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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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Voting Against and For the Circular Letter

It’s hard to know exactly what happened when James Otis, Jr., Samuel Adams, and the rest of their committee presented the Massachusetts General Court with the first draft of a circular letter to other colonial assemblies on 21 Jan 1768.

Legislative records were spare then, rarely reporting debates or vote counts, and in this case that record was altered. No pertinent diaries or letters survive from the politicians involved. One contemporaneous source, speaker of the house Thomas Cushing (shown here), supported the measure and spun the situation his way. Another, Gov. Francis Bernard, opposed the measure and also had to rely on secondhand reports.

According to Bernard:
There is no Doubt but that the principal Design in forming this Remonstrance was to set an Example to the rest of America, & produce a general Clamour from evry other Assembly against the late Acts [the Townshend duties]. This was partly defeated by my refusing to call the Assembly before the usual time; & again by the House resolving to form their remonstrance in such a manner that it should not of necessity be made publick. But tho’ this last intention was quite inconsistent with the purpose of communicating the Substance of their remonstrance to the other Assemblies yet it did not discourage the party from attempting it.

The House was accordingly moved that a day be assigned to take into consideration the propriety of informing the other Governments with their proceedings against the late Acts, that, if they thought fit; they might join therein. Upon the day this was strongly opposed & fully debated: it was said by the opposers of the Motion, that they would be considered at home as appointing another congress [like the Stamp Act Congress]; and perhaps the former was not yet forgot.

Upon the close of the debate it was carried in the negative by at least 2 to 1. No one transaction in the House has given me so great hopes that they are returning to a right Sense of their Duty & their true intrest as this has done; and I hope it will make some attonement for their remonstrance.
Cushing acknowledged that the measure failed to pass that day, adding that eighty-two legislators were present—about three-quarters of all representatives, not an unusually low number for a winter session.

Bernard quickly wrote to London about his victory. In his own words, “I formed promising Conclusions from this Defeat of the factious Party. But I was too hasty in my Approbation of the Conduct of the House.”

Something changed over the next two weeks, but I’m not sure what. The House continued to approve letters protesting the Townshend Act to British government figures: the Marquess of Rockingham (22 January), the Earl of Camden (29 January), and the Earl of Chatham (2 February). On 26 January “the Expediency of Writing Letters to the Houses of Representatives” was raised again and put off. Lots of other legislative work got done.

Then, on 4 February, the House formally reconsidered its former decision. Under the chamber’s rules, that was allowed because there were at least as many legislators present as at the original vote. To be exact, Cushing wrote that he allowed the vote, “it appearing about eighty two members were present”—which seems a little fudgey but close enough for government work. Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wrote that the rule “was not always adhered to, though said to be on this occasion.”

According to Cushing, “a large Majority” of House members voted to revoke the earlier decision and expunge the record of their first vote. They chose a new committee, drawn largely from the one that had drafted the letters so far: Cushing, Otis, Adams, Joseph Hawley, Jerathmeel Bowers, Samuel Dexter, and now Ezra Richmond. That committee’s work was accepted by the House on the morning of 11 February. Cushing reported that day eighty-three legislators were present, and the circular letter was “accepted almost unanimously.”

Again, it’s not clear why there was a turnaround. The vote counts all appear to have been genuine. They didn’t come at the end of a session when members had started to leave. Gov. Bernard accused the opposition of “privately tampering with, & influencing particulars,” but that probably meant normal legislative lobbying and dealmaking. Neither he nor Hutchinson could point to anything more nefarious.

A significant number of legislators must have decided that the circular letter wasn’t as problematic as they had thought three weeks before, or that the imperial situation was dire enough to require such drastic action. Whatever happened, the Massachusetts Circular Letter went out to the other colonies, and Gov. Bernard hurried a copy to London.

TOMORROW: The Empire tries to strike back.

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