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, September 13, 2018

“The Business of calling another Assembly”

At 10:00 A.M. on 13 Sept 1768—250 years ago today—Boston’s voters reconvened at Faneuil Hall to continue the town meeting they had started the day before. James Otis, Jr., was presiding.

The first piece of business was the response from Gov. Francis Bernard to the town committee that asked him whether the London government had ordered army regiments into town and about the possibility of a new session of the Massachusetts General Court. Bernard sent his response in writing:
Gentlemen

My apprehensions that some of his Majestys Troops are to be expected in Boston, arise from information of a private nature; I have received no publick Letters notifying to me the coming of such Troops, and requiring Quarters for them; whenever I do I shall communicate them to his Majestys Council.

The Business of calling another Assembly for this Year is now before the King; and I can do nothing in it, untill I receive his Majestys Commands.

Francis Bernard.
This reply was weaselly even for Bernard. He’d set off the alarm himself by telling at least one member of the Council and one selectman about the coming regiments, knowing they would spread the news. But since he’d received only a letter from Gen. Thomas Gage in New York, not an official notice from London, the governor refused to say anything more.

The Boston Whigs were probably expecting something like that, having gotten to know Bernard over the last several years. They proceeded to vote on several resolutions that referenced the colony’s original charter from James I, the provincial charter from William and Mary, and principles of the British constitution. The upshot of those resolutions was:
  • In a phrase not yet coined, no taxation without representation.
  • No standing armies or “employing such Army for the enforcing of Laws made without the consent of the People, in Person, or by their Representatives.”
Those passed unanimously.

Gov. Bernard later complained that the meeting was nothing more than “a Set of speeches by the cheifs of the faction & no one else; which followed one another in such order & method, that it appeared as if they were acting a play, evry thing, both as to matter & order, seeming to have been preconcerted before hand.” Which almost everything certainly was.

But some meeting attendees had more radical ideas, according to Bernard’s informants:
One cried out that they wanted a Head [I don’t actually know what that means]; this was overruled: for indeed it was rather too premature. Another, an old Man, protested against evry thing but rising immediately & taking all power into their own hands.

One Man, very profligate & abandoned, argued for massacring their Enemies: his argument was short.—Liberty is as pretious as Life; if a Man attempts to take my Life, I have a right to take his; ergo, if a Man attempts to take away my liberty, I have a right to take his Life. He also argued that when a Peoples Liberties were threatened, they were in a state of War & had a right to defend themselves. And He carried these Arguments so far that his own party were obliged to silence him.
The Whig politicians had another type of action to propose:
Whereas by an Act of Parliament of the First of King William and Queen Mary [i.e., right after the Glorious Revolution], it is declared; that for the Redress of all Grieveances, aud for Amending Strengthning, and preserving the Laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently, and in as much as it is the Opinion of this Town, that the People labour under many intollerable Grievances, which unless speedily Redressed; threaten the total distraction of our invaluable natural, constitutional and Charter Rights.

And furthermore As his Excellency the Governor has declared Himself unable at the Request of this Town to call a General Court, which is the Assembly of the States of this Province, for the Redress of such Grieveances;

Voted, that this Town will now make choice of a suitable number of Persons to Act for them as a Committee in Convention, with such as may be sent to Join them from the several Towns in this Province, in order that such Measures may be consulted and Advised as his Majestys service, and the peace and safety of his Subjects in this Province may require
This resolution passed unanimously. Boston was ready to host the equivalent of a General Court whether Gov. Bernard cooperated or not. Officially, this would be called a “Convention,” just as the equivalent in 1774 would be a “Provincial Congress.” To represent Boston at the Convention, the town elected the men who represented them in the General Court: Otis, Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock.

The proposed time of the gathering: “at Faneuil Hall, in this Town, on Tuesday the 22d. Day of September Instant, at 10. O’Clock Before Noon.” The meeting ordered Boston’s selectmen to send invitations to their counterparts in all the other towns of Massachusetts.

The meeting then proceeded to discuss the immediate threat of “an approaching War with France.”

TOMORROW: Wait—what?

1 comment:

Marshall Stack said...

I think this incident points to one of the reasons why the revolution ultimately succeeded - while other revolutions used war as a means to seize power, our founders seized power first by setting up extralegal committees, congresses, etc., and the war "sealed the deal" so to speak.