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MIKE KEELER: The Letters, the Leak, and Liberty

250 years ago this month, Boston was on the boil.

It was a result of events going back much further, all the way to 1603. Back then, when James of Scotland became James 1st of both England AND Scotland, his crowning raised the question of what rights the Scots would have in their newly unified country. Five years later, a legal decision in an action called ‘Calvin’s Case’ provided the answer: men born in Scotland were thenceforth entitled to the same rights as men born in England. This set a precedent for a boilerplate legal concept that from that point onward was commonly known to everyone as the ‘Rights of Englishmen.’

Over 150 years later, in British America, this legal concept was seized upon by colonists who argued that, since they too were English, all ‘Rights of Englishmen’ should be guaranteed to them, regardless of where they were born. Thus, if Parliament wanted to tax them, it could only do so with their review and approval; they did not have to accept ‘taxation without representation.’ This assertion led to years of protests and conflict, which culminated in the Boston Massacre of 1770.

Throughout this difficult time, the royal Governor of Massachusetts, a man named Thomas Hutchinson, had secretly written a series of letters from Boston to the office of the Prime Minister in London. He recommended that his imperial powers in America should be strengthened, so he could better enforce order among the pesky colonials. Not much came of it, these ‘Hutchinson letters’ were largely ignored in London, and got filed away in a folder that got shuffled from one desk to the next.

But at some point in 1772, a package arrived at the London office of Benjamin Franklin, who was in England acting as an agent for Massachusetts. When he opened it up, he found it contained 20 letters written by Governor Hutchinson in the years 1768 and 1769.

The rumor mill in London soon confirmed that Franklin had the letters, and folks started arguing over how the letters had been leaked, and who was the leaker. Things got pretty hot, and two of the men alleged to be the source of the leak planned a duel over the allegations. With blood about to be shed, Franklin publicly revealed a few small portions of what he had in his possession.

So now everybody knew for certain that Franklin had the letters, and folks on both sides of the conflict, on both sides of the Atlantic, wanted to read them in their entirety. Franklin was worried, he felt that if the full text was revealed in America, the anger of the colonists would be directed at Governor Hutchinson, instead of at Parliament, where he felt it rightly belonged. But he couldn’t just sit on them. So he sent the letters to Boston, with instructions that they NOT be widely distributed or published.

However, at that time, the Clerk of the Massachusetts Assembly was the rabble-rousing patriot Sam Adams. He secretly shared them with other colonies through the Committee of Correspondence, and the rumor of what was in them spread. And then Adams started a propaganda campaign in Boston that slow-leaked the content of what Hutchinson had written, creating embarrassment for the Governor and inflaming the citizens against him.

It all came to a head in June 1773, when the full content of the letters was printed in the Boston Gazette. And sure enough, what everybody had suspected was in there for all to see: throughout the period leading up to the Boston Massacre, their Governor had been constantly pushing for greater and greater imperial control over them, instead of advocating for their God-given ‘Rights of Englishmen.”

It wasn’t a great surprise, it was what everyone expected, but it was inflaming nonetheless. The colonists now had proof positive that they would never be treated as true English citizens, and rebellion might be their only option. Angry mobs poured into the streets of Boston and burned Hutchinson in effigy. And the outrage spread down the coast, with protests flaring up in New York and as far south as Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, ships stuffed full of English tea, forced upon the colonists through the passage of the Tea Act a few months earlier, were slowly making their way west across the Atlantic. They would arrive before the end of the year. Boston was about to blow.

To this day, the source of the leak of the ‘Hutchinson Letters’ remains a mystery.

Mike Keeler

– Mike Keeler

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