During the eighteenth century the Boston Overseers of the Poor comprised a panel of private citizens appointed by the Boston Town Meeting to supervise public aid to the needy. By helping to define the policies and conduct of poor relief, the Overseers became a major force in public affairs in eighteenth-century Boston. The Overseers’ historical significance lies in their legacy as shapers of a public institutional approach to poor relief. Their records, which open a window on the social history of pre-industrial Boston, chronicle an extraordinary example of institutional continuity through several generations of social and political change. They allow us to observe the influence of English institutional traditions and practices on the settlement of Massachusetts, as well as the way those practices were adapted to Boston’s particular conditions and development. These pages reveal the formal yet intimate relations that existed between the guardians of civil order and public charity and the thousands of poor and needy people who came under their purview.
The Overseers were an institutional force whose persistence was a mirror of the overall stability of public authority. Their records suggest a broader reexamination of cultural, economic, and social change in eighteenth-century Boston and of the short-term consequences of the Revolution. Moreover, the Overseers stand as a useful example of the cultural intentions of earlier Puritan communal and civic values and the blending over time of Puritan charitable intentions and the eventual public responsibility for and management of the poor of Boston. This introduction summarizes the context, richness, and meaning of the documentary record.