Boston in the 1760s
The city of Boston, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, held a unique and somewhat contradictory position in the North American colonies in the years leading up to the split with England and the War for Independence.
On the one hand, Boston’s best days seemed to be behind her. Once, she had been the largest city in North America, and the economic center of the colonies. At the beginning of the 1740s, Boston’s population was over 16,000, larger than her two greatest rivals, Philadelphia and New York. Twenty years later, Boston’s population had actually contracted slightly; Philadelphia’s had grown to nearly 24,000 and New York’s to 18,000. [To see a map of the city at this time, please click here.]
These numbers were indicative of a larger problem for the city. Because Boston’s surrounding countryside was far less agriculturally productive than the hinterlands of Philadelphia and New York — New England’s soil was poor and the distance between the city and farming trade centers was great — Boston was dependent on its rivals for foodstuffs. And as West Indian trade became increasingly crucial to the New World economy, the mere fact of Boston’s remoteness from the islands placed it at a disadvantage.
These problems were exacerbated during the French and Indian War of 1754-1763 (known as the Seven Years’ War in Europe, where it was fought from 1756-1763) when New York, and to a lesser extent Philadelphia, became the British Empire’s center of operations for the North American theater. While many industries, especially ship-building, thrived in the mid-Atlantic cities Boston was largely left out of the economic boom. After the war, all the colonial economies suffered, but having missed out on the good times, Boston’s populace had nothing on which to fall back. Poverty was rampant, and the city’s economy stagnated. The fire that devastated the South End in 1760 (the subject of D.B. Jackson’s story, “The Tavern Fire”, which first appeared in After Hours, Tales from the Ur-Bar, edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray, Daw Books, 2011) and the smallpox epidemics of 1761 and 1764 only made matters worse.
Yet, while Boston suffered financially — or perhaps because it did — it became the political epicenter of North America. Boston’s citizenry reacted fiercely to Parliament’s attempts to pay England’s war debts by imposing tariffs and taxes on colonial commerce. In May 1764, James Otis addressed the Boston Town Meeting to voice his opposition to the first Grenville Acts, particularly the Sugar Act, and coined the phrase “taxation without representation.” Within a month, the provincial House of Representatives had organized a Committee of Correspondence to communicate with the other twelve colonies about their shared grievances against the Crown.
By autumn 1764, Boston’s merchants had begun a boycott of British luxury items — a so-called non-importation agreement — and some of Boston’s craftsmen had followed suit.
The following year, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, imposing a fee on all printed material in the colonies. Once more, the citizens of Boston led colonial opposition to the act. In June, the Massachusetts Assembly composed a circular letter, proposing the formation of a colonial Congress to meet in New York in October. And in August, as royal officials in Boston began to set up offices to enforce the act and collect revenue under it, men and women of the city took to the streets. On August 14, 1765, a mob attacked the home of Andrew Oliver, Distributor of Stamps for the province, destroying his property, threatening him and his family, and burning him in effigy at what would become known as the Liberty Tree.
Nearly two weeks later, on the night of August 26, an even larger mob, led by “Captain” Ebenezer Mackintosh, went on a rampage through the city, destroying the homes of William Story, Deputy Register of the Admiralty Court, Benjamin Hallowell, Comptroller of Customs, and, most significantly, Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts. (The events of this night serve as the backdrop for the opening pages of D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker, Book I of the Thieftaker Chronicles.)
While the rioting did little to dissuade Parliament and might well have strengthened the resolve of those looking to control the colonies, non-importation proved to be a powerful weapon. By early 1766, British merchants were urging Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act. On March 18, 1766, King George III signed an act doing just that.
The following year, though, Parliament passed the Townsend Acts, which imposed import duties on a number of goods and strengthened royal authority to enforce Parliament’s will. Once more, Boston’s leaders were at the forefront of opposition. They re-instituted non-importation agreements and again sought to organize opposition to the acts among the colonies. This time they were led by Samuel Adams, who composed a circular letter to the other colonial assemblies.
At the same time, Boston’s merchants grew ever more brazen in their resistance to tariffs and royal limits on trade. Royal customs officials begged the Crown for military intervention on their behalf, claiming that they could no longer enforce the laws Parliament passed. In May 1768, the royal government responded by dispatching the Romney, a 50-gun frigate, to Boston Harbor. Less than a month later, a customs officer was locked inside the cabin of John Hancock’s ship Liberty, while smuggled Madeira wine was off-loaded. Customs officials responded by seizing Hancock’s ship.
The ensuing riots frightened royal leaders into taking several fateful steps. Customs commissioners petitioned the Crown for military intervention. Francis Bernard, the royal Governor of Massachusetts dissolved the general court, after the assembly refused to repudiate Adams’ circular letter. And on October 1, 1768, British troops landed in Boston and began a military occupation of the city. (The beginning of the occupation serves as the backdrop for Thieves’ Quarry, the second volume of D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles.)
With Boston pacified, at least temporarily, it fell to other cites and colonies to take up the fight. New York’s merchants had already joined the non-importation movement, and early in 1769 merchants in Philadelphia finally did the same. Merchants in Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island soon followed. These non-importation agreements play some small role in the narrative of A Plunder of Souls, the third volume of the Thieftaker Chronicles. The summer of 1769 saw increasing tensions over non-importation in Boston. It also saw an outbreak of small pox, which also plays a role in the third Thieftaker novel.
In Boston, the proximity of British regulars and a disgruntled citizenry proved a volatile mix. There were confrontations, threats and abuse from both sides, incidents of violence. Late in February, 1770, a young boy named Christopher Seider was shot and killed in the streets of Boston during a confrontation that began as a demonstration against non-importation violators. And on March 5, 1770, British soldiers under the command of Captain Thomas Preston fired into a mob, killing three instantly, mortally wounding two others, and injuring eleven more. Dead Man’s Reach, the fourth Thieftaker novel, takes place in March 1770 and revolves around these tragic events. The Loyalist Witch, a new trilogy of Thieftaker novellas picks up the story in the fall of 1770, during the trial of the men responsible for the “Bloody Massacre” on King Street.