Benjamin Franklin Papers

The Petition to the House of Lords against the Massachusetts Government and Administration of Justice Bills, [before 11 May 1774]: résumé

The Petition to the House of Lords against the Massachusetts Government and Administration of Justice Bills

Summary of DS: House of Lords Library

In March a group of Americans in London had petitioned against the Boston Port Bill, and in May much the same group protested against the two coercive measures that followed.7 It was Arthur Lee, we assume, who again drafted separate petitions to the King, Lords, and Commons; and Franklin again signed them all. They were as fruitless as the signers, after their previous experience, must have known they would be. Those to the two houses are virtually identical; that to the King is shorter. We have chosen to summarize the petition to the Lords because it alone exists in manuscript with the original signatures.8

[Before May 11, 17749]

<The petitioners, native Americans,10 complain of two bills which, if enacted, will be fatal to the rights, liberties, and peace of all America. Legislation has already been passed that violates the law and the first principles of justice. Now a bill is brought in, ostensibly for regulating the government of Massachusetts, that will deprive the province of rights guaranteed it by its charter, which was a compact between crown and people; no charter has hitherto been altered without a full and fair hearing, and this unconstitutional bill threatens every such compact in Britain and the colonies. The governor’s control of judges, furthermore, gives him power over the property, liberty, and life of the subject, and establishes a judicial tyranny of which Britain has rid itself.

The bill that purports to secure a more impartial administration of justice empowers the governor to exempt soldiers from prosecution within the colony for murder, and therefore from control by the civil power, at a time when the troops have been taught that the populace deserves insult and abuse, which no free people can long endure. The result will be outrages and civil commotion.

The charge that Americans are disaffected and rebellious is wholly undeserved. For a century they have shared the glory and prosperity of England and the expense of every war, and have stretched themselves to the limit to provide support. Recent disturbances, in a people hitherto so loyal, have demonstrated a general sense of oppression. Although the mother country restrains trade and manufacture, property acquired under those restraints has hitherto been secure; now it is at the disposal of a legislature in which the colonists have no voice or influence or champion, and for them this is slavery. Their right of consent in parting with their property is the last bulwark of liberty, and for support of their position they appeal to British statutes, to all authorities on the constitution, and to long practice in Ireland and America.

These bills reduce Americans to the alternatives of being totally enslaved, or contesting with a parent state that they have loved and venerated. The petitioners conjure the House not to pass legislation that will inflame the colonists’ passions, flout the principles of liberty that they have inherited from England, and “drive them to the last Resources of Despair.”>

Stepn Sayre John F: Grimké Edm: Jenings
William Lee Jacob Read Edwd. Bancroft
Arthur Lee Thos Ruston John Alleyne
B Franklin Phi: Neyle Thos Bromfield
Ralph Izard Ed: Fenwick Sr. John Boylston
William Hasell Gibbes Edw: Fenwick Junr. J: Williams
William Blake John Perroneaux John Ellis
Isaac Motte Wm. Middleton Jos Johnson
Henry Laurens William Middleton Junr D. Bowly
Thomas Pinckney Ra. Izard Junr. Willm: Heyward1
[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7For the petition to the Lords see above, March 26; for the two bills that engendered the present petition see BF to Cushing above, April 16.

8Those to the Commons and the King were presented on May 2 and 19 respectively and are printed, the first without and the second with the list of signers, in Force, 4 Amer. Arch., I, 81–3, 96; the petition to the Lords was printed in the Public Advertiser, May 16, 1774. The two houses tabled the petitions; the King answered his, the day after it was presented, by signing the two bills.

9The date of presentation: Lords Jours., XXXIV (1774–76), 182.

10So they said. But John Ellis was certainly not and, unless we are much mistaken, neither was John Alleyne.

1Of the thirty, twenty-six had signed one or another of the earlier petitions and are identified under that to the Lords, cited above. The new names were Jenings, Heyward, Read, and Edward Fenwick, Jr. Edmund Jenings (1731–1819) was a Marylander of distinguished family, educated at Eton and Cambridge; although he was a product of the Middle Temple, he practiced little and “lived a life of cultivated leisure in London.” Butterfield, ed., John Adams Diary, II, 355–6. The others were South Carolinians. Edward Fenwick, Jr. (b. 1753), subsequently became a loyalist and suffered for it: Daniel E. H. Smith, “An Account of the Tattnall and Fenwick Families in South Carolina,” S. C. Hist. and Geneal. Mag., XIV (1913), 6, 12. William Heyward (1753–86) was from Charleston, and had enrolled in the Middle Temple two years before: Edward A. Jones, American Members of the Inns of Court … (London, 1924), p. 98. Jacob Read (1752–1816), raised in Savannah and admitted to the bar there in 1773, promptly left for England and entered Gray’s Inn; he returned to Charleston in 1776, served in its militia, and eventually became a U.S. senator. DAB.

Index Entries