J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Leaks and Counterleaks in Colonial Boston

As Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation described on Wednesday, the U.S. government’s “Stellar Wind” electronic surveillance program was exposed by government officials and private individuals troubled by what they saw as overreaching. But leaks revealing official misbehavior are nothing new; they also played a part in the politics leading up to the American Revolution.

The legal challenge to writs of assistance came in the midst of a feud between two Customs officials in Boston, Collector Benjamin Barons and Surveyor Charles Paxton. Both men slipped documents embarrassing to the other side into sympathetic newspapers.

The Customs service undertook a secret investigation into the situation. Within a couple of years the record of those hearings—including the names of accused smugglers and informants—made its way back from London. The busiest informant, Ebenezer Richardson, thus became even more of an outcast in Massachusetts than before.

Leaks continued to plague the royal governors for the next fifteen years. Someone in London supplied the province with copies of letters that Gov. Francis Bernard wrote in the mid-1760s criticizing how the province operated. Their publication in Boston made him so unpopular that he left in 1769.

A couple of years later, a leaker—most likely Sir John Temple, a former Commissioner of Customs—gave copies of similar letters from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, Gen. Thomas Gage, and other royal appointees to Benjamin Franklin, then acting as the Massachusetts General Court’s lobbyist in London.

Franklin sent those letters to Thomas Cushing with a warning not to let them become public. But a copy leaked, and Samuel Adams and John Hancock maneuvered them into print. They appeared to confirm Whig complaints that Hutchinson was seeking to cut back the province’s self-government. The fallout from that incident destroyed Franklin’s career in England.

Whigs weren’t the only people to leak material that embarrassed their rivals. Paxton and his colleagues at the Customs office ran that play as well. In the early 1760s, they had news of smuggled French molasses found in merchants’ ships printed alongside those same merchants’ solemn agreement a few years before not to trade with the French.

During the non-importation campaign of 1769-70, many Boston merchants signed an agreement not to buy goods from Britain as long as the Townshend duties were in place. Someone in the Customs office gave John Mein, printer of the Boston Chronicle, long lists of what cargo had been registered as arriving in Boston. These manifests revealed how many rich merchants—including some leaders of the boycott—were still receiving such goods.

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