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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Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Complaint about the Caucus

Last week I said that John Adams made the first documented use of the word “caucus,” but only by about one month. Boston’s “Caucus Club” was surfacing as a political issue that year because on 21 Mar 1763 Thomas and John Fleet printed the following complaint in their Boston Evening-Post. To be insulting, the writer used a new spelling of the word “caucus.”

Messi’rs Fleets,
By printing the following you will enlighten many of your Townsmen, and oblige all who are willing to act for themselves.——

An Impartial Account of the Conduct of the Corkass
By a late Member of that Society.

It may be expected that I should give the etymology of the word CORKASS, and some account of the rise of the Society, but as they keep no records, and their oral accounts are so various and dark, it is needless to mention them, or go any further back than the present time; only I wou’d observe they talk much of antiquity.

At present the heads of this venerable Company meet some weeks before a Town-Meeting, and consult among themselves, appoint town officers, and settle all other affairs that are to be transacted at town meeting; after these few have settled the affairs, they communicate them to the next better sort of their brethren; when they have been properly sounded and instructed, they meet with the heads; these are called the Petty Corkass: Here each recommends his friends, opposes others, juggle and trim, and often have pretty warm disputes; but by compounding and compromising, settle every thing before the Grand Corkass meets; tho’ for form sake (as at college on commencement days) a number of warm disputes are prepared, to entertain the lower sort; who are in an extasy to find the old Roman Patriots still surviving.

A night or two before town meeting the Grand Corkass meets, consisting of all sorts of men that want town offices, or other favors; the chairman is chose, who makes a harangue on freedom and English liberty, and every individual is told that he may, and beg’d that he would, speak his mind freely; some have been so credulous as to take him in earnest, and have spoke their minds to their cost, lost their favor, and all chance of town offices for ever.

It may be ask’d how they keep together, for as soon as they are discovered they will be forsaken; and so they are by all, but those that learn their art, and get their own ends answered by them: I don’t say there are no honest men among them; for I believe some of ’em are very worthy men; but they let the chiefs think for them, and by a peculiar cunning which some of the senators are perfect masters of, get deceived for many years. The arts made use of by them to carry a point at town meeting are so notorious, that they need not be here particularly mentioned.——

I can’t conceive what gives them a right to rule, except it be for the outward flow of what is couch’d in the following words of an epitaph which I somewhere came across, on an old Lady.
For the Church and Devotion
No Mortal was higher,
But for Faith and good Works,
They never came nigh her.
This article was signed “E.J.,” but that was probably a mask, not the author’s true initials.

Boston had had its big annual meeting for electing town officials one week before this item appeared, on 14 March. It’s possible that the author of this complaint had wanted it published on that day, but the printers sat on it so as not to stoke controversy. More likely, the author was upset at having lost some vote in that meeting and trying to spill the beans on the whole caucus system. It didn’t work.

Boston’s town meeting for electing representatives to the Massachusetts General Court this year took place on 20 May. In The Urban Crucible, Gary Nash wrote, “Following the 1763 attacks on the Caucus, 1,089 people went to the polls for town elections, a number never exceeded in even in the tumultuous years of the following decade.” The meeting chose James Otis, Jr., as moderator, as well as reelecting him as one of the town’s representatives, and supporters of royal governor Francis Bernard lost.

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