A Long Time Ago in Boston: Part II


In response to his articles and his public harangues, James Otis' enemies began penning essays accusing him of being a chameleon who championed man's rights while professing loyalty to the king. They also accused him of being a hot-tempered bully who would try to knock down any man who disagreed with him. When Otis complained during spring elections that the pressures of day-to-day infighting were getting to him, his opponents referred to his problem as 'the unhappy influence of weak nerves, or, as it is vulgarly called, cowardice.' During the summer of 1766, animosity flourished between the court party of Bernard and Hutchinson and the growing popular party of Otis and Adams. Otis had been elected Speaker, but Bernard overruled it. The radicals charged Bernard with agitating and goading while they were trying to mend relationships. Bernard's party accused Otis of being 'a mad dictator.' Otis was a confluence of opposing sentiments. For his brilliant logical analyses, there were sputtering emotional outbursts; for his rebelliousness, there was a profound respect for authority. He could blast his colleagues for silence in the face of Crown oppressions, then months later proclaim it was the duty of all to acquiesce to Parliament's legislation. Otis' unpredictable personality drove Adams more into the open, though they continued to work together productively during the late 1760s. They would meet each Saturday at the offices of the Boston Gazette with notes and manuscripts, and spend the weekend getting their articles published. Their topics included parliamentary oppression, nonimportation, decay of charter rights, searches and seizures by customs men, and the latest moves of the Hutchinson 'cabal.' They attacked the idea of Crown salaries for colonial judges and ridiculed customs commissioners and other 'pensioners' who lived 'in luxury' at taxpayer expense. The Townshend Acts When the Townshend Acts took effect in late 1767 and new customs men were arriving, Otis wanted to show the world Boston was not ruled by a mob. Adams wanted to turn the men back at the docks, but Otis called a town meeting and repudiated the use of violence. His words carried the day; the customs men debarked without incident. Bernard was guardedly pleased. He interpreted Otis' behavior as counseling compliance, but Otis angrily denied it, insisting he was advocating peaceful redress instead. The Townshend Acts placed a duty on paint, tea, lead, paper, and glass brought into the colonies. Some of the money would support the quartering of British troops in the colonies, but most of it would go for 'increased support of civil government' ' that is, it would allow Britain to take over the colonies' jealously-guarded power of paying Crown officials. Adams' circular letter With House approval, Adams sent a circular letter to the other colonies asking their agreement in finding the Townshend Acts obscene. Later, on June 18, 1768, Bernard received instructions from Lord Hillsborough telling him to order the House to repudiate and rescind the letter. When Bernard complied three days later, Otis launched a two-hour rant that the governor characterized as 'the most violent, insolent, abusive, treasonable declamation that perhaps was ever delivered.' Though Otis stopped short of insulting the king, he showed no mercy for the ministry, calling Commons a bunch of 'button-makers, pin-makers, horse jockey gamesters, pensioners, pimps, and whore-masters.' After a nine-day debate the Massachusetts House voted 92-17 to refuse to rescind. On July 4, Adams published Hillsborough's letter and the House's reply in the Gazette. The 17 who voted to rescind were ruined politically. During the next few weeks, both Bernard and Hutchinson asked for troops to control Boston. In turn, Hillsborough wanted Bernard to get enough information to arrest those 'overtly resisting British law' so he could bring them back to England for trial. Meanwhile, the circular letter condemning Townshend was gaining popularity in other colonies. The Coming of the Troops In September 1768, General Gage sent word to Bernard that the British 14th Regiment would soon be arriving in Boston. And if Bernard needed more troops, Gage would send the 29th as well ' which he ended up doing. A sufferer of chronically weak knees, Bernard decided not to issue a formal announcement, but instead dropped a hint to a council member he guessed could not keep his mouth shut. He guessed correctly. By nightfall talk of the Regulars coming was all over Boston. But Bostonians were a bad bunch to pick on. Days later all the shops had sold out of firearms, and the Sons of Liberty had placed a barrel of turpentine on a pole atop Beacon Hill. A torch to the barrel would signal a call for reinforcements from inland towns. Certain that a bloodbath was coming, Bernard escaped to Jamaica Plain outside Boston. At Feneuil Hall, Otis held a town meeting and laid out 400 Brown Bess muskets that had been kept in storage. 'There are the arms,' he said. 'When an attempt is made against your liberties, they will be delivered.' The citizens resolved that the keeping of a standing army among them was a violation of their rights and they would defend themselves 'at the utmost peril of their lives and fortunes.' But like the customs agents, the army arrived without incident. Two regiments of redcoats sailed into Boston harbor on October 1, 1768. In a show of shock and awe, they marched from the docks to Boston Common, muskets loaded. They were quartered in Feneuil Hall and the Town House. In response to the occupation, Adams began writing the Journal of Occurrences, a series of anonymous newspaper articles that appeared in the New York Journal, which was widely read in the colonies and in England. The articles purported to report the horrors of life under military rule. Without provocation, soldiers would insult, molest, and rape Boston's daughters. The town had become a living hell. Most of the stories were lies or exaggerations, but Hutchinson knew that any attempt to combat them would make matters worse. The troops hadn't averted disaster, he observed; they had merely fed the rebellion. Otis and Adams continued their weekends at the Gazette. They were collecting an abundance of inflammatory statements, such as Lord North's boast 'that there would be no repeal of the Townshend Acts until America was prostrate at England's feet,' or the English naval officer's comment that in Boston 'the men were all hypocrites and the women whores.' From Whigs in London they received letters Bernard had written to England which showed him pushing for troops in Boston and showing little respect for the colony's charter. After the letters appeared in the newspaper, the court party virtually disappeared in the May elections. Bernard goes home On July 2, 1769 Bernard told the House he had been called back to England for 'consultation' and expected to be away for an extended period. He therefore asked that he be paid his salary in advance. As chairman of a committee to prepare a rely, Otis said it was illogical to expect Bernard to remain in office after the king heard about the mess he had made in Massachusetts. The House refused to pay him, and Bernard, in retaliation, suspended the House. Bernard set sail for England on July 31 but was becalmed for three days in the harbor. While he waited for the wind to pick up, he was treated to the sounds of pealing church bells and thundering cannons as Boston cheered his departure. Hutchinson was now acting governor. The British Coffee House Brawl London Whigs intercepted more letters, this time from colonial customs agents who portrayed Adams and Otis as enemies of the Crown. Adams was pleased, but Otis was so upset he placed an announcement in Boston papers declaring his loyalty to the king and urging readers to ignore the lies of the customs men. Adams spotted a crisis in the making and had Otis meet with customs commissioners to discuss the letters. But Otis rejected their lukewarm apologies and accused commissioner Birch of being a poltroon and a scoundrel. After the meeting he publicly announced he had still not received satisfaction. Otis began to single out one commissioner, John Robinson, as being the most insulting. Unlike Birch, however, Robinson was not one to back down. He purchased a heavy cane and let it be known he would use it if necessary. Otis went to the same shop and bought an identical cane. On Tuesday evening, September 5, while people crowded the streets watching a comet in the sky, Otis got into a donnybrook with Robinson and several British officers at the British Coffee House. Otis was left bleeding from a head wound. Robinson and his pals escaped out the back entrance. For the next month, the fight was the talk of the town. Most believed the brawl had not been fair and saw Otis as an even greater hero than before. Hutchinson lamented that if Otis were to hang himself, the townspeople would charge the commissioners with his death. The province, he believed, was out of his control. Otis seemed to completely recover from his beating. He attended town meetings, resumed his law work, won some important cases, and showed up at his old haunts. But with winter arriving he started to drink heavily and once confessed to a business associate, 'I have done more mischief to my country than can be repaired. I meant well but am now convinced I was mistaken. Cursed be the day I was born.' And John Adams wrote: '[Otis] loses himself . . . he rambles . . . attempted to tell a story which took up the whole evening. He talks so much and takes up so much of our time and fills it with trash, obsceneness, profaneness, nonsense and distraction.' Many people, Adams noted, mourned for Otis with tears in their eyes. With Samuel Adams in charge of the popular party, it veered sharply away from the Crown and toward independence. But Adams still had to come to terms with Otis, who had occasional lucid intervals. The Massacre As February 1770 came to a close, the strife between soldiers and workmen grew more violent. The townsfolk prowled the streets in gangs looking for trouble; soldiers likened the marauding citizens to wolf packs. It was only a matter of time before a major outbreak of violence. It came on the wintry night of March 5. A soldier guarding a customs house struck a boy who had been harassing him. The lad fled and came back with friends. Soon a crowd formed and someone rang a church bell, the signal for a fire. Hundreds of men carrying leather buckets arrived on the scene. The guard now had the backing of seven other soldiers under command of Captain Thomas Preston. Insults were exchanged, then the citizens starting hurling chunks of ice at the soldiers. Someone shouted 'Fire!' and a ragged volley of gunshots cracked the night air. The crowd panicked and broke up. Four men lay dead on the ground, with others staggering or crawling off wounded. Adams later called it the Boston Massacre. After being summoned from his North End mansion, Hutchinson darted through back allies to avoid club-wielding dockworkers to get to the scene of the shooting. There he saw a crowd of a thousand belligerent citizens confronting the British 29th Regiment. Amid mixed shouts of advice and abuse, Hutchinson climbed a nearby balcony and hollered down to the people to let the law take its course. -- justice would prevail if they would only let it. But they weren't buying his words alone; they wanted the soldiers removed, but to comply would be to admit their guilt. Unable to govern without the consent of the governed, Hutchinson finally asked a lieutenant to send the troops back to their barracks. After they left, the crowd dispersed. 'The Sam Adams Regiments' Though neither Otis nor Adams was present at the scene of the shooting, just as they had been absent from previous locales of mob violence, Adams was at Faneuil Hall the next morning calling for the departure of the troops. By early afternoon he was confronting Hutchinson and his council demanding both regiments be removed. After some stalling and a reminder from a council member about the barrel on Beacon Hill ready to summon the countryside to arms, Hutchinson agreed to remove both regiments. Later, Hutchinson wrote, 'That the country would have been in arms and come in nobody doubts. Whether 10,000 of them could have drove out 600 Regulars is another question, but an attempt to do it would have been like passing the Rubicon.' Not surprisingly, Hutchinson delayed the actual moving of the troops. After five days Adams went back and tried to hustle him into action. When Hutchinson stonewalled, Adams went outside, talked to the regiment commanders and got the soldiers moving. From that time on, the 14th and 29th regiments were known on both sides of the Atlantic as 'the Sam Adams regiments,' to the mortification of the acting governor.

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George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.