Thursday, June 2, 2011

Samuel West

  Samuel West, a classmate of Dr Benjamin Church Jr in Harvard's class of 1754, was one of the people to whom George Washington gave Church's ciphered letter to be decoded. West is now long forgotten but he is a fascinating study in his own right. It made perfect sense for West to be entrusted with this task by Washington and a discussion of his background and talents will illuminate this decision.

   Samuel West was born in Yarmouth Massachusetts on Cape Cod in 1730 the son of a physician. While living in a nearby town with his family, Samuel attracted the attention of a local minister.  Samuel was said to have mastered certain portions of the bible by the age of seven and then became very interested in theology. While he worked as a farm hand, Samuel was prepared by this minister to take the entrance exams for Harvard. He did so well that he was awarded a Fitch and a Hollis scholarship. These scholarships were bequests to Harvard for students destined for the ministry. While at Harvard Samuel distinguished himself and helped to defray expenses by working as a waiter at the Fellows (tutors) table. John Hancock was also one of his classmates and their relationship would help to ratify the Constitution in Massachusetts. But that's getting ahead of the story.

   After graduation, Samuel worked as a schoolmaster and began preaching. In 1760, he obtained a position as minister to the First Congregational Society in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He remained at that position until his retirement in 1803. West was way overqualified to service this congregation of poor farmers. In fact, for most of his ministry, the congregation paid him a pittance, if they paid him at all. Eventually, he had to go to court and sue for his back salaries. He survived because of a small inheritance, some charity from a few wealthy Boston merchants, and because members of his congregation fed and housed his horse and two cows.

    But a ministry to this small community allowed West to pursue his other many interests.He had time to study, carry on a voluminous correspondence, tutor young ministers and travel extensively. In addition to his interest in theology, West was interested in history, the law, medicine, politics, the physical sciences, and even alchemy.  He was reputed to have read every available book on these subjects. So, an interest and knowledge in cryptography is not surprising in this man who was also as ardent a Patriot as there was. After Bunker Hill, West served for a few months as a chaplain. In May 1776, he was chosen to give the prestigious Election Day Sermon in Boston. The Election Day Sermon (it should more appropriately be titled Inauguration Day since this was the day newly elected officials took office) began in 1634 and lasted until 1880. It was one of the few public holidays in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Schools and stores closed and the day was marked with parades and a sermon. In that sermon, West proclaimed that the colonies were already independent and constituted a new nation. “Any people, when cruelly oppressed,” West argued, “has the right to throw the yoke, and be free.” Like other ardent Patriots in the New England clergy, West played an influential role in the run-up to the American Revolution by providing a theological justification for declaring independence from England.

   A physically imposing man, over six foot tall and weighing over 200 pounds, West developed a reputation for eccentricity and absentmindedness. It's difficult to know whether all of the stories told about him are true, but there is no doubt that he was an eccentric. Dressed in ill fitting and often dirty clothes, he would walk the countryside always looking for a good discussion and often losing sight of just where he was going and why. One story has it that while a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, other residents of his boarding house would slip items of clothing into his pockets, knowing that upon discovery, he would ponder for hours just how they had gotten there and wonder if he had misappropriated him. But that did not diminish the affection with which he was held by his contemporaries and that fact that he was a brilliant conversationalist able to argue theology and almost any other subject brilliantly. A charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he contributed papers on the making of porcelain and on the geology of Gay's Head on Martha's Vineyard.

   In 1788, West was elected a delegate to the Massachusetts Convention to ratify the new US Constitution over which his old friend and Harvard classmate John Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts, presided. Much of the debate surrounding ratification in Massachusetts, as in other states, centered around whether the document provided sufficient protection for individual liberties, the rights of the states, and taxation, among other issues. West was a vigorous proponent of the Constitution as written. At the height of debate, Hancock withdrew, claiming to be suffering from an attack of gout. Without Hancock's support, ratification was impossible. West and the pro-ratification faction prepared a series of amendments and West was dispatched to Hancock to try and persuade him to support ratification with these amendments. Just how much influence West had over Hancock and whether his arguments were persuasive enough to garner Hancock's support, or whether Hancock supported ratification with the proposed amendments for his own reasons is subject to debate. But there was no doubt of West's prominence during that debate.

  In the 1790s, West got involved in a theological dispute with Jonathan Edwards Jr over the character of God. Dissertations flew back and forth until the public lost interest in the dispute and West could not find a publisher.
   West was given honorary membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and, in 1793, Harvard awarded him a Doctor of Scientific Theology.

  West married twice, was widowed twice, and had six children from his first wife. Becoming increasingly eccentric and absentminded, West was forced to retire from his parish in 1803,  and went to live with his son in Tiverton, R.I.,where he died in 1807.

   Legend has it that the British burned Samuel West's parsonage in Dartmouth in  September 1778 in retaliation for his efforts in deciphering Church's letter. Just why the British would do this in 1778, three years after West deciphered the letter and for just deciphering a letter, is puzzling. But, let's set the scene. Dartmouth in the 1770's was a hotbed of Whig support but the port of Bedford (New Bedford) was less fervent. Many Dartmouth men were engaged in privateering but New Bedford was not. However, New Bedford served as a rendezvous point for privateers from Boston, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The war had tied up the whaling fleet and adventurous sailors were lured to the profits that could be made from privateering. In any event, New Bedford and the surrounding towns were a lucrative target for the British. Thus, on the night of  5-6 September, 1778, the British landed a force of approximately 4-5000 troops to burn ships, burn stores, and capture supplies. The British were aided in their efforts by Tory pilots in navigating the local waters and ardent Tory sympathizers who pointed out the residences of Whig sympathizers for the British to burn. The British and American accounts of this raid conflict in many details and it would serve no purpose to try and reconcile them for our purposes. A story arose that, as the British were leaving, Samuel West's parsonage was pointed out to them and they burned it down. West's ardent Patriot sympathies far outweighed his role in deciphering Dr Church's letter and there would be sufficient cause to burn down his house based on his own activities and sympathies. Now, was Samuel West's parsonage burned down.? The best evidence I have come across is contained in Daniel Ricketson's self published 1858 book, The History of New Bedford, Bristol County Massachusetts. In it he lists the houses in New Bedford erected prior to the Revolutionary War that were still standing in 1846. Among the seventy seven homes mentioned is "out of town Samuel West house (B. Rodman's farmhouse)". Ricketson goes on to state that the British burned eleven houses on September 6th, 1778. West's home was not amongst them.


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