History of the United States, Volume 3: 1763-1774

Author: George Bancroft

Chapter 31:
Great Britain Centres in Itself Power Over Its Colonies,
Hillsborough’s Retirement,
June 1771-August 1772

"THE glorious spirit of liberty is vanquished, and left without hope but in a miracle," was the language of desponding patriots in Boston. "I confess," said Samuel Adams, "we have, as Wolfe expressed it, a choice of difficulties. Too many flatter themselves that their pusillanimity is true prudence; but, in perilous times like these, I cannot conceive of prudence without fortitude." John Adams retired from "the service of the people," and, devoting himself to his profession, for a time ceased even to employ his pen in their defence. Otis, disordered in mind and jealous of his declining influence, did but impede the public cause. In Hancock, vanity so mingled with patriotism that the government hoped to win him over.

The assembly, which for the third year was convened at Cambridge, adopted a protest in which Samuel Adams drew the distinction between a prerogative and its abuse; and inquired what would follow in England if a British king should call a parliament in Cornwall and keep it there seven years. Nor did he omit to expose the rapid consolidation of power in the hands of the executive, by the double process of making all civil officers dependent for support solely on the king, and giving to arbitrary instructions an authority paramount to the charter and the laws.

The protest had hardly been adopted when, in July 1771, the application of its doctrines became necessary. The commissioners of the customs had, through Hutchinson, applied for an exemption of their salaries from the colonial income tax; and Hillsborough, disregarding a usage of more than fifty years, commanded the compliance of the legislature. The engrossed tax bill for the year was of the same tenor with the annual acts from time immemorial. The assessors had, moreover, rated the commissioners with extreme moderation. Persons who had less income were taxed as much as they, so that it did not even appear that any regard was had to their salaries. Paxton’s provincial tax, for his personal estate and income, was for the last year less than three pounds sterling; and what he paid to the town and county not much more. To prevent the levy of this inconsiderable, customary, and most moderate tax, Hutchinson, on the fourth of July, greatly against his own judgment, negatived the tax bill, and declared his obligation under his instructions to negative any other drawn in the same usual terms.

The stopping of supplies by a veto of the crown was unknown in England; an order from the king to exempt special individuals from their share of taxation was unconstitutional; the exemption, if submitted to by the assembly, would have been an acquiescence in an unwarrantable instruction. On the next day the house replied in the words of Samuel Adams: "We know of no commissioners of his majesty’s customs, nor of any revenue his majesty has a right to establish in North America; we know and feel a tribute levied and extorted from those who, if they have property, have a right to the absolute disposal of it. To withhold your assent to this bill, merely by force of instruction, is effectually vacating the charter, and giving instructions the force of laws, within this province. If such a doctrine shall be established, the representatives of a free people would be reduced to this fatal alternative: either to have no taxes levied and raised at all, or to have them raised add levied in such a way, and upon" such persons only as "his majesty pleases." At the first meeting of the assembly, loyalty had prevailed; in his rejoinder Hutchinson again kept the ministers out of sight, and brought the king and the colony into direct conflict. "I know," he said, "that your messages and resolves of the last year were very displeasing to the king; I shall transmit my messages, and this your extraordinary answer, to be laid before him."

Wise men saw the event that was approaching, but not that it was so near. Franklin foretold a bloody struggle, in which "America’s growing strength and magnitude" would give her the victory. The letter of the house to its agent, claiming that colonial legislation was independent of parliament and of royal instructions, was drawn by Samuel Adams, who had long before said, in town-meeting: "Independent we are, and independent we will be." "I doubt," wrote Hutchinson, "whether there is a greater incendiary than he in the king’s dominions." His language became more explicit as danger drew nearer.

In August, Boston saw in its harbor twelve vessels of war, carrying more than two hundred and sixty guns, commanded by Montagu, the brother of Lord Sandwich. Yet Eden from Maryland could congratulate Hillsborough on the return of confidence and harmony. "The people," so wrote Johnson, the agent of Connecticut, after his return home, "appear to be weary of their altercations with the mother country; a little discreet conduct on both sides would perfectly reestablish that warm affection and respect toward Great Britain for which this country was once so remarkable." Hutchinson, too, in October, reported "a disposition in all the colonies to let the controversy with the kingdom subside." The king sent word to tempt Hancock by marks of favor. "Hancock and most of the party," said the governor, "are quiet; and all of them, except Adams, abate of their virulence."

While America generally was so tranquil, Samuel Adams continued musing, till the thought of correspondence and union among the friends of liberty ripened in his mind. "It would be an arduous task," he said, meditating a project which required a year’s reflection for its maturity, "to awaken a sufficient number in the colonies to so grand an undertaking. Nothing, however, should be despaired of." Through the press, in October, he continued: "We have nothing to rely upon but the interposition of our friends in Britain, of which I have no expectation, or the LAST APPEAL. The tragedy of American freedom is nearly completed. A tyranny seems to be at the very door. They who lie under oppression deserve what they suffer; let them perish with their oppressors. Could millions be enslaved, if all possessed the independent spirit of Brutus, who, to his immortal honor, expelled the tyrant of Rome and his royal and rebellious race The liberties of our country are worth defending at all hazards. If we should suffer them to be wrested from us, millions yet unborn may be the miserable sharers in the event. Every step has been taken but one; and the last appeal would require prudence, unanimity, and fortitude. America must herself, under God, work out her own salvation."

In the annual proclamation which appointed the November festival of thanksgiving, and which was always read from every pulpit, Hutchinson sought to ensnare the clergy by enumerating as a cause for gratitude "that civil and religious liberties were continued," and "trade enlarged." He was caught in his own toils. All the Boston ministers except one refused to read the paper; when Pemberton, of whose church the governor was a member, began confusedly to do so, the patriots of his congregation, turning their backs on him, walked out of the meeting; and nearly all the ministers agreed on the Thanksgiving day "to implore of Almighty God the restoration of lost liberties."

Nowise disheartened, Hutchinson waited "to hear how the extravagance of the assembly in their last session would be resented by the king;" now striving to set Hancock against Adams; now seeking to lull the people into security; now boasting of his band of writers on the side of government, Church, a professed patriot, being of the number; now triumphing at the spectacle of Otis who was carried into the country, bound hand and foot as a maniac; now speculating on the sale of cheap teas at high prices; now urging the government in England to remodel all the New England provinces, even while he pretended that they were quiet and submissive. His only fears were lest his advice should become known in America.

Confirmed by the seeming tranquillity in America, and by the almost unprecedented strength of the ministry in parliament, Hillsborough gave free scope to his conceit, wrongheadedness, obstinacy, and passion, and perplexed affairs by the senseless exercise of authority. He still required the legislature of Massachusetts to exempt the commissioners from taxation, or the tax bill should be negatived; and Gage was enjoined to attend to the security of the fortress in Boston harbor.

In Georgia, Noble Wimberley Jones, a man of exemplary life and character, had been elected speaker. Wright, who reported him to be "a very strong Liberty Boy," would not consent to the choice; and the house voted the interference a breach of their privileges. To crush this claim of the house, Hillsborough directed the governor "to put his negative upon any person whom they should next elect for speaker, and to dissolve the assembly in case they should question the right of such negative."

The affections of South Carolina were still more thoroughly alienated. Its public men were ruled by their sense of honor, and felt a stain upon it as a wound. From the day when Lyttelton had abruptly dismissed a Carolinian from the king’s council, it became the pride of native Carolinians not to accept a seat in that body. The members of the assembly "disdained to take any pay for their attendance." Since March 1771, no legislative act had been perfected, because the governor refused to pass any appropriations which should cover the grant of the assembly to the society for the bill of rights; but patriot planters by their private credit and purses met the wants of colonial agents and committees. To extend the benefit of courts of justice into the interior, the province, at an expense of five thousand pounds, bought the monopoly of Richard Cumberland as provost by patent for the whole; and offered to establish salaries for the judges, if the commissions of those judges were but made permanent as in England. At last, in 1769, trusting to the honor of the crown, they voted perpetual grants of salaries. When this was done, Rawlins Lowndes and others, their own judges, taken from among themselves, were dismissed; and, in 1772, an Irishman, a Scotchman, and a Welshman were sent over by Hillsborough to take their places. "The honors of the state," said the planters, "are all given away to worthless sycophants." The governor, Lord Charles Greville Montagu, had no palace at Charleston; he uttered a threat to convene the South Carolina assembly at Port Royal, unless they would vote him a house to his mind. This is the culminating point of administrative insolence.

The system of concentrating all colonial power in England was resisted at the West. In Illinois, the corruption and favoritism of the military commander compelled the people to a remonstrance. The removal of them all to places within the limits of some established colony was the mode of pacification which Hillsborough approved, but the Spanish jurisdiction across the river offered so near a sanctuary that such a policy was impracticable. An establishment of government by the crown upon the lowest plan of expense, and without any intermixture of popular power, was thought of. "A regular constitutional government for them," said Gage, "cannot be suggested. They don’t deserve so much attention." "I agree with you," replied Hillsborough; "a regular government for that district would be highly improper." The people of Illinois, weary of the shameless despotism which aimed only at forestalling tracts of land, the monopoly of the Indian trade, or the ruin of the French villages, took their cause into their own hands; they demanded institutions like those of Connecticut, and set themselves against any proposal for a government which should be irresponsible to themselves. In 1771, they assembled in a general meeting, and fixed upon their scheme, from which they never departed, "expecting to appoint their own governor and all civil magistrates." Toward the people at Vincennes, Hillsborough was less relenting; for they were at his mercy, with no Spanish shore to which they could fly. In April 1772, they were, by formal proclamation, peremptorily commanded to retire within the jurisdiction of some one of the colonies. But the men of Indiana were as unwilling to abandon their homes in a settlement which they claimed to be already seventy years old, as those of Illinois to give up the hope of freedom. And what allegiance would men of French origin bear to a British king who proposed to take away their estates and deny them liberty?

The people of Virginia were overruled on a subject of vital importance to them and their posterity. Their halls of legislation had resounded with eloquence directed against the terrible plague of negro slavery. The struggle for their own liberty made them more thoughtful of the sorrows of the humble who were oppressed by themselves. An act of 1748 had imposed unequal taxes on the wives and female children of free people of color; in November 1769, the grievance was redressed, because, says the statute-book, "it is found very burdensome to such negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, and is, moreover, derogatory of the rights of free-born subjects." To Jefferson, it did not seem enough to guard the rights of the free-born subjects of African descent; in this same session he brought in a bill for permitting the unrestricted emancipation of slaves. But the abrogation of the slave-trade was regarded by the legislature as the necessary preliminary to successful efforts at getting rid of slavery itself. Again and again they had passed laws restraining the importations of negroes from Africa; but their laws were disallowed. How to prevent them from protecting themselves against the increase of the overwhelming evil was debated by the king in council; and, on the tenth of December 1770, he issued an instruction, under his own hand, commanding the governor, "upon pain of the highest displeasure, to assent to no law by which the importation of slaves should be in any respect prohibited or obstructed." In April 1772, this rigorous order was solemnly debated in the assembly of Virginia. The negro slaves in the low country were double the number of the white people, and gained every year from importations and from births, so as to alarm not only Virginia, but all America. "The people of this colony," it was said, "must fall upon means not only of preventing their increase, but of lessening their number; and the interest of the country would manifestly require the total expulsion of them. Supposing it possible, by rigor and exemplary punishment, to prevent any insurrection, yet, in case of a war, the people, with great reason, tremble at the facility that an enemy would find in procuring such a body of men, attached by no tie to their masters or their country, ready to join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves, by which means a conquest of this country would inevitably be effected in a very short time." The abhorred instruction, which maintained the nefarious trade in men, sprung directly from the throne; Virginia, therefore, resolved to address the king himself. They entreated of him leave to defend themselves against the crimes of commercial avarice, and these were their words:

"The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity; and, under its present encouragement, we have too much reason to fear, will endanger the very existence of your majesty’s American dominions. We are sensible that some of your majesty’s subjects in Great Britain may reap emoluments from this sort of traffic; but, when we consider that it greatly retards the settlement of the colonies with more useful inhabitants, and may in time have the most destructive influence, we presume to hope that the interest of a few will be disregarded, when placed in competition with the security and happiness of such numbers of your majesty’s dutiful and loyal subjects.

"Deeply impressed with these sentiments, we most humbly beseech your majesty to remove all those restraints on your majesty’s governors of this colony which inhibit their assenting to such laws as might check so very pernicious a commerce."

Thousands in Maryland and in New Jersey were ready to adopt a similar petition; so were the legislatures of North Carolina, of Pennsylvania, of New York. Massachusetts, in its towns and in its legislature, had reprobated the condition of slavery, as well as the sale of slaves. There was no jealousy of one another in the strife against the crying evil; Virginia represented the moral sentiment and policy of them all. How strong were her convictions, how earnest and united the efforts of her statesmen, appears from this, that Dunmore himself, giving utterance to a seemingly unanimous desire, was constrained to plead with the ministry in behalf of the petitioners for leave to prohibit the slave-trade by law.

When the prayer reached England, a slave had just refused to serve his master during his stay in England; whereupon, by his master’s orders, he was put on board a ship by force, to be carried out of the kingdom and sold. "So high an act of dominion," said Lord Mansfield in June, 1772, pronouncing the opinion of all the judges present, "must derive its authority, if any such it has, from the law of the kingdom where executed. The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced by courts of justice upon mere reasoning, or inferences from any principles natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law, and, in a case so odious as the condition of slaves, must be taken strictly. No master was ever allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad for any reason whatever. We cannot say the cause set forth by this return is allowed or approved of by the laws of this kingdom, therefore the man must be discharged." But the king of England, though avoiding to reject in form the appeal of Virginia to himself, stood forth as the stubborn protector of the African slave-trade.

"Pharisaical Britain!" said Franklin, through the press; "to pride thyself in setting free a single slave that happened to land on thy coasts, while thy merchants in all thy ports are encouraged by thy laws to continue a commerce whereby so many hundreds of thousands are dragged into a slavery that can scarce be said to end with their lives, since it is entailed on their posterity." Yet the decision of the king’s bench was momentous; for it settled the question that slavery, in any part of the British dominions of those days, rested only on local laws.

The great men of Virginia already looked forward to a thorough social change. In January 1773, Patrick Henry, writing to a member of the society of Friends, chid those of them who were "lukewarm in the abolition of slavery." "Is it not amazing," so he expressed himself, "that, at a time when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country above all others fond of liberty, in such an age, we find men professing a religion the most humane, mild, meek, gentle, and generous, adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive to liberty? Every thinking honest man rejects it in speculation; but how few in practice, from conscientious motives! Believe me, I shall honor the Quakers for their noble efforts to abolish slavery; they are equally calculated to promote moral and political good. Would any one believe that I am master of slaves of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I cannot, justify it; however culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and to lament my want of conformity to them. I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil; everything we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery. We owe to the purity of our religion to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery. I exhort you to persevere. I could say many things on this subject, a serious view of which gives a gloomy prospect to future times."

But the voice of Virginia gained its clearest utterance through one of her sons, who was of a deeper, sadder, and more earnest nature than Henry or Jefferson. Early in 1773, George Mason addressed to its legislature these prophetic words:

"Mean and sordid, but extremely short-sighted and foolish, is that self-interest which, in political questions, opposeth itself to the public good: a wise man can no other way so effectually consult the permanent welfare of his own family and posterity as by securing the just rights and privileges of that society to which they belong.

"Perhaps the constitution may by degrees work itself clear by its own innate strength, the virtue and resolution of the community; as hath often been the case in our mother country. This last is the natural remedy, if not counteracted by that slow poison which is daily contaminating the minds and morals of our people. Every gentleman here is born a petty tyrant. Practiced in arts of despotism and cruelty, we become callous to the dictates of humanity, and all the finer feelings of the soul. Taught to regard a part of our own species in the most abject and contemptible degree below us, we lose that idea of the dignity of a man which the hand of nature hath planted in us for great and useful purposes. Habituated from our infancy to trample upon the rights of human nature, every generous, every liberal sentiment, if not extinguished, is enfeebled in our minds; and in such an infernal school are to be educated our future legislators and rulers. The laws of impartial Providence may, even by such means as these, avenge upon our posterity the injury done to a set of wretches whom our injustice hath debased to a level with the brute creation. These remarks were extorted by a kind of irresistible, perhaps an enthusiastic impulse; and the author of them, conscious of his own good intentions, cares not whom they please or offend."

Rhode Island at that day, especially in Newport, had many slaves; in April 1773, Samuel Hopkins unfolded to Ezra Stiles his design of educating negroes to be ministers of the gospel, and sending them on a mission to Guinea; and, in August 1773, they issued a circular in behalf of sending two emancipated slaves as missionaries to Africa. The appeal was renewed in April 1776.

Inhabitants of Providence, in Rhode Island, had, in March 1772, complained to the deputy governor of Lieutenant Dudingston, commander of the Gaspee. Hopkins, the chief justice, on being consulted, gave the opinion "that any person who should come into the colony and exercise any authority by force of arms, without showing his commission to the governor, and, if a custom-house officer, without being sworn into his office, was guilty of a trespass, if not piracy." The governor, therefore, sent a sheriff on board the Gaspee, to ascertain by what orders the lieutenant acted. Dudingston referred the subject to the admiral, who answered from Boston: "The lieutenant, sir, has done his duty. I shall give the king’s officers directions that they send every man taken in molesting them to me. As sure as the people of Newport attempt to rescue any vessel, and any of them are taken, I will hang them as pirates." Dudingston seconded the insolence of his superior officer, insulted the inhabitants, plundered the islands of sheep and hogs, cut down trees, fired at market-boats, detained vessels without a colorable pretext, and made illegal seizures of goods of which the recovery cost more than they were worth.

In the afternoon of the ninth of June, the Providence packet was returning to Providence, and, proud of its speed, went gayly on, heedless of the Gaspee. Dudingston gave chase. The tide being but two hours on ebb, the packet ventured near shore; the Gaspee, confidently following, ran aground on Namquit, a little below Pawtuxet, without a chance of moving before the return of high tide. Informed of the accident, John Brown of Providence instantly raised a party of shipmasters, Whipple, Hopkins, and others, skillful oarsmen, Mawney a physician, Bowen, with other young companions. Embarking after nightfall in six or seven boats, they boarded the stranded schooner, after a scuffle in which Dudingston was wounded took and landed its crew and their personal property, and then set it on fire. The whole was conducted on a sudden impulse; yet Lord Sandwich, who was at the head of the British admiralty, resolved never to leave pursuing the colony of Rhode Island until its charter should be taken away. "A few punished at Execution dock would be the only effectual preventive of any further attempt," wrote Hutchinson, who wished to see a beginning of punishing American offenders in England. There now existed a statute authorizing such a procedure. Two months before, the king had assented to an act for the better securing dock-yards, ships, and stores, which made death the penalty for destroying even the oar of a cutter’s boat or the head of an empty cask belonging to the fleet, and subjected the accused to a trial in any county in Great Britain; and this act extended to the colonies.

For the last five years, there had been no contested election in Boston. Deceived by the apparent tranquillity, the friends of government in 1772 attempted to defeat the choice of Samuel Adams as representative; but he received more than twice and a half as many votes as his opponent.

The legislature was for the fourth year convened at Cambridge; but the governor had grown weary of the strife, and, against his declared purpose, adjourned the session to the accustomed house in Boston. There the assembly gave attention to the gradual change in the constitution of the colony effected by the payment of the king’s civil officers through warrants under his sign manual, drawn on a perennial fund raised by an act of parliament. By their charter, which they respected as "a most solemn compact" between them and Great Britain, they maintained that over their governor and judges the power of the king was protected by the right of nomination, the power of the colony by the exclusive right of providing support. These views were embodied by Hawley in a report to the assembly, and, on the tenth of July 1772, adopted by a vote of eighty-five to nineteen. It followed, and was so resolved, that a governor who, like Hutchinson, was not dependent on the people for support, was not such a governor as the people had consented to, at the granting of the charter; the house most solemnly protested "that the innovation was an important change of the constitution, and exposed the province to a despotic administration of government." The inference was unavoidable. If the principle contained in the preamble to Townshend’s revenue act should become the rule of administration, obedience would no longer be due to the governor, and the rightful dependence on England would be at an end.

On the seventh of August, the secretary, with eager haste, announced that the king, with the "entire concurrence of Lord North, had made provision for the support of his law servants in the province of Massachusetts Bay." This act, constituting judges, who held their offices at the king’s pleasure, stipendiaries of the crown, was the crisis of revolution.

Meantime, Hillsborough was left with few supporters except the flatterers who had made his vanity subservient to their selfishness. The king was weary of him; his colleagues conspired to drive him into retirement. The occasion was at hand. Franklin had negotiated with the treasury for a grant to a company of about twenty-three millions of acres of land south of the Ohio and west of the Alleghanies; Hillsborough, from the fear that men in the backwoods would be too independent, opposed the project. Franklin persuaded Hertford, Gower, Camden, the secretaries of the treasury, and others, to become share-holders in his scheme; by their influence, the lords of council disregarded the adverse report of the board of trade, and decided in favor of planting the new province. Hillsborough was too proud to brook this public insult; and the king, soothing his fall by a patent for a British earldom, accepted his resignation; but Thurlow took care that the grant for the western province should never be sealed. The pious and amiable Lord Dartmouth, who succeeded Hillsborough as secretary for the colonies, had been taught to believe, with Lord North and the king, that it was necessary to carry out the policy of consolidation, as set forth in Townshend’s preamble.


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Chicago: George Bancroft, "Chapter 31: Great Britain Centres in Itself Power Over Its Colonies, Hillsborough’s Retirement, June 1771-August 1772," History of the United States, Volume 3: 1763-1774 in George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.404-416 Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8SPPG1M6CU2BDD.

MLA: Bancroft, George. "Chapter 31: Great Britain Centres in Itself Power Over Its Colonies, Hillsborough’s Retirement, June 1771-August 1772." History of the United States, Volume 3: 1763-1774, in George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.404-416, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8SPPG1M6CU2BDD.

Harvard: Bancroft, G, 'Chapter 31: Great Britain Centres in Itself Power Over Its Colonies, Hillsborough’s Retirement, June 1771-August 1772' in History of the United States, Volume 3: 1763-1774. cited in , George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.404-416. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8SPPG1M6CU2BDD.