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, September 30, 2016

A Look at Boston’s Lost and Found

Last month at the African American Intellectual History blog, Jared Hardesty wrote about a surviving scrap of colonial Boston town records and what they reveal about the town’s black population.

The story starts in the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts room:

Pasted onto the pages of the nineteenth-century bound volume were eighteenth-century town crier documents kept by Arthur Hill. Hill’s records consist of lists of goods lost and found, or “taken up,” by Boston’s residents between 1736 and 1748. . . .

Hill made fairly meticulous notes as to who found what goods. He recorded occupation and relationships. He also recorded race, often using the term “Negro” to describe people of African descent who took up lost items. Under that or related terminology (“Negro Fellow,” etc.), Hill recorded 36 items found by black Bostonians. That would mean they found 9.8% of the total items recovered, similar to Boston’s black population during this time period, which was roughly 10-12% of the total population. . . .

A wide range of goods appear throughout the records, but one category stands out. Of the 368 total items reported, 87 or 23.6% related to maritime activities and included naval stores, ship pieces, and, the largest in this category, small watercraft such as canoes. This trend should not come as a surprise as Boston was a bustling port city with a daily flurry of maritime activity. Other goods reported in large numbers were bulk amounts of cloth, hand tools, and livestock.

What is interesting, however, is that in the records concerning black men and women do not reflect the larger record. Only one, “Martha Grover’s Negro” found a small boat. Another found a handsaw. All of the others either found consumer goods such as gold buttons, jewelry, pocket books, and clothing items, or cash. . . .

Take for example “Joseph Williams Negro” who found “One Gold Ring” in June 1738. Did he report his find because he was attempting to be a good community member? Perhaps. Yet, we also have to consider he told Hill about the ring because, as an enslaved black man, owning a piece of gold jewelry would have brought suspicion about where and how he acquired it, forcing him to go to Hill to protect himself and his reputation.
Hardesty is the author of the new book Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

“Several of us dress’d in woman’s clothes”

At the end of September 1780, Lt. Enos Reeves (1753-1807) and his company of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment were in Haverstraw, New York, on the Hudson River.

They didn’t have much to do. On 4 October Reeves wrote to a fellow officer about what they had done to keep themselves amused:
We make ourselves very Merry at this place and as there is but few of the inhabitants worthy our notice we enjoy ourselves without them.

The evening of the 29 ultimo [i.e., 29 September] several of us dress’d in woman’s clothes and had a genteel Country Dance—spent the evening in great glee.

The 30 all our officers with one from each of the other Regts dined elegantly together, and spent the day pleasantly—in the evening had a dance.

The 2 instant made a visit to see the officers of Colonel [Oliver] Spencer’s Regt—cross’d the River to Verplank’s Point, from there proceeded down and got most excellent Peaches. Several large droves of Cattle cross’d the River, while we were there—a boat overset and three or four of the cattle lost.

On the evening of the 3, we had a genteel Family Dance at a Major Meurys. Some young Ladies of his relations being there on a visit—we spent the evening, (and as it rained) the most of the night in our amusement.

We are fixing our encampment and tents as if we were to take Quarters here for the Winter—as building chimneys to the tents &c.
One supposes all the practice dancing within the regiments on 29-30 September prepared the young officers for the “genteel Family Dance” on 3 October.

Reeves’s letterbook was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1896.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Issue of Naturalization Laws, and What Really Mattered

Steven Pincus’s new book The Heart of the Declaration raises the question of how British imperial policy on migration into North America after 1763 pushed thirteen of the empire’s colonies toward independence. I hadn’t seen much about that issue, so I did some background reading.

There’s no question that population policy was one of the grievances against the king that the Continental Congress listed in its Declaration of Independence in 1776:
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
The phrase “obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners” refers to an instruction that the London government sent to all the royal governors over King George III’s signature on 29 Nov 1773:
Whereas We have thought fit by our Orders in our Privy Council to disallow certain Laws passed in Some of our Colonies & Plantations in America for conferring the Priviledges of Naturalization on persons being aliens, and for divorcing persons who have been legally joined together in Holy Marriage: And whereas Acts have been passed in other of our said Colonies to enable Persons who are our Liege Subjects by Birth or Naturalization to hold and inherit Lands Tenements and real Estates [which] had been originally granted to or purchased by Aliens antecedent to Naturalization; It is our expressed will and Pleasure that you do not upon any pretence whatsoever give your assent to any Bill or Bills that may have been or shall hereafter be passed by the Council and Assembly of the Province under your Government for the naturalization of Aliens, nor for the divorce of persons joined together in Holy marriage, nor for establishing a Title in any Person to Lands, Tenements & real estates in our said Province originally granted to, or purchased by Aliens antecedent to Naturalization.

G. R.
(This same instruction limited the colonies’ power to pass new divorce laws, as you can see, but that didn’t make it into the Declaration.)

Most people settling in the British colonies came from other parts of the British Empire. Another big chunk came, against their will, from Africa. Europeans affected by naturalization laws were a small portion, but colonies and landowners promoting new settlements wanted to offer them the possibility of full citizenship.

Many of the American colonies passed their own naturalization laws to give non-British settlers rights in their new communities once they were rich enough—rights to own land, vote in local elections, and so on. From the central government’s perspective, those laws were also a back door into having the privileges of a British subject under the empire’s trade laws.

Parliament wanted its Plantation Act of 1740 to be the basis for how people from outside the British Empire became subjects of the king. And by 1773 the ministers in London were wary on principle of any colonial laws that appeared to challenge the authority of Parliament’s sovereignty throughout the Empire.

How big a deal was the dispute over naturalization laws in New England? Hardly at all. Colonial New Englanders were never exactly welcoming to newcomers who weren’t Congregationalist and English, even those from within the empire. Massachusetts passed its naturalization law in 1731; it accepted all of eleven French and German men in the next year and a half, and then only four more arrivals between 1741 and 1767 under the imperial law. Connecticut’s first naturalization law came in 1773, covering a Spaniard named Don Gabriel Sistera. New Hampshire never passed such a law at all.

So that leaves Rhode Island. That colony, founded to be more open than its neighbors, was more active in naturalizing newcomers for much of its history. In 1762 its high court also ruled that the Plantation Act didn’t apply there, a direct challenge to Parliament’s authority. However, Rhode Island did so in order to exclude a couple of Jewish merchants from full rights. Thus, that colony challenged Britain’s control over naturalization to make immigration less appealing, not more.

Naturalization laws were probably a bigger deal in colonies southwest of New England, which had a more welcoming history. But of course that’s not where the Revolutionary War started. Furthermore, I think we can see the real issue behind this dispute over migration by looking at the other verbiage of the 1773 royal instruction and the Declaration’s complaint about it:
  • “Acts have been passed in other of our said Colonies to enable Persons who are our Liege Subjects by Birth or Naturalization to hold and inherit Lands Tenements and real Estates [which] had been originally granted to or purchased by Aliens antecedent to Naturalization”
  • “raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands”
The crux of this dispute was lands. The Proclamation of 1763 restricted colonial settlement to the west. The imperial government wanted to reward its Native American allies for their loyalty and to avoid disputes between them and European settlers. But colonists, especially wealthy men who invested in western claims, wanted to maximize settlement there.

As I’ve said before, that restriction wasn’t a big deal in New England since those colonies were already blocked from expanding west. But for a growing colony like Pennsylvania, or an investor with lots of land claims like George Washington, it was a big deal.

I’m interested in seeing how it was that “throughout the 1760s and 1770s the British government tries desperately to stop immigration into North America,” as Pincus says. The Declaration does indeed claim that the royal government “endeavored to prevent the population of these states,” but it looks like a lot of that endeavor was simply not passing laws which certain powerful Americans wanted “to encourage [foreigners’] migration hither.” Not trying to accelerate the movement of people isn’t the same as trying to stop it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Issue of Immigration—Running the Numbers

Yesterday I quoted from the Course of Human Events blog’s posting about The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government, a new analysis of the forces behind the Revolution by Yale history professor Steven Pincus.

Specifically, I discussed how Pincus’s book links the imperial debate of the 1760s and 1770s with the issues of economic stimulus and governmental austerity today, wondering how well the analogy works. Given the limitations on what the central British government did and could do in the eighteenth century, what sort of stimulus could Parliament cut back on?

Pincus’s answer relates to an even hotter hot-button issue of our day, immigration. Once again, from the Course of Human Events blog:
The British government had heavily subsidized immigration to North America. The colony of Georgia was even set up specifically so that Parliament could subsidize immigration of tens of thousands of people—including Scottish Highlanders, Italians, Germans, and the poor of England—to come to America. As Pincus explains, “All of that comes to a grinding halt in 1763, and throughout the 1760s and 1770s the British government tries desperately to stop immigration into North America.” The patriots argued that immigrants provided skills and were good consumers, which would drive the economy. Those against immigration argued that these individuals were polluting culture and providing competition that took jobs away from other people. “That strikes me as an interesting parallel to today’s debates”, says Pincus.
Here I have questions about what the American colonists perceived about immigration policy in the pre-Revolutionary period. Because they were actually seeing a growing influx of arrivals from Britain and northern Europe.

In Voyagers to the West (1986), Bernard Bailyn wrote:
…migration figures to mainland British North America before 1760—far greater than those to any other area of European colonization—pale next to the figures for the decade and a half that followed.

People flooded into North American between 1760 and 1775, first of all from the British Isles. Between the end of warfare and the disruption of the Empire in 1775, over 55,000 Protestant Irish emigrated to America; approximately 40,000 Scots, and over 30,000 Englishmen—a total of at least 125,000 from the British Isles alone. . . . But the British and Irish contributions together constituted only half the whole number of immigrants. In the same years at least 12,000 German-speaking immigrants entered the port of Philadelphia…
Other scholars have reached different conclusions about the numbers of immigrants, but they seem to agree on the upward trend. Carl L. Bankston III has written:
Northern Irish migration peaked between the 1750’s and the early 1770’s, with an estimated 14,200 people from northern Ireland reaching America from 1750 to 1759, 21,200 from 1760 to 1769, and 13,200 in the half-decade leading up to the American Revolution. Most of the Scots migration took place from 1760 to 1775, when about 25,000 new arrivals came to the colonies.
In “Migrations to the Thirteen British North American Colonies, 1700-1775” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Spring 1992), Aaron Fogleman estimated the number of Europeans coming into the thirteen North American colonies that broke away as:
  • 1740s: 51,500.
  • 1750s: 70,900.
  • 1760s: 75,500.
  • 1770s: 49,700 in the first five years, thus on pace for 99,400 for the whole decade until the war intervened.
Though these scholars’ estimates differ on the number of arrivals from Europe, they all agree that immigration to the North American colonies was up significantly during the 1760s and early 1770s. That’s the same period when Pincus says the imperial government’s support for such movement “comes to a grinding halt.”

So whatever the government in London was doing in those decades to “stop immigration into North America,” it wasn’t working. Maybe it kept the numbers down from where they would have been. But the colonists could see more people arrive from Europe every decade.

TOMORROW: Looking at the naturalization laws.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Austerity and Stimulus in the American Revolution?

A few weeks back, the Course of Human Events blog highlighted a new book about the American Revolution coming from Steven Pincus, the Bradford Durfee Professor of History and co-director of the Center for Historical Enquiry and the Social Sciences at Yale University. His previous books have been about Britain in the turbulent 1600s.

About The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government, the blog explains:
Pincus maintains that the American Revolution was a major turning point in not just British or American history but global history, because it was a response to the huge debt crisis that had overtaken the European empires. The patriots and their opponents had differing opinions on how best to respond to a debt crisis. One side wanted to stimulate economic growth “in the most dynamic part of the empire, and that was the American colonies.” The other side argued for pursuing austerity measures and shifting the tax burden away from the English and onto those who couldn’t vote (the American colonists, for example).

The various acts passed in the 1760s and 1770s demonstrate which side won out in this fight between austerity measures and stimulus measures. The Sugar Act (1764) and Stamp Act (1765) taxed the colonies in order to raise revenue, and the first of the Townshend Acts was even called the Revenue Act (1767). Instead of stimulating economic growth in the American colonies, the colonists refused to purchase or even to import British goods because of the taxes imposed upon them. As Pincus explains, “The 1770s saw the first time austerity measures pursued in response to a debt crisis generated revolution, but it wasn’t going to be the last time.”
I read about this thesis a couple of years ago, and on first blush it struck me as too relevant for its own good. “Austerity measures and stimulus measures” have been a huge debate in western polity since 2009. But do those terms (or does that analogy) fit the situation of the 1760s?

There’s no question that the imperial government in London sought to collect more revenue from the North American colonies through various tariffs and the failed Stamp Act. But “austerity” seems like more than paying down the debt, especially when contrasted with an economic “stimulus.” Austerity also means freezing or cutting services, and I can’t think of significant services that the British imperial government provided to the colonies that could be cut.

With peace in 1763, the imperial government did shrink its military, which meant it wasn’t shipping specie into the colonies to pay its soldiers and sailors and mount campaigns. There was no doubt less expended on fortifications. But can we equate those with the sort of investment in infrastructure or other public projects we now consider “stimulus”? Furthermore, the colonists who protested imperial policy of the 1760s usually objected to seeing more soldiers in their cities on the grounds that those troops required local spending as well (the real problem with the Quartering Act).

In one area, Parliament definitely increased spending after the Seven Years’ War: the payroll of the Customs office. The Treasury Department also started to pay gubernatorial and judicial salaries instead of relying on colonial governments to come through with that money. Again, the American Whigs and their allies in Britain objected to that new imperial spending because the money ultimately derived from the new tariffs and went toward enforcing those tariffs.

So what austerity/stimulus does Pincus argue was significant?

TOMORROW: Another of today’s hot-button issues.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

“All the Province Stores Sent to Col James Barretts”

Sometime in the early spring of 1775, James Barrett of Concord, a Massachusetts Provincial Congress delegate and militia colonel, wrote down “An account of all the Province Stores Sent to Col James Barretts of Concord Partly in His Own Costody & Partly Elsewhere all under his Care.” That undated document is now at the American Antiquarian Society.

The top of the list begins with the most valuable, dangerous, and risky-to-be-caught-with items:
Two peices of Cannon Brought From Watertown to ye Town
Eight Peices of Cannon Brought to ye Town by Mr Harrington
Four Peices of Brass Cannon & Two Mortar from Col Robertsons
That last name should be Lemuel Robinson, proprietor of the Liberty Tree Tavern in Dorchester. Massachusetts Committee of Safety records confirm that Robinson had those four brass cannon and two mortars in his custody early in 1775.

Barrett was thus in possession of sixteen pieces of artillery, on top of the handful of cannon that Concord itself had bought and mounted. Such weaponry had no use other than warfare, and there was no other foe on the horizon but the royal government.

Barrett’s account also listed a great many other military supplies, including musket cartridges, musket balls, flints, gunpowder, entrenching tools, medical chests, tents and tent poles, dishes and spoons, and “Four Barrels of Oatmeal containing 20 Bushels.” He was helping to equip an army.

Barrett clearly didn’t expect this account to fall into the hands of royal agents since he listed the names of men who had sent him those illegal supplies, including:
  • Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead (“thirtyfive half barrels of powder,” tents).
  • Moses Gill of Princeton (tents, “axes & pick axes & hatchetts”).
  • David Cheever of Charlestown (“Two Barrels of Musquit ball containing 2100 weight,” another “2900 of ball,” another “2000,” &c.).
All those gentlemen were members of the congress’s Committee on Supplies.

Barrett also kept notes of where he was storing different supplies: at the homes of his son James, Ethan Jones, Joshua Bonds, Willoughby Prescott, Abijah Brown, Thomas Hubbard, Ephraim Potter, James Chandler, Joseph Hosmer, Jonas Heywood, and so on. Again, Barrett seems to have felt that information was secure, almost twenty miles from Boston.

But Crown agents found out about those military supplies in March 1775. They gave Gen. Thomas Gage detailed information about where things were in Concord, including those four brass cannon. And on 19 April three companies of the king’s soldiers arrived at Barrett’s farm.

How all that came about, what happened next, and what mysteries remain will be the topics of my talk this Thursday, 29 September, at Minute Man National Historical Park: “Cannons in Concord, and Why the Regulars Came Looking.” That event will start at the park’s Lexington/Lincoln visitor center at 7:00 P.M., and I’ll be happy to sign copies of The Road to Concord afterward.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Searching for the “Senatorial Saucer” Source

Yesterday I quoted the story of the “senatorial saucer” as it appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1884.

However, that wasn’t the first appearance of the story, nor an accurate reflection of its earlier appearance. Back in 1871 the German-born law professor Francis Lieber had put the tale in writing in a letter to Rep. James A. Garfield. Here’s that passage from The Life and Letters of Francis Lieber, published in 1882:
The student had heard [law professor Edouard] Laboulaye lecture in Paris just before the war. When Laboulaye spoke of the bicameral system, recommending it, he concluded his remarks with relating that [Thomas] Jefferson one day visited [George] Washington, and, full as Jefferson was of French views, he zealously attacked the system of two Houses.

Washington replied that Jefferson was much better informed than himself on such topics, but that he would adhere to the experience of England and America. “You yourself,” said the General, “have proved the excellence of two houses this very moment.”

“I,” said Jefferson; “how is that, General?”

“You have,” replied the heroic sage, ”turned your hot tea from the cup into the saucer, to get it cool. It is the same thing we desire of the two houses.”

There is not the least doubt in my mind that Laboulaye told this, but whence has he the delectable anecdote? I should give much to know.
As a proud tea drinker, I note that the earliest form of this story is about tea, not coffee as in the Harper’s version.

Lieber kept seeking information until his death in 1872. The following year, a number of periodicals, including the 1 Feb 1873 College Courant, ran this item:
A Berlin correspondent writes to the Christian Union: “A while ago the late Dr. Lieber published a card calling for the origin of an anecdote of Washington, which one of the Professor’s law students had heard from Laboulaye. . . . Your correspondent remembers telling this anecdote to Laboulaye, at his table, several years ago, and my authority for it was the late Judge [David] Daggett, who told it with inimitable gusto in his law lectures to the senior class in Yale College. His authority was probably the former Senator Hillhouse, of New Haven; and any survivor of the Daggett or the Hillhouse family should be able to verify so good an anecdote of Washington, and to put it on record beyond a question.”
It’s notable that the College Courant was published across the street from Yale. The Hillhouse and Daggett families remained in New Haven. Yet that magazine never published a follow-up with the confirmation of the anecdote Lieber had sought, nor have I found it anywhere else.

So the oral transmission of the story goes back like this:
  • Francis Lieber (1798/1800-1872)
  • an unnamed student 
  • Edouard Laboulaye (1811-1883)
  • unnamed correspondent in Berlin
  • David Daggett (1764-1851, shown above)
Why did the correspondent suggest the story came from “Senator Hillhouse”? James Hillhouse (1754-1832) represented Connecticut in Congress from 1791 through 1810. He was thus at the capital as a Federalist during Washington’s administration. He and Daggett later knew each other through Yale and the New Haven bar.

But the trail really stops with Daggett telling the story in his lectures. Only supposition leads on to Hillhouse. And Daggett didn’t serve in Congress until President Washington was long dead, so the story’s provenance stops short of the men involved in the conversation.

It’s worth noting that the “senatorial saucer” anecdote contrasts the wisdom of Washington with the “zealous,” francophile, and slightly hypocritical Jefferson. In other words, it reflects and reinforces how Federalists viewed those two men.

Given how little evidence there is of Jefferson actually objecting to bicameral legislatures, this legend seems dubious. Perhaps it’s a useful understanding of the Senate, but not one we should confidently ascribe to Washington himself.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Cooling Down a Washington Quotation

When I was at Mount Vernon earlier this month, my eye fell on these coffee cups in the gift shop.

Over George Washington’s signature they say (within quotation marks), “Decision making, like coffee, needs a cooling process.”

These cups were shelved with lots of other paraphernalia displaying Washington quotes, such as:
But the words about coffee didn’t sound like Washington.

And indeed, I haven’t found them in any published edition of Washington’s papers, in the material now available at Founders Online, in the Library of Congress’s online papers, or at the Washington Papers project. In fact, Google Books doesn’t find the quotation in any book at all, though it does appear on internet quotation sites.

The phrase “decision making” didn’t really take off until the mid-1900s. The phrase “cooling process” made it into a 1799 issue of The Critical Review, just within Washington’s lifetime, but it’s not in Washington’s own writings.

The source of this ersatz quotation is probably the legend of the “senatorial saucer” which recounted a supposed conversation between Washington and Thomas Jefferson. As printed in Harper’s magazine in 1884, that story quoted the first President explaining the need for a Senate this way:
“Why,” asked Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer, before drinking?”

“To cool it,” answered Jefferson, “my throat is not made of brass.”

“Even so,” rejoined Washington, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
However, Monticello’s website points out that Jefferson was in France when the Constitutional Convention discussed and decided on a bicameral legislature, and his writings show he supported the idea before he returned. Back in 1776 he had mapped out a bicameral legislature for Virginia. Monticello therefore has the story filed under “Legends.”

Mount Vernon likewise has a webpage devoted to “Spurious Quotations” of Washington. I believe the line about decision-making and coffee should be on it, but perhaps the coffee cups have to sell out first.

TOMORROW: The search for the source of the senatorial saucer.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Political Science in Fever-Stricken Philadelphia

H-Net just ran Jan Golinski’s review of Feverish Bodies, Enlightened Minds: Science and the Yellow Fever Controversy in the Early American Republic by Thomas A. Apel.

As Golinski explains, no one in 1790s Philadelphia understood the cause of the epidemic that emptied the new national capital, but that didn’t stop two schools of thought from forming:
Broadly speaking, the “localist” side of the dispute traced the disease’s origins to bad air in the affected area, due to the presence of corrupt or putrefying matter or to a change in what they called the “atmospheric constitution.” Against them were ranged the “contagionists,” who believed the disease had originated elsewhere, brought by migrants—such as the refugees who fled to Philadelphia from the revolution in Haiti—and subsequently communicated from one individual to another.

From a modern perspective, one might be inclined to dismiss the whole debate as founded on ignorance and mistaken assumptions. Nobody at the time had any knowledge of the virus that causes yellow fever, and nor did anyone recognize the role of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito in transmitting it from person to person. We now know that the disease is not directly infectious, though it is so through the medium of the insect vector; it is not caused by putrefying organic matter, but stagnant water does provide an environment in which the mosquito can easily breed. Both localists and contagionists could therefore muster facts to support their case, but neither side could decisively disprove the other’s claims.
Like many medical controversies in the eighteenth century, therefore, we don’t really want to take either side. It would be so much easier if any of the debating doctors of the period just washed his hands.
In his final chapter, Apel examines the political dimension of the controversy. He rightly declines to map the two sides directly onto the political divisions of the time. On the other hand, he suggests that the fierceness of the dispute did reflect the political factionalism of the 1790s. This was the era when the Enlightenment public sphere fissured into contending groups, and when conspiracy theories abounded on both sides of the Atlantic. Participants in the yellow fever debates frequently alleged their opponents were lying or conspiring against the public interest.

[Dr. Benjamin] Rush, in particular, exhibited a high degree of paranoia, likening himself to the early Christian martyrs persecuted under the Roman Empire. Simultaneously, he insisted that his opinions were the undeniable outcome of reason and truth. Apel reminds his readers that twentieth-century critics of the Enlightenment identified this combination of paranoia, conspiracy theories, and dogmatic insistence on one’s own rationality as symptomatic of the last phase of the movement.
The epidemic occurred at the same time as the French Revolution, after all, and the harsh British reaction to its radicalness.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wheatley and Attucks “Against All Odds” Advertisements

On his Black Quotidian website, Matt Delmont shares material from African-American newspapers—the news stories, opinion pieces, and advertisements that black Americans in larger cities were reading in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Earlier this week the site featured a comics-style advertisement for Black and White Ointment and Skin Soap from the 17 Sept 1938 Pittsburgh Courier. That ad featured the Boston poet Phillis Wheatley—shown as a little girl coming of a slave ship at left.

Another ad in the same “Against All Odds” campaign highlighted Crispus Attucks, shot and killed at the Boston Massacre. It looks like twelve such pages might have been combined to create the Against All Odds booklet one could buy with three Black and White Beauty Creations labels and 25¢. I haven’t found any trace of that booklet today.

I can pick holes in the history that both ads relate. Wheatley didn’t meet King George III or, as far as the contemporaneous evidence tells us, Gen. George Washington. (But she did meet the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the colonies, and Washington did invite her to visit him at Cambridge.)

Likewise, no witness spoke of Attucks making a “speech” that incited opposition to the British troops on 5 Mar 1770, though he was at the front of the crowd that confronted the soldiers on King Street.

Still, these ads are valuable evidence of how the memory of Wheatley and Attucks was preserved and shaped in popular culture—not just in schoolbooks and formal histories but also in commercial communications. At a time when mainstream America was openly hostile to citizens of African ancestry, they upheld the memory of “the terrible ‘Middle Passage’” and of blacks’ role in the nation’s origin.