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Oliver, Peter (1713-1791)

Peter Oliver (1713-1791)


Entrepreneur and jurist

Wealth. Peter Oliver was born in Boston on 26 March 1713, the second son of Daniel and Elizabeth Oliver, a prominent Boston couple. He graduated from Harvard College in 1730, married Mary Clark in 1733, and had six children. Oliver and his brother Andrew operated a Boston importing business for several years though his interests were not in trade but in science and literature. In 1744 Oliver bought an iron works in Middleborough, a small town about thirty miles from Boston. The mill made cast-iron household products and cannonballs. It proved so successful that Oliver was able to build Oliver Hall, one of New Englands finest mansions, with woodwork and artwork imported from England, and elaborate gardens.

Judge and Councilman. Even though Oliver had no legal education, in 1744 he was appointed a justice of the peace. In 1747 he was named to the court of common pleas, where he supervised the building of a new courthouse and served as a guardian for a local tribe of Indians. In 1756 he was named a justice of the superior court. He also served in the assembly and in 1759 was elected to the council, the legislatures upper house. He supported Parliamentary efforts to pay for the war with France by taxing commerce and cracking down on smuggling. Oliver traced opposition to the Crowns policies to merchants whose fortunes had come from smuggling, which was considered dishonorable in England, yet it is in New England so far from being reproachful that some of the greatest fortunes there were acquired in this disgraceful trade, and the proprietors of them boast of their method of acquisition. Smuggling bred corruption and immorality, he charged, and the merchants who benefited used their influence on the common people who were, he wrote, like the mobility of all countries, perfect machines, wound up by any hand who might first take the winch. Judge Oliver distrusted both the merchants of Boston and their followers.

Outcast. Beginning in 1765 the Sons of Liberty, whom Oliver and others referred to as the Sons of Anarchy, were using mob action in Boston as a political weapon against the British. During the Stamp Act riots in the summer of 1765, mob violence was directed against colonial officials. Olivers brother Andrew had been appointed a stamp distributor, and the mob reacted by burning him in effigy and then destroyed his house and office. Later that fall Peter Oliver refused to sit in court because of the threats of mob violence. He supported the stamp tax to the point that, even after being assured of his personal safety, he said he would not hold court without properly stamped legal papers. When the governor prevailed on Oliver to open court anyway, he said he would do so but that he was acting under duress. As a declared supporter of the Stamp Act, Oliver was not reelected to the council in 1766. Harassment of Crown officials by the Sons of Liberty took many formsthey even pressed Olivers creditors not to finance his iron-works trade, so Oliver was forced to mortgage all his property. He welcomed the arrival of British troops in Boston in 1768, expecting that he would then be able to walk the streets of Boston safely.

Boston Massacre Trial. In March 1770 a confrontation between eight British soldiers and a taunting mob resulted in the Boston Massacre. Capt. Thomas Preston and later, in a second trial, the eight soldiers were tried in superior court for murder. Oliver was one of the three judges on the bench for these trials. (John Adams was one of the lawyers for the defense in both trials.) Olivers conduct in the trials was generally recognized as fair. In his instructions to the jury at the end of the trial, Oliver summarized the evidence in a way that made clear the mobs provocation of the soldiers. The captain and the soldiers were acquitted of the charge of murder although two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson was so pleased with Olivers conduct of the trial and its outcome that he urged the army to buy several tons of cannonballs from Olivers iron works. In January 1772 Oliver was named chief justice of the superior court.

Impeachment. Oliver had frequently complained about the low salary he received as a judge (£120 per year as associate justice and £150 as chief justice) and often threatened to resign from the bench. In 1772, as civil disorders became more frequent, the British devised a plan that they thought would maintain some loyalty among judges. Superior court judges would all receive a £200 raise, paid by the Crown, in addition to their salaries already paid by the provincial government. Public reaction to this plan was immediate outrage because the judges would become dependent on the Crown rather than be loyal to the provincial laws. All of the judges except Oliver quickly renounced the grants. The House of Representatives urged that Oliver be removed from office and began impeachment proceedings. Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson attempted to block these proceedings, but public opinion was so inflamed against Oliver that jurors refused to serve while he was on the bench.

Besieged and Exiled. By August 1774 Oliver was effectively forced from the bench, and he left Oliver Hall to live under the protection of the British troops in Boston. His wife died in March 1775. Oliver remained active in Loyalist political circles until March 1776, when the British evacuated their troops and Loyalists from Boston. He sailed to Halifax and later to London, where he was received by the King. He lived in England until his death on 12 October 1791.


Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775 (New York: Harper, 1954).

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