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, April 16, 2015

“A humorous story told about town of one of the deserters”

On 20 Aug 1774, the young lawyer John Trumbull sent the following to his legal mentor John Adams, then on his way to the First Continental Congress:
There is a humorous story told about town of one of the deserters, though I cannot say it is absolutely to be depended upon as a fact: a soldier, whose name is Patrick, deserted sometime ago and settled in a country town at some distance, and there undertook to instruct a company of about fifty men in military exercises.

A sergeant and eight men were sent to apprehend deserters, got intelligence of him, and agreed with a countryman, for a couple of guineas, to conduct them to him. Patrick, it seems, was at that time exercising his company; however, being called by the sergeant and his men, he immediately came up to them. The sergeant demanded what he did there, told him he was his prisoner, and ordered him to return and join his regiment.

Sir, said Patrick, I beg your pardon, but I don’t think it possible for me to obey you at present. The sergeant repeated his orders in a very peremptory style. Patrick still assured him of the great improbability of his being able to comply with the command; but told him, as it was not absolutely certain, he would see what could be done about it.

You must know, said he, that we determine every thing here by a vote—and turning to his company, which had by this time come up,—gentlemen, says he, if it be your mind that I should leave the town and return to my regiment, please to manifest it. Not a single hand appeared in favor of the motion. He then desired that those who were contrary-minded should manifest it, which passed nem. con. [i.e., no dissenting votes]

The sergeant and his men, finding themselves in so small a minority, and seeing it in vain to oppose the general voice of the meeting, were about to return again in peace, when one or two of his men were desirous to have it put to vote whether they should not stay also. Patrick, as moderator, immediately put the question, which it was not difficult to carry in such an assembly, and the sergeant, knowing it vain to resist, returned with six men to his regiment.
It seems significant that not even Trumbull suggested this tale was factual. But it reflects how he and other New Englanders liked to see themselves in 1774: committed to traditional voting and group solidarity, capable of using force but preferring to use calm reason and numbers.

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