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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Showing posts with label Francis Rotch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Francis Rotch. Show all posts

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Looking for Loyalists in All the Wrong Places?

At All Things Liberty: The Journal of the American Revolution, Elizabeth M. Covart has contributed a series of articles on the interpretation of Loyalism in Boston’s Harborfest activities this year.

Among the sites Liz visited was the Old South Meeting House, which encourages visitors to help reenact the debate over the issues raised by the new tea tax of 1773. That church was the site of huge protest meetings in November and December, with thousands of people showing up to express their opposition to landing the tea and paying the tax. How many people showed up in 1773 to support the new Crown policy? Practically no one.

Our best source on the actual discussions at the tea meetings is a memo titled “Proceedings of ye Body respecting the Tea,” which L. F. S. Upton published in the William & Mary Quarterly in 1965. It was written by someone present at the tea meetings in November and December 1773. Similar reports in the same handwriting are marked “Colman,” suggesting the observer was Benjamin or William Colman, either way a cousin of Massachusetts Attorney General Jonathan Sewall.

The end of this report listed the eight “chief Speakers at the Meetings”: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. Thomas Young, Josiah Quincy, William Phillips, William Cooper, and William Molineux. Those men cover the political spectrum from radical Whig to deeply committed Whig. There was not much debate.

The tea meetings at Old South in late 1773 were not official town meetings, though they were conducted along similar lines. They were special meetings called to protest the tea tax. No one had to attend. Some friends of the royal government probably saw going to those meetings as lending them legitimacy that they didn’t deserve. Others might have gone and found the anti-tea sentiment so strong that they kept from speaking out.

The Colman report described just a few future Loyalists speaking at these meetings, and in limited ways. On 30 November Stephen Greenleaf, sheriff of Suffolk County, came in with a letter from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson (also father of two tea importers), “requiring him to read a Proclamation for them to disperse.” He read that proclamation to “a confused Noise and a general Hissing.” And then the gathering voted to ignore it. Greenleaf evidently went away again. He lost his job as sheriff in independent Massachusetts (his younger brother William took over), but he never left Boston.

John Singleton Copley also appeared. But he didn’t argue that loyalty to the British Empire should outweigh local economic needs, or that the principle of “no taxation without representation” could be safely bent for a small tax on one imported product. Instead, he came to the meeting as a representative of his new wife’s family, the Clarkes, who had imported a lot of the tea. He just asked for a guarantee of their safety if they returned to town, as the people had demanded. Later he returned to say that the tea consignees “thought it not prudent and would serve no valuable Purpose to appear at the Meeting.” Copley went away, apparently satisfied with his job as a go-between. He would sail to Britain the next year and live there for the rest of his life.

Francis Rotch, whose family owned the Dartmouth, was in and out of the meetings a lot. But he didn’t argue for the necessity of obeying Parliament’s laws, or the value of paying taxes for public services, or the divine right of kings. The Rotches were Quakers from Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and they kept out of Boston politics. Francis Rotch simply pleaded with the crowd not to do things that would cause his ship to be damaged or confiscated. Rotch spent the war in London, thus qualifying as a Loyalist, but in these meetings he spoke from a neutral perspective as a man caught in the middle.

John Timmins appeared as agent for the cargo on the Beaver and briefly promised that he wouldn’t unload the tea. Timmins also moved to England during the war.

Finally, there was John Rowe, wealthy merchant and part-owner of the Eleanor. Some people in the crowd identified him as “a good Tory” when he arrived. So what arguments did he make?

he expressed his Sorrow that any Vessel of his should be concerned in bringing any of that detestable and obnoxious Commodity, (Tea)” and seeing the Audience were pleased with what he had said, he proceeded and among other Things he asked, “Whether a little Salt Water would not do it good, or whether Salt Water would not make as good Tea as fresh.” And when he had done speaking and at several other Expressions in his Speech, the People testified their Applause by Shouting Clapping etc.
The report author heard crowd members saying quietly that “Mr. Rowe had now become a good Man and they should soon make all the Rest of the Tories turn to their Side as Mr. Rowe had done.”

Rowe went home that night and wrote bitterly in his diary but didn’t record his own words. Clearly he had been cowed by the people, or perhaps just eager for their approval. And in fact he managed to last out Bostonians’ distrust to remain in town through the war, eventually even becoming a representative to the Massachusetts General Court.

If the reenactments of the tea meetings followed that record as a script, the audience wouldn’t hear Loyalist political arguments. In Rowe’s case, we’d be hard put to distinguish his words from those of the most radical Whigs. (Indeed, Bostonians remembered Rowe as being the first to publicly raise the possibility of getting rid of the tea into the ocean. That may have helped his political career.)

I think Old South does good work by making sure visitors are exposed to a debate on the issues surrounding the tea in 1773. That can’t happen unless someone speaks up in favor of the British government. That viewpoint is all the more valuable in being less familiar to most modern Americans, and thus more effective at making us think in new ways. But in providing a forum for the Loyalists’ political positions, today’s Old South is offering a much broader spectrum of voices than people heard in that same space in late 1773.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Mysteries of Thompson Maxwell

It’s clearly documented that Thompson Maxwell (1742-1831) spent time in the colonial army at the end of the French and Indian War, in the Continental Army, and in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. Born in Massachusetts and living in New Hampshire when the Revolution began, he moved out to Michigan before his death.

In the early nineteenth century, Maxwell began telling people that he was also a participant in the Boston Tea Party. I’ve puzzled over his descriptions of the event for years; in some ways they don’t make sense, but in other ways he appears to have had inside knowledge.

According to James Miller, a general in the War of 1812, Lt. John Allanson took down Maxwell’s description of his career in 1818. About the Tea Party his story was:

In ’73 I went with my team to Boston with a load of stores for the poor of the town, which at that time was shut up. I had loaded at John Hancock’s warehouse & was about to leave town, when Mr. Hancock requested me to drive my team up into his yard, and ordered his servants to take care of it, & requested me to be on Long Wharf at two o’clock, P.M., & informed me what was to be done. I went accordingly, joined the band under one Captain Hewes; we mounted the Ships, & made Tea in a trice. This done I took my team & went home, as an honest man should.
Maxwell thus appears to have named George Robert Twelves Hewes as a prominent participant over a decade before the book A Retrospect of the Tea Party made him a celebrity. Yet he also referred to “Long Wharf at two o’clock, P.M.,” which was neither the place nor the time of the Tea Party.

In 1821 or so, Maxwell told a relative named Benjamin Gleason this:
In 1773, December 16, was in Boston, when the tea was thrown overboard. Seventy-three spirited citizen volunteers, in the costume of Indians, in defiance of Royal authority, accomplished this daring exploit. John Hancock was then a merchant. My team was loaded at his store near Faneuil Hall, for Amherst, N.H., and put up to meet in consultation at his house at 2 o’clock P.M. The business was soon planned and executed. The patriots triumphed.
That account is more circumspect about what Maxwell actually did in the Tea Party. He used the passive voice and the plural instead of claiming directly that he was involved. But it’s much the same story, and liars’ stories don’t usually get worse over the years.

Finally, sometime in 1830 or 1831 the Rev. E. H. Pilcher (1810-1887) met Maxwell out in Michigan. He didn’t take down Maxwell’s story in the man’s own words, and he consulted George Bancroft’s history before writing about Maxwell in 1873, so it’s possible that the standard narrative colored what he recalled. Pilcher wrote:
He was looked upon in the neighborhood with a good deal of veneration, from the fact that he was a revolutionary, and from the further fact that he was one of the forty or fifty men selected by John Hancock to dress in Indian costume and to throw the tea overboard in Boston harbor, in 1773. . . .

The people, encouraged by Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and other prominent men, were resolute in their purpose that the tea should not be landed. One ship owner by the name of Retch, had promised that he would take his tea back to England, but he dallied along for some days, and finally said he could not get a clearance for his ship. On the last day of grace, the people were assembled to the number of about seven thousand, not knowing exactly what to do; and the excited assembly continued together till after dark. This was on Thursday, the 16th day of December, 1773, just one hundred years ago.

John Hancock had organized a body of men, who in the disguise of Indians were to board the ships and destroy the tea. The matter was understood between him and Samuel Adams, probably. There is no public record of the fact that this thing was arranged by Mr. Hancock, for it was a profound secret; but Major Maxwell stated that it was so, and that he was one of the men selected by Mr. Hancock for that purpose.
As Pilcher noted, no other source says that Hancock was so involved in organizing the Tea Party, or any other street actions for that matter. As a prominent merchant, Hancock had lots of reasons to keep a low profile on illegal activities and a high profile at the Old South Meeting-house, away from the docks. Why on earth would he ask a teamster who happened to show up that day from New Hampshire to participate in a top-secret operation?

Yet again, this account includes details that ring true: the behavior of shipowner Francis Rotch, apparently remembered as “Retch,” and the massive meeting. But how would Maxwell know about that meeting “till after dark” if he was at Long Wharf at two o’clock? It seems most likely to me that Thompson Maxwell was in Boston on 16 Dec 1773 but was a spectator who picked up some inside gossip, not a participant in destroying the tea.

The accounts quoted above were published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, the New England Historic and Genealogical Register, and the Pioneer Collections of Michigan. Pilcher wrote a similar profile of Maxwell in his 1878 book Protestantism in Michigan.

(Thumbnail photo above of a New Hampshire historic marker from Marc Nozell via Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution license.)