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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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.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

“The whole Town was in the utmost Consternation and Confusion”

In a 17 June 1768 letter to his patron, the Marquess of Rockingham, Boston Customs Collector Joseph Harrison laid out the Liberty riot that he had triggered on the 10th.

A crowd of angry waterfront workers attacked the naval boats removing John Hancock’s sloop from his wharf. They attacked Harrison and his son and a colleague. And then:
All this happened about 7 o’Clock last Friday Afternoon and it was hoped that the People would have dispersed without doing any further mischief, but instead of that, before 9 o’Clock the Mob had increased to such a prodigious Number that the whole Town was in the utmost Consternation and Confusion.

When thus collected together, the First Attempt was on the Comptroller [Benjamin Hallowell, Jr.] whose House they beset; but on being assured that he was not at Home, they contented themselves with breaking a few pains of Glass and then departed in order to pay a Visit to the Collector, But before they got to my House several principal Gentlemen of the Town had assembled there in order if possible to protect my Family, but before the Mob got there it was thought proper to send my Wife and Children to a House in the Neighborhood.

On their Arrival the first Demand was for the Collector, but they were told he was not there, upon which they attempted to enter the House but were prevented by the Gentlemen there whose kind interposition in all probability prevented the Pillage and Destruction of all my Furniture. Finding this opposition within they concluded the Visit with breaking the Windows, and then marched off but in passing by the House of Mr. [John] Williams one of the Inspectors General of the Customs they served it in the same Manner.

After this in all probability the Mob would have dispersed if some evil minded People had not informed them that I had a fine sailing pleasure Boat which I set great store by, that they lay in one of the Docks, upon this Intelligence the whole Crowd posted down to the water side hauled the Boat out of the Water, and dragged her thro’ the Streets to Liberty Tree (as it is called) where she was formally condemned, and from thence dragged up into the Common and there burned to Ashes.
The crowd thus acted out a parody of the Customs service action of “condemning” Hancock’s sloop for seizure before the people proceeded to their traditional protest bonfire.

A few years before Harrison had written, “Sailing is so much my favourite Diversion,” according to the Collectors of Customs website. He also told Rockingham that his boat “has just before been nicely fitted out to send a present to Sir Geo. Saville,” a Member of Parliament for Yorkshire. But now it was in ashes.

Over the next dew days, Harrison and most of his colleagues in the upper ranks of the Customs house, starting with the Commissioners at the top, went on board H.M.S. Romney or to Castle William for their safety.

On Monday, 13 June, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette carried this report:
Last Friday Evening some Commotions happen’d in this Town, in which a few Windows were broke, and a Boat was drawn thro’ the Streets and burnt on the Common; since which Things have been tolerably quiet; it being expected that the Cause of this Disturbance will be speedily removed.
“The Cause,” in the radical Whigs’ eyes, being the Customs Commissioners.

TOMORROW: How to keep the peace in Boston?

[The photo above comes from the Go Hvar blog. Evidently on the island of Hvar, Croatia, the locals burn a boat every St. Nicholas’ Eve.]

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

“Volleys of Stones, Brickbats, Sticks or anything else that came to hand”

Yesterday we left Customs Collector Joseph Harrison just after he confiscated the sloop Liberty from John Hancock. He thought he had escaped retaliation from the waterfront crowd. He thought wrong.

As laid out on this website titled “Collectors of Customs,” Harrison was then fifty-nine years old. He and his younger brother Peter, the architect, had been born in Yorkshire and moved to Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1740s. Joseph was a merchant, doing well enough to woo a genteel wife from Britain. But he wanted a royal government job with a steady income. By lobbying family connections, in 1760 he joined the Customs service in the port of New Haven, Connecticut.

Four years later, Harrison sailed to London to seek a more lucrative posting. (He traveled with Jared Ingersoll, who on that trip got to see Parliament enact the Stamp Act.) Harrison won the attention of the Marquess of Rockingham a few months before Rockingham became First Lord of the Treasury—score! In July 1766 Harrison was named Collector in the busy port of Boston, earning £100 in salary plus a share of fees, seizures, and bribes, whichever he preferred (though it appears the service was becoming stricter about bribery in that decade). He arrived in Boston and took office in October 1766.

Harrison confiscated the Liberty late on the afternoon of 10 June 1768. He was walking away with his colleague the Comptroller and his eighteen-year-old son, Richard Acklom Harrison. In his own words:
But we had scarce got into the Street before we were pursued by the Mob which by this time was increased to a great Multitude. The onset was begun by throwing Dirt at me, which was presently succeeded by Volleys of Stones, Brickbats, Sticks or anything else that came to hand:

In this manner I ran the Gauntlet near 200 Yards, my poor Son following behind endeavouring to shelter his father by receiving the strokes of many of the Stones thrown at him till at length he became equally an Object of their Resentment, was knocked down and then laid hold of by the Legs, Arms and Hair of his Head, and in that manner dragged along the Kennel [canal, probably the drain down the middle of a street] in a most barbarous and cruel manner till a few compassionate people happening to see him in that Distress, formed a Resolution of attempting to rescue him out of the Hands of the Mob; which with much difficulty they effected, and got him into a House; tho’ this pulling and hauling between Friends and Enemies had like to have been fatal to him.

About this time I received a violent Blow on the Breast which had like to have brought me to the Ground, and I verily believe if I had fallen, I should never have got up again, the People to all appearance being determined on Blood and Murder. But luckily just at that critical moment a friendly Man came up and supported me; and observed that now was the time for my Escape as the whole Attention of the Mob was engaged in the Scuffle about my Son who he assured me would be taken out of their Hands by some Persons of his Acquaintance.

He then bid me to follow him, which I accordingly did, and by suddainly turning the corner of a Street, was presently out of Sight of the Crowd, and soon after got to a Friends House where I was kindly received and on whom I could depend for Safety and Protection: And in about an Hours time I had the satisfaction of hearing my Son was in Safety, and had been conducted home, by the Persons who rescued him from the Mob; but in a miserable Condition being much bruised and Wounded, tho’ not dangerously, and I hope will soon get well again.

With regard to my friend the Comptroller he was a little Distance behind when the Assault first began and on his attempting to protect my Son, was himself beset in the same Manner, and would certainly have been murdered by the Mob, if some Persons had not rescued him out of their Hands: however he was very much hurt, having received two Contusions on his Cheek and the Back of his Head.
Comptroller Benjamin Hallowell, Jr. (shown above, courtesy of Colby College), had been one of the targets of the anti-Stamp mob of 26 Aug 1765, though he had nothing to do with the Stamp Act, and one of the principal figures in the 1766 stand-off outside Daniel Malcom’s house. Unlike Harrison, he was a native of Boston, son of a well known merchant captain. I sometimes wonder if Hallowell was especially unpopular with the local crowd because he was a local himself, and thus seen as betraying the community.

But enough of such musings—the Liberty riot had only just started!

TOMORROW: Property damage after dark.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

“I put the Kings Mark on the Main Mast”

On 10 June 1768, the Customs office in Boston determined that there was enough evidence to charge John Hancock with smuggling. They hadn’t caught him red-handed, but they had sworn testimony from tidesman Thomas Kirk saying that his staff had covertly unloaded casks of wine from his sloop Liberty the previous month so as to avoid paying duties.

What’s more, that ship had been reloaded to sail outbound without all the proper clearances—though ship masters almost always loaded while preparing that paperwork. The whale oil and tar now on the Liberty made it doubly valuable: the service could confiscate both the ship and the cargo, and the Customs officers involved would share in the proceeds.

Those officials knew, however, that such a seizure wouldn’t be easy. Collector Joseph Harrison described the situation in a letter to the Marquess of Rockingham dated 17 Jun 1768. He explained that Hancock, though “a generous benevolent Gentleman,” was “subject to the influence of [James] Otis and other Incendiaries.” Even worse, the young merchant was “the Idol of the Mob, just as Mr. [John] Wilkes is in England. Hancock and Liberty being the Cry here, as Wilkes and Liberty is in London!” So any move against Hancock would be unpopular.

Harrison described how he proceeded:
Under these Circumstances a Seizure must necessarily be attended with the utmost Risque and Danger to the Officer who should make the Attempt. However as I was judged to be the properest person to Effect it, I was deteremined that no Danger should deter me from the Execution of my Duty, tho’ I was then so ill as to be just able to stirr abroad.

So after sending on board the Romney Man of War (which then lay in the Harbour) to request their assistance in case a Rescue should be attempted, I proceeded to execute my Orders; first informing my Brother Officer Mr. [Benjamin] Hallowell the Comptroller of the Service I was going upon who generously declared that I should not singly be exposed to the fury of the Populace, but that he would share the danger with me, accordingly we set out together towards the Wharf where the Vessel lay and in our way thither my Son [Richard Acklom Harrison] (about 18 Years of Age) accidentally joined us in the Street and went along with us.

When we got down to the Wharf we found the Sloop lying there and after waiting till we saw the Man of Warrs Boat ready to put off the Comptoller and I, steped on board, seized the Vessel, and I put the Kings Mark on the Main Mast:

By this time the People began to muster together on the Wharf, from all Quarters; and several Men had got on board in order to regain Possession just as the Man of Warrs Boat well Man’d and Armed had got along side: They soon drove the Intruders out and I delivered the Vessel into custody of the commanding Officer. We then went a Shore and walked off the Wharf without any Insult or Molestation from the the People, who were eagerly engaged in a Scuffle with the Man of Warrs Men and endeavouring to detain the Sloop at the Wharf.
One of the young officers on the Romney, Midshipman William Senhouse, later told his service’s side of the seizure in a memoir:
Our Boats Mann’d & Arm’d were accordingly dispatch’d under the commnd of Mr. [John] Calendar, who was Master of the Romney, Mr. [William] Culmer, one of the Mates, and myself. We proceeded directly to the Sloop, wch was laying alongside of the Long Wharf [actually Hancock’s Wharf] and found her in possession of the Towns people, who on our near approach pelted us very severely with Stones. We nevertheless boarded the Vessel, drove the mob on shore, cut her fasts or moorings, and carried her off in triumph, bringing her to an Anchor under the Guns of the Romney.

Notwithstanding the rude reception we expected, form the people of the Town, we had received special directions not to fire upon them, but in the very last extremity. Billy Culmer however, tho’ he knew well how to obey, was extreamly urgent with the Master for his orders to fire and had this honest Madman been gratify’d in his wish, a terrible slaughter no doubt, wou’d have succeeded. As it was, we happily accomplished our purpose, at the expence only of some blows and bruizes of no great consequence.
But then the waterfront crowd turned its attention back to the Customs officers.

TOMORROW: The Liberty riot.

Monday, June 11, 2018

“I distinctly heard the Noise of the Tackles”

On 9 June 1768, a low-level Customs employee named Thomas Kirk told his bosses that, contrary to his declaration a month earlier, he had evidence of John Hancock’s ship Liberty being used to evade tariffs.

The next day, Kirk testified as follows before justice of the peace Samuel Pemberton:
I, Thomas Kirk of Boston, do declare and say, that being appointed one of the Tidesmen on board the Sloop Liberty, Nathaniel Barnard, Master, from Madeira, I went on board the said Vessel the 9th Day of May last, in the Afternoon, and about 9 o’Clock in the Evening Capt. Marshall came on board the said Vessel, and made several Proposals to me to persuade me to consent to the hoisting out several Casks of Wine that Night before the Vessel was entered, to all which I, I peremptorily refused;

upon which Capt. Marshall took hold of me, and with the Assistance of five or six other Persons unknown to this Declarent, they forcibly hove me down the Companion into the Cabin, and nailed the Cover down; I then broke thro’ a Door into the Steerage, and was endeavouring to get upon Deck that Way; but was forcibly pushed back again into the Steerage, and the Companion Doors of the Steerage also fastened, and was there confined about three Hours, and during that Time I heard a Noise as of many People upon Deck at Work a hoisting out of Goods, as I distinctly heard the Noise of the Tackles;

when that Noise ceased, Capt. Marshall came down to me in the Cabin and threatened, that if I made any Discovery of what had passed there that Night, my Life would be in Danger and my Property destroyed. The said Capt. Marshall then went away and let me at Liberty; and I was so much intimidated by the aforesaid Threatenings, that I was deterred from making an immediate Discovery of the aforesaid transactions:
Kirk’s story of being shoved around by a group of men working for Hancock echoed Owen Richards’s experience earlier in the spring. In Kirk’s case, however, he was pushed into the steerage deck of the ship rather than out of it.

What about the other tidesman assigned to work alongside Kirk? According to the Customs office in Boston:
The other Officer, who was also examined sayd he was asleep at the time of the above Transaction, but Kirk declared that he was drunk and gone home to Bed.—
Despite all the legal wrangling in this case, I haven’t been able to find the name of this tidesman, who would have been a significant witness one way or the other. Tidesmen were allowed to sleep on board the ships they were watching, apparently because people expected the noise of unloading to wake them up. But had this one really gone home to sleep off his drink?

What about Capt. John Marshall—how did he respond to Kirk’s accusation? Conveniently or not, Marshall had died on 10 May, immediately after this allegedly busy night. Indeed, some folks suggested that the exertion of unloading all those casks of wine had hastened his death at the age of only thirty-one.

The Customs office also stated that Hancock had “been heard to declare before her [the Liberty’s] Arrival, that he wo’d run her Cargo of Wines on Shore,” but it didn’t name anyone who had heard him say that.

Despite the questions about Kirk’s testimony, it was enough for higher-level Customs officers to move against John Hancock on 10 June 1768.

TOMORROW: Seizing a sloop.