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Thomas Hutchinson was a talented royal official who, over the course of his career, descended from life as a pillar of the community to one of Massachusetts’ most hated villains. He was born in Boston, the son of a prosperous merchant and the great-great-grandson of the famed nonconformist Anne Hutchinson. He graduated from Harvard College in 1727 and entered the family shipping business. In 1737, he was elected a selectman in Boston and shortly thereafter to a seat on the General Court (legislature).
Hutchinson gained much public attention following King George's War (1740-48) when he sponsored a plan to redeem paper money issued by Massachusetts to veterans of the Louisbourg campaign. The colony was to receive a reimbursement in gold from the Crown and Hutchinson wanted to retire the dubious paper notes then in circulation. His proposal was eventually adopted and probably did much to foster a stable economy, but in the process he incurred the hatred of the debtor element in the colony. Hutchinson lost his seat in the next election.
In 1749, he was appointed to serve on the governor’s council, a position he held for more than 15 years. Hutchinson also began to accumulate offices during this time and secured several lesser judgeships in the 1750s; he was not a trained lawyer and was criticized for his apparent greed. In 1754, Hutchinson played a major role at the Albany Congress and four years later was named lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts. He personally opposed many of the imperial reform efforts that followed the French and Indian War, but felt duty-bound to enforce their provisions. During the 1760s, he clashed frequently with the radicals and nursed a particularly prickly relationship with Samuel Adams. In 1760, Hutchinson was named Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, a position he held in addition to his duties as lieutenant-governor.
In 1765, a Boston mob that wrongly assumed Hutchinson had been a supporter of the hated Stamp Act looted and destroyed his home. In addition to losing expensive furnishings and an extensive wine collection, Hutchinson lost an extremely valuable library of historical documents dating to the earliest days of Massachusetts settlement. Those items became fuel for a huge bonfire that capped the mob’s revels. Deeply stung by these events, Hutchinson's became increasingly conservative in his views.
He was appointed governor in 1771. In a series of private letters, Hutchinson expressed his support for firm action against disruptive forces in Massachusetts. This correspondence, sometimes called the “Hutchinson Letters,” fell into his opponents' hands in England and was turned over to Benjamin Franklin, who was then serving as an agent in London. Franklin sent the papers to radical leaders in the colony in return for a pledge of confidentiality; despite that promise, the letters were read publicly by Samuel Adams. At that point Hutchinson lost all political effectiveness, but he persisted in office.
In 1772, he warmly greeted a decision to arrange for Crown officials, himself included, to be paid from the royal treasury and not by funds voted by the colonial assembly as precedent dictated. The next year, Hutchinson blindly helped to precipitate the Boston Tea Party by insisting that the controversial tea be brought into port despite warnings from other officials. By 1774, Hutchinson had become a political liability and was replaced as governor by General Thomas Gage, who had both political and military roles to play.
Hutchinson spent his final years in England, serving unhappily as an advisor on North American matters to the king, and yearning to return to his homeland.
Hutchinson made a major historical contribution in his History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (1764-1828). It remains a valuable account of early events there; two volumes were published during his lifetime and a third following his death.
Recent historians have treated Hutchinson with much more sympathy than he received from his contemporaries, recognizing that he was a man of ability and principle during a time in which the currents of history were running strongly against him.
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The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson by Bernard Bailyn.
“This book,” Mr. Bailyn writes, “depicts the fortunes of a conservative in a time of radical upheaval and deals with problems of public disorder and i...