Guest Post: Working on The Papers of Francis Bernard

Christopher F. Minty (University of Stirling) recently completed his dissertation on the social and cultural origins of Loyalism in New York during the imperial crisis. He is the recipient of numerous fellowships, including the British Library, the Huntington Library, the David Library of the American Revolution, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Houghton Library at Harvard University. This is his second guest post for The Junto.

In early 2013, Michael D. Hattem offered some thoughts on his role as a Research Assistant on the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Since then, a variety of other online databases have established themselves as essential go-to sources for students and scholars of colonial British America, the American Revolution and the early Republic. With the launch of Founders Online, it has complemented a stream of other online resources that have given us an unparalleled insight into the lives of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, the Adams family as well as documentary histories of the ratification of the Constitution and, well, “People of the Founding Era.” 

Given that Founders Online is available free of charge, the democratization of the archive has opened doors for students and scholars to carry out quality research without having to leave their desk. Despite this, there remains a large imbalance in focus. It is not altogether surprising that there is a demand for the likes of Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson for American historians, but what of those individuals who played an absolutely central role in the coming of the Revolution? Of course, those would-be Patriots played an important role during the American Revolutionary War, but throughout the 1760s and early 1770s the most vocal individuals regarding the development of a nascent protest movement were British officials, especially governors. I’d like to use this post to discuss my role as a research assistant on the Papers of Governor Francis Bernard, a project funded by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

Edited by Colin Nicolson (University of Stirling), the Bernard Papers is a six-volume historical documentary edition that primarily focuses on Francis Bernard’s tenure as the governor of Massachusetts from 1760–1769. As we know, the 1760s was a tumultuous time for governors in colonial British America, and Bernard was no exception. He experienced some of the most violent riots and encountered some of the most passionate individuals. Indeed, in the aftermath of Boston’s Stamp Act riots, Bernard wrote, ‘The Americans have found the Governments so contemptibly weak & the People so superior to the Royal Authority, that they are not it a little elated upon their Triumphs over the defenceless Officers of the Crown.”[1]

Bernard’s papers are filled with similar statements. Through elegantly crafted letters, he often describes his opposition to James Otis, Jr., his disapproval of his son’s behaviour and, towards the end of his tenure, openly discusses the possibility of assuming the governorship of the Leeward Islands, the Bahamas, New Jersey, New York or South Carolina. Nicolson has located over 14,000 documents pertaining to Bernard’s life during the 1760s and, since October 2010, I have intermittently worked a research assistant on them. Currently, I am working with one other individual, Stuart Salmon, and as research assistants we are marching towards the completion of another volume.

Over the course of my time working on the Bernard Papers, I have read more letters to and from Bernard than I can count. Not only have I read original “receiver copy” letters but I have also read letter-book copies, duplicates and triplicates and printed copies. A major task that I have undertaken since I began working on the project was cross-checking all extant copies of Bernard’s letters looking for slight emendations or alterations. Usually, this concerns the omission of a word or two but, on occasion, entire sentences can appear, or disappear, from letter to letter. Admittedly, the process of checking documents word by word is laborious and, at times, slow, but it is always a rewarding endeavour. I’ll be the first to admit that when I began my PhD in 2010, the first major stumbling block I came to was reading eighteenth-century writing. I mean, who writes like that? Working on Bernard’s correspondence has, however, developed my palaeography skills quickly and now, over three years later, I’m confident that I’d be able to transcribe nearly anything from the eighteenth century, even manuscripts blessed with the notoriously poor handwriting of Thomas Hutchinson or Sir Henry Clinton.

Gov. BernardThe other major role I play as a research assistant is to, essentially, follow various paper trails that crop up in each letter. This is the most rewarding and enjoyable duty I have for it directly links to my own research. For instance, when working on Volume 3, Nicolson asked me to follow the publication of John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” To do this, I accessed another fantastically vital online research tool, Readex’s Early American Newspapers, and went from issue to issue tracking the publication of each of the letters. Not only was this an interesting duty in itself, as it enabled me to monitor the development of opposition through the press, but it also further developed my online research skills. When I come to a question in my own work that I know could be answered through the press, I’m able to pinpoint exact issues that I believe could help me answer any questions that I may have.

Following paper trails is, I believe, the most historically significant aspect of my work. Whereas, for instance, the Correspondence of General Thomas Gage, published only correspondence, the Bernard Papers has a detailed description attached to each letter. Nicolson first provides a brief description of the letter through a focused conceptualization before offering the source. Second, after all the paper trails have been followed, a series of annotations are given to offer the reader a map from which to understand why Bernard, or Bernard’s correspondent, said what they said. The annotations are important in three ways: first, they often provide references to other letters that enables us to follow dialogue between correspondents; second, they list any enclosures—newspapers, pamphlets and declarations, for instance—that were sent across the Atlantic; and, finally, they occasionally list the specific ship that carried the letter.

With all that said, the work of a research assistant isn’t always glamorous. As Volume 2 was in the final editorial stages, I remember being instructed to “guard the printer” as we got ready to send it to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. I’ve also been instructed to check page references, carry books back to the library and reorganise filing cabinets. Though not all the jobs are worthy of this blog, the value of the Bernard Papers, as a project, cannot be underestimated. As of January 2014, three volumes have been published and there are three more to go. We’ve covered Massachusetts from 1759–1767 and moved through the Stamp Act and Townshend duties crises, but still have the non-importation debates and the crisis of 1773–1775 to come. As and when they are published, it will be hugely beneficial to historians and students of Massachusetts, colonial British America and the imperial crisis.

Moreover, with the proliferation of online databases pertaining to the Founders, it is envisioned that the Bernard Papers will also go online. When it does, it will complement the published volumes to offer a more balanced interpretation of the imperial crisis that will pull us away from the increasing presence of “Founders Chic” online and enable us to examine the imperial crisis with greater clarity than ever before. Although historians at a recent McNeil Center conference called for historians to pull their scholarly lens further back and wider afield, if historians turn their heads back to the imperial crisis by examining men such as Francis Bernard we may be able to provoke interest in one of the most important aspects of American history, the coming of the American Revolution. As Bernard once said, ‘If you should choose to make America your Study, I shall be glad to assist you with such informations as I can give.’[2]


[1] Francis Bernard to Lord Barrington, November 23, 1765, in Colin Nicolson, ed. The Papers of Francis Bernard, Governor of Colonial Massachusetts, 1760–69, 3 vols. (Boston: Published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and distributed by the University of Virginia Press, 2007– ), 2:413–419, quote at 414.
[2] Francis Bernard to William Fitzherbert, November 16, 1767, Jared Sparks Collection of American Manuscripts, 1582–1843, MS Sparks 4, Volume 5, f. 35, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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