Thomas Pownall: Formative Years of an Anti-Taxation Member of Parliament

Prewar Politics (<1775)

July 27, 2020
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Thomas Pownall, the eldest son of William and Sarah Pownall, was born on September 4, 1722 in Lincoln, England. His father, a country gentleman, died when he was thirteen. Pownall attended the Lincoln grammar school until 1740 and then Trinity College, Cambridge from which he graduated in 1743. Two years earlier, his younger brother, John, secured a job in the Board of Trade. Upon Thomas’s graduation, his brother was able to secure him a job as a clerk in the Colonial office, one of the areas that the Board oversaw. During his time in the Colonial Office, Thomas observed firsthand the government’s practice of “salutary neglect” with regard to the colonies. Lord Halifax, the President of the Board, sought more administrative control over the colonies. He informed Pownall that there were “great possibilities” of service in America. In 1753, Pownall saw a way to leave his not-so-promising position as a clerk and explore the possibilities of service in America; he accepted the position of secretary to Sir Danvers Osborne, the newly appointed governor of New York married to the sister of Lord Halifax.

He and Osborne reached New York on October 6, 1753; sadly, five days later Osborne committed suicide. Pownall had to decide whether to return to England and resume his former position or remain in the colonies. He chose the latter and became an unofficial “field-reporter” for the Board of Trade. He reported on such topics as topography, Indian relations, border disputes with the French and what the colonists thought the role of England should be in the coming conflict.

Because of his knowledge in these areas he was invited to attend the Albany Congress (June 14 to July 11, 1754) as an observer by Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania delegation. The Congress was a meeting between colonial commissioners and the chiefs of the six tribes that made-up the Iroquois Nation. The commissioners represented the colonies of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire. During the Congress Pownall outlined a general plan for the development, settlement and defense of western lands; after the Congress he added considerable detail to it including the establishment of the position “resident Indian agent.” The individual’s responsibility would be to “promote harmony [with and] between the Indians.”[1] He sent his plan to Lord Halifax hoping that he would present it to the Board, but heard nothing more of it.

William Shirley, 1750. (National Portrait Gallery)

In the Spring of 1755, William Shirley, the governor of Massachusetts, put together a plan to invade Canada; it would involve a three-prong attack—one force would move up Lake Champlain to Ontario, the second would move up the Kennebec River through Maine and the third would move westward to the Ohio Country.[2] Knowing that he needed the colony of New York’s support and not on the best of terms with the lieutenant governor of New York, James DeLancey, he asked Pownall to petition him for support. DeLancey was reluctant to support the plan, but he allowed Pownall to present it to a committee of the general assembly. The committee was lukewarm to the plan, but still agreed to it. On March 18, Shirley received a letter from Gen. Edward Braddock, the newly arrived commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, that said he wished to meet with Shirley in Virginia. When Shirley arrived on April 14, he found Pownall already there. He had been ordered to attend by the Duke of Cumberland, the commander-in-chief of the entire British Army. At the meeting Braddock informed Shirley that only the Lake Champlain and Ohio Country expeditions would be conducted; Braddock said Shirley would lead the Lake Champlain expedition and he would lead the Ohio Country expedition. He also said that prior to Shirley’s arrival he had appointed William Johnson, the superintendent of the Six Nations, conveyed on him the colonial rank of major general, and put him in charge of a third force made up of British regulars and Indians that would support Shirley’s advance. Pownall was then given the responsibility of using the existing treaties with the Indians to defend the creation of such a force.[3]

On May 15, 1755, the Ministry appointed Pownall the lieutenant governor of New Jersey.[4] Because the office did not have any defined duties attached to it and due to the poor health of Gov. Jonathan Belcher, he represented the colony at the Council of Provincial Officers’ meetings where preparations for the execution of Braddock’s plan were discussed. Pownall was quickly drawn into thepower struggle between Johnson and Shirley over how best to deal with the pro-French Indians. Pownall sided with Johnson and soon became his chief advisor.[5] On July 9, General Braddock’s force was defeated and he was mortally wounded. Shirley did not learn of the defeat and Braddock’s death until the middle of August. Now being the ranking British officer in North America, the position of commander-in-chief of British forces in North America devolved on him. On August 18, Shirley and his force reached Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario. He stayed at the fort shoring up its defenses until October 23. Being late in the season, he chose not to advance on Fort Niagara or Crown Point, but rather to winter-in-place. On August 11, Johnson and his force arrived at the southern edge of Lake George. On September 8 his position was attacked by the French, but he was able to turn them back. He attempted to pursue them to Crown Point, but could go no further than the French fort at Ticonderoga, seven miles south of Crown Point. He retreated to the southern tip of Lake George and there built Fort William Henry.[6]

While the Braddock plan was unfolding, Pownall spent the early part of the summer in Philadelphia. In August, he travelled to New York City to formally accept his commission as lieutenant governor of New Jersey; it was being brought over by Sir Charles Hardy, the newly appointed governor of New York. Hardy arrived on September 2. He knew very little of his duties, but fortunately for him “he had Pownall then about him from whom he could be well informed.”[7]

Two days later, Pownall received a letter from Johnson; in it he expressed his frustration with Shirley. He

Reports facts notoriously false and attempted, though very clumsily, artfully to pervert all my actions and arguments . . . I perceive plainly from the style, temper, and character of the man that I may expect everything that can be executed by a bad man abandoned to passion and enslaved by resentment. I have, therefore, in defence of my character, which is I am truly anxious about, thought it a prudent step to write the letter I herewith send you to the Lords of Trade. After perusal you will please seal it and forward it. And, if truth and prudence permit, I wish it might carry with it your sentiments in a general way.[8]

Johnson had written to the Board of Trade the day before. In that letter he described how Shirley’s agents were preventing Indians from joining his force and asked that his office “be independent of Colonial Governors.” It is likely that Pownall shared the contents of Johnson’s letter with Hardy because on September 14, Hardy, accompanied by Pownall and DeLancey, set out for Albany. The three men would remain in the Albany until the end of November and then return to New York. Late in their stay, Shirley joined them but he would not return to Boston until January 25, 1756.

On February 8, Pownall departed for London. He was being sent by Johnson to report to the Board of Trade and if necessary, the Ministry, all of the problems he and Governor Hardy were experiencing with Shirley and his unrealistic plan for securing the frontier.[9] Johnson trusted Pownall to represent their concerns. “He knows every particular of my sentiments and is also perfectly acquainted with Indian affairs as they stand connected with the interest of the Continent and His Majesty Service [10]

On March 20, the Ministry removed Shirley as commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America and appointed Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the 4th Earl of Loudoun,[11] a close friend of the Duke of Cumberland, as his replacement. It was not until after his appointment that Pownall arrived in London. The Earl, impressed by Pownall and at the recommendation of Halifax, offered Pownall the position of “Secretary Extraordinary;” he would serve as Loudoun’s advisor on civil affairs. On March 31, Shirley was requested by Henry Fox, the secretary of state for the Southern Department, on behalf of the king “to repair to England with all possible Expediency.”[12]

On May 18, Loudoun and Pownall set sail for New York; they arrived on July 26. After a short stay in the city, they set out for Albany. Whenthey arrived in Albany, Loudoun found the military conditions woeful lacking. He quickly “unearthed the most unmilitary-like practices possible in Shirley’s purchase of supplies, accounting and distribution [while] Shirley continued to make excuses for his conduct and insisted that he had everything prepared.”[13]

Loudoun was also shocked that Fort Oswego had been surrendered to the French. England and her colonies had now lost their only access to the Great Lakes. In addition,

By our losing Oswego which I may call the Barrier of the Six Nations . . . they [the Indians] were laid open to the Resentments of the French, who might at any time they were inclined to it, with facility fall upon their Towns, and cut them and their families to pieces especially those of the upper Nations.[14]

By October 3, Loudoun had enough. He sent to London what he believed was enough evidence to prove Shirley’s misconduct and mismanagement. “I think I shall be able to send as much in relation to Oswego alone as will hang him, as an officer.”[15]

There were events at this time occurring in another colony that also involved Pownall. For better than a year, the governor and the Assembly of Pennsylvania were at odds with each other; it was, in effect, a battle between Gov. Robert Hunter Morris who represented the interests of the Proprietors and Benjamin Franklin who represented the interests of the people. Money was needed to pay for the defense of its frontier. The Assembly agreed to raise the money with a land tax, however, they wanted all land to be taxed. The governor refused to allow the proprietors’ (the Penn family) land to be taxed. The legislative stalemate eventually caused a frustrated Morris to resign on August 25, 1756. According to John Schultz, in the fall, “The proprietors offered Pownall the governorship, partly because of his familiarity with the customs and politics of the colony and partly because of the growing strength of the Pownall family in colonial administration.”[16]

To the surprise of the Proprietors, Pownall declined their offer. He did not want the “headaches of the Pennsylvania governorship,” he found the salary unacceptable and claimed he was not going to be granted a free hand in governing the colony.[17]Another reason he may have refused the office was mentioned in a letter from Loudoun to Shirley on September 6.

As for the Necessity for your personal Presence to carry on His Majesty’s Service in the Government of Massachusetts Bay, I cannot but suppose, however you, Sir, may conceive it, that when his Majesty order’d you to England from thence, he did imagine his other Servants were able and proper to carry on his Service, ‘till Mr. Pownall, whom his Majesty’s Ministers have acquainted you, is Destin’d to be your Successor, should be sent there.[18]

Shirley finally departed on September 23. Sixteen days later, Pownall also departed for London after being in the colonies for only two months. Pownall arrived in London on November 18. His mission was to make sure that Loudoun’s campaign plans for 1757 were conveyed to the Ministry and to represent Loudoun at the investigation into Shirley’s conduct.

Mr. Pownall, I think will be able to answer every question in relation to the provinces, and the aid that may be expected from them . . . and I have instructed him, as well as I can in military affairs, and indeed he has been present at the carrying on of all the affairs here.[19]

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, c. 1754. (North Carolina Museum of Art)

Because of the changes in the Ministry, he needed a couple of weeks to get to know the new members. Afterward, he met frequently with either the Duke of Cumberland, Lord Halifax, or William Pitt, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department. At one point Pitt held a meeting at his home where Pownall explained some of the colonial issues to the Duke of Devonshire (the Prime Minister), Lord Temple (First Lord of the Admiralty), Henry Legge (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Lord Granville (Lord President of the Privy Council), and Pitt. After the meeting, the Duke of Cumberland wrote to Loudoun complimenting him not only on his campaign plans but and saying that Pownall

has been of great service, and will be more so, when we come to fix upon [your] plan. By the little conversations I have as yet had with him, he has fully answered the expectations I had of him, from the character Lord Halifax gave him.[20]

Pownall remained in London for two more months. It was during this time that Pitt’s respect for him grew with each conversation. On February 25, 1757, King George II bestowed upon Thomas Pownall the commission of Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over . . . the Province of the Massachusetts Bay.[21] Shirley’s province had become Pownall’s province and he had the complete support of the King and his Ministry.


[1]“Considerations Toward a General Plan for Measures for the Colonies,” Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan and J.R. Broadhead, eds., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, NY: 1856-1887), 6: 894; “Considerations on ye Means, Method & Nature Settling a Colony on ye Lands South of Lake Erie,” Loudoun Papers, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, Box 12, Online Archive of California, Americana, 1671-1780.

[2]Charles Assheton Whately Pownall, Thomas Pownall, M.P., F.R.S., Governor of Massachusetts Bay (London Henry Stevens, Sin and Stiles, 1908), 54.

[3]“Lords of Trade to Henry Fox, Secretary of State, appointing Johnson to the Superintendency by a Commission of the King, 17 February 1755,” Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, 7: 35; “Lords of Trade to Sir Charles Hardy announcing the Appointment, 17 February 1755,” ibid., 7: 36-37; “Henry Fox to Johnson, apprising him of his Appointment as Colonel, Agent and Superintendent, 13 March 1755,” ibid., 7: 76-77.

[4]“Commission of Thomas Pownall, esq., as Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey, 15 May 1755,” William A. Whitehead,, eds., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey, 1st Series (Newark, NJ: 1880-1916), 8: Part II, 106-07.

[5]“Pownall to Johnson, 2 November 1755,” Manuscripts and Archives Division, Emmett Collection, MSS COL 927, 274969, New York Public Library.

[6]“Willian Eyre to William Shirley, 10 September 1755,” Charles Henry Lincoln, The Correspondence of William Shirley: Governor of Massachusetts and Military Commander in America, 1731-1760 (New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1912), 2: 259-60; “Minutes of Council of War, 7 September 1755,” James Sullivan, ed., et. al., The Papers of Sir William Johnson (Albany, NY: New York Archives, 1921-1934), 2: 9-10.

[7]Chief Justice Smith, History of the Province of New York (London,1757), 219.

[8]The Papers of Sir William Johnson, 2: 9-10.

[9]“Shirley to Johnson, 19 September 1755,” The Papers of Sir William Johnson, 2: 57-58, 61-62; “Shirley to Johnson, 24 September 1755,” ibid., 2: 95-98; “Shirley to Johnson, 25 September 1755,” ibid., 2: 100-01; “Shirley to Johnson, 15 November 1755,” ibid., 2: 299; “Shirley to Johnson, 7 December 1755,” Documents Relative to the Colonial History the State of New York, 6: 1024-27; “Shirley to Johnson, 13 January 1756,” The Papers of Sir William Johnson, 2: 409-16; “Johnson to Hardy, 10 October 1755,” ibid., 2: 161-63; “Hardy to Johnson, 22 November 1755,” ibid., 2: 323; “Johnson to Hardy, 30 November 1755,” ibid., 2: 359-60; “Pownall to Johnson, 27 October 1755,” Pennsylvania Historical Society; “Pownall to Johnson, 11 November 1755,” ibid., 2: 289-90.

[10]Smith, History of the Province of New York, 245.

[11]Giles Stephen Holland Fox-Strangways, Earl of Ilchester, Henry Fox, First Lord Holland (London: J. Murray, 1920), 1: 319-38.

[12]“Henry Fox to William Shirley, 31 March 1756,” Lincoln, The Correspondence of William Shirley, 2: 425.

[13]“Loudon to Barrington, 20 August 1756,” Stanley M Pargellis and Norma B. Cuthbert, The Papers of John Campbell, the Earl of Loudoun (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933), 1527; “Loudoun to Fox, 29 August 1756,” ibid., 1625.

[14]“Governor Hardy to the Lords of Trade, 5 September 1756,” Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, 7: 123-25.

[15]Loudoun to Cumberland, 29 August 1756,” and “Loudoun to Halifax, 3 October 1756,” Stanley M. Pargellis, ed., The Military Affairs of North America (New York, NY: A. Appleton-Century, 1936), 230.

[16]John A. Schutz, Thomas Pownall, British Defender of American Liberty; A Study of Anglo-American Relations in the Eighteenth Century (Glendale, CA: A. H. Clark Co., 1951), 70.

[17]“Governor Pownall’s Reasons for Declining the Government of Pennsylvania,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 13 (No. 4, 1889), 440-46.

[18]“The Earl of Loudoun to William Shirley, 6 September 1756,” The Correspondence of William Shirley, 2: 547.

[19]“Loudoun to Halifax, 3 October 1756,” Online Archive of California, Americana, 1682-1780, Loudoun Papers, 1956A.

[20]“Cumberland to Loudoun, 23 December 1756,” ibid., 2065.

[21]; Pownall was appointed governor of an area of land that today includes Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *