|Feke Painting of James Bowdoin|
Bowdoin was perhaps not as popular as the governor who served before him,–John Hancock–but that may have had something to do with his apparent absence during the American Revolution. He was suffering from what modern historians believe was tuberculosis and was involved with the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, despite his illness. When he felt better, he got right back into politics on a bigger scale. As such, he belongs among the list of Boston patriots, regardless of how undecided and sick he may have been during the war.
James Bowdoin was born in Boston to Hannah and James Bowdoin on August 7, 1726. He was technically James Bowdoin II and is currently referred to as such, though his family didn't distinguish between the two in that manner. His parents were wealthy, thanks to his father's endeavors as a merchant. Bowdoin was able to attend Boston Latin and go on to further his education at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1745.
Three years after graduation, James Bowdoin married Elizabeth Erving. Two children came from the marriage, one of which was James Bowdoin III, who played a role in starting Bowdoin College in Maine in his father's memory.
James Bowdoin was an active, thoughtful man. He was the owner of extensive tracts of land. He dabbled in being a merchant, science, politics and maritime rescue. He was the founder of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, of which he was the first president. He was a member of the Massachusetts Humane Society–the name of which today is associated with animals but that focused on rescuing survivors of shipwrecks during the American Revolution. He earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. Clearly, he was a well thought of man in many circles.
As for political endeavors, Bowdoin was involved with the royal government in Massachusetts as a member of the governor's council from 1756 to the start of the American Revolution. He was off for a brief period when he became vocal about his shifting political views. In 1770, he wrote, "A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre" about the so-called Boston Massacre. By then, he was clearly siding with the rebels.
Whether it had anything to do with his later political leanings or not is unclear, but James Bowdoin did befriend Benjamin Franklin. It is not known precisely when they met, but Bowdoin did know Franklin at least two years before his graduation from Harvard College. The two had an interest in science in common and would send letters back and forth about Franklin's experiments with electricity.
After the American Revolution ended, James Bowdoin recovered from a long flare up of tuberculosis and ran for governor of Massachusetts. He lost to John Hancock. Five years later in 1785, John Hancock resigned for the first time and James Bowdoin became governor. It is generally thought that Bowdoin lost the first campaign by a large margin because of his seeming disdain for the lower class. When Shay's Rebellion took place, he had no sympathy for the affected "common" people. This hurt his campaign, but clearly, he was popular enough to win the second time. Therefore, it may have simply been John Hancock's popularity that killed Bowdoin's first campaign. He was in office for two years before John Hancock became governor yet again. Bowdoin passed away just three years later on November 6, 1790.