Ancestor’s Service as a Leader of the Town of Leicester in the Province of Massachusetts Bay

From at least 1761 through 1773, John Brown, my maternal 6th great-grandfather, was a leader of the town of Leicester in the Province of Massachusetts Bay.[1]

He frequently was elected to represent the town in the Great and General Court of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which was established by a 1630 charter from King Charles I and which served as the colonial legislature and judicial court of appeals. John Brown also served the town in other capacities.

Protesting the Stamp Act

In 1765 the British Parliament adopted the Stamp Act requiring many printed materials in the British colonies in North America to be produced on stamped paper made in London with an embossed revenue stamp. This tax had to be paid in valid British currency, not in colonial paper money, and was designed to help pay for troops stationed in North America after the British victory in the Seven Years War, as the French and Indian War was called in Europe.

As most of us in the U.S. know, this tax was very unpopular in the colonies, and Mr. Brown was instructed by the town of Leicester on October 17, 1765, to advocate in the General Court for “their natural rights; their rights as Englishmen . . .; and those granted them by charter” and to assert that the Stamp Act was “contrary to the rights of man, subversive of the English constitution, and directly tending to bring them into a state of abject slavery and vassalage.” [2]

The instructions also criticized the expansion of the powers of the British admiralty court “by which, every man, at the option of a malicious informer, is liable to be carried [to London] . . . before a court of vice admiralty; there tried without a jury, amerced [punished] by an arbitrary judge, and taxed with costs, as he shall please; and if the parties have not wherewith to satisfy the same, to die in prison in a foreign land.” Such practice was “repugnant to the magna charta, by which no freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, or deprived of his liberties, or free customs, nor passed upon, nor condemned, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

New York City Hall, circa 1765

Later that same month of October 1965, 27 delegates from nine colonies met in the colonial Stamp Act Congress in New York City’s City Hall. After 12 days of deliberation, it produced the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. It petitioned for repeal of the Stamp Act, the expansion of the jurisdiction of the admiralty court and any other statutes restricting American commerce after declaring that the colonies’ inhabitants owed allegiance to the British Crown and subordination to its Parliament. More significant, in light of subsequent developments, were its declarations that:

  • The inhabitants of the colonies “are entitled to all the inherent rights and privileges of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.”
  • It “is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted rights of Englishmen, that no taxes should be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”
  • The “people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain.”
  • The “only representatives of the people of these colonies are persons chosen therein, by themselves; and that no taxes ever have been or can be constitutionally imposed on them but by their respective legislatures.”
  • It “is unreasonable and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British constitution for the people of Great Britain to grant to His Majesty the property of the colonists.”
  • “[T]rial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.”
  • The Stamp Act and the expansion of the jurisdiction of the admiralty “have a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists.”
  • Certain duties or taxes on the colonies “will be extremely burdensome and grievous, and, from the scarcity of specie, the payment of them absolutely impracticable.”
  • The “increase, prosperity, and happiness of these colonies depend on the full and free enjoyment of their rights and liberties, and an intercourse, with Great Britain, mutually affectionate and advantageous.”

Protesting the Dissolution of the Massachusetts Legislature

Three years later, in 1768, the Governor of the Province dissolved the General Court. In response a convention at Boston’s Faneuil Hall was called to protest this action, and in February 1768 John Brown was elected to be one of the town’s representatives to the convention as well as the chair of a committee to prepare the instructions for the town’s representatives.[3]

Those instructions of February 1768 condemned the dissolution of the colonial legislature while also expressing the people’s allegiance to the King and their willingness to risk their lives and fortunes in defense of their rights. The document also asserted that “the British Parliament, or any other power on earth, had no right to dispose of one cent of their property without their consent, in person, or by representatives; and that carrying any person out of this province, or beyond the seas for any supposed crime, is contrary to the magna charta, and unconstitutional.”

The 1768 Leicester instructions also recommended that Massachusetts share its opinions with the other colonies “as we are embarked in a common cause.”  The document continued, “when we reflect upon the evils our forefathers underwent in the settlement of this country, the dangers to which they stood continually exposed from an insidious and bloodthirsty foe, and the blood and treasure they expended,. . .  it would be despising the bounties of our creator; an infamous prostitution of ourselves, and a total disregard to posterity” if they “tamely and pusillanimously suffer the execution” of the British laws regarding the colonies.

Protesting the Assessment of the Governor’s Salary

Five years later, in January 1773, John Brown again was called to serve the town of Leicester, this time on a committee to react to a report from Boston protesting the decision by the British to assess the Governor’s salary out of the American revenue.[4]

The Leicester committee report contained the prefatory statement that the town’s inhabitants bore “true allegiance” to King George III and were ready “to hazard our lives in defence [sic] of his person, crown, and dignity.”

On the other hand, the committee’s  instructions stated that the people of Leicester “have a right to all the liberties and privileges of subjects [living] within the realm of England; and that we esteem and prize them so highly, that we think it our duty to risk our lives and fortunes in defence [sic] thereof.”

The 1773 committee document claimed that “the Parliament of Great Britain has enacted laws subversive of our rights and privileges, in a particular manner, in raising a revenue in the Colonies, without their consent and thereby depriving us of that right of keeping our own money until we think fit personally, or by our representatives, to dispose of the whole, or any part thereof” and that “neither the British Parliament, nor any other power on earth, has a right to dispose of one farthing of our money, or any of our property, without our consent in person or by our representatives.”

The Leicester committee of 1773 also reiterated its opposition to “the carrying any person or persons out of this province, beyond the seas or elsewhere, for any supposed or real crime committed here, [as] against Magna Charta, and unconstitutional.”


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).This account is based upon two secondary sources about the town of Leicester written in the 19th century by Emory Washburn: (a) Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicester in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1826) [“EW#1”}; and (b) Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement (1860)[“EW#2”]. I would greatly appreciate corrections and supplementation by anyone with more direct knowledge of the General Court during this period.

[2] EW#1 at 40-41; EW#2 at 280-81, 434-38.

[3] EW#1 at 42-44; EW#2 at 438-39.

[4] EW#2 at 285, 439-42.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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