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, October 08, 2015

The Choice between Ruggles and Otis

One of the first acts of the Stamp Act Congress when it convened in New York in October 1765 was to elect a chairman.

Arguably, that was the first political office to derive its authority from the thirteen colonies that would form the U.S. of A. eleven years later. Even if only nine of them had actually sent delegates to that congress, the others (plus Nova Scotia) at least got an invitation.

The winner of the vote was Timothy Ruggles (1711-1795, shown here), brigadier in the Massachusetts militia. According to the New York merchant John Watts, writing to a friend:
Brigr. Ruggles is Chairman, [James] Otis aimed at it and would have succeeded but they thought as he had figured much in the popular way, it might give their meeting an ill grace, but it is observed Otis is now a quite different man, and so he seems to be to me, not riotous at all.
Nearly forty years later, delegate Thomas McKean of Delaware recounted his version of events to John Adams, starting:
In the congress of 1765 there were several conspicuous characters: Mr; James Otis appeared to me to be the boldest and best speaker.—I voted for him as our President, but Brigadier Ruggles succeeded by one vote, owing to the number of the committee from New-York, as we voted individually
The record of the Stamp Act Congress states that the delegates chose Ruggles, and suggests the vote wasn’t unanimous, but it doesn’t mention any other candidates or any vote count. No delegates kept diaries or sent gossipy letters that have survived. Thus, there’s no contemporaneous evidence to confirm or refute McKean’s recollection. (More on his claims to come.)

As its clerk, the congress chose John Cotton (1728-1775), who was deputy secretary of the province back in Massachusetts, as well as registrar of wills in Suffolk County. Cotton was also half-brother to Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s late wife and to the wife of former stamp agent Andrew Oliver, who was also his boss in the secretary’s office. In 1770 Hutchinson called Cotton “attached to Government and serviceable so far as his Sphere would permit.” He continued to hold offices in the royal bureaucracy until he died of the flux inside besieged Boston.

Cotton’s record of the congress is very spare, recording only the actions the body agreed to and not the preceding proposals, debates, and amendments. As their first procedural decision, later that first day, the delegates decided that each colony should have one vote, a precedent that remained for the Continental Congress of the 1770s. If McKean’s memory was accurate, then that form of voting would have made Otis the chairman instead of Ruggles.

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