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, December 13, 2017

The Mystery of “Mucius Scævola”

Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy started to publish the essays of “Mucius Scævola” on 30 May 1771, four months after Joseph Greenleaf advertised his property in Abington for sale.

That summer there was a dispute over which Boston printer got the contract to publish the graduating Harvard class’s theses—Richard Draper of the established and government-friendly Boston News-Letter or Thomas of the Spy. Thomas won, which sparked a little newspaper war. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts published a whole article about that dispute, which it’s made available here.

On 8 Aug 1771 the News-Letter offered an essay which described the men behind “the dirty Spy” this way:

What a wretched Triumvirate! a poor shiftless erratic Knight from Abington, a dunghill-bred Journeyman Typographer, and a stupid phrensical Mountebank
Thomas was the “Typographer.” The “Mountebank” was almost certainly Dr. Thomas Young, who many people agreed was writing for the Spy under the name “Leonidas” and was well known for this enthusiasms in both medicine and politics. And the “Knight from Abington” could only be Joseph Greenleaf—it wasn’t that big a town.

The 15 August Spy carried a couple of replies. One insisted that “neither Joseph Greenleaf, Esq; Doctor Thomas Young, nor Mr. Isaiah Thomas” had been involved in composing a statement from the graduating Harvard students. But that’s different from denying that those men were connected to the Spy. In fact, Greenleaf and Thomas had become business partners of some sort.

Another reply in the same issue addressed three pseudonymous or anonymous News-Letter essayists this way:
If by ridiculing and sneering at my character, and maliciously defaming me; you think you have offered a sacrifice of a sweet smelling favour in the nostrils of his Excellency [Gov. Thomas Hutchinson], you may possibly be mistaken; he too well knows your views, he also knows that “Nero’s flatterers, were Nero’s assassins.”

I have one favour to ask of you, that is, that you would not lurk priv’ly to take away my reputation; act like veterans; take the field in open day-light, and to use the language of the Cantabrigian, “Lie on,” make yourselves what mirth you please at my expence, bury none of your talents at defamation, only let the world know your names; subscribe your future productions, and let mankind judge of the truth of the charges by the credibility of the accusers of

In his article “Tag-Team Polemics,” published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1995, Neil L. York wrote that this was one of three times that Greenleaf denied having anything to do with the “Mucius Scævola” essays.

That’s not how I read Greenleaf’s reply. He wasn’t denying anything, except that his opponents’ attacks would win them favor with the governor. He challenged his opponents to drop their anonymity. Sure, it would be hypocritical to issue that challenge while continuing to publish under a pseudonym, but Greenleaf didn’t confirm or deny he was “Mucius Scævola.”

Likewise, the other two “denials” never really denied that connection. On 22 November, as I quoted yesterday, Greenleaf disingenuously said that he couldn’t imagine why he had received a summons from the Council after “Mucius Scævola” called the governor a “USURPER.” In the 13 Jan 1772 Boston Gazette, Greenleaf went further in an addendum to a letter about the whole controversy:
P. S. A secret has leaked out, it is said, it was my duty as a magistrate, to have prevented the publication of the Piece signed Mucius Scævola! But I have no such connections with Mr. Thomas or any other Printer, as give me a right to restrain him or them in any publication, though I must confess, that if I had power to restrain the Press, I should have no inclination to hinder Mucius, or even Chronus, or Impavidus, from laying their sentiments before the public.
Greenleaf thus denied “connections with Mr. Thomas”—but only connections which would give him legal authority as a justice of the peace to restrain the press. We know he really was in business with Thomas.

In that postscript Greenleaf wrote of “Mucius” in a way that implied the writer was separate from himself. Likewise, in a 2 Jan 1772 essay in the Spy “Mucius Scævola” reproached Gov. Hutchinson for how he had treated “J. Greenleaf, Esq”:
I argued this point with you in a former paper, and you summoned Mr. Justice Greenleaf to appear before you in council to answer to it. He knew you had again gone beyond your last, and treated your summons as it deserved.
Those remarks certainly imply that Greenleaf didn’t want to be identified as “Mucius Scævola,” but they’re not direct denials.

In Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts, Richard D. Brown accepted the implication of Greenleaf’s Gazette postscript and wrote that the governor went after him because he “had made no attempt to suppress an inflammatory piece by [Dr. Joseph] Warren in Isaiah Thomas’ Spy.” I suspect that mixes up the 1771 controversy with the similar dispute over one of Warren’s essays in 1768, which I noted here. In his recent biography of Warren, Samuel Forman took Brown’s opening to ascribe all the “Mucius Scævola” essays to Warren. I’m not convinced by that reading of the evidence.

Rather, I think Greenleaf’s replies show how carefully he avoided making a direct statement about whether he was “Mucius Scævola.” He played dumb about why the Council would want to see him. He fudged his connection with Thomas. He challenged his opponents to give up their anonymity first. But he never stated that he hadn’t written the essay everyone was talking about, which he could have done at any time if he were really being unjustly accused. Anyone observing political interviews today can see him silently sidestepping the big question he didn’t want to answer.

It’s true that we have no claim from either Greenleaf or Thomas (shown above in old age) that Greenleaf wrote as “Mucius Scævola.” But neither did they or any contemporary ever name someone else as that writer. Thomas did acknowledge that Greenleaf became his partner in some ventures and wrote effective political essays. If those weren’t the “Mucius Scævola” pieces in the Spy, where are they?

The Abington Resolves that Greenleaf penned in 1770 declared that Parliament’s new laws were “a mere nullity” because they didn’t come from proper authority. “Mucius Scævola” called the governor’s decrees “null and void” for the same reason. And in his January 1772 response over his own name, Greenleaf declared the Council’s summons “WHOLLY illegal” and not worth “paying any obedience to.” That was his go-to argument.

Hutchinson and other supporters of the royal government were convinced that Greenleaf was “Mucius Scævola,” even if they couldn’t prove it. For almost two centuries, historians accepted that assessment. No one before Brown ascribed those essays to Dr. Warren. Even York, while writing that Greenleaf denied authorship, treated him as “Mucius Scævola.” And unless more evidence turns up, I’m giving him credit, too.

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