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, September 12, 2018

“It hath been Reported in this Town Meeting”

At 9:00 A.M. on Monday, 12 Sept 1768, Bostonians (well, white men with enough property to qualify for the vote and the economic freedom to take a morning off from work) gathered at Faneuil Hall for an emergency town meeting.

The event started with a prayer from the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, brother of town clerk William Cooper. The voters chose James Otis, Jr., to moderate. In other words, the proceedings were firmly in the hands of the upper-class Whigs.

Or, as Gov. Francis Bernard put it, “the Faction appeared surrounded with all its forces: there were very few of the principal Gentlemen there; such as were, appeared only as curious & perhaps anxious spectators.” By “principal Gentlemen” he meant those who supported him and the Crown. Bernard worried “the Faction” planned to attack Castle William or the coming army regiments. More likely, Boston’s political leaders wanted to organize the most forceful opposition the province could muster without edging into violence.

The gathering took up the reason for the meeting: “it hath been Reported in this Town Meeting that his Excellency the Governor has intimated his apprehensions, that One or more Regiments of his Majestys Troops are dayly to be expected here.”

The meeting then chose several gentlemen to “be a Committee to wait upon his Excellency if in Town, humbly requesting that he would be pleased to communicate to the Town the grounds and Assurances he may have thereof.” That committee consisted of town representatives Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock; attorneys Richard Dana and Benjamin Kent; merchant and selectman John Rowe; and young Dr. Joseph Warren.

A couple of nights earlier, some Bostonians had made another response to news of troops coming by hoisting a flammable barrel onto the beacon pole atop Beacon Hill, a symbolic preparation for war. Sometime that Monday morning, perhaps before the meeting, the Boston selectman had received “A Letter from the Secretary [of the province, Andrew Oliver] inclosing a Vote of Council relative to the Tar Barrel.” The Council wanted the selectmen to take the barrel down.

Those elected officials instead turned the issue over to the town. At this point the official records of the town meeting state: ”A Vote of the Honble. Board respecting a Tar Barrel, which was the other Night placed in the Skillet on Beacon Hill, by Persons unknown Was communicated to the Town but not acted upon.”

The version of the minutes released to the newspapers, as shown here in Harbottle Dorr’s newspaper collection, doesn’t mention that agenda item at all. The town and the selectmen were happy to leave that barrel hanging over the town, but they didn’t want people outside Boston to know about it.

Instead, the meeting took up a petition that Otis, Adams, Warren, and others had probably drafted a couple of days before, asking that Gov. Bernard call the Massachusetts General Court back into session. The reason was “the critical state of the publick Affairs, more especially the present precarious situation of our invaluable Rights & Privileges Civil and Religeous”—the threat of the regiments again. The meeting designated the same committee of seven to deliver that petition to Gov. Bernard.

Finally, the meeting chose six of those men (all but Kent) plus several more to “take the state of our publick Affairs into Consideration, and Report at the Adjournment the Measures they apprehend most salutary to be taken in the present emergency.” That larger group included such confrontational merchants as Daniel Malcom and William Molineux—plus Adino Paddock, captain of the town’s growing “train” or militia artillery company.

And then the men adjourned until the next day at 10:00 A.M. to hear about Gov. Bernard’s responses.

TOMORROW: Town meeting, day two.

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