Summer of ’74 in Boston

"A view of the town of Boston with several ships of war in the harbour," 1774. (John Carter Brown Library)

Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party by imposing on the colony of Massachusetts a series of Acts, collectively called the Coercive Acts. The four Acts were the Boston Port Bill, the Quartering Act, the Impartial Administration Act and the Massachusetts Government Act. The first one, the Boston Port Bill, received King George III’s royal assent on March 31, 1774 and would go into effect on June 1, 1774. The first sentence of the Bill made its purpose clear: “An act to discontinue . . . the landing and discharging, lading or shipping, of goods, wares, and merchandise, at the town, and within the harbour, of Boston.”[1] Parliament had hoped that the Bill would not only isolate the Massachusetts’ radicals but also bring the other colonies back under its authority. This backfired—the Act instead promoted sympathy for Boston and brought about a sense of colonial solidarity. This is the story about how that came about.

News of the Port Act reached Boston on May 11. The next day William Cooper, the clerk of the town of Boston, under the direction of the Committee of Correspondence, wrote to some nearby towns informing them of Boston’s impending plight. [2] The last line in the letter was a plea:

To this alarming Situation has the Machinations of our Enemies here and in Great Britain reduced us; And as this is a Cause so interesting to all America—A Cause which has been hitherto so nobly defended by ALL, we cannot entertain a Thought so dishonourable to our Friends, that in this Cause we shall be left to struggle alone.[3]

Three events took place on the next day, May 13:

To enforce the Act, Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, the newly appointed governor of Massachusetts, arrived in Boston. One of his first announcements was that four Regiments of British soldiers were on their way to join him.

To explain the draconian measures that were about to be imposed upon Boston and ask for support, Samuel Adams sent a Circular Letter to each colony’s Committee of Correspondence, reading, in part:[4]

This attack, though made immediately upon us, is doubtless designed for every other colony who will not surrender their sacred rights and liberties into the hands of an infamous ministry. Now therefore is the time when all should be united in opposition to this violation of the liberties of all. Their grand object is to divide the colonies . . . The single question then is, whether you consider Boston as now suffering in the common cause, and sensibly feel and resent the injury and affront offered to here[5]

To manage the town through the summer and, if necessary, the fall and winter months, the Provincial Assembly appointed a Committee of Overseers. Some of the issues they were going to face were the loss of imports, unemployment, food shortages and the daily presence of a significant military force in the town. Eleven men made-up the committee; some of the members were Samuel Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, John Adams, Josiah Quincy and Thomas Cushing. [6]

On May 23, before the Boston Port Bill went into effect, responses to the circular letters started to arrive in Boston. The first four letters of sympathy and support came from Newport and Westerly in Rhode Island, Portsmouth, Massachusetts and New York City.[7]The Newport Committee of Correspondence wrote on May 16:

Join or Die! The Act of Parliament for blockading the harbor of Boston, in order to reduce its inhabitants to the most servile and mean compliances ever attempted to be imposed on a free people, is allowed to be infinitely more alarming and dangerous to our common liberties, than even that hydra the Stamp Act . . . The Generals of despotism are now drawing the lines of circumvallation around our bulwarks of liberty, and nothing but unity, resolution and perseverance can save ourselves and posterity from what is worse than death—slavery[8]

The Westerly Committee of Correspondence wrote on the 19th:

This horrid attack upon the Town of Boston, we consider not as an attempt upon that Town singly, but upon the whole American continent. We are therefore determined to use our whole influence for the support . . . of Boston, in the same manner as if the attack had been made on the metropolis of this Colony, and we doubt not but the other Colonies will consider this arbitrary and tyrannical edict in the same light[9]

At the same time, 600 miles to the south, some members of the Virginia House of Burgesses, specifically, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee met, “in the chamber of the Governor’s Council to take advantage of its library”; they were “under conviction of the necessity of arousing people [of Virginia] from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events.” They were going to “boldly take an unequivocal stand in the line with Massachusetts.”[10] The next day, May 24, Robert Carter Nicholas and George Mason introduced a resolution in the House that the four men had written the night before. It called for a ‘Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer”:

This House being deeply impressed with Apprehension of the great Dangers to be derived to British America, from the hostile invasion of the City of Boston . . . whose Commerce and Harbour are on the 1st Day of June next to be stopped by an armed Force, deem it highly necessary that the said first Day of June be set apart by the Members of this House as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, devoutly to implore the divine interposition for averting the heavy Calamity, which threatens Destruction to our civil Rights, and the Evils of civil War[11]

The resolution was adopted without opposition before the House adjourned for the day and the clerk ordered that it be printed as a broadside and published. This would be one of the final acts of the House of Burgesses because two days late Governor Dunmore called all of the Burgesses to gather the Council Room where he addressed them:

I have in my hand a paper published by Order of your House, conceived in such terms as reflect highly upon his Majesty and the Parliament of Great Britain; which makes it necessary for me to dissolve you; and you are dissolved accordingly.[12]

The paper was the resolution calling for a Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer.

The next day, the 27th, the Virginia House of Burgesses gathered at the Raleigh Tavern where they denounced the closing of the Boston Port as “an attempt to destroy the constitution liberty of North America,” formed an Non-Importation Association and declared “an attack made on one of our sister Colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America, and threatens ruin to the rights of all, unless the united wisdom of the whole be applied.”[13] Interestingly, on the day before—the day the House of Burgesses had been dissolved—the Delaware Committee of Correspondence sent to them a letter with similar sentiments “We consider each Colony on this Continent as parts of the same Body, and an attack on one to affect all.”[14]

Paul Revere, having delivered the circular letters to Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, returned to Boston at the end of May. Charles Thomson, the leader of the Philadelphia Committee of Correspondence, had given Revere a letter for Samuel Adams. After reading the letter, Adams wrote back to Thomson on May 30. Twice in the letter he pressed Thomson to send support to Boston.

it is the Trade that we must at present depend upon for that speedy Reliefe which the Necessity of this Town requires” and “it is of the greatest Importance that some thing should be done for the immediate Support of this Town.[15]

On June 1, the Boston Port Act went into effect in Massachusetts while a Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer was being held in Virginia. In Hartford, Connecticut the church bells rang all day, the windows of shops were covered with black cloth and a copy of the Bill was burned in the town square;[16] in the Delaware River near Philadelphia, ships “had their colors half masted”;[17] in New York, some citizens burned Lord North in effigy. Five days later, the Boston Gazette announced the commencement of the Boston Port Act:

Tell it in Gath, publish it is Askelon, that the Boston Port Bill, in all its parts, is now carrying into execution, and that Boston is thereby got into greater distress, and is more insulted by an English armament than she ever was by a French or Spanish fleet . . . The town is become a spectacle to angels and Men, God grant that it may not be intimidated by the present horrors to make a surrender of the rights of America.[18]

So as not to be accused of starving the citizens of Boston, Parliament included a provision in the Bill that allowed food and wood to be delivered to the town but under strict supervision:

Nothing in this act contained shall extend, or be construed to extend . . . to any fuel or victual brought coastwise from any part of the continent of America, for the necessary use and sustenance of the inhabitants of . . . Boston provided the vessels wherein the same are to be carried shall be duly furnished with a cocket[19] and let-pass, after having been duly searched by the proper officers of his Majesty’s customs at Marblehead, in the port of Salem . . . and that some officer of his Majesty’s custom be also there to put on board the said vessel . . . and proceed with said vessel, together with a sufficient number of persons, properly armed, for his defence, to the said town of Boston.[20]

During the month of June, “subscriptions” were started in some towns. A subscription basically was an organized and documented collection of donations. Sometimes a subscription amassed a large quantity so quickly that it could be sent shortly after the subscription began. Five towns began their subscriptions in June: Chestertown, Maryland on June 7, Hartford, Connecticut on June 14, Glastonbury, Connecticut on June 23, Morristown, New Jersey on June 27, and New Castle, Delaware on June 29. Three towns sent donations in June: Windham, Connecticut on June 28: 258 sheep, Groton, Connecticut on June 28: 40 bushels of rye and Indian corn, and Charleston, South Carolina on June 28: 194 barrels of rice and 21 half barrels of rice. [21]

As the summer unfolded two things strengthened the minds and hearts of the people of Boston: the first were the donations they received from the towns and second, the words in each letter that accompanied a donation. Many letters expressed support for the people and their rights.

The month of July was similar to the month of June but on a larger scale. The number of subscriptions increased more than threefold, to twenty, and the shipments of goods tripled to nine. [22] They came from towns as close as Charlemont, Massachusetts and as far away as Cape Fear and Wilmington, North Carolina. The largest donation was 34 ¾ bushels of wheat, 248 ½ bushels of rye and 390 bushels of Indian Corn; the smallest was 2 barrels of flour.[23] Each of the communities contributed in proportion to their abilities.

In the Boston Gazette on July 7, it was written “There is not a town of any consequence, on the continent of North America, but is justly alarmed with the proceedings of the British Parliament, and are taking necessary steps to strengthen the Union of the Colonies” and on July 18, “a Whole Continent is now awake and active; one spirit actuates the whole; and all unite in prayers to the Supreme Disposer of events, that the liberties of America, may yet be preserved.”[24]

Fourteen more citizens were appointed to the Committee of Overseers on July 19; they formed a subcommittee that would receive and distribute the donations.[25]The next day, in response to the town of Charlemont for their donation, an Overseer wrote “The distresses of this town begin to come on, and I do expect them to be great, but we are not intimidated, nor shall we give up any of our liberties.”[26]

On July 30, the town of Marblehead sent a shipment of goods that was unlike anything sent earlier and anything that would be sent in the future to Boston. They sent 226 quintals of Jamaican catfish, 1 cask of Spanish olive oil and £39 5 shillings and 3 pence.[27]

By the end of July, the total number of reported subscriptions started had risen to twenty-five and the number of donations received had risen to twelve with the largest coming from Wethersfield, Connecticut on July 25: 34 ¾ bushels of grain, 248 ½ bushels of rye and 390 bushels of Indian corn [28]

In August the reality of the situation began to take hold. On August 1, the Boston Gazette

Reported:

No wood can now be brought from the rivers and bays included in our harbor . . . No goods of any kind are suffered to be waterborne within a circle of sixty miles: No timber, boards, shingles, bricks, lime, sand, etc . . . are to be transported from one wharf to another . . . No barrels of liquors, bread, flour, etc . . . are suffered to be brought a few rods in our row boats, or across our shortest ferries; and even the vessels on the stocks, which have for some time past been ready for launching, cannot be put into the water, without their being exposed to a threatened seizure. Neither is the dry’d table fish and oil . . . rice . . . or even house sand to be brought us by water.[29]

Three days later, at a meeting in Newcastle, Delaware, the Committees of Correspondence of three Counties in Newcastle, Delaware, adopted the following resolve:

That it is the indispensable duty of all the Colonies, not only to alleviate the unexampled distresses of our brethren of Massachusetts Bay, who are suffering in the common cause of America, but to assist them, by all lawful means, in removing their grievances, and for re-establishing their constitutional rights, as well as those of all America.[30]

On August 4, Samuel Adams sent a letter to Fisher Gay, a member of the Farmington Committee of Correspondence, assuring him that the people of Boston were not wavering “You may be assured that the friends of Liberty and a righteous government are firm and steady to the common cause of American rights.”[31]

On the 9th, at a meeting of the Committee of 25 Overseers, a question was posed:

Whether our sister town of Charlestown is equitably entitled to a certain part of the donations that are and may be received for the employment and relief of such persons as are sufferers by the operation of the Boston Port Bill.

Before the meeting adjourned, the committee unanimously agreed to extend assistance; “they [would] receive seven per cent out of the donations.”[32]

Such consideration was recognized in the Boston Gazette on the 15th when it printed the closing words of the South Carolina General Assembly Meeting on July 8:

Be comforted, ye oppressed Bostonians! And exult, ye northern votaries of liberty! That the sacred rays of freedom, which used to beam from you on us, are now reverberated, with double efficacy, back upon yourselves, from your weaker sister, [South] Carolina, who stands foremost in a resolution to sacrifice her all, in your defence.[33]

Before the end of August, three letters from Overseers’ subcommittee that would receive and distribute the donations reported at two different times that the situation in Boston had grown worse: the first was part of the response to Kent County, Virginia’s donation:

that before the Port Bill, the annual charge for support of the Town’s poor was about twenty-four hundred pounds . . . but the number of the poor, by means of the humane Port Bill, is doubtless increased in a twofold, if not threefold proportion, and, considerable numbers who three months ago lived very comfortably, are now spending on the little they had laid up against a rainy day, but have not made their cases known.[34]

The second was a response to Northampton, Virginia’s donation:

[We are] surrounded on every hand by soldiers and military preparations; the harbor filled with ships of war; the chief fortress, Castle William, out of our hands; soldiers encamped in sundry paces; the Neck, the only entrance into the Town, doubly fortified by advance batteries, and a regiment encamped both sides of the road to prevent the aid of our neighbors . . . We are daily alarmed with hostile appearances. It is now said they intend to erect five batteries, and to piquet the Town at the westerly side.[35]

By the end of August, the total number of subscriptions reported to the Overseers was twenty-eight and the total number of donations received was twenty-six. Ship captains who arrived daily at Marblehead reported that subscriptions were being set up in towns across all of the colonies and that, in their opinions, food, wood and specie would continue to arrive through the fall. The bigger concern for all of the other colonies was whether the citizens of Boston would continue to maintain their fortitude, resolution and firmness in the face of unparalleled hardships. Dr. Joseph Warren, an Overseer, cleared the matter up, when he wrote the following to the Committee of Correspondence in Stonington, Connecticut on August 24:

When liberty is the prize, who would shun the warfare . . . We esteem no sacrifice too great, no conflict too severe, to redeem our inestimable rights and privileges. ‘Tis for you, brethren, for ourselves, for our united posterity, we hazard all; and permit us humbly to hope, that such a measure of vigilance, fortitude, and perseverance will still be afforded us, that, by patiently suffering and nobly daring, we may eventually secure that more precious than Hesperian fruit, the golden apples of Freedom.[36]

 

[1]avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/boston_port_act.asp.

[2]Dorchester, Roxbury, Newtown, Lexington, Brooklyn, Cambridge, Charlestown and Lynn; digitalcollections,nypl.org/items/bb272bc0-c0132-579a-58d385a7b928.

[3]digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/bb272bc0-c446-0132-579a-58d385a7b928/book – page/45/mode/2up.

[4]The letters to New York City and Philadelphia were delivered by none other than Paul Revere.

[5]Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1907), 3:109-11; avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/circ_let_boston_1774.asp.

[6]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Vol. IV of the Fourth Series (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1858), 2.

[7]Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Volume 9”, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1774—1774, p. 49; founders.archives.gov/documents/Jay/01-01-02-0063.

[8]Essex Gazette, May 31, 1774.

[9]Ibid.; www.gilderlehrman.org/collection/glc03718id.

[10]Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson 1743-1790 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914), 11.

[11]Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1760-1776 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 1:105-07.

[12]Journals of the House of Burgesses, 1773-1777, 132.

[13]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. IV of the Fourth Series, 63.

[14]www.gilderlehrman.org/collection/glc03718.

[15]Cushing, The Writings of Samuel Adams, 3:123.

[16]Connecticut Courant, June 7, 1774.

[17]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. IV of the Fourth Series, 149.

[18]Boston Gazette, June 6, 1774.

[19]A seal from the customhouse.

[20]avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/boston_port_act.asp.

[21]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. IV of the Fourth Series, 4-9, 20, 38; Cushing, The Writings of Samuel Adams, 3:143.

[22]The numbers of subscriptions and goods shipped are based upon the records in two letterbooks located in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. IV of the Fourth Series and Vol. IX of the Second Series; Albert H. Hoyt, Donations To the People of Boston Suffering Under the Port-Bill (Boston: 1876), www.loc.gov/item/01012253.

[23]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. IV of the Fourth Series, 16-18, 9.

[24]Ibid., 9, 13.

[25]Ibid., 2.

[26]Ibid., 13.

[27]A quintal was equal to 100 kilograms; ibid., 30.

[28]Ibid., 16-18.

[29]Ibid., 30-31.

[30]Ibid., 33.

[31]Cushing, The Writings of Samuel Adams, 3:153.

[32]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. IV of the Fourth Series, 3.

[33]Ibid., 179.

[34]Ibid., 36.

[35]Ibid., 66-67.

[36]Samuel A. Forman, Dr. Joseph Warren (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2012), 206-07.

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