Faneuil HallHistory

The Massachusetts Circular Letter, February 11, 1768

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was a statement written by Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr., and passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives on February 11, 1768 in response to the Townshend Acts. In the course of a year, the letter was received by assemblies throughout the Colonies. The letter greatly disturbed Parliament, and Governor Bernard was ordered to demand that the vote of the House should be rescinded, under penalty of his dissolving the General Court.

calef_revere_cartoon

In this political cartoon by Paul Revere, John Calef is portrayed with a calf’s head (beneath the pitchfork).

Dr. John Calef represented the town of Ipswich in the General Court, but was among only seventeen members of the Massachusetts Assembly who voted to retract the Circular Letter. Paul Revere responded with a print entitled “A Warm Place Hell,” showing the devil with a pitchfork pushing the 17 men into the mouth of Hell. Dr. John Calef is represented in the engraving with a calf’s head. Anger by Ipswich citizens at Calef’s vote resulted in his replacement in the assembly by General Michael Farley. During the Revolution, Calef fled to Ft. George at Penobscot.

February 11, 1768

Sir: (to the Speaker of the House of Assembly)

“The House of Representatives of this province have taken into their serious consideration the great difficulties that must accrue to themselves and their constituents by the operation of several Acts of Parliament, imposing duties and taxes on the American colonies.

As it is a subject in which every colony is deeply interested … your house is deeply impressed with its importance and that such constitutional measures will be come into as are proper. It seems to be necessary that all possible care should be taken that he representatives of the several assemblies, upon so delicate a point, should harmonize with each other. The House therefore hopes that this letter will be candidly considered in no other light than as expressing a disposition freely to communicate their mind to a sister colony, upon a common concern, in the same manner as they would be glad to receive the sentiments of your or any other house of assembly on the continent.

The House have humbly represented to the ministry their own sentiments: that his Majesty’s high court of Parliament is the supreme legislative power over the whole empire; that in all free states the constitution is fixed, and as the supreme legislative derives its power and authority from the constitution … that the constitution ascertains and limits both sovereignty and allegiance, and, therefore his Majesty’s American subjects, who acknowledge themselves bound by the ties of allegiance, have an equitable claim to the full enjoyment of the fundamental rules of the British constitution; that it is an essential, unalterable right in nature, engrafted into the British constitution, as a fundamental law, and ever held sacred and irrevocable by the subjects within the realm, that what a man has honestly acquired is absolutely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken from him without his consent…

It is, moreover, their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the Parliament, that the Acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights; because they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s Commons in Britain…

This House is further of the opinion that their constituents, considering their local circumstances, cannot, by any possibility be represented in the Parliament; and that it will forever be impracticable, that they should be equally represented there… being separated by an ocean of a thousand leagues. That his Majesty’s royal predecessors for this reason were graciously pleased to form a subordinate legislature here, that their subjects might enjoy the unalienable right of a representation…

In addition to these measures, the House have written a letter to their agent which he is directed to lay before the ministry; wherein they take notice of the hardships of the Act for preventing mutiny and desertion, which requires the governor and council to provide enumerated articles for the king’s marching troops, and the people to pay the expenses; and also, the commission of the gentlemen appointed commissioners of the customs, to reside in America, which authorizes them to make as many appointments as they think fit, and to pay the appointees what sum they please, for whose misconduct they are not accountable; from whence it may happen that officers of the Crown may be multiplied to such a degree as to become dangerous to the liberty of the people, by virtue of a commission, which does not appear to this House to derive any such advantages to trade as many have supposed.

These are the sentiments and proceedings of this House … they have too much reason to believe that enemies of the colonies have represented them to his Majesty’s ministers, and to the Parliament, as factious, disloyal, and having a disposition to make themselves independent of the mother country … This House cannot conclude without expressing their firm confidence in the king, our common head and father, that the united and dutiful supplications of his distressed American subjects will meet with his royal and favourable acceptance.”

Sources and Further Reading

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