The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


Thus Hutchinson, and prudence, prevailed—but only briefly, and for the last time, and at great cost. Two developments quickly turned his victory into a dangerous defeat. Reports from the other colonies began to come in. Their petitions—especially New York’s—appeared to be “so high,” Hutchinson wrote, “that the heroes of liberty among us were ashamed of their own conduct,” and they would have reversed their action if it had not been too late. Second, news soon arrived that the Stamp Act had in fact passed despite all the agitation against it in America and that in passing it Parliament had made no distinctions whatever among the various petitions filed against it; no purpose at all had been served by the prudence Hutchinson had imposed on the House. The reaction in Boston was immediate and severe. It was instantly concluded, he reported, “that if all the colonies had shown …firmness and asserted their rights, the act would never have passed,” and therefore if some one person had deliberately destroyed that unanimity, his aim could only have been secretly to promote, not defeat, the Stamp Act, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. And so it was that Hutchinson, as he later realized, because he had been “the promoter, of the [Massachusetts petition], was charged with treachery and … [with] betraying his country.”

So the charge originated; and it stuck, as passions rose in the months between the passage of the Stamp Act and the date of its legal inception, and seemed in fact more and more persuasive. Everything served to confirm the suspicions of Hutchinson’s duplicity that had first been generated by his prudent refusal to defy Parliament’s power in principle. When the stamp master for Massachusetts was announced, he proved to be none other than Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, fellow councillor, and protégé, the colony’s secretary, Andrew Oliver: by this appointment alone Hutchinson’s secret motives seemed to be revealed. Vituperative squibs began to appear in the newspapers. Rumors (lies, Hutchinson said, that shocked him) circulated that he had written secretly to England to encourage the promoters of the act and that copies of those letters had been returned confidentially from London and were available in Boston to be read. Otis swore he knew for a fact that the whole idea of a stamp act had been hatched by Hutchinson and Bernard and that he could point to the very house in Boston- indeed, the very room—in which the act itself had been conceived. Hutchinson fought back. He explained his views again and again, but the only effect this had, he confessed, was to confirm “the groundless suspicions of my having promoted the act.”

By the summer of 1765 suspicious episodes throughout the entire span of Hutchinson’s long career were being recalled in public prints. He still commanded the respect of informed people; he was still a natural as well as a legal leader of his native society. Yet something crucial in all of his activities had been missing—some recognition that security is not all nor prudence necessarily the wisest guide to action, some understanding that in the end law to be effective must reflect human sensibilities, and authority must deserve the respect it would command. Gradually the law he represented had begun to seem arbitrary, his honors to seem undeserved, and the government he led to become distant and insensitive to the needs of the governed.

As his prominence had grown so too had his vulnerability. In the scorching heat of the Stamp Act resistance he became a marked man, and explanations were demanded. On August 14 crowds directed by well-known opposition leaders turned to Hutchinson for the first time, surrounding his mansion and demanding that he “declare to them I had never wrote to England in favor of the Stamp Act.” Since, the leaders said, they respected Hutchinson’s private character, they would accept his personal assurance that he did not favor the act. He knew he had nothing to hide, but should he concede to such intimidation? Was he responsible to a mob? Surely he was “not obliged to give an answer to all the questions that may be put me by every lawless person.” Fortunately an unnamed “grave, elderly tradesman” who was a noted town-meeting speaker intervened and “challenged every one of them to say I had ever done them the least wrong [and] charged them with ingratitude in insulting a gentleman who had been serving his country all his days.” Somehow the speaker convinced the crowd that Hutchinson was not likely to have done anything deliberately to hurt his country and got them to move off. The day closed for Hutchinson with a fervent prayer for “a greater share of fortitude and discretion here than I have ever yet been master of.” Twelve days later the “hellish fury” of August 26 descended on him, his family, and his property in “the most barbarous outrage which ever was committed in America.”