Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Featured Artifact:Hutchinson’s History of Massachusetts Bay

Thomas Hitchinson,
Wiki Commons image.
Long before the burgeoning patriot movement became bold enough to attack the King, governor Thomas Hutchinson was the original bogeyman of the revolution. To a reader of the Boston Gazette he would represent the worst of the imperial government; an arrogant uncaring aristocrat who abused the power of the many offices that he held because of his family name rather than merit. Sensationalist news isn’t a recent invention however, and the real Hutchinson scarcely resembles the one created and demonized for over a century by his opponents. The real Hutchinson is almost a tragic figure, torn between his love for New England and his loyalty to the government despite a painful awareness that many of their actions were mistaken. Further contradicting the image of Hutchinson as a snobby aristocrat is his work as a historian. With a lifetime of experience and reference material as a politician, Thomas Hutchinson labored in his free time to produce a three volume history of the Massachusetts Bay colony, spanning from 1692 to his departure to London in 1774. Although the tone of his work is a bit dry by modern standards, Hutchinson’s History is still impressive for its thoroughness and objective retelling of the colonies past. That he was fair and impartial to his harshest and most bitter critics such as Samuel Adams and James Otis is telling of his character. As part of the extensive collection of Lloyd Smith, the Morristown National Historical Park is fortunate enough to have an original manuscript of Vol. 3 of Hutchinson’s History series. In this blog, we will discuss Hutchinson’s family and early life up to his appointment as acting governor in 1760.

      Thomas Hutchinson was born in 1711 to a family that had already achieved renown in New England. Arriving in 1634, William and Anne Hutchinson initially had a troubled start, being exiled from Boston for religious disagreements and later being murdered by Natives in Long Island. One of their surviving sons, Edward, worked hard and gradually redeemed his family name in Boston, having a varied career as a member of the General Court and chief commander during King Phillips War. Ultimately, he too would be killed by Natives, though not before firmly establishing a tradition of public service in the Hutchinson family. This tradition continued through his grandchild, Thomas Hutchinson Sr., father of the historian-governor. Along with inspiring his son with his dedication to public service, the elder Thomas makes an exotic appearance in history having been present for the capture of the famed pirate captain William Kidd.  The younger Hutchinson grew up with a profitable trading business already established for him, along with a firm conviction that he was meant to lead the people of his colony.

Eighteenth-century Boston,
Wiki Commons image.
Hutchinson began his long career in public service at age twenty-six in 1737, as a member of the lower house of Boston’s General Court. Almost immediately his behavior and beliefs made him a controversial figure, despite his low position in government. An expert on currency, Hutchinson strongly supported ‘hard money’ as opposed to the paper currency favored by his opponents as well as his constituents. Against their wishes, he voted in opposition to a bill they had mandated. This was keeping with his troublesome tendency to defer to the elite (in this case himself) over the public in matters of leadership, unafraid to make what he believed to be the right decision just because it was unpopular. His defiance would come off to many as arrogance for years to come, and his fiscal policy earned him much enmity, including from his most prominent lifelong critic Samuel Adams. Years later some would grudgingly agree that Hutchinson’s decisions as far as economic matters went were correct, with even John Adams admitting he knew of no greater expert on the subject of currency. Regardless, it should come as little surprise that good policy presented in a standoffish manner wouldn’t endear Hutchinson to his fellows.           

Hutchinson’s political career advanced at a steady pace, securing the position of speaker of the lower house in 1749, as well as a seat in the upper house. This would mark the start of another point of critique by his critics; the fact that he held multiple powerful offices at the same time. All the while he continued to court further controversy and lasting disdain with his self-assured policy on economic matters. Still, throughout the 1740’s and early 50’s he proved himself a capable and compassionate politician, showing genuine concern for not only the many refugees of the period but even for the Native American tribes in the region. Following the death of beloved wife in 1754 he threw himself into his work to an extent matched only by his ambition, having a firm eye on the role of governor which he felt he was destined to hold. His ambitions would be aided by a healthy relationship with the upper classes both in the colony and back in England. If he was not one to explain himself to those he considered lower than him, Hutchinson was flattering and deferential to his superiors almost to the point of brown-nosing. Whatever the case, his actions paid off with an appointment to lieutenant-governor in 1758 under Governor Thomas Pownall. His departure in 1760 placed Hutchinson in the role of governor as he awaited the arrival of Pownall’s replacement, Francis Bernard.

For the brief period he held the seat of governor waiting for Francis Bernard, Thomas Hutchinson proved himself an able minister, directing his efforts on securing payment for veterans of the Seven Years’ War out of recognition of their efforts. It is perhaps for this strong performance that Hutchinson was awarded by Bernard with yet another office to hold, that of chief justice of the Superior Court. Unfortunately, this controversial decision gained Hutchinson many lifelong critics. Aside from Samuel Adams, no critic would prove louder than James Otis Jr., furious that the post had not gone to his father to whom it had been promised to by the previous governor. Others bemoaned the fact that Hutchinson was holding yet another office and were especially skeptical that he could serve as chief justice without any legal training. As always, Hutchinson dealt with such concerns and criticism with apathy and a hand-wave. While there is no evidence that he desired the position and knowingly snubbed James Otis Sr., a one-time ally and friend, he nonetheless failed to recognize how much enmity this would earn him.

Despite his lack of legal training, Hutchinson’s love of reading likely prepared him well for the role, and he proved to have a firm understanding of the issues sent his way. Unfortunately, his broader perspective on the affairs of the kingdom would further increase the ire of some Boston natives, particularly merchants. While smuggling goods was the norm among Boston merchants, Hutchinson dispassionately upheld the right of the government to issue search warrants and crack down on the practice. While his judgment was based on precedent and sound legal principles, the merchant opposition led by James Otis was nonetheless outraged. Although his mental instability would eventually lead to an unceremonious ejection from politics, James Otis was an eloquent speaker that criticized Hutchinson with increasingly harsh language, painting him as a force of evil and tyranny.

For whatever reason, perhaps his England-focused mindset, Hutchinson did not treat his colonial critics as seriously as he should have. He long remained only amused by James Otis, assuming that his criticisms were being directed by political opponents in England, or out of a lack of understanding of his policies. Hutchinson didn’t expect every one of his decisions to be understood by the common man, nor did he feel the need to inform them of his reasons. His personal thoughts on his critics are more reminiscent of an authoritarian parent than an arrogant aristocrat, one amused that his children were throwing a tantrum and confident that someday they would realize it was all for their own good. Unfortunately for Hutchinson, his critics were more than willing to fill his silence with their own words. This would lead to dire consequences in 1764 with the passage of the Sugar and Stamp acts in Parliament, meant to tax the colonies to help pay for the recently ended Seven Years’ War. Privately Hutchinson supported neither act, questioning their legitimacy and believing the price of the tax was too high. Nonetheless, as lieutenant-governor he recognized them to be legal and planned to uphold them. His private efforts to stall their implementation were subtle and nonconfrontational, escaping the notice of his critics, thus putting forward the impression that he supported the acts. Less reasonably, a baseless rumor spread via his critics and the press that Hutchinson had actually co-authored the Stamp Act. It is difficult to believe that the likes of Samuel Adams and James Otis were really not smart enough to know better, but if they truly believed the rumor it might just be telling of how much they despised Hutchinson.

That such a rumor existed helps to explain the destruction of Hutchinson’s home by an angry mob, but not entirely. Hutchinson was not the first victim; a close friend named Andrew Oliver, similarly rumored to soon take the post of ‘stamp master’, was so shaken by the destruction of his home that he resigned from his political posts. Hutchinson bravely arrived on the scene and attempted to stop the riot (without success), yet he still did not expect he would become a target. This may have been a result of some misguided assurances by friends that he was a popular man in the colony, and surely was unlikely to be attacked. Although Hutchinson definitely underestimated his many enemies, he wasn’t entirely mistaken to take his friends words to heart. His loud critics’ aside, for the time being he was looked upon favorably by most colonists as a good and able politician. Not by all of them, however. On August 26th, 1765, (making this year the 250th anniversary of the attack) a large crowd assaulted his home and destroyed everything in it, the governor thankfully being warned in time to escape to a neighbor’s house.

Although shaken, Hutchinson displayed his firm convictions by refusing to be intimidated into action even as he was forced to speak before the court with borrowed clothing. In his first speech following the attack, he explicitly stated his dislike of the Stamp Act while also warning his fellow citizens about the danger of indulging in mob violence based on rumor alone. Despite suggesting that the rioters were merely incensed by the Stamp Act, in private Hutchinson believed they were directed by a group of merchants called the Loyal Nine. Very little is known about this group beyond their identities as nine wealthy Boston merchants who would have been firmly opposed to the Stamp Act for business reasons. Samuel Adams was related to one of their members, and John Adams once described attending a meeting, but their activities and agenda are unknown. When accounting the raid in his history series, Hutchinson never mentions this group, suggesting that objective evidence for their activities was lacking even then. Whatever the truth, Hutchinson moved on from the event with true professionalism, acting as a fair and capable leader until finally losing control of the increasingly rowdy city of Boston in 1774.

Hutchinson once joked to a friend that as a historian he would have the last laugh over his critics. However, despite the fact that his chief critics in Boston such as Samuel Adams were becoming increasingly hostile and personal in their attacks, Hutchinson nonetheless portrayed them and their beliefs fairly in Volume three of his History. In his own words, Hutchinson admits to being a poor writer when it came to describing people, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves. His thoroughness and dedication to objectivity was new and impressive for the literature of the period.


Hosmer, James. The Life of Thomas Hutchinson. (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1896)

Hutchinson, Thomas. The History of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay, vol. 1, ed. Lawrence
Mayo (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936)

Walmsley, Andrew. Thomas Hutchinson & the Origins of the American Revolution.     (New York: New York University Press, 1999)

Zobel, Hiller. The Boston Massacre. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970)

This blog entry by Tyler Spiridakis, Drew University

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