On Arbitrary Power Exercised By Britain Against The Colonies

“Father of the American Revolution” — Samuel Adams

Liberty Letters, Samuel Adams, July 31, 1771


BOSTON, July 31st, 1771.


Since I received your favour of the 28th of March, I have observed by the London papers that the lord-mayor and alderman are liberated. From the wisdom and firmness which formerly distinguished that opulent and independent city, we expected that when they had so fair an occasion for exerting themselves, the power which has too long oppressed and insulted the nation and the colonies, would have been made to bend. But we have seen complimentary letters and addresses to the imprisoned gentlemen, and their answers; while by a stretch of arbitrary power they have been kept in confinement, till by a prorogation instead of a dissolution, they have been discharged of course. Is this my friend a matter of such triumph? Does it not show that Britons are unfeeling to their condition? Or has brutal force at length become so formidable, that after having in vain petitioned those whose duty it is to redress their grievances, they are afraid to imitate the virtue of their ancestors in similar cases, and redress their grievances themselves?

Mr. Hume, if I mistake not, somewhere says, that if James the Second had had the benefit of the riot-act, and such a standing army as has been granted since his time, it would have been impracticable for the nation to have wrought its own delivery, and establish the constitution of ’88. If the people have put it in the power of a wicked and corrupt ministry to make themselves absolute lords and tyrants over them by means of a standing army, we may at present pity them under the misfortune; but future historians will record the story with astonishment and indignation, and posterity, who will share in the fatal effects of their folly and treachery, will accuse them. Has there not for a long time past been reason to apprehend the designs of a restless faction to oppress the nation; and the more easily to affect their purposes, to render the king’s government obnoxious, and if possible put an end to a family which has heretofore supported the rights of the nation, its happiness and grandeur?

In this colony we are every day experiencing the miserable effects of arbitrary power. The people are paying the unrighteous tribute, (I wish I could say they were groaning under it, for that would seem as if they felt they are submitting to it,) in hopes that the nation will at length revert to justice. But before that time comes, it is to be feared they will be so accustomed to bondage, as to forget they were ever free. Swarms of locusts and caterpillars are maintained by this tribute in luxury and splendour, and a standing army, (not in the city thank God, since the 5th March 1770, but within call upon occasion). While our independent governor is found to crouch to his superiors, and to look down upon and sneer at those below him, he is from time to time receiving instructions how to govern this people, to govern! rather to harass and insult his country in distress. . .where his adulating priestlings are reminding him he was born and educated, forgetting perhaps if they ever knew, that the tyrants of Rome were the natives of Rome. Among other edicts which have been lately sent to this governor, there is one which prohibits his assenting to any tax-bill, unless the commissioners and other officers, whose salaries are not paid out of moneys granted by this government, are exempted from a tax on the profits of their commissions. Nothing that I can say will heighten the resentment of a man of sense and virtue against such a mandate; and yet our governor would have us think it is a mark of his paternal goodness. Another instruction forbids the governor to give his assent to grants to any agent, unless he is appointed by a law of the province, or a resolve of the assembly, to which his excellency consents. And a third requires him to refuse his assent to a future election of such councillors as shall presume to meet together as a council, without being summoned by him into his presence. These instructions, so humiliating to the council, the secretary by the governor’s order has entered on their journals

It has been observed that the nearer any man approaches to an absolute independence, the more he will be flattered; and flattery is always great in proportion as the motives of flatterers are bad. These observations are so disgraceful to human nature that I wish I could say they were not founded in experience. Perhaps there never was a man in this province more flattered, or who bore it better, I mean who was better pleased with it, than Governor Hutchinson. You have seen Miss in her teens, surrounded with dying lovers, praising her gay ribbons, the dimples in her cheeks or the tip of her ear! In imitation of the mother country, whom we are too apt to imitate in fopperies, addresses have been procured and presented to his excellency, chiefly from dependants and expectants. Indeed some of the clergy have run into the stream of civility, which is the more astonishing, when it is considered that they altogether depend upon the ability and good disposition of their parishes for their support. But it is certain that not a fifth part, some say not an eighth part of the clergy, were present. It cannot, therefore, be said to be the language of the body of the clergy, and all ages have seen that some of that order have ever been ready to sacrifice the rights as well as the honoured religion of their country, to the smiles of the great. It is a sore mortification that the independent house of representatives, and the town of Boston have refused to make their compliments to a man, whose administration since the departure of the Nettleham Baronet, they can by no means approve of. From hence you will judge whether these addresses speak the sentiments of the people in general, or are any more than the foul breath of sycophants and hirelings.

The province of North Carolina, by accounts from thence, appears to have been involved in a civil war. It is the general opinion here that the people in the back parts of that province have been greatly oppressed, and that the governor, instead of hearkening to their complaints and redressing their grievances, has raised an army and spilt their blood. This it must be confessed, is treating the people under his government much in the same manner as his superiors have treated the nation and the colonies. But their example may prove dangerous to be followed by a plantation governor. At this distance from Carolina we have not yet received a perfect account from thence. I hope your friends in the adjacent colony of Virginia have wrote you particularly of this important matter. Tryon has arrived at New York, where he is appointed governor. He has already been addressed with all the expressions of court sincerity, and perhaps he may hereafter receive the reward of a baronet for his fidelity and courage. ‘When vice prevails and impious men bear sway, the post of honour is the private station.’


Source: Samuel Adams, 31 July 1771, letter to Arthur Lee (R. H. Lee, Life of Arthur Lee, vol. ii., pp. 173-577).

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