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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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Intelligence from Taunton

Last month the Taunton Daily Gazette reported on an effort by the city’s mayor to have the city—or at least its central area—be designated as some sort of National Park Service site:

Mayor Charles Crowley…said that Taunton is qualified because it has a “rich history” in its role as a bellwether for rebellion leading up to the Revolutionary War. He also discussed how Taunton’s industrial development was remarkable, especially when it came to silver.

Crowley started by detailing the totality of events that occurred in what he called the “theater” of downtown Taunton, including Church Green and the Taunton Green, where the Liberty and Union flag was raised. The flag was raised in 1774 by the revolutionary group the Sons of Liberty in the lead-up to the war against the British, according to historians.

Crowley said that the original pole that to hold up the flag in Taunton is missing, but the the Taunton green nonetheless served as a theater that hosted many of Americans founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin. . . .

Crowley noted the Sons of Liberty of Taunton embodied American values by going against the grain, refusing to act like cowards like most of the subjects in the colonies. He said they displayed their bravery by raising the Liberty and Union flag, impressing their fellow revolutionaries in Boston.
So take that, all those cowards everyone else in the colonies—only Taunton raised the flag!

Except it wasn’t only Taunton. Towns everywhere in New England were hoisting flags on Liberty Poles that season. It was the thing to do in the fall of 1774.

A report about Taunton did indeed get noticed in Boston, in the 24 Oct 1774 Boston Evening-Post:
We have just received the following intelligence from Taunton—that on Friday last [i.e., 21 October] a Liberty Pole 112 feet long was raised there on which a vane, and a Union flag flying with the words Liberty and Union thereon.
That motto was unusual, but a Union flag on a tall pole was not. When Isaiah Thomas took note of Taunton’s Liberty Pole in the Massachusetts Spy, he also reported on poles erected in Concord, Middleborough, Barnstable, Granville, Vineyard Haven, and Hanover, Massachusetts. Already the 3 October Newport Mercury had reported that “most of the towns” in Connecticut had erected Liberty Poles, with heights ranging from 100 to 170 feet.

And how did the town’s “theater” host Benjamin Franklin? On 10 Nov 1775, Sally Paine wrote to her husband, the Taunton lawyer and Continental Congress delegate Robert Treat Paine:
I had the happiness of seeing Doctor Franklin on his return to Philadelphia. He was so kind as to call at our house for letters or anything else that I wanted to send you. He made but a short stay with us and we would have been glad for more of his company.
Franklin was simply doing a favor to a colleague (and taking the opportunity to visit a pleasant woman—always a favorite activity). “He made but a short stay” in Taunton.

As the article explains, to support a new park the N.P.S. wants a site to be of national influence and not to duplicate the stories told in other parks. (There are also important factors of feasibility, budgets, and congressional support.) Clearly Taunton’s citizens took part in the regional Revolutionary movement, but I don’t see it standing out greatly from other New England towns.

(The conjectural recreation of Taunton “Liberty and Union” flag above is available from Flags Unlimited. Thanks to Rob Velella at the American Literary Blog for his tip about this news story.)

9 comments:

DAG said...

Taunton did house a POW camp during WWII, perhaps that might be a consideration for some different historical designation.

RFuller said...

Taunton?....ehhh. I appreciate the mayor's sentiment, but it looks more like boosterism to me. Might as well cry, "Boost for Birdsburg!"

Charles Crowley, Mayor of Taunton said...

Mr.J.L.Bell,

I am the Mayor of Taunton of whom you spoke in your recent post about our community's effort to attain National Park status for our downtown.

At no time did I ever use the word 'cowards' to portray any citizen from any other community or colony during that period.

I have often discussed the issue surrounding those events when our local chapter of the Sons of Liberty raised the 'Liberty & Union' flag on Taunton Green in October of 1774. I discussed the bravery that was displayed by our local citizens on that day because, as British subjects, anyone who spoke out publicly against the crown during that period could be viewed as committing an act of treason.
I recently discovered your website and I found it to be quite interesting. I only wanted to respond to your recent post when you accused me of using the word 'coward' which I have never used when speaking on this subject.

TauntonMayor

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you for your clarification, Mayor Crowley. As you see in the quotation from the Taunton Gazette, the newspaper summarized your remarks using the word “coward,” but I understand now that you feel that the report was not accurate.

As for whether raising a Liberty Pole was an act of treason, I think that was very much up in the air in the fall of 1774. The Taunton flag and the other banners of the same period were attempts to show loyalty to British values, as symbolized by the Union flag. North American Patriots felt they were upholding the British constitution better than the Parliament in London. Of course, that Parliament disagreed, but that was what all the fighting would be about.

American colonists were unsure how the highest authorities in London would view their resistance until early 1775, when they received word that the government—including the king—had decreed that New England was in a state of rebellion. Many Patriots were surprised because they felt they had actually been showing their loyalty to the British state all along.

Don Carleton said...

Your remark that "North American Patriots felt they were upholding the British constitution better than the Parliament in London. Of course...Parliament disagreed, but that was what all the fighting would be about" is one of the best, pithiest summations of what was at stake in the Revolution I have read in a long time. Hats off!

Chris the Woburnite said...

What raises my eyebrow are the reported heights of the liberty poles, 112', 100'-170'. Really? I tend to imagine heights of this magnitude in Green Monster units, about thirty seven feet, This makes the 170' height about four and one half Green Monsters high. High enough to raise my suspicions.

Any engineers care to chime in?

Charles Bahne said...

In response to Chris's comment: I had always heard that the beacon on Beacon Hill was 60 feet high.

The main mast on USS Constitution (1797) is 220 feet high. I think that height is measured from the waterline, meaning the height above the main deck would be about 15 to 20 feet less.

HMS Somerset was captured and burned by the Americans at the Battle of Chelsea Creek, but the rebels removed her main mast and took it to Prospect Hill, where they used it as a flagpole. I'm not sure how Somerset's mast compares with Constitution's.

Constitution's masts have 3 stages. (But if you look at the ship today, the top stage has been temporarily removed during restoration work.)

J. L. Bell said...

The first Liberty Pole was the object of fights between locals and soldiers in New York in 1769-1770, and eventually it was a fortified ship’s mast. I suspect masts (or “mast technology”) were used for many of the Liberty Poles of 1774-75.

There’s no way to confirm the heights that newspapers claimed, but there does seem to have been competition among towns to raise the highest pole. So there was a little incentive to complain about another town’s cheating.

Thanks, Charlie, for the word about the Constitution’s masts from a few years later. I believe the Royal Navy ship captured in the fight over Noddle’s Island was the Diana. I think it was smaller than the Somerset, which eventually ran aground on Cape Cod.

Charles Bahne said...

Yes, John, it was the Diana at Chelsea Creek. Thanks for the correction, and apologies for the goof.