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Sunday, July 9, 2017

"To Prepare Reasons for Our Present Conduct" - Lexington's Reaction to the Townshend Acts

We at Historical Nerdery have to make a confession...we have a secret history nerd crush on Boston 1775. If you haven’t visited Mr. Bell’s blog, please do so. It contains everything and anything relevant to Colonial New England. In short, the site is simply amazing.

Late last week, Boston 1775 posted two articles about the passage of the Townshend Acts. Of course, this inspired us to look at how Lexington reacted to the passage of this economic program.

In 1767, England faced a financial crisis. To defray imperial expenses in the colonies, Charles Townshend, the impetuous Chancellor of the Exchequer, of whom it was said, “his mouth often outran his mind”, suggested a series of laws directed at raising revenue from the American colonies. The Townshend Acts, as they became known, provided for an American import tax on paper, painter’s lead, glass and tea. The acts also tightened custom policies and revived the vice-admiralty courts. Although a minority within the House of Commons opposed such a measure, the majority rationalized it would “raise colonial revenue, punish the colonists for their ill-behavior after the repeal of the Stamp Act, and exercise the rights to which Parliament laid claim in the Declaratory Act.”

Once again, Boston stood at the forefront of opposition. On October 28, 1767, the citizens resolved, at a town meeting, to oppose the acts by refusing to import English goods and to encourage American manufacture instead. Lexington followed Boston’s initiative. On December 28, 1767, Lexington “Voted unanimously, to concur with the town of Boston respecting importing and using foreign commodities, as mentioned in their votes, passed at their meeting on the twenty-eighth day of October, 1767.”

However, by 1768, Boston was once again resorting to violence to indicate its opposition to British policy. In March, rioters went to “Commissioner Burch’s home and with clubs assembled before his door a great part of the evening, and he was obliged to send away his wife and children by a back door.” Inspector William Woolton returned home one evening to find “4 men passing him, one with a stick or bludgeon in his hand accosted him saying, ‘Damn your Blood we will be at you to Morrow night.” The victims of the mob begged Governor Bernard to apply for military protection so the Townshend Acts could be enforced. The governor struggled with the decision, but ultimately applied to the king for troops. At the same time, however, British merchants pleaded with Parliament and the King to repeal the act before they were brought to financial ruin. Yet their pleas went unanswered. In 1768, Governor Bernard was ordered to dissolve the Massachusetts legislature, and two full regiments of British regulars were dispatched to Boston to protect the custom officials and help to enforce the Townsend Acts.


Lexington’s inhabitants reacted with dismay. On September 21, 1768, they assembled “to take into their serious consideration the distressed state of the Province at the present day, and to pass any vote thereto.” Isaac Bowman, William Reed, Esq., and Deacon James Stone were selected “to prepare reasons for our present conduct.”

After much consideration, the three men presented a series of resolves to the town. The resolves looked for precedent to the act passed by Parliament during the first year of the reign of William and Mary, settling the succession of the crown and declaring the rights and liberties of their subjects. In particular, they appealed to the Massachusetts Royal Charter, for the authority to forthrightly defend their rights as Englishmen. The residents of Lexington, through their resolves, argued that it was explicitly stated in the charter of Massachusetts that as inhabitants of the colony they possessed “Certain rights, Liberties & privileges therein Expressly mentioned: Among which it is Granted, Established and ordained That all and every ye Subjects of Them, their heirs and Successors, which Shall Go to inhabit within Sd Province & territory, & Every of their children which shall happen to be born there . . . Shall have & injoy all the Liberties and Immunities of free & Natural Subjects . . .as if they & every of them were Born within the Realm of England.”

As was the practice at this time, the people of Lexington acknowledged “their firm & unshaken allegiance to their alone rightful Sovereign King George the Third.” However, they went on to assert “[That] the freeholders & other Inhabitants of the Town of Lexington will, at the utmost peril of their Lives and Fortunes, take all Legal and Constitutional measures to Defend and maintain ye person, Family, Crown and Dignity of our Said Sovereign Lord, George ye Third, and all and Singular the Rights, Liberties, privileges and Immunities Granted in said Royal Charter as well as those which are Declared to be Belonging to us as British subjects, by Birthright as all others therein Specially mentioned.”

The resolves concluded by condemning as infringement of the Royal Charter both the policy of levying taxes without consent of the people of Massachusetts or their elected representative, and the quartering of troops in Boston. “Therefore, Voted as ye opinion of this Town, that levying money within this Province for the Use and Service of ye Crown in other manner than ye same is Granted by the Great and General Court or Assembly of this province is in violation of ye Said Royal Charter: and . . .the Raising & keeping a Standing Army among them . . . without their consent in person or by representatives of their own free Election, would be an Infringement of their Natural, Constitutional and Charter rights.”

The resolves of 1768 represented a departure from the town’s earlier position as stated during the Stamp Act crisis. Gone was the tone of deferential disagreement, along with the expressed desire to avoid the violence that had plagued Boston. No longer was the argument focused primarily on the economic impact of British taxation policies. Although stopping short of justifying a resort to arms, the 1768 resolves demonstrated the town’s unwavering devotion to their constitutional rights and its willingness to defend those liberties at all costs within legal bounds. The residents noticed the change in tone as well. The report was debated and read several times before it was finally accepted with a unanimous vote. Still, Lexington knew they had taken a momentous step and now could not turn back. At the conclusion of the town meeting, they voted “to keep a day of prayer on the occasion, and left to the Rev. Mr. Clarke to appoint the time.”

Following the Lexington resolves, the town also adopted a boycott of all British goods. Women organized spinning bees to decrease dependence on imports. As the Boston Gazette observed on August 31, 1769 “very early in the morning, the young Ladies of [Lexington], to the number of 45, assembled at the house of Mr. Daniel Harrington, with their Spinning Wheels, where they spent the day in the most pleasing satisfaction: and at night presented Mrs. Harrington with the spinning of 602 knots of linen and 346 knots of cotton. If any should be inclin’d to treat such assemblies or the publication of them in a contemptuous sneer as thinking them quite ludicrous, such persons would do well first to consider what would become of one of our (so much boasted) manufactures, on which we pretend the welfare our country is so much depending, if those of the fair sex should refuse to “lay their hands to the spindle” or be unwilling to “hold the distaff.”

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