Massachusetts Circular Letter

February 11, 1768

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was written primarily by Samuel Adams in opposition to the Townshend Acts and “Taxation Without Representation.” The letter helped coordinate colonial opposition to the Townshend Acts. Although it increased tension with Great Britain, it also contributed to the growing sense of unity between the American Colonies, laying the foundation for the establishment of Committees of Correspondence and the First Continental Congress.

Samuel Adams, Sons of Liberty, Portrait, Copley

Samuel Adams. Image Source: MFA Boston.

Massachusetts Circular Letter Facts

  • Date — February 11, 1768.
  • Location — Boston, Massachusetts.
  • People InvolvedSamuel Adams, James Otis Jr., Thomas Cushing, Francis Bernard, and Wills Hill (Lord Hillsborough).
  • Historical Context — The Massachusetts Circular Letter was written, distributed, and responded to during the Townshend Crisis. This Crisis followed the Stamp Act Crisis (1765–1766) and preceded the Tea Crisis (1773–1774).
  • Related Slogans — “Save your money, and you save your country,” “Glorious 92,” and “No taxation without representation.”

Key Points

  • The Massachusetts Circular Letter was written in protest of the Townshend Acts.
  • While it acknowledged the authority of the Crown and Parliament, it alleged the Townshend Revenue Act was unconstitutional and was essentially theft.
  • The Circular Letter criticized the use of revenue for paying the salaries of colonial governors and other government officials
  • It questioned the expansion of taxes and government oversight (see Massachusetts Circular Letter Text and Explanation).
  • The Massachusetts House of Representatives sent the Circular Letter to the other colonial legislatures and suggested working together to find a constitutional solution to the crisis.
  • By the end of 1768, the colonies were unified behind the ideas of the Massachusetts Circular Letter, leading to the adoption of a non-importation agreement.

Massachusetts Circular Letter Significance

The Massachusetts Circular Letter is important to American History because it helped unite the American Colonies against British taxation, specifically the Townshend Acts. Issued by the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the Circular Letter increased tension between the colonies and Britain and contributed to the occupation of Boston by British troops, starting in October 1768. The Massachusetts Circular Letter laid the foundation for the Committees of Correspondence and the First Continental Congress.

Massachusetts Circular Letter History

Following the French and Indian War, the American Colonies were caught up in various crises that made up the portion of the American Revolution that preceded the American Revolutionary War. The first was the Stamp Act Crisis (1765–1766), which ended with the repeal of the Stamp Act. However, it was quickly followed by the Townshend Crisis as Parliament looked to tax the colonies for revenue. The Massachusetts Circular Letter was a key part of the Townshend Acts Crisis that played out from 1766 to 1770.

Samuel Adams started working on the Massachusetts Circular Letter in December 1767. James Otis Jr., who initially argued the Townshend Acts were valid and constitutional, changed his opinion and joined with Adams.

Adams and Otis were members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the lower body of the Massachusetts legislature. They were also prominent associates of the Sons of Liberty. Both had been heavily involved in protests against the Sugar Act (1764) and the Stamp Act (1765). Otis had also argued against Writs of Assistance in 1761, a moment that John Adams later recalled as the birth of the American Revolution.

Declaratory Act and Charles Townshend

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765, and also passed the Declaratory Act, which asserted its authority over the American Colonies. As as far as the Crown and Parliament were concerned, this included taxation. At first, Americans believed Parliament had given up on the idea of levying taxes on the colonies, but it was soon clear that was not the case.

On June 3, 1766, less than three months after passing the Declaratory Act, Charles Townshend said, “It has long been my opinion that America should be regulated and deprived of its militating and contradictory charters, and its royal governors, judges, and attorneys be rendered independent of the people. I therefore expect that the present administration will, in the recess of parliament, take all necessary previous steps for compassing so desirable an event.” Townshend became Chancellor of the Exchequer on August 2, 1766.

Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, NYPL
Charles Townshend, architect of the Townshend Acts. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

Debate in America

From this point on, rumors spread in America that Parliament intended to raise the tax issue again, and would take action against the Province of New York for refusing to comply with the 1765 Quartering Act.

On May 4, 1767, the Boston Evening Post printed a letter from London that said, “Taxing the colonies, in some shape or other, begins to be talked about.” Another letter said New York was accused of being in “…a state of rebellion and endeavoring to throw off their dependence.”

Almost immediately, a debate started over whether or not merchants should resort to a non-importation agreement, which had been used effectively against the Stamp Act. 

However, Americans were divided over how to respond. The violence that took place during the Stamp Act Crisis was still fresh in people’s minds. In some places, merchants were hesitant to agree to non-importation but were also afraid they would be branded as traitors to the colonies and targeted by angry mobs.

The Townshend Acts

By the middle of 1767, Parliament enacted the first Townshend Acts.

Secretary of State

The Townshend Acts intended to increase the number of British officials that were operating in the colonies, leading to the creation of a new office — Secretary of State for the Southern Department. The first man appointed to the position was Wills Hill, Lord Hillsborough.  In this position, he was responsible for overseeing colonial affairs, along with managing diplomatic relations with several nations, including France and Spain.

Wills Hill, Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State, NYPL
Wills Hill, Secretary of State. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

Salaries of Government Officials

The Townshend Acts were intended to raise revenue from the colonies but also aimed to assert Parliament’s authority over the colonial legislatures. Townshend made a critical — and fateful — decision to use the money raised from the Revenue Act to pay the salaries of colonial governors and judges. British officials in London believed this would free their counterparts in America from feeling pressure to appease opponents of British laws, such as the Sons of Liberty. Townshend knew his measures would be unpopular, saying, “…I do not expect to have any statue erected in America.”

Boston Sons of Liberty

The idea of using tax revenue to pay government officials was especially concerning to Americans, particularly the Boston Sons of Liberty. Before this, the colonial legislatures controlled the salaries of government officials, which gave them some authority over how the colony was governed. Under the Townshend Acts, a Governor only answered to the Crown and Parliament, and the old checks and balances on British control were done away with.

In 1766, the Boston Gazette warned that Governor Francis Bernard supported such a measure. What the publishers of the Gazette did not know was that it was true. As early as 1761, Governor Bernard had been working on a plan to reorganize the colonies and the entire system of government.

Francis Bernard, Governor, Massachusetts, NYPL
Governor Francis Bernard. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

Bernard was hopeful the Sons of Liberty and their followers in Boston would not resort to violence. However, on August 10, 1767, the Gazette started to publish articles that criticized the usage of revenue to pay the salaries of government officials, saying it would make them “independent of the people.” 

Four days later, on August 14, the Sons and their leaders made a statement by celebrating the anniversary of the First Boston Stamp Act Riot and adopting resolutions against the Townshend Acts. 

Non-Importation Movement and Homespun Products

On August 31, 1767, the Boston Gazette proposed a new non-importation agreement. The Boston Town Meeting met on October 28 and discussed the idea. Reports were given on the amount of cloth and shoes that had been manufactured in Boston and Lynn — known as “Homespun.” Although a non-importation agreement was not agreed to, people were encouraged to start producing more goods and products. The Boston Gazette started using the slogan, “Save your money, and you save your country.”

Customs Commissioners Arrive in Boston

At one point during Boston Town Meetings, it was suggested if non-importation was not enacted, the Customs Commissioners would be harassed and forced to resign when they arrived. The five members of the American Board of Customs Commissioners arrived in Boston on November 5, 1767. They were greeted by crowds carrying effigies with slogans such as “Liberty & Property & no Commissioners” but there was no physical violence or destruction of property.

Townshend Revenue Act Takes Effect

The provisions of the Townshend Revenue Act took effect on November 20, 1767. That morning, a handbill was posted to the Liberty Tree in Boston that called for the Sons of Liberty to take action and defend their rights. 

Although the handbill was removed, it upset James Otis Jr. A Town Meeting was held that day that was widely attended by political opponents of the Sons of Liberty. According to Governor Francis Bernard’s account, Otis delivered a speech where he argued the Townshend Acts were constitutional. 

The Boston Evening Post, a Loyalist newspaper, reported that Otis also warned against violence, saying “…were the burdens of the people so heavy, or their grievances ever so great, no possible circumstances, though ever so suppressive…could…justify…tumults and disorders.” He also said, “…to insult and tear each other to pieces was to act like madmen.”

While the Evening Post praised Otis, the Boston Gazette downplayed it. In the following weeks, the Gazette and the Post waged a war of words over Otis and his true intentions. At one point, one of the printers of the Post attacked one from the Gazette in an alley.

Letters From a Farmer

On December 2, 1767, the first open protest against the Townshend Acts came when the first article in Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania by John Dickinson was published in The Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser. In the series, Dickinson argued the Townshend Acts infringed on the constitutional rights of Americans as subjects of the King. The articles were printed in nearly all of the newspapers in Colonial America and were distributed as a single pamphlet by March 1768. By May, Benjamin Franklin had printed the pamphlet and distributed it in London.

John Dickinson, Penman of the Revolution, NYPL
Founding Father John Dickinson is known as the “Penman of the Revolution.” Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

Work Begins on the Massachusetts Circular Letter

Dickinson’s first article was published in the Boston Gazette on December 22, 1767, just in time for the December Boston Town Meeting, which was held on December 23. This helped set the process of writing the Massachusetts Circular Letter in motion.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives met on December 30 and the Townshend Acts were read. A committee was formed to “take under consideration the state of the province and report.” The committee included Samuel Adams, James Otis Jr., John Hancock, Thomas Cushing, James Otis Sr., and Joseph Hawley.

Samuel Adams, with assistance from James Otis Jr., crafted what has become known as the “Massachusetts Circular Letter,” which they believed would easily be approved by the Massachusetts House.

Upon approval, they planned to send it to the legislatures of the other 12 colonies — completely bypassing the governors. This would have been a break from protocol, as colonial governments were permitted to petition Parliament and the Crown, but the Circular Letter specifically called on the other colonies to openly discuss the Townshend Acts. If approved, Massachusetts would be viewed as the leader in organizing a united resistance to Parliament.

Massachusetts Circular Letter Approved

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was presented to the Massachusetts House of Representatives on January 22, 1768, but it was rejected over concerns it amounted to calling for a colonial congress, similar to the Stamp Act Congress (1765). However, the House did approve sending letters of protest to government officials in England. 

Governor Francis Bernard, who opposed nearly anything Adams, Otis, and the Sons of Liberty did, wrote to a colleague, celebrating their failure by saying, “…the faction has never had so great a defeat…it cuts off their hopes of once more inflaming the whole continent.”

In the weeks following the legislature’s rejection of the Circular Letter, Samuel Adams met with representatives and worked to change their opinion. Adams argued the letter did nothing more than invite the colonies to correspond with each other, which he believed they had a right to do. Adams was successful, and the Circular Letter was approved on February 11, 1768. The letter was signed by Timothy Cushing, Speaker of the House, and sent to the other colonial legislatures. It was also sent to Dennis De Berdt, the colony’s agent in London.

In essence, the letter informed the other colonies of what Massachusetts thought about the Townshend Acts and suggested they work together to find a constitutional solution to the problems they created. Massachusetts openly invited the other legislatures to provide feedback and continue to communicate with each other. The letter opened with:

“The House of Representatives of this province have taken into their serious consideration the great difficulties that must accrue to themselves and their constituents by the operation of several Acts of Parliament, imposing duties and taxes on the American colonies.

As it is a subject in which every colony is deeply interested, they have no reason to doubt but your house is deeply impressed with its importance, and that such constitutional measures will be come into as are proper. It seems to be necessary that all possible care should be taken that the representatives of the several assemblies, upon so delicate a point, should harmonize with each other.”

Malcolm Incident

Around the time the Circular Letter was sent out, Boston merchant Daniel Malcolm created a stir when he refused to allow customs officials to inspect his cellar, where he was believed to be storing smuggled casks of wine. However, they did not have a search warrant. Malcolm refused to let them in and threatened to shoot them. By the time they returned with a search warrant, Malcolm had gathered between 200 and 400 men and blocked them from approaching Malcolm’s property. Ultimately, the charges against Malcolm were dropped, but this act of resistance against British authority was not the last to take place during the Townshend Crisis.

Non-Violent Resistance

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was printed in the Boston Gazette on March 14, 1768. Four days later, Bostonians celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act. That morning, effigies of British officials were found hanging from the Liberty Tree, but they were removed by leaders of the Sons of Liberty. Thomas Hutchinson wrote that the Sons “declared there shall be no riots.” The message from political opponents of the Townshend Acts and leaders of the Sons of Liberty was that any violence against British officials would harm the cause.

Thomas Hutchinson, Massachusetts Governor, Portrait, Truman
Thomas Hutchinson. Image Source: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Lord Hillsborough Responds to the Circular Letter

When a copy of the letter reached London, it was received by Lord Hillsborough, who presented it to the cabinet on April 15, 1768.

Hillsborough, on the instruction of King George III, responded to Governor Bernard, informing him he was to order the Massachusetts Legislature to rescind the letter. If it refused to do so, then Bernard was to suspend the legislature to “prevent…future…conduct of so extraordinary and unconstitutional measure.” 

Hillsborough also sent a letter to the other governors and told them to tell their legislatures to treat the Circular Letter as “seditious,” and to suspend them if they supported Massachusetts.

At this time, King George III was still held in high regard in the colonies, and British officials believed his directive would carry the necessary weight to end the movement that was started by the Massachusetts Circular Letter. 

Colonies Respond to the Circular Letter

After the Circular Letter was received in Virginia, the House of Burgesses met on March 31, 1768, and the members discussed it. They responded with a reply to Massachusetts and sent their own Circular Letter, in support of the intercolonial protest of the Townshend Acts. Eventually, all the colonies were unified in support of the Massachusetts Circular Letter.

Virginia’s Circular Letter

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was printed in Virginia newspapers, along with Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer. Peyton Randolph, a prominent member of the House of Burgesses — the Virginia equivalent of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, received the letter directly from Speaker Cushing.

Governor Richard Fauquier died on March 1, so the task of running the colony temporarily fell to John Blair, the President of the Governor’s Council. Blair called for the House of Burgesses to meet, to discuss the colony’s business — but he ignored the Circular Letter, as instructed by Lord Hillsborough. 

Peyton Randolph, Founding Father, NYPL
Peyton Randolph. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

However, by the time the House of Burgesses convened on March 31, some of the counties in Virginia had already passed resolutions protesting the Townshend Acts and instructed their delegates to ask the House to write a petition to the King. Although Blair ignored the Circular Letter, Speaker Randolph did not.

The House of Burgesses took steps to support the Massachusetts Circular Letter by writing:

  • A petition to King George III.
  • A memorial to the House of Lords.
  • A remonstrance to the House of Lords.
  • A Circular Letter for the other colonial legislatures.

In the Virginia Circular Letter, the House of Burgesses said the colonies should unite “…in their opposition to measures which they think have an immediate tendency to enslave them.” The House also called for a “hearty union” between the colonies.

Pennsylvania

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was presented to the Pennsylvania Legislature on May 10, however, it took no action. The Quaker Party, led by Joseph Galloway, dominated the legislature and did not want to create tension with Parliament. 

At the time, Benjamin Franklin was in London, working to convince the Crown to take control of Pennsylvania and transform it into a Royal Colony. Galloway did not want to create issues with British officials and was critical of Dickinson’s Letters, writing they were “fit for the selectmen of Boston and mob meetings of Rhode Island.”

Joseph Warren

The situation in Boston escalated when the House of Representatives accused Governor Bernard of lying to Lord Hillsborough about the intentions behind the Circular Letter. The House demanded that Bernard release all letters he had sent to Hillsborough.

Around this time, a new voice joined the ranks of the Sons of Liberty, that of young Dr. Joseph Warren, a protege of Samuel Adams. Warren wrote a series of articles criticizing Bernard that appeared in the Boston Gazette. Warren did not mention the Governor by name, but the context made it clear who he was referring to.

Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson defended Bernard by trying to indict the printers of the Boston Gazette, Benjamin Edes and John Gill, who were also members of the Sons of Liberty, for libel. However, the legislature and the courts refused to take action. 

Joseph Warren, Sons of Liberty, Portrait, Copley
Joseph Warren. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Bernard also refused to release all his correspondence with Hillsborough, as requested by the House, so the House responded by asking him to be removed from office.

Meanwhile, Warren continued to write articles in the Gazette and the Sons of Liberty celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act on March 18, 1768. That night, a crowd roamed the streets of Boston and paraded past the homes of the Customs Commissioners. No riot occurred, but there was some minor vandalism.

The Lydia Incident

In early April, customs officials suspected one of John Hancock’s ships, the Lydia, of carrying smuggled casks of wine. Hancock refused to allow them access to the cargo hold. One of the men, Owen Richards, went back to the ship and tried to sneak on board. 

Hancock’s men were waiting for him and seized him. Hancock asked to see his paperwork, authorizing a search. Richards did not have a Writ of Assistance and his orders were expired. He reported the incident, but Hancock avoided legal trouble due to the invalid paperwork.

Word of Hancock’s act of resistance spread quickly, which helped increase his reputation among Bostonians. On May 4, Hancock was reelected to the Massachusetts General Assembly. The Assembly then elected him to the Governor’s Council, along with James Otis and Samuel Adams. These appointments to the Council were rejected by Governor Bernard and supported by officials in London.

The Liberty Affair

Five days after the elections, on May 9, another one of Hanock’s ships, the Liberty, arrived at Boston, carrying casks of Madeira Wine. Once again, customs officials hoped to catch Hancock in the act of smuggling.

Customs officials tried to inspect the cargo but were apparently forced into a room and held there for three hours while the crew unloaded the illegal cargo. One of the men, Thomas Kirk, initially reported he had no idea where the extra cargo went because he had not seen it unloaded. He did not tell anyone he had been held against his will. 

Liberty Affair, 1768, John Hancock, Illustration
This illustration depicts cargo being unloaded from the Liberty. Image Source: Pictorial Encyclopedia of American History, Children’s Press, Inc., 1962.

After the arrival of the man-of-war HMS Romney, two weeks later, Kirk decided to tell customs officials what really happened. Afterward, Joseph Harrison (Collector of the Port of Boston) and Benjamin Hallowell (Comptroller of the Port of Boston) seized the Liberty on June 10 and had it towed out into Boston Harbor, where it was anchored near the Romney.

Moving the Liberty away from the wharf outraged Bostonians, who responded by rioting and destroying the homes of Harrison and Hallowell. Fearing for their safety, the men and their families fled to Castle Island in Boston Harbor.

Governor Bernard responded by meeting with the Governor’s Council and suggesting they ask to have troops sent to Boston to maintain order. The Council declined, believing it would only cause more trouble. When the Sons of Liberty found out Bernard wanted to bring in troops, they disclosed it to a crowd at a meeting they held at the Liberty Tree.

Accusations from Boston

The people of Boston sent a letter to the colony’s agent — or representative — in London, Dennys De Berdt. The letter placed the blame for the Liberty Affair on what people believed were unconstitutional laws that imposed taxes to raise revenue. It also compared the Customs Officers and Commissioners to thieves who stole from the people of Massachusetts.

Hinting at Rebellion

In 1766, Governor Bernard asked General Thomas Gage to send troops to Boston to help maintain order. However, the request was denied. Bernard sent a detailed narrative of the Liberty Affair to Lord Hillsborough and urged him to take action to prevent an uprising.

The Customs Commissioners expressed concerns an uprising was imminent in a letter they sent to London. They accused the local assemblies of coordinating efforts to resist British policies and suggested if there was an uprising in Boston it would spread to other colonies. The only way to stop that from happening was to send troops to Boston to occupy the city.

The commissioners also sent letters to General Gage in New York, Colonel William Dalrymple in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Commodore Samuel Hood, asking for help and protection.

Bernard Orders the Recall of the Circular Letter

On June 21, Governor Bernard sent a letter to the House of Representatives, instructing the members to recall the Circular Letter, and sent them a portion of the letter he had received from Lord Hillsborough, indicating the orders came directly from King George III.

James Otis Jr. delivered a speech to the House, saying, “When Lord Hillsborough knows that we will not rescind our acts, he should apply to parliament to rescind theirs. Let Britain rescind her measures, or the colonies are lost to her for ever.”

James Otis, Sons of Liberty, American Revolution, NYPL
James Otis. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

The House debated how to respond for more than a week. The sessions were presided over by a special committee that included Samuel Adams, James Otis Jr., John Adams, John Hancock, James Warren, and Thomas Cushing. Bernard, who watched the proceedings, said the deliberations were led by the “…most violent heads of the faction.”

The House asked to see copies of all letters written by Bernard and Hillsborough. Bernard only sent the orders from Hillsborough. He also threatened to dissolve the legislature if it failed to comply and said he would refuse to hold new elections until he was ordered to do so by officials in London. 

Finally, on June 3, the legislature voted 92-17 against rescinding the letter. Bernard responded by suspending the legislature the next day.

The Glorious 92, John Wilkes, and 45

News of the refusal to rescind the Circular Letter spread throughout the colonies. The 92 men who defied Governor Bernard were celebrated as the “Glorious 92.” The Sons of Liberty in Newport, Rhode Island referred to them as the “Ninety-two Anti-Rescinders.” The silversmith Paul Revere fashioned a punchbowl and engraved the 92 names on it, along with the “Glorious 92.” John Dickinson wrote the “Liberty Song” as a tribute to them.

In England, the Glorious 92 was associated with John Wilkes. Wilkes was a radical journalist and politician who was famous for supporting the rights of the people through his newspaper The North Briton. In Issue 45, Wilkes criticized King George III, which led to his arrest. Wilkes’ popularity increased, leading people to chant, “Wilkes, Liberty, and the Number 45.”

45 became a rallying cry in America for supporters of the Patriot Cause. Americans in London were said to use the following toast, “May the unrescinding Ninety-Two be for ever united in idea with the glorious Forty-Five.” 

Throughout the colonies, both numbers were held in high regard. For example, the Daughters of Liberty held quilting parties where they would use 45 pieces of one color of cloth and 92 of another color.

Opposition in Boston Continues

Soon after, some members of the Sons of Liberty turned to harassing the Customs Commissioners. They vandalized the home of John Robinson and tried to force John Williams, the Inspector General of Customs, to resign. Williams refused, but the increasing unrest concerned Governor Bernard.

Petition to Remove Governor Bernard

Around June 28, 1768, the House sent a petition to King George III, asking for Governor Bernard to be recalled and replaced. The petition accused Bernard of lying to the King about the purpose of the Circular Letter:

“He has endeavored to persuade Your Majesty’s ministers to believe that an Intention was formed, and a plan settled, In this, and the rest of your colonies, treasonably to withdraw themselves from all connection with, and dependence upon Great Britain and from their natural allegiance to Your Majesty’s sacred person and government.”

Expanding Colonial Support for Massachusetts

Meanwhile, colonial legislatures continued to communicate with each other, showing their support for Massachusetts the Massachusetts Circular Letter. Many of them sent petitions to London that clearly stated their objections. 

In some cases, the assemblies danced around Lord Hillsborough’s order to ignore “seditious” letters. It was read before the assembly and then the members voted on whether or not they felt it was seditious — and they voted the Massachusetts Circular Letter was a loyal and legal document.

A letter from New York praised Massachusetts, saying, “May the same noble zeal spread…from town to town and colony to colony, till we become united as one man in this glorious resolution  — never to surrender our inherent rights and privileges.”

See below — Appendix: The Massachusetts Circular Letter Unifies the Colonies — for more information on how the colonies, other than Virginia and Pennsylvania, united behind the Circular Letter.

Boston Non-Importation Agreement

On August 1, 1768, Boston merchants signed the Boston Non-Importation Agreement. Several major cities joined Boston and passed their own versions, including New York and Philadelphia. The Boston agreement remained in effect until the end of the Townshend Act Crisis in 1770 when Parliament repealed the Townshend Revenue Act — except for the tax on tea.

Lord North Succeeds Townshend

On September 4, Charles Townshend died after suffering from a fever. Lord Frederick North, the Earl of Guilford, was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer and inherited the trouble caused by the Townshend Acts.

Troops Sent to Boston

As the summer of 1768 wore on, rumors continued to spread that Governor Bernard had requested troops and they were on their way. On August 15, the Sons of Liberty celebrated the first Boston Stamp Act Riot. There was a parade, cannons were fired, and a toast was made to the “Glorious 92.”

The reality of the situation is that the request of the Customs Commissioners for troops had been heard and agreed to. On June 8, 1768, orders were issued to General Gage, instructing him to send men to Boston. He was also notified the 64th Regiment of Foot and the 65th Regiment of Foot were on their way from Ireland. Troops were also sent from Halifax.

Pennsylvania Revisits the Massachusetts Circular Letter

In July 1768, a meeting was held in Philadelphia where the townspeople demanded the legislature respond to the Massachusetts Circular Letter. The situation intensified when news arrived that British troops were on their way to Boston.

Joseph Galloway wrote an article for the Pennsylvania Chronicle that criticized the move, however, he still argued against the Pennsylvania Assembly supporting the Massachusetts Circular Letter. Instead of gaining support for his position, Galloway and the Quaker Party were criticized for failing to support the popular colonial position regarding the Circular Letter and the Townshend Acts.

The Pennsylvania Assembly responded by sending letters of protest to the King, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords. Although it did not formally approve the Circular Letter, it did approve a resolution that said it had the right to communicate directly with the other legislatures. The Assembly also instructed its agents in London to work with the other colonial agents.

Massachusetts Convention of Towns

On August 27, 1768, Governor Bernard was informed that British troops were being sent to Boston. Bernard was concerned there would be a revolt when they arrived, so he leaked the information, which backfired on him. Rumors that Boston was about to be invaded and occupied did not ease tensions, it inflamed them.

The Boston Town Meeting sent a committee to ask him to recall the legislature, so it could address the issue of the impending arrival of troops. Bernard said could not do so without approval from London. The committee accused him of lying, and also of requesting the troops himself.

The committee called for a convention of towns to discuss the issues at hand. The meeting was held in Boston on September 22. Boston’s representatives were James Otis, Samuel Adams, John Hanock, and Thomas Cushing. 30 towns sent delegates to the Massachusetts Convention of Towns.

The convention sent a petition to Bernard, asking him to convene the legislature, but he declined. He responded and suggested if the convention did not dissolve, the participants could be charged with crimes. The convention replied, asking him to clarify which laws they were breaking. This time, Bernard refused to reply. Ultimately, the convention wrote a petition to the King, simply asking for the legislature to be allowed to meet and the Convention of Towns ended on September 27.

Boston Garrison

On September 28, 1768, ships from Halifax, Nova Scotia arrived in Boston Harbor, carrying the 14th Regiment of Foot and the 29th Regiment of Foot. More troops arrived on the 29th, along with British warships. On October 1, the first troops disembarked, and Boston was under military occupation.

Boston Garrison, 1768, Arrival of British Troops
This illustration depicts British troops entering Boston. Image Source: Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, 1865.

Parliament Responds to the Massachusetts Circular Letter

Both Houses of Parliament accused Massachusetts of promoting independence and undermining the government by issuing the Circular Letter and holding the Convention of Towns.

Based on an old law that dated to the reign of King Henry VIII, Parliament debated arresting the leaders of the movement and transporting them to England for questioning and prosecution. However, the idea was dismissed because the law was based on treason, and British legal experts did not find proof that Adams, Otis, and the others had committed treason. Still, efforts continued to find a way to have them taken to England and make an example of them.

A letter appeared in the Boston Evening Post on April 3, 1769, that said:

“During the debate in the House of Commons, on the king’s speech, doctrines were mentioned that would set America in flames…These were to govern America by military force, seize Otis…and all the leading men in Boston, and everywhere else, who opposed their measures, bring them here and hang them. The Ministry are violent against us…”

Bernard’s Letters Leaked

Governor Bernard received a letter from Lord Hillsborough, instructing him to investigate the actions of the leaders. The letter, and others, were leaked and printed in the Boston Gazette in April 1769, increasing criticism of him.

Virginia Supports Massachusetts

In Virginia, the House of Burgesses responded by passing a set of resolutions that declared:

  • The House of Burgesses was the only legislative body with the constitutional right to levy taxes on the inhabitants of the Province of Virginia.
  • It had the right to petition the King and to communicate with the other colonies.
  • All trials over charges of treason should be carried out in Virginia courts.
  • Transporting the accused outside of Virginia would deprive them of their right to a trial by jury of peers.

The resolutions were passed on May 16, 1769. The governor responded by dissolving the House of Burgesses. However, Peyton Randolph sent them to the other legislatures, and they were printed in the newspapers throughout America.

Unification Spreads with the Virginia Association

As soon as the governor dissolved the House of Burgesses, the members met at another location and agreed to form an association to enforce a non-importation agreement. The articles of the association were shared with the other colonies. Merchants throughout the colonies adopted the resolutions of the Virginia Association. 

The last to agree was North Carolina, and when it was announced, a letter in the Massachusetts Gazette declared, “Thus are the colonies at last happily united. It now remains for the patriots to improve this union to the best advantage.”

Bernard Recalled and Unrest Continues

As support for non-importation spread through the colonies, Governor Francis Bernard was recalled to England and he left on August 1, 1769. The Sons of Liberty celebrated his departure by decorating the Liberty Tree. Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson oversaw the government after Bernard left.

In the months following Bernard’s departure, unrest over the Townshend Acts increased, leading to the Battle of Golden Hill (January 19–20, 1770), the Death of Christopher Seider (February 22, 1770), and the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770).

Appendix: The Massachusetts Circular Letter Unifies the Colonies

By the end of 1768, all of the colonies except for New Hampshire were formally unified in their support of the Massachusetts Circular Letter. Even if they did not formally adopt it, they echoed its sentiments in letters of protest that were sent to London.

Rhode Island was the first to respond, and North Carolina was the last to unite with Massachusetts. The North Carolina response was printed in the Boston Evening Post on May 15, 1769, with the observation, “The above letter completes the answers to our Circular Letter. The colonies, no longer disconnected, form one body; a common sensation possesses the whole; the circulation is complete, and the vital fluid returns from whence it was sent out.”

What follows are summaries of how the other 10 colonies responded to the Massachusetts Circular Letter. They are presented from North to South. Virginia and Pennsylvania are not included here, as they are discussed in detail in the History.

New Hampshire

The New Hampshire legislature received the Circular Letter but was not in session long enough to formally adopt it or show its support. Peter Gilman, the Speaker of the House, responded to Speaker Cushing and said he agreed with the letter’s sentiments and hoped the other colonies would join with Massachusetts.

Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, the rum distilling industry had been hit hard by the crackdown on smuggling that followed the end of Salutary Neglect and the passage of the Sugar Act. On December 2, 1767, the city of Providence passed a non-importation agreement. Newport followed suit, as did many other towns. 

In the General Assembly, there was a sharp divide between supporters of Stephen Hopkins and Henry Ward. However, they put aside their differences long enough to inform Governor John Wentworth that it supported Massachusetts. Metcalf Bowler was the Speaker of the House at this time.

Connecticut

The Connecticut Assembly, led by Speaker Zebulon West, approved the Massachusetts Circular Letter in June.

New York

The New York Assembly had been suspended by the New York Restraining Act but had agreed to provide limited funding for British troops and the provisions never took effect. The effort to provide funding was led by the Livingstons, which angered the Sons of Liberty in New York. As a result, Robert R. Livingston and John Morin Scott lost their seats in the General Assembly in the spring elections. 

Despite the losses, the Livingstons still held the majority in the Assembly. Their rivals, the DeLanceys, decided to try to use the Massachusetts Circular Letter to their advantage. With support from the Sons of Liberty, they enticed public demonstrations supporting the Circular Letter and criticizing Governor Bernard. The demonstrations essentially forced the Assembly to address the Letter, otherwise, their constituents would have questioned their loyalty and labeled them as enemies of New York. 

On December 31, the Massachusetts Circular Letter was addressed by the New York Assembly, and Philip Livingston, the Speaker of the House, was instructed to respond. The Assembly also passed resolutions that included the right to correspond with other legislatures.

Governor Moore responded by suspending the Assembly and calling for new elections. The DeLancey’s plan worked, and they won more seats in the Assembly.

New Jersey

The New Jersey legislature, led by Courtland Skinner, supported Massachusetts and responded by saying it wanted to unite with the other colonies in correspondence. New Jersey also sent letters to British officials in London and instructed its agents there to coordinate efforts with agents from the other colonies.

Delaware

The Delaware Assembly responded to the Virginia Circular Letter by sending letters to British officials in London, making it clear the legislature believed the Townshend Acts were unconstitutional. It also said the legislatures had the right to communicate with each other and to express opinions that differed from those of British officials. Delaware argued the inability to have and express different opinions over legislation would eliminate all liberty.

Maryland

The Maryland Assembly defined Governor Horatio Sharpe by preparing letters to the King, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords. It also approved the Massachusetts Circular Letter and responded to the Virginia Circular Letter.

The Assembly told Sharpe it could not “be prevailed on to take no notice of…a Letter so expressive of duty and loyalty to the sovereign, and so replete with just principles of liberty…”

Further, the Assembly said, “…whenever we apprehend the rights of the people to be affected, we shall not fail…to maintain and support them, always remembering…that by the bill of rights it is declared, ‘That it is the right of the subject to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.’”

In effect, the Maryland Assembly said that prohibiting the right to petition the King — whether by itself, or in union with the other colonies — was illegal.

North Carolina

The North Carolina Assembly instructed the Speaker of the House to respond to both Circular Letters. Governor William Tryon, who was afraid to take serious action against the Assembly, essentially ignored the action.

South Carolina

In July, Peter Manigault, the Speaker of the House, received the Circular Letters from Massachusetts and Virginia. He answered both, informing them the South Carolina Agent in London had been instructed to work with the other agents.

Meanwhile, merchants and planters were joined in their support of the Massachusetts Circular Letter and opposition to the Townshend Acts by Backcountry farmers. The farmers organized a “Plan of Regulation” that opposed the courts and refused to pay taxes. 

By October, the movement joined with Patriots in Charleston to designate a “Liberty Tree,” decorated with 45 lights, and celebrate the “Massachusetts 92.” They sang John Dickinson’s “Liberty Song” and nominated Christopher Gadsden for a seat in the General Assembly.

Elections were held in October. Gadsden, a prominent merchant and delegate to the Stamp Act Congres, was elected to the new Assembly, which met in November. Governor Charles Montagu told the assembly that he intended to ignore any seditious letters, but the assembly responded by voting it had not received any seditious letters because both the Massachusetts and Virginia Circular Letters expressed their support for the King and Parliament.

The assembly passes resolutions opposing the Townshend Acts and supporting the circular letters from Massachusetts and Virginia. Governor Montagu responded by suspending the assembly.

The 26 members of the South Carolina Assembly who voted to support the Circular Letters were celebrated as “The Unanimous Twenty-Six.”

Georgia

The Georgia Assembly had 25 members, and 18 of them were Loyalists. The Assembly voted that the Circular Letters were not seditious, but did promote a union in terms of representing the rights of people who felt wronged by the Townshend Acts. However, they saw nothing wrong with it, because it was done respectfully. The Assembly, led by Speaker Alexander Wylly, responded with a letter that informed Massachusetts it approved its course of action. Governor James Wright responded by suspending the Assembly.

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

  • Blanco, Richard L. The American Revolution 1775–1783, An Encyclopedia.
  • Boatner, Mark. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.
  • Cook, Don. The Long Fuse: Howe England Lost the American Colonies.
  • Dickerson, Oliver M. The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution.
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory and Ryerson, Richard. The Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Frothingham, Richard. The Rise of the Republic of the United States.
  • Jensen, Merrill. The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763–1776.
  • Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776.
  • Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789.
  • Reid, John Philip. In a Rebellious Spirit: The Argument of Facts, the Liberty Riot, and the Coming of the American Revolution.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution.
  • Sears, Lorenzo. John Hancock, the Picturesque Patriot.

Citation Information

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

  • Article Title Massachusetts Circular Letter
  • Date February 11, 1768
  • Author
  • Keywords Massachusetts Circular Letter, Samuel Adams, James Otis
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 16, 2024

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