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, June 19, 2018

Behind Massachusetts’s Circular Letter

The story of the Massachusetts Circular Letter of 1768 starts with the previous year’s session of the Massachusetts General Court.

That provincial legislature was supposed to reconvene after its spring session on 2 Sept 1767. But that summer Parliament enacted the Townshend Act, a new way of raising revenue in the American colonies.

Newspaper essayists protested the new law. Boston’s town meeting started talking about cutting imports. John Dickinson’s Letters from an American Farmer appeared. Gov. Francis Bernard delayed calling the legislature back into session as long as he could.

But finally, with a border dispute with New York to be resolved, the governor reconvened the General Court on 30 December. That was “sooner than I intended,” he told his superior in London; “rather earlier than usual,” he told the legislators.

Instead of taking up the border issue, the House proceeded to consider “the State of the Province” and its charter in relation to “divers Acts of Parliament”—meaning the Townshend Act. The House formed a committee to address those questions dominated by strong Whigs: speaker Thomas Cushing, clerk Samuel Adams, both James Otises, Joseph Hawley, John Hancock, Edward Sheaffe, Jerathmeel Bowers, and Samuel Dexter. Only then did the House turn to other matters.

According to Bernard, Cushing had told him before this legislative session that the House planned to protest the Townshend Act. In reply, the governor warned that Parliament would probably not be amenable, adding:
that if they should think proper to address his Majesty’s Secretary of State upon this occasion, it was my Official Business to take the charge of it & I should faithfully remitt it whatever the contents were. And if they put it into other hands, I should remonstrate against it as being irregular & unconstitutional for any addresses to pass from an Assembly (where the King has a representative presiding) to his Majesty either directly or indirectly, except thro’ the mediation of his Representative.
By “other hands,” the governor meant Dennis DeBerdt, the new agent, or lobbyist, for the Massachusetts House in London. Bernard had tried to stop the House from hiring DeBerdt because he thought that a single chamber of the legislature shouldn’t have its own lobbyist, independent of the Council and himself.

Naturally, the House committee responded by first drafting a letter to DeBerdt, which it presented to the whole chamber on 12 January. The principal authors of that document and the committee’s other productions appear to have been James Otis, Jr., and Samuel Adams, though it’s unclear how they collaborated.

The representatives went through two days of intermittent debate. Bernard understood that “many Offencive passages were struck out.” But eventually the House approved that text and instructed Speaker Cushing to sign it on their behalf.

On 15 January, that first letter finally done, the same committee proffered a similar missive to the Earl off Shelburne as Secretary of State for North America. Nobody knew that Shelburne had been dismissed from that post at the end of October.

Five days later, the committee rolled out its biggest gun yet: a letter to King George III himself. The House approved that “humble Petition to the KING” after “divers Amendments.” All this time, Gov. Bernard was asking Cushing to see the letters. The speaker put him off, saying the chamber had voted not to make any copies until he was to sign the documents.

On 21 January, the House took up yet another proposal from the committee: to send a circular letter on those issues to all the other North American legislatures. Circular letters were a standard bureaucratic tool; the London government sent them regularly to the royal governors. But legislatures were supposed to communicate upward to those governors and the Crown, not independently. And especially not to create a united front against one of Parliament’s laws.

TOMORROW: Gov. Bernard stops the circular letter from circulating—for a while.

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