Temple's Diary Temple's Diary
Episode 5. College!

The Electric Franklin

October 8, 1775

When I reach George's house, there is a wonderful smell of freshly baked muffins and a fire roaring in the library. His father and grandfather are comfortably seated and George's two brothers, Joseph who is 17, and Samuel who is 13 pass out mugs of warm milk. Unlike my stepmother, this family is serious about observing the non-importation of tea.

Boston Massacre. Engraving by Paul Revere.

The grandfather — obviously a teacher in his younger days — cannot wait to begin his narrative. He does not start in 1770 when the Boston Massacre happened, but in 1765 when the chain of events that provoked it was set in motion. Of course, he feels that one should really go back somewhat further, to the French and Indian War and to England's claim that the colonies should help pay for the expense of that war since it was fought to protect the American settlers against their enemies.

George's father interrupts to proclaim that there was no reason to reimburse the mother country since England profited by the elimination of the French and since her acquisition of Canada was certainly worth all the expenses of the war, not to mention the opening of the western lands to English speculators. That would have been the time for an open-minded revision of the relationship between Britain and the colonies, he asserts.

— "You forget," snorts the grandfather, "that in British eyes Boston was no more than an insignificant provincial town in 1765, with its 15,000 inhabitants. Compare this to Edinburgh, which had over 50,000 and London, which had over 700,000."

I am beginning to get the picture. "Gramps," as I call him in my mind, enjoys the glory of belonging to the British Empire, while Mr. Fox, his son, admires the rebellious spirit of those commercially oriented Bostonians. There is a rift between the generations somewhat like the one in my family, but in reverse. In our case it is the grandfather who is, let's say, revolutionary, and the father conservative; in George's family it is the grandfather who is conservative and wants to stick with England, while George's father favors independence.

Brother Joseph speaks up a little impatiently: "Fine, 1765, we're at the Stamp Act." Turning to his younger siblings, George and Samuel, he asks, "What do you know about that?"

Stamp Act Stamp

Samuel eagerly replies: "That was when THEY, over in England, decided that WE over here, had to buy pre-stamped paper for just about anything that required some sort of document. We had to pay for college diplomas, for going to court, for being appointed to public office, for the right to sell liquor, for anchoring our ships, for the privilege of buying playing cards, for obtaining an attorney's license. Some of those stamps cost as much as ten pounds..."

All that in one breath. He must have just studied it in school. "Yes, and to make it worse, the distributors of those awful stamps are paid three hundred dollars a year for that mean job. Did I forget anything?"

— "You did very well, Sammy," says George in his serious way. "We should add that it was at that point, during the spring and summer of l765, that a new element came into play: the power of ordinary people who have become enraged, what is now called a mob."

Samuel Adams

— "A bunch of intoxicated bully boys manipulated by a faction of radicals for their own political purpose," grumbles Gramps. "Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty introduced violence in Boston. Tarring and feathering, humiliating their opponents, sacking and destroying the house of the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, creating an atmosphere of terror, even among the judges who were supposed to defend law and order..."

Young Sammy pipes up again: "Temple, the Stamp Act, that's when your grandmother had her hour of glory."

— "My grandmother? But we're talking about Boston!" (It does not seem like the right time to tell them that Mrs. Deborah Franklin was not my grandmother since she was not my father's mother; maybe they know it, maybe they don't, the point is what did SHE have to do with the Stamp Act?)

— "There was disturbance in Philadelphia, too," says Mr. Fox. "That was one of the rare occasions when your grandfather, away in London, misjudged the situation here. He suggested the name of one of his friends as possible distributor of those stamps and that led to the belief that he was in favor of the Act. In no time at all, a Philadelphia mob was threatening to destroy the Franklin house."

— "And what did my grandmother do?"

— "She amazed everybody by being so brave. First, she announced that she would be mightily "affronted" if anybody touched her house. She sent your Aunt Sally to the governor's mansion in New Jersey. Then, with the help of her brother, the baker, she stored some guns upstairs and stood her ground, waiting. Her friends started patrolling the streets and the mob went away. Let me add that as soon as your grandfather grasped the situation, he knew just what to do: he rallied the London merchants who were engaged in commerce with the colonies and got them to petition the government against the Stamp Act. Dr. Franklin eventually testified before Parliament and stressed the economic importance of good relations. You know, Temple, when all is said and done, international commerce is very often the key to peace. The Stamp Act was repealed. The news of that repeal reached Boston in May 1766."

We still had four years to cover before reaching the massacre and fortified ourselves with a new round of muffins. It was Joseph's turn to talk: "Our beloved English cousins were not about to take their defeat peacefully," he said, with more than a little sarcasm in his voice. "Since their view was that the chief purpose of the colonies was to provide the mother country with income, they decided to put an end to the customs system such as it existed, you know, a system that showed flexibility, the capacity for closing an eye now and then when the ship's captain was about to smuggle a little..."

— "You mean a system of corruption," interrupted his grandfather.

— "Call it what you want," said Joseph, "even the governor participated in it. But then, as of 1767, London determined to tighten control through vigorous customs enforcement. They raised the duties and sent five commissioners to our ports to oversee the unloading of ships. The whole operation was put under the orders of a newly appointed Secretary of the Colonies, Lord Hillsborough, a man of, shall we say, limited intelligence, and not your grandfather's best friend, I guess."

Yes, I remember Grandfather and even my father talking of Hillsborough with distaste. I nodded. I loved the way Joseph was telling the story.

— "What they did not understand in London," he said, "was that the governor of Massachusetts was in a tight spot. Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty were growing bolder by the day. Boston had no police force to maintain order. The only way to do that was to use the British troops under General Gage. But using troops could only happen by the command of a civilian, meaning the governor. And the governor in turn was in deadly fear of the fury of the populace. A very vicious circle, as you see."

— "And then, Joseph? Hurry up!" That was young Sammy, as impatient as I was to hear more.

— "And then, as the governor was wavering and thinking only about himself, the population began organizing resistance. They agreed on non-importation of British goods and broke the windows of merchants who did not observe it; they would not accept the new Townshend Acts imposing duties on paper, on lead, on glass, on tea; they roughed up the new Customs Commissioners under various pretexts.

"Everything led to more disputes. Finally, Lord Hillsborough decided to send three Irish regiments to Boston to restore obedience to English law. As soon as those troops arrived in the fall of 1768, the tension rose to new heights: problems over lodging the men, numerous incidents provoked by both sides. It was rumored, Temple, that your grandfather said, about those soldiers being sent to America, 'They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.' How true that proved to be!"

I sensed that we had arrived at the big moment and all eyes turned toward Gramps, who, as I was told, happened to be in Boston on the night of the Massacre and had witnessed it from a window right near the scene.

— "What I remember as if it were yesterday," he said, "is the incredible noise of the crowd, the moonlight, the snow on the street, and then those shots, the blood on the snow, a moment of unbelievable silence. Howls after that, people running off in all directions, the bodies lying there, the moon shining down on them."

I realize that, unlike Philadelphia, Boston had no street lighting. "What started the shooting?" I ask.

— "What started it? As if one knew... So many people were there and no two witnesses told the same story. It started with a lonely sentinel standing near a small sentry box not far from the Customs House. Angry words were exchanged with a passerby who suffered a blow, a crowd gathered and taunted the soldier with words like, 'Damned rascally scoundrel lobsterback son of a bitch!' You'll pardon me, but that's what they said. Because of their red coats the British were referred to as lobsterbacks."

"The sentinel grew very frightened but he had nowhere to go. Church bells began ringing, not, as was generally the case, because of a fire, but as a way of spreading the alarm. The crowd started throwing chunks of ice at the soldier, mocking him, daring him to fire."

"After a while Captain Preston, the officer in charge that night of March 5, heard about the endangered sentinel and decided he had to rescue him. He promptly organized a relief party of one corporal and six enlisted men — very tall grenadiers wearing huge bearskin caps — and pushed his way with them through the crowd to the sentinel. The soldiers had bayonets affixed to their still unloaded muskets; they spread out in a semi-circle since the crowd had become too dense and frantic for them to rejoin their barracks. Captain Preston tried in vain to convince the people to disperse."

"The people knew that the soldiers were not allowed to fire unless ordered to do so by a civilian authority, as I said, but there was no civilian authority to be seen, they were all in hiding, including the judges and justices of the peace. What the people did not know or chose to ignore is that anybody has the right to kill in self-defense, soldier or not."

"With the crowd only inches away and daring them to fire, the soldiers loaded their muskets. Someone threw something at one of the grenadiers, who fell. As he was scrambling back to his feet he was hit again and he fired. The others followed suit."

"Five people were shot. The captain would later maintain that he had NOT given the order to fire, but because of the ringing of the church bells there was great confusion. People assumed that the city was in flames, and kept rushing out of their houses shouting: 'Fire!' to alert their neighbors. I don't know, all was chaos and confusion, I'm not even sure that my account is correct..."

We sat around in stunned silence. George spoke up: "What you must also know, Temple, is that when calm returned the captain and his men were locked up from March to November, at which point a trial took place. Meanwhile, right after the event, Paul Revere published a supposed drawing of the soldiers, standing in a straight line, shooting at the unarmed crowd, like executioners. A great piece of political fiction!"

When I asked what happened to the soldiers, the members of the Fox family looked at each other in puzzlement. The amazing answer was that Captain Preston and his men had gone free, but how? Why? Among the variety of reasons I was offered, I only remember that Governor Hutchinson had managed to delay the trial long enough to give time for tempers to cool off, that the judges were in no hurry to proceed, and especially that John Adams, the radical Samuel Adams' second cousin, had defended Preston and his men in such a brilliant fashion that he won their acquittal.

Certainly not a Loyalist, John Adams felt that as a lawyer it was his duty to represent people in desperate danger. He pleaded eloquently that, given the circumstances of that dramatic night, the soldiers had acted in self-defense, and — at great risk to himself — he won the case.

I thanked one and all and walked home, my head spinning. I had suddenly discovered what a fascinating, complicated business History can be. What they taught us in school under the name of history was a tedious series of battles followed by treaties, followed by the breaking of those treaties, and new battles followed by new treaties, all of that run by kings who married carefully chosen princesses that they had never seen but who were guaranteed to bring them new territories and more power. You only had to remember which king and what battlefield, and that was it.

But today! Look at all you have to take into account — it is staggering: the power of the mob (who inflames them? for what purpose?), the loyalty to old traditions, the make-up of a jury, the steadfastness — if any — of the courts, the incidental event that turns out to have huge consequences ... And I'm a part of all that, I who had been seeing it in family terms, in my trying to keep neutral between Father and Grandfather, I'm right in the middle of this whirlwind.

It feels good to arrive home just in time to see Aunt Sally putting the finishing touches to her soup. I watch the vegetables bubbling in the big pot, rubbing against each other as they swirl around. Do they ever quarrel the way we humans do? Does the carrot snarl at the beet, telling the beet to "get out of my way, you ugly redback creature"? Does the beet call the carrot a yellow coward? Do the peas try to mediate? Are the potatoes forming into a mob?

— "Billy, stop daydreaming and eat your soup while it's hot," says Aunt Sally.