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The Circular
What’s the point of writing a letter? To get someone to listen to what you have to say. “A man should have the free use and sole disposal of the fruit of his ...

The Circular

What’s the point of writing a letter? To get someone to listen to what you have to say.

“A man should have the free use and sole disposal of the fruit of his honest industry, subject to no control,” Samuel Adams penned in a letter about a law of nature.

As clerk for the lower house of the Massachusetts Assembly, Adams found himself once again lifting his pen to protest a British tax. He sent copies of this official letter, known as the circular, to other colonial legislatures, members of Parliament, and the royal governor in February 1768. The letters he received in return were his ears.

The controversy was the Townshend Acts, Parliament’s external taxes on imports such as paints, lead, glass, and tea. The question was “taxation without representation.” Although Adams didn’t use this exact phrase in his circular, he argued the point. “What a man has honestly acquired is absoluetely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken from him without his consent.” He called representation an “unalterable Right in nature, ingrafted in the British Constitution, as a fundamental Law.” This right was “sacred and irrevocable.”

Although the Atlantic Ocean was a practical obstacle to direct colonial representation in Parliament, Adams believed the government had already created a system for the remedy. He explained that Britain established local, subordinate legislatures, such as the Massachusetts House, so “that their subjects might enjoy the unalienable Right of a Representation.” These legislatures were listening devices, hearing aids.

But the louder these legislatures cried, the more selective Parliament’s hearing became. Adams believed the best way to catch the king’s attention was to whisper sweetness. Thus his circular letters included embellishments such as calling the king “our common head & Father.”

Three months after Clerk Adams distributed copies of his circular letter on behalf of the Massachusetts House, he learned that many were listening to him. The assemblies of New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New Jersey endorsed Adams’s letter. However, Britain’s secretary of state ordered the governors of the colonies to stop their assemblies from endorsing Adams’s circular. The royal governor of Massachusetts responded by dissolving the legislature when it refused to revoke the circular.

These events did not prevent Adams from writing letters. “A man’s property is his industry; and if it may be taken from him under any pretense whatsoever, at the will of another, he cannot be said to be free, for he labors like a bond slave, not for himself but for another,” he wrote to the Boston Gazette a year later.

And with every letter he wrote, Samuel Adams searched for listeners. His revolution had begun.


Even when no one else listens, thank you for hearing me when I call.

“Hear my prayer, O God; listen to the words of my mouth”

(Psalm 54:2).

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