I’ve been exploring the documentary record of Henry Knox’s activities just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. I don’t think it supports the picture that his biographers have painted: that he was, and was widely known as, a stout Whig.
In fact, I suspect that Knox’s June 1774 marriage to Lucy Flucker, daughter of Massachusetts royal secretary Thomas Flucker, made some people think that the young man would soon lean toward the Crown. He had much better prospects with the Fluckers’ support than on his own.
As I quoted here, after hearing about that marriage, the pro-Crown New York printer James Rivington stepped up his correspondence with Knox. Rivington also recommended his shop to officers of His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot, on its way to Boston. Knox’s New London Book Store became known as a gathering-place for British officers—which could only have reinforced any public impression that Knox was in the Crown camp.
Whether he intended that outcome or not, Knox’s contact with the royal forces proved useful to the Massachusetts Whigs. On 3 Jan 1775, Josiah Quincy, Sr., of Braintree wrote to his son, Josiah, Jr., then visiting England, with sensitive news:
Mr W— brings intelligence from Boston, that the seamen on board the fleet are grown mutinous;—that one of the navy officers, meeting with a land officer at K—x’s shop, told him that on board all the ships their men were grown so uneasy and tumultuous, that it was with great difficulty they could govern them. Upon which the land officer observed, that the uneasiness among the soldiers was full as great, if not greater, than among the seamen.The way Quincy dropped Knox’s name (disguised with a dash) suggests that the bookseller himself was a conduit of this gossip.
I’ve already written how it seems likely that Knox was the man who warned that royal officials—in particular, his father-in-law—knew what Paul Revere’s intelligence network was discussing in November 1774. (See “Who Tipped Off Paul Revere?”) Again, that suggests Knox supported the Whigs, but not loudly.
In his business letters Knox expressed strong hopes for a political change in London, but he avoided radical rhetoric and talk of armed conflict. Like most people, he probably hoped for a peaceful solution to the crisis. He probably wanted to avoid harsh conflict within his family and with trading associates. But when the Whigs needed intelligence, he provided it.
In his memoirs William Heath looked back circumspectly on how Henry and Lucy Knox left Boston:
His military genius and acquaintance with our General [i.e., Heath] led him to be importunate with Capt. Knox to join the army: not did he need persuasion to join in the cause of his country. His removal out of Boston, and the then state of his domestic concerns, required some previous arrangement; as soon as this was effected, he joined the army.I suspect there was a lot of family drama involved in those vague sentences. Were there arguments and tears? Or did Henry and Lucy make their plans in whispers, not telling the rest of her family? As it turned out, Lucy would never see her parents again.
In the spring of 1775, Henry Knox discarded the opportunities that came from marrying into the Flucker family and became an unpaid engineer for the provincials. I don’t see that as an easy, foregone decision. Knox could probably still have chosen to stick with his wife’s family and take advantage of their wealth and contacts. Having that option made his decision all the more dramatic.