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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Friday, November 22, 2019

Capt. David Bradlee, Wine-Merchant

If there’s not enough evidence to say David Bradlee participated in the Boston Tea Party of 1773, I don’t know what he did between the collapse of George Gailer’s lawsuit in late 1771 and the start of the war.

When Bradlee resurfaces in my notes, however, he was still deep inside Boston’s Revolutionary resistance. In early 1776, he was quartermaster of the Continental artillery regiment. (He may have had this job earlier as well.)

Once the war moved south to New York, Bradlee declined to move with the regiment, recently assigned to young Col. Henry Knox. So did the second-in-command, Lt. Col. William Burbeck, and a significant number of the men.

Bradlee instead became an officer in Massachusetts’s artillery regiment under Col. Thomas Crafts, who had helped to organize Boston’s resistance since the first anti-Stamp Act protest in 1765; Crafts was bitterly disappointed not to receive a colonelcy from the Continental Congress. The second-ranking officer in that regiment was Lt. Col. Paul Revere. The regiment’s major was Thomas Melvill, a veteran of the Tea Party. The regimental surgeon was Dr. Joseph Gardner, who had helped Bradlee carry Crispus Attucks away from the Boston Massacre.

Again, Bradlee was right in the middle of the socially rising mechanics who drove the Revolution in Boston’s streets and public meetings. He now had a military rank, and people referred to him as “Captain Bradlee” for the rest of his life. He joined the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons in 1777.

Bradlee’s connections helped him start building his fortune. On 10 Apr 1778 he joined Melvill and John Hinkley as majority investors in the privateer Speedwell. The ship left Boston harbor in July. After only three days, it captured a British sloop “laden with Sugar, Coffee, Cocoa, Limes, etc.” David Bradlee’s ship had come in.

In Boston’s 1780 tax roll, Bradlee was listed as a tavern-keeper, no longer a tailor. That same year, his younger sister Elizabeth Bradlee (1757-1832) married Gershom Spear (1755-1816), a nephew of Pool Spear, thus uniting the families of two of the people that Gailer had sued ten years earlier.

By the mid-1780s, David Bradlee was recognized as a “wine-merchant,” importing a commodity of upper-class life. He started to rent the basement of the State House to store his inventory, a sign of his continuing connections with the local government. The rent was £17, and the selectmen didn’t collect for two years until he’d finished renovating the space.

In 1794, after nine years, the State House rent was raised to £45, and Bradlee moved out. He bought a large wood and brick shop on the “w[est] side of the…Corn Market,” erected a set of scales outside the front door, and continued selling wine.

Bradlee had carried his family into genteel society. His daughter Sarah married a U.S. Navy captain, Patrick Fletcher. His son Samuel married Catherine Crafts, a daughter of Col. Crafts. His son David W. Bradlee became a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and of the Boston Board of Health.

Capt. David Bradlee died on March 6, 1811—“very sudden,” according to one citizen’s diary. He was mourned as a respected member of Boston’s business community and laid to rest in the family’s own tomb, purchased in 1800.

The American Revolution allowed this tailor to become an officer and a merchant. Still, Capt. Bradlee may never have escaped hearing words like those the Rev. Jeremy Belknap attributed to a blacksmith chafing at the demands of a newly-rich tailor: “Come, come, citizen pricklouse, do not give yourself such airs as this! It was but t’other day that you was glad to measure my arse for a pair of breeches.”

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