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, December 25, 2010

“He Would Much Rather Sit on Christmas-Day...”

On Monday, 19 Dec 1774, the British Parliament debated “raising the Supply granted to his Majesty”—i.e., enacting taxes, in this case a land tax. The country’s landowners were, understandably, against raising this charge, so the House of Commons agreed to Lord North’s proposal to keep it at “three Shillings in the Pound.”

Then a member named David Hartley (1732-1813) rose to speak. Representing Kingston upon Hull, he was one of the radical Whigs opposed to the government’s American policy, meaning the Boston Port Bill, Massachusetts Government Act, and duties enacted since 1767. He insisted that Parliament had to deal with the crisis in the Massachusetts Bay colony, where nearly all the army troops on the continent were holed up in Boston.

This description of Hartley’s speech comes from a record of Parliamentary activity published in 1775 (which leaned toward the Whigs):

Mr. Hartley rose, and in a mild, sensible speech, enlarged upon the very extraordinary conduct of Administration concerning American affairs.

He said the accounts from that country were truly alarming; that the Resolutions of the Continental Congress evidently proved that the people were determined not to submit to the late Acts passed in relation to America, nor to any other of a like complexion; that the Troops now stationed at Boston, and the inhabitants of that Town, had no means of procuring subsistence but by Sea, or from the country; that either method was now equally difficult, as the Harbour would be frozen up, and the land carriage, even if subsistence was to be had, rendered impracticable, as the country would be covered with snow; and that, under such circumstances, the situation of the Troops would be no less deplorable than that of the miserable inhabitants.

He continued to say, that he was not well versed in sieges; but if he understood right, he took it that the Town of Boston was surrounded by General [Thomas] Gage with lines of circumvallation, and that such being the very critical state of things, respecting both the situation, the temper, and disposition of the military and the natives, he submitted it to the gentlemen on the other side how they could reconcile it to the duty they owed to the Nation in their publick, or to their constituents in their private capacity, to agree to a long adjournment, while things remained in so dangerous and alarming a state, without taking any one step to avert the numerous and fatal mischiefs which they portended.

For his part, he affirmed solemnly, he would much rather sit on Christmas-day, and continue to do so, de die in diem [from day to day], than go to the country [i.e., adjourn] in so critical a season, without at least agreeing to some measures, though they should extend no further than prevention.
According to Nathaniel Wraxall, who entered Parliament in 1780, Hartley was by no means a stirring orator:
The Rockingham Party had not among them a more zealous adherent; but in Parliament, the intolerable length, when increased by the dullness of his Speeches, rendered him an absolute nuisance, even to his own friends. His rising always operated like a dinner bell.

One day, that he had thus wearied out the patience of his audience; having nearly cleared a very full House, which was reduced from three hundred, to about eighty persons, half asleep; just at a time when he was expected to close, he unexpectedly moved that the Riot Act should be read, as a document necessary to elucidate, or to prove, some of his foregoing assertions.

[Edmund] Burke, who sat close by him, and who wishing to speak to the Question under discussion, had been bursting with impatience for more than an hour and a half; finding himself so cruelly disappointed, bounced up, exclaiming, “The Riot Act! my dear friend, the Riot Act! to what purpose! don’t you see that the mob is already completely dispersed?”

The sarcastic wit of this remark, in the state of the House, which presented only empty Benches; encreased by the manner and tone of despair, in which Burke uttered it; convulsed every person present except Hartley, who never changed countenance, and insisted on the Riot Act being read by one of the Clerks.
Be that as it may, I found that Hartley’s argument had a certain resonance this month, when American legislators also argued about whether to stay in session, not on Christmas but in the days after Christmas. And ended up finishing before the holiday after all.

Back in 1774, the House of Commons “adjourned for Christmas recess” on Friday, 23 December, after the king approved the renewed act “granting to his majesty certain duties upon malt, mum, cyder and perry” as before. The land tax was completed in February. Lord North and his ministers maintained their American policy, and war began in April.

During the war, North’s government had to raise the land tax, which cost it support. After years of fighting and the defeat at Yorktown, a new ministry in London changed policy and started to negotiate a withdrawal from those thirteen colonies. That government appointed David Hartley to represent Britain at the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

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