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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Friday, April 12, 2019

“Why does not this Man make his Letters publick?”

Thomas Hutchinson wasn’t the first royal governor of Massachusetts to see his letters to officials in London published and pilloried back home. In fact, I think that precedent was a big part of the problem.

One of my big ideas about the American Revolution is that the Townshend Act of 1767 and the Tea Act of 1773 wouldn’t have provoked such widespread opposition in North America if the Stamp Act of 1765 hadn’t gone further than either and set the terms for the debate.

The Stamp Act impinged on many aspects of daily life, from getting married to reading a newspaper to suing a neighbor for debt. It was designed to spread out the cost of enjoying the benefits of living in the British Empire. But that also meant a lot of British colonists suddenly felt that they were being taxed by a distant legislature.

The Townshend Act and Tea Act focused on particular commodities as they were shipped from Britain. Sure, most households used tea, glass, and paper, but only the importers were actually taxed. By 1767, however, the troubling idea that Parliament was imposing taxation without representation and that would lead to political slavery had been established in Americans’ minds.

Likewise, the trouble for Hutchinson started when William Bollan (d. 1776), once agent for the Massachusetts Council in London, sent home copies of the correspondence of Gov. Francis Bernard to Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State. The 8 Apr 1769 Boston town meeting, 250 years ago this month, laid out the implications of those documents:
It has been long apprehended that the publick transactions & general State of the Town as well as the Behavior of particular persons have been greatly misrepresented to his Majestys Ministers by some of the principal Servants of the Crown & others here. . . .

These Apprehensions are greatly strengthend by the unexpected favor of a Gentleman of Character in London who has been so kind as to procure & transmit to his Majestys Council of the province certain Letters from Governor Bernard to the Earl of Hillsborough together with one from General [Thomas] Gage to the same noble Lord.
In October 1769 Boston issued An Appeal to the World, largely written by Samuel Adams, analyzing those letters in detail. A footnote stated:
It is remarkable that Governor Bernard, not long before these Letters were made public, expressed to a certain Gentleman, his earnest Wish, that the People of this Province could have a Sight of all his Letters to the Ministry, being assured that they would thereby be fully convinced that he was a Friend to the Province—Indeed he made a Declaration to the same Purpose, in one of his public Speeches to the House of Representatives.

Upon the Arrival of the Letters however, he discovered, as some say, a certain Paleness, and complained of as an Hardship that his Letters, wrote in Confidence, should be expos'd to the View of the Public.—A striking Proof of the Baseness, as well as the Perfidy of his Heart!
It is, of course, very suspicious when an official claims to want to share documents with the public but then does everything in his power to keep them under wraps. Bernard’s letters turned out to be far from complimentary about the people and government of Massachusetts.

That 1769 leak led to Bernard’s departure, so the Massachusetts Whigs and their allies viewed that tactic as a success. On 18 Sept 1770 Stephen Sayre (1736-1818, shown above) made his case to be one of the Massachusetts house’s agents by writing to Adams:
My worthy friend, Mr. Richard Cary, advises me that he has reason to believe that you would not be displeased with such intelligence as I might sometimes give you relative to public affairs. . . . if you wish to know the most secret transactions of your enemies here, I shall be proud of the opportunity to inform you in every particular as soon as matters transpire.
Specifically, Sayre hinted of letters that Hutchinson “wrote before Bernard embarkd for England” which were “oppugnant to the Form of your Govt.”

Adams replied on 23 November and criticized how Hutchinson, newly promoted to governor, was curtailing the legislature:
Could it possibly be imagind that a man who is bone of our Bone, & flesh of our flesh—who boasts that his Ancestors were of the first Rank & figure in the Country, who has had all the Honors lavishly heapd upon him which his Fellow Citizens had it in their power to bestow, who with all the Arts of personal Address professes the strongest Attachmt. to his native Country & the most tender feeling for its Rights. 
In 1773 John Adams criticized Hutchinson in the same terms, as I quoted back here: “Bone of our Bone, born and educated among us!”

Samuel Adams’s 1770 letter to Sayre asked of Gov. Hutchinson, “Why does not this Man make his Letters publick?” Hutchinson was keeping secrets, Adams implied, only because he had a lot to hide. Massachusetts colonists were already primed to hear another story of a royal governor claiming he’d been advocating for the province only to be exposed as denigrating it.

1 comment:

mfuhrer said...

"It is, of course, very suspicious when an official claims to want to share documents with the public but then does everything in his power to keep them under wraps." Indeed.