Preserve and Recover the Much Injured Constitution – Solemn League and Covenant

Westford's 1774 Solemn League and Covenant  (Courtesy J.V. Fletcher Library, photo by D. Lacroix)

in by Warren

Date:  July 4, 1774 signatures on document printed early in June 1774

“WE the Subscribers, inhabitants of the town of Westford having taken into our serious consideration the precarious state of the liberties on North-America, and more especially the present distressed condition of this insulted province, embarrassed as it is by several acts of the British parliament, tending to the entire subversion of our natural and charter rights; among which is the act for blocking up the harbour of Boston: and 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; and conscious at the same time of no alternative between the horrors of slavery; or the carnage and desolation of a civil war, but a suspension of all commercial intercourse with the island of Great Britain: Do, in the presence of God, solemnly and in good faith, covenant and engage with each other, 1st, That 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commercial intercourse with the said island of Great Britain, until the said act for blocking up the said harbour be repealed, and a full restoration of our charter rights be obtained. And,

2dly, That there may be the less temptation to others to continue in the said, now dangerous commerce, 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. 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.

3dly, That such persons may not have it in their power to impose upon us by any pretence whatever, we further agree to purchase no article of merchandize from them, or any of them, who shall not have signed this, or a similar covenant, or will not produce an oath, certified by a magistrate to be by them taken to the following purpose: viz. I ___________ of __________ in the county of _____________ do solemnly swear that the goods I have now on hand, and propose for sale, have not, to the best of my knowledge, been imported from Great Britain, into any port of America since the last day of August, one thousand seven hundred and seventy four, and that I will not, contrary to the spirit of an agreement entering into through this province import or purchase of any person so importing any goods as aforesaid, until the port or harbour of Boston, shall be opened, and we are fully restored to the free use of our constitutional and charter rights. And,

Lastly, we agree, that after this, or a similar covenant has been offered to any person and they refuse sign it, or produce the oath, abovesaid, we will consider them as contumacious importers, and withdraw all commercial connexions with them, so far as not to purchase of them, any article whatever, imported from Great Britain and publish their names to the world.

Witness our hands, Junely, 4th 1774” [207 signatures of Westford townsmen follow]

Sources:  J.V. Fletcher Library, Westford, Massachusetts, miscellaneous manuscripts.  I have adapted and presented material on this posting written by Daniel P. Lacroix of the Westford Historical Society and the Westford Colonial Minutemen. Mr. Lacroix has graciously granted me permission for the adaptation of his commentary and the photograph of Westford’s Solemn League and Covenant document. Mr. Lacroix’s complete posting is here. Concord Free Public Library in Massachusetts proudly displays their locally executed Solemn League and Covenant document, where it is one of their most frequently requested items for high-resolution digital copying.  In: Lowance, Mason I. and Georgia B. Bumbardner, eds. Massachusetts Broadsides of the American Revolution. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976; pictured pp. 42-43 is the signed Covenant from Charlton, Massachusetts, the original of which is at the American Antiquarian Society, National Index 13163 and Ford 1778.  AAS also holds a signed copy from Taunton and a printed broadside version of the Covenant without signatures.

Commentary:  The Solemn League and Covenant was the first concerted response to the Boston Port Act.  Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren are believed to be the architects and authors of this document, issued by the Boston Committee of Correspondence, and distributed to towns throughout Massachusetts.  It is a more forceful non-consumption and non-importation agreement than any preceding it.

Joseph Warren stumbled politically in the initial implementation of the Covenant when Samuel Adams was away from Boston at a meeting of the House of Representatives in Salem.  Despite braggadocio in the Boston Gazette of countrymen allegedly clamoring in droves to sign the document, acceptance was in fact spotty.  Some conservative Whigs may have preferred to proffer payment for the destroyed East India Tea and resume business as usual, while more radical Whigs wanted to act in inter-colonial solidarity resulting from a then-proposed Continental Congress, rather than acting locally.  Piecemeal arrival of the onerous Massachusetts Government Act and Administration of Justice Acts (together with the Port Bill they were christened by patriots as the Intolerable Acts) weakened the hand of Massachusetts Whig appeasers and Loyalists, while the growing likelihood over the summer of 1774 that a Continental Congress would become a reality, combined to render moot the Solemn League and Covenant.  A loyalist effort at Boston Town Meeting to repudiate the Committee of Correspondence as exceeding its powers with respect to the Covenant, failed on Samuel Adams’ return in mid-June 1774 from Salem to lead the effort.

The Covenant was well received in the Town of Westford.  From contemporaneous minutes of the Westford Town Meeting, transcribed by a local historian [Hodgman, ER and Westford Town History Association. History of the Town of Westford, in the County of Middlesex, Massachusetts, 1659-1883: Morning Mail Company, Printers, 1883], we can appreciate some of the issues in play:

July 4, 1774.  Voted unanimously to take under our consideration the Papers sent from Boston to our town in consequence of sd Boston Harbour being Blocked up.  Voted unanimously that the covenant lastly sent to Westford (with some small alteration thereon) should be signed by our town.”

“Voted that the Covenant signed by the inhabitants of Westford Relating to Boston affairs be kept or Left in the town Clerk’s hands During the town’s Pleasure, and also to Return the names of those who do not sine this paper.”

“The following votes were passed by the town altho no article was in the warrent to suport the same, but the town desired that the minitue of the same should be kept of them. Voted unanimously that the proportion of money due from our town to support the committee of congress be taken out of our town treasury and paid.”

“Voted unanimously to hold thursday the fourteenth day of July current as a day of fasting in this town, and furthermore If Mr. Hall Decline the same, then to imploy some suitable person to cary on the Solemnities of sd Day.”

“Voted also that the Selectmen provide a new stock of powder and ball and flints for this town’s use.”

January 23, 1775.  Pay to Mr. Jonathan Keep the sum of £1-15-6-3 for what he paid Mr. Emerson for preaching our fast last summer.”

Hodgman points out the following entry in the town records as an indication that the “suitable person” who was chosen to preside over the July 14th fasting day was most likely the Rev. William Emerson of nearby Concord. He and Joseph Thaxter would later correspond regarding the troubles with Westford’s loyalist minister, the Rev. Willard Hall.

An old but still useful scholarly article addresses the circumstances surrounding creation and generally tepid acceptance of the Boston Committee of Correspondence’s Solemn League and Covenant, as well as a variant originating in Worcester: Matthews, Albert. “The Solemn League and Covenant.” The Colonial Society of Massachusetts Vol. XVIII, December 1915: pp. 103-122.  The classic monograph on this period and its significance was written by the late Harvard professor Richard D. Brown, Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts – the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.

All signed surviving copies of the Solemn League and Covenant document are in institutional hands except for one.  More on the latter in a future post.

Previous post:

Next post: