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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Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Political Education of Thomas Crafts, Jr.

On 15 Jan 1766, decorative painter Thomas Crafts, Jr., aged twenty-five, and jeweler George Trott, aged twenty-four, invited thirty-four-year-old lawyer John Adams to spend the evening with their political club. In his diary, Adams called the group “the Sons of Liberty”; its membership overlaps almost exactly with the “Loyall Nine” who had organized Boston’s anti-Stamp Act protests in the previous months.

Adams reported that the young men met

at their own Apartment in Hanover Square, near the Tree of Liberty. It is a Compting Room in Chase & Speakmans Distillery. A very small Room it is. . . . We had Punch, Wine, Pipes and Tobacco, Bisquit and Cheese—&c. I heard nothing but such Conversation as passes at all Clubbs among Gentlemen about the Times. No Plotts, no Machinations. They Chose a Committee to make Preparations for grand Rejoicings upon the Arrival of the News of a Repeal of the Stamp Act, and I heard afterwards they are to have such Illuminations, Bonfires, Piramids, Obelisks, such grand Exhibitions, and such Fireworks, as were never before seen in America.—I wish they mayn't be disappointed.
The men weren’t disappointed in their hopes. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in early 1766, and there was general rejoicing. (Celebratory obelisk pictured above from an engraving by Paul Revere.)

In 1770, Crafts served as coroner during the Boston Massacre trial, and soon was a lieutenant in the town’s artillery company. By taking on such official responsibilities, the young painter was rising from the artisan class into the ranks of the gentlemen who bought his luxury services. Meanwhile, it appears, he was educating himself in political theory. (Thanks to Al Young for alerting me to the following.)

On 23 Dec 1772, Adams bumped into Crafts and Trott again:
Took a Walk this Morning to the South End, and had some Conversation with my old Friends Crafts and Trot. I find they are both cooled—both flattened away. They complain especially Crafts that they are called Tories—&c. &c. Crafts has got Swifts Contests and Dissentions of the Nobles and Commons of Athens and Rome, and is making Extracts from it—about Clodius and Curio, popular Leaders &c. &c.
Crafts was reading Jonathan Swift's 1701 pamphlet "Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions Between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome." Swift had argued that giving the House of Commons too much power could destabilize the whole government. (Not surprisingly, Swift had been commissioned to write this by a member of the House of Lords.) Clodius was a Roman politician from the first century B.C.E., Curio his defender at one point; Swift adopted Cicero's conservative, aristocratic position that Clodius's populism was dangerous.

Such an argument about the danger of more popular government may seem like ironic reading for a Boston Whig, who basically wanted more power for the locally elected legislature and less for royally appointed officials. But Crafts had long been involved in channeling and containing the townspeople's resentments. Since 1765 he and his Loyall Nine colleagues had tried to organize safe, non-violent demonstrations—like the Stamp Act repeal celebration Adams had heard them planning. At one point Crafts had even helped pull someone else's effigy off Liberty Tree. Violent disorder reflected badly on Boston and its ability to govern itself, genteel politicians insisted.

Apparently, by late 1772, some Bostonians had come to dislike Crafts's arguments against confrontation, and sneered that he had become a "Tory." With seven years of political activism behind him, Crafts took that hard. Adopting the politics of a gentleman exacted a cost.

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