The Bernard Papers

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: History and Politics


The Bernard Papers is an international project to publish a high-quality historical documentary edition of the official correspondence of Francis Bernard, governor of colonial Massachusetts, 1760-69. Supported by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, this edition makes available in print for the first time a comprehensive selection of some of the most valuable material on the origins of the American Revolution. It comprises three volumes of c.900 transcripts, and one calendar of the entire collection. It is an enormous undertaking for a single scholar, but is a thrilling endeavour.

Bernard bequeathed an exciting historical record. The writs of assistance case, the Stamp Act riots, and the boycott of British manufactures all occurred during his watch. His correspondence in Volume 1 and 2 discusses the first stirrings of colonial radicalism. Unlike other governors, Bernard chose to confront colonial radicalism rather than acquiesce in its emergence during the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765. Bernard resorted to making what he called 'argumentative speeches,' whereby he reduced the complexities of political and constitutional arguments to a simple choice of principles, a kind of ideological blackmail where the colonists' response was measurable on a sliding scale between loyalty and disloyalty to the Crown. Volume 3 shows that Bernard regularly portrayed colonial leaders like Samuel Adams and John Hancock as seditious rebels and drafted reform plans to strengthen imperial power and authority. The colonists believed that he deliberately misrepresented political conditions in Boston in order to persuade authorities in England to dispatch regulars to support his troubled administration in 1768 -which indeed the Papers prove. Opposition to his administration as well as resistance to British colonial policies had, by 1769, begun to destabilize royal government itself. However, the papers of leading Whigs John Adams and Samuel Adams (long in print) need to be read side-by-side with Bernard's views in order to understand fully events in Massachusetts leading up to the Revolution.

Paradoxically, when recalled to England, Bernard indirectly and directly influenced the direction of colonial policymaking. His hostile reports from the mid-1760s, printed in full in Volume 3, were dusted down by Lord North's officials whilst searching for evidence of colonial transgressions that could justify a punitive American policy. Bernard had identified legal precedents for holding the town of Boston corporately liable for the Boston Tea Party demonstration of December 1773; these precedents were entrenched in the Boston Port Act which closed Massachusetts's capital to commerce in the summer of 1774. Also that year, the Massachusetts Government Act effectively tore up colonial government in the province and centralized power and authority in the governor's office by ways and means that Bernard had been discussing privately in his earlier correspondence with British ministers and officials. The Calendar traces how officials utilised Bernard's papers.

Each volume of transcripts is between 500 and 700 pages and prefaced with a long introductory essay. Extensive editorial commentaries that inform readers of the historical relevance and impact of the documents, as well as explain obscure matters. The multi-level indexes provide guidance on people, places, institutions, legislation and events, but also, importantly, enable readers to search the epistolary history of particular dialogue, or search the topics that correspondents discussed. Volume 1 (covering 1759-63) examines the dissipation of good feelings that heralded victory over the French in 1763, and growing tensions between the colonists and Britain over the enforcement trade laws; Volume 2 examines the Stamp Act Crisis (1765-66) when British imperial authority was deeply wounded; Volume 3 (1767-69)explores the critical turn in imperial relations, and the Volume 4 takes the story up to 1775.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of Research.

Academics and research postgraduates in Britain and North America will be provided with an opportunity to use an accessible, high-quality scholarly edition of authoritative texts hitherto available only in manuscript.
In terms of career-development, the project is providing me with a platform for other avenues of research and investigation pertaining to the study of revolution and counter-revolution and British imperialism. Current and future projects also inform my teaching at masters level and in the supervision and training of research postgraduates.


In the short term, publication of The Bernard Papers will immediately enhance transatlantic research into British imperialism, the American Revolution and Colonial America. It provides convenient printed sources for teachers and research scholars. Other project materials, including in the electronic control file, are already being used in research methods modules to train history RPGs. The dissemination of knowledge through the published volumes is demonstrably quicker than is current. Publication of all four volumes will allow some British scholars cost savings in both time and money of undertaking research trips to Massachusetts and to the PRO in London. The project, in short, is a tangible product of international scholarly endeavour.

In the medium term, The Bernard Papers has the potential to galvanise co-operation between British and US archives in expanding the electronic publication of historical state papers. At present no such initiative exists. Options for delivering the completed project electronically are being investigated in tandem with the project's funders, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

In the long term, the project's principal benefit will be to provide succeeding generations of scholars with the inestimable advantage of a reliable and accessible research resource that will be used, as one reviewer put it, for 'generations' to come.

Ensuring Benefits

Low retail sale costs and efficient distribution by the Univ. of Virginia Press ensure that the series will be taken by research libraries and university libraries in the UK and North America with collections relating to British and American history.

In order to ensure maximum knowledge transfer I am investigating options for publishing an electronic edition. At present, an internet archive may be the most suitable platform for delivery of pdf files. No costs are attendant to this preparatory process.

In the medium term, The Bernard Papers project is consistent with the research strategy of the School of History and Politics at Stirling. The project is one of several initiatives currently associated with fledgling plans to develop a research centre in Revolution and Counter-Revolution, featuring the work undertaken by a cluster including three other eighteenth-century specialists.


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Description Project research objectives were attained in accordance with the agreed schedule. This comprised the transcription and referencing of one volume of historical documents and a calendar of papers in preparation for their indexing by the editor and publication by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts from 2013 onwards.

1. The Papers of Francis Bernard, Colonial Governor of Massachusetts, 1760-69, Vol. 3 (1766-67). c.643pp. Edited by Colin Nicolson. Boston, forthcoming 2013 as the third volume in a six-volume historical documentary series.

2. Volume 3 contains transcripts of 154 manuscripts with extensive editorial commentaries together providing a documentary narrative of the imperial crisis on the eve of the American Revolution.

3. Historiographically, Volume 3 contributes a "neo-imperial" perspective (i.e. it enhances scholarly understanding of the predicament of imperial officials) and proposes that the Revolution's origins can be traced in officials' responses to radicalization.

4. Gov. Bernard's correspondence details the political re-alignment that occurred in Massachusetts in 1766-67 from the upsurge and radicalisation of protests, the marginalisation of the "friends of government," and the declension in the province's base of support for Britain.

5. It plots for the first time Bernard's dialogue with British ministers. This admits the reader into the reality of government changes in Britain and how this affected the reporting of events to London.

6. It illuminates local and metropolitan constrictions upon officials striving to implement British policy. As Bernard saw it, British inertia denied Crown officials reforms essential to maintaining imperial authority.

7. It reveals how closely British secretaries of state followed Bernard's reports. And yet, Bernard manifestly had less influence on policymaking during 1766 and 1767 than when he reported the Stamp Act riots of 1765 (Volume 2) or when he requested that troops be sent to Boston in 1768 (Volume 4).

8. Volume. 6: Calendar. Forthcoming 2015. This will be generated from a relational database containing 10,000 records, including over four thousand source texts authored by Gov. Francis Bernard or received by him or copied by a third-party contemporary. Fields contain data on provenance, location, the administrative history of documents (receipt, consideration by government departments, transmission), correspondence dialogue, keywords, content summaries etc. Queries establish variant source texts and enclosures, report handwriting analysis, and other editorial data. Hyperlinks connect the database to an electronic archive of facsimile source texts.

9. A bid was made to Google to test a prototype web-based content management system using the Bernard Papers. The project also established a low-cost website with user access to reports, the calendar database, sample transcripts, and indexes. The editor is reporting to the project partners further options for an electronic edition of the Bernard Papers and other CSM publications.

10. In view of the quality and quantity of the materials prepared during the AHRC fellowship, the project partners (in Dec. 2011) recommended extending the series to six volumes.
Exploitation Route The Bernard Papers provide information primarily of relevance to political history and imperial policymaking, but also contain reference material of interest to cartographers, geographers, Native American communities, and professional and amateur genealogists, ethnologists, and environmentalists.
Sectors Education

Description Open access e-books and digital editions of the Bernard Papers, volumes 4 and 5 (2015) are available via Downloads to date are vol. 4: 3,383 and vol. 5: 3,307.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description The Bernard Papers Project
Amount £94,570 (GBP)
Organisation Colonial Society of Massachusetts 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 01/2003 
End 01/2015
Description The Bernard Papers Project
Amount £17,647 (GBP)
Organisation Colonial Society of Massachusetts 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 02/2015 
End 01/2018
Description The Bernard Papers Project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Advice and project was shared with scholars active in writing and documenting the history of the American Revoution: the John Adams Papers and the Center for New England History at the Massachusetts Historical; the editors of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Josiah Quincy Jr., Thomas Hutchinson, Henry Hulton, and Jeremiah Gridley; the Boston Union Club; Arader Galleries, NYC; The Scots Charitable Society, Boston; editors of the William and Mary Quarterly; undergraduate and postgraduate students undertaking research projects; the general public via the project website

The project website has been visited by nearly one thousand people (excluding web crawler hits). I uploaded project materials for inspection and free downloading. I also made available a searchable database of correspondence, but withdrew this service because of the financial cost (which I hitherto I had met personally). There will be scope in the future to deliver materials by the web, and on an open access basis.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2011,2012,2013,2014