The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson
by Bernard Bailyn
Harvard University Press, 468 pp., $12.50
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 …