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Letter from James Lyon to the Massachusetts Assembly



Machias, August 28, 1776.

HONOURABLE GENTLEMEN: I have often troubled the Court with my scribbling, and once with my presence, but neither known nor regarded, because I did not approach in a parliamentary way, though supported, or rather sent, by the most respectable men in this place. Do your Honours expect all the formalities of a Court from loggers and millmen? I once more beg leave to approach, with due respect, and to speak with freedom, without offence. My subject is


the country which lies between Penobscot and Nova-Scotia; and should I appear to express myself with too much energy and pathos, I hope it will be imputed to my exquisite sensibility of my subject; I feel what I say, and mean, if possible, that your Honours should feel it likewise.

It has often been asserted, if we may credit human testimony, by members of this honourable Court, that the eastern country is a moth; that it has cost more than it is worth; and that it would be wisdom in the Government to neglect it utterly, and suffer it to sink. I suppose that part of the country east of the Penobscot is meant, for the other part is in some measure represented, better known, and surely worth saving. I shall, therefore, take it for granted that the part only where I live is the moth to Government. I readily grant that your Honours are competent judges of the qualifications of your own members; but since you never yet pretended to infallibility, it is not impossible that ignorant and illiterate men have, by some means or other, crept in among you. But whenever this happens, I blame not this honourable Court, but those who sent them. Were I permitted even to name what I think the necessary qualifications in a good statesman, I should say, he ought to be a gentleman of enlarged mind, well furnished with historical facts, and an extensive acquaintance with men and things, and the Constitution of his own country in particular, and with every part of his dominions; he ought also to be a gentleman of established integrity and extensive benevolence, who esteems the happiness of every part of the State his own highest happiness and glory. Such a person will do honour to a publick station, and diffuse peace and joy through the State; while the person destitute of these qualifications is really a nuisance and a curse to the publick in any exalted sphere. Have these gentlemen, therefore, who speak and think so lightly of this eastern country, all these necessary qualifications? Have they any of them? Not to mention their profound acquaintance with history, ancient and modern, and the grand and interesting occasions of the rise and fall of the States, Kingdoms, and Empires, do they know any more of a valuable part of their own dominions than they know of the extent of country and the nature of the soil in the moon? And are not their integrity and benevolence strongly to be suspected, when they openly oppose everything that is motioned for the benefit of this infant country, if attended with a trifling expense, and publickly declare their willingness that thousands of wholesome inhabitants, and as brave a people as any on the face of the earth, should perish in all the horrours of famine and war? But they are my superiors. Our situation is far more deplorable than the situation of the Boston people ever was, till the town was shut up; and perhaps we are as useful members of the State. Yet donations were generously heaped upon them from almost every quarter. But did we ever ask for charity? Some of the principal inhabitants of this place, it is true, petitioned for a scanty pittance for their Minister; and the ostensible reason assigned for not granting it was, the petition does not come before us in a parliamentary way. The sums asked for, with this single exception, have always been requested as a loan, which we think we shall be able to pay, with interest, when the times are settled. I suspect, however, that this honourable Court, in general, have too contemptible an opinion of this part of the eastern country. I beg leave, therefore, to speak a few words in its commendation. I have travelled over a great part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Boston Government, and Nova-Scotia, and been an inhabitant of all these States, except Connecticut and Rhode Island, and call myself something of a judge of lands; and I must say, that this eastern country, in my opinion, is equal to any I ever saw. The climate, if not so pleasant as some others, is more healthy, and the natural increase of inhabitants greater; the soil is exceedingly natural to grass, and when properly subdued, will produce quantities of beef, butter, cheese, &c. It produces excellent wheat, rye, barley, oats, peas, beans, hemp, flax, and some Indian corn in the internal parts, and almost all kinds of roots. The proportion of barren lands is probably less than in most other countries. To these things I must add the fishing on the coasts, which will in time support an incredible number of people, and furnish our navy with able seamen. However meanly, therefore, people may think of this eastern and extensive portion of the Continent, I assert, without claiming the spirit of prophecy, that it will


one day vie with the other States of America in greatness and glory, if not give them laws. Your settlements here are promising children in their minority, who must be tenderly nursed, and when grown to manhood will become the support and consolation of their aged parents. Should your Honours, notwithstanding, think them a moth, and not worth keeping, I beg you dispose of the country, together with the right of dominion, and give us, the inhabitants, the offer. We will engage to procure purchasers, who will give you fifteen times as much as it has cost you. We shall then soon become a free and independent State ourselves. And I assure you we shall think Nova Scotia worth annexing to our dominions. But if your Honours think us worth keeping, I beseech you, by all the tender emotions of the human heart, and by everything sacred, to take some care of us. The coast would be worthy of a guard were there not an inhabitant upon it; but the inhabitants amount to thousands, who are a hardy, brave people, and acquainted with the climate and the nature of the soil, and therefore are better than twice the number that could be sent here, for such would have everything to learn. But — pardon my freedom — instead of encouraging and supporting us hitherto, as we ought to have been, this honourable Court has neglected us, and taken our privateers, our principal strength, which cost us our blood, from us. And in consequence of this, a number of industrious fishermen, and all on which we depended for present subsistence, have been taken by British robbers, and a number of our respectable people — men, women, and children — carried into captivity. If any of our people have represented these two privateers as useless while here, they certainly mistook our true interest. They were a terrour to our enemies, and, under God, if I mistake not, our salvation last summer. Now they are gone our enemy' s barges infest our harbours and take our vessels. Should your Honours now ask what I mean by all this, I reply, I earnestly request you to send one of your frigates, or two or three of your ablest privateers, to take the ship that infests our coast, and clear the way for fishermen and coasters; and then, perhaps, some generous persons may be disposed to send us bread, and take some of our lumber. I ask for a small army, to subdue Nova Scotia, or at least that some person or persons may have leave to raise men, and to go against that Province at their own risk. I believe men enough might be found in this country who would cheerfully undertake it without any assistance from Government. The people this way are so very anxious about this matter, that they would go in whale-boats rather than not go, provided they might call what they take their own, in common with the good people of that Province. I confess I am so avaricious, that I would go with the utmost cheerfulness. I hope, however, I should have some noble views, for I think it our duty to relieve our distressed brethren, and bestow upon them the same glorious privileges which we enjoy, if possible, and to deprive our enemies, especially those on this Continent, of their power to hurt us.

With these views, the Committee of this place once petitioned for leave to go against that Province. And had our request been granted, in all probability that country had now been entirely ours, and vast quantities of provision would I have been cut off from our enemies. Messrs˙ Shaw, Foster, and Smith, would now do the business. But were our General Court, at their own expense, to take Nova Scotia, the other States of America would have no pretensions to any part of it; and the acquisition would be unspeakably great. That Province is invaluable, and would make ample amends for the expense, and we must have it, or our fishing is lost. Now it is nearly defenceless, and nearly nine-tenths of its inhabitants would bid us a hearty welcome; and now it may be taken without much loss of blood, if any but hereafter it may cost us very dear.

I highly approve of the noble spirit and resolution of Captain Eddy, and heartily wish him success, and all the honour of reducing Nova Scotia, provided our General Court do not see fit that any of their own subjects should share it with him. The reduction of that Province is a matter of the utmost consequence to this place, and would relieve us of many of our distresses.

Should it be thought that I meddle with matters which do not belong to me, and that the Committee of Machias ought to have written, I acknowledge that their writing would have been the parliamentary way; but at present,


this is almost impracticable, for they are much distressed and broken to pieces: two of them are taken by the enemy, and one at the westward. Indeed, we are all in a poor, broken situation. If, therefore, the Committee cannot write, why may not I — especially when I write nearly the sense of all the members of the Committee whom I have seen, and the sense of almost every inhabitant? The meanest subject of a free State may complain, when aggrieved, to the highest Court, and draw near to the supreme authority with filial confidence and freedom. I mean to do no more. This is my birthright; and should feel, if I neglect to improve it when confidence and the distresses of all around me command, your Honours yourselves would blame me. But I forget myself, and intrude too far.

I am, with great deference and respect, your Honours' most faithful but distressed servant and subject,

To the Honourable the Council and House of Commons of the State of Massachusetts Bay.

P˙ S˙ I am heartily sorry that the officer I recommended to this honourable Court has not acted with all that dignity and honour that could be wished. When I wrote in his favour, I had no knowledge of his inclinations to impose on the publick.

The vessels lately taken going out of this place were a brig from St˙ Croix, John Coulson master, the sloop Unity, formerly belonging to Captain Ichabod Jones, and a sloop belonging to Mr˙ Jonathan Pierson, of Newbury.