The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


It is hard to imagine a man less disposed by background or heritage to betray his countrymen than Thomas Hutchinson. His family had helped to found New England, and they had prospered with its growth. Until Thomas only one of the family had been famous: the notorious seventeenth-century Anne, who had refused to adjust her singular convictions to the will of the community, for which she had been banished, to die in exile. But the family’s main interest had never been hers. The Hutchinsons had been tradesmen in London before the Puritan migration; in New England they became merchants and remained merchants, with remarkable consistency, generation after generation. In the course of a century and a half they produced, in the stem line of the family, not a single physician, not a single lawyer, and not a single teacher or minister. The entire clan devoted itself to developing its property and the network of trade, based on kinship lines at every point, that Anne’s brothers and nephews had created in the midseventeenth century. They prospered solidly but not greatly. Their enterprises were careful, not grand. They were accumulators, down-to-earth, unromantic middlemen, whose, solid, petit-bourgeois characteristics became steadily more concentrated in the passage of years until in Thomas, in the fifth generation, they reached an apparently absolute and perfect form.

He was born in Boston in 1711. His father, Colonel Thomas Hutchinson, had risen somewhat, though not greatly, beyond the level of his two prosperous merchantshipowner relatives, Elisha and Eliakim. The colonel served on the provincial Council for over twenty years, donated the building for a Latin grammar school (which his son would attend), and improved into provincial magnificence the imposing town house bequeathed to him by a widowed aunt. The colonel’s marriage fitted perfectly the pattern of his classically bourgeois existence. His wife, Sarah Foster, ten years his senior, was the daughter of John Foster, the Boston merchant to whom he had been apprenticed in trade, of status identical to the Hutchinson family’s, who engaged in the same kinds of trade as they did and to whom, by force of the remarkable endogamy that characterizes the family history, Colonel Thomas became triply related by other marriages between the two families.

Colonel Thomas set the pattern for young Thomas’ life. He was industrious, charitable, unaffected, unworldly, and clannish. A strait-laced, pious provincial, he read the Scriptures to his family mornings and evenings and devoted himself to trade and to the welfare of his kin and community. For over thirty years, his son later recorded, Colonel Thomas “kept a table on Saturdays with a salt fish or bacalao [codfish] dinner.” To this unpretentious feast he regularly invited only four close friends, all of them merchants, two of them relatives; only “now and then,” his son recalled, was a clergyman added to the group.

For young Thomas, the future governor, there was no break in the continuity of family and community life. He entered Harvard at the age of twelve, where he developed not so much the intellectual interests that later became important to him as his ability and resources in trade. At the time he entered college, he recalled a half century later, his father undertook his proper education by presenting him with “two or three quintals of fish.” From this humble capital he managed to build, by “adventuring to sea” through his college years, a fund of £4-500 sterling, which, combined with an inheritance from his father, became a fortune, by provincial standards, by the time of the Revolution: in cash fifteen times his original capital, and in real estate eight houses, including the Boston mansion he had inherited, two wharves and a variety of lots and shop properties in Boston, and in suburban Milton a country house universally admired for its simple beauty and splendid setting and a hundred acres of choice land.

Additional property in cash and real estate came to him through his marriage, which served for him as it had for his father to reinforce the family’s dominant characteristics. The Sanfords of Rhode Island had been related to the Hutchinsons by marriage and in business for four generations; as early as the 1640’s the two families had worked together to build the first important New England commercial network, the Hutchinsons controlling the primary London-Boston link and the marketing to the west, the Sanford in-laws handling the secondary routes to the south and, through cousins in Barbados, the links to the West Indies and the Wine Islands. Margaret Sanford, daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of New England merchants, was seventeen in 1734, when Hutchinson married her. At their marriage, the governor of Massachusetts wrote in a businesslike letter of introduction for their honeymoon trip, the couple could claim a joint fortune of £5-6,000 sterling; Thomas, he said, was “a young gentleman of exact virtue [and] of good natural sense,” a bit too modest, perhaps, but a successful merchant and universally esteemed.