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, July 19, 2020

“The anarchical dinner which was denominated a civic feast”

Let’s get back to Boston’s Civic Festival of 24 Jan 1793. As I described back here, a wide swath of Bostonians appear to have gone gaga over news of France becoming a republic.

Even the Federalist Columbian Centinel newspaper was breathlessly reporting the details of the celebration, referring to all men with the republican title “Citizen,” and warning French exiles to keep quiet about their objections to the new order.

Of course, some locals were skeptical about celebrating the French republic. But they probably kept their mouths shut, at least in public. For people to criticize the general merriment, they’d have to be dubious about crowds, suspicious of enthusiasm, and willing to court unpopularity.

In other words, the Adams family!

On 31 January, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail commenting on the planned festival. (It had already happened a week before, but he hadn’t read about how it went.) He indulged in some mild snark about the new republican honorifics replacing old forms of address:
Cit. H. and Cit. A. I presume will grace the Civic Feast. Cit and Citess is to come instead of Gaffer and Gammer Goody and Gooden, Mr and Mrs, I suppose. . . .

Citizen Brisler and Citizen V. P, are very happy together—Since they are equal and on a Level it is proper that sometimes one should be named first and sometimes the other.
“Cit. H. and Cit. A.” meant Gov. John Hancock and Lt. Gov. Samuel Adams—politicians the Vice President expected to be out courting voters by participating in the general celebration. “Citizen Brisler” was his own manservant in Philadelphia, John Briesler, and “Citizen V. P.” himself.

More seriously, Adams was withholding his judgment about the new republic in Europe:
We Shall See, in a few months, the new French Constitution, which may last Twelve months, but probably not more than Six. Robertspierre and Marat with their Jacobin Supporters I suspect will overthrow the Fabric which Condercet [Thomas] Paine and Brissot will erect. Then We shall see what they in their turn will produce.
The Vice President had the spelling wrong but the political tides right.

John Quincy Adams (shown above) was likewise skeptical about the festival and the politics behind it. On 10 February he wrote to his father:
I persisted in refusing to appear at the anarchical dinner which was denominated a civic feast, though I was urged strongly by several of my friends to become a subscriber, upon principles of expediency

Those friends disliked the whole affair quite as much as I did, but thought it necessary to comply with the folly of the day.—

Upon the whole however, it appears to me that the celebration of that day, has had rather an advantageous than an injurious effect. The specimens of Equality exhibited in the course of it, did not suit the palates of many, who had joined in the huzzaes. The Governor thought proper to be sick, and not attend; and I believe has ventured to express his disapprobation of the proceedings in several particulars.
Contrary to Vice President Adams’s assumption, Gov. Hancock had kept away from the feast. His keen political instincts might have warned him the enthusiasm might fade, or his ego might not have countenanced the level of equality that event demanded. The lieutenant governor was the highest elected official at the festival.

Hancock already had a reputation for pleading illness when it was politically or socially awkward for him to do something, so it was easy for people like J. Q. Adams to read his non-appearance as deliberate. But then the governor showed everyone by dying in October.

Another skeptical voice in January 1793 was the Rev. William Bentley up in Salem. In his diary he wrote:
21 [Jan]. Reports of great preparations making in Boston & the towns adjacent for the celebration of next Thursday. No movements with us even in the barber’s shops yet. . . .

24 [Jan]. No notice was taken of this day in Salem, excepting by a few boys with a paper balloon, who first burst it, & afterwards set fire to it. Some faint struggles by individuals were used, but soon ceased without attaining to the firing of a gun, the hoisting of a flag, the kindling a bonfire, or even the noise of a winter evening. This is not owing to an indifference to the revolution in France, but to the manners of the people, who are easily checked in any expences. . . . Vive la nation is not yet translated among us.

25 [Jan]. A particular account of the celebration at Boston last Thursday. The roasted Ox, exhibited with great pomp, fell a prey to the fury of the rabble. Every other ceremony was performed agreably. The children of the schools formed a delightful appearance with national cockades. The several companies dined in the public rooms, & the whole concluded with a bonfire.
In that last entry Bentley might have showed a little regret at missing a swell party.

TOMORROW: Meanwhile, in France…

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