J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Worcester “Instructs” Its Representative

The latest issue of the online history magazine Common-place, devoted to elective politics, includes an article by Ray Raphael on instructions to elected officials. After a town or county meeting chose a delegate to a colonial legislature or Congress, the voting body would often appoint a committee to draft “instructions” on how their representative should vote on the big issues of the day. These documents went into the official records of the electing bodies, and sometimes were meant to be published as well.

Ray highlights what he calls an “Instruction War” in Worcester during the summer of 1774:

At the town meeting on May 16, citizens selected Joshua Bigelow to represent them in the General Court and appointed a committee to prepare a draft of his instructions. Six of the seven committee members belonged to the town’s radical caucus, the American Political Society (A.P.S.), and these men utilized the genre of “instructions” to hurl invectives against British imperial policies as liberally as they would in a political broadside.

They also minced no words in demanding that Bigelow (also an A.P.S. member) carry the good fight on their behalf. “We, in the most solemn manner, direct you, that whatever measures Great Britain may take to distress us, you be not in the least intimidated...but to the utmost of your power resist the most distant approaches of slavery.”

They placed Bigelow under “the streckest injunction” not to approve compensation for the tea dumped into the Boston harbor; they directed him to conclude the impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice [Peter] Oliver for accepting a salary from the Crown; they “earnestly require[d]” him to use his “utmost endeavors” to convene “a general Congress” of the committees of correspondence from throughout the colonies. (This convention, four months later, would evolve into the Continental Congress).

Although the town’s Tory opposition vehemently opposed this political diatribe, the instructions carried the day, unaltered.

But opponents did not concede. They gathered forty-three signatures on a petition that called for a special town meeting to reassess the previous vote, and according to law, the selectmen were required to honor this petition. So on June 20 both sides mustered their forces for a showdown.
Ray’s article describes more back-and-forth politicking, and the final outcome is preserved graphically in the records of the Worcester town meeting.
Ray also writes about this political dispute in his book The First American Revolution.

TOMORROW: Concord’s instructions in 1773.

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