In 1767 colonial America, 20 years before the signing of the Constitution of the United States, and eight years before the first shots of the Revolution rang out in Lexington and Concord, the prelude to the revolt against British rule was already in full swing. The Massachusetts Circular Letter served as a second notice that the colonists were not going to stand silently by as the British government overstepped its constitutional authority.
A roughly 11-year period of slowly escalating unrest and displeasure with the actions of the British Parliament toward its colonial territories led up to the military altercations of the Revolution. The British Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, which taxed colonists on paper necessary for legal documents, newspapers and even playing cards, is widely viewed as the catalyst of this period. While the Stamp Act is exhaustively covered in history books, its implementation only lasted a year and the Act was ultimately repealed in 1766, roughly a decade before the start of the Revolution.
The repeal of the Stamp Act did not occur because the British Parliament saw the error of its ways. Parliamentarians didn’t suddenly embrace the idea of “no taxation without representation.” The repeal occurred because the Stamp Act was seen as an “internal” tax on the products of America and the colonists refused to pay it. In fact, they actively opposed the collection of the tax and effectively nullified it through their efforts.
But when one head of the Hydra is cut off, two grow in its place.
Alongside the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, the British government passed the Declaratory Act, which extended the same authority that Parliament had over the British Isles to colonial America asserting it could legislate “in all cases whatsoever.” The Declaratory Act provided legal legitimacy in the eyes of the British to tax Americans as they pleased.
The Declaratory Act, also called the American Colonies Act, created the framework for the British government to levy heavy taxes on the colonies and paved the way for the passage of a collection of bills known as the Townshend Acts. These laws were designed to place duties on a variety of imported goods from Britain to the colonies. The bill that most angered the American colonists was the Revenue Act of 1767, which placed taxes on glass, lead, and most significantly, tea. The revenue generated from these duties was then was used to buy the loyalty of colonial judges, governors, and tax collectors to the Crown.
This tactic increased the levels of discontent toward the British already existent in the colonies. Ships were searched for smuggled goods without cause and tax collectors were given extraordinary power by way of the creation of the American Board of Customs Commissioners. The Board acted as the enforcement arm of the Townshend Acts and was headquartered in Boston, the epicenter of revolutionary thought.
The unprecedented levels of power given to and wielded by the Board drew harsh criticism from the overwhelming majority of the Massachusetts State Assembly including Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr. They reacted to the passage of these acts in the early months of 1768 with a call for an importation boycott on the British. Adams and Otis also wrote a letter addressed to the King and approved by the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The letter, in conjunction with the boycott, served as the catalyst for yet another successful nullification effort.
Otis and Adams penned the letter in February of 1768 on behalf of the Massachusetts state assembly. It soon became known as the Massachusetts Circular Letter, as it was circulated through the colonies. It served as an official codification of the condemnation of the Townshend Acts and the Parliament’s assertion that it had the right to tax the colonists. The letter makes several different arguments against the actions of the British Parliament and King, but actually concludes with an expression of “firm confidence in the king, our common head and father.” Whether these finishing thoughts were of genuine respect or rhetoric flattery, it indicates that war was not the first resort of colonists to counteract the actions of Parliament.
Perhaps the most important component of the letter was that while Adams and Otis believed the adage ‘no taxation without representation,’ they did not request colonial representation in the British Parliament. They instead pointed out the impracticality of being taxed by a governing body on the other side of the ocean. But, as mentioned above, they also included expressions of the colonies’ “firm confidence in the King.” This seeming disconnect was reconciled in the letter by the insistence that taxing power on the colonists be derived from the local assemblies in America. Otherwise, the natural rights of the colonists under British rule were being violated as they had “an equitable claim to the full enjoyment of the fundamental rules of the British Constitution.”
Additionally, within the letter, Adams and Otis make a more general anti-tax argument. They claimed that regardless of whether taxing power is derived from British Parliament or local American assemblies, “that what a man has honestly acquired is absolutely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken from him without his consent.”
Adams and Otis saved their most intense criticism for the Customs Board and the pocket-lining nature of their tax collection practices. They claimed that the right of the British Parliament to tax colonists–if it were to even exist–was being abused as the taxes were implemented solely to raise revenue for the British government and to buy the support of government and customs officials in the colonies.
Adams and Otis stated that “the commission of the gentlemen appointed commissioners of the customs, to reside in America, which authorizes them to make as many appointments as they think fit, and to pay the appointees what sum they please, for whose misconduct they are not accountable; from whence it may happen that officers of the Crown may be multiplied to such a degree as to become dangerous to the liberty of the people.” They asserted that the collection of duties for the sole purpose of raising revenue would provide the British government with enough resources to institute more taxation programs at an ever-expanding rate. Essentially, tax collecting bureaucrats and loyal governors were being paid to expand British power in America. Within this argument is also a critique of the nature of unaccountable institutions and the inertia they gain from merely being created to grow and grow until they begin threatening the rights of law-abiding citizens.
Just as Adams and Otis had called on others to join the boycott, they called on the different colonial assemblies to throw their support behind the letter and its message. They requested that different local assemblies “harmonize with each other” in order to build up a strong, clear resistance of these acts. If it were written today, perhaps the Massachusetts Circular Letter would be the Massachusetts “Viral” Letter.
While the letter called for harmony between the colonies, they were met with hostility from the British government, not through military might, but through aggressive political action. Bought off colonial governors were given the right to dissolve colonial assemblies that signed on to the letter as well as veto any anti-Townshend assembly member elected to a seat. Governor Francis Beard dissolved the Massachusetts assembly in April 1768 after the letter gained popularity.
This all occurred in early 1768, and by May tensions had risen greatly. Massachusetts colonists were so fed up that when it came time to elect new representatives to the recently dissolved legislature they disinvited any hostile governors and customs officials from joining the celebration. It was a political nullification and repudiation of the Townshend acts rather than a legal one.
Distress in the colonies over the Townshend Acts and the Customs Board grew over the next year and a half and ultimately culminated in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, which was spurred by British occupation in Boston and the murder of a Boston citizen by customs officials weeks before. The massacre occurred just outside the Customs Board headquarters. Word had not yet reached Britain, but on the very day of the massacre, the British Parliament voted to repeal most of the Townshend Acts—except the tax on tea.
After news of the repeal reached the colonies, Bostonians were so elated they eventually celebrated with a historic tea party in Boston harbor.