Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780) was a colonial American politician, judge and historian. He was born into a prominent Boston family and studied at Harvard. 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. He struggled to establish control during increasingly turbulent times and was replaced by General Thomas Gage in 1774 on the eve of the American Revolution.
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 graduated at age 16. After graduation, he worked in maritime commerce and trading in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Hutchinson’s political career began in 1737, when he was elected as 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 as 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 the French at Louisbourg during the French and Indian War. Hutchinson persuaded the legislature to use the specie to retire the province’s degraded paper currency, leading his bitter enemy John Adams to begrudgingly acknowledge that Hutchinson “understood the subject of coin and commerce better than any man I ever knew in this country.”
In 1754, Hutchinson played a major role in the Albany Congress, where representatives from seven colonies negotiated another Indian treaty and, more notably, seriously debated and eventually drafted a plan of union.
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In 1752, Hutchinson began amassing public offices, provoking hatred and envy among his peers. 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 Superior Court of Judicature, the highest judicial position in Massachusetts. With no formal legal training, he still beat out more popular candidates like James Otis, Sr.—outraging locals like John Adams.
Hutchinson During The Revolutionary War
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.
Thomas Hutchinson Death and Scandal
In 1773, Benjamin Franklin got his hands on a series of letters between Hutchinson and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver that were written during the rising tensions between Great Britain and the colonies. The letters contained Hutchinson’s ideas about reorganizing the government. Franklin sent the letters to Samuel Adams, a member of the Sons of Liberty, who then published the letters. Many of Hutchinson’s words were taken out of context, and their publication caused a great scandal, permanently destroying his political career. The incident came to be known as “The Hutchinson Letter Affair.” Replaced as governor by Gen. Thomas Gage, Hutchinson went to England in 1774. Reviled in America yet desperately homesick, he suffered a stroke in London and died on June 3, 1780, three years before the end of the Revolutionary War. He was 68 years old.