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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter V: A Little Discreet Conduct

Judged only by what he did and said and by such other sources of information as are open to the historian, Thomas Hutchinson does not appear to have been, prior to 1771, an Enemy of the Human Race. One of his ancestors, Mistress Anne Hutchinson, poor woman, had indeed been–it was as far back as 1637–an enemy of the Boston Church; but as a family the Hutchinsons appear to have kept themselves singularly free from notoriety or other grave reproach. Thomas Hutchinson himself was born in 1711 in Garden Court Street, Boston, of rich but honest parents, a difficult character which he managed for many years to maintain with reasonable credit. In 1771, he was a grave, elderly man of sixty years, more distinguished than any of his forebears had been, having since the age of twenty-six been honored with every important elective and appointive office in the province, including that of governor, which he had with seeming reluctance just accepted. It may be that Thomas Hutchinson was ambitious; but if he elbowed his way into office by solicitation or by the mean arts of an intriguer the fact was well concealed. He was not a member of the “Caulkers’ Club.” So far as is known, he was not a member of any club designed “to introduce certain persons into places of trust and power”; except indeed of the club, if one may call it such, composed of the “best families,” closely interrelated by marriage and social intercourse, mostly wealthy, enjoying the leisure and the disposition to occupy themselves with affairs, and commonly regarding themselves as forming a kind of natural aristocracy whose vested duty it was to manage the commonwealth. To this club Mr. Hutchinson belonged; and it was no doubt partly through its influence, without any need of solicitation on his part, that offices were thrust upon him.

One morning in September, 1760–it was the day following the death of Chief Justice Sewall–Mr. Hutchinson was stopped in the street by the first lawyer in the province, Jeremiah Gridley, who assured him that he, Mr. Hutchinson, must be Mr. Sewall’s successor; and it soon appeared that other principal lawyers, together with the surviving judge of the Superior Court, were of the same opinion as Mr. Gridley. Although the place was an attractive one, Mr. Hutchinson distrusted his ability to discharge competently the duties of a Chief Justice, since he had never had any systematic training as a lawyer. Besides, as he was aware, James Otis, Sr., who desired the place and made no secret of the fact that he had formerly been promised it by Governor Shirley, at once became active in pressing his claims upon the attention of Governor Bernard. In this solicitation he was joined by his son, James Otis, Jr. Mr. Hutchinson, on the contrary, refrained from all solicitation, so he tells us at least, and even warned Governor Bernard that it would perhaps be wiser to avoid any trouble which the Otises might be disposed to make in case they were disappointed. This line of conduct may have been only a shrewder form of solicitation, the proof of which, to some minds, would be that Mr. Hutchinson was in fact appointed to be Chief Justice. This appointment was afterwards recalled as one of Mr. Hutchinson’s many offenses, although at the time it seems to have given general satisfaction, especially to the lawyers.

The lawyers may well have been pleased, for the new Chief Justice was a man whose outstanding abilities, even more than his place in society, marked him for responsible position. Thomas Hutchinson possessed the efficient mind. No one surpassed him in wide and exact knowledge, always at command, of the history of the province, of its laws and customs, of past and present practice in respect to the procedure of administration. Industrious and systematic in his habits of work, conscientious in the performance of his duties down to the last jot and tittle of the law, he was preeminently fitted for the neat and expeditious dispatch of official business; and his sane and trenchant mind, habituated by long practice to the easy mastery of details, was prompt to pass upon any practical matter, however complicated, an intelligent and just judgment. It was doubtless thought, in an age when the law was not too highly specialized to be understood by any but the indoctrinated, that these traits would make him a good judge, as they had made him a good councilor. Not all people, it is true, are attracted by the efficient mind; and Mr. Hutchinson in the course of years had made enemies, among whom were many who still thought of him as the man chiefly responsible for the abolition, some eleven years before, of what was probably the most vicious system of currency known to colonial America. Nevertheless, in the days before the passing of the Stamp Act, Mr. Hutchinson was commonly well thought of, both for character and ability, and might still without offense be mentioned as a useful and honored public servant.

Mr. Hutchinson did not, at any time in his life, regard himself as an Enemy of the Human Race, or of America, or even of liberty rightly considered. Perhaps he had not the fine enthusiasm for the Human Race that Herder or Jean Jacques Rousseau had; but at least he wished it well; and to America, the country in which he was born and educated and in which he had always lived, he was profoundly attached. Of America he was as proud as a cultivated and unbigoted man well could be, extremely jealous of her good name abroad and prompt to stand, in any way that was appropriate and customary, in defense of her rights and liberties. To rights and liberties in general, and to those of America in particular, he had given long and careful thought. It was perhaps characteristic of his practical mind to distinguish the word liberty from the various things which it might conceivably represent, and to think that of these various things some were worth more than others, what any of them was worth being a relative matter depending largely upon circumstances. Speaking generally, liberty in the abstract, apart from particular and known conditions, was only a phrase, a brassy tinkle in Mr. Hutchinson’s ear, meaning nothing unless it meant mere absence of all constraint. The liberty which Mr. Hutchinson prized was not the same as freedom from constraint. Not liberty in this sense, or in any sense, but the welfare of a people neatly ordered for them by good government, was what he took to be the chief end of politics; and from this conception it followed that “in a remove from a state of nature to the most perfect state of government there must be a great restraint of natural liberty.”

The limitations proper to be placed upon natural liberty could scarcely be determined by abstract speculation or with mathematical precision, but would obviously vary according to the character and circumstances of a people, always keeping in mind the “peace and good order” of the particular community as the prime object. In all such matters reasonable men would seek enlightenment not in the Utopias of philosophers but in the history of nations; and, taking a large view of history, the history more particularly of the British Empire and of Massachusetts Bay, it seemed to Mr. Hutchinson, as it seemed to John Locke and to Baron Montesquieu, that a proper balance between liberty and authority had been very nearly attained in the British Constitution, as nearly perhaps as common human frailty would permit. The prevailing “thirst for liberty,” which seemed to be “the ruling passion of the age,” Mr. Hutchinson was therefore able to contemplate with much sanity and detachment. “In governments under arbitrary rule” such a passion for liberty might, he admitted, “have a salutary effect; but in governments in which as much freedom is enjoyed as can consist with the ends of government, as was the case in this Province, it must work anarchy and confusion unless there be some external power to restrain it.”

In 1771, Thomas Hutchinson was perfectly convinced that this passion for liberty, during several years rising steadily in the heads of the most unstable part of the population, the most unstable “both for character and estates,” had brought Massachusetts Bay to a state not far removed from anarchy. Not that he was unaware of the mistakes of ministers. The measures of Mr. Grenville he had regarded as unwise from every point of view. In behalf of the traditional privileges of the colonies–privileges which their conduct had well justified–and in behalf of the welfare of the Empire, he had protested against these measures, as also later against the measures of Mr. Townshend; and of all these measures he still held the same opinion, that they were unwise measures. Nevertheless, Parliament had undoubtedly a legal right other rights in the political sense, Mr. Hutchinson knew nothing of to pass them; and the passing of legal measures, however unwise, was not to his mind clear evidence of a conspiracy to establish absolute despotism on the ruins of English liberty. Mr. Hutchinson was doubtless temperamentally less inclined to fear tyranny than anarchy. Of the two evils, he doubtless preferred such oppression as might result from parliamentary taxation to any sort of liberty the attainment of which might seem to require the looting of his ancestral mansion by a Boston mob. In 1771, at the time of his accession to the governorship, Mr. Hutchinson was therefore of opinion that “there must be an abridgment of WHAT IS CALLED English liberty.”

The liberty Thomas Hutchinson enjoyed least and desired most to have abridged was the liberty of being governed, in that province where he had formerly been happy in the competent discharge of official duties, by a self-constituted and illegal popular government intrenched in the town of Boston. In a letter which he wrote in 1765 but did not send, he said:

“It will be some amusement to you to have a more circumstantial account of the model of government among us. I will begin with the lowest branch, partly legislative, partly executive. This consists of the rabble of the town of Boston, headed by one Mackintosh, who, I, imagine, you never heard of. He is a bold fellow, and as likely for a Masaniello as you can well conceive. When there is occasion to burn or hang effigies or pull down houses, these are employed; but since government has been brought to a system, they are somewhat controlled by a superior set consisting of the mastermasons, and carpenters, etc., of the town of Boston. When anything of more importance is to be determined, as opening the custom-house on any matter of trade, these are under the direction of a committee of the merchants, Mr. Rowe at their head, then Molyneaux, Soloman Davis, etc.: but all affairs of a general nature, opening of the courts of law, etc., this is proper for a general meeting of the inhabitants of Boston, where Otis, with his mob-high eloquence, prevails in every motion, and the town first determine what is necessary to be done, and then apply either to the Governor or Council, or resolve that it is necessary for the General Court to correct it; and it would be a very extraordinary resolve indeed that is not carried into execution.”

This was in 1765. In 1770, the matter had ceased to be amusing, for every year the model government was brought to a greater perfection, so that at last the Town Meeting, prescriptively composed of certain qualified voters and confined to the determination of strictly local matters, had not only usurped all the functions of government in the province, which was bad enough, but was completely under the thumb of every Tom, Dick, and Harry who might wish to attend, which was manifestly still worse. “There is a Town Meeting, no sort of regard being had to any qualification of voters, but all the inferior people meet together; and at a late meeting the inhabitants of other towns who happened to be in town, mixed with them, and made, they say themselves, near 3000,–their newspapers say 4000, when it is not likely there are 1500 legal voters in the town. It is in other words being under the government of a mob. This has given the lower part of the people such a sense of their importance that a gentleman does not meet with what used to be common civility, and we are sinking into perfect barbarism…. The spirit of anarchy which prevails in Boston is more than I am able to cope with.” The instigators of the mob, it was well known, were certain artful and self-seeking demagogues, of whom the chief had formerly been dames Otis; but in late years Mr. Otis, “with his mob-high eloquence,” had given way to an abler man, Samuel Adams, than whom, Mr. Hutchinson thought, there was not “a greater incendiary in the King’s dominion, or a man of greater malignity of heart, [or one] who less scruples any measure however criminal to accomplish his purposes.”

The letter, undated and undirected, in which Thomas Hutchinson pronounced this deliberate judgment on Samuel Adams, was probably written about the time of his accession to the Governorship; that is to say, about the time when Mr. Johnson, the Connecticut Agent, was writing to Wedderburn that “the people seem to grow weary of altercations,” and that “a little discreet conduct on both sides” would perfectly restore cordial relations between Britain and her colonies. In the way of “a little discreet conduct,” even a very little, not much was to be hoped for from either Governor Hutchinson or Samuel Adams in their dealings with each other. Unfortunately, they HAD dealings with each other: in the performance of official functions, their incommensurable and repellent minds were necessarily brought to bear upon the same matters of public concern. Both, unfortunately, lived in Boston and were likely any day to come face to face round the corner of some or other narrow street of that small town. That reciprocal exasperation engendered by reasonable propinquity, so essential to the life of altercations, was therefore a perpetual stimulus to both men, confirming each in his obstinate opinion of the other as a malicious and dangerous enemy of all that men hold dear. Thus it was that during the years 1771 and 1772, when if ever it appeared that others were “growing weary of altercations,” these honorable men and trusted leaders did what they could to perpetuate the controversy. By giving or taking occasion to recall ancient grudges or revive fruitless disputes, wittingly or unwittingly they together managed during this time of calm to keep the dying embers alive against the day when some rising wind might blow them into devouring flames.

With Samuel Adams it was a point of principle to avoid discreet conduct as much as possible. In his opinion, the great crisis which was his soul’s abiding place, wherein he nourished his mind and fortified his will, admitted of no compromise. Good will was of no avail in dealing with the “Conspirators against our Liberties,” the very essence of whose tactics it was to assume the mask of benevolence, and so divide, and by dividing disarm, the people; “flattering those who are pleased with flattery; forming connections with them, introducing Levity, Luxury, and Indolence, and assuring them that if they are quiet the Ministry will alter their Measures.” During these years there was no power in the course of events or in the tongue of man to move him in the conviction that “if the Liberties of America are ever completely ruined, it will in all probability be the consequence of a mistaken notion of prudence, which leads men to acquiesce in measures of the most destructive tendency for the sake of present ease.” Never, therefore, were “the political affairs of America in a more dangerous state” than when the people had seemingly grown weary of altercations and Parliament could endure an entire session “without one offensive measure.” The chief danger of all was that the people would think there was no danger. Millions could never be enslaved by a few “if all possessed the independent spirit of BRUTUS who to his immortal honor expelled the proud Tyrant of Rome.” During the years of apathy and indifference Samuel Adams accordingly gave his days and nights, with undiminished enthusiasm and a more trenchant acerbity, to the task of making Brutuses of the men of Boston that the fate of Rome might not befall America.

They were assured in many an essay by this new Candidus that

“The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution, are worth defending at all hazards: and it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors. They purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood; and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy upon the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle; or be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men. Of the latter we are in most danger at present. Let us therefore be aware of it. Let us contemplate our forefathers and posterity; and resolve to maintain the rights bequeathed to us from the former, for the sake of the latter. Instead of sitting down satisfied with the efforts we have already made, WHICH IS THE WISH OF OUR ENEMIES, the necessity of the times, more than ever, calls for our utmost circumspection, deliberation, fortitude and perseverance. Let us remember that “if we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our liberty, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom!” It is a very serious consideration, which should deeply impress our minds, that MILLIONS YET UNBORN MAY BE THE MISERABLE SHARERS IN THE EVENT.”

These were days when many a former Brutus seemed ready to betray the cause. Deserted by James Otis, whom he had supplanted, and by John Hancock, whose great influence he had formerly exploited and whom he had “led about like an ape,” as was currently reported, Samuel Adams suffered a measure of eclipse. The Assembly would no longer do his bidding in respect to the vital question of whether the General Court might be called by the Governor to meet outside of Boston; and it even imposed upon him, as one of a committee, the humiliating task of presenting an address to Mr. Hutchinson, acknowledging his right to remove the legislature to any place he liked–“to Housatonic, in the western extreme of the province,” if he thought fit. There was even grave danger that the Governor would be satisfied with this concession and would recall the Court to sit in Boston. Boston was indeed the very place where Samuel Adams wished to have it sit; but to attain a right end in a wrong manner would be to suffer a double defeat, losing at once the point of principle and the grievance necessary for maintaining the contention. Friends of the Government were much elated at the waning influence of the Chief Incendiary; and Mr. Sparhawk condescended to express a certain sympathy for their common enemy, now that he was so much diminished, “harassed, dependent, in their power.” It was indeed under great difficulties, during these years when Massachusetts was almost without annals, that Samuel Adams labored to make Brutuses of the men of Boston.

So far deserted by his friends, Samuel Adams might never have succeeded in overcoming these difficulties without the assistance presently rendered by his enemies. Of those who were of invaluable aid to him in this way, Thomas Hutchinson was one. The good Governor, having read his instructions, knew what his duties were. One of them manifestly was to stand in defense of Government; and, when Government was every day being argumentatively attacked, to provide, as a counter-irritant, arguments in defense of Government. Imagining that facts determined conclusions and conclusions directed conduct, Mr. Hutchinson hoped to diminish the influence of Samuel Adams by showing that the latter’s facts were wrong, and that his inferences, however logically deduced, were therefore not to be taken seriously. “I have taken much pains,” he says, “to procure writers to answer the pieces in the newspapers which do so much mischief among the people, and have two or three engaged with Draper, besides a new press, and a young printer who says he will not be frightened, and I hope for some good effect.”