Background of Crisis. Less dramatic than the Boston Massacre or Boston Tea Party, the mysterious case of Thomas Hutchinson’s letters to British political figures, meant to inform them of American affairs and to suggest ways to handle the crisis of the 1760s, led directly to the crisis of the 1770s. The episode also demonstrates the differences between American and English conceptions of politics.
Francis Bernard. Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard returned to England in 1769, determined to change the province’s government, which gave too much power to the elected assembly. For example, the Governor’s Council was elected by the assembly, and so instead of advising the governor, acted against him. The towns had far too much political power. Bernard wanted to reform this government, giving more power to the governor and less to the assembly and town meetings. In England, he found allies among the supporters of George Grenville, the former chancellor of the exchequer who had proposed the Stamp Act and who still smarted at the way the colonists had pressured Parliament to rescind that Act.
New Governor. One of Grenville’s allies, Thomas Whately, opened correspondence in the 1760s with several American political leaders. He sought out Americans who had supported British policy, and their letters informed the British group pushing quietly to amend the colonial governments. Among Whately’s correspondents was Hutchinson, who became acting governor when Bernard left for England and was elevated to governor in 1771. Hutchinson believed that Parliament could govern the colonies in all cases, but he also believed it was a mistake for Britain to try to impose its will on colonists who were used to governing themselves. Hutchinson believed that either Parliament governed the entire empire, or the component parts of the empire must be independent. As governor of Massachusetts, Hutchinson hoped to keep his colony within the empire and continue the prosperity it and the empire had enjoyed for generations. In his public statements Hutchinson never ceased making these same arguments; privately he believed that his opponents, the Otis family, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, were motivated by self-interest and jealousy, and he feared that their attacks on him would damage the empire. His opponents believed that Hutchinson’s passion for preserving the British empire came from his own self-interest: better than most colonial Americans, Hutchinson had managed to rise politically, using connections in the British bureaucracy to secure offices for himself and relations.
The Assembly. For most of his administration Hutchinson quarreled with the assembly over important issues as well as relatively insignificant ones. The British government thought it best to have the colony’s government meet outside of Boston, which was coming to be dominated by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty. The assembly balked at moving, but Hutchinson insisted on British prerogative. The British government also decided to give the assembly less control over judges, magistrates, and even the governor by having them paid by the Crown rather than by the assembly. Hutchinson again agreed with the Crown and made his point in long speeches to the assembly. On 6 January 1773 Hutchinson opened the assembly’s meeting by outlining Parliament’s power to govern the empire. Parliament was supreme, he reminded the assembly, and to assert otherwise was to assert that the colonies were independent. The people of the colonies could not enjoy as much liberty as the people in England, Hutchinson argued, but still they enjoyed more than the people in Spain or France’s American colonies. If the colonies became independent of Parliament, it was likely they would fall prey to Spain or France.
Reaction. In Massachusetts, Hutchinson’s debate with the assembly united that body in opposition to him. The assembly responded unanimously to Hutchinson’s constitutional argument, conceding that without Parliamentary supremacy the colonies might become independent, but what of it? “There is more reason to dread the consequences of absolute uncontrolled supreme power, whether of a nation or a monarch, than those of total independence.” Hutchinson had drawn a line in the sand, and the assembly had crossed it. Parts of Hutchinson’s exchange with the assembly were printed in newspapers throughout the colony. John Adams was amazed that Hutchinson had forced the controversy on the assembly and noted in his diary that Hutchinson “will not be thanked for this. This Ruin and Destruction must spring out of it, either from the Ministry and Parliament on one hand, or from his Countrymen, on the other. He has reduced himself to a most ridiculous State of Distress.” In England, where Hutchinson might have expected
his argument to be welcomed, news of his controversy with the assembly disturbed William Legge, Lord Dartmouth, the new colonial secretary. Dartmouth had hoped to calm the troubled colonists by not provoking controversy. But now, Dartmouth told Benjamin Franklin, the Massachusetts assembly’s agent in London, Hutchinson had provoked the assembly to assert its independence of Parliament. Parliament could not possibly ignore that. Could Franklin convince the assembly to withdraw this declaration? No, Franklin told him, not unless Hutchinson withdrew his assertion of Parliamentary power. Dartmouth also wrote Thomas Cushing, speaker of the assembly, pledging to work to remedy “every real or imaginary evil of which the province may think she has reason to complain” if the assembly would retract its assertion of supremacy over Parliament. Speaker Cushing responded to Dartmouth, saying that “the eyes of the whole continent... are turned upon this province,” and the assembly could not retract its position. Dartmouth, anxious to avert a crisis, privately and politely reprimanded Hutchinson for having provoked the assembly.
The Letters. For Hutchinson this private rebuke was devastating. What followed was even worse. In March a package arrived in Boston containing letters Hutchinson and four others had written to Whately in the 1760s. Samuel Adams and James Otis had insisted for a decade that Hutchinson was the real architect of the Stamp Act and other odious measures; now the assembly read Hutchinson’s private letters urging the British government to assert itself against the growing movement in Massachusetts for self-government. Hutchinson’s letters were more moderate than those of other correspondents, but they were damaging enough. He had written that “there must be an abridgement of what are called English liberties” and “that a colony distant from the parent state cannot possibly enjoy all the liberty of the parent state.” Though these passages were subject to different interpretations, the colonists interpreted them in one way, that Hutchinson had advised the British government to curtail colonial liberty. The astonished assembly read the letters and voted, 101 to 5, to form a committee to respond to Hutchinson’s attempt “to overthrow the constitution of this government and to introduce arbitrary power.”
Motives. Hutchinson had written the letters to help the British government heal the breach with the American colonies. Franklin, who had sent the letters to Massachusetts, had a similar motive. Franklin hoped to make Hutchinson the scapegoat and divert colonial anger from the British ministry to the governor. Hutchinson could be replaced with a governor the assembly would find acceptable. Franklin, who believed that the American colonies eventually would become independent, wanted them to remain part of a British commonwealth of nations. The break would come naturally, in the next century or so, Franklin believed, and in the meantime he wanted to avoid unnecessary political violence. By keeping calm and not provoking trouble, Franklin and Dartmouth both hoped to avoid a clash between the colonies and the empire.
Reaction. But the publication of the letters provoked a furious storm of outrage in both England and America. How Franklin had gotten the letters in the first place remains something of a mystery. Franklin took considerable abuse for his role in the affair, but he would insist that he alone was responsible for finding and releasing the letters. But their release provoked a duel in England between Whately’s brother (Whately had died before Franklin received the letters) and John Temple, a former customs collector in Boston (and son-in-law of Massachusetts political leader James Bowdoin), whom Whately accused of stealing the letters. Temple escaped unscathed, Whately was wounded, and Franklin insisted on his sole responsibility. In Massachusetts, Hutchinson was ruined; in June he asked for a leave of absence, and the Massachusetts assembly petitioned to have him removed.
Privy Council. The Privy Council, a body of advisors to the king, received the assembly’s petition and called for a hearing in January, 1774. Andrew Wedderburn, the English solicitor general, represented Hutchinson and his brother-in-law Andrew Oliver while Franklin was summoned to represent the assembly. The session convened just a few days after word reached London that a Boston mob had destroyed the East India Company’s tea, and the city was in an uproar. Thirty-six privy councillors crowded the room, which was packed with spectators, including Edmund Burke, Joseph Priestley, Jeremy Bentham, and Prime Minister Lord North, who had to stand along with the other spectators. Wedderburn turned the hearing into an attack on Franklin, accusing him of stealing the Hutchinson letters and of exciting the colony’s ill will against Hutchinson and Oliver. “I hope, my lords, you will mark and brand this man, for the honour of this country, of Europe, and of mankind.... He has forfeited all the respect of societies and of men.... Men will watch him with a jealous eye; they will hide their papers from him and lock up their excritoires. He will henceforth esteem it a libel to be called a man of letters....” Wedderburn charged that Franklin had no moral scruples and had acted out of ambition: “My lords, Dr. Franklin’s mind may have been so possessed with the idea of a Great American Republic that he may easily slide into the language of the minister of a foreign independent state.” For an hour Franklin stood impassive and silent as Wedderburn abused him.
INSIDE THE SMOKE-FILLED ROOM
Samuel Adams came to dominate Boston politics through the Caucus Club, or South End Caucus, which met in secret to choose candidates for town and provincial offices. His cousin, John Adams, recorded his observations of one of this club’s secret meetings.
Boston. Feby. 1763.
This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in the Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room. There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town. Uncle Fairfield, Story, Ruddock, Adams, Cooper, and a rudis indigestaque Moles of others are Members. They send Committees to wait on the Merchants Clubb and to propose, and join, in the choice of Men and Measures. Captn. Cunningham says they have often solicited him to go to these Caucas, they have assured him Benefit in his Business, &c.
Aftermath. The next day Franklin was fired as deputy postmaster general. The episode of the letters may have ended Franklin’s career as a London courtier. However, it launched his career as an American patriot. Before his humiliation in the cockpit, Franklin had hoped that England and the colonies could be reconciled. The torrent of abuse he endured convinced him that this would not happen. “When I see, that all petitions and complaints of grievances are so odious to government, that even the mere pipe which conveys them becomes obnoxious, I am at a loss to know how peace and union are to be maintained or restored between the different parts of the empire.” Franklin had hoped to save the empire by destroying Hutchinson. The letters destroyed Hutchinson in America but could not save the empire. Wedderburn hoped to save the empire by destroying Franklin. Franklin was destroyed as a British courtier, and he put away the suit of Manchester velvet he had worn when he stood silently during his public humiliation. He put away his suit, but he did not forget the day he wore it. He would wear the suit twice more in his life: in 1778, when as a representative of the United States he signed an agreement on their behalf with the king of France, and in September 1783, when he signed the treaty with England recognizing the independence of the United States of America.