A sense of crisis prevailed in the political world of London during the autumn of 1768. Because armed conflict with the colonies did not commence until 1775, it is easy to overlook the circumstance that as far as people in Britain knew it had already begun seven years earlier. . . . The prospect of war with the colonies was viewed with horror, but seen as a regrettable necessity, and in London there was every confidence that the army and navy would succeed in restoring Britain’s authority in America.
(Peter D. G. Thomas, The Townshend Duties Crisis: The Second Phase of the American Revolution, 1767-1773 [Oxford, 1987], 91-92.)
When British Regulars marched into Boston at midday on Saturday 1 Oct. 1768 they did so without incident. For three weeks, there had been rumors that the landing would be resisted and loose talk in the town meeting of arming the inhabitants. Governor Bernard took of all this seriously, as did the soldiers’ commanders. By four in the afternoon the two regiments were parading on the Common, the landing accomplished “not only without Opposition but with tolerable good Humour” (No. 694). The troops were a deterrent to those who would break the king’s peace; the Governor and Council could call upon their assistance in the event of civil disorder. Beyond that Bernard was unsure what the soldiers would actually do other than guard key positions and conduct parades. There was no revolt to crush, though Bernard trusted a garrison of Regulars would dispel once and for all the seditious tendencies of the town’s radicals he had often cited in his reports to ministers. Two more regiments soon followed, bringing the total number of troops to around 2,200; in a town of 16,000 inhabitants this was roughly one soldier to four adult residents. Colonists, understandably, came to view the British regiments as an army of occupation, but got on with their lives and endured the tribulations and perils of having regular soldiers billeted among them.
The British government had given Governor Bernard what he wished. With the troops at his back—but not at his beck and call—the Chatham administration (then from 14 Oct., the Grafton administration) expected Bernard to turn things around: to protect Crown officers, to restore popular respect for the institutions of royal government, to remind radicals of their loyalties, and to enforce “due Obedience to the Law” in the streets and in the debating chambers. It was a tall order. On top of that Bernard was to undertake an investigation of the Liberty riot of 10 Jun. and bring the ringleaders and participants to justice. (Nos. 661 and 699.)1 The new administration of the duke of Grafton also began discussing other ways and means of reestablishing equilibrium in British-American relations, and the debate would endure long after Bernard left the province of Massachusetts. No one in London or Boston expected war in 1768 or 1769; but it was no longer unthinkable to Boston citizens living cheek by jowl with soldiers or British politicians unable to understand why the colonists remained so resentful of parliamentary authority.
Both sides knew their differences hinged on what Francis Bernard had been telling the British government in the course of 1768. Colonial grievances and British impatience are manifest in the extensive documentary record for that signal year of Bernard’s administration, much of which is published in the fourth volume of the Bernard Papers series. The colonists believed their governor had misrepresented their case to the secretary of state for the Colonies, portraying them as disorderly radicals and would-be rebels—all to the single purpose of getting London to send in the troops. They were not far wrong. But they lacked evidence. In the summer of 1768 Bernard’s enemies began a slow-burning campaign to expose their governor’s machinations. Bernard, for his part, responded with a bitter counter-offensive that caught the full attention of the British government and Parliament. He, too, lacked evidence and proceeded to gather what he could of the radicals’ seditious activities and treasonable proclivities. This fifth volume of the Bernard Papers examines the political debates as they unfolded in Boston and London, and reviews the evidence gathered by the governor and his enemies in their efforts to besmirch each other. It would be foolish to dismiss the mud-slinging as irrelevant to the enlargement of the Imperial Crisis, for Bernard’s letters were considered and debated by the Parliament in late 1768 and early 1769. The stakes could not have been higher: whose version of events in Boston would Parliament accept—the governor’s or his enemies’?
Boston, October to December 1768
Bernard did not stick around after the soldiers paraded on the Common, and that evening retreated to his farm at Jamaica Plain, some four miles out of town. Open “talk of rising” had ceased (No. 695). But having requisitioned the town’s Manufactory House as barracks for one of the regiments, Bernard did not anticipate the occupants staging a sit-in. When the squatters could not be evicted by the law officers, he allowed the commanding officer of the 14th Regiment of Foot, Lt. Col. William Dalrymple, to set up temporary barracks in Boston’s most commodious public buildings, the Town House and Faneuil Hall, the very places where the House of Representatives and town meeting normally convened. But the circumstances were anything but normal. And in the days and weeks ahead the governor seemed to stumble from one potential flashpoint to another. Lt. Col. Maurice Carr’s 29th Regiment and the artillery train set up camp on the Common, their drills and billets a stark reminder to the townsfolk of the harshness of military life (No. 694). Several weeks later these soldiers moved into outhouses, barns, and sugar houses hired by the army, thus rendering daily contact with the citizenry unavoidable. The 64th and 65th Regiments started arriving in the second week of November (No. 715) and were billeted in both the hired premises and Castle William barracks.
Bernard’s month-long tussle with the Council to secure town barracks for the soldiers, before winter set in, revealed how little sway the governor now had with the province’s elite politicians. While Dalrymple was privately unimpressed by the governor’s evasiveness during the troop landing (No. 751), his superior General Thomas Gage2 was more direct in recommending how Bernard should deal with the councilors.
Considering what has passed, how short a time it is, that a Resolution was taken to rise in Arms in open Rebellion. I don’t see any Cause to be Scrupulous in doing what is judged absolutely necessary for the Service, and for the security of the King’s Government, which has been so highly invaded, and so insolently threatened. (No. 697.)
Gage’s engineers, meanwhile, proceeded to repair Castle William’s defences. Dalrymple was ordered to take possession of the Castle (since it was a Crown installation), though the provincial garrison was allowed to continue at Bernard’s request. Gage wanted to put his soldiers straight into public buildings and to fortify the town, but the Council managed to frustrate that scheme.
The negotiations can be followed in Bernard’s correspondence (Nos. 700, 701, 706, 708, etc.) and the Council’s official proceedings,3 but a fair amount of bargaining went on behind the scenes. Of particular note is the emergence of wealthy merchant James Bowdoin, who, in the governor’s estimation was the prime mover in the Council’s opposition (Nos. 703 and 717). The Quartering Act directed that soldiers be put in “barracks, or in hired uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings.” The councilors and selectmen argued that the barracks at Castle William should be filled first, since Castle Island was within Boston’s original municipal boundary. While everyone knew the Castle barracks could not accommodate both regiments already in the town (let alone the two others on their way from Ireland) the municipal officials and councilors used the act to frustrate the governor and regimental commanders. The most they could have expected was to have one of the regiments placed in town, another at the Castle, and the others withdrawn for lack of accommodation; they did not achieve any of that although managed to evade paying for the billets and provisions, as the law required.
Whereas Bernard strove to follow the procedures set out in the American Quartering Act, Gage and Dalrymple were quite prepared to evade legal objections raised by the Council and selectmen. Ostensibly, that was because the councilors’ objections limited the army’s and the governor’s discretionary authority to distribute the soldiers between town and Castle. The first set of orders issued by the secretary of state for the Colonies, the earl of Hillsborough,4 specified only that at least one regiment should be stationed in the town, while the second set allowed Gage to decide how the regiments from Ireland should be deployed.5 Since Boston did not have military barracks in the town itself and the governor could not clear squatters from the Manufactory House, a public building, Bernard’s default position was to hire premises at the Crown’s expense (No. 706). Neither Bernard nor Gage seemed particularly worried that billeting in public houses would likely increase the risk of violent clashes between drunken soldiers and citizens. At no point, it should be stressed, did Gage and Bernard plan to put British soldiers into private houses (despite what American folk history has since claimed), but there is no doubting that, as the Declaration of American Independence later maintained, the British had connived at “Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.” The Council, as well as the House of Representatives, suspected Bernard of plotting with the Customs commissioners to bring the troops to Boston, as the address to Gage, signed by a majority of members, intimated (Appendix 1).
From November 1768 until August 1769, Bernard obtained little active assistance from the Council on imperial affairs. Council business on issues connected with the Imperial Crisis was dominated by a group of between eight and eleven members who met regularly and separately from the Governor. They styled themselves the “major part” of the Council, although they did not actually constitute a majority of members. Most lived in or near Boston: radicals James Bowdoin, Samuel Dexter, James Pitts, and Royal Tyler; moderates William Brattle (whose recent radicalism had cooled somewhat), Samuel Danforth, John Erving, Harrison Gray, and Isaac Royall; and former friends of government Thomas Hubbard and James Russell. They claimed to act “individually, and not as a body,” and convened under the presidency of the longest-serving member, Samuel Danforth. Bernard refused to countenance their irregular, unconstitutional proceedings from which he and the other members were excluded. (Under the Province Charter, executive meetings of the Council were to be chaired by the governor and legislative sessions were to be held only when he was present.)
For all that he was pleased to have the regiments, Bernard wanted out of Boston before isolated contretemps between soldiers and civilians turned nasty. He no longer expected the British government to fulfil former Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend’s promise to institute Crown salaries for royal governors, and certainly did not look forward to the moment when he would have to go cap in hand to the assembly for his annual salary (No. 766). Perhaps before then, he hoped, he might be brought home on leave; such would depend on being able to persuade the British government that Boston was now reduced to a state of compliance, if not the “Obedience” that Hillsborough’s instructions demanded. In rejecting Lord Barrington’s6 proposal that the governorship of South Carolina was a possible alternative, Bernard protested that what came first were
two of the greatest Comforts of my Life, my Health & my Wife. The former indeed would depend upon a Trial: but the latter would have none; for I could not ask her to go with me. And as after 27 Years Cohabitation, We are still as desirous to continue together as we were the first Day. (No. 705.)
Nonetheless, when his recall came eight months later, he was quite prepared to return home at once with Thomas, his third son and secretary, and leave his wife Amelia and the other children to make their own way back.
Boston, December 1768-January 1769
While Bernard’s family relationships remained strong throughout his last, difficult year in the province, the internal affairs of his administration were prone to tension. The return of the American Board of Customs to Boston in the first week of November further unsettled Jonathan Sewall,7 the province’s chief law officer, whose relationship with the Board had deteriorated since the spring. Sewall was right in thinking that the commissioners had questioned his commitment to the imperial cause when a legal opinion he proffered to the Board initially hampered its legal pursuit of John Hancock (No. 678).8 John Hancock looms large in Bernard’s story as much as he did in Boston’s prerevolutionary politics. One of Boston’s wealthiest merchants, the commissioners believed Hancock an arrogant and prolific smuggler who, with Bernard’s assistance, they would bring to book after seizing his vessel the Liberty. Hancock was a wily opponent, and probably knew the essentials of admiralty law as well as any trained lawyer, including Sewall. It was Sewall who, as advocate general, oversaw the prosecution of Hancock and five of his men in one of the most controversial trials to come before a colonial court: the defendants each faced inordinately high penalties of £9,000, from which Bernard (as governor) and Sewall (as prosecutor) each stood to benefit from their entitlement to one-third of the total fines. The proceedings lasted on and off until 25 Mar. 1769, when Sewall abandoned the action for lack of evidence, something which had troubled Sewall and Bernard throughout.
Nonetheless, Bernard was disappointed in Sewall. He had molded Sewall’s career in hopes of encouraging other lawyers—even the Whig John Adams9—to serve the Crown. Since the autumn of 1768 Bernard harbored doubts about Sewall’s reliability (No. 719). Promoting Sewall to judge of the Vice Admiralty Court at Halifax was preferment of a rather odd kind; for it obliged his chief law officer to sojourn in Nova Scotia for weeks at a time (No. 752). Nevertheless, Bernard and Hutchinson helped broker a settlement of sorts between Sewall and the Customs commissioners, albeit that two middle-ranking customs officials lost their jobs as a result (No. 728).
Hillsborough never instructed the provincial government to go after Hancock, but he did require Bernard to pursue the Liberty rioters. That too, came to naught under Sewall’s stewardship. Bernard did what he could to fulfil Hillsborough’s other directive about reforming the province magistracy (Nos. 711 and 724). The bottom line, as both Bernard and Sewall well knew, was that the British government had no idea how colonial government operated in practice (irrespective that Hillsborough subscribed to Bernard’s notion that the government had been long subject to undue popular pressures). From here on, Bernard advocated revising the Province Charter to permit the Crown to appoint the Massachusetts Council directly, an idea that had considerable appeal to Hillsborough, Secretary at War Lord Barrington, and Secretary to the Board of Trade John Pownall, though its introduction would have required parliamentary legislation (No. 715). A private and confidential letter to Pownall,10 reveals that Bernard held exploratory talks—“divers Conferences”—on such matters with “some of the cheif Members of the Government & the principal Gentlemen of the Town.” The subject of these discussions can only be guessed at, but they resulted in a secret memorandum offering “Hints” on Massachusetts’s “future Connexion” to Great Britain. Constitutional matters aside, the memorandum may also have touched upon the trial of John Hancock, though it is impossible to say if Bernard was hoping to unearth new evidence against Hancock or other Whigs (No. 721).
Governor Bernard had learned to live with the fact that, while residing in Boston, he was disconnected from the nuances of British high politics. Colonial newspapers did what they could to keep readers informed of current affairs, printing long extracts from the London Gazette, summaries of parliamentary debates taken from private letters, and travelers’ gossip. Such news was invariably three months out of date. Journalism for journalism’s sake focused largely on what the provincial government was doing rather than guessing what the British might be up to. Bernard did not plan a counter-offensive in print, however. “Philanthrop,” Jonathan Sewall’s alter ego, who had rushed to the governor’s defense in the aftermath of the Stamp Act Crisis, was noticeably silent. Sewall had been the most effective of a small cadre of government writers in deflecting attention away from the governor and exposing some of the contradictions in the Whig polemics.11 But with Sewall holding down three government jobs (and a fourth on the way) and conducting the prosecution in the Hancock trial, he had little if any time to spare for political writing. Even so, the shroud of anonymity under which polemical writing normally proceeded invites speculation as to Sewall’s loyalty toward Bernard (No. 762). In the end, Bernard relied on his own judgment and his own private writings to keep the British on his side.
In January 1769, the news from London could not have been more encouraging. King George III’s speech to Parliament of 8 Nov. raised Bernard’s hopes that the British would tackle the “Disobedience” the king believed was manifest in Boston (No. 729).12 The king, according to Hillsborough, approved Bernard’s seeking the Council’s advice as to whether or not to request soldiers from General Gage, thus excusing the governor from any accusation of tardiness. Bernard was also spared the trial of having to meet the assembly until the following May at the earliest (No. 702). Hillsborough further provided Bernard with a credible excuse as to why the king could not accept the House’s petition for repealing the Townshend duties—thus apparently negating the effectiveness of the House’s London agent Dennys DeBerdt (No. 730).13 Hillsborough could not have made it any clearer that Bernard had the king’s backing.
In the very unpleasant & critical situation in which you stand at present, it will, I apprehend, be a great support and consolation to you to know that the King places much confidence in your prudence and caution on the one hand, & entertains no diffidence of your spirit and Resolution on the other, and that His Majesty will not suffer these sentiments to receive any alteration from private misrepresentations, if ^any^ such should come, that may flow from Enmity to you, or self interested Views in those who transmit them; and, for my own part, Sir, I take the Liberty to add that I will not fail to do Justice to your Conduct in every representation that I have occasion to make of it to His Majesty. (No. 712.)14
The endorsement would certainly have pleased; so too would the realization that the British government seemed responsive to what he had been writing since the late summer and autumn. Bernard did not realize that the reception accorded his reports was more complicated and the outcomes more complex, as events in London unfolded.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Bernard brought a renewed vigor to his official duties. Hillsborough had instructed him to extend his enquiries into any “illegal and unconstitutional Acts” committed since the Liberty riot. After consulting his cabinet council (of Thomas Hutchinson, Andrew Oliver, and Robert Auchmuty),15 Bernard dispatched depositions provided by his informers: one could have been used to indict Samuel Adams for sedition (No. 732) while another revealed how far Adams and other radicals had scared moderates like Thomas Cushing with talk of resisting the troops (No. 733).16 His next letter to Hillsborough railed at the “trumpeters of Sedition” in the Boston Gazette and its printers, Benjamin Edes and John Gill, who somehow had been able to print copies of six of Bernard’s recent letters to the secretary of state in the issue of 23 Jan. How Edes and Gill managed this is uncertain, though they must have been assisted by someone with access to the governor’s papers, and someone with the clout to manage the espionage, perhaps even James Bowdoin (No. 734).17
The six letters, dated 1 Nov. to 5 Dec. 1768, largely concerned Bernard’s disputes with the Council (Nos. 706, 708, 709, 711, 717, and 718). Their publication predated the first of the Bernard Letters pamphlets by two months (an important fact that historians have hitherto missed), and was probably an immediate response to knowledge that the governor had been engaged in “divers Conferences” with his cabinet council and selected local dignitaries. Four of the six letters detailed how the Council hampered the governor’s efforts to secure barracks for the British soldiers (Nos. 706, 708, 709, and 711); the two most recent letters complained of the irregular manner in which the councilors had drawn up petitions to Parliament for presentation via William Bollan, whom they hoped would become the Council’s agent (Nos. 717 and 718). The governor’s critics made much of a brief comment in No. 709 where Bernard recommended a royally-appointed Council, observing to Hillsborough “how necessary it is become that the King should have the Council Chamber in his own hands. How this can be done may be a question; the Exigency of it is none.” What the Whigs never got to know—but which they correctly deduced—was that their governor had made specific recommendations for appointing the Governor’s Council by royal writ of mandamus, providing Hillsborough with the names of likely councilors—judges, officers, and friends of government he wished restored (Nos. 737 and 738).
Publication of Bernard’s six letters thus marked a turning point in the Whigs’ campaign against their governor. Risking prosecution, the printers were able to present to the public for the first time evidence of the governor’s alleged wrongdoings (Nos. 741 and 747). The accusations mounted in the months following, as Whig polemicists tried to counteract news and rumor that Bernard’s correspondence had been discussed in Parliament (No. 742). Bernard had to bide his time and endure the insults (in which he presumed his old adversary John Temple had a hand),18 confident that he could take a leave of absence in the spring (Nos. 746 and 762). Both sides suspected, but did not know for certain until early April, that British politicians had also been wrangling over what Governor Bernard had written about the province of Massachusetts Bay over the past year.
London, November 1768-January, 1769
The king’s speech at the opening of Parliament on 8 Nov. was a major turning point in the Imperial Crisis, for it brought the recent troubles in Boston to the center stage of British politics. Delivered in the House of Lords to the assembled Lords and newly elected members of the Commons, George III declaimed that Boston “appears, by late Advices to be in a State of Disobedience to all Law and Government.” Having just read Bernard’s report on the town meeting of 12 Sept. (No. 681),19 the king and his ministers were convinced that Bostonians would stage a “Rebellion.”20 Not until 4 Nov. did they learn that the troop landings on 1 Oct. had been peaceful (No. 694); this outcome they presumed owed much to Bernard. Evidence of wrongdoing in the colonies, as Hillsborough quickly established, was mired in interpretation.21
Over the next six months the cabinet considered American affairs in more depth than any time since the Stamp Act Crisis, while Parliament subjected the government’s colonial policy to a stern examination.22 Bernard’s conduct as governor figured prominently in these discussions and debates. Bernard had his advocates inside and outside the cabinet. While he received the backing of the secretary of state for the Colonies, other ministers were more ambivalent. There is no official record of cabinet discussions but private accounts of Parliament’s debates reveal that opposition MPs highlighted inconsistencies in the governor’s reports while government men defended the governor as a faithful servant of the Crown. Both sides found evidence in Bernard’s copious correspondences to justify their respective positions, particularly on the question of whether or not to make concessions to the American colonists.
The king’s speech gave no indication that the new prime minister, the duke of Grafton, and his cabinet would substantially change the direction of American policy. The decision to send the troops into Boston was taken by the previous administration, under the earl of Chatham’s nominal leadership.23 Grafton’s cabinet24 continued to support the troop deployment for the same reasons that they were sent there: Boston, they believed, was prone to civil disorder. Bostonians did not cast their opposition in that same light, and it took a while for Grafton and his colleagues to appreciate how far ministers’ perceptions had been influenced by the hostile reports provided by Governor Bernard and the American Board of Customs.
Wills Hill, the earl of Hillsborough, the architect of Britain’s hard-line approach, remained as colonial secretary under Grafton and looked set to continue to lead in formulating policy. Lord Hillsborough was by no means a bucolic aristocrat, untutored in political wiles; but for this Irish landlord the display of force remained an essential political tool to cow popular dissent, whether at home or in America.25 He listened to Crown servants far more than his predecessor Shelburne,26 though never uncritically, as his reception of Bernard’s reports indicates; and it was in his domain, he told Bernard, to decide if their correspondence should ever be presented to Parliament (Nos. 681,27 712, and 713). Hillsborough pushed the cabinet to consider some of the root and branch reforms of colonial government advocated by Bernard; in this he was supported by the governor’s friends John Pownall and Lord Barrington (Nos. 723 and 740). But Grafton’s cabinet shied away from further intervention. In part that was because Grafton and the king instinctively favored conciliation with the colonists (and both certainly doubted the wisdom of punitive measures advanced by Hillsborough and others during 1769). But it was also because the administration had to tread carefully.
Under one administration the stamp act is made; under the second it is repealed; under the third, in spite of all experience, a new mode of taxing the colonies is invented, and a question revived, which ought to have been buried in oblivion.
This first letter by the mysterious “Junius,” who would go on to become a prolific critic of the Grafton and North administrations, encapsulated the frustration of many Britons with Hillsborough’s handling of American affairs. “Junius,” in common with the parliamentary opposition, blamed Hillsborough for having “driven” the colonists “into excesses little short of rebellion.” Hillsborough’s dismissal would not of itself “remove the settled resentment of a people . . . outraged by an unwarrantable stretch of prerogative.”28 For the moment, the administration could afford to ignore what “Junius” and other critics in the newspapers were saying about American affairs, though they felt their barbs more keenly in domestic matters, above all the controversy surrounding John Wilkes’s libel trial and expulsion from the House of Commons.29
The general election did not provide Grafton with an unassailable majority in the House of Commons. While government won votes on American affairs, the opposition seemed to grow stronger and bolder with each division. Old Whigs in the House of Lords, including the Rockinghamite and Chathamite factions, pressed for a parliamentary inquiry into American affairs, only to find government men ready to support a declaration chastising the Americans. This demonstrative turn brought independents, Grenvillites, and Bedfordites alongside the King’s Friends in defense of the principle of parliamentary supremacy. There was, overall, a strong sense that the Americans should be punished for their transgressions. Of course, that was not the view of the small band of American-born MPs, notably Barlow Trecothick, and their friends and sympathizers: generally they advocated compromise where possible, urging pragmatism and expediency when questions of principle promised only impasse.
The problem for Grafton, therefore, was not to appease the factions or fashion a united front but sustain a working majority from disparate groups.30 Beginning with King George’s public condemnation of Boston, the Grafton administration practiced an imperial rhetoric that imagined colonial opposition would wither in the shade of disapproval. In replying to the king’s speech of 8 Nov., the House of Lords regretted the “Circumstances” in the American Colonies “which manifest a Disposition to throw off their Dependence” on the Crown.31 When the Commons prompted a debate on the speech, the government went on the defensive to win Commons’ approval for its American policy. Repeal of the 1767 Townshend Acts (listed in Bernard Papers, 4: 50n) was not on the cabinet’s agenda in the winter of 1768-69. Despite attracting widespread criticism in America, ministers were obdurate on the question of colonial taxation.
The government assembled an extensive portfolio of evidence to justify why the troops should remain in Boston and why Massachusetts was unworthy of His Majesty’s favor. On 28 Nov., Lord North, the chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the Commons, and Hillsborough in the Lords, laid before Parliament over sixty items of American correspondence. The list included twenty-nine letters (plus their enclosures) Bernard had written to the secretaries of state Shelburne and Hillsborough between 21 Jan. and 5 Oct.32 One additional letter of Bernard’s (No. 703) and a file of papers received by the Admiralty were presented on 7 Dec.33
All of this was a prelude to the Lords’ consideration and adoption of eight resolutions presented by Hillsborough on 15 Dec. The first resolution proposed that the proceedings of the Massachusetts House of Representatives had denied Parliament’s legislative supremacy. The second denounced the Massachusetts Circular Letter as “unwarrantable and dangerous” for encouraging an “illegal Combination” to defeat the Townshend Acts. The third resolution proclaimed Boston “for some Time past” to have “been in a State of great Disorder and Confusion” on account of riots and obstructions offered the officers of Customs. The fourth accused the Council and the justices of the peace of a dereliction of duty in “suppressing” such disturbances. The fifth justified the use of “Military Force” to “Aid” the civil government and Customhouse; the sixth declared the proceedings of the Boston town meeting of 14 Jun. and 12 Sept. “illegal and unconstitutional, and calculated to excite Sedition and Insurrection.” The seventh castigated the Convention of Towns for exhibiting a “Design” to establish a “new and unconstitutional Authority, independent of the Crown.” The eighth accused the towns who elected delegates to attend the Convention and the Convention itself of “audacious Usurpations of the Powers of Government.”
Finally, an accompanying address to the king urged that the Massachusetts governor be directed to conduct an investigation into treasonable activities in the province:
to proceed in the most speedy and effectual Manner for bringing to condign Punishment the chief Authors and Instigators of the late Disorders . . . to take the most effectual Methods for procuring the fullest Information that can be obtained, touching all Treasons or Misprisions of Treason, committed within his Government since the Thirteenth of December last , and to transmit the same, together with the Names of the Persons who were most active in the Commission of such Offences, to One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order that His Majesty may issue a Special Commission for enquiring of, hearing, and determining, the said Offences, within this Realm, pursuant to the Provisions of the Statute of the Thirty-fifth Year of the Reign of King Henry the Eighth.34
The following day, the resolutions and address were sent down to the House of Commons for concurrence; there they lay, out of public view, over the Christmas holidays, awaiting consideration by the whole House.35
While it is difficult to establish if the governor’s letters were of material significance to the Lords’ debate, Bernard’s correspondence briefly captured parliamentarians’ attention.36 Several critics of the proposed treason commission, who were familiar with Bernard’s reports, expressed concern that he would likely be put in charge of any investigation.37 (Bernard’s reservations were rather different for he had no power to compel people to testify before any such commission, No. 753.) Meanwhile, more of Bernard’s letters arrived. On 20 Jan., Hillsborough and North presented Parliament with another batch of American correspondence, including six of Bernard’s letters to Hillsborough (Nos. 706, 708, 709, 711, 717, and 718), plus ten other letters from senior military and naval officers stationed in Boston.38 These constituted the most up-to-date information on the situation in Boston available through official channels. Some fears would have been laid to rest, not least that Bostonians would resist the soldiers or seize the governor and other officials; the armed revolt that Bernard hinted at in No. 68139 had not transpired. But ministers’ concerns would not have been dispelled by what the letters also told them: that the Council had obstructed attempts to find quarters for the troops and that the justices of the peace neglected their duty to apprehend rioters. While a revolt did not seem (and was not) imminent, the perception remained that Boston was a disorderly and hostile place for the king’s men.
Interruptions in the Commons’ discussion of the American correspondence had nothing to do with ministers’ management of the order of business. Members were advertised of an opportunity to review all the American correspondence on 25 Jan. The following day it was debated by a committee of the whole House, prior to consideration of the Lords’ resolutions and address to the king, just as the Commons had insisted. The long delay in the Commons attending to the Lords’ papers was largely due to the lengthy proceedings concerning John Wilkes. His expulsion from the Commons (which Bernard approved of)40 preceded final consideration of the resolutions and address, both occurring within the first eight days of February (No. 740).
During this period, Hillsborough continued to express support for Bernard. With each letter to the governor, he promised Parliament would give American affairs its full attention, perhaps anticipating that the debate would vindicate not only his handling of the Imperial Crisis but Bernard’s too. Yet he chose not to reveal how many of the governor’s letters were presented to Parliament (Nos. 722 and 727). Hillsborough told Bernard only what he thought he needed to know. His early letters to Bernard were characterized by their tactical effusiveness (as much as any official communication could be), but letters from 2 Sept. onwards were studiously evasive with regard to what the administration was planning; perhaps that was how it ought to have been for a minister concerned with the security of transatlantic mail (No. 670).41 John Pownall, however, provided a glimpse of the extent to which Hillsborough was pushing Bernard’s reform ideas in cabinet (No. 743). But on 13 Feb. the cabinet pulled back from antagonizing the colonists further. Hillsborough too kept his options open. Bernard was expendable, and could be removed if the cabinet deemed it expedient to placate the opposition. Bernard’s enemies had already provided Hillsborough the required ammunition, having blamed Bernard for misleading ministers in order to get troops sent to Boston. For all that Bernard presumed an affinity with Hillsborough, fed by Barrington’s professions of friendship with the secretary (Nos. 597 and 605),42 he was as dispensable as any other colonial governor.
Bernard was cautiously critical of Parliament’s resolutions on Massachusetts, thinking them a dead letter unless the British government was prepared to follow them up with concrete measures (No. 723). He still preferred a centralizing reforming program based on strengthening royal government and introducing American representation in Parliament, though he knew the latter idea no longer counted for anything with his British friends. He was not blind to the efficacy of repealing the Townshend Acts, however. But he favored punitive legal action against the radical ringleaders, provided that trials could be conducted in England (Nos. 753 and 758). Bernard’s comments on these issues during the winter of 1768-1769 are hazy and opaque because he never obtained a clear account of Parliament’s proceedings until mid-April. He kept to himself any misgivings about Hillsborough keeping him in the dark.
London, January-February 1769
The Massachusetts Whigs might never have learned the full story of their governor’s epistolary campaign against them had it not been for William Bollan. While historians have long acknowledged Bollan’s part in the acquisition of Bernard’s letters, they have had little to say about the intrigue surrounding their disclosure; nor has anyone provided a close reading of how the Bernard Letters fit with transatlantic political developments.43 Unaware of Parliament’s deliberations, the colonists were anxious to put the case for the repeal of all the American revenue acts following the Christmas recess. Uninformed of how hostile Bernard’s reports were, the Massachusetts Whigs nonetheless long suspected their governor of complicity in bringing the troops to Boston and of turning ministers against them. Unwilling to wait on news of Parliament’s proceedings, however, they set out to obvert ministers’ preoccupation with their governor’s advices. To that end, they enlisted the assistance of William Bollan.
Bollan had strong personal connections with Massachusetts, having represented its interests in London as province agent for over twenty years. He also nursed a grievance. He held Bernard personally responsible for his dismissal from the agency in 1762. Bollan, according to one biographer, grew “resentful during . . . years of vexatious leisure.”44 But his interest in colonial affairs never abated, and he penned several pamphlets during the Imperial Crisis. While Bollan’s publications focused more on economics and imperial administration than constitutional issues he nevertheless came to share the radicalism of Massachusetts’s leading Whigs in challenging Parliament’s legislative authority in the colonies. When penury bit as retirement approached, Bollan gratefully accepted the Massachusetts Council’s invitation to act as its first agent, in early 1769.45 He may not have appreciated that he might not be paid for his services, for hitherto the governor had refused to recognize or authorize salary grants for any agent whom he had not approved or who was not jointly appointed by both houses of the legislature.46 The professed “diligence” with which Bollan went about Council business, however, was testimony to his desire to play a part in resolving British-colonial disputes—and also his zeal to exact revenge on Bernard. Bollan’s first epistolary report was calculated to ruin the governor’s reputation.
Bollan was already deeply troubled by the direction of the Grafton administration’s American policy. In a letter to senior Massachusetts councilor Samuel Danforth, dated 30 Jan. 1769 (Appendix 2), he expressed “great surprise & concern” at the hardening of British attitudes towards the Americans, prompting him to declare his determination to aid the “comon cause” of American liberty.47 Bollan was especially worried by the recommendation in the Lords’ address to the king for bringing felons to trial in England under a treason statute of Henry VIII, 35 Hen. 8, c. 2 (1543). Bollan called in the “favour of a principal member” and firm friend of the Americans (probably William Beckford) who undertook to provide him with “proper office copies” of the resolutions and address. These he received during or shortly after the Christmas recess. Upon reflection, he decided to submit his own petition, as a former resident of Boston, arguing against concurrence by the House of Commons. Hitherto Bollan’s personal quest and the colonists’ cause were parallel endeavors. But they became linked on 16 Jan., when Bollan received a letter of invitation to present to the Commons the Council’s petition calling for the repeal of all the American revenue acts. The Council also alerted him to the necessity of by-passing the governor, who, they believed, would have misrepresented this petition (as he had others, they claimed) had he been entrusted with its transmission.48 Four days later, Bollan was reminded why the Council were so wary of their governor, when Lords Hillsborough and North laid before Parliament another six of the governor’s letters, in which Bernard fulminated on the Council’s obduracy in the matter of finding quarters for the British soldiers.49
With American affairs scheduled for discussion on Monday 23 Jan., Bollan had to move quickly if the colonists’ voice was to be heard. He also knew there was a strong possibility the Commons would refuse to accept the Council’s petition. Not only was the protocol of transmission highly unusual, the petition’s diplomatic form was irregular: the engrossed copy was signed by Samuel Danforth as “president”—an apparently spurious title—and a professed majority of councilors. There was another issue too: the petition’s language was suitably deferential but the prayer reflected a shift in the colonists’ argument against parliamentary taxation. The Council pressed for the repeal of all the American revenue acts, not just the Townshend Acts; the prayer thus called into question the continuance of the Navigation Acts and every operative trade law. Because he shared the Council’s views Bollan did not think these matters were insurmountable obstacles to presenting the petition (and he reserved his strongest criticism for the Council’s predilection for publishing its proceedings). So, Bollan arranged for William Beckford,50 the city of London’s Lord Mayor and MP, to present the Council’s petition on the 23rd. But “by a singular event” Beckford was “prevented” doing so. The Commons’ votes and proceedings on John Wilkes’s libels continued through the night until 3 am, pushing American affairs back until the Wednesday.51
The first order of business on 25 Jan. was the reading of the American correspondence. It took the entire day. Proceedings concluded with a resolution that the committee of the whole House should consider the papers at noon the following day, as a prelude to a subsequent (and overdue) debate on the Lords’ resolutions and the king’s address. Beckford was finally able to present the Council’s petition at 7.30 pm on the 25th, the House accepting it as a prayer from Samuel Danforth in the “Name” of individual councilors. Many of the objections against receiving it, Bollan later noted, “rested in a good measure on the representations of Govr Bernard” (Appendix 2), whose official correspondence from 1768 had been read in the chamber, earlier that day. (Two of the six letters presented on 20 Jan. complained of the petition’s irregular presentation [Nos. 717 and 718].) After Barlow Trecothick, another prominent friend to the Americans, read the Council’s petition Beckford moved to refer it to the debate on the American correspondence scheduled for the Thursday.52 While the motion failed, it did not extinguish Bollan’s hopes of aiding the colonists.
The Commons’ proceedings of 26 Jan. were taken up with a host of petitions on domestic affairs, before attention turned to Bollan’s own petition late in the day. Bollan requested the House postpone consideration of the Lords’ resolutions and address. To do so, he challenged the legal basis by which 35 Hen. 8, c. 2 (1543) could be applied to the colonies. That also failed. Bollan probably never expected the House to act upon either his or the Council’s petitions. But he thought they might energize opposition to the administration’s American policy—and in that he succeeded. Later that day, when the Commons debated the American correspondence, several speakers rose to question the dubious rationale by which the Grafton administration justified the proposed treason commission and the resolutions on Massachusetts.53
Sir Henry Cavendish’s detailed private accounts54 reveal that the opposition contended the American correspondence was problematic evidence, specifically questioning the probity of Bernard’s letters. Judging by their reported comments, speakers had listened carefully when the letters had been read on the 25th, particularly attentive to what the governor had written about the Liberty riot, the Sons of Liberty, the Boston town meeting, and the Convention of Towns. However, the debate was not preeminently about the governor’s rectitude but the credibility of the British government’s American policy. No one appeared to doubt that the Chatham and the Grafton administrations had acted in response to what the governor had reported; and if Bernard had erred, the opposition argued, then ministers should accept responsibility.
The first speaker, William Dowdeswell,55 the leader of the Rockingham Whigs, began by attacking Hillsborough’s “rash and inconsiderate” handling of the Massachusetts rescinding controversy and the “cruel” proposal to apply the Henrician treason statute to North America.
I never was more in earnest in all my life, than I am when I declare, that I was always for maintaining the authority of this country over the colonies, by every reasonable means: but the mode now proposed to us cannot be justified at the bar of justice or of reason.—After referring to the letters of Governor Bernard [Cavendish noted], and pointing out the tone of irony and contempt towards the Americans in which they were dictated, . . . [he] concluded with a recapitulation of his arguments.
Responding, Attorney General William de Grey56 doubted the Bostonians were “guilty of an overt act of treason,” but had “come within an hair’s breadth of it,” citing Bernard’s letters. But “If the letters of Governor Bernard contain what is false, punish him, impeach him; proceed in a regular way against him.” De Grey’s purportedly judicious evaluation of Bernard’s interpretations also offered the administration a way out, should the debate turn against the government. Bernard was potentially a convenient scapegoat, as much as he was actually a target of the opposition.
As the chorus grew, speaker after speaker followed Dowdeswell (in criticizing the resolutions and the address) and de Grey (in defending them), many on both sides commenting on the veracity of Bernard’s reports. Preferably, Bostonians should be treated leniently, but if treasonable investigations were to proceed be sure to take them out of Bernard’s “angry hands” and give them to Parliament, declared Charles Cornwall in support of Dowdeswell.57 Having supported the repeal of the Stamp Act and having expected the Declaratory Act to end disputation about Parliament’s authority, Richard Hussey58 (for the administration) demanded the colonists be “taught . . . a lesson.” But avoid commitments “to measures which you cannot see the consequences of,” the sagacious Edmund Burke59 warned the House, beware of “falsehoods” perpetrated by Bernard or any other governor.
Whatever acts of injustice you commit in America will react upon yourselves. . . . Governors will not grow wise, so long as you fortify their folly with your approbation. . . . By your resolution you suppose and presume treason, at the same time that you acknowledge you have no proof.
The former prime minister George Grenville60 condemned the Lords’ failure to tackle the inadequacies of the Boston magistracy and professed to “lament” the general orders to enforce the law sent to Bernard; yet even he noted that
Governor Bernard cannot be in the right. He and the council quarrel. Cannot you see the cause in the letters? I think the Americans, thus encouraged, could do no otherwise than they have done.
Solicitor General John Dunning61 intervened to defend the proposed Crown commission on treason: “not all cases” of treason would be “sent for,” only those where the king saw “sufficient ground for such a proceeding.”
The clarification prompted William Beckford to urge that any treason trial must take place in America. Doubting that the government would risk provoking the Americans, he continued to question the legality of any treason commission when the Bostonians had not actually resisted the landing of the troops, despite what Bernard had said about seditious views being aired in the town meeting of 12 Sept. “Do not let there be fresh grounds of dispute,” he warned, “and especially let us not give way to force.” Instead, Beckford urged a parliamentary inquiry into the troubles reported by Bernard, a “measure” whose merit “does not leave the Americans in the hands of an angry man.” Thereupon, former Massachusetts governor Thomas Pownall undertook a detailed examination of each of the resolutions, arguing that the Boston selectmen who drafted the precepts summoning the Convention of Towns—the single piece of felonious evidence submitted by Bernard—did not actually realize that the forms were in themselves seditious. (Bernard had made the same point when pleading for the Convention to break up, No. 685.)62
The crescendo of the opposition’s tirade against the “angry man” in Boston was a speech by war veteran and warm friend of the Americans, Isaac Barré.63 After years disputing Parliament’s authority to tax them, and with Boston now enduring military occupation brought on by Bernard, the American Colonies were “ripe for revolt.”
As to governor Bernard, let him have what merit he will, he appears, from these papers, to be peevish and litigious; glad to find things wrong, on purpose to represent them to the government at home. If we are to believe him, there must be a revolution somewhere. ‘I expect,’ he says, ‘to be stormed by the sons of liberty.’ You might as well expect an account of his being murdered, together with the last words of governor Bernard. He mentions every little dirty story, and writes of an intention to seize Castle William. Sir, all this is inexcusable, unless, in the following post, he could give us the names of the conspirators. . . . After these ridiculous resolutions, and this strange address, can any gentleman imagine that the colonies will not have a contemptible notion of us, all put together? A passionate governor may wish to see America chained down like a conquered province; but, can any man believe that that would heal the wound, that that would restore order? If we do not change our conduct towards her, America will be torn from our sides.
The penultimate exchange descended into farce before the concluding scene. Dowdeswell demanded to see the Boston selectmen’s precept. When the ministry were unable to furnish it, the leading independent Sir George Savile64 quipped that “If governor Bernard by letter could induce the secretary of state to believe false facts, we should be careful not to be led into the same error.” With reference to the missing precept, Lord Barrington65 and Thomas Pownall were able to explain “how the mistake had arisen,” thus allowing the chamber to proceed (whether with or without the precept, we do not know). When the votes were cast, 155 favored proceeding to consider the Lords’ resolutions and address, 59 were against. Sitting until 3 am, the Commons finally resolved, without a division, to consider the Lords’ papers in a week’s time.66 The censure of John Wilkes delayed American business, however, until 8 Feb.
That day, the debate on the Lords’ resolutions and address commenced with a motion by an American sympathizer, Rose Fuller,67 to recommit the report (that is, to postpone the decision taken by the committee of the whole House to consider the papers). In trying to delay consideration, opposition MPs once again condemned the harshness of the king’s address, with Beckford urging Bernard’s immediate recall. Imagine how the Americans would react to their countrymen being transported to England under the Henrician statute, Capt. C. J. Phipps68 asked the House. “Will they not think these men are brought over here to be murdered?” Barlow Trecothick astutely observed that Bernard’s comment (in No. 632)69 on the Customs Board’s removal to Castle William after the Liberty riot—that “the retreat of the commissioners will tend to serve our purposes”— raised questions of his “fidelity, or duty to government”; for as the colonists continued to pay the Townshend duties, the commissioners and the governor plotted against them, Trecothick implied. The remainder of the debate ranged over the colonists’ disputation of parliamentary taxation and the validity and propriety of the Henrician statute, until Thomas Pownall delivered a long speech defending the colonists.
Pownall, as was his wont, commenced with a legal fact. A statute of 8 Will. 3, permitted treasonable cases to be heard in the colonies. But, he stressed, “rebellion was not in their hearts; independence is not in their heads,” although with a military force already deployed in Boston, conflict was not unlikely. “In such a state of inflammability . . . the smallest spark would give it fire — it will break out into a flame, which no reason, no prudence, no force can restrain.” His principal message was that the government, at this juncture, should avoid “innovation” and propose conciliation on “the ground that this business actually now stands”: that meant accepting the convenient distinction between internal and external taxes, and forever giving up introducing the former. He echoed Burke’s warning that the Declaratory Act should never be enforced, thus studiously avoiding in the near future contests over the principle of Parliament’s legislative supremacy. “Do nothing which may bring into discussion questions of right, which must become mere articles of faith.” While Pownall and other opposition speakers thus tried to undermine the credibility of Grafton’s American policy (as Bollan hoped), they did not (as Bollan and the Massachusetts Council wished) urge the repeal of all revenue acts currently in force. In the end, the Commons approved both the resolutions on Massachusetts and the address to the king with minor amendments.70
Ultimately, the government majority was too solid for the opposition to defeat on any division. But there is little doubt the opposition succeeded in warning the government about the dangers of escalating tensions in British-American relations. The relationship was by no means critical, but certainly in need of repair. Many in government and out must have doubted the wisdom of letting Hillsborough lead American policymaking. The colonists knew nothing of this and little of Parliament’s debates, which were never reported in detail in any newspaper. (The adoption and text of Parliament’s resolutions and address were not reprinted in Boston until 17 Apr.) Their most important source of information was William Bollan’s letters to Danforth and the Council. But Bollan’s other sterling service to his New England friends, however, was to provide them with the means by which to expose Bernard as the king’s villainous adviser.
It was Bollan who first discovered that Bernard’s correspondence with Hillsborough had been of material significance to ministers. He did not know exactly what the governor had been telling the British government; for, like all visitors, he was excluded from the Strangers’ Gallery during Commons’ debates. But he was able to rely on his parliamentarian friends to brief him. Knowing that MPs were entitled to request from the clerk of papers copies of any item tabled,71 Bollan enlisted help to get copies of the governor’s six letters that had been presented to the Commons on 20 Jan. The clerk, George White, countersigned the transcripts on 27 Jan., and three days later Bollan sent them, unopened, to Danforth in Boston. It is odd that Bollan did not read the letters. Likely, his friends in Parliament told him that these particular letters concerned Council business and would be of value in challenging Bernard’s interpretation of events. He may also have decided not to break the clerk’s seal before transmitting the parcel. Bollan was not yet able to supply documentation revealing Bernard’s allegations about Bostonians’ sedition, which several MPs had referred to, and the next batch of the governor’s letters he made sure to read before transmission.
What Bollan did not know, however, was that the Boston Whigs already knew what the six letters contained. It is a puzzling coincidence that Bollan purloined copies of the same six letters the Whigs published in the Boston Gazette on 23 Jan., a fact hitherto ignored by historians. The most logical explanation is that publication in the Gazette was arranged by the leading opposition councilor, James Bowdoin. Bowdoin may have learned of the governor’s “divers Conferences” with senior officers and local gentlemen, in which they discussed reforming the Council and disqualifying the governor’s opponents (No. 721). Nursing a personal grievance and determined to prove the governor had misrepresented the Council, Bowdoin or an accomplice may have accessed Bernard’s private letterbooks and surreptitiously made copies of the relevant letters. If so, the espionage apparently remained undetected until the letters appeared in the Gazette. It is most unlikely the newspaper’s copy text (which is not extant) was based on transcripts sent over from England. The Whigs did not have a spy in the secretary of state’s office (as far as is known) who could supply the printers of the Gazette with copies of the governor’s letters as soon as the originals or their duplicates arrived in London. In any case he or she would have had to have overcome the limitations of transatlantic communication to ensure that copies of letters received in January were transmitted to Boston in time for publication on the 23rd. An alternative, speculative explanation is that Bowdoin used Bollan to acquire authenticated copies of the letters from the clerk of the papers of the House of Commons in order to cover his own crime: that were he prosecuted for libel he might defend himself by protesting the clerk’s transcripts postdated publication in the Gazette. (On the points above see the source note to No. 734.) Equally valid is the possibility that one of the Boston selectmen was involved in the procurement. For in responding to the six letters’ publication the selectmen eagerly challenged the governor to produce evidence denying he had misrepresented the province in the rest of his correspondence (Nos. 741 and 747).
Bollan was not the Bostonians’ dupe and acted of his own volition in supplying the Council with the first of two batches of Bernard’s letters. Eighteen months later, Bollan clarified how he procured copies of the governor’s letters.
I obtained them in the same manner wherein from time to time I obtain’d copies of papers in my former agencies. The first parcel [was] sent by direction of a knight of the shire for the county of Wilts, and the second by direction of the present Lord Mayor. The clerk wou’d have had me receive the latter copies without his authentication, which with difficulty I obtain’d.72
These “two worthy members” used their privileges on “various attendances” to conduct “examination of the papers in the drawer of the House of Coms, and, insisting with resolution, [on] authentic copies of Govr Bernard’s letters.” Bribes were essential, for the documents prepared by the clerk “cou’d not be had at a small expense.”73
The “first parcel” of Bernard Letters—the six letters Bollan dispatched to Boston on 30 Jan.74—was obtained through the intercession of one of Bollan’s long-standing contacts (and whose contribution hitherto has escaped historians’ notice). Bollan chose not to name him, but gave Danforth clues sufficient to deduce his identity, describing him a “knight of the shire” of Wiltshire. Knights of the shire were MPs for English counties, and most counties, including Wiltshire, had two. Edward Popham (?1711-72) of Littlecote, Wilts., was the more likely of Wiltshire’s MPs to have been Bollan’s accomplice in respect of both the Bernard Letters and Bollan’s “former agencies.”75 While Popham’s family had strong historical connections with America, Edward Popham’s motivation in aiding Bollan was largely political (at least we must presume it was in the absence of any other documentary evidence left by Popham or Bollan). Independent for most of his parliamentary career, Popham subsequently gravitated toward the Chathamite Whigs, first supporting Chatham’s administration then the opposition, and generally voting against the government.76
It is possible Edward Popham was the “principal member” who also procured copies of the Lords’ papers for Bollan, but William Beckford seems a more likely candidate. By “principal member” Bollan may not have been alluding to an éminence grise so much as a member whose eminence derived from longevity of service. Even so, by also describing this MP to Danforth as “one of your best friends” (meaning he was a firm supporter of the Americans’ cause) Bollan gave the impression that the “principal member” was indeed an éminence grise. These particular epithets are more readily applicable to Beckford than to Popham. Elected lord mayor of London later that year, Beckford made no secret of his support for the Americans. As a wealthy West Indies merchant, plantation owner, and slaveholder, Beckford was regarded as a parvenu and social outsider by the English aristocracy, and though he went to considerable lengths to cultivate friendships his Jamaican accent and reputedly vulgar manners drew hostile comment. Beckford, as Bollan made clear, subsequently acquired for him a second batch of Bernard Letters. Beckford’s conduct fitted easily with his strident criticism of the government’s American policy. He may have shared the colonists’ hope that the dismantling of mercantilism would usher in a new age of commercial prosperity for British North America. His domestic politics were also tinged with radicalism. By the spring of 1770, he was the foremost advocate for restoring fellow alderman John Wilkes to the House of Commons, Wilkes having been expelled after winning the Middlesex elections.77
Historians have tended to conflate the colonists’ reactions to both parcels of the Bernard Letters and have ignored entirely the significance of the prior publication in the Boston Gazette. Generally, they have assumed that the letters’ publication in a series of pamphlets from April onwards constituted the governor’s disgrace, forever sullying his reputation as chief executive and justifying the colonists’ opposition to British colonial policies; and, that the evidence of the governor’s perfidy was (and is) plain to see in the published correspondence.78 That is only part of the story, for historians have not fully accounted for the Whigs’ management of their campaign against Bernard, nor connected it to the chronology of events in Britain, nor considered what the published letters did not reveal. Popular reaction to the Bernard Letters was actually less demonstrative than historians have allowed, not because there was any significant support for the governor but because public condemnation was channeled effectively through local institutions. The campaign against Bernard was carefully managed—as it had to be if the Whigs were ever to get rid of him. It is easy for us to forget that the stakes were high: for this was a Crown servant who had brought troops to Boston streets, who had dissolved the legislature, and whose correspondence had left British ministers thinking of treason trials.
Speculation about the content of Bernard’s letters abounded in early April. This followed publication on 3 Apr. of both the full list of American correspondence presented to Parliament on 28 Nov. and the resolutions on Massachusetts passed by the House of Lords.79 (Confirmation of the resolutions’ adoption by the Commons followed on 17 Apr.). The “first parcel” of letters arrived in Boston on Saturday 8 Apr.80 Danforth and Bowdoin met with their fellow councilors the next day to strategize a counter-offensive. Moderates like Thomas Flucker were excluded from these discussions, and in the coming days and weeks the Whigs utilized the press to undermine the few friends of government left in the House of Representatives (No. 765). The strength of partisan condemnation was only to be expected (though Bernard also had his critics among the friends of government). The most striking aspect of the Whigs’ initial reaction, as reported by Bernard, was how the Council stage-managed their governor’s denouement. That Sunday, the authentic copies prepared by the Commons’ clerk of papers were given to Edes and Gill with instructions to print three copies for each councilor (which would amount to a total of sixty-six copies if they were distributed regardless of political allegiance). The authentic copies, however, Edes and Gill put on public view at their Queen Street office, where “many Hundreds of People” flocked “to read them” over the next two or three days, “with some justifying others condemning the Letters according to the Part they take” (No. 765). Bowdoin was then allocated the task of drafting the Council’s response (Appendix 4), for which he took possession of the authentic copies; the publication of transcripts of Bernard’s letters was purposely delayed until Bowdoin had finished.
Edes and Gill had always been the printers of choice for the Whig faction. The public display of evidence purporting to show the governor’s treachery helped the Whigs in the upcoming elections, but also served an additional purpose: it vindicated the printers’ long opposition to the governor. Edes and Gill may or may not have been aware of Bernard’s more recent attacks on them, in which he urged the case for restricting press freedoms (No. 734), following publication of the governor’s six letters on 23 Jan. But for the moment, at least, the disclosure of the authentic copies of these letters gave them the upper hand in the contest. For those colonists, if any, who doubted that the letters published on 23 Jan. were accurate transcripts of genuine letters, here was proof provided by the clerk of the papers of the House of Commons. Such proof would not in itself have saved the printers from a libel trial had the British government gone after them, but it certainly turned the heads of the governor’s remaining friends, as Bernard conceded (No. 765). Bollan’s letter enclosing the authentic copies broke the news that these particular letters had been laid before Parliament on 20 Jan. (following those presented on 28 Nov.)81 We can assume that most readers of the governor’s letters would have given little or no thought as to how the printers of the Gazette acquired copies of the same letters before then.
The Council too used the “first parcel” of Bernard Letters to deflect criticism from within Whig ranks. The first newspaper commentary on the letters allowed that Bernard’s predilection for instituting a royal Council ought to spur the Council into action to defend their reputations; the Council’s Whig credentials had been blunted by the cautious language—but not the sentiments—of their recent petitions for repealing the revenue acts.82 The Council’s response to the Bernard Letters, contained in a letter to the earl of Hillsborough, went some way to restoring the reputation of Bowdoin and other Whig councilors (Appendix 4). It provided an enlightening counter-narrative to Bernard’s hostile rendition of his difficulties in procuring quarters for the troops. (In this volume the Council’s commentary has been cross-referenced to the governor’s six letters). James Bowdoin also prepared a lengthy vindication (Appendix 3) against personal criticism made by Bernard in No. 717. Researchers ought to read both missives in conjunction with the governor’s letters—as they should all the Whig responses—not only as a corrective to the bias in the governor’s reports but to appreciate what the colonists had to do to repair their deteriorating relationship with Britain.
In the first instance, the Council had to sacrifice Bollan’s anonymity in order to prove the copies’ authenticity. It seemed not to concern the agent if the British or the colonists learned of his part in acquiring the letters. The second imperative, having seen the full list of American correspondence, was to acquire more material from Bollan as quickly as possible.83 These letters concerned provincial matters far beyond the business of the Council. Bowdoin, Danforth, and the others took it upon themselves to expose the scale of Bernard’s machinations against “this Country.” Since the troops arrived, they had been living “as if in an Enemy’s Country,84
We do not yet certainly know all the means by which this has happened: nor do we yet certainly know all our accusers. But we apprehend the representations and memorials, that have been made by Governor Bernard, the Commissioners of the Customs, and some other Persons, concerning the disorders and riotous proceedings, which happened in the Town of Boston in March and June 1768, have brought upon them that misfortune.
The Council never managed to undertake the detailed, careful examination of the governor’s other correspondence that Bollan wanted. For sure the Council had already addressed issues pertinent to their own governmental role (Appendix 4), and took the discussion forward in a follow-up letter to Hillsborough of 12 Jun. (Appendix 5). But when the second parcel sent from London arrived in August, the Council stood back; Danforth and Bowdoin gave way to radical Whigs in the town meeting and House of Representatives, notably Samuel Adams, who hereafter fashioned the public responses to the governor’s letters.
While the Council waited expectantly for more material, the “first parcel” of Bernard Letters was published as Copies of Letters from Governor Bernard to Hillsborough. Printed by Edes and Gill it was issued within a week or so of the letters’ arrival in Boston.85 The copy text was prepared from the authentic copies provided by the Council; subsequent reprints in colonial newspapers followed the imprints issued by Edes and Gill.86 Included with Bernard’s six letters was a copy of General Gage’s letter to Hillsborough of 31 Oct.87 But there was no extended commentary on the governor’s correspondence, as Bernard had anticipated: that appeared in the next pamphlet in the series. Letters to Hillsborough, on sale by 27 Jul., included Bowdoin’s and the Council’s letters to Hillsborough (Appendices 3 and 4) and an appendix of the Council’s proceedings from July to December 1768. The printers hinted more would follow, claiming the governor’s “other letters are said to contain high charges against, and gross misrepresentations” of the “people of this province.”88
Public defenders were nowhere to be seen. “Officers of the Crown & the Friends of Government are very loud” in their condemnation, Bernard noted (No. 765). Sewall, while he did not openly criticize the governor, was unwilling to risk further opprobrium defending him. Bernard’s observation, however, likely had more to do with Thomas Hutchinson’s reaction to the letters’ publication. Bernard’s assertion to Hillsborough that Hutchinson “well understands my System” glossed over palpable differences between them (No. 767). By his own account Hutchinson had never seen
a Line of any of the Letters until I saw them in Print nor did I know such Letters had been wrote unless perhaps some mention might have been made in Company by the Governor of his having wrote to such purpose which he is sometimes apt to do though I had no particular Remembrance of it.
The disclaimer of foreknowledge may have been willful dissembling. But entrusted to a confidant, Israel Williams (who, though a friend of government, had been a lukewarm advocate for Bernard), it also projects sincerity and in doing so puts considerable distance between the lieutenant governor and the governor. Bernard, Hutchinson continued, did not understand the colonists’ reverence for the Province Charter when he called for a royal Council.
On that issue, Bernard and Hutchinson remained far apart, the governor evincing an imperialist outlook, his lieutenant an American-centered and identity-laden provincialism. “I am not desirous of a change in the Constitution,” Hutchinson insisted, concluding with the assurance that it is “natural to suppose I have attachments to old modes and customs, civil and religious which are not to be expected in him.”89 While publication of the Bernard Letters did not jeopardize their relationship, their friendship nevertheless cooled during Bernard’s last months in the province. Bernard’s dull, matter-of-fact account of the affair in his private letters confessed his disappointment with Crown officers, without naming Hutchinson or Sewall, and reinforced his determination to be rid of the troublesome province (Nos. 763 to 765). Hutchinson, meanwhile, was left pondering how Britain would manage to establish the “dependence” of its colonies without further alienating the Americans.90 In repudiating the necessity of special measures, he led himself, inexorably, to defending imperialism in the abstract: that British rule emanated from an indivisible and indissoluble British sovereignty.
It is curious how few commentaries on the Bernard Letters were published in the provincial press in the first four months of 1769.91 We should not accept this as a yardstick of popular opinion, but an indication as to how far criticism of the governor was being managed. Back in February, when the Boston selectmen taunted the governor to make his correspondence public, they initiated a campaign to oust him from office that gathered speed over the spring and summer and continued after his departure. On 4 Apr., before the six letters arrived, the town meeting voted to petition the king for Bernard’s removal.92 Much of the credit for organizing the opposition against the governor has been attributed to Samuel Adams, who had unrivaled influence in the assembly and among the Boston populace.93 Adams drafted and wrote many important papers as clerk of the House of Representatives, though historians have tended to lose sight of the fact that these documents were the productions of committees. Adams was certainly a leading figure in the deliberations of the assembly respecting Bernard, when it opened on 31 May, nearly a year after its dissolution. Adams’s brand of radicalism had not gone down well with the Americans’ friends in London, but publication of the Bernard Letters probably softened their attitudes. Bernard’s last letter to Richard Jackson, one of the more conservative British defenders of the Americans, closed with a plea to accept that colonial-British relations could never be the same again.
A good Friend of yours observed t’other day upon your still being an Advocate for the Constitution of this Government, that if you had seen the Effects of it upon the Spot, for these last 3 Years you would be of the same Opinion with us. (No. 772.)
On 29 Apr., Bernard received news he had long desired (No. 757). Six weeks earlier, the ministry decided to recall him to England and allow him to make a personal report. More than that, the king created him a baronet—paying the expenses to boot. Bernard took satisfaction in Hillsborough’s assurances that the king had “not been influenced by the Malevolence & Misrepresentation” emanating from the Boston Whigs (No. 768). He soon learned the British government was still interested in prosecuting leading American Whigs. On 20 May, Bernard received Hillsborough’s instructions (No. 745) to investigate treasonable activities committed since 30 Dec. 1767 (in line with Parliament’s resolutions). Hillsborough did not spell out the procedural arrangements that Bernard was to follow. Initially the governor set to collecting evidence since he was not directed to head up a royal commission (which Parliament had suggested). While Bernard assumed that any treason trial would take place in England, Barrington offered a corrective. “Five or Six Examples are sufficient,” Barrington confided, and “it is right they should be made in Boston, the Only place where there has been actual Crime” (No. 740). Bernard replied forcefully to Hillsborough (No. 778), highlighting the unlikelihood of persuading any Whigs to bear witness against another. Nor would he be able to collect sufficient evidence for a trial, “tho their Practices were treasonable yet I cannot fix upon any Act that seems to me to be actual Treason.” Bernard knew he would be in England by the time any royal commission could be established, thus automatically casting Thomas Hutchinson as a chairman in waiting. (Thankfully, a Massachusetts treason commission was never established. But a royal commission of inquiry met in Rhode Island in 1772 to consider the burning of HMS Gaspee, though it did not proceed with prosecutions largely to avoid the political consequences of any treason trials.)94
Meanwhile, in London, Bollan advanced the colonists’ cause. Much of the information about British politics Bollan sent to Boston was gleaned from regular conversations with the coterie of pro-American MPs who had distinguished themselves in the debates on the American correspondence. All of them were familiar with what the Massachusetts governor had written. It would not have taken Bollan long to ascertain the contents of the full range of Bernard’s correspondence with Hillsborough that had been read to the House of Commons. The friends of America were not a lobby group, but a congeries of opposition MPs with varying degrees of interest in how the disputes over American affairs were affecting the American colonists.95 Bollan also worked in parallel with the agent of the Massachusetts House, Dennys DeBerdt, though their relationship was often strained. On one thing they were agreed: “The greatest resentment” the colonists “have reason to fear will arise from Govr. Bernards representations in his Letters.”96
The most enigmatic of Bollan’s contacts was the former Massachusetts governor Thomas Pownall. If Edmund Burke was the most erudite of parliamentary commentators on American affairs, Pownall was the most knowledgeable. His reputation rested upon his wide-ranging if verbose Administration of the Colonies (1764; 4th ed., 1768). Pownall had come to share Bollan’s dislike of Bernard (see No. 607),97 irrespective that his brother John remained Bernard’s confidant. Indeed, Pownall was better placed than Bollan to procure Bernard’s correspondence for the colonists had he been so motivated. (Pownall had once before undermined a governor, his predecessor William Shirley, and might have done so again if he had been approached to take on the agency. He was listed among the supposed authors of the “Junius” letters and later assisted Benjamin Franklin in acquiring the Hutchinson-Oliver Letters.)98 Although Pownall had his supporters in Massachusetts—and he maintained contact with James Bowdoin—he also had his enemies from his days as governor (Thomas Hutchinson among them). Pownall’s appointment as Council agent would have divided the Massachusetts Whigs, whereas Bollan’s previous experience outweighed objections about his court party connections. Having been Shirley’s man, Bollan never really trusted Thomas Pownall. Pownall made only a brief but important contribution in the Commons’ debate of 25 Jan., and took no part in Bollan’s plan to promote the Council’s petition and discredit Bernard. Bollan, therefore, was taken aback when, on 19 Apr., Pownall moved the repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act in the House of Commons.99
Bollan was disappointed Pownall did not make the most of the opportunity to get at the root causes of the colonists’ discontent. Pownall did not propose the repeal of all the revenue acts, which the Council’s petition had requested, nor did he address the principle being contested—Parliament’s authority to tax the colonists. Bollan and a “sincere friend,” probably Beckford, suspected Pownall of acting at the behest of the administration—that he was secretly prompted by Hillsborough to test parliamentary opinion on conciliating the Americans.100 It was a plausible deduction.
At a meeting on 1 May Grafton’s cabinet decided to move for the partial repeal of the Townshend duties. By embracing conciliation the cabinet repudiated Hillsborough’s hard-line proposals for a permanent solution to the Imperial Crisis. Reform of the colonial governments would certainly have provoked Massachusettensians, Virginians, and New Yorkers. Instead, government aimed to “assuage” the Americans (as King George III put it), calm apprehensions, and restore trust. All of this was to be achieved without making concessions on principles or engaging in sustained dialogue with the Americans. Hillsborough and North, with seven others, won a majority vote to retain the tea duty, defeating Grafton and three others. While the tea duty was to be retained largely on principle—to demonstrate Parliament’s legislative supremacy in the American Colonies—there was also a more practical aspect to the retention.101 Chancellor Lord North was returning to former Chancellor Townshend’s original idea (written into the 1767 American Revenue Act) of using revenue from the duty to pay the Crown salaries of colonial governors and other officials. Thus, the retention of the tea duty was in fact a defeat for the prime minister and those of his colleagues who favored its removal.102
The conciliatory message, however, was given prominence in a circular to the colonial governors dated 13 May (No. 773) formally announcing the administration’s intention to repeal the Townshend duties in the next session of Parliament. The cabinet hoped that the news would dampen the opposition in the colonial assemblies and weaken the colonial nonimportation agreements. They also expected to satisfy criticism from British merchants angered by the disruption to trade caused by the American boycotts. Ministers let it be known privately that henceforth Parliament would effectively leave the colonies alone. The professed rationale did not concede ground on constitutional principles but on commercial expedience, accepting the colonists’ oft-stated grievance that since the colonies were a growing and important market for British manufactures the Atlantic trade ought not to be comprehensively taxed.
While Bollan was not privy to cabinet deliberations, his parliamentarian friends would have kept him informed of the change of policy. He also managed to find a way of linking the campaign for repealing the Townshend duties to the Whigs’ campaign against Governor Bernard.
In mid-May, Bollan received fresh advices from the Massachusetts Council. He was requested to present the Council’s commentary on the six Bernard letters to Hillsborough (Appendix 4) and to procure more of Bernard’s letters.103 Bollan personally delivered the Council’s letter to Hillsborough at his London residence in the last week of May, but was refused an audience. A second visit, in mid-June, gained him admission. Hillsborough knew of Bollan’s part in obtaining the six letters. But rather than question Bollan’s integrity or contest his agent’s credentials (as the governor’s honor demanded) Hillsborough engaged Bollan in a long conversation.104 Bollan, by his own account, seized the moment to press the repeal of the “whole Grenvillean system,” as the Council had urged. While Hillsborough seemed sympathetic to the idea of freeing American trade from all mercantilist restrictions, he was noncommittal on the “total repeal” of the American revenue acts. He also refused Bollan’s request for copies of state papers the Council wanted—“sundry” letters of Hillsborough’s to Bernard and two memorials of the American Board of Customs.105
This was more than a probe for information. Bollan could hardly have expected the secretary of state to be forthcoming. Hillsborough knew any material gifted to Bollan would be transmitted to Boston and used against Bernard. If all that mattered to Bollan was obtaining copies of the letters, he could have enlisted the help of a friendly member of Parliament. The whole point of approaching Hillsborough was likely to intimate that Bernard was a convenient scapegoat for the past follies of the Chatham and Grafton administrations. Bollan knew that Hillsborough had recalled Bernard. He was also convinced that with Bernard out of the way and his reputation discredited reconciliation with Massachusetts stood a better chance. Hillsborough, however, was tactfully evasive and “express’d a very high regard for the conduct of Govr Bernard.” Even if Hillsborough were tempted to scapegoat Bernard in order to boost his own flagging reputation, he could not confide in Bollan. After discussing the encounter with friends, Bollan sanguinely concluded that Hillsborough’s influence was waning. Bollan was only partially correct, and was not aware that Hillsborough had won the contest to retain the tea duty. Still, he highlighted two indicators pointing to British willingness to accommodate the Americans’ grievances. The first was that the Grafton administration was not opposed to repealing the Townshend Revenue Act. The second was that the British government was not inclined to levy further taxes, provided the colonists ceased challenging parliamentary authority.106 A third but unspoken indicator in Bollan’s rationale was whether or not Hillsborough and the administration would stand by the beleaguered governor. That test would not be resolved for another six months.
By the time Bollan’s assessment reached Boston in mid-August, these promising indicators were already obsolete. Colonial demands had progressed beyond the terms proffered in the circular to the governors. Boston Whigs were insisting on the withdrawal of the troops, the repeal of the tea duty, the dismantling of the Navigation Acts, and an acknowledgement of colonial rights of legislative autonomy. And they were also plotting Bernard’s disgrace, regardless of what Hillsborough might do.
Governor Bernard made only two speeches at the General Court during its final session: one to open it and one to close it. To some, the lame duck governor cut a dejected figure, bereft of meaningful support and wedded to his uncompromising tactic of vetoing the election of radicals to the Council (No. 776). When the House refused to proceed to business in protest at the presence of the British soldiers, he moved the assembly to Harvard College and was obliged to continue the assembly until the House passed the annual supply bill on 15 Jul. (but not the salary bill for acting governor Thomas Hutchinson). Such a frustrating session prompted Bernard to deliver a fusillade of accusations in letters to Hillsborough. His enemies were humiliating him and embarrassing their own supporters by bringing government to a fiscal cliff. They pulled back only when they had sated their pride with a series of impertinent resolves further challenging parliament’s authority to tax Americans and accusing Bernard of conspiring with ministers to bring troops to Boston (Nos. 779, 797, and 792). Otis and Adams were “now in full Possession” of the provincial government, Bernard declaimed to John Pownall (No. 780), “driving over every one who has loyalty & Resolution” to defend the King and Parliament (No. 784).
Unknown to Bernard, in March Hillsborough had broached the possibility of withdrawing the regiments from Boston. He left it to General Gage to decide how many regiments should be withdrawn and when. Gage did not consult Bernard on the question of withdrawal but engaged him in discussion as to how many troops should remain (No. 782). Bernard predictably objected, claiming that “all” the principal provincial and Crown officers feared “very dangerous Consequences” (No. 787), and managed to win the argument that two regiments should be kept in the town and Castle (Nos. 785, 786, 790, and 792). In mid-July the 64th and 65th Regiments of Foot were removed to Halifax (with the agreement of both Bernard and Hutchinson) but the 14th and 29th remained, testament to their governor’s nervousness (Nos. 793 and 796). The House of Representatives continued protesting at the presence of the Regulars for the next three years until all the soldiers were withdrawn.107
News of Bernard’s impending departure triggered the Whigs’ decision to call for their governor’s permanent removal. Samuel Adams had already drafted a document when the motion for drawing a petition was unanimously approved on 27 Jun. (The engrossed copy is printed as Appendix 6, and was considered by the Privy Council in London on 28 Feb. 1770.)108 Bernard’s last words to his enemies in the Massachusetts House breathed defiance.
By your own acts you will be judged:109 you need not be apprehensive of any Misrepresentations; as it is not in the power of your Enemies, if you have any, to add to your Publications: they are plain and explicit and need no comment.110
While both Bernard and his enemies indulged in political theater the seriousness of the moment was not lost on the governor. Powerless to prevent the posturing, Bernard nevertheless railed at the House for insulting his office and status as the king’s representative. In the wider context of the Imperial Crisis, the petition to remove Bernard might be counted as a delayed emotional reaction to the king’s speech of 8 Nov., Parliament’s resolutions on Massachusetts, and British deliberations on pursuing colonists for treason. The petition was a symbolic attack on royal authority, the start of an ideological journey that was to culminate in an attack on the person of the king in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776.
Governor Bernard had started planning his departure in the first week of June (No. 783). Son Thomas, he decided, would accompany him (though it would mean Thomas would graduate from Harvard M.A. in absentia); the rest of the family would follow once Bernard had found a suitable residence in England. He had about six weeks or so to put his affairs in order, appointing agents to manage his several land grants and property in Mount Desert. He probably did not expect to return to Massachusetts, though had not ruled out the possibility of a posting elsewhere. Public affairs he largely dispensed with after proroguing the General Court on 15 Jul.
Uppermost in Bernard’s mind, however, was the need to preserve what he termed “a Union of Sentiments & Coalition of Interests” with the man whom he assumed would eventually succeed him, Thomas Hutchinson (No. 788). But Hutchinson was without any guarantee that the assembly would vote him a salary. Bernard had weakly recommended that Hutchinson should insist the House enact a permanent governor’s salary, in keeping with the provisions of the Townshend Revenue Act. Of that there was no chance, as both men knew, but it was Bernard’s crude way of excusing his failure to persuade the House to make provision for the acting governor or the British government in London to pay Hutchinson a salary from the tea duty. The auguries that Hutchinson was to be allowed a fresh start were not good. Not only was Hutchinson without a salary; he was going to find himself bereft of significant political support when facing an unmanageable assembly, a popular nonimportation movement, and a province eager to condemn him for having faithfully served his governor and king. In his final letter to Hillsborough Bernard hoped his successor would find “fair Play in the Opening of his Administration”: in truth, the tribulations of his predecessor ensured that Hutchinson would never enjoy the peaceful start that Bernard had enjoyed when he assumed the governorship (No. 797).
After a final public appearance at the Harvard College commencement, Bernard took his leave of the province. He boarded HMS Rippon on 1 Aug. nine years to the day that he entered the province in a procession of promise. The Rippon did not sail for another day, and Bernard would have witnessed from distance the pageantry heralding his departure: the cacophony of town batteries, the church bells ringing out, and the Union flag atop the Castle. These arrangements conformed to British tradition, but the symbolism sent a mixed message, of British rule and American defiance. Unfurling the St. George’s flag on Liberty Tree and Hancock’s Wharf, Bernard’s enemies sent a clear signal that the province was relieved to be rid of a governor who had apparently trampled on the rights and liberties of their English heritage.111
London, June-August 1769
Had Hillsborough been more accommodating in providing Bollan with the advices he wanted perhaps Bollan might not have attended to the Council’s request that he obtain more of Bernard’s letters. But he did not hold back, having sensed an opportunity to aid the colonists by disparaging the governor and criticizing the secretary of state. Shortly after meeting with Hillsborough, Bollan requested William Beckford’s assistance to obtain authentic copies of “all” the governor’s letters that had been presented to the House of Commons since the previous November.112 Upon encountering some “unexpected difficulties” (perhaps occasioned by the promotion of the clerk of papers, George White, rather than any ministerial hand), Beckford was obliged to place his request in writing. The transcripts were then prepared by White’s successor, John Rosier.113
This time Bollan familiarized himself with what Bernard had written. Troubled by poor eyesight and pushed for time, the sixty-four year old Bollan arranged for an acquaintance or secretary to read the letters to him.114 Bernard’s candid reporting and dramatized style of writing left a lasting impression on Bollan.
I have scarcely had time to hear the letters now sent once read, & therefore can say nothing in consideration; their contents & bare reading115 astonish’d me extremely.
After discussing the letters and the Council’s rebuttal (Appendix 4) with a “member of the first character”—Beckford again, probably—Bollan assured Danforth and his colleagues that they would be gifted the evidence to assail the integrity of Bernard’s correspondence. The entire second batch, he wrote, “will probably explain the proceedings relative to your distress.”116 Even the House of Commons’ clerks were “stagger’d” by what the governor had written, Bollan noted, a comment which may also reflect Beckford’s own feelings.117 Bollan’s reaction to the Bernard Letters was similar to those of the opposition MPs who had listened intently when the Commons Speaker read them aloud on 25 Jan. Government men were less affected by the publication of Bernard’s letters, and Barrington for one was unperturbed. He supposed Bernard was just as “obnoxious” to the colonists as he was before. Since Bernard was preparing to leave Massachusetts, Barrington could “not see how the knowlege of your Correspondence can do you any harm” (No. 781). Barrington’s reaction might have been different had his letters been purloined and published. It was not that Barrington or Hillborough failed to anticipate that the colonists, with Bollan’s aid, would capitalize on the governor’s letters; rather, they no longer cared what the Bostonians did with the material.
The second “parcel” of Bernard’s letters that Bollan dispatched to Boston on 21 Jun. has not survived intact. But it would have contained transcripts of thirty letters Bernard had written to Shelburne and Hillsborough during 1768.118 Bollan sent duplicates by another vessel, along with copies of Hillsborough’s out-letters, the memorials of the American Board of Customs, and other items concerning Massachusetts that were on Parliament’s list of American correspondence.119 Both ships arrived in Boston on or shortly before 19 Aug., by which time Bernard was already on his way back to England.120 Bollan received a further request came from councilor John Erving, seeking copies of Bernard’s letters concerning the court cases generated by the Benjamin Barons controversy and disputations over the writs of assistance between Jun. 1761 and Feb. 1762. This time Bollan was unable to oblige.121
Sensing “victory,” as he wrote much later, Bollan had striven to influence the course of events in both Boston and London.122 Bollan exposed Bernard’s machinations against the Council and the province of Massachusetts in order to give the British government and the colonists a chance to settle their differences by scapegoating Bernard. For the moment Bollan advised the Council against publishing their letter to Hillsborough lest it be considered critical of the secretary (which in sum it was) and damage the case for repealing the Townshend Revenue Act. Far better, he advised, was for the Council to use all the information they had been supplied to build a solid case against Bernard and publish that instead, if possible in time for the next session of Parliament.
A removal of all unjust impressions, prejudicial to its Council, magistrates, & inhabitants, wou’d be very beneficial, if obtainable, and I beg leave to submit to the consideration of those who are able to make it, the utility of a plain, clear, distinct & candid narrative of all the material facts placed in their natural order, attended with decent and pertinent observations, & a constant regard for future as well as past proceedings.
The idea of publishing a “useful narrative,” he admitted, had come to him whilst writing, certain as he was that he would not able to obtain any further copies of official letters. If this was his personal day of reckoning with Governor Bernard it was also, Bollan knew, time for the colonists to heap righteous indignation upon Secretary of State Hillsborough for turning the British government and Parliament against them.123 His preferred outcome was a parliamentary inquiry into the governor’s administration which, even if Bernard were not impeached, would nevertheless highlight how far ministers were viewing events in Boston through the lens of an “angry man” (as William Beckford called Bernard).
Bollan’s faith in Parliament was not misplaced. Hillsborough might not have survived a second debate on the American correspondence, given the strength of feeling evident in January. But even as Bollan advised the Council to trust in the opposition MPs, events in Boston undermined the case he was building. The Council had already published their commentary (Appendix 4) on the “first parcel” of Bernard Letters as Letters to Hillsborough. It did not meet Bollan’s requirements for a critique simply because the councilors were unable to address the full range of the governor’s correspondence. In gifting the rest of the materials to the Council, Bollan urged councilors to “exercise . . . wisdom, diligence & caution”:124 that did not mean they should keep the transcripts out of public view, but that they should use them judiciously to undermine Bernard and Hillsborough—and to manage that they needed Parliament’s support. But the Council had already ceded its lead role to the Boston town meeting and the House of Representatives. It was Samuel Adams, not James Bowdoin, who led the campaign to vindicate the province. Bollan’s advice was not ignored, but in the autumn of 1769 it was no longer relevant to developments in Massachusetts.
Boston, September-October 1769
With Bernard out of sight but not out of mind, the Massachusetts Whig exploited their acquisition of the governor’s correspondence. Publication of the first batch further undermined the credibility of friends of government, who were reduced a rump faction in the House.125 The second batch Bollan sent Danforth was received on 19 Aug. and quickly turned into a pamphlet by Edes and Gill. Letters to the Ministry126 was advertised for sale on 7 Sept. at the price of “One Pisterene and Half.”127 It contained thirty of Bernard’s letters to Shelburne and Hillsborough,128 the correspondence of the American Board of Customs relating to the Liberty riot,129 several letters from Commodore Samuel Hood to the Admiralty, and Bollan’s letter to Danforth of 30 Jan. (Appendix 2). It was reprinted in London on 15 Nov.130 Boston shopkeeper Harbottle Dorr characteristically annotated his copy of the Boston edition with colorful declamations: the former governor was a “Vile Traytor.”131 On 18 Oct., the Boston town meeting directed Samuel Adams to produce a vindication of the town from the “many base insinuations and virulent charges” contained in the Bernard Letters.132 Adams’s detailed report was appended to the town records133 and subsequently published in Boston and London as an Appeal to the World.134
Adams’s appraisal of the governor’s letters shaped both contemporaries’ and historians’ perceptions of Governor Bernard. The Appeal to the World delivered the most articulate and lucid of all contemporary critiques of the Bernard Letters. While William Bollan may not have approved its strident language, Appeal to the World probably matched his expectations as to what a detailed commentary should be. Adams undertook a close reading of the governor’s interpretation of events as presented in his letters. While Adams skirted around some of the more problematic issues, notably the bravado display of arms at the Boston town meeting of 12 Sept. 1768, he nonetheless undertook a compelling deconstruction. (Adams’s commentaries have been collated with the editorial notes to several of the letters published in volumes four and five of the Bernard Papers.)135 True or not, Adams’s perceptive observations contradicted Bernard’s version of recent history and, Adams declared, exposed a guilty conscience. More than any other polemic from prerevolutionary Boston, Adams’s Appeal to the World exemplifies the conspiracy theory at the heart of Bernard Bailyn’s enduring interpretation of American revolutionary ideology.136
It is remarkable that Governor Bernard, not long before these letters were made public, expressed to a certain gentleman, his earnest wish, that the people of this Province could have a sight of all his letters to the Ministry, being assured that they would thereby be fully convinced that he was a friend to the Province—Indeed he made a declaration to the same purpose, in one of his public speeches to the House of Representatives. Upon the Arrival of the letters however, he discovered, as some say, a certain Paleness, and complained of as an hardship that his letters, wrote in confidence, should be exposed to the view of the Public.— A striking proof of the Baseness, as well as the Perfidy of his heart!137
It is puzzling why the administration took so long to stop the leaks of American correspondence. In the spring of 1770, Hillsborough “censured” Bollan for his part in the procurement of the Bernard Letters.138 No action was taken against the printers in Boston or London who published the Bernard Letters. But by then Bernard was no longer important to the British government. Rather than antagonise the Bostonians with an investigation, the easiest course of action was to defend Bernard against the accusations made in the House of Representatives’ petition calling for his removal and impeachment (Appendix 6).139 The Privy Council found the accusations groundless. On 5 Mar., Parliament fulfilled Grafton’s promise to repeal the Townshend duties, save that on tea. That same day in Boston, the troops Governor Bernard had brought to Boston fired on a crowd of protestors, killing three instantly and mortally wounding two others. The Boston Massacre was Francis Bernard’s legacy.
Historians familiar with Samuel Adams’s critique of the Bernard Letters have underplayed William Bollan’s role. Bollan was much more than a messenger, and in the winter of 1768-69 probably the colonists’ most important friend in London. There was no grand plan to seize the Bernard Letters, but in capitalizing on Bollan’s initiative, Adams and his associates fashioned a careful and measured transatlantic campaign to undermine both Governor Bernard and Secretary of State Hillsborough. The imperative, in short, was to negate Bernard’s depiction of them as would-be rebels. Bernard’s removal and the sidelining of Hillsborough constituted a fresh beginning of sorts for colonists anxious to effect reconciliation and press the repeal of all the revenue acts. The incoming North administration met them half-way by repealing the Townshend duties except that on tea, while leaving the rest of the mercantilist system untouched. But North’s overtures fell far short of colonial aspirations for legislative self-government. Hillsborough remained in office, trusted by North but without exerting much influence on American policy; he resigned in Aug. 1772 after a dispute over American land grants.140
The Bernard Letters series could not provide all the answers the colonists sought about what their governor had said and why. Despite what historians have said, they did not contain information that was already publicly known.141 The “first parcel” of six letters dealt mainly with Council business. Bernard’s proposals for reforming colonial government and his disparaging comments about Whig leaders were not as prevalent in the “first parcel” as has been assumed.142 But none of that really mattered at the time, however. For the Whigs long suspected their governor of malfeasance. In the much larger second “parcel” they found plenty of evidence seeming to justify accusations of misrepresentation, misinformation, and disinformation. Closer examination, however, suggests that on balance the evidence was “misrepresentation more than misinformation . . . and not the conspiracy of disinformation as Samuel Adams later claimed.”143 But the amount of evidence gathered was undoubtedly impressive, despite some significant gaps. The pamphlet series published forty-eight of Bernard’s letters to Shelburne and Hillsborough, about 72 per cent of all of Bernard’s out-letters to the secretaries of state during 1768.144 The omission of No. 657145 from the series was surely deliberate, for its contents addressed a potentially embarrassing issue: the rejection of the first motion in the Massachusetts House of Representatives proposing the Circular Letter. (While the defeat was overturned readers of the letter might have been prompted to ask an awkward question as to why it was necessary to have the motion expunged from the House journals.)146
The pamphlet series contained only two of Hillsborough’s letters to Bernard (Nos. 722 and 727). Neither was a major policy document, and both were printed probably because they were the only full copies of Hillsborough’s out-letters that the Council had acquired.147 Hillsborough wrote nine other letters to Bernard during 1768 and all were presented to Parliament.148 Given the controversial subject matter of some of them—information about troop orders to Boston and Hillsborough’s instructions for rescinding the Circular Letter149—it can be assumed that Bernard’s enemies would have been delighted to publish material confirming their governor’s influence on British policy.150 It is probable, then, that Bollan was not able to obtain copies of these letters from the Commons’ clerk of papers. Or, Bollan may have baulked at traducing Hillsborough in this way, at least until he read what the other letters contained.151
The full range of American correspondence printed in the fourth and fifth volumes of the Bernard Papers, would certainly have enabled the American Whigs to piece together the transatlantic dialogue that brought British Regulars to Boston and persuaded the British government that Boston was on the verge of revolt. Had they been able to do so, it is doubtful if the Chatham or Grafton administrations would have survived the hot coals of an indignant opposition. Perhaps with Bernard and Hillsborough both out of the way and with full evidence to hand, the Massachusetts Whigs would have been able to dispel the myth of their proclivity for sedition. Perhaps, then, history would have turned out rather differently.