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, August 28, 2013

“The Murder Act as it is commonly called”

Yesterday I quoted the meat of Parliament’s Administration of Justice in Massachusetts Act, passed in the spring of 1774. The law provided for royal officials indicted for murder in the course of enforcing the law to be tried outside the province. How did local Patriots respond?

They started calling that law “the Murder Act.” Because, they said, it encouraged those officials to murder protesters with impunity. Which was quite an overstatement, but the two sides had been tussling over the quality of or interference in Massachusetts justice for several years.

I went looking for the earliest use of that phrase, and was surprised to find it first as the 26 July 1774 Essex Gazette quoted and paraphrased an essay from the 27 June South-Carolina Gazette (which I couldn’t locate). That article advocated a boycott of all goods from other parts of the British Empire until Parliament repealed its new Coercive Acts, including “the MURDER-ACT.”

On 26 Sept 1774, John Adams adopted the same language when he wrote from Philadelphia to his Braintree neighbor Joseph Palmer:
Before this reaches you, the Sense of the [Continental] Congress concerning your Wisdom, Fortitude and Temperance, in the Massachusetts in general and the County of Suffolk in particular, will be public, in our Country. It is the universal Sense here that the Mass. Acts, and Murder Act ought not to be Submitted to a Moment.
Adams’s cousin Samuel picked up the phrase in a 29 Jan 1775 letter to Arthur Lee, a Virginian in London who lobbied Parliament for the Massachusetts House:
The Act for regulating the Government of this Province and the Murder Act as it is commonly called soon followd the Port Act; and General [Thomas] Gage, whether from his own Motives or the Instructions of the Minister, thought proper to assemble all the Kings Troops then on the Continent, in this Town and has declared to the Selectmen & others his Resolution to put the Acts in Execution.
Then Joseph Hawley, Northampton’s leading lawyer, used the phrase in a 22 February letter to Thomas Cushing:
Since I left Cambridge, I have had many thoughts on the state of this Province and continent; and suffer me to say, Sir, that the time is in fact arrived, when we are to drop all chimerical plans, and in our contemplations thoroughly to think down, and pervade every step that is proposed for practice; to judge of its practicability, and, as far as possible, to view all its consequences. With this conviction, I have been most seriously contemplating the commission and most important trust of our Committee of Safety, and especially that branch of it which relates to their mustering the minute men and others of the militia, when they shall judge that the late Acts of Parliament, viz. the regulation act and the murder act, are attempted to be carried into execution by force.
However, I haven’t found other examples of the phrase “Murder Act” in American newspapers or founders’ correspondence from 1774-75. I don’t claim to have caught every example, but I think the lack of widespread use of the phrase is telling. However much Whig activists tried to play up this new law, the “Murder Act” seems to have been a relatively mild concern.

(I also started this investigation with the thought that Adams and Hawley both knew the phrase “Murder Act” already from studying Britain’s Murder Act of 1751 or 1752. However, that short title didn’t become official until 1896 and appears in earlier sources rarely if at all. That law’s official title was “An Act for better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder.”)

TOMORROW: George Washington and the “Murder Act.”

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