The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


Hutchinson had strongly disapproved of the Stamp Act from the time he first heard of it. He had said so many times—informally in conversation and letters and formally in a treatise he sent to Richard Jackson in July, 1764, with instructions to circulate it where it might do the most good. In this characteristically bland and densely written essay, which was well received in administration circles in England and which was probably drawn on later in the parliamentary debates on repeal, Hutchinson had summarized his views in four forceful arguments against the projected stamp tax: first, that the Crown and Parliament had long ago conceded to the colonies the power to make their own laws and to tax themselves by their own representatives; second, that Americans were in no sense represented in Parliament and hence that the justification for parliamentary taxation based on presumptive representation was invalid; third, that the colonies owed no debt to the English government for their settlement and development- the colonies had been founded and sustained by private enterprise, at times in the face of state opposition; and finally, that economic arguments in favor of the act were fallacious, since England’s natural profit from the colonies, which would be endangered by taxation, was greater than any prospective tax yield.

These were hardheaded arguments—all matters of historical fact or irrefutable logic. They contained no challenge to English authority as such and indulged in no speculative distinctions in Parliament’s power. For Parliament’s ultimate control, Hutchinson believed, was the price of American freedom, and that control must remain paramount, he concluded—in words that a decade later would toll through the continent, the death knell of his political ambition—even if it became necessary for that body to abridge “what are generally called natural rights. … The rights of parts and individuals must be given up when the safety of the whole shall depend on it …it is no more than is reasonable … in return for the protection received against foreign enemies.” It was better, he said, “to submit to some abridgment of our rights than to break off our connection.”

The Massachusetts legislature undertook to prepare a petition to Parliament protesting the proposed stamp tax. The lead was taken by the “heads of the popular party” in the House, Hutchinson explained, who drafted a document that stated the colony’s objections to the stamp duties in passionate and highly theoretical terms, grounded in principles of natural rights and in constitutional guarantees. The Council, over which Hutchinson as lieutenant governor presided, rejected this “informal and incautiously expressed” draft, and a joint committee of the two Houses was formed to frame an acceptable document. Hutchinson was chosen chairman of this committee, and he led it in rejecting two new versions, “both very exceptionable.” “Ten days were spent in this manner,” Hutchinson confided to Jackson, “which I thought time not ill spent as I had the more opportunity of showing them the imprudence of every measure which looked like opposition to the determinations of Parliament.” He explained to them the folly of pressing principles merely because they seemed grand and glittering and somehow pure; he stated the need for calm and compromise; and he expounded the value of supporting existing structures because they were the basis of civil order. But the conferees resisted and in draft after draft confronted him with demands that the theory of the matter, the principles at stake, the commitments that were involved, should be clearly stated. But Hutchinson kept control, of himself and of the situations, and waited, patiently and skillfully, for precisely the right moment to resolve the controversy. He found it when his opponents were altogether “perplexed and tired” and about to resolve wearily on yet another unacceptable proposal; he then “drew a petition to the House of Commons, not just such as I would have chosen if I had been the sole judge but such as I thought the best I could hope for being accepted,” and he pressed this version through. In this way the effort of the “popular party” to draw Massachusetts into “an ample and full declaration of the exclusive right of the people to tax themselves” had been defeated. The address as adopted, Hutchinson explained with some pride, assumed that American control of its own taxation was an indulgence which the colonists prayed the continuance of—”a matter of favor,” he wrote in his History , “and not a claim of right.”