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A Loyal Un-American

The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson

by Bernard Bailyn
Harvard University Press, 468 pp., $12.50

Thomas Hutchinson
Thomas Hutchinson; drawing by David Levine

As the bicentennial of the American Revolution approaches, historians are in no mood to celebrate. On the left, they are busy seeking out the role of the inarticulate masses who were somehow forgotten or betrayed by the gentlemen who ran the show. On the right, historians who survived the activities of would-be campus revolutionaries in the Sixties have difficulty seeing the merits of the Boston Tea Party. And the hard-core liberals who make up most of the academic establishment, if they honor the wisdom of the founding fathers, wish to dissociate them as far as possible from the morally bankrupt government that claims its descent from them.

On both right and left and even in much of the middle there is a greater sympathy with the losers in the American game, whether of the 1970s or the 1770s. Studies of the loyalists have multiplied in recent years, and one of the few serious scholarly projects generated by the bicentennial is a large-scale effort to collect and publish the papers of loyalists. Now we are given a sympathetic and penetrating study of the most important, and perhaps the most hated, loyalist of all, Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts. And it is presented by a historian who has already written with similar penetration and sympathy on the ideas that moved the other side. Indeed it grows out of and in a sense completes the author’s previous work.

Sympathy with the loyalists on the part of historians of the revolution is not a new thing. When Charles Beard argued that the founding fathers were motivated by class interests rather than patriotism, the result was to make the men whom they drove into exile appear less wicked. When Carl Becker argued that the American Revolution in New York was a contest about who should rule at home, he too made the winners seem less heroic and the losers more attractive. At the same time a group of scholarly historians had been examining the old British Empire and finding it to be a pretty good thing and thus, by implication at least, deserving of the loyalty that the loyalists gave it. By the 1930s the revolution had begun to look like a mere struggle for power, in which the losers, whether the English or the loyalist Americans, became the victims of artful propaganda, put over on the people at large by a handful of self-serving demagogues.

After the Second World War a number of us who looked again at the record began to argue that it did not support this interpretation, that the revolutionists not only meant what they said but that it was worth saying. The special contribution of Bernard Bailyn to this perception was an analysis of the pervasive influence among Americans of the ideas of the English republican thinkers who have become known as The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthmen (from the book of that title in which Caroline Robbins described them). Although historians of the revolution had hitherto given little attention to the writings of these men, the American revolutionists, as Professor Bailyn demonstrated, had studied them assiduously. Their ideas furnished the rationale behind the indignant protests with which Americans greeted British efforts to tax them. The development of American political thought not only in the dozen years before 1776 but in the dozen years that followed can best be understood as an outgrowth from their writings.

After thus examining The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Professor Bailyn carried his investigation to an earlier period and found the same ideas affecting The Origins of American Politics in the half-century or more before the Revolution. A basic tenet of the commonwealthmen was the need for eternal vigilance against the efforts of the executive branch of government to effect a tyrannical control. In England the commonwealthmen cried out incessantly against the corruption of Parliament by the king’s ministry, but gained little attention, perhaps because the powers of the monarch had been so effectively curbed in England at the beginning of the century. But in the colonies the royal governors had powers that seemed to exceed by far those of the king in England; for the governor not only continued to exercise a veto power over legislation but generally controlled the composition of his council, which in a colonial government doubled as the upper house of the legislature.

This seeming concentration of power in the hands of one man was belied by the actual weakness of the governor. For a governor, unlike the king, had no independent source of revenue and almost no patronage to dispense. As a result he was in fact more dependent on the lower, representative house of his legislature than the king was. In this disparity between the nominal and actual power of the royal governor, Professor Bailyn found a key to the paranoid character of colonial politics, in which colonists detected in every move of the executive to exercise his nominal powers a conspiracy to deprive them of their liberties. It was this fear of a conspiracy against liberty that later animated colonial resistance to England and eventuated in the revolution. It had been latent in colonial politics for half a century.

What Professor Bailyn has now given us is a careful, meticulously researched biography of the principal American victim of the revolutionary paranoia. And the study reveals an implication of Bailyn’s previous work that we and perhaps he, had not previously fully recognized.

Thomas Hutchinson’s only real faults were qualities of character that would have served him well in most times and did serve to earn him a small fortune by colonial standards, before he became caught up in a web of malevolence that grew stronger by every effort of his to break from it. Hutchinson’s most conspicuous quality was prudence. He never acted from passion or pique. He never did anything impetuously and always weighed the consequence of any decision. He was keenly sensitive to the scale of deference that governed human relations in the colonies as in England and never misjudged his own place in the scale. When already governor of Massachusetts, for example, he politely dissuaded the son of an earl from seeking the hand of his daughter, saying it was an honor too high for him and his family, and it would be criminal in him to encourage the young man in so unequal a match. With his equals and inferiors he knew how to stand firm, as was his right. With his superiors he was always cautious of presuming.

It was Hutchinson’s prudence and his sense of propriety that prevented him from expressing openly, or even privately except to his confidants, his own bitter opposition to the English measures that alienated the colonies. Before the Stamp Act of 1765 was passed, he wrote a pamphlet against Parliamentary taxation and sent it to an English friend, but refrained from publishing it. He was so careful not to indicate his views to the wrong people that he was popularly charged with being the secret author of the Stamp Act, and as a result his house was all but leveled by an angry mob in the worst riot of Boston’s history. He similarly opposed the changes that his predecessor, Francis Bernard, had proposed for the Massachusetts government. But when the changes were made, in the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774, he was blamed for them.

As portrayed here, Hutchinson was a Burkean conservative, who wanted to make the system work by avoiding confrontations on matters of principle. But step by step he was drawn into one confrontation after another with men who had become convinced that he was trying to betray colonial liberties. Each time, because he thought it his duty to defend the system, he emerged looking more than ever the champion of arbitrary power. His prudence only served to feed the suspicions of his enemies, and it was in any case no avail against the theft of his private letters, which Benjamin Franklin obtained and sent to the Massachusetts assembly. Despite Franklin’s injunction that they were not to be published, the people of Boston were shortly reading them in the newspapers, placed out of context, with editorial comments to assure the worst possible interpretation. And when he finally fled to England, hoping to work out a reconciliation between mother country and colonies, he was blamed for every hostile measure that followed. By the time he died in the midst of the revolution, Englishmen and Americans alike were blaming him for the whole thing.

Were they all wrong, then? Professor Bailyn’s answer seems to be yes. And what is more, they were wrong not simply from ignorance but almost by necessity. Given the nature of the revolutionists’ position, as depicted in the author’s earlier studies, if Hutchinson had not existed they would have had to invent him, for “the need to find hidden malevolence was part of the very structure of opposition thought.” In effect, Hutchinson’s enemies did invent him, in the shape of a villain who never existed. They imposed the image on the man and thwarted his every effort to cast it off.

In the concluding pages of the book Professor Bailyn points out that Hutchinson never understood the forces that destroyed him, never understood “the moral indignation and the meliorist aspirations that lay behind the protests of the Revolutionary leaders.” And in the opening pages he tells us that his own instinctive sympathies remain with the revolutionists, that he is simply showing us how it was possible for a good man to take the other side. But in between the opening and closing pages he succeeds so well that he leaves the American Revolution looking a pretty shabby affair. After we read of what it did to Hutchinson, our own moral indignation is likely to be reserved for the rebel politicians who could destroy a decent man for things he did not do, while congratulating themselves on their own righteousness. What kind of morality is it, we ask, that can subject a man to such persecution on grounds that can now be proved totally false? What kind of meliorist aspirations require the sacrifice of an innocent scapegoat? We are almost led to conclude that the United States was born in a fit of paranoid self-righteousness.

But one learns to be wary of calling a whole nation insane. Hutchinson’s worst enemies included some otherwise sane and sober people. If we ponder more closely the extraordinary hostility he attracted, we may find in his career more than colonial paranoia to illuminate the meaning of the revolution. Few other loyalists had to endure such continuous vilification. The fact that he did not deserve it only compounds the puzzle.

A clue may lie in his closeness to the men who persecuted him. His bitterest years were the last, when he was obliged to live in exile in a strange land that he could not learn to love. He yearned for New England, and his greatest agony was his rejection by New Englanders. He was one of them and not simply in the fact of having grown up with them, a descendant of the founding generation of settlers: his ideas of right and wrong were not far different from theirs. He could not like England partly for the same reasons that moved his countrymen to independence. Life in England was too riddled with luxury and corruption for him to feel comfortable there.

This same hostility to English corruption was one of the potent forces that pulled Americans together in the movement for independence. Their governments had been comparatively free of the patronage and sinecures that lubricated the cumbersome machinery of politics in England. As they resisted the efforts of England to tax them, they were resisting involvement in a system to which they knew all governments and all men were highly susceptible and which they associated with tyranny. In the last stages of resistance, they began to think of independence as a means of escaping contamination. Thus Patrick Henry at the Continental Congress warned against Joseph Galloway’s plan of conciliation through an intercolonial legislature that would stand between the colonies and Parliament. “We shall liberate our Constituents,” he argued, “from a corrupt House of Commons, but throw them into the arms of an American Legislature that may be bribed by that Nation which avows in the face of the world, that bribery is a part of their system of government.” Better to stand clear.

Self-righteousness is never attractive, and there was a great deal of self-righteousness in the incipient American nationalism. Yet no one supposed Americans to be immune to corruption. Precisely because they knew themselves to be as susceptible as other men they needed to affirm their resistance to corruption at every opportunity; they sought their national identity in rejecting the evils that had overtaken England. They therefore denounced with particular vehemence those in their midst who seemed to have succumbed to English temptations.

Thomas Hutchinson seemed to have succumbed. And guiltless as he may have been of most of the charges against him, he was not wholly guiltless of the one that bothered his enemies the most. He had built a network of political influence in Massachusetts of which family connections were the principal common denominator. John Adams tallied up the score in 1765. “Has he not grasped,” asked Adams, “four of the most important offices in the Province into his own hands? Has not his brother in law Oliver another of the greatest places in government [Secretary of the Province]? Is not a brother of the Secretary a judge of the Superior Court? Has not that brother a son in the House [of Representatives]? Has not the Secretary a son in the House, who is also a judge in one of the counties? Did not that son marry the daughter of another of the judges of the Superior Court? Has not the Lieutenant Governor [Hutchinson] a brother, a judge of the pleas in Boston? and a namesake and near relation who is another judge? Has not the Lieutenant Governor a near relation who is Register of his own Court of Probate, and Deputy Secretary? Has he not another near relation who is Clerk of the House of Representatives? Is not this amazing ascendancy of one family foundation sufficient on which to erect a tyranny?”

To other Americans Hutchinson seemed to be an agent of the same insidious forces that he himself encountered and disapproved in England. And if his enemies had known all the facts now uncovered, they would have found him no less guilty of this. Indeed, even as he frowned on Englishmen who thought of the state “as a great plum pudding,” he was already trying to scrape up a few more crumbs for his friends and relatives, including his son, whose health and character made it unlikely that he could ever earn a living of his own. There was nothing illegal about his efforts. They were less than what many Englishmen in his position would have done. But they had become un-American.

The word was not in use at the time, but it conveys what Hutchinson’s enemies felt about him. It is a word that has seldom been used in this country to mean what it seems to say: it does not designate a foreigner by birth. It has been reserved for Americans who fail to conform to the norms that the national consciousness prescribes. And it has been used, perhaps more often than not, to hurt men who are innocent of any crime. The ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson was the first of its kind, but far from the last.

But to leave it at that is to reduce the revolution to the level of a witch-hunt. And although that is the level where nationalism, here and abroad, sometimes operates, it seems only fair to acknowledge, a little more explicitly than I think Professor Bailyn does here, that Hutchinson’s enemies were not wrong about the dangers that he represented. It was not mere malice that moved John Adams to see in Hutchinson’s political activities a threat to freedom. Hutchinson’s position, as portrayed by Professor Bailyn, was that the British Parliament ought not to tax the colonies, that prudence and good policy forbade it, but that the authority of Parliament to tax could not be limited. The position of the revolutionists was that men cannot be trusted with more power than you expect them to exercise. To acknowledge absolute authority in a body over which you had no control and to rely on the good sense of the men in it was to take up the relationship of slave to master.

Hutchinson insisted that this was and had always been the colonists’ relationship to Parliament, though he vigorously denied that it deserved the name of slavery. His enemies disagreed. At the beginning of the contest they were not altogether clear about where the limits of Parliament’s authority lay, but they never doubted that there were limits and that those limits stopped short of the authority to tax the colonies. The attempt to tax them demonstrated, if any demonstration was needed, that the good sense of men in power is not a sufficient security for liberty. It was in fact to the interest of every Englishman to extract as much in taxes from the colonists as possible. Every shilling that Parliament obtained from them meant a shilling less to be obtained from the members of Parliament and their constituents. It might be bad policy to tax them, but greed has often proved more potent than prudence.

Had Parliament shown the good sense that Hutchinson expected of it, his ordeal would never have occurred. But if Parliament and the ministry had not failed him, if he had been able to make the system work in his own time, he would have left the colonists more vulnerable to later lapses of good sense on the part of their masters. As it was, though they may have been moved in part by “a need to find hidden malevolence” among men in power, they were not deluded in perceiving the shape of tyranny behind the submission that Hutchinson sought from them. His position was not only un-American but in the long run anti-American. It does not follow that he deserved the treatment he received. But in mourning his fate we may still reserve a share of sympathy for the men who saw farther than he did.