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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Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Split in the Merchants’ Club in 1771

On Tuesday, 13 Aug 1771, John Adams went into Boston for a weekly meeting of one of his gentlemen’s clubs and discovered that most of the club wasn’t there.

He wrote in his diary:
Spent the Evening at [Hannah] Cordis’s, the British Coffee house.—In the front Room, towards the long Wharfe, where the Merchants Clubb has met this twenty Years. It seems there is a Schism in that Church—a Rent in that Garment—a Mutiny in that Regiment, and a large De­tachment has decamped, and marched over the Way, to [Joseph] Ingersols.

This Evening The Commissary and Speaker, and Speaker and Commissary, Mr. [Thomas] Cushing was present. The Clerk of the House Mr. [Samuel] Adams, Mr. [James] Otis, Mr. John Pitts, Dr. [Joseph] Warren, Mr. [William] Molineux, Mr. Josa. Quincy, and myself were present.
The men left at the British Coffee House were the most politically aggressive members of the Merchants’ Club. In fact, most of those men weren’t even merchants—they were lawyers (Otis, Quincy, John Adams himself), a doctor (Warren), and a full-time politician (Samuel Adams).

Of the remainder, Cushing was pretty busy with the two high provincial offices Adams tagged him with. (Did Adams’s repetition of “Commissary and Speaker, and Speaker and Commissary” hint at some disapproval of dual office-holding?) Molineux appears to have supported himself by managing Charles Ward Apthorp’s local property while setting up a cloth factory. That left only John Pitts concerned full-time with imperial trade. (He would become a selectman in 1773-1777.)

John Adams’s other diary entries for August 1771 show that Otis’s behavior was becoming erratic. He had acted “quite wild at the Bar Meeting” the previous week. Otis had been reelected to his old seat in the Massachusetts General Court in May, but by November the authorities were stepping in. So some members of the Merchants Club might have decamped to get away from Otis.

In general, there was not much support for radical, confrontational politics in late 1771 simply because there was less to confront. The tariff on tea was the only remaining Townshend duty. There were no troops stationed in the center of town. The issues of judicial salaries hadn’t surfaced.

My big question is whether John Hancock was at Ingersoll’s Bunch of Grapes tavern with the “large Detachment” of merchants or had skipped both meetings. In this period Gov. Thomas Hutchinson perceived enough daylight between Hancock and Adams to believe he could win the young merchant over to his side. That didn’t happen, but maybe evenings like this suggested it might.

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