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, November 12, 2015

Hawley, Adams, Gridley, and Otis, Attorneys at Law

Going back to the newly digitized Joseph Hawley Papers at the New York Public Library, one noteworthy item is Hawley’s commonplace book.

A commonplace book was a notebook in which a (usually) gentleman copied out passages from books or documents that he found interesting, thoughts he wanted to explore, and other material. For example, Hawley’s starts with “Thoughts on various Subjects” and extracts from Cicero “of the Principles of the Stoics.”

Then comes something very meaty for historians of the Revolution: a summary of Jeremiah Gridley’s argument for the Crown in the February 1761 writs of assistance case, followed by the much longer rebuttal from James Otis, Jr. (shown here).

Late in life, and resentful of all the attention Patrick Henry and Virginia were getting, John Adams argued that that court case was the real beginning of the American Revolution. “Then and there the Child Independence was born,” he told William Tudor in 1817. Not coincidentally, almost all the information we have about that event was supplied by John Adams, sometimes with an extra helping of courtroom drama.

Hawley’s commonplace book contains, I understand from Mark Boonshoft’s essay at the Junto blog, the most complete rendering of those arguments to survive. Adams probably wrote out those texts from his notes between the argument in February and 3 Apr 1761, when he showed a copy to Col. Josiah Quincy. Compared to his later description, they are less dramatic but more reliable, though still a long way from a true transcript.

Interestingly, Adams’s own manuscript of these arguments doesn’t exist. Instead, he gets credit for having written the textual ancestor of several overlapping versions that do survive, including Hawley’s. On 29 Apr 1773 the Massachusetts Spy printed Otis’s speech, sparking more interest in it. That August, the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence sent the Gridley and Otis arguments to the Connecticut legislature. Joseph Hawley was on that committee, so that’s probably how he got to make a copy of his own.

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