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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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Running the Numbers on the Massachusetts Convention

On Monday, 26 Sept 1768—250 years ago today—the Massachusetts Convention returned to Faneuil Hall after taking the Sabbath off.

Gov. Francis Bernard reported that on that Monday the gathering declared itself to be in committee, which by eighteenth-century standards meant that all the participants could meet together in private. He also noted a late arriving participant, writing:

The 3 days last week they kept open doors; [James] Otis was then absent. The two days this week they have kept the doors shut; Otis is with them.
In The Otis Family, John J. Waters wrote that the Convention was Samuel Adams’s idea and Otis was wary of it. But Otis had chaired the Boston town meeting that proposed it, as well as reportedly helping to plan that meeting.

Waters’s description of the situation appears to be an interpretation of Otis’s absence, not based on public statements from him or his colleagues. I wonder if this might be an example of reading politics into actions that were actually driven by bipolar disorder. We’ll never know.

In any event, Otis wasn’t the only man who showed up at the Convention after its opening days. Boston’s invitation had gone out to other towns only on 14 September. That didn’t leave much time for the news to travel, for towns to meet about the unusual request, and for any chosen delegates to journey to Boston. The counties closest to Boston had the most representation, naturally. No one came from Berkshire County, in the far west; Lincoln County, in the northeast (Maine); or the islands.

The official record of the Convention’s first days, published in the 26 September Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers, said that on the 22nd there were “a number of Gentlemen upwards of Seventy” representing “Sixty-Six Towns, besides Districts.”

The 26 September Boston Gazette stated, “We hear there is already arrived Committee-Men form [sic] 90 Towns in the Province.” And the next day, the Rev. Andrew Eliot wrote: “The Committees from the several Towns are now met in convention, between 80 and 90.”

The final published record of the Convention reported 96 towns and 8 districts participating. And even that might be an undercount. Robert Treat Paine of Taunton drew up a list of attendees with the towns or districts they represented—evidently the only surviving document that named names. This list was first published by Richard D. Brown in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1969. Furthermore, Brown added seven towns whose own local records say they sent delegates but weren’t on Paine’s list.

Now I can’t make the numbers in Brown’s footnote add up exactly with that list. To increase the confusion, some attendees represented multiple towns (“Leicester and Spencer and Paxton,” “Lunenburg and Fitchburg”) while a few towns sent two people. But it’s clear that about a hundred jurisdictions were represented.

How did the Convention compare to a typical lower house of the Massachusetts General Court? The shortened 1768 legislative session had representatives from over 200 towns, so the Convention was significantly smaller. (In contrast, when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress met in 1774, more towns participated than in the previous session of the Crown-recognized legislature.) The big secondary ports of Marblehead and Salem sent no one, and a few towns made a public point of not participating, as I’ll discuss later.

On the other hand, the Convention attracted participants from several towns that hadn’t bothered to send representatives to the General Court. The smaller ports of Newburyport, Gloucester, Plymouth, and Dartmouth were there, along with most of the big farming towns in Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk Counties (which would supply militia companies in a military emergency). Some men from Maine did come. All in all, the Convention should have alerted Crown officials that Boston wasn’t alone in feeling aggrieved.

TOMORROW: How two towns responded.

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