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, August 04, 2019

“I was not called home in the Way of Disgrace”

Two weeks after Gov. Sir Francis Bernard left Boston, the town’s Sons of Liberty hosted a big festive banquet. The date was 14 Aug 1769, fourth anniversary of the first public protest against the Stamp Act, when crowds hanged Andrew Oliver in effigy from what was yet to be dubbed Liberty Tree.

The Boston Whigs viewed Bernard’s departure as a triumph for their side, just as they viewed the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766. That feeling of victory undoubtedly reinforced the idea that they had hit on a winning political strategy. Indeed, as I noted yesterday, as soon as Bernard sailed away, the Whigs stopped sending their “Journal of the Times” dispatches to other colonies—that propaganda was no longer necessary.

To be sure, there were still two regiments patrolling Boston. But hadn’t Bernard’s letters shown that he’d misled the Crown into sending them there? Wouldn’t a more reasonable governor have those soldiers removed?

True, the Customs service was still collecting the Townshend duties. But the Whigs could now devote more energy to strengthening the non-importation boycott against those taxes, the same tactic that they had used in 1765—successfully, they thought.

If, however, the Whigs believed that their actions had caused the British ministry to withdraw Bernard as harmful to imperial relations, they were badly mistaken. The Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State, was quite clear that he and his colleagues supported Bernard’s work. On 24 March, the secretary wrote to the governor:
His Majesty having thought fit, upon a consideration of the present state of affairs in the Province of Massachuset’s Bay, that you should return to this Kingdom, in order to make a full Report thereof to His Majesty, I herewith inclose to you the King’s Royal Licence for that purpose; and have the satisfaction at the same time to acquaint you, that His Majesty has been pleased to direct a Patent to be passed for conferring upon you the Dignity of a Baronet, as a Testimony of His Majesty’s Royal Favour and gracious Approbation of your Services.
In a private letter two days before, Hillsborough spelled out the political point of the baronetcy:
the honourable Mark of Favour which the King has been pleased to conferr upon you, by which His Majesty means to demonstrate to you, & to His Subjects of Massachusett’s Bay his gracious Approbation of your Services in your Government of that Province
Bernard picked up the message, writing to a friend that the honor “was, I suppose, thus timed to show the People that I was not called home in the Way of Disgrace.”

This case of mismatched perceptions was similar to how colonial Americans viewed the fall of George Grenville’s ministry in 1765. That change in prime minister opened the door to Parliament repealing the failed Stamp Act, but it had nothing to do with American protests. The change was all about the intricacies of court politics. The appearance of success may have left American activists too confident in their ability to push Parliament into rethinking laws they didn’t like.

Of course, the American Whigs weren’t the only party deluding themselves. For years Bernard had been telling his superiors that the problem in Massachusetts was a small “faction” of recalcitrant radicals misleading the moderates and the people. If only the provincial government could strip power away from that thin top layer of malcontents, then the vast majority would be happy and the protests would stop.

The London government thought enough of Bernard’s analysis to ask him to advise the king and his privy council. For the next several years, interrupted by a stroke, the baronet repeated his ideas to the ministers. Specifically, he advocated for a Council appointed from London rather than elected—an idea finally implemented in the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774.

And we all know how well that turned out.

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