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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Monday, September 18, 2006

Benjamin Kent's "speedy Provincial Encampment"

This is another extract from the third volume of The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, issued last year by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Benjamin Kent (1708-1788) was a Boston lawyer, a solid Whig but not a political leader or a radical. Indeed, after the war, Kent retired and moved in with his son-in-law in Canada. Which makes it all the more interesting to see Kent suggesting in the fall of 1774 that the best solution to the crisis in Massachusetts would be a show of armed force by the locals.

On 16 October, Kent wrote to Robert Treat Paine at the First Continental Congress about the situation in Boston. The month before, it had become clear that royal governor Thomas Gage had no authority past Boston neck. Gen. Gage began to fortify that narrow route into town, all the while assuring both inhabitants and neighbors that the cannons pointing out at the province were for their own good. The first Massachusetts Provincial Congress met in early October and protested the general's action. Here is what Kent suggested should happen next. (I've once again broken up the block of text into shorter paragraphs.)

You will see our Provincial Address to the Genrl. & next Monday or Tuesday we expect his Ansr. but are as satisfied, as if he had told us, that it is out of his power to demollish the Fortifications, therefore after a day or two, it will be peremptorily demanded of him by our Provincial Congress. I suppose he will pay no regard to it.

The Consequence will be, a speedy Provincial Encampment. without any Intention of Coming to Blows, & we are well assured the Regulars will not begin hostilities, but it’s probable they will continue to fortify; & if they should; I believe it will be impossible to keep our hands off from 'em.

Many members of our Provl. Congress think we cannot carry on an Encampmt. before we have some Established form of civil Government: & that can’t be done but by the Grand Congress. I tell 'em an Encampmt. may & I think must be made, by all the Towns and Districts, Enlisting their Quota of men & voting 'em pay.

If that should be our Case: Their Deserters, will know where to run, then the Genrl. will immediately send Home & a Cessation of Arms will take place. The Grand Congress must not rise or adjourn before they have settl’d a form of Governmt. for all the Colonies, & know what will be finally done by Britain.
So Kent was suggesting that the Massachusetts militias gather and take positions outside Boston—starting a siege immediately, as it were. He didn't believe the provincials would actually start shooting, and he didn't think the regulars would, either. Still, an encampment outside the town gates would have been a sign of open armed rebellion. No wonder Kent made sure not to sign this letter.

Yet it's also telling that Kent felt that such an encampment would actually avoid a war, not start one. In his mind, such a response to the governor's actions would signal the provincials' resolve, and make the situation untenable for the regular army. It would force Gage to advise the government in London to capitulate. Many other American gentlemen seem to have shared this view: that if they just didn't back down before ministerial measures, eventually the London government would relent or change with no war or split in the Empire. Things didn't work out that way.

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