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, January 24, 2015

William Russell’s Toasts on Offer

Last month I quoted an 1874 profile of William Russell that contained a description of a “Sons of Liberty” medal, worn by Boston activists on public occasions. Noting that no example of such a medal survives and no other source describes one, I expressed skepticism about that statement.

That same profile also quoted from a small document said to have been written by William Russell, a document being auctioned on 31 January by Seth Kaller and Keno Auctions. One side appears to have arithmetic exercises, perhaps from Russell’s work as a school teacher. The other reads:
May the Sons of Liberty
Shine with Lustre


Wilks & Liberty

August the 14th. 1769.

Liberty without
End. Amen.

Americans Wilks
92         45
This appears to be notes for two or three toasts delivered at a celebration of the fourth anniversary of Boston’s first Stamp Act protest. American Whigs saw themselves in league with John Wilkes, a leading political reformer in London. The numbers 45 and 92 gained great symbolic importance in 1760s Massachusetts for reasons which are easy to explain, hard to fathom.

The phrase “liberty without end. Amen” also appears as a refrain in a pamphlet titled Britannia’s Intercession for the Deliverance of John Wilkes, Esq. from Persecution and Banishment, first printed in London in 1763. Daniel Kneeland reprinted that in Boston in 1769, so the phrase was current in the town then.

Both the 1874 article and the auction house’s webpage for this document link it to the Boston Sons of Liberty banquet on 14 Aug 1769, held at the Liberty Tree tavern in Dorchester. However, the 21 August Boston Evening-Post printed all the toasts offered that day—fourteen at Liberty Tree itself in Boston’s South End and forty-five at the tavern—and they don’t include the phrases on this document.

So that left me with a picture of William Russell carefully writing out toasts in case he might be called on, and then watching as other men got invited to voice their thoughts, and the number of those men inexorably climbed to the magical forty-five, when no one else would be called. And then Russell sadly taking his little slip of paper home.

But then I checked the list of gentlemen who attended that Dorchester banquet. William Russell’s name doesn't appear on it at all. He had just turned twenty-one that year and probably wasn’t prominent enough to warrant an invitation.

So my new, cheerier theory is that Russell got together with some other young men in Boston and had their own banquet with their own toasts. Including these.

In any event, this document helps to confirm that, even if there was no Sons of Liberty medal, William Russell was involved in that movement as early as 1769. He’s also linked to the Tea Party and served in the war.

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