The Ordeal Of Thomas Hutchinson


The new governor, Francis Bernard, was the ideal type of the patronage appointee in the first British Empire. A well-educated barrister whose only administrative or political office in England had been the recordershipof the town of Boston in Lincolnshire, he had practiced law until the financial needs of his ten children drove him to seek more lucrative employment in the colonies. Through the patronage of his wife’s influential uncle, Viscount Barrington, he was appointed to the governorship of New Jersey in 1758 and then, feeling socially and culturally isolated there and seeking a better-paying position, managed to have himself transferred, at the age of fifty, to Massachusetts. He was a decent man who had simple, uncomplicated desires: peace and quiet, the respect of those he ruled, some comradeship in literary matters, appointments for his six sons, and a substantial income—from salary, from fees, and from lucrative investments. As far as he knew, the prospects in Massachusetts were excellent. “I am assured,” he wrote shortly before he arrived in Boston, “that I may depend upon a quiet and easy administration.” True, he had heard from Pownall the discouraging news (along with accounts of investment opportunities in northern New England land) that the total income of the Massachusetts governor, from salary and “all advantages and contingencies,” was only £1,200 sterling; but he thought he could live more cheaply in Boston than in many other places, and in addition he would have far better opportunities for educating and providing jobs for his children there than he had had in Perth Amboy. Moreover, in Boston, “perhaps the most polished and scientific town in America,” he was sure he would find the “refined conversation and the amusements that arise from letters, arts, and sciences … many very conversable men, tolerable music, and other amusements to which I had bid adieu not without regret.” Finally, he had heard that the Massachusetts governor had (in the fortress to which he would repeatedly flee in the years to come) “a very pretty place to retire to, a pleasant apartment in Castle William, which stands in an island about three miles from the town at the entrance of the Bay.”


He was thus a well-disposed and ordinary man, with ordinary desires, but he was no politician and he was innocent of the arts of governance. “Open in his behavior,” Hutchinson wrote of him, “regardless of mere forms, and inattentive to the fashionable arts of engaging mankind,” he was destined by his manner alone to offend the sensibilities of the proud Bostonians. But it was not simply a question of manner and sensibilities. He was determined to get every penny to which his office entitled him. It was this mainly that led him to his fatal decision to appoint Hutchinson to the vacant chief justiceship; and it was this—well before the Stamp Act raised fundamental questions of principle—that first pitched Hutchinson into open conflict with the opposition merchants and populist politicians.

Hutchinson had not sought the chief justiceship, which fell vacant when the incumbent, Stephen Sewall, died five weeks after Bernard arrived in Boston, nor had he attempted to solicit Bernard’s patronage or to forge a political alliance with him. But if Hutchinson did not seek Bernard’s support, Bernard had reason to seek his. Though the Assembly quickly granted the new governor a substantial salary and then went beyond that to give him the gift of Mount Desert Island, off the southeast coast of Maine, he quickly discovered the difficulty of maintaining the “quiet and easy” administration he had expected. The province, he found, was “divided into parties so nearly equal that it would have been madness for me to have put myself at the head of either of them.” In this situation “management and intrigue,” he wrote to Barrington, were required to preserve the force of government and at the same time convey at least “the appearance” of respect for the colonists’ cherished liberties, “of which they formed high and sometimes unconstitutional ideas.”

The appointment of the new chief justice was crucial to the success of this delicate balance. For it was the superior court in the end that would largely determine whether the interest of the state would be sustained in general, and in particular whether the trade regulations would be enforced and whether therefore the governor would receive his statutory third of the income from forfeited goods.

Bernard knew that Governor Shirley had promised the next court vacancy to the venerable Barnstable lawyer James Otis, Sr., then speaker of the House and, in Shirley’s time, a political colleague of Hutchinson’s. But word reached Bernard that Otis’ appointment at this juncture would be inadvisable, perhaps because his brilliant but unstable son James, Jr., was leading the family into doubtful political alliances and was reluctant to use his office as deputy advocate-general of the vice-admiralty court to prosecute violations of the navigation laws. Hutchinson’s commitment to maintaining close ties between England and America, on the other hand, was beyond question, as was his reputation with all parties for integrity, industry, judiciousness, and devotion to public service.