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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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“We pronounce it to be an impudent forgery”

Two days ago I quoted an article signed “The Mirror” from the 15 July 1803 Republican newspaper of Baltimore.

Over the next month the same essay was reprinted in other Federalist periodicals:
  • Middlebury (Vermont) Mercury, 3 Aug 1803.
  • Spectator (New York), 7 Aug 1803.
  • Alexandria Advertiser, 8 Aug 1803.
  • Newburyport Herald, 9 Aug 1803.
(Five years later, on 18 Aug 1808, the piece reappeared in Baltimore’s North American and Mercantile Daily Advertiser, possibly pulled out of a leftover copy of the original newspaper.)

The target of the essay, the Aurora of Philadelphia, was not so positive about it, of course. On 18 August it published the third in the series titled “A Vindication of the Democratic Constitutions of America.” This was probably the work of the newspaper’s editor, William Duane (1760-1835, shown here). The essay’s main point was, “there is no disagreement on the fact that a democracy is a republic.” [And indeed, even today people have difficulty defining the difference between a republic and any form of democracy that’s not a pure democracy.]

The “Mirror” essayist had foolishly claimed those were different, the Aurora stated, and:
The writer who could be capable of such disingenuity and fraudulent misquotation, is open to the reasonable suspicion of every other fraud which would tend to serve his purpose. Of this character we consider an anecdote, which the Anti Democrat gives in the paper of the 15th June [sic], and which we shall copy here at once to protest against it as spurious and to show that its hostility is aimed at republican government, and, at the reputation of the man above all others least likely to belie the principles and political pursuits of his whole life.
The Aurora then quoted the Republican’s anecdote about Benjamin Franklin and the lady at the end of the Constitutional Convention before responding:
The republic here alluded to is the constitution of the U. States now existing. It is well known that Dr. Franklin tho he approved of the constitution altogether, would have preferred a variation in its parts. He held that the president should be elected directly by the people, in the same mode as members of congress are elected; and that the senate should have been chosen not by the filtration of the state legislature, but that an extra number of members, from each state should be chosen to the house and representatives and that the senate should be elected out of that house.

Any man who refers to the former constitution of Pennsylvania, will find that Dr. Franklin did not think a free people could have too much or more than would do them good of republicanism. The anecdote has no foundation, we pronounce it to be an impudent forgery. But it shews that the Anti Democrat is as hostile to American republicanism under one name as under another.
The Aurora had some claim to know what Franklin would have said since it had been founded by his grandson and protégé, Benjamin Franklin Bache. Duane himself wasn’t a Franklin descendant, but he had married Bache’s widow.

The Aurora’s attack on “The Mirror” essay, and the anecdote about Franklin in particular, produced this defense in the 9 December Republican:
This anecdote “The Editor” pronounces to be “without foundation, and an impudent forgery;” though no more than a mere concurrence with the universally received opinion, that men are more inclined to extend than to shorten the line of the liberty.

Who is this “Editor”? and how did he come by this information? The Doctor [Franklin] is dead, but the lady who related the anecdote is yet living, and of unsullied veracity. We should mention her name were it proper for us, to bring it into collision with his. We feel, however, assured, that she will, of her own free motion, confirm the anecdote, should accident at any time, bring to her knowledge that it had been questioned.

It is foreign to the nature of our subject to discuss the merits or demerits of Doctor Franklin’s politics. We shall only observe, that the Doctor was often happy in the adaptation of short and pithy sayings to passing events; and that the one in question, was not the only good thing the constitution drew from him. We still remember his story with the French lady, related in the convention, who, like “the Editor”, was, some how or other, always in the right.
That response was clearly from the same author as the 15 July article—Dr. James McHenry. Like the original essay, it carried the headline “The Mirror” and was festooned with classical footnotes.

Furthermore, McHenry came close to dropping the façade of pseudonymity to invoke personal authority. By writing, “We still remember his story with the French lady, related in the convention,” he hinted that he had been at the Convention himself. And he was publicly inviting Elizabeth Powel to “of her own free motion, confirm the anecdote.” But at this point, the argument was a draw.

TOMORROW: The story evolves again.

Monday, March 27, 2017

How Dr. McHenry Operated on His Anecdote

As Dr. James McHenry first recorded the story of Elizabeth Powel, Benjamin Franklin, and the new Constitution in his journal, it was only twenty-six words. This was the entire exchange he wrote down (exact words, different formatting):
Powel: Well, Doctor what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?

Franklin: A republic, if you can keep it.
However, when McHenry made the story public in the 15 July 1803 Republican, or Anti-Democrat newspaper, it had evolved. Now the exchange was:
Powel: Well, Doctor, what have we got?

Franklin: A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.

Powel: And why not keep it?

Franklin: Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.
In 1787, Powel was concerned that the new Constitution, with its new national executive, would produce a “monarchy” instead of a republic. But by 1803 the word “monarchy,” which critics had thrown at the Washington and Adams administrations in the 1790s, had vanished from McHenry’s story.

The new version also added a lot more words: an explicit warning that “the people” could ruin the republic if they “eat more of it than does them good.” Again, that reflects Federalist thinking. A story of Powel worrying about monarchy had become a story about Franklin (now conveniently dead) worrying about democracy.

Now it’s true that eighteenth-century political thinkers, especially those who favored more aristocratic government, perceived a slippery path from democracy to monarchy. With too much power, they warned, the people would become prey to a demagogue who would then become a dictator and eventually set up a new dynasty. They saw examples of that danger in classical republics.

But in this case, it looks like McHenry was projecting his anti-Jefferson worries onto the story he remembered from up to sixteen busy years before. I suspect he was working off memory instead of digging out his old journal. But he may have knowingly reshaped the anecdote to what he thought it should say.

Either way, that story was now out in the political arena.

TOMORROW: Pushback in the press.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

“This prophetic answer of the Doctor”

Yesterday I quoted a short anecdote from Dr. James McHenry’s diary of the Constitutional Convention. That diary was first published in 1906, becoming part of the twentieth century’s understanding of the Constitution. But it doesn’t appear in any books before then.

I recently found, however, that the story also appeared in significantly different form in the short-lived Baltimore newspaper called The Republic; or Anti-Democrat.

In June 1803 George L. Gray became that newspaper’s owner and publisher. From the begining this paper opposed President Thomas Jefferson’s administration and politics—a little confusing since Jefferson’s party was also claiming the mantle of “republican.”

Gray’s 15 July issue included a long essay headlined “Thoughts on the essential qualities of a Democracy recommended to the serious consideration of the sober and thinking part of the community.” A subhead said “For the Republican, or Anti-Democrat,” showing that this was the first publication of that essay. That in turns suggests the writer probably came from Maryland.

At the end of the essay was the label “The Mirror,” which looks like a signature. However, later essays from the same author were headed “The Mirror,” so that was probably meant to be the name of the whole series.

At the end came twenty-five endnotes—a rare sight in newspapers then or now. Most of those notes cited classical sources: Aristotle, Xenophon, Demosthenes, and so on. One pointed to the target of the essay: the Jeffersonian newspaper in Philadelphia called the Aurora. Another cited the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. So the pseudonymous author was educated and wanted readers to know it.

The essay began:
The deepest thinker of all antiquity, after examining and comparing the theory and practice of upwards of two hundred commonwealths, the justly celebrated Aristotle, whom the great [John] Locke acknowledged “a master in politics,” speaking of the different kinds of government, observes, of the republic, that it is “prone to degenerate into democracy.”

Doctor [Benjamin] Franklin, our countryman, who was certainly well read in human nature, held on this point the same opinion as the Stagirite [i.e., Aristotle]. Being asked by a lady of Philadelphia remarkable for wit and good sense, on the dissolution of the convention which frames the constitution—“well Doctor what have we got?”

“A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

“And why not keep it?“ rejoined the Lady.

“Because,” replied the Doctor, “the people on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”

Sixteen years have not elapsed since this prophetic answer of the Doctor, and what do we behold! Men openly and voluntarily affirming the name of Democrat, and loudly proclaiming “the constitution of the United States is a Democracy, the American governments are in every respect completely and perfectly Democracies,” and those who will not so consider them, “fools, despicable knaves, or imposters.”

Such is the dogma and language of the Aurora.
The author of this essay was almost certainly James McHenry. In 1803 he was living in Baltimore, retired from active politics after a contentious stint as John Adams’s Federalist Secretary of War. He is the only person we can be sure already knew the anecdote about Franklin. And his papers at the Library of Congress include a file labeled as “Drafts of articles for The Mirror, undated.”

TOMORROW: How the anecdote had changed.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

“A republic…if you can keep it.”

This is the launch of a deep dive into one of the most popular and portentous anecdotes from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. I wrote about that story before, but a prodding tweet from Zara Anishanslin sent me further into the depths.

The earliest appearance of the anecdote is on the last page of Dr. James McHenry’s journal of his experience as a convention delegate. Here’s the text, as transcribed at Yale Law School’s Avalon Project:
A lady asked Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.
To which McHenry added this footnote:
The lady here aluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.
As I wrote back here, that meant Elizabeth Powel, host of a political salon and wife of the city’s once and future mayor.

We can even see the story in McHenry’s own writing courtesy of the Library of Congress (from which I cribbed the image above).

This is the last entry in McHenry’s journal. The Convention had broken up on 17 Sept 1787, and delegates were heading home. If the story had appeared in the journal between two dated entries, we could be sure of when McHenry wrote it down. But as it is, all we know is that he wrote it down after 17 September—perhaps the next day, perhaps when he got home to Maryland and put his papers away, perhaps years later.

And then at some further moment in time, McHenry went back into this document and added the footnote naming Powel. His writing was a little larger then. The reference to her as “Mrs. Powel of Philade.” suggests he had left that city.

I suspect that McHenry wrote down the anecdote in 1787, soon after the Convention ended. There’s no clue as to whether he witnessed the exchange himself or simply heard about it from Franklin or Powel or another direct witness. It seems unlikely that McHenry wrote down a story that lots of people were circulating because there don’t seem to be any other tellings.

As for the footnote, that might well date from years later when the anecdote and its source were being questioned.

McHenry’s diary was published in the American Historical Review in 1906. Five years later, Max Farrand quoted his stories in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. That made the anecdote close to canonical in our national history of the Convention, and many authors have quoted it since—though often with some unexplained doubt that it really took place.

There are some interesting points to consider about how authors retold and used the story in the 1900s, but first I want to discuss the preceding century. Google Book turned up no versions of the story from book published in the 1800s, leading me to think it was buried in McHenry’s papers until 1906.

But I found it was actually deployed—almost certainly by McHenry himself—in political debate during the Jefferson and Madison administrations.

TOMORROW: The anecdote resurfaces.

Friday, March 24, 2017

“Here lies ye Body of Dr Enoch Dole”

Earlier in the month I quoted a diary that mentioned the death of Dr. Enoch Dole during the final days of the siege of Boston.

Dr. Dole’s widow erected a striking gravestone for him in Littleton (shown in a photo by Carol A. Purinton, here courtesy of Wikipedia). At the top is a relief of a hand wielding a sword, an angel’s head, and the motto “Memento Mori.” Below that is this text, some words squeezed in by the carver:
Here lies ye Body of Dr Enoch Dole of Lancaster AE. 33 Years 5 months & 3 days, he unfortunately fell with 3 others ye 9th of March 1776, by a Cannon Ball from our cruel & unnatural Foes ye British Troops, while on his Duty on Dorchester Point.

No warning giv’n! Unceremonious fate!
A sudden rush from Lifes meredian joys.
A wrench from all we are! from all we love!
What a change
From yesterday!* Thy darling hope so near,
Long labourd prize!) O how ambition flushd
Thy glowing cheek! ambition truly great,
Of virtuous praise.
And Oh! ye last, last, what (can word express
Thought reach?) ye last, last silence of a friend.
Those lines of poetry are cobbled together, not always accurately, from Edward Young’s The Complaint, or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, a very popular poem in the late 1700s.

This is a rare gravestone that contains a footnote, attached to the asterisked phrase “What a change from yesterday!” The stone’s last line explains: “Meaning his Entrance into Boston which so soon took Place & on which his Heart was much sett.”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Fame of the Virginia Riflemen


As I discussed at an event last week, the Continental Congress voted to raise rifle companies for the Continental Army in June 1775 even before it chose a commander-in-chief.

The first plan called for two companies from Virginia, two from Maryland, and six from Pennsylvania. The response from western Pennsylvania was so strong that by the end of the month, the Congress added two more companies from that colony.

Thus, about two-thirds of the riflemen who came to Cambridge in the summer of 1775 were Pennsylvanians. That surprised me because I’d read so much about Virginia riflemen.

So I went to Google Book’s Ngram viewer to see if my impression was off. I searched for the frequency of the phrases “Virginia riflemen,” “Pennsylvania riflemen,” and “Maryland riflemen” in literature between 1775 and 1860, stopping the search then so it wouldn’t be confused by results from the U.S. Civil War.

As you can see from the results, “Pennsylvania riflemen” showed up more often soon after those companies were formed. But then “Virginia riflemen” took over. The next century brought a printing boom, and in the 1820s and from 1840 on those Virginian troops were marching far ahead of the men from the other two colonies.

I’m not sure what to make of that. Certainly the most successful and famous rifleman of the initial regiments was Gen. Daniel Morgan of Virginia. But Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was known for producing the actual rifles. Of course, John Adams would explain it by saying, “Virginian geese are always swan.”

In other riflemen research, at the Journal of the American Revolution Ian Saberton shared some sources about the marksmanship of those soldiers compared to British infantrymen. And here’s Hugh Harrington’s article on the work by David Rittenhouse and Charles Willson Peale to mount a telescopic sight on a rifle.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bullock on Polite Politics in Boston, 29 Mar.

On Wednesday, 29 March, Steven C. Bullock will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston on “Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America.” This presentation is based on his new book of the same name.
Even as eighteenth-century thinkers from John Locke to Thomas Jefferson struggled to find effective means to restrain power, contemporary discussions of society gave increasing attention to ideals of refinement, moderation, and polished self-presentation.

These two sets of ideas have long seemed separate, one dignified as political theory, the other primarily concerned with manners and material culture. Tea Sets and Tyranny challenges that division. In its original context, Steven C. Bullock suggests, politeness also raised important issues of power, leadership, and human relationships. This politics of politeness helped make opposition to overbearing power central to early American thought and practice.

Tea Sets and Tyranny follows the experiences of six extraordinary individuals, each seeking to establish public authority and personal standing: a cast of characters that includes a Virginia governor consumed by fits of towering rage; a Carolina woman who befriended a British princess; and a former Harvard student who became America’s first confidence man.
Steven Bullock is a professor of history at Worcester Polytechnic University. His previous work includes Revolutionary Brotherhood, a study of Freemasonry in the Revolution and early republic.

This event will take place from 6:00 to 7:00 P.M., with a reception beforehand starting at 5:30 P.M. There is $10 registration fee per person, with no charge for M.H.S. Members or Fellows. But of course all are expected to be on their best behavior.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Anishanslin on “A Woman in Silk” in Boston, 23 Mar.

On Thursday, 23 March, Zara Anishanslin will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society on the topic of her new book Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World. This event is part of the society’s series of lectures on “The Politics of Taste.”

As its title suggests, the starting point of this book is a portrait of a woman in a silk dress. Anishanslin explores that object through four people involved in creating it. In reverse order, they are:
  • painter Robert Feke of Newport.
  • sitter and patron Anne Shippen Willing of Philadelphia.
  • master silk weaver Simon Julins of Spitalfields, London.
  • pioneering fabric designer Anna Maria Garthwaite, also of London.
The painting thus connects four people on either side of the Atlantic. By exploring the worlds they moved in, the book lays out the commercial warp and aesthetic woof that helped to define genteel taste in the British Empire.

Zara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. She specializes in the study of material culture or, as her website says, she has “a thing for things.” Liz Covart discussed that approach to historical research with Anishanslin on this episode of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast’s “Doing History” series.

Admission to this lecture is $10, or free to M.H.S. Members and Fellows. The event starts at 5:30 P.M. with a reception. Prof. Anishanslin will speak at 6:00 and sign copies of her book afterward.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Colonial Comics at the Royall House, 22 Mar.

On Wednesday, 22 March, I’ll be part of a panel discussion with comics creators E. J. Barnes and Jesse Lonergan at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford.

We’ve all contributed to the two volumes of Colonial Comics: New England, whose main editor is Jason Rodriguez. Volume I told stories from the years 1620-1750, and the new Volume II brings the history up to 1775.

Both books feature an array of writing and illustration styles from many talented creators. They focus on lesser-known events that expose the fault lines of colonial society—“stories about Puritans and free thinkers, Pequots and Jewish settlers, female business owners and playwrights, gravedigging medical students, instigators of civil disobedience, college students, rum traders, freemen, and slaves.” Here’s a recent review of the first volume from Comics in the Classroom.

In volume 1, E. J. Barnes wrote and watercolored the story of Thomas Morton, an English settler in what’s now Quincy who was at odds with the Massachusetts Bay Puritans. She created portraits of historic figures for volume 2. She’s also the author of “Caroline’s Catalog,” about astronomer Caroline Herschel, and “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” based on a poem by Jonathan Swift.

Jesse Lonergan is the author of the graphic novels All Star, Flower and Fade, and Joe and Azat, as well as many short stories in comics form. For the second volume of Colonial Comics he and I created a story about watchman Benjamin Burdick working to solve a mystery about one of the victims of the Boston Massacre.

We’ll talk about how we created these stories, the choices we made historiographically and artistically, and the potential of the comics form, especially in schools.

This event is scheduled to start at 7:30 P.M. It is free for Royall House members, $5 for others. There will be copies of Colonial Comics and other publications available for purchase and signing afterward.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Rifleman in New York

When we left Sgt. Henry Bedinger in mid-March 1776 yesterday, he and his company of Virginia riflemen had been ordered to march from Boston to New York.

He continued his diary, preserving information about how many miles the riflemen could cover in an early spring day and about the stops along the way. (When Bedinger noted a person’s name instead of a town, that was the tavern where the company stayed overnight.)
16th. Marched off to Deacon Ben. Woods the Hartford Road. 20 Miles, the roads were so Excessive Bad the Teams Could Not follow us. Staid awhile in Westborough. Saw Some warlike Stores, viz 17 pieces of fine Canon, two Mortars & 1 Cohorn—
Gen. George Washington had also ordered some of his artillery force to New York.

The relatively short distance that the riflemen marched on 17 March might have been because that was a Sunday. Or they might simply have taken time to resupply themselves.
17th. Drawed 6 Days allowance of Beef & Pork. Thence Marched to Mr. Sherman’s—7 Miles. Rec’d Intelligence that the Enemy had evacuated the town of Boston on Saturday after we Left Cambridge. Left a number of Canon Spiked up and Many other Stores. Left the town in Great Haste.

18th. Marched to Shumway’s—15 1/2 Miles.

19th. Marched to Woodstock—12 Miles.

20th. Marched to Wilson’s—25 Miles.

21st. Marched from Wilson’s to Hartford—17 Miles. This being the Metropolis of Conecticut, a seaport Town, Situate on Conecticut River. Very pretty place. Saw Some Regular officers [i.e., British prisoners of war] Taken at St. John’s, &c.

22nd. Took in fresh provisions, &c—112 Miles to Boston.

23rd. Marched from Hartford to Wethersfield, 4 Miles, thence to Wallingsford 22 Miles—26 Miles.

24th. Marched to New Haven, a large Seaport Town Beautifully Situated on the Sound, a Number of Vessels in the Harbour, a Brigg of 14 Guns on the Sound, and a Schooner fitting out of 12 Ditto.—13 Miles. Thence Marched to Millford, a small seaport Town Just fifty Miles from Hartford.

25th. Thence Marched to Stratford River—4 Miles, thence to Fairfield, a County Town, a place of Trade and Seaport.

26th. Marched to Norwalk, a small Seaport Town—12 Miles, thence to Stamford, fresh provisions. &c—14 Miles.

27th. Marched through Horseneck to Rye—10 Miles, thence to East Chester in New York Government—10 Miles—20 Miles.

28th. Marched Over Kingsbridge to New York—20 Miles.

29th. Viewed the City, the Numerous Canon Ready fixed. Every Street Towards the Water in all parts of the Town fortified with Breastworks, &c. East, West, North, and South of the Town are Forts.

Saw the King’s Effigy on a Horse in his proper Size on a large Marble Pillar Beautifully Gilded, Stands in Broad Street Near the old fortification in a Yard that is all picketed in with Iron palisadoes. Likewise Lord Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, in Broadway Enclosed in Like Manner. Saw all the Large Buildings, the City Hall, Royal Exchange, all the Beautiful Churches.
I love the thought of Bedinger, soldier from western Virginia, sightseeing on Manhattan.

That “Beautifully Gilded” statue of George III would last less than five more months. After the Declaration of Independence was read in New York on 9 July, the crowd pulled it down and converted most of it into musket balls. A few parts of the statue survive at the New-York Historical Society, as does the remnant of that statue of William Pitt, first Earl of Chatham.

At the end of June 1776, the Virginia rifle companies’ first enlistment period ended. Sgt. Bedinger volunteered to stay on, promoted to lieutenant. But he was captured at the Battle of Fort Washington in November and kept prisoner for four years. In March 1779, Bedinger reassured his mother, “I am much hardened and Can undergo almost Anything.” He was right; he lived over sixty more years.