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.

Follow by Email


Friday, March 06, 2009

Bostonians and “Irish Teagues”

The silliest explanation for the Boston Massacre I’ve seen comes from Stuart A. P. Murray’s Smithsonian Q & A: The American Revolution, published in 2006.

Q: What made Boston such a hotbed of unrest and eventually the seat of open rebellion in the colonies?

A: The fact that Boston had a large anti-English Irish population was not the least of the factors involved in Boston’s radical temperament. . . .

That there often were brawls between soldiers and civilians should have surprised no one, since many Bostonians were Irish and the soldiers came to the city directly from serving in restive Ireland.
In fact, Boston and Massachusetts as a whole had a large anti-Irish English population. Eighty-five percent of the provincial population was English, according to Jon Butler’s Becoming America; less than ten percent was Irish, Scottish, and Welsh combined. Boston society was much less welcoming to non-English immigrants than Philadelphia, New York, Newport, and Charleston, the other four big American ports. Check out the story of young Hector McNeill’s arrival to see how Bostonians welcomed people from Ireland, even Protestants of Scottish extraction.

There were definitely some Irishmen in the crowd on King Street, including victim Patrick Carr and witness Charles Conner, as explained by the latter’s testimony. There were also a few established businessmen from Ireland, such as John Field and James Forrest. Boston’s Irish population was big enough to start a mutual-aid society—but it was excluded enough to need one.

Carr’s presence among the Massacre victims allowed John Adams to characterize the mob on King Street as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.” Of course, as a defense attorney he was highlighting the elements of that crowd that seemed most dangerous and expendable. Adams could make that argument because he knew the Suffolk County jury was prejudiced against all those other parts of the population.

The Smithsonian Q & A book misses the major fact that the greatest concentration of Irishmen on King Street that night were the soldiers themselves. Just look at their names:
Boston’s Whigs were happy to tie the soldiers to Ireland, and drop hints about their likely Catholicism.

There are lots of other errors in this Smithsonian Q & A book. Page 26 says that “ten comrades” joined the sentry on King Street, for example, while page 27 says that “seven soldiers” were tried for the shootings; neither figure is correct. But the assumption that the fabled Irish-American dominance of Boston began in the late 1700s is the biggest error, at least in the section about the Revolution in New England, and apparently original to this book.


Anonymous said...

Cpl. William Wemys (Scot name, you can link it to Ui Neill Clan Conal from west Ulster about a millenia previously)

Pvt. James Hartigan

Pvt. William McCauley (More usually a Scot name I believe )

Pvt. Hugh White (Can be from many places)

Pvt. Mathew Kilroy

Pvt. William Warren (Known in Irelan but more commonly Anglo)

Pvt. John Carroll

Pvt. Edward Montgomery (A Scot name known among Ulster settlers)

You wrote Montgomery was Irish. 3 names (at least) are native Irish, so it is a strong presence, especially if Preston is Anglo-Irish.
Teague is usually a term for papist, it may not apply to any, since it is not uncommon to see native Irish protestants (Gen. Sullivan for instance)

Anonymous said...

BTW as you wrote about McNeill, even non Catolic Irish were unwelcome. Many from Ulster came to America extremely poor, so were a tax on Boston's charity (or lack thereof)
The solution was to force them N or W to the frontiers

J. L. Bell said...

As Capt. Hector McNeill’s account shows, Bostonians rarely made the distinction between Irish Protestants of Scottish descent and Irish Catholics that you’re drawing.

Not only did Bostonians from old East Anglian families call both groups “Irish,” but the Irish mutual aid society and Loyal Irish Volunteers didn’t try to separate Irish from Scotch-Irish. Of course, there was also great prejudice against Scottish immigrants.

Adams didn’t use the word “teague” often, so it’s impossible to say exactly what he meant by the term. But the word “teague” was used by Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish emigrant to Annapolis, to refer to an Irishman without reference to Catholicism.

We have records showing that Pvt. Hugh White was born in Killyleach (as then spelled), County Down, Ireland. Capt. Thomas Preston was said to be from an Irish (almost certainly Protestant) family.

As for the other soldiers, their names are the only clues to their ethnicity. And while those names don’t require them all to be Irish, so many clearly are that they were, as I wrote, “the greatest concentration of Irishmen on King Street” that night.

Anonymous said...

"As for the other soldiers, their names are the only clues to their ethnicity. And while those names don’t require them all to be Irish, so many clearly are that they were, as I wrote, “the greatest concentration of Irishmen on King Street” that night."

Not to be pedantic, but you can't reasonably and in good academic faith make that assertion unless you can with certainty identify the ethnicity of the mob. You are overly relying on the fact that you can identify the individual soldiers, while not being able to do so for the mob.

The fact that Adams used the word Tague implies that there must have been sufficient Irish within at least that area of Boston for the defense to seem plausible. Adams was certainly not a fool. Also I would be very careful of using Alexander Hamilton's use/misuse of the word Teague to Adams. Adams was certainly more of the wordsmith and more precise in his language. This would not be the first time Adams invoked the image of Catholics as boogeymen, writing to Jefferson in 1816 he said "I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits.... Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gipsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum."

J. L. Bell said...

In fact, Anonymous, we have depositions and other testimony naming five dozen people in the crowd on King Street. That cross-section consists mainly of the English names common in Massachusetts. There are some identifiably Irish names or individuals, but the percentage is much smaller than we see among the soldiers. Neither that sample nor other evidence, such as tax lists, supports Murray’s claim (without supporting evidence) that “Boston had a large anti-English Irish population” in 1770 compared to other American ports.

As I quoted above, Adams used the phrase “Irish teagues” in the middle of a list: “saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.” If Adams though the jurors would see Irishmen as the biggest threat, he would have put them first. Instead, he named the usual suspects in riots, with “Irish teagues” thrown in because of victim Patrick Carr. Four of the five dead belonged to one of those groups, so Adams’s rhetoric turned the dead people into traditional boogeymen.

I don’t understand the basis of your confidence that Adams used the term “teague” differently from Dr. Alexander Hamilton. Or, for that matter, from Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary defines the word as a “name of contempt for an Irishman” without mention of religion.

John B Hogan said...

I enjoyed this article very much along with Anonymous,s remarks . Whether it be Irish or Scot all are Celts . So it would be easy for John Adams to show bogeymen in a defence .

I have always read of many in the Sons of Liberty with Irish names.So would I be wrong in assuming many were in fact Irish ? I too was under the impression of a much larger Irish population .

J. L. Bell said...

There were definitely some men of Irish descent and even born in Ireland among the American Patriots. Stephen Moylan, aide to Washington in 1775-76, was an Irish Catholic, brother to Irish Catholic priests. But he had settled in Philadelphia, not Boston. Philadelphia and New York offered more openings for immigrants, especially non-English ones.

Boston in 1770 wasn't so welcoming to men of recent Irish background. Among the Whig leaders of the time, William Molineux was an immigrant, but from Wolverhampton. The rest were of old Yankee or Huguenot ancestry, as far as I can recall.