Stubborn scapegoat

Now, granted, Thomas Hutchinson was bull-headed. And granted he collected offices the way Franklin Roosevelt collected postage stamps. And granted that he was neither well loved nor well respected. (John Adams described him as an avaricious “courtier.”) Granted, too, that as the last royal governor of Massachusetts, he was an amazingly thorough failure. Lord North (himself not much of a statesman) thought that the outbreak of the revolutionary war was caused as much by the publication of Hutchinson’s confidential letters as any other single thing. So, as a statesman, a failure. But was the American-born Hutchinson a traitor to the colonies, and to the cause of freedom, as so often charged? Hardly. For all his faults, he deserves sympathy as the highest-placed victim of the unofficial lynchings sponsored by the Sons of Liberty.

Hutchinson was born in 1711, which made him not quite 60 at the time of the Boston Tea Party. There was nothing to be said against his ancestry. He was a direct descendant of Anne Hutchinson, who took on the Puritans of Boston, helped found Rhode Island, and wound up taking refuge with the Dutch to avoid bigoted Puritan revenge. In fact, his own life may be seen as a sort of distorted mirror of hers. His more immediate ancestry, on both sides, consisted of well-off merchants. Hutchinson was born respectable, and never got over it.

He graduated from Harvard College at 16, was conspicuously successful at commerce from an early age, made a happy marriage, and at age 26 was elected first as a selectman in the city of Boston and then as a member of the General Court, which is what Massachusetts called its general assembly. He was a “hard money” man long before the term came into use. Thomas Hart Benton would have approved, but his contemporaries did not, until in 1749 he sponsored a bill that succeeded in replacing the colony’s paper money with specie without bringing on a depression. After that, he was very popular for a while. But time would demonstrate that he had a positive genius for misreading the times and alienating people.

No reason to detail his career before 1758. Among other things he was appointed to the Governor’s Council; was appointed judge of probate and a Common Pleas justice; he was named a delegate to the Albany Convention (of which we shall take notice in due course) where he drafted a plan for colonial union in cooperation with Benjamin Franklin. Then he was appointed lieutenant governor. When the governor obtained leave to return to England, in 1759, Hutchinson served as acting governor until the next governor, Francis Bernard, arrived to assume office. Bernard promptly appointed Hutchinson Chief Justice of the province’s superior court, although Hutchinson had no legal training and had not sought the post.

He never should have accepted the post, for at least three reasons. One, Hutchinson made some bad decisions, including authorizing arbitrary searches by customs officials. Two, he left himself open to criticism as avaricious of power, since besides being chief justice, he was lieutenant governor and a member of the Governor’s Council. Three and perhaps most important, in taking the post he made an enemy of James Otis Sr. and the popular party.

Bad enough, but then came the Sugar Act, and the Stamp Act. Hutchinson opposed the Sugar Act, and he and Bernard warned London not to proceed with the 1765 Stamp Act, but Hutchinson opposed the use of radical language in the assembly’s petition to Parliament, got it moderated, and privately supported calls for its repeal. His reward was to be accused of secretly favoring the act.

Hutchinson opposed the Stamp Act, but he allowed his brother-in-law to become “stamp master,” responsible to implement the act in the province. On 13 August 1765, mobs sacked the brother-in-law’s home and office, and two weeks later they destroyed Hutchinson’s Boston house (the family narrowly escaping). The family silver was stolen, the furniture was stolen or destroyed, and Hutchinson’s collection of historically important manuscripts was scattered. There were no police, there were no troops. The Sons of Liberty had it all their own way.

The house he lost in Boston

Governor Bernard requested troops to protect crown officials, a little late. When the Stamp Act was followed by the Townshend Acts, Bernard was recalled, and left for England in August, 1769, leaving Hutchinson as acting governor, in the time for the Boston Massacre. He went to the scene, promised that justice would be applied fairly, and had the British soldiers arrested. Then he resigned.

But while his letter of resignation was traveling east, his commission as governor was traveling west, and with the commission came strict instructions. One restricted meetings of the governor’s council, another required the governor’s approval of appointment as colonial agents. A third relocated the provincial assembly across the river in Cambridge, to insulate it from Boston hooligans under political control. The radicals saw, or pretended to see, this as a usurpation of power, never conceding that mob rule might inspire and require counter-measures. And when Hutchinson announced that his salary henceforth would be paid by the crown, even the province’s moderates moved closer to the rulers of the mob, as fears continue to escalate.

In 1772, Hutchinson had told the assembly that the colony either was wholly subject to Parliament, or was effectively independent. The assembly’s response stated that the colonial charter granted autonomy. This was of course reported to the colonial secretary in England, and he told colonial agent Benjamin Franklin that the assembly must retract its response.

Now, here’s where you have to decide how big a camel you are willing to swallow. Franklin sent, to the speaker of the Massachusetts assembly, a package of letters that Hutchinson and other colonial officials had written in the late 1760s, saying that they must not be widely circulated, because he was not “at liberty to make the letters public.” Franklin, in reading the letters, had concluded that they had misinformed Parliament of the situation. He sent the letters hoping to deflect the colony’s anger from Parliament to Hutchinson and others. But how could they do that if they were not to be circulated?

Of course the inevitable happened. Samuel Adams, clerk of the assembly, got his hands on them and got them published in June 1773, and in short order they were reprinted throughout the colonies. Can anybody believe that Franklin intended any other outcome? And Samuel Adams was careful about what he did and didn’t allow into print, making it seem as though Hutchinson had been conspiring with officials in London to deprive the colonists of their rights.

It was as ruthless as using mobs to terrorize Boston, and as successful. The assembly demanded Hutchinson’s removal. Hutchinson requested permission to come to England to defend himself. By the time he received the letter authorizing his return, the season was too late for travel, so he was still in Boston for its Tea Party, which he inadvertently helped cause by preventing the ships from leaving port without having paid duty.

In May, 1774, Massachusetts got a new governor, General Thomas Gage. And in June Hutchinson sailed for England, thinking it was for only a short time, not dreaming that he would never see his country again. He was well received by the king, by the colonial secretary, and by the prime minister, but his political life was over. The king offered to make Hutchinson a baronet, but he had lost most of his fortune when his American properties were confiscated, and had to decline. On July 4, 1776, of all dates, Oxford University awarded Hutchinson an honorary doctorate of law degree.

In exile, Hutchinson continued work on his history of the colony, the first two volumes of which had been published in Boston in 1764 and 1767, spanning the years 1628 to 1750. The third volume (posthumously published in 1828, in London), covered the years 1749-1774 and comprised, he said, “a detailed narrative of the origins and early states of the American revolution.” Hutchinson died in London in 1780, aged 68, an unwilling exile, maligned and impoverished.


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