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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Thursday, December 12, 2019

“Expected that you personally appear at Liberty Tree”

Richard Clarke (1711-1795, shown here in a detail from a family portrait by his son-in-law John Singleton Copley) was one of Boston’s leading tea merchants.

Clarke’s son Jonathan happened to be in London when Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773. That law mandated the East India Company to designate exclusive agents, or wholesalers, for tea in the major North American ports. Jonathan Clarke secured one of those valuable slots for the family firm, Richard Clarke & Sons.

News soon got back to Boston. Politicians immediately began to organize resistance to the new law. The idea that “taxation without representation is tyranny” was firmly established in people’s minds, and people knew that the tea tax would go toward salaries for Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, royally appointed judges, and the Customs service.

In the middle of November 1773, the Clarkes sent a long letter to their London contact, Abraham Dupuis, describing the pressure on them not to import tea. One part of the letter said:
in the morning of the 2nd instant [i.e., of this month], about one o’clock, we were roused out of our sleep by a violent knocking at the door of our house, and on looking out of the window we saw (for the moon shone very bright) two men in the courtyard. One of them said he had brought us a letter from the country. A servant took the letter of him at the door, the contents of which were as follows:
Boston, 1st Nov., 1773.

Richard Clarke & Son:

The Freemen of this Province understand, from good authority, that there is a quantity of tea consigned to your house by the East India Company, which is destructive to the happiness of every well-wisher to his country. It is therefore expected that you personally appear at Liberty Tree, on Wednesday next, at twelve o’clock at noon day, to make a public resignation of your commission, agreeable to a notification of this day for that purpose.

Fail not upon your peril. O. C.
Two letters of the same tenor were sent in the same manner to the other factors [i.e., wholesalers].

On going abroad we found a number of printed notifications posted up in various parts of the town, of which the following is a copy:
To the Freemen of this and the other Towns in the Province.


You are desired to meet at Liberty Tree, next Wednesday, at twelve o’clock at noon day, then and there to hear the persons to whom the tea, shipped by the East India Company, is consigned, make a public resignation of their office as consignees, upon oath. And also swear that they will reship any teas that may be consigned to them by the said Company, by the first vessel failing for London.

Boston, Novr. 1st, 1773. O. C., Secrey.
In this you may observe a delusory design to create a public belief that the factors had consented to resign their trust on Wednesday, the 3d inst., on which day we were summoned by the above-mentioned letter to appear at Liberty Tree, at 11 o’clock, A.M.

All the bells of the meetinghouses for public worship were set a-ringing and continued ringing till twelve; the town cryer went thro’ the town summoning the people to assemble at Liberty Tree.

By these methods, and some more secret ones made use of by the authors of this design, a number of people, supposed by some to be about 500, and by others more, were collected at the time and place mentioned in the printed notification. They consisted chiefly of people of the lowest rank, very few reputable tradesmen, as we are informed, appeared amongst them. There were indeed two merchants, reputed rich, and the selectmen of the town, but these last say they went to prevent disorder.
Summoning a royal appointee to publicly resign was an act that hearkened back to the anti-Stamp Act protests of 1765, when the great elm in the South End was first dubbed Liberty Tree. Since some of those protests had ended in property-damaging riots, the invitation carried a clear threat of violence.

Another ominous historical allusion in these notes appears in the initials at the bottom: “O. C.” seems to refer to Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader who overthrew Charles I in the 1640s. Most of the British Empire had come to see that revolution as having gone too far. New England was one of the few parts of the empire that still admired Cromwell and what he stood for.

TOMORROW: The tea agents’ response to this summons.


Pamela Athearn Filbert said...

I've always loved the expression on Mr. Clarke's face, though somehow no photograph of the painting entirely captures (to my eyes, anyway) his look of complete tedium and distraction, as he holds a wiggling grandchild on his lap.

J. L. Bell said...

The whole painting’s a marvelous study in expressions. Grandpa and the oldest daughter at the front are clearly trying to pose with dignity. The other children are squirming. And Mr. Copley himself seems to be recognizing that he’ll be sleep-deprived for another few years at least.