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, October 06, 2008

The “Maverick” Heritage

At last week’s vice-presidential debate, one point of disagreement was over the term “maverick.” That was one of the many terms Sarah Palin dropped repeatedly, and toward the end Joe Biden jumped on it and disputed John McCain’s claim to the label, given his overall voting record. Yesterday’s New York Times reported yet another dispute over the term:

“I’m just enraged that McCain calls himself a maverick,” said Terrellita Maverick, 82, a San Antonio native who proudly carries the name of a family that has been known for its progressive politics since the 1600s, when an early ancestor in Boston got into trouble with the law over his agitation for the rights of indentured servants.

In the 1800s, Samuel Augustus Maverick went to Texas and became known for not branding his cattle. He was more interested in keeping track of the land he owned than the livestock on it, Ms. Maverick said; unbranded cattle, then, were called “Maverick’s.” The name came to mean anyone who didn’t bear another’s brand.
Indeed, the Mavericks of Texas have been making this complaint for a month, noting the progressive twentieth-century politicians in the family. Their statements acknowledge S. A. Maverick’s slaveholding and support for secession, but skip how some of his neighbors and political opponents suggested his cattle-friendly policy was designed to let him claim any unbranded wandering cow as his property. Other internet folks argue that “maverick” didn’t become a compliment until Americans started to associate it with charming James Garner in 1957.

I’m going to address the Boston side of the Maverick heritage. There are two significant Samuel Mavericks in colonial history. One was an apprentice killed at the Boston Massacre in 1770.

The other was one of Massachusetts Bay’s earliest English settlers, proprietor of trading posts and farms on islands in Boston harbor and then along the Piscataqua from 1624 to about 1676. That Samuel Maverick was also one of New England’s earliest slaveholders. Even before Massachusetts law explicitly allowed slavery, he was keeping people from Africa imprisoned on his island and forcing them to have children. In Two Voyages to New-England, Maverick’s visitor John Josselyn wrote:
The Second of October [1638], about 9 of the clock in the morning, Mr. Mavericks Negro woman came to my chamber window, and in her own Countrey language and tune sang her very loud and shrill…and willingly would have expressed her grief in English. . . . Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of Negroes, and therefore seeing she would not yield by persuasions to company with a Negro young man he had in his house, he commanded him, will’d she nill’d she, to go to bed with her.
Boston’s first Samuel Maverick was undoubtedly a maverick: adhering to the Church of England in the midst of Puritans, defending Thomas Morton’s rules-breaking Mare Mount settlement, complaining to London about the local government. He spoke up for the rights of a religious minority (which he belonged to). But I can’t find how Maverick championed the “rights of indentured servants,” and he obviously oppressed enslaved servants.

I think being a political “maverick” matters only if one is serving the people and the country well; there’s no honor in standing out just for the sake of one’s self-image as a contrarian. And, as Maureen Dowd wrote in the same issue of the Times, “True mavericks don’t brand themselves.”

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