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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Sunday, March 29, 2015

More of Peter Oliver on the “Black Regiment”

A month ago I quoted the longest passage in Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion on “Mr. Otis’s black Regiment,” the politicized Congregationalist clergy of Boston. Oliver used the phrase “black Regiment” at other times in his chronicle as well.

The first passage is from an early chapter on “Beginnings of the Revolution.” It starts in 1760 with Gov. Francis Bernard choosing not to nominate James Otis, Sr., to the province’s highest court, and James Otis, Jr., quitting his royal office and making his talents available to the opposition instead. Oliver, who eventually sat on that court himself, wrote that Otis himself used the phrase “black Regiment“:
Mr. Otis, ye. Son, understanding the Foibles of human Nature, although he did not always practise upon that Theory, advanced one shrewd Position, which seldom fails to promote popular Commotions, vizt. that it was necessary to secure the black Regiment, these were his Words, & his Meaning was to engage ye. dissenting Clergy on his Side. He had laid it down as a Maxim, in nomine Domini incipit omne malum [in the name of God begins all evil]; & where better could he fly for aid than to the Horns of the Altar? & this Order of Men might, in a literal Sense, be stilled such, for like their Predecessors of 1641 they have been unceasingly sounding the Yell of Rebellion in the Ears of an ignorant & deluded People.
The “Predecessors of 1641“ was a reference to the English Puritans who fought the Civil War against Charles I. Oliver was himself a descendant of Puritans, his family arriving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, but being on the other side of a rebellion changed his attitude.

The “black Regiment” resurfaces in Oliver’s text as it describes the Stamp Act:
Such was the Reign of Anarchy in Boston, & such the very awkward Situation in which every Friend to Government stood. Mr. Otis & his myrmidons, the Smugglers & the black Regiment, had instilled into the Canaille, that Mr. [Thomas] Hutchinson had promoted the Stamp Act; whereas, on the Contrary, he not only had drawn up the decent Memorial of the Massachusetts Assembly, but, previous to it, he had repeatedly wrote to his Friends in England to ward it off, by shewing the inexpedience of it; & the Disadvantages that would accrue from it to the english Nation, but it was in vain to struggle against the Law of Otis, & the Gospel of his black Regiment. That worthy Man must be a Victim; Mr. Otis said so, & it was done.
Oliver thus accused Boston’s Congregationalist ministers of inspiring the attack on Hutchinson’s house in 1765.

A later section titled “Nonimportation of English Goods” offers this passage:
Mr. Otis’s black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, were also set to Work, to preach up Manufactures instead of Gospel. They preached about it & about it; untill Women & Children, both within Doors & without, set their Spinning Wheels a whirling in Defiance of Great Britain. The female Spinners kept on spinning for 6 Days of the Week; & on the seventh, the Parsons took their Turns, & spun out their Prayers & Sermons to a long Thread of Politicks, & to much better Profit than the other Spinners; for they generally cloathed the Parson and his Family with the Produce of their Labor: This was a new Species of Enthusiasm, & might be justly termed, the Enthusiasm of the Spinning Wheel.
The spinning meetings or bees organized by “Daughters of Liberty” usually took place at a minister’s homes, and the participants would leave the yarn they spun with him.

Those spinning meetings took place in both Boston and rural communities, and Oliver presented the ministers as a link from one town to another:
About this Time some of the Clergy, at 2 or 300 Miles Distance, undertook their Pilgrimages to the new Jerusalem, Boston, to consult Measures for the Conduct of the sacerdotal Order; & some of the Boston Clergy took their Airings into the Country Towns, to creep into the House & lead silly Men & Women captive; & they cannot be denyed the everlasting Honor of being as industrious in the Cause of Sedition as the first Martyrs were in the Cause of Christianity; but, perhaps, they would not have been equally faithfull to Death, in any cause.

Mr. Otis was prophetically right, at his first Outset, with Respect to his black Regiment; neither their Cloaths, their Shoes, or their Throats are as yet worn out. The Faction deceived them; they have helped to deceive the People; & when the Time may come that the People like Ld. Wharton’s Puppies, may open their eyes before drowning, the Curses of the deluded Sufferers will alight upon their Heads, to their irrevocable Contempt, without Benefit of the Clergy.
The image of Lord Wharton’s puppies opening their eyes as (or just before) they were drowned shows up a lot in eighteenth-century British political writing. The Rev. William Gordon also used it on the other side of the debate. It functions a bit like our frog in a pot being boiled and not jumping out.

And finally during the siege:
At some Times, a Shell would play in the Air like a Sky Rocket, rather in Diversion, and there burst without Damage;…the whole Scene was an idle Business. But as little as the red Regiments performed, the black Regiment played its Artillery to some purpose, and
The Pulpit, Drum eccliastick
Was beat with Fist, instead of a Stick
to such Purpose, that their Cushions contained scarce Feathers, sufficient for the Operation of tarring & feathering one poor Tory.
The couplet comes from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. The “red Regiments” were the army. But overall I’m not sure what Oliver was getting at in that passage—maybe alluding to how Massachusetts’s rural ministers, and refugees from Boston like the Rev. Samuel Cooper, continued to preach in support of the rebellion.

Proponents of the “Black Robed Regiment” idea today took the concept from Oliver’s memoir but rarely quote it at length. Perhaps because these passages and the longer discussion I quoted before state these historical realities and critical judgments:
  • British Protestants’ intolerance toward Roman Catholics, and rivalry between the Church of England and independent or Congregationalist meetings.
  • the government trying to strengthen its established religion, and how that backfired.
  • ministers as “a Set of very weak Men” driven by “a supreme Self Importance” and not above exploiting women and children who admired them.
  • ministers taking the political lead from their congregants, and being engaged on the side of a vindictive politician.
  • ministers doing “Evil,” spreading lies about a political opponent, and encouraging violence.
Of course, those modern proponents might say, these are the judgments of a Loyalist opposed to the U.S. of A.; the modern “Black Robed Regiment” would never really act like that.

TOMORROW: Where did the phrase “black regiment” come from?

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