Save your Money and you save your Country
No one wins a trade war, we are told. But an America willing to endure lost access to British imports in the 18th century emerged in the late 19th as the world’s greatest manufacturing power. Here’s a look at some of the gory details of greatest trade war in history. Spoiler alert: America won.
We’re in the middle of the action, so here are the actors to catch you up….
James Otis — called “Jemmy” by his friends, a Harvard-educated lawyer, son of one of the colony’s wealthiest men, and formerly the king’s prosecutor. His 1761 transformation from oligarch to rebel leader stunned the colony. Over the 1760s, he would transform the colony into the epicenter of the rebel forces and challenge and defeat the world’s greatest empire. Leader of the “Popular Party,” the populist party of Massachusetts. Vindication, Rights and Considerations are early 1760s pamphlets written by Otis.
Sam Adams — prolific writer of rebel articles, which is the only job he held for long. Leader of the dock workers and street gangs, essentially a large private army that put Otis’ writings into action. He and Otis coordinated their efforts (often co-writing articles and managing the Boston Gazette) but kept their distance from each other publicly. Otis was the intellectual leader; Adams was the street fighter.
Thomas Hutchinson — the prince of Massachusetts (not an actual prince but he might as well have been) and leader of the Court Party. The oligarch’s oligarch. Wealthy, refined, pompous but educated and smart. Held various official positions from chief justice to council member to governor. The Darth Vader of the story.
Governor’s Council — the Senate. Intended to support the governor (and, hence, the King). Together with the rest of the local government, they composed the “General Court” (like a royal court).
Bernard — the royally-appointed governor (note that some colonial governors were appointed by the King and some were locally elected; Massachusetts’ was appointed by the King). In over his head. He only wanted calm and respect and to make a little money; Otis and Adams would provide him with none.
Board of Trade/Board of Customs — collected taxes; nearly all taxes (“revenue”) were on imports/exports (e.g. no real estate or income taxes).
Townshend Acts — import taxes. Note that the colonies imported almost all manufactured goods (mostly from England). The colonies exported mostly raw materials.
The Ministry/Whitehall — the government in London supporting the King.
Thomas Pownall wrote to Thomas Hutchinson on September 9, 1767 “that you shall have a handsome salary fixed as Chief Justice, as soon as the American revenue shall create a fund.” The revenue would be derived from the Revenue Act. The plans, though, were known to the rebels, and they widely publicized them in order to repeatedly defeat Hutchinson’s appointment to the Governor’s Council and to discredit the Ministry’s plans for removing control of local officials’ salaries from the legislature. Lord Hillsborough was appointed first Secretary of State for the Colonies, a new office replacing the Board of Trade that coincided with the newly created Board of Customs Commissioners. In explaining his repeated defeats, Bernard wrote to Lord Hillsborough:
“ … two chief heads of the faction (Otis and Adams) told the House that the Lieutenant Governor was a pensioner of Great Britain, and averred that he had a warrant from the Lords of the Treasury for two hundred pounds a year out of the new duties which they were then opposing. This being urged in a manner which left no opportunity or time for refutation or explanation, gave a turn against him, so that, upon the second polling, he had ten votes less than before.”
The pressure on the oligarchy was increasing, and despite Bernard’s enduring optimism that the rebels’ progress would soon fade away, their rejection of Hutchinson seemed to be gaining support. Perhaps more disconcerting, Otis and the Boston rebels were gaining widespread support and sympathy, not only from other colonies but also from England. Catharine Macaulay, whose progressive views on women and British history were scandalous in her home country, sent Jemmy, who she titled “the great Guardian of American Liberty,” a copy of her radical history of Britain. She signs her letter to Jemmy: “with high admiration for your Virtues.” From within Parliament and without, Otis was increasingly viewed as the champion of the people’s rights.
Most of the new members of the customs establishment arrived on a ship from England on November 5, 1767. Henry Hulton, the first commission of customs, had been a clerk in the Plantation Office in London for the previous five years; Hulton’s sister recounted that when the customs officials arrived, a “mob carried twenty devils, popes, and pretenders through the streets, with labels on their breasts, Liberty, and property and no commissioners.” Like a good oligarch, Hulton reportedly “laughed at ’em with the rest.” November 5 was “Pope’s Day,” wherein the Protestants celebrated the fact that they weren’t Catholic, but the festivities’s overt politicization was an indication that “the times were altered.” The popes and pretenders would be heaved into a giant bon fire; the devil was left on the doorstep of Hutchinson’s house. It would take Hulton three years to learn just how altered the times were.
Bernard delayed convening the General Court until late December, hoping to avoid any hostile resolutions to the new customs commissioners and the Townshend Acts. When the Townshend Acts went into effect and the new commissions arrived in early November, Jemmy urged caution, and the Boston town meeting approved his message and adopted a resolution denouncing mob activity. When the General Court finally convened, it appointed a large committee to draft letters and petitions to various officials on the state of the province. The letters were polite — praising the King and constitution — but insistent that all taxation must originate with the local legislature. They further rejected accusations that they sought independence and would “by no means be inclined to accept of an independency, if offered ….” And yet the flurry of conciliatory letters and the petitions produced by the House at the end of the year only seemed to be setting the stage for a greater drama to come.
Under the leadership of Otis, Cushing, and Sam Adams, the House then decided to make perhaps the most audacious pre-1776 gambit; they would issue what amounted to a summary of Otis’s earlier pamphlets in an official declaration. Otis writings, called everything from “Letters of Gold” to the ramblings of a treasonous madman, would now be the official proclamation of the people of Massachusetts. And furthering Otis’s objective to increase communication and cooperation among the colonies, the letter would be directed not to the colony’s lobbyist, Parliament or the King as the Stamp Act Resolves were, but rather the letter would be directed to the people’s assemblies of the other colonies. The letter was sounded defeated in the House by a two to one margin, with many members fearing that Whitehall and the King would conclude that the letter sought to establish a government outside of Britain’s control. Two weeks later, many House members had left to go home; Otis and Sam Adams quickly moved first to vote again on the letter and then to vote to expunge the record of the previous vote. Both passed, and the result was issued on February 11, 1768 with the laborious title “A circulatory Letter, directed to the Speakers of the respective Houses of Representatives and Burgesses on this Continent ; a Copy of which was also sent to Dennis DeBerdt, Esq; their Agent, by Order of the House, that he might make use of it, if necessary, to prevent any Misrepresentations of it in England.” Bernard quickly dispatched a letter to Lord Shelburne, writing on February 18 that the House’s Letter was “calculated to inflame the whole Continent.”
The Letter has the hallmarks of a typical Otis “counterwork.” It begins innocently, stating its purpose to address “a common concern” and its goal that the colonies “should harmonize with each other.” Then it quickly confirms that “his Majesty’s high Court of Parliament is the supreme legislative power over the whole empire,” which echoes Otis’s declaration from Considerations confirming that Parliament and the King are “the supreme and universal legislature of the whole empire.” After these assurances, the Letter makes its brazen declaration:
That it is an essential unalterable right in nature, ingrafted into the British constitution, as a fundamental law, and ever held sacred and irrevokable by the subjects within the realm, that what a man hath honestly acquired is absolutely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken from him without his consent : That the American subjects may therefore, exclusive of any consideration of charter rights, with a decent firmness, adapted to the character of free men and subjects, assert this natural, constitutional right.
This statement is in essence a summary of Otis’s previous positions regarding natural rights, the irrelevance of the charters, and the necessity of consent. The Letter quickly performs a “counterwork” and asserts in the same paragraph that this is “their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference.” Otis in Rights makes a similar claim to natural rights “with all humble deference,” and in all his pamphlets asserts his opinion with humility.
The Letter continues to hammer the point about natural rights and consent: “ … imposing Duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights, because, as they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s Commons in Britain, by those Acts, grant their property without their consent.” Representation in parliament is the only solution, as Jemmy had observed, and yet, “This House further are of opinion, that their constituents, considering their local circumstances, cannot by any possibility be represented in the Parliament.” The only solution is “That his Majesty’s royal predecessors, for this reason, were graciously pleased to form a subordinate legislative here.” In 1702, the first session of the new Massachusetts House of Representatives with John Otis as one of its leaders produced a resolve claiming that the “house may use and exercise such Powers and Privileges here as the house of commons in England may and have usually done there allways having Respect to their Majesties Roy[al] charter. …” This new legislative body in 1702 immediately staked claim to a position equivalent to the House of Commons and subject only to the King and charter, which was just as quickly rejected by Parliament. And so almost seven decades later the issue was revisited, and yet the demographic characteristics and national debt made representation in Parliament or local control dead issues. Otis, Cushing and Adams almost certainly knew this, and yet, again employing Jemmy’s strategy, they needed to appear reasonable and offer solutions along with making claims. A component of appearing reasonable included listing grievances specific enough so that the referent was clear to all readers yet general enough so the grievance applied to all colonies. The crowning complaint of the short list was “officers of the Crown may be multiplied to such a degree, as to become dangerous to the Liberty of the people.” Inherent in this complaint was that the size of government, regardless of purpose or justification, must be limited in order to protect the “Liberty of the people.” The Letter made clear the dire consequences of not heeding the House’s warning, as it advised that the Ministry should “take notice” in order to prevent “mutiny.” It was as close as any official document had come to invoking the specter of independence.
The remarkable Circular Letter was not only a nimble summation of Otis’s previous pamphlets, but it was also a bridge from those early rebellious pamphlets to the Declaration of Independence issued seven years later. The “essential unalterable right in nature, ingrafted into the British constitution, as a fundamental law, and ever held sacred and irrevocable” became the “certain unalienable Rights” in the Declaration. “The consent of the people” became “the consent of the governed” and “imposing Duties … without their consent” became “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.” Tellingly, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration employed “consent” twice among the 1,685 words that comprise the body. When edited, chiefly by John Adams, 363 words were deleted, rendering the Declaration 22% shorter, and yet the emphasis on consent was increased, and the word was inserted a third time just to be certain that no one could misunderstand the source of government authority.
Perhaps the most direct connection from Jemmy’s early pamphlets to the Declaration is the latter’s treatment of property. For many, the Lockean notion of “property” had provided both the foundation for and justification of government. Jemmy took great pains to abolish a direct connection between government and property; while in Rights, he stated, “The end of government being the good of mankind, points out its great duties: It is above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property,” he quickly averred that government by consent directly results in the protection of property. Therefore, as long as government authority is founded on consent, property rights are protected, thus rendering “property” and “consent” redundant. In Considerations, Jemmy observed, “If a man has but little property to protect and defend, yet his life and liberty are things of some importance,” thus illustrating that government’s focus should be the “happy enjoyment of life, liberty.” Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Declaration is that while Jefferson’s draft contained but a single reference to property, Adams and the drafting committee excised even this single reference so that it did not once directly refer to property. A document that failed to reference property cannot properly be called a child of Locke, and this was a philosophical position Otis initially staked out in the colonies by in 1762.
The Declaration replaced “property” with a phrase that seems so curious to the modern mind: “the pursuit of Happiness.” And yet the phrase employed as the people’s interest and the government’s objective was not remotely exotic to the Massachusetts rebels. The Circular Letter makes clear that a problem of corrupt governments is that they “endanger the happiness” of the people. And “the pursuit of Happiness” is a phrase that directly echoed Jemmy’s Considerations, in which he declared that the principal purpose of his political activism was that “The inhabitants … of the dominions of the British crown … who I hope e’er long to see united in the most firm support of their Prince’s true glory, and in a steady and uniform pursuit of their own welfare and happiness.” People pursuing “their own welfare and happiness” connoted a small government that derived authority through consent. It’s not happenstance that Jemmy employed some variation of “happiness” 34 times in Vindication, Rights and Considerations.
The Declaration referenced the “patient sufferance of these Colonies” and asserted that “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms. …” Such a statement was made possible by both Jemmy’s repeated assertions of humility and the Circular Letter’s proclamation that its firm message was delivered “in the most humble terms” — the precise phrase that’s repeated in the Declaration. The Massachusetts House’s Circular Letter of 1768 is as a remarkably prescient predecessor to the Declaration of Independence as it is a summation of Jemmy’s radical pamphlets.
The Circular Letter was also transmitted to the province’s lobbyist “to prevent any Misrepresentations of it in England” precisely because the House had long suspected that Governor Bernard was sending letters to the ministry impugning their motives and distorting their objectives. After the issuance of the Circular Letter, the House demanded copies of Bernard’s letters; expectedly, Bernard refused, and the rebels took this as an admission of guilt, a conclusion with which the Boston papers largely concurred. The Gazette judged Bernard “totally abandoned to wickedness.” The Council deemed the article “impudent libel” while a House committee that included Otis and John Hancock affirmed freedom of the press as a foundation of liberty. Bernard, apoplectic as usual, asserted that Jemmy “behaved in the house like a madman” in defense of the Gazette article and admonished the Council members against pursuing the matter lest they jeopardize their political futures. The Council and Bernard declined to indict anyone involved with the Gazette article for libel doubtless out of fear; Bernard knew that “two of the chief leaders of the faction in the House (Otis and Adams) are the principal managers of the Boston Gazette.” Indictment of a sitting House member for libel was not only legally dubious but also existentially foolish. Between the August 1765 nights of terror that destroyed homes and business and the May 1766 statewide political campaign that castrated the once powerful Council, the oligarchy feared any official moves against Otis and Adams. Hutchinson, though, saw no reason not to move against Edes and Gill; the chief justice argued for a grand jury indictment, hoping to shutter the Gazette and “eradicate the absurd notion of the liberty of the press,” as he confessed was his goal in a March 23 letter to Richard Jackson. Out of a probable confection of fear and loyalty, the grand jury refused to indict anyone.
And just as the House had never previously formally issued a summation of Jemmy’s pamphlets, the ministry had never formally declared such words seditious. In April, a mere two months from its issuance, the whispers of sedition could be no longer ignored. On April 21, the Secretary of State for the Colonies
Lord Hillsborough, upon direct order from King George, sent a copy of the Massachusetts Circular Letter along with a list of “his Majesty’s commands” to all colonial governors. He reported that the Letter would “encourage an open opposition,” and each governor was to “exert your utmost influence to defeat this flagitious attempt to disturb the public peace by prevailing upon the Assembly of your province to take no notice of it, which will be treating it with the contempt it deserves.” Hillsborough, and by direct implication the King, challenged the colonial assemblies to prove “their reverence and respect for the laws, and of their faithful attachment to the constitution” by “showing a proper resentment of this unjustifiable attempt to revive those distractions which have operated so fatally to the prejudice of this kingdom and the colonies.” If any assembly exhibited anything other than contempt for “this seditious paper,” then it was the governor’s “duty to prevent any proceeding” by suspending or dissolving the assembly. And so upon the King’s command, Governor Bernard had no choice but to attempt to obtain the rescission of “this seditious paper.”
A week before the rescission vote, Jemmy delivered a rousing speech against the oligarchy and deference. He observed that “the unthinking multitude are taught to reverence …. as little deities” the men of the oligarchy while the oligarchy looks down upon everyone else as “vulgar.” And yet, he questioned why such men were esteemed, for “there are no set of people under the canopy of Heaven more venal, more corrupt and debauched in their principles.” He urged the Bostonians not to revere the English oligarchs for their Cambridge and Oxford educations, as such places teach little other than “whoring, smoking, and drinking.” Otis’s harangue transformed Captain Kidd’s derrière salute into a political position, an issue of freedom of speech and of the press. And “his Majesty’s commands” as communicated in Hillsborough’s letter transformed what could have been akin to a local Land Bank fiscal crisis into a continental emergency. “His Majesty’s commands” would ensure that Massachusetts’s bold claims about “natural and constitutional rights” and “consent” would not “waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
Of the 109 House members in the 1767–68 legislative year, only 17 conceded to Bernard’s request and voted for rescission. The “Glorious 92” who brazenly rejected “his Majesty’s commands” were celebrated throughout the colonies. Bernard obediently dissolved the assembly, several other assemblies approved the Circular Letter in some fashion, and the disparate colonies that were previously tepid to the Boston rebels’ talk of rights and consent and repeated efforts to “harmonize with each other” transformed into an energetic and increasingly unified group dedicated to resisting authority. The dissolved House then petitioned the king to have Bernard removed from office; shockingly, the cowed Council concurred. Bernard believed that given the direction that Massachusetts politics had taken, he wouldn’t be able to find 10 supporters in the House the following year — and that was perhaps optimistic. There was no doubt that the Court Party was dead.
The “Glorious 92” “Anti-Rescinders” were celebrated throughout the colonies. Paul Revere smithed a silver punchbowl engraved with the names of the “Glorious 92,” and the bowl was baptized in rebellion when 18 of the “Anti-Rescinders” including Otis, Adams, Hancock and the notorious smuggler Daniel Malcolm drank from it on August 1, the same day that Sons of Liberty mobs roamed the streets of Boston strictly enforcing the non-importation of many British goods. Parties were held in Newport and Marblehead; in Philadelphia, the lyrics of the official march of the Royal Navy were changed, thus transforming “Heart of Oak” into the “Liberty Song.” Before the end of the year, every colonial legislature save for New Hampshire had in some way concurred with the Circular Letter. In Pennsylvania, Governor Penn observed that “even those persons who are the most moderate are now set in a flame and have joined in the general cry of Liberty.”
The Circular Letter wasn’t rescinded, but neither was the tax. To enforce the tax, Whitehall created the American Board of Customs Commissioners and three additional juryless Vice-Admiralty Courts; one of the new courts would be in Boston, where the Board of Customs would be headquartered. And the man chosen to direct the Board of Customs was none other than the most hated customs official in the colonies, Charles Paxton. The first recorded opposition to the Revenue Act in Boston was a town meeting chaired by Jemmy Otis. The meeting concluded that the response to a new tax on imported goods would be not to import the goods. The non-importation movement’s slogan as printed in the Gazette on November 30, 1767 was “No Mobs and Tumults, let the Person and Properties of our most inveterate Enemies be safe — Save your Money and you save your Country.” Of course there would be no public approval of mob violence, but the mobs would certainly encourage merchants to comply with the non-importation pact. And to which “Country” did the slogan refer? At the meeting, Otis urged calm and reminded the assembled crowd that a previous generation had to petition Charles I for fifteen years “before they would betake themselves to any forceable measures.” On January 12, 1768, the House sent the argument to their London agent in a letter Otis wrote: “We are taxed, and can appeal for relief, from their final decision, to no power on earth.” Otis could not bring himself to print the logical conclusion, but perhaps it need not be printed. Years earlier, Otis had already referenced the final resort: an appeal to heaven and the longest sword. And the reference to the “fifteen years” was an uncanny coincidence, for it would be fifteen years from what John Adams labeled the first shot Jemmy fired in the court room at the Writs of Assistance case to the shots fired at Lexington and Concord.
The Customs Commissioners concluded that Otis’s Circular Letter refuted their basic authority and was blatantly seditious; they requested that Whitehall send armed men to assist in the collection of taxes. Bernard agreed that any enforcement of taxes would be futile without a significant police force but feared making any official request himself. He asked the Council to make the request in a secret poll, but the Council members unanimously declined out of fear of Otis and Adams. The mob responded to the Commissioners’ presence by hanging an effigy of Commissioner Paxton on the Liberty Tree, near Boston Common, on March 18, the anniversary of the Stamp Act’s repeal. On June 8, the ministry finally concurred and Hillsborough ordered General Gage to send at least one military regiment to Boston — the Red Coats were coming. Otis noted that the presence of armed men escorting customs officers and marching down the streets would only serve “to hasten on with great rapidity events which every good and honest man would wish delayed. …” He still couldn’t say independence, but the conclusion was clear. Bernard agreed that the news of the troops impending arrival may only “hasten” riots, so he plotted to withhold official proclamations until the troops were already in Boston. In September, Gage sent a deputy to Boston to make arrangements for the troops. Bernard informed the Council that he had private knowledge of the troops’ arrival but did not have any official information. The news quickly spread throughout Boston, and a town meeting was scheduled for September 11, 1768. Bernard then learned that a barrel of turpentine had been affixed to a pole in Beacon Hill and was to be lit when the British troops arrived in order to alert the mobs — Adams’ private army. Bernard asked the Council to address the issue, and the Council asked the town’s Selectmen to address the issue. The Selectmen refused, and the Council next asked the Sherriff to remove the barrel, which he did.
On September 11, a large town meeting was held with Jemmy as moderator and the Court Party in abeyance. The crowd demanded “a head,” a massacre, and to “take all the power into their own hands.” The argument was made that liberty was life, and one may defend one’s life by taking another. Bernard feared the worst. In a September 16 letter to Hillsborough, Bernard reported that a plot was “reported & believed” to have been developed by the radicals to seize Castle William, the empire’s primary customs/revenue enforcement facility, by force on September 18. It is highly unlikely that such a plot was seriously considered at that time, but the letter illustrates the fear that had gripped Bernard and the oligarchy. Eventually, Jemmy soothed the crowd with a plan to form a delegation that would demand information from Bernard. Bernard informed the committee that he had no official information regarding troops, and the town sensed an outright lie.
The next day, another town meeting was held, and as the crowd swelled to 3,000 — nearly all the able-bodied adult males of Boston — it was reconvened to Old South Church. Bernard could not fathom that the overwhelming support of the Popular Party was genuine and reported to Hillsborough that “a Set of Speeches by the Chiefs of the Faction and no one else, which followed one another in such an order & method, that it appeared as if they were acting a Play … everything … seeming to have been pre-concerted before hand.” According to the official meeting minutes, Jemmy was again chosen as moderator and proposed the two-fold course of action. First, the town would submit a “proper application” of their grievances to the authorities. However, if the authorities failed to adequately address the problems, there would be “nothing more to do, but gird the Sword to the Thigh and Shoulder the Musquet.” And so the town called for a convention that would operate outside of the purview of the General Court and for the citizens to arm themselves. While Jemmy’s efforts to convene an extra-legal assembly failed the previous year, now the call for a similar assembly received unanimous approval from the town. A convention of the towns of Massachusetts convened on September 22, with most towns sending their House representatives as delegates. It was a representative assembly wholly outside of Britain’s control, and as such, Bernard demanded that it disband immediately. The Convention asked Bernard to explain the laws under which the assembly was illegal, and Bernard refused to even receive the request. The Convention produced several letters and petitions that declared its intention to resolve the problems amicably and yet demanded solutions. While Bernard was surprised by the Convention’s moderation, he was nevertheless convinced that the rebels aimed to “Seize the Governor & Lieut Govr, and take Possession of the Treasury and then set up their Standard” (that is, raise their own flag). He suggested that the leaders, primarily Otis, Cushing and Adams, be forbidden from holding any government office. Both Houses of Parliament passed resolves condemning the town meeting that approved the convention, declaring it illegal and “Calculated to excite sedition and insurrections.” Augustus FitzRoy, the 33-year-old new Prime Minister, requested King George’s permission to employ a Henry VIII statute that enabled the ministry to arrest and transport suspected traitors to London for trial, essentially a death sentence. The king brushed aside the request and questions raged in Parliament and throughout the colonies whether Otis, Cushing and Adams were guardians of liberty or guilty of treason.
Many were not convinced that the Convention solved anything, and debate erupted in myriad skirmishes across the province. The second floor of the British Coffee House in which Otis and the merchants held meetings years before was occupied by John Mein, a Scottish immigrant who operated a circulating library out of his King Street office and published the Chronicle out of a print shop on Newbury Street. Mein was a fierce loyalist and hardened antagonist; he openly ignored non-importation schemes and published the names of merchants suspected of importing banned goods, thus exposing alleged hypocrisy. Mein’s exposés were dubious as he conveniently neglected to distinguish between imports that had merely arrived on a ship and those that had actually been signed and delivered, between permitted and banned imports, and between imports signed by Boston merchants and those signed by merchants from outside of Boston who merely used the harbor as a point of entry. In January 1768, “Americus” published an article in the Gazette criticizing Mein. Furious, Mein stormed over to the Gazette offices on Court Street and demanded to know the identity of “Americus.” Gazette owners Ben Edes and John Gill refused to provide that information; Mein returned the next day and again demanded the identity of “Americus” to be met again with the same response. Mein then demanded a fight in the street; Edes and Gill again refused, at which point Mein declared he’d beat the Gazette owner he next saw in the streets.
Ben Edes was the large brash agitator whereas his partner John Gill was a slight, quiet man who worked hard at printing Boston’s most prominent newspaper. So as luck would have it, shortly thereafter Mein met the slight John Gill in the street and hit him with his cane, assaulting both Gill’s person and his status, as a blow from a gentleman’s cane is a demand for deference. John Gill then hired the mysterious “Americus” to sue Mein, and, of course, Mein appeared in court to hear James Otis argue that this was an assault, not an act of self-defense. Otis’s primary evidence was that Mein was a huge man while Gill was quite the opposite. Otis won the case; Mein was fined 40 shilling for criminal assault and ordered to pay Gill damages of £75 plus costs. Perhaps predictably, the loss inspired Mein to take the Chronicle to new heights of aggression. Mein continued to rail against the rebels, the embargo and the supposed hypocrites who used the embargo to increase prices.
Jemmy reported in a letter to a London client on November 26, 1768 that Boston was quiet save for the constant “military musters, and reviews and other parading of the red coats.” Gage had given stern orders that the troops in Boston be well behaved, and so when one marine accosted Jemmy in late November, he was confined to his quarters as punishment. It seemed that every incident in 1768 and 1769 was mined for a possible violation of the colonists’ rights; as Otis had earlier proclaimed, “they now knew what their rights were, then they did not.” And now the people were alert to discovering and demanding their rights. Shortly after the 1768 Mein assault, Michael Corbet, a Marblehead sailor, shot and killed Lieutenant Henry Panton of the H.M.S. Rose. Panton had boarded Corbet’s ship, asked about smuggled contraband, then attempted to impress some of Corbet’s crew. Panton was clearly a royal officer, from a royal ship, engaging in official business. But Panton was aggressive, Corbet was frustrated, and shots were fired. John Adams and Jemmy Otis formed Corbet’s defense team. First, Otis argued for a jury trial instead of a juryless admiralty trial knowing that a jury would never convict a patriot like Corbet. Chief Justice Hutchinson denied the request for both legal and practical reasons; with a jury of his peers inside the courthouse and undoubtedly a mob outside, Corbet would be sainted before being convicted. Now faced with convincing a judge with the evidence in admiralty court, the defense team of Adams and Otis proved that Lt. Panton had neither a customs warrant nor an impressment warrant, so his presence on Corbet’s ship constituted an act of trespass. And due to the aggressive nature of the trespasser, lethal force was justified. The defense was brilliant; the prosecutor could not then prove that Panton had any legal reason to be on Corbet’s ship. The trial did not help the Court Party in the 1769 elections, as the Court Party had been shackled to the ministry and the customs establishment. Lieutenant Panton fit neatly into the narrative of Court Party attempts to infringe and usurp rights.
The 1769 elections proved to Bernard that “the times were altered” and could not be reversed. Of the Glorious 92 House members who refused to rescind Otis’s seditious Circular Letter, 81 were re-elected. The Popular Party firmly controlled the House, and the Council was persona non grata. Almost immediately, the House appointed Otis to chair a committee to demand that Bernard remove military forces from Boston, arguing that “military guard with canon pointed at the very door of the state house” constituted an affront to the people. Bernard replied that he had no such authority. Finally, on June 1, 1769, Bernard conceded the obvious, writing to Pownall that “Otis, Adams, etc, are now in full possession of the government.”
During that summer of ’69, rumors spread throughout the province that Whitehall was planning to repeal the Revenue Act. And exactly two months after Bernard conceded the government to Jemmy Otis and Sam Adams, Governor Francis Bernard sailed back to England, never again to see Boston. Bernard asked the House to pay his salary prior to leaving, and in parting shot, Otis chaired the committee that replied to the request, stating that the House was “bound in duty at all times; and we do, more especially at this time, cheerfully acquiesce in the lawful command of our Sovereign.” Otis was certain King George would not want Bernard to be paid, so the request was denied. But Boston did finally get Bernard’s long wished for puppet government, as none other than Thomas Hutchinson assumed the governorship and proceeded to do whatever Whitehall told him.
Just prior to Hutchinson’s ascension to the governorship, Lord Hillsborough dispatch a letter to the colonies assuring them that all Townshend duties would soon be repealed — except for the one on tea. The extra-legal town meetings continued, as merchants and other town members debated the news and its affect on non-importation agreements. By early August, the meetings concluded not only to continue the trade war but also to intensify it. The town members agreed that the colonies should promote local manufacturing. Finally, the town members agreed to publish a list of merchants who defied the boycott and branded them “Enemies.” Predictably, John Mein’s name was prominent on the “Enemies” list. In a letter to the recently departed Bernard on August 8, Hutchinson reported that Jemmy was “smiling at his success.”
At least one person in the province refused to believe that the times were altered. Ruth Otis’s loyalty to the royal government was tartly steadfast; she seemed to delight in antagonizing her husband and his associates. Hannah Winthrop, a good friend of Jemmy and his sister Mercy, wrote a letter to Mercy in 1769:
I went to see Mrs. Otis the other day. She seems not to be in a good state of health. I received a Visit lately from Master Jemmy [Jemmy and Ruth’s 10-year-old son]. I will give you an anecdote of him. A gentleman telling him what a Fine lady his mama is & he hoped he would be a good Boy & behave exceedingly well to her, my young Master gave this spirited answer, I know my Mama is a fine Lady, but she would be much finer if she was a Daughter of Liberty.
We can only surmise that life in the Otis home was exceedingly difficult, though the Colonel — Jemmy’s father — made an attempt to temper the turmoil. By 1768, Jemmy’s political career consumed his days, and his law practice had suffered. He had begun writing to his London clients to inform them that he would be no longer accepting cases “in order as soon as possible to retire from business.” In a November 26, 1768 letter informing London merchant Arthur Jones of his impending retirement from business, Jemmy added, “Our Fathers were a good people and have been a free people, and if you [the British] will not let us remain so any longer, we shall be a free people.” While Ruth brought a substantial inheritance to the marriage, it is doubtful that it could have funded the family for so long. The obvious question about the source of Jemmy’s financial resources is revealed in a discreet transaction conducted in early 1768. The Colonel purchased Jemmy and Ruth’s first house on School Street in the heart of Boston. Samuel Allyne (Jemmy’s brother) wrote to his brother Joseph on February 8, 1768 that while their father did not divulge his reasons for purchasing the house, it was most likely intended to be a gift for Jemmy, the eldest and best-educated of his sons who spent his time unraveling the King’s empire instead of building his own. And so it seems the Colonel agreed that the “Fathers were a good people and have been a free people,” and he wished the same for his children.
The trade war was one of many weapons deployed by the rebels, but its importance cannot be underestimated. Britain had organized the North American colonies to be a supplier of raw materials for the Empire and a consumer of goods manufactured in Britain. Once the rebels limited importation, the economic system of the Empire was threatened; more importantly, the non-importation efforts threatened the entire feudal structure that had dominated governance for two thousand years.
About Nathan Allen
Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….