When John Adams returned to Massachusetts after the session of the First Continental Congress, he was surprised to find that there was growing opposition to the radicals and the work of the Congress. It was led by a man who identified himself as “Massachusettensis.” On December 12, 1774 Massachusettensis published the first of a series of articles in which he decided to take the American “patriots,” as he says they styled themselves, head on. His pamphlets were very readable and persuasive. There were seventeen letters in all, each published about a week or ten days apart. When Adams heard about the articles and the influence they were having on the population in Massachusetts, he wrote a reply under the name of “Novanglus.” In the last few articles written by Massachusettensis, the author replied to Adams and in the last article evaluated the work of the First Continental Congress. In these two men the two sides had a final argument in which issues were discussed and analyzed prior to fighting actually breaking out. After that it was too late for any more discussions of this sort.
History books often acknowledge the articles of Massachusettensis but only to allow a fuller discussion of the articles written by Adams under the name of Novanglus, thus allowing a further defense of the patriot’s point of view. If, as Adams feared, Massachusettensis was persuasive enough to have a serious impact on the people of Massachusetts, to the extent that the position of the radicals was feeling threatened, then what Massachusettensis had to say needs to be understood. In the preface to the 1776 publication of the Massachusettensis letters in London, the editor explained that the word “Tory” had a very different meaning in America from the understanding of the word in England. In America a Tory was “a friend to the supremacy of the British Constitution over all the Empire. A Whig is an asserter of colonial independence, or, what is just the same, one who supports the idea of legislation, distinct and divided from British legislation, in all the several provinces.” These are the meanings that Massachusettensis used throughout his letters.
In the first four letters the author related the history of the resistance movement in Massachusetts. He referred to the muzzling of the press, the intimidation of people who tried to speak out in favor of the government, the burning and destruction of property, and the physical abuse some endured through tarring and feathering. The radicals “cut the bands of society asunder,” and he asked the question, “is not civil government dissolved?” “We feel the effects of anarchy . . . mutual confidence, affection and tranquility, those sweeteners of human life, are succeeded by distrust, hatred, and wild uproar; the useful arts of agriculture and commerce are neglected for caballing, mobbing this or that other man, suspected of thinking different from the prevailing sentiment of the times.” He went on to point out how the Whigs at first said that it was OK to pay external taxes set by parliament, but not internal taxes, then it was permissible to pay taxes that regulated trade, and finally wound up saying that no taxes or laws passed by parliament had any validity in British America at all, yet somehow they kept telling everyone that Americans were “loyal subjects of the king” and “entitled to the rights of the English constitution.” Finally, he said, the Whigs, as everyone knew, asserted total independence, yet pretended that it was not so.
Letter Five, written on January 9, 1775, is arguably Massachusettensis’s best letter. He outlined the complaint that Americans had against parliament and then analyzed it thoroughly and came to some sobering conclusions as to why the Whigs were in error. He said, “I intend to consider the acts of the British government which are held up as the principal grievances and inquire whether Great Britain is chargeable with injustice in any one of them; but must first ask your attention to parliament. I suspect many of our politicians are wrong in their first principle, in denying that the authority of parliament extends to the colonies.” Massachusettensis started with an outline of the three kinds of government then known in history. He said each had their own kinds of problems buried within. The first kind of government was “monarchy”—government of the one and subject to becoming a tyranny. The second was an “aristocracy”—government of the few and subject to faction and usurpation. The third was “democracy”—government of the many and subject to degenerate into violence, tumult and anarchy. However, “a government formed upon these three principles [together] in due proportion, is best calculated to answer the ends of government, and to endure, such a government is the British Constitution.” He went on to say, “The distributions of power are so just and the proportions so exact, as at once to support and control each other. An Englishman glories in being subject to and protected by such a government. The colonies are part of the British Empire.”
With the revolution of 1688, the monarchy was finally made subservient to Parliament. With that, the concept of “King in Parliament” became the guiding principle of English law. The king ruled through Parliament. This meant that American Whigs who kept petitioning for the king to reign in Parliament and have Parliament rescind the laws they had passed with regard to the American colonies, were asking of the king that which he was forbidden to do by law. Massachuttensis tried to make it clear that Americans were also covered by such a perfect form of government. He went on to make the most important points that Loyalists held, the center points to their whole position, that is, the supremacy of Parliament coupled with the fact that, for them, as well as for the people of Great Britain, the British Empire was a single state, not a collection of states. A colony was simply an extension of England. Massachusettensis started by saying:
Two supreme or independent authorities cannot exist in the same state. It would be the height of political absurdity . . . If then we are a part of the British Empire, we must be subject to the supreme power of the state, which is vested in the estates of parliament, notwithstanding each of the colonies have legislatures and executive powers of their own, delegated or granted to them for the purposes of regulating their own internal police, which are subordinate and must necessarily be subject, to the checks, control and regulation of the supreme authority. This doctrine is not new; but the denial of it is . . .
The principle argument against the authority of parliament, is this; the Americans are entitled to all the privileges of an Englishman; it is the privilege of an Englishman to be exempt from all laws that he does not consent to in person, or by representative; the Americans are not represented in parliament, and therefore we are exempt from acts of parliament, or in other words not subject to its authority . . . If the colonies are not subject to the authority of parliament, Great Britain and the colonies must be distinct states, as completely as Britain and Hanover are now. The colonies in that case will owe no allegiance to the imperial crown . . . as the title to the crown is derived from an act of parliament . . . Where shall we find the British constitution that we all agree we are entitled to? We shall seek in vain in our provincial assemblies. The houses of representatives or burgesses have not all the powers of the House of Commons . . . they have no more than what is expressly granted by their several charters . . . Thus, the supposition of our being independent states, or exempt from the authority of parliament, destroys the very idea of our having a British constitution.
On January 16, 1775, Massachusettensis published his sixth letter. He began by saying that, had someone fifteen years prior to 1774 denied that the British colonies were a part of the British Empire and subject to the authority of Parliament, “he would have been called a fool or a madman.” In this letter he showed that the right to tax the colonies and the supremacy of Parliament were fully consistent with the charters of the various colonies.
It is curious indeed to trace the denial . . . to the supreme authority of the state. When the stamp act was made, the authority of parliament to impose internal taxes was denied, but the right to impose external taxes ones . . . was admitted. When the act was made, imposing duties on tea & etc., a new distinction was set up; that the parliament had a duty to lay duties upon merchandise for the purposes of regulating trade, but not for the purpose of raising revenue . . .
Having got thus far safe, it was only taking one step more to extricate ourselves entirely from their fangs, and become independent states: That our patriots most heroically resolved upon, and flatly denied that parliament had a right to make any laws whatever, that should be binding on the colonies. There is no possible medium between absolute independence and subjugation to the authority of parliament . . .
My dear countrymen, it is of the last importance that we settle this point clearly in our minds . . . to deny the supreme authority of the state is high misdemeanor, to say no worse of it; to oppose it by force is an overt act of treason . . . [The colonies] as they have been severally annexed to the crown . . . became a part of the empire, and subject to the authority of parliament, whether they send members to parliament or not, and whether they have legislative powers of their own or not . . .
Our charter, like all other American charters, is under the great seal of England: the grants are made by the king . . . It is apparent, the king acted in his royal capacity, as King of England, which necessarily supposes the territory granted, to be a part of the English dominions, beholden to the crown of England.
The above paragraph is important. What Massachutensis was saying is that the land in North America was English before there was a colony in Virginia, Massachusetts or Plymouth. It was English by right of discovery.
Massachusettensis then pointed out that the charter of Massachusetts stipulated that the colony “may pass such laws as are necessary, but only to the extent that such laws and ordinances be not contrary or are repugnant to the laws and statutes of this our realm of England.”
He then pointed out that the king granted people of Massachusetts to be
free and quit from all taxes, subsidies and customs in New England for the space of seven years and from all taxes for and impositions for the space of twenty-one years in the other, plainly indicates that, after this expiration, this province would be liable to taxes then. Now I would ask, by what authority those taxes were not to be imposed? . . . It must . . . be by the king or parliament: it could not be by the king alone, for as king of England . . . he has no such power, exclusive of the lords and commons; consequently, it must have been by the parliament.
Quoting a part of the Massachusetts charter one more time:
Let us consider the clause in connection with other parts of the charter. It is a rule of law . . . to consider each part of an instrument, so as the whole may hang together, and be consistent within itself. If we suppose to exempt us from the authority of parliament, we must throw away all the rest of the charter, for every other part indicates the contrary, the inhabitants of the American colonies do in fact enjoy all the liberties and immunities of natural born subjects. We are entitled to no greater privileges than those, that are born within the realm; and they can enjoy no other than we do, thus, it is evident that this clause amounts to no more than the Royal assurance that we are a part of the British empire, not aliens, but natural born subjects, and, as such, bound to obey the supreme power of the state, and entitled to protection from it.
In his seventh letter published on January 23, 1775 he went over the history of the arguments used by the people he styled “patriots” and showed how they originally agreed with much of what he had said and how they changed their position time and time again, thus constantly trying to back Britain into a corner. “The powers of legislation [in the colonies] are confined to local or provincial purposes . . . by the words, so long as the same be not repugnant or contrary to the laws of this our realm: but . . . it is impossible to reconcile them to the idea of an independent state, as it is to reconcile the disability to omnipotence.”
Massachusettensis then referred to a pamphlet published by James Otis. Otis was a hero of John Adams and had, in Adams’s own words, been the spark that lit the resistance movement in New England and especially in Adams’s breast.
A pamphlet published in 1764, by a Boston gentleman, who was then the oracle of the Whigs, and whose profound knowledge in the law and constitution is equaled but by few . . . says ‘I . . . lay it down as one of our first principles from whence I intend to deduce the civil rights of the British colonies, that all of them are subject to, and dependent on Great Britain, and the parliament has undoubted power and lawful authority to make acts for the general good, that, by naming them, shall and ought to be equally binding, as upon the subjects of Great Britain within the realm. Is there the least difference, as the consent of the colonists whether taxes and impositions are laid on their trade and other property by the crown alone, or by parliament? As it is agreed on all hands, the crown alone cannot impose them, we should be justifiable in refusing to pay them; but we must and ought to yield obedience to an act of parliament, though erroneous, till repealed.’
Massachusettensis then quoted from the writings of John Dickinson of Pennsylvania,
The Pennsylvania Farmer [John Dickinson], who took the lead in explaining away the right of parliament to raise a revenue in America . . . tells us that ‘he who considers these provinces as states distinct from the British Empire has very slender notions of justice or their interests; we are but parts of a whole, and therefor there must exist a connection in due order. This power is lodged in parliament; and we are as much dependent on Great Britain as a perfectly free people could ever be on another . . .’
Thus our wretched situation is but the natural consequence of denying the authority of parliament and forcibly opposing its acts.
About this time John Adams returned to Massachusetts from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He was astounded to learn that the people of Massachusetts were being influenced by the writings of a Tory and that the articles were having a negative impact as far as the Whigs, or Patriots as they styled themselves, were concerned.
The Massachusettensis pamphlets were written by a man named Daniel Leonard (1740–1829). He graduated from Harvard in 1760 and was elected to the House of Representatives. He became an attorney and was acquainted with John Adams. As the Whigs under the direction of Samuel Adams and James Otis became increasingly vocal and even violent in 1773 and 1774, he became much more active in the political debate on the Tory side. He decided, late in 1774, to take up the pen and try to stem the tide of the Whigs, whom he saw clearly as leaning towards independence.
Adams wrote his replies under the name of “Novanglus,” Latin for “New England.” He began by asserting that the plan to “enslave” America came not from people in London, but rather from people in America. Adams was principally speaking of Sir Francis Bernard, the royal governor of Massachusetts and his successor, Thomas Hutchinson. Adams, throughout his life, was under the delusion that Hutchinson was the primary author of all the troubles bringing about the revolution.
Adams, in referring to Massachusettensis, wrote:
This, ill-fated and unsuccessful, though persevering writer, still hopes to change your sentiments and conduct . . . to convince you that the system of colonial administration which has been pursued for these ten or twelve years past was a wise, righteous, and humane plan; that Sir Francis Bernard and Mr. Hutchinson . . . are your friends.
I, on my part, may perhaps . . . show the wicked policy of the Tories [have presented] the design of enslaving the country.
He went on to assert one of the issues most hotly debated in the First Continental Congress, the idea of natural law. The debate over natural law, and the rights derived under natural law, were setting a foundation of the Whig cause on a fixed principle outside of English Common Law, and thus completely separating American rights from anything having to do with British law. He began by saying:
[Liberty] has been placed in the nature of man by God; and if it is the manifest design of the prince to annul the contract [between himself and the people] on his part, [this] will annul it on the part of the people . . . [and there is] a settled plan to deprive the people of all the benefits and blessings, and end the contract, to subvert the fundamentals of the constitution, to deprive them of all share in making and executing laws, (this) will justify a revolution.
In letter two he continued by taking on the Tories and their alleged “evil ways.” He wrote, “I have heretofore stated my intention of pursuing the Tories through all their dark intrigues, and to show the rise and progress of their schemes for enslaving this country.” In his argument against the Tories, he made the point that Americans were already paying taxes to Britain because the colonies could only trade with Britain, and accept a lower price than they might have at other markets. The difference, he said, “is a tax to Britain.”
The end of the French and Indian War created, as far as government officials in London were concerned, a whole new dynamic different than when the colonies were established. Great Britain had a new and larger empire, and had created a huge financial debt in obtaining that empire. Because of this, Royal Governor Bernard, right after the conclusion of the French and Indian War, wrote to London in 1764 suggesting a new way of thinking about governing the empire. He said, in effect, that because of the greatly expanded empire, there was going to have to be a new way of governing the empire. It had grown too big to be ruled in a hap-hazard fashion. “Benign neglect” simply was not going to work anymore. Therefor he suggested that new regulations may need to be considered, but this new way of governing the empire might upset some people in the colonies. Therefore he suggested a “go slow” approach and that governmental officials “reason with them [those who would oppose the new measures] at liesure,” in order to give them time to come around and be more receptive.
Adams saw this document as a dark and sinister plot to overthrow the rights of Americans and accused those whom Massachusettensis defended with nothing less than the total political destruction of the colonies of North America. For Adams, the issues were clear as black and white. The two positions as expounded by Massachusettensis and Novanglus cannot be seen in any way but stark contrast. For Adams, “There are but two kinds of men in the world, free men and slaves. The very definition of a free man is one who is bound by no laws to which he has not consented. Americans would have no way of giving their consent to the acts of parliament; therefor they would not be free men . . . What would be your condition under such an absolute subjection to parliament? You would not only be slaves, but the most abject sort of slaves to the worst of masters.”
In subsequent letters Adams took Massachusettensis on with respect to his arguments on the nature of British law and government, and revealed that he felt British law had absolutely no authority over America. In doing so he completely separated the government of Great Britain from the governments of the colonies and also separated the role of the king from that of Parliament, ignoring the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the authority of the king was merged into that of Parliament.
I would ask, ‘by what law the parliament has authority over America?’ By the law of nature, it has none; by the common law of England, it has none; for the common law, and the authority of parliament found on it, (that authority was) never extended beyond the four seas; by the statutes . . . it has none . . . This language, ‘the imperial crown of Great Britain’ is not a style of the common law, but of court sycophants.
Adams conceded Massachusettensis’s assertion that American Whigs claimed that:
The colonies owe no allegiance to any imperial crown, provided such a crown involves in it a House of Lords, a house of Commons . . . indeed we owe no allegiance to any crown at all. We owe allegiance to the person of the king, not his crown, to his natural, not his political, capacity . . . If . . . he appears king of Massachusetts, king of Rhode Island, of Connecticut, & etc., this is no absurdity at all; I wish he would be graciously pleased to assume them.
Here we see that Adams, like other American Whigs, completely resisted the results of the Glorious revolution of 1688 in which the power of the king was subsumed into Parliament. Adams would contend that the empire existed only in its allegiance to the king in person, stripped of any connections with the Crown of England.He went on to develop that distinction. Where Massachusettensis stated that there needs to be
‘Some superintending power, to draw together all the various dominions, in case of war, and in the case of trade’ [Adams replied] in fact and experience it has not been found so. [When] the proprietary colonies . . . did not come in so early to the assistance of the general cause of the last war as they ought, and perhaps one of them not at all . . . the inconveniences were small in comparison of the absolute ruin of the liberties which must follow the submission to parliament . . . But admitting the proposition . . . will it follow that parliament, as now constituted has a right to assume the supreme jurisdiction? By no means!
Adams talked of a union of the colonies with the mother country, but set some conditions. He completely failed to mention the plan proposed in the First Continental Congress by Joseph Galloway, but rather he presupposed conditions that obviously were unworkable. “A union of the colonies might be projected, if America has three millions, and the whole empire twelve millions, she ought to send a quarter part of all members to the house of commons, and . . . the haughty members for Great Britain must humble themselves, one session in four, to cross the Atlantic, and hold the parliament in America.”
Adams failed to mention that no American ever proposed any plan of union or representation to Great Britain and in the one case where such a possibility was suggested in the congress, the plan was quashed and erased from the books. Adams was not interested in compromise, only in Britain conceding to America on all points. He continued:
When Massachusettensis asks, ‘if Americans are not subject to British law, then can they claim the benefits of the English constitution, as the Whigs are always claiming?’ [Adams answers] If we enjoy, and are entitled to more liberty than the British constitution allows, where is the harm? Or if we enjoy the British constitution in greater purity and perfection than they do in England, as is really the case, whose fault is that? Not ours.
That a representation in parliament is impractical, we all agree, but the consequence is, that we must have a representation in our supreme legislature here. This was the consequence that was drawn by kings . . . more than a century ago . . . and it must be the general sense again soon, or Great Britain will lose her colonies.
Here one may wonder if Adams was not contradicting himself. Earlier he had completely separated America from Great Britain by stating that Americans owed allegiance to King George III only in his person, and not as king of Great Britain. And he repeatedly said there was no connection between America and the British Parliament. How, then, could Great Britain “lose” any colonies that she did not have? But he continued with a discussion of British common law:
By common law, I mean that system of customs, written and unwritten, which was known and in force in England in the time of King Richard I. This continued to be the case to the reign(s) of Elizabeth and King James I. In that time all the laws of England were confined to the realm, and within the four seas. There was no provision made in this law for governing colonies beyond the Atlantic, or beyond the four seas, by authority of parliament? No, nor for kings to grant charters to subjects in foreign countries.
Adams continued this theme of the power of kings and their charters. As a result, he forced a conclusion that can only be interpreted as leading to independence. “When a subject left the kingdom by the king’s permission, and if the nation did not remonstrate against it . . . he carries with him, as a man, all the rights of nature . . . his allegiance bound him to the king, and (that allegiance) entitled him to [the king’s] protection. But how? Not in France or America . . . he had a right to protection and the liberties England upon his return there, not otherwise.” Adams was saying that Americans were only entitled to the king’s protection and the liberties outlined in the English common law when they were physically in Great Britain. By living in America, they were outside British law. He went on to explain how he felt Americans derived their rights.
How then do we New England men derive our laws? I say, not from parliament, nor from common law, but from the law of nature, and with the compact made with [the] king in our charters . . . Our ancestors, when they emigrated, having obtained permission from the king to come here, and never being commanded to return to the realm had a right to have erected . . . a perfect democracy, or any other form of government they saw fit. They, indeed while they lived, could not have taken arms against the king of England, without violating their allegiance, but their children would not have been born within the king’s allegiance, would not have been natural subjects, and consequently not entitled to protection, nor bound to the king.
Adams made, in the last few paragraphs, any issue of taxation by Parliament moot. Despite all the talk to the contrary up to this point, Adams was saying that in the winter of 1774-1775 the American colonies were independent and sovereign states. They might have offered King George personal allegiance, if he would accept it, but if not, there was no other legal bond between America and Great Britain.
Massachusettensis responded to Novanglus in his sixteenth letter published on March 27, 1775. In this letter he took on the First Continental Congress. In his seventeenth and last letter he replied directly to Novanglus. In the issue responding to the First Continental Congress, he began by saying:
Our patriots claim, that humble petitions from the representatives of the people have been frequently treated with contempt. This is as virulent a libel upon his majesty’s government as falsehood and ingenuity combined could fabricate . . . Instead of being decent remonstrance’s against real grievances, or prayers for their removal, they were insidious attempts to wrest from the crown, or the supreme legislature, their inherent, inalienable prerogatives or rights . . .
Even when Great Britain has relaxed her measures, or appeared to recede from her claims, instead of manifestations of gratitude, our politicians have risen in their demands, and sometimes to . . . a degree of insolence . . .
None but idiots or madmen could suppose such measures (as passed by the congress) had a tendency to restore ‘union and harmony between Great Britain and the colonies.’ Nay, the very demands of the congress evince that was not their intention . . .
The delegates call themselves . . . ‘his majesty’s most faithful subjects’ . . . Yet . . . disown him in the capacity in which he granted the provincial charters; disclaim the authority of the king in parliament; and undertake to enact and execute laws, without any authority derived from the crown. This is dissolving all connection between the colonies and the crown . . .
In his last letter to the people, published on April 3, 1775, just a few days before the battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusettensis took on Adams’s writings in Novanglus.He opened by asserting Locke’s principle that the will of the people is expressed through the voice of the majority and that the minority have no authority to change the government on their own, and used that premise as a paradigm for America.
Novanglus has accused me of traducing the people of this province. I deny the charge. Popular demagogues always call themselves the people, and when their own measures are censured, they cry out, the people, the people are abused and insulted. The terms Whig and Tory have been adopted according to the arbitrary use of them in this province, but they rather ought to be reversed; an American Tory is a supporter of our excellent constitution, and an American Whig is a subverter of it.
Novanglus abuses me for saying that the Whigs aim at independence . . . by separating us from the king as well as parliament . . . Novanelus tries to hide the inconsistences of his hypothesis . . . Surely, he is not to learn that arguments drawn from obsolete maxims raked out of the ruins of the feudal system, or from the principles of obsolete monarchy, will not conclude the present constitution of government.
This letter ended the debate. Within two weeks shooting started and men were dying. The time for talking was over. This was the last chance Tories and Loyalists would have a voice in America. “Before independence was declared it was necessary to resolve the conflict between Patriots and Tories. This was by identification and ultimate suppression of the Tory voice, wherever, and whenever possible,” and, one might add, by any means possible.
The letters were originally printed as separate broadsheets with the first appearing on December 12, 1774 and the last on April 3, 1775. In 1776 they were combined into a single publication in London. That is the publication used for this discussion.
Massachutensis, A Series of Letters Containing a Faithful State of Many Important and Striking Facts, Which Laid the Foundation of the Present Troubles in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Interspersed with Animadversions and Reflections, Originally Addressed to the PEOPLE of that Province and Worthy of eh Considerations of THE TRUE PATRIOTS of this country, by a person of Honor upon the spot (Boston; reprinted London: J. Mathews, 1776), VI, files.libertyfund.org/1332/0951_bk.pdf.
This issue of the right of European kings claiming land in the western hemisphere has been an issue that Native Americans have had to live with ever since Columbus set foot on an island in the Caribbean centuries ago. As long ago as 1640 a Pilgrim settler in Massachusetts made the argument to the authorities in Plymouth and Boston that the lands in America did not belong to the King of England, but rightly belonged to the people that had been living in America long before Europeans even knew of its existence. The king, he said, had no right to grant settlements on lands belonging to other people. What he got for his troubles was banishment and a threat of arrest to be sent back to England in chains. Instead, he fled to the woods in the middle of winter and found refuge among the various tribes of Native Americans. Then he was granted a tract of land where he and any who would join him could live in peace on land that was not in any of the organized European colonies. That area of land we now call Rhode Island. It is the only colony that was founded on free grant by the Native Americans themselves, and not an English King. Later, to keep the other colonies from claiming the land themselves, Parliament and later King Charles II granted a Royal Charter to Rhode Island, thus forcing Massachusetts and Connecticut to keep their hands off. The Pilgrim settler was Roger Williams. He is one of ten Reformation leaders to have a statue in his honor at the Wall of Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland.
It is interesting that in addition to referring to monarchs that existed before 1688, he ignored any British law or political history since the Glorious Revolution. In addition, he said that the charters could not be used to connect America to Great Britain as they had no force in British law.
Here Massachusettensis makes a great point. However, the idea that the empire was a whole and America a part of that whole was a premise that Adams and the radicals could not agree to. Had Massachusettensis restricted his comments to the possibility that the Whigs, as the Patriots called themselves, represented less than the whole of America, then perhaps his argument would have had a greater impact, but that effort, tried by Joseph Galloway in the first Continental Congress, was completely rejected by the radicals.