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 16, 2018

“Preserving a perfect Conciliation”

Late on 14 June 1768, a large committee from Boston town meeting headed by James Otis, Jr., visited Gov. Francis Bernard at his country house in Jamaica Plain. The governor reported receiving “a Train of 11 Chaises.”

The committee presented the governor with a petition that protested against:
  • taxation without representation, and thus the Townshend Act.
  • a petition to King George III being turned away (because it wasn’t sent to London through the official channel).
  • the Royal Navy’s impressment of sailors in Boston harbor.
That document concluded with a wonderful bit of trolling, saying that “the Board of Customs have thought fit, of their own motion to relinquish the exercise of their Commission here.” In other words, the Customs Commissioners had left their posts in Boston—no acknowledgment that they had done so out of fear of mob violence. Therefore, the committee continued, there was no need for H.M.S. Romney to stay around in Boston harbor since there were no longer any Customs Commissioners to protect.

Gov. Bernard shared wine with the gentlemen and promised them an answer the next day. His 15 June response was a collection of promises to do all he could, while noting that he could very little. “I shall not knowingly infringe any of your Rights and Privileges, but shall religeously maintain all those which are committed to me as a servant of the King,” he wrote. He couldn’t ignore Parliament’s laws, change a decision of the Privy Council, or give orders to the Royal Navy. But aside from all that, “I shall think myself most highly honoured, if I can be in the lowest degree an Instrument in preserving a perfect Conciliation between” Boston and the royal government in London.

The town meeting thus didn’t achieve any of its goals. John Hancock’s sloop Liberty remained in royal custody. The Customs service continued to collect tariffs, even if top officials were working out of Castle William. The Romney had already stopped drafting sailors because of the Liberty riot, and the governor had already promised the selectmen he’d speak informally to the warship’s captain. Nonetheless, the town’s formal and visible protest showed the people that the local political and mercantile establishment was pushing back, and that forestalled further violence.

That exchange wasn’t all Bernard had to deal with, though. On the same day that the governor sent off his response to the Boston petition, he received instructions from the Earl of Hillsborough, the new Secretary of State for North America. That letter stated:
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. . . .

If…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
Rescinding the “Circular Letter”—yet another political confrontation of June 1768!

COMING UP: The “Circular Letter” comes home.

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