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 18, 2018

Colonel Fenton’s “confidential and verbal message” for Samuel Adams

In 1865 William V. Wells published a biography of his great-grandfather: The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams. It’s both a highly laudatory, one-sided portrait of Adams and a necessary source for any subsequent scholars.

Among the stories Wells told is one about an attempt by Gov. Thomas Gage to bribe Adams in the summer of 1774:
Gage was perhaps privately instructed in England to make the attempt, if an opportunity should offer. The occasion seemed to present itself after the dissolution of the Assembly in June of this year, for thenceforth Adams was deprived of his stipend as its Clerk; and this, added to the distress which the closing of the harbor had entailed upon the town, left him with scarcely the means of feeding his little family.

“By Colonel Fenton, who commanded one of the newly arrived regiments, the Governor sent a confidential and verbal message. The officer, after the customary salutations, stated the object of his visit. He said that an adjustment of the existing disputes was very desirable, as well as important to the interests of both. That he was authorized by Governor Gage to assure him that he had been empowered to confer upon him such benefits as would be satisfactory, upon the condition that he would engage to cease in his opposition to the measures of government, and that it was the advice of Governor Gage to him not to incur the further displeasure of his Majesty; that his conduct had been such as made him liable to the penalties of an act of Henry the Eighth, by which persons could be sent to England for trial, and, by changing his course, he would not only receive great personal advantages, but would thereby make his peace with the King.

[“]Adams listened with apparent interest to this recital, until the messenger had concluded. Then rising, he replied, glowing with indignation: ‘Sir, I trust I have long since made my peace with the King of kings. No personal consideration shall induce me to abandon the righteous cause of my country. Tell Governor Gage it is the advice of Samuel Adams to him no longer to insult the feelings of an exasperated people.’”
The passage in quotation marks was credited as “Narration by Mrs. Hannah Wells in 1818.” Hannah (Adams) Wells (1756-1821) was the politician’s last surviving child. Since her grandson William V. Wells wasn’t born until 1826, either she wrote down the story in this form or an intervening relative passed it along orally.

In one respect, at least, details got mangled. “Colonel Fenton” wasn’t an active British army officer who “commanded one of the newly arrived regiments.” John Fenton (d. 1785) was an army captain, born in Ireland, who retired at the end of the French and Indian War. In 1755 he had married Elizabeth Temple, a daughter of Robert Temple of Medford. Though officially a Customs officer at Albany, New York, in the 1760s, Fenton stayed in the Boston area and did little government work.

In 1772 Fenton received a large grant of land in Plymouth, New Hampshire, from Gov. John Wentworth. He moved there and started to promote a settlement. Wentworth granted him several civic and militia titles, so in April 1774 John Adams wrote of him as “Collonell Judge, Clerk, Captain Fenton.”

In that letter Adams relayed news from Fenton to Robert Treat Paine: “He says that the spirit runs like wild Fire, to the very Extremities of N. H[amp]shire and that their Government is as determined, as ours”—presumably to oppose whatever Parliament was planning in response to the Boston Tea Party.

The new Massachusetts governor, Gen. Gage, arrived the next month with the Boston Port Bill. By June Gage had shut down the Massachusetts legislature and the work of its clerk, Samuel Adams. (The house’s last act was to choose a delegation to the First Continental Congress. Since Adams was one of the delegates, he still had plenty to keep him busy.)

Fenton’s correspondence with John Adams suggests that he, though allied with the Crown, still had enough links to the Massachusetts Whigs to sound out Samuel Adams about toning it down a bit.

If indeed the conversation described in Wells’s biography ever happened. No one has found corroboration for it in Gage’s papers, other British documents, or contemporaneous New England sources.

TOMORROW: An earlier source?

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