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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Thursday, October 23, 2014

“In consequence of the past misconduct”

On 5 May 1772, the North End Caucus decided to support four men as Boston’s representatives to the Massachusetts General Court, or provincial legislature: Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and William Phillips. The next day, as I noted two days ago, the town met and elected those four men.

That slate omitted James Otis, Jr., who had represented Boston for most terms since the early 1760s and led the opposition to Gov. Francis Bernard most of that time. But since a coffee-house brawl in October 1769, people had come to see Otis as unreliable and mentally unstable.

William Phillips (1722-1804) had held many town offices over the years, including selectman and moderator of town meetings. The North End Caucus, and the men of Boston, no doubt saw him as a dependable guardian of their interests in the General Court.

So that settled the question of representation, right? Not that year. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson was maneuvering to separate Hancock from the influence of Samuel Adams and even dreamed of making him an ally. It looks like Hutchinson let it be known that if the legislature elected Hancock to the Council, or upper house, he wouldn’t veto that selection, as he and his predecessor had done in the past. That would open up another representative’s seat.

On 19 May, the North End Caucus gathered one day before another town meeting. The main items of that meeting’s agenda were instructions for the town’s new representatives and the school budget. But the caucus took up another motion:
Voted—unanimously—That in consequence of the past misconduct of —— —— Esq. this body will oppose his appointment to any office of trust of the town.
Both surviving transcriptions of the caucus’s records omit that person’s name, but I suspect it was James Otis. There were many gentlemen the North End Caucus didn’t think would be good representatives for the town, but Otis was the only one I can picture them discussing as a serious possibility if another seat in the General Court opened up soon. Caucus members wanted to forestall any thought of returning Otis to office. Boston had tried that once already, and it hadn’t worked out well for anyone.

The General Court assembled at the end of the month. As things turned out, Hancock was elected to the Council, Hutchinson approved his name, and then Hancock declined to take the seat. He stayed in the House, closer to the voters whose approval he enjoyed, and there was no need for a special election to replace him.

There are no records of a North End Caucus meeting between May 1772 and March 1773, so we don’t know how its members reacted to Samuel Adams’s controversial proposal for a standing committee of correspondence in November 1772. They probably supported it, given their usual positions. The town’s selectmen and representatives were lukewarm on the idea at best, and Adams needed the support of town-meeting diehards to get it through.

Otis was named chairman of that prominent committee, which seems like a contradiction of this caucus’s vote in May. However, there were twenty other members, and the meeting specifically assigned the responsibility of drafting its first three reports to Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. Otis’s role was limited to presenting those essays to the town meeting on 20 November—the last formal political responsibility granted the man who had once been the most powerful elected official in Massachusetts.

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