Benjamin Franklin Papers

The Petition to the House of Lords against the Boston Port Bill, [26 March 1774]: résumé

The Petition to the House of Lords against the Boston Port Bill

Summary of DS: House of Lords Library

In late March three petitions against the bill, from Americans in London and a few Englishmen with American connections, were presented to the three branches of the legislature. All were the handiwork of Arthur Lee, and Franklin was a signer.8 The first was delivered to the House of Commons on the 25th, the second to the Lords on the 28th, and the third to the King on the 31st, the day his assent to the bill made it law. The three were much the same in tenor, although they varied somewhat in wording and argument and the petition to the Commons had an ending of its own; the two lists of signers that have survived, on the petitions to the Lords and the King, were similar but not identical.9 The two houses promptly tabled their petitions, and the King brushed his aside.1 We have chosen to summarize the one addressed to the Lords, because it exists in manuscript with the signers and, unlike the others, is not available in print.

[March 26,2 1774.]

<The petitioners, being Americans, are deeply concerned with any proceeding of the House that touches life, liberty, or property in America. They and their countrymen have law as their inalienable birthright, and it requires that no man shall be judged and condemned without having been permitted to defend himself against the charges. The bill before the House penalizes Boston for a trespass committed against the East India Company by persons unknown; the town has not been told the charges, or allowed to hear the evidence and make its defense. The inhabitants will be deprived of property in quays, wharves, etc., worth several hundred thousand pounds, and many of them will be deprived of their regular employment; the innocent will be punished with the guilty. Even if the reparation required in the bill is made, restoration of property will depend solely on the will of the crown.

Such proceedings are repugnant to every principle of law and justice, and threaten every man’s security. To condemn unheard is to remove all defense against false accusation, all protection of the innocent. In the colonies the law provides redress for injuries sustained there and, as the trial and acquittal of Capt. Preston and his soldiers demonstrated, is administered as impartially as in any other part of the King’s dominions. When the law gives redress, the interposition of Parliamentary power is unnecessary, arbitrary, and unjust.

The House of Lords, as the supreme judicature of the nation, is too well acquainted with the rules of justice to need any further objections to the bill, and the petitioners pray that the House will not pass it.3>

[John] Williams Thos. Barker William Middleton Junr.
Stephen Sayre John Boylstonv Thomas Pinckney
William Lee Arthur Lee William H. Gibbes
B Franklin Thos Ruston Thos. Bromfield
Wm. Middleton Philip Neyle Joshua Johnson
Henry Laurens Edwd Bancroft John Hobson
Ralph Izard John Peronnaut Dan Bowly
Isaac Motte Peeke Fuller John Alleyne
John Ellis Edwd. Fenwicke William Blake
Hu Williamson John Ballendine4
[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

8BF to Cushing below, April 2.

9The petition to the Commons was printed in the Public Advertiser, March 26, and reprinted in Force, 4 Amer. Arch., I, 47; neither printing includes the signers. The petition to the King does: ibid., cols. 60–1.

1For the fate of the petition in the Commons see Gipson, British Empire, XII, 113–14 n.

2The day when the petition was drawn up and signed, at a meeting at the Thatched House Tavern on St. James’s St. A similar meeting on the 24th had produced the petition to the Commons. Lee Papers, roll 2, frames 203–4; “Letters from Hon. Henry Laurens to His Son John …,” S.C. Hist. and Geneal. Mag., IV (1903), 30; see also pp. 32–3.

3The petition to the Commons had a different conclusion. If the persons guilty of trespass are known, the petitioners argued, the East India Co. has its remedy at law; if they are unknown, there is no justice in punishing a town for the act of those who cannot be shown to be its inhabitants. Precedents cited for intervention by the crown or Parliament to punish a city for a murder committed within its walls are irrelevant to Boston, which does not have its own executive and has not been heard in its own defense. If the Governor has failed to use his authority in the town, he alone is answerable; if he is using it, legal process is at work. To impose a different process, alien to the spirit of English justice, may extinguish the Americans’ loyalty. Cobbett, Parliamentary History, XVII, 1189–92. The precedents mentioned were those North cited in introducing the bill: ibid., col. 1164.

4Edward Bancroft, Arthur Lee, and John Williams the customs inspector (identified by the writing) need no introduction. Peeke Fuller and John Hobson we cannot trace. John Alleyne, John Ellis, Stephen Sayre, William Lee, John Ballendine, and Hugh Williamson appear above: XV, 182; XIX, 317 n; XX, 308 n, 371 n, 509 n. Of the remaining twenty signers two were from Boston. John Boylston (1709–95), a merchant, had come to England for his health in 1768 and remained until he died. Lyman H. Butterfield et al., eds., Adams Family Correspondence (4 vols. to date, Cambridge, Mass., 1963–73), IV, 201 n; Charles W. Parsons, “Zabdiel and John Boylston,” New England Hist. and Geneal. Register, XXXV (1881), 151–2. For Thomas Bromfield (1733–1816), who was engaged in trade with New England, see idem., XXVI (1872), 143; Quincy, Memoir, pp. 227, 230–1, 237, 274, 335, 340. Thomas Ruston (c. 1740–1804), a Pennsylvanian and classmate (and eventually bitter enemy) of Benjamin Rush, took his M.D. from Edinburgh in 1765 and practiced in London and Exeter; he was later in touch with BF in France. James McLachlan, Princetonians …: a Biographical Dictionary (1 vol. to date, Princeton, 1976—), pp. 402–7.

The next two were Marylanders. For meager information about Daniel Bowly (1745–1807) see Anna W. Rutledge, “Portraits Painted before 1900 in the Collection of the Maryland Historical Society,” Md. Hist. Mag., XLI (1946), 14. Joshua Johnson (1742–1802), the brother of the state’s first governor, will appear frequently in later volumes. He went to London in 1771 to represent an Annapolis firm, was an important tobacco dealer until the outbreak of war, then moved to Nantes as a merchant. Butterfield, ed., John Adams Diary, II, 300; Charles A. Barker, The Background of the Revolution in Maryland (New Haven and London, 1940), pp. 342–4; Edward S. Delaplaine, “The Life of Thomas Johnson,” Md. Hist. Mag., XIV (1919), 48. Thomas Barker (1713–89) was born in Massachusetts and moved to North Carolina, where he became a wealthy and prominent lawyer; his trip abroad is said to have lasted for seventeen years. Barker Newhall, The Barker Family of Plymouth Colony and County (Cleveland, O., [1901?]), pp. 17, 23–4; N.C. Hist. and Geneal. Register, I (1900), 515.

The South Carolinian contingent was by far the largest. William Blake (1739–1803), educated in England and the heir to a fortune, served briefly in the South Carolina legislature and then went to England in 1774 for the rest of his life; although his South Carolina estate was amerced he died wealthy. Edward A. Jones, American Members of the Inns of Court (London, 1924), pp. 22–3; Sabine, Loyalists, I, 231; Langdon Cheves, “Blake of South Carolina,” S.C. Hist. and Geneal. Mag., I (1900), 161. Edward Fenwick (1726–75) had been living for some time in England and returned home later in 1774. Ibid., XIII (1912), 64; XIV (1913), 6–7. William H. Gibbes (1754–1834) was at this time a student at the Inner Temple; for his subsequent career see the DAB. Ralph Izard (1742–1804), Fenwick’s nephew, had been educated in England and returned there in 1771 (ibid.); he went to Paris in 1776 and, as one of BF’s bitter enemies, will appear prominently in later volumes. Henry Laurens (1724–92), a merchant and planter, will be equally prominent; he was in London to oversee his sons’ education and returned to Charleston at the end of the year. Ibid. William Middleton, like Fenwick an uncle of Ralph Izard, had estates in South Carolina and in Suffolk, and had moved to England in 1754; his eldest son, William Middleton, Jr. (1748–1829), graduated from Cambridge and visited America briefly, then returned and entered politics; he became an M.P. and died a baronet. Langdon Cheves, “Middleton of South Carolina,” S.C. Hist. and Geneal. Mag., I, 233–5; Namier and Brooke, House of Commons, III, 137. Isaac Motte (1738–95), a veteran of the French and Indian War, was apparently travelling; he was elected to the South Carolina provincial congress in 1774. S.C. Hist. and Geneal. Mag., IV (1903), 30, 32 n, 104, 216; Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774–1971 … ([Washington,] 1971), p. 1449. Philip Neyle (1751–80) was educated in England and admitted to the bar in 1773, and his fellow-Charlestonian, John Perroneau, had been at the Inner Temple since 1772; both returned to South Carolina and fought on the American side. Jones, op. cit., pp. 163–4, 168. Thomas Pinckney (1750–1828), a product of Oxford and the Middle Temple, returned home within the year; for his distinguished career see the DAB.

The petition to the King did not carry the names of five on this list, Alleyne, Bancroft, Bromfield, Sayre, and Williamson. Instead it carried seven new ones, three of which we cannot identify: Charles Fuller, James Marshall, and John Ward. The four others were all South Carolinians. Two Izard brothers were distant cousins of Ralph: Ralph, Jr., and Walter (d. 1788), who later played minor political roles in the state. Langdon Cheves, “Izard of South Carolina,” S.C. Hist. and Geneal. Mag., II (1901), 234, 236. The third, Joel Poinsett, was a doctor who died in Charleston: Elizabeth H. Jervey, “Death Notices from the State Gazette …,” ibid., LI (1950), 164. The fourth was John F. Grimke (1752–1819), a young graduate of Cambridge and the Middle Temple, who returned home eighteen months later to become a well known politician and jurist. DAB.

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