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, January 24, 2020

William Molineux and “the legality of the proceedings”

On the morning of 18 Jan 1770, Boston’s Whigs thought that Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s sons, Thomas, Jr., and Elisha, had agreed to put their inventory of imported tea into the hands of the committee enforcing the non-importation boycott.

That would be a big win for the radicals who were pushing non-importation as a way to oppose the Townshend duties. It looked like their big public meeting in Faneuil Hall had worked.

But then the Hutchinsons shifted. According to an anonymous Crown informant, “This morning Trucks were sent down by the committee to the Governors house to bring up the Tea, but the sons by this time had alter’d their mind and refused delivering it up.”

Back in Faneuil Hall, the Whigs were continuing the previous day’s meeting by adjournment—“and the number was larger than before,” the Boston Gazette claimed. Around noon they heard about the Hutchinsons’ new stance. Other merchants were already defying the committee. This trend had to be stopped.

The radical leader William Molineux read a motion condemning the Hutchinsons and other merchants defying the boycott:
by this their unjustifiable and perfidious conduct, [they] have forfeited all confidence, esteem and favour, from the Merchants & others their fellow-citizens and countrymen,…[and] have acted in conjunction with placemen, pensioners, and other tools and dependants, upon a firm and settled plan to entail upon the present and future generations, BONDAGE, MISERY and RUIN.
The “Body of the Trade” approved that language unanimously.

The meeting then turned to appointing a committee to “orderly and decently repair” to those importers’ shops, read the resolution, and demand that they turn over their goods. And things got heated.

In 1770 Josiah Quincy, Jr. (shown above), was a rising young lawyer from Braintree. Just three months before, he  had married Abigail Phillips, daughter of the meeting moderator, William Phillips. Quincy was usually a strong advocate for Whig policy. But this afternoon he saw danger. According to that Crown informant:
[Quincy] stood up and declared that their going in a Body to the Lieut. Governors house to demand the Goods from his Sons was an Act of high treason and that the Hutchinsons whose name they had long had reason to dread had laid this trap in order to ensnare them.
Confronting the Hutchinsons at their father’s house was legally different from how Molineux had led men to the shop of William Jackson the day before, Quincy warned. Lt. Gov. Hutchinson was now the acting governor, and thus the representative of the king in Massachusetts. Confronting him in a crowd was tantamount to open rebellion against the Crown.

Other men at the meeting disagreed:
M[olineu]x and [Samuel] Adams insisted on the legality of the proceedings: the former observing that he could compare the Signers of the Non Importation agreement to nothing but a flock of sheep, six of whom had broke out of the fold, and that he was sorry to say that unless these were brought back all the rest were ready to follow their example, that they seem’d to wish for an opportunity—

[Town clerk William] Cooper next spoke as follows, that the people of New England had all along taken the lead, and should they now give up their name which had hitherto been highly esteem’d, not only throughout the Colonies but throughout the whole world, would be for ever detested & abhorred—

Quincy still persisted in his opinion, and offered to support what he had said by the best authorities in the Law—also appealing to Justice [Richard] Dana & Mr. [James] Otis; the former gave no answer, the latter made a speech upon the occasion, but no body could understand from what he said whether he condemned or approved of the measure—

M[olineu]x at last seem’d to give up the point of Law but insisted be that as it would, that as there was no other way of getting redress they ought therefore to prosecute their scheme—

Doctor [Thomas] Young next spoke to the follg. effect, that such people as counteracted the general measures should be depriv’d of existence, and that it was high time for the People to take the Govermt. into their own hands, to whom it properly belong’d.
The most aggressive Whigs thus insisted on confronting the Hutchinsons in the name of the people, whatever the legal niceties. But they still needed support from wealthy merchants and officials to look as respectable as possible. And those gentlemen were wary.
Quincy’s speech seem’d to alarm almost every person of the meeting insomuch that it was with the utmost difficulty they could get any person to serve on the committee to go to the Lt. Governors house—several persons were voted by the populace but declined acting: amongst these were John Hancock and Henderson Inches. Philips and Otis also at first refused but were afterwards perswaded to accept—

M[olineu]x who little expected this opposition, and finding matters likely to go against him, stood up upon a Bench an exclaim’d to the following effect, is this the way I am to be serv’d; I am surprised, greatly surprised to see you Gent. so backward, for my part I could spend the last Drop of my blood to save the liberties of my Country; but as I find those very People who were bound to support me now about forsaking me, I will no more interest myself with your Affairs; and jump’d down from the Bench on which he stood seemingly in a violent aggitation declaring he would go home, and he did not know what might be the consequences, insinuating that he would cut his throat:
Molineux had trouble distinguishing his own interests from the public good. This made him throw himself into what he thought were worthwhile causes. It also meant he took any opposition or obstacle to those causes as personal affronts, as on this afternoon. And he was apparently willing to suggest he might kill himself.

TOMORROW: Everybody calm down.

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