On 13 January 1769, seven young men, several of them recent Harvard graduates, the sons of the Plymouth’s wealthiest merchants, politicians, lawyers, physicians, and slaveowners, “having maturely weighed and seriously considered the many disadvantages and inconveniences that arise from intermixing with the company at the taverns in this town of Plymouth” determined to form a gentleman’s club “to increase not only the pleasure and happiness of the respective members, but also will conduce to their edification and instruction”, and therefore “do hereby incorporate ourselves into a society by the name of the Old Colony Club.”
Gavel used by the Old Colony Club from 1769-1773 (Photo by Patricia McDonnell for the Boston Globe)
The founding members of the Old Colony Club were:
- 33 year old President of the Club Isaac Lothrop (1735-1808)
- His brother, 28 year old Secretary of the Club Thomas Lothrop (1740-1794)
- 27 year old Steward and Treasurer of the Club Elkanah Cushman (1741-)
- 20 year old John Watson (1748-1826, Harvard 1766)
- 22 year old Edward Winslow Jr. (1746-1815, Harvard 1765)
- 31 year old Pelham Winslow (1737-1783, Harvard 1753)
- 23 year old John Thomas (1745-1823, Harvard, 1765)
At their first meeting on 13 January 1769, they agreed to a series of rules for the club. They agreed to meet every Wednesday night and to arrive no later than “candle-lighting” time and stay no later than eleven P.M., and that guests could be invited or new members approved only with unanimous agreement. They agreed to pay dues for supplies.
Five additional members were elected between 1769 and 1772.
Member John Thomas built “Old Colony Hall” on Market St. as a club headquarters, which opened to members on 19 April 1769. Typically two outside guests were invited to visit, although occasionally larger groups of men were invited, especially if Plymouth Court was in session that week.
One of the founding rules the Old Colony Club agreed to on 13 January 1769 was: “If it should so happen that any differences or quarrel should arise at any meeting of the Club between any of its members, it shall be settled and adjusted by the majority of the others then present, and the aggressor (by the determination of said majority) shall make such acknowledgement and satisfaction as shall be enjoined by him, and no member shall make mention of any such quarrel or dispute at any time or place out of Club.” Small quarrels may have successfully been mediated within the first several year’s of the club’s existence, but their harmony was not to last.
The Old Colony Club organized the first Forefathers’ Day in honor of the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth in December 1620, and celebrated it on 22 December 1769. The Club arranged for an elaborate public ceremony, which brought a new awareness to the club. An outdoor ceremony was held publically during the day, followed by a more private evening celebration at the club. They hosted a Thanksgiving-inspired lunch, and in the evening Dr. Lazarus LeBaron provided the toast. Having invented a new holiday, the Old Colony Club continued to celebrate Forefathers’ Day annually until 1773, when tensions became too tense between the Patriot and Loyalist members of the club.
By 1772, the Old Colony Club had received positive feedback from the town of Plymouth about their recurring Forefathers’ Day celebration, and there was a desire that the affair should become more public-oriented, since the bulk of the celebration at that time was largely limited to behind-closed-doors activities of the Old Colony Club members and their invited guests. So on 15 December 1772, the Club “voted to invite William Watson Esq., Capt. Elkanah Watson, Dr. Nathaniel Lothrop, Capt. Gideon White, Dr. Lazarus LeBaron, Thomas Foster Esq., George Watson Esq., Edward Winslow Esq., Thomas Mayhew Esq., James Hovey Esq., Deacon John Torrey, James Warren Esq.” to the next meeting to help prepare Forefathers’ Day. Many of the men invited had recently joined Plymouth’s new Committee of Correspondence, or supported their recently published resolves which listed grievances against the Crown’s unjust activities against the American colonies.
On 13 November 1772, numerous Plymouth residents elected to support the Boston Pamphlet and voted to form a Plymouth Committee of Correspondence. The Plymouth Committee of Correspondence was formed in November 1772, and its members all had deep ties to the Old Colony Club: it consisted of Old Colony Club President Isaac Lothrop, Old Colony Club Secretary Thomas Lothrop. It also included several Old Colony guests: James Warren Esq., Capt. Elkanah Watson (brother of Isaac and Thomas Lothrop), William Watson, Thomas Mayhew Esq. (the father of Club member Thomas Mayhew Jr.), Deacon John Torrey.
The next month, at the club’s meeting on 6 January 1773, the Club members who were present included a mixture of Patriot and Loyalist sympathies – Isaac Lothrop, Elkanah Cushman, John Watson, Pelham Winslow, John Thomas, Thomas Mayhew. Their invited guests were Dr. Lazarus LeBaron, Thomas Foster Esq., William Watson Esq., Deacon John Torrey, Dr. William Thomas, John Russell, George Watson Esq., James Warren Esq., James Hovey Esq., Capt. Gideon White, Dr. Nathaniel Lothrop, and Ephraim Spooner. All voted to invite Rev. Charles Turner of Duxbury to give the 1773 Forefathers sermon. Rev. Turner accepted the invitation on 21 January 1773. His letter was “Directed to the Gentlemen of the Members of the Old Colony Club, Plymouth. To be left at the Hon. James Warren Esq.”
In a moment of ironic foreshadowing, Club Secretary Thomas Lothrop wrote in January 1773 “with gratitude let it be acknowledged, that as a society and as individuals we have enjoyed health, harmony, and happiness without interuption.”
But the Old Colony Club’s “harmony and happiness” came quickly to an end. Almost immediately after Thomas Lothrop wrote that prophetic message, he stopped recording minutes for the Club, as his duties on Plymouth’s Committee of Correspondence picked up across 1773. Partisan divisions became more clear throughout the year, and rancor grew amongst the members of the Club.
By 24 November 1773, none of the Patriot members were attending the club anymore. A new Loyalist secretary of the club picked up where Thomas Lothrop had left off in the minute-book, however, to record their outrage at a new development:
“James Warren Esq., John Torrey, and Thomas Jackson came into our said Club, and said that they were a sub-committee (appointed by the Committee of Correspondence and Communication of this town) for the purpose of informing this Club of the determination of the said Committee of Correspondence relative to the celebration of the next 22d of December, and to request that the Club would join with and conform thereto.”
Remaining members Pelham Winslow, Elkanah Cushman, John Thomas, Edward Winslow, John Watson, Cornelius White, along with invited guests Samuel Prince of Boston and Capt. Gideon White were enraged by the Committee of Correspondence’s request. They did not wish the celebration of Forefathers’ Day to be taken over by an outside group (despite the fact that the Committee of Correspondence included founding members of the Old Colony Club), and they did not want Forefathers’ Day to be associated with Patriot-leaning messaging. They wrote a scathing response to the Committee’s request. And member Edward Winslow Jr. gathered up signatures from the remaining Club members, and numerous other Loyalist-leaning Plymoutheans to sign his “Plymouth Protest” on 13 December 1773. Winslow’s protestors became targets of Patriot ire after the Protest was published in Boston newspapers in the immediate wake of the Boston Tea Party.
But the club was in a bind, since they had already planned a year in advance the Forefathers’ Day celebration and had invited Patriot-leaning Rev. Charles Turner of Duxbury to lead the public sermon (which they now regretted). They had also already agreed in advance that 1773 would be a year in which the public was more welcome to offer input into the celebration, to allow more inclusivity. So the remaining Loyalist members of the Old Colony Club begrudgingly went ahead with 1773’s Forefathers’ Day, along with input from the Patriot-leaning Committee of Correspondence. However, the Old Colony Club collapsed as an organization in the immediate aftermath of the celebration.
John Watson’s grandson inherited the original records of the Old Colony Club, and wrote regarding the end of the club: “The existence of the Club was drawing to a close. The Revolutionary War was coming on, and party lines were forming. More than one half the members of the Club were Loyalists; and the concluding meetings in November and December 1773 show that they alone were controlling its fortunes. With the close of that year came the end of the Club.”
When the Revolutionary War began in earnest in 1775, lines were clearly drawn for the members of the now-defunct Old Colony Club.
PATRIOT MEMBERS OF THE OLD COLONY CLUB
- Isaac Lothrop. In 1774, Isaac Lothrop served as Plymouth’s delegates to the First Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
- Thomas Lothrop served as a colonel in the Revolutionary War.
- Thomas Mayhew Jr. served as captain of a company of Plymouth men under Theophilius Cotton in the Revolution.
- Alexander Scammell – he was the highest ranking American killed during the Battle of Yorktown.
LOYALIST MEMBERS OF THE OLD COLONY CLUB
- Pelham Winslow served with the British army and died during the Revolutionary War.
- Elkanah Cushman continued to work for the Boston Custom House in the face of mass protest, and evacuated with Gen. Gage in 1776 and died in exile.
- John Thomas died in exile in Nova Scotia.
- Edward Winslow Jr. was the author of the infamous 1773 Plymouth Protest and served as the muster master general of the Loyalist forces.
- Cornelius White “joined the British and was lost at sea in 1779 while ferrying supplies from Halifax, Nova Scotia.”
NEUTRAL MEMBERS OF THE OLD COLONY CLUB
- John Watson: “His sympathies in the Revolution were with the Loyalists, of whom there were many in the Old Colony; but he took the oath of allegiance and adhered to his country.”
- Oakes Angier. “Represented Bridgewater in the House, 1776, 1778, 1779, despite his somewhat equivocal political stance.” [Legal Papers of John Adams, Volume 1]