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, February 22, 2021

“Mentor” Remembers the Massacre

Before February ends, I need to note one event from this month 250 years ago.

On 11 Feb 1771, the Fleet brothersBoston Evening-Post ran as its first front-page item a letter signed “Mentor.” It recalled the previous year’s Boston Massacre and repeated the Whig arguments against standing armies and quartering troops in a populous town.

The author then offered a new idea:
I therefore propose it to the understanding and discreet, as well as the zealous, friends of liberty and mankind, that a regular plan be formed for an annual & solemn remembrance of the 5th of March.

I would speak my own mind on this occasion with freedom, tho’ with becoming diffidence. And I own, that in my present view of the matter, it seems to be expedient to exclude, the reverend and worthy gentlemen of the Clergy from being concerned in any part of the exercises of the day. This proposed exclusion does not arise from any aversion to that useful order of men, or from any doubt of their learning, integrity or fortitude. But I conceive that this celebration ought to be considered and conducted solely with a reference to civil society and domestick policy. And it is in general, perhaps, of little advantage to true religion, or good government, that the clergy should interfere in matters purely temporal, and wholly affecting social compacts and political oeconomy.

It may therefore be proper to chuse two persons to deliver (one in the forenoon and the other in the afternoon) a dissertation on—THE POLICY OF STANDING ARMIES; AND THE NATURAL TENDENCY OF QUARTERING REGULAR TROOPS IN POPULOUS CITIES IN TIME OF PEACE.—This choice should be at such a convenient time as to give the speaker opportunity to mature his thoughts, digest his arguments and form his diction.

By this means, it is likely the performance will be devoid of crude sentiments and inelegant language; and if the audience are not instructed with a sensible, judicious and useful disquisition on so important subjects, yet their time will not be wholly misemployed in giving countenance to those efforts of genius, which may throw some new ray of light upon those sciences, the knowledge of which can never be too generally diffused, or too universally inculcated.—But might we indulge the pleasing hopes, that on these occasions some rising worthy, some genius yet unborn, will pervade the mazy system and perplexed labyrinth of fraud and usurpation;—that will rescue one right from the jaws of power, and restore one liberty to oppressed mankind;—how would the flattering thought inspire our hearts—how would grateful millions bless the institution!

Many benefits resulting from this plan, I decline pointing out; of some plausible objections I am aware, but do not think myself obliged, at present, to obviate them. I have offered my sentiments in a manner becoming a good citizen:—they claim, I trust, some small attention. What is proposed with decency is intitled to candid treatment; but ill-placed ridicule, illiberal and censorious dogmatism, never promoted the cause of GOD or man.
It’s striking that “Mentor” was Josiah Quincy, Jr., the young lawyer whose role in the Boston Massacre had been on the defense teams for Capt. Thomas Preston and the eight British soldiers. He had helped to clear most of those men.

Quincy might have made his public proposal to shore up his standing as a Whig. But how many people knew he made it? Harbottle Dorr’s copy of this issue of the Evening–Post has “J. Quincy” written at top of the “Mentor” letter, but not in Dorr’s usual style and therefore perhaps a later addition. 

It’s striking that Quincy was very clear on what Boston’s Massacre orations should not be. Not a sermon, as much as the town liked a good long religious discourse glancing at the current events. The Massacre arose from a political problem, Quincy felt, and it deserved a wholly political response.

But Quincy was also concerned about ensuring that the orations “be devoid of crude sentiments and inelegant language,” to be “mature.” Was he concerned that some planned public commemorations or some Whig colleagues would be too populist and incendiary?

And what about the article’s wish that orators be chosen “at such a convenient time as to give the speaker opportunity to mature his thoughts”? Was Quincy warning fellow Bostonians that they should hurry up and ask someone because the anniversary was less than a month away, or was he worried about someone less “mature” offering to speak anytime?

The text of the “Mentor” letter is from the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s publication of Quincy’s writings, available here.

1 comment:

David Churchill Barrow said...

Josiah Quincy Jr. was in a delicate situation with regard to the massacre. As you pointed out years ago in a post, we know from a letter to his horrified father that the Sons of Liberty had encouraged him to represent the redcoats, since he was "...urged to undertake it by an Adams, a Hancock, a Molineux,(etc.)" I wonder if they knew how hard he had pushed in his zeal to represent his clients - a zeal that would would not only be applauded, but professionally required by the modern bar - to bring in evidence against the town itself, and against the mysterious tall man in the white wig and red surtout. John Adams threatened to quit the defense over this dispute. Whether the town knew who "Mentor" was or not (and most aliases were no great secret) Perhaps he was at least trying to shift the whole issue to the general question of standing armies in a populous town, which John Adams said during the trial "...always occasion two two mobs where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of the peace."