Friday, June 21, 2024

“He would not consent to any alteration in the style”

Among the many disputes between Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and the Massachusetts General Court was one over how new laws were designated by year.

According to Hutchinson, the usual form for Parliament’s laws, copied by the colonial legislature, was “Anno Regni Regis Georgii Magnæ Britannia Franciæ &c.”—in the [number] year of George [number], King of Great Britain, France, and so on. (British monarchs continued to claim France until the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.)

In the spring of 1773, House clerk Samuel Adams started using the English phrase “In the thirteenth year of King George the third,” a common legal formula.

Hutchinson didn’t like that. He considered Adams “a Member of the House who does nothing without design.” (Though he added, “The House in general I suppose were not acquainted with the design.”)

On 28 June, the governor wrote to the assembly: “I am not only averse to Innovations, unless a manifest Reason can be given, but I am also restrained by my Instructions from consenting to any Bill of an unusual and extraordinary Nature without a suspending Clause.” He asked the legislature to return to the old style.

The Massachusetts House of course named a committee to respond, and of course the first member on that committee was Samuel Adams. The reply (hand-delivered by others) was:
The House have read your Message just now laid before them, and cannot but wonder that you should consider the Bills that have passed the two Houses as of an extraordinary nature, merely because the words expressive of the Year of the King’s Reign are in plain English instead of the Roman Language as usual; or that your Excellency should think yourself restrained by an Instruction from consenting to them.
Nonetheless, the House said it would revert to the previous phrasing.

Writing to the Lords of Trade in August, Hutchinson insisted: “the English words did not convey the same ideas and the alteration was proposed to the House meerly to get rid of Magne Britannæ or any words which imply it.”

That General Court had a second term from 26 January to 9 March, with the impeachment of Chief Justice Peter Oliver one of the main pieces of business—creating another big dispute with the governor.

In that session, Hutchinson noticed that the House used “Anno Regni Regis Georgii” but “left out the words et cætera.” He declared he now wouldn’t approve any bill unless it contained the whole phrase “Magnæ Britanniæ Franciæ & Hiberniæ.”

In a volume of history Hutchinson wrote a few years later, he connected those small edits to a big plan for elevating the province of Massachusetts to the same level as Britain:
Mr. Adams’s attention to the cause in which he was engaged would not suffer him to neglect even small circumstances, which could be made subservient to it. From this attention, in four or five years, a great change had been made in the language of the general assembly. That which used to be called the “court house,” or “town house,” had acquired the name of the “state house;” “the house of representatives of Massachusetts Bay,” had assumed the name of “his majesty’s commons;”—the “debates of the assembly,” are styled “parliamentary debates;”—“acts of parliament,” “acts of the British parliament;”—“the province laws,” “the laws of the land;”—“the charter,” a grant from royal grace or favour, is styled the “compact;”—and now “impeach” is used for “complain,” and the “house of representatives” are made analogous to the “commons,” and the “council” to the “lords,” to decide in cases of high crimes and misdemeanours, and, upon the same reason, in cases of high treason.
In a small way, those linguistic changes did get to the crux of Massachusetts’s dispute with the Crown. Did the Parliament in London have authority over every colony within the empire? Or was a colony’s own legislature the only parliament that could levy taxes and make laws for its people?

Gov. Hutchinson felt that he was standing up for the British constitution by insisting that George III be designated king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland—leaving no possibility that he was separately king of Massachusetts, or that the colonies might be listed at the same level as those core parts of the empire.

At the same time, Hutchinson was sure this nuance would be lost on most people in Massachusetts. They would assume his insistence on traditional wording arose “from mere humour” or peevishness. “To this inconvenience he was,” Hutchinson wrote of himself, “in many instances, forced to submit, to avoid a greater, by the controversy in which his attempting an explanation would involve him, which, in every answer, would bring fresh abuse.”

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