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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Saturday, August 31, 2019

“Cheat them much as you can of ye Duties”

The Connecticut merchant Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., shipped a lot of molasses to merchants in New York and Philadelphia. Since there was very little sugar cane grown around New London, he was buying that commodity in the Caribbean—mostly from French and Spanish colonies.

Under the Sugar Act of 1764, every gallon of molasses imported into British North America carried a duty of 3 pence. (There were duties on other goods as well.) Ships had to carry papers declaring how much molasses and other stuff they carried. When a crew landed cargo at a particular port, the Customs office there collected the duty and “cleared” for shipment anywhere else within the empire. 


Shaw’s letters show he was constantly betting on which port would offer the best price for his molasses. The duty was the same in every port, but Shaw also did his best to minimize the tax he had to pay. And he was blatant about evading duties.

Here are samples from Shaw’s correspondence with his main trading partners showing the many tricks he and his captains used.

On 9 June 1766 to Peter Vandervoort at New York:
(…I want [Abijah] Bebee to to Land his Cargoe without Entring and Return to New Londn. and take another Cargoe of molasses on Board & Return to New York with the Same Clearance if you think it may be done, wich I leave to you) for I Cannot Clear out any more Molasses att the Custom House haveing all Ready Cleard as much as have pd. the Dutys for
Two shipments using the same certificate of duties paid.

On 14 July 1766 to Vandervoort:
I have shipt you by the bearer Abijah Bebee Ten hogsheads and Five Terses of Molasses wich is not Cleared in the Custom House and would have you do the best in Landing and Disposing of it
On 18 July 1766 to Vandervoort:
I have by the Bearer Capt. [William] Hancock shipped you as pr the Inclosed bill of Lading thirty Four Casks of Molasses wich I have Clear’d att the Custom house att about sixty Gallon. they being very large Casks I would have you dispose of them before Hancok hauls into the Dock and then have them Carried off Immediately, as I Imagine if any of the Custo. House Officers should see them they would take notice of their being very large and Possible have them Gauged Again, wich I should not Choose to have done.
Underreporting the size of the casks and working fast so the authorities wouldn’t notice.

On 1 July 1767 to Thomas and Isaac Wharton of Philadelphia:
I…should have wrote you before but have been Endavoring to find what Pretentions your Collector had for obliging you to pay 1d. Sterg. pr Gallon on the Molasses after it had paid the duty in this Port, and am Inform’d by Persons who know as much about Acts of Parliment as Mr. [John] Swieft that it is not the Intention of the Act that Molasses should pay the Duty more than Once, and I should Imagine that when Mr. Swieft finds (wich is Certainly Facts) that no Other Collectr. on the Continent takes the duty but himSelf he will Repay you the money back Again on that Accott.

I shall let the matter Rest a little longer, and if I Find that he Continues to keep the Duty, I shall Imploy an Attorney to git it from him att Common Law and make no Doubt but I shall be Able to Recover it.

If Molasses should take a Rise let me know it and if I should have any Arive will order it to you without Entring of it hear.
Threatening to sue the Customs service for collecting duties twice because he cared so much about following the law. Also, not paying duties in the first place.

On 5 Oct 1769 to Vandervoort:
I have also by Capt. [Edward] Tinker shipt Six hogsheads of Rum and Four Terses for Mr. John Wattles which he would have you forward as pr the Inclos’d Directions and send Ten Keggs of Brandy as I did not Choose to send any by Tinker. I hope you’l have the Terses taken out Soon as they may appear Suspicious.
Unloading quickly before officials could notice.

On 14 Feb 1770 to Vandervoort:
Yesterday Capt. [Joseph] Latham arived in a Sloop of mine from Cape Francoise and I am now Loading Harris with molasses and Sugars for N Y, the Sugars shall Clear as Seads.
On 14 May 1771 to the Whartons:
Inclosed is a bill of lading of 45 hhds. & 9 teirces of Melasses, and Ten hhds. of Sugar by Capt. Powers. . . . Their is only two hogsheads of Sugar cleared out, and you must get the Remainder on shore in the best manner you can. I have put 19 bags Coffee on board which is cleared out as Cocoa, you must manage that in the best manner you can.
Mislabeling cargo, and getting casks “on shore in the best manner you can.”

On 17 May 1771 to the Whartons:
I have by the bearer Capt. Edwd. Tinker in the Sloop Sally, Shipt you seventy four hogsheads of Melasses, and thirteen hogsheads Sugar, which dispose of for my Accott. The Sugar is in Melasses Hogsheads & you must Land them in the Safetest manner you can, for I Could not Clear them out.
11 Nov 1772 to the Whartons:
I Should have wrote you by the last Post but was att New Port on a very Disagreable Errand. A Brigg of mine from Guadalupe with Two hundred hogsheads of Melasses, by Stress of Weather was drove into New Port and the Custom House Officers Oblig’d him to Enter his Cargoe and the Stupid fellow Reported only Seventy hogsheads and they have made a Seizure of the Remainder. I have Sent a Petition to the board of Commissioners att Boston praying that it might be Admitted to an Entry. How farr they will be prevaild on, time only will Discover. In Case its Condemn’d they flatter me that I Shall have it att About Seven pence Sterling pr Gallon.
Even if the Newport Customs office confiscated the 130 extra hogsheads, officials suggested that at auction he should be able to buy that molasses back at a good price.

On 2 Jan 1773 to Vandervoort:
I wrote Messrs. Whartons for a full Load for [Edward] Chappell, and I now send him with a Load of Sugars and have only Clear’d out Seventeen hogsheads and think the best plan will be for him to enter at New York and apply for Liberty to take in those twenty Casks he brought down before, and git Certificates for abought Twenty more and go on to Phila. or if you think their is no danger let him go on with his Clearance for the 17 hhds. but am really afraid of the Consiquence and think it best to Clear out some more at N York.

In Case Chappell cannot git up to Phila. by reason of the Ice, I would have him return to N. York, and if you can not get 48/ pr Ct. for his Sugars, I should be glad to have him Cleared out for Boston, and let him take out a new Register in his own name as I do not choose to have the Sloop go their with the old Register.
Duplicate paperwork.

On 13 July 1774 to Vandevoort:
The bearer [Capn?] Tinker has on board about twenty thousand Gal Melasses in the Brig Mermaid wich you must dispose off on the best terms you can for my Interest. We have reported 150 hhd & 50 Teirces. I beg you will Cheat them much as you can of ye Duties.
Shaw and Tinker had reported 15,000 gallons in hogsheads and another 3,300 in the smaller casks called tierces, or about 10% short of what they actually had brought in. So any way that Vandervoort could “Cheat” on the duties was added profit.

Given Shaw’s normal way of doing business, Capt. William Reid probably had good reason to be suspicious when he saw two of the merchant’s ships rendezvousing in Long Island Sound on 17 July 1769. Once Reid had seized those ships, Shaw came roaring into Newport to get them back.

It’s possible that Shaw didn’t plan to extend his repertoire of resistance to include holding Reid hostage, inciting a riot, ruining the Customs sloop, and absconding with his sloop. But that’s what he and his men and the Newport crowd ended up doing.

Friday, August 30, 2019

“I am as Inocent of Destroying the Sloop as Either of you”

In 1933, the New London County Historical Society published the second volume of its collections, titled Connecticut’s Naval Office at New London During the War of the American Revolution.

The Continental agent in that port was Nathaniel Shaw, Jr. (1735-1782). As an addendum to the collection of public papers, the society’s editor and honorary president, Ernest E. Rogers, included a transcript of Shaw’s letterbox as a merchant in the years before the war.

That source from Shaw’s own hand confirms his connection to the ships involved in the Liberty riots in Newport, Rhode Island, and New London, Connecticut.

On 12 June 1769, Shaw wrote to a man he called Theopulas Backe: “Sir, Inclosed is a letter from Capt. Joseph Packwood which he desir’d might be forwarded to you. He is now in the West Indias, and when he will Return is Uncertain.” Packwood returned to Long Island Sound with Haitian sugar and molasses the next month.

Eight days later, Shaw wrote to his regular trading partners in Philadelphia, Thomas and Isaac Wharton:
I wrote you ye 16 Inst. by Capt. Edwd. Tinker ye Sloop Sally who had on Board 121 Casks of Melasses, who was to Proceed to N. York & in Case ye price of Melasses was not Equal to what you wrote [me?] by the Post, I gave him Orders to Proceed to Philadelphia & deliver his Cargoe to you.
The Customs sloop Liberty seized Tinker’s Sally and Packwood’s Thames in July. Shaw and Packwood went to Newport to get them back. And one riot later, they went home.

As I reported yesterday, in September the New London Customs office seized the Sally again.

Here’s what Nathaniel Shaw had to say about that situation in a 14 Sept 1769 letter to John and George Erving of Boston:
Gentlemen, I Received yours of the 28th Ulto. and am very much Oblig’d to you for your Advise in Regard to the Prosecution that is Intended Against me.

Att Present I Cant Conceive on what Accott. they Intend to trouble me, as I am as Inocent of Destroying the Sloop [Liberty] as Either of you, and can make it Appear so to the Sattisfaction of any Court or Jury in this Colony, and I am of the Opinion if I can do that, it will be Suffecient and In Case they are Determined to have the Matter try’d in Boston att a Court of Admiralty, should be glad you would Inform me in your next what method they are to take to Oblige Either Packwood or me to Appear their or if it goes Against us by Default what Plan they are to Persue to get the Money. Att Present we have no Judge of ye Admiralty in this Colony and I beleive no Person hear would att this time Except of it.

Mr. [Duncan] Stewart has Seiz’d a Sloop which he Suspects is the Sloop that was Carried of[f] att N Port the Night the Liberty was Destroy’d. It is now Seventeen days Since the Seizure was made and he has done nothing towards having her Libel’d. Neither can he git any advise from the Commisoners what steps to take with her, he has no Evidence hear to Prove this to be the Sloop, nor Cant have any, unless Capt. [William] Read or some of his People should come hear, & I beleive it will not be Convenient for them to make their appearence very Soon and haveing the Sloop detain’d so long must Consequently Create an Expense which must fall some where,

I Proposed to Mr. Stewart to have ye Sloop Appriz’d as she now is & give him Security for ye Vallue In Case she be Finally Condemn’d, that we might go on with her Repairs as she wants much before she is in a Condition for the Seas, I should be glad you would Consult some Person who can Advise me in this matter, what steps to take for I Suppose Mr. Stewart will not do any thing untill he has Orders from ye Commisoners.
Shaw’s letterbook doesn’t tell us directly whether Collector Stuart accepted his proposal. But he must have gotten his sloop back because on 17 May 1771 he wrote to the Wharton brothers again:
I have by the bearer Capt. Edwd. Tinker in the Sloop Sally, Shipt you seventy four hogsheads of Melasses, and thirteen hogsheads Sugar, which dispose of for my Accott.
Shaw insisted he was innocent of destroying the Liberty, that the Customs sloop hadn’t caught his Sally, and by extension that he wasn’t in the business of smuggling molasses.

TOMORROW: What Shaw’s other letters have to say about that.

[The photo above, courtesy of Historic Buildings of Connecticut, is Nathaniel Shaw’s house, now owned by the New London County Historical Society.]

Thursday, August 29, 2019

“Having made Seizure of a Sloop named the Sally”

As I’ve been relating, July of 1769 was not a good month for the royal Customs service in New England.

On 19 July, a Newport mob had ruined the Customs patrol ship Liberty after threatening its captain and crew. The next day, with no armed vessel to stop them, sailors “rescued” a sloop named Sally that the Liberty had seized. The captain of another ship detained at the same time, the brig Thames, successfully demanded that his vessel be released for lack of evidence.

On 25 July, a smaller mob in New London beat up one Customs officer and intimidated others. And on 31 July, the hull of the Liberty caught fire and burned to the waterline, rendering it beyond repair.

It took a while for the Commissioners of Customs in Boston to respond, but in August they made a move. On 14 August this advertisement appeared in the Newport Mercury:
WHEREAS William Reid Commander of the Sloop Liberty, employed in the Service of his Majesty’s Customs, having made Seizure of a Sloop named the Sally, Edward Finker Master, belonging to New-London, loaded with a Cargo of prohibited Goods, carried the same into the Harbour of Newport, Rhode Island, where a great Number of People, riotously and tumultuously assembled together, in the Evening of the 19th of July last, and having, by Force and Arms, attacked and secured the said Captain Reid and his Men, and taken Possession of both Vessels; they set Fire to, and sank the Liberty, and carried off the Sloop Sally:

For the apprehending, and bringing to condign Punishment, the Persons concerned in this daring and atrocious Outrage, The Commissioners of his Majesty’s Customs do hereby promise a Reward of One Hundred Pounds Sterling, to any Person or Persons who shall inform against any of the Offender or Offenders (except Nathaniel Shaw, Joseph Packwood and —— Angel;) to be paid on his or their Conviction.

By Order of the Commissioners,
RICHARD REEVE, Sec’ry.
This advertisement and Capt. Reid’s report to the head office referred to the captain of the Sally as Edward Finker. However, other sources make clear his name was Edward Tinker. A handwriting error, or had he given the authorities a false name?

As for the other men named in the ad, Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., was the owner of the Thames and the Sally. Joseph Packwood was captain of the Thames. James Angel or Angell worked for Shaw as a captain after 1774; at this time he might have been a mate. The parenthetical phrase with their names is placed ambiguously, but I think the commissioners meant those three were ineligible for the reward since they had carried out the crime.

As good bureaucrats, the commissioners also set out to close the books on the Liberty project. On 4 September, this ad ran in the Boston Evening-Post:
All Persons who have any Demands for Stores, Carpenter’s Work, Provisions, &c. upon Account of the Sloop Liberty, lately employed in the Service of his Majesty’s Customs, are hereby desired to send in their Accounts forthwith to Messrs. Green & Russell, Printers at Boston. Sept. 2. 1769,
Green and Russell were the printers of the Boston Post-Boy, which got the bulk of the Customs office printing business—at least until John Mein came to town. It’s striking that they were collecting bills for work on the Liberty rather than the Customs staff, but probably more artisans felt safe walking into their print shop than into the Customs house on King Street.

According to Joseph R. Frese’s article, in all the Customs service paid £980 to fit out the Liberty as a patrol vessel, plus £371 for “maintenance.” To be sure, most of that money went to shipwright Robert Hallowell, brother of Customs Commissioner Benjamin Hallowell.

Then the Customs service caught a break—and a ship. The 11 September Boston Evening-Post reported:
We hear from Norwich, that last Wednesday se’nnight a small Sloop was seized there by Duncan Stewart, Esq; Collector at the Port of New London, upon information that it was the same Sloop lately seized by Capt. Reid, in the Sloop Liberty, and carried into Newport, and thence rescued.
The Customs service had the Sally in custody again.

TOMORROW: Nathaniel Shaw wanted his sloop back.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

New London’s Liberty Riot

Newport, Rhode Island, wasn’t the only New England town that saw disturbances connected to the Customs sloop Liberty in July 1769. There was also violence in New London, Connecticut.

In fact, the whole affair started with action off New London. Treasury Department documents that Joseph R. Frese cited in this article from the Colonial Society of Massachusetts reveal more details than I knew last week.

On the morning of 16 July, Capt. William Reid of the sloop Liberty stopped two vessels in Long Island Sound about three miles from the New London lighthouse. One was the brig Thames, commanded by Joseph Packwood. The other was the sloop Sally, commanded by Edward Tinker. Both those ships were based in New London, but the Thames was nominally sailing from Haiti to New York.

As some New England newspapers reported, Reid suspected that Packwood had unloaded some of his Haitian rum and sugar onto Finker’s sloop so it could be landed secretly on the Connecticut coast and the Customs department couldn’t collect duties on it. Then he’d deliver the rest in New York.

Reid put his own men onto the brig and sloop and led the little fleet into Newport. Packwood, Finker, and most of their crewmen had to make their way home in boats. Soon after Packwood landed, he and the owner of the Thames, Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., set out for Newport. We know what happened there on 19 July. By the next day, the Liberty was wrecked, the Thames released for lack of evidence, and the Sally illegally “rescued.”

Back in New London, the waterfront crowd went hunting for the local Customs officers whom they held responsible for those seizures. Deputy Collector John Miller and Comptroller Thomas Moffatt reported that on 24 July “several People” threatened a tidesman named Barnabas Willson. They wrote, “on this occasion We said what We then thought was proper to him & took such steps as inclined Us to hope and beleive that no mischief would happen to him, but We were mistaken if not deceived.” Dr. Moffatt had been the victim of mobbing during Newport’s Stamp Act riots, so he should have known better.

Whatever “steps” those officials took, it wasn’t enough for Willson’s sake. In “the twilight of the Evening of the 25th,” the crowd came looking for him again, as well as another tidesman named John Bloyd. The Customs officers wrote of Bloyd:
not finding him at home they suspected he was in the House of Mr Collector [Duncan] Stewart where they repaired and demanded him but being denied and refused admittance by a Maid Servant from the Window of an upper Chamber they broke forcibly into the House search’d every where and found him on the House top, from which they led him through the Street near the Episcopal Church and there questioned him concerning the Information given to Captain Reid and chiefly about some Rum seized & afterwards stolen at East Haddam a year and a half ago then they dismised him without further Injury
The crowd turned back to Willson. That man himself later told justice James Murray of Boston:
they seized this Deponent Drag’d him thro’ the Streets, strip’d him of his Cloaths, tied him to a sign Post (having cut off his Hair) and then gave him Thirty two severe lashes with a Whip.
By then it was “about Eleven OClock at night.” Some of the rioters went to find Thomas Dare, the Customs office surveyor—a social step up from the tidesmen. Those men took Dare to the place where they had tied up Willson. They “questioned him concerning the late seizure and seemd disposed to Use him very roughly, but were prevented by the Interposition of some who either rescued or beg’d him off.”

Finally, the New London crowd attacked the top local Customs official symbolically, the same way Bostonians had done in June 1768 and Newporters had done a few days before. The men
repaired to Mr Stewart’s Wharf seized the Boat hauld her ashore hoisted her sails with all Appurtenances except the Iron Ballast which they threw on shore, then drag’d her in triumph to a rising ground near the Town where they burnt her, on the Morning of the 26th very early
That makes a total of four burned boats, with the Liberty itself still to come.

Miller and Moffatt reported that “poor Willson set out on foot for Boston who can inform your Honors more exactly of this Mob and of what has been said and done to him.” In Boston, Willson testified to Justice Murray and reported to the Commissioners of Customs, who gave him £2.5 for his troubles.

Surveyor Thomas Dare “thought it best to retire for the present,” his colleagues reported, though by the end of 27 August they expected him to “return here this day and We have some assurance that he will not be insulted.”

TOMORROW: The Customs service strikes back.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Move onto Ploughed Hill and “Poor Billy Simpson”

On the evening of 26 Aug 1775, two thousand Continental soldiers moved onto Ploughed Hill in west Charlestown, assigned to dig entrenchments. Along with them went some Pennsylvania riflemen as a picket guard.

Capt. James Chambers (1743-1805) of Pennsylvania wrote to his wife on 29 August:
I was ordered to draw fifty men out of each of the Cumberland companies, and to be ready to march at Sunset. Accordingly I did so, and marched without beat of drum to Prospect Hill, and thence proceeded with the riflemen stationed there, in all about four hundred, to Ploughed Hill, and then down the hill within three or four hundred yards of the enemy’s strongest works, to cover a party of about two thousand musket men who were at the same time to entrench on Ploughed Hill.

They labored hard all night, and at daybreak had the redoubt nearly completed. The English began a heavy cannonading, which continued all day. They killed one adjutant and one soldier with cannon, wounded three others with musket balls. William Simpson, of Paxton [Paxtang], was struck by a shot and his foot carried away, &c.
Pvt. Simpson was born about 1743, family historians guess. His older brother Michael was a lieutenant in the Paxtang company.

Maj. Robert Magaw (1738-1790) provided a more detailed account of the action:
On Saturday Night Last about 2000 of our Army with 100 of our Battalion took possession of Plough Hill—this hill lies a little to the left of a direct line from our Camp to Bunker’s Hill near Mistick river, about 3/4 of a mile from us, & very little more from Bunker’s Hill. The Possession of it has for a considerable time been deemed an object of much importance both the by the enemy and by us.

They discovered our Work only on Sunday Morning, & soon began a very heavy Cannonade from Bunkers Hill & Two Floating Batteries which continued the whole day, & altho’ their Artillery was conducted by some of the best Engineers in the British Service & shot amazingly true, all the loss sustained was two killed in the fort and two wounded nearer to the Enemy where 50 of our Rifle Men were placed all day among Orchards, Cornfields etc., sustaining and returning a heavy Fire with the Enemy’s Musketry, the Cannon Balls Shot at Ploughed Hill constantly hissing over their Heads.

Poor Billy Simpson was the only person who suffered of ours. He had his Foot and Ankle shot off by a Cannon Ball as he lay behind a large Apple Tree, watching an Opportunity to Fire at the Enemy’s Advanced Guards. There appears no Danger of his recovery.
However, by the time Magaw finished that 29 August letter he had to add: “Poor Simpson whom I heard this Morning was in a good way is Since Dead.”

Lt. Col. Edward Hand (1744-1802, shown above) was a doctor and veteran of the British army. On 29 August he reported that “Poor Simpson (beau) had one of his legs shattered by a cannon ball, The director general took it off, but the poor lad was buried this evening.”

In his memoirs, James Wilkinson wrote, “The young man was visited and consoled during his illness by Gen. [George] Washington in person, and by most of the officers of rank belonging to the army.” However, Wilkinson didn’t arrive in Massachusetts until “two or three weeks” after Simpson was wounded on 27 August, and he’s far from the most reliable figure in U.S. history.

Whether or not Wilkinson’s statement is true, Pvt. William Simpson’s death was significant. He was the first soldier who had come to the siege of Boston from outside New England to die in the Continental cause.

Monday, August 26, 2019

“They must be Sent directly, or by God, I should never See the Morning”

Last week I guessed that the Boston Chronicle’s 24 July 1769 account of Newport’s Liberty riot reflected the perspective of William Reid, commander of that sloop for the Customs Commissioners.

It turns out we have Capt. Reid’s description of the event in his own words, preserved and published in Connecticut. Dated 21 July 1769, Reid testified:
On the Evening of the 19th Inst. between Seven & Eight OClock, as I was going down the Long Wharfe to go on Board the Sloop Liberty, A Vessell then under my Comand, employed in the Service of the Revenue, I was, of a sudden, surrounded by a great Number of Men, some of which seized hold of me,

upon asking what they wanted I was answered that I was a Damn’d Rascal, & that they had now caught me, I asked what I had done to any of them, they Answered that I had Seised many of their Vessels & by God I should now pay for all,

the first Person that I knew in the Mob was Jos: Packwood, Master of the Brigantine Thames, A Vessell which I had detained, he told me that some of my People, on Board of the Brigantine had used him very Ill,

soon after Nathl. Shaw, Owner of Brigantine Thames came up to me, & told me that I had not five minutes to Live, if I did not order Two Frenchmen on shore, which was then on Board of the Sloop Liberty, that I had taken out of the Sloop Sally, a Vessell then under Seisure,

I told them I had no design in keeping those Frenchmen, & that they should come on Shore, provided the Mob would not hurt them, which they declared they would not, they were brought on shore,

the Sd. Packwood then mentioned to the Mob that John Carr second Mate of the Liberty had used him ill & had ordered the People on Board of the Liberty to prevent his going on Shore in the Brigantine’s Boat, by Firing at him, & further said, that they did fire at him, & that he wanted them to be brought ashore to be delivered up to a Magistrate,

the Mob, then with Threats of Violence, against my Life, Insisted, that I should Order Said Carr & John Freeman Pilot to be brought to Justice,

I proposed to send them on Shore in the Morning, but was answer’d they must be Sent directly, or by God, I should never See the Morning,

being in this Defenceless condition, I found myself under the Necessity of Complying with every thing they had a Mind, to propose, & accordingly ordered them on Shore,

as Soon as they came the Sd. Packwood again Addressed himself to the Mob & told them there was another Mate, that had fired at him, from on Board the Sloop Sally,

The Mob ordered that he might be bro’t also, which was accordingly done.

I desired that they would let me go on Board of the Liberty, & that if there was any Person on Board, which had been guilty of any Indiscretion, I would deliver him up to Justice directly.

They told me I should not go off the Wharf Alive nor any of my People, if I attempted to go, & insisted, that there was another Man on Board, which was concerned in firing at Capt Packwood, & that they would have him on Shore likewise, they then Man’d two Boats, one of which put off to go on Board to search for the aforesd. Man,

[Joseph] Adams then Comanding Officer on Board of the Liberty, called to me, to know, if they should go on Board,

as I thought to refuse, their going on Board, would perhaps exasperate the Mob to some Acts of Violence against the Sloop Liberty I told him to permit them which he did,

the Boat then returned with Two of the Men, that went in her, & one of mine, the Mob then seemed more Satisfied,

I asked them again to let me go on Board my Vessell, which they refused. But told me I might go to my Lodgings, about 11 oClock, I got clear of the Mob & went directly to Charles Dudley Esqr. Collr. of His Majesty’s Customs for his Assistance who advised me to apply to the Govr. [Joseph Wanton] which I did by Letter requesting His Honor to use his Authority in preventing the further Violence of the Mob, against the Sloop Liberty, & the two aforementioned Vessels.

About four O’clock in the Morning, as soon as I thought the Mob was disposed, I went to go on Board of the Sloop Liberty, But found her cut from her Anchors, & laying on Shore, with her mast cut away by the Deck, her Sails & Rigging all Cut to pieces. Two of her Guns, all her Swivels & small Arms, hove over Board her Bottom Scuttled, her two Boats Burn’d, my Cabbin tore all to Pieces, & all my Furniture Cloaths Papers & every thing belonging to me Destroyed.
Duncan Stuart and Thomas Moffatt, the top two Customs officials in New London, had the number-three man, surveyor Thomas Dare, carry Reid’s testimony to Hartford. They wanted William Pitkin, governor of the colony, to help in prosecuting Shaw and Packwood.

According to the governor’s files, “Govr Pitkin gave a general prudent Answer to the foregoing Matters, that entirely satisfied the Officers of the Customs at New London.” Which suggests he didn’t help that much, but the Customs officials had little opportunity to appeal because Pitkin died on 1 October.

(The picture above shows Gov. Pitkin’s grave, as photographed by Lori for Find-a-Grave. It’s quite wordy. It describes Pitkin as “Zealous and bold for the Truth, Faithfull in Distributing Justice, Scattering away Evil with his Eye…”)

COMING UP: The Customs service strikes back.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

“By the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black”

In 1764 James Otis, Jr., published his treatise The Rights of British Colonies Asserted and Proved through the Edes and Gill print shop.

This was even before the Stamp Act, when tariffs on molasses and sugar were Massachusetts’s main bone of contention with Parliament and only a certain class of colonial merchants cared. Otis, attorney and political representative for those merchants, was already putting forth a natural rights argument for colonial autonomy.

Otis also recognized that his argument had implications for the American practice of race-based chattel slavery. On page 29 of his first edition he argued:
The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black. No better reasons can be given for enslaving those of any color than such as Baron Montesquieu has humorously given as the foundation of that cruel slavery exercised over the poor Ethiopians [The Spirit of Laws, Book XV], which threatens one day to reduce both Europe and America to the ignorance and barbarity of the darkest ages.

Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as ’tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face?

Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own.

To this cause must be imputed that ferocity, cruelty, and brutal barbarity that has long marked the general character of the sugar islanders. They can in general form no idea of government but that which in person or by an overseer, the joint and several proper representative of a Creole and of the D—l, is exercised over ten thousand of their fellow men, born with the same right to freedom and the sweet enjoyments of liberty and life as their unrelenting taskmasters, the overseers and planters.

Is it to be wondered at if when people of the stamp of a Creolian planter get into power they will not stick for a little present gain at making their own posterity, white as well as black, worse slaves if possible than those already mentioned?
In later paragraphs Otis reiterated his points about rights for all:
That the colonists, black and white, born here are freeborn British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such is a truth not only manifest from the provincial charters, from the principles of the common law, and acts of Parliament, but from the British constitution, which was re-established at the Revolution with a professed design to secure the liberties of all the subjects to all generations. . . .

Now can there be any liberty where property is taken away without consent? Can it with any color of truth, justice, or equity be affirmed that the northern colonies are represented in Parliament? Has this whole continent of near three thousand miles in length, and in which and his other American dominions His Majesty has or very soon will have some millions of as good, loyal, and useful subjects, white and black, as any in the three kingdoms, the election of one member of the House of Commons?
However, Otis never followed up his statements about the natural rights of both blacks and whites, especially those “born here,” to argue for the end of slavery in North America.

Indeed, Otis tried to focus all the attention on the “sugar islanders” of the Caribbean, not the slaveholders in his own town and province. And he compromised after some pushback on even that accusation, because at the end of the pamphlet, he made an addendum:
I now recollect that I have been credibly informed that the British sugar colonists are humane towards their slaves in comparison with the others. Therefore in page 29, let it be read, foreign sugar islanders and foreign Creoles.
Otis thus absolved his fellow British subjects (and his merchant clients’ most important customers) from his worst criticism.

Nonetheless, all the way back in 1764 James Otis recognized that the natural-rights argument for American freedom was inexorably tangled up in the realities of American racial discrimination.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Back at George Washington High

Last month I wrote about the controversy over murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

Those murals, painted by Victor Arnautoff as a New Deal project, depicted the life of George Washington without hagiography. Arnautoff devoted space to the oppression of slavery and the human cost of westward expansion. But showing subservient African-Americans and dead Native Americans raised objections from some students in the 1960s and today.

This spring, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to budget $600,000 to permanently conceal the murals, most likely with a new coat of paint. People thought that money would cover an environmental study of the plan, the work itself, and anticipated legal battles.

News of the decision attracted attention across the country. The school was opened for public viewing this summer. Many artistic figures joined local preservationists and alumni in opposing the decision. Some fans of the murals started to organize a public vote to keep them. The board president and vice president defended their decision to, in their words, do away with “art that for more than 80 years has traumatized students.” There were few additional voices for removing the murals, however.

This month, the San Francisco school board took a second vote. By the slight margin of 4–3, they decided “to obscure the art with panels or similar materials rather than painting over it.” That would allow the panels to be taken off at some future time. Back in the spring, this remedy was expected to cost much more than the painting, but quite possibly the board had come to anticipate more legal costs.

Or perhaps the first vote was a strategy to test the fervency of the two sides. The Board of Education’s president controls its agenda. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted the current president saying he “always supported obscuring the mural rather than destroying it, although he voted to paint over it in June.” He doesn’t plan to allow a third vote during his term, which ends in December.

The school year will start soon. Given how municipal contracts work, I have no sense of how quickly the project of covering the murals will progress. At some point the board will choose its next president, and in 2020 the city’s voting public will elect a new Board of Education. The referendum on the murals appears to be still up in the air. This whole controversy could rise again—or quietly subside for another few decades.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Captain Peck’s “Intelligence”

On 23 Aug 1770, the Rev. Ezra Stiles of Newport wrote in his diary about a conversation with a sea captain named William Augustus Peck.

Born about 1723 and based in Newport, Peck had commanded a privateer in the last war, advertising for sailors in the 28 June 1762 Boston Post-Boy. His wife Mehitabel had died in September 1766, and he’d married Mary Hammond the following June. In 1769 he’d endured a difficult voyage to Amsterdam, as reported in the 18 September Boston Chronicle.

On this day Peck was back from Britain with surprising news:
Capt. Wm. Augustus Peck this day visited me. He brought my Books from London: he tells me there is a secret Intelligence office in London in [blank] street where the Jews live. It has subsisted about four years & has thirty clerks: it is supported by the Ministry: & has settled a correspondence in all parts of America—has four Correspond’ts in Boston, & two in Newport, one of which is Mr. Geo. Rome Mercht. to each of whom the Ministry exhibit Stipends.
George Rome had arrived in Rhode Island in 1761 as an agent of the London mercantile firm of Champion and Hayley. (George Hayley’s wife Mary was a sister of John Wilkes, a hero to American Whigs—but they still resented depending on credit from his firm.) Rome collected what money he could, invested in whaling and other ventures, and within a short time was one of the richest men in Newport. By the late 1760s he was spending most of his time at his rich country estate.

With his family in Britain, business interests, and Anglicanism, Rome was a natural friend of the royal government. In 1767 he wrote a letter criticizing Rhode Island’s form of government and rule of law. Seven years later, that letter was included in the packet leaked from London by Benjamin Franklin, which got him into deep trouble with the local Whigs. In 1775, Rome was one of the people Mary Butler thought could deliver a ciphered letter from her lover, Dr. Benjamin Church, into Boston.

There is, however, no evidence that Rome received a stipend from the British government—much less for the enterprise Stiles described:
As it appears in London, it is intirely a Jew Affair—a Jew Compting House, & is unknown in London. Capt. Peck sailed to London in a Vessel of the Jews & by this fell into the hands of the Jews there, dined with sundrey [?], and not being strong for American rights, they used to open before him; in compa[ny]. he heard one Mr Clark I think speak of their secret Intelligence office—& upon Peck’s questioning, &c., he colored up and diverted the Discourse. Capt. Peck says, that this office boasted of having Intelligence of every Occurrence of any consequence in America.
Stiles was, as I’ve previously written, a sucker for stories that fit his political outlook—in this case, the belief that there was a conspiracy in London to restrict North American colonists’ rights. Stiles knew the leaders of the Jewish community in Newport, but he wasn’t close to them, and was willing to view them as agents of that conspiracy.

Peck’s rumor is an obvious falsehood, an early example of the myth of an international Jewish cabal. It’s a measure of Stiles’s gullibility that he wrote that all down. Even more dismaying, of course, is that this sort of lie is being circulated in the U.S. of A. today.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Wanted by Governor Wanton

The official Rhode Island response to the destruction of the Customs sloop Liberty in Newport harbor started even before the ship went up in flames. 

A mob attacked the ship on 19 July. Two days later, this proclamation appeared, as printed in the newspapers: 
By the Honorable
Joseph Wanton, Esquire,
Governor, Captain-General, and Commander in Chief, of and over the English Colony of Rhode-Island, and Providence Plantations, in New-England, in America:

A PROCLAMATION.
Whereas, Charles Dudley, Esq; Collector and Surveyor, and John Nicoll, Esq; Comptroller, of His Majesty’s Customs for the Colony aforesaid, have this Day presented unto me a Memorial, setting forth, That a Number of People on the Nineteenth Instant, in the Evening, being assembled in a riotous and tumultuous Manner, did, with Threats against his Life, compel Captain William Reid, Commander of the Sloop Liberty in the Service of the Revenue, lying in the Harbour of Newport, to order the People who had the keeping and Charge of his Vessel, to come on Shore; after which a Number of Men boarded the said Sloop, and set at Liberty a Sloop brought into this Port by the said William Reid, laden with prohibited Goods and under Seizure, and she was afterwards carried away to the great Prejudice of his Majesty: And that they then proceeded to destroy the said Sloop Liberty, by cutting away her Mast and Rigging, and scuttling her so that she sunk; and burnt her Two Boats:

I HAVE, THEREFORE, thought fit, by and with the Advice of such Members of his Majesty’s Council, as could conveniently be called together, to issue this Proclamation, hereby directing and requiring all the Officers of Justice, in this Colony, to use their utmost Endeavours, to enquire after and discover the Persons guilty of the aforesaid Crimes, that they may be brought to Justice.
Many of the men who had attacked the Liberty on 19 July probably came off Capt. Joseph Packwood’s brig, based in New London, Connecticut. Packwood had sailed out of Narragansett Bay as soon as he could after the riot. The Rhode Island authorities would therefore have had a hard time tracking down those men—if they even really wanted to.

Ten days after this proclamation, the rest of the Liberty burned on Goat Island. That was more likely a local job, but since it took place away from town on a stormy night, there were no witnesses. Gov. Wanton didn’t even bother to use a new proclamation.

COMING UP: A new lead for the Customs office.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Visit Newport in the Summer of 1769, 24 Aug.

On Saturday, 24 August, the Newport Historical Society will host a living-history exploration of “Life During the Burning of H.M.S. Liberty.”

This is the society’s Sixth Annual Living History Event, and its presentations bring in top-notch reenactors from all over New England to explore different events.

Since you’ve read the last three postings, you know all about how what led to the Liberty Customs sloop going up in flames in July 1769, two and a half centuries ago this summer.

The society’s event announcement says:
This one-day event features over 50 costumed historical interpreters who will represent all ages and various stations of life, along with conflicting political viewpoints. Learn and experience aspects of life from 1769 including:
Visit stations around Washington Square such as a tavern, school and printer. Much like the Newport Historical Society’s previous summer History Space events, visitors might find themselves in the midst of hostile debates as the living historians recreate the tensions that surrounded this incident which helped to spark the American Revolution.
“Life During the Burning of H.M.S. Liberty” will take place from noon till 5:00 P.M. in Washington Square and at the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, 17 Broadway.

The program is free to all, but donations to the Newport Historical Society are welcome.

(Photo from a past event in Newport by Sarah Long.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Burnings of the Liberty

The Boston Gazette was the town’s staunchest Whig newspaper, quick to attack royal officials and to defend locals against charges of unrest. But printers Edes and Gill weren’t so protective about other communities.

The Boston Gazette’s first report on the attack on the Customs sloop Liberty in Newport harbor, dated 24 July, had no detail about why people there were so upset at that ship. It had a lot of detail on how the crowd took their revenge:
a Number of Persons…went on board the Liberty as she lay at Anchor in the Harbour, and cut her Cables, and let her drift ashore, they then set her on Fire, but being informed a considerable Quantity of Powder was on board, for fear of endangering the Town, they extinguished it again; then they cut away her Mast, threw her Guns and Stores overboard, entered the Cabin and destroyed the Captain’s and his Wife’s Cloaths, Bedding, &c. broke the Tables, Chairs, China and other Things therein, and did not quit her till 3 o’clock in the next Morning, when, after scuttling the Vessel, they left her a meer Wreck, and now remains sunk near one of the Wharfs there.
The 24 July Boston Chronicle also mentioned how people had started to burn the ship, but gave a different reason for them stopping:
They also set fire to the sloop, but it being nigh a warehouse and some vessels where she was run on shore, they extinguished it for fear of the flames spreading.
The Providence Gazette of 22 July took more effort to protect local reputations by pointing the finger at men from the next colony over:
a Number of Men, chiefly from Connecticut, went on board, and after cutting away her Mast, and rendering her unfit for Service, they threw every thing that was valuable overboard, and scuttled the Vessel, after which they quietly dispersed.
Both that paper and the 24 July Newport Mercury omitted any mention of people trying to set fire to the ship.

A week later, on Monday, the Newport Mercury reported a new development:
Last Saturday Afternoon the Sloop Liberty was floated by a high Tide, drifted over to Goat-Island, and is grounded at the North-End, very near where the Pirates were buried; what this prognosticates we leave to the Determination of Astrologers!
And what do you know? The Liberty caught on fire again that very night! At least, that’s how the Rhode Island newspapers told it. On 5 August, the Providence Gazette reported:
Saturday last the Sloop Liberty was drifted by a high Tide to Goat-Island, since which we are informed she has been set on Fire by Lightning, and nearly consumed.
Two days later the Newport Mercury stated:
Last Monday Evening, just after the Storm of Rain, Hail, and Lightening, the Liberty Sloop, which we mentioned in our last to have drifted to Goat-Island, near where the Pirates were buried, was discovered on Fire; and she continued burning for several Days, till almost intirely consumed.
The Liberty was not the first royal government vessel that Rhode Islanders had burned in recent years, and it would not be the last.

TOMORROW: A sestercentennial commemoration.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Captain Reid versus Captain Packwood

Yesterday I shared an official description of the confrontation in Newport, Rhode Island, over the Customs ship Liberty on 19 July 1769.

By “official” I mean that the town’s Whig leadership supplied that text to the Newport Mercury. They sent similar letters to sympathetic printers in Providence and Boston. Naturally, their account put the crowd’s assault on royal property in the best possible light.

Some newspapers printed less favorable accounts. For example, the 24 July Boston Chronicle reported that the brig and sloop seized two days before the riot weren’t just random ships. Capt. William Reid of the Liberty had “information” that Capt. Joseph Packwood had shifted “brandy, wine, &c.” from his brig onto the sloop so that it could be landed secretly. He therefore stopped both ships, sent away their crews, and had his own men sail them to Newport.

The Chronicle also provided more details about Capt. Packwood’s return to his brig while it was in Customs department custody:
On the Wednesday following, Capt. Packwood went on board the brig to get his cloaths to be washed, and asked for his sword, all which, the commanding Officer on board refused to deliver him; but which, after some altercations, he took possession of and put into the boat, and was rowing on shore, when the people on board the brig hailed the sloop Liberty, and told the Commanding Officer, (Capt. Reid not being on board) that Capt. Packwood had used them very ill, and desired him to bring the boat too,

on which some person on board the Liberty fired a musket with a brace of balls at Capt. Packwood, one of which went but a few inches over his head, and the other over the heads of some people standing on the wharf, they afterwards attempted to fire a swivel, but it only flashed, and Capt. Packwood pushed on shore.
[Let me point out this is yet another period description of a musket being loaded with “a brace of balls,” or two balls.]
By this time a number of people assembled, who with Capt. Packwood went in search of Capt. Reid, whom they soon met in the street, when they demanded the reason of the insolent behavior of his people?

Capt. Reid told them that he was ignorant of the affair, was extremely sorry for what had happened, that he would deliver up the people who had fired, to be punished according to law; and proposed to go himself on board and fetch them on shore:—This the people would not permit, but insisted on his going to hail the sloop and ordering them to be immediately sent on shore.——

This was complyed with, and a boat was sent off for them, which soon returned with two of the sloop’s hands, but the people declaring these were not the persons who had fired; the boat was sent on board a second time, and brought two others, but these likewise being declared not to be the persons, the board was again sent off and brought some others, till there were only two left on board belonging to the sloop; soon after which, some people who had tarried on board the sloop, cut her cables and ran her on shore, threw the guns overboard, cut away the mast, rigging, &c. and scuttled her:
I suspect some of this account came ultimately from Capt. Reid since it reflects well on him—justified in his seizures, blameless for the crew’s shots at Packwood, powerless to stop the mob. In contrast, the Whigs’ letter complained that “no Proof appeared against the Brig” and that Reid “had never condescended to exhibit his Commission to the Governor of this Colony.”

Both reports depict the Newporters as trying to enforce local law against the Customs ship sailors. That’s similar to the conflict going on in Boston over whether British soldiers had to obey local watchmen and magistrates. But in the Chronicle that demand for the rule of law seems more like a smokescreen to move sailors off the Liberty until it had only a couple of defenders.

TOMORROW: The final fate of the Liberty.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Second Liberty Riot

I’ve been focused on events 250 years ago this week in Boston, but it’s time to look in on other events in New England.

You may recall how in June 1768 the Customs office in Boston confiscated John Hancock’s sloop Liberty on charges of smuggling wine. That produced a riot against Customs officials, which strengthened the royal government’s decision to station troops in Boston. Months later, the government’s Admiralty Court prosecution against Hancock collapsed.

That didn’t mean he got his sloop back, though. Following the law, Customs officials had put the Liberty up for auction. The winning bid came from…the Commissioners of Customs. Soon the sloop was armed and patrolling out of Narragansett Bay to catch smugglers.

On 10 July 1769 the Newport Mercury reported:
We hear the Liberty Sloop, which sail’d a few Days past on a Cruise, has taken a Prize; but of what Nation, or whither bound, we have not learn’d; but imagine her to belong to some of the North-American Colonies, as the whole N–v–l Force of h–s B—t——c M——y seems to be principally aim’d against those Colonies, notwithstanding they are inhabited by the best Subjects that ever serv’d a King; most remarkable for Loyalty and yielding Obedience to every just and constitutional ACT of Parliament.
The captured brig was out of New London, Connecticut, under the command of Joseph Packwood. According to the 24 July Boston Chronicle, it had just come “from Hispaniola with a cargo of molasses and sugar on board.” The 21 July New London Gazette claimed that Packwood was headed for New York and seized in Long Island Sound.

The same day, the Liberty also seized a sloop, “where belonging and from whence, unknown, having on board brandy, wine, &c.” The New London Gazette said the Customs men left “most of the crew adrift in a leaky old canoe” and sailed away with that sloop.

Two weeks later, the Newport Mercury had more to say:
LAST Monday Morning the 17th Instant [i.e., of this month], the armed Sloop Liberty, commanded by Capt. William Reid, arrived here and bro’t in a Brig and a Sloop belonging to Connecticut, taken in the Sound, without this Colony, on Suspicion of the Brig’s having done some illicit Act, & that the Sloop had contraband Goods on Board; but as no Proof appeared against the Brig, she reported her Cargo at the Custom House here;—

and on Wednesday, no Prosecution having been enter’d against either of them, Capt. Packwood went on Board his Brig in Order to get his Sword and some necessary Apparel, which the Commanding Officer on Board, (one of the Liberty’s Men) refused to let him bring away, and tis said, offer’d him Violence; which reduced Capt. Packwood to the necessity of drawing his Sword, to force his Way into his Boat, whereupon the Officer call’d to the Liberty’s People to fire on Capt. Packwood as he was going ashore, which they did, and a Brace of Balls, tis suppos’d, went very near but did not hurt him; they then attempted to fire several more Guns upon him, which happily all snapped or flashed and cou’d not be discharged.

This Attempt at Violence by the Liberty’s People, whose Commander had never condescended to exhibit his Commission to the Governor of this Colony, so enraged a Number of Persons, that, the ensuing Evening, having met Capt. Reid on the Long-Wharf, they obliged him to send for his Men on Shore, in Order to discover the Man who first fired at Capt. Packwood; upon which Capt. Reid sent for all his Hands except his Mate, afterwards a Number of Persons, unknown, went on Board the Liberty, sent the Mate away, cut her Cables and let her drive ashore at the Point, where they cut away her Mast, scuttled her, and carried both her Boats to the upper Part of this Town and burnt them.—

While this Affair was transacting, the Sloop suspected of having contraband Goods on Board made her Escape; and the Brig has since received her Papers and sail’d last Friday.
Arthur A. Ross’s A Discourse, Embracing the Civil and Religious History of Rhode-Island (1838) said that the crowd which took the Liberty’s boats dragged them
up the Long-wharf, thence up the Parade, through Broadstreet, at the head of which, on the Common, they were burned.— Tradition says, that, owing to the keel of the boats being shod with iron, such was the velocity of their locomotion, as they passed up the Parade, that a stream of fire was left in the rear, of several feet in length.
Meanwhile, the Liberty itself was sitting grounded out on a point in the harbor. 

COMING UP: Lightning strikes?

Saturday, August 17, 2019

”A Procession that extended near a Mile and a half”

On rereading the Boston Gazette’s description of the Sons of Liberty 14 Aug 1769 dinner this year, I was struck by the detail that three times the men punctuated their toasts with “A Discharge of Cannon.” Perhaps only one cannon, but still.

By the early 1770s, the innkeeper who hosted that celebration, Lemuel Robinson of Dorchester, was captain of a militia artillery company protecting Suffolk County outside of Boston.

His Liberty Tree tavern—shown above, in a sketch from the Dorchester Historical Society—was where the Massachusetts Committee of Safety hid the Boston train’s four missing cannon in early 1775. (And the committee’s records suggests there was some effort required to get Robinson to let them out of his hands to be hidden in Concord.) But Robinson had cannon on his property, at least for this special occasion, as early as 1769.

The Sons of Liberty dinner also included music. John Adams wrote in his diary:
We had also the Liberty Song—that by the Farmer, and that by Dr. Ch[urc]h, and the whole Company joined in the Chorus.
“The Farmer” was John Dickinson. As I detailed here, he cowrote the original “Liberty Song” the previous year. Adams’s mention of Dr. Benjamin Church is the reason scholars attribute the version of the song that begins “Come swallow your Bumpers, ye Tories! and roar,” to that poetic physician.

Adams then wrote:
Between 4 and 5 O clock, the Carriages were all got ready and the Company rode off in Procession, Mr. [John] Hancock first in his Charriot and another Charriot bringing up the Rear.
Adams had to head out of town, but the Boston Gazette reported on the gentlemen’s return to Boston:
About Five o’Clock the Company left Mr. Robinson’s in a Procession that extended near a Mile and a half, and before Dark entered the City, went round the State-House, and retired each to his own House.
Merchant John Rowe, who wasn’t at the dinner, added in his diary that the procession contained “139 Carriages” and “Mr. [James] Otis brought up the rear.”

That circle around the seat of government was a victory lap over Gov. Francis Bernard, and a warning to remaining royal officials that the Whigs dominated the landscape. To rub that in, the Gazette added:
Should this Account overtake the Baronet of Nettleham on this Side T–b—n, he and Ld. H——h are at Liberty to write seventy-seven Volumes of their High Dutch and low Diabolical Commentaries, “about it, and about it.”
The baronet was Bernard. “Lord H——h” was the Earl of Hillsborough, secretary of state overseeing the colonies. “T–b—n” was Tyburn, where criminals and traitors were hanged. “About it, and about it” was a common way to say “and on and on.” And the whole sentence crowed over how Bernard’s letters complaining about the Whigs had leaked and destroyed his standing in the province.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Memories of “Mr. Balch’s Mimickry”

As I detailed yesterday, Nathaniel Balch (shown here, courtesy of Balchipedia) was a hatter. But at heart he was an entertainer, known across Boston for his humor and charm.

When Josiah Quincy, Jr., was traveling in the southern colonies on 6 Mar 1773, he wrote in his diary: “In walking with ——— occurred a singular event, of which Balch could make a humorous story.” Unfortunately, Quincy didn’t record that event and we don’t know what Balch made of it.

Most of our descriptions of Balch come from after independence, when he became known as a bosom friend of Gov. John Hancock. The French political reformer Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) wrote of an encounter in 1788: “Governor Hancock…has the virtues and the address of popularism; that is to say, that without effort he shews himself the equal and the friend of all. I supped at his house with a hatter, who appeared to be in great familiarity with him.”

The most lively pictures of Balch appear in the memoirs of men writing in the mid-1800s who had been boys growing up in Hancock’s Boston. E. S. Thomas wrote about Gov. Hancock in 1840:
He was very fond of joke and repartee, so much so, that a worthy citizen of Boston, Nathaniel Balch, Esq., a hatter, who never failed to appear among the invited guests at his hospitable board, obtained the unenvied appellation of “the Governor’s Jester.
Sidney Willard wrote in 1855:
For his three-cornered hat, his cocked hat, my father resorted to Nathan Balch, a very worthy and respectable man, sometimes irreverently called Nat. Balch; a frequent guest of Governor Hancock, and entertainer of his other guests, adding zest to the viands and the vina at the dinner-board by anecdotes and stories, mimetric [sic] art, humor, witticism, and song, drawn from his inexhaustible storehouse.
And Samuel Breck’s posthumously published memoir said:
We had a medley of eccentric tradesmen in Boston in 1788, who were a compound of flat simplicity in manners and acute cleverness in conversation, shrewd, perhaps somewhat cunning; often witty; always smart and intelligent.

…above all, Balch, the hatter. His shop was the principal lounge even of the first people in the town. Governor Hancock, when the gout permitted, resorted to this grand rendezvous, and there exchanged jokes with Balch and his company, or, as sometimes happened, discussed grave political subjects, and, tout en badinant, settled leading principles of his administration.
So what material did Balch pull out for the Sons of Liberty dinner in August 1769, with more than three hundred of Boston’s leading gentlemen present?

According to John Adams:
After Dinner was over and the Toasts drank we were diverted with Mr. Balch’s Mimickry. He gave Us, the Lawyers Head, and the Hunting of a Bitch fox.
Hmm. I guess you had to be there.

TOMORROW: The party’s over.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Nathaniel Balch at the Sign of the Hat

The man who provided after-dinner, after-toasts entertainment for the big Sons of Liberty dinner on 14 Aug 1769 was Nathaniel Balch (1735-1808).

Balch was born into an old New England family in Boston, baptized at the New South Meetinghouse. In May 1760 he was admitted as a freeman in Rhode Island, living in Providence. An advertisement in the 15 Oct 1763 Providence Gazette called him “Capt. Nathaniel Balch” and said he was established at “the Sign of the Hat.”

Balch didn’t sell just hats, though. On 7 Jan 1764 he offered “enamell’d Stone Ware”; glassware; pipes “by the Box, Gross, or Dozen”; snuff; pepper and other spices; cheese; and “the very best Hyson Tea,” all “as cheap as they can be purchased in Boston.”

Not to mention “Choice new Philadelphia Flour,” chocolate, brown sugar, “Melasses,” rum, shoes from Lynn, and tickets to lotteries authorized by both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Along with, of course, “FELT and CASTOR HATS.”

According to Dr. Galusha B. Balch’s Genealogy of the Balch Families in America (1897), Nathaniel married Mary Fletcher, a distant cousin, on 26 May 1763. Their oldest child, Nathaniel, Jr., was born in Providence on 26 Feb 1764. (This genealogy contradicts itself by stating elsewhere that all of Nathaniel and Mary’s children were born in Boston.)

The Balches lived in a “Two-Story Dwelling-House…at the North End of the Town…fronting two Streets.” Balch wrote: “It has an excellent Cellar, two commodious Shops, with a small Garden adjoining, whereon stands a large Store, Stable, Wood-House, and Chaise-House.” Of course, he was trying to sell the property at the time.

In May 1764, Balch began to advertise for customers to settle their balances with him. In January 1765 he put his house on the market, and in May he announced that “he purposes to leave the Colony in a few Days.” The Balches returned to Boston in time for the birth of their second son, William, on 11 July 1765.

Back in his home town, Balch first worked out of “Mr. Bligh’s Shop in Marlborough Street” before moving to “Mr. John Langdon’s in Fore Street, near the Draw-Bridge” over the creek that separated the North End from the central district. On 14 July 1766 he advertised:
The best, Beaver, Beaveret, Castor and Felt Hats, of his own make.

Also a compleat Assortment of Glass, China and Delph Ware, French Indigo, Flask Oyl, Spices of all sorts, Allum, Copperas, Mustard, Poland Starch, Stone blue, House Brushes, Salt Petre, Isinglass, Kippen’s Snuff, Jappan’d Ware, Mahogany Trays and Tea Chests, Sugar Canisters, Baskets for China, Knives and Bread, Knives and Forks, Shoe Buckles, Candlesticks, Snuff Boxes, Pipes, Figs, Currants, best Hyson and Bohea Tea, Coffee and Chocolate, Loaf and Brown Sugar, and many other Articles all Cheap for Cash.——
The March 1767 Boston town meeting elected Nathaniel Balch a Clerk of the Market, a beginning-level town office that showed he had the respect of his neighbors. He didn’t seek higher office at this time, though.

At the end of 1770 Balch moved from Fort Street to Cornhill, right in the center of town. From that point until 1774 his advertisements were all about hats:
Best Beaver and Beaveritt Hatts,
of his own make, cock’d in the newest Taste, genteel white riding Hatts for Ladies and Gentlemen, Children’s round turn-up Hatts or Whimseys, both black and white of all Prices, Felt Hatts of all Sorts. Also, an Assortment of Hatters Trimmings.
Balch’s ads appeared in the Boston News-Letter, the newspaper that supported the royal government but also had the most genteel readership. He was clearly establishing himself.

But I don’t think Balch’s heart was really in hatmaking.

TOMORROW: A natural entertainer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Dinner at the Sign of Liberty Tree

On 14 Aug 1769, 250 years ago today, Boston’s Sons of Liberty gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the first public protest against the Stamp Act, four years earlier.

Of course, they were also celebrating what they saw as their triumph over Gov. Francis Bernard, who had sailed away from Massachusetts at the start of the month, never to return.

The celebration actually began with fourteen toasts at Liberty Tree at eleven o’clock. Those started with “The KING” and “The QUEEN and Royal Family,” moved through John Wilkes, the “Glorious Ninety-Two,” Paschal Paoli and his Corsicans, “American Manufactures,” and finally “May the 14th of August be the annual Jubilee of Americans, till Time shall be no more.”

Then the company left town. The Sons had organized dinner for more than 300 at Lemuel Robinson’s tavern in Dorchester, the Sign of Liberty Tree. [In the winter of 1775, that tavern was a crucial spot in the story of The Road to Concord.] By dining outside of Boston, the upper-class politicians guaranteed that they could control their setting and the level of festivity.

This dinner was in honor of “the Farmer”—John Dickinson, author of The Farmer’s Letters and coauthor of “The Liberty Song.” He wasn’t there. But two of his friends from Philadelphia were: his brother, Philemon Dickinson, and Joseph Reed, then secretary of the colony of New Jersey.

John Hancock’s business protégé William Palfrey made a list of 355 gentlemen at the dinner. That list included far more than Boston's political activists. The most important elected officials were all there, including some who would later be Loyalists. The town’s schoolmasters had taken the day off, as had many merchants, doctors, lawyers, and militia officers. John Adams wrote in his diary about feeling pressure to attend: “many might suspect, that I was not hearty in the Cause, if I had been absent whereas none of them are more sincere, and stedfast than I am."

Adams described the banquet setting this way:
We had two Tables laid in the open Field by the Barn, with between 300 and 400 Plates, and an Arning of Sail Cloth overhead, and should have spent a most agreable Day had not the Rain made some Abatement in our Pleasures.
There’s that New England non-rhotic R in how Adams spelled “awning.”

Because the fourteen toasts before noon weren’t enough, after dinner the party drank forty-five more. This series started with the “King, Queen and Royal Family,” followed by “A Discharge of Cannon, and three Cheers.” The toasters named fourteen British politicians considered friendly to America and the historian Catharine Macaulay. They honored “The Cantons of Switzerland,” “The States General of the seven United Provinces” of Holland, and “The King of Prussia.”

Some of the after-dinner toasts delineated the Whigs’ political ideals: “Annual Parliaments,” “A perpetual Constitutional Union and Harmony between Great Britain and the Colonies,” and “Liberty without Licentiousness.” Others identified enemies: “May the detested Names of the very few Importers every where, be transmitted to Posterity with Infamy” (more cannon). And finally “Strong Halters, Firm Blocks, and Sharp Axes, to all such as deserve either.”

Evidently the diners didn’t imbibe deeply at each and every toast because Adams declared, “To the Honour of the Sons, I did not see one Person intoxicated.”

As for the subsequent entertainment, the Sons of Liberty had provided…a hatter.

TOMORROW: But not just any hatter.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Plea for Relief after the Great Fire of 1794

The State Library of Massachusetts is spotlighting, both on the web and at the State House, a broadside from 1794.

Its blog posting explains:
This month, we’re displaying a broadside that was distributed as an “Appeal from Boston for Aid after the Great Fire, 1794”. In 1794, the part of downtown Boston that is currently bordered by Milk, Pearl, Purchase and Congress Streets was home to residences and a number of ropewalks (a long, narrow building where ropes are woven by hand). In the early morning of July 30, a fire broke out in one of the ropewalks and spread quickly, destroying seven ropewalks and approximately ninety other buildings (primarily houses, outbuildings, barns, and stores).

The fire was so extensive that additional engines were brought in from Brookline, Cambridge, Charlestown, Milton, Roxbury, and Watertown. An account of the fire was written up in the July 31 edition of the American Apollo, a copy of which is also in the State Library’s collection. The article, titled “Horrid Fire,” describes the affected area, lists the home and business owners who lost property, and thanks the fire engines from neighboring towns that provided assistance.

On August 5, Boston Selectmen issued a broadside in response to the devastation caused by the fire, calling attention to the residents whose lives changed “in an instant, from a situation convenient and comfortable, to a state of deplorable poverty and want.” The broadside was then distributed to cities and towns throughout the state in an effort to raise funds for assistance. The copy in the State Library’s collection was sent to the selectmen of Shutesbury, along with the handwritten instruction to share it with the town, likely as an announcement during a town meeting.
This “Great Fire” was of course not the great fire of 1760, which started in the Brazen Head and which eventually I’ll get back to. Nor the previous great fires, nor the great fire of 1870. But it was great enough.

One effect was that those proto-industrial ropewalks near the center of town—the workshops whose employees had brawled with soldiers in the days leading up to the Boston Massacre—were rebuilt out on new land south of the Common. Eventually that land had to be bought back from the ropemaking firms when the city decided to build the Public Garden.

In looking at the broadside, I was struck with how the selectmen’s names are set in a font reminiscent of the round hand to suggest their signatures. Whichever printer got the contract to produce this broadside obviously had some spiffy new type to use.