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, December 07, 2006

Boston Mobilizes Against the Tea

On Sunday, 28 November 1773, the ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston harbor with 114 chests of tea. Boston’s political leaders sprang into action. The selectmen even met that Sabbath-day, as did the Committee of Correspondence. Someone printed notices summoning citizens to a general meeting, headlined:

Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! The Hour of Destruction or Manly Opposition to the Machinations of Tyranny stares you in the Face.
Men (there’s no evidence for women participating) gathered first at Faneuil Hall, built to house Boston’s town meetings, and then adjourned to the Old South Meeting-House, which had more space and was therefore used for the town's largest events. Town clerk William Cooper kept notes on the proceedings, which were conducted with a moderator and votes like a town meeting. He apparently used these notes to create reports to the town's newspapers. In sum, Bostonians registered their opposition to the landing of the tea in as open and orderly way as they could.

However, these gatherings were not official town meetings. They were an ongoing “assembly of the inhabitants of this and the neighboring towns.” There were two reasons for this distinction, I think. First, the mandate of a town meeting didn't extend to preventing a legal, healthy product from being unloaded by its owners. Second, the Whigs thus communicated that neighboring towns shared their opposition to the tea. During a second series of meetings in mid-December, attendees even sought gentlemen from outside Boston to preside.

The town meeting wasn't the only institution of colonial government that the Whigs adopted. At the afternoon session on the 29th, Cooper noted the following:
A motion was made that there be a watch kept for the security of Captain [James] Hall’s vessel and cargo; and the question being put, passed in the affirmative. Watch to consist of 25 men. Captain [Edward] Procter, Captain of Watch, Paul Reviere, Henry Bass, Moses Grant, Foster Condy, Joseph Lovering, Mr. John Lovel, Dr. [Elisha] Story, John Winthrop, Thomas Chase, John Greenleaf, Benjamin Edes, Benjamin Alley, Joseph Peirce, Junior, Joshua Pico, Captain Riordon, J. Henderson, John Crowe, Josiah Wheeler, Shubael H. [probably Hewes], John McFadden Henry, Joseph Edwards.
The size of this "watch" and the title "Captain" for its commander hints that it was modeled on a military company, not on a group of night watchmen. (Boston's watchmen patrolled in groups of four, and their leaders were called "Constables of the Watch.") The meeting was basically commissioning a special militia company to patrol the wharf where the Dartmouth was moored. The phrase "for the security of Captain Hall’s vessel and cargo" meant not only that no one would harm those things, but also that no one would unload the cargo from the vessel, triggering the tea tax.

And who were the first in line for this duty? As we might expect, a lot of them were politically active. Procter, Revere, Bass, Grant, Condy, Story, Winthrop, Chase, Greenleaf, and Edes are listed as attending meetings of the North End Caucus in 1771 (the only surviving notes from such a gathering). Bass, Chase, and Edes were members of the "Loyall Nine" who organized the Stamp Act protests of 1765. Grant and Condy had been kicked out of the Company of Cadets together in May for behaving disrespectfully toward the Customs Commissioners.

There are a couple of unexpected names on this list. “Mr. John Lovel” was a Loyalist who probably suffered from manic-depressive mood swings; Brenton Simons’s Witches, Rakes, and Rogues discusses his tempestuous marriage. (If Cooper actually wrote, “John Lowell,” however, that would be another North End Caucus attendee.) [ADDENDUM, Dec 2008: The handwritten document is now online, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. That name could easily have been meant as “John Lowel.”] Shubael Hewes, a brother of George R. T. Hewes, was also a Loyalist when the war broke out, but perhaps not at this date.

The meeting records for Tuesday offers another set of names to patrol that evening, and procedures for recruiting new watchmen and spreading the alarm "when necessary":
Mr. Ezekiel Cheever as Captain, Mr. Thomas Uran, Joseph Eyres, William Dickman, William Sutton, Samuel Peck, Ebenezer Ayres, Thomas Bolley, W. Elberson, John Rice, Benjamin Stevens, Joseph Fourde, James Brewer, Obedh. Curtis, Rufus Bent, George Ray, William Clap, Benjamin Ingerson [Ingersoll?], Nicholas Peirce, Adam Colson, Thomas Tileston, Daniel Hewes, Richard Hunnewell, Adam Colson, Nicholas Peirce.

Voted, That the gentlemen who watch this night be desired to make out a list of the watch for next night, and so each watch another till for the time of watching is over.

Voted, That in case the watch are molested the town be alarmed by the tolling of the bells, if in the night, if in the day by ringing of bells.

Voted, That six persons be appointed who are used to horses, to be in readiness to give an alarm in the country when necessary: W. Rogers, Jere. Belknap, Stephen Hall, Nathanl. Cobbit, Thomas Gooding, of Charlestown, Benjamin Wood, of Charlestown.
Later Cooper noted these plans for future arrivals:
Voted, That the Committee of Correspondence for this town be desired to take care that every other vessel with tea that arrives, have a proper watch appointed for such vessels.

Also, Voted, That those persons who are desirous of making a part of these nightly watches be desired to give in their names at Edes & Gill’s Printing Office.
That printing office was where the Whigs usually met.

For the next three weeks, therefore, citizen companies patrolled Griffin's Wharf every night. According to a tradition recorded in the Ebenezer Stevens family, on the evening of 16 December the watch had been recruited from the town's artillery company, made up mostly of eager young mechanics. Rather than preserve Capt. Hall's cargo, they gladly joined in what would become known as the Boston Tea Party.

Cooper's notes appear in the 20th volume of the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings.

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