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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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Gov. Gage Needs "Judgment and Discretion of his own"?

I was just looking at the records of the Massachusetts General Court in 1774 this afternoon. (Ah, but weren’t we all?) I was struck by how that assembly protested new governor Thomas Gage’s announcement that he was calling the next legislative session in Salem, not Boston.

On 26 May 1774, the second day that the newly elected legislature met in Boston, Gage called the assembly members into the chamber of the Old State House where he met with his Council (the upper house) and told them to be aware that as of “the first of next Month,...I have the King’s particular Commands for holding the General Court at Salem from that Day, until His Majesty shall have signified his Royal Will and Pleasure for holding it again at Boston.” This move was part of punishing Boston for the destruction of the East India Company tea the previous December.

On 7 June, the General Court reconvened at the courthouse in Salem. The assembly’s only business that day was to appoint a committee to consider how to respond to being moved. The next day that committee recommended a resolution, which the legislators adopted:

Resolved, That by the Royal Charter of this Province, the Power of convening, proroguing and adjourning the Great and General Court or Assembly, from Time to Time, is vested in the Governor, to be exercised as he shall judge necessary, and for the Good of the People.


Resolved, That it is clearly the Opinion of this House, That whensoever the Governor of the Province doth convene or hold the General Assembly at any Time or Place unnecessarily, or merely in Obedience to an Instruction, and without exercising that Judgment and Discretion of his own, with which by Charter he is specially vested for the Good of the Province, it is manifestly inconsistent with the Letter, as well as the Spirit and Intention of the Charter.
In other words, the assembly agreed that the governor had the power to summon the legislature in Salem or anywhere else, whenever he pleased. But it said the governor had to make his own decision, not just follow the instructions of the king—even though the governor’s power came from the king’s “Royal Charter.” Do you sense the assembly was stretching for a justification? Complaints like this almost make me sympathetic for Gen. Gage.

In another couple of years, the Declaration of Independence would list moving of the General Court among the faults of the king:
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 laid out a new balance of power between the legislature and chief executive. Article 1 says that Congress decides it meets each year, and can “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District...as may...become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”

There’s still a relic of the old royal power to summon legislatures. Article 2 says the President “may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he [sic] may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper.” But the word “extraordinary” signals that Congress has the upper hand, as Thomas Jefferson and other politicians of the time recognized.

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