Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Politics, Honor, and Self-Defense in Post-Revolutionary Boston: The 1806 Manslaughter Trial of Thomas Selfridge

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Politics, Honor, and Self-Defense in Post-Revolutionary Boston: The 1806 Manslaughter Trial of Thomas Selfridge

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: In 1806 Boston a political dispute between a Federalist lawyer and a prominent Democratic Republican leader degenerated into a question of an affront to personal honor, resulting in a bloody confrontation at one of the town 's busiest commercial streets. The manslaughter trial that followed set afar-reaching standard of legal principle in murder and manslaughter cases relating to the self-defense plea. This case was cited well into the late nineteenth century. Besides its obvious political implications, the trial became a mirror of the times. It illustrates the legacy and cultural traditions of the American Revolution relating to the notion of the right to bear arms and the frontier expression of individuality and personal honor. Dr. Tager is Emeritus Professor of American History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The killing of Charles Austin on August 4, 1 806, in Boston resulted from a political quarrel between his father, Benjamin, a Democratic Republican, and a Federalist lawyer, Thomas Selfridge. Noted legal scholar John D. Lawson argues that the shooting:

caused such excitement and passion among [Boston] citizens as few homicides have since done either in this country or in Europe. The men belonged to different political parties; the killing was the result of political temper and the victim was an innocent one, for it was the alleged sins of the father, which in this case were visited upon the son.1

This groundbreaking case, fully detailed in the trial record, became the legal authority for the plea of self-defense and was cited well into the late nineteenth century.2 The political and cultural milieu in which the trial occurred, specifically the legacy of the American Revolution and popular notions of honor, had a direct bearing on the case.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the town of Boston underwent dynamic physical improvements and flourishing commercial growth. The focus of expansion was no longer in the waterfront areas but in the newly developing Tremont/Park Square/Beacon Hill section. A heady population growth of 25,000 in 1800, up from 18,000 in 1790, put severe pressure on living and commercial space. New commercial structures and magisterial architectural designs by architects such as Charles Bulfinch transformed the landscape. Bulfinch built mansions for the rich, such as Federalist leader Harrison Gray Otis, and warehouses and retail buildings for other merchants, in addition to completing the new state house in 1 798. Nonetheless, Boston was still a pedestrian town. Somewhat isolated from the mainland on a narrow peninsula into Boston Harbor, it was shaped, wrote historian Thomas H. O'Connor, like a "small, half-inflated balloon."3 It was in this cramped community, in which every person of means knew or was acquainted with everyone else of the same class, that a feud arose that ended in violence.

Benjamin Austin, a well-to-do lawyer and merchant, chairman of the Democratic Republican Party of Boston, gave a political dinner on July 4. When the bill was delivered from the caterer, a tavern keeper, Austin thought it too high and refused to pay it. The caterer hired lawyer Thomas Selfridge, a Federalist from the rival political party, to bring suit against the Democrats, but subsequently settled his dispute with Austin without Selfridge's knowledge. This placed Selfridge in an awkward position, especially when friends alleged that Austin was circulating a story that Selfridge had sought out the caterer and "instigated" the lawsuit for the sole purpose of embarrassing the Democratic Party. Selfridge felt this was a smear on his honor and professional reputation. He wrote a letter to Austin, delivered by his friend Thomas Welsh, asking that this statement be publicly retracted. Austin denied ever making such a statement, though he said an unnamed lawyer told him about the charge. Selfridge "was not content" with Austin's reply, and sent Welsh back to Austin to demand a published retraction. …

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