The Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr. (1706-1788), was the minister of the Hollis Street Meeting-house, in the far South End of Boston. He was unusual among the town’s Congregationalist pastors in siding with the Crown rather than the Whigs. But he refused to leave Boston in March 1776 even as his sons and the other Anglican ministers did. His congregation voted to dismiss him, and the legislature placed him under house arrest. The congregants were never able to get him out of the house they had bought, and his daughters reportedly refused to pay local taxes while they lived in it for a couple more decades, too.
What Bostonians remembered most about Byles was his love of puns. In his autobiography John Adams referred to him as “Dr. Byles of punning Memory.” I suspect that locals in the next century dropped his name the way we say, “As Mark Twain said,...” or “As Will Rogers once remarked,…” to signal that we’re about to recite a joke. Which might mean that Byles didn’t necessarily voice every remark ascribed to him.
Among the most famous of those witticisms was one Dr. Byles reportedly delivered on 8 March 1770, during the funeral for the first four victims of the Boston Massacre. Witnesses estimated that several thousand people participated in the processions that day, dwarfing even the ceremony for Christopher Seider. Watching this crowd, Byles is said to have asked a young companion:
which is better—to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?That remark even got into Mel Gibson’s mouth in the movie The Patriot. But how reliable is the quotation?
Byles’s witticism turns out to be an oral tradition not committed to paper until 1897, more than a century and a quarter after the occasion. But it has an easily traceable provenance. It appeared in an article by journalist James R. Gilmore (1822-1903) in the August issue of New England Magazine. In “Nathaniel Emmons and Mather Byles,” Gilmore described a conversation “early in 1840” with the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Emmons, a ninety-five-year-old Congregationalist clergyman who died later that year. Emmons, in turn, reportedly described a conversation with Dr. Byles in March 1770 when he was a young man like Gilmore. He quoted Byles saying:
throwing out Sam and John Adams and John Hancock and some few other leaders, the majority of our New England patriots were a sorry set.Emmons was known for his fervent opposition to Unitarianism, Universalism, and almost any doctrine but evangelical Calvinism. He preached against Thomas Jefferson. The educator Horace Mann, a childhood congregant of Emmons, recalled that he
I stood with Parson Byles on the corner of what are now School and Washington Streets, in March, 1770, and watched the funeral procession of Crispus Attucks—that half Indian, half negro and altogether rowdy, who should have been strangled long before he was born.
There were all of three thousand in the procession—the most of them drawn from the slums of Boston; and as they went by the Parson turned to me and said: “They call me a brainless Tory; but tell me, my young friend, which is better—to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?”
expounded all the doctrines of total depravity, election, and reprobation, and not only the eternity but the extremity of hell’s torments, unflinchingly and in their most terrible significance, while he rarely if ever descanted on the joys of heaven, and never, in my recollection upon the essential and necessary happiness of a virtuous life.And if Gilmore recalled Emmons’s remarks accurately, he was also free to express prejudice about class and race. He strikes me as having been a temperamental conservative, disliking any new idea and any person not from his high class. He also seems to have had a talent for pithy quotes.
I can’t help but note that the “three thousand tyrants” quote resembles shopkeeper Theophilus Lillie’s complaint about being a slave to a hundred masters, published in January 1770. So Byles would have had several weeks to improve on Lillie, Emmons seventy years to polish Byles’s remark in his memory, and Gilmore another half-century to touch up Emmons’s anecdote for print. No wonder the quotation works so well.