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ONE

The Massachusetts Council Investigates Itself

Yesterday we left off as provincial secretary Andrew Oliver’s sworn statement about what members of the Massachusetts Council had said on the day after the Boston Massacre made its way back to Massachusetts.

That statement was the final item in A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston, published in London. Capt. James Scott, who worked for John Hancock, carried a copy of that pamphlet to Boston. Edes and Gill printed Oliver’s deposition without comment in the 24 September Boston Gazette.

The Whigs quickly leapt to the conclusion that Oliver’s description of the 6 March Council meeting was the latest move by royal appointees to misrepresent the province as rebellious.

And in a way they were right—the statement and its publication were part of a campaign by high officials. As Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson later wrote (modestly referring to himself in the third person), they wanted to be sure the London government understood what they were dealing with:

he asked the secretary to recollect, as well as he could, what passed in the debate at council, and to commit it to writing, intending to send it to England, to shew in the fullest manner the reasons for the lieutenant governor’s complying with their advice, and not with any intention to set the council in general or any particular member, in an unfavourable light.

The secretary informed him, that, of his own mere motion, and for his private satisfaction, he had done it the evening before, while the debates were fresh in his mind.

After he had transcribed and corrected the minutes, he made oath to them; and they were transmitted at the same time with the copies of the votes or minutes of council, and other papers relative to the transaction, not to the secretary of state, but to governor [Francis] Bernard, who, at that time, continued governor of the province.

Oliver (shown above) made his oath before justice of the peace Foster Hutchinson, the acting governor’s cousin. 

Soon after the pamphlet arrived, the Massachusetts General Court started a new legislative session in Cambridge, with the Council meeting in Harvard’s Philosophy Chamber. On 4 October, the Council took up Oliver’s statement:

ONE of the Members of the Board having acquainted the Board that he had seen a Deposition signed Andrew Oliver, which was published in the Appendix to a Pamphlet lately printed in London; in which Deposition divers Gentlemen of the Council, which consisted of 8 Members then present, therein said to be convened on the 5th Day of March last, are represented as having made such a Declaration to His Honor the Lieutenant-Governor, respecting a plan formed by the People to remove the King’s Troops and the Commissioners of the Customs from the Town of Boston, as was likely to be attended with the most pernicious Consequences to this Province—He thereupon moved that the Board would make Enquiry of the Gentlemen of which said Council consisted, what Foundation there was for such a representation—

Which motion being seconded, the Board desired said Gentlemen, namely, Mr. [Samuel] Danforth, Mr. [John] Erving, Mr. [Thomas] Hubbard, Mr. [Harrison] Gray, Mr. [James] Russell, Mr. [Royall] Tyler, Mr. [James] Pitts, and Mr. [Samuel] Dexter, to prepare a true State of the Matter and lay the same before the Board as soon as may be.

Those were the eight Council members present at the 6 March meeting. Oliver had named five of them in his account. (To be exact, he had named three and referred to two more by title, and the London pamphlet had helpfully identified them in footnotes.)

The next day, Oliver asked for a chance to respond and to call witnesses to support his account of the discussion. The Council therefore accepted evidence on 9 October from Capt. Benjamin Caldwell of H.M.S. Rose, Lt. Col. William Dalrymple of the 14th Regiment, deputy secretary John Cotton, and clerk Francis Skinner.

All those witnesses basically agreed with Oliver’s description of what Royall Tyler had said about the town and countryside being angry enough to attack the troops if the governor didn’t remove them, and to drive the Customs Commissioners out of Boston as well. They also agreed that no other members of the Council had objected to Tyler’s statement.

Councilors bore down on Cotton and Skinner about one important detail. When Tyler said of the Whigs, “they had formed their plan, and that this was a part of it to remove the troops out of town, and after that the commissioners,” did he let slip news of a plan predating the Massacre? No, said those provincial employees; they didn’t think Tyler’s mention of a ”plan” on 6 March necessarily referred to any planning more than a day old.

TOMORROW: The Councilors’ contentions.