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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Saturday, June 05, 2021

Adams on Ruggles on Young

On 8 Feb 1789, John Adams wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush about the creation of Pennsylvania’s wartime constitution, which was too simple and radical for his tastes.

Adams listed Dr. Thomas Young, whom he had known in Boston, as one of the four men principly responsible for that constitution. He told Rush their characters “should be analyzed and developed in a manner that would give offence.” And to that end, he wrote:
Let me give you the character of one of them, (Young) in a conversation which really passed in 1772 between Timothy Ruggles, & Royal Tyler.
Ruggles (shown here) was a lawyer and legislator from Hardwick, a general in the provincial militia, chief judge of his county’s court of common pleas, and a one-time speaker of the Massachusetts house. He was charming enough to maintain friendships even when he differed from people politically.

In 1765 Ruggles chaired the Stamp Act Congress but refused to sign its protest against the law. From then on he was counted as a friend of the royal government. He maintained enough local popularity to be elected to the General Court as late as 1770, but after that he didn’t return to state government until the mandamus Council of 1774.

As for Royall Tyler, he was a Boston politician notorious for actually seeking votes, especially from tradesmen. While Tyler was generally populist in his politics, it was hard to pin him down on specific policies or actions, and he could loudly deny having said things that many people had heard him say. By the 1770s Tyler was on the Massachusetts Council, a thorn in the royal governors’ sides.

According to Adams, Ruggles and Tyler had this conversation about Dr. Young:
Ruggles. That Tom Young is a firebrand, an incendiary, an eternal fisher in troubled waters. Boston will never be in peace while that fellow is in it. He is a scourge, a pestilence, a judgement.

Tyler. come! come! dont abuse Dr. Young; He is a necessary man in the Town of Boston. He is in the city, what you are in the House of Rep: a useful man.

Ruggles. useful for what?

Tyler. I was yesterday in a watch makers shop, and looked over his shoulder while he put a watch together: The springs and wheels, were all clean, and in good order, every one in its place as far as I could see, but the watch would not go: the artist at length with his thumb and forefinger groping in the dust, upon his shop board took up a little dirty pin, scarcely visible to my naked sight, blew off the dust and screwed it into a certain part of the wheelwork, the watch then click’d in an instant, and went very well.—

This little dirty screw are you in the Legislature and Dr Young in the town of Boston.

Here was a loud roar of Laughter at Ruggles’s expence; but his wit has seldom failed him as his power of face; with all the gravity of a Judge he replied,

Ruggles. Since you are upon clock work, I’l tell you what: you resemble, the Pendulum—eternaly vibrating from one side to the other; but I must do you the justice to say, I never knew one swing so clear.

the answer hit the character so exactly, that the tide of laughter was now turned the contrary way.

We have had my dear sir, in all the States in the course of the late revolution, two many of these little Pins who have acquired the reputation of great wheels and main springs.
In 1970 David Freeman Hawke used the phrase “eternal fisher in troubled waters” in the title of an article about Dr. Young. The idiom “to fish in troubled waters” meant to wade into a troublesome situation, especially for one’s own advantage. Young wasn’t out for himself, but he didn’t shy from trouble.

TOMORROW: But did this conversation actually happen?

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