“Do you Think to Stand Four Regiments?”: Conflict & Authority in the Streets of Occupied Boston

by Nicole Breault, University of Connecticut, Louis Leonard Tucker Alumni short-term research fellow at the MHS

“God damn you, do you know who you hail damn you, you have no right to hail an officer!”[1]

In November of 1768, Edward Ireland, a constable of Boston’s night watch, heard this phrase many times. Perhaps too many times. It had been only a month since the King’s regiments sailed into the harbor, disembarked, and paraded 1200 soldiers down Long Wharf and up King Street. Almost overnight, Boston had become a garrisoned town. Royal authority stationed a military presence to remedy the political and economic unrest in Boston over recent imperial policies. The newly arrived officers viewed their authority as superior and understood local officers such as the watch to have no power to question their movements or actions. Contests over who had authority in occupied Boston ensued.

Each night of the year the nightly watch acted as the apparatus of local government as the town slept. Beginning at 9:00 PM in the winter and 10:00 PM in the summer, they walked their assigned routes until daylight. Nightly watches observed and listened, watching for signs of fire, distress, and disorder. Part of a larger peace-keeping network of justices of the peace and day constables, watchmen were not endowed with powers of arrest but used their discretion to aid individuals in need and detained those violating the law or social norms. At the end of each month, the watch constable of each unit submitted a report to the town selectmen.

In November 1768, three constables of the watch filed monthly reports and formal complaints with the town selectmen charging that officers of the regiments used strong language and threats of violence to challenge watch authority. John Martin of the South End watch reported that one of his watchmen was “asolted,” struck by an officer of one the regiments for inquiring who was walking at night.[2] Benjamin Burdick of the Townhouse watch filed a complaint regarding the threats officers made against their watch unit. Edward Ireland of the Dock Square watch listed five separate incidents, two in his complaint and four in his monthly report. The complaint written by Ireland is located here in the MHS collection. One of many encounters he reported that month, Ireland described an incident outside of the door of his watch house as such:

the officer swearing and cursing to us we had no business to hail an officer and said do you think to stand four regiments, god dam you? We have four regiments here and we will burn you all to ashes in a moments time, we will send you all to hell and damnation in a minute and drew his bayonet and stabbed it against the door and said god dam you come out here. what do you think to do with us, times is not now as they have been.[3]

Edward Ireland Reports of the Dock Square watch, Boston
Reports of the Dock Square watch, Boston, Mass., 1768-1774

By filing a formal complaint, Ireland not only sought redress but also asserted the legitimacy of his authority and that of existing governing structures. The narrative in Ireland’s complaint paints a vivid picture of the tension that existed at street level and of the threat that occupation posed to the watchmen’s jurisdiction. Setting a watch in mid-18th-century Boston hinged on discretion and rigor and times of political crisis challenged the watchmen’s ability to govern the diverse needs of the town at night. Violent encounters such as this one brought the night watch into contact with agents of empire, making them visible players in a wider political conflict. The officer of the regiment was correct about one thing: for the night watch, times were certainly “not now as they have been.”

[1] Edward Ireland Return: November 1768, MS Bos. 11, Box 13, Boston Town Records, BPL.

[2] John Martin Return: November 1768, MS Bos. 11, Box 13, Boston Town Records, Loose Papers, BPL.

[3] Reports of the Dock Square watch, Boston, Mass., 1768-1774. Ms. S-858, MHS, Boston, MA.