Monday, February 16, 2009

Boston, 1770

I'm taking a writing class this semester in order to improve my style and my work habits. I write very slowly and methodically, agnoizing over each sentence and taking an hour (at least) to write a good paragraph. That makes for little revising, but it is not exactly the most purposeful way to go about things.

This week's assignment was to write 1,000 words on any event/s covered in the Boston Gazette during 1770. Here's my crack at it:
[I should add that I removed a long bit on the Boston Chronicle due to word limits.]

In January of 1770, two country farmers, James Hearsy and William Bradley, spent their winter leisure traveling to Boston to purchase “a few articles for their Families Use.” Oblivious to the sidelong glances of passersby, they approached a curiously empty shop in Cornhill, purchased several items from the gruff shopkeeper, and retired to their lodgings with their arms full of packages and their bellies ready for a hearty tavern supper.

As soon as they stepped into the common room, they knew that something was amiss. Instead of welcoming the newcomers with jocular banter, “the whole Company refused to have any Intercourse with them.” What had they done? At length, a man who had promised to accompany them home the next day approached the bewildered pair and informed them that he “refused to keep company with them on the road” unless they returned their purchases to the shop of William Jackson, the infamous importer. Since January of 1769, most Boston merchants had refused to import goods from Britain in protest of new taxes under the Townshend Acts, but Jackson had ignored the non-importation agreement. His loyalty was suspect and his customers tainted by association. Eager to prove their patriotism, Hearsy and Bradley attempted to return the offending items the next morning, but were rebuffed. With public sentiment against him and the Gazette monitoring his customers, Jackson argued that returned goods “might possibly lie long on his Hands.”

As far as Messrs. Edes and Gill, co-editors of the Boston Gazette, were concerned, there were two types of merchants in Boston in 1770: patriots who refused to import British goods such as tea, glass, paper, and cloth, and traitors who “prefered their own little private Advantage to the Welfare of America.”  To show their support for the boycotts, Edes and Gill used their newspaper to publicize the identities of suspected importers and their customers. A recurring front-page item listed the addresses of a dozen shopkeepers who refused to abide by the non-importation agreement, proclaiming that the accused had “detached themselves from the public interest” and should be considered “Enemies to their Country.”  Customers became collaborators and were liable to see their own names in print. In addition to Hearsy and Bradley, the Gazette kept watch over Ezekiel Fosgat, who “purchased a large Quantity of Goods” from Nathaniel Rogers on January 11, and Israel Williams, who found his father derided as “an –famous tool of the late detested governor” after he visited William Jackson’s shop in February.  Through that restless winter, the Gazette helped a watchful city divine the loyalties of ordinary shoppers.

The men and women singled out by the Gazette feared more than damaged reputations. Though the Boston Massacre looms large in popular memory, that event was just one of many outbreaks of violence during the winter of 1769-1770. Those named by the Gazette were repeatedly targeted by crowds of angry Bostonians who broke their windows, seized their property, and assaulted their persons. John Mein, editor of the anti-boycott Boston Chronicle, fled to London in November of 1769 after a mob destroyed his offices and attacked him with shovels and pistols. Patrick McMasters was abducted from his home, dragged to the city limits, and forced to run the gauntlet.  Ame and Elizabeth Cummings, orphaned sisters who sold imported lace and satin to support themselves, were the victims of intense intimidation:
we was alarmed with a violent Skreeming Kill him Kill him, I fleu to the Windue . . . a larg Mob of [about?] a thousand Man & boys aranged themselves befor our Dorr & on a Kart a Man was Exibited as we thought in a Gore of Blood; . . . [the attackers] posted him on a kart tar[re]d him all over the town then fathered him all under our windo thin carid him threu the town.
The threats reached a crescendo on February 22, when suspected importers arose to find their windows smeared with tar and feathers. Theophilus Lillie’s shop was decorated with a wooden effigy of its owner’s head impaled on a spike. When Lillie’s neighbor, Ebenezer Richardson, attempted to remove the effigy, a crowd of boys pelted him with ice, rocks, and feces. Richardson retreated into his house, but the barrage continued, shattering Richardson’s windows, breaking down his door, and injuring his wife. Richardson responded with a blast of birdshot that left 11-year-old Christopher Snider dead and several teenagers injured. 

Snider’s death electrified the city. The Gazette devoted the greater part of a page to coverage of this “barbarous murder,” proclaiming that Snider was “the first whose LIFE has been a Victim to the Cruelty and Rage of Oppressors!”  On February 26, two thousand Bostonians paraded Snider’s coffin through the streets as thousands more looked on. Coverage of the funeral dominated the March 5 edition of the Gazette, including the rumor that Richardson would escape prosecution. That night, a crowd of enraged civilians confronted British Regulars near the State House. When the chaos of clubs and gunfire subsided, five civilians lay dead or dying in the street and the fragile peace lay in shambles.

When James Hearsy and William Bradley crossed the threshold of William Jackson’s shop on that January day, they stepped onto a minefield where everyday actions served as proxies for imperial politics. The tea, glass, and printed cotton that would bring a touch of refinement to their rural farmsteads had become symbols of a distant King’s high-handed tyranny, their choice of merchants a statement of misplaced loyalty. They had not changed, but the ground had shifted. Over the next decade, as the American colonies lurched toward an unexpected independence, ordinary men and women scrambled to find a new equilibrium. As the voice of the nascent revolution, the Boston Gazette defined new standards for patriotism and encouraged its readers to enforce them for the good of the emerging nation.

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