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, June 21, 2018

“A Measure of so inflammatory a Nature”

In February 1768, the Massachusetts House sent its soon-to-be-famous Circular Latter to other colonial legislatures.

That same month, Wills Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough (shown here), took over as Secretary of State for North America. Like his predecessor, the Earl of Shelburne, Hillsborough came from the Whig faction in Parliament, but he favored stricter measures to maintain the British Empire’s central authority. He sent off a response to the Massachusetts letter in April.

By the time that letter reached North America, there had been several more conflicts between Gov. Francis Bernard and the Boston Whigs.

First, as soon as Bernard asked the House for a copy of its circular letter, James Otis, Jr., asked for copies of Bernard’s correspondence with the ministry. He was fishing for evidence that Bernard had criticized the province while assuring locals he was looking out for their interests. Bernard insisted, “There certainly never was such a request made by an Assembly to a royal Governor since America was colonised.” [We still debate the bounds of “executive privilege.”]

Then there was a blow-up over a Boston Gazette essay criticizing Bernard (not quite by name), written pseudonymously by Dr. Joseph Warren, as mentioned back here. The Council, full legislature, and finally a Suffolk County grand jury all gave Gov. Bernard the runaround on a libel case.

In May, the province’s voters elected a new Massachusetts General Court, as I described last month. That led the governor into a confrontation with John Hancock and the Cadets. Then came the choice of Councilors. Of the seven men newly voted onto the Council, four had been members of the committee that drafted one or both forms of the circular letter. No wonder Gov. Francis Bernard vetoed all but one.

June brought impressment by the Royal Navy, the Customs house seizure of Hancock’s sloop Liberty riot, the ensuing riot, and most Customs Commissioners and top employees fleeing to Castle William for their safety. Even as he tried to calm that situation on 15 June, Gov. Bernard received the Earl of Hillsborough’s letter.

It said:
I have received, and laid before the King, Your Letters to the Earl of Shelburne N[umber]s. 4. 5. & 6. with the Inclosures.

It gives great Concern to His Majesty to find that the same Moderation, which appeared by Your Letter (No: 3) to have been adopted at the Beginning of the Session in a full Assembly, had not continued, and that, instead of that Spirit of Prudence and Respect to the Constitution, which seemed at that Time to influence the Conduct of a large Majority of the Members, a thin House at the End of the Session should have presumed to revert to, and resolve upon, a Measure of so inflammatory a Nature, as that of writing to the Other Colonies on the Subject of their intended Representations against some late Acts of Parliament.

His Majesty considers this Step as evidently tending to create unwarrantable Combinations to excite an unjustifiable Opposition to the constitutional Authority of Parliament, and to revive those unhappy Divisions and Distractions which have operated so prejudicially to the true Interests of Great Britain and the Colonies.

After what passed in the former Part of the Session, and after the declared Sense of so large a Majority, when the House was full, His Majesty cannot but consider this as a very unfair Proceeding, and the Resolutions taken thereupon to be contrary to the real Sense of the Assembly, and procured by Surprize, and therefore it is the King’s Pleasure, that so soon as the general Court is again assembled at the Time prescribed by the Charter, You should require of the House of Representatives, in his Majsty’s Name, to rescind the Resolution which gave Birth to the Circular Letter from the Speaker, and to declare their Disapprobation of, & Dissent to that rash and hasty Proceeding.
The Secretary of State had come away from Bernard’s letters with the impression that a minority faction of the House had manipulated attendance and surprised fellow legislators to sneak the circular letter through. Bernard hadn’t really written that. From the radicals’ perspective, they had debated the letter at length, followed the chamber’s rules, and won a clear majority vote.

Having demanded that the assembly retract the letter, Hillsborough then told Bernard what to do if it didn’t obey.
His Majesty has the fullest Reliance upon the Affection of His good Subjects in the Massachusett’s Bay, and has observed with Satisfaction that Spirit of Decency and Love of Order which has discovered itself in the Conduct of the most considerable of It’s Inhabitants, and therefore His Majesty has the better Ground to hope that the Attempts made by a desperate Faction to disturb the public Tranquillity will be discountenanced, and that the Execution of the Measure recommended to You will not meet with any Difficulty.

If it should, and if notwithstanding the apprehensions which may justly be entertained of the ill Consequence of a Continuance of this factious Spirit, which seems to have influenced the Resolutions of the Assembly at the Conclusion of the last Session, the new Assembly should refuse to comply with His Majesty’s reasonable Expectation; It is the King’s Pleasure that you should immediately dissolve them, & transmit to me, to be laid before His Majsty, an Account of their Proceedings thereupon, to the End that His Majesty may, if he thinks fit, lay the whole Matter before His Parliament, that such Provisions as shall be found necessary may be made to prevent for the future a Conduct of so extraordinary & unconstitutional a Nature.
Gov. Bernard knew the situation in Boston much better than his new boss. On 21 June 1768, 250 years ago today, he communicated the Crown’s displeasure to the House. But he did so carefully, knowing how its members tended to react, as he told Hillsborough:
On that Day in the forenoon I sent a Message to the House (a Copy of which I inclose) together with a Copy of the 2nd 3d & 4th Paragraphs of your Lordships Letter. I did not send a Copy of the 5th & 6th Paragraphs; because I knew that the Faction would make Use of them to insinuate that the House was treated with Threats in the first Instance, before their Minds were known, and were not allowed Freedom of Debate concerning what was required of them. If I had sent no Extracts at all but incorporated the Substance of your Lordships Letter into my Message, they then would have called for the Letter itself and not proceeded ’till I had given a Copy of it. As it was, I steered this Business in the right Way.
TOMORROW: How that went over.

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