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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Monday, January 14, 2008

Listening in on the North End Caucus

I’ve been tracing the development of Boston’s caucus system, and am now pleased to come to actual records from the “North End Caucus” from 1772 to 1775. A century ago these papers were in the hands of Boston publisher A. O. Crane. They were printed as Appendix C in Elbridge Henry Goss’s Life of Colonel Paul Revere, volume 2 (1891). As of today, alas, Google Books has scanned only the first volume of this biography.

Richard Frothingham had seen such documents when he wrote his History of the Siege of Boston (first published 1849), and one of his footnotes adds some details:

  • The word caucus was actually spelled “caucos”—another clue to its etymology?
  • “On the first leaf is the memorandum, ‘Began 1767—records lost.’”
  • “On the cover, under the date of March 23, there is a list of sixty persons, probably the members of the caucus.”
  • The documents originally extended to 17 May 1774, though the surviving transcript ends on 9 May.
The vote to define the duties of a secretary (quoted below) make me think the 23 Mar 1772 meeting was when the North End Caucus was founded and organized, and the 1767 date refers to an earlier or parent group. That also fits with John Eliot’s 1809 statement that the members of an existing caucus decided to expand in 1772.

The North End group’s first recorded meeting took place at the Salutation Tavern on North Street. That tavern’s sign showed two gentlemen conversing, which inspired an alternative name for the establishment: the Two Palaverers. The thumbnail picture up top shows a 1773 London print called “The Salutation Tavern,” by Henry Bunbury (1750-1811), inspired by a public house of the same name in Holburn. This print is part of the digital images collection at Yale University Libraries.

The list of sixty caucus members starts with William Molineux, Samuel Adams, Gibbons Sharp, and John Adams. Was this John Adams the lawyer, one-term town representative, and future President? At the time, he was living in Braintree, not Boston. Then again, Molineux lived on Beacon Hill (where the State House now stands) and Samuel Adams lived in the South End. So the North End Caucus wasn’t confined to men from Boston’s North End.

The family of selectman John Ruddock, which was the biggest man in the neighborhood, was represented by his son Abiel Ruddock, who became the caucus’s secretary, and his son-in-law, Dr. Elisha Story. Dr. Joseph Warren and Dr. Thomas Young were both present. Men from the Loyall Nine of 1765 included Thomas Chase, Henry Bass, and Benjamin Edes.

As far as the meeting goes, its records are about as exciting as the records of any other meeting whose goal is to build and demonstrate consensus rather than to record divisions or disagreement. The secretary noted the group’s decisions without preserving any hint of the debate or, if the vote wasn’t unanimous, saying how close it was. Thus, the first meeting’s business was:
At a meeting of the North End Caucus, Boston, held at Mr. William Campbell’s March 23, 1772. . . .
Gibbens Sharp, was Moderator.
Abiel Ruddock Secretary.

Voted—That the Secretary be desired to record the proceedings of the Caucus.

Voted—That we will use our endeavours for Oliver Wendell, Esq., to be Selectman, in the room of Dr. Jon Greenleaf, resigned.

Voted—That Capt. Cazneau and Nathaniel Barber, be a Committee to write votes for the body, and distribute them, accordingly.

Voted—That Messrs G. Sharp, N. Barber, T. Hitchborn, Capt. Pulling, H. Bass, Paul Revere, J. Ballard, Dr. Young, T. Kimball, Abiel Ruddock, and John Lowell, be a committee to examine into the Minority of the town, and report to this body. And, also, that this Committee notify the body when and where to meet.
I believe “to write votes for the body” meant writing out ballots with the names of the caucus’s preferred candidates that voters could use in a town meeting and not have to write their own. I don’t know what the “Minority of the town” might mean: the rest of town, the outvoted group, the younger set?

The North End Caucus met again on 5 May to decide their preferences for Boston’s representatives in the General Court. Unstated in that record is how James Otis, Jr., was no longer up to that job, so the caucus wished to replace him with William Phillips. Most of the time, the caucus endorsed all the incumbent office-holders.

The May meeting also appointed committees “to wait upon the South End Caucus, and let them know what we have done, and that we shall be glad of their concurrence with us in the same choice,” and the same for the “Caucus in the Middle part of the town.” Again, these caucuses springing up all over seem to have been part of the expansion that year. The North End records have more references to those other two caucuses, but so far as I know we have no documents from those groups themselves. The North End Caucus never recorded receiving messages or advice from those other groups. Perhaps it was the most influential caucus, or perhaps it was simply fast off the mark.

There are some tantalizing gaps in the record, left either by the original secretary or by someone transcribing the document later. On 19 May 1772 the caucus:
Voted—unanimously—That in consequence of the past misconduct of ——— Esq. this body will oppose his appointment to any office of trust of the tow[n]
On 9 May 1774, the caucus got into the affairs of an unidentified church:
Voted—That the prayer of the Rev. ——— Congregation’s petition be supported.
Most of the few other non-election items seem mundane. On 4 May 1773, the caucus agreed “That this body will use their influence to have Kilby st. paved, if they petition according to the ancient custom of the town.” That looks like ordinary neighborhood politics. But when the caucus decided on 9 May 1774, “That this body oppose letting the granery being appropriated to another purpose than it is at present,” I bet that refers to the possibility that the government-owned granary (where Park Street Church now stands) might be turned into barracks for the troops that the London government had ordered into Boston.

In his Biographical Dictionary John Eliot recalled that the expanded caucus “always had a mechanick for moderator.” Gibbons Sharp was a shipwright, though also respectable enough to be a church deacon. However, the group chose insurance broker Nathaniel Barber, merchant Nathaniel Holmes, and physician Thomas Young as moderators on other days. Eliot wrote, “After the destruction of the tea, the place of assembling was known, and they met at the Green Dragon in the spring of 1775.” The North End Caucus actually met at the Green Dragon Tavern first in November 1773, before the Boston Tea Party, and returned to the Salutation Tavern for one meeting in March 1774. So Eliot must have been working off people’s memories rather than the written records.

TOMORROW: The North End Caucus and the Boston Tea Party.

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