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.

Follow by Email


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

“Treason! Rebellion! Massacre!”

To be fair to Benjamin Hichborn, there’s no evidence that he’d read the letters he was delivering to Massachusetts for John Adams and Benjamin Harrison (and delivered right into the hands of the Royal Navy on 31 July 1775).

Hichborn no doubt hoped those documents were important, because that would make himself more important. But he probably thought their rhetoric was typical for American Patriots in mid-1775.

Hichborn was therefore shocked by Capt. James Ayscough’s reaction to what he’d been carrying. Here’s how he described it months later [with paragraph breaks thrown in]:
My first interview with Ayscough, after his discovery of the Letters, I think worth relating—(if I had been subject to fits, I am sure he wou’d have thrown me into the most violent Convulsions)— “Oh the damn’d, black, hellish, bloody Plots contained in these Letters!

Pray Capt. Ayscough what do they contain?

Oh too shocking to relate! Treason! Rebellion! Massacre! (then beating his breast, with the most unnatural distortions of his face and body) O my God! It makes my blood run cold to think on it.

For God’s sake, Capt: Ayscough, if you have any compassion for my feelings, tell me what you mean.

Oh! (beating his breast again) it chilled the very blood in my veins when I read them. There is a plan laid to seize and massacre all the Officers and Friends of Goverment and all the Churchmen [i.e., Anglicans] upon the Continent in one Night. Pray Gentlemen is it a fair question, to ask if you are Churchmen?

(Mr. [Anthony Walton?] White said he was, I told him I was not.)

Such cruel, black designs, never before entered the heart of Man!

But Capt. Ayscough, are you not mistaken?

Oh I read them over and over again.

I am not disposed to question your veracity, but if I had read it myself I woud not believe it. Pray Sir, whose signature do they bear?

They are all signed John Adams.
In fact Adams had not written about a plan “seize and massacre all the Officers and Friends of Goverment and all the Churchmen upon the Continent in one Night.” He had merely written that the Patriots should “have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.” So the captain did have a reason to feel alarmed.

Ayscough brought Hichborn around Cape Cod and into Boston harbor (shown above in 1764). On 5 August 1775, Gen. George Washington wrote to the Continental Congress:
I have this Morning been alarmed with an Information that two Gentlemen from Philada [(]Mr Hitchbourn & Capt. White) with Letters for General [Charles] Lee & mylf have been taken by Capt. Ayscough at Rhode Island, the Letters intercepted & sent forward to Boston with the Bearers as Prisoners. That the Captain exulted much in the Discoveries he had made & my Informer who was also in the Boat but released understood them to be the Letters of Consequence. . . . I shall be anxious till I am relieved from the Suspence I am in as to the Contents of those Letters.
Alas, I don’t know who Washington’s informant “also in the Boat but released” was.

In fact, the letters Ayscough turned over to his superiors weren’t that important, in the sense of containing vital orders or intelligence that Washington needed. But they did have consequences.

TOMORROW: Mrs. Draper’s press.


John Johnson said...

I do find it a bit unbelievable that Hichborn would act so surprised at the contents of the letters. Surely he knew that any letters from one of the more prominent members of the Continental Congress would be likely to have inflammatory statements in them?

And surely he was aware of John Adams' reputation?

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect these letters from mid-1775 actually made John Adams's reputation. The Continental Congress was keeping its deliberations secret, and unofficial discussions were even more secret. Adams's public persona at this point had been defined by his work as a lawyer (including representing Capt. Preston and the soldiers after the Boston Massacre), one term as Boston's least senior representative in the legislature, and some fine lawyerly discussions of constitutional law. Publicly the whole Massachusetts delegation was still insisting they were loyal subjects of the king, eager for reconciliation (on their terms). Adams had said radical things in earlier letters home, but those remained private. I don't think he was close enough to Hichborn to reveal such thinking directly to the young man.

Now Hichborn may have exaggerated this conversation with Ayscough, especially since part of his motivation for recounting it seems to have been to throw a little guilt trip at Adams. ("Look what sort of trouble you got me into!") But I still bet he was surprised at this eighteenth-century equivalent of an "open mike" moment.