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, November 07, 2015

“As regular as a military Corps”

As I read the accounts of anti-Stamp Act demonstrations from late 1765, I’ve been struck by their emphasis on the crowd’s military discipline.

After the 1 November procession, Gov. Francis Bernard reported to London: “[Ebenezer] MackIntosh is a noted Captain of a Mob & has under him 100 or 150 men trained as regular as a military Corps.”

And in more detail:
To show how fully this Town is in the hands of the mob, I will add that Capt. Mackintosh (now called Genl. Mackintosh) who took the care of the Town, after the Militia had refused to muster under my order, & the Council advised me to discharge the Order, & who professes to have 150 or 200 men trained under him; on the 1 of November marshalled at least 2,000 men, & marched in regular order.

What is more surpising is, that one of the Council, Col. [William] Brattle, walked with him, arm in arm, along the Streets, complimented him on the Order kept & told him his Post was one of the highest in the Government. This Councellor conducted him round the Town House whilst both the Houses were sitting; before which regular Huzza’s were made.
Brattle (shown above) was a high-ranking militia officer, on his way to becoming a general, so his praise for Mackintosh meant a lot. As did skipping out on a Council meeting to march around with the working-men outside.

Mackintosh wasn’t really a captain or general, of course. He gained his informal title from leading the South End gang during Pope Night processions and brawls in the early 1760s. But Mackintosh was a veteran of the previous war, and he and nearly every other young man in Boston trained with their militia companies each season, so they knew how to march in step and obey military command.

In fact, they were extremely disciplined. And that worried the royal authorities as much as riots and disorder. Judge Peter Oliver later wrote of Mackintosh:
He dressed genteelly; & in Order to convince the publick of that Power with which he was invested, he paraded the Town with a Mob of 2000 Men in two Files, & passed by the Stadthouse, when the general Assembly were sitting, to display his Power. If a Whisper was heard among his Followers, the holding up his Finger hushed it in a Moment: & when he had fully displayed his Authority, he marched his Men to the first Rendevouz, & order'd them to retire peacably to their several Homes; & was punctually obeyed.
The implication of such discipline, of course, is that with a flick of the same finger Mackintosh could order those same hundreds of men to attack.

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