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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter V: A Little Discreet Conduct

The Governor had read his instructions, but not the mind of Samuel Adams or the minds of the many men who, like the Chief Incendiary, Were prepared “to cultivate the sensations of freedom.” Perhaps the only “good effect” of his “pieces” was to furnish excellent theses for Samuel Adams to dispute upon, which he did with unrivaled shrewdness each week in the “Boston Gazette” under the thin disguise of Candidus, Valerius Poplicola, or Vindex. To this last name, Vindex, Mr. Hutchinson thought there might appropriately have been added another, such as Malignus or Invidus. And indeed of all these disputative essays, in the Boston Gazette or in Mr. Draper’s paper, one may say that the apparent aim was to win a dialectic victory and the obvious result to prove that ill will existed by exhibiting it.

Thomas Hutchinson’s faith in the value of disputation was not easily disturbed; and after two years, when it appeared that his able lieutenants writing in Mr. Draper’s newspaper were still as far as ever from bringing the controversy to a conclusion, he could no longer refrain from trying his own practiced hand at an argument–which he did in a carefully prepared address to the General Court, delivered January 6, 1773. “I have pleased myself for several years,” he said, “with hopes that the cause [of the “present disturbed and disordered state” of government] would cease of itself, and the effect with it, but I am disappointed; and I may not any longer, consistent with my duty to the King, and my regard to the interests of the province, delay communicating my sentiments to you upon a matter of so great importance.” The cause of their present difficulties Mr. Hutchinson thought as evident as the fact itself: a disturbed state of government having always followed, must have been caused by the denial of the authority of Parliament to make laws binding the province. Upon a right resolution of this question everything depended.

The Governor accordingly confined himself to presenting, all in good temper, a concise and remarkably well-articulated argument to prove that “no line can be drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies”; of which argument the conclusion must be, inasmuch as the total independence of the colonies was not conceivably any one’s thought, that supreme authority rested with Parliament. This conclusion once admitted, it was reasonable to suppose that disturbances would cease; for “if the supremacy of Parliament shall no longer be denied, it will follow that the mere exercise of its authority can be no matter of grievance.” In closing, his Excellency expressed the desire, in case the two Houses did not agree with his exposition of the Constitution, to know their objections. “They may be convincing to me, or I may be able to satisfy you of the insufficiency of them. In either case, I hope we shall put an end to those irregularities which ever will be the portion of a government where the supreme authority is controverted.” In this roundabout way, Governor Hutchinson finally reached as a conclusion the prepossession with which he began; namely, that whereas a disturbed state of government is, ex hypothesi, a vital evil, assertions or denials which tend to cause the evil must be unfounded.

It happened that both Houses, the lower House especially, remained unconvinced by the Governor’s exposition of the Constitution; and both Houses took advantage of his invitation to present their objections. The committee which the lower House appointed to formulate a reply found their task no slight one, not from any doubt that Mr. Hutchinson was in error, but from the difficulty of constructing an argument that might be regarded as polemically adequate. At the request of Major Hawley, John Adams was accordingly “invited, requested, and urged to meet the committee, which he did every evening till the report was finished.” When the first draft of a reply, probably drawn by Dr. Joseph Warren, was presented to Mr. Adams for his criticism, he “modestly suggested to them the expediency of leaving out many popular and eloquent periods, and of discussing the question with the Governor upon principles more especially legal and constitutional,” there being in this first draft, so Mr. Adams thought, “no answer, nor any attempt to answer the Governor’s legal and constitutional arguments, such as they were.” And so, being “very civilly requested” by the committee to make such changes in the draft as seemed to him desirable, Mr. Adams “drew a line over the most eloquent parts of the oration they had before them, and introduced those legal and historical authorities which appear on the record.”

The reply, prepared in this way and finally adopted by the Assembly, was longer and more erudite than Mr. Hutchinson’s address. To meet the Governor’s major premise and thus undermine his entire argument, legal precedents and the facts of history were freely drawn upon to prove that the colonies were properly “outside of the Realm,” and therefore, although parts of the Empire by virtue of being under the special jurisdiction of the Crown, not subject in all matters to parliamentary legislation. Law and history thus supported the contention, contrary to the Governor’s assertion, that a line not only could be but always had been “drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies.” Apart from any question of law or fact, the Assembly thought it of high practical importance that this line should be maintained in the future as in the past; for, “if there be no such line,” none could deny the Governor’s inference that “either the colonies are vassals of the Parliament, or they are totally independent”; upon which the Assembly would observe only that, “as it cannot be supposed to have been the intention of the parties in the compact that we should be reduced to a state of vassalage, the conclusion is that it was their sense that we were thus independent.” With very few exceptions, everyone who was of the patriot way of thinking regarded the Assembly’s reply as a complete refutation of the argument presented in Governor Hutchinson’s address.

In the Governor’s opinion, the disturbed state of government to which he had referred in his address was at this time brought to the highest pitch by the committees of correspondence recently established throughout the province–an event long desired and now brought to pass by Samuel Adams. That something might be done by a coordinated system of local committees was an “undigested thought” that dropped from Adams’s mind while writing a letter to Arthur Lee in September, 1771. At that time, such was the general apathy of the people, it would clearly “be an arduous task for any man to attempt to awaken a sufficient Number in the colonies to so grand an undertaking.” But Samuel Adams, who thought “nothing should be despaired of,” took upon himself the performance of this arduous task. Such committees, if they were anywhere needed, were certainly needed in Massachusetts, where the people labored under a “state of perfect Despotism,” daily submitting to be ruled–by a native Governor who refused to accept a grant from the General Court, received his salary from London, and governed the province according to his instructions. “Is it not enough,” asked Valerius Poplicola in the “Gazette” “to have a Governor…PENSIONED by those on whom his existence depends? …Is Life, Property, and Every Thing dear and sacred, to be now submitted to the Decisions of PENSION’D JUDGES, holding their places during the pleasure of SUCH a Governor, and a Council PERHAPS overawed?”

Confronted by so unprecedented a situation, it occurred to Samuel Adams that perhaps Mr. Hutchinson himself might be induced to come to his assistance. Late in 1772 he accordingly got the Boston town meeting to present to the Governor an address expressing great alarm at the establishment of salaries for judges, and praying that the legislature, which was to meet the 2d of December, might not be prorogued. It was possible that in replying the Governor might take a “high tone,” refusing the request as an interference with his own prerogative; but, as it was clearly the right of the people to petition, for the Governor to refuse would be, Samuel Adams thought, to “put himself IN THE WRONG, in the opinion of every honest and sensible man; the consequence of which will be that such measures as the people may determine upon to save themselves…will be the more reconcilable even to cautious minds, and thus we may expect that unanimity which we wish for.” The Governor, in a tone that might be called “high,” did in fact object to the request as not properly a function of town meetings and thus furnished the occasion for organizing the committees which he thought so disturbing to the state of government.

It was on November 2, 1772, upon a motion of Samuel Adams, that a committee was appointed by a town meeting in Faneuil Hall “to state the Rights of the colonies and of this Province in particular, as Men, as Christians, and as Subjects; to communicate and publish the same to the several Towns in this Province and to the World as the sense of this Town, with the Infringements and Violations thereof that have been, or from time to time may be made…requesting of each Town a free communication of their Sentiments on this Subject.” The report of the committee, adopted November 20, announced to the world that, as men, the colonists, and those of Massachusetts in particular, were possessed of certain “Natural Rights,” among them the right to life, liberty, and property; and that, inasmuch as “men enter into Society…by voluntary consent,” they still retained “every Natural Right not expressly given up or by the nature of the Social Compact necessarily ceded.” Being Christians as well as men, the colonists enjoyed also those rights formulated in “the institutes of the great Lawgiver and head of the Christian Church, …written and promulgated in the New Testament.” Lastly, being Englishmen, the colonists were, “by the Common Law of England, EXCLUSIVE OF ALL CHARTERS FROM THE CROWN, …entitled, and by the acts of the British Parliament…declared to be entitled to all the Liberties and Privileges of Subjects born…within the Realm.” The infringements which had been made upon these rights, although well known, were once more stated at length; and all the towns of the province were requested, in case they agreed with the sentiments of the Town of Boston, to unite in a common effort “to rescue from impending ruin our happy and glorious Constitution.” For its part, the Town of Boston was confident that the wisdom of the other towns, as well as their regard for themselves and the rising generation, would not suffer them “to dose, or set supinely indifferent on the brink of destruction, while the Iron hand of oppression is daily tearing the choicest Fruit from the fair Tree of Liberty.”

Moderate men might think, in the winter of 1773, that “the Iron hand of oppression tearing the choicest Fruit from the Fair Tree of Liberty” was a figure of speech which did not shape itself with nice flexibility to the exact form and pressure of observable facts. It is the limitation of moderate men to be much governed by observable facts; and if the majority could not at once rise to the rhetoric of Samuel Adams, it was doubtless because they had not his instinctive sense of the Arch Conspirator’s truly implacable enmity to America. The full measure of this enmity Mr. Adams lived in the hope of some day revealing.

It was of course well known that Mr. Bernard had formerly written home letters most injurious to the province; and in 1770 there “was abundant reason to be jealous,” as Samuel Adams, writing on behalf of the Town of Boston, assured Benjamin Franklin, “that the most mischievous and virulent accounts have been lately sent to Administration from Castle William,” no doubt from the Commissioners of the Customs. Conveying malicious and unfounded misrepresentations of America under the seal of official correspondence had indeed long been a favorite means of mending the fortunes of those decayed gentlemen and bankrupt politicians whose ambition it was to rise in office by playing the sycophant to some great man in England. Mr. Bernard had “played this game,” and had been found out at it, as every one knew. But Mr. Bernard was no American; and it was scarcely to be imagined that Mr. Hutchinson, who boasted “that his Ancestors were of the first Rank and figure in the Country, who…had all the Honors lavished upon him which his Fellow-Citizens had it in their power to bestow, who professed the strongest attachment to his native Country and the most tender feelings for its Rights, …should be so lost to all sense of Gratitude and public Love as to aid the Designs of despotick power for the sake of rising a single step higher.”

This was indeed scarcely to be imagined, yet Samuel Adams imagined it perfectly. Before there was any material evidence of the fact, he was able, by reasonable inference, to erect well-grounded suspicions into a kind of working hypothesis. Mr. Hutchinson, Governor of the Province, was an Enemy of Liberty with many English friends; he would be required by official duty and led by personal inclination to maintain a regular correspondence with high officials in England; from which the conclusion was that Thomas Hutchinson, professed friend of America, was a traitor, in secret alienating the affections of the King from his loyal subjects. Samuel Adams knew this well; and now, after all these years, the material evidence necessary to convince men of little faith was at hand. Under circumstances that might be regarded as providential, Thomas Hutchinson was at last unmasked.

The prelude to this dramatic performance was pronounced in the Massachusetts Assembly, one day in June, 1773, by Mr. John Hancock, who darkly declared that within eight and forty hours a discovery of great pith and moment would be made to the House. On the next day but one, Samuel Adams arose and desired the galleries cleared, as there were matters to lay before the members which the members only had a right to know of. When the galleries were cleared he informed the House that certain letters, written by high officials in the province and extremely hostile to the rights and liberties of America, had been procured in England and transmitted to a gentleman who had in turn placed them in his, Mr. Adams’s, hands, but with the strictest injunction that they be returned without being copied or pitted. Mr. Adams had given his pledge to this effect; and, if the House would receive them on these terms, he would be glad to read the letters, no restriction having been placed on their being read. They were read accordingly; and a committee having been appointed to make recommendations, it was at length resolved by the House of Assembly that certain letters presented to it by Mr. Samuel Adams tended and were manifestly designed to undermine the Constitution and establish a despotic power in the province. The proceedings of the House being spread abroad, it soon became everywhere known that only the pledged word of the House stood in the way of revelations highly damaging to the public character of Governor Hutchinson.

This outcome of the matter, however gratifying to Samuel Adams, did not satisfy Governor Hutchinson. After there had been “buzzed about for three or four months a story of something that would amaze everybody,” and these dark rumors being “spread through all the towns in the province and everybody’s expectations… raised,” it was exasperating to his pragmatic nature to have nothing more definite transpire than that the something which would amaze everybody would indeed amaze everybody if only it could be made known. It should at least be made known to the person most concerned. The Governor therefore requested the Assembly to furnish him copies of the letters which were attributed to him and declared by the House to “be destructive of the Constitution. In reply, the House sent certain dates only. The House was of opinion that the Governor could easily make authentic copies of whatever letters he had written at these dates, if he had written any; and such copies, being furnished to the Assembly, might be published, and the whole matter thus cleared up without violating the pledged word of anyone.

With this request the Governor refused to comply, on the ground that it would be improper to reveal his private correspondence and contrary to instructions to reveal that of a public nature. He would say, however, that he had written letters on the days mentioned, but in these letters there was no statement of fact or expression of opinion not already well known. What his opinions were the Assembly and the world might very well gather from his published speeches and his “History of Massachusetts Bay”. It could scarcely be maintained that he had ever lacked frankness in the expression of his opinions; and while his opinions might be thought destructive of the Constitution, it was rather late to be amazed at them. In any case, the Assembly was assured by the Governor that his letters neither tended “nor were designed to subvert, but rather to preserve entire the constitution of government” as established by the charter of the province.

A great many people besides the Governor desired to see letters the substance of which could be so differently understood. Samuel Adams probably preferred not to be forced to print them knowing their contents, he may have thought that here was a case of those “dangers which, being known, lose half their power for evil”; besides, having pledged his word, he wished to keep it. Yet the pressure of public opinion, becoming every day greater, was difficult to resist, particularly by men who were firm believers in the wisdom of the people. Moreover, it presently appeared that there was no longer any point in refusing to publish the letters, inasmuch as Mr. Hancock assured the House that men on the street were, in some way not known, possessed of copies, some of which had been placed in his hands. Mr. Hancock’s copies being found on comparison to be accurate rescripts of the letters which had been read in the House, a committee was accordingly appointed to consider how the House might come into honorable possession of the originals; from which committee Mr. Hawley soon reported that Samuel Adams had informed them that the gentleman from whom he had received the letters now consented to their being copied, seeing that they had already been copied, and printed, seeing that they were already widely circulated; whereupon the House, considering itself in honorable possession, ordered the letters all published.

Nevertheless it was thought expedient, before issuing the letters, to print and circulate such a series of “Resolves” as might prepare the public mind for what was to come later. This was accordingly done. The “Resolves,” bearing date of June 16, 1773, indicated clearly and at length the precise significance of the letters; declared it to be the humble opinion of the House that it was not to the interest of the Crown to continue in high places persons “who are known to have, with great industry, though secretly, endeavored to undermine, alter, and overthrow the Constitution of the province”; and concluded by praying “that his Majesty would be pleased to remove…forever from the government thereof” the Honorable Andrew Oliver and his Excellency Thomas Hutchinson.

His Majesty did not remove Mr. Hutchinson; but the Governor’s usefulness, from every point of view, was at an end. When the notorious letters were finally printed, it appeared that there were seventeen in all, of which six were written by Mr. Hutchinson in the years 1768 and 1769. These latter documents did not in fact add anything to the world’s stock of knowledge; but they had been so heralded, ushered in with so much portentous explication that they scarcely needed to be read to be understood. “Had they been Chevy Chase,” the Governor said, the people would have believed them “full of evil and treason.” It was indeed the perfect fruit of Samuel Adams’s labors that the significance of Mr. Hutchinson’s letters had in some manner become independent of their contents. So awake were the people to the danger of being deceived, that whatever the Governor now said or ever had written was taken to be but the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Meanwhile, the attention of all patriots was diverted from the letters to a far more serious matter; and when, on December 16, 1773, a cargo of the East India Company’s tea, consigned among others to Thomas and Elisha Hutchinson, was thrown into Boston harbor, the great crisis, which Samuel Adams had done so much to make inevitable by virtue of thinking it so, was at last a reality. It was a limitation of Thomas Hutchinson’s excellent administrative mind that lie was wholly unaware of this crisis. In February of the next year, finding that “a little discreet conduct,” or indeed any conduct on his part, was altogether without good effect, the Governor announced that he had “obtained leave from the King to go to England.” On the 1st of June, driving from his home to the foot of Dorchester Heights, he embarked on the Minerva and arrived in London one month later. It was his expectation that after a brief absence, when General Gage by a show of military force should have brought the province to a reasonable frame of mind, he would return and assume again the responsibilities of his office. He never returned, but died in England on June 3, 1780, an unhappy and a homesick exile from the country which he loved.

The Eve of the Revolution