Friday, October 15, 2010


   Most of us are familiar with Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack and most are perhaps familiar with the fact that it was a major source of his wealth and was one of the reasons that he was able to retire from the printing business at the age of 46 with sufficient wealth to pursue his many other interests. It is believed that Poor Richard sold as many as 12,000 copies per year. Almanacs were big business in colonial America and there were differences in the different regions as to their content.
   In an era when books were imported from Britain and Scotland in huge quantities and many printers relied on government contracts, subsidized religious sermons, or political essays for their income, the almanac was one of the few local publications in colonial North America produced regularly and solely for market. Indeed, the nature of the almanac's content made it so. At its core, every almanac was a utilitarian text that conveyed such useful information as tidal predictions, lunar calculations, court and market days, and distances between towns. Because the almanac contained such a variety of information, its utility extended to almost everyone: a captain needed to know the tides; a farmer needed to know the rising and setting of the sun; a merchant needed to know market days; a lawyer needed to know when courts met. At the same time, this information was geographically specific: a farmer in Massachusetts needed to know the rising and setting of the sun in Boston, not Philadelphia or London; a circuit lawyer in Philadelphia needed to know when courts were meeting in Pennsylvania and Delaware, not Connecticut and Rhode Island; and people bringing goods to market needed to know the market days in towns near them, not in distant colonies.
   The first almanac in the colonies was printed in Cambridge in 1639 and by the 1760s a Boston printer could make L50 per year from an almanac. It became an early habit in New England to preserve the almanacs from year to year, carefully stitching them together and to annotate them frequently with family records or events. They were sometimes referred to as the family's "weekly bible."
   Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack was published by Benjamin West, born on a farm outside of Taunton Massachusetts and a resident of Providence, R.I.. West was one of the most important publishers of almanacs, publishing one in Boston from 1768 through 1793 that became known as the New England Almanack and was published until 1814, one in Providence from 1763 through 1781, and one in New York for a time. He also published a number of other works. West also ran a drygoods store and later a bookshop as well as becoming the town postmaster. Although an autodidact, West was single handedly responsible for the results of two major astronomical efforts; the first in 1769 to observe the passage of Venus across the sun, and the second in 1786 to observe the eclipse of the sun. Although collaborative efforts, modern scholarship has conclusively attributed the results to West's efforts. He was most likely acquainted with Dr Church, but the extent of their relationship cannot be determined.


  And just who is Bickerstaff?  Issac Bickerstaff was a pseudonym used by Johnathan Swift in a very famous popular hoax to predict the death of then then famous cobbler turned almanac maker and astrologer John Partridge. Swift, then employed by the Church of England, had taken offense at some attacks Partridge had made against his employer. Partridge had challenged his readers to see if they could outdo him in his prophetic abilities. Swift took up the challenge and predicted the exact day and time of Partridge's death. At the appointed time, Swift, using another name, confirmed that the prophecy had been fulfilled and Partridge was indeed dead. Partridge protested in his next almanac that he was alive but no one really believed him. And you can take it from there. This hoax became notorious all over the English speaking world and Benjamin Franklin created the "Poor Richard" (Richard Saunders) character after Issac Bickerstaff.

 * This is the front cover of the 1768 and first edition of Bickerstaff's Almanac. The cover features an "elegant plate of the giants lately discovered in South America, representing a sailor 5' 111/2 " high giving a biscuit to one of their women." The cover also informs the reader that the almanack contains an exact figure of the eclipse of the sun on January 19th.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Hymn

Most of Dr Church's poetry is much, much too long to be published in a blog. The following poem, however, was published in Bickerstaff's "Boston Almanack for the Year 1769," printed by Mein and Fleeming* and sold in John Mein's King Street bookstore.

         A Hymn

Still sing the God of Seasons, as they roll:
For me, when I forget the darling theme,
Whether the blossom blows the summer ray
Russets the plain, inspiring Autumn gleams;
Or winter rises in the blackening east:
Be my tongue mute, my fancy paint no more,
And, dead to joy, forget my heart to beat!
   Should fate command me to the furthest verge
Of the green earth, to distant barborous climes,
Rivers unknown to song; where first the sun
Gilds Indian mountains, or his setting beam
Flames on th' Atlantic isles; 'tis nought to me:
Since God is ever present, ever felt
In the void waits as in the city full;
And where He vital breathes, there must be joy.
When even at last the solemn hour shall come,
And wing thy mystic flight to future worlds.
I chearful will obey; there with new powers,
Will rising wonders sing: I cannot go
Where universal love not smiles around,
Sustaining all yon orbs and all their sons;
From seeming evil still educing good,
And better thence again, and better still,
In infinite progression. But I lose
Myself in Him, in Light Ineffable!
Come then, expressive silence, must his praise.

*John Fleeming married Dr Church's sister Alice on August 11, 1770. John Mein and Fleeming jointly published the Boston Chronicle, the best newspaper, technically, in Boston. Mein was a thorn in the side of the Whigs, publishing the names of merchants who were violating the non-importation agreements.He finally was forced to flee Boston in October 1769 after he and Fleeming were involved in a shooting incident. I will detail more about this when I publish the fascinating story of John Fleeming.

Please note that the cover of the Almanack carries a portrait of John Wilkes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Warm Place - Hell

   After repeal of the Stamp Act,  the British Government still had a need to collect revenue from her American colonies and in 1767 passed a series of measures that came to be known as The Townshend Acts. The colonists rose, once again, in protest. James Dickinson of Pennsylvania published his essays titled "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,"  and they became widely read and very influential, arguing that there was no difference between an "internal" and an "external" tax and that any tax imposed on the colonists by Parliament was unconstitutional. One of the responses to the Townshend Acts by The Massachusetts House of Representatives was to send a letter to the other colonial assemblies asking them to resist the acts. The British Ministers were so outraged by this that the King himself ordered Governor Francis Bernard to order the Massachusetts Circular letter to be rescinded. The Legislature refused by a vote of 92 to 17 to do so. The seventeen who voted to rescind the vote were labeled "Rescinders" and were treated with contempt.
   Paul Revere,  copper engraving being one of his talents, began to engrave a caricature titled  "A Warm Place - Hell" as a piece of political propaganda in defiance of the British Government. The delineation was a pair of monstrous open  jaws, resembling a shark, with flames issuing from them. Satan, with a large pitchfork, is seen driving the seventeen "Rescinders" into the flames shouting - "Now I've got you! A Fine haul by Jove!" The man first in line and making an effort to resist being forced into hell is Timothy Ruggles, ( a former Speaker of the House and delegate to the Stamp Act Congress who later became a prominent Tory and served as a Brigadier General in charge of Loyalist militia troops) who is being urged on by a flying devil uttering the words "Push on Tim!"  The man with the calf's head is Dr John Calef of Ipswich who, many years later, apologized for his vote. (I have not done the research to determine why Dr Calef was so singled out by Revere.) Over the upper jaw of the "shark" is seen the cupola of the Province House (the Indian with bow and arrow represents the arms of the Province) where the Governor resided.
   While Revere was in the process of executing this engraving, Dr Benjamin Church Jr, by Revere's own account many years later, walked into Revere's office and, seeing what Revere was about, took a pen and wrote these words to accompany the engraving:

                                  On brave Rescinders! to yon yawning cell,
                                  Seventeen such miscreants sure will startle hell.
                                  There puny villains, damned for petty sin,
                                  On such distinguished scoundrels gaze and grin;
                                  The out done Devil will resign his sway,
                                  He never curst his millions in a day

   Not a bad improvisational riff from colonial America's finest political satirist and poet!

  As a result, Paul Revere was given a commission by 15 members of the Sons of Liberty, of which organization Revere was a member, to make a silver punch bowl to commemorate the activities of the "Glorious 92." This bowl has become an icon of the American Revolution and is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. One side of the bowl is dedicated to John Wilkes, the English radical to whom Church was appointed to write as a member of the Committee of Correspondence.