Letter from "Atticus" to William Tryon [as printed in the Virginia Gazette]
Volume 08, Pages 718-727
LETTER FROM ATTICUS TO GOVERNOR TRYON.1
[Reprinted from Martin's History of North Carolina.]
To his Excellency William Tryon, Esquire.
“I am too well acquainted with your character to suppose you can bear to be told of your faults with temper. You are too much of the soldier, and too little of the philosopher, for reprehension. With this opinion of your Excellency, I have more reason to believe that
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this letter will be more serviceable to the province of New York than useful or entertaining to its Governor. The beginning of your administration in this province was marked with oppression and distress to its inhabitants. These, Sir, I do not place to your account; they are derived from higher authority than yours. You were, however, a dull, yet willing instrument, in the hands of the British Ministry, to promote the means of both. You called together some of the principal inhabitants of your neighborhood, and in a strange, inverted, self-affecting speech, told them that you had left your native country, friends, and connexions, and taken upon your self the government of North Carolina, with no other view than to serve it. In the next breath, Sir, you advised them to submit to the Stamp Act, and become slaves. How could you reconcile such baneful advice with such friendly profession? But, Sir, self-contradictions with you have not been confined to words only; they have been equally extended to actions. On other occasions you have played the governor with an air of greater dignity and importance than any of your predecessors; on this, your Excellency was meanly content to solicit the currency of stamped paper in private companies. But alas! ministerial approbation is the first wish of your heart; it is the best security you have for your office. Engaged as you were in this disgraceful negotiation, the more important duties of the governor were forgotten, or wilfully neglected. In murmuring, discontent, and public confusion, you left the colony committed to your care, for near eighteen months together, without calling an assembly. The Stamp Act repealed, you called one; and a fatal one it was! under every influence your character afforded you, at this Assembly, was laid the foundation of all the mischief which has since befallen this unhappy province. A grant was made to the crown of five thousand pounds, to erect a house for the residence of a governor; and you, Sir, were solely intrusted with the management of it. The infant and impoverished state of this country could not afford to make such a grant, and it was your duty to have been acquainted with the circumstances of the colony you governed. This trust proved equally fatal to the interest of the province and to your Excellency's honor. You made use of it, Sir, to gratify your vanity, at the expense of both. It at once afforded you an opportunity of leaving an elegant monument of your taste in building behind you, and giving the ministry an instance of your great influence and address in your new government. You, therefore,
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regardless of every moral, as well as legal obligation, changed the plan of a province-house for that of a palace, worthy the residence of a prince of the blood, and augmented the expense to fifteen thousand pounds. Here, Sir, you betrayed your trust, disgracefully to the governor, and dishonorably to the man, This liberal and ingenious stroke in politics may, for all I know, have promoted you to the government of New York. Promotions may have been the reward of such sort of merit.
“Be this as it may, you reduced the next Assembly you met to the unjust alternative of granting ten thousand pounds more, or sinking the five thousand they had already granted. They chose the former. It was most pleasing to the governor, but directly contrary to the sense of their constituents. This public imposition upon a people, who, from poverty, were hardly able to pay the necessary expenses of government, occasioned general discontent, which your Excellency, with wonderful address, improved into a civil war.
“In a colony without money, and among a people almost desperate with distress, public profusion should have been carefully avoided; but unfortunately for the Country, you were bred a soldier, and have a natural, as well as acquired fondness for military parade. You were instructed to run a Cherokee boundary about ninety miles in length; this little service at once afforded you an opportunity of exercising your military talents, and making a splendid exhibition of yourself to the Indians. To a gentleman of your Excellency's turn of mind, this was no unpleasing prospect; you marched to perform it in a time of profound peace, at the head of a Company of Militia, in all the pomp of war, and returned with the honorable title, conferred on you by the Cherokees, of Great Wolf of North Carolina. This line of marked trees and your Excellency's prophetic title, cost the province a greater sum than two pence a head, on all the taxable persons in it for one year would pay.
“Your next expedition, Sir, was a more important one. Four or five hundred ignorant people, who called themselves Regulators, took it into their head to quarrel with their representative, a gentleman honored with your Excellency's esteem. They foolishly charged him with every distress they felt; and, in revenge, shot two or three musket balls through his house. They at the same time rescued a horse, which had been seized for the public tax. These crimes were punishable in the Courts of law, and at that time the criminals were amenable to legal process. Your Excellency and your confidential
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friends, it seems, were of a different opinion. All your duty could possibly require of you on this occasion, if it required anything at all, was to direct a prosecution against the offenders. You should have carefully avoided becoming a party in the dispute. But, Sir, your genius could not lie still; you enlisted yourself a volunteer in this service, and entered into a negotiation with the Regulators, which at once disgraced you and encouraged them. They despised the governor who had degraded his own character by taking part in a private quarrel, and insulted the man whom they considered as personally their enemy. The terms of accommodation your Excellency had offered them were treated with contempt. What they were, I never knew; they could not have related to public offences; these belong to another jurisdiction. All hopes of settling the mighty contest by treaty ceasing, you prepared to decide it by means more agreeable to your martial disposition, an appeal to the sword. You took the field in September, 1768, at the head of ten or twelve hundred men, and published an oral manifesto, the substance of which was, that you had taken up arms to protect a Superior Court of justice from insult. Permit me here to ask you, Sir, why you were apprehensive for the Court? Was the Court apprehensive for itself? Did the judges, or the Attorney-general address your Excellency for protection? So far from it, Sir, if these gentlemen are to be believed, they never entertained the least suspicion of any insult, unless it was that, which they afterwards experienced from the undue influence you offered to extend to them, and the military display of drums, colors, and guards, with which they were surrounded and disturbed. How fully has your conduct, on a like occasion, since testified, that you acted in this instance from passion, and not from principle! In September, 1770, the Regulators forcibly obstructed the proceedings of Hillsborough Superior Court, obliged the officers to leave it, and blotted out the records. A little before the next term, when their Contempt of Courts was sufficiently proved, you wrote an insolent letter to the judges, and attorney-general, commanding them to attend to it. Why did you not protect the Court at this time? You will blush at the answer, Sir. The Conduct of the Regulators, at the preceeding term, made it more than probable that those gentlemen would be insulted at this, and you were not unwilling to sacrifice them to increase the guilt of your enemies.
“Your Excellency said, that you had armed to protect a Court.
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Had you said to revenge the insult you and your friends had received, it would have been more generally credited in this Country. The men, for the trial of whom the Court was thus extravagantly protected, of their own accord, squeezed through a crowd of soldiers, and surrendered themselves, as if they were bound to do so by their recognizance.
“Some of these people were convicted, fined and imprisoned; which put an end to a piece of Knight-errantry, equally aggravating to the populace and burthensome to the Country. On this occasion, Sir, you were alike successful in the diffusion of a military spirit through the Colony and in the warlike exhibition you set before the public; you at once disposed the vulgar to hostilities, and proved the legality of arming, in cases of dispute, by example. Thus warranted by precedent and tempered by sympathy, popular discontent soon became resentment and opposition; revenge superseded justice, and force the laws of the country; Courts of law were treated with contempt, and government itself set at defiance. For upwards of two months was the frontier part of the country left in a state of perfect anarchy. Your Excellency then thought fit to consult the representatives of the people, who presented you a bill which you passed into a law. The design of this act was to punish past riots in a new jurisdiction, to create new offences and to secure the collection of the public tax; which, ever since the province had been saddled with a palace, the Regulators had refused to pay. The jurisdiction for holding pleas of all capital offences was, by a former law, confined to the particular district in which they were committed. This act did not change that jurisdiction; yet your Excellency, in the fullness of your power, established a new one for the trial of such crimes in a different district. Whether you did this through ignorance or design can only be determined in your own breast, it was equally violative of a sacred right, every British subject is entitled to, of being tried by his neighbors, and a positive law of the province you yourself had ratified. In this foreign jurisdiction, bills of indictment were preferred, and found as well for felonies as riots against a number of Regulators; they refused to surrender themselves within the time limited by the riot act, and your Excellency opened your third campaign. These indictments charged the crimes to have been committed in Orange county in a distinct district from that in which the Court was held. The Superior Court law prohibits prosecution for capital offences in any other district, than that in which they were committed. What distinctions the gentlemen
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of the long robe might make on such an occasion I do not know, but it appears to me those indictments might as well have been found in your Excellency's kitchen; and give me leave to tell you, Sir, that a man is not bound to answer to a charge that a court has no authority to make, nor doth the law punish a neglect to perform that, which it does not command. The riot act declared those only outlawed who refused to answer to indictments legally found. Those who had been capitally charged were illegally indicted, and could not be outlaws; yet your Excellency proceeded against them as such. I mean to expose your blunders, not to defend their conduct; that was as insolent and daring as the desperate state your administration had reduced them to could possibly occasion. I am willing to give you full credit for every service you have rendered this country. Your active and gallant behaviour, in extinguishing the flame you yourself had kindled, does you great honor. For once your military talents were useful to the province; you bravely met in the field, and vanquished, an host of scoundrels, whom you had made intrepid by abuse. It seems difficult to determine, Sir, whether your Excellency is more to be admired for your skill in creating the cause, or your bravery in suppressing the effect. This single action would have blotted out for ever half the evils of your administration; but alas, Sir! the conduct of the general after his victory, was more disgraceful to the hero who obtained it, than that of the man before it had been to the governor. Why did you stain so great an action with the blood of a prisoner who was in a state of insanity? The execution of James Few was inhuman; that miserable wretch was entitled to life till nature, or the laws of his country, deprived him of it. The battle of the Allemance was over; the soldier was crowned with success, and the peace of the province restored. There was no necessity for the infamous example of an arbitrary execution, without judge or jury. I can freely forgive you, Sir, for killing Robert Thompson, at the beginning of the battle; he was your prisoner, and was making his escape to fight against you. The laws of selfpreservation sanctified the action, and justly entitle your Excellency to an act of indemity.
“The sacrifice of Few, under its criminal circumstances, could neither atone for his crime nor abate your rage; this task was reserved for his unhappy parents. Your vengeance, Sir, in this instance, it seems, moved in a retrograde direction to that proposed in the second commandment against idolaters: you visited the sins
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of the child upon the father, and, for want of the third and fourth generation to extend it to, collaterally divided it between brothers and sisters. The heavy affliction with which the untimely death of a son had burthened his parents, was sufficient to have cooled the resentment of any man whose heart was susceptible of the feelings of humanity; yours, I am afraid, is not a heart of that kind. If it is, why did you add to the distresses of that family? Why refuse the petition of the town of Hillsborough in favor of them and unrelentingly destroy, as far as you could, the means of their future existence? It was cruel, Sir, and unworthy a soldier.
“Your conduct to others after your success, whether it respected person or property, was as lawless as it was unnecessarily expensive to the Colony. When your Excellency had exemplified the power of government in the death of a hundred Regulators, the survivors to a man became proselytes to government; they readily swallowed your new-coined oath, to be obedient to the laws of the province, and to pay the public taxes. It is a pity, Sir, that in devising this oath you had not attended to the morals of those people. You might easily have restrained every criminal inclination, and have made them good men, as well as good subjects. The battle of the Allemance had equally disposed them to moral and to political conversion; there was no necessity, Sir, when the people were reduced to obedience, to ravage the country or to insult individuals.
“Had your Excellency nothing else in view than to enforce a submission to the laws of the Country, you might safely have disbanded the army within ten days after your victory; in that time the Chiefs of the Regulators were run away, and their deluded followers had returned to their homes. Such a measure would have saved the province twenty thousand pounds at least. But, Sir, you had farther employment for the army; you were, by an extraordinary bustle in administering oaths, and disarming the Country, to give a serious appearance of rebellion to the outrage of a Mob; you were to aggravate the importance of your own services by changing a general dislike of your administration into disaffection to his Majesty's person and government, and the riotous conduct that dislike had occasioned into premeditated rebellion. This scheme, Sir, is really an ingenious one; if it succeeds you may possibly be rewarded for your services with the honor of knighthood.
“From the 16th of May to the 16th of June, you were busied in securing the allegiance of rioters, and levying contributions of beef
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and flour. You occasionally amused yourself with burning a few houses, treading down corn, insulting the suspected, and holding courts-martial. These Courts took cognizance of civil as well as military offences, and even extended their jurisdiction to ill breeding and want of good manners. One Johnston, who was a reputed Regulator, but whose greatest crime, I believe, was writing an impudent letter to your lady, was sentenced, in one of these military courts, to receive five hundred lashes, and received two hundred and fifty of them accordingly. But, Sir, however exceptionable your conduct may have been on this occasion, it bears little proportion to that which you adopted on the trial of the prisoners you had taken. These miserable wretches were to be tried for a crime made capital by a temporary act of Assembly, of twelve months' duration. That act had, in great tenderness to his Majesty's subjects, converted riots into treasons. A rigorous and punctual execution of it was as unjust, as it was politically unnecessary. The terror of the examples now proposed to be made under it was to expire, with the law, in less than nine months after. The sufferings of these people could therefore amount to little more than mere punishment to themselves. Their offences were derived from public and from private impositions; and they were the followers, not the leaders, in the crimes they had committed. Never were criminals more justly entitled to every lenity the law could afford them; but, Sir, no consideration could abate your zeal in a cause you had transferred from yourself to your sovereign. You shamefully exerted every influence of your character against the lives of these people. As soon as you were told that an indulgence of one day had been granted by the Court to two men to send for witnesses, who actually established their innocence, and saved their lives, you sent an aid-de-camp to the judges and attorney-general, to acquaint them that you were dissatisfied with the inactivity of their conduct, and threatened to represent them unfavorably in England, if they did not proceed with more spirit and dispatch. Had the Court submitted to influence, all testimony on the part of the prisoners would have been excluded; they must have been condemned, to a man. You said that your solicitude for the condemnation of these people arose from your desire of manifesting the lenity of government in their pardon. How have your actions contradicted your words! Out of twelve that were condemned, the lives of six only were spared. Do you know, Sir, that your lenity on this occasion was less than that of the
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bloody Jeffries in 1685? He condemned five hundred persons, but saved the lives of two hundred and seventy.
“In the execution of the six devoted offenders, your Excellency was as short of General Kirk in form, as you were of Judge Jeffries in lenity. That general honored the execution he had the charge of with play of pipes, sound of trumpets and beat of drums; you were content with the silent display of colors only. The disgraceful part you acted in this ceremony, of pointing out the spot for erecting the gallows, and clearing the field around for drawing up the army in form, has left a ridiculous idea of your character behind you, which bears a strong resemblance to that of a busy undertaker at a funeral. This scene closed your Excellency's administration in this country, to the great joy of every man in it, a few of your contemptible tools only excepted.
“Were I personally your Excellency's enemy, I would follow you into the shade of life, and show you equally the object of pity and contempt to the wise and serious, and of jest and ridicule to the ludicrous and sarcastic. Truly pitiable, Sir, is the pale and trembling impatience of your temper. No character, however distinguished for wisdom and virtue can sanctify the least degree of contradiction to your political opinions. On such occasions, Sir, in a rage, you renounce the character of a gentleman, and precipitately mark the most exalted merit with every disgrace the haughty insolence of a governor can inflict upon it.
“To this unhappy temper, Sir, may be ascribed most of the absurdities of your administration in this country. It deprived you of every assistance men of spirit and abilities could have given you, and left you, with all your passions and inexperience about you, to blunder through the duties of your office, supported and approved by the most profound ignorance and abject servility.
“Your pride has as often exposed you to ridicule as the rude petulance of your disposition has to contempt. Your solicitude about the title of Her Excellency for Mrs. Tryon, and the arrogant reception you gave to a respectable company at an entertainment of your own making, seated with your lady by your side on elbowchairs, in the middle of the ball-room, bespeak a littleness of mind, which, believe me, Sir, when blended with the dignity and importance of your office, renders you truly ridiculous.
“High stations have often proved fatal to those who have been promoted to them; yours, Sir, has proved so to you. Had you been
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contented to pass through life in a subordinate military character, with the private virtues you have, you might have lived serviceable to your country, and reputable to yourself; but, Sir, when, with every disqualifying circumstance, you took upon you the government of a province, though you gratified your ambition, you made a sacrifice of yourself.
Additional Notes for Electronic Version:
Although Francois-Xavier Martin attributes this letter to Maurice Moore, according to William Price's entry on Moore in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, this attribution is not supported by documentary evidence.