By John W. Tyler
For those largely unfamiliar with the Thomas Hutchinson story, for whom Hutchinson is no more than the man who happened to be the royal governor of Massachusetts at the time of the Boston Tea Party, the historian’s first task is to convey how formidable and various were his many talents. Midway through his life, Hutchinson’s abilities had won him near universal respect throughout his native Massachusetts and growing recognition in England and the other British colonies. John Adams, a veritable engine of envy in his early years, described in 1766 what he believed to be the awe with which Hutchinson was regarded by his contemporaries:
Has not his Merit been sounded very high by his Country men?—for 20 years? Have not his Countrymen loved, admired, revered, rewarded, nay almost adored him? Have not 99 in an 100 of them really thought him, the greatest and best Man in America? Has not the Perpetual Language of many Members of both Houses, and of a Majority of his Brother Councillors [been], that Mr. Hutchinson is a great Man, a pious, a wise, a learnd, a good Man, an eminent Saint, a Phylosopher &c., the greatest Man in the Province, the greatest on the Continent? . . . Nay has not the Affection and Admiration of his Countrymen, arisen so high, as often to style him, the greatest and best Man in the World? that they never saw nor heard, nor read of such a Man?—a Sort of Apotheosis like that of Alexander and that of Cæsar while they lived?1
In eighteenth-century Massachusetts, Hutchinson was the indispensable man, the only choice for the job when prudence, discretion, clear logic, and a persuasive pen were required.
For those who already know the Hutchinson story well, who know the twists and turns the second half of his life would take, the story involves a central puzzle. How could someone once so highly regarded become, in little more than a decade, the object of such obloquy and visceral hatred that his most prominent biographer called such animosity “morbid, pathological, paranoiac in [its] intensity?”2 How could a career that was once so promising end in ignominy and lonely exile? How could he lose the people’s trust so completely?
To some extent he was the victim of circumstance: woe to any royal governor in the 1770s caught between, on the one hand, the sovereignty of Parliament under the British constitution and, on the other, the growing demands for self-determination (if not independence) of the American colonies. Survival required the judgment of Solomon. Unfortunately, Hutchinson was no Solomon; his personal limitations contributed nearly as much to his downfall as the predicament in which he found himself.
The narrative of Hutchinson’s life is rich in contingencies and personalities. There were any number of points where events might have taken a different course, most famously perhaps at the time of the Boston Tea Party when Hutchinson refused permission for the tea ships to return to England, thus forcing their cargo to be either landed or destroyed. Had he allowed them to pass Castle William without a customs clearance, perhaps there would have been no Tea Party, no Coercive Acts, no Second Continental Congress, and no Lexington and Concord.
Just as Hutchinson’s actions could shift the course of history, so too could those of other actors upon the stage. It mattered that his “great adversaries” (as he himself ironically called them) were James Otis Jr., the charismatic lawyer and advocate of natural rights who slipped in and out of madness for nearly a decade, and Samuel Adams, a failed tax collector who found a new role late in life as the eloquent lion of the Boston town meeting and the shrewd and subtle director of the patriot cause in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. It also mattered that Hutchinson’s career should run afoul of persons as ruthlessly ambitious as former Massachusetts governor Thomas Pownall or as malign and vindictive as John Temple, once the surveyor of customs for the northern district. A satisfying narrative of Hutchinson’s career, therefore, must account for the ideological and economic undercurrents that swept up all the participants on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades preceding the American Revolution and yet allow room for a more old-fashioned form of historical writing that underscores the power of individuals to affect the course of events.
Hutchinson himself was acutely conscious of the important role his family had played in Massachusetts history. As Malcolm Freiberg remarked, “For almost as long as there had been a Massachusetts, there were Hutchinsons in it.”3 His great-great-grandmother, Anne Hutchinson, played a principal role in early Massachusetts history during the Antinomian controversy, even though Hutchinson himself was too much a child of the Enlightenment to give much credence to her claims of mystic revelations and special grace when he wrote an account of her actions in the first volume of The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay.4 Except for Anne’s spectacular defiance of the governor and his assistants when they attempted to silence her, the family was unremarkable, “solid, respectable, and useful” in the words of Clifford K. Shipton in his sketch in Harvard Graduates, steadily gaining money and social prominence through trade and strategic marriages.5
But to the Hutchinsons’ credit, a tradition of public service also permeated his family. His great-grandfather Edward had served as the Boston representative in the House of Representatives for seventeen years, his grandfather Elisha had served as judge of common pleas and been a member of the Governor’s Council, and his own father, Colonel Thomas, had served for twenty-six years in both the House and Council. Colonel Thomas’s political career had not always been a happy one; he often found his notion of the public good at variance with the popular will and once told his son, “[I]f you serve your Country faithfully you will be reproached & reviled for doing it.”6 Thus, his father’s experience may well have shaped the son’s notions of how closely (or not) a representative should conform to the will of his constituents.
At any rate, the Hutchinsons’ long tradition of government service, together with their wealth, entitled Hutchinson to be seated third in a class of thirty-eight when he enrolled at Harvard College. He later entered public life out of a sense of noblesse oblige and the expectation that his family heritage and social position entitled him to it. As Samuel Adams once observed, “It has been his Principle from a Boy, that Mankind are to be governed by the discerning few—and it has ever since been his Ambition to be the Hero of the few.”7 Throughout his public career, he was easily offended when those he believed to be his inferiors, either in status or ability, failed to offer up the deference he believed his due.
Hutchinson was born 9 September 1711. His mother, Sarah, was the daughter of Boston merchant John Foster, to whom his father, Colonel Thomas, had been apprenticed as a youth. When Foster died, Colonel Thomas inherited half of his estate and a handsome town house on Garden Court Street in the North End, reputedly one of the grandest houses in New England. Such an infusion of new wealth enabled Colonel Thomas to make a lavish gift of silver to the Second Church, where the newborn Thomas was baptized, and to establish for the benefit of the town the North Grammar School, which the boy eventually attended.8
Several stories from Hutchinson’s early years yield interesting insights into his developing character; that he himself regarded them as significant was suggested by their inclusion in the manuscript autobiography he wrote for his family late in life. Even before matriculating at Harvard College, Hutchinson’s bookish nature expressed itself in a disinclination to play out-of-doors with his friends. Instead, he chose to spend the evening in his father’s library, reading Nathaniel Morton’s New England Memorial, Benjamin Church’s Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War, and Cotton Mather’s biographies of the governors of New England. Notably, while reading an account of the death of Charles I, the young history buff burst into tears, perhaps a precocious demonstration of his future political leanings.9
The studious Hutchinson enrolled at Harvard at age eleven, two to three years ahead of his contemporaries. There the practice of “hogueing” prevailed among the undergraduates: when called upon to translate the Latin New Testament into Greek at evening prayers, many students would cheat by inserting the relevant page of Greek within the pages of their Latin Bibles. When Hutchinson was tempted to follow their example, however, he blushed so guiltily that President John Leverett asked to see his book. Hutchinson was duly fined, but far, far worse in the future governor’s mind was Leverett’s stern public rebuke, “A te non expectavi.”10
By his own admission, Hutchinson was not a very conscientious scholar at Harvard and found it necessary in the years following graduation to brush up on his Latin and French. Instead of studying, the young Hutchinson, while still an undergraduate, was busy making money. By the time of his graduation in 1727, Hutchinson had parlayed an initial two or three quintals of fish—seed money from his father—into a respectable estate of £400–£500 sterling. Thus the ambitious young merchant began a life of “robust accumulation.”11
Daniel, Peter, and Andrew Oliver, 1732. At the time of the painting, Daniel, the eldest brother was already dead. Smibert copied his features from a miniature. Peter, the youngest, appears in the center, while Andrew is on the right. By John Smibert. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Emily L. Ainsley Fund, 53.952.
On 16 May 1734, Hutchinson married Margaret Sanford, the second of three sisters, the granddaughters of Peleg Sanford of Newport, governor of Rhode Island. The Hutchinson and Sanford families had long been interconnected by commerce and marriage, forming one of New England’s earliest commercial networks, with the Hutchinsons managing trade between London and New England while the Sanfords oversaw transactions with the West Indies, where they had large estates. Hutchinson was not the only young Bostonian attracted by the Sanford heiresses; his future political ally Andrew Oliver married the eldest sister seven months later. Thus Hutchinson was not only marrying into the Sanfords but also joining the Olivers in a family alliance that would be proverbial in Massachusetts for its tight interconnections.12
Hutchinson and his new wife, Margaret, soon made a wedding trip to New York. When writing a letter of introduction for them, Massachusetts Governor Jonathan Belcher signaled the couple’s high status by duly noting that Margaret had brought to the marriage a dowry of £5,000–£6,000 sterling.13 Their married life together, though relatively brief (twenty years), was intensely happy. They had twelve children, although only five reached adulthood: Thomas Jr., Elisha, Sarah, William Sanford (always known to his father as Billy), and Margaret (known as Peggy). The last-named never really knew her mother, who died a month after giving birth. Following his wife’s death in March 1754, Hutchinson retired to his country estate in Milton, which he and his wife had built together ten years before, and withdrew from all social intercourse. Contrary to the custom of his time, he never remarried, and the unlikelihood that he could be interred with his wife was one of the great sorrows of his final years in exile.
Life either as a merchant or as a young father was not likely to satisfy a man of Hutchinson’s ambition for very long. He entered politics at age twenty-six, just three years after his marriage, and was elected as one of the four representatives from Boston to the Massachusetts General Court, a position (as noted previously) that two of his ancestors had held before him. Ironically, his election coincided with the death of legislator Elisha Cooke, the great champion of the popular (or country) party in early eighteenth-century Massachusetts politics. Hutchinson, like his father, would soon be known as a hard-money man. He had indeed already entered the lists on the side of deflation a year before with a pamphlet, A Letter to a Member of the Honourable House of Representatives on the Present State of the Bills of Credit. Massachusetts, like many other colonies, had fallen into the easy habit of issuing paper money secured by the promise of revenue from future taxes. The redemption period for paper notes had grown longer and longer, and the value of the currency dropped correspondingly, much to the dismay of creditors. In his pamphlet, Hutchinson advocated issuing a new type of note to individuals who would obligate themselves to pay interest in silver, which would then in turn be used to establish a “sinking” fund by which all paper money might eventually be redeemed.
Hutchinson was re-elected to the House in 1738, but the town meeting instructed him to vote in favor of inflationary measures. Since his election had already been decided earlier in the meeting, Hutchinson declared his intention to disregard such an instruction, prompting some to demand a new election. Not surprisingly, he failed to be re-elected the following year. Concern over a perceived shortage of money in circulation, however, became increasingly acute at the end of the decade, since imperial authorities, growing exasperated with colonial profligacy, had forbidden further emissions of provincial currency bearing a redemption date later than 1741. The taxes necessary to redeem all paper money within such a short time frame would be insupportable, and panic began to spread as the cutoff date drew nearer.
Popular pressure for new forms of paper money that would circumvent the parliamentary ban was intense. The search centered on two possible solutions: a land bank and a silver bank. The Land Bank, proposed by John Colman and many followers of the recently deceased Cooke, would involve 700 to 800 private individuals extending credit in the form of bills of exchange worth £150,000 to be secured by mortgages on real estate of equal value. Borrowers would pay 3 percent interest and 5 percent of principal each year, but these payments could be made in bills, produce, or manufactures. The Silver Bank, proposed by Hutchinson’s uncle Edward Hutchinson, was a second, less inflationary solution whereby 100 wealthy subscribers would issue paper money backed by silver that could then circulate as legal tender. Thomas, once again back in the House of Representatives in 1740, advanced his own plan, advocating a ten-year period for the retirement of all paper money. The legislature, succumbing to widespread clamor from voters, opted for the Land Bank. Hutchinson not only voted against the plan but also joined a group of merchants who refused to receive the Land Bank’s bills of exchange. Parliament killed the scheme in 1741, not only dissolving the company but allowing bill holders to sue the directors of the company, causing many of them, including the father of Samuel Adams, great financial distress.14
In November 1740, Hutchinson departed for a year in England that would teach him an unforgettable lesson about how politics worked at the center of the empire. Ostensibly, he appeared in London to plead a case before the Board of Trade for twenty-six towns that had been separated from Massachusetts by the redrawing of the boundary with New Hampshire. Nominally the representative of the towns, Hutchinson was in fact granted £300 for expenses by the Massachusetts General Court, so he was hardly a neutral party in the clash between the two colonies. Rumor further suggested that he was the personal representative of Governor Belcher, who owned 1,000 acres in the disputed territory. Belcher was also eager to see Parliament put an end to the Land Bank and could hardly have chosen a representative more in tune with his beliefs. Ultimately, Hutchinson was not only unsuccessful in his case before the Board of Trade, but his patron Governor Belcher was unexpectedly unseated by friends of the next governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley. Friends in high places, it appeared, can sometimes trump even the soundest logic and the most persuasive talent. After lingering in London almost a year, Hutchinson took ship for America, anxious to see his beloved Margaret once more.15
Despite his ties to the previous governor, Hutchinson continued to rise swiftly in political circles in Massachusetts in the 1740s. He was repeatedly elected as one of the Boston representatives and became Speaker of the House in 1746. Throughout these years, his legislative colleagues consistently chose him for key committee posts, especially when they needed a good writer; he was also chosen seven times within the decade to negotiate with the Native Americans. It is hardly surprising that Hutchinson was conspicuous among the many rough-hewn, backcountry members of the Massachusetts House: wellborn, Harvard-educated, he stood nearly six feet tall and was reputedly one of the General Court’s best speakers. One contemporary recalled that “[h]e had the charms of oratory beyond any man in the assembly. There was equal fluency and pathos in his manner; he could be argumentative and smooth. He was active, diligent, plausible, and upon all occasions seemed to be influenced by public spirit more than selfish considerations.”16 Even James Otis Jr., one of his most inveterate enemies, described Hutchinson as a “tall, slender, fair complexioned, fair-spoken, ‘very good Gentleman.’ ”17
Early on, Hutchinson made his peace with Shirley, the new governor, and soon became part of the inner circle of his administration. Hutchinson admired the deft way in which Shirley calmed the turbulence in the wake of the Land Bank crisis. Concerned about impending hostilities with France, Shirley also moved quickly to put Massachusetts defenses on a war footing. The stunning capture in 1745 of Louisbourg, the French citadel that guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, was largely Shirley’s enterprise. Of all the New England colonies, Massachusetts entered the war effort with the greatest zeal, necessitating nineteen separate issues of paper money from 1744 to 1748 and causing the price of silver nearly to double. To avert the impending financial disaster when so many notes became due, Massachusetts agent William Bollan (Shirley’s son-in-law) lobbied Parliament assiduously for reimbursement of the province’s wartime expenses. Bollan’s efforts bore rich fruit: Massachusetts eventually received £183,649.18
Before eager legislators could propose other uses for such a windfall, Speaker Hutchinson sent a memorial to the legislature on 3 February 1748 suggesting that the reimbursement be used to retire all of the province’s paper money. Since the exchange rate at that time was 12-to-1, the specie sent by Parliament would be sufficient to retire all but £220,000 of the Massachusetts currency, which he proposed to retire by a tax in 1749. According to Hutchinson himself, the initial proposal was greeted by incredulous smiles from his colleagues, and no action was taken throughout the rest of 1748. Hutchinson’s scheme was eventually defeated on 6 January 1749 and then reintroduced with a provision requiring ratification by the towns. The Council rejected that version of the bill. Finally on 25 January, after many country members had already returned home, the House approved the original plan by a narrow vote of 40–37, but not before Hutchinson as Speaker had engineered the expulsion from the House of one of its chief opponents, fellow Boston member James Allen, for speaking “something virulent against the governor.”19
Hutchinson’s leading role in the redemption of the currency hardly made him a popular figure. When the lanthorn (or cupola) of his town house caught fire on 1 May 1749, cries of “let it burn” were heard among the crowd. A few weeks later, he was defeated for re-election to the General Court by a 3-to-1 margin among Boston voters. His friends in the legislature, however, arranged for his election to the Council. Because of Hutchinson’s plan to redeem all paper money, the people of Boston greeted the actual arrival of Bollan and the strongboxes filled with Parliament’s specie with gloom rather than celebration, and friends advised Hutchinson for his safety to spend the winter in Milton rather than Boston. Angry articles appeared in the Boston papers throughout the winter of 1749–1750. Perhaps the redemption period of just a year, from 31 March 1750 to 31 March 1751, was indeed too short in a time of postwar economic decline. There were many pleas for an extension of the deadline, but Hutchinson later claimed that “scarce a year had expired after the exchange of the money before the people in general were perfectly satisfied, and sensible to such a degree of the benefits they enjoyed from it, that Mr. H. was as much praised for his firm, as he had before been abused for his obstinate, perseverance.”20 John Adams, hardly a friendly source, remarked late in life:
If I was the witch of Endor, I would wake the ghost of Hutchinson, and give him absolute power over the currency of the United States and every part of it; provided always, that he should meddle with nothing but currency. As little as I revere his memory, I will acknowledge that he understood the subject of coin and commerce better than any man I ever knew in this country.21
Nevertheless, fourteen years later, when a mob looted his house in the midst of the Stamp Act crisis, Hutchinson would recall the bitter fight over currency reform as perhaps the beginning of his unpopularity.22
Hutchinson’s next great moment upon the historical stage took place at the Albany Conference in 1754 on the eve of the renewal of war with the French. Hutchinson not only led the Massachusetts delegation, but he also drafted one of the two key documents produced by the conference: a representation on the state of the colonies. Benjamin Franklin usually receives credit for the famous plan of union, but evidence suggests that Hutchinson and the Massachusetts delegation also laid before the conference their own plan that would divide the thirteen colonies into two groupings, since geographic interests between the northern and southern colonies were so large that they believed one grand union would prove unfeasible. Franklin and the idea of a single union eventually carried the day, but Hutchinson’s leading role at the conference suggests his growing eminence outside his home province.23
Two new figures entered Hutchinson’s life at the Albany Conference: Thomas Pownall, the future governor of Massachusetts, and John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun. Pownall, the brother of John Pownall, secretary to the Board of Trade, attended as an observer and soon became an aide to Shirley. Shirley was appointed a major general in February 1755, and, after the death of General Edward Braddock, he assumed overall direction of the war effort, in which capacity he was formally confirmed in August. Although Shirley recognized the strategic role of the Great Lakes in any North American conflict, he was neither a successful general nor an efficient administrator of accounts. Loudoun eventually replaced him as commander-in-chief, and Shirley sailed home to England in 1756 to defend himself against charges of treason and malfeasance.
Hutchinson, who assisted Shirley in raising troops, provisioning the armies, and rounding up deserters, found his services in even greater demand after Shirley’s departure. In Shirley’s absence, Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips became acting governor of Massachusetts. Both aged and ineffectual, Phips was not well suited for the long hours and intense attention to detail required for vigorous prosecution of the war. Thus Hutchinson became the chief liaison between Loudoun and the Massachusetts government. Loudoun was particularly grateful for Hutchinson’s intercession when the Massachusetts General Court raised constitutional objections after Loudoun required them to quarter British troops. When Hutchinson wrote Loudoun in 1757 to inform him that the death of Phips had left Massachusetts without a governor, Loudoun assumed that Hutchinson was soliciting his support for the job. Loudoun replied, hinting that Hutchinson might expect a “personal reward” for his valuable services, but soon reported that the thirty-five-year-old Thomas Pownall had already been appointed instead.24 Once again, Hutchinson was outmaneuvered by those with better connections in London.
As a follower of William Pitt and an advocate of the energetic prosecution of the war in North America, Pownall was well positioned to take advantage of Shirley’s vulnerability. Because they believed that Pownall had intrigued unfairly to replace Shirley, the former governor’s adherents (the chief of whom, of course, being Hutchinson) received him warily. But Pownall not only courted Shirley’s opponents in the popular party, he also moved quickly to co-opt the most prominent Shirley supporter of them all by nominating Hutchinson for the lieutenant governorship. Just three weeks after Pownall’s arrival, Hutchinson changed his tune and wrote that the new governor had started well enough, and one week after that Pownall wrote to the Earl of Halifax, secretary for the southern department, recommending Hutchinson as lieutenant governor, saying he had “the best character of anyone on this continent, both as to head and heart.”25
Hutchinson was not entirely comfortable in his new position, which was largely honorary. Pownall failed to support him in a clash with Sir William Pepperell, who as a baronet claimed precedence in presiding over meetings of the Council. “I really am of less consequence than I have been these twenty years,” Hutchinson confided to his friend Israel Williams; “many things which used to fall to me go into other hands & I am often times wholly at leisure.” The lieutenant governorship had few responsibilities and no salary attached to it unless the governor left the colony. In a later account of his life written for his children, Hutchinson observed that he “suspected he should meet with much trouble, unless he joined [Pownall] in every measure.”26
Hutchinson’s short-tempered superior soon quarreled with Loudoun, whom Pownall had hoped would appoint him commander of all provincial forces in North America. That appointment fell instead to General James Abercromby. Pownall responded by currying favor with populist forces in the Massachusetts General Court by proposing a reduction in the daily allowance for militia on active duty and the accompanying taxes necessary to support the war effort. Pownall also attempted to remove Bollan as the Massachusetts agent in London. Hutchinson refused to desert his old friend, throwing his support in the legislature behind Bollan. Consequently, Bollan hung on to his job, which may have been the beginning of ill feeling between Hutchinson and Pownall. Discord deepened when Pownall took offense at some unauthorized actions Hutchinson made as acting governor while Pownall was away with the Penobscot expedition in 1759, causing Pownall to describe Hutchinson in “coarser language” than Hutchinson thought “decent.” In May 1760, Hutchinson despaired to General Jeffery Amherst, “I am so unfortunate as to have intirely lost Mr. Pownall’s Friendship.”27
But Pownall himself soon fell from power. Both Abercromby and Amherst accused him of undermining the war effort, so his position in Massachusetts became increasingly untenable. Pownall petitioned to be recalled to England where he hoped to be given the far more lucrative governorship of South Carolina.28 The lesson to be learned from the unseating of Belcher, Shirley, and Pownall should have been clear to Hutchinson: political power depended on the strength of one’s connections and controlling the flow of information. No matter how public-spirited or well-intentioned, a politician needed to attach himself to powerful patrons and cultivate well-placed correspondents in London, who could keep aspiring American politicians informed of ministerial machinations at the seat of power. Colonial officials were part of an eighteenth-century political world that the historian Lewis Namier described so memorably as the struggle of “crook-taloned birds” picking over the spoils of office.29 As Hutchinson saw it, politics was the preserve of a privileged elite in which the people out-of-doors played little or no role.
The choice of the new governor, Francis Bernard, formerly the governor of New Jersey, suggested no sign of change in the existing pattern. Bernard was a quintessential eighteenth-century placeman: his wife’s uncle was Viscount Barrington, who served as secretary at war at various times from 1755 until 1778. Bernard predicted “a quiet & easy administration” for himself, promising he had “no points of government to dispute about” nor “schemes of self interest to pursue.” (This despite the fact that Bernard had ten children to provide for, an oft-reiterated theme in his letters.30) Pownall departed Massachusetts on 3 June 1760, and Bernard arrived on 2 August, Hutchinson having served briefly as acting governor during the interim.
Chief Justice Stephen Sewell died just five weeks after Bernard’s arrival. Shortly thereafter, Jeremiah Gridley, widely acknowledged as Boston’s leading lawyer, greeting the lieutenant governor in the street, pronounced that Hutchinson must be the successor. Although Hutchinson lacked specialized legal training, he had served successfully as both judge of probate and judge of common pleas for Suffolk County since 1752. (Hutchinson resigned the latter office when he became lieutenant governor in 1758.)31
Not everyone agreed with Gridley. Many lawyers resented the idea that the chief justice of the Superior Court would be an amateur at the increasingly professionalized vocation of the law. James Otis Jr., a rising member of the bar, expected the appointment to fall to Benjamin Lynde Jr., the senior justice of the Superior Court, and he requested that the vacancy created by Lynde’s appointment might be granted to his father, James Otis Sr., a long-serving legislator from Barnstable and Speaker of the House in 1760. Indeed, it was generally understood that Shirley had promised the senior Otis the next vacancy on the Superior Court. Despite this expectation, a number of gentlemen urged Hutchinson to seek the chief justiceship, but Hutchinson demurred, saying he was not a professional lawyer. James Otis Jr. was careful to solicit Hutchinson’s support for his father’s candidacy, saying that if Hutchinson himself were not angling for the office, he hoped he would speak well of his father. Hutchinson was noncommittal about his own ambitions but praised Otis’s father, and the young Otis left Hutchinson’s presence thinking he had won Hutchinson’s sanction. Bernard, however, was skeptical that the elder Otis would uphold the trade laws, even though his son was advocate general of the Admiralty, and Bernard’s income, since the governor received one-third of the value of all seizures within the province, depended in part on the rigorous prosecution of smugglers. Only after Bernard declared that he would not under any circumstances appoint James Otis Sr. did Hutchinson agree to become chief justice. Hutchinson’s appointment was announced 13 November and a commission issued on 30 December 1760.32 This new honor would cost him greatly in public esteem.
An irate James Otis Jr. believed that Hutchinson had deceived him when Otis had sounded him out on his interest in the chief justiceship. As Otis’s version of the story spread, Bernard reported that Otis had vowed that “if his father was not appointed judge, he would set the province in a flame, though he perished in the attempt.” Otis resigned his position as advocate general of the Admiralty and joined forces with Boston merchants who were resisting stepped-up efforts to enforce the Acts of Trade. They sought to challenge the customs service’s use of informants and also wanted to reinstate Benjamin Barons, the former collector of the port of Boston, who had been fired because of his cozy relations with smugglers. The famed case of the writs of assistance would become just one aspect of this multi-pronged attack.33
Otis, riding a wave of popularity as chief spokesman for the Boston merchants, was elected by the town to the General Court in May 1761 and subsequently introduced a bill that would prevent justices of the Superior Court from sitting in either branch of the legislature. The implication was not so much that duplicate office-holding was in itself unjust but rather that the positions were incompatible. Hutchinson, as a leading member of the executive (the lieutenant governor) and the legislature (the presiding officer of the Council), should not also be the province’s supreme judge. Though the bill failed, the imputation stuck, and Hutchinson began to acquire a reputation for plural office-holding and corruption, even though the income from all his posts amounted to little more than £200, hardly enough to defray his expenses.34
Hutchinson derived great personal satisfaction from his role as judge of probate, since it enabled him to offer some degree of protection to more vulnerable members of society, widows, and orphans. He also earned a reputation for fair-mindedness and integrity, which even sharp critics like Mercy Otis Warren readily acknowledged. Perhaps because he was not a professional lawyer, he eagerly sought out legal precedents and authority. Counsel who failed to provide sufficient authorities in their briefs might well expect a public rebuke. The central challenge of American jurists in the colonial period was how to steer a middle course between common sense, customary practice reflecting local conditions and traditions, and English law and precedent. Hutchinson’s reverence for the supremacy of Parliament led him always to recognize the inviolability of statute, but where written law was lacking or ambiguous, Hutchinson opted for Massachusetts custom. He also possessed “great clearness of thought”: after listening to the other justices render their opinions, juries sometimes remarked when Hutchinson rose to address them, “ ‘now we shall have something which we can understand.’ ” In his autobiography, Hutchinson himself observed that “though it was an eyesore to some of the Bar to have a person at the head of the law who had not been bred to it, he had reason to think the lawyers in general at no time desired his removal.”35
Despite his skill as a judge, Hutchinson’s appointment earned him the undying enmity of James Otis Jr., for whom challenging Hutchinson became the leading obsession of his already unstable personality. Years later Edmund Trowbridge, Hutchinson’s colleague on the Superior Court remarked,
It was a most unhappy thing that Mr. H. was ever Chief Justice of our Court. What O____ said, “that he would set the Province in flames, if he perished by the fire,” has come to pass. He, poor man! suffers; and what are we coming to? I thought little of it at the time. I made every exertion in favor of Mr. H., and think now he was the best man to be there, if the people had been satisfied, and he had never looked beyond it. But I now think it was unhappy for us all. And I freely believe this war would have been put off many years, if Governor H. had not been made Chief Justice.36
Without Otis and the resentment he harbored, there might have been no comprehensive legal assault on the customs service, no writs of assistance case, no attacking of Hutchinson for failing to include natural rights doctrine in his draft of the petition against the Stamp Act, and no destruction of his house on 26 August 1765. “From so small a spark,” Hutchinson later observed, “a great fire seems to have been kindled.”37
Hutchinson had long been aware of the unquestioned use in England of writs of assistance (general search warrants issued without specifying place or probable cause) and knew that Shirley during his time in office had issued such warrants to customs officers in Massachusetts. Indeed, Hutchinson himself had stopped some officials about to enter his brother Foster’s warehouse with a general warrant, and, although he eventually permitted them to enter, he warned them that only a court could issue such instruments. (Shortly thereafter, Shirley began referring customs officers to the Superior Court for writs.) The merchants challenged the writs of assistance because they were general warrants that did not specify either the informant or the place where a seizure was to be made. In the atmosphere of stepped-up customs enforcement following British Secretary of State William Pitt’s circular letter of 23 August 1760 urging all colonial governors to redouble their efforts to suppress illicit trade, the merchants hoped to hamstring the new initiative by making public the names of informants. Under such circumstances, “no informer would expose himself to the rage of the people.”38
When the case of the writs of assistance opened in the Superior Court on 24 February 1761, Otis argued that, although general warrants might once have been in use in Massachusetts, the custom that had prevailed most recently had been for justices of the peace to give individual warrants specifying the type of smuggled goods being sought, the place, and the name of the informant. Furthermore, Otis maintained that the writs of assistance violated the fundamental rights of British subjects: “A Man, who is quiet, is as secure in his House, as a Prince in his Castle.” Late in life, John Adams memorably described the atmosphere in the court that day:
near the Fire were seated five Judges, with Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson at their head, as Chief Justice, all in their new fresh Robes of Scarlet English Cloth in their Broad Bands, and immense judicial Wiggs. . . . But Otis was a flame of Fire! With the promptitude of Classical Allusions, a depth of Research, a rapid Summary of Historical Events and dates, a profusion of legal Authorities, a prophetic glare of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid Torrent of impetuous Eloquence, he hurried away all before him . . . . Every man of an emmence crowded Audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take up Arms against Writts of Assistants. . . . . Then and there the child Independence was born.39
Hutchinson was always skeptical of arguments based on the natural rights of subjects, regarding them as meaningless abstractions in a polity where Parliament was sovereign. The other justices were skeptical of opposing counsel’s argument that such writs were commonly employed in England and that appropriate parliamentary legislation extended their use to America. Consequently, the court adjourned to allow Hutchinson time to make inquiries. In due course, Massachusetts agent Bollan replied, enclosing a copy of the writs issued by the Court of Exchequer in London. In consequence, the Massachusetts Superior Court declared the writs legal on 18 November, nearly eight months after initially hearing the case.40
Concerned by reports of illicit trade and casting about for ways to increase revenue following the end of the Seven Years’ War, the ministry of George Grenville requested from the commissioners of customs in the spring of 1763 a report on why American revenues had historically been so small. The report of the commissioners’ investigations eventually led to the Revenue Act of 1764 (commonly known as the Sugar Act). The most famous part of this legislation reduced duties on sugar and molasses in the hope that American merchants might be induced to trade legally, thereby increasing customs revenue. But the legislation included many other provisions as well: many goods that had become staples of illicit trade were added to an enumerated list of items that could only be shipped to Great Britain or other British colonies; a complex system of bonds was introduced to guarantee that cargoes would actually reach their specified destination; officers of the Royal Navy were empowered to make seizures for violations; and a new Admiralty Court was established at Halifax, Nova Scotia.41
None of these changes was very pleasing to Boston merchants. The Boston Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce presented a “State of Trade” declaration to the General Court in December 1763, proclaiming how much their trade would be injured by the new regulations. The legislature responded in late January by drafting a petition to the king against the projected provisions of the Revenue Act and voting (with only eight negative votes) to appoint Hutchinson as a special agent to deliver the petition in London. Bernard privately objected that Hutchinson ought not to leave the province without formal permission from the secretary of state, and Hutchinson subsequently informed the legislature that it would be three or four months before he could depart. The House voted to excuse him from the job on 1 February.
Parliament approved the Revenue Act on 5 April 1764, long before effective representations could reach them. But Grenville warned that additional money would be needed to defray the cost of maintaining troops following the war and that a stamp duty would be forthcoming in a year’s time unless the colonies’ agents suggested an effective alternative. News of the Revenue Act and the threatened Stamp Act arrived in Boston in early May. On 15 May, the Boston town meeting appointed a five-man committee (including relative newcomer Samuel Adams) to draft instructions for its members in the General Court to oppose the Stamp Act. Not surprisingly, as a Boston representative and the chief advocate in the merchants’ legal challenges to reinvigorated customs enforcement, Otis took a leading role on the House committee that drafted a strongly worded set of instructions to Massachusetts agent Jasper Mauduit. (Hutchinson had been unable to save the agency for his friend and ally William Bollan from a second challenge two years before.) In early June, Otis read to the House a draft of his soon-to-be published pamphlet, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. The House forwarded its letter and Otis’s pamphlet to the agent without providing copies to either the governor or Council, an unprecedented step.
Governor Bernard had not intended to reconvene the General Court before the winter but yielded to agitation for another session when the entire legislature might take a position on the Stamp Act. Thus in October 1764, after the Revenue Act had already gone into effect, the House drafted a petition to the king, lords, and commons protesting the proposed Stamp Act. Alarmed by inflammatory language in the petition that challenged the absolute sovereignty of Parliament, especially in matters of taxation, Hutchinson and other members of the Council rejected the House version. Hutchinson chaired a joint committee of the two houses to redraft the petition, and, not surprisingly, the revised language reflected his view that the practice of allowing the colonies to tax themselves was based not on the charter, British law, or natural rights but on long-standing usage. Consequently, the revised petition prayed that this “indulgence” might continue. The revamped petition reflected Hutchinson’s personal predisposition for the politics of compromise and conciliation rather than confrontation and sweeping rhetoric.42
Although Hutchinson’s version was approved by the General Court and sent to England, Massachusetts radicals were soon embarrassed when they read the fiery petitions from other colonies, especially those of New York and Rhode Island, which challenged the authority of Parliament more directly. Taxes, they argued, were a “free gift of the people” in the British system of government, and efforts by Parliament to tax Americans, who had no representation in the House of Commons, were unconstitutional. When comparing the Massachusetts petition to the others, the Boston Gazette termed it a “tame, pusillanimous, daub’d, insipid Thing.” Despite the efforts of several colonial agents, including Richard Jackson (the newly appointed agent for Massachusetts), the Grenville administration turned a deaf ear to colonial complaints, and the Stamp Act received the royal assent on 22 March 1765 to go into effect eight months later on 1 November. Although official news of the Stamp Act did not arrive in Boston until 27 May, rumors circulated throughout the spring that passage was inevitable, and the belief spread that, had the colonies shown greater firmness, the act would not have passed. Thus Hutchinson came to be blamed for his intervention in toning down the language of the Massachusetts petition, making it possible for some to believe that he was a secret favorer of the act, even though his private correspondence made clear his steady opposition to Grenville’s scheme from the start.43
Fueled by the Virginia Resolves, the House of Burgesses’s impassioned response to the news that Parliament had refused to receive any of the colonial petitions against the Stamp Act, resentment in Boston simmered throughout the summer of 1765. On the morning of 14 August, effigies of Andrew Oliver, the stamp distributor for Massachusetts, and Lord Bute, the much-hated adviser to George III, appeared hanging from the branches of a great elm (soon to be known as the Liberty Tree) in the southern end of town. That evening a large crowd processed with the images in one door and out the other of the ground floor of the Town House (while the governor and Council were meeting upstairs) before the group proceeded to Fort Hill, where the effigies were ceremoniously burned. A part of the crowd broke away to level a shed recently constructed by Oliver at his dock that was rumored to be an office for the distribution of stamped paper. They also attacked Oliver’s nearby town house, breaking his windows and destroying some of his furniture. The next day, when the Council balked at calling out the militia to suppress further riots, Oliver resigned.44
On the following night, 15 August, a crowd appeared in front of Hutchinson’s mansion on Garden Court Street, where they demanded to know if the lieutenant governor had written to England in favor of the act. Hutchinson (although he was indeed inside the house) indignantly refused to reply, but one of his neighbors successfully persuaded the crowd that Hutchinson was at his country house in Milton, and the crowd dispersed.45
A little over a week later on 26 August, a crowd assaulted the houses of William Story, registrar of the Admiralty, and Benjamin Hallowell, comptroller of customs. The choice of targets suggests that the riot of 26 August had more to do with Bernard and Hutchinson’s three-year-old efforts to suppress smuggling than with the Stamp Act itself.46 Inflamed by drink procured from Hallowell’s cellar, the group then attacked Hutchinson’s house with unmitigated fury, using axes to break down the doors. The looting of Hutchinson’s house, said to have been one of the finest in New England, proceeded throughout the night: strongboxes and the wine cellar were broken open, furniture smashed, wainscoting stripped from the walls, and even the cupola was in the process of being broken apart and thrown down into the garden as day dawned. Papers Hutchinson had assembled while writing the first two volumes of his History were scattered, and invaluable original documents pertaining to the early history of the province were strewn about the street. No previous riot in New England’s history matched the frenzy of the events of 26 August 1765.47
The town meeting convened the following morning to repudiate the actions of the mob. The sheriff made efforts to apprehend the leaders of the riot but was forced to release Ebenezer Mackintosh, the key figure in the events of both 14 and 26 August, when principal gentlemen of the town warned that the militia would not turn out if Mackintosh were imprisoned. Hutchinson believed that the real reason Mackintosh could not be put on trial was because “he could discover who employed him.”48 Six or seven other rioters were eventually arrested, and though they were imprisoned on capital charges, another mob forced their release. The offenders subsequently vanished.
The day following the riot, 27 August, was the first day of the Suffolk County sitting of the Superior Court, and Hutchinson, the chief justice, was forced to appear in the clothes he had been wearing the night before, since his judicial robes were looted along with the rest of his family’s garments. Instead of his usual charge to the jury, Hutchinson gave an affecting speech denouncing mob violence and denying that he had ever written to England in favor of the Stamp Act. The Court promptly adjourned to demonstrate its disapproval of the previous night’s riot by refusing to conduct business while the town was in such a state of disorder.49
Hutchinson eventually submitted claims for £3,194 worth of personal property destroyed in the riot of 26 August. Even for someone as rich as Hutchinson, the figure represented a tremendous loss. Almost as soon as the event was over, he began a campaign for compensation, writing to his friends both in Massachusetts and in England. When Governor Bernard opened the fall session of the legislature in September, he recommended compensation for the sufferers of the riots, noting that it would be better done as the legislature’s own initiative than as a response to a requisition from Parliament. But with the governor insisting on submission to the Stamp Act, the General Court was in no mood to comply. Hutchinson redoubled his efforts to win compensation in England with a slew of letters to nearly every contact he had, and he eventually sent his son Thomas Jr. to lobby for him in London. The issue of compensation reemerged before the Massachusetts House in May 1766, but the representatives insisted they could not act on so weighty a matter without instruction from their respective towns. When the General Court returned after the summer recess, a bill for compensation was tied to an amnesty for the rioters. Eventually, the bill passed in that form in early December. It was ultimately vetoed by the Crown (because of the amnesty), but since Hutchinson and the other sufferers had already received compensation from Massachusetts, the point was moot.50
Public anxiety increased as 1 November 1765, the date when the Stamp Act was to take effect, loomed. No customs documents, real estate transactions, or other legal instruments would be valid unless they were on stamped paper. But the distributor had resigned, and angry crowds would never permit the paper itself to be unloaded in Boston. Consequently, it remained lodged at Castle William in the harbor. Under the circumstances, business would come to a halt. The people, however, demanded that the courts and customs house reopen, and on 17 December customs officials began once again entering and clearing vessels without stamped paper. On the next day, the town of Boston requested Governor Bernard to allow the courts to reopen under similar conditions. Bernard referred the issue to the Council, whose members included Hutchinson and all the other members of the Superior Court. The Council demurred, saying it was a legal issue and, therefore, a matter for the courts. Under intense pressure (including threats to his life) to open the Suffolk County Probate Court, Hutchinson temporarily resigned that office on 21 December for twelve months in favor of his brother Foster, who had no objection to doing business without stamps. In January 1766, led by Hutchinson as chief justice, the Superior Court sidestepped the issue by adjourning until March, by which time they hoped the Stamp Act might be repealed. Parliament was not so quick to act, however, and the court opened briefly in March and again in April to do routine business not requiring stamps, though without Hutchinson present.51
When news of the repeal finally did arrive on 16 May, it emboldened Otis and others to purge key executive and judicial officeholders from the Council when the legislature convened at the end of the month. Hutchinson, Andrew Oliver (the province secretary), Peter Oliver (Andrew’s brother and a justice of the Superior Court), Jonathan Sewall (solicitor general), Edmund Trowbridge (attorney general), and Israel Williams (Hutchinson’s old friend and ally) all lost their seats. In retaliation, Bernard vetoed the six members elected in their places as well as the choice of Otis as Speaker of the House (but later accepted Thomas Cushing in his place). Hutchinson continued to attend meetings of the Council ex officio as lieutenant governor, but he could no longer vote. The election of 1766 marked his loss of influence in that body and the rise of a new leader of the opposition in the Council, James Bowdoin. An effort to restore Hutchinson and the others to their Council seats in May 1767 failed, though by a smaller margin. The dispute continued to percolate on into 1768, when Secretary of State Lord Shelburne wrote condemning the General Court for its expulsion of Hutchinson from the Council.52
Whatever sympathy some citizens may have felt for Hutchinson following the sacking of his house on 26 August 1765, the bickering over compliance with the Stamp Act dealt repeated blows to his reputation. The revival of charges that Hutchinson played a critical role in the campaign to suppress smuggling reminded citizens of his vigorous defense of the customs service’s use of informants and his judicial intervention in the matter of the writs of assistance. Rumors of secret depositions about smuggling taken before Hutchinson fed the general belief that royal officials could defame citizens of Massachusetts to officials in England in ways unknown to the accused. Hutchinson’s watering down of the language of the Massachusetts petition against the Stamp Act came to be understood as a thwarting of the popular will, and his stubbornness in the face of demands to reopen the courts bespoke arrogance and an inability to understand the economic losses those less well-heeled than Hutchinson might have to endure during the cessation of all business. Lastly, his role on the Superior Court revived the charge first voiced by Otis at the time of his appointment as chief justice: that his multiple office-holding threatened the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial power. Though Hutchinson’s name could still command respect in many parts of the province, his popularity, especially in Boston, never recovered.53
In London, the short-lived administration of the Marquis of Rockingham replaced that of George Grenville in July 1765. Rockingham adopted a policy of conciliation with the colonies and secured both the repeal of the Stamp Act and a new Revenue Act of 1766, which granted many of the concessions the colonies had demanded in their responses to the Sugar Act. To make clear that these were indeed concessions and not somehow a belated recognition of colonial “rights,” Parliament also enacted the Declaratory Act asserting the power of Parliament to “legislate for the colonies in all cases whatsoever.”
By July 1766, Rockingham had lost the king’s favor, and George III asked the aging William Pitt, now Earl of Chatham, to form a new ministry with Charles Townshend as chancellor of the exchequer. Townshend devised a plan that raised an American revenue while neatly circumventing colonial objections to “internal” taxation. He put duties on a number of popular colonial imports—tea, lead, glass, painters’ colors, and paper—and used the income not only, as with the Stamp Act, to help pay for the defense of the colonies but also to pay the salaries of governors and other royal officials who had previously been paid by provincial assemblies. Townshend also tried to step up customs enforcement by establishing a five-man American Board of Customs Commissioners, resident in Boston.
Scheduled to take effect on 20 November 1767, the Townshend duties were hardly more popular than the Stamp Act had been. As a response, the Boston town meeting convened on 28 October to consider “measures for economy and frugality to lessen the consumption and importation of European manufactured goods.” Non-consumption proved difficult to enforce, and a new group calling themselves “the Merchants and Traders of Boston” adopted a resolution on 29 February 1768 to cease the importation of British goods for eighteen months beginning 1 June, contingent on New York and Philadelphia merchants doing the same. Hutchinson regarded the separate meetings of the merchants, a non-governmental body, and the force and intimidation they used to coerce compliance with their decisions as the most seditious development yet in opposition to parliamentary authority.54 It did not help matters that two of the most prominent holdouts refusing to sign the agreement were Hutchinson’s own sons, Thomas Jr. and Elisha. Meanwhile the Massachusetts General Court began circulating a letter to the other colonies urging them to take all constitutional measures against the Townshend Acts. The new secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Hillsborough, later demanded that they rescind this letter, something the legislature steadfastly refused to do.
Forcible resistance to customs authorities was on the rise in the spring of 1768, culminating with the Liberty riot on 10 June during which several customs officials were assaulted and a boat belonging to one of the new customs commissioners was burned on the Common. Fearing for their safety, the customs commissioners all fled to Castle William with the exception of John Temple, the former surveyor general. Temple was James Bowdoin’s son-in-law and thus had close ties to leading members of the opposition. It was also alleged that he regarded his change of office as a demotion and blamed Bernard (with whom he had quarreled early in the decade) for his loss of status.55 Nevertheless, letters written from the Castle by the majority of the commissioners describing conditions in Boston clearly implied that public order could be restored only by the immediate dispatch of troops. Later, when troops arrived in Boston, it was generally assumed that both Bernard and Hutchinson had requested them. That was untrue only because of the merest technicality in Bernard’s case, but Hutchinson, however much he wanted order restored, had never advocated the use of the army for such a purpose.56
When the troops landed on 28 September 1768, a controversy about their quartering made Bernard’s tenure as governor exceedingly uncomfortable. Threats of violent resistance to the troops were even voiced by some members of the Council. Bernard had long been seeking reassignment to more comfortable and lucrative posts in Virginia, the Carolinas, or Grenada, but what truly proved to be his undoing was the publication in April 1769 of letters he had written to England. For quite some time, patriots harbored suspicions that they had been secretly defamed by Bernard and his henchmen in such letters. Radicals believed they had proof of Bernard’s treachery as early as 7 March 1768, when the Boston Gazette printed a letter written by Lord Shelburne, dated 17 September 1767, that criticized by name a number of key members of the General Court based on information Shelburne could only have received from Bernard or members of his circle. Hutchinson was also thought to be enmeshed in a “secret design” to sacrifice the general welfare in order to advance his own career by deliberately misrepresenting the situation in Massachusetts.57
In January and February 1769, the town of Boston drafted a series of official addresses warning that “artful and mischievous men” whose “stations and connections gave them great weight and influence” were seeking the ruin of the town “in the daily practices of secret art and machination” and had induced the sending of the troops by “a partial if not a false account of facts sent from hence.” That winter Bollan, the former province agent now seeking to ingratiate himself once again with the legislature, obtained in London copies of letters written by Bernard, Gage, and the customs commissioners, which were subsequently published in pamphlet form in Boston in April. Although Hutchinson and others protested that there was nothing in the letters that had not been said publicly, avid readers saw them as evidence of the conspiracy they had long believed to exist. Boston demanded a provincial inquiry into Bernard’s conduct and the indictment of the governor for libel. Bernard would perhaps have made a more vigorous defense, but he received word in early May that he had been rewarded by the Crown for his services with a baronetcy and the long-sought permission to return to England. He departed 1 August 1769. Once safe in London, he began to advocate with unremitting zeal structural changes in the government of Massachusetts.58
For Hutchinson, the publication of Bernard’s letters set a precedent that patriots would follow in an effort to unseat Hutchinson a few years later. Bernard’s absence also thrust upon him new responsibilities as acting governor. Hutchinson had long sought the governor’s office not only for the greater financial remuneration it would bring but also because he believed a native of Massachusetts, schooled from birth in its peculiar politics, would never have made some of the mistakes Bernard had made. Certainly he did everything he could in 1769 to conciliate the opposition, while deliberately ignoring personally abusive articles in the popular press. Eventually he came to the conclusion that he could be more useful as chief justice than governor and wrote to Bernard asking him not to propose his promotion. Bernard, however, having received a pension in England, had decided not to return to Massachusetts and was vigorously pushing Hutchinson as his successor.59
Unfortunately, while the question of who would be the next governor was quietly being discussed by upper levels of the ministry in London, Hutchinson had more pressing issues to deal with in Massachusetts: the presence of British troops on the streets of Boston was still a thorn in the side of the patriots and efforts to coerce compliance with the nonimportation agreements were becoming increasingly violent as the long boycott wore on during the winter of 1769–1770. Believing that the provincial charter prevented the use of troops to suppress riots without an order from a justice of the peace, Hutchinson refused to employ the regulars when loyalist printer John Mein was beset by an angry mob in October 1769 and again when the customs commissioners urged their use to check mob intimidation of the few merchants who were still importing goods contrary to the nonimportation agreement. Hutchinson summoned Boston’s justices of the peace a number of times during the winter, urging them to call out the troops, but none dared. Anticipating a clash between the citizens and the troops in mid-March, the time when the General Court was due to reconvene, Hutchinson wrote to General Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, urging him to withdraw the main guard from the town.60
All but Hutchinson’s sharpest critics acknowledged that the acting governor behaved with energy and courage on the tumultuous night of the Boston Massacre, 5 March 1770. He saw to it that the troops were quickly removed from the streets after the shootings occurred, and he himself appeared at the balcony of the Town House overlooking the site of the Massacre to speak to the angry crowd and assure it that justice would be done: “The law shall have its course,” he declared, “I will live and die by the law.” The town, with Samuel Adams as its chief spokesman, demanded the immediate removal of the troops. During this confrontation, according to Adams, Hutchinson’s knees “trembled” with hesitation and indecision. Colonel William Dalrymple ordered one regiment from the town to the Castle and offered to withdraw the remaining regiment if Hutchinson expressed a “desire” for him to do so. Hutchinson believed he lacked the authority to order the disposition of the king’s troops and referred the issue to the Council. The Council was more than willing to use the words that Hutchinson would not, and the acting governor relayed their “advice” to Dalrymple. Thus Hutchinson could still maintain to his superiors that he had not ordered the withdrawal of the troops; such a precise legal distinction perhaps meant more to Hutchinson than to any of the other participants.61
The radicals regarded the removal of troops from Boston under such circumstances as a triumph, and over time Hutchinson himself became convinced that the Massacre had been a crisis “manufactured” to achieve just that result. Hutchinson agonized over his role in the events, and even though he believed he had been careful to stay within the letter of the law, he worried about how higher authorities in England would judge his conduct. Even before sufficient time could pass for his report on the Massacre to be reviewed in London, Hutchinson came to the conclusion that Massachusetts was ungovernable, and he wrote his superior, Lord Hillsborough, the secretary of state for the colonies, that he “must humbly pray that a person of superior powers of body and mind may be appointed to the Administration of the Government of the Province.”62
Hutchinson’s letter caused great embarrassment when it arrived in England in late April because the king had just approved his commission as governor two weeks before. Both Bernard and Hillsborough urged Hutchinson to reconsider. By late June, when Hutchinson received Hillsborough’s letter informing him that the governorship would remain vacant until he either confirmed or withdrew his resignation, the air of crisis had abated, and Hutchinson had enjoyed some small success in forcing the General Court to convene in Cambridge, somewhat removed from the fury of Boston politics. Hutchinson relented, Hillsborough dispatched his commission on 7 December 1770, and the new governor took the public oath of office on 14 March 1771, nearly a year after he thought he had resigned.63
The royal instructions that accompanied Hutchinson’s commission forbade meetings of the Council without the governor, disallowed the appointment of provincial agents who were not appointed by both houses, and asserted royal control over Castle William. Despite many additional letters to the ministry soliciting further guidance, Hutchinson received no further orders on these substantive issues throughout 1771 and early 1772. Without word from England, Hutchinson was left to his own devices to work out the increasingly complex political situation.64
Hutchinson’s first instinct was to exploit the private motives of the patriot leadership, especially Adams, Hancock, and Otis, and separate them from their following among the people. Hutchinson also hoped to build up a government party in Massachusetts through the adroit use of patronage. Trained as he was in a tradition of eighteenth-century politics based primarily on interest groups, he operated on the principle that “At all times, there are many out of place, who wish to be in.”65 But the number of appointed officers at his disposal in Massachusetts, chiefly militia officers and justices of the peace, proved insufficient for his purposes. Hutchinson had better success attempting to divide the patriot leadership. He appealed to Hancock’s reputed vanity by dangling before him the prospect of a seat on the Council. Otis also seemed to fall in line, no longer contesting the Crown’s right to require the General Court to meet wherever the governor specified. When Hancock and the rest of the General Court followed Otis’s lead in the matter, Samuel Adams was abashed.
Hutchinson’s personality revealed itself in the controversy over where the General Court should meet. It was not enough for him simply to shift the meeting place of the General Court from Boston to Cambridge. He also needed to convince the General Court that the move was right and proper. In this regard, Bernard Bailyn writes, “he became more and more tone deaf, more and more locked into a narrowing set of responses—less imaginative, less flexible, less perceptive—courageous, concerned, striving, but ever more dangerously vulnerable.”66
A new issue emerged in June 1771 to replace the long-belabored question of the meeting place of the General Court: the House heard rumors that the salaries of the governor and other Crown officers, including the judges of the Superior Court, were no longer to be paid by the province but instead out of the new revenue generated by the Townshend Acts, thus freeing these officials from their dependence on the will of the legislature. Although these reports were not confirmed until July 1772, they inspired Samuel Adams to publish in November a new pamphlet entitled Votes and Proceedings of the Freeholders . . . of . . . Boston and to establish a Boston committee of correspondence that would exhort other Massachusetts towns (and eventually other colonies) to join in the protest. Hutchinson regarded Votes and Proceedings as the most inflammatory patriot document yet promulgated, believing that it denied the authority of Parliament and laid the intellectual groundwork for a continental declaration of independence.67
Hutchinson summoned an emergency session of the General Court. At its opening on 6 January 1773, he delivered a major speech reasserting his view of the Anglo-American constitution. The recent resolutions of the towns, including Boston, asserted that Parliament had no right to legislate for the colonies, since their citizens were not represented there. To Hutchinson, such limitations on parliamentary sovereignty seemed absurd. After a lengthy exegesis of the charter and the early history of Massachusetts, he stated, “I know of no Line that can be drawn between the supreme Authority of Parliament and the total Independence of the Colonies: It is impossible there should be two independent Legislatures in one and the same State.”68
In making such a statement, Hutchinson was squarely in accord with the language of the Declaratory Act and with contemporary political thought, which denied the possibility of imperium in imperio, a state within a state. But Hutchinson himself was of so logical a turn of mind that he assumed merely laying out such an argument in a reasoned and forceful way would be sufficient to cow the opposition. The Massachusetts legislators, however, were not so easily daunted. The Council replied that to acknowledge Parliament’s supreme authority did not necessarily imply that it was unlimited.69
The House of Representatives, in a response crafted by Samuel Adams and Joseph Hawley assisted by John Adams, denied many of the fundamental assumptions of Hutchinson’s speech. Before the Act of Union, there had indeed been separate legislatures for Scotland and England, and both James I and Charles I had explicitly denied the power of Parliament to legislate on behalf of the colonies. The House maintained that the colonies from their inception were distinct states from the mother country with their own powers of legislation. They claimed that to yield to the supremacy of Parliament reduced the colonies to a state of vassalage. If what Hutchinson said was true that the colonies were either “vassals of the Parliament, or . . . totally independent,” then Massachusetts was indeed independent, but that did not necessarily mean that Massachusetts was disloyal to the Crown, simply that parliamentary fiat was powerless there.70
The debate between Hutchinson and the General Court raged until mid-March 1773; their addresses to one another eventually filled a 126-page pamphlet titled, Speeches of His Excellency Governor Hutchinson, to the General Assembly of the Massachusetts-Bay . . . with the Answers (Boston, 1773). Hutchinson certainly thought he had won the argument. “Can you believe that all those cloudy inconclusive expressions in the Council’s answer came from B[owdoin]?” he wrote his friend Commodore James Gambier. “The contempt with which I have treated them enrages him but he has compelled me to it.” Hutchinson summed up the debate, saying, “I endeavourd to shew them what their Constitution was and called upon them to join with me in supporting it or to shew me wherein I was erroneous.”71
Hutchinson’s letter to Gambier revealed not only a haughty confidence in his own reasoning but also a misplaced faith in the power of logic alone to compel agreement, conveniently forgetting that nothing wears a more unpleasant aspect than reason when it is on the other side. John Adams’s recollection in old age was contemptuous: “Governor Hutchinson, in the plenitude of his vanity and self-sufficiency, thought he could convince all America and all Europe that the Parliament of Great Britain had an authority supreme, sovereign, absolute, and uncontrollable over the Colonies, in all cases whatsoever,” and that these “mighty truths [were] beyond all contradiction, doubt, or question.”72
Hutchinson was stunned to discover that not only were the patriots unconvinced but also that his speech was not well received in England. Lord Dartmouth, the new secretary of state for the colonies who hoped to cool down the Anglo-American conflict and avoid debates on theoretical principles, was reported to have said: “what Difficulties . . . that gentleman has brought us all into by his Imprudence! Tho’ I suppose he meant well, yet what can now be done? It is impossible that Parliament can suffer such a Declaration of the General Assembly (asserting its Independency) to pass unnoticed.”73
On 10 April, Dartmouth wrote Hutchinson a letter ordering him to avoid questions “the agitating of which has already produced such disagreeable Consequences.” At the same time, Dartmouth also wrote a “private and confidential” letter to Speaker of the House Thomas Cushing giving his opinion as a private citizen that such dissension was regrettable, that he was reluctant to agitate constitutional issues, and that as far as he himself was concerned he wished that Parliament would allow its right to tax the colonies to “be suspended and lie dormant.” Dartmouth closed the letter by asking that his letter remain confidential and saying that he could never give up the principle of the supreme authority of Parliament. Such a triumph as Dartmouth’s letter to Cushing could hardly remain secret for long, though to what extent Hutchinson knew of its existence cannot be established from his correspondence. When Dartmouth’s response to Hutchinson’s debate with the legislature arrived in Boston in mid-June, the communication was a bitter humiliation for the governor. Hutchinson was tempted to respond defensively saying that for four years he had received almost no instructions and was forced to guess the ministry’s intent, but, ever circumspect, he elected not to send such a letter.74
Hutchinson lurched from one crisis to another in 1773. Shortly after the elections to the General Court in May, rumors circulated that the leaders of the opposition were preparing a great stroke that would shake the foundations of the government party. On 2 June, the General Court heard read to them “letters of an extraordinary nature . . . greatly to the prejudice of the province,” and in mid-June thirteen letters appeared in pamphlet form. Principally addressed to Thomas Whately, the recently deceased secretary to George Grenville, the letters included six from Hutchinson, four from Andrew Oliver (now the lieutenant governor of the province), and one each from Charles Paxton (Hutchinson’s longtime friend and a customs commissioner), Nathaniel Rogers (Hutchinson’s late nephew), and Robert Auchmuty (judge of the Admiralty court.)75
The letters described the need for fundamental change in the Massachusetts constitution in order to strengthen the hand of royal officials. They were probably first gathered together as a group by Bernard and Hillsborough in 1768 and 1769 when they had initiated a campaign to change the Massachusetts charter. Of all the letters published, Hutchinson’s were the most temperate and discreet. In them, he said nothing that he had not publicly expressed elsewhere: that the Council had notably failed to support the executive, that sooner or later Parliament would show its “resentment” against those seeking to undermine the government, and that he feared the colonies would quarrel amongst themselves and be gobbled up by other European powers should the connection with Great Britain be broken. He did, however, condemn the extralegal activities of the town meeting and mention several leading patriots as dangerous men who ought to be brought to England for trial. And although he did not recommend the use of troops, he did say that Parliament needed to back up its words by an exertion of force. He also used a phrase he would come to regret bitterly. “There must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties,” he wrote, by which he later claimed that he meant not that colonial liberties should be curtailed but rather that given that the colonies were 3,000 miles distant from the seat of government, the colonists could not reasonably expect to enjoy exactly the same liberties as the king’s subjects residing in Great Britain. Hutchinson had publicly expressed this idea on a number of occasions before, always emphasizing his regret that this was so.76
Hutchinson had also written other letters to Whately warning against any precipitous constitutional changes, so Bernard or whoever the mysterious redactor was, selected these particular letters because they best supported the need for fundamental change. In all likelihood, the letters remained together as a packet at the Colonial Office long after Bernard and Hillsborough’s campaign had come to a dead end. Thus, whoever obtained the letters and secretly gave them to Benjamin Franklin, the Massachusetts agent who ultimately dispatched them to Boston, needed to have special access to Colonial Office files. Hutchinson himself initially suspected John Temple, the disgruntled former surveyor of customs who had married into the Bowdoin family before breaking with his fellow customs commissioners. Temple had been in London since late autumn 1770, where, according to Hutchinson, he was “continually furnishing [his] Correspondents here with intelligence of every thing [he] can collect of my Letters public or private in order to distress the Government and to prejudice the minds of the people against me in particular.” When news of the letters affair broke in England, popular suspicion centered on Temple as well, who even fought a duel against William Whately, the dead man’s brother, to defend himself from these aspersions. But one of Bailyn’s most significant achievements in The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson was to sift through the evidence as finely as possible, deducing that it was not Temple but Thomas Pownall who gave the letters to Franklin. That the culprit was Pownall and not Temple is at least consistent with Franklin’s public statements on the subject and Temple’s own assertions to Hutchinson late in life, despite the fact that much other contemporary testimony pointed to Temple.77
By transmitting the letters to America, Franklin hoped to clear the ministry of any responsibility for constitutional changes and demonstrate that the government took the actions it did based on false or misleading information from principal members of the government party in Massachusetts. Under the terms by which the letters were given to him, Franklin could not make a copy; thus he requested permission to send the originals to Boston, specifically stating that they were not to be published. Once the letters had been read to the legislature, however, the whispering campaign did its work, and public demand to know the contents proved overwhelming. Edes and Gill, the printers of the Boston Gazette, published the letters in mid-June in pamphlet form as A Copy of Letters Sent to Great-Britain, by his Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, the Hon. Andrew Oliver, and Several Other Persons, Born and Educated Among Us, thus breaking Franklin’s promise to his anonymous source.
When news of what had happened in Boston reached England, the British public proved equally eager to know who provided the letters to the Massachusetts legislature. Once William Whately was wounded by Temple in the duel, Franklin felt compelled to make clear his involvement by a public statement in The Craftsman on 1 January 1774. Official retribution was swift: Franklin was publicly excoriated by Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn before the Privy Council for the theft and publication of private letters (though it was certainly a debatable point whether the letters were public or private in character) and dismissed from his office as postmaster general for the colonies. Thereafter, Franklin, about whom Bernard had once quipped, “[h]is Principle seems to be to have no fixed Principles at all,” became entirely devoted to the patriot cause.78
However much sympathy Hutchinson might receive in England as the injured party, the publication of his letters proved to be a turning point, not only destroying any remaining support he may have enjoyed in Massachusetts but also causing citizens of other colonies to regard him as a traitor as well. He was burned in effigy in places as far away as New York and Princeton. The Massachusetts House passed a series of vituperative resolutions petitioning for the dismissal of both Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver. Leading patriot authors like Josiah Quincy Jr. castigated him in the press. Only his friend Jonathan Sewall, writing as “Philalethes,” attempted to demonstrate the selective editing of Hutchinson’s words and the misleading way his letters had been combined with others to create the impression that a conspiracy was afoot to suppress English liberties in the colonies. Hutchinson always believed that the publication of his letters was part of a systematic plan by the opposition to destroy him. Certainly, his public reputation reached its lowest ebb by late summer 1773 when Hutchinson, unwilling to give his enemies the satisfaction of seeing him resign under pressure, wrote for leave to travel to England to clear his name.79
By early September a new crisis was brewing. Parliament designed to assist the declining fortunes of the East India Company by allowing them to export tea directly to the colonies, whereas previously tea needed to be sold at auction in England to merchants there who would then re-export it to America. By cutting out the middleman in this way, Parliament hoped to bring the price of tea in North America below the cost of tea offered by smugglers. But the new approach also raised fears that Parliament intended to establish government-sponsored monopolies, perhaps in other commodities as well as tea. Although the three-penny duty on tea had generally been paid without comment since the repeal of the other Townshend duties, some patriots portrayed the new act as a sinister design to induce the colonists to pay the hated duty by dangling before them the prospect of drinking cheaper tea. Hutchinson himself had consistently urged the repeal of the tea duty, but resolutions to oppose the landing of the East India Company’s tea were adopted first in Philadelphia and then in Boston on 3 November.80 Hutchinson’s situation was hardly eased by the fact that his two sons Thomas Jr. and Elisha were among the consignees designated by the East India Company to receive their shipments.
Foreseeing difficulty when the tea arrived, Hutchinson advised the consignees to instruct the captains of the tea ships to anchor below the Castle, where they might be protected. The first vessel, the Dartmouth, arriving on 28 November, did just that, but when the master came up to town, he was ordered by Samuel Adams and others to land all his cargo except the tea and make a formal entry of the vessel at the customs house. According to the law, once the master had entered his cargo, the duty on the tea would have to be paid within twenty days or both the ship and its remaining cargo would be subject to confiscation. Thus by entering the cargo, a deadline was set for the crisis: 17 December.81
Bailyn observed that after the frustration and agonizing of the letters affair, Hutchinson seemed to welcome the clarity of the tea crisis. He knew he would enforce the law. This time there would be none of the temporizing that allowed the patriots to get the better of him in the removal of the troops to the Castle following the Boston Massacre and none of the speculation about what course of action the ministry would wish that had prompted him to lecture the legislature on the sovereignty of Parliament. The one irreproachable course of action would be to uphold the law as he had sworn to do when he first became governor. Richard Frothingham, an early nineteenth-century historian, commented that Hutchinson’s course did not show “one sign of vacillation from first to last, but throughout [bore] the marks of clear, cold, passionless inflexibility.” At the last desperate public meeting on 16 December, Samuel Adams and others understood that it was pointless to dispatch a messenger to the governor in his country house at Milton to ask if he would grant a pass that would allow the tea ships to return to England without a customs clearance, but in this way, the patriots could demonstrate that they had exhausted all plausible means to resolve the crisis without the destruction of property. Hutchinson refused, as expected, and events took their inexorable course.82
Although the East India Company’s tea was landed without resistance in South Carolina, the governors of Pennsylvania and New York both ignored the letter of the law and allowed the tea ships to return to England with their cargoes undamaged. Had Hutchinson been equally flexible, the headlong rush toward open conflict might have slowed or even stopped. The tea crisis is one of those rare moments when the actions of a single individual really did affect the course of history in a profound way.
Although ships left Boston with the news of the Tea Party almost immediately, it would be months before anyone could know how Parliament would react to the wanton destruction of so much property. While Hutchinson and a group of moderates sought to find private donors to make restitution for the tea in order to avert the wrath to come, in early February the General Court reopened with renewed vigor the old issue of independent salaries for judges first raised in 1771. One by one, all the other justices except Peter Oliver, Hutchinson’s successor as chief justice, renounced their Crown salaries. Oliver’s intransigence prompted the House to vote a bill of impeachment on 28 February. Hutchinson prorogued the General Court rather than allow the proceedings to go forward.
On 17 February, Hutchinson wrote a despairing letter to Lord Dartmouth, stating his intention to take up the leave granted him earlier and sail to England. In due course, the king himself eventually read the letter and on 9 April asked Dartmouth to write Hutchinson a message that would put his mind at ease and offer the prospect of some future reward. Dartmouth duly wrote Hutchinson commending the “conscious sense which you possess of an upright and uniform regard to the duty of your situation” and his “dispassionate and real concern for the welfare of the people.”83
Before Hutchinson could embark, his brother-in-law Andrew Oliver, the lieutenant governor, died. Thus Hutchinson had to put off his voyage until the arrival of General Thomas Gage on 13 May, just three days after news of the Boston Port Act arrived, closing the harbor to all shipping. On 1 June 1774, Hutchinson sailed for England with his children Elisha and Margaret aboard the Minerva.
The Minerva made a short twenty-eight-day crossing. Arriving in London on 30 June, Hutchinson reported immediately to Lord Dartmouth, who in turn escorted Hutchinson to see the king. During the ensuing two-hour conversation, the king displayed an extraordinary knowledge of Massachusetts and an earnest desire to be informed how the Coercive Acts had been received. Hutchinson could answer only about the Boston Port Act, since the details of the other legislation had not yet arrived at the time of his departure. Hutchinson must, however, have been too circumspect in his response, because the king later told Lord North that the governor supported North’s course of action, whereas Hutchinson would spend the next six months quietly campaigning to undo the damage caused by the acts. The king, however, must have been well satisfied with Hutchinson’s report: he eventually granted Hutchinson a pension of £1,000 per year and offered him a baronetcy. Hutchinson declined the latter, partly because it would involve £300–£400 in fees to accept it, but also because he feared it would be the last reward offered him by the ministry, and he still hoped for some sinecure for his youngest son, William Sanford, instead. Hutchinson did, however, ask if he could make known the offer of the baronetcy so that the public should know the king had approved of his service.84
The next few months were very full for Hutchinson. He and his daughter Margaret were presented at court on 14 July, and he was everywhere in demand as an expert on the rapidly deteriorating situation in the colonies. Throughout all his conversations, Hutchinson labored to achieve some rapprochement: would mere payment for the tea bring relief from the draconian provisions of the Port Act or would some formal submission be required, in which case reconciliation would, as he saw it, be impossible? Still pursuing the idea that payment for the damages to the tea might cause Parliament to relent, Hutchinson wrote George Erving, a member of the Council and close relation by marriage of James Bowdoin, to see if a group of private individuals might be gathered to reimburse the East India Company.85
John Pownall, the secretary to the Board of Trade, showed Hutchinson how some of his earlier letters had been used in an attempt to ward off the most severe constitutional changes embodied in the Massachusetts Government Act, but the effort had failed. Now Massachusetts would have a royally appointed council (a “mandamus” council as the patriots would call it), and town meetings would be restricted to once a year for the purpose of the election of officers. Under the circumstances, Hutchinson thought the best he could do would be to nominate the right people for the new mandamus council, thus unwittingly bringing no end of trouble to his friends. Most of the mandamus councilors were forced to resign in the face of increasing threats of violence in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, Hutchinson (though in England) became the chief broker for government jobs in New England, even as such posts became increasingly untenable.86
Meanwhile, Massachusetts responded to the Coercive Acts by proposing the Solemn League and Covenant and calling for a second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Gage responded by proroguing the General Court, but both houses refused to disband and kept meeting in defiance of the governor’s order. Hutchinson himself grew increasingly frustrated by the British government’s seeming paralysis in the face of a growing crisis. But Gage’s reports described a more widely and deeply held movement against parliamentary authority in New England than any of Hutchinson’s letters had ever suggested. Hutchinson had always believed that if leading patriots could be bought off or arrested, the movement would collapse in the face of a parliamentary exertion of force, but the sequence of events following Lexington and Concord proved him wrong. Thus, by early 1776, the novelty of Hutchinson’s presence in England had worn off, his views were no longer relevant, and he himself was an embarrassment to the ministry.87
As he had done at several other instances in the past when he had been sidelined from political events, Hutchinson took up his pen and began to write. First came “Account and Defense of Conduct,” a nineteen-page document Hutchinson eventually printed and sent to Dartmouth and the king, although there is no evidence that the latter ever read it. Then followed Strictures upon the Declaration of Congress at Philadelphia; In a Letter to a Noble Lord, &c. published anonymously in August 1776, an angry response to Thomas Jefferson’s “long train of abuses,” some of which indicted Hutchinson personally. And finally, Hutchinson turned his hand to the third volume of his History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay, which, covering as it did the period from 1749 to the arrival of Gage in 1774, would be his apologia. Indeed, it was not published until 1828, almost a half century after his death.88
Perhaps not enough credit has been given to Hutchinson as an historian. Bailyn, otherwise a sympathetic biographer, laments the blandness of his style. Only William Pencak noted how different Hutchinson’s History is from the work of other eighteenth-century historians. Even the most famous historians of the time (Voltaire, Gibbon, Hume, and Bolingbroke) tended to regard history as “philosophy teaching by examples.” According to Pencak, “[r]endering sensible and sensitive judgments concerning the effects of factions and individuals on political stability, Hutchinson asked and answered the sorts of questions only introduced regularly by academic historians in the late nineteenth century.” In that regard, Hutchinson approximated J. H. Plumb’s goal of history as an effort “to try and understand what happened, purely in its own terms and not in the service of religion or national destiny, or morality or the sanctity of institutions.” One only has to consider other American historians working at approximately the same time (Reverend William Gordon or Mercy Otis Warren) to come to the same conclusion as Pencak: Hutchinson was “probably the most acute and modern historian of pre-revolutionary America.” Indeed, Pencak remarks on how often modern historians “praise and cite” Hutchinson’s History, and that even if they take issue with his account, they feel obliged to offer ample evidence to the contrary, “proof,” says Pencak, “that his interpretations are still taken seriously.”89
To attain this goal, Hutchinson needed to be able to consider every question from multiple viewpoints. His letters give ample evidence that such objectivity was a natural habit of mind for Hutchinson and not an attitude he assumed solely in his role as historian. As he wrote to Israel Williams, one of his closest friends:
[W]e see things many times through a false medium & are biased though insensibly by one prejudice and another. Perhaps the case is the same with some who are opposite to us in publick affairs who vote quite different from us and are under insensible bias the other way. This consideration should tend to keep us from discontent & disturbance in our minds when measures are pursued contrary to what appeared to us to be right. Possibly we may be mistaken.90
As Clifford K. Shipton comments, “[h]is fairness, moderation, and courtesy to his political opponents was downright amazing. Indeed his work would have been a much more valuable picture of his own days had he not, in his zeal to be fair, suppressed facts which were discreditable to his enemies.” Hutchinson found it hard to understand when his political opponents failed to make similar allowances for him; for example, he found it “very extraordinary to find the same Persons contending for an unlimited Freedom of Thought and Action, which they would confine wholly to themselves.” If he himself could see both sides of the question, why couldn’t others be equally broad-minded?91
But Hutchinson’s ability as an historian of the American Revolution was also limited by his understanding of the political world in which he grew up. He tended to view provincial Massachusetts politics as the “non-ideological competition of small groups for power and privilege.” In the history of such a place, individuals and their motives loomed large. Hutchinson assumed that the “ambitions and resentments” of political opponents like Otis, Hancock, and the Adamses were their driving force, and even though he understood there were two sides to the Revolutionary debate, he believed they willfully misrepresented British measures and the intentions of loyalist politicians. He could not accept the Revolutionaries’ sincerity because “[they] played havoc with the rules of language and logic.”92 Because of his background, Hutchinson was unable to grasp the significance of the growing demand in the 1760s for ordinary Americans to acquire a political voice. Thus, he wrote a political history of the coming of the American Revolution, which however valuable it may be in some regards, ignores the most significant development of the era: the entry of the common man into the political fray.
Hutchinson completed the third volume of his History on 22 September 1778 and sent it to his friend and patron Lord Hardwicke a year later. His last work was the completion of a memoir for his family entitled “Hutchinson in America,”93 in which the governor was considerably more candid about the malign role Thomas Pownall had played in his own life.
Hutchinson was inconsolable after the death of his beloved daughter Margaret on 21 September 1777. His older daughter, Sarah, was also ill in 1780, and his youngest son, William Sanford, predeceased his father by a matter of months. Hutchinson himself died of a stroke on 3 June 1780. As the writers of the Independent Chronicle observed in January 1781,
He was born to be the cause and the victim of popular fury, outrage and conflagration. . . . [H]e was, perhaps, the only man in the world who could have brought on the controversy between Great Britain and America, in the manner and at the time it was done, and who could have involved the two countries in an enmity which must end in their everlasting separation.94
Such an assessment may seem severe, but in fact it recognized Hutchinson’s instrumental agency in the course of events. Without his inflexibility at the time of the Boston Tea Party, history might have taken a very different course. No man loved his native country more, nor was there a more loyal subject of the British Empire. Hutchinson for all his talents as writer, negotiator, and statesman could not reconcile loyalty to empire and love for his native Massachusetts. Universally regarded at the outset of his career as a man of prodigious talents and strict integrity, he came to be viewed by his fellow citizens as an arch-villain, who underhandedly misrepresented the province to imperial authorities and consequently brought on a political maelstrom, a harsh end for so talented and public-spirited a man.