1772 Two Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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On November 2 the citizens of Boston took a giant step along the path to rebellion by establishing a committee of correspondence to exchange information with other Massachusetts towns. The move had been prompted by the royal government’s latest attempt to assert its authority, this time over the judicial system. Since 1701 Massachusetts judges had been paid by the colonists themselves, but reports were circulating about a new plan to pay Superior Court judges from the royal treasury. On October 28 the Boston town meeting resolved to ask Gov. Thomas Hutchinson if the rumors were true. He refused to answer. Two days later it asked Hutchinson to convene the legislature. That request was rebuffed as well. Then on November 2, in an all-day meeting at Faneuil Hall, the freemen of Boston appointed a twenty-one-member committee of correspondence to bypass the governor’s obstructionism.

Seldom in history have taxpayers been so insistent on spending more of their own money. Yet the danger they faced was clear. Massachusetts judges had been paid 160 to 200 pounds a year in the depreciated local currency. The new plan would pay them 200 pounds a year (400 for the chief justice) in sound British money. With their service revocable by the royal governor, the king would have both a carrot and a stick to persuade judges to do his bidding.

Even worse, the salaries would nominally be paid out of revenues from the hated tea tax (though, in fact, the annual receipts of that levy totaled a few hundred pounds at most). Since colonists were already paying—or, more often, evading—the tax, the new salary arrangement would not add to their burden. But it would set a precedent for London to increase the tax or impose new ones to meet other needs.

On November 20 the town meeting adopted a set of resolutions written by the committee of correspondence. The opening section, by the fire-eating master propagandist Samuel Adams, prefigured the Declaration of Independence: “Among the natural Rights of the Colonists are these: First, a Right to Life ; Secondly to Liberty ; thirdly to Property .” The ensuing bill of particulars, by Joseph Warren (who would die in the battle of Bunker Hill), ranged far beyond the salary question to list many complaints that would also reappear in the Declaration: taxation without representation, imposing laws without consent, sending swarms of officers, quartering soldiers, convening legislatures at inconvenient times and places, refusing assent to laws, conducting trials overseas. Dr. Benjamin Church contributed a cover letter filled with stirring phrases like “the Iron hand of oppression is dayly tearing the choisest Fruit from the fair Tree of Liberty, planted by our worthy Predecessors, at the expence of their treasure, & abundantly water’d with their blood.”

More than a touch of opportunism was behind the whole controversy. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., wrote that the committee manifesto was “largely a recitation of old grievances, and the leading new issue could scarcely be an enduring one to a people who had been complaining for generations against the burden of paying high salaries to governors and judges.” Nonetheless, the affair revived Massachusetts’ somnolent revolutionary fervor. Governor Hutchinson later wrote that “all on a sudden, from a state of peace, order, and general contentment, as some expressed themselves, the province, more or less from one end to the other, was brought into a state of contention, disorder, and general dissatisfaction.”

The committee circulated 600 copies of the resolutions throughout Massachusetts. More than half of the colony’s 260 towns formed their own committees of correspondence and issued their own inflammatory proclamations. As other states adopted the system, news of fresh outrages and strategies for response were exchanged up and down the Atlantic Coast, and thirteen disjointed colonies moved much closer toward unity and self-sufficiency.