Phillis Wheatley’s “Mrs. W—”: Identifying the Woman Who Inspired “Ode to Neptune”

“Ode to Neptune” first appeared in Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 collection Poems on Various Subjects, never having been printed in Boston newspapers or broadsides. Its subtitle, “On Mrs. W—’s Voyage to England,” has attracted speculation: Who was that traveler? And what did she signify to the poet?

“Ode to Neptune” offers a few clues to “Mrs. W—,” starting of course with the facts that her last initial was W, she was almost certainly married, and she was preparing to sail to England. The first verse reveals the woman’s first name:

While raging tempests shake the shore,
While Æ’lus’ thunders round us roar,
And sweep impetuous o’er the plain
Be still, O tyrant of the main;
Nor let thy brow contracted frowns betray,
While my Susannah skims the wat’ry way.

Finally, the published poem carried the dateline “Boston, October 10, 1772.” 

Figure 1: Frontispiece portrait and title page of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 collection of poetry. Public domain, scan by the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.

Many people have guessed that Wheatley wrote this ode for the woman who had raised her from childhood as a slave, Susannah Wheatley. Yet Susannah Wheatley never crossed the Atlantic. The poet addressed her mistress in another poem titled “A Farewel to America. To Mrs. S. W,” but that was in May 1773 when Phillis was about to sail to London while Susannah stayed behind in Boston.

Other identifications of “Mrs. W—” are based on early notes in a copy of Wheatley’s 1773 book at the American Antiquarian Society. Beside “A Farewel to America” someone penned, “Mrs. Susannah Wright,” and then a different someone penciled, “eminent for her Wax Works etc.” Since the “Farewel” poem is addressed to Susannah Wheatley, some scholars guessed that those notes were actually intended for “Ode to Neptune.” However, no one has found a “Susannah Wright” who traveled to England in late 1772, and the eminent waxworks artist was named Patience Wright.

The key to identifying “Mrs. W—” lies in its connection to three other texts linked to Wheatley and also dated October 10, 1772. Those are her poem “To the Earl of Dartmouth,” the secretary of state overseeing the North American colonies; her letter to that peer; and a short biography of her, all transmitted to Lord Dartmouth by a British merchant and officeholder named Thomas Wooldridge. In a November 24 letter Wooldridge described his interaction with the young poet:

While in Boston, I heard of a very extraordinary female slave, who had made some verses on our mutually dear deceased Friend [Rev. George Whitefield]; I visited her mistress, and found by conversing with the African, that she was no Impostor: I asked if she could write on any Subject; she said Yes; we had just heard of your Lordship’s appointment; I gave her your name, which she was acquainted with. She immediately wrote a rough Copy of the inclosed Address & Letter, which I promised to convey or deliver.

I was astonish’d, and could hardly believe my own Eyes. I was present while she wrote and can attest that it is her own production; she shew’d me her Letter to Lady Huntingdon, which I daresay, Your Lordship has seen; I send you an account signed by her master of her Importation, Education &c. they are all wrote in her own hand.

Figure 2: Catty description of Alderman Thomas Wooldridge from City Biography, Containing Anecdotes and Memoirs of the Rise, Progress, Situation, & Character, of the Alderman and Other Conspicuous Personages of the Corporation and City of London, second edition (London: Printed for the Author, 1800), 115, digital image, Google Books, via HathiTrust, Princeton University.

Another description of Wooldridge’s meeting with Wheatley appeared in the June 3, 1773, New-York Journal, clearly either based on a conversation with the merchant or written by him:

A Gentleman who had seen several of the Pieces ascribed to her, thought them so much superior to her Situation, and Opportunities of Knowledge, that he doubted their being genuine—And in order to be satisfied, went to her Master’s House, told his Doubts, and to remove them, desired that she would write something before him. She told him she was then busy and engaged for the Day, but if he would propose a Subject, and call in the Morning, she would endeavour to satisfy him. Accordingly, he gave for a Subject, The Earl of Dartmouth, and calling the next Morning, she wrote in his Presence, as follows . . .

The newspaper then printed Wheatley’s October 10, 1772, letter to Lord Dartmouth, followed by her poem for him. 

Figure 3: William Legge, second Earl of Dartmouth and Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1772 to 1775. Public domain, scan by the New York Public Library, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.

Thomas Wooldridge’s wife was named Susanna. On July 12, 1773, the New-York Gazette reported that “Thomas Woolridge, Esq; and his Lady” had embarked for England, just as the poem’s “Mrs. W—” had been preparing to do. We can therefore conclude that Susanna Wooldridge was the inspiration for “Ode to Neptune.” It is not clear whether Mrs. Wooldridge was present in Boston. Wheatley may well have written this poem for a lady she had never met as a unique souvenir for her husband to bring home from his Massachusetts trip.

In October 1772, the Wooldridges had been married a little over a year. Susanna, Thomas’s second wife, was a daughter of the merchant William Kelly, then living in the newly fashionable London neighborhood of Crutched Friars. Kelly did a lot of business back in New York as a landowner and mercantile partner of Abraham Lott, treasurer of the colony. In his will, Kelly promised his new son-in-law “£3,000 in lands in the Provinces of New York and New Jersey” while setting aside £2,000 for his daughter “free from the debts and control of her husband.”

Thomas Wooldridge was rising through British government ranks by attaching himself to men of influence, particularly the Earl of Dartmouth. At the time of his marriage he held multiple posts in the colonial administration—“Provost Marshal General, and Receiver General of his Majesty’s province of East-Florida, also Fort Adjutant and Barrack-master of Fort St. Marks”—and was involved in multiple disputes with his colleagues. Those appointments gave him the prestige to win a London heiress’s hand and fortune. After that wedding Wooldridge returned to America, currying further favor with Lord Dartmouth by sending back letters on what he saw in various ports. 

Figure 4: A British view of the colonies of East and West Florida, as engraved by J. Prockter in the early 1770s. Public domain, scan by the New York Public Library, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division.

Wooldridge’s efforts paid off in August 1772 when Dartmouth became secretary of state for North America. The merchant continued to send reports to the earl, adding such fawning phrases as “your precious time may be very ill bestowed in reading my scrawls.” As part of that campaign for favor, Wooldridge sought out the celebrated Phillis Wheatley at the house of “her mistress” in Boston and challenged her to compose a poem about his patron, which he “promised to convey or deliver.” The merchant probably also arranged for the letter and poem Wheatley then wrote to be printed in the New-York Journal, calculating that publication would both promote and please the secretary of state.

Figure 5: Charles Turner Warren, William Legge, second Earl of Dartmouth, 1792. National Galleries of Scotland, Mrs. A.G. Macqueen Ferguson Gift 1950. CC-BY-NC. 3.0.

“Ode to Neptune” was thus not Phillis Wheatley’s private plea for smooth sailing for her beloved mistress or for an artistic colleague. She wrote it while contributing to Thomas Wooldridge’s effort to impress the Earl of Dartmouth, who she knew had become one of the highest-ranking officials in the British Empire. Providing this visitor with an extra poem for his wife was a way to win Wooldridge’s favor, just as he was angling for Dartmouth’s favor. “Ode to Neptune” also demonstrated Wheatley’s range, as it was a Horatian ode with four metrical feet in most lines rather than her usual rhymed pentameter.

When Wooldridge visited Wheatley, the young poet was starting to seek patronage in Britain instead of relying on local support. In February 1772 she and the Boston printer Ezekiel Russell had tried to collect enough subscriptions to publish a collection of her poetry, but by May the orders had proved disappointing. Wheatley had already sent her tribute to Whitefield to that minister’s patron, the Countess of Huntingdon. In 1772 the wealthy countess sponsored the publication of A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, one of the first memoirs from someone enslaved within the British Empire. The countess also wrote to the New England merchant Richard Cary for information about Boston’s enslaved young poet, and word of that inquiry almost certainly reached the Wheatley household. Thus, Lady Huntingdon came to seem like a promising source of funds for Wheatley’s collection.

Figure 6: Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, an important patron of religious writers and speakers. Public domain, scan by the National Library of Wales via Wikimedia. R. Page, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wooldridge wrote that Wheatley “shew’d me her Letter to Lady Huntingdon,” suggesting she thought that would impress him. And he was impressed. As the merchant’s letter noted, Lord Dartmouth and the countess were close, part of the same aristocratic evangelical circle. Thus, in meeting with Wooldridge, demonstrating her writing ability, and giving him poems addressed to his patron and his wife, Wheatley made the most of an unexpected chance to win over potential supporters in the top ranks of British society.

In November 1772, the month after she met Wooldridge, Wheatley sent her manuscript, the selection of verses retailored for a British audience, to London. The printer Archibald Bell “waited upon the Countess of Huntingdon with the Poems” and gained her conditional support for publishing the book. Money and praise from a wealthy British aristocrat thus secured for Wheatley what crowdfunding in her hometown of Boston could not.

Both Wheatley and Wooldridge sailed from America to Britain in mid-1773. In fact, Wheatley embarked two months before the Wooldridges left New York, even though they had been thinking of that voyage back in October. It is possible their paths crossed again in London, but there is no record of a second meeting. Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects was printed in London that fall, dedicated to the Countess of Huntingdon. It included both her lines to the Earl of Dartmouth and “Ode to Neptune.” 

Figures 7a and 7b: Phillis Wheatley’s “Ode to Neptune” as originally published in 1773. Public domain, scans via Wikimedia and via Wikimedia.

After that, Wheatley and Wooldridge’s lives followed surprisingly parallel courses. Both experienced a rise in status, boosted by aristocratic patrons within British imperial society, only to suffer from the disruption of the American Revolution. Wheatley became a published author, gained her freedom, married John Peters, and had children, but could not finance a second collection of poetry in the straitened economy of wartime America. Phillis Peters died young in 1784.

As for Thomas Wooldridge, after his father-in-law William Kelly died in 1774, he became the business partner of Susanna’s brother Henry and assumed her father’s role as a leader among the London merchants doing business in America. Wooldridge met with such prominent advocates for the colonies as Edmund Burke and Josiah Quincy Jr. and testified to Parliament about shipping losses. In November 1775 the Earl of Dartmouth was replaced as Secretary of State, but Wooldridge no longer needed his patronage. London property-owners elected him as an alderman in 1776, and then he was chosen sheriff of London and Middlesex.

By that time, however, the war with America and the death of Henry Kelly in 1776 had forced the firm of Wooldridge and Kelly into bankruptcy. Wooldridge kept his seat as an alderman and the sympathy of the London press through the war—evidently people accepted that the business failure was not his fault. But peace brought an end to that stasis. Citizens now complained that the alderman was corruptly squeezing money from his office. Wooldridge was locked in debtors’ prison in 1783 and had to declare bankruptcy again, this time to a much less understanding response. The other aldermen took the unprecedented step of stripping Wooldridge of his seat. A 1799 publication looked back on him and declared: “Impudence made him, and caused him to be unmade, an Alderman.” Nonetheless, the city continued to provide Susanna Wooldridge with substantial sums, “independent of her husband, for the support of herself and her children.” This pension helped support her through the lawsuits over the Wooldridge and Kelly debts, which lasted for years on both sides of the Atlantic.

Financially broken, Thomas Wooldridge made his way back to America alone. In January 1794, at the age of fifty-four, he died in Boston, ten years after Phillis Wheatley had died in the same town.


Further Reading

Vincent Carretta wrote the first thorough biography of Phillis Wheatley, published in 2011 under the title Phillis Wheatley and republished with new material as Phillis Wheatley Peters: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2023). David Waldstreicher’s The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2023) analyzes her poetry in the context of specific moments in her life, including a detailed discussion of her response to Wooldridge’s challenge in 1772.

Carretta also edited Wheatley’s Complete Writings for Penguin Classics (2001), building on John Shields’s The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (1988). However, possible new poems continue to be identified, most recently by Waldstreicher (“Anonymous Wheatley and the Archive in Plain Sight: A Tentative Attribution of Nine Published Poems, 1773-1775,” Early American Literature 57, no. 3 (2022): 873-910) and Wendy Raphael Roberts (“‘On the Death of Love Rotch,’ a New Poem Attributed to Phillis Wheatley (Peters): And a Speculative Attribution,” Early American Literature 58, no. 1 (2023): 155-84.

There are many interesting literary studies of Wheatley’s poetry and explorations of her significance in African American culture. Some discussions of Wheatley are based on myths or misunderstandings, however, and analyses of “Ode to Neptune” based on identifying its “Mrs. W—” as Susannah Wheatley or Patience Wright are among them. James Rawley explored the importance of Wheatley’s entry into the evangelical circle of the Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth in James A. Rawley, “The World of Phillis Wheatley,” New England Quarterly 50, no. 4 (Dec. 1977): 666-67.

Thomas Wooldridge’s upward career can be tracked through his correspondence in The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, vol. 2: American Papers (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1895); Charles Loch Mowat, East Florida as a British Province, 1763-1784 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943); and “Debates of a Political Society” in the London Magazine and Monthly Intelligencer, vol. 44 (1775), 333-41. His downward career is evident in The Swindler Detected: or Cautions to the Public (London: G. Kearsly, M. Follingsby, J. Stockdale, 1781); City Biography, Containing Anecdotes and Memoirs of the Rise, Progress, Situation, & Character, of the Aldermen and Other Conspicuous Personages of the Corporation and City of London (London: W. West and C. Chapple, 1799); and a death notice in the Boston Columbian Centinel, January 4, 1794. Ben Saunders has collected material for “The Thomas Wooldridge Biography Project.”


This article originally appeared in May 2023.

J. L. Bell is the proprietor of the Boston1775.net website, offering daily helpings of unabashed gossip about the people of Revolutionary New England. He is the author of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary Warand the study Gen. George Washington’s Home and Headquarters—Cambridge, Massachusetts for the National Park Service.

Underage Enlistment in the United States and the Confederacy

In August 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant penned a letter to Representative Elihu Washburne in which he suggested that the Confederacy’s mobilization of its young and aged signaled that the rebellion was in its final throes. “The Rebels have now in their ranks their last man,” he wrote. “The little boys and old men are guarding prisoners, guarding railroad bridges, and forming a good part of their garrisons for intrenched positions. A man lost by them cannot be replaced. They have robbed alike the cradle and grave to get their present force.” Intended for public consumption and liberally quoted in the press, Grant’s letter aimed to bolster Union morale at a politically crucial moment. But the document’s influence outlasted the election, seeding a claim that grew into conventional wisdom by the late nineteenth century: the notion that the Confederacy had mobilized a much higher percentage of underage boys and youths than the United States.

Figure 1: This satirical cartoon echoed Grant’s claim that the Confederate army had “robbed alike the cradle and grave.” In fact, the Confederacy never conscripted those below age eighteen for regular field service. John McLenan, “Robbing the Cradle and the Grave,” Harper’s Weekly, December 17, 1864, GettDigital: Civil War Era Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

It is easy to understand why such a narrative took hold. The Confederacy did, after all, resort to far-reaching measures to address its population disadvantage. In April 1862 it adopted a policy of universal conscription, and in February 1864 it lowered the age of mandatory service from eighteen to seventeen. Additionally, some Confederate states enrolled boys as young as sixteen for service in state-controlled units. In contrast, the United States Congress passed a law in February 1862 barring the enlistment of youths below age eighteen, except as musicians, and the draft that it enacted in March 1863 applied only to men ages twenty to forty-five. The supposition that the Confederacy employed young soldiers more willingly and extensively than the United States has been reinforced by historical scholarship based on military records. For instance, in his classic studies of Civil War soldiers (The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank), Bell Irvin Wiley used such sources to conclude that enlistees below age eighteen made up around 5 percent of the Confederate army, but just 1.6 percent of Union army.

A more critical approach to military records, however, reveals a very different picture. While it remains difficult to calculate the percentage of underage Confederate soldiers, it is possible to arrive at a reasonably accurate estimate in the U.S. case, and the results are eye-opening. Our book, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era, shows that around ten percent of Union soldiers—some 200,000 enlistees—were below age eighteen when they joined the army. In other words, Union military records conceal an epidemic of lying. Although many Confederate boys also gave false ages, they were less likely to do so, because the Confederacy never legally banned underage youths from enlisting, provided they had parental consent, and because minimum age limits were less likely to be enforced.

Historians have not only underestimated the sheer number of underage soldiers who fought for the Union, they have also overlooked the significance of the legal, political, and administrative battles these youths provoked. U.S. officials fought tooth and nail to retain underage enlistees. By late 1861, the War Department was routinely blocking parents’ attempts to recover minor sons, informing them that their requests were at odds with “the interests of the service.” In February 1862, the same law that barred the military from accepting youths below age eighteen decreed that whatever age an enlistee swore to upon enlistment would be considered “conclusive.” Designed to stem the tide of parents petitioning for the release of underage sons, the practical implications of this stipulation were stunning: minors now had the ability to make themselves “of age” simply by swearing a false oath. Then, in September 1863, the Lincoln administration suspended habeas corpus across the nation, preventing state and local judges from hearing cases that alleged wrongful detention by the military. This meant that both paths for recovering underage enlistees—the administrative and the judicial—were now closed.

Convinced that the federal government surely did not intend to bar parents from promptly recovering underage sons, some political figures proposed alternative means for dealing with such cases, only to be stymied. For instance, the New Hampshire Governor Joseph A. Gilmore wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in November 1863, requesting that the military commander who oversaw his state’s volunteers be authorized to discharge underage youths, provided they repaid any bounty money they had received. But Stanton denied the request, insisting that such cases, “if there be any, should be reported, with evidence and facts,” to a federal office—that of the newly created Provost Marshal General. Even U.S. congressmen, who were answerable to local constituents and often heard directly from distraught parents, hesitated to take steps that might deprive the Union army of manpower. Although Congress enacted laws in 1864 and 1865 to stiffen penalties on lax and corrupt recruiters, such measures applied only to those who signed up boys below age sixteen, not the legal minimum of eighteen.

As the United States tightened its vise on underage enlistees, the Confederate response to youth enlistment remained inconsistent. Many thousands of boys and youths entered the ranks, but Confederate leaders at the highest levels repeatedly railed against underage enlistment, warning that it would be foolhardy to “grind the seed corn”—a line of argument rarely if ever advanced by Union politicians. On the whole, Confederate parents had more success than their Union counterparts in recovering underage sons. And while the Confederacy did ultimately lower its conscription age, the seventeen-year-olds were placed in junior reserve units in their home states, which typically entailed less onerous and dangerous duties than service in the Confederate army. Even near the war’s bitter end, when the government accepted the once-unthinkable notion of arming slaves, Confederate leaders declined to conscript boys below eighteen into the regular army. 


Figure 2: Although boys under the age of eighteen were not conscripted into the Confederate army, many thousands of such youths nevertheless volunteered and served in the ranks. [Unidentified Young Soldier in a Confederate Uniform], between 1861-1865, Library of Congress.
Figure 3: The third Confederate conscription act, passed in February 1864, lowered the age of conscription to seventeen but stipulated that youths would serve in state-controlled reserve units until they turned eighteen. Sergeant William Jenkins enlisted in Company K of the 1st Regiment North Carolina Junior Reserves in July 1864. Unknown Photographer, “Sergeant William Jenkins,” Tar Heel Faces, accessed March 22, 2023, https://tarheelfaces.omeka.net/items/show/71.
Figure 4: The U.S. Congress in February 1862 set eighteen as the minimum age for joining in the Union army as a combatant. This law did little, however, to stem the flood of underage enlistment: around half of Union enlistees who claimed to be eighteen were actually younger. Boys could legally enlist as musicians from the age of twelve. Unidentified Young Drummer Boy in Union Uniform, between 1861-1865. [photograph]. Liljenquist Family Collection. Library of Congress.

These differences speak to the broader significance that underage enlistment held for each side. Due to the comprehensive nature of Confederate conscription, civilians’ appeals for the release of soldiers were more likely to focus on absent husbands and fathers—adult male providers—than underage sons. As a result, in the Confederacy, the issue of minority enlistment did not become a conduit for broader disputes over the centralization of power. But in the U.S., underage enlistees were often at the heart of such debates, as contests over their fate compelled the federal government to expand its reach. It was in the face of massive parental resistance that the U.S. Congress rewrote militia laws, extending federal control over military forces, and that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, defanging the ability of state courts to check military abuses.

Even in the realm of popular culture, boy soldiers and drummer boys assumed greater importance in the United States than the Confederacy. Unionists embraced the generic boy soldier or drummer—youthful, incorruptible, and forward looking—as the personification of the nation. Often represented as the “Spirit of the North,” this figure echoed an artistic tradition dating back to the French Revolution that associated child soldiers with revolution and republican governance. Such a symbol was ill suited to represent the kind of nation that the leaders of the Confederacy hoped to build—one that prized hierarchy, tradition, and bloodline over youthful ardor. To be sure, Confederates celebrated particularly heroic youths as evidence of their people’s unconquerable spirit, but they did not envision boy soldiers and drummer boys as the embodiment of the nation. 

Figure 5: A patriotic envelope featuring a boy dressed in a Zouave uniform who embodies the “Spirit of the North.” Ephemera, Civil War Envelopes Collection, Box 1. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.
Figure 6: Sheet music by P.S. Gilmore, “The Spirit of the North,” Boston: Henry Tolman & Co., 1863. This piece was dedicated to the Tremont Zouaves, a juvenile military company that performed in Boston at various events in the early 1860s. Although members of the Tremont Zouaves were not part of the Union army, this image envisions military service in their future, portraying them with swords and bayonets in a military camp. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries and University Museums.
Figure 7: This lithograph—designed for patriotic Americans to hang on their walls—portrayed a young drummer boy as the embodiment Union heroism and self-sacrifice. As he rallies the troops, faintly visible behind him in the background, he remains oblivious to the incoming cannonball that will shortly land at his feet and take his life. While the Confederacy celebrated young soldiers who performed heroic acts, it did not represent its cause in a similar manner. The Last Call (Boston: Bufford’s Print Publishing House, ca. 1861-1865). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

In the late nineteenth century, however, celebrations of Confederate “boy heroes” overwrote the earlier ambivalence toward youth enlistment. This partly reflected the nationwide embrace of a new model of boyhood—one that that rejected Victorian sentimentalism in favor rugged masculinity and martial virtues. At the same time, the construction of the Confederate boy hero was also a regionally distinctive development—one that proved central to the Lost Cause mythology created by former Confederates and their sympathizers. Rewriting the war’s history and casting white southerners as victims, adherents of the Lost Cause repeatedly stressed their side’s population disadvantage: even the mobilization of young boys and old men, the argument went, could not stave off a more numerous and remorseless enemy.

Those who lionized Confederate boy heroes often played fast and loose with the facts when it came to actual ages. Susan R. Hull’s Boy Soldiers of the Confederacy, published in 1905, was advertised as featuring youths who “bled and suffered that the South might be triumphant,” some mere “babies who left their cradles to shoulder muskets.” Yet many of the “boys” she profiled had enlisted after turning eighteen. Similarly, the veritable cult that emerged around Tennessean Sam Davis exaggerated his youth. An accused spy, Davis had calmly faced the gallows rather than naming names, reputedly declaring, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend or be false to duty.” In 1906, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a marble statue commemorating this “Boy Hero of the Confederacy” in Pulaski, Tennessee, where he had been executed. Three years later, a bronze statue of Davis was unveiled on the statehouse grounds in Nashville. Both monuments portray a soldier who appears to be in his mid-teens; the Pulaski version in particular depicts a boy whose soft facial features are offset by his determined stance. The real Sam Davis, however, was eighteen when he enlisted and had turned twenty-one by time he was put to death. 

Figure 8: Dedication of the monument to Sam Davis, “Boy Hero of the Confederacy,” outside the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville on April 29, 1909. Davis was in fact age twenty-one when executed as a spy. The site of protests in 2017, this monument remains in place. See page for author, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Confederate apologists similarly burnished into legend the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market, skirting the fact that the cadets’ ages ranged from fifteen to twenty-five. Of the ten who died, six were eighteen or older, meaning they were old enough to be conscripted. Most of these youths had been sent to VMI by parents who hoped to prevent or delay their sons’ enlistment in the Confederate army—a strategy not lost on the cadets themselves. Jaqueline B. Stanard, who died in the Battle of New Market at the age of nineteen, had earlier inquired of his sister, “Do you not candidly think I ought to be in the Army. I am over 18. I think I have been very obedient in remaining here as long as I have.” To his mother, he wrote imploringly, “Remember I will be 19 on the 27th of this month and ought to be ashamed of myself to be here. . . . You should be more firm and patriotic and want me to be in the army, but this is an unnatural feeling for an affectionate Mother like yourself.” Though celebrated as “mere boys” who were ordered into the fray only due to sheer necessity, many of the New Market cadets were military-age youths who until then had been shielded from hardships that their same-age peers were enduring. 

Figure 9: “J. Beverley Stanard, VMI cadet mortally wounded at the Battle of New Market, as he looked in 1863,” VMI Archives Photographs Collection. Stanard had earlier tried to convince his mother to allow him to leave the academy and join Robert E. Lee’s men in the field. Having reached the age of eighteen, he argued that he ought to be “ashamed” to remain at the Institute. See his letters home in the Jacqueline Beverley Standard Papers, VMI Letters, Diaries, and Manuscripts Collection, VMI Archives.

Such inconvenient details, however, did not stop white southerners from embellishing stories about boy heroes in the late nineteenth century. Lost Cause mythologists insisted that Confederates had been willing to sacrifice everything for their independence, including their boys. Evidence of the power of this narrative appears in the most unlikely of sources—U.S. Grant’s memoirs, written in 1884-85. Here, Grant mistakenly asserted that, beginning in 1864, the Confederacy had required “boys from fourteen to eighteen” to serve in the junior reserves (and men “from forty-five to sixty” in the senior reserves). Grant had no doubt observed many boys and old men performing military service for the Confederacy, especially in the war’s final year—a social reality that he had highlighted in his 1864 letter to Washburne for political purposes. But by the time he wrote his memoir some twenty years later, he appears to have swallowed his own line about “cradles and graves.”

Figure 10: Even after the war, portraits of Ulysses S. Grant and his family typically depicted his sons in uniform. Note the drum placed at the feet of the eldest, Fred Grant, perhaps implying participation in the conflict. Age eleven at the war’s outset, Fred did not serve as a drummer and never officially enlisted. But he did accompany his father for much of the war and endured some harrowing experiences, most notably during the Vicksburg campaign. General Grant and his Family, hand-colored lithograph on paper, A.L. Weise & Co., 1866, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

As a nation, we are still trying to see through the fog of Lost Cause ideology that for so long shaped not just regional but national histories of the Civil War and its aftermath. Part of this historical excavation requires us to dispel myths about boy soldiers, allowing for a more accurate view of both sides’ attitudes, policies, and practices toward underage enlistment. Such a reassessment paves the way for a clearer understanding of the surprisingly pivotal role that conflicts over underage soldiers played in shaping larger disputes concerning the organization and oversight of U.S. military forces. As the federal government contended with clamoring parents, it laid the legal groundwork for a modern army that could operate unencumbered by the constraints on centralized military power that the nation’s founders had seen fit to impose.


Further reading

We elaborate on these arguments in Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023). Although there are many popular books on boy soldiers, the subject has drawn relatively little scholarly attention. Exceptions include Edmund Drago, Confederate Phoenix: Rebel Children and Their Families in South Carolina (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); and Kathleen Shaw, “‘Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier’: Youth Enlistment in a Northern County,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History 135, no. 4 (October 2001): 419-46. Mark E. Neely Jr. addresses the legal aspects of underage enlistment in “Legalities in Wartime: The Myth of the Writ of Habeas Corpus,” in The War Worth Fighting: Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency and Civil War America, ed. Stephen D. Engle (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2015), 110-26. James G. Mendez, A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 121-29, discusses cases in which Black parents sought the discharge of underage sons. On the VMI cadets, see Sarah Kay Bierle, Call out the Cadets: The Battle of New Market (El Dorado, CA: Savas Beatie, 2019); and Charles R. Knight, Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864 (El Dorado, CA: Savas Beatie, 2010). On Sam Davis, see, Edward John Harcourt, “‘The Boys Will Have to Fight the Battles Without Me’: The Making of Sam David, ‘Boy Hero of the Confederacy,’” Southern Cultures 12, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 29-54.


This article originally appeared in May 2023.

Rebecca Jo Plant is Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. Frances M. Clarke is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney and the author of War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North, which jointly won the Australia Historical Association’s biennial Hancock prize for the best first book in any field of history. Their  coauthored book Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Jefferson’s Secret Plan to Whiten Virginia

Early in 1776, Thomas Paine fired the imaginations of patriot leaders when he wrote that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” One young patriot who would soon emerge as the revolution’s foremost philosopher, the thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson, seized the moment to remake the world. But his most sweeping attempt to do so has gone unrecognized, overshadowed by his more famous role in penning the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and serving as the new nation’s third president. Jefferson’s audacious plan to redesign America from its foundation has been overlooked because it evenly rested upon the seemingly opposite pillars of antislavery and white supremacy.

It took Jefferson some time when the revolution began to find the clay he wished to mold. According to John Adams, he had to be persuaded to author the Declaration of Independence.  Adams, the only Yankee on the committee, cajoled him into doing so by telling him “You are a Virginian, and Virginia ought to appear at the head of this business.” While Jefferson dutifully took notes and followed closely the contentious debates that hammered out the outline of the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first constitution, later that summer, he chose to leave Congress at the first opportunity, taking up a seat in the Virginia legislature that he had last warmed seven years before. 

Figure 1: The Declaration Committee, 1876. Currier & Ives., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is rare for a young, ambitious politician to step back from a national office to take a seat representing a county in a state legislature. In his Autobiography, Jefferson plainly stated that though his place in Congress had been renewed for the coming year, he thought he could do more important work back home: “I knew that our legislation under the regal government had many very vicious points which urgently required reformation, and I thought I could be of more use in forwarding that work.” What legislative issues were so urgent that they drew Jefferson away from the largest city in America, back to sleepy Williamsburg, and kept him there even when offered the ambassadorship to France?

Less than a month into Virginia’s legislative session of 1776, Jefferson revealed the true scope of his ambition, the project that he perceived as giving him the largest scope of action, the greatest possibility of doing what every philosopher dreamed, reforming not just one law or policy, but them all: “When I left Congress, in 76. it was in the persuasion that our whole code must be reviewed, adapted to our republican form of government, and, now that we had no negatives of Councils, Governors & Kings to restrain us from doing right, that it should be corrected, in all it’s parts, with a single eye to reason, & the good of those for whose government it was framed.”

Figure 2: Second Capitol at Williamsburg. Henry Howe (1816-1893) (author); after drawing by unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Historians have tended to overlook how eager Jefferson was to be the architect of a new comprehensive legal code. Jefferson is described as simply “being appointed” to the Committee of Revisors charged with this task. In fact, Jefferson introduced the legislation to create the committee, ensuring that when it passed he would sit upon it. Knowing that his fellow lawmakers would balk at empowering him to redesign 169 years of the basic laws of Virginia from scratch, Jefferson obscured what he planned and claimed that the committee’s charge was just to reorganize the existing laws from their present haphazard chronological arrangement into an organized “digest” of the law.

As chief “revisor,” Jefferson was able to draft more legislative bills in his three-year term than any other member of the General Assembly, but he often hid his authorship by having colleagues introduce bills, or inserting them within other pieces of pending legislation when they were in committee. In this way, Jefferson concealed the way in which he was designing a complete structure of some 128 new laws and not just smoothing out the rougher corners of the legal code. Because Jefferson and his collaborators never submitted the full revision as a single piece of legislation, his accomplishment was not appreciated until a few scholars in the mid-twentieth century dedicated most of their careers to collecting everything Jefferson ever wrote or read. The editor of Jefferson’s voluminous papers at one point realized the true scale of Jefferson’s work on Virginia’s laws: “In the variety of subjects touched upon, in the quantity of bills drafted, and in the unity of purpose behind all this legislative activity, his accomplishment in this period was astounding. He was in himself a veritable legislative drafting bureau.”

Figure 3: Thomas Jefferson, a Philosopher, a Patriote, and a Friend, between 1800-1816. Popular Graphic Arts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A decade after Jefferson had begun remaking the world of Virginia, many laws he had authored years before still knocked around the Virginia Assembly. Jefferson still camouflaged his work as mere legal housekeeping, writing to a curious Dutchman who asked about his legal project, “It contains not more than three or four laws which could strike the attention of a foreigner . . . . The only merit of this work is that it may remove from our book shelves about twenty folio volumes of statutes, retaining all the parts of them which either their own merit or the established system of laws required.”

Jefferson contributed to ongoing misunderstanding of his project by highlighting a few notable pieces of the whole in his Notes on the State of Virginia rather than revealing the way in which many of the laws worked together to refashion society. Historians rightly point to his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, or his bills reforming the system of education or eliminating aristocratic systems of inheritance and land rents as landmarks in the establishment of republican institutions. Some fragments of the language Jefferson used in his early legal revisions circuitously made their way into other charters, such as the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, an unsurprising traverse given that George Mason was probably Jefferson’s closest co-worker on the revisor’s committee.

Besides purging Virginia’s laws of monarchical remnants, the way the revised legal code constituted a set of gears working together to engineer a new social order is most clearly seen in Jefferson’s attempt to phase out what he saw as the towering evils of his nation: slavery and the black presence in America.

Figure 4: James Akin, A Philosophic Cock (Newburyport, MA: s.n., 1804). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Looking backward from the present day, through the prisms of modern sensibilities, most people assume that those who fought against slavery did so as they would, out of moral revulsion at the institution and empathy for people denied the most basic human rights. Similarly, our present values lead us to understand slavery and racism as being closely connected, thus prejudging that those who opposed slavery did so out of concern for those shackled, whipped, and trafficked. But the reality of the eighteenth century was that the outlooks of those opposed to slavery and those defending it overlapped where they both agreed that the numbers of Africans and the descendants of Africans had grown too large and needed to be dramatically reduced. Eighteenth-century abolitionists hoped that ending slavery itself would accomplish this. Eighteenth-century enslavers looked in the short term to ending the international slave trade and in the long run to encouraging the mass immigration of whites which they expected would drive slavery gradually into its natural grave. In the meantime, both poles of this political spectrum agreed that black people, enslaved or free, needed to be more completely policed and disciplined.

Connecting the dots in the bills Jefferson and the other revisors wrote, a master plan for both ending slavery and whitening Virginia emerges from the haze of legalisms. Decades later in his Autobiography, Jefferson insincerely claimed that the laws dealing with slavery that he authored in the course of Virginia’s revision did not constitute a system: “The bill on the subject of slaves was a mere digest of the existing laws respecting them, without any intimation of a plan for a future & general emancipation.” But when all the pieces of Jefferson’s legal revisions are gathered together, they can be seen to form an interlocking whole that followed a consistent and novel strategy. Laws dealing with the slave trade, migration of free people of color into the state, punishments for petty crimes, and procedures for manumission, all worked seamlessly together to achieve a common purpose—weakening slavery and diminishing the black population.

Figure 5: Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography Draft Fragment, January 6 through July 27.-07-27, 1821. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Library of Congress.

Jefferson’s system depended on shoring up the bulwarks of race and basing the law on a theory of government that withdrew the protection of government from unfavored groups. But its aim was not simply to construct a segregationist state, one in which the descendants of Africans and enslaved people would exist as a permanent subordinate caste, but rather to use these powers and distinctions to purge people of color entirely from society. Jefferson’s preferred tool for accomplishing this was the ancient legal device of banishment and he set about incorporating it throughout the legal code of Virginia, adding it to laws banning the importation of slaves, laws governing the migration of free people of color, laws of interracial bastardy, criminal statutes, manumission, and ultimately, slavery itself.

The Sage of Monticello’s preoccupation with banishment was not without precedent. Virginia had once before in its past attempted to curtail its rising black population by ordering freed people to leave the colony. As early as 1691, legislators grew alarmed at the rising numbers of free people of color, proclaiming that “great inconveniences may happen to this country by the setting of negroes and mulattoes service free, by their either entertaining negro slaves from their masters service, or receiveing stolen goods, or being grown old bringing a charge upon the country.” Lawmakers then limited manumissions by requiring that masters transport manumitted persons out of the colony within six months or pay a fine of ten pounds. The requirement that manumitted women and men be banished from the colony was rescinded in 1748 and replaced by a ban on all manumissions unless permission was granted by the governor and council and, then, only upon grounds of “some meritorious services.”

Early in the eighteenth century banishment was also set as the penalty for any white man or woman intermarrying with a “negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free.” However, in such cases, it was the white person who was exiled, not the person of color. A revision of this law in 1753 eliminated the punishment of exile and substituted jailing for six months and a fine of ten pounds for the white offender. But by the time Jefferson himself sat in the House of Burgesses in 1769, such policies were a receding memory and no laws expelled free or enslaved black people from the colony.

Figure 6: Newspaper advertisement placed in 1769 by Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Gazette offering a reward for enslaved teenager Sandy, who had escaped. Thomas Jefferson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

However, in the 1770s, some European empires began experimenting with ethnic cleansing regimes of their own. France required all “negroes and mulattoes” to register with the Office of Admiralty in 1762 which was the first step toward their ordered deportation in 1777. Portugal closed its borders to black immigrants in 1773. England’s high court’s 1772 Somerset v. Stewart decision effectively abolishing slavery on the mainland was motivated by fears of a growing black population.

Jefferson’s new legal code revived the banishment of any white woman who had a child with a black or mixed-race man from the state (though black women who bore the children of white men were exempt because their offspring was the property of their white fathers). But unlike the ancient precedent Jefferson copied, his measure was aimed more at policing the borders of race than morality, for his proposed law exiled both mother and her free mixed-parentage child. In those earlier times when the upholding of public morals was a higher concern and whites having children with people of color was always considered to be fornication leading to bastardy because interracial marriage itself was illegal, it was a crime punishable by whipping (with harsher beatings prescribed for the darker-skinned partner). Jefferson, obviously not one to be troubled by such rules of conduct, exploited this crime of morality to achieve his larger goal of diminishing the black population.

Figure 7: Virginian Luxuries, ca. 1825. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Museum Purchase.

More directly, Jefferson’s proposed law to choke off the international trafficking of slaves shifted from a traditional reliance on tariffs and stiff fines for violators to a simplified ban on bringing into the state any people of color on a permanent basis. This law can be (and has been) mistakenly read as one encouraging the freeing of enslaved people by its language that apparently encourages freedom: “Negroes and mulattoes which shall hereafter be brought into this commonwealth and kept therein one whole year, together, or so long at different times as shall amount to one year, shall be free.” But what appears on its surface to be a measure freeing illegally imported slaves is actually just a means of enforcing a much broader ban on the importation or migration of any people of color, free or enslaved. This is made abundantly clear in the succeeding passage that requires any people freed in this way to either leave the state or become outlaws: “But if they shall not depart the commonwealth within one year thereafter they shall be out of the protection of the laws.”

The phrase “out of the protection of the laws” had serious but different implications for enslavers, the enslaved, and free people of color. For slave merchants, the sanction of rendering their human chattel unprotected by the state’s legal code and courts essentially destroyed its value as property. For enslaved people, being “out of the protection of the laws” legally entitled any Virginian to seize, beat, maim, or kill them with abandon. Free people of color “out of the protection of the laws” could be killed, or they could be seized and claimed as property.

As this law referred not to “slaves” but to “Negroes and mulattoes” it served as a prohibition on the entry into Virginia of any free person of color. This feature of the law was made clear in a subsequent passage that made an exception for black “seafaring persons,” who were commonly not enslaved, and were allowed one day in port before being subject to being seized and claimed by any Virginian as their legal property.

Having closed off the avenues of entry of black people, Jefferson turned his attention to finding other parts of the legal code that could be turned to expel black Virginians from their home. Buried away in a different bill was a provision whose intent was to continually push people of color out of the state. Any enslaved person who committed an offense “punishable . . . by labor”, which in the jargon of the day meant serious felonies such as manslaughter, arson, robbery, and horse-stealing, but also lesser offenses such as housebreaking and larceny, were to be “transported to such parts in the West Indies, S. America or Africa, as the Governor shall direct, there to be continued in slavery.” 

Figure 8: Thomas Jefferson, Draft Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishment, 1777-1779. Manuscript. Library of Congress.

Slavery itself was attacked by easing restrictions on manumission, which technically was not simply setting someone free, but was the complicated legal ability of an enslaver to convey his ownership of a person to the person themself. Jefferson’s system encouraged manumissions by eliminating the longstanding requirement that only an act of the assembly could legally transform an enslaved person into a free one. The catch, and it was a catch upon which rested much of Jefferson’s racial architecture, was that all manumitted persons were required to leave Virginia forever, or face re-enslavement.

In the end, Jefferson’s racial architecture for his native state proved incomplete because he failed to mortise in the keystone of his plan. Since he first sat in the colonial House of Burgesses in 1769, Jefferson had been eager to introduce a plan for the gradual ending of slavery. Older and more politically astute colleagues convinced him to shelve his ideas then and decades later, being more experienced and politically savvy himself, he felt even more headwinds and never offered his plan for gradual emancipation to the legislative docket. Tellingly, no text of it survives and the only barest outline exists in Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia. There, in introducing his lengthy section detailing the racial differences of blacks, whites, and Indians, Jefferson recounts the features of the bill that he regretted did not see the light of day:

To emancipate all slaves born after passing the act . . . and further directing, that they should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up, at the public expence, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of household and of the handicraft arts, seeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c. to declare them a free and independent people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they have acquired strength; and to send vessels at the same time to other parts of the world for an equal number of white inhabitants; to induce whom to migrate hither, proper encouragements were to be proposed.

Figure 9a and b: Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Third American Edition (New York: M.L. & W.A. Davis, 1801), frontispiece. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Later, as he parsed out the elements of his comprehensive plan to end slavery and diminish the black presence in his state, Jefferson again contemplated introducing a gradual emancipation act to the assembly, but was dissuaded, again, by his estimation that he could not garner enough support to pass such a bill.

In discussing this episode in his Autobiography, Jefferson reveals much about how his opposition to slavery and his opposition to the presence of black people were intertwined. He connects his plan of emancipation to his belief, stated even more robustly in Notes on Virginia, that white and black people could not possibly live together in a single republican nation. Moreover, in discussing what should happen to freed men and women, Jefferson does not use the term “colonization” that had the benevolent connotations of aiding people to be self-sufficient and to flourish on their own, but the term “deportation” which not only was legally a form of punishment, but also identified those “deported” as not being members of the body politic in any way. Only those who were not included within the community of citizens could be “deported”:

The principles of the amendment however were agreed on, that is to say, the freedom of all born after a certain day, and deportation at a proper age. But it was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition, nor will it bear it even at this day. Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu filled up by free white laborers.

Though he felt the bill for general emancipation was politically premature, Jefferson did author a bill to quicken the pace of white immigration and replace people of color. Jefferson’s fellow revisor Edmund Pendleton sketched out a first draft of a law that encouraged immigration and naturalization of Protestants, even titling the bill, “Bill for the Naturalization of Foreign Protestts.” The bill offered easy terms of naturalization, a twenty-dollar payment “for the purpose of defraying his passage hither over sea” and a bounty of “fifty acres of unappropriated lands wherever he shall chuse.” Jefferson edited Pendeleton’s draft, excising all references to Protestants, thereby broadening the potential pool of white foreigners that might be enticed to immigrate. 

Figure 10: Judge Edmund Pendleton. Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jefferson’s master plan to end slavery and remove all black people from Virginia was never fully implemented. His fellow legislators, most of whom were enslavers themselves, chose not to restrict their own freedom to dispose of their human property as they saw fit and in 1782 passed a manumission law without Jefferson’s requirement that freed men and women be banished. But when this law was revised in 1806, Jefferson’s original requirement that all freed men and women leave Virginia within one year or face re-enslavement “for the benefit of the poor” was restored.

Jefferson’s last effort to revive his vision of a Virginia without slavery or black people came in 1783 as he was preparing to return to Congress. That year he sent to James Madison, who was just then about to make the opposite journey from Congress back to Virginia, a confidential draft Constitution for the state. Jefferson included in his charter a deceptively brief antislavery clause that barred the state’s legislature “to permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this state, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall be living on the 31st. day of December 1800; all persons born after that day being hereby declared free.” Though it didn’t pass, it proved influential to Madison and others who a few years later would hammer out a new constitution for both Virginia and the United States.

Figure 11: Thomas Jefferson (New York: E. Bisbee, not before 1832). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

As some historians have pointed out, the fifteen- or sixteen-year gap between when this Constitution could have been ratified and the deadline for freedom in 1800, would have stimulated a vast outflow of African Americans as masters sold enslaved people to eager buyers in other states. Absent some sort of prohibition on such sales, this simple device of setting a future date for emancipation would have worked to achieve both of Jefferson’s longstanding goals—the ending of slavery and the expulsion of all people of color from the state.


Further Reading

Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson 1743-1790, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914).

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 2, January 1777 to June 1779, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton University Press, 1951), esp. 306-308.

The Statutes at Large of Virginia, from October Session 1792, to December Session 1806, vol. 3, ed. Samuel Shepherd (Richmond: Samuel Shepherd, 1836), esp. 251–53.

William Cohen, “Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery,” Journal of American History, 56, no. 3 (Dec. 1969): 503-26.

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975).

Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, 2nd ed., (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001).

Kevin J. Hayes, The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

John Chester Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (New York: Free Press, 1977).

Sue Peabody, There are No Slaves in France: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).


This article originally appeared in April 2023.

Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green State University and author of The Patriots’ Dilemma: White Abolitionism and Black Banishment in the Founding of the United States of America, forthcoming from Pluto Press.

The Middle Hutchinson: Elisha, 1641-1717

The Hutchinson family is famous in the history of colonial Massachusetts. At the beginning was Anne, a religious dissenter who brought the colony of Massachusetts Bay to the edge of civil war. At the end of the colonial period there was Thomas, a royalist and the last civilian governor. Both were banished by the people of Massachusetts and soon died in exile. Between these failed troublemakers lies Elisha Hutchinson, Anne’s grandson and Thomas’ grandfather. Though far less famous, one of his deeds in Massachusetts influenced the history of the world. This is his story.

Figure 1: Anne Hutchinson, Elisha’s Paternal Grandmother. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library / “Trial of Mrs. Hutchinson,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Hutchinsons, a family of merchants, left Boston with the banished Anne in 1638. Soon after, Anne’s son Edward returned to Boston. In 1641, his first son was born. The boy was named Elisha after a biblical prophet and miracle worker. The name, meaning “my God’s salvation,” was popular among Puritans and separatists. Young Elisha was never able to hide. First, his grandmother’s legacy was still fresh in memory. Second, he grew to the very unusual height of six feet, two inches (a visiting Londoner would remark he was “the tallest man that I ever beheld”). As the eldest son of a merchant, his career was foretold. He joined his father’s mercantile and real estate business and married a merchant’s daughter named Hannah Hawkins. Through a Rhode Island cousin of the Sanford family, the Hutchinsons sent livestock and food to Barbados. Horses sent to that richest English island operated mills that squeezed sugarcane, extracting the sweet juice and leaving out the slaves’ blood, sweat, and tears. To their credit, Edward and Elisha were brave enough, in spite of Anne’s heretical legacy, to protest Massachusetts’ persecution of Baptists.

King Philip’s War was a turning point in Elisha’s life. As it began in 1675, Edward Hutchinson was sent on diplomatic missions to secure peace with several tribes. On one such journey the delegation was ambushed and Edward was wounded. He died of his wounds in Marlborough, where his body inaugurated the cemetery. It was probably Elisha, his heir as patriarch of the Hutchinsons, who penned the tombstone’s text: “Captin Edward Hvtchinson aged 62 yeares was shot by treacherovs Indians Avgvst 2 1675 dyed 19 Avgvst 1675.” In line with Puritan tradition, Boston pastor Increase Mather “knew” that Edward died because of a recent church dispute. 

Figure 2: Grave Marker for Captain Edward Hutchinson, Springhill Cemetery, Marlborough, Massachusetts. Sarnold17, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Elisha submitted Edward’s account with the colony in a chilling, formal document: “The country is debitor to Capt. Edward Hutchinson for his service,” including “To a journey to Quabauge where he received his death’s wounds, being 3 weeks before he died.” At the wage of two pounds a week for diplomats, his painful endurance was worth six pounds. Fourteen months later, Elisha lost his wife, Hannah. Like so many other women before the modern age, she died in her seventh childbirth within a decade. This annus horribilis left Elisha alone in charge of both the family and its businesses. As was common, he quickly remarried—a merchant’s daughter again. His new wife, Elizabeth, was recently widowed when her husband, merchant John Freake, was killed in a freak accident: a Virginia ship exploded in Boston harbor.

Figure 3: Edward’s account, submitted by Elisha. Massachusetts Archives Collection, vol. 69, p. 207b, “Payment to Capt. Edward Hutchinson, July 29, 1678.” SCI/series 45X. Massachusetts Archives, Boston.

Boston and the colony soon bombarded the new Hutchinson patriarch with public offices. By 1680 Elisha became a deputy at the legislature (General Court), town councilor, judge in a merchants’ court, sealer of weights and measures, fire officer, and militia captain. The king’s agent Edward Randolph, who led the effort to bring down the chartered government of the Massachusetts Bay Company, identified Elisha as one of the few “great opposers” to the king, and almost had a duel with him. In 1684, Elisha was elected a councilor and continued until a new regime—the Dominion of New England—was imposed in 1686 by England.

Elisha took his offices seriously. The Boston Athenaeum holds a book that belonged to him, a collection of the colony’s laws that he used as a judge and legislator. It is full of notes that he added to make his work accurate and efficient. Bound with the laws is a handwritten copy of Massachusetts’ 1641 Body of Liberties—the only surviving copy of the first English code of laws in America.

During the dictatorial Dominion period, Hutchinson joined a local bank project, but then he left for England to lobby against Governor Edmund Andros’s dismissal of all local land titles. He was soon joined by Harvard president Increase Mather and later by his close friend Samuel Sewall (he appears often in Sewall’s famous diary). In the winter of 1688–1689, Elisha saw the Glorious Revolution in England, but missed a later imitation revolution in Boston, which toppled the Dominion. 

Figure 4: A portrait, conjectured by art historian Jonathan Fairbanks to be Elisha Hutchinson. Portrait of a Man, probably Sir George Downing (1624-1684) alternatively titled, An Unknown Gentleman (probably Elisha Hutchinson; Formerly Identified as Sir George Downing, Bart.), ca. 1675-1690. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Mr. Robert Winthrop, Class of 1926, to Harvard College, 1946. https://hvrd.art/o/304922.

Hutchinson and Sewall returned to Boston in December 1689, bringing King William’s tentative approval of the return of General Court rule in Massachusetts. They retook their councilor positions and Hutchinson was appointed militia major as King William’s War worsened. Hutchinson became the leading man on war finance, participating in all the committees that planned the invasions of Acadia and Canada. He wrote about expectations of “plunder enough taken [in Canada] to defray all the charges.” As Boston’s new tax commissioner, he soon reckoned with the failure of these expectations.

In November 1690, soldiers and sailors returned from Canada defeated and demanding pay, but the government had nothing to give them. Taxes were raised to unprecedented levels to collect funds to pay them, but collecting taxes in a difficult winter, not only in coins but also in grains, would have taken a very long time. The soldiers and sailors became “mutinous,” and so in December 1690 the government resorted to issuing paper money. Those “bills of credit” are commonly known as the first American paper money (which is correct only if “American” refers to the area of the future United States; Dutch Brazil, Antigua, and Canada had already had paper money). But the real significance of the 1690 money was its unique legal status. Unlike all previous paper moneys in (greater) America, Europe, and China, it was not forced on all sellers under threat of penalty and there was no credible promise to convert it into precious metal coins or other valuable commodities. Its only legal support was the government’s commitment to accept it in tax payments (legal tender for taxes in modern terms). This is very similar to our modern currency (which is also legal tender for debts).

The reason for the invention was that England prohibited Massachusetts from creating money. Massachusetts was not among the few colonies whose charter permitted independent coinage. The royal coinage monopoly in England therefore implied that Massachusetts was not allowed to produce coins. However, in 1649 Parliament executed the king and abolished royalty. Therefore, in 1652 Massachusetts opened a mint and made its coins legal tender for debts and taxes. After the Restoration, in the late 1670s, the mint became the key symbolic flashpoint between king and colony and was viewed by English officials as treasonous. Eventually, the mint closed in 1682 and the colony’s charter was revoked in 1684. The issue resurfaced in 1689 as Hutchinson and Sewall helped Increase Mather negotiate with the new monarchs William and Mary about the charter’s renewal.

Figure 5: The order for issuing paper money. Massachusetts General Court, At the General Court of their Majesties Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New-England, Sitting in Boston by Adjournment, December 10th, An Order for the Granting Forth of Printed Bills for Seven Thousand Pounds (Cambridge: Printed by Samuel Green, 1690). The Library of Congress.

With such unpleasant recent history, and while still awaiting charter restoration, 1690 Massachusetts could not afford to create formal money, of whatever material. Therefore the colony only made “bills,” which happened to have small, round denominations convenient for shopping, and forced neither soldiers nor sellers to use them as money. Only tax collectors were forced to accept these bills. This was supposed to induce sellers (who were all also taxpayers) to voluntarily accept bills from soldiers.

The government appointed a committee of merchants to issue the bills, granting them much discretion regarding quantity, denominations, and timing. The committee was led by Hutchinson, while Treasurer John Phillips was listed second. In the sixty-year history of hundreds of Massachusetts committees, this was very unusual and thus significant. That the Treasurer was listed second in the colony’s most important financial operation ever, implies that, in modern terms, Elisha sponsored the bill. He either invented the new currency or he supported and promoted it more than others. His experience in trade, war finance, banking, military, tax collection, and diplomacy prepared him to understand that this new money could work: it would be accepted by soldiers, and then by sellers, and England would not mind. Much risk was involved in this unprecedented experiment, but the lives of Anne and Thomas Hutchinson prove that Elisha’s dynasty was fearless to the point of recklessness.

Figure 6: Title page of an open letter written to Elisha Hutchinson by John Blackwell, a visiting English financier, who tried to convince a skeptical population to accept a novel currency. Front Page of Some Additional Considerations Addressed Unto the Worshipful Elisha Hutchinson, Esq. (1691) in Andrew McFarland Davis, Tracts Relating to the Currency of the Massachusetts Bay, 1682-1720 (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1902), 24. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

This is not a Great Man story. Hutchinson’s diverse background was representative of his class of legislators. His friend Samuel Sewall, who wrote the draft of the novel paper money, was less experienced as a merchant, diplomat, and militia officer, but he was the owner of the closed mint, a former manager of Boston’s printing press, and a Harvard graduate who might have read relevant monetary ideas by Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes.

Figure 7: The only surviving legal tender bill of 1690. Currency Collection, 1690–1910 (MSS 831), Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

By leading the risky but eventually successful financial operation, Elisha justified his name. He performed a financial miracle and brought salvation to the godly colony. He may have also explicitly prophesized the future of money, but the only recorded prophecy—and an incredibly accurate one—came from pastor Cotton Mather, Increase’s son, who is best known today for the Salem witch trials and early inoculation. Cotton wrote in 1697: “In this extremity they presently found out an expedient, which may serve as an example, for any people in other parts of the world, whose distresses may call for a sudden supply of money to carry them through any important expedition.” As the colony’s founder John Winthrop famously said in 1630 with a different intention, indeed the “eyes of all people” were eventually upon them.

A year and a half later, Elisha was involved in the arrests of elite suspects in the Salem witch trials, and he advised the judges “to see if they could not whip the Devil out of the afflicted.” The colony had recently been rechartered as the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, and Elisha was reelected as a councilor every year. He was never governor or treasurer, but he kept leading paper money committees for the rest of his life.

Grandson Thomas, the renowned historian, wrote that Elisha “seems never to have been successful in business, apt to involve himself in debt upon plans of payment which did not succeed according to expectation.” Thomas specifically noted a later business venture that hurt Elisha so badly he ended up living off his wife’s property. But as the foremost anti-paper money activist in 1740s Massachusetts, Thomas probably also hinted at the events of 1690—Elisha’s reckless plunder forecast that culminated in the beginning of paper money.

Figure 8: Massachusetts Colonial Governor Thomas Hutchinson by Edward Truman, 1741. Edward Truman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When Elisha’s second wife, Elizabeth, died in 1711, she was buried with her first husband, John Freake, surely at her request. Elisha did not give up on her and when he died in 1717, he was buried with them. He continues to fight Freake for her love in the afterlife, forever, under a slab in Boston’s Granary cemetery. He lies just a few feet from the Boston Athenaeum, where his law book is buried. 

Figure 9: Hutchinson’s grave in the center, with the Boston Athenaeum in the background. Author’s photograph.

Elisha Hutchinson, quietly standing in his family tree between a famous grandmother and a famous grandson, was a key figure in a revolutionary moment in the global history of money. He led the first-ever use of money that relied neither on intrinsic value like gold nor on totalitarian forced acceptance in all transactions, but merely on money’s circulation into and out of the treasury of the emerging modern fiscal-military state. In this sense, today we all use Massachusetts money. In spite of its flimsy appearance, this money has been a double-edged sword of immense power, second perhaps only to nuclear weapons: it has performed miracles in wars and recessions but has created nightmarish episodes of inflation worldwide.


Further Reading

The article is based on parts of the author’s book Easy Money: American Puritans and the Invention of Modern Currency, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2023. Specifically, Hutchinson’s first-ever biography (covering his life until the Glorious Revolution) is detailed there in Chapter 11 and is mostly based on records of the City of Boston, Suffolk County, and the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Company, and Samuel Sewall’s diary, as listed in the book’s Notes and References. Chapters 12 and 13 cover the background for the 1690 invention and the invention itself; most of the relevant facts for the episode appear in: Robert E. Moody and Richard C. Simmons, eds. The Glorious Revolution in Massachusetts, Selected Documents, 1689–1692 (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1988). A general account of the Hutchinson dynasty, as written by Governor Thomas Hutchinson, was published in: Peter Orlando Hutchinson, ed. The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Esq., vol. 2 (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1886). All these sources are freely available online at the Internet Archive, except for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts volume which is available on the Society’s website.


This article originally appeared in April 2023.


Dror Goldberg is a senior faculty member in the Department of Management and Economics at the Open University of Israel. Before publishing the abovementioned book, his research on the theory, history and law of money was published in academic journals in economics, legal history, and economic history.

Revisiting Restoration

Erasure. Historians reverse it, combat it, and with every publication hope they don’t repeat it. Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, Amy Dru Stanley, and Riv-Ellen Prell have recently shown how to avoid erasure as we rewrite histories of the state and capitalism. Luckily, Susan Sleeper-Smith, Christine Walker, Sara Damiano, and Lorri Glover’s recent monographs advance these aims as innovative studies of eighteenth-century women’s economic might. Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest, Jamaica Ladies, To Her Credit, and Eliza Lucas Pinckney, respectively, discuss women whose economic labor previous scholarship has either underassessed or entirely disregarded as superficial to men’s labor. Anglo-American economies underwent seismic changes during the eighteenth century. These four books improve our understanding of that change by demonstrating that those women’s economic activities were inextricable and essential for, rather than incidental to, the rise of the American state and British empire in that period.

Figure 1: Sara Damiano, To Her Credit: Women, Finance, and the Law in Eighteenth-Century New England Cities (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021); Lorri Glover, Eliza Lucas Pinckney: An Independent Woman in the Age of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020); Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690-1792 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the OIEAHC, 2018); Christine Walker, Jamaica Ladies: Female Slaveholders and the Creation of Britain’s Atlantic Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the OIEAHC, 2020).

This essay discusses the authors’ thematic focus on interconnectivity—the relationship between women’s economic, legal, social, political, and cultural work within emergent capitalism and state power—and (in)dependence—the extent to which early American and British imperial state development depended on women’s work advancing their own material conditions, resisting encroachment by the state, and adapting to changing economic, political, and social conditions in daily life. Contrary to popular misconception, coverture and disenfranchisement did not eradicate women’s economic agency. Women’s economic labor was essential to state function, the economic survival and social standing of middling urbanites and landowning elites, and the economic plasticity of communities during recession. 

Figure 2: Native American Map of the Ohio River Valley. Chegeree. Map of the Country About the Mississippi (n.l., 1755). Map. Library of Congress.

Each book reflects important differences in how eighteenth-century women wielded economic influence from up and down the socioeconomic ladder. Sometimes, women pursued their own economic goals in tandem with state interests. At other times, women defied the state’s ambitious, organized effort to demonize and weaponize their central role as economic powerbrokers. What’s more, other women continuously tapped their own legal and economic resources and circumvented social expectations regardless of larger political changes underway. Nevertheless, women’s economic work linked to and independent of slavery, great power/imperial competition, and an impossible-to-overstate transformation of the natural and material worlds created nothing short of modernity.

Figure 3a-b: Authorization Granted to Jacques Hertel de Cournoyer, to Travel to the Pays-d’En-Haut for the Purpose of Trading Furs. Philippe de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil, dated April 30, 1721. Manuscript. Library of Congress.

Sleeper-Smith’s Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest shows Indian women in the Ohio River Valley at the nexus of the state and society during times of increasing prosperity, agricultural bounty, and foreign invasion by the newly independent United States. They maintained control, if not deep influence, over the lands they cultivated and the communities they guarded. Corn fields stretching for miles, orchards of European fruit trees planted before sustained contact with the Anglo-Atlantic east, and kinship-based trading networks (as well as control over the fur trade) reflected a deep knowledge of ecosystems that connected them to cultural practices and markets within and beyond their communities. They also integrated French traders as dependent community members and commercial partners while circumventing French control of the Ohio River Valley and of the trading hub at Detroit in particular. Heightened antagonism between British, French, and American groups beginning in the 1750s ran up against Indian women’s orchestration of economy and politics in the region. In everyday life, Indian women’s clothing continuously influenced trade and style across the region, a process resembling an economic and cultural renaissance independent of inter-European competition.

Reliant on Indian women’s agrarian system and economic influence, Indian military abilities expanded and became part of a broader system that Washington and other British and (later) American commanders eventually viewed as a significant challenge to their imperial visions. Such resistance and the women’s continued economic activity, Sleeper-Smith writes, “were more than minor obstacles to western expansion. They constituted a viable alternative to it . . .” (12). Indian women continued to influence treaty negotiations through likeminded diplomats. In spite of their attempts to preserve the independent world they built, President Washington sidestepped peacemaking for plunder. He saw the interconnected strands of economy and agriculture that fueled indigenous prosperity and supported resistance as a reason to kidnap Wabash women and children and establish and maintain a standing army, one that could fight to realize the vision that Hamilton instituted and that could aid Jefferson’s articulation of American sovereignty and potential abroad.

Figure 4: A Chart of the Island of Jamaica (London: J. Bew, [1780]). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Wabash and other Indian women of the Ohio River Valley resisted French, British, and American state building because empire-making gave no quarter to those seeking an independent co-existence. Those women were Europe’s antithesis. In Jamaica, free and freed women engaged in exactly the opposite effort. The women featured in Walker’s Jamaica Ladies wielded slaveholding as a tool for self-enrichment and to reinforce that system from which the state benefitted hand over fist. Free and freed women, who Walker calls “handmaidens of empire,” sought financial independence and social status and in turn rendered the growing British commercial empire dependent on them as indispensable providers of enslaved people’s labor (5). The British state and slaveholding women in Jamaica were therefore co-beneficiaries of slavery.

This remained true from Britain’s earliest efforts to expand its economic footprint in the Caribbean. Three generations of women, some moderately wealthy, took advantage of England’s desire to increase Jamaica’s population and ensure British control of the island. Once there, those women enslaved other women and men, began commercial enterprises of their own to grow their personal wealth and status, and inherited enslaved people which maintained their wealth. These practices deepened their connections to profitable enterprise and the construction of the British imperial state. Even those enslaved people who free women manumitted sometimes continued the cycle, enslaving others to establish good economic and social standing of their own. The second and third generations, concentrated mostly in Kingston, ensured the long-term survival of British trade and manufacturing. In short, slaveholding women in Jamaica shielded Britain’s empire, supported its grand commercial ambitions, and advanced their own commercial and social interests while stripping the freedom and commercial prospects of those they enslaved. 

Figure 5: First page of deed of sale including 237 enslaved persons in transaction. Signed by Robert Smith (1st Barron of Carrington), René Payne, Samuel Smith, George Smith, and John Smith. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The colonial New England women in Damiano’s To Her Credit were not the antithesis to American state building, nor did they stand to gain alongside the state like slaveholding women in Jamaica. Rather, their own financial independence waned as New England’s political economy changed between 1730 and the American Revolution. Damiano’s social and gendered political economic history of Boston, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island, argues that free white urban women managed family, business, and community financial ties vital to the political economic function of colonial governments. In this period, urban women wielded significant power over men’s economic lives and through them over the state and private enterprise. That began to change mid-century. The Revolution as well as changes in legal regimes and political and economic culture diminished women’s financial “authority” (4). That said, at no time did women cease to exert considerable financial power through their use of credit and in turn created “both financial networks and the state” (4). 

Figure 6: Charles Blaskowitz and William Faden, A Plan of the Town of Newport in Rhode Island (London, s.n., 1777). Map. Library of Congress.

Women in these settings were highly skilled economic agents, as well as financial and legal strategists. Indeed, their economic labor acted as a bulwark against economic upheaval and shocks such as war and the deaths of men who engaged in notoriously dangerous maritime work. This was especially true for Mary Prince, who maintained her family’s good credit by managing their retail shop while Joseph, her husband, was at sea. In one instance, Mary paid a £96 debt in full that her husband incurred a year prior. British North America was especially prone to economic shock. Materially, the colonies suffered from a lack of circulating coinage and inefficient lawmaking and enforcement power to regulate the value of paper currency emissions. Women were economic first responders during periods of severe price inflation. Finally, and similarly to Jamaican women who inherited enslaved people as generational wealth, women’s central place in the New England family ingrained inextricable links between New England industries and commerce. The American state and society never stopped depending on New England’s women even as their labor was devalued through the tumult of rising capitalism. So too did women’s connectedness to the state-building enterprise remain despite their general loss of financial power.

Figure 7: Vuë de Boston. Prospect der König Strasse gegen das Land Thor zu Boston Vuë de la Rue du Roi vers la Porte de la Campagne a Boston [View of Boston.] [Augsburg] : [Publisher not identified], [1778?]. Library of Congress.

Wealth, unrivaled social status, and an extraordinary capacity for management made Eliza Lucas Pinckney, the main subject of Glover’s book, unlikely to ever fit the stereotypical mold of mother-as-nurturer to statesmen and social beauties. “Eliza,” Glover writes, “reflected the eighteenth century even when she refracted it” (6). Independent to her core and from an early age, Pinckney gradually acquired control of her family’s commercial affairs and became “a consummate planter-patriarch” (5). For example, she overcame unscrupulous sabotage from an expert dye maker to turn South Carolina into a major exporter and source of revenue for the British empire. She also circumvented her father’s preference that she relinquish agriculture and her “commercial schemes” and submit to being a wife and mother. She occupied the planter-patriarch role so effectively that her status alone made her two sons eligible to reach rarified political heights and allowed her daughter to further solidify the Pinckneys as an estimable family. She claimed her own life as a woman in a world favorable to free-born white men to create a life “for Posterity” “adeptly, proudly, and independently” (2, 6).

With all of this said, she was far from self-made. Women like Pinckney, though successful in reigning over the social and economic life of South Carolina’s elite society, relied on enslaved labor to acquire that sort of wealth and prestige. Quash, who took the name John Williams just before his emancipation, built the vats necessary for indigo production. Pinckney led her family into American patriotism, folding South Carolina further into the Revolution and preserving slavery for the nation. “After the Revolution, the Pinckney family, like Lowcountry elites generally, retained an unshakable commitment to slavery” (218). Charles, Eliza’s husband and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, supported provisions that would uphold slavery in South Carolina and the country as a whole as it had been under British rule. Like Britain before 1776 and South Carolina after 1787, she retained her dependence on slavery to live a life of self-satisfaction. She was of and an outlier in her society, ancillary to the American state and among a privileged few who conducted her affairs the same before the founding as she did after it. Perhaps, as Glover writes, “it seemed as if the Revolution had never happened” with the Pinckneys’ ties to slavery unbroken after the war (218).

Figure 8: Map of South Carolina coast including Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s home at Wappoo Plantation. Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

Individually, these books reveal important differences in how women’s labor intersected with state-building while standing apart from it. Read together, they also demonstrate that whatever the state stood to gain always was secondary to the world these women never stopped making for themselves. Walker puts it best regarding the free and freed women of Jamaica. “Recognizing women as powerful agents of slavery and colonialism calls into question the extent to which normative European gender ideologies were imported and adopted across the Atlantic” (9). Powerful agents. Not just agents. Continuous focus on the state’s strengths and inadequacies risks further erasure of women’s power as economic agents, some of whom helped decide the economic future of entire colonies through slavery, while others’ day-to-day business and legal acumen supported their husband’s credit. With this new knowledge at our disposal, history that shows women possessing only agency and exercising free will, likewise borders on disingenuous. It ignores their historical power. All four books show that moving past agency, past a state’s strengths and weaknesses, and towards “everyday practices” (Damiano 5) can further restore women as historical forces in future scholarship on the rise and development of the American state.

Let us not be mistaken that these books are more about the state than the women or societies discussed. In the case of Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest, for example, comprehending the political economy of Indian resistance in spite of removal is as much about recovering the societies that it destroyed as it is about the state’s preference for force over co-existence. In Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Glover presents one woman’s life against the equally important backdrop of American independence, self-government, and the work of managing any elite family’s financial empire. These authors remind readers to see subjects for who they were as well as what they made possible. 

Figure 9: Eliza Lucas Pinckney, SCETV artist rendition. National Parks Service.

For everyone, not just historians, Sleeper-Smith, Walker, Damiano, and Glover’s books arrived on shelves at an especially important moment. People today have their minds eye set on a new era, one defined yet again by interconnectedness and (in)dependence. Presidential prerogative, divisive politics over government spending and federal debt, the disproportionate drop in women’s labor force participation during the pandemic, and Supreme Court rulings of the last decade have led many to question the historical purpose of government, its development through the present, and the state and economy’s acute dependence on women who do not always enjoy equal protection from either. Sleeper-Smith, Walker, Damiano, and Glover have made it impossible to imagine that women’s economic work was not also inextricably linked to the rise of banking and commercial law, regulatory institutions and law enforcement, international trade and investment, and immigration policy, to name a few. Their research methods and innovative use of source material also provide models for future articles, monographs, and dissertations. Consequently, history and the work historians do, as well as the aspects of our daily lives informed by scholarship, may all be better off.


Further Reading

Amy Dru Stanley, “Histories of Capitalism and Sex Difference,” Journal of the Early Republic 36 (Summer 2016): 343-50.

Max M. Edling, Hercules in the Cradle: War, Money, and the American State, 1783-1867 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Laura F. Edwards, Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).

Riv-Ellen Prell, “The Economic Turn in American Jewish History: When Women (Mostly) Disappeared,” American Jewish History 103 (October 2019): 485-512.

Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, Ties that Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, “Gender’s Value in the History of Capitalism,” Journal of the Early Republic 36 (Winter 2016): 613-35.

William J. Novak, “The ‘Myth’ of the Weak American State,” American Historical Review 113 (June 2008): 752-72.

Michael John Witgen, Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America (Williamsburg and Chapel Hill: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and The University of North Carolina Press, 2022).


This article originally appeared in March 2023.


Jonah Estess is a Ph.D. candidate in the American University (AU) Department of History. His research explores the history of American political economy, capitalism, and money in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His research has been supported through fellowships and grants from the Library Company of Philadelphia, American Society for Legal History, the American Numismatic Society, and the AU history department. Jonah’s other publications have appeared in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the Society for US Intellectual History Blog, H-Net, and The Washington Post.

“Nativity Gives Citizenship”: Teaching Antislavery Constitutionalism through the Black Convention Movement

As the new year opened in 1851, Ohio Black abolitionists gathered in Rev. James Poindexter’s Second Baptist Church in the capital city of Columbus, Ohio, for a four-day meeting. Poindexter’s congregation, housed in a stately brick structure on East Gay Street, was known for its activism in the Underground Railroad, an operation that had taken on a greater level of importance with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. 

Figure 1: Rev. James Poindexter in 1887. William J. Simmons and Henry McNeal Turner, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (Cleveland: GM Rewell & Co, 1887). Simmons, William J., public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As part of the Compromise of 1850, the new Fugitive Slave Law, a much more stringent version of its 1793 cousin, permitted African Americans in the North to be seized solely based on the affidavit of anyone claiming to be his or her owner or working on the owner’s behalf. It was without question the most intrusive enactment of federal authority prior to the Civil War. Black abolitionist H. Ford Douglas, who hailed from Cuyahoga Falls not far from where I teach at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, declared at the Columbus gathering that after nine months of debate about how to settle the vexing question of slavery in the territories, Congress, with the Fugitive Slave Act, ended up striking “down the writ of Habeas Corpus and Trial by Jury—those great bulwarks of human freedom.” It was a law, according to Douglas, “unequalled in the worst days of Roman despotism.” Western Reserve Academy has a rich history in the abolitionist movement in northeast Ohio. By the late 1840s, a prominent group of young Black activists, including John Mercer, Charles Langston, William Day, and H. Ford Douglas were well-known figures in the area. 

Figure 2: Western Reserve Academy in 1851. Courtesy, Western Reserve Academy Archives.

Ironically, it was a call for federal power by white Southerners who had steadfastly opposed for decades the aggrandizement of the federal government out of fear that it would threaten their hold on the slave system. President Millard Fillmore, who had taken office after the death of Zachary Taylor, signed the act into law on September 18, 1850, creating a panic in African American communities across the North. Just days after the law was enacted, James Hamlet, a fugitive from Maryland living in New York City, was captured and brought to a jail in Baltimore. Abolitionists eventually secured Hamlet’s freedom by purchasing him for eight hundred dollars. Others were not so fortunate. Throughout the 1850s, thousands of African Americans fled the United States to Canada.  

Blacks, both enslaved escapees and long-term free residents, were now placed in considerable danger. A Black convention in Cincinnati opened with a harsh indictment against a nation that “hunted” slaves “like beasts from city to city, and dragged [them] back to the hell from which they fled—the Government which should protect them,” was instead “prostituting its powers to aid the villains who hunt them.” Personal liberty laws on the statute books in almost all northern states were set to be ripped away by the new federal business of slave hunting. “This enactment—unworthy of the name of law—reverses” the presumption of innocence by “prohibiting what is right, and commanding what is wrong,” declared John Mercer Langston at the 1851 Columbus convention. On a motion of John’s older brother Charles, a petition was drafted and sent to the U.S. Congress calling for the repeal of the “unconstitutional” law.

Figure 3: John Mercer Langston. U.S. Congress, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Black conventions in the early 1850s hosted a wide-ranging conversation about the crisis of constitutionalism that stemmed from the passage of the draconian Fugitive Slave Act. As legal scholar James Fox has persuasively argued, these Conventions “provided Black leaders and activists a forum to share ideas, debate strategies, and engage as a community in forming and reforming their identities as Black American citizens.” National Conventions met over a dozen times before the Civil War in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. The first Ohio convention was in 1837, with ten more prior to the Civil War. Ohio actually served as the catalyst for the first national Black Convention in Philadelphia in 1830 which stemmed from outrage over the attempt of Cincinnati officials to physically remove African Americans.

Over my many years in the high school classroom, I’ve spent considerable time on the story of obstructions to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, covering dramatic rescues in Boston, Massachusetts, and Syracuse, New York, along with abolitionists’ armed resistance against slavecatchers at Christiana, Pennsylvania. These cases were often referenced at Black conventions, including one held in Cincinnati in 1852 at the Union Baptist Church:

We Sympathize deeply with man Shadrach, of Boston, who fled from the American Fiery Furnace, to its contrast—the snows of Canada, with Jerry, who at Syracuse was transported from the American “Babylon” . . . with the men at Christiana who so honored a Christian name, by protecting their homes, and refusing to be made slaves; and have learned from their example that liberty is dearer than life, and eternal vigilance its only guarantee.

At the Cincinnati 1852 convention, a resolution was passed declaring the “law of God” over “human enactments” and the “duty to obey God rather than man” paramount. Several of my students recognized that this ideological position stood in stark contrast to the message in President George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address which we had spent time on when covering the political drama of the 1790s. Washington’s address set up the debate over the “duty of every individual to obey the established government.”

Figure 4: Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law (New York: Hoff & Bloede, 1850). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

The formation of northern vigilance committees and committees of safety, which pledged to sound the alarm should slavecatchers appear, always provided ample opportunity for discussion in the classroom. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in September 1850, slavery was no longer an abstraction, limited in scope to the southern states, but was now a major local concern from New England to the Midwest. Captures and rescues under the Fugitive Slave Act provided real-life drama on northern city streets for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The political significance of rescues, along with federal trials for those who aided fugitives, contributed in substantive ways to the political crisis that severed the United States. For African Americans in the North the law, which provided the federal government with authority to reach into the states in unprecedented ways, made them more vulnerable than ever to kidnappers who were now aided by draconian provisions that removed rights to due process.

While white antislavery leaders attacked the legal apparatus protecting the rights of slaveholders to reclaim property, fidelity to the legal process and protections for African Americans was often not extended to the realm of civil rights and the complete removal of the odious Black laws passed by numerous northern legislatures. Ohio’s Black Laws, enacted in the early nineteenth century, required a certificate of freedom and bond for African Americans migrating into Ohio and forbade “black or mulatto” testimony in court cases where a white person was a party. They were largely repealed in 1849, thanks to the advocacy of Black leaders. As historian Kate Masur has noted, in Ohio “Black activists had persistently and creatively demanded repeal, and growing numbers of white people had become persuaded that racist laws were unacceptable and un-American.” But restrictions on Black voting remained, along with limitations and prohibitions on other aspects of life. Blacks enjoyed some ordinary rights and privileges but faced high levels of statutory discrimination in major areas of life, including marriage laws, housing, jobs, schools, and access to the ballot. 

Figure 5: Map of Western Reserve. William Sumner, Map of Western Reserve: Including the Fire Lands, Ohio, September, 1826. Cleveland Public Library, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The hardening of racist sentiment in the North corresponded with the rise of the two-party system. By the mid-1830s, a clear majority of white northerners began to perceive the nation’s basic problem as not just slavery but also the presence of Blacks in the country, free as well as enslaved. This is where the pathbreaking Colored Conventions Project served to open new doors for me as a teacher.

It was not until I read about P. Gabrielle Forman’s pathbreaking work on the Colored Conventions Project that I began to see a deeper history than high-flying rescues or dramatic courtroom dramas. The story that I now sought to present to my students centered on how the Fugitive Slave Act overruled a presumption of citizenship for free Blacks in the North. However, it was more than simply access to the writ of habeas corpus. Black abolitionists offered a profound re-reading of the text of the Constitution and the power of the Declaration of Independence that had far reaching implications. In the 1850s, the Fugitive Slave Act certainly raised questions relating to resistance, but it also helped to bring attention to the powers and prerogatives of the states when it came to the privileges and immunities of citizenship. State-level agitation in Ohio for civil rights mirrored state-level opposition to implementation of the law.

In reading the Ohio Black convention debates, my students began to see how the words of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the 1787 Constitution were turned into a new political creed by Black reformers. Southern white leaders, as historian William Wiecek noted long ago, were on record opposing Jefferson’s Declaration as rhetorical flourish in a political manifesto as early as 1821. But for Ohio’s William Howard Day, an Oberlin graduate and the editor of The Aliened American, Cleveland’s first Black newspaper, the Declaration and the Constitution were the “foundation of liberties” with coequal status.

What became clear to my students as our classroom examination developed was that “privileges or immunities,” “due process,” “equal protection,” and rights of citizens of the United States was something that Black activists had been talking about for decades. I was able to do an overview with my students of the free Black opposition to the American Colonization Society in the early 1830s that helped to illustrate this. It was clearly not something that first arose during the post-Civil War period. 

Figure 6: Theodore R. Davis, The National Colored Convention in Session at Washington, D.C. (Washington D.C.: s.n., 1869). Library of Congress.

Across the northern free states, according to Kate Masur, Black “activists forcefully insisted that laws that made explicit race-based distinctions had no place in American life.” These activists “pressed new ideas about citizenship, individual rights and the proper scope of state power.” The discourse on the Constitution at Black conventions clearly demonstrated that the process of creating constitutional law involved more than lawyers in the courtroom. Ohio Black leaders declared that they would “continue to agitate” before “the people, to circulate petitions among the people, and memorialize” the state legislature. They would not stop until Ohio became a “true democracy, conservator of equal and impartial liberty.” By making claims to citizenship and invoking the founding documents, Black leaders expanded the reading of the constitutional text. Jefferson’s Declaration was viewed as having a direct link to the Constitution and creating an obligation for civic and political equality.

Figure 7: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library, “The Colored National Convention Held at Nashville, April 5, 6, and 7.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By the early 1850s, the privileges and immunities clause in the Constitution had an important place within antislavery constitutional ideology. The vast majority of Black abolitionists insisted that the privileges and immunities of citizenship in the Constitution were general and were enjoyed by all citizens. In a previous Commonplace article that I wrote about the 1842 Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, I encountered Black abolitionists, including Ichabod Northup, who challenged both the Dorrites and their “People’s Constitution,” along with the Rhode Island government to allow Blacks into the body politic by eliminating an 1822 statute that barred them from the polls. Black northerners were free but far from equal. Black leaders petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly for an end of “that odious feature of the statute, which in making the right of citizenship identical with color, brings a stain upon the state, unmans the heart of an already injured people and corrupts the purity of republican faith.” I was able to draw connections between Black leaders in Rhode Island and Ohio since they both worked towards the removal of “white-only” clauses embedded into state laws. Rhode Island Black leaders made clear that it was through “birthright” that they deserved civil and political rights, a clear conception that the privileges and immunities of citizenship were also tied to being born on “native soil.” 

 William Yates’ remarkable 1838 pamphlet “The Right of the Colored Man to Suffrage, Citizenship and Trial by Jury” proved to be a great teaching tool and one that students enjoyed exploring in the classroom. Yates’ writings covered citizenship in a manner that would later guide radical Republicans after the Civil War, especially questions relating to birthright citizenship. “We are human beings, and we are Americans; we are entitled to the same rights as white Americans,” wrote Yates. “Free persons of color are human beings, natives of the country—for such of we speak—and owe the same obligations to the State, and to its government as white citizens.” They have an “equal right to liberty—to the enjoyment and security of home and family—and of a good name and character as white men; so, to all the rights of conscience—to read, write, and print—to speak, teach, and debate—to preach, and worship God according to its dictates—their title as the same as that of white men.” In the 1840s and 1850s, northern Blacks gained rights through agitation, legislation, and court decisions.

At the end of the 1851 Columbus convention, calls for removal of the Fugitive Slave Law did not come at the top of the list for the delegates as they assembled their resolves. The first resolution adopted was a clarion call for the elective franchise and a removal of the remnants of Black Laws from the statute books. The year before, at another state convention in Columbus, delegates decried how Blacks in the North were “only nominally free.” The right to vote was labeled a “birthright.” This was the focal point of William Day’s and Charles Langston’s powerful closing address at the following year’s Convention: “Those of us, therefore, who were born in the United States, and reside in Ohio, are citizens of Ohio. If citizens of this state, entitled by the United States Constitution, to all the rights and immunities of citizens of the several states. The elective franchise being among these rights.” In 1852, in Cincinnati, the “rights and immunities of American citizens,” in particular, “native born American citizens,” were on the table for discussion. Black activists were constantly trying to reshape the national debate.

Figure 8: Minutes and Address of the State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, Convened at Columbus, January 10th, 11th, 12th, & 13th, 1849 (Oberlin: J.M. Fitch’s Power Press, 1849). Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection, Cornell University Library.

My classroom is just a stone’s throw from the courtyard of our historic chapel where Frederick Douglass delivered a commencement address at what was then Western Reserve College. Douglass’ 1854 address, later published as a pamphlet and sold widely in the North and Europe, was his first address on a college campus. Douglass chose not to provide the students and families in attendance with a jeremiad on the constitutional crises that was gripping the nation with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act just weeks before, or the ongoing controversy over fugitive slaves. Douglass had actually written widely on the Anthony Burns affair in Boston and had openly defended the killing of a deputy U.S. marshal in the city during a confrontation with abolitionists attempting to prevent Burns from being returned to slavery in Virginia. He was on record encouraging free Blacks to move to Kansas to help prevent the territory from becoming a slave state. Rather, at Reserve, Douglass focused on “Human rights,” to get the young audience to understand how the corrupting influence of slavery spread in the North through racist sentiments and laws that led to the belief in the innate inferiority of Black Americans. Douglass reminded the audience that all Americans stood “upon a common basis.” All “mankind” has the “same wants,” arising out a “common nature,” proclaimed Douglass. God “has no children whose rights may be safely trampled upon.” Douglass’ speech was a clarion call to the student body—all white at the time—to not become caught up in the standard racial prejudices of the day. Douglass emphatically declared that he was a “citizen” of the United States, but nonetheless, a citizen “rolling in the sin and shame of Slavery,” a reference to racial discrimination in the North.

Figure 9: Whipple & Black, Anthony Burns. Drawn by Barry from a Daguerreotype by Whipple & Black (Boston: R.M. Edwards, [1855]). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Douglass’ invocation of citizenship at Western Reserve College, along with the wide-ranging discussion of the meanings and prerogatives of birthright citizenship at Black conventions throughout the 1850s, helped students see the long and complex story of the public meaning of section one of the Fourteenth Amendment. By the end of the decade, after the notorious Dred Scott decision was handed down in 1857, Ohio’s Black leaders, including John Mercer Langston, continued to hammer home the importance of birthright citizenship. In the “name of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the ancient policy of the Fathers of the Republic, the well-established doctrine that nativity gives citizenship” is what Black leaders wanted to keep in the forefront of people’s minds. “We are here, and here we intend to remain,” proclaimed Langston in closing his Cincinnati address. Black abolitionists kept the citizenship question at the forefront of politics in the late 1850s. 

Figure 10: William Emory Bowman, Frederick Douglass (Ottawa, IL: s.n., 187-). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

As a teacher, the Black convention movement in the 1850s has helped me to broaden my story of the origins of the Civil War, especially the pitfalls to avoid when it comes to focusing too heavily on the controversy over slavery in the territories. The demand of antislavery activists for accused fugitives to be guaranteed a jury trial was an implicit recognition of Black citizenship. In addition, delegates to Black conventions throughout the decade pushed for more than mere due process rights in the face of attempts to enforce southern law in northern states. Just as there was a militant obstruction of the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law on northern soil, Black leaders were militant in their call for fuller measures of equality. They helped to develop the concept of birthright citizenship, a later hallmark of the Fourteenth Amendment, and passionately promoted the understanding that African Americans had a fundamental right to the equal protection of their natural rights by the government. There was nothing the white South feared more.


Further Reading

My students and I benefitted greatly from engaging with historian Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: W. W. Norton, 2021). It is a must read for any teacher trying to bring the long history of civil rights into the classroom. Masur’s chapters on Ohio worked well in the classroom in conjunction with documents from Black conventions in the 1850s in Ohio that can be found on the Colored Conventions Project website. With my students I focused on the following gathering of Black abolitionists: 1849 Columbus, 1850 Columbus, 1851 Columbus, 1852 Cincinnati, and 1858 Cincinnati

Selections from Manisha Sinha’s comprehensive account of the abolitionist movement, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), provided much needed context for the students. I learned a great deal from legal scholar James W. Fox’s superb lengthy article, “The Constitution of Black Abolitionism.” Fox’s underappreciated scholarship fills a large hole in the discussion of antislavery constitutionalism. Historian H. Robert Baker’s article, “The Fugitive Slave Clause and the Antebellum Constitution,” Law and History Review 30 (no. 4, 2012) helped my students understand the operation of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Paul Finkelman’s article, “The Strange Career of Race Discrimination in Antebellum Ohio,” Case Western Reserve Law Review 55 (no. 2, 2004) was very helpful. See also Paul Finkelman, “Prelude to the Fourteenth Amendment: Black Legal Rights in the Antebellum North,” Rutgers Law Review 17 (no. 1, 1985-1986).

Eric Foner’s Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), provided my students with an engaging overview of clandestine efforts in the antebellum period to escape from slavery. Selections from R. J. M. Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), Steven Lubet’s Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), and H. Robert Baker’s The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006) were also utilized.

In preparing to teach the class over the summer, I benefited from reading Van Gosse’s The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), along with Christopher James Bonner’s, Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). For a number of years now, James Oakes’ scholarship has informed my thinking about a host of topics, including issues of race and citizenship, antislavery politics, and the antislavery constitutionalism. Teachers should read Oakes’ The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2021) along with The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014). Oakes’ groundbreaking scholarship builds upon arguments first introduced by William Wiecek in his classic work, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760–1848 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).


This article originally appeared in March 2023.


Erik J. Chaput, Ph.D., teaches at Western Reserve Academy in Ohio and in the School of Continuing Education at Providence College. He received his doctorate in early American History from Syracuse University. He is the author of The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion (2013) and has edited multiple letter collections with historian Russell J. DeSimone on the Dorr Rebellion Project website. This is his fourth teaching article for Commonplace. His previous articles, including a piece on the 1864 Black Convention in Syracuse, can be found in the archive section.

Levi Lincoln’s Wayward Son – Daniel Waldo Lincoln

Being the son of an ambitious politician has never been easy. Just ask Charles Adams, William Franklin, or Hunter Biden. That was certainly true when Daniel Waldo Lincoln, son of Levi Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson’s first attorney general and in 1808 acting governor of Massachusetts, drank himself to death. Dying of an alcohol-related illness in the early nineteenth century was hardly uncommon. Nor was the stress that comes with shouldering a reputable family name. But documenting the struggle, failure, loneliness, and isolation, through his own discordant, entitled personality, was unusual. In over 250 private letters, Daniel Lincoln recorded it all, not for posterity or as a morality lesson for public edification, but as a plea for familial understanding that was not, to his great sadness, so forthcoming.

Figure 1: United States Attorney General and Massachusetts Governor Levi Lincoln Sr. James Sullivan Lincoln, [1865]. Courtesy of the United States Department of Justice.

Of Levi Lincoln’s five sons, Levi II and Enoch would go on to become governors of Massachusetts and Maine respectively. Another son, John, became a sheriff and merchant in Worcester, and the youngest, William, became a lawyer and historian. His two daughters, Martha and Rebecca, married civic-minded lawyers. Indeed, before his life dissolved into unredeemable dissolution, Daniel Lincoln, the second son, had everything a man needed to make a good and distinguished life for himself. He had the Lincoln name, the education (Harvard Class of 1803), the occupation (lawyer), and the talent (orator and poet). But it wasn’t enough to save him from his addiction and the disastrous consequences that came with it.

Figure 2: Daniel Lincoln’s favorite brother and Governor of Maine, Enoch Lincoln. Lincoln, Enoch – Austrian National Library, Austria. Public domain.

The letters that make up Daniel’s story begin with his arrival at Harvard College in August 1801, forty miles from his beloved hometown of Worcester. Admitted as a junior, Daniel bypassed two years of hazing, complaining, and bonding with the other forty-three men in his class. His latecomer status to Harvard culture might have been but a minor handicap and socially negotiable, but Daniel was saddled with a different label that was harder to transcend—political outlier. Conservative Harvard had deep ties to the Federalist Party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the political nemeses of Levi Lincoln’s new boss, Thomas Jefferson. To make matters even stickier, just weeks before Daniel’s matriculation Levi had published a series of impenetrable essays entitled “A Farmer’s Letters” in which he excoriated Federalists, earning Levi the reputation as a “violent” Republican.

The fallout from Levi’s fevered attacks on Federalists cast Daniel into a netherworld of Harvard’s social untouchables. Other students avoided him. Social clubs either ignored or rejected him. He wrote to his mother that perfidious schoolmates who smiled at him had teeth like “whited tombstones.” He endured long, solitary walks pondering the place of self-interest in a country that both celebrated and feared it. He fantasized painful comeuppances to his enemies. “At college one may see all the subtle folly of the world & learn to fence with villains,” he observed to his brother. He wrote long dark poems about the ultimate leveler—death and graveyards. “Pow’r wealth and beauty are short-lived trust / Tis virtue only blossoms in the dust.” He missed the respect and recognition he got from his Worcester neighbors. “No one salutes me,” he moaned. Most of all he longed for his sweetheart and intended, Charlotte Caldwell.

Figure 3: View of the Ancient Buildings Belonging to Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass. Scan by NYPL, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

By his second and final year at Harvard, Daniel had found a way to relieve his unhappiness, albeit temporarily. A classmate, William Sewall, who would go on to occupy a singularly undistinguished career as an attorney in Portland, Maine, introduced him to a more enticing life that featured “buxom girls with bosoms bear” and nectar from a “cheery vial.” Daniel was a changed man. Instead of bleakly attending coma-inducing recitations, Daniel accumulated fines for sleeping in chapel, ignoring deadlines, and leaving campus without permission. Even so, the Harvard government recognized his poetic talents and awarded him a coveted part in the 1803 commencement—to deliver a poem in English. They likely regretted their decision. The president, Joseph Willard, refused to sanction the piece, requested revisions, and threatened to withhold his diploma if Daniel refused to comply. But in a final nose-thumb to the school, Daniel delivered his poem “Benevolence,” a celebration of all things Jeffersonian in its original, unredacted form with this penultimate stanza:

The wretched sufferer they will never shun,

Whether he worship “twenty Gods or one:”

The rights of others never will refrain,

Who think with Watson, or agree with Paine.

Tis thus some phenix worthies erst have done.

Thus, too has Franklin, thus great Jefferson.

Their noble deeds elude the vulgar ken:

Sages in wisdom, as in feelings men.

Papists had sainted those of half their worth,

Applied their maxims as the tests of truth. . . .

The ode delighted Daniel’s father who immediately forwarded a copy to the third president.

Figure 4: 1803 Harvard Commencement Program. Courtesy Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection, The Library of Congress. PDF.

After Harvard and while studying law with Levi, Daniel’s preordained path as Republican steward began well enough, but it soon took a tragic detour. Disease took Charlotte Caldwell when she was only seventeen, devastating Daniel and pitching him into an alcoholic abyss so deep and so public that the only remedy to preserve the family’s honor was a soft banishment to Portland in the District of Maine. Chastened and repentant, he arrived there in August 1806. He passed the bar exam, tried to dry out by living with Quakers, set up an office in the new Portland Bank Building, and was given the post of Cumberland County Attorney by his father who had become the state’s lieutenant governor when James Sullivan was elected governor in 1807. Pleased to have a Lincoln heir in their midst, Portland Republicans sent him clients, invited him to speak at political events, and introduced him to local notables. He befriended other young elite Republicans, among them the son of Jefferson’s Secretary of War Henry A. S. Dearborn. “He appears to be a man of pretty talents & polished manners,” he reported to his brother Enoch of Dearborn. But Daniel’s praise was qualified. “His literary acquisitions are not extensive, & I fear his fondness for amusements will interdict professional eminence.” Not all the up-and-comers merited Daniel’s even conditional approbation. He scorned Portland’s parvenues who, in his view, were interested only in padding their wallets while ignoring their civic responsibilities. To him, this was self-interest dangerously run amok. “Nothing is good which is not profitable to them. They chide every wind of heaven which wafts not their cargoes to the port of destination. Their feelings are as callous as an Osnaburgh executioner,” he grumbled. Acting as his father’s eyes and ears on the ground, he dutifully reported the vagaries of Portland politics that became especially pitched during the Embargo of 1807 that sent Portland’s shippers into bankruptcy and into the arms of Federalists. Sullivan and Lincoln won reelection in 1808, but Daniel’s new home of Portland flipped Federalist. 

Figure 5: Daniel Lincoln Practiced Law in this building. Front View of Portland Bank, 1806, Alexander Parris Sketchbook, 1806-1812, Mss octavo volumes P, Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

In spite of all the political turbulence, Daniel fell in love again, this time with fifteen-year-old Mary Hodges. “Her friends discover in her, uncommon quickness of perception & veracity of thought,” he excitedly wrote to his sister. “She has a delicacy of mind & goodness of heart which cannot fail to attract and secure regard.” Here was Daniel’s path forward to a stable, respectable future.  At last. But between periods of productive sobriety, there were also some blowout benders so discreditable that even the folks in Worcester got word of them. The bacchanals soon cost him his reputation and the affection of Mary Hodges. Embittered and disparaged, Daniel cast himself as a misunderstood victim of a brutal rumor mill and a coquette’s cruel machinations. It was everyone’s fault but his own. Down but not out, if a thorough rehabilitation couldn’t happen in Portland, he would try again in Boston. He was, after all, still a Lincoln and a Republican and with that pedigree he could make his way. His family thought otherwise. They viewed the move as a leap from the frying pan into to the fire. Boston would not welcome him. Daniel’s struggles would be more difficult and more public there. There would be pernicious rumors and mutterings. But Daniel went anyway. “I shall leave Portland & endeavor in the vicinity of my friends to revive their dormant, if not alienated & estranged regards,” he pronounced. If he couldn’t live up to his name, as he had so spectacularly failed to do, at least he could trade on it.

Figure 6: Bound Volume of Daniel Waldo Lincoln Letters and Papers. Photograph by author.

“My father has consented to his coming to Boston as the only means of saving him, believing that any place is better than Portland as he has yet some reputation to lose . . .” wrote Daniel’s brother John Lincoln in a heads-up letter to his Boston cousins. Clearly unhappy with his son’s decision, Levi was not yet ready to give up on Daniel entirely. He would do what he could to launch his son into Republican politics in the land of feral Federalism. Through Levi’s connections with the Bunker-Hill Association, the sponsors of Boston’s Republican July Fourth celebrations, Daniel was tapped to deliver the 1810 Independence Day oration. Occupying the front pews of the Third Baptist Church that day were John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, and Elbridge Gerry among many others. It was an auspicious start but before too long his association with other young Republicans frayed and his law practice fizzled when his old Harvard classmates continued to shun him. “No professional acquaintance has favored me with a call since my arrival in town. Bestrew their little souls,” Daniel snarled. “Civility to me would not alienate their clients.” With the exception of some wealthy Waldo cousins who retained him in a Maine land claim dispute that they lost, only ordinary people, often without much money, sought his counsel. These common misfits and petty criminals were not the stuff of fame and fortune. Stymied, he looked to Governor Elbridge Gerry to deliver him a high-level patronage appointment that would rescue him. Eventually, after months of delay and foot-tapping, Gerry came through with a position suitable for the lawyer son of Levi Lincoln: judge advocate. 

Figure 7: Site of Daniel Lincoln’s 1810 July Fourth Oration. Third Baptist Meeting House in Charles Street. Print. [1853]. Digital Commonwealth.

But by 1812, with the exception of his youngest brother William, then eleven years old, the family was through with Daniel’s bingeing, flirtations, and erratic ways. They thought it foolish when he once again uprooted himself and returned to Portland after Mary Hodges signaled she might be interested in renewing the relationship. “I should have become bankrupt in health, happiness, & estate in Boston, & have escaped an evil fate by removal hence,” he declared. Unfortunately for Daniel, the family in Worcester wasn’t buying it and correspondence faded to a trickle. He fired off indignant letters but received no response. His brothers ignored him, moving on and up in their political careers, not wishing to be burdened with a problem like Daniel. Their silence wounded him: “Am I so entirely exfamiliated that domestic concerns, of so interesting a nature, are to be known by me only through the medium of public prints? If such be the case, let me be assured of it, that I may return future letters (if perchance I should receive any) from former friends unopened.” Even Levi was tapped out. Citing his fading vision, Levi Lincoln had retired from public office in 1811, his influence over patronage now as dim as his eyesight. Only when Daniel became too sick and worn out to care for himself, after the relationship with Mary failed for a second time, did Enoch intervene and insist he go home to regroup and recover. 

Figure 8: Levi Lincoln Mansion, formerly the Hancock-Henchman Mansion, Worcester, Massachusetts. Reprinted from Worcester Bank and Trust Company, Some Historic Houses of Worcester; a Brief Account of the Houses and Taverns that Fill a Prominent Part in History of Worcester, Together with Interesting Reminiscences of Their Occupants (Worcester: Worcester Bank & Trust Company, 1919). Library of Congress. PDF.

Daniel expected his convalescence to be brief, but months later he was still coughing, frail, and fatigued. “I consider it quite an equal chance that I never leave this town, that I find my settlement among those who have been,” he told Enoch. “I am incapable of the thought of business, a walk of one quarter of a mile is beyond my reach & a ride of a half-dozen miles length, should exhaust me to faintness.” Occasionally, however, he rallied. He was well enough in November 1814 to assist at the National Aegis when its editor, long-time friend Edward Bangs, left to defend Boston from a rumored British attack that never came during the War of 1812. “Our friend Danl W. Lincoln, has, to the astonishment of everyone, not only survived to this time but is regaining his health and strength so as to take exercise and employ the powers of his well-storied mind in the editorial department of the Aegis,” wrote Bangs. “Should God spare his life, I trust that a thorough reformation from his imprudencies, will prepare him for high usefulness in life and for the publick honours which he is qualified to obtain.” Bangs’ optimism was misplaced. In the early months of 1815, Daniel weakened, unable to leave his bed. He died in his sleep six weeks after his thirty-first birthday, on April 17, 1815. His fulsome death notice in the Aegis concluded with the forbidding phrase, Vitae summa brevis spem nos inebrare longam. Loosely translated means “Life is too short to spend it drunk.”

Figure 9: Signature of Daniel Waldo Lincoln, 1813. Photograph by author.

Would life had turned out better for Daniel Lincoln had he been born with a different name?  Perhaps. Daniel certainly thought so. Without the privileges, without the expectations, without the advantages that shaped him, he would have had to find his own way and rely on his God-given talents and smarts to get there. He knew he failed his father’s expectations of what it meant to be a Lincoln and it pained him. Perhaps if alcoholism hadn’t claimed him when it did and made of him a “victim of intemperance” he would have used his gifts and privileges more beneficially for himself and everyone else. But he could not break free and when he crashed and burned, his name was all he had left. By then it was a façade, and he knew it. He lamented to his brother that he should never have been born a Lincoln. It was all a terrible blunder. “I believe our souls must have been strangely bewildered in their passage from heaven or they never could have strayed so far toward the North Pole and stopped amid a moral winter where selfishness locks up all social feeling and interest petrifies every pulse of the heart . . . Neither you nor I were intended to be Lincoln or Waldo,” he commented. “There have been mistakes & it is too late to correct them. Providence slept perhaps.”

Further Reading

This essay was based on the Daniel Waldo Lincoln papers at the American Antiquarian Society. Other sources include: Bangs Family Papers, American Antiquarian Society; Robert Hallowell Gardiner, Early Recollection of Robert Hallowell Gardiner (Hallowell, Maine: White & Horne, 1936); Mark Lender and James Kirby Martin, Drinking in America: A History (New York: The Free Press, 1987); Martin Junior Petroelje, “Levi Lincoln, Sr., Jeffersonian Republican of Massachusetts,” (Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1969); William Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); William Willis, History of Portland from 1632 to 1864 with a Notice of Previous Settlements, Colonial Gains, And Changes of Government in Maine (Portland: Bailey & Noyes, 1865).


This article originally appeared in February 2023.


Rebecca M. Dresser, Ph.D., has been an adjunct professor of history at Hunter College and Marymount Manhattan College’s Bedford Hills College Program for incarcerated women. She is the author of The Life of Daniel Waldo Lincoln, 1784-1815: Letters from a Wayward Son (New York: Routledge Press, 2023).

Reflections on the Relation between History and Literature: The Crucible and John and Elizabeth Proctor of Salem

In a 1996 New Yorker article, Arthur Miller discussed the circumstances surrounding his writing of The Crucible forty years earlier. To create the central dramatic plot of the play, Miller raised the age of Salem Village accuser Abigail Williams from eleven years old to seventeen and placed her in the household of his hero John Proctor as a maidservant to his wife Elizabeth. When Miller read the record of Elizabeth’s court hearing of April 1692, he was intrigued by a passage that vividly described a moment when Abigail Williams was about to strike Elizabeth in court. When Abigail raised her fist and moved toward Elizabeth as though to hit her, she opened her fist, and her hand “came down exceeding lightly as it drew near to said Procter, and at length, with opened and extended fingers, touched Procter’s hood very lightly.” Immediately Abigail cried out about her fingers: “her fingers, her fingers, her fingers burned.” Miller explained his interpretation of Abigail’s gesture and her crying out in pain as the key to the play: “By this time [in writing the play], I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed [from the Proctor house] most likely in order to appease Elizabeth. There was bad blood between the two women now.” Miller then commented, “My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than I wished to know about where the blame lay,” referring to his affair with Marilyn Monroe.  Miller divorced his wife, Mary Slattery, in 1956 and married Monroe the same year. “Moving crabwise across the profusion of evidence,” Miller recalled, “I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accumulate around this man.” The Proctor of the play was inspired by Miller’s projection of himself into events of 1692 and it is worth digging a bit deeper into the family matters between John and Elizabeth. 

Figure 1: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe in 1959. Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite John’s dalliance in the play with Abigail Williams, John and Elizabeth, as Miller portrays them, are strong-minded individuals who still love and support one another. In one courtroom scene Elizabeth pleads with John to cast aside his pride and confess to witchcraft and thereby save himself from execution. The Salem court, Elizabeth sobs, is unjust and not worth dying for. Confession, they both know, will save his life, at least for a time. In 1692 individuals who confessed to acts of witchcraft were deemed to be harmless and were not regarded as a danger to the public. Indeed, in 1692 fifty-eight individuals offered confessions in which they named other suspects and only five confessors were convicted. None were executed.

In The Crucible, Elizabeth is ensnared when she is forced to testify about her knowledge of John’s affair with Abigail Williams. Elizabeth was aware of what had taken place, but she denies it in court out of her love for John and to save his good name, even though she had told Judge Danforth about it. Danforth quickly proclaims that Elizabeth had given false testimony and he upholds the charge of witchcraft against her. Elizabeth was caught in a lie, one of the court’s traps in 1692, to force self-incrimination and turn unwitting defendants into frightened confessors who were then required to name other suspects in order to save themselves, thus becoming accomplices of the court in ferreting out other suspected witches. This was the precise parallel that Miller saw between the efforts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which grilled him about his acquaintances in the Communist Party, and the purpose of the Salem court.

In his close reading of some of the 1692 court records, Miller also picked up on an intriguing detail about the timing of Elizabeth’s pregnancy which kept her from the gallows. In the play, Elizabeth knows that she is pregnant well before she is arrested. In 1692 the witchcraft complaint against her is dated April 4, 1692. She was arrested seven days later on April 11 and examined by the Salem magistrates in court where John was also present. The next day both she and John were transferred to jail in Boston. Both were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death on August 5. John was sent to the gallows two weeks later on August 19, together with five others. But Elizabeth was not among them. Like John, she had refused to confess, but she had been granted a reprieve because she was pregnant. As the court did in such cases (there was one other in 1692), it agreed to postpone Elizabeth’s execution until after the birth of her child. Taking the life of an innocent unborn child was against the Puritan sense of God’s justice. The Salem court was closed at the end of October. In early February 1693, the newly established Superior Court was about to send Elizabeth to the gallows after she had given birth in jail in late January, but the governor stepped in and ordered her reprieved for a second time. She and her son remained in jail until May 1693, when she and the last of the remaining prisoners of the Salem debacle were freed.  

In the play, Miller portrays the moment when John fully realizes the implications of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, that she will be spared the gallows until after the child is born. It is a poignant, almost silent scene in the last act, just before John is sent to the gallows, when he sees Elizabeth fully pregnant. They are alone, and their affection for each other transcends the traumatic circumstances of the moment. Miller gives the following stage instructions: “He reaches out his hand as though toward an embodiment not quite real, and as he touches her, a strange soft sound, half laughter, half amazement, comes from his throat. He pats her hand. She covers his hand with hers. And then, weak, he sits. Then she sits facing him.” Proctor: “The child?”  Elizabeth: “It grows.” John then asks about their young sons, if they are safe, and she tells him they are well cared for. John replies, “You are a—marvel, Elizabeth.” She is pregnant, and he is amazed at her good fortune. His smile and comment that she is a “marvel” appear to suggest that he knows she will be reprieved and possibly escape the gallows altogether, which is what happened.

Figure 2: Image of John and Elizabeth Proctor from a 1961 production of The Crucible produced for Dutch television. Henk Lindeboom/Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

But was there more to it in 1692? Local Salem historian and genealogist Sidney Perley indicates that Elizabeth gave birth to a son on January 27, 1693. Knowing the date when Elizabeth gave birth and assuming a normal forty-week gestation period, it is possible to calculate the probable date of Elizabeth’s conception, which may indicate an untold story (see pregnancy wheel gestation calculator). Elizabeth was in her early forties. She had been married to John for seventeen years and had given birth to six children. Given a gestation period of forty weeks (April 22), conception would likely have taken place in late April or early May, when both were in the Boston jail where they had been transferred from the Salem jail on April 12, the day after Elizabeth’s hearing. Conception would have occurred before shackles were placed on the witchcraft suspects in late May to prevent them from afflicting their accusers. Conjugal relations in jail may seem unlikely to us today, but seventeenth-century colonial jails did not serve the same purpose as jails today. They were supervised locked houses where suspects were held for a short time before trial. John and Elizabeth might also have paid for a private room, which was possible in the Boston jail house, or as a married couple they may have been granted makeshift privacy. Given Elizabeth’s age and her previous six births, pediatricians consulted about this question say that a longer gestation period would have been highly unlikely. There was in fact a one-week period between Elizabeth’s accusation on April 4 and her incarceration in the Salem jail on 10 April, when she and John and might have attempted conception, but this would have involved an unlikely forty-two week gestation period before Elizabeth gave birth. Either way, however, Elizabeth’s conception while in jail or just before was likely attempted in hopes of a reprieve. Against all odds, they succeeded. John and Elizabeth managed to have Elizabeth become pregnant so that she could escape being hanged.

Figure 3: Memorial at Proctor’s Ledge where the hangings of the accused took place on the ledge high above the new memorial on Pope Street. Jangseung92, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

By August 19, John’s and Elizabeth’s execution date, Elizabeth would have been well over three months pregnant, and her condition would have been obvious to the court and to John. Even if they did not meet together in jail for the last time, as Miller portrays it, John would still have known that Elizabeth was temporarily reprieved because she was not in the ox cart that took him and four others from the Salem jail to Gallows Hill. Elizabeth’s execution was postponed by temporary reprieve until after she gave birth. Then the new governor stepped in and gave her a second reprieve, overruling Chief Magistrate William Stoughton’s demand that she be sent to the gallows in early February. The evidence suggests that despite the awful circumstances involved, John and Elizabeth tried to make it work out that way while in jail or just before. In either case her pregnancy was a “marvel” indeed.


Elizabeth named her newborn child John. Her husband had already fathered another son named John by his second wife, forty-one-year-old Elizabeth Thorndike who died in 1672. Unfortunately, the older John Jr. and his stepbrother Benjamin, by John’s first wife, would become a source of conflict for Elizabeth.        

In February, 1674, John wrote out a will in anticipation of his marriage to Elizabeth whose family name was Bassett. He divided his Salem estate equally among all of his children, and gave his land in Chebacco, which was then part of Ipswich, to Elizabeth Bassett as a dower gift. Elizabeth and John were married in April of that year. Fourteen years later in January 1688, he wrote out a new will which gave Elizabeth a share in his Salem house and lands, about fifteen acres, together with his sons and their families. This large properly would be “made over and give[n] unto my beloved wife Elizabeth [Bassett] Procter and all my children,” together with all livestock and household furniture.

Figure 4: Map of John Proctor’s house and land. William Phineas Upham (1836-1905), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Later when Elizabeth and her infant son were released from jail in May 1693, and Elizabeth returned to the Proctor farm in Salem, she discovered that stepsons John and Benjamin were in possession of the Salem house and land as well as her land in Chebacco. Moreover, the stepsons had denied Elizabeth the traditional “widow’s third” of the estate. In May 1696 Elizabeth wrote out a complaint and submitted it to the General Court in Boston disputing the settlement of John’s will and also the loss of her widow’s third.

[I]n that sad time of darknes before my said husband was executed, it is evident somebody had Contrived a will and brought it to him to signe wherin his wholl estat is disposed of not having Regard to a contract in wrighting mad with me before mariag with him . . . . sinc my husbands death the sd will is proved and aproved by the Judg of probate and by that kind of desposall the wholl estat is disposed of; and although god hath Granted my life yet those that Claime my sd husbands estate by that which thay Call a will will not suffer me to have one peny of the Estat nither upon the acount of my husbands Contract with me before mariage nor yet upon the acount of the dow[e]r which as I humbly conceive doth belong or ought to belong to me by the law for thay say that I am dead in the law and therfore my humble Request and petition to this Honoured Generall Court.

Elizabeth believed that her stepsons had cheated her out of her prenuptial inheritance as well as her widow’s third, although she admitted that she knew she was still “dead to the law” and could not inherit.

Figure 5: The “John Proctor House” was probably built by Thorndike Proctor on the site of John and Elizabeth’s house. User:Magicpiano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1692 just before John was to go to trial, his two sons from previous marriages, Benjamin and John Jr. had made out a new will, written in a clerical hand, and brought it to the jail for their father to sign. It was dated August 2, 1692, three days before his trial and conviction. The will’s key clause (at the center of the document) gives all of John’s property to Benjamin and John, Jr. as executors to distribute among their families:

I will and Bequeth equal . . . proportion of my whole estate when justly valuated unto each of my children . . . my two [eldest] sons shall have all my lands unto their shares; and they my two sons, namely Benjamin Procter & John Procter Junior, I do hereby constitute and appoint to be my lawful Executors.

Two years later, the will, which John had signed while still in shackles, was accepted by Bartholomew Gedney, Salem’s Judge of Probate, on December 3, 1694, and attested by Proctor’s friends James White and Philip Fowler, and John’s younger brother, Joseph Proctor. Both White and Fowler confirmed that John was of “disposing mind,” that is, that John was rationally capable of making a will. But Joseph took issue with this assessment and wrote a dissenting view, “I doth think that he [John] was not of disposing mind” in the bottom right of the document. What was the issue here? Perhaps Joseph believed that his brother did not fully apprehend that his previous will, which included Elizabeth as one of his heirs, would still have been valid. 

Figures 6: John Proctor’s 1692 will that he signed in jail. Essex County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1638-1881. Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014 (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives).

Elizabeth clearly suspected that John’s two oldest sons deprived her of her rightful inheritance. On the other hand, when the sons prepared John’s will and brought it to him to sign, they rightly assumed that both he and Elizabeth would be convicted, as indeed they were three days later. Thus Elizabeth, although reprieved because of her pregnancy, would still be officially “dead to the law” and barred from all its benefits, including the right to inherit property, until her attainder was lifted. But what they may not have realized is that their father’s previous will of 1688 would still have been valid, hence Elizabeth’s petition. Either his sons had convinced him otherwise or they were simply following their father’s anxiety about the possible loss of all his property to his heirs if Elizabeth remained as one of the heirs in the will. Already in July, John believed that his right to convey his estate was in doubt, as he lamented in his petition to several sympathetic Boston ministers. The Salem magistrates, he believed, “have already undone us in our Estates.” Time was of the essence, so John assumed, and he enlisted the help of his two elder sons to make out a new will in early August just three days before in would be put on trial. On the other hand, the sons themselves may have taken the initiative to cut out Elizabeth (should she survive) and preserve the whole of John’s estate for themselves, as she later charged.

In 1696, when Elizabeth submitted her complaint, she was still under legal attainder which she acknowledged in her petition. Nevertheless, she asked the General Court to change that status and “put me into the capacity to mak use of the law to Recover that which of Right by law I ought to have for my necessary supply and support.” But there were not enough members of the Court who were sympathetic to her cause to make any change. Governor Phips, who had previously granted her a second reprieve and stopped Stoughton’s plan to execute her after she gave birth, had died unexpectedly while in London in 1694. The zealous Stoughton, who wanted “to clear the land” of witches, became the acting governor and was apparently not willing to support Elizabeth’s request to lift her attainder and restore her legal status.     

A year later, however, Salem magistrate Bartholomew Gedney, as Probate Judge, tried to move Elizabeth’s case along, declaring that she was now “alive in the law, whereby to Recover her Right of Dowry,” that is, the Chebacco property, and Gedney may have informed the stepsons of his ruling. But by this time, the estate had already been apportioned according to John’s new will. Not until 1703 was Elizabeth’s attainder finally lifted allowing her to be “reinstated in their just Credit and reputation.”

Figure 7: An 1876 illustration of a Salem courtroom during the witch trials that appeared in William A. Crafts, Pioneers in the Settlement of America: From Florida in 1510 to California in 1849 (Boston: Samuel Walker and Co., 1876). Unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1710 the General Court in Boston finally recognized that the Salem trials were a miscarriage of justice and authorized compensation for the families of those who had been executed and those who had been temporarily reprieved but were still under the death sentence. The government appears to have acknowledged that although Elizabeth had been condemned, she had been unfairly disinherited, and it awarded to “John Procter {wife}” £150 pounds, the largest amount conferred on any of the Salem victims, in recognition perhaps of the unfair way she had been treated. The funds were distributed to John Proctor Jr. and his brother Thorndike (another son of John’s second marriage) and to Elizabeth, who was not named but referred to indirectly as “persons Condemned & Not Executed.” How much of this sum she received is not indicated. In 1712 she appears by name, now as remarried “widow alias [Daniel] Richards” on a separate record as the recipient of these funds, together with twelve other names of Proctor family members who shared in the settlement. Still loyal to John’s memory, she may have continued to believe that he would never have stripped her of her inheritance, especially her dower. She died the same year at the age of sixty-five. For her steadfast loyalty to her husband and her persistence in seeking justice and gaining it, the John Proctor of 1692 might agree with the words of Arthur Miller’s John Proctor that Elizabeth was indeed a “marvel.”


Further Reading

For general account of the Salem witch trials, see Benjamin Ray, Satan and Salem (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015); for the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 court records pertaining to John and Elizabeth, see The Salem Witchcraft Trials Digital Archive; Arthur Miller’s “Why I Wrote The Crucible,” was published in The New Yorker, October 21-28, 1996; for John Proctor’s will of 1692, see Essex County Probate Court Papers, no. 22851:9 accessed from American Ancestors Essex County Probate Files; for John Proctor’s previous wills, 1688, 1674,  accessed from Salem Deeds, Deed Book 8, pages 388-40. 

Note: Seventeenth-century documents use the spelling Procter, while modern sources and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible use Proctor.


This article originally appeared in February 2023.

Benjamin Ray is the Daniels Family Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Emeritus, University of Virginia. He is the author of Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), an associate editor of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, gen. ed. Bernard Rosenthal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), and Director of The Salem Witch Trials Digital Archive.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jigsaw Puzzle: Jumbling the Pieces of Stowe’s Story

In a recent Commonplace essay, Janet Moore Lindman describes a late eighteenth-century jigsaw puzzle featuring an allegorical map used to educate young Quakers about spiritual principles. The puzzle depicted the spiritual cartography of a pious Quaker life: places to avoid and paths to pursue.

By the nineteenth century, jigsaw puzzle content expanded beyond the geographical subjects that puzzles originally featured and began to include, among other subject matter, literature. Given literary narratives’ reliance on linear order to produce meaning, the jigsaw puzzle form enacted a fundamental challenge to narrative, by inviting users to disassemble and play with the ordering of a narrative’s pieces. Although puzzles might be conceived as exercises in achieving order, nineteenth-century puzzles that functioned as children’s toys went through multiple rounds of disassembly, assembly, and all of the chaotic stages in between, and they therefore fostered disorder as well as order. When these puzzles depicted literature, then, they disrupted the process by which stories function, through particular arrangements of narrative events.

A jigsaw puzzle version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, illustrates both how linear order generates narrative meaning and how the jigsaw puzzle form can subvert that meaning. This fifty-two-piece jigsaw, probably manufactured in the early 1850s in England and consisting of paper glued to a sheet of wood, features eighteen scenes from the novel. They start (top left) with the slave trader Haley, the enslaver Mr. Shelby, and the enslaved woman Eliza interacting in the Shelby parlor, and end (bottom right) with Eliza, her husband George, and their son arriving in Canada, the “Land of Liberty.” Arranged in four rows, the scenes “read” from left to right and top to bottom, like lines in a book.

Figure 1: Uncle Tom’s Cabin jigsaw puzzle. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

But the puzzle reshapes Stowe’s story. When her massively popular novel was translated into other forms, including theatrical productions as well as a whole slew of material objects, the story was adapted to suit its new forms, audiences, and purposes. The puzzle, aimed primarily at a child audience, gives Stowe’s story a happy ending, weakening the original political message of the story. But the idea of an “ending” relies on linear order, and the jigsaw puzzle form wreaks havoc on the narrative structure by which an ending is made meaningful by virtue of its position. Where does a story “end” when its pieces lie in a jumbled pile?

The puzzle represents Stowe’s story in some detail, capturing famous moments such as Eliza crossing the river ice, Topsy dancing, and little Eva’s death. But the ordering of the puzzle’s scenes does alter Stowe’s story in an important way. Stowe had originally placed the successful escape of Eliza, George, and Harry Harris to Canada before Simon Legree’s assault of Tom and his subsequent death. In a move with significant narrative repercussions, the final two scenes of the puzzle reverse Stowe’s order, positioning the Harrises’ arrival in Canada after Tom’s death. (The final scene of the puzzle seems to show two men and a girl being welcomed to the “Land of Liberty,” but this reflects Eliza and Harry Harris’ cross-gender disguises during their escape.)

Figure 2: Uncle Tom’s Cabin jigsaw puzzle. Detail of the final two scenes depicted, showing their reversed order. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

By placing the successful escape after Tom’s murder, the puzzle transforms Stowe’s disquieting and ideally galvanizing tragedy into a narrative ultimately about triumph. The puzzle features Eliza in both the first and last scenes and thereby emphasizes her narrative arc, from enslavement and familial insecurity to freedom and a reconstituted nuclear family. The puzzle omits Stowe’s fraught colonizationist coda to the Harris story, in which the family decamps to Africa. It also brackets Tom’s story—featured in the second and second-to-last scenes, among others—within Eliza’s, subordinating tragedy to triumph.

A happy ending may well have seemed more appropriate in an object aimed at children. Jigsaw puzzles were originally invented as educational playthings. More specifically pinpointing the age of this puzzle’s target audience, educator Maria Edgeworth’s Early Lessons (1801) tells the fictional story of Frank, a six-year-old boy who struggles but ultimately succeeds in assembling a fifty-two-piece map jigsaw puzzle, presumably with a similar level of difficulty to the fifty-two-piece Uncle Tom’s Cabin puzzle. The puzzle’s level of difficulty could theoretically have been increased for older users, particularly by flipping it over and assembling it according to the abstract pattern of wavy red and black lines on its backing paper. But a series of stray pencil marks on the Uncle Tom’s Cabin side indicate that it usually faced up, capping the puzzle’s difficulty and solidifying children as its probable primary users.

Figure 3: Uncle Tom’s Cabin jigsaw puzzle. The paper used on the back side. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

Like the puzzle, book adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for child audiences altered Stowe’s narrative. For example, Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) also ends on a reassuring note. It concludes with Tom’s death but casts it as a spiritual success story: “His Lord knows where he [Tom] lies, and will raise him up immortal, to appear with Him when He shall appear in his glory.” Then, following the conclusion of the narrative proper, the book reproduces the “Little Eva Song,” inspired by Stowe’s novel. This song, which contains lines like “All is light and peace with Eva” and “Weep no more for happy Eva,” presents Eva as “Uncle Tom’s Guardian Angel.” Thus the book ends with the image of a beneficent white girl enjoying her heavenly rest rather than a black man’s unjust death.

Figure 4: Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The final page of the book, which frames “THE END” of the story with John Greenleaf Whittier’s reassuring lyrics. [Boston]: John P. Jewett & Co., [1853?]. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Pictures and Stories thereby reflects a trend in nineteenth-century books for children. As Barbara Hochman observes about a turn-of-the-century children’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “the new finale, which brings Tom back to Kentucky alive, participates in the growing tendency to end children’s books on the upbeat.” The puzzle also conforms to this tendency, and in fact, other Uncle Tom’s Cabin puzzles make the same change to Stowe’s story. These adaptations feed children a happy ending, arguably undercutting the original narrative’s point.

However, Hochman also discusses “how easily children discount narrative endings, features often taken (by literary scholars) as important arbiters of meaning.” She cites evidence showing that children can fixate on elements from the beginning and middle of stories, in some cases forgetting about happy endings while remembering more engagingly conflictual story elements. We might therefore question whether child users would necessarily have been significantly impacted by the puzzle’s reshaping of Stowe’s narrative arc to culminate in triumphant freedom. As with much material created for children, this puzzle may reveal more about what adults in the 1850s believed about (white) children than about children’s actual experiences.

Furthermore, an interpretive emphasis on endings assumes a linear consumption of narrative, with a book’s ending possessing particular reverberation due to its status as the final element consumed by the reader. But as Hochman points out, “linearity does not always govern reading.” And linearity definitely does not govern jigsaw puzzles, which represent a fundamental challenge to linear order, epitomized by a jumbled pile of puzzle pieces. 

Figure 5: A reproduction of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin jigsaw puzzle, with its pieces detached and jumbled. Archival settings inhibit the kinds of interaction with puzzles and other playthings that they would have elicited in the nineteenth century. This modern reproduction uses an image of the original puzzle, cut once again into pieces. Author’s collection.

Understanding puzzles as agents of disorder runs counter to a common interpretation that associates puzzles with the quest for and ultimate affirmation of order. Megan A. Norcia writes with regard to map puzzles that “the activity of puzzling grew out of . . . an eighteenth-century desire to tabulate, catalog, classify, and order the world into meaningful hierarchies.” To solve a puzzle successfully, one must connect the scattered pieces into a perfectly ordered whole, with all of the sense of control and chaos overcome that this process affords.

But the project of achieving order presupposes states of disorder. William Cowper, writing to the Reverend William Unwin in 1780, described a young boy who had “been accustomed to amuse himself with those maps which are cut into several compartments, so as to be thrown into a heap of confusion, that they may be put together again with an exact coincidence of all their angles and bearings, so as to form a perfect whole.” The satisfaction of forming the “perfect whole” depends on the prior action of throwing the pieces into “a heap of confusion.” For the puzzle to remain fun—an object to play with, rather than one just to look at—it demands disassembly, and the word “thrown” suggests a playful vigor and abandon to the act of disassembly. Destruction can be exciting, especially for children. If a jumble of disconnected puzzle pieces urges a player to assemble them into an orderly whole, the assembled puzzle, with its still eminently visible cuts, begs to be taken apart and jumbled up again.

A hint at the dynamic history of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin puzzle can be found in one of its center pieces. Given matching marks on its front and back sides, this piece may well have been chewed on: a different way to digest Stowe’s story. The lack of similar damage to surrounding pieces indicates that this piece’s misadventure occurred when it was separated from its neighbors. This reveals the formative portion of the puzzle’s life spent in disassembly, with the Uncle Tom’s Cabin story lying in detached pieces, untethered from Stowe’s sequencing. Whereas a book’s binding secures narrative cohesion and therefore a prescribed order, a puzzle allows the parts of a narrative to break apart and function independently, in a variety of potential configurations. 

Figures 6 and 7: Uncle Tom’s Cabin jigsaw puzzle. The front and back of the damaged puzzle piece. Note the small gouge marks, particularly visible on the bulbous portion of the lower edge of the piece. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

In some ways, the pieces of the puzzle resemble the piecemeal character of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin story when it was first serialized in the National Era newspaper, broken up into weekly installments. But serialization’s leveraging of suspense, in which readers eagerly awaited the revelation of what would happen next, relied on a particular narrative order. And whereas puzzle users had significant agency over the ordering and disordering of the puzzle’s pieces, Stowe and the newspaper publisher controlled the order of the serialized novel’s parts. Readers could have shuffled the newspaper issues featuring the story, but the ordinal logic of the chapter numbers and of each masthead’s date and issue number would have discouraged such behavior. 

Figure 8: The National Era, like many other newspapers, included volume and issue numbers in its masthead, which together with an issue’s date facilitated the orderly binding of individual issues into annual volumes. The National Era, June 5, 1851 (detail). The National Era, Washington D.C., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Serialization particularly constrained children, through the additional control exercised by their families. Stowe, in a note included with the final newspaper installment, lauded the “pleasant family circles” who had been consuming the story. She modeled the pedagogical thrust that she expected of these gatherings as she urged her child readers to “learn from this story always to remember and pity the poor and the oppressed.” Even if a family failed to embody the pedagogical ideal, adults likely mediated children’s engagement with the serialized story, given children’s reading levels and the multiple household demands on a newspaper with content not limited solely to the story. The puzzle, in contrast, put children in charge of the story, no longer bound to the pedagogical and productive, and empowered them to seek the pleasures of disorder as well as order.

Beyond the energies that children might therefore have unleashed on the puzzle, the puzzle itself has a kinetic and centrifugal quality. Like many British-made puzzles of its era, only its edge pieces interlock. The inner pieces have a “push-fit” design that provides no stable coupling, making them highly prone to being jarred away from each other. In puzzle form, Stowe’s story tends to come apart at the seams. 

Figure 9: Uncle Tom’s Cabin jigsaw puzzle. Detail showing the tendency of non-interlocking pieces to be jarred away from one another, exacerbated here by the damage to the interlock between the two edge pieces. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

Given this design of cuts, users could help themselves by assembling the edges of the puzzle first, which would then act as a frame to corral the unruly inner pieces. However, if a user took this approach, strange deformations of Stowe’s story would occur. The content depicted on the edge pieces—the sides mostly blank, the title “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” blazoned across the top, and the lower half of the lowest row of scenes stretched along the bottom—means that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would for a time be primarily associated with strangely mutilated human forms, cut off at the waist, as well as Tom’s dead body splayed on the ground (see previous figure). This mode of assembly would thus entail a sustained contemplation of Tom’s corpse, potentially mitigating any reassuring effect of placing the Harrises’ happy ending in the final spot of the assembled puzzle image, as the story’s culmination. A user might or might not spend significant time studying the fully assembled image, given that the compulsion to solve the puzzle would at that point have been satisfied. So the greatest intensity and duration of engagement for many puzzle users might well have been with the contingent, unsettled, and sometimes unsettling configurations that the story took in its various stages of disassembly.

Narratives do significant cultural work in how they communicate stories and to whom, including their ways of managing narrative closure and its potential for reassurance. But ideological interventions made within a narrative—such as rearranging Stowe’s story to give it a happy ending—have to contend with the potentially more radical interventions that the jigsaw puzzle form visits upon that narrative. Whatever logics of tragedy or triumph might structure a narrative when consumed in its prescribed order, the materiality of the puzzle form gleefully destabilizes them.



Thank you to Elizabeth Burgess, Director of Collections & Research at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, for her assistance.

Further Reading

On the history of jigsaw puzzles, see Megan A. Norcia, “Puzzling Empire: Early Puzzles and Dissected Maps as Imperial Heuristics,” Children’s Literature 37 (2009): 1-32; Anne D. Williams, The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History (New York: Berkeley Books, 2004); and Linda Hanna, The English Jigsaw Puzzle (London: Wayland Publishers, 1972), where the William Cowper quote can be found. On the relationship between games—including puzzles—and nineteenth-century U.S. literature and culture, see Douglas A. Guerra, Slantwise Moves: Games, Literature, and Social Invention in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Many aspects of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s reception history are covered in Barbara Hochman, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851-1911 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011). For more on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the nineteenth-century construction of childhood, see Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

On narrative, including the function of endings, see Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984); and, more recently, Brian Richardson, A Poetics of Plot for the Twenty-First Century: Theorizing Unruly Narratives (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2019). For an analogue to jigsaw puzzles’ disruption of linear narrative, in the phenomenon of so-called “puzzle films,” see Warren Buckland, ed., Hollywood Puzzle Films (New York: Routledge, 2014).


This article originally appeared in January 2023.

Patricia Jane Roylance is an associate professor of English at Syracuse University, and author of Eclipse of Empires: World History in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013). Her current book project, The Textures of Time in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Media, explores the temporalities associated with various media forms, including jigsaw puzzles.

Editor’s Note—Birds, Bots, and Elephants: Commonplace and Social Media

Happy New Year! Several years ago, Leon Jackson wrote an article for Commonplace about the newspaper carrier’s New Year’s address, a tradition where carriers saluted their customers, recapped the year’s news, and then hit them up for money. In the spirit of those news carriers, we would like to thank you for your support and while we are not asking for you for any money, we are hoping that you might contribute to a discussion that we are having about how Commonplace should handle its social media presence moving forward this year.

Figure 1: A broadside of a New Year’s Carrier’s Address with an image of a printing press labeled “Freedom of the Press.” Address of the Carrier of The Kentuckian: To his Patrons (Frankfort, A. T. Leonard, [1830]. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Before we get to the future, it might be helpful to look back at how Commonplace has attempted to engage its audience from the very beginning. In the last editor’s note, we examined how Commonplace has made numerous front-end and back-end changes over its more than twenty-year history to respond to technological developments as well as reader preferences. Part of that narrative highlighted several iterations of message boards (Republic of Letters and Common-place Coffeeshop) and blogs (Public Occurrences 2.0) that tried and failed to create an active conversation space in the early years of the publication. Eventually, the work of communicating directly to readers largely migrated to third-party social media platforms.

This movement followed the wide embrace of smartphones and a change in how internet users used their time online. In a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “The Age of Social Media is Ending,” Ian Bogost details a shift from social networking sites such as Friendster, Myspace, and others that focused on connecting users to one another to social media sites like Twitter that served more as a “channel through which to broadcast.” Some social networking sites like Facebook or Instagram straddled the social networking/media line by relying on connections but evolved to focus primarily as a method to distribute content. 

Figure 2: Social media mobile apps. Jason Howie, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Commonplace never had much luck creating our own network of users through message boards and blogs, but even if we had, there was a powerful pull toward privatized platforms in these years. Commonplace joined most of our peer publications in the social media universe with a Facebook account in 2011 and one on Twitter in 2012. For many years, we did not make full use of these accounts and only sporadically posted information about new issues and articles. On the eve of our 2019 relaunch as Commonplace.online, we had fewer than 1,900 followers on Twitter and under 500 on Facebook. The relaunch proceeded in two phases. First, we spent over a year bringing the entire back catalog to the new site while highlighting several articles and reviews through weekly themes. Next, in the fall of 2021, we began publishing brand new material with two to three articles a month making their debut. During both phases, we have used social media to announce new pieces and remind readers of previously published articles that they may have missed or forgotten about. While these posts do not often generate a lot of discussion, they have been successful in helping to drive readership to the site and a 50 percent jump in followers. 

Figure 3: Facebook Logo. Facebook, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, some of our outreach in recent years has come not through social media. We realized that many of our readers would not be Facebook or Twitter users, so Commonplace created a subscriber list in 2015 that has grown to over 4,500 members, more than all of our different social media followers combined. In the last few years, we have put that list to use and developed a monthly newsletter to highlight recent articles and tease upcoming publications. (If you are not already signed up, you should do so by submitting your email here).

That is not the end of the story, however. The choice for a publication like Commonplace to use third-party social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter means that we are implicitly supporting those companies and the decisions of their leadership team. In an era when the political statements and technological whims of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg do not always align with our own, many of us are trying to figure out how to best use social media. How can we make use of these powerful tools in a way that satisfies our personal desires and professional goals, while not leaving a bad taste in our mouth because of the feeling that we compromised our ethical standards? You might still have a Facebook account to check in with some friends from high school and see pictures of their children heading off to their first day of a new school year, but have also stopped checking it too often because the posting about politics was distressing (especially coming from that old friend from sophomore English class). Maybe you are just hoping that Friendster comes back or that Tom finds a way to revamp Myspace.

Figure 4: Twitter Logo. Twitter, Apache License 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is not the first time that Commonplace confronted questions about our use of social media. A few years ago, we wrestled with how to handle the surge of Covid misinformation, troll farm posting about the Black Lives Matter protests, and a burgeoning Cambridge Analytica scandal related to Facebook. We followed the lead of one of our sponsors, the Omohundro Institute, as they reassessed their use of social media. The OI statement released at the time explained that “information integrity is at the heart of the Omohundro Institute’s mission. Sharing scholarship and the scholarly process with the public is so important to us because we know that understanding how we get to high quality scholarship is key to that integrity.” We wholeheartedly agreed and suspended new Facebook posting for Commonplace in June 2020.

With the recent ownership change at Twitter, we have been confronted by similar questions and have been discussing if another change is required. Whether it is the decision to re-platform white nationalist accounts or broadcast homophobic and antisemitic posts from the highest levels, the site has very quickly come to feel like a different social media space. Also contributing to my sense of unease is the chaos that the new ownership has manufactured by rapidly changing rules and policies. In just the time that I have been working on this piece, several high-profile journalists have had their Twitter accounts suspended for questionable reasons, which led to another call for people to leave the site and move to alternatives like Mastodon or Post.

The size of Twitter and its reach means that there is not necessarily an easy replacement right now for most people and organizations (if there was, I think a much greater number of people would have already left). The leading options right now seem to be Post, which is still in beta form and currently places prospective users on a waitlist, and Mastodon, a collection of independently run, federated social media servers called “instances.” For some users these sites are not as easy to navigate as Twitter and they may be unwilling to take the time to learn. Another question that users have been asking is if the audience on these sites will be as diverse as Twitter. Just a few weeks into the movement of people from Twitter to Mastodon, critics have questioned whether the site will host similar numbers of people of color and how those accounts will be treated. One recent and reassuring piece of news for history-minded social media users interested in Mastodon is the launch of an instance called historians.social by Karin Wulf, Joseph Adelman, and Liz Covart, current and former OI colleagues who clearly spell out their moderation philosophy in their code of conduct.

Figure 5: Mastodon’s layout looks similar to Twitter, but is open source and not centralized. Eugen Rochko, AGPL, via Wikimedia Commons.

We have also been paying close attention to what other members of the early American history community have been doing and saying. A recent piece by historian Seth Cotlar (on Post) about why he was stepping back from Twitter and moving to Mastodon and Post at a time when he had over 55,000 followers noted that he has been thinking carefully about the relationship between the medium and the message and it became harder and harder to contribute his content to a medium that is controlled by someone enabling bad and dangerous behavior. This is a powerful argument for moving on from what sometimes seems like a toxic environment. Likewise, the Omohundro Institute recently set up a Mastodon account on the historians.social instance and will begin posting there moving forward. Maybe adding to our existing social media profile rather than entirely moving to another platform is a better option. We have a lot to consider as we figure out our own path.

So, what is the right decision for Commonplace when it comes to choosing a social media strategy? Should we stick with Twitter, move to a new site like Mastodon, or just expand our efforts and post on both platforms? Is it worth getting out of the social media game all together? A return to blogging? We would love to hear if our readers have any ideas or suggestions for a model of engagement that they would prefer. It is end of our New Year’s address about Commonplace and social media, so now we are asking you to contribute. Please let us know your thoughts by reaching out here.


This article originally appeared in January 2023.


Special thanks to Commonplace production editor Jordan Taylor for his insight and thoughts on this piece. His new book, Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America (2022) is a vital read on truth, politics, and the media.

Joshua R. Greenberg is the editor of Commonplace: The Journal of Early American Life. He is the author of Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic (2020) and Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800-1840 (2008).