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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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

“Behaving with discretion & Calmness”

On 1 Nov 1769, Boston’s selectmen appointed Thomas Bradford a temporary Constable of the Watch for the south part of town.

On their authority, town clerk William Cooper issued Bradford these instructions:
1st. That you with the Watchmen under you attend at sd. Watch House at the Hours of 9 oClock every Night from the 20th. of Septr. to the 20th. of March and continue till clear day light, and at the Hours of 10 0Clock from the 20th. of March to the 20th. of September, that you & each of you continue upon Duty untill Sunrise; & if any of your Division should misbehave you must inform the Select men of it.

2d. That you keep a fair Journal of your doings every Night, how you find the State of the Town, and who of the Watchmen are on Duty, and Report to the Selectmen every Wednesday.

3d. That two at least of your Division taking their Staves with them walk the Rounds within your Ward, twice at least every Night, or oftner if necessary, setting out from the Watch House at such Times in the Night as you shall judge best, varying the Time according to your discretion.

4th. In going the Rounds Care must be taken that the Watchmen are not Noisy but behave themselves with strict decorum, that they frequently give the Time of the Night & what the Weather is with a distinct but moderate Voice, excepting at Times when it is necessary to pass in Silence in order to detect and secure Persons that are out on unlawful Actions.

5th. You & your Division must endeavour to suppress all Routs Riots & other Disorders that may be committed in the Night and secure such Person as may be guilty; that proper steps may be taken the next Morning for a prosecution as the Law directs, we absolutely forbid your taking private satisfaction, or any bribe that may be offer’d you to let such go or to conceal their offence from the Selectmen.

6thly. You are to take up all Negroes Indian and Molatto Slaves that may be absent from their masters House after nine oClock at Night and passing the Streets unless they are carrying Lanthorns with light Candles and can give a good and satisfactory Account of their Business that such offenders may be proceeded with according to Law.
Of course, since it would be impossible to determine if someone was enslaved just by looking at him, that meant stopping and questioning every person of color.

But in doing so, Bradford and his men were not supposed to swear or be impolite.
7thly. The Selectmen expect that you execute your office with Resolution & Firmness not using any affronting langage but behaving with discretion & Calmness, that it may appear you do not abuse even Offenders & they recommend to you and your Division that you behave with Sobriety Temperance Vigilence and Fidelity and agreeable to the Laws; Your Office requires a Conduct; the Security of the Town demands it, & you may be assured that your continuance in the place to which you are appointed altogether depends upon it
Bradford received a permanent appointment to this post in March 1771.

(The cartoon above, from 1784, depicts British politician Charles Fox as a London watchman. The lantern, staff, and long coat appear to have been emblematic of the job.)


Anonymous said...

Do screenwriters read Boston Selecmen minutes? Maybe.
"If somebody gets in your face ... I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won't walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can't walk him, one of the others will help you, and you'll both be nice. I want you to remember that it's a job. It's nothing personal."
- Bouncer instructions from the movie Roadhouse

-Chris the Woburnite

J. L. Bell said...

I confess I haven't seen all of that classic.

Back in 1769 Boston's political leaders were in a battle for respectability with royal officials and the British army. Encounters between the town watch and army officers were one flashpoint. The officers were gentlemen and resented being stopped by watchmen, who were working-class. So the selectmen pressed the watchmen to behave with all that respect.