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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Thursday, November 23, 2017

“Our Civil and Religious Rights and Liberties”

In the last, posthumously published volume of his History of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson claimed that “the continuance of civil and religious liberties had constantly, perhaps without exception, been mentioned” in royal governors’ Thanksgiving proclamations.

Therefore, in using that language in his 1771 proclamation, Hutchinson said he was merely following tradition. So any objections to his phrasing had to be an artificial controversy.

But what does the historical record say? Gov. William Shirley’s Thanksgiving proclamation for 1754 [all these proclamation links lead to P.D.F. files] and Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips’s for 1756 do indeed include some variant of the phrase about civil and religious liberties.

Gov. Thomas Pownall (shown here), a favorite of the local Whigs, used such language consistently during his short administration:
  • Declaring a Thanksgiving on 27 Oct 1757, “to continue to the People of this Province their civil and religious Rights and Privileges.”
  • 23 Nov 1758, “to support Us in our Civil and Religious Rights and Liberties.”
  • 29 Nov 1759, “to continue to us the Enjoyment of our civil and religious Rights and Liberties.”
At first Gov. Francis Bernard adhered to that tradition:
  • 27 Sept 1760, for war victories “whereby the future Security of our Civil and Religious Liberties is put into our own Hands.”
  • 27 Nov 1760, mentioning “general liberties, as well religious as civil.”
But in 1761, coinciding with the ascension of George III, the writs of assistance case, and the emergence of political opposition under James Otis, Jr., Bernard stopped including language about Massachusetts’s liberties.

No such phrase appeared in the governor’s Thanksgiving proclamations for 3 Dec 1761; 7 Oct 1762, celebrating war victories; 9 Dec 1762; 11 Aug 1763, for peace; 8 Dec 1763; 29 Nov 1764; 5 Dec 1765; 24 July 1766, for the repeal of the Stamp Act; 27 Nov 1766; 3 Dec 1767; and 1 Dec 1768. In August 1769, Bernard left the province.

The responsibility of declaring Thanksgivings thus fell to Lt. Gov. Hutchinson. For the holidays on 16 Nov 1769 and 6 Dec 1770, he stuck to Bernard’s model, not mentioning “liberties.”

Thus, contrary to what Hutchinson the historian wrote, in 1771 Hutchinson the governor didn’t simply use language that “had constantly, perhaps without exception,” appeared in Thanksgiving proclamations. He returned to a tradition that had last prevailed over a decade before—a decade in which a lot had changed in Massachusetts politics.

(Incidentally, Gov. John Wentworth of New Hampshire had included phrases like “the Continuance of our Civil and Ecclesiastical Privileges” in his Thanksgiving proclamations since 1767. But the political conflict wasn’t so deep there.)

TOMORROW: The Whig reaction.

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