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, June 24, 2018

“I hereby send you a Copy of the other Part of the Letter”

On 23 June 1768, a committee from the Massachusetts General Court asked Gov. Francis Bernard for documents related to the House’s circular letter of 11 February.

House members wanted the whole text of a couple of specific letters from London they had heard about—plus, as the governor wrote to his boss, Secretary of State Hillsborough, “Copies of my Letters to your Lordship upon the Subject.” Bernard recognized that as a fishing expedition.

The next morning—250 years ago today—the governor sent the House a copy of the last two paragraphs of Hillsborough’s 22 April letter, which ordered him to end the legislative session if the House refused to rescind its circular letter.

In his cover message Bernard stated:
I should have communicated the whole of the Earl of Hillsborough’s Letter relating to the Business which I laid before you the 21st instant [i.e., of this month], if I had not been desirous that your Compliance with his Majesty’s Requisition might have its fullest Merit, by its appearing to be entirely dictated by a Sense of your Duty.

But since you desire to know what my further Orders are, I hereby send you a Copy of the other Part of the Letter relative to this Business, which contains all my Instructions thereupon. And as I know you will not expect that I should disobey the King’s positive Commands, I must desire that if you shall resolve to oblige me to execute them, you will previously to your giving your final Answer, prevent the inconveniences which must fall upon the People for want of the annual Tax-Bill, which I understand is not as yet sent up to the Board [i.e., the Council].

For if I am obliged to dissolve the General Court, I shall not think myself at liberty to call another, till I receive his Majesty’s Commands for that purpose, which will be too late to prevent the Treasurer [Harrison Gray] issuing his Warrants for the whole Tax granted by the Act of last year.

As to the Letter of the Earl of Hillsborough which I communicated to the Council, I must beg Leave to be the proper Judge of the time and occasion of communicating any papers I receive to the Council or the House. If I had then thought it expedient to lay it before the House, I should have then done so; when I shall think it so, I shall do it.

As to your Request of Copies of my Letters to the Secretary of State, you may assure yourselves that I shall never make public my Letters to his Majesty’s Ministers, but upon my own Motion, and for my own Reasons.
In sum, I didn’t show you the Crown’s orders right away because I know you dislike being made to do things. Also, you can’t make me do things.

As for the “Tax-Bill,” British legislatures had leverage over the executive because they constitutionally controlled taxation and thus the funding for governmental functions. But in this case, the governor pointed out, legislators had hopes of lowering their constituents’ taxes, and to do that they had to remain in session—which meant cooperating with him, since he had the power to dissolve the General Court.

With that message, Gov. Bernard had divulged all parts of Hillsborough’s 22 April letter except the first line:
I have received, and laid before the King, Your Letters to the Earl of Shelburne N[umber]s. 4. 5. & 6. with the Inclosures.
(The Secretary of State’s office and royal governors numbered their letters so that the other side would know if one had been lost or delayed in crossing the ocean.)

That seems like an innocuous sentence, but Bernard had a strong reason to keep it hidden. With those words the Earl of Hillsborough made clear that the negative view he had of Massachusetts and its legislature was based on the information his predecessor had received from the governor. Bernard had been assuring the province’s politicians that he presented them to his superiors in the best possible light. Most local Whigs didn’t believe him, but without access to his correspondence they couldn’t prove that suspicion. That’s why they had kept asking for his letters.

TOMORROW: What changed the House’s mind about the circular letter—a hypothesis.

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