The Winslow Papers and the Writing of Loyalist History
remarks at the launching of the UNB Winslow website, 11 May 2005 by David Bell, Faculty of Law, UNB-Fredericton
Half a century ago Lord Beaverbrook announced proudly to an old friend that, after years of manoeuvring, the Winslow papers finally were lodged at the University of New Brunswick.
Discovered by W. O. Raymond in Winslow family hands in the 1890s, the papers had been deposited first with Saint John's Natural History Society and then, early in the 1930s, with the newly-opened New Brunswick Museum. At the Museum they remained until the mid 1950s when, after many nudges from the great Beaverbrook, the Winslow family ordered the papers shifted to Fredericton and UNB. In making his announcement Beaverbrook added, with characteristic decision, that "to my way of thinking, this is the greatest family that New Brunswick has thrown up".1 Beaverbrook was addressing these pleasant words to the Fredericton lawyer Fraser Winslow, and this may partly explain how he could offer the sort of tribute to the NB Winslows that not even the most optimistic of family historians would have made. But Beaverbrook's assessment does tell us something of importance. It reveals that his perception of the Winslows, and of the importance of the Winslow collection, was formed by W. O. Raymond's 1901 volume called the Winslow Papers. Any reader of Raymond's magnificent edition could well join Lord Beaverbrook in concluding that Edward Winslow (1747-1815) and his friends were central to the building of New Brunswick and would also look benignly on the family of lawyers, postmasters and bankers who had loyally preserved the Winslow documents across the generations.
My remarks are on the Winslow collection and the writing of history. Ironically, it must be said at once that the Winslow papers themselves – if by that we mean the archive of letters that for 50 years now has been at UNB – have had little impact on the writing of history. Ann Condon once remarked to me that she thought that W. S. MacNutt and herself were the only historians since Raymond ever to have read through the actual Winslow letters. Probably she was right. Even when we look at the History theses written at UNB over the last half century, we see that few of these graduate students, who might have used the physical Winslow papers without inconvenience, actually did so, so strong has been the lure of Raymond's published edition. So it is that to talk of the importance of the Winslow papers in Loyalist historiography is really to talk of the importance of W. O Raymond's published edition of them.
Raymond's edition differs from the actual Winslow letters in several respects. Although he produced a book of 700 pages, he could print only a fraction of the papers now at UNB, which run to 13,000 images. On the other hand, Raymond's edition does print some important letters that are not in the Winslow collection at all but which he discovered in the papers left by Edward Winslow's best friend, Ward Chipman. And one should acknowledge a third difference. Raymond tells us that he omitted some passages from his published version of the texts for various good reasons including taste. While I don't suppose that anyone will take the trouble now to compare the original letters with their published version, there are at least a few cases where Raymond's alterations are not merely great but inexplicable.
Reviewers of Raymond's 1901 volume agreed with his claim that it was a foundational contribution to the history of the Maritime provinces and of the Loyalists. This is a judgement that has stood the test of time. To W. S. MacNutt, for example, "no collection of correspondence in Canadian historiography is more readable". For Wallace Brown, the published Winslow Papers is simply "the most magnificent collection of its kind in Canadian history".2 For anyone seeking to understand the Loyalist experience, especially the resettlement in what is now Canada, Raymond's book remains a source of first resort. But what is its contribution to our understanding – or indeed our misunderstanding – of the Loyalists? First, let us acknowledge that it was the Raymond book that (as it were) invented Edward Winslow. Nowadays Edward Winslow is the best known New Brunswick Loyalist – perhaps the single best known Canadian Loyalist. But prior to Raymond's book, Edward Winslow was virtually unknown. In Lorenzo Sabine's pioneering book on the American Loyalists (1847), he is given only a few lines. In the volume published in 1883 to mark the New Brunswick Loyalist centennial, his name does not appear. In James Hannay's History of New Brunswick (1909) he is mentioned only as a member of the provincial Council. Even W. O. Raymond's own first book on the Loyalists, published in 1893, mentions him only faintly. Not until Raymond's selection of his letters finally appeared in print, in 1901, was Winslow recognized as important. Now he was revealed as the ardent and charismatic personality who was the first to dream of a separate Loyalist province along the St John valley. Then he strategized the campaign to persuade the British government to divide Nova Scotia in order to create that new province. While it is unlikely that it was Winslow's partition campaign that actually persuaded the British to create New Brunswick, that hardly detracts from our admiration of him.3 Raymond's publication of the letters also revealed Edward Winslow as a prose stylist who had no equal in 18th-century Canada. His tender letters to his young wife Mary, his vivid account of Halifax female fashions, his excoriations of incompetent British generals and foot-dragging Nova Scotia bureaucrats, his vision of the separate Loyalist colony in the St John valley that would become the "most gentlemanlike" government on Earth, his lampooning of political opponents who, as he said, did not know that the Magna Carta was not a great pudding: all of these hold an interest for readers that will never fade. Anyone seeking an introduction to some of Winslow's most striking phrases could no better than to read Ann Condon's polished entry on him in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
But just as Winslow's prose sparkles in his account of the heroic events associated with the founding of New Brunswick in the 1780s and the political struggles of the 1790s, so it fades in interest thereafter. The whole province, he complained memorably towards the close of the 1790s, was sinking into a sort of lethargy. As the New Brunswick dream was becalmed, so Edward Winslow's personal fortunes contracted. Raymond's edition of the letters ostensibly covers the years 1776-1826, but in fact he printed far fewer letters after 1802 and those are of comparatively little interest. Thereby, the decline in the quality of the Winslow papers after the beginning of the 19th century becomes a sort of metaphor both for Edward Winslow's personal descent into poverty and depression and for the failure of the entire New Brunswick experiment.
So in short, if we are to talk of the role that the Winslow papers have played so far in the writing of history, we must note in the first place that Raymond's edition of letters gave the world Edward Winslow – someone it had quite forgotten, but someone whom now students of Maritime history could not do without.
In broader perspective Raymond's edition of Winslow Papers supplied much grist for two myths that long distorted understanding of the Loyalists. One of these is held by Americans, who would still prefer to think of the Loyalists as "Tories. In the main the Loyalists were not Tories politically; at least, there is no reason to think that they were. If the political turbulence of early Loyalist Saint John has any message for students of the American Revolution, it is that most Loyalists differed from most Patriots only on the issue of colonial independence. And yet, for all that, the idea that Loyalists were Tories finds vivid support in the world of Edward Winslow and his whole circle of correspondents. Winslow was indeed a Tory. I don't mean that he was a philosopher – merely that his attitudes were those of a colonial Tory. He hated crowds, he said; he despised levelling discourse; he envisioned New Brunswick as a deferential, gentlemanlike society. In Raymond's words, Winslow was "a splendid specimen of the Tory of olden time, loyal to his king and country, strong in his adherence to the principles in which he believed...". So although Edward Winslow's political attitudes are well revealed in his correspondence, his vivid example of colonial Toryism is apt to mislead the unwary because it is so far from being typical of American Loyalists.
Just as Americans have found it convenient to be able to dismiss the Loyalists as a set of losing Tory political ideas, so Canadians reflect much the same error when they imagine that the Loyalists who came here to found New Brunswick and Ontario came willingly, in much the way that the ancient Israelites made an eager dash from Egypt. It is a myth that the Loyalists themselves, once here, found it convenient to cultivate: and no one was more colourful in his abstract disdain for the new republic to the south than Edward Winslow. So we need to remind ourselves that the great majority of American Loyalists did not become exiles at all. Most of those who did enter exile did so because they thought that they had no choice – they were driven out. The British government, for example, simply assumed that the Loyalists would make their peace with the new American order; until practically the last minute it had no thought or wish to ship tens of thousands of souls into a northern wilderness. But so bitter did the Patriot campaign of retribution become in the summer of 1783 that the Loyalists huddled at New York city thought that they must become exiles. The enthusiasm with which Edward Winslow and John Coffin and John Murray and Ward Chipman and George Leonard – all of them from Massachusetts – took up their exile ought not to lead us to suppose that they were representative of the generality of Loyalists.
My brief has been to talk of the importance of the Winslow collection to the writing of history as it has been, but I must mention three features of the Winslow papers as they will be from this day forward that I find noteworthy. The first feature is what I call democratization (although that is not a word that Edward Winslow would have liked). Putting the Winslow papers on the web makes them available equally to someone here at UNB, to someone in a school room in Plymouth Massachusetts, to anyone on the internet anywhere. Thereby the full Winslow archive – not just Raymond's edition – becomes a world-wide resource. Second, this on-line edition offers not just wide access; it offers intelligent access. By this I mean that the on-line collection is searchable through the massive index created by the late Barry Grant. An index is only as good as the indexer. The legacy of Barry Grant is the legacy of one who could read the handwriting, who knew the people, and who knew how historians think and research. From Grant's index one can find not just all references to Thomas Carleton, for example, but all references to butter, all references to wallpaper, all reference to the purchase of hair for wig-making. Grant's searchable index terms increase the immediate value of the on-line Winslow papers immeasurably. Using them is the historian's version of fun. A third feature of this initiative that impresses the researcher is what I would call context. The Winslow collection is of headline importance but it is only one feature of an enormous body of Loyalist archival material assembled at the Harriet Irving Library over the last quarter-century, mostly under the stewardship of Kathryn Hilder. By using Mrs Hilder's searchable guide to the entire UNB Loyalist collection, which itself has many links to on-line finding aids, the researcher is invited and reminded not to stop investigations with the Winslow papers.
So it is that a century after Archdeacon Raymond's great book, half a century after Lord Beaverbrook's visionary string-pulling, the true importance of the Winslow collection to the writing of history only now will begin to become known.