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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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Three Decades of Historical Context

The Saga of the Brazen Head started in 1730 with the first appearance of brazier James Jackson in the Boston newspapers, and it’s reached the year 1759.

What else was happening in New England in three decades? If we look at readily available timelines of Massachusetts history from FamilySearch.org or the World Atlas, we find the answer was: Nothing.

Of course, plenty did happen in those years. There weren’t dramatic changes in political constitutions, empire-ending wars, life-changing inventions, and the like, but there were events for Mary Jackson and her family to worry about and celebrate. So here, after some quick cramming, is the historical context for the saga so far.

The first of those decades occurred under the government of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) in Britain and Gov. Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757, shown here) in Massachusetts. Walpole used European alliances to maintain international peace. That produced a lull in Britain’s wars with France and other Catholic powers of Europe, and thus relatively easy trade, fishing, and frontier settlement for British colonists in New England.

Belcher wasn’t as dominating as Walpole, but he was able to remain governor of both Massachusetts and New Hampshire for over a decade starting in 1729. Being a royal governor was a tough job. One answered to the Crown and its demands while feeling pressure from the colony’s politicians and people to serve their interests instead. And British society being what it was, governors also kept an eye out for their own economic well being.

Belcher had some advantages in being a Congregationalist merchant born in Boston and thus like his most wealthy constituents. But he couldn’t keep everyone happy forever. The royal government thought Belcher should do more to stop people felling New England tree trunks reserved as masts for the Royal Navy. (Some of Belcher’s friends benefited from this harvest.) In addition, the shortage of hard cash produced local pleas for more paper currency while the Crown wanted control over the money supply.

In 1739, Walpole couldn’t hold back the clamor for Britain to enter the War of Jenkins’ Ear. After three further years of declining popularity and military failures, he resigned.

That same war opened an opportunity for William Shirley (1694-1771, shown here), an Englishman who had moved to Massachusetts and become a critic of Gov. Belcher. He recruited troops for an early campaign in the Caribbean and so impressed London that the Crown made Shirley governor of Massachusetts in 1741. (Belcher eventually won the post of governor of New Jersey instead.)

Both Belcher and Shirley had to deal with the local campaign for the Massachusetts Land Bank. In 1740 the General Court overrode their opposition and authorized that private organization to issue bills of credit, which functioned as paper currency. Then Parliament outlawed the bank. With the Massachusetts economy in danger, Shirley and the legislature managed to bring about a soft landing for the former bank’s managers and creditors.

Those developments affected Mary Jackson and some of the people around her. All the dispute over paper money brought in papermaker Richard Fry, of course. And all those bills of credit meant Massachusetts currency was losing value.

Mary’s husband James died in 1735 while returning from a visit to Samuel Waldo’s development in southern Maine, which grew during that peaceful decade. Waldo also had a contract to supply masts to the Royal Navy, so he wanted Gov. Belcher to protect the navy’s exclusive rights. When that didn’t happen, Waldo started promoting Shirley for higher office. However, once war broke out, the Maine frontier became vulnerable to attack from both sea and land, and Waldo’s settlements shrank.

In the early 1740s, Britain’s war with Spain expanded beyond Jenkins’ Ear to become the War of the Austrian Succession or, as North Americans called it, King George’s War. In 1745 Gov. Shirley organized an attack on the French fortification at Louisbourg. The British army and navy gave only lukewarm support to that effort, but it succeeded—Massachusetts’s greatest military triumph. Decades later, the province’s Patriots still pointed to that moment as proof that they could defend themselves against the royal army.

Another effect of King George’s War was the Royal Navy impressing more sailors in Boston. In 1747, Commodore Charles Knowles (shown here) seized dozens of sailors, setting off days of riots. Huge crowds surrounded Gov. Shirley, twice at his house and once at the Town House in central Boston, close to the Brazen Head. He tried to call out the militia against the crowd, only to realize that the militia regiment and the crowd were the same men. The Massachusetts Council had to resolve the crisis, with Knowles releasing the sailors and the crowd releasing the naval officers they had grabbed.

When King George’s War ended in 1748, Britain returned Louisbourg to France. Massachusetts was still trying to get the royal government to reimburse the costs of its military campaign. One of the men who had funded that expedition was Samuel Waldo. He decided that Shirley wasn’t working hard enough to pay back his inflated expenses, so Waldo joined the governor’s political enemies. Among those foes were Dr. William Douglass, who decades before had opposed smallpox inoculation, and young political journalist Samuel Adams, son of a Land Bank director.

In 1749 Gov. Shirley sailed for London in order to deal with Waldo’s complaints. Shortly afterward, a large amount of gold and silver coin arrived in Boston harbor—the Crown had finally reimbursed the province with specie. Thomas Hutchinson, then Speaker of the Massachusetts House, wrote a law to use that hard cash to retire paper currency that had lost value. That put Massachusetts’s economy on a sounder footing. Henceforth, businesspeople like Mary Jackson distinguished between current pounds, which kept close to face value, and inflated “Old Tenor” money.

Gov. Shirley resumed his post as governor of Massachusetts in 1753. He seems to have been happiest as a war governor, and was soon preparing for another fight against France. After the death of Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755, Shirley was even commander-in-chief of British forces in North America for a while. But the Seven Years’ (or French and Indian) War brought the governor no military miracle like the Louisbourg expedition. He feuded with other commanders like Sir William Johnson, his own western campaign failed, and officials in London took against him. In 1756, Gov. Shirley was sacked. (Like Belcher, he did manage to become governor somewhere else—in the Bahamas.)

Also in 1756, hundreds of French Acadians came ashore in Boston, expelled from Nova Scotia. Their ships had actually arrived in the harbor in December 1755, but Gov. Shirley refused to let them land, and half those refugees died on their ships that winter. For the next decade, the population of Massachusetts contained a category of “French neutrals.”

This was also the period of religious fervor in colonial America later dubbed the “Great Awakening.” The Rev. Jonathan Edwards led revivals at his meetinghouse in Northampton starting in 1733 and published Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in 1741. The Rev. George Whitefield preached up and down the North American coast in 1740, 1745, 1751, and 1754. Many New England Congregationalist meetings were roiled by splits between “New Light” and “Old Light” ministers and congregations. As Anglicans, the Jackson family was probably less affected by those disputes.

In 1757 a new royal governor arrived from London: Thomas Pownall (1722-1805). He had close contacts—i.e., his younger brother John—in the Secretary of State’s office, and a lot of big ideas about how the empire should run. He viewed the British constitution as subordinating the military power to the civil, even in wartime. He wanted to balance imperial needs and local rights. Pownall became a favorite of the Massachusetts merchants and Whigs but had a standoffish relationship with the man appointed lieutenant governor under him—Thomas Hutchinson.

Early in 1759, Pownall led a new campaign to conquer and settle the Penobscot region. Samuel Waldo came along and died that May, back on his Maine holdings. The previous year, British military forces had retaken Louisbourg. In July 1759, Gen. Jeffery Amherst finally took Fort Ticonderoga. In September, Gen. James Wolfe defeated Gen. Montcalm at Québec. Together with British and allied victories at Guadeloupe, Madras, Minden, and Quiberon Bay, these victories made 1759 an “annus mirabilis.” Boston celebrated along with the rest of the British Empire.

TOMORROW: Calamity at the Brazen Head.


Charles Bahne said...

John, you mention the Land Bank in this post. I'd like to know more about that institution and its failure, and hope that you might consider writing a future series about it, similar to the Jackson family saga you've been doing recently. It's often been reported that some of Samuel Adams' resentment against the British government was due to his being hounded for his father's debts related to the Land Bank. Reading this post made me realize that those debts were 20 years old in the 1760s, when the government was (apparently) still trying to collect them. So I think this would be a most interesting topic to explore.

J. L. Bell said...

Exploring the Land Bank at length gets deep into economics, so I wouldn't last long. But I can address some of the ways historians have tried to interpret Samuel Adams through that lens, and how the numbers don’t always add up.

Charles Bahne said...

It would also be interesting to know who some of the political figures were, that were involved in the issue -- on both sides of the issue and both sides of the Atlantic.