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, November 06, 2013

The “Centinel” in the Spy

In 1799 the Massachusetts Historical Society published a history of newspapers in Boston and New England. Unsigned at the time, that article was later credited to the Rev. John Eliot. Among his comments:
At this time [1771], the Massachusetts Spy was growing into high repute; a more violent class of politicians filled this paper with their speculations than the whigs who wrote in the Boston Gazette, who were experienced statesmen, and had a particular object in view; to make people understand the nature of government, the rights of the colonies, the oppressions of Great-Britain, and the virtues necessary to promote social order with the principles of liberty.

A more disorganizing spirit prevailed among those who wrote for the Massachusetts Spy; and who were, most of them, young men of genius, without experience in business, or knowledge of the world; some of whom, perhaps, had no principles to actuate them; or were enthusiasts, if they had principles; and wanted judgment where their virtue did not fail.

Any one who reads a periodical work, styled the Centinel, in forty numbers, which was highly celebrated, and some other pieces of a similar nature, will now see that the same spirit and principles lead to a dissolution of all society, and like more modern publications, on equality and the rights of men [e.g., later works by Thomas Paine], are direct attacks at all authority and law; and being carried into effect, would have made confusion here, as they have since dissolved the governments, and desolated the fair fields of Europe.

The Massachusetts Spy was printed at Worcester during the war; it became a more useful and excellent paper, and did infinite service, in diffusing a knowledge of facts, and some of the best written pieces that have appeared in our American periodical publications.
Who wrote the “Centinel” essays in Spy? Printer Isaiah Thomas never revealed who gave him those essays, and Eliot apparently didn’t know. In fact, Eliot’s characterization of the Spy writers as “young men of genius, without experience in business, or knowledge of the world,” appears to have little foundation.

Most of the “Centinel” essays were about what the writer saw as abuses of the British constitution and law. In 1995, the M.H.S. published an essay by Neil L. York positing that the author was lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr. York has since co-edited volumes of Quincy’s papers published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

The other leading polemicists publishing in the Spy appear to have been Joseph Greenleaf (1720-1810) as “Mucius Scaevola” and Dr. Thomas Young (1732-1777) as “Leonidas.” “Mucius” especially got under the royal authorities’ skin. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson tried to punish Greenleaf and try his printer Thomas for seditious libel, but the local grand jury refused to indict.

I’ll talk about these and other controversies of colonial Boston’s newspapers tonight at the Boston Public Library.


J. L. Bell said...

In his Biographical Dictionary, John Eliot had nothing but praise for Josiah Quincy, Jr. He also said that the lawyer most likely wrote the “Marchmont Needham” essays in the Boston Gazette, which were “of the most respectable class.” But he said nothing about the Spy essays.

Dan Mandell said...

Does York still believe that "Centinel" was Quincy?

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting question. I don't know.

The 1995 article presents that as a guess with some supporting facts but nothing definitive. If more solid evidence had surfaced in the meantime, I suspect that would appear in the Papers of Josiah Quincy volumes, but I don't have those to check.