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On June 9, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolve advising the Provincial Congress to consider the governor and lieut.-governor "as absent and their offices vacant," and recommended the Provincial Congress “to write letters to the inhabitants of the several places which are entitled to representation in the assembly, requesting them to choose such representatives, and that the assembly when chosen do elect councillors; and that such assembly, or council, exercise the powers of government until a governor of his majesty's appointment will consent to govern the colony according to its charter.”
Accordingly the Third Provincial Congress voted, July 20, 1775, to send a letter to the towns calling upon them to choose representatives for “a general council or assembly" to convene at Watertown on July 19, 1775. The towns did so, and the First House of Representatives of the State of Massachusetts Bay in New England met on that date. Two days later it chose 28 councillors, from among its 208 members who represented 194 out of 268 towns. The Council usually termed the “ Honorable Board ", exercised a mixture of executive and legislative functions, until the Constitution or 1780, which provided for a governor, lieut.-governor, council, senate and house of representatives, took effect in September of that year.
The following summary statement may serve to show the number and indicate the nature of the questions referred to the voters of Massachusetts in 131 years:
SUMMARY OF REFERENDA 1776_1907.
A. Special Questions. Year
Accepted 1776 Do you favor a Declaration
of Independence?...... 1778 Do you favor a Confederation
of the Colonies ?........ 1895 Should Municipal Suffrage be
granted to Women...
B. Proposals to hold Constitutional Conventions.
Year 1821 1831 1833 1836 1840 1853 1855 1857 1859 1860 1863 1877 1881 1885 1889 1890 1891 1892 1893 1894 1896 1907
In this year the First House of Representatives of the State of Massachusetts Bay submitted the first referendum, so far as I
can learn, in the history of the State. It is found Referenda,
in the following resolve passed May 9, 1776 by 1776-1780
the House of Representatives :
Resolved, That it be & hereby is recommended to each Town in this Colony who shall send a member or members to the next General Assembly fully to possess him or them with their Sentiments relative to a Declaration of Independence of the United Colonies of Great Britain to be made by Congress & to instruct them what Conduct they would have them observe with regard to the next General Assembly Instructing the Delegates of this Colony on that Subject.
May roth, the Council voted not to concur; but the House adhered to its Resolve which was accordingly printed and sent to the several towns.
No complete official statement of the returns from the towns can be found. It is possible to name but 38 towns that voted on the question, between May 20th and July 25th. Barnstable, whose town meeting was held on July 25th, was the only one of the 38 towns that voted against the proposed declaration. In most of the towns, the vote for the declaration appears to have been unanimous.
James Warren, Speaker of the Second House of Representatives, which convened on May 29, 1776, wrote to Elbridge Gerry, one of the Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress, that one-half of the members had received affirmative instructions and that it appeared to him "that the sentiments of our colony are more united on this great question than they ever were on any other; perhaps ninety-nine in one hundred would engage with their lives and fortunes to support Congress in the matter."
It is interesting to note that Gerry had written from Philadelphia on March 26th, suggesting to Warren that measures be
taken to ascertain the attitude of the towns of The First
Massachusetts towards Congress if it should deReferendum
clare the independence of the colonies. On June 13th, Joseph Hawley, a member of the Council, wrote to
last week about two-thirds of the towns had met. All instructed in the affirmative and generally returned to be unanimous.”
The incompleteness of the returns on this first referendum is typical of the returns on most of the referenda of this period. Hawley's statement that about two-thirds of the towns had met affords corroborative evidence of my own conclusion that it rarely happened that more than two-thirds of the towns took the trouble to vote on the questions referred to them in the period 1776-1780.
It was a well-established doctrine of the time that members of the legislature were responsible to those who chose them and were subject to instructions in their representative capacity. The instructions of the towns, as set forth in the returns from 32 towns which are preserved in the archives of the State, teem with orotund and vigorous expressions of the political philosophy of that day. For instance, the instructions to its representatives adopted by the Town of Wrentham on June 5, 1776, are of such a character as to lead a descendant of one of the “ town fathers” of Wrentham, to publish them last May in the New York Evening Post with the fanciful claim that they constitute a “declara
“ tion of independence that ... antedates the immortal document of July, 1776"!
At a town meeting in Boston held on May 23, 1776, an election of representatives to the General Court was held at which the selectmen presided as was usual. “The votes being brought in the number of the same were found to be 272, and upon sorting them it appeared, that the following gentlemen were chosen, viz.” The names of twelve persons follow without any further statement of the number of votes cast. A moderator was then chosen by the inhabitants "in order that the Town may proceed in transacting the other affairs mentioned in the warrant " The meeting adjourned till the afternoon, when it voted unanimously in favor of a declaration of independence—the number of votes cast is not given. On May 30th, a committee, chosen on the twenty-third to draft instructions, made a report to the town meeting which "passed in the affirmative unanimously.” The number who voted is not stated. The character of the in
structions (which are to be found in the town records, but not in the state archives) is indicated by the following extracts:
INSTRUCTIONS TO THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE TOWN OF
At a time when, in all Probability, the whole United Colonies of America are upon the Verge of a glorious Revolution, & when, consequently, the most important Questions that ever were agitated by the Representative Body of this Colony, touching its internal Police, will demand your Attention; your Constituents think it necessary to instruct you, in several Matters, what Part to act, that the Path of Your Duty may be plain before you.
We have seen the humble Petitions of these Colonies to the King of Great Britain repeatedly rejected with Disdain. For the
Prayer of Peace he has tendered the Sword;The Germ of the for Liberty, Chains,-for Safety Death. He Initiative has licensed the Instruments of his hostile Op
pressions to rob us of our Property, to burn our Houses, & to spill our Blood. He has invited every barbarous Nation, whom he could hope to influence to assist him in prosecuting those inhumane Purposes. The Prince, therefore, in Support of whose Crown & Dignity, not many years since, we would most cheerfully have expended both Life & Fortune, we are now constrained to consider as the worst of Tyrants; Loyalty to him is now Treason to our Country:
We think it absolutely impracticable for these Colonies to be ever again subject to, or dependent upon Great Britain, without endangering the very Existence of the State:- The Inhabitants of this Town therefore, unanimously instruct & direct you, that. at the Approaching Session of the General Assembly, you use your Endeavors, that the Delegates of this Colony, at the Congress, be advised, that in Case the Congress should think it necessary for the Safety of the United Colonies, to declare themselves independent on Great Britain, the Inhabitants of this Colony, with their Lives & the Remnant of their Fortunes, will most cheerfully support them in the measure.
Possibly the germ, albeit a blighted germ, of an "initiative" may be discovered in the now obsolete habit of constituents instructing their representatives.
The second referendum of 1776, was embodied in a resolve of the House of Representatives passed September 17th. The “male inhabitants free and twenty-one years and upwards" of