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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Monday, December 11, 2006

John S. Copley Tries to Mediate the Tea Crisis

One of the Bostonians caught up in the conflict over taxed tea was the brilliant portrait painter John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). He had no part in the tea business, but his father-in-law and brothers-in-law did. In 1769 Copley had married Susannah Clarke; her father Richard headed one of the three firms designated as tea consignees in the London.

On 6 March 1770, the morning after the Boston Massacre, Copley had gone to Faneuil Hall to give evidence to the town about aggressive action by British soldiers. His young half-brother, Henry Pelham, had drawn the first version of the famous engraving of redcoats shooting at the crowd that night. We might therefore expect Copley and Pelham to have been on the Patriot side of the coming conflict, despite being Anglicans. Or at least neutral, as Copley wrote to Benjamin West late in 1770:

I am desireous of avoideing every imputation of party spir[it], Political contests being neighther pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the Art itself.
But when the Clarkes became tea consignees, helping the London government to collect the tea tax in exchange for a monopoly on importing East India Company tea, the family became immensely unpopular in Boston. Henry Pelham seems to have taken it personally, based on this letter from 5 Nov 1773:
The various and discordant Noises with which my Ears are continually assaild in the day, passing of Carts and a constant throng of People, the shouting of an undisiplined Rabble the ringing of bells and sounding of Horns in the night when it might be expected that an universal silence should reign, and all nature weary with the toils of the day, should be composed to rest, but insted of that nothing but a confused medley of the rattlings of Carriages, the noises of Popes Drums and the infernal yell of those who are fighting for the possession of the Devill. . . .

I have been several days attentively observing the movements of our Son’s of Liberty, which was wonce (like the word Tyrant) an honorable distinction. A short Sketch of their proceedings may not be disagreeable as nothing in the Papers is to be depended. Last tuesday Morng. a considerable Number of Printed papers was pasted up, directed to the freemen of the Province inviting them to meet at Liberty Tree at 12 o’Clock the next day to receive the resignation upon Oath of those Gentle’n to whom the India Company have consigned their Tea of their Commission and their promise of reshipping it by the first opportunity.
In 1765, a Boston crowd organized by the Loyall Nine had summoned the government's Stamp agent to resign in the same spot. But the Clarkes refused to follow that example, all the while hinting that they might find some compromise to satisfy the local demands. On the 3rd and again on the 13th, mobs stormed the Clarkes' office; Jonathan, the son who had helped secure the East India Company contract, fired his pistol out a window, but no one was hurt.

The town's leaders tried to head off violence by channeling public anger through legal protests: committees and petitions. Meanwhile, the Clarkes asked for help and protection from the provincial government. On 28 November, the first tea ship arrived, heightening the crisis. The next day, Boston saw its first mass meeting against the tea, and the Clarkes moved to Castle William, the fort in Boston harbor held by the British military.

Copley then became the mediator between his in-laws and the assembled populace. On 30 November, he asked the meeting on behalf of the Clarkes “Whether they [could] come with safety, and remain so till they have returned and not be hissed; and the question being put, passed in the affirmative.” The crowd voted to give Copley two hours to travel to the Castle and talk to his relatives.

That afternoon, Copley returned to say the Clarkes “thought they might be safe, yet, seeing the terms were such as to the tea as was out of their power, they thought it best not to come.” He argued that they would be ruined financially if they returned the tea to London, as the meeting demanded. But the crowd did not relent, and Copley's role in the negotiations ended.

From that point on, Copley was associated with the supporters of the royal government. In April 1774, he was hosting Col. George Watson, a Plymouth merchant whose portrait he had painted in 1768. A crowd gathered outside his Beacon Hill home, pressuring Watson to resign from the new Council appointed in London instead of elected in Massachusetts. The next month, Copley declared himself a friend of the royal government by signing an Address that praised departing governor Thomas Hutchinson.

Soon afterward, in June 1774, Copley headed to England for the first time. After a tour of Europe to see some of the artworks he had long read about, he returned to Britain. He may have hoped the political conflict had calmed, but now the Crown and his native province were at war. Copley settled in London, becoming a history painter. One of his sons became a well-known lawyer and eventually received the title Baron Lyndhurst.


Tobin Anderson said...

There is an entertaining real estate upshot to this tale of Copley's flight (for those of us who live in Boston). Copley had purchased a twenty-acre farm -- quite a lot of Beacon Hill -- for three thousand pounds, back when he was married. Once he'd imposed Loyalist self-exile on himself, he didn't dare return, so eventually, in 1795, he sold the Boston property, and briefly boasted around London that he'd made five times what he'd bought it for -- until someone informed him that they were about to build the State House next door, and so his (ex-)lot was going to become the most expensive real estate in the city.

He sent his son John Singleton Jr. (Lyndhurst later) scrambling to try to overtake the packet and annul the deal. No dice, of course.

It was one of a series of poor and embarrassing decisions he made in his later years. Though I'm not sure who's more foolish, Copley for selling the property for only five times' its earlier worth, or the modern yupster, purchasing a 400 square foot studio on the same property for $350,000.


J. L. Bell said...

Oh, what good is it to father one of the leading lawyers of his generation if he can't get you out of a hasty real-estate deal?