J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Thursday, July 09, 2020

“Become a violent advocate in the Cause of Liberty”

As recounted yesterday, Capt. Thomas Speakman was killed in the French and Indian War in January 1757.

Though I haven’t seen his probate records, Speakman appears to have left a considerable estate to his wife Mary and their children, including properties in Marlborough and Boston. But perhaps not as much as they needed to maintain their lifestyle. Then a house on Milk Street belonging to Thomas Speakman’s estate was among the buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of 1760.

Thomas and Mary Speakman’s oldest child, William, was then twenty years old, looking ahead to his career. The other surviving siblings included:
  • Gilbert Warner, born 7 Nov 1747
  • Hannah, born 1 Nov 1749
  • Sarah, born 27 Oct 1751
  • Mary, born 26 Sept 1754
One important asset for young William Speakman were the men who had married his late father’s sisters—the merchants John Rowe and Ralph Inman. Rowe in particular became a mentor for William and his younger brother. It’s possible William spent time in Rowe’s counting-house, learning business skills; Gilbert certainly did.

By 1765, at the age of twenty-five, Speakman was partners with a slightly older man named Thomas Chase at a rum distillery in the South End of Boston. William may have inherited that building from one of his grandfathers while Chase handled day-to-day management, but it’s hard to tell. Chase and Speakman also appear together on the records of King’s Chapel, sponsoring babies in their circle at baptism.

Then came the Stamp Act. Thomas Chase was one of a small group of young businessmen who organized public protests against that law, calling themselves the Loyall Nine and later the Sons of Liberty. On 15 Jan 1766 John Adams described dining with the group in “their own Apartment in Hanover Square, near the Tree of Liberty. It is a Compting Room in Chase & Speakmans Distillery. A very small Room it is.”

Speakman never appeared on the list of Whig activists, but he was activist-adjacent. I’ve found only one instance of him participating in politics. On 18 Mar 1768, the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act, his uncle Rowe reported that Speakman, Thomas Crafts, and John Avery took down “two effigies on Liberty Tree this morning marked C[harles]. P[axton]. and J[ohn]. W[illiams].” That action looks like supporting those Customs officials, but in fact Crafts and Avery were members of the Loyall Nine. They wanted to control such protests, and they were among the few men in town with the clout to take down someone else’s effigies when they thought the timing was bad.

A few months later, on 29 August, Rowe wrote in his diary: “Poor Wm. Speakman was taken in a fit & had doubtful Struggles for Life.” Speakman survived this health scare, but it probably prompted him to leave Boston and move out to Marlborough, where his mother was living. William and his brother Gilbert Warner Speakman (listed erroneously as “G. William Speakman”) appear on the 1770 list of polls reprinted in Charles Hudson’s history of the town.

Mary Speakman was an upper-class Anglican, a relative of imperial merchants, and thus a natural supporter of the royal government. But in that same month, on 7 August 1768, her Marlborough neighbor Christian Barnes reported to her friend Elizabeth Smith:
Mrs. Speakman was become a violent advocate in the Cause of Liberty which (if I was not upon my gard) would ocation some warm disputes but I saw so much of party rage in my last excurtion that I determin’d to surpress my sentiments rather than enter into any debate upon that subject.
The following year, on 20 Nov 1769, Barnes confirmed: “my Friend Mrs. Speakman still continues a Staunch Whig tho to do her Justice not from any Self interested Motives at least that I can see.”

It was in that context that Barnes wrote in June 1770 after locals vandalized her husband’s property (including a coach apparently bought from Smith):
it is said that a Young Gentleman (who had formily Headed the Mob in Boston and now resides with us) is the perpetrator of all this Mischeife but I will not beleive it till I have further profe
On 13 July, after the threats had escalated, Barnes was ready to name names:
I mention’d in my former Letter that some people affirm’d that Billy Speakman was the Person that cut your Coach to Peices I did not beleive it nor do I now but this I am certain of that those who have taken such a cruel Mession [?] to undermine us in our Business would stick at nothing to perpetuate their Scheem and who knows what these two Young fellows may be capible off and how far they may work up the People (already distracted with party rage) to Molest and injure us.
The “two Young fellows” appear to be William and his younger brother.

Meanwhile, the gulf between Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Speakman had widened to include not just politics but business.

COMING UP: What to do with Gibby?

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

The Speakman Chronicles, or, That Escalated Quickly

Last month, I said I didn’t know whom Christian Barnes was referring to when she wrote in June 1770 about “a young gentleman who has formilly headed the mob in Boston and now resides” in Marlborough.

I’ve since figured out who that young man is. But I’ll make a running start at him, beginning at the turn of the eighteenth century.

William Speakman (c. 1685-1748) was a baker from England, possibly Lancashire, who moved to Boston in the early 1700s. The town was growing, and he prospered. On his death the Boston Evening-Post said Speakman was “one of the rarest Instances of Industry and Diligence, that perhaps ever was in the Country.”

Speakman was also a pillar of the local Anglican church. He owned the land that the first Trinity Church (shown above) was built on and served as one of its first wardens. But he grew so wealthy that by the end of his life he was back at King’s Chapel, which had become the upper-class Anglican congregation.

William Speakman married Hannah Hackerel (spelled various ways) in 1719, and they had three children who grew to adulthood:
  • Thomas, born in 1722, who who went off to Harvard College in the late 1730s (a bit later than typical).
  • Hannah, born in 1725, who married merchant John Rowe.
  • Susannah, born in 1727, who married merchant Ralph Inman.
Clearly the Speakmans were rising in the world, and forging connections with other Anglican families.

Then Thomas fell off the collegiate track. He left Harvard in March 1740. When his classmates were about to graduate two years later, Thomas asked the college if he could get a diploma, too. The authorities decided “it would be neither agreeable to the Laws of this Society, nor for the Honour and Interest thereof.”

By then Thomas had married and become a father—hopefully in that order. We don’t have a date for his marriage to Mary Warner, but their first child, William, arrived in September 1740. So Mary was already well into her pregnancy when Thomas left college.

Mary was a daughter of Gilbert Warner, an Anglican distiller. The newlyweds’ fathers were both investors in the settlement of New Boston, New Hampshire. Mary’s father gave them property on Essex Street in Boston’s South End.

Thomas Speakman went into business in Boston. His father died in 1748, leaving a considerable estate, including a distillery in the South End. Mary’s father died in 1753, leaving the Speakmans more. They acquired substantial property in Marlborough. By this time Thomas and Mary had two sons and three daughters.

In 1755, Thomas Speakman volunteered to be a captain in a military force that Gov. William Shirley was assembling to fight the French. He served at first in Nova Scotia in the period when the British expelled thousands of French colonists. At the end of 1756 Speakman marched west to join in the fighting along Lake George and Lake Champlain.

Speakman and his company were assigned to the corps of rangers under Maj. Robert Rogers. On 17 Jan 1757, Speakman (whom Rogers referred to in his journal as “Spikeman”) joined in a “march on the ice down Lake George.” Also on this mission were Lt. John Stark and a gentleman volunteer with the 44th Regiment named Baker. After the major sent some injured soldiers back to Fort William Henry, there were 74 men in all.

By 21 January, Rogers wrote, the expedition was camped “about mid-way between Crown Point and Ticonderoga.” They spotted some sleds moving between the forts and captured seven prisoners, only to learn there were hundreds of French soldiers in the two posts and more coming. And some of the sled-men had gotten away, so they were no doubt warning their comrades of enemy rangers nearby. “I concluded it best to return,” Rogers wrote.

At about two o’clock that afternoon, as the British made their way through a small valley “in single file,” the enemy ambushed them from a hilltop. Two men were killed instantly, several more wounded. Rogers ordered his men back to another hill. In the withdrawal, he wrote, “We were closely pursued, and Capt. Spikeman, with several of the party, were killed, and others made prisoners.”

However, in early 1760 a young soldier named Thomas Brown returned to Charlestown from captivity and told a more grisly story. According to him, Speakman, the volunteer named Baker, and he were “all very badly wounded” and left behind as Rogers led the rest of the force away that night under darkness.

The three men built a fire on the snowy ground and talked about surrendering. Before they could, an “Indian came to Capt. Speakman, who was not able to resist, and stripp’d and scalp’d him alive.” Baker tried to kill himself with a knife, but the Native soldier stopped him and dragged him away. Only Brown had managed to hide in the woods.

Left for dead, Speakman called out to Brown “to give him a Tomahawk, that he might put an end to his life!” Brown urged the captain instead to pray for God’s mercy. “He desired me to let his Wife know (if I lived to get home) the dreadful Death he died.”

The next morning, Natives found Brown but treated his wounds and turned him over to the French. He recalled how they took him to see “Captain Speakman, who was laying in the place I left him; they had cut off his Head & fix’d it on a Pole.”

Maj. Rogers made it back to Fort William Henry on 23 January with 54 men. He had been shot himself; the New Hampshire soldier John Shute recalled seeing “one of the Rangers cutting off Rogers’ cue [queue] to stop the hole in his wrist.” Lt. Stark was given temporary command of Speakman’s company.

Capt. James Abercrombie, aide de camp to Gen. James Abercrombie [yes, I know], responded to Rogers’s report on the mission by writing, “I am heartily sorry for Spikeman…, who I imagined would have turned out well, as likewise for the men you have lost; but it is impossible to play at bowls without meeting with rubs.”

TOMORROW: Thomas Speakman’s wife and sons.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

“A Letter was left by some unknown Person”

In 1770, the Boston town meeting named Henry Barnes as one of a small group of businesspeople who were openly defying the town’s non-importation agreement.

Barnes was unusual in that group because his shop and main business were off in rural Marlborough, where he also oversaw some small manufacturing enterprises.

In a long letter written over June and July that I’ve been quoting, Henry’s wife Christian Barnes told her friend Elizabeth Smith how their neighbors tried to pressure him into backing down: public meetings (official and unofficial), window-breaking, not one but two effigies.

“But still finding that their malace had no effect,” Christian wrote, “they made a bold push and dropped an incendiary letter.”

Henry Barnes immediately sent a copy of the letter to Thomas Hutchinson at his home in Milton. The acting governor convened his Council at Cambridge on 25 June and showed them the letter. The Councilors asked Hutchinson to summon Barnes to another meeting.

On 28 June, Barnes brought “the original Incendiary Letter [and] his Oath annexed to authenticate the receipt.” Unable to stall any longer, the Council advised Hutchinson to issue a proclamation about it:
Whereas on the 21st. Inst. a Letter was left by some unknown Person at the House of Henry Barnes Esq. of Marlborough, directed to him, threatening to fire his Shop and destroy all his substance that he hath on ye Earth, to take his Body & Tar it & if nothing else will do but death he shall certainly have it if he did not shut up his Shop and forbear Selling and importing of Goods; to the receiving of which Letter in manner as aforesaid the said Henry Barnes made solemn oath…
The province offered a £50 reward for any information about the “unknown Person.”

The Barneses already felt besieged, and they were hearing bad news from friends in Boston. In her letter to Smith, Christian Barnes wrote about other supporters of the royal government being attacked:
Barnes told Smith:
You may judge what sleep I had that night, and, indeed, ever since we have sleept in such a manner that it can hardly be called rest. It is the business of the evening to see the firearmes loaded, and lights properly placed in the store and house; and this precaution we have taken ever since we received the letter.
As for Marlborough’s response, on 30 July the Boston Gazette published a dispatch from that town with this to say about the warning:
Afterwards Barns pretends to have found a letter, threatning of him, and has sent, to the selectmen for their assistance to discover the authors of so vile a thing, and after the most close search, and considering all circumstances of said letter, are of opinion that the same was hatched by Barns’s own party—and one of the Selectmen went and told Barns so; whereupon Barns raged furiously and said, “Then you think I swore falsly do you?” Afterwards Barnes pretends he expect a mob, whether from the horror of his own conscience, or the phrenzy of a Don Quixote and a Squire Sancho, is not said…
The modern term for this political tactic is, of course, “gaslighting.”

TOMORROW: Naming “the perpetrator of all this mischief”?

(The portrait of Christian Barnes above was painted by Prince Demah, who grew up enslaved in the Barnes household. She wrote about his talent for drawing portraits in 1769, and in late 1770 Henry Barnes took Demah to London for training. The artist later returned to Boston and advertised as a portraitist. Demah’s portraits of Christian and Henry Barnes are now owned by the Hingham Historical Society.)

Monday, July 06, 2020

An Effigy on Horseback in Marlborough

When we left merchant Henry Barnes sometimes in June 1770, his Marlborough neighbors had just hanged him in effigy.

A letter from Marlborough dated 20 July and published in Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette for 30 July gave some Whiggish townspeople’s view of that incident:
THERE was in Marlborough some time last June an old hay-bag stuffed with hay or straw formed with a man’s crotch, body, neck and head, but with a very little resemblance thereof, and hanged by the neck to a gallows with a paper fastened to his breast with these words written in capital letters, “A notorious Importer Henry, Tory, Booby, Tom, Bellus————a spectacle indeed!: and in the evening was cut down & burnt with loud huzzas; and was found to be an Impostor.
In her letter completed 6 July, 250 years ago today, Henry’s wife, Christian Barnes, told her friend Elizabeth Smith what happened next:
A few nights after they stole the covering from the wagon, which was tarred to secure the goods from the weather, and the same night stole a man’s horse from a neighboring stable. They dressed an image in this wagon covering, tarred the horse, saddle and bridle, placed the image upon his back, and set him loose about the town, with an infamous paper pinned to the breast, which was summed up with wishing of us all in hell.
Again, some of the Barnes’s neighbors put a different spin on that event:
Afterwards there appeared in the street an old horse with another hay bag in the fashion of the first, sitting upright on the saddle and made fast to the same, and both man [&] horse dripping with tar, and the old horse, whether by revelation or instinct, marched directly towards Sir Harry’s: but the horse on receiving a fright made off as fast as he could, but Tim. Swann (Barns’s boy) pursued the horse & man, but all in vain.
The Whigs of Marlborough weren’t denying that those public demonstrations of disapproval and intimidation had taken place. In fact, they wanted others in the province to know about those actions.

TOMORROW: A disputed “incendiary letter.”

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Reading Too Much into the Declaration

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about since I heard the “Celebrating the Fourth” episode of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast from Liz Covart and the Omohundro Institute.

That episode came out a year ago, though it took at least a couple of months for me to catch up to it through my listening backlog. Fortunately, good podcasts don’t go out of date.

The conversation started with John Adams’s famously wrong prediction that Americans would celebrate independence on 2 July, when the Second Continental Congress voted to separate from Britain. As we all know, we celebrate on 4 July, when the Congress issued its Declaration of Independence.

One of Liz’s interviewees was Prof. Benjamin E. Park of Sam Houston State University, author of American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in an Age of Revolutions (2018). Ben said:
When they ratified the written document,…that’s the moment we celebrate. And I think it’s important to take a moment and note why. I think there’s something in the written document. I think there’s something that’s tangible, there’s something that’s written. We’re a nation that celebrates…our founding ideals as captured in the written word. So I think it’s important the we celebrate for our Independence Day the day we have the document, not just the political vote or the political words.
I agree that the written tangibility of the Declaration is crucial in how the nation quickly came to celebrate Independence Day. I’m not convinced, however, that the choice of the Fourth shows a cultural preference for the written declaration over the political vote. And here’s a little thought experiment to explain why.

Imagine that the Continental Congress had issued a slightly different Declaration. Instead of starting, “In Congress, July 4, 1776, a Declaration…,“ the imaginary document started, “In Congress, per a resolve of July 2, 1776, a Declaration…”

Just like the Declaration we know, that text would have been printed, issued to newspapers, and sent out to all thirteen colonies and overseas. The newly independent states would have received that document at different times, just as they did historically. They would have announced the news on different dates. In New York City, for example, the official reading and unofficial statue-toppling was on 9 July. In Boston, both those rituals occurred on 18 July. But right up at the top of the document would come the big date from Philadelphia, “July 2, 1776.”

When 1777 rolled around, all thirteen states would celebrate one, united anniversary of independence. I don’t think officials and the public would consider the propriety of the date of the vote versus the date of the issuance of news. Even if they did prefer one or the other of those choices, they’d still have to rely on what information the Congress had sent out. The easiest course was simply to choose the big date at the top of the national document.

In this hypothetical scenario, John Adams’s prediction would have been absolutely right. As it was, he celebrated with other Americans on 4 July 1777 and showed no resentment, or even memory, of having predicted otherwise.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

There Once Was a Man from Virginia

Yesterday the Journal of the American Revolution observed Independence Day (Observed) by publishing contributors’ limericks about the Declaration of Independence.

I had one in that bunch, but I wrote others before choosing which to submit. Since the J.A.R. would publish only one, I’m sharing the rest here, you lucky people.

Here’s the verse that appeared in the J.A.R. round-up:
“Since our new circumstances allow,”
Said Congress, “we’ll separate now!”
But all the while,
Upon Staten Isle
A British advance force asked, “Howe?”
On 2 July 1776, the Continental Congress voted for independence, and on 4 July it approved its formal public declaration. In between, on 3 July, the British military under Adm. Richard Howe and Gen. William Howe began to land 10,000 troops on Staten Island.

Here’s one in the voice of Thomas Jefferson:
“With high-minded principles, my
Declaration nobly states why
We plan to leave, and says
Plenty of grievances,
But the bottom line’s ‘This is goodbye.’”
And speaking of grievances, some analyses of the Declaration’s complaints:
The king like a tyrant “assented”
To laws unjust and resented.
A well-founded cause?
A lot of those laws
Were never in fact implemented.

The king brought on “Indian savages,”
Well known for their “merciless” ravages.
That abuse was the worst!
(Though we did do it first,
So it all evened out in the averages.)
On John Adams’s immediate response to the vote:
Independency, John Adams reckoned,
Would be glorious, far-reaching, and fecund.
But as for the dating,
He foresaw celebrating
Not on the 4th, but the 2nd.
Finally, what turned out to be a well-founded anecdote about Benjamin Harrison, Elbridge Gerry, and signing the Declaration:
Big Harrison said to wee Gerry,
“After signing this, you should be wary.
When it comes time to hang, I’ll
Die quick, but you’ll dangle
For hours, and that will be scary.”
Enjoy the Fourth!

Friday, July 03, 2020

Revolutionary Cinema beyond Hamilton

Disney Plus is making a very big deal of airing the film of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton musical tonight. Though Boston 1775 reported on that show before it reached Broadway, I haven’t seen the whole thing, so I’m looking forward to watching. (Assuming my router stops having problems.)

My editor at Den of Geek invited me to write an article about other film and television depictions of the American Revolution. I didn’t foresee time to research and write a Top Ten list, and even if I had, it didn’t seem worthwhile to rank very different approaches.

Instead, I thought about ten myriad ways that filmmakers have depicted the American Revolution, including an earlier musical, star-driven Hollywood vehicles, animated cartoons, coastal melodramas, Loyalist stories from Canada, feminist semi-documentaries, and so on. For each recommendation I came up with yet another example in the same category.

Den of Geek being a pop-culture website, I looked for connections to other entertainment. This, I ended up comparing Liberty’s Kids to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and noting that the director of Mary Silliman’s War has more recently directed episodes of The Umbrella Academy.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

”Altering the Name of ROYAL Exchange Lane”

As I quoted yesterday, in 1796 William Cobbett, a Federalist writer based in Philadelphia, complained about Bostonians changing the name of “Royal Exchange Alley” to “Equality Lane.”

Cobbett said this showed the pernicious effect of the French Revolution on America. He thought that the name “Liberty Stump” showed the same effect even though, as discussed yesterday, that term for the remains of Liberty Tree predated the French Revolution by over a decade.

The name “Equality Lane” doesn’t appear in the records of the Boston selectmen. It’s not mentioned in the town directories of 1789 and 1796, the earliest issued. I haven’t found it on any maps of the town. In 1910 the city published A Record of the Streets, Alleys, Places, etc. in the City of Boston, and that doesn’t include “Equality Lane” as an entry or as an alternative name for Exchange Alley.

Nonetheless, Cobbett was correct. For a very short time, under the influence of news from republican France, at least some Bostonians did rename Royal Exchange Alley as Equality Lane. The new name shows up in newspapers of early 1793—and let me tell you, those newspapers are wild!

The first hint of a change appears in the 21 Jan 1793 issue of Benjamin Edes’s Boston Gazette. That paper was full of news from Europe, including a list of “Places subdued by the victorious French,” a description from London of a procession in “Stratsbourg" in which “Louis the last was personated,” and news of a “Tree of Liberty” planted in Belfast with “NO KING AND LIBERTY” inscribed on it.

A great deal of page 3 was about a Civic Feast that Bostonians were planning later that week to celebrate “the triumph of Liberty in France,” which had become a republic in September 1792. A committee was selling tickets to a banquet inside Faneuil Hall, trying to gather the banners left over from President George Washington’s visit in 1789, and urging people to close their shops at noon. There would be plenty of roast ox, the committee promised.

One of the paragraphs associated with that festival said of a volunteer militia company:
The Boston Independent Fusileers, are to celebrate the CIVIC FEAST at Bryant’s Hall, near the Exchange.—They will make their appearance with a Cockade similar to that worn by the National Guards of France, the form of which was recommended to the Company by Madame PLACIDE.
John Bryant had announced just the previous month that he had “opened a Boarding and Lodging-House, in that large, roomy, and elegant building in Exchange-Lane.”

In the midst of all that festive planning was this small item:
A correspondent submits to the Citizens Selectmen, the propriety of altering the Name of ROYAL Exchange Lane.
As I said, there’s no evidence in the selectmen’s records that they took up that question, but the newspapers of the following weeks show that John Bryant did.

COMING UP: The citizens’ feast of 1793.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The Origin of “Liberty Stump”

In 1796 the British-born, Philadelphia-based bookseller and publisher William Cobbett issued “A History of the American Jacobins, &c.” as an pseudonymous appendix to his edition of William Playfair’s The History of Jacobinism, Its Crimes, Cruelties and Perfidies.

Playfair (1759-1823) was the inventor of the bar graph, the pie chart, and other forms of presenting data that infuse our information culture. He was also a secret agent for the British government during its wars with Revolutionary France. At the same time Playfair wrote that book about Jacobinism, he was trying to collapse the French economy with counterfeit money. But I digress.

In that appendix on “American Jacobins,” Cobbett as “Peter Porcupine” claimed the French Revolution had inspired a fad for renaming places in America to reflect more radical, less royal values. He stated:
The rage for re-baptism, as the French call it, also spread very far. An alley at Boston, called Royal Exchange Alley, and the stump of a tree, in the same town, which had borne the name of Royal, were re-baptized with a vast deal of formality: the former was called Equality Lane, and the latter Liberty Stump.
Cobbett had arrived in the U.S. of A. in late 1792 and appears to have known Boston only through newspapers. He was mistaken about the origin of the phrase “Liberty Stump,” which Bostonians used for over a decade before the start of the French Revolution.

“Liberty Stump” was no more and no less than the remains of Liberty Tree, so dubbed by Boston Whig leaders in September 1765. Ten years later, in the summer of 1775, Loyalists and British soldiers chopped down that political landmark. That tree was a large and stately elm, but neither it nor its stump had ever been designated “Royal.”

The term “Liberty Stump” appeared in November 1776 in an advertisement in the Continental Journal. Locals must already have been referring to it by that phrase. Before the end of the war many other Bostonians used the same term in their ads, including the chemist Robert Hewes, the printers Ezekiel Russell and Nathaniel Coverly, the hostess Mary Freeman, and the maltster William Patten.

The last advertisement I found dropping the phrase “Liberty Stump” was in the Columbian Centinel in June 1803. Two years later the Boston Commercial Gazette received a letter signed “Liberty Stump,” but the editors declined to publish its contents as “too personal.”

After that, the phrase disappears from the newspaper database I use until 1824, when Lafayette came through town and stopped to view the half-century-old stump, prompting patriotic nostalgia.

Thus, “Liberty Stump” was in no way an example of American “Jacobins” renaming sites to reflect their new politics. Instead, it was a way Revolutionary Bostonians held onto a homegrown political tradition.

Of course, Liberty Tree had been an example of American “Patriots” renaming sites to reflect their new politics. But Cobbett didn’t object to that example of “re-baptism”—only to examples coming from a political movement he disliked.

TOMORROW: What about “Equality Lane”?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

“The principal cause of the Mobbish turn in this Town”?

Early this month I recounted some moments in the mid-1700s when the royal governors of Massachusetts found themselves stymied by crowds protesting for their traditional liberties.

Without army units nearby or a large, full-time police force, no power in the province was strong enough to pacify the mass of ordinary men. Except, that is, a government that accommodated their demands for respect and rights.

In letters to London, those governors offered their diagnoses of how that situation had come about. Gov. William Shirley didn’t say the root of the problem was the Royal Navy forcing sailors and other young men into service. Gov. Francis Bernard didn’t say that Parliament made a mistake in imposing a tax without representation. Those officials said the basic problem was that Boston and Massachusetts’s forms of government were too democratic.

On 1 Dec 1747, Shirley wrote to the Lords of Trade:
But what I think may be esteem’d the principal cause of the Mobbish turn in this Town, is it’s Constitution; by which the Management of it is devolv’d upon the populace assembled in their Town Meetings; one of which may be called together at any time upon the Petition of ten of the meanest Inhabitants, who by their Constant attendance there generally are the majority and outvote the Gentlemen, Merchants, Substantial Traders and all the better part of the Inhabitants; to whom it is Irksome to attend at such meetings, except upon very extraordinary occasions;

and by this means it happens, as it would do among any other Community in a Trading Seaport Town under the same Constitution, where there are about Twenty thousand [actually about 16,000] Inhabitants, consisting among others of so many working Artificers, Seafaring Men, and low sort of people, that a factious and Mobbish Spirit is Cherish’d; whereas the same Inhabitants under a different Town-Constitution proper for the Government of so populous and Trading a place, would probably form as well dispos’d a Community for every part of his Majesty’s Service as any the King has under his Government.
Here’s Bernard in 1765, arguing for an appointed Council rather than one elected by the Massachusetts elite, in turn elected by the white men of property in their towns:
The Authority of the King, the Supremacy of Parliament, the Superiority of Government are the real Objects of the attack; and a general levelling of all the powers of Government, & reducing it into the hands of the whole people is what is aimed at, & will, at least in some degree, succeed, without some external assistance.

The Council, which formerly used to be revered by the people has lost its weight, & notwithstanding their late spirited exertion, is in general timid & irresolute, especially when the Annual Election draws near. That fatal ingredient in the Composition of this Constitution is the bane of the whole: and never will the royal Scale be ballanced with that of the people ’till the Weight of the Council is wholly put into the former. The making the Council independent of the people (even tho’ they should still receive their original Appointment from them) would go far to cure all the disorders which this Government is Subject to.
Making the Council appointed instead of elected was one of the big changes of the 1774 Massachusetts Government Act.

Thomas Hutchinson was speaker of the house under Gov. Shirley and lieutenant governor and chief justice under Gov. Bernard. He became royal governor himself in 1770 and took up his predecessors’ complaints about the people (i.e., the white men of property) having too much power.

Here’s Hutchinson writing to Bernard on 24 May 1771:
The town of Boston is the source from whence all the other parts of the Province derive more or less troubled water. When you consider what is called its constitution, your good sense will determine immediately that it never can be otherwise for a long time together, whilst the majority which conducts all affairs, if met together upon another occasion, would be properly called a mob, and are persons of such rank and circumstance as in all communities constitute a mob, there being no sort of regulation of voters in practice; and as these will always be most in number, men of weight and value, although they wish to suppress them, cannot be induced to attempt to do it for fear not only of being outvoted, but affronted and insulted. Call such an assembly what you will, it is really no sort of government, not even a democracy, at best a corruption of it.

There is no hopes of a cure by any legislative but among ourselves to compel the town to be a corporation. The people will not seek it, because every one is sensible his importance will be lessened. If ever a remedy is found, it must be by compelling them to swallow it, and that by an exterior power,—the Parliament.
To “compel the town to be a corporation” meant ending the town-meeting form of government and becoming a city with an elected mayor and council—a change Boston eventually made in 1822, to some controversy.

Instituting a mandamus Council didn’t quell disturbances in Massachusetts. In fact, it spread them, producing militia uprisings in the countryside within weeks. Ending Boston’s town meetings didn’t end riots in Boston. Instead, American governments became more democratic than the royal governors would have imagined in their worse nightmares, and popular protests became less destructive.