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Peter Oliver

“A determination to discourage a faithful Servant of the Crown”

For acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, the dispute between his Council and the provincial secretary Andrew Oliver was yet one more headache in 1770.

On 28 September, Hutchinson told the departed but still official governor, Sir Francis Bernard: “[Royall] T[yle]r is sowered by that deposition of the Secretarys which was published in England and it has hurt me every way.” (Bernard had been responsible for that publication, at least in part, but Hutchinson didn’t let on that he suspected that.)

Writing to John Pownall, an official in the Colonial Office, two days later, Hutchinson was more careful to avoid suggesting the controversy had hurt his effectiveness:

The Council except a few are…very friendly to me though there is some abatement of their friendship since the deposition of the Secretary taken by my order relative to the Affair of the Troops has been published. These publications & the sufference of the Letters to the Ministry of which a fresh parcel was sent by the last Ship to be made publick do infinite disservice.

Ironically, Hutchinson was just as upset about leaks as the Council—just different leaks.

There was also a private dimension to this dispute. On 10 October, while the Council was in the midst of collecting the depositions I quoted over the past couple of days, the acting governor’s son Thomas, Jr., married Sally Oliver, daughter of the secretary.

The families were already related by marriage. Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver had married sisters. In February 1770, Hutchinson’s daughter Sarah married Dr. Peter Oliver, son of Andrew Oliver’s brother Peter.

All three of those men were royal appointees. Thomas Hutchinson was lieutenant governor, thus acting governor, and also chief justice of Massachusetts. Andrew Oliver was secretary and was supposed to have been the stamp agent. Peter Oliver was a judge. Furthermore, other relatives were in the provincial government. John Cotton, the deputy secretary, was half-brother to the sisters who had married Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver. And Hutchinson had been trying to get his nephew Nathaniel Rogers appointed provincial secretary before the young man died.

Of course, there were family alliances on the other side of the political divide as well. James Bowdoin, the principal author of the complaint against Oliver, was a son-in-law of fellow Councilor John Erving, brother-in-law of fellow Councilor James Pitts, and father-in-law of Customs Commissioner John Temple, whom other royal appointees regarded as a snake.

Eighteenth-century society ran on such familial connections. People expected officials to look out for their relatives, and officials expected their relatives to be loyal assistants in government. Neither side was pure in this regard, and both sides complained about the other using family ties too much.

On 30 October, Hutchinson summed up his view of the controversy over Oliver’s description of the Council meeting in another letter to Pownall:

Unfortunately it has got published. Mr. Tyler denied that he made any mention of the Commissioners. I am sure I heard it from him but could not be certain whether that Day or a day or two before. Three or four Witnesses present swore, they heard it that Day. All the Council say they do not remember it.

They have not however directly charged the Secretary with false swearing but to a long Narrative drawn up by Mr. Bowdoin there is added divers Resolves declaring him guilty of a Breach of trust in taking the Minutes &c. The whole is a weak but malicious injurious performance which they have ordered to be recorded. . . .

I gave them my Opinion that these Resolves would be more resented than any thing which preceeded them as they plainly indicated a determination to discourage a faithful Servant of the Crown from doing his Duty as far as lay in their power.

These proceedings I hope will not pass without censure either in [privy] Council or when the State of the Province comes before the Parliament. Such a censure would mortify the party and being made matter of Record here would remove the reproach which otherwise will be transmitted to posterity upon the Secretarys Character.

In fact, the London government was already preparing to reward Andrew Oliver for his service. When Hutchinson officially became the royal governor, Oliver was promoted into his brother-in-law’s spot as lieutenant governor. And in 1772 Peter Oliver succeeded Hutchinson as chief justice.

(Hutchinson’s 1770 letters will appear in the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s next collection of his correspondence, scheduled to be published in the new year.)