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, September 06, 2022

“All the marks of the Whig propaganda department”?

The newspaper item I quoted yesterday, listing fifteen Whigs as Boston’s chief troublemakers and adding the surnames of three printers in a postscript, tends to be quoted in books and articles focused on those individuals.

That letter or “handbill,” various authors have said, is evidence of the real threats faced by [take your pick] Samuel Adams, Dr. Thomas Young, William Cooper, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, Benjamin Edes, Isaiah Thomas, and even Dorothy Quincy, John Hancock’s fiancée.

One anomalous but influential author who mentioned the text was Clifford K. Shipton, compiler of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates in the mid-1900s. He didn’t like radicals, which meant he was less than sympathetic to New England’s Patriots.

In his profile of the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy (shown above), a staunch opponent of both bishops and New Lights and a strong supporter of the Boston Whigs, Shipton quoted a bit of the document and wrote:
The “handbill” has all the marks of the Whig propaganda department, and Charles Old Brick [i.e., Chauncy] may have put his own name into it.
Shipton offered no evidence that Chauncy ever engaged in this sort of subterfuge and provocation, however. Indeed, that same paragraph quoted the minister in August worrying that some towns would act with too much “precipitancy,” so he wanted the political atmosphere to calm down, not heat up.

I think stronger evidence that this letter was a hoax is that the Boston Whigs made so little of it. As I said yesterday, I found only one mention in the local press, in the Fleet brothersBoston Evening-Post after the text had appeared in New York. (Of course, if anyone finds an earlier Boston printing that I missed, then I’d have to rethink this whole line of thought.)

Benjamin Edes and John Gill didn’t complain about the threat in their Boston Gazette, nor did Isaiah Thomas in his Massachusetts Spy—and they were the printers the letter called “trumpeters of sedition” (an old term). Newspapers in Hartford, Salem, New London, and Portsmouth picked up the item, to be sure, but those printers didn’t have first-hand knowledge of what was really going on in Boston.

Perhaps, we might consider, those Boston printers were scared and didn’t want to give the letter more publicity. But there’s also nothing about the threats in the private minutes of the Boston selectmen, even as they complained to Gen. Thomas Gage about other things that month. There’s nothing in John Andrews’s gossipy letters. That pattern leads me to think that the Boston Whigs didn’t believe that this message was a real threat.

Thinking about where the text came from and why, I see four possibilities.

1) A Boston Loyalist really did throw this letter into the army camps to direct military attention to specific Whig leaders and printers. Charles W. Akers takes this position in his biography of Samuel Cooper, The Divine Politician. In that case, we must ask how the text leaked out, and why Boston leaders showed so little reaction to it.

2) A Boston Whig wrote the letter, tossed it into the camps, and made sure it got into the press in order to inflame public opinion. Why, then, did it not appear first in any Boston newspapers? How come so few Whigs trumpeted it? (Akers further argues that no one who was truly allied with Chauncy and Cooper would have had the effrontery to suggest they were involved in worldly politics, even though everyone knew they were.)

3) Someone in Boston created the letter and sent it to New York as authentic. It appeared in James Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer below an extract of a private letter from Boston, and it wasn’t credited to any Boston newspaper like items that followed. If this was the case, was the person who created the fake letter a Whig or a Loyalist?

4) Rivington created the letter himself. He was already speaking up for Crown authority, and Whigs already accused him of creating fake news. Later in the war he certainly did that, either as satire or propaganda. Was this an early example?

The item appeared in the New-York Gazetteer as army regiments were moving from that city to Boston, a process that Gen. Gage sped up after the “Powder Alarm” of 2 September. The letter’s intended audience might therefore have been not “the Officers and Soldiers of his Majesty’s Troops at Boston” but those on their way.

TOMORROW: Naming names.


meryka said...

Hello John,

I would love to know how and why Dorothy Quincy was threatened.


J. L. Bell said...

A biography of Dorothy Quincy in Kate Dickinson Sweetser’s Ten American Girls from History describes her engagement to John Hancock and says: “But though she stood by him bravely in all his undertakings, and would not have had him recede one step from the stand he had taken, yet there was much to alarm her.” It then describes British soldiers distributing handbills with the text of the newspaper item and concludes: “Reason enough for Hancock’s Dorothy to be apprehensive beneath her show of bravery!”