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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Friday, June 22, 2018

“A Speech near two hours long of the most violent & virulent Nature”

By mid-June 1768, the Massachusetts House had received several favorable responses to the circular letter that the previous elected assembly had sent out in February.

Speaker of the house Thomas Cushing’s counterparts had replied from New Hampshire (25 February), Virginia (9 May), New Jersey (9 May), South Carolina (10 June), and Connecticut (11 June), with Georgia (16 June) and Rhode Island (5 August) still to come.

Of course, that list didn’t include the big colonies of New York and Pennsylvania, containing the two biggest ports in North America. They would be necessary for any united political movement against the Townshend Act.

On 21 June, Gov. Francis Bernard sent the House another response to the circular letter: a message from the Earl of Hillsborough, the new Secretary of State for the colonies in London, demanding that the body retract the document.

Bernard knew Massachusetts’s legislators wouldn’t like that. On 18 June he had written to another London official about how getting H.M.S. Romney to stop impressing sailors in Boston harbor had put him in a good political position, but he expected that to change drastically:
A Civil Treatment of a petition of the Town to me, a plain friendly answer thereto & some real Service by interposing with the man of war, have given me a little popularity. But it wont last a week: as soon as I have executed the orders I have just recieved from the Secretary of State, in the general Assembly, there will be an end of my popularity. And I dont know whether I shant be obliged to act like the Capt of a fireship, provide for my retreat before I light the fusee.
In passing on Hillsborough’s message, Bernard told the Massachusetts assembly, “I am merely ministerial in this Business, having received his Majesty’s Instructions for all I have to do in it.” In other words, don’t blame the messenger.

There were ninety-eight legislators present, clerk Samuel Adams recorded. They decided to discuss the letter the next day at 10:00 A.M. At that time, seven more members joined the body.

Here’s what Bernard understood happened 250 years ago today:
[James] Otis made a Speech near two hours long of the most violent & virulent Nature. He abused all Persons in Authority both here and at home. He indeed excepted the Kings Person, but traduced his Government with all the Bitterness of Words.

He said “that the King appointed none but Boys for his Ministers; that they had no Education but travelling thro’ France, from whence they returned full of the slavish Principles of that Country; that they knew Nothing of Business when they came into their Offices, and did not stay long enough to acquire that little Knowledge which is gained from Experience; that all Business was really done by the Clerks, & even they were too frequently changed to understand what they were about; that the People in England did not know what the Rights of Englishmen capable of composing so elegant so pure and so nervous a Writing as the Petition to the King which passed the last Session.” &c.

I give your Lordship a Specimen of this Rhapsody: and it was remarked that in this general Censure of the Kings Government No Exception was made of the Minister who favoured America by the Repeal of the Stamp-Act & by other Indulgences; by the Abuse whereof this very Faction has rose to this Head [i.e., William Pitt]: All were involved in one common Obloquy. I quote these Sayings from the Mouths of those who heard them delivered in the House which was laid quite open, both Doors and Gallery, upon this Occasion. But neither they nor I can pretend to Exactness of Words; but the Substance I dare say does not vary Materially. In another Part of the Speech, he passed an Encomium upon Oliver Cromwell and extolled the Times preceeding his Advancement and particularily the Murther of the King.

The Result was the appointing a Committee to take the Message &c into Consideration, which Committee consisted entirely of the most violent of the Heads of the Faction viz the Representatives of the Town of Boston & 3 of those whom I had refused to admit into the Council upon Account of their having been distinguished by their fomenting the Troubles of Government, with two others. Thus the House seemed to prejudge this Business in the Appointment of a Committee: and indeed the Appointment of a Committee at all shewed a Disposition to argue rather than submit.
Yes, things weren’t looking good for a quiet, obedient retraction of the circular letter as the Earl of Hillsborough had demanded.

TOMORROW: A request for documents.

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