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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Thursday, March 28, 2019

“I have engag’d that it shall not be printed”

In the spring of 1773, the Boston Whigs had an incendiary document that they wanted to share with the public. But the person who supplied that document had asked them not to make copies or circulate it widely.

The document was a collection of letters from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, and other friends of the royal government to the British official Thomas Whately in the late 1760s. The person who had supplied that collection was Benjamin Franklin, the London lobbyist for the Massachusetts house.

On 2 Dec 1772 Franklin had sent the letters to Thomas Cushing, speaker of the house, saying:
On this Occasion I think it fit to acquaint you that there has lately fallen into my Hands Part of a Correspondence, that I have reason to believe laid the Foundation of most if not all our present Grievances. I am not at liberty to tell thro’ what Channel I receiv’d it; and I have engag’d that it shall not be printed, nor any Copies taken of the whole or any part of it; but I am allow’d and desired to let it be seen by some Men of Worth in the Province for their Satisfaction only.

In confidence of your preserving inviolably my Engagement, I send you enclos’d the original Letters, to obviate every Pretence of Unfairness in Copying, Interpolation or Omission. The Hands of the Gentlemen will be well known. . . .

I therefore wish I was at Liberty to make the Letters publick; but as I am not, I can only allow them to be seen by yourself, by the other Gentlemen of the Committee of Correspondence, by Messrs. [James] Bowdoin, and [James] Pitts, of the Council, and Drs. [Charles] Chauncey, [Samuel] Cooper and [John] Winthrop, with a few such other Gentlemen as you may think it fit to show them to. After being some Months in your Possession, you are requested to return them to me.
Chauncy and Cooper were Boston’s most respected Whig ministers. Winthrop was a Harvard professor.

On 24 March, Cushing wrote back:
I have communicated them to some of the Gentlemen you mentioned. They are of opinion, that though it might be inconvenient to publish them, yet it might be expedient to have Copys taken and left on this side the water as there may be a necessity to make some use of them hereafter, however I read to them what you had wrote me upon the occasion, and told them I could by no means Consent Copys of them or any part of them should be taken without your express Leave, that I would write you upon the subject and should strictly Conform to your directions.
Despite Cushing’s assurances, other men besides the six Franklin had specified had already seen the copies of the letters.

TOMORROW: Information wants to be free.

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