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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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Colin Nicolson on Gov. Francis Bernard, 20 Dec.

On Thursday, 20 December, at 3:00 P.M., the Colonial Society of Massachusetts will host a talk by Colin Nicolson, Lecturer in History and Politics at the University of Stirling in Scotland. The topic will be “Negotiating British Imperialism: Gov. Francis Bernard and the Stamp Act Crisis 1764-67.”

Nicolson wrote a biography of Bernard called The “Infamas Govener”, which no doubt confuses search engines. He’s editing the governor’s correspondence, being published in five volumes.

Bernard was royal governor of New Jersey for two and a half years and then of Massachusetts for nine years, August 1760 to August 1769. He had been gone from North America for half a decade by the time the Revolutionary War began. Yet he was probably one of the British Crown officials most involved in bringing it on.

When Bernard arrived in Massachusetts, he appears to have tried to work with local politicians. He put his sons in local schools instead of sending them home to Britain and invested in local land. (Indeed, he might have been too eager for local land.) But Bernard had the misfortune of following Gov. Thomas Pownall, who had become popular with the Boston merchants. His arrival corresponded with a shift at the Boston Customs office, making officials stricter about collecting duties.

Then Bernard decided to appoint Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson as Chief Justice of Massachusetts, setting aside Pownall’s promise to give James Otis, Sr., the next seat on the high court. Otis’s son James quit his royal appointments and allied with the Boston merchants to challenge Customs officers’ power to search for smuggled goods through writs of assistance.

Over the next few years Bernard tried to help enforce the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend duties, and otherwise promote the London government’s powers and priorities. When those laws produced violent protests, he recommended bringing troops to the town in 1768. He vetoed several opposition politicians’ seats on the Council, only to see towns elect many of them to the House instead. He demanded that the General Court rescind its letter of protest to other colonies and then dissolved the legislature when it refused.

But what really made Bernard infamous came in 1769, when someone in London leaked selections of his correspondence to government superiors. Those letters complained about Boston’s politicians, merchants, and mobs, and recommended changes to the Massachusetts charter that would have strengthened his hand. For New England Whigs, Bernard’s letters confirmed their suspicion that he was conspiring against their traditional rights. When he sailed away in August 1769, Boston celebrated. Nonetheless, the name of Bernardston, incorporated in 1762, still honors him.

Nicolson’s talk addresses the middle of Bernard’s Massachusetts career. The Stamp Act wasn’t his idea, but he did what he could to enforce the law and then to respond to the violent protests against it. Could any other royal appointee have done better? Or did Bernard’s personal choices and style exacerbate the situation?

The Colonial Society’s headquarters is at 87 Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill. This is a free event, with limited seating.

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