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, August 16, 2015

Gov. Francis Bernard’s View of the Stamp Act Riots

Royal governor Francis Bernard had, not surprisingly, a different view of the Stamp Act protests of 14 Aug 1765 from those men I quoted yesterday.

Bernard’s view came mainly from the Council chamber of the Town House (now Old State House), where he met with the Massachusetts gentlemen who were supposed to be his natural advisors and supporters.

Here’s the governor’s report to the Board of Trade in London, written on 15 August. This text comes from the Papers of Governor Francis Bernard, edited by Colin Nicolson and published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. (A similar text, apparently based on Bernard’s concurrent letter to the Earl of Halifax, appears here.)
Many Gentlemen, especially some of the Council, treated it as a boyish sport, that did not deserve the Notice of the Governor & Council. But I did not think so: however I contented myself with the Lt. Govr. [Thomas Hutchinson], as chief Justice, directing the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] to order his Officers to take down the Effigy: & I appointed a Council to meet in the Afternoon to consider what should be done, if the Sheriff’s Officers were obstructed in removing the Effigy.

Before the Council met, the Sheriff reported, that his Officers had endeavoured to take down the Effigy; but could not do it without imminent danger of their Lives. The Council met: I represented this Transaction to them as the beginning, in my Opinion, of much greater Commotions; & desired their Advice what I should do upon this Occasion. A Majority of the Council spoke in form against doing anything, but upon very different Principles. Some said, that it was trifling Business, which, if let alone, would subside of itself; but if taken notice of, would become a serious Affair. Others said, that it was a serious Affair allready; that it was a prearranged Business in which the greatest Part of the Town was engaged; that we had no force to oppose to it; & making an Opposition to it without a power to support the Opposition would only inflame the People, & be a means of extending the mischief to persons not at present the Objects of it.

Tho’ the Council were allmost unanimous in advising that nothing should be done, they were averse to having such advice entered upon the Council Book. But I insisted upon their giving me an Answer to my Question, & that it should be entered in the Book: when after a long altercation, it was avoided by their advising me to order the Sheriff to assemble the Peace Officers, & preserve the Peace: which I immediately ordered, being a matter of form rather than of real Significance.

It now grew dark; the Mob which had been gathering all the Afternoon, came down to the Town House, bringing the Effigy with them; & knowing that we were sitting in the Council Chamber, they gave three huzza’s by way of defiance, & passed on.

From thence they went to a new Building, lately erected by Mr. [Andrew] Oliver to let out for Shops, & not quite finished: this they called the Stamp Office, & pulled it down to the Ground in five minutes. From thence they went to Mr. Oliver’s House, before which they beheaded the Effigy, & broke all the Windows next the Street; then they carried the Effigy to Fort Hill near Mr. Olivers House, where they burnt the Effigy in a Bonfire made of the Timber they had pulled down from the Building.

Mr. Oliver had removed his family from his House, & remained himself with a few friends; when the Mob returned to attack the House. Mr. Oliver was prevailed upon to retire, & his friends kept Possession of the House. The Mob finding the Doors barricaded, broke down the whole fence of the Garden towards fort hill, & coming on beat in all the doors & windows of the Garden front, & entered the House, the Gentlemen there retiring. As soon as they had got possession, they searched about for Mr. Oliver, declaring they would kill him: finding that he had left the House, a Party set out to search two neighbouring Houses, in one of which Mr. Oliver was; but happily they were diverted from this Pursuit by a Gentleman telling them, that Mr. Oliver was gone with the Governor to the Castle. Otherwise he would certainly have been murdered.

After 11 o’clock, the Mob seeming to grow quiet, The (Lt. Governor) Chief Justice & the Sheriff ventured to go to Mr. Olivers House to endeavour to perswade them to disperse. As soon as they began to speak, a Ring leader cried out “The Governor & the Sheriff! to your Arms my boys.” Presently after a volley of Stones followed; & the two Gentlemen narrowly escaped thro’ favour of the Night, not without some bruises.

I should have mentioned before, that I sent a written order to the Colonel of the Regiment of Militia [Joseph Jackson (1707-1790), also a selectman and justice of the peace], to beat an Alarm; he answered that it would signify nothing, for as soon as the drum was heard, the drummer would be knocked down, & the drum broke; he added, that probably all the drummers of the Regiment were in the Mob. Nothing more being to be done, The Mob were left to disperse at their own Time, which they did about 12 o’clock.
The next day, Bernard assembled his Council again, including “all the Members within 10 Miles of Boston.” They were no more helpful than before, repeating that the militia would be useless. The governor did all they advised, issuing a proclamation againt the rioters with an ineffectual £100 reward for their capture. Then he summoned all of Boston’s magistrates and selectmen to the Council Chamber to urge them to keep the peace.

Gov. Bernard was so confident that would work that at sunset he hastened off to Castle William, where no mob could reach him. Before bedtime that night he composed the long report above, concluding:
Whilst I am writing, looking towards Boston, I saw a Bonfire burning on Fort hill: by which I understand that the Mob is up, & probably doing mischief.
COMING UP: The lieutenant governor in the midst of the action.

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