This Week @ MHS
Here are the events scheduled for the week ahead:
- Tuesday, 7 February, 5:15PM : First up this week is a seminar from the Early American History series. "The Coromantee War in Jamaica: Charting the Course of an Atlantic Slave Revolt" is presented by Vincent Brown of Harvard University and discusses the African diasporic warfare in the Americas. The talk is drawn from Brown's current book project which puts the Jamaican Revolt of 1760-1761 in the context of a dramatic series of 17th- and 18th-century revolts and conspiracies that were staged by enslaved Africans from the Gold Coast, known widely as "Coromantees." Malick Ghachem of MIT provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.
- Wednesday, 8 February, 6:00PM : Join us for a talk with Kenneth Rendell of the Museum of World War II, a noted collector and dealer of historical documents and artifacts. The collection, open to the public and dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the reality of World War II, is made up of over 7,000 artifacts and more that 500,000 documents and photographs. In this program, "Collecting the World at War, 1919-1946," Rendell discusses the challenges he's faced in the past 58 yeras of collection, globally, the most cataclysmic event of modern times. This talk is open to the public; registraiton is required at a fee of $20 (no charge for MHS Fellows or Members). A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk starts at 6:00PM.
- Saturday, 11 February, 9:00AM : "Abraham Lincoln & Emancipation" is a teacher workshop open to K-12 educators. MHS staff and participants will use primary sources from the Society's collection to discuss and debate Lincoln's grounds for opposing slavery and his thoughts on colonization, abolition, and gradual emancipation. The group will be joined by Kevin M. Levin, author of Civil War Memory. Registration is required with a fee of $25. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-646-0557 for more information or to register.
There is no public tour this week.
Rembember to stop by to view our current exhibition, Turning Points in American History. The exhibit is free and open to the public Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM. Your last chance to view this exhibit is on Saturday, 25 February, its final day.
| Published: Sunday, 5 February, 2017, 12:00 AM
From the Case Notes of Robert Treat Paine: Taxes and Turmoil in Paxton
By Christina Carrick, Publications
In Paxton, Mass., on 3 February 1783, a riot broke out over a cow. More than a dozen “hearty fellows” from Paxton and nearby Worcester County towns stormed a “vendue” (an auction) and attempted to “rescue” a cow from the auction block. They broke through the bars penning the animal and, wielding “unusual” clubs, threatened the life and well-being of anyone who dared to place a bid. According to one witness, Paxton joiner and alleged rioter Asa Sterns said that “whosoever bids, bids at his peril” while Holden yeoman Jonathan Wheeler threatened “the first man that bid he'd knock his brain out.”
The rioters left a trail of bruises and sore heads behind them. No one was killed in the commotion, but 10 men were later arrested, charged with inciting a riot, and tried before the September Sessions of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Worcester, prosecuted by Atty. Gen. Robert Treat Paine. The defendants were indicted for congregating in order to
obstruct the due Execution of Law and to prevent the Collection of the public Taxes of this Commonwealth legally assessed on the Subjects thereof for the defence of their Liberty and happiness with force and Arms riotously routously and unlawfully did assemble and gather together for the destructive purposes aforsaid and to disturb the peace of the Commonwealth and being so assembled and gathered together, did then and there unlawfully riotously & routously remain and continue together in a tumultous manner for the space of one hour in evil Example to others to offend in like manner & against the peace & Dignity of the Commonwealth.*
In the small, makeshift notebooks that contain Paine’s hastily written trial notes, the cramped pages of witness and participant testimonies expose local, state, and class tensions. Witness after witness reported that the individuals in question, most prominently Asa and Reuben Sterns, had spoken against the state government in the weeks before the riot. Most of the Sterns brothers’ complaints addressed state taxes and more specifically the state resolve that allowed tax collectors to confiscate moveable property or livestock—the aforementioned cow—if an individual did not have specie (coin money).
Due to the shortage of hard money and the Revolutionary War’s interruptions of business-as-usual, many Paxton residents were cash-strapped and struggling to answer the intensifying state tax demands. Consequently, local officials confiscated cattle from the Sterns brothers and several other residents in lieu of unpaid taxes. Local residents saw this measure as grossly unjust. They argued that if their cattle—part of their means to a living—were confiscated, it would make it harder to earn the money to pay taxes, or even to eat. According to witness Thomas Pollard, “Asa Sterns sd. he wd. pay no more Taxes, if he did he shd. have no more money to pay Taxes.” The tax rioters complained that the coastal merchant elites were growing wealthy at their expense. David Pierce, one of the alleged rioters, swore at the trial that he was “fighting for liberty but it was become Tyranny & he wd. support it no longer” because the tax “money went to support great men.”
The resentment toward the state grew so high, witnesses reported, that after a few drinks the Sterns brothers proclaimed that Worcester County residents would be better off under the British government than the Massachusetts government. They had toasted the “brave Tories” and wished health to King George III. Other witnesses stripped the rioters of ideology and instead said that Asa Sterns “sd. if he pd. the 5 Doll for Taxes he shd. have no money to buy flip”—an alcoholic beverage popular in early New England.
On the February morning of the vendue, Reuben and Asa Sterns, David Pierce, and a number of other men arrived at the auction site with clubs, intending to stop the sale and prevent wealthier locals from purchasing their cows. Testifier Nathan Brigham Newton observed the buildup to the riot:
Vendue day, they sd. they had paid Taxes long enô. Reuben Sterns sd. damn the Authority. Asa Sterns sd. he’d keep his money to buy flip. Jona. Wheeler told Silas Newton to hold his tongue or he’d split his head open. this was before sale
Nathan Brigham Newton’s Testimony
The riot’s violence lasted less than an hour, with rioters targeting the state authorities and local tax collectors or trying to release the cattle from the auction pen and nearby barn. Some locals that were “freindly to Gov” drove the cattle back into the barn before the rioters could make off with them. The rioters were disbanded and indicted two months later.
The case was not as legally challenging as many that Paine faced. Levi Lincoln, attorney for the defense, presented thin arguments that fill barely half a page in Paine’s notebook, whereas the witness testimonies take up over a dozen. Paine noted when one defense witness stated that the rioters had not actually threatened murder, but his remaining defense notes are short and cryptic. Unlike many cases, he did not spend pages listing relevant legal texts, past case precedents, or rationalizing the charges—the case was straightforward. The 10 men were found guilty of inciting a riot and sentenced to each pay fines of £4 to £10 and sureties of £50 to £80 for a term of two years to guarantee their good behavior, while one man was sentenced to three months imprisonment. The cattle proceeded to auction; the proceeds from the sale went to the state government. Despite the relative legal simplicity, the case indicates broader tensions in Revolutionary Massachusetts.
Paine’s notes on Levi Lincoln’s arguments for the defense
Paine prosecuted several rioting cases in 1783. The same September court in Worcester County tried cases for riots in Sturbridge, Dudley, Douglass, and Petersham. These cases resemble the Paxton riot, with men resentful about taxation, confiscated livestock, and debt. The complaints underpinning these disturbances resurfaced in a larger protest movement later in the decade: Shays’s Rebellion. While the Revolutionary War drew to a close in 1783, Massachusetts residents continued to contest the shape and function of the new state government.
For the full trial story and Paine’s other legal endeavors, check out the Robert Treat Paine Papers collection at MHS and the published Papers of Robert Treat Paine. The Massachusetts State Judicial Archives also holds records on this case, including the above indictment. Paine’s notes for this case and the indictment will be printed in full in volume 4 of the Papers, forthcoming from the MHS Publications Department in 2017 thanks to a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
*Quoted from the Massachusetts Judicial Archives, Suffolk Files 153487. All other quotations are from Paine’s trial notes at the MHS.
| Published: Friday, 3 February, 2017, 12:00 AM
“A solid Judiciary”: John Adams and John Marshall
By Amanda M. Norton, Adams Papers
John Adams’s administration was in its waning days as January 1801 closed. While Thomas Jefferson had not yet been officially elected, Adams knew for certain that he was not going to continue in office and would soon head home. In the meantime, however, there was still plenty of work to be done.
The empty seat on the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice’s chair in fact, was one of his more pressing issues as the previous chief justice, Oliver Ellsworth, had resigned his seat in October. John Adams had no doubts about the importance of the high court in the young republic: “The firmest Security We can have against the Effects of visionary Schemes or fluctuating Theories, will be in a solid Judiciary,” however his first choice to replace Ellsworth, former chief justice John Jay, declined to serve in the position again. With only a few weeks left in his administration, Adams made one of the most significant and long-lasting decisions of his entire public career. On January 20, Adams formally submitted the nomination of his secretary of state, John Marshall, to serve as chief justice, to which the Senate consented one week later.
Adams sent Marshall his commission on the 31st, likely with a letter in which he requested that Marshall prepare letters of recall for John Quincy Adams to return home from his position as minister plenipotentiary to Prussia. Although Adams believed his son deserved to have his position upgraded with an appointment to Great Britain or France, he recognized that was not possible; “Besides it is my opinion that it is my duty to call him home,” Adams confessed.
Marshall accepted the role on February 4, writing to Adams, “I pray you to accept my grateful acknowledgements for the honor conferd on me in appointing me chief Justice of the United States. This additional & flattering mark of your good opinion has made an impression on my mind which time will not efface. I shall enter immediately on the duties of the office & hope never to give you occasion to regret having made this appointment.” Adams replied the same day, thanking Marshall for his acceptance but requesting that given the “Circumstances . . . of the times” he stay on as secretary of state for the remainder of Adams’s term. Chief Justice Marshall would serve for the next 34 years and profoundly influence and define the role and place of the Supreme Court in the nation in ways that endure to the present.
| Published: Wednesday, 1 February, 2017, 12:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
February starts slowly at the MHS. As we leave January behind it is a fairly quiet week here at the MHS. Here is what is to come:
- Wednesday, 1 February, 12:00PM : Pack a lunch and come by for a Brown Bag talk with Andrea Gray of George Mason University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. "'Leaving their callings': Retirement in the Early Republic" looks at elderly men in the early national period who voluntarily left their public careers and permanently returned to domestic life. By examining their motives, how they spent their retired years, and the impression they made on their fellow Americans, we gain important insights into the relationship between aging, work and public service, gender, and republican civic virtue. This talk is free and open to the public.
- Saturday, 4 February, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Tour is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or email@example.com.
While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History. This exhibition ends on Saturday, 25 February, so don't wait!
| Published: Sunday, 29 January, 2017, 12:00 AM
Benedict Arnold’s Heart
By Rakashi Chand, Reader Services
Unlike any other historical figure, Benedict Arnold’s contributions to the Patriotic Cause were so great that, had he not committed treason, history might have depicted him as a Founding Father. His accomplishments cannot be negated, his leadership and skill as a solider were unsurpassed, and his men loved him; had he been a less admired man, perhaps his treachery would have been less painful. The hero of the Battle of Saratoga, Arnold’s military success came at high costs, his war wounds leaving him lame and requiring the use of a cane throughout his life. Arnold fought courageously and boldly on the battlefield, the ‘Warrior’ of the Continental army, he was greatly admired and respected by his troops. So why would a man of such heroism resort to treason?
Well, perhaps it had to do with his passionate heart.
In late 1776, George Washington sent Arnold to Providence to take control of poorly defended Rhode Island following the British takeover of Newport. “His presence will be of infinite service,” Washington wrote, and indeed the 4,000-man Rhode Island militia was excited to hear of Arnold’s arrival. Arnold soon found they were not equipped for an attack on British forces and, with the lull of winter upon them, he went north to Boston in hopes of raising more troops. It was here in Boston that the middle-aged, widowed, weathered Arnold found himself embraced by Boston’s high society, including the remaining loyalists.
After the evacuation of Boston, some loyalist families returned to the city to look after property interests. One such family included Mrs. Gilbert DeBlois and her 16 year-old daughter, Elizabeth “Betsy” DeBlois. Arnold, who recently lost his wife, encountered the loquacious, flirtatious, and charming young Betsy through mutual acquaintances, namely, Lucy Flucker Knox, wife of General Henry Knox and daughter of Thomas Flucker, the royal secretary of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Arnold promptly fell passionately in love with Betsy and tried desperately to court the girl, but her mother had already chosen another suitor, an apothecary’s apprentice. This did not stop Arnold from pursuing her; enlisting the help of Mrs. Knox, he secretly sent gifts and love letters. Arnold even sent a ring, said to be an engagement ring.
Here at the MHS is one such letter from Arnold to young Betsy. This gushing missive, meant to sweep the young belle off her feet, is the archetypal ‘love letter’. In fact, I would suggest that those who do not enjoy romance should perhaps abstain from reading any further…*
April 8th 1778
Twenty times have I taken up my pen to write to you, and as often has my trembling hand refused to obey the dictates of my heart, a heart which has often been calm, and serene amidst the clashing of Arms and all the din and horrors of War, trembles with diffidence and fear at giving offence when it attempts to address you on a subject so important to its happiness, long have I struggled in vain to errace your heavenly Image from it, neither time, absence, misfortunes, nor your cruel Indifference have been able to efface the deep impressions your Charms have made, and will you doom a heart so true, so faithful, to languish in despair; shall I expect no returns to the most sincere, ardent, and disinterested passion; Dear Betsy suffer that heavenly Bosom (which surely cannot know itself the cause of misfortune without a sympathetic pang) to expand with friendship at least; and let me know my Fate, if a happy one no Man will strive more to deserve it, if on the contrary I am doom’d to despair my latest breath will be to implore the blessing of Heaven on the Idol, [the] only wish of my soul.
Dear Madam and believe
me most sincerely
In addition to this letter, the MHS also holds the ring that Arnold sent to young Betsy in the hope of attaining her hand.
I had read of the romances of Benedict Arnold before, but I never realized how much passion coursed through his words (and his actions) until I saw the actual love letter. Sadly, “Heavenly Miss DeBlois” refused Arnold and his gifts.
This devastating blow to the heart was received with an equally devastating blow to his pride from Congress. At the time, Arnold was due to be promoted in the ranks. Instead, Congress promoted five Brigadier Generals to Major General, all inferior to Arnold. Many, including Washington, were outraged and assumed Arnold would certainly resign at such an insult. Perhaps this prompted Arnold to begin questioning himself and the world around him...
What a romantic Arnold must have been! It seems he was passionate in all aspects of life, but one who fell zealously and fervently in love, although, all too easily!
A year later Benedict Arnold met Peggy (Margaret) Shippen, and his heart was aflame once again. He also wrote Peggy love letters quite similar to the ones he had sent to Betsy. (Well, no point wasting good prose.) Be still my heart, for Arnold strikes again!
…And then he turned out to be a traitor.
An early Happy Valentine’s Day to all the romantics out there, especially those who love historical romance!
*Please note that the transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the letter in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original.
| Published: Friday, 27 January, 2017, 12:00 AM