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John Hancock’s Signed Protest Against “Taxes … imposed upon the People, without their Consent”
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With its warning call for “the Preservation of our invaluable Rights” punctuated by the instantly recognizable signature of John Hancock, this 1768 letter is an important precursor to American independence. The selectmen of Boston lay out key issues: the “unconstitutional” imposition of taxes, obstruction of petitions for redress, dissolution of representative government, and introduction of a standing army to enforce the oppressive mandates—“one of the greatest Distresses to which a free People can be reduced.” 

The call for a convention was answered immediately. Nine days later, on September 23, representatives from 96 Massachusetts towns met in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Five days after that, warships arrived in Boston Harbor with the first British reinforcements. The convention hastily composed a list of grievances, passed several resolutions, and adjourned. On September 30, royal transports unloaded two regiments at the Long Wharf, beginning the British military occupation of Boston that lasted until March 17, 1776. 

“No taxation without representation.” is now thought of as the catchphrase for the patriot cause. Though often attributed to James Otis, no proof of his use of the phrase has been found. The February 1768 London Magazine contains the earliest known printing, in a subhead introducing a speech on the declaratory bill. Lord Camden stated that “taxation and representation are inseparably united,” and the editor added “no taxation without representation.” The first known usage relating to America was printed in 1771 for the prior year’s The Political Register and Impartial Review, in “A Dissertation on the original Dispute between Great-Britain and her Colonies,” by Demophoon. 

The substance of the rallying cry is captured here, in the argument of Hancock and his fellow selectmen that the punitive taxes have been imposed on the Colonies “without their Consent,” through “Acts of Parliament in the forming of which the Colonies have not, and cannot have any constitutional Influence. 

The Boston selectmen’s circular letter, with its successful call for a colony-wide convention, represents an important precedent for the creation of ad hoc governing institutions in revolutionary America, from the Committees of Correspondence and Committees of Safety to the Continental Congresses. In bypassing royal prerogative to constitute a political body capable of representing the popular will, Massachusetts patriots sowed the seeds for republican government and independence in America. 

Very rare. Only one other signed copy is presently known in private hands, and just four are recorded in institutional collections. It seems likely that many other copies went out with clerical signatures.

JOHN HANCOCK. Document Signed as Selectman of Boston, to the Selectmen of Charlestown [right across the bay from Boston]. Cosigned by Boston Selectmen Joseph Jackson, John Ruddock, John Rowe, and Samuel Pemberton. Boston, Mass., September 14, 1768. 1 p. 6-⅜ x 12-⅝ in.

Inventory #27558       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Historical Background
Following the French & Indian War, the Crown sought to tighten its control over America while generating revenue to pay for the administrative and military costs of the conquest of French Canada. Previously, the colonial legislatures had made voluntary contributions (referenced here as “the free Gift of the People in the American Assemblies or Parliaments”) toward the upkeep of their royal governors. Parliament’s decision to levy taxes directly on the American colonists sparked dissent. The proceeds subsidized an unprecedented peacetime stationing of British troops in the colonies, at first to ward off invasion, but increasingly to enforce tax collection.

Patriot leaders argued that since the colonies did not elect members of Parliament, Americans could not be taxed by the British government. As free Englishmen living abroad, they could be taxed only by their own duly elected representatives in the colonial legislatures. Parliament’s argument that it looked after the colonists’ interests through a kind of “virtual representation,” much as it did for residents of Britain lacking the franchise, was met with derision.

The 1765 Stamp Act, Parliament’s first direct revenue-raising measure, imposed an excise on printed documents from birth, marriage, and death certificates to newspapers. Conspicuously affecting all segments of society, this was implemented without any colonial input. Following rioting and boycotts of British goods, the ministry repealed the tax, which it replaced with customs duties on various imports—an indirect tax on luxury items that effectively stopped at the water’s edge. The Townshend Acts (named for the Chancellor of the Exchequer) placed tariffs on glass, tea, lead, paper, paint and other products. It also armed officials with open-ended warrants, so-called writs of assistance, to search for and seize contraband.

The colonists reacted by stepping up their smuggling, which resulted in the confiscation of American ships and cargoes. In June 1768—three months before this circular letter was drafted—a Boston crowd attacked customs collectors who had seized the sloop Liberty, owned by John Hancock, one of the colonies’ wealthiest merchants and an important local political leader. The officials fled to a fort in the harbor for protection. In response, Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard asked the British government to send in troops to maintain law and order.

Meanwhile, Samuel Adams and James Otis had drafted, and, in February of 1768, the Massachusetts General Court had adopted, a circular letter to the other colonial assemblies protesting the Townshend Acts. The circular expressed hope that redress could be obtained through petitions to King George III. It called for an inter-colonial convention to discuss the problem and draft petitions to the Crown. On learning of this initiative, the Secretary of State for the Colonies (based in London) ordered the colonial governors to prevent such united action, even if they had to dissolve their colonies’ assemblies. When the Massachusetts legislature refused, by a lopsided vote, to rescind the offending resolution, Governor Bernard dissolved the body.

Boston’s town meeting adopted a resolution against a standing army as “an infringement of their natural, constitutional, and charter rights” as freeborn Englishmen. When Bernard rejected their request to reconvene the legislature, the members called for a colony-wide convention to meet until the next session of the General Court. The convention was announced through this letter sent to towns throughout Massachusetts.

In 1768, the colonists—even in Massachusetts—were far from ready to consider independence. The hated Townshend Acts—even the stationing of troops in Boston—were viewed as the work of a small circle of venal ministers in London and their lackeys in the colonies. It was argued that they alone had imposed taxes on the colonies in order to create opportunities for corruption and patronage. They alone had prevented the colonists’ petitions from reaching the “Royal Ear,” keeping King George III cut off from his loyal subjects. It would take the events of another eight years and the publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense to reveal that even a constitutional monarchy, post-Glorious Revolution, was a despotism inimical to the interests of a free people.

Actions taken by both sides in 1768 paved the way to the final confrontation. As Benjamin Franklin had predicted, if troops were sent to America, “they will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.” The people of Boston fully understood that these soldiers were sent not to fight Indians or French; they were there to impose unjust laws on them during peacetime. Two years later, the tensions between local patriots and British soldiers in Boston came to a head in the Boston Massacre.

Condition: well clear of the text, lower left corner professionally restored well clear of text.



Boston Public Library - addressed to Stoughton[1]

Gilder Lehrman Collection on Deposit at New-York Historical Society – to Medway

Harvard University (Houghton) - addressed to Cambridge

Massachusetts Historical Society – copy 1 - on verso, addressed to Stoughtonham[2]


addressed to the town of Charlestown [the present copy]

addressed to the town of Petersham. Last located Christie’s, December 16, 2004, lot 391.


British National Archives - no signatures, clerical or otherwise, no town noted.

Massachusetts Historical Society – copy 2 - no signatures, clerical or otherwise, no town

New-York Historical Society - all signatures in a clerical hand, no town noted

Location unknown -on verso: “To Sons of Liberty Colchester” All signatures are in a clerical hand, no town noted.


Location Unknown  [Salem copy].  Signed, but unknown if autograph or clerical. Transcribed in “A Letter from Boston to Salem in 1768,” Proceedings of the Brookline Historical Society at the Annual Meeting, Jan. 22, 1914, pp. 29-31.[3]


Bell, J.L. “Who Coined the Phrase ‘No Taxation Without Representation’?” April 25, 2009; “James Otis, Jr., on Taxation Without Representation,” April 26, 2009; “Looking for ‘Taxation Without Representation,’” April 27, 2009, all on Boston 1775 blog,

[Cushing, Thomas]. “Letter to Lord Camden…” London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, July 1768, pp. 375-377.

Davis, David Brion & Steven Mintz, eds. The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War(New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 151-152.

[Lord Camden]. “L–C–‘s Speech on the declaratory Bill …” London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, February 1768, pp. 88-90.


Complete Transcript(retaining original spelling and punctuation.)

                                                                                   BOSTON, September 14, 1768.

YOU are already too well acquainted with the melancholly and very alarming Circumstances to which this Province, as well as America in general, is now reduced.   Taxes equally detrimental to the Commercial Interests of the Parent Country and her Colonies are imposed upon the People, without their Consent; —Taxes designed for the Support of the Civil Government in the Colonies, in a Manner clearly unconstitutional, and contrary to that, in which ‘till of late, Government has been supported, by the free Gift of the People in the American Assemblies or Parliaments; as also for the Maintenance of a large Standing Army; not for the Defence of the newly acquired Territories, but for the old Colonies, and in a Time of Peace.  The decent, humble and truly loyal Applications and Petitions from the Representatives of this Province for the Redress of these heavy and very threatning Grievances, have hitherto been ineffectual, being assured from authentick Intelligence that they have not yet reach’d the Royal Ear: The only Effect of transmitting these Applications hitherto percievable, has been a Mandate from one of his Majesty’s Secretaries of State to the Governor of this Province, to Dissolve the General Assembly, merely because the late House of Representatives refused to Rescind a Resolution of a former House, which imply’d nothing more than a Right in the American Subjects to unite in humble and dutiful Petitions to their gracious Sovereign, when they found themselves aggrieved: This is a Right naturally inherent in every Man, and expressly recognized by the glorious Revolution as the Birthright of an Englishman.

This Dissolution you are sensible has taken Place; the Governor has publickly and repeatedly declared that he cannot call another Assembly; and the Secretary of State for the American Department in one of his Letters communicated to the late House, has been pleased to say, that “proper Care will be taken for the Support of the Dignity of Government”; the Meaning of which is too plain to be misunderstood.

The Concern and Perplexity into which these Things have thrown the People, have been greatly aggravated, by a late Declaration of his Excellency Governor [Francis] Bernard, that one or more Regiments may soon be expected in this Province.

The Design of these Troops is in every one’s Apprehension nothing short of Enforcing by military Power the Execution of Acts of Parliament in the forming of which the Colonies have not, and cannot have any constitutional Influence. This is one of the greatest Distresses to which a free People can be reduced.

The Town which we have the Honor to serve, have taken these Things at their late Meeting into their most serious Consideration: And as there is in the Minds of many a prevailing Apprehension of an approaching War with France, they have passed the several Votes, which we transmit to you; desiring that they may be immediately laid before the Town, whose Prudentials are in your Care, at a legal Meeting, for their candid and particular Attention.

Deprived of the Councils of a General Assembly in this dark and difficult Season, the loyal People of this Province, will, we are persuaded, immediately perceive the Propriety and Utility of the proposed Committee of Convention: And the sound and wholesome Advice that may be expected from a Number of Gentlemen chosen by themselves, and in whom they may Repose the greatest Confidence, must tend to the real Service of our Gracious Sovereign, and the Welfare of his Subjects in this Province; and may happily prevent any sudden and unconnected Measures, which in their present Anxiety, and even Agony of Mind, they may be in Danger of falling into.

As it is of Importance that the Convention should meet as soon as may be, so early a Day as the 22d of this Instant September has been propos’d for that Purpose—and it is hoped the remotest Towns will by that Time, or as soon after as conveniently may be, return their respective Committees.

Not doubting but that you are equally concerned with us and our Fellow Citizens for the Preservation of our invaluable Rights, and for the general Happiness of our Country, and that you are disposed with equal Ardor to exert yourselves in every constitutional Way for so glorious a Purpose,

                                                                        We are,


                                                                        With the greatest Esteem,

                                                                        Your obedient humble Servants,

                                                                        Joseph Jackson

                                                                        John Ruddock

                                                                        John Hancock

                                                                        John Rowe

                                                                        Saml: Pemberton

                                        [printed vertically to right of signatures: Select-Men of Boston.]

N.B. The other two Selectmen are out of the Province.

To the Gentlemen Select-Men / of Charlestown

[1]Per “Classified list of the books placed in the Library from July 15 to August 15, 1902,” Monthly Bulletin of Books Added to the Public Library of the City of Boston, Vol. VII, No. 9, Sept. 1902, p. 363.

[2]Assuming there was only one copy sent to each town, this is ex-Boston Athenaeum, per Catalogue of the Library of the Boston Athenaeum, 1807-1871, Part I, (Boston, 1874), p. 339.

[3]Brookline Historical Society presently does not find this letter in their collection.