To get an idea of the how intense the feuding between the British loyalists and the Colonial rebels was in 1774 in New England, you could spend a few hours scouring the history books at the library. Or you could go down to Cape Cod and get lunch and a beer in Sandwich, Mass. at the Dan’l Webster Inn, once the site of the Fessenden Tavern. From there, you could walk the less-than-a-quarter-mile to the old Newcomb Tavern by the Town Hall – a walk that in 1774 would have taken you directly from rebel territory into loyalist territory. And on the way you could imagine the events of October 10 of that year.
On that day in Sandwich, six men from some of the most well-known families in town were dragged by a mob to the town green and forced onto a scaffold.
The men had, days earlier, attacked a brash, 33-year-old critic of British rule. Now the crowd seemed poised to extract revenge. The men had already been fined in court for the assault, but the rabble demanded more. The attackers were ordered to condemn their own actions, apologize profusely and declare themselves cowards.
The choice appeared clear. Stand up for the British Crown and take the consequences, or grovel. All six men caved. Such was the strength of British support in 1774 Massachusetts.
If anyone had any doubt that Britain was losing its grip on the American Colonies, their eyes should have been opened by the public shaming of Benjamin Bourn, John Jennings, Nehemiah Webb, Samuel Smith, Thomas Smith and Samuel Dillingham, names that will be familiar in Sandwich even today.
The central figure in the drama was Nathaniel Freeman, the victim of the attack. He was an unlikely man for the crowd to rally around. Freeman was a young doctor, an outspoken Whig and a blowhard. But he was destined to play a significant role in the Revolutionary War that was gestating in towns like Sandwich.
Sandwich, Mass., Divided
By 1774, the old system of colonial rule was stalling out in America. There simply were too few rewards to go around, and too many young men looking to rise up in the world.
Sandwich, along with most of America, was well divided over the issue of British rule. On the Tory side were the militant supporters of the king, as well as more moderate supporters who believed in British rule, but had some grievances with the way they were treated.
On the Whig side, there was also a large, moderate group. These men and women believed in the principles that the Whigs espoused, but felt there was too much to lose in provoking England. And then there were the Whig extremists, a group that included Freeman. These men, generally younger and with less to lose, were pushing the country toward open confrontation with Britain.
Even within families it was common to see divided loyalties. And in a small town like Sandwich, political debate was impossible to avoid, especially in the taverns.
The Newcomb Tavern was steeped in Tory history. Built in 1693, it was run as a tavern by John Newcomb. After his death, his widow Bathsheba married Timothy Ruggles, a prominent royalist who would later be driven from the colonies altogether and vilified.
Ruggles had left Sandwich long before 1774 to settle a large land grant in western Massachusetts, and the ownership of the tavern passed to John Newcomb, Jr., also a royalist.
Less than half a mile away stood the Fessenden Tavern, now the site of the Dan’l Webster Inn. Its proprietor, Benjamin Fessenden, was a rebel. He later served on the town’s Committee of Correspondence – the rebels’ shadow government that coordinated their activities– and the Fessenden was the site where the rebels gathered to make their plans.
By 1774, the debate had turned bitter. In that year, England was dead set on propping up the interests of the British East India Company, which was owned by a collection of wealthy merchants whose primary purpose was exploiting India’s resources for trade.
Working hand in glove with the English government, the company was finding it excruciatingly expensive to maintain control over India. The British Parliament came up with a plan that would help out this well-connected company while not directly tapping the public till. It exempted the East India Company of having to pay duty on tea it exported to the American Colonies.
The idea was to steer customers to the now cheaper tea of the East India Company and away from competitors. And when the competitors did manage to make sales, a percentage of their sales would flow through to the government in the form of taxes.
The Colonists had seen this type of taxation strategy used before to provide competitive advantage to those businesses with the best political connections. The lifespan of this game was essentially over in the Colonies.
This economic strategy worked in the early days, somewhat at least, because Colonists could be rewarded with land in return for their labor and consumption of preferred British goods. The local merchants – hand-picked to represent the large companies—could prosper and be counted on to support the Crown.
But as desirable land grew scarcer and the merchant classes grew larger, more people were dependent on commerce for their living and unwilling to prop up British businesses at the expense of their own. From this anger grew the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773.
The response to the Tea Party in 1774 was swift. England ordered the port of Boston closed, stripped local governments of their power to elect or appoint local officials and provided that Britain could remove people accused of a crime to England for trial rather than have them tried in America.
These provocations to the young men of Sandwich were outrageous. While the older, more settled families might be happier to avoid confronting the King, the younger generation of Whigs, along with some of their more idealistic elders, wanted to fight.
In Sandwich, these hotheads elected Nathaniel Freeman as one of their leaders, and he proved an effective, if abrasive, choice.
The Boiling Point
In September, the town created a Body of the People to give direction to the protest. This quasi-legislative body put order to the anger and directed Freeman and others to oppose Britain more directly. In a well-orchestrated bit of political theater, Freeman and a group of at least several hundred supporters took to the steps of the Barnstable Courthouse and blockaded the judge from entering. They declared they were preventing the courts from enforcing British tyranny.
Though not the first courthouse to be so blockaded by protesters, it was an early example of this direct action against Britain. The rebels were jubilant. On their way home, they accosted a peddler and demanded he give up any tea he was selling. Finally persuaded that he had none, the rebels went on their way. Upon returning to Sandwich, however, they discovered that while they were out of town the loyalists had taken down the rebel’s Liberty Pole, erected as a symbol of opposition.
It didn’t take long to arrest the offenders, the usual suspects being easy enough to identify. They were hauled to the Liberty Pole and forced to confess their crimes. Officers in the militia who participated in the event were forced to resign their commissions and pay damages for the pole.
This insult to the Tories, however, would not go unanswered. They fastened their anger on Freeman, and devised a plan.
After several days, the Tories sent word to Freeman that a friend of his was in need of medical care. Though he suspected danger, he ventured out to visit his friend and made his way past the Newcomb Tavern. It was upon his return that a group of Tories set on him. Using first a blade that was hidden in his cane and, when the blade broke, the cane itself, Freeman fought off as many attackers as he could. In the end, however, he was outmanned. Falling to the ground, his attackers continued to beat him, inflicting a wound to his head that would create a scar he carried for life.
Again, as in the case of the Liberty Pole, the criminals were easy to find. And the local judge quickly adjudicated their case the next day, fining them and sending them home.
The attack on Freeman was hardly the first such skirmish in Sandwich. Previously, well-connected men had attacked others for their loyalties, but were lightly punished because of their status. In the case of Freeman, they may have thought they were entitled to the coddling that others had received. They were wrong. The rebels decided that the court’s ruling was insufficient, and they dragged the six men to the Liberty Pole where they faced their humiliation.
The message was clear. The six men might just as easily have been hanged. It was a dangerous time to be a Tory in Massachusetts, and getting more dangerous every day.
Nathaniel Freeman went on to greater exploits during the Revolution itself. In 1775 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He served in the Massachusetts militia, becoming a brigadier general by 1781, and led troops in Rhode Island. He fathered 20 children, one of whom went on to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He never stopped his outspoken pursuit of liberty, taking part in notable feuds with both Tories and moderate Whigs. And it appears he settled several scores with his attackers, both as a member of the Committee of Correspondence, which investigated local loyalists, and as a legislator in enacting the legislation in 1778 that banished a host of notable Tories from the commonwealth. Of the six who were identified as attacking him, Nehemiah Webb, was banished in 1778 and John Jennings was imprisoned in 1778 for disaffection to the popular cause.
Though he had tangles with several Bourns, and several were expelled from the colony, Benjamin Bourn, the ringleader of the attack, apparently remained in Sandwich.
Freeman’s prickly reputation remained intact long after his death. Though his service to the country was appreciated, Amos Otis, in writing his Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families, recalled that Freeman was: “a man of talent, very decided in his opinions, and impetuous in action. Like all men of such a temperament, he made many enemies. The Tories denounced him, in the bitterest of bitter terms. These denunciations never affected his reputation as a man or a patriot, but other causes did. He was not a meek man. He would not tolerate the least opposition, and consequently made many personal enemies. Among the aged who knew him, few speak in his praise.”
In addition to sources identified in the article, this post owes much to Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution, Lorenzo Sabine, and The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of Barnstable County, and of its Several Towns, Frederick Freeman.