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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Monday, October 28, 2019

John Mein and the “Well Disposed”

Since 17 Aug 1769, John Mein had been publishing manifests of vessels arriving in the port of Boston in his Boston Chronicle newspaper.

I’ve called those leaks from the Customs service, but it’s possible all Mein had to do was go to the office on King Street and copy down what incoming captains had officially declared.

Such information may seem politically innocuous, but publishing it caused a lot of trouble. Those manifests suggested that many Boston merchants, including some at the forefront of the non-importation movement against the Townshend duties, were actually importing goods. That raised resentment in Boston and suspicion in other ports.

The Whig press responded by increasing its attacks on Mein. Eventually Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette listed him on the top left of the front page among “those who have AUDACIOUSLY counteracted the UNITED SENTIMENTS of the BODY of Merchants throughout NORTH-AMERICA; by importing British Goods contrary to the Agreement.”

Mein retaliated by using the corresponding corner of the Chronicle to list the six Boston gentlemen on the committee to enforce the boycott, and by directing a series of pointed questions to them. “Do the ‘well disposed’ think the public is ignorant, that one of their number, and a Committee-man too, has been a great transgressor, though the signs of grace, which he shewed on a late occasion, entituled him to some mercy”? “Well disposed” was a label the merchants’ committee had adopted early on, and Mein proceeded to overuse it sarcastically.

On Thursday, 26 October, Mein went further, filling the front page of the Boston Chronicle with “Outlines of the Characters of some who are thought to be ‘WELL DISPOSED.’” This item took the form of a series of descriptions of books he was supposedly going to publish, hinting at the men’s embarrassing or criminal deeds.

Here are the nicknames Mein printed and the names of the men being lampooned, taken from a manuscript Mein himself wrote which is now at Harvard. The first six were the boycott committee, the rest their supporters.
On 28 October, 250 years ago today, Mein reprinted all his shipping reports since August plus the pointed questions and an edited version of these character sketches in a pamphlet titled A State of the Importations from Great-Britain into the Port of Boston. You can read the text here.

As Mein must have expected, that ticked off some of the merchants involved. Especially the merchant captains, who were used to being masters of their little worlds. John Rowe wrote in his diary (giving no sign that he himself had nearly been named and shamed), “Mr. M—— Publication that appeared to Day has Given Great uneasiness & this evening he was spoke to by Capt. Dashwood.”

That conversation quickly turned violent.

TOMORROW: More gunshots.


DCC said...

Do you know whether the manifests were a matter of public record? I'm sure the lists of vessels arrived, entered, and cleared for depature were public but don't recall whether manifest information was published at other ports. I know that three later, in the weeks before the Boston tea party, information about who was importing dutiable tea in Boston was published in New York via an source in the Boaton customhouse.

J. L. Bell said...

That’s a good question. My thinking about it started to change late last year as I described in this posting.

Ship arrivals and clearances (Customs approval to leave) were reported as a matter of course in newspapers. Actual shipping manifests almost never appeared, so Mein was doing something unusual, perhaps even in violation of norms. Yet the circumstances of the New York Tea Party suggest that captains were routinely viewing other ships' manifests at Customs offices. As you say, information on tea coming into Boston was likewise widely known. Perhaps the tea crisis changed how people dealt with those documents, but it looks like they were never kept strictly confidential.