While in England Ben Franklin obtained private letters of
governor Thomas Hutchinson and lieutenant
governor Andrew Oliver that proved they were
encouraging the Crown to crack down on the rights of Bostonians. Massachusetts
Political cartoon from 1774 by Paul Revere, depicting Death attacking Governor Thomas Hutchinson
The Hutchinson Letters Affair was an incident that increased tensions between the colonists of the
British government prior to the American Revolution. In June 1773 letters
written several years earlier by Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew
Oliver, governor and lieutenant governor of the province at the time of their
publication, were published in a Province
of Massachusetts Bay newspaper.
The content of the letters was propagandistically claimed by Boston
radical politicians to call for the abridgement of colonial rights, and a duel
was fought in Massachusetts
over the matter. England
The affair served to inflame tensions in
where implementation of the 1773 Tea Act was met with resistance that
culminated in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. The response of
the British government to the publication of the letters served to
turn Benjamin Franklin, one of the principal figures in the affair, into a
committed Patriot. Massachusetts
Governor of the
author of some of the inflammatory letters Province
of Massachusetts Bay Thomas Hutchinson
During the 1760s, relations between Great Britain and some of its North American colonies became strained by a series of Parliamentary laws (including the 1765 Stamp Act and the 1767 Townshend Acts), intended to raise revenue for the crown, and to assert Parliament's authority to pass such legislation despite a lack of colonial representation. These laws had sparked strong protests in the Thirteen Colonies; the
In the years after the enactment of the Townshend Acts, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his colonial secretary (and brother-in-law) Andrew Oliver wrote a series of letters concerning the acts, the protests against them, and containing suggestions on how to respond, to Thomas Whately, an assistant to Prime Minister George Grenville. Whateley died in 1772, and his papers were turned over to his brother William. Whateley at one point gave access to his brother's papers to John Temple, another colonial official who sought to recover letters of his own from those papers.
Benjamin Franklin, portrait by David Martin, 1767
The letters arrived in
in March 1773, and came into the hands of Samuel Adams, then serving as
the clerk of the Massachusetts
assembly. By Massachusetts 's
instructions, only a select few people, including the
Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, were to see the
letters. Alarmed at what they read, Cushing wrote Franklin, asking if the
restrictions on their circulation could be eased. In a response received by
Cushing in early June, Franklin
reiterated that they were not to be copied or published, but could be shown to
A longtime opponent of Hutchinson's, Samuel Adams narrowly followed
's request, but
managed to orchestrate a propaganda campaign against Franklin
without immediately disclosing the letters. He informed the assembly of the
existence of the letters, after which it designated a committee to analyze
them. Strategic leaks suggestive of their content made their way into the press
and political discussions, causing Hutchinson
much discomfort. The assembly eventually concluded, according to John
Hancock, that in the letters Hutchinson
sought to "overthrow the Constitution of this Government, and to introduce
arbitrary Power into the Province", and called for the removal of
Hutchinson and Oliver. Hutchinson
complained that Adams and the opposition were misrepresenting what he had
written, and that nothing he had written in them on the subject of
Parliamentary supremacy went beyond other statements he had made. The
letters were finally published in the Boston Gazette in mid-June
1773, causing a political firestorm in Hutchinson
and raising significant questions in Massachusetts . England
Content of the letters
Andrew Oliver, portrait by John Singleton Copley, c. 1758
According to Bailyn,
ruminations included the observation that it was impossible for colonists have
the full rights they would have in the home country, essentially requiring an
"abridgement of what are called English liberties". Hutchinson ,
unlike Oliver, made no specific proposals on how the colonial
government should be reformed, writing in a letter that was not among those
published, "I can think of nothing but what will produce as great an evil
as that which it may remove or will be of a very uncertain event." Oliver's
letters, in contrast, specifically proposed that the governor's council, whose
members where then elected by the assembly with the governor's consent, be
changed to one whose members were appointed by the crown. Hutchinson
19th century engraving depicting Benjamin Franklin's appearance before the Privy Council
speculation ran rampant over the source of the leak. William Whately accused
John Temple of taking the letters, which England
denied, challenging Whately to a duel. Whately was wounded in the encounter in
early December 1773, but neither participant was satisfied, and a second duel
was planned. In order to forestall that event, Temple
on Christmas Day published a letter admitting that he was responsible for
the acquisition and transmission of the letters, to prevent "further
mischief". He justified his
actions by pointing out that the letters had been written between public
officials for the purpose of influencing public policy. Franklin
opponents in Hutchinson read
the letters, they seized on key phrases (including the "abridgement"
phrase) to argue that Massachusetts
was in fact lobbying the Hutchinson
government to make changes that would effect such an abridgement. Combined with
Oliver's explicit recommendations for reform, they presented this as a clear indication that the provincial leaders
were working against the interests of the people and not for them. London
Thomas Pownall, who may have given
the letters Franklin
Gage's implementation of the Coercive Acts further raised tensions that led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in April 1775. Franklin, who had been politically neutral with respect to the colonial radicals prior to his appearance before the Board of Trade, returned to America in early 1775, committed to independence. He went on to serve in the Second Continental Congress and became a leading figure in the American Revolution.
the letters? Franklin
A number of candidates have been proposed as the means by which Benjamin Franklin acquired the letters. John Temple, despite his political differences with
was apparently able to convince the latter in 1774 that he was not involved in
their acquisition. He did, however, claim to know who was involved,
but refused to name him, because that would "prove the ruin of the guilty
Several historians (including Bernard Bailyn and Bernard Knollenberg) have concluded that Thomas Pownall was the probable source of the letters. Pownall was
governor before Francis Bernard, had similar views to Massachusetts
on colonial matters, and had access to centers of colonial administration
through his brother John, the colonial secretary. Other individuals have
also been suggested, but all appear to have an only tenuous connection to
Franklin or the situation. Historian Kenneth Penegar believes the question will
remain unanswerable unless new documents emerge to shed light on the episode. Franklin
Alexander, John (2011). Samuel Adams: The Life of an American Revolutionary.
Rowan and Littlefield. Lanham, MD
Bailyn, Bernard (1974). The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson.
Press. Harvard University
Danver, Steven (2010). Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History.
: ABC-CLIO. Santa
Fischer, David Hackett (1994). Paul Revere's Ride.
: New York Press. Oxford
Galvin, John (1976). Three Men of
Boston : Thomas Y.
Crowell. New York
Hosmer, John Kendall (1896). The Life of Thomas Hutchinson.
Isaacson, Walter (2004). Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.
: Simon &
Schuster. New York
Knollenberg, Bernhard (1975). Growth of the American Revolution, 1766–1775.
Free Press. New York
Morgan, Edmund (2003) . Benjamin Franklin.
Haven, CT Press. Yale
Penegar, Kenneth (2011). The Political Trial of Benjamin Franklin.
Algora Publishing. New York
Walmsley, Andrew Stephen (2000). Thomas Hutchinson and the Origins of the American Revolution.
Press. New York University
Wright, Esmond (1988).
of Franklin . Philadelphia : Cambridge,
MA Press. Harvard
The Letters of Governor Hutchinson and Lieut. Governor Oliver, etc. London: J. Wilkie. 1774. OCLC 8991384. 1774 London printing of documents of the affair, including the letters of Hutchinson and Oliver, the Massachusetts petitions, Franklin's admission he sent the letters, and Alexander Wedderburn's speech against Franklin.