5. The 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
, 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
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.
, 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