Thomas Hutchinson

Introduction

American colonial politician, judge and historian Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780) was born into a prominent Boston family. He began his career in local politics in 1737, and was named speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1746. Hutchinson later simultaneously held a series of posts, including chief justice of the Superior Court of Judicature and lieutenant governor of the state. A supporter of parliamentary authority, he became the last civilian royal governor of Massachusetts in 1771. However, he struggled to establish control during increasingly turbulent times and was replaced by General Thomas Gage in 1774.

Hutchinson was born in Boston, a great-great-grandson of the seventeenth-century nonconformist, Anne Hutchinson. His well-to-do merchant father sent him to Harvard College, where he took his degree at sixteen. Thereafter, he engaged in maritime commerce and trading.

Hutchinson’s political career began in 1737, when he was elected a Boston selectman. Three months later, he became a member of the provincial legislature, where he served intermittently over the next two decades. He was also selected six times to participate in Indian conferences, and in 1746 was chosen Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. His most conspicuous service during this period came when the British government agreed to reimburse Massachusetts in gold for the cost of the successful 1745 military expedition against Louisbourg. Hutchinson, who, even his bitter enemy John Adams acknowledged, “understood the subject of coin and commerce better than any man I ever knew in this country,” persuaded the legislature to use the specie to retire the province’s degraded paper currency.

In 1754, Hutchinson played a major role in the Albany Congress, where representatives from seven colonies, besides negotiating still another Indian treaty, seriously debated and eventually drafted a plan of union.

In 1752, Hutchinson began amassing public offices, provoking hatred and envy. Although not trained as a lawyer, he became judge of the Suffolk County Probate Court and simultaneously took a seat on the Inferior Court of Common Pleas. Eight years later, he received a royal appointment as chief justice of the Superiour Court of Judicature, the highest judicial position in Massachusetts.

Intelligent, skilled in getting to the heart of a case and in weighing competing legal arguments, Hutchinson would have been better off limiting himself to judging and to historical writing (he published two volumes of an uncompleted History of Massachusetts Bay). Unfortunately, he retained not only his position as lieutenant governor, but also a seat on the Governor’s Council and took an active role in the turmoil that bubbled after 1763. His position made him a natural supporter of royal (and parliamentary) authority, although he opposed the Stamp Act. Nonetheless, in 1765, the worst mob in Boston history gutted his home and destroyed its contents. Thereafter, he became less and less able to understand not only the political currents but his (and the home government’s) inability to control them. As the violence escalated, culminating in the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Party (1773), Hutchinson, appointed governor in 1771, vainly tried to work out an imperial policy that could accommodate London’s insistence on control and the radicals’ increasingly overt resistance to parliamentary oversight.

The radicals obtained and published some of Hutchinson’s private letters to an English correspondent, thus permanently destroying his political effectiveness. Replaced as governor by Gen. Thomas Gage, Hutchinson went to England in 1774, where, lacking all influence, reviled in America yet desperately homesick, he died suddenly in 1780.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Article Details:

Thomas Hutchinson

  • Author

    History.com Staff

  • Website Name

    History.com

  • Year Published

    2009

  • Title

    Thomas Hutchinson

  • URL

    http://www.history.com/topics/thomas-hutchinson

  • Access Date

    July 28, 2014

  • Publisher

    A+E Networks