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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Friday, December 13, 2019

“All possible exertions to stem the current of the mob”

Richard Clarke and Sons weren’t the only merchants tapped by the East India Company to import tea into Boston in 1773. The others were:
  • Business partners Benjamin Faneuil, Jr. (1730-1787) and Joshua Winslow (1737-1775).
  • Thomas Hutchinson, Jr. (1740-1811), and his brother Elisha (1745-1824). They were sons of royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, who had invested about £1,000 in their business—what some of us today would call a conflict of interest. 
Those firms didn’t treat each other as competitors. In fact, Richard Clarke was Joshua Winslow’s uncle by marriage. Winslow and the Hutchinsons were third cousins. Everyone was in close contact with the governor.

When all three firms received the unwelcome invitation to Liberty Tree on 3 Nov 1773 that I quoted yesterday, they agreed to act in concert. The Clarkes later wrote:
The gentlemen who are supposed the designed factors for the East India Compy, viz: Mr. Thos. Hutchinson, Mr. Faneuil, Mr. Winslow & Messrs. Clarke, met in the forenoon of the 3rd instant, at the latter’s warehouse, the lower end of King Street. Mr. Elisha Hutchinson was not present, owing to a misunderstanding of our intended plan of conduct, but his brother engaged to act in his behalf.

You may well judge that none of us ever entertained the least thoughts of obeying the summons sent us to attend at Liberty Tree. After a consultation amongst ourselves and friends, we judged it best to continue together, and to endeavour, with the assistance of a few friends, to oppose the designs of the mob, if they should come to offer us any insult or injury. And on this occasion, we were so happy as to be supported by a number of gentlemen of the first rank.
There appear to have been over a dozen friends and supporters in the Clarkes’ warehouse, in addition to the family and the other importers.
About one o’clock, a large body of people appeared at the head of King Street, and came down to the end, and halted opposite to our warehouse. Nine persons came from them up into our countingroom, viz: Mr. [William] Molineux, Mr. Wm. Dennie, Doctor [Joseph] Warren, Dr. [Benjamin] Church, Major [Nathaniel] Barber, Mr. Henderson, Mr. Gabriel Johonnot, Mr. [Edward] Proctor, and Mr. Ezekiel Cheever.
Caleb H. Snow’s 1825 History of Boston didn’t list anyone named Henderson on this impromptu committee. Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves identified this man as Henderson Inches, and Bernhard Knollenberg’s Growth of the American Revolution, 1766-1775 guessed he was tax collector Benjamin Henderson.

This man was also certainly Joseph Henderson, who this same week signed a letter asking the selectmen to call an urgent town meeting about the tea tax. On that document his name appears right below those of Samuel Adams, Church, and Proctor. Henderson was then a merchant and proprietor of Long Wharf; later he became commissary of prisoners and sheriff of Suffolk County. (Interestingly, John Rowe wrote that in July 1771 a crowd “Routed the Whores” at a waterfront house that Henderson owned.)

Henry Pelham estimated the crowd behind that committee of nine as “about 300 People.” A similar crowd, including most of the town’s top elected officials, were waiting behind at Liberty Tree. The Clarkes’ report goes on:
Mr. Molineux, as speaker of the above Comtte., addressed himself to us, and the other gentlemen present, the supposed factors to the East India Comy. and told us that we had committed an high insult on the people, in refusing to give them that most reasonable satisfaction which had been demanded in the summons or notice which had been sent us, then read a paper proposed by him, to be subscribed by the factors, importing that they solemnly promise that they would not land or pay any duty on any tea that should be sent by the East I. Comy, but that they would send back the tea to England in the same bottom, which extravagant demand being firmly refused, and treated with a proper contempt by all of us, Mr. Molineux then said that since we had refused their most reasonable demands, we must expect to feel, on our first appearance, the utmost weight of the people’s resentment, upon which he and the rest of the Comtte. left our countingroom and warehouse, and went to and mixed with the multitude that continued before our warehouse.

Soon after this, the mob having made one or two reverse motions to some distance, we perceived them hastening their pace towards the store, on which we ordered our servant to shut the outward door; but this he could not effect although assisted by some other persons, amongst whom was Nathaniel Hatch, Esqr. one of the Justices of the inferior Court for this country, and a Justice of the Peace for the county.
Nathaniel Hatch (1723-1784) was born in Dorchester and graduated from Harvard in 1742. He became a bureaucrat, accumulating royal appointments: clerk of the Massachusetts Superior Court, comptroller of the Customs office, justice of the peace and of the quorum, member of a commission to wind down the Land Bank. In 1771 he was seated on the Suffolk County court of common pleas, and at the end of 1772 Thomas Hutchinson, Jr., joined him on that bench.

Hatch also had a family tie to at least one tea agent. In 1768 his stepdaughter Elizabeth Lloyd had married Joshua Loring, Jr., whose sister was the wife of Joshua Winslow.
This genm. made all possible exertions to stem the current of the mob, not only by declaring repeatedly, and with a loud voice, that he was a magistrate, and commanded the people, by virtue of his office, and in his Majesty’s name, to desist from all riotous proceedings, and to disperse [i.e., he read the Riot Act], but also by assisting in person; but the people not only made him a return of insulting & reproachful words, but prevented his endeavors, by force and blows, to get our doors shut, upon which Mr. Hatch, with some other of our friends, retreated to our counting-room.

Soon after this, the outward doors of the store were taken off their hinges by the mob, and carried to some distance; immediately a number of the mob rushed into the warehouse, and endeavored to force into the counting-room, but as this was in another story, and the stair-case leading to it narrow, we, with our friends—about twenty in number—by some vigorous efforts, prevented their accomplishing their design.

The mob appeared in a short time to be dispersed, and after a few more faint attacks, they contented themselves with blocking us up in the store for the space of about an hour and a half, at which time, perceiving that much the greatest part of them were drawn off, and those that remained not formidable, we, with our friends, left the warehouse, walked up the length of King Street together, and then went to our respective houses, without any molestation, saving some insulting behavior from a few despicable persons.
Thus ended the first physical confrontation of the tea crisis in Boston. According to Gov. Hutchinson, “This seems to have been intended only as an intimation to the consignees, of what they had to expect.”

TOMORROW: Shooting on School Street.


mfuhrer said...

Would you say that this act of intimidation by mob (and its committee) falls under the written laws of town government, or under the unwritten law of crowd justice? Seems like a fascinating insight into the ways in which the "mind of the people" functioned as a legitimating force for action at the time.

J. L. Bell said...

This seems to have been a Molineux operation, and I get the sense from the way the Whig press played it down that the selectmen and other top Whigs thought he’d let it go too far. But I think those leaders would have been comfortable with a 300-man committee visiting the merchants. It was only the last actions that concerned them.