Thomas Hutchinson

Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780), American governor of colonial Massachusetts and a staunch defender of English colonial policy, was also a jurist and historian.

Thomas Hutchinson was born in Boston on Sept. 9, 1711. He entered Harvard at the age of 12, graduating 3 years later. Entering his father's commercial house, Hutchinson continued to further his education through extensive reading. By the time he was 25 he was worth £5,000 and was part owner of a ship. On May 16, 1734, he married Margaret Sanford of Newport, R.I., who bore him three sons and two daughters before her death in 1753.

Politics in Massachusetts

In 1737 Hutchinson was elected selectman for Boston. That same year he gained a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served every year, except 1739, and was speaker for 3 years (1746-1748) until his defeat in the election of 1749. In 1750 he was chosen a member of the governor's council (and served continuously until 1766). In 1740 he was sent to England to represent Massachusetts in the boundary dispute with New Hampshire. He gained favor with the Massachusetts merchants when, in the fight against the Land Bank, he advocated sound money. In 1752 he was appointed judge of probate and justice of common pleas for Suffolk County.

As a representative of Massachusetts at the Albany Congress in 1754, he gave his support to Benjamin Franklin's plan of union for the Colonies. He was appointed lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1758 and became chief justice for the colony 2 years later. Because of his continuing interest in commerce, he opposed general search warrants by the governor, insisting that they be issued by the courts. By 1763 Hutchinson was one of the most influential men in Massachusetts politics, but he had earned the enmity of fiery prerevolutionary patriots Samuel Adams and James Otis by his opposition to the Land Bank and his support of the issuance of general writs by proper authority.

In February 1764 the General Court sent Hutchinson to England to protest the proposed sugar duties. Although he opposed the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act on the grounds that they would injure trade, he never denied the right of Parliament to tax the Colonies. It was this attitude and the fact that his brother-in-law Andrew Oliver was stamp master that led a Boston mob to sack his home in 1765. He lost an estimated £3,000 in personal property and the manuscript of his History of Massachusetts Bay, the first volume of which had been published in 1764. This violence led Hutchinson to believe that more stringent policies should be adopted by Parliament.


Uneasy Governorship

Although expressing opposition to the Townshend duties, Hutchinson felt that they should be enforced as the law. He was acting governor of Massachusetts from 1769 to 1771. Appointed royal governor of Massachusetts in 1771, he faithfully followed instructions from the Crown. His popularity waned when he twice called out troops to quell disturbances and constantly disputed with the House over such trivialities as its place of meeting. On Jan. 6, 1773, he addressed the General Court, urging the case of parliamentary supremacy.

Hutchinson's position became untenable when Benjamin Franklin sent from England the "Hutchinson Letters," which had been written to friends in 1768 and 1769. These documents, published in Massachusetts in 1773, were interpreted so as to make it seem that Hutchinson had secretly urged the British government to exert more stringent authority over the Colonies. The Tea Act precipitated a crisis, not only because the governor's two sons had been designated tea consignees, but because Hutchinson refused to issue clearance papers for the tea ships until the tea had been landed. The Boston Tea Party was the result.

In 1774 Gen. Thomas Gage replaced Hutchinson as governor. Hutchinson sailed for England, hoping to return as soon as the general's presence was no longer necessary. Unaware of the gravity of the colonial crisis, he urged a policy of conciliation toward the Colonies. Although he had many friends in England and Oxford University conferred upon him an honorary degree, he remained homesick for New England. His writings include a reply to the Declaration of Independence and the three-volume History of Massachusetts Bay. On June 3, 1780, he died and was buried at Croydon, England.


Further Reading on Thomas Hutchinson

Portions of Hutchinson's own account, badly edited by Peter O. Hutchinson, are in The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson (2 vols., 1884-1886). The Lawrence S. Mayo edition of Hutchinson's History (3 vols., 1936) is the most useful. James K. Hosmer, The Life of Thomas Hutchinson, Royal Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (1896), the only biography, is superseded by the sketch of Hutchinson in Clifford K. Shipton, Sibley's Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes 1726-1730, vol. 8 (1951).

Additional Biography Sources

Bailyn, Bernard, The ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974.

Freiberg, Malcolm, Prelude to purgatory: Thomas Hutchinson in provincial Massachusetts politics, 1760-1770, New York: Garland, 1990.