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, January 23, 2019

“I suppose the affair will drop”

On the night of 20 Jan 1775, as I described back here, there was a big fight between Boston’s watchmen and British army officers, with a few civilians involved on each side.

While the immediate spur was a mistaken belief that the watchman had arrested an officer, the underlying cause was the ongoing dispute over authority in Massachusetts.

When I took notes on this conflict while examining the Gage Papers at the Clements Library, I didn’t see any indication that the army’s board of enquiry led to charges, discipline, or acquittal for the officers involved.

Instead, Gen. Thomas Gage appears to have decided to leave the next steps to the civil courts. He had achieved his immediate goal of calming the town a bit by ordering a public enquiry, with five high-level officers taking testimony from over three dozen men.

That strategy worked, at least for some people. John Eliot told the Rev. Jeremy Belknap: “His Excellency seems dispos’d to do everything in his power to prevent mischief & satisfy the people, & me judice [in my judgment], the times being considered, is a very good Governor.”

So how did the civil magistrates and court system deal with the case? As the Boston Gazette reported,  Patriot-leaning magistrates ordered eight officers and saddler Richard Sharwin to answer to charges at the next court term. But the newspaper then acknowledged there was a huge obstacle in the way of any trial:
but the good People of this County will rather chuse to hear no more of this Matter, than return Jurors to the Superior Court upon the Act of Parliament to regulate the Government of this Province, which they have resolved never to submit to.——
For months the Massachusetts Whigs had been urging people not to cooperate with the royal court system, first in protest of salaries for judges from the tea tax, then in protest of the Massachusetts Government Act. Crowds had kept the county courts outside of Boston closed since the previous summer. Most of the men of Suffolk County felt the same way.

Lt. John Barker likewise saw where the controversy was heading on 25 January:
Several of the riotous Officers bound over to appear at the April Assizes, when I suppose the affair will drop, as they can’t have any Jury but according to the new Acts which they are hitherto so much averse to.
There were no “April Assizes” in Massachusetts that year. Instead, that month brought war.

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