Sir Francis Bernard — Colonial Governor of New Jersey and Massachusetts

1712-1779

Sir Francis Bernard (1712–1779) served as the Royal Governor of New Jersey (1758–1760) and Massachusetts (1760–1769) during the early years of the American Revolution. He is most well-known for governing Massachusetts through the Stamp Act Riots and the British Occupation of Boston.

Sir Francis Bernard, Governor, Portrait

Sir Francis Bernard. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Who was Sir Francis Bernard?

Sir Francis Bernard (1712-1779) was an English colonial administrator and governor who played a significant role during a crucial period in American history. Born in Brightwell, Oxfordshire, England, Bernard received his education at Westminster School and later attended Oxford University, where he earned a master’s degree in arts in 1736. Known for his intelligence and exceptional memory, it was said that he could recite entire plays by Shakespeare from memory.

After completing his education, Bernard pursued a career in law and was admitted to the bar in 1737. He married Amelia Offley in 1741, and the couple raised a large family. Throughout his life, Bernard had a strong desire for social advancement and actively sought connections that would further his career.

In 1758, Bernard’s political aspirations began to bear fruit when he was appointed as the governor of New Jersey. His tenure in New Jersey was marked by success as he gained a good reputation by promoting mutual defense activities among the colonies and negotiating treaties to end Indian raids on the colony’s frontiers. Bernard’s efforts contributed to New Jersey’s support during the French and Indian War.

In 1760, Bernard’s career reached new heights as he was appointed as the governor of the more populous and influential colony of Massachusetts. However, his time in Massachusetts was tumultuous. Bernard faced opposition from colonial legislators who viewed him as stubborn and difficult to work with. He enforced unpopular British policies, including the issuance of writs of assistance to enforce trade regulations.

Bernard’s unpopularity grew as tensions mounted between the American colonies and the British Empire. In 1768, he dissolved the Massachusetts assembly for refusing to withdraw the Massachusetts Circular Letter, written by Samuel Adams, further straining his relationship with the colonial legislators. The following year, leaked letters revealed his advocacy for reducing the power of the Massachusetts legislature, leading to his recall to England. Thomas Hutchinson replaced him as Governor.

After his recall, Bernard served as an advisor to the British government on colonial affairs. However, his involvement in shaping policies further fueled the anger and opposition of the American revolutionaries. Despite being made a baronet for his services, Bernard lived his later years in relative isolation and retirement. He passed away on June 16, 1779, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England.

Samuel Adams, Painting, Copley
Samuel Adams. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Francis Bernard Facts

Early Life

  • Bernard was born in present-day born in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, England.
  • He was born in 1712, but the exact date is unknown. He was christened on July 12, 1712.
  • Bernard’s parents were Reverend Francis Bernard and Margery Winslow.
  • His father died in 1715 and his mother died in 1718.
  • After the deaths of his parents, he is believed to have lived with an aunt.

Education

  • Bernard received his education at Westminster School and then attended Oxford University. 
  • He received a Master of Arts degree from Christ Church in 1736.
  • Bernard studied law at Middle Temple and became a lawyer in 1737.
  • He moved to the town of Lincoln, where he was neighbors with Thomas Pownall, who was appointed Governor of Massachusetts Bay in 1757.

Marriage and Political Connections

  • In 1741, Bernard married Amelia Offley and they had eight children together.
  • His wife’s cousin was Lord Thomas Barrington who was an influential figure in the  British government between 1755 and 1778.

Governor of New Jersey

  • In 1758, with Lord Barrington’s help, Bernard was appointed as the Royal Governor of the Province of New Jersey, replacing Jonathan Belcher.
  • He sailed to America with his wife and four of their children. The remaining children stayed in England with relatives.
  • Bernard arrived at Perth Amboy on June 14, 1758.
  • He started his tenure during the French and Indian War and was able to convince the colony to provide troops for the war effort.
  • Bernard played an important role in the Treaty of Easton that set boundaries between New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Native American Indian tribes.
  • He also played a role in the establishment of Brotherton, a formal Indian Reservation.
  • Bernard was appointed Governor of Massachusetts in the latter part of 1759.
  • At the time, Massachusetts also included present-day Vermont and Maine.
  • He resigned on July 4, 1760, and arrived in Boston on August 2.

Bernard’s Reputation

  • As Governor of New Jersey, Bernard gained a reputation as a talented, but cautious, politician.
  • He won the support and trust of the local leadership, contributing to his success.
  • Lord Barrington and other English officials took note of his performance.
  • As a result of his proven abilities, Bernard was then transferred to the governorship of Massachusetts, one of the most populous and wealthiest colonies within the British Empire.

Bernard’s Plan to Reorganize the British Colonies

  • Bernard recognized the strained nature of the British-colonial relationship that was emerging at the end of the French and Indian War.
  • He developed a detailed plan to reorganize the British Colonies in North America.
  • Bernard wanted to revise and streamline colonial charters and create larger colonies.
  • This was particularly relevant in New England, where small colonies, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut, had separate jurisdictions.
  • Bernard believed in the authority of the King and Parliament over the colonies, including the right to taxation
  • He envisioned the establishment of a North American nobility that would form an upper house of the legislature in each colony.
  • Bernard suggested colonial assemblies should be responsible for most taxes, while Parliament’s focus should be on trade regulations.
  • Ultimately, Bernard’s suggestions were dismissed.
  • Starting in 1763, Prime Minister George Grenville ordered the enforcement of the Molasses Act, which was followed by a series of tax reforms, including the Sugar Act, Currency Act, and Stamp Act.
George Grenville, Prime Minister, Portrait
George Grenville. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Governor Bernard’s Difficulties in Massachusetts Begin

  • Bernard enforced the Navigation Acts, which made him unpopular with prominent Boston merchants.
  • He appointed Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson to the position of Chief Justice. The move upset James Otis Jr. who believed the position had been promised to his father.
  • King George II died and King George III ascended the throne. New Writs of Assistance had to be issued, which were challenged in a 1761 lawsuit argued by Otis. From then on, Otis was a bitter political enemy of both Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson.
  • Otis argued the Writs violated the rights of colonists and delivered a fiery speech that John Adams later recalled as the beginning of the American Revolution.

Governor Bernard in the American Revolution

The Massachusetts Circular Letter

  • When Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, the Massachusetts General Assembly wrote a circular letter protesting the taxes and sent it to the other colonial assemblies. 
  • Bernard demanded the Assembly recall and renounce the letter, but the Assembly voted against him. Bernard responded by proroguing — prematurely ending — the session and sending the members home.
  • Bernard wrote letters to the Ministry in London, warning of the possibility of insurrection in Boston.

The Liberty Affair and Occupation of Boston

  • In 1768, John Hancock refused to allow British Customs Officials to inspect the cargo of one of his ships, Liberty. Soon after, the officials seized the ship, which led to a riot.
  • In response, 4,000 British troops were deployed to Boston to help maintain order and enforce the laws.

The Sons of Liberty Leak Bernard’s Letters

  • In 1769, a collection of letters he had written to officials in England, expressing his concerns about colonial behavior, were leaked to the press by the Sons of Liberty.
  • They were published in the Patriot newspaper, Boston Gazette, 
  • The letters led the Massachusetts General Assembly to ask the Ministry to have him removed from office.
  • He was recalled to England and Thomas Hutchinson replaced him as Governor.

Later Years and Death

  • Bernard was granted the title of a baronet and became known as Sir Francis Bernard of Needleham, Lincolnshire.
  • He held some other governmental positions that provided him with income, and he received a pension.
  • Bernard spent his final years in relative isolation and retirement, passing away in 1779.
Thomas Hutchinson, Portrait
Thomas Hutchinson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Why is Sir Francis Bernard Important to United States history?

Sir Francis Bernard is important to United States history because he was the Governor of Massachusetts during the early days of the American Revolution, including the dispute over the Writs of Assistance, the Liberty Affair, and the British Occupation of Boston. He also wrote a plan to reorganize the colonies that had some similarities to the Albany Plan of Union. However, like the Albany Plan, Bernard’s plan was not implemented.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Sir Francis Bernard — Colonial Governor of New Jersey and Massachusetts
  • Date 1712-1779
  • Author
  • Keywords Francis Bernard, New Jersey Colony, Massachusetts Colony, Salutary Neglect, Molasses Act, Sugar Act, Currency Act, Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, Massachusetts Circular Letter, Writs of Assistance, James Otis, Liberty Affair, Occupation of Boston, Sons of Liberty
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 21, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 27, 2023

Taxonomies