The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson - Book Review

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Bernard Bailyn’s The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson reexamines the career of the vilified colonial governor. In doing so, Bailyn recasts Hutchinson as a dedicated civil servant who was unfairly dragged into ignominy by English governmental inaction on one hand and future revolutionaries such as John Adams, James Otis, and Benjamin Franklin on the other. Moreover, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson illustrates the vicissitudes of colonial politics both across the Atlantic and stateside.

Who was Thomas Hutchinson?

Born a Boston Native in 1710, Thomas Hutchinson displayed a keen intellect along with a devotion to the British government. Though revolutionaries uniformly portrayed him as malevolent and Machiavellian and British officials denigrated his service, Bailyn's interpretation of Hutchinson strikes a different chord. Rather than a simple tool for the English Crown, Hutchinson frequently protested in favor of colonists' economic rights. Despite revolutionary accusations to the contrary, he opposed both the Stamp Act and Townsend Acts.

If anything, Hutchinson appears to be moderate in a time of overwhelming partisanship. British salutary neglect persisted despite his continuing requests for Parliamentary action, which, as he predicted, allowed for revolutionary ferment. In contrast, through Hutchinson's "ordeal," one concludes that many of the "patriots" distorted the governor's words, in hopes of fomenting discontent among the colonial population. Hutchinson's vast experience within the British colonial system of patronage aided his early career and those of his family.

Hutchinson's failure to grasp the revolutionary movement

However, by the 1760s and 1770s, the spread of English dissenter ideologies and those of the Enlightenment contributed to accusations of nepotism, intrigue, and malevolence. Hutchinson never fully grasped the passion and beliefs of the revolutionary movement, rather for him and others, independence remained pure "folly."

For example, he could not comprehend why dissenters would choose to dump tea into Boston Harbor rather than pay the far less costly duty (no matter how offensive). Ultimately, British governmental reluctance combined with the influence of colonial "radicals" greatly undermined Hutchinson, leading to his eventual resignation.


Though he never fully comprehended the depth of feeling that some colonials held toward independence, Hutchinson did keenly envision future events both in numerous letters to the English crown and his unpublished work "A Dialogue." Bailyn's work demonstrates the view that ideology played a strong role in the mind of revolutionaries, even if their political behavior toward Hutchinson appears patently unfair.

Finally, though Hutchinson foresaw colonial events with a clarity missing among even revolutionary leaders, he failed to heed the advice of his father. Years early Hutchinson's father stated that "if you serve your country faithfully, you will be reviled and reproached for it."

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