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, June 12, 2020

“The grand source of most of the Evils we groan under”

The same 14 Dec 1747 issue of the Boston Post-Boy that leaked Gov. William Shirley’s letters about riots the previous month also reported on how the Town House in Boston had burned down.

As good descendants of Puritans, the people of Massachusetts couldn’t help but worry that fire might be a sign of divine displeasure at how some of them had been behaving.

On 28 December, a day before issuing a new message to mollify the Boston town meeting, Gov. Shirley issued a proclamation for a public fast in one month. He noted:
the continued and growing Calamities of the War; and the many Difficulties and Embarrassments which attend our Publick Affairs, and in the signal Frown of Divine Providence in the Destruction of the Court-House by Fire, and therein of a great Part of the publick Records of the Province, and other useful and valuable Writings.
On the designated fast day, 28 Jan 1748, ministers in every Massachusetts town preached on how the people should improve themselves.

In Cambridge, the Rev. Nathaniel Appleton (1693-1784, shown above) spoke on The Cry of Oppression where Judgment is Looked for, and the Sore Calamities Such a People May Expect from a Righteous God. In Charlestown, the Rev. Thomas Prentice preached The Vanity of Zeal for Fasts without True Judgment, Mercy and Compassions. In Medford, the Rev. Ebenezer Turell published a Brief and Plain Exhortation to His People on the Late Fast, a condensed version of his sermon.

All three of those clergymen pointed to the same problem. Was it rioting? Spending too much on luxury goods? New Light enthusiasm? Old Light recalcitrance? No, it was that burdensome sin—allowing the value of paper money to depreciate!

“For one and all agree,” Appleton declared from his pulpit, “that the Sinking of the Value of these Bills below what is expressed in the Face of them, is the Cause of the present Complaints and Cries that are heard in the Land.”

“We find GOD complaining most grievously, of his people Israel, Amos viii.5. for their not dealing with just Measures and Weights according to the fixed Standard,” Prentice preached; “…and such like Instability, either in the Measure of Commodities, or in the Weight and Value of Money, is a most dreadful Injustice.”

Turell explained that “the grand source of most of the Evils we groan under at this Day” was “our Medium of Exchange, unstable as Water, and variable as the Wind. . . . We trade and traffick, buy and sell by this Measure, and so we daily oppress one another.”

This was a long-standing challenge to the Massachusetts economy. Without enough specie (gold and silver coinage) to keep commerce going, the province issued notes on paper. Those notes never traded at quite their nominal value, and as time went on the bills came to be worth less and less.

That was a problem for people who had fixed incomes—particularly ministers who had negotiated set salaries with their congregations when they assumed their pulpits.

In his speech to the Massachusetts General Court on 3 February, Gov. Shirley devoted a whole paragraph to both “the extraordinary Emissions of Paper Money, whereby the Value thereof for all Occasions of Life is sunk so low and is still sinking,” and “the Difficulties, which many of the Ministers of the Gospel within this Province are brought under, thro’ the great Depreciation of the Bills of Credit.”

Thus, the question of rebuilding the Town House in Boston or building a new legislative meeting hall somewhere else was also a question of adding to the public debt just when that was becoming a real problem for influential people in the colony.

TOMORROW: Back to the Massachusetts house’s discussion.

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