Stearns (1879) [3/8]

1. First, then, in relation to the body politic, — to the interests of the State and the country.

Bedford, as I have said, was introduced into the sisterhood of the towns near the beginning of a critical period of our country’s history. Already the approaching thunder-storm, which discharged itself more than fifty years later, was beginning to flash and rumble in the sky. The house of Hanover came to the throne in 1714. Men high in office were insisting that the charters of the colonies were not irrevocable. In the year 1715 a bill to that effect was proposed in the House of Commons. Great jealousy discovered itself in England, in regard to our rising manufactures. “In a little time,” it was said with alarm, “they will be able to live without Great Britain.” [*1] As early as November, 1728, it was suggested ”whether a Stamp Act should not be extended to America.” [*2] In 1729, the very year in which Bedford was incorporated. Governor Burnet, of Massachusetts, had suggested to Lord Newcastle that “some of the British forces would be necessary to keep the people within the bounds of their duty.” [*2] Of course such signs were admonitory. But time passed on, and other interests delayed the crisis.

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But the people were in a course of preparation. In the old Indian and French wars, for example, they had been getting trained to habits of self-reliance. In these, Bedford had her share. When Concord, long before the separation, armed her people for defence against the savages and established garrison-houses, two of these, as her historian tells us, were within the present limits of Bedford. [*3] I think I have seen the old cellar of one of them, still distinguishable in my childhood, near the roadside. And when Billerica, in great alarm, took a similar course, I recognize one Bedford name, that of Michael Bacon, whose house was thus appropriated; [*4] and Job Lane, unquestionably a Bedford man, “from his remote situation,” says the record, “was allowed to fortify his own house, and have two soldiers, if the country can spare them.” [*5]

Those were rough and bloody times, any way. An ancestor of mine, Captain John Stearns, tradition used to say, captured an Indian lad, and would have taken him home, but the boy fought so furiously, as he held him on the saddle behind him, that he felt compelled to despatch him, which he did. [*6]

In Lovewell’s fight, near Fryeburg on Saco River, Eleazar Davis, one of the founders of Bedford, but a few years before its incorporation, endured incredible sufferings and barely escaped, — a cripple for the rest of his days. And yet again Hugh Maxwell, one of our best citizens as well as bravest heroes, of whom we shall hear more hereafter, served bravely in the old French and Indian wars, and had the narrowest escape with his life. That was the same war in which Bedford’s first minister, [*7] after his dismission from his people, served as a chaplain in a company in which it is at least inferred were more or less of his former parishioners. Maxwell served five campaigns in that war. He went into it

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as a private, and came out of it as a commissioned officer. Mr. Shattuck says, “Several of the inhabitants of Bedford sustained commissions.” [*8] And yet again, Thompson Maxwell, brother of Hugh, and a native of Bedford, who, according to the dates, entered the service when he was yet but a boy of sixteen, gives the following account of his connection with it, in a communication to Gen. James Miller, of Salem: —

“In 1758, enlisted as a private under Capt. Lovewell of the Rangers, reconnoitring with Capt. Samuel Brewer, of Waltham, went with Rogers’ Rangers and destroyed St. Francis; destroyed their village, and upon hearing their war-whoop, we were ordered to disperse and take care of our selves. Chose Capt. Stark as our leader; lost our blankets and those we left at St. Francis; in eleven days arrived at first settlement. No. 4. Thirty-seven of our party died at White River, near Royalton; [^1] sixty enlisted with Capt. Barnes of Chelmsford. Soon transferred to Capt. Whiting’s company. At Crown Point entered the corps of Rangers under Capt. Brewer. In 1761 enlisted for the war.” [*9]

To the honor of the town, it is on record that after the close of the war the town voted “to abate the whole of the rates” of a certain class of those who had served in it, “and all the others their highway rates.” [*10]

And now the grand crisis in the country’s history began rapidly to approach. In the preliminaries of that great struggle, the towns of New England stood prominent. And it is here that their peculiar aptitude and strength for purposes of mutual counsel, co-operation, and support, to which Mr. Jefferson refers, came prominently to view. The town of Boston, as being the largest, richest, and embodying the largest number of eminent men, naturally assumed the hegemony. [*11][*12] They sent out invitations to all the towns in the

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province, inviting them now to take action and express their views, now to send delegates to Boston for mutual counsel, now to appoint committees of correspondence, who should keep a vigilant lookout upon all the proceedings around them. Two of the meetings to which I refer were held in Boston, in the autumn of 1768; and though they disclaimed all pretence to “any authoritative or governmental” acts, and simply confined their action to a petition to the governor, that action was treated by him as a grievous offence, and answered by a threatening letter. Their meeting, itself, was unlawful, he asserted. “At present,” he said, “ignorance of the law may excuse what is past. A step farther will take away that plea.” [*13] He warns them, as a friend, to break up their meeting and separate, “for assure yourselves, the king is determined to maintain his entire sovereignty over this province.” [*13]

The transactions of those two meetings were received in England with great indignation. The House of Lords took the case up, and in a series of resolutions declared the proceedings “illegal, unconstitutional, and calculated to excite sedition and insurrection in his Majesty’s Province of Massachusetts Bay”; [*14] the appointment of a convention of deputies from the towns in pursuance of them, and the act of the selectmen in calling such a convention, they declared “subversive of his Majesty’s government,” and that of the towns, in electing deputies to it, and the meeting of such convention in consequence, “daring insults offered to his Majesty’s authority, and an audacious usurpation of the powers of government.” [*14]

That was the same set of resolutions in which was made the startling declaration that to call in question “the right of his Majesty, with the advice and consent of Parliament, to make laws and statutes, to bind the colonies and people of

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America, subject to the Crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever,” was “illegal, unconstitutional, and derogatory to the rights of the Crown and Parliament of Great Britain.” (See “Newport Mercury,” March 27, 1769.)

But the people had carefully considered what their rights were, and knew well how to keep the limits of their charter. The governor at length made a distinct issue with them, at the opening of the Provincial Assembly, January, 1773. These were matters, he affirmed, which a town had no right to consider. He was answered in a masterly paper, said to have been written by Samuel Adams. A town meeting, as he clearly showed, by the express terms of the law, had the right to consult and act in matters “of public concernment.” [*15] And these were matters of public concernment. The governor saw it now, and acknowledged it in his private correspondence. “By an unfortunate mistake” he wrote, “soon after the charter, a law was passed, which made every town in the province a corporation perfectly democratic, every matter being determined by the major vote of the inhabitants”; a law, he admits, “which was unfortunately allowed by the Crown.” [*16]

Thus the towns triumphed, and the proceedings which had been instituted to secure union and co-operation and vigilance in the maintenance of their rights, went on with increased vigor.

Now, what I wish you to take note of here is, that in all these movements, Bedford, as far as I can ascertain, never lost an opportunity. There are some papers on the town book which, were they not too long to recite here, would show, I think, beyond all question, that she both understood her rights and duties, and was ever ready both to maintain the one and, at whatever sacrifice, to discharge the other. [*17]

When a letter of correspondence was sent out to the

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towns from a town meeting in Boston, asking from each of them “a free communication of their sentiments,” it stands on record, that on the first day of March, 1773, ”after solemn prayer to God for direction, and taking into our most serious consideration the melancholy state of the British Colonies in North America in general, and this Province in particular, the town proceeded to make choice of Deacon Stephen Davis, John Reed, Esq., Mr. John Webber, Dr. Joseph Ballard, Mr. John Moore, Mr. Joseph Hartwell, and Mr. Hugh Maxwell, to be committee, to take our grievances under consideration, and to report to the town” at the next town meeting, to be held on the 31st of May.

This large committee, comprising some of the ablest and most trusted men in the town, having had three months to deliberate, brought in a very full and carefully prepared paper, declaring their loyalty to the Crown, asserting their chartered rights, condemning, in a very decisive but temperate manner, the oppressive acts under which they were suffering, defending the course pursued by the people of the colonies, recommending the most earnest efforts to restore harmony and a good understanding with the mother country, urging strenuous exertions to increase “the present agreeable union between us and our sister colonies,” [^2] and making this decisive declaration of their feelings and determinations: “We should rejoice,” they say, “to see the difficulties under which we labor, removed; but if every method which can be thought of for the removal thereof should fail of success, we are ready to join with our fellow-sufferers, even to the risk of our lives and fortunes, rather than give up our constitutional rights and charter privileges.” The town voted unanimously to accept the report, to have it recorded in the town book, and that a copy of it be sent to the town of Boston. Signed John Reed, Town Clerk.

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In that same year, 1773, Bedford had a representative, though not by any appointment of hers, at the famous “tea-party” in Boston Harbor. It was Thompson Maxwell, the brother of Hugh, of whom I have already spoken.

“I had come to Boston,” he says, “with my team. I had loaded at John Hancock‘s warehouse and was about to leave town, when Mr. Hancock requested me to drive my team into his yard, ordered his servant to take care of it, and requested me to be on Long Wharf at two o’clock P.M., and told me what was to be done. I went accordingly, and joined the band under one Captain Hewes. [^3] We mounted the ships and made tea in a trice. This done, I took my team and went home as an honest man should.” [*9]

I shall not attempt to vindicate the destroying of the tea. If justified at all, it must be as a war measure, or something of the kind; and about that such men as Hancock ought to know.

March 7, 1774, “the town voted not to use any tea till the duty be taken off.” On the 30th of June, 1774, when in view of the Boston Port Bill, blocking up the harbor of Boston, and other oppressive measures, the stringent covenant of non-intercourse with the island of Great Britain was prepared and sent around to the towns, this town adopted it, spread it at full length on the town book, and appointed a committee of five men “to make a proper return of these proceedings, and to hold correspondence with other towns, in behalf of this town, as they shall judge necessary, until the town otherwise order.” This committee is the same, with two omissions, with that last named, and is supposed to be Bedford’s first Committee of Correspondence. When, in view of the distress inflicted on the inhabitants by that measure, the poor of Boston had to be billeted out upon the neighboring towns, [*18] Bedford had twenty-nine of these assigned to her.

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The same year, Aug. 29, the town took into consideration “the propriety of instructing the Committee of Correspondence with regard to a meeting of this county, to consider what is proper to be done at this alarming crisis, in respect to the several acts of the British Parliament,” and left it with the committee to “do as they think best.” I learn from Mr. Shattuck’s History, that this county meeting or convention was held at Concord, on the thirtieth and thirty-first days of August, “consisting of one hundred and fifty delegates from every county in the State,” and that the delegates from Bedford were Stephen Davis, John Reed, John Moore, and John Webber, the Committee of Correspondence themselves. [*19]

In October of the same year, delegates were chosen to join with a Provincial Congress, “to be holden at Concord, on the second Tuesday of this month.” Dr. Joseph Ballard and John Reed were the delegates. At the same meeting, the town voted twelve pounds to repair their stock of powder and other ammunition.

On the 18th of January, 1775, they voted at first not to send a delegate to the Provincial Congress to be held in February; but on the 27th, a new town meeting was called, and John Reed was chosen. Messrs. Moses Abbott, Thomas Page, Ebenezer Page, John Reed, and Edward Stearns were chosen at the same meeting, as “a Committee of Inspection.”

Now, there is something quite sublime, as it seems to me, in the way in which this little town, one of the smallest in numbers in the State, “toed the mark,” as we say, at every step, and showed her hand, and that “a mailéd hand,” in every emergency. [*20]

But the time for votes, conventions, deliberations, resolutions, was now nearly past. Battle, bloodshed, war, a long, tedious, seven years’ war, was just at hand.


SOURCE TEXT


EMENDATIONS

  1. Royalton; ∨ Royalston;
  2. urging ∨ urging to
  3. Hewes. ∨ Hews.

ANNOTATIONS

  1. cf. Bancroft’s History of the United States (1878) p 502
  2. cf. Bancroft’s History of the United States (1878) pp 513-514
  3. cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) p 47
  4. “whose house”: the Michael Bacon House: 229 Old Billerica Road
  5. “his own house”: the Job Lane House
    Now a museum: 295 North Road
  6. “despatch” (i.e., “dispatch”): kill
  7. “Bedford’s first minister”: Reverend Nicholas Bowes
  8. cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) p 257
  9. cf. “The narrative of Major Thompson Maxwell” (1865)
    in Historical collections of the Essex Institute: Vol VII (pp 97-115)
  10. “rates”: taxes
  11. Boston was not incorporated as a city until 1822.
  12. “the hegemony”: predominance
  13. cf. The history . . . of the war in America [1780] pp 88-89
  14. cf. The history . . . of the war in America [1780] pp 91-92
  15. cf. Wells’ The life . . . of Samuel Adams: Vol II (1865) p 55
  16. cf. Wells’ The life . . . of Samuel Adams: Vol II (1865) p 57
  17. “discharge”: fulfill
  18. “billeted out upon”: sent away for lodging to
  19. cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) p 82
  20. “a mailéd hand”: [ conceivably ] the Bedford Flag

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