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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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Caricature of a Tea Partier

Adam Colson (his family name was also spelled Collson, Coleson, and Coulson) was born in 1738. At that time his grandfather David was a Boston selectman. Adam followed his grandfather into leather-dressing, and he also became politically active.

Colson joined the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons in 1763. In 1766 the town meeting elected him as a “Clerk of the Market,” a beginner-level office. By 1773, he was also a member of the North End Caucus (and, reportedly, the “Long Room Club”).

Colson was in the second set of volunteers patrolling the wharves to make sure no East India Company tea was landed. Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s 1835 book Traits of the Tea-Party listed him among the men who destroyed that tea on 16 Dec 1773—the earliest such list to see print. Thatcher also wrote of that night’s meeting at Old South:
Some person or persons, in the galleries, (Mr. [William] Pierce thinks Adam Colson,) at this time cried out, with a loud voice, “Boston Harbor a tea-pot this night!”—“Hurra for Griffin’s Wharf!”—and so on.
For Colson to have gotten down from the gallery during a crowded meeting and onto a tea ship would have been a feat.

In 1774 Bostonians voted Colson to be the town’s Informer of Deer, a post he held for years, and the next year he was chosen to be a Warden. In 1779, with the town hurt by shortages and price jumps, he was made an Inspector of the Market. He appears to have served only briefly in the military, patrolling the town under Col. Jabez Hatch.

During these years Colson maintained his business selling leather goods in the South End under the “Sign of the Buck and Glove” near Liberty Tree. But he also bought real estate, opening an inn and what by 1788 he called the “Federal Stable.” In 1782 he hosted the future Marquis De Chastellux, who was making a trip through the new U.S. of A.

In Boston’s 1792 state election returns, Colson garnered 7 votes for lieutenant governor, coming in third. Samuel Adams with 686 was the clear winner, and merchant Thomas Russell with 17 was second. Yet Colson was still just a tradesman and landlord, not a gentleman (he didn’t get “Esq.” after his name in the official tally). That made his relative prominence notable. So what were his post-Revolutionary politics?

In 1795 the Rev. John Silvester John Gardiner (1765-1830), future rector of Trinity Church, published a book called Remarks on the Jacobiniad through the new Federal Orrery newspaper and then the printers Weld and Greenough. It was a biting, satirical, and not entirely coherent attack on the nascent Jeffersonian party in Boston. In particular, Gardiner lampooned Thomas Edwards, Benjamin Austin, Samuel Hewes, “Justice [John] Vinal,” and Colson. Judging by a legal report in the Columbian Centinel in 1791, Gardiner must have been carrying on that feud for years.

Remarks on the Jacobiniad portrayed Colson as an illiterate veteran of the Revolutionary struggle. At what must have been some expense, the book even included caricatures of those five leading “Jacobins,” allowing us to see a version of Adam Colson, above.

Colson died in 1798, not surviving to see his party take the Presidency and hold it for six terms. He left an estate worth nearly $17,000, including $10,000 of real estate on Washington Street in the South End.

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