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, July 11, 2020

Family Business and Politics in Marlborough

Personal finance and politics intersected for the Speakman family and their neighbors in the summer of 1770.

As I started to discuss back here, Thomas Speakman acquired property in Marlborough before being killed on the Lake Champlain battlefront in 1757.

His widow Mary was living in that town in the late 1760s, and their son William (Billy) apparently moved out there after a health scare in late 1768.

By that time both mother and son had become attached to Whig politics, even though they were upper-class Anglicans, a group more likely to side with the Crown. That irked Mary Speakman’s Loyalist friend and neighbor Christian Barnes, who nonetheless concluded that the widow was not acting ”from any Self interested Motives.”

In those years the family’s second son, Gilbert Warner Speakman, was in Boston working for his uncle, merchant John Rowe. But that young man, called Gibby or Gib by his family, came of age in 1768 and needed to establish himself independently in some way.

In the same long letter from the summer of 1770 that I quoted about political disturbances in Marlborough, Christian Barnes wrote in late June:
Mrs. Speakman went to Boston last week and Mr. Rowe ask’d her what she intended to to [sic] do with Gibby for he had no longer any ocation for him and could not afford to pay him wages

She told him her last resort was New Boston [New Hampshire, where the family had invested in land] and if she could be put into business there she should like to take her whole family with her,

he made no reply to this and she return’d from Boston in very low Spirits but last Night she received a letter from Gibby informing her that his uncles Row & [Ralph] Inman had agree’d he should go to New Boston with goods and there make Pearl & Pott Ash
Christian Barnes’s husband Henry happened to own a potash manufactory in Marlborough. To be sure, that building had recently had its windows smashed, and a rumor was going around town that Billy Speakman was sparking such vandalism to get Henry to finally adhere to non-importation. But that didn’t stop Gibby from asking his mother’s neighbor for advice:
he sent to Mr. Barnes for an estimate of the Cost of the Works and desires to know if this is a proper Season to cut down Timber to build a House

you see these are all things at a distance and may possibly blow off in Air However it has given Mrs. Speakman new Spirits
That month, two effigies of her husband, a threatening letter, and news of attacks on other Loyalists made Christian Barnes increasingly anxious. And then came a small-town betrayal.

Christian Barnes’s 13 July letter reported that Mary Speakman was preparing for her son to go into business in competition with Henry Barnes. The people of Marlborough would no longer have to buy general goods from an importer or travel to another town. Political, commercial, and personal factors were intertwining as Christian Barnes wrote of the rift between the families:
even Mrs. Speakman has deserted me, and takeing the advantage of our distress’d situation has made aplication to Mr. Row and he has consented to send up Gibby and open a Store at her House and he is now actuly here makeing preparation for the reception of his goods[.] he has brought his Mistress with him and they have past a Week in the greatest Mirth and festivity.

The only excuse they have to make for this ungreatfull proceeding is that as Mr. Barnes has advertized his Estate for Sail but whatever Motive Mr. Barnes might have for advertizeing his Place Mrs. Speakman has told me more than twenty times that she was convinced he has no intention of leaving Marlborough, so you see what the New Boston Scheem is come to but it must end in that finily, or something worse for I am well assured that a Store of Good put into their hands and by Mr. Row must prove their distruction, and at the same time will be injuring us to such a degree as I think ought not to be forgiven.
By this point Christian Barnes had dropped all her skepticism about the Speakman brothers encouraging the attacks on her husband. “I know they have both been very active in all the riots in Boston and they may Posibly find some dareing Sons of Violence who may be willing to assist them in any interprize they shall propose.”

To get away from the local unrest, Barnes went to stay with friends. On 17 September she described developments she found on coming back home:
when I returned from Cambridge (after an absense of five Weeks) I found the Peoples Minds were more composed[.] a Party had apear’d in our favor and some of them had Publicly declared they would act in opposition to any one that should molest us

they remain’d quiet till the time approach’d for takeing out our licence [to sell liquor.] Mr. Barnes then waited on the Select Men for their approbation but was refused

Mrs. Speakman (who is still determin’d to circumvent us in our trade if possible) had no doubt but she should obtain it but she did not gain her Point and Mr. Barnes put in a Petition to the Court which was then siting at Concord and they very readily granted him a license tho there was great opposition made by some People in the Town who were at the expence of feeing a Lawyer upon the ocation

they now begin to make it a party affair among themselves and the Tory Party (as they are call’d) talk of erecting fire Works by way of triumph upon our gaining the licence
Soon, however, the non-importation controversy settled down. Gib Speakman opened a tannery instead of directly competing with Henry Barnes.

Of course, the larger political issues remained unresolved.

TOMORROW: When war came.

[The picture above is an eighteenth-century engraving of a potash kiln, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.]

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