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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Friday, April 05, 2019

“If genuine, they must be private Letters”

When we left the Massachusetts General Court on 2 June 1773, members of the lower house had voted overwhelmingly to condemn a collection of letters from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, and others as intended “to overthrow the Constitution of this Government, and to introduce arbitrary Power into the Province.”

The next day, the house chose a committee of nine to prepare a longer response to those letters. At its head were Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, of course. Also on that Thursday, the Massachusetts Spy reported on the house vote—and reported in dire tones about “extraordinary discoveries…which will bring many dark things to light.”

That brought a note to the chamber from Gov. Hutchinson, carried by provincial secretary Thomas Flucker. Hutchinson declared, “I have never wrote any public or private Letter with such Intention…” He asked to see a transcript of the house proceedings. (It had met as a committee of the whole to keep the most serious discussions private.) And he asked to know what letters the legislators were talking about.

That afternoon the house voted to give Hutchinson the dates of the letters “Provided his Excellency will order to be laid before this House Copies of all the Letters of the same Dates written by his Excellency relating to the publick Affairs of this Province.”

The next day was King George III’s birthday. There was a militia parade on the Common and down King Street, with Hancock leading the Cadets, Adino Paddock the artillery train (both units with musical bands), and Henry Knox appearing as a junior officer of the new grenadier company. Cannon were fired in all the town batteries, Castle William, and the navy ships in the harbor.

At noon, Gov. Hutchinson and the Council toasted the king in one chamber of the Town House while the house toasted him in another. In the evening there were fireworks.

On Saturday, the house sent a committee with the dates of the letters and renewed its request for all letters Hutchinson had written on those dates. The governor later called this “a very rude resolve.” It presented him with two possible traps. First, any deviation between the letters that the legislators had and his drafts or copies might be spun as deceptive. Second, the house was asking for more letters than it had on hand.

The Monday newspapers reported on the exchange between the house and the governor. It wasn’t until Wednesday, 9 June, that Hutchinson responded:
I find by the Dates of the Letters with my Signature that, if genuine, they must be private Letters wrote to a Gentleman in London, since deceased; that all, except the last were wrote many Months before I came to the Chair [i.e., while he was still lieutenant governor]; that they were wrote not only with that Confidence which is always implied in a friendly Correspondence by private Letters, but that they are expressly confidential; notwithstanding which, they contain nothing more respecting the Constitution of the Colonies in general than what is contained in my Speeches to the Assembly, and what I have published in a more extensive Manner to the World; and there is not one Passage in them which was ever intended to respect, or which, as I am well assured, the Gentleman to whom they were wrote, ever understood to respect, the particular Constitution of this Government as derived from the Charter.
In those details, Hutchinson was correct. The letters had gone to Thomas Whately, a British official who died in 1772. Hutchinson had spoken openly and at length to the General Court about how colonial legislatures had to be subordinate to Parliament. His letters didn’t recommend changes to the Massachusetts charter—but other letters in the collection did, and by this point people were viewing them all as a whole.

TOMORROW: The question of publication.

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