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 10, 2020

“The said House shall be built in the Town of Cambridge”

On 3 Feb 1748 (N.S.), the Massachusetts General Court gathered for a new legislative session in Boston.

The next day’s Boston News-Letter stated that the General Court met in Faneuil Hall. (In his 1825 history of Boston, Caleb Snow wrote that the legislature “preferred to occupy a room in a publick house,” but I suspect that applied only for a day or two.)

Some room in Faneuil Hall had been designated the “Council Chamber,” but it must have been smaller than what the Council was used to in the Town House. Unfortunately, that usual space had caught fire back in December and was no more. Likewise, in their temporary new home the lower house would have to figure out “proper Rooms for the Conveniency of the Committees.”

Commonly the first big event in a new legislative sessions was for the governor to call the whole lower house into the Council Chamber to hear him speak on priorities (his, which he hoped would be theirs). Because of the room sizes, this time Gov. William Shirley and the Council came down to the big chamber in Faneuil Hall, and he spoke there.

Among the matters Shirley wanted the house members to address were a border dispute with other colonies, the inflation of Massachusetts’s paper money, pay for provincial soldiers, his hope for a frontier defense force serving longer than ordinary militia, and
an Opportunity to provide in Season before the Winter is spent, for Timber and other Materials necessary for the repairing or new building a Court-House.
“Court-House” was what the government was calling the Town House.

Under the leadership of speaker Thomas Hutchinson, the house didn’t take up that topic until 10 February. They then recorded three votes:
  • Not to require “Yeas and Nays,” or recorded roll-call votes, on every question. That let legislators keep their votes private and concealed any deep division in the house.
  • To build the new Court-House “in some other Part of the Province than the Town of Boston, provided the Court agree upon the Place.”
  • Finally, that “the said House shall be built in the Town of Cambridge.”
Back in 1630, the original Massachusetts Bay colonists had laid out Cambridge (then “New-Towne”) to be their capital, but after a couple of years they chose Boston instead. Making Cambridge the regular seat of the legislature, with all its records and gatherings, would be a huge change.

The next morning, the house made itself a committee of the whole, which allowed Hutchinson to participate in the debate. The official record says only:
after some Time spent therein, Mr. Speaker resum’d the Chair, and Col. [John] Choate [of Ipswich] from the Committee reported, That they were of Opinion the two Votes pass’d Yesterday relating to the building a Court-House, should be reconsidered.
The next morning, however, something else came up first.

TOMORROW: What was wrong with staying in Boston?

[A Note on Dates: Gov. Shirley was still dating the year as 1747, but the News-Letter was already using the New Style 1748 only.]

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

The records of the Boston selectmen show they offered their usual meeting-room to the governor and Council, so that was the “Council Chamber” while the legislature met in Faneuil Hall.