Today in history, on June 5, 1774, the Boston committee of correspondence approved and published the “Solemn League and Covenant,” an agreement to boycott British goods.
The covenant was in response to the Coercive Acts, a series of laws passed by Parliament in early 1774 to punish the colonies — particularly Massachusetts — after the Boston Tea Party. These acts included the Boston Port Act closing the Boston Port, the Massachusetts Government Act stripping virtually all authority from the colonial government, the Administration of Justice Act stripping authority from local courts and authorizing trials to be held in Great Britain instead of Massachusetts, and the Quartering Act allowing British troops to take over private buildings.
On May 13, 1774, a Boston Town Meeting moderated by Samuel Adams passed a resolution calling for a boycott of British goods.
“That it is the opinion of this town, that if the other, Colonies come, into a joint resolution to stop all importation from Great Britain, and exportations to Great Britain, and every part of the West Indies, till the Act for blocking up this harbour be repealed, the same will prove the salvation of North America and her liberties. On the other hand, if they continue their exports and imports, there is high reason to fear that fraud, power, and the most odious oppression, will rise triumphant over right, justice, social happiness, and freedom.”
This led to the drafting of a more formal document called “The Solemn League and Covenant.” The title mimicked a 1644 pledge between England’s Parliament and Scotland. The agreement pledged religious reforms in England in return for Scotland’s support against King Charles I during the English Civil War.
Dr. Joseph Warren chaired the committee that drafted The Solemn League and Covenant and was likely the primary author of the document. It was ultimately approved by the Boston Committee of Correspondence and published on June 5, 1774.
Warren died just a little over a year later in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The Solemn League and Covenant declared that the signers, being fully sensible of our indispensable duty to lay hold on every means in our power to preserve and recover the much injured constitution of our country, must take action to prevent a further “subversion of our natural and charter rights.”
And rather than the extremes of “the horrors of slavery; or the carnage and desolation of a civil war,” a middle ground was pursued:
“From henceforth we will suspend all commercial intercourse with the said island of Great Britain, until the said act for blocking up the said harbour be repealed, and a full restoration of our charter rights be obtained.”
The covenant went on to declare, “We do in like manner solemnly covenant that we will not buy, purchase or consume, or suffer any person, by, for or under us to purchase or consume, in any manner whatever, any goods, wares or merchandize which shall arrive in America from Great Britain aforesaid, from and after the last day of August next ensuing.”
The covenant also committed to a boycott of colonial businesses that continued to import British goods.
“And in order as much as in us lies to prevent our being interrupted and defeated in this only peaceable measure, entered into for the recovery and preservation of our rights, we agree to break off all trade, commerce and dealings whatever with all persons, who perfering their own private interest to the salvation of their now perishing country, shall still continue to import goods from Great Britain, or shall purchase of those who do import.”
The Solemn League and Covenant was drafted so that it could be adopted by other towns and included spaces for filling in the name of the town and the acceptance date.
Many local merchants weren’t keen on a boycott and the idea met with significant resistance. There was also a growing number of people in Boston who favored a more comprehensive, intercolonial non-importation agreement.
Nevertheless, the Boston Town meeting approved the measure in late June. The towns of Westford and Concord also supported the pledge.
While The Solemn League and Covenant didn’t garner widespread support, it served as a springboard for action taken in Massachusetts and then by the First Continental Congress the following fall.
On September 9, delegates at the Suffolk County (Massachusetts) Convention of the Committees of Correspondence approved what became known as the Suffolk Resolves.
The resolves went beyond mere condemnation of the British actions and called for an aggressive response by the people of Suffolk County, including a boycott of British imports, the curtailment of exports to Great Britain, a refusal to use British products, and a refusal to pay taxes until the Massachusetts Government Act was repealed. The resolves also called for the people of Suffolk County to support a colonial government in Massachusetts free from British authority and urged the colonies to raise a militia.
On October 14, the Congress passed the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress laying out colonial objections to the Coercive Acts. The document listed their grievances and outlined a list of colonial rights. It also set the stage for further colonial action resisting the British by expressing the colonists’ resolve “to enter into a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement or association.”
Six days later, the First Continental Congress adopted the Continental Association, putting the boycott resolution into effect by establishing a formal agreement between the 12 colonies represented in the Congress. (Georgia did not send delegates.)
The Continental Association went further than the Solemn League and Covenant but mirrored the substance of the earlier document. It set in place the boycott called for in the Covenant throughout the colonies. Under the Association, the colonies committed to not import any goods, wares, or merchandise exported from Great Britain or Ireland. They also pledged to stop importing East-India tea. And like the Covenant, the Association also included non-purchase provisions, along with a call to ostracize anybody who refused to abide by the boycott.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the ground of liberty is to be gained by inches.” The actions of the colonists in response to the Coercive Acts are a good example of this principle in action. Resolutions protesting British actions led to more concrete local action, which led to a colonial-wide boycott instituted by the First Continental Congress.
The lesson: you have to take the path to liberty step-by-step.
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