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, April 07, 2019

“The people of the town had grown very uneasy“

The 3 June 1773 issue of the Massachusetts Spy broke the news that the Massachusetts General Court was considering “some extraordinary discoveries” and how “some men in power would appear infamous to the highest degree.”

In the same issue, printer Isaiah Thomas ran this item:
A report is propagated in town, which we are well informed had its birth in his Majesty’s Castle-William, that a formidable mob will make an appearance to-morrow evening. However the enemies to our rights and privileges may wish this to be the case, yet let them be told, that a people who are blessed with such a Legislature as the present, have no need to take the punishment of traitors into their own hands.
The allusion to Castle William pointed to the army regiment stationed on that fortified island, or the Customs officials who occasionally took refuge there. If there had indeed been a rumor, the newspaper was blaming the royal government instead of the Whigs. And if there hadn’t been, it was starting the rumor and blaming the royal government anyway.

At the same time, however, the Spy was trying to keep public anger from turning violent, assuring readers to keep their faith in the legislature.

Behind closed doors that legislature was forming a response to the bundle of letters that speaker Thomas Cushing had received from Benjamin Franklin in London. One step was publication—on 10 June the house contracted with Edes and Gill to print over 300 copies of the letters. Another was a formal resolution, adopted on 16 June and also sent to the printers.

According to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, the most prominent writer of those letters, the General Court was actually dragging its feet in order to keep the public on edge and riled up. In his persona of disinterested historian Hutchinson would later write that already
…the people of the town had grown very uneasy at being so long alarmed with a declaration of measures of so dangerous, as well as criminal tendency and design, without an opportunity of forming any judgment upon them.
Hutchinson’s history of Massachusetts complained that the legislature “adjourned for three days…and kept the publick in suspense from Thursday to Tuesday, every day producing a new report of passages in the letters, more and more criminal.” In fact, the legislature met six days out of every week in June with the single exception of Monday, 7 June.

Nevertheless, Hutchinson was correct in discerning that “the principal design of this whole proceeding was to make the governor obnoxious to the people of the province.” And it was working.

TOMORROW: How Mr. Hancock made his move.

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