Letter on the Rebellion in Springfield Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“They considered him as an object worthy of their malice, as he was an officer of the court.”

Summary Overview

Throughout 1774, the colonists of New England became more pronounced in their indignation toward the British Parliament. In August of that year, mobs of colonists living in western Massachusetts surrounded the courthouse in Springfield, preventing its judges, lawyers, and public safety officers from carrying out their responsibilities. Joseph Clarke, the adopted son of a prominent Massachusetts politician, wrote to a friend and shared his observations of the incident, providing a firsthand account of events. The letter also shows an illustration of the growing American rebellion as it appeared in rural regions far from Boston and other coastal cities.

Defining Moment

In the early 1770s, indignation among the New England colonies over the policies of the British Parliament contributed to deterioration in relations between the two entities. The Boston Tea Party, in which a group of colonial protesters disguised as Indians dumped crates of British tea in to Boston Harbor in December of 1773, inspired Parliament to impose what would later be known as the “Intolerable Acts.”

The Intolerable Acts removed a considerable degree of political autonomy from the colonies. Under the new set of laws, the king would appoint colonial governors, who in turn could appoint judges and other officials. These officials were also not subject to removal by the people, which drove a further wedge between the subjects and their political leaders. Furthermore, town meetings could only take place with the express approval of these governors.

Another statute related to the Intolerable Acts was the Quebec Act of 1774, which established the rules of governance in the nearby Canadian province after the French and Indian War. The act, passed by Parliament in June, moved Quebec’s borders closer to the Ohio River Valley, and prohibited people in the outer parts of the colonies from expanding beyond their borders. Furthermore, the act allowed for the strict application of the other aspects of the Intolerable Acts, which meant that, in the rural areas along the western Massachusetts border, the British rule of law was even more domineering.

The imposition of these British rules and laws led to a colonywide backlash against Great Britain and Massachusetts Loyalists. In Deerfield, residents raised a forty-five-foot “liberty pole”—a tall wooden pole used to symbolized autonomy and freedom—which was quickly cut in half by Loyalists. The colonists were undaunted, however, as British officials and Loyalists were targeted in a campaign of harassment and obstructionism. In Springfield, Massachusetts, a mob of about 1,500 people, armed with clubs and other weapons, surrounded the courthouse and demanded that the judges, lawyers, and other officers of the court agree not to bring court into session. The scene was repeated in other two other Massachusetts cities, Worcester and Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, a group of colonists formed the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a provisional government that was intent on preparing the colonies for war against the British if the latter’s oppressive policies were not reversed. Following the Springfield incident and the formation of the Congress, groups of militia began training for engagement with British troops, signaling that the differences between America and the Crown were irreconcilable and that war was all but inevitable.

Author Biography

Joseph Clarke was born in 1749 in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was adopted by his aunt, Mercy Lyman Hawley, and her husband, Major Joseph Hawley. Major Hawley was a prominent attorney in western Massachusetts as well as a Patriot who would become a well-respected figure during the Revolution. Joseph Clarke would share his adopted father’s passion for the independence of the colonies.

Joseph Clarke eventually became a partner in Hawley’s law firm in Northampton. He also entered public service, taking the position of town treasurer. Clarke’s first wife died, but he eventually married Lydia Cook, who was the daughter of another affluent and prominent family in western Massachusetts. Lydia’s father, Joseph Cook, was a veteran of the French and Indian War and would later be one of the many colonial activists who targeted Loyalists in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War (he also operated an inn and the local jail and would later establish the town of Northampton’s first coeducational school). Joseph Clarke had become connected to some of the most prominent families in western Massachusetts, given his heritage as a member of the Clarke family, his marriage into the Cooks, and his relationship with the Hawleys.

Clarke would play an important role as an eyewitness to the Springfield court incident of 1774. A large group of colonists gathered in Hadley, in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts, to review the British policies and determine an adequate course of action. The convention concluded that the primary vehicle for the imposition and enforcement of the Intolerable Acts were the county courts. The convention also determined that a mere disruption of the courts’ proceedings would not be an effective enough demonstration. Instead, the convention plotted to shut down the courts altogether, preventing the judges, attorneys, and other officials working there from carrying out their responsibilities. Furthermore, the group proceeded to target these court officers and deter them from enforcing the new laws in the future.

Joseph Clarke, himself an attorney who was arriving on a visit to Springfield, observed the fullness of the demonstrations at that courthouse. He proceeded to document the events of that protest in a letter to an anonymous friend.

Document Analysis

The passage of the Coercive Acts (known as the Intolerable Acts in the colonies) led to the appointment of selected Loyalists to key judicial and administrative positions in the colonial government. It also allowed for Roman Catholicism—not Protestantism—to be the dominant faith in the western part of Massachusetts and elsewhere along the changed borders with Quebec. Some Christian fundamentalists believed that they should remain loyal to the British government. Others, however, believed that it was their moral duty to undo the Intolerable Acts before the newly installed members of regional governments could take their positions. Inspired by these acts and the destruction of several liberty poles by Loyalists, a large group of protesters decided to go to the court located in Springfield and prevent its new officials and employees from assuming their new judicial roles.

Joseph Clarke’s account begins as he arrived in Springfield to find a group of colonists who had just confronted the officers of the county court. The mob gave the judges and other officers a choice—the judges could either accept their appointments to the court and earn their commissions by working in service to the king according to the precepts of the Intolerable Acts, or they could join the colonists’ cause. The pro-liberty “committee” awaited the court officers’ answer, anticipating acquiescence to their demands.

There were differing opinions of what occurred during this incident, particularly whether the people who were targeted by the mob were injured or otherwise treated unfairly. In part, this difference in perspective was due to similar protests in neighboring areas where allegations of violence had been made. For example, in the village of Taunton, a mob drove out the local justice of the peace by firing bullets into his home. According to another report, Tory Colonel Thomas Gilbert was assaulted by a group of one hundred men, whom he repelled with a single gun. This group then attempted to assault Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles, a prominent member of the General Assembly and renowned Loyalist. Ruggles, according to the British account of the incident, also fought back successfully. However, members of the mob were alleged to have cut off Ruggles’s horse’s tail and used it to paint him in humiliating fashion (as paint was considered less expensive than tar and feathers).

Joseph Clarke’s account of the Springfield incident, which largely repeated the types of protests launched in Taunton and elsewhere, told of tensions and harassment between the activists and the Tories in this region, but made a point that the pro-liberty mob did not commit any actions that would be considered immoral or uncivil. Clarke’s letter describes each encounter between the radicals and the officers of the court with a sense of moderation. Clarke’s account demonstrates a minimum of passion for the cause. Still, Clark does not attempt to hide his animosity toward some of the figures involved in the incident, individuals whose reputed disdain for the colonists’ pursuit of equal treatment under British law was well known. Nevertheless, Clarke attempts to remain as objective as possible in reporting the events of this incident.

After their initial stop at the court, Clarke observes, the group returned to the home of an individual identified as “Mr. Parson” to plan its next step. The men returned to the courthouse to confront the judges who worked there. When the group arrived, they called out the officials and demanded that they answer questions about the new rules under the Intolerable Acts. The mob also expressed their desire for the judges and lawyers of the county court to sign a declaration that stated they would not work to enforce any of the new set of laws as part of their responsibilities. Clarke states that the court officers, including the judges, all complied with the demands of the crowd.

When the crowd returned to Mr. Parson’s home, they confronted Captain Seth Catlin, a justice of the peace and an officer of the court. Catlin, who was from Deerfield, was a veteran of the French and Indian War, in which he had served at the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga in 1758 and achieved the rank of second lieutenant. Despite his military record and overall standing as a well-respected member of society, Catlin was also known as a Tory and had played role in the anti-liberty movement. Accounts at the time varied as to the manner in which Catlin was treated during the Springfield incident. Some observers claimed that Catlin was abused and humiliated by the crowd, forced to withdraw from his efforts open the court despite the mob’s actions.

Clarke, however, provides a different take on the treatment accorded Catlin by the group. Although Catlin had clearly been targeted by the group for harassment, Clarke says, their approach was direct but tempered. Catlin, on the other hand, “boasted heroism” and acted defiant at first. As the argument continued, however, Catlin’s bravado disappeared. Clarke disagrees with other accounts that said Catlin was abused—according to Clarke’s letter, Catlin (along with another Tory by the name of Warner) was simply pressed to comply with a very clear and simple set of conditions (namely, not to take his office under the conditions established by the Intolerable Acts). Catlin was unhurt and dismissed in peace, having agreed to the crowd’s demands without incident.

According to other accounts of the Springfield court closures, Catlin was given even greater respect by the colonists than outlined in Clarke’s letter. On the same day he was released by the crowd, Catlin came to the assistance of his friends John Williams and Dr. Elihu Ashley, who were cornered in Williams’s home adjacent to the store Williams owned. Before they could break into the store and destroy it, however, Catlin came to one of the windows above the store and threatened to fire his gun into the crowd if they did not disperse. The crowd took his threat seriously, knowing his military training and sincerity, and moved away from the store.

Catlin’s alleged crime—the destruction of liberty poles in Deerfield and elsewhere in western Massachusetts—was considered a statement against the liberties of the colonists. The tradition of erecting liberty poles was a recent one. In 1765, revolutionary activists who were protesting the passage of the Stamp Act (a law requiring that all major documents be written on paper that was officially endorsed by British officials and taxed accordingly), burned effigies of two local revenue officials on a tree overlooking the town of Concord. Thereafter, pro-liberty activists used the “Liberty Tree” as a meeting spot. Soon, other trees throughout the colonies were dubbed “liberty trees.” In places where no suitable tree could be used, flagpoles and other poles became liberty poles.

Ironically, British loyalists often used liberty poles as well, as a demonstration of the rights and freedoms available to the Tories who remained loyal to the king. Then again, many British officials and loyalists saw the initial purpose of the poles, understood the defiance to the Crown they represented, and cut them down or destroyed them. Pro-liberty activists saw such actions as expressions of loyalty to the king, as well as a desire to subjugate the American colonists. In light of this perspective, any individual who attempted to cut down a liberty tree was targeted as both a Loyalist and an enemy of the cause during the 1774 Springfield incident.

Whereas Seth Catlin was put under a great deal of pressure to surrender his post as an officer of the county court, Clarke stated, the next individual on the mob’s agenda was deemed far more worthy of the group’s ire. That man was Colonel John Worthington of Springfield, a veteran of the French and Indian War who, along with Colonel Israel Williams of Hatfield, remained in command of the British regiment in western Massachusetts. Worthington was also one of the most prominent attorneys in western Massachusetts. It is in his discussion of Worthington that Clarke’s personal biases regarding the British come to light. Clarke says that the very sight of Worthington “flashed lightening” from the eyes of the protesters. Although they were already in a fevered state during the Springfield incident, the notion of confronting Worthington further stirred their passions. Worthington, as described in Clarke’s account, did not disappoint—he refused to give in to their demands, but moreover demonstrated an “obnoxious” attitude toward the protesters, attempting to verbally berate them. According to Clarke’s letter, the crowd held their collective temper, despite the fact that Worthington was provoking them.

While the crowd did not allow Worthington’s verbal abuse to get the better of them, they nevertheless held their ground in blocking Worthington’s entry into the courthouse. Eventually, Worthington agreed not to accept his position, as the “people were not to be dallied with.” He submitted his recantation of his position as an officer of the county court in a message to Governor Thomas Gage, with the message cosigned by two prominent attorneys, Caleb Strong and Jonathan Bliss.

Jonathan Bliss was also brought before the group. Whereas Worthington demonstrated outward defiance and disrespect for those who were imposing recantation upon him, Bliss was, according to Clarke, far more contrite. He asked for the colonists’ forgiveness for his actions to date as an officer of the court, conceding that they ran contrary to the interests of the people. Bliss added that he relied on the support of the people to do his job and therefore appealed to them to allow him to remain in their favor.

Bliss was targeted by the Springfield mob because of his public service in the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial government’s main legislative and judicial body). However, Bliss had a developing reputation as a quiet supporter of the liberty movement. During his tenure in the court, Bliss was among the leaders who in 1768 opposed withdrawing a resolution by Samuel Adams protesting taxation without representation. Four years after the Springfield incident, Bliss was identified by Parliament as an enemy of the state, whereupon he was banished from political service.

Bliss’s brother Moses, also an attorney with the courts, was brought in front of the people as well. However, while the group gave a great deal of scrutiny to Jonathan Bliss, the crowd did not believe that Moses Bliss was a Loyalist or worthy of harassment. As a result, Moses Bliss was released without further discussion.

The sheriff of Springfield was also brought before the group. It was rumored that he had made comments that were disrespectful of the pro-independence movement. However, the sheriff’s words were not validated and, although he was vindicated, he was also clearly “humbled” by his experience in front of this mob, Clarke says.

Israel Williams was also brought before the crowd, in light of accusations that he too used disrespectful verbiage during his tenure. Williams was another veteran of the French and Indian War, and later held a number of government positions, including selectman and a delegate to the Massachusetts General Court. Despite a record that clearly indicated he was a senior-level government official, Williams still managed to convince the crowd that the accusations were either invalid or altogether false. He admitted that some of the work he performed as an attorney ran counter to the views of the people. Williams said that he would agree to their demands and, from that point forward, would “join with them in the common cause.” According to Clarke’s letter, Williams stated that his goal was to ensure that the American colonies would be returned to a state of peace and prosperity.

The next individual brought to task was Captain James Merrick of Munson. Merrick was well known among the people of western Massachusetts as an individual who made disrespectful comments toward the population. Clarke, who wrote this letter with a relatively moderate tone, reveals that he himself felt that Merrick deserved to be “tarred and feathered.” To a degree, Merrick did not disappoint his critics, demonstrating a defiant and stubborn attitude. He made the necessary concessions, however, after he was placed in a cart and paraded in humiliating fashion throughout the community.

Clarke here mentions that, although the crowd was boisterous and intimidating, they maintained order and were committed to justice, not violence and injury. There were exceptions in which some of the targeted individuals were injured. However, Clarke says he spent most of his time among the Springfield crowd, observing the dispositions and tempers of its members. Although they were indeed armed with staves, he says, the activists also had fifes, trumpets, drums, and flags. In this regard, the mob was somewhat festive, singing songs and playing music intended to inspire others to join their cause.

There were incidents, however, that caused the targeted individuals mental anguish. Clarke cites one such occurrence, wherein Captain Jonathan Stearns of Northampton angered the group for making “imprudent expressions.” The mob set out to find Stearns, seeking him at the home of Worthington. Neither Worthington nor Stearns could be found there, according to Worthington’s wife. Still, the mob entered the home, dubious of her claims. As they searched the house for Stearns, Mrs. Worthington held her two daughters in her arms and fled. The crowd, meanwhile, continued their search but to no success. Having not found Stearns, the group left peacefully.

Clarke concludes his letter by reiterating his observations about the mob’s disposition as well as its actions. He presumes that the incident would paint the instigators in a negative light, and expects the group to be condemned for shutting down the courts in western Massachusetts. Still, he says, he found the actions of the group commendable, demonstrating respect for the activists and their cause.

Then again, Clarke was not deluded by the notion that the actions taken by the colonists at Springfield would not invite retaliation from the Tories and the British government. To be sure, he expected a swift reaction, one that he hoped would come only after the following morning. It was likely, he says, that whatever action was taken by the British would come swiftly. Clarke anticipated a strong reaction, although he hoped it would not be too soon, as he was concerned that such a quick response would also be rash. He also anticipated that while the British were almost certainly going to take notice of this incident, so too would the colonists themselves. If the British response to this event was overreaching, Clarke states, the colonists would likely become even more energized.

In August of 1774, colonial activists succeeded in closing the Springfield Court as a protest against the Intolerable Acts. Thereafter, a shadow government was established in the region—among the participants in this government were members of Clarke’s Hawley family. As Clarke had predicted, the protests made major waves both in England and among the colonists in the Berkshires and Springfield regions, inspiring a further push for liberty and independence in Massachusetts and throughout the colonies.

Essential Themes

Although it has been argued that the Revolutionary War was inevitable in light of the growing population of pro-liberty colonists, the imposition of revenue-generating policies—notably the Stamp Act in 1765 —fanned the flames of revolutionary fervor. The notion of taxation without representation prompted the Boston Tea Party and the burning of effigies of tax officials. These protests in turn led to the introduction of the Coercive (or Intolerable) Acts. Instead of establishing order and restoring control in Massachusetts, the acts spurred territory-wide protests, including the closure of the Springfield court.

While on a trip to Springfield, Joseph Clarke came across the angry mob that had set out to shut down the courts and prevent the new officials there from taking office under the acts. The group was also pursuing Tories, punishing them for their loyalties to the Crown. Clarke was aware that the British and the Tories would claim that the protests went too far, causing injury and demonstrating the rebels’ brutality and immoral attitudes regarding Great Britain. His account therefore avoids documentation of any violence or uncivil behavior toward the targeted Tories by the colonists.

Clarke’s letter describes tense standoffs and confrontations between the colonists and the Tories. There were incidents in which Tories were physically intimidated into compliance (such as James Merrick’s carting through the community). Clarke’s personal attitudes about the protest and the individuals who were targeted by the mob became evident as the crowd confronted Worthington and Merrick, two individuals whom Clarke felt deserved the treatment they received.

Still, Clarke says that the majority of the Tories confronted on the courthouse steps were treated fairly, and submitted to the crowd’s demands with a minimum of violence. Clarke knew that the British and others would carefully observe these protests and, based on the severity of any of them, issue a strong response. His letter therefore takes great pains to avoid illustrating any of the rumored violence of the protests. Nevertheless, his letter provides a review of a number of the key individuals involved in the Springfield incident, many of whom would go on to serve in the Revolutionary War, including such pivotal Tory leaders as Worthington, Merrick, and Jonathan Bliss.

The Springfield Rebellion, as it came to be known, was an important event in the burgeoning colonial campaign for equal rights under the law as well as independence from the oppressive government that created the Intolerable Acts. James Clarke’s tempered but detailed account helped spread the word among the colonists that the time for action against the British government had come.

  • Bassett, Lynne Zacek, ed. Massachusetts Quilts: Our Common Wealth. Lebanon: UP of New England, 2009. Print.
  • Bliss Smith, Grace Elizabeth. “Which Bliss? Same Name, Different Loyalties.” Bliss Family History Society. USGenNet, 2012. Web. 5 May 2012.
  • Hamson, Darryl. The Massachusetts Revolution of 1774: The Beginning of the End of British Rule in North America. American History Suite 101, 30 Aug. 2009. Web. 3 May 2012.
  • Miller, Amelia F., and A. R. Riggs, eds. Romance, Remedies, and Revolution: The Journal of Dr. Elihu Ashley of Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1773–1775. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2007. Print.
  • Oliver, Peter. The Sufferings of All from Mobs, Rioters and Trespassers. National Humanities Center, 2010. Web. 5 May 2012.
  • Shays’ Rebellion and the Making of a Nation. Springfield Technical Community College, 2008. Web. 2 May 2012.
  • “There Is No Idea of Submission, Here in Any Bodies Head.” Making the Revolution: America, 1763–1791. National Humanities Center, 2012. Web. 6 May 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1992. Print.
  • D’Amato, Donald J. Forgotten Heritage: Springfield during the American Revolution. Springfield: American Bicentennial Celebration, 1975. Print.
  • Newton, Michael E. Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers. Phoenix: Eleftheria, 2011. Print.

Categories: History