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, January 14, 2009

Samuel Adams Has a Message for John Wilkes

In the early 1770s, John Hancock—who I think had the best political instincts of any Bostonian, including Samuel Adams—backed away a little from the radical Whigs. At least he didn’t seem inclined to push so hard against the royal government. A lot of the issues that had galvanized the public were gone: Gov. Francis Bernard had left, British troops were no longer patrolling central Boston, only the tea tax remained of the Townshend duties, and the economy was improving. Plus, the Crown had dropped its weak attempt to prosecute Hancock for smuggling.

For a while, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson entertained the thought that he could win Hancock over to the side of the Crown. That was probably always a vain hope—Hancock loved being popular more than he loved honors from the elite. Meanwhile, Samuel Adams was eager to keep Hancock, his money, and his popularity linked to the Whig cause.

On 10 Apr 1773, Adams wrote to Arthur Lee, a Virginian representing Massachusetts’s interests to Parliament as a sort of lobbyist:

Mr. [John] Wilkes was certainly greatly misinformed when he was told that Mr. H[ancock]. had deserted the Cause of Liberty. Great pains had been taken to have it thought to be so; and by a scurvy Trick of lying the Adversaries effected a Coolness between that Gent[lema]n. & some others who were zealous in that Cause. But it was of short Continuance, for their falshood was soon detected.

Lord Hillsbro [the Secretary of State for the colonies] I suppose was early informd of this imaginary Conquest; for I have it upon such Grounds as I can rely upon, that he wrote to the Govr. telling him that he had it in Command from the highest Authority to enjoyn him to promote Mr. H. upon every Occasion. . . . But he [Hancock] had Spirit enough to refuse a Seat at the Board [i.e., the Council], & continue a Member of the House.
And then on 22 April Adams had a thought:
When I mentioned Mr. Hancock in my last, I forgot to tell you that he is colonel of a [militia] company, called the governor’s company of cadets. Perhaps in this view only he was held up to Mr. Wilkes, when he was informed that he had deserted the cause. But it should be known it is not in the power of the governor to give a commission for that company to whom he pleases as their officers are chosen by themselves. Mr. Hancock was elected by the unanimous vote; and a reluctance at the idea of giving offence to an hundred gentlemen, might very well account for the governor giving the commission to Mr. H.
In 1774 Gov. Thomas Gage removed Hancock as colonel of the Cadets, and the company voted to disband in protest. That post was Hancock’s sole military experience before the war began. Which didn’t stop him from talking a big game.

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