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, June 14, 2020

“To build a Court-House in the Town of Roxbury”

On 17 Feb 1748, the Massachusetts house heard from a second committee on what to do about the Town House, the legislature’s usual meeting hall, which had burned the previous November.

The first committee had recommended building a new Court-House for the Massachusetts General Court in Cambridge. The full house then rejected that idea.

This second committee, which included house speaker Thomas Hutchinson, recommended instead “that the late Court-House be repaired.” That would keep the seat of the government in the center of Boston, Hutchinson’s home town.

The full house didn’t accept that recommendation. It voted not to have a new Court-House “built in any Part of the Town of Boston.” Hutchinson could steer a committee but not the whole chamber.

Instead, that morning the lawmakers voted “to build a Court-House in the Town of Roxbury.” That was just one town inland from Boston, but the new building could be away from the waterfront, the merchants, and the province’s biggest mobs.

Roxbury was also the town where Gov. William Shirley had just built a new country seat (now the Shirley-Eustis House, shown above). A couple of decades later, Gov. Francis Bernard liked to spend time at his estate in Jamaica Plain, part of the same town. A Roxbury legislative seat could have shifted the power of influence in the pre-Revolutionary decade.

The house proceeded to appoint five members to join Councilors on a committee to “report a proper Place in the Town of Roxbury to place said House in, and consider of the Dimensions of said House; also to consider and report how the Charge of said House shall be defreyed.”

The legislative meeting-place was slipping away from Boston. But that afternoon, Isaac Royall of Charlestown (a part of that town transferred to Medford in 1754) went upstairs to the chamber where the Council was meeting and brought back news: “they had unanimously nonconcur’d said Vote.”

The house went back to the question. After further debate, the legislators voted again to put the Court-House in Roxbury and to appoint the same five members to the same joint committee. The only difference in the bills was that this one left out the issue of paying for the building.

The whole next day, there was no response from the Council. (The house had been likewise silent a few days before when the Council wanted to curtail the Independent Advertiser.) On the morning of 19 February, Joseph Buckminster of Framingham went up to ask about the Court-House. He learned the Council had again refused to go along with the Roxbury plan.

The house then decided “That the Consideration of building a Court-House be refer’d ’till the next Sitting of this Court.” For the rest of the month the chamber dealt with many other matters, including discussions through the committee of the whole on 25 February about speaker Hutchinson’s proposal for paying off old currency.

On 2 March a message from Gov. Shirley arrived:
Gentlemen of the House of Representatives,

AT the Beginning of this Session, I recommended to you the making Provision for a Court-House; I was in Hopes the Inconvenience you suffer in your present Situation, would have prompted you to have given Dispatch to this Affair; but perceiving it is still delayed, I must desire you would resume the Consideration, lest the General Court be put to the same Difficulties another Winter.
The lawmakers voted to discuss that the next morning. But first they addressed other matters, including buying “the Stone-Wind-Mill in Charlestown, for a Powder-House”—the building still standing in Somerville’s Powderhouse Square.

Finally the house voted on three questions:
  • “Will the House reconsider their Vote referring the Consideration of building the Court-House ’till the next Sitting of the Court?” Yes.
  • “Whether the late Court-House shall be repair’d?” No.
  • “Whether the Court-House shall be built in the Town of Boston?” Yes.
Thus, Hutchinson and other Boston legislators maintained the town’s status as the provincial capital, but there would need to be a new building. The fire-scarred shell of the 1713 Town House would presumably be torn down.

TOMORROW: “a proper Place in the Town of Boston for building a new Court-House.”

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