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, February 17, 2020

“Boys insulting Every body who went in”

We don’t have inside information on the protests in front of the shops of people who defied Boston’s non-importation agreement in February 1770.

Instead, we have the reports of an unfriendly observer reporting to a Customs official. That person wasn’t privy to the Whigs’ planning. He (or she) was apt to ascribe bad motives to local political leaders. She (or he) might have been mistaken about what acts were planned and what were spontaneous.

All that said, within those reports I see evidence that top Whigs began those protests but then events went beyond those organizers’ direct control. Boys took over, making themselves visible participants in the movement.

The action started on 8 February, as described here, with a single sign erected beside the town pump. A painted hand pointed accusingly at William Jackson’s shop, identifying him as an “Importer.”

The informant noted that “a Number of Idle people…were standing by, with Clubs and Sticks in their Hands” and “a Number of considerable Merchants Stood at a Little distance, and seemed highly pleased with what was going on.” In particular, this witness named the radical merchant and protest leader William Molineux. So top Whigs closely supervised that initial action.

Protesters put up that sign at 10:00 A.M. and took it down at 1:00 P.M. The result was a brief, limited action on a busy Thursday when farmers brought their goods to market and the town schools let out early. That timing worked: “boys, and Country people,” came to watch.

Children had very little buying power, so they couldn’t participate in the boycott of the importers’ shops as the Whigs asked of adults. But they could show their support by making others obey the boycott. On that first day, the informant saw “Boys insulting Every body who went in, or out of the Shop, by Hissing and pelting them with Dirt.” Then more shops were vandalized over the following week.

The big question is how much those young people decided on their own to enter the political arena and how much they were used as tools by the adult Whigs.

Years later, the Rev. William Gordon wrote of this time in his history of the Revolution:
Boys, small and great, and undoubtedly men, had been and were encouraged, and well paid by certain leaders, to insult and intimidate those who had avowedly counteracted the combination, and still persevered.
But we don’t have further evidence of this, and Gordon didn’t arrive in Roxbury until 1771.

I think the evidence suggests that boys pushed into the political action, and in doing so pushed the political action further than the Whigs had planned—though Molineux and other radicals might well have encouraged the boys as they saw the result.

On 15 February, the picket line became more elaborate. The informant reported that the sign with the hand was joined by “the Effegies of some of the Importers.” Those effigies were the hallmark of the Pope Night processions, Boston’s annual eruption of youthful patriotic misrule (shown above). The town’s teen-aged boys brought out their political paraphernalia.

To be sure, there were probably still men watching over the protest. When four soldiers from the 14th tried to take down the sign and effigies, whoever pushed them away had to be fully grown. But the form of the protest was shaped by the youth culture.

Another sign that this protest was no longer fully coordinated with top Whigs was the threat on 15 February that effigies would “make their appearance on Liberty Tree the week following.” That didn’t happen. The adult Whig leadership kept control over that protest spot, taking down an unauthorized effigy in March 1768.

But there was still a clear threat of larger protests the next Thursday.

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