Adams Papers

Boston Feby. 1763.
[from the Diary of John Adams]

Boston Feby. 1763.

This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment.1 He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room. There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town. Uncle Fairfield,2 Story, Ruddock, Adams,3 Cooper, and a rudis indigestaque Moles of others are Members. They send Committees to wait on the Merchants Clubb and to propose, and join, in the Choice of Men and Measures. Captn. Cunningham4 says they have often solicited him to go to these Caucas, they have assured him Benefit in his Business, &c.5

Propr[ietor]s of Wrentham v. [Metcalf.]6

2 Levinz. Scroaggs [Scroggs] C.J. It ought not to be a general Rule, that Members of Corporations shall or shall not be a Witness. But where the Int[erest] is inconsiderable they may.

Thatcher. It is a Rule that the Heir apparent shall not tho a Rem[ainde]r man shall be admitted because the last has no present Interest. A Guardian shall not be a Witness in Cause for his Ward because he is Party to the suit.

Auch[muty]. Proprs. Worcester v. Gates, the Inhabitants of Worcester were Admitted on Argument.

1Thomas Dawes, a bricklayer and militia officer, lived in Purchase Street, which ran eastwardly off Sumner close to the South End wharves (Thwing Cat.). This was therefore the South End “caucus”; see note 5, below.

2Presumably a relative of Samuel Adams, whose mother was born Mary Fyfield—a name spelled in a great variety of ways. JA frequently used “Uncle” or “Aunt” for an older person vaguely related to himself.

3This is the first mention in the Diary of Samuel Adams the politician, with whom JA was to be closely associated for a dozen or fifteen years to come despite sharp temperamental differences between the two men. JA and Sam Adams had the same great-grandfather, the 1st Joseph Adams of Braintree, son of Henry Adams the immigrant. Sam Adams’ grandfather was John, a younger brother of JA’s grandfather, the 2d Joseph of Braintree (Bartlett, Henry Adams of Somersetshire description begins J. Gardner Bartlett, Henry Adams of Somersetshire, England, and Braintree, Mass.: His English Ancestry and Some of His Descendants, New York, 1927. description ends , p. 58).

4James Cunningham, glazier and militia officer; his wife was JA’s Aunt Elizabeth (Boylston) Cunningham (NEHGR description begins New England Historical and Genealogical Register. description ends , 7 [1853]: 147, 149; scattered Cunningham papers in MHi).

5The foregoing description, though only hearsay, is so vivid as to have become famous. According to William Gordon, writing before 1788, the Boston “caucuses” had been long established by 1763. “More than fifty years ago, Mr. Samuel Adams’s father, and twenty others, one or two from the north end of the town, where all the ship business is carried on, used to meet, make a caucus, and lay their plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power. When they had settled it, they separated, and used each their particular influence within his own circle” by distributing ballots for the candidates agreed upon, &c. (The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America, London, 1788, 1:365, note). Thus Sam Adams in some measure inherited his influence in these local political associations, the equivalent of ward clubs today, and at the time this Diary entry was written he was beginning to use that influence to fan the sparks of protest against royal authority into what became organized rebellion. The best account of the Boston caucuses, which were soon to emerge as the Sons of Liberty, is in Esther Forbes, Paul Revere description begins Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, Boston, 1942. description ends , p. 119 ff.; see also John C. Miller, Sam Adams, Pioneer in Propaganda, Boston, 1936, passim. More detailed study of their membership and activities is still needed.

Elsewhere in the note cited above, William Gordon remarked that the terms caucus and caucusing were commonly used in Boston, “but my repeated applications to different gentlemen have not furnished me with a satisfactory account of [their] origin.” There is still no satisfactory account though numerous explanations have been proposed. John Pickering, who compiled the first collection of Americanisms, suggested that since the meetings Gordon described were held where “ship-business [was] carried on,” the word caucus “might be a corruption of Caulkers, the word meetings being understood,” and he found that this was a common opinion in Boston and Salem (A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases ... Peculiar to the United States of America, Boston, 1816, p. 57). Whether correct or not, Pickering’s explanation is certainly more plausible than that preferred by the latest authority, the Dictionary of Americanisms, namely that caucus derives from medieval Latin caucus, after Greek kaukos, a drinking vessel.

The early spellings of the word render this learned explanation extremely doubtful. Before Gordon’s History no example spelled in the form that became standard in the 19th century has been found. Both the Dictionary of Americanisms description begins Mitford M. Mathews, ed., A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, Chicago, 1951. description ends and the earlier Dictionary of American English cite the form “West-Corcus in Boston” from the Boston Evening Post, suppl., 19 Aug. 1745, but the former authority rather surprisingly considers it probably “without significance.” To the contrary, it would seem to be very significant, since a little later the caucus clubs were closely associated with districts of the town. The next recorded use is in a letter from Oxenbridge Thacher in Boston to Benjamin Prat in New York, without date but certainly written in 1762: “we daily see many of your predictions accomplished respecting the connections and discords of our politicians, corkusmen, plebeian tribunes, &ca., &ca.” (MHS, Procs. description begins Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections and Proceedings. description ends , 1st ser., 20 [1882–1883]:48). In the present double use by JA both spellings are clearly “Caucas” in the MS, though “corrected” by CFA in printing the Diary. Two other early examples are worth citing. In the satirical song on James Otis entitled “Jemmibullero,” published in the Boston Evening Post, 13 May 1765, this line appears: “And Jemmy’s in the CAUCAS, and Jemmy’s in the REPS.” In a letter to James Warren, 22 Dec. 1773, JA wrote: “Yesterday, the Governor called a Council at Cambridge. Eight Members met at Brattles. This no doubt was concerted last Saturday, at Neponsit Hill [Governor Hutchinson’s residence in Milton], where Brattle and Russell dined, by Way of Caucass I suppose” (MHi: Warren-Adams Coll.). In the only text of this letter by JA that has been published, the spelling is regularized to “caucus” (JA, Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 9:334).

6Defendant’s name omitted in MS, but this case, an action of ejectment in Suffolk Superior Court, Feb. term, 1763, is reported more fully in Quincy, Reports description begins Josiah Quincy Jr., Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Superior Court of Judicature of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, between 1761 and 1772, ed. Samuel M. Quincy, Boston, 1865. description ends , p. 36–37.

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