. B .


    2 November 1786

    Mr. Printer,

    [. . . .]

    But, Mr. Printer, I have wandered from my subject, which was designed to be an enquiry into the propriety of calling the late Portland Convention a mob, usurpers of the rights of our legislators, strangers and enemies to the constitution.1

    It is a time of general complaint through America—the general peace and tranquility seems to be disturbed; and every one is wishing for better times. Each in his order, as he imagines, is daily casting in his mite, hoping to contribute thereby to the restoration of that public tranquility they complain has fled from the land; and wherein the individual happiness of the people is, in a great measure to be found. One man proposes one thing—another, something different. In one county the people meet in a Convention to collect the sentiments of the people, and lay them before the General Court. In another, they assemble in town-meetings, and consult upon the public good. In some counties the people assemble in bodies, and with force and arms prevent the Courts of Justice sitting according to law. In one or more, at a county convention, they declare several parts of the Constitution to be grievances, and demand of the General Court a speedy revision of the same. In three counties, lying contiguous, the inhabitants, satisfied with the present government, as a government over a certain extent of territory, but thinking their situation and particular circumstances are such as require a legislative power among themselves, meet, by delegates from the towns in the three counties thus circumstanced, in a Convention to enquire and inform themselves of the sentiments of the people in those counties; and whether it be the minds of the people at large in those counties that the extent of their territory, number of inhabitants and the relation to the people of the present government require, and will constitutionally admit of their being formed into a Separate State.

    The several meetings of the people here enumerated appear to differ very materially on many accounts; and, upon this difference ought to be called by different names. To call them by the same name, considered as to their political and moral qualities, and as they are related to the constitution and laws of the present government, would be a confusion of language.

    I think it may be said to be problematical, at least, “that there is a natural, essential and unalienable right in the inhabitants of certain territories, under a particular combination of circumstances, to demand and enjoy the privilege of legislation among themselves, and which is virtually reserved to all people in their social compacts that form particular governments.”

    This reservation gives the people thus circumstanced a right, at times, to assemble by themselves, if they please, like the Athenians of old, in one body, or by their delegates from certain tribes, towns, counties, or other divisions they may choose, for the purpose of enquiry—to see if the fullness of time is come, that is, if there be a union of those circumstances that bring them within the above reservation; and to take proper measures to put themselves into a full enjoyment of that right in a well formed government.

    Is it proper to denominate every meeting of the inhabitants of the Commonwealth, by themselves, or persons chosen by them for a particular purpose, unconstitutional, unless the same be expressly pointed out in the constitution? I will even dare to submit this query; and in a figure that implies the negative, though I run the hazard of being called a “usurper of the rights of our legislature,”—of favouring the “mobs at Concord, Worcester, &c.”—of justifying “the Regicides” of godly “Charles” the first—of approving the superstition of “Cromwell,” &c.2

    Since it is the “lot of humanity to err,” upon this weakness of our nature I hope to look for pardon should the following Queries be answered in the affirmative;

    Were the Members of the Cincinnati of this State, at one of their Meetings, to debate upon the effect the separation of the Eastern Territory from the Bay Government would have upon the people of that territory, the present Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as also upon the United States at large, would it be proper to call that meeting a mob; or to charge the persons thus met and debating as aforesaid of being “usurpers of the rights of our legislators, enemies,” &c.3

    Were these persons, upon their debate & examination of the question aforesaid, really convinced that the inhabitants of the eastern territory of right ought to be made a separate State, that it would be for the mutual interest of the Western, as well as for the Eastern part of the present government, and greatly advanced the weal of the Confederation; and upon this conviction were to state their sentiments upon the subject to the General Court, and to request them to take the matter into consideration, and to act thereupon as to them should appear for the public good of all concerned—would it be proper to call them “a mob, strangers and enemies” to the constitution and laws of the present government?

    Were the sea-port towns in this Eastern Territory, or through the Commonwealth, to choose each one delegate or more, and direct them to meet at some convenient place, and there debate upon some general matters of commerce, and having come to a determination to prepare a petition to lay before the General Court—would it be proper to call this assembly, in point of guilt, but little short of “high treason”?

    If all meetings of the people are treasonable and unconstitutional that are not expressly pointed out in the constitution, what shall we say of the inhabitants of a plantation, were they to meet together and elect two or three persons to present a petition to the General Court? Or, should the inhabitants, thus met, petition the General Court themselves? What is the constitutional situation and power of the inhabitants of this Commonwealth, who are so unfortunate as to live out of the bounds of any township or legal plantation, with regard to petitioning the General Court—and assembling together to lay their grievances before the legislative authority of this State?

    The people both of plantations and unincorporated districts have, several times since the establishment of the present constitution, met together and presented petitions to the General Court—and I do not recollect ever to have heard them called unconstitutional meetings—or by the same names that are given to the meetings of the people at the westward, that with force and arms prevented the regular administration of justice—There is some reason for this, or people use improper language when they speak of those assemblies of the people.

    Most of the foregoing Queries naturally arise from the construction put upon the word “people” in the constitution; When it is said “the people have a right to meet together and instruct their representatives,” &c.

    In case all meetings of the people, except by towns according to the 19th article of the bill of rights,4 must be called “mobs,” we ought, to be consistent, to call a Plantation, meeting to petition the General Court, or to choose an Agent for that purpose, a Plantation “Mob.” And, at present, it seems to me it would be done with as much constitutional propriety as to call the late Portland Convention a mob, or the “usurpers of the rights of our legislators,” &c But this may arise from my not having considered the subject with accuracy and attention—I will therefore think of it again, at another time.

    When we consider the late Portland Convention, as to its constitution and to its end, it appears to me essentially different from the meetings of the people in some of the western counties, and for that reason ought to be called by a different name. The real end of this Convention was not, I take it, so much to consider the particular grievances the people of the Eastern Territory suffer on account of the laws enacted by the General Court from time to time, and to seek out a remedy thereof by getting them repealed, and others passed in their stead; but to see and enquire, by a general delegation from the towns and plantations of the Eastern Territory, if there were not at that time such a combination of circumstances attending that territory as by the exception in the original social compact entitled the inhabitants thereof to a legislation among themselves. And if the foregoing Problem be answered in the affirmative, I think we may conclude that this meeting at Portland was strictly constitutional; or we must say the constitution requires an end without means: For at present I do not know any way whereby it could be so well known by the people of that territory, whether there was a union of the foregoing circumstances, as by a Convention of delegates from the towns and plantations themselves.

    Should it be objected that this information ought to come from the General Court, or Congress: I beg leave to reply—That it ought rather to originate from the people that are to be more immediately affected and benefited by the change; who in this case are inhabitants of the Eastern Territory: And who by making themselves judges in this matter, it does not appear that they intended to be final judges as to the propriety of a separation; but in case there had been a full Convention and an unanimous voice, that there were at that time, in the opinion of the Convention, a full union of all circumstances that by the social compact were necessary to justify them in erecting themselves into a Government, it was the design of the Convention, and so understood by their constituents, to lay the matter before the General Court and Congress; even by way of petition—Though the United States, as well as almost every nation under Heaven, would have been justifying examples for the people to have formed themselves, at that time, into an Independent State. It is well known that few nations have been midwifed into existence but by gun and sword. In which case mere right is ideal, unless accompanied by power—but this is foreign.

    Enquiry and information were the constitutional end of the Portland Convention. For this purpose they met, and to this end they debated; and, if I mistake not, the final result of the Convention confirms me in the idea I have here given of that body.

    Nothing stands alone in creation. Every thing has its precedents and consequents. Considered in one view it is an effect, and in another it becomes a cause. In this situation things may sometimes be considered good or bad in a political view, which in themselves may be indifferent, if not containing some degree of moral turpitude. In this light also, if we view the Portland Convention, we may have reason to think it deserves a more innocent name than that of a promiscuous mobish assembly of people, for treasonable purposes. And I am constrained to look upon it not only essentially different from those assemblies of people that stopped the Courts of Justice but equally as different from the western county Conventions: For these may be looked upon, in a great measure, the cause of the former. The Courts of Justice have met with no opposition but in those counties where there had been previous County Conventions; and, it is said, that many persons who were delegates in the one, were principal fomenters and actors in the other. Both had the same object in view—the immediate redress of grievances. Both declared the same parts of the constitution to be grievous; and demanded a speedy revision thereof.

    Now, if the Portland Convention was of the same nature with the assemblies of the people at the westward, and it ought to be as to its political and legal qualities, to be called by the same name, it is natural to suppose it would have been attended with the same consequences; “since similar causes generally produce the same effects in the political and moral, as well as in the natural world.” It is more than twelve months since the first Convention met at Falmouth; and has sat twice since by adjournment, with increasing consequence and dignity—During which period the Courts of Justice have set three times, at least, in each of the eastern counties, without any molestation or insult whatever from the people; Neither have I ever heard of any persons being disposed to raise a mob upon the occasion: except ’till very lately, two or three worthless creatures, from places that had voted against the Portland Convention, having caught the mobish contagion from some infected stragglers out of the western counties, tried to excite some honest people against the Court of Common Pleas that set at Biddeford on the week before last: But to the honour of the people of that county these insignificants had no other effect upon the good people than to bury themselves in greater contempt and oblivion. But—

    On the contrary I am greatly mistaken if the several Conventions at Falmouth and Portland have not contributed very much in their consequences, to the general peace and quiet of the people throughout the Eastern Territory—It is a fact that will not be called in question by any one who has been through this Commonwealth, that in no part thereof are the people so generally obedient to the laws of the government; and so little given to complaints and uneasiness. These are facts much to the honour of the people, and which arise, more than may be imagined by inattentive spectators of human nature, from the influence of the Conventions.

    It is to be hoped that the same peaceable disposition that has gained them this honour will be conspicuous in all their future conduct. That they will consider the Conventions that have been holden at Portland, as they constitutionally ought to be, as free from treason or treasonable purposes, as the meetings of the people of plantations and unincorporated places when they have any business to lay before the General Court. That nothing they have done, or hereafter may do, so long as they do not exceed their proper constitutional authority, can render them obnoxious to the laws of this Commonwealth; or of which they need to “blush” and ask “forgiveness” of their country.

    * * *

    CG, 2 Nov. 1786. The excerpt printed here is preceded by a few paragraphs exhorting each side in the debate to respect honest differences of opinion and avoid abusive language and fault-finding, invoking “the sanction of a proverb—A soft answer turns away wrath.”