A STATED Meeting of the Society was held, at the invitation of Mr. Zechariah Chafee, Jr., at the Signet Club, 46 Dunster Street, Cambridge, on Thursday, April 16, 1936, at eight o’clock in the evening, the President, Samuel Eliot Morison, in the chair.
The records of the last Stated Meeting were read and approved.
The Corresponding Secretary announced the death of Sir Charles Harding Firth, an Honorary Member, on February 19, 1936.
The Corresponding Secretary reported the receipt of a letter from Mr. Robert William Glenroie Vail, accepting Resident Membership in the Society.
The Council recommended for adoption by the Society the following amendments to the By-laws:
Chapter II, Art. 2, in the last sentence, strike out the words “nor shall more than one candidate for Honorary Membership be reported at any meeting.”
Chapter III, Art. 1, in the first clause, strike out the words “January” and “March” so that this clause shall read: “There shall be Stated Meetings of the Society on the Twenty-first day of November and on the Fourth Thursday of December, February, and April, at such time and place as the Council shall appoint.”
Chapter VII, Art. 1, omit the words “and on their acceptance issue the proper diploma.”
These amendments were unanimously adopted by the Society.
Mr. Curtis Nettels, of Madison, Wisconsin, was elected a Corresponding Member of the Society.
The President appointed the following committees in anticipation of the Annual Meeting:
To nominate candidates for the several offices,—Messrs. Zechariah Chafee, Jr., John Noble, and Robert Ephraim Peabody.
To examine the Treasurer’s accounts,—Messrs. Matt Bushnell Jones and Henry Lee Shattuck.
and the Boston Newspaper Press
ONE unanticipated consequence of the Stamp Act was the part it played in effecting a revolution in American journalism. However useful the newspapers may earlier have proved as disseminators of information, they had never dared to act as makers and molders of public opinion. Any evidence of political waywardness or opposition on their part had met with prompt repressive measures by the authorities; and few printers had been so bold as to risk a second offense. The Stamp Act, however, opened the way for a decisive assertion of the power of the press. Because of the heavy duties inflicted on all branches of their business the printers believed that they faced ruin should the act be allowed to go into effect. At the same time the popular resistance to the law in the colonies crippled the arm of the government and warranted a resistance by the printers which earlier would have subjected them to drastic penalties. As a result they rushed eagerly into the fray, forming alliances everywhere with the Sons of Liberty and other subversive elements.1097
Never again during the period of Revolutionary agitation was the printing craft to display so united a front. All four of the newspapers published in Boston at the time openly defied parliament by continuing to appear without stamps; two of these were presently to side with the government in the contest over the Townshend Acts. The successful outcome of the colonial uprising, evidenced by the repeal of the Stamp Act in March, 1766, gave the printers a feeling of profound satisfaction and a heightened sense of their importance to the community. “The press hath never done greater service since its first invention,” declared a writer in the Boston Post-Boy.1098 If some of the editors in retrospect felt qualms at their unwonted activity during the crisis and resolved to mend their ways, the more energetic ones were determined never to relinquish the rôle which a fortunate combination of circumstances had enabled them to play.
The reign of peace and good will which followed the repeal in most of the colonies found the popular leaders in Boston alert to the possibility of fresh attacks on colonial liberties. Local issues kept them wrangling with Governor Francis Bernard, for they had the humorless habit of seeing in every effort of the executive to thwart their desires an invasion of their fundamental rights. They did not fail to call the newspapers to their aid. “As the Business of the faction is to conduct the Proceedings of the Genl Court to the purpose of inflamg the People,” commented Bernard, “they print everything.”1099 In the jaundiced view of one of the governor’s supporters,
To feign a red-hot zeal for freedom’s cause,
To mouth aloud for Liberties and Laws,
For public good to bellow all abroad,
Serves well the purposes of private fraud.1100
“I have read and read,” declared a writer in the Boston Evening-Post, January 19, 1767, “till my head has aked, the many pieces in one paper and another, some for, others against, and more concerning the G——r.” When midsummer of 1767 brought what the Boston Gazette called a “Dearth of News and Politicks,” its proprietors took occasion to spread on their first page the text of the English Petition of Right (1628), that “beautiful and strong Pillar of the English Constitution, whose Foundation is laid in the natural Rights of Men,” and followed it the next week with long extracts from Magna Charta.1101
Fresh news from England, however, afforded more promising material for feeding the spirit of American liberty. The passage by the House of Commons of the bill suspending the New York legislature until it should comply with the Quartering Act raised hopes in Boston of the revival of a general continental outcry against parliament. “If our legislative authority can be suspended whenever we refuse obedience to laws we never consented to,” asserted “A. F.” in the Boston Gazette, August 31, 1767, “we may as well … acknowledge ourselves slaves.” “Sui Imperator,” writing in the same issue, recorded that “my blood is chill’d, and creeps cold through my stiffened veins” because of the “shocking” news. Holding with “A. F.” that the rights of all the colonies were involved, he recalled the lines of the “celebrated Poet”:
When Flames your Neighbour Dwellings seize
With instant Rage your own shall blaze,
Which if neglected rises higher.
But these fervid appeals to universal principles awakened no answering enthusiasm, even in Boston. In Bernard’s opinion, “a general Abhorrence of the inflammatory Papers” was “expressed thro’ the Town.”1102
The first efforts to stir up sentiment against the Townshend revenue acts met with equal failure.1103 This legislation, though adopted at the end of June, 1767, was not to go into effect until November 20. Perhaps the Boston public suspected the political disinterestedness of the popular leaders. Perhaps it had merely become bored, temporarily, with questions of high constitutional right. At any rate, public opinion in the town and province remained quiescent until the local press in December began to publish the “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies.”1104
John Dickinson, the pseudonymous author of this series, had submitted some of the earlier installments in advance to James Otis for his approval. “Whenever the Cause of American Freedom is to be vindicated,” he wrote Otis, Massachusetts “must, as she has hitherto done, first kindle the Sacred Flame, that on such occasions must warm and illuminate the Continent.”1105 From the standpoint of the popular party in Boston, Dickinson’s lucid exposition of the issues at stake came as a great boon. Emanating from a distant province, the “Farmer’s Letters” took from the controversy the imputation of local partisan squabbling and lifted it to the plane of an intercolonial struggle for fundamental liberties. So opportunely was this helping hand stretched forth from Philadelphia that some of the governor’s intimates believed certain of the “Letters” had originated in Boston. Bernard himself could not agree, for he opined that “the Faction here has not a Writer of Abilities equal to this Work.”1106 Certainly no spokesman of the Boston “faction” could have expressed himself with such magisterial calm and absence of invective.
The radical leaders, of course, lost no time in obeying Dickinson’s injunction to “kindle the Sacred Flame.” As Bernard later observed, “The Success which had attended the Fl[a]gitious Publications in the Boston Newspapers, on the Subject of the Stamp Act, … was too obvious to escape the Attention of those, who wished to see the same opposition given to the Subsequent Revenue Laws.…”1107 In every way in their power they proceeded to excite general resentment against the Townshend Acts and to discredit the representatives of the royal authority in the province. For this purpose James Otis, Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, Jr., Joseph Warren, John Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Cushing, and others frequented the dingy office on Queen Street where Benjamin Edes and John Gill printed the Boston Gazette. There the group exchanged ideas and settled on timely means to galvanize the public pulse.1108 Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson learned that meetings were also held “at regular stated times and places in the evenings, at least once a week,” whence “the newspapers were generally furnished with speculations and compositions for the service of the cause in which they were engaged.”1109 Perhaps it was one such gathering that John Adams recorded in his diary in an entry descriptive of a Sabbath day well spent:
Heard Dr. Cooper in the forenoon, Mr. Champion of Connecticut in the afternoon, and Mr. Pemberton in the evening at the charity lecture. Spent the remainder of the evening and supped with Mr. Otis, in company with Mr. Adams, Mr. William Davis, and Mr. John Gill. The evening spent in preparing for the next day’s newspaper,—a curious employment, cooking up paragraphs, articles, occurrences, &c., working the political engine!1110
The first two of this supper group were, in Governor Bernard’s opinion, not only “two of the Chief Leaders of the Faction in the House,” but also “the principal Managers of the Boston Gazette.”1111 Samuel Adams in particular possessed superb ability as a propagandist—a talent which Hutchinson stigmatized as that of “artfully and fallaciously insinuating into the minds of his readers a prejudice against the characters of all whom he attacked, beyond any other man I ever knew.”1112 More than twenty-five of Adams’s journalistic pen names have been identified, with others strongly suspected.1113 It is clear he wished to convey the impression that he was a whole troop of writers. His fellow-members of the radical band did their part, however, helping to flood the community with ideas which, to Bernard’s way of thinking, were “of the most daring nature, denying the Authority of the Supreme Legislature and tending to excite the people to an Opposition to its Laws.”1114 “Our Liberty lads,” wrote James Murray, a British sympathizer, “have such a rage for publication that everything must go to the press and be seen through their distorted medium.…”1115
Yet they practised the art of concealment as skilfully as that of disclosure. Thus, when Governor Bernard failed to find any newspaper mention of a futile mob demonstration against one of the customs inspectors, he learned upon inquiry that “the Sons of Liberty had forbid all the Printers publishing any Thing of it.” To the Earl of Hillsborough he directed the not unnatural query, “If the King’s Government should assume such a Power, what would they say?”1116
Next to the Gazette, the Boston Evening-Post, printed by Thomas and John Fleet, stood forth as a popular organ. Under the titular disguise of “Candidus” Samuel Adams wrote for it in 1768 and 1769. Joseph Hawley, as we shall see, was another active contributor to its pages. The Evening-Post, however, freely opened its columns to both parties. According to a Tory writer, the “Dirt-casters” of the radical party filled “all the Pages and Columns” of the Gazette and only the “Holes and Corners and other private Purlieus” of the Evening-Post.1117 The chief wrath of the conservatives therefore fell on the Gazette—“that torrent of envious calumny, dirtily pour’d forth” from a “sink of meanness and defamation.”1118 “The temper of the people may be surely learnt from that infamous paper”; attested Andrew Oliver,
it is the very thing that forms their temper; for if they are not in the temper of the writer at the time of the publication, yet it is looked upon as the ORACLE, and they soon bring their temper to it.1119
It was probably someone with Oliver’s views who gave currency to the story of a negro who, learning from Edes one day on the street that there was no late news, replied: “Well, if you’ve nothing new, massa Edes, I s’pose you print the same dam old lie over again.”1120
Appreciating full well the trouble-breeding gifts of the popular leaders, the guardians of British authority had seized an early opportunity to serve dire warning on persons who too freely criticized the government. The immediate occasion was two articles by Joseph Hawley in the Evening-Post, July 6 and 13, 1767, which scored the Superior Court for its decision in a case growing out of the anomalous conditions produced by the nullification of the Stamp Act.1121 At the August term of the court Thomas Hutchinson, as chief justice, declared in his charge to the grand jury that “Pretty high Notions of the Liberty of the Press … have prevailed of late among us; but it is very dangerous to meddle with, and strike at this Court.” Liberty of the press, he continued, meant nothing more than “a Freedom for every Thing to pass from the Press without a Licence,” not “a Liberty of reviling and calumniating all Ranks and Degrees of Men with Impunity, all Authority with Ignominy.”1122 Nevertheless he prudently refrained from asking the grand jury for a presentment. At the September term, however, he disbarred Hawley from further practice before the court because of the “injurious and scandalous Reflections.”
As the opening gun in the government’s campaign the incident failed of its intended effect. “Freedom of Speech,” declared Edes and Gill in their issue of November 9, “is the great Bulwark of Liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the Terror of Traytors and Oppressors, and a Barrier against them.” Hawley, unterrified, renewed his attack on the Superior Court in the Evening-Post, January 18, 1768, and he found ample support from other radical scribblers.1123 The government therefore resolved to try the issue once more. An appropriate opportunity quickly presented itself. “A True Patriot” (Joseph Warren), addressing an unnamed official in the Boston Gazette, February 29, 1768, denounced his “obstinate Perseverance in the Path of Malice,” and closed with the sentiment:
Men totally abandoned to Wickedness, can never merit our Regard, be their Stations ever so high.
“If such Men are by God appointed,
“The Devil may be the Lord’s anointed.”1124
Rightly fitting the shoe to his own foot, Governor Bernard on March 1 referred the “libellous and seditious publication” to the Council, which unanimously advised him to seek action from the legislature. Accordingly, he next turned to that body, declaring that, though he had “been used to treat the publications in the Boston Gazette, with the contempt they deserve,” the present one, “if unnoticed, must endanger the very being of government….” As was to be expected, the Council, acting now in its legislative capacity, officially recorded its “utmost Abhorrence and Detestation” of the “said libel.” But the response of the House, given on the same day (March 3), was quite otherwise. That branch announced that, since the writer had named no one, it did not feel justified in taking notice of the matter. It then read the governor a lecture on the freedom of the press, “the great Bulwark of the Liberty of the People,” adding virtuously: “Should the proper Bounds of it be at any Time transgressed, … Provision is already made for the Punishment of Offenders in the common Course of the Law.”1125
The Council, despite its forthright declaration, flinched from angering the popular branch and the Boston mob by joining with the governor, as he desired, in prosecuting Edes and Gill, the printers. The advice of certain councilors to Bernard to let bad enough alone found no advocate, however, in Thomas Hutchinson. In his charge to the grand jury a few days later Hutchinson asserted:
There are People who make it their Business to furnish the Press with the most scandalous and defamatory Pieces. No Government,—in Europe, I am sure,—not one that is counted the most free, would have tolerated those libellous Pieces which we have seen in the public Prints, within this Twelve-month past.
After summoning a host of precedents to show that a libel did not require the naming of “any Person at all,” he instructed the grand jury that only by violating their oaths could they fail to make a presentment.1126 The members, greatly impressed, asked the attorney-general to prepare a bill; but overnight “Otis and his creatures”—Hutchinson’s phrase—busied themselves with the jurors and, by means best known to themselves, won over a narrow majority against a presentment.1127
The Gazette’s circle of writers chortled with glee. In the issue of March 14 Samuel Adams, masquerading as “Populus,” declared: “There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly TERRIBLE to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a FREE PRESS.” And “A True Patriot,” who had precipitated the incident, assured the public that he would continue to “strip the serpents of their stings, & consign to disgrace, all those guileful betrayers of their country.” Four days later a gathering of citizens to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act drank toasts to “The Boston-Gazette, and the worthy Members of the House who vindicated the Freedom of the PRESS,” and to “The worthy and independent Grand Jurors.”1128
But Hutchinson was not yet ready to cry quits. At the August term of the Superior Court he planned to reopen the issue. When the time came, however, he discovered that the grand jury contained some of the leaders of the mob, and, whether for this or for some other reason, he let the occasion pass with only a brief general allusion to the evil of “inflammatory, seditious Libels.”1129 At the March session of 1769 he frankly admitted that he had “no Hope of the ceasing of this atrocious Crime” through legal action. He could only hope that libels “are become so common, so scandalous, so entirely false and incredible, that … all Ranks among us will treat them with Neglect.”1130
In reality, the government party did not content itself with the supine course which Hutchinson’s words implied. Already it had taken steps to fight the devil with fire, to meet propaganda with propaganda. When the troubles over the Townshend Acts began, the only Boston newspaper with distinct leanings toward the government was the Massachusetts Gazette, and Boston News-Letter, published by Richard Draper, who since 1763 had been favored with the public printing of the governor and the Council. A mild-mannered man, frail in health, Draper lacked the pugnacity to meet the radical attacks blow for blow. In the hope of insuring a wider journalistic support a sheet hitherto inconspicuous, the Boston Post-Boy, was brought into line through the appointment of its proprietors, John Green and Joseph Russell, as printers to the newly established Customs Board. Hardly more than Draper, however, did they possess the requisite temper: John Adams described them as “quiet, harmless, dovelike, in-offensive.”1131 Something needed to be done to give greater unity and energy to the two papers. With this purpose in mind the Council at its meeting on March 3, 1768, after attesting its “utmost Abhorrence” of the abusive article by “A True Patriot,” proposed the establishment of a new publication, the Massachusetts Gazette. This should not be a separate sheet, but should be issued in umbilical connection with the two pro-British journals.
The plan, as consummated at the Council meeting on April 11, provided that each firm should accompany its regular weekly issue with one or more pages captioned The Massachusetts Gazette, “Published by Authority.” The arrangement went into effect on May 23, 1768, and for more than a year the Massachusetts Gazette was printed on Mondays as a part of the Boston Post-Boy and on Thursdays as a part of the Boston News-Letter,1132 Neither of the popular organs appeared so frequently as twice a week, but this advantage for the government was offset by the failure of its printers to develop that degree of belligerent advocacy which the situation required. This failure, it may be supposed, represented a defect of temperament in the editors, which was doubtless reënforced by a reluctance to goad the excitable populace to active reprisals.1133 Meanwhile the British authorities sought to draw the fangs of the opposition press by withholding from the Boston Gazette and the Evening-Post the advertising which the vice-admiralty court had customarily inserted concerning ship seizures and the like.1134 On September 25, 1769, the official experiment in counterpropaganda came to an end. By that time, as will shortly appear, a far more effective journalistic support had sprung up in an unexpected quarter and without any instigation from the government.
From the start the government’s attempt to manipulate public opinion excited jeers at the “Adam and Eve paper” and the “Court Gazette.” The printers of the Boston Gazette and the Evening-Post, nothing daunted by the loss of official advertising, eagerly lent their columns to fresh assaults on “British tyranny.” Again and again journalistic penmen flicked Bernard on the raw. Yet even after the riot over Hancock’s smuggling sloop Liberty the governor was of two minds as to whether bringing in British troops would help or hurt the cause he represented. The decision, however, rested with his superiors in England, who, distant from the scene, failed to appreciate the seismic potentialities in the local situation. A Boston Gazette article on September 5, 1768, which Bernard believed emanated from “the Cabinet of the Faction,” made him fearful lest the coming of the soldiers would precipitate armed insurrection.1135
As the time of their arrival drew near, he took up with the Council the question of providing quarters for the troops. In order to keep news of the plan from the Boston press, he enjoined or pledged the members to keep the proceedings secret and, as a further precaution, ordered the secretary to retain all copies of the minutes. But that body, increasingly radical in its sympathies and unwilling to lose the advantage of popular support, had the transactions published in the newspapers on October 10. Bernard hotly denounced the Council for its bad faith, maintaining that no government could operate successfully if in advance of action its intimate discussions were “canvassed by Tavern Politicians, and censured by News Paper Libellers”; but the spokesman for the Council replied that “the People in their present Temper would not bear with the keeping the Proceedings in Council secret.”1136
The rift with the Council reflected the even wider breach which the radical chieftains had opened between the governor and the populace. The final blow to Bernard’s usefulness came from the publication of some correspondence which he had carried on with the Earl of Hillsborough concerning conditions in Massachusetts. The Boston Gazette and the Evening-Post prepared the public mind by printing on April 3, 1769, a list of letters from Bernard which Lord North had laid before the House of Commons on the preceding November 28. Within a few days the copies of those which had reached Boston were struck off by Edes and Gill in pamphlet form.1137 Although the correspondence revealed few opinions which the governor had not openly divulged, his plain speech enraged the opposition, caused the Boston Gazette to break out in a rash of protest and invective, and led the Council to demand Bernard’s recall. The home government acquiescing, he sailed on August 1 to the accompaniment of a “Flag hoisted on Liberty Tree—the Bells Ringing—Great Joy to the People.”1138
The incident of the letters was not yet closed. Besides the original batch printed in April, the popular leaders later obtained a number of others, including some written by the customs commissioners. On September 4, before any of them had been published either in the radical press or in pamphlet form, James Otis, from an advance knowledge of their contents, inserted an “Advertisement” in the Boston Gazette, excoriating the customs commissioners for their “abusive misrepresentations” of himself and his countrymen. The next evening, at the British Coffee House, John Robinson, one of the commissioners, assaulted him with a cane, leaving him wounded and bleeding.1139 From this attack Otis never wholly recovered a mental balance originally none too steady; his usefulness to the patriot cause was largely ended. By the Boston Gazette the affair was promptly stigmatized as “the intended and nearly executed Assassination of Mr. Otis”; and even Samuel Adams, parading as “An Impartialist,” laboriously argued, though he could hardly have been convinced by his own evidence, that it was a “preconcerted plan to assassinate Mr. Otis.”1140
The affray revealed the combustible state of public feeling which the newspapers had helped to bring about. The presence of the soldiers, far from cooling passions, had merely excited the radicals to redoubled exertions. Realizing the danger to Massachusetts of marching too far ahead in the resistance to the ministry, the radicals devised means of indoctrinating the newspaper readers of other colonies with their own alarmist view of events. So secretly did they act that neither then nor since has it been possible to probe into the inner workings of the scheme. Beginning on September 28,1768, when the troops arrived from Halifax, they sent weekly budgets of news, colored according to their ardent fancy, to John Holt of the New-York Journal, who printed them in his columns about two weeks later, under a Boston date line, as the “Journal of Occurrences” or “Journal of the Times” or “Journal of Transactions.”1141 From this source, presumably, it was copied by the press all the way from Salem, Massachusetts, to Charleston, South Carolina. Week by week the “Journal” painted a partisan and sensational picture of events, giving high relief to the insolent behavior of the soldiery, the dangers of seduction and rape to which the women of Boston were exposed, the “tyranny” of the royal officials, and the gallant forbearance of the townsfolk. The following excerpt is typical:
Dec. 12, 1768. A Married Lady of this town was the other evening, when passing from one house to another, taken hold of by a soldier; who other-ways behaved to her with great rudeness; a woman near Long Lane was stopped by several soldiers, one of whom cried out seize and carry her off; she was much surprised, but luckily got shelter in a house near by; another woman was pursued by a soldier into a house near the north end, who dared to enter the same, and behave with great insolence: Several inhabitants while quietly passing the streets in the evening, have been knocked down by soldiers: One of the principal physicians of the town, was the last friday, about 12 o’clock at night, hailed by an officer, who was passing the street, but not of a patrolling party; the Doctor refused to answer, and resented this treatment; whereupon the officer seized him by the collar, asserting that he was on the King’s duty, and swearing that he would have an answer; this so provoked the Doctor that he gave him a blow, which bro’t the officer to the ground; he then seized him, but a soldier or two coming up at that instant, he tho’t proper to let him go. These are some further specimens of what we are to expect from our new conservators of the peace: The inhabitants however still preserve their temper and a proper decorum; in this they have doubtless disappointed and vexed their enemies: Under all the insults and injuries received, we are patiently waiting the result of our petitions and remonstrances, for a redress of grievances, and an alteration of measures: We cannot but flatter ourselves that administration must soon be convinced of the propriety and necessity of putting affairs upon the old footing, which experience now demonstrates to be the best for both countries.1142
The authors of the “Journal” lost no good opportunity to impress upon the colonists elsewhere that the plight of Massachusetts was the plight of all. Thus, after praising the Virginia Burgesses for their “vigour and boldness,” their “free and generous spirit” in backing up the Massachusetts Circular Letter, the “Journal” pointed the moral:
…as common sense dictates that each colony should feel for its neighbours under those severities to which all are exposed; there will, there must be a reciprocation of such kind of obligations and grateful sentiments, through all the colonies, to the disappointment and confusion of those who wish to divide and enslave us.1143
What most concerned the local representatives of the king’s prerogative was the “very great effect” the “Journal” had on Boston itself when, about two months or so after publication by Holt in New York, the Boston Evening-Post ran the articles. In Hutchinson’s opinion, “Every little insignificant fact relative to the troops” was distorted, “journal-wise, with glosses, exaggerations, and additional circumstances.” By the time the Bostonians read the items,
…there was a general remembrance remaining of the fact, so as to make the aggravations more easily received. Many false reports, which had been confuted, were mixed with true reports, and some pretended facts of an enormous nature were published, of which so much as the rumour could not be remembered.1144
Hutchinson cautioned his friend Israel Williams of Hatfield: “Nine tenths of what you read of the Journal of Occurrences in Boston is either absolutely false or grossly misrepresented.”1145
Most of those singled out for attack maintained a discreet silence. Bernard felt that “To set about answering these Falsities would be a Work like that of cleansing Augeas’s Stable, which is to be done only by bringing in a Stream strong enough to sweep away the Dirt & the Collectors of it all together.”1146 The irascible James Murray, however, was incapable of displaying such self-restraint. A recent appointee as justice of the peace, he had incurred popular displeasure by allowing his sugar refinery to be used by the soldiers as barracks. “Among many other notorious falsehoods, and groundless insinuations,” he protested in the Evening-Post, May 29, “I have been traduced, by gutted words, and otherwise, as a jacobite, a rebel, and a drunkard.” He called upon “the Author of that Journal, who undoubtedly lives in this town, to unmask, … and to support his charge, in public or in private, at his own option.”1147 But the anonymous person or persons had no intention of being drawn from cover. In the Evening-Post, June 5, “Scrutator” denounced Murray’s “very passionate and outrageous address,” and closed by advising him:
Rail on, while my revenge shall be
To speak the very truth of thee!
In the Boston Gazette of the same day “John M’Quirck” nettled some and tickled more by counselling the justice:
…a gentleman of your w——p’s athletic constitution, can’t always put up with affronts; therefore I would advise that Rascal of a Journalist, who undoubtedly lives in this town, if he tenders the welfare of his hide, to keep out of your way, for it is very hard (as an old magistrate once very justly observ’d) if a justice of the peace has not a right to strike a man when he pleases.
Murray did not pursue the matter further.1148
The last installment of the “Journal” bore the Boston date line of August 1, 1769.1149 The series had then been issued continuously for ten months. Why it was brought to an end is not evident. Perhaps the authors felt that they had accomplished all they had set out to accomplish. The “Journal” had undoubtedly won sympathy for Massachusetts and helped to energize the popular cause in other parts of British America. In Boston itself the “Journal” had proved a powerful factor in consolidating public opinion against the presence of the troops.1150 Incidentally its bold course encouraged many other journalistic sharpshooters to enter the arena—those whom James Murray called “the nameless scandalmongers for the papers.”1151 Expert at their business, these scribblers stirred the cauldron of popular emotion until the hot liquid coursed through nearly everyone’s veins. By rapid stages events moved on to the street brawl of the night of March 5, 1770 when Captain Thomas Preston’s men killed several of the townsmen.
This incident was promptly dressed up by the radical writers as a dramatic symbol of British misrule. The Boston Gazette on March 12 made as much of the occasion as the current conception of journalistic enterprise warranted. Unlike Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette, and Boston News-Letter, which four days earlier had excused itself from giving a full narrative because evidence was still being gathered, Edes and Gill devoted four and a half columns to the affair. Adorning the columns with mourning borders, they harrowed their readers’ feelings with a cut showing four coffins inscribed with death’s-heads and the initials of the slain men.1152 The Evening-Post of the same day contained nearly as extensive and a somewhat more circumstantial account. Both sheets termed the affray the “bloody Massacre,” and strongly intimated that some of the firing had come from an upper window of the customhouse. The Boston Gazette, for its part, predicted disclosures that would explain, among other things, “the Assassination of Mr. Otis some Time past” and “open up such a Scene of Villainy acted by a dirty Banditti, as must astonish the Public.” Had not the troops been removed to a fort in the harbor, further collisions would almost certainly have occurred. In the years ahead the “bloody Massacre” was to have an emotional recall value which the radicals seldom failed to employ.
Yet the popular leaders did not carry everything their own way. It is possible that the fury of their journalistic assault on the British authorities and the garrisoned troops was designed in part to divert public attention from the weaknesses of the non-importation campaign which they had been waging since January 1, 1769, against the mother country. If such was the case, they reckoned without the consequences of their course, for they presently aroused against themselves a doughty foeman who for a time made them tremble for their cause. This was John Mein, a Scotsman, who since 1765 had conducted a bookstore and lending library in King Street.1153 Prospering at this business and deciding to enlarge his activities, he had founded the Boston Chronicle on December 21, 1767, with John Fleeming as his partner. No other news sheet then printed in America equaled the new publication in typographical appearance, and on January 9, 1769, Mein added to his laurels by converting it into a semiweekly, the only colonial paper save the short-lived Massachusetts Gazette to appear so often.
In his original prospectus for the venture he had declared: “Whenever any dispute claims general attention, the arguments on both sides shall be laid before the public with the utmost impartiality.”1154 For a year and a half he adhered faithfully to this policy, somehow escaping most of the cross-fire of censure which befell the Fleets for pursuing a similar course. He granted hospitality to the “Farmer’s Letters” and, as further evidence of his open-mindedness, printed the Chronicle on stock from the paper mill at Milton instead of on dutied paper imported from England. But Mein was a man of thorny temperament, sufficient unto himself, and not disposed to accept dictation, from whatever source it might come. Soon after starting the Chronicle he took occasion to cane John Gill because a pseudonymous article in the Boston Gazette had denounced him for reprinting a London squib adverse to America’s friend, the Earl of Chatham.1155 Some months later, when the “Heads of the Faction” tried to bully him into signing the non-importation agreement against the Townshend Acts, he flatly declined. Neither their entreaties, their bluster, nor their warning that “the Crisis was now arrived in which Neutrality was criminal,” moved him—except to anger.1156 The fiercely partisan portrayal of local conditions by the “Journal of Occurrences” may further have exacerbated him.
In the Boston Chronicle, June 1, 1769, after the popular party had made public the first black list of violators of the non-importation agreement, Mein came out into the open, launching a campaign of ever increasing effectiveness against what he alleged to be the hypocrisy and double-dealing of the champions of the measure. Securing from the Customs Board cargo lists of all vessels which had entered the port since the agreement became effective, he published the information in successive numbers of the Chronicle with the names of the consignees and the kinds of merchandise. Merchants importing goods in apparent contravention of the agreement were held up to scorn and derision.
Mein’s charges fell like a whiplash upon the backs of the opposition. The Boston Gazette and the Evening-Post teemed with signed explanations and justifications, ranging all the way from abuse of Mein as a “conceited empty Noddle of a most profound Blockhead” to sober attempts to correct misstatements of fact.1157 The non-importing merchants at their meeting on August 11, after contrasting the “Well Disposed,” who upheld the agreement, with the “Enemies to the Constitution of their Country,” added the Scotsman’s name to their list for boycott.1158 In his next issue (August 17) Mein, leaving blank the space where the black list should have appeared, renewed his attacks with fresh gusto. He seized upon the expression, “Well Disposed,” giving it many a satiric twist and soon making it a by-word and a reproach in the community.1159 On September 21 appeared the first of a series of articles captioned a “Catechism of the Well Disposed.” The number for October 26 turned the spotlight on “The Characters of some who are thought to be ‘Well Disposed,’” identifying them with ludicrous names. This last performance in particular, according to Thomas Hutchinson, “gave great offence” to the popular leaders.1160 A memorandum by Mein, preserved in the Sparks Manuscripts, provides posterity with a useful “Key to the Characters,” including “Tommy Trifle, Esq.” (Thomas Cushing), “Johnny Dupe, Esq.” (John Hancock), “Muddlehead” (James Otis), and “Lean Apothecary” (Dr. Benjamin Church).1161
The merits of Mein’s charges are less important in the present connection than their effect on public opinion. It is clear that the conduct of the signers of the non-importation agreement was not so exemplary as they tried to make out. Individuals among them sometimes indulged in practices which the twentieth century would call chiseling; others offended through sheer inadvertence. But the historical student can safely accept the contemporary judgment of the exacting Samuel Adams that “The Merchants in general have punctually abode by their Agreement, to their very great private loss.”1162 Mein, with true debater’s skill, enlarged upon every real or seeming deviation from the agreement, endeavoring to discredit the whole body of the merchants because of the derelictions of a few. He took particular delight in baiting John Hancock, sometimes deriding him as the “Milch-Cow of the ‘Well Disposed’ … a good natured young man with long ears … surrounded with a croud of people, some of whom are stroaking his ears, others tickling his nose with straws, while the rest are employed in riffling his pockets,” and sometimes gibbeting him as one of the furtive violators of the non-importation agreement.1163 Forced onto the defensive, Hancock and his friends replied with both scurrility and explanations. But Mein was so skilful at innuendo as to leave the impression in the minds of many that “Johnny Dupe, Esq.” and his well-wishers were hypocrites and liars.
A part of Mein’s campaign was to destroy the confidence of the colonists elsewhere in the good faith of the Boston merchants and thus sow discord and disunity among them. To hasten the accomplishment of this purpose he printed four thousand sheets listing the principal importations at Boston, and five hundred copies of a pamphlet containing the whole series of controversial articles; and these, with the help of the customs officers, he scattered over all British America.1164 Soon the Newport Mercury was observing that John Hancock, “one of the foremost of the Patriots in Boston … would perhaps shine more conspicuously” if he were not so busy “getting rich, by receiving freight on goods made contraband by the Colonies.”1165 What was more important, the merchants’ committees at New York and Philadelphia betrayed increasing suspicions of their Boston brethren.1166 Mein’s revelations, even when not wholly believed, formed an excellent pretext for those in other colonies who wished to end the non importation. To his aggressive journalism must, in some considerable part, be ascribed the eventual defection of New York and Philadelphia and thus, indirectly, the collapse of the whole continental system.
Meanwhile Mein’s presence in Boston was becoming intolerable to the radicals. The Free American Fire Company expelled him from membership; half his subscribers deserted him; his bookselling business was ruined; the signs at his bookstore and printing office were plastered with filth.1167 It was probably to help offset his business losses that Mein was appointed stationer to the Customs Board at about this time.1168 Alarmed by threats to his personal safety, he began to go about armed.1169 On October 28, two days after he had printed his travesty of “The Characters of some who are thought to be ‘Well Disposed,’” he and his partner were mobbed in the streets, and before the excitement subsided the regiments had to be called to arms. A warrant being issued against him on the charge of wounding a bystander with a pistol shot, Mein, in terror of his life, fled to a ship in the harbor and later to England.1170 The celebration of “Pope Day” on November 6 (November 5 being Sunday) was marked by parading Mein’s effigy along with those of the Pope and the Devil, with a transparency bearing the acrostic:
J nsulting Wretch, we’ll him expose,
O ’er the whole World his Deeds disclose,
H ell now gaups wide to take him in,
N ow he is ripe, Oh lump of Sin.
M ean is the man—M——N is his Name,
E nough he’s spread his hellish Fame,
I nfernal Furies hurl his Soul,
N ine Million Times from Pole to Pole!1171
In contrast to such intimidating tactics, an anonymous handbill, scattered through the town, called upon the “true Sons of Liberty” to “support the Printers in any Thing” that the popular committees “shall desire them to print.”1172
When Mein ventured to return to Boston in January, 1770, the merchants made public their view that he and others of his ilk deserved “to be driven to that Obscurity from which they originated and to the Hole of the Pit from whence they were digged.”1173 Hancock—“Johnny Dupe, Esq.”—was one who needed no such prompting. The financial losses entailed by Mein’s political activities had plunged the printer deeply into debt to certain supply houses in London. Armed with a power of attorney from the English creditors, and spurning the offer of Mein’s friends to serve as security, Hancock on March 1 placed an attachment on the Chronicle office and the bookstore. James Murray, however, persuaded the sheriff to accept a pledge covering Mein’s interest in the printery, and thus “set the press a going again, much to the Surprize and Disappointment of Mr. H——and his party.”1174 This intervention merely postponed the inevitable. In their issue of June 25 the printers laconically announced that “as the Chronicle, in the present state of affairs, cannot be carried on, … it will be discontinued….” The redoubtable Scot departed the scene never to return again. Thereby the government party lost the most brilliant journalistic defender it was ever to possess, and the radicals rid themselves of their most effective adversary.
Nowhere else in colonial America had the newspaper warfare during these years assumed so deadly a form as in Boston. Each side had employed the weapons which lay ready at hand. In their attempt to muzzle the opposition writers the British authorities had appealed to the courts for support, and, when this recourse failed, they had freely used their power of patronage to organize a friendly press. Members of the government contributed both argumentative articles and exclusive official information in the effort to undermine public confidence in the popular party. In considerable measure, however, such endeavors had been defeated by the superior skill and ability of the radicals. Practised in the rhetoric of invective and hyperbole, restrained by few scruples, and captained by some of the shrewdest politicians in British America, they had developed their section of the Boston press into a formidable engine of indoctrination, reaching the summit of their achievement in the dissemination of their political views to other colonies through the secretly contrived “Journal of Occurrences.” When their usual methods had fallen short of the mark, they had not hesitated to resort to physical intimidation and economic boycott to frighten off recalcitrant journalistic foes. To neither party had liberty of the press meant aught else than the liberty to silence the other party’s press. In view of the limited resources of the place and period, it is not an exaggeration to say that the propagandists of the time challenge successful comparison with the most skilled practitioners of their art in our own day.