Over the next couple of days, following a pointer and a push from Boston 1775 reader Donald Campbell, I’m going to write about William Molineux. To which the standard American answer would be:
Molineux’s name appears in few overall histories of the American Revolution. He held no major elective offices, wrote no significant articles, fought in no battles, and didn’t help organize the new U.S. of A. He has no entry in the Dictionary of American Biography. There’s no street or square in Boston named after him. He makes only a brief, silent appearance in Disney’s Johnny Tremain, looking like Spiro Agnew.
Yet between 1768 and 1774, Molineux was behind only Samuel Adams in importance as a Boston organizer, of the same stature in the political resistance as men like James Otis, Jr., John Hancock, James Bowdoin, Dr. Thomas Young, and, eventually, Dr. Joseph Warren. This report from the Essex Gazette of 24 Oct 1774, datelined Boston, shows what Whig colleagues thought of him, and also explains why so few people today have heard his name:
On Saturday morning last, after 3 days illness, departed this lie, Mr. WILLIAM MOLINEAUX, in the 58th year of his age, a noted merchant of this town.Molineux died six months before Lexington and Concord, when military histories of the Revolution generally begin, so he rarely appears in those books. Furthermore, some genteel contemporaries, even Whigs, weren’t as complimentary about him as this newspaper. Here’s what merchant John Andrews wrote to a relative in Philadelphia:
But what rendered this Gentleman more eminently conspicuous was, his inflexible attachment to the Liberties of America—At this crisis, when to evidence a desire to serve or relieve their distressed, and oppressed country, is denominated folly, by the mercenary or timorous worldling, ’tis not to be wondered that Mr. Molineaux, who was unappalled at danger, and inaccessible to bribe or corruption, should become obnoxious to the Minion and Sycophant, for his ebullient zeal in so noble a cause.
His time and his labour were with unremitted ardor applied to the public service: That Boston should become the victim of brutal oppressors, was to be insupportable: He could not suppress his resentment on seeing the sons of riot and rapine thus prey on her desolated bosom: It was his pride to confront the power and malice of his country’s foes; it was his constant wish and unremitted effort to defeat them.
It may with truth be said of this friend of mankind, that he died a martyr to the interests of America. His watchfulness, labour, distresses, and exertions to promote the general interest, produced an inflammation in his bowels: The disease was rapid and poignant: But in the severest pangs, he rose superior to complaint, he felt no distresses, but for the Public.
O save my Country, Heaven! He said, and died.
After surviving a fit of apoplexy two days, at six o’clock this morning died that zealous advocate for American liberties, William Molineaux. If he was too rash, and drove matters to an imprudent pitch, it was owing to his natural temper; as when he was in business, he pursued it with the same impetuous zeal. His loss is not much regretted by the more prudent and judicious part of the community.And a Loyalist gentleman, Peter Oliver, said even worse:
This Man was a most infamous Disturber of the Peace, & urged on the Mobs to commit their mad & desperate Schemes.Molineux didn’t practice genteel, indoor politics. He led crowds in Boston’s streets—usually peacefully, but often with the unspoken threat of physical action. During the nonimportation boycott of 1770, Molineux demanded a march on Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s house even though that was, Josiah Quincy, Jr., warned, potentially treasonous. After the Boston Massacre, he pressed for the prosecution of both the soldiers and Customs officials. He threw himself into a public-works project to employ Boston’s poor. In the tea crisis of 1773, Molineux’s visit to the Clarke family led to a stand-off with guns, and he appears to have been the only top Whig leader not seen inside Old South Meeting-House when the destruction of the tea began.
Men of Molineux’s class usually tried to separate themselves from crowd actions. He was a political anomaly in other ways as well. He was apparently born in England, and most British natives remained loyal to the Crown. He was nominally an Anglican, and the people of that church were disproportionately Loyalist. His closest business associates supported the royal government. But Molineux was probably more radical than any other leader in Boston but Young—more radical in many ways than Samuel Adams. Indeed, the 20th-century image of Adams that I’ve decried would probably be a better fit for Molineux.
In sum, William Molineux deserves a lot more attention.
TOMORROW: The dreaded genealogy.