The Minutemen and Their World
“Do Not Be Divided for So Small Matters”
CONCORD arrived at its strategic position in 1775 only after a good deal of foot-dragging. While Bostonians fulminated against British policies in the 1760s and early 1770s, the yeomen of Concord were squabbling among themselves in a series of increasingly bitter quarrels that threatened ultimately to divide the town into two warring parties. The local contentions had no relation to the colonial dispute with Britain; that subject came before the town only occasionally until 1774 and elicited only a mild response. Let others warm to arguments over the rights of the colonies and sound the alarm against a corrupt ministry in London and its lackeys at home. Concordians were more concerned over their roads and schools and meetinghouse.
When the eighteenth-century Yankee reflected on government, he thought first of his town. Through town meetings, he elected his officials, voted his taxes, and provided for the well-ordering of community affairs. The main business of the town concerned roads and bridges, schools, and the poor—the staples of local government even today. But the colonial New England town claimed authority over anything that happened within its borders. It hired a minister to preach in the town-built meetinghouse and compelled attendance at his sermons. It controlled public uses of private property, from the location of slaughterhouses and tanneries to the quality of bread sold at market. And it gave equal care to the moral conduct of its inhabitants, as Concord’s William Hunt regretfully learned in 1764 when the selectmen took notice of his public tippling and idle “Loytring about from House to House Wasteing his time in a Sinfull maner” and advised innkeepers to shut their doors to his trade. No issue was in theory exempt from a town’s action, even if in practice the provincial government occasionally intervened in local disputes and told the inhabitants how to run their lives.1
A remarkably broad segment of the population could join in this exercise of local power. To vote in Massachusetts town elections, one had to be a male, at least twenty-one years old, an inhabitant of a town for the past year, and owner of an estate that would rent for £3:6:8 a year in the local assessors’ view. In a country town like Concord, most men could meet the property-holding requirement, which was the equivalent of a month’s wages for a common laborer. In 1771 seven out of ten Concordians qualified. Those who could not were farmers’ sons, only recently come of age, and day laborers and servants, dependent on others for their bread. In eighteenth-century Massachusetts, a citizen mattered politically only when his judgment was subject to no one else’s whim and untempted by the financial inducements of designing men.2
With town government affecting so much of daily life, no New England community could escape political conflict. A road urgently needed by a man at the outskirts was often a wasteful expense to an inhabitant near the center, while one churchgoer’s learned preacher was another’s prideful sinner on the way to hell. Politics was, as ever, a contest over who got what of a community’s scarce resources and whose values would prevail in local life. But provincial Yankees labored under a set of beliefs that made political activity as we know it impossible.
Eighteenth-century New Englanders demanded a great deal of their leaders. A magistrate, they held, was not a hired agent but a “father” to his people. He was raised up to rule as another Moses, a model of wisdom and righteousness, a lover of justice and champion of the people’s rights. Like a good father, he was patient and gentle in guiding his subjects, but he could also be stern when necessary. He neither courted popular favor nor consulted private interest. He was ever-solicitous of the common good.3
The people of Concord sought such leaders among the well-born and the rich. Democracy and equality played no part in their view of the world. New Englanders believed that society was composed of “ranks and degrees,” that just as the earth “has Mountains and Plains, Hills and Vallies,” so “there are the Distinctions of Superiours and Inferiours, Rulers and Ruled, publick and private Orders of Men … .” The upper orders were to rule, the lower to follow. To place men of “low degree” in the council chamber would bring government into contempt. Magistrates must be distinguished men, known and respected by all. All authority—political, social, economic, and moral—was of a piece.4
By aristocratic English standards, Concord’s governing class cut a minor figure in the world. A few leaders were country squires like Colonel John Cuming, a Harvard- and Edinburgh-trained doctor who oversaw a 250-acre farm in Concord and speculated in frontier lands in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. As a young man in his twenties, Cuming had fought in the old colonial wars against the French, in the course of which he received a musket ball in his hip—where it remained till his death—and was taken captive by Indians, beaten, and removed to Canada. He eventually won over his captors and gained release in a prisoner exchange. He returned home to build an extensive medical practice throughout Middlesex County and to become one of the town’s leading men—the moderator of no fewer than ninety town meetings, justice of the peace, president-judge of the county Court of General Sessions. Concord often called on him to serve as its ambassador to the world. Cuming practiced the philanthropy his worldly status prescribed. It is said that he never charged for treating patients on the Sabbath. When Harvard Hall burned, he donated “two handsome brass branches for the use of the College chapel”; in 1771, he was awarded an honorary M.A. At his death in 1788, he left the College £300 sterling to establish a professorship of medicine. Together with other money, the bequest was used to start the Harvard School of Medicine.5
But most of Concord’s leaders were substantial yeomen and tradesmen with seventy-five to one hundred acres of land—twice the holding of the ordinary farmer. And while they engaged in trade more often than most inhabitants, it was business on the scale of Honest John Beatton, parceling out pins for change, and that of farmer-shoemaker Jonas Heywood, who every winter went from house to house in the countryside “whipping the cat”—boarding with his customers while he made and repaired enough shoes to last each family for the season. Still, hard-working, substantial men like Beatton and Heywood did stand out in a largely rural society, and they could afford to spend the typical selectman’s four or five years in the public service. In the eyes of their neighbors, such men could rise to the standard of the public service.6
Ephraim Wood was another shoemaker-farmer who won the trust of the town. Born in 1733 and bred to his father’s trade, Wood was a natural candidate for town leadership: he was the son of a selectman—as were nearly half the men Concord chose for this post. But Wood also commanded respect in his own right. At 250 pounds, he was an imposing figure; the calf of his leg was said to measure twenty-four inches around. He had a reputation for “a calm, considerate mind and sound judgment,” and he so thrived in business that his name became synonymous with success. Once another shoemaker was complaining to a Scotsman about his bad luck and poor trade. “Oh,” the Scotsman replied, “you have a very poor trade, but Ephraim Wood have a very good trade.” In 1771, Wood succeeded Jonas Heywood as selectman and town clerk, and he served in these posts for the next twenty-five years. When he died in 1814, it was said that
In him were united those qualities and virtues, which formed a character at once amiable, useful, respectable, and religious. Early in life he engaged in civil and public business, and by a judicious and faithful discharge of duty acquired confidence and reputation with his fellow citizens and the public … . The rights and liberties of his country were near his heart, and he was a warm and zealous defender of these against all encroachments. He was a true disciple of the great Washington, a friend to ‘liberty with order.’ …In domestic life, his disposition and example were highly amiable and worthy. As a Christian, he was devout and humble, sincere and ardent. Having lived the life, he died the death of the righteous.7
In the model commonwealth, public recognition flowed naturally to an Ephraim Wood. As he established himself in society and did his turns in a town’s burdensome minor offices—posts like constable and surveyor of highways—men would notice his merits and soon elevate him to community-wide leadership. In Concord, high positions would normally come to a man by his mid-forties; the community desired leaders in their prime, not after retirement from active life. Ideally, a potential leader neither sought nor clung to office; were he to campaign openly, he would simply demonstrate his unfitness for public trust. Once elected, he would continue on the same conscientious course for the public good, heedless of his own popularity, the partial interests of powerful constituents, or the momentary wishes of a majority. Men would listen when he spoke and, whether they agreed or not, respectfully accept his judgments. So long as the magistrate upheld the fundamental liberties and interests of his community, no one questioned his fitness to rule.8
The ordinary citizen in this vision of politics had an equally virtuous code of conduct. When he joined in a town meeting, he would set the needs of the group before his own and strive to think as his neighbors thought. In the course of discussion, he might properly disagree with another speaker, but always reluctantly, with a spirit of accommodation in his heart. Never would he concert his opposition with others; such action was universally condemned as the work of “faction,” of men in league against the common good. When the meeting came to a vote, the citizen would normally find himself in alignment with the prevailing trend; whatever doubts persisted would be curbed in the interests of harmony. To insist on a formal count of the yeas and nays or to demand a record of one’s dissent in the minutes of a meeting was to subvert that perfect unanimity of minds that adorned the ideal community. Men believed, with Boston minister Jonathan Mayhew, that “Union was the source of public happiness.”9
The New England town of men’s deepest aspirations was a utopia: a corporate body free from power-seeking, from conflict, from hard bargaining among separate interests, from exploitation of the weak; free, in short, from politics. But there was no eliminating the facts of private ambition and group hostilities from social life. Colonial Yankees strove instead to overcome them through their “precepts of peace” and, failing that, to escape them through a distinctive style of politics by denial. Men stood for office by renouncing ambitions, all the while discreetly publicizing their availability among friends. They feuded and squabbled over the same issues year after year; it was their opponents, they charged, who were violating the spirit of community. Often agreement could be reached only by compromising the ideal of town unity. And sometimes it could not be reached at all.10
Pre-Revolutionary Concord traced much of its political conflict to the growth of its population. From the very beginning, settlement was not confined to the village center; men took up choice spots across the river and formed distinct clusters whose existence was formally recognized in the three “quarters”—East, North, and South—the town established for the purpose of distributing land and apportioning taxes. But it was not until after the seventeenth century that much of Concord’s land area was filled in; within its limits lay not only the present-day town but also all of the current town of Acton, to the west, and parts of Carlisle, Bedford, and Lincoln, to the north, northeast, and southeast. As the approximate number of inhabitants increased to 480 in 1679, 920 in 1706, 1,500 in 1725, the large estates of the original settlers were carved into smaller farms for succeeding generations. New communities took shape far from the village meetinghouse, with separate needs of their own and with a growing sense of separate identity.11
The “outlivers,” as they were sometimes called, soon resented their subordination to the center. On Sabbath mornings families still had to travel five or six miles into town; during the week their children had to go back and forth across the river to the village grammar school. They were at a disadvantage, too, in town politics, for inhabitants in the center could pack special town meetings more easily than farmers on the outskirts.12
Samuel Kibby, who lived about three miles from the meetinghouse, had a special problem. His five daughters had trouble getting there on the Sabbath. They had to take turns riding the family’s horse to Sunday meeting—“they were so heavy that only one could ride at once.” But only a minority of families owned horses. When the town’s leading men won permission to take common land for stables behind the meetinghouse, many voters must have suppressed a certain amount of bitterness; their wives and daughters had to walk into town in everyday stockings and shoes, then for the sake of appearances stop in a field and change into their go-to-meeting slippers. No wonder the residents of the remote northeast confessed that “in the extreme difficult seasons of heat and cold we were ready to say of the Sabbath, Behold what a weariness.” 13
Eventually, one section after another desired separate status as a town, either by itself or through union with outlying inhabitants in bordering communities. Concord’s majority adamantly opposed these ambitions. Although the town let the pious residents of the northeast go in peace, it refused to approve any further secessions. There was a solid economic motive behind this resistance, since after a separation, each remaining taxpayer would have to bear a greater share of the minister’s fixed salary. More important, loss of territory and population threatened Concord’s proud position as one of the leading towns in Middlesex. In the face of this intransigence, the disaffected minorities appealed successfully to the General Court for relief. Acton was set off from Concord in 1735; another part of town joined Lincoln twenty years later.14
By 1765, when the colonial dispute with Britain first came before the town, sectional rivalry was a fixture of Concord’s political life. Every spring, voters from the village marshaled their forces against the demands of outlying areas to make the grammar school “a moving school,” which might travel through the town—six or seven weeks in one district, three weeks in another, and twelve weeks in the middle of town. For several years, the battle seesawed until in 1770 the townsmen wearied of the issue and handed the problem over to the selectmen. The grammar school stayed in the center.15
Delegating controversial issues to the selectmen proved to be no solution to strife. Indeed, the policy-making failures of town meeting simply intensified an ongoing struggle among sections to dominate the selectmen and through them decisions to lay out roads and locate district schoolhouses. In the 1750s and 1760s, the outcome of annual elections turned principally on which quarter of town could jam more inhabitants into the town hall. No section ever lacked representation on the five-man board of selectmen, but the North Quarter, with nearly 40 per cent of the population, controlled only 20 per cent of the seats. The real contest lay between East and South, with power continually changing hands. By 1771, however, everyone had tired of the annual fight: in a quiet compromise, never elaborated in the town records, the number of selectmen was reduced to three—one for each quarter. The inhabitants conceded the inevitability of separate interests in town life, in hopes of ending the contention they produced. Concord was, in effect, redefined as a confederacy of smaller communities.16
The factor of residence nonetheless continued to give some men disproportionate power in town affairs and to deny it to others. Although each quarter extended in a different direction from the town center to the outskirts, two thirds of the selectmen lived within a mile or so of the meetinghouse. So, too, did the town clerk and town treasurer. Officials could thus easily assemble for an evening’s business over rum at one of the taverns in the center. Outlivers might wonder whether their interests were fully considered at such sessions.
Certainly the town had learned little from its previous failures to stop secession. In the 1760s and early 1770s, inhabitants in the northernmost part, four miles and more above the Concord River, pressed a bid for separation and, failing that, for some concessions to their special needs. The town meeting was in no mood for accommodation. Predictably, the town reasserted its refusal to let any territory go. But it also denied the petitioners’ request for exemption from the minister’s rate, so that they might hire their own preacher. No one seriously expected the remote northerners to attend the church regularly in town, especially when their only means of access, the North Bridge, was periodically washed out in winter. Still, membership in the community, even if it was forced membership, required support of the town minister. And if the outlivers did wish to go to meeting in town, they would get scant encouragement from the majority. Petitioners Joseph Taylor, Zaccheus Green, and others in the north part could not persuade the town to accept a proposed road enabling them “to go to the Public Worship and to market.” Nor could they gain exemption from taxes for the undelivered services.17
It was thus after a decade’s neglect for their needs that the northerly inhabitants neared the end of their patience. In 1772, “anxiosely Desirous if possable to obtain our Long Sought for Relief,” they renewed their plea for separation or in-town status as a religious precinct. “We would still make use of Every Laudable means” to reach agreement with the town, they declared. Behind the outward deference to their townsmen’s feelings lay the unmistakable suggestion that less than “Laudable means” had been promoted for breaking free. The majority ignored the hint and once more denied the request.18
The political conflicts created by sectionalism were not unique to Concord. Throughout the eighteenth century most long-settled Massachusetts towns contended with varying success against the ambitions of their outlying districts. In some places, separations were prevented by timely grants of precinct status or relocation of the meetinghouse; in others, by solutions imposed from the General Court. In places like Dedham, years of sectional sparring culminated in voting fraud, resort to muskets at town meetings, and “complete paralysis of the mechanisms of town government.” Communities splintered on the inescapable consequences of social difference. Men had been raised to expect harmony in their affairs, and when all minds were not one, when separate interests fought for control, a New England town could become a hothouse of tensions and frustrations that threatened to tear the community apart.19
In Concord it was conflict within the established church rather than sectionalism that posed the most severe test of the integrity of the town in the generation before the Revolution. The troubles began back in 1738, when the town had to fire its minister of twenty years’ standing, the Reverend John Whiting, because he drank too much. His successor, Daniel Bliss, was even more controversial. A twenty-five-year-old graduate of Yale College, Bliss took over the pulpit in admittedly unpleasant circumstances. Not only did the ousted parson, Whiting, remain in town, but he insisted upon occupying the ministerial pew on the Sabbath. Even so, Bliss’s real problems were of his own making.20
In the 1730s and early 1740s, a wave of spiritual revivals spread throughout the colonies, and the new minister participated enthusiastically in this “Great Awakening” of religion. While at Yale, Bliss had felt the stirrings of God in his soul. A few years later, he was miraculously saved from drowning—an act of Providence he was still remembering in his diary after a quarter century. These events taught Bliss that men were utterly, irredeemably lost to sin and damnation without God’s saving grace, and he carried the urgent tidings to Concord with a tireless emotional zeal. Without “conversion” by the Lord, he declared, nothing men did in this life mattered, and nothing would ease their pain in the afterlife: “When they shall have suffered as many millions of ages, as there shall have been moments from the beginning to the end of time, they will have arrived nothing nearer to an end of their torments …but will even then be beginning to make their beds in hell.” With divine grace, they would be reborn—brought into a “new light”—and would walk among the elect of Christ.21
Bliss took his message to a decaying church. While everyone in Concord was expected to attend the preaching of the Word, church membership was restricted to an elite—to those who could testify to God’s workings in their souls. It was the church members who enjoyed the fellowship of the communion table, the church members who ran the affairs of the church and who joined with the town meeting in hiring a minister. Indeed, the members were the church: the voluntary gathering of the Lord’s chosen. But in the last difficult years of Whiting’s ministry, fewer and fewer townspeople experienced saving grace. The church was dwindling to an aging, wealthy, and mostly female band of believers. Only thirty-three men—little more than a tenth of the adult males—belonged. The religious spirit of Concord had grown cold.22
Virtually overnight, Bliss revived the town. In two years, church membership went from eighty-three to nearly two hundred; the harvest of souls was greatest among teen-agers and young adults. For a time, religious meetings were held every day of the week. And in October 1741, the great English evangelist George Whitfield came to town and preached to thousands in the open air. “The Lord is now gloriously at Work in this Town,” Bliss exulted.23
But the Lord’s “Enemies,” as Bliss called his “Old Light” critics, were also active. To them, everything about Bliss was intolerable. He preached in other men’s parishes without their consent. He let untrained laymen rant from his own pulpit. He undermined morality with his declarations that “it was as great a sin for a man to get an estate by honest labor, if he had not a single aim at the glory of God, as to get it by gaming at cards or dice.” And his emotional sermons—the key to his success—were an outright disgrace:
He began [wrote one outraged observer] in a low and moderate Strain, and went on for some Time in the same Manner; but towards the Close of the Sermon, as it was called, he began to raise his Voice, and to use many extravagant Gestures; and then began a considerable groaning amongst the Auditors, which as soon as he perceiv’d, he raised his Voice still higher, and then the Congregation were in the utmost Confusion, some crying out in the most doleful Accents, some laughing, and others huging, and Bliss still roaring to them to come to Christ, they answering, I will, I will, I’m coming, I’m coming.
Appalled by these excesses, Concord’s Old Lights replied, “I will not.”24
In the southeastern part of town, many inhabitants who had never before complained about the trip to the meetinghouse suddenly discovered that the Sabbath journey was long and hard. They successfully petitioned the General Court to incorporate them into a second parish, which in 1754 became part of the new town of Lincoln. Another group of dissidents, who represented at least a fifth of the town and included some of Concord’s richest men but also some of its poorest, seceded from the church in 1745 and formed their own religious body. The West Church, as it was called, was never very strong; it never supported a regular minister, and since the town refused to let members use the meetinghouse for services, they had to worship in the Black Horse Tavern. Nevertheless, the venture lasted some fourteen years, long after the revival had waned. By 1760, a few dissidents were reconciled with Bliss. But most were attending church in Lincoln. They remained embittered against the pastor and the town, and their resentments were soon to disrupt Concord’s politics again, down to the very eve of revolution.25
When twenty-two-year-old William Emerson assumed the Concord pulpit after Bliss’s death in 1764, he inherited both the supporters and enemies of his predecessor. Emerson’s selection was opposed by a third of the town in a vote that brought out nearly every eligible man in Concord. The contest was a re-enactment of the divisions under Bliss. According to Dr. Joseph Lee, a leader of the losing side, the youthful Emerson had been solicited as a ministerial candidate by church agent Jonathan Puffer in violation of explicit instructions to seek another. When challenged for his unauthorized action, Puffer unrepentantly told his critics that he had learned that “Billy Emerson was a converted man …and he was Detearmined that Concord should have a Converted man for their Minister Let it cost what it will.”26
Lee, a former officer of the West Church, was furious. He and his followers had undoubtedly hoped that with the end of Bliss’s pastorate, they might reunite with the town church. Now, they feared, another New Light preacher was being called into the pulpit. There were also more personal objections to young Emerson:
Mr. Wm. Emerson come to my house [Lee recalled] to see me a certain day and we talked over all the matters relating to his coming into town and how he had spent his time since he Left [Harvard] Colledge, all as calm as a watch. He replyed that he was very senceable that he had fooled away his time and that he was very much to blame and ought to go back to Colledge and study Divinity two years before he undertook to supply a pulpit in any place … .
Lee and others were determined to make Emerson follow his own advice. After losing the fight against his selection, they whittled his annual salary down to £80 in hopes he would refuse the post. A few weeks later, Emerson’s supporters succeeded in raising the figure to £100, whereupon nine former West Church members futilely asked the town to reconsider. By Emerson’s ordination on New Year’s Day, 1766, Lee was thoroughly alienated. The pastor’s “introduction into the town,” he wrote in a history of the dispute for his son, “was scandlous for it was done by Lying and deceit …and it laid a foundation for much Trouble, Contention, Confusion, and every evil work.” 27
As it turned out, Emerson proved something of a religious liberal. He cared little for theological niceties: if a man professed religious belief and was of good character, Emerson thought, he should be admitted into the church. An earnest preacher, the young minister memorized his sermons in advance and delivered them with eloquent grace. He also promoted a singing school among the young men to improve the Sabbath hymns. He liked good living and lively conversation; he was comfortable at Squire Cuming’s table. Emerson also had a good deal of pride. “William,” his minister father once rebuked him on the way to church, “you walk as if the earth was not good enough for you.” “I did not know it, Sir,” he replied. He could suddenly surrender to a moment’s passion—at Harvard, he was once fined ten shillings for “throwing Bricks, Sticks, Ashes &c in at the Door of the Hebrew School”—and give vent to anger he would later regret. It was not long before the refractory Concordians gave him ample provocation.28
The chief instigator of contention was Dr. Joseph Lee. Within a month of Emerson’s ordination, Lee applied for membership in the church and touched off the conflict that embroiled the town for the next six years. In 1766, Lee, age fifty, was the biggest landholder in town. From his home on Nashawtuc Hill in the South Quarter, he presided over a 350-acre domain, worked by his trusted slave Cato and an ever-changing crew of hired laborers. Besides managing the farm, Lee did part-time doctoring, rented out several houses, invested in western lands, put money out on loan, counseled his family of eight—and dabbled in Concord politics. As he looked out at the weathercock and belfry of the town hall from his hilltop a mile away, he must have occasionally chafed at his failure to obtain the respect due his high station in life. The town was quite willing to employ his talents as a surveyor of highways, viewer of fences, and sometime member of important ad hoc committees, but Lee still awaited election to the selectmen or to the General Court in Boston. His future prospects for political leadership were dim, for opportunities to achieve high town office were narrowing. The honor of serving in the General Court went to only two men from 1756 to 1775. The board of selectmen was filling up with the same familiar faces year after year. Thus, in the mid-1760s, Lee stood outside the political elite and, with the collapse of the West Church, outside the community’s religious structure as well. Exclusion from the trust and fellowship of his townsmen bred in him an acute sensitivity to slights. Like Emerson, Lee was quick to anger and quicker to see any public criticism as an attack on his rights. Responding in kind, he was vitriolic in a fight.29
Like any other applicant for church membership, Lee had to undergo the scrutiny of all the elect, poor as well as rich. Under the usual procedure, a candidate was “propounded” to the congregation by the pastor. A period of probation followed, during which members could privately raise objections to the applicant. If any came forward, the minister and deacons would press the candidate to “give satisfaction” to his critics. Until reconciliation was achieved, the church officers would put off a vote; no one was admitted who was not at peace with his neighbors. When it was finally clear that a consensus had emerged, the candidate would stand before the congregation, read a relation of his faith and his experience of the Lord, and then, no objections being heard, proceed to accept the covenant and enter the fellowship of the church. Election to membership was thus a seal of one’s moral acceptability to the community—a judgment few individuals faced lightly and fewer still contested publicly. But Joseph Lee was ready for confrontation.30
Within days of his candidacy, “Mr. Lee’s Affair [was] in Agitation,” as William Emerson noted in his diary. Mrs. Lydia Hodgman came before the church governing committee, composed of Emerson and the deacons, and charged Lee with “mal administration” of her late mother’s estate—particularly, with taking a pocketbook and some notes and with unnecessarily recording deeds. Soon others were telling their stories of Lee’s “opresing ye fatherless and widoes in long Delays in Settling his accompts and making Large and exorbetent Demands for his Services.” 31
The church elders urged Lee to make peace with his critics, but without success. He denied any wrongdoing as an executor and soon became “exasperated” at the delay. “Giveing way to pastion,” he insulted the pastor and the deacons and demanded a public hearing. They refused. “It would not be for ye Glory of God or for ye Peace of ye Chh,” they explained. Lee’s aim, they suspected, was to drum up supporters and cause a division.32
Lee responded with fury. He scolded the church fathers: “They had wronged him through prejudis and yt was ye principell they acted upon and …they kept lying, durty drabs in their Chh.” Later that evening, he encountered deacon Ephraim Brown and, according to one account, “threatened and bull raged him in a most vile manner openly in ye highway.” Brown said simply, “I was fureously Assalted by him with great Threaitnings.” 33
Amid the rising acrimony—still confined to private exchanges but surely rumored throughout the small town—the character of the new minister came under public attack. In an anonymous broadside posted in the village taverns, the people of Concord were astonished to read that their minister had traveled to Maine alone with Miss Phebe Bliss, daughter of his late predecessor and soon to be Mrs. Emerson. Not surprisingly, suspicions centered on Lee as the author of the report. Emerson quickly lost whatever patience remained for the frustrating process of Christian conciliation.34
Lee eventually got his public hearing, but it did him no good. The church voted that Sister Hodgman’s objections were indeed “a sufficient Bar to his being received into full Communion.” Lee waited a year to renew his application, meanwhile lobbying for support. In August 1768, at Lee’s request, the church reopened his case, reheard the arguments, and reaffirmed its original vote.35
It was time for a change of tactics. Lee requested the church to join him in calling on ministers from other towns to mediate. It took nearly another year of haggling before he got his way. By then the argument had long since transcended the original charges surrounding his conduct as an executor. To Lee, the case was now a civil liberties issue, eighteenth-century style. His character had been impugned, he objected, without any formal statement of charges; public testimony had been offered against him although he had not been present to respond. One of the judges in the case had taken the part of a prosecutor. As for William Emerson: “I complain of the Rev’d. Pastor many Imprudences, gross Blunders to say no worse and of his Breach of Promise by all which I apprehend he has rendered himself unworthy of the Sacred Character of a Minister of Jesus Christ.” 36
The council that finally convened in Concord in April 1769 offered all parties to the conflict a means of saving face. It cleared everyone of the most serious charges—Sister Hodgman of spite, Dr. Lee of “Fraud and Injustice,” Reverend Emerson of immoral designs against Miss Phebe, and Miss Phebe of …—accepted apologies all around, and disbanded with a pious reminder that “where there is Contention, there is every evil work.” 37
But as soon as the outsiders were out of earshot, the Concordians went back to bickering more bitterly than ever. Lee again sought admission to communion and was again rejected, after word got around that forty members would leave the church upon a favorable vote. In response, eleven of Lee’s friends, known as the “aggrieved brethren,” dissented and forced a protracted replay of the previous three years’ querulous proceedings. Even a “Day of Humiliation and Prayer” brought no more than twenty-four hours’ peace. Finally, the aggrieved brethren called their own so-called party council of ministers, which the Church refused to recognize, won a predictably friendly result, and proudly had it published in the May 6, 1771, Boston Gazette, where everyone in the province could read that the Rev. William Emerson displayed “a criminal disregard to TRUTH.” 38
That was not all. The furor seized town politics. In tandem with the newspaper attack on Emerson, Joseph Lee ran for Concord’s seat in the provincial House of Representatives against the three-term incumbent, Captain James Barrett, a staunch supporter of the pastor and the man who was emerging as the dominant political power in town. Barrett was a commercial farmer who raised large crops of rye and oats and fattened substantial herds of cattle on his 150 acres two miles northwest of the village. Age sixty in 1771, he was the senior officeholder in town. A former militia captain, selectman, and moderator of town meetings before moving up to the General Court, he was soon to acquire a reputation for being “as great a patriot as was then or perhaps ever in Concord.” But in May 1771 he encountered the toughest and most bitter opposition of his public career. Although he had joined the church late in life, during a brief flurry of revivalism which parson Bliss inspired in the year before his death, Barrett and his family had long been supporters of the religious establishment. The representative himself took no active part in the church opposition to Lee. But his brother Thomas, a wealthy miller, was one of the church deacons, and his son James, Jr., testified against Lee at the council of April 1769. In this fight the Barretts were allied with Squire Cuming, selectmen John Flint and James Chandler, and the father of town clerk Wood, all of whom had been converted to the church in the 1740s, at the height of the Great Awakening. The old party lines were forming once again. But not completely: one leader of the Emerson-Barrett faction, Captain Jonathan Buttrick, was a former defector to the West Church.39
For his part, Lee had important friends in the social and political elite. Nearly all the aggrieved brethren stood in the upper reaches of the economic order. Three of them were serving as selectmen in the years the controversy over Lee was building to a pitch. Lee even commanded support from two of his opponent’s kin: Lieutenant Humphrey Barrett, Captain Barrett’s first cousin, and housewright Josiah Meriam, his son-in-law.40
Lee’s campaign against Barrett left only a few traces in the town records. On the day of the election, so many voters crowded into the town house that they had to adjourn to the larger meetinghouse. And while citizens usually cast their votes in public, this time a secret ballot was taken; in the tense atmosphere, few townsmen were willing to declare their sympathies aloud. When the ballots were counted, Barrett had won “a great majority.” According to Concord historian Lemuel Shattuck, who interviewed survivors of the Revolutionary era about the dispute and then tactfully said as little as possible about it, “About one third part of the town was in favor of Lee. The party spirit was violent.” 41
Factional strife probably determined the outcome of the earlier March elections for town officials, too. Two aggrieved brethren served among the five selectmen every year from 1767 to 1770, but after Lee’s supporters withdrew from communion in late 1770, all general town offices went to known antagonists of Lee.
With so little record of the party conflict, one can only speculate as to who supported which side and why. Possibly, farmers and artisans distrusted grandees like Lee, who made money from others’ misfortunes, tying up estates in probate and taking their time about prying them loose. In 1767 another executor came under challenge in a case very similar to Lee’s. Ebenezer Hartshorn had settled the estate of John Hunt, deceased father of the pro-Emerson deacon Simon Hunt, and was now pressed to justify his conduct. In a letter to one of Lee’s close friends, Hartshorn attributed two possible motives to his critics: “A Party Temper of mind, or Ignorance in the worth of the work I did. As to the first, it is a hard thing to charge. As to the Second, it is no Scandal to say that it is very Improbable they Should understand what I did, tho’ very good men in their own business.” 42
If social resentment of legal finaglers did prompt popular hostility to Lee, it was, at best, a partial cause of conflict. The Barretts, Cuming, John Beatton, and their allies were no less landed and no less sophisticated about the world’s business than Lee and his friends. For both sides of the elite—and probably for the rest of the town—religious divisions lay at the heart of the fight.
Lee undoubtedly drew the bulk of his following from the former West Church faithful, still sullenly outside the church but still compelled to pay for its minister. In rejecting Lee, the church had rejected the first bid by one of its prodigal sons to come home after Bliss’s death. His application probably represented a test case to the dissidents. Would the church, which had driven them out, now welcome them back in peace? It mattered not that Lee was a controversial candidate. To his friends, the message was unmistakable: the majority was declaring the rift in the community permanent. Lee’s West Church allies, in turn, would make no further attempt at reunion. And they would be heartened by the moral support of the aggrieved brethren.
Lee’s campaign went beyond the matter of church admissions. After March 1771, Lee and his friends were not only outsiders in religion but out of political office as well. It was probably this exclusion from town leadership that inspired the newspaper attack on Emerson and the challenge to Barrett. Indeed, Lee may have expressed the resentment and frustrations of all those who felt somehow excluded from the community’s rewards: the old West Church congregation, the inhabitants of the north part of town, and all of the politically ambitious outside the orbit of the Emerson-Barrett establishment.
All of this conflict was too much for some townsmen to bear. One participant drew up for himself some “Remarks on Several Events in Concord since ye Ordination” of William Emerson. He detailed the public slurs on the pastor’s honor, the rejection of Lee, the convening of the mutual and party councils, and the uproar that followed. “The dreadfull Event,” he wrote, referring to the party council’s decision “Contrary to Rule or Reason,” was “a Stumbling Block to many and grait offence to others while multitudes were Rejoyceing as if Bedlam was broke lose and all ye Labour and panes of Spreading that Result by Rideing and writeing Hundreds of Coppeys Sending them abrod far and neer, yeat all would not Satisfie untill addvertised in ye public prints.” He was offended, too, by “the most Cruel and uncristion proseeding against Capn Barrit and others which ye like was never heard of in New England before.” The product of all this contention within town and church was a people in disarray—“all Society and fammelyes in Confusetion.” 43
Eventually, the audible fighting within the church sputtered to a close. A mighty council of churches met in July 1772 and exonerated the conduct of the Concord congregation and its pastor throughout the Joseph Lee affair—but not without a scolding. “Brethren,” the council sorrowfully declared, “we lament that you have suffered yourselves to be so divided for so small matters … .” A strong dissent was filed against the decision, but everyone was sick of the subject. There was, after all, nothing more to say. Joseph Lee remained unacceptable to the majority, notwithstanding the division in the church. And the aggrieved brethren remained away from the communion table.44
The factional lines persisted. Unable to remove dissenters from their midst, the beleaguered town majority refused them a legitimate place in community life. Lee and his friends, frozen out of the church and purged from office, retained the power to disrupt; at town meetings they would pose a permanent threat of opposition both to the town’s majority and to the authority of its managers. Meanwhile, the dissidents in the north grew ever more alienated, joining in town affairs for the sole purpose of seceding from the town. Concordians—at least, those active in public affairs—were engaging in a rancorous, competitive politics that belied their public values. Theirs was a divided town that was rapidly losing its moral center. This failure of community, at its height in the early 1770s, would play a large role in shaping the town’s response to revolution.
Copyright © 1976 by Robert A. Gross