In December of 1777, Thomas Pownall stood before a stunned Parliament and declared "I now tell this House and government that the Americans never will return to their subjection to the government of this country. I now take upon myself to assert directly … that your sovereignty over America is abolished … forever." How did this mapmaker end up in Parliament defending the American cause, no less?
Thomas Pownall was born in England in 1722 and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. He came to America in 1753 as the private secretary to Sir Danvers Osborne, who had been appointed governor of New York. Unfortunately, Osborne lived only a few days after arriving in New York, leaving Pownall without a job or friends in the colonies. But rather than return to England, Pownall spent the next two years exploring the colonies with particular interests in frontier defences, westward expansion, and Indian affairs.
It was in Philadelphia in 1755 that he collaborated with Lewis Evans on his map of the middle British colonies. Both men realized the need for accurate maps of the interior of North America—regions that were in dispute during the French and Indian War.
Pownall was appointed Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey in 1755, becoming embroiled in political squabbles that ultimately led to the downfall of Massachusetts governor Wiliam Shirley. Pownall was appointed Governor in Shirley’s place in 1757, serving until 1760. During his term as Governor, he was known to travel out into the countryside, painting and talking to ordinary citizens, giving him a great understanding of, and sympathy for, the concerns of colonists. In John Adams’ opinion, Pownall was “the most constitutional and national governor in my opinion, who ever represented the Crown in this province.” He established lifelong friendships with many of the leading patriots, including Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and Benjamin Franklin.
In 1760, Pownall returned to England, where he remained an advocate of the colonies, often espousing views that jeopardized his political career as the Revolution unfolded. It was in December of 1777 that he declared before Parliament, “I now tell this House and government that the Americans never will return to their subjection to the government of this country. I now take upon myself to assert directly … that your sovereignty over America is abolished … forever.”
The MHS holds a number of printed proclamations and other government documents issued by Pownall while Governor of Massachusetts, as well as editions of his best-known work, Administration of the Colonies. Correspondence between Pownall and James Bowdoin can be found in the Bowdoin and Temple family papers, part of the Winthrop Family papers collection. The Society also owns a portrait of Pownall by Henry Cheever Pratt as well as engravings of his View of Boston in 1757.