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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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

“An officer told Lord Cornwallis not long ago…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOMORROW: Who wrote this letter?

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