Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 5

Tuesday. 12th. CFA Tuesday. 12th. CFA
Tuesday. 12th.

The weather was so warm I concluded to postpone my departure until Afternoon. My morning was not very profitably spent. Conver-359sation and a little German with La Beaumelle’s Life of Madame de Maintenon, which is a spirited work enough. After dinner, just as I was getting ready to start a heavy thunder cloud in the South threatened so fearfully that I concluded to remain until after it passed over. This was so late that I concluded to remain. Mr. Townsend of Boston, Mr. Courtney a gentleman from South Carolina and Price Greenleaf were here.1

Walter Hellen who went to town this morning, brought intelligence of the destruction of the Ursuline Convent at Charlestown by a mob who went up by concert late last night and after warning out the defenceless female inmates to the number of fifty or sixty, deliberately set fire to all the premises and burnt them to the ground. This has been occasioned directly by a story of the abduction of a girl which has been circulating for a day or two. What a comment upon our free institutions! What an indelible disgrace to the famed liberality of New England! The town of Boston being much excited about it, there was a meeting today at Faneuil Hall to express public opinion.2 Townsend stayed until late and for a wonder, conversed with considerable force and clearness.

1.

J. C. Courtney, “keeper of a female School at Charleston South Carolina” (JQA, Diary, 12 Aug.), subsequently wrote an account of the visit he and Alexander Townsend made to JQA and published it in Niles’ Register for 11 Oct. 1834. It has been reprinted in The Adamses at Home, Boston, 1970, p. 41–43.

2.

The burning of the Ursuline Convent seems to have been the first major expression of a spirit of lawlessness and violence that would characterize the social scene in Boston for the next thirty years. The waves of immigration had begun to rise. By 1830 Boston and Charlestown had a Catholic population estimated at 10,000. The Ursuline Convent was one of the institutional expressions of the influx. Rumors of suasions and constraints practiced within its walls had built up for a year, fanned by allegations made by two unbalanced communicants who had sought refuge outside. Public authorities failed to heed warnings of trouble and provided no protection against the mob of native laborers or “Boston Truckmen.”

When news of the destruction spread, there were strong public fears of acts of retaliation by the angered Irish. Provisional arrangements were made to call out the militia when needed, and in order to reassure the aggrieved Catholic population that official and law-abiding Boston shared their sense of outrage, the meeting of prominent citizens in Faneuil Hall was promptly arranged. Resolutions were passed deploring the act; Mayor Lyman appointed a committee to investigate and to employ “every suitable mode” of bringing the offenders to justice. But JQA found “a singular inertness in the public authorities” (Diary, 13 Aug.). The committee’s report made subsequently was an able one. Several persons were identified and brought to trial, but only one conviction was obtained, and that of a minor participant, later released at the instance of the Bishop. (Winsor, Memorial History of Boston , 3:238–240, 519, 521–524; for an account of the affair in its broader setting of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feeling stimulated by rising immigration, see Darling, Political Changes in Mass. , p. 162–166, and the works cited there.) A contemporary view of the Convent is reproduced in the present volume; see also p. xviii–xix.

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