Sunday, February 4, 2018

Episode 030: Occupation of Boston

Last week, I discussed the growing tension in Boston after London placed the new Customs Board there.  Bostonians resisted the Board and all other efforts to enforce customs laws and trade regulations in the colony.  The Liberty riot following the seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty, was only one of many instances that convinced officials in London that they needed stronger enforcement measures to teach the colonists who was in charge.

Hillsborough Sends Soldiers To Boston

Even before the Liberty riot, ever increasingly frantic letters from Governor Bernard and Customs Commissioners informed London that they could not enforce the law without some muscle.  The naval vessels in Boston Harbor could control shipping, but the Boston mobs controlled the land.

Despite years of rioting and lawlessness Gen. Gage, military commander of North America, had not sent soldiers to Boston.  He had sent them to New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, but not Boston.  Gage’s orders prevented him from marching or quartering troops in a colony unless the Colonial Governor asked for them.  Otherwise, he could only do so on direct orders from London.

Massachusetts Gov. Bernard refused to ask for soldiers.  He knew full well that any request for troops would completely poison his ability to work with the legislature.  There was also a good chance it would result in an angry mob destroying his home.  Even if he did put in such a request, he believed that it would require the approval of the Governor’s Council, an elected body in the colony that would never give approval during the ongoing disputes.

Boston Harbor, 1768 by Paul Revere
(from Boston Public Library)
After the Liberty riot, the Customs Board simply could not do its job.  Members of Board, and several other top customs officials, along with their families, lived in protective custody out at Castle William, a military fort on an island at mouth of Boston Harbor.  None of them dared show their face in Boston.  On a rumor, a mob marched out to Roxbury where they believed customs official John Robinson might be hiding.  They did not find him there, but destroyed the gardens around his home anyway.  John Williams, the Customs Inspector, had been out of town until July. When he returned, the Sons of Liberty sent him a demand to appear before the Liberty Tree and resign his position.  He refused to do so, but had to face down several threatening mobs.

With the colonial legislature suspended, the Boston Town Council, led by men like Hancock, Adams, Otis, and Warren, passed and published a series of resolutions against the military presence.  They also sent petitions to the Governor, calling on him to resist the customs establishment, protest the use of the navy in customs enforcement, insist on compliance with the ban on impressment of sailors, and investigate if any officials had requested soldiers be sent to Boston because “every such Person who shall solicite or promote the importation of Troops at this time is an Enemy to this Town and Province, and a disturber of the peace and good order of both.

Still taking shelter at Castle William, the Commissioners sent Benjamin Hallowell, at the time Comptroller of the port of Boston, back to London. Hallowell had been at Malcom’s house the day a mob prevented officials from searching it (see, Episode 25). He had also worked with Joseph Harrison to seize Hancock’s ship Liberty and as a result had taken a beating during the Liberty riots that I discussed last week.  Hallowell departed for London, carrying with him letters from the Commissioners outlining the need for the army in Boston.

Around the same time, Gen. Gage, tried to push Gov. Bernard into requesting troops.  He sent the Governor a letter requesting troops from Halifax.  All Bernard had to do was sign it to get the soldiers.  At the same time, Gage wrote directly to Lt. Col. Dalrymple in Halifax, requesting that he be prepared to move as soon as he got the order.  Dalrymple prepared his troops to move, but never got the order from Bernard.

Bernard had been sending letters for years indicating the chaos and mob rule in Boston.  He documented numerous threats and acts of violence against people and property who were only trying to enforce the law.  Yet he refused to make an explicit request for troops.  He even ended some of his letters to London officials by saying that they should not take his comments about the chaos in Boston as a request for troops.  Clearly he wanted them, but was afraid to ask.

Hillsborough, however, was not afraid to do what needed to be done.  He sent direct orders to Gage to deploy regulars to Boston in order to restore order.  Hillsborough believed the King’s policy had to induce “a due obedience to the law.”  Although he wrote the orders in June 1768, even before the Liberty riot, Gage did not receive the orders until early September.

Gage ordered two regiments of British regulars from Halifax, to deploy to Boston, a little over 700 soldiers.  Dalrymple had already prepared and assembled most of the Fourteenth and Twenty-ninth Regiments and an artillery company with five guns.  They would be in Boston in a matter of weeks.  Following Hallowell’s arrival in London and hearing his reports on the Liberty riot, and other events, Hillsborough ordered another two regiments to ship to Boston, the Sixty-Fourth and Sixty-Fifth from Ireland, totaling about 1000.  They would arrive in November.

Massachusetts Convention of Towns

Already aware in September that the troops were on the way, a Boston town meeting responded by emphasizing an existing law that required every household to have a musket and ammunition ready in order to defend their rights.  To avoid treason charges, they claimed the measure was in case another war should break out with France.  But everybody knew the likely targets of those guns were getting ready to board ships in Halifax bound for Boston.

Faneuil Hall, site of the Convention of Towns
(from Wikimedia)
Since Gov. Bernard had suspended the colonial Assembly, the Boston Town meeting issued a resolution creating an independent committee to work with other towns at a colonial convention.  This would essentially be an extra-legal convention beyond the control of the Governor or anyone else.  Radical leaders, James Otis, Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock sat on the new committee.

The Convention of Towns met in Boston on September 22.  Representatives from nearly 100 towns attended.  They ignored Gov. Bernard’s order that they were an illegal assembly and should disperse.

In fact, Bernard should have been happy that the delegates ignored him.  The Boston radicals did not say outright, but it appears their purpose was to unite the colony in a decision to use arms to repulse the British Army as it attempted to land in Boston.  No one wanted to say that explicitly and in public since doing so was treason.  While Boston radicals may have been ready to start shooting, the rural delegates were nowhere near ready to fire on British regulars.  They had a calming effect on the convention.

The delegates argued for a week.  Unfortunately, there are few records of the debate.  But the end result was that the colony would not meet British regulars with armed resistance.  On September 29, the delegates learned that British transports were about to enter Boston Harbor.  The delegates simply returned home and waited to see what would happen.

Soldiers Arrive

On October 1, 1768, the first two regiments of regulars disembarked in Boston Harbor.  Col. Dalrymple was prepared for resistance as his soldiers marched through the streets with their arms at the ready.  They met no immediate resistance, though the people of Boston did what they could to make them feel unwelcome.

Since Bernard had already suspended the colonial legislature, there was no way to appropriate funds for the troops under the Quartering Act.  Of course, even if he had called a session, leaders made clear there was no way he was getting money.  Colonial leaders argued the soldiers could be quartered at Castle William on an island at the mouth of the harbor.

British Soldiers Arrive in Boston
(from Wikipedia - artist's conception from 20th Cent.)
The military considered the fort too far away to be useful, which is exactly why Bostonians wanted them there.  So, the soldiers ended up pitching tents on Boston common, not a fun way to spend a winter in Boston. Gov. Bernard approved an army takeover of the Boston poorhouse.  Doing this required that army evict the poor and sick living there.  They spent a few days trying to do this, while the residents resisted.  This led to terrible publicity for the army as they tried to toss widows and orphans out into the cold. Eventually they gave up and received permission to occupy some empty warehouses.

I’m going to discuss the soldier-civilian interactions in an episode coming soon as part of the build up to the Boston Massacre.  But throughout 1769 the occupation remained tense, with lots of street fights and lawsuits.

The arrival of the soldiers did have the intended effect however, of allowing the Customs Board to return from hiding in Castle William. They had remained there since Liberty riot four months earlier.  Now, they could finally get back to work in Boston, as long as they remained under military protection.  John Robinson traveled to Newport Rhode Island on customs business.  A mob surrounded the tavern where he was staying.  He was able to slip out and flee back to Boston.  But it served as a reminder that the military presence was the only thing keeping the mobs at bay.

Michael Corbett Resists Impressment

The naval presence in New England, though not as quite as controversial as standing armies, brought its own controversies.  Common naval practice allowed for impressment of local sailors.  Impressment was essentially a legal form of kidnapping.  Press gangs would capture a merchant sailor and take him by force onto the ship.  A ship’s officer then informed the civilian that he was now a sailor in the royal navy, subject to discipline for any disobedience and to execution for attempted desertion.

Impressment was legal throughout much of the Empire and often important.  Death and desertion meant that a ships crew could become depleted over time.  Ships out in colonial ports had a hard time recruiting volunteers given the low pay and harsh conditions.  As a matter of military necessity, they used impressment to keep their ships properly manned.  However, a 60 year old law prohibited impressment of sailors in America.  Despite this law, perhaps ignorant of it, the Romney tried to impress new sailors into its crew.

On June 9, 1768, the day before the Liberty riot, a press gang from the Romney had boarded a ship in Boston Harbor and impressed a sailor named Thomas Furlong.  Furlong convinced them to let him go ashore to collect his pay and property.  They sent him under guard, to make sure he would return.  A mob quickly formed and attacked the three men who accompanied Furlong to his ship.  He was able to get free of the press gang and flee.

HMS Romney (from Wikimedia)
After the Liberty riot, Capt. Corner, of the HMS Romney agreed that his fleet would not to impress Massachusetts sailors, unless they were already deserters from the British Navy.  He made no such promises for foreign sailors in colonial ports.  They remained fair game.

On April 22, 1769, the Massachusetts brig Pitt Packet sailed toward Boston with a six man crew.  The British Frigate Rose approached the ship in open waters and demanded to come aboard.  Two of the crew were Massachusetts men, but the other four were Irish.  The Irish hid in the ship’s bulkhead.

The press gang attempted to extract them.  In the ensuing fight, in which the press gang shot and wounded one of the sailors, John Ryan, in the arm.  The press gang shot another of the Irish sailors, a man named Michael Corbett, in the face.  Corbett’s wound proved minor. He took a harpoon and struck it into the throat of Lt. Panton, who was in charge of the gang.  Panton died within minutes.

Despite the resistance, the navy press gang was able to overcome the crew and arrested all six of them for murder.  In Boston, authorities quickly released the two Massachusetts sailors as they played no role.  Corbett and the other three stood trial before a special twelve member Admiralty Court, made up of various military, customs, and colonial government officials.

John Adams and James Otis agreed to represent the men, and demanded a jury trial.  The court denied them a jury and ordered them to proceed.  After a contentious trial, the court found the men not guilty under the defense of justifiable homicide.  The court held that the press gang was operating illegally without a warrant of impressment.  It avoided the question of whether any impressment in the colonies was legal.  It only said this particular attempt was illegal.  Since there was no warrant in this case, the sailors had a right to defend themselves against the illegal use of force.

The decision meant that the incident came to very little.  It might have been quite another story if the sailors had been found guilty.  A mob may have freed them by force.  Similarly, if a jury trial had found the men not guilty, it might have been more reason in London to attack the jury trial system in the colonies.  But because the Admiralty Court decided to find them not guilty, both sides backed off from what could have been a dangerous flash point.

Following the trial, three of the four Irish sailors, including Corbett, left the colony by getting work on an outbound merchant ship.  The fourth, John Ryan, sued the sailor who had shot him in the arm.  John Adams represented Ryan again at this trial.  The navy settled with Ryan and got the case dismissed.

Gov. Bernard Goes Home 

As Gov. Bernard predicted, radicals blamed him for the military occupation.  As I said, Bernard had not explicitly requested troops.  However, his letters indicating the growing lawlessness and inability to implement policy strongly implied the need for soldiers.  For months, Bernard refused demands to make public his official correspondence.  Despite his refusal, a colonial agent in London, William Bollan, obtained copies of some of his letters to Lord Germain and others and sent them to the Boston Sons of Liberty.  Their publication in the newspaper in April 1769 led to renewed demands for his recall.

The letters did not prove that Bernard had asked for troops.  They did however, call for changes in the colonial council to make it more accountable to the Governor and less so to the people.  The letters also, according to the radicals, portrayed in bad light those challenging the taxes and other actions taken in London.

Francis Bernard
(from Bernard Papers)
London did finally recall Bernard in August 1769, leaving Lt. Gov. Hutchinson as the new acting governor.  Bernard had already expressed a desire to leave the Colonies.  He was as sick of the fighting as everyone else.  Still, while sitting on a ship in harbor for several days in August, waiting for a fair wind to set out to sea, it must have been hard to listen to the chiming bells and cannon fire as the people of Boston celebrated his departure.

Bernard would receive a hearing when he returned to London, at which time he cleared his name.  In 1770, the Privy Council would declare all charges against him to be "groundless, vexatious, and scandalous."  Even so, radicals in Massachusetts tried to sue him for slander based on his letters.  The cases never went anywhere.  He finally resigned the Governorship in 1771, receiving a Baronetcy and a pension for his years of service.  He would also continue to serve as an adviser to the ministry on matters concerning the colonies in the years leading up to the war.

James Otis Loses It

James Otis, was a member of the committee that released Gov. Bernard’s letters.  Otis seemed to become increasingly paranoid and erratic around this time. The paranoia that he might be charged with treason and shipped to England was not necessarily a mark of insanity.  Hutchinson, in fact, acted on orders to gather evidence that might be used against Otis and others at a future trial. Otis realized from the stolen correspondence that Bernard and others were painting him as a traitor to officials back in London.

James Otis
(from Wikimedia)
In September 1769, Otis published an article protesting that members of the Customs Board were attacking his character and conspiring against him.  A few days later, Otis confronted Customs Commissioner John Robinson in a coffee house.  The two men came to blows, which erupted into a full fledged bar brawl. Unfortunately for Otis, this was a Tory Coffeehouse and most of the patrons sided with Robinson.  Robinson used his cane to give Otis a serious head wound.  Otis later sued Robinson and won an award of £2000.  After Robinson issued a public apology, Otis ceased attempts to collect his damages.

Historians dispute whether the attack brought on his mental illness, or merely worsened a pre-existing deterioration of his mental faculties.  In either case, after this even his friends noted a marked change in Otis.  Earlier in life, everyone considered Otis a learned man and an effective lawyer and advocate, even if they did not always agree with him.  After the blow to his head, he began to have had fits of emotional outbursts, and started giving long rambling speeches that never quite got to the point.

Despite these changes, Otis continued to win reelection to the Assembly, but Samuel Adams took the leadership role in the legislature in early 1770.  Otis would eventually retire from the Assembly in 1771, at the age of 45.  He lived to see independence, but sank further into insanity.  Family and friend kept him relatively isolated in a home out in the countryside, away from people.  He died suddenly in 1783 after stepping outside to view a thunderstorm and was struck by lightning.

Next Week: We take a look at issues in London, dominated by the return of John Wilkes, and also the colonial punishment of tar and feathers.

Next Episode 31: Wilkes and Liberty & Tar and Feathers

Previous Episode 29: The Liberty Riot

Visit the American Revolution Podcast (

Further Reading:

Web Sites

C-span video, Univ. of MD Prof. Richard Bell discusses British occupation of Boston (2012):

Resolutions of the Boston Town Meeting; September 13, 1768:

A good detailed summary of the attempt to impress Michael Corbett and his murder trial:

Detailed paper on the Corbett trial:

HMS Romney

HMS Rose:

John Adams 1st of three Legal Victories (Corbett Trial):

Letter from John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, 20 January 1816 describing Corbett trial:

Brown, Richard D. "Massachusetts Convention of Towns, 1768" The William and Mary Quarterly
Jan., 1969), pp. 94-104 ((free to read online with registration - discusses attendance at the Convention)

Nicolson, Colin “Governor Francis Bernard, the Massachusetts Friends of Government, and the Advent of the Revolution” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1991, pp. 24-113 (free to read online with registration):

Walett, Francis G. “Governor Bernard's Undoing: An Earlier Hutchinson Letters Affair” The New England Quarterly, 1965, pp. 217-226 (free to read online with registration):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Boston Registry Dept. Records Relating to the Early History of Boston, Vol. 16, Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1886.

Castle Island 350, 1980 (a short pamphlet describing Castle Island).

Barrington, William; Bernard, Francis; Channing, Edward (ed); Coolidge, Archibald Cary (ed) The Barrington-Bernard correspondence, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912.

Chandler, Peleg W. American criminal trials, Vol. 1, Boston: Charles Little & James Brown, 1844 (includes trial of Corbett & crew of Pitt Packett).

Cushing, Harry (ed) The Writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 1, New York GP Putnam's Sons 1904).

Hosmer, James Samuel Adams, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1913.

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, John (ed) The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774,  London: John Murray 1828 (This book was edited and published using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, Peter Orlando (ed) The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1884 (Editor is Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Miller, Marion Mills (ed) Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, New York: Current Literature Publishing Co. 1913.

Ridpath, John Clark James Otis, the Pre-revolutionist, Chicago: The University Assn. 1898.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Archer, Richard As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, Oxford: Oxford  Univserity Press 2010.

Carp, Benjamin L. Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Fowler, William The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1980.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Reid, William Castle Island and Fort Independence, Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston (1995)

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: WW Norton & Co. 1970.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

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