The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


Deeply bred—locked tight—in the culture of an intensely Protestant, mercantile province of the British world and heir to its establishment, he felt no elemental discontent, no romantic aspirations. He sought no conquests in a larger world but steady gains in the one he knew. Like his ancestors before him, he was an accumulator, a slow, relentless acquisitor, and he remained such even after his formal retirement from business in the early 1760’s. But though the desire for gain was an essential part of his nature, he was never crudely avaricious—he was too intelligent and too much a neo-Puritan ascetic for that. His lifelong search for profits, like his quest for power and influence and status, was never ruthless and never flamboyant, and it was deeply conservative in that it presumed the structure of life as it was. Like so many ambitious and modestly creative people, he needed a stable world within which to work, a hierarchy to ascend, and a formal, external calibration by which to measure where he was.

His correspondence radiates respect for status and an instinct for small passages through the complexities of the world. So he wrote the son of an earl who sought his daughter Peggy’s hand that such a marriage would do “the greatest honor to me and my family,” but “it cannot be approved of by the noble family to which you belong. In my station, restrained from respect to My Lord Fitzwilliam, I should think it my duty to do all in my power to discourage any of his sons from so unequal a match with any person in the province, and I should certainly be highly criminal if I should countenance and encourage a match with my own daughter.” So too he declined a baronetcy, when it was offered to him in 1774, for prudential reasons, but then- prudence within prudence—he “thought it not amiss, however, to ask His Lordship, [that], if I should be reproached with being slighted in England, whether I might say that I [had] had the offer of such a mark of honor.” To which His Lordship, he reported, immediately replied (and one can picture the patronizing smile), “‘Most certainly.’” Just so, a decade earlier, in sending Richard Jackson copies of Volume i of his History to distribute where they might do the most good, he specified certain particularly important recipients and then instructed Jackson to present a halfdozen other copies “where you think they may be acceptable, as high up as may be in character for me, and order the binding according to the quality of the person.”

Sensitively attuned to a world of status, bland, constrained, realistic, unromantic, ambitious, and acquisitive, he was, for all his hatred of religious zeal, the Puritan manqué. For he retained the self-discipline and seriousness of the colony’s stern founders and something of their asceticism; but he lacked their passion, their transcendent vision, and above all their inner certainty.

For he was never fully confident of his abilities, and weaknesses of health, to some extent perhaps hereditary, added to his uncertainties. Never very robust, in April, 1767, well before the major crisis of his career had developed, he suffered what appears to have been a nervous breakdown—he was, as he put it, “paralytic” for six or seven weeks—and only gradually regained his health. He was never thereafter free of worry, about himself as well as about the world. Night after night as governor he lay awake struggling to find the proper path for the authority he represented, worrying whether he had the wisdom and the physical and psychic strength to guide the colony to peace. Repeatedly, in the ordeals of the seventies, his energy ebbed, his spirits flagged, and he hovered at the edge of collapse.

His refuge in the increasing turmoil of his life remained what it had always been, his family. He was deeply affectionate with those closest to him and profoundly involved with their lives. However convenient and inevitable his marriage to Margaret Sanford may have been, it proved to be a relationship of intense intimacy. They spent in all eighteen years together, and she bore him twelve children. Such was his attachment to her, he later wrote, “that she appeared in body and mind something more than human.” Her death after childbirth in 1754 was the worst thing that ever happened to Hutchinson, worse even than the political catastrophe that later overwhelmed him. “From the first of her danger I never left my house,” he recalled in later years, “and seldom her chamber.” Her final words, ” ‘best of husbands,’ ” uttered “with her dying voice and eyes fixed on me,” tore him to pieces; he could never forget that agony. Her death, he wrote, was the loss of more than half his soul.

The family group—five children had survived infancy- was extraordinarily close; the force of cohesion that bound them fits no ordinary description. It was not merely that they lived together harmoniously until the older children married; not merely that as adults they gathered to watch together the ship carrying one of them overseas until it passed over the horizon; nor that their family letters over a period of almost fifty years express continuing affection, intimacy, and trust. More than that: they could not bear to break away and sought to keep the group intact, to tighten the bonds, even in the centrifuge of marriage.

At the height of the family’s prosperity, in the early i77o’s, the extent of endogamy, already visible in the Foster connection in the previous generation, had become a public phenomenon. For the fact was undeniable that by successive intermarriages the Hutchinsons had become a large and tight-knit tribe with an extraordinary accumulation of high offices.