Cape Cod – The English Wars – Pt. 1

THE difficulties incident to the French wars had given the colonies useful training to prepare them for concerted action against the stupid enactments of the mother country in the reign of George III. England, fully occupied with the great continental wars of which the American conflicts were only a by-product, had been forced largely to let the colonies fend for themselves. When border hostilities were growing to the final French and Indian War, she had suggested the expediency of their cooperating for defence; and just twenty-two years before the Declaration of Independence came into being, Benjamin Franklin had been ready to present to a Colonial Council, called to parley with the Six Nations, a plan of confederation which, being objected to by some as giving “too much power to the people” and by others as conceding “too much to the king,” came to naught. But the fact was established that all the colonies, and not only those of New England, were learning to act together. And the great drift away from mutual understanding with England, which in the beginning, one would think, might have been so easily checked, increased. The colonies knew that by their valor chiefly had been established in America the supremacy of England, and their youthful pride was quick to take offence. In 1760, when a Royal Governor, in his in-augural, cited “the blessings of subjection to Great Britain,” the Massachusetts House was careful to express their “relation” to the Home Government. His predecessor, who had been more sympathetic to the genius of the colonies, lived to warn Parliament that never would America submit to injustice. Yet year by year was injustice done. As early as 1761 oppressive trade acts had brought out the flaming eloquence of young James Otis, of Barnstable. “I argue in favor of British liberties,” cried he in the Massachusetts Chamber. “I oppose the kind of power the exercise of which in former periods of English history cost one king of England his head and another his throne.” For four hours, spellbound, the Court listened to his plea; and well might John Adams, who heard him that day, aver: “American independence was then and there born.” And for the next ten years by his pamphlets, “The Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives” and “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved,” by his letters, and other writings, it has been truly said that Otis “led the movement for civil liberty in Massachusetts.”

As if urged on to foolishness by a decree of fate that America should be a nation, England continued to blunder: she sought to extinguish the military spirit that had been so useful to her by creating a standing army which, although independent of them, the colonies should support; she obstructed manufacturing that the colonies might be dependent upon British markets; by prohibitive foreign duties she restricted trade to British ports, and even taxed trade between colony and colony for the benefit of the imperial treasury. No wonder the colonies were assured that England meant to get an undue portion of the war expense from them. And when Englishmen complained that rich colonists lived like lords while they were impoverished with taxes, the colonists were ready to retort that England had appropriated Canada, the prize won largely through their efforts, and that they had already taxed themselves to the limit to pay their own way. But England, undeterred by warnings at home and plain signs of storm in the colonies, still pleading “the vast debt” incurred “in defence of her American possessions,” in March, 1765, passed the obnoxious Stamp Act which prescribed the use of stamped paper for business and legal documents, newspapers and pamphlets: an annoying enough provision in itself, but the crux of the difficulty was that England, without the consent of the colonies, imposed the tax.

In October a congress of deputies met in New York to “consult on the common interest,” and was presided over by Timothy Ruggles, who had married the Widow Bathsheba Newcomb, of Sandwich, and lived there for some years as lawyer and tavern keeper. He is said to have been a man of charm and wit, a clever politician, and a patriot who later turned Tory. The congress set forth in no uncertain terms “the rights and liberties of the natural-born subjects of Great Britain . . . which Parliament by its recent action has invaded.” And pre-dating the Boston Tea Party, it was another man with Cape affiliations, Captain Isaac Sears, who, in other fashion, defeated the excisemen. “Hurrah, boys,” cried he at the head of a New York mob, “we will have the stamps.” And have them they did, and burned them, too. Sears be-came head of a Committee for Public Safety, and when Gage was trying to buy material in New York, warned the citizens that America best keep her supplies for her own use. His sobriquet of “King Sears” tells us something of his personality.

England, against the advice of her ablest men, proceeded on her ruinous way. Some parliamentary bombast about “these Americans nurtured so are-fully by the motherland” was neatly punctured by Captain Barre, a member who had lived in the colonies: “Planted by your care? No, your oppressions planted them in America,” thundered he. “Nourished by your indulgence? They grew by your neglect. Protected by your arms? They themselves have nobly taken up arms in your defence.” “They are too much like yourselves to be driven,” was his parting shot. And in the Lords, Camden was announcing : “You have no right to tax America; I have searched the matter. I repeat it. . Were I an American, I would resist to the last drop of my blood.” Asked in what book he found such law, he proudly answered: “It has been the custom of England; and, my lords, the custom of England is the law of the land.” At Boston, as in antiphon, James Otis declared: “Let Great Britain rescind; if she does not, the colonies are lost to her.”

A convention of towns, those of the Cape included, calling upon the king for redress, appealed to “the sovereign people.” The king’s ministers answered by garrisoning Boston with four thousand royal troops which the Whigs were now ready to view as a foreign aggression. Non-importation associations, under the motto, “United we conquer; divided we die,” were formed — Boston leading, the Cape towns following close. In the general excitement Massachusetts boiled hottest: for in her capital were the royal troops and here, naturally, was the first clash of arms. The year 1770 brought the “Boston massacre”; and in the same year, under Lord North, all duties were remitted save those on tea — England had bound herself to the East India Company there: to no avail, since the right to tax was reserved. Yet the repeal was welcomed as a partial victory by all but the hot-heads who were determined on separation; and Englishmen, who had taken a burning interest in the struggle of the colonies, rejoiced. London celebrated the event with clash of Bow Bells and dressed ships on the Thames.

Then, in 1773, came the little fleet of tea ships to Boston; and Boston, though she liked tea, promptly threw it into the harbor. Captain Benjamin Gorham, of the Barnstable family, was master of one of the ships, with a cargo of “Bohea”; and it was solemnly reported that “this evening a number of Indians, it is said of his Majesty of Ocnookortunkoog tribe, emptied every chest into the dock and destroyed the whole twenty-eight and a half chests.” And Cape Cod had her private Tea Party: for one of the fleet had run aground on the “Back Side” at Province-town. John Greenough, district clerk of Wellfleet and teacher of a grammar school “attended by such only as learn the Latin and Greek languages,” busied him-self about the task of transferring the cargo to Boston; but no Cape captain, though several were idle, would undertake the job, and boats were had down from Boston for the purpose. The Boston Committee of Correspondence, meantime, sent out a circular letter reporting their Tea Party, and adding: “the people at the Cape will we hope behave with propriety. and as becomes men resolved to save their Country.” For it was suspected that not all the wrecked tea had been shipped to Boston; and indeed it soon transpired that Master Greenough, seeing no harm since the Government got no duty, had thriftily retained two damaged cases for himself and a friend. Brought to see his error, his due apology was spread upon the records: “I do declare I had no intention to injure the liberties of my countrymen therein. And whereas the Committee of Correspondence for this district apprehend that I have abused them, in a letter I sent them, I do declare I had no such intention, and wish to be reconciled to them again and to forget and forgive on both sides.” Other tea than Greenough’s hoard was being hunted out. A Truro town-meeting records: “Several persons appeared of whom it had been reported that they had purchased small quantities of the East India company’s baneful teas, lately cast ashore at Provincetown. On examining these persons it appeared that their buying this noxious tea was through ignorance and inadvertance, and that they were induced thereto by the villainous example and artful persuading of some noted pretended friends of government from the neighboring towns.” There is evidence enough that some tea floated into the channels of trade; but any one guilty of the traffic, when apprehended, was quick to place the blame elsewhere.

The Cape was drawn into the great sweep of events. Town meetings were held to consider the alarming conditions; yet, even in the general pinch for money, maintenance was steadily voted for schools and clergy, though it was suggested that a minister might abate his salary “because of the scarcity of money and the difficulties of the times; or wait for the balance.” And one parson, we know, did give up fifty pounds of his stipend. Business was at a standstill, and many per-sons, for financial rather than political reasons as yet, left Harwich, Chatham, and other towns for Nova Scotia, the better there to trade and carry on the fisheries. “Sons of Liberty” were organized everywhere; each town must report its strength “on the side of liberty.” Yarmouth would have no tea brought into the town; in Chatham “a large number signed against tea”; Wellfleet pledged itself to the “defence of liberty”; Barnstable, Sandwich, Eastham had their resolutions of protest. Falmouth, in 1774, ordered every man from sixteen to sixty years of age to be given arms. Harwich voted to buy arms; Truro voted sympathy with the common cause. And Chatham, in 1772, had declared “civil and religious principles to be the sweetest and essential part of their lives, without which the remainder was scarcely worth preserving.”

England had gone beyond unjust taxation and had dared meddle with the courts — the trial by jury, the appointees to the bench — which was held to vitiate their function. “I argue in favor of British liberties,” had been James Otis’s clarion call; and at Barnstable, in September, 1774, a fine comedy was played out with the connivance, it was suspected, of James Otis, senior, who was chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas. He was to be charged with “holding office during the king’s pleasure” and receiving pay from revenue derived by an “edict of foreign despotism.” On the day preceding the opening of the court men from as far away as Middleborough came flooding into Sandwich; and next morning a small army marched thence to Barnstable to make their pro-test to he court. At their head was Doctor Nathaniel Freeman, a young hot-head of a Whig, who was leader in many a demonstration against the Tories, and later was to put his martial spirit to good use as brigadier-general in the Federal Army. He was a gallant figure, an eye-witness of the day’s doings remembered, in “a handsome black-lapelled coat, a tied wig as white as snow, a set-up hat with the point a little to the right: in short, he had the very appearance of fortitude personified.” Joined now by Barnstable men, the patriots took their stand in front of the courthouse. They improved the interval of waiting for the court to receive the recantations of several Tories who had been arrested by the Commissioners and when it came to a public declaration of sentiment were disposed, for the most part, as a current doggerel had it, to

“…renounce the Pope, the Turk, The King, the Devil, and all his work; And if you will set me at ease, Turn Whig or Christian — what you please.”

Now, behold, the court: Otis, Winslow, Bacon, Ied by the sheriff with a white staff in his left hand and a drawn sword in his right. “Gentlemen,” demanded Otis, “what is the purpose for which this vast assemblage is collected here?” Whereupon Freeman, from the steps of the court-house, replied in a fine speech, the upshot of which was that they proposed to prevent their honors from holding court to the end, particularly, that there should be no appeals to the hated higher court of the king’s council, “well knowing if they have no business, they can do no harm.”

“Sirs, you obstruct the law,” thundered Otis. Then, more mildly, “Why do you leap before you come to the hedge?” He ordered them to disperse, and cited his “duty.” “We shall continue to do ours,”countered Freeman. “And never,” cries one who saw the play, “never have I seen any man whatever who felt quite so cleverly as did Doctor Freeman during the whole of this business.”

The court withdrew, and, waited upon later by a committee, signed an agreement not to accept any commission or do any business dependent on those acts of Parliament that tend “to change our constitution into a state of slavery.” The protestants crowned their work by calling upon all justices and sheriffs of the county to sign the agreement, and by adjuring all military officers to refuse service under the captain-general “who is appointed to reduce us to obedience to the late unconstitutional acts and who has actually besieged the capital of this province with a fleet and army.” Barnstable and Yarmouth, having been interrogated as to whether they had dropped the legislators voting against the Continental Congress, their affirmation was received with cheers. That night some damage was done the new Liberty Pole, which was surmounted by a gilt ball, one of the “miscreants” blazoning thereon:

“Your liberty pole I dare be bold Appears like Dagon bright, But it will fall And make a scrawl Before the morning light.”

Business ran over into the next day, when one of the suspects in the affair of the Liberty Pole, whether or not the poet is not recorded, was made to apologize. Again the assembly, in committee of the whole and “attended by music,” waited upon Otis, who was lodged at the house of Mr. Davis. Adjured in writing not to sit in the king’s council, but rather as a “constitutional councillor of this province” in the elected General Court at Salem, in writing he expressed gratitude “for putting me in mind of my duty; I am determined to attend at Salem in case my health permits.” To the reading of his message listened “the whole body with heads uncovered and then gave three cheers in token of their satisfaction and high appreciation of his answer as well as esteem and veneration for his person and character.” In final session the company again repudiated the hated acts of Parliament and pledged themselves to the sacred cause of liberty, registered their abhorrence of mobs and violence, warned off any other molesters of the Liberty Pole, and agreed to use their “endeavors to suppress common peddlers.” The last a matter of some mystery until one knows that peddlers were prone to sell tea, and were perhaps suspected of being spies. Barnstable had entertained the host gratis, and the hottest patriot there must have welcomed its withdrawal to Sandwich, where it proceeded to take like action against Tories and possible meddlers with the town’s Liberty Pole. Then, amid cheers for everybody, Doctor Freeman’s company broke up and sifted back to their homes, but he himself was not to come scathless out of his adventure.

Suspecting a ruse when, a few nights later, he was summoned to a dying patient, he was not to be disappointed: for as he passed the tavern, three of the “recanters” appeared as a “Committee of the Body of the People” and demanded his presence within to answer for his actions. Ignoring them, he walked on, but on his return he was set upon by the “Committee,” it is said, and crying out that his sword-cane was his only weapon he laid about him valiantly, but was knocked senseless, and would have been in hard case had he not been rescued by friends. The whole community, it seemed, was against such lawlessness. The so-called Tories who had not fled were arrested, and on the plea of Freeman got off with a fine of one hundred pounds “lawful money.” But the people showed no such clemency. Sandwich, after an indignation meeting of the citizens, rearrested the culprits and forced them, on a scaffold under the Liberty Pole, to sign a confession acknowledging that their conduct was such as “would disgrace the character of a ruffian or a Hottentot,” and engaging themselves in future “religiously to regard the laws of God and man.”

The Tories, for the most part, were no such “Hottentots.” It was natural in such a settlement as Cape Cod that there should be many conservatives: men descended from those who had never failed in loyalty to the English Government, were it Stuart or Roundhead, who had been taught to love England as the home of their fathers, and the source of law and light. As late as 1766 even Franklin was declaring before a parliamentary committee that “to be an Old England man was of itself a character of respect and gave a kind of rank among us,” and “they considered Parliament as the great bulwark and security of their liberties.” There were as a fact four parties : the ardent Whigs like Nathaniel Freeman, who were separatists at all costs; the irreconcilable Tories who, when war was imminent, fled behind the British lines in Boston or New York, or to Nova Scotia and Canada, or to England, and, in the case of Cape Cod, often to the islands southward where they could be in easy communication with British ships. And there were the moderates of both camps : Whigs whose sensibilities were offended by the extreme methods of the radicals; Tories, chiefly men of the older generation, who lacked pliancy and vision to respond to a newer order; and with the latter were ranged, at any rate at the beginning of the trouble, those who loved freedom, they could swear, yet loved better present securities and feared conflict with the might of Britain. As time went on the number of moderate Whigs steadily increased, especially in the Old Colony as befitted the sober temper of the Pilgrim inheritance; even Joseph Otis, of Barnstable, who had rivalled Doctor Nathaniel Freeman in fervor, was to join them, and the lukewarm, patriots or Tories, were ready to declare for the colonies. Even a Tory in exile could be secretly elated by the prowess of his countrymen; and one such in England confided to his diary that “these conceited islanders” may learn to their cost that “our continent can furnish brave soldiers and judicious expert commanders.” It speaks well for the Federalists that after the war was over and many extreme Tories who had left their homes petitioned to return, they were reinstated upon pledge of loyalty to the new State : whether restored as generously to the affection of their neighbors history does not record, but one may fancy children’s gibes to the third generation. In Sandwich there were many Tories who were brought to conform; but it is said there was still much disaffection, and when the Declaration of Independence was read out by the parson on a certain Sunday, a Tory who was much esteemed in the neighborhood “trooped scornfully and indignantly out of meeting.”

At Cape Cod the feud between Tory and Whig took on a comedy aspect in comparison with the vindictive civil war which it presented in many counties of New York and in the southern colonies. At Truro, as late as 1774, the house of a Whig doctor was attacked, and many still refused to employ him; a parson, for receiving a number of prominent Whigs, was admonished by some of his parishioners. At Barnstable the parties had their headquarters in rival taverns; and at Sturgis’s, where Whigs met every evening to comment on the news, the discussion, running high between moderates and radicals, sometimes slopped over into action. After one such meeting a man who had criticised the system of espionage that wasted energy in ferreting out old women’s secret stores of tea, had his fence destroyed by his irate neighbors. Otis and Freeman, it seems, were not popular with the militia who, at a review one day, clubbed muskets instead of presenting arms. “The Crockers are at the bottom of this,” cried Joseph Otis. “You lie,” gave back Captain Samuel Crocker. A fight between the two naturally ensued; in the midst of which Freeman, who was not the man to be an inactive spectator, turned upon another Crocker, a moderate Whig in politics, followed him into his house, slashing at him harmlessly enough, and in his turn was like to have been murdered by a younger member of the Crockers thirsting for vengeance. Freeman’s cutlass took effect only upon the “summer beam” of the house; and years afterwards, when it was used as a tavern, Freeman, who had come from Sandwich to attend court, was refused entertainment there. “My house is full,” quoth Madam Crocker. She pointed to the scars of the “summer beam.” “And if it were not, there would be no room for Colonel Freeman.” “Time to forget those old matters, and bury the hatchet,” protested Freeman. “Very like,” said she, “but the aggressor should dig the grave.”

A certain young woman, suspected of disloyalty, and asked by the Vigilance Committee whether she were a Tory, answered in four emphatic words which the record leaves us to imagine from the dark comment: “The Committee never forgot them and ever after treated her with respect.” This woman, Amos Otis tells us, never lost her youthful vivacity; even in old age she was gay, responsive, able to discuss with equal zest the latest novel or parson’s sermon. Her wit was keen, and the point “never blunted in order to avoid an allusion which prudery might condemn.”

There was a more serious business in the tarring and feathering of the Widow Nabby Freeman of which the towns-people were sufficiently ashamed, evidently, to charge it in turn to Whig and Tory. Freeman, in his history, says she was a Whig, the victim of Tory spite; Otis, with convincing detail, that she was a Tory. She kept a small grocery, and refused to surrender her tea to be destroyed by the Vigilance Committee. She was “a thorn in their sides — she could out-talk any of them, was fascinating in her manners, and had an influence which she exerted, openly and defiantly, against the patriotic men who were then hazarding their fortunes and their lives in the struggle for American independence.” Both narratives agree in the fact: she was taken from her bed to the village green, smeared with tar and feathers, set astride a rail and ridden about the town. We may fancy the tongue-lashing her persecutors received in the process. At last they exacted from her a promise that in the future she would keep clear of politics. The men who carried through this cruel comedy were not eager to be known; yet it is said feeling against the Tories ran so high that even in Sandwich, which had lamented the harsh treatment of Quakers, a strong party justified the act. But that public sentiment did not approve such rowdyism is proved by the fact that it stands out alone in unlovely prominence.

It is probable that many a private grudge was worked off in this cry of “Tory, Tory.” When Joseph Otis, brother of the patriot, cited a prominent townsman for disaffection, the court held the accusation to proceed “rather from an old family quarrel and was the effect of envy rather than matter of truth and sobriety, or any view to the publick good.” And when as a deacon he had been haled before the church for his political opinions, the church decided that it had “no right to call its members to an account for actions of a civil and public nature,” that the Protestants ” did not charge the deacon with immorality” and that it “begged leave to refer them to a civil tribunal.” It is further recorded in a later month that the affair between the deacon and “the brethren, styled petitioners, was happily accommodated.”

Until the actual clash of arms, many believed that there might be found some ground for reconciliation; but England was blinded by jealous tradesmen and foolish politicians, hot blood in the colonies was all for separation. Events swept beyond the control of statesmen, and all were carried on to the vortex of revolution. In a speech from the throne George III asserted that “a most daring resistance to the laws,” encouraged by the other colonies, existed in Massachusetts. Again Camden spoke in defence of the colonies: “They say truly taxation and representation must go together. This wise people speak out. They do not ask you to repeal the laws as a favor; they claim it as a right.” But Parliament charged the Americans with “wishing to become independent” and as for any danger of revolt, determined “to crush the monster in its birth at any price or hazard.” They were to have a good run for their money.