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, December 12, 2017

Joseph Greenleaf and “the Council-chamber in Boston”

On 16 Nov 1771, the day after Joseph Greenleaf declined to meet with Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and the Massachusetts Council (on the understandable grounds that his teen-aged son was dying), the Council issued a formal summons for him:
You are required to appear before the Governor and Council, at the Council-chamber in Boston, on Tuesday the tenth day of December next, at ten of the clock in the forenoon, then and there to be examined touching a certain paper called The Massachusetts Spy, published the fourteenth day of November, 1771; whereof you are not to fail at your peril.
Greenleaf’s name didn’t actually appear in that issue of the Spy. The essay that angered the governor was signed “Mucius Scævola,” and Hutchinson was convinced that was Greenleaf’s pen name.

In an article in the 13 Jan 1772 Boston Gazette, Greenleaf laid out his response:
This proceeding alarmed me, as I judged it WHOLLY illegal, for I could have no idea of the legality of erecting a court of INQUISITION in this free country, and could find no form for such a citation in the province law books: My duty to my country therefore forbad my paying any obedience to it, especially as it might hereafter be used as a precedent.

I should be very unwilling to be thought a despiser of the laws of my country, I religiously submit to them all, “not only for wrath, but for conscience sake.” [Romans 13:5] I have not such a mistaken notion of liberty, as to think it consists in a freedom from obligation either to the laws of nature or of the laws of the land: But the freedom I now contend for is, a right of resistance, or rather withholding my obedience, when unlawfully commanded.
Greenleaf had the summons printed in the 22 November Massachusetts Spy. “I know not the design of it, nor why it is sent to me rather than to any body else,” he wrote. That and other Whig newspapers began to run essays in support of him.

On 10 December, Greenleaf didn’t go to the Town House as demanded. (The empty Council Chamber appears above, courtesy of the Old State House Museum.)

The Council minutes for that date therefore stated:
His Excellency having acquainted the Board at their last meeting, that Joseph Greenleaf, Esq; a Justice of the Peace for the county of Plymouth, was generally reputed to be concerned with Isaiah Thomas, in printing and publishing a News-Paper, called the Massachusetts Spy, and the said Joseph Greenleaf having thereupon been summoned to attend the board on this day, in order to his examination touching the same, and not attending according to summons, it was thereupon unanimously advised, that the said Joseph Greenleaf be dismissed from the office of a Justice of the Peace, which advice was approved of and consented to by his Excellency, and the said Joseph Greenleaf is dismissed from the said office accordingly.
That notice was printed in the newspapers. Hutchinson had found a way to punish someone for the essay that called his a “USURPER,” even if he had to take a roundabout route to that result.

Greenleaf’s response in the Boston Gazette was a legal argument that royal commissions couldn’t be repealed that way:
…if a Justice of the Peace may be dismissed from his office, because he refuses to be examined about a common News-Paper by any Court, but one legally impowered to summon and examine him, if he may be dismissed, because he is “supposed by people in general” to be concerned with a Printer, or any other person, that the governor has conceived a dislike to, we are in a pitiable case.
Greenleaf went on to say that losing the job of magistrate “gives me no uneasiness, for by leaving the County where I had jurisdiction [Plymouth], I voluntarily relinquished it.” Yet he insisted, “I still have jurisdiction when I please to take my seat on the bench at the Court of Sessions.” So he wasn’t fired—he quit. And he could take that back any time.

TOMORROW: Was Greenleaf really “Mucius Scævola”?

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