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, October 07, 2019

“I have a natural right…to break his head”

As I described yesterday, in the 3 Sept 1769 Boston Gazette James Otis, Jr., rehashed a bunch of his grievances with the Customs office and even printed them at length.

In particular, Otis was certain that Collector Joseph Harrison had described him as “disaffected” in a report to the Board of Customs, and that those Commissioners had sent that report on to some office in London—he didn’t know which.

Why Otis was so convinced about this is unclear. Had he received a warning from a correspondent in London? Had the one Customs Commissioner who’d broken from the rest, John Temple, told him? Or had he made it all up?

It seems significant that Otis didn’t quote that report or give a date for it. Maybe he hadn’t really seen the text he described. Or perhaps the reference to him wasn’t really slanderous, except by linking him to some resistance within Boston, but he took it personally.

Harrison had offered an apology to Otis, insisting that he never wrote an “official report” meaning any such implication. Otis printed that note in the Gazette and responded with this fine screed:
Mr. Harrison is too contemptible in my opinion to take any further notice of at present, than to declare, that I think him if not a very wicked, yet a very weak old man. To charge a person by name as inimical to the Crown, and then give it under hand that no reflection was meant, is either lying or a mark of superannuation.

As to official reports, my charge against mr. Harrison was not confined to them: Had it been, he has no right to use my name in his official reports, unless I obstruct him in his office, which he knows I never did.—

The Commissioners too are far gone in the doctrine of official reports. And it seems to be a current opinion among them, that the most infamous slander imaginable, handed into their board, & sworn to no matter by whom, nor before what justice, is sufficient to support a memorial to the Treasury or Parliament.

It is strange considering the frequent conferences & communications between those able lawyers Gov. [Thomas] Hutchinson, Judge [Robert] Auchmuty, the Attorney-General, Jonathan [Sewall, who used the newspaper pseudonym] Philanthrop, and the Commissioners, these have not learnt law enough to know they have no right to scandalize their neighbours.——

’Tis stranger that Mr. [John] Robinson, even in his Welch clerkship, could not find out that if he “officially” or in any other way misrepresents me, I have a natural right if I can get no other satisfaction to break his head. None but such superlative blockheads as H. Hulton, C. Paxton, W. Burch, and J. Robinson, could think gentlemen amenable to them unless they hold under them.
With that last paragraph Otis invoked the genteel language of dueling (“satisfaction”) but then insisted that protocol didn’t apply to Commissioner Robinson. To “break his head” would show that Robinson was no gentleman.

Of course, Otis also sneered at Robinson as a Welshman and called all four hostile Customs Commissioners “superlative blockheads,” so he gave them plenty of reason to feel insulted. But the words “break his head” were a clear threat of violence.

COMING UP: Somebody’s head gets broken.

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