Robert Hallowell in 1792 decided to leave England and to return to America permanently. He had fled Boston during the American Revolution, having served as the British tax collector in Boston. He had started out as tax collector for Portsmouth, N.H. But then, just before the American Revolution started, he was elevated to the post in Boston.
The job should not have endeared him to the patriot side. Nor did the Hallowell family have any love for the patriots. Robert’s father, himself a tax collector, had his house in Boston attacked years earlier during the run-up to the Revolution. In 1776, the Hallowells left with the British Army when it evacuated the city.
But then when the family returned, his son found himself in the midst of another controversy over revolution, this time in France.
Return of Robert Hallowell
When Hallowell returned to Boston, he received a surprising reception. Boston welcomed him with open arms.
His son Robert Hallowell Gardiner explained in his memoirs. “My father had held a very unpopular office, but he had performed its duties with so much forbearance as to create no ill feelings towards himself,” he wrote. “On his return he was received in the most friendly manner by his old acquaintances.”
Several of them, he wrote, forgot what happened since they’d played together as boys, and called him by his old familiar name of Bob.
Hallowell reclaimed his family mansion on Batterymarch Street. His grandmother, a widow, had inherited it, and thus she retained right to the property despite her loyalist leanings. With the property restored, Hallowell set down roots. His 10-year-old son Robert became an eager observer of his new country.
The boy, Robert Hallowell Gardiner, represented the union of two great early New England fortunes. Side by side in Maine you find the towns of Hallowell and Gardiner, named for the Hallowells and the Gardiners. Robert was a Hallowell by birth, but he took the name Gardiner to satisfy the conditions that allowed him to inherit the bulk of his grandfather Silvester Gardiner’s estate.
Robert Hallowell Gardiner, born in England during his family’s exile, retained some affection for England after coming to Boston. His recollections create a colorful picture of America in her early days. The French Revolution, he noted, was a hot topic for him and his schoolmates:
In sympathy with the desires of the French people for freedom, Boston celebrated when it learned the revolutionaries had deposed the country’s king.
He described a civic feast that celebrated the triumph of French liberty. An ox, which had been several days roasting whole, was carried to State St., where tables were spread its whole length for the feast, he wrote.
A procession followed. It included the municipal authorities, public officers, the various societies and trades, and the schools, every one wearing the French cockade. Schoolchildren couldn’t sit at the tables, but they all received a cake of gingerbread with the words “Liberty and Equality” on it.
The company did not find the ox very palatable, and they soon began to amuse themselves by pelting with it the spectators in the balconies around. The horns of the ox were gilt and placed on a liberty pole in Liberty Square.
School children decorated their hats with the three colors of the French Revolution or with black, to denote their opposition. Hallowell noted that only two students, he and another boy, wore the black colors of opposition.
A Violent Turn
News arrived that the revolution in France turned increasingly violent and erratic, and that the French people had executed King Louis XVI in 1793. Boston remembered Louis’ support for America’s revolution, and the demonstrations turned more intense.
As soon as it was known that the feeble Louis XVI, the most unoffending of his race, had been brought to the scaffold for the sins of his predecessors, a strong reaction everywhere took place. The Federal party, which embraced almost all the persons of wealth and education of the country and a large proportion of the officers who had effected our independence, now began to fear lest the constitutional edifice which they had taken such pains to rear and to consolidate should be overthrown in the turmoil.
“They desired to put a stop to this effervescence of popular feeling,” he wrote. So they had the ox horns draped with the emblems of mourning for the death of the King and the flag on liberty pole lowered to half mast.
That didn’t stop the French sympathizers.
They insisted upon the crepe being taken off the horns and the flag hoisted to its full height. Amid the noise and violence of the disputants, a man went into the dock, it being low water, and cut off the pole at the base, and the pole with all upon it fell into the mud.
They’d come to a draw, wrote Gardiner, so they dispersed.
The feuding, he noted, spilled over into day-to-day affairs as well. Parties grew more and more embittered against each other. All social intercourse between them ceased, and they forgot they were Americans. “[T]hey identified themselves as English or French partisans, placing on their hats the emblematic cockade of one or the other nation,” he wrote.
The people were excited against the English by being reminded of what they had suffered from them during the revolutionary struggle, and the mob burnt at the Long Wharf an English letter of marque from Bermuda, loaded with pineapples. The instigators kept in the background, and a painter was arrested and punished for the offence.
Another act of violence was attempted against a Jew named Wallack, who was unpopular for his anti-Gallican sentiments. He kept an armourer’s shop. The mob threatened the house and would have gutted it and seized the arms and probably ill-treated the owner, had not a party of gentlemen volunteered to defend the house, and for several nights kept watch with a cannon loaded with grape, which effectually deterred the mob.
Robert Hallowell Gardiner had arrived at a chaotic time in America, the country where he would go on to make his fortune.
Thanks to: Early recollections of Robert Hallowell Gardiner. This story was updated in 2021.