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, May 19, 2008

Who Really Wanted to Fight at Lexington?

Yesterday I wrote about how unlikely it seems that Samuel Adams secretly manipulated Capt. John Parker and the Lexington militia into standing their ground as the British army marched onto their Green at dawn on 19 Apr 1775.

But I still think it’s possible that another Patriot leader urged the militiamen to do exactly that. Indeed, we have evidence that one politician argued for confronting the army column—not because he expected the redcoats’ reaction to trigger a war, but because he believed it would be dishonorable not to stand up to them.

Arthur Bernon Tourtellot was so intent on building a case against Adams that he didn’t recognize how the evidence he’d amassed pointed to another man. Citing William Sumner’s notes on a dinner conversation with the widow of John Hancock in 1822, he wrote:

Hancock insisted on fighting the British himself. “It was with very great difficulty that he was dissuaded from it by Mr. [Jonas] Clarke and Mr. Adams.” He nevertheless went down to the Common to see the minutemen and came back to the Clarke house to repeat his desire to fight. Adams finally stopped the protests by pointing out the importance of Hancock…to the leadership of the cause.
Hancock’s widow, by then named Dorothy Scott, actually told Sumner:
Mr. H. was all the night cleaning his gun and sword, and putting his accoutrements in order, and was determined to go out to the plain by the meeting house, where the battle was, to fight with the men who had collected, but who, she says, were but partially provided with arms, and those they had were in most miserable order...
She was probably dramatizing her story; other parts of her recollection, such as Hancock’s aunt nearly being struck by a musket ball, are unlikely, given what other witnesses said about that night. Tourtellot read the widow’s recollections to mean that Hancock actually went down to the Green himself. I don’t think she said that—she said he wanted to.

But as for the wealthy young merchant’s wish to fight, we don’t have to rely on his widow. Tourtellot also quoted William Munroe’s 1825 deposition about this night. As a militia sergeant, Munroe was guarding the Hancock-Clarke parsonage when Paul Revere and William Dawes arrived. He recalled:
it was thought advisable, that Hancock and Adams should withdraw to some distant part of the town. To this Hancock assented with great reluctance, and said, as he went off, “If I had my musket, I would never turn my back upon these troops.”
That sure seems like a hint about what Munroe and other men with muskets should do.

Tourtellot tried to to argue that Adams and Clarke, the Lexington minister, must have gone to the Green with Hancock:
Samuel Adams...would never have let him out of sight in the midst of such promising events; and Clarke would have guided them down the road from the parsonage, around the corner of the Common to Buckman’s. . . .

Expert as he was in town mobs and their behavior, Adams, who had lived all his life in the heart of Boston, was weak in his knowledge of country people. Hancock knew nothing of them.
Hence the need for Clarke’s involvement in the plot.

In fact, Hancock had grown up for several years in rural Braintree and in Lexington itself. Hancock had lived in Clarke’s house for a while as a boy; it’s called the “Hancock-Clarke House” because it was built for the merchant’s grandfather, the town’s minister for half a century. Hancock had also been staying there for weeks before 19 April while his secretary and a trunk of papers were in Buckman’s tavern. Thus, he had probably gone back and forth between the parsonage and the Green many times.

Why didn’t Tourtellot think that Hancock could have inspired the Lexington militiamen? He wrote:
Hancock’s behavior, brave or simply foolhardy as it may have been, during those last four hours, ruled him out as a serious advisor on the military situation (he apparently saw nothing unwise and useless in the President of the Provincial Congress standing with sword drawn and pistol cocked in the line of march of British soldiers supposedly intent on arresting him)...
In other words, Hancock couldn’t possibly have told Capt. Parker, Sgt. Munroe, or the others that they should stand up to the redcoats because he was too busy yelling about how someone had to stand up to the redcoats. Hmmm.

Hancock, unlike Adams, had some military authority in colonial Massachusetts. He had been captain of the Company of Cadets, an upper-class militia unit in Boston, until late 1774, when Gov. Thomas Gage removed him from the post and the company dissolved in protest. People continued to refer to Hancock with the honorary title of “colonel.” (Because the Cadets were so upper-class, their captain got this honorary rank.)

Hancock also had more official civil authority than Adams. In April 1775, he was both the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the chairman of its Committee of Safety. Adams didn’t have those titles. There was no one in Lexington better positioned to give orders to Capt. Parker than John Hancock.

I’m not arguing that Hancock actually influenced the men on Lexington Green. None of those men described being inspired by him or his words, and in the early 1800s he remained popular enough that they would have had every reason to point to his leadership. But if authors want to find evidence of a Patriot leader prompting the fight in Lexington, they needn’t try to thread tenuous arguments about Samuel Adams. They should look at all the evidence about John Hancock.

(This posting is the culmination of a week of articles that began here.)

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