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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Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Roots of the Boston Caucus

Yesterday’s posting quoted John Adams using the word “caucus” (or “Caucas”) in his diary in 1763, the earliest recorded use of that term for a political meeting. However, there’s evidence that the word, and the custom, were much older.

The Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Independence of the United States of America, published in London in 1784, suggested that the caucus had been a Boston political institution since the first quarter of the century. Gordon (shown here) wasn’t a Boston native, but before and during the Revolution he was a minister in Roxbury and became close to the local Whigs, especially Samuel Adams. This passage implies Gordon got his information about the caucus from Adams himself:

More than fifty years ago Mr. Samuel Adams’ father and twenty others, one or two from the north end of the town where all the ship business is carried on, used to meet, make a caucus and lay their plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power.

When they had settled it they separated, and each used their particular influence within his own circle. He and his friends would furnish themselves with ballots, including the names of the parties fixed upon, which they distributed on the days of election. By acting in concert, together with a careful and extensive distribution of ballots, they generally carried their elections to their own mind.

In like manner it was that Mr. Samuel Adams first became a representative for Boston.
Samuel Adams was first elected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1765. His father had been a selectman and town representative decades before.

Gordon presented his 1784 history in the form of letters written during the events they describe, and this passage comes from a letter dated in 1774. If we take that year as the starting-point for his phrase “More than fifty years ago,” than Adams’s father had participated in caucuses before 1724, when he was in his thirties. That fits with the age of the caucus members John Adams listed in 1763.

I suspect the caucus tradition grew out of Boston’s first political machine based on popular support, assembled by Elisha Cooke, Jr. (1678-1737), in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Cooke held positions of influence for many years through the town meeting and legislature rather than through royal patronage. The largest town meeting in Boston history occurred in 1714, when he mustered opposition to the royal governor’s proposal for a private bank. But no historian is certain when Boston’s caucuses began.

TOMORROW: Opposition to the caucus in 1763.

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