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, April 11, 2020

“The Town make choice of a proper Person to deliver an Oration”

Yesterday I described how Bostonians commemorated the first anniversary of the Boston Massacre in 1771, including Dr. Thomas Young delivering a political oration in the Manufactory.

Six days later, on Monday, 11 March, Boston had its first town meeting of the year. As usual, attendees took up the first day with electing various officials, from the selectmen on down.

One agenda item on the second day was “Whether the Town will determine upon some suitable Method to perpetuate the memory of the horred Massacre perpetrated on the Evening of the 5. of March 1770—by a Party of Soldiers of the 29. Regiment.” Town leaders were getting on the commemoration bandwagon.

The meeting assigned that topic to a committee of active upper-class Whigs: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Dr. Benjamin Church, Benjamin Kent, Richard Dana, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton. A second committee was chosen to vindicate the townspeople from “some partial and false publications” about the Massacre trials the previous fall.

The perpetuation committee returned on Tuesday, 19 March with this recommendation:
That for the present the Town make choice of a proper Person to deliver an Oration at such Time as may be Judged most convenient to commemorate the barbarous murder of five of our Fellow Citizens on that fatal Day, and to impress upon our minds the ruinous tendency of standing Armies in Free Cities, and the necessity of such noble exertions in all future times, as the Inhabitants of the Town then made, whersby the designs of the Conspirators against the public Liberty may be still frustrated–

And the Committee in order to compleat the Plan of some standing Monument of Military Tyrany begg’d to be indulged with further time
The meeting “Voted unanimously” to adopt that plan for an oration. (No “standing Monument of Military Tyrany” would be erected for more than a century.)

The next question was who should deliver the oration. Dr. Young already had a text, of course, but now that was old news, and possibly too radical as well. Instead, people proposed two possible orators:
  • Samuel Hunt, master of the North Latin School
  • James Lovell, longtime usher, or assistant master, of the South Latin School
The townspeople “as directed then withdrew and brought in their Votes.” Not only did James Lovell win, but he was “unanimously chosen.” (I wonder how Mr. Hunt took that. Maybe it was supposed to be an honor just to be nominated.)

The same committee, with the addition of Samuel Swift, was sent off to invite Lovell to speak at Faneuil Hall on Thursday, 2 April, at 10:00 A.M. In essence, this would be a special edition of the usual “Thursday Lecture,” or sermon, that one minister or another had delivered on Thursday mornings for years. But this oration would also be an official session of the town meeting.

As it happened, on 2 April such a big crowd came out to hear Lovell that the meeting had to officially adjourn from Faneuil Hall to the Old South Meeting-House, the largest enclosed space in town (shown above). Afterwards, the town asked for Lovell’s text so that it could print his oration and spread its message. You can read it here.

All of those steps became an annual ritual in Boston: the proposal in town meeting to commission an oration, the committee visiting a respectable young gentleman with a speaking invitation, the adjournment on 5 March (or 6 March if the anniversary fell on the Sabbath) to Old South, the town’s publication of the text. Even in 1776, when Boston was under siege, there was an oration for Bostonians in exile out in Watertown. That tradition lasted until 1783, after the Revolutionary War ended.

And it all started with the town meeting deciding to commemorate the Massacre one month after the first anniversary.

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