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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Sunday, May 27, 2018

When Gov. Bernard Went Negative

Yesterday we left Gov. Francis Bernard on 25 May 1768 with a Council newly selected by the Massachusetts legislature—which was largely hostile to him.

On the first day of their term, the legislators had pointedly passed over Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and removed two of Bernard’s political allies from the Council while adding seven others. The newly named gentlemen were:

Under Massachusetts’s provincial charter, the royal governor could “negative,” or veto, anyone named to the Council whom he didn’t want to work with. In practice, governors were reluctant to knock off Councilors who were already sitting because gentlemen could see that as an affront. So this moment was Bernard’s best chance to get an advisory board to his liking.

James Otis, Sr., had been the lower house’s speaker in 1761 and 1762 and then served three years on the Council. But during that time he was also in a bitter feud with Bernard because the governor hadn’t fulfilled his predecessor’s promise to put Otis on Massachusetts’s high court. (Instead, Bernard had appointed Hutchinson.) In 1766 the governor had finally gotten sick of Otis’s opposition and negatived him from the Council.

Bernard had issued hints about letting Otis back on the board if the legislators chose Hutchinson as well. But Otis himself opposed such a deal, and his son was the most powerful member of the lower house, so it didn’t happen. By electing Otis, the legislators were simply poking Bernard again.

Likewise, Bernard had negatived Bowers, Dexter, Gerrish, and Sanders in 1766 and then again in 1767—and here they were again.

This was the first year the legislators put Ward up for the Council. But he had already built a reputation in the House for being one of the sternest rural voices against Parliament’s new laws. In 1766 Gov. Bernard had “superseded” Ward’s commission as a militia colonel. And on this Election Day Ward took the place that Hutchinson had expected to win.

Finally, there was Hancock, by far the youngest of the new potential Councilors. He had entered politics only three years before as a Boston selectman. He had served as a town representative as well since 1766. And he had proven to be another vocal opponent of the royal party.

In sum, Gov. Bernard had little reason to accept any of those men on the Council. But as a bit of a surprise, on 26 May he approved one: Samuel Dexter. In a letter to the Earl of Hillsborough (available through the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s invaluable website), Bernard explained: “I accepted one whom I had negatived before, having Reason to think he was tired of his Party.”

As it turned out, Dexter remained a moderate Whig. He usually voted against the royal governor. Looking back on his legislative career in 1795, he wrote two letters to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap which are valuable sources on the debate over the slave trade and slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts.

However, Dexter didn’t agree with the most radical Whig actions, worrying about attacking the British military in 1775. A few months after the war started, he quit the Council and moved back to his home colony of Connecticut because people were calling him a “Royalist.” Later he lived in Weston and Mendon, but he never reentered politics.

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