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 06, 2010

Lord Bute, Meserve, and the Devil

Thursday I quoted from the Rev. Jeremy Belknap’s account of the Stamp Act protests in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Here’s a more lively account from Charles Warren Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth, published in 1859.

The London government appointed George Meserve, who was in England at the time, as stamp agent for New Hampshire. But he didn’t last long in office.

on arriving at Boston on the 6th of September, (about seven weeks before the law was to take effect), the excited state of the public feeling induced him to resign his office of stamp master.

His resignation was not known here [in Portsmouth]; so the indignant populace, on the night of the 11th of September, placed on the hill in front of the jail a triple effigy, representing Lord Bute, who was father of the bill, Meserve and the Devil. A board was extended from the mouth of the Devil to Meserve’s ear, on which was written:
George, my son, you are rich in station,
But I would have you serve this nation.
The effigies stood through the day, and in the evening they were carried about the town with much clamor, and then burnt.
Making effigies of two men and the Devil and throwing them in a bonfire at the end of the day was how Portsmouth, and other New England seaports, traditionally celebrated the 5th of November, Pope Night. I don’t know why folks almost always hung two effigies, but they did.

John Stuart, the third Earl of Bute, had been the tutor of George III, and served as First Minister in 1762-63. He brought the Seven Years’ War to a close, but lost favor with the British people and the king. Bute’s Tory politics made him an enemy to the Whigs, and his Scottish background made him an easy target. John Wilkes lambasted him with The North Briton, and John Horne accused him of having an affair with the king’s mother. American politicians blamed Bute for the Stamp Act of 1765 even though he had been out of office and favor for years when it passed.

Back to Portsmouth. As described yesterday, Meserve publicly repeated his resignation when he arrived home in the fall of 1765. But the controversy wasn’t over. With the new year, Meserve received his formal commission as stamp agent again. A committee of locals called on him. Brewster related the story this way:
He takes from his desk the commission he has just received, gives it up to them, and submits to the administration of an oath by Wiseman Claggett, that he would not directly or indirectly attempt to execute the office. The commission is taken—on the point of a sword it is elevated, and the procession moves down Vaughan and up King street, bearing the trophy, hailed by the shouts of the “sons of liberty.”
Carrying the commission around on a sword conveyed the symbolic message that the document was too foul to touch. Other processions of the time bore stamped paper at the end of long poles.

Lorenzo Sabine’s reference to American Loyalists added:
After the repeal of the [Stamp] Act, and on the arrival of Secretary [Henry Seymour] Conway’s circular in 1766, enclosing a resolution of Parliament to the effect that the Colonies should make recompence to such persons as had suffered injury or damage in consequence of their assisting to execute the Act, Meserve applied to the Assembly of New Hampshire for compensation, which application was referred to a committee, who made a report adverse to his claim, and it was dismissed.
Meserve ended up going with the British military to Halifax in 1776.


Deb Holland said...

Two effigies - the devil and the pope, here substitued with Meserve?

J. L. Bell said...

Sorry I wasn’t clear. There seem to have been usually two effigies hanged together—in this case, Bute and Meserve. At the first Stamp Act protest in Boston in August 1765, they were Bute and Andrew Oliver. At another protest on 1 November, they were Grenville and John Huske. In March 1768, they were Charles Paxton and John Williams, two Customs officials.

The Devil and Pope effigies were never hanged, so far as I can tell, though they were burned on the evening of 5 November. The Devil’s effigy shows up at these political protests, but never the Pope’s.