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A narrative history of the figures and drama of the American Revolution offers portraits of George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry
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A. J. Langguth (1933–2014) was the author of eight books of nonfiction and three novels. After Lincoln marks his fourth book in a series that began in 1988 with Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. He served as a Saigon bureau chief for the New York Times, after covering the Civil Rights movement for the newspaper. Langguth taught for three decades at the University of Southern California and retired in 2003 as emeritus professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
John Adams, a twenty-five-year-old lawyer from the country, looked around Boston's Town House and was dazzled by its splendor. Adams had never been to London, but he was sure that nothing in the House of Commons could be more imposing than the sight of five judges in scarlet robes and luminous white wigs, seated in front of a marble fireplace. On the wall were portraits of two former British kings, Charles II and James II, which had been sent from London years before. They had been stored in an attic until a recently installed governor of Massachusetts, Francis Bernard, had discovered them and had them cleaned and mounted in magnificent gold frames. Adams was aware that both kings were autocrats and he suspected that giving them such a place of honor showed Bernard's political bias. But he thought them beautiful, worthy of Rubens or Vandyke.
Adams had come on this overcast morning in February 1761 to see the climax to a political drama that had been unfolding for months. Normally, the day's proceedings would have been routine: a new king had recently taken the throne in England, and a document called the writ of assistance had to be approved once again by the colony's Superior Court. But the writ was in fact a general search warrant, and it represented a serious economic threat around Boston Harbor. When ships sailed past the islands in the channel and came to anchor at one of Boston's long wooden wharves, they were often smuggling illegal goods along with their legitimate cargo. Molasses was especially popular, since it could be shipped legally only from British ports. Some sixty distillers around Massachusetts turned the molasses into millions of gallons of rum each year, and the traders who supplied them bought a better quality at French and Dutch ports in the West Indies and avoided the British taxes. Over the past twenty years, Bostonians had suffered economic depressions, and they were worried now that London's attempt to enforce the customs law might set off more hard times. That would affect not only the merchants but also the men who built the ships and sailed them, the distillers and shopkeepers, the artisans who supplied silver buckles and candlesticks, even the town's hundreds of teenage apprentices in their leather aprons.
The persistent war between England and the French and their Indian allies had provided an economic boom for a few profiteers, but the peace that now seemed assured might bring inflation and greater debt. Boston's wealthiest merchants enjoyed a cushion against a depression; five hundred of the sixteen thousand residents owned nearly fifty percent of the town's assets. But one out of three adult men had no property or even a regular job, and they hung about the wharves taking whatever work they found or signing on as sailors. Some were forced to leave the capital altogether for one of the smaller communities -- Salem, Gloucester, Marble-head.
British law already gave the crown's tax collectors permission to search a ship while it lay at anchor in the bay, although few had ever been zealous about making the effort. Some of those appointed were Londoners who never bothered to come to America. Others could be bribed. Britain spent eight thousand pounds each year on salaries for the customs service and collected two thousand pounds in taxes. But the writs that were to be reauthorized were more menacing because they allowed officials to break into a man's warehouse or even his home to find contraband. Disruptions during the war with the French had prevented the writs from being widely used, but now, with Britain moving to enforce the law, merchants in Boston and Salem had responded by challenging the writs' legality and had hired two prominent lawyers to argue the case before the Massachusetts Bay Colony's highest court.
This public aspect of the dispute was what had drawn Adams to the Town House. But, like most observers, he knew there were also personal resentments that could affect the case's outcome. At the center was Thomas Hutchinson. Despite his lack of training as a lawyer, Hutchinson had been appointed by Governor Bernard three months earlier to replace the chief justice who had died. For thirty years, Massachusetts lawyers had been struggling to win respectability for their calling, and many were disgusted that their profession's highest honor had gone to a man who was reading elementary law texts at night to prepare for court. John Adams was a self-conscious young man, desperately ambitious, and he had come to the capital from the town of Braintree to make his reputation. He thought he understood why Hutchinson had been named to the high court. The previous chief justice had expressed doubts that the writs were legal. Hutchinson was known to support them. But the significance of his appointment went far beyond that.
John Adams came from an honest and hard-working but not particularly distinguished family, and he was contemptuous of the idea that a man's place in society should be determined by his lineage. And in Boston, few men represented entrenched privilege more clearly than Thomas Hutchinson. The Hutchinsons had been successful businessmen for generations, and Thomas had been brought up to be a member of Boston's ruling class, although he had to contend with problems within the family. His father suffered from nervous disorders that kept him shut up in his house for weeks and from chronic insomnia, and he had lost two favorite sons and a daughter to smallpox and consumption.
By the time Thomas Hutchinson entered Harvard College, two months before his twelfth birthday, his character was already formed. His one lapse -- he had used a Greek trot to translate a Latin lesson -- had caused his tutor to remark, "A non te expectare," I did not expect it of you. Thomas would remember that rebuke for the rest of his life. He loved history best and wept at the account of Charles I's beheading.
At college, Thomas began his business career by trading several hundred pounds of fish his father had given him. By graduation, he had built that capital into nearly five hundred pounds sterling. When he married, at twenty-three, Thomas had become an imposing young man, six feet tall. His seventeen-year-old bride was the daughter of a man whose family had been the Hutchinsons' business partners for four generations. Though Thomas was normally aloof, it was a good marriage. He would remark that the intimacy he found with Peggy Hutchinson was proof that he had a soul.
Hutchinson turned naturally to public service and in 1737, at the age of twenty-six, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, ignoring his father, who warned him, "Depend on it, if you serve your country faithfully, you will be reproached and reviled for doing it." More than Thomas cared to recognize, he had inherited the spirit of his great-great-grandmother Anne Hutchinson, who had been banished to Rhode Island in 1637 as a religious zealot. He might be temperate and rational in his religion, but in a political cause he could be stubborn to the point of foolhardiness. Hutchinson used his mastery of economics to defend Boston's aristocrats against challenges from a growing party of workers and shopkeepers. When Boston went through periods of inflation, Hutchinson antagonized much of the town by advocating hard-money policies, and in 1749 he had led a move to base the colony's currency on silver. The economic contractions that followed turned his name into a curse among the town's working people. When his house caught fire, crowds gathered, shouting, "Let it burn!"
Hutchinson remained within a close circle of family and prosperous friends. He considered it contemptible to seek a wider popularity and described the multitude as "foreign seamen, servants, Negroes and other persons of mean and vile condition." When his conservative fiscal policies cost him his seat in the House, the governor had named him to the Council, the more aristocratic upper body. Hutchinson's career was destined to continue at that higher level. He built a summer house on a hundred acres in Milton, eight miles from Boston, and visitors from abroad assured him they had never seen a finer view than the one from his hilltop.
In 1754, Peggy Hutchinson died at the end of her twelfth pregnancy. Hutchinson had always believed that religion -- like sound money -- was essential to a well-ordered society, but his faith was no consolation to him now. He buried his wife and moved to Milton with his four children and his new daughter, another Peggy, who had survived.
When Hutchinson returned to public life, he served first as an aide to the royal governor, then as his lieutenant. His ambition revived, and he fought successfully to preside over the Council. He was also a judge of probate, a justice of common pleas and governor of Castle William, the royal fortress in Boston Harbor. His hobby was collecting documents, letters and journals, and he planned to publish his version of the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In Boston's many taverns, men had not forgiven Hutchinson for his consistent support of the rich and powerful and were troubled by the way he was consolidating his authority. They called him "Summa Potestatis," the supreme power, or simply "Summa." Now he had added the position of chief justice to his collection.
Hutchinson's appointment had annoyed John Adams, but it was far more disturbing to a thirty-five-year-old lawyer named James Otis. When the chief justice died in September, Otis had called on Thomas Hutchinson to ask his help in getting an appointment to the court for his father, the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. A previous governor had promised Speaker Otis a place on the Superior Court, and the younger Otis wanted Hutchinson to use his influence with Governor Bernard to secure it.
Otis had gone to the Hutchinson mansion in Boston's North End, one of the town's most beautiful houses. Most Bostonians knew that the Hutchinson family looked down on the Otises, but James Otis, who was quick-tempered and haughty, had put aside his pride to make the call. Hutchinson, approaching fifty, was slender and fair, with the assurance of privilege. Otis was plump, with a round face and a short neck, but his eyes were keen and he exuded energy. Although he had studied law, the one book he had published was a study of Latin poetry.
Otis had put his appeal diffidently. If Mr. Hutchinson himself had any interest in serving on the high court, he would not say another word about his father. Hutchinson swore later that he had told Otis candidly that he had considered the appointment but that he wasn't sure he would accept if Bernard offered it to him. Otis had left convinced that Hutchinson had said he would turn it down.
Soon after, Otis had called directly on Governor Bernard. The town of Boston was almost an island, linked to the mainland by a narrow road called Boston Neck, and as Otis was riding his horse toward the governor's mansion he saw Thomas Hutchinson coming the other way in a carriage, apparently returning from his own audience with the governor. Then there were other disturbing portents about the appointment. Some of Boston's established merchants were openly questioning whether Speaker Otis was qualified to sit on the Superior Court. Over the years, he had done many favors for the colony's conservative governors, but his career had begun fifteen years earlier, in rougher times, when election officials sometimes reached into the hat that doubled as a ballot box and threw out all of the opposition votes.
Speaker Otis' first bill in the House had set a bounty on Indian scalps -- one hundred English pounds for males twelve years or older, fifty pounds for women. And although the Otises were an established New England family, Speaker Otis had worked as a shoemaker in his youth. Since two thirds of the members of the Massachusetts House listed "farmer" as their primary occupation, that was no disgrace, and Otis had gone on to become a prosperous lawyer. But he had always regretted his lack of a classical education and had made sure that James went to Harvard College and then to study law under Jeremiah Gridley, the colony's finest legal scholar.
Memories among Boston's aristocracy were long and unforgiving. Conservative merchants were arguing that Speaker Otis was backed by the same men they had been fighting for years -- Boston's retailers, innkeepers, others of the lower classes. Thomas Hutchinson had told friends that Otis had become speaker of the House only because he had done "little low dirty things" that no reputable person would stoop to doing.
Two months passed after James Otis' appeal to Hutchinson until, in mid-November, Governor Bernard told Hutchinson that he wanted him as chief justice. Hutchinson warned him that he might be courting trouble by disappointing the Otises, and he added that around town James Otis was threatening violence if his father was not chosen. But Bernard offered Hutchinson the job and added that whatever his answer, he did not intend to appoint Speaker Otis.
Hutchinson accepted. For years, the king's ministers in London had passed him over for the governorship, and he had served under three governors from England. It seemed unlikely that he would ever hold the highest title, although he had several consolations beyond his judgeships. As lieutenant governor, Hutchinson was already the colony's deputy executive. As president of the Council, he was its ranking legislator. Now he would hold the highest judicial post.
When he heard about the appointment, James Otis was enraged. Aside from the insult to his father, Otis believed that Hutchinson would hold two titles too many. Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws had been published a dozen years earlier, and Otis had been impressed by its argument for separating the three branches of government. But now, because Otis had tried to get the post for his father, his criticism of Hutchinson's expanding power could be dismissed as coming from a disgruntled loser. And Hutchinson's friends did soon accuse Otis of making wild threats against the colony's government. They said he had vowed to set the province in flames, though he himself might perish in the fire. Everyone knew that Otis was proud of his Latin scholarship, and his antagonists clinched their charge by quoting a line from Virgil that Otis was supposed to be repeating: "Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo." (If heaven I cannot bend, then hell I'll stir.) Otis' political allies called the allegation a lie. They said no one would become frenzied over such a trivial setback. But in Boston's small world, Otis was well known. John Adams, who was eager to learn from other men's success, had been studying Otis carefully and admired his agile mind. But he had also watched Otis' quick temper cause him to stutter and had seen Otis' muscles twitch even when he was sitting still. Everything about Otis' tense brilliance made the reports of his threats entirely plausible.
James Otis' energy and his unpredictable moods had been apparent even when he was growing up. Pressed into playing the violin for friends who wanted to dance, he had thrown it ...
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