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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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sic Scripsit Gloria Mundi

In connection to the paper I’m reading at the New England Historical Association meeting this morning, over the next few days I’m going to post some newspaper writing from 1765-66.

As 1765 neared its end, the town was in an uproar over the Stamp Act. In August crowds had forced stamp agent Andrew Oliver to resign. Rioters had attacked his house and others, culminating in the near-destruction of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion in the North End. Town officials worked hard to curtail that year’s Pope Night celebration on 5 November, basically by bribing the young men involved. Crown officials gave up on trying to enforce the Stamp Act.

On 25 November the Boston Evening-Post printed a long letter signed “Y. Z.” advocating a continental boycott of imports from Britain as a way to pressure Parliament into repealing the Stamp Act. One week later, on 2 Dec 1765, the following letter appeared in the Evening-Post:

Mr. Y—Zany,

Never was a man more sensibly struck with a patriotic zeal than I was at reading your nervous essay of last Monday, signed Y. Z. I had scarce read it before I jump’d up, ran into my house, and told my wife she must take care of herself and children, for I was so violently seized with the distemper of the times, that I had order’d my shop to be shut up and intended to make use of what Goods I had by me to pay such r-sc-ls as I could find to write for me.

I instantly set about my laudable work with a zeal becoming a true patriot; and no sooner had I got out of my house than I saw a man preaching about Liberty and Property. I took him aside and acquainted him with my design, he immediately replied, if I proposed to make any figure that way, I must begin an acquaintance with your honor:
The letter then describes that “friend” being interrupted with a demand that he pay his debts. Boston had been hit by a wave of bankruptcies earlier that year, so this was a sensitive topic. The writer resumes his address to “Y. Z.”:
Now Sir, I am willing to start fair, if you will give me a true receipe of your method of turning Cyder into Wine, I will write you a treatise upon the efficacy of Molasses, Turnip-Juice and Cyder. And as I in my youthful days took a notion at painting, and knowing you to be a true friend and lover of arts and sciences, I shall take the liberty of drawing your picture in miniature. . . .

Mr. Zany adorned in beautiful nature erect, his hands and eyes in the same position, as if thanking kind providence for giving him such a strong immoveable and beneficial post as he holds, Sir Thomas M-tch-ll, aid de camp to Gen. L-s-nby, with a parcel of wrought hemp in his hand, this country manufacture, and a Cooper with a parcel of well made hoops on his arm, admiring the attitude and gratitude of Zany, a seeming motion, as if saying one to the other, what better man can be rendered to him for his patriotic zeal to us ward; with some other lively devices. . . .

I will furnish you with an able pen peculiarly adapted to write nonsense on religion, or any other subject that may suit you. If you should publish this, please to gut your name, lest some wag should put a bad construction on it, and you be thereby treated accordingly. This from your humble servant,

So what was that all about? I have very little idea. The conspicuous mention of a “post” and “wrought hemp” might refer to a whipping. The capitalized word “Cooper” was probably an allusion to the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, minister of the Brattle Street meeting, or his brother William Cooper, Boston’s town clerk. They were both part of the coalition against the Stamp Act. But the other names? The remark about “Molasses, Turnip-Juice and Cyder”? I’m baffled.

But at the time people found those references so full of meaning that this letter set off a cascade of other letters to the newspapers as personal and nasty as any of the time.

TOMORROW: “Y. Z.” and his friend “H.” strike back. And what does this possibly have to do with my paper, which is about the boys of the South Latin School?

[P.S. Corrections to my Latin are welcome.]

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