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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Tuesday, July 07, 2020

“A Letter was left by some unknown Person”

In 1770, the Boston town meeting named Henry Barnes as one of a small group of businesspeople who were openly defying the town’s non-importation agreement.

Barnes was unusual in that group because his shop and main business were off in rural Marlborough, where he also oversaw some small manufacturing enterprises.

In a long letter written over June and July that I’ve been quoting, Henry’s wife Christian Barnes told her friend Elizabeth Smith how their neighbors tried to pressure him into backing down: public meetings (official and unofficial), window-breaking, not one but two effigies.

“But still finding that their malace had no effect,” Christian wrote, “they made a bold push and dropped an incendiary letter.”

Henry Barnes immediately sent a copy of the letter to Thomas Hutchinson at his home in Milton. The acting governor convened his Council at Cambridge on 25 June and showed them the letter. The Councilors asked Hutchinson to summon Barnes to another meeting.

On 28 June, Barnes brought “the original Incendiary Letter [and] his Oath annexed to authenticate the receipt.” Unable to stall any longer, the Council advised Hutchinson to issue a proclamation about it:
Whereas on the 21st. Inst. a Letter was left by some unknown Person at the House of Henry Barnes Esq. of Marlborough, directed to him, threatening to fire his Shop and destroy all his substance that he hath on ye Earth, to take his Body & Tar it & if nothing else will do but death he shall certainly have it if he did not shut up his Shop and forbear Selling and importing of Goods; to the receiving of which Letter in manner as aforesaid the said Henry Barnes made solemn oath…
The province offered a £50 reward for any information about the “unknown Person.”

The Barneses already felt besieged, and they were hearing bad news from friends in Boston. In her letter to Smith, Christian Barnes wrote about other supporters of the royal government being attacked:
Barnes told Smith:
You may judge what sleep I had that night, and, indeed, ever since we have sleept in such a manner that it can hardly be called rest. It is the business of the evening to see the firearmes loaded, and lights properly placed in the store and house; and this precaution we have taken ever since we received the letter.
As for Marlborough’s response, on 30 July the Boston Gazette published a dispatch from that town with this to say about the warning:
Afterwards Barns pretends to have found a letter, threatning of him, and has sent, to the selectmen for their assistance to discover the authors of so vile a thing, and after the most close search, and considering all circumstances of said letter, are of opinion that the same was hatched by Barns’s own party—and one of the Selectmen went and told Barns so; whereupon Barns raged furiously and said, “Then you think I swore falsly do you?” Afterwards Barnes pretends he expect a mob, whether from the horror of his own conscience, or the phrenzy of a Don Quixote and a Squire Sancho, is not said…
The modern term for this political tactic is, of course, “gaslighting.”

TOMORROW: Naming “the perpetrator of all this mischief”?

(The portrait of Christian Barnes above was painted by Prince Demah, who grew up enslaved in the Barnes household. She wrote about his talent for drawing portraits in 1769, and in late 1770 Henry Barnes took Demah to London for training. The artist later returned to Boston and advertised as a portraitist. Demah’s portraits of Christian and Henry Barnes are now owned by the Hingham Historical Society.)


Don Carleton said...

I know this is a tangential observation but I was fascinated to see that the writers/editors of the Boston Gazette in reporting on the Barnes affair just assumed their readers were familiar with Don Quixote...an interesting indication of the cosmopolitanism of a community out there on the fringes of empire!

J. L. Bell said...

It had been a century and a half since Don Quixote had been translated into English, so I can believe that most literate Britons knew of the knight and squire as a metaphor, even if few people had read the book. Much like today.