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, November 01, 2008

Judge Oliver Looks Down on Dr. Warren

I’m going back to the seasonal theme of political invective. After the siege of Boston began, Margaret Draper’s Boston News-Letter was the only newspaper still printed in town (and only on an irregular basis). Naturally, the views in its pages leaned toward the Crown. The 11 Jan 1776 issue of contained a long essay that referred to, among others:

the unhappy leader in the late action at Charlestown [i.e., the Battle of Bunker Hill], (who from ambition only, had raised himself from a bare-legged milk boy to a major general of an army)
That referred to Dr. Joseph Warren, who had indeed grown up on a Roxbury farm.

The author of this essay was probably Judge Peter Oliver (shown here), who used similar language in his Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion, completed around 1783:
Major Genl. Warren…was born near to Boston, & when young, was a bare legged milk Boy to furnish the Boston Market. He was a proper Successor to the bare legged Fisher Boy Massianello, & his Fate was almost as rapid. Being possessed of a Genius which promised him Distinction, either in Virtue or Vice, his Friends educated him at the College in Cambridge, to take his Chance of being a Curse or a Blessing to his Country.
(All other sources I’ve seen indicate that Warren’s mother paid for his tuition.)

Oliver sneered at Warren’s middling family background and ambition, just as he voiced snobbish ideas in other passages of his memoir:
As for the People in general, they were like the Mobility of all Countries, perfect Machines, wound up by any Hand who might first take the Winch.
Here Oliver used “mobility” in the sense of “mob.” And on the mobility we think about today—people rising or falling from one social class to another—he didn’t seem to care for it:
Never did the World exhibit a greater Raree Show, of Beggars riding on Horse back & in Coaches, and Princes walking on Foot. One Instance is Striking, of a Sand Man who carried Sand to the Doors of the Inhabitants of Boston, & is now riding in a Coach. This material World is turned topsey turvey every day.
A “Sand Man” carted around dry sand for homemakers to spread on floors as a cleanliness measure; it was a vocation for the very poor.

Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, whose children intermarried with the Oliver family, displayed similar attitudes in writing about the political conflict. For example, after young Christopher Seider was fatally shot during a riot, Hutchinson wrote that the boy “was the son of a poor German. A grand funeral was, however, judged very proper for him.”

Those remarks seem almost stereotypically “Tory” because one way our culture remembers the Revolution is a fight between nose-in-the-air aristocrats and good Americans who believed that “all men are created equal.” I think the rhetoric of many Loyalist leaders really was more snobbish than that of Patriot leaders; even if those Loyalists didn’t look down on the common people to begin with, facing angry crowds tends to push you toward that thinking.

But the British-Americans who became Patriots had grown up in the same society as those who became Loyalists, and they also accepted that there was value in aristocracy, Greek for “rule by the best.” In Britain, “the best” had come to mean men raised in wealthy and powerful families, particularly those who had hereditary titles. Those men supposedly had the education, manners, resources, and bloodlines to govern best. In America, the aristocracy was simply a different set of wealthy families.

The new American republic still deferred to gentlemen, even if it eschewed noble titles. (When men with titles condescended to join the Continental Army—Lord Stirling, Baron de Steuben, the Marquis de Lafayette—most officers were flattered.) As Americans set up their republic, they also set up some aristocratic institutions, such as the Order of the Cincinnati, with membership passed down through sons. In the 1790s and early 1800s, New England Federalists had little trouble arguing that the American common man wasn’t ready to be in charge of government.

That changed, I think, with the triumph of the Jacksonian Democrats. It became politically unpalatable in America to imply that a man didn’t deserve to be in government or rise high in society simply because of his family’s wealth. Because of his racial or ethnic group—those restrictions remained in force for many more decades.

We can see that change within the career of Martin Van Buren. When he was a young lawyer, well-born opponents sneered at his background as son of a Kinderhook tavern-keeper. During one election, they publicly challenged Van Buren on whether he owned enough property to vote. But nothing derailed his political career until the Whig Party applied anti-aristocratic political rhetoric. Van Buren drank fine wine, those Whigs sneered, while Gen. William Henry Harrison preferred hard cider. Never mind that Harrison was the son of a rich planter who had signed the Declaration of Independence and served as Virginia governor. (Of course, the financial Panic of 1837 helped defeat Van Buren, too.)

Today, American voters tend to suspect rather than defer to politicians been born into wealth or power—even though children can’t help that any more than they can help being born into poverty. Of recent presidential candidates, George Bush and Al Gore were sons of Senators, George W. Bush the son of a President, John McCain the son and grandson of admirals. All in different ways have worked to reassure voters that they’re not aristocrats. But an eighteenth-century gentlemen like Peter Oliver would have seen all of them as natural members of the governing class.

On the other hand, a man whose father delivered milk for a living, like Dick Gephardt—we know what Judge Oliver would have thought of that.

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