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"Suffer’d Such Barbarous Cruelties" - The Deprivation of Civil Liberties of Massachusetts

In 1775, Massachusetts politicians and public figures quickly adopted measures to suppress the rights and liberties of loyalists who had not fled to the safety of Boston and still resided within their communities.

Towards the end of November, 1775, Massachusetts selectmen from dozens of towns called for town meetings and issued orders to their constables to “warn a meeting” of their residents. Typically, constables were instructed “in his majestyes name to Warn a Meeting of the freeholders Inhabitants of Said town Qualifyd by Law to Vote in Town meetings that they meet at their meeting house.”

The town meetings addressed what to do with their loyalist neighbors. After extensive discussion, many of the towns determined that those who remained faithful to the Crown should be prosecuted as criminals. Residents selected men via ballot to serve as both investigator and prosecutor. These individuals were charged with the responsibility of building criminal cases against those suspected of loyalist sympathies.

Selectmen were expected to assist their inquisitors by compiling a list of men who had displayed loyalty to the Crown since the outset of the war. Anyone could submit a name and if the majority of local residents agreed, the person was added to the list of suspected loyalists.

Once the investigation was complete, the “prosecutor” would appear before a local county court and submit evidence of the "inimical character of any inhabitant whom the freeholders charged with favoring the British cause" before sympathetic justices. If satisfied with the presentation, the court would issue warrants for arrest.

Once hauled before the court, criminal defendants were given the opportunity to swear that the American conflict was a just cause, that they would not aid the British government and they would defend the American colonies.

If a defendant refusal to take this oath, he was prosecuted as an enemy of the country. If and when he was found guilty following a trial by jury, the defendant was incarcerated or placed under house arrest. Often Massachusetts courts would also rule that convicted loyalists could neither hold office nor vote. Worse, if the defendant was “a justice, minister, schoolmaster, or a governor of Harvard College,” he was stripped of his position and salary. One colonial judge received such a punishment after a Massachusetts court found him guilty and ruled “whether any suspected to be inimical to the liberties of the Independent States of America, which they are now contending for, and refuses to declare his attachment for the same, should have a seat in this Judicature? Voted they should not.”

On February 4, 1777, the Massachusetts government passed a law restricting loyalist speech. Entitled A law for the punishment of crimes below the degree of treason and misprison of treason, the statute silenced critics of the Declaration of Independence. Those who continued to criticize the push for independence were subject to a monetary fine “not to exceed £ 50 nor to be less than 20s or confinement in jail.”

Two months later, on April 9, 1777, Massachusetts officials passed An Act to prevent the waste of the estates of loyalists leaving estate of £ 20 or more within the state. Under this law, loyalists who abandoned real and personal property when they fled the state were to be treated as if they were dead. In turn, probate judges were authorized to appoint agents who would to take possession of the estate, file an inventory and render accounts as ordered by the court. Preference was given to “patriot” creditors at subsequent estate sales. If a loyalist wife remained behind to care for the family property, she was only entitled to one-third of the real and personal estate.

Two years later, the Massachusetts legislature passed a pair of confiscation laws. Entitled An Act to confiscate the estates of certain persons commonly called absentees and An Act to confiscate the estates of certain notorious conspirators against the government, these laws set aside the pretense that loyalists who fled the state were “civilly dead” and permitted committees and appointed agents to openly seize abandoned loyalist property without due process protections.

Many loyalists watched helplessly as their properties were stripped away from them with a simple legal notice: “To all People to whom these Presents shall come: Greeting-Whereas in and by an Act of the great and general Court passed and enacted on the thirtieth day of April in the Year of our Lord One Thousand seven hundred & seventy nine the Estate of the Persons therein mentioned for the Reasons in the same Act set forth are declared to be forfeited & ordered to be confiscated to the use of the Government, And Whereas by another Act of the same Court passed in the same Year the Estates of all Persons guilty of the Crimes therein mentioned & described are made confiscable in manner as by the same Act is provided.”

In 1778, Massachusetts passed a law denying loyalists the right to work within certain professions. Specifically, members of the General Assembly, civic and military officers, attorneys at law and physicians were all summarily excluded from their occupations.

By 1783, the state had passed two banishment acts, a law implementing a bill of attainder and resolutions restricting loyalist movement within the boundaries of Massachusetts.

The anonymous author “Plain English” (believed to be Boston loyalist Peter Oliver) correctly surmised the deprivation of personal liberties during the American Revolution when he stated “the distresses of some of those people who, from a sense of their duty to the King and a reverence for his laws, have behaved quietly and peacably, and for which reason they have been deprived of their liberty, abused in their persons, and suffer’d such barbarous cruelties, insults, and indignities beside the loss of their property by the hands of lawless mobs and riots as would have been disgraceful even for savages to have committed.”

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