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, June 06, 2021

“I told Cushing as Ruggles told Tyler”

Yesterday I quoted a long anecdote that John Adams wrote out in 1789 about a discussion between two Massachusetts politicians seventeen years earlier.

The specifics of Adams’s anecdotes aren’t always reliable when he was trying to make a point about politics or personalities or, in this case, both.

Adams dated that exchange to 1772. At that time one of the men he quoted, Timothy Ruggles, no longer had a seat in the Massachusetts General Court. He lived in Hardwick, in western Worcester County. The Boston merchant John Rowe recorded several encounters with Ruggles in the late 1760s but none in the early 1770s, suggesting he didn’t routinely visit the coast. So how likely was Ruggles to be socializing with Royall Tyler and other Boston Whigs in 1772?

As it turns out, however, Adams also left us solid evidence that he had heard (or heard about) that exchange between Ruggles and Tyler by the end of 1772.

On 1 Jan 1773, Adams recorded this event in his diary:
This Evening my Friend Mr. [Samuel] Pemberton invited me and I went with him, to spend the Evening with Jere. Wheelwright. Mr. Wheelwright is a Gentleman of a liberal Education about 50 Years of Age, and constantly confined to his Chamber by Lameness. A Fortune of about two hundred a Year enables him to entertain his few Friends very handsomely, and he has them regularly at his Chamber every Tuesday and Fryday Evening.
Wheelwright (1717-1784) was a wealthy heir who graduated from Harvard College in 1736. On receiving his master’s degree three years later, he delivered a speech against slavery, its effect diluted by being in Latin. After that he enjoyed a long life of wealthy obscurity, keeping out of religious and political controversies. Among Wheelwright’s properties were “the Hills at New-Boston,” which we now call the crest of the Beacon Hill neighborhood, and settlements in New Hampshire and Maine.

In Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, Clifford K. Shipton wrote:
About 1770 one of Wheelwright’s legs was so badly broken by the upsetting of his riding chair that he was confined to his chamber for the rest of his life. Having an income of about £200 a year, he moved into comfortable quarters in Newton from which, during his remaining years, he surveyed the world with intelligent curiosity.
Wheelwright kept notes on current events in his almanac diaries for more than forty-five years. Only one folder’s worth of that work survives at the Massachusetts Historical Society. He never married or had children.

Back to Adams’s diary entry, which describes a New Year’s visit to Wheelwright’s house. (Shipton identified “Mr. Swift” as John Swift, Harvard 1733; Adams doesn’t mention that man in his papers while Samuel Swift was a good friend and a link between him and Wheelwright, so I put Samuel Swift in this party.) Adams wrote:
The Speaker [Thomas Cushing], Dr. [Joseph] Warren and Mr. [Samuel] Swift were there— And We Six had a very pleasant Evening. Our Conversation turned upon the Distress of Rhode Island [during the Gaspee investigation], upon the Judges Dependency [salary grants from the tea tax], the late numerous Town Meetings, upon [William] Brattles Publication in [Richard] Drapers Paper [the Boston News-Letter] of Yesterday, and upon each others Characters. We were very free, especially upon one another.

I told Cushing as Ruggles told Tyler, that I never knew a Pendulum swing so clear.

Warren told me, that Pemberton said I was the proudest and cunningest Fellow, he ever knew.

We all rallied Pemberton, upon the late Appointment of Tommy Hutchinson [the governor’s son] to be a Judge of the common Bench, and pretended to insist upon it that he was disappointed, and had lost all his late Trimming, and Lukewarmness and Toryism.

Warren thought I was rather a cautious Man, but that he could not say I ever trimmed. When I spoke at all I always spoke my Sentiments. This was a little soothing to my proud Heart, no doubt.
Thus, by the time of this gathering Adams definitely knew that Ruggles got off a good line about Tyler and was happy to borrow it to tease Cushing. Perhaps the original conversation happened earlier than 1772, and perhaps it didn’t really start with Dr. Thomas Young, but it happened.

Now I can’t imagine anything more antsy for John Adams than waiting for his colleagues to tease him and having to chuckle about it.

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