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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Monday, September 12, 2022

“Remarkable for bullying and rioting”?

On Saturday, I traced the life of Boston insurance broker Nathaniel Barber up until October 1772, when Gov. Thomas Hutchinson made him captain of the militia company staffing the North Battery, with the rank of major.

Before then, Barber had been publicly noted for his adherence to the Whig cause, commissioning the Sons of Liberty bowl and naming his children after John Wilkes, Oliver Cromwell, and Catharine Macaulay.

So how did a favor from the royal governor change Barber’s politics? Not at all.

The very next month, in November 1772, Barber agreed to serve on Boston’s committee of correspondence. That group, with official status as a standing committee of the town meeting, became the main organ for resistance in Massachusetts.

In the same period, Barber was active in the North End Caucus—moderating meetings, communicating with the South End Caucus, writing out lists of candidates for voters to support.

At the end of 1773, the tea crisis arose. One 3 November, “a large body of people” visited the warehouse of the Clarke family, where the East India Company’s consignees and their supporters had gathered. Barber was one of the committee of nine men, led by William Molineux, who went in to remonstrate with the tea importers. Later that confrontation became violent, but it’s not clear what role Barber played at that stage.

According to Francis S. Drake’s Tea Laves (1884), Barber’s family preserved a tradition that he was part of the Boston Tea Party. No other details provided, but that belief is bolstered by what Benjamin Bussey Thatcher reported in Traits of the Tea Party (1835) about how the event wrapped up:
Pitts, who was quite a military man, as well as a mighty Son of Liberty, was appointed commander-in-chief of the forces then and there assembled; they were formed in rank and file by his direction, with the aid of Barber, Proctor, and some others; and “shouldering” their arms, such as they had—tomahawks included—they marched up the wharf to the music of a fife, to what is now the termination of Pearl Street, back into town, and there separated in a short time, and went quietly home.
According to this tradition, Lendell Pitts, Edward Procter, and Barber drew on their authority as militia officers to organize the men of the Tea Party so they could demonstrate order and discipline (and not do any more damage that night).

Thus, Nathaniel Barber was definitely among the Boston Whig organizers. He didn’t hold public office or write essays, but he served on committees, led marches, and talked up the ideology in his everyday business and social dealings. If you wanted to foment political resistance in town, he was someone to have on your side.

Of course, that behavior looked quite different from the other side. Writing from London in 1775, John Mein said Barber was “remarkable for bullying and rioting.”

TOMORROW: The mysterious Mr. Denning.

(The picture above is an image from Disney’s Johnny Tremain, showing men marching home from the Tea Party. In the movie that’s a musical number, and I’m not convinced about the costuming, but thematically it seemed to fit.)

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