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Massachusettensis III


 

Massachusettensis

 

LETTER III.

 

To the Inhabitants of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay.


To undertake to convince a person of his error is the indispensable duty, the certain, though dangerous, test of friendship. He that could see his friend persevering in a fatal error, without reminding him of it, and striving to reclaim him, through fear that he might thereby incur his displeasure, would little deserve the sacred name himself. Such delicacy is not only false, but criminal. Were I not fully convinced, upon the most mature deliberation that I am capable of, that the temporal salvation of this province depends upon an entire and speedy change of measures, which must depend upon a change of sentiment, respecting our own conduct, and the justice of the British nation; I never should have obtruded myself on the public.—I repeat my promise, to avoid personal reflection as much as the nature of the task will admit of; but I will continue faithfully to expose the wretched policy of the whigs, tho’ I may be obliged to penetrate the arcana, and discover such things as, were there not a necessity for it, I should be infinitely happier in drawing a veil over, or covering with a mantle. Should I be so unfortunate as to incur your displeasure, I shall nevertheless think myself happy if I can but snatch one of my fellow-subjects as a brand out of the burning.


Perhaps some may imagine, that I have represented too many of my countrymen, as well as the leading whigs, in an unjust point of light, by supposing these so wicked as to mislead, or those so little circumspect as to be misled, in matters of the last importance. Whoever has been conversant with the history of man, must know that it abounds with such instances. The same game, and with the same success, has been played in all ages and in all countries.


The bulk of the people are generally but little versed in matters of state. Want of inclination or opportunity to figure in public life, makes them content to rest the affairs of government in the hands, where accident or merit has placed them. Their views and employments are confined to the humbler walks of business or retirement. There is a latent spark however in their breasts, capable of being kindled into a flame; to do this has always been the employment of the disaffected. They begin by reminding the people of the elevated rank they hold in the universe, as men; that all men by nature are equal; that Kings are but the ministers of the people; that their authority is delegated to them by the people for their good; and that they have a right to resume it, and place it in other hands, or keep it themselves, whenever it is made use of to oppress them. Doubtless there have been instances, where these principles have been inculcated to obtain a redress of real grievances, but they have been much oftener perverted to the worst of purposes.—No government, however perfect in theory, is administered in perfection; the frailty of man does not admit of it. A small mistake, in point of policy, often furnishes a pretence to libel government, and persuade the people, that their rulers are tyrants, and the whole government a system of oppression. Thus the seeds of sedition are usually sown; and the people are led to sacrifice real liberty to licentiousness, which gradually ripens into rebellion and civil war. And what is still more to be lamented, the generality of the people, who are thus made the dupes of artifice, and the mere stilts of ambition, are sure to be losers in the end. The best they can expect, is to be thrown neglected by, when they are no longer wanted; but they are seldom so happy: if they are subdued, confiscation of estate and ignominious death are their portion; if they conquer, their own army is often turned upon them, to subjugate them to a more tyrannical government than that they rebelled against. History is replete with instances of this kind: we can trace them in remote antiquity; we find them in modern times, and have a remarkable one in the very country from which we are derived. It is an universal truth, that he that would excite a rebellion, whatever professions of philanthropy he may make, when he is insinuating and worming himself into the good graces of the people, is at heart as great a tyrant as ever weilded the iron rod of oppression. I shall have occasion hereafter to consider this matter more fully, when I shall endeavour to convince you, how little we can gain, and how much we may lose, by this unequal, unnatural, and desperate contest. My present business is, to trace the spirit of opposition to Great-Britain through the general court, and the courts of common law. In moderate times, a representative that votes for an unpopular measure, or opposes a popular one, is in danger of losing his election the next year; when party runs high, he is sure to do it. It was the policy of the whigs to have their questions, upon high matters, determined by yea and nay votes, which were published with the representatives names in the next gazette. This was commonly followed by severe strictures and the most illiberal invectives upon the dissentients: sometimes they were held up as objects of resentment, of contempt at others; the abuse was in proportion to the extravagance of the measure they opposed. This may seem not worth notice, but its consequences were important. The scurrility made its way into the dissentient’s town, it furnished his competitor with means to supplant him, and he took care to shun the rock his predecessor had split upon. In this temper of the times, it was enough to know who voted with Cassius and who with Lucius, to determine who was a friend and who an enemy to the country, without once adverting to the question before the house. The loss of a seat in the house was not of so much consequence; but, when once he became stigmatized as an enemy to his country, he was exposed to insult; and if his profession or business was such, that his livelihood depended much on the good graces of his fellow citizens, he was in danger of losing his bread and involving his whole family in ruin.


One particular set of members, in committee, always prepared the resolves and other spirited measures. At first they were canvassed freely, at length would slide through the house without meeting an obstacle: The lips of the dissentients were sealed up; they sat in silence, and beheld with infinite regret the measures they durst not oppose. Many were borne down against their wills by the violence of the current: upon no other principle can we reconcile their ostensible conduct in the house to their declarations in private circles. The apparent unanimity in the house encouraged the opposition out of doors, and tbat in its turn strengthened the party in the house. Thus they went on, mutually supporting and up-lifting each other. Assemblies and towns resolved alternately: some of them only omitted resolving to snatch the sceptre out of the hands of our Sovereign, and to strike the imperial crown from his sacred head.


A master-stroke in politics, respecting the agent, ought not to be neglected. Each colony has usually an agent residing at the court of Great-Britain: These agents are appointed by the three branches of their several assemblies, and indeed there cannot be a provincial agent without such appointment. The whigs soon found, that they could not have such services rendered them from a provincial agent, as would answer their purposes. The house therefore refused to join with the other two branches of the general court in the appointment. The house chose an agent for themselves; and the council appointed another. Thus we had two agents for private purposes, and the expence of agency doubled; and with equal reason a third might have been added, as agent for the Governor, and the charges been trebled.


The additional expence was of little consideration, compared with another inconvenience that attended this new mode of agency. The person, appointed by the house, was the ostensible agent of the province, though in fact he was only the agent of a few individuals that had got the art of managing the house at their pleasure. He knew his continuing in office depended upon them. An office that yielded several hundred pounds sterling annually, the business of which consisted in little more than attending the levees of the Great, and writing letters to America, was worth preserving. Thus he was under a strong temptation to sacrifice the province to a party; and echoed back the sentiments of his patrons.


The advices, continually received from one of the persons that was thus appointed agent, had great influence upon the members of the house of more moderate principles. He had pushed his researches deep into nature, and made important discoveries: they thought he had done the same in politics, and did not admire him less as a politician than as a philosopher. His intelligence, as to the disposition of his Majesty, the ministry, the parliament, and the nation in general, was deemed the most authentic. He advised us to keep up our opposition, to resolve and re-resolve, to cherish a military spirit; uniformly holding up this idea, that if we continued firm, we had nothing to fear from the government in England. He even proposed some modes of opposition himself. The spirited measures were always ushered into the house with a letter from him. I have been sometimes almost ready to suspect him of being the primum mobile, and that, like the man behind the curtain at a puppet-shew, he was playing off the figures here with his own secret wires. If he advised to these measures contrary to his better knowledge, from sinister views, and to serve a private purpose, he has wilfully done the province irreparable injury. However, I will do him justice: he enjoined it upon us to refrain from violence, as that would unite the nation against us; and I am rather inclined to think that he was deceived himself with respect to the measures he recommended, as he had already felt the resentment of that very government which he told us there was nothing to fear from. This disposition of the house could not have produced such fatal effects, had the other two branches of the legislature retained their constitutional freedom and influence. They might have been a sufficient check.


The councillors depended upon the general assembly for their political existence: the whigs reminded the council of their mortality. If a councillor opposed the violent measures of the whigs with any spirit, he lost his election the next May. The council consisted of twenty-eight. From this principle, near half that number, mostly men of the first families, note and abilities, with every possible attachment to their native country, and as far from temptation as wealth and independence could remove them, were tumbled from their seats in disgrace. Thus the board, which was intended to moderate between the two extremes of prerogative and privilege, lost its weight in the scale, and the political balance of the province was destroyed.


Had the chair been able to retain its own constitutional influence, the loss of the board would have been less felt; but, no longer supported by the board, that fell likewise. The Governor, by the charter, could do little or nothing without the council. If he called upon a military officer to raise the militia, he was answered, they were there already. If he called upon his council for their assistance, they must first enquire into the cause. If he wrote to government at home to strengthen his hands, some officious persons procured and sent back his letters.


It was not the person of a Bernard or Hutchinson that made them obnoxious: any other governors would have met with the same fate, had they discharged their duty with equal fidelity; that is, had they strenuously opposed the principles and practices of the whigs; and when they found that the government here could not support itself, wrote home for aid sufficient to do it. And let me tell you, had the intimations in those letters, which you are taught to execrate, been timely attended to, we had been as happy a people as good government could make us. Governor Bernard came here recommended by the affections of the province, over which he had presided. His abilities are acknowledged. True British honesty and punctuality are traits in his character too strongly marked to escape the eye of prejudice itself. We know Governor Hutchinson to be amiable and exemplary in private life: his great abilities, integrity and humanity, were conspicuous in the several important departments that he filled, before his appointment to the chair, and reflect honour on his native country. But his abilities and integrity, added to his thorough knowledge of the province, in all its interests and connections, were insufficient in this case. The constitution itself was gone, though the ancient form remained: the spirit was truly republican. He endeavoured to reclaim us by gentle means. He strove to convince us by arguments, drawn from the first principles of government, our several charters, and the express acknowledgments of our ancestors, that our claims were inconsistent with the subordination due to Great-Britain; and, if persisted in, might work the destruction of those that we were entitled to. For this, he was called an enemy to his country, and set up as a mark for the envenomed arrows of malice and party rage. Had I entertained a doubt about its being the governor, and not the man, that was aimed at; the admirable facility with which the news-paper abuse was transferred from Governor Hutchinson to his humane and benevolent successor, General Gage, almost as soon as he set foot on our shore, would have removed it.


Thus, disaffection to Great-Britain being infused into the body of the people, the subtle poison stole through all the veins and arteries, contaminated the blood, and destroyed the very stamina of the constitution. Had not the courts of justice been tainted in the early stages, our government might have expelled the virus, purged off the peccant humors, and recovered its former vigour by its own strength. The judges of the superior courts were dependent upon the annual grants of the general court for their support. Their salaries were small in proportion to the salaries of other officers in the government of less importance.


They had often petitioned the assembly to enlarge them, without success. They were at this time reminded of their dependence. However, it is but justice to say, that the judges remained unshaken, amid the raging tempests, which is to be attributed rather to their firmness than situation. But the spirit of the times was very apparent in the juries. The grand jurors were elective; and in such places where libels, riots, and insurrections were the most frequent, the high whigs took care to get themselves chosen. The judges pointed out to them the seditious libels on governors, magistrates, and the whole government; but to no effect. They were enjoined to present riots and insurrections, of which there was ample evidence, with as little success.


It is difficult to account for so many of the first rate whigs being returned to serve on the petit-jury at the term next after extraordinary insurrections, without supposing some legerdemain in drawing their names out of the box. It is certain, that, notwithstanding swarms of the most virulent libels infested the province, and there were so many riots and insurrections, scarce one offender was indicted, and I think not one convicted and punished. Causes of meum et tuum were not always exempt from party influence. The mere circumstance of the whigs gaining the ascendency over the tories is trifling. Had the whigs divided the province between them, as they once flattered themselves they should be able to do, it would have been of little consequence to the community, had they not cut asunder the very sinews of government, and broke in pieces the ligaments of social life in the attempt. I will mention two instances, which I have selected out of many, of the weakness of our government, as they are recent and unconnected with acts of parliament. One Malcolm, a loyal subject, and, as such, entitled to protection, the evening before the last winter sessions of the general-court, was dragged out of his house, stripped, tarred and feathered, and carted several hours in the severest frost of that winter, to the utmost hazard of his life. He was carried to the gallows with an halter about his neck, and, in his passage to and from the gallows, was beaten with as cruel stripes as ever were administered by the hands of a savage. The whipping, however, kept up the circulation of his blood, and saved the poor man’s life. When they had satiated their malice, they dispersed in good order. This was transacted in the presence of thousands of spectators, some of whom were members of the general-court. Malcolm’s life was despaired of several days, but he survived and presented a memorial to the general-assembly, praying their interposition. The petition was read, and all he obtained was, leave to withdraw it. So that he was destitute of protection every hour until he left the country; as were thousands beside, until the arrival of the King’s troops. This originated in a small fracas in the street, wherein Malcolm struck, or threatened to strike, a person that insulted him, with a cutlass, and had no connection with the quarrel of the times, unless his sustaining a small post in the customs made it.


The other instance is much stronger than this, as it was totally detached from politics. It had been suspected, that infection had been communicated from an hospital, lately erected at Marblehead, for the purpose of innoculating the small-pox, to the town’s people. This caused a great insurrection: the insurgents burnt the hospital; not content with that, threatened the proprietors and many others, some of the first fortunes and characters in the town, with burning their houses over their heads, and continued parading the streets, to the utmost terror of the inhabitants several days. A massacre and general devastation was apprehended. The persons threatened, armed themselves, and petitioned the general-assembly, which was then sitting, for assistance, as there was little or no civil authority in the place. A committee was ordered to repair to Marblehead, report the facts, and inquire into the cause. The committee reported the facts nearly as stated in the petition; the report was accepted, and nothing farther done by the assembly. Such demonstrations of the weakness of government, induced many persons to join the whigs, to seek from them that protection, which the constitutional authority of the province was unable to afford.


Government, at home, early in the day, made an effort to check us in our career, and to enable us to recover from anarchy without her being driven to the necessity of altering our provincial constitution, knowing the predilection that people always have for an antient form of government. The judges of the superior court had not been staggered, though their feet stood in slippery places; they depended upon the leading whigs for their support. To keep them steady, they were made independent of the grants of the general-assembly. But it was not a remedy any way adequate to the disease. The whigs now turned their artillery against them; and it played briskly.—The chief justice, for accepting the crown grant, was accused of receiving a royal bribe.


Thus, my friends, those very persons, who had made you believe, that every attempt to strengthen government, and save our charter, was an infringement of your privileges; by little and little, destroyed your real liberty, subverted your charter constitution, abridged the freedom of the house, annihilated the freedom of the board, and rendered the governor a mere doge of Venice. They engrossed all the power of the province into their own hands: A democracy or republic it has been called, but it does not deserve the name of either—It was, however, a despotism, cruelly carried into execution by mobs and riots, and more incomparible with the rights of mankind, than the enormous monarchies of the East. The absolute necessity of the interposition of parliament is apparent. The good policy of the act, for regulating the government in this province, will be the subject of some future paper. A particular Inquiry into the despotism of the whigs will be deferred for a chapter on congresses. I shall next ask your attention to a transaction, as important in its consequences, and perhaps more so, than any I have yet mentioned, I mean the destruction of the tea, belonging to the East-India company. I am sensible of the difficulty of the task, in combating generally received opinions. It is hard work to eradicate deep-rooted prejudice. But I will persevere. There are hundreds, if not thousands, in the province, that will feel the truth of what I have written, line by line, as they read it; and as to those who obstinately shut their eyes against it now, haply the sever of the times may intermit; there may be some lucid interval when their minds shall be open to truth before it is too late to serve them, otherwise it will be revealed to them in bitter moments, attended with keen remorse and unutterable anguish. Magna est veritas et prævalebit.


MASSACHUSETTENSIS.

December 26, 1774


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