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 13, 2019

What Was Really Wrong about the “Hutchinson Letters”

I enjoyed tracking the Massachusetts Whigs’ logical dance as they justified sharing and then publishing the “Hutchinson letters” that arrived from Benjamin Franklin in 1773 along with restrictions on, well, sharing and publishing them. Boston politicians recognized the political power of those documents.

Focusing on that shady side of the story, however, obscures the far more darker claim in that dispute: that everyone should have kept those letters secret. By modern democratic standards, those documents should never have been secret to begin with.

British governments of the period demanded control over information about their workings, with only halting steps toward openness. Before 1770, for example, it was unclear whether it was legal to report in detail about debates in Parliament. Governors, generals, and other public appointees took their correspondence files home with them when they retired. Legislative or public oversight of government officials was weak.

In 1769, William Bollan leaked the official correspondence between Gov. Francis Bernard and the Secretary of State in London, Lord Hillsborough. Those pages described Bernard’s meetings with the Massachusetts Council and dealings with the Massachusetts house, as well as other public events. They made recommendations for Crown policy toward the province, from one unelected official to another. Today we expect such discussions to be conducted with as much openness as possible.

In 1773, Franklin followed Bollan’s example by sending over letters collected by Member of Parliament Thomas Whately, known for his political attachment to George Grenville and his interest in American policy. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson kept repeating that those documents were “private letters,” written before he became governor. But in 1768-1769 he was Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Hutchinson and Whately had never met and weren’t business partners. Their only reason to write to each other was to share information and views on Massachusetts government.

Whately’s correspondence with Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, then provincial Secretary, included discussion of how the Massachusetts constitution should be changed. Oliver’s goal was to insulate the Council from popular pressure—a major concern among eighteenth-century aristocrats (or aristocrats of any period). That goal obviously depended on keeping the people ignorant of such discussions.

We now base our governments on the consent of the governed and the choice of the people, not filtered through a hereditary monarchy and nobility and the excuses people invent to justify such a system. Public knowledge and full access to government information for the public’s representatives are key to making our system work.

It should come as no surprise that I got interested in the “Hutchinson letters” this month because of the current U.S. administration’s attempts to conceal significant public documents. These include the uncensored Mueller report, the Trump Organization tax filings, orders overriding denials of security clearances, the paper trail of Supreme Court candidates, the President’s interference in building a new F.B.I. Headquarters, visitor logs at the White House, and much more.

Some of those attempts to conceal our government’s workings go against legal and legislative precedent. Others violate stated law. In all cases, they undercut our ability as a people to govern ourselves—an ability Americans first won after men working in the imperial capital slipped the Massachusetts legislature documents that royal appointees wanted to conceal.


NH Guy said...

I really love that you repeatedly remove my fie rating on the screed you tacked on to the end of your series on the Hutchinson letters. You decry Trump's lack of transparency while engaging in the same thing yourself...Priceless!

I still enjoy your writing, though it's a shame you feel the need to occasionally veer off topic.

J. L. Bell said...

Blogger gives me no control over the "huzzah!" or "fie!" responses, my variation on its "like" button widget. I've noticed that the numbers for a posting can vary from day to day, making me think that the feature is slow to load and/or buggy.

I do, however, have control over which comments appear, as a way to head off spam. I haven’t suppressed this complaint about being suppressed. I do note that it fits right into a current right-wing whining point about being censored online. If anything, social media platforms bend toward including right-wing voices event when they’re not as reliable. As this recent Wired story states about Facebook: “Some of the company’s most senior execs, notably Chris Cox, agreed that Facebook needed to give serious publishers a leg up. Others pushed back, especially Joel Kaplan, a former deputy chief of staff to George W. Bush who was now Facebook’s vice president of global public policy. Supporting high-quality outlets would inevitably make it look like the platform was supporting liberals, which could lead to trouble in Washington, a town run mainly by conservatives.”

So let's be transparent, which is what this posting is about. I stated why I found the story of the "Hutchinson letters" to be so resonant at this particular moment, with an administration hiding many documents of public interest. You complain that one paragraph in dozens was a "veer off topic." I posit that it's also transparent you complained only because you like the current President and dislike reminders of his undemocratic and often criminal behavior.

NH Guy said...

Mr Bell,

Thank you for your response clarifying the “like” button. I don’t know what world you inhabit but conservatives are regularly kicked off social media for things left wingers get away with. How many left wing sites complain of being shut down? “Progressives” have an orthodoxy as rigid as the Puritans and are currently engaged in campaigns to limit speech and thought to ensure only that is allowed which doesn’t “trigger” them or cause them discomfort. As for Mr Kaplan, I’m unimpressed with someone defined as a Bush administration denizen who is now paid by Facebook opining on Facebook’s reputed openness. I don’t trust either party anymore. There are as many self serving republicans as there are democrats. The idea that a lack of transparency is a “right wing” thing is laughable considering the record the Kennedys, and especially the Clintons, established on that front. Hillary actually destroyed 30K emails, destroyed the devices, and actively sought to “bleach bit” the data. She and her husband used their public offices to enrich themselves. They would have fit in perfectly with the 18th century way of being in government. They, like far too many people in public “service”, both elected and career, democrat and republican, view themselves as princes and princesses who I am expected to approach on bended knee while tugging at my forelock. Like a deplorable.

I don’t like Trump’s personality. I don’t like the way he acts sometimes and listening to him give a speech can give me a headache. But for the most part he’s governed as a mainstream republican. So it’s pretty rich of you to smear me as some sort of Trumpist crank who doesn’t like to be reminded of his "undemocratic and often criminal behavior” because that was the furthest thing from my mind. I merely thought it strange that there were no “fie” ratings allowed to your article. By the way, it would be nice if you held your fellow leftists to the same pure standard you want from Trump. That you see nothing but evil on my part while believing you and yours are on the side of angels just shows how wide is the divide between people who should otherwise have much in common. I’ve learned a lot reading what you publish, including understanding how my Patriot forebears and their Loyalist neighbors could grow to hate each other so much that they could come to blows.

I’ll continue to enjoy your 18th century research if not your 21st century musings.

Best wishes for the continued success of the website,
Nick Daffern

J. L. Bell said...

The world I inhabit is defined by evidence. Let's see if that applies to you as well or if, as I suspect, your outlook has been warped by overexposure to right-wing talking points. Please name three conservatives "kicked off social media for things left wingers get away with." Name the conservatives, the applicable websites, the reasons those people were barred, and an equivalently important "left winger" who did the same thing and was still allowed on. I see plenty of far-left organizations complaining about lack of media access, just as far-right organizations do; if you don't, that's because you're only listening to one side.

You clearly misread the quotation about Facebook. Joel Kaplan, veteran of a right-wing White House, pushed the corporation to not give more weight to mainstream "serious publishers" but to pump up conservative media. He wasn't making a piublic point about Facebook being open, as you somehow misinterpreted that passage. In private corporate meetings Kaplan argued that the corporation should privilege the right in order to avoid "trouble in Washington, a town run mainly by conservatives.”

Then again, you misread words so wildly as to suggest that I said "a lack of transparency is a 'right wing' thing." All my words are on the screen above, and none of them make that claim. I said, with a link, that whining about being censored online is a common right-wing complaint right now. That is, of course, a claim that you're making and repeating.

Seeing you stretch more than fifty years back to the Kennedy administration for what's supposed to be a current example is amusing, but your desire to see Hillary Clinton's personal emails is just kind of creepy. The point of this posting about the "Hutchinson letters" was about the importance of having government documents be public. Clinton's records as First Lady, senator, and Secretary of State are available on the same basis as everyone else who's held those positions recently. She's testified at length to Congress. In addition, we've seen her tax returns and records of her family charity—a striking contrast to Trump for those who care to see. Clinton has been publicly examined as thoroughly as anyone in this country, and the accusations you're parroting are empty, kept up only by right-wing media and rancor. Clearly you feel some additional resentment toward her, but the roots of that lie in your psychology, not her behavior.

The belief that Trump has "governed as a mainstream republican" is as laughable as your claim that you're definitely not a "Trumpist crank" even as you repeat his talking points, attack his enemies, and never identify any disagreement with him. You saw one paragraph by me correctly noting how many government documents Trump's administration is keeping concealed and immediately went for the "fie!" button. When you couldn't make that work just as you liked, you accused me of suppressing you. Let's face it—you were "triggered" by facts about Trump that made you uncomfortable, and you complained that you shouldn't have to see them.

J. L. Bell said...

Three days after I posted the above comment, the President of the United States used an Oval Office meeting to complain that Twitter’s periodic clean-out of fake accounts was lowering his number of followers. That’s what I mean about the current right-wing whining point.