Thomas Pownall, Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay

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Thomas Pownall

Birthdate: (83)
Death: 1805 (83)
Immediate Family:

Son of William Pownall and Sarah Pownall
Husband of Harriett Churchill
Brother of John Pownall

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About Thomas Pownall, Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay Governors of Massachusetts

Thomas Pownall (1722-1805)

Royal Governor of Massachusetts 1757-1760

Born and educated in England, Pownall worked as a clerk at the Board of Trade before coming to New York to serve as secretary to Sir Danvers Osborn, the Governor of New York. When Osborn committed suicide in 1753, Mr. Pownall kept the Board of Trade apprised and was soon appointed Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey in 1755. He then declined the Governorship of Pennsylvania to become "Secretary Extraordinary" to Lord Loudoun, the commander of England's forces in North America.

He was commissioned as Royal Governor of Massachusetts in 1757, arriving in August to begin his service. As Governor he asserted his authority in Massachusetts and over his former superior, Lord Loudoun. He sought to strengthen ties with the General Assembly and create a broader base for his rule, which concerned the Crown.

Pownall was relieved of the governorship and returned to England in June of 1760. He declined the governorship of Jamaica and accepted the Governorship of North Carolina, but resigned the commission before leaving England. Instead he served in the English army as a Colonel, and was a member of Parliament before retiring from public life in 1780.


Thomas Pownall (bapt. 4 September 1722 (New Style) – 25 February 1805) was a British politician and colonial official. He was governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay from 1758 to 1760, and afterward served in the British Parliament. He traveled widely in the North American colonies prior to the American Revolutionary War, and opposed Parliamentary attempts to tax the colonies. In the early 19th century he became an early advocate of the reduction or removal of trade barriers, and the establishment of a solid relationship between Britain and the United States.

John Adams wrote, "Pownall was the most constitutional and national Governor, in my opinion, who ever represented the crown in this province."

Early life

Thomas Pownall was the eldest son of William and Sarah (Burniston) Pownall. Baptised 4 September 1722 (New Style) in Lincoln, England, his father was a country gentleman and soldier whose poor health and early death in 1735 caused the family to fall upon hard times. Thomas was educated at Lincoln and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1743. His education exposed him to classic and current philosophers, and the sciences. His first publication, a treatise on the origins of government published in 1752, began as notes developed at Cambridge.

During his years at Cambridge, his younger brother John acquired a job at the Board of Trade, which oversaw British colonial affairs, and rapidly rose in the bureaucracy. The brothers were influential supporters of each other in their efforts to advance. John secured a job for Thomas in the colonial office, where he was exposed to the possibilities for advancement and influence in colonial postings. In 1753 he went to America as private secretary to Sir Danvers Osborne, just appointed governor of New York. Osborne committed suicide several days after reaching New York, leaving Pownall without a job and a sponsor. Pownall chose to remain in America, devoting himself to studying the condition of the American colonies. In the following months he traveled widely, from Maryland to Massachusetts. He was introduced into the highest circles of leadership and society in the colonies, and established relationships with a number of influential people, including Benjamin Franklin and Massachusetts Governor William Shirley.

One item of importance that Governor Osborne had been instructed to deal with was rising discontent among the Iroquois. Pownall had studied the matter, and he was consequently invited by his Pennsylvania connections to attend the 1754 Albany Congress as an observer. His observations on the nature of colonial dealings with the Indians (including political infighting for control of the Indian trade, and the corrupt and fraudulent acquisition of Indian lands) led him to propose the establishment of a crown-appointed superintendent of Indian affairs, specifically William Johnson, New York's commissioner for Indian affairs. He also articulated visions for managing the expansion of the colonies to the west. After the conference he returned to Philadelphia. In this time he apparently cemented a close friendship with Franklin, with whom he began to invest in business ventures. The failure of Franklin's proposals for uniting the colonies at the Albany conference may have contributed to Pownall's writings, although the exact nature of Franklin's influence is unclear. While in Philadelphia he also established a close collaboration with cartographer Lewis Evans, both of whom recognized the need for accurate maps of the inland regions of North America then being disputed with New France in the French and Indian War. The map Evans published in 1755 was dedicated to Pownall, and brought the latter wide publicity. Pownall's recommendation of Johnson as superintendent of Indian affairs was also implemented by the crown in 1755.

Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey

Pownall had been living at his own expense, in the hopes that a posting would eventually come his way. In May 1755 he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey, with little responsibility beyond anticipating the death of the aging governor, Jonathan Belcher. Belcher, however, proved to be longer lived than expected (he died in 1757), and Pownall, whose primary responsibility became representing the province in military conferences concerning the ongoing war, was restless. The military conferences drew him into an ongoing power struggle between Johnson and Shirley (who rose to become military commander-in-chief upon the death of General Edward Braddock) over the management of Indian affairs. Johnson capitalized on Pownall's concern over frontier security to draw him into his camp. Pownall already harboured some dislike of Shirley over an earlier snub, and his reports to New York Governor Sir Charles Hardy, combined with damaging allegations provided by other Johnson supporters, led to Shirley's dismissal as commander-in-chief. Pownall returned to England in early 1756, where he confirmed the Johnson allegations, and was rewarded with a post as "Secretary Extraordinary" (a title of Pownall's creation) to the new commander-in-chief, Lord Loudoun.

While Pownall was in England, Shirley's reputation was further damaged by allegations (not apparently furthered by Pownall's action) that he had let military information fall into enemy hands, and the Board of Trade decided to recall him. Pownall was also offered the governorship of Pennsylvania by its proprietors; however, his demands concerning his powers in the post led them to retract the offer. Pownall turned this to his own advantage, widely publicizing the fact that he had turned down the offer because of the "unreasonable, unenlightened attitude of the proprietors."

He accompanied Loudoun back to America in July 1756, but again returned to England to represent Loudoun in hearings on Shirley's military leadership. Loudoun also instructed him on his military plans and objectives. In London he became closely involved in informing members of the new Pitt-Newcastle Ministry of the state of affairs in North America. His performance in these matters resulted in his appointment as governor of Massachusetts in March 1757. Although he was admired for his competence in colonial affairs, he was also criticised for his vanity and temper, as well as his role in bringing about Shirley's fall.

Governor of Massachusetts Bay

Pownall arrived in Boston in early August, he was well received, and assumed his duties on August 3. He was immediately thrust into a war-related crisis, as a French force was reported to be moving toward Fort William Henry in northern New York, and the military commander there had made an urgent call for militia. Pownall was energetic in organizing the militia, but the call to arms came too late: Fort William Henry fell after a brief siege that was followed by some of the worst Indian atrocities of the war.

In September 1757 he traveled to New Jersey to attend the funeral of Governor Jonathan Belcher, and stopped in New York to meet with Loudoun. Loudoun was upset that the Massachusetts General Court had not fully implemented his demands, and he held Pownall responsible. Pownall objected to the interference of the military in civilian affairs, the threat of which Loudoun used to implement his agenda, maintaining that it was necessary for the governor to lead, not drive, the provincial assembly. The meeting was acrimonious, and Loudoun afterward wrote a letter to London harshly criticising Pownall's position, calling his ideas on governance "high-handed". He encountered opposition in the General Court (the provincial assembly) to a demand that British troops be billeted with civilians in Boston, and Loudoun threatened to march additional troops into the province and take housing by force. Pownall requested that the General Court accede in some way to Loudoun's demands, eventually signing a bill authorizing the quartering of troops in inns. This bill was unpopular, and Pownall was negatively cast in the local press as supportive of Loudoun and his policies. Pownall's exchanges with Loudoun, however, show that he was keenly aware of the colonists' position: "the inhabitants of this province are intitled to the natural rights of English born subjects ... the enjoyment of these rights ... will animate and encourage them to resist ... a cruel, invading enemy". He was equally clear on the relationship between the royal governor and his assembly: "a governor must endeavour to lead those people for he cannot drive them and must lead them step by step as he can gett[sic] footing." He was so committed to these ideas that he offered to resign; however Loudoun encouraged him to remain in the post. Pownall would later author portions of the 1765 Quartering Act, a Parliamentary bill whose implementation was widely resisted in the colonies.

In January 1758 Pownall wrote several letters to William Pitt, outlining the difficult issues surrounding relations between the colonial government and both the military and civil administrations of the British establishment. He specifically recommended that London offer to pay more of the colonial expenses of the war; the implementation of this idea led to significantly increased militia recruitment in the remaining years of the war, including 7,000 men from Massachusetts for the 1758 campaign. Pownall was able to move a bill through the General Court implementing reforms of the militia system. The bill was short on the number of changes Pownall sought to achieve a more flexible and less costly organization, and its terms also centered more power over the militia in the hands of local officials (at the governor's expense).

Despite these reforms, recruiting for the militia proved difficult, and recruiting parties were often harassed and stoned, leading to rioting on several occasions. Pownall was, however, successful in recruiting the province's full quota of militia, and his energetic assistance in the war effort earned him approbation from William Pitt, the Board of Trade, and that year's commander in chief, James Abercrombie. Flush with success, Pownall proposed to General Jeffery Amherst the idea of establishing a fort on Penobscot Bay to contest potential French movements in the area. This idea developed into a major expedition to the area, which received not only Amherst's approval but that of the assembly. Pownall led the expedition, oversaw the construction of Fort Pownall, and counted it as a major success of the year. Its success kicked off a minor land rush in the area.

Although Pownall's start in power was a little rocky, his popularity in the province grew as his term progressed. He assiduously saw to the needs of its many fishermen, successfully convincing military authorities to eliminate burdensome red tape, and courted local merchants. He invested in ventures managed by Thomas and John Hancock, and was lauded by a group of Massachusetts merchants upon his departure. A bachelor, he was reported to be a ladies' man and highly engaged in the social scene. Although he was not strongly religious, he regularly attended Anglican services, but was also a frequent visitor to local Congregational services. He successfully finessed contentious issues surrounding the recruitment, deployment, and provisioning of militia, negotiating compromises between military and provincial demands. He did, however, have a strained relationship with his lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson. The two men never trusted each other, and Pownall regularly excluded Hutchinson from his inner council meetings, instead sending him on missions, for example to deal with militia recruitment issues. One of Pownall's last acts before leaving the colony was to approve the appointment of James Otis, Sr., a longtime Hutchinson opponent, as speaker of the assembly.

In the later months of 1759 Pownall wrote a letter to William Pitt requesting leave to return to England because "I might be of some service" there. Biographer John Schutz speculates that the underlying reason for Pownall's request were related to frustration with his exclusion from the major military actions of the later war years, and possibly his desire to acquire a more significant post, such as a governor-generalship of conquered New France. Historian Bernard Bailyn is of the opinion that Pownall's divisive dislike and distrust of Shirley supporters like Thomas Hutchinson and ensuing local political infighting contributed to the request, as did his difficult relationships with the military commanders. Whatever the reason, the Board of Trade engaged in a reshuffling of colonial positions after King George II died, and Pownall was given the governorship of South Carolina, and permission to first take leave in England. His departure from Boston was delayed by militia recruiting issues and the need to deal with the aftermath of a major fire in the city, and he did not leave until June 1760.

The Administration of the Colonies

Although he held the governorship of South Carolina, he never actually went there. He characterised his term in Massachusetts as "arduous", and informed the colonial office in November 1760 that he would only accept another governorship if the recently crowned King George III directly ordered it. Pitt appointed him to the military commissary's office in the Electorate of Hanover, where he served until the Seven Years' War ended in 1763. The position did not further his career ambitions, however.

Upon his return to England he prepared for publication a treatise entitled The Administration of the Colonies. First published anonymously in 1764, Pownall revised the work and republished the work several times between 1765 and 1777. The work, a dry treatise on the situation in North America that included commentary on the burgeoning tensions in the Thirteen Colonies, was intended by Pownall to explore how the colonies could properly be incorporated into a larger empire.

Colonial supporter

Pownall continued to communicate with political allies in Massachusetts, and was on several occasions called to appear before Parliamentary committees to comment on colonial affairs. He considered returning to Massachusetts if a post could be found, and began investing in property in Nova Scotia, extending his colonial property interests beyond those he had been granted in present-day Maine during his governorship. In 1765 he married Harriet Fawkener, widow of Everard Fawkener and daughter to Lieutenant General Charles Churchill, giving him a connection to the aristocratic Dukes of Marlborough. Pownall raised her four children as his own. A gracious and intelligent woman, she became a partner in advancing his political career, hosting social events and encouraging his intellectual pursuits. She may have encouraged him to stand for Parliament in 1767, when he won a seat representing Tregony.

He renewed correspondence with officials in Massachusetts in the hopes of winning appointment as an agent representing the province's interests, but was unsuccessful. He regularly received visitors from the colonies, and Benjamin Franklin, his old friend from Pennsylvania, was a frequent guest. He observed with alarm the rise in tension in the colonies and the missteps of Parliamentary leadership and colonial administration that exacerbated rather than reduced them. He used his position in Parliament to highlight the colonial objections to the Quartering Act of 1765 and other unpopular legislation. When troops were sent to Boston in 1768 after protests against the Townshend Acts turned violent, he took to the floor of Parliament, warning that the connections between Britain and the colonies were unraveling, and that the end result could be a permanent breach.

Pownall was opposed to Prime Minister North's partial repeal in 1770 of the hated Townshend Acts, which maintained the tax on tea as a symbol of Parliamentary power. In debate on the act, Pownall pointed out that retention of the tax would be a "millstone" around English necks rather than a yoke on American ones, and that it would lead to civil war. His speech was delivered March 5, 1770, the day of the Boston Massacre. Dispirited by his view that Parliament failed to understand the American colonial issues, he urged his colonial correspondents to continue to press constitutional issues and avoid violence.

Colonial American issues then briefly subsided from the stage. In 1772 Pownall introduced legislation reforming food production and distribution in Great Britain. It passed the House of Commons, but was amended by the Lords, leading the Commons to reject the amended bill as a violation of its prerogatives. The bill passed the next year, and was called "Governor Pownall's Bill". It received much praise, including from influential figures such as Adam Smith. Pownall was also honoured with membership in the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society.


Following the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, Parliament passed a series of bills designed to punish Massachusetts. Pownall was unable to sway opinion toward more conciliatory measures. He was also implicated in the Hutchinson Letters Affair as someone who may have delivered private letters of Thomas Hutchinson to Benjamin Franklin, although Franklin never identified his source for the letters. Pownall was also unable to retain his seat: in 1774 he was voted out of office. Seeking to remain active, Pownall ended up appealing to Lord North, who secured a seat for him in a by-election, representing Minehead. This apparent turn towards Toryism alarmed a number of Pownall's colonial supporters; there is also some evidence that North may have engineered Pownall's defeat in order to gain his support.

Pownall supported Prime Minister North's attempts at reconciliation in debates leading to the start the War of Independence. However, once hostilities began in April 1775, his conciliatory views were dismissed by war-supporting Tories (who opposed them) as well as by Whigs (who saw his proposals as attempts to undercut their positions). Pownall remained nominally in support of North until 1777, when he openly made declarations in support of peace party. The entry of France into the war on the American side returned him firmly to the pro-war Tory position. His support was, however, nuanced: he continued to argue for some sort of conciliation with the Americans, while remaining resolutely patriotic with respect to the French. He was not alone among British politicians in being unable reconcile these positions, and refused to stand for reelection in 1780.

During the war years he published several revisions to The Administration of the Colonies, updating and expanding the work to reflect changing conditions. He also worked to update and revise the Evans map, soliciting data and updated maps from colonial correspondents. He withdrew to some extent in the later years following the death of his wife in 1777, but continued to appear in Parliament.

Post-war years

In July 1780 Pownall anonymously published an essay titled A Memorial Most Humbly Addressed to the Sovereigns of Europe. This widely published document gained Pownall attention throughout Europe; the anonymity of its author was compromised by the use of extended passages from Administration of the Colonies. The essay propounded instructions to Europe's leaders on how to deal with a newly-independent United States, pointing out that America's independence and rapid population growth would have a transformative effect on world trade. He proposed that European leaders meet to establish worldwide regulations for what was essentially free trade.

Pownall continued to maintain an interest in the United States after the war ended, although he never returned. He sought without success a commission in the Massachusetts militia, mostly as a formality so that he could present it during his European travels. He continued to write essays (new ones and revisions to older ones), and published an updated version of his 1755 map. He contributed articles to the journal of the Antiquarian Society of London, to which he had been elected in 1768. Among his writings he proposed more rigorous approaches to archaeology (then largely the province of amateur "gentleman collectors"), more directly tying it to the study of history.

In his later years Pownall was introduced to Francisco de Miranda, a Spanish activist who favored Latin American independence from Spain. According to historian William Spence Robertson, significant arguments advanced by Miranda in his later efforts are traceable to Pownall's influence. Pownall also assisted Miranda explicitly, cultivating connections in the British government as he attempted to advance the independence agenda. Pownall's last major work was a treatise again arguing for free trade, and explicitly calling for British support of Latin American independence as a way to open those markets to British and American trade. Pownall died at Bath on 25 February 1805, and was interred in the church at Walcot.

Family and legacy

Pownall married twice. His first wife was Harriet Churchill, widow of Sir Everard Fawkener and illegitimate daughter of Lieutenant General Charles Churchill. In 1784 Pownall married Hannah (Kennet) Astell, acquiring in the process significant estates and the trappings of landed gentry.

The towns of Pownal, Maine and Pownal, Vermont are named after Thomas Pownall. Dresden, Maine was once named Pownalborough in his honor; this recognition survives in the Pownalborough Courthouse, an historic property built there in 1761.


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Between 1769 and 1772 a series of letters was published in London's Public Advertiser, authored by someone using the pseudonym Junius. Many of the letters contained accusations of corruption and abuse of power on the part of British government officials, subjects Pownall also spoke and wrote about. The identity of Junius has since been the subject of contemporary and historical debate. In 1854 Frederick Griffin wrote Junius Uncovered, in which he advanced the argument that Pownall was Junius; this argument was again raised by Pownall descendant Charles A. W. Pownall in his 1908 biography of Pownall. Modern scholars dispute the notion, currently favoring Philip Francis as the writer of the letters on the basis of several lines of evidence.

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Thomas Pownall, Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay's Timeline

Age 83