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, July 14, 2013

Boston’s 1767 Non-Importation Pledge List Comes to Light

This week John Overholt at Harvard’s Houghton Library announced that Karen Nipps and her cataloguing team had discovered six copies of an October 1767 broadside with the signatures of over 650 Bostonians pledging not to import a long list of goods from Britain to protest the new Townshend duties. The library’s blog offers images of three of those sheets and snatches of others.

Bostonians had already made a public stand against importing what they said were unnecessary luxury goods, particularly ostentatious mourning garb. This takes a further step, expanding the list of goods that people promised to boycott. The selectmen publicized the town’s vote (though exactly who received this letter announcing it is unclear).

After another year, the 1768 merchants’ agreement covered every type of import except for a few things deemed necessary for local industry. As Sam Forman describes, in 1769 the Boston Whigs also asked people not to buy goods from shopkeepers who did import.

The 1767 pledge sheets are thus an early look at who in Boston was willing to put their names to a protest against Parliament’s new taxes. The signatories include some future Loyalists, such as Adino Paddock, Hopestill Capen, and (I think) Thomas Flucker. Dr. John Jeffries was among the few who pledged not to buy imports for only one year.

It looks like the signatures might be organized loosely by neighborhood. For example, one sheet includes John Ruddock, John Tudor, and Paul Revere, all prominent in the North End, near the top. I can imagine men carrying each sheet around a ward, asking folks to add their names.

One of the most surprising details of these sheets is the number of women who signed. They often decided on purchases of household goods, of course, and sometimes owned or managed shops. Some of the visible sheets have no female signatories, others several in a row. In the 1769 non-consumption agreement, only 6 of 111 signatories were women; I wonder what proportion of these names are female.

Other mysteries:
  • Why did William Dawes, Jr., sign two sheets? (I don’t think there were two William Dawes, Jrs.)
  • Why is the name under John Machett’s crossed out?
  • Why does housewright John Bell’s name appear to be stamped instead of written?
  • Catharine Thompson signed with her mark—was she really active in commerce or politics?
There’s a lot more data to be gleaned out of this document and comparing it to other records. I understand that it’s being fully digitized for widespread viewing soon.


Ben Edwards said...

Fascinating John! I just submitted a comment on the Houghton Library blog to see if access might become available to images showing the remainder of the 650+ signatures. My relative Alexander Edwards signed the 1768 agreement (original at the MHS) and I'm interested to learn if he signed this one as well. Is the John Bell any relation?

Ben Edwards said...

Follow up to my previous message. I didn't read the end of your post! "will be fully digitized for widespread viewing soon" Perhaps the Houghton Library will reply to my comment and advise how soon. I'll keep you posted!

J. L. Bell said...

The pages were sent to be digitized last week; I don’t know how long that process takes, but the library staff is aware of the interest in this document and a leader in making material available online.

I take note of people named John Bell from Revolutionary Boston, for obvious reasons, so I was able to identify the most likely man to sign this pledge. He’s not a relative, to my knowledge, but that family line disappears in Iowa a little over a century ago.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait until all the documents are available! I have several ancestors who lived in the North End during that time, but haven't seen their signatures on what's already been posted. I recognize a few surnames of people my 5th great-grandfather (Lt. Samuel Treat) either knew or served with during the war - Roby and Champney in particular.

I can imagine the trepidation some people must have had while signing these documents. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during dinner at the Flucker house!

EJWitek said...

William Dawes Jr. always styled himself as "Jr." since his father outlived him. I see a signature for a Wm Dawes and a Wm Dawes Jr. Could this be father and son?
Also interesting is that Ebenezer Hancock, John's younger brother, signed just beneath Wm Dawes, Jr.

J. L. Bell said...

The name William Dawes, Jr., appears both on the first scan in the Houghton blog post (first column, sixth from the bottom) and the last (third column, just above Ebenezer Hancock). I agree that his father's name also appears on the latter sheet, near the top as “Wm. Dawes."

Anonymous said...

Maybe Dawes started an early version of "vote early, vote often?" :)