The Historical Setting: the Boston Poor and the Records of the Overseers

The poor always ye have with you.

john 12:8

Even as they deplored the presence of the poor in their midst, the founders of Puritan Massachusetts and their successors accepted the inevitability of material as well as spiritual poverty even in their own godly and idealized communities. John Winthrop’s ringing 1630 manifesto for the New England Zion and its “modell of Christian Charity” found it axiomatic that “God almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed of the Condition of Mankinde, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjeccion.”1 Poverty thus was ordained by the higher power, and that explained its inevitability even in the most dedicated Christian communities.

And just as the poor are always with us, so too must there be efforts to ease their condition, rehabilitate them, and even punish them. Poverty was accepted as part of the corporate polity because, as Winthrop noted, all classes were bound together in the Puritan mission, and “Mankinde” was “knitt together . . . as one man” in the making of a reformed Christian community in New England. The community in that case had a mandate to regulate good order, including the care and correction of the poor. Winthrop and the founders knew that to appeal simply to individual responsibility would not prevent poverty, nor would appeals for private relief of the “meane” and “poore” succeed in expunging poverty, even in the most prosperous of times. Christian charity, whether it came from individual moral obligation, or on behalf of the community’s collective self-interest, could at best only ease the burden of poverty on the poor for the sake of a more general order. Still, Winthrop’s “Christian Charity” was largely a reflection of the civic culture he had just left and so dovetailed with the objectives and administration of the Elizabethan poor laws.2

The Massachusetts Bay Company adopted an institutional approach to the treatment of the poor that corresponded to Tudor ideas and models of local government. While Winthrop insisted that his fellow Congregationalists translate their Christian sentiments into a personal obligation to care for the poor, he also saw the need for a set of largely secular offices to administer those intentions. Those original models came to determine the philosophy and administration of relief and control of the poor from the founding of Boston in 1630 until at least the early decades of the nineteenth-century. It also meant that even in the most “Christian Commonwealth,” Massachusetts, civil law would be made by civil authority and administered by elected lay officials.3 Indeed, one of the earliest manifestations of civil control was the establishment of a prison and a “beadle” in 1632 in Boston.4 As to the question of who was therefore responsible for the relief of the poor, the answer then was the poor themselves if they were able-bodied and the community or the state if they were not. That question has lingered into the twenty-first century in America, and for the most part has solicited similar answers to the problem of poverty.5

For Winthrop’s generation, though, the community had first to specify in law what constituted poverty itself, and then determine who were poor and how they had come to be so. There was certainly a colloquial understanding of poverty and an empirical definition of the poor as those who were conspicuously needy and dependent. But a formal definition in law and by government was necessary so the community could fit its collective material means to its social and moral objectives. In Massachusetts any method of poor relief, care, and correction had to suit the colony’s circumstances while drawing on the traditional Tudor experience and concepts of legal poor relief. But there was an immediate modification, because the scale of poverty in New England was negligible by Old World standards. If “the poor comprised the majority of the population in the late seventeenth century” in old England, that was certainly not the case in contemporaneous New England.6

One of the most cited, reliable, and respected sources of statistical evidence of poverty in early modern England is Gregory King’s 1688 census. His simple division of economic society into two large groups, those “increasing” and those “decreasing the wealth of the kingdom,” has logic as a model when applied to England in the late seventeenth century and, by extension, the rest of Great Britain by the eighteenth century. The 51 percent of Gregory King’s census who decreased the wealth of the nation were the “poor,” so defined because they drew on some portion of the nation’s wealth through alms for some or all of their lives. There is no statistical comparison for that level of poor relief in New England, nor is there a useful socioeconomic basis for comparison. Yet while Massachusetts’ lawmakers borrowed or extended familiar patterns of government from England they could not and did not replicate the conditions for their application.7

As New England’s founders routinely adopted English statute law and imitated local custom where they could, they created a great many regulatory offices. These were as much a reflection of English standards of civil administration as they were of Puritan moral principle and were, in fact, a product of a general modernization and wider rationalization of public authority and its approaches to poor relief. The General Court’s legal creation of the Boston Overseers of the Poor in 1692 was meant to specify functions that had been done earlier by Selectmen, and the new Massachusetts Charter of 1692, the local authority responsible for control of the poor and poor relief generally, was not significantly different in intent from the older Bay Colony laws. But Massachusetts had adopted the main mechanisms of Tudor-Stuart poor law at a time when the regulation of poor relief, and notions of public responsibility for and authority over the poor were, in fact, evolving in England itself through major changes in economic values and conditions and in government. As the general institutional apparatus was being entrenched by the Massachusetts Bay Company in the seventeenth century, it was in flux in England and as the Massachusetts poor law maintained much of its original principle, it became less English and more American over time.8

Meanwhile, in England, as Gertrude Himmelfarb writes, “the rise of Puritanism . . . coincided with the introduction of a national, legal, compulsory public system of relief, the first such in modern history.” In fact, since the beginning of the Reformation, and especially under Elizabeth, the development of statute poor law in England had led to a shift away from voluntary help, including the older ecclesiastical determination of who was deserving and who was not, to a more formal and even secular definition and the compulsory funding of the needs of the deserving poor. Indeed, when it came to sorting out the deserving from the undeserving poor (the latter were often lumped by the law simply among the “rogues, beggars and vagabonds”), the use of statute law was indispensable throughout much of Western Europe, especially in England and Scotland. The origins of public poor relief in New England were consistent with that development; that much is certain. But then, as Himmelfarb goes on to say, the ethic of poor relief in England was not immune to profound changes in the English economy. By the end of the eighteenth century the poor laws of England had been influenced not only by industrialization and the laws of the market but also by the successive and sometimes successively revisionist theories of William Petty, John Locke, Daniel Defoe, Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and others. Himmelfarb’s larger point is that the effects of economic change on the poor, and on the way the poor became central to how society saw itself after about 1750, influenced subsequent and significant changes in the poor laws of England.9

So, as much as English precedents and experience were vital to the underlying views of poverty everywhere in seventeenth-century English America, the somewhat divergent social and economic paths of colonial development led to different histories of public poor relief. Because New England did not develop as Himmelfarb’s old England did, the way the dependent poor were treated in Boston in the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth centuries tells us a great deal about that society as it describes the distinctiveness of public charity and public welfare in preindustrial Massachusetts. In Boston, to the end of the eighteenth century, the Overseers of the Poor managed their office through a series of political and economic crises with scant change in their basic understanding of what poor relief meant—so scant, in fact, that the powers granted the Overseers in the Poor Relief Act of 1794 strongly resembled those granted in the act that had established the office in 1692 (see appendixes 1 and 2).

As early as 1639 the General Court had bestowed on local magistrates the responsibility to care for the deserving poor, and the arbitrary power to warn out transients and force the idle to work. As with similar kinds of legislation, the act was more an attempted replication of English statute than Calvinist orthodoxy. Even the name “Overseers of the Poor” derives from the English Poor Law of 1598. In at least one New England colony, Rhode Island, an office of Overseers of the Poor had been established as early as 1647 by simply adopting the Elizabethan codes intact. The English precedents that had provided broad guidelines for the orderly settlement of New England had included the famous Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1572 and 1601. Those statutes remained in force on paper in England until the reforms of 1834, but had been greatly modified in practice and had been effectively rescinded in 1795 by the Speenhamland system, which effectively subsidized the wages of the working or deserving poor and diminished the institutional approach to almsgiving, as opposed to workhouse or poorhouse correction for the idle poor. In the two centuries between Elizabeth and Speenhamland there had likely been more change in England’s poor law administration than in New England’s. Moreover, the continuous role of the Church of England in poor relief, at the Parliamentary as well as at the parish level, has no parallel in New England. The main influences of the Tudor laws on New England practices had been the move from voluntary to compulsory support of the poor and the assumption of local civic responsibility for financial and administrative control.10 In Massachusetts the Overseers emerged from an act of the General Court in 1692 (see appendix 1) under the terms of the new charter on what appears to have been the advice of the Town Meeting of Boston, which had elected its first such Overseers in 1690/91. The General Court legislation covered all “town offices,” but it specified separate authority for the Overseers and granted that office considerable executive authority.11

What follows, then, is a review of the documentary record of the most comprehensive public approach to the relief of poverty in colonial and revolutionary America. It is drawn largely from the several hundred pages of manuscript records generated by the Boston Overseers of the Poor during the period 1735–1800. Although the Overseers had operated from 1692, the 1735 date marks the earliest surviving manuscript of their record keeping (a manuscript copy of the “The Boston Workhouse Act” which had been authorized to be built), and any history of the Overseers prior to 1735 has to be drawn from town, legislative, and court records.12 A major legislative reaffirmation of the Overseers’ authority in 1793–94 serves as evidence of a consistent system of bureaucracy that began in the Puritan Commonwealth and ran through the inclusion of Massachusetts in the new republic without major substantive change to the office (see appendixes 1 and 2). The transcriptions take the documentary record to 1800 to complete the eighteenth-century setting for this volume.

As Boston matured, so did its public welfare bureaucracy. Its organization was streamlined and its authority expanded and tightened. The original board of Overseers had consisted of only four members. In 1713 Boston had developed a system of eight wards, based on militia divisions and placed under the control of the Overseers and constables. In 1735/6 (old style calendar) the town was divided into twelve wards, with one Overseer assigned to each ward. This change was part of an overhaul of the Overseers’ charter that specified rules for their own and their charges’ behavior and fixed their number at twelve.13 The Overseers were more than simply a part of a growing civic bureaucracy, however, for with the exception of the Selectmen, they were from the start the most powerful of civic officials. Although they were drawn mostly from Boston’s merchant class, the best explanation for the Overseers’ effectiveness, social status, and sense of civic duty notwithstanding, was that they possessed a legislated authority that matched their responsibilities. The legislation of 1692 and 1735, in particular, had conferred something akin to unilateral power, and that power was confirmed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1794 with a mandate that would survive into the first decades of the nineteenth century. As punctilious as they were energetic, the Overseers met monthly as a group and as often as weekly in committee to discuss budgetary requisitions and disbursements. They also dealt with problems of transiency, health, and crime and with the status of the standing institutions under their control, including the employment of clerks and keepers. They petitioned the Town Meeting with requests and advice and contributed to town planning issues in concert with the Selectmen and in the full forum of the Town Meeting. No social history of Boston is complete without a serious consideration of them.14

But it was at the individual and neighborhood level, as virtual ward supervisors, that the Overseers’ role was most conspicuous and influential. Each Overseer personally distributed in-home relief to residents in his ward, and with the collaboration of a Selectman, each Overseer had the direct authority to “send in” to the Almshouse or the Workhouse anyone who was deemed to require institutional relief or correction. They regularly patrolled their wards and removed children from homes where the standard of living or behavior appeared to them to threaten the child’s potential as a stable and worthy citizen. They instructed constables to identify newcomers and beggars and could warn out “strangers” at will, although in the end, the actual removal of persons without settlement rights had to be ordered by a county court at the request of the Overseers (see appendix 3). In a manner that required some pomp, they conducted annual perambulations through their respective wards with Selectmen and other dignitaries in train as a demonstration of civic authority.15

By the end of the eighteenth century the Overseers had become a public agency of remarkable authority and influence. They had become sovereign in the private as well as public management of poor relief in Boston, to the point where a 1772 General Court “Act of Incorporation” had given them primary control over the distribution of all individual charitable donations for relief of the poor (see appendix 5). Even after its heyday, that is, after Boston’s incorporation as a city in 1822, and as an increasingly marginalized branch of the new Boston city government, the office of the Overseers survived to the 1920s, by which time its role had been reduced to being executors of trusts of various charitable organizations.

The entire Overseers manuscript record is vast, and the transcriptions included in the present volume constitute only about 10 percent of the total volume of the documentation. But the eighteenth-century records are notable among surviving early American public welfare records because they identify several thousand individuals by name, and many by age and condition. The otherwise statistical poor of preindustrial Boston are thereby personalized in a way that enlivens the relationship between the poor and their public supervisors. The former included entire families, those who were entitled to “settlement” in Boston and those who appear to have been from “abroad,” and orphans, single mothers, petty criminals, vagrants, transients, and the infirm. They all came under the purview of the Overseers.

Although the Overseers distributed public and some private funds and materials to “outdoor” relief, the bulk of their records are concerned with the administration of “indoor” relief, usually in the Boston Almshouse, or punishment or “correction” for the “undeserving” poor in the Boston Workhouse. The terminology here is ironic, in that “outdoor” meant “in home,” and “indoor” relief referred to that given usually in a public facility such as the Almshouse. The records also note the warning out of thousands of transients and the relocation of orphans and illegitimate children. The Overseers moved into the community’s affairs at almost every level as a conspicuous feature of daily life in the intimate world of the eighteenth-century seaport. Their records allow us the only means to measure the numerical extent of indoor poor relief in the second half of the eighteenth century. The scale of institutional poverty is succinctly noted in the number of Almshouse admissions, which ranged between 125 and 250 persons a year, with considerable variation at different times because of economic conditions and the disruptions of wars, including the Revolutionary War. Another 30 to 50 were admitted annually to the Workhouse. On average another 300 a year were wholly or partially supported by outdoor relief. The total of number of admissions to the Almshouse was always higher than the actual number of individuals. There were repeaters, and some persons were admitted and discharged several times in the course of a year as their circumstances fluctuated. The same was true of outdoor relief recipients whose fortunes might seesaw from month to month. Still, given that Boston’s population for most of this period ranged from 13,000 to 17,000 people, the publicly supported poor amounted usually to about 4 percent of the total population.16

The way poverty was dealt with mirrored the corporate ethic of Boston. From 1630 to 1692 poor relief had been the direct responsibility of the Town Meeting in concert with the Selectmen. As noted, after 1692 the Overseers of the Poor became the official authority for poor relief. Neither the ecclesiastical authorities, during their period of unalloyed civic supremacy, nor the General Court, even in its superior legislative role, interfered much in the management of poor relief. Also, not only was the responsibility for the dependent poor of Boston a mostly public affair, but any privately volunteered charity prior to the Revolution was very narrowly applied. Its object was more the augmentation of means for the temporarily poor than it was to relieve the most persistent, disruptive, or aggravated kinds of poverty. In fact, it is clear that what we now consider private and voluntary charity did not have a significant role in poor relief until shortly after the Revolution, when for a brief period its incidence increased in scale and scope throughout New England.17 Also, private charity was extended only to the “deserving poor.” Care for the habitually idle, the “undeserving” poor, was openly and lawfully corrective or punitive in its end in a way that private charity could not be. The original Winthrop imperative meant that all the poor, everywhere in Massachusetts, were entitled to public support, but if the impotent poor were to be “relieved” of their distresses, then the indigent poor were to be ordered, persuaded, and even forced to be “brought up in some honest calling, profitable unto themselves and the publick” (see appendixes 1 and 4).

In the village atmosphere of Boston in its first few decades, all poor relief had been “outdoor” relief until the latter third of the seventeenth century. And not only were the deserving and “settled” poor cared for, but cultural norms forbade the community to stand by and allow even the most unsavory in their midst, even “strangers,” to suffer or perish from want. During Boston’s first generation even “worthy beggars” were supervised and nourished by volunteer families at public expense, or if absolutely necessary, were kept in the small prison that had existed in Boston from as early as 1637. A freestanding Almshouse for “indoor” relief of the “aged and infirm poor” had been proposed at various times, but there appeared to be no need for one until after midcentury. When private bequests were used to build one in 1662, a pattern of expectation was laid down: private funds could be solicited for capital funding for poor relief, but the funds for annual maintenance of the poor would come from public finances. The major contributors to the construction costs of that Almshouse included Robert Keayne, a successful merchant whose conscience had been so pricked by the smear of usury that he sought spiritual relief by writing a confessional and willing his assets to the public weal, including the relief of the poor.18

When the 1662 Almshouse was finally occupied in 1665, its occupants were kept at public charge. Then, in 1682, like so many Boston buildings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was destroyed by fire. By then, moreover, there was a compelling need for a permanent and more commodious structure, and a large two-story brick “house” was completed and occupied in 1686. It would stand for over a century. When the Overseers of the Poor were organized in 1691/2, the Almshouse also served as the Workhouse, and it would do so until 1739, when a separate facility was opened. At least to that time, Boston’s Almshouse served as the single shelter for the orphans, widows, solitary aged, feeble-minded, and infirm of the town who required indoor relief, as well as for other destitutes, vagrants, misfits, petty thieves, and runaway servants. Convicted criminals, who were technically the charge of the county justice system, had been housed in the Almshouse until Bridewell, the town prison, was built between 1721 and 1723. Even then some criminals would be housed in the Workhouse from time to time because of overcrowding in Bridewell. The truly criminal were subject to a different regimen from those in care in the Almshouse or committed to corrective industry in the Workhouse. For example, in Bridewell “beside the master, there was to be a whipper constantly in attendance.” Also, of the 50′ by 20′ by 14′ building, a “little part of the house was given up for the insane.”19

There was then a strict observance of the traditional distinction, defined by law, between the involuntary, and therefore deserving, and the voluntary, and therefore undeserving, poor, as well as a conscious separation of the criminal from the idler. A potential third type, what might be called the “working poor,” was only occasionally referred to in Boston. In eighteenth-century England, on the other hand, the intent of legislation and the routine administration of the poor laws considered the entire laboring population as “the poor.” Also, English typologies indicated that “rogues” and “vagabonds” were sufficiently numerous and sinister so as to be a direct threat to public order in ways that even the most wayward of “worthy beggars” in Boston did not. The need to police the poor in England, and the sheer potential for riot when a majority of the population strained at the limits of social order, extended the range and complexity of the English agencies, both public and private, that were authorized to supervise and relieve the poor.20

In Boston, by contrast, the sole administration of the poor law codes remained with the office of the Overseers of the Poor, even as the numbers of poor increased in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as family and neighborly assistance declined in a more socially pluralistic Boston. At the point when relief and correction were fused administratively, all of New England diverged somewhat from most English practices. Poverty in Massachusetts was largely an “urban” phenomenon in any behavioral or statistical sense, and Boston’s distinction was that one agency, a public one, supervised the deserving and undeserving poor, both in and out of doors.

There was considerable logic in Boston’s approach. Of the major North American seaports—the only approximately “urban” Anglo-American societies in the eighteenth century—Boston’s civic administration was the most centralized. In contrast to the patchwork of local authorities that existed in other colonies, local government in Massachusetts was concentrated in the town, which retained nominal legislative authority over all local government. In fact, the counties of Massachusetts were little more than a mechanism for organizing a tax assessment system and a centralized judicial process.21 In Massachusetts, everything from assembly representation to rights of “settlement” residency was determined by the original Winthropian model of corporation. Everyone who had a right to be in Massachusetts also needed to “belong” to a town.22

The distinctive character of civic government in Massachusetts is important in the evolution of the Overseers as keepers of the poor and administrators of the poor laws. The Town Meeting and Selectmen system had developed so early in Boston’s history that by the end of the first charter it was a consolidated public bureaucracy that regulated all civic affairs, originally on behalf of the first charter proprietors, the company, the governor, and the magistrates, but over time and especially after 1692, in the common public interest. While there had never been any pretense of natural egalitarianism in Puritan society, each individual was held in equal measure to be ultimately responsible for personal maintenance. In the early days of the company, much of the supervision of personal responsibility and poor relief had been assumed as an obligation by the “freemen,” who then guided the colony’s “servants” in their behavior. But as that class distinction melted away with the decline of direct church authority and the broadening of the terms of citizenship in the late seventeenth-century, not only civic status but also civic authority became more democratic.23

For the vast majority of towns in Massachusetts the supervision of the idle poor and other deviants would continue to be done by constables and courts under the advice of the Selectmen and often directly by the Selectmen themselves. Also, the clearly stated purpose of the agency in Boston was less charitable than administrative, and just as corrective as it was caring. The preemptive powers given to the Overseers were considerable, and the act enjoined them “to take effectual care that [the poor] not live idly” (appendix 1). A 1704 General Court act defined the poor arbitrarily and quite broadly as those on alms and those not rated for taxes.24 The latter, in that case, cannot be seen as a permanent or even regular class of paupers, and the definition is clearly intended to assist the supervisory role of the Overseers as guardians of neighborhood harmony. There is no doubt that increasing population created a parallel growth in the numbers of paupers in Boston. But given the Town Meeting’s historical penchant for creating offices, growth as much as anything else, along with a desire to relieve the Selectmen of increased work, had spurred the need for a special agency for supervising the poor and also tending to their needs and gradually to the needs of the old, the sick, and the infirm. The Overseers of the Poor were designed primarily to cope with the consequences of population concentration, and it was not until the late eighteenth-century that Overseers of the Poor appeared formally in the other large towns of Massachusetts.25

Also, levels of poverty did rise in Boston after the middle of the eighteenth-century, largely as a consequence of regional and imperial events. After every colonial war the town’s economy slumped, and so each peace brought at least a short-term decline in the aggregate income of the town’s working poor. King George’s War, the French and Indian War, and the War for Independence created considerable residential dislocation, especially in coastal New England. The Overseers responded to each crisis by stepping up enforcement of the residency qualifications as their primary instrument of control. Since 1700 the Overseers had secured increased funding from the General Court for the support of those who could not be warned out in the short term or who, once warned, could not be immediately removed. The Overseers’ records indicate that the great majority of those migrants who were warned out, because they were both poor and unsponsored, were kept on the “province charge,” or after 1780 on the “state charge,” and were not simply punished by being placed in the Workhouse. The Overseers were keen to keep the costs of Almshouse care under control. In concert with the Selectmen and the Town Meeting they kept precise accounts of the jurisdictions that were responsible for the care of the poor in the Almshouse. This was a crucial part of their administration because in the 1760s and again in the early 1780s for example, transients made up some two-thirds of the Almshouse population and had to be charged to the province or state.26

As bureaucrats, the Overseers produced prodigious records of their proceedings and accounts, of their appeals for funds, and their routine reports to the Selectmen and the Town Meeting. While the eighteenth-century records kept exclusively by the Overseers are incomplete, they do contain rich statistical detail for certain periods, such as the early 1760s and the 1780s and 1790s, and for certain kinds of entries, such as Almshouse admissions. As a composite, the body of records can be broken down into six major components that parallel the Overseers’ major responsibilities and activities. The first component comprises the annual lists of elected Overseers that are summarized in this volume as an appendix. The second, the Overseers’ accounts, contains financial records for the Almshouse and Workhouse, and here and there for outdoor grants of money or materials; most of these records appear to have been kept by the Overseers themselves, or the Almshouse keepers, or by professional scriveners and accounting clerks. A third category consists of the records of orphans and the many other poor children who were taken from their parents and bound out by indenture; these records complement the full-indenture manuscripts that Lawrence Towner classified and published over forty years ago in his essay “The Indentures of Boston’s Poor Apprentices, 1734–1805.” A fourth category is a miscellany of fragmentary Almshouse births, deaths, and residents’ inventories. The fifth category, the Almshouse admissions and discharges lists, is the largest and in many respects the most important component of the records. Finally, the manuscript collection includes the warning-out lists, which identify the names, origins, and ultimate destinations of the huge numbers of migrants who ended up in Boston. The size of the so-called warned lists demonstrates the rising levels of transiency in late eighteenth-century New England and in the wider interrelated Anglo-American Atlantic world. There may be as many as eight thousand names in the lists of “warned” in the Overseers collection, and the sheer volume of the record is too great for inclusion here. Also, warning out was not a formal responsibility of the Overseers, and of those who were warned out of Boston not all were in fact poor. The practice of warning out derived from the very complex laws governing rights of residency. Even solvent migrants with sponsors who could not satisfy a battery of conditions could not simply take up residency as they pleased. Medieval custom, written into law, land availability, and ethnic, religious, and personality issues could be used as reasons for warning out.27

The records are characterized by the idiosyncratic habits of a succession of Almshouse keepers, assistants, and clerks. Some recorded the ages of all who were admitted to the Almshouse but not their discharge dates. Others included not only the discharge dates but also the obituaries of those who died in the Almshouse. Any clerk might indicate the ages of the Almshouse charges for several weeks’ entries and then abandon that form of notation. There are sequences of entries that were obviously written after the fact in categorical and even alphabetical order by trained scriveners or perhaps by Overseers themselves. One or two constants are worth noting, however, and those include the apparent recording of the names of all Almshouse inhabitants, as they were admitted, and the names of the Overseers who ordered them in or who otherwise consented to a Selectman’s order. This offers a glimpse into the ward or neighborhood distribution of poor relief during some decades of the eighteenth century. And while inconsistencies in the recording of data might make effective statistical analysis difficult, they do not preclude it; consequently, the records as a whole allow us to make accurate generalizations about the nature of poor relief in the eighteenth century.28

The notes made by clerks and other assistants were almost always marginal and brief and often cryptic. But occasionally a sense of the Almshouse culture can be inferred by noting the mix of young and old and the marital status, ethnicity, and domicile of the inhabitants. In the course of hundreds of pages, a few references to foundlings, or unruly or deranged residents, or neglected pregnant single women all add a palpable human energy to the lists, as do the notices of visits by physicians or clergy, or the accidental death of a child who “drown’d in ye well,” or the runaways who “jump’t the fence” to avoid being sent to the Workhouse. The two-story L-shaped brick building normally “entertained” about 150 people in thirty-three rooms. It was wholly residential, and apart from household chores, no “productive” work was performed; days were spent in rest, recovery, prayer, education, and child rearing. The mix of occupants was also more varied than simply the infirm, the abandoned, and the old. From time to time foreign sailors or other transients added a cosmopolitan flavor to the “family” of the “house.” Older people from higher on the economic scale often ended up in the Almshouse simply for the care that was available there. Hardship or need could strike the young and the old, especially, regardless of status. On the face of it, some of those who were admitted to the Almshouse appear to be the unlikeliest of inmates, and included occasional middle-class persons with servants and furniture. The population in the house was not only diverse but fluid, but while there was a considerable turnover of the inmate population—about 40 percent stayed in fewer than three months, and 60 percent were gone within six months—there was always a core of residents who had been there for a year or more. That core group added continuity and familiarity to the environment so that newcomers entered into an existing domesticity.29

One striking anomaly in the Overseers records is that they provide extensive lists of the dates and names of Almshouse admissions and discharges, but offer no clearly defined set of rules or conditions for the residents who are identified. Conversely, the Workhouse records contain complete information on the rules and regulations of that institution, but only a few references to the actual inmates exist (see appendix 4). It can be supposed that some of the organizational requirements of the Almshouse, such as eating times, religious observances, behavioral etiquette, and a curfew schedule, would match the Workhouse codes; but there likely would be less threat of and occasion for punishment. Importantly, the Almshouse was not intended for productive employment.30

Not only were several thousand separate manuscript entries made by the Overseers’ clerks, but several thousand separate references to and by the Overseers were published in the Boston Records as well. For example, each Overseer who served after 1742 is identified in the extant Overseers records, and all those who served before 1742 can be identified from other sources. The biographical profile that emerges from the lists of Overseers’ names is instructive. All but a few were drawn from the wealthiest ten percent of Boston’s population, and there are good reasons why that should be so. The position was a sensitive one that required reputation, status, and the opportunity and desire to serve. Overseers needed a good deal of free time to conduct the regular and frequent ad hoc requirements of supervision. In the case of outdoor relief, Overseers had to be wealthy enough to aid the poor out of their own funds, sometimes extemporaneously, to be recompensed later.31

Most of the Overseers were merchants who worked very hard at their businesses, to be sure; nevertheless, the tempo of merchant life allowed them to organize their activities and affairs so that the heavy demands of their public trust and obligation were not compromised. Also, the power of deference was necessary for effective face-to-face dealings with the majority of the poor. But perhaps the most significant cultural aspect of the Overseers of the Poor was that the combination of status, means, and opportunity was joined to a vigorous commitment to the position that resulted in a typical tenure of some ten years during most of the eighteenth century. There was no tangible material advantage to holding the office, but like Selectmen, the Overseers seem to have shared the sense of civic duty that obliged Boston’s elite to spend their mature years in public service. That sense of duty was driven at least in part by paternalism, if not mostly by enlightened self-interest. If the poor could be kept moving, or made able or productive, then their demands on public funds would be reduced. The merchants of Boston, and others of the “better sort,” were its major taxpayers. They not only supported the bureaucracy that tended to their public interests, but in fact were the bureaucracy where it counted.32

At the other end of the Overseer-pauper relationship, it becomes necessary to infer the status and interests of the poor, because the information on each admitted pauper is so limited. Still, the identification of several thousand Almshouse residents is a rare eighteenth-century documentary record for any American jurisdiction. The ability to identify the comings and goings of the “deserving” poor adds human force to the data of poverty in this age. The volume and rate of the Almshouse admissions in themselves underline the time and cost-consuming work of the Overseers.

When the Overseers records are combined with the extensive secondary references, they add range to the tax and probate records, the account books, the admonitory and jeremiad sermons, and the town and General Court records that have long been used to measure poverty in eighteenth-century Boston.33 A generation of social and economic historians has focused attention on the impact of poverty on pre-revolutionary Boston, sometimes projecting their findings into the post-revolutionary era. Yet even as the Overseers records have long been known to historians and have been referred to in passing in some of the historiography, not enough consideration has been paid to the central role of the Overseers as a great urban innovation that shaped as much as it reacted to the rhythms of Boston’s social history in the eighteenth century.34

Much of the most recent historiography of Boston acknowledges its relative size and growth, role, and development as a major seaport in the Atlantic world, as a fount first of Puritan and then of provincial and revolutionary politics and culture, and often as a setting for modern social fragmentation and decay. What the historiography hints at but has not adequately examined is the deeper consequences of Boston’s eighteenth-century development in relation to the predominantly rural history of Massachusetts. The socioeconomic and cultural gap between Boston and the rest of Massachusetts increased during the eighteenth century. Part of Boston’s significance to the social history of New England is that it can be studied and understood in something very close to isolation from the general history of the rest of Massachusetts prior to the early nineteenth century. The two societies that coexisted in New England—one urban and maritime, the other agrarian—can be more clearly defined by a close study of the records and activities of the Boston Overseers of the Poor. In all of rural Massachusetts there was nothing comparable to the culture of poor relief that was shaped by the Overseers and their mandate in Boston.35

Also, Boston’s own history in the eighteenth century was marked by two contrasting problems. One was the continuation of the town’s steady historical growth to 1740. That expansion had, in fact, made specialized control of the poor necessary because the Town Meeting and the Selectmen could no longer manage all of the town’s social problems. The second problem resulted from a reversal of the first. After 1740, for the first time since its founding, Boston’s population growth ceased, and a long period of stability—or stagnation—ensued, not to be reversed until the 1790s.36 The latter has been seen as decline, in that the size and value of Boston’s economy deteriorated. The poverty and social fragmentation that is observed from the latter part of the provincial period to the early national period in Boston has been accurately set in the context of urban scarcity rather than urban growth. By the middle of the eighteenth-century Boston had reached its optimum urban size as a pre-industrial seaport on the fringe of the British Empire and in a Massachusetts that was persistently agrarian.37

In that case, after about 1740 the activities of the Overseers were adjustments to limited economic development and population equilibrium. The Overseers had evolved from an agency designed to cope with growth and complexity to one that administered to the poor in a limited or declining economy, still distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving poor, and the transient and resident poor. They had coordinated the few private efforts to deal with poverty, such as Andrew Oliver’s Spinning School in the 1720s or the grandiose John Hancock-led Society for Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor of the 1750s. But those “charitable” private enterprises were not ultimately philanthropic, nor did they pretend to be; they were devised chiefly to relieve the tax burden on the town’s merchants and capitalists.38 For most of the eighteenth century there was some organized private, voluntary charity for some of the deserving poor. Most of that charity came directly from special fund-raising programs in Boston’s churches.

Yet the growth in the number, membership, and sectarian diversity of churches did not translate into a significant rise in the role of churches as givers of alms. In fact, the contrary was often the case. From the founding of the first church in 1630 to 1792, at least nineteen churches were established in Boston, and thirteen of those congregations were founded after 1692, the year in which the Overseers of the Poor office was created. The proportion of poor relief that came from public money appears to have risen even as the numbers of churches increased.39 The Quarterly Charity Lecture (QCL), inspired and led for a time by Cotton Mather, was an inter-congregational charity that raised monies to distribute private “alms” to up to a dozen families a month in the town. The Scottish, Scotch-Irish, and Anglican communities in Boston were served throughout this period by “charitable societies” who helped the poor with their own direct funding. But here, as with the QCL, the amount of money and materials distributed was less than ten percent of what the Overseers expended in public funds for “outdoor” relief. In fact, Samuel Whitwell, the Overseer for Ward 10 in the 1760s and 1770s, sometimes gave out nearly as much public funds for outdoor relief in his single ward as did the QCL for all of Boston.40 In any case, by 1772 the Overseers were incorporated by an act of the General Court that specifically granted them the right to administer most privately donated poor relief funds. After 1772 the General Court authorized the Overseers to act as sole agent for the distribution of any private donations to the poor, whether or not the recipients of the gifts, usually in the form of bequests, had been specified (see appendix 5). Moreover, it is not clear how poor were the recipients of private charity, or even outdoor public relief. The neediest of Boston’s poor would inevitably find themselves in the Almshouse if they deserved aid or in the Workhouse if they did not. The Overseers also solicited private funds for the deserving poor, usually by appealing directly to church congregations. Joseph Bennett comments favorably on the Overseers’ cooperation with the town’s churches in the 1740s: “the churches provide . . . good [outdoor] relief in so private a manner, that it is seldom known to any of the neighbors.” But then Bennett makes a telling distinction in describing the dependent poor as “the meaner sort” (that is, the needy, not the dangerous) who are “kept in a decent manner” in the Almshouse. The work of the Overseers was no doubt responsible for isolating the “meaner sort,” and for ensuring that there was “no such thing to be seen . . . as a strolling beggar.”41 It is worth noting that the Selectmen in 1744 organized a musical concert in Faneuil Hall to raise additional monies for the Overseers for the poor “out of doors.”42

In the absence of significant private charity, it was tax abatement that inspired the Town Meeting to develop a policy of granting tavern licenses to poor widows, and the Overseers advised on which widows were deserving.43 Here it would be extremely difficult to see the Overseers, most of whom were merchants, as being directed simply by a desire to “do good” as we might understand that meaning of benevolence. They were intended not simply to “do good” on behalf of the community’s conscience, although they did, but also to keep the streets clear of vagrants and deviants, and to attempt to reduce or eliminate the poor relief portion of the town and province tax rates.44

The Overseers’ workloads increased steadily along with their growing authority and the size of their constituency. For example, before 1739 the Almshouse had served also as the Workhouse. While it had long been felt to be cheaper and more efficient to support a fully dependent pauper in the Almshouse than in a private surrogate home, by the 1730s the mingling of the deserving poor with the “scum” of the town, the idle poor, was untenable for moral as well as space reasons. The general inadequacies of the old Almshouse prompted the building of a separate facility for the correction of the sturdy but idle poor between 1735 and 1739. The rules for the administration of the Workhouse (reproduced in appendix 4) were written by a committee of Overseers and were clearly more complex than any regulations that existed for supervision of the Almshouse, even when it had contained a Workhouse component. The new Workhouse was, in fact, an attempt at factory production and was designed not simply to better succor the deserving poor in the now roomier Almshouse but chiefly to sequester the idle poor to economize the use of public alms.45

The Workhouse was to be a profit-yielding enterprise based on oakum picking (part of the recycling of old rope). It would, it was hoped, simultaneously correct the idle poor and instill in them a habit of industry by obliging them to work to earn their keep, and a little more to boot, under strict codes of industrial discipline. Any revenues produced by the “house” were expected to cover the costs of materials, sustenance, and supervision. They did not. Still, even if the operation of the Workhouse continued to be subsidized by taxes, it functioned effectively as a minimum security prison of sorts, if not for convicted felons then at least for the potentially criminal. The same logic of fiscal and supervisory efficiency applies to the erection and operation of the Manufactory House of 1754, which attempted to fuse Almshouse and Workhouse functions in an innovative experiment in manufacturing for essentially private ends. Built by a combination of private and public funds, it was supervised by a committee of the Society for Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor. But the conduit from the society to the town’s poor ran through a committee of the Overseers, which provided the needy of Boston as the labor force for the society. In the Manufactory, as in the Workhouse, it was hoped that the poor would be gainfully employed, acquire rudimentary industrial skills, and be made to be self-sufficient and virtuous, always with a view to reducing taxes. Attempts to defray workhouse costs by fusing workhouse function with the objectives of profit-making “manufactories” were made in other American cities, and Alexander Hamilton in New York, and Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia can be seen as sharing John Hancock’s failed vision in Boston.46

After the scheme failed, in the 1760s, the building was being used occasionally by the Overseers for the employment of the few “vagrant, idle and dissolute persons” who overflowed from the Workhouse. A controversial and amusing episode in the Manufactory’s history concerned Lord Hillsborough’s order that the vacant building be used to house British troops in 1768. Charges were made by Governor Bernard against the Overseers for trying to obstruct the quartering of the troops. It was claimed that the Overseers had allowed the “workhouse itself [to be] opened and the people confined there were permitted to go into the Manufactory House [which was then] kept filled with the outcast of the Workhouse & the Scum of the Town to prevent its being used for the accommodation of the King’s troops.” Although the Overseers blandly denied this, there can be little doubt that they used their not insignificant means to interfere with an unwelcome royal command. The Manufactory’s fate was left in the end to a variety of private uses. The location of the building, at the edge of the Common, was close enough to the Workhouse, Almshouse, and Bridewell to form a large public welfare and security nexus that survived in that location to the very end of the eighteenth century. There the insane as well as the destitute were supervised by the Overseers and their appointees, the keepers’ own internal bureaucracy. They identified, arbitrated, and executed all the laws governing poverty and poverty-related problems, so that constables and prison keepers, in addition to their own appointees, were subject to their authority.47

It did not matter, in the end, whether the causes of poverty were providential or sociological, because the dependent and especially the idle poor were impediments to social harmony and order. The organic model of community held that no one should be a charge to the aggregate or collective whole except in the rarest cases.48 Yet even “deserving” transients, who were the object of much of the Overseers’ work, could be treated with leniency, as when in 1741 “one of the Overseers . . . sent . . . George Berry who came from the Bay, to the Almshouse on the Province Charge and desire[d] . . . a certificate of his being a proper object of public charity.” But a year earlier, in another case, the Overseers had demanded and received payment for their “charity”: “the Overseers . . . received for the use of the Workhouse . . . firewood . . . amounting to thirty-one pounds ten shillings . . . of Thomas Fisher who became bound to indemnify the town on account of John Lashley, whom he imported into this town and who died in the Almshouse.”49 As always, families, testators, and even friends were initially obliged to provide for their poor relatives, one way or another. And that obligation extended to residents who had given verbal bond for transients (see appendix 1, section 9). That principle had long informed Puritan attitudes toward the poor and clearly influenced the Overseers in their work. They assumed that where possible the price for being poor would be borne by the poor themselves or their kin.

If John Winthrop’s utopian vision had ever had a hope of realization, that hope was certainly gone by the age of the Overseers. But some of the communal ideal nevertheless survived to shape and guide eighteenth-century Boston’s public administration. In fact, the purpose of poor relief meant a bit more than a cool measuring of costs and public order, at least into the early decades of the eighteenth century. For example, Cotton Mather had advocated a missionary approach to the deserving poor in the first quarter of the eighteenth century that was reminiscent of Winthrop’s appeal to Christian duty. In Bonifacius in 1710 he urged Bostonians, not as taxpayers but as Christians and neighbors, to form “societies” to “relieve the widow, the orphan and the afflicted.” He urged each Christian to do “extensive service for the Kingdom of our great Saviour in the world” to redress “the . . . distresses of his poor, mean, miserable neighbors.” Mather’s approach, like his role in the Quarterly Charity Lectures, is instructive in that it was not only as rational as any in its time but was also underscored by the residue of Puritan moral imperative. Another great civic activist of the age, Samuel Sewall, has become a model and even a caricature of the neighborly Christian provincial. Yet he served as an Overseer in the first decade of the eighteenth century. He was intellectually tied to Calvin’s Institutes and to the conviction that while supervision of the poor was a civic responsibility, its effective amelioration required the warmth of private Christian compassion.50

The “charitable” social spirit of Sewall and Mather was less apparent in the discourse of the clergy and lay moralists of mid-century Boston. Then, leading clergymen such as Thomas Barnard, Charles Chauncy, and Samuel Cooper and the economic moralist John Hancock urged make-work schemes to reduce taxes, without much appeal to the souls of the employers of destitute labor. Indeed, the language of those who attacked all poverty as “idleness” suggests that they little bothered about the fate of their own souls in the matter of “charity.” At least a century earlier, Hancock’s merchant predecessors had committed themselves less conditionally to assisting the poor. But the 121 subscribers to the 1735–39 public Workhouse construction fund and the more than 200 subscribers to the 1752–54 private Manufactory fund were unabashedly concerned with tax reduction. Their motives for “investing” in the poor are in sharp contrast to Robert Keayne’s 1660 bequest, which was an exercise in atonement. The mid-eighteenth-century clerics used their pulpits to thunder forth on matters of public policy and to exhort the idle poor to save their souls with hard work. There is something quite practical, as well as ironic, in the Virgilian agricultural motto for the “Rules of the Workhouse” of 1739 which informs the keepers and the kept that labor improbus omnia vincit (“ceaseless labor always triumphs”).51 In the end, the great secular corollary to Winthrop’s spiritual objectives remained and the chief legacy of Winthrop’s experiment in social conformity and moral responsibility, the town, was the locus of social stability and security. The town could be cosmopolitan Boston or a rural or frontier hamlet of fifty families.

The Overseers records are more than an illustration of how a senior civic bureaucracy functioned. Even in their fragments and broken sequences the equally striking impression of the manuscript record is to identify the many thousands who failed in a variety of ways in the eighteenth-century economy. Especially in the lists of more than eight thousand transients whom the public officials of Boston warned out between 1745 and 1792, the records reveal a system of civil authority that was emphatically parochial in its concerns even as the world around it was increasingly mobile and cosmopolitan.52 But the human face of the statistics is portrayed in the names and destinies of hundreds of identified children and youths who passed through the Overseers’ hands. For example, in the second half of the century the Overseers bound more than 1,000 children to apprenticeships and domestic and agricultural service. An average of between 15 and 20 children a year were indentured between 1740 and 1800, with over 220 being bound out by the Overseers in the economically troubled decade of the 1760s. Lawrence Towner has produced an exhaustive and touching portrait of the indentures of hundreds of boys and girls who were taken from poor families, under the provisions of the 1704, 1722, and 1735 laws in particular, and put into service. Over 60 percent were sent out of Boston, and over two-thirds of those went into farm labor.53

The records show that poverty fell hardest on women and children, and hundreds of single women and their children were cared for in the Almshouse in the second half of the eighteenth century. Significant numbers of pregnant transient women and their families, along with other women with illegitimate pregnancies, were supported by the Overseers. For the entire transcribed record, estimates from the Overseers’ clerks’ entry books show that about 40 percent of the more than seven thousand names in the nearly six thousand Almshouse admission entries between 1757 and 1800 were of white adult women. Another 37 percent were adult males. These ratios varied over time and according to circumstances and by the end of the eighteenth-century the proportion of children in the Almshouse fell while the numbers and percentages of single white males rose. Overall, children made up an astonishing 21 percent of admissions; most unaccompanied children were in the Almshouse for very brief periods, however, usually a matter of days, before being bound out by the Overseers to service or apprenticeship. Some two-thirds of all children who went through the Almshouse were unaccompanied or arrived with one or more siblings and no adult company.54 These children were the principal source of the indentures that Towner has identified and studied, but there was nothing to prevent the Overseers from removing a child from his or her parents in the Workhouse if, for example, the conditions of the 1735 law were not met by the parents. And many children were indentured directly from their homes by the Overseers without ever going into either the Almshouse or Workhouse. White women with one or more children accounted for slightly over 5 percent of total admissions, and “families,” that is a husband and wife with or without children, made up about 2.5 percent of admissions. Workhouse admissions ran at a rate of between 20 percent and 30 percent of the Almshouse numbers. The evidence is strong that women and children predominated in the Workhouse at even higher ratios than they did in the Almshouse.55

As noted, the Overseers supported many widows in their applications for business licenses, usually to sell strong drink “out of doors” (that is, outside their residences). While there is no doubt that Boston’s widow population was large and therefore a major problem for the Overseers, the figure of twelve hundred widows noted in the Boston Records at mid-century included a great number of “grass widows”: abandoned women or the wives of mariners. As late as 1765 the adult white female population of Boston was thirty-six hundred, which would then suppose a widowed rate of 33 percent. That is an unlikely ratio of bereaved women. Still, many hundreds of women needed outdoor relief, and women were overrepresented at all levels of poor relief. Many hundreds of underemployed laborers and unskilled workers were kept off the poor rolls by being given preference in public works projects such as street, dam, and wharf construction and maintenance, on the advice of the Overseers.56

Another important function of the Overseers was their role in the inevitable smallpox epidemics that ravaged Boston every decade or so. In the great infections of 1721, 1730, and 1752, and in the last major eighteenth-century outbreak, in 1792, the Overseers played a crucial part in dealing with the emotional and logistical needs of a population that suffered as much as a 50 percent infection rate. The 1721 epidemic killed 850 persons, about 7.7 percent of the total population, and over 80 percent of the total deaths in Boston that year, 1,100. The numbers of deaths in Boston in 1721 and 1752 were the highest recorded in the town in any year after its founding. In addition to poor relief, the Overseers’ had a central role in public health that included the running of a “well house,” first on Spectacle Island and after 1737 on Rainsford Island, where smallpox victims could be quarantined and restored. Also, any smallpox victims in the Workhouse were removed to the Almshouse for care and convalescence, indicating an absence of medical care in the Workhouse. Occasional eruptions of smallpox in the town caused alarm for the Overseers, at least down to the 1790s. By then the great epidemics were in the past.57

In 1752 the Overseers not only assisted in inoculating the population but also tended to the sick, organized the burial of the dead, and made sure that the great exodus from the town was orderly. Also, in addition to their political actions during the 1768 billeting imbroglio, the Overseers’ authority and skill was invaluable during the great military evacuation of Boston in 1776. Although the principal role of the Overseers was clearly in the administration of poor relief, their central role in the maintenance of public order allowed them the scope to act in a variety of ways in a variety of circumstances.58

The Overseers adapted themselves to fluctuating economic and demographic conditions and to the concomitant levels of poverty and dependency during the eighteenth century against a backdrop of political change. There were at least four distinct phases of jurisdictional order in Boston in the eighteenth century: the crown authority established by the provincial charter of 1692, the extra-legal patriot governments of the 1768–1776 period, the independent constitutional state of Massachusetts of the 1780s, and finally, the inclusion of the state into the republic. One might note an additional early phase in terms of the Overseers. Coming into being at the very end of an interlude between the original Puritan charter and the representative crown charter, they inherited much of the earlier administrative ethic. Each of these political phases coincided with social and economic disruption. For example, the numbers of paupers charged to the province and later the state increased in relation to town-supported paupers as levels of transiency increased with the wars of 1756 and 1775.

Also, during and after the War for Independence, the emergence of a “patriotic” and later a “national” identity was manifest in the way the Overseers began to discriminate in their treatment of transients. African-Americans appear in greater numbers after 1780, when emancipation made instant paupers of many of them. Poor African-Americans had not appeared in any conspicuous way in the Almshouse before the War for Independence but their numbers in the Almshouse doubled in the 1780s and doubled again by 1800.59

Yet as one of the most thorough studies of Massachusetts poverty after 1750 notes, independence and the new national ethos did not immediately change the way the poor were treated and did not ease the residency requirements of the waves of transient families who swept through Boston in the 1780s and 1790s. Indeed, despite the rapidly expanding criteria for settlement rights between 1750 and the liberal legislation of 1793, the frequency of warning out remained high and in fact surged in the 1790s. The “settlement” laws that governed the rights of residency in Massachusetts began to bend only in the second and third decades of the nineteenth-century; nonetheless, some residency criteria survived, and warning out was available to local authorities in residual form even in the late nineteenth century.60 What is important here though, is that throughout the course of these changes, the role and activity of the Boston Overseers of the Poor was constant. Indeed, up to the moment when the Overseers’ authority was shoved to the margins of poor relief after 1823, they functioned as they had throughout the eighteenth century, retaining not only legal cachet but the fiscal means to enforce their mandate as it had been first defined in 1692.

Questions remain about the extent and nature of poverty in eighteenth-century Boston, and the issue will continue to attract students of early American society just as poverty attracts headlines today. The questions that historians have asked recently of social conditions in eighteenth-century American port cities seem to be as pertinent to twenty-first century America as to the eighteenth century: Were there growing economic disparity and disrupted employment patterns? Was poverty expanding because of social dislocation and transience? Did rising levels of poverty echo a rising wave of public disaffection? Was there an upper-class backlash against the poor? Were the poor demanding more and more of the common wealth? Were the poor feared? Does the extent of eighteenth-century poverty blemish the roseate picture of liberal democracy that might have accompanied the Revolution? These questions remain contentious but the answer to at least the last question is yes, according to some historians who paint nightmarish images of a Boston on the eve of the Revolution in which close to 10 percent of the town’s population was either in the Almshouse or on relief, and up to 25 percent of the adult population was too poor to be rated for tax.61

Contemporaries too painted grim images of a growing mass of dependent poor. The seventeenth-and eighteenth-century minutes of the Selectmen and of the Town Meeting are thick with reports and laments of economic distress, moral decline, and social fragmentation, and much can be gleaned from those sources. The cry of economic doom is repeated so often in the records that it cannot be taken at face value unless it is matched to other kinds of evidence of economic calamity and social disorder. It is tempting, in fact, to think of the spiritual jeremiads of the seventeenth-century evolving into the economic laments of the eighteenth-century. Even during the best of economic times there was private and public verbal hand-wringing about inevitable economic failure and anticipation of social and moral degeneration.62

While phrases such as “a growing number of poor” sprinkled the town records throughout the colonial period, events after the end of King George’s War in 1748 clearly alarmed authorities. Their cries became more frequent and shrill during the postwar decline of the Boston distilling and shipbuilding economies in the early 1750s, when the town lost about a third of its taxpayers, unemployment among the unskilled and in the “maritime trades” created a great “number of thoughtless, idle and sottish persons,” and the “charge of the poor [rose] from . . . fifteen hundred pounds to ten thousand.” Yet for all that, and with little evidence of neighborly charity to offset the demands on a shrinking tax base, the Overseers, while their records reflect an increase in poverty generally and in the numbers of transients and dependent poor specifically, managed their responsibilities in a remarkably efficient way that hardly suggests a collapsing social order, blighted by roving bands of beggars and the spread of destitution.63

By and large, the Overseers records do add another measure to our understanding of eighteenth-century Boston by demonstrating the constant presence of poverty and the consistency of the poor relief model. What the records also indicate, as much as anything else, is an absence of significant private charity in Boston in the eighteenth-century, at least until its last decade. The domination of poor relief by a modern bureaucracy of considerable discipline and power in at least one early American urban society does not mean that the poor were treated wholly as faceless ciphers. The Overseers dealt with the poor, the sick, and the aged in a way that indicated a personal connection with them, even if their first responsibility was to public order and fiscal efficiency. John Hancock’s version of economic “liberalism” in the second half of the eighteenth century required a view of the dependent poor as self-made failures. That would not change until all the poor could be seen as victims of social circumstances, and when their condition could be viewed as neither providential nor self-inflicted. That would have to wait until the giving of private charity could be seen as a civic virtue as well as a civic necessity. What is of particular note here is that Chauncy, Hancock and their supporters on the one hand, and the Overseers as a group on the other, belonged to the same eighteenth-century economic and social class, yet each group projected quite different attitudes or sentiments when it came to the application of public welfare.

In another usage, “liberalism” as a reform value began in the nineteenth century to shift the explanations of the causes of poverty away from the poor as authors of their own condition toward the idea that they were the victims of misfortune, of external social and economic forces. In the early nineteenth century, in fact, the giving of charity became a measure of citizenship and republican virtue. Private philanthropic associations flourished in the early republic, and there is persuasive evidence that what Conrad Wright has described as a wave of genuine humanitarianism impulse was fueled by evangelical zeal.64

But the eighteenth-century model of poor relief would eventually be reconfirmed as a public and legislative responsibility whose end was as much the sequestering and control of the poor as it was beneficence. And even if providence gave way to circumstance as an explanation for the root cause of dependency, that too would be challenged by other explanations, including the idea that public alms could cause poverty to expand; as Josiah Quincy argued in 1821, the “poor . . . begin to consider [alms] as a right” if they are given unconditionally. Quincy was insistent that all public poor relief be conditional, that outdoor relief be stopped and public Almshouses as refuges of indoor care for the deserving poor be converted to “Houses of Industry” (Workhouses), and that even relief for the so-called deserving or “impotent” poor should not be encouraged because of “the difficulty of discriminating between the able poor and the impotent poor [in the] degree of actual impotency.”65

It may be useful to look to the later nineteenth century to trace the conjunction of voluntary and involuntary dependence as simply reverse sides of the same coin. Even though the early burst of nineteenth-century philanthropy and private charity left a minimal legacy for treatment of the urban poor in Boston later in the century, it had indicated some measure of benevolence toward the poor in what turned out to be a brief era of private, voluntary support. The records of the nineteenth-century Overseers, albeit in their reduced role, agree with that era’s hope that private philanthropy could remedy the problem of dependency.66 In contrast, the eighteenth-century Overseers had much less optimism about human nature and the prospects for eliminating need, even if they did humanize the contact between the public givers and the individual receivers of alms. They understood that some of the poor were helpless and blameless in their condition, and if they were not as cynical as Quincy, they understood that some others of the poor should pay, in some way, for their support.

The history of poor law and poor relief in Massachusetts in the two centuries after the English arrival began with John Winthrop’s acknowledgment of the presence of the poor and the need for a corporate approach to their needs. The arc runs through Cotton Mather’s moral imperative of good works to Josiah Quincy’s view that simply relieving the poor made sinners of the poor. The office of the Overseers of the Poor was the chief agency for the administration of the policies, theories, and law governing the poor for over a hundred years of that history. At no time did the Overseers shape policy in isolation from the larger public authority, but neither were they mere custodians. No other small group in Boston’s history has had such a consistent relationship with the poor.67 In their actions, and as representatives of what might be called the common interest, the Overseers made a clear distinction between the poverty that came from voluntary idleness and the poverty of incapacity. Despite Quincy’s single-minded solution of the workhouse, the Overseers’ model of deserved charity might have served as a moral legacy for poor relief in Boston after the Revolution. It did not, because as the Revolution assumed to liberate it also removed most of the vestiges of older communal charity, especially the notion of “deserving poor” and the practice of outdoor relief in the same way it removed political “toryism.” In other words, as America in general and Boston in particular adopted a republican approach to social and civic matters, the older paternalistic patterns of noblesse oblige were removed slowly from the imperatives of poor relief.68

The Overseers retained their original mandate as the single dominant authority in the supervision of the dependent poor in Boston for a very long time—in fact, all the way to 1823, when reforms in civic government began to eclipse their authority. The first major challenge to the Overseers’ monopoly immediately followed the incorporation of the City of Boston in 1822 and the election of Josiah Quincy Jr. as Boston’s second mayor in 1823. In the course of his highly publicized 1821 report on the poor laws in Massachusetts, Quincy had included an attack on the “abuse of public charities” by the poor and, by extension, the Overseers’ abuse of the system because of their preference for in-home relief as an alternative to institutionalized care or forced work programs. Quincy, reflecting the more disciplinary and punitive workhouse approach of his era, succeeded in usurping the power of the Overseers in a political struggle that ended a century and a half of hegemony. He would later explain his 1821–23 attack on the Overseers in his self-indulgent A Municipal History of . . . Boston (1852). The Overseers ultimately lost their local sovereignty in part because the city administration derived its legislative power from the new city charter rather than from the administrative arm of the state legislature. After 1822 the long era of the Town Meeting, which despite its enormous administrative authority had always been subject to the executive supervision of the General Court, was over.69

The original Puritan neighborly mandate to care for the poor had survived with institutional modification down to the Revolution. It had derived from a highly personalized system of outrelief that evolved, out of necessity and opportunity, into a version of institutionalized charity. That mandate was destroyed in the wake of the Revolution as civic opportunists such as Josiah Quincy made civic paternalism a sin and statistical rationalism a virtue. The poor in the new republic would be treated as a drag on civic enterprise, rather than a civic obligation. According to Quincy, to succor the poor, even the “deserving” poor, would cause the poor to multiply (as Malthus predicted). Quincy’s ostensibly democratic reform of civic government was predicated on the principle that the older paternalism was contradictory to liberal democracy because it favored an undeserving plurality, the poor, without the consent of other pluralities.70

This process, repeated throughout the former colonies, is more easily traced in the port cities of America than in the rural communities, since each colony became a state and then a part of the new nation. The example here of Boston, the “public city” of colonial and early national America and its experience with poor relief, is one of the paradoxes of the American Revolution. As crime became a more compelling concern of local government and as the blame for poverty and crime became associated more with groups and individuals and less with social conditions and circumstances, the treatment of the poor became harsher and depersonalized in the early national period. The imitation of British poverty control mechanisms by Boston authorities, who were elected rather than appointed under the new democratic city charter of 1822, contrasted vividly and ironically with the moral, intimate, and humane dicta of Winthrop and a legacy of his vision, the Overseers of the Poor.