The Colonial Assemblies



THE royal order sent by Hillsborough late in April, 1768, requiring the American assemblies to treat the Circular Letter of the Massachusetts Legislature with contempt, as "an unwarrantable combination and flagitious attempt to disturb the public peace," and threatening them with dissolution in case they should refuse compliance, created a tempest of indignation all over the land. That order was properly regarded as a direct attempt to abridge or absolutely control free discussion in the colonies, and so deprive them of their best guaranty for the preservation of their liberties. They resented the king's action in the matter in respectful and decorous words that were full of the spirit of a people determined to be free; and that order was more potential in crystallizing the colonies into a permanent union than any event in their past history. They felt that in union only would consist their strength in the great conflict that now appeared inevitable, and which thinking men believed near at hand. Franklin in England, writing to his son concerning a proffered colonial office, said: "I apprehend a breach between the two countries." Samuel Langdon of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who had been a chaplain in the provincial army at the capture of Louisburg, wrote to Ezra Stiles, then a clergyman at Newport and afterward President of Yale College: "It is best for the Americans to let the king know the utmost of their resolutions, and the danger of a violent rending of the colonies from the mother country." Stephen Hopkins, then sixty years of age, and a Son of Liberty of truest metal, wrote from his home in Rhode Island to a friend in Boston: "Persevere in the good work. We will abide with you to the end; the God of wisdom and of justice is with us." Roger Sherman, the thoughtful shoemaker, on the judicial bench of Connecticut, and afterward, with Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote: "No assembly on the continent will ever concede that Parliament has a right to tax the colonies;" and in another letter he said: "The right of unfettered discussion is inalienable, and we must maintain it." William Williams, a citizen of the same State and afterward a signer of the great Declaration, wrote from Lebanon to a friend: "We cannot believe that they [the British government] will draw the sword in their own colonies; but if they do, our blood is more at their service than our liberties." John Morin Scott, an ardent Son of Liberty in New York, and brave fellow-soldier of William Livingston, in the battle with the pen against the Church and State of Great Britain, wrote to a member of the Massachusetts Legislature: "You are right, and that is sufficient for me. We will fight the tory faction here, and the British regulars too, if necessary." When Chandler, the good rector of Elizabethtown and champion of the Church of England, wrote, "The colonies will soon experience worse things than in the late stamp act, or I am no prophet," the patriots of New Jersey smiled at the covert threat, and Richard Stockton, then a conservative member of the governor's council, but afterward a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote to William Livingston, saying: "We must maintain the natural and chartered rights of the colonists, but by peaceful and lawful means."

The colonial assemblies everywhere took decided action, and exhibited remarkable unanimity of sentiment. New Hampshire was warmly responsive to the sentiments of Langdon's letter. The Assembly of Rhode Island highly approved of the action of Massachusetts. In Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, the same spirit was manifested. The New York Assembly adopted the Massachusetts Circular, and declared, by resolutions, the undoubted right of the people, through their representatives, to correspond and consult with any of the neighboring colonies on subjects of public importance. They chose a committee of correspondence; and the inhabitants of the city of New York, in a public letter addressed to their representatives in the Assembly, denounced the royal order "as the most daring insult that was ever offered to any free legislative body." That Assembly, which had yielded a little to the requirements of the mutiny act, now had more backbone of patriotism, and stood up manfully in support of the people's rights. The Sons of Liberty in New York were very active at the same time, and in the newspapers, hand-bills and pamphlets, they offered their sentiments with great boldness. A hand-bill, which was widely posted about the city on a dark night, bore these words:-"Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds, that we cannot be free without being secure in our property; that we cannot be secure in our property if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away; that taxes imposed by Parliament do thus take it away; that duties laid for the sole purpose of raising money are taxes; that attempts to lay such, should be instantly and firmly opposed."

The Legislature of Pennsylvania treated the royal order with decorous scorn; and a large public meeting in Philadelphia urged a cordial union of all the colonies in resistance to oppression. The Delaware Assembly boldly asserted the right of intercolonial correspondence, and declared their intention to co-operate with the other colonies. When the arrogant Governor Sharpe of Maryland laid the obnoxious royal order before the Assembly of that province, that body assured his excellency that they could not "be prevailed on to take no notice of, or treat with the least degree of contempt, a Letter so expressive of duty and loyalty to the sovereign, and so replete with just principles of liberty;" and added, "We shall not be intimidated by a few sounding expressions for doing what we think is right." They then sent their thanks to the Massachusetts Assembly. North Carolina rejected the order, and offered a respectful remonstrance; and at the same time the Massachusetts Circular was heartily approved. Virginia had already spoken out boldly in applause of the Circular, and the Assembly sent a letter of their own to all the colonial assemblies inviting their concurrence with Massachusetts. A committee of the South Carolina Legislature, composed of leading men of the colony like Gadsden, Laurens, Pinckney, Rutledge and Lynch, reported resolutions (which were adopted) declaring the Circulars of Massachusetts and Virginia to be replete with duty and loyalty to his Majesty, respect for Parliament, attachment to Great Britain, care for the preservation of the rights of British subjects, and founded upon undeniable constitutional principles. Twenty-six members voted for these resolutions. The offended royal governor immediately dissolved the Assembly, and the "Twenty-six" became as popular as the "Ninety-two" of the Massachusetts Assembly who voted not to rescind their Circular. The citizens of Charleston burnt the seventeen Massachusetts rescinders in effigy, and illumined the streets of the city by almost three hundred torches carried in procession. By their light they garlanded with flowers and evergreens an effigy of the Goddess of Liberty, which they had crowned with laurel and palmetto leaves. Georgia responded with equal but less demonstrative patriotism. In the face of the warnings of the royal governor, that their action tended to independence and would bring ruin on America, they approved the Massachusetts Circular, and rejected the royal order. Their dissolution followed.

All of the assemblies instantly sent reports of their action to that of Massachusetts; and when the Letter from North Carolina, dated November 10, 1768, reached Boston, the Evening Post of that city remarked: "It completes the answers to our Circular Letter. The colonies, no longer disconnected, form one body; a common sensation possesses the whole; the circulation is complete, and the vital fluid returns from whence it was sent out." It was so. At the beginning of 1769, there was a perfect union of the thirteen colonies in a determination to maintain their liberties at any cost; while English statesmen, infatuated by the possession of power, were adopting measures for the abridgment, if not the utter destruction, of their liberties.







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