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, April 11, 2019

The “Hutchinson Letters” Published at Last

I’ve been tracing the maneuvers in 1773 around the “Hutchinson letters.” Benjamin Franklin sent those documents to the speaker of the Massachusetts house under conditions of secrecy. The Massachusetts Whigs nibbled away at the edges of that promise until in June they just decided to publish.

Edes and Gill issued the letters about Massachusetts in pamphlet form. (Their first edition omitted the letters from others about Connecticut and Rhode Island.) Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy reprinted them all over the following weeks. Here is a British reprinting of the letters, plus a defense of them and an attack on Franklin for divulging them.

In order of publication, those documents were:
  • Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, 18 June 1768, on the Liberty seizure and riot.
  • Hutchinson, August 1768, on protests against the Customs Commissioners.
  • Hutchinson, 4 Oct 1768, on unrest and the landing of the regiments.
  • Robert Auchmuty to Hutchinson, 14 Sept 1768, warning about a death threat (enclosed with the above).
  • Hutchinson, 10 Dec 1768, on actions of the Massachusetts Council.
  • Hutchinson, 20 Jan 1769, on Parliament’s relationship to Massachusetts. (This is the letter that stated, “There must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties.”)
  • Hutchinson, 26 Oct 1769, on the non-importation boycott and Gov. Francis Bernard’s departure.
  • Secretary Andrew Oliver (shown above), 7 May 1767, on the problems of an elected Council, his salary, and other matters.
  • Oliver, 11 May 1768, on protests against the lieutenant governor and Customs Commissioners.
  • Oliver, 13 Feb 1769, with ideas for changing the Council to be independent of the lower house.
  • Oliver, 12 Aug 1769 from New York on colonial business, non-importation, and his appointment.
  • Customs Commissioner Charles Paxton, 20 June 1768 from H.M.S. Romney, on the Liberty riot. (Very short.)
  • Nathaniel Rogers (Hutchinson’s nephew), 12 Dec 1768, seeking Oliver’s position if Hutchinson moved up to become governor and Oliver moved up to become lieutenant governor.
As Hutchinson pointed out after the publication, his letters never proposed new laws or changes to the Massachusetts charter. (Oliver mused on such possibilities, and the letters from Rhode Island and Connecticut were open about change.) Hutchinson’s phrase “an abridgment of what are called English liberties” came after a lament about the distance between North America and London; in his mind, it was a statement of regrettable fact, not a prescription.

Neither Hutchinson nor Oliver suggested sending troops into Boston to keep order. As Hutchinson noted, his report on the Liberty riot couldn’t have reached London until the ministry already had those plans under weigh.

Finally, Hutchinson pointed out that in the year before these letters leaked, he had engaged in a public debate with the Massachusetts house about the relationship between the elected colonial government and the royal authorities, making the same points he had made in his letters. So how could he have engaged in a secret conspiracy?

Nonetheless, the letters destroyed Hutchinson’s credibility and political career in Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: What was wrong with the letters.

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