Why Did God Allow the Great Boston Fire of 1760?

Boston Fire

Not familiar with the Great Fire of 1760?  J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 fame offers a short introduction here.  One the Bostonians who tried to make sense of the fire was Rev. Jonathan Mayhew.  Here is a taste of Bell’s piece on Mayhew’s response to the fire:

Given Boston’s religious heritage, the Great Fire of 1760 naturally caused people to ask what God meant by it. 

On 23 March, the Sunday after the fire, the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew preached about the calamity at the West Meetinghouse. That sermon said the destruction must be the result of divine will: 

When this fire broke out, and for some time before, it was almost calm. And had it continued so, the fire might probably have been extinguished in a short time, before it had done much damage; considering the remarkable resolution and dexterity of many people amongst us on such occasions. 

But it seems that God, who had spared us before beyond our hopes, was now determined to let loose his wrath upon us; to “rebuke us in his anger, and chasten us in his hot displeasure [a riff on Psalm 38:1].” In order to the accomplishing of which design, soon after the fire broke out, he caused his wind to blow; and suddenly raised it to such a height, that all endeavors to put a stop to the raging flames, were ineffectual: though there seems to have been no want, either of any pains or prudence, which could be expected at such a time.

The Lord had purposed, and who should disannul it? His hand was stretched out, and who should turn it back [Isaiah 14:27].[”] “When he giveth quietness, who then can make trouble? And when he hideth his face, who then can behold him? Whether it be done against a nation, or against a man only [Job 34:29].” 

It had been a dry season for some time; unusually so for the time of the year. The houses, and other things were as fuel prepared for the fire to feed on: and the flames were suddenly spread, and propagated to distant places. So that, in the space of a few hours, the fire swept all before it in the direction of the wind; spreading wider and wider from the place where it began, till it reached the water. Nor did it stop even there, without the destruction of the wharfs, with several vessels lying at them, and the imminent danger of many others.

Read Bell’s entire post here.

New York City’s Sons of Liberty

4e0e6-fraucestavern_v2_460x285

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell calls our attention to a new exhibit at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in lower Manhattan.  It is titled “Fear & Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty.”

Here is a taste of Bell’s post:

The museum’s announcement says:

On display in the Museum’s largest gallery, the exhibition will immerse visitors in New York City in the late 18th century, when the Sons of Liberty first began to make a name for themselves as an organized group who opposed British rule through violent resistance prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. 

The exhibition will take visitors through a timeline that chronicles key players and stories behind some of the most dramatic events that ignited the spark of revolution in the 13 colonies, from the staging of New York’s very own “tea party,” to tarring and feathering Loyalists.

The New York Tea Party took place on 22 Apr 1774, four months after the famous Boston Tea Party and one month after the less famous second Boston Tea Party. But I can see why this site wants to highlight the New York event, and I’ll say more about it tomorrow. 

As for “tarring and feathering Loyalists,” New Yorkers actually carried out that public punishment on Customs employees or informers before Bostonians did, though folks in some of the smaller ports along Massachusetts’s north shore had established the tradition even earlier. 

Read the rest here.

Slavery Databases

9d6eb-slaveryOver at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell has a nice roundup of some of the best databases about enslaved people.

Here is a taste:

This is just one of several online databases about enslaved people that researchers can now use. There’s the venerable Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which has numbers (not names) of every known slaving voyage from Africa to the New World. This project has recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to expand with information about shipments from one American port to another.

The New York Slavery Records Index has collected records that “identify individual enslaved persons and their owners, beginning as early as 1525 and ending during the Civil War.”

Runaway Connecticut is based on a selection of the runaway notices that appeared in the Connecticut Courant between 1765 and 1820. Those advertisements involve different sorts of people—escaping slaves, runaway apprentices, deserting soldiers, escaped prisoners, and dissatisfied husbands and wives.

The Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy site is based on databases created by Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and published on CD-ROM by the Louisiana State University Press in 2000.

The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer website collects “the names of all the enslaved Virginians that appear in our unpublished documents.” That means it’s not as comprehensive as other compilations, but the society felt it was better to share what they had which would otherwise remain hidden than to wait for more. 

Read the entire post here.

When Nathanael Greene’s Family Played Cards

cards-18c_1

In 1774 the Continental Congress told Americans to avoid card playing:

We will, in our several stations, encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments; and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families, will go into any further mourning-dress, than a black crape or ribbon on the arm or hat, for gentlemen, and a black ribbon and necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell reminds us that not all Americans followed Congress’s orders.

Here is a taste:

On 29 January 1776, Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote to his brother Christopher from the Continental camp on Prospect Hill about a family crisis—his wife’s friends had played cards in front of their stepmother.

The general wrote: “I am extream sorry that Mr [John] Gooch and Nancy Varnum affronted Mother at my House with Cards. Surely Mrs [Catherine] Greene could not be present. She must have known better. It was insult that I would not have sufferd the best friend I had in the World to have offerd to her.”

Read the rest here.

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

education-center-main-entrances-flag-court

This week the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is getting all the press, but J.L. Bell reminds us that there is another museum of the American Revolution that recently opened at Yorktown.  Bell paid a visit to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and tells us what he saw in a recent post at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste:

Though this museum is at the site of a particular event—the Yorktown siege of 1781—it covers the entire Revolutionary conflict, starting with the imperial situation of the 1750s and running to the expansion of the U.S. of A. in the 1790s. The galleries have the themes of “The British Empire and America”; “The Changing Relationship—Britain and North America”; “Revolution,” meaning the war; “The New Nation”; and “The American People.”

The museum also uses a lot of interactive technology. I didn’t watch the introductory film, “Liberty Fever,” but I was impressed by many of the smaller video displays. One standout was the museum’s Liberty Tree, a metal sculpture draped with “20 electronic lanterns that display liberty messages from all over the world.” Visitors in person and online can type out short remarks (no more than 108 characters) about what liberty means to them, and those appear on the lanterns.

Beside the museum building there’s a feature I remember from Yorktown decades back, a recreation of the Continental Army camp during the siege of 1781. Alongside that is an eighteenth-century farm raising vegetables and herbs; it includes a tobacco barn, representing colonial Virginia’s main crop, but apparently no tobacco fields.

The American Revolution Museum is allied with the Jamestown Settlement, a recreation of the first lasting British settlement in North America—not to be confused with the actual site of that settlement, which is a different attraction. And of course they’re all within a moderate drive of Colonial Williamsburg. As I said, well worth a visit.

Read the entire post here.

Samuel Adams: “Psalm-Singer” and “Curer of Bacon”

sam-adams-head-shot

Boston 1775 explains:

In his “Sagittarius” letters of 1774, the Scottish printer John Mein referred to:

the very honest Samuel Adams, Clerk, Psalm-singer, Purlonier, and Curer of Bacon.

Mein was clearly being derogatory, but what exactly did he mean?

To start with, Adams was clerk of the Massachusetts General Court.

As I wrote in this article at the Journal of the American Revolution, Adams was known for psalm-singing, and indeed for recruiting Sons of Liberty at psalm-singing lessons. Loyalists like Mein really harped on that.

“Purlonier” was the printer’s typographically challenged way of spelling “purloiner.” That undoubtedly referred to Adams’s controversial tenure as one of Boston’s tax-collectors from 1756 to 1764. He didn’t supply the town with all the money the law said it was owed. Mein insinuated that Adams kept those funds for himself. But he probably never collected them in the first place, cementing his popularity.

Which brings us to “Curer of Bacon.” What does that mean? A family biography treats that as an allusion to the malthouse business that Adams inherited from his father and couldn’t keep up. But what exactly is the connection between a malthouse and bacon?

Read the rest here.

Did John Quincy Adams Pass the Harvard Entrance Exam?

jqaHe took the exam in 1786.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell tells us what happened.

Here is a taste:

Here’s John Quincy’s description of the test from his diary:

Between 9 and 10 in the morning, I went to the President’s [Rev. Joseph Willard], and was there examined, before, the President, the four Tutors three Professors, and Librarian.

The first book was Horace, where Mr. [Eleazer] James the Latin Tutor told me to turn to the Carmen saeculare where I construed 3 stanza’s, and parsed the word sylvarum, but called potens a substantive.

Okay, a little slip there, but he can recover.

Mr. [Timothy Lindall] Jennison, the greek Tutor then put me to the beginning of the fourth Book of Homer; I construed Lines, but parsed wrong αλληλομς. I had then παραβληδην given me.

Uh-oh, the pressure might be getting to him.

I was then asked a few questions in [Isaac] Watts’s Logic [Logic, or The Right Use of Reason, in the Inquiry after Truth], by Mr. [John] Hale, and a considerable number in [John] Locke, on the Understanding [An Essay Concerning Human Understanding], very few of which I was able to answer.

Did Adams pass his exam? Head over to Boston 1775 and find out.

 

Did Andrew Jackson Say He Wanted to Shoot Henry Clay and Hang John Calhoun?

Some of you may remember that a couple of weeks ago Donald Trump said this:

Many interpreted his remarks about “Second Amendment people” to mean that he was calling gun owners to take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton becomes POTUS.

Historians have been wondering whether Trump’s remark is tame in comparison to the time Andrew Jackson said “My only regrets are that I never shot Henry Clay or hanged John C. Calhoun.”

But did Jackson really say this about his political rivals?  J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 fame is on the case.  Here is a taste of his post:

The anecdote about Jackson’s regrets is quite widespread. Robert V. Remini, the leading Jackson biographer of our time, cites the story in his biography of Henry Clay. Harry Truman told it multiple times, including at a public dinner in 1951.

On the other hand, I found that authors split on when Jackson made that remark. Some say he said it on leaving the White House in 1837. Others date the statement to Jackson’s final illness in 1845. So that’s a red flag.

The earliest recounting of the remark that I could find through Google Books is an address titled “Precedents of Ex-Presidents,” delivered to the Nebraska Bar Association by George Whitelock in 1911. He said, “Old Hickory had had his drastic way, except, as he sadly lamented when departing for the Hermitage near Nashville, old, ill and in debt, that he had never got a chance to shoot Henry Clay, or to hang John C. Calhoun.” It’s notable that that’s not a direct quotation, just an expression of sentiment.

So did Jackson say it?  Read Bell’s entire post here and find out.

Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?

Gadsden

This flag was designed in 1775 by Christopher Gadsden, South Carolina planter and delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress.  The rattlesnake, as best as I can tell, was used as a symbol for the British colonies as early as 1754 when Benjamin Franklin published his famous cartoon “Join or Die.”

Join or Die.php

The Gadsden flag is an iconic symbol of the American Revolution.  As a historian of 18th-century America I have had one hanging in my home office for years. (Although it is now partially covered by books and Springsteen memorabilia).

Dont Tread

A couple of additional facts about the flag are necessary.  First, Gadsden was a South Carolina slave holder.  Second, this flag has recently been used by libertarian and Tea Party groups to protest what they see as government overreach into the lives of ordinary Americans.

And now there are some claiming that because Gadsden was a slave holder the flag is racist and thus offensive.  According to this Washington Post article by Eugene Volokh, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has receive a complaint from a person who felt that “the Agency subjected him to discrimination on the basis of race (African American) and in reprisal for prior EEOC activity when, starting in the fall of 2013, a coworker repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase ‘Don’t Tread on Me.'”

Read the entire complaint in Volokh’s piece.

I think it is time for some historical perspective here.

Enter J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste of his post, “Investigating the Meaning of the Gadsden Flag“:

…some people commenting on those stories assume that a federal authority has ruled that the Gadsden Flag and associated “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan are racist because of their roots in the slave society of Revolutionary America. That shows they didn’t read the ruling or Volokh’s column.

The anonymous employee who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did make that claim:

Complainant stated that he found the cap to be racially offensive to African Americans because the flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a “slave trader & owner of slaves.”

The historic claims are correct. In 1774 more than ninety men, women, and children were enslaved on Gadsden’s two rice plantations. He paid Customs duties on the cargo of at least two slave ships, in 1755 and 1762.

Furthermore, Gadsden’s South Carolina was a society built on slavery. At the time of the Revolution, historians estimate that more than half of its human population was enslaved. Because the British military freed and evacuated so many people, that fraction went down by the 1790 census, but South Carolina still had a larger percentage of its population in bondage than any other state. By the early 1800s through the Civil War, the state’s population was once again mostly enslaved.

However, the E.E.O.C. rejected the claim that the Gadsden Flag is offensive because of its historical origin:

After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military.

In doing so, the E.E.O.C. also confirmed that “the modern Tea Party political movement” expresses “various non-racial sentiments” through the flag, which looks like a tacit rejection of the complaint’s suggestion that the Tea Party is an expression of “white resentment against blacks.”

The potential problem with the Gadsden flag, the E.E.O.C. ruling said, lies not in its past but in the way it’s being used today:

However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts. For example, in June 2014, assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas, Nevada shooting spree.

One hopes that fans of the Gadsden Flag loudly decried how those terrorists used it.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner With J.L. Bell

ConcordJ.L. Bell is a historian and blogger at Boston 1775. This interview is based on his new book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War (Westholme Publishing, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Road to Concord?

JLB: I grew up in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, during the Bicentennial. In fact, during the crucial 1975-76 year I was in fifth grade, when the state curriculum guidelines had students study the American Revolution. So between my surroundings, my school, and our national anniversary, I got a triple dose of the Revolution in New England. I knew that history had been told and retold for two centuries. I liked those stories, I really enjoyed David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, but I figured there was little more of significance to discover or rediscover.

Then I saw a couple of sources talking about Patriots stealing cannon from armories in redcoat-occupied Boston and smuggling them out into the countryside. I put those together and realized I’d run across the trail of a story that was no longer part of the regional or national narrative, that never been told in full before.

I approach history primarily as a storyteller, with the hope that the storytelling will highlight important forces and illustrate interesting patterns. And this was a story I couldn’t resist telling.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Road to Concord?

JLB: We think of the British troops marching to Concord in April 1775, arousing sleepy Middlesex villages and farms, in order to destroy some minor and miscellaneous military supplies (and perhaps to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock). In fact, those Massachusetts farmers had spent months amassing a significant artillery force, finding particular cannon was at the top of the British commander’s wish list for the expedition, and both sides had reasons to keep those facts out of their official reports.

JF: Why do we need to read The Road to Concord?

JLB: The start of the Revolutionary War is, of course, a major part of the U.S. of A.’s origin story. The Road to Concord peels back a layer of that myth to expose new details. Those details undercut the traditional picture of New Englanders defending their homes only with muskets and fowlers, and of Gen. Thomas Gage trying to suppress general unrest. The book argues that the New England governments prepared for war more than they let on and that G en. Gage had a personal motive for ordering troops to Concord. It also suggests that the way those circumstances were suppressed, resurrected, and discarded in U.S. historiography illuminates how we’ve collectively remembered our Revolution.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JLB: I first started to research the American past with an eye toward writing historical fiction for kids. In 1998, around the time I was leaving a long-time job as a book editor, I stumbled over the story of Christopher Seider, a boy about eleven years old shot dead in a political riot shortly before the Boston Massacre. It’s rare to find an example of children as significant, decision-making actors in historical events—not just bystanders. So I began to research the Revolution in New England more deeply. That work led to a chapter in James Marten’s anthology Children in Colonial America (NYU Press) and other publications.

In that same shooting, another boy was wounded—a nineteen-year-old decorative painter named Samuel Gore. And he turned into quite the activist. After Gore died in 1831, he was one of the first Bostonians to be publicly identified as a participant in the Tea Party. And Gore had told this story about stealing cannon from an armory under redcoat guard…

As to why I find history so interesting, I can’t really say. I’ve always been drawn to stories from the past. But in college, my interest in writing and literature led me to a more general major. One of my greatest regrets now is having been at a university with a stellar American history faculty and not taking any classes in the subject. Not being so specialized turned out to be valuable for my work as an editor, but I had no idea what would happen past that first job.

JF: What is your next project?

JLB: Chronologically, my next history project to appear will be the second volume of Colonial Comics: New England (Fulcrum). Jason Rodriguez is the chief editor of that series, and A. Dave Lewis and I are assistant editors. We’re working with a terrific team of writers and artists interpreting episodes from the lives of a range of eighteenth-century Americans. I also wrote the scripts for a couple of comics in that book: one about printers fighting for freedom of the press, drawn by the Eisner Award–winner Braden Lamb, and one about the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, brought to life by Jesse Lonergan.

JF: Thanks, J.L.  Great stuff!

The Stamp Act and Marriage

Check out J.L. Bell’s fascinating post at Boston 1775 about how colonists in Massachusetts married earlier than originally intended in order to avoid paying for a ten shilling stamp on their marriage certificates.  Another consequence of the Stamp Act.


Here is a taste:

…That meant that, once the law went into effect on 1 Nov 1765, every couple in Massachusetts who wanted to be legally married was supposed to pay an extra ten shillings.

By autumn, however, people were opposed to paying the Stamp Tax not just to save money but also to avoid cooperating with what they saw as an unconstitutional imposition on the province’s self-government.

The Boston Gazette of 14 Oct 1765 reported that one result was couples hurrying to marry before the law took effect the next month:


We hear that Numbers of young Persons in the Country are joining in Wedlock, earlier than they intended, supposing that after the 1st of next Month, it would be difficult to have the Ceremony performed without paying dearly for stamping:—

No less than 22 Couple were published on Sunday last Week atMarblehead, intending Marriage on the same Account.

Boston 1775 on the End of the Stamp Act Congress

This month marks the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act Congress, a New York meeting of representatives from the British-American colonies to discuss the best way to resist the Stamp Act of 1765.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell has been guiding us through the events of this nearly three-week Congress, which began on October 7, 1765.  

For those of you interested in New Jersey history, here is Bell on one thing that happened on October 24, 1765:

By 24 Oct 1765, the Stamp Act Congress had revised and approved its three petitions to different parts of the British government, as described a couple of days back.

But delegate Robert Ogden(1716-1787) of New Jersey argued that the congress shouldn’t send those documents to London. Rather, he said, each delegation should bring them back to their colonial legislature for their colleagues to amend, approve, and then send across the Atlantic. Which wouldn’t really present a united front against the Stamp Act.

As speaker of the New Jersey house, Ogden had at first been reluctant to authorize any participation in the congress at all. Apparently under pressure from colleagues, he had presided over a special meeting to choose delegates without the authorization of Gov. William Franklin. When he put himself on the list, he probably hoped to steer the process.

Ogden’s late suggestion that the congress lacked legitimacy on its own made people accuse him of foot-dragging. By 2 November, Robert R. Livingston of New York wrote, the New Jersey speaker was “burnt in Effigy in almost all the Towns of East Jersey.” Ogden would resign his legislative seat by the end of that month.

The other delegates stuck with their original plan to send the petitions to London directly. They also voted to recommend “to the several colonies to appoint special agents for soliciting relief from their present grievances, and to unite their utmost interest and endeavors for that purpose”—in other words, a joint lobbying effort. Both those actions were tentative steps toward continental unity.