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


Sunday, August 25, 2019

“By the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black”

In 1764 James Otis, Jr., published his treatise The Rights of British Colonies Asserted and Proved through the Edes and Gill print shop.

This was even before the Stamp Act, when tariffs on molasses and sugar were Massachusetts’s main bone of contention with Parliament and only a certain class of colonial merchants cared. Otis, attorney and political representative for those merchants, was already putting forth a natural rights argument for colonial autonomy.

Otis also recognized that his argument had implications for the American practice of race-based chattel slavery. On page 29 of his first edition he argued:
The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black. No better reasons can be given for enslaving those of any color than such as Baron Montesquieu has humorously given as the foundation of that cruel slavery exercised over the poor Ethiopians [The Spirit of Laws, Book XV], which threatens one day to reduce both Europe and America to the ignorance and barbarity of the darkest ages.

Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as ’tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face?

Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own.

To this cause must be imputed that ferocity, cruelty, and brutal barbarity that has long marked the general character of the sugar islanders. They can in general form no idea of government but that which in person or by an overseer, the joint and several proper representative of a Creole and of the D—l, is exercised over ten thousand of their fellow men, born with the same right to freedom and the sweet enjoyments of liberty and life as their unrelenting taskmasters, the overseers and planters.

Is it to be wondered at if when people of the stamp of a Creolian planter get into power they will not stick for a little present gain at making their own posterity, white as well as black, worse slaves if possible than those already mentioned?
In later paragraphs Otis reiterated his points about rights for all:
That the colonists, black and white, born here are freeborn British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such is a truth not only manifest from the provincial charters, from the principles of the common law, and acts of Parliament, but from the British constitution, which was re-established at the Revolution with a professed design to secure the liberties of all the subjects to all generations. . . .

Now can there be any liberty where property is taken away without consent? Can it with any color of truth, justice, or equity be affirmed that the northern colonies are represented in Parliament? Has this whole continent of near three thousand miles in length, and in which and his other American dominions His Majesty has or very soon will have some millions of as good, loyal, and useful subjects, white and black, as any in the three kingdoms, the election of one member of the House of Commons?
However, Otis never followed up his statements about the natural rights of both blacks and whites, especially those “born here,” to argue for the end of slavery in North America.

Indeed, Otis tried to focus all the attention on the “sugar islanders” of the Caribbean, not the slaveholders in his own town and province. And he compromised after some pushback on even that accusation, because at the end of the pamphlet, he made an addendum:
I now recollect that I have been credibly informed that the British sugar colonists are humane towards their slaves in comparison with the others. Therefore in page 29, let it be read, foreign sugar islanders and foreign Creoles.
Otis thus absolved his fellow British subjects (and his merchant clients’ most important customers) from his worst criticism.

Nonetheless, all the way back in 1764 James Otis recognized that the natural-rights argument for American freedom was inexorably tangled up in the realities of American racial discrimination.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Back at George Washington High

Last month I wrote about the controversy over murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

Those murals, painted by Victor Arnautoff as a New Deal project, depicted the life of George Washington without hagiography. Arnautoff devoted space to the oppression of slavery and the human cost of westward expansion. But showing subservient African-Americans and dead Native Americans raised objections from some students in the 1960s and today.

This spring, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to budget $600,000 to permanently conceal the murals, most likely with a new coat of paint. People thought that money would cover an environmental study of the plan, the work itself, and anticipated legal battles.

News of the decision attracted attention across the country. The school was opened for public viewing this summer. Many artistic figures joined local preservationists and alumni in opposing the decision. Some fans of the murals started to organize a public vote to keep them. The board president and vice president defended their decision to, in their words, do away with “art that for more than 80 years has traumatized students.” There were few additional voices for removing the murals, however.

This month, the San Francisco school board took a second vote. By the slight margin of 4–3, they decided “to obscure the art with panels or similar materials rather than painting over it.” That would allow the panels to be taken off at some future time. Back in the spring, this remedy was expected to cost much more than the painting, but quite possibly the board had come to anticipate more legal costs.

Or perhaps the first vote was a strategy to test the fervency of the two sides. The Board of Education’s president controls its agenda. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted the current president saying he “always supported obscuring the mural rather than destroying it, although he voted to paint over it in June.” He doesn’t plan to allow a third vote during his term, which ends in December.

The school year will start soon. Given how municipal contracts work, I have no sense of how quickly the project of covering the murals will progress. At some point the board will choose its next president, and in 2020 the city’s voting public will elect a new Board of Education. The referendum on the murals appears to be still up in the air. This whole controversy could rise again—or quietly subside for another few decades.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Captain Peck’s “Intelligence”

On 23 Aug 1770, the Rev. Ezra Stiles of Newport wrote in his diary about a conversation with a sea captain named William Augustus Peck.

Born about 1723 and based in Newport, Peck had commanded a privateer in the last war, advertising for sailors in the 28 June 1762 Boston Post-Boy. His wife Mehitabel had died in September 1766, and he’d married Mary Hammond the following June. In 1769 he’d endured a difficult voyage to Amsterdam, as reported in the 18 September Boston Chronicle.

On this day Peck was back from Britain with surprising news:
Capt. Wm. Augustus Peck this day visited me. He brought my Books from London: he tells me there is a secret Intelligence office in London in [blank] street where the Jews live. It has subsisted about four years & has thirty clerks: it is supported by the Ministry: & has settled a correspondence in all parts of America—has four Correspond’ts in Boston, & two in Newport, one of which is Mr. Geo. Rome Mercht. to each of whom the Ministry exhibit Stipends.
George Rome had arrived in Rhode Island in 1761 as an agent of the London mercantile firm of Hayley and Hopkins. (George Hayley’s wife Mary was a sister of John Wilkes, a hero to American Whigs—but they still resented depending on credit from his firm.) Rome collected what money he could, invested in whaling and other ventures, and within a short time was one of the richest men in Newport. By the late 1760s he was spending most of his time at his rich country estate.

With his family in Britain, business interests, and Anglicanism, Rome was a natural friend of the royal government. In 1767 he wrote a letter criticizing Rhode Island’s form of government and rule of law. Seven years later, that letter was included in the packet leaked from London by Benjamin Franklin, which got him into deep trouble with the local Whigs. In 1775, Rome was one of the people Mary Butler thought could deliver a ciphered letter from her lover, Dr. Benjamin Church, into Boston.

There is, however, no evidence that Rome received a stipend from the British government—much less for the enterprise Stiles described:
As it appears in London, it is intirely a Jew Affair—a Jew Compting House, & is unknown in London. Capt. Peck sailed to London in a Vessel of the Jews & by this fell into the hands of the Jews there, dined with sundrey [?], and not being strong for American rights, they used to open before him; in compa[ny]. he heard one Mr Clark I think speak of their secret Intelligence office—& upon Peck’s questioning, &c., he colored up and diverted the Discourse. Capt. Peck says, that this office boasted of having Intelligence of every Occurrence of any consequence in America.
Stiles was, as I’ve previously written, a sucker for stories that fit his political outlook—in this case, the belief that there was a conspiracy in London to restrict North American colonists’ rights. Stiles knew the leaders of the Jewish community in Newport, but he wasn’t close to them, and was willing to view them as agents of that conspiracy.

Peck’s rumor is an obvious falsehood, an early example of the myth of an international Jewish cabal. It’s a measure of Stiles’s gullibility that he wrote that all down. Even more dismaying, of course, is that this sort of lie is being circulated in the U.S. of A. today.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Wanted by Governor Wanton

The official Rhode Island response to the destruction of the Customs sloop Liberty in Newport harbor started even before the ship went up in flames. 

A mob attacked the ship on 19 July. Two days later, this proclamation appeared, as printed in the newspapers: 
By the Honorable
Joseph Wanton, Esquire,
Governor, Captain-General, and Commander in Chief, of and over the English Colony of Rhode-Island, and Providence Plantations, in New-England, in America:

Whereas, Charles Dudley, Esq; Collector and Surveyor, and John Nicoll, Esq; Comptroller, of His Majesty’s Customs for the Colony aforesaid, have this Day presented unto me a Memorial, setting forth, That a Number of People on the Nineteenth Instant, in the Evening, being assembled in a riotous and tumultuous Manner, did, with Threats against his Life, compel Captain William Reid, Commander of the Sloop Liberty in the Service of the Revenue, lying in the Harbour of Newport, to order the People who had the keeping and Charge of his Vessel, to come on Shore; after which a Number of Men boarded the said Sloop, and set at Liberty a Sloop brought into this Port by the said William Reid, laden with prohibited Goods and under Seizure, and she was afterwards carried away to the great Prejudice of his Majesty: And that they then proceeded to destroy the said Sloop Liberty, by cutting away her Mast and Rigging, and scuttling her so that she sunk; and burnt her Two Boats:

I HAVE, THEREFORE, thought fit, by and with the Advice of such Members of his Majesty’s Council, as could conveniently be called together, to issue this Proclamation, hereby directing and requiring all the Officers of Justice, in this Colony, to use their utmost Endeavours, to enquire after and discover the Persons guilty of the aforesaid Crimes, that they may be brought to Justice.
Many of the men who had attacked the Liberty on 19 July probably came off Capt. Joseph Packwood’s brig, based in New London, Connecticut. Packwood had sailed out of Narragansett Bay as soon as he could after the riot. The Rhode Island authorities would therefore have had a hard time tracking down those men—if they even really wanted to.

Ten days after this proclamation, the rest of the Liberty burned on Goat Island. That was more likely a local job, but since it took place away from town on a stormy night, there were no witnesses. Gov. Wanton didn’t even bother to use a new proclamation.

COMING UP: A new lead for the Customs office.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Visit Newport in the Summer of 1769, 24 Aug.

On Saturday, 24 August, the Newport Historical Society will host a living-history exploration of “Life During the Burning of H.M.S. Liberty.”

This is the society’s Sixth Annual Living History Event, and its presentations bring in top-notch reenactors from all over New England to explore different events.

Since you’ve read the last three postings, you know all about how what led to the Liberty Customs sloop going up in flames in July 1769, two and a half centuries ago this summer.

The society’s event announcement says:
This one-day event features over 50 costumed historical interpreters who will represent all ages and various stations of life, along with conflicting political viewpoints. Learn and experience aspects of life from 1769 including:
Visit stations around Washington Square such as a tavern, school and printer. Much like the Newport Historical Society’s previous summer History Space events, visitors might find themselves in the midst of hostile debates as the living historians recreate the tensions that surrounded this incident which helped to spark the American Revolution.
“Life During the Burning of H.M.S. Liberty” will take place from noon till 5:00 P.M. in Washington Square and at the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, 17 Broadway.

The program is free to all, but donations to the Newport Historical Society are welcome.

(Photo from a past event in Newport by Sarah Long.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Burnings of the Liberty

The Boston Gazette was the town’s staunchest Whig newspaper, quick to attack royal officials and to defend locals against charges of unrest. But printers Edes and Gill weren’t so protective about other communities.

The Boston Gazette’s first report on the attack on the Customs sloop Liberty in Newport harbor, dated 24 July, had no detail about why people there were so upset at that ship. It had a lot of detail on how the crowd took their revenge:
a Number of Persons…went on board the Liberty as she lay at Anchor in the Harbour, and cut her Cables, and let her drift ashore, they then set her on Fire, but being informed a considerable Quantity of Powder was on board, for fear of endangering the Town, they extinguished it again; then they cut away her Mast, threw her Guns and Stores overboard, entered the Cabin and destroyed the Captain’s and his Wife’s Cloaths, Bedding, &c. broke the Tables, Chairs, China and other Things therein, and did not quit her till 3 o’clock in the next Morning, when, after scuttling the Vessel, they left her a meer Wreck, and now remains sunk near one of the Wharfs there.
The 24 July Boston Chronicle also mentioned how people had started to burn the ship, but gave a different reason for them stopping:
They also set fire to the sloop, but it being nigh a warehouse and some vessels where she was run on shore, they extinguished it for fear of the flames spreading.
The Providence Gazette of 22 July took more effort to protect local reputations by pointing the finger at men from the next colony over:
a Number of Men, chiefly from Connecticut, went on board, and after cutting away her Mast, and rendering her unfit for Service, they threw every thing that was valuable overboard, and scuttled the Vessel, after which they quietly dispersed.
Both that paper and the 24 July Newport Mercury omitted any mention of people trying to set fire to the ship.

A week later, on Monday, the Newport Mercury reported a new development:
Last Saturday Afternoon the Sloop Liberty was floated by a high Tide, drifted over to Goat-Island, and is grounded at the North-End, very near where the Pirates were buried; what this prognosticates we leave to the Determination of Astrologers!
And what do you know? The Liberty caught on fire again that very night! At least, that’s how the Rhode Island newspapers told it. On 5 August, the Providence Gazette reported:
Saturday last the Sloop Liberty was drifted by a high Tide to Goat-Island, since which we are informed she has been set on Fire by Lightning, and nearly consumed.
Two days later the Newport Mercury stated:
Last Monday Evening, just after the Storm of Rain, Hail, and Lightening, the Liberty Sloop, which we mentioned in our last to have drifted to Goat-Island, near where the Pirates were buried, was discovered on Fire; and she continued burning for several Days, till almost intirely consumed.
The Liberty was not the first royal government vessel that Rhode Islanders had burned in recent years, and it would not be the last.

TOMORROW: A sestercentennial commemoration.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Captain Reid versus Captain Packwood

Yesterday I shared an official description of the confrontation in Newport, Rhode Island, over the Customs ship Liberty on 19 July 1769.

By “official” I mean that the town’s Whig leadership supplied that text to the Newport Mercury. They sent similar letters to sympathetic printers in Providence and Boston. Naturally, their account put the crowd’s assault on royal property in the best possible light.

Some newspapers printed less favorable accounts. For example, the 24 July Boston Chronicle reported that the brig and sloop seized two days before the riot weren’t just random ships. Capt. William Reid of the Liberty had “information” that Capt. Joseph Packwood had shifted “brandy, wine, &c.” from his brig onto the sloop so that it could be landed secretly. He therefore stopped both ships, sent away their crews, and had his own men sail them to Newport.

The Chronicle also provided more details about Capt. Packwood’s return to his brig while it was in Customs department custody:
On the Wednesday following, Capt. Packwood went on board the brig to get his cloaths to be washed, and asked for his sword, all which, the commanding Officer on board refused to deliver him; but which, after some altercations, he took possession of and put into the boat, and was rowing on shore, when the people on board the brig hailed the sloop Liberty, and told the Commanding Officer, (Capt. Reid not being on board) that Capt. Packwood had used them very ill, and desired him to bring the boat too,

on which some person on board the Liberty fired a musket with a brace of balls at Capt. Packwood, one of which went but a few inches over his head, and the other over the heads of some people standing on the wharf, they afterwards attempted to fire a swivel, but it only flashed, and Capt. Packwood pushed on shore.
[Let me point out this is yet another period description of a musket being loaded with “a brace of balls,” or two balls.]
By this time a number of people assembled, who with Capt. Packwood went in search of Capt. Reid, whom they soon met in the street, when they demanded the reason of the insolent behavior of his people?

Capt. Reid told them that he was ignorant of the affair, was extremely sorry for what had happened, that he would deliver up the people who had fired, to be punished according to law; and proposed to go himself on board and fetch them on shore:—This the people would not permit, but insisted on his going to hail the sloop and ordering them to be immediately sent on shore.——

This was complyed with, and a boat was sent off for them, which soon returned with two of the sloop’s hands, but the people declaring these were not the persons who had fired; the boat was sent on board a second time, and brought two others, but these likewise being declared not to be the persons, the board was again sent off and brought some others, till there were only two left on board belonging to the sloop; soon after which, some people who had tarried on board the sloop, cut her cables and ran her on shore, threw the guns overboard, cut away the mast, rigging, &c. and scuttled her:
I suspect some of this account came ultimately from Capt. Reid since it reflects well on him—justified in his seizures, blameless for the crew’s shots at Packwood, powerless to stop the mob. In contrast, the Whigs’ letter complained that “no Proof appeared against the Brig” and that Reid “had never condescended to exhibit his Commission to the Governor of this Colony.”

Both reports depict the Newporters as trying to enforce local law against the Customs ship sailors. That’s similar to the conflict going on in Boston over whether British soldiers had to obey local watchmen and magistrates. But in the Chronicle that demand for the rule of law seems more like a smokescreen to move sailors off the Liberty until it had only a couple of defenders.

TOMORROW: The final fate of the Liberty.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Second Liberty Riot

I’ve been focused on events 250 years ago this week in Boston, but it’s time to look in on other events in New England.

You may recall how in June 1768 the Customs office in Boston confiscated John Hancock’s sloop Liberty on charges of smuggling wine. That produced a riot against Customs officials, which strengthened the royal government’s decision to station troops in Boston. Months later, the government’s Admiralty Court prosecution against Hancock collapsed.

That didn’t mean he got his sloop back, though. Following the law, Customs officials had put the Liberty up for auction. The winning bid came from…the Commissioners of Customs. Soon the sloop was armed and patrolling out of Narragansett Bay to catch smugglers.

On 10 July 1769 the Newport Mercury reported:
We hear the Liberty Sloop, which sail’d a few Days past on a Cruise, has taken a Prize; but of what Nation, or whither bound, we have not learn’d; but imagine her to belong to some of the North-American Colonies, as the whole N–v–l Force of h–s B—t——c M——y seems to be principally aim’d against those Colonies, notwithstanding they are inhabited by the best Subjects that ever serv’d a King; most remarkable for Loyalty and yielding Obedience to every just and constitutional ACT of Parliament.
The captured brig was out of New London, Connecticut, under the command of Joseph Packwood. According to the 24 July Boston Chronicle, it had just come “from Hispaniola with a cargo of molasses and sugar on board.” The 21 July New London Gazette claimed that Packwood was headed for New York and seized in Long Island Sound.

The same day, the Liberty also seized a sloop, “where belonging and from whence, unknown, having on board brandy, wine, &c.” The New London Gazette said the Customs men left “most of the crew adrift in a leaky old canoe” and sailed away with that sloop.

Two weeks later, the Newport Mercury had more to say:
LAST Monday Morning the 17th Instant [i.e., of this month], the armed Sloop Liberty, commanded by Capt. William Reid, arrived here and bro’t in a Brig and a Sloop belonging to Connecticut, taken in the Sound, without this Colony, on Suspicion of the Brig’s having done some illicit Act, & that the Sloop had contraband Goods on Board; but as no Proof appeared against the Brig, she reported her Cargo at the Custom House here;—

and on Wednesday, no Prosecution having been enter’d against either of them, Capt. Packwood went on Board his Brig in Order to get his Sword and some necessary Apparel, which the Commanding Officer on Board, (one of the Liberty’s Men) refused to let him bring away, and tis said, offer’d him Violence; which reduced Capt. Packwood to the necessity of drawing his Sword, to force his Way into his Boat, whereupon the Officer call’d to the Liberty’s People to fire on Capt. Packwood as he was going ashore, which they did, and a Brace of Balls, tis suppos’d, went very near but did not hurt him; they then attempted to fire several more Guns upon him, which happily all snapped or flashed and cou’d not be discharged.

This Attempt at Violence by the Liberty’s People, whose Commander had never condescended to exhibit his Commission to the Governor of this Colony, so enraged a Number of Persons, that, the ensuing Evening, having met Capt. Reid on the Long-Wharf, they obliged him to send for his Men on Shore, in Order to discover the Man who first fired at Capt. Packwood; upon which Capt. Reid sent for all his Hands except his Mate, afterwards a Number of Persons, unknown, went on Board the Liberty, sent the Mate away, cut her Cables and let her drive ashore at the Point, where they cut away her Mast, scuttled her, and carried both her Boats to the upper Part of this Town and burnt them.—

While this Affair was transacting, the Sloop suspected of having contraband Goods on Board made her Escape; and the Brig has since received her Papers and sail’d last Friday.
Arthur A. Ross’s A Discourse, Embracing the Civil and Religious History of Rhode-Island (1838) said that the crowd which took the Liberty’s boats dragged them
up the Long-wharf, thence up the Parade, through Broadstreet, at the head of which, on the Common, they were burned.— Tradition says, that, owing to the keel of the boats being shod with iron, such was the velocity of their locomotion, as they passed up the Parade, that a stream of fire was left in the rear, of several feet in length.
Meanwhile, the Liberty itself was sitting grounded out on a point in the harbor. 

COMING UP: Lightning strikes?

Saturday, August 17, 2019

”A Procession that extended near a Mile and a half”

On rereading the Boston Gazette’s description of the Sons of Liberty 14 Aug 1769 dinner this year, I was struck by the detail that three times the men punctuated their toasts with “A Discharge of Cannon.” Perhaps only one cannon, but still.

By the early 1770s, the innkeeper who hosted that celebration, Lemuel Robinson of Dorchester, was captain of a militia artillery company protecting Suffolk County outside of Boston.

His Liberty Tree tavern—shown above, in a sketch from the Dorchester Historical Society—was where the Massachusetts Committee of Safety hid the Boston train’s four missing cannon in early 1775. (And the committee’s records suggests there was some effort required to get Robinson to let them out of his hands to be hidden in Concord.) But Robinson had cannon on his property, at least for this special occasion, as early as 1769.

The Sons of Liberty dinner also included music. John Adams wrote in his diary:
We had also the Liberty Song—that by the Farmer, and that by Dr. Ch[urc]h, and the whole Company joined in the Chorus.
“The Farmer” was John Dickinson. As I detailed here, he cowrote the original “Liberty Song” the previous year. Adams’s mention of Dr. Benjamin Church is the reason scholars attribute the version of the song that begins “Come swallow your Bumpers, ye Tories! and roar,” to that poetic physician.

Adams then wrote:
Between 4 and 5 O clock, the Carriages were all got ready and the Company rode off in Procession, Mr. [John] Hancock first in his Charriot and another Charriot bringing up the Rear.
Adams had to head out of town, but the Boston Gazette reported on the gentlemen’s return to Boston:
About Five o’Clock the Company left Mr. Robinson’s in a Procession that extended near a Mile and a half, and before Dark entered the City, went round the State-House, and retired each to his own House.
Merchant John Rowe, who wasn’t at the dinner, added in his diary that the procession contained “139 Carriages” and “Mr. [James] Otis brought up the rear.”

That circle around the seat of government was a victory lap over Gov. Francis Bernard, and a warning to remaining royal officials that the Whigs dominated the landscape. To rub that in, the Gazette added:
Should this Account overtake the Baronet of Nettleham on this Side T–b—n, he and Ld. H——h are at Liberty to write seventy-seven Volumes of their High Dutch and low Diabolical Commentaries, “about it, and about it.”
The baronet was Bernard. “Lord H——h” was the Earl of Hillsborough, secretary of state overseeing the colonies. “T–b—n” was Tyburn, where criminals and traitors were hanged. “About it, and about it” was a common way to say “and on and on.” And the whole sentence crowed over how Bernard’s letters complaining about the Whigs had leaked and destroyed his standing in the province.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Memories of “Mr. Balch’s Mimickry”

As I detailed yesterday, Nathaniel Balch (shown here, courtesy of Balchipedia) was a hatter. But at heart he was an entertainer, known across Boston for his humor and charm.

When Josiah Quincy, Jr., was traveling in the southern colonies on 6 Mar 1773, he wrote in his diary: “In walking with ——— occurred a singular event, of which Balch could make a humorous story.” Unfortunately, Quincy didn’t record that event and we don’t know what Balch made of it.

Most of our descriptions of Balch come from after independence, when he became known as a bosom friend of Gov. John Hancock. The French political reformer Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) wrote of an encounter in 1788: “Governor Hancock…has the virtues and the address of popularism; that is to say, that without effort he shews himself the equal and the friend of all. I supped at his house with a hatter, who appeared to be in great familiarity with him.”

The most lively pictures of Balch appear in the memoirs of men writing in the mid-1800s who had been boys growing up in Hancock’s Boston. E. S. Thomas wrote about Gov. Hancock in 1840:
He was very fond of joke and repartee, so much so, that a worthy citizen of Boston, Nathaniel Balch, Esq., a hatter, who never failed to appear among the invited guests at his hospitable board, obtained the unenvied appellation of “the Governor’s Jester.
Sidney Willard wrote in 1855:
For his three-cornered hat, his cocked hat, my father resorted to Nathan Balch, a very worthy and respectable man, sometimes irreverently called Nat. Balch; a frequent guest of Governor Hancock, and entertainer of his other guests, adding zest to the viands and the vina at the dinner-board by anecdotes and stories, mimetric [sic] art, humor, witticism, and song, drawn from his inexhaustible storehouse.
And Samuel Breck’s posthumously published memoir said:
We had a medley of eccentric tradesmen in Boston in 1788, who were a compound of flat simplicity in manners and acute cleverness in conversation, shrewd, perhaps somewhat cunning; often witty; always smart and intelligent.

…above all, Balch, the hatter. His shop was the principal lounge even of the first people in the town. Governor Hancock, when the gout permitted, resorted to this grand rendezvous, and there exchanged jokes with Balch and his company, or, as sometimes happened, discussed grave political subjects, and, tout en badinant, settled leading principles of his administration.
So what material did Balch pull out for the Sons of Liberty dinner in August 1769, with more than three hundred of Boston’s leading gentlemen present?

According to John Adams:
After Dinner was over and the Toasts drank we were diverted with Mr. Balch’s Mimickry. He gave Us, the Lawyers Head, and the Hunting of a Bitch fox.
Hmm. I guess you had to be there.

TOMORROW: The party’s over.