Washington is in a tizzy these days. From Capitol Hill to Georgetown and everywhere in between, folks are speculating about the identity of that anonymous op-ed writer claiming to be part of a secret “resistance” within the Trump administration. It’s D.C.’s biggest guessing game since "Who was Deep Throat?"
It puts me in mind of another unidentified official who long ago disagreed with his boss, and what he did to inform Americans about it played a big part in the buildup to the Revolutionary War.
Which makes this an ideal time to revisit the Hutchinson Letters Affair.
Britain had an increasingly nasty problem on its hands in the early 1770s. For nearly 150 years, the mother country and its Province of Massachusetts Bay colony had enjoyed more or less tranquil relations. But things had soured.
The colonists said it was grossly unfair that a heavy round of taxes was imposed on them for London’s fiscal benefit, not theirs. Despite paying those taxes, the people of Massachusetts had no voice in Britain’s Parliament and were growing increasingly upset about it.
That, in turn, upset the Brits, who felt the colonists were acting like spoiled, ungrateful children.
The tipping point came in 1773 when the infamous Tea Tax was imposed. It was the last straw for many Massachusetts tea lovers.
And that’s when things got interesting.
The previous December, Benjamin Franklin had received an unusual packet in the mail. He was living in London where, among other things, he served as deputy postmaster of North America. To put it in 21st-century terms, someone inside the very top levels of England’s government had gone rogue and wanted Franklin to know what was secretly going on within the administration. The packet contained about 20 letters from Thomas Hutchinson, the Massachusetts colony’s royal governor, and other officials there privately sent to a top aide to Britain’s prime minister.
Franklin couldn’t believe his eyes. The letters framed matters in a way that intentionally misled Parliament. They also suggested Massachusetts’ government should be overhauled to give the royal governor more power. Worse still, Hutchinson wrote the colonists could never have the full rights enjoyed back in England, requiring “an abridgment of what are called English liberties.”
Franklin forwarded the letters to Boston, with clear instructions that they not be printed or publicized (although he said they could be quietly shared with Patriot leaders).
Those brilliantly conniving second cousins, John and Samuel Adams, made sure the correspondence eventually reached the Boston Gazette.
When the letters were finally published in June 1773, the you-know-what hit the proverbial fan. Public reaction in New England exploded with the ferocity of a nuclear blast. Hutchinson was burned in effigy on Boston Common. The outcry was equally intense when word reached the other side of the pond.
From Beacon Hill to London’s fashionable salons, Britons and colonists alike speculated about which insider had leaked the letters. One suspected source blamed another, leading to a duel between the two men. That was when Franklin said enough was enough.
On Christmas Day 1773, he published a letter admitting that he had forwarded the letters to Boston. Franklin was hauled before the Privy Council the following month, royally chewed out, humiliated, and fired from his lucrative deputy postmaster gig.
Back in Boston, fury stoked by the letters helped fuel the anger that climaxed with the Boston Tea Party. You know what happened from there.
So, who was the 18th-century resister inside Britain’s government who actually leaked the letters? Just as in 2018, there’s a wide cast of possibilities. Several historians point a finger at Thomas Pownall, Hutchinson’s predecessor as royal governor. Others blame John Temple, another colonial official. Temple claimed he knew the true culprit’s identity but refused to name him, since doing so “would prove the ruin of the guilty party.”
Whoever he was, his secret went to the grave with him. The notorious 2018 Trump resister likely won’t be so lucky.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.