Boston in the Early Republic

The John J. Burns Library’s Boston collection houses approximately 4,500 works about the city and its neighboring municipalities. While the majority of this collection encompasses material from the 19th and 20th centuries, as a result of the remarkable growth in population, literacy, and print culture following industrialization, the collection also includes works from the late 18th and early 19th centuries which afford an insight into life in the early years of the American republic.

War Map

A map of troop positions during the Revolutionary War from Almanack by Nathaniel Low, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Nathaniel Low’s Almanack, For the Year of Christian Era, 1777 offers some glimpses into the intensity of revolutionary sentiment in the year following the outbreak of the war. The almanac contains the typical calendrical and meteorological information, including information on the year’s eclipses and holidays, and weather predictions. But New England farmers looking for advice on when to grow their crops would also find a heady dose of pro-Revolutionary propaganda. A full page map of the military campaign in New York follows the list of notes on high tides, and the monthly charts are immediately proceeded by a two-page “Address to the Tories,” which leaves no question as to Low’s sympathies: “I expect nothing that I can say, will in the least alter the corrupt bias of your minds; you are too far advanced in your wicked apostasy to afford the least ray of hope that you will ever be recovered” (Low 1777, 4). Additionally, every monthly chart begins with six lines of political verse. The lines prefacing the chart for January exemplify the tone of these:

Let tyrants rage, and sycophants exclaim,
Let Tories grumble, parasites defame,\
And all the herd of trembling despots roar
And lot revenge; — dependence is no more.
‘Tis Independence that we will maintain,
And Britain’s tyrant shall no longer reign. (Low 1777, 6)

 The almanac abandons revolutionary agitation in its final pages, focusing on general life advice and lists of the principal roads and inns in New England. One particularly tongue-in-cheek entry on the back cover adds a note of dark humor:

Wood Recipe

From the back cover of Low’s AlmanackJohn J. Burns Library, Boston College

Low’s Almanack may have succeeded in finding levity in cold and privation, but there were even grimmer facts of life in 18th century Boston. Among the grimmest were major outbreaks of Yellow Fever in 1796 and 1798.  At a meeting on January 6th, 1800, the Trustees of the Humane Society established a prize of “piece of plate… to the value of Fifty Dollars” for a comprehensive study of the disease, including “…the circumstances of importation; the situation of places in which it appeared; the waters used by the inhabitants; the diet and occupations of the persons most affected by the disease; the state of the atmosphere previous to and at the time of its prevalence; together with all such accidental causes, as may have concurred in the generation of the epidemic…” (Brown 1800, iii). The winner was Samuel Brown’s Treatise on the Nature, Origin and Progress of the Yellow Fever. Brown’s Treatise focuses particularly on the more intense 1798 outbreak, which it traces to the family of one “Mr. Stoddard, in Fore-street.” Brown’s description of the area where the outbreak began paints a bleak picture of 18th century Boston:

The marketplace is a low, sunken part of the town. It is, from situation, the reservoir of every putrid matter, flowing in from more elevated parts of the town, and accumulated by every rain. It is surrounded with docks of stagnant waters, filled with offal and all manner of noxious matters, which, becoming putrid, throw up, at every ebb of tide, a stench very disagreeable to the adjacent inhabitants.  (Brown 1800, 22)

He describes another affected area, Cross Street, as dominated by ““the exhalations of

Boston 1775

A map of Boston from 1775. Many of the city’s current neighborhoods were still ocean in the 18th century, having been subsequently created by large-scale infill projects. (From Wikimedia Commons; public domain.)

putrid collections in a cellar in this street, which had been gathering for three years, without removal. They were so offensive, that it was necessary to bestrew the cellar with several hogsheads of lime, before any person could be hired to clean it” (Bown 1800, 23).

For those looking for a diversion from the city’s unsanitary conditions, one option – at least, for able-bodied men – was to join the Boston Light Infantry. The Light Infantry ratified its Constitution in 1803, its stated purpose being “To give energy and direction to that military spir[it] when we deem ornamental in peace and our security in war” (Boston Light Infantry, 1808, 3). Citizens looking to join the militia had to be over 18 years old and approved by a vote of at least five-sixths of the members present at the meeting at which he was nominated (3). They were also required, within fifteen days of admittance, to pay a fee of $12, a rather substantial sum in 1808, and to pay for their own uniform, the description of which does not suggest a cheap article:

…a Light-Infantry-Coat of dark blue Broadcloth, trimmed with gold lace, with scarlet facings, cape and cuffs, and yellow metal buttons; white cassimere vest and pantaloons, edged with blue; black cloth half gaiters, with scarlet tops; black silk stock; helmet with a crest of red hair, red sash, brass eagle and bindings… (Boston Light Infantry 1808, 4)

The expenses required suggest that this organization’s membership was de facto closed to Boston’s lower socioeconomic classes – the people who usually do the bulk of fighting in infantries. It appears, though, that the Boston Light Infantry did not particularly anticipate much, if any, combat, to judge from the priority given to the articles in their constitution. Article 21 mandates an annual uniformed parade on October 18th, and Article 23 outlines payment for public dinners. Actual fighting is not mentioned anywhere until Article 27, the second to last item in this constitution: “As this Company has been associated to form a Corps prepared at all times to resist sudden invasion, and repress internal commotions, every member hereby pledges himself to be ready at a moment’s warning… and that unless commanded, he will never quit his standard, until forced from it by an Honorable Death” (Boston Light Infantry 1808, 8). Had they truly expected to be called upon to defend the Commonwealth, this martial sentiment might have been expected earlier, but it seems the Light Infantry anticipated a higher likelihood of serving as an “ornament in in peace” than as a “security in war.”

From these texts, we can see a Boston unrecognizable from the modern, cosmopolitan city of 2018. The city began to take its current shape during the large-scale immigration and industrialization of the later 1800s. In subsequent installments, we’ll return to the Boston Collection to see what light it can cast on how the city came to be what it is today.

  • Eric Pencek, Reading Room Assistant, John J. Burns Library

Works Consulted

Brown, Samuel. A treatise on the nature, origin and progress of the yellow fever, with observations on its treatment : comprising an account of the disease, in several of the capitals of the United States, but more particularly as it has prevailed in Boston. Boston : Printed by Manning & Loring April, 1800.

Constitution of the Boston Light Infantry : established, May, 1798, revised and ratified, January, 1803. Boston : Printed by Belcher and Armstrong 1808.

Low, Nathaniel. An Astronomical Diary, or, Almanack For the Year of Christian Era, 1777; being the first year after bissex-tile or leap year, and the first year of American independence which began July fourth, 1776: containing every thing necessary for an almanack.
Boston: Printed by J. Gill in Queen Street, and T. and J. Fleet in Cornhill 1777.

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1 Response to Boston in the Early Republic

  1. J.B. Walsh says:

    Well done ! Looking forward to more on Olde Boston.

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