From Town Meetings to Backroom Deals: Unraveling New England's Political Paradox
In my story "Major Deception," set in Boston in 1732, I take you on a journey through the life of Hannah Turner, a "King's Passenger" transported to Massachusetts from England to help boost the colony's population. Hannah finds herself caught between the colonists' drive for self-governance and the machinations of the king's government. As a historical fiction writer, I delved into extensive research to understand the complex political landscape of eighteenth-century Boston. My exploration led me to G. B. Warden's enlightening article, "The Caucus and Democracy in Colonial Boston," published in The New England Quarterly. This piece sheds light on the elusive and intriguing world of the Boston Caucus and its role in shaping early American politics. In this blog post, I'll delve into the key insights from Warden's work and explain how I integrated this research into "Major Deception."
The Enigmatic Boston Caucus
Warden introduces us to a unique paradox in New England's political institutions - the coexistence of two seemingly contradictory systems: town meetings and the Boston Caucus. The latter claims the distinction of being the first urban political machine in America, a fact that has often been overshadowed by more well-documented political movements.
Uncovering the Caucus
The Boston Caucus remains an understudied subject, primarily because it operated in proverbial smoke-filled rooms, leaving behind little written evidence. Most of what we know about the Caucus has been pieced together from clues and educated guesses, making it a challenging topic for historical investigation.
Origins and Influence
While there is no definitive proof of the Caucus until around 1776, there's a compelling argument that it might have played a role in organizing political parties long before. The high incumbency rates in elections before 1719 and the subsequent rise to 82% between 1719 and 1775 suggest the existence of an organized force like the Caucus behind the scenes.
The Role of Tax Collectors
The continuity in office extends to positions like tax collector. In the 1730s, Bostonians began electing Collectors, some of whom enjoyed unusually long terms. The Caucus, rather than competence, may offer a plausible explanation for their tenures and promotions.
The Boston Caucus operated at the intersection of business and pleasure. This is exemplified by the preponderance of lawyers and workers at the meetings of the Merchants' Club. Eighteenth-century voting in Boston often depended as much on liquor as formal campaigning, illustrating the importance of social relationships and steady access to alcohol in winning the loyalty of Bostonians. With this information, I was able to set the climax of "Major Deception" in the foyer of a tavern.
Influence Beyond Professions
Beyond social and professional groups, churches, and ministers played a significant role in the Caucus's influence. Boston's town ministers, much like Reverend Thorn in "Major Deception," held a strong political sway throughout the eighteenth century.
A Well-Structured System
The systemic nature of political cohesion in Boston, involving a common group of leaders, aligning closely with available literary references and election patterns, hints at the existence of the Caucus and its techniques associated with urban politics.
Even during the 1740s and 1750s, when Boston faced its worst economic depression, the Caucus seemed to persist. While it lost some of its major patrons, Assessors and Collectors continued to enjoy lengthy terms in office, possibly by delaying tax collections to gain popular support. This phenomenon, combined with the limited voter turnout, suggests that Bostonians either displayed apathy or trusted the Caucus and its regular supporters to manage public affairs.
Stable Ideals Amidst Change
Despite infrequent voting, Bostonians maintained relatively stable ideas in their selections. They harbored a deep-seated aversion to restrictive regulations, creating a sense of distrust between them and the English. However, there's no clear indication that Bostonians perceived the Caucus as a threat to the traditional town meeting practices, as both systems coexisted for nearly a century.
The Boston Caucus, an enigmatic force in eighteenth-century Boston, emerges as a fascinating subject of historical study. Its influence, rooted in both secrecy and social connections, challenges the conventional narrative of early American politics. By delving into the complexities of the Caucus, we gain valuable insights into the intricate interplay between traditional town meetings and urban political machines in Boston. The coexistence of these seemingly contradictory systems reflects the enduring power of traditional rights and privileges, and how political movements adapt to the people's needs. In "Major Deception," I've tried to capture the essence of this political landscape, and I hope that by sharing this historical context, you can better appreciate the intricate web of politics in colonial America.
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Warden, G. B. “The Caucus and Democracy in Colonial Boston.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 1, 1970, pp. 19–45. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/363694. Accessed 18 Oct. 2023.