Suspension of colonial assemblies

suspension of colonial assemblies
A page from Samuel Adams’ circular letter that triggered confrontation between London and colonial assemblies

In February 1768 the Boston radical Samuel Adams, acting on the suggestion of some delegates of the Massachusetts assembly, penned an open letter critical of the Townshend duties and the British parliament. This document, later referred to as the ‘circular letter’, argued that the Townshend acts and parliament’s attempts to extract revenue from the American colonies were unconstitutional. Adams’ letter called for unified action by the 13 colonies, in order to force a change in policy from London. The circular letter was endorsed by the Massachusetts assembly and forwarded to the speaker in every other colonial assembly.

Following the Liberty incident of June 1768, the Massachusetts governor received orders from London: he was to appear before the local assembly and demand that they revoke their support for Adams’ letter. The Westminster parliament was incensed that Adams’ letter, promoting disobedience and action against the government, had been endorsed and freely circulated. In England, the secretary for colonial affairs declared the letter to be seditious and forbid all assemblies from endorsing it; he commanded royal governors to order the dissolution of any assembly that continued to table or discuss the circular letter. Through the governor, he ordered the Massachusetts assembly to recall the letter. The assembly decided against this, 92 votes to 17. As a result, it was dissolved by the governor, Francis Bernard. Boston was without a government for 1768-9 and there would be plenty of unrest and mob violence as a result.

A historian’s view:
“The British government managed only to stiffen American resistance by its frenzied reaction to the circular letter of Massachusetts. [Newly appointed colonial minister] Hillsborough reacted in horror to the circular letter… ordering the royal governors to dissolve any colonial assemblies that would dare to endorse it. For Massachusetts [he] ordered its cherished assembly not be allowed to meet again until it repudiated its circular letter.”
Murray N. Rothbard

The Massachusetts assembly was not the only colonial legislature to suffer a punitive dissolution. The New York assembly was also suspended for much of 1767-9 for its response to the Quartering Act of 1765; the assembly considered the act a tax-in-kind and bluntly refused to comply with its measures. Public opposition to this act had prompted riots in the city and the assembly refused to force its citizens to house soldiers. It later offered a cash payment in lieu of buildings. To the radical revolutionaries, the actions of royal governors in dissolving and suspending locally-elected assemblies were indicative of tyrannical and undemocratic policy.

Citation information
Title: “The suspension of colonial assemblies”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: January 18, 2015
Date accessed: July 07, 2022
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