Benjamin Franklin kept his secret about the purloined letters of Thomas Hutchinson for nearly a year – until an innocent person stood to get killed over them.
In 1772, Franklin had received a batch of letters by Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson from an unnamed member of Parliament. He thought he could do some good by sharing six of them with a small group of colonial leaders.
Americans were headed toward a break with Britain. They were angry about the Stamp Act in 1765, the Townshend Acts in 1767, the quartering of British troops in Boston in 1768 and the Boston Massacre in 1770.
Franklin was politically neutral. As the American postmaster and agent for Massachusetts in London, he hoped to smooth over tensions by sharing the Hutchinson letters.
His plan backfired. Badly. Sam Adams got hold of the letters and used them to stir up even more unrest.
The Foundation of Our Grievance
Franklin sent the letters to Thomas Cushing, speaker of the Massachusetts General Assembly. He thought he could trust Cushing to share the letters with a few people. He believed they would show Parliament was acting on bad advice from people like Hutchinson. Ironically, Hutchinson had been Franklin’s friend in 1754 when they worked on a plan for a union of the colonies.
When Hutchinson wrote the letters, he was lieutenant governor of the province. By 1770, he had been elevated to governor.
Franklin forwarded the letters to Cushing in December 1772. “There has lately fallen into my hands part of a correspondence that I have reason to believe laid the foundation of most if not all our present grievances,” Franklin wrote.
In the letters, Hutchinson advised subduing the colonists, described them as inclined to revolt and dismissed their resentment over ill-treatment and lack of representation.
The letters reached Boston in March 1773. They were widely circulated and published in the Boston Gazette in June 1773, then reprinted far and wide throughout the colonies. They infuriated Bostonians, who burned Hutchinson in effigy on Boston Common and demanded he be removed from office.
The Hutchinson letters were written to Thomas Whately in his capacity as assistant to Prime Minister George Grenville. Whately had died, and his brother William let an American named John Temple have access to them.
When the letters became public, William Whately accused Temple of taking the letters. Temple challenged Whately to a duel. They faced off in early December, and Whately was wounded. Neither was happy with the outcome, so they agreed to another duel.
Franklin wanted to prevent the second duel, so he admitted he purloined the letters on Christmas Day — shortly after the Boston Tea Party. He was made to appear before the Privy Council, where he stood silently as he was lambasted for thievery, dishonesty and provoking radicalism.
He was stripped of his job as postmaster.
Franklin returned to America in 1775 committed to the cause of independence. The letters he sent to cool revolutionary ardor had inflamed his own.
Hutchinson left Massachusetts in 1774 and was replaced by Gen. Thomas Gage.
To this day, it is not known who leaked the Hutchinson letters to Benjamin Franklin.
Here is one of the letters that so inflamed the colonists:
Boston, August 1768
It is very necessary other information should be had in England of the present state of the commissioners of the customs than what common fame will bring to you, or what you will receive from most of the letters which go frame hence, people in general being prejudiced by many false reports and misrepresentations concerning them. Seven eighths of the people of the country suppose the board itself to be unconstitutional, and cannot be undeceived and brought to believe that a board has existed in England all this century, and that the board established here has no new powers given to it. Our incendiaries know it, but they industriously and very wickedly publish the contrary. As much pains have been taken to prejudice the country against the persons of the Commissioners, and their characters have been misrepresented and cruelly treated, especially since their confinement at the Castle, where they are not like to hear what is said of them, and are not so able to confute it.
It is now pretended they need not to have withdrawn, that Mr. Williams had stood his ground without any injury, although the mob beset his house, &c. There never was that spirit raised against the under officers as against the Commissioners, I man four of them. They had a public affront offered them by the town of Boston, who refused to give the use of their hall for a public dinners, unless it was stipulated that the Commissioners should not be invited. An affront of the same nature at the motion of Mr. Hancock was offered by a company of cadets. Soon after a vessel of Mr. Hancock’s being seized, the officers were mobb’d, and the Commissioners were informed they were threatened. I own I was in pain for them. I do not believe if the mob had seized them, there was any authority able and willing to have rescued them. After they had withdrawn, the town signified to the Governor by a message that it was expected or desired they should not return. It was then the general voice that it would not be safe for them to return. After all this, the sons of liberty say they deserted or abdicated.
The other officers of the customs in general either did not leave the town, or soon returned to it. Some of them seem to be discontented with the Commissioners. Great pains have been taken to increase the discontent. Their office by these means is rendered extremely burdensome. Every thing they do is found fault with, and yet no particular illegality or even irregularity mentioned. There is too much hauteur, some of their officers say, in the treatment they receive. They say, they treat their officers as the Commmissioners treat their officers in England, and require no greater deference. After all, it is not the persons, but the office of the Commissioners which has raised this spirit, and the distinction made between the Commissioners, is because it has been given our that four of them were in favor of the new establishment, and the fifth was not. If Mr. Hallowell arrived safe, he can inform you many circumstances relative to this distinction, which I very willingly excuse myself from mentioning.
I know of no burden brought up on the fair trader by the new establishment. The illicit trader finds the risk greater than it used to be, especially in the port where the board is constantly held. Another circumstance which increases the prejudice is this; the new duties happened to take place just about the time the Commissioners arrived. People have absurdly connected the duties and Board of Commissioners, and suppose we should have had no additional duties, if there had been no Board to have the charge of collecting them. With all the aid you can give to the officers of the crown , they will have enough to do to maintain the authority of government, and to carry the laws into execution. If they are discountenanced, neglected, or fail of support from you, they must submit to every thing the present opposers of government think fir to require of them.
There is no office under greater discouragements than that of the Commissioners. Some of my friends recommended me to the ministry. I think myself very happy that I am not one. Indeed it would have been incompatible with my post as chief justice, and I must have declined it, and I should do it although no greater salary had been fixed to the chief justice’s place, than the small pittance allowed by the province.
From my acquaintance with the Commissioners I have conceived a personal esteem for them, but my chief inducement to make this representation to you, is a regard to the public interest, which I am sure will suffer if the opposition carry their point against them.
I am, with very great esteem, Sir,
Your most obedient humble servant,
August 10. Yesterday at a meeting of the merchants, it was agreed by all present to give no more orders for goods from England, nor receive any on commission until the late acts are repealed. And it is said all except sixteen in the town shave subscribed an engagement to that tenor. I hope the subscription will be printed, that I may transmit it to you.
Photo credits: ‘Benjamin Franklin 1767,’ by David Martin, courtesy The White House Historical Association. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.‘Wicked Statesman’ by Paul Revere, courtesy American Antiquarian Society. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. ‘Thomas Hutchinson’ by Edward Truman, courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story was updated from the 2014 version.