The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

II. The Historians, 1607–1783

§ 24. Thomas Hutchinson

Both Hubbard and Prince were ministers and wrote with a full sense of the importance of the churches in the New England life. Their outlook was biased, although not intentionally so. From them we turn at the very close of the colonial period to a New England historian as free from this influence as Colden or William Smith. Thomas Hutchinson was descended from Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, who was exiled from Massachusetts in 1638 because she defied the Puritan hierarchy, and he was quite free from religious narrowness. Born in 1711, he graduated from Harvard in 1727 and began a prosperous career as a merchant. He won the confidence of the Boston people, who sent him to the assembly, where he distinguished himself by opposing the issue of paper money. He was for a long time the most popular man in the colony, and he was promoted from one high office to another, becoming lieutenant-governor in 1758, chief justice in 1760, acting governor in 1769, and governor in 1771.

Hutchinson loved Massachusetts, but he was intellectually a conservative, and he did not accept the theory on which the colonists rested their resistance to the king and Parliament. He wished to preserve the Empire undivided, and hoped that some plan might be found by which America might have home rule without renouncing the name British. He was opposed in principle to the Stamp Act, but disapproved of the violence with which it was received. A Boston mob, angered by false reports against him, wrecked his house, destroyed his furniture, and scattered his books and papers through the streets. The assembly paid him for the property loss, but he never recovered the good will of Boston. He tried to reconcile king and colony, but neither was in a mood to be reconciled. Early in 1774 he went to England, giving place to General Gage. He was well received, and the king allowed him a handsome pension, while Oxford conferred upon him the degree of Doctor Civilis Juris. But as the months passed and the war became inevitable, Hutchinson’s pleas for peace made him unpopular. King, ministers, and society generally were for punishing the disobedient colonies. The protests of the exiled governor became weaker and weaker, and he finally retired from public notice. With his family he led an unhappy existence in London until his death in 1780.

In the eighteenth century history was an honored branch of literature. Hume, who published his great history between 1754 and 1761, was made independent by the sales, while Robertson, who was just coming into his fame, found himself both flattered and wealthy. History had not yet fallen into the hands of those who were to reduce it to a dull statement of facts which nobody reads except those who wish to incorporate them in other statements of fact. Nor had the world yet been submerged by the modern deluge of imaginative literature. It was in 1764, while Hume and Robertson were at the height of their freshly won fame, that Hutchinson published the first volume of his History of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. The second was in preparation when the Stamp Act mob destroyed the house of the author. Among the debris recovered from the streets was the soiled manuscript of this volume. It was completed and published in 1767. The third volume was not written until the governor had taken up his residence in London, and it was not published until 1828. Hutchinson’s History is not faultless. He was bitterly denounced by Otis and Samuel Adams, and he did not show an ability to appreciate them. He left untouched some important phases of Massachusetts history, and was indifferent to social and industrial changes. In spite of these faults, for which excuses can be made, he was the best American historian of his time. He treated narrative history in a philosophical manner and wrote simple and natural sentences whose charm endures to this day. After he left our shore many a year passed before we had a historian who could equal him in the power to understand and narrate the story of American political life.