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, December 30, 2020

“The breach of a most essential privilege of this Board”

On 12 Oct 1770, eight members of the Massachusetts Council delivered their depositions about what had happened on 6 March, the day after the Boston Massacre.

Harrison Gray, who was also the provincial treasurer, dated his testimony 9 October while the other depositions were all dated on the 12th. Samuel Danforth, the senior Councilor present, and Royall Tyler provided solo accounts. Three men signed one deposition and two another, very similar, which doesn’t really add up to independent evidence.

The focus of controversy was provincial secretary Andrew Oliver’s report that Tyler had said of prominent men in Massachusetts, “they had formed their plan, and that this was a part of it to remove the Troops out of town, and after that the Commissioners.” And the main issues were—

1) Did Tyler really refer to the Customs Commissioners? Witnesses saying he did included Capt. Benjamin Caldwell, R.N.; deputy secretary John Cotton; and clerk Francis Skinner. Lt. Col. William Dalrymple said, “Something of that kind was mentioned by some Gentleman of the Council during the debates; but I cannot say whether it was by Mr. Tyler.” All eight Councilors said they had no recollection of that remark, some said they would definitely have remembered such a thing, and some argued that mentioning the Commissioners made no logical sense.

2) When Tyler spoke of a ”plan,” did he mean a plan formed before the shooting on 5 March or in the twelve to eighteen hours that had elapsed since it? Again, all the Councilors agreed that they didn’t see how anyone would take Tyler’s words to mean the first. To be sure, they had to work through some logical and semantic brambles to get there, as the scholarly Samuel Danforth showed:
whereas the mention made by Mr. Tyler of a plan that had been formed, (considering that the interval of time between those outrages and Mr. Tyler’s narration was scarce sufficient wherein to form such a plan and the knowledge of it to reach Mr. Tyler) may by some be understood to refer to a plan formed before those outrages were committed, this deponent testifies that nothing said by Mr. Tyler, in his hearing, did convey to him any idea of such a plan formed previous to those outrages; and how incautiously and madly so ever some individuals highly incensed, might have expressed themselves, and what apprehensions so ever Mr. Tyler (thro’ misinformation or otherwise) might then have of a plan formed for removing the troops from the town, in any other way than by prevailing with their officers to remove them, this deponent verily believes that no combination had ever been formed, or plan concerted for the purpose of removing the troops, either in the town of Boston or elsewhere; having never heard it suggested by any other person then Mr. Tyler either then or at any time since
On this point, witnesses Cotton and Skinner agreed that Tyler hadn’t appeared to mean a plan made before the Massacre. However, no one disputed that Tyler had spoken of a “plan.” 

3) Was Oliver wrong to send to London a description of the Council meeting that went beyond the official minutes? The secretary declared that he could, and indeed should, provide a full report on the Council to Sir Francis Bernard, still the official royal governor. The Councilors felt Oliver had broken a norm and cast the province in a bad light just like Bernard’s letters to London, exposed the year before.

That bad light was the real issue, of course. Especially since Bernard had Oliver’s account printed (not unlike how the Boston Whigs had published his letters). Massachusetts politicians had been trying to portray Boston as a peaceful, loyal British town unfairly maligned by royal officials and subjected to an unnecessary military presence. That argument was harder to make if the Council—the governor’s top local advisors—had been close to threatening armed rebellion.

After collecting all the statements, on 16 October the Council named a committee to report on the matter. This consisted of five Councilors not present on 6 March: William Brattle; James Bowdoin (shown above); James Otis, Sr.; John Bradbury; and Stephen Hall.

According to acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, Bowdoin had already revealed his response to Oliver’s account by telling Thomas Flucker, “Why this Deposition of the Secretary has defeated every thing we aimed at by the Narrative & Deposition sent home.”

Sure enough, on 24 October the Council adopted a detailed report, penned by Bowdoin, that went over every disputed detail and ended in four resolutions:
I. RESOLVED unanimously, That Andrew Oliver, Esq; Secretary of this Province, by secretly taking minutes at Council, of what was said by the members of Council, in their debates, also by signing a paper containing those minutes, and further by giving his deposition to the truth of it, has in each and all those instances acted inconsistent with the duty of his office, and thereby is guilty of a breach of trust.

II. RESOLVED unanimously, That the said Andrew Oliver, Esq; inasmuch as such proceedings are destructive of all freedom of debate, is guilty of the breach of a most essential privilege of this Board.

III. WHEREAS the said Andrew Oliver, Esq; has suggested in his said deposition, that because his draft was allowed strictly to express the truth, it would not stand well on the Council records, and was therefore rejected by the Council; RESOLVED unanimously, That by such suggestion he has injured and abused the members composing that Council, and by so doing has reflected great dishonor on this Board.

IV. RESOLVED, That an attested copy of this report, and the petitions and depositions, to which it relates, be sent to Mr. Agent [William] Bollan, in order that he may make the best use of them he can, for the benefit of this Province.
Oliver responded with a letter protesting his honor and repeating that he’d reported the truth. The Council sent back a letter rejecting that claim and had the whole collection of documents printed as Proceedings of His Majesty's Council of the Province on Massachusetts-Bay, Relative to the Deposition of Andrew Oliver, Esq. Just one more dispute between the Massachusetts Whigs and the royal authorities with no resolution, just a feeling of grievance on both sides.

TOMORROW: A family feud?

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