James Bowdoin

An American merchant and politician, James Bowdoin (1726-1790) participated in the political agitation before the American Revolution. His most important role, however, was as governor of Massachusetts during Shays' Rebellion.

James Bowdoin was descended from a Huguenot refugee who had arrived in the British colonies in the 1680s. His father was an enormously successful merchant and, at the time of his death in 1747, may have been the wealthiest man in New England. Throughout his political career, Bowdoin continued his mercantile activities, and some of his political stands were clearly related to the restrictive impact of British policies upon his functions as a merchant.

Bowdoin began his political career in 1753. He served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and later in the Council of the General Court, where he generally opposed British policies. He aided in drafting many protests against British actions, and he corresponded with friends in England, asking for relaxation of British restrictions on colonial trading activity.

In 1774, as the Revolution approached, Gen. Gage denied Bowdoin his place in the council. During the same year Bowdoin served in a variety of Revolutionary organizations, but ill health caused him to decline service in the Continental Congress. He attended the convention which drafted the new state constitution in 1780. While many of the ideas embodied in that constitution were the work of John Adams, Bowdoin served as president of the convention and chairman of the drafting committee.

Along with the other states, Massachusetts was confronted with numerous problems in the 1780s: the adjustment of trade afflicted by war, the load of war debts, and the establishment of new lines of political authority in difficult economic circumstances. The crisis deepened toward the middle of the decade. John Hancock, the first governor of Massachusetts under the new constitution, retired in 1785; and Bowdoin, though lacking a popular majority, was chosen as his successor by the legislature. He attempted to meet the public debt, to strengthen the powers of the Confederation over foreign commerce, and to bring pressure against British restrictions on American trade through retaliatory legislation.

Bowdoin's major problem was in dealing with resistance in Massachusetts to foreclosure proceedings against indebted farmers. When courts were prevented from meeting by armed men, Bowdoin sent militiamen to deal with the "rebels." In small-scale engagements in early 1787, the state militia rapidly put down a rebellion led by Daniel Shays. Those who feared the spread of disorder throughout the weak union that existed under the Articles of Confederation viewed Bowdoin as a hero. But in Massachusetts he lost political ground and was easily defeated by John Hancock that same year. Hancock pardoned those rebels still under threat of the death penalty. Bowdoin's last public service was in January 1788 as a delegate to the state convention which ratified the new constitution for the United States.

Bowdoin's suppression of Shays' Rebellion gave him a reputation as an upholder of public order; and Shays' Rebellion itself intensified interest in a stronger union among the states. Yet his image as a partisan of the merchants and creditors may have contributed to the coming of that rebellion.

Further Reading on James Bowdoin

Aspects of Bowdoin's career are discussed in Thomas Hutchinson's 18th-century History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (new ed. 1936). Herbert S. Allan, John Hancock, Patriot in Purple (1948), includes biographical material on Bowdoin. Marion L. Starkey, A Little Rebellion (1955), is a study of Shays' Rebellion. See also Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., Commonwealth History of Massachusetts, vol. 2 (1928) and vol. 3 (1929), and Robert J. Taylor, Western Massachusetts in the Revolution (1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Kershaw, Gordon E., James Bowdoin II: patriot and man of the enlightenment, Lanham: University Press of America, 1991.