By Lance Boos, MHS Malcolm and Mildred Frieberg Short-Term Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in History, Stony Brook University
I have been incredibly lucky to spend several weeks during the summer and autumn of 2019 doing research at the Massachusetts Historical Society for my dissertation on the musical marketplace of Revolutionary and Early National America. In course of my work, I came across an unusual request in a 1769 letter from three Boston wardens (Thomas Walley, John Joy, and Henry Hill) to Colonel Alexander Mackey, commanding officer of the British troops stationed in the city. Following what they described as a “Gross affront & insult” toward a citizen of Boston, they urged Mackey to forbid his troops from performing music during the Sunday morning changing of the guard.1
The incident that sparked the request had occurred on the previous Sunday, when, as the the letter described it:
a Young Gentleman an Inhabitant of the Town, appeared at ye relieving of ye Main Guard who being desired by one of ye Wardens to retire showed a willingness to Comply, but Capt. Molesworth of ye 29th Regiment, who was Capt. of ye Guard that was to be relieved, & an other officer Came to him & Insisted upon his tarrying to hear the Musick, Saying he would protect him, & Immediately ordered the fifes to play (in derision, as we Suppose,) what by them is Commonly Called ye Yankee Tune.2
In this account, the soldiers doubly antagonized the young gentleman first by instructing him to leave, and then by summoning him back for an insulting musical performance of what was very likely “Yankee Doodle.” The etymology of “Yankee Doodle” and the origins of its melody have been extensively studied, but the lack of pre-Revolution documentation make definitive answers elusive. However, scholars generally agree that British soldiers used the tune to mock American colonists until Americans defiantly appropriated it during the Revolutionary War.3
The letter gives greater weight to the conclusion that it was deployed mockingly by the British, confirms that this dynamic had developed at least six years prior to Lexington and Concord, and adds an important dimension about the actual use of the song and how the colonists initially responded to that derision. The writers couched their complaint in supplication, both opening and closing the letter by appealing to Mackey’s politeness and magnanimity. They went on to note that it was the music “which draws great Numbers of persons together,” thus alarming or annoying the soldiers. This point frames their request not solely as a concession to the Bostonians, but as a practical method of easing tensions and preventing further disruption. Yet they return to imploring Mackey to “protect us from any Insults from ye officers or soldiers,” reminding him of his soldiers’ antagonistic conduct.
If the letter genuinely sought to quell growing hostilities between Bostonians and soldiers, it simultaneously advanced an argument against military occupation and deflected attention away from the possibility that the soldiers’ behavior had been provoked by unruly Bostonians. Less than a year before the Boston Massacre, this possibility can not be discounted. The letter is, of course, a one-side account of the incident, and while the writers detailed the soldiers’ offenses right down to the song, they provided no information about what precipitated the initial order for the “young gentleman” to depart.
By calling for the cessation of all music during the Sunday morning guard change rather than just banning “Yankee Doodle,” the writers reveal that this was about more than a single song. They very likely understood the importance of the fife and drum to military formalities, and may have seen this as a means of undermining the military’s stature in the city by curtailing its ability to use music as a performance of its authority, tool of insult and intimidation, or vehicle for militaristic sentiment. I have not yet found any sources indicating how, or even if, Mackey responded, although it is unlikely that he acquiesced. He returned to England two months later, and maintained that the troops had been treated quite poorly by the Americans.4
This incident shows that tension between the soldiers and the people of Boston was clearly palpable, and “Yankee Doodle” was an obvious point of discord. Music, more than just the song itself, was a venue of contestation through which Bostonians and royal officials debated the role and behavior of soldiers in the city, and more broadly the relationship between colonial citizens and the empire.
1 Letter to Col. Alexander Mackey [manuscript copy], 17 June 1769. Misc. Bd. 1769 June 17
3 The turning point for the song was likely the British retreat from Lexington and Concord in 1775. However, J.A. Leo Lemay makes a convincing argument that despite its subsequent derisive use by British soldiers, the song was American rather than British in origin and likely dates from the 1740s. See Oscar Sonneck, Report on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Hail Columbia,” “America,” “Yankee Doodle” (Washington, DC : Government Printing Office, 1909), 79-156; S. Foster Damon, Yankee Doodle (Providence: Brown University Library, 1959); J.A. Leo Lemay, “The American Origins of ‘Yankee Doodle.’” The William and Mary Quarterly 33 no. 3 (1976): 435-464; Kenneth Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution: Painting, Music, Literature, and the Theater in the Colonies and the United States from the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington, 1763-1789 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 140-144, 275-290; and Henry Abelove, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Massachusetts Review 49, no. 1/2 (2008): 13-21.
4 Edith Lady Haden-Guest, “MACKAY, Hon. Alexander (1717-89), of Strathtongue, Sutherland.” The History of Parliament Online. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/mackay-hon-alexander-1717-89 (Accessed 07 December 2019.