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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Wednesday, May 06, 2020

“The Commissioners seemd rather inclined to Ad”

The Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s publication of the correspondence of Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in the 1760s, lets us cross-check John Adams’s recollection of being recruited to be advocate general.

Adams wrote in the early 1800s that his friend Jonathan Sewall came to him sometime in 1768 and said he was about to leave that post. According to Adams’s memory, Sewall said that Gov. Bernard wanted to offer it to Adams, despite their political differences. Furthermore, “one of great Authority,” which Adams took to mean Hutchinson, had recommended him as the best qualified candidate.

The Bernard and Hutchinson papers tell a different story. As Bernard recalled the situation in early 1769, Sewall first offered his resignation as advocate general the preceding July. At the time he was enmeshed in a dispute with the Customs Commissioners which only grew worse after the Liberty seizure and riot.

At that time, Bernard wasn’t interested in accepting Sewall’s resignation. Instead, the governor put his energy toward patching up the differences between the Commissioners and the attorney general. Eventually, it appears, all the principals decided to agree that the problem was the Commissioners’ secretary, Samuel Venner, stirring up trouble. He was removed in January 1769, and everyone made nice.

Late in 1768, however, word had arrived that the London government had reorganized the Vice Admiralty courts in North America and made Sewall a judge in Halifax. That gave Sewall a higher salary, but he had to leave Boston for court sessions. Bernard may have been pleased not to have Sewall around so much, but he wanted someone doing the job of advocate general in Massachusetts.

In early 1769, therefore, Bernard got serious about recruiting someone to replace Sewall. But there’s no indication in the governor's papers that he wanted John Adams. In fact, in a 15 March letter to an Admiralty official in London, Bernard explained that he definitely didn’t want a lawyer connected to the province’s Whigs:
at present I am not ready to name fit Persons for either of the Offices: such has been the prevalence of the popular Party in this Government, that some of the Lawyers, whom I should have been glad to have engaged in his Majesty’s Service, have by their abetting the Factious party rendered themselves unfit Objects of the favor of Government. . . .

For these Reasons it will be most advisable that Mr Sewall should continue to act in these Offices till the Causes in which he is now engaged shall be concluded & his Places can be properly filled.
Bernard asked the Admiralty to allow Sewall to appoint a local deputy in Halifax to do his job while he remained at work in Massachusetts.

Gov. Bernard himself sailed out of Boston harbor in early August 1769, to much rejoicing. That left Lt. Gov. Hutchinson in charge. On 20 September, he wrote to Bernard that Sewall had tendered his resignation at last.
Mr. Sewall has sent me his resignation of the place of Advocate, in form, and I have made the appointment of Mr [Samuel] Fitch until His M[ajesty’s]. pleasure shall be signified. The Commissioners seemd rather inclined to Ad[ams] but I think it very dangerous appointing a man to any post who avows principles inconsistent with a state of government let his talents otherwise be ever so considerable. Until this post & that of Attorney general have salaries annexed they will never be of very great use.
Bernard wrote back from London on 17 November:
I will certainly take Care to introduce the Subject of the Advocate & Attorney general by the first Opportunity, & will urge the Necessity of their being supported from hence. The Appointment of Mr. Fitch I will not neglect. . . .

I don’t see how you could possibly appoint or recommend the Person proposed to you under the present Notoriety of his Connections. I was asked by one of the Ministry to day who that John Adams was. I gave as favourable an Answer as I could, but not such as would have justified the Appointment of him to an Office of Trust.
Thus, there’s no evidence in Bernard’s papers that he wanted to name John Adams as advocate general, and no evidence in Hutchinson’s papers that he would have recommended him for a post in the royal government.

Bernard’s remark about “Lawyers, whom I should have been glad to have engaged in his Majesty’s Service” before they joined the political opposition suggests he may have been interested in Adams earlier in his career. That could fit with the story that Samuel Quincy later told Hutchinson about Sewall’s attempt to entice Adams with an appointment as justice of the peace.

It’s plausible that Sewall talked to his friend Adams in 1768 or 1769 about his thoughts of resigning, and the professional opportunity that would create, and in his memory Adams amalgamated that conversation with one in the early 1760s about the governor being ready to appoint him to a lower post. But if Sewall really did tell Adams that Bernard wanted to make him advocate general in 1768, he was getting way ahead of himself.

More mysterious is Hutchinson’s statement that “The Commissioners seemd rather inclined to Ad[ams]” for the post in late 1769. That was after Adams had argued in print against the Stamp Act and in court against the Liberty seizure. Perhaps the Commissioners thought that the appointment would bring a skilled lawyer to their side and muzzle a political opponent all at once. But it’s impossible to imagine Adams becoming a Customs Department protégé.

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