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, June 30, 2020

“The principal cause of the Mobbish turn in this Town”?

Early this month I recounted some moments in the mid-1700s when the royal governors of Massachusetts found themselves stymied by crowds protesting for their traditional liberties.

Without army units nearby or a large, full-time police force, no power in the province was strong enough to pacify the mass of ordinary men. Except, that is, a government that accommodated their demands for respect and rights.

In letters to London, those governors offered their diagnoses of how that situation had come about. Gov. William Shirley didn’t say the root of the problem was the Royal Navy forcing sailors and other young men into service. Gov. Francis Bernard didn’t say that Parliament made a mistake in imposing a tax without representation. Those officials said the basic problem was that Boston and Massachusetts’s forms of government were too democratic.

On 1 Dec 1747, Shirley wrote to the Lords of Trade:
But what I think may be esteem’d the principal cause of the Mobbish turn in this Town, is it’s Constitution; by which the Management of it is devolv’d upon the populace assembled in their Town Meetings; one of which may be called together at any time upon the Petition of ten of the meanest Inhabitants, who by their Constant attendance there generally are the majority and outvote the Gentlemen, Merchants, Substantial Traders and all the better part of the Inhabitants; to whom it is Irksome to attend at such meetings, except upon very extraordinary occasions;

and by this means it happens, as it would do among any other Community in a Trading Seaport Town under the same Constitution, where there are about Twenty thousand [actually about 16,000] Inhabitants, consisting among others of so many working Artificers, Seafaring Men, and low sort of people, that a factious and Mobbish Spirit is Cherish’d; whereas the same Inhabitants under a different Town-Constitution proper for the Government of so populous and Trading a place, would probably form as well dispos’d a Community for every part of his Majesty’s Service as any the King has under his Government.
Here’s Bernard in 1765, arguing for an appointed Council rather than one elected by the Massachusetts elite, in turn elected by the white men of property in their towns:
The Authority of the King, the Supremacy of Parliament, the Superiority of Government are the real Objects of the attack; and a general levelling of all the powers of Government, & reducing it into the hands of the whole people is what is aimed at, & will, at least in some degree, succeed, without some external assistance.

The Council, which formerly used to be revered by the people has lost its weight, & notwithstanding their late spirited exertion, is in general timid & irresolute, especially when the Annual Election draws near. That fatal ingredient in the Composition of this Constitution is the bane of the whole: and never will the royal Scale be ballanced with that of the people ’till the Weight of the Council is wholly put into the former. The making the Council independent of the people (even tho’ they should still receive their original Appointment from them) would go far to cure all the disorders which this Government is Subject to.
Making the Council appointed instead of elected was one of the big changes of the 1774 Massachusetts Government Act.

Thomas Hutchinson was speaker of the house under Gov. Shirley and lieutenant governor and chief justice under Gov. Bernard. He became royal governor himself in 1770 and took up his predecessors’ complaints about the people (i.e., the white men of property) having too much power.

Here’s Hutchinson writing to Bernard on 24 May 1771:
The town of Boston is the source from whence all the other parts of the Province derive more or less troubled water. When you consider what is called its constitution, your good sense will determine immediately that it never can be otherwise for a long time together, whilst the majority which conducts all affairs, if met together upon another occasion, would be properly called a mob, and are persons of such rank and circumstance as in all communities constitute a mob, there being no sort of regulation of voters in practice; and as these will always be most in number, men of weight and value, although they wish to suppress them, cannot be induced to attempt to do it for fear not only of being outvoted, but affronted and insulted. Call such an assembly what you will, it is really no sort of government, not even a democracy, at best a corruption of it.

There is no hopes of a cure by any legislative but among ourselves to compel the town to be a corporation. The people will not seek it, because every one is sensible his importance will be lessened. If ever a remedy is found, it must be by compelling them to swallow it, and that by an exterior power,—the Parliament.
To “compel the town to be a corporation” meant ending the town-meeting form of government and becoming a city with an elected mayor and council—a change Boston eventually made in 1822, to some controversy.

Instituting a mandamus Council didn’t quell disturbances in Massachusetts. In fact, it spread them, producing militia uprisings in the countryside within weeks. Ending Boston’s town meetings didn’t end riots in Boston. Instead, American governments became more democratic than the royal governors would have imagined in their worse nightmares, and popular protests became less destructive.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Perspectives on Boston’s 1764 Smallpox Epidemic

On 13 Apr 1764, John Adams sent his fiancée Abigail a story about being inoculated against smallpox in Boston.

Through a cousin of Abigail’s, Dr. Cotton Tufts, Adams and his brother had received a referral to Dr. Nathaniel Perkins. At first Perkins responded that he wasn’t taking any new patients, however, and that the brothers should have prepared with medications before coming into town. When Adams wrote again, dropping Tufts’s name, that changed things:
The Dr. came, immediately with Dr. [Joseph] Warren, in a Chaise—And after an Apology,…for not recollecting what Dr. Tufts had told him, Dr. Perkins demanded my left Arm and Dr. Warren my Brothers.

They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin for about a Quarter of an Inch and just suffering the Blood to appear, buried a Thread about a Quarter of an Inch long in the Channell. A little Lint was then laid over the scratch and a Piece of a Ragg pressed on, and then a Bandage bound over all—my Coat and waistcoat put on, and I was bid to go where and do what I pleased. (Dont you think the Dr. has a good Deal of Confidence in my Discretion, thus to leave me to it?)

The Doctors have left us Pills red and black to take Night and Morning. But they looked very sagaciously and importantly at us, and ordered my Brother, larger Doses than me, on Account of the Difference in our Constitutions.
This was the first time Adams met Warren, whom he described as “a pretty, tall, Genteel, fair faced young Gentleman.” Warren was still only twenty-two years old. Eventually he would become an Adams family physician, political colleague, and friend. As a doctor barely out of training, Warren didn’t lead Boston’s fight against smallpox in 1764, but that was the first public health crisis he faced and thus a milestone in his medical career.

The Dr. Joseph Warren Historical Society was founded recently by Randy Flood, an interpreter at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Randy’s using the current pandemic to explore the 1764 smallpox outbreak through a series of online interviews, which you can watch here. So far he and Christian Di Spigna, author the Warren biography Founding Martyr, have talked to:

Sunday, June 28, 2020

“Tom Gage’s Proclamation” Parodied

The Readex newspaper database I use offers this page from the 28 June 1775 issue of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser.

In fact, it offers two images of this page, apparently identical.

Obviously, someone clipped an item out of the copy of that newspaper which was photographed decades ago for a microfilm publication and then digitized for this database. I hope there’s an intact copy of this printed sheet somewhere.

Fortunately, through other sources I confirmed what was missing (on this side). It was a response to the preceding item in that same newspaper, Gen. Thomas Gage’s 12 June proclamation of amnesty to anyone in arms against the Crown government except Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

Somebody went to great pains to parody the general’s announcement in rhymed verse:
TOM. GAGE’S PROCLAMATION,
Or blustering DENUNCIATION,
(Replete with Defamation,)
Threatning Devastation,
And speedy Jugulation,
Of the New-English Nation.---
Who shall his pious ways shun?

WHEREAS the Rebels hereabout,
Are stubborn still, and still hold out;
Refusing yet to drink their Tea,
In spite of Parliament and Me;
And to maintain their bubble, Right,
Prognosticate a real fight;
Preparing flints, and guns, and ball,
My army and the fleet to maul;
Mounting their guilt to such a pitch,
As to let fly at soldier’s breech;
Pretending they design’d a trick,
Tho’ order’d not to hurt a chick;
But peaceably, without alarm,
The men of Concord to disarm;
Or, if resisting, to annoy,
And ev’ry magazine destroy:---

All which, tho’ long oblig’d to bear,
Thro’ want of men, and not of fear;
I’m able now by augmentation,
To give a proper castigation;
For since th’ addition to the troops,
Now re-inforc’d as thick as hops;
I can, like Jemmy and the Boyne,
Look safely on---Fight you Burgoyne;
And mowe, like grass, the rebel Yankees.
I fancy not these doodle dances:---

Yet e’er I draw the vengeful sword,
I have thought fit to send abroad,
This present gracious Proclamation
Of purpose mild the demonstration,
That whosoe’er keeps gun or pistol,
I’ll spoil the motion of his systole;
Or, whip his breech, or cut his weason,
As haps the measure of his Treason:---

But every one that will lay down
His hanger bright, and musket brown,
Shall not be beat, nor bruis’d, nor bang’d,
Much less for past offences, hang’d;
But on surrendering his toledo,
Go to and fro unhurt as we do:---

But then I must, out of this plan, lock
Both SAMUEL ADAMS and JOHN HANCOCK;
For those vile traitors (like debentures)
Must be tuck’d up at all adventures;
As any proffer of a pardon,
Would only tend those rogues to harden:---
But every other mother’s son,
The instant he destroys his gun,
(For thus doth run the King’s command)
May, if he will, come kiss my hand.---

And to prevent such wicked game, as
Pleading the plea of ignoramus;
Be this my proclamation spread
To every reader that can read:---
And as nor law nor right was known
Since my arrival in this town;
To remedy this fatal flaw,
I hereby publish Martial Law.
Mean while let all, and every one
Who loves his life, forsake his gun;
And all the Council, by mandamus,
Who have been reckoned so infamous,
Return unto their habitation
Without or let or molestation.---

Thus, graciously, the war I wage,
As witnesseth my hand,---------TOM. GAGE.
By command of MOTHER CARY,
THOMAS FLUCKER, Secretary.
That’s the text as it was reprinted in the 10 July 1775 Norwich Packet. Many other American newspapers also picked up the poem. It was anthologized in the 1800s, often in rewritten forms. So far as I can tell, no one ever identified the poet.

Now for translations and annotations:
  • “Jugulation”: killing by cutting the throat.
  • “bubble”: a “false show,” one of several contemporaneous meanings provided by Dr. Samuel Johnson.
  • “Jemmy and the Boyne”: the 1690 battle where the forces of William and Mary defeated James II.
  • “doodle”: “A trifler; an idler,” wrote Dr. Johnson.
  • “systole”: heartbeat. 
  • “weason”: an old Scottish word for the throat or gullet. 
  • “toledo”: a well made Spanish sword. 
  • “debentures”: financial bonds. 
  • “Mother Cary”: a supernatural personification of the dangerous ocean. 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Trouble for Henry Barnes, “an Infamous importer”

Yesterday I started to describe how the town of Marlborough started to pressure Henry Barnes (shown here, in a portrait by his former slave Prince Demah) to stop importing goods from Britain.

The men of Marlborough adopted some of the same measures as the non-importation activists in Boston, just a year or more later. They held a town meeting to formally condemn importers. They appointed a committee to inspect goods and customers. They even called a meeting that didn’t have a property requirement so more young men could participate. And some folks started to make their disapproval even clearer by damaging Barnes’s property.

Henry Barnes’s wife Christian heard rumors that this activity was being guided from Boston:
It is said that a young gentleman who has formilly headed the mob in Boston and now resides with us is the perpetrator of all this mischief, but I will not believe it until I have further profe.
Alas, I haven’t found a clue about which young gentleman that might be.

In her letter to her friend Elizabeth Smith, Christian Barnes described how Bostonians themselves had attacked her husband’s property while it was in transport:
The greatest loss we have as yet met with was by a Mob in Boston who a few Nights ago atack’d a wagon load of goods which belongs to us they abused the Driver and cut a Bag of Peppur which contain’d three hundred [pounds?] leting it all into the street then gather’d it up in their Hand’fs & Hatts and caried it off the rest of the load they ordered back into the Publick Store of which the well disposed Commity Keeps the Key

Mr. Barnes has apply’d to the Lefnt. Govener [Thomas Hutchinson] for advice and he advised him to put in a petition to the General Court he then repaired to Mr. [James] Murray [a justice of the peace who was also Smith’s brother] and beg’d his assistance in the drawing of it up he complyed with his request and it is lade before the House next week, as I have entered so largly into the affair I will send you a Coppy of the Petition, we expect no Satisfaction or redress from the General Court but only as it is a legal Method and praparatory (in case of further insults) to the appealing to Higher Powers

You would be pleased to see with what moderation Mr. Barnes behaves in his present distresses at the same time I am well assured his resolution will carry him through all difficultys without swerving from his first principles

The Merchants in Boston are now intirely out of the question in all debates at their Town Meeting, which is caried on by a mob of the lowest sort of people leaded by one [John] Balard and Doct. [Thomas] Young Persons that I never before heard off
Dr. Thomas Young had led a crowd to the McMaster brothers’ store in early June to press them to stop importing. After another crowd carted Patrick McMaster around with a tar barrel on 19 June, John Ballard administered the oath by which the Scotsman swore not to return to Boston. Barnes heard from either Ame or Elizabeth Cumings that “the other two [McMaster] brothers had fled for their lives” as well.

And the people of Marlborough were still ramping up pressure on Henry Barnes. His wife wrote:
on the 10 of June the unqualified Voters had a meeting and enter’d into the same resolves the others had done before and the next day an Effigy was Hung upon a Hill in sight of the House with a paper Pin’d to the Breast, wheron was wrote Henry Barnes an Infamous importer this Hung up all Day and at Night they Burn’d it
In the five years since the Stamp Act, only the society’s worst political enemies had the honor of being hanged and burned in effigy.

COMING UP: Another effigy, this one on horseback.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Meanwhile, out in Marlborough…

One of the Sestecentennial stories I’ve neglected because I don’t have solid dates for all the events is the way the people of Marlborough joined in the non-importation movement by pressuring local businessman Henry Barnes.

Barnes was born in Boston in 1723. His father was a merchant from Britain who helped to administer and set up all three of the Anglican churches in town. In 1746, Henry married Christian Arbuthnot, a daughter of his father’s business partner.

In 1752, Henry Barnes set up a cider distillery in the rural town of Marlborough. That area was apparently a big producer of apples and cider. It also produced people named Barnes, descended from one of the earliest British families to settle there, but Henry Barnes had no connections to that clan.

Over the years, Barnes built up his business to include a pearl ash factory and a general store where he sold goods he imported through Boston to locals. He built a large house, shown above in expanded form before it was taken down to build a fire station. He owned slaves, including a woman named Daphney and her artistically talented son Prince Demah.

On 29 March, in the wake of the Boston Massacre, Marlborough held a town meeting on the imperial crisis. The resolutions that the townspeople approved said:
we are astonished to find that a number are at this critical time so sordidly detached from the public interest, and are so selfish and impudent, as to stand out and not comply with the Non-Importation Agreement, or break the same when entered into, and remain obstinate and bid defiance to their country, when entreated by the Committee of Merchants in the most salutary manner to enter into and abide by the same; and as they continue to practice those things that tend to ruining and enslaving their country and posterity…
The men of Marlborough pledged not to buy anything from the merchants that Boston had designated as importers, listing ten names. In practical terms, that meant boycotting Henry Barnes. And more.

Christian Barnes wrote to her friend Elizabeth Smith about that development in a letter she wrote over the month of June and finished on 6 July:
The Spirit of discord and confusion which has prevailed with so much violence in Boston has now begun to spread itself into the country. These Poor deluded People with whome we have lived so long in Peice & harmony have been influenced by the Sons of Rapin to take every method to distress us, at their March meeting they enter’d into resolves similar to those you have often seen in the Boston News Papers

at their next meeting they Chose four inspecters [Hezekiah Maynard, Peter Bent, Robert Baker, Alpheus Woods, and Moses Woods] (Men of the most Violent disposition of any in the Town) to Watch those who should purchas goods at the Store, with intent that their names should be recorded as enimies to their Country this did not deter those from coming who had not voted to the resolves these were cheifly Young People who were not qualified to vote in their Town Meeting

when they saw their measures had not the desired effect and that our custome still encreased they fix’d a paper upon the meeting House impowering and advising these unqualified voters to call a Meeting of their own and enter into the same resolves with the other this was a priviledg they had never enjoy’d and fond of their new goten Power hasten’d to put it in execution summon’d a Meeting chose a Moderater and (by the direction of those who sat them to work) resolves were drawn up but not yet pass’d

while all this was in agitation their was great outrages commited & insults offer’d to the Importers in Boston so that some of them have been compel’d to quit the Town as not only their Property but their lives were in Danger nor are we wholly free from apprehensions of the like treetment for they have already began to commit outrages

the first thing that fell a Sacrifice to their Mallace and reveng was the Coach which caused so much desention between us this they took the cushings out of and put them in the brook, and the next night cut the carriage to pieces. Not long after they broke the windows at the Pearl Ash Works.
Evidently Henry and Christian Barnes had disagreed in some way about buying a coach, and now it was all broken up anyway. I like how such private details surface in the middle of political trouble.

TOMORROW: More trouble for Henry Barnes.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Last of the Boston Chronicle

On 25 June 1770, 250 years ago today, this announcement appeared in the Boston Chronicle:
The Printers of the Boston Chronicle return thanks to the Gentlemen, who have so long favoured them with their Subscriptions, and now inform them that, as the Chronicle, in the present state of affairs, cannot be carried on, either for their entertainment or the emolument of the Printers, it will be discontinued for some time.
Printer John Mein had left for England the previous fall. His partner John Fleeming had carried on publishing the newspaper, still including documents from the Customs office. Each issue started with a list of the leaders of the non-importation committee, formatted like the Boston Gazette’s accusatory list of the remaining importers. But Fleeming no longer carried political essays from local authors, instead reprinting news from Europe and the letters of Junius.

Financial pressure was mounting on Fleeming. John Hancock was still pursuing his lawsuit against Mein as an agent of London creditors, seizing printing equipment and supplies. The only people still advertising in the Boston Chronicle were friends of the royal government. The 21 June issue contained only two ads: one by John Bernard, the departed governor’s son, announcing that he was leaving Massachusetts, and one for an auction in Nova Scotia.

When most of the Customs Commissioners and their administrators moved to Castle William after the 19 June attack on Henry Hulton’s home, that probably deprived Fleeming of another form of financial support.

Finally, Fleeming faced physical threats. He had been with Mein when angry merchants confronted him back in October. And then there’s this item from the 8 Jan 1770 Newport Mercury, also reprinted in some other American newspapers:
From Boston we hear, that on the Evening of the 29th Ult. [i.e., December 1769] Mr. —— Fleeming, Printer of the Boston Chronicle, was attacked in one of the Streets of that Town, by a Number of Ruffians, who abused him very much; and, ’tis thought, he would have died of his Wounds on the Spot, had not a humane Negro, who knew him, taken him up and helped him to his Home.
Boston 1775 reader John Navin set me on the path to this article through Facebook. As far as I can tell, the news was never printed in Boston, not even in Fleeming’s own paper.

E. J. Witek quoted Fleeming as telling Lord North in 1773 that his “life was threatened and finding the power of Government too weak to protect him against the fury of a lawless mob, he fled to Castle William.” Witek dated the time of Fleeming’s move to the Castle to the end of June 1770, just after closing the Chronicle.

So I might have been wrong when I wrote back in 2011 that, unlike Mein, Fleeming “never had mobs on his tail.” I’m still not certain whether he was actually attacked or merely threatened. The Newport news item came from someone who didn’t even know Fleeming’s given name and thus might not have heard all the facts straight, and his own petition doesn’t appear to have mentioned an actual assault. But he had reason to flee.

Whatever the exact circumstance, Fleeming shut down the Boston Chronicle two and a half centuries ago today, silencing Boston’s most aggressive newspaper support for the royal government.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Swett’s Collection of Bunker Hill Documents

Last year I wrote about three volumes of recollections about the Battle of Bunker Hill taken down in 1825 that went missing in the late nineteenth century.

Samuel Swett (1782-1866, shown here) consulted that collection, but he also assembled a file of his own documents as he wrote his “Historical and Topographical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle,” published in 1818. In that essay he wrote (referring to himself in the third person):
The materials lay scattered among newspapers, magazines, records and files of Congress, the scattered surviving veterans of the day, and others. He was compelled by circumstances to commence his researches in July, and finish his sketch in August; but he reminded himself that our fathers fought for us in the same oppressive season, and spared no effort to render the work complete. Not a single fact is stated of which he has not the most satisfactory evidence. That the public however may judge for themselves, he has deposited his documents and proofs for their use at the Boston Athaeneum [sic].
However, in a letter published in the Boston Daily Advertiser on 20 Dec 1825, Swett reported:
…the original documents which were collected in the defence of General [Israel] Putnam, and which I was permitted to use in preparing my sketch of the battle, were deposited in the Athenæum, and for some years have been lost, and not the slightest trace of them can be found.
Fortunately, Swett said, he’d kept separate two documents he sent to that newspaper—the two I quoted last week.

At just about the same time, Swett published his “Notes to the Sketch of Bunker-Hill Battle,” quoting from his sources. On the first page of that appendix a footnote stated: “This, and every other statement referred to by the author, were taken down in writing at the time; any person who pleases may have copies taken of any documents in his possession.” Of course, the “documents in his possession” didn’t include those lost at the Athenæum.

Some people had transcribed parts of that collection, Swett explained on the next page (now using the second person plural): “As the original documents have long been lost from the Boston Athenæum, we can only say, the copies in the [Columbian] Centinel and N[orth]. A[merican]. Review are known to have been made by two gentlemen of as high honour and integrity as our country ever produced.”

On page 10 Swett switched to “statements taken down in writing by Gen. [William] Sullivan and other Directors of the Bunker Hill monument” in June 1825—the documents in that three-volume collection.

When Richard Frothingham, Jr., wrote his History of the Siege of Boston, first published in 1849, he wrote: “I am indebted to Colonel Samuel Swett for permission to take copies of his manuscripts.” Again, those might not have included the papers deposited at the Athenæum.

However, according to an item published in the New England Historic and Genealogical Register in 1920, at some point in the nineteenth century Swett’s original collection resurfaced. Artemas Ward of New York, descendant of the general of the same name, wrote that several people noted the recovery in their copies of Swett’s “Notes to the Sketch of Bunker-Hill Battle.” (I haven’t seen such a note.)

In May 1883, the New York book dealer Charles L. Woodward offered “Col. Swett’s Collection of Affidavits” for sale. This lot was said to include “nearly two hundred papers,” and the asking price was $200. Alas, there’s no information about where Woodward obtained that collection and where he sold it.

That makes two collections of documents about Bunker Hill collected within the lifetimes of the men who fought that battle which disappeared in the late 1800s. Any information about them would, of course, be appreciated.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

New Publications from the Journal of the American Revolution

I came across the 1818 recollections of the Battle of Bunker Hill that I shared last week while writing a new article for the Journal of the American Revolution website: “Who Said, ‘Don’t Fire Till You See the Whites of Their Eyes’?”

Way back in 2007, I wrote a Boston 1775 posting with that title, a lead-in to a discussion of how Thomas Carlyle alerted American historians to Prussian leaders using a similar phrase in the mid-1700s. Blogger tells me that posting has received more pageviews than any other on this site—which is a bit embarrassing since a few years later I decided that was just a side issue.

In 2014 I came across early publications of the “whites of their eyes” quotation that trace back to Israel Putnam. That led to further postings about that phrase appearing in British military sources before the first American publication and even before 1775.

For the new J.A.R. article I combined all the Boston 1775 postings about the famous quotation with some new material. I hope it’s an enjoyable read.

In more Journal of the American Revolution news, an early copy of the latest annual volume of articles collected from the website arrived here at headquarters.

It contains my article on stories about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Which anecdotes can be traced back to men in the room where that happened, and which are totally unreliable?

In preparing that article for the print publication, I found an earlier source of the anecdote about John Adams and Stephen Hopkins at the signing. That prompted me to explore if Philadelphia Public Ledger editor Russell Jarvis was the anonymous journalist who first put that story into print. That possibility is still speculative enough to belong in a footnote, but it’s a long, substantial footnote, and it’s found only in the printed volume.

Monday, June 22, 2020

“Enraged upon reading Capt. Preston’s Narrative”

The publication of Capt. Thomas Preston’s “Case” in Boston in June 1770 heightened the danger that had prompted the captain to write to the British government in the first place: the possibility that he would be killed for the Boston Massacre.

One threat was that a Massachusetts jury would convict Preston of murder and the local authorities would quickly carry out a death sentence. The 21 June Boston News-Letter reported that the government in London had anticipated that possibility:
The Ministers expect, That if Captain Preston, and the soldiers, who committed the late murders at Boston, are condemned, That the Lieutenant Governor (Hutchinson) will respite them during the King’s pleasure [i.e., put off executions until the London government had a chance to pardon them], which may occasion another Porteu’s affair)
John Porteous was a captain of the Edinburgh City Guard in 1736. After he and soldiers under his command killed people while putting down a riot, he was convicted of murder. Rumors said he might be reprieved, so on the night before his scheduled execution a crowd took him out of the jail (shown above) and hanged him themselves.

Thus, the second danger that Preston and the ministry feared was that Bostonians would lynch him.

On 22 June, 250 years ago today, Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wrote to Gen. Thomas Gage in New York:
I ever supposed it would be necessary for me, at all events if Capt. Preston & the Soldiers should be found Guilty and Sentence be passed to grant a Reprieve until His Majesty’s pleasure should be known. I am now under stronger Obligation to do it than before having received His Majestys express commands so to do.

I am much less concerned from an apprehension of the rage of the people against me than I am from the danger in our present dissolute state of Government, of the people’s taking upon themselves to put the Sentence into execution. I do not believe I have one Magistrate who would be willing to run any risque in endeavouring to prevent it. If Troops were in the Town I don’t know that a Magistrate would employ them on such an occasion but I think they might notwithstanding be the means of preventing it.
Hutchinson sent that letter from Boston and then went to his country house in Milton. As evening approached, he received a message from Lt. Col. William Dalrymple, commander of the 14th Regiment stationed on Castle William. Dalrymple enclosed “a Letter he had received from Capt. Preston expressing his great fears that the people were so enraged as to force the Gaol that night and make him a sacrifice, several of his friends having informed him this was their intention.”

The acting governor dashed off a note for Preston which said in its entirety:
Dear Sir

I will take every precaution which is in my power which I wish was greater than it is and am Yours sincerely

TH
Hutchinson told Gage the next day what other steps he took:
I sent immediately proper Orders to the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] & I directed to every precaution I could think of but, being extremely uneasy, I went to Town. I found the people were enraged upon reading Capt. Preston’s Narrative which I wish had not been published in England.

I sat up until midnight and until the Scouts which had been sent to different quarters made return that all was quiet and I find that where Capt. Prestons fears have come to the knowledge of the Liberty People they have generally remarked that what ever danger there may be after Trial it would be the heighth of madness to think of any such thing before.

I shall however continue all the caution I have in my power.
Hutchinson thought Preston’s trial for murder would come in “ten or twelve weeks,” or sometime in September. Both the royal authorities and Boston’s political leaders had to keep him and the soldiers alive until then.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Alarming News from Across the Atlantic

On 21 June 1770, 250 years ago today, the Boston News-Letter reported startling news from London. So startling that Richard Draper added a two-page “Extraordinary” sheet to his newspaper.

On Monday the 18th, Capt. James Hall had arrived from England with copies of the London Public Advertiser describing how the imperial capital had reacted to receiving news of the Boston Massacre back on 5 March.

The first word had reached London on 22 April. The next day, the Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State for North America, summoned Sir Francis Bernard, still officially the royal governor of Massachusetts, for consultation.

That evening the London newspapers published the Boston Gazette’s account of the killing, a statement from the Boston town meeting, and a letter from the Whigs to former governor Thomas Pownall. All of those sources of course blamed the royal authorities.

On 23 April, a Sunday night, there was a “Cabinet Council” about the news. The next day, Lord Hillsborough met with colonial governors and agents in a “grand levée at his house.” Those meetings gave rise to several rumors about what the government might do next: appoint Sir Jeffery Amherst commander-in-chief in North America, send more troops to Boston, repeal the tea tax before resigning? The tea tax was the last of the Townshend duties, and ending it would have been a total victory for the non-importation movement. (None of those things happened.)

Parliament met on 26 April. Member Barlow Trecothick, also a London alderman with close links to the Boston business community, formally asked the ministry to share all communications about Boston. Reportedly Hillsborough and Lord North had promised him a formal vote would not be necessary, but he “did not chuse to trust their assurances.” The ensuing debate included Edmund Burke, Isaac Barré, George Grenville, and others. It ended with agreement that the government would share the information with names redacted.

As part of that discussion, the London newspapers (still dashing out most names because it wasn’t clearly legal yet to report parliamentary debates) quoted Viscount Barrington, Secretary of War, as saying that Boston magistrates didn’t support the troops, and:
That the Government is a Democracy, and all civil Officers chosen by the People,—that the Council is a democratical Part of that Democracy,—that in his Opinion a Royal Council is necessary for a more proper Division of Powers of Government.
Such a Council appointed in London would be part of the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774.

Then on 28 April more documents arrived from Boston. Some were in the same vein as before. A letter from Lt. Col. William Dalrymple reportedly said Bostonians “had absolutely DETERMINED to risk their lives in an Attack upon the Military; in order to revenge the cruel and wanton Massacre of their Countrymen”—which is not what that army colonel would have ever written.

But the bombshell printed in the 28 April Public Advertiser, and reprinted in the 21 June Boston News-Letter after it went back across the Atlantic, was the “Case of Capt. Thomas Preston of the 29th Regiment.” This 2,000-word account of the Massacre started with complaints of Bostonians being mean the soldiers, proceeded through a detailed account of the shooting on King Street that blamed the violent crowd, and concluded with warnings of the slanted local press. (The London newspapers, and thus the News-Letter, omitted Preston’s final paragraphs asking for a pardon.)

The Boston Whigs were upset because back in March Preston had sent the Boston Gazette a short letter thanking the town and praising its justice system. Even as he did so, those politicians realized, the captain must have been preparing this very different message for Customs Commissioner John Robinson to carry to London.

TOMORROW: The anger of the people.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

“The affair of breaking Mr. Hulton’s Windows at Brookline”

Yesterday we left Henry Hulton under attack in his home in Brookline.

Hulton, one of the five Commissioners of Customs for North America appointed in London, had been woken on the night of 19 June 1770 by a man claiming to have a letter for him. He wrote later that he “slipt on my breeches and waistcoat,” grabbed his sword, and went to a window.

After a brief exchange, Hulton slammed down the window on the man’s hand. Then that man and others stationed all around the house beat in the first-floor windows with clubs.

Hulton wrote:
The family immediately rose in the greatest consternation, and Mrs. H opening the Window shutter in her room had a large stone thrown at her which happily missed her. Imagining the people would break into the house, and seek to murther me I ran to the Servants’ room at the head of the back Stairs with my sword in my hand, leaving two Servant Men at the bottom.
The commissioner’s servants included both white and black people, the latter almost certainly enslaved. And those were his ground-floor defense against the mob. Also in the household were Hulton’s wife Elizabeth; their two children, Thomas and Henry, Jr., both under the age of three; and his sister Ann.

Ann Hulton wrote the next month:
I could imagine nothing less than that the House was beating down, after many violent blows on the Walls and windows, most hideous Shouting, dreadful imprecations, and threats ensued. Struck with terror and astonishment, what to do I knew not, but got on some Clothes, and went to Mrs. H.’s room, where I found the Family collected, a Stone thrown in at her window narrowly missed her head. When the Ruffians were retreating with loud huzzas and one cryd he will fire—no says another, he darn’t fire, we will come again says a third—Mr. and Mrs H. left their House immediately and have not lodged a night since in it.
Her brother recalled the men outside “swearing, ‘dead or alive, we will have him.’” Eventually, though, that crowd left, and Henry and Elizabeth Hulton “retired to a Neighbour’s house till daylight, and passed the following day at Mr. John Apthorp’s at little Cambridge,” now Brighton. (That house may have survived into the early 1900s as one of the houses on the John Duncklee estate.)

Ann wrote:
The next day we were looking up all the Pockit Pistols in the house, some of which were put by, that nobody could find ’em and ignorant of any being charged, Kitty was very near shooting her Mistress, inadvertently lets it off. The bullets missed her within an inch and fixed in a Chest of Drawers.
A fellow Customs Commissioner, William Burch, learned of the attack and moved with his wife to Castle William (shown above). After hearing about that, Henry “came home the following morning, and carried the Children and part of the family from Brooklyn to the Castle,” arriving on 21 June. They squeezed into the quarters reserved for the governor with the other commissioners, lower Customs officers, and their relatives and servants.

Back in Brookline, locals discussed who had carried out the attack. Ann Hulton reported:
And for the honour of the Township we lived in, I must say, the principal People, have of their own accord taken up the affair very warmly, exerting their endeavors to find out the Authors, or perpetrators of the Villainy.

They have produced above twenty witnesses, Men in the Neighborhood who were out a Fishing that night, that prove they met upon the Road from Boston towards my Brother’s House, Parties of Men that appeared disguised, their faces blacked, with white Night caps and white Stockens on, one of ’em with Ruffles on and all, with great clubs in their hands. They did not know any of ’em, but one Fisherman spoke to ’em, to be satisfied whether they were Negroes or no, and found by their Speech they were not, and they answered him very insolently. Another person who mett them declares, that one of ’em asked him the way to Mr. H’s house, and another of ’em said he knew the way very well.

After all, you may judge how much any further discovery is likely to be made, or justice to be obtained in this Country, when I tell you that the persons who were thus active to bring the dark deed to light, were immediately stop’d and silenced, being given to understand (as I’m well informed) that if they made any further stir about the matter, they might expect to be treated in the same manner as Mr H. was. However, so much is proved as to clear Mr H. from the charge of doing himself the mischief, one would think.
On 21 June, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson issued a proclamation describing the assault on the Hultons’ house and offering a £50 reward for identifying the perpetrators. The 25 June Boston Post-Boy and 28 June Boston News-Letter printed that proclamation in full. The 25 June Boston Evening-Post reported on it. The Boston Gazette ran one sentence saying that Hulton’s windows had been “broke by Persons unknown” with no mention of the reward.

On 4 October, the News-Letter said, a sea captain returned from London with word that news of the violence on 19 June—the carting of Patrick McMaster and the mobbing of the Hulton house—“Causes great Uneasiness among our Friends at Home.” With the Boston Massacre trials coming up, the Massachusetts Whigs were under pressure to prove that their society was law-abiding. At the time, the Hultons were still living at the Castle for their own safety.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Attack on the Hulton House

On 19 June 1770, 250 years ago today, political violence broke out again in greater Boston.

With the 14th Regiment off at Castle William, royal officials were already feeling exposed. Acting governor Thomas Hutchinson had moved the Massachusetts General Court to Cambridge, and he and many Customs officers were staying out of town.

Meanwhile, the non-importation movement was facing its own challenge. Since Parliament had repealed most of the Townshend duties (retaining only the most lucrative, on tea), popular support for their boycott was waning. Why couldn’t the American Whigs accept a partial victory?

One reason was that their ideology said any compromise with oppression would lead to political slavery. Another was that no large town wanted to be seen as the first to return to normal trade. The merchants of New York and Philadelphia held large meetings and issued broadsides. Boston’s Whig leaders kept up the pressure on the few local merchants already identified as importing goods.

On 1 June, Dr. Thomas Young led supporters to the shop of the McMaster brothers, merchants from Scotland doing business in Boston and Portsmouth. On the 19th, a crowd returned and seized Patrick McMaster, threatening to tar and feather him. I wrote about that event back here with help from an article by Prof. Colin Nicholson.

Here’s Customs Commissioner Henry Hulton’s later description of what happened to McMaster, as published by Neil Longley York and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts:
On the 19th June one Mr. McMaster, a Scotch Merchant and Importer, was taken out of his room, placed in a Cart and made to expect the same treatment that [Owen] Richards had experienced; but fainting away from an apprehension of what was to befall him, they spared him this ignimony, and contented themselves with leading him through the town in the Cart to Roxbury, where they turned him out, spiting upon him, and otherwise contemptuously and rudely treating him.
This is a rare documented pre-Revolutionary example of New Englanders tarring and feathering someone not employed by the Customs Service. McMaster was probably also genteel while most early victims of those attacks were working-class. But since he was a newcomer to Boston and a Scotsman besides, the crowd could conceive of tarring him—until he fainted.

Hulton himself had rented an estate in rural Brookline (shown above, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth) for his family, including his sister Ann. On 25 July she wrote to a friend about what the Hultons experienced later that same night, possibly from the same crowd:
I have often thought of what you said, that surely we did not live in a lone House. It’s true we have long been in a dangerous situation, from the State of Government. The want of protection, the perversion of the Laws, and the spirit of the People inflamed by designing men.

Yet our house in the Country has been a place of retreat for many from the disturbances of the Town, and though they were become very alarming, yet we did not apprehend an immediate attack on our House, or that a Mob out of Boston should come so far, before we had notice of it, and were fully persuaded there are Persons more obnoxious than my Brother, that he had no personal Enemy, and confident of the good will of our Neighbours (in the Township we live in) towards him, so that we had no suspicion of what happened the night of June the 19th—we have reason to believe it was not the sudden outrage of a frantic Mob, but a plot artfully contrived to decoy My Brother into the hands of assassins. At Midnight when the Family was asleep, had not a merciful Providence prevented their designs, we had been a distressd Family indeed.

Between 12 and 10’Clock he was wakened by a knocking at the Door. He got up, enquired the person’s name and business, who said he had a letter to deliver to him, which came Express from New York. My Brother puts on his Cloaths, takes his drawn Sword in one hand, and opened the Parlor window with the other. The Man asked for a Lodging—said he, I’ll not open my door, but give me the letter. The man then put his hand, attempting to push up the window, upon which my Brother hastily clapped it down.

Instantly with a bludgeon several violent blows were struck which broke the Sash, Glass and frame to pieces. The first blow aimed at my Brother’s Head, he Providentialy escaped, by its resting on the middle frame, being double, at same time (though before then, no noise or appearance of more Persons than one) the lower windows, all round the House (excepting two) were broke in like manner. My Brother stood in amazement for a Minute or 2, and having no doubt that a number of Men had broke in on several sides of the House, he retired Upstairs.

You will believe the whole Family was soon alarmed, but the horrible Noises from without, and the terrible shrieks within the House from Mrs. H. and Servants, which struck my Ears on awaking, I can’t describe, and shall never forget.
Ann Hulton’s letter is also available from the Colonial Society and was first published in 1927 in Letters of a Loyalist Lady.

TOMORROW: Aftermath in Brookline.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Another Recovered Source on Bunker Hill

In late 1825 the historian Samuel Swett sent the Boston Daily Advertiser two accounts of the Battle of Bunker Hill sworn to before a Newburyport magistrate in 1818. I shared one yesterday.

The other was undoubtedly published in the Boston Daily Advertiser sometime from 21 to 25 December, but those issues aren’t included in the database I can access from home. The New-York Daily Advertiser for 26 December reprinted that second affidavit, crediting the Boston paper. So I’m taking this text from New York, quirky quotation marks and all.

The source was Philip Johnson, a native of Newburyport. His recollection was:
Mr. Johnson states that he was a private in Capt. Benjamin Perkin’s company, and about 19 years of age, at the time of Bunker Hill Battle. The company proceeded as stated by Colonel [Joseph] Whitmore, till they came to within gunshot of the frigate Lively, [actually the Glasgow] which lay in the stream, and threw her shot across the neck—

As the company were proceeding, a shot from the frigate struck in the rear of them, and appeared to startle some of the men. Some cried out, “it is a shell.” Lieut. (now Colonel) Whitmore, immediately jumped over the fence, where it struck, took the ball and showed it to the company, and observed, ‘it was only a ball.’

When they crossed the neck, Capt. Perkins ordered the men to go in single file six feet apart. They reached Bunker Hill without any loss. The company were principally scattered, and the men took their places where they could find them. Mr. Johnson passed the redoubt and went to the left to the rail fence; he went back again and went into the redoubt. He was soon crowded out of the redoubt, and he and a Mr. [Jacob] Knapp of the company went again to the rail fence. All this was before the battle commenced.

While he was at the rail fence, and just before the battle commenced, he saw Gen. [Israel] Putnam on horseback very near him, and distinctly heard him say, “Men, you know you are all marksmen; you can take a squirrel from the tallest tree; don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.’

Immediately after the first retreat of the British, Gen. Putnam rode up and said, ‘Men, you have done well, but next time you will do better, aim at the officers.’

The third time the British came up to the redoubt, they entered without much firing, and the retreat commenced.

Just as Mr. Johnson left his place at the rail fence, which was about half a gunshot from the redoubt, Gen. Putnam rode up, his horse covered with foam, and said something, he does not distinctly know what, and rode off. The balls were flying as thick as peas.

The particular manner in which the British came up the hill, and their several evolutions, Mr. Johnson does not recollect with sufficient accuracy to state. He heard no cheering by the Americans, till after the first retreat of the British. There were fifteen or sixteen killed and wounded in his company.

Mr. Johnson will excuse our preserving the very expressions he used, as the statement is so much more valuable for being a literal copy, though it was not intended for publication. He received in the engagement a slight wound in the hand.
In his history of the battle, Samuel Swett quoted (imperfectly) only the portion of Johnson’s statement from “was at the rail fence” to “thick as peas.” Still, that one paragraph contained the most echoed phrase from the whole battle: “don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.” Earlier sources quoted Putnam saying nearly the same thing, but Johnson’s affidavit supplied the wording that became famous.

In a footnote, Swett also cited Johnson for this detail, not mentioned in the letter: “His Capt. Perkins, finding it waxed warm when they arrived at the neck, threw away his wig, and led his men over at single file, the mode generally adopted.” Alas, “threw away his wig” never became as iconic a phrase as “whites of their eyes.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bringing Back a Source on the Bunker Hill Battle

Samuel Swett was one of the early historians of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He published a long essay titled “Historical and Topographical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle” as an appendix to an 1818 reprint of David Humphreys’s biography of Gen. Israel Putnam.

The battle’s 50th anniversary came in 1825, bringing more interest from the public and more accounts from veterans. Some of those old men came to Charlestown for a public ceremony. Swett used interviews with them and his earlier research to publish Notes to the Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle at the end of 1825, quoting the sources he had used for the earlier essay and more.

Unfortunately for us, Swett didn’t tailor his publications and particularly his quotations around providing a comprehensive picture of the battle. Rather, in his own words, he wrote “for the defence of Gen. Putnam, did he need any.” In 1818 Gen. Henry Dearborn had published an article in The Port Folio basically saying that Putnam had been useless during the battle. This set off years of historiographical (and political) debate. Swett published a lot of evidence favoring Putnam, but he left out other testimony that later historians would have liked to see.

This spring I stumbled across two affidavits that Swett sent to the Boston Daily Advertiser for publication at the end of 1825. He had quoted parts of both in his Notes, and those quotations have been cited by many historians since. But as far as I can tell, scholars haven’t used the other parts of these documents, which offer more details about the battle. So I’m going to quote them in full. (As usual, I’ve added paragraph breaks for easier online reading.)

The first affidavit appeared in the Boston Daily Advertiser on 20 Dec 1825, and in a few other newspapers after that. This was how Swett introduced the source:
Col. JOS[eph]. WHITMORE, of Newburyport, a native of Charlestown, brought up there as an apprentice by Richard Devens, Esq., well known in both those places as a witness of the highest respectability, Aug. 6, 1818, stated before a magistrate, Hon. Eben. Moseley, “that he was a Lieutenant in a company from Newburyport, commanded by Capt. Benj. Perkins, and which was raised and marched to Cambridge soon after Lexington battle.”
Capt. Perkins’s company was evidently assigned to Abraham Watson’s house in Cambridge. Lt. Whitmore’s account:
While their company were at their quarters at ’Squire Watson’s, about a mile from the Colleges, an alarm was given on the 17th, [June] 1775. The company immediately formed, marched to Cambridge, and received orders from Gen. [Artemas] Ward to march to Charlestown. Col. Whitmore thinks the company arrived upon Breed’s Hill between 2 and 3 o’clock.

Soon after the company reached the hill, the British reinforcement landed, formed into columns, and marched up the hill. Col. Whitmore with a part of his company went down to the left of the redoubt, near some trees which were standing, and there received an attack. The British were twice repulsed, but the third time they made the attack with great fury, and drove the Americans from their works.

On the retreat, Col. Whitmore was wounded in his thigh. The Colonel states, that at the very moment he was wounded, Gen. [Joseph] Warren fell, and was within six feet of him.

As it respects Gen. Putnam, Col. Whitmore states, that he knew Gen. Putnam perfectly well, that he was well acquainted with him in the old French war—that he saw General Putnam on Breed’s Hill, when he went on with his company, and also on the retreat, soon after he was wounded, on the side of the hill.

He says, that well knowing Gen. Putnam, and the General knowing him, he said to him, “General, sha’nt we rally again?”

Gen. Putnam said, “yes, as soon as we can—are you wounded?”

Col. Whitmore answered that he was, but thought he should get over it.
Swett quoted Whitmore’s words starting at “with a part of his company…” and ending with “…are you wounded?”

A petition to the Massachusetts government printed in John J. Currier’s 1906 History of Newburyport shows that to “get over it” Whitmore had to go home and receive medical care until 8 August. In March 1776 he asked the General Court to reimburse him for that cost since he hadn’t taken a bed in an army hospital.

TOMORROW: Another voice from Newburyport.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

How Malden Managed “Our Cannon”

On 21 Apr 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety officially set up its artillery regiment by sending for Richard Gridley, Scarborough Gridley, and David Mason, three of the top four officers in that unit.

At the same time the committee voted “That the field pieces be removed from Newburyport, and deposited for the present, in the hands of Capt. [John] Dexter of Malden.” That brought those guns closer to the siege lines. Dexter was told “to conceal the cannon committed to his care.”

Three days later the committee felt cautious enough about provoking further fighting to resolve:
That the inhabitants of Chelsea and Malden be, and hereby are, absolutely forbidden, to fire upon, or otherwise injure any seamen belonging to the navy under the command of Admiral [Samuel] Graves, unless fired upon by them, until the said inhabitants of Chelsea and Malden receive orders from this committee or the general of the provincial forces so to do.
But two days after that the committee rescinded that resolution and voted:
That the inhabitants of Chelsea and Malden be hereby desired, to put themselves in the best state of defence, and exert the same in such manner, as under their circumstances, their judgments may direct.
The war was on. And indeed, there was a fight off Chelsea on 27-28 May.

As for the cannon in Malden, that story got picked up in Deloraine Pendre Corey’s History of Malden, Massachusetts (1899). For a little the guns were hidden “in the hay in Captain Dexter’s barn,” but pretty soon everyone in Malden knew they were there. Then the townspeople started to prepare to use them.

On 13 June, the Malden town meeting voted “That some part of the Town’s stock of powder be made up in Cartridges for the Cannon to be used upon necessity.” Three days later, on 16 June, two men were sent to the army’s headquarters in Cambridge to “request that a person be sent to view our cannon, & advise where to make an Entrenchment, for our own defence.” The field-pieces that had arrived in Malden less than two months before were now “our cannon.”

Then came the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June. The British lines moved closer to Malden, and the Royal Navy was probing the Mystic River. People grew more nervous. Two days after the battle Malden voted “That Capt Daniel Waters be desired immediately to prepare ye cannon in this Town for use.”

As instructed by their neighbors, Waters and Ezra Sargeant went to the provincial congress “for direction in using the artiliry in this Town, &…orders to enlist a sufficient number of men to make use of them if necessary, & also to request some assistance from the army for our defence in our very dangerous situation.”

But by this time the provincial congress had already enlisted as many men as it could. It was shoring up the whole siege line and worrying about protecting the long Massachusetts shore as well. All they could offer Malden was free rein:
the inhabitants of the town of Maiden be [directed] to make the best use of their artillery they can, for their defence, in case they shall be attacked by the enemy, and that they make their application for assistance to the general of the army [Artemas Ward], who, doubtless, will furnish them with such detachments from the army, as they shall judge necessary and expedient.
Townspeople built earthworks near the landing place for the Penny Ferry from Charlestown, shown at the upper right of the map above. They prepared the houses near that site with “apertures” to shoot out from. And they waited.

COMING UP: Floating batteries.

Monday, June 15, 2020

“A very Grand Brick Building, Arch’d all Round”

On 4 Mar 1748 the Massachusetts General Court tackled the question of where to build a new meeting-place in Boston, now that it had considered and eliminated Cambridge and Roxbury.

A committee proposed
that they should go at four o’Clock this Afternoon, to view the Common and Fort-Hill, and determine which was the most convenient Place to build a new Court-House; as the said Committee were divided in their Sentiments upon that Affair. 
The lower house then voted not to approve that plan and discuss the whole matter “Wednesday next.” So the project wasn’t really off to a fast start.

Finally 9 March came around. After debate the house came to an important decision:
That the late Court-House in the Town of Boston be repair’d, as soon as conveniently may be, and that one Half the Charge thereof be borne by the Province, the other Half by the County of Suffolk and the Town of Boston.
The next day, a second vote clarified that the county and town should each pay a quarter of the cost. The house named a committee headed by speaker Thomas Hutchinson to buy building materials, prepare an architectural plan, and estimate the budget. The Council, which appears to have been holding out for this result, quickly agreed with both those votes.

Thus, after a month of decisions that the new Court-House should be built in Cambridge, Roxbury, and somewhere new in Boston, the legislature determined to simply rebuild their old home. And that’s why we still have the Old State House with its 1713 walls in downtown Boston.

By the end of the month, Hutchinson’s committee had completed a design for the rebuilt interior and a budget of £18,104—in that inflated “Old Tenor” currency. The actual cost was totaled in October 1750 as £3,705.11s.4d “Lawful Money.” By that time, the Massachusetts government had implemented Hutchinson’s plan for stabilizing its notes.

A merchant named Francis Goelet visited Boston in 1750 and described how good the Town House looked:
It’s a very Grand Brick Building, Arch’d all Round, and Two Storie Heigh, Sash’d above; its Lower Part is always Open, design’d as a Change, tho’ the Merchants in Fair Weather make their Change in the open Street at the Eastermost End. In the upper Story are the Council and Assembly Chambers &c. It has a neat Capulo, sash’d all round, and which on rejoycing days is Elluminated.
Thomas Hutchinson had succeeded in keeping the General Court in Boston, and in easing inflation. However, as fallout from his currency plan, in May 1750 the Boston town meeting chose not to reelect him to the house. (His legislative colleagues elevated him to the Council instead, where he served until 1766.)

One curiosity about the discussion of where to build the Court-House from December 1747 to March 1748 is that it appears to have never been reported in the newspapers. There were close votes in the house, disagreements between the two legislative chambers, and a revived opposition press in the Independent Advertiser—a situation that seems conducive to leaks. But I can’t see a mention of the controversy.

I don’t know the private sources from this period well, but I’ve found no other sign of public discussion about where to locate the building, either. The records of Boston’s selectmen and town meetings don’t mention the rebuilt Town House until it came time in 1751 to pay the bill.

A later curiosity is that when the Old State House was rededicated as a museum in 1882, the 180-page official city record of the program, full of speeches and transcriptions from historic documents down to Thomas Crafts’s repainting bill from 1773, doesn’t mention those months of indecision. The quoted legislative record just skips all the votes in February.

That brief period in 1748 appears to be one of the few times that the Massachusetts government considered making some town outside Boston into the permanent seat of government. As I discussed back here, it’s very unusual for a colonial capital to remain a state capital. And the gaps in the record make it feel almost as if Boston interests don’t want to let word out that people considered moving the government anywhere else.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

“To build a Court-House in the Town of Roxbury”

On 17 Feb 1748, the Massachusetts house heard from a second committee on what to do about the Town House, the legislature’s usual meeting hall, which had burned the previous November.

The first committee had recommended building a new Court-House for the Massachusetts General Court in Cambridge. The full house then rejected that idea.

This second committee, which included house speaker Thomas Hutchinson, recommended instead “that the late Court-House be repaired.” That would keep the seat of the government in the center of Boston, Hutchinson’s home town.

The full house didn’t accept that recommendation. It voted not to have a new Court-House “built in any Part of the Town of Boston.” Hutchinson could steer a committee but not the whole chamber.

Instead, that morning the lawmakers voted “to build a Court-House in the Town of Roxbury.” That was just one town inland from Boston, but the new building could be away from the waterfront, the merchants, and the province’s biggest mobs.

Roxbury was also the town where Gov. William Shirley had just built a new country seat (now the Shirley-Eustis House, shown above). A couple of decades later, Gov. Francis Bernard liked to spend time at his estate in Jamaica Plain, part of the same town. A Roxbury legislative seat could have shifted the power of influence in the pre-Revolutionary decade.

The house proceeded to appoint five members to join Councilors on a committee to “report a proper Place in the Town of Roxbury to place said House in, and consider of the Dimensions of said House; also to consider and report how the Charge of said House shall be defreyed.”

The legislative meeting-place was slipping away from Boston. But that afternoon, Isaac Royall of Charlestown (a part of that town transferred to Medford in 1754) went upstairs to the chamber where the Council was meeting and brought back news: “they had unanimously nonconcur’d said Vote.”

The house went back to the question. After further debate, the legislators voted again to put the Court-House in Roxbury and to appoint the same five members to the same joint committee. The only difference in the bills was that this one left out the issue of paying for the building.

The whole next day, there was no response from the Council. (The house had been likewise silent a few days before when the Council wanted to curtail the Independent Advertiser.) On the morning of 19 February, Joseph Buckminster of Framingham went up to ask about the Court-House. He learned the Council had again refused to go along with the Roxbury plan.

The house then decided “That the Consideration of building a Court-House be refer’d ’till the next Sitting of this Court.” For the rest of the month the chamber dealt with many other matters, including discussions through the committee of the whole on 25 February about speaker Hutchinson’s proposal for paying off old currency.

On 2 March a message from Gov. Shirley arrived:
Gentlemen of the House of Representatives,

AT the Beginning of this Session, I recommended to you the making Provision for a Court-House; I was in Hopes the Inconvenience you suffer in your present Situation, would have prompted you to have given Dispatch to this Affair; but perceiving it is still delayed, I must desire you would resume the Consideration, lest the General Court be put to the same Difficulties another Winter.
The lawmakers voted to discuss that the next morning. But first they addressed other matters, including buying “the Stone-Wind-Mill in Charlestown, for a Powder-House”—the building still standing in Somerville’s Powderhouse Square.

Finally the house voted on three questions:
  • “Will the House reconsider their Vote referring the Consideration of building the Court-House ’till the next Sitting of the Court?” Yes.
  • “Whether the late Court-House shall be repair’d?” No.
  • “Whether the Court-House shall be built in the Town of Boston?” Yes.
Thus, Hutchinson and other Boston legislators maintained the town’s status as the provincial capital, but there would need to be a new building. The fire-scarred shell of the 1713 Town House would presumably be torn down.

TOMORROW: “a proper Place in the Town of Boston for building a new Court-House.”