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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Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Request for Documents Concerning the Circular Letter

On 22 June 1768, the Massachusetts House chose a committee to respond to Gov. Francis Bernard’s transmission of the Earl of Hillsborough’s response to their circular letter.

That committee consisted largely of the men who had served on the committees that created the circular letter in the first place: speaker Thomas Cushing, clerk Samuel Adams, both James Otises, John Hancock, and Jerathmeel Bowers, plus three more representatives:
On 23 June, 250 years ago today, that committee told the assembly that to reply to the governor’s message
it would be of great Use to them, to have before them a Copy of his Majesty’s Instructions referred to therein, the whole of Lord Hillsborough’s Letter, his Excellency’s [i.e., the governor’s] own Letters on the Occasion; and also another Letter from Lord Hillsborough to his Excellency, said to have been communicated to the honorable Board [i.e., the Council].
After the speaker called in all members, they voted to send Otis to the Council to request any letters from Hillsborough it had. Councilor William Brattle came back with the message that they had only heard province secretary Andrew Oliver read the letters to them, so they had no copies.

The House then approved another committee of five to carry its request for documents to the governor. It strikes me as significant that four of that new committee’s members had military titles, and Spooner was the only overlap with the larger committee. The House didn’t give Bernard any opening to complain that this request came from unpatriotic malcontents.

Since our federal Freedom of Information Act and Presidential Records Act, we have a fairly expansive expectation of getting to see government documents—eventually, at least, even if they have to be Scotch-taped back together.

Back in the eighteenth century, even British governments didn’t operate so openly. Parliamentary debates weren’t regularly transcribed or published, and rare reports of speeches appeared with the members’ names disguised just in case publication turned out to be illegal. Likewise, the Massachusetts House records say nothing about the first, unsuccessful attempt to win approval for the circular letter or of Otis’s “harangue” against the royal government on 22 June.

The executive branch was particularly closed. All of its members theoretically acted as one on behalf of the King and enjoyed some measure of royal privilege. That’s why the Earl of Hillsborough wrote in the name of “his Majesty” and Gov. Bernard had referred to the earl’s letter as being “his Majesty’s Instruction.” Bernard and Hillsborough considered their correspondence confidential, available to the legislature or public only on the terms they chose.

But of course Gov. Bernard knew that simply refusing the House’s request to see those letters would give them something new to complain about. He faced the question of whether that would be worse than releasing them.

TOMORROW: Selective disclosure.

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