Thomas Hutchinson and His Letters

Portrait of Thomas Hutchinson by Edward Truman, 1741. (Massachusetts Historical Society)

We often remember the controversy surrounding the Hutchinson Letters, which inspired many colonists to oppose the provincial government in Massachusetts, by talking about Benjamin Franklin (who found and sent the letters) and Samuel Adams (who helped publish them). Our memory of the letters’ author, Thomas Hutchinson, is often colored by a 1774 print by Paul Revere, in which Hutchinson is being attacked by death in the form of a skeleton. Yet we rarely see the story from the author’s perspective.

On March 14, 1771, Thomas Hutchinson went to the State House in Boston and took the oath of office as governor of Massachusetts. He had grown up in Boston, graduated from Harvard College, and worked in his father’s merchant business along the waterfront. He married Margaret Sanford, granddaughter to a governor of Rhode Island. Hutchinson was elected a Boston selectman (member of town council) and member of the colony’s House of Representatives—officially known as the General Court. By 1758, he was lieutenant governor, and he appointed Andrew Oliver, who was married to Margaret’s sister, as his secretary. In a time when men could hold multiple offices, Hutchinson became chief justice of Massachusetts—although he was not a lawyer. While he juggled a great deal of political work, much of his time was spent on a literary project, which became a three-volume history of Massachusetts.[1]

In 1768 and 1769, Oliver and Hutchinson wrote letters to friends in Britain, including Thomas Whateley, a member of Parliament. Oliver complained that government officials were paid by the colony, putting them at the mercy of local whims. He wrote, “If officers are not in some measure independent of the people (for it is difficult to serve two masters) they will sometimes have a hard struggle between duty to the crown and a regard to self.” Hutchinson had similar thoughts. In one letter, he wrote that after British troops arrived in Boston in 1768, “the people’s courage abated.” In another letter he wrote, “There must be an abridgement of what are called English liberties,” and “I wish the good of the colony when I wish to see some further restraint of liberty.” In yet another he wrote that Parliament should curtail “English liberties in colonial administration.”[2]

As Hutchinson and Oliver rose to power, two other men who would oppose them did the same. Samuel Adams was another native of Boston, and graduate of Harvard, who first worked in a counting house—a form of accountant—owned by the family of Thomas Cushing, one of his Harvard classmates. Samuel then worked at his father’s malthouse, making the malt used to brew beer. He and Cushing were elected Boston selectmen, then members of the House, just as Hutchinson had been. They were not as well connected as Hutchinson, and remained members of the House through the protests of the Stamp Act and Townshend Act. Adams and Cushing both grew skeptical of Hutchinson and his views on British authority.[3]

In 1770, after the government moved the House of Representatives out of Boston to the nearby town of Cambridge, Adams wrote to one friend that Hutchinson had an “ambition and lust of power.” To another friend the same year he blamed Hutchinson for “his incessant claim as Lord of the Soil.” In 1771, Adams wrote that the Hutchinson government was “disgustful and odious” and said of people in Boston, “we are in a state of perfect despotism.” By November, 1772, Adams wrote a newspaper article called “A List of Violation of Rights,” which said that the House should move back to Boston. He even wrote to Benjamin Franklin, an acquaintance in London, about the situation.[4]

Franklin had become successful as a printer and author in Philadelphia and spent his free time studying sciences. His inventions of an improved stove and bifocal glasses, his theories of the Atlantic Ocean current, and his work in electricity, made him famous in America and Europe. The British government appointed him postmaster general of the colonies, a job he held for many years, but when he moved to London he delegated much of the work to men in America. He also served as an unofficial agent to the British government on behalf of four colonies, including Massachusetts, and this work involved a crucial complaint of the colonists.[5]

The British government began to pay colonial officials from the treasury. The governor of New York received a crown salary in 1770, as did the chief justice of New Jersey in 1772. Rumors began in Boston that officials in Massachusetts would also be rewarded, and when Hutchinson refused payment from the colony in 1772, and members of the General Court asked why, he merely said he had another source of income. In June, 1772, news came that the British government would pay his salary, along with those of the colony’s attorney general and five judges. In July, the General Court voted eighty-five to nineteen to condemn the salaries and wrote to towns across Massachusetts for their opinion. A hundred forty four replied with similar protests.[6]

“The wicked statesman, or, The traitor to his country at the hour of death,” London, 1772. (Yale University Library)

The British government considered instructions sent by the Privy Council—on behalf of the king—as orders that could not be challenged. The colonial protests of the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, and their repeal, did not change the principle. Yet the colonists thought a crown salary made their officials dependent on Britain, and unlikely to cooperate with the colonists in a dispute. In July 1772 Thomas Cushing, who was now Speaker of the House, sent Franklin a petition, asking him to give it to the king. In it, the Assembly wanted the governor of Massachusetts paid by the colony. Franklin received the petition in September, but waited two months before he actually gave it to William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, who was the new Secretary of State for the Colonies. Dartmouth took the petition and considered it a few days, but met Franklin a second time and suggested that if he gave it to the king, he would reject it, or cause Parliament to pass a motion rejecting it, and thereby hurt the colonists’ cause. He advised delay, and Franklin agreed.[7]

Sometime in the fall of 1772, Franklin received a package of thirteen letters, many of which were those written a few years earlier by Hutchinson and Oliver. He knew people in America might see their vague ideas as a threat to colonial rights. On December 2, Franklin sent the letters to Cushing, asking him not to reveal who had sent them, and that they should not be published. Yet Cushing could show them to other men and get their reaction.[8]

While this happened, Hutchinson and members of the House in Boston got into an argument. On January 6, 1773, Hutchinson wrote a nine-page address to the members, bringing up an idea which had been hinted by a few people: independence from Britain itself. In 1762, a man wrote a thirty-page description of America for the Bishop of London, which ended with a warning that the colonists might want independence at some time in the future. One man in New Jersey spoke of independence as early as 1764, but used it as a threat for what might happen if Britain did not mend her ways. No one argued for the idea in public, yet Hutchinson addressed it anyway, writing,

I know of no line that can be drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies. It is impossible that there should be two independent legislatures in one and the same State [meaning Britain]. If we might suffer to be independent of Great Britain could we make any claim to the protection of that government of which we are no longer a part? Without this protection, should we not become a prey of the other powers of Europe? Is there anything which we have more reason to dread than independence?[9]

John Adams—a lawyer, member of the House, and cousin of Samuel—wrote an answer to the governor. It was read in the House on January 26, and was even longer than Hutchinson’s lament. It was formal and polite, referring to Hutchinson as “your Excellency” several times, but it was also a rebuke, citing his own words back to him. “Indeed it is difficult to draw a line of distinction between the universal authority of Parliament over the colonies and no authority at all.” Adams reviewed the history of Britain and America since the colonies were started, going through various charters and royal acts from previous kings, to show the colonies had powers granted by the crown that could not be taken away by Parliament. At one point, Adams used passages from Hutchinson’s history of Massachusetts as evidence.[10]

On February 16 Hutchinson answered Adams, and by extension the House, with another long critique, and the House (through Adams) answered again on March 2. The two authors quoted various pamphlets and books on the common law—John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Jeremiah Dummer’s Defence of the New England Charters, and William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England—to back up their case. The main disagreement amounted to whether the sovereign had authority over the colonists (which Adams claimed) or the King and Parliament together had authority (as Hutchinson claimed). Adams once again called the governor “Your Excellency” many times, and used passages of Hutchinson’s history of Massachusetts in his argument, as if complimenting him.[11]

The ship carrying the Hutchinson and Oliver letters arrived in Boston in March 1773. Cushing showed them to John Hancock, Samuel Adams and John Adams, who sat in the House with him. By March 24, the House passed another petition, asking that judges also be paid by the colonists. Cushing sent the new petition to Franklin, and a separate letter to Dartmouth, with his opinion why the colonists should be allowed to petition the British government. At the end of the letter to Franklin, Cushing said the House would not meet again until late May, so they would have to wait to take action.[12]

On May 26, 1773, the House opened its session, where members greeted each other and took the oath of office. They chose Cushing again as speaker, and Samuel Adams as clerk, and formally sent a messenger to a nearby room to inform Hutchinson, who sent a message approving the choice. Hutchinson and other officials joined the assembly to hear a prayer and message, given this time by the Rev. Charles Turner, of Duxbury. He chose a passage from Romans 13:4—“He is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain.” The members applauded, but Hutchnson did not invite Turner to a traditional public dinner held that evening.[13]

Over the next few days, the House conducted routine business: accepting petitions for grants of land, and a petition from the nearby Stockbridge Indian tribe to prevent their land being sold; a petition to regulate alewife fishing; a petition to allow a group of men to call their company “the Marine Society in Marblehead;” a petition to give a man a license to sell goods in Boston; a bill to regulate the militia, and another to move the public supply of gunpowder to a new building; and so on. On June 2, a member of the House moved that the public be dismissed from the chamber, and the members be asked to attend to a secret matter. When the doors closed, John Adams rose and read the Hutchinson letters. John Hancock told the House they showed Hutchinson wanted to “overthrow the Constitution of this government, and to introduce arbitrary power.” The next day, the Assembly elected Cushing, Adams and Hancock to be part of a nine man committee to decide how to respond.[14]

While this happened, the Earl of Dartmouth went to the king and gave him the original petitions, asking that colonists pay the salaries of their governor and judges. The king said that he would be happy to hear petitions from the colonies on any “real” grievance, but he could not take away power from the “Supreme Legislature”—meaning Parliament. He further said he had the right to make laws with the consent of the Privy Council and Parliament, which would “bind his subjects in America in all cases,” and finished with his disappointment in the petitions, which he said represented a few people “who wanted to create groundless jealousy and mistrust,” and not all the colonists.[15]

Those in Massachusetts could not know their original petitions had been rejected. The House met again two weeks after Adams had first read the letters and newspapers had published them. The members had debated their intent and decided on yet another petition. This one asked the king to remove both Hutchinson and Oliver from office. Cushing sent the petition to Franklin, and described the letters as if Franklin had never sent them in the first place. He echoed Hancock’s speech, saying Hutchinson wanted to overthrow the constitution of Massachusetts, and impose arbitrary power.[16]

Hutchinson saw it differently. In the third volume of his history of Massachusetts, written while he was governor, he wrote, “By acts of fraud and violence Hutchinson’s most private papers have, at different times, come into the possession of persons disposed to do him hurt who for that purpose have published them.”[17]

Publication and debate over the Hutchinson Letters was soon followed by more dramatic steps: the Boston Tea Party, and Parliament’s closure of the Port of Boston. Hutchinson sailed to London in June 1774, met the king and government leaders, and tried to persuade them to re-open the port. In 1775, the rebels seized his house and papers in Milton, Massachusetts—a few miles south of Boston. On July 4, 1776, Oxford University granted him an honorary doctorate in law, and a few months later he wrote a rebuttal to the Declaration of Independence. He died in England in 1780.[18]


[1]Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 12 – 29, 41 – 51, 168 – 70.

[2]Anonymous, Copies of Letters Sent to Great Britain, by His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson and the Hon. Andrew Oliver, and several Other Persons, Born and Educated Among Us (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1773), 4 – 43; Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, 221 – 38.

[3]Carl Lotus Becker, “Samuel Adams,” in Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Dumas Malone and Allen Johnson, in twenty volumes(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928 – 1936), 1:95 – 96, and Edgar A. J. Johnson, “Thomas Cushing,” in Dictionary of American Biography, 2:632 – 33. Many sources list Adams as a brewer, but Stanley Wade Baron, in his Brewed in America: The History of Beer and Ale in the United States (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), 74 – 75, argues he was a maltster.

[4]Samuel Adams, The Writings of Samuel Adams, Harry Cushing, ed., in four volumes (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904 – 08), 2:67, 101, 199, 231 – 33.

[5]William B. Willcox, “Franklin’s Last Years in England: The Making of a Rebel,” in Melvin H. Buxbaum, ed., Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987), 96 – 110; Jack P. Greene, “The Alienation of Benjamin Franklin, British American,” in Journal of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, 124 (1976), 52 – 73.

[6]Richard L. Bushman, King and People in Colonial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 169 – 73.

[7]The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard Woods Labarre, Whitfield J. Bell, et. al., in forty three volumes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959 – ), 19:8 – 13, 208 – 09, 364 – 65.

[8]Ibid., 19:399 – 413.

[9]Account of the American Colonies drawn up for the Bishop of London by Doctor [William?] Smith, 1762, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Papers, X, ff. 140 – 73, Lambeth Palace Archives (warning); Daniel Coxe to Joseph Reed, April 12, 1764, Joseph Reed Papers, New-York Historical Society (independence as a threat); Thomas Hutchinson to the Massachusetts General Court, January 6, 1773, Schoff Collection, Box 1, William Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[10]John Adams, The Papers of John Adams, edited by Robert J. Taylor, Gregg L. Lint, et. al., in 18 volumes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977 – ongoing), 1:313 – 331.

[11]Adams, The Papers of John Adams, 1:331 – 46. Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts: 1715 – 1779, in 55 volumes (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1919 – 1990), 49:268 – 80, reprints the speech but does not name Adams as the author, yet it is in the Adams Papers.

[12]Bernard Knollenberg, “Benjamin Franklin and the Hutchinson and Oliver Letters,” Yale University Library Gazette, XLVI, 1 (July, 1972), 1 – 9; The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 19:399 – 413, and XX, 123 – 25; Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Triumphant Empire: Britain Sails into the Storm, 1770 – 1776(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 56 – 57.

[13]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 50:x, 3 – 6; Charles Turner, A Sermon Preach’d … May 26, 1773 (Boston, n. p., 1773); John L. Sibley, and Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College, in 17 volumes (Cambridge, and Boston, Ma.: Harvard University and Massachusetts Historical Society, 1878 – 1975), 13:295.

[14]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 50:6 – 28. The Journal does not mention the name of the member who moved that the public be dismissed.

[15]The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 20:222 – 24.

[16]Ibid., 20:243 – 44.

[17]Thomas Hutchinson. The History of Massachusetts Bay, Chapin Library, Williams College. This is the third volume, handwritten. The other two volumes were destroyed by a mob during the Stamp Act protests.

[18]Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, 274 – 374.

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  • As the son of three Patriot Revolutionary War Officers, Colonel 14th VA Line, later Brigadier General John Neville, his son-in-law Isaac Craig, the First Lieutenant of Captain Samuel Nichol’s Pennsylvania Marine Company who enlisted 63 Marines at Tun’s Tavern on 10 November 1775; and who crossed the Delaware thrice on the 24/25 December 1776, was then hijacked into Henry Knox’s Artillery and served in many battles including preventing Fort Pitt from being recaptured by the British. In he facilitated Washington’s withdrawal from Chadd’s Ford September 1777 in which he and his Art’y Company(Proctor’s 4th PA Art’y) blocked Howes flanking force long enough for The Army to escape Howe’s trap in which he was wounded. I am also descended from New York Militia Captain Uriah Drake of which I am uncertain of his service other than he was very well thought of. Apparently Captain Drake served at Bemis Heights and was mentioned in dispatches.

    There is a flavor in the Journal of the American Revolution that irritates me greatly. General Neville’s family and friends endured great indignities at the hands of Colonel Butler’s savages. Major Craig, ended the War as Quartermaster of Fort Pitt until 1783. Colonel Neville conducted operations to curb Butler’s unbridled slaughter of civilians, after he was wounded and captured in the aftermath of the Battle of Charleston South Carolina, AKA Lincoln’s fiasco. He had also been wounded at French Lick at Braddock’s Defeat. His former Lieutenant Colonel also repeatedly wounded and captured was sent to Knoxville TN near where I live now. One of “Old” Tom Dillard’s descendants was our former librarian and a dear friend.
    The war in the west was a life and death struggle for many years, this website seems far more oriented toward the well provisioned Royal side, than the private soldier in General Washington’s Army
    who if he got anything at all from a bankrupt government in exile, got a hundred acres of land Indian country when he mustered out. Hostile Indian Country.
    General Neville’s wife Winifred Oldham, was the great grand daughter of Colonel William Oldham who was responsible for destroying the Great Shawnee uprising of 1708 during Queen Anne’s War in the battle of Oldham’s Blockhouse, Westmoreland County VA.
    Having lived in the former Colony of The British Virgin Islands, and having seen the vicious but, polite savagery of the Brits, I think you people need to get a life.

  • Interesting perspective, and opinion.

    Perhaps you could write an article to lift the scales from our eyes. Notwithstanding, simple conducting a search of the many JAR articles over the years would reveal that they hardly limit themselves to a loyalist perspective.

    Give it a try and am looking forward to your contribution.

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