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 09, 2013

The Legend of the Long Room Club

Yesterday I quoted Samuel A. Drake’s 1873 description of the “Long Room Club” of pre-Revolutionary Boston and asked what was missing.

My answer is that Drake didn’t mention any source(s) for his information. He stated that a hundred years earlier some men met regularly in a large room over the Edes and Gill print shop, and readers had to take his word for that. Many authors did; the “Long Room Club” became a staple of descriptions of pre-Revolutionary Boston, and many books repeated Drake’s list of members. Repetition gave the statement the air of unimpeachable authority. I accepted it until a few years ago when Ben Carp asked me if I’d found any contemporaneous support.

So far as we could tell, no source before Drake had ever mentioned the “Long Room Club.” No contemporaneous document describes the group. A 1772 entry in John Adams’s diary shows that there was a room above the print shop. But a big room? With regular meetings of a club with a name? And those particular members? Drake’s statement was the only support for that idea.

We also have an account from Benjamin Edes’s son Peter describing a secret gathering before the Tea Party in his father’s house, not in the print shop. Under the influence of the “Long Room Club” meme, some authors shifted that gathering to the print shop.

Also missing from Samuel A. Drake’s description are the names of William Molineux and Dr. Thomas Young. All the usual, well-remembered suspects are listed: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, James Otis, Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. Benjamin Church, the Cooper brothers, Josiah Quincy, Paul Revere, & al. But contemporaneous documents tell us that Molineux and Young were Boston’s most important crowd leaders of the late 1760s and early 1770s. Both men were gone by the end of 1774—Molineux dead and Young to the south. Both were radical and religiously unorthodox. As a result, nineteenth-century Bostonians didn’t remember them so well.

Drake’s “Long Room Club” list includes some names that don’t show up in many other lists of Boston Whig leaders, some from out of town and others a generation younger than the men listed above:

  • Samuel Dexter (1726-1810) was an officeholder from Dedham, not visible in Boston and not among the province’s active Whigs. (His grandson had the same name, and would be a big politician in the early republic, but was only fourteen years old when the war began.)
  • Thomas Fleet (1732-1797) printed the Boston Evening-Post with his brother John; they were known for their “impartiality,” as Isaiah Thomas wrote, rather than their political activism.
  • Samuel Phillips (1752-1802) was a politician from Andover and is best remembered for founding the academy there during the war.
  • John Winslow (1753-1819) was a young businessman who became prominent in federal Boston and was a big source of information about Bunker Hill.
  • Thomas Melvill (1751-1832) was another young merchant, a Tea Party participant and official in post-Revolutionary Boston.
Those men don’t seem to have been part of the innermost circle of Boston Whigs at all. Rather, those were names that Bostonians of the early or mid-1800s probably recalled as connected in some way to Revolutionary times.

As for the “Long Room,” I suspect Samuel A. Drake or his informants might have gotten the Edes and Gill print shop mixed up with the Green Dragon Tavern. Taverns did often have long rooms for banquets and other meetings, and we know that the Green Dragon, which the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons had bought and turned into their headquarters, was one of the places where Revere convened his “committee of observation” shortly before the war.

Another possible root of the meme is Thomas Dawes’s garret, as described back here. Dawes was another name on Drake’s list, not as prominent in Revolutionary politics as the other men but definitely part of town politics before and after the war. But either way, the “Long Room Club” story seems so poorly sourced and probably garbled that I no longer think it’s reliable at all. (And now I have to go back to all the early Boston 1775 postings that referred to that group and update them.)

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