Citizen subjects: the memoirs
of Stephen Burroughs and Benjamin Franklin
In a popular Government, the political and physical power may be considered as vested in the same hands, that is in a majority of the people, and consequently the tyrannical will of the sovereign is not to be controuled by the dread of an appeal to any force within the community.
(James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 1788) 1
In 1786, the small town of Pelham, Massachusetts counted among its inhabitants both Daniel Shays and a fraudulent preacher named Stephen Burroughs. While the fame of the former grew out of his “open” challenge to the authority of the State, Burroughs earned his notoriety by presenting various false faces to the people of western Massachusetts. Born in 1766 in South Killingly, Connecticut, Burroughs, the only son of a Presbyterian clergyman, spent most of his childhood in Hanover, New Hampshire. After an interrupted enlistment in the continental army at age fourteen, he received education from a Connecticut minister and at Dartmouth College in Hanover, from which he was expelled in his sophomore year. He spent the 1780s in various parts of New England trying to make a living without falling afoul of the local authorities. He was involved in, or accused of (among other things) preaching under false pretences, passing counterfeit coin, and, when employed as a schoolteacher, of sexually assaulting his female pupils. The Memoirs of Stephen Burroughs were first published by Benjamin True in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1798, and a second installment appeared in 1804. But the most popular of the many versions was an 1809 “Sketch of the Life of Stephen Burroughs …” that went through numerous reprintings throughout New England from 1810 to 1818. According to Philip Gura in the introduction to the most recent edition, there had been more