The Fall of 1774 in Boston

General Thomas Gage, John Singleton Copley, c. 1768. (Yale Center for British Art)

Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party by imposing on the colony of Massachusetts four laws including the Boston Port Bill. This 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 and shipping, of goods and wares, and Merchandise, at the town, and within the harbour, of Boston.”[1]

Between May 11, when knowledge of the Bill first reached Boston, and the end of August the following took place:

  • Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage was appointed the new governor of Massachusetts;
  • Samuel Adams and the Boston Committee of Correspondence sent a circular letter to each colony’s Committee of Correspondence explaining the measures Parliament had taken against the town and asking for their support;[2]
  • The Massachusetts Provincial Assembly appointed a Committee of Overseers to manage the town, that is, the loss of imports, the unemployment, and the food shortages;[3]
  • The highly influential Virginia House of Burgesses began their support of the town. On May 27, the members formed a Non-Importation Association and called for A Day of Fasting, Humiliating and Prayer on June 1;[4]
  • subscriptions were organized in many counties and towns throughout the colonies and donations began to arrive at Marblehead, Massachusetts for the town of Boston.[5]

During the summer months, the draconian measures imposed on the Massachusetts in general and Boston specifically began to foster a concern within all of the other colonies—if the rights and freedoms of one colony could be restricted, could the same happen in every colony? This concern led some colonies to call for a Continental Congress.

A letter dated May 23 from the New York Committee of Correspondence to Boston’s Committee of Correspondence read: “Upon these Reasons we conclude that a Congress of Deputies from the Colonies in general is of the utmost Moment that it ought to be Assembled without Delay, and some unanimous Resolutions formed . . . not only respecting these deplorable Circumstances but for the Security of our common Rights”[6]

A May 26 letter from the Delaware Committee of Correspondence to its counterpart in Virginia stated, “A Shadow of Justice, a cloak of Power used for America’s Scourge indicated the necessity of a Congress of Deputies from the several Colonies to determine and agree upon further measures for redress of the present or future grievances”[7]

Samuel Adams, in a letter dated May 30 to Charles Thomson in Philadelphia, wrote: “It is of the greatest Importance that some thing should be done for the immediate Support of this Town. A Congress is of Absolute Necessity in my Opinion”[8]

In a letter dated July 25 from the Wethersfield Committee of Correspondence to the Committee of Ways and Means,[9] they wrote, “In confidence you will never give up the glorious cause in which you have hitherto stood foremost, and for which you are now only foremost in suffering, unless some measures be come into, which we doubt not but may, and hope and trust will be, in the General Congress.”[10]

The Congress did, in fact, take place. It convened on September 5 and adjourned on October 26. Because the body did not possess the legal authority to govern, it could not pass laws; however, it could recommend courses of action. The document that summarized the work accomplished at the Congress became known as the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. At the end of the document, it stated the courses of action each colony was ready to pursue

To these grievous acts and measures, Americans cannot submit, but in hopes their fellow subjects in Great Britain will, on a revision of them, restore us to that state, in which both countries found happiness and posterity, we have for the present only resolved to pursue the following peaceable measures . . . 1st. To enter into a nonimportation, nonconsumption and nonexportation agreement or association—2nd. To prepare an address to the people of Great Britain and a memorial to the inhabitants of British America loyal address & 3rd. To prepare a loyal address to his Majesty; agreeable to the Resolutions already entered into.[11]

Many events that occurred between 1770 and 1774 led not only to the calling for a continental congress but also to the adoption of its “peaceable measures.” None, however, had a greater influence than the enactment of the Coercive Acts and more specifically, the Boston Port Bill.

By September, the situation in Boston was not good. In a letter, dated September 16, from the Committee of Ways and Means to the Committee of Correspondence in Kingston, New Hampshire, they wrote:

The circumstances of this Town are truly deplorable; our harbor filled with armed ships; all foreign trade suspended; a vast number of poor thrown out of employ . . . our Town filled with troops; the Neck, the only avenue into the Town, fortified by cannon planted on the walls . . . the soldiery insolent; all the cannon that is private property which they can come at seized; our powder taken possession of . . . In full confidence that our cause is just, and that we have an unalienable right to all the privileges specified in our charter, we are determined to make no concessions.[12]

The next day, Congress “resolved unanimously that contributions from all the colonies for supplying the necessities, and alleviating the distresses of our brethren at Boston, ought to be continued, in such a manner, and so long as their occasions may require.”[13] This endorsement, in effect, was another “peaceable measure” that came out of the congress.

On September 26, Adams received a letter from William Tudor, an attorney who had studied law in his office. He wrote

It is now four Months since the unrighteous, cruel Port Act took Place, and though it has been carried into execution with an unparalell’d Severity, the People are resolv’d to keep the Harbour blockaded into Eternity, rather than basely submit to the tyrannic Edicts of a British Parliament.[14]

On the 28th, Governor Gage dissolved the Massachusetts General Court (or Assembly) located at Salem.

I have . . . thought fit to declare my intention not to meet the said general court, at Salem, on the said 5th of October next. And I do hereby excuse and discharge all such persons as have been, or may be elected and deputed representatives to serve at the same, from giving their attendance.[15]

Gage dissolved the General Court because of “the many tumults and disorders which had [recently] taken place, the extraordinary resolves which have been passed in many of the counties . . . and the present disordered and unhappy state of the province.”[16] Not to be deterred, on October 11 most of the former members met in the town of Concord and organized themselves  into the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

On October 6, the Boston Committee of Correspondence wrote to the Congress:

It is apprehended the inhabitants [of the town of Boston] will be held as hostages for the submission of the country, they apply therefore to the Congress for advice how to act—that if the Congress advise to quit the town,—they obey—if it is judged that by maintaining their ground they can better serve the public cause, they will not shrink from hardship & danger.[17]

Four days later, the Congress responded:

Resolved unanimously, that it is the opinion of this body, that the removal of the people of Boston into the country, would be not only extremely difficult in the execution, but so important in its consequences, as to require the utmost deliberation before it is adopted.[18]

On October 17, the following appeared in the Boston Gazette:

it may be affirmed, without exaggeration, the loss this town has sustained within only one month of our blockade, exceeds the whole amount of those generous donations received from our sympathizing friends through the continent . . . our Town is surrounded with ships of war; and it is said the fleet of Newfoundland are to winter in this harbor . . . four regiments encamped upon the Common . . . one regiment on Fort-Hill, one on the new fortifications on the Neck, and another regiment at Castle William; three companies just arrived in the Rose man-of-war, from Newfoundland; transport dispatched some time past to New York for two regiments from thence and the Jerseys, and to Quebec for two regiments.[19]

The next day the Boston Committee of Correspondence received an offer from the Middleborough Committee of Correspondence:

The painful sensations that constantly afflict us for the losses of your merchants, shopkeepers, and mechanics, and all your inhabitants, in stopping your Port, induces us to desire you to take an exact estimate of your estates as you conveniently can, and we make no doubt of the generosity of your American brethren, on your receiving an ample indemnification.[20]

The Committee of Ways and Means responded on the 25th:

The generosity manifested in your proposal for taking an exact estimate of our estates, is very striking and endearing . . . we do not know that it is possible, to determine with any degree of precision what loss and damage this Province and Town have sustained, by the almost annihilation of their trade and commerce.[21]

In May, June, July and August, there had been a total of twenty-eight subscriptions reported; in September and October there were a total of two. In May, June, July and August, there had been a total of twenty-six donations received; in September and October there were a total of thirty. This was the result of the passing of time and the unrelenting communication efforts of the Committees of Correspondence.

With the harvesting of crops well underway and the storing of certain food for the winter also underway, the question that was very likely in the minds of the townspeople of Boston was, would the towns and counties continue to donate food and wood at the same rate and amount? It did not take long before they had their answer. From May to October, a span of six months, there were fifty-eight reported donations; in the months of November and December there would be forty-six! The principle items were 2,378 bushels of wheat, 2,418 bushels of corn, 1,056 bushels of rye and 775 barrels of flour.[22]

Again, the Committee of Ways and Means expressed their sense of solidarity to the Committees of Correspondence in the Rhode Island towns of Smithfield and Johnston:

We consider the cause as common, and therefore a cause in the defence of which, all North America ought to be united; and it affords us, as it must every true-hearted American, a peculiar pleasure, that such a union prevails at this day, as bodes well to the rights and liberties of North America, civil and religious.[23]

The situation in Boston nonetheless grew worse. In a letter from the Committee of Ways and Means to the Litchfield, Connecticut Committee of Correspondence, they wrote:

We flatter ourselves our friends will continue to support our industrious tradesmen, many of whom are obliged to mortgage their little habitations, and others to sell their plate and furniture for the maintenance of their families. Unhappy Boston, to what miserable circumstances art thou reduced![24]

On November 21, the Durham Committee of Correspondence expressed the reason why the towns and counties in every colony had already sent or were preparing to send donations to Boston:

This [donation] is considered by us, not as a gift, or an act of charity, but of justice, as a small part of what we are in duty bound to communicate to those truly noble and patriotic advocates of American freedom, who are bravely standing in the gap between us and slavery, defending the common interests of the whole continent, and gloriously struggling in the cause of liberty. Upon you the eyes of all America are fixed . . . We are ready to communicate of our substance largely, as your necessities require; and, with our estates, to give our lives and mingle our blood with yours, in the common sacrifice of liberty.[25]

On December 1, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts passed the following resolution:

Resolved, That the grateful acknowledgements  of this Congress be returned to the several Colonies, for having so deeply interested themselves in behalf of said Towns under their present sufferings in the common cause; and that the Congress consider their donations, not only as unexampled acts of benevolence to this Province in general, which has also greatly suffered, and of charity to those Towns in particular, but as convincing proofs of the firm attachment of all the Colonies to the glorious cause of liberty, and of their fixed determination to support them in the noble stand they are now making for the liberties of themselves and all America.[26]

On December 7, the Provincial Congress approved the following motion:

That a committee be appointed to draught a vote of thanks of the Town of Boston expressive of their gratitude for the benevolent assistance which they have received from the other Colonies, during their present calamities, and particularly for [the] generous recommendation of the respectable Continental Congress for farther support from their sister Colonies[27]

On December 19, James Warren wrote to John Adams,

The last Vessel from England Arrived here last Fryday . . . I am told the Master says that near two thirds of the members Chose are new ones, that the general Expectation was that the American Grievances would be redressed . . . I presume . . . they have seen your demands, extending so far beyond the repeal of the Acts of the last Session, that it will be hard work to Cure the wounds, without leaving A Splinter behind, and I hope if there be one left it will rankle till Extracted.[28]

Unfortunately, on September 30, in an effort to strengthen the ministry’s position, King George III had dissolved Parliament and called for a new election on November 29. The make-up of the new Parliament had little effect on the positions or policies of the ministry.

As winter was about to set in, the townspeople of Boston thanked all of those who had come to the aid:

This Town, truly sensible of the generous assistance they have received from their sympathizing brethren, return their earnest and most sincere thanks for the same. And pray that God, whose beneficence they so gloriously imitate, may bestow upon them the blessings he has promised to all them, who feed the hungry and clothe the naked.[29]

On December 31, the total number of subscriptions that had been reported to the Committee of Ways and Means was 32 and the total number donations received was 103; the five largest  donations were 738 bushels of rye and 11 bushels of corn from Hartford Connecticut; 471 bushels of rye, 14 barrels of grain, 2 barrels of pork and 14 bushels of corn from New Brunswick, New Jersey; 405 barrels of flour, 105 barrels of ship material and 5 tons of rod iron from Philadelphia; 715 bushels of corn, 33 barrels of pork, 58 barrels of bread and 10 barrels of flour from Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia; and 1,054 bushels of grain, 376 ½ bushels of corn and 5 bushels of peas from Chesterfield, Virginia.

With the situation in Boston looking bleak, it is not surprising that William Black, a member of the Virginia James River County Committee of Correspondence, included the following in his letter to both Samuel Adams and Thomas Cushing:

I have this very day heard, that in that tract of Virginia called the Northern Neck, and which lies betwixt Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, they have lately raised one thousand volunteers, as fine fellows and good woodsmen as any on our continent, who have put themselves under the command of Col. George Washington, a brave and experienced officer, whom it is said, has undertaken the command of them, and that they are soon to march for your place.[30]

 

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

[2].avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/circ_let_boston_1774.asp.

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

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

[5]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 4-67.

[6]Elizabeth M, Nuxoll, ed., The Selected Papers of John Jay, 1760-1779 (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2010), 1:85-87.

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

[8]Harry Alonzo Cushing, edit., The Writings of Samuel Adams (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1907), 3:123.

[9]Formerly, the subcommittee that received and distributed any and all of the donations.

[10]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 18.

[11]history.house.gov/HouseRecord/Detail/25769822272.

[12]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 77-78.

[13]“Journals of the Continental Congress,”September 17, 1774 in American Memory, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation (Washington DC: The Library of Congress), 1:40.

[14]www.masshist.org/publications/adams=papers/index.php/view/ADMS-06-02-0051.

[15]The Journals of each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 4. Gage had the authority by way of the Massachusetts Government Act, another of the Coercive Acts.

[16]Ibid., 3-4.

[17]Journals of the Continental Congress, October 6, 1774, 1:56.

[18]Ibid., October 10, 1774, 1:59.

[19]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 112-113.

[20]Ibid., 120.

[21]Ibid., 122.

[22]Ibid., 128.

[23]Ibid., November 2, 1774, 130.

[24]Ibid., November 16, 1774, 141.

[25]Ibid., November 21, 1774, 145-46.

[26]Ibid., 153.

[27]Ibid., 3.

[28]www.masshist,org/publications/adams-papers/index.php/view/ADMS-06-02-02-0065

[29]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3-4.

[30]Ibid., December 22, 1774, 187.

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  • Bob Ruppert might be interested to know of an unpublished University of Sussex doctoral dissertation completed in 2004 by Gareth William Morgan, entitled “‘A Clever Little Army’. The British Garrison in Boston, 1768-1776”. I can’t recall if copies of Sussex dissertations can be got from that university, but this title appears in the university’s dissertations site at:

    https://guides.lib.sussex.ac.uk/theses

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