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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Monday, December 28, 2020

“To see the minutes made by the secretary”

Here’s another controversy from 1770 that I didn’t note on the exact 250th anniversaries of its notable dates since I had other topics at hand and, frankly, it was drawn out more than it really deserved.

On 6 March, the day after the Boston Massacre, Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and his Council met in the Town House (now the Old State House museum, maintained by Revolutionary Spaces).

As I discussed back here, the town of Boston also had a meeting that day to urge the royal authorities into moving the army regiments out of town. Eventually Hutchinson and the army commander, Lt. Col. William Dalrymple, agreed to do that as long as the other took at least an equal share of the blame for conceding.

The provincial Secretary, Andrew Oliver, wanted the authorities in London to understand the pressures that Hutchinson—his friend, relative, and political ally—was under. So in his first draft of the official records of that Council meeting, Oliver wrote:
Divers gentlemen of the council informed his honour the lieutenant-governor, They were of opinion, that it was the determination of the people to have the troops removed from the town; and that this was not the sense of the inhabitants of the town of Boston only, but of other towns in the neighbourhood, who stood ready to come in, in order to effect this purpose, be the consequence of it what it may; unless they shall be withdrawn by the commanding officers, which, in their opinion, was the only method to prevent the effusion of blood, and, in all probability, the destruction of his Majesty’s troops, who must be overpowered by numbers, which would not be less than ten to one.
The next morning, however, the Council met again and asked “to see the minutes made by the secretary of this day’s proceedings set in order.” They thought Oliver’s summary sounded like a threat of rebellion and violence. The Councilors adopted new language instead:
That the people of this, and some of the neighbouring towns, were so exasperated and incensed, on account of the inhuman and barbarous destruction of a number of the inhabitants by the troops, that they apprehended imminent danger of further bloodshed, unless the troops were forthwith removed from the body of the town, which, in their opinion, was the only method to prevent it.
That text went into the official minutes.

But a week later, on 13 March, Oliver wrote out a more detailed description of what Councilors had told the governor. This time he named names, quoting one seasoned politician at length:
Mr. [Royall] Tyler had said, “That it was not such people as had formerly pulled down the lieutenant-governor’s house which conducted the present measures, but that they were people of the best character among us—men of estates, and men of religion: That they had formed their plan, and that this was a part of it to remove the troops out of town, and after that the commissioners: That it was impossible the troops should remain in town; that the people would come in from the neighbouring towns, and that there would be 10,000 men to effect the removal of the troops, and that they would probably be destroyed by the people—should it be called rebellion—should it incur the loss of our charter, or be the consequence what it would.”

Divers other gentlemen adopted what Mr. Tyler had said, by referring expressly to it, and thereupon excusing themselves from enlarging. Mr. [James] Russell of Charlestown and Mr. [Samuel] Dexter of Dedham, confirmed what he said respecting the present temper and disposition of the neighbouring towns; every gentlemen spoke of the occasion, and unanimously expressed their sense of the necessity of the immediate removal of the troops from the town, and advised his honour to pray that colonel Dalrymple would order the troops down to Castle William;

one gentlemen [Harrison Gray], to enforce it, said, ”That the lieutenant-governor had asked the advice of the council, and they had unanimously advised him to a measure; which advice, in his opinion, laid the lieutenant-governor under an obligation to act agreeably thereto.” Another gentlemen [John Erving] pressed his compliance with greater earnestness, and told him, “That if after this any mischief should ensue, by means of his declining to join with them, the whole blame must fall upon him; but that if he joined with them, and colonel Dalrymple, after that, should refuse to remove the troops, the blame would then lie at his door.”
Oliver swore to the truth of that account and put it on the next ship to London. There it was printed along with depositions about local hostility to the king’s soldiers in A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England. And then that pamphlet came back to Boston.

TOMORROW: More pamphlets.


David Churchill Barrow said...

Was there not also talk of igniting a tar barrel on Beacon Hill the night of the massacre, and would that have brought in militia from surrounding towns? Did Hutchinson’s “Let the law take it’s course. I will live and die by the law” speech from the balcony of the Town House help to avert the revolution from starting five years earlier than it did?

J. L. Bell said...

A letter from Boston published in the 28 Apr 1770 London Chronicle stated: “The people prepared to arm; expresses had been sent to the neighboring towns for assistance; and a resolution taken to give a general alarm, by firing the beacon; but by the persuasion of the Lieutenant Governor, the people were prevailed upon, after some time, to disperse; A barrel of tar, which was carrying to the beacon, was brought back, and the troops, which were under arms, retired to their barracks.”

This statement may have been based on alarmed rumors rather than solid knowledge, however. While some individuals, such as George R. T. Hewes, went for their militia weapons, there’s no clear evidence of a group response organized enough to make “a resolution.”

It’s also notable that the beacon had no tar barrel on it, making the act of lighting the emergency signal a much harder undertaking. Back in 1768, when the troops first arrived, a barrel was placed on the beacon, but it was found to be symbolic, not containing flammable tar. The sheriff took it down, and no one replaced it in the next eighteen months.

Had the Massacre led to an uprising against the troops and royal authorities in eastern Massachusetts in 1770, it’s unlikely the resistance would have spread as it did in 1774-75. The American press reporting on the Massacre tended to treat that event as a local grievance, not as a warning to every colony.