But Why ‘Lexington’?

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William Whitmore: Antiquarian and Interested Party

William H. Whitmore, 1836–1900
Only a few years after Hudson’s history came out, William Henry Whitmore published a paper on the naming of Lexington. It appeared in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical society, to which he belonged, in 1873. Whitmore was a Boston businessman and man of letters, active in politics and in the city‘s politics and intellectual life—his literary and historical contributions persuaded Harvard to award him an MA, though he had never earned a bachelor‘s degree. Whitmore devoted much of his time to studying and writing about the nomenclature of Massachusetts towns, and was also active in the field of genealogy, contributing many articles on the subject to the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, which he edited. The families in which he took a genealogical interest naturally enough included his own.

In his paper, Whitmore cited and described Hudson’s theory, but went on to reject virtually all of that historian’s arguments. Although he conceded at the outset that there exists “no authoritative explanation for the selection of this name,” he was eager to propose a theory that differed radically from Hudson’s.

Describing or quoting Hudson’s arguments, Whitmore dismissed them one by one, and summed the case up this way: “…it seems that Mr. Hudson’s reasoning is wrong, because in the first place there is no proof that Dudley was acquainted with Lord Lexington; secondly, no evidence that they were relatives at all; thirdly, if related, the connection was extremely remote; and fourthly, a certainty [my emphasis] that the Governor, as such [that is, in his official capacity], had nothing to do with the name, and no evidence that Dudley, as an individual, had any connection with it.”
Joseph Dudley, provincial governor 1702–1715
The point that Whitmore leaned on most heavily was his certainty that the provincial governor, in 1713, had no official or customary role in naming towns. He had studied both colonial and provincial records, and found no evidence of acts or orders having a blank left for the governor to supply a name before 1732. This practice, he added, didn’t become common until about 1760.

Hudson’s phrasing of this point had been rather casual: "A custom is said to have prevailed ... in those days...”. Clearly, his timing was off by several decades. But this doesn’t amount to a serious hole in his argument unless you assume—as Whitmore’s argument does—that, if a governor didn’t write a town name into a blank provided for that express purpose, he must have had nothing to do with choosing the name. The information Whitmore found in the records, accurate though it may have been, doesn’t support that sweeping conclusion.

Having eliminated the governor as a possible source of the name, Whitmore set about eliminating the legislature as well, a case that was much easier to make. He pointed out that Lord Lexington was close to the leaders of the aristocratic Tory party, which fell from power very rapidly on Queen Anne’s death in 1714 (more than a year after the town of Lexington was named). The party’s leading lights were suspected of favoring the Stuart “Old Pretender,” King James II’s son, over George I, the German Elector of Hanover, who was designated Queen Anne’s successor by the Act of Settlement, an English law passed in 1701.

Massachusetts, bitterly opposed to the prospect of another Catholic monarch, had little use for the Tories. When George I assumed the throne, the province celebrated as enthusiastically as any county in England. Whitmore was on firm ground when he argued that Lord Lexington, a leading Tory, would have been an unlikely candidate for compliments from the General Court at this time. But the same would not be true with respect to Governor Dudley, whose connections and sympathies in British politics had always been on the Tory side.

Whitmore, now that he had demolished all of Hudson’s arguments to his own satisfaction, devoted the rest of his paper to the suggestion that the town’s name could have been chosen at the request of one of his own ancestors. He began with the modest statement that “I will propound a theory in reply, confessing, however, that it is not supported by the desired evidences.”
Part of a map of Laxton drawn in 1635
This confession is certainly founded in fact. Whitmore had learned that a Francis Whitmore, who died in England in 1649, was described in his probated will as being a native of Laxton. In Massachusetts, one of the Cambridge Farmers who signed the 1682 petition for a minister and meetinghouse was a man also named Francis Whitmore—the writer’s ancestor. This Francis Whitmore obviously couldn’t have been the man who died in 1649, but, more to the point, there’s no discoverable connection between the two. William Whitmore admitted that, but he said (in another of his articles) that he “like(d) to believe” that Francis Whitmore the Cambridge Farmer was the son of Francis Whitmore who made the will.

Francis Whitmore the Farmer was born in England—the place is not recorded—in 1625, and died in Cambridge Farms 60 years later in 1685. The order that gave Lexington its name wasn’t written until 1713, 28 years after Francis Whitmore's death. One of his sons still lived in Lexington. It takes a big stretch of the imagination to picture this younger Whitmore persuading his fellow citizens to name their town Lexington in honor of his late father, even if that gentleman had lived in the corresponding English town, but this is what William Whitmore suggests. It seems not to have occurred to him that, had the son ever heard his father speak fondly of his alleged but unsubstantiated birthplace, he would surely have heard it named Laxton rather than Lexington.

Whitmore ended his paper this way: “All that can be said is, that there was some reason for the name; if Francis Whitmore were born at Laxton, England, that would be sufficient reason; that Lord Lexington had nothing to do with the matter; and so for lack of certainty the question must still remain unsettled.” However, there’s no evidence, as the author admits, that Lexington’s Francis Whitmore was born in Laxton, and there’s considerable evidence that no one who lived there had called the town anything but Laxton for upwards of three centuries. Also, contrary to Whitmore’s assumption, Lord Lexington almost certainly did have something to do with the matter.

Shaky though Charles Hudson’s speculations are, it seems to me that they come a good deal closer to the probable truth than William Whitmore’s. That gentleman was a seventh-generation descendant of the Francis Whitmore who signed the Farmers’ petition (and whose house figures prominently in the formula for calculating the boundary between Cambridge proper and the Farms). We can’t really blame William Whitmore for wanting to explain the name of the town as a tribute to his family’s American founder, but we shouldn’t close our eyes to the serious defects in the case he tried to make for this worthy end.

(…continued—Click Next below.)