PROLOGUE: In Time, Forgotten

    It is pleasing to see the works of Nature, and of Art, in other Countries; and to notice the manners of People in different parts of the world. The mind becomes enlarged by such observations, and acquires many new ideas. But after having passed over all these objects, the mind remains unsatisfied; there is still a void, and a craving. The ostentatious display of wealth and magnificence; the courtly civilities of the Great, and the hackneyed expressions of the gay, and the vain, do not fill the heart. It sighs for the pleasures of social friendship and domestic comforts, under an humble roof; after seeing all the parade, and glory of life.

    – Henry Hulton1

    Once close as public men, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson eventually split and were reconciled only after they retired. In the free-ranging correspondence that marked their renewed friendship they discussed the history of their generation as it was already being written. Adams was usually the one to prompt such musings, but not always. In 1813 Jefferson lamented that, so far, both of them had been misunderstood and misrepresented, even in histories that supposedly told the story from the perspective of their own side—the winning side. That prompted Adams to ask when the other side of the Revolutionary tale, the loser’s side, would be told. “I have wondered for more than thirty Years so few have appeared: and have constantly expected that a Tory History of the Rise and progress of the Revolution would appear. And wished it,” he emphasized. Anticipating Jefferson’s asking him why, he added: “I should expect more Truth” in one of those accounts.2

    If in that “Tory” view he expected to be treated more evenhandedly, or at least more consistently, he probably would have been disappointed. After all, because there was no single Patriot view—as he and Jefferson learned through the criticism they thought had been aimed at them by ingrates—logic says that there could be no single or simple “Tory” view either. Each account had its own perspective, each brought out new themes or variations on older ones; no two could be expected to be exactly alike.

    Adams did not know it but at the very moment he responded to Jefferson there sat, unpublished, a history of the Revolution written by someone who had indeed been on the other side.3 It belonged to Thomas Hulton Preston of Beeston Hall, a manor in Norfolk, England. The author of that history was the soon-to-be baronet’s father, Henry Hulton. The elder Hulton had died over twenty years before. Although he never met Jefferson, he and Adams crossed paths time and again for the better part of a decade—and crossed figurative swords as well.

    Adams does not seem to have remembered Hulton clearly, if at all.4 But then Hulton probably did not expect to be remembered anyway. He did not write his history of the rebellion for public consumption. In part he wrote it for himself; even more, he wrote it for his five sons, as a guide to their learning the lessons of the imperial past and the larger lessons of life for their own futures. The sons may have gained something from their father’s reflections but later generations apparently did not.5 Hulton’s papers, the history of the rebellion included, were eventually sold off and scattered. Some remained in England while others crossed the Atlantic, only to gather dust in various American libraries.

    Didactic intent—and in a sense, then, ulterior motive—notwithstanding, Hulton’s history has much to offer as one man’s view of momentous events, events in which Hulton himself participated. Hulton spent over eight years in Massachusetts. He stepped ashore at Boston in November 1767 with hopes of success before him, only to sail away, despondent, in March 1776. He had come as an agent of empire, part of a new five-man commission formed in London to help crack down on smuggling in the colonies. He failed from the beginning to do as his superiors expected. He and the other commissioners were harassed and harried, seemingly from the minute they landed.6 Three times they scrambled to the safety of Castle William in Boston harbor, convinced that their very lives were in danger.

    Often made miserable when he attempted to do his job, Hulton nonetheless enjoyed interludes when life was pleasant and peaceful. He sank roots at his farm in Brookline, close enough to Boston to perform his duties and far enough away to be a haven from the hurlyburly of town politics. He had a growing family, a beautiful country house, and an apple orchard that gave him cider by the barrel. There were even moments when he thought he might make Massachusetts his home. Hulton was both an Englishman who lived apart from most of the colonists around him and an American Tory like those few of his neighbors who stood with the crown when forced to choose sides. That he did not mix with everyone in Brookline was as much a function of class as politics. As part of the local landed gentry his social circle would be shaped by his station as well as his imperial office. Although his friendships and enmities reflected and reinforced his position as a king’s man, the political did not always determine the personal. He is proof enough that identity could be fluid in the Atlantic world—that the lines separating Briton from American, and Patriot from Loyalist, were not always neatly drawn.

    Seven months after arriving Hulton had been joined by his wife, Elizabeth, and their infant son, Thomas, the future baronet. Three more sons would be born before Hulton departed—his American boys, as he referred to them in letters to family and friends back in England. Tellingly, the fifth son and final child would be born in Old England rather than New, where the Hultons returned to start over. When they fled Massachusetts they left most of what they owned behind, the most valuable articles of which—land, house, and furniture—were confiscated and sold at public auction.

    The Hultons had been caught up in a diaspora of sorts, a “Britannic exodus” that “changed the world,” as Niall Ferguson put it.7 Some twenty million people emigrated from the British Isles over a three-century span that started in the early 1600s. The vast majority never returned; Hulton was part of the tiny minority that did. He went out as a servant as well as an agent of empire, a bureaucrat before we normally think that such persons existed, a precursor to what would become the stock characters of Kipling and Forster. Though he did not stand out among the locals as he would have had he been in India later as part of the raj, he was still in a class apart—despite being a white man among white men.

    Hulton had ventured forth believing in a reciprocal empire where mother country and colonies could benefit from and strengthen each other. True, he was a supervisor of tax collectors, customs agents whose job it was to catch smugglers and see to their prosecution and conviction. But he believed, as Richard Hakluyt had preached when Elizabethan England first ventured into the Atlantic, that free trade was not necessary in their expansive empire. “The Revenewes and Customes of her Majestie bothe outwarde and inwarde shall mightely be inlarged by the Toll excises,” Hakluyt wrote excitedly in 1584, “and other dueties which withoute oppression may be raised.”8 Hulton would learn firsthand that Hakluyt’s words rang hollow to disgruntled colonists. They resented the taxes and often, as a result, the men expected to collect them.

    That Hulton defended the Navigation Acts—those laws of Parliament designed to keep trade within the empire—did not mean he was a mindless apologist for the mercantilistic arrangement that had emerged over the years. He is a perfect reminder of the need to avoid oversimplification in discussing strains within the empire, as if the crisis that led to revolution was the simple and inevitable result of imperialists versus anti-imperialists, free traders versus protectionists, or reformers versus defenders of the status quo. At the same time, his reaction to policies with which he disagreed shows the difficulty confronting those who objected to what had been done but had no precise plan for what should be done instead—thus, interestingly, Hulton’s view that the foolishness of passing the Stamp Act in 1765 was surpassed only by its repeal.

    Hulton would be haunted by the empire that never was but might have been. Hence his history is laced with what ifs: what if this individual had acted differently; what if that policy had been tried? For Hulton, as for other contemplative contemporaries, solutions to problems on an imperial scale required a recognition and restoration of the natural order of things, a return to a harmony of objects within a grand design.9 The empire as family, a rhetorical device common to Hulton’s generation, humanized the hierarchical structure.10 Hulton joined a long list of people on both sides of the Atlantic who believed that no real improvement in imperial relations would come unless the colonies better understood their proper relationship with the mother country. Like other would-be imperial reformers he decided that the colonies had for too long been allowed to drift away from Britain. Not only had colonists forgotten that Britain was sovereign and that they were subordinate, they failed to see that Parliament had to be supreme within that relationship. Therefore, as he saw it—and as he subsequently wrote about it—the great political dispute that marked his years in Boston had a deep underlying social cause. He was convinced the town had been taken over by “demagogues” and with that a sense of proportion and propriety had been lost. Deference and the order it brought with it had been displaced by the disorder of egalitarianism.

    Not surprisingly he tended to equate democracy with anarchy. That put him out of step with Boston’s town leaders, but only because he thought their brand of popular politics threatened to bring about the very devolution to chaos that Aristotle had warned might come in any society. Most thoughtful men in his world—future Revolutionaries and future Loyalists alike, as good Aristotelians—feared that possibility. If Hulton and John Adams had ever compared notes they probably would have been surprised at how close they were in their view of human nature and their desire to balance liberty and authority. Both men worried over what they saw as the rise of crass materialism and the decline of civilization ushered in by a new commercial age. Likewise, both seemed to believe that humans made history—that men choose their own destiny, and yet they also verged on a determinism that concluded just the opposite—that vast, impersonal forces had been set loose that no individual could control.

    When Adams and his revolutionary colleagues condemned George III in the Declaration of Independence for erecting “a Multitude of new Offices” and sending “hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance,” they had men like Hulton in mind.11 Hulton’s political enemies in Boston condemned him as a political hack, a placeman, a seeker of spoils. Even so they did not wage all-out war against him, despite what he might have thought when he felt most threatened by them. He was relieved that they were able to distinguish between his office, which they found objectionable, and his person, who many found otherwise inoffensive. Sure enough he was not criticized as sharply as some of his colleagues nor did he fear for his personal safety as often as a few of them did. At one point he did flee Massachusetts altogether for a few weeks until tempers cooled and yet he left his family behind in Brookline, confident that those in the protesting crowds who could not distinguish between his person and his post could still distinguish between him and his wife and children. That such distinctions were drawn is yet another reminder of the danger of oversimplifying, of painting the imperial dispute in black and white rather than in varying shades of gray.

    Hulton had repeatedly sought office but he would never have viewed himself as a mere office seeker. He was determined to raise himself in society but, having no particular interest in or aptitude for business, he hoped to secure a comfortable and, yes, lucrative government post. It was a fairly typical and hardly dishonorable ambition in Georgian England. A sensitive, bookish man, he was not well-suited to the perpetual hobnobbing of the socially ambitious. Resent as he might the system of patronage and preferment that determined careers, he could not easily withdraw from the court scene—unless he was willing to abandon his campaign for a well-paying post.12 Only after having his ambition soured by life in Massachusetts did he put ambition aside and retreat to the countryside, when still in his early forties.

    But the world-weary Hulton of the 1770s had been preceded by a more energetic alter ego in the 1750s and 1760s, a younger man who felt trapped by circumstance. Perhaps not fully recognizing how well his father, a successful Chester glover, had provided for him to have a good start in life, he seemed to be blind to what constituted true poverty. Like so many younger sons whose oldest brother inherited the bulk of the family estate, Hulton could have slipped down in society had he not resolved to work his way up. Even so he was never truly penniless or ever close to it. His brother, who became successful in his own right as a Liverpool merchant, had stepped in for a father who died before Hulton was a year old. Hulton lived most of his life served by others, and he had the good fortune to marry a rich man’s daughter. And yet he ventured far afield, to parts of the world where he would not have otherwise gone because he felt driven abroad by financial insecurity—twice to Germany and once to Antigua before his longest sojourn in Massachusetts. One would have thought that each move kept him but a step away from debtor’s prison, so distraught did he become when misfortune struck.

    Hulton found some solace as a man of letters. He polished his schoolboy Latin to translate poems and found time to compose verses of his own. A piece he wrote in later years about a wistful return to Chester showed his romantic streak, a longing to find a true home. He wanted to be part of the landed gentry, to retire from public life, read for pleasure, dabble in poetry, putter about in a garden, walk through his own crops in his own fields, and wander over hill and dale.13 Consciously or not he followed the rules for fearing God and comporting himself among men as laid out in The Compleat Gentleman, a handbook for genteel living that drew as readily from the classics as holy scripture.14

    Hulton never aspired to high office or great wealth, and with age he yearned for freedom from daily care, where he could watch his sons grow to manhood and pass on to them what he had learned. Perhaps as a result of losing his father before he even knew him, Hulton was determined to guide his own sons through life’s thickets. He doted on them, reveling in being (by eighteenth-century standards) an involved father well before such behavior came into vogue.15 Religiously devout, he also considered himself a man of reason. Simultaneously adventurous and cautious, he could wax philosophical about fate, taking on the persona of a detached observer of events at one moment, and in the next wallow in self-pity over the blows life dealt him. Defying easy description he was, in short, quite human. He may not have really understood the empire that he saw crumble before his very eyes. In that he was not alone. He may not have understood the wider world either. He would be in good company there, too.