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, July 28, 2019

“The officer swearing and cursing to us”

At the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Beehive blog, Nicole Breault has shared a sample of her research into the town watch of eighteenth-century Boston.

This snapshot is from the fall of 1768, just after units of the British army started to arrive from Canada and Ireland. The Boston government had responded by strengthening the nightly watch, the small squads of men patrolling different sections of town, each under the command of a constable of the watch.

Breault writes:

In November 1768, three constables of the watch filed monthly reports and formal complaints with the town selectmen charging that officers of the regiments used strong language and threats of violence to challenge watch authority.

John Martin of the South End watch reported that one of his watchmen was “asolted,” struck by an officer of one the regiments for inquiring who was walking at night. Benjamin Burdick of the Townhouse watch filed a complaint regarding the threats officers made against their watch unit. Edward Ireland of the Dock Square watch listed five separate incidents, two in his complaint and four in his monthly report.

The complaint written by Ireland is located here in the MHS collection. One of many encounters he reported that month, Ireland described an incident outside of the door of his watch house as such:
the officer swearing and cursing to us we had no business to hail an officer and said do you think to stand four regiments, god dam you? We have four regiments here and we will burn you all to ashes in a moments time, we will send you all to hell and damnation in a minute and drew his bayonet and stabbed it against the door and said god dam you come out here. what do you think to do with us, times is not now as they have been.
The fact that an “officer,” not a regular soldier, was assailing the watch this way fits into my theory that part of the conflict on Boston’s streets in 1768 was class-based. British army officers were from the genteel class. Watchmen were men from the middling and laboring class. This officer felt that such men “had no business to hail an officer.” Meanwhile, the watchmen and the selectmen who employed them wanted all the people in Boston, including gentlemen of the army, to answer to local law.


Don Carleton said...

John, it would be really interesting to see whether the literature on civil-military relations in the "home islands" covers similar incidents to the one explored here.

My understanding is that some large portion of the peacetime British army was scattered about the country in small detachments and often tasked with local police work, including the suppression of smuggling.

So it would seem likely that might be other recorded incidents in which British officers commanding such detachments clashed with local law enforcement, who--it seems reasonable to surmise--would have wanted to assert their authority in the face of outside interlopers.

Don N. Hagist said...

In response to the comment above:
Soldiers were indeed posted all around Great Britain and tasked with local "police work", but they could engage in such work only at the behest of local authorities; it was not legal for troops to intervene unless local authorities requested them to do so. As such, it was a cooperative arrangement. In Boston, circumstances were quite different - local authorities resented the presence of the troops, and wanted no part of their assistance in anything.

J. L. Bell said...

The Boston Whigs took note that Gov. Bernard commissioned James Murray as a justice of the peace shortly before the troops arrived. Murray was an immigrant from Scotland who had already served on the North Carolina Council before joining his sister Elizabeth in Boston (where she had become more successful). As the Whigs anticipated, Murray was quite supportive of the royal government and offered to use his powers as a magistrate as needed. He could authorize the soldiers to act against civilians under British law.

One witness to the Boston Massacre reported that people spotted Murray coming to "read the Riot Act," which would have empowered the soldiers to fire on the crowd if it didn't disperse, but the crowd chased him away. I'm not sure that happened since Murray himself, who left letters and testimony to the Loyalists Commission, never mentioned it. But it shows what Bostonians expected from him.