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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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

“A View of the Obelisk”

On Monday, 19 May 1766, all of Boston was gearing up to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act at last.

The issue of the Boston Gazette published that day appears in the Harbottle Dorr collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society. It included a statement from the “Sons of Liberty” who had met on the evening of 16 May at “Hanover Square,” or the corner where Liberty Tree stood. They laid out their plan for a celebration with fireworks from “a Stage to be erected near the Work-House Gates.”

That item ended with a new announcement from the group:
I do therefore notify the Friends of Liberty, that an authentic Account of the Repeal of the Stamp Act is arrived, and the Gentlemen Select Men of Boston, have fix’d upon This Evening for the public Rejoicing, at whose Desire will be exhibited on the Common, an OBELISK—a Description of which is engraved by Mr. Paul Revere; and is now selling by Edes and Gill.——The signal of its Ending will be by firing a Horizontal Wheel on the Top of the Obelisk, when its desired the Assembly will retire.

By Order of the Committe,
May 19, 1766. (Signed) M. Y. Secretary.
The meeting-place and the links to Edes and Gill, printers of the Gazette, indicate that this notice came from the same group previously known as the Loyall Nine. No member of that group had the initials “M. Y.”—that was a pseudonym. Despite taking control of the town celebration, they were still keeping their names out of the papers.

Both the obelisk and the engraving are very detailed. At the top were sixteen portraits of British politicians and royals whom Americans praised as guardians of their traditional liberties, starting with George III and Queen Charlotte. Then there were many lines of poetry. At the bottom were four allegorical scenes of the king saving America from the Stamp Act monster (in our recent history comics workshops I pointed out that these pictures constitute “sequential art”).

To create the obelisk, those drawings and words were inked onto large sheets of (unstamped) paper which were affixed to a wooden frame and then soaked with oil to become translucent, so they could be illuminated from inside. I haven’t found a description of how tall the structure was, but it was meant to be impressive. The engraving also had explanatory captions at the top and bottom, every letter carved backwards into a sheet of copper.

All that work means that both the obelisk and the engraving must have been in preparation well before Boston received word of the Stamp Act repeal. Otherwise, there was only one work day between the Sons of Liberty meeting and the publication of that Gazette. That’s more evidence of how the town and its activists had been getting ready for this triumphant day since early April.

TOMORROW: The celebration at last.

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