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.

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

“I hereby send you a Copy of the other Part of the Letter”

On 23 June 1768, a committee from the Massachusetts General Court asked Gov. Francis Bernard for documents related to the House’s circular letter of 11 February.

House members wanted the whole text of a couple of specific letters from London they had heard about—plus, as the governor wrote to his boss, Secretary of State Hillsborough, “Copies of my Letters to your Lordship upon the Subject.” Bernard recognized that as a fishing expedition.

The next morning—250 years ago today—the governor sent the House a copy of the last two paragraphs of Hillsborough’s 22 April letter, which ordered him to end the legislative session if the House refused to rescind its circular letter.

In his cover message Bernard stated:
I should have communicated the whole of the Earl of Hillsborough’s Letter relating to the Business which I laid before you the 21st instant [i.e., of this month], if I had not been desirous that your Compliance with his Majesty’s Requisition might have its fullest Merit, by its appearing to be entirely dictated by a Sense of your Duty.

But since you desire to know what my further Orders are, I hereby send you a Copy of the other Part of the Letter relative to this Business, which contains all my Instructions thereupon. And as I know you will not expect that I should disobey the King’s positive Commands, I must desire that if you shall resolve to oblige me to execute them, you will previously to your giving your final Answer, prevent the inconveniences which must fall upon the People for want of the annual Tax-Bill, which I understand is not as yet sent up to the Board [i.e., the Council].

For if I am obliged to dissolve the General Court, I shall not think myself at liberty to call another, till I receive his Majesty’s Commands for that purpose, which will be too late to prevent the Treasurer [Harrison Gray] issuing his Warrants for the whole Tax granted by the Act of last year.

As to the Letter of the Earl of Hillsborough which I communicated to the Council, I must beg Leave to be the proper Judge of the time and occasion of communicating any papers I receive to the Council or the House. If I had then thought it expedient to lay it before the House, I should have then done so; when I shall think it so, I shall do it.

As to your Request of Copies of my Letters to the Secretary of State, you may assure yourselves that I shall never make public my Letters to his Majesty’s Ministers, but upon my own Motion, and for my own Reasons.
In sum, I didn’t show you the Crown’s orders right away because I know you dislike being made to do things. Also, you can’t make me do things.

As for the “Tax-Bill,” British legislatures had leverage over the executive because they constitutionally controlled taxation and thus the funding for governmental functions. But in this case, the governor pointed out, legislators had hopes of lowering their constituents’ taxes, and to do that they had to remain in session—which meant cooperating with him, since he had the power to dissolve the General Court.

With that message, Gov. Bernard had divulged all parts of Hillsborough’s 22 April letter except the first line:
I have received, and laid before the King, Your Letters to the Earl of Shelburne N[umber]s. 4. 5. & 6. with the Inclosures.
(The Secretary of State’s office and royal governors numbered their letters so that the other side would know if one had been lost or delayed in crossing the ocean.)

That seems like an innocuous sentence, but Bernard had a strong reason to keep it hidden. With those words the Earl of Hillsborough made clear that the negative view he had of Massachusetts and its legislature was based on the information his predecessor had received from the governor. Bernard had been assuring the province’s politicians that he presented them to his superiors in the best possible light. Most local Whigs didn’t believe him, but without access to his correspondence they couldn’t prove that suspicion. That’s why they had kept asking for his letters.

TOMORROW: What changed the House’s mind about the circular letter—a hypothesis.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Request for Documents Concerning the Circular Letter

On 22 June 1768, the Massachusetts House chose a committee to respond to Gov. Francis Bernard’s transmission of the Earl of Hillsborough’s response to their circular letter.

That committee consisted largely of the men who had served on the committees that created the circular letter in the first place: speaker Thomas Cushing, clerk Samuel Adams, both James Otises, John Hancock, and Jerathmeel Bowers, plus three more representatives:
On 23 June, 250 years ago today, that committee told the assembly that to reply to the governor’s message
it would be of great Use to them, to have before them a Copy of his Majesty’s Instructions referred to therein, the whole of Lord Hillsborough’s Letter, his Excellency’s [i.e., the governor’s] own Letters on the Occasion; and also another Letter from Lord Hillsborough to his Excellency, said to have been communicated to the honorable Board [i.e., the Council].
After the speaker called in all members, they voted to send Otis to the Council to request any letters from Hillsborough it had. Councilor William Brattle came back with the message that they had only heard province secretary Andrew Oliver read the letters to them, so they had no copies.

The House then approved another committee of five to carry its request for documents to the governor. It strikes me as significant that four of that new committee’s members had military titles, and Spooner was the only overlap with the larger committee. The House didn’t give Bernard any opening to complain that this request came from unpatriotic malcontents.

Since our federal Freedom of Information Act and Presidential Records Act, we have a fairly expansive expectation of getting to see government documents—eventually, at least, even if they have to be Scotch-taped back together.

Back in the eighteenth century, even British governments didn’t operate so openly. Parliamentary debates weren’t regularly transcribed or published, and rare reports of speeches appeared with the members’ names disguised just in case publication turned out to be illegal. Likewise, the Massachusetts House records say nothing about the first, unsuccessful attempt to win approval for the circular letter or of Otis’s “harangue” against the royal government on 22 June.

The executive branch was particularly closed. All of its members theoretically acted as one on behalf of the King and enjoyed some measure of royal privilege. That’s why the Earl of Hillsborough wrote in the name of “his Majesty” and Gov. Bernard had referred to the earl’s letter as being “his Majesty’s Instruction.” Bernard and Hillsborough considered their correspondence confidential, available to the legislature or public only on the terms they chose.

But of course Gov. Bernard knew that simply refusing the House’s request to see those letters would give them something new to complain about. He faced the question of whether that would be worse than releasing them.

TOMORROW: Selective disclosure.

Friday, June 22, 2018

“A Speech near two hours long of the most violent & virulent Nature”

By mid-June 1768, the Massachusetts House had received several favorable responses to the circular letter that the previous elected assembly had sent out in February.

Speaker of the house Thomas Cushing’s counterparts had replied from New Hampshire (25 February), Virginia (9 May), New Jersey (9 May), South Carolina (10 June), and Connecticut (11 June), with Georgia (16 June) and Rhode Island (5 August) still to come.

Of course, that list didn’t include the big colonies of New York and Pennsylvania, containing the two biggest ports in North America. They would be necessary for any united political movement against the Townshend Act.

On 21 June, Gov. Francis Bernard sent the House another response to the circular letter: a message from the Earl of Hillsborough, the new Secretary of State for the colonies in London, demanding that the body retract the document.

Bernard knew Massachusetts’s legislators wouldn’t like that. On 18 June he had written to another London official about how getting H.M.S. Romney to stop impressing sailors in Boston harbor had put him in a good political position, but he expected that to change drastically:
A Civil Treatment of a petition of the Town to me, a plain friendly answer thereto & some real Service by interposing with the man of war, have given me a little popularity. But it wont last a week: as soon as I have executed the orders I have just recieved from the Secretary of State, in the general Assembly, there will be an end of my popularity. And I dont know whether I shant be obliged to act like the Capt of a fireship, provide for my retreat before I light the fusee.
In passing on Hillsborough’s message, Bernard told the Massachusetts assembly, “I am merely ministerial in this Business, having received his Majesty’s Instructions for all I have to do in it.” In other words, don’t blame the messenger.

There were ninety-eight legislators present, clerk Samuel Adams recorded. They decided to discuss the letter the next day at 10:00 A.M. At that time, seven more members joined the body.

Here’s what Bernard understood happened 250 years ago today:
[James] Otis made a Speech near two hours long of the most violent & virulent Nature. He abused all Persons in Authority both here and at home. He indeed excepted the Kings Person, but traduced his Government with all the Bitterness of Words.

He said “that the King appointed none but Boys for his Ministers; that they had no Education but travelling thro’ France, from whence they returned full of the slavish Principles of that Country; that they knew Nothing of Business when they came into their Offices, and did not stay long enough to acquire that little Knowledge which is gained from Experience; that all Business was really done by the Clerks, & even they were too frequently changed to understand what they were about; that the People in England did not know what the Rights of Englishmen capable of composing so elegant so pure and so nervous a Writing as the Petition to the King which passed the last Session.” &c.

I give your Lordship a Specimen of this Rhapsody: and it was remarked that in this general Censure of the Kings Government No Exception was made of the Minister who favoured America by the Repeal of the Stamp-Act & by other Indulgences; by the Abuse whereof this very Faction has rose to this Head [i.e., William Pitt]: All were involved in one common Obloquy. I quote these Sayings from the Mouths of those who heard them delivered in the House which was laid quite open, both Doors and Gallery, upon this Occasion. But neither they nor I can pretend to Exactness of Words; but the Substance I dare say does not vary Materially. In another Part of the Speech, he passed an Encomium upon Oliver Cromwell and extolled the Times preceeding his Advancement and particularily the Murther of the King.

The Result was the appointing a Committee to take the Message &c into Consideration, which Committee consisted entirely of the most violent of the Heads of the Faction viz the Representatives of the Town of Boston & 3 of those whom I had refused to admit into the Council upon Account of their having been distinguished by their fomenting the Troubles of Government, with two others. Thus the House seemed to prejudge this Business in the Appointment of a Committee: and indeed the Appointment of a Committee at all shewed a Disposition to argue rather than submit.
Yes, things weren’t looking good for a quiet, obedient retraction of the circular letter as the Earl of Hillsborough had demanded.

TOMORROW: A request for documents.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

“A Measure of so inflammatory a Nature”

In February 1768, the Massachusetts House sent its soon-to-be-famous Circular Latter to other colonial legislatures.

That same month, Wills Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough (shown here), took over as Secretary of State for North America. Like his predecessor, the Earl of Shelburne, Hillsborough came from the Whig faction in Parliament, but he favored stricter measures to maintain the British Empire’s central authority. He sent off a response to the Massachusetts letter in April.

By the time that letter reached North America, there had been several more conflicts between Gov. Francis Bernard and the Boston Whigs.

First, as soon as Bernard asked the House for a copy of its circular letter, James Otis, Jr., asked for copies of Bernard’s correspondence with the ministry. He was fishing for evidence that Bernard had criticized the province while assuring locals he was looking out for their interests. Bernard insisted, “There certainly never was such a request made by an Assembly to a royal Governor since America was colonised.” [We still debate the bounds of “executive privilege.”]

Then there was a blow-up over a Boston Gazette essay criticizing Bernard (not quite by name), written pseudonymously by Dr. Joseph Warren, as mentioned back here. The Council, full legislature, and finally a Suffolk County grand jury all gave Gov. Bernard the runaround on a libel case.

In May, the province’s voters elected a new Massachusetts General Court, as I described last month. That led the governor into a confrontation with John Hancock and the Cadets. Then came the choice of Councilors. Of the seven men newly voted onto the Council, four had been members of the committee that drafted one or both forms of the circular letter. No wonder Gov. Francis Bernard vetoed all but one.

June brought impressment by the Royal Navy, the Customs house seizure of Hancock’s sloop Liberty riot, the ensuing riot, and most Customs Commissioners and top employees fleeing to Castle William for their safety. Even as he tried to calm that situation on 15 June, Gov. Bernard received the Earl of Hillsborough’s letter.

It said:
I have received, and laid before the King, Your Letters to the Earl of Shelburne N[umber]s. 4. 5. & 6. with the Inclosures.

It gives great Concern to His Majesty to find that the same Moderation, which appeared by Your Letter (No: 3) to have been adopted at the Beginning of the Session in a full Assembly, had not continued, and that, instead of that Spirit of Prudence and Respect to the Constitution, which seemed at that Time to influence the Conduct of a large Majority of the Members, a thin House at the End of the Session should have presumed to revert to, and resolve upon, a Measure of so inflammatory a Nature, as that of writing to the Other Colonies on the Subject of their intended Representations against some late Acts of Parliament.

His Majesty considers this Step as evidently tending to create unwarrantable Combinations to excite an unjustifiable Opposition to the constitutional Authority of Parliament, and to revive those unhappy Divisions and Distractions which have operated so prejudicially to the true Interests of Great Britain and the Colonies.

After what passed in the former Part of the Session, and after the declared Sense of so large a Majority, when the House was full, His Majesty cannot but consider this as a very unfair Proceeding, and the Resolutions taken thereupon to be contrary to the real Sense of the Assembly, and procured by Surprize, and therefore it is the King’s Pleasure, that so soon as the general Court is again assembled at the Time prescribed by the Charter, You should require of the House of Representatives, in his Majsty’s Name, to rescind the Resolution which gave Birth to the Circular Letter from the Speaker, and to declare their Disapprobation of, & Dissent to that rash and hasty Proceeding.
The Secretary of State had come away from Bernard’s letters with the impression that a minority faction of the House had manipulated attendance and surprised fellow legislators to sneak the circular letter through. Bernard hadn’t really written that. From the radicals’ perspective, they had debated the letter at length, followed the chamber’s rules, and won a clear majority vote.

Having demanded that the assembly retract the letter, Hillsborough then told Bernard what to do if it didn’t obey.
His Majesty has the fullest Reliance upon the Affection of His good Subjects in the Massachusett’s Bay, and has observed with Satisfaction that Spirit of Decency and Love of Order which has discovered itself in the Conduct of the most considerable of It’s Inhabitants, and therefore His Majesty has the better Ground to hope that the Attempts made by a desperate Faction to disturb the public Tranquillity will be discountenanced, and that the Execution of the Measure recommended to You will not meet with any Difficulty.

If it should, and if notwithstanding the apprehensions which may justly be entertained of the ill Consequence of a Continuance of this factious Spirit, which seems to have influenced the Resolutions of the Assembly at the Conclusion of the last Session, the new Assembly should refuse to comply with His Majesty’s reasonable Expectation; It is the King’s Pleasure that you should immediately dissolve them, & transmit to me, to be laid before His Majsty, an Account of their Proceedings thereupon, to the End that His Majesty may, if he thinks fit, lay the whole Matter before His Parliament, that such Provisions as shall be found necessary may be made to prevent for the future a Conduct of so extraordinary & unconstitutional a Nature.
Gov. Bernard knew the situation in Boston much better than his new boss. On 21 June 1768, 250 years ago today, he communicated the Crown’s displeasure to the House. But he did so carefully, knowing how its members tended to react, as he told Hillsborough:
On that Day in the forenoon I sent a Message to the House (a Copy of which I inclose) together with a Copy of the 2nd 3d & 4th Paragraphs of your Lordships Letter. I did not send a Copy of the 5th & 6th Paragraphs; because I knew that the Faction would make Use of them to insinuate that the House was treated with Threats in the first Instance, before their Minds were known, and were not allowed Freedom of Debate concerning what was required of them. If I had sent no Extracts at all but incorporated the Substance of your Lordships Letter into my Message, they then would have called for the Letter itself and not proceeded ’till I had given a Copy of it. As it was, I steered this Business in the right Way.
TOMORROW: How that went over.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Voting Against and For the Circular Letter

It’s hard to know exactly what happened when James Otis, Jr., Samuel Adams, and the rest of their committee presented the Massachusetts General Court with the first draft of a circular letter to other colonial assemblies on 21 Jan 1768.

Legislative records were spare then, rarely reporting debates or vote counts, and in this case that record was altered. No pertinent diaries or letters survive from the politicians involved. One contemporaneous source, speaker of the house Thomas Cushing (shown here), supported the measure and spun the situation his way. Another, Gov. Francis Bernard, opposed the measure and also had to rely on secondhand reports.

According to Bernard:
There is no Doubt but that the principal Design in forming this Remonstrance was to set an Example to the rest of America, & produce a general Clamour from evry other Assembly against the late Acts [the Townshend duties]. This was partly defeated by my refusing to call the Assembly before the usual time; & again by the House resolving to form their remonstrance in such a manner that it should not of necessity be made publick. But tho’ this last intention was quite inconsistent with the purpose of communicating the Substance of their remonstrance to the other Assemblies yet it did not discourage the party from attempting it.

The House was accordingly moved that a day be assigned to take into consideration the propriety of informing the other Governments with their proceedings against the late Acts, that, if they thought fit; they might join therein. Upon the day this was strongly opposed & fully debated: it was said by the opposers of the Motion, that they would be considered at home as appointing another congress [like the Stamp Act Congress]; and perhaps the former was not yet forgot.

Upon the close of the debate it was carried in the negative by at least 2 to 1. No one transaction in the House has given me so great hopes that they are returning to a right Sense of their Duty & their true intrest as this has done; and I hope it will make some attonement for their remonstrance.
Cushing acknowledged that the measure failed to pass that day, adding that eighty-two legislators were present—about three-quarters of all representatives, not an unusually low number for a winter session.

Bernard quickly wrote to London about his victory. In his own words, “I formed promising Conclusions from this Defeat of the factious Party. But I was too hasty in my Approbation of the Conduct of the House.”

Something changed over the next two weeks, but I’m not sure what. The House continued to approve letters protesting the Townshend Act to British government figures: the Marquess of Rockingham (22 January), the Earl of Camden (29 January), and the Earl of Chatham (2 February). On 26 January “the Expediency of Writing Letters to the Houses of Representatives” was raised again and put off. Lots of other legislative work got done.

Then, on 4 February, the House formally reconsidered its former decision. Under the chamber’s rules, that was allowed because there were at least as many legislators present as at the original vote. To be exact, Cushing wrote that he allowed the vote, “it appearing about eighty two members were present”—which seems a little fudgey but close enough for government work. Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wrote that the rule “was not always adhered to, though said to be on this occasion.”

According to Cushing, “a large Majority” of House members voted to revoke the earlier decision and expunge the record of their first vote. They chose a new committee, drawn largely from the one that had drafted the letters so far: Cushing, Otis, Adams, Joseph Hawley, Jerathmeel Bowers, Samuel Dexter, and now Ezra Richmond. That committee’s work was accepted by the House on the morning of 11 February. Cushing reported that day eighty-three legislators were present, and the circular letter was “accepted almost unanimously.”

Again, it’s not clear why there was a turnaround. The vote counts all appear to have been genuine. They didn’t come at the end of a session when members had started to leave. Gov. Bernard accused the opposition of “privately tampering with, & influencing particulars,” but that probably meant normal legislative lobbying and dealmaking. Neither he nor Hutchinson could point to anything more nefarious.

A significant number of legislators must have decided that the circular letter wasn’t as problematic as they had thought three weeks before, or that the imperial situation was dire enough to require such drastic action. Whatever happened, the Massachusetts Circular Letter went out to the other colonies, and Gov. Bernard hurried a copy to London.

TOMORROW: The Empire tries to strike back.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Behind Massachusetts’s Circular Letter

The story of the Massachusetts Circular Letter of 1768 starts with the previous year’s session of the Massachusetts General Court.

That provincial legislature was supposed to reconvene after its spring session on 2 Sept 1767. But that summer Parliament enacted the Townshend Act, a new way of raising revenue in the American colonies.

Newspaper essayists protested the new law. Boston’s town meeting started talking about cutting imports. John Dickinson’s Letters from an American Farmer appeared. Gov. Francis Bernard delayed calling the legislature back into session as long as he could.

But finally, with a border dispute with New York to be resolved, the governor reconvened the General Court on 30 December. That was “sooner than I intended,” he told his superior in London; “rather earlier than usual,” he told the legislators.

Instead of taking up the border issue, the House proceeded to consider “the State of the Province” and its charter in relation to “divers Acts of Parliament”—meaning the Townshend Act. The House formed a committee to address those questions dominated by strong Whigs: speaker Thomas Cushing, clerk Samuel Adams, both James Otises, Joseph Hawley, John Hancock, Edward Sheaffe, Jerathmeel Bowers, and Samuel Dexter. Only then did the House turn to other matters.

According to Bernard, Cushing had told him before this legislative session that the House planned to protest the Townshend Act. In reply, the governor warned that Parliament would probably not be amenable, adding:
that if they should think proper to address his Majesty’s Secretary of State upon this occasion, it was my Official Business to take the charge of it & I should faithfully remitt it whatever the contents were. And if they put it into other hands, I should remonstrate against it as being irregular & unconstitutional for any addresses to pass from an Assembly (where the King has a representative presiding) to his Majesty either directly or indirectly, except thro’ the mediation of his Representative.
By “other hands,” the governor meant Dennis DeBerdt, the new agent, or lobbyist, for the Massachusetts House in London. Bernard had tried to stop the House from hiring DeBerdt because he thought that a single chamber of the legislature shouldn’t have its own lobbyist, independent of the Council and himself.

Naturally, the House committee responded by first drafting a letter to DeBerdt, which it presented to the whole chamber on 12 January. The principal authors of that document and the committee’s other productions appear to have been James Otis, Jr., and Samuel Adams, though it’s unclear how they collaborated.

The representatives went through two days of intermittent debate. Bernard understood that “many Offencive passages were struck out.” But eventually the House approved that text and instructed Speaker Cushing to sign it on their behalf.

On 15 January, that first letter finally done, the same committee proffered a similar missive to the Earl off Shelburne as Secretary of State for North America. Nobody knew that Shelburne had been dismissed from that post at the end of October.

Five days later, the committee rolled out its biggest gun yet: a letter to King George III himself. The House approved that “humble Petition to the KING” after “divers Amendments.” All this time, Gov. Bernard was asking Cushing to see the letters. The speaker put him off, saying the chamber had voted not to make any copies until he was to sign the documents.

On 21 January, the House took up yet another proposal from the committee: to send a circular letter on those issues to all the other North American legislatures. Circular letters were a standard bureaucratic tool; the London government sent them regularly to the royal governors. But legislatures were supposed to communicate upward to those governors and the Crown, not independently. And especially not to create a united front against one of Parliament’s laws.

TOMORROW: Gov. Bernard stops the circular letter from circulating—for a while.

Monday, June 18, 2018

EXTRA: Who Killed Pitcairn?

The Journal of the American Revolution has just published an article by me titled “Peter Salem? Salem Poor? Who Killed Major John Pitcairn?”

This exploration of one aspect of the Battle of Bunker Hill grew out of a series of postings here from 2009, which I then rewrote as an article for the first Journal of the American Revolution print collection. With that book no longer available, we’re sharing the full essay online.

Here’s a taste:
…after Lexington lots of New England men were gunning for the major. They wanted to see Pitcairn receive his just deserts for supposedly ordering his men to fire. They, and later generations of Americans, wanted his story to have meaning, and being brought low just when he thought he had triumphed — by a black man, of all soldiers — provided that satisfaction. A popular nineteenth-century engraving encapsulated that story in its caption: “The shooting of Major Pitcairn (who had shed the first blood at Lexington) by the Colored Soldier Salem.”
But the best evidence shows, I argue, that Maj. Pitcairn wasn’t killed by a black soldier as that print depicted, or by any of the other nineteenth-century claimants. Whatever Salem Poor did to merit extraordinary praise from Massachusetts officers, and whatever Peter Salem did in his Continental Army service, neither man shot Pitcairn as he mounted the edge of the Breed’s Hill redoubt.

The Trials of Thomas Careless

This weekend I made my debut at Small State, Big History, an online journal devoted to the history of Rhode Island.

My article, titled “Thomas Careless of the Royal Navy: Tried for Murder in Newport, Court-Martialed for Tossing a Block Islander,” grew from the series of Boston 1775 postings from May 2017 about how Midshipman Thomas Careless went on trial for killing Newport man Henry Sparker. This month has brought the sestercentennial of that trial.

There are a couple of Boston connections to that Rhode Island story. First, the Boston Chronicle had the most detailed report on what led Careless to stab Sparker. Rhode Island newspapers withheld some information, ostensibly to protect the integrity of the trial but perhaps also to maintain the colony’s respectability.

Second, the Royal Navy vessel on which Careless was serving, H.M.S. Senegal, was one of the warships that brought British troops to Boston in the fall of 1768. In fact, we discovered that the best period pictures of that ship were produced by Christian Remick and Paul Revere (as shown above) while the Senegal and the rest of that fleet lay in Boston harbor.

The Small State, Big History article also contains another story about Thomas Careless that I hadn’t found when I wrote my 2017 postings. He returned to Rhode Island during the war—and got in trouble again!

In connection with this article, I’m scheduled to appear on Bruce Newbury’s “Talk of the Town” show on WADK (1540 AM) in Newport on Monday morning shortly after 10:00 A.M. to talk about Sparker, Careless, and what their fatal encounter says about the American Revolution.

Small State, Big History comes from a team led by Christian M. McBurney, author of Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, and The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation of the Revolutionary War, among other history books. Its weekly articles cover the whole range of the colony and state’s history, from founding to recent politics.

[ADDENDUM: Here’s a recording of my conversation with Bruce Newbury of WADK, starting off the hour after news.]

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Mapping the Battle of Bunker Hill

With the sestercentennial of June 1768 passing by, I have few days to devote to the Battle of Bunker Hill. But here’s Charles E. Frye’s map of that battle, completed in 2011 and available through Wikipedia. It’s unusual in positioning American army units on the Charlestown peninsula.

Frye is an army-trained cartographer. In this interview, Frye talked about how he came to make that map:
My wife suggested I help my oldest son with his 5th grade history project and that we could research to find out where [our ancestor] Isaac [Frye] was on the battlefield. Reading about the battle proved bewildering and disorienting. Therefore, my natural inclination was to make a map along with a timeline to organize that information. We started by mapping the Boston vicinity, including what was then known as the Charlestown Peninsula. Based on that and the major landmarks of the peninsula, we could then see the form of the battle and the sequence of events. My son hand-drew a one-page color map of the battle and wrote a short essay describing where Isaac most likely was located. We had narrowed it down to two possible locations. It took years before I finally located the documentation indicating which of the two was correct.

I ended up making my own map using GIS and because I learned the Library of Congress’s map division had copies of most of the maps depicting the battle, and already had a map-scanning program. GIS allows for scanned maps to be positioned relative to modern geographic data, which then could be used to create a historical map in the GIS. I knew a cartographer working at the Library of Congress, so I contacted her, and their staff bumped up the remaining maps of the battle so I could have faster access.

My map looked good to me, and it was rich with information. I shared it with the map division staff, and they liked it and cataloged a copy. However, the “Aha!” moment occurred for me two years later when I first visited the Bunker Hill Monument. There is a diorama there depicting the battle. Other than placement of the cannon, my map completely agreed with the diorama! How does a non-historian do that part-time in only a matter of months? With GIS of course. Mapping information in GIS forces rigor, which among other things affords efficiency because non-conforming information cannot be forced into database like it can be forced into a paragraph. I later published a data model and method for historians to use GIS in their work. I am happy to say many historians have since adopted, adapted, and expanded on that work.
Here’s more on Frye’s data model and method for others to use with G.I.S. systems.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

“Preserving a perfect Conciliation”

Late on 14 June 1768, a large committee from Boston town meeting headed by James Otis, Jr., visited Gov. Francis Bernard at his country house in Jamaica Plain. The governor reported receiving “a Train of 11 Chaises.”

The committee presented the governor with a petition that protested against:
  • taxation without representation, and thus the Townshend Act.
  • a petition to King George III being turned away (because it wasn’t sent to London through the official channel).
  • the Royal Navy’s impressment of sailors in Boston harbor.
That document concluded with a wonderful bit of trolling, saying that “the Board of Customs have thought fit, of their own motion to relinquish the exercise of their Commission here.” In other words, the Customs Commissioners had left their posts in Boston—no acknowledgment that they had done so out of fear of mob violence. Therefore, the committee continued, there was no need for H.M.S. Romney to stay around in Boston harbor since there were no longer any Customs Commissioners to protect.

Gov. Bernard shared wine with the gentlemen and promised them an answer the next day. His 15 June response was a collection of promises to do all he could, while noting that he could very little. “I shall not knowingly infringe any of your Rights and Privileges, but shall religeously maintain all those which are committed to me as a servant of the King,” he wrote. He couldn’t ignore Parliament’s laws, change a decision of the Privy Council, or give orders to the Royal Navy. But aside from all that, “I shall think myself most highly honoured, if I can be in the lowest degree an Instrument in preserving a perfect Conciliation between” Boston and the royal government in London.

The town meeting thus didn’t achieve any of its goals. John Hancock’s sloop Liberty remained in royal custody. The Customs service continued to collect tariffs, even if top officials were working out of Castle William. The Romney had already stopped drafting sailors because of the Liberty riot, and the governor had already promised the selectmen he’d speak informally to the warship’s captain. Nonetheless, the town’s formal and visible protest showed the people that the local political and mercantile establishment was pushing back, and that forestalled further violence.

That exchange wasn’t all Bernard had to deal with, though. On the same day that the governor sent off his response to the Boston petition, he received instructions from the Earl of Hillsborough, the new Secretary of State for North America. That letter stated:
it is the King’s Pleasure, that so soon as the general Court is again assembled at the Time prescribed by the Charter, You should require of the House of Representatives, in his Majsty’s Name, to rescind the Resolution which gave Birth to the Circular Letter from the Speaker, and to declare their Disapprobation of, & Dissent to that rash and hasty Proceeding. . . .

If…the new Assembly should refuse to comply with His Majesty’s reasonable Expectation; It is the King’s Pleasure that you should immediately dissolve them
Rescinding the “Circular Letter”—yet another political confrontation of June 1768!

COMING UP: The “Circular Letter” comes home.

Friday, June 15, 2018

“The People are to be left to use their own Discretion”

The Liberty riot of 10 June 1768 wasn’t just about the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop for alleged Customs violations. It was also about how H.M.S. Romney, which helped in that seizure, had been impressing sailors in Boston harbor.

Of course, it was a lot easier to threaten Customs officers than to threaten a 50-gun warship. By Sunday, Collector Joseph Harrison wrote, he was the only top Customs official in town, “all the rest having taken shelter either on board the Man of Warr or gone into the Country”—and he had stayed in bed for two days recovering from his injuries instead of venturing out.

Boston’s Whig politicians were trying to calm the town—or at least to make it look calm. As in late 1765, when the Stamp Act riots both served the purposes of the elite and made them nervous, gentlemen sought a way to end the unrest before it harmed Boston’s reputation.

One idea was that the Customs service would return the Liberty to Hancock in exchange for a promise that if he lost the smuggling case in court he’d surrender it to the government. That didn’t work, for two reasons. First, the Customs Commissioners didn’t like the way the offer was delivered:
a verbal Message from the People by a Person of Character to this Effect “That if the Sloop that was seized was brought back to Mr. Hancock’s Wharf, upon his giving Security to answer the Prosecution, the Town might be kept quiet”; Which Message appearing to Us as a Menace, we applied to Capt. [John] Corner to take Us on board His Majesty’s Ship
Commissioners John Robinson, Henry Hulton, William Burch, and Charles Paxton were all on the Romney by Sunday.

The second problem was that Hancock himself soured on the idea of compromise. I think he was waking to the instincts that would make him a very successful politician and an unsuccessful businessman. Getting the Liberty back would let him keep making money with it. Not getting it back would make him a political martyr, a hero of the waterfront. So the sloop remained anchored beside the warship, protected from rescue by its guns.

Gov. Francis Bernard had met with his Council on 11 June, but heard “no apprehension in the Council that there would be a repetition of these violences,” so he had gone off to his country house in Jamaica Plain. But by Sunday he was receiving alarmed reports from the Commissioners like this one:
some of the Leaders of the People had persuaded them in an Harangue to desist from further Outrages till Monday Evening, when the People are to be left to use their own Discretion, if their Requisitions are not complied with.
Bernard gave permission for the Commissioners, Harrison and his family, and other Customs men to be admitted to the safety of Castle William. He called an emergency Council meeting for Monday morning.

The governor later wrote:
Before I went to Council, the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] came to inform me that there was a most violent and virulent paper stuck up upon Liberty Tree, containing an Invitation to the Sons of Liberty to rise that Night to clear the Country of the Commissioners & their Officers, to avenge themselves of the Officers of the Custom-house, one of which was by name devoted to death:

There were also some indecent Threats against the Governor, if he did not procure the release of the Sloop which was seized.
In another letter Bernard said that paper invited the Sons of Liberty “to meet at 6 o’ clock to clear the Land of the Virmin which are come to devour them &ca. &ca.”

But Bernard and the Council weren’t the only men worried about further violence. By afternoon, there was a printed handbill being distributed around town:
Boston, June 13th, 1768.
The Sons of Liberty.
Request all those, who in this time of oppression & distraction, wish well to, & would promote the peace, good order & security of the Town & Province, to assemble at Liberty Hall, under Liberty Tree, on Tuesday the 14th. instant, at Ten O’Clock forenoon precisely.
That message came from street-level political leaders like the Loyall Nine who had organized the first anti-Stamp demonstration in 1765 and tried to steer most protests since. The handbill was most likely a product of Edes and Gill’s print shop. It superseded the call for an uprising on Monday night; as the 16 June Boston News-Letter reported, “the Expectation of this Meeting kept the Town in Peace.”

On Tuesday, 14 June, “vast Numbers of the Inhabitants” gathered at Liberty Tree under the British flag. Since the weather was “wet and uncomfortable,” they moved to Faneuil Hall. Someone proposed making this gathering an official town meeting, so the selectmen sent out a summons to convene at 3:00. So many men arrived that the crowd moved on to the Old South Meeting-House.

James Otis, Jr., presided over what the official minutes called “very cool and deliberate Debates upon the distressed Circumstances of the Town.” The meeting chose large committees to express Boston’s grievances—to present a petition to Gov. Bernard; to send a letter to Dennis Deberdt, the Massachusetts House’s lobbyist in London; and to draft a resolution protesting the Customs officers’ action. And then the first committee, again led by Otis, headed out to the governor’s house.

TOMORROW: Gov. Bernard’s response.