Chief Justice Peter Oliver, painting by John Singleton Copley
PETER OLIVER was characterized by contemporaries as a "Loyalist by birth, education and instinct, a man of courage, firmness, learning and character." The brother of Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, and related by marriage to the Tory Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Oliver and his family were considered bitter business and political rivals of James Otis and Samuel Adams.
Oliver graduated from Harvard University and in 1747 was appointed to the Inferior Court of Common Pleas of Plymouth County. The Plymouth County Court House of 1749 is said to have been designed by him. He rose to the Superior Court in 1756, and served as Chief Justice of the Colony of Massachusetts from 1772 until deposed by the Revolutionists in 1775.
Originally from Boston, Oliver bought most of the land around the Muttock neighborhood of Middleborough, Massachusetts including dam and water privileges, and created an entire self-contained iron mill complex. His estate, Oliver Hall, was one of the finest country residences outside Boston. The style was of "an old English mansion with steep roof and deep jutting eaves, with walls of white plaster and portico oak."
Oliver was one of the justices serving at the famous trial of the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Later, he was appointed to the King's comnmission to investigate the burning of the Gaspee in 1772.
Later in 1772, when Britain proposed to assume the Colony's responsibility of paying the justices, all members of the court except Oliver declined. The hostility against his loyalist stance was consequently inflamed, and his home in Middleborough was burned to the ground by the Sons of Liberty. The Massachusetts legislature impeached him, prompting grand jurors at more than two courts to refuse to take their oaths. After physical threats, he took to hiring an armed guard for his protection when serving on the bench.
When the British evacuated Boston in March of 1776, Oliver joined and left with them for Nova Scotia. Not finding Nova Scotia to his liking, Oliver and his family moved to England. "Thanks be to heaven," he wrote, "I am now in a Place where I can be protected from the Harpy Claws of that Rebellion which is now tearing out its own Bowels in America."
While in exile, Oliver is known for his bitter writings against the Revolution. See Adair, Douglass and John A. Schutz, editors, Peter Oliver's Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View. San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1961.
The Olivers never returned to America. After the Revolution in 1790, Peter Oliver presented his grandaughter, wife of the famous Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, a grandfather clock that is still the subject of ceremonial winding at Harvard Medical School.
GOOD God, do thou avert the impending calamity that threatens this former happy land, and turn the hearts of those deluded wretches from the power of sin and Satan to thy unerring precepts, and then, and then only, shall we be once more a happy people favoured of Heaven.