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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Thursday, June 11, 2020

A New Voice in Boston Politics in 1748

On the morning of 12 Feb 1748, the Massachusetts house, before returning to the question of whether to rescind its vote to build a new meeting-place in Cambridge, took note of a different issue.

A member of the Council came down with that body’s complaint about:
a printed Paper called the Independent Advertiser, No. 6, published by [Gamaliel] Rogers and [Daniel] Fowle, dated the 8th of February Instant [of this year], wherein they apprehend there are many Things contained that strike at the Honour & Influence of this Legislature:
What were those “many Things”?

As I discussed back here, the Royal Navy’s impressment of Bostonians had led to three days of riots. For a while, everyone pointed fingers at everyone else. Gov. William Shirley complained that the townspeople were volatile and their elected leaders unhelpful. Bostonians complained that Shirley wasn’t protecting them from the navy. Speaker of the house Thomas Hutchinson appears to have felt both the people and the governor were behaving less rationally than they should.

Once things calmed down, most of the Massachusetts elite agreed on how to address the problem: maintain a unified front against impressment and blame social outsiders for the violence. As Chris Magra wrote this week for the University of Tennessee, “The royal governor hoped to distract attention away from deep and widespread concerns in Boston by blaming the disturbance on outsiders with no respect for law and order.”

Thus, the Massachusetts house, under Hutchinson’s leadership, passed a resolution on 19 November condemning the “tumultuous, rioting Assembling of armed Seamen, Servants, Negroes and others.” The next day, the Boston town meeting declared “That the said riotous tumultuous Assembly consisted of Foreign Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and other Persons of mean and vile Conditions.” A day after that, Gov. Shirley’s proclamation blamed “a great number of Seamen and other lewd and profligate Persons.”

That unity was fragile, however. On 14 December, the Boston Post-Boy printed two of the letters that Gov. Shirley had written during the riots complaining about the violence in Boston and how the town militia wouldn’t respond. Boston called another town meeting to object to that.

On 29 December, Shirley answered, “I am sorry for the Occasion I had to write the two Letters,” which was basically saying, ‘I regret that you people were behaving so badly I needed to point that out.’ But that was as close to a public apology as anyone could expect from a royal governor in the eighteenth century. Things calmed down again.

Then in January 1748, a new voice appeared on the scene: a two-page opinion weekly called the Independent Advertiser. One of its cofounders was the son of a Boston selectman and representative who had struggled to establish himself in business after earning an M.A. from Harvard: Samuel Adams, Jr. His descendants and scholars have credited him with some of the essays published in the Independent Advertiser, and he may have contributed others.

The front page of the first issue of the Independent Advertiser, issued on 4 Jan 1748, started right off reprinting the official “Accounts, respecting the late Riot in the Town of Boston,” from the previous two months. The third issue attacked the character of Adm. Charles Knowles. And then came issue No. 6, which prompted the Council’s complaint.

The main essay in that paper insisted that the “late Tumult” had begun justifiably with “An Assembly of People drawn together upon no other Design than to defend themselves, and repel the Assaults of a Press-Gang.” It built up to questions like these:
Whence is it then, that these unlawful Press-Gangs are permitted to rob us of our People? Whence is it, that A Resolve that there had been a notorious Riot in the Harbour of Boston [i.e., violence by the press gangs], when reported by a Committee could not pass in a certain Grand Assembly? Whence is it, that the Government have not thought proper to resent this Insult upon the People, in a Manner as strong, and as full of Spirit, as the Insult upon themselves?

Whence is it, let me ask further, that the Chief Commander of this Province should be so concerned at Mr. K——’s Threatnings? . . . Wouldn’t his Excellency’s Spirit have led him to tame this haughty Commander with something more sutable to the Dignity of his Station, than meer Entreaties and Perswasion
If the government couldn’t protect the people, this essay concluded, they “are really in a State of Nature; and of Consequence have an undoubted Right to use the Powers belonging to that State.”

Gov. Shirley could not have liked that article. The Council definitely didn’t like that article. And now that body was asking the house to join in taking some action against the Independent Advertiser.

Meanwhile, a second big issue was roiling Massachusetts politics.

TOMORROW: Faith and the invisible hand.

2 comments:

Mike Stephens said...

I thought "instant" meant the same month, which indeed the paper was.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, in a phrase like “the 16th instant,” that word means “of this month.” “The 16th ultimo” means “of the last month.”

Literally “instant” and “ultimo” mean “of the current period” and “of the last period.” In this case, the month already appeared in the sentence, so I think “instant” referred to “of this year.”