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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Sunday, February 16, 2020

“The Effects of Junius’ Letter”?

Throughout 1769, British politics was roiled by a series of public letters signed “Junius,” attacking the ministry of the Duke of Grafton and promoting William Pitt, by then the Earl of Chatham.

The letters combined erudite arguments, apparently inside knowledge of British politics, and personal attacks. The author’s identity has never been confirmed, but most evidence points to the Irish bureaucrat and politician Philip Francis, shown here.

The “Junius” letters made their way across the Atlantic to Boston, where the Whigs were already fans of Pitt and trying to form alliances with reformers in London.

In May 1769, Boston newspapers started to reprint letters from the “Junius” debate. Curiously, the first and, for a long time, only newspapers to do so were those closest to the royal authorities: Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter and John Mein and John Fleeming’s Boston Chronicle. Other newspapers reported on the debate in London, passing on the occasional speculation about who “Junius” was.

On 16 October, the Boston Gazette joined in the fun by reprinting a letter from “Junius Americanus,” a pseudonym of the Virginia-born Arthur Lee. He wrote about issues that affected North American colonists directly.

In the 16 December London Evening-Post, “Junius” published a letter addressing George III. Such a direct public message to the king was a breach of traditional etiquette, arguably even illegal. The author presented this letter as a hypothetical letter written if the monarch had asked for frank and honest advice—and who could complain about that?

“Junius” expressed what the British Whigs saw as wrong with current London politics. There were several slaps at Scotsmen for supposedly being less loyal than Englishmen. There was a long defense of John Wilkes for attacking Scotsmen. There was support for the printers then taking the radical action of making the proceedings of Parliament available to the public. (Later in 1770 the first printer of the “Junius” letters was himself prosecuted, but the government lost that and similar cases.)

Toward the end of his letter to the king, “Junius” wrote: “The same pretended Power which robs an English Subject of his Birthright, may rob an English K[ing] of his C[rown].” That was as obvious a warning of justified rebellion as the British press could handle in those days.

Customs Collector Joseph Harrison’s anonymous informant reported that on 7 Feb 1770 “Capt. [Isaac] Cazneau arrived from London and brought with him Junius Letter to the K--g, which was published the next day in Drapers paper,” the Boston News-Letter. Draper also printed a much shorter reply from a “Junius” opponent signing himself “Modestus.”

Edes and Gill then reprinted the “Junius” and “Modestus” essays as a two-page supplement to their 12 February issue of the Boston Gazette, the same that included the expanded list of importers that I showed yesterday.

Three days later, the anonymous informant wrote: “Between the 8th & this date, most of the Importers had their Windows broke their Signs defaced, and many other marks of Resentment—in short the Effects of Junius’ Letter was Visible which way so ever you turned yourself.”

This was a top-down view of politics, all too typical of upper-class Loyalists. According to this perspective, a verbose, educated, well connected but unaccountably radical gentleman in London wrote a provocative letter. Once reprinted in Boston, it provoked common subjects who would otherwise be peaceful and content into violent attacks on supporters of Parliament’s new taxes.

Of course, Boston’s non-importation movement was over a year old by the time the “Letter to the King” came to town. The “Body of the Trade” meetings and the decision to call importers public enemies took place in January, before that letter arrived. Is it really believable that a long essay published in the News-Letter on 8 February prompted the “Importer” sign that went up at William Jackson’s shop that morning (possibly even before the newspaper came out)?

Both the Boston Whigs and the Boston Loyalists saw their cause as parallel, or even part of, the political conflicts in Britain. They were eager to draw connections between their struggles and the imperial capital. But in this case the cause-and-effect is more than tenuous.

It’s conceivable that the “Junius” letter and its reprint in the 11 February Boston Gazette, the town’s most popular Whig newspaper, fueled the larger demonstration four days later. But I think the energy was really coming from the bottom up.

TOMORROW: The shrill voices of the voiceless.

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