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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Thursday, June 28, 2018

“They did not desire to be knocked on the head”

On 21 June 1768, as quoted back here, Gov. Francis Bernard passed on the instructions from the Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State, that the Massachusetts House had to rescind its Circular Letter to other colonial legislatures.

Bernard didn’t think that would turn out well. All he heard over the next few days indicated that the legislators were preparing “the very reverse of disavowing the Proceedings of the late House.” He watched the action as closely as he could, ready to dissolve the General Court if it took steps to call another congress of colonies or something else radical.

Meanwhile, there was more fallout from the Liberty riot on 10 June. The town had calmed down after the big town meeting on 14 June, but that was because the Commissioners of Customs were out of sight and reach at Castle William.

Those officials wanted to return to their jobs collecting tariffs, and they wanted protection. Writing from their refuge on 15 June, the Commissioners nudged Gen. Thomas Gage in New York (and Col. William Dalrymple in Halifax) to send troops:
What Steps the Governor and Council may take we cannot tell, but having applied to them, we have received no Assurances of Protection, and we are persuaded the Governor will not apply for Troops without the Advice of his Council, which Measure We do not imagine they will recommend, and we now write, Sir, to acquaint your Excellency of the very alarming State of things at Boston, and leave it to your Judgement to act as you shall think proper for the Honour of the Crown and protection of its Servants here in the present Exigency.
Gen. Gage responded with a reminder that under the British constitution only the civil authorities could order the military to mobilize except in an emergency. At the same time, Gage wrote to Gov. Bernard about the Commissioners’ alarm and a promise that he would respond to any such call for troops:
As I have received no Letter from you on this Subject or any Requisition made by you, for the Aid and Assistance of His Majesty’s Forces on this Occasion; I have not ordered any Troops to move into your Province. Nor do I think it proper to order any of His Majesty’s Forces to march for the sole purpose of quelling a Riot; unless required thereto, by the Civil Power. You must be the best Judge of the situation of Affairs in your Government, and whether the Aid of Troops is wanted to enforce the Laws, and to preserve Peace and Tranquility in the City. The moment you shall judge it convenient to apply to me for the Assistance of the King’s forces, I shall order such a number to march as you shall have occasion for.
But Bernard didn’t want to act unilaterally. He wanted the Massachusetts Council, or some members of it, to endorse any call for military support. He wanted Gen. Gage to perceive the situation as an emergency and send regiments. But he didn’t want to be the one man blamed for bringing in soldiers.

The governor told the general on 2 July:
I have heretofore in times of great Danger put the question to the Council whether I should apply to the General for troops, & have received such answers as have convinced me that it is in vain ever to put that question again. And yet upon the late tumults I told the Council that I was ready to put the question for applying to the General for troops if Any two of them would propose it. I was answered that they did not desire to be knocked on the head.

I told them that I did not desire it neither; but I was ready to take my share of the danger with them, and if they would advise this Measure I would carry it into Execution. But I would not act solely in this & take the whole resentment upon myself, attended with a charge of acting unconstitutionally in not taking the Advice of the Council. . . .

Above a fortnight ago A Committee of both houses was appointed [the House chose its committee members on 18 June] to enquire into the foundation of a report that troops were coming hither. A Sub-committee was sent to me, who after Apologising for the question asked me if I had, or any one that I knew had applied for troops to come hither. I accepted the apology being desirous & prepared to answer the question. I told them that I neither had myself nor did I know that any one else had applied for troops; but that I was certain that troops would come here, not from any knowledge of applications or orders, but from the sure consequence of effects from Causes; and I beleived that when they did come, it would be Very satisfactory to most people of property in the Town, tho’ perhaps, they won’t own it. That for my own part I avoided as much as possible having Any hand in or knowledge of it: for if I wanted to have Troops here, I need not expose myself by Applying for them; the Sons of Liberty would save me that trouble.
Thus, the possibility of a military force in Boston—beyond H.M.S. Romney, already assisting the Customs office and protecting its staff—was hanging in the air as the summer began.

On 28 June, 250 years ago today, Gov. Bernard got tired of waiting for the House’s response about the circular letter and chose “to bring this Matter to a Crisis as soon as may be.” Working from the Council chamber of the Town House, he gave province secretary Andrew Oliver this note to be delivered to the other side of the building:
Gentlemen of the House of Representatives,

It is now a full Week since I laid before you his Majesty’s Requisition, signified by his Secretary of State: I must therefore desire you to come to a Resolution upon it, for I cannot admit of a much longer Delay, without considering it as an Answer in the Negative.
The House resolved to deal with that question the next morning at 10:00.

TOMORROW: A play for more time?

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