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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Monday, March 30, 2015

The “Black Regiment” in the Newspapers

As I quoted yesterday, the Loyalist refugee Peter Oliver wrote that on entering electoral politics James Otis, Jr., had said, “that it was necessary to secure the black Regiment, these were his Words, & his Meaning was to engage ye. dissenting Clergy on his Side.”

Oliver was not the first to make that accusation, as shown by an item in the 25 July 1768 Boston Gazette headlined “Dialogue, between a PENSIONER and a DIVINE.” In this context, the “pensioner” was someone being paid by the imperial government and the “divine” a minister. The colloquy begins:
PENSIONER. It seems to me that the Clergy interest themselves too much in the political Dispute of the Day. The Gentlemen in Crape have no Right to intermediate in such Things. But Otis says he could not carry his Points without the Aid of the black Regiment.

DIVINE. If Mr. Otis expressed himself in that Manner, (which I question) he might have expressed himself rather more decently; but surely you will allow this to be a Day of Darkness and Difficulty, and you will also allow us to pray for Light and Direction.
Thus, there was debate at the time over whether Otis had actually spoken of the “black Regiment.” And the side questioning that attribution was also defending clerical involvement in politics.

Two years later, on 8 June 1770, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote to John Pownall, undersecretary of state, with his own complaints about politicized clergy:
It is certain that the present leaders of the people of Boston wish for a general convulsion, not only by harangues, but by the prayers and preaching of many of the clergy under their influence, inflame the minds of the people, and instil principles repugnant to the fundamental principles of government. At the Artillery Election Sermon, one minister in his prayers deplored the tragedy, etc., then prayed “that the people might have a martial spirit, that they might be instructed and expert in military discipline, and able to defend themselves against their proud oppressors, and the men whose feet are swift to shed innocent blood.“ Our pulpits are filled with such dark covered expressions and the people are led to think they may as lawfully resist the King’s troops as any foreign enemy.
A copy of that letter was found in Hutchinson’s Milton mansion after the war began and printed in the 8 August 1775 Massachusetts Spy. The Rev. Samuel Stillman had delivered the sermon to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company four days before Hutchinson’s letter and three months after the Boston Massacre. He was the minister of Boston’s Second Baptist Meeting, not an orthodox Congregationalist, but he was on the Whig side.

Hutchinson made the same arguments as the fictional “Pensioner” and the real Judge Oliver about ministers speaking against the government, but I haven’t found him using the “black Regiment” phrase. (Maybe the editors of his papers know better.)

Nonetheless, another political essay accused Hutchinson of using that phrase. On 7 Dec 1772, the Boston Gazette ran an item it said came from the 8 September Public Ledger of London. Writing six days before in the metropolis’s “Pennsylvania Coffee house,” a man signing himself “An ISRAELITE” told readers:
Mr. Thomas Hutchinson…was, from his earliest entering into life, a most rigid Dissenter; and being a man of uncommon art, subtilty, and disguise,…had once the greatest part of the dissenting Clergy of New-England, and some here very much devoted to him. The BLACK REGIMENT, as he of late terms them was his main support; there was no doing without the Black Regiment, which he for many years headed, in bitter opposition to the ease and prosperity of the Church of England in that part of the world. The Black Regiment have, however, since found him out; have had the most convincing proofs of his hypocrisy, falshood, and total want of principle; and therefore, almost to a man despise him with an hatred and detestation that can hardly be expressed:

however, as it has always been a maxim with Mr. Hutchinson, that in political affairs, nothing can be done to any effect without spiritual assistance of some sort or other, he has put on another mask, and is now paying his greatest court and attention to the Episcopal Clergy; goes mostly to Church, stays to the Communion, and stands God father to the children of all such as think proper to ask him to the Altar, thinking that such conduct, together with secretly insinuating here, that a Suffragan Bishop would be of great service to Civil Government in New England, will engage our Clergy to become Advocates for his Administration, and thereby be the means of his continuing (however obnoxious) at the head of Government in that Colony.
The essay ended by insinuating that if Hutchinson thought he could gain “a more lucrative Place” by it, he would endure “the pains of Circumcision at the age of seventy.” Nice.

This “Israelite” thus managed to remind his London audience that Hutchinson wasn’t Anglican while also accusing him of trying to install a bishop in America. Overall that essay suggested that any politician might seek clerical support; the real sin was being unfaithful to one’s own denomination.

I’ve found one more example of this use of the phrase “black Regiment” in Massachusetts newspapers. On 11 Jan 1776, inside besieged Boston, the Boston News-Letter published an essay signed “Z.Z.” which described an unnamed man this way:
This man’s adroitness in law was thought necessary to be engaged in the cause of defeating acts of parliament: He was engaged, and he had shrewdness enough to start a thought which, artfully pursued, hath generally its expected effect in all popular commotions; he said, that it was necessary to enlist a black regiment in their service: the bait was snapped at; and many ministers of the gospel, too, too many for the honor of the christian religion joined in the cry.
Phrases in the “Z.Z.” essays show that the author was Peter Oliver, and the man described here was obviously James Otis, Jr. Which brings us back to where we started.

TOMORROW: Other meanings of the “black Regiment.”

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