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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Friday, February 24, 2017

Vincent Carretta on John Peters

One of the many notable achievements of Vincent Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage is its picture of the man Wheatley married, John Peters.

As Carretta writes in a recent blog post at the Oxford University Press website:
Until very recently, all we’ve had to go on were two very brief nineteenth-century accounts of John Peters (1746?–1801). The first depicts him as a failed grocer with an aspiration to gentility, who married Phillis in April 1778, and who abandoned her as she lay dying in desperate poverty 6 years later. He was also said to have been something of a handsome ne’er-do-well con man, who fraudulently posed as a lawyer or physician. We’re left with the image of a Dickensian villain in a tale of the decline and death of a duped sentimental heroine. But how reliable are those accounts?
Carretta found much more about Peters in local records that previous authors didn’t dig out because the early picture seemed so clear and unappealing. Carretta writes about John Peters and Phillis Wheatley:
Their marriage was initially prosperous and promising, according to tax and court records. Phillis and John Peters lived in a relatively upscale section of Boston. Peters and his white business partner sold rye, wheat, tea, nails, sugar, and other goods in the counties of western Massachusetts during the spring and summer of 1779. At a time when creditors often had to take debtors to court to collect what was owed them, Peters won one lawsuit against a debtor. But he simultaneously lost a much larger lawsuit by one of his own creditors in 1780. . . .

Phillis and John were definitely back in Boston by June 1784, when John Peters, “Labourer,” won another lawsuit against the debtor he had first sued in 1776. Winning, however, gained him nothing because his debtor had fled to England.
The post-war economy hurt lots of people that year. For John and Phillis Peters, the color line made that the situation more dire. John was jailed in September. Phillis died in December.

However, as the economy stabilized, widower Peters began to rise in society once more. In 1791 the town tax records identified him as “Lawyer Physician Gent pintlesmith.” A prosecution for barratry shut down Peters’s practice of taking people to court, but when he died in 1801 the newspaper still referred to him as “Dr John Peters.”

As for “pintlesmith,” Carretta defines that as a skilled craftsman making “the pins or bolts on which other parts, such as rudders or hinges, turn.” However, Francis Grose’s 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue says it was a slang term for a surgeon. More particularly, other references make clear, it meant a surgeon specializing in the effects of venereal diseases on the male member. So that tax identification might have been a way of acknowledging that Peters practiced medicine while giving him low status.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

“Retreat and Resistance” in Salem, 26 Feb.

On Sunday, 26 February, Salem will have a “fun and informal reenactment” of the confrontation between Patriots and redcoats across the town’s North River on that date in 1775.

Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie had orders to lead his men from the 64th Regiment of Foot across the river and search Robert Foster’s smithy. But locals, led by David Mason, had raised the drawbridge over the river, blocking the redcoats.

A crowd gathered around the soldiers. Militia units mustered in nearby towns. There was some tussling, some swinging of hatchets, some poking with bayonets. A soldier pricked Joseph Whicher’s chest—enough that Salem historians have claimed the first blood of the Revolutionary War was spilled that day.

Eventually the town’s civilian leaders and Lt. Col. Leslie found a compromise, brokered by Anglican minister Thomas Barnard. Mason lowered the drawbridge. Leslie marched his men across it, far enough that he could say he had fulfilled his orders, and then they turned around and went back to the ship awaiting them in Marblehead.

During the stalemate at the bridge, Mason’s confederates had moved all the cannon he had collected for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress out of Foster’s workshop and into a nearby woods. Those cannon were being mounted on carriages for battlefield use. Within a week, they were moved on to Concord, where a larger British force came looking for them in April.

The commemoration on Sunday starts with two gatherings:
  • 10:30 A.M.: The First Church of Salem Unitarian-Universalist welcomes everyone for a service that will end with a warning that the redcoats are coming, just as happened in 1775. That will be about 11:30, when folks can also arrive at the church yard to join the congregants in heading to the bridge.
  • 11:00 A.M.: Folks representing the British army will meet at Hamilton Hall with fifes, recorders, and slide whistles. They will walk up to a mile (weather depending) to recreate the soldiers’ approach from Marblehead.
  • 11:45 A.M.: At the corner of Federal and North Streets (Murphy’s Funeral Home), Lt. Col. Leslie and militia captain John Felt will dispute whether the bridge must come down and what the soldiers must do. People are invited to observe and shout surly comments.
  • 12:00 noon: At the end of the reenactment, everyone will be invited into the First Church for an hour of warmth and refreshment.
The 26 Feb 1775 confrontation was part of the larger competition for artillery pieces described in The Road to Concord. On Friday, 7 April, I’ll speak at the Salem Athenaeum about that town’s many crucial connections to the Massachusetts arms race. General admission will be $15, for members $10, and for students with ID free.

Folks in the region are organizing other talks and events in the coming weeks about Leslie’s Retreat and the surrounding conflict. I’ll share more news of those as they come near.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Chevalier and the Chavelière

Yesterday I described the busy, accomplished life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a champion swordsman and celebrated musician in pre-Revolutionary France.

In the late 1780s he spent a couple of years in London. And there he encountered an old acquaintance, the Chevalier d’Eon. Reportedly D’Eon had seen Saint-Georges fence as a teenager in Paris.

D’Eon had had an eventful military and diplomatic career before going into exile in Britain in 1760s. Starting in 1777, D’Eon had lived in France full-time as a woman. In 1785 the chevalier returned to London, where people still remembered him as a skilled swordsman.

On 9 Apr 1787, Saint-Georges and D’Eon performed a fencing exhibition in front of George, the Prince of Wales, and his entourage. Charles Jean Robineau painted the scene, and by 1789 it was turned into a print for the popular market. The print’s caption referred to D’Eon as “Mademoiselle La chevalière.”

I’d seen this image in connection with D’Eon, who certainly stands out in dress and bonnet. But Saint-Georges was also a celebrity and, as a man of African ancestry, a curiosity. His dark tan skin is not evident in the print, at least not in some hand-colored examples, but it’s clear in the painting.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Celebrated Saint-Georges

A concert in Seattle got me intrigued about the life of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

He was born on Guadeloupe in 1745, son of a wealthy planter and his black slave. At around age seven, he traveled to France to go to school. His parents joined him in Paris a couple of years later, his father receiving a noble title.

At age thirteen, Joseph went to a school of military arts. By his late teens, he was known as one of the finest swordsmen in France. The king granted him the title of chevalier.

That would be impressive enough, but in his twenties Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges became one of Paris’s most celebrated musicians, concertmaster of the Concert des Amateurs. He wrote an opera with Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, later author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He also crossed paths with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, though no music seems to have come of that.

Then the American War started to affect Saint-Georges’s life. Because his orchestra’s patrons had put all their money into supplying the French army in America, the Concert des Amateurs had to shut down in 1781. He bounced back with a new patron in Philippe D’Orléans, duc de Chartres, and his lodge of Freemasons. With their support, Saint-Georges commissioned the Paris symphonies from Joseph Haydn.

In 1785, Philippe succeeded to his father’s title as duc d’Orléans. A cousin of King Louis XVI, the duke favored a constitutional monarchy along British lines, particularly if he could be in charge as regent. He sent Saint-Georges to London to strengthen contacts with the Prince of Wales, early anti-slavery activists, and other potential allies.

The portrait above comes from Saint-Georges’s time in London. It was painted by Boston-born Loyalist Mather Brown at the request of the Prince of Wales.

Saint-Georges was in the audience at the opening of the Estates General of France in 1789. That limited attempt at political change soon brought on the larger French Revolution. At first Saint-Georges continued work as a musician and courtier, but in 1792 he accepted a commission as colonel of a cavalry legion of free men of color from Haiti.

For the next several years, Saint-Georges was part of the army of Revolutionary France, caught up in its politics. That meant he spent some of his time at the front, some in Paris, some in jail. There’s evidence he went to Haiti in 1796 as part of the central government’s unsuccessful campaign to suppress Toussaint Louverture. Finally he returned to music, frustrated by government service and suffering from illness. Saint-Georges died in Paris in 1799.

TOMORROW: Another picture of Saint-Georges.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reading about Rick Beyer’s Rivals unto Death

Rivals Unto Death: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is a retelling of the political rivalry that led to the most famous fatal duel in U.S. history. It comes from Rick Beyer, an author and filmmaker from Lexington.

Rick’s behind the “First Shot” film, the “In Their Own Words” pageant, the annual Lexington tea burning, and more to come. I invited him to answer a few questions about his new book.

What was the genesis of Rivals Unto Death? How did you come to write it?

I have Lin Manuel Miranda to thank for that! With the musical Hamilton getting hotter and hotter, the editor who shepherded my first book into print invited me to write about the rivalry. The idea was to squeeze the whole story into a compact and accessible volume. I’ve long been fascinated by this tale, and I jumped at the chance. The publisher had a hurry-up deadline, but I had an ace up my sleeve. A dozen years ago I researched the duel for a History Channel documentary I was supposed to produce. At the last minute Richard Dreyfuss decided he wanted to produce that show, and for some strange reason they went with him instead of me! That research stood me in good stead for this project.

What were the biggest surprises for you as you researched and wrote the book?

To start with, Burr saved Hamilton from capture during the Revolution, and may well have saved his life later on when he extricated Hamilton from what was shaping up as a duel with future President James Monroe. You won’t find that in most history books—or the musical! And there are many more fascinating and little known connections. The two men switched back and forth from allies to adversaries multiple times…so tracing their relationship makes for a fascinating journey.

I was also surprised by the degree to which I revised my opinion of Aaron Burr. He’s not quite the cardboard cutout villain history has portrayed. He was a war hero, a feminist, an abolitionist, a supporter of immigrant rights (far more so than immigrant Alexander Hamilton), a patron of the arts, a loving husband and father, and a brilliant innovator in political campaigning. All and all a fascinating character.

The bulk of Rivals Unto Death is about the tangled legal, commercial, and political world of New York in the early republic. How did you get a handle on that topic?

Important as it was, NYC was tiny by modern standards. When Burr and Hamilton started practicing law there in 1783, there only about two dozen lawyers in the entire city. Today you can find that many in a Wall Street Starbucks! A great source on the crowded cockpit that was early 19th-century New York is the Pulitzer Prize-winning history Gotham by ‎Mike Wallace‎ and Edwin G. Burrows.

One of the things that history tends to paper over is the passion and partisanship of the time. The founders weren’t marble statues; they were flesh and blood men who were often at each other’s throats. So many events and controversies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries seem remarkably familiar today. Street protests ending in violence, hysterical predictions about presidential candidates, accusations of vote fraud, anger over immigration and deficits—it was all there in the time of Hamilton and Burr, and it forms the context for their rivalry. A great source of insights on that score is the website founders.archives.gov, a searchable archive with more than 175,000 pieces of correspondence and other writings from the first five presidents and Alexander Hamilton. Thank you, National Archives!

How did you structure your narrative for readers?

This is a murder mystery in which there is no doubt about who pulled the trigger, but the why is endlessly fascinating. The book opens one week before the duel, at New York’s Fraunces Tavern, where Hamilton and Burr sat side by side at a convivial July 4th dinner. No one else there knew that they already set in motion their duel, and they gave no hint of it that night. How could they share an enjoyable evening when they were dead set on shooting it out? What in the world was going on? That’s what I wanted to explore, and the book goes back to the time of the revolution in a search for clues.

I structured the book as a countdown to the duel. The chapters literally count down from ten to one, and at the beginning of each chapter I note how much time is left until the duel. Burr and Hamilton are on a slow-motion collision course, and as the years tick down, the causes of their ultimate confrontation become clear.

You write that the roots of the rivalry between Hamilton and Burr lay in the two men’s relationships to George Washington. Tell us more about those relationships and how they steered the men.

Hamilton and Burr were each offered a chance to serve on Washington’s staff during the Revolution, Burr when he was twenty, Hamilton when he was twenty-two. Burr lasted ten days and left with a bitter taste in his mouth, harboring a lifelong enmity toward Washington. Hamilton stayed four years, becoming Washington’s most important aide and his lifelong protégé. Over the years, this fundamental divide over Washington shaped their politics and soured their relationship.

Burr challenged Hamilton to their duel after reading a reference to “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton had expressed.” Do you have any suspicions about what that opinion was?

Gore Vidal posited that Hamilton accused Burr of having an incestuous relationship with his daughter, but I think that is just a novelist’s invention. Hamilton had written privately to people about his fear that Burr might be secretly scheming to create a new country out of New England and New York, largely for the sake of his own personal aggrandizement. I suspect his “more despicable opinion” involved some variation on that theme. As an immigrant who had adopted America as his own nation, Hamilton was unalterably opposed to breaking apart the nation he had worked so hard to create. “I view the suggestion of such a project with horror,” he once wrote. It seems like just the kind of thing he would expound on at a political dinner not knowing it would eventually bring about about his own demise.

Thanks, Rick! If you have your own questions about Hamilton and Burr, you can ask Rick at these upcoming appearances:

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Noel on Exercise for Scholars, 22 Feb.

On Wednesday, 22 February, Rebecca Noel will speak on the topic “Beware the Chair: The Medieval Roots of School Exercise…and Your Standing Desk” at the historical society in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

So what should we be worried about?
This talk explores the sometimes alarming, sometimes hilarious history of the idea that the scholarly life makes people sick. It’s a problem that came to afflict more people as education expanded during the Enlightenment and became nearly universal in the 1800s. Whether the culprit was lack of movement, seated posture, blood rushing to the head, tuberculosis, or digestive woes, physicians have fretted over the health of scholars since at least Plato’s day. Tracing this idea from Europe to the United States, from scholars to children, and from boys’ to girls’ education, the presentation shows how durable the fear has remained—and how relevant it is to the more sedentary world in which we now live.
Noel is Associate Professor of History at Plymouth State University. She is working on a book titled Save Our Scholars: The Mandate for Health in Early American Education. Rebecca and I overlapped at college, but she was already studying American history and I wasn’t, so I didn’t meet her until several years ago at a Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife. This posting was inspired by the paper she presented then.

The program in Plymouth starts at 7:00 P.M. It is free and open to the public, and there will be refreshments to work off.

And now here are some remarks from Josiah Quincy (1772-1864) about his days at an academy in Andover starting at age six, in the middle of the Revolutionary War:
The truth was, I was an incorrigible lover of sports of every kind. My heart was in ball and marbles. I needed and loved perpetual activity of the body, and with these dispositions I was compelled to sit with four other boys on the same hard bench, daily, four hours in the morning and four in the afternoon, and study lessons which I could not understand. Severe as was my fate, the elasticity of my mind cast off all recollection of it as soon as school hours were over, and I do not recollect, or believe, that I ever made any complaint to my mother or any one else. . . .

One recollection of my boyhood is characteristic of the spirit of the times. The boys had established it as a principle that every hoop and sled should have thirteen marks as evidence of the political character of the owner,—if which were wanting, the articles became fair prize, and were condemned and forfeited without judge, jury or decree of admiralty.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

“Exhibition at the Dwelling-House of Mr. PAUL REVERE”

Yesterday I passed on the news of activities next week at the Paul Revere House, which is now a historic museum.

But well before that building became a museum in the early 1900s, Paul Revere himself made it into a spectacle. That was on 5 March 1771, the first anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Less than a year after his family moved into that house, Revere used its windows to help his political movement.

In an unusually typset front page, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette described how the town observed that day. The Congregational meetinghouses (but not, by implication, the Anglican churches) tolled their bells for an hour starting at noon. And then:
In the Evening there was a very striking Exhibition at the Dwelling-House of Mr. PAUL REVERE, fronting the Old-North Square.—At one of the Chamber-Windows was the appearance of the Ghost of the unfortunate young [Christopher] Seider, with one of his Fingers in the Wound, endeavouring to stop the Blood issuing therefrom: Near him his Friends weeping: And at a small distance a monumental Obelisk, with his Bust in Front:—On the Front of the Pedestal, were the Names of those killed on the 5th of March: Underneath the following Lines,
Seider’s pale Ghost fresh-bleeding stands,
And Vengeance for his Death demands.
In the next Window were represented the Soldiers drawn up, firing at the People assembled before them—the Dead on the Ground—and the Wounded falling, with the Blood running in Streams from their Wounds: Over which was wrote FOUL PLAY.

In the third Window was the Figure of a Woman, representing AMERICA, sitting on the Stump of a Tree, with a Staff in her Hand, and the Cap of Liberty on the Top thereof,—one Foot on the Head of a Grenadier lying prostrate grasping a Serpent.—Her Finger pointing to the Tragedy.

The whole was so well executed, that the Spectators, which amounted to many Thousands, were struck with solemn Silence, and their Countenances covered with a melancholy Gloom. At Nine o’Clock the Bells tolled a doleful Peal, until Ten; when the Exhibition was withdrawn, and the People retired to their respective Habitations.
I’ve seen no report of a similar exhibition in Boston. It’s notable that it took place at Revere’s house in the North End rather than somewhere close to the center of town.

Perhaps Revere’s sideline of making and selling historical engravings was behind this event. The picture of the Massacre in his window could certainly have been based on the famous design he copied from Henry Pelham, and he could have had prints for sale. I suspect there were likewise models, perhaps British, of the other two scenes the newspaper described. Either that, or artist Christian Remick made them for Revere.

All that news from 1771 is a reminder that we’re coming up on the anniversary of the Massacre again. This year the reenactment will take place on the evening of Saturday, 4 March, outside the Old State House Museum. All that day there will be very striking activities.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Revisiting the Paul Revere House Next Week

This February school vacation is a fine time for families to take in the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End now that it’s expanded its exhibit space and made the silversmith’s house more accessible.

The site is offering some special events next week, free with admission.

Wednesday, 22 February, 10:30 A.M. to 12:30 P.M.
Drop-In Family Activities: Exploring Home
What makes a house a home? Come explore some materials, techniques, and designs used in three centuries of construction in Boston. Facilitated by a staff member, families will have a chance to see historic building materials up close and learn about the architecture found in and around the Paul Revere House.

Thursday, 23 February, at 10:00 & 11:00 A.M., 1:00 & 2:00 P.M.
Hands-On Tours of the Paul Revere House
Designed to bring our oldest historic house to life by offering opportunities to engage with reproduction objects in each room and to consider 17th- and 18th-century life from a kids’-eye-view, the approximately 30-minute tour is aimed at families.

Friday, 24 February, 1:30 to 3:30 PM
Drop-In Family Activities: Exploring Home
See above.

TOMORROW: The first time Paul Revere’s house was a public spectacle.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Getting the Job Done

Signers of the Declaration of Independence not born in the thirteen colonies (out of 56):

Signers of the Articles of Confederation not born in the thirteen colonies (out of 48):

Framers of the Constitution not born in the thirteen colonies (out of 55):

Members of the first federal Congress not born in the thirteen colonies (out of 95):
  • Aedanus Burke
  • Pierce Butler
  • Thomas Fitzsimons
  • James Jackson
  • Samuel Johnston
  • John Laurance
  • Robert Morris
  • William Paterson
  • Thomas Tudor Tucker

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Seeing Early Plays at the Boston Public Library

Earlier this month, Jay Moschella of the Boston Public Library tweeted news of the library’s ongoing project to digitize its sterling collection of early British drama. So I took a look.

More than 350 playbooks have been digitized and can now be read through archive.org. To find those items, follow this link to the B.P.L. catalogue. Then click on “More Search Options” in the center of the page and when the window opens choose “Boston Public Library - Online” at the upper left. Click “Set Search Options” below. Or, if you just want to browse, you can go straight here.

Among the late-eighteenth-century items is a 1771 edition of Nahum Tate’s version of The History of King Lear, first performed in 1681. Tate removed the Fool and finished big with the marriage of Cordelia and Edgar. That became the standard form of the play for the next century or so.

Here’s William Henry’s Ireland’s late-1795 booklet announcing his discovery of various William Shakespeare manuscripts—all of which he had forged. Ireland ran into trouble the next year when he produced an entire play called Vortigern, which was quickly recognized as awful. Ireland’s own literary ambitions weren’t easily quelled, however, so here’s the script of Henry II, proudly credited to “the author of Vortigern.”

There are also many lesser-known plays like this 1778 edition of Thomas Middleton’s A Tragi-Coomodie, called The Witch. And David Garrick’s manuscript of The Jubilee, a play he wrote for a celebration of Shakespeare in 1769. One might think the best way to celebrate Shakespeare would be to perform Shakespeare, but that’s not how Garrick managed that event.

As you can tell, much of the B.P.L.’s early drama collection relates to William Shakespeare. The library owns copies of each of the first four folio editions of his collected works and no fewer than thirteen editions of Hamlet published before 1709. That collection was the basis of a big exhibit last fall.

All of which brings up the question: How did this collection come to Boston, of all places? After all, the same people who founded the city also tried to drive London’s theaters out of business as sinful. Boston’s selectmen discouraged any public theater, even puppet shows, until after the Revolution. Surely those early settlers weren’t secretly keeping a stash of forbidden playbooks!

The answer to that mystery is that these publications were collected by Thomas Pennant Barton, a nineteenth-century diplomat who married a granddaughter of Stamp Act Congress delegate Robert R. Livingston. Barton got obsessed with Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He bought practically anything associated with Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, as long as it was in good condition (which means these items are easy to read online).

Four years after Barton’s death in 1869, his widow sold the collection to the Boston Public Library for $34,000. That was less than half of its appraised value. I’m still not sure why she chose to be so generous, and why she chose Boston over New York. (She still lived in New York.) But the result is a fabulous local resource now becoming available for anyone to study worldwide.

(The portrait above is David Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough.)