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January 16, 1788

February 15, 2021 - 5 minute read


The Federal Pillar

On January 9, as delegates to the Connecticut ratifying convention were voting to approve the proposed Constitution, other delegates were gathering at the State House in Boston, Massachusetts, for their own ratifying convention. The decision was made in less than six days in Connecticut, but the convention in Boston would not adjourn for a month. For the first time, advocates of the new Constitution would face formidable opposition and an uncertain outcome. Still shaken by the spring 1787 uprising in western Massachusetts known as Shay’s Rebellion, a general sentiment prevailed that change was in order. But what kind of change and who would benefit bitterly divided the descendants of those who had first stepped into the New World at Plymouth in November 1620 and those who had resisted the British at Lexington and Concord in April 1775.

On the fourth day of the convention, January 13, Benjamin Lincoln, a delegate from the town of Hingham, wrote a letter to his old comrade-in-arms, George Washington. “We have been four days in convention organizing the house,” he began, “attending to disputed elections, etc. These things being pretty fully over, we expect tomorrow to have the proposed Constitution read and to proceed afterwards upon a discussion of it.” Although a knowledgeable and respected leader in Massachusetts politics, Lincoln admitted he was “now as much at a loss to know what will be its fate as I was the first day we met.”

Lincoln had played an important role at the battle of Yorktown and surrender of the British under General Charles Cornwallis on October 19, 1781. That afternoon, thousands of defeated British soldiers had marched three-quarters of a mile through a “double file of French and American troops to a field outside Yorktown. There they surrendered their weapons, then marched back into Yorktown.” Baron Ludwig von Closen, a German in service to the French, reported that the British “showed the greatest scorn for the Americans, who, to tell the truth, were eclipsed by our French army in splendor of appearance and dress, for most of these unfortunate [American] persons were clad in small jackets of white cloth, dirty and ragged, and a number of them were almost barefoot.” In admiration, he concluded that “these people are more praiseworthy and brave to fight as they do, when they are so poorly supplied with everything.”

Observing the British troops march through the gauntlet to lay down their arms, the Marquis de Lafayette, commander of the Continental Light Infantry, noticed the British troops were deliberately turning their heads to the left to avoid looking at the Americans who had finally defeated them. In an instant he ordered his fifers and drummers to strike up “Yankee Doodle.” Startled by the outburst of music, the enemy troops snapped to the right, forced to face their victors.

While negotiating the terms of surrender, Cornwallis had requested that it be done with traditional military honors. However, a year earlier those honors had been denied to American troops by British General Sir Henry Clinton as General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered at Charleston. Now, at Yorktown, Washington replied to Cornwallis, “The same honors will be granted to the surrendering army as were granted to the garrison at Charleston.”

Humiliated at his defeat, Cornwallis feigned illness and designated his second-in-command, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, to attend the surrender ceremony. Washington, astride his favorite horse, Nelson, and the compte de Rochambeau, head of the French Expeditionary Forces in America, were waiting at the end of the line as O’Hara approached and offered his sword to Rochambeau. Realizing acceptance of the sword would be an affront to the Americans fighting for their independence, Rochambeau pointed to Washington, but Washington also refused to accept the sword. Instead, he directed that it be presented to his own second-in-command, General Benjamin Lincoln.

Lincoln had joined the local militia and became active in politics in and around Hingham at an early age, holding various elective offices, including membership in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, organized after the royal governor dissolved the Assembly. Following his military service and the final victory at Yorktown, Lincoln was appointed by the Confederation Congress as the first United States Secretary of War.

Later, in 1786, when a series of armed protests by aggrieved farmers erupted in western Massachusetts, culminating in an assault on the federal armory in Springfield the following January, Governor James Bowdoin raised a privately funded militia. He appointed General Benjamin Lincoln at its head. Known as Shay’s Rebellion, the uprising sparked alarm throughout the United States, fueling the argument that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient to meet such crises and the urgent call for a convention to amend the Articles.

For more than 150 years, Massachusetts town meetings had been the proving grounds for government based on sovereignty of the people. Freeholders not only expressed their opinions about public issues, but they also elected members to the legislature, passed regulations for local governance, and assessed local taxes. The effectiveness of town meetings was underscored when the British prohibited them from meeting without the royal governor’s approval. During the revolution, the towns were consulted about measures to react to British policy; whether Massachusetts should support independence; drafting a new state constitution; and approving the Articles of Confederation. Town meetings were sacred to Massachusettsans.

On October 18, 1787, Governor John Hancock delivered a copy of the Constitution to a joint session of the Massachusetts legislature. A week later, the legislature called on its towns “to convene as soon as may be” to choose delegates to meet at the State House in Boston on the second Wednesday in January for the purpose of “assenting to and ratifying” the Constitution.

Between November 19 and January 7, 246 towns in Massachusetts and 52 in Maine (then part of Massachusetts) held town meetings, resulting in the election of 370 delegates who would, in the opinion of many, determine not only the fate of the Constitution, but of the Union itself.

The town of Hingham elected Benjamin Lincoln as one of its delegates. Determined to play his part to support ratification, at times his attention was diverted to other pressing personal matters. As his January 13 letter to Washington revealed, Lincoln’s son Benjamin was “exceedingly sick;” his days appeared to be “fully numbered.” In his next letter to Washington a week later, he lamented the loss of his “beloved son…an agreeable companion and sincere and confidential friend.”

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