In debating the first Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, John Lowell, lawyer of Newburyport and Roxbury, proposed that ordained ministers should be barred from serving in the state’s legislature. William Gordon, not a man easily silenced, launched an attack on the idea.
Minister of the Third Parish Church of Roxbury, Gordon was an outspoken man, and the attack on the clergy was not something he would quietly tolerate.
The ban on clergy was turned back by vigorous opposition from ministers. That the outspoken Gordon would tackle the issue head on was typical of him. Gordon, who came to this country from England in 1770 because of his passion for the American cause, had no official political office, but he still crossed many of the biggest figures in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War period.
He crossed John Adams in opposing his proposed limits on amendments to the first Massachusetts Constitution. Gordon suspected the founders of the Constitution wanted to prevent future generations tampering with their work.
“He is an eternal talker, and somewhat vain, and not accurate nor judicious; fond of being thought a man of influence at headquarters; he is a good man, but wants a guide,” John Adams wrote of him.
Gordon was dismissed from his post of chaplain of the Provincial Congress as a result of his outspoken criticism of Massachusetts’ first, failed effort at a Constitution in 1778.
He upbraided John Hancock for his handling of accounts as treasurer of Harvard College; the resulting bad blood prompted Hancock to abandon his country estate in Roxbury (where Gordon held sway) for Boston.
And in his opposition to slavery, he would not be silenced. He was pleased by Massachusetts’ stand against slavery in its Constitution, but believed the nation needed to be united in outlawing it.
In an article critical of the Virginia Constitution, he wrote: “’All men are born free and independent’ . . . If these are our genuine sentiments, and we are not provoking the Deity by acting hypocritically to serve a turn, let us apply earnestly and heartily to the extirpation of slavery from among ourselves.”
Gordon was equally mercurial in his personal dealings. Students taking religious training from him noted he liberally beat them with a birch switch. One of his former pupils recalled that following close of school on one wintery day, Gordon slipped and fell on the icy steps as he went outside, his hat and wig flying wildly in the air.
“We shouted in high glee, and gave three cheers.”
In another incident related in Francis Samuel Drake’s The Town of Roxbury, Gordon visited the wealthiest man in his Parrish, Benjamin Pemberton. Pemberton was frequently unhappy with Gordon’s demeanor, and on this day the minister arrived at Pemberton’s home and hitched his horse to a newly painted fence.
Pemberton asked him to move it, and Gordon refused. Pemberton directed his servant to move the horse, and Gordon again forbade it. Eventually, Gordon rode off in anger.
The bad blood persisted between the two men to the end. On his death bed, Pemberton refused a visit from Gordon and altered his will so that instead of leaving his estate to the church, he directed it to the service of the poor in Boston.
Finally, in 1786, Gordon departed for England. He had spent several years reviewing the papers of George Washington, Henry Knox and Nathaneal Greene, even seeking and receiving dispensation from Congress to review Washington’s private papers.
He intended, he said, to write an account of the Revolution to further educate British citizens about the war. The mercurial Gordon would seem the perfect candidate to write a no-holds-barred account of the war, tinged with his blunt observations it should have been wonderful reading.
Sadly, however, it seems he was thwarted. Gordon did find a British publisher, who released his: The history of the rise, progress, and establishment, of the independence of the United States of America. But far from being a fiery, tell all, the book was flat, stilted and not well-received.
The reasons were revealed in the book Principles and acts of the Revolution in America: or, An attempt to collect and preserve some of the speeches, orations, & proceedings, with sketches and remarks on men and things, and other fugitive or neglected pieces, belonging to the men of the revolutionary period in the United States written by researcher Hezekiah Niles. In it, he tells the story of his investigation into Gordon’s book.
“In 1790 . . . I was introduced to a relative of Doctor Gordon, of whom I inquired how the doctor had succeeded in his history. He smiled and said, ‘It was not Doctor Gordon’s history.’”
Niles reports that Gordon’s English publisher told him his book was too pro-America to sell to British audiences, and it contained numerous libels against British officers. Even if Gordon's stories of misdeeds by British soldiers were true, his published didn't think he could defend the inevitable libel claims in British courts; he simply could not afford to publish it. Disillusioned, Gordon asked what he should do, and the publisher helped him find a writer to “fix” the manuscript.
What emerged was a dry recounting of the history of the war, much of it drawn from public documents salted liberally with quotations from letters that show some interesting details of the day-by-day events of the war, but lacking any of Gordon’s bomb-throwing style. The book struggled to sell, and ultimately Gordon died a poor preacher in Ipswich, England in 1807.