Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States in 1861. We all know the part he played in the Civil War, but the fact that his ancestor Samuel Lincoln emigrated to America in 1637 in his teens is a slightly less familiar fact. Samuel settled in Hingham Massachusetts, a settlement some 23 miles south of Boston. Samuel had grown up in the village of Hingham in Norfolk, before being apprenticed to Francis Lawes as a weaver in Norwich. This was a time when Puritan feelings were at their height, especially in Norwich, where Matthew Wren (uncle of the architect Christopher Wren) was appointed bishop in 1635. He tried to impose traditional elements of worship on the churches of the diocese, such as bowing at the name of Jesus and the wearing of surplices. These things were anathema to the Puritans, and many of them longed to escape the stifling influence of the Church of England by establishing a simpler form of worship in the New World. Francis Lawes could not tolerate this state of affairs for long, and within two years he and his family – his wife, daughter and servant Samuel Lincoln – had embarked on the ship the John and Dorothy at Yarmouth for the voyage to New England.
It was no accident that Samuel Lincoln chose to make his home in Hingham Massachusetts. His elder brother Thomas had emigrated two years earlier in 1635 when the town was incorporated. The settlement had been founded by a number of the better-off citizens of Hingham in Norfolk who, together with their clergy the Reverends Peck and Hobart, had sold their property off cheaply in England to make a new life for themselves in America. The poorer folk who were left behind in Norfolk suffered badly from the loss of so many wealthy inhabitants of the village and petitioned Parliament for aid. Hingham Massachusetts is nothing like Hingham in Norfolk; for a start is a coastal town, whereas the English village is deep in the interior of Norfolk. Until the coming of the railways many Norfolk people could live their whole lives without ever seeing the sea, in spite of the county being almost surrounded by water.
The most famous ship to take emigrants across the Atlantic was the Mayflower. She sailed from Rotherhithe on the Thames to Plymouth in 1620 en route to Massachusetts. She had been built towards the beginning of the 1600s in Harwich in Essex. Although the Pilgrim Fathers came from all over southern England, several of them were from Norfolk and Suffolk.
Many generations separate Samuel Lincoln from his descendant Abraham, and George Washington’s ancestral home in Northamptonshire cannot really be called part of Eastern England, but one of the most influential of political voices of the American War of Independence belonged to a Norfolkman born and bred. Tom Paine was born to a weaver in Thetford (note how the wool trade dominated the lives of East Anglians for centuries) and he was educated at the Grammar School there. You can read more about Thomas Paine in an earlier blog I wrote.
To get an idea of the more general way East Anglians were involved in the earliest settlement of the US look at all the place-names that we now associated with North America, but that originated in Norfolk. Yarmouth in Cape Cod was founded in 1639 and Norwich Connecticut in 1659. Norfolk itself means Norfolk Virginia to anyone from across the pond. Denver Colorado gets it name from James Denver, but indirectly from the fenland village in Norfolk. Of course many other parts of England have left their mark on the map of North America, but Norfolk is up there with the best.
So far I have only mentioned those who travelled westwards to the New World, but in the Second World War more American air force personnel were stationed in Norfolk than anywhere else in the UK. In view of the strong ties we in Norfolk have with North America I think we could do even more to foster tourism from the United States to our county.
THE BLOG FOR STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
He was born in 1737, and his quaker father was able to send him to Thetford Grammar School. His turn of phrase that made him such a popular pamphleteer in America must have been nurtured there. Thetford is an historic town; the first reference we have to it is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and dates from the year 870, before Norwich even existed. It was the see of the bishops of East Anglia at the time of William the Conqueror. Thetford Grammar School is possibly the oldest school in the country, going back some 1400 years.
Thetford and Norwich held the two Assize Courts in Norfolk, where the most serious cases were tried. Thomas Paine grew up in the shadow of Gallows Hill, something which undoubtedly led to his lifelong opposition to the death penalty. He voted against the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as a member of the National Convention. As a result he himself came with a whisker of being executed during the Terror.
His schooling ended when he was twelve, when he was apprenticed to his father as a corset maker. He left home as a young man and spent a year or so working in the Norfolk town of Diss. Although he lacked experience as a sailor he went to sea as a crewman aboard a privateer at the age of nineteen. The voyage was a success and his share of the booty netted him a small fortune. This gave him the means to further his education in an informal way in the lecture halls and coffee shops of London.
He married, but his first wife died in giving birth and the child also perished. A second marriage ended apparently without ever being consummated. By his late 30s his life appeared to be going nowhere. He was living at Lewes in Sussex when he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, the American philosopher, diplomat and inventor. This meeting changed his life. He decide to take ship to Pennsylvania where his lively mind soon threw him into the burgeoning intellectual life of the Colony. He became a popular journalist.
His was the major influence in the wording of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. With peace declare and the British acceptance of American independence in 1783 he was able to return to England. He had been completely unknown when he left these shores, but he certainly was not upon his return. His ability to put across his democratic sentiments in an unmistakable way earned him many friends among the common people and enemies in the establishment.
The developing situation across the channel in France presented Thomas Paine with the opportunity to attempt to put his mark on another revolution. Although ignorant of the French language he was elected the National Convention. In the Terror he was very nearly sent to the Guillotine. His uncompromising dedication to the truth as he saw it earned him enemies wherever he went. A brief period of peace in 1802 enabled him to return to the United States; he was unable to return to England having been convicted of seditious libel in absentia.
He was a free-thinker in advance of his time. His views on religion were very controversial during his lifetime, but they now seem rather moderate in our own more agnostic age. “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” He was a Deist, not an atheist, and believed in one God.
His call for free and universal education, old age pensions and family allowances – the Welfare State in fact – took well over a century to come about, and then only in parts of the developed world. His opposition to slavery did not bear fruit in the United States until more than fifty year after his death; his opposition to the death penalty is still only very partially reflected in legislatures around the world. Naturally he was opposed to any form of monarchy. In many ways he reminds me of Jeremy Corbyn. It is true that Tom Paine did not advocate the nationalisation of railways like Corbyn, but only because railways had not been invented; had they been I’m sure he would have wanted them in public ownership. Come to that, so do I.