The underlying theme of my novel, True Freedom, is how but above all why revolutions happen. It is set partly in Boston, Massachusetts, and partly in London and traces the causes of the American colonies’ revolt against British rule in the eighteenth century. The story stops in 1775, when the first shots of the American Revolution, or the American War of Independence, were fired at Lexington. In other words, it stops when the revolution itself, the fighting, actually started.
I’m sometimes asked why I chose to write about the causes of the American Revolution but it’s not a question I can answer as the themes of my novels choose me, I don’t choose them. But two aspects of this bit of the past got me excited quite quickly. The first was that in the sixteen-year span of the novel, in the second half of the eighteenth century, England and America were both near revolution but England was a lot closer, teetering on the edge, in fact.
Here is an extract from the novel:
There were rumours the state was running out of money. Building work had stopped on the new Adelphi. London was swept by rumours that George III had withdrawn his money from his bank in the Strand and put it under his bed. Prices were up for meat and crucially, bread. The price of coal was prohibitive. When a mob at the docks found out it was being exported to Bordeaux for less than it cost in London there was a tumultuous and bloody riot.
George III did actually abdicate, briefly but he was talked out of it by Lord North. Parliament was besieged by the mob and nearly captured. The main reason the revolution did not succeed in England, in my opinion, was that the populist leader, John Wilkes, pulled back from the brink at the last minute and became Lord Mayor of London instead.
John Wilkes was known then and has come down to us in history as a champion of liberty. In fact, he led a debauched life of prostitutes and organised orgies and he embezzled from the orphanage, the Foundling Hospital, that was in his charge. It will perhaps shock you that a debauched unscrupulous chancer could become Mayor of London, but it was so.
I had a real bit of luck on the research for Wilkes, by the way. At home, I have seven biographies of Wilkes, because among his more minor peccadilloes he and a figure called Charles Churchill destroyed William Hogarth who I had written about in a novel, I, Hogarth. Then by chance I went to the NSPCC Book Fair at Holmwood House and found this: John Wilkes and the Foundling Hospital at Aylesbury by Lloyd Hart HM and M Publishers. It conclusively proves, with chapter and verse, figures and dates, that Wilkes cheated the Foundling Hospital’s branch at Aylesbury, where was MP. In True Freedom he is confronted about his crime but manages to slip away to France. He gets away with it in the end, as he did life.
Here is Wilkes, the populist, in action from the novel. He is – briefly – in prison at St George’s Fields:
On a fine spring day, the day of the opening of Parliament, a mob of well above a thousand gathered at St George’s Fields, all sporting Wilkes cockades and chanting ‘Wilkes and Liberty’. The authorities were expecting this and quickly diverted one hundred troops of the
3rd Regiment of Foot Guards, predominantly Scotsmen, who had been guarding Parliament.
The mob, many fuelled by a couple of hours’ drinking at the Dog and Duck, on the edge of St George’s Fields, cheered and whooped at the appearance of the soldiers, many of whom had just been ordered to take off their own Wilkes cockades.
A rumour quickly spread that the prison was to be stormed and all the prisoners released. The Foot Guards drew up inside the prison. The mob’s chants were more hostile than usual. In addition to ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ there was ‘Damn the King, damn the Government, damn the Justices’. Some of the mob threw dead dogs and cats at the soldiers. John Wilkes, watching from his window, waving to the mob, felt a thrill of the deepest contentment.
A Justice was called who read the Riot Act, requiring the mob to disperse. Inflamed, the mob started throwing stones, one of which hit the Justice in the face. The bloodied Justice panicked and shouted ‘Open fire!’
The soldiers fired. Men fell wounded and dying. A group of soldiers chased the journeyman who had sparked the riot by throwing a stone at the Justice. The journeyman, who was wearing a red waistcoat, ran away over a rail, round a windmill, and through a cowshed with the soldiers running after him but hampered by their muskets. The soldiers lost sight of him, caught sight of a red waistcoat again near the Horseshoe Inn and one of them opened fire.
Their quarry fell. As he fell, another soldier ran up to him and bayonetted him as he lay on the ground. There was a scream of anguish, ‘My son! My son!’ as the publican of the Horseshoe Inn ran towards the body.
‘What have you done?’ screamed the publican. ‘He was not at the Fields. My boy was here. He was working in my barn. What have you done?’
The soldiers looked at each other, one of them glanced at his bayonet, still dripping blood.
‘Leg it!’ one of them said.
They all ran away.
The boy who lay dead on the ground behind them was the publican’s son, William Allen, aged fifteen. His now bloodied red waistcoat had cost him his life.
Allen’s body was taken on a slab to Parliament, where there were further fury-filled riots. While soldiers battled the mob at the gates of the Commons, the streets burned in Limehouse, the Spitalfields weavers rioted and the coal heavers turned on the merchants, attacking and burning their houses, beating them when they caught them. The King was besieged in Buckingham House.
London was in a state of civil war.
The day after what was already known as the St George’s Fields Massacre, King George III told his wife Charlotte that he no longer commanded his own capital. He had no choice but to abdicate. Charlotte immediately sent for Frederick, Lord North, who eventually talked him out of it. But it was a close-run thing.
John Wilkes had to be released from prison, to prevent London from going up in flames. He sent a message to Samuel Adams, via Hancock and Hayley. He told Adams to learn from the St George’s Fields Massacre and its martyrs, especially William Allen.
Which brings us to the populist leader in Boston, Samuel Adams. He was more focused, more ruthless and ultimately more successful than John Wilkes. He created the American revolution. Here is arguably the most successful populist leader ever in action. An extract from the novel:
To Samuel Adams’s quiet satisfaction, the old days of furtive small-group meetings at the Green Dragon or the Long Room had given way to mass gatherings involving most of Boston. Adams organised the public protest against the Customs Commissioners to start at the Liberty Tree. Despite the rain turning the snow to slush, a crowd of over a thousand gathered there, to be docilely marched to Faneuil Hall, at the other end of Main Street.
No sooner were they settled in Faneuil Hall than Adams decided there was not enough room there. So he got them all up again and marched his obedient army through the drizzle to the Old South Church, which was massive.
It was all Young could do not to burst into applause. The route from the Liberty Tree to Faneuil Hall to the Old South Church took the Bostonians – actually it took them twice – past the Province House, in which cowered the Governor, Francis Bernard, but crucially it also took them past the Town House, where the Assembly sat.
The Assembly was closed when they passed by, thanks to Young and the Liberty Boys disrupting its business at Adams’s bidding. So Samuel Adams had just made a vivid propaganda point without a word – using sight and movement only. As the huge crowd surged past the defunct Assembly under Samuel Adams’s orders to hear him speak, Samuel Adams ruled Boston.
Adams instigated the Boston Uprising soon afterwards. The start of this is shown on the cover of the novel from a contemporary etching.
I said a while back that there were two aspects of the times that excited me in the early stages of researching and writing this novel. The first was the revolutionary situations in England America, which I just talked about. The second was that there were two brothers on opposite sides, both English but one passionate about the American revolutionary cause, the other giving most of his working life to stopping the American Revolution.
You couldn’t, as they say, make it up. It sounds like a Hollywood device. ‘Two brothers joined by their love but separated by their passionate beliefs.’ I could hardly believe it when I first discovered it. I was reminded of a story in Alan Bennett’s memoirs about when he first came to write the stage version of The Madness of George III. He said he thought the basic story, the real truth, was so good he couldn’t believe nobody had dramatized it before. He said that as he went into the London Library he expected to see Tom Stoppard, hard at work writing a play about it. That’s how I felt. Maybe not to come across Tom Stoppard, I don’t move in those circles but I couldn’t believe nobody had spotted this and written about it before.
The two brothers were Thomas Pownall, the elder brother, who was a governor of Massachusetts well before the revolution and John Pownall who was in charge of the American Department in London. John was a Civil Servant, an Under-Secretary. On his return to London, Thomas fought for the American cause in Parliament and with books and pamphlets, putting him at odds with John, who opposed Samuel Adams and his revolutionaries with every fibre of his being. John Pownall actually tried to destroy them. He single-handedly drafted the Boston Port Act closing off the port of Boston in a nearly successful attempt to starve the rebels into submission. It was and remains one of the most draconian pieces of legislation ever passed by Parliament and, as a curio, still the only piece of legislation entirely drafted by an under-secretary.
So there, then, was the foundation of a novel. A populist revolutionary in England, John Wilkes, a populist revolutionary in America, Samuel Adams. Two brothers on opposite sides of the cause. And there were a couple of quick early discoveries in the mix. It is actually quite difficult to get your head round how unimportant America was to Britain in the eighteenth century. Some of it had not even been mapped yet. The colonies run by the East India Company were far more important and in fact it was the East India Company’s concerns that actually led to the Boston Tea Party. A second part of the real life of the period when you dig down a bit was that it wasn’t a case of Britain here and America here, two separate entities. It was more fluid than that. At times of financial hardship many Americans emigrated to Britain. People were going backwards and forwards all the time, as the ships grew faster and faster. And people at the time regarded the breaking of speed records by the ships with the same excitement we, or some of us, regard Broadband speeds now.
At this point, with the basic ideas and some of the leading protagonists established, I want to digress a bit and talk about the act of writing. Most of my novels, including True Freedom and the last one I talked about at the Essex Book Festival, The White Crucifixion, are fictionalised history. Fictionalised history has only real people, people who really lived, in the story. Historical fiction has some, sometimes all, imaginary characters. Does it matter? To be honest, I’m not sure, but fictionalised history is closer to the boundary with non-fiction. This novel remains a novel, it is a work of fiction, but True Freedom is so close to the boundary with non-fiction you could stick your nose over the border post. NB Magazine’s review called it a docu-drama.
I want to talk a bit more about writing, because some of the people who come to these talks write themselves, and many are interested in writing. In my opinion there are only two stages in writing a novel, the subconscious or unconscious stage where you write and the conscious, reasoning stage where you improve and edit. For me, the unconscious stage is so unconscious, so trance like, that I only noticed one key feature of the book when the Historical Novel Review piece about the novel pointed it out. And that is that there is no single main character. I mentioned John Wilkes and Samuel Adams, the populist revolutionaries, and Thomas and John Pownall. Well, there is one more leading character, the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.
In a twist on expectations it was Thomas Hutchinson, the American Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, who was the aristocrat. The Governor, Thomas Pownall, was of relatively humble stock because being Governor of Massachusetts was not a particularly important job. Here is the interplay between the two of them from near the start of the novel:
Thomas Pownall was shown into the Great Chamber, where Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson sat enthroned in a floral-pattern walnut chair.
‘Governor Pownall,’ drawled Hutchinson, with little enthusiasm.
He had heard the horses as they drove up to the house, guessing from their number that it must be Pownall. How vain to visit in the gubernatorial phaeton with the greys he was so proud of, rather than just take a one-horse chaise.
And why for heaven’s sake was Pownall wearing that ridiculous waistcoat? Oh yes! Lincoln yellow. Pownall was a Yellerbelly, a Lincoln man.
Thomas Hutchinson was the most notable historian in the American colonies. He fondly pictured in his mind his magisterial History of Massachusetts, ten years in the writing, presently lying as a nearly completed manuscript on his desk in the library.
So he had naturally traced his own lineage back through generations of Hutchinsons until he reached William and Anne Hutchinson, who had made their way from Boston, Lincolnshire, to Boston, Massachusetts 125 years ago.
What piqued Hutchinson was the parvenu Pownall not realising that he, Hutchinson, would understand the reference implied in the yellow waistcoat. You underestimate Thomas Hutchinson at your peril, little man, thought Hutchinson.
Hutchinson respected Pownall as a governor, he admitted to himself grudgingly. One simply could not respect him as a man. He was not serious.
The main importance of Governor Pownall was his younger brother, John. John Pownall was an under-secretary at the American Department in London. He was the most influential authority on the American colonies in the government, deferred to on American matters even by his superiors. Hutchinson made sure that whatever Governor Pownall reported back to John Pownall was exactly what Hutchinson wanted him to know.
There was a pause, a heavy silence between the two of them. Hutchinson noted that the Governor was standing with his tricorn hat facing inwards, not outwards. No gentleman would do that. ‘No ton,’ Hutchinson thought to himself. ‘No breeding.’
‘Pray sit down, sir,’ Hutchinson drawled, but with the force of a command.
Governor Pownall hastened to sit down, crossing one plump stockinged calf high over the other thigh. Hutchinson gave a patrician wince of disdain.
It was as if nature itself had illustrated the difference in social standing between the two men: the aristocratic Hutchinson, tall, gracious of form with fine aquiline features; then the man of the middling sort, Thomas Pownall, like a plump little robin but with a yellow, not a red, breast.
Pownall knew very well what Hutchinson thought of him. He touched his Yellerbelly waistcoat, defiantly. ‘I’m as pleased as a dog wi’ two tails,’ he thought to himself in Lincolnshire dialect. ‘You won’t get me!’
Pownall broached the subject which had brought him here. ‘Mr Hutchinson, I understand you have put a measure before the Assembly, in my name, seeking to reduce smuggling and increase tax revenue.’
‘That is your policy, is it not? Those are your views?’
Pownall fought down a flash of anger. ‘As you know very well, those are my views but the route to seeing those views carried through into policy does not lie in the Assembly, where, as you also know perfectly well, they have absolutely no chance of success.’
‘That remains to be seen.’
‘No, it does not,’ Thomas Pownall ground out through clenched teeth. ‘Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson, your co-operation with the government’s policy of achieving customs payments by gradual persuasion has been noted. Should you depart from that policy, such a departure will also be noted.’
The patrician Hutchinson eyebrow went up. ‘I see.’
Thomas Pownall saw John’s sardonic face before him. ‘I’ll tell my brother of you,’ he heard John say, in his mocking way. And of course that was exactly what Thomas was saying.
And it worked. Even the tacit invocation of John Pownall’s name was enough.
‘Leave it with me,’ Hutchinson said. ‘The measure will be withdrawn from the Assembly. I shall explain that I misunderstood the Governor’s intentions. Please accept my apologies for the misjudgement, Governor Pownall.’
The two men shook hands. ‘Thank you, Mr Hutchinson. That is good of you.’ Pownall meant it. He spoke softly now – this was important. It was vital to Boston’s future. ‘The war is as good as won, you know? After Quebec there is no doubt. We will soon drive out the French and the Indian tribes that backed them.’
‘Parliament is going to pursue the colonies, very much including the American colonies, for payments in the form of taxation.’
Hutchinson waved a languid, blue silk-sheathed arm, but respectful now, if not actually humble. ‘You know the situation in London far better than I. Is that the prevailing view?’
‘Yes. We must persuade the merchants of Massachusetts to pay more – pay something, for God’s sake – in revenue. If we can persuade the biggest merchants, Rowe and above all John Hancock, the others will follow. In this way we shall mollify Parliament and blunt the heaviest of its demands regarding taxation, even before they fall on us.’
‘And we persuade Mr Hancock to pay his dues how, exactly?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Neither have I.’
A novel is about people; a novel is about emotion. A novel also offers balance; there is bad among the good, there is good among the bad. And in the case of Samuel Adams history offered a stark and clear illustration of how he came to be what he was. In this extract from the novel, Samuel Adams is unburdening his soul to another leading revolutionary, an intellectually brilliant and talented auto-didact called Thomas Young:
The creation of Samuel Adams started back in his father’s time. The father, known to everybody in Boston as Deacon Adams, loomed large in young Samuel’s life.
At a time of hardship, a near-permanent condition in Boston, the Deacon hit on the idea of a Land Bank. The Land Bank’s assets, so-called, were pie-in-the-sky dreams of sales of land in the west. It had no government backing but still issued its own money. With the support of the artisan class it became a kind of Bank of the People.
The rich merchants felt threatened by the Land Bank. The merchants had as currency Bills of Exchange based on the pound sterling in London. The Land Bank’s soft currency challenged that.
Enter the young Thomas Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s opposition to the Land Bank was social as much as economic. The needy part of Boston favoured the scheme – the artisan class: the shipyard workers, cordwainers, coopers and tavern keepers. Thomas Hutchinson sniffed at them. He and a cousin came up with a scheme that was an alternative to the currency issued by the Land Bank. It was to use money from various Medici businesses to guarantee the colony’s existing currency, so boosting the value of all their Bills of Exchange.
Thomas Hutchinson used his contacts to push this scheme through the Assembly, and it was carried. The Land Bank folded as a direct result. Deacon Adams was ruined. Thomas Hutchinson had ruined him.
The young impressionable boy, Samuel Adams, came upon the Deacon, a broken man, sobbing on the bosom of his wife like a baby. It was an image he never forgot, etched in acid for ever in his heart. As he sobbed, the Deacon ground out the single word ‘Hutchinson’.
Worse was to follow; the nightmare became a way of life. The Deacon had assumed, on no evidence, that he could be held liable only for his initial investment in the Land Bank. This turned out to be wrong. Bank directors could be held personally responsible for all debts incurred by their banks, without limit.
So for the next twenty years the Deacon and his family lived with the threat of their home on Purchase Street being seized and the house and every single item of their possessions sold to pay off the debt. Public notices would appear, many times, in the Boston newspapers announcing that the Land Bank Commissioners intended to sell the Adams’ house from under them. Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf would appear at the door with an official notification.
With the Deacon now a husk of a man, it fell to his only son to try to save the family from destitution. Young Samuel took to threatening Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf, until he realised the Sheriff, like most of the artisan class, was actually on his side.
He then put advertisements in friendly newspapers warning off possible purchasers of the family home. The newspaper owners let him place the advertisements for nothing – feeling was running high against Hutchinson and for Adams in Boston.
But even so, again and again, young Samuel had to attend a Board of Arbitration for Bankruptcy hearing, to plead for their judgment, knowing the consequences if he failed: homelessness. Penury. Destitution. Some of these hearings were held at the British Coffee House, which was owned by the Medici. So it was enemy territory, where he had to appear as a supplicant, pleading for the shirt on his back.
This loss of all dignity gave Samuel Adams the curse of sleeplessness for the rest of his life. He slept two or three hours a night, sometimes less. His habit of walking the deserted streets of Boston in the small hours of the morning with his red cloak wrapped around him started at this time. Thomas Hutchinson was the spectre on those early morning walks and appeared as a demon haunting his dreams in what little sleep he ever had.
Incredibly, Samuel Adams single-handedly saved the family from bankruptcy and destitution, but not from poverty: his attempt to take over and run the family malt business was a disaster. Adams was a clever man, a shrewd man, an intelligent man, but he had limitations as great as his strengths. One of these was number blindness – he could hardly add up. This made his failure at business inevitable, although it did not inhibit him, in later life, from wangling a job as a tax-gatherer, a publicanus, for the access it gave him to all classes of society. The people of Boston called him Sam the Publican after that, out of fellow feeling and some affection.
Just before the Land Bank failure, Samuel Adams had enrolled as a student at Harvard, as did all the young intelligentsia of Boston, Harvard being just a short horse-ride away.
When the Land Bank crash came, Adams stayed on at Harvard but to make enough money to live on, he had to wait at tables at the refectory, serving his fellow students their food and drink. As luck would have it, these fellow students included Thomas Hutchinson, Andrew and Peter Oliver, Richard Clarke and other aristocratic young bloods, scions of the Medici.
The Medici’s belief in their superiority over Samuel Adams was set hard. They knew Adams was on his uppers. They saw him as a funny-looking fellow, like a comic little lizard with a pointed snout and short stubby arms. He became the butt of their mockery; at the sharp end of their torment.
The Hutchinson group of aristocrats did not eat in the main refectory; they had a panelled side-room permanently reserved for their sole use. At first, they would merely jeer at their waiter, Samuel Adams, telling him to get a move on, hurry up, quicky-quicky little man. There was sometimes a kick up his backside, to great merriment.
But as time went on they hit on more sophisticated forms of torment: they would swear blind they had not ordered the food Adams brought them, even though they had. They insisted Adams brought them the fictional original order.
After a while, with this happening nearly every day, Samuel Adams was summoned to the Bursar and threatened with being charged for the wrongly ordered meals if he made any more mistakes. Adams went to Hutchinson, pleading with him to stop the torment or he would lose this humble job, incur even more debts, maybe even lose his family house.
He chose the wrong time to ask. Young Hutchinson was drunk on Madeira and the adulation of his cronies. He made Adams beg. He made him kneel before them all and beg. Then they stripped him and made him beg some more.
That’s how you make a revolutionary. In an earlier extract, I mentioned Thomas Young. This is Dr Thomas Young a self-taught and self-appointed physician, not unusual in the eighteenth century. I read in the previous extract that The Assembly was closed when they passed by, thanks to Young and the Liberty Boys disrupting its business at Adams’ bidding. These Liberty Boys included Dr Young’s own sons and were the youth wing of the revolution. In disrupting the business of the legislative assembly they were very important.
But I used Young in the novel for something else, as well. Philosophy has rarely been so directly significant in politics and public life as it was in the eighteenth century, when it influenced revolutions in America and then in France. By a supreme irony the philosopher who so influenced the American Revolution was English – John Locke, whose ideas were everywhere in America.
To get these ideas across in dramatic form I have the self-taught Thomas Young teaching the Liberty Boys these revolutionary ideas. Here he is addressing them in his front-parlour. Rosmond is his son. Christopher Seider is later manufactured into one of the martyrs of the revolution, the American equivalent of the fifteen-year-old William Allen in the earlier extract, manufactured into the martyr of St George’s Fields.
There was silence in the room. They were listening.
‘Now! From Charles Bonnet’s Contemplation de la Nature we learn of the interconnectedness of all things. Every human being is an organic part of that whole we call society. What is the study of society called? I will tell you. It is called politics, after Aristotle’s ta politika, affairs of state. In order to improve the health of a society you first have to understand the system in all its parts, just as you do with a person. Understand?’
There was a roar of ‘Yes, sir!’
‘And who is our guide to the political system, the body politic, as Linnaeus and Galen are to the physical body?’
They knew that one. There was a chorus of ‘John Locke!’
‘Yes, boys. John Locke was an Englishman. But we will forgive him that because he had a lifelong interest in medicine. He was physician to Lord Ashley, as well as his secretary. Did you know that?’
The boys did not know that, as Young had not mentioned it before. They were silent, shuffling about a little. There was some coughing.
‘Now, Locke teaches us that there are various types of rule of society. There is rule by constitutional right, rule by custom, rule by force and so on, in the body politic. How do you distinguish, say, rule by right from rule by force? What do you look for, as I looked for the symptoms of fever?’
‘The consent of the people,’ Rosmond Young said.
‘Yes, good. You look for the will and consent of the people. And if it is not there you have rule by force, colonial rule, which is a poison because it is foreign and alien to the body politic, the body politic did not produce it naturally from within itself.’
There were some cries of ‘Yes, sir!’
‘The British have no right to rule us. They never did. We never consented to it. The Massachusetts Bay Charter was given as a financial arrangement, it was never intended as the constitution for a colony. What was it never intended for?’
They chanted it back, loving it. The trick never failed. ‘The constitution for a colony!’
‘Excellent! What good boys you are. So, gentlemen, let us get to our feet. The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. So let us kick every British backside out of Boston.’
The cheers were even louder than usual. They all knew which of three crews they were in. They collected the leather buckets from outside the house. They were borrowed from the Fire Companies and contained Hillsborough Mixture, a mixture of urine and faeces, enthusiastically supplied by the boys.
By now they all knew where the Customs Commissioners and Customs Agents lived, but they obediently awaited orders from the crew leaders or from Young himself.
Nobody broke discipline.
Meanwhile, back in London, Thomas wants to enter Parliament to help the American cause. And as his brother John will not help him, he wangles an interview with Lord North, through distant connections of his mother. Lord North, of course, is one of the best-known figures in the story of the loss of the American colonies. But as a novelist I am not interested in the history-book figure, rather in trying to reach Lord North as a person. So, the question would be, to Lord North and to every other character, what was important to you? What made you what you are? What do you want? And when you look at the real Lord North you see that what was important to him was money, because what little he had come from his wife’s estates and in fact only his rich relations paying for guards saved his home when the mob attacked it. What was important to him was his half-brother, George III of England. They had been brought up together, even though North was older and North loved him dearly. And when you look at his public work you see a dully competent, unimaginative man who controlled the factions in the commons well, not the idiot history portrays and surely not the worst Prime Minister we have ever had.
Here is North getting Thomas Pownall into Parliament. The dreamy North labouring under the misapprehension that Thomas agrees with his brother about America, which he does not:
Frederick, Lord North had received a letter from the Earl of Chester, asking him to promote Chester’s kinsman as a candidate for Parliament. North had never heard of the Earl of Chester, but the kinsman went by the name of Thomas Pownall.
It was an unusual surname, which surely indicated that this Thomas Pownall must be related to John Pownall. Lord Hillsborough always spoke warmly of John Pownall. Indeed, John Pownall was known up and down Whitehall as Mr America, the man who knew more about the American colonies than any other man alive. Lord North therefore invited this Thomas Pownall fellow to come to his office in Whitehall.
On the day arranged for the meeting, North had been called to his wife’s estate in Somerset. He was trying to contain the latest riots there. A mob of labourers had seized cartloads of butter, then raided bakery shops in search of bread and flour. Lord North supervised the capture of the ringleaders, who were subsequently deported to America in chains.
Thomas had arrived for the appointment, tense and nervous, to find North absent elsewhere. He showed his letter of invitation to a clerk. A second date was arranged. On this occasion there was a debate in the Commons so North again did not appear. A third appointment was set, which North apparently forgot completely.
A full month after the original contact, Lord North appeared an hour late for a fourth appointment. Thomas Pownall was powerfully struck by North’s appearance. He thought him the ugliest man he had ever beheld. His eyes rolled about, apparently out of control; his thick lips twitched; his cheeks looked as if too much air had been blown forcibly into them with a bellows. He had the air of a blind trumpeter. The artist in Thomas found this virtual disfigurement fascinating.
North was warm and affable enough, though. Although the affability stopped short of offering any form of refreshment or hospitality.
‘Now then …’ North began as Thomas settled into his chair opposite North’s desk. ‘Your name is Pownall. Charles Pownall …’ This was followed by a flutter of blinks from both eyes. Thomas realised North could hardly see him.
‘No. My name is Thomas, my lord. Thomas Pownall.’
‘Ah. Quite so. But you are a relative of John Pownall?’
‘Yes, my lord. He is my younger brother.’
Clouds that had started to gather over the surface of that blubbery face quickly dispelled. Even the rapid blinks appeared to have cleared up.
‘Splendid. Splendid. And you are seeking, what, a place in the Houses of Parliament? In the Commons?’
‘That is so, my lord.’
‘Why would you not, indeed? It is the most august of assemblies.’ Lord North chuckled, his flabby cheeks shaking. There was a twinkle in his eye. One could discern his last three meals, at least, by the food stains on his bulging waistcoat and his satin breeches.
Thomas liked him. And he appeared to have taken to Thomas, as most people did.
‘To tell the truth, Mr Pownall, the Commons is a very agreeable coffee house, no more, no less. Our gentlemen deign to drop in there, if they are in London at all, and not away in the country, only when they have no pressing social engagements; nobody to lay a wager with or play billiards with, and the theatre does not charm.’
North chuckled roguishly. Thomas politely laughed with him.
‘But we need more people who share your brother’s views on the America question,’ North said, suddenly serious. ‘We cannot go on as we are, everybody is in agreement on that.’
Thomas thought it politic to say nothing at this.
‘You know that famous quip of Burke, I think it is about America?’
‘No, my lord.’
‘“A robbery on Hounslow Heath would make more conversation than all the disturbances in America.” That is how it goes.’ Lord North laughed heartily. Thomas forced as much laughter as he could muster. ‘We need to change all that.’ North sounded firm. ‘We need more people like you and your brother, who are ready and willing to bring these rebellious fellows to book until they pay their fair share.’
Thomas swallowed hard and nodded.
North was beaming. ‘That is all we are asking. Their fair share.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Good, good. What is your station in life, sir?’
Thomas cleared his throat. ‘Until recently, my lord, I was Governor of Massachusetts.’
‘Were you now? You must be relieved to be back, eh? A few creature comforts, a bit of civilised conversation, eh? Where are your family from?’
‘Lincolnshire, my lord.’
‘What? Where? You have land there?’
‘Not really, my lord, no.’ Thomas shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
‘No land? What then? Trade?’
‘Thank the Lord for that. The King is rather … How can I put this? His Majesty has retained some of the habits of the Hanoverian court. Excluding people of trade from his advisors is one of them.’
‘I have no connections with trade, Lord North. No. None.’
‘What about pedigree?’
‘My family has a coat of arms. Two lions contournes in pale between two fleurs de lys.’
‘Good! I think I have the picture. An independent character is valued in Parliament as well as an independent station in life. A rise from a humble position is possible in these modern times. Social advancement through Parliament? Yes, perfectly possible.’
Thomas was wriggling with embarrassment in his chair, wishing he could cross one leg over the other knee, something he did not dare do in front of Lord North. But his lordship noticed his unease, looking kindly at him.
‘You know, the going rate for a seat in Parliament is about fifteen hundred pounds? Have you got that?’ Thomas was silent. ‘Mmm. Yes, I see.’
Thomas saw his dreams of helping Massachusetts dashed. But North went on, ‘As you are John Pownall’s brother, we could help you out from the King’s Fund. It is funded by His Majesty. We are known as the King’s Men.’
Thomas had heard tell of the King’s Men. Under North’s leadership, they controlled the Commons to carry out the King’s will with thirty or so mainly Tory members because the Whigs on the other side were so divided.
‘You could perhaps join us. Be one of the King’s Men.’
‘I … would be most grateful, my lord.’
‘Not at all. Not at all. Once you are in, we’ll tell you what to do.’
‘Thank you, my lord.’
‘Yes. Well. We can perhaps take it as read that you are grateful, so you can stop thanking me, Mr Pownall.’
Thomas nodded. ‘Indeed.’
‘Let me see …’ North fell to more myopic blinking. ‘The borough of Sudbury is advertising for a buyer. No, I tell you what, Tregony in Cornwall. That would be ideal for you. Not too many voters to pay. Not as good as my constituency of course. In Banbury I have only eighteen.’ North chortled. ‘You’ll need about three thousand to pay the voters, then keep them sweet, but we can handle that from the King’s Fund.’
‘Thank … I really am most appreciative, my lord.’
‘Did you know, Charles …?’
‘Thomas, my lord.’
‘Yes, quite. There was a proposal made recently subjecting each election candidate to an oath that he had not used bribery. Lot of hot air, the lot of it. But anyway we have to get round it, so there will be a sale of trifling articles. We buy all sorts of flummery from the electors at enormous prices, you see? Then they vote for us. Don’t worry, there will be an election agent who will organise all that for you. You don’t have to do a thing.’
Lord North chortled to himself good-humouredly, shook Thomas’s hand, then left the room without another word.
And that, as is fairly well-known actually, was the state of Parliamentary democracy in the eighteenth century. As many of London’s many newspapers expected at the time, once British authority was challenged, the revolution would succeed. And here is one of history’s most famous challenges to authority, the Boston Tea Party:
It was dusk by now, and the light was fading. They needed lanterns brought from the stores on the wharf. It had stopped raining but the air had all the rawness of a Boston winter. The decks were still slippery from the earlier rain.
The holds were opened with the keys Captain Hall had provided, then the blocks and tackles were positioned on deck, at the neck of the open holds, each illuminated by a lantern. When the blockmakers, housewrights and blacksmiths arrived, they supervised the attaching by rope of the first of the chests in the hold to a block and tackle up on deck.
At a holler of ‘Heave’, men on deck hoisted the massive tea chests up, one by one. Another crew then broke the chests open on deck with hatchets and hand-axes and shovelled the tea over the side of the ship.
The artisans developed a spontaneous song to keep in rhythm as they worked.
Rally Mohucks, bring out your axes,
And tell King George we’ll pay no taxes,
On his foreign tea.
As the loose tea hit the water, there were cheers and cries of ‘Let’s make tea!’ and ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’
Samuel Adams followed the classic formula for creating a revolution. Start two distinct movements, one a legal party seeking votes in an Assembly, the other an extra Parliamentary movement using coercion and force. Today the force would be trolling and other electronic threats. Then it was having Hillsborough Mixture smeared on your windows by Young’s Liberty Boys or tarring and feathering or the total destruction of your house. This second coercive movement is often deniable by the first one. And once America had been brought to the point of revolution, Samuel Adams instigated this which he managed to get history to call the Boston Massacre, although even American commentators give it inverted commas these days, which led to the Boston Uprising, as he knew it would.
The American Revolution saw dedicated, well-trained, well organised and sometimes ruthless professionals take on disinterested, half-hearted amateurs handicapped, it must be said, by a creditable obedience to the rule of law. The professionals won. And they have done rather better ever since. And if we have to swallow that, and the chlorinated chicken with it, then maybe we have only ourselves to blame.