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, August 27, 2013

What Lay Behind the Administration of Justice Act

Among Parliament’s Coercive Acts of spring 1774 was the “act for the impartial administration of justice in the cases of persons questioned for any acts done by them in the execution of the law, or for the suppression of riots and tumults, in the province of the Massachuset’s Bay.” Or, in short, the Administration of Justice Act.

That law read:
WHEREAS in his Majesty’s province of Massachuset’s Bay, in New England, an attempt hath lately been made to throw off the authority of the parliament of Great Britain over the said province, and an actual and avowed resistance, by open force, to the execution of certain acts of parliament, hath been suffered to take place, uncontrouled and unpunished, in defiance of his Majesty’s authority, and to the subversion of all lawful government

Whereas, in the present disordered state of the said province, it is of the utmost importance to the general welfare thereof, and to the re-establishment of lawful authority throughout the same, that neither the magistrates acting in support of the laws, nor any of his Majesty’s subjects aiding and assisting them therein, or in the suppression of riots and tumults, raised in opposition to the execution of the laws and statutes of this realm, should be discouraged from the proper discharge of their duty, by an apprehension, that in case of their being questioned for any acts done therein, they may be liable to be brought to trial for the same before persons who do not acknowledge the validity of the laws, in the execution thereof, or the authority of the magistrate in the support of whom, such acts had been done…

That if any inquisition or indictment shall be found, or if any appeal shall be sued or preferred against any person, for murder, or other capital offence, in the province of the Massachuset’s Bay, and it shall appear, by information given upon oath to the governor, or, in his absence, to the lieutenant-governor of the said province, that the fact was committed by the person…either in the execution of his duty as a magistrate, for the suppression of riots, or in the support of the laws of revenue, or in acting in his duty as an officer of revenue, or in acting under the direction and order of any magistrate, for the suppression of riots, or for the carrying into effect the laws of revenue, or in aiding and assisting in any of the cases aforesaid: and if it shall also appear, to the satisfaction of the said governor, or lieutenant-governor respectively, that an indifferent trial cannot be had within the said province, in that case, it shall and may be lawful for the governor, or lieutenant-governor, to direct, with the advice and consent of the council, that the inquisition, indictment, or appeal, shall be tried in some other of his Majesty’s colonies, or in Great Britain…
Further clauses provided for witnesses to be brought to the trial venue with “a reasonable sum to be allowed for the expences of every such witness” and protection for them from lawsuits as well.

When the London government’s top lawyers (like Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn, shown above) wrote this legislation, they were thinking of how the Massachusetts legal system had treated Crown employees in recent years:
  • During the 1768-1770 occupation of Boston, Whig magistrates had dismissed soldiers’ complaints about being assaulted by locals while issuing warrants against Lt. Alexander Ross, Ens. John Ness, and other army officers who had helped their men escape the local authorities. (Those court cases basically went away when the regiments moved out of town after March 1770.)
  • Customs employee Ebenezer Richardson was convicted in 1770 of murdering Christopher Seider, a boy in a crowd attacking his house and family. (The Crown eventually pardoned Richardson.)
  • Customs officer Edward Manwaring, his friend John Munro, and Customs house employees Hammond Green and Thomas Greenwood had all been put on trial for the Boston Massacre based on flimsy evidence. (A Boston jury acquitted all those men.)
And of course there were the Boston Massacre soldiers themselves. Royal officials believed they had clearly acted in self-defense, even the two convicted of manslaughter.

In short, the London government had come to see the Massachusetts justice system as stacked against royal appointees just trying to do their jobs. The new law didn’t dismiss Massachusetts indictments or lawsuits against those officials, but it made sure they could be tried somewhere else.

Massachusetts Patriots complained this new law tacitly gave royal appointees the go-ahead to oppress people, knowing it would be too hard to convict them in a distant venue. Local Whigs were already complaining about the pardon for Richardson, and about trials before the Vice-Admiralty Court.

Unlike the other Coercive Acts, the Administration of Justice Act was never put into effect. As part of their protest against the Massachusetts Government Act, the province’s Patriots refused to sit on juries and shut county courts in the summer of 1774. That meant they also shut down indictments and lawsuits against royal officials. The new governor, Thomas Gage, never had reason to invoke this law.

TOMORROW: Where did the nickname “the Murder Act” come from?

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