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 04, 2020

“I hear the Fury of the Mob subsided last Night”

On 19 Nov 1747, as I wrote yesterday, Gov. William Shirley was stuck at Castle William and not happy about it.

Only two years after his triumphant campaign to win Louisbourg for the British Empire, Gov. Shirley was seeing Bostonians rise up against the Royal Navy’s habit of impressment.

To force the navy into returning some young men seized for wartime service, local crowds had grabbed naval officers and government officials as their own hostages. They broke windows in the Town House and surrounded Shirley’s home and workplace.

The governor had tried to call out the Boston militia companies, but, as then-speaker of the house Thomas Hutchinson later wrote, “the drummers were interrupted.” In other words, people made sure one way or another that the signal didn’t go out.

From Castle Island in Boston harbor, Shirley wrote to the secretary of Massachusetts, Josiah Willard, on 19 November:
…finding myself without a proper force for suppressing this Insurrection, and maintaining the King’s Authority in the Town; the soldiers of the Militia there having refus’d and neglected to obey my Orders given ’em by their Officers to appear in Arms for quelling the Tumult, and to keep a Military watch at night, and there being reason to apprehend, the Insurrection was secretly Countenanc’d and encourag’d by some ill minded Inhabitants and Persons of Influence in the Town:

But I have retir’d to his Majesty’s Castle William, ’till I can assemble a sufficient force of the Province Militia from the Neighbouring regiments in the Country, to quell the Rebellious Tumult; and restore his Majesty’s Government, and the Publick Tranquillity in the Town of Boston…
Shirley told Willard to tell the legislators they should support him for the sake of “retrieving their own Honour, and my good Opinion of ’em, and preventing an infamous reproach upon the Duty and Loyalty of the Town.” Many Boston merchants hadn’t been that upset to see people rise up against naval impressment. But in response to the governor’s insinuation, the Massachusetts General Court passed resolutions condemning the riots.

At the same time, speaker of the house Thomas Hutchinson prodded Gov. Shirley to negotiate with Adm. Charles Knowles. The admiral was angry enough to talk about shelling the town. One witness quoted him as saying, “by God I’ll now see if the Kings Government is not as good as a Mob.” But Shirley persuaded him to release the local men his fleet had impressed (while keeping all the sailors from other parts of the empire).

To “assemble a sufficient force of the Province Militia from the Neighbouring regiments,” Gov. Shirley had told Willard:
I would have you forthwith issue out Orders to the Colonels of the several Regiments of the Towns of Cambridge, Roxbury and Milton, and of the Regiment of Horse, to cause the Officers and Soldiers of their respective Regiments to hold themselves in readiness to march at an hour’s warning to such place of Rendez-vous, as I shall further Order; which I hope together with such Officers and Gentlemen of the Town of Boston, upon whose Duty and Attachmt to the King’s Government I can depend, will be sufficient strength to enable me to support the Magistrates of the Town of Boston…
The admiral released the impressed men before those militia companies could muster, however. And suddenly the crisis was over. The crowd let the naval officers go back to their ships. People stopped threatening government buildings and went home.

At first Shirley couldn’t believe it. He told Willard:
I hear the Fury of the Mob subsided last Night; but I shall by no means think the King’s Peace secur’d, or that the Militia of the town of Boston have done the least Part of their Duty, ’till I see a strong military Watch kept for some Nights, in the Town.
But there was a strong military watch already. As Hutchinson later recounted:
the next day there was an uncommon appearance of the militia of the town of Boston, many persons taking their muskets who never carried one upon any other occasion, and the governor was conducted to his house with as great parade as when he first assumed the government.
One element of the informal settlement was that subsequent official pronouncements about the unrest were careful to blame malcontent sailors and other outsiders for the rioting, not locals.

The people of Boston had risen up against what they considered an unjust practice by the navy. They had forced the highest authorities in the province to answer their demand. Once satisfied, they went back to their regular, peaceful activity. They were clearly the strongest force in town. No wonder elite appointees like Shirley resented the situation.

TOMORROW: History repeats.

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