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 23, 2018

“To refuse the use of Faneuil Hall” on Election Day

In late colonial Boston, “Election Day” wasn’t the day that people voted for their representatives in the Massachusetts General Court. The special town meetings for that purpose convened on different days in early May, whenever the local selectmen chose.

In 1768, 250 years ago, for example, Boston had its town meeting to elect representatives on 4 May. James Otis. Jr. (shown here), moderated and was also chosen one of the town’s four representatives to the legislature.

“Election Day” was when all the towns’ representatives met for the first time as the General Court and voted with the members of the outgoing Council on who would serve on the Council for the following year.

The legislators could name up to twenty-eight Councilors. The provincial charter required a certain number from the old Plymouth colony and the Maine district. But the royal governor could “negative,” or veto, any members he didn’t want to work with.

That election usually took place in late May. There was always a sermon for the assembled politicians; being asked to deliver the Election Day sermon was a big honor for a minister, and the result was usually published. There was also a fancy banquet for the assembled gentlemen.

In 1768, Election Day was scheduled for 25 May. And the Election Day banquet was already a bone of contention.

Back on 4 May the Boston town meeting had named its four representatives and then voted:

That the Selectmen be directed to refuse the use of Faneuil Hall to his Excelly. the Governor and Council on the Ensuing Election Day unless they shall be ascertained that the Commissioners of the Board of Customs, or their Attendants are not to be invited to dine there on said Day
Those Customs Commissioners were the royal appointees collecting Parliament’s new Townshend duties.

[That same town meeting also approved building a new gunhouse beside Boston Common, a crucial site in The Road to Concord.]

As Election Day of 1768 grew closer, some Bostonians apparently felt that the town had made its point but shouldn’t be so obstreperous. On the afternoon of 23 May, with Otis once again moderating the town meeting,
It was moved and accordingly put, That there be a reconsideration of a late Vote enjoining the Selectmen to refuse the use of Faneuil Hall to his Excellency the Governor & Council on the ensuing Election Day unless they shall be ascertained that the Commissioners of the Board of Customs or their Attendants are not to be Invited to dine there on said Day —

which Question passed in the Negative almost unanimously.
So the town of Boston and Gov. Francis Bernard were headed for a collision.

TOMORROW: And they weren’t the only ones.

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