Benjamin Franklin Papers

The Hutchinson-Oliver Letters: Editorial Introduction

The Hutchinson-Oliver Letters

Printed in The Representation of Governor Hutchinson and Others, Contained in Certain Letters Transmitted to England, and Afterwards Returned from Thence, and Laid before the General Assembly of the Massachusetts-Bay … (Boston, 1773).

The letters from Hutchinson, Oliver, and others, when they were printed in Boston in June, 1773,9 had such an impact on Franklin’s career that we are publishing them as an appendix to this volume of his papers. They do not fall within our usual rubric, because they had no bearing on his actions or thoughts at the time they were written; for that reason we keep our annotation to a minimum.10 But the letters have not been reprinted in more than a century,1 and they played a key role in the last fifteen months of Franklin’s British mission. They led directly to the petition from the Massachusetts House for the removal of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor; the petition, in turn, produced the hearing before the Privy Council in January, 1774, at which Solicitor General Wedderburn used the letters as text for a tongue-lashing that was the one great public humiliation of Franklin’s life.2 The chickens that had been dispatched to Boston under a pledge of secrecy came home to roost in London in a blaze of attention.

We have already discussed the mysterious circumstances in which Franklin acquired the correspondence, and said something about its contents.3 Hutchinson and Oliver were important local officials at that time, it must be remembered, but did not become governor and lieutenant governor until 1771. Their conduct thereafter was irrelevant to the petition, which charged them solely with having written letters, in 1767–69, that “tended” to deter the King from hearing the grievances of his colony and to exacerbate friction between it and the mother country. In those years the violence and threats that were in the air of Boston gave many of its citizens good reason to be disturbed. The framework of society seemed to be dissolving, and conservatives naturally looked to Britain to restore order, by force if need be; where else could they look? The writers repeatedly made clear, however, that they did not blame the people at large, but only a few firebrands among them.

When Hutchinson and Oliver painted the situation in the darkest colors, as they certainly did, the reason may have been that they saw it that way; or they may have exaggerated for the purpose of provoking British intervention. They harp on five interrelated forms of intervention that they would clearly welcome: the customs commissioners require protection; something must be done to counteract the nonimportation agreements; the governor should receive a salary from the crown to strengthen his hand; troops are needed to maintain order; constitutional changes may be advisable. Although few specific remedies are suggested, the call for strong measures is unmistakable.

No one with a traditional view of the constitution doubted that such measures were well within the government’s legal authority. Franklin and his constituents, on the other hand, believed that asking for them was attempting to subvert the constitution, and the petition charged Hutchinson and Oliver, in effect, with having made that attempt.4 Was the charge well founded? Franklin obviously thought so, or he would never have sent the letters in the first place; and their reception in Boston proves that many Americans agreed with him. Others did not, and in England the prevalent view was just the opposite: that the letters were private and innocuous, and that Franklin had played the part of a vicious trouble-maker. This clash of opinion has persisted for two centuries.5 The letters are open to diverse interpretations, and still challenge readers to form their own.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

9The steps by which the letters were publicized can be established partly from items in the press, partly from the Court records, legislative Council (State House, Boston), XXX, and the Mass. House Jour., 1st session, May–June, 1773. On June 2, after the galleries had been cleared, Samuel Adams read the letters to the House of Representatives. On the 9th, when copies were being compared with the originals before the House, the galleries were opened and “a great concourse of people attended to hear their contents, who were filled with abhorrence of the measures proposed …” by the writers. Mass. Spy, June 10. On the 15th the House ordered the letters printed for the members, who had copies the next day. A title page was added, presumably at this time, and the pamphlet was published on the 17th. Simultaneously its contents began to be serialized in the Spy, but the committee of correspondence did not disseminate copies throughout the colony until the 22nd. Ibid., June 17; Thomas R. Adams, American Independence: the Growth of an Idea … (Providence, R.I., 1965), pp. 72–3. This five-day interval is puzzling. Hutchinson’s later account in his History, III, 287–94, although innocent of dates, seems to say that the day of publication was close to the 21st or 28th. The 21st would explain the delay, but only in the face of the evidence we have cited.

10Most of the important subjects that the letters touch upon have been covered in previous volumes and may be found through the indices; we confine ourselves to those that have not been mentioned. A fully annotated edition is projected for the near future, as pamphlet no. 40 in the third volume of Bernard Bailyn’s Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1776. For further information about the events that were the setting of the letters see John H. Cary, Joseph Warren … (Urbana, Ill., 1961); Charles M. Andrews, The Boston Merchants and the Non-importation Movement (New York, [1968]); Richard D. Brown, Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts … (Cambridge, Mass., 1970); Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre (New York, [1970]); and Labaree, Tea Party.

1The letters appeared in 1773–4 in a number of editions, of which the most complete is that which we have used; for the others see Adams, op. cit., pp. 72–5. The only later appearance of the correspondence, to the best of our knowledge, was in a reprint of a pamphlet published in 1774: [Israel Mauduit, ed.,] Franklin before the Privy Council, White Hall Chapel, London, 1774, on Behalf of the Province of Massachusetts, to Advocate the Removal of Hutchinson and Oliver (Philadelphia, 1859), pp. 17–51; another printing in 1860 has the same pagination. Mauduit defended the writers in a long critique of their letters.

2See below, Jan. 29, 1774.

3Above, XIX, 402–7.

4For the difference in constitutional viewpoint reflected here see idem., pp. 8–10.

5Historians who take a kindly view of BF’s role are Ellen E. Brennan, Plural Office-Holding in Massachusetts, 1760–1780 … (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1945); John C. Miller, Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda (Stanford, Cal., 1960); and Gerard B. Warden, Boston, 1689–1776 (Boston, [1970]). For a sympathetic view of Oliver and Hutchinson see their biographies in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, VII, 383–413, and VIII, 149–217; James K. Hosmer, The Life of Thomas Hutchinson … (Boston, 1896); Gipson, British Empire, XII; Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Cambridge, Mass., 1974); and Carol Berkin, Jonathan Sewall … (New York and London, 1974).

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