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, October 10, 2018

“Unintimidated by all the obloquy cast upon me”

As described yesterday, in the late 1760s Timothy Pickering, newly appointed an officer in the Essex County militia, took up the cause of halting the tradition of “firing,” or discharging muskets (without balls) at or near officers or other people for fun.

He addressed that crusade in a characteristically long newspaper essay published in the 30 Oct 1770 Essex Gazette. Here’s a taste:
The practice appeared to me so foolish and unreasonable, that, young and inexperienced as I was with the manners of men, I had no conception of any difficulty attending the execution of my design. Yet I had no sooner begun to exert myself for that end, than I had, not the soldiers only, but almost the whole town upon my back. I was reproached with being a stiff, obstinate, severe, precise fellow, afraid of gun-powder, a coward, and I know not what. Many who did not approve, but condemned the firing, thought, as it had been the practice time out of mind, that I was to blame in opposing it. “But none of these things moved me.” [Echoing Acts 20:24.]

Unintimidated by all the obloquy cast upon me, I still persevered in my design. I found the practice I was endeavouring to eradicate was condemned by many thinking, judicious people: that strengthened my hands; and by degrees I learned to bear unmerited reproach without uneasiness. And at length my endeavours, seconded by some of my brethren, have been crowned with success, to the no small comfort and quiet of the town.

That I have not relaxed in my endeavours to form an orderly, well disciplined militia, maugre [i.e., despite] all opposition, the whole town is witness. And the last training-day affords a fresh proof that I have not sought-----that I do not seek---popularity, by falling in with the prevailing humour and inclination of the people, when that humor and inclination militates with truth, with reason, and, in the instance referred to, with the rules of the military art.
There are at least three notable things about Pickering’s essay. First, the articles he was replying to didn’t actually say anything about how he led the militia. They complained that he was too close to friends of the royal government. He got onto the militia topic on his own.

Second, at the end of this quoted passage Pickering added, “What happened on that day is well known in the town, and need not be related.” So what happened on that day? His son suggested that might refer to when he hit a man for firing at his feet, but we’ll never know.

Finally, for all of Pickering’s efforts to ward off accusations of being “a stiff, obstinate, severe, precise fellow,” his critics got that absolutely right.

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