The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson

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Four years later, at the age of twenty-six, Hutchinson entered politics. He was never thereafter out of it, and he maintained an altogether consistent policy in defense of what, until the great issues of the 1760’s intervened, were widely considered to be the basic interests of the colony. As representative of Boston to the Massachusetts House from 1737 to 1749 (with the exception of a single year) and a councillor for the succeeding seventeen years, he distinguished himself by his effective defense of a hard-money policy and by his equally determined defense of the territorial integrity of Massachusetts and of its chartered rights. So convinced was the community of Hutchinson’s “disinterestedness and integrity,” Pownall reported in 1757, that even those who most sharply disagreed with him continued to respect him, even to revere him. In the end Hutchinson’s views on the money question prevailed, in part because of the shrewd use that Massachusetts, led by Hutchinson, was able to make of the specie it received from the English government as repayment for its contribution to the war against France; and in part because when in 1741 the issue developed into a crisis that threatened violence, Governor Jonathan Belcher had seized the initiative and stamped out the incipient rebellion by force. There was no limit, Belcher wrote Hutchinson in a portentous letter of 1741, to what political fanatics would do; they would even defy Parliament, for the common people were told by their leaders that they were out of the reach of the government of England, and the Assembly was made to think they were as big as the Parliament of Great Britain. “They are grown so brassy and hardy as to be now combining in a body to raise a rebellion. … I have this day sent the sheriff and his officers to apprehend some of the heads of the conspirators, so you see we are becoming ripe for a smarter sort of government.”

In 1740 Hutchinson was sent by the colony to England to plead the case of certain Massachusetts landowners whose property had fallen to New Hampshire in a Crown ruling on the colony’s boundary, and he negotiated repeatedly, almost annually, with the border Indians in the interest of his native colony, managed the province’s lottery, supervised the financing of the Louisbourg expedition of 1745, dealt with other colonies on joint military efforts, and adjudicated boundary disputes with Connecticut and Rhode Island.

It is hard to see what more he could have done to serve his countrymen or how, as a leader of the establishment in trade and politics, he could have been more enlightened.

Yet in the end his services were forgotten and he was cursed as a traitor in the land of his birth—cursed not merely by the wild men, the alarmists, the political paranoids, and the professional agitators, but by some of the most stable, sensible people of the time, many of whom knew him personally. There was, they said, some deep flaw in his character, some perversion of personality, some profound “malignancy of heart,” that had turned his patriotism into treason and led him to sacrifice the general good for the most sordid, selfish gain.

What do we know of the personality of Thomas Hutchinson, his character, his style and sensibility? Surprisingly little. Of all the people who worked with him, struggled against him, cursed and denounced him, not one left a sketch of his character or even of his appearance more detailed or perceptive than James Otis’ remark that he was “a tall, slender, fair-complexioned, fair-spoken, ‘very good gentleman.’ ” John Adams, who wrote voluminously about him and was capable, beyond any other American of the eighteenth century, of casting a character, left polemics but no account of his person. Only one authentic portrait of Hutchinson exists, painted in London when Hutchinson was thirty. It is superficial but incidentally revealing. It shows a person dressed in utmost simplicity, slim in form, with a narrow face and undistinguished features. The lips are full but slightly compressed and pursed. There is a wisp of a smile, but no real attempt at expression. The overall effect is that of constraint, simplicity, and an almost total lack of emphasis, flair, or style.