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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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

“Heard the oration pronounced, by Coll. Hancock”

On 12 March, Revolutionary Spaces’ Old South Meeting House will host a program devoted to Dr. Joseph Warren’s 1775 oration on the Boston Massacre.

With royal troops back in town, army officers in the hall, and the province on the brink of war, that was an especially dramatic moment.

The previous year’s oration probably had a lot of drama, too, but it consisted of hushed, concerned conversations behind the scenes.

Boston’s first three official commemorative orations were delivered by:


In contrast, the orator chosen for March 1774 was John Hancock. Unlike those three predecessors, he wrote hardly anything for the newspapers. Though he had served for years as both a town selectman and a representative in the General Court, he wasn’t considered one of Boston’s eloquent men. Hancock was known for public largesse, not public speaking.

Why then did the Whigs choose Hancock to deliver the 1774 oration? It may have been to bind him to their cause. In 1771, with the Liberty case resolved, troops moved out of town, and the Massacre trials over, people saw Hancock as shifting away from the radical Whigs. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson even fantasized about winning the young merchant over to his side.

My reading is that Hancock had the best sense for public opinion around, and he realized the overall populace wasn’t interested in confrontation. Then came the tea crisis of late 1773. Public sentiment changed, and everyone expected a harsh response from London. That was a good time to take a prominent position in the resistance. And what better way to do that than by delivering a Massacre oration?

Of course, there was still the matter of writing that speech. Reportedly Dr. Church and the silver-tongued Rev. Samuel Cooper helped Hancock compose his text. But it was up to him to deliver it.

People crowded into Old South on 5 Mar 1774. Within the crowd was John Adams, who had known Hancock as a fellow schoolboy back in Braintree. That evening, Adams wrote in his diary:
Heard the oration pronounced, by Coll. Hancock, in Commemoration of the Massacre—an elegant, a pathetic, a Spirited Performance. A vast Croud—rainy Eyes—&c.

The Composition, the Pronunciation, the Action all exceeded the Expectations of every Body. They exceeded even mine, which were very considerable. Many of the Sentiments came with great Propriety from him. His Invective particularly against a Prefference of Riches to Virtue, came from him with a singular Dignity and Grace.

Dined at Neighbour Quincys, with my Wife. . . . The Happiness of the Family where I dined, upon account of the Colls. justly applauded Oration, was complete. The Justice and his Daughters were all joyous.
The joy of relief, clearly. Hancock’s talk had gone so much better than people had expected.

One of Justice Edmund Quincy’s daughters was Dorothy. Although the young woman was already close to the widow Lydia Hancock, I’m not sure she and the orator were yet engaged to marry. But within a year they would be.

2 comments:

Mike said...

I know that the usage and meaning of certain words change through the years, and I'm curious about Adams's description of Hancock's speech as "...an elegant, a pathetic, a Spirited Performance." In modern times, a good speech wouldn't be characterized as "pathetic". What did Adams mean by that?

J. L. Bell said...

At this time “pathetic” meant “emotionally moving,” as in producing a feeling of pathos. Definitely a good thing for this type of oration.