Project Summary

Francis Bernard (1712-79), governor of colonial Massachusetts between 1760 and 1769, has left posterity one of the largest collections of manuscripts concerning Britain’s North American empire.There are some four thousand source texts of one kind or another: letters, maps memoranda, and reports.letters, maps memoranda, and reports; they exist as holograph originals, letterbook copies, receiver’s copies, third party copies, and printed versions. Most of Bernard's original official out-letters (the letters that Bernard sent to the British government) are held at the National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office, London. There are also eight volumes of Bernard’s letterbooks and three volumes of in-letters (letters he received) in the Sparks Manuscripts at the Houghton Library, Harvard; and there are numerous private papers, including a variety of maps and deeds, in English local archives. Survey of acquisitions.

Editorial Policy and Method

In selecting items for publication preference has been given to Bernard’s official correspondence as governor covering government, politics, and policymaking. The editor has aimed to preserve the integrity of manuscripts, generally printing them in full, and depicting their content as accurately as possible with limited editorial intervention. Whenever possible, autograph out-letters and in-letters have been used as authoritative texts—the actual manuscripts upon which the transcripts are based. Editorial method in transcribing manuscripts and preparing commentaries follows practices established by the Founding Fathers editions and guidelines recommended by the Modern language Association. Editorial Summary.

Publication Schedule

  The Papers of Francis Bernard, Governor of Colonial Massachusetts, 1760-69. 7 Vols. (2007-)

VolumeCoverageThemeDate of Publication
11759-1763Massachusetts in War and Peace 2007
21764-1765The Stamp Act Crisis2012
31766-1767Governance and Policymaking 2013
41768The Townshend Duties Controversy2015
51768-69The Imperial Crisis2015
61770-1774The Imperial Crisis, contd.

Francis Bernard

Francis Bernard (Jun. or Jul. 1712-16 Jun. 1779) was the son of a clergyman and a squire’s daughter and had a steady career as a Church of England lawyer and local government official in Lincolnshire, Eng., before taking up the governorship of New Jersey in 1758. The office had been secured for him by powerful aristocratic patrons, among them Lord Barrington, a cousin to his wife Amelia Offley (c.1719-26 May, 1778). Bernard’s career change was prompted by the necessity of providing for a growing family, and thereafter he openly acknowledged how far his Crown service was motivated by the financial imperative of providing for his six sons and four daughters. For sure, Bernard owed his position more to patronage than merit but he was also a professional administrator: increasingly, it was skilled men of modest means like him who were being tasked with running the British Empire. Promoted to the governorship of Massachusetts, which he entered on 2 Aug. 1760 and left nine years later to the day, Bernard’s early years were not only eventful but largely successful: he got the job done without too much fuss, despite the emergence of a popular opposition party and growing discontent among the merchants over British policies and among the legislators over Crown requisitions for raising money to fight the French. As a politician, Bernard is best remembered for his mistakes: of being openly hostile to the colonists and conspiring against them; and, from a British perspective, of being inflexible and error-prone. The craft of History may be multi-faceted, but Gov. Bernard is not an enigmatic figure, for he has left a mountain of evidence from which his life and gubernatorial career can be reconstructed. 

For full details, readers should consult Colin Nicolson, The "Infamas Govener": Francis Bernard and the Origins of the American Revolution (Northeastern Univ. Press: Boston, 2001), ISBN-13: 978-1555534639

The Papers as a Research Resource

The erratic publication of colonial records may not have appreciably hindered scholarship on pre-Revolution Massachusetts, yet comparative studies of colonial government during the imperial crisis remain logistically awkward and very expensive for scholars conducting transatlantic research. Massachusetts is a case in point: the province’s legislative proceedings are available in series, but the vast majority of manuscripts generated by the provincial executive are not, including the governors’ official correspondence.

Bernard’s papers, which are held by repositories in both Great Britain and the United States, are a fecund resource, for his administration coincided with the onset of sustained opposition to British colonial policies. While much of Bernard’s time was taken up by routine governmental matters rarely is the historical record he bequeathed ever mundane. His correspondence discusses, inter alia, the dissipation of the good feelings in Massachusetts that heralded victory over the French in 1763, long-running disputes with the provincial legislature over Crown requisitions, and the emergence of colonial radicalism in 1765. Bernard’s letters home were a major source of information for British policymakers, particularly with regard to the decision to send regular soldiers to Boston in 1768 to quell riots and protests. While historians have rarely failed to read Bernard’s letters uncritically, often they have worked with a limited range of materials: his unpublished letterbooks mainly.

It is from and with this extensive documentary record that I hope subsequent generations can re-write the history of relations between Britain and the American Colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it might appear that the Stamp Act Crisis of 1764-66 presaged the end of British imperial rule in North America. In reality, that particular crisis was driven by an oppositional movement for whom independence was neither appealing nor relevant. The Stamp Act controversy was the beginning of a ten-year contest which radicalized the American colonists, leading them to question and then to challenge imperial authority. This is the process that we may label the Imperial Crisis, for at its zenith in 1775, it brought forth a revolutionary movement. An essential ingredient in that transformation, which has often been ignored, was the role of British imperial officials like Francis Bernard in alienating the colonists. Most other governors crumbled in the face of overwhelming resistance to the Stamp Act, but Bernard did not retreat gracefully, and fought and berated the colonial radicals most every step of the way.

Bernard’s story is worth retelling, not only for its own sake but for it what it reveals about the lives and times of Britons and Americans caught up in one of History’s true turning points.

© Colin Nicolson