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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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Roots of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council

The Massachusetts legislature is now considering a bill to do away with the Governor’s Council, which is a sort of third legislative chamber for the state, because of recent embarrassing and unproductive confirmation hearings, as well as long-time questions of what that small body is good for.

As the Boston Globe reported back in February, the Governor’s Council has been “drawing new scrutiny” all year. That seems to be a euphemism for “Is Charles O. Cipollini crazy, bigoted, or a crazy bigot? Or is the standard for members of that board already so low that he fits right in?”

This statement in that February article caught my eye:

The council, as it exists today, is a distant relative of a Colonial council established in 1628 as a political check on the Royal Governor. The state’s original 1780 constitution created an unelected council that helped the governor run the state, and the panel became an elected body in 1855.
That didn’t seem right, given that one of the Patriots’ biggest complaints about the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774 was that it created an unelected Council. Not to mention that back in 1628 the governor of Massachusetts was elected locally; the “royal governors” arrived with the new charter in 1692.

Under the royal charter in force from that year until 1774, each year’s Council was chosen by the outgoing Council members and the House members voting together (i.e., each man had one vote). The appointed governor could then “negative,” or veto, any new Council member.

For the following year the Councilors who survived that process advised the governor, and could block him from taking some actions. The Council was also the upper chamber of the legislature, so the Massachusetts General Court could not pass laws without its consent. (Even after both legislative houses approved a law, the governor or privy council in London could veto it, with no possibility of override.)

Throughout the 1760s the Massachusetts Council sparred with Gov. Francis Bernard. The legislature chided his supporters by not reelecting them to the next year’s Council. He tried to “negative” his worst opponents, only to discover that he was making more. There were leaks and counterleaks. With the Massachusetts Government Act, Parliament replaced the troublesome elected Council with a group of designated Loyalists, as in most other North American colonies.

Because those men were summoned by a writ of mandamus, Massachusetts Patriots called them the “mandamus Councilors” or “new-fangled Councilors.” In the summer of 1774, crowds turned out in the hundreds and thousands to demand that those men resign their appointments. Most did, or moved into army-patrolled Boston. The Council met only a few times between September 1774 and March 1776. Meanwhile, in mid-1775 the rest of the colony elected its own Council under the old rules, with no governor to interfere.

With that conflict so recent, I thought, the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 must have gone back to elected Councilors. So I checked out the original text, drafted mainly by John Adams (shown above). Sure enough, it did stipulate that the Council be elected—though not directly by voters, or with every voter participating. And the governor wasn’t empowered to veto any of them.

TOMORROW: How the Governor’s Council was originally elected.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good to know that not much has changed in the Commonwealth!
Plus ca change...

John L. Smith said...

JL - Yikes. I just read over the full text of the Mass. Constitution of 1780, as supplied by the link to the National Humanities Institute's post, and the NHI would have done well to have put their version through Spell Check before posting it! Colonial words not withstanding, there are many, many "just plain typos", whether in 18th or 21st century!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there are a bunch of obvious typographical errors. I suspect the eighteenth-century spellings and legal terms got in the way of the spell-checking step.

Anonymous said...

Excellent writing. Thanks! Kit