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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Thursday, July 24, 2014

“Genuine Copies of the Intercepted Letters” in the Press

For the royal authorities in Boston, the letters that Benjamin Hichborn had carried from Philadelphia were the equivalent of today’s intercepted radio communications.

Those papers contained some sensitive information about the enemy’s army—for example, Virginia delegate Benjamin Harrison hinted that Gen. George Washington wasn’t fully impressed by his chief engineer, Col. Richard Gridley. And they laid bare the Continental Congress’s secret factionalism.

The British authorities decided to get even more value out of the documents by publicizing them. There was one newspaper left in Boston, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter published by Margaret Draper and John Howe (shown above, over four decades later). Its 17 August issue printed all three “Intercepted Letters,” noting that the first was signed by Harrison while the second was unsigned but in the same handwriting as the third, to Abigail Adams from her husband.

The documents offered Loyalists and British observers evidence to confirm the most dire warnings about the American radicals: Adams’s clear statement that he believed his side should already have “arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages.”

There were also hints of private misdeeds. On the way to the press, someone apparently juiced up the Harrison letter by adding lines about an interrupted dalliance with “pretty little Kate the Washer-woman’s Daughter over the Way,” and a hint that Harrison was happy to share her with Washington himself. I discussed that passage back here. It was probably included to embarrass and discredit the commander-in-chief.

Finally, the published letters let everyone in America see John Adams writing about his colleagues with contempt, especially “A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius.” I don’t know if folks in Massachusetts realized that meant John Dickinson, but politicians in Philadelphia certainly did. And the British evidently didn’t have to change a word of Adams’s prose to get that point across.

TOMORROW: Dr. Hope shares the news with the folks back home.

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