Friday, December 25, 2009

Don't Forget Trenton

Merry Christmas everyone! As you enjoy the festivities, keep in mind that today also carries a special American tribute that should not go forgotten.

233 years ago on this date George Washington and the Continental Army made their daring advance on Trenton to attack the Hessian soldiers encamped at the city. The move was risky to say the least. Trenton was defended by 1,500 Hessian mercenaries, who were expecting to pass through a relatively calm winter encampment at the city. Washington, however, saw an opportunity to gain a moral victory (moral because winning Trenton was not a major tactical victory) for his army. After all, this was the same army that had been thoroughly routed by the British at New York, where they were forced to flee on a number of occasions. As a result, the Continental Army was in extreme disarray and Washington himself was being questioned by the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In fact, some even suggested that the General should be replaced for his poor performance at New York.

It was under these tough circumstances that Thomas Paine wrote the words to his epic pamphlet, The Crisis, which was written just two days before the planned attack on Trenton:
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
With such dire circumstances all around them, Washington decided to roll the dice. An attack on Trenton would secure a for the Continental Army a legitimate moral victory, one which would help to inspire the allegiance of more colonials to the cause of independence. Despite the benefits, Washington was not unaware of the tremendous risk he was taking. In a very real sense this was an all-or-nothing gamble (It is therefore no surprise that Washington would pen a note on his desk that read, "Victory or Death").

To make a long story short, Washington and the Continental Army won an astonishing victory at Trenton, capturing over 1/3 of the entire Hessian garrison. Since the Hessians expected a quiet winter encampment, they chose to enjoy the holidays by staying up late and drinking away their Christmas Eve. As a result, the army was caught asleep, hung over, and disorganized upon Washington's arrival. Here is a clip from the movie The Crossing, which captures the feel of that Christmas morning:

The Army then goes on to rout the Hessians at Trenton. In the process, only 2 continental soldiers lost their lives. In addition, only five were wounded (including James Monroe, who eventually became our 5th president).

So, Merry Continental Army Kicks Hessian Butt Day/Christmas!!!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Samuel Adams Problem?

A Fundamental Error
in the "Key Founders" Argument

For those who debate religion and the founding, one of the central topics of conversation centers around the role that the "key founders" had in establishing the American republic. Usually this conversation focuses on five or six "big guns" of the founding era -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, John Adams, and sometimes Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine -- whose contributions to the American Revolution, Constitution, etc. are considered to be of greater value or influence than others. And while it is true that the contributions of some founders were greater than others -- who would be silly enough suggest that someone like John Rutledge was as important to the American Revolution as George Washington -- I often find myself being somewhat uncomfortable with the term "key founders." After all, what constitutes someone becoming a "key" founder? What criteria do we use when selecting individuals for this ultra-exclusive classification? For example, could a woman ever be considered a "key" founder? Did not Abigail Adams play a pivotal role in supporting John through the ups and downs of his political career? And what of the many influential and prominent founders who supported revolution but rejected the Constitution? Has their legacy been tainted in some way for being on the "wrong side" of history?

Of course the answer to these questions are complex to say the least. After all, one could easily argue -- without being sexist mind you -- that women had virtually no role in the founding of America. There were no women present at the Continental Congress/Constitutional Convention, nor were women allowed to vote/run for office in the early years of the infant American nation. In addition, one could also logically conclude that those who supported revolution but rejected the Constitution -- Patrick Henry comes to mind -- are of somewhat lesser importance due to the simple fact that their beliefs were overshadowed by those of the "key" founders. Of course this should not suggest that the contributions of women or those who opposed the Constitution are irrelevant, but it does illustrate the fact that some "key" individuals did play a greater role than others.

With that said, I believe that many historians/students of early America/amateur historians/whatever else you wanna call them, are oftentimes quite discriminatory in their selection of "key" founders. It is almost always the case that these "key" founders are men of elite status who embraced the Revolution, accepted the Constitution, and, for the purposes of our blog, were at least ambiguous in their devotion to the Christian religion. For example, Gordon Wood, who the majority of readers on this blog consider to be the finest historian of early America, only mentions seven founders -- Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Paine, and Burr -- in his book Revolutionary Characters. And while I am sure that Wood himself recognizes the fact that these seven men were far from alone in their endeavors to create a new nation, the fact remains that many important founders are often omitted from the historical dialogue.

Such is the case with Samuel Adams. Despite the fact that he is regularly referred to as the "Father" of the American Revolution -- historian Joseph Ellis calls him the "Lenin of the American Revolution" -- Samuel Adams is almost always omitted from the "Key Founder" classification. In our modern era, Sam Adams has probably become more of a beer symbol than a revolutionary icon. Even this blog is guilty of omitting Sam Adams from our discussions on early America. In our one year run, which has amassed over 600 posts, Sam Adams has only been mentioned IN ONE POST -- and even that post was quite brief of the topic. So how is it that a man who is often considered the father of the American Revolution, adversary of the Stamp Act, organizer of the Sons of Liberty, and all-around champion of the common man be so blatantly ignored?

In his excellent bio of Samuel Adams, author Mark Puls presents a compelling case that the modern historiography of Sam Adams has given most Americans a very skewed and incomplete understanding of the man who Thomas Jefferson referred to as, "truly the man of the Revolution." and "the patriarch of liberty." He writes:
Despite his many achievements and their lasting impact, his legacy goes largely unheralded in recent years, even during a wave of interest about the Founding generation. While Adams was hailed as the "Father of the American Revolution" in his own time, his role in the birth of a nation has been overshadowed by founders who went on to become U.S. Presidents or by men who rose to prominence during the inaugural federal government. Biographers and historians have assigned more significant places to men who had little influence before the Revolution in shaping the birth of the nation or forging its foundational ideals.


Since Adams' death in 1803, the assessments of his contributions to American history have undergone several revisions, based in part on the views of the Revolution itself. Nineteenth-century historians such as George Bancroft, in his 1882 exhaustive, six-volume "History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent" saw Adams as the major figure in American movement leading up to the war: "No one had equal influence over the popular mind." James K. Hosmer's 1888 biography, "Samuel Adams" ranked his subject second only to George Washington in importance to the founding of the United States.


Until the 1920s, historians treated Adams in the same generally positive light accorded the other Founding Fathers. A revision of his record began with Ralph V. Harlow's 1923 "Samuel Adams -- Promoter of the American Revolution", which portrayed Adams as a propagandist and zealot, a view furthered by John C. Miller's 1936 "Samuel Adams: A Pioneer in Propaganda".

In recent years, Samuel Adams has been treated by historians as a propagandist who stoked the passions of the poor and built resentment against the British to further his own career. Scholars such as Russell Kirk dismissed Adams as a "well-born demagogue" in his 1974 "The Roots of American Order."
Here Puls makes his disgust with the current Sam Adams historiography clear. The idea that the "father" of the American Revolution was a rabble-rousing, doomsday propagandist who preyed upon the ignorance and vulnerability of the poor tends to permeate the current historical interpretation of Sam Adams. Even the recent HBO miniseries, John Adams attempts to portray Samuel Adams as being little more than an ultra-passionate, angry, and vindictive leader of the masses:

Puls continues:

But the historical record and an examination of Adams' writings tell a very different story. Adams and the other colonists involved in the civil rights struggle were not an unthinking mob, but a highly reflective people who stated their case with reasoned arguments in pamphlets, letters, petitions, and newspaper articles. In his writings, Adams placed his faith in a logical persuasion, devoid of feckless emotional appeals, in the same manner of modern newspaper columnists. His readers were highly literate, and well versed in the allusions to ancient Latin and Greek writers and examples from antiquity from which he drew analogies. His crusade eventually drew in intellectuals such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as affluent men such as George Washington and John Hancock. Mob violence was common in England during the eighteenth century, but these protests never achieved any specific political goals. It's highly unlikely that the successful colonial resistance in the prewar years as well as the Revolution itself and the creation of an independent nation would have occurred without the involvement of the educated and affluent.
If the founders themselves were allowed to select the "key" contributors to the American cause, Samuel Adams may very well be among them. As historian Joseph Ellis states:"In the midst of the current surge of interest in the founders, the most conspicuous absence is that of Samuel Adams, an absence that most of his peers would have found inexplicable."

Or as his second cousin, John Adams stated, "Without the character of Samuel Adams, the true history of the American Revolution can never be written. For fifty years his pen, his tongue, his activity, were constantly exerted for his country without fee or reward."

Perhaps we could make one more slot for dear Sam in our "Key Founders" category?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Revisiting Salem: Part II

The Geography of Witchcraft
by Brad Hart

For the second installment in my series on the Salem Witch Trials, I have decided to look at the geography of seventeenth-century Salem, which has become the centerpiece in William and Mary Quarterly’s July, 2008 review of the Salem historical record. To be more specific, it is Professor Benjamin C. Ray’s article entitled, The Geography of Witchcraft Accusations in 1692 Salem Village that has caught my attention.

In this particular article, Prof. Ray challenges some of the status quo interpretations of the Salem geographical record, and in particular questions the validity of the analysis offered by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in their groundbreaking book, Salem Possessed. [1] As Prof. Ray points out, the most significant source for Boyer and Nissenbaum’s work was the 1867 book by Charles W. Upham, Salem Witchcraft, which included a detailed map of virtually all the households in Salem Village. [2] With this map, Boyer and Nissenbaum endeavored to demonstrate how specific geographic locations within Salem Village -- based primarily on economic and social differences -- led to the factionalism that ultimately divided Salem on the witchcraft issue. For roughly thirty years, Boyer and Nissenbaum’s work has served as the standard interpretation of the Salem Story.

In recent years, however, a number of scholars have come forward to challenge the interpretation offered in Salem Possessed. In 2002, renowned historian Mary Beth Norton published her book, In The Devil’s Snare, which served to challenge some of the assertions made by Boyer and Nissenbaum. As Norton states in the introduction of her book:
The influential "Salem Possessed" (1974), by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, attributes the crisis to long-standing political, economic, and religious discord among men of Salem Village, denying the significance of women’s prominence as both accused and accuser…In the Devil’s Snare contends that the dramatic events of 1692 can be fully understood only by viewing them as intricately related to concurrent political and military affairs in northern New England. [3]
In addition to Norton’s assertions, Prof. Ray points out that the traditional interpretation of the Upham map by Boyer and Nissenbaum is incomplete:
Contrary to Boyer and Nissenbaum’s conclusions in "Salem Possessed," geographic analysis of the accusations in the village shows there was no significant villagewide east-west division between accusers and accused in 1692. Nor was there an east-west divide between households of different economic status…

…Though is may appear that the "Salem Possessed" map carries the burden of the argument about the socioeconomic and geographic foundation of the witchcraft accusations, the map does not supply all the evidence…a total of thirteen accusers were omitted, this indicating that the map is incomplete and does not represent all the accusers.
Prof. Ray continues his argument by pointing out the inherently complex nature of geographical data. In his analysis, Ray claims that the map data included in Salem Possessed was conveniently construed to fit Boyer and Nissenbaum’s claims:
Boyer and Nissenbaum placed an all-important east-west demarcation line at the center of their map without explaining its precise location. The lack of explanation is curious because positioning the line slightly to the west would have made a significant difference in the crowded center of the map, shifting several As (a marker used to identify the accused) to the eastern side of the village. [5]
The rest of Prof. Ray’s article goes on to point out various omissions made by Boyer and Nissenbaum in their interpretation of the Upham map. In addition, the article argues that a geographical interpretation that seeks to divide Salem Village socially or economically is inherently too restrictive, and that future inquiryneeds to be set as free of interpretive assumptions as possible if scholars are to have a solid geographic foundation for further historical research.” [6]

Though truly a pioneering work that defined the historiography of the Salem Witch Trials for decades, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed should at least be seen as an incomplete take on the Salem saga.

[1] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).

[2] Charles Upham, Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects, 2 vols. (Boston, Mass., 1867).

[3] Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York, 2002), 4-5.

[4] Benjamin C. Ray, “The Geography of Witchcraft Accusations in 1692 Salem Village,” in The William and Mary Quarterly, vol, LXV, no. 3, (July, 2008), 453.

[5] Ibid, 456.

[6] Ibid, 478.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Revisiting Salem: Part I

The Economics of Witchcraft
by Brad Hart

Over the past week I have had the wonderful opportunity of delving into the July, 2008 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, which is almost exclusively dedicated to a reexamination of the Salem Witch Trials. Though the history surrounding Salem during the latter part of the 17th century has received an incredible amount of attention, I believe that anytime the “flagship” journal of early American history decides to revisit a topic, we would all do well to follow suit. With this in mind, I hope to dedicate the next couple of my posts on this blog to a review of the Salem historical record and the assessment offered by various historians on this topic in the WMQ.

As mentioned before, the history surrounding the Salem Witch Trials is one of the more popular events in all of American colonial history. Literally hundreds of books and articles have been written over the centuries, making 17th century Salem one of the most publicized events in our nation’s past. While this overabundance of scholarly literature may discourage some historians from engaging in a revision of the Salem saga, other devout students of early American history remain undeterred. As historian Richard Latner of Tulane University states:
The 1692 Salem witchcraft outbreak has had an enduring capacity for attracting popular and scholarly attention…Richly complex and layered, it is continuously amenable to fresh investigation. Thus, though the harvest of books and articles on Salem may deter researchers from this well-trodden terrain, ample rewards may result not only from formulating new interpretations but also from reexamining prevailing conceptualizations. [1]
It is this fresh perspective, a desire to challenge the traditional historiography of the Salem story, that demands our attention. For too long Salem and its witchcraft legacy have been oversimplified to the point that its participants are hardly recognized. The traditional Salem scholarship of the past, most of which portrays the witchcraft “outbreak” as a virtual plague centered in the Puritan “age of superstition,” causes us to see these early Puritans as quasi-madmen, bent on eradicating even the smallest trace of witchcraft.

In Richard Latner’s analysis of Salem, however, we are presented with a colonial society deeply divided by factionalism. During the 1690s, Salem was a community immersed in transition. The traditional covenant community based exclusively on a subsistence agricultural system was rapidly being replaced with the emerging forces of merchant capitalism. As a result, Salem’s population was thrown into a world of economic instability and transition. As Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum point out in their groundbreaking book, Salem Possessed, “the prosaic, everyday lives of obscure and inarticulate men and women…were being shaped by powerful forces of historical and economic change.” [2]

Due in part to these economic changes, the poorer segments of the Salem population found themselves in a state of financial instability. In addition, the ecclesiastical leaders of Salem, still awaiting a new royal charter from England, began to see their authority erode from underneath their feet. The increased level of factionalism between Salem Town and Salem Village – which had remained divided for decades – began to coalesce into rival economic segments of society. Contrary to popular belief, it was the witch-hunters, not the common citizen that were “in retreat” from the “oppressive” advances of those in Salem Town, where merchant capitalism was at its strongest.[3]

It was this internal division, argues Richard Latner that helped to create an atmosphere in which witchcraft accusations could flourish. The initial accusation of Reverend Samuel Parris’ daughter and niece are perfect case studies of how factionalism played out during the witch-hunt fiasco. The accusers, mostly consisting of paranoid clergymen bent on regaining their authority, preyed upon the economic plight of the poorer segment within Salem Village. As a result of their efforts, the overzealous clergy of Salem Town found all the support they would need to levy their accusations of witchcraft. As Christine Alice Young points out:
The powers of witches, were associated with mercantile activity within Salem Town, not the agricultural hinterland of Salem Village…it was impossible in seventeenth-century Massachusetts to simultaneously be a merchant and a leader of the orthodox, anticommercial party in colonial politics. [4]
With the backing of the economically downtrodden, Salem became a haven for radical accusation and religious over zealotry. The opposition, most of which was centered in Salem Town, found themselves virtually helpless against the “brainwashed” – intolerant is probably a more appropriate label -- masses of Salem Village.

While Latner’s economic explanations for Salem’s transgressions are convincing, it is important to remember that economics is but one of many factors that led to the witchcraft accusations of 17th century Salem. In the next few days, I hope to provide additional perspectives, the majority coming from the most recent edition of the William and Mary Quarterly, which I hope will provide an overall historical "landscape" of the Salem saga.

[1] Richard Latner, “Salem Witchcraft, Factionalism, and Social Change Reconsidered: Were Salem’s Witch-Hunters Modernization’s Failures?” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. LXV, no. 3, Pp. 423.
[2] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), xii.
[3] Ibid, 425-426.
[4] Christine Alice Young, Good Order to Glorious Revolution: Salem, Massachusetts, 1628-1689 (Ann Arbor, Mi., 1980), 7.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Adams' Alien & Sedition Acts

This Ain't No
Fairness Doctrine Here!

One of the major criticisms from the historical community of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, John Adams is that he repeatedly downplays the significance of the Alien & Sedition Acts (for a link to these critics click here). In HBO's John Adams miniseries, the birth of the Alien & Sedition Acts are portrayed as being the idea of several cabinet members, and not from John Adams himself. And while it is true that his cabinet played an influential role in the development of the Alien & Sedition Acts, it is important to remember that both John and Abigail Adams were instrumental in creating these acts as well, and in fact were central to the creation of the Alien & Sedition Acts as opposed to being mere spectators as McCullough suggests.

First off, nobody can or should doubt the magnitude of the John Adams Presidency. As the successor of Washington, Adams faced challenges that would have toppled most leaders. The mere fact that Adams was following a living legend would have toppled almost any other successor. In addition, Adams was burdened with a mounting crisis with France over the seizure of American ships and sailors, not to mention the fact that the United States was still strapped with several economic and domestic problems at home. Needless to say, Adams' plate was full. It's no wonder why Washington [allegedly] whispered to Adams at the conclusion of his oath of office, "Ay, I am fairly out and you fairly in. Let's see which of us will be the happier."

It was because of this scrutiny that John Adams -- with the help of others -- created the Alien & Sedition Acts. Under these acts, the Federalists hoped to endow the President with the power to, "expel any non-naturalized persons of foreign birth whom the President judges to be of danger to the peace and safety of the United States without a hearing and without specifying any reason.” In addition, these laws called for the punishment of citizens who, "unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States…or to impede the operation of any law of the United States." They also stated that "any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government…or either the house of the Congress of the United States; or the President…with intent to defame" was punishable by imprisonment of up to five years"

Needless to say, the Democratic-republican reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts was extremely swift. Recalling the guaranteed protections of the First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson stated that, "this bill [the Sedition Act] and the Alien bill are both so palpably in the teeth of the constitution," that it was irrational for the Federalists to, "shew they mean to pay no respect to it." Jefferson went on to label the supporters of the Alien & Sedition Acts as, “monarchists,” “Tories,” “anti-republicans,” and “monocrats.”

In response to the passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts, Thomas
Jefferson -- along with the help of James Madison -- set out on a crusade to not only destroy the acts, but to also obliterate any chance for John Adams to win reelection. In what became known as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson made the claim that:
The several States composing the US. Of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government…and one of the Amendments to the constitution having also declared, that the powers not delegated to the US. by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people, therefore the act of Congress…are altogether void and of no force.
As the election of 1800 drew closer, President Adams found himself in a political mess that virtually consumed him. The Dem-Republicans had labeled the President as a tyrant, and called the Alien and Sedition Acts, "the most abominable and degrading Executive act that could fall from the lips of the first magistrate of an independent people." In an effort to demonstrate just how "tyrannical" the Adams Administration had become, Jefferson called on renowned pamphleteer James Callender, a long-time enemy to the Federalists who had attacked the likes of Alexander Hamilton by exposing his affair with Maria Reynolds to the public. This time, Callender was to turn his sights on the president himself. In his popular pamphlet, The Prospect Before Us, Callender pulled out all the punches by boldly proclaiming that John Adams had become little more than a tyrant:
The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions. Indeed, the president has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties to culminate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.
The Federalist response to Callender's "treason" was swift. Callender was quickly jailed in Richmond and sentenced by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase to five years imprisonment. As a result, Callender quickly became a poster boy of sorts for the Jefferson campaign. Callender's imprisonment illustrated to the common man just how far Adams had gone. In essence, Callender became Jefferson's 19th century version of "Joe the Plumber."

In the end, the Alien & Sedition Acts helped to solidify the popular message of the Democratic-republicans, which, in turn, led to the election of their beloved Thomas Jefferson. The popularity of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, combined with the "mud-slinging" efforts of James Callender, helped to ensure the demise of the Adams Administration. For the Federalists, this was a blow that caused a severe setbacks to their cause. For John Adams, the Alien & Sedition Acts became the darkest stain of his presidency, one which continues to stick with him to this day.

Though often considered to be the biggest blunder of his presidency, it is important for us to understand why John Adams embraced the Alien & Sedition Acts
. To be certain, his goal was not to become a tyrant. Instead, Adams was trying to protect the presidency -- and the nation for that matter -- from what he deemed to be a serious threat to the country's security. This is in no way an excuse for the Adams Administration. The Alien & Sedition Acts were, after all, entirely unconstitutional. With that said, it is still important for us to understand the motives behind these acts.

Here is a clip from the HBO miniseries, John Adams, which presents and interesting perspective behind the passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts:

***On a side note, it's worth mentioning that upon his election to the presidency, Thomas Jefferson pardoned James Callender for his "slanderous" acts against President Adams. However, Callender was not satisfied. Upon his release, Callender petitioned the president for an appointment to the Postmaster General of Richmond. President Jefferson did not acquiesce to his demands. As a result, Callender turned his attack on Jefferson. In a series of articles, Callender accused Jefferson of committing a "gross and vile affair" with one of his female slaves...the one and only Sally Hemmings! Oh the irony of history!***

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Gordon Wood on Empire of Liberty

Of all the historians of early America, Gordon Wood is my favorite. His book The Radicalism of the American Revolution was one of the many driving forces that led me to develop a deep love of early American history. And as wonderful as his Pulitzer Prize-winning book was, it looks like Wood's new book, Empire of Liberty is going to be even better. It has already caused some major waves throughout the historical community and it looks to be a surefire "classic" in the study of early American history.

Here is a recent interview with Wood on his new book:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review: A Midwife's Tale

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. By Laurel Ulrich. (New York: Random House Inc., 1990. Pp. 352.)

Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is essentially the personal history of a typical New England woman, living and adapting to the inevitable changes brought on by the creation of the American republic. And while this seemingly insignificant life story seems rather ordinary and irrelevant to the historical record, historian Laurel Ulrich effectively weaves in how the overall changes brought on by the American Revolution led to dramatic changes in the lives of the common person. In essence, Martha Ballard’s story becomes a case study of how ordinary Americans experienced and dealt with change. As a result, this in-depth look into the diary of Martha Ballard (along with several other supporting documents), lets us better understand the day-to-day responsibilities of women, mothers, daughters, midwife’s, families, and communities that all coexisted in the years immediately following America’s war for independence.

As a work of micro history, Martha Ballard’s diary cannot, by itself, disclose all of the social and cultural traditions her day. This diary can, however, serve to augment other sources of historical significance, allowing us to come to a better understanding of this unique historical era. Laurel Ulrich’s ability to weave the diary of Martha Ballard with other historical documents, gives the modern reader a better understanding of how and why Martha Ballard’s story is relevant and worth learning.

Laurel Ulrich’s application of the diary of Martha Ballard is used to address a wide variety of topics that were prevalent in the early American republic. First off, Ulrich recounts the role of a midwife in eighteenth century America by discussing the types of medicines used, the variety of ailments that were common, and the medical prowess of the practitioners. Above all, Ulrich makes it clear that to care for the health of others was the duty of all women during this time. “It would be a serious misunderstanding to see Martha Ballard as a singular character, an unusual woman who somehow transcended the domestic sphere to become an acknowledged specialist” (62). Instead, Ulrich insists that Martha Ballard was representative of the majority of women in the early American republic. Martha Ballard was a midwife, but also a wife and mother, which meant she had her “womanly” duties to attend to as well.

Ulrich also uses Martha Ballard’s diary to shed light on the economic practices of this period. Martha Ballard’s diary was not only an account of the daily events that took place, but was also a way to record debts owed and payments received (85). In addition, Martha Ballard’s entries help to demonstrate just how intricate the neighborhood trade economy was in eighteenth-century America. Ulrich mentions how Martha Ballard relied heavily on the labor of her children, neighbors, and hired hands. In fact, when the Ballard’s add improvements to their home, Ulrich explains that this was done because, “the house was every bit as much a workplace as the sawmill” (83).

One of the main issues addressed in A Midwife’s Tale deals with the sexual standards of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As a midwife (and a mother), Martha Ballard regularly dealt with issues ranging from sexual promiscuity to rape. In fact, Ulrich devotes the majority of chapter three to the alleged rape of Rebecca Foster, and the convoluted court case that followed. Along with her involvement in “Mrs. Foster’s ravishment,” Martha Ballard was regularly involved in the births of children out of wedlock. Ulrich mentions that sexual activity outside of marriage not only carried a stiff social stigma, but also “accounted for more than a third of criminal actions” (148). Yet despite these social stigmas, Ulrich does not fail to illustrate just how "mainstream" sexual promiscuity was in eighteenth-century America. As a midwife, Martha Ballard encountered the fruits of this promiscuity first-hand, and was regularly used as a witness in court proceedings in her and other neighboring towns. Martha’s role in such cases was often to record the name of the father in her diary, essentially making it a legal record. Ulrich explains that it was common for midwife’s to ask for the name of the father during labor, believing that a woman would never lie “in the height of her travail” (149).

In terms of its historical value, Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale provides wonderful insight into what Martha Ballard might have called the mundane activities of everyday life. The combination of Martha Ballard’s diary with other historical sources can help us come to a better understanding of what life was like for a “common” wife, mother, and midwife. It also presents a personal description of the sexual practices, family relations, and economic issues that affected nearly every citizen during the early years of the American republic. As a work of micro history, Ulrich effectively demonstrates how seemingly irrelevant individual stories can and should be analyzed and compared with the larger, macro histories of a given era. With that said, it is still important for the reader to keep in mind that Martha Ballard's story, no matter how compelling and insightful, should not be accepted as a true representation of what all women thought and experienced during the late eighteenth century. After all, did Mrs. Ballard even care about or contemplate what it meant to be a woman in the eighteenth-century in the same way that author Laurel Ulrich does? Did Mrs. Ballard ponder the meaning of the revolution and its consequences as they related to her and her family? Maybe, maybe not. Either way the compelling factor of Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale is the fact that micro histories can and often do help shed light and perspective on a given historical topic. As a result, they are worth the time.

Birth of the Monroe Doctrine

On this day in 1823 President James Monroe outlined his famous doctrine (which eventually became known as the Monroe Doctrine) opposing European expansion into the western part of North America. Before Congress, Monroe gave a passionate speech condemning any and all European exploration of western lands and called for a renewed commitment of American settlement into the west:
In the discussions to which this interest has given rise, and in the arrangements by which they may terminate, the occasion has been deemed proper for asserting as a principle in which rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power. . . . We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them or controlling in any other manner their destiny by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
As we all know, western expansion became a pillar of American strength throughout the 19th century. To "Go West" was as American a concept as apple pie. With that said, we would do well to remember that President James Monroe's passionate determination to safeguard western expansion from the clutches of European "invasion" was a bold pronouncement for that time. It may seem commonplace for us today, but it wasn't for them.

John Adams' Religion and Thanksgiving Proclamations

Ok, it's time to get this blog rolling again. It's been dead for far too long. I apologize to our readers for the lapse in posts. Right now my blogging efforts are focused on my personal blog and American Creation. With that said, this blog has maintained a special spot in my heart (probably because this is where I was "born" into the world of blogging). As a result, I cannot say goodbye to it. I have decided to simply cross-post a lot of my material from American Creation and my personal blog to least the stuff that is relevant. So, without further delay, let's get this blog back to working order!


Over at his excellent blog Boston, 1775 (a blog that you really must check out if you haven't already), J.L. Bell has recently put together a series of posts on the religion of John Adams, with particular emphasis being given to his presidential Thanksgiving proclamations.

To start things off, Bell cites John Adams' 1812 letter to Benjamin Rush, in which he laments his decision to issue a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation:
The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.
And while the aforementioned letter seems to affirm Adams' belief that his Thanksgiving proclamation cost him the election with Jefferson, Mr. Bell points out that Thanksgiving proclamations, though apparently regrettable for Adams, were actually quite popular in early America:
Authors have accepted a lot of Adams’s late-life recollections and analyses uncritically, but not this one. The notion that a Thanksgiving proclamation was the most unpopular of Adams’s acts in office seems incredible.

In fact, the American government had already proclaimed occasional Thanksgiving holidays, and they seemed to be popular. The Congress declared one on 18 Dec 1777 (though with Philadelphia under British control, members had less to be thankful for). When Adams’s predecessor, George Washington, issued such a proclamation in 1789, he noted that “both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested” it.
As a child of Puritan Massachusetts, the language of Adams' thanksgiving proclamations are distinct from his predecessors. As Mr. Bell points out:
I think the crucial difference is what Adams asked people to do. He proclaimed a day of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” with “fervent thanksgiving” as an afterthought. In contrast, the Congress and Washington asked Americans to pray and give thanks, but they didn’t mention humiliation or fasting.

Fasting was the basis of the New England Puritans’ Thanksgiving tradition. The big dinner came only at the end of a day spent in church while eating little and feeling sinful. Adams’s holiday proclamations weren’t meant to produce “an Establishment of a National Church,” as he claimed his enemies said, but they did try to spread one form of worship nationwide.


Finally, religious orthodoxy was also a dividing line between Adams and his rival Thomas Jefferson, at least as the Federalist press portrayed the two men. (In reality, they weren’t far apart in their beliefs.) The 1799 proclamation’s warning about “principles, subversive of the foundations of all religious, moral, and social obligations,” clearly tried to claim all religion and morality for one side—the anti-French Revolution side—of the U.S. of A.’s politics.
Perhaps this helps to explain why Adams later regretted his Thanksgiving proclamation. In terms of his personal religious beliefs, Adams was far closer to Jefferson than to his Puritan roots. And as we all know, Jefferson himself abstained from making such proclamations during his two terms in office. One could easily imagine seeing Adams in his later years kicking himself for making a religious proclamation that did not fit very well with his personal beliefs.

With this said, we must keep in mind that John Adams was very difficult to pin down on many topics -- religion being just one. His personal writings are chalked full of highs and lows; ups and downs. Surely the man would have benefited from a little Prozac in his system (though I doubt he would have taken it!). In conclusion, I will cite Mr. Bell's illustration of just how difficult John Adams can be to pin down on matters of religion:
Adams’s statements on religion also tended to be personal. Not in the sense that, as Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Rather, personal in the sense that Adams often thought he was being personally and unfairly attacked—he even took that as a sign of his virtue. He therefore spent a lot of ink refuting what he thought others might say about him.

Here, for example, is more context for the quotation above about how he saw “Religion and Virtue” as fundamental:
I agree with you in Sentiment that Religion and Virtue are the only Foundations, not only of Republicanism and of all free Government, but of social felicity under all Governments and in all the Combinations of human Society. But if I should inculcate this doctrine in my Will, I should be charged with Hypocrisy and a desire to conciliate the good will of the Clergy towards my Family as I was charged by Dr. [Joseph] Priestley and his Friend [Thomas] Cooper and by Quakers, Baptists and I know not how many other sects, for instituting a National Fast, for even common Civility to the Clergy, and for being a Church going animal. . . .

If I should inculcate those “National, Social, domestic and religious virtues” you recommend, I should be suspected and charged with an hypocritical, Machiavilian, Jesuitical, Pharisaical attempt to promote a national establishment of Presbyterianism in America, whereas I would as soon establish the Episcopal Church, and almost as soon the Catholic Church. . . .

If I should recommend the Sanctification of the Sabbath like a divine, or even only a regular attendance on publick Worship as a means of moral Instruction and Social Improvement like a Phylosopher or Statesman, I should be charged with vain ostentation again, and a selfish desire to revive the Remembrance of my own Punctuality in this Respect, for it is notorious enough that I have been a Church going animal for seventy six years i.e. from the Cradle; and this has been alledged as one Proof of my Hypocrisy.
As you can see, this letter was almost all about how the many enemies of John Adams would distort whatever he said, so he was best off saying nothing. We have to dig beneath his self-pitying declarations to find out how he viewed religion, as opposed to how he suspected or hoped people viewed him.