Biographical Introduction

    By John W. Tyler

    Thomas Hutchinson’s first four months as acting governor had not gone as smoothly as he hoped. Soon after Francis Bernard’s departure on 1 August 1769, Boston merchants voted to extend their nonimportation agreement until all revenue-producing legislation was repealed (contingent on Philadelphia and New York doing the same). The merchants’ committee also ratcheted up pressure on the small number of traders who continued to sell British goods in violation of the ban. When the Scottish printer John Mein attempted to expose inconsistencies in enforcement of the agreement, Hutchinson was unable to protect him from patriot wrath.

    By mid-December, Philadelphia and New York had declined to join an extended agreement, and it looked as if nonimportation might well break up after its original expiration date on 1 January 1770.1 Yet reluctant to yield the initiative, patriots sought indictments against Bernard, General Thomas Gage, and the custom commissioners for defaming the town of Boston in their correspondence that was made public the previous summer.2 To carry the battle against the customs enforcement even further, they had also sued both the Custom House and Naval Office for charging fees in excess of amounts allowed by provincial law and begun to tax the salaries of the commissioners, even though stipends paid by the Crown were customarily exempt.3

    Paramount among Hutchinson’s worries was what to do about the Massachusetts legislature, whose resolves passed at the end of its last session questioned the authority of Parliament and petitioned for the removal of Bernard as governor.4 Bernard had prorogued the General Court until 10 January, yet by the first of the year, Hutchinson still had not received any instructions. A last-minute letter from Lord Hillsborough, arriving on 3 January, ordered the prorogation to continue until mid-March by which time he anticipated Parliament and the king’s ministers would provide further direction.

    One of the strongest themes to emerge from Hutchinson’s correspondence is the extent to which political paralysis in Britain prevented both the ministry and Parliament from crafting any consistent, effective response to increasing challenges to the exercise of imperial authority in the rebellious colonies. Hutchinson marveled that the resolves of the Massachusetts General Court passed in July 1769 claiming that it alone had the sole power to levy taxes on the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay still went unchallenged. Likewise, there had been no response to the nonimportation agreement, which appeared to Hutchinson as a manifest effort to subvert an act of Parliament by exerting economic pressure on British merchants and manufacturers, and efforts to force all American merchants into compliance with the agreement had compelled would-be importers to store or even reship goods against their will.

    But American affairs had become one more stick with which opponents to the Duke of Grafton’s faltering administration could belabor their political rivals. Lord Chatham, the great hero of the American colonies, had withdrawn from politics for much of 1769, only to return to Westminster in January 1770 to hurl rhetorical thunderbolts at his former ministerial colleagues for their mishandling of the John Wilkes affair. Confronted by such words from a former ally, Grafton’s ministry began to crumble, and Lord North emerged as the new lord chancellor and leader in the House of Commons.5 But it took time for the North ministry to gain its feet, and for a while it seemed to temporize about American affairs.

    The supporters of nonimportation faced a crisis of their own in mid-January when it became clear that Philadelphia and New York would not follow Massachusetts in extending the agreement beyond the original expiration date of 1 January until all the Revenue Acts were repealed. As that news spread, a small number of Boston merchants assumed they were now free to sell goods they had stored. Chief among those eager to begin sales were Thomas and Elisha Hutchinson, the acting governor’s sons. Less well-provisioned merchants assumed sales would not recommence until the arrival of spring goods; otherwise, the Hutchinsons and a handful of other well-stocked merchants would exploit the pent-up demand caused by long months of nonimportation, and those who had to wait for more goods to arrive in the spring might well find consumers already satisfied.

    As the committee of inspection began to call upon the offending merchants, demonstrations sprang up around their homes and stores. Unbeknownst to their father, the young Hutchinsons elected to knuckle under to the committee’s demands. Both embarrassed and relieved, their father now thought he was in a better position to protect the others, but the Council would not join him in a proclamation against these “illegal” combinations, and the merchants’ meetings morphed into an entirely new entity known as the Body of the Trade that was functionally indistinguishable from a town meeting but did not need to be formally summoned by the selectmen.6

    Hutchinson attempted to act without the Council on 23 January by sending the sheriff to a meeting of the Body of the Trade with a message warning it to disperse. The message had little effect (although Hutchinson wanted to believe it did), and the demonstrations outside the shops of the importers continued through February.7 On 22 February, a crowd of boys gathered around the shape of a hand erected on a pole, inscribed with the word “importer” and pointed directly at the shop of Theophilus Lillie. Lillie’s neighbor, a notorious customs informant named Ebenezer Richardson, attempted to drive a cart into the sign. The outraged crowd pelted Richardson with stones, forcing him to retreat into his nearby house. After the mob began to break his windows and attack the front door, Richardson fired a gun, killing ten-and-a-half-year-old Christopher Seider. The boy’s funeral four days later, said to be the largest ever seen in British America, failed to restore calm.8

    Meanwhile Hutchinson had at last received instructions regarding the General Court. Both Bernard and Hillsborough urged him to meet the Court at Cambridge, away from the immediate influence of the disorders in Boston, although Hillsborough allowed Hutchinson enough discretion to convene it elsewhere if he thought better.9 Hutchinson hesitated, knowing the change would be provocative, but as mere acting governor he thought his decision would be less likely to be second-guessed in England if he followed Hillsborough’s advice. This unfortunate, last-minute decision, announced on 2 March, would involve Hutchinson in endless bickering and result in several unproductive sessions of the General Court.

    Clashes between the inhabitants and the two regiments of troops stationed in Boston had escalated during the winter, once the citizens realized they had little to fear unless a justice of the peace could be found willing to read the Riot Act, warning the assembled crowd to disperse before the troops could fire legitimately. Hutchinson had long foreseen this difficulty, and it was one of the principal reasons he had always advised his predecessor, Francis Bernard, not to request that troops be sent to Boston.10

    A number of altercations between the regulars and the people took place around the town during the proceeding weekend, but no one was prepared for the sudden outburst of bloodshed on the evening of 5 March 1770. Even Hutchinson’s enemies were willing to grant that he behaved with great personal courage on the night of the Massacre. Undeterred by the sight of an angry crowd, armed with whatever weapons they could find, Hutchinson rushed to King Street to do what he could to calm the situation, getting the soldiers back into their barracks and promising a full investigation into the tragedy. “The law shall have its course!” he declared from the balcony of the Town House, “I will live and die by the law!”11

    At an emergency meeting of the Council the following morning, a delegation from the town demanded the removal of both regiments to Castle William, an island three miles distant in the harbor. Hutchinson’s initial response was to follow the example of his predecessor by maintaining that he lacked the authority to interfere with the disposition of the king’s troops. They had been dispatched to the province at the king’s pleasure, and His Majesty had placed them under the command of General Gage in New York and their regimental officers. The town delegation and members of the Council pointed out, just as Bernard’s critics had done, that, according to the charter, one of the governor’s titles was commander-in-chief of His Majesty’s forces in the province, which surely justified him in making a slight alteration in the billeting of troops while they were in Boston.

    After hearing the discussion, William Dalrymple, the lieutenant colonel of the 14th Regiment and the senior officer at Boston, proposed a compromise: that the 29th Regiment, whose soldiers had fired on the citizenry the night before, should be removed to Castle William and his own regiment would be withdrawn to their barracks in town so that there would be no possibility of further conflict with the inhabitants. Hutchinson put the offer in writing and dispatched it with the town delegation. They returned in the afternoon saying that the town meeting found the compromise unsatisfactory: if Hutchinson and Dalrymple had the authority to withdraw one regiment, they could just as well withdraw both.12

    Neither Hutchinson nor Dalrymple was eager to assume responsibility for removing all the British regulars from Boston. Hutchinson as an eager aspirant to be Bernard’s successor was unsure how such an arrogation of authority would play in Whitehall, and Dalrymple was equally uncertain whether Gage would approve his conduct when he learned of it in New York. Dalrymple wanted cover and let it be known before the Council reconvened in the afternoon that if the governor and Council would “desire” the removal of the second regiment, he would do so.

    Hutchinson resisted the idea for most of the afternoon, despite warnings from councilors Royall Tyler and Samuel Dexter that the surrounding countryside was gathering in arms, determined to force out the regulars if they did not leave voluntarily. At last, after Andrew Oliver, Dalrymple, and other military officers warned him that he alone, as the last holdout, would bear the responsibility for any bloodshed, Hutchinson grudgingly acquiesced.13

    Hutchinson soon came to believe that he had been outmaneuvered by Samuel Adams and the other leading patriots. Although he did not suspect that they had manufactured the incident, he did think that they had adroitly taken advantage of the opportunity presented by popular outrage at the Massacre to force the removal of the troops from town, one of their foremost goals since the arrival of regulars a year and a half before. The best he could do now would be to present his actions in the most favorable light and prevent the imprisoned soldiers from being hanged before further instructions could arrive from Britain.

    Coping with the aftereffects of the Massacre would take up most of Hutchinson’s time for the remainder of 1770. He wrote more letters in that year than in any other time in his career. Among his first concerns were how these events (and not incidentally his own role in them) would be portrayed to both his superiors in Whitehall and in the British press. Almost immediately after the Massacre, the town of Boston formed a committee to solicit depositions from eyewitnesses and compile a comprehensive account of what had happened. This version of events was eventually published as a pamphlet entitled A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston.14 Hutchinson wrote his own account of the proceedings in letters to Bernard and Hillsborough and ordered Province Secretary Andrew Oliver to produce an exact account of the Council meeting on 6 March. Customs Commissioner John Robinson (who had himself been accused of participation in the Massacre) sailed for London with the materials from Hutchinson and Oliver, which circulated for a week and half in official circles, before the town’s version (the Short Narrative) could be distributed more generally among the London reading public.

    Hutchinson also needed to worry about the reaction of General Gage in New York, but Hutchinson was particularly anxious that he not be perceived by the ministry as interfering with the disposition of the king’s troops. Worn down by the end of the month from exhaustion and strain, Hutchinson wrote to Hillsborough asking that his name be removed from consideration as Bernard’s replacement as governor of Massachusetts.15 Ideally, he would prefer to resume his post as chief justice, a position where he felt he could accomplish more to uphold the rule of law.

    But events in England were proceeding at their own tempo. On 7 March, the Privy Council had at last cleared Bernard of the charges made against him by the Massachusetts legislature before his departure the preceding summer. That decision removed the final obstacle to the appointment of a new governor. At Bernard’s urging, Hillsborough submitted Hutchinson’s name to the king, who approved it in early April. Hillsborough wrote with the presumably happy news on 14 April, while Hutchinson’s letter of resignation was still at sea.

    Meanwhile in Boston, pressure to begin the trials of Captain Thomas Preston and the soldiers was intense. Hutchinson intended to do everything in his power to delay the trials so that public animosity could cool. The Superior Court was scheduled to sit on 13 March, but the illness (or temerity) of some of the justices delayed presenting the indictments. The court first heard the closely related trial of Ebenezer Richardson (for the death of Christopher Seider) on 20 April, but when the jury resolutely overlooked the abundant evidence that Richardson had acted in self-defense, the court proved reluctant to issue the death sentence that would naturally follow the guilty verdict and adjourned until 29 May.16 On that date, the court was once again unable to muster a sufficient number of justices and adjourned, thus making the earliest possible date for Preston’s trial 28 August.

    At the same time Hutchinson was maneuvering to postpone the trials, he needed once again to grapple with the Massachusetts legislature. Following the advice of Bernard and Hillsborough, Hutchinson had prorogued the General Court to meet at Cambridge on 15 March. Both House and Council maintained that it was unconstitutional for them to meet anywhere other than Boston. Hutchinson pled that he was only following royal instructions, which was not quite true (since Hillsborough had granted him some discretion) and would cause trouble when the deception was eventually detected. The dispute overshadowed most of the first part of the session. Following a pattern established with Sir Francis Bernard the previous summer, the House passed a bitter remonstrance against Hutchinson before it dispersed on 26 April prior to new elections.17

    Events in Whitehall and Westminster proceeded at their own pace, since no one there was aware of what was happening in Massachusetts. On 5 March, the very day of the Massacre, Lord North moved for the partial repeal of the Townshend duties, retaining only the tax on tea as a symbolic assertion of parliamentary authority. This news, intended to placate the colonies, split the Boston merchant community between those who were ready to begin importing again and those who wanted to continue until the tax on tea was removed as well. During the previous winter, such decisions were now made by the Body of the Trade, which included not just merchants but shopkeepers, artisans, and laborers. Indeed, its membership was perhaps broader than the town meeting itself, where there were at least nominal property qualifications for voting. By early May, the body had successfully intimidated any merchants from breaking through the agreement, but the outcome of similar votes in Philadelphia and New York was much less certain and would eventually lead to the end of nonimportation.

    On the evening of 21 April, Customs Commissioner John Robinson arrived in London carrying Hutchinson’s first dispatches about the Boston Massacre. Hillsborough responded by ordering Hutchinson to delay the sentences of Preston and the soldiers should they be convicted and commanded that all legal proceedings against Bernard, Gage, and other royal officials for misrepresenting the conduct of the town of Boston be dropped. Hillsborough also issued immediate orders to Gage and Commodore Samuel Hood to assist Hutchinson in any way needed to restore order in Massachusetts.18

    On 13 May, Francis Bernard received a duplicate of Hutchinson’s letter of 22 March asking to be excused from consideration for the governorship, which he took immediately to Hillsborough. Hutchinson’s commission as governor was by then too far advanced to be halted without great embarrassment on all sides, so the two men elected to wait and see how Hutchinson would respond to Hillsborough’s letter of 14 April informing him that he had indeed already been appointed governor in chief. When Hutchinson at last received Hillsborough’s letter, he was ready to continue in office, but a second letter (written after receipt of news of the Boston Massacre) left it unclear how, if at all, the ministry would respond to the event, and political gridlock in Parliament blocked any attempt to suppress the merchants’ nonimportation agreements.

    The new assembly that met in Cambridge on 30 May seemed no more disposed to conduct business there than the last. Even after ceasing to dispute the legality of meeting anywhere other than Boston, the House refused to proceed to business. Meanwhile, Hutchinson continued the session by short prorogations, hoping vainly that he would receive advice from England that would enable him to proceed against what he perceived to be the “illegal combinations of the merchants,” which not only sought to undermine an act of Parliament but had arrogated to themselves the power to instruct citizens where and how they might dispose of their property.

    Despite the intransigence of the General Court, Hutchinson had by early June clearly rethought his decision not to be governor. He had successfully put off the trial of Preston and the soldiers until the fall, and it seemed increasingly likely that an end to nonimportation in Philadelphia and New York would cause Boston merchants to end their boycott on everything except tea. Consequently, he began to hint in his letters to Bernard and Hillsborough that if his earlier communications had not completely derailed his prospects, he would accept the office.

    Not everyone in Boston was pleased by the delay in the trials, and rumors began to circulate that Preston would be taken from the Boston gaol, never particularly secure, and lynched. Both Bernard and Gage urged Hutchinson to remove Preston and the soldiers to the safety of Castle William, but Hutchinson doubted he had the legal authority to do so, since the fortress was not a prison.19 Fortunately, letters from the patriots’ allies in Whitehall and Westminster arrived in mid-summer, urging the need for moderation and a fair trial lest Bostonians be perceived as blood-thirsty and lawless.

    On 6 July, the Privy Council’s inquiry into the events of the Boston Massacre concluded with an Order in Council decreeing the transfer of Castle William to regular troops and a rendezvous of the North American fleet in Boston Harbor.20 Most assumed that these were preliminary measures to a general reform of the Massachusetts constitution which would strengthen royal control by changing the way councilors were chosen, altering judicial appointments to service at the king’s pleasure, and removing the choice of grand jurymen from town control. Hillsborough and Bernard continued to work on that assumption and pressed Hutchinson for his views on those issues, but such plans for reform eventually fell victim to the North ministry’s lack of a clear majority concerning American affairs.

    New York merchants resumed importing all items except tea on 11 July, and it looked as if Philadelphia would soon follow suit. Boston desperately tried to hold nearby ports like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Newport, Rhode Island, to the previous agreement, but discipline even among their own members was waning.

    On 25 July, Hutchinson convened the General Court at Cambridge where once again the House refused to conduct business anywhere other than Boston. This time, however, the language of the House’s response to the governor’s opening message was more combative, including disrespectful allusions to Lord Hillsborough, criticism of Hutchinson’s conduct in previous years, and a list of grievances that they wished to right.21 Hutchinson dismissed them on 3 August and prorogued the legislature until 5 September.

    By early August, Whitehall bureaucrats began to sort out the confusion caused by Hutchinson’s hesitancy to assume the governorship. After receiving so many conflicting letters, both Francis Bernard and Richard Jackson were confused about how the fees for Hutchinson’s commission would be paid. But just as soon as the document began to move forward once again, it was delayed by Lord Hillsborough’s departure for his country seat in Ireland. The plan was that once Hutchinson was governor, Andrew Oliver would become lieutenant governor and Hutchinson’s nephew, Nathaniel Rogers, the new secretary of the province. When Rogers died suddenly on 9 August, both Hutchinson and Bernard advanced Thomas Flucker’s name to fill the vacancy.

    On the evening of 8 September, Hutchinson received an express from General Thomas Gage in New York containing the Order in Council of 6 July mandating that Castle William be turned over to royal control. Despite the fact that a regiment of regulars occupied Castle Island, Hutchinson had previously hesitated to relinquish formal control of the fort itself; now there could be no mistake about such a direct order. Together, Hutchinson and William Dalrymple devised a formula whereby Hutchinson, who according to the charter was commander-in-chief of all fortresses within the province, would dismiss the provincial garrison on the morning of 10 September and turn over control to Dalrymple. In this way, Hutchinson could maintain that he, as chief executive of the province, was still in ultimate control, even though the fort was now garrisoned by regulars.22

    The news of the transfer stunned the Council. The move appears to have been one of the few instances in the decade before the Revolution where royal authorities seemed to have caught their patriot critics off guard. The General Court, when it reconvened on 25 September, fulminated against the transfer and worried about powder and other stores purchased by the province still at the Castle, but by this time the move was a fait accompli.

    Preston and the soldiers were arraigned for murder on 7 September, but because of a lengthy jury selection process, the trial did not actually begin until 24 October. During the weeks prior, Hutchinson worried about how to deal with a guilty verdict. He had received an order from Lord Hillsborough to delay any sentence so that there could be an appeal for royal pardon, but Hutchinson feared such a heavy-handed intervention might regenerate popular resentment after the transfer of the Castle to royal control. Hutchinson favored a tactic whereby Preston’s counsel might move for an arrest of judgment before he was actually sentenced. But little of the evidence at the trial seemed to support the view of the Massacre put forward in the Short Narrative compiled by the town, and the jury found Preston not guilty.23

    Although the trial of the rest of the soldiers would not begin until 27 November, Hutchinson was now hopeful that they too would either be acquitted or found guilty only of manslaughter. Thus, October 1770 ended with Hutchinson feeling the most self-assured in his role as governor since Francis Bernard had left the troublesome province fifteen months before.