That it should be left to any one . . . to ask for Troops to come here . . . will be the Wonder of the future readers of the History of these Times
(Francis Bernard to John Pownall, Boston, 11 Jul. 1768).
History has not been kind to Francis Bernard (1712-79), governor of colonial Massachusetts, and with good reason. The governor’s historical reputation rests largely on the part he played in pushing the American colonists toward revolution. His enemies considered him a myopic imperialist pursuing a centralizing agenda, his friends thought him a stumbling functionary bereft of political know-how. Historians have been more understanding of Bernard’s predicament and how he managed to alienate foes and disappoint friends. Bernard was the kind of government official without whom revolutions might not occur: a thwarted modernizer, despairing of metropolitan inertia and resentful of local power shifts that undermined his own authority, he sought and found retribution in a hostile portrayal of his opponents and critics. The odds were always against Bernard winning the political struggle with the American colonists or obtaining the full co-operation of provincial institutions for British colonial reforms, but not against him triumphing in a war of information.1
The colonists and their governor vied to control information flowing to London. That struggle illuminates both what they made of each other and the wider contest over British imperial authority unfolding around them—what historians call the Imperial Crisis. The propaganda war began in 1765, when Bernard was caught in the cross-fire of controversy generated by Parliament’s attempt to impose direct taxation on the American Colonies by means of the Stamp Act. Bernard’s detailed reports of riots and demonstrations in Boston proved so alarming to British ministers that they believed a revolt was near certain in the Massachusetts capital. While these reports were discussed by the cabinet, the king, and Parliament, Americans never had the opportunity to read them; but they deduced how antagonistic they must have been from private correspondence and occasional reports of Parliament’s debates. In 1768, the British government again fretted about insurrection in Boston, though the circumstances were rather different from what they had been three years earlier. The colonists too feared that Bernard once more was misrepresenting their cause to the British. They were right. But it was over a year before the colonists found evidence to support their accusations, and even then managed to read and acquire but a fraction of what the governor and his British correspondents were saying about them. The evidence is presented in full for the first time, in this fourth volume of the Bernard Papers series, and continues in the fifth, as is the story of how the colonists used the evidence to further their own agenda.
By 1768, Bernard’s administration drew little local political support largely because of widespread discontent with Parliament’s American Revenue Act, passed the previous summer. The Revenue Act (better known as the Townshend duties act) taxed several articles of trade (glass, paper, painter’s colors, lead, and tea). But whereas the 1765 act imposing a range of stamp duties was never properly implemented in America because of widespread opposition, the Townshend duties were collected and the trade laws (commonly known as the Navigation Acts) enforced with greater rigor than hitherto. These successes owed much to the diligence of the American Board of Customs based in Boston and the host of customs officers under its command. Unable to prevent enforcement of the 1767 Revenue Act, the colonists concentrated on persuading the British to repeal it and other American revenue acts, as well as other obnoxious legislation known collectively as the Townshend Acts.2 During this phase of the Imperial Crisis, colonial opposition was sustained by broad-based popular movements.3 The campaign in Massachusetts was managed by the Whig party and channeled through the provincial legislature and town meetings. Opposition to taxation was far less violent than it had been in 1765, and was again contained by local leaders known as Sons of Liberty: merchants like John Hancock, keen to free commercial activity from the restrictions of mercantilism; intellectuals like James Otis Jr., a popular leader since 1761 when he challenged the legality of customs officers’ writs of assistance; Samuel Adams, a down-at-heel tax collector and clerk of the House of Representatives, who, by 1768, was with Otis the best known of the governor’s many radical critics; elected representatives from the country towns who filed into Boston’s Town House (known today as the Old State House), where the assembly met, to condemn their governor’s misdeeds; wealthy councilors like James Bowdoin, who led and coordinated with Adams opposition in the Governor’s Council; and, by contrast, working men and women who supported and enforced the boycotts of British imports and consumer goods. None of these people trusted Francis Bernard.4
Bernard mustered no more than token assistance from friends of government in defending parliamentary authority, and lurched from one issue to another before finally retreating. More than anything, Bernard wanted out; another posting in the colonies or a job in England was eminently preferable to enduring another few years in Boston. Bernard did not concede ground gracefully, however, and mounted a vituperative counter-offensive against the colonists—not in any public forum, but privately and secretly in his official correspondence. The documents published in the Bernard Papers chart not only the rise of colonial opposition and Bernard’s gubernatorial tribulations but his studied attempts to precipitate British intervention. This fourth volume reveals how Bernard manufactured a crisis for his superiors’ consumption, one apparently so deep as to warrant immediate punitive measures to allay an incipient rebellion and structural reforms to reinvigorate imperial power. Bernard got none of the reforms he wanted, yet managed to persuade the British government to send regular soldiers to Boston, ostensibly to protect Crown officials and in reality to cow the spread of radicalism. We can only speculate as to how history might have turned out had the British not sent soldiers to Boston; but we do know that when Regulars stepped ashore on 1 Oct. 1768 Bostonians’ and New Englanders’ respect for the instruments and agencies of imperial power started to decline markedly. And yet, while Bernard was conscious of his own failings in coping with American resentment and British neglect, he was never mindful of the possible consequences of his own actions in turning British ministers against the colonists and helping turn the colonists against the British.
History was not on Bernard’s side, yet Bernard has bequeathed history and historians a cornucopia of documentation. From brief commentaries on the famous and the obscure—many of whom, he was convinced, secretly favored independence—to studied evaluations of why the colonies were on the cusp of revolt, Bernard’s correspondence was a valuable source of information for colonial policymakers in London. Governor Bernard may have been the official communicant of news concerning provincial affairs but ministers also received and relayed information coming in from numerous other sources, some of which were controlled by the governor’s enemies. The contest to control the flow of information back and forth across the Atlantic was thus a central aspect of the Imperial Crisis.
It is a truism to attribute some of the misunderstandings and errors of judgment on both sides to the slowness of transatlantic communication, which at best was four weeks on journeys eastward and six weeks westward. Official mail sent by the packet from Falmouth (the southern English port farthest from London) to New York generally took two weeks longer than if sent with merchantmen sailing from London to Boston or Rhode Island (on account of less favorable ocean currents), on top of which officials in Boston had to wait another six days for their papers to arrive overland by couriers.5 The mail packets from England were frequently delayed: in 1768, those leaving in January, February, and June were all several weeks later than anticipated. Major policy documents and secret orders could therefore take months to reach the recipient, notably instructions to Governor Bernard announcing that troops were being dispatched to Boston (No. 622: dated 11 Jun. received 14 Sept.; No. 661: dated 30 Jul. received 18 Sept.)
These vagaries inevitably complicated governors’ tasks of replying to official letters and bringing London up-to-date with developments in America. Commenting on eastward conveyances, the secretary of state for the Colonies Wills Hill, the first earl of Hillsborough, writing at his desk in Whitehall, remarked that
it frequently happens, that Intelligence of public Transactions in the Colonies is received by private Persons in this City, long before any official Communication of it comes to me for His Majesty’s Information. (No. 651.)
Thus Hillsborough instructed colonial governors to send dispatches by the “first Opportunity that offers” and thence duplicates and copies by the next mail packet (which even then occasionally arrived before the original dispatch). Governors did not have the luxury of being able to delay outgoing shipping until they could write replies to incoming mail. In the case of vessels departing Boston a day or two after arriving, Bernard was usually able to dash off a single page letter before sailing (for example, No. 609). Usually he had to search for vessels sailing direct to England or transmit his dispatches to the postmaster at New York for carriage by the mail packet, for which they might lie in wait for several days or even weeks. On the whole, Bernard tended to compose his replies shortly after receiving a letter; sometimes delays occasioned by the absence of suitable conveyance gave him time to add a postscript or compose a rejoinder, and brood upon insults and threats real and imagined.6
The practicalities of managing communications indubitably influenced the substance of transatlantic exchanges. All royal governors were obliged to follow the instructions received with their commission and others sent out intermittently by the secretary of state. But until otherwise directed by the secretary, governors were obliged to act independently of London. While governors could not anticipate or preempt the secretary of state’s directives, they could aspire to use replies to influence ministerial deliberations. Bernard, however, often worried that his out-going correspondence was subject to espionage. He generally considered merchantmen and Royal Navy ships securer than the mail packet, but he had become wary of committing letters to ships owned by merchants whom he counted among his political opponents; ships’ masters were “easily” corrupted (No. 672). Bernard prided himself on his candid style of reporting, yet even he was reticent to put names to the people whom he criticized or denigrated in his letters (though not James Otis, whom he continued to disparage openly and with relish). The governor’s prose was sometimes coded by allusive metaphor, drawing upon scripture or classical history, which substituted for direct explanation; alternatively, his writing resorted to dramatic description. Both devices served to convey the seriousness of the point being discussed. Sometimes shrouded meaning meant recipients misunderstood, and requested additional clarification, as Hillsborough was obliged to do when he struggled to separate fact from fiction in Bernard’s reports of the Liberty riot and other disturbances in June 1768 (No. 661). At the same time, Bernard was careful to enclose files of supporting documentation: copies of correspondence, newspaper clippings, extracts of the proceedings of the assembly, minutes of Council meetings, depositions, and so on. Generally, he assumed the evidence spoke for itself, but he often provided commentaries on the material. All of this—the vivid reporting style and the weight of material evidence—was calculated to shape the perceptions of ministers and officials in London. But Bernard was not without rivals contesting his version of events—men and women just as angry and often more eloquent.
Boston, January 1768
In January, when the Massachusetts House of Representatives petitioned King George III to repeal the Townshend Revenue Act, it set out what amounted to the mainstream Whig position on British colonial policy. Taxation was a gift of the people, long recognized as such in English constitutional history and law; and the right of taxing the American Colonies lay not with the Parliament in London, but with the colonial legislatures. Several supplications on this theme were delivered by Massachusetts and other colonies to the King and Parliament between 1767 and 1770. It was not the case that each new petition was progressively more assertive than its predecessor, but cumulatively the petitions mounted a significant challenge to the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy. Bernard fully understood that the question in dispute was not just about parliamentary taxation but colonial rights of self-government and the sovereignty of the King-in-Parliament. (For a discussion see No. 580.) Contrived distinctions between “internal” or direct taxes and “external” taxes or trade duties to some Britons promised a modus vivendi to draw a line under the prolonged controversy over the hated Stamp Act. Now, under the penetrating gaze of the “Pennsylvania Farmer” (the Philadelphia lawyer John Dickinson), distinctions between types of taxes were quickly dispensed with. Whigs now denied Parliament’s authority to legislate any taxes for America. The Farmer’s “Masterly Writings,” widely printed in colonial newspapers (No. 578), Bernard thought amounted to a “Bill of Rights” for the American Colonies (No. 590). Indeed, after attacking the Townshend duties colonists proceeded to call for the repeal of all American revenue acts and the dismantling of the entire mercantilist system on the basis of their constitutional rights and liberties.
The governor’s adversaries in Massachusetts easily by-passed official channels of communication with London. After petitioning the king in January, the House of Representatives directly dispatched a series of letters to leading British statesmen setting forth the case for repeal of the Townshend duties (Nos. 579, 580, 581, 589, and 591).7 The House also appointed its own agent, Dennys DeBerdt,8 in the expectation that he would lobby ministers and parliamentarians as well as transmit the House’s remonstrances. Bernard might not have been concerned at this circumvention had not his enemies also advanced an alternative narrative in which they accused him of misrepresenting the province’s interests. These accusations became shriller as the year passed. Conducted by Adams, Otis, and other Whig writers, the campaign to expose the governor began in earnest in the first few months of 1768 and did not end until his departure in Aug. 1769.
London, January to February
British politics was not a closed book to Bernard in 1768, but after ten years in the colonies he little understood the political landscape. Bernard’s understanding of British politics had been shaped by the Whig hegemony of the 1750s, ended by the accession of George III in 1760. When the earl of Halifax relinquished responsibility for the colonies in 1765, Bernard lost more than a reliable patron.9 Halifax epitomized the centralizing tendency that Bernard believed was missing from British-American relations and whose absence had weakened British imperial power and authority. Halifax was also a tangible connection to the certainties of mid-eighteenth-century politics that Bernard knew. Bernard had been loyal to the Whig magnate the duke of Newcastle, whose partnership with William Pitt had brought Britain to victory in the Seven Years’ War.10 As governor, Bernard had tried to emulate Newcastle’s penchant for a “broad bottom” administration before the Stamp Act Crisis brought a shuddering realignment in Massachusetts politics that undermined support for the provincial government.11 Struggling to adapt to this situation, Bernard failed to comprehend developments in Britain, notably Pitt’s championing the American cause in 1766, Rockingham’s strategy in repealing the Stamp Act, and why the ministries of Grenville and Rockingham were so brief.12 Shelburne’s term as secretary for the Colonies in Chatham’s administration Bernard found unsettling, and it took him the best part of a year to appreciate that London could not be depended upon to uphold the reputation and authority of royal governors.13 (Newsworthy events from the London papers, such as the controversial trial and parliamentary electioneering of John Wilkes, he followed intermittently.) In short, by 1768 Bernard concluded that the British political establishment was unprepared to aid him in thwarting the growth of radicalism.
Bernard’s sense of being cast adrift also reflected the uncertainty in colonial policymaking during Chatham’s administration, 30 Jul. 1766-14 Oct. 1768. Policy, such as it was, was haphazard and reactive, owing to the priorities accorded domestic and European business to the exclusion of American affairs. Chatham himself was largely absent because of illness. Also, cabinet, government, and Parliament all assumed that the American Declaratory Act (passed on 18 Mar. 1766 in conjunction with the act repealing the Stamp Act) ought to have put an end to American gripes, considering the colonists had no option but to accept the principles that Parliament could pass legislation for America in any and “in all cases whatsoever” and that the sovereignty of the King-in-Parliament was unassailable. Until the appointment of Wills Hill (1718-93), first earl of Hillsborough, as secretary of state for the Colonies (a new post) in January 1768, Bernard must sometimes have supposed British colonial policy moribund. His initial concern was not that the British government and Parliament would concede on principles but that they would heed the clamor for a repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act. While Bernard did not have any particular interest in sustaining parliamentary taxation per se, he had a vested interest in shoring up this particular piece of legislation: for the act promised Crown salaries for the colonial governors, to be paid out of the tea duty as and when the government in London decided.
For sure, Bernard had friends near the center of British high politics. John Pownall, the senior administrator in the Plantation Office, remained loyal to Bernard throughout the Imperial Crisis (No. 647). He was not a political appointee but a civil servant, although the re-organization of the colonial office under Hillsborough for a while left him uncertain of his future; nonetheless he prospered under Hillsborough and his successors.14 His erudite brother Thomas Pownall, a former Massachusetts governor (although Bernard’s junior by a decade) and probably the Briton best-informed on American affairs, was more of an enigma to Bernard; in the course of the next eighteen months they came to distrust each other.15 Bernard’s correspondence with Richard Jackson, a member of Parliament, lost some of the intimacy that characterized their exchanges when Jackson was province agent in 1765 (No. 590).16 Bernard knew that whatever he said to these men would likely be verbally conveyed to ministers, and, latterly in Thomas Pownall’s case, also to the opposition and friends of America. But it was to his only true British confidant, Lord Barrington, his wife’s cousin and secretary-at-war,17 that Bernard frankly expressed his deep misgivings as to his own capacity for fulfilling London’s expectations that he should keep the colonists quiet (No. 583).
Behind the scenes, Lord Barrington continued to represent Bernard’s interests whenever possible. His office did not bestow a position in the cabinet and Barrington was often a peripheral figure in policymaking. But in 1768 and 1769, he was a prominent contributor to parliamentary debates on the exclusion of John Wilkes, first elected MP for Middlesex in March 1768. Barrington’s close political friendship with Hillsborough was an additional avenue for the transmission of Bernard’s views. Barrington thought Bernard’s advocacy of American representation in Parliament irrelevant to the Imperial Crisis, yet nonetheless warmed to some of the governor’s other suggestions for strengthening imperial power at the cost of colonial autonomy (Nos. 583, 584, and 597). Barrington regarded himself a hard-liner on American affairs, fearing “with Grief, but not with surprise, the open attempts towards independency making in New England” since the repeal of the Stamp Act (No. 605).
Bernard could never afford to take the support of British ministers for granted. He simply could not predict how the British government might react to the colonial petitions and remonstrances. Several current government ministers, when in opposition, had genuinely sympathized with the colonists in their distaste for the Grenville administration attempting to tax them without direct representation; they had listened attentively to the colonists throughout the Stamp Act Crisis and championed the act’s repeal. They included such political heavyweights as the lord chancellor, the earl of Camden, and the prime minister, the earl of Chatham,18 both of whom Bernard presumed were misinformed of the colonists’ true intentions, though the governor was never in direct contact with either man in 1765 nor 1768. The colonists, Bernard believed, had misconstrued their eminences’ public condemnation of the Stamp Tax as unequivocal support for American self-government (Nos. 577, 579, and 580). On both counts Bernard was partially correct: Chatham and his followers, when in opposition and government, never conceded the minimum of what the Americans were wanting by 1768—exemption from all parliamentary taxation and strict limits on the scope of parliamentary authority. Bernard was more troubled by the earl of Shelburne, secretary of state for the Southern Department and a confirmed critic of the governor’s confrontational style. When official news of the transfer of colonial responsibilities from Shelburne’s office to Hillsborough’s was delayed, Bernard continued to send dispatches direct to Shelburne.19
For the past year, Shelburne had been advising Bernard that he should avoid antagonizing the House of Representatives and do his utmost to reconcile the colonists to parliamentary supremacy. Theirs was a difficult relationship, with Bernard resenting the interference of a minister whom he believed knew little about imperial administration and Shelburne only reluctantly abandoning plans to recall Bernard.20 Bernard was necessarily more circumspect in his correspondence with Shelburne than he was with his British friends. Shelburne could have removed Bernard peremptorily, after the governor consented to a provincial indemnity act and in doing so exceeded his powers (the act having promised the Stamp Act rioters immunity from prosecution).21 Nonetheless, Bernard was didactic when the opportunity presented, and retained his composure to pen a justification for his professedly candid style of reporting. His letter of 21 Jan. reminded Shelburne that it was the governor—as the king’s representative—and not the assembly who deserved respect as the prime source of information.
The King in all matters relating to America has great reliance on the Reports of his Governors, who being appointed by him & accountable to him are under the greatest obligations not to deceive him. But if the Assemblies are allowed to represent matters to the King, without the privity of the Governors, the King must either lose the Advantage of having the opinion of his Governors upon the Subject matter, or must delay his judgement untill he can order his Governor to report his Opinion. . . . It is my Duty to report proceedings which appear to me to require Animadversion, at the time that they happen: it is your Lordships province to fix the time when they shall be taken into consideration; for which I shall allways wait with due deference. (No. 581.)
Bernard was spared having to explain his pertinent disregard of “due deference” when writing this particular letter. For American affairs were removed from Shelburne’s ministerial portfolio on the very day Bernard was writing and given over to a new colonial department headed by Wills Hill, first earl of Hillsborough. Hillsborough’s appointment as the first secretary of state for the Colonies (21 Jan. 1768-15 Aug. 1772), which Bernard learned of in late February, he thought an indication the administration were taking greater interest in American affairs.22
To the British, Massachusetts and Virginia seemed always to be one step ahead of the other colonies in pushing the case for legislative autonomy.23 While other lower houses of assembly were occasionally more forthright in challenging parliamentary authority, the Massachusetts House of Representatives undeniably upset the British government with a circular letter of 11 Feb. to the speakers of other assemblies urging intercolonial opposition to the Townshend Revenue Act (Appendix 1). The Circular Letter’s articulation of colonial rights was an adept compromise: it leaned toward a moderate position in explicitly accepting Parliament’s legislative supremacy, and toward the radicals in protesting that rights of taxation lay with the colonial assemblies. But Hillsborough’s impulsive reaction bestowed iconoclastic status on this document (Appendix 1). Prompted by Hillsborough, Chatham’s cabinet insisted that the House vote approving the circular be rescinded, even though the letter had been distributed. Thus did the British government unwisely commit Bernard to a contest of wills with the Massachusetts legislature that, despite initial optimism, the governor knew he could never win (Nos. 585, 589, and No. 591).
Hillsborough exerted a profound influence on the Imperial Crisis, pushing the colonists and the British further apart. His reputation as a hard-liner rested largely on his responsiveness to information being supplied him by colonial governors, Bernard preeminently, and the Treasury, who forwarded him the reports of the American Board of Customs in Boston. Bernard was not aware of Hillsborough’s appointment until 20 Feb. at the earliest, but thereafter wrote all his official letters—including and especially those to Shelburne—with Hillsborough in mind. (Official confirmation arrived on 11 May). Their correspondence printed in this volume and the next is a comprehensive dialogue exploring the several issues bedeviling British-colonial relations in 1768: opposition to the Townshend duties, nonimportation, the rescinding of the Circular Letter, the Liberty riot in Boston, the Convention of Towns, and the arrival and quartering of the British Regulars.24 On these and other matters, Bernard’s reports contained information of strategic importance to ministers. British policy, in short, was not to give way on matters of principle, despite American objections, and to bolster colonial governors’ dwindling authority whenever possible. At stake, according to Hillsborough—echoing the central message of Bernard’s missives—was the credibility of British imperial power. As an Anglo-Irish absentee landlord, Hillsborough’s personal fortune derived from his extensive Irish estates, whose origin in seventeenth-century land confiscation from the Catholics was felt to necessitate ruthless implementation of the law in theory if not always in practice.
Bernard’s bullishness, however, was evident before he knew of Hillsborough’s appointment. The duplicate of a delayed letter from Shelburne, dated 17 Sept. 1767 and approving his conduct, arrived on 2 Feb. (No. 566).25 The following day, it was read to the House of Representatives by the province secretary. On 16 Feb., Bernard agreed to surrender extracts to Thomas Cushing, Speaker of the House. A few days earlier the Speaker had given Bernard a copy of the Circular Letter, which Bernard then dispatched to Shelburne enclosed in No. 589. Bernard’s subsequent explanation (in No. 591) did not suggest that he had traded correspondence with Cushing in order to obtain the Circular Letter, but stressed that he had followed the secretary of state’s advice that he could use the letter of 17 Sept. as he saw fit: thus, Bernard continued, by disclosing to the House he had the minister’s backing he hoped to discourage faint-hearted Whigs and encourage stout-hearted friends of government. (He had done much the same thing with a letter from Shelburne’s predecessor, Henry Seymour Conway, warning that repeal of the Stamp Act had raised British expectations that the colonists should cease complaining about taxation.)26 But there was a trade-off of sorts. In gifting Shelburne’s letter to his enemies Bernard ought to have expected the Whigs to press him to release more information (as they did), unless he was hopelessly naïve. In presenting the Circular Letter to the British (as he was obliged to do, though not immediately), he also would have appreciated that it would open up old wounds. Neither action was the outcome of astute political calculation, but of carelessness, and together kept Bernard in the cross-fire of imperial politics—as indeed he might also have anticipated.
Bernard was certainly not inured to the criticism swirling around him, but from February onwards he detached himself from the political game and indulged in hollow imperialist imperatives. He could not conceive “any Danger of the Parliament’s giving Way,” he declared to Lord Barrington (No. 587). “The Impeachment of the Power of Parliament has been Continually extending since the Time of the Stampt-Act,” he informed Barrington in March, “& will not stop ’till the Parliament interposes with Effect” (No. 592). Bernard and Barrington were increasingly pessimistic about the Chatham administration being able to restore equilibrium to British-American relations without Parliament adopting some signal measures to curb the protest movement. While they did not always specify the kind of measures they had in mind, reforming the colonial governments was certainly top of their private agenda; repealing the Townshend Revenue Act was not, and neither was it yet on the government’s list. There was much in Bernard’s correspondence that would have appealed to Britons like Barrington who believed that British errors of judgment had only encouraged Americans’ pretensions of self-government.
Having emotionally abandoned provincial politics Bernard concentrated on playing imperial politics, by trying to influence from afar the deliberations of the British government and Parliament. His demands for British intervention took form during the early spring and summer and were, on this occasion, calculated to attract ministers’ attention—which he did, some of it warranted but all of it unwanted by the Americans. As he might also have expected, his past and present conduct as governor was thenceforth subjected to scrutiny: in Massachusetts by the Whig “Faction” in the House of Representatives and the Boston town meeting, and Whig polemicists writing in the province newspapers; and in Britain by the secretary of state, the cabinet, and the Parliament.
London, March to April
On reading Bernard’s last letters to Shelburne, which started arriving in the first week of March, Hillsborough would have been struck by two features of Massachusetts politics: the boldness of the Whig party and the impermanence of any opposition to the Whigs. On the first count, Hillsborough may not have appreciated that the Whig party in the House of Representatives was so extensive. Bernard’s reports would have reinforced the notion that opposition could be put down to a faction and the influence exerted by two of Boston’s representatives, James Otis Jr. and Samuel Adams. Otis and Adams were impressive leaders, the former largely as an orator, the latter as a political manager, and both as political writers. Bernard’s communications with the Whig leaders were largely conducted through the Speaker, Thomas Cushing (No. 581), a more moderate Whig than Otis or Adams. The several remonstrances issued by the House during January and February were produced by committees, although Adams and Otis took lead roles in crafting and writing the papers, bringing a persuasive, forthright logic that on perusal by the British would have seemed to brook no compromise.27 The assumptions underpinning the Circular Letter, Bernard reported, stood “equally conclusive against all Acts of Parliament,” while the Letter itself accused him of misrepresenting the province to ministers (No. 589).
The second point, regarding the lack of support for the provincial government, was more obvious to Hillsborough. The radical Whigs were only momentarily encumbered by initial objections from conservative Whigs and friends of government. After delaying the adoption of the Circular Letter, these critics simply melted away (Nos. 585 and 589). It is uncertain if Hillsborough knew much if anything about the divisions within the Whig ranks that Bernard revealed to Richard Jackson in No. 586. (Notably between James Otis Jr. and Joseph Hawley, who did not yet share his colleague’s radical enthusiasm and was probably experiencing the self-doubts that had once troubled Otis.) Bernard’s most recent report, while intimating widespread distaste for scurrilous newspaper articles voicing “blasphemous abuse of Kingly Government itself,” was not heartening. It emphasized the high degree of coordination among the governor’s enemies in the House, town, and newspapers. So, while a “Virulent Libell” in the Boston Gazette (by Dr. Joseph Warren) could elicit sympathy for a victim as unpopular as the governor and stir resentment against the radicals for abusing press freedoms, legal redress could not be expected (No. 593). But how to help the king’s governor sustain his administration and maintain parliamentary authority? Unbeknown to Bernard, Chatham’s cabinet had no intention of making concessions to the colonists or—for now at any rate—heeding their complaints about the king’s governor. On 4 Apr., Hillsborough assured Bernard that he “entirely agree[d]” with the necessity of preserving the primacy of official channels of communication (No. 603). (Hillsborough kept his word in so far as he refused to recognize the agents appointed separately by the Massachusetts House and Council.) After praising Bernard for aiding the rejection of the Circular Letter (No. 603), news of its adoption, arriving on 15 Apr. (No. 589), jolted Hillsborough into action. First, he presented the Circular Letter to the cabinet. Thereupon, with his colleagues’ approval, Hillsborough issued his own circular to the colonial governors insisting they ignore the Massachusetts Circular Letter and denouncing its “dangerous and Factious Tendency” to “promote” an illegal combination “in open Opposition to, and denial of, the authority of Parliament.”28 In a separate letter of 22 Apr., Hillsborough instructed Bernard to have the House of Representatives rescind the original vote of approval (No. 608).
Hillsborough’s instruction to Bernard was an impulsive gesture, a warning to colonial radicals. He would have known from Bernard’s letters that it would commit the governor to a political struggle he could only win by scaring the House into submission. The requirement to rescind the vote was a high-handed demand that the Whig members repudiate intercolonial politics and work through and with the governor’s office in making obedient supplications for a redress of grievances. It is likely that the British government’s proposal to create a baronetcy for Bernard (first broached through Barrington in No. 610), was more than an incentive or reward for Bernard. It too was a public signal to Bernard’s critics in both America and Britain that the governor still had the confidence of the Chatham administration and the king; yet it also enabled Hillsborough to recall Bernard with grace should the rescinding instruction prove a failure. The secretary was already thinking of moving him to another province. Hillsborough, however, was demanding too much of others and too little of himself. The instruction to rescind was an error of judgment (Appendix 1). Bernard did not receive the rescinding instruction until 15 Jun., along with a caveat from Barrington that “Things are coming apace to crisis: My friend Lord Hillsborough will have his hands full.” Bernard, he advised, really ought to get out of the province as soon as he could (No. 605).29 When Bernard presented Hillsborough’s instruction to the House of Representatives later that month, the ensuing confrontation demonstrated not the fractiousness but the unity of the Whigs in trying to get the Townshend duties repealed.
Boston, March to April
Bernard’s first reports of popular protests against the Townshend duties instinctively and explicitly drew comparison with the Stamp Act riots and demonstrations of 1765. While the previous disturbances were generally nonviolent, the destruction of Thomas Hutchinson’s house and the intimidation of other government officials, had led Bernard to conclude that mobbism was a weapon of choice for the Sons of Liberty.30 He was not blind to Whig endeavors to control crowds, in which they were largely successful, but overly-sensitive to menacing behavior. Rioters and politicians had defeated the Stamp Act, he concluded, mainly by threatening retribution against officials duty-bound to enforce the law; in the winter of 1765-66 he believed he had no choice other than to close the law courts and Customhouse—unless he were to instruct officials to break the law by ignoring an act of Parliament. First with the Stamp Act, and then the Townshend Acts, Bernard was convinced that mobs would be called upon to aid the Whigs’ campaign for repeal, in which, once again, “they propose to suspend the Execution of the Laws.” (No. 592.)
I have not Time now to write to you as fully as I could wish: I can only say that it looks as if the Same Disorders which attended the Stampt-Act are coming on apace. People seem determined not to Submit to the Laws of Trade; They now declare against all Laws which impose Duties; The Molasses Act of which was formerly a Favour is as great an Object of Opposition as any. The Officers of the Trade are threatned, Mobbings Continu^a^lly expected, The Commissioners in the most precarious Situation not knowing how to order the Execution of the Laws or how to let it alone. I am just as defenceless as ever. &c &c. God grant that the Opinion which has prevailed at home that the Colonies would come to Rights of themselves may not prove a fatal Deception. (No. 595.)
Bernard’s talent for dramatic anticipation was more pronounced in his letters to his British friends than it was to the secretaries of state. This to Richard Jackson:
Every Things here is running into Confusion; People here are ready to refuse to submit to any Laws of Trade imposing Duties; the Officers are threatened; Mobbs are expected; the Commissioners are frightned; the Government is defenceless; &c &c. These are the Effects of America (or rather Boston) being left to Right itself. You shall here more soon. (No. 594.)
Perhaps though, Bernard was deceiving himself, for unlike the Stamp Tax the Townshend duties were being collected. Collection proceeded apace under the American Board of Customs, established at Boston in November 1767. The tea duty and other trade duties brought into the king’s Treasury around £40,000 per annum (minus officials’ salaries). The nonimportation agreements adopted by the colonies, beginning in Boston in March, over the next eighteen months reduced by half the value British imports and with it revenue from duties payable in the colonies: gross receipts from duties were £39,512 in 1768, £42,787 in 1769, and £36,668 in 1770. Full trade resumed in 1770 (with the notable exception of dutied tea); within two years the value of imports was more than double what it had been five years earlier and revenue collection peaked at £49,113.31 Smuggling, however, particularly of Dutch tea, was widespread (judging by anecdotal evidence) but it is difficult to establish any specific impact on Crown revenues. Consumers habituated to contraband and merchants accustomed to evading trade duties were naturally hostile toward customs officers, and their assiduous efforts to enforce the boycotts of British goods enabled popular participation in the protest movement.32 But direct action to prevent customs officers enforcing the trade laws was uncoordinated and not sustained beyond the locale of occurrence. Nothing in the Whigs’ campaign against the Townshend Acts overtly proposed coercing government officials into suspending imperial laws. What Bernard and the Customs Board initially reported were shady “rescues” of goods impounded by customs officers and the outrageous defiance of smuggler Daniel Malcom in preventing an authorized search of his property (Appendix 2).33
However, it was the Customs commissioners, not the governor, who, in a memorial of 12 Feb., first divined a sinister purpose to the insults trafficked in the town meetings and routinely hurled at them from outside the Customhouse building in King Street. “At these meetings the lowest mechanics discuss upon the most important points of government with the utmost freedom; which, being guided by a few hot and designing men, become the constant source of sedition.” (Appendix 2.) Bernard was not privy to the commissioners’ private deliberations nor to the proceedings of the Board; indeed, he soon found reason to resent the commissioners’ arrogance toward provincial officers. Even so, there is evidence to suggest some collusion between the governor and the commissioners—at least in so far as making sure their stories tallied. Confiding in Barrington, Bernard wrote on 3 Mar. “The present Suspence is a very disagreeable one: the Commissioners see that they must wait till a violent Opposition is made to their Officers; & yet they dread the Experiment. I must be involved with them more or less,” having promised them “Asylum” at Castle William. (No. 592.)
On 18 Mar., when Boston Whigs noisily celebrated the second anniversary of the Stamp Act’s repeal, the Customs commissioners alerted the governor to the possibility that the effigies of Commissioner Paxton and Inspector General Williams, found hanging on Liberty Tree, were “a presage of some open Acts of Violence” (No. 599). That same day, Bernard wrote Shelburne and Hillsborough, expressing disappointment that the Council seemed dismissive of the entire incident and would not join him in condemning the disturbances as a precursor of “Insurrection.” But as both the Council and Thomas Hutchinson appreciated, when local Whigs removed the effigies they defused the situation and ensured that the celebrations would pass off peacefully (No. 600). The governor and the commissioners may have colluded in their epistolary counter-attack, but it was Bernard who seemed to relish the task of dramatizing the Board’s present predicament (of which his recent letters to Pownall and Jackson had given notice). There is no doubt that his letters of 18 Mar. were intended to elicit a strong reaction, perhaps the strongest possible in the circumstances: the direct deployment of British Regulars.
Nothing was to be gained from asking the Council to join him in making such a request of the British commander in chief, General Thomas Gage, based at New York.34
I have once before [in 1765] tried the Experiment when the Danger was more urgent and immediate than it is now and the Success then fully convinced me that it is to no Purpose ever again to repeat the Question. His Majesty’s Ministers have within these three Years been fully acquainted with the defenceless State of this Government; and therefore I trust that I shall be excused leaving it to the Administration to determine upon a Measure which they are much more able to judge of and be answerable for than I can be. (No. 600.)
By likening spontaneous acts of resentment to the intimidation offered government officials prior to the Stamp Act riots, Bernard hoped to persuade Hillsborough to order General Gage to dispatch troops to Boston. This rationale also underpinned Bernard’s subsequent reports on the Liberty riot of 10 Jun. wherein he connected evasion of the trade laws to the Whigs’ wider political agenda. Bernard and the Customs commissioners, in short, were able to convince Hillsborough and the Treasury that the resurgence in crowd action threatened a violent turn, evinced a propensity for lawlessness, and, more worryingly still, threatened insurrection; thus they let the British deduce that the provincial government and Customhouse now required the protection of British soldiers and that inaction would jeopardize imperial power.
Meanwhile, the death of the Bernards’ fourth son, fifteen year-old Shute, on 5 Apr. after “a short Illness of four days,” shook the governor to the core.35 “I find that a Number of Children does not so much reconcile one to the Loss of one, as might be imagin’d. However I ought not to repine, when I have 9 hopeful Children left,” he confided to Barrington, striving to maintain composure (No. 606). The Bernards would lose two other boys: Frank (the eldest) who died in Boston in 1770, and William, the seventh child, lost at sea in 1776. Shute’s death doubtless made the governor and his wife Amelia all the more determined to get out of Boston. But it is otherwise difficult to ascertain how it might have affected Bernard’s handling of public affairs during the spring; perhaps it rendered him altogether more impatient with critics whose antics he believed jeopardized the beguiling ordinariness of daily life.
To former governor Thomas Pownall, Bernard complained that colonists expected their governor should “Side with them in their Pretensions against the Parliament” (No. 607). For Pownall also, securing American representation in Parliament was one way to end the interminable disputes over taxation. But what Bernard did not tell Pownall was that he believed the Americans were intent on a more “desperate Defiance of Great Britain;” and he had no intention of exposing his “Family” to “a much greater risk . . . to another insurrection.” It was vital, Bernard pleaded with Barrington, that he be accorded leave to report in person and get his family out. To underline the point, a “secret” postscript to a letter delivered by a secure conveyance asserted unequivocally that it was the “intention of the Faction here to cause an Insurrection against the Crown Officers” as soon as “their extravagant Demands” on self-taxation were refused (No. 609). These concerns Barrington obligingly forwarded to Hillsborough.36 Not until mid-September (when fresh instructions arrived from Hillsborough) did Bernard give up the expectation of being allowed to return to England that year.
These, then, were the sentiments of a beleaguered imperial official. What support Bernard could muster in the spring of 1768 came from a dwindling band. With the friends of government in the House out-muscled by the Whigs and the Council becoming more unpredictable, Bernard relied heavily on his cabinet of advisers: principally Thomas Hutchinson (the lieutenant governor and chief justice), Andrew Oliver (the province secretary), Robert Auchmuty (judge of the Vice Admiralty Court), and—for a while at least—Jonathan Sewall (the advocate general of Vice Admiralty and the province attorney general).37
Of his deputy Hutchinson Bernard was pleased to claim later that there was always a “Union of Sentiments & Coalition of Interests between us” (No. 788).38 While his advisers generally supported the governor in his run-ins with the assembly, these Massachusetts-born men nevertheless evinced their own provincial perspectives, Hutchinson most prominently. Of Hutchinson, Bernard remarked that “It gives me great pleasure to say that I can depend upon his resolution & steadiness as much as I can Upon My own” (No. 596). That Hutchinson did not share Bernard’s deep-seated anxieties about popular violence (as his comments in No. 600 imply) points to a tension—but not a fracture—in their relationship. The hostility Bernard felt toward the province radicals was rooted in fear that what Hutchinson endured in 1765 might also happen to him in 1768. Even so, senior provincial officers escaped maltreatment in 1768, and no Customs officer was manhandled until the seizure of Hancock’s Lydia in April or physically attacked until the Liberty riot of 10 Jun.
For all that Hutchinson was the governor’s confidant and privy to some of the governor’s correspondence, he was not fully aware of what exactly Bernard was telling the British about the colonial opposition during 1768. Hutchinson noted later that
The Governor has but in very few Instances acquainted me with the Letters he has wrote. I dont know that I ever saw any thing he wrote to Lord Hillsboro. He must undoubtedly have wrote some things which ought not to be published.39
Hutchinson and Bernard, in fact, disagreed about many things, not least the governor’s preference for a royally-appointed Council and his colonialist attitude toward provincial law and law enforcement. Hutchinson must have experienced pressure from friends as well as enemies to cease defending the governor, if not to abandon him. After Hutchinson justified Bernard’s handling of the Stamp Act riots to former province agent William Bollan,40 Bollan’s riposte was scathing about Hutchinson’s loyalty to “your little great man . . .
whatever you may think of your favourite, I am persuaded that his law, justice and policy will be found wanting when weigh’d in a just balance, at the same time believing that if some parts of his conduct were known to you they wou’d fall under your censure as well as mine.41
Bernard never took Hutchinson’s loyalty for granted, knowing truthfully that it was Hutchinson, not he, who brought a deep understanding of colonial history and society to government. Bernard’s jealously was manifest in the delusion that it was he and not Hutchinson who managed the government side. “I certainly have many friends more strongly attached to me than they are to him,” Hutchinson intimated to a family member, “tho my friends in general are his also.”42 Hutchinson, Bernard could rely on, but others gave him increasing cause for concern.
The lengthy dispute between the Customs commissioners and his chief law officer, Jonathan Sewall, the province’s attorney general and the advocate general of Vice Admiralty, was the most serious of any internal rift that Bernard had to deal with in his nine-year administration. Sewall owed his rapid rise to Bernard’s patronage, but appeared to stall when asked to pursue the Whig printers of the Boston Gazette, Benjamin Edes and John Gill (No. 596). When it came to enforcing the trade laws, Sewall evinced a strict constructionist interpretation of the laws of admiralty that upset the Customs commissioners. Matters came to a head in the spring when he delivered his opinion on the Lydia case with a panache that exposed the commissioners’ ignorance of the law yet also saved them (and himself) from embarking on an ill-founded prosecution of the vessel’s owner, the Whig merchant John Hancock. By the summer Sewall was threatening to resign, believing (rightly) that the commissioners had questioned his competency. The dispute between the commissioners and Sewall seemed always to intrude at the very moment when the governor was pre-occupied with grave matters of state and where Sewall’s assistance was most needed: in the pursuit of Hancock after the seizure of his sloop Liberty and on the eve of the Regulars’ arrival (No. 678).
Sewall resented the fact that the Customs commissioners seemed to regard him as a political servant. No matter that their cause was to humble a high-profile Whig, Sewall genuinely doubted that, after seizing the Liberty, there was sufficient evidence to convict Hancock for evading the trade laws (No. 672). Sewall stood to benefit financially from any successful prosecution in the Vice Admiralty Court, as did Bernard as governor, and with exorbitant fines being levied and punitive penalties sought, the trial, from Nov. 1768 to Mar. 1769, became a cause célèbre. Sewall abandoned the case for lack of evidence.43 As the dispute between Sewall and commissioners dragged on, Bernard had good cause to resent Sewall’s stubbornness and the commissioners’ vindictiveness. But Sewall’s independence of mind also led Bernard, by the end of 1768, to question his loyalty and exclude him from his cabinet council.44 Bernard never knew the full story of Sewall’s spat with the Customs commissioners until the following January, by which time it was clear to him that his attorney general had compromised his own integrity as much as he had been compromised by the commissioners.45
Boston, May to June
Mid-May brought Bernard official confirmation of Hillsborough’s appointment and with it news that the secretary fully approved his conduct in office. Hillsborough’s first business letter praised everything the governor had tried in order to limit the Whigs’ influence, notably his refusal to recognize the House’s agent and his tactical veto on radicals elected to the Council (No. 588). The secretary’s subsequent communications were equally supportive (No. 603 etc.). These endorsements boosted Bernard’s self-confidence. While accepting that the “political Barometer” stood unchanged, there was “less appearance of violence” and he dared hope that “Vigorous measures” could yet “give a great turn to the politicks of this place” (No. 617).
Bernard’s replies to Hillsborough exhibited a freedom, if not a talent, for insulting the colonists. He invited sympathy for the victims of “Terror,” identified his own tribulations with British neglect, and exhorted Hillsborough to action.
I therefore do not expect that this Government will recover itself, untill these Men have received some signal Check from Great Britain, such as will open the Eyes of their deluded followers. Their being suffered for near 3 years with Impunity to govern this Town by a trained Mob, and to set Great Britain at Defiance & treat the supreme imperial Power with a Contempt not only indecent but allmost treasonable has caused a great Despondency among the Officers and Friends of Government, and has brought the Kings Authority very low. (No. 614.)
Hitherto, Bernard’s venom had been directed primarily at Boston representative James Otis Jr. The Whig party’s electoral successes, its domination of the House of Representatives, and the inroads it was making in the Council still owed much to the disgruntled Otis family, with whom Bernard ruled out any possible compromise (Nos. 616, 617, and 619). But the commitment and organizational skills of other Whig leaders were equally worthy of comment. Bernard did not always name them, preferring to cast them as revolutionary phantasms for Hillsborough’s amusement: “3 or 4 Persons bankrupt in Reputation as well as in Fortune, and equally void of Credit in Character & in Property.” (No. 614). This slur was an unmistakable acknowledgement of Samuel Adams’s emergence as a formidable driver of the opposition in both the House and the Boston town meeting. Other local Whigs took a lead role in the enforcement of Boston’s nonimportation agreements of March and August, and one of Bernard’s early reports hints at the growing commitment of Boston’s workers to the scheme (No. 615). The weight of evidence Bernard presented Hillsborough thus far pointed to an ably-led opposition movement feeding on broad-based popular support. This was not, in the parlance of the time, the faction of thwarted ambitious men that British parliamentarians habitually fooled themselves were fomenting the troubles in America. If Hillsborough had genuinely believed the fallacy, Bernard’s letters ought to have dispelled it.
The governor eyed the prospect of remaining in post only as long as was necessary. He still expected to be granted leave of absence, though when that might be he could only guess; and he still supposed that Barrington could find him another, less troublesome posting in America. Having dutifully informed the British of the political, constitutional, and even social aspects of the colonial protest movement and suggested appropriate remedies Bernard was prepared to bide his time until he could get out of Boston. For all that he hoped the British government would offer “some signal Check”—ideally the cantonment of a regiment of troops in Boston and the appointment of a royal Council (No. 658)—he probably did not expect London to move so quickly.
With the arrival on 17 May of HMS Romney, a fifty-gun, fourth-rate ship captained by John Corner, Bernard probably felt more secure than he had in years (No. 634). Bostonians, on the other hand, viewed with trepidation the movements of Royal Navy vessels in and out of the harbor during the next two months.46 Corner’s press gangs provoked immediate resistance (No. 618) that spilled over into a riot on Friday, 10 Jun., following the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop Liberty. These disturbances fit the wider patterns of colonial crowd action and did not in themselves threaten civil disorder or exhibit revolutionary tendencies.47 But Bernard returned to his insurrectionist theme when he declared the events of 10 Jun. a “great Riot” in which lives were threatened (but not lost), property damaged (though not much), and customs officers beaten (yet not endangered) (No. 623). It is difficult to judge the veracity of Bernard’s accounts of the Liberty riot. When it comes to ascertaining crowd motivation and intention historians have rightly questioned the probity of the governor’s reports.48 Bernard’s motivation, however, can reasonably be deduced from correspondence printed in this volume (Nos. 620-636) and a selection of the papers of the Customs Board (Appendices 6 and 7). These transcripts confirm in detail for the first time historians’ suspicions49 that Bernard and the Customs commissioners used the Liberty riot to manufacture a sense of crisis in the hope of bringing British soldiers to Boston. All of this should aid historians’ understanding of how one of the major flashpoints of the Imperial Crisis had an impact upon British policymaking.50
Bernard’s first report to London (No. 623) omitted details as to what had triggered the riot: the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop Liberty. Hancock may have been under surveillance since early May, the Customhouse suspecting him of routinely smuggling Madeira wine, molasses, and other goods. But senior customs officers only seized the Liberty at Hancock’s Wharf after one of their junior officers admitted that—several weeks previously—he had been physically restrained by Hancock’s men while attempting an inspection of the vessel. Fearing a violent attempt to rescue the Liberty or its cargo, customs officers Benjamin Hallowell and Joseph Harrison arranged for boats from the HMS Romney to tow the Liberty from the wharf to the warship. On their return to the waterfront, Hallowell, Harrison, and Harrison’s son were met with a hail of insults and stones from a crowd initially numbering upwards of three hundred. Doubtless it was a terrifying enough ordeal for the officers coming ashore, but on making their way back to the Customhouse and to their homes had to pass through a much larger crowd swollen by observers and angry townsfolk. Governor Bernard’s narrative captures the officers’ progress through a gauntlet of blows. The crowd proceeded to Boston Common to burn a “pleasure Boat” belonging to Harrison. There the people were “harangued by a Leader” to defend their “liberties” and keep faith in “the Strength of our ^own^ Arms and God.” Further violence, Bernard concluded, was averted only when the rum ran out, though the day’s events seemed a “Prelude to greater Mischiefs.” That, in sum, constituted the “great Riot” Bernard described to Hillsborough.
While the drama of the Liberty riot matched the first Stamp Act riot, of 14 Aug. 1765, the sequel Bernard anticipated was conspicuously absent. Three years previously, the mobs had progressed from intimidating officials to destroying Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion house. But there was no escalation this time, with local Whigs carefully restraining hotheads and even seeking Bernard’s assistance to end impressment (Nos. 629, 631, and 632). Bernard’s subsequent letters proffered only signifiers of intent to commit violence, not actual evidence of intent. On 12 Jun., he “heard some loose Reports that there was to be another rising.” Advertisements by the Sons of Liberty summoned the people to an open air meeting on Tuesday 14 Jun. and handbills threatened retribution. Rumors abounded that the seizure of the Liberty was premeditated and provocative: that the commissioners, the governor, and the naval commander together had hatched a plot to incite the populace to violence in order to justify the misrepresentations they had already made to Britain (No. 630). A year hence, Samuel Adams read copies of official correspondence documenting the Liberty riot, including Bernard’s report in No. 623, and, writing in the pamphlet Appeal to the World, concluded that he had been right all along about the governor: that he was involved in a conspiracy to disseminate disinformation.
By retreating to the Romney and thence to Castle William for nigh on five months, the Customs commissioners projected another narrative for Bernard to consider. When would it be safe for them to return to the Customhouse? What was Bernard doing to ensure their safety? Bernard and the commissioners compiled their own files documenting the exchanges between them lest they have to justify their respective decisions at a future date (Nos. 624 to 627). John Temple, however, did not accompany the other commissioners to Castle William and remained in town. Consequently his signature is absent from many of the Board’s documents, but Temple’s already strained relationship with his colleagues deteriorated further as they came to suspect him of leaking information to his Whig friends via his father-in-law James Bowdoin, the Whig leader in the Council. To his enemies, including Bernard, it seemed as if Temple was motivated by animus and incapable of forming professional relationships.51
Discussions between the governor and the Council, meanwhile, focused less on the dwindling prospect of violence and more on the perceived state of the province (No. 628). So too did debates in the House of Representatives and Boston town meeting. Whigs feared that the commissioners and Bernard were providing the British with a plausible rationale for sending in soldiers; as might be expected, the “state” of Massachusetts figured prominently in the governor’s correspondence with Britain (No. 630). In short, the Customs commissioners were pressing Bernard to resolve the issue by asking the Council to join him in requesting military assistance from General Gage.
Bernard first raised the idea with the Council on 13 Jun. but did not put a formal question to them until 27 Jul. Gage, however, was concerned, on learning from the Customs commissioners, that the commissioners “had received no Assurances of Protection” (No. 637). He provided Bernard with sealed orders that he could use to expedite the deployment of soldiers from Halifax, Nova Scotia (No. 639). Bernard knew little of Gage personally, but after the Stamp Act riots was impressed by the general’s readiness to offer military assistance. For his part, Gage probably supposed the civilian governor indecisive.52 Bernard may have been hoping that Gage would make that difficult decision for him and briefly confused himself, wrongly supposing that Gage had indeed ordered troops direct to Boston (No. 641). (Gage’s letters concerning the deployment of troops to Boston were not previously printed in the Correspondence of Gage).
In the meantime, on 18 Jun. Bernard dispatched a letter to Hillsborough with a plaintive cry for intervention:
the retreat of the Commissioners has been very timely and well circumstanced & their security is now effectually provided for. Your Lordship may wonder at my dwelling upon this; but if there is not a Revolt the Leaders of the Sons of Liberty must falsify their Words & change their purposes. For my part when I consider the Defenceless State of this Town I cannot think they will be so mad as to attempt to defend it against the King’s Forces: but the Lengths they have gone already are scarce short of Madness. (No. 632.)
Replying to Barrington, Bernard noted that “Your Lordship observes that Things are coming apace to a Crisis: I am sure they are with us; and I fear the Bostonians will get the Start of you” (No. 634).
The governor and the Customs commissioners on the one hand and the Council, the Whigs, and the town meeting on the other viewed the retreat of the American Board of Customs to HMS Romney after the Liberty riot from different perspectives. Both sides thought it sent a dangerous signal to the British government that law and order in Boston was being challenged and that royal officials were in jeopardy. While Bernard and the Customs commisioners exaggerated the threat of crowd action in so far as the insurrection they espied did not exist (as historian Dirk Hoerder has shown), the entire episode—the riot caused by the seizure of the Liberty and the impressment of sailors—illustrated the inability of the provincial government and imperial establishment to enforce authority in the face of resistance to imperial agencies. The “conditions of law,” according to historian John P. Reid, were now largely determined by Whig politicians in the van of the colonial protest movement. (Some of these Whigs were “new men” as Bernard recognised, although the leadership pool did not substantively expand at this time.)53 In the months ahead, and against a backdrop of increasingly hostile public opinion, Bernard expended considerable effort trying convince Hillsborough of the rectitude of his observations on crowd action and his worth as a commentator on the protest movement.
On 15 Jun., in the midst of the brouhaha over the Liberty riot, Bernard received Hillsborough’s instruction to have the House of Representatives rescind the vote approving the Circular Letter. The news was unwelcome in itself, for it committed Bernard to a contest he knew he could not win.
I cannot foresee what will be done upon the occasion; whether Prudence will get the better of Faction, or not. I know not how to hope that they will comply; if they do not, your Lordship may depend upon it I will obey my orders (No. 633).
If the House refused to rescind the vote, Bernard had no option but to dissolve the assembly and send a report of its proceedings to Hillsborough; such documents the secretary had threatened to lay before Parliament so that “such Provisions as shall be found necessary may be made to prevent for the future a Conduct of so extraordinary & unconstitutional a Nature” (No. 608).
The instruction’s arrival was also decidedly untimely, for it significantly complicated Bernard’s response to the Liberty riot. Both controversies aided his enemies in constructing a convenient fiction: that since the beginning of the year, at least, Bernard had deliberately misled ministers as to the state of the province in order to persuade them to intervene. The rescinding instruction was in essence an over-reaction to the reports Hillsborough had been receiving from Bernard and the Customs commissioners. But the Whigs’ conspiracy theory was based entirely on suspicion, supposition, and a welter of ideological premises. Their deductions reflected the course of events, but their judgments were formed in the heat of political battles. The governor’s correspondence with Shelburne and Hillsborough, they well knew, might contain the requisite evidence, yet for the moment was out of reach, save a single abridged letter Bernard agreed to hand over to the House of Representatives (No. 566).54
That Bernard had engaged in hostile reporting can be established from the documentation printed in this volume. That he had urged the British to take special measures is also evident. But did he do so with malign intent? Historiography allows some leeway for misunderstandings on both sides, and the documentary evidence from the first six months of 1768 is not enough to convict the governor of disinformation in the court of historical opinion.55 The governor dramatized local crises he could not manage, but he did not create or invent them. He did impugn the characters of Whig leaders James Otis Jr. and Samuel Adams, but did not personally accuse them of sedition or treason. This ought to count as misrepresentation and misinformation, as the House alleged (Appendix 9); but it was not the conspiracy of disinformation that Samuel Adams later claimed. However, the rescinding controversy and Liberty riot together constituted a watershed in the governor’s reporting of events and developments. For, thereafter, Bernard thought and wrote strategically, moving with deliberation, purpose, and perspicacity to endanger his enemies: this was more counter-offensive than conspiracy, and traded in whatever intelligence and information he could accumulate.
Bernard began his account of the rescinding controversy (No. 638) on 25 Jun. four days after presenting the House with an extract of Hillsborough’s letter demanding a vote to rescind the Circular Letter. He finished the letter a week later, on the day after the House divided. Bernard did not tell the House he was empowered to dissolve the assembly in the event of noncompliance and that Hillsborough might initiate an inquiry by Parliament; he did not wish to resort to “Threats in the first Instance, before their Minds were known.” His brief account of the debate seemed to bear this explanation out. When Otis delivered a “Rhapsody” of abuse against the king’s ministers and parliamentarians, the governor hoped he might alienate moderate and conservative Whigs. But “All were involved in one common Obloquy,” Bernard wrote despairingly. Thereupon, when the House demanded an unexpurgated copy of Hillsborough’s instruction (No. 608) and copies of other letters to the governor, Bernard released those paragraphs of the instruction letter that contained the “Threats.” The House thus knew what the consequences would be of defying the rescinding instruction. The prospect of escalation prompted the members to seek a recess to ascertain the views of their constituents, and only when refused by Bernard did they proceed to vote. The question to “rescind or not rescind” was decided in the negative by ninety-two votes to seventeen, on 30 Jun. It was the clearest indication to date of the assembly’s determination to withstand imperial power.
Defiance of British colonial policy now defined mainstream Whig opinion. Bernard attributed the prime leadership role to James Otis, though the governor was cognizant of the differences that existed between Otis and Samuel Adams. Otis’s demagoguery, he believed, reflected the mood of the other members, though Bernard misunderstood some of the historical allusions in Otis’s speeches. The House’s formal reply to Bernard’s message nonetheless was calculated to appeal to a broad base of opinion: it defended their and the colonies’ rights of redress and petition and accused the governor of “Misinformation and Misrepresentation,”56 prompting the appointment of a committee to petition for the governor’s removal. Dissolution prevented any formal progress on the matter, and the House had to be content with the milder censure delivered in a letter to Hillsborough (Appendix 9).
When Bernard dissolved the assembly he knew that the locus of opposition would shift from the House of Representatives to the Council, which continued to meet with him in its advisory capacity. He knew too that his conduct would become the focus of attention in the Boston town meeting. The rescinding instruction was the last time the Crown would require Bernard to make specific demands of the assembly. It was also the beginning of the end for Bernard. “I apprehend that I shall be drove to execute my orders in a manner that may make me personally offensive,” he wrote Barrington, “I therefore a good deal depend upon my obtaining leave of absence.” (No. 640.) Bernard wanted out, as quickly as possible. Barrington had already got him what he desired: an instruction permitting leave of absence (No. 636), which Bernard received in mid-September, together with the offer of the governorship of Virginia.57
London, May to July
Wills Hill (1718-93), first earl of Hillsborough and first secretary of state for the Colonies (1768-72), was one of the most controversial British figures of the Imperial Crisis, largely because of his decision to send British troops to Boston in 1768. Hillsborough had been the colonial secretary for just four months when letters arrived in May and June illustrating the apparently precarious position of the king’s servants in Boston (Appendix 2, Nos. 596 and 600). From such accounts, Hillsborough finally realized the strength and reach of the colonial opposition (of which the rescinding instruction seemed unaware). News of fresh outrages reinforced his determination to thwart colonial radicalism. His initial reaction was calm though not pedestrian: governors were exhorted to provide full assistance to the Customs Board (No. 612). Hillsborough also assumed full managerial control of American affairs, gathering information with a view to clarifying governors’ responsibilities (No. 635), channeling all communications through his office (No. 651), and reserving the right to present governor’s correspondence to Parliament as required (No. 653) and regardless of Bernard’s previous objections. Bernard was granted a discretionary leave of absence so that he could update Hillsborough in person (No. 636). Customs officer Benjamin Hallowell,58 however, was already crossing the Atlantic, bearing accounts of the Liberty riot by the Customs commissioners (Appendix 6) and Bernard (Nos. 623, 630, 632, and 633).59
There is no comprehensive biography of Hillsborough, despite him leaving a substantial array of primary documentation60 covering a long political career.61 He had more than twenty-five years’ experience of British politics before his appointment as colonial secretary. Hillsborough’s three years as president of the Board of Trade62 did not kindle a particular interest in American affairs or equip him with the deep knowledge acquired by his predecessor Charles Townshend.63 Hillsborough’s elevation to secretary of state, according to one historian, had more to do with his availability for office, having “sustained a political presence through persistence, not talent.”64 While Hillsborough lacked the brilliance and charisma of the earl of Shelburne, he was able to keep allies on side rather than alienate them, as Shelburne tended to do when secretary of state.
The political ambitions of neither Shelburne nor Hillsborough lay in management of American affairs. Much the same could be said of any cabinet minister whose portfolio ever included the colonies. Both Shelburne and Hillsborough rose quickly to high political office, and, more obviously in Hillsborough’s case, attended to the consolidation of their own and British power in Ireland. Shelburne and Hillsborough were scions of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. After resigning office in October 1768, Shelburne spent years in opposition until joining Rockingham’s second administration of 1782 and succeeding Rockingham as prime minister to lead his own five-month administration. Hillsborough never led a British administration, and his (unfulfilled) ambition was to become lord lieutenant of the kingdom of Ireland, the king’s representative and the head of government.65 Shelburne’s lands were in the Gaelic Catholic south-west, Hillsborough’s in County Down in the heavily Protestant North-East. In Shelburne’s case this probably induced some sympathy for the American colonists (if only because of the imperative to remain alert to their grumbling). Hillsborough’s estate and wealth lay in a region whose frontier situation had been so explosive and which now (from landowners’ standpoints) needed ruthless attention, taking no chances on disaffection.
The extent to which these socio-psychological drivers shaped their handling of American affairs remains to be established. In sum, Shelburne stood for conciliation with the Americans, having supported Rockingham’s repeal of the Stamp Act; but that also entailed firmly defending the principle of parliamentary supremacy, as demonstrated by his reaction to the New York Assembly’s defiance of the Quartering Act.66 Hillsborough was for bullying recalcitrant Americans; as a Grenvillite, he had opposed making concessions to the Americans and remained committed to the ideal of strengthening the imperial bonds whenever possible. Hillsborough reputedly behaved like a “pompous” courtier (Horace Walpole), his insincerity and “duplicity” even upsetting the phlegmatic colonial agent Benjamin Franklin.67 Hillsborough patently lacked leadership qualities. He “panicked,” historian John Brooke has written, for he was “a weak man, totally unfitted by convictions or character to be in charge of American affairs.”68 In sending troops to Boston, Robert Middlekauf concluded, “Hillsborough prepared the way for colonial action; some colonists said that he left them no choice.”69
On the face of it, much of the invective historians have directed at Hillsborough seems facile and irrelevant to the government’s decision to send Regulars to Boston. Moreover, Governor Bernard had already “crafted a case for direct British intervention in colonial affairs” before Hillsborough took office. He argued consistently in letters to Hillsborough’s predecessor, the earl of Shelburne, that crowd action and radical opposition to the Townshend duties were undermining the enforcement of imperial law.70 But Bernard’s impatience with Shelburne and Shelburne’s distrust of Bernard were never absent from their correspondence during 1767. Thus, Bernard welcomed Hillsborough’s appointment, because he assumed, like many British commentators, that Hillsborough would take a hardline toward the American Colonies, and that he would be more supportive of the governors than Shelburne. Such an opinion was not misplaced and was fed by Barrington’s early reports that Hillsborough was a man of “prudence firmness & temper.” (No. 605.) Barrington, moreover, advised that he himself was a conduit to the secretary of state, informing Bernard that he had “communicated your most ingenious thoughts about American Affairs to my friend Lord Hillsborough” (No. 597). He later transmitted Hillsborough’s offer of a baronetcy and the lieutenant-governorship of Virginia (which was not a demotion) (No. 610), though the latter was quickly withdrawn for political reasons (No. 665). Hillsborough already knew a little of Bernard’s reform plans71 and sought the opinions of Barrington and Pownall as to Bernard’s reliability as a political commentator. Hillsborough evidently trusted the veracity of Bernard’s reporting more than Shelburne did.
Peter D. G. Thomas’s detailed account of British policymaking has revealed how far the cabinet’s response to the situation in Boston, and the colonies more generally, was guided by Hillsborough. The colonial secretary relied on a wealth of information provided by imperial officials, notably Bernard and the American Board of Customs. Despite the time lag in receiving and responding to information Hillsborough correctly concluded that Bernard’s letters revealed an escalation in opposition to the Townshend Acts during 1768. Hillsborough was obliged to sift through the reports and to decide what merited action and what did not, then consider modus operandi that the cabinet (and later the Parliament) would likely approve.72 Hillsborough was inclined merely to express support for Bernard in his tussles with the Massachusetts House of Representatives (No. 603). He decided to intervene, however, upon learning of the House’s efforts to organize intercolonial opposition to the Townshend duties act. He instructed Bernard to require the House to rescind the vote approving its circular letter to the speakers of the colonial assemblies (No. 608), thus setting his governor on a collision course with the House (No. 638). But it was news of the demonstrations in Boston in March and Bernard’s and the Customs commissioners’ apprehensions of violence that finally prompted Hillsborough and the cabinet to consider a military response.
On 8 Jun., the earl of Hillsborough issued orders to the British commander in chief in North America that would change the course of history (Appendix 4). Gage was instructed to send to Boston two of the sixteen regiments presently stationed in North America:73 one to be quartered in the town, and the other at Castle William. For this task Gage selected the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot based at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Furthermore, five Royal Navy vessels were ordered to Boston harbor to assist the American Board of Customs in carrying out its duties.74 Hillsborough communicated the cabinet’s decision to Bernard in a letter of 11 Jun. (No. 622). Reports on the Liberty riot (notably No. 632 and Appendix 6) brought to London on 19 Jul. by Benjamin Hallowell initiated a further round of cabinet discussions. On 30 Jul., Hillsborough ordered two additional regiments to Boston, the 64th and 65th Regiments stationed in Ireland and already scheduled for a tour of duty in Nova Scotia the following spring (No. 661).
Ministers were not seeking a military solution to the Imperial Crisis, but presumed that the presence of the Regulars would restore respect for imperial authority which, like Bernard, they seemed to think was in decline. Recent events in London demonstrated the British government’s readiness to use the military as a police force. On 10 May dragoons deployed upon Barrington’s orders dispersed a rally at St. George’s Fields, London, held in support of the incarcerated John Wilkes, returned to Parliament in March at the general election. Six people were killed by the soldiers, whose actions Barrington publicly lauded. The situations in London and Boston were by no means comparable. Both political prudence and the law dictated that with Boston, Hillsborough and Barrington leave it to the civil government—in this case the Governor and Council—to decide if and when they required soldiers to break up riots. Ministers calculated that billeting the troops in the town itself would be a sufficient deterrent to rioters. In that sense, the British viewed the relocation of the soldiers not as a military expedition but a temporary cantonment (as Bernard himself had long urged).75
How far cabinet deliberations on the troop deployment were driven by the colonial secretary is open to debate, but Bernard’s reports were considered carefully by Hillsborough and his colleagues. Hillsborough’s letter to Bernard of 11 Jun. (No. 622) stressed that the decision to send two regiments to Boston was based “upon the most mature Consideration of what has been represented by yourself, and by the Commrs of the Customs established at Boston.” He specifically cited Bernard’s letter on the disturbances in Boston of 18 Mar. (No. 600) and the Customs commissioners’ memorials (Appendices 2 and 3). According to John P. Reid, Hillsborough was “misled” by exaggerated accounts of crowd action framed by officials whose anxieties clouded the probity of the evidence.76
Alternatively, it could be suggested that Hillsborough was obliged to make a judgment call as to whether or not the situation in Boston warranted troop deployment. He was probably confused (rather than “misled”) by Bernard’s unsubstantiated reports that insurrection was intended in Boston. Hillsborough wished that Bernard “had been more explicit” in discerning and providing unambiguous evidence:
a very full and confidential Communication of what you have heard, concerning the Designs and Intentions of those, whose Opposition to Measures of Conciliation render them justly suspected as Enemies to all Government, would have been more satisfactory than the alarming and dark hint you give. (No. 622.)
Hillsborough was bemused by Bernard’s insistence on obtaining the agreement of the Council in requesting military assistance, reminding Bernard (correctly) that if civil government was actually endangered he could make such a request on his own authority.77 However, Hillsborough continued, the government’s decision to dispatch troops rested on the credibility of Bernard’s interpretation.
It is but too evident, not only from the Accounts contained in your last Letters, but also from a Revision of the State of your Government for some Times past, that the Authority of Civil Power is too weak to enforce Obedience to the Laws, and preserve that Peace and good Order, which is essential to the Happiness of every State.
Hillsborough thus accepted Bernard’s proposition that civil government was weak, irrespective of the fact that imperial laws, including the Townshend duties act, were being enforced (though the trade laws were being circumvented by smugglers). Furthermore, the colonial secretary erroneously assumed that political opposition routinely encompassed criminal behavior. So, by reducing the Imperial Crisis to questions of law and order, Hillsborough accepted the rationale that Bernard and the American Board of Customs had constructed to justify the deployment of the Regulars in the first place.
Bernard to Gage, 2 Jul. 1768:
The State of Affairs in Boston is full as bad as the reports you have received can make it.78 All real power is in the hands of the people of the lowest class; Civil Authority can do nothing but what they will allow. I have been obliged, after having in Vain applied to the Council for advice & assistance to tell the Commissioners of the Customs that I can give them no protection. (No. 641.)
Bernard’s plaintive evocation of his government’s weakness was at best disingenuous, at worst deliberately misleading. Boston was not controlled by the mob; nor had Bernard formally asked the Council to join him in a request for military assistance. Gage interpreted the letter as a tacit request for military back up, and, judging by his subsequent correspondence with Bernard, that would appear to have been Bernard’s intention (Nos. 643, 652, and 655). Moreover, having received the sealed orders from Gage, Bernard transmitted them to the commander at Halifax, Lt. Col. William Dalrymple, still assuming that Dalrymple was being instructed to deploy his men to Boston. Anxious to preserve a veneer of deniability in the face of public hostility, he observed that
my Situation requires that I should appear to know as little of and act as little in the Proceedings of this Kind as can well be. I should therefore be obliged to you if in conducting a Business of this Kind you would let me appear a Stranger to it untill it becomes necessary to communicate it to me officially. (No. 642.)
Rumors were getting wilder (Castle William could be invested, No. 644); law enforcement was in the hands of local Whigs (smugglers who rescued impounded cargoes returned them to the Customhouse at the behest of town officials, No. 648); customs officers were regularly threatened (one defended himself with firearms, No. 656). A climax was nigh (a “Time of Trial, whether this Town &c will or will not submit to Great Britain,” No. 649). Emotions ran high. Everyone expected the Regulars were imminent. While Bernard did not anticipate an “insurrection” the troops’ arrival would nevertheless be a moment of reckoning with the Sons of Liberty (“whoever procures Troops . . . will be destroyed.”)
That it should be left to any one here to ask for Troops to come here at this Time of Day, will be the Wonder of the future readers of the History of these Times. (No. 649)
When, on 16 Jul., Bernard was disabused of the notion that troops were on the way (No. 652) he turned his attention to the Council. Having transmitted the Council’s petition to the king protesting American taxes, he hoped the moderates would be more amenable to his situation (No. 654). Lest there be any further confusion, he made sure that Gage would not move any troops without the authorization of the Governor and Council (No. 655). But he did not expect the Council to join him in writing Gage, and with no further news from Hillsborough wrote despondently to Barrington:
now all the Burthen is to be laid upon me and, as if I was not at present sufficiently loaded with Dangers & Difficulties, I alone am to be made answerable to the Fury of the People for introducing Troops here illegally & unconstitutionally; for so they will call the requiring them without the Advice of Council. (No. 658.)
Bernard’s brief account of the Council’s rejection, on 29 Jul., of his proposal to request troops conclusively established that “all expectation of troops coming to Boston, untill orders arrive from England is over.” But he continued to press Hillsborough, aiming to convince him that Chatham’s desire of avoiding the “Appearance of forcible & compulsive Measures” since 1766 had not pacified the Americans: that the only realistic alternative was for London to send the troops into Boston (No. 660).
Boston, August to September
With the assembly in abeyance, Bernard prepared himself for an uncomfortable but endurable few months until he could take his leave. Seeking direction from Hillsborough, he lamented that the “state of this Government . . . is brought so low, that It can never recover itself by any internal means without a sacrifice of the rights of the imperial Power” (No. 663). He warned too that on 8 Aug., the Boston merchants voted to pursue a unilateral boycott of British imports, the town once more setting the pace of colonial opposition (No. 664) and pandering to the mob with popular celebrations of the Stamp Act’s repeal (No. 668). He was still uncertain as to how Hillsborough would receive his reports on provincial politics and crowd action, for the June mail from London was unseasonably late (No. 668), and did not arrive until mid-September. Until then he worried that he might be recalled without the promise of relocation, and hesitated in responding to Barrington’s inquiry (No. 610) about accepting a baronetcy lest he be saddled with the costs of the patent or embarrassed by the offer’s withdrawal (No. 666). Thus, hopeful of obtaining a leave of absence, a signal reward for his services, and a posting elsewhere, Bernard made ready to return to England in the fall (No. 667), with, presumably, his family following later.
The arrival of the July mail packet on 3 Sept. complicated his situation. First, Hillsborough reminded Bernard that he would present to Parliament whatever items of correspondence he saw fit regardless of the governor’s concerns that his enemies would use the information against him (No. 653). The governor’s “Enemies,” Hutchinson observed later, expected that the British government would eventually have to justify their American policy to Parliament and were confident “that by some means or other they shall come to the knowledge of” the governor’s letters79—as they did, and with great effect.80 A second letter (No. 622) confirmed that Bernard was granted leave of absence and announced that Hillsborough had issued troop orders to Gage (Appendix 4). Bernard received the duplicate of No. 622 from Capt. William Sherriff, who arrived in Boston on 3 Sept. bearing a missive from Gage explaining the terms of his orders and requesting the governor’s advice on the “number” of troops that “will be necessary” (No. 669). Gage had already ordered the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot to Boston, plus one company from the 59th Regiment and one artillery company with five field pieces.
Bernard had some discretion in their deployment, that is to say, how the troops were to be divided between the town of Boston and Castle William. No. 622 stated that “at least” one regiment was to be placed in the town itself (for which purposes he assumed that Castle Island was outside the town boundary). The problem of finding sufficient barracks in the town seemed much less important than placating the local populace. Initially, he favored putting one entire regiment into the Castle, alongside the provincial garrison, weakly hoping this might assuage some of the hostility toward the British soldiers. To deflect some of the anger sure to come his way, Bernard planned to maintain the fiction that he was a functionary implementing Hillsborough’s instructions. He asked Gage for a “public” copy of his orders and which he intended showing the Council when he requested quarters for the soldiers (No. 671). A more difficult problem was how to break the news of the regiments’ imminent arrival. Rather than risk inciting the populace with a sudden public announcement, he counted on his confidants spreading the news quietly before the Council met. “I have therefore purposely let it transpire that I expect to receive orders for providing quarters for 2 regiments.” Even so, he predicted, “There will be a disturbance more or less upon this occasion.” (No. 672). So, when the town meeting asked him if he knew for certain that troops were on the way, Bernard intimated that he only had “private Intelligence,” not official confirmation (No. 677).
Bernard’s disingenuity compensated for an intelligence failure. While the governor and his advisers anticipated some form of opposition to the troops’ arrival, of what kind they were unable to assay. While they did not expect organized armed resistance, they could not discount hot-heads assailing the governor or raising the rural populace to impede the landings. Bernard had been using informers within the Whig movement, and was well-informed about the opinions and the transgressions of local politicians, Otis included, but not about plans to confront the soldiers—if ever there were any. The first probative issue for British ministers, therefore, concerned the governor’s interpretation of evidence gathered from informers; the second concerned the veracity of the evidence itself, which was largely unverifiable. In replying to Hillsborough on 9 Sept., Bernard intimated that he dare not risk endangering his men concealed among the Whig ranks (No. 672)—no matter what Hillsborough had said about the necessity of acquiring evidence to expose the Whig leaders. Bernard continued to rely upon informers in the year ahead (see the source note to No. 672).
Bernard’s government also faced a systemic problem when it came to investigating criminal acts associated with or arising from popular opposition to unpopular imperial laws. Many times since the Stamp Act riots Bernard had alleged radical polemics were overtly seditious and that crowd action had insurrectionist tendencies: evidence for the former invariably comprised annotated newspaper clippings; for the latter, reports of rumors of activity in Boston and beyond and accounts of protests—all of it covered by Bernard’s own interpretations.81 Hillsborough would have preferred hard evidence and less interpretation:
a very full and confidential Communication of what you have heard, concerning the Designs and Intentions of . . . suspected . . . Enemies to all Government, would have been more satisfactory than the alarming and dark hint you give, when you say, that you dare not to repeat what you have heard, till their Purposes become more apparent. (No. 622.)
By the time he read this, Bernard’s allegations of sedition and insurrectionism had become bolder, and he now addressed some of Hillsborough’s concerns, if only to highlight the difficulties he faced in gathering evidence. In part, the tendency to overstate crowd action in letters to London (Nos. 623, 640, etc.) compensated for the political bias of colonial juries. There was never much chance of the province attorney general being able to obtain indictments against Whigs facing criminal charges or peddling libels about the governor (Nos. 593 and 719).82 Bernard’s patience with Jonathan Sewall was severely tested by Sewall’s dispute with the Customs commissioners’ (albeit about matters arising from Sewall’s role as advocate general of Vice Admiralty), and he harbored doubts as to Sewall’s capacity for the attorney general’s job (albeit that Bernard thought his chief law officer ought to function as an instrument of government, as in England, more than its adviser). Sewall’s independently-minded legal advice had not been heartening thus far. When no one could be found willing to testify against any of the Liberty rioters, Bernard was led to “suppose the Attorney-general was not Very earnest in endeavouring to procure Evidence.” Bernard placed greater value on his “acquaintance with some of the Sons of Liberty; by which means I sometimes get at useful intelligence,” though he was not prepared to reveal his sources or commit their evidence to paper lest it be “intercepted here (which is easily done by corrupting a Master of a Ship)” (No. 672). Having abandoned the pursuit of the rioters, Bernard subsequently assisted the American Board of Customs to prosecute John Hancock and five of his men in the Vice Admiralty Court, again with the seemingly reluctant assistance of the attorney general.
Meanwhile, Bostonians seethed in anger. Bernard’s reports to London captured the bitterness on display at the tempestuous town meeting of 12 Sept. held at Faneuil Hall. They not only supplement the town records but enliven this moment in history with accounts of speeches so rousing “it appeared as if they were acting a play, evry thing, both as to matter & order, seeming to have been preconcerted before hand.” The proceedings were choreographed, to the extent that the musket chests were opened up and the weapons laid out on the floor as a prop for the “Orators”. The word “Enemy” was thrice spoken, ostensibly referring to the French but consciously reiterated to bring the British into mind.
But this flimsy Veil was not allways kept on: it was often said that they had a right to oppose with arms a military force which was sent to oblige them to submit to unconstitutional Laws; and when it was required to be more explicit, the Chairman [James Otis Jr.] said that they understood one another Very well, & pointing with his hand added “there are the Arms; when an attempt is made agst your liberties they will be delivered; our Declaration wants no explication:” and indeed it does not. (No. 681.)
Some of the spontaneous speeches were so threatening that the hot-heads had to be “silence[d]” by their own party. Otis’s own measured theatricality, according to one informer’s précis, also bordered on sedition. “That in case Great Britain was not dispos’d to redress their Grievances after proper applications, that the Inhabitants had then nothing more to do, but gird the Sword to the thigh and shoulder the Musquet” (No. 681). The histrionics continued when the town declared Boston was facing subjugation by a standing army, which it declaimed an infringement of the Bill of Rights of 1689. Nonetheless, the grandstanding masked genuine apprehension among townspeople as to what the immediate future held, and fear of what proximity to the Regulars might entail.
Bernard claimed to have reliable evidence of sedition. First, there was the document by which the Boston selectmen summoned a convention of towns. It was a “daring . . . Assumption of the royal Authority” to summon an assembly that, he asserted inaccurately, imitated the House of Representatives. Second, the governor claimed he would be able to compile a list of the leaders among the five hundred citizens who had pledged to invest Castle William to prevent its occupation against the Regulars (No. 681). However, Bernard may never have drawn up a list of insurgents, for no such document has survived and there is no record of its composition. Third, there were the town meeting speeches (previously mentioned) that Bernard summarized as hearsay. The second and third items of evidence were not readily admissible in a court of law without additional witness testimony, as a trained lawyer like Bernard well knew. The only tangible evidence of wrongdoing the governor forwarded to London was the circular of the Boston selectmen acting ultra vires in summoning the Convention of Towns (Appendix 13). (Bernard found the Convention’s resolves characterized by “moderation so Very different from the temper of those who called this meeting.”).83
Knowing what he knew, Bernard confessed to Gage that he would not stick around to welcome the soldiers. Now that he had his discretionary leave of absence he planned to be on his way home within three weeks (No. 680), and later revealed that he “had fixed upon the Ship & the Day of embarking, Oct 1st.” (No. 716.)84 As fate would have it that was the day the first of the Regulars came ashore, and Bernard was obliged to oversee their settlement after receiving fresh instructions from Hillsborough on 18 Sept. (No. 661). In one sense, Bernard was running scared, fearful of retribution, but also evading responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
Ever since I have perceived that the Wickedness of some and the folly of others will in the End bring Troops here, I have conducted myself so as to be able to say, and swear to, if the Sons of Liberty shall require it, that I have never applied for Troops. (No. 592.)
Bernard’s crudely fashioned disavowal rested on a conviction that he been proven right. Once, he had told Gage that
For my own part, I cant look back upon the 3 years last past, without wondering that there have not been Troops at Boston for the last 2 of them. I am sure they have taken pains enough ^at Boston^ to show the Necessity of such an Arrangement. (No. 655.)
Bravado in the streets and town halls and beacons atop the hills did not frighten Gage. He and the regimental commanders made preparations for dealing with whatever resistance they met, with or without the governor’s assistance.
Bernard and the Customs commissioners overstated the case for bringing Regulars to Boston. Their overblown accounts of the Liberty riot reinforced their earlier alarmist messages concerning radicalism and popular protest, and were sent in ignorance of the fact that the British government had already decided to send troops. This was an unavoidable but not unforeseeable contingency, although neither Bernard nor the commissioners anticipated getting four regiments—nearly 2,200 troops on paper—to garrison and patrol a town of 16,000 souls. On 18 Sept., Bernard received Hillsborough’s latest instructions, dated 30 Jul., intimating that the ministry expected the governor to remain in place to await the arrival of the British soldiers, including the regiments on their way from Ireland. “No Remissness of Duty will be excusable, upon Pretence of Terror and Danger in the Execution of Office.” Moreover, Bernard was directed to reform the province magistracy and conduct an investigation into the causes of the Liberty riot. He was to apprehend rioters and arrest those who had encouraged “a Resistance to the Laws” with a view to transporting criminals to England for trial in the Court of the King’s Bench under a treason statute of Henry VIII (No. 661). Talk of reconciliation being achieved through firmness would have struck the Americans as absurd if the mention of treason trials was not so downright dangerous; but the Americans never got to read this letter themselves before the Revolution and in most instances were obliged to second guess the full content of Hillsborough’s instructions to Bernard or accept whatever précis Bernard proffered.
The responsibility for bringing the soldiers lay heavy upon his shoulders when Bernard announced Hillsborough’s latest orders (No. 661) to the Council, on 19 Sept. He knew that he had failed to extricate himself from a crisis that, while not entirely of his own making, was all the more serious for what he had done to exacerbate tensions. If Bernard experienced remorse, he buried it in self-validating arguments citing Hillsborough’s justification of the “Necessity” for “strengthening the Hands of Government.” (No. 661). None of the other remedial measures Hillsborough proposed were appealing, for each promised only to implicate the governor in further public contests sure to sully an already tarnished reputation. His enemies were gunning for him, metaphorically for sure and perhaps (he feared) literally too.
I am indeed a good Deal worn with my former Service, which has been severe & dispiriting for 3 Years past; & I had Expectations that I was even now going to receive my Reward in being placed in a Station where I should have Health Peace & Competence. I carried my Expectations so far as to engage a Cabbin & fix upon a Day for embarking. But since the Kings Service requires that I should continue here in further station, I submit cheerfully to my Destination; & hope I have Strength enough to serve another Campaign. If the Dispute lasts much longer, it will be too much for me. (No. 684.)
Bernard still had a few weeks before the troops arrived. With the Convention of Towns meeting at meeting at Faneuil Hall between 22 and 29 Sept., he anticipated this illegal congress would stir anger in the province at large and focus resentment upon him (No. 691).
He was less prepared for the Council’s skilful evasion of Parliament’s Quartering Act, which required the province to provide barracks or billets for the Regulars (No. 686). Gage must have pondered the governor’s insouciance in ever supposing that the general’s subordinate officers could have negotiated the provision of barracks without a governor’s assistance (regardless of Hutchinson’s abilities), especially when Bernard apprised him of the Council’s opposition to fitting out public buildings (No. 687). Bernard was unprepared for the Council’s forthright opposition, coordinated by James Bowdoin, and applied his own brand of reverse logic to assert they “are desirous to lend an hand to the Convention to bring about a forfeiture of the Charter.” (No. 690.) Out of necessity, Bernard appropriated the town’s Manufactory House without any guarantee that the province would reimburse costs (No. 692). In fact no troops were ever quartered in that building, and the governor and the regimental commanders were obliged to put the soldiers into tents and other public buildings until they could hire private premises sufficient to accommodate two of the four regiments.
The kind of government Bernard expected to run when the troops arrived might be gleaned from his disappointment in describing the Council as the last “Citadell” of the provincial government to fall to the Whigs. He began recording how each councilor voted (Nos. 690 and 693). While meetings of the Governor and Council would continue, and the Council would continue to exercise executive and judicial functions, the province legislature had been dissolved and would not meet again until he summoned it. Under the Province Charter the governor was obliged to call at least one meeting annually to seat representatives, elect councilors, and vote the annual supply acts and salary acts (including his own). The assembly did not meet again until May 1769. To Bernard’s enemies, this was government by royal fiat.
The Regulars came ashore on 1 Oct. and within a few weeks were followed by the 64th and 65th Regiments from Ireland. Inevitably, many Bostonians came to perceive the soldiers as an army of occupation.
Nor did the situation in London that winter seem to promise reconciliation. The king’s speech of 8 Nov. proclaimed Boston to be “in a state of disobedience to all law and government.”85 In February, Parliament adopted a series of resolutions condemning the proceedings of the General Court, the Boston town meeting, and the Convention of Towns for evincing a “design . . . to usurp a new constitutional authority.”86 How much of this was Hillsborough’s doing is not clear, for criticism by the king and colleagues (notably Camden, Conway, Grafton, and Shelburne) obliged the cabinet to shelve any program for the reform of colonial government Hillsborough may have had in mind. In the end it came down to Bernard to act upon Hillsborough’s directive to mount an investigation into the colonists’ treasonable activities.87 From the beginning of his secretaryship in 1768 to his resignation four years later,88 and thence to the close of the War of Independence, Hillsborough steadfastly refused to make concessions to the Americans on matters respecting parliamentary authority.89 Never had he known a “man of less judgment,” opined King George, after the loss of the American Colonies.90
Neither did Governor Francis Bernard fully understand his American opponents. Reading the history of pre-revolutionary Massachusetts in the Bernard Papers reveals the emergence of an amorphous popular movement that came to dominate the provincial assembly and local politics in Boston; astute leaders and committed citizens campaigned against both the governor and Great Britain, and were able not only to contain popular violence but fitfully exploit the fear of violence to undermine the confidence of government officials. Crown servants were prone to exaggerate such threats because, like other targets of crowd action through the ages, they genuinely believed that escalation was always likely. All of that is just part of the story of the origins of the American Revolution, however.
Reading the history of the Imperial Crisis requires scholars to delve beyond state papers, to explore the private papers of individuals and the newspapers of the day, and to construct representations of that past from the materials available. Documenting that story necessarily requires an editor to collate various sources, compare different accounts of the same event, and evaluate conflicting interpretations. The editorial commentaries in the Bernard Papers cross-reference the transcripts to accounts by the governor’s critics, notably Samuel Adams, the House of Representatives, the Boston town meeting, and the province Council. That process is complex and intricate, and unavoidably raises as many questions as it purports to answer.
Reading Governor Bernard’s accounts on their own would provide a rather skewed picture of the Imperial Crisis, and raises a historiographical problem. Why did the British government choose to believe Bernard’s version of events over that of the Americans? It is not just the case that the governor was trusted because he was the king’s representative; multiple channels of communication were available, through private individuals, unofficial agents, and the provincial assembly. The question ought to be re-stated: why did Bernard’s version prevail?
The answer lies partly in the fact that the Bernard Papers is not just the story of a beleaguered English colonialist, but also touches upon the lives of the men and women caught up in the events of the pre-revolutionary years, from the Stamp Act riots, through the Liberty riot and nonimportation movement, to the Boston Massacre. We see their participation in the colonial protest movement through the governor’s eyes. Governor Bernard’s reactions to popular protest were typically hostile (as too were the responses of the officials of the American Board of Customs). Thus, the British government responded to a representation of popular politics that was probably not unfamiliar to them—of rambunctious, noisy, and self-confident crowds intoxicated by radical notions of rights and liberties, engulfing government officers in Boston in scenes not so different from the crowds swarming the London streets during the height of the Wilkite movement, 1767-71. When pressed, regardless of his own persistent liberalism, Bernard reached for atavistic descriptors to denigrate the politics of the street, as he had being doing since the Stamp Act riots of 1765. Bernard’s antagonistic depiction of the colonial leadership was also well-established by 1768. His descriptions of James Otis, Samuel Adams, James Bowdoin, and others add color to what historians already know and provide some insight into the tensions among the leadership. Most important, however, is what the Bernard Papers divulges about Bernard’s reaction and how it influenced the British government.
By 1768, Bernard was caught up in a maelstrom of protest, and projected his own predicament into the arena of British policymaking. He manufactured a crisis. Not the crisis over taxation—which was of Britain’s making, not his—but a crisis of government. He argued that the colonists had undermined not only his administration but government itself. For sure, the Whigs were the dominant political group in the assembly and town meetings, and their arguments had been radicalized: their claims of exemption from parliamentary authority in matters of taxation had progressed to claims of right, questioning the legitimacy of parliamentary legislation and challenging the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy. This, in Bernard’s estimation, was a popular movement with revolutionary credentials. His Whig enemies, on the other hand, professed only to confront innovations, and thwart innovators, and preserve what liberties they had always claimed to enjoy.
Bernard’s version of events sometimes lacked credibility, and his integrity was openly questioned by critics. But it prevailed in British government circles because it had a champion. Bernard’s interpretation was not accepted uncritically, but under Hillsborough’s stewardship, American policy was susceptible to the external stimuli provided by the governor. The problem for the Americans was that Hillsborough listened more to his officials on the ground than to them or their representatives in America or London. When this became known, the colonists were obliged to defend themselves. In 1768, they were not aware exactly of what Bernard and Hillsborough had written about them or the province, but suspected they had been portrayed as rebels. The Whigs fought back, accusing Bernard of having misrepresented both them and the province. In correcting Bernard’s version of events the Whigs aimed to provide the British with a convenient scapegoat, whose removal might help to restore good feelings.
The story of this fourth volume of the Bernard Papers is how, in 1768, Bernard controlled the flow of information to London. For the remainder of his administration, the governor and his enemies fought to control how information was interpreted in London and re-interpreted in Boston. In the winter of 1768-69, the British government was obliged to defend American policy in Parliament for the first time in more than two years. Official American correspondence, above all Bernard’s letters, was used to justify policy and provide a raison d’être for the troop presence in Boston. That story the fifth volume of the Bernard Papers considers in detail.