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.

Follow by Email


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Ebenezer Richardson as a Cause of the American Revolution

This afternoon and for the next two days I’ll be attending the “So Sudden an Alteration” conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society. (Follow along on Twitter via #RevReborn2.)

This conference is a sequel to the “American Revolution Reborn” conference in Philadelphia in 2013. And we remember what fun that was.

This installment is subtitled “The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution.” The series is charged with reinvigorating the scholarly study and interpretation of the Revolution. So after the call for papers, I offered a radical proposal for a minor but nonetheless notable cause of the American Revolution:
Ebenezer Richardson

As I related in a series of articles beginning here, Ebenezer Richardson was an unremarked Woburn farmer until he married his late wife’s sister and had children by her. Those acts were common enough in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. What set Richardson apart was that he did them in the wrong order: his sister-in-law Kezia Hincher gave birth to his child in 1752, his wife Rebecca died by 1753, and he and Keziua married in Boston in January 1754.

In between the child’s arrival and the Richardson’s departure for Boston, Ebenezer and Kezia had let suspicion of paternity fall on her employer, the Rev. Edward Jackson. That was part of a larger schism and feud between Woburn congregations. Once the baby’s true father was revealed, Jackson’s chief accuser and rival moved out of town in embarrassment.

Meanwhile, Richardson went to work in Boston as an informer for the authorities. That work was exposed in the early 1760s by legal papers that leaked during a dispute within the Customs office. James Otis, Jr., was quick to link Richardson’s willingness to turn in his fellow Bostonians for smuggling to his sexual misbehavior, calling him “a person of the most infamous character,…as was never encouraged under any administration but such as those of Nero or Caligula.”

Customs officials evidently felt some debt to Richardson, however, because they gave him a full-time job as a “land waiter.” (Locals continued to refer to him as “the informer.”)

Then came the confrontation on 22 Feb 1770 when Richardson tried to break up a non-importation protest outside a shop. Not for the first time, a crowd mobbed his house. Fearing for his wife and daughters, Richardson fired birdshot out a window and killed a young boy, Christopher Seider. That spring, a Boston jury convicted Richardson of murder.

If Richardson had been hanged, his behavior might have remained a local political grievance. Instead, the royally appointed judges, convinced his trial was unfair, put off sentencing him for years until the ministry in London sent a pardon. And then the Customs service found Richardson another job, this time in Philadelphia.

To the people of Massachusetts, I argue, Richardson had come to symbolize all that they detested about London: he behaved licentiously, degraded a religious man, betrayed his neighbors’ interests for personal gain, and violently oppressed the innocent. And instead of condemning Richardson, at every turn the royal authorities protected him more closely.

Boston’s Whigs sent information about Richardson to their Philadelphia colleagues, going all the way back to the scandal in Woburn. That made one colony’s grievance into a continental issue. Philadelphians made sure that their local Customs office didn’t become a haven for Richardson.

News of Richardson’s tawdry behavior thus helped to shape popular sentiment against the Crown government. His actions created a moral grievance that united his rural Massachusetts home and the big port he came to patrol. And Americans who never had direct experience with Parliament’s new duties could still see something wrong in royal officials sheltering an adulterer, a sneak, and a child murderer.

As for Ebenezer Richardson himself, in 1774 he fled to London, accepted £10 from the Secretary of State’s office, and slipped out of the historical record. But had he done as much as any other individual to bring on the American Revolution?


John L. Smith said...

Ebenezer Richardson was a living symbol of everything rotten with the British legal system. Specifically, how the Crown treated those in its favor versus the other provincial insurgents and rascals.

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

No doubt there were other friends of the Crown who dallied sexually, or falsely besmirched men revered by a town's populace, or informed on their countrymen to customs officials, or accepted questionable employment by the crown, or counter-protested patriotic harangues of non-non-importers, or maybe stood ready with their finger at the trigger of a shotgun pointed at a patriotic mob, or escaped proper punishment for their crimes, or received the sympathy and succor of the tyrannical regime.

But I find myself incapable of replacing those ors by ands.

Committee of Correspondence said...

The Sons of Liberty played the game well and the first installment of creating a tragic scene that would mold and bond the people together against one set goal was rehearsed several times. Ebenezer Richardson fit the bill to create that next installment. The Sons incorporated harassment, emotions, mob action and finally group vigilantes a few times before on known Loyalist but finally an innocent death, a martyr occurred. This was exactly what the leadership wanted. NOW, make the formula work on soldiers and create an incident where a soldier fires on a civilian, a young one would be the key. Thus the incident of the 5th of March 1770.