This afternoon I talked to folks from the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement about the Powder Alarm of early September 1774, which I consider to be the end of British government in Massachusetts outside of Boston.
One of the people who played a big role in that event was Thomas Oliver (1733-1815), the last lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. He was commissioned in late May 1774 and took office in August after the death of the previous lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver—no relation.
On the morning of 2 Sept 1774, Oliver couldn’t help but notice the men from the country marching past his mansion house in Cambridge (shown here, courtesy of its current owner, Harvard University). After all, more than 3,000 of those men had passed by 8:00 A.M.
On the previous day, British troops had removed gunpowder from the provincial powder magazine in neighboring Charlestown (now Somerville). Rumors had described the soldiers doing much worse, and the farmers of Middlesex County had marched to Cambridge in their militia companies to fight back.
Here’s Oliver’s own account of how that busy day began for him:
Early in the morning a number of inhabitants of Charlestown called at my house to acquaint me that a large body of people from several towns in the county were on their way coming down to Cambridge; that they were afraid some bad consequences might ensue, and begged I would go out to meet them, and endeavor to prevail on them to return.Oliver convinced Gage that the confrontation in Cambridge would end peacefully, and that sending troops to disperse the crowd would end in bloodshed. When he returned home, however, Oliver found the crowd demanding that he resign from the Council because he had been appointed to that body under the Massachusetts Government Act instead of elected by the General Court. Oliver did so, adding at the end of his declaration, “My house at Cambridge being surrounded by about four thousand people, in compliance with their command I sign my name.” The people didn’t ask him to resign as lieutenant governor.
In a very short time, before I could prepare myself to go, they appeared in sight. I went out to them, and asked the reasons of their appearance in that manner; they respectfully answered, they “came peaceably to inquire into their grievances, not with design to hurt any man.” I perceived they were landholders of the neighboring towns, and was thoroughly persuaded they would do no harm. I was desired to speak to them: I accordingly did, in such a manner as I thought best calculated to quiet their minds. They thanked me for my advice, said they were no mob, but sober, orderly people, who would commit no disorders; and then proceeded on their way. I returned to my house.
Soon after they had arrived on the Common at Cambridge, a report arose that the troops were on their march from Boston; I was desired to go and intercede with his Excellency [Gov. Thomas Gage] to prevent their coming. From principles of humanity to the country, from a general love of mankind, and from persuasions that they were orderly people, I readily undertook it; and is there a man on earth, who, placed in my circumstances, could have refused it?
The big mystery of Thomas Oliver’s political career is why he got to be lieutenant governor in the first place. He had been born to a wealthy family in Dorchester, gone to Harvard, and become a militia colonel. He was Anglican and loyal to the Crown. But so were a number of other gentlemen. Oliver had never been active in politics, and he was only forty-one years old when he received his appointment.
The Essex Gazette advanced one theory on 10 Jan 1775, citing an October dispatch from London:
Mr. Thomas Oliver of Boston, was appointed Lieut. Governor of that Province in consequence of Richard Oliver giving the casting vote last year against Mr. [John] Wilkes being Lord Mayor.Richard Oliver (1735-1784) was a London alderman and sheriff who owned plantations in Antigua. Thomas’s father was named Richard and had come from Antigua to Massachusetts in 1737. However, the alderman and the lieutenant governor seem to have been distant cousins at best; there were several Antiguan planters named Richard and Thomas Oliver to sort out.
Another theory holds that Gov. Thomas Hutchinson suggested Thomas Oliver for lieutenant governor because he thought the young man was Andrew Oliver’s brother and wanted to keep the job in the family. Since Hutchinson was a longtime friend of Andrew Oliver and his real younger brother, Peter, and their children had intermarried, that ignorance seems unlikely. Someone else in London might well have made that mistake, though.
Thomas Oliver did succeed at the biggest challenge he faced in office, keeping the Powder Alarm from becoming a crisis. Shortly afterwards, he moved into Boston, where British troops offered more security. In March 1776, he left with the royal military. Although Oliver lost his Massachusetts property during the war, he still owned the Antiguan plantations that made him wealthy.
Oliver also remained, as far as the British government was concerned, the lieutenant governor of the province of the Massachusetts Bay. Even though he had served in that office for less than two years, and spent most of that time bottled up in Boston, I believe that he received the salary for the job until his death in 1815—thirty-nine years after he last set foot in Massachusetts.