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 21, 2019

William Browne: Justice, Councilor, but Not Coffee-House Brawler

Technical difficulties—i.e., a power outage after a storm, and attendant recovery work—threw off my posting schedule this week. I hope to catch up over the next few days.

The last posting quoted merchant captain Mungo Mackay describing William Burnet Brown as one of the men involved in the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson in the British Coffee-House on 5 Sept 1769. It finished with the question, “Who was William Burnet Brown?”

The answer starts with the fact that he was not William Browne, whom several authors have identified as that man in the midst of the action. That Browne was a prominent supporter of the royal government in Massachusetts, but he was probably nowhere near the British Coffee-House that day.

William Browne was born in Salem on 27 Feb 1737. His father was a wealthy merchant, and he went to Harvard, graduating in 1755. Three years later he married Ruth Wanton. Though Browne practiced law, he appears to have spent most of his time managing the property he inherited—collecting rents, selling land, and making mercantile investments. He was a deacon and a militia colonel, responsibilities that neighbors expected rich men to take on.

In 1762 Browne was elected to represent Salem in the Massachusetts General Court, as his namesake uncle had before him. He became an active supporter of Gov. Francis Bernard and London’s policies. In 1768 he was one of the scant seventeen members who voted to rescind the body’s Circular Letter to other colonial legislatures.

According to the Rev. William Bentley, writing after Browne had died, “30 persons in Salem approved of his willingness to rescind, but the Town justified the Court & sent to the new Court in 1769 new Representatives.” In other words, the Salem town meeting chose not to reelect him.

The Crown then rewarded Browne with a royal appointment as a judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas in Essex County. He also occasionally served as a fill-in on the Superior Court of Massachusetts.

In 1774, as the conflict between the Crown and the people of Massachusetts heated up, the royal government named Browne to a permanent seat on the Superior Court. I’m not sure he ever actually heard a case since Patriot crowds were making sure the courts didn’t meet. In addition, militia officers refused to serve under Browne any longer.

The London government also appointed Browne to the new mandamus Council, and he took the oath before Gen. Thomas Gage in Salem in August 1774. The people of Massachusetts rose up against that change in the provincial constitution, making Councilors their particular targets. Browne moved into Boston for safety, though Bentley wrote: “It was supposed that the favour of the people was so great towards him, that he might have returned home from Boston had the public mind been properly represented to him.”

Justice Browne left Massachusetts after the Revolutionary War started, reaching Britain by May 1776. The state confiscated as much of his property as it could a couple of years later, but he remained a wealthy man. From 1781 to 1790 Browne served the British Empire as royal governor of Bermuda. He died in England on 13 Feb 1802.

Bentley recalled Browne as “short, and of a full habit, and remarkable for large legs [i.e., calves], by which he had distinction from another W.B. of the town.”

“William Brown” is a common name, of course, and some documents from the Otis-Robinson fight do indeed give that name for the man who intervened on Robinson’s side. But the accounts that include a middle name help us to clear the name of William Browne and point the finger at William Burnet Brown—his first cousin.

COMING UP: So who was William Burnet Brown?

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