Thursday, August 14, 2008

"the Glorious and never to be forgotten 14th"

On August 14, 1765, citizens of Boston took to the streets to protest the Stamp Act. John Boyle described the crowd and its actions in his diary:
The Stamp-Act having occasioned a general Uneasiness among the People, this Morning the Effigies of Andrew Oliver, Esqr. the Stamp-Officer, and Lord Bute, the supposed Instigater of the Act, were discovered hanging on the Great-Trees at the So. part of the Town, (one of which Trees is hencforth to be called Liberty-Tree). The report of the Images soon spread thro' the Town, bro't a vast Number of Spectators, and a spirit of Patriotism diffused itself through the whole Concourse. About Sun-set set the Images were taken down, placed on a Bier, supported in Procession by 6 Men, followed by a great Concourse of People, some of the highest Reputation, and in the greatest order. They proceeded thro' the Town, down King-Street, from thence to Oliver's dock, where an Edifice was erected for the Use of a Stamp-Office, which they speedily levelled to the ground; then taking up the pieces of broken timber upon their shoulders, they proceeded with the Effigies to the Top of Fort-Hill, where a Fire was enkindled and the Images consumed amidst the Acclamations of Thousands of Spectators. After which they pulled down the Garden Fence of Mr. Oliver, the Stamp-Officer, entered his House, drank some of his Wine, and broke some of his Windows. They would not have entered his House had it not been from some irritating Language from those within.
From this account, it is difficult to tell whether Boyle himself took part in the protests or learned of them from those who did. Since Boyle maintains a journalistic distance even when writing about his own marriage ("Married, Mr. John Boyle, Printer and Stationer, aged 25, to Miss Caelia Gay, aged 20, Daughr. of Capt. Martin Gay"), I think that it is possible that he participated in the crowd action.

In later years, Boyle habitually noted the anniversary of the 14th in his diary, calling it, "the Glorious and never to be forgotten 14th." Each year, the Sons of Liberty held a celebration to commemorate the day:
The Fourteenth Day of August 1765 Celebrated by Sons of Liberty in Boston. At eleven o'Clock great Numbers of them assembled at Liberty-Hall, where a Number of Patriotic Toasts were drank. After which they proceeded to the Grey-hound in Roxbury, two in a Chaise, to the Number of about 300, where an Elegant dinner was provided; and about 6 o'Clock return'd to town, and passing in slow orderly procession, thro' the principal Streets, and round the State-House, they retired to their respective dwellings.
The 1773 anniversary was memorable for its humorous mishaps, while the 10th anniversary saw Boyle narrowly escape death at the hands of the occupying army:
[W]hile coming through Roxbury Street, a great Number of Cannon were discharged from Gage's outermost Lines on Boston Neck, some of the Balls (24 Pounders) came very near us — one Man being near our Horses was wounded in the Head — A Bomb which was thrown came directly over our Heads, fell about two Rods to the right of us, stuck in the Ground and broke, the explosion of which so frightened my Horse that he threw me off, but happily I received no hurt.
As it turns out, the 14th of August has indeed been forgotten, but only because it has been replaced by other significant anniversaries (notably April 19th). Those who do celebrate August 14th generally remember it as the end of World War II (Rhode Island, Hawaii, and a few towns in Connecticut still recognize VJ Day, though they don't call it that), rather than as the day when the Sons of Liberty held their banquets. I think it's silly to govern by speculating on the thoughts and intentions of the founding fathers, but I can't help but wonder about them in a more informal way. What might those Sons of Liberty have thought if they knew that 180 years later, the country they helped start would be a military superpower capable of blowing away whole cities in a single instant? The contrast between the anniversaries really brings home to me the intimate scale of the Revolution — pulling down Mr. Oliver's fence, someone shouting insults from inside the house, a frightened horse on a narrow road — compared with the modern scales of warfare and politics.

(Teapot image via the National Museum of American History. I own a reproduction of this teapot — it was a wedding gift from an archaeologist friend.)

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