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

Author: George Bancroft

Chapter 29:
The King Violates the Charter of Massachusetts,
March-October 1770

THE removal of the troops from Boston smoothed the way for conciliation. The town was resolved on bringing to trial the officer who had given the command to fire without the sanction of the civil authority and the men who had obeyed the order, that the supremacy of the civil authority might be vindicated; at the same time, it wished to the prisoners every opportunity of defence.

The instructions which the town of Boston, adopting the language of the younger Quincy, in May 1770, addressed to the representatives of its choice, made a plain reference to the Bedford protest, which appeared in the journals of the house of lords as evidence of "a desperate plan of imperial despotism," which was to be resisted, if necessary, "even unto the uttermost;" and therefore martial virtues and the lasting union of the colonies were recommended.

Of this document, Hutchinson made an effective use; and its reception contributed to that new set of measures, which hastened American independence by seeking to crush its spirit. England assumed a design for a general revolt, when there only existed a desire to guard against "innovations."

Hutchinson called the first legislature, elected since he became governor, to meet at Cambridge. "Not the least shadow of necessity," said the house in its remonstrance, "exists for it. Prerogative is a discretionary power vested in the king only for the good of the subject." Hutchinson had overacted his part, and found himself embarrassed by his own arbitrary act, for which he dared not assign the true reason, and could not assign a good One. The house censured his conduct by a vote of ninety-six against six, and refused to proceed to any other business than that of organizing the government.

In July, Hutchinson once more summoned the legislature to Cambridge, for which he continued to offer no other excuse than his instructions. The highest advocate for regal power had never gone so far as to claim that it might be used at caprice, to inflict wanton injury. There was no precedent for the measure but during the worst of times in England, or in France, where a parliament had sometimes been worried into submission by exile. Moreover, the plea was false, for Hillsborough had left him discretionary power; and he acted on the advice of Bernard, whom he feared to disregard.

The assembly asserted in the strongest terms the superiority of the legislative body to royal instructions; and, in answer to the old question of what is to be done upon the abusive exercise of the prerogative, they went back to the principles of the revolution and the words of Locke: "In this as in all other cases, where they have no judge on earth, the people have no remedy but to appeal to heaven." They drew a distinction between the king and his servants; and attributed to "wicked ministers" the encroachments on their liberty, as well as "the impudent mandate" to one assembly "to rescind an excellent resolution of a former one."

On the third of August, Hutchinson communicated to the house that the instruction to rescind, which they had called an impudent mandate, was an order from the king himself, whose "immediate attention," he assured them, they would not be able "to escape." In this manner the royal dignity and character were placed on trial before a colonial assembly, and monarchy itself was exposed to contempt.

It was for England to remove the cause of the strife. In the house of lords, Chatham, affirming, as he had done four years before, the subordination of the colonies and the right of parliament to bind their trade and industry, disclaimed the American policy adopted by his colleagues when he was nominally the minister. "The idea of drawing money from the Americans by taxes was ill-judged; trade is your object with them. Those millions are the industrious hive who keep you employed;" and he invited the entire repeal of the revenue act of Charles Townshend.

On the evening of the fifth of March, in the house of commons, Lord North founded a motion for a partial relief; not on the petitions of America, because they were marked by a denial of the right, but on one from merchants and traders of London. "The subject," said he, "is of the highest importance. The combinations and associations of the Americans for the temporary interruption of trade have already been called unwarrantable in an address of this house; I will call them insolent and illegal. The duties upon paper, glass, and painters’ colors bear upon the manufacturers of this country, and ought to be taken off. It was my intention to have extended the proposal to the removal of the other duties; but the Americans have not deserved indulgence. The preamble to the act and the duty on tea must be retained, as a mark of the supremacy of parliament and the efficient declaration of its right to govern the colonies.

"I saw nothing unjust, uncommercial, or unreasonable in the stamp act; nothing but what Great Britain might fairly demand of her colonies; America took flame and united against it. If there had been a permanence of ministers, if there had been a union of Englishmen in the cause of England, that act would at this moment have been subsisting. I was much inclined to yield to the many, who desire that the duty upon tea should be repealed. But tea is, of all commodities, the properest for taxation. The duty is an external tax, such as the Americans have admitted the right of parliament to impose. It is one of the best of all the port duties. When well established, it will go a great way toward giving additional support to our government and judicatures in America. If we are to run after America in search of reconciliation, I do not know a single act of parliament that will remain. Are we to make concessions to these people, because they have the hardihood to set us at defiance? No authority was ever confirmed by the concession of any point of honor or of right. Shall I give up my right? No, not in the first step. New York has kept strictly to its agreements; but the infractions of them by the people of Boston show that they will soon come to nothing. The necessities of the colonies and their want of union will open trade. If they should attempt manufacturing and be likely to succeed, it is in our power to make laws, and so to check the manufactures in America for many years to come. This method I will try before I will give up my right."

Thomas Pownall moved the repeal of the duty on tea. The house of commons, like Lord North in his heart, was disposed to do the work of conciliation thoroughly. It was known that Grenville would not give an adverse vote. "It is the sober opinion of the Americans," said Mackay, fresh from the military command in Boston, "that you have no right to tax them. When beaten out of every argument, they adduce the authority of the first man of the law, and the first man of the state." Grenville assumed fully the responsibility of the stamp act; but he revealed to the house that taxing America had been the wish of the king. On the present occasion, had the king’s friends remained neutral, the duty on tea would have been repealed; with all their exertions, in a full house, the majority for retaining it was but sixty-two. Lord North seemed hardly satisfied with his success; and reserved to himself liberty to accede to the repeal, on some agreement with the East India company.

The decision came from the king, who was the soul of the ministry, busying himself even with the details of affairs. He had many qualities that become a sovereign: temperance, regularity, and industry; decorous manners and unaffected piety; frugality in his personal expenses, so that his pleasures laid no burden on his people; a moderation which made him averse to wars of conquest; courage, which dared to assume responsibility, and could even contemplate death serenely; a fortitude that rose with adversity.

But he was bigoted, morbidly impatient of being ruled, and incapable of reconciling the need of reform with the establishments of the past. He was the great founder and head of the new tory or conservative party, which had become dominant through his support. In zeal for authority, hatred of reform, and antipathy to philosophical freedom and to popular power, he was inflexibly obstinate and undisguised; nor could he be justly censured for dissimulation, except for that disingenuousness which studies the secret characters of men, in order to use them as its instruments. No one could tell whether the king really liked him. He could flatter, cajole, and humor, or frown and threaten; he could conceal the sense of injuries and forget good service; bribe the corrupt by favors, or terrify deserters by punishment. In bestowing rewards, it was his rule to make none but revocable grants; and he required of his friends an implicit obedience. He was willing to govern through parliament, yet was ready to stand by his ministers, even in a minority; and he was sure that one day the government must disregard majorities.

With a strong physical frame, he had a nervous susceptibility which made him rapid in his utterance; and so impatient of contradiction that he never could bear the presence of a minister who resolutely differed from him, and was easily thrown into a state of excitement bordering upon madness. Anger, which changed Chatham into a seer, pouring floods of light upon his mind and quickening his discernment, served only to cloud the mind of George III, so that he could not hide his thoughts from those about him, and, if using the pen, could neither spell correctly nor write coherently. Hence the proud, unbending Grenville was his aversion; and his years with the compliant Lord North, though full of public disasters, were the happiest of his life. Conscious of his devotion to the cause of legitimate authority, and viewing with complacency his own correctness of morals, he identified himself with the cause which he venerated. The crown was to him the emblem of all rightful power. He had that worst quality of evil, that he, as it were, adored himself; and regarded opposition to his designs as an offence against integrity and patriotism. He thought no exertions too great to crush the spirit of revolution, and no punishment too cruel or too severe for rebels.

The chaotic state of parties in England, at this period of transition from their ancient forms, favored the king’s purposes. The liberal branch of the aristocracy had accomplished the duty it had undertaken, and had not yet discovered the service on which humanity would employ it next. The old whig party, which was fast becoming the party of the past, could hold office only by making an alliance with the party of the future. For eighty years they had fought strenuously alike against the prerogative and against the people; but time, which is the greatest of all innovators, was changing their political relations. The present king found the whig aristocracy divided; and he readily formed a coalition with that part of it which respected the established forms more than the spirit of the revolution. No combination could succeed against this organized conservatism of England, but one which should insist on a nearer harmony between the liberal principles which inspired the revolution and the aristocratic form to which it confined the British constitution. As yet, Rockingham and his adherents avowed the same political creed with Bedford, and were less friendly to reform than Grenville. When Burke and Wedderburn acted together, the opposition wore the aspect of a selfish struggle of the discontented for place; and the old whig aristocracy, continuing its war against the people as well as against the king, fell more and more into disrepute. A few commoners, Chatham and Shelburne and Stanhope among the peers, cried out for parliamentary reform; they were opposed by the members of the great whig connection, who may have had a good will to public liberty, but were too haughty to learn of men of humble birth. The king, therefore, had nothing to fear from an opposition. The changing politicians were eager to join his standard; and, while the great seal was for a time put in commission, Thurlow superseded the liberal Dunning.

The new solicitor-general, whose "majestic sense" and capacity were greatly overrated, had a coarse nature and a bad heart; was strangely profane in language, and reckless of morals and of decorum in domestic life. He enjoyed the credit of being fearless of the aristocracy, because his manners were rough; but no man was more subservient to their interests. Lord North governed himself on questions of law by his advice; and Thurlow proved the evil genius of that minister and of England. Toward America no man was more unrelenting.

Plans were revived for admitting representatives from the American colonies into the British house of commons; but they attracted little attention. On the ninth of April, one more attempt was made to conciliate America; and Trecothick, supported by Beckford and Lord Beauchamp, by Dowdeswell, Conway, Dunning, and Sir George Saville, proposed the repeal of the duty on tea. The king was indignant at this "debate in the teeth of a standing order," on a proposal which had already been voted down. "I wish to conciliate the Americans, and to restore harmony to the two countries," said Lord North; "but I will never be intimidated by the threats nor compelled by the combinations of the colonies to make unreasonable or impolitic concessions." So the next order of the day was called for by a vote of eighty to fifty-two.

A few days later, the news of the Boston "massacre," as it was named in Boston, reached England. "God forbid," said Grenville, in the house of commons, on the twenty-sixth of April, "we should send soldiers to act without civil authority." "Let us have no more angry votes against the people of America," cried Lord Beauchamp. "The officers agreed in sending the soldiers to Castle William; what minister," asked Barre, "will dare to send them back to Boston?" "The very idea of a military establishment in America," said William Burke, "is wrong." In a different spirit, Lord Barrington proposed to change the too democratical charter of Massachusetts.

The American question became more and more complicated with the history and the hopes of freedom in England. The country was suffering from the excess of aristocracy; Edmund Burke prescribed more aristocracy as the cure. Chatham, unable to obtain from Rockingham the acceptance of his own far-reaching views, stepped forward, almost alone, as the champion of the people. "I pledge myself to their cause," said he in the house of lords, on the first of May, "for it is the cause of truth and justice." Stanhope gave the same pledge. "I trust the people of this country," said Camden, "will renew their claims to true and free and equal representation, as their inherent and unalienable right." Shelburne insisted that Lord North, for his agency with regard to the Middlesex elections, deserved impeachment.

In the commons, Burke, arraigning the new minister, spoke merely as a partisan. The chief supporter of Burke was Wedderburn, who said: "Lord Hillsborough is unfit for his office; the nation suffers by his continuance; the people have a right to say they will not be under the authority of the sword. At the close of the last reign, you had the continent of America in one compact country. Not quite ten years have passed over, and, by domestic mismanagement, all America, the fruit of so many years’ settlement, is lost to the crown of Great Britain in the reign of George III." Lord North questioned the veracity of Wedderburn, and exposed the ill-cemented coalition as having no plan beyond the removal of the present ministers. "God forgive the noble lord for the idea of there being a plan to remove him," retorted Wedderburn; "I know no man of honor and respectability who would undertake to do the duties of the situation." Burke’s resolutions, which were only censures of the past, were defeated by a vote of more than two to one. When like resolutions were brought forward in the house of lords, Chatham would not attend the debate, but placed himself before the nation as the guide to "a more full and equal representation."

Meantime, in America, the difficulty of binding a continent by separate associations for preventing importations was becoming uncontrollable. Carolina and Georgia, and even Maryland and Virginia, had increased their importations; New England and Pennsylvania had imported nearly one half as much as usual; New York alone had been true to its engagement, and its imports had fallen off more than five parts in six. It was impatient of a system of renunciation which was so unequally kept. Merchants of New York, therefore, consulted those of Philadelphia on a general importation of all articles except tea; the Philadelphians favored the proposition, till a letter arrived from Franklin, urging them to persevere on their original plan. Sears and Macdougall in New York resisted concession; but men went from ward to ward to take the opinions of the people, and it was found that eleven hundred and eighty against three hundred were disposed to confine the restriction to tea alone. An appeal was again taken to the people; and, as the majority favored resuming importations, the July packet, which had been detained for a few days, sailed before the middle of the month with orders for all other merchandise. "Send us your old liberty pole, as you can have no further use for it," said the Philadelphians. The students at Princeton, one of whom was James Madison, appeared in their black gowns, and, with the bell tolling, burned the New York merchants’ letter in the college yard. Boston tore it into pieces and threw it to the winds. South Carolina, whose patriots had just raised a statue to Chatham, read it with distainful anger. At a meeting of the planters, merchants, and mechanics of Charleston, Thomas Lynch, a man of sense and inflexible firmness, strove to keep alive the spirit of resistance, and even shed tears for the expiring liberty of his country. He was seconded by Gadsden, and by John Mackenzie, whose English education at Cambridge had increased his ability to defend the rights of the colonies. But South Carolina alone could neither continue non-importation nor devise a new system. There was no help; so far, Lord North had reasoned correctly; the non-importation agreement had been enforced by New York alone, and now trade between America and Britain was open in everything but TEA.

The ministry and the king, when they carried the repeal of every measure offensive to the Americans except the tax on tea and its preamble, gained a most commanding position. If the Americans should be able to forego the use of tea, the British exchequer would be in no worse condition than before. It might prove impossible for a people so widely dispersed to act in concert; and opportunities for conciliation and concession would arise with the return of commerce and tranquillity. Never was there a moment when prudence demanded of the supreme power to do nothing but watch and wait. The cardinal policy of New York was the security and development of colonial liberty through an American constitution, resting upon a union of the colonies in one general congress, without dissolving the connection with Great Britain, the very system which is now established for the British colonies to the north of the United States. "They are jealous of the scheme in England," said William Smith; "yet they will find the spirit of democracy so persevering that they will be under the necessity of coming into it." Under the pretext of framing common regulations of trade with the Indians, the assembly of New York, with the concurrence of its lieutenant-governor, had, in the previous December, invited each province to elect representatives to a body which should exercise legislative power for them all. This was a great step toward the American union, which could have amicably fixed the quotas of the several colonies for the common charges of America. Virginia, when she heard of the proposal, which was designed to regulate and preserve the connection with England, directed Patrick Henry and Richard Bland to appear as her representatives. But the British ministry, who saw in union the forerunner of independence, defeated the scheme.

The measures against the charter of Massachusetts had been rejected by the administration of Grafton, and nothing had happened to invite a revival of them; but, early in July, a most elaborate paper on the disorders in America was laid before the British council. Long and earnest deliberations ensued. Hillsborough pressed impetuously for the abrogation of the charter of Massachusetts as the only means of arresting the progress of America toward independence. But the charter of Massachusetts was the well-considered creation of the British revolution of 1688. It was made after the most careful consultation of the great lawyers of the day; it had the sanction of King William. To destroy it was to condemn the English revolution itself; the king in council gave an order for making a beginning of martial law within the province of Massachusetts Bay, and preparing the way for closing the port of Boston; to abridge or alter it by the prerogative alone had no precedent, but in the times of the Stuarts, and was inconsistent with the British law and the British constitution, as established by the revolution; and yet, on the sixth of July, the king, without previous authority from parliament, transcending the limits of his prerogative, proceeded, by his own order in council, to infringe the charter granted to Massachusetts by William and Mary.

The session of the legislature of Massachusetts had passed without the transaction of any business, when, near the evening of the eighth of September, Hutchinson received the order which had been adopted in July by the king in council. The harbor of Boston was made "the rendezvous of all ships stationed in North America," and the fortress which commanded it was to be delivered up to such officer as Gage should appoint, to be garrisoned by regular troops, and put into a respectable state of defence. But the charter of Massachusetts reserved to its governor the command of its militia and of its forts; the castle had been built and repaired and garrisoned by the colony, at its own expense; to take the command from the civil governor, and bestow it on the commander-in-chief, was a violation of the charter, as well as of immemorial usage. For a day, Hutchinson hesitated; but, on second thoughts, he resolved to obey the order. Enjoining secrecy on the members of the council upon their oaths, he divulged to them his instructions. The council was struck with amazement, for the town was very quiet, and the measure seemed a wanton provocation. "Does not the charter," they demanded of him, "place the command of the castle in the governor?" After a secret discussion, which lasted for two hours, he entered his carriage which was waiting at the door, hurried to the Neck, stole into a barge, and was rowed to the castle. The officers and garrison were discharged without a moment’s warning; he then delivered up the keys to Dalrymple, and in the twilight retired to his country house at Milton. But he was in dread of being waylaid; and the next day fled for safety to the castle, as he and Bernard had done five years before, and remained there every night for the rest of the week. The breach of the Massachusetts charter by the delivery of the castle was a commencement of civil war; yet the last appeal was not to be made without some prospect of success.

"As a citizen of the world," wrote Turgot to Josiah Tucker, the English apostle of free trade, "I see with joy the approach of an event which, more than all the books of the philosophers, will dissipate the puerile and sanguinary phantom of a pretended exclusive commerce. I speak of the Separation of the British colonies from their metropolis, which will soon be followed by that of all America from Europe. Then, and not till then, will the discovery of that part of the world become for us truly useful. Then it will multiply our enjoyments far more abundantly than when we bought them by torrents of blood."

To prevent that separation, Hillsborough thought it necessary, without loss of time, to change "the constitution of the Massachusetts Bay." Conspiring against the liberties of his native country, Hutchinson, in October, advised not a mere change of the mode of electing the council, but "a bill for the vacating or disannulling the charter in all its parts, and leaving it to the king to settle the government by a royal commission." As Hillsborough and the king seemed content with obtaining the appointment of the council, Hutchinson forwarded lists from which the royal councillors were to be named. "If the kingdom," said he, "is united and resolved, I have but very little doubt we shall be as tame as lambs;" and he presented distinctly the option, either to lay aside taxation as inexpedient, or to deal with the inhabitants as being "in a state of revolt." After that should be decided, he proposed to starve the colony into obedience by narrowing its commerce and excluding it from the fisheries. If this should fail, the military might be authorized to act by their own authority, free from the restraints of civil government. Boston, he thought, should be insulated from the rest of the colony, and specially dealt with; and he recommended the example of Rome, which, on one occasion, seized the leading men in rebellious colonies, and detained them in the metropolis as hostages. An act of parliament curtailing Massachusetts of all the land east of the Penobscot was a supplementary proposition.

Less occasion never existed for martial rule than at Boston. At the ensuing trial of Preston, every indulgence was shown him by the citizens. Auchmuty, his counsel, had the assistance of John Adams and Josiah Quincy the foremost patriot lawyers of the town. The prosecution was conducted with languor and inefficiency; important witnesses were sent out of the way; the judges held office at the will of the king, and selected talesmen were put upon the jury. The defence was left to John Adams and Quincy, and was conducted with consummate ability. As the firing upon the citizens took place at night, it was not difficult to raise a doubt whether Preston or some other person had cried to the soldiers to fire; and on that doubt a verdict of acquittal was obtained. The public acquiesced, but was offended at the manifest want of uprightness in the court. "The firmness of the judges" was vaunted, to obtain for them all much larger salaries, to be paid directly by the crown. The chief justice, who was a manufacturer, wanted money in the shape of pay for some refuse products of his workshop.

The trial of the eight soldiers who were with Preston followed a few weeks after. Two of them were proved to have fired, and were found guilty of manslaughter. As seven guns only were fired, the jury acquitted the other six; choosing that five guilty should escape rather than one innocent be convicted.

In selecting an agent to lay their complaints before the king, Samuel Adams and about one third of the house, following the advice of Joseph Reed, of Philadelphia, gave their suffrages for Arthur Lee; but, by the better influence of Bowdoin and of the minister Cooper, Benjamin Franklin, greatest of the sons of Boston, was elected. Arthur Lee was then chosen as his substitute. Franklin held under the crown the office of deputy postmaster-general for America, and his son was a royal governor; but his mind reasoned on politics with the same freedom from prejudice which marked his investigations into the laws of nature. At the time when he was thus called by the people of Massachusetts to be their mediator with the mother country, he was sixty-four years of age. Experience had ripened his judgment, and he still retained the vigor of mind, the benignity of manner, genial humor, and comprehensive observation, which made him everywhere welcome. The difficult service demanded of him by the colony of his nativity was attended by embarrassments of all kinds. Hutchinson negatived all appropriations for his salary, and reminded Hillsborough not to recognise him as an agent.


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Chicago: George Bancroft, "Chapter 29: The King Violates the Charter of Massachusetts, March-October 1770," 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.379-391 Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LBMFCGT3BX5MCSD.

MLA: Bancroft, George. "Chapter 29: The King Violates the Charter of Massachusetts, March-October 1770." 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.379-391, Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LBMFCGT3BX5MCSD.

Harvard: Bancroft, G, 'Chapter 29: The King Violates the Charter of Massachusetts, March-October 1770' 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.379-391. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LBMFCGT3BX5MCSD.