Domestic Patriotism: Lessons from Abigail Adams

December 10th, 2016

On this day in 1775, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, who was in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress. Of course this was long before she knew she would be some day be the First Lady, that the rebellious colonists would succeed in their fight against the British Empire, or even that the 13 colonies would band together to declare their independence. She did know that her own colony of Massachusetts had rebelled and was being punished for it. And she knew that her husband was enmeshed in that rebellion. abigail-adamsIn an offhand way, she mentions that while she might normally feel pity for a woman with no children, perhaps instead she might consider the childless woman in a happier condition since she would be spared the “anxiety every parent must feel for their rising offspring” in such “perilous times.”

Many people today worry that they live in perilous times, but I think truly perilous times have been rare for most residents of the United States, at least within the last 100 years. Today we do not fear that a hostile occupying army could march through at any moment and destroy our livelihood and maybe even our families. We don’t need to worry that an outbreak of smallpox could wipe out our town. Those worries were quite real in Abigail’s time, but she chooses not to dwell on them. Instead, her worries are practical concerns about daily living. Of course she asks her husband to send her a few goods from the big city. But she spends the majority of her letter urging her husband to persuade Congress to tackle some trade issues, taking a wide world view of a narrow problem. She advocates for keeping hard currency—gold and silver—in the colonies rather than allowing so much of it to be spent in the West Indies for molasses, coffee and sugar. She notes that silver currency is becoming rare and worth far more than paper money. “If any trade is allowed to the West Indies,” she suggests, “would it not be better to carry some commodity of our produce in exchange?”

I find this remarkable thinking on the part of a woman concerned with her own family’s shortage of affordable cotton-wool and flax. Personally, I would be inclined to simply complain about inflation and perhaps lament the causes. For me to go so far as to envision a solution and propose it to lawmakers would take far too much effort. Yet that’s exactly what Abigail did in an era when women were not given equal educations or permitted to vote.

The reason she was concerned with the rising cost of cotton-wool was that it was “wrought up with less trouble than any other article of clothing.” She was concerned with the difficulty of making homespun clothes. While we often have it in our minds that all colonial women spun yarn and wove cloth for their families, this was generally not true until the years just before the Revolution, when patriotic motives encouraged home manufacture to avoid importing goods from Britain. Women had their hands full cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, caring for children, assisting their husbands businesses and other domestic duties. They did not have extra hours to spin or the equipment to weave. But they took on these additional chores as a sort of domestic patriotism. Again, I find myself sadly falling behind their example. My sense of patriotism once caused me to spend an hour online looking for an American flag produced in America (but still affordable.) I might occasionally try to “buy American,” but I would not inconvenience myself so much as to actually avoid buying something made somewhere else.

After mentioning that her uncle advised her to “procure another husband” if her current one didn’t come home soon, Abigail closes her letter by admonishing Congress for taking a wishy-washy stance about separation from Britain, a nation she finds to be “so unworthy of us.” She likens the colonies to obedient spaniels, spurned yet still fawning on their masters. “I would rather endure any hardship than submit” she declares.

And thus speaks the fairer, gentler sex at the dawn of the Revolution. Domestic patriotism like that displayed by Abigail, the women of Edenton (see http://katedolan.com/featured/have-we-forgotten) and others in the private sphere fueled the rebellion far more effectively than the carefully crafted documents negotiated by men in their elected assemblies.

I’m not sure we could count on such domestic patriotism today. I hope we don’t have to, because I, for one, don’t think I could pass the test.

___________________________

We are fortunate to have Abigail’s letters preserved and easily accessible. I’ve been using The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Frank Shuffelton, (Penguin Books, 2004). Her letter of December 10, 1775 is letter #81.

If you enjoy reading about the different views of patriotism in the days leading up to the War of American Independence, you might like my book Restitution, which is set in Maryland in 1774.  Maryland was a “middle of the road” colony and while leaders wasted little time in raising a militia, most policy makers declared that they were prepared to fight to protect their rights as Englishmen, not to separate from England. The main characters in Restitution may come in contact with the “better sort” who set the policies, but they themselves are on the lower end of the social spectrum, having to concern themselves with the business of day to day living as much as questions of where their allegiance lies.

 

 

The Real Man in the Iron Mask

October 28th, 2016

It has nothing to do with Halloween, but it’s still a creepy image – a man forever locked in an iron mask, trapped without an identity until death. Kate Dolan writes about the real man in the iron mask Of course, historians say it’s mostly fiction—while there was a famous masked prisoner, there was no real “man in the iron mask.”

Or was there? It turns out, history really does have a true tale of “the man in the iron mask,” but it takes place about 250 years after the French story made famous by Alexandre Dumas.  The story most of us think of involves a prisoner held in the Bastille and other French prisons from 1669 to 1703. The French philosopher Voltaire theorized that the unknown prisoner, who was never seen without his mask, was the illegitimate older brother of King Louis XIV. Dumas took that story and elaborated it enough to create fodder for several movies, including one starring Leonardo DiCaprio. But he did some research too, or at least explored several theories about the prisoner in a series of books he co-authored about famous crimes and criminals.

And by the way, the mask was velvet, not iron. But who wore it?

It seems every few years a historian claims to have found the true identity of the man-in-the-not-really-iron mask.  While they disagree on an actual identity, most believe he was the valet of an important high-ranking official and had to keep his identity secret to protect his own life. The most plausible theory is that he knew of some serious embezzlement on the part of his employer and was threatened with death if he were to reveal his identity. But because he was kept in such secrecy with extremely limited contact with others for so many years, the nameless man became quite famous soon after his imprisonment began. People theorized that he was the king’s brother or even his father, a disgraced general, the son of the deposed English king, or an Italian or French diplomat. Very likely, no one will ever know for certain and if the truth comes to light, it will not be nearly as much fun as the speculation.

man-in-the-iron-mask-3But what about the real man in the iron mask? He was supposed to keep his identity secret too, but since his tenure in iron was limited, he was able to capitalize off his fame.  Harry Bensley accepted a challenge that set him on a remarkable journey from 1908 to 1914. He agreed to attempt to walk around the entire world without being identified. Moreover, he had to raise money along the way to pay for the journey and find a wife during the journey, even though he could not reveal his identity. And for some reason, he had to push a baby buggy the whole way. If he completed all the terms of the bet, he would win an enormous sum of money.

Some say the whole thing was a hoax – he invented the story of the bet to make himself rich and famous. But regardless of why he started out on the journey, there is definite evidence that he did. And he sold postcards of himself along the way to earn money.  On January Kate Dolan writes about Harry Bensley1, 2008 he set off wearing an iron mask from a suit of armor. Some time later in Kent, he was arrested for selling his postcards without a sales license. He appeared in court wearing the mask and was ordered to remove it. However, when he explained the bet, the judge allowed him to keep his identity secret. Thus, he was sentenced and fined as “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

He continued on his journey for six years and passed through 12 countries before the outbreak of WWI put a stop to things.  After that, he ended up back in England, though accounts differ as to whether he came back as a patriot to fight for his country or simply returned because the bet was called off and his escapade had no further hope of financial remuneration. Speculations about Bensley’s life are almost as rampant as the speculation about the masked man who preceded him in France centuries earlier.

But he was, for a time, the real man in the iron mask, imprisoned not in the Bastille but in public and kept locked up for his own financial gain. And money wasn’t the only potential benefit. During his six years in a mask, he claimed to have received over 200 marriage proposals from all over the world.

Maybe Halloween isn’t the only day we should be wearing masks…

Thanks to The Official Harry Bensley website for providing some of the information and pictures for this article. If you enjoy reading about hidden identities, you might like my story Deceptive Behavior, which was inspired by Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer.” In both tales, a young lady who is mistaken for a maid decides to continue the deception to see what happens. (If you’re interested in getting a copy of the story, contact me directly because the publisher is closing down. And I can sell it for less than list price now!) 

Freedom Trail is Best When it’s Not Quite Free

September 18th, 2016

I had one day to spend in Boston and had done zero research about the best places to visit. The only outing planned in advance was a trip to Fenway in evening, so that was one landmark we knew we’d see. What to do before that? My husband said I had to follow the Freedom Trail.

It’s like following the Yellow Brick Road, except that the bricks are red and the flying monkeys look more like pigeons.

There is no charge to walk between the landmarks on the Freedom Trail and the route is marked on the sidewalk, but if you want to know what the landmarks actually are, it helps to have a guidebook. So my walk started with the purchase of a $9 guidebook in the visitor’s center on Boston Common. I followed the red brick trail from the visitor’s center to the first landmark. It was a statue. At that point, I was ready to toss the book in the trash. Even to a history nut like me, statues are BORING.Kate Dolan finds a graveyard on the Freedom Trail

The next stop was a church that was locked. But the third stop was a burial ground that advertised more famous skeletons than any other graveyard in America. Things were looking up. Trying to avoid the groups of tourists clustered around costumed tour guides, I decided to focus on the gravestones of un-famous people, figuring they might feel left out. I took pictures of the stones with the best skull-carvings coated with the least amount of bird poop. Only after about ten minutes of this did I see the polite sign asking me to stay off the grass-covered graves. Read the rest of this entry »

Catonsville Elementary: the history of an abandoned school

August 31st, 2016

For only the second time in the last 107 years, no students entered the building at 615 Frederick Road at the start of the school year. Instead, the students of Catonsville Elementary School walked into a newly refurbished building around the corner on Bloomsbury Avenue. But the memories of years of learning fill the halls of the red brick building on Catonsville’s main street. CES

In 1907, the Catonsville School Committee went to the Baltimore County School Board to ask for a new school building. In support of their cause, the Committee pledged to raise $10,000, estimated to be a quarter of the building cost. They also agreed to find a location for the new school. This all proved to be easier said than done.

A team of concerned citizens went door to door collecting money for the project, but this effort fared so badly that a May 1908 article in the local newspaper reported that the new school project had been abandoned. Money was not the only problem. It turns out that the proposed location on Frederick Road was also a concern to parents who didn’t want their children educated in close proximity to an electric streetcar line and three bars. Read the rest of this entry »

The 4th of July wasn’t much fun in 1776

June 28th, 2016

Americans are getting ready to celebrate the 4th of July with parties, food and fireworks.  This year marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of a document in which we declared ourselves to be an independent nation.  And we will  wave our flags and think that the 4th of July in 1776 must have been a pretty great day.

But it wasn’t. The delegates in Philadelphia actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, but the news didn’t reach George Washington and his army in New York City until July 6. Unfortunately, the British navy had arrived a week before that, throwing the city into a panic.Kate Dolan writes about the 4th of July in 1776  So many ships arrived in such a short period of time that one Pennsylvania soldier said their masts looked like trees in a forest.  The streets of the city were jammed with families trying to leave while militia members from surrounding regions were trying to come to join in the city’s defense.

George Washington could not have been resting easy. Only a few weeks before, he’d learned of a loyalist plot to assassinate him and his officers when the British fleet arrived in New York.  Those arrested for involvement in the plot included the city’s mayor and two members of his Life Guard.  Alarm guns fired frequently in the city, perhaps reminding him that just five of the 120 British ships at anchor carried more firepower than all of the American guns along the shore. And they carried 10,000 troops, with thousands more expected daily.

The announcement that the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence did inspire celebrations in the streets and at least one officer reported that he and his cohorts spent the afternoon “merrily.” And it must have been reassuring to know that the governing members of the colonies were now publicly committed to a course of action that would be punished as treason if they failed. It was all or nothing, and they were all in it together.  As Benjamin Franklin famously summed it up, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Washington received a copy of the Declaration  on July 8 and had it read aloud in the city at 6 p.m. the next evening. Afterwards, swarms of people marched out to tear down a giant statue of King George III, hack off the statue’s head, cut off his nose and mount what was left of the head on a spike in front of a tavern.  Lead from the statue would  later be melted down into musket balls.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. Within three days, British ships brazenly sailed up the Hudson River and while American gun crews fired furiously all day, the ships suffered no harm and the only casualties were six Americans killed when their cannon blew up due to their own mismanagement.  More ships followed, and soon the British had a comfortable base on Staten Island.

To the British, the Declaration of Independence was a joke. The British admiral’s secretary said the document revealed “the villainy and the madness of these deluded people.”

Ships and troops continued to arrive throughout the summer until the end of August when the British attacked and defeated Washington’s army in the largest battle fought on North American soil up to that time. While Washington and his men were able to elude capture, they suffered a series of defeats and were chased out of New York.

Seven years of brutal fighing would follow before the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783.

So this year when we wave our flags and head out to parties to celebrate our nation, let’s be glad that “bombs bursting in air” above us are decorative amusements and not weapons designed to destroy. And let’s drink a toast to our forefathers who were willing to set aside their differences to “hang together.” We could use a little of that right now.

___________________________

Much of the information in this article comes from 1776 by David McCullough.

The sad story behind the Great American Road Map

May 26th, 2016

As travelers prepare to hit the road for Memorial Day weekend, I thought I’d reflect on what we no longer need—a road map. Those of us who haven’t memorized the route we’ll be taking will rely on GPS to figure out how to get from home to Vacation Central and back again. The really old-fashioned among us may resort to directions from MapQuest. But virtually no one will pull out an atlas or unfold one of those crazy impossible-to-refold roap maps that still lurk in random glove compartments.

And that’s a shame, really, because the road map was a wonderful invention and absolutely essential to American travel for about 200 years. But it didn’t start out that way.

The first American road map was created by Christopher P. Colles, an engineer and visionary from Ireland who came to the colonies shortly before the American Revolution.  Using studies he created while serving in the army as well as other military surveys and additional surveys undertaken on his own for his new project, Colles produced the Survey of the Roads of the United States of America in 1789.

Kate Dolan writes about first American road map

This section of the map depicts roads just a few miles from my house outside Baltimore…not that my house was standing then

Read the rest of this entry »

Jammed into something new

May 10th, 2016

 

When graphic designer Cory Gerard created an experimental iPhone game called “Jump Fuzzy Jump,” he never dreamed the trial venture would drag him into the world of competitive jump rope. And that’s because he’d never heard of competitive jump rope.  It’s not surprising – the sport is not exactly plastered all over TV screens and sports magazines.Kate Dolan supports Jump Rope Jam

But now he’s on a mission to change all that. Together with jumping expert Brandon Harrison, Gerard has started Jump Rope Jam, a media presence designed to raise public awareness of the sport of jump rope. Jump Rope Jam includes a website and regular podcasts with guest speakers, plus a blog, Instagram feed (@JumpRopeJam,) Facebook page and more.

How did someone who’d never heard of competitive jump rope suddenly find himself devoting substantial time and energy to help the sport gain recognition? Read the rest of this entry »

Political worries come back to haunt us

April 15th, 2016

“This country has reached a very alarming crisis. Torn by two parties…Congress enacting laws it is unable to enforce …only to substitute equally bad ones…”
Sound familiar? I’m know I’m not alone in finding the factionalism in the United States to be frightening, but it comforts me to know that this worry is not unique in time.Factionalism at work in our nation's early days The words above were written by Rosalie Stier Calvert in 1809. Like me, Rosalie is a mother who did most of her work from home in suburban Maryland. But while I would put myself in the “average” category in many areas, Rosalie would fit into the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” category. She was born into a wealthy European family who fled to the United States in 1794 to escape the Reign of Terror. Though they had to leave behind the family castle, townhouse and other property, they brought enough gold to ensure they could live like nobility. Rosalie did not much care for her new home. After a few months, she wrote “America displeases me more and more every day–you meet only scoundrels.” Read the rest of this entry »

Potato, Patata–and Stay Away from Green Ones

March 16th, 2016

I can believe that some people say “to-mah-to” but I always thought that when Ira Gershwin wrote “You like potato, and I like potahto,” in the classic tune “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” he was just being lazy with his rhyme scheme.
Turns out he was being historically accurate. Sort of.
Potatoes were introduced into European culture by the Spanish, who discovered the crop in Peru. They called it the “patata” (maybe to go with the “tomata”). In any case, they still use the word, so the Gershwin lyric holds up. I’m sure you find that a relief!Kate Dolan warns everyone about deadly potatoes
But you should call the whole thing off if the potato is green. That’s because green potatoes are loaded with a poisonous substancen known as solanine. It’s a bitter-tasting chemical found in the leaves, stems and shoots of potatoes, and it protects the plants from being devoured by insects. When potato tubers (the part we eat) are exposed to light while growing, they turn green and fill with solanine as a means of protection. But what protects the plant is harmful to anyone who consumes it. Fortunately, because of the bitter taste, most people stop before they eat enough to cause major problems. But solanine poisoning can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, cardiac dysrhythmia, nightmares, hallucinations, paralysis, fever, jaundice, hypothermia and even death. Obviously this is rare, and it tends to happen only in places where famine is so severe that people are willing to eat something that tastes as bad as a solanine-infused potato.
And this made me think of the Irish potato famine. From 1845 until 1851, starvation caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop caused death of a million people in Ireland. I imagine those people would have been tempted to eat green potatoes, so I wondered if solanine played any part in the deaths. I haven’t been able to find any connection so far, and from the descriptions of the blight that ruined the crops, I imagine the potatoes turned to black mush before they had the chance to turn green.
It’s a pretty depressing topic for contemplation, and if you’d like to feel even worse, there’s a miserably informative series of articles about the famine starting here: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/introduction.htm
After reading about the devastating blight and the “relief” measures that pretty much succeeded in destroying whatever the potato fungus left behind, you might want to have a drink to forget your troubles.
It’s okay if your beer is green. But only on March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Problems Only the Rich Have These Days

March 1st, 2016

Don’t we feel sorry for the poor troubled aristocratic family in Downton Abbey? Not so much, I think. Because even on their worst days, they never even have to think about taking out the trash or scrubbing crusted food off a dinner plate. They have servants to do those things for them.

Kate Dolan writes about problems with servants

Less than a hundred years ago, even families considered “poor” usually had at least some hired help living in or near the house and assisting with household duties. But today the price of labor has increased so much that it is a true luxury to have help around the house, especially on a full-time basis.

So now most of us can enjoy hearing about problems with servants since we can’t afford them anyway. Jonathan Swift, best known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, apparently had a great deal of trouble, either real or imagined, with his household staff. He wrote sarcastic “Directions to Servants” instructing them how to perform their duties as poorly as possible.

Here’s an example: “Masters and Ladies” he says, “are usually quarrelling with the Servants for not shutting the Doors after them: But neither Masters nor Ladies consider that those Doors must be open before they can be shut, and that the Labour is double to open and shut the Doors; therefore the best and shortest, and easiest Way is to do neither.”

Hey, makes sense to me. And it will keep down the heating bills.

I wonder if he had kids in mind when he wrote this next bit of advice, because modern parents can definitely relate. “Never come till you have been called three or four Times;” he advises, “for none but Dogs will come at the first Whistle: And when the Master calls (Who’s there?) no Servant is bound to come; for (Who’s there) is no Body’s Name.”

Another piece of advice that might also apply to teens is how to handle the situation when you’ve been out on an errand and stayed out a little too long (2,4, 6 or 8 hours). He offers a list of excuses such as (1)you had to say goodbye to a dear cousin who is about to be hanged next Saturday; (2) a fellow servant who owed you money was about to run off to Ireland so you had to track him down; (3) you were pressed into service in the navy and it took three hours explaining before the Justice of the Peace why you couldn’t go; (4) your dad gave you a cow to sell; (5) you were told your master was in a tavern so you had to search for him “in a hundred Taverns between Pall-mall and Temple-bar;”or my personal favorite, (6) “Some Nastiness was thrown on you out of a Garret Window, and you were ashamed to come Home before you were cleaned, and the Smell went off:”

While we might have to deal with some lame excuses from our children or employees these days, we do not generally have to worry about being hit with the contents of a chamber pot thrown out someone’s window. And for that, I am grateful, even if it means I live in a day and age where I can’t afford servants.