The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. American Political Writing, 1760–1789

§ 6. Samuel Adams

The Massachusetts Circular Letter (11 February, 1768), prepared by Samuel Adams for a committee of the House of Representatives, and addressed to the speakers of other representative houses throughout the colonies, introduces to us the man who, more zealously and persistently than anyone else, devoted himself to achieving American independence. Holding the humble office of tax-collector in Boston, Adams’s devotion to public causes, joined to a rare talent for political organization, had already made him the master of the Boston townmeeting and the leading spirit in the provincial House of Representatives. In the course of the bitter fight which he waged against Governor Bernard and Governor Hutchinson, and in furtherance of his relentless insistence upon the right of complete local self-government for the colonies, Adams drafted, in whole or in part, most of the resolutions and reports which made Massachusetts the leader in the constitutional struggle, and which also marked it for special punishment later at the hands of Parliament.

The Circular Letter, studiously dignified and respectful in tone, is the best summary statement of the colonial argument which had thus far been put forward. Admitting the supreme legislative authority of Parliament over the whole empire, it rests its case on the

  • 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.
  • So precious is the right of representation, and so great the “utter impracticability” of actually being represented in Parliament, that
  • this House think that a taxation of their constituents, even without their consent, grievous as it is, would be preferable to any representation that could be admitted for them there.
  • Devotion to naked principle could go no farther, nor indicate more clearly the desired goal of independence.

    The Townshend Revenue Act remained in force until April, 1770. The act produced an inappreciable revenue, necessitated extraordinary expenditures for its enforcement, and had no other effect upon the situation in America than to reawaken and solidify the colonial opposition to parliamentary taxation, and stimulate interest in the development of colonial manufactures and in the concerted non-importation and non-consumption of British goods. One of the first steps of the North ministry was to repeal it (1770), except the tax of three pence a pound on tea, retained to assert the principle of the Declaratory Act of 1766. For the next two years and more the agitation was not actively kept up, and even such violent disorders as the Boston Massacre (March, 1770) and the burning of the revenue schooner Gaspée (1772) occasioned hardly more than local excitement. Colonial newspapers continued to print essays on American rights, and houses of assembly embodied their views in resolutions; but these occasional writings, while doubtless not without their influence upon public opinion, hardly constitute a political literature of importance.

    To this early period of revolutionary agitation belong also the first two volumes of Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachusetts (1764–67) and the famous Hutchinson “Letters,” which, although not made public until 1773, date from 1768–69. Written by Hutchinson, previous to his governorship, to a friend in England, the “Letters” discuss events in Massachusetts from the point of view of a loyalist official who, deeply attached to the colony, was also deeply concerned at the grave course which affairs were taking, and who could honestly declare:

  • I wish the good of the colony when I wish to see some further restraint of liberty rather than the connexion with the parent state should be broken; for I am sure breach must prove the ruin of the colony.
  • By means never divulged, Franklin, in 1773, got possession of the letters and sent them to friends in Boston, where their publication greatly intensified the hostility to Hutchinson and precipitated his recall.

    With the destruction of the tea at Boston (16 December, 1773), the controversy between the colonies and the mother country entered upon the stage which was to lead to a declaration of independence and to war. In February, 1774, at a hearing before the Privy Council on a petition from Massachusetts for Hutchinson’s removal, Franklin was bitterly denounced for his connection with the Hutchinson letters, and was presently removed from his office of deputy postmaster-general for North America. In March, the port of Boston was by statute closed to commerce, except in food, after 1 June, until compensation should be made to the East India Company for the loss of the tea. In May, the charter of Massachusetts was so altered by act of Parliament as largely to deprive the colony of self-government, while by another statute provision was made for the trial in England, or in another colony, of persons accused of murder or other capital offence because of anything done by them in suppressing riots or enforcing the revenue laws. In June, more stringent regulations were enacted for the quartering of troops. General Gage had already arrived at Boston as military governor, and the coercion of the colony began.