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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Friday, July 25, 2014

Dr. Hope and the Patriots’ “cruel oppressive sentiments”

Last month I wrote about a small collection of letters in the U.K. National Archives from army surgeon Richard Hope to relatives back home in England.

Among those letters is one dated 20 Aug 1775, which Dr. Hope sent with a page from the Boston News-Letter that printed three intercepted messages from Continental Congress delegates. That document is interesting in showing how that disclosure affected one observer inside Boston, and how he spread the word about evidence of the American Patriots’ true designs.

Hope wrote:
I inclose you a Boston news paper containing three letters there were intercepted in going from the Continental Congress at Philadelphia to the rebels headquarters at Cambridge in this province. The two last are from Mr. John Adams a violent son of liberty, an inflammatory seditious demagogue and leader of the infatuated people, and one of the Boston Delegates to the grand Congress.
I suspect the doctor had John Adams mixed up with his second cousin Samuel. In 1775 Samuel was known as an inflammatory popular leader while John’s profile was smaller. In fact, these intercepted letters probably went a long way to establishing John Adams’s reputation as a radical.

Hope continued:
The General [Thomas Gage] has above two hundred more of these letters in his hands which I suppose will be sent to the Ministry for their inspection; the two gentlemen who were bearing them we have prisoners. You will remark how cheap they hold poor old England, as she is not once mentioned; the universal opinion they entertain and propagate, is that Britain can not support the contest for six months, and look on the King’s troops here as their prisoners at will. I doubt not but they make a grand mistake in the reckoning, for should they attempt to force our lines, they will find so warm a reception and their losses so heavy as will make them heartily sick of the undertaking.

In the fifth paragraph of the last letter one may form a judgement of their cruel oppressive sentiments and resolves should success attend their arms.
That last comment referred to Adams’s questions to James Warren about a reestablished new Massachusetts government: “Will your new Legislative and Executive feel bold, or irresolute? Will your Judicial hang and whip, and fine and imprison, without Scruples?”

Decades later Adams (shown above about 1816) complained in his manuscript autobiography that this passage had been misread:
There were a few Expressions which hurt me, when I found the Ennemy either misunderstood them or willfully misrepresented them. The Expressions were Will your Judiciary Whip and hang without Scruple. This they construed to mean to excite Cruelty against the Tories, and get some of them punished with Severity. Nothing was farther from my Thoughts. I had no reference to Tories in this. But as the Exercise of Judicial Powers without Authority from the Crown, would be probably the most offensive Act of Government to Great Britain and the least willingly pardoned, my Question meant no more than “Will your Judges have fortitude enough to inflict the severe punishments when necessary as Death upon Murderers and other capital Criminals, and flaggellation upon such as deserve it.” Nothing could be more false and injurious to me, than the imputation of any sanguinary Zeal against the Tories, for I can truly declare that through the whole Revolution and from that time to this I never committed one Act of Severity against the Tories. On the contrary I was a constant Advocate for all the Mercy and Indulgence consistent with our Safety.
Of course, that line appeared in the same letter that said, “We ought…to have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.” So one can see why Dr. Hope and others in 1775 didn’t perceive Adams to be full of “Mercy and Indulgence.”

TOMORROW: The fallout in Philadelphia.

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