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, April 06, 2019

“A person in the street had put into his hands a number of papers”?

In his 9 June 1773 response to the Massachusetts house about his letters, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson insisted he hadn’t written anything secret or oppressive. He then went on:
I am at a Loss for what Purpose you desire the Copies of my Letters the Originals of which you have in your Hands. If it is with a View to make them Publick, the Originals are more proper for that Purpose than the Copies. 
Hutchinson was a historian, after all—always use original sources if they’re available.

He continued:
I think it would be very improper and out of Character in me to lay my private Letters before you at your Request: My publick ones I am restrained from laying before you without express Leave from his Majesty. Thus much however I may assure you, that it has not been the Tendency and Design of them to subvert the Constitution of this Government, but rather to preserve it entire, and I have Reason to think they have not been altogether ineffectual to that Purpose.
It’s not clear whether Hutchinson knew then that the man who had sent those letters, Benjamin Franklin, had insisted that they not be made public. But the Whig legislators put in motion a way of doing so.

Immediately after the governor’s reply was read in the house, John Hancock spoke up to say:
…he had received Copies of certain Letters signed Thos. Hutchinson, Andw. Oliver, Charles Paxton, and Robert Auchmuty, which he supposed were Copies of the Letters before the House, and moved that they might be compared.
According to Hutchinson’s later history, which isn’t entirely reliable:
…a pitiful expedient was found out. Mr. Hancock acquainted the house, that a person in the street had put into his hands a number of papers, which appeared to him to be copies of the letters which were lying before the house, and he moved that they might be compared; and an order passed for that purpose. It seems to have been intended as an excuse for the publishing of what had been delivered upon an express condition not to publish.
On 10 June, the house formed a committee headed by Joseph Hawley “to consider of some Means honorably to make this House fully possessed of the Letters communicated by Mr. [Samuel] Adams under certain restrictions.”

In recounting this move, Hutchinson applied particular acerbity to the word “honorably.” He reported:
In a very few hours, Mr. Hawley reported from this committee, that Mr. Adams had acquainted them, that, as copies of the letters were already abroad, and had been publickly read, the gentleman from whom the letters were received [i.e., speaker of the house Thomas Cushing] gave his consent, that the house should be fully possessed of them, to print, copy, or make what other use of them they pleased, relying on the goodness of the house that the original letters be returned, in their own time, they retaining attested copies of the same for their use.
That was a very close paraphrase of the legislative record. That day, the house contracted with the Edes and Gill print shop in Boston to print 316 copies of the letters that related to Massachusetts (omitting those focused on Rhode Island and Connecticut) and 300 copies of the house resolves condemning those letters. That order came to almost £20.

Hutchinson wrote:
The house then ordered the letters to be printed, but, before they were suffered to be made publick, the resolves of the house upon them were printed and dispersed in newspapers through the province, and a recital of any parts or expressions in the letters was carefully avoided, and only the general design and tendency of them declared.
The governor knew he'd lost control of the narrative.

TOMORROW: Public opinion.

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