Friday, July 12, 2024

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THEN & NOW: The first challenge to British judicial rule in America

On August 16, 1774, a large crowd from Great Barrington and surrounding towns gathered at the court house. They blocked the doors and refused admittance to a British-appointed judge and his associates.

During the next two years, events leading up to the 250th anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence (July 2026) will be recognized. One of the earliest challenges to the British crown occurred in Great Barrington in 1774. Local historians call it “the first open resistance to British judicial rule in America.” Two of the key words within this phrase—“open” and “judicial”—will be clarified below.

A similar quote was first written by town historian Charles Taylor in 1890. That year, his words were engraved into the stone monument shown above in a 1905 hand-colored photograph. Mathias Lux, a local stone carver, crafted the monument from dolomite stone pried out of the Searles-Hopkins quarry on Quarry Street. The six-foot obelisk was placed near the northeast corner of the Town Hall lawn. A similar image taken circa 1910 is shown below. Both images show the monument crowned with ivy, a popular planting at that time.

THEN: The monument is fully crowned with ivy in this circa 1910 photograph. Photo courtesy of Gary Leveille.

The monument also states, “Near this spot stood the first court house of Berkshire County, erected 1764.” That building extended into what is now the wider intersection of present-day Main and Castle Streets. There are no known illustrations of the structure, and it was likely torn down before the advent of photography.

On August 16, 1774, a large crowd from Great Barrington and surrounding towns gathered at the court house. They blocked the doors and refused admittance to a British-appointed judge and his associates. The judge was later jailed in Litchfield County, Conn. Some students of history would argue, however, that this was not the first protest against the British, citing the Boston Tea Party, which occurred earlier. The rebuttal is found in Charles Taylor’s carefully chosen words: “open resistance.” The Boston Tea Party was a clandestine challenge to British authority. The resistance in Great Barrington was organized and conducted out in the open for all to see. Present-day local historians also add the word “judicial” to the claim, which provides additional clarity.

But, wait! There’s more. This court house was also the place where African American slave Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) secured her freedom. Enslaved in the John Ashley household in Sheffield, she (and fellow slave Brom) successfully petitioned district court in Great Barrington for their freedom in 1781.

Unfortunately, the so-called “First Resistance” monument was struck by a car a few decades ago and severely damaged. A new monument made of granite was installed in 2004, and it is also pictured below. Remnants of the old monument are buried beneath it.

NOW: The replacement monument is shown in this present-day photograph. Photo by Gary Leveille.
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