The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


It is not much to go on, but it is suggestive. For his prose conveys the same qualities. He wrote easily, abundantly, and logically. But the style is not only unaffected and unadorned in the extreme, devoid of images, figures of speech, thin even in adjectives, but so lacking in emphasis, so unpunctuated, so still , as to seem at times inarticulate. The same could be said of almost every expression of Hutchinson’s personality. He was by instinct political, not philosophical; inductive, not deductive; he sought to succeed in the world he knew, not transform it. At least as to his own career, he once wrote, he felt himself to be what he called “a quietist, being convinced that what is, is best.” So he counselled a too-stubborn political ally to “strive to be more of a willow and less of an oak. We don’t live in Plato’s Commonwealth, and when we can’t have perfection we ought to comply with the measure that is least remote from it.” He was circumspect in everything he did. Caution, control, and prudence were the guiding principles of his life. “My temper,” he wrote in a characteristic understatement, “does not incline to enthusiasm.” Everyone recognized it. You are, Governor Bernard wrote Hutchinson in 1769 after handing over to him the colony’s government, “a much prudenter man than I ever pretended to be,” and, he added, with more of a double meaning than he might have admitted, you “will take care of yourself.” Hutchinson knew that his administration would be very burdensome and very precarious, but that, he said, would only “excite in me the more caution and circumspection.” He tried never to overextend himself—“I don’t love to promise too much”—and “never chose to give an opinion suddenly” on a matter of importance.

He rarely wrote an important letter only once. Drafts, notes, and revisions of letters abound in his papers; in them one can trace successive alterations and excisions that soften the edge of his original thought. Richard Jackson was one of his most intimate correspondents; he was the only person, in England at least, to whom, for a brief period, Hutchinson expressed his more or less unqualified opinions. Yet in 1762, when affairs were in fact placid in Massachusetts, he carefully removed from a letter to Jackson the sentence “We have violent parties in our little mock Parliament, and sometimes the public interest gives way to private piques and prejudices, as well as with you.” Whole letters on important topics are drafted, redrafted, and then if the sentiment is found still to be injudicious, or likely to be thought so, left in draft and filed away with the notation “not sent.”

In all ways he was cautious and temperate. He permitted himself no ostentation in clothes. A laced coat, he said, was “too gay for me”; he preferred “a grave, genteel waistcoat,” for, he wrote, he “would not be singular.” As governor he had hoped to make do with his father’s old carriage, but his friends told him his station required a more fashionable one. He agreed, then wrote his agents in England to get him one—secondhand, at a substantial saving: “it can’t be too plain if neat and light,” he wrote. None of this was senseless penny-pinching or dour prudery, and he was no misanthrope. He had no objection to stage plays, banned by the General Court of Massachusetts; he collected statuary (in cheap reproductions); and he hung in his hall a variety of paintings and fashionable prints, among them Hogarth’s “Marriage àla Mode” series, in “rich frames and glass.”

In religion too he was rational, circumspect, and cool. He honored his family’s traditional commitment to the Congregational Church, joining at the age of twenty-four the so-called New Brick Church of his college tutor and brother-in-law, the Reverend William Welsteed, to which he remained faithful, in formal terms at least, until he left America in 1774 and in which he baptized his children. He was closer in spirit, however, to his lifelong friend, the tolerant, rationalist, nondoctrinaire Reverend Andrew Eliot, and to the Episcopal preacher Henry Caner, whose Anglican church he frequently attended, than he was to Welsteed or his Calvinist successor, Ebenezer Pemberton. For he despised the fanaticism of the Puritans, either in its ancestral form, laced as it was with those fine-spun doctrinal subtleties that led men to torture each other in passionate self-righteousness, or in its more modern, more pietistic form, whose crankish adherents “scarce ever settled an account with anybody without a lawsuit.” The career of his great-great-grandmother Anne fascinated and chilled him. Her sincere religious passion, he felt, was in itself no more humane than the destructive fervor of her enemies.

A true religious life to Hutchinson meant simply the worship of God and rectitude. He judged the practice of religion by its results in human terms: “The longer I live the less stress I lay upon the modes and forms in religion, and do not love a good man the less because he and I are not just of the same way of thinking.” He did not think that integrity and virtue ultimately depended on a belief in the supernatural; such a belief, he felt, as often bred stupid superstition and cruel bigotry as it did decency, tolerance, and justice in human dealings.