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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Monday, July 11, 2016

The Political Seesaw in 1774 Marshfield

As the year 1774 began, the Loyalist party in Marshfield was on top, pushing through a town-meeting resolution disapproving of the destruction of tea in Boston harbor the previous month. (And implicitly of the burning of tea in Marshfield itself.)

The town’s representative to the Massachusetts General Court, Abijah White, leaned toward the Crown; he made sure that resolution was published in the Boston papers. White’s fellow selectmen, Dr. Isaac Winslow and Ephraim Little, were also Loyalists. And behind them was Nathaniel Ray Thomas, whose estate was said to be the largest in Plymouth County.

But already those men were reported to be worried about violent opposition from their neighbors. A letter from Duxbury dated 5 February and appearing in the 14 February Boston Gazette claimed:

We hear from Marshfield that the puissant A[bijah] W[hite] Esq. lately went into a neighbor’s house and being seated, tho’ very uneasy, he was inquired of what made him so, when he instantly arose and drew forth a Sword, (being formerly a valiant Soldier) declaring he would make Day-light shine thro’ ’em, but what he would carry his Point, giving as a Reason, that he was afraid of his Life without being arm’d, tho’ never assaulted. Being thus accout’red, one Day on going to his Barn, his Cattle being affrighted, and taking him to be a Stranger, surrounded him, and we hear ’twas with Difficulty that he escaped with his Life and the Loss of his Sword.
Within months, however, the imperial government’s response to the same Boston Tea Party prompted a popular response that reversed the situation in Marshfield. First came the Boston Port Bill and the return of the British army to Boston. Then came the Massachusetts Government Act, permanently changing the province’s constitution in ways large and small.

Along with the latter law came London’s list of members of the new Massachusetts Council, appointed rather than elected. And among those gentlemen, chosen for their loyalty to the royal government, was Nathaniel Ray Thomas. He took his oath of office in Salem on 16 Aug 1774.

Already the Massachusetts people were rising up against those new measures, starting in the western part of the province. That opposition took two main forms: preventing the county courts from opening and trying to intimidate Councilors into resigning. In both types of action, men turned out in their militia units. That was an easy way for them to organize and maintain discipline, a demonstration of how they represented the bulk of the people, and an implicit threat of force.

On 2 September the “Powder Alarm” took place in Cambridge, a response to Gen. Thomas Gage‘s securing militia gunpowder and cannon for the Crown. Thousands of Middlesex County men marched into town and demanded the resignation of two Councilors from Cambridge, as well as Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver (whose resignation was so clearly coerced that no one believed it—see the opening chapters of The Road to Concord for more detail).

That emboldened the Whigs of Plymouth County, and on 6 September crowds from several towns around Marshfield headed for Nathaniel Ray Thomas’s large house, determined to force him to resign from the Council. The 12 September Boston Gazette reported:
We hear from the County of Plymouth, that last Wednesday upwards of 2000 of the substantial Yeomanry, collected from the several Towns of Plymouth, Hanover, and Pembroke, repaired to the House of Nathaniel Ray Thomas of Marshfield, one of the new Council; but he having had some previous Intimation of the intended Visit of the People, he thought it unsafe to remain even in Marshfield, and accordingly fled the night before with all Speed to the city of Refuge.
With Councilor Thomas gone and other Loyalists perhaps cowed, Marshfield’s town meeting flipped. Later in September the town elected moderate Whig Nehemiah Thomas instead of Abijah White to represent it at the General Court. In October the men of Marshfield met again in the south meetinghouse and confirmed that their town clerk should take a seat in the Provincial Congress, disregarding any complaints about its legality.

TOMORROW: The seesaw tilts again.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

I should note that Marshfield’s October 1774 decision to participate in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress didn’t take place in an official town meeting, perhaps because people were wary of breaking the Massachusetts Government Act’s prohibition on town meetings not authorized by the governor. Instead, it was “A meeting of the body of the inhabitants of the town.” But the selectmen called the meeting (however reluctantly), the town clerk took notes, the voters agreed to fund their representative, and the procedure appears to have been the same as in an official meeting.