The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


The genealogy is important. Three family groups—the Sanfords, the Hutchinsons, and the Olivers—were involved. Margaret Sanford, Thomas Hutchinson’s wife (distantly related to him by birth), was the second of three sisters. The older sister, Mary, married Andrew Oliver, who became secretary of Massachusetts when Hutchinson became lieutenant governor, and lieutenant governor when Hutchinson became governor. But that is only the start of the relationships between the Oliver and Hutchinson families. In the year of Hutchinson’s accession to the governorship and Oliver’s to the lieutenant governorship, their children—Hutchinson’s eldest son, Thomas, Jr., and Oliver’s daughter Sarah—married. But these two were already related in their own generation, for in the previous year, 1770, another Hutchinson child, Sarah, had married an Oliver, Dr. Peter Oliver, Jr., Andrew’s nephew. And then to conclude the series, the families were related yet again in 1772, when a third Hutchinson child, Elisha, married Mary Oliver Watson, Peter Oliver, Sr.’s, granddaughter. And political relationships kept pace with the development of kinship ties. Andrew Oliver’s brother Peter—brother, that is, of the lieutenant governor and father-in-law of one of the governor’s children—had been associate justice of the superior court since 1756 and became chief justice when Hutchinson resigned that post to assume the governorship. Thus all of the three Hutchinson children who married, married Olivers, and they did so during the first three years of Hutchinson’s governorship. And thus, too, three brothers and brothers-in-law occupied simultaneously in the 177° s the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, and the chief justiceship of Massachusetts. No one but a Hutchinson or an Oliver had been lieutenant governor of Massachusetts after 1758 or chief justice after 1760.

What explanation there might be for such extraordinary inbreeding is a question that eludes the historian’s grasp as it did contemporaries’. But its effects cannot be doubted. It created a family situation of maximum reinforcement for Hutchinson, upon which he relied heavily in the great ordeal he faced. But at the same time it helped isolate him from the community at large and intensified his clashes with other, competing family groups, which, like the Otises and the Adamses, reacted bitterly to the exclusiveness of Hutchinson’s family ties. More important, it resulted in an immediate environment of thoroughly like-minded people who would support him in his views without criticism or serious discussion. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated, for nothing in Hutchinson’s own range of sensibilities disposed him to understand or equipped him to deal with the new currents that were moving Anglo-American politics in the 1760’s.

Somehow, in ways he did not understand, the world had greatly changed. While in formal terms he had reached a point of eminence close to his highest aspirations, he had also become the target of a political opposition more passionate, less rational, and less manageable than anything he had known before. From time to time, even in the years before the Stamp Act, it occurred to him that he was in the midst of a revolution that would destroy the British Empire and the structure of public life as he had known it. But he dismissed such fears as irrational and hence groundless. The colonists, he confidently informed alarmists in the late fifties, “must be stark blind if they could not see that an independence upon Great Britain must prove their ruin, and therefore they would not aim at it for centuries to come.” But the problem of what seemed to be irrational opposition to constituted authority would not disappear, nor would the personal animosity that accounted for the destruction of his property. The political opposition was in its essential characteristics new, and Hutchinson was to be its victim.

Until 1757 Hutchinson had been one of those establishment figures who knew how to find their way successfully through the paths of factional intrigue. As a young man he had had Governor Belcher’s favor, and in 1740 Hutchinson had gravitated to Belcher’s successor, the ambitious and well-connected English lawyer William Shirley. For almost two decades thereafter Hutchinson had remained a leader of Governor Shirley’s unusually stable political coalition.

Governor Thomas Pownall, who succeeded Shirley as governor in 1757, elevated Hutchinson to the lieutenant governorship, but he was a man with whom Hutchinson would struggle, directly or indirectly, for the rest of his life.

Pownall’s administration was a brief interlude between the long, late-colonial era of William Shirley, which had nourished the young Thomas Hutchinson’s success in trade and politics, and the disastrous decade of Sir Francis Bernard, in which Hutchinson’s failure began; but though brief it was a critical interlude. For in these years Hutchinson’s devotion to the welfare of the empire and his identification of America’s well-being with the strength of Great Britain had become an intense commitment. At the same time his differences with the momentarily triumphant opposition forces, with which Pownall had allied himself, had become charged with more than ordinary political meaning. They were of course his rivals in quite traditional factional contests for the control of public offices. But beyond that he had been shocked by their pursuit of private gain at the expense of the general welfare, which he took to mean the welfare of the pan-Atlantic polity that had protected the infant colonies for a century and a half, and he distrusted the glib libertarianism by which they justified their resistance to appeals for wartime sacrifices.