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, August 22, 2009

Roland Cotton’s “Circumstances and Contrivances”

Though Jonathan Poole was a justice of the peace in Woburn, he wasn’t the town’s most prominent critic of the Rev. Edward Jackson. That man was Roland Cotton (1701-1778), a militia colonel and politician—and a Harvard classmate of the minister.

Cotton was a descendant of the famous Rev. John Cotton of seventeenth-century Boston (shown here), and son and namesake of the respected minister at Sandwich. On his mother’s side, Cotton had a rich uncle in Woburn. Though his local roots were shallow, he augmented them with wealth and audacity.

Cotton arrived in Woburn in 1737 and almost immediately was elected one of the town’s representatives to the Massachusetts General Court. After two terms, the House made him its Clerk, which provided a steady income. In contrast to most gentlemen of the time, Cotton was relatively open about asking for political favors and votes. In 1740 a rival accused him of using “many little, low, mean Circumstances and Contrivances” to get reelected. The same pamphlet noted that Cotton’s dying uncle had given him property instead of bequeathing it, thus keeping that estate away from his many creditors.

Also in 1740, Cotton led the Woburn congregation to refuse Jackson a raise in pay. Jackson responded by campaigning against Cotton’s reelection the next spring. But the town kept sending Cotton to the General Court until May 1746. He appears to have lost his seat then only because he’d angered people by aggressively drafting militiamen to attack Louisbourg and to put down a riot in Swansea. Cotton was so popular among the province’s politicians, however, that he remained Clerk of the House even though he was no longer a member.

Those were the same years when Poole and some other Woburn families decided they’d had enough of Jackson and his rival, the Rev. John Fox, and founded their own meeting. Cotton’s name doesn’t appear on the petitions to form a new church, but there’s little doubt he was a driving force in the effort. For their first minister that new congregation chose...Roland Cotton’s brother Josiah.

The Rev. Josiah Cotton (1703-1780) had been presiding over a church in Rhode Island, and then fell into his own feud with a deacon starting in 1741. He jumped at the chance to move to Woburn. The Boston News-Letter reported that his installation at that town’s third meeting-house on 15 July 1747 “was carried on with the utmost Peace and Dignity”—a likely acknowledgment of how notoriously undignified the arguments in Woburn had become.

Then in early 1752, the Rev. Edward Jackson’s unmarried housekeeper, Kezia Hincher, gave birth. Col. Cotton told people that he’d seen a certificate from the midwife—who happened to be married to Jonathan Poole’s cousin—identifying Jackson as the baby’s father. The Rev. Cotton took up the tale, publicly calling Jackson “a vile, wicked man, a fornicator, and unfit to be a minister.”

TOMORROW: Which was ironic, given the stories about Roland before he came to Woburn.

[This series of postings started back here.]

1 comment:

Corinne said...

Thank you for this series! I'm really enjoying about the history I never learned while I was growing up. Who knew?