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.

Some Misunderstandings About “Evangelical Historians” and the Study of History

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Some of you may recall back in July 2017 when we featured University of Alabama religion professor’s Mike Altman‘s book Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu at The Author’s Corner.  It is an excellent book from an excellent scholar of American religion.

Today on Twitter, Altman, in response to ongoing debates about whether or not Phillis Wheatley was an evangelical, wrote this:

I can’t speak for other historians who share my evangelical faith, but I call Wheatley an evangelical not because I want to claim her today, but because the word “evangelical” is the best way of understanding her in her 18th-century context.  Most early American historians would agree.  Here is J.L. Bell, the prolific historical blogger from Boston 1775 (and my response):

So, in other words, I argue that “evangelical” is a term we can use to describe Wheatley because I think it best explains her religious beliefs in the context of the world in which she lived.  Just because the word “evangelical” has now become associated with other things (as I argue indirectly in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump) does not mean it is not useful in the eighteenth-century. If I were to quit evangelicalism, as I threatened to do after November 8, 2016, I would still say “evangelical” is the best word to describe Wheatley in her time. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

This whole debate is part of the reason I wrote Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Some critics have said that the book errs too far to the historicist side, but it is precisely for the issues under debate here that I wanted to use this book to call attention to what Gordon Wood calls the “pastness of the past.” It takes discipline to understand the past on its own terms.  This requires putting aside our contemporary views and trying our best to see the world from the perspective of those living in the past.  As Sam Wineburg writes, it is our “psychological condition at rest” to find something useful in the past–something we can use to advance our agenda in the present.  But mature historical thinking–to understand the foreignness of the past–is an “unnatural act.”  As I argue in Why Study History, it can also be a transformative act.

Moreover, if Altman is right about “evangelical historians,” then why have so many of us (myself perhaps more than most) written extensively about the fact that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and many other founders were not Christians?  And why are we so critical of those, like David Barton, who argue that the founders were Christians? Wouldn’t we want to argue that the founders were evangelicals so they we can get them our side in the present?

 

Benjamin Vaughan to Thomas Jefferson on Days of Thanksgiving

Vaughan

Benjamin Vaughan

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell introduces us to Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835), a British radical politician who wrote to Thomas Jefferson about religion in 1801.

Here is a taste of Vaughan’s March 15, 1801 letter to the new President of the United States:

I trust that your administration will have few difficulties in these parts, provided it steers clear of religion. You are too wise & just to think of any official attacks upon religion, & too sincere to make any affected overtures in favor of it. You know where you are thought to be in this respect; & there it may be wise to stand.—

If a ruler however at times acts with a view to accommodate himself to the feelings, in which many of the citizens for whom he takes thought, participate; this can neither be considered as a violation of truth or of dignity; and is not likely to prove unacceptable, if done avowedly with this view.—

For example, it is not in, & is perhaps without the constitution, to recommend fasts & thanksgivings from the federal chair, at the seasons respectively when the New Englanders look for those things; & therefore you will not think it perhaps needful for you to meddle with such matters. But, if you did, this example will serve my purpose. You may then I presume safely & acceptably interfere with a view to name a time, when a large proportion of your constituents may be enabled to do the thing in question consentingly & cotemporarily. You certainly may make yourself in this an organ of the general convenience, without departing from any of your own principles; especially as you will take due care to use decorous language, should the occasion be used. 

Read the rest of the letter, and Bell’s commentary, here.

What Did the Founders Mean By “Bear Arms?”

Reenactment

Here is J.L. Bell at Boston 1775:

Last month Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published an op-ed essay in the Washington Post on the language of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare—they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

Lawyer Neal Goldfarb checked more variations of the phrase in the same databases and came to the same basic conclusion.

In the 2008 Heller case, as everyone involved in this discussion knows, the U.S. Supreme Court decided otherwise. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia treated “bear ams” not as an idiom with a military meaning but as a general phrase about carrying weapons.

The data shows otherwise—hardly anyone in the eighteenth century used it as Scalia did. As with the Reynolds case I wrote about here, the court’s finding is simply at odds with historical facts. The Heller ruling overturned legal understandings that prevailed for most of the twentieth century and changed the law going forward, but such rulings can’t change the actual past.

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.

More on the Bust of Richard Stockton

Richard-Stockton-2

Last week we published a post on Stockton University‘s decision to remove a bust of Richard Stockton from its library.  Stockton was a New Jersey revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The bust will be replaced with a more thorough exhibit that will apparently deal with Stockton as a slave holder.   Read our post here.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell offers his own thoughts on the remove of the Stockton bust.

Here is a taste:

This month brought news that Stockton University in New Jersey has removed a bust of Richard Stockton (shown above) from its library. The reason was not, however, because his iconic status in the state rests on a shaky legend of stoic suffering at the hands of the enemy.

Rather, the university removed the bust because Stockton owned slaves. Those people are documented in his will, in which the judge said his widow Annis could free them if she chose. (I’ve found no evidence she did so. Their son Richard owned slaves as an adult, as did their daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush—even though he advocated for an end to slavery.)

As a public university, and one founded to provide more opportunities for students who don’t have advantages in our society, Stockton University has good reason not to glorify someone who participated in slave-owning even while championing liberty for gentlemen like himself.

At the same time, I don’t see how removing Stockton’s bust will fix that contradiction when the institution is still, you know, named Stockton University.

The school started in the 1970s as South Jersey State College and evolved through Stockton State College, Richard Stockton State College, and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey before becoming Stockton University in 2015. Has the Stockton name developed enough of its own legacy to leave the judge behind? Does Stockton’s documented interest in higher education (as a trustee of Princeton College) make him a good namesake for a university despite his other behavior?

Good questions.

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.

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 Went Into Effect 250 Years Ago Yesterday.

We have been trying to keep the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home up to speed with some of the best stuff out there on the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act.  See our recent posts here and here.  I have actually been working on some stuff related to the Stamp Act in New Jersey.  Stay tuned.

J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 is providing the best coverage on the Internet related to this anniversary. He offers a day-by-day and blow-by-blow account of the events taking place in Boston during this period. For example, see yesterday’s post on Bostonians hanging George Grenville and John Huske in effigy.

As Joseph Adleman reminds us at The Junto, the Stamp Act went into effect in British North America on November 2, 1765.  Here is a taste of his piece on the sense of uncertainty that the colonists faced during the crisis.

With the anniversary of the effective date (November 1) now upon us, however, I think it’s important to reflect on one element of the Stamp Act crisis that we can often too easily overlook: uncertainty. That is, on November 1, uncertainty hung like a cloud over the colonies where protesters had attempted to (usually successfully) nullify the Act. Printers did not know whether they could continue to publish their newspapers, and if they did, whether they would come under sanction by the British government. They undertook a range of solutions to that problem, from shutting their presses down entirely to printing anonymously (in Boston, they thumbed their noses at Parliament and continued to put their names on the mastheads and colophons). Courts did not know whether they could legally operate with unstamped documents—even in Massachusetts, where opposition was strongest. Many shut down for the winter of 1765 and spring of 1766.

Everywhere, therefore, colonists were uncertain, because even if they had thwarted the enforcement of the Act, it was still in effect, and legally each printer who published, each merchant and lawyer who did business, was subject to a penalty of fines or imprisonment for acting without stamps. Even the staunchest foe of the Stamp Act, in other words, had no idea whether the nullification would stick, or whether the British ministry, acting through its governors and officers in the colonies, would be able to enforce the law.

Capturing that uncertainty is a difficult challenge for historians: we know how the story ends. And to make matters worse, the very nature of the Stamp Act as a tax on printed matter means that our sources change on November 1. The decisions that printers made—to publish or not, to use their names or not—have enormous implications for how we study the Stamp Act.[1] Through the end of October, we have a plentiful collection of printed accounts detailing the protests in each port city, the declarations forced upon stamp officers, the legal arguments of political elites, and the actions of governors and others who thought the law must be enforced. After November 1, we lose contact with some ports entirely; printers in both Annapolis and Charleston completely shut their presses for six months, for example. In other places, we must rely on bibliographers and others would can trace the anonymously printed sheets titled “No Stamped Paper to be Had” to a specific printing office. The story moves into manuscripts, letters and other notes, and constricts to the cities that continued printing.

Read the entire post here.