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What It’s Like to Hold Original Letters from People Like Samuel Adams

Continuing my discussion, the bulk of my research for 1775 was drawn from original source material (letters and the like). One example of original source material is the several letters between American revolutionary leader Dr. Joseph Warren and the Massachusetts royal governor and military commander-in-chief Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage. Another example is the written orders of Lt. Gen. Gage to his military commander, Lt. Col. Francis Smith, directing Smith to take a detachment of British forces to the town of Concord and seize the American war stores there (an order that would start the American Revolution). One more example: the journals and proceedings of the Continental Congress. Instead of merely taking the assessments and summaries of others (what you find in secondary sources, my book included), I went back to this original source material and drew my own conclusions. But where do you find this stuff?

Some of these original letters are republished in books, and you can find them in good research libraries (typically found at universities). One of the best collections published is Peter Force’s American Archives, a compilation never completed, but fortunately, it covers all of the beginning of the American Revolution. American Archives can now be found online. Another good book, though I find the editing of the letters to be annoying, is the Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris’s The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six, which can be found in most bookstores and libraries.

However, the best experience is delving into various archives and repositories of the original letters themselves. There are a great many throughout the country (and the UK) worth mentioning, but I’ll highlight just two here.

The first is the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in Boston. There you can find many of the original letters by key Bostonians, including most of the letters still known to exist from and to Dr. Joseph Warren. One of the most historically important finds at MHS is three different depositions of Paul Revere on his famous ride (now online: a 1775 deposition, a corrected copy of the same, and a later deposition, circa 1798).

The other is one of the most unknown gems in America: the Clements Library at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. I’ve heard it called “the headquarters of British documents of the Revolution”—a fair assessment. As I understand it, when the Great Depression hit the United Kingdom, William L. Clements bought up what he could from the struggling ancestors of key British officials. One of the collections he bought at that time and brought to Michigan was the papers of Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage. There are boxes and boxes of them, now mostly organized, and I went through all of ‘em, from 1773 until Gage’s recall at the end of 1775.

At both of these, and many of the other archives I researched at, you could hold in your bare, naked hands, these 235-year-old documents. (The new theory: by wearing gloves, you cannot feel these fragile and tattered documents, and so tend to man-handle them. Most archives now figure the oils in your skin will do less damage than mishandling the documents with gloves on.)

It is so cool to hold in your hands these original documents, to think about how they were passed… To hold in your hands letters of intelligence (amongst the Gage papers), written by spies amongst the Americans who were reporting to the British… to imagine how those letters were passes surreptitiously through couriers and British soldiers until it finally came to Gen. Gage’s desk at his headquarters in the no longer standing Province House in Boston… To hold the order Gage issued to Lt. Col. Francis Smith that resulted in the start of the American Revolution… To hold letters written by such famous men as John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin… To witness such history directly, in your bare hands… this is cool stuff! And in some small way, it makes me feel connected to those times.

In the coming months, I plan to share with you some of the particularly cool items that I have uncovered, some of which have never been published.

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About Derek W. Beck

I write stuff. I film stuff too.

One Response to What It’s Like to Hold Original Letters from People Like Samuel Adams

  1. Pingback: British Gen. Henry Clinton’s Secret Letter « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

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