The persuasions and warnings of the Opposition fell upon prejudiced and dull ears, and the famous Boston Port Bill was passed by an almost unanimous vote. The exultant king signed it on the 31st of March, 1774, and it became a law. It was the fatal knife of vivisection that severed the American people from their unnatural mother. The wound was made not healable from the searing given it by the unrighteous acts which followed.
The vote on the Port Bill stimulated Lord North to work the engine of oppression with greater vigor, and it was followed by other punitory acts of Parliament prepared by the skillful hand of Mansfield, the lord-chancellor.
The Port Bill was followed by another "for better regulating the government of Massachusetts Bay." It provided for the appointment of the governor's council and the judges of the supreme court by the crown; for the selection of jurors by the sheriffs instead of the selectmen; the nomination of all other executive, military, and judicial officers by the governor without consulting his council, and for prohibiting town-meetings except for elections. It was really a bill for the subversion of the charter of Massachusetts--an act for the inauguration of a radical revolution--a declaration of war upon the rights of the people of that province. "What can Americans believe," said Burke, who lifted up his voice most earnestly against the injustice, "but that England wishes to despoil America of all liberty, of all franchise, and by the reduction of the charters to reduce them to a state of the most abject slavery." Others warned ministers to pause; and Pownall prophesied in the ears of the House of Commons that these harsh measures would drive the Americans to the calling of a General Congress, and perhaps a resort to arms. In the House of Lords, Sheffield denounced the measure with vehemence, and eleven peers signed a protest; but logic and warnings were in vain; the bill passed both houses by very large majorities.
North now gave a third turn to his engine of oppression conceived by the king, and introduced a bill intended to screen crown-officers from punishment. It provided for trial in England of all persons charged in the colonies with murders committed in support of government. It was intended as a guaranty of comparative safety to those who might shoot or bayonet rebels in the name of the king. "This," said Colonel Barre, in debate, "is, indeed, the most extraordinary resolution ever heard in the Parliament of England. It offers new encouragement to military insolence already so insupportable. By this law Americans are deprived of a right which belongs to every human creature--that of demanding justice before a tribunal of impartial judges. Even Captain Preston, who, in their own city of Boston, had shed the blood of citizens, found among them a fair trial and equitable judges. Another member (Alderman Saw-bridge), declared that it was ridiculous and cruel--meant to enslave the Americans; and expressed a hope that they would not allow one of the bills to be executed; that they would reject them all. "If they do not," he said, "they are the most abject slaves upon earth, and nothing the ministers can do is base enough for them." This bill also passed both Houses by large majorities, and became a law by receiving the signature of the king on the 20th of May.
Satisfied that these measures would have to be enforced by the military arm, the king caused a fourth bill to be introduced providing for the quartering of troops in America. Rose Fuller, who was a moderate supporter of the ministry, tried to break the severity of the new laws by a proposition to repeal the act imposing the duty on tea. His resolution was negatived by a large majority. When the result was announced, he arose and uttered with solemnity these remarkable words: "I will now take my leave of the whole plan; you will commence your ruin from this day! I am sorry to say that not only the House has fallen into this error, but the people approve of the measure. The people, I am sorry to say, have been misled. But a short time will prove the evil tendency of this bill. If ever there was a nation rushing headlong to ruin, it is this." The bill took the course of the others and became a law.
These measures gave the ministers just apprehensions of open rebellion in America. The loyalty of the French in Canada, who were nearly all Roman Catholics, was not assured. It was a matter of vital importance to the government that their loyalty should be secured. So the King and Parliament, for state purposes, performed an inconsistent act. A bill was passed by the latter and confirmed by the former, which sanctioned the "free exercise of the religion of the Church of Rome, and confirmed to the clergy of that church their accustomed dues and rights." That King and Parliament, who would not acknowledge the legal existence of a Roman Catholic in Ireland, now, by the Quebec Act, so called, acknowledged the legal existence of a whole Roman Catholic state within the realm of England. Why? Because from the River St. Lawrence the government might more easily send instruments to enslave the English-American colonies than from any other point.
We have observed that the petition from Massachusetts to the king, praying for the removal of the governor and lieutenant-governor of that province, was laid before the Privy Council by the monarch; also that Franklin had taken the whole responsibility of the act of sending to Boston the offensive letters of Hutchinson, Oliver, and others. His candid public avowal--" I alone am the person who obtained and transmitted to Boston the letters in question," without explanation, raised a storm of indignation against him from almost every quarter, and led the government into acts of petty malice unworthy of a great nation. Franklin was then, and had been for some time, postmaster-general of the American colonies--an office of distinction and profit to the holder. This office and his reputation were now imperiled by his manly act. From the forum, the pulpit, and legislatures, as well as through the newspapers all over the land, the Port Bill was denounced, and a General Congress was advocated. At the head of some of the newspapers reappeared the device used during the stamp-act excitement-a disjointed snake, with the words JOIN or DIE. The cause of Boston was the cause of all the colonies.
The utter prostration of all business in Boston soon produced widespread suffering. All classes felt the scourge of the unnatural oppressor. With faith that deliverance would come, they bore the severe chastisement with wonderful equanimity. Soldiers to enslave them appeared at every turn; and cannon to overawe them soon menaced their lives and property from every eminence on the peninsula; yet no rash act incited by anger or suffering, marred the dignity of their fortitude. The sympathy of the people everywhere was warmly excited. The Press and the Pulpit suggested the sending of relief to the smitten inhabitants, and very soon money, grain, flour and live-stock were on their way toward Boston, accompanied by letters of condolence. This food for the suffering poor seemed like relief sent to a beleagured garrison, on whose existence a great cause depended. "Hold on; and hold out to the last; as you are placed in the front rank, if you fail all will be over," said a letter accompanying a substantial gift. "Don't pay for an ounce of the damned tea," wrote Christopher Gadsden of Charleston, when, at the middle of June, he shipped the first contribution of rice from the Carolina planters. Georgians sent sixty barrels of rice; and from the more northerly colonies went grain and sheep and beeves, with money. The city of London, in its corporate capacity, sent three-quarters of a million dollars for the relief of the poor of Boston. The people of Marblehead and Salem offered the free use of their wharves and stores to the Boston merchants, for they scorned to profit by the misfortunes of their neighbors.
Return to Our Country, Vol II