The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


On July fourth, 1776, almost eleven stormy years after the sack of his mansion, Thomas Hutchinson, by now the exiled Loyalist governor of Massachusetts, was awarded an honorary doctorate of civil laws by Oxford University. “Probably no distinction which Hutchinson ever attained was more valued by him,” his nineteenth-century biographer wrote; certainly none so fittingly symbolizes the tragedy of his life. For he was honored as an American- the most distinguished as well as the most loyal colonialborn official of his time. Provincial assemblyman, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, councillor, lieutenant governor, chief justice, governor, he had gone through the entire course of public offices and of official honors, and he was in addition America’s most accomplished historian. But to the people who on the day of Hutchinson’s award proclaimed their nation’s independence, he was one of the most hated men on earth—more hated than Lord North, more hated than George in (both of whom, it was believed, he had secretly influenced), and more feared than the sinister Earl of Bute.

“Vile hypocrite! Traitor!” I wrote a Boston citizen, und finally, bursting with indignation, “Oh the villain!” “The distrust and the animosity that Thomas Hntchinson inspired… are morbid, pathological, paranoiac.…”

The distrust and the animosity Thomas Hutchinson inspired surpass any ordinary bounds. The reactions he stirred are morbid, pathological, paranoiac in their intensity.

John Adams was transfixed by him: for fifteen years suspicion, fear, and hatred of Hutchinson were ruling passions. He first recorded his suspicions of Hutchinson in 1760, when he was twenty-five. Five years later he poured out the first of a series of rhetorical cascades against Hutchinson’s “very ambitious and avaricious disposition,” condemned his taking “four of the most important offices in the province into his own hands,” and spoke with bitter ness of his secret network of officeholding kin who together created the “amazing ascendency of one family, foundation sufficient on which to erect a tyranny.” Hutchinson, he said, had not only “monopolized almost all the power of the government to himself and his family” but “has been endeavoring to procure more, both on this side and the other side of the Atlantic.” He was a “courtier,” Adams said, slyly manipulating “the passions and prejudices, the follies and vices of great men in order to obtain their smiles, esteem, and patronage and consequently their favors and preferments”; he was a dissembler, a man of a thousand disguises, hungry for power, for office, and for gain: from him “the liberties of this country [have] more to fear … than from any other man, nay from all other men in the world.” A decade later Adams’ hatred of Hutchinson had become obsessive: “the mazy windings of Hutchinson’s heart and the serpentine wiles of his head,” he wrote, were primary sources of the Anglo-American conflict.

Adams’ opinions, in this case as in so many others, were extreme, but in differing degrees they were widely shared. Josiah Quincy, Jr., convinced “that all the measures against America were planned and pushed on by Bernard and Hutchinson,” went to England in the winter of 1774, with the support of the provincial leadership, in large part to counteract the malevolent influence of Hutchinson and other Tories on administration policy. Samuel Adams, whose political life was formed in struggles with Hutchinson, denied that Hutchinson had true greatness even in evil,for while he was as mad with ambition and lust for power as Caesar, he lacked the c:ourage and intrepidity needed to reduce a free people to slavery. And Mercy Otis Warren in her histoiy of the Revolution devoted page after page to the pernicious influence of that “dark, intriguing, insinuating, haughty, and ambitious” man—so diligent a student of “the intricacies of Machiavellian policy,” so subtle a solicitor of popular support, so hypocritical in his sanctity and ruthless in his lust for power—and to the fatal consequences of “his pernicious administration.”

A “tool of tyrants,” a “damn’d arch traitor ” Hutchinson was hissed in absentia at the official dinner to welcome his successor, General Gage, and when later the Revolutionary mob found his portrait in his house in suburban Milton, they stabbed it with bayonets and tore out one of the eyes. The judicious Franklin spoke of Hutchinson’s duplicity and in 1772 decided that he would have to be destroyed politically if the British Empire were to be preserved.