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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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 with 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.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Through the Roof at the Fraunces Tavern Museum, 23 Feb.

On Thursday, 23 February, I’ll make my New York debut with a talk about The Road to Concord at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in lower Manhattan.

I’ll speak about the race for artillery in Massachusetts in the late summer and fall of 1774, which spread to the other New England colonies in December and finally brought on war in April 1775.

Doors will open at 6:00 P.M., and the presentation will start at 6:30. Admission is $5 for museum members, $10 for others.

The Fraunces Tavern has its own link to the struggle over artillery—an event in New York in August 1775. Until then, the royal authorities and radical Patriots had coexisted on the island, with the city government anxious to tamp down any hostilities.

On 25 June, for example, both Continental general George Washington and royal governor William Tryon received excited public welcomes. They came onto Manhattan Island from different sides, and their audiences represented the different political sides.

But in August, Gov. Tryon and the city’s remaining redcoats went aboard H.M.S. Asia, a sixty-four gun warship in the harbor. That left the city in the hands of the Patriots. The merchant John Lamb had been a Whig leader before the war. In mid-1775 he secured a military commission from the New York Provincial Congress—and military weapons from a British army storehouse.

I’ll quote from Isaac Q. Leake’s biography of Lamb:
…a resolve having been passed by the Continental Congress, to provide cannon for the armament of the forts ordered to be constructed in the Highlands, the Provincial Congress deemed this sufficient warrant to direct the removal of the cannon from the battery in the city [at the southern tip of Manhattan].

Captain Lamb was ordered to this service, and on the 23d August, with his company, assisted by a part of a corps of independents of the command of Col. [John] Lasher, and a body of the citizens, proceeded in the evening to execute the order of the Congress.

Some intimation must have been given to Captain [George] Vandeput, the commander of the Asia (a line of battle-ship stationed off the Battery), of the intended movement; for upon the arrival of the military, they found a barge and crew, lying on their oars, close under the Fort. A detachment of observation was accordingly stationed on the parapet, to watch the proceedings of the enemy, with orders to return the fire if attacked. As soon as the artillery was in motion, a false fire [signal rocket] was signaled from the boat; and immediately afterwards, a musket was discharged at the citizens, who returned it with a volley.

The barge retreated to the ship, with several killed and wounded, and when out of the range of fire from the Asia, three guns from the ship were discharged in quick succession. The drums on the Battery beat to arms, and were answered by a broadside from the Asia, of round and grape; and the fire was rapidly repeated for some time.

Meanwhile the cannon were moved off with great deliberation; and all that were mounted, twenty-one pieces, were safely carried away. Three men were wounded on the Battery; and some damage was done to the houses near the Fort, and at Whitehall.
One of those houses was the Sign of the Queen’s Head, an inn operated by Samuel Fraunces. The cannon ball that crashed through the roof of Fraunces’s tavern was preserved as late as 1894, but then disappeared before 1900. I don’t expect to see it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Lives of Harry Williams and Vital Jarrot

I started out to write one cute post about men in Tennessee spotting a strange creature in 1794. But that led me into the settlers’ wars against the Cherokee, and how the law treated slavery in pre-statehood Illinois, and today well into the ante-bellum republic.

I left Harry Williams, allegedly aged sixteen in 1814, indentured to John Beaird, Jr., for the next eighty years. That was how Beaird and others got around the Northwest and Indiana Territories’ laws against slavery.

John Beaird, Jr., died before the end of that year, and Joseph Beaird took over Harry’s indenture as the estate administrator. Then Joseph died in 1827, and Harry worked for other Beaird relatives for another ten years.

In 1828, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that such indenture contracts couldn’t be inherited, and I can’t help but wonder if the family delayed formally settling Joseph’s estate for so long in order to keep advantage of Harry’s labor.

In any event, in 1837 Beaird descendants sold Harry’s remaining decades of indentured servitude to Vital Jarrot (1805-1877), a rising young attorney related to the family by marriage. Jarrot was descended from some of Illinois’s early French settlers. He had studied at Georgetown University, and Gov. John Reynolds had made him adjutant of the state militia during the Blackhawk War of 1832.

Soon after that sale, Harry, now close to forty years old, ran away. He took the surname of Williams. The record doesn’t say where he worked. But some years later, Jarrot spotted Williams and, with another servant, tried to recapture him. At one point Williams “was prostrate on the ground with his foot fastened to the stirrup, by which a horse dragged him along on the ground.” Nevertheless, he persisted.

In 1843 Williams managed to sue Jarrot for trespass by force and arms. Jarrot’s legal team presented testimony from witnesses, including former governor Reynolds, about the chain of ownership. Following the judge’s instructions, the jury ruled not only that Jarrot was innocent of the charges but that Williams was bound to him for the rest of the indenture.

But then a higher court found several errors by that judge. Based on new evidence, that court decided that Williams had actually been sold back in 1815—to none other than Reynolds! That made the chain of ownership leading to Vital Jarrot unenforceable. Williams v. Jarrot became a landmark case in Illinois, not because of what it said about slavery but because of what it said about admissible evidence.

Also in 1843, Vital Jarrot was a witness in the Jarrot v. Jarrot lawsuit, in which a bondsman sued another Jarrot family member for back wages. Showing how small and entangled this world was, the other witness in that case was the man who had sold Harry Williams to Jarrot back in 1837. That suit took a couple of years to be decided, but in 1845 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled there was no exception to the state’s laws against owning slaves for descendants of French settlers.

Two years later, on 22 June 1847, Vital Jarrot gave up his claim on Harry Williams, formally emancipating him from slavery and indenture. The next year, Illinois adopted a new constitution that banned slavery outright (though five years later it enacted a law making it nearly impossible for free black people to settle in the state). I don’t have any information on what happened to Williams after he became free.

As for Vital Jarrot, he seems to be a classic mid-nineteenth-century American character, jumping from one enterprise to another. He grew up in Cahokia, son of the local grandee. In the late 1830s and early 1840s he was busy overseeing dikes, a coal mine, the state’s first railroad, and a newspaper to build what is now East St. Louis, Illinois. Jarrot served that town as mayor and state legislator. Then he got wiped out in a flood in 1844—just as those lawsuits were going against him and his family.

To rebuild his fortunes, Jarrot led a wagon train west to the California gold fields in 1849. That worked well enough that he was back in the Illinois legislature in the late 1850s, a contender for such posts as speaker of the house and lieutenant governor. By then Jarrot was a Republican, evidently leaving his slave-owning past behind. He still had time for other enterprises; in 1859 the Chicago Tribune reported that Jarrot had set out to Pike’s Peak and found a silver mine.

Jarrot’s experience traveling west was valuable in January 1865 when he applied to be the federal government’s Indian agent at Fort Laramie. He also called on his acquaintance with President Abraham Lincoln, going back to the Blackhawk War and Illinois politics. Lincoln endorsed him, writing, “I personally know this man—Vital Jarrot—to be one of the best of men; & as I believe, having peculiar qualifications for the place.” (Another of Jarrot’s contacts in that job hunt was Sen. Lyman Trumbull, previously the lawyer for the enslaved plaintiff in Jarrot v. Jarrot.)

So Jarrot headed to the Dakota Territory at age sixty. His father had traded with the Natives along the Mississippi in the years after the Revolution, so he was really returning to the earliest family business. Jarrot seems to have been eager to make peace between the U.S. of A. and the Sioux, pushing leaders of both sides to negotiate, though without quick success. In 1867 and 1868 he was in Washington, witnessing treaties. Then he returned to Illinois for another bout of business enterprises, including the East St. Louis Co-operative Rail Mill Company.

In 1875, Jarrot heard about the new gold rush in the Black Hills. He sold all his businesses and headed out again. He died in the Dakota Territory, “of exposure and toil,” on 5 June 1877.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Slavery in Early Illinois

Yesterday I mentioned how John Beaird, the instigator of war with the Cherokee in the Southwest Territory in 1793, eventually moved to Illinois with his family and slaves.

But Illinois was part of the old Northwest Territory. In 1787 the confederation Congress’s Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery there. So how did Beaird’s move work out?

In practice, the government dragged its feet about ending slavery. Some French settlers already in that territory owned slaves, and the first U.S. governor, Revolutionary War general Arthur St. Clair, took no action against the practice. When Americans from slave states first moved into the western Northwest Territory, they were also generally allowed to keep their human property. That appears to be what John Beaird did in 1801.

Here’s what the Combined History of Randolph, Monroe and Perry Counties, Illinois (1883) says about John Beaird:
Then comes an inventory of the estate of John Beaird, dated March 13th, 1809. Beaird must have been farming extensively; the inventory mentions seventeen horses, worth from $45 to $100 each, two yoke of oxen, wagons, plows, six sets of harness, etc., a “mulatto negro” worth $350, and a black boy worth $250.
At the subsequent estate sale, “The negro boy ‘Berry’ was sold to John Beaird, Jr., for $450, the other brought only $225.”

The legal situation shifted a little in 1803 when Ohio became a free state. In September 1807 the Indiana Territory (including Illinois) passed a law forbidding slave owners from bringing in human property. But that didn’t mean immediate emancipation because:
  • Within thirty days of entering, owners could go to the county clerk and make out an agreement for their slaves to continue working as indentured servants. If slaves refused the deal offered, owners had another sixty days to send them back into slave territory.
  • Slaves under the age of fifteen could be indentured only until men turned 35 and women turned 32.
  • Children born to indentured people would be indentured themselves until age 30 for men and 28 for women.
In 1814, the year after Indiana became a free state, the Beaird family must have felt some pressure to put their ownership of people on a more secure legal footing. On 17 October, Joseph Beaird had two workers—James, aged about 18, and Charles, 27—sign indentures agreeing to work for him for the next 65 years. Beaird promised each man $50 at the end of that term. Of course, by then they would most likely all be dead.

On the same day, John Beaird, Jr., made out similar indentures for three boys and one girl:
  • Harry, aged about 16, for 80 years.
  • Annaky, about 16, for 80 years.
  • Welden, about 16, for 80 years.
  • Peter, about 21, for 75 years.
The indenture for Harry read:
St. Clair county, Illinois territory. ss. Be it remembered that on the 17th day of October of the year 1814, personally came before me the subscriber, clerk of the court of common pleas of the said county, John Beaird of said county, and Harry, a negro boy, aged near upon sixteen, and who of his own free will and accord, did in my presence, agree, determine, and promise, to serve the said John Beaird, for the full space of time, and term of eighty years from this date. And the said John Beaird, in consideration thereof, promises to pay him, said Harry, the sum of fifty dollars, at the expiration of his said service. In testimony whereof, they have hereunto set their hands and seals the day and year first herein above written. Interlineation made before signing.

Mark of X Harry. [seal.]
John Beaird. [seal.]
Signed and sealed in presence of John Hay, C. C. C. P.
Was Harry the same as the “negro boy ‘Berry’” that John Beaird, Jr., had bought from his father’s estate six years before? It’s possible. In a later court case Beaird’s heirs claimed that he had brought Harry in from Tennessee just one week before signing those indentures, making the arrangement fit within the 1807 law. But that could have been a lie for legal reasons. Likewise, were all three of those sixteen-year-olds really just a little too old for the shorter indenture period?

The future of slavery in Illinois was foggy in those years. Periodically politicians floated proposals to formally allow slavery or to completely end it sometime in the future, but they never found a compromise everyone would accept. The first state constitution of 1818 avoided the subject. An attempt five years later to make slavery explicitly legal failed.

By turning their slaves into indentured servants—indentured for what would be their expected lifetimes—the Beairds sidestepped that debate. But the legalities didn’t really fool anyone. In the 1820 census, Joseph A. Beaird was listed as owning eight slaves.

TOMORROW: What happened to Harry?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Monsters in the Southwest Territory

On 24 Sept 1794, William Butler of Northampton ran this item on the last page of his Hampshire Gazette newspaper:
CURIOUS ANIMAL

In February last, a detachment of mounted infantry, commanded by Captain John Beaird, penetrated fifteen miles into the Cumberland Mountain:

On Cove Creek, ensign M’Donald and another man, in advance of the party as spies, they discovered a creature about three steps from them it had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and light yellow colour, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes, of a fiery red. It stood about three minutes in a daring posture

(orders being given not to fire a gun except at Indians,) Mr. M’Donald advanced and struck at it with his sword, when it jumped up, at least, eight feet, and lit on the same spot of ground, sending forth a red kind of matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a Laurel thicket turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger.

The Indians report, that a creature inhabits that part of the mountain, of the above description, which, by its breath, will kill a man, if he does not instantly immerse himself in water.
You can see that item starting at the bottom of the first column on this page spread (P.D.F.).

Other newspapers ran the same story, crediting it (as Butler had not) to the Knoxville Gazette. At the end of the year, the same report was reprinted in Greenleaf’s New-York, Connecticut and New-Jersey Almanack for 1795.

Militia captain John Beaird was a notorious figure in the Southwest Territory, which became Tennessee in 1796. In June 1793 President George Washington’s federal agents were visiting a friendly Cherokee chief named Hanging Maw and other leaders at the town of Coyatee, planning a treaty meeting. Beaird led a renegade militia company charging into the town, killing a dozen people and wounding others, including Hanging Maw. Beaird’s men then burned the goods that the agents had brought as gifts.

The federal government tried Beaird in a military court, but public opinion forced his acquittal. The secretary of the territory reported, “to my great pain, I find, to punish Beard by law, just now, is out of the question.” The next month, Beaird attacked another Native town and killed half a dozen more people. Clearly he intended to stir up a war, scotching any treaty that limited white settlement.

And it worked. Cherokees counterattacked at Cavett’s Station. That fall, John Sevier led a larger militia force against the Cherokees, both friendly and understandably unfriendly, and drove them further west. (Some authors say Sevier had urged Beaird on in his early attacks.)

That Cherokee-American War explains why in February 1794 Beaird’s men were pushing into the Cumberland area with orders “not to fire a gun except at Indians.” However, there’s still no explanation for the creature that Ens. McDonald and his companion saw. Recent books on cryptozoology have dubbed it the “Cumberland Dragon” or “Goosefoot.”

A period term for the creature appears in a 7 Nov 1798 letter from William Blount, governor of the Southwest Territory during Beaird’s raids, about a court case:
All the usual writs known in law are distinguished by some technical name or term, and this production of [Judge David] Campbell’s being unknown in law, it has been deemed proper to call it by a new name, to-wit, Cheeklaceella. I make no doubt you remember a description of an animal (a monster in nature) of this name being published in the Knoxville Gazette in the year 1793 [sic]. Campbell’s production is certainly as great a monster in law as anything under any description or name whatever could be in Nature. What a misfortune to a Country to have a fool for a Judge.
After Tennessee became a state, Sevier served multiple terms as its governor as well as representing it in the U.S. House. Blount was a U.S. Senator until being impeached in 1797; he remained popular at home, and his half-brother Willie succeeded Sevier as governor. Campbell was impeached as a state judge in 1798 and 1803, but acquitted both times. John Beaird served in the state legislature before moving his family and slaves to Kentucky and then to Illinois. Tennessee politics appear to have been lively.

Friday, February 10, 2017

“America is lost!” Wrote George III—or Did He?

One of the more striking documents in the hand of George III digitized by the new Georgian Papers Programme is an essay that begins:
America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow? Or have we resources that may repair the mischiefs? What are those resources? Should they be sought in distant Regions held by precarious Tenure, or shall we seek them at home in the exertions of a new policy?
The Georgian Papers Programme web outpost in the United States offers images and a transcript of the document.

That page also has an essay by Nathaniel F. Holly of William and Mary, which calls that opening “surely one of the best examples of early modern clickbait.” That continues:
For an essay that begins with an exclamation, the bulk of the “America is Lost” piece seems to either be a cowed post hoc rationalization of a colonial order gone awry or a reasoned assessment of a decidedly difficult situation. I vote for the latter. For King George III, it seems that questions of commerce were more pressing than questions of governance or political power. Rather than refer to the rebelling colonies by name, the King employed commodity labels—Sugar, Rice, and Northern (read North of Tobacco). As he concludes, “we shall reap more advantages from their trade as friends than ever we could derive from them as Colonies, for there is reason to suppose we actually gained more by them while in actual rebellion.”

If we read that line and the more famous opening line together, King George III seems to be making a reasonable assessment. And if we place this most famous of essays in conversation with some of his other writings, a new sort of Monarch emerges. One who is both deeply concerned with historical questions and who offers historians of the early modern Atlantic world a wealth of opportunities for their own inquiries and analysis.
However, across the Atlantic the home office’s page with images and transcript has an essay by Angel Luke O’Donnell of King’s College London, who notes:
The words of the essay substantively replicate a published essay by Arthur Young, a leading British agricultural theorist who shared George’s passion for improving farming techniques. [Specifically, the first essay of Young’s Annals of Agriculture, published in 1785. Young is shown above.] Therefore, before analysing the language of the piece, we must first determine why Young’s words appear in the handwriting of the King.

There are two likely explanations for this situation. In one case, Young may have shared with George an earlier draft that the King copied and possibly amended. The second explanation is that George copied Young’s published essay then adapted the words in order to help him make sense of them, a conventional eighteenth-century process for learning called commonplacing. Each scenario prompts a slightly different interpretation of how the words reflect George’s thoughts on the British Empire. If the first scenario proves to be the most likely explanation then it suggests George may have corresponded with Young about his ideas in ways that have been overlooked until now. If the second scenario proves more plausible, then George’s editorial changes may indicate how the King imagined the future of the British Empire.
O’Donnell favors the latter hypothesis. He also notes some interesting ways that the king’s version used softer language than Young’s published essay, most notably in dropping the suggestion that Britain had kept going to war across the Atlantic because “the beggars, fanaticks, felons, and madmen of the kingdom, had been encouraged in their speculation of settling the wilds of North America.”

O’Donnell’s essay appears to have prompted a new entry on the U.S. website by Justin B. Clement. However, like the king’s writings, these essays are unfortunately undated, so the give and take will soon become invisible.