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.

Follow by Email


Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Second Liberty Riot

I’ve been focused on events 250 years ago this week in Boston, but it’s time to look in on other events in New England.

You may recall how in June 1768 the Customs office in Boston confiscated John Hancock’s sloop Liberty on charges of smuggling wine. That produced a riot against Customs officials, which strengthened the royal government’s decision to station troops in Boston. Months later, the government’s Admiralty Court prosecution against Hancock collapsed.

That didn’t mean he got his sloop back, though. Following the law, Customs officials had put the Liberty up for auction. The winning bid came from…the Commissioners of Customs. Soon the sloop was armed and patrolling out of Narragansett Bay to catch smugglers.

On 10 July 1769 the Newport Mercury reported:
We hear the Liberty Sloop, which sail’d a few Days past on a Cruise, has taken a Prize; but of what Nation, or whither bound, we have not learn’d; but imagine her to belong to some of the North-American Colonies, as the whole N–v–l Force of h–s B—t——c M——y seems to be principally aim’d against those Colonies, notwithstanding they are inhabited by the best Subjects that ever serv’d a King; most remarkable for Loyalty and yielding Obedience to every just and constitutional ACT of Parliament.
The captured brig was out of New London, Connecticut, under the command of Joseph Packwood. According to the 24 July Boston Chronicle, it had just come “from Hispaniola with a cargo of molasses and sugar on board.” The 21 July New London Gazette claimed that Packwood was headed for New York and seized in Long Island Sound.

The same day, the Liberty also seized a sloop, “where belonging and from whence, unknown, having on board brandy, wine, &c.” The New London Gazette said the Customs men left “most of the crew adrift in a leaky old canoe” and sailed away with that sloop.

Two weeks later, the Newport Mercury had more to say:
LAST Monday Morning the 17th Instant [i.e., of this month], the armed Sloop Liberty, commanded by Capt. William Reid, arrived here and bro’t in a Brig and a Sloop belonging to Connecticut, taken in the Sound, without this Colony, on Suspicion of the Brig’s having done some illicit Act, & that the Sloop had contraband Goods on Board; but as no Proof appeared against the Brig, she reported her Cargo at the Custom House here;—

and on Wednesday, no Prosecution having been enter’d against either of them, Capt. Packwood went on Board his Brig in Order to get his Sword and some necessary Apparel, which the Commanding Officer on Board, (one of the Liberty’s Men) refused to let him bring away, and tis said, offer’d him Violence; which reduced Capt. Packwood to the necessity of drawing his Sword, to force his Way into his Boat, whereupon the Officer call’d to the Liberty’s People to fire on Capt. Packwood as he was going ashore, which they did, and a Brace of Balls, tis suppos’d, went very near but did not hurt him; they then attempted to fire several more Guns upon him, which happily all snapped or flashed and cou’d not be discharged.

This Attempt at Violence by the Liberty’s People, whose Commander had never condescended to exhibit his Commission to the Governor of this Colony, so enraged a Number of Persons, that, the ensuing Evening, having met Capt. Reid on the Long-Wharf, they obliged him to send for his Men on Shore, in Order to discover the Man who first fired at Capt. Packwood; upon which Capt. Reid sent for all his Hands except his Mate, afterwards a Number of Persons, unknown, went on Board the Liberty, sent the Mate away, cut her Cables and let her drive ashore at the Point, where they cut away her Mast, scuttled her, and carried both her Boats to the upper Part of this Town and burnt them.—

While this Affair was transacting, the Sloop suspected of having contraband Goods on Board made her Escape; and the Brig has since received her Papers and sail’d last Friday.
Arthur A. Ross’s A Discourse, Embracing the Civil and Religious History of Rhode-Island (1838) said that the crowd which took the Liberty’s boats dragged them
up the Long-wharf, thence up the Parade, through Broadstreet, at the head of which, on the Common, they were burned.— Tradition says, that, owing to the keel of the boats being shod with iron, such was the velocity of their locomotion, as they passed up the Parade, that a stream of fire was left in the rear, of several feet in length.
Meanwhile, the Liberty itself was sitting grounded out on the north end of Goat Island. 

TOMORROW: Lightning strikes?

Saturday, August 17, 2019

”A Procession that extended near a Mile and a half”

On rereading the Boston Gazette’s description of the Sons of Liberty 14 Aug 1769 dinner this year, I was struck by the detail that three times the men punctuated their toasts with “A Discharge of Cannon.” Perhaps only one cannon, but still.

By the early 1770s, the innkeeper who hosted that celebration, Lemuel Robinson of Dorchester, was captain of a militia artillery company protecting Suffolk County outside of Boston.

His Liberty Tree tavern—shown above, in a sketch from the Dorchester Historical Society—was where the Massachusetts Committee of Safety hid the Boston train’s four missing cannon in early 1775. (And the committee’s records suggests there was some effort required to get Robinson to let them out of his hands to be hidden in Concord.) But Robinson had cannon on his property, at least for this special occasion, as early as 1769.

The Sons of Liberty dinner also included music. John Adams wrote in his diary:
We had also the Liberty Song—that by the Farmer, and that by Dr. Ch[urc]h, and the whole Company joined in the Chorus.
“The Farmer” was John Dickinson. As I detailed here, he cowrote the original “Liberty Song” the previous year. Adams’s mention of Dr. Benjamin Church is the reason scholars attribute the version of the song that begins “Come swallow your Bumpers, ye Tories! and roar,” to that poetic physician.

Adams then wrote:
Between 4 and 5 O clock, the Carriages were all got ready and the Company rode off in Procession, Mr. [John] Hancock first in his Charriot and another Charriot bringing up the Rear.
Adams had to head out of town, but the Boston Gazette reported on the gentlemen’s return to Boston:
About Five o’Clock the Company left Mr. Robinson’s in a Procession that extended near a Mile and a half, and before Dark entered the City, went round the State-House, and retired each to his own House.
Merchant John Rowe, who wasn’t at the dinner, added in his diary that the procession contained “139 Carriages” and “Mr. [James] Otis brought up the rear.”

That circle around the seat of government was a victory lap over Gov. Francis Bernard, and a warning to remaining royal officials that the Whigs dominated the landscape. To rub that in, the Gazette added:
Should this Account overtake the Baronet of Nettleham on this Side T–b—n, he and Ld. H——h are at Liberty to write seventy-seven Volumes of their High Dutch and low Diabolical Commentaries, “about it, and about it.”
The baronet was Bernard. “Lord H——h” was the Earl of Hillsborough, secretary of state overseeing the colonies. “T–b—n” was Tyburn, where criminals and traitors were hanged. “About it, and about it” was a common way to say “and on and on.” And the whole sentence crowed over how Bernard’s letters complaining about the Whigs had leaked and destroyed his standing in the province.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Memories of “Mr. Balch’s Mimickry”

As I detailed yesterday, Nathaniel Balch (shown here, courtesy of Balchipedia) was a hatter. But at heart he was an entertainer, known across Boston for his humor and charm.

When Josiah Quincy, Jr., was traveling in the southern colonies on 6 Mar 1773, he wrote in his diary: “In walking with ——— occurred a singular event, of which Balch could make a humorous story.” Unfortunately, Quincy didn’t record that event and we don’t know what Balch made of it.

Most of our descriptions of Balch come from after independence, when he became known as a bosom friend of Gov. John Hancock. The French political reformer Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) wrote of an encounter in 1788: “Governor Hancock…has the virtues and the address of popularism; that is to say, that without effort he shews himself the equal and the friend of all. I supped at his house with a hatter, who appeared to be in great familiarity with him.”

The most lively pictures of Balch appear in the memoirs of men writing in the mid-1800s who had been boys growing up in Hancock’s Boston. E. S. Thomas wrote about Gov. Hancock in 1840:
He was very fond of joke and repartee, so much so, that a worthy citizen of Boston, Nathaniel Balch, Esq., a hatter, who never failed to appear among the invited guests at his hospitable board, obtained the unenvied appellation of “the Governor’s Jester.
Sidney Willard wrote in 1855:
For his three-cornered hat, his cocked hat, my father resorted to Nathan Balch, a very worthy and respectable man, sometimes irreverently called Nat. Balch; a frequent guest of Governor Hancock, and entertainer of his other guests, adding zest to the viands and the vina at the dinner-board by anecdotes and stories, mimetric [sic] art, humor, witticism, and song, drawn from his inexhaustible storehouse.
And Samuel Breck’s posthumously published memoir said:
We had a medley of eccentric tradesmen in Boston in 1788, who were a compound of flat simplicity in manners and acute cleverness in conversation, shrewd, perhaps somewhat cunning; often witty; always smart and intelligent.

…above all, Balch, the hatter. His shop was the principal lounge even of the first people in the town. Governor Hancock, when the gout permitted, resorted to this grand rendezvous, and there exchanged jokes with Balch and his company, or, as sometimes happened, discussed grave political subjects, and, tout en badinant, settled leading principles of his administration.
So what material did Balch pull out for the Sons of Liberty dinner in August 1769, with more than three hundred of Boston’s leading gentlemen present?

According to John Adams:
After Dinner was over and the Toasts drank we were diverted with Mr. Balch’s Mimickry. He gave Us, the Lawyers Head, and the Hunting of a Bitch fox.
Hmm. I guess you had to be there.

TOMORROW: The party’s over.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Nathaniel Balch at the Sign of the Hat

The man who provided after-dinner, after-toasts entertainment for the big Sons of Liberty dinner on 14 Aug 1769 was Nathaniel Balch (1735-1808).

Balch was born into an old New England family in Boston, baptized at the New South Meetinghouse. In May 1760 he was admitted as a freeman in Rhode Island, living in Providence. An advertisement in the 15 Oct 1763 Providence Gazette called him “Capt. Nathaniel Balch” and said he was established at “the Sign of the Hat.”

Balch didn’t sell just hats, though. On 7 Jan 1764 he offered “enamell’d Stone Ware”; glassware; pipes “by the Box, Gross, or Dozen”; snuff; pepper and other spices; cheese; and “the very best Hyson Tea,” all “as cheap as they can be purchased in Boston.”

Not to mention “Choice new Philadelphia Flour,” chocolate, brown sugar, “Melasses,” rum, shoes from Lynn, and tickets to lotteries authorized by both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Along with, of course, “FELT and CASTOR HATS.”

According to Dr. Galusha B. Balch’s Genealogy of the Balch Families in America (1897), Nathaniel married Mary Fletcher, a distant cousin, on 26 May 1763. Their oldest child, Nathaniel, Jr., was born in Providence on 26 Feb 1764. (This genealogy contradicts itself by stating elsewhere that all of Nathaniel and Mary’s children were born in Boston.)

The Balches lived in a “Two-Story Dwelling-House…at the North End of the Town…fronting two Streets.” Balch wrote: “It has an excellent Cellar, two commodious Shops, with a small Garden adjoining, whereon stands a large Store, Stable, Wood-House, and Chaise-House.” Of course, he was trying to sell the property at the time.

In May 1764, Balch began to advertise for customers to settle their balances with him. In January 1765 he put his house on the market, and in May he announced that “he purposes to leave the Colony in a few Days.” The Balches returned to Boston in time for the birth of their second son, William, on 11 July 1765.

Back in his home town, Balch first worked out of “Mr. Bligh’s Shop in Marlborough Street” before moving to “Mr. John Langdon’s in Fore Street, near the Draw-Bridge” over the creek that separated the North End from the central district. On 14 July 1766 he advertised:
The best, Beaver, Beaveret, Castor and Felt Hats, of his own make.

Also a compleat Assortment of Glass, China and Delph Ware, French Indigo, Flask Oyl, Spices of all sorts, Allum, Copperas, Mustard, Poland Starch, Stone blue, House Brushes, Salt Petre, Isinglass, Kippen’s Snuff, Jappan’d Ware, Mahogany Trays and Tea Chests, Sugar Canisters, Baskets for China, Knives and Bread, Knives and Forks, Shoe Buckles, Candlesticks, Snuff Boxes, Pipes, Figs, Currants, best Hyson and Bohea Tea, Coffee and Chocolate, Loaf and Brown Sugar, and many other Articles all Cheap for Cash.——
The March 1767 Boston town meeting elected Nathaniel Balch a Clerk of the Market, a beginning-level town office that showed he had the respect of his neighbors. He didn’t seek higher office at this time, though.

At the end of 1770 Balch moved from Fort Street to Cornhill, right in the center of town. From that point until 1774 his advertisements were all about hats:
Best Beaver and Beaveritt Hatts,
of his own make, cock’d in the newest Taste, genteel white riding Hatts for Ladies and Gentlemen, Children’s round turn-up Hatts or Whimseys, both black and white of all Prices, Felt Hatts of all Sorts. Also, an Assortment of Hatters Trimmings.
Balch’s ads appeared in the Boston News-Letter, the newspaper that supported the royal government but also had the most genteel readership. He was clearly establishing himself.

But I don’t think Balch’s heart was really in hatmaking.

TOMORROW: A natural entertainer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Dinner at the Sign of Liberty Tree

On 14 Aug 1769, 250 years ago today, Boston’s Sons of Liberty gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the first public protest against the Stamp Act, four years earlier.

Of course, they were also celebrating what they saw as their triumph over Gov. Francis Bernard, who had sailed away from Massachusetts at the start of the month, never to return.

The celebration actually began with fourteen toasts at Liberty Tree at eleven o’clock. Those started with “The KING” and “The QUEEN and Royal Family,” moved through John Wilkes, the “Glorious Ninety-Two,” Paschal Paoli and his Corsicans, “American Manufactures,” and finally “May the 14th of August be the annual Jubilee of Americans, till Time shall be no more.”

Then the company left town. The Sons had organized dinner for more than 300 at Lemuel Robinson’s tavern in Dorchester, the Sign of Liberty Tree. [In the winter of 1775, that tavern was a crucial spot in the story of The Road to Concord.] By dining outside of Boston, the upper-class politicians guaranteed that they could control their setting and the level of festivity.

This dinner was in honor of “the Farmer”—John Dickinson, author of The Farmer’s Letters and coauthor of “The Liberty Song.” He wasn’t there. But two of his friends from Philadelphia were: his brother, Philemon Dickinson, and Joseph Reed, then secretary of the colony of New Jersey.

John Hancock’s business protégé William Palfrey made a list of 355 gentlemen at the dinner. That list included far more than Boston's political activists. The most important elected officials were all there, including some who would later be Loyalists. The town’s schoolmasters had taken the day off, as had many merchants, doctors, lawyers, and militia officers. John Adams wrote in his diary about feeling pressure to attend: “many might suspect, that I was not hearty in the Cause, if I had been absent whereas none of them are more sincere, and stedfast than I am."

Adams described the banquet setting this way:
We had two Tables laid in the open Field by the Barn, with between 300 and 400 Plates, and an Arning of Sail Cloth overhead, and should have spent a most agreable Day had not the Rain made some Abatement in our Pleasures.
There’s that New England non-rhotic R in how Adams spelled “awning.”

Because the fourteen toasts before noon weren’t enough, after dinner the party drank forty-five more. This series started with the “King, Queen and Royal Family,” followed by “A Discharge of Cannon, and three Cheers.” The toasters named fourteen British politicians considered friendly to America and the historian Catharine Macaulay. They honored “The Cantons of Switzerland,” “The States General of the seven United Provinces” of Holland, and “The King of Prussia.”

Some of the after-dinner toasts delineated the Whigs’ political ideals: “Annual Parliaments,” “A perpetual Constitutional Union and Harmony between Great Britain and the Colonies,” and “Liberty without Licentiousness.” Others identified enemies: “May the detested Names of the very few Importers every where, be transmitted to Posterity with Infamy” (more cannon). And finally “Strong Halters, Firm Blocks, and Sharp Axes, to all such as deserve either.”

Evidently the diners didn’t imbibe deeply at each and every toast because Adams declared, “To the Honour of the Sons, I did not see one Person intoxicated.”

As for the subsequent entertainment, the Sons of Liberty had provided…a hatter.

TOMORROW: But not just any hatter.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Plea for Relief after the Great Fire of 1794

The State Library of Massachusetts is spotlighting, both on the web and at the State House, a broadside from 1794.

Its blog posting explains:
This month, we’re displaying a broadside that was distributed as an “Appeal from Boston for Aid after the Great Fire, 1794”. In 1794, the part of downtown Boston that is currently bordered by Milk, Pearl, Purchase and Congress Streets was home to residences and a number of ropewalks (a long, narrow building where ropes are woven by hand). In the early morning of July 30, a fire broke out in one of the ropewalks and spread quickly, destroying seven ropewalks and approximately ninety other buildings (primarily houses, outbuildings, barns, and stores).

The fire was so extensive that additional engines were brought in from Brookline, Cambridge, Charlestown, Milton, Roxbury, and Watertown. An account of the fire was written up in the July 31 edition of the American Apollo, a copy of which is also in the State Library’s collection. The article, titled “Horrid Fire,” describes the affected area, lists the home and business owners who lost property, and thanks the fire engines from neighboring towns that provided assistance.

On August 5, Boston Selectmen issued a broadside in response to the devastation caused by the fire, calling attention to the residents whose lives changed “in an instant, from a situation convenient and comfortable, to a state of deplorable poverty and want.” The broadside was then distributed to cities and towns throughout the state in an effort to raise funds for assistance. The copy in the State Library’s collection was sent to the selectmen of Shutesbury, along with the handwritten instruction to share it with the town, likely as an announcement during a town meeting.
This “Great Fire” was of course not the great fire of 1760, which started in the Brazen Head and which eventually I’ll get back to. Nor the previous great fires, nor the great fire of 1870. But it was great enough.

One effect was that those proto-industrial ropewalks near the center of town—the workshops whose employees had brawled with soldiers in the days leading up to the Boston Massacre—were rebuilt out on new land south of the Common. Eventually that land had to be bought back from the ropemaking firms when the city decided to build the Public Garden.

In looking at the broadside, I was struck with how the selectmen’s names are set in a font reminiscent of the round hand to suggest their signatures. Whichever printer got the contract to produce this broadside obviously had some spiffy new type to use.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Chatting about the Signers and How They Chatted

I wasn’t planning on a run of weblinks about me, but this morning I’m the interviewee on Dispatches, the Journal of the American Revolution’s podcast.

This thirty-minute interview goes over my article about legends of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Which of those stories can be traced back to men who were in the room where it happened, and which stories make no sense at all?

The conversation closely follows the article, which was based on some Boston 1775 posts over the years. But only in the audio version can you hear me putting on different voices for Benjamin Harrison, Benjamin Franklin, and other figures.

After the formal interview, podcast host Brady Crytzer and I chatted about regional interviews. He grew up in Pittsburgh but doesn’t have the classic Pittsburgh accent, and I grew up in greater Boston but don’t have the classic Boston or New England accent.

The most prominent detail of that New England accent—the non-rhotic R—goes back a long way. Last week the Harvard scholar Caitlin G. DeAngelis shared several examples on Twitter of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gravestones from the region on which the carvers initially forgot to spell “departed” with an R. They presumably spelled the word the way it sounded.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

When the “Powder Alarm” Came to Shrewsbury

Here’s a link to something else I didn’t realize was on the web: video of my Road to Concord presentation in Shrewsbury in January 2018.

Chapter 2 of the book begins in that town:
While Gen. Gage was arranging to remove the gunpowder from Charlestown, a young Irish merchant named McNeil was traveling from Litchfield, Connecticut, toward Boston, where a relative was baking bread for the king’s troops. On August 30, McNeil had watched a large crowd in Springfield pressure the local judges into not holding court sessions under the Massachusetts Government Act. On the night of September 1 he stopped at a tavern in Shrewsbury in central Massachusetts. “[A]bout midnight or perhaps one o’Clock,” McNeil later told the Rev. Ezra Stiles of Newport, he woke up to hear “somebody violently rapping up the Landlord, telling the doleful Story that the Powder was taken, six men killed.”
That was the “Powder Alarm,” reaching Shrewsbury as the rumor traveled west. By the end of the day, royal rule was finished in most of Massachusetts. But the race for gunpowder, artillery, and other matérial of war had just begun.

In honor of the Shrewsbury connection, I focused this talk on that day and its fallout. Also, I see, I wore a suit.

Thanks to the Shrewsbury Historical Society for hosting me, the local cable-access service for recording the events, and Ben Edwards of Walking Boston for the link.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

“An especially clever piece” in Children of Colonial America

While preparing for a teachers’ workshop next week, I came across for the first time Judith Ridner’s review of Children in Colonial America, a volume edited by James Marten and Philip J. Greven, for the journal Pennsylvania History.

You’ll forgive me for quoting a passage:
The volume concludes with an especially clever piece by J. L. Bell about the politicization of youth in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Fifty-two percent of Boston’s population in 1765, he notes, were white youth under the age of sixteen (204). Yet, when scholars write of that city’s famous series of pre-revolutionary protests, they rarely acknowledge the unique contributions children and youths made to the crowd. Bell corrects that shortcoming. He describes the functions of Boston’s youth gangs and also analyzes the symbolic importance of eleven-year-old Christopher Seider at the Boston Massacre. For him, the actions of Boston’s youth demonstrate how the Revolution was about lived experience, not ideology.
That’s Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 76 (2009), 379-80.

Ridner is now a professor of history at Mississippi State University and author most recently of The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania: A Varied People. I’m grateful for her kind words.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Laying Out Roxbury’s History in the Dillaway-Thomas House

On the corporate blog of Content•Design Collaborative LLC, which is in the business of “effective visitor experiences for public and private institutions,” there’s an interesting discussion of how the firm helped to redesign the Dillaway-Thomas House in Roxbury Heritage State Park for the Roxbury Historical Society and the city of Boston.

The park is a single acre between the First Church and the Timilty Middle School, and the house contains 2,200 square feet of exhibit space or, as the organization says, “a mere 600 square-feet per century” of town history.

The solution was to use each room for a different historical era:
Visitors enter the House from the accessible annex, the first thing you encounter is a cavernous ten-foot wide cooking hearth, so we deemed this space the Parsons Kitchen, and it covered the pre-revolutionary war era. This gallery was followed by the Revolutionary War gallery, or the Thomas Gallery, for General [John] Thomas who took residence there during the Siege of Boston. Next comes the Dillaway Room, named after Charles K. Dillaway, a scholar and early headmaster of Boston Latin. The next exhibit area is the Historic Hallway and the 20th Century Roxbury Room. Upstairs the House featured a gallery loosely dedicated to 21st Century Roxbury accompanied the multi-purpose changeable art gallery and community meeting space.
In the eighteenth century Roxbury was the large rural town right outside of Boston by land. It was enmeshed in Boston’s politics and social issues. In 1768, for example, town minister Amos Adams and his wife Elizabeth hosted a spinning meeting. There’s no evidence about slavery at that site, but in 1771 Roxbury’s population included 21 “servants for life.” The museum therefore includes displays about slavery in the town.

As for the Revolutionary War:
With all hell breaking loose in the spring of 1775, the leaders of the colonial rebels appointed veteran John Thomas as a leader of the militia tasked with keeping the British troops in Boston. Roxbury stood on one side of the only ground route called Boston Neck. Our exhibit features a letter from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society where General Benjamin Lincoln informs Amos Adams that “It would be quite agreeable for General Thomas to remove into your house…”. Other experiences are a recreation of General Thomas’s field desk where you can hear a dramatic reading of one of his many letters to his wife and an interactive map placing the House in context of the siege of 1775-76.
(Lincoln wasn’t yet a general when he wrote that letter to Thomas; he was clerk of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. As for Thomas’s letters home, they’re terrific.)

One interesting requirement from the Roxbury Historical Society was that the maps inside the house “show the 1868 borders when Roxbury was annexed to Boston.” That area is larger than the Boston neighborhood now designated as Roxbury—it includes the Fenway, the Longwood Medical District, and Mission Hill. But it’s much smaller than the Roxbury of the eighteenth century, which also included Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and the modern Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park—part of the big town’s farmland.