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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Saturday, September 05, 2015

“A special Court for the Trial of a certain Criminal”

Yesterday I quoted two reports of anti-Stamp Act protests from the 30 Aug 1765 New-London Gazette. Here’s yet another, from the town of Lebanon, Connecticut, datelined 27 August:
Yesterday was held in this Town, a special Court for the Trial of a certain Criminal, late A[gen]t for this Colony: He made his Appearance at the Bar of said Court, in the Person of his VIRTUAL Representative, and was denied none of the just RIGHTS of Englishmen, being allowed the sacred Privilege of Trial by his Peers, &c.—

After a full Hearing, he was sentenced to be taken from the tribunal of Justice, placed in a Cart, with a Halter about his Neck, carried in Procession thro’ the Streets of the Town, to expose him to just Ignominy and Contempt, and then to be drawn to the place of Execution, and hanged by the Neck ’till dead, and afterwards to be committed to the Flames, that if possible he might be purified by Fire; which Sentence was immediately Executed amidst a vast concourse of Spectators exulting in the Prospect of Liberty.

On the right Hand of the Prisoner stood the grand Seducer of Mankind [i.e., you know who], offering him a Purse and hissing this Proposal, Accept this Offer and Inslave your Country and 400l. per Annum, shall be your Reward. His injured Country, represented by a Lady dressed in Sable, with Chains rattling at her Feet, was placed on the other Side, thus pleading with her base, unnatural Child.—My Son! remember that I have treated you with the utmost Tenderness, and bestow’d on you my highest Honours, pity your Country, and put not on me those Chains: to which he ungrateful, degenerate Son replied, in a Label proceeding from his Mouth, Perish my Country, so that I get that Reward: upon the utterance of which, such indignant Wrath swell’d in the Bosom of this venerable Matron, that her Power of Speech fail’d; yet the Sentiments of her Heart appeared glowing in Capital Characters upon her Breast, in the following Words:
“———Heaven crush those Vipers,
Who, singled out by a Community,
To guard her Rights, shall for a grasp of Ore,
Or Paltry Office, sell them to the Foe.”
Which awful prophetic and parental Curse presently took Place: for as soon as this Representative was exhibited sufficiently to excite mass Abhorrence and Detestation of his Crimes, being protected by a strong Guard, from the rage of the Populace thro’ the whole Procession; and after hanging till he was dead, was cut down and delivered into the Power of his false Friend and Seducer, who according to his usual Practice, chang’d from a Tempter to a Tormentor; plunging his Prisoner headlong into a huge pyramid of Fire, and followed him immediately himself, with his mighty Paws barring fast the Gates of this suitable Habitation: Mean while the Heavens resounded with Acclamations and loud Huzzas: Nor did a weeping Eye or relenting Heart hinder or allay any Demonstration of Joy, which an ardent Love of Liberty could inspire in the Breasts of her most virtuous Sons.
The lines of verse ascribed to mother England came from the play Mahomet, the Impostor, written by Voltaire and adapted by the Rev. James Miller for British audiences. Voltaire wrote that play as an attack on religious zealots; its original title is Le Fanatisme. Ironically, rural New Englanders were rather fond of religious zealotry.

It’s striking how within a short time all these rural towns shared the same understanding of how to protest the Stamp Act, based on the Boston August 14 model:
  • hang the colony’s stamp agent in effigy with a small devil tempting him and some poetic labels.
  • parade that pageantry around town.
  • throw it in a bonfire after dark. 
Though there was an old British tradition of effigies and bonfires, especially on the Fifth of November, this particular political ritual seems to have gone from novelty to norm in less than two weeks.

Connecticut town leaders appear to have tried to distinguish their towns not by inventing new forms of protest but by how cleverly they could compose labels and describe the usual event for the newspapers. The printer of the New-London Gazette, Timothy Green, evidently thought his own town’s (expanded) report didn’t include enough poetry to match up to others, so he added: “As we would not chuse to be tho’t wholly out of Fashion, we affix the following from Addison’s Cato.” It reminds me of the competition among rural New England towns to erect the tallest Liberty Pole in 1774-75.

Meanwhile, Jared Ingersoll, the colony’s royally appointed stamp-tax collector, was taking steps to calm the populace.

COMING UP: Ingersoll’s public letter to the good people of Connecticut.

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