A lot of people say we should be respectful of politicians, even if we disagree with their actions. They say we should “respect the office.”’ That certainly isn’t how the American colonists treated British officials who were abusing their power.
In 1767 and 1768, Parliament passed a series of laws known as the Townsend Acts. The acts included the New York Restraining Act, which shut down the colony’s legislative assembly as punishment for its refusal to comply with the Quartering Act. Several of the acts levied taxes, which were not only meant to raise revenue, but more generally to set the precedent that Parliament had the authority to tax the colonies.
In response to the Townshend Acts, Samuel Adams and James Otis wrote what became known as the Massachusetts Circular Letter. The thrust of their argument was that the taxes were unconstitutional because Massachusetts was not represented in Parliament.
“It is, moreover, their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the Parliament, the Acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s commons in Britain, by those Acts, grant their property without their consent.”
The letter also asserted that the meaning of the constitution could not be altered by at the whim of parliament.
“In all free states the constitution is fixed, and as the supreme legislative derives its power and authority from the constitution, it cannot overleap the bounds of it without destroying its own foundation; that the constitution ascertains and limits both sovereignty and allegiance…” [Emphasis added]
The British leadership did not appreciate the colonists’ defiant attitude. The Earl of Hillsborough had recently been appointed Secretary of State for the colonies. He sent the Massachusetts General Court a letter demanding that the body retract the document.
Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard delivered the earl’s message knowing the colonists would not take it well. He told the Massachusetts assembly “I am merely ministerial in this Business, having received his Majesty’s Instructions for all I have to do in it.”
If Earl Hillsborough thought his demands would get the colonists in line and sway the Massachusetts General Court to renounce the Massachusetts Circular Letter, he was badly mistaken. Instead, Otis delivered a blistering speech that lasted nearly two hours.
And it wasn’t very respectful.
Bernard said the speech was “of the most violent & virulent Nature.” and that Otis, “abused all Persons in Authority both here and at home.” Otis didn’t go so far as to attack the King himself, but Bernard said he “traduced his Government with all the Bitterness of Words. “
In just one example Bernard recounted, Otis said:
“that the King appointed none but Boys for his Ministers; that they had no Education but travelling thro’ France, from whence they returned full of the slavish Principles of that Country; that they knew Nothing of Business when they came into their Offices, and did not stay long enough to acquire that little Knowledge which is gained from Experience; that all Business was really done by the Clerks, & even they were too frequently changed to understand what they were about; that the People in England did not know what the Rights of Englishmen capable of composing so elegant so pure and so nervous a Writing as the Petition to the King which passed the last Session.”
Otis clearly didn’t buy into the notion that he must “respect the office.”
After Otis gave his fiery and undeniably disrespectful speech, the assembly formed a committee to take Hillsborough’s message into consideration. Bernard said that the committee “consisted entirely of the most violent of the Heads of the Faction viz the Representatives of the Town of Boston & 3 of those whom I had refused to admit into the Council upon Account of their having been distinguished by their fomenting the Troubles of Government, with two others. Thus the House seemed to prejudge this Business in the Appointment of a Committee: and indeed the Appointment of a Committee at all shewed a Disposition to argue rather than submit.”
As the Boston 1775 blog put it, “Things weren’t looking good for a quiet, obedient retraction of the circular letter as the Earl of Hillsborough had demanded.”
The colonists had the right idea. When government officials abuse their power, they deserve derision, not respect.
By the way, the Massachusetts House never did retract the letter. The governor responded by dissolving the assembly. That led to riots in Boston and ultimately the American Revolution.
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