Thomas Pownall’s biography from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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Pownall, Thomas (1722–1805), colonial governor and politician, was born on 4 September 1722 in St Mary Magdalen's parish, Lincoln, eldest son of William Pownall (1692–1735), an army officer, and his second wife, Sarah (d. 1762), daughter of John Burniston, deputy governor of Bombay. From Pownall's paternal grandfather, Thomas Pownall (1650–1706), who overcame imprisonment for Jacobitism to serve in the armies of William III and Anne, his family inherited modest lands at Saltfleetsby and Dally in Lincolnshire; however, poor management and the untimely death of Pownall's father led to a decline in fortunes. Despite his family's penury—or perhaps because of it—Pownall grew up with a boundless ambition that was made the more conspicuous by his average stature and rotund girth. After attending Lincoln grammar school, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1740 as a pensioner, and graduated BA in 1743.

Introduction to America

Following a brief, frustrating attempt at restoring the family estate in Lincolnshire, Pownall sought out wider horizons in London, obtaining a clerkship at the Board of Trade, where his younger brother John Pownall (1724–1796) was secretary. Pownall quickly gained the confidence of the board's president, George Montagu Dunk, second earl of Halifax, and in 1753 became private secretary to Halifax's brother-in-law, Sir Danvers Osborne, the newly appointed governor of New York. Coming on the brink of the Seven Years' War (1756–63)—Britain's final, decisive struggle with France for control of North America—Pownall arrived at a propitious moment, but Osborne's suicide, days after their New York landfall on 6 October 1753, created even greater opportunities. Pownall used his freedom from official duties to the full, visiting the principal cities on the American seaboard, attending the Albany congress of 1754, and forming lasting friendships with influential colonists, including Benjamin Franklin and Lewis Evans. During the autumn of 1755 he also became embroiled in the quarrel between Sir William Johnson, British superintendent for Indian affairs, and William Shirley, governor of Massachusetts and commander of the British forces in North America, over the management of Indian affairs. Although Shirley had extended him a warm welcome in 1754, Pownall sided with his rival, using his connections at the Board of Trade to question Shirley's military judgement and hasten the governor's dismissal as British commander in February 1756.

Partly as a result of his own expanding connections in America, and partly through the continued support of his brother at the Board of Trade, Pownall was named lieutenant-governor of New Jersey in May 1755. In February 1756 he returned to England where, after declining the governorship of Pennsylvania, he was made ‘secretary extraordinary’ to the new British commander in America, John Campbell, earl of Loudoun. Although Loudoun's high-handed policies occasioned hostility in the colonies and criticism at home, Pownall used the position to enhance his own reputation, making another trip to London in August 1756, gaining the confidence of the new prime minister, William Pitt, and establishing himself as an expert in colonial affairs. With Loudoun's blessing, he also pursued his campaign to discredit Shirley, who had been recalled to England in September 1756. Pownall's repeated attacks, which included giving testimony in the House of Commons, contributed to an unsavoury reputation for ‘artful and insinuating’ behaviour (Schutz, Thomas Pownall, 71); however, such accusations were not enough to prevent his being named to succeed Shirley as Massachusetts governor in February 1757. As it happened, Pownall's appointment as governor came close on the heels of his paternal grandmother's death in January 1757, an event that made him sole proprietor of his late grandfather's modest holdings in Lincolnshire. He thus returned to America not only as a man who seemed destined for great things as an ‘imperial politician’ but as one who could claim—if only just—the coveted status of ‘landed gentleman’.

Governor of Massachusetts

Pownall's three years as Massachusetts governor (1757–9) were dominated by the strains of war. Like most colonial governors Pownall enjoyed broad powers in theory but few other resources beyond what the Massachusetts legislature was willing to give him. As a result he had to steer a careful course between satisfying the demands of his superiors at home and avoiding policies that might unnecessarily jeopardize his relations with the colony's leaders. Towards that end Pownall worked assiduously to soften the burdens of Britain's war with France, limiting the navy's impressment of local seamen, reducing military penalties for Massachusetts soldiers, and securing British subsidies to help pay the costs of the colony's own campaigns. Shortly after his appointment he also successfully defused a confrontation with Lord Loudoun caused by the British commander's threat to occupy Massachusetts if the provincial legislature refused to provide housing for the army's recruiting parties. In exchange Pownall was able to secure the assembly's support for large annual supplies and levies of troops. During the summer of 1759 he also organized and led a provincial expedition to the Penobscot River in Maine, despite the colony's refusal to appropriate the necessary funds. In each instance he demonstrated a keen awareness of the precariousness of his own position, along with a willingness to accommodate colonial fears over any policy that could be construed as an abuse of power or a stretch of the governor's prerogative.

Despite a reputation for personal vanity Pownall was aided in his executive duties by a tendency towards informality in conducting public business. Less helpfully, he gained a name as a womanizer and giver of lavish parties—‘that fribble’, in the words of one hostile New Englander (Sawtelle, 235). True to his liberal Anglican principles, however, Pownall also distinguished himself with his assiduous cultivation of the province's established Congregational clergy. Although he attempted to stand apart from the factionalism of Massachusetts politics, Pownall was inevitably drawn into the struggle between the province's ‘court’ and ‘popular’ parties. At first he sought the good will of the former group, many of whom had supported Governor Shirley, and even gave his consent for the court leader Thomas Hutchinson to be appointed lieutenant-governor. None the less, lingering resentment over Shirley's dismissal, along with the need to secure legislative support for the war with France, gradually forced him into an alliance with the court's opponents, especially the merchant Thomas Hancock, with whom the governor formed a close friendship. His willingness to co-operate with the popular party was not greeted with universal approval at the Board of Trade; nor was Pownall himself entirely comfortable with having to choose sides in a struggle that threatened to weaken the already fragile basis of British authority in America. Years later John Adams described him as ‘the most constitutional and national Governor’ ever to represent the crown in Massachusetts (Works of John Adams, 10.243), but Pownall's experience also showed him the inadequacy of Britain's colonial administration and the pressing need for reform.

Political and literary career in England

Following the conquest of Quebec, Pownall began seeking a new position and, in November 1759, was appointed governor of South Carolina. However, convinced that his best prospects for advancement lay at home, he chose to return to England and resign the South Carolina governorship in favour of a lucrative post as commissary for the British forces in Germany, to which he was appointed on 29 June 1760. The wealth Pownall derived from his two years with the army was sufficient to draw charges of mismanagement from John Wilkes's North Briton, no. 40 (5 March 1763), but a Treasury inquiry cleared him of all wrong doing. On 25 August 1765 Pownall consolidated his personal fortune by marrying Harriet, née Churchill (1726–1777), widow of the wealthy diplomat Sir Everard Fawkener and mother of four children. Not only did his marriage to Lady Fawkener—as she continued to be known—enable him to lease a house in London's fashionable Albemarle Street, where Horace Walpole, Thomas Almon, and Benjamin Franklin were regular guests, but it also gained him an introduction to many of the leading families of England. Probably with the assistance of his friend Hugh Boscawen, second Viscount Falmouth, a shrewd electioneer, Pownall entered parliament as the member for Tregony, Cornwall, where he won a by-election on 4 February 1767. He was defeated during the general election of 1774 but, through the efforts of Lord North—who may have engineered his defeat at Tregony in order to gain his support for the government's colonial policies—he won another by-election later that same year at Minehead in Somerset, which he represented until his retirement in 1780.

Despite his improved finances and election to parliament, Pownall never realized the expectations fostered by his term as Massachusetts governor. Indeed, as he found himself thwarted in his quest for preferment in England, he came to regret his decision to leave the colonial service where, he believed, greater opportunities existed for ambitious men of modest means. None the less, he remained an acknowledged expert on Britain's colonial affairs in general, especially the American colonies that declared independence in 1776. Pownall's most influential statement in this respect was his Administration of the Colonies, first published in 1764 and subsequently enlarged in five revised editions (1765, 1766, 1768, 1774, and 1777). As in his later speeches to parliament, Pownall consciously sought in this work to identify himself as a supporter of American liberty. Although he feared that Britain was losing control of its colonies, he wrote that the Americans were entitled to the same rights of representative government as their fellow subjects in England, Scotland, and Wales. At the same time, Pownall insisted that the military protection that the colonists received from Britain created equally extensive obligations to help pay for some of the cost. He was also convinced of the need for a strong, central legislature capable of making common policies that would be binding for every member of the British empire, including the fractious provinces in North America. Pownall eventually decided that the only solution lay in creating an imperial parliament with representatives from both Britain and the colonies (Pownall, Administration of the Colonies, 4th edn, 1768, 174). Although he was not the only British commentator to embrace the idea of an imperial parliament, most Americans found it anathema, so much so that John Dickinson singled out his centralized plan of legislative reform for particular criticism in his influential Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1768).

Throughout this period Pownall searched for possible solutions to the crisis in America. In the House of Commons, where his first speech was on the dangers of forcing New York to quarter British troops, he established a reputation as a staunch pro-American. He also remained in close contact with many colonists, including New Englanders on both sides of the looming divide, as well as Franklin, who was a colonial agent in London. In addition, although the allegation has never been proved, Pownall may have had a part in writing the Junius letters, which attacked successive ministries during the later 1760s and early 1770s, and in publishing the incriminating correspondence that contributed to Thomas Hutchinson's departure as governor of Massachusetts in 1774. As the situation in the colonies deteriorated, Pownall supported some of Lord North's policies, including the Boston Port Act (1774)—though not the rest of the ‘Intolerable Acts’—and the conciliatory plan of early 1775. He also aspired to lead a mission to negotiate a reunion with the rebellious colonies, an honour that instead went to Frederick Howard, fifth earl of Carlisle. In December 1777 Pownall finally broke with Lord North and demanded a liberal treaty recognizing American independence.

Somewhat surprisingly, in view of his literary reputation, Pownall was a notoriously difficult author to read. While he was still governor of Massachusetts, one Boston satirist claimed that his convoluted style seemed calculated to produce a ‘most excruciating head-ach’ (Schutz, Thomas Pownall, 177); twenty years later John Adams went so far as to ‘translate’ one of his pamphlets on the American War of Independence (A Translation of the Memorial to the Sovereigns of Europe, 1781). If Pownall's prose was not always easy to understand, however, he produced a great deal of it, on topics ranging far beyond the crisis in America. In 1773 he published a pamphlet on the East India Company, in which he called for the crown to be given administrative responsibility for Bengal and the other Mughal provinces under British rule. Starting in the early 1770s he sought ways to reduce the high price of grain in England, co-authoring with Edmund Burke a new regulatory law (1773) and embracing the cause of free trade during the mid-1790s. He was likewise an early, if somewhat critical, admirer of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776). Following his own acceptance of American independence, Pownall turned his attention to the conflict's implications for Europe and the Americas, predicting, among other developments, the emergence of independence movements in Latin America and the formation of a new Atlantic community based on commerce and treaties among equal, sovereign states (Schutz, ‘Thomas Pownall's proposed Atlantic federation’, 264–8). At various points Pownall also wrote on geography and antiquarianism, with works on North American topography, Atlantic Ocean currents, and Roman antiquities. In addition he was an amateur artist, and Paul Sandby acknowledged his drawings as the basis for several engravings in a folio of views of North America and the West Indies, which appeared in 1761 (DNB).

Later years

Pownall's first wife, Lady Fawkener, died in 1777 and was buried at Lincoln Cathedral, complete with a sarcophagus for which Pownall wrote a lavish inscription. On 2 August 1784 he married Hannah, née Kennett (d. 1807), widow of Richard Astell, a prosperous landowner with property in Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire, and two manors, Everton Mosbury and Everton Biggin. The Pownalls made Everton House in Bedfordshire their country home. They also travelled widely, living in France between 1785 and 1787. Pownall continued to maintain a large circle of friends and acquaintances, including Franklin and Francisco de Miranda, the Latin American revolutionary. His final years were marked by gout and rheumatism, which led him to spend progressively longer stays at Bath. It was during one such visit that he died, on 25 February 1805. Following his own wishes he was buried at St Michael's Church, Walcot, Bath. Neither of Pownall's marriages produced children. He left a life interest on his estate to his widow; upon her death two years later, it passed to his brother John's elder son, Sir George Pownall.

Eliga H. Gould


J. A. Schutz, Thomas Pownall, British defender of American liberty (1951) · J. A. Schutz, ‘Pownall, Thomas’, ANB · L. W. Labaree, ‘Pownall, Thomas’, DAB · DNB · W. O. Sawtelle, ‘Thomas Pownall’, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 63 (1929–30), 233–84 · J. A. Schutz, ‘Thomas Pownall's proposed Atlantic federation’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 26 (1946), 263–8 · D. Baugh and A. G. Olson, introduction, in T. Pownall, The administration of the colonies (1993) · G. H. Guttridge, ‘Thomas Pownall's The administration of the colonies: the six editions’, William and Mary Quarterly, 26 (1969), 31–46 · S. M. Pargellis, Lord Loudoun in North America (1933) · C. A. W. Pownall, Thomas Pownall, MP, FRS, governor of Massachusetts Bay, author of the ‘Letters of Junius’ (1908) · The works of John Adams, second president of the United States, ed. C. F. Adams, 10 vols. (1850–56), vol. 10, p. 243


Boston PL, papers · Mass. Hist. Soc., papers · Massachusetts Commonwealth Archives, Boston, papers |  BL, letters to Samuel Cooper, Kings MS 203 · BL, letters to Lord Hardwicke, Add. MSS 35614–35625, passim · Hunt. L., letters to James Abercrombie · Hunt. L., letters to John Campbell, earl of Loudoun · Lincs. Arch., letters to J. C. Brooke, papers · PRO, letters to first earl of Chatham and William Pitt, PRO 30/8



R. Earlom, mezzotint, pubd 1777 (after F. Cotes), Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC, National Portrait Gallery [see illus.] · Cotes, oils, priv. coll. · H. C. Pratt, engraving (after his portrait) · H. C. Pratt, portrait, Pownalborough, Maine · portrait, Mass. Hist. Soc.

Wealth at death  

reportedly land at North Lynn, Norfolk, and leasehold in Albemarle Street; heir was second wife, and after her death elder son of his brother: Pownall, Thomas Pownall

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Eliga H. Gould, ‘Pownall, Thomas (1722–1805)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 19 Nov 2005]

Thomas Pownall (1722–1805): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22676



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