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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

Lawyers, Markets, and Townhouses: Exploring 1730s Boston's Legal and Architectural Heritage

Updated: Apr 20



Introduction


Picture this: powdered wigs, quill pens, and legal debates so heated, they could've melted Paul Revere’s silver! Join us as we time-travel back to the 1730s and explore the quirky world of colonial lawyers - where justice was served with a side of powdered wigs and a dash of revolutionary flair!


Setting the Stage


Good stories have vibrant settings, and my story, "Major Deception," is no different. I set the story in Boston in 1732, just after the Molasses Act passed. My main character, Hannah Turner, lives in a boarding house off Tremont Street and has regular parole hearings before the magistrate. To do her story justice, I needed to learn about housing and lawyers in the early eighteenth century.


Utilizing Historical Research


In my research, I came across James A. Henretta's article, "Economic Development and Social Structure in Colonial Boston," from The William and Mary Quarterly. This article was tremendously helpful in situating Hannah’s home, the public sites of revolutionary stirrings, and the general commerce of day-to-day living in Boston. Let's dive into its main ideas.


Townhouses in Colonial Boston: Connecting Law and Commerce


Hannah lived in a four-story walk-up, what we might call a townhouse. The townhouses of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Boston are quite fascinating. Originally, they were centrally located buildings that housed court proceedings, provincial government, as well as merchant activity. It is this shared physical space that best allows us to understand the interplay between the law profession and commercialization.


The Townhouse in Boston & Lawyers on the Second Floor


Townhouses originally started springing up in busy seaports in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. The first floor was open and housed the merchants, and the enclosed second floor was for government use. The architecture and appearance of the townhouses signaled political autonomy and reinforced their role as a mediator between government and the market. This configuration put merchants in a unique position to exchange not only goods but information as well.


The Distrust of Lawyers


It wasn’t just average citizens who felt pressed to secure housing. Boston was an up-and-coming city in the eighteenth century for the educated class of merchants, lawyers, and doctors. Then, just as it is now, housing in Boston was at a premium. New buildings were cause for celebrations. However, there was a pervasive distrust of the legal profession in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Lawyers frequently put on something of a performance, and their stage was often in their office—located on the second floor of the city’s townhouses.


Effects of Distrust


Many townspeople rejected the townhouses because they saw such an establishment as the perfect environment for politically powerful merchants to take advantage of them. Town bylaws illustrate the effects of such distrust and, by 1690, marketing primarily took place in the streets, not the townhouse.


The Shift and Legal Developments


The violence toward townhouses in the 1730s marked an interesting shift in the legal system. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, rather than building specific civil buildings for judiciary proceedings, the courts resided in townhouses. It is around the time of the fires that the first small courthouses began to pop up.


Legal Profession Evolution


The justice system that Hannah Turner, her best friend Marie, and Marie’s pimp were caught up in, not only saw these function-specific buildings but developments in the legal profession as well. My story is set in April of 1732, and Henretta's article "Economic Development and Social Structure in Colonial Boston" proved to be exceptionally useful. It details that between 1700 and 1750, there was a steady increase in people who entered the court with legal representation. Lawyers, while not usually trained formally, served as successful advocates.


Lawyers' Changing Image


Before 1700, courts and townspeople had viewed lawyers and their second-floor offices with suspicion because they were collecting a monetary reward for interfering with a court that placed the utmost importance on truth-telling. As lawyers became more prominent and permanent members of the eighteenth courtroom, they sought to appear knowledgeable and professional, rather than shifty and distrustful. As the economy crystallized and the legal profession progressed, the proliferation of legal offices in townhouses also increased.


The Emergence of Bar Associations


The burgeoning group of early eighteenth-century lawyers, however, were reluctant to get too close with the merchant community even though the practice of law was quite tied to commercial litigation. Lawyers instead focused their efforts on organizing and formalizing their practices. Around the 1760s, lawyers began to set up bar associations to train new practitioners of law and distinguish between respectable lawyers and hucksters. The legal profession gained more respect once the bar associations established guidelines for proper conduct and lawyers separated themselves from the kinds of commercial transactions that caused them to appear self-interested and money-hungry to the public.


The Transformation of Boston


After the tumultuous 1730s and 1740s, a fixed market in Faneuil Hall helped ease the controversies surrounding the Boston markets. Just as court proceedings left the townhouse, so did the merchant’s exchange. By 1809, the Boston Exchange Coffee House provided a new location for commercial transactions and, once again, signaled the growing separation between lawyers and merchants.


Conclusion

Ultimately, the townhouse is a useful vehicle for discussing both legal and mercantile developments of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Boston. Both professions may have been intertwined in the townhouse, but the separation proved necessary for the transformation of lawyers from shady obfuscation to more professional practices.



 

Read all about Hannah Turner's interactions with the law and her life in Boston in "Major Deception" a short story in Wolfsbane: Best New England Crime 2023. Available now on Amazon.

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Source:


James A. Henretta. “Economic Development and Social Structure in Colonial Boston.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, 1965, pp. 75–92. JSTOR, https //doi.org/10.2307/1920768


 

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