On September 11, 1767, the British Parliament sent a circular instruction to the royal governors of the American Colonies. In rhetoric quite the opposite of what we hear in Washington today, the British Parliament none too politely told the colonial assemblies to stop passing legislation. The circular also instructed the governors to quash any opposition to British authority particularly in the form of legislation passed by the colonial assemblies. The wording of the circular was brief and to the point: “Whereas laws have at several times been passed in many of our colonies and plantations in America by which certain parishes and districts have been empowered and authorized to send representatives to the general assemblies of the respective colonies in which the said parishes and districts lie, and sundry other regulations have been introduced by those laws relative to the said assemblies; it is our will and pleasure and we do hereby require and command that you do not upon any pretense under your government by which the number of the assembly shall be enlarged or diminished, the duration of it ascertained, the qualification of the electors or the elected fixed or altered, or by which any regulations shall be established with respect thereto INCONSISTENT with our instructions to you our governor as prejudicial to that right or authority which you derive from us by virtue of our royal commission and instructions.”
Why was the circular instruction issued by the Parliament? Things had been heating up in the Colonies. As the 1760’s progressed, the British Parliament passed an ever lengthening list of acts that involved taxes and regulation on colonial trade. However, the people living in the American Colonies had historically been given significant control over their own governance. Prior to the proclamation of the Sugar Act in 1764, only two acts had been issued which controlled or taxed trade in the Colonies: the Navigation Acts of 1651 and the Molasses Act of 1733. As the 1760’s progressed, it became apparent to those in power that the colonies could provide a much needed monetary influx to the British economy. Hence, the inhabitants of the Colonies had a bevy of taxes and regulation thrust upon them by way of the Currency Act, the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, The Declaratory Act, and the Townsend Acts.
Of course, the colonists were not sitting idly by as the onslaught of tyranny came their way courtesy of the British Parliament. Groups, such as the Boston Caucus Club and the Sons of Liberty began to organize. Although committees of correspondence existed in the 1760’s, they generally formed to address specific issues and then disbanded. Resistance was rising from within the colonial assemblies Representatives from nine colonies met at the prompting of the Massachusetts Assembly in what became known as the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. The resulting document produced by the Congress was known as the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Another example of action taken by the Massachusetts General Assembly was a circular letter it sent on February 11, 1768 to its sister assemblies. The circular spoke of a man’s natural right to retain that which he had worked to acquire, and “which he may freely give, but cannot be taken from him without his consent.” The circular went on to detail many of the “injuries and usurpations” by King George III against the American Colonies that were ultimately listed in the Declaration of Independence. The complaints also mirrored many of those found in the pamphlets and publications authored by colonists such as Benjamin Franklin. His satirical essay: “Rules By Which A Great Empire May Be Reduced To A Small One” is an example of one such work. It should have been obvious that an increasing number of colonists believed they were being treated unjustly. Yet, the response to the Massachusetts Circular Letter by the Crown, as communicated by the Earl of Hillsborough, described it as a “flagitious attempt to disturb the public peace.”
Hillsborough’s letter only furthered the mounting anger in the Colonies against Parliament. It also spurned on those who sought to form non-importation agreements amongst colonial merchants as a means to combat mounting taxation and regulation. In July, a committee met to form a response to Hillsborough’s circular letter that had been sent to the royal governors. The committee included John Hancock, Thomas Boylston, Melatiah Bourne, Henderson Inches, Edward Payne, and John Rowe. They composed what would become known as the Boston Non-Importation Agreement. In August, more than 100 merchants signed the following agreement.
Although it now appears obvious that the rising tide of colonial outrage would not be subdued by condescending proclamations or letters, the point seems to have been lost on the King and others who sought to regain control of the Colonies. As resistance mounted toward taxes and regulations which were issued without colonial representation in the Parliament, there was a clear choice that had to be made. Although the Stamp Act had been repealed, it was followed by the Declaratory Act and a host of others. Would the King’s pleasure be served by repealing the acts and losing the much needed income? Conversely, would further taxes and restrictions be imposed upon the Colonies in combination with the presence of the military to insure compliance? We all know the path that was chosen. Those who feel that the American people will passively comply with endless taxation and restrictions might want to consider the past actions of a citizenry who savors their liberty. An electorate which becomes engaged and active would definitely be What IS Right With America!
Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.