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, 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.

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