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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Friday, May 25, 2018

Going through the Motions on Election Day

On 25 May 1768, 250 years ago today, Election Day finally arrived in Boston.

At 9:00 A.M. the towns’ representatives to the Massachusetts General Court gathered in the Town House and took their oaths of office. They unanimously reelected Thomas Cushing as the assembly’s speaker and Samuel Adams as the clerk.

At 11:00, Gov. Francis Bernard walked over from his official residence, the Province House, escorted by two upper-class militia units: the Horse Guards under Col. David Phips and the Cadets under Lt. Col. Joseph Scott. Bernard received Cushing and approved the assembly’s choice, and then everyone walked a block to the Old Brick Meeting-House to hear a sermon by the Rev. Daniel Shute (1722-1802) of Hingham.

Shute had chosen to speak on Ezra 10:4: “Arise: for this Matter belongeth unto thee; we also will be with thee: be of good Courage; and do it.” While hearing that exhortation to action, the gentlemen got to sit for a long time. According to merchant John Rowe, “This was a very long sermon, being one hour & forty minutes.”

Then came the midday dinner. Boston’s town meeting had barred the use of Faneuil Hall as long as the governor invited the Commissioners of Customs to dine. Many of the Cadets had said they wouldn’t participate in any such event, either. But Gov. Bernard was not about to back down on an issue of respecting the royal prerogative.

Therefore, there were two dinners on that Election Day. As the 26 May 1768 Boston News-Letter reported, Bernard and Cushing “together with the Council, and several other Gentlemen, went in Procession to the Province House, (preceded by the Militia Officers, and escorted by the Cadets,) where an elegant Dinner was provided by His Excellency…”

Meanwhile, “A public entertainment was provided at the British Coffee-House, where the militia Officers, Troop of Guards, and Company of Cadets dined, & where also many loyal Toasts were drank.” There were also traditional cannon salutes from the North and South Batteries and Castle William.

The week before, most of the Cadets were refusing to promise to participate in the Election Day pageantry. Maj. John Hancock had reportedly torn up his commission, and company members talked about replacing Lt. Col. Scott as their commander. But, most likely because of an after-hours meeting that Thomas Flucker facilitated between Hancock and Gov. Bernard, the Cadets did escort the governor after all. The separate dinners meant they didn’t have to sit down with the Customs Commissioners.

There may have been another part of the deal. On 2 June, the News-Letter reported:
His Excellency the GOVERNOR hath appointed JOHN HANCOCK, Esq; to be first Major of the Independant Company of Cadets, and WILLIAM COFFIN, jun. Esq; to be second Major of the said Company.
Hancock already held the rank of major; I don’t know if becoming “first Major” was a promotion. Nor can I tell if he participated in the Cadets’ procession on Election Day or sat that one out. But, even after his vocal protest, Bernard restored Hancock’s high rank.

Hancock may have come around to the position that the Cadets should respect the office of the governor even when they disagreed with his actions. In May 1773 there was another controversy over the presence of the Customs Commissioners at an Election Day gathering. Two Cadets, Moses Grant and James Foster Condy, clubbed their muskets and participated in the raucous protest outside. By then Hancock had become the colonel in charge of the company, and he booted Grant and Condy out.

In the end, the public dispute about the Customs Commissioners and the dinner was symbolic. But Election Day was also about allocating real political power.

TOMORROW: Electing the governor’s Council.

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