Massachusetts Circular Letter

AT the beginning of 1768, the Americans, educated by a long series of moral and political contests with the government of Great Britain, and assured by recent experience and observation of their own sound and potent physical and moral strength derived from numbers and the justice of their acts, stood in an attitude of firm resolve not to submit to the new schemes of the ministry for their enslavement. At that time Massachusetts, and particularly Boston, was regarded as the focus of sedition, and consequently had become the objects of the suspicion and wrath of the ministry. That Massachusetts was the "head centre" of opposition to ministerial and parliamentary injustice, cannot be truthfully denied. At the opening of the Assembly of that province at the beginning of 1768, the several obnoxious acts then recently passed were read and referred to a committee on the state of the province. That committee submitted a Letter addressed to the agent of the colony in England, but intended for the ministry. It set forth the rights of the Americans; their equality with British subjects as free citizens, and their right to local self-government. It expressed loyalty, and disclaimed a desire for independence; opposed the late acts as unconstitutional; remonstrated against the maintaining of a standing army in America as expensive, useless, altogether inadequate to compel obedience, and as dangerous to liberty. It objected to the establishment here of commissioners of customs; expressed alarm because of the attempt to annihilate the legislative authority of New York, and indicated the intention of Massachusetts to defend its rights. After much debate the Letter was adopted with other epistles to distinguished men in England; also a petition to the king couched in beautiful and touching language, in which a brief history of the settlements of the colonies was recounted; the story of their investment of rights by the revolution of 1688 was told, and the principles of the sacred right of being taxed only by representatives of their own free election were laid down. All of these documents were the production of the teeming brain and facile pen of Samuel Adams, one of the soundest, purest, most inflexible and incorruptible men of his time; poor in purse, but rich in principle; of whom Governor Hutchinson said, "He is of such an obstinate and inflexible disposition that he could never be conciliated by any office or gift whatever."

In February, a Circular Letter, also written by Samuel Adams, was sent to the several colonial assemblies, informing them of the contents of the Letter to the agent of the province, and the petition to the king, and inviting them to join the people of Massachusetts in "maintaining the liberties of America."

This Circular was fearlessly laid before Governor Bradford, for the patriots had nothing to conceal. It excited his fears and indignation. He wrote a letter to the Earl of Hillsborough, the Secretary of State for the colonies, in which he grossly misrepresented the temper and sentiments of the Circular, and declared that the Americans were aiming at independence. The board of commissioners of the revenue at Boston, who had lately been appointed, wrote in like manner', declaring their belief that their persons were not safe; that the seeming moderation of the Americans was illusory; that the colonists were uniting to throw off the yoke of dependence; complaining that at the town-meetings in the province "the lowest mechanics discussed the most important points of government with the utmost freedom, and said: "We have every reason to expect that we shall find it impracticable to enforce the execution of the revenue laws until the hand of government is properly strengthened. At present there is not a ship-of-war in the province, nor a company of soldiers nearer than New York." Massachusetts said to the ministry: "Touch not our local government, and relieve us of taxation without representation," and asked her sister colonies to join in the just demand. The crown officers said to the ministry: "Send us a fleet and army that we may destroy the local governments and tax the people without their consent." This was now the issue. To this complexion it had come at last; and the crown officers, wishing to have troops sent over, that the work might be speedily accomplished, wrote alarming letters home about concerted insurrections and of danger to the commissioners of customs. They pretended that the anniversary of the repeal of the stamp act was the day fixed for unlawful proceedings; and they tried to excite the people to some violent act to justify their accusations, by causing the effigies of two revenue officers to be seen hanging on Liberty-Tree on that morning. The "Sons of Liberty" quietly took them down, and celebrated the day in a temperate manner. Not even a bonfire was lighted in the streets at night; and only a few men, women and children gathered with harmless demonstrations of joy. The false Bernard wrote that there was great disposition to disorder; that "hundreds paraded the streets with yells and outcries that were quite terrible."

When, at the middle of April, the Circular and the misrepresentations of Bernard and other crown officers reached Hillsborough, he sent instructions to the governor to call upon the General Assembly of Massachusetts to rescind their resolutions, the substance of which was embodied in their Circular, and in case of refusal to dissolve them. Meanwhile responses to the Circular had come to Boston from the other assemblies, expressing cordial approbation of its sentiments. Individuals also sent approving letters, and patriots issued appeals to the people through the medium of newspapers and pamphlets. "Courage, Americans!" wrote William Livingston (it is supposed, an eminent Presbyterian lawyer in New York), in the American Whig, No. V. "Liberty, religion, and science are on the wing to these shores. The finger of God points out a mighty empire to your sons. The savages of the wilderness were never expelled to make room for idolaters and slaves. The land we possess is the gift of Heaven to our fathers, and Divine Providence seems to have decreed it to our latest posterity. So legible is this munificent and celestial deed in past events, that we need not be discouraged by the bickerings between us and the parent country. The angry cloud will soon be dispersed, and America advance to felicity and glory with redoubled activity and vigor. The day dawns in which the foundations of this mighty empire is to be laid by the establishment of a regular American constitution. All that has hitherto been done seems to be little beside the collection of materials for the construction of this glorious fabric. 'Tis time to put them together. The transfer of the European part of the great family is so swift, and our growth so vast, that before seven years roll over our heads the first stone must be laid. Peace or war, famine or plenty, poverty or affluence-in a word, no circumstance, whether prosperous or adverse, can happen to our parent-nay, no conduct of hers, whether wise or imprudent-no possible temper on her part, will put a stop to this building." So ran the prophecy in 1768. At the end of seven years its fulfillment began in earnest.

With his instructions to Bernard, Hillsborough sent a letter to the other royal governors, describing the Massachusetts Circular as "of a most dangerous and factious tendency," and directing them to use their influence to induce their respective assemblies to treat it "with the contempt it deserved." The governors were also instructed, in case the assemblies gave "any countenance to the seditious paper," to immediately dissolve them. By these means the Secretary hoped to induce the other assemblies to oppose the bold measure proposed by Massachusetts, and so isolate that province. The result did not justify his hopes. By this attempt to control their action, the assemblies were irritated, and their zeal in the cause in which Massachusetts was leading was increased. Meanwhile orders had been given to General Gage at New York to hold a regiment in readiness there to send to Boston, for the assistance of the crown officers in executing the laws. The admiralty was also directed to send a frigate and four smaller vessels-of-war to Boston harbor for the same purpose, and directions were given for the repairing and occupancy of Castle William on an island in that harbor. This measure was regarded by the Americans as a virtual declaration of war, yet they resolved to keep the sword of resistance in the scabbard as long as possible.

Return to Our Country, Vol II