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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Saturday, May 28, 2022

“A thoroughgoing refutation of the Whig historians’ estimation of George III”

The H-Early-America email list just ran Matthew Reardon’s review (P.D.F. download) of The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III by Andrew Roberts.

Like other reviewers, Reardon notes Roberts’s main thesis (especially for U.S. readers): that George III wasn’t a tyrant as American Patriots and many of their descendants portrayed him. He was committed to the eighteenth-century British form of constitutional monarchy. Indeed, his respect for some political traditions limited what measures he endorsed to put down the colonial rebellion.

In addition, this George was personally nicer to his family and circle than his predecessor and successor. 

Roberts argues the king’s periods of insanity resulted from bipolar disorder. As to other times, “Far from the dullard regularly portrayed in print and film, George III in fact possessed an inquisitive mind, with interests spanning from astronomy to agriculture.”

Reardon takes issue with how the book treats the American Revolution:
Although it is a thoroughgoing refutation of the Whig historians’ estimation of George III, it thoroughly embraces their interpretation of the American Revolution as an inevitable coming-of-age event. Ignored is the recent historiography positing either institutional, ideological, or economic causes for independence, in favor of older arguments associated with salutary neglect.

Many historians of early America will certainly take note of bold but unsourced statements such as “by the time of the Peace of Paris of 1763 … some [Americans] were ready for full statehood” or that “many Patriots had indeed long wanted the thirteen colonies to become an independent nation” (pp. 107, 286). Who were these shadowy American revolutionaries quietly waiting (for decades it seems) for an opportunity to break from Britain? None are ever identified.

When evaluating the colonists’ motives for independence, the interpretative slant becomes downright American Tory in its cynicism. Objections to “taxation without representation” were merely disingenuous “proxy protests against British political control by a people who sensed they could now thrive as an independent country,” we are told, while the Declaration’s content is summarily dismissed as “simultaneously grotesquely hypocritical, illogical, mendacious and sublime” (pp. 113, 306).
That might be an effect of getting deeply into George III’s head: not seeing how Americans felt just as committed to the British constitution as they understood it, and broke with Britain only after deciding there was no way to heal the rifts between them and their national government and sovereign.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Maps to Explore from Your Desk

The Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library is offering an “Unrest in Boston 1765–1776” collection of digital images from its collection for educators in grades 3 through 8.

The maps to explore are:
  • William Price’s 1769 update of John Bonner’s 1722 map of the town, showing just the Shawmut peninsula. (I have a print of this on my wall.)
  • Lt. Richard Williams’s map of wartime Boston, the provincial siege lines, and the inner harbor.
  • London publishers Robert Sayer and John Bennett’s “Seat of War, in New England” map of eastern Massachusetts, featuring a little train of figures escorting Gen. George Washington toward Boston.
  • Boston native Isaac de Costa’s map of eastern Massachusetts showing locations from the Battle of Lexington and Concord, including provincial cannon in the countryside.
These maps come with geographic inquiries, supporting documents, and questions for class discussions.

I noted that the overview starts, “Colonial Boston was a flourishing city of 20,000 by the 1760s.” In fact, the 1765 census found 15,520 people in Boston. The surrounding towns, now incorporated into the city, added more people to the area, as did the short-term population of sailors and (at times) soldiers. But this essay makes clear that it counts those soldiers as separate from the town inhabitants.

That census figure is significant not just because of accuracy but also because it hadn’t changed much in decades. Boston was stuck at about 16,000 people while Philadelphia and New York grew larger. What once was Britain’s biggest and busiest port in North America became number three. A frustrating stagnation might have been one reason Bostonians were so easily worked up about imperial taxes in the 1760s.

Before leaving the Leventhal Center, I want to highlight another digitized item from the same decade: This map of the travels of the Qianlong Emperor of China in the fall of 1778.

As an object, this diagram of the imperial route unfolds into an image nearly twenty feet long. (It’s appropriate, therefore, that the interactive feature demands a screen of a certain size before it will show you anything.) The digital presentation comes with helpful explanations by Prof. Anne-Sophie Pratte.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Resolution at James Madison’s Montpelier

Yesterday, sometime after my posting about the election of new board members at the Montpelier Foundation, there were more dramatic announcements.

The board elected a new chair: local business executive James French, who previously led the Montpelier Descendants Committee.

The board also accepted the resignation of the Foundation president for the past two years, who sided with the previous board chair during the controversy.

As interim president, the Foundation board appointed Elizabeth Chew, who was executive vice president and chief curator until last month when the previous administration fired her.

Though this spring’s news reports about tensions within the Montpelier governing bodies tended to be vague about the focus of those tensions, one or two made clear that the main conflict was between the previous board chair and French as a board member. With the new board members elected last week, one possible outcome I imagined was that both those antagonists would step back and the expanded group would find a compromise leader.

The election of French, departure of the president, and return of Chew make clear that the position of the Montpelier Descendants Committee and its supporters has prevailed.

In addition, the Montpelier Foundation elected other new officers:
  • as vice chair, Stephanie Meeks, former head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which formally owns Montpelier and opposed the Foundation’s recent moves to limit the Descendants Committee’s influence.
  • as vice chair, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, professor of history at Ohio State and author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt.
  • as secretary, Joshua D. Rothman, professor of history at the University of Alabama and author of Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787–1861 and The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America.
  • as treasurer, Peter McHugh, a retired travel industry executive and previously vice chair.
There’s undoubtedly a lot of work to do at Montpelier, as at any major historical site. It will be very interesting to watch how the organization moves forward.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

An Easing of Frictions at James Madison’s Montpelier

I’ve been passing on monthly news from Montpelier, the Virginia mansion that was once the center of James Madison’s slave-labor plantation.

The property is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. However, it’s managed as a tourism and education site by an organization called the Montpelier Foundation, founded in 1998.

Last June the Foundation announced a pioneering agreement with the Montpelier Descendants Committee to make it co-equal in governing the site. That committee is “devoted to restoring the narratives of enslaved Americans at plantation sites in Central Virginia, including but not limited to James Madison’s Montpelier.”

The first step was adding more descendants of enslaved Americans were on the governing board. Under that agreement, the Descendants Committee named three new members and the Foundation board chose two more.

But this March, the Foundation board voted to end that arrangement, citing frictions with Descendants Committee leaders over issuing statements about recent events. The Foundation chair and its president insisted that they still wanted to reach the goal of having half the board be descended from enslaved people, but they wanted the board to choose those people unilaterally.

Most members of the Montpelier staff, the National Trust, and many in the history professions criticized the board’s vote as betraying its commitment. In April the Foundation fired four top staff members because of their public position on the controversy. Naturally, that only increased the criticism.

On 16 May, the Montpelier Foundation named eleven new members of the board, all drawn from a list drawn up by the Montpelier Descendants Committee. (The committee had proffered a long list of candidates months ago.) That group includes many people of national standing in their fields, including history. This achieves the goal of parity at the board level.

The Foundation chair seen as behind this spring’s reversal is stepping down after four years. The Montpelier Foundation president, who arrived in 2020, appears to remain. The head of the Montpelier Descendants Committee also remains on the board, as does a former head of the National Trust. I see no news about the fired staffers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

“A man of weak capacity, and little political knowledge”

I hadn’t expected to write a week of postings about the Gaspee affair, even with its sestercentennial coming up next month. But I got intrigued.

One early discussion of the case I came across while looking for sources was in Mercy Warren’s 1805 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution.

In a section on Rhode Island in 1775, Warren wrote:
It is the nature of man, when he despairs of legal reparation for injuries received, to seek satisfaction by avenging his own wrongs. Thus, some time before this period, a number of men in disguise, had riotously assembled, and set fire to a sloop of war in the harbour. When they had thus discovered their resentment by this illegal proceeding, they dispersed without farther violence.

For this imputed crime the whole colony had been deemed guilty, and interdicted as accessary. A court of inquiry was appointed by his majesty, vested with the power of seizing any person on suspicion, confining him on board a king’s ship, and sending him to England for trial. But some of the gentlemen named for this inquisitorial business, had not the temerity to execute it in the latitude designed; and after sitting a few days, examining a few persons, and threatening many, they adjourned to a distant day.

The extraordinary precedent of erecting such a court among them was not forgotten; but there was a considerable party in Newport, strongly attached to the royal cause. These, headed by their governor, Mr. Wanton, a man of weak capacity, and little political knowledge, endeavoured to impede all measures of opposition, and to prevent even a discussion on the propriety of raising a defensive army.
You’d never know it from the way Warren wrote of events, but Gov. Joseph Wanton had been the primary brake on the Gaspee “court of inquiry” that she decried. He helped to undercut witnesses found by the Royal Navy. He let the Earl of Dartmouth’s confidential instructions out. As chair of that royal commission, he had the most sway over how it dissolved without reaching any significant conclusions.

Two years later, when word of the Battle of Lexington and Concord arrived in Rhode Island, Gov. Wanton indeed refused to approve sending militia regiments north to face the king’s troops. So did deputy governor Darius Sessions, who back in 1772 had helped to alert Samuel Adams and other out-of-colony politicians about the threat of the Gaspee inquiry. For those men, hindering a royal commission was fine; taking up arms against the royal military went too far.

The Rhode Island assembly replaced both Wanton and Sessions by the fall. They never became outright Loyalists, simply retiring from politics. But for Mercy Warren, Wanton’s behavior in 1775 meant he deserved no credit for what he’d done in 1772–73.

Monday, May 23, 2022

“All should be ready to yield Assistance to Rhode Island”

We can see the logic of the London government’s decision to try people suspected of attacking H.M.S. Gaspee on 10 June 1772 in Britain, not Rhode Island.

For one thing, the colony hadn’t convicted anyone for the similar torching of the Customs ship Liberty in 1769. Or for earlier assaults on government vessels.

For another, a couple of the men accused of helping to storm the Gaspee were county sheriffs, and others were highly influential merchants and office-holders. The Crown controlled none of the branches of the Rhode Island government.

But by deciding on that plan, to be backed up by the army and navy, secretary of state Dartmouth gave Rhode Island’s Whigs a threat they used to rally other colonial leaders to their cause.

At first, American politicians and printers had been reluctant about supporting a bunch of smugglers who’d attacked a naval vessel enforcing the law. But once the issue became every British citizen’s right to be tried in the county where the alleged crime took place, not three thousand miles away, then Whigs found their voice.

Around Christmas, four Rhode Island politicians wrote to “several gentlemen in North America” about what Lord Dartmouth had told their governor. Those four politicians were:
  • Darius Sessions, deputy governor, who months before had initiated official complaints about the Gaspee’s patrols.
  • Stephen Hopkins, chief justice and possibly author of the “Americanus” essay on the case published days before.
  • John Cole, attorney and former chief justice who would be called as a witness in the inquiry.
  • Moses Brown, wealthy merchant and brother of the alleged leader of the attack.
One recipient of the men’s letters was Samuel Adams, leader of the Massachusetts resistance. He wrote three letters in return, saying such thing as:
It should awaken the American Colonies, which have been too long dozing upon the Brink of Ruin. It should again unite them in one Band. . . . It has ever been my Opinion, that an Attack upon the Liberties of one Colony is an Attack upon the Liberties of all; and therefore in this Instance all should be ready to yield Assistance to Rhode Island.
And:
I beg just to propose for Consideration whether a circular Letr from your Assembly on this Occasion, to those of the other Colonies might not tend to the Advantage of the General Cause & of R Island in particular
Adams had helped to guide the Massachusetts legislature through its 1768 circular letter dispute. In November 1772 he had led the Boston town meeting to set up a standing committee of correspondence to exchange political letters with other Massachusetts towns. He saw the Crown’s reaction to the Gaspee affair as a cue to do the same with other colonies.

Richard Henry Lee might have been another of the men who received the Rhode Islanders’ letter. At any event, on 4 February he wrote to Adams, introducing himself and asking about details of the Gaspee matter; “this military parade appears extraordinary, unless the intention be to violate all law and legal forms, in order to establish the…fatal precedent of removing Americans beyond the water, to be tried for supposed offences committed here.” Adams wrote back, assuring Lee that the stories out of Rhode Island were true.

Meanwhile, no American was actually removed to Britain. The royal commission never collected enough strong evidence against anyone to bring charges. The investigation petered out in the spring of 1773. But by then it had helped to inspire a wider network of correspondence and a little more paranoia among the American Whigs.

TOMORROW: Remembering Gov. Wanton.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

“A genuine extract of the letter from Lord Dartmouth”

On 31 Dec 1772, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, Isaiah Thomas, had a scoop.

Setting type so hastily that he datelined the item “TURSDAY” instead of “THURSDAY,” Thomas presented to the world “a genuine extract of the letter from Lord Dartmouth, to the Governor of Rhode Island, dated Whitehall, September 4, 1772”:
The particulars of that atrocious proceeding (referring to the burning the Gaspee schooner) have by the King’s command been examined and considered with the greatest attention; and although there are some circumstances attending it, in regard to the robbery and plunder of the vessel, which seperately considered, might bring it within the description of an act of piracy; yet in the obvious view of the whole transaction, and taking all the circumstances together, the offence is in the opinion of the law servants of the crown, who have been consulted upon that question, of a much deeper dye, and is considered in no other light, than as an act of high treason, viz. levying war against the King.

And in order that you may have all proper advice and assistance in a matter of so great importance; his Majesty has thought fit, with the advice of his privy council, to issue his royal commission, under the great seal of Great-Britain, nominating yourself and the Chief Justices of New-York, New-Jersey, and the Massachusetts-Bay, together with the Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court established at Boston, to be his Majesty’s commissioners for enquiring into and making report to his Majesty, of all the circumstances relative to the attacking, plundering and burning the Gaspee schooner.

The King trusts, that all persons in the colony will pay a due respect to his royal commission, and that the business of it will be carried on without molestation; at the same time the nature of this offence, and the great number of persons who appear to have been concerned in it make every precaution necessary. His Majesty has therefore for the further support in the execution of this duty, thought fit to direct me to signify his pleasure to Lieutenant-General [Thomas] Gage, that he do hold himself in readiness to send troops into Rhode Island, whenever he shall be called upon by the commissioners for that purpose, in order to aid and assist the civil magistrate in the suppression of any riot or disturbances, and in the preservation of the public peace.

I have only to add upon that head, that his Majesty depends on the care and vigilance of the civil magistrates of the colony, to take the proper measures for the arresting and committing to custody, in order to their being brought to justice, such persons, as shall, upon proper information made before them, or before His Majesty’s commissioners, appear to have been concerned in the plundering and destroying the Gaspee schooner.

It is his Majesty’s intention, in consequence of the advice of his privy council, that the persons concerned in the burning the Gaspee schooner, and in the other violences which attended that daring insult, should be brought to England to be tried; and I am therefore to signify to you his Majesty’s pleasure, that such of the said offenders as may have been or shall be arrested and committed within the colony of Rhode-Island, be delivered to the care and custody of Rear Admiral [John] Montagu, or the commander in chief of his Majesty’s ships in North-America for the time being, or to such officers as he shall appoint to receive them; taking care that you do give notice to the persons accused, in order that they may procure such witnesses on their behalf as they shall judge necessary; which witnesses together with all such as may be proper, to support the charge against them, will be received and sent hither with the prisoners.
In the same issue, Thomas reprinted the “Americanus” essay I quoted yesterday.

Lord Dartmouth’s instructions to Gov. Joseph Wanton—and no one seems to have doubted this long quotation was genuine—validated some of the warnings from Whigs like “Americanus.” The Crown was planning to transport people accused of attacking H.M.S. Gaspee to Britain for trial. The army and navy had orders to help.

At the same time, the secretary of state also reminded Wanton that those defendants should be able to bring along witnesses on their behalf. Not that a long sea voyage and an indeterminate time in London would be convenient for such witnesses. But the ministers in London still wanted to stick to British standards for fair trials—they just didn’t think that would happen with Rhode Island jurors.

Notably, whatever official leaked this confidential letter did so through a printer in Boston, beyond the reach of Rhode Island law. When the Newport Mercury reprinted the letter in the new year, it credited Isaiah Thomas’s Spy.

TOMORROW: Going viral.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

“Whether our inalienable rights and privileges are any longer worth contending for”

Before the Revolution, messages between the British secretary of state in London and royal governors were deemed confidential.

Govs. Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson spent a lot of time telling the Massachusetts General Court that no, they wouldn’t share the instructions they had received or their reports back to the ministry. The 1769 publication of Bernard’s letters, leaked by William Bollan, ended his effectiveness.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Joseph Wanton had a different understanding. Elected by the legislature, and he felt he should share the Earl of Dartmouth’s 4 Sept 1772 message about investigating the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee with those legislators and other top officials.

Wanton held those consultations sometime early in December. Details of Lord Dartmouth’s instructions quickly reached the newspapers.

As I wrote before, New England printers had reported on the Gaspee attack in June, but very plainly—a few select facts with minimal commentary. Once news of the royal commission arrived in December, printers started to editorialize.

Then on 21 December Solomon Southwick’s Newport Mercury published a long letter signed “Americanus.” I believe this was the first major newspaper essay addressing the Gaspee case. The writer pulled out all the rhetorical effects:
To be, or not to be, that’s the question: Whether our inalienable rights and privileges are any longer worth contending for, is now to be determined.——Permit me, my countrymen, to beseech you to attend to your alarming situation. . . .

A court of inquisition, more horrid than that of Spain and Portugal, is established within this colony, to inquire into the circumstances of destroying the Gaspee schooner, and the persons who are the commissioners of this new-fangled court are vested with most exorbitant and unconstitutional power.—

They are directed to summon witnesses, apprehend persons not only impeached, but even suspected! And them, and every of them to deliver to Admiral [John] Montagu, who is ordered to have a ship in readiness to carry them to England, where they are to be tried.— . . .

Upon the whole, it is more than probable, it is almost an absolute certainty, that, according to present appearances, the state of an American subject, instead of enjoying the privileges of an Englishman, will soon be infinitely worse than that of a subject of France, Spain, Portugal, or any other the most despotic power on earth: . . .

Ten thousand deaths, by the halter or the ax, are infinitely preferable to a miserable life of slavery, in chains, under a pack of worse than Egyptian tyrants, whose avarice nothing less than your whole substance and income will satisfy; and who, if they can’t extort that, will glory in making a sacrifice of you and your posterity, to gratify their master, the d––l, who is a tyrant, and the father of tyrants and of liars.
Who was “Americanus”? Some have assigned this essay to Samuel Adams, who had used a similar pseudonym in Boston. I doubt that, and not just because this essay started by quoting from [gasp!] the theater. Letters indicate that Adams didn’t know about the Gaspee commission until days after this essay appeared.

According to Neil L. York, the top candidate for Rhode Island’s “Americanus” is chief justice Stephen Hopkins (shown above).

TOMORROW: Dartmouth’s own words.

Friday, May 20, 2022

“The Idea of seizing a Number of Persons”

Though the first report about the London government’s plan for a special commission to investigate the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee was optimistic, as described yesterday, New England newspapers soon started to spread more alarming rumors.

Isaiah Thomas’s 17 Dec 1772 Massachusetts Spy told readers:
It is currently reported, that two regiments are ordered from New-York to Rhode-Island, to support the trial of persons there suspected, or rather informed against, for being concerned in burning the Gaspee armed schooner.

The Governor and Lieut Governor of this province, two of the appointed Judges, will shortly set out for Newport.

The Lively ship of war is also to sail, on board of which, the Admiral, another of the Judges, is to hoist his flag.
None of those statements turned out to be true. No army troops moved to Rhode Island, though the ministry did alert Gen. Thomas Gage in New York to be alert to requests from that colony.

Neither Gov. Thomas Hutchinson nor Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver was put on the commission of inquiry. Their relative Peter Oliver, chief justice of Massachusetts, and Vice Admiralty court judge Robert Auchmuty represented Massachusetts instead.

Adm. John Montagu wasn’t a commissioner, either, and he and his flagship remained in Boston harbor for the winter.

Finally, the commission was empowered to investigate the attack, not to try defendants.

The Spy added, “Others say, that these devoted persons [i.e., accused] are to be taken agreeable to a late Act of Parliament, and sent for trial to London!” That complaint was closer to the truth, but the royal commission never managed to identify any likely culprits.

The fake news didn’t stop Whig newspaper writers from preemptively deploring the threat of such proceedings. The Spy’s report ended by complaining:
Can any one hear of…subjecting the inhabitants to trial, without Juries, on matters done within the body of a county, or what is worse, if possible, transporting them beyond the seas, and think himself secure in the enjoyment of his natural and constitutional rights! — How long, O LORD——How long!
Within a couple of days, the Whigs had received more accurate information about the ministry’s plan. Writers narrowed in on the threat of accused men being taken to Britain. The 19 December Providence Gazette, published by John Carter (shown above), said:
In this Situation of Affairs, every Friend to our violated Constitution cannot but be greatly alarmed.—The Idea of seizing a Number of Persons, under the Points of Bayonets, and transporting them Three Thousand Miles for Trial, where, whether guilty or innocent, they must unavoidably fall Victims alike to Revenge or Prejudice, is shocking to Humanity, repugnant to every Dictate of Reason, Liberty and Justice, and in which Americans and Freeman ought never to acquiesce.
Again, that hadn’t happened yet and never would happen, but at last the American Whigs had found the issue to hammer on.

TOMORROW: Leaks and laments.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

“The most clement measures shall be adopted towards the Americans”

By the fall of 1772, Rhode Island’s investigations of the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee had run aground as surely as the schooner itself had back on 9 June.

As was standard, Gov. Joseph Wanton had quickly issued a proclamation offering a reward for information—£100, in fact. By July, Adm. John Montagu (shown here) had collected testimony from Aaron Briggs or Biggs, who implicated some prominent merchants.

But Gov. Wanton soon had contradictory testimony from four other people.

James Helme, senior justice in Kings County, told his colleagues that at the October court session he
fully intended to give the affair of burning the said schooner and wounding the lieutenant, in charge to the jury; but having been nearly two months on the circuit, it entirely went out of my mind, when the grand jury was empannelled; and there being no business laid before said jury, they were soon dismissed.
Oops.

However, more was happening in London. In August, the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Hillsborough, sent to Rhode Island the text of Parliament’s new Dockyards Law. Enacted that spring, it established that destroying a ship in a Royal Navy shipyard was tantamount to treason and subject to capital punishment.

Eventually Crown lawyers agreed that the Dockyards Law didn’t apply since the Gaspee hadn’t been in a naval shipyard when the raiders set fire to it. But Hillsborough’s message told Gov. Wanton how harshly the London government wanted to punish the men who attacked the schooner. (The only person ever executed under the Dockyards Law was James Aitken, alias “John the Painter,” who set fires at the Portsmouth Shipyard in 1777 in sympathy with the American cause.)

For unrelated reasons, in August the Earl of Dartmouth replaced Hillsborough as secretary of state. On 4 September the new minister sent a letter to Gov. Wanton detailing the plan for a royal commission to investigate the Gaspee incident and surrounding conflicts.

Rhode Island’s first report of this commission contained some positive details. The 30 November Newport Mercury shared the news under a 25 September London dateline, emphasizing signs of leniency:
His Majesty… [is] offering his pardon to any of the said offenders (excepting the person who wounded Lieutenant [William] Duddington, & excepting two others who assumed to be sheriffs of the colony, and the Captain or leader of the insurgents) who shall discover any of their accomplices, and also offering rewards for such discovery.

A correspondent informs us, that Lord Dartmouth has signified his determined resolution that the most clement measures shall be adopted towards the Americans.
Furthermore, Gov. Wanton was designated to chair the inquiry commission.

But soon, Rhode Islanders were hearing more ominous details.

TOMORROW: A leak from the legislature.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

“Great expectations from the late affair at Rhode Island”

On 12 June 1772, the day after the Boston News-Letter broke the news of the Gaspee burning, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson sent a copy of that newspaper to the secretary of state in London, the Earl of Hillsborough.

Hutchinson added his own commentary:
If some measures are not taken in England in consequence of so flagrant an insult upon the King’s authority I fear it will encourage the neighbouring Colonies to persevere in their opposition to the Laws of Trade and to be guilty of the like & greater Acts of Violence.

As the Town of Providence joins to this Province and is less than 50 miles from this Town and the flame may spread here I hope your Lordship will not think that I go out of my line in this information.
That letter appears in the latest volume of The Correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson issued by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, which runs through June 1772.

Hutchinson had experienced the limits of Massachusetts justice himself after an anti-Stamp Act mob destroyed his house in the North End in 1765. He then witnessed more problematic proceedings as governor. He expected the Rhode Island courts to be ineffectual against these rioters. 

On 25 June the governor wrote to Hillsborough again, reporting, “A Gentleman yesterday from Providence informs me that the Perpetrators of the late atrocious crime are well known but that it would be as much as a man’s life is worth to bring forward a prosecution.”

That second letter also raised the possibility of American smugglers arming ships to fight government vessels, which would be “Acts of Rebellion upon the High Seas.” Anyone captured doing that, the governor suggested, should be shipped to England where “the Law must take its course.”

At the end of the month Hutchinson returned to that idea in telling Royal Navy commodore James Gambier about the Gaspee attack:
I hope if there should be another like attempt, some concerned in it may be taken prisoners and carried directly to England. A few punished at Execution Dock would be the only effectual preventive of any further attempts. In every Colony they are sure of escaping with impunity.
It’s notable that the governor didn’t suggest that the Gaspee attackers themselves be taken to Britain for trial. Instead, he wrote about conjectural future events. That was partly keeping himself out of the Rhode Island case, partly “slippery slope” thinking.

Later in the summer Hutchinson began to raise another possible response by the imperial government: changing the constitution of Rhode Island so that London had more leverage there.

On 29 August the governor wrote to John Pownall, the secretary managing the Colonial Office:
People in this province, both friends an enemies to government, are in great expectations from the late affair at Rhode Island of burning the King’s schooner, and they consider the manner in which the news of it will be received in England, and the measures to be taken, as decisive.

If it is passed over without a full inquiry and due resentment, our liberty people will think they may with impunity commit any acts of violence, be they ever so atrocious, and the friends to government will despond, and give up all hopes of being able to withstand the faction.

The persons who were immediate actors are men of estate and property in the colony. A prosecution is impossible. If ever the government of that colony is to be reformed, this seems to be the time, and it would have a happy effect on the colonies which adjoin to it.
Hutchinson felt he wasn’t alone in that assessment, telling Adm. Samuel Hood on 2 September:
So daring an insult as burning the King’s schooner, by people who are as well known as any who were concerned in the last rebellion and yet cannot be prosecuted, will certainly rouse the British lion, which has been asleep these four or five years. Admiral [John] Montague says that Lord Sandwich will never leave pursuing the colony, until it is disenfranchised.
After the Revolutionary War broke out, Patriots found Hutchinson’s copies of those letters left behind in his Milton mansion. Newspapers published most of these quoted passages in late 1775. By then, the Massachusetts Whigs were convinced that Hutchinson and his crowd had been conspiring against their self-government, and these letters seemed to confirm that.

TOMORROW: A letter from London.

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.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Rhode Island and the Royal Commission of Inquiry

Yesterday I pointed to the upcoming sestercentennial of the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee, a Royal Navy ship patrolling Narragansett Bay for smugglers.

Some of Rhode Island‘s leading merchants were involved in some way in destroying that ship, including the Browns, the Greenes, Abraham Whipple, and the notorious Simeon Potter.

The organized attackers wounded a British military officer, Lt. William Dudingston, and destroyed a British warship. Some authors, especially from Rhode Island, view it as a prelude or even the first battle of the Revolutionary War. But as I wrote yesterday, it seems significant that this event, for all its bellicosity, didn’t lead to a broader crackdown and war.

One big reason is that the Crown had far less leverage in Rhode Island. That colony was one of only two in North America (the other being Connecticut) where citizens elected their governor via the legislature. In the other colonies, London chose the governor, and usually he arrived with no local allegiances or favors owed.

Furthermore, the Rhode Island legislature chose judges for each year. Elsewhere, the royal government appointed judges for life. And elsewhere those appointed royal governors also appointed sheriffs and justices of the peace.

Rhode Island’s unusual charter left the Crown with only two groups of officials who owed their position and thus their full allegiance to London: the Customs service and the Royal Navy. And of course those arms of government had limited local popularity, as shown by the fact that Rhode Islanders had just burned a naval schooner enforcing the Customs laws.

To investigate the attack, therefore, Lord North’s government set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry. The five officials appointed to it were:
The first four men were already strong Loyalists. Wanton wasn’t yet in that camp, and he was also the only man with local knowledge. When Adm. John Montagu used testimony from an indentured servant named Aaron Briggs to demand an investigation of John Brown, Simeon Potter, and others, Wanton responded by collecting evidence that undercut what Briggs said. The commission’s investigation led nowhere.

Royal authorities in Massachusetts and London learned from the frustrations of the Gaspee inquiry and put those lessons into practice after the next big attack—the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. They didn’t wait for local authorities, even the more numerous and powerful Crown appointees, to identify individual malefactors. Instead, Parliament adopted the Boston Port Bill to pressure the whole town, installed a more forceful governor, sent in troops, and eventually tried to rewrite the provincial constitution.

Thus, for the Crown the main lesson of the Gaspee affair was what not to do.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Preparing for the Storming of the Gaspee

As I mentioned yesterday, the sestercentennial of the attack on H.M.S. Gaspee is coming up on 10 June.

The Gaspee Days Committee has a program of commemorations scheduled for the weekend of 11–12 June in Warwick, Rhode Island, including a parade, a colonial encampment, musical performances, church services, games for children, and the burning of a model ship.

On Tuesday, 17 May, the Revolution 250 podcast will feature a conversation with Prof. Steven Park, author of The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution. You can tune in on YouTube or podcast platforms.

The Rhode Island State Archives has opened an exhibit subtitled “The Spark that Ignited the American Revolution” featuring documents from its collection related to the event. See news coverage here.

Now it’s the editorial position of Boston 1775 that the American Revolution began before 1772, and that what ignited the Revolutionary War was four stolen cannon.

That’s not to say the attack on the Gaspee, the Crown’s attempts to investigate it, and locals’ resistance to that investigation aren’t a dramatic and revealing episode in the build-up to the thirteen colonies’ break from Britain. Park’s book and the Gaspee Virutal Archives are very interesting reading.

But as I look at the 10 June 1772 attack today, I’m struck how little it didn’t ignite (apart from the Gaspee itself, of course).

Depending on what incidents one counts, the storming and burning of the Gaspee was the third or fourth time Rhode Islanders had attacked a ship owned by the British government in the preceding decade. Locals swarmed on board like pirates, clearly prepared and not just carried away like a mob. They shot a Royal Navy lieutenant in the groin. Expensive royal property was destroyed.

Yet there was no equivalent of the Boston Port Bill, closing Rhode Island’s big harbor to trade. The Crown didn’t send in troops, as it did in Boston in 1768 and then in 1774. Parliament didn’t rewrite the Rhode Island constitution the way it tried with the Massachusetts Government Act. Other colonies therefore didn’t respond with a Continental Congress or other extralegal steps.

Like Arthur Conan Doyle‘s dog that didn’t bark, the lack of a strong response from the central government might be the most significant dimension of the Gaspee burning in terms of how the overall American Revolution turned out.

TOMORROW: Lessons from the attack.