The name Thomas Hutchinson may be familiar to history buffs and a few other people. He is mentioned in the history of the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War, but few people pay much attention to him. Most Americans are more interested in George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other great heroes of the American Revolution. Yet, Thomas Hutchinson had a big impact in the colonists’ war with Great Britain.
Hutchinson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 9, 1711. His father was a prosperous merchant, and his great-great-grandmother was Anne Hutchinson, a “famed nonconformist.” Hutchinson graduated from Harvard College in 1727 and started to work in his father’s shipping business. Ten years later he entered politics when he was elected as a selectman in his hometown. Not long afterwards he was appointed to a seat on the General Court or legislature. He held numerous other political offices in the colony but was not a trained lawyer. Hutchinson was appointed as lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts in 1758 and named Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court two years later. He held both positions concurrently.
Soon after the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, members of the British Parliament sought for ways to pay the expenses of the war as well as the ever expanding British Empire. They settled on the idea of taxing their colonies and embarked on a long list of taxes.
The taxes had an effect on every segment of the colonial society and did not settle well with the colonists. The first tax was the Sugar Act (1764), which the colonists protested and boycotted. The resistance cost Parliament more money than it made. Parliament repealed the act.
The next attempt at taxes was the Stamp Act (1765). This was the first direct tax levied on the colonists, and it applied to all printed material – playing cards, newspapers, books, legal documents, licenses, etc. The purpose of this tax was simply to gain revenue, and it was levied without any consultation with the colonists. The Americans reacted with unexpected fury. The Sons of Liberty organized and proceeded to intimate the royal tax collectors and officials of the government. There was violence in some of the colonies, and the colonists used their economic power for the first time in an organized manner. This act was soon repealed, but it was followed by the Declaratory Act.
The Declaratory Act said that Parliament had the authority to rule over the colonies and could pass any law that they desired. Even though the colonists fought against “taxation without representation,” Parliament claimed that the colonists were “virtually represented” in Parliament and that the colonists, as subjects of the King, had to obey.
The colonists resisted once again. It was not so much the amount of taxes that bothered them. It was the idea that the King and Parliament were exerting more control over them. The colonists were afraid of the increased control as well as the idea that they were losing freedom.
The whole situation was made worse by the distance between America and Britain as well as the lack of communication and understanding.
Hutchinson was the lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts and in the middle of these actions. He was a firm believer in law and order. He was privately against the Stamp Act, but he publicly declared that he would enforce the law. He sees the increasing mob activity against the laws coming from Parliament. He is afraid that mobs will take over Massachusetts and secretly sends a letter to a friend in the Parliament requesting some help from Britain.
Soon British soldiers were soon roaming the streets of Boston. One day Americans started to throw snowballs at the soldiers, and the soldiers fired on them, leaving five dead colonists. This situation is known as the Boston Massacre.
The more the colonists resisted the increasing control from Britain, the stronger were the actions taken by Britain. Parliament continued to pass revenue acts with the next being the Tea Act (1773). This tax also met with strong resistance, especially in Boston. A group of angry colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians in December 1773 and dumped 340 chests of tea in the Boston Harbor. This act of resistance is known as the Boston Tea Party, and it brought upon the colonists the Coercive Acts. These acts closed the port of Boston, outlawed town meetings, and limited the independence of the Massachusetts legislature.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin is living in London. He enjoys the society there and makes some powerful friends. However, he is called before Parliament to answer some questions when the colonists react to the Stamp Act, and he tries to calm the situation. In December 1772 he finds or is given a packet of letters. He looks through the packet and finds the letter written by Hutchinson several years previously to a Member of Parliament. He recognizes immediately that Parliament has been relying on information from Hutchinson, who Britain has recently appointed as governor of Massachusetts.
Franklin is furious and sends the letters to radicals in Boston. He tells them not to publish the letters, but they publish them – as he knew they would do. Franklin intentionally sacrifices Hutchinson in an attempt to bring stability and calm to the situation, but the situation continues to blow up and eventually erupts into war.
There is little doubt among historians that Hutchinson’s actions in bringing the British soldiers to America had a great deal to do with the colonial decision to separate from Britain. He was first driven from his home with little else than his life and eventually ended up in England where he spent his final years. There he served “unhappily”as an advisor to the King on matters in North America. He yearned to return to America, but he died in England on June 3, 1780. If Hutchinson had acted differently, Americans might still be British subjects!