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, January 17, 2008

An Even Earlier “Corcas”

I started my longer-than-expected series of postings about the Boston caucus with what I said was the earliest surviving written use of that word, from John Adams’s diary in 1763. I was wrong about that. So was my Oxford English Dictionary.

The word first appeared three years earlier in the form “corcas.” One usage on 12 May 1760 was spotted by Richard Frothingham in his Life and Times of Joseph Warren (1865), though he didn’t provide an exact date, and by Henry M. Brooks in the fourth volume of his Olden Time Series of miscellany from Boston’s colonial newspapers (1886). Those references bubbled up to me through some lucky Googling. Then I used the newspaper database I described back here and found an example even older—by one week.

This notice appeared in the Boston Gazette on 5 May 1760:

Whereas it is reported, that certain Persons, of the modern Air and Complexion, to the Number of Twelve at least, have divers Times of late been known to combine together, and are called by the Name of the New and Grand Corcas, tho’ of declared Principles directly opposite to all that have been heretofore known:

And whereas it is vehemently suspected, by some, that their Design is nothing less, than totally to overthrow, the ancient Constitution of our Town-Meetings, as being popular and mobbish; and to form a Committee to transact the whole Affairs of the Town for the future; which hath greatly alarmed the Minds of sober Housholders, as well Merchants as Tradesmen and others;

And whereas it is further reported, that this Combination of Twelve Strangers, having no Prospect of bringing about this ever-to-be-dreaded Revolution, without the Aid and Authority of the General Assembly, do intend to employ their whole Strength, to obtain such a Choice of Representatives, at the ensuing Election, as will best serve their grand Purpose; which can be by no Means effected, but by leaving out two Gentlemen, who they have Reason to believe will strenuously and constantly oppose, all violent Invasions of our civil or religious Rights:—

And whereas it is confidently asserted by some, and many are verily persuaded of the same, that this said new and grand Corcas, have with many Asseverations engaged, to make a Point or carrying an Election, for any Manner of Persons, and by all Manner of Ways and Means whatever, in Opposition to the two Gentlemen above refer’d to; and particularly of detering all Tradesmen, and those whom in Contempt they usually term the Low lived People, from appearing to vote against their Designs, by strict Scrutinies, by Threatnings of Arrests, by turnings out of Employ, and other Methods of Violence, too many to be here enumerated.

THIS is to give Notice, that the Committee of Tradesmen, have taken into cool and deliberate Consultation these Reports and Suspicions, and admitting that there be such a combining together, and that their Principles and Designs be such as is represented, The said Committee of Tradesmen do mutually judge and determine, their Principles to be pernicious, and their Designs and Efforts to be of no Sort of Significancy.—

And the said Committee of Tradesmen, do hereby exhort their good Friends, the Members of the old and true Corcas, who have from Time immemorial been zealously affected, to our ancient Establishment in Church and State, to behave at the ensuing Town Meeting with their usual Steadiness, and like honest Freeman to vote for WHOM THEY PLEASE.

At our Meeting at the Sign
of the Broad Ax, near
the North Star,
May 2, 1760
So as of 1760, Gazette readers were expected to recognize “Members of the old and true Corcas” as representing the interests of tradesmen, as opposed to the “new and grand Corcas.” The latter, this notice warned, was about to engage in voter-suppression efforts to win seats in the General Court for the candidates they preferred.

The issue here might have been an attempt to change Boston’s constitution from a town-meeting system to a city with a mayor and aldermen. That more efficient, more elite system of governance didn’t take hold until the early 1800s. Of course, the writer tossed in the additional incendiary issues of religion, class, and whether the advocates of a new system were “Strangers.”

A week later the committee returned to the Gazette with more sarcasm:
The Committee of Tradesmen hereby advise their Constituents and others, to set apart a decent Portion of Time (at least one Hour) previous to the Opening of the Town-Meeting To-Morrow, to shift themselves and put on their Sabbath Day Clothes; also to wash their Hands and Faces, that they may appear neat and cleanly; Inasmuch as it hath been reported to said Committee of Tradesmen, that Votes are to be GIVEN AWAY, by the delicate Hands of the New and Grand Corcas; and they would have no Offence given to Turk or Jew, much less to Gentlemen who attend upon so charitable a Design.—

Nothing of the least Significancy was transacted at a late Meeting of the said new and grand Corcas to require any further Attention of said Committee.
Again we see the custom of handing out prepared ballots with the name of one caucus’s candidates.

I’d thought that “Corkass” from March 1763 was a very rude corruption of “Caucas,” but it might be a merely slightly rude spelling of an older form of the word, “Corcas.” As Boston 1775 commenters have noted, when locals had a tendency to swallow their Rs, words can be spelled with or without them.

Putting these notices alongside the 1763 complaints about the more popularly-based caucus shows the value of this old adage (which I just thought up): When my friends and I organize to elect the candidates we like, that’s democracy in action; when our rivals organize to elect the candidates they like, that’s a grave threat to democracy that must be stopped.

I welcome even earlier appearances of “caucus,” however it’s spelled.