IV. A Proclamation by the General Court
The frailty of human Nature, the Wants of Individuals, and the numerous Dangers which surround them, through the Course of Life, have in all Ages, and in every Country impelled them to form Societies, and establish Governments.1
As the Happiness of the People <
alone>, is the sole End of Government, So the Consent of the People is the only Foundation of it, in Reason, Morality, and the natural Fitness of things: and therefore every Act of Government, every Exercise of Sovereignty, against, or without, the Consent of the People, is Injustice, Usurpation, and Tyranny.
It is a Maxim, that in every Government, there must exist Somewhere, a Supreme, Sovereign, absolute, and uncontroulable Power:2 But this power resides always in the Body of the People, and it never was, or can be delegated, to one Man, or a few, the great Creator having never given to Men a right to vest others with Authority over them, unlimited either in Duration or Degree.
When Kings, Ministers, Governors, or Legislators therefore, instead of exercising the Powers intrusted <
to their Care>3 with them according to the Principles, Forms and Proportions stated by the Constitution, and established by the original Compact, prostitute < it> those Powers to the Purposes of Oppression; to Subvert, instead of Supporting a free Constitution; to destroy, instead of preserving the lives, Liberties and Properties of the People: they are no longer to be deemed Magistrates vested with a Sacred Character; but become public Enemies, and ought to be resisted. < by open War>4
The Administration of Great Britain, despising equally the Justice, the Humanity and Magnanimity of their Ancestors, and the Rights, Liberties and Courage of Americans have, for a Course of <
Twelve> years,5 laboured to establish a Sovereignty in America, not founded in the Consent of the People, but in the mere Will of Persons a thousand Leagues from Us, whom we know not, and have endeavoured to establish this Sovereignty over us, against our Consent, in all Cases whatsoever.
The Colonies during this period, have recurr’d to every [peaceable Resource] in a free Constitution, by Petitions and Remonstrances, to [obtain justice;] which has been not only denied to them, but they have been [treated with unex]ampled Indignity and Contempt and at length open War [of the most] atrocious, cruel and Sanguinary Kind has been commenced [against them.] To this, an open manly and successfull Resistance has hith[erto been made.] Thirteen Colonies are now firmly united in the Conduct of this most just and necessary War, under the wise Councils of their Congress.
It is the Will of Providence, for wise, righteous, and gracious Ends, that this Colony Should have been singled out, by the Enemies of America, as the first object both of their Envy and their Revenge; and after having been made the Subject of Several merciless and vindictive Statutes, one of which was intended to subvert our Constitution by Charter, is made the Seat of War.
No effectual Resistance to the System of Tyranny prepared for us, could be made without either instant Recourse to Arms, or a temporary Suspension of the ordinary Powers of Government, and Tribunals of Justice: to the last of which Evils, in hopes of a Speedy Reconciliation with Great Britain, upon equitable Terms the Congress advised us to submit: and Mankind has seen a Phenomenon without Example6 in the political World, a large and populous Colony subsisting in [great] Decency and order, for more than a Year <
without Government>7 under such a suspension of Government.
But as our Enemies have proceeded to such barbarous Extremities commencing Hostilities upon the good People of this Colony, and with unprecedented [Malice] exerting their Power to spread the Calamities of Fire, Sword and Famine through the Land, and no reasonable Prospect remains of a speedy Reconciliation with Great Britain, the Congress have resolved “That no Obedience being due to the Act of Parliament for altering the Charter of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, nor to a Governor or Lieutenant Governor, who will not observe the Directions of, but endeavour to subvert that Charter; the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of that Colony are to be considered as Absent, and their offices vacant; and as there is no Council there, and Inconveniences arising from the Suspension of the Powers of Government are intollerable, especially at a Time when Gage hath actually levied War and is carrying on Hostilities against his Majesties peaceable and loyal Subjects of that Colony; that in order to conform as near as may be to the Spirit and substance of the Charter, it be recommended to the Provincial Convention to write Letters: to the Inhabitants of the several Places which are intituled to Representation in Assembly requesting them to chuse such Representatives, and that the Assembly, when chosen, do elect Councillors; and that such Assembly and Council exercise the Powers of Government, untill a Governor of his Majestys Appointment will consent to govern the Colony, according to its Charter.”8
In Pursuance of which Advice, the good People of this <
Province>9 Colony have chosen a full and free Representation of themselves, who, being convened in Assembly have elected a Council, who, < have assumed> as the executive Branch of Government have constituted necessary officers < civil and Military>10 through the Colony. The present Generation, therefore, may be congratulated on the Acquisition of a Form of Government, more immediately in all its Branches under the Influence and Controul of the People, and therefore more free and happy than was < ever>11 enjoyed by their Ancestors. But as a Government so popular can be Supported only by universal Knowledge and Virtue, in the Body of the People, it is the Duty of all Ranks, to promote the Means of Education, for the rising Generation as well as true Religion, Purity of Manners, and Integrity of Life among all orders and Degrees.
As an Army has become necessary for our Defence, and in all free States the civil must provide for and controul the military Power, the Major Part of the Council have appointed Magistrates and Courts of Justice in every County, <
and this Court, giving others> whose Happiness is so connected with that of the People that it is difficult to suppose they can abuse their Trust. The Business of it is to see those Laws inforced which are necessary for the Preservation of Peace, Virtue and [good Order.] And the great and general Court expects and requires that all necessary Support and Assistance be given, and all proper Obedience yielded to them, and will deem every Person, who shall fail of his Duty in this Respect towards them < an Enemy to the Country> a disturber of the peace of this Colony and deserving of < strict and impartial> exemplary Punishment.
That Piety and Virtue, which alone can Secure the Freedom of any People may be encouraged and Vice and Immorality suppress’d, the great and general Court have thought fit to issue this Proclamation, commending and enjoining it upon the good People of this Colony, that they lead sober, religious and peaceable Lives, avoiding all Blasphemies, Contempt of the holy Scriptures and of the Lords Day and all other Crimes and Misdemeanors, all Debauchery, Prophaneness, Corruption Venality all riotous and tumultuous Proceedings and all Immoralities whatever: and that they decently and reverently attend the public Worship of God at all Times acknowledging with [Gratitude his merciful Interposition in their Behalf, devoutly confiding in Him, as the God of Armies, by whose Favour and Protection alone they may hope for Success, in their present Conflict.]
[And all Judges, Justices, Sheriffs, Grand Jurors, Tythingmen, and all other] civil Officers, within this Colony, are hereby Strictly enjoined and commanded that they contribute all in their Power, by their Advice, Exertions, and Example towards a general Reformation of Manners, and that they bring to condign Punishment, every Person, who shall commit any of the Crimes or Misdemeanors aforesaid, or that shall be guilty of any Immoralities whatsoever; and that they Use their Utmost Endeavours, to have the Resolves of the Congress, and the good and wholesome Laws of this Colony duely carried into Execution.
And as the Ministers of the Gospel, within this Colony, have during the late Relaxation of the Powers of civil Government, exerted themselves for our Safety, it is hereby recommended to them, still to continue their virtuous Labours for the good of the People, inculcating by their Public Ministry and private Example, the Necessity of Religion, Morality, and good order.
Ordered that the foregoing Proclamation be Read at the opening of Every Superior Court of Judicature &c. and Inferiour Courts of Common Pleas and Courts of General sessions for the Peace within this Colony by their Respective Clerks and at the Annual Town meetings in March in Each Town and it is hereby Recommended to the several Ministers of the Gospel throughout this Colony to Read the Same in their Respective Assemblys on the Lords Day next after their Receiving it immediately after Divine Service.
Sent down for Concurrence,12
Perez Morton Dpy Secry
MS in JA’s hand (M-Ar:138, p. 281–284). A number of passages have been crossed out and substitutions interlined, all in JA’s hand. The bottom of one page, containing about four lines, is missing, and in two or three other places the MS is worn from creasing. Missing and illegible words are supplied in brackets from the printed text in Mass., House Jour. description begins Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts [1715- ], Boston, reprinted by the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1919- . (For the years for which reprints are not yet available, the original printings are cited, by year and session.) description ends , 1775–1776, 3d sess., p. 189–192, which exactly follows the MS as corrected by JA.
1. Initiated by the House on 18 Dec. 1775, this proclamation was intended “to be read at the opening of the several County Sessions, for the Purpose of inculcating a general Obedience of the People to the several Magistrates appointed under the present Government of this Colony.” For the purpose of preparing a draft as part of a joint committee, James Sullivan, Samuel Phillips Jr., and Maj. Benjamin Ely were named by the House, William Sever and John Winthrop by the Council. Probably because of his position as Chief Justice, JA was chosen on 28 Dec. to take the place of Sever (House Jour. description begins Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts [1715- ], Boston, reprinted by the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1919- . (For the years for which reprints are not yet available, the original printings are cited, by year and session.) description ends , p. 55; Records of the States, Microfilm, Mass. A. 1a, Reel No. 1, Unit 1, p. 405).
The reason for proposing such a proclamation may have been the meeting of two Berkshire co. conventions in Stockbridge on 14 and 15 Dec., which showed that the members of that county’s Committee of Correspondence were badly divided over whether to accept judicial officers appointed by the Council. A majority insisted that such officials should be nominated by the people for the Council’s consideration, and they declared that they would not recommend that the people support the existing form of government. A counter-convention of the minority drafted resolutions condemning the stand of the majority (Robert J. Taylor, ed., Massachusetts, Colony to Commonwealth, Chapel Hill, 1961, p. 14, 16–17).
In seeking support for the appointees of the Council through a proclamation, JA picked his words with great care and stated his argument in the broadest terms. His first eight paragraphs read more like a preamble to a declaration of independence than a plea for acceptance of appointed magistrates. He even notes that Massachusetts took the milder course of a temporary suspension of government rather than “instant Recourse to Arms”; in short, that as the Declaration of Independence would later argue, the people chose to suffer as long as evils could be borne rather than abolish the forms of government to which they were accustomed.
The tone of this introduction is quite out of keeping with congressional advice to Massachusetts that it operate as usual, with the office of governor vacant, until a royally appointed governor was willing to abide by the charter. That charter with its provision for royal disallowance did not vest sovereignty in the people. The wholly new government of its own creation that the congress had denied to Massachusetts, JA was here claiming in uncompromising tones despite his quotation of congressional advice. Over two months before, JA had sketched out for Richard Henry Lee some of the specifics he thought essential in any independent government (JA to Lee, 15 Nov. 1775, above); he was now helping to ready the minds of the people for that essential step. Yet JA carefully pointed out that, however free the forms of government might be, freedom depended upon piety, virtue, and knowledge—a theme that he was to sound again and again in his writings. It therefore behooved the people to worship God, eschew immorality, and obey the law as interpreted by Council appointees, who had been named through the system advised by the congress.
2. This proposition was a favorite of those insisting that uncontrollable power lay with Parliament; JA gives it a different twist.
3. JA’s deletion suggests that he did not want to leave the care of powers solely to magistrates, even in trust.
4. The phrase rejected here is used below, but there JA makes it plain that open war was begun against the colonies and brought forth a manly resistance.
5. JA’s second thought that the number of years should remain indeterminate was perhaps influenced by the debates in the First Continental Congress over whether to list grievances extending back beyond 1764.
6. The passage “to submit: . . . Example” shows several words erased, two deletions, and three substitutions, all for merely stylistic reasons.
7. On second thought, JA did not want to deny the legitimacy of the provincial congresses or the governments in the towns.
9. With the royal governor rejected and not likely to be reinstated, the less technical term was preferable, especially to one who did not want the royal governor re-established. It has been suggested that “colony” still permitted those who could not accept separation to see some sort of dependence on Great Britain (Mass. Province Laws description begins The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, Boston, 1869–1922; 21 vols. description ends , 5:506). JA was careful not to alienate such people.
10. The two deletions in this “who” clause show JA treading cautiously around a thorny issue. To say the Council assumed executive power implied what some House members had argued, that the Council arrogated powers to itself. The issue had become acute in the quarreling over whether the Council had exclusive power to name military officers. It was better just not to mention “military.” JA himself believed that it was right for both houses jointly to choose military officers (JA to James Otis, 23 Nov., and to Joseph Hawley, 25 Nov. 1775, both above).
11. “Ever” raised awkward questions. Massachusetts liked to believe that its first charter had given it virtually self-governing powers, and JA had argued in the Novanglus letters that the original compact with the king still held (JA, Papers description begins Papers of John Adams, ed. Robert J. Taylor and others, Cambridge, 1977– . description ends , 1:xxv–xxxi).
12. The proclamation was approved by the House on 23 Jan. and was printed in the Boston Gazette on 12 Feb. 1776 (Mass., House Jour. description begins Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts [1715- ], Boston, reprinted by the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1919- . (For the years for which reprints are not yet available, the original printings are cited, by year and session.) description ends , p. 192). It was also issued as a broadside (Ford, Mass. Broadsides, No. 1973, with facsimile facing p. 272).