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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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Drama of Dr. Byles

Also in the new Common-place is Edward M. Griffin’s dramatically written article about the experiences of the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles (shown here). Byles was the Boston Congregationalist minister closest to the royal government—yet he also remained in Boston after the British evacuation.

“A Loyalist Guarded, Re-guarded, and Disregarded: The Two Trials of Mather Byles the Elder” identifies this moment as crucial to how the Patriot public came to view Byles:
Within four days after the battle [of Lexington and Concord], this rumor swirled through Boston: the king’s troops admitted firing first. Lieutenant [Thomas] Hawkshaw had said so to the elder Reverend Mather Byles and the Boston merchant Gilbert Deblois.

Hawkshaw, an officer of Hugh Earl Percy’s 5th Regiment of Foot, scoffed at the rumor, issuing a sworn statement that “the Country People” had fired first, but on the streets of Boston, residents muttered about a cover-up. Hadn’t the lieutenant privately said otherwise to Byles and Deblois? Pressed on the issue, Byles and Deblois, each a prominent citizen and a Loyalist supporter of the Crown, responded with their own sworn declaration that they, “the only two Gentlemen of the Town, who have visited Lieut. Hawkshaw since his being brought into Boston, both declare that, neither of them had the least Conversation with Lt. Hawkshawe upon the Subject of the Affair of Wednesday last the 19th April; + particularly, that They nor Either of Them ever heard Lt. Hawkshaw say that the King’s Troops had fired first upon the Country People.”

Hawkshaw had been wounded on the road near Lexington. Could anyone believe that when Byles and Deblois had visited him they simply passed the time in pleasant conversation without ever discussing the previous week’s armed confrontation between British troops and rebellious locals? But the two gentlemen swore that they had not asked about the first shot. And that put Mather Byles Sr. in the thick of it.
Of course, Patriots already disliked how close Byles was with royal officials, and his insistence on not discussing politics took on new meaning in a highly political time.

The long article has some glitches. The Loyalist judge Peter Oliver coined the term “black Regiment” for James Otis’s clerical supporters; that wasn’t Otis’s own term. Thomas Crafts was not sheriff of Suffolk County when he bellowed the Declaration of Independence out the State House window; he was helping the sheriff, the more soft-spoken William Greenleaf.

More important, the article retells many amusing anecdotes about Byles—and there are a lot of those stories because Byles was such a big personality and known for his jokes. But some of those tales were recorded decades after all the supposed witnesses had died. Griffin not only accepts them without question (at least in this online format), but also elaborates on them in dramatic detail. See, for example, his retelling of the encounter between Byles and Col. Henry Knox in March 1776. Do we really know all that?


Benjamin Carp said...

STEPHEN Greenleaf! Don't get me started on errors related to Stephen Greenleaf, one of which I repeated myself in my first published article.

J. L. Bell said...

William was Stephen's younger brother and successor as sheriff of Suffolk County after the change in government. Just to make things more confusing, a cousin of the brother, also named William, became sheriff of Worcester County.