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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Thursday, September 15, 2022

“An authentic Copy of a Letter, which was thrown into both the Camps”?

Today I’m returning to the question of whether the letter printed in James Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer on 8 Sept 1774, naming particular Boston Whigs as the chief troublemakers, was indeed “authentic.”

Some nineteenth-century authors accepted the accompanying statement that the letter “was thrown into both the Camps, on Monday Night last,” and even called it a “handbill,” suggesting it was printed.

I see no evidence for that. None of the sources from 1774 referred to a handbill. It’s less trouble to copy two or three copies of a letter than to set it in type.

The Harvard biographer Clifford K. Shipton suggested the letter might be Patriot propaganda, aimed at riling up the Boston crowd to defend their leaders from perfidious Loyalists and redcoats.

That theory seems untenable for two reasons. First, as Charles W. Akers argued, the Patriots wouldn’t have sullied two of the town’s leading ministers with charges of being political, even while putting them in someone else’s mouth.

Even more convincing, Boston’s radical press didn’t trumpet this supposed evidence of danger but made nothing of the threats at all. The only newspaper in town to pick up the item from New York was the moderate Whig Boston Evening-Post.

In sum, the letter does seem to be a genuine Loyalist attempt to direct the attention of British army officers (and possibly enlisted men) at leading Boston Whigs. But how did that message get out?

One possibility is that copies of the letter were truly tossed into the compounds where the army was camping in Boston around the start of September 1774, with a copy sent to New York.

Another is that the writer cut out the step of distributing copies in Boston and just sent the letter to New York with a false cover story.

And the third is that the letter was created in New York, false story and all, with the real goal of influencing redcoats who were about to embark for Boston.

I lean slightly toward the last possibility because of these details:
  • The lack of any mention of such a letter in Boston before it surfaced in New York.
  • The reference to “both the Camps” when the Boston press always spoke of “the Camp” on the Common (even though some redcoats were camped at the South Battery).
  • The slip of replacing of the name of William Dennie, a well-known Boston merchant, with William Denning, a New York merchant and activist.
It’s possible that the omission of Dr. Joseph Warren from the list of troublemakers also reflected incomplete knowledge of who the most fervent Boston leaders were, based on reading newspapers or hearing reports. To be sure, whoever wrote this letter might just have respected Warren personally and thought he didn’t deserve to be lambasted as much as others.

At the end of the year, Rivington presented readers with extracts of another letter from Boston. Mills and Hicks repeated that item in their pro-government Boston Post-Boy while Isaiah Thomas denounced part of it as “A d——d lie” in the Massachusetts Spy. So there might be a pattern here.

Of course, that’s just a guess. If I see more evidence, such as someone printing the letter before Rivington, I’ll have to rethink everything.

TOMORROW: Did this letter have any effect?


Anonymous said...

How would the article’s author know the letter was thrown into “both” camps? Are we to believe the reporter saw that happen? Or that someone from the Patriot camp told someone from the British camp, “Hey, we got this letter,” and a Brit answer, “My goodness, we got that too” — and the reporter overheard the conversation?

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think “both the Camps” means both British army and Patriot camps because at this point, in September 1774, the provincials didn’t have an army or a camp. I think the author of the article meant the two main places in Boston that British troops were camped at that time, on the Common and around the South Battery. But Bostonians referred to only one of those as “the Camp.”

There’s still the question of how the author of the article knew about the two copies of the letter. One possibility is that that author also wrote the letter and did the tossing. And since sending the text to a newspaper guaranteed it would be more widely disseminated than tossing two copies on the ground, the author could have just skipped the tossing.

Another possibility is that British officers from the two areas did ask each other about the letters they found, and word got around, either within the army or within the larger population. I think that’s what the author of the article wanted readers to assume. But that raises the question of why no one in Boston left any discussion of the letter before and independent of its appearance in the New-York Gazetteer.