Boston Occupied: An Insolent Parade
The unexpected and vigorous response of the citizens of Massachusetts Bay Colony to the passage of the Stamp Act in March of 1765 by the British Parliament caught both the Royal colonial and ministerial authorities off guard. Colonial officials responsible for collecting the duties and stamping the paper were threatened with physical violence. Property, both public and private, was destroyed. The wide-spread protest against the act, led by the newly formed “Sons of Liberty,” helped to bring about the repeal of the Stamp Act.
After repealing the Stamp Act, the British Parliament passed the Declaratory Act in which they asserted their authority over the North American Colonies. This was followed by a series of Parliamentary acts that have become known as the Townshend Acts, named for Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who promoted their passage. Among these were import duties on a series of goods, none of which were manufactured in the colonies and had to be imported, including glass, paint, tea, paper, etc.
Another of these Acts of Parliament established the American Board of Customs, a mirror to a similar Board in England, responsible for enforcing mercantile law and collecting of import and export duties. The newly appointed Board members arrived in Boston in November of 1767 and were given a frosty, even hostile, greeting by the citizens of Boston. The colonists saw the American Board of Customs as another tendril of Royal authority set out to strangle the livelihoods of the North American colonists.
The question that presented itself to the Massachusetts people was how best to respond to these continued impositions to their pocket books and the erosion, as they understood it, to their rights as British citizens. While they readily admitted to the justice of the British Crown settling duties upon goods imported by the colonies they objected to the money being used to increase the size of the ministerial establishment in the colonies. Furthermore, they objected to the provision that all such duties and levies had to be paid in hard currency, rather than paper money or notes of hand. Currency was already at a premium in the colonies, and they feared that this act would completely deprive the colony of any coinage at all.
In October of 1767, the following notice appeared in a Boston newspaper;
“The Freeholders and other inhabitants of this Town, are to meet at Faneuil-Hall, on Wednesday next, to consider and agree upon some effectual Measures to promote Industry, Oeconomy, and Manufactures, therby to prevent the unnecessary Importation of European Commodities, which threaten the Country with Poverty and Ruin, &c.” (Boston Gazette, and Country Journal, 26 October 1767; p.4)
The results of this Town meeting were announced in the newspaper of the following week. Among the resolutions passed by the residents of Boston was the agreement that “…this Town will take app prudent and legal Measures to encourage the Produce and Manufactures of this Province, and to lessen the Use of Superfluities…) [The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, 2 November 1767; p.1]. Furthermore they voted to “…encourage the Use and Consumption of Glass and Paper, made in any of the British American Colonies; and more especially in this Province.” The meeting, reconvened after the midday meal, adopted a Subscription form that had been written in the intervening hours by which merchants who were signatories promised to not import and sell British goods. They also wrote an appeal to the Governor to convene the Colonial Assembly, agreed to encourage the manufacture of linen as a means of employing the poor and indigent, and voted that “…the Town will take all proper Measures, by keeping in their Children and Servants, & other Ways to prevent the Disturbances which have sometimes happened on or about the 5th Day of November.”
Whatever methods the town utilized to keep the town free from its usual “Pope’s Day” disturbances seems to have worked, as the when the Commissioners arrived on November 4, 1767 they were able to land the next day, pass by the bonfires that were burning in the traditional celebration of that day without molestation. The men who arrived were Henry Hulton, William Burch and Charles Paxton, who joined John Temple and John Robinson as Customs Commissioners. Samuel Venner arrived as Secretary to the Board, John Porter as Comptroller General, John Williams Inspector General and a number of other clerks.
Other colonial changes were afoot as well. In January, Lord Hillsborough had been made Secretary of State for the Northern Colonies, a newly made post. Hillsborough would do much to inflame the situation in Massachusetts while attempting to maintain the Royal dignity of the officers appointed to offices in that colony.
Fearing for a further erosion of their liberties, on 11 February 1768, the General Court of Massachusetts passed an act calling for the sending of a Circular Letter – direct correspondence between the legislature of one colony to the legislatures of all the other colonies. In it they argued that “it seems to be necessary that all possible care should be taken that the Representatives of the several Assemblies, upon so delicate a point, should harmonize with each other.” They argued that these events represented a “common concern” and that the colonies should share their thoughts and plans with each other. The Circular also stated that “It is an essential, unalterable right in nature, ingrafted into the British Constitution as a fundamental Law, and ever held sacred & irrevocable by the Subjects within the Realm, that what a Man has honestly acquired is absolutely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken from him without his Consent;”
Governor Bernard communicated this breach of etiquette with Lord Hillsborough who wrote back to the Governor and told him to get the legislature to rescind their circular letter. This the legislature refused to do, and eventually Lord Hillsborough had Governor Bernard dismiss the General Court until they were more biddable.
The Customs Commissioners wasted no time in getting down to business, and one of the first who fell afoul of their strict observance of the incoming trade was John Hancock, whose ship, Liberty, arrived in Boston on 9 May 1768 loaded with a cargo of madeira wine. The Master, Nathaniel Barnard, entered 25 pipes at the Customs house, but a Customs Tidesman, paid to search the incoming ships for cargo, later testified that the ship had held more, but was off loaded while he was locked in steerage. As a result of his new testimony, on 10 June 1768 the Liberty was seized by Customs Collector Joseph Harrison and Customs Comptroller Benjamin Hallowell, who boarded the Liberty with several boats of Marines from HMS Romney. Sailors from the Romney and agents from the Board of Customs Commissioners had the Lydia towed out under the guns of HMS Romney.
Friends of John Hancock, dock hands, and those who had an interest in the shipping community continuing without interference of Customs agents, were outraged. Harrison and Hallowell, who had unwisely remained on Hancock’s wharf were chased and beaten. Their houses were assaulted and windows broken, and a personal boat owned by Benjamin Hallowell was dragged up to Boston Common and set alight just below John Hancock’s home.
Correspondence with Governor Francis Bernard revealed to the Customs Commissioners that he was unable to protect them from the continuing wrath of the Town of Boston’s citizens as he had doubts about his control of the local militia as enforcers of the law, he had no command over the naval forces then present, and he did not have the power to call for British troops from Nova Scotia or New York. As a result, on the 11 June 1768, the Commissioners first moved their operations to HMS Romney, and then to Castle William on Castle Island. From there they wrote a furious set of letters to the Board of Customs officials in London, and to General Thomas Gage in New York.
On June 11, 1768 Lord Hillsborough wrote to Governor Bernard in response to a number of letters in which the Governor detailed the growing unrest, threats and violence against the Customs Officers and other Royal officials. As a result, Hillsborough wrote “It is but too evident…that the Authority of Civil Power is too weak to enforce Obedience to the Laws, and preserve that Peace and good Order, which is essential to the Happiness of every State and His Majesty has thought fit…to direct the Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in America [Thomas Gage] to station One Regiment at least in the Town of Boston, and to garrison, and if necessary to repair, the Fort or Castle of William and Mary…”
As a result of Hillsborough’s communication with General Gage, the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot were dispatched from Halifax Nova Scotia to Boston. To further strengthen Royal Authority, Hillsborough also ordered that a Frigate, two sloops, and two cutters be sent to Boston to help with the enforcement of Customs and Excise laws. These land and sea forces would be later supplemented with two regiments of foot from Ireland.
Commodore Hood’s flotilla with the British soldiers gathered by Lt. Col. Dalrymple arrived in Nantasket Roads on September 28, 1768 and eventually came to anchor near Castle William on Castle Island, just a few miles southeast of the town of Boston. Lt. Col. Dalrymple of the 14th Regiment of Foot and Lt. Col. Maurice Carr of the 29th Regiment of Foot met with Governor Bernard at Castle William on September 29 to discuss the disposition of the troops. The people of Boston expected the troops to be housed at Castle William, where there were already barracks, however, the regimental commanders feared that the distance between the fort and the town was too great to make the troops effective at suppressing lawlessness.
Sometime between 12:00 noon and 1:00 P.M. on October 1, 1768, the troops were landed at Long Wharf “…and marched into the Common, with muskets charged, bayonets fixed, colours flying, drums beating and fifes, &c. playing, making with the train of artillery upwards of 700 men.” As Ben Franklin said in his testimony before the House of Lords in England, any troops sent to America “will not find rebellion, they may indeed start one.”