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Massachusettensis II


 

Massachusettensis

 

LETTER II.

 

To the Inhabitants of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay.


My dear Countrymen,


I ENDEAVOURED last week to convince you of our real danger, not to render you desperate, but to induce you to seek immediately some effectual remedy. Our case is not remediless, as we have to deal with a nation not less generous and humane than powerful and brave; just indeed, but not vindictive.


I shall, in this and successive papers, trace this yet growing distemper through its several stages, from its first rise to the present hour, point out the causes, mark the effects, shew the madness of persevering in our present line of conduct, and recommend what, I have been long convinced, is our only remedy. I confess my self to be one of those that think our present calamity is in a great measure to be attributed to the bad policy of a popular party in this province; and that their measures for several years past, whatever may have been their intention, have been diametrically opposite to their profession,—the public good; and cannot, at present, but compare their leaders to a false guide, who, having led a benighted traveller through many mazes and windings in a thick wood, finds himself at length on the brink of a horrid precipice, and, to save himself, seizes fast hold of his follower, to the utmost hazard of plunging both headlong down the steep, and being dashed in pieces together against the rocks below.


In ordinary cases, we may talk in the measured language of a courtier; but when such a weight of vengeance is suspended over our heads, by a single thread, as threatens every moment to crush us to atoms, delicacy itself would be ill-timed: I will declare the plain truth whenever I find it, and claim it as a right to canvass popular measures and expose their errors and pernicious tendency, as freely as governmental measures are canvassed, so long as I confine myself within the limits of the law.


At the conclusion of the late war, Great-Britain found, that, though she had humbled her enemies, and greatly enlarged her own empire, that the national debt amounted to almost one hundred and fifty millions, and that the annual expence of keeping her extended dominions in a state of defence, which good policy dictates no less in a time of peace than war, was increased in proportion to the new acquisitions. Heavy taxes and duties were already laid, not only upon the luxuries and conveniences, but even the necessaries of life in Great-Britain and Ireland. She knew, that the colonies were as much benefited by the conquests in the late war, as any part of the empire, and indeed more so, as their continental foes were subdued, and they might now extend their settlements not only to Canada, but even to the western ocean—The greatest opening was given to agriculture, the natural livelihood of the country, that ever was known in the history of the world, and their trade was protected by the British navy. The revenue to the crown, from America, amounted to but little more than the charges of collecting it.—She thought it as reasonable, that the colonies should bear a part of the national burden, as that they should share in the national benefit. For this purpose, the stamp-act was passed. The colonies soon found, that the duties imposed by the stamp-act would be grievous, as they were laid upon custom-house papers, law-proceedings, conveyancing, and indeed extended to almost all their internal trade and dealings. It was generally believed through the colonies, that this was a tax not only exceeding our proportion, but beyond our utmost ability to pay. This idea united the colonies generally in opposing it. At first we did not dream of denying the authority of parliament to tax us, much less to legislate for us. We had always considered ourselves, as a part of the British empire, and the parliament, as the supreme legislature of the whole. Acts of parliament for regulating our internal polity were familiar. We had paid postage, agreeable to act of parliament for establishing a post-office, duties imposed for regulating trade, and even for raising a revenue to the crown, without questioning the right, though we closely adverted to the rate or quantum. We knew that, in all those acts of government, the good of the whole had been consulted, and, whenever through want of information any thing grievous had been ordained, we were sure of obtaining redress by a proper representation of it. We were happy in our subordination; but in an evil hour, under the influence of some malignant planet, the design was formed of opposing the stamp-act by a denial of the right of parliament to make it. The love of empire is so predominant in the human breast, that we rarely find an individual content with relinquishing a power that he is able to retain; never, a body of men. Some few months after it was known that the stamp-act was passed, some resolves of the house of burgesses in Virginia, denying the right of parliament to tax the colonies, made their appearance. We read them with wonder—they savoured of independence—they flattered the human passions—the reasoning was specious—we wished it conclusive. The transition, to believing it so, was easy—and we, and almost all America, followed their example, in resolving that the parliament had no such right. It now became unpopular to suggest the contrary; his life would be in danger that asserted it. The news-papers were open to but one side of the question; and the inslammatory pieces that issued weekly from the press, worked up the populace to a fit temper to commit the outrages that insued. A non-importation was agreed upon, which alarmed the merchants and manufacturers in England. It was novel, and the people in England then supposed, that the love of liberty was so powerful in an American merchant, as to stifle his love of gain, and that the agreement would be religiously adhered to. It has been said, that several thousands were expended in England, to foment the disturbances there. However that may be, opposition to the ministry was then gaining ground, from circumstances, foreign to this.—The ministry was changed, and the stamp-act repealed.—The repealing statute passed, with difficulty however, through the house of peers: near forty noble lords protested against giving way to such an opposition, and foretold what has since literally come to pass in consequence of it. When the statute was made, imposing duties upon glass, paper, India teas, &c. imported into the colonies, it was said, that this was another instance of taxation; for some of the dutied commodities were necessaries, we had them not within ourselves, were prohibited from importing them from any place except Great-Britain, were therefore obliged to import them from Great-Britain, and, consequently, were obliged to pay the duties. Accordingly, news-paper publications, pamphlets, resolves, non-importation agreements, and the whole system of American opposition, were again put in motion. We obtained a partial repeal of this statute, which took off the duties from all the articles, except teas. This was the lucky moment when to have closed the dispute. We might have made a safe and honorable retreat. We had gained much, perhaps more than we expected. If the parliament had passed an act, declaratory of their right to tax us; our assemblies had resolved, ten times, that they had no such right. We could not complain of the three-penny duty on tea as burdensome, for a shilling which had been laid upon it, for the purpose of regulating trade and therefore was allowed to be constitutional, was taken off; so that we were in fact gainers nine-pence in a pound by the new regulation. If the appropriation of the revenue, arising from this statute was disrelished, it was only our striking off one article of luxury from our manner of living, an article too, which if we may believe the resolves of most of the towns in this province, or rely on its collected wisdom in a resolve of the house of representatives, was to the last degree ruinous to health. It was futile to urge its being a precedent, as a reason for keeping up the ball of contention; for, allowing the supreme legislature ever to want a precedent, they had many for laying duties on commodities imported into the colonies. And besides, we had great reason to believe that the remaining part of the statute would be repealed, as soon as the parliament should suppose it could be done with honour to themselves; as the incidental revenue, arising from the former regulation, was four fold to the revenue arising from the latter. A claim of the right, could work no injury, so long as there was no grievous exercise of it; especially as we had protested against it, through the whole, and could not be said to have departed from our claims in the least. We might now upon good terms have dropped the dispute, and been happy in the affections of our mother-country; but that is yet to come. Party is inseparable from a free state. The several distributions of power, as they are limited by, so they create perpetual dissentions between, each other, about their respective boundaries; but the greatest source is the competition of individuals for preferment in the state. Popularity is the ladder by which the partizans usually climb.—Accordingly the struggle is, who shall have the greatest share of it. Each party prosesses disinterested patriotism, though some cynical writers have ventured to assert, that self-love is the ruling passion of the whole. There were two parties in this province of pretty long standing, known by the name of whig and tory, which at this time were not a little imbittered against each other.—Men of abilities and acknowledged probity were on both sides. If the tories were suspected of pursuing their private interest through the medium of court favour, there was equal reason to suspect the whigs of pursuing their private interest by the means of popularity. Indeed some of them owed all their importance to it, and must in a little time have sunk into obscurity, had these turbulent commotions then subsided.


The tories and whigs took different routs, as usual. The tories were for closing the controversy with Great-Britain, the whigs for continuing it: the tories were for restoring government in the province, which had become greatly relaxed by these convulsions, to its former tone; the whigs were averse to it: they even refused to revive a temporary riot act, which expired about this time. Perhaps they thought, that mobs were a necessary ingredient in their system of opposition: However, the whigs had great advantages in the unequal combat, their scheme flattered the people with the idea of independence; the tories’ plan supposed a degree of subordination, which is rather an humiliating idea; besides there is a propensity in men to believe themselves injured and oppressed whenever they are told so. The ferment, raised in their minds in the time of the stamp-act, was not yet allayed, and the leaders of the whigs had gained the confidence of the people by their successes in their former struggle; so that they had nothing to do but to keep up the spirit among the people, and they were sure of commanding in this province. It required some pains to prevent their minds settling into that calm, which is ordinarily the effect of a mild government; the whigs were sensible that there was no oppression that could be either seen or felt; if any thing was in reality amiss in government, it was its being too lax: So far was it from the innocent being in danger of suffering, that the most atrocious offenders escaped with impunity. They accordingly applied themselves to work upon the imagination, and to inflame the passion; for this work they possessed great talents. I will do justice to their ingenuity: they were intimately acquainted with the feelings of man, and knew all the avenues to the human heart:—Effigies, paintings, and other imagery, were exhibited; the fourteenth of August was celebrated annually as a festival in commemoration of a mob’s destroying a building, owned by the late Lieutenant Governor, which was supposed to have been erected for a stamp-office, and compelling him to resign his office of stamp-master under liberty-tree; annual orations were delivered in the old-south meeting house, on the fifth of March, the day when some persons were unfortunately killed by a party of the twenty-ninth regiment; lists of imaginary grievances were continually published; the people were told weekly, that the ministry had formed a plan to enslave them; that the duty upon tea was only a prelude to a window-tax, hearth-tax, land-tax, and poll-tax, and these were only paving the way for reducing the country to lordships: this last bait was the more easily swallowed, as there seems to be an apprehension of that kind hereditary to the people of New-England; and they were conjured by the duty they owed themselves, their country, and their God, by the reverence due to the sacred memory of their ancestors, and all their toils and sufferings in this once inhospitable wilderness, and by their affections for unborn millions, to rouse and exert themselves in the common cause. This perpetual incantation kept the people in continual alarm. We were farther stimulated by being told, that the people of England were depraved, the parliament venal, and the ministry corrupt; nor were attempts wanting to traduce Majesty itself. The kingdom of Great-Britain was depicted as an ancient structure, once the admiration of the world, now sliding from its base, and rushing to its fall. At the same time, we were called upon to mark our own rapid growth, and to behold the certain evidence that America was upon the eve of independent empire.


When we consider what effect a well wrote tragedy or novel has on the human passions, though we know it to be all fictitious; what effect must all this be supposed to have had upon those, that believed these high wrought images to be realities?


The tories have been censured for remissness in not having exerted themselves sufficiently at this period: The truth of the case is this; they saw and shuddered at the gathering storm, but durst not attempt to dispel it, lest it should burst on their own heads. Printers were threatned with the loss of their bread, for publishing freely on the tory side. One Mr. Mien was forced to fly the country for persisting in it.


All our dissenting ministers were not inactive on this occasion. When the clergy engage in a political warfare, religion becomes a most powerful engine, either to support or overthrow the state. What effect must it have had upon the audience to hear the same sentiments and principles which they had before read in a news-paper, delivered on Sundays from the pulpits, with a religious awe, and the most solemn appeals to heaven, from lips which they had been taught, from their cradles, to believe could utter nothing but eternal truths? What was it natural to expect from a people, bred under a free constitution, jealous of their liberty, credulous even to a proverb, when told their privileges were in danger, thus wrought upon in the extreme? I answer:—Outrages, disgraceful to humanity itself. What mischief was not an artful man, who had obtained the confidence and guidance of such an enraged multitude, capable of doing? He had only to point out this or the other man as an enemy to his country, and no character, station, age or merit, could protect the proscribed from their fury. Happy was it for him, if he could secrete his person, and subject his property only to their lawless ravages. By such means, many people naturally brave and humane, have been wrought upon to commit such acts of private mischief and public violence, as will blacken many a page in the history of our country.


I shall next trace the effects of this spirit, which the whigs had thus infused into the body of the people, through the courts of common law, and the general-assembly; and mark the ways and means whereby they availed themselves of it to the subversion of our charter constitution, antecedent to the late act of parliament.


MASSACHUSETTENSIS

December 19, 1774


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