A Long Time Ago in Boston: Part III


The thrill of governing Boston was wearing on Thomas Hutchinson. Adams had been right, he concluded; two regiments had been enough to provoke Boston but not enough to control it. Hutchinson wrote to Lord Hillsborough that the town needed a heavy dose of military rule and someone more influential than he to run it. Boston, he thought, was as mad now as it was when it hanged Quakers and witches. With his health suffering, he dissolved the legislature and took his family to a nearby town to rest. Hutchinson wasn't the only one crumbling. At about this time Otis' neighbors heard him shooting his musket from an upstairs window and summoned help. Apparently he was celebrating the burning of his papers, which he had done methodically over a two-day period in spite of his daughter's efforts to stop him. As John Adams observed later, with the destruction of Otis' papers the true history of the Revolution was lost forever. The sun came out briefly in Hutchinson's world. In September, John Adams won acquittals for Captain Preston and all but two of his men, who received branding on the hand for manslaughter. And with the exception of the tax on tea, the Townshend Acts had been repealed on March 5, 1770 ' the same day as the Massacre. Adams' attempt to fire up Boston merchants about boycotting British tea had failed. The acquittals and boycott failure gave Hutchinson hope. He decided to pursue the radicals aggressively. The Great Incendiary At this point Adams could have thrown up his hands and walked away, but his convictions would not let him. Nor did he have much to walk to, given his record of business failures prior to the 1760s. Fighting for independence was the one thing he did with superlative excellence. Instead of giving up, he turned up the heat. From December 1770 to June 1771 he turned out 26 political essays. Otis was gone, his friend John Hancock was becoming buddies with Hutchinson, John Adams was exhausted, the Sons of Liberty were quiescent, but Adams struggled on. After his commission for governor arrived in March 1771, Hutchinson wanted a law passed making defiance of Parliament an act of treason. Specifically, he wanted Adams' opposition to Parliament's decrees to be treated as capital offences. Hutchinson considered Adams the Great Incendiary, a man who wished 'the destruction of every friend to government in America.' Adams, on the other hand, thought Hutchinson had an insatiable pride and lust for power, and likened him to a 'miss in her teens, surrounded by dying lovers.' In his articles, Adams attacked Hutchinson's efforts to make the radicals' activities treasonous. From his conviction that the only function of government was to ensure liberty, Adams admitted there had been acts of treason and attempts to overthrow the constitution. But who were the real traitors, he asked? Perhaps more significantly, he warned his readers of the 'soothing arts' by which Boston had been put to sleep politically. Otis, meanwhile, was making a powerful statement of his own. He had sued John Robinson for '3,000 for the fight at the British Coffee House. With the help of John Adams, the Inferior Court of Sulfolk County awarded Otis '2,000, which he promptly refused. A month later, the Superior Court granted him the full '3,000 ' but he turned that down, as well. Because Robinson was a customs man, Otis said, his money had been squeezed from the citizens of Boston and was not acceptable. Otis finally agreed to an apology from Robinson in open court and an award that would pay his legal fees and medical bills, about '200. Committees of Correspondence On October 16, 1772 Samuel Adams heard a rumor that the Crown would be paying the salaries of provincial judges. He sent Hutchinson a letter asking if it was true. Hutchinson told him it was none of his business. After another brush-off from Hutchinson, Adams called for the creation of a Boston Committee of Correspondence to state the rights of the colonists and to communicate and publish the same to the towns of the province. They would encourage each town to express their sentiments in return. Though the Committee was born, none of the merchants in the House would agree to sit on it. They had had enough of revolutionary activity and were sick of losing business for small political gains. Otis chaired the Committee, however, and got 21 men to accept nomination. Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and Benjamin Church each wrote a letter to the towns, and on November 20, in his last significant political act, Otis read the letters to a town meeting. Church wrote an introduction, Adams authored a 6,000-word essay called Rights of the Colonies, and Warren concluded with an account of specific violations of those rights. Adams took his argument to the highest philosophical planes, invoking Locke, Coke, Blackstone, Vattel, and the New Testament. Six hundred copies of the three-part letter were printed and sent out to the towns. The loyalists laughed. What would a bunch of semi-literate farmers do with the radicals' propaganda? Plenty, as it turned out. Instead of pigeon-holing the letters, the towns immediately called meetings to discuss their contents. By mid-December, 80 of the 260 towns had replied. 'It is better to risk our lives and fortunes in the defense of our rights, civil and religious, than to die, by piecemeal, in slavery,' said one reply. The town of Petersham said the payment of judges by the Crown would foster 'a system of bondage equal to any ever before fabricated by the combined efforts of the ingenuity, malice, fraud, and wickedness of man.' Hutchinson fires back No doubt Hutchinson felt something cold crawling up his spine as he read the towns' replies in the Gazette. But he was determined not to let a charlatan like Adams trick the simple folk of the back country. He would write rebuttals that they could understand and rally the province to the king and ministry. He delivered his remarks to a full assembly of the House on January 6, 1773. The colonists, he said, by their voluntary removal from England gave up some of their rights, such as direct representation in Parliament. To object to this was the equivalent of rejecting government altogether. If they insisted on having two legislatures of equal power, they would have two independent governments. In the extreme, this would make Massachusetts a free and independent state, with consequent loss of protection from England. Massachusetts would thereby fall prey to some European nation. 'Is there anything which we have more reason to dread,' he asked, 'than independence?' On January 22, Samuel Adams read his reply to the House. Either the colonies are vassals of Parliament, he said, or they are totally independent. Since they could not have wished themselves to be slaves, the conclusion is obvious. Drawing on Hutchinson's own History of Massachusetts Bay, Adams said the colonies, by their charters, were made distinct states from the mother country. Is there anything to dread more than independence? Yes, he proclaimed. Absolute power, whether of a nation or a monarch, is more dreadful than independence. Whether the other colonies would agree he could not say 'without their consent in congress,' thereby advancing the suggestion of a continental congress. Following another round of rebuttals from both men, Adams published a pamphlet covering the full account of their exchanges and the subsequent House debate and sent it to the committees of correspondence of each town. Since the towns had representatives in the House, they were also being asked to judge how well their proxies had acquitted themselves. Hutchinson sent the pamphlet on to England, confident he had defended Parliament's supremacy with perfection. But the towns were not populated by English ministry; the locals mostly supported Adams' position. Through conspicuously flawed reasoning, Hutchinson had given new strength to the independence movement. His career was now in decline, and Samuel Adams was on the rise. With Otis gone, Adams was no longer the anonymous man. He became the best-known political writer in America. Failure of a monopoly The tea tax started with the Townshend Acts of 1767 and remained on the books after their repeal in 1770. Though British tea had a modest levy of threepence per pound, the price of smuggled tea was far less, and American smugglers like John Hancock were reaping huge profits. During 1771 and 1772, the annual average American import of dutiable tea was 290,000 pounds, but total American consumption of tea was estimated at six and a half million pounds. British tea thus accounted for less than eight percent of the lush American tea market. Britain's share of the market was small because of the monopoly it granted to the East India Company. The company imported its tea from China to England, where it sold at auction starting at a minimum price. British merchants bought the tea and sold it to American importers, who in turn sold it to retailers. In 1769, the East India Company decided to raise the minimum price at auction from two shillings threepence a pound to three shillings. With tea in Holland selling at under two shillings, a robust smuggling trade was assured. The high price of East India tea, coupled with the American boycott, caused millions of pounds of tea to pile up unsold in the company's warehouses. Following the credit-expansion boom of 1770-1772 and its predictable crash, East India stock fell from '280 to '160 on the London Exchange, and its drop in payments to the Treasury left the British government in serious financial trouble. Rather than reform the monopoly as the Whigs wanted, Parliament decided to take over control of its floundering creature. More power to the monopoly Parliament's solution to East India's plunge was the Tea Act of May 1773. Its provisions called for a parliamentary loan to the East India Company, removal of the levy on tea imported into England, and continued imposition of a threepence tax on British tea imported to the colonies. None of these policies inflamed the colonists. What stirred their resentment was the extension of the hated East India monopoly to American shores. Under the Tea Act, the company could export tea directly from its warehouses to its agents in the colonies. The East India Company posed a serious threat to American merchants. The company could use its monopoly power to cut prices below smuggled tea. The merchants were well aware that the company imported into England other commodities. If they could dominate the tea trade in this fashion, what would stop them from doing the same with their other imports? At the end of August 1773, East India announced plans to ship 600,000 pounds of tea to the four leading ports of America, which of course included Boston. Earlier in the year, Benjamin Franklin had secretly sent old letters of Hutchinson and his cohort Andrew Oliver to the Massachusetts assembly. The letters called for tougher policies against the colonies, which the entire province learned about when Samuel Adams published them. Hutchinson decided to strike back. By no coincidence, three of Boston's tea consignees turned out to be two sons and a nephew of Hutchinson who were part of a firm in which the governor was a member and likely partner. Hutchinson's personal stake in East India, plus his hatred of the radicals, strengthened his resolve to support the British tea monopoly. To the radicals, the East India tea agents were like the Stamp Act commissioners, and the best way to deal with them was to force their resignations through mob violence or the threat thereof. But in spite of pressure from Adams and his supporters, the consignees refused to resign, no doubt emboldened by Hutchinson's stand. The Great Tea Party The failure to get the consignees to resign was pleasing to Adams because it meant he could take stronger action. On November 22, with the support of Boston, Roxbury, Brookline, and Cambridge, he passed a resolution to stop the unloading of the tea. After the Dartmouth and two other tea ships arrived in Boston in late November, a town meeting overwhelmingly adopted Adams' resolution that East India ship the tea back without any duty being collected. While the consignees snuck off to Castle William, Hutchinson issued an order forbidding the ships to leave without paying the levy owed. By law, customs officers could seize a ship if duty was not paid within 20 days of the vessel's arrival in the harbor. If this happened now, customs could unload the tea and secretly sell it, then use the money to pay the salaries of Crown officials. For the Dartmouth, the period of grace was up on December 17. At a large meeting on December 16, people in the Boston area learned of Hutchinson's injunction disallowing the Dartmouth to sail home. Angry speeches were made, and after a signal from Adams, a disciplined group of Sons of Liberty disguised as Mohawk Indians rushed to Griffin's Wharf and methodically dumped the tea from all three ships into the Boston harbor. The Boston Tea Party harmed no other property or any person. A frustrated Hutchinson was unable to find anyone who would help track down the 'Mohawks.' One witness was willing to testify, but only if the trial was held in England. John Adams praised the Tea Party as the 'most significant movement' of all the acts of patriot defiance before the outbreak of war. The Tea Party frightened some towns into dissolving their committees of correspondence, but for many others it served to strengthen their resolve for independence. Determined action by colonists prevented any East Indian tea from reaching its consignees in the other ports of New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Tea parties continued through 1774, and Americans extended their opposition to include the tea tax itself. During the year radicals burned tea cargoes in Greenwich, Annapolis, Charleston, and in New Jersey. All tea, even smuggled tea, soon became boycotted out of fear that it might be British tea. Though it had been a staple drink throughout the colonies, tea soon vanished from America. Britain takes revenge Instead of backing down as it had done with the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, or of returning to the quasi-independent policy of salutary neglect from the pre-French and Indian War days, Britain opted to crush the rebellious Americans. In spring 1774 Parliament passed and the king signed a series of five retaliatory acts intended to bring Boston to its knees commercially. The first such bill called for the closing of the Boston port effective June 1. The Gazette published a front page attack on Hutchinson, saying he had 'committed greater public crimes than his life can repair or his death satisfy.' Hutchinson wanted to go to England, at least until conditions settled, but Andrew Oliver, his lieutenant governor, was ailing and unable to replace him. In early March, Oliver died, and his enemies turned his funeral into a boorish affair by giving three cheers, in the presence of a grieving family, as his casket was lowered into the grave. Nevertheless, England recalled Hutchinson and replaced him with General Thomas Gage as acting governor. Soon after, five thousand redcoats arrived and turned Boston into a garrison. Many people feared for Samuel Adams' life, and a few workers placed bars on the doors and windows of his house to afford him some protection. But Adams remained calm and continued to organize resistance, even taking seven-year-old John Quincy Adams for a walk on the Boston Common to watch the soldiers drill. With the port closed, goods and food couldn't be shipped in but other colonies responded with a deluge of aid. Samuel Adams was chairman of the donation committee that distributed food to the needy. In August, Adams was part of the four-man Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. A formal declaration of independence was still almost two years away, and Adams would continue to work tirelessly to make it happen. Perhaps Adams' life can best be characterized by a story he told to complaining Bostonians during the difficult summer of 1774, when the people felt helpless in the presence of British occupation. Adams told them: 'A philosopher, who was asleep upon the grass, was aroused by the bite of some animal upon the palm of his hand. He closed his hand as he awoke and found that he had caught a field mouse, which bit him a second time. He dropped it, and it made its escape. Now, fellow citizens, what think you was the reflection he made upon this circumstance? It was this: that there is no animal, however weak, which cannot defend its own liberty, if it will only fight for it!'

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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.