In 1775, donations poured in to help the tradespeople and artisans who were thrown into poverty by the Siege of Boston and the Port Act of 1774.
The siege took a heavy toll on working-class patriots who didn’t or couldn’t escape in time. Warehouses stood empty. School all but stopped. Old North Church was pulled down for fuel and Old South was used by the British for a riding school. For nine dreary months, patriots were closely watched with suspicion and thrown into prison for slight offenses.
Instead of handing out money to the impoverished working class, the practical Bostonians spent it on ways for them to make money.
In a Sept. 12, 1775 letter to a ‘gentleman from New York,’ William Cooper described efforts to alleviate the misery of the newly poor. Cooper was a merchant who served as Boston’s town clerk for 49 years. He often hosted a club of leading patriots at his home in Brattle Square. Cooper wrote,
SIR: Last week I received your favour of the 26th ultimo, and showed your letter to some of the Committee appointed to receive donations and employ the poor.
I have to observe that our streets are supported by a common tax, and that the town did not pass any vote directing the Committee to lay out their money upon the streets, but left it entirely to their best judgment.
Enclosed you have a list of the names of the gentlemen appointed by the town for this important trust, who meet every day, Saturday and Sunday excepted.
I am directed by them to give you the following account of their proceedings. The Committee, after several consultations, notified the inhabitants that they should attend at Faneuil Hall, every afternoon for ten days, (Lord’ s day excepted) for all classes of people, suffering by the Port Bill, to lay their circumstances before them, that they might be employed, if possible, in their several departments; accordingly a great number appeared, of all classes of mechanicks and labourers, but of the latter a much greater number, whose circumstances called for immediate relief.
Several plans were proposed, but none that could be put into immediate execution and employ the mere labourer so effectually, as mending the pavements, upon which it was proposed to the Selectmen, who are overseers of the streets, that if they would undertake to mend the streets, the Committee would assist them in paying part of the labour, out of the donations collected for the employment of the poor; which was agreed to, and a great number of our most indigent inhabitants enabled to earn their bread; but being sensible that the money thus laid out could not make any returns for future use, they have for some time desisted. The Committee procured leave from the town to lay out a brick-yard upon the Neck, in which they employ upwards of eighty men a day in making bricks, which they are in hopes to sell for their cost. The Committee have agreed to build a house for sale, as soon as materials can be collected, and several vessels will be set up as soon as the ship-builders are out of some present employ, given them by private gentlemen, and the stocks shall be sufficient to undertake them; but, that the employment may be as universal as possible, the Committee have purchased a stock of wool, flax, and cotton, to be distributed to all the spinners, and are erecting looms for weaving them into baizes and shirt-cloth; they also distribute leather to the shoemakers and take their manufacture in pay, and with them, in part, pay labourers. The Committee are in daily expectation of a quantity of nail-rods, with which they hope to employ most of the blacksmiths through the winter; and they have reason to expect a quantity of hemp, which will enable the ropemakers to recall their journeymen.
It is hoped this short account of the proceedings of the Committee of Donations will meet with the approbation of the donors.
It must be acknowledged the Committee are charged with an important and laborious trust, it is, therefore requested that the most charitable construction may be put upon their conduct by those abroad, as it is impossible that any stranger can be acquainted with the various difficulties that attend this business. As the Committee have no interest but that of the publick to serve, they earnestly request the advice of all friends respecting the discharge of their commission, and engage that every plan proposed shall have a serious attention. It may not be improper to observe that the Committee have opened a regular set of books, in which they record all their proceedings, and give credit to the several Provinces, towns, and particular persons from whom they receive any donations.
The town of Charlestown being in the same predicament with this town, it has been mutually agreed, that seven per cent. of all the donations should be delivered to the town of Charlestown.
The number of persons, of all ranks, thrown out of employment, by the sudden and universal stagnation of business is very great. The Committee confine their employ to such as are immediately affected by the Port Bill, while the regular overseers take the usual care of the town’ s poor. I am, with great respect, sir, your most obedient servant,
P. S. The Committee are about publishing to the world an account of their proceedings thus far. If some part of your collections should be invested in iron-rods for nails, it would be agreeable to the Committee. Your care in collecting subscriptions for this distressed town will be gratefully noticed and acknowledged.
With thanks to American Archives, Documents of the American Revolution