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, October 28, 2018

“They should be able to drive all the Liberty Boys to the devil”

Back on 12 October, I quoted the Boston Whigs’ complaint about Capt. John Willson of the 59th Regiment of Foot keeping a man confined for enticing a soldier to desert.

On the evening of 28 Oct 1768, 250 years ago today, Capt. Willson offered Bostonians a new reason to complain about the royal government’s decision to station troops in their town.

In a dispatch dated the next day, the Boston Whigs declared:
…the most atrocious offence and alarming behaviour was that of a captain, the last evening, who in company with two other officers, endeavoured to persuade some Negro servants [i.e., slaves] to ill-treat and abuse their masters, assuring them that the soldiers were come to procure their freedoms, and that with their help and assistance they should be able to drive all the Liberty Boys to the devil; with discourse of the like import, tending to excite an insurrection.

Depositions are now taking before the magistrates, and prosecutions at common law are intended, the inhabitants being determined to oppose by the law such proceedings, apprehending it the most honourable as well as the most safe and effectual method of obtaining satisfaction and redress; at the same time they have a right to expect that General [Thomas] Gage will not remain an unconcerned spectator of such a conduct in any under his command.—

Here Americans you may behold some of the first fruits springing up from that root of bitterness a standing army. Troops are quartered upon us in a time of peace, on pretence of preserving order in a town that was as orderly before their arrival as any one large town in the whole extent of his Majesty’s dominions; and a little time will discover whether we are to be governed by the martial or the common law of the land.
As a society with slaves, Boston feared the prospect of rebellions—probably not in the form of a town-wide insurrection, since the black population was so relatively small, but within households. White slaveowners remembered examples of people poisoned by servants kept in bondage.

The Boston Whigs also knew that the cities to the south receiving their newspaper dispatches had larger enslaved populations and thus even more fear about those people rebelling. As with the stories of white soldiers scourged on the Common by black drummers, publicizing the case of Capt. Willson would bring them sympathy from other colonies.

[Image above from the 1 Sept 1768 Boston News-Letter via the Adverts 250 Project’s compilation of every newspaper advertisement mentioning slavery in colonial America.]

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