The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


His official patrons distrusted him. Governor Thomas Pownall, who in 1757 recommended Hutchinson’s appointment to the lieutenant governorship in a letter of elaborate praise—“He has (and deserves, I will pawn my credit and honor upon it) universally the best character of any man in this continent, both as to his head and heart”—left Massachusetts three years later enraged at the conduct of his associate. Both Sir Francis Bernard, who succeeded Pownall as governor in 1760 and who served as Hutchinson’s personal agent in London in 1769-1771, and Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies during the same years, who appointed Hutchinson to the governorship, disapproved of his conduct at several points. F.ven Hillsborough’s benign successor, Lord Dartmouth, the soul of Christian charity, who was extremely well disposed to Hutchinson and eventually became a friend of his, came to believe that Hutchinson had blundered badly as governor and in a bizarre episode attempted, at great cost to his official dignity as secretary of state, to correct what he considered to be Hutchinson’s most costly error. And no less an authority than Lord North, according to the contemporary annalist George Chalmers, believed that Hutchinson, through his indiscretions, had personally precipitated the outbreak of the Revolution.

Thus the great men of the day; but what of more ordinary opinion? One of the most remarkable documents of the age survives to testify. Through the decade that followed the Stamp Act a Boston shopkeeper with the unlikely name of Harbottle Dorr, unknown to history except for a passing involvement with the Sons of Liberty, carefully collected the leading Boston newspapers as they were published and preserved them for posterity in four huge volumes. Not only collected them but, “at my shop amidst my business &c., when I had not leisure to be exact,” annotated them, elaborately, with pungent personal comments on the news of the day and with cross-references in his own pagination, backward and forward to documents supporting or refuting the charges printed in the newspaper columns. And more than that: Dorr bound into the volumes the most important pamphlets of the time and then in conclusion indexed it all, volume by volume, with analytical categories that reveal as clearly as any document of the time the compelling concerns of an ordinary man.

Hutchinson is among the first of these concerns. Dorr’s index and commentaries catalogue Hutchinson’s errors, correct his misstatements, and warn at every turn of his evil intentions. A columnist’s claim that the colonies “had no rights of our own” is identified by Dorr in the margin as “Hutchinsonian doctrine.” When Hutchinson’s zeal is praised, Dorr scribbles, “no compliment to him; quite the reverse, as coming from such an infamous ministry or their tools.” He footnotes a vague newspaper reference to government advisors known to be “supple eno’ to bow the knee of servility to the tool of a tool of an haughty Thane,” with the explanation “Hutchinson (governor) is a tool to Lord Hillsborough, Lord Hillsborough a tool to Bute, and the Earl of Bute a tool of the Devil!” Dorr will hear nothing of Hutchinson’s professed desire to promote the prosperity of his country: “words,” he scribbles in the margin, “are but wind; actions speak louder.” He jubilantly records a report that “Governor Hutchinson attempted to cut his throat”; explodes in the margins when the hated name appears—“vile hypocrite! and slanderer,” “arch fiend,” “traitor!”—; and at one point writes simply, in smoldering indignation, “Oh the villain!”

There were some, of course, who disagreed. Hulchinson’s protégé, in-law, and colleague Peter Oliver, in his “Origin & Progress of the American Rebellion,” wrote a lyric apostrophe to Hutchinson’s virtues, which he summarized as “an acumen of genius united with a solidity of judgment and great regularity of manners”—qualities, he pointed out, that nature only sparingly confers. Some who knew Hutchinson only by reputation were amazed when they actually met him. The Bostonians, William Eden wrote in 1774, shortly after Hutchinson arrived in England, “thought Hutchinson a tyrant—I met him on Thursday last, at the Attorney General’s—they might as well have taken a lamb for a tiger.” But these were minority opinions. The feeling was widespread among well-informed Americans that Thomas Hutchinson had betrayed his country; that for sordid, selfish reasons he had accepted and abetted —even stimulated—oppressive measures against the colonies; that he had supported them even in the face of a threat of armed resistance; and that in this sense his personal actions lay at the heart of the Revolution. So it was said, again and again. Was it true?