Connections: The Revolutionary War of Woodbridge Little, part I

In 1774, the town of Pittsfield voted to condemn the Boston Tea Party, describing its participants as "irregular and in defiance of the good and wholesome laws of the land and to be detestable and [against] all good order."

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century. Consider the following:

Tip O’Neill, the Democrat from Massachusetts and former Speaker of the House, famously observed, “All politics is local,” and from time to time, all local politics is motivated by propinquity, duplicity, and long memory.

During our War for Independence, Woodbridge Little first strategized, then fought, fled, and capitulated in order to survive. His enemy was not the British; his enemy was his fellow citizens of Pittsfield, and Woodbridge Little never forgot.

This lesser-known story of the Revolutionary War can only be understood if you set aside the Hollywood version. The Revolutionary War did not begin as an enthusiastic call to arms to which all rallied without fear or ambivalence. In the beginning, fewer than you think rallied and many more were ambivalent.

Between 7 and 10 p.m. on December 16, 1773, an estimated 116 Patriots poured tea into the harbor at Boston. Early in January 1774, Pittsfield responded.

The town called a meeting “to consider the behavior of a number of disguised persons who entered onboard the vessels in which tea was, hoisting up the chests, and emptying the tea into the sea.”

This was not admiration; it was condemnation.

“All of which conduct is by these inhabitants [of Pittsfield] looked upon to be irregular and in defiance of the good and wholesome laws of the land and to be detestable and [against] all good order.”

According to historian J. A. E. Smith, the document was written by Woodbridge Little. It was signed and presented at Pittsfield town meeting by prominent citizens William Williams, David Bush, Eli Root, J. Brown, and Little.

On January 19, 1774, the town voted to support the petition after adding: “At the same time we are as averse as any of the patriots in America to being subjected to a tax without our own free and voluntary consent.”

Little was a Pittsfield attorney and a Tory. You might think that was the reason he gave for condemning the Boston Tea Party, but Little was too clever for that. If Pittsfield was “as averse as any patriot” to taxation without representation, how did Little convince them to condemn the Boston Tea Party?

Early on, Colonists, both Tories and Whigs, did not want a war or an independent nation. They wanted a negotiation. That negotiation with the Crown would result in better terms and conditions for the Colonies. Violence and destruction of property, Little suggested, were unlikely to lead to the desired reasonable discussion.

Furthermore, Pittsfield was keeping a close eye on its purse. A good lawyer, Little counseled the town to make clear the Boston Tea Party was “unjustifiable conduct not duly authorized.”

Otherwise Little suggested the townspeople should fear that “the owners of said tea will doubtless seek compensation [and we] as inhabitants may be obliged to pay them large sums.”

Little got his petition passed by condemning the Tea Party, supporting opposition to taxation, and creating fear of a suit for damages. In 1774 that was enough for Little to be a Tory and remain in the town’s good graces. Before the year was out that would change.

In 1774 the “intolerable acts” were imposed on the Colonies by the Crown. The Americans no longer believed in peaceful resolution and declared war. Tories in America became enemies of the state, and they fled from Massachusetts to avoid imprisonment.

“Whereas Major Israel Stoddard and Woodbridge Little, Esq., both of Pittsfield, in the county of Berkshire, have fled from their respective homes, [they] are justly esteemed the common pests of society, and the incurable enemies of their country…”

Little, the “common pest,” would be imprisoned if he returned to Massachusetts, and impoverished if he stayed away. The property of Tories who fled was seized and sold to Patriots. Though an “incurable enemy,” Little was still a savvy attorney, and he found a middle ground. He arranged to return, thereby retaining his property, and avoid prison by swearing allegiance to the cause.

The First congregational Church in Pittsfield.
The meeting house in Pittsfield designed by Charles Bulfinch,and built in 1791. Congregants would meet in such a building.

Was Little’s desertion of the Crown and conversion to patriotism sincere? The man who could challenge that was the Reverend Thomas Allen.

The process of forgiveness by the town followed closely the process for forgiveness and reinstatement into the Congregation Church: confession, sincere repentance and re-acceptance into the religious community.

There was some indication — or was it an accusation — that Little remained in communication with Tories in New York. There were some murmurings that Allen made it a longer and harder process for Little than for others. However, finally, “Woodbridge Little, Israel Stoddard, Moses Graves, J. Hobby, J. Weston, and Joseph Clark made their appearance before the town and upon their confession, declaration, and taking of oath to the United Independent States of America, were received as the friends of these States.”

The Tory attorney dodged the bullet, kept his mouth shut, and was received into Pittsfield life. However, Woodbridge Little never forgot.

(To be continued)