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 20, 2019

“Too late to see your Friend Otis have a good Drubbing”

One of the more evocatively named citizens of Revolutionary Boston was a sea captain named Mungo Mackay (1740-1811).

According to family tradition, Mackay came from the Orkney Islands to Boston as a teen-aged cabin boy. He married Ruth Coney in 1764 and became a ship’s master the next year, trading with Newcastle and Tenerife. Soon he had a store on Long Wharf, and in 1768 he joined the St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons.

Mackay was another man who watched the John Robinson–James Otis fight from the open front door of the British Coffee-House, having been attracted by the noise. He could offer only a confused description of the action, not recognizing Robinson. He said he saw Otis “hustled back by the Crowd” and then “at least three [Sticks] over his Head, and the Blood running.”

Mackay’s testimony was most useful to the Whigs when he added:
I saw two Officers of the Navy talking together, one of whom said, “You have come too late to see your Friend Otis have a good Drubbing”, to which he replied, “I am very glad of it, he deserved it.”

I saw William Burnet Brown in the Room with a Whip in his Hand, who came up to Capt. [John] Bradford who was looking for Mr. Otis’s Hat & Wig, and asked him in a scornful Manner what he looked at him for, it appeared to me that he had a Desire to pick a Quarrel with Capt Bradford.
Bradford was another merchant captain and an active Whig. He was one of the Boston leaders who went out to deal with the “Powder Alarm” in 1774 and became the Continental government’s agent for the port of Boston during the war.

Mackay concluded his testimony by saying that almost all the men in the coffee-house were “Officers of the Army and Navy.” In other words, even if some men had been on Otis’s side, they were clearly outnumbered.

The Orkney-born captain swore to his affidavit “taken at the Request of James Otis, Esq;” in front of justices Richard Dana and Samuel Pemberton on 21 September, the same day as Thomas Brett.

As for Capt. Mungo Mackay, far from being only a pawn in the game of life, he’s managed to be remembered even in the age of Wikipedia.

TOMORROW: Who was William Burnet Brown?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

“Mr. Otis made a Trip (as they call it) at Mr. Robinson”

In the 25 Sept 1769 Boston Gazette, printers Benjamin Edes and John Gill ran two more eyewitness accounts of the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson.

One came from Thomas Brett, a merchant from Ireland. He said that on 5 September he was “in a Shop almost opposite the British Coffee-House” when he heard “an unusual Noise” that made him go look to see what was happening.

When I entered the Coffee-Room I perceiv’d two Gentlemen fighting with each other, the rest of the Company round them. I perceived several people rush upon Mr. Otis but in particular when Mr. Otis made a Trip (as they call it) at Mr. Robinson, which I believe would have brought him to the ground if he had not been supported by many people, who held him up.
Brett described John Gridley’s attempt to intervene, how “several people with Sticks struck” at him, and how he was shoved out of the building. Otis was shoved out at the same time, Brett said—a detail not in Gridley’s recollection.

And I don’t recall Gridley mentioning this moment, either:
Mr. Gridley in a short Time made his Appearance the second Time with his Arm (if I don’t mistake) tied up, and his Face very much disfigured with Blood, who said they were all a Pack of cowardly Rascals to take such an Advantage of a single Man, and told them altho’ one of his Arms were disabled, he would fight any cowardly Rascal of them all:
The Irish merchant also remarked on another man in the coffee-house, not previously mentioned:
I heard Mr. John Mein say that he was very glad if Mr. Otis had got much more; but said he was sorry for Mr. Gridley, as he believed he was an honest Fellow. I heard him say to some other Man he lost some Wine about it, but should pay it with the greatest Pleasure.
Mein, a Scottish bookseller and printer, had been carrying on a feud with Otis, Edes, and Gill since early 1768. That, too, had turned violent (Mein clubbed Gill because Edes had refused to confirm that a particular newspaper attack on Mein had come from Otis). So just as Mein was pleased to see Otis get beat up, Edes and Gill were probably happy to drag Mein into that affair.

“Upon the whole, as I was a Stander-by,” Brett concluded his affidavit; “in my Opinion there was foul Play shewn to Mr. Otis.” He signed that document on 21 September in front of justices Richard Dana and Samuel Pemberton, respectable officials who were always sympathetic to the Whig party line.

TOMORROW: Another witness, another accusation.

Friday, October 18, 2019

“The discipline of the stick, next ensued”

On 11 Sept 1769, the Boston Post-Boy published a response to what the writer called “a very gross misrepresentation of the quarrel which happened at the British coffee-house between Mr. Robinson and Mr. Otis” in earlier newspapers.

In particular, this writer complained that in that account “the characters of the spectators is impeached greatly to their dishonour.” The article evidently came from one of those spectators, signing himself “A Bye-Stander.” (He promised to divulge his name as soon as the writer of the previous account revealed his.)

According to this purported witness, the fight took place this way:

Mr. Robinson having received a public affront from Mr. Otis, proceeded to take public satisfaction of him in the open coffee-house, for which I don’t find him condemned by any man acquainted with the custom of the world in such cases; but instead of attacking Mr. Otis abruptly, they had a short conversation together, both standing, and after Mr. Otis had come round the table, Mr. Robinson attempted to take him by the nose, which is a kind of indignity generally used on such occasions.-------

The discipline of the stick, next ensued, during which, Mr. Otis received many heavy blows on his head, and one particularly on his forehead, that instantly produced a copious discharge of blood. Several persons then interfered in behalf of Mr. Otis, one of whom laid hold of Mr. Robinson, tore his coat, and wrested his stick from him, but through the interposition of the company fair play was soon restored, and a ring formed, when a brisk manual exercise followed, which ended greatly to the disadvantage of Mr. Otis, who was carried off by his friends, and Mr. Robinson went out at the street door.

Not a single jota is here advanced that can not be well attested, and there are about 20 Gentlemen, many of whom are inhabitants of this town, and others, strangers, that can prove, that neither sword, cutlas, or other edged weapon whatever was seen drawn, nor the least foul play offered Mr. Otis, nor were the words Kill him! once heard during the whole engagement.---

Several Gentlemen can also testify that they saw Mr. Robinson give Mr. Otis the blow before mentioned, on his fore-head, which has been reported to be the cut of an edged weapon. If Mr. Otis could recollect himself, he must allow the justice of this representation: Mr. Robinson did not stand in need of any assistance, his superiority over his antagonist was such, that he did not receive one blow from him.
This writer deployed arch language—“public satisfaction,” “The discipline of the stick,” “brisk manual exercise”—to emphasize that this was a private affair between gentlemen, even if it had played out in public.

As for any suggestion of murderous intent or deadly weapons, that was completely false, the “Bye-Stander” declared. This article even claimed that “several persons” entered the fray on Otis’s side, not just John Gridley, and “the company” intervened only to ensure “fair play.”

In sum, this account said, Robinson had beaten up Otis fair and square. Of course, that claim was hampered by the writer’s anonymity. In contrast, witnesses for Otis were going on the record.

TOMORROW: Two more witness statements.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Chaplin on Climate Recording in Almanacs, 18 Oct.

Joyce Chaplin, Professor of Early American History at Harvard University, is compiling a large database of the notes people kept in their almanacs about the daily weather.

On the afternoon of Friday, 18 October, Chaplin will speak on “Climate in Words and Numbers: How Early Americans Recorded Weather in Almanacs” as part of the M.I.T. Seminar on Environmental and Agricultural History. In particular:

Her talk focuses on how people recorded weather in numbers (including degrees Fahrenheit) and in words, ranging from “dull” to “elegant!” These notations are significant as records of a period of climate change, the Little Ice Age, also as records of how people made sense of and coped with that climatic disruption.
This talk and discussion are scheduled from 2:30 to 4:30 P.M. in Room 095 of Building E51 at the corner of Amherst and Wadsworth Street in Cambridge.

Chaplin is also scheduled to present her research in the Environmental History Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Tuesday, 3 December, starting at 5:15 P.M.

Here’s a sample of the sort of data Chaplin is working with. It’s a page from interleaved almanac kept by Andrew Bordman in 1743, now part of the Harvard libraries’ vast holdings.
This shows that November 1743 started out “Very pleasant,” but the 3rd brought “wind Fogy & Rain.” There were three straight days of rain at the middle of the month, and on 23 November “great Storm Snow over Shoes.” How will next month compare?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Hardesty on New England Slavery in Medford, 17 Oct.

On Thursday, 17 October, Jared Hardesty will speak at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford on his new book, Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England.

The site describes the book this way:
Shortly after the first Europeans arrived in 17th century New England, they began to enslave the area’s indigenous peoples and import kidnapped Africans. By the eve of the American Revolution, enslaved people comprised only about 4% of the population, but slavery had become instrumental to the region’s economy and had shaped its cultural traditions.

In this concise yet comprehensive history, Jared Ross Hardesty focuses on the individual stories of enslaved people in New England, bringing their experiences to life. He also explores the importance of slavery to the colonization of the region and to agriculture and industry, New England’s deep connections to Caribbean plantation societies, and the significance of emancipation movements in the era of the American Revolution.
Hardesty is an Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University. His last book was Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.

This free event is scheduled to start at 7:30 P.M., and will end with a book signing. Royall House expects a large crowd for this event, so attendees must register in advance.

For people who can’t get into this event, Hardesty is scheduled to return to the site on Wednesday, 18 December, for another talk.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

“We Still Live Here” Screening, 16 Oct.

On Wednesday, 16 October, the Boston Athenaeum will host a screening of Anne Makepeace’s documentary movie We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân, about the current effort to revitalize the Wampanoag language.

The Wampanoag were the first people to encounter the Pilgrims in 1620. Later English missionaries worked with converts to develop a writing system for their language and translate the Bible into it. In the 1700s, even as disease, war, and economic hardship strained the Wampanoag communities, their literacy rate is said to have rivaled that of British settlers in America.

In the following centuries, the Wampanoag community’s language nearly became extinct. Then in the 1990s Jessie Little Doe Baird, a Wampanoag social worker, began to have recurring dreams of her ancestors speaking to her in their native tongue. Those dreams inspired her to acquire a master’s degree in linguistics at M.I.T. and study hundreds of surviving documents written in the Wampanoag language. Eventually Baird developed a language education program with members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities.

After the screening of the film, the audience will be able to discuss it with assistant producer Jennifer Weston. Having grown up on the Hunkpapa Lakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, she now directs the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Language Department. Weston is also Associate Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

This event will start with a reception at 5:30 P.M. The documentary will be shown from 6:00 to 7:00, followed by discussion until 8:00. Admission is $15 for Athenaeum members and $20 for others, and registration is required.

Folks who can’t attend this event can screen the film at home through Makepeace’s webpage.

Monday, October 14, 2019

“Slavery and Its Legacies at Old North” panel, 16 Oct.

On Wednesday, 16 October, the Old North Church hosts a panel discussion on “Slavery and Its Legacies at Old North: Confronting the Past, Envisioning the Future.”

The event description says:
Captain Newark Jackson was a merchant, mariner, and congregant of Old North Church in the 1730s and 1740s who made and sold chocolate near Clark’s Shipyard in the North End. In 2013, Old North Church & Historic Site opened a living history chocolate experience named after the seemingly innocuous seafarer and cacao importer. Over the past seven years, Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate has become an integral part of the historic site and a beloved gem along the Freedom Trail. The story of colonial chocolate and Jackson is woven into the story of Old North Church.

In 2016, historian Jared Hardesty became intrigued with this man about whom very little was known. So began a three-year international research project that revealed significant insights into Old North’s past that affects its future. Jackson’s personal history, as that of Old North and the city of Boston, reveals a complicated past involving slave owning and slave trading that weighs upon the present and alters our sense of ourselves.
The panelists include:
  • Prof. Hardesty, author of Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston, now at Western Washington University
  • Prof. Jonathan Chu of University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Madeleine Rodriguez, associate at the Foley Hoag law firm
  • Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Their conversation will address “how a historic site comes to terms with information that alters its self-identity, its interpretation, and its public face,” examining “the complexity of past narratives, the impact of the past upon the present, and the necessity of history in correcting a fractured identity.” There will be time for questions and comments from the audience.

The event is scheduled to take place from 6:30 to 8:00 P.M. It is free, but attendees can register to attend through this page.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

“I rushed in between the said Otis and Robinson”

On 18 Sept 1769, the Boston Gazette’s front page featured an item of local news. Usually the Boston dispatches ran on page 3 or so, after reports reprinted from newspapers in other cities, because the local news was freshest. But Edes and Gill put this piece in type early on. They knew they had to run it.

The article was a legal affidavit from John Gridley, the young merchant who had thrust himself into the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson back on 5 September.

Gridley testified that he had been passing by the door of the British Coffee-House on King Street and saw Otis and Robinson “engaged in Discourse, and by their Words and Gestures he perceived they were in great Warmth.” They were talking about “a Gentleman’s Satisfaction” and agreed to go out of the room.

Gridley went on:
Mr. Otis on saying the last Words was retiring to go out at the Door which leads into the Entry, and was hindered by Mr. Robinson’s Attempt to take him by the Nose, which Mr. Otis prevented by holding his Cane before him.

Mr. Robinson then closed in upon said Otis and struck him with a Stick, which Mr. Otis returned with his Stick, and reciprocal Blows passed, which lasted about One Minute, and neither seemed to have the Advantage:

Then they were disarmed of Sticks, and engaged with Fists, which being perceived by some of the Spectators, (most of whom were of the Army, Navy and Revenue) they endeavoured by pushing and pulling the said Otis, to prevent his beating the said Robinson.

Immediately on seeing such foul Play (the Door of the Coffee-House being open as usual) I stepped into the Room and cried out, it was dirty Usage to treat a Man in that Manner; and on saying this, I rushed in between the said Otis and Robinson; but on going between them I felt some Person pull me by the right Shoulder, I instantly disengaged myself from the Person who had me by the Shoulder, and took Mr. Robinson by the Collar, and he, in twitching, and I in holding, tore his Coat, near or quite down to his Pockets:

I immediately received two Blows on my Head, with some Weapon from the right, by a Person who appeared standing on a Bench; the Blood which issued from my Wounds instantly filled my Eyes: I then lifted my right Hand to strike a Person who was pulling me, but who I could not see so as to know, by reason of the Blood which covered my Sight: As I lifted up my right Hand, I received a Blow from some Weapon just above the Joint of my Wrist Bone, which broke it.

I was then turned out out of the Coffee-Room Head and Shoulders by the said Persons, or some of them: I then went into said Room again, and was turned out by the Persons aforesaid: As I went in the last Time I took a Stick off the Floor (on which lay 5) hoping by that Means to find out at least one of those who had so basely and meanly abused me, that I might have reasonable Satisfaction:

I then went in at the Entering Door of the Coffee-House (not the Door which leads into the Coffee-Room) and met Mr. Otis, and told him he had better go into the front Room, set down and compose himself; which he did for about 2 Minutes: I also told him that I would defend him from any farther Abuse, as far as I was able; who replied “I am much obliged to you”—! A Person (unknown to me) told him he had better go and get his Wounds dressed; upon which he went off.—

He further saith, that after his receiving the Blows on his Wrist as aforesaid, he heard divers Voices hollow out, KILL-HIM! KILL-HIM! and I make no doubt they meant said Otis, as they were done beating me, and continuing to beat him when they thus cried out Kill Him! Kill Him!
That last detail of hearing people shout about killing was crucial to the Whigs’ claim that Otis’s enemies had tried to assassinate him in the coffee-house. It’s notable, however, that Gridley said nothing the attackers wielding “Cutlasses,” as stated in their first newspaper report of the brawl.

Gridley signed this affidavit on 13 September, eight days after the fight. The justices of the peace involved were Richard Dana and Dr. Belcher Noyes (c.1708-1785), both solid Whigs. In fact, Dana had overseen a hearing to arrest one of the men who had allegedly attacked Otis and Gridley. I’ll discuss that soon.

Gridley’s affidavit was in part a response to another account of the event that had already appeared in the newspapers—from the opposite side.

COMING UP: An innocent bystander?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

“A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley”

As I quoted yesterday, the earliest newspaper reports on the British Coffee-House brawl between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson said that “A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley,” waded into the fight on Otis’s side.

Who was John Gridley? Having researched Boston’s Gridley families because of their connection to the Continental artillery, I can say this isn’t a simple question. They were an old New England clan with the annoying habit of having lots of children and few given names. At any one time there were multiple John, Richard, and Samuel Gridleys.

Period sources provide a couple of clues about this John Gridley. First, the fact that the newspapers consistently call him a “young Gentleman” gives a hint about his class. Second, in a letter to John Wilkes in London, Dr. Thomas Young stated that he was “a nephew to the famous attorney of that name”—Jeremy Gridley (1702-1767), who had trained Otis in the law.

In a footnote to an article about Dr. Young published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Henry H. Edes wrote, “The only John Gridley of whom any record is found in Boston who may have been the person mentioned in the text was John, son of Isaac and Sarah (Porter) Gridley, who was baptized 16 October, 1737,” in the New South Meetinghouse.

Isaac Gridley, born in 1703, was indeed a younger brother of the attorney and older brother of the artillery officer. He became a ropemaker. Among his many real-estate transactions catalogued by Annie Haven Thwing, he sold John Gray property in the center of Boston that probably became part of the ropewalk where fights broke out before the Boston Massacre. After 1748 Isaac was legally referred to as “Isaac Gridley, Esq.,” indicating that society saw him as a gentleman.

John Gridley thus inherited a certain status. He married Mercy Bartlett of Newton on 18 Mar 1761. Four years later his name appeared on advertising for fishing nets and other cordage, so he had probably started to help run his father’s business. Isaac died in April 1767.

The Boston town meeting elected a John Gridley as a Clerk of the Market in March 1768. This was a low-level position that showed the respect of the town. Some men chosen for it moved up in government and others, like Gridley, simply served out the year.

When Gridley barged into the British Coffee-House on 5 Sept 1769, he was thirty-one years old—not exceptionally “young” but still part of the rising generation. He wasn’t out of place in a genteel establishment or in Boston’s business center.

A few months later, Gridley got involved with another milestone event in Boston’s pre-Revolutionary turmoil. On the evening of 5 Mar 1770, he was in the Bunch of Grapes tavern (shown above) with three other men when they heard the fire alarm. Gridley offered to go find out what was happening. Outside the Customs house he saw Pvt. Hugh White facing off against a crowd comprised mostly of “Little trifling boys.”

Gridley walked on, then came back when he saw a squad of British soldiers arrive. He even “walked betwixt the two ranks” as the men loaded their muskets. By this time, Gridley thought the crowd was full of “Mother Tapley’s boys,…boys as big as I am.” (No one can find that expression anywhere else in the entire corpus of English literature, and it needed to be explained at the trial.)

The soldiers’ attorneys called “John Gridley Merchant” to testify for their defense. He described hearing locals speak of attacking the main guard. He said the crowd doubled to about fifty people, some at the back throwing snowballs. And:
As I stood on the steps of the Bunch of Grapes tavern; the general noise and cry was why do you not fire, damn you, you dare not fire, fire and be damned. These words were spoke very loud, they might be heard to the Long wharff.
That sort of testimony was helpful to the defense and the royal cause in general, but Whig commentators don’t seem to have singled out Gridley’s testimony for criticism.

Nonetheless, in the next couple of years Gridley left Boston on some sort of business in the Caribbean. He never returned. The Boston Gazette and Evening-Post of 12 Apr 1773 reported that “Mr. John Gridley, Merchant,” had died in the West Indies.

TOMORROW: Gridley’s testimony about the brawl.

Friday, October 11, 2019

“Others struck with Cutlasses, Canes and other Weapons”

Boston newspapers published three detailed descriptions of the fight between Customs Commissioner John Robinson and Boston representative James Otis, Jr., on 5 Sept 1769.

The first appeared on 11 September, as Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette printed an anonymous news report that of course supported Otis. Picking up right after Robinson tried to pull his opponent's nose, it said:
…failing in the Attempt, he [Robinson] immediately struck at him [Otis] with his Cane, against which Mr. Otis defended himself, and returned the Compliment.

A close Engagement then ensued, and Mr. Otis having disarmed his Antagonist, several Persons in the Room prevented Mr. Otis from having fair Play, some of whom held him, while others struck with Cutlasses, Canes and other Weapons; and the Cry was Kill him! Kill him!
At this point, the Gazette writer said, “A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley,” came into the room and tried to protect Otis, but “was also attacked in the Manner Mr. Otis was.”

The crowd grew. “Robinson and those who were with him, retired through the back Door of the Coffee-House.—Mr. Otis and Mr. Gridley were carried off much wounded.”

The same column declared that most of the men in the room were “Officers of the Army, Navy and the Revenue.” The writer insisted that “the Plan of the intended and nearly executed Assassination of Mr. Otis, was concerted in Palmer’s Pasture.”

I’ve found a couple of references to that spot of Boston real estate. Once indeed a pasture, by 1769 it was a remnant empty lot on Pearl Street. The owner by inheritance was Thomas Palmer (1743-1820, shown above), who had married into the Royall family of Medford and later became a Loyalist. Palmer was also distantly related to the Hutchinson family.

However, I think the real significance of “Palmer’s Pasture” was that Palmer was the landlord of Customs Commissioner Charles Paxton. The 11 September Boston Gazette also included a paragraph said to have been “received from the Country before the Exploit on Tuesday Evening last.” It spoke of “Sir Charles Froth” (Paxton) and “Shan Ap-Morgan” (Robinson), who was supposedly going around “heavily armed” and making threats against “Candidus” (Samuel Adams).

In sum, the Gazette writer was broadly hinting that the Customs Commissioners had planned the violence in the British Coffee-House, with hopes of killing Otis. Which would have been quite the coincidence since Otis had threatened violence against Robinson just one week before in the same newspaper.

TOMORROW: But what did John Gridley say?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

“Suddenly turned and attempted to take him by the Nose”

As quoted back here, in the 4 Sept 1769 Boston Gazette James Otis, Jr., made a novel natural-rights argument about John Robinson. He declared that if that Customs Commissioner “misrepresents me, I have a natural right if I can get no other satisfaction to break his head.”

In the 18 September Boston Chronicle, Robinson, addressing Otis directly, described what he did that Monday and the next day:
you strutted about the town, denouncing vengeance against the first Commissioner you should meet with.—On Tuesday you went to a shop, and asked, if I did not buy a stick there, and being told I had, you desired to have the fellow of it which you bought accordingly.—
The 11 September Boston Post-Boy contained Robinson’s description of how the two gentlemen finally crossed paths:
On the evening of the next day Tuesday, I went to the Coffee-house between the hours of 7 & 8, and seeing Mr. Otis without a sword, I went into a back room, where I laid mine aside, and immediately returned into the Public room.---

I then addressed myself to Mr. Otis, in these words or to this effect.—Some days ago you wanted a free conversation with me, now I want a free conversation with you:

He immediately stood up in a rage and said he was ready to answer me in any manner;

I replied have a little patience; and let me ask you whether, I did not repeatedly tell you when we met the other day, that if I had done you an injury, I was ready to give you that satisfaction you had a right to expect from a Gentleman.----How therefore could you publish the account in Edes and Gill’s paper of yesterday?

It was proposed by some persons, (his friends I suppose,) that we should go into a room.

I said, that I had been in a room with him once already; and perceiving that he frequently menaced me with his stick, I took him or at least attempted to take him by the nose.-----
The Boston Gazette’s 11 September report was of course sympathetic to Otis, but agreed on the basic details:
After a Proposal on the Part of Mr. Otis to decide this Controversy by themselves abroad, or in a separate Room, the former was refused, but the latter seemed to be consented to by Mr. Robinson, but very unexpectedly to Mr. Otis, and while he was following, Mr. Robinson in the Presence of the publick Company in the Coffee-Room, suddenly turned and attempted to take him by the Nose; and failing in the Attempt, he immediately struck at him with his Cane, against which Mr. Otis defended himself, and returned the Compliment.
The Evening-Post’s report was nearly identical but said that as Otis “was rising, Mr. Robinson…attempted to pull him by the Nose.”

Kenneth S. Greenberg has shown how nose-pulling had a strong meaning in genteel honor culture. It was a great insult as well as a physical pain. Greenberg focused on the ante-bellum American South, but that society inherited the dueling code of eighteenth-century Britain which Robinson and Otis were trying (somewhat clumsily) to follow.

TOMORROW: From nose to head.

[The picture above is “Poor old England endeavoring to reclaim his wicked American children,” published in London in 1777. Available from the Library of Congress, the British Museum, and, in color, the John Carter Brown Library.]

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Hubbard on Black Soldiers at Bennington, 9 Oct.

Also at the Massachusetts Historical Society, tonight’s public lecture is “The Black Presence at the Battle of Bennington” by Phil Holland.

The event description says:
The Battle of Bennington, fought on August 16, 1777, was a critical patriot victory that led directly to the British surrender at Saratoga two months later. Led by Gen. John Stark, militia from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and Continental troops under Col. Seth Warner soundly defeated British troops attempting to seize stores held at Bennington. This illustrated talk is the first treatment of the black presence at the battle, which extended from black soldiers from the Berkshires to the sources of the wealth that funded the New Hampshire troops.
Phil Holland is a native of Athol, Massachusetts, who now lives in Shaftsbury, Vermont. He is the author of A Guide to the Battle of Bennington and the Bennington Monument and continues to research that fight.

This event will start at 5:30 P.M. with a reception, and the talk is scheduled for 6:00. Admission is $10, but there is no charge for M.H.S. Fellows and Members or E.B.T. cardholders. Last-minute registration available through this link.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

The Revolutionary Roots of the Brighton Cattle Market

Tonight at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the environmental history seminar will discuss Andrew Robichaud’s paper “Brighton Fair: The Life, Death, and Legacy of an Animal Suburb.”

This paper focuses on the great growth of Brighton, originally Cambridge’s “south precinct” or “Little Cambridge,” as a livestock market in the 1800s.

On the genesis of that market, Robichaud cites the work of local historian William P. Marchione, whose Bull in the Garden collects the traditions of butchers establishing the meat market to supply the Continental Army during the siege of Boston. Specifically, sources credit Jonathan Winship (1719-1784) and his son, also named Jonathan (1747-1814).

Documentation is harder to find, though in his article “When Cattle Was King” Marchione wrote of the Winships:
As early as 1777, as the records of the Army of New England indicate, the family’s two warehouses in Little Cambridge contained some 500 barrels of salted beef. So important was this meat supply to the revolutionary cause that the army posted soldiers to protect it against possible sabotage.
That year, Cambridge counted twelve white men and one black man living in the Winship household, the largest on the south side of the Charles River.

The 1882 Memorial History of Boston reported the Winship family was successful enough during the war to build a big house:
The Winship house, a mansion of considerable importance in its day, was erected in 1780 by Jonathan Winship, a farmer who cultivated a large tract of land in its vicinity, and who died Oct. 3, 1784, aged 65. . . . Jonathan Winship, Jr.,…contracted for the supply of beef to the French fleet that visited Boston shortly after the Revolutionary War.
In a 1982 paper in Agricultural History, “The Brighton Market,” David C. Smith and Anne E. Bridges noted that the Winships had arrived in the village a decade before the war. They had to be established to earn the Continental Army business:
Oral tradition has suggested that Brighton was the source of the Boston meat supplies as early as 1765. More probably the use of Brighton as the Boston abattoir dates from 1776 when the problem of feeding the besieging Continental army became difficult. Jonathan Winship, owner of a farm in Cambridge since 1765, took a contract to provide meat to the soldiers.
I can add that one Jonathan Winship had a direct link to Boston’s pre-Revolutionary resistance.

In the Whigs’ “Journal of the Times,” the 25 July 1769 entry described an altercation between “a grenadier of the 14th Regiment,” and “A country butcher who frequents the market.” Further entries identified the grenadier as Pvt. John Riley and the butcher as “Jonathan Winship of Cambridge.” The behavior described sounds more like a 22-year-old than a 50-year-old, but you never can tell.

Someday I’ll discuss the competing descriptions of that fight. For now, I’ll just note how the Brighton cattle market is another New England institution with a Sestercentennial connection.

Monday, October 07, 2019

“I have a natural right…to break his head”

As I described yesterday, in the 3 Sept 1769 Boston Gazette James Otis, Jr., rehashed a bunch of his grievances with the Customs office and even printed them at length.

In particular, Otis was certain that Collector Joseph Harrison had described him as “disaffected” in a report to the Board of Customs, and that those Commissioners had sent that report on to some office in London—he didn’t know which.

Why Otis was so convinced about this is unclear. Had he received a warning from a correspondent in London? Had the one Customs Commissioner who’d broken from the rest, John Temple, told him? Or had he made it all up?

It seems significant that Otis didn’t quote that report or give a date for it. Maybe he hadn’t really seen the text he described. Or perhaps the reference to him wasn’t really slanderous, except by linking him to some resistance within Boston, but he took it personally.

Harrison had offered an apology to Otis, insisting that he never wrote an “official report” meaning any such implication. Otis printed that note in the Gazette and responded with this fine screed:
Mr. Harrison is too contemptible in my opinion to take any further notice of at present, than to declare, that I think him if not a very wicked, yet a very weak old man. To charge a person by name as inimical to the Crown, and then give it under hand that no reflection was meant, is either lying or a mark of superannuation.

As to official reports, my charge against mr. Harrison was not confined to them: Had it been, he has no right to use my name in his official reports, unless I obstruct him in his office, which he knows I never did.—

The Commissioners too are far gone in the doctrine of official reports. And it seems to be a current opinion among them, that the most infamous slander imaginable, handed into their board, & sworn to no matter by whom, nor before what justice, is sufficient to support a memorial to the Treasury or Parliament.

It is strange considering the frequent conferences & communications between those able lawyers Gov. [Thomas] Hutchinson, Judge [Robert] Auchmuty, the Attorney-General, Jonathan [Sewall, who used the newspaper pseudonym] Philanthrop, and the Commissioners, these have not learnt law enough to know they have no right to scandalize their neighbours.——

’Tis stranger that Mr. [John] Robinson, even in his Welch clerkship, could not find out that if he “officially” or in any other way misrepresents me, I have a natural right if I can get no other satisfaction to break his head. None but such superlative blockheads as H. Hulton, C. Paxton, W. Burch, and J. Robinson, could think gentlemen amenable to them unless they hold under them.
With that last paragraph Otis invoked the genteel language of dueling (“satisfaction”) but then insisted that protocol didn’t apply to Commissioner Robinson. To “break his head” would show that Robinson was no gentleman.

Of course, Otis also sneered at Robinson as a Welshman and called all four hostile Customs Commissioners “superlative blockheads,” so he gave them plenty of reason to feel insulted. But the words “break his head” were a clear threat of violence.

COMING UP: Somebody’s head gets broken.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

The Paragraphs James Otis Cooked Up

In his diary John Adams described how he spent the evening of Sunday, 3 Sept 1769, in the Edes and Gill print shop: “preparing for the Next Days Newspaper—a curious Employment. Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurences, &c.—working the political Engine!”

James Otis, Jr., and Samuel Adams evidently brought the young lawyer along as they prepared propaganda for the next day’s readers. Media historians often quote that entry in discussions of how Boston’s Whig press operated.

While that writing process might have been typical, the paragraphs that the Whig leaders came up with after that particular Sabbath had unusual consequences. What Otis wrote that night broke whatever gentlemen’s truce he’d forged the day before with the Commissioners of Customs.

Three items appeared over Otis’s signature on page 2 of the 4 September Boston Gazette. At the top of the first column, labeled “ADVERTISEMENT,” was a paragraph that began:
WHEREAS I have full evidence that [Commissioners] Henry Hulton, Charles Paxton, William Burch, and John Robinson, Esquires, have frequently and lately treated the character of all true North Americans in a manner that it not to be endured, by privately and publickly representing them as Traitors and Rebels, and in a general combination to revolt from Great Britain.

And whereas the said Henry, Charles, William, and John, without the least provocation or color, have represented me by name as inimical to the rights of the Crown, and disaffected to his Majesty…
Otis concluded by asking the government in London to “pay no kind of regard to any of the abusive misrepresentations of me or my country.” So there.

Next was the text of an 11 August letter from Joseph Harrison, the long-time Customs Collector, denying he’d meant to “cast any person reflection or censure” on Otis in a report to his bosses. Otis had asked Commissioner Robinson about that issue on Saturday and received no answer. In the newspaper he had more to say, which I’ll quote tomorrow.

The third item consisted of extracts from a 1761 deposition by Charles Paxton (shown above) about a political alliance of rival Customs officer Benjamin Barons, the Boston merchants, and Otis. I started out to explain that issue, and after two long paragraphs I realized the most important detail in 1769 was that nobody cared. Eight or more years before, Otis reportedly was heard to “speak disrespectfully and threateningly of the Governor.” So what? Gov. Francis Bernard had left Boston under a cloud. That political fight was over. Otis had won.

As far as I can tell, the accusations Otis was responding to hadn’t appeared in any local newspaper. There were actually very few mentions of him in the Customs office documents recently leaked from London. Those few references were mostly about how he had moderated town meetings in late 1768 just before and after the arrival of the troops.

It looks to me like Otis was seeing direct accusations against him in what were at most oblique descriptions of him leading a generally obstreperous town. Furthermore, he thought it was a good idea to publicize those charges of disloyalty instead of letting them fade away. This doesn’t seem like a canny, rational political response. It seems a manifestation of the manic mood that comes through in John Adams’s other diary comments that week.

TOMORROW: How Otis lashed out verbally.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

“Otis indulged himself in all his Airs”

So far I’ve been discussing the affray between Customs official John Robinson and Boston politician James Otis, Jr., in the context of larger politics—the non-importation campaign in Boston, and the leaks of royal government documents from London.

But personal factors might have been even more important in how events unfolded. For those I turn to the diary of John Adams.

The day after Robinson and Otis had their private conversation over coffee was Sunday, 3 Sept 1769, and Adams wrote:
Heard Dr. [Samuel] Cooper in the forenoon, Mr. [Judah?] Champion of Connecticutt in the Afternoon and Mr. [Ebenezer] Pemberton in the Evening at the Charity Lecture.

Spent the Remainder of the Evening and supped with Mr. Otis, in Company with Mr. [Samuel] Adams, Mr. Wm. Davis, and Mr. Jno. Gill. The Evening spent in preparing for the Next Days Newspaper—a curious Employment. Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurences, &c.—working the political Engine!

Otis talks all. He grows the most talkative Man alive. No other Gentleman in Company can find a Space to put in a Word—as Dr. Swift expressed it, he leaves no Elbow Room. There is much Sense, Knowledge, Spirit and Humour in his Conversation. But he grows narrative, like an old Man. Abounds with Stories.
The next day, Monday, Adams and his social club met at the home of Dr. James Pecker (1724-1794). This club often talked about politics, though Pecker was a mild Loyalist. Adams wrote:
Spent the Evening at Dr. Peckers, with the Clubb. Mr. Otis introduced a Stranger, a Gentleman from Georgia, recommended to him by the late Speaker of the House in that Province.

Otis indulged himself in all his Airs. Attacked the Aldermen, [Henderson] Inches and [Samuel] Pemberton, for not calling a Town meeting to consider the Letters of the Governor, General, Commodore, Commissioners, Collector, Comptroller &c.— charged them with Timidity, Haughtiness, Arbitrary Dispositions, and Insolence of Office.

But not the least Attention did he shew to his Friend the Georgian.—No Questions concerning his Province, their Measures against the Revenue Acts, their Growth, Manufactures, Husbandry, Commerce—No general Conversation, concerning the Continental Opposition—Nothing, but one continued Scene of bullying, bantering, reproaching and ridiculing the Select Men.—Airs and Vapours about his Moderatorship [of town meetings], and Membership, and [Thomas] Cushings Speakership.—There is no Politeness nor Delicacy, no Learning nor Ingenuity, no Taste or Sense in this Kind of Conversation.
We can see Otis’s concern about the documents from London here, but Adams said he didn’t show a concern for the larger struggle. What’s more, Adams, who generally admired Otis, was really put off by how he was dominating all conversations with his stories and criticism of other Whigs.

Otis’s modern biographers, such as John J. Waters, have noted earlier moments when he acted irrationally, when his political pronouncements shifted suddenly and surprised his allies. Otis may have been dealing with bipolar disorder, and in this early September going through a period of manic behavior. Which casts a different light on what he did the next day.

TOMORROW: The paragraphs they cooked up.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Big News for Boston History Fans

The Atlas of Boston History is a big book. I just got my copy, and it’s 14 inches tall and 11 inches wide, 224 full-color pages of maps, charts, and other illustrations of Boston history.

I got a copy because I worked with editor Nancy S. Seasholes on the page spread about Revolutionary Boston. You can see the whole list of topics and contributors, and several sample spreads, at the website for the book. Needless to say, a project this big has been several years in the making.

The Atlas of Boston History will be officially launched at the Boston Public Library’s central building on Thursday, 24 October, at 6:30 P.M. Nancy will speak about the project, and there will be a question-and-answer session with her and contributors. (I hope to participate, but I’ll have to come from another event in Cambridge.)

Other Atlas events include:

  • Wednesday, 30 October, 7:00 P.M.: Porter Square Books, Cambridge, author talk
  • Thursday, 14 November, 5:30 P.M.: Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, author talk and panel

Thursday, October 03, 2019

“Battle of Daniels Farm” in Blackstone, 5-6 Oct.

This weekend, 5-6 October, there will be a Revolutionary War encampment and battle reenactment at the Daniels Farmstead in Blackstone (originally part of Mendon), Massachusetts.

This event won’t recreate an actual battle. In fact, the scenario is based on an imaginary contingency: the British army holding Newport has driven the New England forces out of Rhode Island. The redcoats are trying to inflict further damage on American and French units in the Blackstone River Valley to relieve pressure on the port back in Crown hands.

This event also includes demonstrations of such crafts as blacksmithing, joinery, tinsmithing, spinning, and gunsmithing. There will be fencing demonstrations and artillery units showing how men worked together to fire their cannon. Battle re-enactments are scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday, quite possibly with different outcomes.

There’s also an educational component of this reenactment, which is partly sponsored by a grant through the Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School. On Friday students will view the crafts demonstrations after I brief them about how apprenticeships worked in the eighteenth century.

On Saturday, 5 October, I’ll speak in the high school on the topic “Beyond Battle Road: The Massachusetts Militia’s Other Marches in 1774 and 1775.” That session will be first and foremost for the reenactors themselves, but anyone can attend as long as seats are available. Blackstone Valley Tech High is at 65 Pleasant Street in Upton, and that talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M.

But of course the primary attraction of this weekend is the battle reenactment out at the farmstead. The camp will be open from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. on both days. Food will be sold on the site. Vendors will have period wares. Admission to the reenactment will be $8.00 per day or $10.00 for a two-day pass, with children under twelve admitted free. There will be free parking at the J.F.K. Elementary School at 200 Lincoln Street in Blackstone and buses shuttling visitors to the farmstead continuously while the camp is open.

The weather report for this weekend predicts that both Saturday and Sunday will be dry and 60°F or above, so fine weather for fall in New England.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Breen on “Revolutionary Communities” in Worcester, 3 Oct.

On Thursday, 3 October, T. H. Breen will speak about “Revolutionary Communities: Where Americans Won Independence” at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. This talk is based on his new book, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America.

The event announcement says that the book “argues that without the participation of ordinary people during the colonial rebellion, there would have been no victory over Great Britain,” which is hardly surprising. The publisher’s page for the book is clearer about its focus:
Far from the actions of the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, [ordinary people] took responsibility for the course of the revolution. They policed their neighbors, sent troops and weapons to distant strangers committed to the same cause, and identified friends and traitors. By taking up the reins of power but also setting its limits, they ensured America’s success.
So it seems to be a study of the local committees and authorities who maintained order during the war.

LitHub has an extract, which says in part:
The new men took charge of community affairs before they became revolutionaries, before most of them even openly advocated national independence. They were caught up by the sudden collapse of British authority outside a few major port cities. They learned on the job, gaining a measure of self­-confidence through the daily challenge of policing politically suspicious neighbors, recruiting Continental soldiers, overseeing the local militia, collecting taxes, and supplying soldiers with food and blankets.

It was this common experience that allows us to generalize about revolutionary voices. To be sure, we recognize profound regional differences, some greater than others. South Carolina was not Massachusetts. Moreover, records in the South are not as full as those surviving in the Middle States and New England. We might note religious and economic variations or contrasting racial statistics. But such distinctions and uneven records should not dis­courage us from looking at the Revolution as a whole. After all, one can examine resistance in local communities, while at the same time making broad generalizations about a revolutionary people at war.
T. H. Breen is the John Kluge Professor of American Law and Governance at the Library of Congress, the James Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont, and the Founding Director of the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies at Northwestern University. He has taught at many leading universities and written many books about early America.

(You can watch me introduce Tim speaking about President George Washington’s fraught 1789 visit to Gov. John Hancock at the Cambridge Forum here.)

This talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M., and there will be a book-signing afterwards. The A.A.S. is at 185 Salisbury Street in Worcester. There is parking on Regent Street and in the lot at 90 Park Avenue. This event is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

“Copies of which are lately come over here”

On 20 Jan 1769, William Bollan, the Massachusetts Council’s agent—i.e., lobbyist—in London, sent urgent copies of seven letters to the senior member of the Council, Samuel Danforth.

Six of those letters were from Gov. Francis Bernard (shown here), the seventh from Gen. Thomas Gage. They described the period late in 1768 after British army regiments had arrived in Boston and local authorities were stubbornly refusing to help house them. The legislature had Edes and Gill print those letters for public consumption in April.

As Massachusetts Whigs saw it, that leak revealed how Bernard had held them up to the ministry as disloyal troublemakers even as he was promising that he spoke up for their interests. None of the Whigs were really shocked; back in May 1768 a Boston Gazette writer had said that Bernard “writes double Letters, pro and con, to be used as Occasion serves.” Nevertheless, the Whigs acted like this was a huge betrayal.

The governor's stretched credibility was torn to bits. He was already wishing for an easier, more lucrative post than Massachusetts, so he asked to be recalled to Britain for consultations. Bernard sailed away at the start of August.

Meanwhile, on 21 and 23 June, Bollan sent more documents from London. This batch included earlier letters from Gov. Bernard and dispatches from the Commissioners of Customs about all the opposition they faced in Boston, including the Liberty riot of July 1768. There were even a few anonymous letters describing Boston town meetings. Those arrived in mid-August.

That leak was what prompted James Otis, Jr., to seek out some of the Customs Commissioners. When Otis finally sat down with Commissioner John Robinson over a private “dish of coffee” on Saturday, 2 September, he explained he was responding to “the Board’s memorials to the Treasury, copies of which are lately come over here.”

According to Robinson, Otis demanded to know if he or the other Commissioners had represented him “as a rebel and a traitor” in their reports. Robinson said he couldn’t recall mentioning Otis by name at all.

The men then went back and forth over protocol. After Otis said that Commissioner William Burch had just declined to answer any questions at all, Robinson chided him for approaching the officials separately. “Why did you not apply to us as a Board, as your business is altogether official?”

Otis answered: “We might have had some altercation, which might have been construed an insult upon you as a Board, which I was determined to avoid.” What sort of “altercation” he imagined is unclear. Otis then went on to criticize things Bernard had written about him years before.

“That is your own business,” Robinson recalled saying. “I have nothing to do with it,--you and I have always been in different Boxes,---and though we might disagree in politics it is no reason that we should think ill of one another as Men,-----and I never had a bad opinion of you and a Man.”

Otis insisted, “I annually take the oath of allegeance to my King, and am resolved to clear my character.”

“If you think that I have done you any injury,” Robinson said, "I am ready to give you the satisfaction you have a right to expect from a Gentleman.”

Otis asked about remarks by “The old fellow [Joseph] Harrison the Collector,” which Robinson declined to answer. Then Otis declared, “I have been used very ill, and I am determined to have justice.”

Robinson closed the conversation, as he recalled it, by repeating his promise “to give you the satisfaction you have a right to expect from a Gentleman.” That was the language of honor. Was it also the language of dueling?

COMING UP: James Otis in a mood.

Monday, September 30, 2019

“He wanted a free conversation with us”

After his fight with James Otis, Jr., became a big deal, Customs Commissioner John Robinson published his version of what had led up to it. That account was dated 7 Sept 1769 and appeared in Green and Russell’s Boston Post-Boy four days later.

According to Robinson, on Friday, 1 September, he arrived at the Board of Customs’s meeting room in Concert Hall about 10:30 A.M. and was told that Otis had come by that morning and asked to speak to him and a fellow Customs Commissioner, Henry Hulton. After Hulton came in, the two men sent “Green the Messenger”—probably Bartholomew Green—to find Otis.

About 11:00, Otis arrived at the door with Samuel Adams. The board’s secretary invited him in, but he declined. The two Commissioners went to the door, and Robinson said:
Your servant, Gentlemen; pray what is your business with us?----

Mr. Otis answered, that he wanted a free conversation with us:

I replied, It is necessary that we should first know upon what business, Will you not walk into a room Gentlemen?

He answered, that his business was of such a nature, that it could not be transacted in our own houses, and he could not mention it until he met us: and he proposed, that each of us should bring with him a friend, and he would bring a friend with him.

I then asked him, whether his business was official?

He answered, he did not understand what I meant by official:

I replied, does it relate to us as Commissioners?

He said, it is related to his character, he wanted a free conversation with us on that subject, and that he was to meet Mr. [William] Burch [another Customs Commissioner] at the coffee-house the next morning at seven o’clock.

I answered, that as I lived in the country, I did not know whether I could attend at that time, and Mr. Hulton [who lived in Brookline] said the same in respect to himself.

Mr. Otis then said any other time will do.

We answered, we would see him at a convenient opportunity, and then parted.
I share that all to show the genteel, even arch, tone of the interaction, and to suggest how frustrating it must have been to figure out what Otis was on about. It’s notable that he didn’t have a particular beef with Robinson—he was making the same approach to three of the five Commissioners. (Of the remaining two, John Temple was a political ally of the Whigs and Charles Paxton a longtime foe, so Otis probably didn’t see approaching them as worthwhile.)

The next morning, Robinson decided he’d go to the coffee house at the same time as Burch, but he arrived late, closer to 7:30, and found Burch coming out. He and Otis ended up alone in a back room sharing a “dish of coffee.” [Because you need some kind of caffeine for a breakfast meeting.]

Finally Otis got to his grievance. In Robinson’s recollection he said:
I am informed that I have been represented to government by your Board, as a rebel and a traitor, and I have two or three questions to put to you, that I think, as a gentleman, I have a right to an answer, or at least to ask. The first is, whether your Board as Commissioners, Gentlemen, or in any other manner, ever represented me in that light, in any of their memorials or letters to the Treasury.
There had been another leak from London, and Otis was taking things personally.

TOMORROW: The Customs Commissioners’ reports.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

James Otis and John Robinson

Before the month ends, I must address the sestercentennial of a significant moment in Revolutionary politics. Digging into Harvard students’ misbehavior in a Cambridge tavern, fun as that was, put off the important task of examining top officeholders’ misbehavior in a Boston coffeehouse.

I speak of the fight between Boston Whig leader James Otis, Jr., and Customs Commissioner John Robinson on 5 September 1769.

Otis was, of course, the loudest and boldest voice against Parliament’s new measures for North America. He started his political career as an advocate for the provincial government but turned against the administration of Gov. Francis Bernard and became the preferred attorney of Boston’s discontented merchants.

In the 1760s Otis dominated Boston town meetings and the Massachusetts General Court. He was a driving force behind the Stamp Act Congress and the Massachusetts Convention of Towns. Though he didn’t coin the phrase “No taxation without representation,” Otis established that principal as crux of the imperial debate.

As for Robinson, he rose through appointments within the royal government. He appears to have been born in Wales—at least Samuel Adams attacked him in print with ethnic stereotypes of a Welshman. He may also have had legal training. In 1764 Robinson arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, as collector for the Customs service. Naturally, enforcing laws against smuggling made him unpopular with local merchants and mariners, and the Stamp Act turmoil drove him out of town.

When the British government created a Board of Customs for all of North America in 1767, it appointed Robinson one of the five commissioners. He relocated to Boston, then occasionally had to relocate to Castle William because of more mob violence. He did find some friendly faces, however. By 1769 Robinson was engaged to marry Nancy Boutineau, daughter of a merchant of Huguenot descent.

As described back here, in August 1769 the Boston Whigs had managed to drive Gov. Bernard out of Massachusetts by publishing his letters to the ministry. They pushed on with their campaign against the Townshend duties, pressuring all merchants to sign a non-importation agreement.

The Customs office worked with Boston Chronicle printer John Mein to weaken that boycott by releasing data on what merchants were still importing. Meanwhile, the Whig press was running extracts of Bernard’s letters, “Journal of the Times” dispatches reprinted from newspapers in other provinces, and attacks on importers. As discussed here, the newspaper debate had already turned violent when Mein attacked Boston Gazette printer John Gill in January 1768. (James Otis was wrapped up in that fight, too.)

Two hundred fifty years ago this month, Otis had a personal bone to pick with the Customs Commissioners. On Saturday, 2 Sept 1769, John Adams wrote in his diary:
Heard that Messrs. Otis and Adams went Yesterday to Concert Hall, and there had each of them a Conference with each of the Commissioners, and that all the Commissioners met Mr. Otis, this Morning at 6 O Clock at the British Coffee House. The Cause, and End of these Conferences, are Subjects of much Speculation in Town.
Indeed, there was enough interest for the Boston Chronicle to report on 4 September:
We hear that on Friday forenoon, Mr. Otis and Mr. Adams, waited on the Commissioners of his Majesty’s Customs here, and the next morning early a meeting was held, between two of the Commissioners and the above Gentlemen, at the British Coffee-House, King-street, the design of which has not yet transpired.
TOMORROW: One side of that discussion.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

How to Remember Our Revolution

Here are a couple of interesting newspaper articles from this week.

In a local section of the Boston Globe, Ben Jacques wrote about the stories of enslaved individuals in this region’s towns as preserved in old burying-grounds. This approach brings home the overlap between slavery in eighteenth-century New England and the celebrated Revolutionary movement on the local scale.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the Post and Courier reported on the launch of the state’s Revolutionary War Sestercentennial Commission. As the article notes, “more battles took place in the Palmetto State than almost anywhere else.” (The other claimants are New Jersey and New York, each with “more than 200 separate skirmishes and battles,” according to the American Battlefields Trust. The exact count depends, of course, on how one defines each fight.)

South Carolina was undoubtedly a major battleground. The British military launched two major campaigns to take Charleston, the first thwarted in 1776 and the second successful in 1780. In the second half of the war there was continuous fighting in the state, including major battles like Camden, Ninety Six, Kings Mountain, and Eutaw Springs.

The state commission should also be able to find political events in the colony leading up to the outbreak of war. Charleston was the fourth largest port in North America, the colony’s rice planters among the richest class of colonists. South Carolinians participated in the Stamp Act Congress and the non-importation movement against the Townshend duties, as this 1769 document attests.

For the present, however, the South Carolina commission is defining itself against Boston. The article even quotes one participant this way:
“Boston and Lexington and Concord stole the Revolutionary War. We’ve got to steal it back. Fortunately, the facts are on our side,” said Doug Bostick, executive director of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust and a member of the commission.
Likewise, the article states, “Charleston even had its own protest of Britain’s tea tax weeks before Boston’s famous Tea Party in 1773.”

America’s first signifiant public protest against tea importing came on 3 November when a Boston crowd attacked the Clarke family’s warehouse, demanding they resign as consignees. East India Company tea arrived in Boston, the big North American port closest to Britain, on 28 November. Local Whigs immediately began holding massive meetings and patrolling the docks.

Tea chests reached Charleston on 1 December. Two days later, the merchants and politicians of Charleston had a meeting and agreed to store that tea, taking it off the ships but for legal purposes pretending it wasn’t unloaded.

Back in Massachusetts, royal officials didn’t allow such a compromise, producing the more dramatic destruction of the tea on 16 December. Parliament’s response to that act included the Boston Port Bill, Massachusetts Government Act, and other actions that led to the outbreak of war. In—it’s really hard to deny—Massachusetts.

I think a South Carolina commission can and should define itself according to how the Revolution unfolded in that state. There must be a better way to start than “launching a decade-long education campaign in March, the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre.” Maybe the May arrival of Charleston’s William Pitt statue. And the South Carolina sestercentennial can run more than a decade, all the way to the 250th anniversary of the British evacuation in December 2032.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Earthquakes and a Volcano in 1783

Early this month the European Geosciences Union shared a blog essay by Katrin Kleemann on Europe’s frightening geological events of 1783:
Southern Italy and Sicily experience regular earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. However, the earthquakes of early 1783 did not follow the normal pattern of one strong quake and weaker fore- and/or aftershocks. Instead, there was a seismic sequence of five strong earthquakes. A seismic sequence is an unusual event, in which one earthquake increases the stress on other parts of the fault system, which triggers subsequent earthquakes. This process is called Coulomb stress transfer.
As a sign of how dire contemporary observers thought of these quakes, Kleemann quotes an account sent to the Royal Society by Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies:
The Earthquakes in Italy were, perhaps, the most terrible and destructive of any that have happened since the Creation of the World. Four hundred towns, and about four or five times as many villages, were destroyed in this dreadful calamity. The number of lives lost, are estimated at between forty and fifty thousand.
Hamilton had already published papers about Italy’s earthquakes and volcanos. In 1770 He had even won a medal from the Royal Society for one. But he’s better known in history for his second wife’s love affair with Lord Nelson, fictionalized by Susan Sontag in The Volcano Lover.

Kleemann continues:
At the time, it was believed that sulfuric fogs were a precursor to strong earthquakes, a dry fog was observed in the days before the 1755 Lisbon earthquake – most likely produced by an eruption of the Icelandic volcano Katla. A similar fog was also reported in Calabria on February 4, 1783.

We now know that the Icelandic Laki Fissure eruption, of 1783, released large amounts of gases and ash, which were carried towards continental Europe via the jet stream. However, news of this took almost three months to reach Europe, by which time the dry fog had vanished again, making it difficult to explain the phenomenon at the time.

The sheer number of unusual subsurface phenomena observed during this time seemed overwhelming. Many theories were developed to explain the “year of awe,” one suggested the Calabria earthquakes had created a crack in the Earth, which was releasing the sulfuric fog observed over Europe. . . .

In the late eighteenth century, it was believed that all volcanoes, most often coined “fire (spitting) mountains,” were connected via fire channels inside the Earth. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were believed to be caused by chemical reactions—between gas or metals and water for instance—in subterranean passages and caverns.
As discussed back here, in early 1784 Benjamin Franklin linked the Laki volcano to the dry fog and speculated that it affected the weather in Europe. (Of course, he also suggested the atmospheric haze might have been caused by meteors, so we mustn’t think Franklin got everything right.)