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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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

“No one justifies the burning of the Gaspee”

The first Boston newspapers to report the 11 June 1772 attack on H.M.S. Gaspee were Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter, which supported the Crown, and Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, which didn’t.

The 11 June News-Letter told readers that a Rhode Island mob had “dangerously wounded the commander, Lieut. [William] Duddington, and used the Company cruelly” before burning his schooner.

The same day’s Spy said nothing about Dudingston’s injury and stated only that the attackers “bound the men.” It also added in editorializing italics:
To what a dreadful dilemma are the people reduced!—They must suffer themselves to be plundered, or——
However, over the next several weeks the Boston newspapers appear to have reported as little as possible about the Gaspee affair. They stated the facts with a bit of spin, but, after that initial Spy comment, they didn’t use the event as fodder for political arguments. Likewise, neither Samuel Adams nor his cousin John mentioned the Gaspee in their surviving writing from that summer.

“No one justifies the burning of the Gaspee,” the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport (shown above) insisted to a fellow minister the following year. The closest to a defense of the event he could offer was, “But no one ever thought of such a Thing as being Treason.”

That sounds a bit like the Costanza Defense: ‘Storming a government ship—assaulting a naval officer—destroying an entire schooner—was that wrong? Because if we’d known that sort of thing was frowned upon…’

Crowds had in fact attacked British government ships before, as in the Liberty riots in Boston in 1768 and Newport in 1769. In those instances, local press and politicians decried the violence but argued that it was a natural response to seeing the Customs service overreaching.

That argument was harder to make in the case of the Gaspee. The June 1772 attack did grow from the ongoing conflict between merchants ready to break imperial trade laws for higher profits and the royal authorities determined to enforce those laws (and augment their salaries by doing so). But otherwise the locals’ actions looked bad.

Storming the Gaspee wasn’t a spontaneous reaction by waterfront workers. It was obviously a carefully planned operation, with three boats full of armed men rowing out to the schooner after it had run aground.

The men who boarded the Gaspee were the aggressors, not on the defense. They wounded an officer and burned a ship of the Royal Navy, pride of the British people. That action was impossible to spin into a dignified political protest against Parliament’s unjust new laws. It looked much more like racketeers using violence against legal authorities to protect their personal profits.

Boston’s Whigs made sure their destruction of East India Company tea in December 1773 looked different. They protected the Customs officials and others aboard the ships from personal violence. They forbade participants from taking any tea for their own gain and publicly punished one man who tried.

Before that Boston Tea Party, the owners of those three ships were worried that mobs would ruin their valuable property. Instead, leaders of the action ensured that their crew hurt nothing but the tea itself. They even replaced a lock they had broken open—and made sure the press reported on that restitution.

As with the Crown’s frustrated response to the Gaspee attack, the main lesson that American Whigs took from the event was what not to do in future.

TOMORROW: When the royal government gave the Whigs an opening.

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