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Massachusetts Circular Letter (February 11, 1768)


This document reveals the American conception of a con -

stitution as a supreme fundamental law limiting government by definite restraints upon power. samuel adams drafted the document, which the Massachusetts House of Representatives adopted and sent to the assemblies of other colonies to secure their assent to the contention that the townshend acts of 1767 and all other taxes levied by Parliament on America were unconstitutional. The right to private property, Adams wrote, is an unalterable natural and constitutional right "engrafted into the British Constitution, as a fundamental law.…" Parliament had violated that right by taxation without representation. Although Parliament was the supreme legislature in the empire, it could act lawfully only within the sphere of its legitimate powers. Echoing the Swiss jurist emerich de vattel, who distinguished a constitution from ordinary statutory law, Adams declared that in all free states the constitution is fixed, and "as the supreme Legislative derives its Power and Authority from the Constitution, it cannot overleap the bounds of it, without destroying its own foundation.…" The constitution, Adams stated, "ascertains and limits" both sovereignty and allegiance.

London censured the "Seditious Paper" of Massachusetts and declared that Massachusetts had subverted "the true principles of the constitution." To the British, as Sir william blackstone contended in his Commentaries, Parliament could not act unconstitutionally; it knew no practical limits. To the Americans, an unconstitutional act was one that exceeded governmental authority. "Unconstitutional" did not mean impolitic or inexpedient, as it meant in Britain; it meant a lawless government act that need not be obeyed. The Massachusetts Circular Letter thus fortified the emergence of a new conception of constitutional law.

Leonard W. Levy


Miller, John C. 1943 Origins of the American Revolution. Pages 257–264. Boston: Little, Brown.

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