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, August 29, 2013

George Washington and the “Murder Act”

The Wikipedia entry on the Administration of Justice in Massachusetts Act and several recent books state that George Washington called it “the Murder Act.”

That understanding appears to go back to David Ammerman’s study In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774, published by the University Press of Virginia in 1974. It says:
George Washington referred to the statute as the “Murder Act” because he thought it would give British officials free reign [sic] to harass Americans without fear of being brought to justice. The Virginia leader argued that transporting offenders into other colonies or Great Britain made it “impossible from the nature of the thing that justice can be observed.”
The last phrase Ammerman quoted comes from Washington’s letter to Bryan Fairfax dated 4 July 1774, which is transcribed here. It lays out American Whigs’ feeling of frustration:
As to your political sentiments, I would heartily join you in them, so far as relates to a humble and dutiful petition to the throne, provided there was the most distant hope of success. But have we not tried this already? Have we not addressed the Lords, and remonstrated to the Commons? And to what end? Did they deign to look at our petitions?

Does it not appear, as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness, that there is a regular, systematic plan formed to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us? Does not the uniform conduct of Parliament for some years past confirm this? Do not all the debates, especially those just brought to us, in the House of Commons on the side of government, expressly declare that America must be taxed in aid of the British funds, and that she has no longer resources within herself? Is there any thing to be expected from petitioning after this?

Is not the attack upon the liberty and property of the people of Boston, before restitution of the loss to the India Company was demanded, a plain and self-evident proof of what they are aiming at? Do not the subsequent bills (now I dare say acts), for depriving the Massachusetts Bay of its charter, and for transporting offenders into other colonies or to Great Britain for trial, where it is impossible from the nature of the thing that justice can be obtained, convince us that the administration is determined to stick at nothing to carry its point? Ought we not, then, to put our virtue and fortitude to the severest test?
But that letter doesn’t include the phrase “Murder Act.” Nor does any other document from Washington’s pen. It looks like Ammerman got his notes mixed up and put the phrase into the Virginia planter’s mouth, and then other authors repeated that attribution without checking.

It’s notable that Washington saw so much at stake in the Administration of Justice Act, well before the First Continental Congress. The law had no effect in Virginia, after all. But Washington was always one of the most prominent advocates of American unity.


John L Smith Jr said...

Another example of a misstatement in a book re. a primary source citation...and it gets consequently picked up and passed along as fact from then on. Argh!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that seems to be the situation. And the Ammerman book is a solid study of the American political response to the Coercive Acts, not sloppy work.