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, January 04, 2015

John Hancock and the Bombarding of Boston

On 4 July 1812, the young Attorney General of the United States, Richard Rush, delivered an Independence Day oration to the House of Representatives. His main message was about how wise it was to go to war with Great Britain again.

For that speech Rush had consulted notes of his father, Dr. Benjamin Rush, about details of the last war with Great Britain, which had gone so well. According to Henry A. Hawken’s study of Fourth of July orations, Trumpets of Glory, the elder Rush wasn’t pleased that his son pulled him into the debate over the new war, even obliquely.

Coyly crediting his father as “one of the surviving patriots of our revolution,” Rush told this story about John Hancock, as quoted in the 7 August City Gazette of Charleston, South Carolina:
During the siege of Boston, General [George] Washington consulted Congress upon the propriety of bombarding the town. Mr. Hancock was then President of [the Continental] Congress. After General Washington’s letter was read, a solemn silence ensued. This was broken by a member making a motion that the House should resolve itself into a committee of the whole, in order that Mr. Hancock might give his opinion upon the important subject, as he was so deeply interested, from having all his estate in Boston.

After he left the chair, he addressed the chairman of the committee of the whole in the following words: “It is true, sir, nearly all the property I have in the world is in houses and other real estate in the town of Boston; but if the expulsion of the British army from it, and the liberties of our country require their being burnt to ashes—issue the order for that purpose immediately!
Rush sent a copy of his oration to John Adams, among others. Adams replied, “When will the Character of Hancock be understood? Never. I could melt into Tears when I hear his Name.” He did not, however, confirm that he had heard Hancock deliver that remark.

While extracts of Rush’s speech appeared in collections of American oratory over the next several decades, that story didn’t make the cut. Instead, it followed a different route into popular lore. On 9 Sept 1822 the American Mercury newspaper of Hartford reprinted the anecdote without attribution to Rush. On 14 September the Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot picked it up, and on 21 September Niles’s Weekly Register quoted the “Boston Patriot.”

Freeman Hunt’s American Anecdotes, published in Boston in 1830, included the story as item 88, “Disinterested Patriotism of Hancock.” Again, there was no source given. The same story then appeared in other American collections of inspiring anecdotes, of which there were a lot. They seem to have operated rather like quotation websites today, with the same rigorous standards.

Not surprisingly, the story changed a bit along the way. Authors gave Hancock more dramatic words than “issue the order for that purpose immediately!” Examples include:
  • “If the country demand the sacrifice, let the torch be applied. To other causes you must look.” —Horace Mann, The Bible, the Rod, and Religion, in Common Schools (1847).
  • “Burn Boston, and make John Hancock a beggar, if necessary to accomplish this object!” —Benjamin Cowell, Spirit of ’76 in Rhode Island (1850).
  • “Burn Boston, and make John Hancock a beggar, if the public good requires it!” —James Spear Loring, The Hundred Boston Orators (1852). Loring also claimed that Hancock said those words during a North End Caucus meeting at Boston’s Salutation Tavern.
“Burn Boston, and make John Hancock a beggar!” became the standard punch line for this story, repeated in many more books and magazines. One can argue that there’s evidence Hancock expressed that general sentiment to the Congress’s committee of the whole, but it’s clear he didn’t use those words.


EJWitek said...

This from a letter from Hancock to Washington dated Dec 22 1775:

"I must beg leave to refer you to the enclosed resolutions of Congress for your future proceedings, which I am directed to transmit to you. You will notice the last resolution relative to an attack upon Boston. This passed after a most serious debate in a committee of the whole House, and the execution referred to you; and may God crown your attempt with success. I most heartily wish it, though individually I may be the greatest sufferer.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the reference! We also have Continental Congress delegate Richard Smith’s diary entry for 22 Dec 1775:
”The House again in Grand Comee. on the Boston Affair & after much canvassing & sundry Propositions offered, the Vote passed for directing Gen. Washn. to destroy the Army & Navy at Boston in any Way He & a Council of War shall think best, even if the Town must be burnt, 7 Colonies to 2, one not fully represented & our Colony divided, Wm. Livingston being agt. the Resohltion & myself for it. Mr. Hancock spoke heartily for this Measure.”

So it’s clear that Hancock did support an attack on Boston if the war appeared to necessitate it. I think that’s entirely consistent with his behavior from about 1774 onward, drawing down his economic fortune and building up his political one.

Byron DeLear said...

I remember the letter EJWitek cited. I think the period in question is a fascinating moment leading to the "Revolutionary Year." I've studied all the primary sources concerning this period for my research into the flag-raising at Prospect Hill on New Year's Day. John, I remember us discussing Washington's eagerness during the siege to press an assault, always being dissuaded by the more judicious war council. I'm curious, have you seen any evidence for this repeated script, if you will indulge me, as a sort of means to preserve the perception of the commander's "manliness"? In other words, was it expected for Washington to be so gung-ho? It always seems that the courage and bravery of commanders was measured, at least initially, by their willingness to prosecute dangerous war actions no matter the difficulties or potential mismatch in forces.

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't seen explicit discussion of how Washington's conduct of the siege of Boston reflected on his character. However, it's clear from his repeated proposals for attacks (some risky, such as over the ice), his letters full of excuses to the Congress, and his calling of a council of war just before the Congress's committee arrived in October 1775 that he felt the Congress and others were expecting him to attack.

I believe, based on that eagerness, his past behavior, and his conduct through late 1777, that Washington himself very much wanted to attack as well. He thought a second Bunker Hill could convince the Crown to withdraw and end the war. He thought battlefield victories was how generals gained glory. Only during the Valley Forge winter did he determine on the Fabian strategy that won the war.

The next question is whether the Congress shared Washington's view of things, and I'm not sure they did. The committee didn't push him to attack Boston. Hancock's December letter approved the idea if he and his generals wanted it, but that certainly wasn't a push. The only time members of the Congress lost faith in Washington came after he lost the big battle at Brandywine and thus the capital, not after he was reluctant to enter battle. Therefore, I don't think the Congress shared Washington's early belief that he neded to win the war in a quick and glorious battlefield victory.