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  • A New England Prison Diary: Slander, Religion, and Markets in Early America by Martin J. Hershock
  • Kevin Q. Doyle (bio)

Timothy M. Joy, Treason, Debt, Commerce, Religion

A New England Prison Diary: Slander, Religion, and Markets in Early America. By Martin J. Hershock. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. Pp. 256. Cloth, $75.00; Paper, $35.00.)

In the spring of 1812, the Unitarian minister William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts, belittled a scandal that had lately rocked his state. A [End Page 786] drunken shopkeeper, posing as a British soldier, had committed slander by accusing a Federalist gubernatorial candidate of organizing a plot to deliver America to Britain. Bentley called this episode “the trifling affair” of a “boy,” intimating that it was a distraction from real problems that the party faced in 1812.

In his incisive study of diary-writing, economics, politics, and religion in early America, Martin J. Hershock demonstrates that this allegation of high treason was, in fact, no small matter. It was, instead, the uncommon action of a common man, a product of the dramatic changes that commercialism and partisanship had wrought in New England and the United States as a whole. Ultimately, the trader’s defamation and his subsequent incarceration revealed the tumultuousness of both the “market revolution” and republican government.

Hershock terms the diary that Timothy M. Joy kept while imprisoned for libel a microcosm of “an ‘extraordinary’ moment in the nation’s history” (9). The author traces Joy’s angst, which stemmed from his accusation that statesman Timothy Pickering had committed treason. After issuing a comprehensive genealogy of the Joy family in Strafford County, New Hampshire, and offering a brief, but strong, political history of that area, Hershock tracks Joy’s transition from a world of farming to one of commerce.

He details the risk that the young man incurred in abandoning the respectability and security his family had acquired in the town of Durham. In late 1811, Joy opened a small store in nearby Middleton and for a few short months adopted a “middle ground” in the nascent market economy (43). By mid-March 1812, a combination of bad weather and market forces left Joy (a man just building a reputation in a fragile trade) in a dire situation; he faced pressures from creditors amid mounting diplomatic tension and a consequent reduction in Anglo–American trade. Soon after, creditors ransacked Joy’s shop and threatened to have him arrested for outstanding debts. The twenty-two-year-old fled town, leaving behind a family of three. Examining broadsides, newspapers, court records, land grants, and the journal itself, Hershock reconstructs Joy’s flight and his 1812 jailing in Essex County, Massachusetts.

Hershock builds on scholarship about honor and masculinity from historians such as Toby Ditz, Joanne Freeman, and Bruce Mann. He scrutinizes Joy’s debt, defamation, and imprisonment in order to probe the humiliation of a shopkeeper-on-the-run in light of market volatility [End Page 787] during the Napoleonic Wars. Charting the conspiracy-accented factionalism that beset early nineteenth-century politics, Hershock contextualizes Joy’s allegations of Pickering’s treason by reviewing the Northern Confederacy scheme of 1804 and the Henry–Crillon Affair of 1812. (In the latter, one John Henry purported that Britain and Canada had devised a plot to encourage the secession of New England.) Furthermore, Her-shock establishes Joy’s genuine adherence to Democratic-Republican thought and uses Joy’s incarceration to explore in depth the “national irrelevancy” into which Federalism had fallen, taking Massachusetts as the setting of its “desperate last stand” (72).

Imprisonment remade Joy, and he earnestly sought to recover his lost respectability. Unlike many of the characters whom Mann describes in Republic of Debtors, Joy still perceived debt as a failure of character, a deficit of morality, and a sin. He sincerely turned to religion while behind bars and sought to recover his respectability after release. Hershock asserts that Joy endured great strife as he came to terms with what he had done, struggling to regain his “manhood” by defeating a deep past of “feminine” failure (54–55). To this end, he enlisted in the U.S. Army a month after his...


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