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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Monday, June 25, 2018

What Prompted Reconsideration of the Circular Letter?

As I described here, on 21 Jan 1768 a legislative committee steered by James Otis, Jr., and Samuel Adams proposed that the Massachusetts House send a circular letter to the other colonial legislatures.

And the House voted that down.

But then on 4 February, the legislators voted to reconsider. And a week later, on 11 February, they approved the text of a letter that quickly went out to the other capitals.

What changed representatives’ minds before 4 February? I have a theory.

The Massachusetts House records tell us that two letters from London were presented to the chamber at the beginning of that month. On 1 February, speaker of the house Thomas Cushing shared a dispatch from Dennis DeBerdt, the body’s new lobbyist. And on the 3rd, province secretary Andrew Oliver read aloud a letter that the Earl of Shelburne, Secretary of State, had written to Gov. Francis Bernard.

The newspapers and Boston town records report that the brigantine Abigail, captained by James Harding Stevens, arrived late that January. That was the only ship that those sources reported had come from London since the start of the year, and possibly the only one since November.

(I must acknowledge that the 1 February Boston Chronicle also reported that two ships had arrived from Plymouth, England: the brigantine Commerce under Edward Sears and the schooner Nancy under John Choate. But I think those were less likely to have carried important mail from London politicians. In addition, some mail went to New York on the regular packet to that city and was then shipped up the coast. But the timing of the letters in question points strongly to the Abigail.)

Capt. Stevens and the Abigail carried, among other things:

  • an honorary diploma from the University of Edinburgh for the Rev. Samuel Cooper, according to the 8 February Boston Evening-Post.
  • “two beautiful Brass Field Pieces” for the Boston militia’s train of artillery. [In 1774, those two cannon were stolen from an armory under redcoat guard and eventually smuggled out to Concord. They survive today at local national parks as the “Hancock” and the “Adams.” Read all about them in The Road to Concord.]
  • Lt. William Haswell, retired from the Royal Navy, and his daughter, who would grow up to become the actress and novelist Susanna Rowson.
  • Thomas Irving (called “Robert Irvine” in the newspapers), Inspector of Imports and Exports for North America, a Customs officer.
  • three sea captains and three other mariners who worked out of Boston or the Piscataqua harbor.
  • various craftspeople, including a saddler, a joiner, a farmer, and a spinster. The 4 February Boston News-Letter said the passengers included “a number of weavers, wool-combers, cloathiers, and other manufacturers and mechanics,” but those don’t appear on the town’s official list of arrivals.
Usually a trip across the Atlantic took six weeks. The 22 Oct 1767 Boston News-Letter made special note when Capt. James Bruce “had but 4 Weeks Passage” from London. Capt. Stevens was not so lucky.

The Abigail left London in late October 1767, according to Boston newspapers of 1 Feb 1768. As of 9 November, it was still within sight of “the Downs” in southeastern England. The Boston Chronicle reported that Stevens “met with contrary winds the whole passage, and with such severe cold weather on this coast, that several of his ship’s company were frost-bitten.” The Boston Post-Boy added: “the Ship’s Company were at a short Allowance [of food] for 5 Weeks before their Arrival, being 36 Persons in Number Passengers Included.”

The Abigail entered Boston harbor on the night of 28 Jan 1768 during a snowstorm. And it wasn’t safe yet. As the Post-Boy reported, “by the Violence of the Wind, and the Weather being extreme cold, the Vessel drove ashore on Lovel’s Island.” The ship had to be partially unloaded before it could be floated again.

On that luckless brigantine, I hypothesize, came the two letters from London that were brought into the Representatives’ Chamber of the Town House early the following week.

TOMORROW: Looking at the letters.

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