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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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Dean Dillopolis Takes On John Hancock

The Superhero Historians blog is tackling the Boston Tea Party as its topic of the month. I’ve peeked in on this blog before, and have never been sure what to make of it. I like the idea of helping kids explore historical events in depth, of course. But the vocabulary and especially the syntax of some of these little essays seem rather advanced for readers who like cartoon animal superheroes like, um, Dean Dillopolis here. (Apparently he’s an armadillo.)

Some of the blog’s historical remarks seem a little overenthusiastic, as superheroes are apt to be. About John Hancock, Mr. Dillopolis says, “He also smuggled glass, lead, and tea on his ships.” We don’t actually know that, I think. The best documented smuggling accusation against Hancock—the Liberty case, involving wine—was eventually dropped by the Crown.

There’s incontrovertible evidence for smuggling by other merchants among the Massachusetts Whigs, such as Capt. Daniel Malcom, William Molineux, and Richard Derby, Sr., of Salem. Some shippers even bought insurance for trips to Holland or other forbidden zones. Some were caught by the Customs service and successfully prosecuted. So we can certainly say there was a lot of smuggling into Boston harbor. John Hancock’s fortune was undoubtedly based in part on smuggling, but that’s because his uncle engaged in the practice.

I think it’s likely that Hancock and his captains occasionally skirted Customs rules, too, but he doesn’t seem to have been desperate enough, or to have had the good business sense, to go into smuggling in a big way. Many writers on the Revolution have assumed otherwise, figuring that where there’s any smoke there must be fire. So it’s not surprising that Mr. Dillopolis would write so confidently.

As another example of a poor connection, Superhero Historian Barley Hugg told readers, “The Green Dragon Tavern is a working tavern today.” There’s indeed a tavern of that name in downtown Boston, but it has even less connection to the famous Freemasons’ lodge than the Cheers bar in Quincy Market has to the tavern Sam Malone owned; at least Cheers has an official merchandising license. The original Green Dragon fell to the wreckers two centuries ago. The present-day business is an Irish pub (hence the green), and Irishmen weren’t as populous or popular in colonial Boston.

The great thing about blogs, though, is that they can always change. Just in the last week, Superhero Historians took a big step by going without a favorable review that had come saddled with punctuation, spelling, and usage errors. (“Are you smarter than a 5th grader? Well you’re kids will be if they check this site out as their homepage.”) I’m all for quoting good reviews. [Another History Blog on Boston 1775: “Read it and you’ll see why I like J. L. Bell: he's not only smart and well-read, he can make anything interesting.”] But the editor in me insists that grammatical blurbs reflect better on the site that displays them. So now I plan to keep checking out Superhero Historians.

ADDENDUM: Pierce Hawking’s executive assistant at Superhero Historians, Mr. Norrett, alerts me that he’s clarified the blog’s description of the modern Green Dragon Tavern. Again, that’s what’s great about history on pixels—so easy to add updates. Like this here.


CD said...

I wonder if there may be some confusion over what "smuggling" entails. While it would be a mistake to say that Hancock was definitely a smuggler in the eyes of the law, there is pretty clear evidence that he imported banned goods in violation of the extra-legal nonimportation agreements on the late 1760s and early 1770s.

I haven't seen the original customs documents, only the reprints in John Mein's Boston Chronicle (I acknowledge that this is a heavily biased source if ever one existed), which seem to contain fairly damning information about the goods that were coming into Boston on Hancock's ships. The 1769 manifests of the Boston Packet, Lydia, and Paoli, all of which were owned by Hancock, show that these ships carried substantial quantities of tea, silk, lace, glass, and iron. Many of these goods were purchased on consignment for William Jackson, while others were listed as belonging to an unidentified "J.H." The records I've seen seem to indicate that the goods were landed and received, in violation of the nonimportation agreements signed by Boston's merchants.

Though not technically smuggling, I wonder whether Hancock's behavior during the nonimportation crises influenced his reputation as a smuggler.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't think the latter-day historians who call Hancock a "smuggler" are referring to possible violations of the nonimportation agreement, which was supposed to be voluntary. (Of course, Boston committees and crowds made it very, very hard to defy the agreement.)

The "smuggling" charges appear to arise from the seizure of the Liberty in 1768, Customs officer testimony about the unloading of a ship a few weeks before that, and general suspicions about Boston merchants. Those charges involve bringing in goods in violation of the imperial trade laws, not the local boycott.

The William Jackson who ordered goods that came on Hancock's ships was a brazier who sided strongly with the Crown, and became quite unpopular as a result. I'm not sure how much control Hancock had over those goods, if any.

Some Whigs certainly broke their nonimportation promises. There was quite a controversy over that issue in the Boston press of 1769-70. Did the Customs service report the goods accurately? Did London merchants ship them against instructions? Must the nonimportation agreement be taken literally? Did some Whig merchants bend their political principles for economic expediency?

I'm not sure Hancock was among the violators. For most of his career, his political capital seems to have meant more to him than his financial capital.