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An Abridgement of What Are Called English Liberties
Thirteen letters from an anonymous source were dropped into Benjamin Franklin's lap in December 1772. When he opened them, he found a series of communications between Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver, and authorities from the English government. At the time, the American colonies were under rule from the British, but tensions were rising. Hutchinson's letters recommended that the English send more troops to Massachusetts to keep the colonists quiet, and endorsed harsh punishments for the colony. In the most significant line of the letters, Hutchinson stated that he didn't think the colonists could have all of the rights that they might have had in England, and said that an "abridgement of what are called English liberties" was necessary.
Letters are Leaked
Franklin knew that if the letters got out to the public, the resulting anger and shock would be severe. He showed the letters to Samuel Adams. Later, Speaker of the Massachusetts House Thomas Cushing asked Franklin if the letters could be presented before the House. Franklin agreed, but said they could only be shown to other people - not copied or published. However, Samuel Adamsdeeply disliked Hutchinson, and began hinting at the contents of the letters in assemblies and to the public. He leaked certain parts of the letters to increase public interest, angering Hutchinson. Finally, in June 1773, the letters were published in the Boston Gazette.
Anger in the Colonies
As Franklin had predicted, the public response was intense. The people were furious at Hutchinson, particularly for his statement that the colonists should lose some of their freedoms. They took it as a sign that the British were determined to keep the colonists from being free, and that revolution might be necessary. Within days, the Massachusetts General Court passed a resolution that removed both Hutchinson and Oliver from office.
In England, government officials were angry at what had happened. They demanded to know who had originally leaked the letters. How had they slipped out of Hutchinson's hands? People pointed fingers, desperate to catch the culprit, leading to a sword duel between two men in early December 1773. With lives on the line, Franklin revealed his part in the Hutchinson affair by publishing a letter on Christmas Day. He said that he had received the letters and that he had passed them to other people, but not from whom he had gotten them. Franklin himself was called before the Privy Council - a group of advisors to the King, and was accused of thievery and dishonor.
Franklin being humiliated in front of the Privy Council
Still a Mystery Today
The original leaker of the Hutchinson Letters remains a mystery to this day. Some historians think it might have been former Massachusetts governor Thomas Pownall, who had similar political views to Franklin and whose brother John was a colonial secretary with access to colonial administration buildings. But until new evidence arises, a true answer might never be reached.