House of Representatives’ Answer to Gov. Hutchinson I

in by Warren

Date: January 29, 1773

Authors: Attributed to Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and/or Benjamin Church, Jr.


In the House of Representatives, January 27, 1773.

ORDERED, that Mr. Adams, Mr. Hancock, Mr. Bacon, Col. Bowers, Major Hawley, Capt. Darby, Mr. Philips, Col. Thayer and Col. Strockbridge, be a Committee to wait on  his Excellency the Governor [Hutchinson] with the following ANSWER to his Speech, to both Houses, at the opening of this session, viz.

May it Please Your Excellency,

OUR Excellency’s speech to the General Assembly, at the opening of this Session, has been read with great attention in this House.

We fully agree with your Excellency, that our own happiness as well as his Majesty’s service, very much depends upon peace and order; and we at all times shall take such measures as are consistent with our constitution and the rights of the people to preserve and maintain them. That the government at present is in a very disturbed state is apparent:  But we cannot ascribe it to the people’s having adopted unconstitutional principles, which seems to be the cause assigned for it by your Excellency.  It appears o us to have been occasioned rather, by the British House of Commons assuming and exercising a power inconsistent with the freedom of the constitution to give and grant the property of the colonies, and appropriate the same without their consent.

It is needless for us to enquire what were the principles that induced the councils of the Nation to so new and unprecedented a measure.  But when the parliament by their own expresslt declared, that the King, Lords and Commons of the nation “Have had, and of right ought to have full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatever,’ and in consequence hereof another revenue act was made, the minds of the people were filled with anxiety, and they were justly alarmed with apprehensions of the total extinction of their liberties.

The result of the free enquiries of many persons into the rights of parliament to exercise such a power over the colonies, seems in your Excellency’s opinion to be cause of what you pleased to call the present “disturbed and disordered state of the government:” upon which you “not any longer consistent with your duty to the King and your regard to the Interest of the province delay communicating your sentiments.” But the principles adopted in consequence hereof, are unconstitutional, is a subject of enquiry.  We know of no such disorders arising therefrom as are mentioned by your Excellency.  If grand jurors have not on theor oaths found such offences, as your Excellency w=ith the advice of his Majesty’s council have ordered to be prosecuted, it is to be presumed they have followed the dictates of good conscience.  They are the constitutional judges of such matters, and it is not to be supposed that removed from corrupt principles, they have suffered offenders to escape a prosecurion, and thus supported and encouraged them to go on offending.  If any part of authority, shall in an unconstitutional manner, interpose in anny matter, it will be no wonder if it is brought into contempt; to the lessening or confounding of that subordination that is necessary to a well regulated state Your Excellency’s representation that the bands of government are weakened, we humbly conceive to be without good grounds; though we must own the heavy burdens unconstitutionally brought upon the people have been and still are universally and very justly complained of as a grievance.

You are pleased to say, that “when our predecessors first took possession of this plantation or colony, under a grant and charter from the crown of England, it was their sense and it was the sense of the kingdom, that they were to remain subject to the supreme authority of parliament;” whereby we understand your Excellency to mean in the sense of the declaratory act of parliament aforementioned, in all cases whatever.  And indeed it is difficult, if possible, to draw a line of distinction between the universal authority of parliament over the colonies and no authority at all.  It is therefore necessary for us to enquire how it appears, for your Excellency has not shown it to us, that when or at the time that our predecessors took possession of this plantation or colony, under a grant and charter from the crown of England, it was their sense and the sense of the kingdom, that they were to remain subject to the supreme authority of parliament.  In making this enquiry, we shall, according to your Excellency’s recommendation, treat the subject with calmness and candor, and also with due regard to the truth.

Previous to a direct consideration of the charter granted to this province or colony, and the better to elucidate the true sense and meaning of itwe would take a view to the atate of the English North American continent at the time when and after possession was first taken of any part of it, by Europeans.  It was then possessed by heathen and barbarous people, who nevertheless had all the right to the soil and sovereignty in and over the lands they possessed, which God had given to man.  Whether their being heathen, inferred any right or authority to Christian Princes, a right which had long been assumed by the Pope, to dispose of their lands to others, we will leave to your Excellency or any one of understanding and impartial judgment to consider.  It i8s certain they in no other sense forfeited them to any power in Europe.  Should the doctrine be admitted that the discovery lands owned and possessed by Pagan people, gives and christian Prince a right and title to the dominion and property, still it is vested in the crown alone.  It was an acquisition of foreign territory, not annexed to the realm of England, and therefore at the absolute disposal of the crown.  For we take it to be a settled point, that the King has a constitutional prerogative. Queen Elizabeth granted the first American charter; and claiming rights by virtue of discovery, then supposed to be valid, to the lands which are now possessed by the colony of Virginia, this conveyed to Sir Walter Raleigh, the property, dominion and sovereignty thereof, to be held of the crown by homage, and a certain render, without any reservation to herself of any share in the legislative and and executive authority.  After the attainder of Sir Walter King James the first created two Virginia companies, to be governed each by the laws transmitted to them by his Majesty and not by the parliament, with power to establish and cause to be made a coin to pass current among them; and vested with all liberties, franchises and immunities within any of his other dominions to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding, and born within the realm.  A declaration similar to this is contained in the first charter of this colony, and in those of the other American colonies, which show that the colonies were not intended or considered to be within the realm of England., tho’ within the allegiance to the English crown.  After this another charter was granted by the same King James to the Treasurer and company of Virginia, vesting them with full power and authority, to make, ordain and establish all manner of orders, laws, directions, instructions, forms and ceremonies of government amd magistracy, fit and necessary, and the same to abrogate, &c. without any reservation for securing their subjection to the parliament and future laws of England.  A third charter was afterwards granted by the same King to the Treasurer and Company of Virginia, vesting them with power and authority to make laws, with an addition to this clause, “for always that the same be not contrary to the laws and statutes of this our realm of England.”  The same clause was afterwards copied into the charter of this and other colonies, with certain variations, such as that their laws should be “consonant to reason,” “not repugnant to the laws of England,” ‘as nearly as conveniently may be to the laws, statutes and rights of England,” &c.  These modes of expression convey the same meaning, and serve to show an intention that the laws of the colonies should be as much as possible, conforment in the spirit of them to the principles and fundamental laws of the English constitution, its rights and statutes then in being, and by no means to bind the colonies to a subjection to the supreme authority of the English parliament.  And that this is the true intention, we think it further evident from this consideration, that no acts of any colony legislative, are ever brought into parliament for inspection there, though the laws made in some of them, like the acts of the British parliament are laid before the King for his assent or disallowance.” [End of modern installment I. To be continued]

SourceMassachusetts Spy, Vol. II, issue 104, suppl;   Essex Gazette, Vol. V, Issue 136, pp. 1-2 suppl, February 9, 1773;  and Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary, Issue 3618, p. 1, February 4, 1773.  The first two appearances appear to be from the same set-up of moveable type,  i.e. from the same printing plate, an observation suggesting an unusual degree of cooperation in producing these pages among separate newspapers.  The article appears in whole or in part in additional Colonial newspapers:  Providence Gazette, February 13, 1773;  New York Gazette, February 15, 1773;  and Newport Mercury Supplement, Issue 755, p.1, February 22, 1773.

Commentary: Patriots could not resist answering Thomas Hutchinson’s invitation to hear contrarian views, and to use it as grist for a salvo in the war of words between Loyalists and Patriots.  In a back-handed tribute to Hutchinson’s speech, Patriot leaning newspapers made sure that the answer to Hutchinson was unified, well enunciated, and more widely distributed than Hutchinson’s speech that inspired their response. Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and Benjamin Church, according to John Adams’ recollection, had outsized roles in this response.

The House of Representatives response is 6786 words long. I have divided it, according to optimal website performance and modern attention spans, into four parts.

This first modern installment identifies Native Americans as the true first possessors of the land. The concept could have been worked further as a fundamental questioning of European colonialism, but the authors do not pursue the implications. Instead they argue that royal grants and charters indicate colonials’ allegiance to the King rather than to Parliament.

The second installment provides historical examples, mostly from the 17th century, of England’s relationship with its North American colonies.  Examples cited included Maryland and Virginia, discussions that would have been of special interest to patriots in those provinces.

The third installment addresses the Massachusetts’ Pilgrims’ intentions to maintain regional autonomy subject to the British King.  This is ostensibly to refute an assertion by Thomas Hutchinson that the Massachusetts colonists had always intended to be part of the Empire and therefore subject to King and Parliament.  Quoting Hutchinson’s History of Massachusetts Bay back to its author may have been meant to be both clever and galling to Hutchinson.

The fourth and last installment refutes Hutchinson’s provocative assertion that Patriot incendiaries were agitating for total independence, something that few if any of them at that time were actually contemplating.

I speculate that the Patriots’ audience for this detailed piece included newspaper readers in Massachusetts, other colonies, and abroad.  Whether one agreed with it or not, it is a reasoned and detailed exposition of the Patriot cause. Arguments here depend more heavily on legal relationships and precedence within the British colonial system rather than on natural rights.  The piece may have synergized well with the recently initiated Boston Committee of Correspondence to engage, and set the terms of discussion, with Patriots and undecided citizens of sister Colonies.

In early 1773 Whiggish newspapers published in parallel the Massachusetts Governor’s Council answer to the Hutchinson New Year address. This exposition is comparably detailed.  It characterizes the governor as the King’s representative in the province and provides additional arguments of why the colonies in general, and Massachusetts in particular, was not subject to the English Parliament.  Since Joseph Warren was unlikely to have had a hand in the Council’s reply, I will not post it here.  Scholars can find it in: the Boston Evening Post, Issue 949, pp.1-2 suppl, February 1, 1773;  Boston Post-Boy, Issue 806, p.2, February 1, 1773;  Essex Gazette, Vol. V, Issue 236, p. 105, February 2, 1773;  Providence Gazette, Vol X, Issue 474, p.1, February 6, 1773;  and perhaps reported in more distant newspapers.

As a modern observer, I cannot help but contrast the depth of reasoning and example put forth in this episode by both sides in the constitutional controversy within the British Empire.  It shines in comparison to modern politics, too often characterized by headline sloganeering and venomous, vacuous Tweets.

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