Reflections on a worn gravestone on Copp’s Hill

Sometimes, glimpses of an old gravestone or a memorial trigger historical memory, compelling one to pause and ponder their significance. In the Copp’s Hill Cemetery stands one such marker, a weather-beaten stone that bears the name of Captain Daniel Malcolm.

The Boston Irishman died in October 1769, some six years before “the shot heard round the world” ignited the American Revolution. The merchant would not have the opportunity to stand with Sam Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, and other future rebels against the Crown, but he played a pivotal role in standing up to the British before his death.

Wrote the historian John Bernard Cullen: “The stone over it [Malcolm’s grave] …is of hard blue slate, two inches thick, and showing about a yard above the ground. The inscription is a just statement of his merits and reputation; but an additional wreath is added to his laurels by the vindictive bullet-marks of the British soldiery, who used this stone as a target, and peppered the gravestone of the man who feared nothing less than a British bloody-back.”

In 1768, Captain Malcolm’s “Irish temper” was up. Red-coated troops on Boston’s cobblestones and dirt paths muttered the word “rebel” at Malcolm and other Boston merchants. In response came growls of “tyranny” from colonists.

The simmering tensions boiled over on June 10, 1768, when the sloop Liberty, owned by Hancock, slid into Boston Harbor and docked at Hancock’s wharf (later Lewis Wharf) with a load of wines from Madeira, Spain. Shortly after the merchantman moored, customs official, or “tide-waiter,” Thomas Kirk strode aboard the Liberty, sat with the ship’s master in his cabin to sip rum punch with him, and waited for the crew to offload the sloop’s cargo. Then, as was the practice with all incoming cargo, the tide-waiter intended to inventory the goods and tally the port duties the shipowner had to pay.

Port officials had long allowed colonial merchants to declare only a portion of imported goods and to unload the rest of the cargos without duty payments. The Crown, strapped for cash, however, had ordered customs officials to halt the practice and charge fees on all imported goods.

Hancock had no intention of paying the duty. He ordered the Liberty’s captain to hold the official captive until the wine had been unloaded and removed from the docks. At about 9 p.m., the sputtering customs official was restrained for what would turn into hours. He was not released until the cargo was long gone. Hancock had flung the gauntlet down at the Crown. Malcolm was ready to do the same.

A pair of customs officers – Collector Joseph Harrison and Comptroller Benjamin Hallowell – strode aboard the sloop the next day and seized her for “violation of the revenue laws.” As word spread along the docks, a throng of enraged colonists gathered alongside the Liberty, Malcolm quickly taking the lead.

The crowd’s anger soared as Hallowell, according to Cullen, “marked the vessel with the broad arrow, and signaled to the warship Romney as she lay anchored in the stream.”

The Romney’s commander, Captain Comer, dispatched longboats manned by armed sailors and Royal Marines with orders to tow the Liberty from the dock at which the frigate’s cannons were aimed. As the boats neared the wharf, the crowd surged, with Malcolm standing alongside the sloops and shouting his protests. Cullen notes: “Malcolm…said [the Liberty] was safe where she was, and no officer nor anybody else had a right to remove her. The boats arrived, and the excitement increased. Malcolm and the other leaders of the populace threatened to go on board and throw the frigate’s people into the sea. Suddenly the sloop’s moorings were cut, and before anything could be done to prevent it she was gone from the wharf.”

As the customs officials foolishly waded into the crowd rather than leaving in one of the Romney’s longboats, the mob followed them, roughed them up, broke the windows of Hallowell’s house, and seized a customs longboat. Malcolm and the others dragged it to the Common, smashed it to pieces, and set the wreckage ablaze. The two officials fled to Castle William, fortunate to be alive.

Order would be restored in the following days, but the tension would percolate inexorably in the coming years. Cullen writes that Malcolm’s “fellow citizens appreciated him, and showed their confidence by selecting him as their representative in the troublesome and dangerous crises in which he was an actor; but there is every reason to believe that his proper sphere was not diplomacy, but active and aggressive resistance.”

It is safe to speculate that the Irishman who was laid to rest at Copp’s Hill in October 1769 would have stood front and center in the Patriot cause in 1775.

A Post-Papal Visit Note: Prominent Congressman and practicing Catholic Paul Ryan wasted little time in paying attention to Pope Francis’s appeal for the House and the Senate to help the poor and the afflicted. The lights of the papal jet had barely vanished on the horizon before Ryan and his acolytes were once again fighting to strip health care from people able to receive it with help from the government. Ryan vowed to “stop Obamacare in its tracks and start working toward a more affordable, higher-quality, patient-centered system.” Kids with preexisting conditions that can bankrupt familes? The oh-so-Catholic Ryan and his crowd don’t care. Denial of health care for preexisting conditions for anyone of any age? More than okay for Ryan and company. Caps on health insurance? Bring ‘em back, say the Wisconsin rep and his toadies on the Ways and Means Committee. If they cared one whit, they’d have a plan, an idea, something.

It would be laughable if it were not such a blatant lie that the Republicans in Congress will “start working” for a replacement for Obamacare. They have had years and years to craft a replacement or even a viable alternative, but there is no genuine plan. None. When the pope urged Congress to remember the Golden Rule, it seems that Ryan and his ilk remembered half of it – “Do unto others…”