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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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Peter Oliver Explains the “Black Regiment”

Peter Oliver was the last Chief Justice of Massachusetts under royal rule. His brother was Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, and their family was connected by marriage to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson.

Massachusetts Whigs saw the Hutchinson-Oliver faction as apologists for the London government, far too quick to excuse encroachments on the colony’s traditional freedoms in exchange for lucrative appointments. Later the Whigs accused those men as having actually encouraged the ministry in its policies through recommendations and lies.

For his part, after the siege of Boston Oliver went into exile in England and spent the war writing an account of the political conflict in Massachusetts that he titled “The Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion.” It was finally published in 1961, and I don’t think it’s been out of print since. It’s a delightfully nasty, sarcastic, gossipy, and ad hominem narration of the years from 1760 to 1775.

Oliver and Hutchinson dated the start of their troubles from James Otis, Jr.’s break with the royal patronage system, and they blamed him for fomenting the unrest against them. Among other things, Oliver accused Otis of politicizing much of the Massachusetts clergy, as he laid out in a section titled “The Black Regiment”:
It may now be amiss, now, to reconnoitre Mr. Otis’s Black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a Part in the Rebellion. The congregational perswasion of Religion might be properly termed the established Religion of the Massachusetts, as well as of some other of the New England Colonies; as the Laws were peculiarly adapted to secure ye Rights of this Sect; although all other Religions were tolerated, except the Romish.

This Sect inherited from the Ancestors an Aversion to Episcopacy; & I much question, had it not been for the Supremacy of the British Government over them, which they dared not openly deny, whether Episcopacy itself would have been tolerated; at least it would have been more discountenanced than it was & here I cannot but remark a great Mistake of the Governors of the Church of England, in proposing to the Colonies to have their consent to a Bishop residing among them for ye purpose of Ordination. It was the direct Step to a Refusal for all such Proposals from the Parent State, whether of a civil or a Religious Nature, were construed into Timidity by the Colonists & were sure of meeting with a Repulse.

The Clergy of this Province were, in general, a Set of very weak Men; & it could not be expected that they should be otherwise as many of them were just relieved, some from the Burthen of the Satchel; & others from hard Labor; & by a Transition from Occupations to mounting a Desk, from whence they could look the principal Part of the Congregations, they, by that acquired a supreme Self Importance; which was too apparent in their Manners. Some of them were Men of Sense, and would have done Honor to a Country which shone in Literature; but there were few of these; & among these, but very few who were not strongly tinctured with Republicanism.

The Town of Boston being a Metropolis, it was also the Metropolis of Sedition; and hence it was that their Clergy being dependent on the People for their daily Bread; by having frequent Intercourse with the People, imbibed their Principles. In this Town was an annual Convention of Clergy of the Province, the Day after the Election of his Majestys Charter Council; and at those Meetings were settled the religious Affairs of the Province; & as the Boston Clergy were esteemed the others an Order of Deities, so they were greatly influenced by them.

There was also another annual Meeting of the Clergy at Cambridge, on the Commencement for graduating the Scholars of Harvard College; at these two Conventions, if much Good was effectuated, so there was much Evil. And some of the Boston Clergy, as they were capable of the Latter, so they missed no Opportunities of accomplishing their Purposes.
Oliver proceeded to name some ministers who he thought had been particularly useful to Otis and his allies: “Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, Dr. Charles Chauncy & Dr. Samuel Cooper.”

The Olivers and Hutchinson weren’t members of those men’s meetings, but they were Congregationalists from families who came to Massachusetts in the early Puritan migration. They ended up finding disproportionate support from Massachusetts Anglicans whose families had arrived after the 1600s. However, the Congregationalist minister Mather Byles, Sr., was another Loyalist. In short, religion was a political dividing-line among the clergy, but not a neat one.

Oliver had some more to say about the “black Regiment,” which I’ll quote and analyze after catching up with events. [Finally, the discussion continues here.]

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