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Hutchinson Letters Affair

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Political cartoon from 1774 by Paul Revere, depicting Death attacking Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
Political cartoon from 1774 by Paul Revere, depicting Death attacking Governor Thomas Hutchinson.

The Hutchinson Letters Affair was an incident that increased tensions between the colonists of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and the British government prior to the American Revolution. In June 1773 letters written several years earlier by Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver, governor and lieutenant governor of the province at the time of their publication, were published in a Boston newspaper. The content of the letters was propagandistically claimed by Massachusetts radical politicians to call for the abridgement of colonial rights, and a duel was fought in England over the matter.

The affair served to inflame tensions in Massachusetts, where implementation of the 1773 Tea Act was met with resistance that culminated in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. The response of the British government to the publication of the letters served to turn Benjamin Franklin, one of the principal figures in the affair, into a committed Patriot.

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After the events of March the 5th, the British forces are withdrawn from Boston and they're sent to New Jersey, and things do calm down in the town Boston. Governor Hutchinson writes to someone in 1771, that if it weren't for an "Adams or two" things would be going along very nicely here. Governor Hutchinson does have an Adams or two with whom to contend. The principle one is Samuel Adams. Samuel Adams, whose father had been a very important person in Boston, one Boston leading merchants, and Samuel Adams had inherited his father's businesses in the 1740s and one by one ran them all into the ground because his main focus wasn't business but was politics. Adams would talk to anyone as long as politics was the subject of discussion, and Adams published a little newspaper called the New England Gazette and the Gazette was filled with warnings about threats to liberty and about conspiracies against public liberty. And, for Adams, the principal conspirator was Thomas Hutchinson. And Adams also was the clerk of the Massachusetts assembly, and gives him an extraordinary degree of power as he is the one responsible for the committee's reports, the committee's writings, and as clerk of the assembly Adams creates a committee of correspondence whose role is to communicate with other colonies. According to the way the system had been created, the colonies are only supposed to communicate through their governors, through their executive official, and communications between them should go by way of the governor or by way of London. But Adams creates a committee of correspondence so the Massachusetts assembly can communicate with the assemblies of the other provinces. Each other assembly will create a committee of correspondence, and over the years from 1772 to 1774 each of the other colonies create a committee of correspondence in its assembly. And in Boston the town meeting creates a committee of correspondence. Adams is really the leader of the town meeting and has the town meeting create a committee of correspondence so that the town of Boston can communicate officially with the other towns in Massachusetts, and each other town create a committee of correspondence. In this way, you have Boston's news and Boston's ideas being shared with the rest of the province, and typically the men on the committees of correspondence are men whose political sensibilities aligned with those of Samuel Adams, that is it's not an impartial body, usually you would only want to be on the committee of correspondence if you are on Adams's side. Right now it's not quite clear what the end result of all of this will be, what is it to which these people are aiming? They do want to restore the power of their assemblies, and their town meetings were to preserve the power of their assemblies in town meetings. They're not yet looking toward independence as the end. Instead, they're asserting their power and, for the assembly, it's an assertion of power against the power of Thomas Hutchinson, and Hutchinson is simply trying to do what Parliament wants, as Parliament is trying to change the governing nature of the Empire, trying to assert more power over the Empire, the Massachusetts assembly is resisting, the town meetings are resisting this. So, you have a growing political struggle here in the early 1770s during relatively quiet years as Adams and the Boston town meeting and the Massachusetts assembly are creating committees of correspondence to communicate with the other colonies. You do have some major events here in these years, in 1767-68 when the assembly had sent a circular letter to the other colonies, this predates the committee of correspondence. And Governor Bernard reacted by suspending the assembly, and the Sons of Liberty commissioned a silver bowl to commemorate the members of the assembly who had resisted Governor Bernard's call to rescind their letter, the "non-rescinders," the 93 non-rescinders are honored, the 17 who voted with Bernard are cast into oblivion. And the Sons of Liberty commission the silver bowl that Paul Revere makes to celebrate their valiance in this effort. The assembly calls for Bernard to be replaced, they call on the Lords of Trade in England and the Privy Council to replace Governor Bernard with a governor more amenable to their wishes, and so Bernard is recalled, he goes back to England warning about the consequences if you allow these assemblies to assert so much power, if you allow the towns to assert so much power. He warns England about this, meanwhile Governor Thomas Hutchinson is chosen to replace him. Hutchinson is from Boston, he is a local guy. It's thought that maybe Hutchinson can keep peace here. But in these early years of the 1770s we have this growing conflict between Hutchinson and the assembly, with Samuel Adams really directing the assembly against Hutchinson, seeing every action of Hutchinson's as an attempt to subvert the liberty of the province. John Adams said much later that the American Revolution was accomplished in the minds of Americans before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington Green. And we see this revolution happening in the way people are thinking about their government in these years of the early 1770s. There is a telling example in early 1773 when Governor Hutchinson thinks he'll take advantage of the seeming quiet in the province to explain to the Massachusetts assembly what its role is in the British system, and the assembly's role is quite limited in Hutchinson's view. Their only real choice is to submit to the will of Parliament, and Parliament is the governing force in the British Empire, or to declare their independence, and he is sure they will not want to take such a drastic step because he knows they could not possibly sustain independence, they would quickly be swallowed up by the Dutch Empire, the French Empire, the Spanish Empire, and he knows that they will appreciate the liberty they enjoy under the British Empire when they're subject to one of these other empires. Now, Hutchinson thought that people in England with thank him for drawing this line in 1773, but people in England are furious because up to this point none of these radicals, Samuel Adams, James Otis, had mentioned the word independence. But now Governor Hutchinson is telling them that's their only choice, and if their choice is submission or independence, they know they can't submit. The assembly then asks for Governor Hutchinson to be recalled, to have another governor sent over who will be closer to their way of thinking and more able to preserve what Benjamin Franklin, at this point, calls "that fragile China vase," the British Empire. It may seem like quiet years, but very important work is being done in creating this system of communications that will tie in the radicals of Boston with radicals throughout the Massachusetts Bay province and throughout the other North American colonies.



Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay Thomas Hutchinson, author of some of the inflammatory letters
Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay Thomas Hutchinson, author of some of the inflammatory letters

During the 1760s, relations between Great Britain and some of its North American colonies became strained by a series of Parliamentary laws (including the 1765 Stamp Act and the 1767 Townshend Acts), intended to raise revenue for the crown, and to assert Parliament's authority to pass such legislation despite a lack of colonial representation.[1] These laws had sparked strong protests in the Thirteen Colonies; the Province of Massachusetts Bay in particular saw significant unrest and direct action against crown officials.[2] The introduction of British Army troops into Boston in 1768 further raised tensions that escalated to the Boston Massacre in 1770.[3]

In the years after the enactment of the Townshend Acts, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his colonial secretary (and brother-in-law) Andrew Oliver wrote a series of letters concerning the acts, the protests against them, and containing suggestions on how to respond, to Thomas Whately, an assistant to Prime Minister George Grenville.[4] Whately died in 1772, and his papers were turned over to his brother William. Whately at one point gave access to his brother's papers to John Temple, another colonial official who sought to recover letters of his own from those papers.[5]

Hutchinson was appointed governor of Massachusetts in 1770, following the critical publication by opposition politicians of letters written by his predecessor, Francis Bernard.[6] Over the next two years Hutchinson engaged in an extended and rancorous written debate with the provincial assembly and the governor's council, both of which were dominated by radical leadership hostile to Parliamentary authority. The debate centered on the arbitrariness of executive prerogative and the role of Parliament in colonial governance, and greatly deepened divisions in the province.[7]

The Massachusetts debate reached a pitch in England when the colonial secretary, Lord Dartmouth, insisted that Benjamin Franklin, then acting as agent for Massachusetts in London, demanded that the Massachusetts assembly retract its response to a speech the governor gave early in 1772 as part of this ongoing debate.[8] Franklin had acquired a packet of about twenty letters that had been written to Whately.[9] Upon reading them, Franklin concluded that Hutchinson and Oliver had mischaracterized the situation in the colonies, and thus misled Parliament. He felt that wider knowledge of these letters would then focus colonial anger away from Parliament and at those who had written the misleading letters.[10][11] Franklin sent the letters to Thomas Cushing, the speaker of the Massachusetts assembly, in December 1772.[10] He insisted to Cushing that they not be published or widely circulated. He specifically wrote that they should be seen only by a few people, and that he was not "at liberty to make the letters public."[12]

The letters arrived in Massachusetts in March 1773, and came into the hands of Samuel Adams, then serving as the clerk of the Massachusetts assembly.[13] By Franklin's instructions, only a select few people, including the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, were to see the letters.[14] Alarmed at what they read, Cushing wrote Franklin, asking if the restrictions on their circulation could be eased. In a response received by Cushing in early June, Franklin reiterated that they were not to be copied or published, but could be shown to anyone.[14]


A longtime opponent of Hutchinson's, Samuel Adams narrowly followed Franklin's request, but managed to orchestrate a propaganda campaign against Hutchinson without immediately disclosing the letters. He informed the assembly of the existence of the letters, after which it designated a committee to analyze them. Strategic leaks suggestive of their content made their way into the press and political discussions, causing Hutchinson much discomfort. The assembly eventually concluded, according to John Hancock, that in the letters Hutchinson sought to "overthrow the Constitution of this Government, and to introduce arbitrary Power into the Province", and called for the removal of Hutchinson and Oliver.[15] Hutchinson complained that Adams and the opposition were misrepresenting what he had written, and that nothing he had written in them on the subject of Parliamentary supremacy went beyond other statements he had made.[16] The letters were finally published in the Boston Gazette in mid-June 1773,[17] causing a political firestorm in Massachusetts and raising significant questions in England.[18]

Content of the letters

The letters were written primarily in 1768 and 1769, principally by Hutchinson and Oliver, although the published letters also included some written by Charles Paxton, a customs official and Hutchinson supporter, and Hutchinson's nephew Nathaniel Rogers.[19] The letters written by Oliver (who became lieutenant governor when Hutchinson became governor) proposed a significant revamping of the Massachusetts government to strengthen the executive, while those of Hutchinson were ruminations on the difficult state of affairs in the province. Historian Bernard Bailyn confirms Hutchinson's own assertion that much of the content of his letters expressed relatively little that had not already been publicly stated.[20]

According to Bailyn, Hutchinson's ruminations included the observation that it was impossible for colonists have the full rights they would have in the home country, essentially requiring an "abridgement of what are called English liberties".[21] Hutchinson, unlike Oliver, made no specific proposals on how the colonial government should be reformed, writing in a letter that was not among those published, "I can think of nothing but what will produce as great an evil as that which it may remove or will be of a very uncertain event."[22] Oliver's letters, in contrast, specifically proposed that the governor's council, whose members where then elected by the assembly with the governor's consent, be changed to one whose members were appointed by the crown.[23]


19th century engraving depicting Benjamin Franklin's appearance before the Privy Council
19th century engraving depicting Benjamin Franklin's appearance before the Privy Council

In England, speculation ran rampant over the source of the leak. William Whately accused John Temple of taking the letters, which Temple denied, challenging Whately to a duel. Whately was wounded in the encounter in early December 1773, but neither participant was satisfied, and a second duel was planned.[24] In order to forestall that event, Franklin on Christmas Day published a letter admitting that he was responsible for the acquisition and transmission of the letters, to prevent "further mischief".[25] He justified his actions by pointing out that the letters had been written between public officials for the purpose of influencing public policy.[26]

When Hutchinson's opponents in Massachusetts read the letters, they seized on key phrases (including the "abridgement" phrase) to argue that Hutchinson was in fact lobbying the London government to make changes that would effect such an abridgement. Combined with Oliver's explicit recommendations for reform, they presented this as a clear indication that the provincial leaders were working against the interests of the people and not for them.[27]

Bostonians were outraged at the content of the published letters, burning Hutchinson and Oliver in effigy on Boston Common.[18] The letters were widely reprinted throughout the British North American colonies, and acts of protest took place as far away as Philadelphia. The Massachusetts assembly and governor's council petitioned the Board of Trade for Hutchinson's removal.[16] In the Privy Council hearing concerning Hutchinson's fate, in which the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party was also discussed, Franklin stood silently while he was lambasted by Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn for his role in the affair. He was accused of thievery and dishonor, and called the prime mover in England on behalf of Boston's radical Committee of Correspondence. The Board of Trade dismissed Franklin from his post as colonial Postmaster General, and dismissed the petition for Hutchinson's removal as "groundless" and "vexatious".[28] Parliament then passed the so-called "Coercive Acts", a package of measures designed to punish Massachusetts for the tea party.[29] Hutchinson was recalled, and the Massachusetts governorship was given to the commander of British forces in North America, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage. Hutchinson left Massachusetts in May 1774, never to return.[30] Andrew Oliver suffered a stroke and died in March 1774.[31]

Thomas Pownall, who may have given Franklin the letters
Thomas Pownall, who may have given Franklin the letters

Gage's implementation of the Coercive Acts further raised tensions that led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in April 1775.[32] Franklin, who had been politically neutral with respect to the colonial radicals prior to his appearance before the Board of Trade, returned to America in early 1775, committed to independence.[33] He went on to serve in the Second Continental Congress and became a leading figure in the American Revolution.[34]

Who gave Franklin the letters?

A number of candidates have been proposed as the means by which Benjamin Franklin obtained the letters. John Temple, despite his political differences with Hutchinson, was apparently able to convince the latter in 1774 that he was not involved in their acquisition. He did, however, claim to know who was involved, but refused to name him, because that would "prove the ruin of the guilty party."[35] Several historians (including Bernard Bailyn and Bernard Knollenberg) have concluded that Thomas Pownall was the probable source of the letters. Pownall was Massachusetts governor before Francis Bernard, had similar views to Franklin on colonial matters, and had access to centers of colonial administration through his brother John, the colonial secretary.[36] Other individuals have also been suggested, but all appear to have an only tenuous connection to Franklin or the situation. Historian Kenneth Penegar believes the question will remain unanswerable unless new documents emerge to shed light on the episode.[37]


  1. ^ Knollenberg, p. 54
  2. ^ Danver, pp. 127–132
  3. ^ Danver, pp. 151–154
  4. ^ Penegar, p. 23
  5. ^ Penegar, p. 24
  6. ^ Galvin, pp. 178, 180–182
  7. ^ Bailyn, pp. 171–173, 211
  8. ^ Penegar, p. 27
  9. ^ Penegar, p. 27. Penegar notes that there are varying interpretations on how many letters constitute the set at issue.
  10. ^ a b Morgan, p. 187
  11. ^ Bailyn, p. 236
  12. ^ Wright, p. 225
  13. ^ Alexander, p. 150
  14. ^ a b Bailyn, p. 239
  15. ^ Alexander, p. 151
  16. ^ a b Alexander, p. 152
  17. ^ Bailyn, p. 240
  18. ^ a b Penegar, p. 29
  19. ^ Bailyn, p. 226
  20. ^ Bailyn, pp. 227–228
  21. ^ Bailyn, p. 227
  22. ^ Bailyn, p. 228
  23. ^ Penegar, p. 32
  24. ^ Penegar, pp. 22–23, 34
  25. ^ Penegar, p. 34
  26. ^ Penegar, p. 35
  27. ^ Bailyn, p. 243
  28. ^ Penegar, pp. 83–97
  29. ^ Penegar, p. 18
  30. ^ Hosmer, pp. 314–315
  31. ^ Bell, p. 516
  32. ^ Fischer, pp. 41ff
  33. ^ Isaacson, pp. 284–291
  34. ^ Isaacson, pp. 291ff
  35. ^ Penegar, p. 173
  36. ^ Penegar, p. 174
  37. ^ Penegar, pp. 176–178


  • Alexander, John (2011). Samuel Adams: The Life of an American Revolutionary. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-7033-7. OCLC 678924183.
  • Bailyn, Bernard (1974). The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-64160-0. OCLC 6825524.
  • Bell, Whitfield (1997). Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 978-0-87169-226-9. OCLC 246214730.
  • Danver, Steven (2010). Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-59884-221-0. OCLC 475446571.
  • Fischer, David Hackett (1994). Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508847-6.
  • Galvin, John (1976). Three Men of Boston. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. ISBN 9780690010183. OCLC 1530708.
  • Hosmer, John Kendall (1896). The Life of Thomas Hutchinson. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin. OCLC 1527164.
  • Isaacson, Walter (2004). Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780743258074.
  • Knollenberg, Bernhard (1975). Growth of the American Revolution, 1766–1775. New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-0-02-917110-3. OCLC 1416300.
  • Morgan, Edmund (2003) [2002]. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300101621. OCLC 224091444.
  • Penegar, Kenneth (2011). The Political Trial of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Algora Publishing. ISBN 9780875868493. OCLC 696296728.
  • Walmsley, Andrew Stephen (2000). Thomas Hutchinson and the Origins of the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-9370-1. OCLC 228273378.
  • Wright, Esmond (1988). Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-31809-0. OCLC 12751540.

Further reading

This page was last edited on 20 February 2019, at 14:34
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