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, August 09, 2020

The Life and Death of Nathaniel Rogers

Nathaniel Rogers was born in Boston in 1737. His mother was a sister of Thomas Hutchinson, who later that year was chosen to be both a selectman and the town’s representative to the Massachusetts General Court.

Young Natty was orphaned as a small boy, and his Uncle Thomas raised him, treating him as another son. He didn’t attend Harvard College, but he nonetheless gained a degree by getting a master’s degree from the University of Glasgow and then asking Harvard to recognize that with a reciprocal (ad eundem) bachelor’s.

While Rogers was in Britain, he came across a copy of New-England’s Prospect by William Wood, a guide to joining the new Massachusetts Bay Colony published in 1634. This was just the sort of historical source his uncle liked. Rogers arranged for it to be reprinted in Boston in 1764, adding a long introduction that fit the founding of Massachusetts into the overall Whig history of Britain.

The political philosophy Rogers expressed in that introduction fit well alongside the arguments James Otis, Jr., was making in his pamphlets about recent Crown laws violating long established rights. In fact, James Bowdoin apparently assumed Otis wrote the introduction, writing his name into a copy.

Rogers saw himself as a Whig and a proponent of American interests. On a trip to London in 1767, he wrote to his uncle about former prime minister George Grenville:
Mr Greenville seems our most bitter enemy, & takes every opportunity to render us obnoxious. The only motion this session upon American matters was made by him, that an Enquiry should be entered into by the House upon a certain Boston paper of Octo. 5. containing the most virulent aspersions & insinuations . . .

As far as I can judge from the very short time I have been here, nothing like threatning will do here, it will serve to enflame minds already much agitated but representations supported by facts & strong reasoning will be attended to. America appears of Consequence, & the Nation in general seems interested, the Manufacturers & commercial people so far as their Interest is Affected are on our side, but all the Landed Interest are against us.
He also blamed the Customs service for having “stretched their Authority to the utmost,” which was “one great cause of their ill usage.”

Nonetheless, as Rogers’s warning against “threatning” suggests, he opposed the political methods of the Boston Whigs: public demonstrations, boycotts, harsh rhetoric in the newspapers, legislative confrontations with the governor, and of course riots. He was pleased when the Crown cracked down on his home town, writing, “We were grown into a most wretched state before the arrival of the troops. . . . the firmness of parliament will be the only cure of these Evils.”

Ultimately, Rogers was invested in the imperial patronage system. He used his connections with Lt. Gov. Hutchinson in business and in seeking royal appointments. He married into the extended Wentworth family that supplied New Hampshire with its governors, and he adopted his wife’s Anglicanism. In London he tried to line up support for himself to succeed Andrew Oliver, his uncle’s brother-in-law, as royal secretary of Massachusetts.

In the fall of 1769, Customs house records revealed that Rogers had continued to ship in goods from Britain in defiance of the non-importation agreement. A 4 October Boston town meeting condemned him along with a few other importers. That same day Hutchinson wrote to the absent governor:
Rogers…thinks himself in immediate danger and desired to know if I could protect him. I told him that if he could pitch upon any particular person he might go & make oath before a Justice of peace & he would bind him to keep the peace &c. I could do no more for him. He will not be able to hold out unless he quits the Town.
In early January 1770, William Molineux led a polite but ominous crowd to Rogers’s door. He still refused to yield—unlike his cousins, the Hutchinson brothers. Hosting British army officers in his house might have helped. But in May, with the regiments removed and the Whigs ramping up pressure, Rogers left for New York.

By then, however, Nathaniel Rogers’s name had become notorious. The Sons of Liberty paraded his effigy around the city, then hanged and burned it. He left Manhattan in the middle of the night. A few days later, another effigy appeared outside his inn on Long Island. Back in Boston in June, he found people “repeatedly breaking his windows and in a most beastly manner casting tubs of ordure at his door.” He tried New Hampshire but turned down a seat on that colony’s high court because he still held out hope for an appointment in Massachusetts.

Returning in Boston, on 9 August Rogers visited Justice Edmund Quincy to swear out a complaint against someone for harassing him. Hutchinson wrote:
As he held up his hand to swear that he had grounds to suspect the person the Justice observed a Tremor and asked if he was not well and advised him not to give himself so much concern. He had got but a few steps from the Justices door by the Post Office when he complained of being ill to a woman who stood at her shop door and who asked him in where he remain’d near half an hour fancying he should grow better but an apoplectic fit came on, his countenance changed to black instantly and before I could get to him after notice given to me he was in the Agonies of death.
Nathaniel Rogers died at the age of thirty-three, 250 years ago today.

TOMORROW: Posthumous notoriety.

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