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, December 08, 2006

Governor Hutchinson's Military Response

Gov. Thomas Hutchinson's first response to Boston's open meetings about the tea was to invoke his civil authority. On 3o Nov 1773, royal sheriff Stephen Greenleaf brought a document from the governor declaring the gathering in Old South Meeting-House illegal, and ordering the crowd to disperse. Boston town clerk William Cooper noted the moment this way:

A letter from Governor to S. Greenleaf, Esq., read. The sheriff is charged with a message from Governor. Voted, [the message] to be read.

The message from Governor read and hissed.
As I described yesterday, those meetings also established volunteer patrols on the wharf where the tea ship Dartmouth was docked to prevent its taxable cargo from being unloaded. These patrols had the form, if not the legality, of militia units. Admiral John Montagu (whose portrait is shown here) described men on the wharf patrolling "like Sentinels in a garrison."

On 2 December, the Eleanor arrived at the wharfs with its own cargo of tea, and on the 7th the Beaver appeared in the harbor (though it had to stay away from the docks for a week because of smallpox).

Faced with a defiantly militant town, Hutchinson responded by using his own military authority. As governor, he nominally commanded the militia—but what good was that if very few men would obey him? Instead, he called on the regular military. On 8 December, the governor told the admiral to prevent the Dartmouth from leaving Boston without a Customs clearance. Montagu ordered warships to block the channels out of the harbor. A pseudonymous writer in the Boston Gazette also claimed that the British army regiment in Castle William had loaded the cannons in that island fort.

The governor's threat came through loud and clear to the ships' captains. On the 14th, Capt. James Bruce of the Eleanor told the crowd at Old South that he had no personal objections to sailing away without unloading the tea, but that he “was liable to be shot at by 32-pounders” if he tried.

On the 16th, as the deadline for the Dartmouth's unloading or confiscation loomed, Hutchinson and Montagu offered to have the ship towed out to the naval fleet, where the warships could protect it. Francis Rotch, the twenty-three-year-old son of the ship's owner who was trying to negotiate an end to the stand-off, thought that few sailors would agree to help with this maneuver, and the mob would surely punish him and any man who did. He declined.

Therefore, that night the tea ships still floated near Griffin's Wharf, guarded only by local patrols.

CORRECTED: Originally this posting was illustrated by a monument in Westminster Abbey that, Manfred Mondt kindly informed me, honored not Admiral John Montagu but his son Capt. John Montagu. The picture above comes to us from Newfoundland, where Admiral Montagu was governor in 1776-78.

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