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Massachusettensis VII


 

Massachusettensis

 

LETTER VII.

 

To the Inhabitants of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.


IF we carry our researches further back than the emigration of our ancestors, we shall find many things that reflect light upon the object we are in quest of. It is immaterial when America was first discovered or taken possession of by the English. In 1602 one Gosnold landed upon one of the islands, called Elizabeth-islands, which were so named in honor of Queen Elizabeth, built a fort and projected a settlement; but his men were discouraged, and the project failed. In 1606 King James granted all the continent from 34 to 45 degrees, which he divided into two colonies, viz. the southern or Virginia, to certain merchants at London; the northern or New-England, to certain merchants at Plymouth in England. In 1607 some of the patentees of the northern colony began a settlement at Sagadahoc, but the emigrants were disheartened after the trial of one winter, and that attempt failed of success. Thus this territory had not only been granted by the crown for purposes of colonization, which are to enlarge the empire or dominion of the parent state, and to open new sources of national wealth; but actual possession had been taken by the grantees, previous to the emigration of our ancestors, or any grant to them. In 1620 a patent was granted to the adventurers for the northern colony, incorporating them by the name of the council for the affairs of New-Plymouth. From this company of merchants in England, our ancestors derived their title to this territory. The tract of land called Massachusetts was purchased of this company by Sir Henry Roswell and associates: their deed bears date, March 19th, 1627. In 1628 they obtained a charter of incorporation, which I have already remarked upon. The liberties, privileges and franchises, granted by this charter, do not, perhaps, exceed those granted to the city of London and other corporations within the realm. The legislative power was very confined; it did not even extend to levying taxes of any kind: that power was, however, assumed under this charter, which by law worked a forfeiture, and for this among other things, in the reign of Charles the Second, the charter was adjudged forfeited, and the franchises seized into the King’s hands. This judgment did not affect our ancestors’ title to their lands, which were not derived originally from the charter, though confirmed by it, but by purchase from the council at Plymouth, who held immediately under the crown. Besides, our ancestors had now reduced what before was a naked right to possession, and by persevering through unequalled toils, hardships and dangers, at the approach of which other emigrants had fainted, rendered New-England a very valuable acquisition both to the crown and nation. This was highly meritorious, and ought not to be overlooked in adjusting the present unhappy dispute; but our patriots would deprive us of all the merit, both to the crown and nation, by severing us from both. After the revolution, our ancestors petitioned the parliament to restore the charter. A bill for that purpose passed the house of commons, but went no further. In consequence of another petition, King William and Queen Mary granted our present charter for uniting and incorporating the Massachusetts, New-Plymouth, and several other territories into one province. More extensive powers of legislation, than those contained in the first charter, were become necessary, and were granted. And the form of the legislature was made to approach nearer to the form of the supreme legislature. The powers of legislation are confined to local or provincial purposes, and further restricted by these words, viz. So as the same be not repugnant or contrary to the laws of this our realm of England. Our patriots have made many nice distinctions and curious refinements to evade the force of these words; but, after all, it is impossible to reconcile them to the idea of an independent state, as it is to reconcile disability to omnipotence. The provincial power of taxation is also restricted to provincial purposes, and allowed to be exercised over such only, as are inhabitants or proprietors within the province. I would observe here, that the granting subordinate powers of legislation, does not abridge or diminish the powers of the higher legislatures: thus we see corporations in England and the several towns in this province vested with greater or lesser powers of legislation, without the parliament, in one case, or the general court in the other; being restrained from enacting those very laws, that fall within the jurisdiction of the several corporations. Had our present charter been conceived in such equivocal terms, as that it might be construed as restraining the authority of parliament; the uniform usage, ever since it passed the seal, would satisfy us that its intent was different. The parliament in the reign when it was granted, long before and in every reign since, has been making statutes to extend to the colonies; and those statutes have been as uniformly submitted to, as authoritative, by the colonies, till within ten or a dozen years. Sometimes acts of parliament have been made, and sometimes have been repealed, in consequence of petitions from the colonies. The provincial assemblies often refer to acts of parliament in their own, and have sometimes made acts to aid their execution. It is evident that it was the intention of their Majesties to grant subordinate powers of legislation, without impairing or diminishing the authority of the supreme legislature. Had there been any words in the charter, which precluded that construction, or did the whole taken together contradict it; lawyers would tell us, that the King was deceived in his grant, and the patentees took no estate by it, because the crown can neither alienate a part of the British dominions, nor impair the supreme power of the empire. I have dwelt longer on this subject than I at first intended, and not by any means done it justice; as, to avoid prolix narratives and tedious deduction, I have omitted perhaps more than I have adduced, in order to evince the truth of the position, that we are a part of the British dominions, and subject to the authority of parliament. The novelty of the contrary tenets will appear, by extracting a part of a pamphlet, published in 1764, by a Boston gentleman, who was then the oracle of the whigs, and whose profound knowledge in the law and constitution is equalled but by few.


‘I also lay it down (says he) as one of the first principles from whence I intend to deduce the civil rights of the British colonies, that all of them are subject to, and dependent on Great-Britain; and that therefore, as over subordinate governments, the parliament has an undoubted power and lawful authority to make acts for the general good, that, by naming them, shall and ought to be equally binding, as upon the subjects of Great-Britain within the realm. Is there the least difference, as to the consent of the colonists, whether taxes and impositions are laid on their trade, and other property by the crown alone, or by the parliament? As it is agreed on all hands, the crown alone cannot impose them, we should be justifiable in refusing to pay them; but we must and ought to yield obedience to an act of parliament, though erroneous, till repealed.


‘It is a maxim, that the King can do no wrong; and every good subject is bound to believe his King is not inclined to do any. We are blessed with a prince who has given abundant demonstrations, that, in all his actions, he studies the good of his people, and the true glory of his crown, which are inseparable. It would therefore be the highest degree of impudence and disloyalty, to imagine that the King, at the head of his parliament, could have any but the most pure and perfect intentions of justice, goodness and truth, that human nature is capable of. All this I say and believe of the King and parliament, in all their acts; even in that which so nearly affects the interests of the colonists; and that a most perfect and ready obedience is to be yielded to it while it remains in force. The power of parliament is uncontrolable but by themselves, and we must obey. They only can repeal their own acts. There would be an end of all government, if one or a number of subjects, or subordinate provinces, should take upon them so far to judge of the justice of an act of parliament, as to refuse obedience to it. If there was nothing else to restrain such a step, prudence ought to do it; for forcibly resisting the parliament and the King’s laws is high-treason. Therefore let the parliament lay what burdens they please on us, we must, it is our duty to submit and patiently bear them, till they will be pleased to relieve us.’

The Pennsylvania Farmer, who took the lead in explaining away the right of parliament to raise a revenue in America, speaking of regulating trade, tells us, that ‘He who considers these provinces as states distinct from the British empire has very slender notions of justice or of their interest; we are but parts of a whole, and therefore there must exist a power somewhere to preside and preserve the connection in due order. This power is lodged in parliament; and we are as much dependent on Great-Britain as a perfectly free people could be on another.’ He supposes that we are dependent in some considerable degree upon Great-Britain; and that such dependance is nevertheless consistent with perfect freedom.


Having settled this point, let us reflect upon the resolves and proceedings of our patriots. We often read resolves denying the authority of parliament, which is the imperial authority, gilded over with professions of loyalty to the King, but the golden leaf is too thin to conceal the treason: It either argues profound ignorance or hypocritical cunning.

We find many unsuspecting persons prevailed on openly to oppose the execution of acts of parliament with force and arms. My friends! some of the persons, that beguiled you, could have turned to the chapter, page and section, where such insurrections are pronounced rebellions, by the law of the land; and had not their hearts been dead to a sense of justice, and steeled against every feeling of humanity, they would have timely warned you of your danger. Our patriots have sent us in pursuit of a mere ignis fatuus, a fascinating glare devoid of substance; and now, when we find ourselves bewildered, with scarce one ray of hope to raise our sinking spirits, or stay our fainting souls, they conjure up phantoms more delusive and fleeting, if possible, than that which first led us astray. They tell us, we are a match for Great-Britain.—The twentieth part of the strength that Great-Britain could exert, were it necessary, is more than sufficient to crush this defenceless province to atoms, notwithstanding all the vapouring of the disaffected here and elsewhere. They tell us the army is disaffected to the service: What pains have our politicians not taken to attach them to the service? The officers conceive no very favourable opinion of the cause of the whigs, from the obloquy with which their General hath been treated, in return for his humanity; nor from the infamous attempts to seduce the soldiers from his Majesty’s service. The policy of some of our patriots has been as weak and contemptible, as their motives are sordid and malevolent; for when they found their success in corrupting the soldiery did not answer their expectations, they took pains to attach them the firmer to the cause they adhered to, by preventing the erecting of barracks for their winter quarters; by which means many contracted diseases, and some lives were lost, from the unwholesome buildings they were obliged to occupy. And, as though some stimulus was still wanting, some provocation to prevent human nature revolting in the hour of battle, they deprived the soldiers of a gratification never denied to the brute creation,—straw to lay on. I do not mention this conduct to raise the resentment of the troops; it has had its effect already, and it is proper you should know it; nor should I have blotted paper in relating facts so mortifying to the pride of man, had it not been basely suggested, that there would be a defection should the army take the field. Those are matters of small moment compared to another, which is the cause they are engaged in. It is no longer a struggle between whigs and tories, whether these or those shall occupy posts of honor, or enjoy the emoluments of office; nor is it now whether this or the other act of parliament shall be repealed. The army is sent here to decide a question, intimately connected with the honor and interest of the nation; no less than whether the colonies shall continue a part of, or be for ever dismembered from, the British empire. It is a cause in which no honest American can wish our politicians success, though it is devoutly to be wished, that their discomfiture may be effected without recourse being had to the ultima ratio,—the sword. This our wretched situation is but the natural consequence of denying the authority of parliament and forcibly opposing its acts.


Sometimes we are amused with intimations, that Holland, France, or Spain, will make a diversion in our favour.—These, equally with the others, are suggestions of despair. These powers have colonies of their own, and might not choose to set a bad example, by encouraging the colonies of any other state to revolt. The Dutch have too much money in the English funds, and are too much attached to their money, to espouse our quarrel. The French and Spaniards have not yet forgot the drubbing they received from Great-Britain last war; and all three fear to offend that power, which our politicians would persuade us to despise.


Lastly, they tell us, that he people in England will take our part, and prevent matters from coming to extremity. This is their fort, where, when driven from every other post, they fly for refuge.


Alas! my friends, our congresses have stopped up every avenue that leads to that sanctuary. We hear, by every arrival from England, that it is no longer a ministerial (if it ever was) but a national cause. My dear countrymen, I deal plainly with you; I never should forgive myself if I did not. Are there not eleven regiments in Boston? A respectable fleet in the harbour? Men of war stationed at every considerable port along the continent? Are there not three ships of the line sent here, notwithstanding the danger of the winter coast, with more than the usual compliment of marines? Have not our congresses, county, provincial and continental, instead of making advances for an accommodation, bid defiance to Great-Britain?—He that runs may read.


If our politicians will not be persuaded from running against the thick bosses of the buckler, it is time for us to leave them to their fate, and provide for the safety of ourselves, our wives, our children, our friends, and our country.


I have many things to add, but must now take my leave, for this week, by submitting to your judgment, whether there be not an absolute necessity of immediately protesting against all traiterous resolves, leagues and associations, of bodies of men, that appear to have acted in a representative capacity. Had our congresses been accidental or spontaneous meetings, the whole might have rested upon the individuals that composed them; but as they appear in the character of the peoples delegates, is there not the utmost danger of the innocent being confounded with the guilty, unless they take timely care to distinguish themselves?


MASSACHUSETTENSIS.

January 23, 1775


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