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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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Theophilus Lillie: shopkeeper, importer, seeker of liberty

Theophilus Lillie was born in Boston on 18 August 1730, and at the age of twenty-seven married a shopkeeper named Ann Barker. Under the laws of the time, her property became his (in the absence of a prenuptial agreement like those Elizabeth Murray Campbell secured before her second and third marriages). In 1758 Lillie advertised himself as a dry-goods retailer “on Middle Street, near Mr. Pemberton’s meeting-house”—modern Hanover Street in the North End.

Lillie wasn’t known for being politically active, but in late 1769 he took a stand on the most volatile issue of the day: he told Whig merchants and politicians that he would no longer sign onto the “nonimportation” boycott of goods from Britain, that he’d agreed in the first place only because of unfair pressure. In January 1770, Boston’s town meeting responded by condemning Lillie and the other “importers.” Newspapers published their names, as in the clipping shown here, and urged people not to do any business with them.

In the 15 January Boston Chronicle (which supported the royal government, and was supported by it), Lillie responded with one of the strongest statements of the right to resist local crowd pressure, turning the Whigs’ rhetoric about liberty and not being represented in Parliament on its head:

Upon the whole, I cannot help saying—although I have never entered far into the mysteries of government, having applied myself to my shop and my business—that it always seemed strange to me that people who contend so much for civil and religious liberty should be so ready to deprive others of their natural liberty; that men who are guarding against being subject to laws which they never gave their consent in person or by their representative should at the same time make laws, and in the most effectual manner execute them upon me and others, to which laws I am sure I never gave my consent either in person or by my representative.

But what is still more hard, they are laws made to punish me after I have committed the offence; for when I sent for my goods, I was told nobody would be compelled to subscribe; after they came I was required to store them. This is no degree answered the end of the subscription, which was to distress the manufacturers in England. Now, my storing my goods could never do this; the mischief was done when the goods were bought in England; and it was too late to help it. My storing my goods might be considered, therefore, as punishment for an offence before the law for punishing it was made.

If one set of private subjects may at any time take upon themselves to punish another set of private subjects just when they please, it’s such a sort of government as I never heard of before; and according to my poor notion of government, this is one of the principal things which government is designed to prevent; and I own I had rather be a slave under one master (for I know who he is I may perhaps be able to please him) than a slave to a hundred or more whom I don’t know where to find, nor what they will expect of me.
American Whigs were basically fighting for a collective or community liberty: the power for a colony or town to choose their own laws by a majority vote. Lillie, in contrast, was writing about his individual liberty against that majority and the government they elected.

Naturally, Lillie’s newspaper essay attracted attention to him. In a letter dated 24 January 1770, Crown informant George Mason wrote that on the 16th a large committee of Whigs “waited on Mr. Lillie” to ask whether he intended to comply with most voters’ wishes and stop importing. He answered “that they had already ruined him in his Business and if they now wanted his Life they might take it when they pleas’d.” On 22 February 1770 boys set up their effigies and picket lines outside his shop. (Tomorrow I’ll describe what happened during that first protest.)

Sometime after April 1770, when there was another protest outside his shop, and when the provincial tax lists were compiled the next year, Lillie and his wife closed their shop and moved to Oxford, in Worcester County. When the war began, Lillie and his wife had moved back to Boston, and they evacuated with the British military in March 1776. He died in Halifax that spring. As far as we can tell, Lillie had no children; the only other hint about their household is that Ann Lillie made special bequests in 1791 to a black servant named Caesar.


Robert S. Paul said...

I'm curious about Lillie's essay. Were the Whigs passing laws forbidding anyone from importing? Or were they merely establishing voluntary boycotts?

It seems to me - at least from your post - the Whigs only urged people not to shop there. They didn't specifically make it illegal to do so. That's not really an encroachment on liberty.

Lillie still had the right to import, as much as anyone had the right to not buy from people who imported.

J. L. Bell said...

These are good questions, and I think that the situation is muddy because Americans were still working out the lines between public and private business.

Yes, the nonimportation was supposed to be voluntary, as was the choice by individual consumers not to patronize the shops of people who continued to sell imported goods. In that way, the movement is no different from politically-motivated consumer boycotts today.

On the other hand, Boston's town meeting weighed in with explicit condemnations of Lillie and other importers starting in the fall of 1769. So that brought the local government into the issue.

Furthermore, in early 1770 there were large public meetings that, without being legal town meetings, but claimed to express the will of the community in favor of nonimportation. Committees and large crowds from those meetings visited Lillie, other importers, and even the acting governor (which Josiah Quincy, Jr., warned was treasonous). Such numbers were undoubtedly intimidating to individual shopkeepers.

All this took place during a time when free-market ideas still hadn't taken hold. The town regulated the price of bread and other goods, and banned all theater and work on Sundays. Bostonians were operating on old understandings of what private business governments should regulate.

Finally, Boston had no police force to protect Lillie and other businesspeople from angry crowds and vandals. The town watchmen patrolled only at night. The army doesn't seem to have made much difference, for all the complaints about their presence. The Customs officers were supposed to stick to the wharfs.

It could be argued that Lillie hadn't been deprived of his civil liberties—i.e., that Boston hadn't passed laws against his behavior. But Boston wasn't protecting his civil liberties to engage in that behavior, either. And a large portion of the population probably resented the idea that he would have such liberties to go against what the great majority of the community felt was in their vital interest.

Thomas said...

If people were attacking his shop and destroying his goods, I would agree that Boston wasn’t protecting his civil liberties. I’m not sure that allowing protests puts it in that catigory.

J. L. Bell said...

One question is what “Boston” means. Was it the town government, or the community as a whole—or was there that much of a difference in the eighteenth century?