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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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The End of “Gloria Mundi”

On 6 January, the same day that Samuel Waterhouse threatened in the Boston Evening-Post to publicly scrutinize James Lovell’s private life as part of their argument in Boston’s newspapers, the Boston Gazette published another letter on the brouhaha. This letter was signed “Thy Friend,” addressed “Friend Samuel,” and written in the voice of a Quaker.

It was not, however, particularly peaceable:

Thou was once esteem’d as a Man of some Learning, some Sociability, some Integrity, some Honor, some Honesty, and some Humanity; but verily of late thou seemest to have lost all Claim to those Virtues, and art grown a sowre, unsociable, jealous, malevolent pityful, pedantick scribler. . . .

Surely Friend Samuel, thou art not Ignorant that Sammy will sound full as well as Jemmy in a late whimsical but invenom’d Song...
That was an allusion to Waterhouse’s notorious “Jemmibullero” song about James Otis, Jr.

One week later, the Monday newspapers printed no fewer than four pieces on the controversy:
  • Unsigned letter in the Gazette suggesting “Gloria Mundi” be sent to “the Ok-um Manufactory [workhouse], as in that Employ to render himself more serviceable to the Community and his Family, than he has ever been in any other Way.”
  • Acrostic in the Gazette spelling out Waterhouse’s name in sixteen insulting lines.
  • “Y. Z.” in the Evening Post, insisting, “notwithstanding what you affirm, 7 out of 8 think Samy is Gloria and Gloria Samy.”
  • Another Evening Post letter, signed “X.,” saying of Waterhouse’s denials: “how unnatural is it, for him in such a public manner to disown his own offspring, & refuse the indulgence and kind offices of a father to the Brats he had sent into the world.”
But at the end of that second letter the Fleet brothers, printers of the Evening Post, wrote:
The Printers hope the above Pieces will finish the Controversy: as they are determined to insert no more upon either Side; and are heartily sorry, that in order to maintain their Impartiality, they have been obliged to publish so much already of what neither themselves or few others understand.
The next week, Edes and Gill at the Gazette followed suit:
The Friend’s Letter to Sammy, and one from his Opponent, are come to Hand; but we hope they will excuse our not publishing them; especially as the other Printers have dropt the Affair, and we can see no Benefit that will accrue to any-one from continuing their Publications.
The Boston Post-Boy of 3 Feb 1766 printed documents showing that Andrew Oliver, who had been Stamp Act agent for Massachusetts before the Sons of Liberty forced him to resign the previous August, swore before magistrate Belcher Noyes that he’d never recommended that Waterhouse as his replacement. Waterhouse likewise swore that he’d never asked for that job. And that was the last of this controversy—until June, when there was a smaller spurt of satirical letters alluding back to these.

As I watch how this dispute developed in the newspaper, I was struck by how much it looked like many arguments on internet discussion boards. Everyone was using pseudonyms (screen names) and occasionally assumed identities. A political disagreement quickly shifted so far into personal invective that it was impossible to tell what the original issue was. Rhetorically, there was a lot of quoting of each other’s words (which I’ve spared you) and sarcasm. People accused one debater of creating another identity and lying about it (sock puppetry). People brought up unrelated personal matters. And finally the moderators—in this case, the printers of the Evening Post—moved to shut the discussion down.

Sometimes experts say that the lack of face-to-face contact make internet arguments more vituperative than other sorts. We say things online that we’d never say in person, and many of us become unusually nasty when we’re anonymous. The speed of communication is also a factor; we send messages that we might well omit if we’d taken another day to consider.

This dispute casts some doubt on that thinking. In eighteenth-century Boston, gentlemen could argue with the same level of nastiness—perhaps more—even though:
  • The postings were only semi-anonymous, as everyone seemed confident of the identities of “Gloria Mundi” and “H.”
  • The men involved were apt to meet face to face any day on the small peninsula.
  • A full week passed before each reply, giving the writers plenty of time to rethink.
The internet may have made nasty arguments more common, but nasty arguments have always been around.

TOMORROW: Hang on. If Boston 1775 promises “unabashed gossip,” what was all that Waterhouse wrote about James Lovell’s “very notable performance, on the feminine GENDER, and the CONJUGATION copulative?

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