Q. What was the temper of America toward Great Britain before the year 1763?

A. The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the Crown, and paid, in their courts, obedience to acts of Parliament. Numerous as the people are in the several old provinces they cost you nothing in forts, citadels, garrisons, or armies, to keep them in subjection… .

Q. And what is their temper now?

A. Oh, very much altered.

—Colonial agent Benjamin Franklin, before Parliament, February 1766

The roar of a cannon resounded through the little Massachusetts town of Plymouth on the morning of December 22, 1769. And up a flagpole went a silk flag bearing the inscription Old Colony 1620. The cannon and flag grandly marked a celebration created by the Old Colony Club.

At lunchtime the members gathered at an inn not far from the rock where the Pilgrims were said to have landed.2 Their meal included whortleberry pudding, succotash, venison, clams, oysters, codfish, eels, seafowl, apple pie, cranberry tarts, and cheese, all “dressed in theplainest manner … in imitation of our ancestors.” The club president sat in a chair that had belonged to William Bradford, who had become governor of the Plymouth Colony in 1621.

The members raised a toast to Bradford and their ancestors in what they hoped to be an annual celebration of Forefathers’ Day, commemorating the landing of the shallop that had carried the passengers of the Mayflower to shore.3 As the clock struck eleven that evening, the cannon was fired again; the members gave three lusty cheers and went home.

The Old Colony Club had been founded eleven months before by seven Plymouth men who wished to avoid “the many disadvantages and inconveniences that arise from intermixing with the company at the taverns in this town of Plymouth.” They also wished to increase their “pleasure and happiness” along with their “edification and instruction.” Five more members, including the owner of the inn, were admitted shortly later.

The club, modeled on gentlemen’s clubs in London, became a place where the members, most of them Mayflower descendants and many of them Harvard graduates, argued the policies of Tories and Whigs. Tories supported the Crown, the role of the king as head of the church, and the traditional structure of a parliamentary monarchy; Whigs, while certainly not Rebels, sought limited political and social reform. They mischievously noted that “Tory” sounded like the Irish word for “outlaw.” The Whigs’ name could probably be traced to “whiggamore,” the label for seventeenth-century Scottish rebels. Both sides could sometimes agree on such matters as property rights and excessive taxes.

Colonists followed in the steps of the motherland’s Whigs, who believed that the Crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons should share power. In the colonies a governor was likened to the king, a council to the House of Lords, and a local assembly to the House of Commons. (In Massachusetts the legislature was formally known as the Great and General Court.) But by 1769, in the club and throughout the colonies, the debate was moving toward a sharp division between the Tory champions of the king and the Whig champions of what was politely called “opposition to ministerial measures,” a phrase that placed the blame for perceived ill rule on the king’s ministers, not on King George III.

“Loyalist” was emerging as the word for an opponent of a “Patriot.” There would have been no need to be labeled loyal to the king if the Rebels had not dared to challenge royal authority. And, as violent rebellion neared, Plymouth men and women who called themselves Loyalists saw themselves as the real Americans, the people who descended from the original Americans—the Mayflower‘s passengers. Here in Plymouth the Loyalists began the tradition that, as descendants of the Mayflower voyagers, they had been called by fate, or more likely God, to preserve what the Mayflower immigrants had begun. Americans of future centuries would continue the idea that being a Mayflower descendant was the ultimate American pedigree. Yet Plymouth’s Mayflower descendants were British subjects who believed that the future of America lay in royal rule rather than in rebellion.4

One club member, Edward Winslow, was the great-grandson of Edward Winslow, who had arrived on the Mayflower and later served as a governor of the Plymouth Colony. The Edward Winslow of 1769 had inherited the belief that the rebellion, brewing mostly in Boston, was rooted in the trial and beheading of King Charles I in 1649. After the restoration of the monarchy with the coronation of Charles II in 1660, two of the judges who condemned his father—regicides, as they were known—had fled to America. Puritans in Connecticut and Massachusetts had hidden the judges, thwarting royal pursuers. “The seeds of rebellion were thus sown,” wrote a Loyalist historian. “… . The Pilgrim fathers of Plymouth were as a rule tolerant, non-persecuting and loyal to the king; but the Puritans … were intolerant of all religionists who did not conform to their mode of worship.”5 Religion remained an issue as colonists took sides in the 1770s, when virtually every Anglican clergyman in America became a Loyalist, and Presbyterians were labeled Rebels.

Winslow’s leadership, like that of his great-grandfather, would focus on Plymouth. But eventually he would become an important leader of Loyalists beyond his native town. In 1769 he was four years past hisplayboy days at Harvard and was destined to inherit the posts that had been held by his father: registrar of wills, clerk of the Court of General Sessions, and naval officer of the port (a civil, not a military, post). As a friend of Chief Justice Peter Oliver and Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Winslow would join the Loyalist inner circle in Boston.6

Like so many colonists, the Old Colony Club members were changing from Britons who happened to live overseas to Americans who were choosing sides or wondering whether sides really had to be chosen. Tories hailed Britain’s imperial power while Whigs argued against what they saw as the excesses of British power: the royal proclamation forbidding settlements west of the Appalachians; increased duties on sugar, textiles, and coffee; the outlawing of colonial currency. As criticism of the Crown and Parliament kindled suspicions of disloyalty, many Tories declared themselves to be Loyalists. Some radical Whigs began calling themselves Patriots.

Among the dozen toasts made at the club on that first Forefathers’ Day, the looming crisis was only mildly acknowledged. One wished for a “speedy and lasting union between Great Britain and her colonies.” Records of the meal and the toasts survive, but there is no mention of what the twelve members and their guests had to say about the troubles that were clouding their little world of Plymouth, about thirty-five miles from the tumult in Boston.7 Other records—military muster rolls of Tories and Patriots, Tory petitions to the Crown, proclamations of Tory banishment, land records for exiles in Nova Scotia, pension appeals from Continental Army veterans—show that the futures of these men and tens of thousands of others were caught up in a revolution that was also a civil war.

Winslow and the other Tories in the club aspired to take advantage of their birth and station by gaining posts in the royal colonial government or benefiting from its largesse. This was the core of Tory power—the governors, the judges, the customs officials, and the bureaucrats who served the Crown. Radiating out from that core were Anglican clergymen and their leading parishioners—merchants, shipowners, landed gentry—who supported the idea of a British Empire that drew its supremacy from the Crown and dispensed its benefits upon the chosen in the colonies. They believed most of all in a well-ordered society; they abhorred and, in the 1760s, were beginning to fear a challenging class: the radical Whigs, or the Patriots, as they became known, who envisioned a new kind of society, rooted in America and only loosely tied to Britain.

The Old Colony Club was founded at a crossroads in a revolutionary time. Four years before had come the Stamp Act, so called because colonists had to pay for stamps when buying a newspaper, calendar, marriage license, deck of playing cards, or pair of dice. (Such stamps were in use in Britain; some still are.) Parliament had justified this new tax as a way to finance the maintenance of soldiers sent to the colonies to defend their frontiers against hostile Indians—and to defend British interests in North America. The French and Indian War had ended in 1763 with victory for Britain and the addition of French Canada to British colonial territory. But the war had been costly and worldwide, ranging across the globe from Europe and North America to India. The expanded British Empire needed to pay for its upkeep, and the money would come from taxes paid by colonists.

Since 1675 the colonies had been ultimately governed by a standing committee of the King’s Privy Council—the Lords of the Committee of Trade and Plantations, familiarly known as the Lords of Trade. Royal governors reported to the Lords of Trade, and ever since the Stamp Act crisis, accounts of unrest filled the reports. The governors were expected to rule their colonies with the aid of their legislatures. If the legislatures began to veer away from the policies that originated in Britain, governors could dissolve them and assume dictatorial power.

Demands for repeal of the Stamp Act swept through the colonies. Officials were hanged in effigy in British colonies from Nova Scotia to the West Indies. In the Virginia House of Burgesses, twenty-nine-year-old Patrick Henry made his “if this be treason” speech, bringing to life a Patriot doctrine: Only colonial legislatures should havethe right to levy taxes on their citizens.8 A Stamp Act Congress met in New York City, producing a united front, not only to protest the stamps and boycott British imports but also to send a reminder to the king and Parliament in the form of a Declaration of Rights, which declared: “It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”9 In Boston and New York City, a secret organization called the Sons of Liberty emerged to fight the Stamp Act through a boycott of British imports.

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766. Merchants began selling British goods again, and American tempers cooled. But in 1767 Parliament struck again, this time passing the Townshend Acts, named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new laws tightened the Crown’s grip on the colonies by setting up a board of customs commissioners in Boston and admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, South Carolina. The courts began to crack down on shipowners and importers who had evaded taxes by smuggling goods into secret harbors or ports manned by corrupt officials.

Honest customs officials searching for contraband were given the specific right to wield writs of assistance, powerful search warrants used in contraband searches even of private homes. The new writs aggravated Americans. Added to long-standing taxes on such imports as wine and clothing were new taxes on imported paint, paper, glass, lead, and tea. The new revenues would be used to pay the salaries of royal colonial officials, taking that power of the purse away from the colonies. Parliament also suspended the New York assembly in punishment for that colony’s objection to feeding and housing British soldiers.

In June 1768 enforcement of the Townshend Acts led to the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop Liberty, which carried a smuggled cargo of Madeira wine into Boston Harbor. Hancock, reputedly the wealthiest man in New England, was a Boston selectman and a leading Patriot with solid connections to the Sons of Liberty. Boston’s wharves became a stage for the Sons to tread. They stirred up a small-scale riot, bullied the customs men, and celebrated when the charges against Hancock were dropped.10 Colonists, reprising their moves against the Stamp Act, again started boycotting British imports. Gangs threatened Tory merchants who defied the ban. Rumors spread that Royal Governor Francis Bernard would be assassinated.11

People showed their support for the Liberty by singing the “Liberty Song” (to the rollicking tune of “Hearts of Oak,” a well-known Royal Navy air):

Come join hand in hand, brave Americans all, And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty’s call; No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim, Or stain with dishonor America’s name.

The last verse told anyone who wondered that “Liberty’s call” certainly did not mean independence from Britain or disloyalty toward King George III:

This bumper* I crown for our sovereign’s health, And this for Britannia’s glory and wealth; That wealth, and that glory immortal may be, If she is but just, and we are but free.12

The song was written by John Dickinson, a onetime conservative Pennsylvanian who had attended the Stamp Act Congress and become a Patriot. He sent the song to his friend James Otis, Jr., in Boston, who saw that it was printed in the Boston Gazette; newspapers throughout the colonies republished it.

Otis, a Tory in a long family line of influential Tories, married the Tory daughter of a Boston merchant. His sister Mercy Otis was married to James Warren, a member of the Old Colony Club. Warren, previously a royal sheriff, became a Patriot and was destined to be aleader in the Revolution. Mercy Otis Warren would become a playwright whose works skewered royal officials, especially future governor Thomas Hutchinson.

James Otis set up a legal practice in Boston and became what Patriots called a “placeman,” a royal appointee given his job as a political reward. Otis had been advocate general of the vice admiralty court when his conversion to Patriot began. Believing that writs of assistance violated basic British rights, he quit his royal post to represent merchants complaining about the injustice of the writs. Otis’s eloquent but unsuccessful plea—” A man’s house is his castle” was his phrase—impressed young John Adams, who was in the courtroom. Otis’s conversion haunted his marriage. His wife remained a Tory. One daughter married a British officer; the other married the son of a Continental Army general.13

John Adams’s cousin, Samuel Adams, was a radical leader in the Massachusetts legislature. He and Otis composed a circular letter protesting the Townshend Acts, sent from the Massachusetts legislature to other colonies. In response the British government ordered the legislature to rescind the letter and told Governor Bernard to dismiss the legislature if its members refused. Hancock called a protest meeting with a proclamation that lamented “this dark and difficult Season” and asserted the right of “American Subjects” to petition “their gracious Sovereign.”14 Representatives from ninety-six Massachusetts towns attended the meeting and urged the legislators to uphold the defiant act. They did, by a vote of 92 to 17.

Some Sons of Liberty commissioned their fellow Son, Paul Revere, to fashion a silver punch bowl—dubbed the “Liberty Bowl,” which honored “the glorious NINETY-TWO … who, undaunted by the insolent Menaces of Villains in Power, from a strict Regard to Conscience, and the LIBERTIES of their Constituents … Voted NOT TO RESCIND.”15

Governor Bernard realized he could not rely on militiamen or hardly anyone else in Massachusetts to help him enforce the law. Both sides had lawbreaking leaders. Hancock, who made much of his fortune as a second-generation smuggler, was nevertheless captain of the Independent Company of Cadets, also known as the “Governor Own.”16 (Though the governor admitted a fondness for tax-free Madeira, he had the good sense not to get it from Hancock; Bernard’s wine came from a smuggler in Cape Cod.)17

In July Bernard sought the aid of Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British forces in North America. Bernard sent off a courier with a letter to Gage’s headquarters in New York City. “All real Power is in the hands of the lowest Class,” Bernard wrote.18 Gage sent four thousand troops to Boston—a ratio of one Redcoat to every four citizens.19

Loyalists welcomed the Redcoats as protectors; Patriots and their supporters in the streets saw the soldiers as an occupation force, sent by Britain to tame or even punish dissent. The first wave of troops and their cannons disembarked in October on Boston’s Long Wharf, and, in the words of Paul Revere, they “Formed and Marched with insolent Parade …, Drums beating, Fifes playing and Colours flying.”20

Most troops, unable to find quarters, encamped on the Common.21 John Hancock, looking down from his mansion on Beacon Hill, could see them going through their drills. More troops arrived in November. The city council barred soldiers from invoking the Quartering Act because there were sufficient barracks in Castle William, a harbor fortress. Rather than post the troops that far from anticipated trouble, officers rented buildings in town as barracks.22 Many officers were welcomed as long-term guests in Loyalist homes, forming bonds that would have profound effects on the future lives of Loyalist families.

Governor Bernard became the target of seething hatred. Sam Adams denounced him as “a Scourge to this Province, a curse to North America, and a Plague on the whole Empire.”23 What might once have been a political dispute among politicians had festered into street battles and the taunting of soldiers with shouts of “Bloodback!” and “Lobsterback!” as Redcoat patrols marched about the city.

In May 1769, during an anti-Bernard riot in Cambridge, a mob swirled around the Harvard campus and stormed Harvard Hall. The rioters spied a portrait of Governor Bernard hanging in the diningroom. Someone whipped out a knife, stabbed the chest of the painted figure, cut out a piece of the canvas, and held it up, screaming that he had removed Bernard’s heart.

John Singleton Copley, who had painted the portrait, restored Bernard’s heart, to the displeasure of many Patriots, who saw him as a budding Tory.24 Like many colonists, however, Copley was not taking sides: He painted about as many portraits of Tories as of Patriots. Among Copley’s subjects were Tory merchants, along with John Hancock and Sam Adams. One day he painted Paul Revere, and another day he painted General Gage or Gage’s beautiful American-born wife.25

The Sons of Liberty had once been a secret organization. Now as many as 350 Sons could picnic under sailcloth awnings on an August day near a friendly tavern and sing Dickinson’s “Liberty Song.” John Adams was there, noting in his diary that James Otis and Sam Adams were “promoting these Festivals, for they tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty.”26 A month later, Otis was beaten up in a fist-and-cane coffeehouse brawl with a customs commissioner.27

The Rebel-controlled legislature charged Bernard with conspiracy to “overthrow the present constitution of government in this colony” and unanimously voted to send King George a petition asking him to dismiss Bernard. The governor, who had often said that he longed for a visit to England, sailed in August. Sounds of citizens’ celebration were carried to his ears on the fair wind that sped his ship away from Boston.28

A hated royal governor. Sons of Liberty. Street mobs. Redcoats—this was political life in Massachusetts at the end of 1769 as the Old Colony Club celebrated the first Forefathers’ Day. Words were hardening, and men were moving toward war. Loyalists were worried about their personal safety. Patriots wanted more power to the people, and there was fear in the air. But so far the idea of independence had not surfaced.

The political options of the club members in 1769 were evolving into dangerous and courageous choices that would determine where and how they would live the rest of their lives. And, in the raging years ahead, similar choices would be made by colonists in every layer of society.

The president of the club and one of its founders, Isaac Lothrop, was a Patriot, as was his brother Thomas, although they were the sons of a royally appointed judge and steadfast Loyalist. Isaac joined Plymouth’s Committee of Correspondence, one of numerous such groups that the Sons of Liberty fostered throughout the colonies. By local tradition the idea of such committees had come from Plymouth’s James Warren, a member of the club.29 The duties of Committees of Correspondence ranged from keeping the colonies in touch with one another to exposing secret Loyalists and spies. Eventually some committees demanded that people suspected of Loyalist sympathies swear oaths of allegiance to the Patriot cause.

Another founder, John Watson, although known to be a Loyalist at heart, paid a price to remain on good terms with Patriots in Plymouth: He was one of the thousands of Americans who took a pro-Patriot oath while harboring doubts or secret opposition. Member Oakes Angier, after wavering, became a Patriot. Founder Elkanah Watson, a stauncher Patriot, saw his young son and namesake become a courier for Gen. George Washington.

Thomas Mayhew, Jr., became a lieutenant in the militia and marched off to Boston to serve in the Continental Army under Washington. Alexander Scammell and Peleg Wadsworth were both Harvard graduates and teachers in Plymouth. Their pro-Patriot feelings did not cost them their jobs because the Sons of Liberty were gaining power in Plymouth. Scammell and Wadsworth both joined the Continental Army and rose to the rank of general; Scammell would be killed in the last days of the war.

Elkanah Cushman, like many Loyalists who lived near Boston, sought sanctuary in the city, where Redcoats offered protection from Patriot mobs. Cornelius White joined the British and was lost at sea in 1779 while ferrying supplies from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to British-held New York. John Thomas fled to British Nova Scotia around 1780. Gideon White, Jr., whose great-grandfather, Peregrine White, had been born aboard the Mayflower, also chose the Tory side. At least three other Loyalist members would take up arms against fellow Americans.30

By the time the Old Colony Club got ready for its second Forefathers’ Day celebration in 1770, a new revolutionary wave had swept over the colonies. On January 17, in New York City, British soldiers cut down a Liberty pole erected and cherished by the Sons of Liberty. Bayonet-wielding Redcoats fought Sons and their supporters armed with cutlasses and clubs. Several soldiers and rioters were wounded, but no one died.31

In Boston the Sons were protesting import taxes by urging merchants to refuse to deal in British goods. Appeals for support went out to many places, including Plymouth. The Sons published the names of Loyalist merchants who refused to support the Patriots’ nonimportation campaign. One, Theophilus Lillie, a dry-goods dealer, responded in the pro-Loyalist Boston Chronicle. Lillie used a fundamental Loyalist argument—better to be ruled by a king than by a mob: “It always seemed strange to me that people who contend so much for civil and religious liberty should be so ready to deprive others of their natural liberty… . If one set of private subjects may at any time take upon themselves to punish another set of private subjects just when they please, it’s such a sort of government as I never heard of before… . I had rather be a slave under one master (for if I know who he is I may perhaps be able to please him) than a slave to a hundred or more whom I don’t know where to find, nor what they will expect of me.”32

A gang of boys put up an effigy of Lillie outside his shop and noisily picketed it to drive off customers. On Thursday, February 22, Ebenezer Richardson, a fifty-two-year-old Loyalist, went to Lillie’s shop and, by trying to destroy the effigy, drew a raucous crowd. He was well known to Patriots, and his work as a secret informer toroyal officials had won him a customs post. Thursday was market day and a half day for schoolchildren, which made it a great day for crowd gathering. Richardson fled to his home, got his musket, and from a second-story window fired at the crowd. Christopher Seider, the ten-year-old son of German immigrants, fell, mortally shot in the head and chest. Another young boy, shot in the hand and legs, survived.33

The mob burst into Richardson’s house, grabbed him and another man, and probably would have hanged him had not a Patriot leader steered the mob toward a justice of the peace. Richardson was jailed and later tried before Thomas Hutchinson, the royal lieutenant governor and chief justice. Hutchinson himself had seen the wrath of a mob one night in August 1765 when Stamp Act protesters broke into his mansion, nearly demolished it, and “scattered or destroyed all the manuscripts and other papers I had been collecting for 30 years.”34 Hutchinson, who would soon become royal governor, put Richardson on trial. He was convicted of murder, but Hutchinson did not sentence him to execution. (Some time later Richardson received a royal pardon and slipped out of Boston to a new customs post in Philadelphia.)35

The Sons of Liberty staged a martyr’s funeral for the boy. About two thousand people marched behind his coffin, and former slave Phillis Wheatley, already famed as a black poet, wrote a memorial poem, claiming that “The Tory chiefs” made the boy “Ripe for destruction.”36 The killing and the funeral fired up smoldering resentment against Loyalists and the Redcoats. A week after the funeral, an encounter between a lone British sentry and a rock-throwing mob brought other soldiers and Capt. Thomas Preston to the scene. For tense moments the crowd taunted the Redcoats, whose muskets were loaded and aimed. Without an order from Preston, soldiers fired, killing three men and fatally wounding two others.

Paul Revere quickly produced color prints of “The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street,” giving a sensational title to a propaganda image that would further the Patriot cause.37 In the murder trial of Preston and his soldiers, John Adams successfully defended

Preston and six Redcoats, producing testimony that contradicted Revere’s image. Adams also got two other soldiers’ murder charge reduced to manslaughter: Each had an M-for-murder branded on his right thumb. Adams won few friends among ardent Patriots by describing the mob as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.”38

The Boston Massacre, as it would be known in Patriot writings and oratory, produced a quick response in Plymouth, where selectmen unanimously endorsed a report drawn up by a committee that included at least two Rebel members of the Old Colony Club. The report, formally answering the Boston Patriots’ request for support, said: “Every man not destitute of the principle of freedom and independence, and that has sensibility enough to feel the least glow of patriotism, must at this time be strongly impressed with a sense of the misfortunes of their country in general and of the town of Boston in particular.”39

The murder of Christopher Seider—along with the massacre and Plymouth’s emotional response—dampened the club’s preparation for Forefathers’ Day. But in April 1770 came the repeal of all the Townshend taxes except for the one on tea. The repeal temporarily calmed the restive colonies and the Patriots of Plymouth. The second Forefathers’ Day went smoothly. Edward Winslow spoke, paying homage to his ancestors but making no direct reference to what was going on around him.

By 1772 no one could ignore the rising rebellion. In June, Rhode Island Patriots seized the Royal Navy’s eight-gun schooner Gaspee, which had run aground while in pursuit of a suspected smuggler. One of the boarders shot the Gaspee’s captain, ordered the crew to abandon the ship, and then set it afire. British officials offered a reward for information about the raiders, but no one came forward. The attack provided Gage with another example of the growing audacity of the Rebels.

Plymouth’s revolutionary playwright Mercy Otis Warren in 1772 anonymously published The Adulateur, a satire that cast Hutchinson as “Rapatio,” a villain intent on raping a colony called Upper Servia. One of Rapatio’s henchmen tells of a plan to subdue the citizens:

“… cramp their trade till pale-eyed Poverty Haunts all their streets and frowns destruction on, While many a poor man, leaning on his staff, Beholds a numerous famished offspring round him, Who weep for bread”40

Mercy’s anti-Hutchinson theme reflected the mood in Plymouth, where Patriots were in the majority. In Boston events were moving faster than Hutchinson could handle. “I am in a helpless state,” he said in a letter to Governor William Tryon of New York.41Edward Winslow realized that he could remain aloof no longer. He had to try to keep Plymouth from plunging into the Boston maelstrom.

Parliament’s decision to retain the tax on tea had produced a highly effective boycott, pushing the principal source of Indian tea, the powerful East India Company, toward bankruptcy. To aid the well-connected company, Parliament in May 1773 passed the Tea Act, which gave the company a monopoly and allowed a bypass of a previous tax on tea that entered Britain from India. The act set a tea tax so low that the total price was less than a colonist would have to pay a smuggler. Once the tea reached America, it was to be to be entrusted to, and marketed by, special consignees—a new plum for loyal subjects.42 Parliament and the Crown believed that the Tea Act would end the costly tea boycott. “The ministry believe,” wrote Ben Franklin from London, “that threepence on a pound of tea, of which one does not perhaps drink ten pounds a year, is sufficient to overcome all the patriotism of an American.”43

In August the names of the consignees, ostensibly selected by the East India Company, were revealed. The Sons of Liberty could not have asked for a better example of how the British government dispensed power and riches to a class whose members called themselves Friends of the King. The consignees included Thomas and Elisha Hutchinson, sons of the governor; wealthy merchant Richard Clarke, the father-in-law of both Thomas Hutchinson, Jr., and John Singleton Copley; and Joshua Winslow, one of the many privileged Winslows—and one of Copley’s many Loyalist clients.44

Copley had been rising in the Boston social world since his marriage to Clarke’s daughter, Susannah Farnum Clarke. On her mother’s side, Susannah was the descendant of a Mayflower passenger who, by family tradition, was so eager to reach shore that she jumped from the shallop and waded through the surf, becoming the first woman of the Mayflower to set foot on American soil.45 Copley had a fine home on Beacon Hill, and he dressed in the fashion befitting a man of the upper class. Now he was beginning to wonder whether he could live—and paint—in Boston without taking sides.46

The tea crisis built through November. Patriot leaders, in a move reminiscent of Stamp Act strategy, demanded that the consignees resign, a prudent move taken by consignees in Philadelphia and New York but not in Boston. A mob attacked Clarke’s home, yelling threats and breaking windows. All the Boston consignees appealed to Hutchinson for protection. The Dartmouth, first of the tea ships, arrived in Boston Harbor. A meeting called the “Body of the People” demanded that the Dartmouth leave. Hutchinson suspected that Sam Adams was planning to somehow destroy the tea.47 He was right.

When a Plymouth town meeting endorsed the happenings in Boston, Edward Winslow reacted by declaring that it was “an affront to the common sense of mankind.”48 Club member James Warren, who attended the town meeting, archly noted: “Little Ned Winslow (one of my Cousins) with a few other Insignificant Tories appeared at the meeting and played their Game by holding up the Terrors of the Governor’s Proclamation which rather served us than themselves. From these Gentry in this Town we have little to fear.”49

The crisis was escalating. “The flame is kindled and like lightening it catches from soul to soul,” John Adams’s wife, Abigail, wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren.50 Copley tried in vain to negotiate an end to the impasse between the Sons of Liberty and Hutchinson. Two more tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, arrived in Boston Harbor. No merchant would take the chance of challenging the Rebels by trying to unload the tea. Hutchinson refused to allow the ships to leave until the tea tax was paid.

Then, on the rainy morning of December 16, more than five thousand people gathered at the Old South Meeting House. Many of them waited through the day for word that Hutchinson had changed his mind. Finally, late in the afternoon, when a few candles were feebly lighting the assembly, Sam Adams rose to end the meeting with the words, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!” Those words have been handed down as the signal for launching a well-planned attack on the tea. Someone shouted, “Boston Harbor a teapot tonight!”51

Scores of men, their number unknown and their identities secret, headed for Griffin’s Wharf. Many smeared dust or soot on their faces and wielded hatchets, thinly disguising themselves as Indians. A number of them, according to a Boston blacksmith, were young men like him: “apprentices and journeymen … living with tory masters.” They boarded the ships, hacked open more than three hundred crates, and dumped their contents into the harbor.52 “This Destruction of the Tea,” John Adams wrote in his diary, “is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid & inflexible … that I cannot but consider it as an Epocha in History.”53 New York City Patriots also dumped tea into their harbor; tea ships were set afire off Annapolis; in Philadelphia, “the Committee of Tarring and Feathering” warned a tea ship captain to turn back, which he sensibly did;54 tea shipped to Charleston was unloaded, but Patriots locked it up and prevented it from being sold.55 All those cities transgressed—but only Boston would be punished.

News and official reports traveled slowly. So it would not be until the spring of 1774 that the punishment would come in the form of what became known as the Intolerable Acts: Parliament closed the port of Boston until the dumped tea was paid for. Parliament gave all the royal governors new powers to ban town meetings and appoint justices and other law officers. Other acts of Parliament moved the capital of Massachusetts to Salem, barred trials in Massachusetts of British soldiers for murder or other capital offenses, required citizens to house and feed soldiers on demand and provide them with carriages “with able men to drive the same.” Another act expanded the territory of Quebec, enraging American colonists, who were prevented from settling on land they thought was rightly theirs rather than French-speaking Catholics’.

The Old Colony Club had managed to celebrate Forefathers’ Day in 1772. But by 1773 all but Loyalists had quit. The Patriots’ Plymouth Committee of Correspondence—some of whose members were also members of the club—invited the club to join with the committee in the celebration. The club, in words probably composed by Winslow, replied that the invitation was “so great an invasion of the liberties and privileges of the gentlemen of the town of Plymouth and the Old Colony Club that we cannot approve or comply with the same.”56 With those words the club was effectively abolished.

At low tide on Forefathers’ Day in 1774, a band of Liberty Boys, as some of the Sons of Liberty were also called, escorted a wagon pulled by a long train of yoked oxen to a large rock on the Plymouth shore. The men, under the command of a future Continental Army colonel, dug around the embedded rock, dislodging it with manpower and jacks. As they raised the rock high enough to place it on the wagon, Plymouth Rock split in two. They let the bottom half drop back into its ocean bed and loaded the other half onto the wagon.

The oxen pulled the wagon to the town square. There, half of Plymouth Rock was placed near a large elm and a newly erected Liberty pole from which flew a flag. On this Forefathers’ Day the words on the flag were “Liberty or Death.”57

* A cup or glass filled to the brim, especially one used for making a toast.

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