by James Lovell
Omnes homines natura Libertati student, et CONDITIONEM Servitutis oderunt. Caes.
—: Nunc ea petit, quae dare aullo modo possumus, nisi priùus volumus nos bello victos confiteri. Cic.
At a Meeting of the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, in Town Meeting assembled, by Adjournment, on Tuesday the 2d Day of April, A. D. 1771. Voted Unanimously, THAT the Hon. Thomas Cushing, Esq Moderator, the Hon. John Hancock, Esq Mr. Samuel Adams, Samuel Pemberton, Esq Dr. Benjamin Church, Richard Dana, Esq and Mr. Henderson Inches, be and hereby are appointed a Committee to return the Thanks of this Town to Mr. James Lovell, for the Oration delivered by him at their Request, in Commemoration of the horrid Massacre perpetrated on the Evening of the 5th of March 1770—By a Party of Soldiers of the 29th Regiment; and to desire a Copy thereof for the Press. Attest, William Cooper, Town-Clerk.
GENTLEMEN, I consent to sacrifice my COMPOSITION to Ridicule, in strong hope that the ARGUMENT, which I am sure is well grounded, will be prosecuted by some Patron or Friend to our CAUSE of more leisure and abilities than your obliged humble Servant, JAMES LOVELL
YOUR design in the appointment of this ceremony, my Friends, and Fellow-Townsmen, cannot fail to be examined in quite different lights at this season of political dissention. From the principles I profess, and in the exercise of my common right to judge with others, I conclude it was decent, wise, and honorable.
The certainty of being favoured with your kindest partiality and candor, in a poor attempt to execute the part to which you have invited me, has overcome the objection of my inability to perform it in a proper manner; and I now beg the favor of your animating countenance.
The horrid bloody scene we here commemorate, whatever were the causes which concurred to bring it on that dreadful night, must lead the pious and humane of every order to some suitable reflections. The pious will adore the conduct of that BEING who is unsearchable in all his ways, and without whose knowledge not a single sparrow falls, in permitting an immortal soul to be hurried by the flying ball, the messenger of death, in the twinkling of an eye, to meet the awful Judge of all it’s secret actions. The humane, from having often thought with pleasing rapture on the endearing scenes of social life, in all it’s amiable relations, will lament with heart-felt pangs their sudden dissolution by the indiscretion, rage and vengeance of unruly human passions.
But let us leave that shocking close of one continued course of rancor and dispute from the first moment that the troops arrived in town: that course will now be represented by your own reflexions to much more solid, useful purpose than by any artful language. I hope, however, that Heaven has yet in store such happiness, for this afflicted town and province, as will in time wear out the memory of all our former troubles.
I sincerely rejoice with you in the happy event of your steady and united effort to prevent a second tragedy.
Our fathers left their native land, risqued all the dangers of the sea, and came to this then-savage desert, with that true undaunted courage which is excited by a confidence in GOD. They came that they might here enjoy themselves, and leave to their posterity the best of earthly portions, full English Liberty. You showed upon the alarming call for trial that their brave spirit still exists in vigor, tho’ their legacy of rights is much impaired. The sympathy and active friendship of some neighboring towns upon that sad occasion commands the highest gratitude of this.
We have seen and felt the ill effects of placing standing forces in the midst of populous communities; but those are only what individuals suffer. Your vote directs me to point out the fatal tendency of placing such an order in free cities—fatal indeed! Athens once was free; a citizen, a favorite of the people, by an artful story gained a trifling guard of fifty men; ambition taught him ways to enlarge that number; he destroyed the commonwealth and made himself the tyrant of the Athenians. Caesar by the length of his command in Gaul got the affections of his army, marched to Rome, overthrew the state, and made himself perpetual dictator. By the same instruments, many less republics have been made to fall a prey to the devouring jaws of tyrants—But, this is a subject which should never be disguised with figures; it chuses the plain stile of dissertation.
The true strength and safety of every commonwealth or limited monarchy, is the bravery of its freeholders, its militia. By brave militias they rise to grandeur, and they come to ruin by a mercenary army. This is founded on historical facts; and the same causes will, in similar circumstances, forever produce the same effects. Justice Blackstone, in his inimitably clear commentaries, tells us, that “it is extremely dangerous in a land of liberty, to make a distinct order of the profession of arms; that such an order is an object of jealously; and that the laws and constitution of England are strangers to it.” One article of the Bill of Rights is, that the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in a time of peace, unless it be with consent of parliament, is against law. The present army therefore, tho’ called the peace establishment, is kept up by one act, and governed by another; both of which expire annually. This circumstance is valued as a sufficient check upon the army. A less body of troops than is now maintained has, on a time, destroyed a King, and fought under a parliament with great success and glory; but, upon a motion to disband them, they turned their masters out of doors, and fixed up others in their stead. Such wild things are not again to happen, because the parliament have power to stop payment once a year: but, arma tenenti quis neget? which may be easily interpreted, “who will bind Sampson with his locks on?”
The bill which regulates the army, the same fine author I have mentioned says, “is in many respects hastily penned, and reduces the soldier to a state of slavery in the midst of a free nation. This is impolitick: for slaves envy the freedom of others, and take a malicious pleasure in contributing to destroy it.”
By this scandalous bill a justice of peace is empowered to grant, without a previous oath from the military officer, a warrant to break open any (freeman’s) house, upon pretence of searching for deserters.
I must not omit to mention one more bad tendency: ’tis this,—a standing force leads to a total neglect of militias, or tends greatly to discourage them.
You see the danger of a standing army to the cause of freedom. If the British Parliament consents from year to year to be exposed, it doubtless has good reasons. But when did our assembly pass an act to hazard all the property, the liberty and lives of their constituents? What check have we upon a British Army? Can we disband it? Can we stop it’s pay?
Our own assemblies in America can raise an army; and our Monarch, George the 3d. by our constitution takes immediate command. This army can consent to leave their native provinces. Will the royal chief commander send them to find barracks at Brunswick or Lunenburg, at Hanover, or the commodious hall of Westminster? Suppose the last—Suppose this army was informed, nay thought the parliament in actual rebellion, or only on the eve of one against their King, or against those who paid and cloathed them—for there it pinches:—We are rebels against parliament;—we adore the King.
Where, in the case I have stated, would be the value of the boasted English Constitution? Who are a free people? Not those who do not suffer actual oppression; but those who have a constitutional check upon the power to oppress.
We are slaves or freemen; if, as we are called, the last, where is our check upon the following powers, France, Spain, the States of Holland, or the British Parliament? Now if any one of these (and it is quite immaterial which) has right to make the two acts in question operate within this province, they have right to give us up to an unlimited army, under the sole direction of one Saracen Commander.
Thus I have led your thoughts to that upon which I formed my conclusion, that the design of this ceremony was decent, wise and honorable. Make the bloody 5th of March the era of the resurrection of your birthrights, which have been murdered by the very strength that nursed them in their infancy. I had an eye solely to parliamentary supremacy; and I hope you will think every other view beneath your notice in our present most alarming situation.
Chatham, Camden and others, gods among men, and the Farmer [John Dickenson of Pennsylvania], whom you have addressed as the friend of Americans, and the common benefactor of mankind; all these have owned that England has right to exercise every power over us, but that of taking money out of our pockets without our consent. Tho’ it seems almost too bold therefore in us to say “we doubt in every single instance her legal right over this province”, yet we must assert it. Those I have named are mighty characters, but they wanted one advantage providence has given us. The beam is carried off from our eyes by the flowing blood of our fellow citizens, and now we may be allowed to attempt to remove the mote from the eyes of our exalted patrons. That mote, we think, is nothing but our obligation to England first, and afterwards Great-Britain, for constant kind protection of our lives and birthrights against foreign danger. We all acknowledge that protection.
Let us once more look into the early history of this province. We find that our English Ancestors disgusted in their native country at a Legislation, which they saw was sacrificing all their rights, left its Jurisdiction, and sought, like wandering birds of passage, some happier climate. Here at length they settled down. The King of England was said to be the royal landlord of this territory; with HIM they entered into mutual sacred compact, by which the price of tenure and the rules of management were fairly stated. It is in this compact that we find OUR ONLY TRUE LEGISLATIVE AUTHORITY.
I might here enlarge upon the character of those first settlers, men of whom the world was little worthy; who, for a long course of years, assisted by no earthly power, defended their liberty, their religion and their lives against the greatest inland danger from the savage natives:—but this falls not within my present purpose. They were secure by sea. In our infancy, when not an over-tempting jewel for the Bourbon Crown the very name of ENGLAND saved us; afterwards her fleets and armies. We wish not to depreciate the worth of that protection. Of our gold, yea of our most fine gold, we will freely give a part. Our fathers would have done the same. But, must we fall down and cry “let not a stranger rob and kill me, O my father! let me rather dye by the hand of my brother, and let him ravish all my portion?”
It is said that disunited from Britain “we should bleed at every vein”. I cannot see the consequence. The States of Holland do not suffer thus. But grant it true, SENACA, would prefer the LAUNCETS of France, Spain or any other power to the BOW-STRING, tho’ applied by the fair hand of Britannia.
The declarative vote of the British Parliament is the death-warrant of our birthrights, and wants only a Czarish King to put it into execution. Here then a door of salvation is open. Great Britain may raise her fleets and armies, but it is only our own King that can direct their fire down upon our heads. He is gracious, but not omniscient. He is ready to hear our APPEALS in their proper course; and knowing himself, tho’ the most powerful prince on earth, yet, a subject under a divine constitution of LAW, that law he will ask and receive from the twelve Judges of England. These will prove that the claim of the British Parliament over us is not only ILLEGAL IN ITSELF, but A DOWN-RIGHT USURPATION OF HIS PREROGATIVE as KING OF America.
A brave nation is always generous. Let us appeal therefore, at the same time, to the generosity of the PEOPLE of Great-Britain, before the tribunal* of Europe, not to envy us the full enjoyment of the RIGHTS OF BRETHREN.
And now, my Friends and Fellow Townsmen, having declared myself an American Son of Liberty of true charter-principles; having shewn the critical and dangerous situation of our birthrights, and the true course for speedy redress; I shall take the freedom to recommend with boldness one previous step.—Let us show we understand the true value of what we are claiming.
The patriot Farmer tells us, “the cause of LIBERTY is a cause of too much dignity to be sullied by turbulence and tumult.—Anger produces anger; and differences, that might be accommodated by kind and respectful behaviour, may by imprudence be enlarged to an incurable rage. In quarrels—risen to a certain height, the first cause of dissention is no longer remembered, the minds of the parties being wholly engaged in recollecting and resenting the mutual expressions of their dislike. When feuds have reached that fatal point, considerations of reason and equity vanish; and a blind fury governs, or rather confounds all things. A people no longer regard their interest, but a gratification of their wrath.”
We know ourselves subjects of common LAW: to that and the worthy executors of it let us pay a steady and conscientious regard. Past errors in this point have been written with gall by the pen of MALICE. May our future conduct be such as to make even that vile IMP lay her pen aside.
The Right which imposes Duties upon us is in dispute: but whether they are managed by a Surveyor General, a Board of Commissioners, Turkish Janizaries or Russian Cossacks, let them enjoy, during our time of fair tryal, the common personal protection of the laws of our constitution. Let us shut our eyes, for the present, to their being executors of claims subversive of our rights.
Watchful hawkeyed JEALOUSY ever guards the portal of the temple of the GODDESS LIBERTY. This is known to those who frequent her altars. Our whole conduct therefore, I am sure, will meet with the utmost candor of her VOTARIES: but I am wishing we may be able to convert even her basest APOSTATES.
We are SLAVES ’till we obtain such redress thro’ the justice of our King as our happy constitution leads us to expect. In that condition, let us behave with the propriety and dignity of FREEMEN; and thus exhibit to the world a new character of a people which no history describes.
May the all wise and beneficent RULER OF THE UNIVERSE preserve our lives and health, and prosper all our lawful endeavours in the glorious cause of FREEDOM.
ERRATUM. Pag. 15. 1. 6. for SENACA, r. SENECA.
Sources: Lovell, James. An Oration Delivered April 2d, 1771. At the Request of the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston; to Commemorate the Bloody Tragedy of the Fifth of March, 1770. First ed. Boston: Edes and Gil. Evans Early American Imprint Collection. This text is copied from a University of Michigan web page. The Massachusetts Historical Society kindly posts images of Harbottle Dorr’s personal copy of the pamphlet, starting here.
Commentary: This is the first official Boston Massacre commemorative oration sanctioned by the Town of Boston. Dr. Thomas Young had delivered a speech at the Manufacturey, or poor house, on the same theme a few weeks prior and closer to the first anniversary of the Boston Massacre.
Memory of the fatal event of March 5, 1770, was fresh. British Captain Preston, who had been accused of murder for ordering his troops to fire on the unruly crowd, was tried October 24-30, 1770, and found not guilty. His enlisted soldiers were placed on trial between November 27th and December 5, 1770. Six of the soldiers were acquitted. Two were found guilty of manslaughter, but received a relatively light sentence of branding. The lenient verdicts were unpopular among many Whigs.
Most people of all political persuasions abhorred the murderous violence that had marked the culmination of the first British occupation of Boston. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Massacre, Samuel Adams had demanded that Governor Hutchinson order the garrison troops move to a safer distance to Castle William.
Lovell begins his speech by reinforcing civil peace and congratulating Bostonians for “your steady and united effort to prevent a second tragedy.” Thematically, it decries the evils of a standing army, the tyranny of Parliamentary policies, and the beneficence of the King. The memorable titular quotation is adapted from Blackstone, likening the British occupying army to slaves jealous of the freedom of others, and intent on destroying it.
James Loring, writing in the 19th century in the One Hundred Boston Orators, asserts that James Lovell was abused by the occupying British army during his later imprisonment during the Siege of Boston for likening the King’s soldiers to slaves. A more immediate reason for such severity late in 1775 was that correspondence “of a treasonous nature,” penned by James Lovell, was found by the British on the person of Joseph Warren’s corpse following the Battle of Bunker Hill.