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, June 13, 2020

Speaker Hutchinson Had a Plan for That

As I’ve been tracking, in February 1748 the Massachusetts house voted not to rebuild the burned Town House or Court-House in Boston. Instead, those legislators voted to construct a new meeting hall in Cambridge.

A big reason for that move was undoubtedly the anti-impressment riots of the previous November. Crowds had marched around the Town House, breaking windows and threatening officials.

Even the politicians who had some sympathy for those men and their cause didn’t want to go through that again.

Furthermore, the inflation of the province’s paper currency was getting bad enough to require drastic measures that could be very unpopular in the short run. Better to take those steps from a more secluded building, some lawmakers probably felt.

The speaker of the house, Thomas Hutchinson, didn’t agree with that position. While he was no fan of popular unrest, he wanted his home town of Boston to remain the political as well as the economic center of the province.

As I quoted back here, in 1770 Hutchinson told the obstreperous house that he had “used my influence in every Way I could with Propriety in Favor of Re-building the Court-House in Boston,” and “I being then Speaker of the House gave my casting Voice in Favour of the Town.”

It’s not clear when such a close vote happened. Hutchinson didn’t mention this incident in his History of Massachusets-Bay, published in 1765. During the actual debate, the chamber explicitly chose not to record “yeas and nays,” so there’s no tally of legislators’ votes.

But the record does tell us that the house went into a committee of the whole on 11 February, allowing Hutchinson to debate and vote, and it came out revoking its earlier decision to build in Cambridge. So that was probably one moment his influence, or his vote, kept alive the possibility of rebuilding the Court-House in Boston.

Hutchinson already had a plan for that legislative session. On 3 February he had given his colleagues a memo about fixing the inflation problem. Massachusetts was expecting a huge reimbursement from Parliament for its costs in seizing Louisbourg from the French in 1745. Hutchinson wanted to use that silver and gold to retire all the province’s paper notes in circulation, and then to issue new money in smaller quantities from then on.

While the speaker was juggling those balls, the Council tossed another problem his way: the new Independent Advertiser newspaper had cast aspersions on the legislature and on Gov. William Shirley for how they had handled the riots. What, the Council asked on 12 February, was the house going to do about that?

The house put off a vote on the Council’s invitation to form a joint committee on punishing the newspaper until that afternoon. Instead, the members went back to debating where to build the Court-House. They decided not to build it in Cambridge after all—but they still voted that “the Court-House shall not be built in Boston.”

As for the Council’s concern about the Independent Advertiser, the house never got back to that on the afternoon of the 12th. Or on the 13th, when the chamber discussed how much new paper money to issue. Or on Monday the 15th, when the speaker called for votes on various petitions, reports, and a bill to reschedule court sessions.

On 16 February, Hutchinson formally raised his “Proposals for regulating the Medium of Trade in this Province” for discussion. And that morning the speaker finally had the house address “the Vote of Council respecting the Independent Advertiser.” After a little debate, those legislators declared that they didn’t care to do anything at all about that newspaper. So that was one question dealt with.

TOMORROW: But where to put the Court-House?

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