Friday, April 19, 2019

The Last Colonial Governors in Revolutionary America

Over the course of 1774 and 1775, letters from distressed governors flooded General Thomas Gage’s headquarters in Boston. Colonial officials all across British North America were watching imperial government collapse around them and scrambling to maintain their power. They wrote to Gage – Commander in Chief of the British Army in North America and Governor of Massachusetts – looking for a solution. They wanted the money, men, ammunition, and information that only Gage could quickly provide.

In one exemplary call for aid, the governor of South Carolina insisted that the South was just as rebellious as New England. Governor William Campbell claimed that South Carolinians were equal to New Englanders in “the violence of their measures, & contempt of all Legal Authority.” Campbell felt impotent, writing how “absolutely [we are] under the command of [extralegal] Councils & Committees.”[1]  General Gage responded to Campbell’s letter with sympathy but not the hoped-for solution: “[I] am sorry to hear South Carolina is in such Confusion,” he wrote, “but Congresses and Committees seem to have the Rule of every Province.”[2]  In other words, you’re on your own.

General Thomas Gage (1721-1787)

I came to the William L. Clements Library – with the help of a Jacob M. Price Research Fellowship – to research the committees that so troubled these two men. To my delight, I found that the Clements Library has almost as many letters written by committeemen as they have letters written by colonial governors complaining about committees. The latter are surprisingly emotional and engaging. The Thomas Gage Papers at the Clements Library contains hundreds of letters from this period; after having read through most of them, I can tell you that the 1770s look very different when seen through the eyes of the last colonial governors.

The southern governors particularly resented having to fend for themselves against committees. Feeling abandoned by Gage, they turned to each other to shore up royal power in their region.[3]  This largely consisted of creating a communication network tying them to each other and to the military headquarters in Boston. The southern governors wanted to have timely and reliable information in the increasingly tense environment following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. They needed reports on battles and political skirmishes from Gage in order to combat damaging reports from rebel sources.[4]  They also needed an easy way to call for reinforcements if circumstances escalated and fighting broke out within their colonies. In light of this, the governors of Georgia and the Carolinas attempted to use a warship to ferry mail between the southern capitals and Boston.[5]

"A View of the Town of Boston with Several Ships of War in the Harbour," (1774).
Engraving by Paul Revere.
The southern governors chose the sea route because committeemen were notorious snoops. Committees in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and South Carolina regularly stopped and inspected mail sent between colonial officials. The governors were understandably terrified of their letters being intercepted and used against them by the committees. In addition to finding alternate ways to send their mail, a couple of governors suggested using cyphers to keep their correspondence secret.[6]  The Thomas Gage Papers show that governors started worrying about the security of mail routes as early as 1774 – well before war began!

Paranoia among colonial officials reached a high point in the summer and fall of 1775. Governors throughout the colonies spoke of a rebel plot to imprison and possibly execute all of the governors; this would apparently leave space for committees to rule the colonies without competition.[7]  Indeed, five governors were so afraid for their lives that they absconded to British warships waiting in their harbors.[8]  While it seems unlikely that rebel committees concocted an intercolonial plan to simultaneously seize the governors, committeemen were certainly not sad to see their governors go. By 1776, committeemen had made it impossible for governors to rule without Gage's soldiers and weapons; for the rest of the American Revolution, colonial governors could only maintain authority in areas where they had a strong military presence.

Treesh at work in the Avenir Foundation Reading Room, October 2018.

As I worked my way through Gage’s correspondence at the Clements Library, it was hard to not be overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom. Between 1765 and 1776, Gage corresponded with governors in every British North American colony as well as the Superintendents of Indian Affairs for both the North and the South. The Gage Papers give researchers a rare wide-lens view of colonial governance in its last years. Taken as a whole, these letters show the emotional and political turmoil of the imperial crisis spreading throughout the continent. 

Collections like the Thomas Gage Papers force us to recognize the messiness and contingency of the 1760s and 1770s, a period that we often think of as a linear, steady progression toward American unity and revolution. With such a geographically-broad collection we can see that dynamic political change happened at varying rates throughout the colonies, but almost always in fits and starts. Little about the movement toward revolution was “linear” or “steady”. Governors fought back against the committees and congresses, and were at times able to stem the rising tide of rebellion, though not stop it altogether. The story of American politics from 1765 to 1776 is about the decline of governmental authority as much as it is about the growth of rebel legitimacy. The Thomas Gage Papers are an especially good source for observing both sides of the story; I know that my dissertation is richer for having studied them.

Catherine Treesh
Doctoral Candidate, Department of History, Yale University
Clements Library 2018 Price Fellow

* * *

[1] A reference to the rebellious "committees of correspondence" and the colony-wide conventions that they generated - the first efforts to organize and carry out Patriot self-governance.  William Campbell to Thomas Gage, 1 July 1775, American Series, Vol. 131, Thomas Gage Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.

[2] Thomas Gage to William Campbell, 9 August 1775, American Series, Vol. 133, Thomas Gage Papers.

[3] The southern governors weren’t entirely wrong when they obliquely accused Gage of ignoring them. Gage was getting instructions from the Earl of Dartmouth to keep an eye on the South but to focus his attention and resources on New England, where the threat was deemed greatest. See Earl of Dartmouth to Thomas Gage, 15 April 1775, English Series, Vol. 28, Thomas Gage Papers.

[4] William Campbell to Thomas Gage, 1 July 1775, American Series Vol. 131, Thomas Gage Papers; Josiah Martin to Thomas Gage, 6 July 1775, American Series, Vol. 131, Thomas Gage Papers; Earl of Dunmore to Thomas Gage, 17 June 1775, American Series, Vol. 130, Thomas Gage Papers.

[5] William Campbell to Thomas Gage, 1 July 1775, American Series, Vol. 131, Thomas Gage Papers.

[6] Guy Carlton to Thomas Gage, 4 February 1775, American Series, Vol. 125, Thomas Gage Papers; Cadwallader Colden to Thomas Gage, 6 May 1775, American Series, Vol. 128, Thomas Gage Papers.

[7] William Franklin to Thomas Gage, 20 June 1775, American Series, Vol. 130, Thomas Gage Papers; Josiah Martin to Thomas Gage, 26 May 1775, American Series, Vol. 129, Thomas Gage Papers.

[8] The royal governors of New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

National Winston Churchill Day

Thanks to the contributions of Dr. Duane Norman Diedrich (1935-2018), the Clements Library holds selected original documents from Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the great Prime Minister who led Britain during World War II (see the Churchill Collection Finding Aid). A Professor of Speech, Dr. Diedrich collected and utilized historical manuscripts in his teaching. He used documents such as original speech drafts, podium notes, and printed versions of speeches to illustrate concepts and engage students. Churchill, one of the most powerful orators of the 20th century, was a fitting subject for his acquisitions.

Excerpt of podium notes and a photograph of Winston Churchill on February 26, 1946 at University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida. Winston Churchill Collection, 1889-1965. Dr. Duane Norman Diedrich Collection. (Photograph: AP Wirephoto, 1946.)
It may seem strange to have Churchill documents in a library devoted to Americana.  However, on reflection, Sir Winston Churchill is also part of our country’s heritage.  Winston was half American by birth since his mother was the beautiful Jennie Jerome from Brooklyn, New York.  He was also made an honorary U.S. citizen on April 9, 1963.  Today is the 56th anniversary of that event.

Congress passed an “Act to Proclaim Sir Winston Churchill Honorary Citizen of the United States of America” (88th Congress, H.R. 4374).  A ceremony was held at the White House on April 9, 1963.  Churchill was too old and infirm to attend so he was represented by his son Randolph and grandson Winston. President John F. Kennedy addressed 250 guests at the ceremony and said:  “In the dark days and darker nights when Britain stood alone - and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life - he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.  The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen.”  Randolph read from a letter sent by his father:  “In this century of storm and tragedy I contemplate with high satisfaction the constant factor of the interwoven and upward progress of our peoples.  Our comradeship and brotherhood in war were unexampled.  We stood together, and because of that fact the free world now stands.”

Sir Winston S. Churchill, Honorary Citizen of the United States of America. Worcester, Massachusetts: Achille St. Onge (1963).  A Miniature Book from the private Churchill Collection of Richard C. Marsh.
The origin of Winston’s honorary citizenship goes back to the 1950s with Kay Halle, a Cleveland department store heiress and Washington socialite.  She was a friend of both the Churchills and Kennedys.  She had first met Randolph Churchill in 1932 when, as a 21 year old, he was on a U.S. speaking tour.  After knowing Kay for only a few weeks, Randolph impetuously asked Kay to marry him.  She wisely refused this marriage proposal from Winston’s wayward and alcoholic son.

Kay Halle first brought up the idea of honorary citizenship for Winston with President Eisenhower.  However, Winston decided that the timing was not right because of the Suez Crisis, which strained U.S./British relations and resulted in the end of Anthony Eden’s premiership.  However, after John Kennedy was elected President in 1960, the timing was much better.  JFK enthusiastically supported Kay’s idea since Winston was JFK’s hero and he sought to emulate Winston’s oratorical skills.

As a young Harvard undergraduate, JFK had prepared a thesis entitled “Appeasement at Munich” which was highly critical of the Chamberlain appeasers and which focused on Winston’s 1936 speech regarding the “locust years”-- Britain’s period of indifference and appeasement while Nazi Germany built up its war machine.  Ever the promoter of the political careers of his sons, Joe Kennedy hired Arthur Krock, a New York Times columnist, to rewrite the thesis and find a publisher.  Krock suggested a new title “Why England Slept,” which was an unabashed reference to Winston’s book of his 1930s speeches which had been issued in the U.S. under the title “While England Slept.”  At age 23, “Why England Slept” established JFK’s writing credentials and subtly distanced himself from his father’s isolationist and defeatist views held when he was Ambassador to Great Britain during 1938-40.

JFK never had the opportunity to meet Winston during the years of his father’s ambassadorship.  He met Winston face to face on only one occasion in 1958 when JFK was a young U.S. senator with presidential ambitions.  Winston was vacationing on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht along the French Riviera.  JFK and his wife Jackie were invited to dinner on the yacht with other guests including Gianni Agnelli, the Italian auto magnate, and William Douglas Home, a British aristocrat and friend of JFK.  JFK was excited about the opportunity to meet his hero but the evening was a disappointment.  The years were taking their toll on Winston; he tired easily and was often distracted.  He paid very little attention to JFK and there were no memorable conversations which JFK had hoped for.  After the dinner, at which JFK had worn a white dinner jacket, Jackie attempted to make light of the situation and ease her husband’s disappointment by remarking “Maybe he thought you were the waiter, Jack.”  I am sure that those words did not console JFK.
Richard C. Marsh
Clements Associates Board of Governors

Monday, April 1, 2019

Reading a Manuscript, Which Reposes a Thousand Miles Away: Digitized Manuscripts Collections from the William L. Clements Library

The William L. Clements Library is pleased to announce that five of its manuscripts collections are digitized and accessible online.  These collections mark the beginning of the Library's efforts to provide free and open digital access to its collections of handwritten early Americana.  The digital versions are complete and presented in a manner that reflects their physical/intellectual arrangement. 
Screenshot of a July 4, 1782, muster roll from the Clements Library's German Auxiliaries Muster Rolls collection.
At the Clements Library, our mission is to collect and preserve primary source materials, to make them available for research, and to create an environment that supports and encourages scholarly investigation of our nation's past.  We acquire, preserve, and provide access to original historical materials and we believe very strongly in the educational and emotional value of interacting directly with them.  Notwithstanding, the digital versions of our holdings provide an especially important service to scholars and other researchers who are unable to travel to Ann Arbor or who may not have the time to complete their research in our Avenir Foundation Reading Room.

The Clements Library's manuscripts holdings are extensive and our priority lists for digitization projects are varied.  We selected these first five collections based on a variety of criteria, with a particular eye toward testing the format and display of the digital versions.  The selections therefore include examples of single and multi-series collections, oversize manuscripts, and a mixture of bound and loose-leaf items.  We also took into consideration patron use, size (the initial collections are all small), and digitization funding.  The digitization of the Samson Adams Papers, for example, is thanks to funding from the University of Michigan's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative.

The five selected collections will serve as proofs of concept for future grant proposals for larger, time- and labor-intensive projects, such as the digitization of our American Revolutionary War collections, women's diaries, Civil War collections, or others.

Digitized Manuscripts Collections:

German Auxiliaries Muster Rolls, 1776-1786 (bulk 1781-1783), comprised of 70 muster rolls and 15 additional letters and documents of the German regiments employed by the British to fight in the American Revolutionary War.  Digital collection located at:

Jonathan Chase Papers, 1775-1797, made up of letters and documents relating to the services of Colonel Jonathan Chase, of the 13th and 15th New Hampshire Militia regiments, during the Revolutionary War.  Digital collection located at:

Samson Adams Papers, 1767-1794, comprising the estate and business documents of Adams, a free man of African descent living and working in Trenton, New Jersey, in the late 18th century.  Adams worked as a carpenter and laborer, and produced and traded in a variety of items, including soap, milk, corn, and construction materials.  Digital collection located at:

Samuel Latham Mitchill Papers, 1801-1829 (bulk 1801-1813), made up of over 500 letters from the U.S. Congressman to Catharine Mitchill, his wife.  These important letters touch on a wide variety of topics, including domestic politics and foreign affairs; relations with European powers; the Barbary Wars and other naval matters; the Aaron Burr conspiracy; Washington, D. C., society; Mitchill's scientific endeavors and sample collection; and his family life and travel plans.  Digital collection located at:

Elizabeth Camp Journals, 1819-1825, documenting her time spent with the Mahicans at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, as a schoolteacher and unofficial Congregationalist missionary.  Digital collection located at:
This image of Clements Library Director Randolph Adams making use of a microfilm projector in 1938 poignantly illustrates the value of distributable facsimiles of primary source materials.  The Michigan Alumnus 54, no. 13 (January 29, 1938): 234. 

These online manuscripts collections are a new addition to the Clements Library's digitization program, which also includes the addition of printed materials to HathiTrust and of individual images to the Clements Library's Image Bank.  The Clements Library would like to express its appreciation to the many people involved in the manuscripts digitization process and metadata creation.  They include, but are not limited to, Chris Powell and the University's Digital Library Platform & Services (DLPS), DEI-funded interns Allie Scholten and Amelia Fuller, Joyce Bonk Assistant Corey Schmidt, Garrett Morton, and others.

Cheney J. Schopieray
Curator of Manuscripts