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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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

February 1770: Boston's Boycott Heats Up

As the year 1769 closed, Boston’s Whigs were eager to strengthen their “nonimportation” movement—a boycott on most goods from Britain. Their goal was to pressure British merchants to use their political leverage to make Parliament repeal the Townshend duties.

A handful of merchants and small shopkeepers, most politically aligned with the royal governor, had never signed onto the nonimportation pledge, or wanted to end their participation. In January 1770, Boston’s town meeting voted to declare those businesspeople “Enemies of their Country.” They listed John Bernard and Nathaniel Rogers, both relatives of royal governors; merchants James and Patrick McMasters, printer John Mein, and shopkeepers Ame (Amy) and Elizabeth Cumings, all recent Scottish immigrants; small merchants Theophilus Lillie and John Taylor; brazier William Jackson; Israel Williams of Hatfield; and Henry Barnes of Marlborough.

In early February, some Whigs decided to take the protests straight to the offenders’ doors. An informant reporting to the Customs office wrote this report dated 8 Feb 1770, which is now at Harvard’s Houghton Library:

about 10 oClock in the forenoon, a board was stuck up, on the Town pump, with a Hand painted on it, pointing to Mr. Jacksons Shop and below, the word Importer, in Large Letters.—

this affair drew the attention of the boys, and Country people, who flock’d about it, in great numbers; the Boys insulting Every body who went in, or out of the Shop, by Hissing and pelting them with Dirt.—
The informant later added, “thursday is the principal market day, and also on that day all the schools are Vacant.” Town schools had only a short morning session on Thursdays, letting out about ten o’clock so the boys could attend a public lecture, a sort of extra sermon for the week; Harry Otis recalled that no boys ever did. Thursdays were also a day when rural farmers brought goods into town and bought their supplies, so it was a good day for a public protest.

Why did the crowd focus first on William Jackson? Why did someone print special handbills about not doing business with him (shown above)? Jackson’s shop was a landmark close to the Town House in the center of town, with the well-known sign of a “brazen head.” I also wonder how popular he had been in Boston since his earlier shop was the source of a fire that burned a big swath of the town in 1760.

The report continued:
Jackson made several attempts to take it Down, but was Repulsed by a Number of Idle people, who were standing by, with Clubs and Sticks in their Hands, however about one oClock it was taken away, by those who put it up, and the Crow’d dispersed first taking care to bespatter, all Jacksons windows over, with mudd and dirt—

During this Exhibition a Number of considerable Merchants Stood at a Little distance, and seemed highly pleased with what was going on, and Mr. M[olineu]x took Care to distinguish himself in a particular manner—
William Molineux was among the most important of Boston’s Whigs at this time, and probably the most paradoxical. He was a merchant deep in business with Crown supporters, a native Englishman, and an Anglican (at least formally—some critics said that he was a deist). Men with those qualities were more likely to side with the Crown than with the Whigs. Yet Molineux not only opposed the royal governor, but he became one of the most radical Whigs, a gentleman leading crowds in the streets or, as in this case, looking on with approval.

It’s unclear who instigated this first protest, but by the following Thursday the boys themselves were taking the initiative. They produced the sort of insulting effigies they were used to carting about on Pope Night. On 15 February, the Crown informant reported:
Between the 8th & this date, most of the Importers had their Windows broke their Signs defaced, and many other marks of Resentment— . . .

The Exhibition the same as last week with addition of the Effegies of some of the Importers, and below was wrote, that the Effegies of four [Customs] Commissioners, five of their understrappers, with some people on the other side the water [i.e., in Britain] where [sic—were] to make their appearance on Liberty Tree the week following—

four soldiers of the 14th. Regt. attempted to take it down, but where bear of [i.e., were borne off] and one of them much Hurt.
This political conflict was turning violent, and the army was unofficially being drawn in.


Anonymous said...


We just talked about this incident in my Senior Am. Rev. course at U. of Houston with Dr. James Kirby Martin. In his version of the story, the crowd brought buckets of "Hillsborough Treat" (slop) to the scene as well and they were generously applied. Yes? No?

A. Colvin

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not 100% sure what Prof. Martin meant by “slop,” but I suspect we’re in agreement. The contents of outhouses were indeed known as “Hillsborough paint” or “a Hillsborough treat” when swabbed onto a storefront. That was done in the dark of night, leaving the shopkeeper with a mess to clean up in the morning and no one specific to hold responsible.

The Earl of Hillsborough was Britain’s Secretary of State for the North American colonies, so he was the man the Whigs held responsible for the royal government’s policies.