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, November 02, 2017

Charles Paxton, Customs Commissioner

Charles Paxton (1708-1788, shown here in a portrait at the American Antiquarian Society) was a major figure in Boston’s 1767 Pope Night procession.

Not as a member of the North End or South End Gangs, to be sure. Paxton was the target of those processions, which became a protest against the Townshend duties and the new Commissioners of His Majesty’s Customs. (The daytime protest will be part of the “Devil and the Crown” reenactment this Saturday.)

Paxton was one of those five Commissioners, having risen in the Customs service in Massachusetts. He had tried to join that agency as early as 1734, proposing a new office at Plymouth with himself in charge. He got a post in Marblehead and Salem in the early 1740s.

Paxton also became marshal of Boston’s vice-admiralty court, which helped to enforce the Customs laws. So he made money from seizures of smuggled goods in all sorts of ways. Some said he played favorites with whose goods he seized, though it’s possible they just meant he should be as lenient as other Customs officers.

Naturally, Paxton’s work made him unpopular with the maritime community in Essex County. In 1752 he gained the post of Surveyor of Customs in Boston, allowing him to become just as unpopular with an even larger maritime community.

When Boston’s merchants sued to overturn writs of assistance in 1761, Paxton was the nominal defendant. He won that case, and others, in the Massachusetts courts. The fact that Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson was one of Paxton’s oldest friends didn’t mollify their opponents.

During the first Stamp Act riot on 14 Aug 1765, Paxton reportedly offered shelter to the stamp agent, Andrew Oliver. So during the second Stamp Act riot on 26 August, a mob went to Paxton’s home and threatened to pull it apart.

Paxton’s landlord, Thomas Palmer, came out and convinced the crowd not to harm his property. He bought them a barrel of punch at a nearby tavern. So instead those people headed to the North End and ripped apart Hutchinson’s house, among others.

In July 1766 Paxton sailed for London, nominally for his health. He happened to be in the capital when Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend proposed new tariffs and a new board to enforce them. Bostonians blamed Paxton for suggesting those measures, but there’s no evidence for that. He no doubt did lobby to be named as one of the Commissioners, and succeeded.

Thus, when Paxton arrived back in Boston on 5 Nov 1767, he had made himself into the most unpopular royal appointee in the colony. In 1768 Samuel Adams would look back on Paxton’s trip in a newspaper essay published under the name of “Candidus”:
Happy for America’s sons had mother Ocean taken him into her bosom (father Abra’m surely never will)

happy I say had it been for America, nay thrice happy for the mother country had he never reached Albion’s shore: less treasure had been expended by her; less animosity had taken place between the mother and her children; less villainy had been perpetrated here, had he never returned.
When your neighbors publicly wish you had drowned at sea for the good of the nation, you are not popular.

Another thing made Paxton a target of Boston’s crowds: he was queer.

TOMORROW: Poor Charles the Bachelor.

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