Rough Music:

Popular Political Expression in Colonial America


In the colonial period--at a time when most Americans could not vote (although a majority of white men could), when property holding requirements limited the possible candidates to wealthy men, and when unelected royal and provisional governors wielded a powerful veto--ordinary people tended to express their political beliefs through extra-legal crowd action, commonly referred to as “rough music.”  The document below is a catalog of various crowd actions recorded by a Massachusetts judge in the years leading up to the outbreak of war with Britain.  As you read these examples, try to come up with a broad definition of “rough music” that explains how this kind of popular politics worked.  Your answer should consider such questions as: What kinds of things did the crowds do? Why did they take these actions?  What were they hoping to accomplish through their protests?


Judge Peter Oliver's Appendix, 1774-1775

Exhibiting a few, out of the many, very innocent Frolicks of Rebellion, especially in the Province of Massachusetts Bay.


1774 August. A Mob in Berkshire assembled, & forced the justices of the Court of common Pleas from their Seats on the Bench, and shut up the Court House, preventing any Proceedings at Law. At the same Time dri­ving one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace from his Dwelling House, so that he was obliged to repair to Boston for Protection by the Kings Troops.


At Taunton also, about 40 Miles from Boston, the Mob attacked the House of Daniel Leonard Esqr., one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace; & a Barrister at Law. They fired Bullets into the House, & obliged him to fly from it to save his Life.


A Colo. Gilbert, a Man of Distinction & a firm Loyalist, living at Free­town, about 50 Miles from Boston, being absent about 20 Miles from his Home, was attacked by a Mob of above an 100 Men, at Midnight. But be­ing a Man of great Bravery & Strength, he, by his single Arm, beat them all off. And on the same Night, & at the same Place, Brigadier Ruggles, a distinguished Friend of Government, & for many Years a Member of the general Assembly, was attacked by the same Mob; but by his firm Reso­lution he routed them all. They, in Revenge, cut his Horses Tail off & painted him all over. The Mob found that Paint was cheaper than Tar and Feathers.


September 1774. The Attorny General, Mr. Sewall, living at Cambridge, was obliged to repair to Boston under the Protection of the King's Troops. His House at Cambridge was attacked by a Mob, his Windows broke, & other Damage done; but by the Intrepidity of some young Gentlemen of the Family, the Mob were dispersed.


About the same Time Thomas Oliver Esqr. the Lieut. Govr. of Massa­chusetts Province, was attacked in his House at Cambridge, by a Mob Of 4000 Men; & as he had lately been appointed, by his Majesty, one of the new Council, they forced him to resign that Office; but this Resignation did not pacify the Mob; he Was soon forced to fly to Boston for Protection. This Mob was not mixed with tag, rag & Bobtail only, Persons of Distinc­tion in the Country were in the Mass, & as the Lieut. Governor was a Man of Distinction, he surely ought to be waited upon by a large Cavalcade & by Persons of Note.


In this Month, also, a Mob of 5000 collected at Worcester, about 50 Miles from Boston, a thousand of whom were armed. It being at the Time when the Court of Common Pleas was about sitting, the Mob made a lane, & compelled ye. Judges, Sheriff, & Gentlemen of the Bar, to pass & repass them, Cap in Hand, in the most ignominious Manner; & read their Disavowall of holding Courts under the new Acts of Parliament, no less than Thirty Times in the Procession.


Brigadier Ruggles's House at Hanlwicke, about 70 Miles from Boston, was also plundered of his Guns, & one of his fine Horses poisoned.


Colo. Phips, the high Sheriff of Middlesex, was obliged to promise not to serve any Processes of Courts; & retired to Boston for Protection.


Peter Oliver Esqr., a Justice of the Peace at Middleborough, was obliged by the Mob to sign an Obligation not to execute his Office under the new Acts. At the same Place, a Mr. Silas Wood, who had signed a Paper to dis­avow the riotous Proceedings of the Times, was dragged by a Mob of 2[00] or 300 Men about a Mile to a River, in Order to drown him; but one of his Children hanging around him with Cries & Tears, he was induced to recant, though, even then, very reluctantly.


The Mob at Concord, about 20 Miles from Boston, abused a Deputy Sheriff of Middlesex, & compelled him, on Pain of Death, not to execute the Precepts for a new Assembly; they making him pass through a Lane of them, sometimes walking backwards, & sometimes forward, Cap in Hand, & they beating him.

Revd. Mr. Peters, of Hebron in Connecticut, an Episcopalian Clergy­man, after having his House broke into by a Mob, & being most bar­barously treated in it, was stript of his Canonicals [garments for the clergy], & carried to one of their Liberty Poles, & afterwards drove from his Parish. He had applied to Governor Trumble & to some of the Magis­trates, for Redress; but they were as relentless as the Mob; & lie was obliged to go to England incognito, having been hunted after, to the Dan­ger of his Life.


William Vassall Esqr., a Man of Fortune, and quite inoffensive in his publick Conduct, tho' a Loyalist, was travelling with his Lady from Boston to his Seat at Bristol, in Rhode Island Government, about 60 Miles from Boston, & were pelted by the Mob in Bristol, to the endangering of their Lives.


All the Plimouth Protestors against Riots, as also all the military Offi­cers, were compelled by a Mob of 2000 Men collected from that County & the County of Barnstable to recant & resign their military Commissions. Although the Justices of the Peace were then sitting in the Town of Plimouth, yet the Mob ransack'd the House of a Mr. Foster, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, a Man of 70 Years of Age, which obliged him to fly into the Woods to secrete himself, where he was lost for some Time and was very near to the loosing of his Life. Afterwards, they deprived him of his Business, & would not suffer him to take the Acknowledgment of a Deed.


A Son of one of the East India Companies Agents being at Plimouth collecting Debts, a Mob roused him, in the Night, & he was obliged to fly out of the Town; but ye. Midnight favoured his Escape.


In September 1774, when the Court of Common Pleas was assembled for the Business of the Term, at Springfield, a large Mob collected, & pre­vented the sitting of the Court; they would not suffer Bench or Bar to enter the Court House; but obliged Bench, Sheriffs & Bar, with their Hats off, in a most humiliating Manner, to desist.


In November 1774, David Dunbar of Hallifax, in the County of Plimouth, being an En­sign in the Militia, a Mob headed by some of the Select Men of the Town, demanded his Colours of him. He refused, saying, that if his command­ing Officer demanded them he should obey, otherwise he would not part with them—upon which they broke into his House by Force & dragged him out. They had prepared a sharp Rail to set him upon; & in resisting them they seized him (by his private parts) & fixed him upon the Rail, & was held on it by his Legs & Arms, & tossed up with Violence & greatly bruised so that he did not recover for some Time. They beat him, & after abusing him about two Hours he was obliged, in Order to save his Life, to give up his Colours. ...


The Mob Committee, of the County of York, where Sir William Pepperells large Estate lay, ordered that no Person should hire any of his Estates of him, nor buy any Wood of him, nor pay any Debts to him that were due to him.


One of the Constables of Hardwick, for refusing to pay the Provincial Collection of Taxes which he had gathered, to the new Receiver General of the rebel Government, was confined & bound for 36 Hours, & not suffered to lie in a Bed, & threatened to be sent to Simsbury Mines in Connecticut. These Mines being converted into a Prison, 50 Feet under Ground, where it is said that many Loyalists have suffered. The Officers Wife being dan­gerously ill, they suffered him to see her, after he had complied.


The aforementioned Colo. Gilbert was so obnoxious for his Attach­ment to Government, that the Mobs being sometimes afraid to attack him openly, some of them secretly fired Balls at him in the Woods. And as he was driving a Number of Sheep to his Farm, he was attacked by 30 or 40 of them, who robbed him of part of the Flock, but he beat the Mob off. And this same Colo. Gilbert was, some Time after, travelling on his Business, when he stopped at an Inn to bait his Horse. Whilst he was in the House, some Person lift up the Saddle from his Horse & put a Piece of a broken Glass Bottle under the Saddle; & when the Colo, mounted, the Pressure run the Glass into the Horses back, which made him frantick. The Horse threw his rider, who was so much hurt as not to recover his Senses 'till he was carried & arrived at his own House, at 3 Miles distance.

December 1774. A Jesse Dunbar, of Halifax, in the County of Plimouth, an honest Drover, had bought an Ox of one of his Majesty’s new Council, & carried it to Plimouth for sale. The Ox was hung up & skinned. He was just upon quartering it, when the Town’s Committee came to the Slaughter House, & finding that the Ox was bought of one of the new Councellors, they ordered it into a Cart, & then put Dunbar into the Belly of the Ox and carted him 4 Miles, with a Mob around him, when they made him pay a Dollar after taking three other Cattle & an Horse from him. They then delivered him to another Mob, who carted him 4 Miles further, & forced another Dollar from him. The second Mob delivered him to a third Mob, who abused him by throwing Dirt at him, as also throwing the Offals, in his Face & endeavoring to cover him with it, to the endangering his Life, & after other Abuses, & carrying him 4 Miles further, made him pay another Sum of Mony. They urged the Councellors Lady, at whose House they stopped, to take the Ox; but she being a Lady of a firm Mind refused; upon which they tipped the Cart up & the Ox down into the Highway, & left it to the Care of it self. And in the Month of February following, this same Dunbar was selling Provisions in Plimouth, when the Mob seized him, tied him to his Horse’s Tail, & in that Manner drove him through Dirt & mire out of the Town, & he falling down, his Horse hurt him.

February 1775. A Number of Ladies, at Plimouth, attempted to divert their selves at the publick Assembly Room; but not being connected with the rebel Faction, the Committee Men met, and the Mob collected who flung Stones & broke the Windows & Shutters of the Room, en­dangering the Lives of the Company, who were obliged to break up, & were abused to their Homes.


Soon after this, the Ladies diverted their selves by riding out of Town, but were followed & pelted by the Mob, & abused with the most inde­cent Language. The Honble. Israel Williams Esqr., who was appointed one of his Majesty's new Council, but had refused the Office by Reason of bodily Infirmities, was taken from his House, by a Mob, in the Night, & carried several Miles; then carried home again, after being forced to sign a Paper which they drafted; & a guard set over him to prevent his going from Home.


A Parish Clerk of an Episcopal Church at East Haddum in Connecticut, a Man of 70 Years of Age, was taken out of his Bed in a Cold Night, & beat against his Hearth by Men who held him by his Arms & Legs. He was then laid across his Horse, without his Cloaths, & drove to a consid­erable Distance in that naked Condition. His Nephew Dr. Abner Beebe, a Physician, complained of the bad Usage of his Uncle, & spoke very freely in Favor of Government; for which he was assaulted by a Mob, stripped naked, & hot Pitch was poured upon him, which blistered his Skin. He was then carried to a Hog Sty & rubbed over with Hogs Dung. They threw the Hog's Dung in his Face, & rammed some of it down his Throat; & in that Condition exposed to a Company of Women. His House was at­tacked, his Windows broke, when one of his Children was sick, & a Child of his went into Distraction upon this Treatment. His Gristmill was broke, & Persons prevented from grinding at it, & from having any Connections with him.


All the foregoing Transactions were before the Battle of Lexington, when the Rebels say that the War began.