord from about 1770 that somebody decided to make look like an even rarer harpsichord from several decades before.
There lately died [in 1842 actually], in the city of Boston, a very respectable negro, named PRIMUS HALL. He lived to an advanced age, and was the possessor of considerable property. Throughout the Revolutionary war he was the body servant of the late Col. [Timothy] Pickering, of Massachusetts. He was free and communicative, and delighted to sit down with an interested listener and pour out those stores of absorbing and exciting anecdotes with which his memory was stored.
It is well known that there was no officer in the whole American army whose friendship was dearer to Washington, and whose counsel was more esteemed by him, than that of the honest and patriotic Col. Pickering. [So much for Lafayette.] He was on intimate terms with him, and unbosomed himself to him with as little reserve as, perhaps, to any confident in the army. Whenever he was stationed within such a distance as to admit of it, he passed many hours with the colonel, consulting him upon anticipated measures, and delighting in his reciprocated friendship.
Washington was, therefore, often brought into contact with the servant of Col. Pickering, the departed Primus. An opportunity was afforded to the negro to note him, under circumstances very different from those in which he is usually brought before the public, and which possess, therefore, a striking charm. I remember two of these anecdotes from the mouth of Primus. One of them is very slight indeed, yet so peculiar as to be replete with interest. The other conveys a high and holy moral, and deserves to be recorded among the public and remarkable acts of our country’s saviour, as a brilliant illustration that disinterestedness and true humility were guiding principles of his character. The authenticity of both may be fully relied upon.
Washington once came to Col. Pickering’s quarters, and found him absent.
“It is no matter,” said he to Primus. “I am greatly in need of exercise. You must help me to get some before your master returns.”
Under Washington’s directions, the negro busied himself in some simple preparations. A stake was driven into the ground about breast high, a rope was tied to it, and then Primus was desired to stand at some distance and hold it horizontally extended. The boys, the country over, are familiar with this plan of getting sport. With true boyish zest, Washington ran forwards and backwards for some time, jumping over the rope as he came and went, until he expressed himself satisfied with the “exercise.”
Repeatedly, afterwards, when a favorable opportunity offered, he would say—“Come, Primus, I am in need of exercise;” whereat the negro would drive down the stake, and Washington would jump over the rope until he had exerted himself to his content.
On the second occasion, the great general was engaged in earnest consultation with Col. Pickering in his tent until after the night had fairly set in. Head-quarters were at a considerable distance, and Washington signified his preference to staying with the colonel over night, provided he had a spare blanket and straw.
“Oh, yes,” said Primus, who was appealed to; “plenty of straw and blankets—plenty.”
Upon this assurance, Washington continued his conference with the colonel until it was time to retire to rest. Two humble beds were spread, side by side, in the tent, and the officers laid themselves down, while Primus seemed to be busy with duties that required his attention before he himself could sleep. He worked, or appeared to work, until the breathing of the prostrate gentlemen satisfied him that they were sleeping; and then, seating himself on a box or stool, he leaned his head on his hands to obtain such repose as so inconvenient a position would allow. In the middle of the night Washington awoke. He looked about, and descried the negro as he sat. He gazed at him awhile, and then spoke.
“Primus!” said he, calling; “Primus!”
Primus started up and rubbed his eyes. “What, general?” said he.
Washington rose up in his bed. “Primus,” said he, ”what did you mean by saying that you had straw and blankets enough? Here you have given up your blanket and straw to me, that I may sleep comfortably, while you are obliged to sit through the night.”
“It’s nothing, general,” said Primus. “It’s nothing. I’m well enough. Don’t trouble yourself about me, general, but go to sleep again. No matter about me. I sleep very good.”
“But it is matter—it is matter,” said Washington, earnestly. “I cannot do it, Primus. If either is to sit up, I will. But I think there is no need of either sitting up. The blanket is wide enough for two. Come and lie down here with me.”
“Oh, no, general!” said Primus, starting, and protesting against the proposition. “No; let me sit here. I’ll do very well on the stool.”
“I say, come and lie down here!” said Washington, authoritatively. “There is room for both, and I insist upon it!”
He threw open the blanket as he spoke, and moved to one side of the straw. Primus professes to have been exceedingly shocked at the idea of lying under the same covering with the commander-in-chief, but his tone was so resolute and determined that he could not hesitate. He prepared himself, therefore, and laid himself down by Washington; and on the same straw, and under the same blanket, the general and the negro servant slept until morning.
I say that this lost incident conveys a high and holy moral. It affords additional evidence, and that of the clearest nature, that the reverential admiration of the American people for their Washington is not misplaced. He acted from that pure and deep-seated principle, that true nobility of character and self-respect, which enabled him to bear himself with lofty dignity in the presence of the proudest, and, at the same time, impelled him to respect the rights and sympathize with the sufferings of the humblest.
Hall did work as a waiter for Pickering toward the end of the war, as he stated in his pension applications. Otherwise, I don’t believe a word of this.
Hall never mentioned such close encounters with Washington in his applications or, so far as I know, anywhere else. As Harrington told the story, it reinforced everything that Sarah Josepha Hale’s ante-bellum magazine readers would want to believe: Washington a “saviour” kind even to blacks rather than a slightly conflicted slaveholder totally invested in formal hierarchy and manners, Hall an obedient servant to his “master” and to Washington rather than a stubborn fighter for his pension and for civil rights in the new republic.
Tonight I’ll speak about how Washington started to think differently about black soldiers and African-Americans in general. But I really don’t think that ever extended to sharing his bed.