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, July 10, 2016

Was Marshfield a Tory Town?

Because Marshfield officially voted to thank Gov. Thomas Gage for sending troops in the winter of 1775, it got a lasting reputation as a “Tory town.”

And indeed Marshfield had many more Loyalists than neighboring towns. Or at least the creation of its Association meant it had more visible, undeniable Loyalists. Men who would have remained quiet in other communities put their names on papers supporting the Crown in Marshfield.

But there was also a vocal minority against those troops, so I’d say it wasn’t so much a Tory town as a politically split town. And that was notable in itself.

New England communities liked consensus. Men were supposed to debate and consider measures thoroughly, but when it came time to vote one side was supposed to win decisively—not just by a “trifling” margin. Town clerks tended not to even record vote counts, and they took other steps to play down disagreements in the public record.

In contrast, the men of Marshfield had been split almost evenly for at least a few years. In June 1772 the town considered whether to annex a section of Scituate called “Two Mile” and rejected the idea. But the following March men from Scituate brought up the proposal again, and the town meeting voted to consider the idea—“there being 50 votes for it, and 49 against,” town clerk, treasurer, and deacon Nehemiah Thomas recorded. (The actual annexation didn’t take place until after the war.)

During the tea crisis of late 1773, Nehemiah Thomas led the town elders in confiscating tea before it could cause trouble. A couple of days after the Boston Tea Party, more radical Whigs demanded that tea—some sources say took it from Thomas’s house while he was away—and publicly burned it. The site of that burning is now Tea Rock Hill, shown above. So there was definitely a strong anti-tea faction in town.

Yet at the end of January 1774, the pro-Crown selectmen called a town meeting, as reported by the Boston News-Letter. Under the leadership of Nathaniel Ray Thomas (who asked for special permission to express his own opinion, not just moderate), that meeting resolved:
This Town taking into Consideration the late tumultuous and as we think illegal Proceedings in the Town of Boston in the Detention and Destruction of the Teas belonging to the East-India Company, which we apprehend will effect our Properties if not our Liberties, think it our indispensible Duty to show our Disapprobation of such Measures and Proceedings
The Boston Gazette responded on 7 February, “We are informed that the Resolves of the Town of Marshfield were carried by a Majority of only one Vote; and we soon expect a more intelligible account of the Meeting than has yet been given in a public paper.” And one week later fifty-one men from Marshfield, including clerk Nehemiah Thomas, signed a protest, also published in the Gazette:
…they say that the measures and proceedings in the town of Boston in the detention & destruction of the teas, belonging to the East India Co. are illegal, unjust & of a dangerous tendency, against which we take the liberty to protest. . . .

The occasion of this our protest has given us great uneasiness & we are confident those extraordinary resolves would not have taken place but by the insinuations of a certain gentleman who seems willing his constituents should share in the resentment of the whole country, which he has incurred by his conduct in a public character. We mean not to countenance riotous and disorderly conduct, but, being convinced that liberty is the life and happiness of a community, we are determined to contribute to our last mite in its defence against the machinations of assuming, arbitrary men, who, stimulated with a lust of dominion & unrighteous gain are ever studying to subjugate this free people.
Marshfield’s political arguments were already spilling out into the Boston newspapers before any British troops arrived.

TOMORROW: The political seesaw of late 1774.

[Above is the rarely visited historical marker on Marshfield’s Tea Rock Hill, photographed by Patrick Browne. His Historical Digression blog offers a thorough discussion of the Marshfield tea-burning, as well as the “almost battle” of Marshfield.]

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