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, January 04, 2008

Colonial Boston Vocabulary: "caucus"

As the U.S. of A. digests the results of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, it seems timely to discuss the term “caucus,” which first surfaced in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The earliest appearance of the word that anyone can find, by about one month, is in John Adams’s diary:

Boston Feby. 1763. This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room.

There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town.

Uncle Fairfield, [William] Story, [John] Ruddock, [Samuel] Adams, [William] Cooper, and a rudis indigestaque Moles of others are Members. They send Committees to wait on the Merchants Clubb and to propose, and join, in the Choice of Men and Measures. Captn. [James] Cunningham says they have often solicited him to go to these Caucas, they have assured him Benefit in his Business, &c.
The Latin phrase rudis indigestaque moles means “rude and undigested mass.” It sounds like John Adams might have been a little miffed at not having been let in on the secret of this smoke-filled room before. Of course, at the time he was still living in Braintree.

Thomas Dawes (1731-1809), host of this caucus club, was a Boston builder who was successful enough to eventually be deemed an architect. He was serving as elected coroner at the time of the Boston Massacre, and achieved the rank of colonel in the Massachusetts militia. His son of the same name became a judge in the early republic. Dawes’s nephew William Dawes, Jr., succeeded him as adjutant of the Boston regiment. In 1806 Gilbert Stuart painted Dawes’s portrait, shown above courtesy of Historic New England.

Most of the other men preparing for Boston’s big March 1763 town meeting were office-holders themselves:
  • William Story was Deputy Register of the Vice Admiralty Court, and as such became a target of the Stamp Act rioters in 1765. A couple of years later, his career in the royal government stalled. Story moved to Ipswich and sided with the Patriots.
  • John Ruddock was a shipyard owner, militia officer, and justice of the peace in the North End. He became a selectman in 1764. Ruddock was also amazingly fat, and died suddenly in 1772.
  • Samuel Adams was John’s second cousin, then serving as elected tax collector.
  • William Cooper was Boston’s town clerk for decades both before and after the Revolution.
I haven’t identified “Uncle Fairfield,” who was presumably one of John Adams’s uncles. [How’s that for historical detective work?] Capt. Cunningham was another uncle, and Adams often stayed with him while visiting Boston.

TOMORROW: How far back did the Boston caucus go?


Anonymous said...

I recall reading an etymology of the word 'caucus' (in Langguth's 'Patriots'?) which proposed that rather than having a Greek ancestry, the word was a Bostonization of the word 'corkers', and was used because many of the members were shipbuilders, where cork was routinely used as a sealant. It's a colorful anecdote, and I wondered if it could be true.


J. L. Bell said...

Authors have proposed three theories about the origin of the word “caucus.” I plan to discuss them all soon. The earliest theory is a variation on the one you’ve heard, and it seems like the least likely.

As you see in Adams’s description, most of the known caucus members weren’t “corkers” or “caulkers,” but office-holders. Only one—Ruddock—had any connection with shipbuilding at all, and he was a shipyard owner, not a hands-on worker.

Even the author who suggested this theory said it was a “mere guess.” But other authors seem to have accepted it as true.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve now posted an article about where the word “caucus” might come from.

J. L. Bell said...

And I figured out who “Uncle Fairfield” was.