Portrait of Thomas Hutchinson by Edward Truman (1741)

On July 4, 1776, in a moment of particular historical irony, Thomas Hutchinson, the exiled royal governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, received an honorary degree from Oxford University. The same day, of course, the American Declaration of Independence was issued, decrying the King’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” which many believed had been enacted at Hutchinson’s hand. For Hutchinson, who watched revolutionary fervor consume his birthplace and uproot his family, those alleged abuses were not the causes of the revolution. Instead, they merely provided justification for the men who had conspired to break free of English rule. Such men, he felt, had no clear plan of action, but instead used “every fresh incident which could be made to serve [their] purpose . . . by alienating the affection of the colonies from the kingdom.” In the course of time, “many thousands of people who were before good and loyal subjects,” he wrote, “have been deluded and by degrees induced to rebel against the best of princes and the mildest of governments.”


Like many, Hutchinson never believed that war would come. He described such an event as “the most unnatural, the most unnecessary” war, and, throughout his service as chief justice, lieutenant governor, and then governor, he believed that calmness and reason would prevail, and that the colonies would not be separated from the United Kingdom. Yet as reports of the war arrived, he is said to have repeatedly muttered the words “bella, horrida bella.” Tormented by the tremendous losses suffered by his family, Hutchinson would spend his remaining years haunting London society—loyal to the mother country, loyal to the colonies, and at home in neither, he struggled against the changes around him, wondering how they could have taken place at all.

Hutchinson never believed that war would come.

In 1974, on the eve of the United States Bicentennial, the Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn published his Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson to “develop a fuller picture of the origins of the American Revolution” and to “exemplify an approach to history that emphasizes balance over argument, context over consequences, and the meaning of the past over the uses of the present.” Bailyn achieved his goal of writing a balanced, careful, and engaging narrative. He did not set out to offer grand reflections on revolution, civil disobedience, law and order, and insurrection. Yet he acknowledged that in writing the history he was, at least in part, motivated by the tumult of the late 1960s in choosing to write about the “problems of public disorder and ideological commitment.” Over forty years later, Bailyn’s history remains cautious and engaging, with particular resonance after a tumultuous 2016.

Hutchinson’s family had deep New England ties. His great-great-grandmother was Anne Hutchinson, the controversial seventeenth-century advocate of antinomianism. He graduated from Harvard College at age sixteen and began a career in commerce. Beginning with his election as a Boston selectman, Hutchinson quickly assumed higher offices in the colony, becoming Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Perhaps surprisingly for the man who would later be condemned as “an enemy to the rights of Americans,” he played an active role in the Albany Congress of 1754, in which early plans for a union of the colonies were imagined.

As he acquired more political influence (and wealth), Hutchinson became a target of jealousy and resentment, including from the revolutionary leaders. He found himself torn between the desires of the movement for independence and his obligation to uphold the law and the supremacy of Parliament. The result of these tensions was, time and time again, devastating. While serving as lieutenant governor, Hutchinson sought to defend the supremacy of Parliament to angry mobs, while at the same time trying to express the grievances of his countrymen in Westminster. It was a fine line he failed to walk. Hutchinson’s home in Boston was destroyed in 1765, and, although Hutchinson was no fan of the Stamp Acts, neither was he a fan of the revolutionary cause.

It was a fine line he failed to walk.

Hutchinson’s problems were both practical and philosophical. He seemed to have a preternatural ability to say or do the wrong thing—over- and underreacting to the changes around him. At a more fundamental level, though, he disagreed with a basic premise of revolutionary thought. For the revolutionaries, the taxation in the late eighteenth century revealed an overreaching Parliament that sought to curtail basic English liberties. Hutchinson, on the other hand, like many others at the time, saw no limit to the power of the King-in-Parliament. That is, absolute power was an essential component of sovereignty. This is not to say that Hutchinson necessarily approved of Parliament’s actions, but that he felt, on a strictly constitutional basis, Parliament could enact such acts, even if it should not. An incomplete sovereignty was no sovereignty at all. His argument was hardly extraordinary for its time; it was, in fact, the same argument made by Edmund Burke in his defense of the colonists in 1774: “When you drive him hard, the boar will surely turn upon the hunters. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body will be argued into slavery.”

In addition to his strongly held philosophical rejection of the revolutionary spirit, Hutchinson showed a basic prudence of character. He once wrote that “[w]e don’t live in Plato’s Commonwealth, and when we can’t have perfection we ought to comply with the measure that is least remote from it.” His temper, he explained, did “not incline to enthusiasm.” He was “a quietist, being convinced that what is, is best.” Accordingly, throughout his political career, Hutchinson saw the rise of revolution as anomalous—the sort of pique that could be undone through judicious argument and a certain faith that rational thought would overcome the energy of the moment. That faith—and his willingness to share those views—would ultimately lead not only to his political fall, but to his demonization.

Hutchinson struggled to keep the colony calm in the face of Parliament’s increasingly stringent laws and a growing desire for independence in Massachusetts. The British saw the colonists as petulant. The colonists saw the ministry in London as tyrannical. Hutchinson’s role in the Boston Tea Party revealed his fundamentally untenable position. He had advised representatives of the East India Company (including his sons) not to allow the vessels carrying tea to enter Boston harbor. According to law, the ships would not be able to leave without payment of controversial customs duties. When the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver did enter the harbor, Hutchinson could have granted an exit permit prior to the payment of the duties to avoid conflict, but he felt obliged to uphold the law. Even in the face of growing mobs and town meetings in which he was personally attacked, Hutchinson would not relent. Samuel Adams proclaimed him a “shadow of a man, scarce able to support his withered carcass or his hoary head.” Yet in a letter to Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Hutchinson wrote that “it is time this anarchy was restrained and corrected by some authority or other.” The ships would not be allowed to leave without the payment of the duties, and the destruction of 340 chests of tea (with a value of approximately nine thousand pounds sterling) became a celebrated part of early American history.

As tensions continued to grow, Hutchinson sought to relinquish his post and assure himself some measure of comfort and esteem in England. In 1773, he left for London and never returned. Although early in his exile he formed acquaintances with luminaries and key parliamentary figures, including the King and Edward Gibbon, Hutchinson gradually became disillusioned by the intransigence of revolutionary sentiment in the New World and anti-American aggression in the Old World. His reputation, meanwhile, continued to decline. Prior to Hutchinson’s departure, Benjamin Franklin had obtained and leaked a series of Hutchinson’s private letters. Among other things, Hutchinson had written at one point that “there must be an abridgement of what are called English liberties.” The claim revealed for John Adams, “the evident marks of madness. It was written in such a transport of passions, ambition and revenge . . . that his reason was manifestly overpowered.” Mercy Otis Warren compared Hutchinson to Nero, who by self-love was driven to “light the capital in flames.” And when the bulk of Hutchinson’s letters were published in 1775, he found himself frustrated and desperate to maintain the respect of those who knew him well. At that moment, he recognized that “Human foresight will not secure us against all adverse events.” Isolated from his homeland, he worked steadily on a history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and watched as his daughter Peggy died, shortly before his own death in 1780.

When Bailyn’s biography was published, it received a mixed reception. It was recognized by many as a strong and thoughtful biography and received the 1975 National Book Award for History. Yet others viewed its sympathetic portrayal of Hutchinson as a veiled defense of Richard Nixon. In 2006, Bailyn reflected on the extent to which Hutchinson’s ordeal revealed not only the complicated relationship between “his evident ability and patriotism on one hand and the hatred he evoked on the other” but also the “uncertainties, the contingencies of the time, the deeper context, the unpredictability.” The story of the loyalists was, for Bailyn, not merely a story of law versus right. He was not interested in affirming a story in which the loyalists were retrograde. For him, the loyalists were instead men and women who were left behind by a changing politics. The tragedy of Thomas Hutchinson, then, lay not in his exile or his suffering (and Bailyn is clear that he disagrees with many of Hutchinson’s decisions). Instead, the tragedy lay in the extent to which the combination of Hutchinson’s philosophy and practice ultimately limited his influence, damaged his reputation, and exacerbated tensions between the colonists and Britain. “As the pressure mounted,” Bailyn explains, “his responses narrowed, his ideas became progressively more limited, until in the end he could only plead for civil order as an absolute end in itself, which not only ignored the explosive issues but appeared, unavoidably, to be self-serving.”

The loyalists were men and women left behind by a changing politics.

The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson offers neither defense nor condemnation. Bailyn’s portrayal is sympathetic, in that he does not justify the caricature of the governor that was propagated by the American founders. He seeks, rather, to understand not only why Hutchinson would be burned in effigy by the revolutionaries, but also how Hutchinson’s conservatism and patriotism failed to calm the growing revolutionary cause. He does not assume the inevitability of revolution—although he places blame squarely at the door of Parliament. Hutchinson’s conservatism was not reactionary, but the governor struggled unsuccessfully to apply established political theory in a proverbial “world turned upside down.” The cover of a 1774 Massachusetts almanac showed Hutchinson being summoned to Hell by the devil to account for crimes against the American people. Hutchinson was no devil, but the words of Lucifer in Book IV of Paradise Lost echo his struggle:

Me miserable! which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;

And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep

Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,

To which the hell I suffer seems a heav’n.