Prorogation in Colonial Legislatures.

In a recent political move, the Prime Minister of Great Britain prorogued the British Parliament for two weeks, extending a session break to five weeks.  While the suspension of Parliament at the end of a session is not unusual, the specific circumstances of this case have resulted in a renewed interest in the use of prorogation.1

For those researchers of Early State Records, prorogation can be found in a number of colonial administrations. Generally exercised by colonial governors or their council, proroguing the legislatures was used when there was little business to consider, specific reasons to suspend, or during political turmoil. 

Traditionally, prorogation has been used when there was little or no business for the legislators to consider.  For example, in LLMC #24137, Governor William Shirley of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay prorogued the General Assembly for an additional week from the original start of the legislative session to October 10, 1744 as there was “nothing for His Majesty’s especial Service that required their Attendance.”   Similarly, in LLMC #39501, Lt. Governor William Dummer of Massachusetts-Bay prorogued the General Assembly to April 15, 1729 from the planned commencement of March 18th, as no pressing business required the members’ attendance.   In a somewhat interesting twist, Governor William Penn prorogued the General Assembly from February 1 to April 1, 1700, after determining that there was little official business to be considered.  He further explained that he did not dissolve the assembly, as this action would trigger elections, delaying a response should an emergency arise. (LLMC #39137)

Other stated reasons included “seed-time” (LLMC #24569), “weighty reasons” (LLMC #22419), and on advice of the Governor’s Council (LLMC #20698).  Governor Charles Montagu of South Carolina even proclaimed on June 16, 1769 that the General Assembly was prorogued until June 26th, as there had been no quorum at the original meeting date of June 15th.  Business or not, the assembly first needs to show up! (LLMC# 39537)

Other prorogation appeared to be more political.  For example, following his appointment as governor in 1757 (LLMC #24219), Thomas Pownall prorogued the General Court (Assembly) numerous times.  The Early State Records collection has thirteen examples of his suspension of the legislature between 1757 and 1759; some with no stated reason (#24700-24704), and others indicating that no business required the presence of the General Court (#24221-24224, 24237).  Of greater interest, however was a series of proclamations during the latter part of 1758.  Initially, Pownall suspended the legislature from September 13, 1758 to September 20th, so members could attend their own congregation for a day of thanksgiving set on September 14th (#24239-40).  Thereafter, on November 18, 1758, he again prorogued the legislature from November 19 to December 13, 1758, due to weather and husbandry concerns.  Later on December 5, 1758 he prorogued the General Court until December 29th, seemingly to provide sufficient time to raise and pay troops going to the Canadian invasion during the French and Indian War (#24242; 24244).    However, on the same date as this proclamation, Governor Pownall authorized selectmen of the towns and districts to provide for the accommodation of British troops, consistent with an act to last until March 31, 1759 (#24243).  This unpopular decision came without the General Court’s involvement, as the governor had deftly prevented its participation.  While Pownall ultimately was a popular leader, this action caused negative reactions throughout the Province of Massachusetts Bay and resulted in a challenging beginning of his tenure as governor.

Prorogation is neither good nor bad; the reasons behind each proclamation might be for routine or worthy reasons, or to avoid dealing with a contrary legislature.  When discovering an example of this procedural tool, an astute researcher might look to the political climate or other indications of unrest to assess its significance.  However, in the end, there were worse examples of a governor’s dominance.  After all, he could declare martial law and take total control of the government!2

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as the broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 

1 Ultimately, the United Kingdom Supreme Court unanimously ruled on September 24, 2019 that this prorogation was illegal, and the Parliamentary session resumed. 

For example, on June 12, 1775, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Gage issued a proclamation that declared martial law, noting acts of treason against the Crown (#20877).  This was followed by the November 7, 1775 proclamation by Governor John Murray, Lord Dunmore, declaring martial law in Virginia due to the formation of an army against the British troops (#22431).