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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Sunday, July 20, 2014

“It would give him the Appearance of having my Confidence”

When John Adams wrote those cranky letters from Philadelphia that I quoted yesterday, he had someone looking over his shoulder: a young lawyer named Benjamin Hichborn (1746-1817).

Hichborn was a cousin of Paul Revere, but he came from a branch of the family that was already upwardly mobile. He had attended Harvard, graduating in 1768, and then gone to work as a clerk for the Boston lawyer Samuel Fitch.

Fitch was a Loyalist. This should not have been a surprise to Hichborn since Fitch was already accepting royal appointments in the Vice Admiralty courts in 1768. Then he signed the complimentary farewell address to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson in 1774 and stayed in Boston during the siege.

Fitch’s actions made Hichborn’s political allegiance suspect. Or at least he said so. It might have helped if he’d been politically active before the war, like a couple of his older relatives, but I don’t see his name anywhere prominent. So Hichborn went to Philadelphia to prove his dedication to liberty.

As Adams remembered the situation decades later:
A young Gentleman from Boston, Mr. Hitchbourne, whom I had known as a Clerk in Mr. Fitch’s office, but with whom I had no Particular connection or Acquaintance, had been for some days soliciting me, to give him Letters to my Friends in the Massachusetts. I was so much engaged in the Business of Congress in the day time and in consultations with the Members on Evenings and Mornings that I could not find time to write a Line.

He came to me at last and said he was immediately to sett off, on his Journey home, and begged I would give him some Letters. I told him I had not been able to write any. He prayed I would write if it were only a Line to my Family, for he said, as he had served his Clerkship with Mr. Fitch he was suspected and represented as a Tory, and this Reputation would be his ruin, if it could not [be] corrected, for nobody would employ him at the Bar. If I would only give him, the slightest Letters to any of my Friends, it would give him the Appearance of having my Confidence, and would assist him in acquiring what he truly deserved the Character of a Whigg.

To get rid of his importunity, I took my Penn, and wrote a very few Lines to my Wife and about an equal Number to General James Warren.
Actually, Adams also included Hichborn on a short list of young Massachusetts men he hoped Warren could find appointments for.

One might think that Adams, facing a young man whom he barely knew and whose political loyalty was so debatable, would send him off with some innocuous correspondence. Adams had just written to his wife and his friend Warren, so he didn’t really have to say more to them. But maybe that was the trouble—trying to think of stuff he hadn’t already written.

In any event, in his “very few Lines” for Hichborn to carry, Adams managed to say impolitic things about John Dickinson, Charles Lee, and most of his colleagues in the Continental Congress, and also to advocate for radical measures that he and his Massachusetts colleagues were still publicly disavowing.

Adams wasn’t the only delegate to entrust Hichborn with letters. Benjamin Harrison (shown above in a miniature owned by the Virginia Historical Society) also gave him a letter to carry to Massachusetts, in his case to his fellow Virginian Gen. George Washington.

TOMORROW: And how did Hichborn carry out that task?

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