Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Trouble in Boston: Civic Disorder in New England Before The American Revolution

I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss  the intense opposition in New England to the Stamp Act and other laws passed by the British Parliament in the 1760s, which included violent acts such as hangings in effigy and the destruction of British government officials' homes.


In Massachusetts, a democratic culture had already evolved by the 1760s, reflected by the institution of the town meeting where citizens of all walks of life gathered together to decide political issues. Town meetings in Boston included the wealthy, the middling, and even some of the “working artificers, seafaring men, and low sorts of people” (as an irate governor of the colony once observed).  An organized faction called The Caucus, led by a group of master craftsmen and lesser merchants who called themselves the Loyal Nine, claimed to represent the workingmen and controlled the town meeting with their votes.  At the same time, some colonists remained deeply loyal to imperial authority.  

The leading example of this was Thomas Hutchinson, a successful merchant and a descendant of the same Anne Hutchinson who had challenged the original Puritan leadership of Massachusetts in the 1600s.  Never widely popular but always politically ambitious, Hutchinson cultivated connections with successive royally appointed governors of Massachusetts, and he secured many of the colony’s other high offices for himself and his relatives.  During the early 1760s, Hutchinson repeatedly urged Governor Francis Bernard to abolish Boston’s town meeting and establish a local council that he, his relatives, and their friends could control.

Among the local leaders who resisted Hutchinson’s efforts was James Otis, an unpredictable but brilliant lawyer and scholar who helped to unify the rest of the opposition.  Otis was driven by a private feud with Hutchinson, but he could channel personal grievance into principled arguments.  Rising to defend the interests of Boston’s merchants, he boldly denounced policies such as the use of broad search warrants to seek evidence of smuggling, and the Sugar Act itself.  Like Patrick Henry denouncing the Stamp Act, Otis put narrow legal arguments aside and characterized the imperial customs laws as unconstitutional, tyrannical violations of the colonists’ fundamental rights.

At the same time, he reached out to the Loyal Nine and their followers, attacking Hutchinson as an aristocratic pretender and an enemy of the common folk.  Increasingly, the leadership of the town meeting became an alliance of merchants, artisans, and laborers who viewed their elite adversaries as tools of the Parliament who would usurp the self-governing powers of all colonists.  By 1765, opposing Parliament, in the mind of many in Massachusetts, equaled supporting the rights of the people.

Boston’s response to the Stamp Act was slow in coming but explosive.  Newspapers in Massachusetts reprinted the Virginia Resolves.  Hutchinson claimed to oppose the law but refused to deny Parliament’s authority to pass it.  His brother-in-law, Andrew Oliver, was appointed as stamp distributor for Massachusetts.  On the morning of August 14, 1765, an ominous sight appeared, under one of Boston’s largest elm trees:  a figure representing Oliver, hanging by his neck from a branch.  Suspended alongside Oliver’s effigy was a boot (a symbolic reference to the Earl of Bute, once an adviser to King George III) with its sole painted green (and with a helpful sign bearing the word “Green-ville”).  

Hutchinson, as lieutenant governor of the colony, ordered the local sheriff to cut down the effigy, but a crowd of workingmen, led by a poor shoemaker named Ebenezer McIntosh, surrounded the tree.  That night they took down the figures themselves, carried them through the city streets to the stamp distributor’s office, tore down the office building, built a bonfire from its timbers, “stamped” on Oliver’s effigy with their own boots, and beheaded it by the light of the flames.  Then they stormed through Oliver’s own house, leaving its interior partially gutted.  Oliver pledged the next day to resign the stamp distributorship.   Twelve nights later, McIntosh and the crowd reassembled at the houses of several other officials, including Hutchinson’s own grand mansion, intent on destroying everything.  Hutchinson and his family fled for their lives. A mob broke into, vandalized and burned his mansion.  He lost a fortune in worldly possessions (for which he compiled a detailed inventory, and eventually was compensated) but maintained his dignified composure, as well as his network of political connections.

More than the material losses, the collapse of law and order left Hutchinson, the royal governor, and other respectable men most shaken.  Members of local militias given the duty of maintaining crowd control had participated in the violence.   Such mobs, however, had long been a local tradition.  Crowds, sometimes including well-off men dressed as poor folk, assembled to force the closing down of houses of prostitution, and to drive contagious smallpox sufferers out of town.  Ritual mobs gave humble men roles in the maintenance of local traditions.

For decades, in Boston, on November 5 (“Pope’s Day”), crowds took over the streets, lit bonfires, and paraded with effigies of the Pope, the Devil, to express hatred of the Catholic Church and its minions.  (Pope’s Day, also known as “Guy Fawkes Day,” commemorates an incident in which Catholic conspirators failed to set off a bomb intended to blow up King James I and the Parliament at the start of the 1605 legislative session).  A violent routine even developed in which rival mobs from opposite sites of town battled in the streets, seeking to capture each other’s effigies.  (Ebenezer McIntosh was the elected leader of the South End’s Pope’s Day company.)   Additionally, at times of grain shortage, crowds in Boston and elsewhere gathered to force merchants to keep the price of bread within financial reach.   By the time of the Stamp Act riot, for the struggling mass of people in Boston, the authority of the royally connected, socially condescending, tax-collecting leaders of the colony was no longer legitimate.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:


White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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