Shortly before Marblehead’s 1806 Town Meeting, residents discovered a pamphlet in their mailboxes titled, “An Address to the Inhabitants of Marblehead, Relative to the Very Bad Policy of the Town.” This piece scrutinized the town officials’ expenditures and criticized how town affairs were managed.
Most notably, selectmen were lambasted, described as “men without talents, information, or integrity; wholly engrossed in their self-importance and unrestrainedly passionate.” The pamphlet also accused them of staunch partisanship.
Many readers suspected that Federalists were behind the pamphlet. For context, the Federalist Party, initially formed in opposition to the Democratic-Republican Party during President George Washington’s terms, remained influential until its members transitioned into the Democratic Whig parties in the 1820s.
The pamphlet asked, “What have politics to do with our town’s affairs? Some, however, constantly gossip foolishly in public and sing their own praises. They’d want you to believe that if someone disagrees with your politics, they can’t be trustworthy.” This led locals to believe the Federalists were using the pamphlet to diminish trust in town officials. But the pamphlet backfired, causing uproar instead.
Residents passionately debated the pamphlet’s more contentious sections and sought retribution against its anonymous author. The distribution method — late at night — and the lack of an author or printer’s name only added to the mystery.
The controversy came to a head during the Town Meeting on March 17, 1806. A citizen read excerpts from the pamphlet, condemning its anonymous writer, printer and even the Federalist Party. The assembly voted for the pamphlet to be burned by town leaders. Before any official action, however, some residents collected copies and set them ablaze in a public bonfire.Days later, the bonfire participants faced a grand jury for unauthorized destruction. Meanwhile, Marblehead’s citizens showed their trust in their leaders by reelecting them. They also intended to establish a nine-member committee to identify the pamphlet’s authors. However, no indictments were made, and the committee was never constituted.