Tag Archives: boston

Robert Gould Shaw

May 28, 1863 was the day of one of the city of Boston’s proudest moments. On that day, four hundred men marched off to battle: the men of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the Union Army’s first African American regiment.

Leading the column was slender, blond-haired young Robert Gould Shaw, the scion of an upper-crust Boston family. Shaw, a devoted abolitionist, had been proud to accept the commission, and his family, transcendentalists who believed in a utopia of virtue, were likewise proud of him.

Not all of Boston agreed. Prejudice against blacks was still strong in polite Boston society. As the regiment passed through the city, some booed and others threw stones. Yet most of the thousands of Bostonians lining the streets were greatly moved by the sight: four hundred black met proudly marching to battle so their brothers might be free.

Some in the crowd threw flowers at Colonel Shaw, who paused to kiss his sword in salute as the procession passed his family’s house.

A few months later, Colonel Shaw was ordered to attack Fort Wagner on the South Carolina coast. As he led the charge up the parapet, he was killed under heavy fire. Because he was leading a black regiment, the Confederate commander refused to give him a proper military funeral; Shaw was thrown into a common grave with his fallen black soldiers.

Shaw’s father refused to have his son’s body recovered; he believed that for Colonel Shaw to be buried with his soldiers in a common grave was a more fitting tribute than any monument.

(Thomas 19-24)

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The Poem That Changed Washington’s Mind

Shortly after the Second Continental Congress elected George Washington commander-in-chief of the American military forces, he began a systematic policy for barring black men from military service.

Black soldiers had already distinguished themselves in the patriotic cause. But as a Southern white plantation owner, Washington was understandably alarmed at the idea of giving arms to black freedmen and slaves; the prospect of a slave uprising must have been ever before him. And while there is no record that the common white soldier in New England objected to serving alongside black soldiers, many of the upper-class officers believed it dishonorable to include blacks, whether slave or free.

So in November of 1775, Washington issued a general order that excluded all black men from enlisting.

Yet in December of the same year, he suddenly reversed his policy. He issued another order, allowing free black men the right to enlist in the army.

It was a surprising, rather contrary move, and a rare instance of George Washington changing his mind about anything, ever. The change was apparently not for practical reasons, such as needing more soldiers or the concern that blacks would join the English cause. In writing to John Hancock about his decision, Washington explained that it was due rather to the numbers of black soldiers who had approached him to complain of their dissatisfaction at being excluded.

For the first time in his life, Washington had responded in a fair way to an appeal from free black men. What happened to change his mind?

Shortly before Christmas of 1775, Washington received a letter in the mail at his headquarters in Cambridge. Enclosed in the letter were forty-two lines of elegant verse in flawless iambic pentameter. Full of classical allusions, the poem concluded:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.”

The lines were written by the woman who was, at that time, the most famous slave in America.

Phillis Wheatley was also the first black person, and only the third American woman, to publish a book of poems. Born in Africa, she was purchased at around age six by the wife of a wealthy Boston tailor and merchant, Susannah Wheatley. While shopping for slaves at the dock, Mrs. Wheatley became captivated by the tiny, wretched child she saw there, dressed only in a scrap of carpet. She purchased the little girl, took her home, nursed her back to health, and gave her the name Phillis, after the name of the ship that had brought her to America.

Phillis had been intended for a household servant, but she soon showed signs of an uncommon intelligence, so the family’s teenaged daughter took it upon herself to teach the child to read and write. Soon she was learning Latin, and by the age of nine was occasionally acting as the family secretary. She began writing poetry just four years after her arrival in Boston, and at seventeen gained wide attention in the colonies for her elegiac poem on the death of George Whitefield. Three years later a collection of her poems was published in London.

Washington was extraordinarily moved upon receiving Wheatley’s letter and poem. So moved, in fact, that he broke the rules of social contact between masters and slaves. He wrote a letter back to her, inviting her to visit him in Cambridge.

It was shortly after meeting Phillis Wheatley that Washington made the extraordinary decision to allow blacks to enlist in his army.

(Wiencek 198-215)

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Benjamin Franklin, Printer

At age 17, Benjamin Franklin ran away from his home in Boston, where he was employed as an apprentice in his brother’s print shop, and sailed for New York.

While aboard ship, he made the acquaintance of New York’s only publisher, who having no job for him, suggested he go instead to Philadelphia and seek work with his son, who ran a print shop and newspaper there.

On arriving in Philadelphia, however, Franklin was told the man had no work for him, so he contacted the city’s only other printer, Samuel Keimer, and was given a job.

Franklin was already an accomplished writer by this time, and his work attracted the attention of Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith. The governor promised to set young Franklin up with his own print shop, and to pay for a voyage to London so that Franklin could purchase equipment and make contacts.

It was only after Franklin had arrived in London that he learned that Keith had not followed through on his promises. The young printer found himself stuck in London. He obtained a position at a prestigious London printing house, and worked there for almost two years, until he met a Philadelphia shopkeeper who promised him a job and offered to pay his passage home.

Once back in Philadelphia, he worked happily enough as a shopkeeper for a couple of months, until his mentor suddenly took ill and died. In his will, the man forgave Franklin’s debt for the ocean voyage, but did not leave him the shop. So Franklin went back to his former boss, Keimer, patched things up and got his old job back.

At that time there was no foundry in America for casting type, so Franklin used Keimer’s letters to make his own molds, and became the first person in America to manufacture type.

Unhappy with his treatment at Keimer’s shop, Franklin and a co-worker soon left to open their own competing shop; the friend put up the money and Franklin contributed his substantial talents and diligence. But the partner turned out to be more interested in drinking than in the publishing business, so Franklin bought him out and finally had a shop of his own.

A year later, Keimer fled from his debtors to Barbados; on the way out of town, he sold his failing newspaper to Franklin, who became the proud publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, just eleven years after first becoming an apprentice in his brother’s shop.

Isaacson writes, “In his long life he would have many other careers: scientist, politician, statesman, diplomat. But henceforth he always identified himself the way he would do sixty years later in the opening words of his last will and testament: ‘I, Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, printer.'”

(Isaacson 35-64)

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The Smallpox Debates

Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James started America’s first fiercely independent, antiestablishment newspaper, the Boston Courant, in 1721. At that time, defying authority in Boston meant going against the Puritan clergy in general, and the Mathers family in particular. James took an antiestablishment stand with the Courant‘s very first edition, arguing against Cotton Mather in one of the hottest debates around.

Unfortunately, he took the wrong side.

Smallpox had periodically devastated Massachusetts ever since its founding; a 1677 outbreak wiped out 12 percent of the population. During the 1702 epidemic, three of Cotton Mather’s children were stricken, but survived. Mather, who had trained as a physician before becoming a preacher, began studying the disease.

He was introduced to the practice of inoculation by his black slave, who had a scar from being inoculated in Africa. It turned out that in parts of Africa, inoculation was already a standard procedure. When a new wave of the disease hit Boston in 1721, Mather (having greatly evolved since the days of the Salem witch trials) wrote a letter to Boston’s ten practicing physicians, detailing the process of inoculating, and urging them to adopt the practice.

Most of the doctors rejected the idea, and so, as a matter of principle, did Franklin’s newspaper. With little justification other than to take a stand against the Puritan establishment, the Courant’s first edition contained two essays attacking Mather’s proposal. This began an escalating public dispute that sold papers for weeks, and got the Courant off to a very healthy start.

(Isaacson 22-24)

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Benjamin Franklin’s Early Education

As the tenth son of a pious Puritan, Benjamin Franklin was to have studied for the ministry, as his father’s tithe to the Lord. At age 8 he was sent to Boston Latin School to prepare for enrollment at Harvard. He excelled in his studies at the school; yet his father changed his mind after a year, deciding against a formal education for young Benjamin. In his writings, Franklin claimed that the decision was due to the expense of the thing, but the more likely reason is that Josiah Franklin realized his skeptical, puckish, irreverent son was not suited to be a parson.

Historians have fantasized about what could have happened had Benjamin Franklin attended Harvard. Some have argued that a formal education would have removed those qualities that we find so attractive about Franklin: his spontaneity, freshness, irreverence, and his intuitive literary style. Yet this need not have happened; at the time Harvard administrators were struggling mightily against a student culture that was already marked by much drinking and partying, and of the thirty-nine students who would have made up Franklin’s class, less then half ended up as clergy.

In any case, Franklin’s father chose to allow the boy, who had already expressed a disgust at the family trade of tallow-rendering, to select his own trade. He took him on long walks through Boston to visit various types of craftsmen; the passing familiarity with different trades thus acquired helped form Franklin into a lifelong dabbler, which was of great use to him as an inventor.

Benjamin ended up becoming apprenticed, at age 12, to his older brother James, who had recently set up shop as a printer. The print trade was a natural fit for the boy, who was already a devoted reader. It gave him access to books, which he would sneak from various booksellers’ apprentices, borrowing them in the evening and often staying up all night to read them before smuggling them back to their places first thing in the morning. Books were his most important early influences; his childhood favorites included John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives, Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good, and Daniel Defoe’s An Essay upon Projects.

The ideas formed under these early influences would continue to resurface throughout Franklin’s life:

  • From Bunyan’s book Franklin adopted a refreshingly sparse and clean prose style, as well as a firm belief in the concept of Progress, both individual and corporate, as the fruit of human struggle against adversity.
  • Plutarch’s work also contributed to this idea, and to Franklin’s gradual move away from Calvinism, with its emphasis on the essential depravity of man and the predestination of his soul, toward the deism that he would share with most of the great minds of the Enlightenment period.
  • From Mather’s tract Franklin took one of the aspects of Puritanism that he would retain throughout life, its focus on the performance of practical good works for the benefit of the community.
  • Along the same lines, Defoe’s book proposed ideas for many community projects of the type Franklin would later start up in Philadelphia: fire insurance associations, pension societies, welfare schemes and the like.

It was from Defoe that Franklin also obtained the progressive notion of equal education and rights for women; early experiences debating in favor of this idea convinced Franklin that a disputatious personal style was less likely to bring people around to his point of view than the convivial, Socratic approach which later became his trademark.

(Isaacson 18-27)

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Plymouth Colony as Failed Experiment

The story of the pilgrim fathers began in 1593, when a band of radical Protestant Separatists fled religious persecution in England, emigrating to the more tolerant religious atmosphere of Holland. But the Dutch people went too far in the other direction. They tolerated all kinds of religions, as well as atheism, and allowed a lot of secular behavior – drinking, gambling, dancing, etc. – that the Puritans found offensive. Fearing for the spiritual development of their children in this pagan setting, the Puritans fled again, this time to the New World.

Despite the loss of half the first Puritan band during the disastrous winter of 1620-21, two more boatloads of Separatists followed them to Plymouth. These were in turn followed by about 20,000 non-Separatist Puritans, who settled at Boston. These two groups of religious ideologues hoped to found a theocracy far from Europe’s godless influence.

They were disappointed. It turned out that new immigrants as well as their own children took a dim view of their narrow-minded doctrine. In 1691, King Charles II amended the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the new version, religious dissenters were to be protected, rather than banished or worse. Men’s voting rights would be based, not on Puritan church membership, but on ownership of property.

(Sass 9-10)

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