Mobs, Inflaming a Whole Continent & the Glorious 92 — America’s Birth
Notes from the U.S. Revolution: Lessons for Hong Kong
The issue of consent, regardless of whether the taxes were internal or external, exploded in late 1767 as Parliament attempted to implement the Revenue Act, a series of duties on imported items. Parliament believed that since the tax was external — on imported items only — it would be accepted by the colonists. But James Otis had years earlier abolished the distinction between internal and external taxes, and the rebels were not interested in entertaining the new tax. And yet at a Boston town meeting on November 20, the day the Revenue Act went into effect, Otis made a shocking speech that, in reporting to the Ministry the next day, Bernard claimed was “entirely on the side of government. He asserted the king’s right to appoint officers of the customs, in what number and by what denominations he pleased.” Many at the time and later were baffled by Otis’s strategy, which operated on two levels. First, it was the continuation of the “counterwork” to ingratiate himself to the oligarchy; second, it operated to crystallize the issue of Parliamentary control for the colonists. The second level is made clear by a point Bernard claimed Otis made in that November 20 speech: opposition to acts of Parliament should be unified or not at all. By asserting that the government and king had the power and the right — under the law — to operate without the consent of the colonists, Otis was pushing for a more fundamental change. The entire structure of the empire was defective, and disparate acts of defiance would do little to ameliorate those structural problems. Opposition would need to be both united and directed at the causes, not merely the effects. Otis’s November address also stressed that the mobs remain orderly; he knew that the push for rights and consent could easily devolve into anarchy. The Evening Post continued to mock Otis, publishing on November 30 an updated version of Jemmibulero entitled The Jemmiwilliad that ended with:
And may kind Heaven joint exit bring, And their fond hopes, and ours fulfill;
Nor quit this life without full swing! May Otis Split and Cooper Will!
The “williad” and “Cooper Will” are references to Boston’s rebellious town clerk William Cooper, brother to Otis’s Harvard classmate and member of the Black Regiment Samuel Cooper. Both were close friends of Otis, and Will Cooper was so beloved that he held his position of town clerk for 49 years. The Jemmiwilliad was followed by the considerably more malevolent Otisicumjunto, published on January 11, 1768, which continued the oligarchy’s assertion that a mad junto had taken control of Boston and was precipitating its ruin. Otisicumjunto was a direct attack on Otis’s efforts to coordinate the merchants in boycotting taxed imports and to encourage an increase in domestic manufacturing.
While the Court Party was mocking the House’s embargo and manufacturing Resolves, merchants in England were taking them quite seriously. The merchants were suffering from the end of the Seven Years War and various other small embargoes and were ever anxious that a serious colonial embargo would severely impede their sluggish economic recovery. Lord Shelburne questioned Boston merchant Nathaniel Rogers while Rogers was visiting London, and Rogers reported back to Hutchinson that the Resolves had caused “great umbrage” in London and that Shelburne was concerned about whether the Resolves would be widely implemented. In volume 17 (1767) of London’s Gentlemen’s Magazine, an article complained that any embargo and manufacturing resolutions would forestall an economic recovery because “some vain pernicious ideas of independent and separate dominion, thrown out and fomented by designing spirits in that country.” The article concluded by urging Parliament to declare embargoes illegal.
The ministry was devising its own plans for removing the oligarchy from control of the people. Lord Hillsborough was appointed first Secretary of State for the Colonies, a new office replacing the Board of Trade that coincided with the newly created Board of Customs Commissioners. In explaining his repeated defeats, Governor Bernard wrote to Lord Hillsborough:
“ … two chief heads of the faction (Otis and Adams) told the House that the Lieutenant Governor was a pensioner of Great Britain, and averred that he had a warrant from the Lords of the Treasury for two hundred pounds a year out of the new duties which they were then opposing. This being urged in a manner which left no opportunity or time for refutation or explanation, gave a turn against him, so that, upon the second polling, he had ten votes less than before.”
The pressure on the oligarchy was increasing, and despite Bernard’s enduring optimism that the rebels’ progress would soon flag and fade away, their rejection of Hutchinson seemed to be gaining support. Perhaps more disconcerting, Otis and the Boston rebels were gaining widespread support and sympathy, not only from other colonies but also from England. Catharine Macaulay, whose progressive views on women and British history were scandalous in her home country, sent Otis, who she titled “the great Guardian of American Liberty,” a copy of her radical history of Britain. She signs her letter to Otis: “with high admiration for your Virtues.” From within Parliament and without, Otis was increasingly viewed as the champion of the people’s rights.
Most of the new members of the customs establishment arrived on a ship from England on November 5, 1767. Henry Hulton, the first commission of customs, had been a clerk in the Plantation Office in London for the previous five years; Hulton’s sister recounted that when the customs officials arrived, a “mob carried twenty devils, popes, and pretenders through the streets, with labels on their breasts, Liberty, and property and no commissioners.” Like a good oligarch, Hulton reportedly “laughed at ’em with the rest.” November 5 was “Pope’s Day,” wherein the Protestants celebrated the fact that they weren’t Catholic, but the festivities’s overt politicization was an indication that “the times were altered.” The popes and pretenders would be heaved into a giant bon fire; the devil was left on the doorstep of oligarch Hutchinson’s house. It would take Hulton three years to learn just how altered the times were.
Governor Bernard delayed convening the General Court until late December, hoping to avoid any hostile resolutions to the new customs commissioners and the Townshend Acts. When the Townshend Acts went into effect and the new commissions arrived in early November, Otis urged caution, and the Boston town meeting approved his message and adopted a resolution denouncing mob activity. When the General Court finally convened, it appointed a large committee to draft letters and petitions to various officials on the state of the province. The letters were polite — praising the King and constitution — but insistent that all taxation must originate with the local legislature. They further rejected accusations that they sought independence and would “by no means be inclined to accept of an independency, if offered ….” And yet the flurry of conciliatory letters and the petitions produced by the House at the end of the year only seemed to be setting the stage for a greater drama to come.
Under the leadership of Otis, Cushing, and Sam Adams, the House then decided to make perhaps the most audacious pre-1776 gambit; they would issue what amounted to a summary of Otis’s earlier pamphlets in an official declaration. Otis’s writings, called everything from “Letters of Gold” to the ramblings of a treasonous madman, would now be the official proclamation of the people of Massachusetts. And furthering Otis’s objective to increase communication and cooperation among the colonies, the letter would be directed not to the colonist’s lobbyist, Parliament or the King as the Stamp Act Resolves were, but rather the letter would be directed to the people’s assemblies of the other colonies. The letter was soundly defeated in the House by a two to one margin, with many members fearing that Whitehall and the King would conclude that the letter sought to establish a government outside of Britain’s control. Two weeks later, many House members had left to go home; Otis and Sam Adams quickly moved first to vote again on the letter and then to vote to expunge the record of the previous vote. Both passed, and the result was issued on February 11, 1768 with the laborious title “A circulatory Letter, directed to the Speakers of the respective Houses of Representatives and Burgesses on this Continent; a Copy of which was also sent to Dennis DeBerdt, Esq; their Agent, by Order of the House, that he might make use of it, if necessary, to prevent any Misrepresentations of it in England.” Bernard quickly dispatched a letter to Lord Shelburne, writing on February 18 that the House’s Letter was “calculated to inflame the whole Continent.”
The Letter has the hallmarks of a typical Otis “counterwork.” It begins innocently, stating its purpose to address “a common concern” and its goal that the colonies “should harmonize with each other.” Then it quickly confirms that “his Majesty’s high Court of Parliament is the supreme legislative power over the whole empire,” which echoes Otis’s earlier declaration confirming that Parliament and the King are “the supreme and universal legislature of the whole empire.” After these assurances, the Letter makes its brazen declaration:
That it is an essential unalterable right in nature, ingrafted into the British constitution, as a fundamental law, and ever held sacred and irrevokable by the subjects within the realm, that what a man hath honestly acquired is absolutely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken from him without his consent: That the American subjects may therefore, exclusive of any consideration of charter rights, with a decent firmness, adapted to the character of free men and subjects, assert this natural, constitutional right.
This statement is in essence a summary of Otis’s previous positions regarding natural rights, the irrelevance of the charters, and the necessity of consent. The Letter quickly performs a “counterwork” and asserts in the same paragraph that this is “their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference.”
The Letter continues to hammer the point about natural rights and consent: “ … imposing Duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights, because, as they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s Commons in Britain, by those Acts, grant their property without their consent.” Representation in parliament is the only solution, as Otis had observed, and yet, “This House further are of opinion, that their constituents, considering their local circumstances, cannot by any possibility be represented in the Parliament.” The only solution is “That his Majesty’s royal predecessors, for this reason, were graciously pleased to form a subordinate legislative here.”
In 1702, the first session of the new Massachusetts House of Representatives with John Otis as one of its leaders produced a resolve claiming that the “house may use and exercise such Powers and Privileges here as the house of commons in England may and have usually done there allways having Respect to their Majesties Roy[al] charter. …” This new legislative body in 1702 immediately staked claim to a position equivalent to the House of Commons and subject only to the King and charter, which was just as quickly rejected by Parliament. And so almost seven decades later the issue was revisited, and yet the demographic characteristics and national debt made representation in Parliament or local control dead issues. Otis, Cushing and Adams almost certainly knew this, and yet, again employing Otis’s strategy, they needed to appear reasonable and offer solutions along with making claims. A component of appearing reasonable included listing grievances specific enough so that the referent was clear to all readers yet general enough so the grievance applied to all colonies. The crowning complaint of the short list was “officers of the Crown may be multiplied to such a degree, as to become dangerous to the Liberty of the people.” Inherent in this complaint was that the size of government, regardless of purpose or justification, must be limited in order to protect the “Liberty of the people.” The Letter made clear the dire consequences of not heeding the House’s warning, as it advised that the Ministry should “take notice” in order to prevent “mutiny.” It was as close as any official document had come to invoking the specter of independence.
The remarkable Circular Letter was not only a nimble summation of Otis’s previous pamphlets, but it was also a bridge from those early rebellious pamphlets to the Declaration of Independence issued seven years later. The “essential unalterable right in nature, ingrafted into the British constitution, as a fundamental law, and ever held sacred and irrevocable” became the “certain unalienable Rights” in the Declaration. “The consent of the people” became “the consent of the governed” and “imposing Duties … without their consent” became “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.” Tellingly, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration employed “consent” twice among the 1,685 words that comprise the body. When edited, chiefly by John Adams, 363 words were deleted, rendering the Declaration 22% shorter, and yet the emphasis on consent was increased, and the word was inserted a third time just to be certain that no one could misunderstand the source of government authority.
Perhaps the most direct connection from Otis’s early pamphlets to the Declaration is the latter’s treatment of property. For many, the Lockean notion of “property” had provided both the foundation for and justification of government. Otis took great pains to abolish a direct connection between government and property; while in Rights, he stated, “The end of government being the good of mankind, points out its great duties: It is above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property,” he quickly averred that government by consent directly results in the protection of property. Therefore, as long as government authority is founded on consent, property rights are protected, thus rendering “property” and “consent” redundant. In Considerations, Otis observed, “If a man has but little property to protect and defend, yet his life and liberty are things of some importance,” thus illustrating that government’s focus should be the “happy enjoyment of life, liberty.” Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Declaration is that while Jefferson’s draft contained but a single reference to property, Adams and the drafting committee excised this single reference so that it did not once directly refer to property. A document that failed to reference property cannot properly be called a child of Locke, and this was a philosophical position Otis initially staked out in the colonies by in 1762.
The Declaration replaced “property” with a phrase that seems so curious to the modern mind: “the pursuit of Happiness.” And yet the phrase employed as the people’s interest and the government’s objective was not remotely exotic to the Massachusetts rebels. The Circular Letter makes clear that a problem of corrupt governments is that they “endanger the happiness” of the people. And “the pursuit of Happiness” is a phrase that directly echoed Otis’s Considerations, in which he declared that the principal purpose of his political activism was that “The inhabitants … of the dominions of the British crown … who I hope e’er long to see united in the most firm support of their Prince’s true glory, and in a steady and uniform pursuit of their own welfare and happiness.” People pursuing “their own welfare and happiness” connoted a small government that derived authority through consent. It’s not happenstance that Otis employed some variation of “happiness” 34 times in Vindication, Rights and Considerations.
The Declaration referenced the “patient sufferance of these Colonies” and asserted that “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms. …” Such a statement was made possible by both Otis’s repeated assertions of humility and the Circular Letter’s proclamation that its firm message was delivered “in the most humble terms” — the precise phrase that’s repeated in the Declaration. The Massachusetts House’s Circular Letter of 1768 is as a remarkably prescient predecessor to the Declaration of Independence as it is a summation of Otis’s radical pamphlets.
The Circular Letter was also transmitted to the province’s lobbyist “to prevent any Misrepresentations of it in England” precisely because the House had long suspected that Governor Bernard was sending letters to the ministry impugning their motives and distorting their objectives. After the issuance of the Circular Letter, the House demanded copies of Bernard’s letters; expectedly, Bernard refused, and the rebels took this as an admission of guilt, a conclusion with which the Boston papers largely concurred. The Gazette judged Bernard “totally abandoned to wickedness.” The Council deemed the article “impudent libel” while a House committee that included Otis and John Hancock affirmed freedom of the press as a foundation of liberty. Governor Bernard, apoplectic as usual, asserted that Otis “behaved in the house like a madman” in defense of the Gazette article and admonished the Council members against pursuing the matter lest they jeopardize their political futures. The Council and Bernard declined to indict anyone involved with the Gazette article for libel doubtless out of fear; Bernard knew that “two of the chief leaders of the faction in the House (Otis and Adams) are the principal managers of the Boston Gazette.” Indictment of a sitting House member for libel was not only legally dubious but also existentially foolish. Between the August 1765 riots that destroyed homes and business and the May 1766 statewide political campaign that castrated the once powerful Council, the oligarchy feared any official moves against Otis and Adams.
And just as the House had never previously formally issued a summation of Otis’s pamphlets, the ministry had never formally declared such words seditious. In April, a mere two months from its issuance, the whispers of sedition could be no longer ignored. On April 21, the Secretary of State for the Colonies
Lord Hillsborough, upon direct order from King George, sent a copy of the Massachusetts Circular Letter along with a list of “his Majesty’s commands” to all colonial governors. He reported that the Letter would “encourage an open opposition,” and each governor was to “exert your utmost influence to defeat this flagitious attempt to disturb the public peace by prevailing upon the Assembly of your province to take no notice of it, which will be treating it with the contempt it deserves.” Hillsborough, and by direct implication the King, challenged the colonial assemblies to prove “their reverence and respect for the laws, and of their faithful attachment to the constitution” by “showing a proper resentment of this unjustifiable attempt to revive those distractions which have operated so fatally to the prejudice of this kingdom and the colonies.” If any assembly exhibited anything other than contempt for “this seditious paper,” then it was the governor’s “duty to prevent any proceeding” by suspending or dissolving the assembly.
And so upon the King’s command, Governor Bernard had no choice but to attempt to obtain the rescission of “this seditious paper.” A week before the rescission vote, Otis delivered a rousing speech against the oligarchy and deference. He observed that “the unthinking multitude are taught to reverence …. as little deities” the men of the oligarchy while the oligarchy looks down upon everyone else as “vulgar.” And yet, he questioned why such men were esteemed, for “there are no set of people under the canopy of Heaven more venal, more corrupt and debauched in their principles.” He urged the Bostonians not to revere the English oligarchs for their Cambridge and Oxford educations, as such places teach little other than “whoring, smoking, and drinking.” Otis’s harangue transformed previous minor acts of defiance into a political position, an issue of freedom of speech and of the press.
Of the 109 House members in the 1767–68 legislative year, only 17 conceded to Bernard’s request and voted for rescission. The “Glorious 92” who brazenly rejected “his Majesty’s commands” were celebrated throughout the colonies. Bernard obediently dissolved the assembly, several other colonial assemblies approved the Circular Letter in some fashion, and the disparate colonies previously tepid to the Boston rebels’ talk of rights and consent and repeated efforts to “harmonize with each other” transformed into an energetic and increasingly unified group dedicated to resisting authority. The dissolved House then petitioned the king to have Bernard removed from office; shockingly, the cowed Council concurred. Bernard believed that given the direction that Massachusetts politics had taken, he wouldn’t be able to find 10 supporters in the House the following year — and that was perhaps optimistic. There was no doubt that the Court Party was dead.
The “Glorious 92” “Anti-Rescinders” were celebrated throughout the colonies. Paul Revere smithed a silver punchbowl engraved with the names of the 92, and the bowl was baptized in rebellion when 18 of the “Anti-Rescinders” including Otis, Adams, Hancock and the notorious smuggler Daniel Malcolm drank from it on August 1, the same day that Sons of Liberty mobs roamed the streets of Boston strictly enforcing the non-importation of many British goods. Parties were held in Newport and Marblehead; in Philadelphia, the lyrics of the official march of the Royal Navy were changed, thus transforming “Heart of Oak” into the “Liberty Song.” Before the end of the year, every colonial legislative save for New Hampshire had in some way concurred with the Circular Letter. In Pennsylvania, Governor Penn observed that “even those persons who are the most moderate are now set in a flame and have joined in the general cry of Liberty.”
The Customs Commissioners concluded that Otis’s Circular Letter refuted their basic authority and was blatantly seditious; they requested that Whitehall send armed men to assist in the collection of taxes. Bernard agreed that any enforcement of taxes would be futile without a significant police force but feared making any official request himself. He asked the Council to make the request in a secret poll, but the Council members unanimously declined. The mob responded to the Commissioners’ presence by hanging an effigy of Commissioner Paxton on the Liberty Tree near Boston Common on March 18, the anniversary of the Stamp Act’s repeal. On June 8, the ministry finally concurred and ordered General Gage to send at least one regiment to Boston. Otis noted that the presence of armed men escorting customs officers and marching down the streets would only serve “to hasten on with great rapidity events which every good and honest man would wish delayed. …” He still couldn’t say independence, but the conclusion was clear. Bernard agreed that the news of the troops impending arrival may only “hasten” riots, so he plotted to withhold official proclamations until the troops were already in Boston. In September, Gage sent a deputy to Boston to make arrangements for the troops. Bernard informed the Council that he had private knowledge of the troops’s arrival but did not have any official information. The news quickly spread throughout Boston, and a town meeting was scheduled for September 11, 1768. Bernard then learned that a barrel of turpentine had been affixed to a pole in Beacon Hill and was to be lit when the British troops arrived in order to alert the mobs.
On September 11, 1767, a large town meeting was held with Otis as moderator. The crowd demanded “a head,” a massacre, and to “take all the power into their own hands.” The argument was made that liberty was life, and one may defend one’s life by taking another. Bernard feared the worst. In a September 16 letter to Hillsborough, Bernard reported that a plot was “reported & believed” to have been developed by the radicals to seize Castle William by force on September 18. It is highly unlikely that such a plot was seriously considered at that time, but the letter illustrates the fear that had gripped Bernard and the oligarchy. Eventually, Otis soothed the crowd with a plan to form a delegation that would demand information from Bernard. Bernard informed the committee that he had no official information regarding troops, and the town sensed an outright lie. The next day, another town meeting was held, and as the crowd swelled to 3,000 — nearly all the able-bodied adult males of Boston — it was reconvened to Old South Church. Bernard could not fathom that the overwhelming support of the Popular Party was genuine and reported to Hillsborough that “a Set of Speeches by the Chiefs of the Faction and no one else, which followed one another in such an order & method, that it appeared as if they were acting a Play … everything … seeming to have been pre-concerted before hand.”
According to the official meeting minutes, Otis was again chosen as moderator and proposed the two-fold course of action. First, the town would submit a “proper application” of their grievances to the authorities. However, if the authorities failed to adequately address the problems, there would be “nothing more to do, but gird the Sword to the Thigh and Shoulder the Musquet.” And so the town called for a convention that would operate outside of the purview of the General Court and for the citizens to arm themselves. While Otis’s efforts to convene an extra-legal assembly failed the previous year, now the call for a similar assembly received unanimous approval from the town. A convention of the towns of Massachusetts convened on September 22, with most towns sending their House representatives as delegates. It was a representative assembly wholly outside of Britain’s control, and as such, Bernard demanded that it disband immediately. The Convention asked Bernard to explain the laws under which the assembly was illegal, and Bernard refused to even consider the question. The Convention produced several letters and petitions that declared its intention to resolve the problems amicably and yet demanded solutions. While Bernard was surprised by the Convention’s moderation, he was nevertheless convinced that the rebels aimed to “Seize the Governor & Lieut Govr, and take Possession of the Treasury and then set up their Standard.” He suggested that the leaders, primarily Otis, Cushing and Adams, be forbidden from holding any government office. In the U.K., Parliament passed resolves condemning the town meeting that approved the convention, declaring it illegal and “Calculated to excite sedition and insurrections.” Augustus FitzRoy, the 33-year-old new Prime Minister, requested King George’s permission to employ a Henry VIII statute that enabled the ministry to arrest and transport suspected traitors to London for trial. The king brushed aside the request as questions raged in Parliament and throughout the colonies whether Otis, Cushing and Adams were guardians of liberty or guilty of treason.
About Nathan Allen
Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). A.I. strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.