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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Friday, March 05, 2021

“My sincere attachment to the interest of my country”

On the morning of 3 Mar 1774, Andrew Oliver, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, died. He had previously held the offices of provincial secretary and stamp agent, though of course he never got to do any work in that last capacity.

John Adams viewed Oliver as one of ”the original Conspirators against the Public Liberty,” for monopolizing offices with his brother Peter and their relative by marriage Thomas Hutchinson; for reporting on the Council’s sensitive discussion after the Massacre; and for urging changes to the colonial constitution in the “Hutchinson Letters.”

Adams and colleagues quickly started speculating about what Oliver’s death might mean. At a dinner party the consensus was “Peter Oliver will be made Lieutenant Governor, Hutchinson will go home, and probably be continued Governor but reside in England, and Peter Oliver will reside here and rule the Province.” (That didn’t happen.)

The more immediate worry for the Boston Whigs was the 1774 Massacre oration. Past orators had been Dr. Thomas Young, James Lovell, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Dr. Benjamin Church, all known for their newspaper essays and/or poetry. But for this year the oration committee had decided the speaker would be John Hancock.

Though Hancock had been a selectman, General Court representative, and militia officer for several years, he wasn’t known for his public eloquence. Nor his rhetorical skills. Nor his hale and reliable health. But Hancock was prominent and popular, educated and young. If he wanted to deliver the oration, his colleagues couldn’t say no.

Evidence suggests that the Whigs clustered around Hancock to ensure his speech was up to par. In his autobiography John Adams recalled, “Mr. Samuel Adams told me that Dr. Church and Dr. Warren had composed Mr. Hancocks oration…, more than two thirds of it at least.” Other sources credited Samuel Adams himself and the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, Hancock’s eloquent minister.

On Saturday the 5th, Boston men gathered at Faneuil Hall for their first official town meeting since the previous November. They quickly went through the ritual of voting to have an oration, inviting Hancock to deliver it, and adjourning to the Old South Meeting-House, the largest enclosed space in town. The crowd gathered. The orator entered. The Whigs held their breaths.

Hancock’s speech began with remarks about his speaking abilities not being up to the occasion, traditional rhetoric but in this case perhaps right on the nose:
The attentive gravity; the venerable appearance of this crowded audience; the dignity which I behold in the countenances of so many in this great assembly; the solemnity of the occasion upon which we have met together, joined to a consideration of the part I am to take in the important business of this day, fill me with an awe hitherto unknown, and heighten the sense which I have ever had of my unworthiness to fill this sacred desk. But, allured by the call of some of my respected fellow-citizens, with whose request it is always my greatest pleasure to comply, I almost forgot my want of ability to perform what they required.

In this situation I find my only support in assuring myself that a generous people will not severely censure what they know was well intended, though its want of merit should prevent their being able to applaud it. And I pray that my sincere attachment to the interest of my country, and the hearty detestation of every design formed against her liberties, may be admitted as some apology for my appearance in this place.
Soon he started to spout the fiery rhetoric about the killings four years earlier:
Tell me, ye bloody butchers! ye villains high and low! ye wretches who contrived, as well as you who executed the inhuman deed! do you not feel the goads and stings of conscious guilt pierce through your savage bosoms? Though some of you may think yourselves exalted to a height that bids defiance to human justice, and others shroud yourselves beneath the mask of hypocrisy, and build your hopes of safety on the low arts of cunning, chicanery, and falsehood, yet do you not sometimes feel the gnawings of that worm which never dies? Do not the injured shades of Maverick, Gray, Caldwell, Attucks, and Carr attend you in your solitary walks, arrest you even in the midst of your debaucheries, and fill even your dreams with terror?
It’s noteworthy that that is the only passage in all the orations preserved between 1771 and 1783 to name all the people who died in the Massacre. I suspect that reflected Hancock’s instinct for democratic politics—which was actually sharper than most of his colleagues’.

Son and grandson of ministers, Hancock ultimately turned to exhorting his audience to look to their own moral virtue. He got particular points for warning the crowd against following the allure of rich, dishonest men:
Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed, by the soft arts of luxury and effeminacy, into the pit digged for your destruction. Despise the glare of wealth. That people who pay greater respect to a wealthy villain than to an honest, upright man in poverty, almost deserve to be enslaved; they plainly show that wealth, however it may be acquired, is, in their esteem, to be preferred to virtue.

But I thank God that America abounds in men who are superior to all temptation, whom nothing can divert from a steady pursuit of the interest of their country, who are at once its ornament and safeguard.
Again, I suspect that those words, whoever wrote them, reflected Hancock’s own convictions. He inherited a fortune and spent it down on politics, dying a popular but less wealthy man.

As for how people responded to John Hancock’s 1774 oration, I wrote about that last year.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

John Rowe’s comment on the event: “Mr. Hancock delivered An Oration this day at Dr Sewalls Meeting house to the Greatest Number of People that ever met on the Occasion. I tryd to get in but could not. Some Gentlemen speak of the Oration with Great Applause.”