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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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.

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